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Immunity: Part III

Chapter Text

1. Chapter One

 

“But…Your Highness!”

The shrill, indignant exclamation was enough to rouse all the village residents. 

“The matter is settled, Advisor Timpson.” Dismissively, Micah turned his shoulder on the man and walked down the dusty boulevard. Kai and Talia immediately flanked him on either side, their stances protective and persistently in rhythm with his own strides. They were apposite shadows. “There is still much to accomplish here. I’m afraid I will be engaged for quite some time.”

Ignoring Kai’s searching gaze, Micah busied himself with wrapping the tactical scarf around his neck.

It was early morning in Region 20 and the temperature was already climbing to tyrannical levels. They were in the midst of the warmest season. A pity, considering it would cut down on the men’s productivity.  

“Your father requested your presence a week ago, Prince Ezra” the advisor persisted, following desperately at Micah’s heels. “He believes your work here is done and requires you back at the capital.”

“Yes, I recall the other advisor telling me something similar.”

Micah nodded to a few early-morning risers whom, in turn, lowered their eyes submissively.  

When he first arrived to Region 20’s main village with Kai and Talia, as well as a crop of military men at his back, skeptical stares and unhappy whispers followed his wake. He’d realized, even if the majority of them heard of his years living here, it certainly took quite a bit of time to obtain the gesture of voluntary respect. They looked at him and saw royalty. They saw nobility and aristocracy.

They saw privilege.

After recovering from his heart failure, he’d left the capital under Calder’s reluctant consent.

Dwelling in Region 20 for several long weeks permitted him to rebuild the torn village from the damage it sustained during Varuna’s vengeance. Markets were back up and running. Water Elementals successfully drained and absorbed the water damage to the underground structures. The buildings that received particularly heavy destruction were now repaired and appearing in better shape than before.

Micah took full advantage of Calder’s resources. Buildings that were in disarray, even before Varuna’s attack, were also restored.

Save for the Idris’ fire-weary tavern.

Service buildings, like the deteriorating clinic, the jail, and the school, all received extra attention. Supplies were restocked, locked medicine cabinets were introduced, and new textbooks were provided for the school. They were small changes, yet he knew small changes were what the residents in this region required.

There was also another project.

A project selfishly kept from Calder and all others at the capital.

His father signed off on all Micah’s material requests, never asking questions.

“Yes, that ‘other advisor’ had to step down from his position as soon as he returned to the capital,” Timpson informed brusquely. “Without you. Without completing His Majesty’s orders.”

“Pity,” Micah replied distractedly. “I’d rather enjoyed his unashamed tenaciousness.” He stopped in front of a bread vendor and gazed at all the fat rolls before focusing on the greying woman behind the counter. “Good morning, Karen.”

The plump merchant smiled broadly and performed a small, awkward curtsey, her cheeks reddening pleasantly. “Your Highness!” She grabbed two large bags underneath the counter and handed them to Micah. “Your usual order. I threw in some hardboiled eggs and jerky as well. Protein for the long day ahead. Those boys can use every bit of strength!”

He placed the gold coins on the counter, always giving her extra.

“As always, you have greatly exceeded my expectations. Everything smells delicious.”

She simpered and flushed further. A bundle of excited nerves as she fondled her tattered robe. “Thank you, Your Highness.” 

He grabbed the bags and hastily deposited them in Kai’s hands. The young man had no choice but to scramble and balance the greasy offerings. He offered Micah a lethal stare, no doubt peeved he had to act the role as a mule.

“Your Highness—”

“Advisor Timpson,” Micah interrupted the man serenely. “I am not going to argue further on the matter.” He walked across the bazaar, incurring the immediate surveillance from the growing number of residents. They always watched. Always judged. “If Calder wants me back at the capital earlier than what we agreed upon, he will have to come personally and tell me himself.”

“His Majesty is extremely busy,” Timpson rebutted, scandalized Micah would even suggest such a thing. “He has just finished his own reconstruction at the capital.”

“Then I imagine his schedule should be clear enough to visit his son in Region 20.”

He caught Talia’s eyes from over Timpson’s head. The young woman’s lips contorted into a wry smirk before she looked away to hide her humor. Both Kai and Talia were accustomed to Micah’s casual and unconcerned disposition with Calder’s henchmen.

This was the third advisor to stop in Region 20 to deliver Calder’s words. The last advisor had boldly demanded Micah return to the capital. Evidently, Calder was not impressed with his advisor’s work when the royal train returned to the capital without his son. Nonetheless, Calder refused to back down. Timpson was proof of that.

“Prince Ezra,” Timpson started again. This time, the severity in his tone resembled that of a parent scolding their child. “If you do not return to the capital with me, I’m afraid we will have to remove the men here and refuse you more supplies.”

A predictable move.

Micah sauntered to a stop, inhaling the dusty, warm air and filling his lungs with it. He closed his heavy eyelids against the sun, basking in the heat. For just a moment, he wondered if he was tired enough to sleep here undisturbed. It felt good to stand in the sun, the comforting buzz of the market a lulling white noise behind him.  

Timpson thought he could use threats to get him back to the capital. Silly. Micah had already recognized the likelihood of Calder eventually growing impatient over his son’s absence. His impatience would then escalate to anger when Micah continued to thwart his advisors’ attempts of bringing him back to the capital.

Consequently, the king would stop sending resources. He’d take away his men. He’d withdraw his support from Micah with hopes it would drive his son back to the capital. Unfortunately, for Calder, Micah had anticipated such actions and already received the necessary supplies to complete his projects. Perhaps Calder should have paid more attention to the material requests he signed off on.

“Advisor Timpson?” Micah inquired innocently.

“Your Highness.”

Micah opened his eyes and levelled the expectant man with a hard stare. “Don’t let the train doors hit you on your way out of Region 20, yes? And give my regards to my father.” With that, Micah left a speechless Timpson behind and continued on to his destination.

As they traveled through the bazaar and into the heavily populated living district, Micah simultaneously dodged the crowd and mulled over his father. It was finally beginning. The power plays. Calder was irate enough to withdraw his support from his heir. Micah hadn’t believed it would happen so soon. Then again, Calder was not a man to toy with, was he? As soon as someone bucked against him, Calder would rein them in.

Micah hummed pleasantly in his chest, imagining the level of Calder’s ire when Timpson arrived to the capital empty handed.

“You’re playing hard to get,” Kai informed. “It is not appropriate for this situation.”

“I always do enjoy a good chase,” Micah said dryly.

“Lord Josiah may enjoy chasing you, Egan, but your father is an entirely different man. Calder does not appreciate people disobeying his orders. You know this.”

Micah remained silent as they looped through the alleyways and into the barren desert. Just at the outskirt of the main village, the bones of a large, blossoming structure appeared. Several men were hammering away at the framing and pouring gravel. Some were military men dressed appropriately for the weather. Others were Region 20 citizens who’d volunteered to help with the project.

Micah’s project.

He stopped and admired the building. There was several more weeks until completion. They’d gotten far, he supposed, yet the end still seemed so far away. He was anxious to see it all completed and functioning for its intended use.

“Talia, can you bring these to the men?” Kai asked, thrusting the two bulging bags of food in her direction.

Said female gazed at Kai incredulously. Her pinched expression reluctantly softened when she looked between the two men, clearly drawing the conclusion that Kai wanted to speak privately to their captain. Without further complaint, she grabbed the grease-stained bags with unnecessary harshness and hastily departed.

Micah looked after her, watching as the men greeted her with fervent enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, Talia appeared unaffected with the male attentions, her face crafted with unhappy and sour resignation.

Micah adored her and her unapproachability.  

“What is this really about, Egan?”

“You know what it’s about, Edlen,” Micah replied quietly. “I want to see this project finished.”

Kai shifted until he stood partly in front of Micah, forcing his attention. During the past few weeks, the man’s face had healed remarkably well from the shredded mess it once was. With water Elementals assigned to his healing, there were hardly any traces of the wounds, yet small, pink lesions still appeared across his jawline, the very last to disappear.

The young man had since donned a black eyepatch to cover his missing eye. Most of his bangs covered the right eye, yet the eyepatch was still apparent. The children in Region 20 found it fascinating to look at and admire. Apparently, the Healers offered to construct Kai a glass eye, something Kai adamantly refused. He appeared older, Micah thought. Far more solemn and haunted.

But weren’t they all haunted?

“You know I want to see the children’s shelter finished just as much as you do,” Kai expressed. “Despite your decision to keep Calder in the dark about this idea, I think it was a wonderful concept. The children need a place to live. To bathe. To sleep and eat. A place of security and comfort from the elements and cruelty on the streets.”

“A place to learn,” Micah added serenely, keeping his tunneled focus on the shelter. It was what kept him sane. Distracted. Diverted to the point of numbness. He hardly thought of anything else. “I plan to hire instructors to teach the children basic knowledge. Even at a young age. It’s best to start young.”

“A wonderful idea,” Kai said cautiously, clearly recognizing Micah’s distraction for what it was and unsure how to broach the topic without sounding too callous or too sentimental. “Only, you can accomplish this from the capital, Micah. When they finish construction, travel back here and finalize the details. That way you don’t lose Calder’s funding or his support.”

Micah simply watched the workers divvy up the food from Talia, clearly ecstatic over bread and eggs for breakfast.

“Egan,” Kai reprimanded sharply. “You need King Calder’s cooperation with this. It is a very large project that needs constant funding.”

“I know,” he replied jadedly.

Kai exhaled with frustration and angled his body to observe the workers who eagerly dove into the bread, hard-boiled eggs, and jerky. Talia slouched in the background, clearly unimpressed with their barbaric appetite. The aristocratic male ran a hand through his hair before rounding back on Micah. “You haven’t been sleeping, have you? Didn’t the Healers prescribe you something?”

“My sleeping habits—”

“And eating habits are less than desirable,” Kai interrupted derisively. “And it is none of my business, I agree. You should be old enough that you do not need a nursemaid monitoring these things.”

“All my ailments you just described could also be applied to you as well, Kai.” Micah noted the tension around Edlen’s eye. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed your lack of appetite as well. The way you stand and guard my door all night without sleeping yourself.”

“I’m not the heir to the throne. You need to fix this. Promptly.”

Micah’s eyes unfocused.

Edlen’s observation was irritatingly accurate. He felt tired. Fragile. The very mention of the capital got under his skin and unsettled him further. He wasn’t ready to go back. He didn’t want to return and face duties that would require a firm, stable mind.

He’d lost weight. He’d lost color. He was always cold. Always hungry, but constantly nauseated as he forced food down his throat. He was always paranoid and looking over his shoulder. Moreover, sleep. That certainly didn’t come without a price, did it? Every night he faced two options. Did he drink until he blacked out? Or did he lay awake all night, envisioning and reliving the endless torment and suffering of Yama’s realm?

It took a great deal of effort to remain standing during the day and put on a brave, ignorant guise for the citizens of Region 20. Fortunately, the people here were not quite as observant as the capital citizens were. If the noblemen saw him now, they would smell blood.

He kept reassuring himself that things would eventually get back to normal. Just a few more days and he’d be able to sleep soundlessly and focus on things with the same, single-minded awareness he’d always accomplished.

“I may not understand everything you’re experiencing,” Kai attempted again. “But I do know some things we went through were difficult to recover from.”

Micah suddenly refocused on Kai. The other man never spoke of his time with Yama. Every time Micah tried to broach the topic, Kai callously changed the subject. He knew a part of Kai wanted to know more about what transpired with the Syphon, but it appeared, in all actuality, as if the other man just wanted to forget it all together and focus his intentions elsewhere.

It sounded exactly like Micah’s strategy.

It should have helped that he hadn’t seen any gods, daemons, or Syphons during his stay in Region 20.

Only, with the absence of all the entities, his unease grew. It was too good to be true, wasn’t it?

Even Agni

Micah shifted his boots into the hard ground, feeling a bit bitter at the god’s absence. Yes, he requested Calder and Josiah remain behind at the capital while he oversaw Region 20’s reconstruction. However, Agni wasn’t typically someone who allotted Micah much leeway when it came to distance. Rather ironic, really. Micah was upset the entity had actually adhered to his requests this time around.

“Nevertheless, there is still so much we need to do at the capital,” Kai continued, adopting a stern countenance. “It requires different attention than Region 20, yes, but attention nonetheless. Attention from you. You need to speak with Viktor’s family. Sachiel and Cordelia also need to see you. They need reassurances.”

“Reassurances.”

“You ran off to Region 20 right after your heart attack,” Kai said. “Right after the chaos as the capital was explained by Noir Users.”

Micah blinked lazily. “And that represents weakness to others at the capital?”

“It represents your tendency to run when things don’t go smoothly,” Kai informed. “It would have been ideal if you’d stayed longer and addressed issues of concern there first. You also need to start growing your base. A handful of allies will not get you anywhere. Besides Talia and myself, Cordelia Abital and Sachiel will be good advisors. But you need numbers. Swords. Elementals. The military men assigned to your taskforce here, in Region 20, respect you. Yet, it will be tricky trying to court them when Lord Josiah’s reach is so cemented in the military.”

“Just the idea of political war against Josiah and Calder exhausts me.”

“Ezra,” Kai scolded sharply. “Lose the defeatism attitude. We all suffered.”

Without another word, Kai turned his heel and approached the construction site.

Micah shifted uneasily, unhappily. He understood Kai’s point. Only, Micah struggled to lift himself above the fog. It hovered over his mind like an overbearing weight, muffling his typical passion—zest—for everyday occurrences. On bad days, he considered the possibility that a part of him had died in Yama’s realm.

Despite his earlier reservations, he considered approaching Agni about it. The god had attempted to discuss what had happened, yet, at the time, Micah had opted for the physical condolence instead.

And condolence it was…

“Good morning, Prince Ezra.”

Micah turned at the soft voice, smiling politely at the young woman. “Kalama.”

Behind her long desert robe, three young children lingered uncertainly. They were not hers, yet she took care of them as if they were her own kin. They followed her everywhere, Micah observed. However, as soon as their attentions landed on Talia and Kai in the distance, they had no qualms leaving their caretaker behind.

The three children sprinted toward the Unda guards with overzealous enthusiasm. Growing familiar with the three children over the course of their stay, Kai greeted them fondly, far more expressive than any blueblood aristocrat should be in public. Talia, on the other hand, remained reserved. Yet, despite her aloofness, the little girl in the trio seemed enamored with her. Micah knew his teammate possessed a soft spot for the child in turn. He watched as the blonde-haired woman crouched down to offer a piece of jerky to the child.

“They are so excited for the shelter,” Kalama said fondly. “I think all the children are ecstatic over the notion of a place just for them. Many of them come down here after the men leave for the day to play in the construction site. I—we— cannot express the level of our gratitude for what you’ve done for us, Your Highness.”

“You can start by dropping the formalities, Kalama. We grew up together.”

She offered a brief smile. “We went to school together,” she corrected warmly. “Back then, you were known as Micah Egan and you kept mostly to yourself. And Keegan.” Her smile dimmed for just a moment before she raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Her attention fell on the men eating breakfast. “I see you have two of his brothers helping with the construction.”

Indeed. Handsomely paid volunteers. “They were just as excited over the prospect of a children’s shelter as anyone else,” Micah responded, subdued as he glanced at the distant figures. They looked too much like him. Too much like Keegan. “Much like their brother would have been.”

“That he would have,” Kalama replied with utmost certainty.

She and Keegan had interacted often with each other, Micah knew. Then again, Keegan got along with everyone in his immediate proximity. “Once we are completed with the construction, I was hoping that you’d consider accepting a position at the shelter,” Micah said, turning the conversation away from resurrecting Keegan’s ghost. “A permanent position that oversees and manages the on goings at the shelter.”

The Igni woman dropped her hand from her eyes and turned to survey Micah.

“A directorial position?” she echoed uncertainly. “I’m afraid I’m not especially qualified.”

“Nonsense,” Micah rebuffed. “There are hardly any well-educated directors lingering around Region 20. Therefore, I have to rely on my judge of character to choose the best fit for the position.” He paused. “It would offer good compensation.”  

Not without Calder’s cooperation, Kai’s voice seemed to supply in his mind.

“You hardly know me, Your Highness. How can you properly judge my character?” Despite her refutation, she appeared hesitant as she looked toward the three children interacting with Kai and Talia.

“I have a general conjecture,” Micah murmured quietly. “I can see the ghosts you carry with you. They have shaped you into the young woman who opened her home and resources to three defenseless and entirely reliant children.”

“Everyone who lives in one of Region 20’s villages has ghosts,” she whispered, keeping her eyes averted. “You know this more than anyone.”

“But I’d like to know yours.”

Kalama’s pretty features squinted into the sun. A soft exhalation escaped her lips as she smiled bitterly. “My brother and I grew up on the streets,” she finally confessed. “Not because we didn’t have any parents, but because they couldn’t afford taking care of us. One day, they just abandoned us. Relocated to another village in Region 20, I’m sure.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“I don’t anymore.” Whether out of a nervous habit or out of a sense of disquiet, she secured her headscarf and busied herself with tucking her long ponytail underneath the fabric. “He was only a year older than I was, but he took care of me. Gave me rations of his food that he’d scavenged. I don’t know how he died, but one day he just didn’t wake up.”

Micah nodded solemnly, recognizing the story as one he’d heard several times. He observed it growing up here, knew it was far too reoccurring to be considered a tragic tale, yet acknowledging that it was her personal calamity.

“An elderly woman saw me wandering alone one day and just took me in. No questions. No reservations.” The rising sun washed her grave features in gold and accentuated the distantness in her eyes. “She died a few years ago, but left me enough inheritance to return the favor to other children. They don’t eat much. They just need a home. I just wish I could take more in, as there are so many more children.”

Micah clasped his hands behind his back and offered a small smile. “It sounds to me as if your heart is in the right place to accept the position I’m asking of you.”

“I don’t know—”

“If I hired someone who has all the credentials of a standup director, Kalama, who says they will act in the children’s best interests?”

“But—”

“Besides, if I recall correctly, you were always the top of our class. Very intelligent and level-minded.”

Kalama smiled serenely. “Only second to you and Keegan.” She took a deep breath, looking once at him before glancing back at her three young charges. “You are rather persuasive, aren’t you? I would have thought you’d at least know someone at the capital to run the operations here,” she admitted. “It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the route you took.”

“Region 20 requires a vigilant hand when it comes to delegating positions of power,” he responded. “They are a prideful community who needs to succeed on their own with little interference from the crown. Assigning positions of authority to those who can vouch—” He trailed off abruptly as the workers shouted amongst each other and poured gravel over the dry earth.

Sand and dust blossomed from the ground and extended high into the air.

Micah stared at the earth particles, suddenly inspired.  

Earth.

“Prince Ezra?” Kalama inquired doubtfully at his sudden silence.

He nodded and backtracked a couple of steps. “I apologize, Kalama. We will continue this discussion later.”

Without further explanation, he hurried from the construction site.

As soon as he turned the corner of the alleyway, he sprinted. A renowned sense of determination and adrenaline thumped eagerly through his veins. Was this it? Did he finally break through the veil of melancholy?

Caring little for the market observers, Micah raced through the vendor stands and towards the train depot. Evidently, his intended target had not departed yet, for Advisor Timpson stood up ahead in deep discussion with Lieutenant Warren.

“Advisor Timpson,” Micah called.

The mouse-like man simpered at the sight of Micah. He offered a breathy, disbelieving laugh. “Have you come to watch the train doors close on me, Your Highness?”

The military lieutenant Josiah assigned to Region 20 gazed at the advisor with apparent disapproval. Obviously, the warrior recognized Timpson’s scorn and tone as a derisive slight to royalty, something exceptionally inappropriate. Seeming to recognize his slip, Timpson cleared his throat and nodded firmly toward the unimpressed Igni warrior.

“I was just informing Lieutenant…” he trailed off, clearly unable to remember the man’s name. “The Lieutenant that King Calder—”

“Lieutenant Warren,” Micah supplied, earning a sharp nod from said warrior. “Lord Josiah assigned him and a squad of other military men to Region 20 to enforce a tighter security. The lieutenant is a native here and readily volunteered to be one of the men to improve the lifestyle of the citizens. He certainly has done a remarkable job. And the citizens seem to respond well to him.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” Warren bowed his head respectfully.

“Yet it still appears as if there is quite a bit of riffraff to clean up…” Timpson trailed off, looking pointedly toward a few men who slumped against neighboring buildings, their clothes torn, their skin marred with grime and dirt, and their expressions grim.

Fool.

Another noble who did understand the systematics of the outskirt regions.

“Additional security does not, unfortunately, make the poor less poor,” Micah rebutted, sensing Warren’s quiet irritation. “With Lieutenant Warren’s presence, the crime rate has dropped significantly. Cleaning the riffraff off the streets is why I’m here, Advisor Timpson. The crown needs to be proactive in healing the infrastructure and replacing it with something that functions uniquely for these citizens. Taking away the military men would prove devastating when we’ve come so far.”  

“Then you will accompany me to the capital?” Timpson inquired innocently. “His Majesty explicitly ordered me to take away his men stationed here if you proved obstinate.”

“I have a counter proposal,” Micah tried.

“King Calder indicated you may try a tactic like this, I’m afraid. I speak for him when I say he remains unimpressed and unmoved at the notion of a counter proposal.”

Micah could barely contain the snarl. “Of course he does.”

Timpson visibly preened over the prospect of putting Micah in proper place. As if harnessing a power he did not truly possess, the mouse-like man turned once again in Warren’s direction. His chest puffed exaggeratedly. “If Prince Ezra is not going to accompany me back to the capital, Lieutenant, I want you and your men to board the train by noon. That is an order from His Majesty.” Harnessing Calder’s orders as if they were his own, personal weapons, Timpson nodded sharply to Micah before turning his heel promptly.

Micah inhaled fiercely.

Exhaled calmly.

“As the prince of Concordia, I am declaring a royal heir mandate,” he said authoritatively to Timpson’s turned back. The man stopped suddenly. “It is in my right to demand the king’s personal attentions in Region 20. I have a proposal for him and for members of the Royal Council that requires his presence here.”

A royal heir mandate. Ember spoke to him about the policy when he was young. Kai Edlen reminded him of it when they arrived to Region 20 several weeks ago. As a political advisor to Micah, Kai thought it was necessary to educate him on the lesser-known influences the royal heir possessed. Micah assumed he’d never declare a royal heir mandate. To him, at the time, it had sounded like a way for a petulant child to garner daddy’s attention.

Only now, it served his purpose well.

As heir, as prince, he did not harness much ability to overstep Calder’s orders. This was an exception.

“You are only allotted three royal heir mandates during your tenure—”

“I’m aware of the tenure and the number of apportions,” Micah interrupted sturdily. “Just as I am aware that King Calder has no choice but to oblige as long as it is a practical and reasonable request.”

Timpson turned back around, his expression an array of irritation and determination. “You are not even crowned yet, Micah Egan.”

Micah took a step closer to Timpson, adopting a cool, menacing air. “That’s ‘Prince Ezra’ or ‘Your Highness’ to you, Timpson. Would you like to challenge me on that? Do you truly believe I wouldn’t live long enough to take the crown? If I were in your position, and denied conveying my royal heir mandate to King Calder, I’d be living each day before the coronation in fear.”

“Is that a threat?” Timpson decried, looking to Warren.

The lieutenant simply raised his eyebrows, unmoved, unwilling to intervene.

“Yes,” Micah confirmed flippantly. “It is a threat.”

For once, Timpson seemed at a loss for words. He looked between Micah and Warren, struggling to find a footing of authority.

Micah took pity on him. “Please deliver King Calder my mandate,” he requested pleasantly, losing his iciness and cruelty. “Tell him I have found a solution to the outer region crisis and request his presence.” He nodded sharply to Timpson and made to leave. “Oh, and you can leave Lieutenant Warren and his men here.” With that private victory, Micah felt a renewed sense of purpose and energy.

Only, as he locked eyes with Edlen, who’d followed him and lingered a distance away, a heavy weight stifled down his positive outlook and cast it in dark shadow. Melancholy, depression, and an overall despondency dragged his bones down into defeat.

Despite Kai nodding his fierce and wicked approval at Micah’s actions, all Micah could do was stare in horror and come to terms with something he’d feared since Yama’s attack those several weeks ago

Kai was not okay.

Micah managed a semblance of a smile toward his comrade before turning his cheek and looking into the sky.

Agni,” he called softly. “Agni. I—I would like to see you.”

He was ignorant to the distant lightning strike and the crow taking flight with a startled caw.

 

* * * *

 

Agni never did make an appearance.

Not even the atmosphere had rippled in response to Micah’s request. His plea, more like. Even Agni would recognize Micah’s imploring as an appeal and at least reveal himself to demonstrate his wicked glee over the prospect of Micah bending his neck.

Only, nothing.

Nothing.

Alone in his quarters for the night, Micah tipped back the tumbler of whiskey before reaching for the half-empty bottle. There were already two empty bottles deposited in his rubbish bin, a reminder that previous nights were also spent in a drunken-filled haze. His senses were dulled. So very beautifully dulled.

Numb.

Pouring more of the amber liquid from the bottle, Micah wondered why he even bothered with a glass. He cradled the cold tumbler in his fingers before sipping the sleep-aiding medicine. He needed sleep tonight. Tomorrow, he had several things to plan, to accomplish before his father and members of the council arrived in Region 20.

Micah sighed, pressing his forehead against the raised glass and closing his eyes against the spinning room.

He realized his habits were less than desirable, less than healthy. A weakness, he supposed. No matter, he also acknowledged how poorly his mind and body functioned without proper sleep. He didn’t need to drink much to black out. His stomach was empty. Empty, but starving in its quest to find food that did not make him nauseated.

Shivering against the cold, Micah tightened the blanket around his shoulders and reached for the bottle again.

Whom was he fooling? He wasn’t the only one like this. He wasn’t the only one cold, the only one hungry, the only one sleepless. Kai Edlen was just as unstable, yet the other man did a very good job hiding it.

Yama. It had to be Yama.  

At night, things worsened.

He was alone with his thoughts.

Without stimulation to distract him, he drowned in memories and became aware of his condition.

Without alcohol, Micah would often lay awake in the dark, recollecting his time in Yama’s realm. The whispers from the daemons would reach out to him in the blackness, pleading for the reaper’s assistance and expressing their uninhabited pain and anguish. He would then experience their suffering. He’d recall the ashes falling from the sky—so serenely— before torching his skin and washing his entire body with horrifying agony. All the while, the red-gold net, which prevented any entities from escaping, would thump triumphantly behind his eyes.

He didn’t know the details surrounding gods, daemons, and Syphons. Agni said there was a war ages ago, in which the good defeated the evil. Yet, from Micah’s standpoint, such humiliation and endless torture was entirely immoral. How could the ‘good’ commit such heinous acts?

Micah found himself torn on sympathizing with the daemons and Syphons. Their treatment of Kai, for instance, proved their irrational mind frame and lack of decency. However, despite this, for some, unexplainable reason, his tongue remained silent to Yama’s intentions. The god of death—or—previous god of death, desired to save his people. By doing so, his scattered soul, which the gods believed they’d destroyed, had latched onto Micah and continued to grow stronger.

A parasitic relationship.

As soon as Micah died and entered the realm of death, the other half of Yama would reunite with the parasite latched onto Micah’s soul and be reborn into a complete entity.

That was Yama’s explanation, at least.

Micah told Agni he didn’t want to be immortal. He claimed he just wanted to die when he died. Therefore, he remained uncertain about Yama’s parasite. On one hand, he couldn’t care a less about the god of death’s attachment. After experiencing the torment Yama’s daemons and Syphons were going through, he actually applauded the plan.

Of course, there was also Agni.

Agni.

As much as Micah prided himself with being realistic when it came to the smothering god, he harbored a substantial soft spot for the fire lord. Surely, the man could take care of himself. If Yama were to resurrect after Micah’s death, Agni could stand his own against the Syphons. He would conquer. He should conquer.

If Micah were to tell Agni about Yama’s parasite, the god would attempt to extract it from Micah. After all, it was Agni’s intentions to make Micah his counterpart. His immortal counterpart.

Or so the intentions were…

Micah slid his empty tumbler aside before grabbing the whiskey bottle with greedy hands. Pressing his lips against the mouth of the bottle, he tipped it back, acknowledging Agni’s absence for what it was.

The god probably lost interest.  

Varuna… Varuna said taint blackened and corrupted Micah. As an up and coming reaper, he was a sad mockery of Agni’s expressed desire for a counterpart. Perhaps when Micah left for Region 20, Agni considered it an opportune time to leave the mortal realm and to try again with another unsuspecting mortal.

Not that Micah would care.

His eyes grew half-lidded as he drank from the bottle.

As he set down the whiskey, he gradually noticed the burning rune across his chest. Sluggishly, he turned his attention around the room before focusing on the man sitting at the end of his bed.

Shock paralyzed his senses as he stared at the familiar face of Agni.

The god watched him intensely. “You called for me, child. I am here now.”

Despite the entity’s nonchalance, blood-orange eyes took in Micah’s sad appearance before observing the discarded bottles of whiskey. Micah stared back at the golden-haired god, wanting to say several things, but finding his tongue an unbearable weight in his mouth. He considered the bottle of whiskey yet again, wondering if he had too much and had conjured the illusion of the fire god.  

No matter.

He swallowed several times before falling forward into the table and blacking out.

 

Chapter Text

Intermission: Ember’s Story Part 1

 

Sixteen Years Ago

The sound of fabric drawing across the steel pole wasn’t enough to wake her. When sunlight beat relentlessly down on her, however, Ember protested as the back of her eyelids glowed a vibrant orange and yellow.

Lazily, she lifted a hand to shield her face against the elements of morning.

“Your Majesty, you have slept past breakfast.”

As she squinted at the high sun, she knew it to be true. “I am unwell today, Beth,” Ember informed sleepily. “Please tell Weston to cancel my appointments for the day.”

It was back again.

A spasm of fear tightened her chest.

The depth of hollow nothingness claimed every inch of her mind and soul, cloaking her in a sense of despair. She’d experienced bouts during her pregnancy with Ezra, and continued to feel the same after giving birth to him.

After performing research and speaking to various Healers, she assumed her condition was similar to what other women experienced immediately after childbirth. A depression that was often times difficult to cure and never spoken of aloud.

However, Ezra was nearly five now.

From what little she knew, such a condition shouldn’t have been nearly as prevalent nor persistent.

It was a weakness. A scandalous weakness for the crown. Ember remembered when she was unable to hide it any longer. She sought a Healer a year after Ezra’s birth, requesting the man’s clandestineness, who then turned around and informed Calder immediately after his inspection.

In a rare act of tenderness, or perhaps it was in effort to quiet the situation, Calder supported her every step of the way.

Calder and the Healer went through great lengths to keep her depression hidden. They’d also gone through great lengths to expel the depression from her system. There were several herbs, several exercise regimens, odd diets, and worse, bloodletting and purgatives. After the extensive treatment and vomiting, Ember had been far too ill to leave her chambers for over a fortnight.

Gossip claimed she’d suffered a miscarriage.

Calder did not qualm the rumors.

A miscarriage was far more socially acceptable than mind sickness.

Since the cruel handling from the Healers, Ember kept her complaints to herself. She suffered in silence, blaming her sickness on head colds. She refused to be subjected to the bloodletting again. Or purgatives.

She fisted her hands and clenched her eyes shut against the memories. “Please. Bring me Ezra.”

There was a pause from the maidservant. “I—I’m afraid that Prince Ezra is with his uncle, My Lady. In the palace gardens.”

Ember’s eyes snapped open upon the declaration. Pupils constricted into pinpricks as they stared unseeingly at the high sun. Yesterday’s events suddenly raced to the forefront of her mind, abolishing the depression and the fog. How could she have forgotten her brother’s reappearance into her life? His twisted and sick confessions about her son?

Breathing deeply, she forced herself up from the pile of satin sheets and endured the spinning room. Her limbs remained like weights as she pushed herself into a sitting position. Throwing her legs over the edge of the mattress, she gloomily surveyed the servant. “My son is with whom, exactly?” she inquired icily, enjoying the flinch from the young woman.

So weak… a voice seemed to supply from her mind.

“Over breakfast, His Majesty agreed to allow the prince to spend time with his uncle.” Beth looked down submissively, straightening her skirts. “Anna is with them, My Lady. As are royal guards. He is properly looked after—”

“My robes, Beth.”

Ember rose from the bed and tiptoed over to the floor-length mirror. She stared into her reflection’s haunted, sunken eyes, unable to feel anything of significance beside the dull irritation over her husband and brother. How dare them. How dare they take her son from her antechambers without her knowledge and permission!

Her hands trembled as she held out her arms, accepting the rich fabric over her undeniably frail stature. The beautiful hue of sapphire veiled her protruding ribs and knobby joints, instead giving her a flawless and slim appearance. Ember blinked somberly into the mirror as the handmaiden expertly twisted her hair into an intricate braid, allowing the dark hair to fall over her shoulder.

She tried to push through the thick wall of fog in her mind. She tried to feel something of her own.

As Beth turned her attention toward the jewelry armoire, Ember’s features twisted mournfully in the mirror as she failed to grasp hold of herself. This depression was growing stronger, she recognized. There were days she just wanted to lay in bed. She had no strength, no energy, no pleasure doing things that she once had.

It frightened her.

The only thing that seemed to pull her back into the light was her son.

She feared the day when even that would not be enough.

 

* * * *

 

Her father once boasted how proud he was to sire a daughter.

Many knew King Brantley of the Igni Empire was a womanizer. His wife, the queen, died after giving birth to the royal prince. It was no secret the king kept a harem of pretty women close, choosing to occupy himself with their company most nights. Therefore, it was unsurprising he sired a crop of bastard children. Amongst those bastards was his most favorite.

Ember, his only daughter Elemental.

The moment she demonstrated her Elemental abilities at the age of two, the crown promptly baptized her as Princess Ember Azeri.

Agni had blessed her.

As such, King Brantley did the same.

Because she and Josiah were only two years apart, they shared a childhood. They learned politics, histories, literature, and as fire Elementals—children of Agni— they took lessons on how to wield their gifts. 

Unsurprisingly, she’d preened at her father’s attention. Yet, despite her baptism as royalty, and her father’s favor, Ember knew of the court’s discrimination. She was unclean, tainted by a concubine mother she never knew.

All that belittlement had seemed insignificant when Ember married King Calder.

Criticism still occurred, but only because she was an Igni woman as opposed to a respectable Unda blueblood. She dealt with the initial scorn, finally feeling as if she had a proper title and a place to belong. She conceived Ezra very easily at the age of sixteen. Moreover, with a royal heir growing in her belly, with blood richer than any of his predecessors, her confidence soared.

She’d once relied on Josiah fiercely.

She’d loved him even fiercer.

However, the day her brother left in a fit of dishonored anger was the day a part of her died. Alone, with only a wounded and recuperating father, and distant, half-family members, she’d learned the customs in the Unda capital. She adapted into society and harnessed the power the position of queen allotted her.

She’d given up beloved Igni traditions. She stopped wearing her painted face and piercings. She’d stopped inking the back of her hands. She’d stripped herself of bold, vibrant colors, and extravagant jewelry to fit in with Varuna’s blue-blooded children.

She’d sacrificed much.

She’d be damned if she had to share it with Josiah.

The Unda society was not kind to women. Ember hoped the Unda nobles did not look at Josiah and see the male equivalent of Ember. Someone unjustifiable smarter, stronger, and more applicable to be the representative for the Igni people just because of his gender.

He would not take her place.

Up ahead, she spied the object of her frustration interacting with her son.

Crossing the garden pavers, she advanced quickly. Several of Calder’s royal guards stood around the gardens, their expressions schooled to impassive boredom. Anna sat at the very far end of the park. The caretaker occupied a stone bench and watched as her charge interacted with Josiah. Her features twisted uncertainly as they spoke, yet she was so far, she would not hear their words.

Ember continued forward, pushing away her fatigue and melancholy.

Her son kneeled at the edge of the stream, laughing at Josiah’s ministrations. Her brother crouched down next to the young child with his hands in the water, appearing far more lighthearted than he’d been last night.

For just a moment, she stopped short, watching their exchange.

A large fish suddenly stood on end with its tail fin high in the air. Rather peculiarly, it waved its fin toward Ezra, who screamed out with delighted laughter as the fish submerged back into the water.

Noir Magic.

Ember stared in disbelief and cold dread. Josiah was at an angle that would shield his ministrations to all but her and Ezra. Disbelief soon turned into foreign rage. It was so quick to come, so quick to consume her with unfamiliar cruelty. “How dare you,” she declared, advancing angrily. “Get away from my son with that filth.”

Josiah lazily glanced up at her, his features still delighted in face of Ezra’s dying laughter. “I have the king’s permission,” he replied pleasantly. “It is good to see you up and about. I was concerned you were not feeling well, Ember. We missed you at breakfast.”

“I’m certain Calder did not give you permission to use Noir Magic in front of his son.”

Josiah sighed theatrically and glanced down at Ezra. Sensing the argument between the adults, the boy leaned closer to the ground, trying to make himself appear smaller. His glittering eyes dimmed as he forlornly surveyed the gentle stream of clear water.

Seeing his cherub features scrunched up so maturely gave Ember a pause.

He’d been afraid of her last night as well.

Josiah reached into his pocket and withdrew two shiny, gold coins. “Follow the stream until you come to the end where the pond is clear and still. Legend says that if you throw in a gold coin, you can make a wish to Agni and he will grant it to you.” He handed the two gold coins to an intrigued and excited young prince. “Go now.”

“You gave me two,” Ezra whispered, his wide, pale eyes looking at his uncle. He held up a coin. “Do you want a wish?”

“Aren’t you a generous young thing?” Josiah looked to Ember, smiling, before turning back and closing Ezra’s fingers over the coin. “I am sure Agni won’t mind granting you a second wish. Just this once.”

Ezra appeared bashful as he stood up on unsteady legs and raced down the stream. Ember watched him go, noting the grass and dirt stains on his white trousers. He appeared so unkempt. Very unroyal-like. Yet, Ember held her tongue to another accusation, acknowledging her son’s exuberant face as he sat near the end of the pond, his eyes squinting as he thought of a wish.

“Perhaps it is best if we hold these types of discussions away from the child.” Josiah stood and approached her.

He had donned the customary clothes of an Unda noble. Dark trousers, a fitted, dark jacket, and boots that laced up to his calves.

She gazed at him unhappily, not appreciating the assimilation. That clearly meant he intended to stay at the capital. “Agni does not grant wishes. Moreover, he would never touch any sort of offering if it was submerged in water—tainted by Varuna. I am trying to instill proper traditions and customs that we learned growing up. I forbade them to die with us.”

Josiah appeared delighted. “An honorable commitment, Ember. Agni would appreciate your loyalty. But I believe he would make an exception for Ezra this one time.” 

Ember narrowed her eyes.

Her entire being rebelled against the words. It was if Josiah no longer respected their god. Instead, he made up legends and exceptions.

As she looked at her brother, she examined the changes to his person.

Josiah had been a young man when she last saw him. They’d both been very young. He—nearly eighteen— while Ember had just turned sixteen. While they were still young, hardly into their twenties, Ember acknowledged the deep shadows in Josiah’s eyes that aged him. She recognized them, for every time she gazed into the mirror, she saw the same age-old scars.

Despite the familiarity that she observed in him, despite the handsomeness he’d grown into, there was something unidentifiable. It set her teeth on edge. It rattled her bones. She just wanted to be as far from him as possible.

She did not trust this new Josiah.

Especially with her child.

“You’re a Magi.”

“I learned Noir Magic, yes,” Josiah replied unconcernedly. “I will not hide it. I was in a dark place for quite some time, Ember. I found a temporary home with the Noir Users and learned what they had to offer.” He turned, gazing down the stream at Ezra. “It is not something that will corrupt him.”

“You intend to corrupt him,” Ember stated firmly. “I don’t believe he is your Chosen.”

“Why would I lie about such a thing?”

“Political advantage,” Ember countered. She raised her chin defiantly. “You’ve realized you cannot survive with the caravan of the Noir Users forever. You wanted to reestablish a royal footing, but knew it would be difficult after several years of pouting away from the capital. When you got the summons regarding our father’s death, you decided to return. What perfect way to elbow your way through the process than by declaring yourself the royal heir’s other half?”

Upon seeing Josiah’s mirth, Ember pressed on.

“And I imagine that if Ezra really was your Chosen, you would use him. And then discard him.” Ember’s lips twisted scornfully. “I will never let you get close to my son.”

“I’m afraid you spent too long in the conspiracy gutter. I truly do have good intentions with Ezra and will be just as fiercely protective of him as you.” Josiah stepped closer to Ember, a smile uplifting the corners of his lips. “You don’t like competition. You never did, Ember. Perhaps this isn’t so much about Ezra as it is about how threatened you feel upon my return.”

“Threatened?” Ember’s nostrils pinched. “How dare you. You hold no official title in this new kingdom. Nothing but the small chance Calder will honor you with a high platform.” She gathered her skirts in one hand and angled herself closer to him. “Your efforts to obtain such a title by going through my son is a dishonor to the Azeri name.”

As she stared at him, she felt a flash of ice-like discomfort.

A mind-numbing cold and consuming pain.

A vision flashed before her eyes. Tall and unique-looking men and women peered at her with abhorrence. They were powerful, so powerful. Just seeing them sent a spasm of hate and fear down her spine.

Standing before the group was a woman with white hair and very pale blue eyes. Like Ezra’s eyes. Upon staring at the woman, Ember’s hate transformed to extreme bitterness and sorrow. Betrayal, so sharp with intensity, twisted her gut.

“Yama,” the woman whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“As am I, Yamuna.”

Ember stumbled away from Josiah, blinking away the vision and the feelings that choked her. Josiah narrowed his eyes suspiciously. The man’s expression indicated that the vision was not his doing, but rather her own. She’d felt things before, things that didn’t seem like her own to feel, yet this…

She eyed him distrustfully.

“Ezra!” Ember called, earning the quick attention of her child. “Come.”

“Perhaps it best if I spent the morning with him,” Josiah commented shrewdly. “You don’t appear well. A nap would do wonders.”

He was just like them. At his mere proximity, distaste curdled on her tongue. Now, more than ever, she was convinced that something perilous shroud itself around Josiah. “Ezra Zale!” she called authoritatively. The young boy pouted at the end of the stream, still clutching the coins in his fist as he pondered on his wishes. “Come. We must go. Now.”

Turning, she walked from the stream and back to the palace. Only, she realized Ezra had not followed as he typically did. Standing solitarily, she gazed back, feeling the eyes of the guards and the caretakers. She felt belittled. Embarrassed that her own son would rather stay with the stranger that called himself his uncle.

Josiah stood looking at Ember, his back turned entirely on Ezra.

She pursed her lips, ready to call to her son once again, but the words fell short as she witnessed a peculiar event. Ezra couched eagerly by the clear pond and closed his eyes. His lips moved quietly as he threw the coins into water. As they splashed into the depths of the pond, Josiah closed his own eyes as if listening to something inaudible.

When the orange eyes reopened, he gazed at her piercingly.

Ezra rushed over and reached for her limp hand, drawing her attention. He smiled shyly and walked with her back to the palace. “I used both coins on one wish,” he confessed quietly but with the breathlessness of a young, excited child. “Because it was…” he struggled with the right words. “Because it was important.”

Glad to retreat from the gardens, Ember walked with her son, feeling Josiah’s eyes remain a permanent fixture on their retreating backs.

“And what did you wish for?”

Ezra’s hand squeezed hers. “For you to get better, mommy.”

Ember issued a choked sob, pressing a hand to her neck to stop the emotion. She hurriedly crouched down next to her son, not caring how informal it made her appear in the eyes of the guards. Reaching out, she grabbed her son’s face and caressed his soft cheeks.

“Now, Ezra, I’m feeling just…” her words broke, the lie at the very tip of her tongue. Ezra’s wide, innocent eyes were enough to stop her from false admissions. “I don’t want you to worry about any of that,” she scolded gently. “Do you understand me?”

Ezra’s mouth twitched before he smiled. “It’s okay,” he said softly. “Agni will help you.”

Ember smiled through her unshed tears and kissed his forehead. “I love you, my son.”

Standing back up, she reobtained hold on Ezra’s small hand and led him back to the palace.

 

 

* * * *

 

That morning she felt defiant.

Confident.

A bit like her old self.

Draped in the bright, bold colors of her native empire, Ember sat amongst her people for liturgy.

Calder had expected her at the palace’s chapel that morning for worship. They’d just finished renovating the royal chapel by integrating Agni into Varuna’s domain. She had little interest in attending, only because she heard the whispers, the gossip, and the sheer excitement from her people over this particular temple’s grand opening. 

The Igni temple was near the district where many affluent Igni citizens and nobles relocated after the war. The district was currently reconstructing, rebuilding, and struggling to regain dignity from the scars of battle. The Igni citizens that settled here couldn’t care a less about the crumbling façade structures, so long as they had a home and access to resources.

There was talk about extending the Unda design into these parts of the capital. Rebuild it as it was before the war. Ember, however, hoped to create more of a desert-like feel in these parts of the walled capital. She hoped to convince Calder to create a home away from home for the Igni citizens.

She supposed running from the palace early that morning wasn’t the best way to convince her husband of such plans.

Especially with his son and heir.

She glanced at Ezra, noting the small child perched at the end of his pew and staring in wonder at Agni’s large statue. His attention did not linger anywhere near the preaching vicar, or anywhere for long, but rather back and forth amongst all the shiny and multi-colored objects throughout the house of worship. The fires lit on the dais were both large and mighty, their flames the customary red of weekly liturgy as they burned the sand of prosperity and good health.

Ezra’s eyes were wide, excited. He looked positively adorable in his traditional Igni robes. The white and crimson sherwani clashed beautifully with his tanned skin and dark hair. His hair was beginning to grow out, the wavy locks nearly reaching his chin. She couldn’t wait to braid it with royal claiming.

Reaching over, she caressed her child’s hair, marveling at the feel of silk beneath her fingers.

Ezra smiled bashfully and nudged her hand with his head.

Her chest swelled.

Such a beautiful and charming little man.

This past week, he slept in her chambers to prevent Josiah or Calder from gaining access. There were no more incidents of them taking Ezra in the early morning. Rather, she kept Ezra close at her side, nurturing, loving, and selfishly holding him for her own.

Calder was most likely too busy with Josiah to notice his wife’s distance. Ember was no fool. Calder and Josiah lingered together. Her meetings started canceling without rescheduled dates or times. Perhaps it was in response to Ember’s own defiance. This was her punishment for keeping Calder’s heir away from him.

Inhaling deeply, she admired her son’s undeniably aristocratic features. It almost hurt to look at him. He would be so beautiful, so handsome one day. Ember knew he was destined for great things. She would prepare him for such a harsh, cruel world, but… at this time… she just wanted to embrace him and love him and spoil him.

As the vicar called for adjournment, she stood.

Grabbing Ezra’s wrist, she pulled him from the pew and forced him to kneel like all the others in the temple. Ezra clambered obediently next to her on the ground. He would soon learn no king, no queen or prince, should ever stand in the presence of the fire god.

When the vicar approached them, he thanked Ember for attending in hushed tones, scattering her forehead with ashes of Agni’s blessing.

Ezra giggled as the ashes claimed his forehead. “It tickles!”

Ember smiled fondly, ushering her child from the floor and sending her own, private prayer to Agni. She allowed herself a moment of despondency, of desperation as she reached out to the fierce and unyielding fire god she’d known since childhood.

“Can we go to the market?” Ezra asked innocently as they prepared for departure.

“Yes we can, my sweet.”

The Igni men and women in the temple gazed at her with pride, finding great pleasure in her crimson and black sari. She paired her sari with a simple, but expensive nose chain of silver and diamonds. Her entire wardrobe was customary and traditional for the high nobility of the Igni Empire. She’d also decided to paint her face with thick brows and lashes, bold lips, and smoky, seductive eyes.

A contrary to the conservative and aristocratic Unda women.

Ember stood and engaged several people in conversation, finding herself at ease. She clutched Ezra’s small hand, proudly showing off the little ruler of their empire.

For just a moment, she believed she was back in her kingdom.

The heat wasn’t as pleasantly scalding. The people surrounding her were out of place in their Unda clothes. Nevertheless, they still mirrored her. All of them. Deeply tanned skin, dark hair, and their eyes reflecting the multitude of shades of a roaring fire. Around the Igni worshippers, essences of Agni clung to every corner of the temple. From the serpent sigma etched into dark stone to the silver and charcoal undertones in the mighty pillars and archways. Small fires danced in their ceramic pots of brightly colored patterns. The smell of burning charcoal and cinnamon filled the expansive hall, comforting her by scent alone.

Familiarity.

Comfort.

She was home.

Amongst the crowd of bowing and commending Igni people, Ember caught sight of her brother standing at the temple’s entrance with a plethora of palace guards. His eyes found hers, but riveted back to Ezra with focused regard.

Ember’s comfort fell way to grim reality.

This wasn’t home.

A sharp pang of nostalgia made it difficult to breathe. She missed home. She missed her father. She missed her brother of old. She missed her childhood. Those things were unobtainable now, mere memories of a cherished and innocent time. Despite her greedy and desperate hold, the element of time would dim and fade those precious memories into unclear recollections of another lifetime.

She ushered Ezra along by a gentle, yet desperate hand. She stored the imprint of his diminutive fingers and soft skin into her mind. These memories were just as important. For the element of time would also age her little boy into a man tainted by the cruel, cruel world.

“So glad you could make it, brother.”

Josiah offered a strained smile in response. Men and women flittered around them, staring at Josiah with awe and fascination. They had likely heard of his return, but hadn’t seen him in the flesh. This was their uncrowned king. Ember resisted the urge to feel slighted. She was their queen, after all. Their rightful queen.

“I’m sure Agni can forgive you for missing the entire liturgy,” she continued with pleasant scorn. “He is known for those exceptions, after all.”

He appeared elated. “That he is.” His eyes dropped to Ezra, always finding their way back to him. “But mostly just for Ezra. I’m afraid I will not escape his wrath.”

Was he mocking Agni?

To speak so flippantly about their god and his infamous wrath…

Ember regarded him coolly before brushing shoulders and escaping the temple. Despite the comfort upon familiar settings, being inside the temple had unsettled her. She found herself avoiding the multiple eyes of Agni, wondering if it was out of shame, fear, or something else entirely. Whatever the unusual sentiment, she wondered if it had to do with the vision she had the other day.

That rage. That hate.

“If you had informed me of the temple opening today, instead of sneaking outside the palace walls—”

“I was not sneaking,” she replied in a controlled manner.

A simple lie. 

Today had been a test to examine the weak points of Calder’s security. How far could she go? For how long? Considering she’d been able to leave the palace, and with Ezra in tow, no less, security would undoubtedly grow tighter. Nonetheless, she got what she needed. She would be able to leave again without detection.

When she moved to seek out her source, she would need to move quickly.

Josiah loomed before her on the temple steps. “Your insistence of leaving the palace unguarded is of little concern to me. I make it my concern when you put him in danger.”

In front of the temple, several guards surrounded a palace carriage. Ember gazed down at Ezra, who gazed innocuously back up at her. Her lips thinned. “Did Calder send you?”

“I sent myself.” He looked down at Ezra and reached for the child. “Come now, Ezra. You have missed several lessons this past week.”

Ezra reared away from the hand and moved partially behind Ember. “Mom said we are going to the market.” 

Josiah appeared flabbergasted at the reaction. He may accomplish his role as a fun, playful uncle, but handling temperamental children would not be as easy. Undoubtedly, his hesitation would eventually fall way to his more domineering tendencies. He would have no qualms punishing Ezra with a firm hand.

But it was not his place.

She cupped her child’s head lovingly and stroked his hair with a lazy thumb. “Your father and uncle want us back at the palace.” Ezra delivered Josiah a look with such impressive hostility, she had to chuckle. “You and I can go to the market another day.” She tapped his cheek smartly. “What did I tell you about showing ugly emotions in public?”

Pale eyes softened as they looked up at her. “Promise? The market?”

“I promise.”

It was best not to draw attention from the public, from the guards, and from her brother. She had to give the impression she was not rebelling or dragging her heels to go back to the palace. For one day, there would come a time where she had to take advantage of their ignorance.

Ezra offered Josiah another sly glower before Ember escorted him to the carriage.

“We can visit the fish again today,” came Josiah’s proposition.

That immediately melted Ezra’s frigid nature. He beamed excitingly up at his uncle. “Can we?” he exclaimed breathlessly. With his hand still held captive by Ember, he twisted his torso around as best he could, gazing adoringly at Josiah. “Can you make them dance again?”

“If that is what you wish.”

Ember held her tongue as she deposited the young child into the carriage and climbed in after him. As they traveled back to the palace, a heavy silence filled the dark carriage, only broken by Ezra’s fidgeting. The young boy pulled back the curtains of the carriage window, peering out into the sunlit sky and tapping his heels against the bench.

She moved her hand, clasping it firmly over his knee.

Ezra abruptly stilled his fidgeting, straightening to acceptable posture, but remained staring out the window.

“You look beautiful today, Ember,” Josiah complimented. He looked at both mother and son. “Both of you. It brings back a degree of nostalgia for our home, does it not?”

Ember merely inclined her head. “Agni’s temple is just the beginning,” she spoke quietly. “The Igni people needed a house of worship for just themselves. One that is not shared by Varuna and the Unda people. I hope to convince Calder to rebuild the district with influences from the south. Imprints from our old empire.”

“Will that not further segregation?”

“Everywhere else is entirely Unda influence. This area of reconstruction is our only chance of implementing our culture.”

Josiah smirked. “That wasn’t what I asked.”

She removed her hand from Ezra’s knee and curled it on her lap. “Perhaps.” She gazed at her impassive brother. “Igni citizens over here, Unda citizens over there. Segregation would come naturally. But this is no longer the Unda capital. This is Concordia. A blend of both Igni and Unda. Therefore, I wish to see reflections of both Igni and Unda.”

“One may argue that constructing such desert-like structures would be counterproductive. Most say our united kingdom will not last long.”

Ember stiffened marginally. “Most? Or just you? Cultures do not split so soon after unification. You indicated a desire to rebuild our broken empire.” She shook her head. “By the time such reconstruction is complete, I believe we will have assimilated completely into this new society.”

He looked pointedly at her traditional wardrobe. “Your methods of rebelling indirectly suggest you don’t believe assimilation is possible. We may dress as Unda nobles. Bite our tongues as we blend into a more domesticated and uptight society. But in the end, our strong roots will overwhelm us with wistfulness and longing to revert to our nature. We have two very distinct and strong cultures.”

“Not distinct enough to resist integration,” Ember countered. “It may be difficult for us now, as we still experience prejudice. Moreover, we’re on our best behavior to dress to appease our hosts, speak to appease our superiors, but we will overcome this awkward phase. We will soon be comfortable sharing our customs. Two cultures will be able to practice individual traditions and religions without having to hide.”

He didn’t believe her.

Orange eyes regarded her with both fond amusement and pity.

“Besides, where would people like Ezra go if we decided to split the two races?”

Josiah finally tore his eyes from her and regarded the blissfully unaware child. Something bitter twisted his mouth. “He is already a dying breed. Biracial citizens are insignificant and inferior to the overwhelming majority of pureblooded Igni and Unda citizens.”

Alarm rendered Ember speechless.

He seemed to identify her shock.

“It is true, Ember. Biracial births likely peaked around Ezra’s conception before tapering off. They will be such an irrelevant portion of the population that their concerns during a culture divide will be futile.” Josiah glanced back at Ezra. “He was conceived under unusual and exceptional circumstances. There will never be another like him. Any attempt to unify the two kingdoms will take more than his short lifespan can achieve. The Igni and Unda cultures will be separate once more. And those like Ezra will be but a small section in history.”

His words caused something ugly to twist her chest and stomach.

She pressed a reassuring hand on Ezra’s shoulder, needing reassurance of his presence. Of his importance. He would not fade. He would not be a brief mention in history, but rather the start of something new. Of something great.

Her son turned away from the window and looked at her. As if he had followed their conversation, his gaze was solemn and far too old for his face. It did little to reassure her.

A small smile crossed his features before he turned back and gazed out the window with rapt attention.

“You forget one thing, brother.” Ember eyed Josiah with unrelenting defiance. “Biracial citizens will not be the only ones qualified to stand beside Ezra. Pureblood Igni and Unda citizens, who share his vision of a united kingdom, will pledge their life, their loyalty, to his cause. Those allies will make a difference.”

Josiah only allowed himself a faint, condescending smile. “If you say so, my dear sister.”

 

* * * *

 

No! NO!”

Ember sighed as Ezra’s high-pitched scream resonated across the pools. Lounging several yards away from her son, Ember allowed the guards and Councilman Sachiel to deal with him. Ezra’s Healer indicated children his age went through spurts of rowdiness and energized enthusiasm. They also explored the discovery of self-confidence and independence.

It was too much for her, she decided.

She was hardly old, yet exhaustion sunk in her bones. On good days, she explored the world through intrigued and absorbing eyes. Days like today, she’d be lucky to crawl from bed.

No matter how much she loved her son, Ezra’s steadfast energy often drained her.

Days like today also brought disquiet.

Whispers teased the edges of her subconscious. Words she could not decipher itched at her. Feelings of betrayal and sadness ate away at her. Dreams she could not remember tormented her sleep. She closed her eyes and saw the white-haired woman. The betrayal, the sadness, and the devastation all pointed to this woman.

Yamuna and Yama.

Ember acknowledged the need to visit her source for answers.

Soon.

There were often times she held Ezra at night with a foreignness and detachment that frightened her. Somehow, even her own child, even her own flesh and blood, felt hostile in her arms.

During those nights, she suspected there was something about Ezra…

Something that uneased her just as much as Josiah.

That realization did not sit well with her. She’d noticed how these sentiments affected her during the day. Often times, she’d shy away from touching her own son. The caresses and cuddles she’d once relied on were growing further and further apart. Ezra started to recognize the distance and eventually became less reliant on her contact. After all, he was discovering his independence. 

On her good days, she realized how much this bothered her. How much she wept at the loss.

On her bad days, she was grateful for the distance.

Ember threw a forearm over her face and lazed in the dull heat of the northern sun. She missed the sting of the southern sun. She missed the tan lines on her exposed flesh.

For just a moment, she recollected.

Women of the Igni palace would lay in the sun by the royal pools, basking all day in the sun, sipping expensive booze, and smoking fine tobacco. They’d get temporary ink stained on the back of their hands in elaborate patterns to celebrate upcoming festivities. They discussed topics of such scandalous gossip that they’d all fall into fits of uncensored laughter. Sexual talk was not taboo there as it was here. They’d freely shared their stories with each other, gleeful to have female companions. Women, back in the Igni Empire, had positions of power. They understood their thrall and executed it with deadly precision.

Such days were lost.

If she were lucky, she’d dream of them.

Instead, her dreams of recent were filled with unfathomable darkness and cold. They also offered something unfamiliar to her. In the depths of her cloudy, vague recollection, she remembered the stark sensation of…

Power.

Noise from the other end of the pools ensnared her attention.

Ember removed her forearm and stared at Ezra, who remained huddled at the edge of the pool. Her son trembled at the prospect of emerging himself into so much water. It was his first swimming lesson with Councilman Sachiel—a young and emerging politician who had fought in the war. Sachiel was a nice enough man, if not a bit pompous.

What distracted her was the sudden appearance of Calder.

She hadn’t seen her husband in well over a fortnight. Yet, there he crouched next to Ezra. The man’s hands cupped his son’s small shoulders as he whispered encouragingly in his ear.

Ember stared at the atypical scene.

Ezra and his father did not get along well. Because Calder was often too busy to spend time with his son, Ezra shied away from his father’s presence. Surprisingly, at the present, Ezra did not shy away but rather lean into the comfort Calder offered. Visibly, the child’s tremors calmed and his protests died.

Something bittersweet wrenched in Ember’s stomach at the scene.

Ezra nodded, smiling at Calder before taking Sachiel’s outstretched hand. His small frame was unnaturally stiff as Sachiel lifted him into the pool. The young Unda man endured Ezra’s choking hold around his neck, murmuring calmly to the child as they moved to the shallow end of the pool.

Calder watched and praised Ezra, lingering by the side of the pool until he knew the child had calmed.

When the king turned and approached her, Ember stiffened, but kept her expression placid and raised toward the sun.

“A pleasure to see you again, Ember.” Calder lowered himself onto her chair. Beneath pale lashes, blue eyes observed her. “Also a pleasure to see you’ve released Ezra from your chambers. It is reassuring you realized that a well-educated future king is far more important than selfishly hoarding him from his father.”

Ember lifted her chin. “I did tell you that you wouldn’t see him until Josiah is gone.”

“And you made your point beautifully, my dear.”

Pleasantries.

Underneath Calder’s handsome guise of politely strained words, she sensed his ire. No matter. She was just as angry. “As have you,” she countered airily. “Josiah is steadily climbing the ranks of court. It appears as if he’s not going anywhere any time soon.”

Calder smiled. “I don’t imagine so, no.”

“That’s a pity.” She closed her eyes and submerged into the weak sun. “You and Ezra never had a close relationship before, I can only imagine how strained it will become the longer you hold your ground. To imagine… the king and his heir at odds with one another. It’s happened before. History always favors the son in his conquest to overthrow the father.”

Instead of rising to the bait, Calder merely chuckled. “Not if he keeps missing his lessons, I’m afraid.”

Ember opened her eyes at that, observing his true smile. Her ribs squeezed pleasantly, missing him. Missing his touch. They were both stubborn. Ember, threatened by her brother’s reappearance, had hoped Calder would dismiss him. Unfortunately, Calder understood the sheer influence Josiah held over the Igni people. Such political advantage would be remiss to surrender.  

No matter how much it angered her, she understood Calder’s position.

Moreover, she recognized Calder’s compliance to her behavior these past several weeks.

He could have forced her hand. He could have easily taken Ezra away. He could have taken her child from her and cruelly kept them apart. Instead, he allowed her to sleep with Ezra. He allowed them to eat meals alone. He allowed her to dictate his lessons. He tolerated the distance and the intentional separation.

Perhaps Calder also understood her position.

Calder reached for her hand, his fingers lightly brushing the back of her palm. “I don’t like the revelation of Josiah’s relationship with Ezra any more than you do, Ember. However, if we work together, we can control the situation. Apart, we will lose such an advantage.”

She gazed down at the finger trailing across her tanned skin.

“Ezra is already smitten with him.”

“For years you’ve filled his head with stories of his infamous uncle, my dear. You’ve established his position as a hero in the boy’s eyes. What did you expect when Josiah returned?” Calder rose an eyebrow, completely unaware how handsome he looked just then. “Perhaps if we let them spend quality time together when Ezra is young, they will establish a familial bond.”

“And you presume that such paternal feelings will prevent Josiah from wanting to sexually claim his Chosen?” Ember inquired with bite. “I don’t know this new Josiah, but I know he wouldn’t give up the opportunity to claim Ezra thoroughly.” 

“What other suggestions do you have?” Calder’s eyes narrowed at her silence. “I am not removing him from court.”

“No, I wouldn’t imagine you would. He has made himself quite comfortable in my position.”

“No one is taking your position, Ember. No one can take your position.” Calder reclaimed her hand and clasped it gently. His expression appeared genuine enough, but Calder was exceptionally good at pretenses. “The only one who can harm your position is you. Your attitude, your avoidance, it creating quite the stir. It is unlike you to submit. If Josiah threatens your position, you counter with defiance.”

“You’ve been cancelling my appointments.”

“I’ve been cancelling everyone’s appointments. I’ve been focusing on a new treaty with the Terra Kingdom and reorganizing Concordia’s military. We need more of an Igni presence within the ranks. Josiah has been assisting me before we bring the proposal to the Royal Council. A meeting I hope you attend.”

She breathed harshly through her nose, yet her bitterness gradually dispelled at the explanation.

“Josiah proposed reconstructing the damaged sector of the capital with southern influences,” Calder ventured.

At his words, Ember stiffened again, ready to withdraw her hand. That was her idea. How—

“He mentioned it was your suggestion,” the king continued casually. He tightened his hold on her hand, massaging the fragile bones and making the act far more sensual than it rightfully should be. “I believe it is a wonderful idea, Ember. I will put you and Josiah in charge of the planning. I am only disappointed you did not come to me sooner with the proposal.”

Ember regained her confidence. “I did not anticipate your endorsement.”

“Often times, you falsely anticipate my reactions.” Small, amused wrinkles appeared at the corners of his eyes as he sensually moved his strong thumbs over her joints. “I am not your enemy. I am your husband.”

“A husband who is equally as devoted as he is scheming.”

“It’s fortunate my wife is similar in nature.”

Ember smiled thinly, reaching out her free hand and running it along his smooth, defined jawline. Possessiveness made her nails linger forcefully. He did not mind. Cerulean eyes closed agreeably and his own hands tightened around her fingers.

“Spend the night with me, my love. I have missed you.”

“I am certain your bed has not stayed too cold in my absence,” she remarked spitefully.

Calder was an attentive lover. He was extremely skilled just as he was generous to his female companion. Ember had not missed the gossip. During their early years of marriage, discovering her husband’s infidelity had devastated her. Though she saw no evidence, it shattered her own loyalty to Calder.

In retribution, if she found men pleasing, she’d taken them into her chambers just as well.

She found no reason to hide this from Calder, taking pleasure in toying with him as much as he toyed with her. Unexpectedly, in reaction to her defiance, he promised there would be no others. He proclaimed he would not take mistresses if she promised to do the same.

“There hasn’t been another since we’ve renewed our vows of fidelity, Ember,” Calder declared. “I promise you that.”

“Even so,” she started, looking at Ezra from over his shoulder. “I don’t want to leave him vulnerable in the nursery.”

Calder moved his head, causing Ember’s hand to drop from his jaw. He glanced at Ezra just as well. “He can stay in my antechambers. No one will be allowed access to him but you and I.” He offered her a long, lingering stare. “Ezra is our son,” he said firmly. “He may be a harmless child now, Ember, but he has such potent and powerful blood. He will be a force to be reckoned with.”

“I know this.”

“I don’t think you do.” Calder dropped her hand. “You are forgetting that it takes two to form a sexual relationship. If we allow Josiah and Ezra to spend time together in his youth, and carefully reform his mind to seeing Josiah as a second father, we—”

“Potentially deny Josiah the opportunity to take Ezra as his Chosen.” Ember finished with a relieved smile. “I had focused too much on Josiah that I overlooked Ezra.”

“An understandable overlook. He is so young now. It is difficult, both emotionally and mentally, as a parent, to envision him as a man.”

They both gazed at Ezra, who sat at the shallow end of the pool, laughing wildly as Sachiel created multiple fish with his water Element. No doubt, the notorious Unda warrior hadn’t anticipated ever using his water Element in this capacity.

She blamed Josiah. The man was accountable for Ezra’s current obsession.

She sighed.

She had intended to speak to Calder about Josiah’s ability with Noir Magic. However, as she focused on Calder, her tongue turned heavy and useless. Unabashedly, she stared at the typically impassive and controlled King of Concordia. What she saw instead was a father, gazing adoringly at his son. The lines of tension and stress disappeared, only to be replaced by a fond, heart-aching smile.

Calder never knew parental love. The palace raised him stoically.

Creating Ezra was a conflicting emotion for him.

Ember looked back at Ezra, amazed to see such a perfect blend of both mother and father in his features. Every day, she looked for new changes to his appearance. She wondered if he would always keep the perfect balance between his parents or if he would grow features that belonged exclusively to himself.

Like those eyes.

“We have created such a wonder, Ember,” Calder murmured fondly.

Ember blinked past her tears and sat up. She cupped the side of his face, turning him around to meet her lips.

The persistent whispers in the back of her mind finally ceased.

Just for a moment.

 

 

Chapter Text

2. Chapter Two

 

With the lethargy of a desert lizard, Micah sagged against the building’s façade and soaked in the scorching sun. Sweat gathered at his hairline before beading and sliding down his temples. Underneath his tactical scarf, his neck and chest seared with heat.

He reveled in it.

He reveled in how it warmed his cold bones and sapped all his energy.

Like the rest of the inhabitants of Region 20, the heat turned his joints to liquid and prevented him from doing anything productive. He’d given the military men a day off with the construction in order to get them acclimated with the heatwave. Villagers and scholars knew from history that the next several weeks would be the hottest ones of the season. 

They called these next few weeks ‘The Birth of Agni’.

Micah closed his eyes to stop the eye roll.

According to legend, the realm of endless paradise, Elisium, suffered through an agonizing heatwave for several weeks. Lakes and swamps dried up, killing numerous creatures as well as trees and all things nature. In its place, new, desert-like vegetation and creatures sprouted into creation. On the thirteenth day, a lightning storm brewed overhead, but not a single drop of water fell from the sky.

A blinding bolt of crimson lightning struck a dead oak tree, immediately setting the gnarly branches alight with fire. Once flames engulfed the whole tree, Agni stepped from the hollow trunk, effectively conceived from his own element.

For several weeks thereafter, he continued to torment the realm with desert-like conditions until his brother, Varuna, was born.

Ridiculous.

Micah raised a gloved hand and touched the crown of his head, trying not to envision such an inane scenario.

No matter the real story of Agni’s conception, the Igni people modeled their lifestyle around the timetable of events. When the hottest season was upon them, they rejoiced despite the detrimental heat. On the thirteenth day of the seventh month, the rituals would begin in earnest, stretching for seven long days in celebration of Agni’s birth and his fierce reign over the immortal realm.  

Opening his eyes, Micah observed as a few citizens ventured out into the heatwave to hang decorations in anticipation of thirteen days from now. The most important additions to Region 20 included crimson and black lanterns, offering tables, and even fires that would remain lit for the seven days of mass worship. Several families, who had the privilege, would save money throughout the year just for this celebration. Not only to offer Agni a chance of gold, but to buy more food in hopes of recreating traditional southern cuisines.  

No doubt, with such celebrations and rituals, Agni was at his strongest during this birthday.

Men, women, and children would all crowd around, taking part in celebrations in his name.

They’d dance. They’d pray. They’d worship. They’d give thanks.

Micah’s cheeks warmed, but it had nothing to do with the sun.

Had he conjured up the illusion of Agni several nights ago? Had he been so drunk he perceived what he had desired the most?

No matter. Real or not, Agni hadn’t returned. Micah hadn’t expected the god would return after witnessing the sorry and pathetic sight of his counterpart. Perhaps it was best the entity hadn’t returned, for their conversation would include a self-justifying Micah and a patronizing Agni.

Nevertheless, Agni’s continued absence irritated Micah.

He had questions about Kai, whom seemed remarkably ordinary despite the sense of despondency surrounding him. It was as if a film encompassed the young man. Or, more appropriately, a skin marred with leftover residue of Yama’s influence. No matter how much time passed, Kai could not shed the skin and the haunting impressions that came with it.

Micah inhaled deeply, calmly, focusing on Kalama.

The young woman crouched down in front of one of her charges. Long, unruly curls peeked out from underneath her headscarf. Her distant voice was both soft and gentle as she reprimanded the young boy with torn knees.

Micah’s eyes unfocused and his breathing grew labored as he recalled his mother.

“Oh, Micah,” Ember admonished with such a gentle tone. “You need to be more careful.” Her hand touched his cheek, caressing it warmly before focusing on his bloody palms and knees. “Least you become weak enough for others to take advantage. Where would that leave you? Where would that leave me? We’d be vulnerable.”

As a young child, he would gaze up at her pretty features, partly rippled and torn with ugly scars. He remembered the strong, suffocating urge to protect her. He never wanted to disappoint her. For one so young, it was a warped perception. Distantly, he wondered how many times he’d interacted with her or with Kapardi, the god Agni assigned to watch over Micah.

He doubted Kapardi took control over Ember often.

Ember was frequently ill, which meant she struggled to adapt to the godly possession.

Just thinking about how much she’d suffered reminded Micah of his tendency to overlook Agni’s misdeeds. However, if he confronted the god about it, again, what good would that do? Agni felt nothing for most mortals, Ember in particular. He would not apologize for distorting Ember. He’d do it again if it meant he could keep a close watch over Micah.

Thinking of Ember left Micah feeling hollow.

He felt as if he’d failed.

Failed her.

How much had she suffered these past several years? Now, with Yama pulling her strings, how much of Ember remained in her own mind? What had happened to allow such possession? Would Yama keep his word? Would the god of death release her from his hold? How had Yama found Ember in the first place?

“I have never seen you look so absent.”

Lethargically, Micah turned his head toward Talia.

The young woman saddled next to him, her expression scrunched up in the sun as she examined him. Like Micah and Kai, Talia rebuked the desert robe and donned the tactical scarf, trousers, and heavy boots. Her arms were bare, revealing the sweaty sheen across her skin.

Micah pressed his lips together in amusement, remembering the first week of their stay in Region 20. Both Kai and Talia had turned comically red with white, nearly glowing eyebrows. Their fair skin wasn’t meant to dwell under the harsh sun, yet, as the weeks stretched, their red hue muted into a faint tan.

“Just lost in my thoughts,” he replied nonchalantly.  

The sun’s bright rays exaggerated Talia’s grimace. “Edlen told me your royal heir mandate was a bold move and some would see it as indecent.” She placed her hands on her hips and rotated her attention toward the residents at the bazaar. Her posture was both confident and feminine. “Do you think King Calder will let you stay and finish?”

Micah quelled his initial response and focused keenly on Talia.

Just over her shoulder, he spied the young girl who constantly shadowed Talia.

One of Kalama’s charges.

The Igni girl’s short, black hair gathered into a tight knot on top her head today. In her adolescent hand, she held a short dagger. She lunged with a grunt before repeating the exercise. Her footwork left room for improvement, yet Micah recognized the start of something that resembled guidance from a skilled warrior.

Micah exhaled fondly and returned his attention to the village residents. “I’m working on it, Talia.” He smiled cruelly into the blistering sun. “If it doesn’t work out as I anticipate, no one is required to return to the capital but myself. You are welcome to stay.”

“No,” Talia countered aggressively. “Kai may be your right-hand, but I am still your ally.” She asserted the position with fierce possessiveness. “I will go where you go. Always.” 

Micah had seen them spar.

Kai and Talia.

When the sun fell for the day, and there was no point in continuing the construction of the children’s shelter, he observed the two dueling from a distance. Each night, Talia seemed to improve with the sword. Considering she started with impressive skill only meant she’d exceeded expectations.

Kai too.

With the loss of his right eye, Kai had to reestablish his footing and relearn the basics. He had to retrain his body and his sword to cover his weak spot. Micah watched, with a dark pang of bitterness, as Kai failed repeatedly to best Talia during their duels. Gradually, the young man rebuilt his prowess. He reestablished his footing. He grew stronger, just as Talia.

Soon, they’d both be ready to combat against Micah.

Micah rolled his head against the storefront, deciding not to comment on Talia’s fierce promise. He would let the silent and unspoken competition between Kai and Talia continue.

He considered both of them vital and necessary.

“Coming here, to Region 20, was an experience I would have never fathomed to have such an impact.” Talia’s voice sounded small, different from her usual buoyancy and bitter cynicism.

“How so?” Micah asked, already having an idea what had changed Talia’s perceptions.

“I believed…” she trailed off, her eyes trained on Micah’s averted face. “I always carried the notion that my upbringing was unfair. But coming here proved that there are so many others worse off. Incredibly worse off.”

Micah turned his attention on her. “What was your upbringing like?”

He recognized, early on in their acquaintanceship, that she disliked her family. She disliked her father for remarrying. She disliked her warrior mother for reasons unknown to him. She had halfsiblings she held with no affection. Talia was always a bundle of unhappy and resentful tensions.

She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s no longer relevant, Micah.”

“I’d still like to know,” he persuaded quietly.

“Will you tell me more about your upbringing then?” she countered.

Micah’s lips curled into a slow, malevolent smirk. “No.”

She levelled him with a grim, unhappy look. Micah simply returned it with one of his own. They surveyed the other, both stubborn, both unrelenting. Talia looked away first, her expression almost ashamed.

“Your mother is a commoner and your father an aristocrat,” Micah said. “How did they meet?”

Talia glanced at the child over her shoulder, appearing hesitant. “My mother was in the war,” she said casually. “She handled the sword and staff better than most of the enlisted males. My father fell in love with the idea of her. They married in secret and conceived me after the war, drunk on their impulsive affection. Those closest to my father believed it to be a mere phase and way to deal with the end of the war.”

Micah had to smile in face of Talia’s aversion. The young woman was a realist. She did not believe in silly sentiments like love at first sight.

“I would imagine, when your father showed no signs of parting from your mother, others intervened.”

She nodded. “My grandfather threatened he would give my father’s inheritance to his younger brother.” Talia shrugged. “Clearly, my father thought more about gold than he did about true love, for he promptly separated from my mother and remarried a simpleton of court. They then produced children, one of which inherited my father’s water Elemental ability. One who doesn’t even use it.

“Your half-sister,” Micah deduced.

“Yes.” Talia appeared offended. “She only cares about securing a suitable husband. Such a blessing was wasted on her.”

“There are many successful warriors who are not Elementals.”

“I know that, Micah,” she replied shortly, angrily.

He smirked fleetingly at her resentment. “So you were passed back and forth between your mother and father growing up.”

“No.” She looked towards Kai, who played with a few children across the alleyway. “They claimed my mother traveled often to different posts across the kingdom. Therefore, my father raised me with little to no interaction from my mother. When he realized I wasn’t going to adhere to his image of a proper lady, they hired my mother as if she were a mere instructor. I only saw her during lessons.”

Talia shook her head, offering a bitter smile.

“For how strong they claimed my mother, I found her lacking. I found her to be weak. She appeared so docile and accepting of the situation, as if she agreed with my father’s decision to abandon her. As if she agreed to create distance with me during my childhood.”  

“Perhaps your mother recognized what was best for you. Maybe she set aside her own feelings in order to give you your best chance.” Micah cocked his head. “Have you discussed it with her?”

“I will.” Her attention landed on the child once more, looking pointedly at the young Igni girl. “Since coming here, things came into perspective.” She gestured to the child. “She certainly wouldn’t understand why I am so bitter about my upbringing. Everything she doesn’t have, I had in spades. I had all the tools at my disposal with so many missed opportunities.”  

“And she’s one of the more fortunate children here.”

Talia nodded, tightening her hold on her tunic. “I know.”

Recognizing Talia’s desire to focus on the child and not her admissions, Micah inclined his chin toward the girl practicing with the dagger. “What you’re doing now is the best thing for her. Only the strong survive here, Talia.”

“She seems too young for what I’m teaching her.”

“She’s too young for many of the sufferings presented to her. Too young for the sufferings that will be presented to her.” Micah pushed off from the building and shuffled his feet with no sense of direction. “What is her name?”

“Adara,” Talia said, glancing at the girl once more.

The two locked eyes and the girl, Adara, looked away shyly before executing an exaggerated lunge that nearly took her off her feet. She couldn’t have been older than five, perhaps six.

“You just gave Adara her biggest chance of survival. Most children, and even adults, don’t know how to defend themselves.” He glanced over at Kai, shaking his head when the man jumped on one foot and then proceeded to hop and skip within the boundaries of shaky, white lines drawn on the hard earth. “You’d think Edlen never encountered children before a day in his life.”

He looked utterly ridiculous.

It earned a startled laugh from Talia. “Wait until the others hear about this,” she declared fondly.

“I apologize for taking so long, Your Highness,” Kalama interrupted as she rejoined Micah. “He will never learn. He’s always getting hurt.” She glanced back at the child she’d scolded earlier, who’d since ran to join Kai and the others.

Micah smirked and nodded down the street. “Shall we?”

Kalama gathered her long robe in one hand and proceeded to lead him down the alley. He waved off Edlen, who’d stopped his game and made a move to follow him. Unsurprisingly, both Kai and Talia ignored the nonverbal order to stay behind and followed promptly.

“I’ve been thinking about your proposal, about creating a hierarchy here,” Kalama started, sounding out of breath due to her excitement. “It is a brilliant idea, Your Highness,” she admired. “We’ve had informal leaders here in the past, as you know, but most established their leadership through coercion and thrived off the poor conditions of our community. You may remember this during your last visit.”

How could he forget Bren?

The man tried to beat him down when Micah and his team came to rescue Kai.

Fortunately, the man hadn’t been much of a distraction since Micah’s arrival here to rebuild the village. Micah assumed he had successfully tucked Bren’s tail between his legs and sent him running.

“The idea is a work in progress and not entirely my own,” Micah cautioned. “I visited the Terra Kingdom several months ago and I was fascinated by their government. They had representatives—delegators—who had just as much voice as Chief Heres. In a monarchy, we cannot grant these representatives as much power as the crown, but I believe they should represent the region as a whole. Every day men and women who only have the best interests for their people.”

Several nights ago, during his sudden inspiration at the construction site, he’d pitched the idea to Kai and Talia. After several thorough questions, the Edlen heir had appeared relatively impressed with the idea and had encouraged Micah to prefect it before he presented it before Calder. Together, they’d practiced the anticipated questions and answers.

Now he just needed to screen his ‘delegators’.

“It would be a remarkable improvement to the village—to the whole region—if we can implement this successfully.” Kalama nodded fiercely. “It’s been decades since our people have had proper structure.”

“It’s only an infantile idea until the king approves and implements it.”

He felt the surveillance of both Talia and Kai behind him.

They always remained quiet spectators, seemingly adapting into their self-proclaimed roles of his personal guards. Micah didn’t know what he thought about that. Granted, when he returned to the capital, he’d rather have Talia and Kai at his back rather than altering between Calder’s guards and Josiah’s guards. At the same time, he felt the position was limited.

He wanted them to explore other avenues before making a decision.

They had far more potential than being mere guards.  

“I don’t see how he could reject the proposal.” She climbed down another set of stairs, leading them to a lower-set alleyway. “The man we are visiting would make an excellent candidate for a representative. Very upstanding. Very generous. You two have met before. It’s Healer Jasjot. He couldn’t stop praising you after the work you completed for the clinic.”

Micah followed her with a renowned sense of optimism.  

Things were finally working in his favor. With Kalama’s assistance, who was just as passionate about equality to the people and implementing change, Micah had no qualms Calder would accept his proposal.

Even if he’d be upset at Micah’s bolshiness of declaring a royal heir mandate.

 

* * * *

 

After days of preparing for his presentation, the day of Calder’s arrival was finally upon them. Micah had anticipated a great deal of setbacks during the meeting with his father. What he hadn’t expected, however, was a detrimental setback.

“Egan,” Kai reprimanded. “What in Varuna’s name are you doing?”

Ignoring the inquiry, Micah continued shoveling with single-minded intensity. Sweat coated his entire body and excursion caused his limbs to tremble madly. No matter how fast or how long he shoveled, the sand did not go away.

Late last evening, a sandstorm rolled into Region 20. Micah, already awake with restlessness, watched from the hostel entrance as a cloud of malicious sand obscured everything. Only when the storm was over did he leave to survey the damage.

The village looked unsightly.

Decorations prepared for Agni loitered all over the streets, marketplace canopies were broken, and sand… sand was everywhere. It piled knee-deep in some areas in the bazaar and coated the surroundings in an unflattering hue of colorless tan.

To his dismay, when he approached the children’s shelter, which happened to be the main exhibit of his presentation today, he observed the deep sand concealing half the structure. When they started the construction, Micah should have realized the location would be vulnerable to sand drifts. Because it was in the framing stage, with some areas lacking exterior walls, most the sand poured inside the large structure, making it appear laughable.

He was an idiot.

He cursed under his breath, spit flying from his lips.

“Egan.”

“I don’t have time to talk, Edlen!” Micah snapped, his frustration building. 

Kai remained entirely unaffected by Micah’s outburst and responded with pleasant, irritating calm. “You’re not even going to make a dent with that small shovel. They are going to be here shortly. You should change your clothes and at least look presentable. Shave. Bathe. Focus on your other topics. Sandstorms are a regular occurrence in the desert regions. Your father will understand.” 

Whoa! Cool!

Glancing up quickly, Micah noted Kalama and several children appearing at the edge of the construction site, their expressions naively impressed and flabbergasted with the deep sand drifts. Kalama and Micah locked eyes briefly, the latter looking away when he recognized the concern washing her features.

He just continued digging, hoping to clear the exterior foundation so Calder could at least observe their progress.  

“My father,” Micah started breathlessly with an overzealous hiss, “wouldn’t know a sandstorm if he found himself lost in the middle of one. He’d just see a lack of progress. A reason to stop construction. A reason to order me back to the capital.”

“You’re overreacting.”

The sound of metal scraping against metal incurred Micah’s sudden attention.

He looked over his shoulder, spying a large group of military men grabbing shovels and jumping readily down into the sand pit. They all nodded to him respectfully before beginning to toss piles of sand away from the foundation. Micah realized Kai had been right. The scene looked utterly ludicrous. Grown men standing up to their knees—sometimes waist— in sand, trying to move such an enormous, hulking pile with small and insignificant shovels.  

“We’ve got you covered, Your Highness,” Lieutenant Warren reassured, taking his own shovel and climbing down into the pit. “Our men did such a good job under your direction, it would be a pity for His Majesty not to observe the progress.”

“Lieutenant,” Micah acknowledged appreciatively, his tone strained. 

“They’re here, Micah.” Talia’s voice rang out like ominous sirens. “Their train arrived at the depot several minutes ago.”

“Too bad you don’t have an air Elemental around… or even an earth Elemental in this case,” Kai muttered.

Micah stilled upon hearing Kai’s comment. He slammed the head of the shovel into the sand and considered the construction site. Yes, it was very unfortunate he did not have any of those two Elementals nearby. “Kalama,” he called, not waiting for an answer. “I want you to take Talia and Lieutenant Warren and welcome King Calder and his party to Region 20. Give me some time, please.”

“Me?”

“You.”

“Egan—”

“Kai,” Micah interrupted the other man. He turned back toward Talia and Edlen, easily noticing the strained expression around the latter’s face. “I need you here.”

He knew the blueblood felt slighted over the fact that Micah assigned Kalama the lead for something so political. No matter how pure Kai’s intentions, he still wanted to hold a position of esteem to the heir of the throne.

Did the other man not see he already had it?

The trio of adults gradually came together and hurried toward the train depot.

Micah ran an unimpressed eye across Kai’s brooding expression before turning back toward the sandpit. “Thank you for your help, gentlemen,” he said, earning the instant attention from the shoveling military men. They stilled immediately, gazing at him with a combination of bemusement and intrigue. “But Kai and I have it covered from here. You can resume your earlier posts across the village.”

Determining to take the lead, Micah threw his shovel outside the construction site and climbed from the pit. He did not need to turn around to know the others followed suit, their professional disposition preventing them from murmuring behind his back about his… unstable conduct.

“You want me to use my Element,” Kai concluded.

“I knew I kept you around for more than just your good looks and sense of humor, Edlen. Your deduction is just as extraordinary,” Micah responded smartly, ignoring the unenthusiastic expression he received in turn. Standing next to the blond-haired aristocrat, he nodded toward the pit. “If you can please flood it. Make sure you cover it entirely.”

Without needing further prompt, Edlen inhaled deeply, the strain around his eye and mouth smoothing over with instantaneous tranquility.

Absorbing the sight before him, Micah marveled at the control Kai possessed over both his emotions and his Element. He envied the other man. As Kai raised his hands slowly from his sides, and the earth trembled with the conjuring of power, Micah’s bitterness bled way to fond captivation. Water entwined between Edlen’s feet like an affectionate pet before proceeding to spill into the pit.

Young, overenthusiastic voices shattered Micah’s serene reprieve.

He blinked, jarred, but resisted the urge to tell the children to run along. He knew desert rats considered water Elementals a sacred mystery. Someone who could conjure water without much effort seemed almost as divine as the fire god. It was a sick twist of irony that water Elementals did not settle to the south, rather than the north, where there was already an abundance of water from lakes.

Once the children’s shelter was a muddy pit, half-drowned with murky water, Kai turned and appraised Micah expectantly. His hands dropped slowly at his sides, as if he were caressing his Element one last time before bidding it farewell.

“Your turn, I believe, Your Highness.”

Micah surveyed the scene. “Can’t you just lift it up yourself?”

“It probably won’t grab all the sand, which is most likely settled at the bottom.” Kai blinked lazily. “You can handle this, can’t you, Egan?”

Ignoring the goad, Micah focused on the muddy pool of water. He hadn’t practiced his Element these past few months. Whenever he reached for the cold, he always recalled Yama’s realm. It unsettled him. And now, with so many eyes on him, from the military men to the children, Micah felt the additional pressure.

Attempting to replicate Kai’s tranquility, Micah closed his eyes, trying not to think that his father was just yards away. He tried not to think of all the things weighing on a successful tour this morning. He tried not to think he needed to do this quickly and now.

No. No. He shouldn’t feel pressured.

He could do this.

The obstinate Element remained buried down so far, Micah almost thought he’d lost the ability to conjure. Yet, as he focused, he felt it shimmer stubbornly. It truly had a mind of its own. He could feel its restlessness, its bitterness, and its overall resentment. It stung him the more he focused on it, almost as if it intended to ward him away.

He opened his eyes, his attention focused straight ahead.

“For someone with so much bold confidence, I didn’t anticipate you’d have performance anxiety, Egan.”

Muffled chuckles from the military men sounded after Kai’s comment. Micah glanced at his comrade. The aristocrat smirked and ran a hand through his short blond hair. His single eye focused on Micah smugly, as if this were some sort of payback for making him stay behind and preventing him from greeting the king.

Fool nobles.

They were all the same.

Micah exhaled softly with irritation, choosing not to reply to Edlen’s crude innuendo.

He did not close his eyes this time, though they unfocused when he concentrated on his Element. He did not console it, nor coddle it. He forced it. As the cold washed through him, he immediately noticed something was not right. His body jerked with a startling energy drain and it took a great deal of restraint to keep himself on his feet. To keep face.

Small flakes of snow fell from the sky, yet his attention remained on the solidifying mass of muddy water.

Gradually, for what seemed like an agonizing amount of time, the liquid hardened and turned solid, groaning and creaking all the while.

Once he was certain the cold froze the mud thoroughly, Micah withdrew his sword. Using the weapon as a conduct of his power, he slammed the blade into the ice, willing his element to shatter into hundreds of pieces. Fragment. Splinter. Fortunately, as soon as his blade met the ice, cracks veined across the entire surface and deepened to its very core.

Feeling the strain through his body, and knowing he did not have much longer, he threw out his hand, lifting the pieces in the air.

Upon his command, cloudy and dirty chunks of ice suspended from the construction site. Micah willed them far away, setting the masses of frozen sand several yards away from the children’s shelter to melt in the sun.

It took quite a while to move all the pieces. Moreover, each shard moved seemed to cost Micah a considerable amount of energy. In order to stop his fingers from trembling, he clenched his hands into fists. His knees were weak. He didn’t know how long he could last fighting his reluctant and spiteful Element.

When the construction site was cleared of the ice and the sand, the foundation was finally revealed. There was still a bit of sand remaining, but there was more than enough removed to reveal how much work they’d accomplished these past several weeks. Micah couldn’t even conjure a lick of satisfaction.

He just felt horrible. 

“Passable,” Edlen complimented amongst the noise of the awe-struck spectators. There was clapping. There were naïve shouts of amazement from the children. Kai turned, pausing, before taking Micah by the bicep and leaning down to whisper, “you look terrible. Come on.”

Micah did not protest.

Edlen pulled him away from the construction site.

As they turned the corner, the last thing Micah observed were the children jumping down into the pit and disappearing inside the large, wooden maze of the shelter, marveling at the clean foundation and the disappearance of the sand. Their faces were so bright. So naively hopeful. That was their home, after all.

Once they were out of sight from any possible spectators, Micah leaned against the wall of an alleyway and sheathed his sword. Bracing his hands against his knees, he breathed deep, trying to refocus, trying to regain his strength. His vision swam. His muscles were putty. It hadn’t helped he’d been shoveling hours beforehand, hoping he could somehow make a dent with a mere shovel.

Agni. He didn’t know if he could make it through his presentation with the king.

“What’s wrong?”

“My Element despises me,” he confessed warily. He cast his eyes down, focusing on regaining energy.  “It seemed to like me better when I didn’t even know I had the ability to conjure on whim.”

“That’s ridiculous. Your Element should not possess a temperament, Egan.”

Micah rubbed the bridge of his nose, forcing himself away from the wall.

How could he possibly discuss this with Edlen? The other man had no issues with his Element, probably never did. For a brief moment, he considered Conway Edlen, the captain of Calder’s royal guard. Conway confessed he’d had troubles with his Element for much of his adolescence and even in his young adult years. Perhaps it was time Micah had a further discussion with the other man.

What came after meditation?

“Let’s go.”

“Wait.” Kai injected himself in front of Micah, blocking his way.

“There isn’t anything we can do about how I look,” Micah interrupted, already knowing what Kai was about to say. “Calder isn’t going to appreciate his welcoming party. I need to get there. Now.” Sensing Kai’s reluctance, Micah straightened to his full height, his eyes sharpening. “I can wear a façade just like the rest of them, Edlen. Move aside.”

At Micah’s authoritative and steely expression, Edlen smirked and inclined his head. He promptly moved out of the way before falling at Micah’s shoulder. “Just making sure you’re prepared for our company. I don’t know who is accompanying your father today.”

“You want to make sure I appear princely.”

“It appears as if you don’t need as much advising as I anticipated you would,” Kai replied sarcastically. “Clearly, you have everything all figured out for yourself. So much so that you’re ready to confront King Calder with soggy trousers and facial hair.

Facial hair.

The biggest sins of aristocracy and nobility.

Under Kai’s unimpressed observation, Micah adjusted the tactical scarf around his neck, trying to dust off the sand and make it appear less damp. His boots were impossible to shine, his pants and tunic both dotted with sweat, water, and dried mud. Stubble was growing across his face, several days past a proper shave. Yes. He certainly wasn’t royalty ready.

The children’s shelter had required his entire focus that morning.

“What is there to advise? As long as I am attractive and act like a pompous royal, I should be accepted amongst court.”

“Fortunately you were born pompous, Egan. You don’t have to act.”

“There is that sense of humor I adore, Edlen,” Micah quipped, a wry smirk lighting his features.

He missed verbal sparring. He missed… he missed Agni. God, he was disgustingly sentimental and more than aware of the fact he was having a difficult time coping with Agni’s absence. However, he refused to bend first and request the man’s presence. He’d done so once. He wouldn’t do it again.

“Do you believe your father will be here?”

“Well, he is part of the Royal Council and you did request a royal heir mandate. Calder will be inclined to treat your rebelliousness with his own. He knows how much you detest Seaton and Muriel. They will most likely be here. He wouldn’t bring Sachiel or Cordelia.”

“A simple yes could have sufficed,” Micah murmured. They crossed through the overpopulated housing district and weaved through several alleyways on their way to the bazaar. He anticipated Kalama would bring Calder to the bazaar first after collecting him from the depot. “How do you feel about seeing Seaton again?”

Edlen exhaled with offense. “I can control myself, if that’s what you’re asking.” He paused and pulled at Micah’s arm to stop him. “I should be more concerned with how you’ll react, Egan.”

“Yes, those maternal instincts you noted earlier.”

“You’re fiercely protective of your own. I find it both admirable and amusing.”

Kai’s face drew together as he focused on rearranging Micah’s scarf to cover the majority of the stubble across his jawline and upper throat. He then proceeded to ruffle and arrange his hair before dusting off sand Micah had missed earlier. His hand was impatient and exasperated. Hardly gentle. Under his breath, he said something scathing, like a disapproving mother.

Clearly, Micah wasn’t the only one with maternal tendencies.

“You’re fortunate you can pull off the desert rat appearance, Egan.”

“You’re flattering me, Edlen.”

Kai made a noise of disbelief. “Flattery wasn’t my intention.”

When Edlen finished his nitpicking, they walked out from between the two buildings and into the main marketplace. Immediately, Micah’s attention centered on the group gathered in the sand-riddled bazaar.

Agni, they looked out of place amongst all the residents of Region 20.

Calder stood tall in the middle of the capital group. It was odd to see him in anything other than tailored cloaks and jackets of fine quality, yet there he was, donning a pair of trousers and a fitted tunic. His long, pale hair was pulled back into a braid, as it typically was to establish his royal status. Micah didn’t think he needed it. Despite his common clothing, he still managed to display an air of unattainable aristocracy.

The councilmembers who’d accompanied Calder draped around him like accessories. Much to Micah’s displeasure, the two Unda councilmembers in attendance were Seaton and Muriel Edlen—just as Kai predicted. Clearly, Calder hadn’t removed them from the council as Micah had assumed he would after their misbehaviors.

Also in attendance was the elder Igni woman. As was… Josiah, or more appropriately, judging from the red-gold aura, Agni.

The man was the first to take notice of Micah.

An odd flutter announced itself in Micah’s stomach like a lovesick teenager.

He hadn’t believed he’d see Agni here.

Not after—

Finally faced with the man’s presence again, after such a long absence, Micah hadn’t realized the extent of his regard for the fire god. Seeing Agni again, this time sober, made all the others fall away insignificantly. It was just the two of them. Standing across from the other. The feeling of intimacy was so strong that Micah had to look away to come down from his high.

Refusing to ponder on his weakness for the entity, Micah pushed aside his sentimentalities and approached the group. Over Kalama’s head, Calder noticed his approach. He said something kindly to Kalama and the others before breaking away and meeting Micah halfway.

His smile appeared genuine, though Micah noticed it did not reach his bright, cerulean eyes.

“Ezra,” Calder greeted. He nodded to Kai in passing. “Walk with me.”

As Micah turned and moved alongside his father, he acknowledged the man’s mood.

It was to be expected.

He knew Calder would not be happy with Micah for summoning him to Region 20 under the pretenses of a royal heir mandate. He both understood the reaction and readied himself for it. Therefore, when Calder placed an arm around his shoulders, he braced himself for the poisonous words lurking underneath a pleasant façade.

“The nerve you must have possessed to declare a royal heir mandate… to summon me like a dog…” Calder trailed off, his voice soft, quiet, never once in jeopardy of reaching the ears of the residents. Despite Calder’s anger, he kept his expression cleared of any ill feeling and instead projected the image of a fond father, greeting his son after several weeks apart.

“I’m assuming you never declared a mandate yourself,” Micah murmured.

“I never had to.”

“Simply because your father never questioned you nor your intentions because you were his replica,” he countered. “I’m a virtual stranger to you, so I understand your frustrations when I declared the mandate. After all, I haven’t stayed inside the palace longer than a week. I haven’t acclimated myself into court. I haven’t earned your trust nor your confidence.”

Calder eased them into something much slower than a stroll. “Not only that, Ezra, but when I agreed to send you to Region 20 it was under the stipulation you’d stay only for the reconstruction. My sources informed me you were completed long ago.”

“I told you I would also try to solve the problem out here.”

“Yes. You did tell me. I told you no. Only reconstruction and observation for the time being,” Calder reiterated. “The idea was to get a feel for the outer regions and formulate possible ways to solve the poverty, the crime, and the social structure. Not cure it completely during your stay. You do realize it will take longer than a few months to properly remedy.”

“I know that,” Micah said tightly.

“I don’t think you do,” Calder replied ominously. “Right now, your attentions are required at the capital. You must introduce yourself to the citizens as the royal heir before you start using its position as a weapon. By declaring the mandate, you forced my hand. Not only did it show the court that you and I are not in unison, but it revealed to them your willingness to rebel.”

Micah could argue further, but he sensed Calder was near his breaking point already.

Calder stopped and curled a hand around the nape of Micah’s neck. The fingers applied pressure, a warning squeeze as he leaned close. “You will be joining us tomorrow on the train to Concordia’s capital. You will sit nicely for me in your throne. You will get into a routine at the palace. You will plan your coronation with me. You will be an obedient heir. Just as you and I agreed upon before coming here.” 

Micah glanced over Calder’s shoulder, watching the residents around the bazaar clean up their vending stations after the sandstorm.

Some looked their way, their wide eyes and slack expressions revealing their awe at Calder’s presence. Some even gestured behind Micah, back toward Josiah. They were all excited, all thrilled at seeing their declared king back in Region 20. Peppered amongst the large market place were military men, dressed with clean, pressed uniforms as they repositioned themselves at their posts.

“Does today mean nothing?” Micah inquired bitterly, refocusing on his father.

“On the contrary. Depending on how it goes today, it will mean the difference of how often I allow you return trips.” Calder released Micah’s neck and placed his palm across his stubbled cheek. His expression darkened with distaste as his fingers moved across the facial hair. “You’ve lost weight. You don’t look well. I want you back at the capital. We can take proper care of you there. Get you back on your feet.”

In attempt to turn the conversation from his health, Micah repeated Calder’s earlier comment. “Return trips.”

“Yes. I will allow you several return trips a month if your progress impresses me today,” Calder reassured. He patted Micah’s cheek and dropped his hand. “Just as long as you give me your cooperation with things back at the capital.”

So that was Calder’s terms. Because Micah had no power, no resources without Calder’s permission, the king would cement Micah’s cooperation by implementing the reward system. Calder would find what empowers Micah, what interests him, and only grant him permission to spend time on such interests if he played by his rules back at the capital.

It was a brilliant maneuver and something Micah would have to keep an eye on least Calder take advantage.

He could play by those rules, just as long as Calder did not dominate the game.

“Let’s proceed, shall we?” Calder inquired when Micah remained silent. “This place truly is a purgatory, my son.”

Micah observed the sweat beading across Calder’s forehead and smirked wickedly.

“It has potential,” he replied. “Someone just needs to shed light on the possibilities.”

Calder appeared unconvinced. He turned around, back toward the group of councilmembers, and waved them forward. They obliged immediately, dutifully waiting for his call. “If anyone can shed light on the impossible, I’m certain it will be you.” He glanced at Micah, his colorful eyes dimming. “Are you certain you’re up for this?”

Did he really look that bad?

Just as he’d done with Kai, Micah adopted a firm expression and straightened to his full height.

“I’m more than ready to give Region 20 their chance to shine.”

Despite Calder’s anger, his father appeared genuinely affectionate as he smiled at Micah. “That, I have no doubt.” 

As the group neared, Micah took a deep, steadying breath.

He could do this.

He had to.

Region 20 had suffered long enough without proper interference. It was time they reestablished their footing and their pride.

Chapter Text

 

3. Chapter Three

 

“It’s a local, four-pronged parliamentary system that reports back to the crown,” Micah clarified, looking pointedly at Seaton Edlen.

The man just wouldn’t listen.

“There will be four members on Region 20’s council. Together, and as long as it coincides with the crown, they will make decisions for the entire region and all its villages. There will be an overseer as a fifth member, preferably a ranked military member, which relays the ongoing proceedings of the region back to the capital. This entails proactivity and necessary control for the crown.”

He had them sitting at a long table underneath a cheap, flimsy marquee.

The scene was a bit comical, just as Micah intended it to be, with royalty and stiff-browed aristocrats balancing on uneven and coarse benches. Their hair and clothing flapped in the breeze, practically a personal offense. Muriel’s lips hadn’t moved from their permanent scowl and he continuously patted down his hair each time the warm breeze came by.

Josiah, naturally, appeared in his element. The wind played favorites, blowing lightly in his face and leaving his appearance unruffled and undisturbed. He had his attention firmly fixated on Micah, as if obsessively receiving his fill after their long time apart. However, Micah wouldn’t doubt the man’s attention drifted fondly toward the residents who were rehanging decorations for Agni in the distance.

Such a smug, arrogant bastard.

“It sounds as if you want to create another Royal Council,” Muriel remarked.

Judging from the spite in Muriel’s tone, Micah assumed that the man was petulant over the thought of another council.

No matter. 

“Yes and no. These members would be ordinary men and women who hold their own jobs. I’m afraid they couldn’t possibly come close to matching your extraordinary skillsets, Councilman Muriel.” He delivered the sarcasm so quick, Muriel struggled to comprehend if it was truly a compliment. Kai exhaled behind him. “There will not be any social class segregations that we see with our own Royal Council. Creating such a discord will certainly cause the residents in Region 20 to rebel against positions of power if they detect inequality.”

He stood in front of the table with his hands clasped behind his back and his posture tall and strong.

Just as he’d reassured Kai, he was able to put on a mask of resolve and conceal his fatigue. However, if he were honest with himself, he felt a renowned wave of energy addressing the group of nobles. He was in his element. Especially when it involved a passion of his.  

Curing the outskirt regions.

His eyes flittered across the group of royal guards standing uncomfortably in the sun. There was a mix between Igni and Unda, some familiar faces, and all dressed formally with their combative navy or crimson robes.

Talia, Kalama, and Lieutenant Warren also stood a distance away yet close enough to be a part of their summit. Kai stood at Micah’s back, asserting his position as both his advisor and sword. So far, the nobles had enough respect to let Micah speak and explain his propositions. He supposed, with Dushyanta’s web no longer intact, he’d face more levelheaded competition from the nobles.

“This sounds particularly similar to the Terra Kingdom’s government system,” Calder observed from his position at the table.

The Igni councilwoman, Shararah, whom Micah just learned was Josiah’s aunt, nodded alongside Calder. “Much.”

“They were my inspiration.”

Seaton made a startled noise in his throat. “Are you trying to integrate a democracy for Concordia, Your Highness?”

Before Micah responded, he paused to consider the question.

It was true. He was partial toward a democracy similar to that of the Terra Kingdom. Such thoughts were treason to the crown, however. Integrating a democracy for Concordia would spell disaster, especially so early in the game. “Explain to me, please, how a panel of citizens, who report back to the crown, is considered a democracy?”

“It is much like our Royal Council, Seaton,” Shararah said, looking pointedly at said man.

“But a panel who makes independent decisions. There will be no king or prince at their table,” Seaton countered.

“Their independent decisions will be within the crown’s conventions.” The councilwoman straightened, offering Seaton a stern look. “Prince Ezra has spelled it out quite clearly. The outer regions need order. The crown cannot rule from so far away. They cannot sit at the table. Therefore, there needs to be properly-screened representatives to speak for not only the monarchy, but also for their residents.”

“Ezra.”

Micah stilled unnaturally when Agni addressed him.

The man’s voice crawled down his spine and alighted something entirely primitive in his mind.

“Lord Josiah,” he addressed back after a lengthy pause. He looked at the man, watching as the Igni king straightened and placed a hand on the table. “You have a question?”

Josiah’s lips parted into a small smile. Something passed knowingly between him and Micah. Their own game. Their own secrets. It was exhilarating. “You mentioned that this panel will be ordinary men and women who, unfortunately, lack Councilman Muriel’s extraordinary skillsets.” Muriel snarled across the table. “Just who are they? How do you propose they would do a respectable job and not rally the citizens here to form a rebellion against the crown?”

“An excellent question, Lord Josiah.” Micah ignored the fond expression Shararah levelled at both him and Josiah. He knew she was angling toward a union between him and his uncle. So far, Micah had avoided her attempts at conversation. “These four individuals are pillars of society. Upstanding citizens who have the best interests of the residents in mind, as well as the intentions of abiding by the crown. In addition to the military overseer, there will be four sectors: the jail, the school, the clinic, and the children’s shelter.”

“Children’s shelter?” Calder inquired.

Micah withheld the temptation to look over his shoulder at Kai.

It was a pity Calder was the one to ask.

“It is a shelter we have designed to house all the homeless children here. It will provide shelter, food, and education. Entirely funded by the kingdom.” He licked his bottom lip. “Construction has already started.”

Realization crossed Calder’s expression before it closed off a moment later. A muscle tightened around the king’s mouth, such a miniscule sign only Micah would see and recognize for what it was. Calder was upset. He would have just realized he’d signed off on the work order and the materials request. Calder wouldn’t have known what they were for unless Micah properly communicated with him.

“A children’s shelter,” Shararah repeated thoughtfully. “That is a very ingenious idea…” she trailed off, her appreciation expressed heavily through her eyes. “Funded by Concordia, you say?”

“Yes,” Micah responded briskly. He avoided looking in his father’s direction. “Concordia has a steady stream of assets. Children are the foundations of our future. If we can build a solid groundwork in the outskirt regions, perhaps we can break the cycle of high crime, high poverty. Perhaps, through education and nurture, we can create a better future for the Igni citizens here.”

Seaton and Muriel appeared closed off, but they did not argue over the concept.

“You mentioned there are several deaths of young ones here,” Seaton remarked lowly. “Such an occurrence is unheard of at the capital. Even in Region 5, there is no such thing as children milling around the streets, hungry, in danger. Without parents.” He pursed his lips, glancing briefly at his son before refocusing on Micah. “I believe this shelter is a step in the right direction, Your Highness.”  

Well wasn’t that a surprise.

Micah examined the Edlen patriarch, noting the steely eyes and the stubborn tilt to his mouth. Seaton may agree with the children’s shelter, but that did not change a thing between them.

“The question is what kind of administration will we decree at the shelter?”

Ah,” Micah couldn’t withhold his exhalation of wry humor.

To Seaton, it was about brainwashing. Manipulation of young minds. Micah could see, as soon as Seaton posed the question, Calder and Muriel straightened in their seats, intrigued with the notion of turning such a hostile region into compliant soldiers to the capital. They would do so through the children.

If they wanted such a turnout, they should have thought of the shelter before Micah.

This was his project.

“I’ve thought long and hard about that question myself, Councilman Seaton.” He looked at Kalama and motioned her forward. “Kalama, why don’t you come up here?”

All eyes turned in her direction, immediately putting the girl on edge. She looked pointedly at Micah, as if silently requesting he keep her out of this. Always a vindictive spirit himself, Micah remained unmoved with her silent plea. He nodded firmly, motioning for her once again.

She did so reluctantly, trying to hide how uncomfortable she was at the spotlight.

“I mentioned the four-pronged parliamentary system for Region 20’s council,” Micah said, gesturing for Kalama to stand at his side. “I’ve asked Kalama to represent the children’s shelter and sit on the council. It took me several days, but I eventually got her to agree.” He reached over and nearly placed a hand on her shoulder. Physical contact was not appropriate with this audience. “Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, Kalama?”

She laughed once, a bitter-sort of laugh.

“There isn’t much to say that you’d be very interested in,” she started hesitantly at their unemotional stares. “Just that I was one of those homeless children that His Highness mentioned earlier. I also look after three children that were once on the streets.” She glanced at him, finding solace in his proximity. She kept her eyes on him. “I agree full heartedly with what Prince Ezra said earlier. The children are the future and they should have access to the tools that will make them successful.”

Micah smiled.

“Kalama is a bright, intelligent woman.” He turned back to the councilmembers and royalty. He caught Josiah’s unimpressed eyes, imagining the orange eyes a vibrant blood-orange instead. His chest lurched. “The wellbeing of the children is always her most prevalent concern. That, in itself, is what makes her qualified.”

The Unda noblemen all looked amongst each other, not arguing, not expressing their distaste, but silently agreeing they would have further conversation about this matter.

Micah did not doubt he would have to defend his choices behind closed doors, away from so many prying ears and eyes.

“And Lieutenant Warren,” Micah continued despite the tension. He nodded toward the military man who stood at attention at the end of the marquee. “Has done a remarkable job with Region 20’s security. Since he and his men arrived here, the crime rate has dropped significantly. He has expressed an interest staying here to provide the residents with his services. There—”

A loud crash suddenly sounded, creating enough disturbance to cut Micah off abruptly.    

Everyone’s attention turned toward the bazaar as two men collided into a vendor’s cart, causing it to topple over. Goods scattered all over the dusty ground and the vendor cursed the men until his face turned bright red. The two men did not stay behind to offer apologies. Rather, they sprinted away from the pursuing military men.

All heads turned back to Micah and gazed at him warily.

He chuckled.

He had to at the irony.

“At any rate…” he trailed off and turned around to look at Kai. The blond-haired man rose a single eyebrow, doing a remarkable job with an impassive, unreadable guise. He and Lieutenant Warren must have traded notes. “I believe Lieutenant Warren would make an excellent overseer. And you’ve met Kalama, the pillar for the children’s shelter. I think its due time to take our tour and introduce you to the other three anticipated council members.”  

“The clinic, the school, and the jail?” Shararah inquired. “Will we also see the progress of the children’s shelter?”

“We will,” Micah confirmed, watching as they stood. “We will visit all the areas the capital funded during the reconstruction.”

He waited patiently until everyone stood from the benches. The three individuals Micah intended to introduce were all aware of their impending arrival. The school would be their last stop, as it sat a distance away from the heart of the village.

“A very intriguing proposal,” Calder murmured as he saddled next to Micah. “I would have preferred not to be kept in the dark for so long, however.” He and Micah stepped outside the marquee and into the bright, relentless sun. Sweat beaded across Calder’s forehead, the man no doubt uncomfortable with the unfamiliar heat. “Especially regarding the children’s shelter.”

“I didn’t think you would care, to be honest,” Micah replied distantly. He and Calder walked a distance in front of the others. “Region 20 isn’t exactly an area the rest of Concordia wants to think about.”

“Yet, you are their saving grace?”

Micah slowed and gazed around at all the residents lingering nearby. Several eyed the group both resentfully and attentively as they went about their business. “I’d like to think I’ve done a little bit of good since my arrival.”

“And you have,” Calder agreed. “Your intentions are in the right place, Ezra.”

“But?” Micah inquired, sensing there was more.

Calder smiled thinly. “We will discuss the but at a later date.” He touched Micah’s shoulder and glanced at the others as they approached. “Now it is time for you to demonstrate how much your influence here has improved their way of living.” The way he looked around the bazaar instantly told Micah he did not like it here.

At all.

Micah would have to be convincing if he wanted Region 20 to continue receiving such large funding and attention from the crown.

Turning around, he caught Agni’s eyes and stubbornly turned his cheek. “The clinic was in need of new supplies and new equipment. We are still a long way from the sophistication of other regions, but we now have enough supplies to treat the most common of aliments.” He engaged them all as he faced them, all the while shuffling backwards, towards the clinic.

“Only one Healer?” Shararah asked.

“One head Healer, two under his training. At least here. Other villages in Region 20 may not be as fortunate,” Micah answered. “Hopefully, with the proposed programs focusing on education, we can create a larger interest in prominent positions like healing.”

He turned his back on the group and led them through the village. They left behind the majority of the vendors and entered the area with a maze of stores and shacks that barely stood straight. Most the structures were just an ugly and beaten-down façade to what lay beneath it. Nothing about Region 20 was modern and sleek.

It was all just ruins.

A white-clad figure suddenly exploded from the steps of the clinic.

Micah paused momentarily, his pupils dilating as he identified the pepper-grey hair and heavy beard.

Without warning, Micah broke apart from the others and sprinted after the man. The fleeing Igni had no chance. Micah caught up to him and inserted his foot between the man’s strides, instantly causing him to trip. Grabbing the Healer around the elbow, Micah forcibly kept the unbalanced man on his feet.

He threw an arm around Jasjot’s shoulders and tugged him close. “What…” Micah started with deadly calm. “Are you doing, Healer Jasjot? I certainly hope you weren’t running away from your clinic.”

“Is everything alright, Ezra?” Calder called, remaining a distance away.

Micah glanced over his shoulder, nodding once. “Just one moment.”

“Micah,” Jasjot greeted uneasily. His entire body remained stiff underneath Micah’s hold. “I—I went out for one minute!” he exclaimed loudly, perhaps loud enough for the nobles to hear. Gold eyes glanced at Micah and then back to his feet in shame. “When I returned, the whole place was destroyed. All the equipment, the tonics—they were wrecked. I—I can’t show this! I couldn’t face you! The kings!”

“Shh,” Micah hushed, tightening his hold. A sense of unease crawled down his back at the words. He could feel it in the air. Standing in the shade of surrounding shacks and ruins, the tendrils of forbidding reached out with wicked anticipation. Something was not right. “Do you have any idea who could have done this?”

“None, none,” the man whimpered, looking like a mess. “I couldn’t face you. It’s all gone. Even my research!”

“Yes, I understand.” Micah released a low breath, loosening his hold from the man. “Can you at least speak to the king?”

The expression that crossed Jasjot’s face appeared aghast and horrified. “No.”

The man was traumatized. Silently, Micah examined him through apathetic eyes. Despite the current circumstances, he realized the destruction of the clinic was a fortunate event. He did not appreciate Jasjot’s weak frame of mind during a crisis. Having such an individual sit on the council for Region 20 would prove detrimental.

“Go.” Micah released the man and nudged him forward, back toward the direction he ran earlier. “I don’t want to see you.”

“But—”

Go,” Micah hissed.

Jasjot balked, uncertainty creasing his features as he stared at Micah’s cruel eyes. In the end, his self-preservation won out. He turned his heel and retreated from the area like a kicked animal.

Micah watched him go for a moment, disgust curling his belly.

He hated weak men.

Turning back around, he confidently approached the group of impatient and curious nobles. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to see the progression of the clinic today.” He pitched his voice lower and adopted a concerned expression. “Unfortunately, a very sad, tragic incident has occurred in Healer Jasjot’s family. He had to lock down the clinic to attend and comfort his children.”

Several pairs of eyes stared back at him, unbelieving, amused.

Micah couldn’t really care a less if they believed him or not.  

“The jail is our next destination,” he continued casually, airily. He clapped his hands once and took a few steps back, encouraging them to follow. Behind the group of aristocrats, he noticed the royal guards trail leisurely behind, listening just as intently as his intended audience. “When we first arrived here, Region 20 had three holding cells. Three. Perhaps it was a fitting number for a village without proper security and military influence, but certainly not appropriate for a village with controlled safekeeping.”

“You have expanded the jail, then?” Agni inquired.

“We have,” Micah confirmed.

“And the jail’s administrative processes?” Agni continued his questions. “How have you improved the booking of criminals? The records? Are you collecting more information now than in the past?”

“All good questions, Lord Josiah,” Micah murmured quietly, turning his back to the group as he led them into the back alleyways. Agni undoubtedly sensed the displeasure amongst the nobles after the situation at the clinic. In turn, he was steering the conversation back toward more optimistic topics. “After our expansion, there are twenty cells. We now keep written, documented records of each inmate. After a certain number of offenses, we will transfer the individual to Region 0.”

“As it should be, as it should have been,” Agni commented. “And your warden is on the proposed council for Region 20?”

Micah tried not to appreciate Agni’s questions, not when he was irritated at the god for his elusive ways these past several weeks. Nonetheless, this was simply a game.

A masquerade.

He could play this game as well as Agni.

“We reassigned the position of the warden after discovering the previous warden’s personal ties with… undesirable activities in the village,” Micah informed. “The new warden, Warden Elli, is actually a recommended name from Lieutenant Warren. I have the utmost confidence in Elli’s morality and his sense of justice. He would make a very good addition to the council.”

He turned the corner and started down a set of steep stairs.

The others followed with Calder and Seaton Edlen just behind Micah.

“We have quite a few men in here who are scheduled to be transferred to Region 0,” Micah said. “I say this as a warning to their… crass behavior when we get inside.”

He pushed open the door to the jail, hit first with the silence and the stillness. An unnatural calm suspended in the atmosphere as Micah stepped inside the jail. Time seemed to stop, halt, and drag down his senses. His attention went first to the cells, realizing they were all empty. All the doors were open, ajar, and revealing the starkness and the void.

A man lay sprawled across his desk, his face pressed against strewn papers. Drool escaped from the corner of his mouth and the scent of alcohol scented the air heavily. Micah discerned the bottle of booze tilted on its side, dripping to the ground. For several moments, the only sound to break the uncomfortable silence was the steady drip of alcohol splattering resolutely against the cement floor.

“Did he also have a sad, tragic occurrence with his family?” Muriel inquired spitefully.

Micah did not respond.

He advanced further into the room.

“Warden Elli is not a drinker, Your Majesty,” Lieutenant Warren defended, having just caught sight of inside the jail. The normally stone-faced military man then shuffled over to Josiah.  “Lord Josiah, please, he—”

“We are not questioning your referrals, Lieutenant,” Agni reassured shortly. “However, even the strongest of men cave under pressure at times. Alcohol is often seen as an escape.”

The unconscious warden was not the target of Agni’s shrewd words, but rather centralized specifically on Micah. The younger man’s spine stiffened at the remark, recognizing it for what it was, yet he kept his attention on his warden. Reaching out, he pressed two fingers against the pulse point, searching for any signs of irregularities.

While the man’s pulse was slow, Micah could not detect any immediate danger to the warden.

A warm flush crawled down his neck, burning his skin.

He’d like to think anger was the cause of his body’s reaction, yet he knew it to be mortification. Not only at the current situation, but more so out of Agni’s comment. Agni had to draw the parallel to the situation he observed with Micah to this… this… pathetic scene. Agni truly had no idea what Micah suffered through. He had no idea what haunted him. At night, he may reach for the bottle, but it did not influence his capability or duties during the day.

“Warden Elli is not a drinker,” Kalama said firmly, repeating Lieutenant Warren’s words.

Reluctantly realizing there was more to this than the obvious, Micah reached for the bottle and waved the opening underneath his nose. Frowning, he gazed at the label.

“What is it?” Kai’s voice broke the small, quiet chatter amongst the nobles.

“Well…” Micah set down the bottle. “Label says its whiskey.” He looked up, gazing specifically at Kai. “But it smells like shit.”

“Language,” Calder reprimanded sharply.

Oh yes, royals never swore in public, did they? Just as they never wore facial hair or ratty clothing.

Micah turned his shoulder on his father, gazing listlessly at the open cell doors and imagining all the criminals running amok. Some of them were dangerous men. If they were loose, there was utmost certainty they wouldn’t stop their bad habits. If anything, they’d be spiteful of their incarceration. Moreover, Warden Elli was in trouble and he would need a Healer.

A Healer who’d run from his clinic.

Whatever he drank, whatever he was forced to drink, was laced with something else.

He couldn’t even look at the nobles, feeling weighed down by his setbacks. His failures. Even if this was a result of someone trying to sabotage Micah, he should have been more prepared. He should have anticipated such an event and acted accordingly.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Agni stiffen.

The man then turned, locking eyes with Micah. Crimson stained the orange eyes of high Igni nobility, a sign of Agni’s dominance over his human vessel. The god wore an expression Micah had yet to see from him.

“Your Highness!”

The shrill screech was enough to draw everyone’s immediate attention. Micah watched in trepidation as Karen—the female vendor who sold bread to him every morning—stumbled down the staircase and forced her way into the jail. Several guards hesitated at allowing her entrance, however, upon seeing the deep horror entrenched on every line on her face, they moved aside.

“The children’s shelter! It’s—”

His stomach plummeted.

Micah charged forward, desperation causing him to plow the entire group over in his haste. He took the stairs out of the jail three at a time, his heart lurching up his throat and nearly causing him to vomit. As he crossed through the streets, he saw the black smoke.

No, no, no!

Anything but this! Not the shelter.

Not—

He pushed his way through a throng of flabbergasted and motionless spectators, staring in dismay as the wood-framed shelter went up in bright orange flames. A noxious smoke churned its way to the sky, appearing like a dark, ominous hand reaching to spread its taint.

Micah stumbled through the crowd and slowly approached the burning shelter. Just feet from the burning building, a fire stood on its own. In big, fire-lit letters, the word Cur’ sprawled clearly across the hard desert ground, evidently produced by a fire accelerant. Micah moved closer in a daze, not understanding, not realizing someone could be so cold.

He inhaled.

Exhaled.

Suddenly, an earsplitting scream resonated, somehow sounding muffled, small, amongst the roaring flames. Micah stilled, staring in complete horror as a small body sprinted from the burning shelter, set entirely in flame. It was a child. Entirely consumed with fire. Appearing like a skeleton animated by the pits of purgatory.

Micah whirled toward the crowd.

 “Kai!” he cried desperately.

Kai was already approaching, never straying too far.

His single eye was wide, passionate as he stared at the child. As he lifted his arms and conjured his Element, Micah could see his hands trembling with unsuppressed emotion. Just over his shoulder, in the crowd, Micah witnessed the moment Kalama realized the child running aflame was hers. In that exact moment, as her expression broke, his broke too, shattering something within him. Them. She screamed jarringly in denial and sprinted toward her child.

Her screams were hoarse and loud, delirious and unstable.

Micah intercepted her, nearly tackled her.

Screaming at the top of her lungs, she lashed out at him. Her hands and fingernails caught his face with blind fear, desperate to get to her suffering child. Ignoring the stinging across his face, Micah wrapped his arms around her, caging her against his chest.

He held her close as Kai’s Element came upon command and washed the destruction.

Once the ground beneath Micah’s boots grew saturated with water, he turned to glance at the shelter and the child. Both were no longer burning, but rather black with char. He did not fight against Kalama as she ripped from his arms with a moan, stumbling toward the child who no longer moved.

Numbly, he watched as she sobbed over the prone, burned figure.

Just down the way, Micah focused on Talia, whom surveyed the perimeter of the burned shelter with slow, determined strides. She stopped suddenly with a sharp intake of breath. A hand went over her mouth as she stared into the rubble. Emotion swelled in her eyes and she hurriedly turned away to hide her vulnerability. She could not stop the vomit that expelled from her mouth and landed on the ground.

Micah approached quickly, already anticipating the scene that would greet him.

In the black mess of the shelter, four child corpses lay.

A small, familiar dagger lay abandoned next to one.

They were the children from that morning. The ones who’d watched as Micah and Kai cleared the sand from the construction zone. Once the site cleared, Micah distinctively remembered watching as they had all jumped into the pit and played in the wooden maze of the shelter, undoubtedly excited to have their home returned to them. The military men, all assigned posts for the day, had left the site. Just as well, the volunteers who worked on the shelter were instructed to take the day off.

The site would have been unsupervised.

The children would have been playing, perhaps underground, when the fire started, hoping to escape.

Only, they hadn’t made it out of the wooden maze in time.

Beneath the smell of burn, Micah could detect the faint odor of fire accelerator. The fire would have consumed the shelter quickly.

Kalama stumbled her way over, gazing into the pit of charred structure. The cries that erupted from her mouth were both painful to listen to and heartbreaking. She avoided Talia’s attempts to hold her back as she stumbled—fell— into the foundation of the smoking shelter. She crawled her way through the warm debris, sobbing like a dying animal.

Micah couldn’t watch anymore.

He wandered away from the shelter, away from the spectators, and lingered near the earth-carved ‘cur’. Despite Kai putting out the fire, the blackened words still stood out against the ground, glaringly defiantly at anyone who cared to look.

His boots traced over the curve of the ‘c’ and contemplated the distant desert. His hard expression broke momentarily as Kalama’s cries reached into the depths of his soul and pulled out a prodigious amount of wretchedness. His mouth trembled and tears welled up in his eyes before he forced them away with careful control.

“Micah.”

Continuing to stare ahead at the distant sun, Micah grunted as Kai positioned himself at his side.

“I will find out who did this,” Edlen said with utmost promise.

Micah grunted again.

Licking his lips, he considered the distance. “Do me a favor, Kai?”

Kai pressed his shoulder against Micah’s as he faced the opposite direction. Perhaps to offer comfort, perhaps to seek comfort.  

“Yes.”

“Tell them I appreciate their willingness to come to Region 20 under my mandate,” Micah said numbly, detached from all emotion. “Tell them I understand the outcome of today’s events and will willingly go to the capital after I finish… some loose ends here. They should leave. They shouldn’t have to stay here any longer.”

The blond-haired aristocrat turned his head marginally, his eye piercing through Micah’s averted face. “And where will you be when I deliver this message to the king and his councilmembers?”

Micah offered a grimace-like smile. “Here.”

Kai did not appear satisfied. “Micah…” he trailed off, a loss for words. Really, there was nothing to say. “I will tell King Calder and his men. Just promise me you won’t do anything foolish.”

As Edlen left his side, Micah slowly began his journey south.

Gradually, Kalama’s deafening cries grew distant, nearly unheard. He walked beneath the sweltering sun, feeling his bones begin to melt and his skin cook underneath such unforgiving heat.

It reminded him he was alive.

 

* * * *

 

Kai approached the group of grim-faced nobles.

The cries Kalama emitted were enough to break through the forbidding silence of not just the aristocrats, but also the general public of spectators. They all stared at the weeping young woman with wide, disbelieving eyes. No one even murmured to their neighbor to express the disbelief they all undoubtedly shared.

For just a moment, Kai felt a spasm of unrestrained anger toward these people. One of them was responsible for this. One of them took Micah’s generosity and threw it back in his face like an ungrateful brat. But it was more than that. It was treason. It was an offense against royalty. The word ‘cur’ was proof enough of the ill intentions.

Kai would find the perpetrator.

While he would like the chance to gut the individual himself, the thought of Egan doing it appealed to him so much more. 

“Your Majesty,” Kai greeted, bowing low at the waist before Calder. “His Highness would like to deliver a message.”

Calder glanced over Kai’s shoulder, evidently looking at Micah. “And what does my son wish to say, Mr. Edlen?”

Kai ignored the attention of his father and focused exclusively on the king. “He would like to express his deepest gratitude to you and the councilmembers who have made the trip to Region 20. Consequently, he understands today’s events reveal little of his…” Kai trailed off, having trouble saying it, only because he knew how hard Micah had worked to get this far. “He realized the consequences of today’s events showed little in way of improvement for the region. Therefore, he has agreed to go back to the capital.”

Calder stared back at him, his bright blue eyes critical. Shadowed. “Then where is my son going?”

Kai gave in to temptation and glanced over his shoulder, spying Egan walking deeper south, deeper into the desert.

He turned back to Calder, nodding nonchalantly as if the scene were commonplace. “His Highness requires a bit of time to gather his thoughts,” he replied robotically. “He urges you and the councilmembers to return to the capital. He will be a day—maybe only hours—behind you as he ties up loose ends.”

Calder remained unreadable as he gazed first at his son, then to the debris of the children’s shelter, then back to Kai. He’d be torn between his duty as king and his duty as a father. As his attention fell on the public, the king’s eyes darkened with blatant dislike. Despite his expressionless face, Kai knew the king—all the capital residents—despised the outer regions.

Kai had been there once.

He’d scorned the outer regions along with the rest of them despite his complete naivety on the subject. While he remained reluctant to appreciate places like Region 20, he did acknowledge their calamity.

It wasn’t their fault for their way of living.

Egan recognized this with unbridled passion and a remarkable sense of determination to fix it. And he had. He’d fixed many things here since his stay. Today had been Micah’s chance to show the king and the council that continuous attention could cure a tattered place like Region 20. Unfortunately, all it took was a chain of unfortunate events to unravel everything that he’d accomplished.   

Calder turned his shoulder on Kai and motioned the Igni king forward. “Lord Josiah.”

Kai glanced at Lord Josiah, looking away abruptly when they locked eyes. Something about the man set Kai’s teeth on edge. It reminded of him of Micah’s presence several weeks ago.

His hair stood on end, his instincts told him to run, to fight.

It was entirely primitive.

More than accustomed to unusual and unexplainable sensations these past several weeks, Kai successfully tempered the instinct. He was not an animal. Nor would he succumb to the alien impressions that plagued him since…

Since.

His attention honed on the councilmembers as Calder and Josiah traded hushed words. Councilwoman Shararah was the only one who revealed just how perturbed she was over the display. She gazed after Micah before refocusing on Kalama. A disapproving, yet sympathetic tension coiled around her eyes and mouth, proving she actually possessed emotion.

Muriel and Seaton were far too impassive to be normal, which only meant they were hiding a fair amount of emotion.  

At the rear of the group, the royal guards were murmuring amongst each other, their expressions ranging from shock to explicit disbelief. Kai noted they crossed loyalty boundaries. The navy-clad guards strayed toward the crimson-clad guards and vice versa.

It was an uncommon sight.  

“We will wait for Ezra,” Calder announced calmly, gazing specifically at Kai. “He has until tomorrow to tie up loose ends. I cannot imagine how much more he is required to do here, but if he needs us, we will be on the train.” He made a move to leave, but paused and turned back around, his expression steely. “I expect him on the train at noon. Do you understand this, Mr. Edlen?”

Kai remained unperturbed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Calder nodded sharply before turning his heel and abruptly leaving the scene. His eyes lingered once more on his distant son, his expression dark, darkening even further as he glanced at the residents who moved and granted him the space he decreed. The royal guards immediately flocked the king, settling into a formation that reminded Kai of the importance to formulate one for Egan.

Lord Josiah and the others trailed slowly behind, leaving only one man behind.

“I have no energy to speak with you right now,” Kai said formally, not even looking at his father. “I believe what was said back at the palace those many weeks ago is more than enough for now.”

Egan had barred his father from visiting during his recovery. And despite Kai’s disagreement over the decision, he’d respected Egan for looking out for him. Truthfully, he hadn’t wanted to speak to Seaton. He’d felt built-up rage over what his father had done. However, he acknowledged the necessity of getting the conversation out of the way. Moving on was essential to recovery.

He had let Seaton explain his side of the story.

He’d heard his father’s excuses.  

As anticipated, Seaton hid behind the story of the Noir Users. He said he was under their adverse influence and his actions were a result of such a curse. He said he hadn’t remembered anything but fire, lies, and coercion. Kai learned from Egan that the god of enmity was responsible for the capital’s unrest. The entity had the ability to bring out an individual’s antipathy. Meaning, his father was truly a dark soul.

Dushyanta hadn’t invented such darkness. He had just accentuated it.

Seaton wasn’t one to apologize more than once, however.

He confessed he wasn’t in his right mind when he sent Kai to Region 20. Yet, that didn’t change anything. It didn’t change Seaton’s determination to usurp the prince. It didn’t change the fact that he was disappointed in his son for choosing to side with a biracial radical opposed to his family.

“Is this truly what you want to stand behind, Kai?” Seaton inquired tensely. He stopped next to Kai and gazed at the ruins of the children’s shelter. Talia was attempting to escort Kalama from the debris. “The prince wanted nothing more than to help these people. It should speak volumes that they rebuked assistance from a biracial man.”

“Race has nothing to do with it,” Kai countered icily.

“Oh?” Seaton raised a gloved hand and motioned toward the derogatory term sprawled into the desert ground. “The evidence speaks volumes.” He paused, dropping his hand at his side. “You stand behind him like his sword. Like my cousin’s son stands at attention for the king. Like a hound. You were destined for more than just royalty’s weapon.”

He was speaking of Conway Edlen, the captain of King Calder’s royal guard. Conway and his immediate family were coined the poor man’s Edlen. Conway’s family criticized royal court and opted to serve as royal guards and military men. While their name still loaned them a semblance of political power, most aristocrats recognized which Edlens truly held the power.

Even if Conway Edlen held no political power, Egan certainly seemed impressed with him, Kai mused bitterly.

Micah had expressed his fondness for his distant cousin a few times since arriving to Region 20.

“I don’t plan on being his weapon,” Kai responded levelly. “I also don’t anticipate being his political aide.” Seaton shifted and Kai turned to face him. He made sure he had his father’s complete attention before offering a sinister smile. “I plan to be his right-hand man,” he whispered. “Even King Calder doesn’t have a right hand, someone he relies on politically, physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

A pinched expression crossed Seaton’s face. “A man like that…” He inclined his head toward Egan’s distancing form. “Stands alone. Just like his father and uncle. He will make you believe you hold such a position, but let this be a warning to you, my son.” Seaton stepped closer. “Monarchs view everyone as disposable.”

With that, Seaton turned his heel.

“Not Ezra,” Kai spoke deliberately at his turned back. “Maybe that’s why you fail to see his importance. He isn’t like his predecessors. It frightens you, simply because you cannot predict his actions.”

“It frightens me because he will destroy what his predecessors have worked so hard to achieve,” Seaton clarified. He did not turn around, but his voice was clear. “Your mother misses you. You should pay her a visit when you arrive back at the capital.”

Without another word, Seaton disappeared into the crowd, following his majesty’s footsteps.

Kai frowned as he turned back toward the shelter. Talia stood solitarily to the side of the structure, meeting Kai’s gaze with a somber, defeated stare. Kalama remained inside the charred shelter, her cries quieted, yet her grief just as loud and overwhelming. Directing his attention to the south, Kai could barely make out Egan’s form.

He was running again.

Yet this time, Kai did not blame him.

He rubbed his jaw and contemplated the distant figure. He’d have to keep an eye on the time. If Egan’s absence stretched longer than an hour, he would have to retrieve him. The desert was unbearable this time of year—during Agni’s creation. Egan wouldn’t last long without collapsing from heat exhaustion.

Dropping his hand from his face, Kai angrily advanced toward the group of spectators.

“Enough gawking!” he yelled. “If you want to stay behind and help with the cleanup, then do so. If you don’t, you have no business loitering about.” His single eye surveyed the solemn faces of the men and women, finding his tongue heavy with distaste. “Someone amongst you just ruined your chances of redemption. For those of you who are not too cowardly, perhaps you would like to divulge any information about the individual responsible for today.”

Many of them shied away and retreated toward the heart of the village.

A couple of them stayed behind and gazed at Kai, waiting for instruction.

He withheld a sigh at the dismissal numbers. He realized, no matter how hard someone like Egan tried to correct it, this lifestyle was engrained in their very core. No matter what race wore the jeweled crown on their head, these men and women detested royalty. They wanted no help from the crown. No assistance. No pity. It would take several generations to shake the influence into oblivion.

Until then, Kai firmly believed they’d meet all sorts of dead ends and obstacles.

Even Egan would have to acknowledge that during his walk of defeat.

Chapter Text

4. Chapter Four

 

It was hot.

Micah closed his eyes against the strong sun, feeling the sweat glide steadily across his eyelids and down his cheeks like tears. His tunic was damp. His scarf a soggy mess around his neck. He felt weak, he decided, weak enough to collapse to the ground and sleep indefinitely.

What he felt now was a similar sensation that usually accompanied one too many drinks of whiskey.

He loved it. That ambiguous, cloudy, and near deafening sensation that numbed his senses and dulled emotions. His vision grew cloudy and his head swelled with the sweet, tantalizing sensation of near-unconsciousness. A state of comatose. Unfeeling and entirely jaded to the events in his proximity.

In his nostrils, he could still smell the smoke, the ruin, and the sickening smell of burnt flesh.

Micah stopped and planted his boots in the dirt as he felt a bubble of hysteria.

Perhaps not as comatose as he had hoped.

He opened his eyes and gazed into the distance, not seeing anything. The heat mirage rippled the air opposite of him, creasing the sky into water-like wrinkles. For just a moment, a lightened dome blinked into existence, spreading across the entirety of Region 20’s main village. Micah squinted at the red-gold shield, wondering what he was seeing.

He did not panic.

It wasn’t like Dushyanta’s web or the net in Yama’s realm.

No, it felt… protective.

Embracing. Encompassing.

He blinked the dry heat from his eyes and the dome was gone. Squinting, he tried to see it again, failing several tries, but succeeding on his fifth attempt. The shield-like structure was aflame and blinking in and out of existence, as if it were failing or crumbling. Small coils of fire danced across the dome, immediately suggesting it was Agni’s work.

Micah stared uncomprehendingly, wondering how long ago Agni had erected it.

And to what ends?

Was this the reason why Micah hadn’t seen any gods? Any Syphons or daemons during his stay in Region 20?

God, he felt like an idiot when the pieces came together.

It must have taken a great deal of strength for Agni to construct the shield, so much so that he’d be forced to leave his mortal vessel and dwell in his own realm. The shield would explain why he hadn’t bothered Micah since his arrival here. He was protecting him from a distance, allotting him time to focus without any interference. Of course, such protection came at a cost.

Micah knew gods lost a significant amount of power when they dwelled in the mortal realm.

To construct this…

Micah sighed and slumped his shoulders, not quite grasping what he felt over Agni’s protectiveness.  

He didn’t know what he felt about anything, really.

Hooking his thumbs into the waistband of his trousers, he stood unsteadily, staring down at the cracked ground with unfocused eyes. Underneath the blissful suffering from the heat, the unmistakable sense of melancholy entwined through his limbs, weighing him down heavily. No matter how far he walked, no matter how much he planned to drink, he knew he’d never be able to escape the hollowness of today’s events. It would haunt him forever. The child running. The child screaming, reaching desperately for any sort of help. The small, juvenile corpses. The moment Kalama’s soul shattered. So visibly. So wretchedly.

He’d tried to do good. He really had.

He’d felt good by trying to help.

“Some individuals are incapable of being saved,” a voice whispered behind him. “That goes for all entities, mortal and immortal alike.”

Micah closed his eyes as the voice washed over him. Did the heat conjure the voice? If he turned around, would he see the golden-haired god with blood-orange eyes standing behind him? Or would it be an illusion? Beneath the blazing heat, the rune across his neck stung at a higher temperature than his surroundings, warning him of the very real presence.

They had to stop meeting like this.

They had to stop meeting when Micah was at his lowest.

“It’s entrenched so entirely in their conscience. The anger, the injustice,” Agni continued. “They immense themselves in the thrill and the pleasure of their immorality. Nothing good can reach these men. They don’t want it to.”

Micah opened his eyes but did not turn around. “You must think it silly,” he murmured with harsh and bitter amusement. He ran a trembling hand through his sweaty hair, feeling the normally loose waves tighten into curls at the moisture. He dropped his hand, flicking the sweat from his fingers and dotting the ground like raindrops. Almost instantaneously, the heat absorbed the perspiration.

“And what do you imagine I find silly, Ezra?”

He sucked in a deep breath before pivoting.

The god stood closer than Micah anticipated. Not close enough to touch, yet close enough to bring attention to his incorporeal form. The distant town was discernable through Agni’s ghostly torso, a clear sign the entity did not have much strength.

“You must think it silly that I put so much of myself into trying to help people.”

Though Agni was in his incorporeal form, his eyes had not lost their intensity.

They gazed into Micah with silent concentration.

Unnerved with Agni’s silence, Micah shifted, becoming further lightheaded, further deranged. “This is probably some sort of lesson you wanted me to experience. To learn from. To grow from.” He shook his head humorlessly, his boot finding difficulty making contact with the ground. “This is what happens when I stoop so low and help these mortal animals. These cattle. The consequences of trying too hard to—”

Trailing off, he looked into the distance to control his struggling emotions.

“Your empathy for the voiceless is what I admire most about you.”

His entire body stilled.

The words were nearly inaudible and Micah wondered if he truly heard them. Such a sentiment out of the mouth of Agni seemed absurd. He looked up at the entity, surprised to find the man regarding the high sun.  

“Your reputation will eventual proceed you, child,” Agni continued, his pupils mere slits as he basked in the sun like a serpent. “Cruelty, power. You must remember you’re continuously being watched. Tested. And not just by me.” A soft smile crossed the god’s lips. “That delicious malevolence you prefer to stifle is the second thing I admire most about you. It is essential you demonstrate it when warranted. Otherwise, you will not gain a reputation that allows you to speak for the voiceless, but rather be a victim of failed endeavors.”

Somehow, through the foggy mess that was Micah’s mind, Agni’s words sunk in deep.

“What you’re doing now… hiding like a damaged child…” Agni whispered icily, “Is not extracting that necessary malevolence.”

Micah exhaled but did not say anything further. He had no energy to rebuke Agni’s dark tendrils of seduction. He understood perfectly what the fire god was insinuating. He just didn’t know if he had the drive to extract the sort of violence Agni had in mind.

What did it matter?

As if reading his mind, the entity was suddenly upon him.

Despite being incorporeal, Agni still possessed an overwhelming presence. Micah found himself stumbling backward, surprised, before falling to the ground in subconscious reverence. His cheeks scorched when he landed on his arse. Gazing up at the leering god, he struggled to reobtain his wits. This prodigious side of Agni wasn’t the same side the god had presented when they’d been intimate. No. This time, the pendant across Micah’s chest seared in response to the aura Agni displayed. 

“This is a deplorable side to you, Ezra,” Agni declared softly, but with a hint of threat. “Show me your true self.”

Micah couldn’t stop himself.

“I thought I was the god of death,” he whispered brokenly. “Aren’t I supposed to prevent things like this? Don’t I have the power?”

Agni seemed taken aback at the question.

His expression altered into something akin to surprise before he quelled it into impassiveness.

“You are the god of death.” The man crouched down opposite of Micah, intentionally putting himself on equal ground. “You are the bringer of death, not the preventer of death. Mortals will never worship nor admire you. They will hate you. Despise and curse you. They will go through great lengths to avoid you, forever paralyzed by their fear. Yet, when they need someone the most, in their time of stark vulnerability and forced isolation, only you have the ability to provide them with the sanctuary they seek. Will you forgive them for their iniquities and return it with sympathy?”

Micah released a shaky breath and gazed intensely at the god. “Are you suggesting I should?”

Agni smiled sinfully. “No,” he crooned. “That is not for me to decide, nor suggest. Each soul is unique and only you hold the power to forgive or to curse into eternal damnation. I consider that a beautiful and raw power, far more impressive than preventing death on borrowed time. In the end, death is always victorious.”

And then he was gone, leaving Micah shaken, struggling to comprehend the fear he felt.

He realized the fear had been lying dormant even before Agni made an appearance. Micah was afraid of something, he realized. Terrified. Something ignited a sharp, nearly crushing sense of trepidation.

Once he identified the source, it left him breathless and disturbed.  

He was afraid of failure.

Of being a failure.

 

* * * *

 

A knock sounded at his door.

Perched at the end of his bed, Micah glanced solemnly at the ticking clock across the room, noting the early morning. He inhaled deeply, his eyes most likely bloodshot from the lack of sleep. At least he’d bathed and changed his clothing. He’d shaved his face and throat until his skin was bare and smooth. He’d cut his hair short and parted it to the side, surprised it had grown so long these past few months.

He was presentable.

Appearances were important, especially when he felt unhinged.

“Ezra.”

Micah twitched at Kai’s tentative voice, which came muffled from behind the door.

He hardly ever addressed him as Ezra.

Calmly reaching for his fingerless gloves, Micah fastened them around his scarred hands just as the second knock sounded. “Coming,” he called neutrally. He took another deep breath, fighting the urge to feel something amidst the black nothingness.

After he returned from his walk in the desert yesterday, he’d helped Kai and the others burn what remained of the children, giving them an informal burial as they sent them off to Agni. Kai had informed him that Calder and the others were waiting for him on the train and requested his presence in the morning by noon. They would then return to the capital.

Micah hadn’t been surprised at the turnout.

Perhaps it was for the best.

Standing, he approached the door and opened it. Just over Edlen’s shoulder, Micah caught sight of three royal guards standing against the far wall with professional postures and expressionless facades. They were crimson-clad. Josiah’s men and unknowns to Micah.

“I would apologize for waking you, but…” Kai gave Micah’s put-together appearance a once over, already knowing he hadn’t slept. Just the same, the blond-haired man didn’t look especially rested either.

“Have you come to escort me to the train?” Micah inquired cynically.

Edlen’s face closed off and his shoulders stiffened. “Not yet,” he said. “Perhaps it’s best if I show you.”

Micah remained unimpressed. He finished fastening his sword holster around his torso before hurriedly exiting his rooms. “Where is Talia?” he asked sharply, fearing this had to do with his missing female comrade who normally followed Kai like a shadow.

“She is already at the scene.”

“The scene.”

Kai sighed at Micah’s apparent irritation. “Just—just follow me.”

The two walked up the steps of the underground hostel, Josiah’s guards following quickly at their heels. Micah had to anticipate what he was about to see. All the evidence was there as Kai led him into the cool morning of the bazaar and toward the direction of the demolished children’s shelter. Between the early morning hour and the gravity across Edlen’s face…. Micah knew.

He knew.  

Yet, as they finally rounded the corner to the shelter, it was still a disquieting scene.

Seeing her.

Micah approached Kalama with a heavy chest.

She hung limply by a noose that she’d tied around the last remaining support beams, choosing to forever cement her fate with the children’s shelter. Her feet were bare, her head free from headscarves. Free from any barriers, Micah could only marvel how young she was. How young she was to shoulder the responsibility of all the homeless children in Region 20.

He’d put that weight there.

With his attentions and responsibilities torn between the wellbeing of Region 20 and his duties back at the capital, he didn’t have the opportunity to run the shelter. He’d seen Kalama as a suitable replacement with her kindheartedness and genuine need to help the children. She hadn’t wanted the position, yet she’d relented under his persistence.

Withdrawing his sword, Micah approached her amongst the blackened debris.

There were several people already crowding the site. Micah paid them no heed as he stopped next to Talia, looking at his teammate. The young woman gazed up at Kalama, stubbornly avoiding Micah’s request for eye contact. Evidence of tear tracks dried on her cheeks, her eyes now unseeing and haunted. In her hand, she clutched the small dagger she’d extracted from the little girl’s burned remains.

Without hesitating further, Micah brought back his sword and severed the noose.

With one arm, he awkwardly caught Kalama’s falling body. He dropped his sword in front of Talia, trusting she’d pick it up for him. Using his free arm, he cradled Kalama in his arms and carried her toward the burial platform they’d constructed yesterday for the children. Gently, he lay her down amongst the children’s ashes, staring at her tranquil expression.

He remembered Agni’s words from yesterday. About the unprecedented fear mortals had for death.

Yet, they always managed to appear so peaceful.

He wondered who was there to greet her during her time of need.

He turned, catching Kai’s attention, before focusing on the trio of crimson-clad guards. “Are any of you fire Elementals?”

They all turned toward the youngest-looking guard, who then stepped forward with a short bow. “Your Highness.”

Micah motioned him forward as he grabbed unused firewood from the day before. Layering it around her prone figure, he tried to push away the consuming emptiness. It wasn’t just an overcast of nothingness. He knew if he toppled inside the void lingering just beneath the surface, he wouldn’t be able to find his way back.

Micah still possessed a low, smoldering fire of determination to continue forward. Yet… he acknowledged the hovering defeat.

Once he succumbed, he would truly be a sorry sight.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed a log of firewood that had fallen from Micah’s arms. The young guard bent low to gather more wood, his expression pinched and drawn as he helped build the cremation pyre. The rest of the spectators were standing silently, their eyes glazed over with exhaustion and disbelief. Even Kai stood solitarily to the side, his face slack and void of any emotion.

“I think that should suffice, Your Highness,” the guard ventured hesitantly as Micah mindlessly added more logs to the pyre. When he caught Micah’s eyes, he hurriedly looked down in obedience. “Shall I light the pyre?”

“Please.”

Micah watched as the young man faced Kalama and hovered uncertainly for a moment. With a gloved hand, he reached over and placed his fingers against the crown of her head. With an awkward throat clear, he glanced back at Micah, as if seeking permission. As Micah nodded sharply, the guard turned back around and gazed down at Kalama.

“Well,” he paused and licked his lips. “Um. Just from what I’ve seen, you were a gentle and compassionate soul.”

Micah’s eyes flew up in surprise as the guard spoke.

He hadn’t anticipated nor expected the man to offer last words, especially when the guard had never interacted with Kalama. As much as Micah wanted to send her a farewell himself, he was incapable of speech. The words remained elusive, lost. Seeing Kalama hang uselessly from the burned children’s shelter truly struck a chord in him that he could not shake.

Nonetheless, through his surprise, he was appreciative of the guard to offer Kalama a proper farewell. It was mere proof of Kalama’s good nature and nurture if someone, who’d watched from afar, could properly identify her character in less than a day.

“We are gathered here to pray to Agni and ask him to light your way into his kingdom.” The guard removed his hand from her forehead and unclasped his glove. “May he welcome you home where he reunites you with your children.” The naked fingers caressed the wood. In their fumbling wake, small sparks of fire lit, gradually spreading to the rest of the firewood.

The crimson-clad guard took a step back as the funeral pyre went up in flame.

Numbly, Micah wondered if all the individuals assembled were praying to Agni. He wondered, as the black smoke reached for the sky, if Agni heard the silent prayers and steadily grew stronger.

As he looked up, away from the fire and toward the spectators, he noticed the man in question standing in the back of the group, surrounded by the rest of his royal guard. The man’s eyes watched the smoke climb into the sky, his face revealing nothing but calm observation. The orange gaze then dropped to Micah ensnaring him through the flames.

Kalama’s soul was already gone.

Most likely escaping this rotten place as soon as she took her last breath.

When he cut Kalama down, her body was already dark, no longer surrounded by the bright, silvery sheen Micah had grown accustomed to seeing around mortals. Funerals were pointless, merely an effort to comfort those left behind. Micah wondered, with Yama, the reaper, gone all these years, who reaped the souls? Where did the souls of mortals go? Despite the current religion indicating their chosen god would escort them to the afterlife, Micah wasn’t so sure.

He’d asked Agni once about the afterlife and the man had sidestepped the question.

But that was before Micah knew his purpose. It was before Yama. Before any talk of the god of death.

“Micah—er—Your Highness.”

Realizing he stared long enough at Josiah, Micah tore his eyes from the Igni king and focused on the two men who’d tentatively approached him. Keegan’s little brothers. Though, by little, one was Micah’s age, the other a year or two younger. Both possessed echoes of Keegan in their faces, enough that it almost hurt to look at them.

“Warden Eli is recovering,” the elder brother informed hesitantly. “Fortunately, he was only forced to consume a sedative, nothing lethal.” He licked his lips and glanced at Kalama’s burning corpse. “I know now isn’t the best time, but… but a few of the other men and I have managed to find the individual responsible for yesterday’s—”

“Where?” Micah demanded, his attention honing sharply. He rose from the depths of fogginess and finally saw clarity. “Who?”

His raised voice was enough to snare Kai’s quick observation.

The two Flint brothers looked at one another. “We are keeping him in one of the holding cells. There is probably more than just one person involved in the string of… crimes yesterday, but he was the figurehead.”

As Micah made a move to leave the funeral, he paused, turning back around and holding up a hand toward Josiah’s royal guards. “Do not follow me.” He looked at the Flint brothers. “No one follows.”

Reluctant understanding crossed their features. Before they had a chance to comment or argue, Micah stormed away. He was aware of Kai following at his heels, soon joined by Talia. He did not tell them to stay behind with the others. They had a right to accompany him. He trusted them enough to see him at his worse.

The jail never seemed so far.

A dark enthusiasm wiggled beneath his skin, undoubtedly causing the exaggerated distance. He crossed through the housing district and zigzagged through the tight alleyways, Talia and Kai persistently at his heels.

You are the bringer of death.

As his pulse raced in tune with Agni’s whispered reverence, Micah eagerly made his way down the jail steps. He threw open the door, immediately alerting the two men inside. They stood at attention, shifting closer to the only closed jail cell. Upon seeing Micah, they performed an awkward and fumbling bow. His attention did not linger on them long. Stalking the length of the empty cells, he approached the occupied cell with eager and coiled limbs.

As he neared and rounded the corner to see the perpetrator inside, he realized he should have foreseen the man’s identity.

“Bren,” Micah acknowledged taciturnly.

The young man inside the jail cocked his head to the side, utterly unbothered by Micah’s presence. “A visit from his royal highness.” A twisted smile crossed his split lips. “I feel honored.”

“You’ll be feeling a lot more than honored when I’m through with you,” Micah retorted calmly. He turned to the two Igni men as Bren laughed lowly. “The keys to his cell?” Once they dropped them into his palm, he nodded toward the door. “Please stand guard. I don’t want anyone inside the jail until I’m through.”

The two men didn’t even bat a lash at the insinuations.

They obeyed Micah’s command immediately, closing the door behind them.

Once they were alone, Micah turned back around, observing Bren. Clearly, those responsible for wrangling Bren into custody found it meaningless to practice restraint. Already, the young man’s face was an array of blues and purples. Swollen. Fat. Dried blood seeped from his nose. His lips were rather gruesome, swollen, and split.

“Looks as if you’ve made yourself quite a few enemies,” Micah murmured knowingly. “Rather ironic, considering you were aiming to reestablish your position of alpha in this village.” He stepped closer to the bars, watching through unimpressed eyes as Bren stood up and approached him. “Ruling through fear will always backfire.”

“And ruling with a placid hand will get you exactly where you find yourself now, Egan.”

Micah smiled unkindly. “Is this all about what happened between you and I? Were you so sore after losing against me that you sought to destroy your village’s progress? To erase the potential funding of the crown?”

“To kill defenseless and innocent children?” Talia interrupted sharply, her tone as bitter and as angry as Micah ever remembered.

Bren scowled. “I hadn’t known there were children inside the shelter at the time!” His hard expression softened somewhat, appearing a bit disturbed as he looked at Talia and then to Micah. “It wasn’t my intention to kill a bunch of kids!”

Micah was hardly empathetic. “But it happened anyway,” he surmised. “You were so focused on revenge that you couldn’t see properly.” He inched even closer to the bars, staring up at Bren’s cruel expression. “You claim my leadership led me to where we are now, but I disagree. I think your cowardice is why we are in the positions we now find each other. You couldn’t face me alone. Instead, you waited until I was most distracted and acted behind the scenes.”

Curling a hand against one of the iron bars, Bren leaned forward.

“This has nothing to do with petty revenge. This has everything to do with the crown upon your head. And there are more of us than you think.” He tightened his hold on the bar, appearing fervent. “We don’t want royalty here. We don’t want you brainwashing our people. We will never bow submissively to the crown. Our pride in the Igni Empire remains true and strong.”

Micah took a startled step back as if struck.

Realization made his world spin.

While trying to determine the cause for such segregation, he focused exclusively on the high nobility as the source. He’d blamed the royal court as the sole reason for the social bias amongst Concordia. It suddenly dawned on him that the Igni pride wasn’t just about pride. They were also to blame for their position. Refusing change, refusing help.

It was all there, this whole time.

He hadn’t seen it. He’d turned a blind eye when others tried to explain it. He’d scoffed and claimed the Igni people were a stubborn breed of men and women who needed a creative hand to heal their community. He’d tried to go about it differently, but in the end, they still saw him as royalty. They still saw him as a potential threat to this… this lackluster life they stubbornly clung to like sorry losers.

Anger coursed through him.

“You think…” Micah trailed off, breathing heavily. “You think that by keeping people bitter and resentful over a war that transpired two decades ago will restore your culture? Your pride?” Micah snarled. “That kind of backwards thinking is partly why the Igni people find it so difficult to conform into this new kingdom. You, and those who follow you, are to be blamed for your current position.”

“Maybe.” Bren dropped his hand from the bars and studied Micah’s openly enraged expression. “But we’re still holding on to hope.”

“For what?” Micah demanded loudly, rearing closer to the bars. “The war is over! You think Josiah will gather you all together and escort you back to the Igni Empire? It’s destroyed. He has no money. No resources. Things would be worse off there than you have it here.”

“Josiah is just as much to blame as the king.”

Micah stared, unable to believe what he was hearing. He knew, without a doubt, that Bren was telling the truth. It was an echo of words spoken before. Undoubtedly, others shared his thought process. They believed, if they were to succumb to the crown and accept their help, they’d admit defeat. They believed their culture would be in ruins and they would no longer be true Igni citizens.

Granted, others did not feel this way.

Unfortunately, Bren, and people like Bren, ruined it for everyone.  

Micah shook his head, laughing quietly underneath his breath.

His eyes turned distant. His mind quiet.

Until—

Realization settled.

“This isn’t just about the crown,” Micah drawled to the ground. He looked up at Bren. “Is it?” A slow, distasteful smirk tightened his mouth unnaturally. “This isn’t about race. This isn’t about culture and pride. This is about flawed humanity and the brokenness of men.”

Bren stared at him unhappily from the other side of the bars.

“I’m certain there are some men who follow that logic—about refuting the crown in fear they will lose their individuality and culture. Perhaps you use that as a mantra to gain followers. To gain some sort of power. But in all actuality, this is about you. This is about you thriving when things are miserable and broken. You profit off the suffering. You have power and control over the less fortunate.” Micah narrowed his eyes. “If I healed this community, where would that leave a failure like yourself?”

True anger rippled across Bren’s face before he turned his shoulder and retreated to the bench.

He sat down calmly, looking back up at Micah with a certain haughtiness.

“There is nothing you can do to me, Egan,” he taunted. “You can’t touch me. You will send me to Region 0, but my reach will still be here. If you killed me, not only will it prove me right about the crown, to all those people out there, but you also want to lead by example. You and your ideals are all about redeeming Region 20. You want to make this a law-abiding society.”

Kai made a noise in his throat, but Micah held up a hand, silencing him while keeping his attention on Bren.

“Perhaps you should have paid more attention to monarchy regulations, Bren. But you never were a clever mind in school, were you?” With an air of tranquility, Micah glanced down at the key in his palm. After turning the piece of metal around with contemplation, he slipped it into the lock and turned it over. Micah looked up at Bren as he pushed open the door. “Stand up.”

Bren’s smugness died. He searched Micah’s face for any sign of intentions, but found nothing but cold impassiveness.

Stand up,” Micah whispered icily, the temperature dropping significantly in the jail.

Trying to recover his confidence, Bren stood up with a scoff and approached Micah. He used his height to gaze down at Micah, closing the distance. Micah did not move back. He leaned forward, matching Bren’s intimidation. Behind him, Kai and Talia both shifted earnestly, their bodies undoubtedly coiled and ready.

Micah reached up and curled a fist around the back of Bren’s shirt. “Let’s take a walk.”

“Don’t touch me, cur!” Bren’s muscles tensed and he threw an elbow in Micah’s direction.

Ducking, Micah hardly had time to react as Kai charged forward and collided with Bren. He held his tongue, allowing Kai an opportunity to take his frustrations out on the man. Watching as Kai slammed Bren against the holding cells, Micah imagined he had quite a bit of pent up anger. Kai’s water Element curled around his fist as he punched the Igni man across the face.

The tendril of water then encircled Bren’s neck, no doubt tightening and cutting off the man’s oxygen intake.

Backhanding Bren’s suffocating face, Kai proceeded to shove him towards Micah. When Bren collapsed to his knees, gasping and grabbing at his throat, Kai released his Element around his throat. “He’ll be happy to take a walk with you, Your Highness.”

Micah hardly waited for the man to recover. Fisting Bren’s tunic once again, he hauled the Igni to his feet, forcing him to walk. The man grunted in pain, his facial injuries no doubt burning with Kai’s most recent treatment. Micah found he cared little for what Bren felt. Perhaps the man should have thought about the repercussions after setting five children on fire.

Talia opened the door for him, her expression resolute as she watched Bren narrowly. Micah’s attention lingered on her for a moment, seeing nothing but a hollow anger reflected in her eyes.

In her hand, she continued to clutch the dagger with white knuckles.

The Igni men outside the door all moved away as Micah exited with his prisoner. He held on to the man as they climbed the stairs. Ignoring Josiah’s royal guards, who’d all moved closer to the jail upon his entrance, Micah escorted Bren through the maze of derelict shacks. Each step closer to the bazaar, the more the anticipation grew. Yet, despite the anticipation, he felt calmly resolute. 

“You can’t kill me,” Bren snarled, tensing his muscles once more.

Micah did not respond.

He merely tightened his fingers around the nape of the man’s neck in warning.

They shuffled into the strong, morning sunlight. Already, the warmth engulfed him, burning the soles of his boots and flushing his whole body with heat. Upon his arrival at the marketplace, several residents gradually turned their attentions on to him and his captive. Their distraction and immobility then drew more and more of an audience. A certain hush began to fall across the bazaar.

Planting his boots firmly in the middle of the marketplace, Micah pulled Bren backward by the neck, forcing him down until his lips hovered tauntingly close to the man’s ear. “One of the stupidest things you can do is challenge me,” he whispered. “I always make it my priority to rise up to that challenge and surmount.”

Bren hissed between his teeth, spit and blood escaping his lips.

“Talia.”

Micah held out a hand to the woman at his side. Unsurprisingly, it was not his sword that she slapped against his palm, but rather the small blade she’d gifted the little Igni girl who’d perished in the flames.

Talia knew him well.  

Curling his fingers around the dagger, Micah wasted no time in embedding it into Bren’s neck. The man collapsed in shock, pain, yet Micah held on to his neck tightly, forcing him to remain upright. He watched in morbid fascination as blood trickled down his neck, a small, teasing glimpse to what they’d see when he withdrew the dagger.

The silvery soul flickered, as if in shock, and Micah nearly tasted it on his tongue.

Delicious.

His eyes fluttered closed momentarily, tasting the lifelong experiences of this mortal in his hold. There was pain. Suffering. Young and innocent years tarnished with corruption and hate. Teenage years twisted with peer pressure and the desire to stand apart. The hate and the cruelty started young, chilled into sadism in his adult years. He—

No.

This wasn’t about the soul.

Micah forced his eyes open, forced his senses to mute. Instead, he focused on how his muscles strained from holding Bren’s struggling body upright. When he was sure he garnered as much attention from the onlookers as possible, he withdrew the dagger.  

Just as he anticipated, the blood fountained morbidly. Micah lifted his leg and kicked Bren in the back, sending him stumbling further into the bazaar, his spray of blood a gruesome scene. The Igni man flopped unceremoniously to the ground, flinching and twitching. Onlookers scrambled backward as the blood sprayed towards them, their eyes wide, but their mouths silent to any objections.

Micah slowly advanced closer to Bren’s dying form. He hardly batted a lash as the blood stained his boots.

Gazing down at the man, he offered a cold smile, hoping he’d be the last thing Bren witnessed before he took his last breath.

And indeed, he was.

He was aware of the very last time those lungs expanded with oxygen. He could smell, taste, and feel when Bren no longer existed on this realm. He watched, fascinated, as the silvery sheen of mortal soul sunk to the ground, never to be seen again. A part of him wanted to reach out, to touch, and to hold. He wanted to. Needed it, almost. Yet, he knew the instinct was Yama’s parasite within him.

Not his own.

Or was it?

Was his inert ability, as the new god of death, finally stimulated?

Forcing the thought away, Micah stepped over Bren’s body. “It’s time for us to leave.”

Talia and Kai, understanding his words, both stepped at his side. He handed Talia the bloody dagger. She accepted it without hesitation and passed him his discarded sword. Reaching beyond his shoulder, he sheathed the weapon in his back holster, eyeing the group of people standing further up the way.

Josiah.

They locked gazes for just a moment, but a moment was all Micah needed to see the wicked and dark approval in those guarded eyes.

Necessary malevolence, indeed.

“Micah…”

“What is it, Kai?” Micah inquired tiredly, not in the mood for any questions, any consolations.

“Look.”

Rather grudgingly, Micah pivoted, looking first to Kai, who motioned back toward the bazaar. Expecting another disappointing scene, Micah was surprised when he turned and witnessed several men and women falling to their knees before him. Their actions spurred others to follow suit. It was like a wave. A very graceful wave as the residents of Region 20 all followed their fellow neighbors, kneeling to the hard, unforgiving ground and bowing down low. The scene sent a disbelieving chill down Micah’s spine, goose bumps raising across his arms.

Everyone.

Everyone was on his or her knees.

All in reverence to Micah.

He stared silently, feeling a prodigious emotion growing painfully in his throat.

He didn’t know why he felt choked up, seeing them all submit to him, acknowledging him as their leader. Perhaps it was because he never thought he’d see such a gesture from Region 20’s residents. No matter how hard he worked to improve their way of living, no matter how much energy and time he spent trying to heal their community, he never imagined such total submission.

“We will never bow submissively to the crown. Our pride in the Igni Empire remains true and strong.”

Bren’s words came back to him with startling clarity. Yet, Micah witnessed the other side of Bren.

The side that appreciated and acknowledged his dedication and his sacrifices.

Micah gazed once more across the entire marketplace, not one man or woman standing in defiance. He nodded once, his features twisting, before he abruptly turned his heel and continued toward the train that would bring him back to the capital.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

5. Chapter Five

 

Balancing the dagger atop two fingers, Talia held it steady before twirling it lazily. She stared at it fiercely, though the weapon was the furthest thing from her thoughts. Located in the middle of the train, with the royal guards and the noblemen, she could hear men speak distantly across the corridor. Sparse laughter broke the mindless humdrum of the train from time to time.

All of it seemed mundane and ordinary.

Back to normal.

Normalcy, however, was impossible to obtain with her mind back in Region 20. Her chest ached. Something hollow and ugly pulled at her stomach, forcing her to remember the children. To remember Adara and the girl’s youthful but shy and determined spirit. The way she’d followed Talia around. The way she vowed to be just like her.

Her face crumbled before she slammed the dagger into the nightstand, embedding the blade deep into the wood.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Talia stared resolutely at the weapon. “No.”

She was more than aware of Edlen’s observation as he leaned against the doorway to their shared room. While she and Kai got along far better than they had in the past, she could not imagine having a heart to heart conversation with Kai Edlen. Conversing with Edlen worked better in the form of a sword duel.

“If you don’t want to talk to me about it, then maybe you should speak to Micah. He’s better at these things.”

‘These things’ clearly meant sentimental discussions. Emotional sharing. She didn’t know if she would consider Micah a good discusser of feelings, though he often times pushed aside his discomfort over such topics in order to cater to his teammates.

Talia scoffed. “He probably feels worse than I do.” She glanced at him. “Then both of us.”

Just remembering the expression on Micah’s face when it had all happened… when he screamed hoarsely for Kai to help…

She’d never seen him look so naked. So young.

She’d never forget it.

Talia looked back at the dagger and perched resolutely at the edge of her bed. Uneasy. Micah had poured everything he had into Region 20. She couldn’t imagine the pain, the utter humiliation he had felt. To have it taken away in a matter of minutes in front of his father, in front of the Royal Council. Moreover, what happened at the children’s shelter… with what happened with Kalama…

Micah had held a genuine affection for Kalama and her gentle character.

Despite her surroundings, she’d been pure.

Kalama must have reminded Micah of Keegan Flint.

“Even so, I think both of you would benefit from a conversation.”  

“Is that what you did?” she inquired mulishly. “After what happened during your captivity in Region 20?”

“I spoke with him briefly when I arrived back at the capital, yes,” Kai replied neutrally. “Probably not as much as I should have.”

Talia did not comment. She only released a skeptical noise from her throat that indicated her complete agreement of that underestimation. Several weeks ago, after the team’s mission to Region 20’s wastelands, both Kai and Micah returned as a different person. Haunted. Jaded. Weary. Even before the events of today, Talia keenly observed the cautious way they held themselves.

It was as if they were ready for a sudden, unexpected assault.

Perhaps living on ones toes was essential for a successful warrior. Talia didn’t particularly like the sensation, though she would eventually learn to live with it. She had to.

Her eyes unfocused.

“How can there be people like him?” she asked quietly.

Edlen pushed off from the doorframe and entered the room.

He sat across from her on his own cot. “People like Bren?”

“No. People like Micah.”

She looked at him then, tracing over the sharp, handsome planes of his face and the eyepatch. Kai never spoke about the wounds he sustained. He never spoke about the captivity. The team all acknowledged he probably never would. But to hear he didn’t even speak to Micah about it made Talia unsettled. Perhaps she could talk to Micah about that.

Confusion lined Kai’s face. “Micah?”

“This isn’t his first time experiencing the cruelty of the world. Of human nature,” she started. “He was raised around it. Yet, despite constantly being thwarted, he still has the ambition to fix things that are ugly and broken and sometimes irredeemable.” Talia shook her head, feeling a sense of bitterness. “I can’t fathom being in his place and trying to move on from this. To face the councilmembers with a proud spine.”

Kai laughed under his breath, earning Talia’s sharp disapproval.

“That is why he’s the prince of Concordia and we’re not.” He sobered a moment later. His grin faltered. “I understand what you mean. He has resiliency, but he’s not a god, Talia. He’ll experience some moments of doubt and failure. That’s why we—you and I— have a job to keep him going and to remind him of his purpose.”

“You and I,” she repeated dismally. “You coin that as if we are a pair.”

“You and I are a pair,” Kai echoed back, appearing vindictively amused at her sourness. “Unless, of course, you’ve decided to go back to the academy when we return to the capital. You missed one term, but I’m sure your daddy can reenroll you next term—”

“No,” Talia informed sharply. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Mutual competition lightened both their gazes as they looked at the other.

Talia reluctantly accepted Kai was a better right-hand man for Micah, but that didn’t mean she had to like it, nor make things easy for him. Kai was a good warrior and an Elemental. Moreover, he also had political ties and experience. While Talia could only offer Micah protection and firm loyalty, she would not underestimate her worth. Micah never indicated he found her abilities lacking or unwelcomed.

“It’s going to be a long trip back to the capital,” he mused, looking at her. He then moved and collapsed on the bed, kicking his boots up on the cot. “Wake me when we arrive, will you?”

Talia stared at his side profile as he closed his eye. “That’s another two days away.”

“Can’t think of anything better to do with the time.”

Indeed. It would be an agonizing trip back.

She sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the distant chatter of the men. As soon as they boarded the train, King Calder had pulled Micah toward the front compartments where the two, along with Lord Josiah, would stay. The distance concerned her, simply because she’d been used to keeping close to Micah these past several weeks.

She was sure Kai felt the same, no matter his unruffled persona.

“It bothers me,” she confessed quietly to Kai’s unassuming figure. Wincing, she realized she was being more sentimental than she’d intended. Yet, Edlen was approachable and they related to one another. “Out of everything that had happened, I’m most frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t kill him. I wanted to be the one to drive the blade into his neck. I don’t think I have ever experienced something quite like that.”

“What bothers you more?” Kai kept his expression serene and his eye closed. “The fact you couldn’t kill him or the fact that you experienced a new level of bloodlust?”

Talia furrowed her brows at the question.

Her eyes then flickered over to the embedded dagger.

Slowly, she reached toward the small dagger. “I’m more upset with the fact that it wasn’t me who held the dagger.” Her gloved finger caressed the blade with a single, solemn finger. “And I’m more upset with the fact that I’m not as bothered as I should be about this change. I feel so different from when I first traveled to Region 20.”

Edlen remained silent for quite some time, as if he were contemplating something similar. “We all have to change sometime, Talia.” He interlocked his hands upon his chest and settled more firmly against his pillows. “It’s best not to fight so hard to prevent such a change. Change, after all, may be for the best.”

“And if it’s not?”

Kai inhaled deeply. “Well, then we’re damned, aren’t we, Talia?”

His words were haunted, echoing disconcertingly through her already hollow state of mind.

 

 

* * * *

 

The snow.

Childishly, Micah reached towards the navy-blue sky and the silver sun, recollecting a time when he’d come here before. Glittering snow stretched as far as the eye could see. Black trees stood out against the navy backdrop, their branches naked and elegant in their twists and turns. Evergreens, with full and long needles, filled in the space between their sparse neighbors, creating fathomable shadows.

In the deep haziness of his mind, he couldn’t quite remember why this place was familiar. Everything was unreal, fragmented and lost to him. A red-gold net flashed in the sky when he blinked, sending shockwaves of hatred through his body.

Barren trees. Cold. Nakedness. Suffering. Gods.

He exhaled sharply, primitively, when the whispering pleas reached his ears.

Slowly, the haze in his mind retreated, and the remembrance returned with startling clarity.

It wasn’t falling snowflakes.

He lowered his arm quickly and arched away from the falling ashes that would sear his skin. Hunkering down low, like an animal, he noticed similar silhouettes mirroring his posture in the distant trees. Through the twisted branches, he observed their cowering forms and their skittishness. He could sense their eternal damnation and suffering as if it were his own.

He was back here.

He was back here!

Back in Yama’s realm.

He didn’t want to be back here again!

Micah ruled the cold, yet his freezing limbs indicated that was not the case here. The cold ruled him and tormented him through his several layers of flesh and muscle. It grabbed hold of his bones with fervent and relentless agony.

In a panic, his chest constricted.

He whimpered.

Snow crunched audibly to his left. He snapped his neck around, staring first into the distance before dropping his gaze to the snow-covered ground. Five round shadows appeared on the ground near his naked feet. The shadows moved oddly, he noted. They did not expand outward, but rather emerged from the snow. Growing higher, taller. Gradually, five pair of glowing white eyes appeared on each shadow as they took the form of child-like silhouettes.

Micah watched as the children’s forms progressively took shape, revealing finer details than just solid masses of shadow. Their skin lightened to a dark charcoal and began to flake. Crisp. Smolder. Pieces of char sprinkled the snow at their tiny feet. The smell of ripe, burned flesh stung the inside of Micah’s nostrils as he stared at their haunted, darkly sorrowful expressions.

Just over their shoulders, he noticed movement.

A dark form of a woman, suspended high into the air, jerked her way over to him and the children. Her feet hung limply, as did her arms. With her head drooped down, and long hair veiling her features, she zigzagged eerily from the trees and into the clearing. Micah cried out in denial, watching as Kalama’s limbs swung with each jarring movement.

She’d been across the clearing, and then suddenly, she appeared in front of him with impossible speed.

Micah stumbled backward, her toes gracing his upturned face. He bemoaned and turned to run, only, he collided with a lithe form.

Gathering himself, he stared at his mother.

Ember appeared across from him, standing serenely atop the radiant snow. Unlike the others in this realm, her skin was not shadowed, but rather celestial-like. A subtle glow settled around her features as she gazed at him with a small, bitter smile. There was brokenness in her eyes. Slowly, she tipped back her head and looked at the falling ashes. Before Micah could stutter out a warning against those ashes, Ember’s mouth opened wide.

With her head tilted toward the sky, her mouth continued to gape open and widen further. Micah watched in horror as her jaw cracked audibly and the skin split at the corners of her lips. Clawed fingers curled around the corners of her mouth before a dark silhouette pulled itself from the depths of her throat.

Ember’s body shuddered and jerked oddly, her neck now snapped backwards and useless. She was just one fathomable portal for the entity inside her. Flames suddenly appeared at her feet and ran up her legs, engulfing her whole. The entity emerging from her mouth laughed victoriously.

Micah screamed against the horror.

“Ezra!”

Micah jerked awake with a breathless gasp.

Across the train compartment, his father blatantly stared at him. A thick layer of frost coated the compartment windows and Micah shuddered, feeling ill. Across the aisle, he also felt Agni’s attention on him. Mortification burned his cheeks and he nodded carelessly and chuckled bitterly.

“Just a nightmare,” he explained tightly.

And it was.

He hadn’t gone back to the reaper’s realm. It was just a dream. A very unsettling dream.

Calder remained staring, utterly unconvinced. He currently perched over some parchments but sat back in his seat as he observed Micah. “Josiah,” he started airily. “Would you please give us a—”

Anticipating the plea for privacy, Agni rose from his seat before Calder finished his request. Micah kept his eyes focused straight ahead, intentionally avoiding eye contact as Agni walked down the aisle. The man paused briefly next to his seat, his presence both unrelenting and heady. Micah suffered out a shaky exhalation, his eyes finding his father and holding on to the man’s gaze.

The lesser of two evils, he supposed.

Agni tsked mockingly at Micah’s avoidance before continuing past and bringing the subtle heat with him.

Once the Igni lord slithered silently from the common area, Calder shifted and motioned him forward.  

“Please sit.”

The frost claiming Micah’s window gradually thawed as he stood from his seat. He and his father currently occupied a comfortable common area designed strictly for royalty. On the other side of the door, where Josiah disappeared through, housed three large sleeping quarters, all secluded and privy only for the crown.

While Agni and Calder weren’t his preferred company for the trip back to the capital, at least the noblemen dwelled away from them. He didn’t want to see the Edlen brothers or deal with Shararah’s blunt political maneuvers regarding a betrothal with Josiah.    

He approached Calder, realizing being alone in the man’s presence was not a common occurrence.

Settling into the ridiculously plush chair, he patiently surveyed his father.

Calder made to reach for his drink of whiskey, but his hand hovered over the tumbler once he observed the large chunk of ice. He offered Micah a pointed look, in which Micah returned innocuously.

Calder’s hand withdrew and he stood with a small smile. “Would you like a drink?”

“Yes, please,” Micah replied stiffly, watching from the corner of his eye as Calder approached a cart.

Forcing himself to remain uninterested, he observed Calder as his father bent down low to open the cabinet door. Inside the cart were an array of bottles. Full and so very ready for the picking. Micah shifted uneasily, eagerly. Leaning forward in his chair, he clasped his hands together, trying not to think about tonight.

That dream—

The suffering.

He was just so tired.

Now that he was going back to his glided cage with hungry predators circling the perimeter, Micah needed sleep. In order for that to happen, he would gladly take intoxicated unconsciousness.

“I would ask how you’re fairing, though I believe I know the answer.” Calder set out two crystal tumblers and poured a generous amount of liquor into each. “Any leader who strives so hard to succeed, and only ends up failing, takes a long while to lick his wounds.”

“I did not fail,” Micah corrected stubbornly. “I was thwarted. By a meager, simple, and cowardly little man.”

“Whom you soon executed to make an example out of.”

“Do you disagree with my methods?” Micah inquired stonily. “He committed treason to the crown. He was responsible for the deaths of five innocent children. And by proxy, he was responsible for the death of a woman who wanted nothing more than to help the less fortunate.”

Calder screwed on the top of the bottle before setting it down and grabbing hold of the two tumblers. He turned back around, his face entirely inexpressive as he offered Micah a glass.

“Your methods were brutal. Hardly diplomatic as you bled him like a stuck pig in the public streets. Treason to the crown is typically handled through public hanging by palace guards.” Calder sat across from him, and before Micah could argue, the man lifted his glass in a mock toast. “But I don’t disagree with your methods. I applaud them. And so did Region 20 as a whole.”

Micah curled his own fingers around the tumbler, a welcoming and familiar sensation. He mimicked his father and sipped, allowing the burn to soothe him as it slid down his throat and warmed his cold, hollow chest. “It was a quick and rather merciful death,” he said, gazing unseeingly at his glass. “He deserved more.”

“You got your point across as a leader who will not tolerate rebellion,” Calder said. “You did not want to come across as a tyrant and sadist. The way you disposed of him was appropriate for the situation.” He looked deliberately at Micah. “Even if it did not sate that itch.”

“You’ve surely experienced rebellions during your rule,” Micah commented lightly, remembering his first mission with his team in Region 5. Calder was the one who probably gave Josiah, and in turn, the academy the signal to act. Execute on spot if they put up a resistance. “I’m sure, by now, you are accustomed to them. You no longer have that itch to sate.”

A chuckle. “I have several itches I cannot reasonably scratch.” Calder seemed greatly amused over Micah’s assumption. “However, my status as the king requires I keep in line with my predecessors. I am to remain proficient and reliable. Sane. And otherwise, uninteresting.”

Micah watched as his father took another sip of his liquor before setting it down next to his parchments. The amber liquid did not seem quite as full as just a moment ago, indicating that Calder may mirror his son in terms of self-medication. In front of other noblemen, he probably refused to drink, for such a weakness was exploitable.

“It sounds as if you are repressed by memories and age-old customs,” Micah observed carefully. “You are you, yet you feel the weight of your father, and his father, on your shoulders. They remain living through you. You are one of the same.”

“Be grateful I didn’t raise you entirely, then,” Calder informed wryly. “You would certainly feel the same duty—the same stifling weight— to uphold such regal and stanch standards.”  

Micah contemplated Calder with a shrewd eye, recognizing the bitter, dormant spark to be different from his predecessors and to stand apart from his lineage. He’d recognized it before in Calder. It was much like Kai Edlen. Kai did not want to mirror Seaton to the point of emulating his father his whole life. He’d wanted to step out and do something entirely on his own. And he had.

So far, Calder had accomplished as much by merging the Igni and Unda races.

Yet, even Micah could see Calder was not satisfied just yet.

Moreover, he would feel obliged to resist such urges because of his upbringing.

“Instead, you were raised by Ember,” his father continued.

In actuality, Agni raised Micah. Or, rather, influences of Agni. “I’d like to think society raised me,” Micah said instead. “Probably not what you want to hear, considering it takes careful rearing to make an heir apparent.”

“Partially true.” Calder reached for his drink once more. “Though I do not anticipate it will take long to instill proper behavior in you. You have especially strong bloodlines. You are intelligent. You have proper breeding and Ember did… a fine enough job.”

Micah did not hide his dark humor. “You make it sound as if I’m a hunting hound with suitable pedigree.”

“It’s one in the same, is it not?” Calder smirked.  “Nevertheless,” he started once more, turning somber. “I appreciate the traits that set you apart from the Talise line.”

“Talise,” Micah tested the name on his tongue. He didn’t recall saying it aloud before. “My proper surname.”

A fond smile crossed Calder’s lips. “Both Varuna and Agni blessed you at birth as Ezra Zale Talise.” He set down his tumbler. “It is custom to name the heir apparent with the second name of Zale. It means powerful waters. A strong, unyielding name. So is the Talise name, though I am proud to see you carry much of your mother’s line. The Igni breed is especially strong and formidable.”

“Azeri.”

“Azeri,” his father confirmed. “It was used as inspiration for your first name.”

Calder gazed oddly at Micah.

It took Micah a moment to realize it was a sentimental gaze, as if the man were thinking back to his birth and remembering it fondly, yet with a hint of bitterness. They’d missed many years together. Micah knew it was for the best, yet a part of him was just as bitter for viewing his father as a complete stranger. It wasn’t as if he needed a parental figure, yet….

There was no point dwelling in the past.

Agni specifically wanted him this way. Moping over his missed opportunities would only give power to said entity.

“Why did you decide to unite the two races under one kingdom after the war?” Micah asked quietly. “You knew they would never truly get along. Do you regret your decision now?”

“Why would I regret my decision?”

Micah scoffed. “After more than twenty years of peace, several citizens, old and young, still have the mentality that they are living amongst enemies. Such sentiments are being passed down to generations who did not even live through the war.”

“Change of perception does not happen so quickly, Ezra,” Calder responded, his tone tight with careful amusement. “It takes decades. It takes generations. You have to realize the Igni and Unda people have always experienced bitter relations since the beginning of time. After our nations came together, I have given each race equal opportunities. They—”

“You don’t honestly believe that, do you?” Micah interrupted, leaning forward in his chair.

Calder’s azure eyes narrowed. “What gives you any inclination that there is policy and legal segregation between races, Ezra?” He tapped the armrest of his chair smartly. “What you just described—citizens seeing their neighbors as enemies—is strictly a mentality fault. A culture flaw. Preventing racial prejudice is difficult, but it is something I strive to cure.

“I have an equal number of Igni and Unda councilmembers. The number of decorated Igni commanders and captains in the Concordia military are staggering. Far more than the Unda men. There are an equal number of high Igni nobles as there are Unda nobles. It just so happens the Unda nobility speaks the loudest. They possess more confidence.”

Before Micah could respond, he faltered.

He searched for an example that would point out the policy inequality, but came up short. All the citizens, whether Unda or Igni, lived by the same standards. They lived by the crown’s orders.

Yet…

“I misspoke,” Micah admitted, watching as Calder leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. He had a sense Calder was testing him, probing. “There may not be policy segregation amongst races. However, there is class segregation and there is staggering racial exclusion. Nobles have privileges that are not presented to the common folk—most of those folk being the Igni race. Nobles have more opportunities than the outskirt residents. Their education is better. Their food is plentiful. Their technology is advanced.”

Calder sipped his drink for a long moment without responding. He simply seemed satisfied observing Micah.

“Do you not agree that those with gold, those who work hard for their gold, deserve extra incentives in life? Do you believe they should just give it away? Distribute the wealth until we are all on equal grounds?”

Micah perked up at the question, intrigued.

Calder was not shooting him down immediately. He was engaging Micah in an actual discussion about beliefs and applications. “Of course I don’t believe that,” Micah said deliberately. “There should be extra incentives, yes, though not to such a startling and sad degree.” 

But what did nobles truly do to earn that gold? Their predecessors and family legacy allotted them riches.

Old money.

But aside from taxes, old money was what funded the crown.

“You’ve personally witnessed what happened when we try to funnel resources to the outskirt regions. It has happened before. Several times before you,” Calder informed. “We push onward, continuing our efforts, only receiving hostility in turn. They, themselves, are just as prejudiced as the next Unda noble as they buck any sort of assistance from us.”

Micah cantered his head in frustrated agreement, understanding Calder cornered him into agreeing to that.

He remembered the items Calder continued to send to Region 20. Items intended for Region 20 to barter for gold. Micah did not doubt Calder, and even Josiah, had attempted other methods in the past, only to meet fierce resistance.

“That is why we must seclude those who wish for change from those who wish to destroy any chances. There can be more programs made available to those who actually want to better themselves and their future,” Micah persisted stubbornly. “Not everyone in Region 20 followed Bren’s ideals. Dozens upon dozens were appreciative of my help.”  

“So I’ve heard. So I’ve seen,” Calder said. “You have made great leeway there. I encourage you to continue thinking of ideas to help the outer regions. I believe it will be a good project for you. To occupy your time. I left Lieutenant Warren there, along with his men, to continue tighter security.”

For just a brief, fleeting moment, Micah could not think clearly.

He hadn’t expected Calder to encourage his work in the outer regions. In Region 20, the man made it abundantly clear that if his presentation did not succeed, he expected Micah to play the subservient and docile royal heir. Micah supposed Calder would still expect him to play that role while simultaneously working on the outskirt regions.   

“And the nobles? The prejudice and social segregation?” Micah inquired.

“The nobles—Igni and Unda alike— are powerful, Ezra. And rightfully so,” Calder responded airily as he tipped his glass and peered at the empty bottom.

“But you are the king.”

“Yes. I am.” Blue eyes tore languidly away from the tumbler and caught Micah’s gaze. “I once told you a king holds all the power in a monarchy. It does not matter if he has a Royal Council. It does not matter how that council votes. The king’s word is final. However, there needs to be an understanding that you cannot make enemies with the entire sector of aristocrats. They hold their own power, in gold, influence, and numbers.”

“So you admit they hold a ridiculous amount of sway.”

“They always have.” Calder smiled thinly. “They are lovely predators.”

“Yet you hold the entire army under your command.”

“When it comes down to it, my son, I do not see deficiencies in the nobles’ values. I appreciate them very much. If I did not appreciate them, or their actions, I would do something about it.”  

Calder stood up and held his hand out to Micah.

Confused at first, Micah looked down, noticing Calder was asking for his empty glass. He blinked with surprise, not realizing he’d drank it already. With an air of nonchalance, he handed the glass to his father, whom then approached the cart to refill their glasses.

“You said it yourself. Nobles are predators.”

“I admire predators,” Calder replied pleasantly. “Especially when they keep me sharp. I value their opinions. I value their suggestions and challenges. Despite their less-than subtle egotism, they have worked hard to better themselves and their families.”

“Often times through deceit and improper means,” Micah murmured quietly.

Calder laughed entertainingly. “Ezra,” he sang softly. “Your distaste for the nobles is noted.”

“My previous experiences with them have soured my perceptions.”

“An understandable sentiment.” Calder turned away from the cart. “Your experiences with the nobles were tainted with unimpressive and child-like tantrums. I firmly believe you will see a new side to the nobles upon your return to the capital.” 

Micah noted the spark in Calder’s eyes. A careful, smug victory.

He wondered at it.

“You claim that if you do not appreciate the nobles or their actions, you will do something about it. You indicated as much before I left for Region 20 about Seaton and Muriel Edlen. Yet, here they are, remaining in their positions of esteem.”

“Give it time, Ezra. Players need to be in place at the appropriate time before taking them off the board.”

Micah accepted the refilled glass without a word, sulking in his own way. Was he being unreasonable? Was he being prejudiced against those who possessed money and prestige? It didn’t help matters that he grew up in the outskirt regions where poverty was crushing. As soon as Agni collected him from Region 20 and brought him to the capital, he easily identified the flaws of the nobility and the capital. With Dushyanta’s web, it had only cemented his revulsion.

Was it wrong of him to think all regions should be like Region 5, healthy, profitable, yet modest with its wealth?

No.

It wasn’t.

He wouldn’t change his mind on this. The nobility was corrupt. Perhaps they were once upstanding citizens, but when he thought of Seaton and Muriel Edlen, and all the others who supported the Edlen dynasty, Micah knew they were power-hungry bastards. They grew bloated off wealth, wealth they did not earn through hard means, but rather what they believed they deserved for such a highly ranked name.

They took away opportunity for the outer regions. They took away resources needed for villages stricken with poverty.

Cordelia Abital requested Micah keep nobility in mind for his… whatever it was. He refused to call it regime. It was one of her stipulations for several allies who’d she’d courted. Micah hadn’t liked the suggestion then.

He still didn’t like it now.

“Any god sightings recently?” Calder asked quietly, settling down across from him.

Micah turned his attention on his father.

While Calder, Captain Conway Edlen, and Josiah attempted to stifle the rumors of his team’s mission to Region 20, Micah knew there were still several people who believed the gods were against his very existence. They could only blame the Noir Users so many times before people began to grow skeptical.

Micah smiled resignedly, finally thrilled to use honesty. “Oddly silent,” he answered. “And you?”

He was referring to his father’s peculiar relationship with Varuna.

Calder matched Micah’s smile with one of his own. He sipped his drink, choosing not to respond. “Perhaps we will get through a year without having to use the Magi as scapegoats for any abnormal activity.” He raised his glass and toasted Micah. “I look forward to our partnership, my son. You may have doubts about our kingdom, but I guarantee, once you truly inherit the throne, you will consider it your kingdom. Your entire perception will change entirely.”

Micah forced himself to smile again as he raised his glass and toasted with his father. “I look forward to it.”

He sincerely hoped his perception wouldn’t change.

A part of him was afraid he’d let his guard down and he’d turn out just like his father. Resigned to keep things the same. Resigned to the duty to uphold his legacy.

Then another part of him wondered why that would be such a bad thing.

 

* * * *

 

After his talk with Calder, and then later finishing dinner together, Micah found himself standing in the corner of his personal quarters. The small window in his compartment conveyed the deep, fathomable darkness of the late hour.

Micah had easily slipped himself a bottle of whiskey and currently nursed his third glass for the night in the privacy of his quarters.

He leaned his hip against the counter and pressed his forehead against the shelving. He stared unseeingly at the dark wood cabinets before pulling away and taking another sip. He realized, hours and hours after his conversation with Calder, that his father never answered his question of why he decided to merge together two cultures who did not like each other.

What did Calder say?

Oh, yes, the Igni and Unda people have always experienced bitter relations since the beginning of time.

So then why would he think to merge them together as one kingdom? Was Calder that power-hungry that he could not see the faults of his decision? Did he think, that because the Igni Empire needed water, that he could easily control them? That didn’t seem right. Calder was not that much of a megalomaniac.

But why? Why?

The two races were so rich with history and culture. So different. So… independent.

So beautiful when separate.

A part of him could understand the Igni people for refusing help, fearing they would lose hold of their identities and their painstakingly rich culture. If they submitted, they would feel as if they needed to adapt and assimilate into the blueblood and aristocracy of the Unda people.

How did one go about solving this?

Micah sighed and pushed away from the counter.

He slammed down his empty glass and reached for the bottle to refill it.

Too soon, the pendant across his chest warmed.

“Suckling and relying on your tit, I see.”

Closing his eyes with exasperation, Micah lifted the arm that held his glass and pressed his forearm against his forehead. “I don’t need this right now, Agni.” He lowered his arm, gazing once at the golden-haired entity standing across the room. “Just please, leave me alone.

The bottle of whiskey suddenly shattered.

Micah cursed and stumbled backward, a few shards of glass just barely cutting through his clothes and nicking into his skin. He stared in disbelief as the booze spilled across the counter and down the cabinets before pooling at the ground. Mentally, he desperately cried out at the scene, seeing it as his medicine, his relief and source of sleep.

He was tired.

He clutched his glass that remained full of whiskey.

“There is plenty more where that came from,” he said in a controlled, deep tenor. Despite his unsteadiness, he sneered across the room at Agni. In the back of his mind, he noted the god, whom normally appeared smug and conceited, was now unnaturally solemn and grim. “Throw all the tantrums you want, you—”

Agni lifted an arm and snapped his fingers.

The snap rebounded harshly across the small compartment, causing Micah to flinch. Power, warm and static-like, breezed by his cheeks and caused the small hairs to rise. Evidently, whatever power-drain Agni had experienced in Region 20 no longer crippled him. His physical form was solid and he had enough power to muffle his godly aura from harming Micah.

Besides the small ache behind his eyes, Micah was not overwhelmed with the god’s presence.

“Gone. All of them. Your father will be most displeased when he sees what had happened to his own balm.”

Micah had no doubt the fire god had destroyed Calder’s private stock of alcohol. Tearing his gaze away from Agni, Micah looked down at the full glass of whiskey he’d managed to salvage. Before he could contemplate it further, Agni got to it first.

The glass shattered in his hand.

He stood motionlessly, clutching the largest piece of tumbler in his palm.

The smell of whiskey overpowered the room.

Small tremors shook Micah’s form. He couldn’t hide them any longer. Already tipsy, his anger grew sharp and relentless. He looked up at Agni, not really seeing the entity as he chucked the shard of glass at the man.

“That helped me sleep! Damn you!”

The glass shattered against the wall next to Agni’s head, hardly close enough to cause the entity to flinch. Micah released a desperate, frustrated breath as he backed up against the wall. He stared down at his boots, knowing what he must look like to the man but not truly caring. At all. He was behind locked doors. His own quarters.

He had a right to his privacy.

It’s not as if he’d tip the bottle excessively in public. He wasn’t that pathetic!

But he certainly looked pathetic now, didn’t he?

“I apologize,” Agni started quietly. “I shouldn’t have left you alone for so long in Region 20. I hadn’t realized the extent of the damage.”

“The extent of the damage,” Micah repeated bitterly. He laughed once. “There is no damage. You’re just a god with unreal and high expectations for us mere mortals. You wouldn’t even begin to understand.” He placed his gloved hands on his knees and braced himself against them. “I just need sleep. Whiskey helped me obtain a semblance of rest.”

Agni did not respond and Micah’s face tightened as he stared at his boots.

Slowly, he slid down the wall until his arse hit the ground. He brought up one knee and kept his arms slack at his sides. He stared unseeingly at the bed standing between him and Agni, needing it to stay as a barrier.

Unfortunately, Agni was relentless.

From the corner of Micah’s eye, he was aware of Agni turning the corner and approaching him. He stiffened, keeping his attention elsewhere. However, Agni sat on the mattress and his knees forcibly entered Micah’s line of sight.

“I know you created a shield,” Micah murmured, his eyes wide, dry, as he stared at the bed quilt. “I saw it in the desert after the—” His voice broke and he cleared his throat in order to give himself something to do. He didn’t want to envision the corpses. He didn’t want to envision his nightmare in Yama’s realm. His mother. “I hadn’t seen any Syphons, daemons, or gods since I arrived in Region 20. And I’m thankful for the amount of energy it must have taken for you to shield me from their influence.”

He licked his lips, feeling his saliva grow thick with the amount of liquor he’d consumed.

Agni remained a silent observer.

“But your shield didn’t take away the nightmares. It didn’t prevent my mind from taking over and releasing me into endless remembrance.” Micah released a breathless sort of laugh. He raised his arms from his side and dug his palms into his dry eyes. He dropped them a moment later, refusing to draw further attention to his weaknesses. “I was back there every night. Repeatedly experiencing the horror. Feeling their pain and hearing their cries of desperation. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t. No matter how much I desired.”

He’d never told Agni about Yama’s realm. The god should be clueless to what Micah was speaking of, yet he had his assumptions that Agni was more than aware of what had transpired on that train those several weeks ago.

“So you found whiskey to be your savior.” 

“I’m not ashamed of it,” Micah spoke jadedly. “It helped me function the next day. It was a balm. A muffle of sorts that held me close and refused to let me retreat back to Yama’s realm.”

For a long while, silence stretched between them. Micah was not coherent or inclined to further the discussion. Nor was he inclined to look at Agni. When the warm hands shackled Micah’s cold wrists, however, he jerked back into the present. As Agni forcibly tugged at his wrists, Micah found the blood-orange eyes gazing down at him.

“When I am here, you will never feel the need to reach for the bottle.”

He pulled at Micah’s arms, forcing the younger man to his feet. At the sudden proximity to the god, Micah’s heart climbed up his throat. It had been so long since they were intimately together. As much as Micah refused to succumb to whimsical and romantic notions, he felt something nag pleasantly in his lower stomach.

It was only physical, he reminded himself. The sex was good. The challenges were even better.

There was nothing sentimental about it.

Agni abruptly took his jacket and pushed it down his shoulders.

He then crouched down rather suddenly.

Micah stared at the far wall in slow confusion before looking down at the god, realizing the man was unlacing his boots. “I may have consumed some whiskey,” Micah drawled. “But I’m more than capable of—”

“Silence.”

Micah narrowed his eyes as the god issued an authoritative and commanding order.

Instead of arguing against the treatment, he preoccupied himself with throwing off the jacket that had bunched at his elbows. He tossed it across the room just as Agni straightened to his full height.

Gradually, Micah turned his eyes on the man. Realizing he had a height disadvantage when Agni was in his true form, Micah lifted his chin and stubbornly met eyes with the god. Something curled at the edges of Agni’s mouth as he stared down at Micah, his gaze entirely unreadable, yet somehow startling in its intensity.

Agni stepped closer.

He leaned down, his mouth hovering just over Micah’s, teasing, taunting, before moving closer to his ear. “Get into bed.”

Feeling his groin tighten uninvitingly at the tease, Micah sobered when Agni denied him. He stared at the man, feeling something bitter and darkly humorous twist his insides. “Tell me,” he whispered hoarsely. “Did you plan and anticipate your counterpart to be dependent on alcohol? Did you… instill the obsessive need to rely on dependences? Or is that one of my own traits peeking through your godly and saintly influence?”

“Get into bed,” Agni repeated slowly, deliberately. “Now.” 

As much as Micah wanted to pursue this particular conversation, his senses were too dull. It would not be in his best interests to spar with Agni when he wasn’t his sharpest. Instead, he stepped deliberately out of his boots and pulled back the covers of the bed.

It had been a long while since he had a mattress that was as comfortable as this one. Micah tried not to notice how his limbs sighed with relief as he buried himself into the middle. Rather, he laid there stiffly, glaring up at the ceiling as the lanterns across the compartment dimmed upon the fire god’s command.

Total darkness fell.

Micah stiffened further, not enjoying the dark, afraid of the deep crevices of the room. There was something eerily forbidding about the darkness. Not a juvenile fear of nightfall, but something on a far larger scale, something far more sinister. He could hear the faintest trace of whispers, whispers that pleaded and expressed their eternal suffering.

Why couldn’t he help them?

And then Agni slid into bed and the fear and the whispers calmed. 

A hand reached for Micah’s tight-knuckled fist and took it captive. “Do you wish to know what I asked for in my counterpart?” Agni inquired quietly, his voice breaking through the darkness and alighting a sort of protective embrace around Micah.

Agni started unclasping his gloves. Micah allowed the action, simply because Agni’s warmth began soothing his frayed nerves and lulled him into a half-unconscious state. Slumber hovered predatorily, waiting to sink its claws into Micah the moment he let go. He held on stubbornly to consciousness, wanting to hear Agni’s confessions.

“I asked for a male counterpart with beauty that would rival my own.”

A vain, yet unsurprising admittance.

Micah wanted to laugh.

“You had to possess loyalty.” Agni tugged off one of the gloves before working on the last. “I wanted you to have the ability of love and affection without it ruling you and being noxiously obvious. I didn’t want you to fear me. Only strive to be better to match my ferocity.”

Micah stared up at the ceiling as those words flirted and teased his mind. He didn’t know what he thought. Felt. His chest tightened when Agni, who had just finished unfastening his last glove, brought his scarred hand to his lips. Even though Agni expressed interest in his hands before, extreme self-consciousness had Micah tugging his hand back, flustered at the thought of someone touching the ugliness so intimately.

Yet, Agni held strong, keeping Micah’s hand captive and tightening his hold. “Above all else, you had to keep up with me in terms of power and intellect. You needed to be cruel when the situation is warranted, but offset it with controlled empathy.”

Lips traced over the scars of his hand reverently.

Caressing, touching, feeling every flaw.

“I was told that such a specific and important soul could not be created instantly into a god, but had to first be nurtured and molded as a mortal. While these traits could be inside my counterpart at birth, outside influences could easily twist them, destroy them, or turn the traits into something undesirable.”

“And is that what your intended traits are now?” Micah asked snidely. “Undesirable and tainted?”

He remembered Varuna’s comment to Agni in Region 20.

The water god believed echoes of Yama had tainted Agni’s request for a counterpart.

“You are still such a young soul and you have a long way to go.” Agni’s response was indifferent, hardly reacting to Micah’s bitterness. “Throughout the years, you’ve grown into your own self, discovering your own traits that were not part of my plans.”

Agni’s words were just as clear as they were ambiguous. Micah may have been near sleep, but he understood the reason behind this discussion. Agni didn’t want to hear Micah’s bitterness about fitting into a predetermined mold. He didn’t want Micah to reference his status as a counterpart in such an immature way.

Micah was his own person.

He’d grown up and faced his own trails. His own experiences shaped him into who he was today. While Agni may have been a very large part in his upbringing, Micah understood that the fire god was powerless to stop Micah from growing into his own self.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Micah informed stonily.

The lips paused over his palms.

Something unsettling took the place of the lulling, comfortable warmth.

“My dear child,” Agni crooned sinisterly. “How can I consider you tainted when I am the embodiment of darkness?”

Micah’s pulse began to race out of both fear and excitement. He was not able to appreciate the sensation, for Agni reached over and placed his fingers against the crown of his head. His mind grew foggy, heavy, his eyelids impossible to keep open. Micah tried to fight against it, yet he knew it to be futile.

“Sleep, Micah.”

And so he did.

Dreamlessly and coddled by Agni’s warmth and ominousness. 

 

Chapter Text

 

6. Chapter Six

 

He didn’t know how long he slept, but it felt like a blissful eternity.

He hadn’t slept this well in ages. He felt rejuvenated.

When he opened his eyes, the compartment was still dark, yet the shy blush of morning lightened the shadows into dark greys and accentuated the pale hues across the room. The lantern beside his bed was lit, its single flame serenely still and bright.

Micah closed his eyes again, feeling the dip of the mattress near the foot of the bed. His naked hand explored the space next to him, feeling the warmth across the sheets, but also the missing body of his partner. He didn’t know how long Agni had stayed throughout the night. Micah’s sleep had been entirely undisturbed.

But Agni was here now and Micah knew exactly what the man wanted.

A part of him wondered if the fire god would retreat if he feigned sleep. However, considering Micah woke from such a deep sleep indicated Agni had intentionally roused him. As much as Micah understood the need for a conversation, he shied away from the thought.

He’d shown such weakness these past several encounters with the fire god.

He was afraid he’d lost his balance opposite of Agni.

Yet, a certain clarity and stability clung to Micah this morning.

He felt stronger. His limbs robust and reinforced against more obstacles undoubtedly coming his way. It was as if his pierced and vulnerable armor repaired itself overnight, cementing into hard and impenetrable metal. As he laid there, he could feel a fire of renewal, of rebirth. It swayed seductively under his skin, chasing away the cold, the hollowness. Moreover, the customary ache in his stomach silenced, numbed under a cloak of gratification and warm delight.

He had no doubt, if he gazed into a mirror, he would see a red-gold hue under his skin as he had the first time he and Agni slept together. The red-gold, along with the feelings of resiliency, had lingered for several days thereafter before dimming and disappearing.

His eyes slowly reopened and focused resolutely on the far wall.

His lips thinned and his gaze sharpened. His avoidance could only go so far until he just appeared silly.

“I feel like there are so many half-lies and half-truths between us that any chance of a meaningful conversation would prove challenging,” Micah stated jadedly. “How many omissions will you lace through your words if I dared ask you a question?”

“If I remember correctly, you said you’d find those truths by yourself. That you didn’t want to rely on my answers any longer.” Agni paused. “I don’t want you to exclude me as an ally, as a source of reliance. I am here if you wish to ask me. Anything. That would require, however, asking many questions that you don’t truly want answered. That proves difficult for both of us.”

“You don’t want me to ask those questions.”

“And you don’t want to hear the truth.”

Micah smirked without humor. “Because the truth would wreck me or because the truth would incriminate you?”

The weight at the foot of the bed disappeared abruptly. Micah was surprised when Agni appeared opposite of him. The god lowered himself onto the mattress and onto his side, facing Micah and forcing eye contact. His lips parted haughtily as he reached forward, his fingertips just barely ghosting across Micah’s skin.

“I would say,” Agni started with a whisper made breathless with exhilaration. His fingernail embedded into Micah’s skin and scraped down his cheek. A pleasant tingle of pain followed its wake. “It’s a perfect balance between those two.”

Micah held his breath, his pulse accelerating with wicked intrigue. Even if alcohol had clouded his mind last night, the man’s earlier words were as crisp and as jarring as if he’d spoken them just moments ago.

My dear child, how can I consider you tainted when I am the embodiment of darkness?

Pondering, Micah struggled to grasp the true depth of those words.

Agni made no effort to deny his decadence throughout their time together. He made no secret of his manipulations. He did not deny the endless omissions from the truth. He did not hide his ominous nature. Aside from the man’s less than honorable disposition, Micah detected something else. Something that skirted Micah’s reach when he sought to identify what it was.

Whatever it was, it was unnerving and especially strong this morning. It was something frigid with malevolence. Oddly enough, that something, that something that he could not identify, was also familiar to Micah. The discovery did not push him away, but rather lured him closer with whispered urgency.

It frustrated him. Not being able to understand the lure.

Yet he gave into it.

And what did that say about him? That he was not disconcerted with such ambiguous depravity, but rather attracted to it?

Not overtly concerned, Micah’s hand reached out to touch the open chest underneath Agni’s elaborate and handsome robes. The man didn’t seem as warm as usual. There was a certain coldness to both his expression and countenance. Ice-like. An obscurity. Micah mused his skin was almost as warm as Agni’s was.

“Our origins—yours and mine— are far from romanticized.” Agni’s eyes traced obsessively over Micah’s face. “My intentions for you, before you were even conceived, were less than noble.”

While not stated outright, Micah acknowledged that Agni must have known about his status as the god of death before it all. He had done a job well done feigning surprise at the revelation of Micah’s power. Yet… if he truly had ill intentions before Micah’s conception, it was because the god had known and had planned to use Micah’s abilities to his advantage. For something.

Micah carefully stored that bit of knowledge away for later.

“Are they any more honorable now?”

“My intentions are still not entirely noble,” Agni replied, hardly perturbed by his admittance. “Intentions laced with selfishness and possessiveness hardly constitute as noble.”

Micah’s mouth twitched, unbothered. “But you’re indicating that your intentions are far nobler now than they once were. That has to count for something,” he mused with dry amusement. “Just what were your intentions in the beginning?”

Agni, being Agni, responded vaguely. “In the beginning, I all but wrapped your soul around my fist and forcibly punctured through the inhumanity and the ugliness of the mortal world. I was impatient. Eager for you to grow up quickly. Over time, I slowed down my momentum. My intentions changed. My outlook mellowed.”

Micah’s brows furrowed at the admittance. At the analogy. Nonetheless, there was something there, in those words. A warped confession of endearment that Micah would find only if he looked hard enough. “We’ve already discussed my childhood, Agni. I am who I am now because of your intentions, ill-conceived or well-intended. I can’t say that I remember my youth fondly, but I am happy with how things turned out. How I turned out.” He assessed Agni closely. “Are you trying to imply that you regret it?”

He never thought he’d hear such a confession from Agni.

Surely, the man would stand by his past decisions and defend their purpose.

“Regret,” Agni repeated the word warily. “No, I do not regret it, but there are past incidents that I could have handled differently.”

Micah’s fingers paused in their exploration of the man’s embroidered robes. “And these past incidents are what you claim will wreck me and incriminate you?” He gazed at the god and the god gazed impassively back. “I highly doubt anything else can surprise me about my past, Agni, let alone wreck me.”

Ignoring Micah’s flinty abhorrence, the man leaned forward and traced his nose along the crook of Micah’s neck. He inhaled greedily. “Wreck is far too strong of a word,” Agni agreed.  “You are the one that came up with that term, child.”

Hesitating at first, and wondering if he should push the issue, Micah’s hands boldly grabbed Agni’s waist and pulled the man closer. As their chests touched, something stirred within him at the intimacy. Their current positions indicated familiarity. Their posture mirrored the other. Their confessions indicated a vulnerability.

But only to the other.

Micah knew Agni was giving him an opportunity to ask about the past occurrences that he ‘could have handled differently’. For once, Micah knew Agni would be honest and forthcoming if he requested it.

Was it wrong of him to be resentful with the fire god over such an uncharacteristic offer?

It was the past. He’d already known Agni committed less than desirable deeds. There were already so many other things to balance, to shoulder at the present. Yama. Kai. The trapped Syphons and daemons. His status as god of death and justice. He didn’t want to deal with the anger that would surely come upon Agni’s confessions. He felt as if he was finally recovering his strength. He did not want another blow to knock him down so soon.

What he wanted now was to enjoy this. This familiarity with Agni, this intimacy, was so new.

Did he want to shatter it before he familiarized himself with it?

No.

He wanted to explore it further. Take advantage of it.

Even if that meant skirting around the evident obstacle between them.

Micah leaned closer and inhaled Agni’s neck, too. His eyes closed at the familiar, warm aroma. Familiar in its protectiveness, yet crisp with a startling reminder of lethality.

Micah delighted in it.

Revered it.

He made a noise in his throat as Agni’s lips traced his jugular. “Perhaps we can start with why you called me to Region 20,” Agni murmured against his neck, clearly sensing Micah’s reluctance in their current subject. “Or maybe we can start with where we should have those many weeks ago. With what happened on the train. When you were sent to the reaper’s realm.”

“You already know what happened,” Micah said stoically. “I died. You brought me back.”

Agni pulled away, creating enough distance to analyze Micah’s expressions. Nothing would ever get past Agni. “I brought you back, but not without bringing shadows of the realm with you.”

“Have you ever…” Micah trailed off, his hands loose around Agni’s waist as he remembered. “Have you ever witnessed the realm?”

“The god of death’s realm?” Agni inquired. “Many times, yes.” He cocked his head to the side. “I’ve told you before my fire is the beginning of life and the beginning of the afterlife. It is essential I work with the reaper to prepare the souls for him and his daemons.”

Micah stored the information away for later.

Agni must have known Yama intimately, then. He must have known what Yama had done before his fall. Had Agni played a large role?

“No,” he started deliberately. “Have you seen Yama’s realm after his demise?”

Agni’s expression closed. “No one is allowed in or out.”

“Unless summoned by a god,” Micah responded, recalling the Syphon who’d heeded his summoning.

“What is it like?”

“It’s…” Micah struggled for the words, well aware of Agni’s concentrated scrutiny. He focused on the far wall over Agni’s shoulder, wanting to appear separated from the realm in case he revealed too much vulnerability. “It’s cold with endless pain and hunger. You gaze into the dead trees and see the hunched silhouettes of the daemons—maybe the Syphons—and you see, you feel, and you taste their torment. Their cries for help are quiet, but so loud to the mind and soul. There are falling ashes, and as soon as they touch your skin, you feel nothing but the agony of burning flesh.”

Agni’s fingers tightened across Micah’s hip.

“But what’s most disquieting is the red-gold net across the sky. Even when you look away, the net burns into your remembrance and brings with it a reminder that the gods overcame evil. They defeated their foe and would forever cement their victory in the sky.”

Micah’s eyes refocused on the god opposite of him, distracted at the man’s unfathomable impassiveness. There was a certain cruelty to the nothingness in Agni’s expression.

Something—

Agni blinked and the life returned to his eyes. “You’re a fool. Keeping this to yourself would have destroyed you.”

Micah eyed him wryly. “You make it difficult for me to approach you about these things.”

Agni seemed dissatisfied. “Why?” Upon Micah’s obstinate expression, the god shifted closer, smirking. “I understand you and I have a unique… rapport. You don’t want to show weakness in front of me, I don’t want to show weakness in front of you. You and I challenge one another to be our best selves, we do not coddle.”

Rapport. Micah rolled the word around in his mind, wondering if he should laugh at or approve of the applicable term.

“You coddle. You did last night.”

“When it is coddling you require, I will offer it immediately,” Agni countered Micah’s displeased tenor with indifferent promptness. “I will always try to challenge you first and foremost.” He examined Micah. “Tell me you don’t enjoy that particular element.”

Micah smirked. “Anything else would be…”

“Unsuitable for us,” Agni finished perceptively. “Nevertheless, there comes a point where we must also rely on one another. That doesn’t make us weak, but rather demonstrates our ability of borrowing strength from one another and making it our own.”

Counterparts.

Micah reassessed their current positions with a critical eye.

His hand fisted the material around Agni’s waist. Agni’s hand clutched Micah’s hip. Both men lay on their side, facing the other. The way Agni lowered himself into the same position as Micah indicated his desire to try to emulate their likeness. Even in Region 20, when he’d scolded Micah, Agni had stooped down low and put their eyes on equal levels.

This entire conversation demonstrated their ability to be something more than antagonizing allies.

This was about their status as counterparts.

Micah sat up suddenly, wondering if this was how it always was but he’d been too naïve to see it. He’d always struggled to keep up with Agni, always reminded how much further he had to go before standing opposite of the fire god. Had his own insecurities blinded him to Agni’s insistence to demonstrate the possibility of an equal partnership?

He suddenly remembered those many times Agni required him to sit first. He remembered other small moments, small phrases, that indicated Agni had always known Micah would be his counterpart, his equal.

Agni had never treated him condescendingly unless it was to light a fire in Micah.

He released a disbelieving scoff and stood from the bed.

The thought was still ludicrous to him.

Being equals with Agni.

It certainly didn’t feel that way, especially with all his recent setbacks. He felt uncomfortable with Agni’s fumbling attempts to put their predestined equality into blatant focus for Micah.

Agni was anxious for Micah to take notice.

But Micah didn’t see it. He didn’t want to see it.

No matter how much Agni tried to indicate otherwise, the fire god was in a league entirely on his own.

Yet… oddly enough, this revelation suddenly made Micah determined to strive harder, faster.

As his bare feet padded over toward the compartment window, he stopped and assessed the rising dawn. “Reliving the realm isn’t what troubles me the most,” Micah admitted, his tone withdrawn as he readdressed their earlier topic. “It’s the fact that they were pleading to me and I can’t do anything about it. It’s the fact that, as the god of death, I’ve inherited that misery. That is my legacy, my purpose,” he spat the word. “Am I going to be subjected to this realm for an eternity of suffering? Is that what I have to look forward to?”

“No,” Agni said fiercely. “No.”

He glanced at the god from over his shoulder, noticing the man was now perched upright at the edge of the bed.

Micah had a feeling he knew exactly what his purpose was as the god of death. It wasn’t dwelling in Yama’s realm as a prisoner, no. It was releasing the daemons and Syphons from their endless torment. It was succeeding where Yama had failed.

What that entailed, Micah did not know. Why that mattered so much to Agni, he did not know.

But he would find out.

He would.

He faced the window and traced his jaded reflection. “You have some very high expectations for me, Agni.”

“Us.”

Micah quickly turned back to Agni, startled to see the god suddenly standing behind him. “Us?”

“I have some very high expectations for us.” Blood-orange eyes brightened inhumanly and an ominous smile crossed his lips. Agni suddenly became someone else entirely. “And we will be magnificent.” He watched as Micah subconsciously pressed his back against the window, his eyes brightening further at the reaction. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Why don’t you tell me how you came about being in the reaper’s realm and in need of resuscitation?”

Another layer of Agni’s mask had just shattered onto the floor, revealing something remarkably menacing underneath. Micah took a moment to recover from watching the reveal, only to end up observing as Agni haphazardly attempted to reconstruct the shattered mask and place it back on his face.

What… was that?

Micah straightened abruptly, feeling his groin tighten pleasantly.

But god… whatever he just witnessed was a sheer delight.

It was power. It was seduction. It was… utter and complete confidence in their abilities.

As he registered Agni’s question, however, he tumbled back down to reality.

Yama.

Would he miss exploring this side of Agni if he allowed Yama to take his place in the afterlife? In the immortal realm? Would Yama see Agni’s plans unravel instead of Micah? With Micah out of the way, would Agni decide to team up with Yama instead? If Agni knew about Yama’s revival, would the fire god actually prefer a partner with more experience?

Those thoughts immediately put him on edge with ugly, unfamiliar jealousy.

The sentiment was nearly strong enough for Micah to tell Agni the truth about Yama. That Yama wasn’t extinct. That Yama was still struggling to hold on and he decided to hold on exclusively to Micah.

“You already know what happened,” he said instead.  

“Humor me.”

Micah kept steady eye contact with Agni, watching the man’s expression carefully. “The Syphon who possessed my mother decided he wanted to possess Kai. When I was alone with him, he told me a great deal of things.”

Agni didn’t seem to detect Micah’s own omission from the truth.  “And clearly, he also showed you a great deal of things.”

The fire god leisurely approached Micah, his pace agonizingly slow. Taunting. Micah stirred against the window with restless anticipation. How quickly his mind could detract from the matter at hand… “I—” he trailed off breathlessly as Agni saddled opposite of him. Crowding him. Inhaling, he could smell the musky heat and smolder of Agni. “Something is not right with Kai.”

“If he were possessed, he wouldn’t have been able to function under the safeguard I created over Region 20.”

“I assumed as much when I observed the shield.” Micah watched through cautious, yet eager eyes as Agni reached out and grabbed hold of one of his trousers’ drawstrings. “He may not be possessed, but I still want you to look into it for me. Brush his mind as you claimed you’d done to Seaton Edlen.”

“If that is what you wish,” Agni murmured.

Micah slapped his hands over the lace that was about to loosen his trousers. “It is what I wish, Agni,” he said in all seriousness. It was enough to draw Agni’s blood-orange eyes back to his own. He took a step closer to the god. “You may not think highly of the mortals I surround myself with, but I do.”

“Your request is heard and understood, Ezra,” Agni said impatiently. “I will do as I’m told.” He did not move backward in response to Micah’s advance, but rather kept still, appearing engrossed with what Micah would do.

“There’s still a lot more we need to discuss,” Micah murmured quietly, stepping even closer. He removed his hand from his trousers, allotting the loose lacing to gap open. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

Agni’s attention immediately lowered to observe Micah’s ministrations. His pupils turned into mere slits as Micah loosened the lacings further. “I’m never going to leave your side,” he murmured absentmindedly, but the vow was reverent. “We will have time to finish whatever it is you wish to discuss.” His voice grew strained and hoarse. “But… my love, I have missed you so very much.”

Overjoyed he’d provoked such a disarming reaction, and still overcome by his inane jealousy of a future with Yama and Agni as partners, Micah reached for the fire god, palming the man’s chest and nudging him toward the bed. Agni obliged readily, sitting at the edge of the mattress and watching as Micah untucked his tunic and kicked off his trousers and undergarments.

As Micah placed his knees on either side of Agni’s lap, his long tunic fell to the middle of his thighs, effectively hiding himself from the god’s smug gaze. Agni released an audible sigh as Micah ran a hand boldly down the folds of his robe, his inquiring fingers finding nothing underneath but naked skin.

A breathless scoff escaped his lips as he looked up at the man, his nose tracing Agni’s cheek.

“You came prepared,” he taunted.

“I wouldn’t dare be so forward.” Agni leered with teeth before fondly butting their foreheads together. “Now. Are you going to ride me, or must I do all the work?” His hands landed on Micah’s narrow hips before impatiently pulling the smaller male down until their groins brushed against the other.

“Work? You make it sound like an imposition. As if you’d consider surrendering any semblance of control,” Micah mused, forcing his hips to go against Agni’s persistent tugging and rising once more on his knees.

Moments ago, Agni endearingly endeavored to demonstrate their equal standing in their relationship. When it came to their sexual relationship, however, Micah knew Agni enjoyed taking control and exerting force against Micah. No matter how new succumbing was to Micah, he would gladly admit that he enjoyed Agni as an aggressive partner.

Nevertheless, that didn’t mean he couldn’t have his fun and torment Agni until the man broke.

Last time, Micah was the one who was a quivering mess of eagerness while Agni took things slow, unsure how gentle he needed to be with a mortal. Micah had hardly gotten to touch Agni and explore. Now that their first time was out of the way, and they had explored their weaknesses, this time, it appeared as if Agni were the overly enthusiastic partner…

This could be fun. Taunting the fire god.

He placed both hands on Agni’s broad shoulders and pushed him flat on his back. The man was tense as he complied. His eyes a burning torment of impatience and aroused frustration. The god’s hands twitched restlessly, as if they wanted to grab Micah and reverse their positions. Quickly. Yet, Agni obeyed, forcing himself to appease Micah’s whims.

Micah nearly purred with satisfaction.

In the back of his mind, a part of him whispered he held a great deal of sway over such an infamous entity.

Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against Agni’s, smiling victoriously as the god enthusiastically deepened the kiss.

The man’s hands reached and tugged insistently on Micah’s tunic. Giving in to the obstinate yanking, Micah caged Agni’s larger body with his own. Keeping their mouths preoccupied, Micah began rocking his groin steadily against Agni’s growing manhood, delighting in the feel of silk as their only barrier. Though Micah kept a steady rhythm, it didn’t seem to sate Agni’s desire for control.

Before the man entirely took over, Micah broke the kiss and moved away from Agni.

He ran a hand down Agni’s intricately designed robes, admiring the elegant patterns barely discernible upon the dark maroon. His hand bypassed the sash, leaving it in place, before inserting his hand between the folds of the robe and extracting his reward.

The cock was agreeably warm in his hand and pleasantly heavy.

And also weeping with excitement.

With his pulse thrumming eagerly, Micah stroked the large cock in quick succession, recognizing Agni’s less-than contented expression. Oh, but the man was adorable with his impatience. Micah tasted the irritation in the air. He could see Agni’s muscles coiled, angry. The man’s hands were fisted, white-knuckled, and trembling just barely in their strenuous attempts of control.

Typically, in the past when Micah performed this on other men, they were moaning, slobbering, and trembling.

Not Agni.

The man was an irate predator.

Under the man’s fixated, displeased attentions, Micah leaned down and swallowed the pooling precum, humming agreeably as the thick liquid coated his tongue. Not a pleasant taste, but so very satisfying consuming Agni’s essence. He refocused his efforts on stroking the shaft and playing with the swollen head with his tongue and small teases of teeth. He engulfed just the head, applying enough suction to send an audible pop across the room as he released it.

Agni’s thighs flexed and his fingers steadily drew closer to Micah.

Smirking into his ministrations, Micah could sense Agni near his breaking point. His hand grew slick with saliva and precum before he suddenly engulfed the cock with his mouth. His lips stopped halfway on the veiny shaft, unable to make it down further. Determined, and experienced enough to improvise, Micah adjusted his throat and jaw, easing the rest of the cock down his throat until his lips pressed victoriously against the base.

The fingers burying into the roots of his hair were unsurprising.

The force applying to the back of his head even more so.

Agni’s hands grabbed Micah’s neck and head, forcing him down even further and keeping him positioned as he thrust into his mouth. The cock irritated Micah’s throat with frenzied impatience, causing him to gag.

No matter.

He’d anticipated this and had planned accordingly.

His fingers massaged the neglected balls, rolling them around expertly in his hand with seductive ease. Meanwhile, his opposite hand ventured even lower, finding the puckered entrance and teasing it with his finger. All too soon, as predicted, Agni pulled at Micah’s scalp, forcing him off his cock and away from his groin.

Agni wasn’t one to relinquish control—yet—Micah detected the man’s true discomfort over anal stimulation.

Interesting.

Micah laughed gleefully, saliva pooling at the corners of his mouth. It was thrilling. Not knowing Agni’s limitations. Not knowing the man’s past experiences and preferences. They would eventually learn each other’s desires and discomforts, wouldn’t they? That, in itself, was enough to excite Micah further.

“You are an insolent tease.”  

The force in which Agni manhandled him was rather impressive and it only served to arouse Micah.

Sitting up, Agni released Micah’s hair before grabbing his hips and forcing him back on his lap. The god then proceeded to grab his legs, adjusting them until Micah’s ankles hooked entirely around his waist. Micah steadied himself by grabbing Agni’s shoulders, exhaling with surprise as Agni grabbed his cock and pressed it against his own.

With a sturdy, strong fist, Agni stroked them both together, eliciting a reaction in Micah that left him breathless.

Oh! God!” he gasped, tightening his hold on Agni’s shoulders.

An unoccupied finger found Micah’s entrance and began to tease him, stretch him.

Soon, and rather impatiently, a second soon joined its partner.

The fire god seemed to excrete far more heat now than he had earlier. A subtle glow even settled around him, making him appear all but ethereal. Micah wondered how Agni was regenerating so much power while simultaneously in a form that left him weak. Then Micah remembered the time of year and realized that Agni truly was more powerful around his creation.  

When thousands worshiped him—thought of him—celebrated him.

This time, Micah didn’t want to combat the heat with his own Element.

He was content being warm.

Content on the fire consuming him.

One of his scarred hands reached up and stroked the golden hair before fisting it possessively. Agni suddenly leaned forward, pressing their foreheads together and increasing the tempo of his strokes. Micah panted in succession with the hand, keeping his eyes locked on Agni’s all the while.

The pleasure!

It was— it was—

Agni unexpectedly dropped his hand, taking the heat and the sensuality with him. Before Micah could fathom the change, Agni adjusted him once more before the man’s cock pressed against his entrance.

“Agni,” Micah stuttered out in surprise, laughing breathlessly.

The man really couldn’t think to enter him without proper—

Agni!”

The cock stretched him wide. Still slick with saliva and precum, Agni’s engorged member slid halfway inside Micah before stopping brusquely. The pain bordered wicked and depraved pleasure. Micah grunted in surprise when Agni took his face captive before pressing a finger inside his mouth.

The man’s finger stroked Micah’s tongue. “I love when you say my name,” the god said fervently. “Say it again.”

The order was sharp. Authoritative.  

Micah delighted, thinking first to deny the man, but then finding himself far more overjoyed at the prospect of pleasing him. “Agni,” he said again, his words slurred with the finger pressing domineeringly inside his mouth. He then proceeded to bite the intrusion, drawing a shaky exhalation from the god opposite of him.

And then Agni shuddered before climaxing inside him.

Blinking with disbelief, Micah could barely comprehend the situation before Agni resumed his ministrations, using the seed from his release as lubricant. There was certainly enough there, for when Agni pulled back out, Micah could feel the semen follow the descent of the cock.

Agni gazed at him superiorly, his eyes alight with blatant hunger. “One of the perks of being a god. Stamina.”

With that smug proclamation, Agni thrust back in, the suction and the heavy fluid creating a noise that turned Micah’s ears warm. Recovering from the unexpectedness of Agni’s female-like refractory period, he lurched forward, bracing his heels against the mattress, and obtaining a semblance of control on Agni’s lap.

Gradually, his hips moved in rhythm of Agni’s thrusts, meeting the man halfway and attempting to ride him.

His stability did not last long, however, for Agni’s pace soon grew frenzied with intentions of shaking Micah’s hope for control. The god succeeded. Micah found himself losing his balance, lurching forward to clutch the man’s robe and wrap his legs around the man’s waist. His fingers hooked and clawed Agni, biting his lip to keep from crying out as his prostrate was hit repeatedly. He couldn’t stop the noises that escaped his throat, however, or the way Agni seemed to thrive off hearing each one.

They hadn’t spoken about their preferences in bed. It was something Micah hadn’t really done in the past with his previous lovers, simply because he never had a preference with someone he’d meet with no more than a few times.

He’d heard stories, though. Stories on how some liked to inflict pain or dominance over their consenting partner.

It had never interested him because inflicting pain or unnecessary authority had never mattered. It wasn’t something he found sexually arousing. Yet…as he felt Agni’s fingers tighten to painful levels around his hips, and noticed the god’s eyes look at him with the desire for more, did Micah realize that his preferences could change.

If it was something Agni wanted.

The man lurched forward and rocked Micah backward until his back hit the mattress.

Agni never lost pace as they changed positions, but rather increased the depth of his thrusts. The metal bedframe was hardly sturdy enough to veil the high-pitched sounds of their desperate movements. Coupled with the sound of Agni’s skin slapping against Micah’s with each thrust, he could barely contain himself.

It was so warm.

Micah shuddered in ecstasy, reaching for Agni and pulling the man down. He bypassed the man’s lips and pressed his mouth against the crook of Agni’s neck. His lips seared as they touched the hot skin, daring to reach out with his tongue and leave a branding, wet trail. Agni whispered something that sounded sweetly sinister before he yanked the neckline of Micah’s tunic aside to expose a shoulder.

Knowing what Agni intended to do, and having the same intentions, Micah found his desired area with his lips. With Agni cradling his hips, and driving him deep into the mattress, Micah finally let go. His teeth sunk into Agni’s shoulder as he rode his climax, spilling hot seed between them and tasting the copper tang of blood.

A moment later, he’d realized Agni had mirrored his own actions at the same time, for the sting on his shoulder finally made itself known.

Jerking with the small aftershocks of such a powerful orgasm, Micah sagged against the pillows. Sweat rolled down his temples and a fine sheen of perspiration coated his limbs. As Agni pulled back, he gazed down at Micah, appearing like a sated feline. He ran his fingers fondly through Micah’s hair, parting the loose waves endearingly.

“I see you still have your stamina,” Micah teased tiredly, his eyes lowering to Agni’s erect member despite just orgasming for a second time.

“I have many interests I’d like to share with you in bed, Ezra, but mounting you when you’re asleep and unresponsive isn’t one of them.”

Micah smirked.

He was pleased. Even if they hadn’t connected with their Elements this time, and even if Agni hadn’t lost control and revealed his true aura, they still had an overpowering amount of attraction. Yet, as much as Micah enjoyed this particular interaction, he was partial to experiencing the conflicting shockwaves that resulted between their opposing Elements.

Next time.

Hopefully by then, Micah would learn to embrace the cold instead of fearing it.

As he dozed off, and the compartment grew lighter with the new day, Micah dimly noted his limbs still felt ablaze with comfortable heat and strength. He kept his eyes closed, content on Agni spoiling him with small touches and lingering caresses across his neck and abdomen. “You’re turning me immortal,” Micah remarked quietly, on the verge of sleep. “Aren’t you?”

A fingernail traced alongside his jawline. Possessive.

“I am also feeding you a little piece of your soul and mine.”  

Upon that startling confession, Micah struggled to surge past the unconsciousness.

Unfortunately, the slumber grabbed him and pulled him into the blissful black.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

It was a lovely morning at the capital.

Cordelia inhaled the pleasant aromas of the shopping district, her eyes closing briefly with inclination. They’d passed the perfume shop moments ago, a strong floral, amalgamated with a masculine undertone, had tickled her senses and appealed to her tastes. She’d observed the young women testing the fragrances inside the store, their faces bright underneath the attentions of a charismatic salesman.

As they passed the bakery, her husband paused in front of the display window, admiring the large pastries. The scent of baked yeast filled the cobble-lined sidewalks, and if Cordelia inhaled deeply enough, she could detect the underlying hint of sugary icing used on top the rolls.

Gazing sideways at her companion, she smiled fondly. “You know the Healer suggested staying away from sweets.”

Trent appeared undaunted. “Ten years ago, he also suggested I stay away from alcohol,” he replied unconcernedly. “One finger of fine cognac a night and I’ve never felt better. Life is all about the small pleasures, Cordelia, haven’t I at least taught you that much?”

She lifted her chin, curling her hand more firmly around his elbow. “I have several indulgences.”

He hardly believed her for a moment. “Cain is coming home from the academy today,” he commented lightly. “I know how much he loves these.” He nodded pointedly toward the pan of plump rolls. The thick frosting appeared recently applied as it dripped charmingly down the sides. “Perhaps we should get him a few.”

Cordelia’s mood warmed at the mention of her son. Cain and his remaining team members had decided to spend a few extra weeks at the academy after the regular term ended. The summer term was typically shorter and less formal, a chance for students to spend more time practicing combative exercises without the pressures of coursework.

 “Like father, like son,” she remarked, trying to sound stern, but failing miserably. Trent and Cain were very much alike and attuned to one another. Cain admired his father and Trent was undeniably proud of his son. As was she. “I suppose one or two wouldn’t hurt.”

Trent unwound his arm from hers and approached the entrance to the bakery.

“But just two, Trent!”

He smiled winningly, turning to appraise her. “Would you like anything, my dear?” he inquired pleasantly, already knowing the answer. “Perhaps some of that salted caramel you like so much. I believe its due time you restocked your supply.”

Before she could reply, Trent eagerly disappeared inside the bakery, leaving Cordelia behind, warily amused. She watched him from the display window, noticing how easily he engaged the baker with small talk. Most people could not get Trent Abital to speak a full sentence unless it was about cognac, combat, or food.

Or his son.

Trent seemed rather animated as he gestured to the two largest rolls the bakery had to offer. She imagined he would be telling the baker his son had passed his term finals and would be coming home after summer studies. His son who was enrolled at Concordia Military Academy and a member of the gold team. Cordelia still remembered the night they received word that Cain made the top team for the first-year cadets.

Trent had never been happier.

“Councilwoman Abital,” a voice murmured in greeting behind her. “A pleasure to run into you this fine morning.” 

She turned marginally, erasing the fond affection from her eyes and replacing it with steely indifference. When she realized the identity of the man standing serenely to her right, her entire demeanor shifted into the defense. “Irving Dover,” she proclaimed quietly, feeling her chest tighten unpleasantly. “It’s been quite some time since you’ve graced us with your presence at the capital.”

Indeed, the sight of Irving Dover set off warning bells in Cordelia’s mind.

This did not bode well for the prince.

“Twenty years, to be exact,” Irving replied promptly. He offered their surroundings a fond look. “It appears as if there have been some recent improvements to the infrastructure in light of the attack. Our Majesty did a very well job reconstructing, it seems.”

While Seaton Edlen and his brother, Muriel, represented high nobility, Irving Dover had essentially been the king’s closest political advisor and trusted friend, a level entirely above the Edlen patriarch. Irving excelled masterfully at politics and political court. He was pleasant to everyone he interacted with, but underneath the charming guise lay a scheming adversary.

Cordelia had certainly respected and admired the man’s talents. He’d been in his late thirties when the war with the Igni Empire started. He stood by Calder’s side with an air of superior confidence as he coached the young king through some very trying times. He’d been the one to suggest a union with Ember, the Igni princess, proclaiming it would cement the Igni people to their favor.

After the events of the war, and just shortly after the birth of Prince Ezra, Irving retired his position on the Royal Council and moved to Region 5 to start his own family.

The last Cordelia heard, Irving had four daughters and had stopped attempting for the male heir he wanted so badly.

She couldn’t help but feel sadistically amused at his ‘misfortune’.

“How is your son? Cain, is it?” Irving inquired politely. Retaining information was another one of the man’s fortes. Even the smallest detail locked permanently inside his memory, always offering him a large advantage when it came to courting allies. “I heard he made the gold team at Concordia Military Academy. He must have just passed his first year.”

“He did,” Cordelia responded distantly. “We are very proud of him.”

“Seaton’s son, Kai, also made the team.” Irving paused for a moment, tasting his words before speaking them. “I also understand the royal prince was captain of the team as well. That is, when he was masquerading across the capital as a simple commoner.”

Cordelia’s lips twitched at the heavy distaste lacing the man’s ‘commoner’ remark. She had wondered how long it would take Irving to broach the subject of the prince. No doubt the man just itched to meet Prince Ezra and see what he had to work with. Unfortunately, for Irving, he would find a very unpredictable specimen in Calder’s son.

“It was King Calder’s and Lord Josiah’s idea to remove him from the palace at his young age. For his own protection. It was essential he remain nameless and hidden.” Even as Cordelia quoted the story the king told the public regarding his son’s fifteen-year absence, she could hardly believe it herself.

They would not broach the topic of Ember and her role in the whole fiasco.

Even Irving offered a light smile and inclined his head, most likely having already heard the real story. “Of course,” he humored her. “Perhaps it was a good step to keep his identity secret, least until the boy got acclimated to the capital. The last thing we needed was the public to observe the royal heir wandering the streets of Concordia as a wide-eyed, naïve desert rat.”

Cordelia could not hide her sharp, predatory smile this time.

“With all due respect, Irving, the boy, is, and never was, a desert rat. Despite her questionable health, Queen Ember raised him adequately. Prince Ezra possesses remarkable poise and grace. With such a strong and rich bloodline, it only makes sense not to underestimate him.” 

She could defend Ezra. She could try to persuade others to follow him. She could attempt to explain his enthralling disposition. In the end, however, words proved too flat for the true reality. Too impractical. To truly experience the pull Prince Ezra had to offer, it was vital to interact with him personally. While Cordelia found a number of possible allies during the prince’s assignment to Region 20, most of them were waiting to speak with him themselves.

The royal heir would be quite busy when he returned to the capital.

“It is impossible to underestimate him when I’ve heard all about his abilities and his charisma.” The corner of Irving’s mouth pulled down just a fraction. “He is quite the charmer. Much like his father, I’m sure. I don’t blame others for putting their loyalty behind his name, especially after the way the noblemen acted during the capital unrest. So distasteful. So disgraceful.”

Cordelia eyed his immaculate navy robes with sterling silver fastenings. “So you’ve come to save their soiling reputation?”

“I’ve come to unite the noblemen and the prince,” Irving explained. “There should not be allegiances torn between the king and his prince. We are together as one.

His sentiments startled her, though Cordelia did not reveal how much they affected her. “Unfortunately, while your intentions are admirable, you may be too late. The aristocracy has made it no secret they do not approve of Prince Ezra sitting on the throne. They believe he is too radical, too modern for traditions that are age old.”

Irving made no effort to address Ezra’s beliefs. Instead, he simply held out his hands in mock surrender.

“There is always compromise, Councilwoman Abital.”

Through his polite words and outspoken good intentions, Cordelia identified Irvin’s true intent. He wanted to stifle the prince and his more far-reaching ideals. He was here to put Ezra in proper place. To offer a compromise and union. He’d lure the prince with words laced with sweet seductions and promises of negotiation.

Both sides could win, he would say. Both sides were allies.

Regrettably, with Irving’s presence and his sympathetic stance, the individuals who wavered between supporting and repressing Prince Ezra would follow Irving without further contemplation. They didn’t want a rebellion. They didn’t want to choose sides. Irving represented that alternative option. Moreover, the man would collaborate with Seaton and put a leash on the Edlen patriarch. He would take over the face of the noblemen and reclaim their pristine reputation.

Cordelia suddenly realized this may be King Calder’s doing. The king knew Irving Dover and Seaton Edlen were natural competition.

Calder was putting Seaton in his place.

Cordelia did not know if Ezra would fall for Irving’s ploy. She did not know the prince’s state of mind at the moment. Perhaps… perhaps Ezra was tired of fighting. Perhaps he felt overwhelmed and discouraged with their lack of alliances and numbers. Maybe he would consider Irving as an acceptable consolation and agree to let things remain the same.

No. Cordelia knew the prince.

Ezra was determined in his goals and aspirations for this capital. Curing the outskirt regions. Smoothing the prejudice between races. And most importantly, giving women their voices and independence. Settling was not his nature. Moreover, Irving was overlooking, or, perhaps intentionally forgetting the wild card in this game.

Lord Josiah.

The Igni king would not stand by and watch a perpetual union between Calder and Ezra. If he could not get Ezra to side with him, Cordelia imagined Lord Josiah would rather create three separate powers. The chaos and calamity would work in his favor.

“I sincerely hope you succeed in your quest,” Cordelia managed to say with an air of genuineness. “How long is your visit to the capital?”

“Visit?” Irving offered a small chuckle. “I have relocated my family here. We plan to stay indefinitely.”

Cordelia was too much of a veteran to reveal her distaste at the comment. She nodded sharply. “Have you found yourself a residency?”

“The palace for the time being,” Irving replied promptly. “Until we can find something suitable.” His attention landed on Trent, who had just escaped from the bakery with one too many bags of baked goods. “Ah, Mr. Trent Abital!” True fondness creased the politician’s expression. “How very good it is to see you!”

“Advisor Dover—”

“Please, I hold no such title any longer. Just Irving should suffice for now.”

For now. Cordelia watched as he firmly shook her husband’s hand. Irving had another gift of blatantly admiring and respecting the warriors who’d fought during the Unda and Igni war. While Cordelia also respected such men and women, she couldn’t imitate the over exaggeration quite like Irving. It made him appear more likable, more candid.

People flocked to such bluntness.

No matter how pretentious.

“Undoubtedly, I will be seeing you around court, Councilwoman Abital,” Irving bade farewell before nodding once again to Trent. “It’s a pleasure to see you both again.”

Trent and Cordelia watched as he retreated down the cobblestoned sidewalk, making a show of admiring the reconstructed stores in his wake.

“So?” Trent inquired mildly. “What does this mean for you and Ezra?”

She frowned and looped her hand around the crook of Trent’s elbow. Her husband didn’t concern himself with politics, yet he knew it was important to her. She appreciated his concern. “It means we have far more work ahead of us than previously anticipated.” They started walking leisurely down the walkway, passing more shops with their large, shiny new display windows. “I will need to call on Councilman Sachiel today. He will need to hear of this, assuming he hasn’t already.”

“I will accompany you,” Trent offered, knowing how much Cordelia detested meeting with Sachiel.

Cordelia simply smiled and patted his arm.

“Ezra is a good kid,” Trent continued, surprising her with his sudden admittance. “I think he has only good intentions for this kingdom. You and I both know good always conquers.”

“I believe he gets easily distracted,” Cordelia confessed. “Like his obsession with the outer regions. He has completely neglected his other duties here at the capital. This is the beginning of his regime, a very delicate and critical time. It is vital he keep his attention on growing his numbers and stabilizing his platform.”

Trent was silent for a long moment as he admired the streets with a soft smile. “That is why he has you, isn’t it, my dear? And Sachiel? You are in a very esteemed position to the royal prince. He trusts you will maintain order while he is away stabilizing his platform. Curing the outer regions is just as vital as any work he could do here. It will impress many here at the capital.” 

Cordelia gazed up at her husband, who seemed to be contemplating the bag of pastries and entirely ignorant to the importance of his words. She knew what he said to be true, yet as the weeks stretched so long without seeing the prince, Cordelia found her doubt growing.

When Trent pointed out the obvious, it suddenly illuminated the impracticality of her frustrations with Ezra.

The bags of pastries suddenly dropped to the ground.

She chuckled, thinking Trent had grown a bit overzealous with his handling of the treats. “Careful now, you—”

Cordelia’s face contorted into confusion as she stumbled, the weight of Trent’s falling body pulling her awkwardly. The confusion remained thick in her mind, clouding her senses and making it difficult to comprehend the situation. The sound of liquid splashing against the sidewalk was sharp in her ears, as well as Trent’s deep, rattling heave and choke.

With desperate hands, she reached for him, staring into his wide, disbelieving eyes.

His face appeared haggard, unnaturally grey. “F-f—” he choked on fluid in his mouth. He was drowning. “Fratris pr—”

Under her groping hands, Trent turned motionless, his eyes unfocused and extinguished.

Cordelia shuddered, in shock, screaming at the top of her lungs.

Several crows took flight from nearby perches, their cries both wicked and victorious.

 

 

Chapter Text

7. Chapter Seven 

 

“Will you stop putting so much weight on your front foot, Bay?”

“I’m not.”

“Your reaction time is slowing because you spend more time adjusting your balance and position. If you put equal weight on your front and back foot, you will have a quicker response time.”

“I’m not a novice, Edlen, I know proper balance,” came the scathing reply.

“Clearly not.”

Micah sauntered down the corridor of the train, amused at the arguing up ahead.

Before the train servants had the opportunity to summon him for lunch, Micah had escaped the royal compartments and entered the common-folk area. He needed space from Calder and Agni, both of whom had expressed a desire to teach him proper etiquette. Sitting between both men for another meal would undoubtedly wear down his good mood.

Unfortunately, as much as he’d like to deny it, Agni was solely responsible for said ‘good mood’. Even more reason to escape the compartment. He didn’t want the god gloating throughout lunch while simultaneously learning the expected way a royal should act in public.

Nevertheless, just the thought of earlier that morning had him stretching in gratification.

He felt so good.

Rejuvenated.

While the train had no bathing opportunities, besides the basin of water and soap sent to his personal compartment, he was fortunate to have a change of clothes. He’d been accustomed to the sweaty, desert clothes for the past several weeks. The expensive, fashionable clothes felt foreign to him. The tailored, embroidered jacket too constricting around his shoulders and waist. The trousers perfectly fitted and cuffed. The boots far too polished and new.

“Probably feels a bit odd riding inside the train, doesn’t it, Your Highness?” a voice inquired mischievously to his right.

Micah stopped in the middle of the corridor and observed the room full of royal guards.

The common area was equipped with several seating arrangements and tables. Food, both stale and fresh, scattered across the tables, enticing several of the guards who were engaged in card games or other various activities. The scent of booze was strong, most likely the facilitator to the unexpected scene presented before him.

Surprisingly enough, it appeared as if both the Talise and the Azeri guards dwelled together, their navy blue or crimson robes abandoned in favor of casual tunics and trousers.

Micah had never seen them interact so casually together.

His attention fell to the man on the floor who’d called him out. The Igni man sat against the doorframe and gazed audaciously up at Micah with a cheek-straining grin. The wide, unblinking golden eyes prompted Micah to recall the man’s identity— or more appropriately—the Igni twins he met several months ago.

He hadn’t thought of them for quite some time.

Unsurprisingly, his twin brother sat on the ground next to him along with three other Igni men. They held their playing cards lazily, their attentions fastened to Micah’s reaction upon the daringly familiar address.

In fact, conversation and noise seemed to quiet amongst all the parties in the compartment.

Micah kept his cold gaze on the twin who’d spoken, silently prompting the man to expand on his vague comment.

Said Igni guard smirked even wider, his gaze absorbing Micah from his polished boots back up to his face with far too much attentiveness. Proclivity settled in those golden orbs. “Considering the last time you were leaping on top the train cars with your team, I imagine it can be quite different being caged and made to look pretty upon our arrival at the capital.”

Micah adjusted his stance authoritatively, mirroring the Igni twin with his own grin. “Most definitely not as exhilarating. But just like wild dogs who are collared, we all need to find exhilaration where we can in such a domesticated lifestyle.”

The Igni man stood up suddenly, a very faint redness creeping over tanned cheekbones.

He appeared excited, for his trembling hands hid behind his back and he stood tall to overcompensate. A warrior’s stance. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced, Your Highness, though I’ve watched you —or rather— was assigned your protection several times before. And you saved my neck during last battle in Region 20. My name is Uriel Mishaal and this is my brother, Nuri.”

Nuri scrambled up and they both bowed at the waist.

Micah’s smirk turned into a smile. “A pleasure to meet you both and to finally put a name with the face.”

Uriel was the outspoken one. The one who evidently had some sort of enthrallment with Micah, though his brother didn’t seem entirely disinterested either. Micah carefully noted, while both men had wide, cat-like eyes, with the corners curling up mischievously, Uriel also had a large chunk of his left eyebrow missing, ugly and thick scars taking its place.

Micah looked away from the twins, back to the other guards in the compartment. Noting their attentions, he nodded sharply, his expression smoothing into cold disinterest.

Turning to leave, the Igni warrior called him out once more.

“Your Highness?”

Micah slowed to yet another stop and glanced over his shoulder at the Igni warrior.

Uriel raised his chin proudly, his cat-like eyes genuine. “What you did for Region 20…” he trailed off, his voice pinched. He cleared his throat. “Many of us are grateful for your work. For your dedication. For your interest in the outskirt regions.” A bitter smile. “It’s just too bad a lonely, corrupt soul had to ruin all that for them. For the outskirts as a whole.”

Micah observed the man blankly for a moment, feeling a hollow ache in his chest.

He turned his shoulder on the man.

On the memories.

“My work is not done in Region 20, Mishaal. It has only just begun.”

With that, he continued on to his destination.

At his back, he heard a body slide heavily down the doorframe and a muttered, ‘Agni, he’s lovely' amongst a chorus of chuckles. Micah pursed his lips, resisting the temptation to call the young man out with at least a stern look, but decided he would feign deafness.

Micah stopped in front of another compartment just several doors down.

Leaning his shoulder against the doorframe, he watched the two Unda nobles duel.

The room wasn’t set up to be a training arena. It was too small. Too confined. Two mattresses leaned against the perimeter of the room and a wardrobe was shoved into the corridor. Clearly, the two were restless. Micah didn’t blame them, simply because he felt the same. It was a difficult transition, from being so busy in Region 20, at all hours of the day, to just sitting and doing nothing.

He watched their forms, his attention falling on Edlen.

Breathing in deep, he held it for quite some time as he experienced the coldness once more. It didn’t even surprise him as it reached out to him and reminded him of the strength Agni had fed him.

Micah crossed his arms over his chest, watching the two, but his thoughts centered on Agni’s confession.

The Noir User guru, Beck, indicated gods, like daemons, could consume mortal souls. To gods, however, mortal souls weren’t a compelling source of fulfillment or desire. The first time Micah noticed the red-gold hue under his skin, he’d concluded something that he hadn’t wanted to face at the time.

Agni was turning him immortal.

He was doing it through mouth-to-mouth contact.

Inhaling, exhaling. Consuming.

And…

Frowning, Micah wondered at the man’s words. It indicated that Micah was consuming a part of Agni and a part of… himself? He didn’t understand. He would need clarification. Whenever he consumed a part of Agni, he unquestionably felt the fire and the strength, knowing a part of Agni settled within him. But what happened to Agni? Was the god giving away his power? A shard of his immortal soul?

Moreover, Agni mentioned ‘feeding’ Micah. That would explain the hunger pains lessening after he consumed a part of Agni.

But why? Why was Micah hungry for souls?

Why was Agni ‘feeding’ him?

Unless…

Cold horror slid down his spine with malicious intent.

Was Agni feeding Yama?

Micah straightened suddenly. Did Agni know about Yama’s attachment? He was playing around with Micah’s soul. Surely, he sensed something. Did he know the previous god of death was strengthening himself by siphoning off Micah’s strength? What if Agni had planned this all along? What if Micah were merely a transport for Yama’s rise to power and Agni was cementing the man’s return? When Agni fed him, was he replenishing the strength that Yama had absorbed?

It would explain why Micah always felt stronger, healthier after his encounters with Agni.

The thought left him nauseous with betrayal.

Then again, you didn’t want immortality, he reminded himself. You told Agni you didn’t want to become a god.

Micah really wasn’t sure what he wanted at this point. He was starting to realize, however, he really, really didn’t appreciate Yama’s invasion, nor the god of death’s connection to Agni.

While he was suspicious with Agni, even if it wasn’t a proven theory just yet, he was still angrier with Yama.

He’d experienced the jealousy and the possessiveness before, just that morning, in fact. However, after spending so much intimate time with Agni, the sentiment seemed stronger, uglier. As he envisioned a future with Yama and Agni as partners over his dead, lifeless body, he felt something inside him shift and realign. The desire to be stronger hit him. Hard. The persistence to be Agni’s true equal ate at him persistently. The determination not to be an ignorant host urged him not to blind himself with the truth.

The blindfold needed unraveling.

He realized he was going to need to venture out and contact other sources for information. He realized he would need to practice embracing parts of himself he was uncomfortable with. Furthermore, he understood he would undoubtedly fail several times before succeeding.

Even more reason to start now.

Did that mean he was accepting immortality?

Was he accepting his role as the god of death and justice?

“What do you think, Egan? Am I right? She’s putting too much weight on her front foot.”

Micah redirected his consideration to the pair of warriors, watching as Talia picked up her discarded sword with a scowl. As difficult as it was, he let go of his indecisions and entered the compartment. “Talia grew accustomed to your weakness,” Micah said casually. “I’ve watched you two since our arrival in Region 20. You failed several times against her because of your eye.”

Kai scowled outright.

“Because of your blind spot, and learning to adjust to said blind spot, Talia discovered she could defeat you through physical prowess.” Micah stopped next to Talia, clasping his hands behind his back. “She started relying less on her speed and agility and took advantage of her momentarily upper hand of strength. Putting more weight on the front foot gave her the extra power behind her strikes, effectively making you lose your balance and your ground as she pummeled your weak side. I did the same thing to you during our trials at the academy. Only, at that time, you had both eyes, just a detrimental weak point.”

He glanced at Talia, noticing her stiff shoulders and her reluctant gaze.

Edlen seemed to understand Micah’s direction, for his expression cleared and he looked pointedly at Talia. “You grew comfortable with disarming me through power attacks. So much so that you forgot your natural form.”

“I didn’t forget it.”

“Just to the extent that you now rely on another form entirely. It’s beginning to resemble the Igni form,” Micah quipped. “Edlen is growing stronger and adjusting. You will never beat him with power again, Talia. You need to start relearning your quickness and agility.”

She didn’t appreciate the collaboration against her weaknesses. Nonetheless, she kept silent to any arguments and nodded shortly. “I get it.” She reached up and sheathed her weapon in her back holster. “I think I’m done for the day.”

“Talia—”

“I’d rather speak to Micah, if that’s alright with you, Kai,” Talia interrupted. “I want to talk about Region 20.”

Kai exhaled with controlled frustration before he sheathed his own sword. “What about Region 20?”

The derisive look Talia delivered Edlen was both impressive as it was disconcerting. “That’s for him and I to discuss. Privately.”

Micah looked between the two, noticing their body language and the unrestrained tension between them. He was familiar enough with antagonistic sexual tension to know that Kai and Talia had something they should discuss just as well. He tried to dull his senses to that particular observation, preferring to be oblivious to their…

Whatever it was.  

“Good.” Micah smiled thinly. “I wanted to speak to both of you privately anyway.” He looked at Talia. “You and I can go first. Kai can wait out in the corridor.”

Edlen looked between the two, clearly having trouble realizing he was dismissed.

“You’ll get your turn, Edlen, I promise.”

At Micah’s provoking, Kai pressed his lips together and sauntered out of the room with an impressive amount of pompousness. When the door closed, Micah turned to observe Talia, only to find the young woman examining him in turn. Her blue eyes softened at the corners and the lines of tension around her mouth disappeared.

“How are you doing, Micah?” she asked quietly.

There was no pity in her tone, only true sympathy.

He knew she was referring to the events of Region 20. ‘The Desert Tragedy’, he would most likely coin it. If one were to ask what the Desert Tragedy entailed, he would tell them it was a train of events, in such exquisitely orchestrated order, which unraveled weeks upon weeks of hard work and dedication. All under an hour. All under the eyes of his father, Agni, royal guards, councilmembers, and Region 20 as a whole.

If Micah wanted to be cynical of the entire situation, he would applaud Bren for his ingenious and effective scheme. Truly, it almost seemed too organized for him to accomplish. Which only added weight to Bren’s proclamation that there were more men and women just like him.

“I have experience with licking wounds and recovering,” Micah replied stoically. “It gets easier over time.”

In his mind, he saw Kalama’s features slack with nothingness.

He smelt the burnt flesh of the children.

Talia’s square jaw clenched noticeably. “You put so much indifference into that reply that I know you’re hurting but are too proud to admit it.” She adjusted her stance and crossed her arms over her chest. “I can’t say that I blame you. You are, after all, the prince now. Strength and untouchability is mandatory.” Here, her eyes focused on his fitted trousers and smartly tailored jacket and vest.

“Talia,” Micah started fondly, “I appreciate the concern, but we all lost something that day. I have an inclination that we all feel echoes of the same pain. We can relate well with one another.”

He looked pointedly at the holster strapped around her thigh. The dagger holstered would undoubtedly be with Talia forever. A reminder of the little girl who not only absorbed Talia’s teachings with high regard, but whom also taught Talia a great deal of things in turn.

The dagger was also a memento of the cruelty of humanity.

Talia touched the dagger absentmindedly, her eyes distant before refocusing on his face. “We’re going to be at the capital shortly.”

Micah waited for her to expound.

She did not.

Instead, she looked away, showing a flash of vulnerability as she turned her shoulder. She preoccupied herself with grabbing the mattress against the wall and dropping it back to the floor. Her hair, which typically styled into a tight, conforming bun, now gathered carelessly into a loose ponytail. Stray hairs framed her features, which were still flushed from her earlier session with Edlen. Micah decided she appeared more feminine and wondered if that was intentional on her part or a subconscious result of finally letting go of such tight control.

He assumed it was the latter.

Talia no longer took herself so seriously.  

“Is there something you wish to ask me, Talia?” Micah mused, trying to hide his humor.

Her eyes flew in his direction, looking pointedly at his grin. “Is something funny, Micah?”

“I imagine you can get Edlen to help you reassemble the beds.” He nodded toward the bedframe clutched in her white-knuckled grip. “You wanted to speak to me privately for a reason. I’d rather discuss what’s on your mind than watch you rearrange the room.”

Talia cleared her throat uncomfortably, her hands curling around the metal frame. “I wanted to know my place.” She suddenly laughed once. A bitter-sort of laugh. “I’m normally not so timid,” she informed as if needing to explain her openness. “But being side by side with high nobility and royalty is far more than I anticipated for myself. I just wanted to be a warrior for Concordia military.”

“You make it sound as if that is what you still want.”

“It’s not,” she said firmly. “You know what I want, Micah.”

“You just want reassurance.”

Talia nodded once, her lips pressing together discontentedly. “I’m not like Edlen. Even if he’s not welcome somewhere, he forces himself there and exudes a sense of authority. I’m not a politician. I’m not an Elemental. I’m not properly groomed to stand behind a crowned prince as his personal guard.” She stopped fidgeting with the bedframe and looked Micah in the eye. “But that’s where I want to be.”  

“Then that’s where you shall be,” Micah said firmly. “I’m not going to leave you behind just because we’re at the capital. You offer me more than just protection. You offer a different perspective and you’ve proven yourself fiercely loyal.” He raised his eyebrows. “Your largest hurdle will be acknowledging your own worth, Talia.”

Something steely settled in her gaze. “Perhaps that is also one of your hurdles.”

Micah nearly stepped back at the words, his mind numbing.

Talia approached and stood opposite of him. She smiled genuinely. “Setbacks can sometimes leave us doubting ourselves,” she whispered. “But look at all that hope you brought to Region 20. There are others too, silent spectators, that admire your audacity to change things for the better. I don’t want you ever doubting your abilities because of what happened.”

Micah felt a crushing sense of despondency and bittersweet regard for her observation.

Before he could truly absorb her words, he noticed she was moving to the door quickly, as if flustered by her own admissions.

“Talia,” Micah called lightly, so very fond of her. “The palace staff will set up quarters for you in my wing of the palace.” His eyes narrowed mockingly. “You probably won’t be sharing the quarters with Edlen, however. I know you’ve gotten quite used to that arrangement.”

Talia’s eyes widened marginally before they squinted unhappily. “Hardly amusing, Micah.” She then paused before growing somber. “I worry about him, you know. Both you and him.”

Without waiting for a reply, she exited the compartment, leaving the door open for Kai.

Said noble entered a moment later, appearing mildly put off for having to wait so long. Micah watched him knowingly as the man shut the door with a sharp snap and focused on him.

The two observed the other silently.

Kai broke first.

“Talia is worried about you.”

Micah did not hear Edlen pose it as a question, but rather a declaration. “I can say that she is also worried about you, Edlen.” He ran an eye down Edlen’s thin frame. The man’s broad shoulders and athletic build covered the frailness that undeniably hid beneath his clothes. “You and I seem to have more in common than we’d like to admit.”

“If this conversation will be about eating, sleeping, or nightmares, let me spare us both some time and leave.”

“The purpose of this conversation is not going to be about your health, Edlen.” He eyed the man unhappily. “But I trust you will at least come to me if things progress for the worse or don’t get better.”

Things should have gotten better already.

Agni said Kai wasn’t possessed and Micah believed him. Agni also said he’d brush Kai’s mind to see if he could glean anything informative about his condition. Micah wanted to think he could trust the fire god to speak the truth, but he acknowledged he needed another source. Yama had possession of Kai for several days. There was no telling what the god of death did to Kai during that time.

Micah’s mind instantly went to the Syphon he’d summoned those many months ago.

A possibility lingered, hovered, and tempted him.  

 “I’ll put your maternal concerns at ease, Egan, and come to you with any health concerns.” Kai sauntered into the middle of the compartment, eyeing the mattress on the floor and the askew bedframe. “What is this conversation about?”

“It’s about what our positions will be when we arrive back to the capital.”

“Our positions? When we get back to the capital?” Kai turned to him, considering, before approaching. He crowded Micah’s unmoving form, using his height as advantage to loom. “You already know my position, Egan. It’s the same as it has been in the past. Let’s hope the palace staff are still attending to my quarters. I’d hate to come back to unkempt bedchambers.”

Micah stared up at the blond-haired man, recalling Talia’s description of Kai and finding it aptly appropriate. Even if he’s not welcome somewhere, he forces himself there and exudes a sense of authority.

“What’s so funny, Egan?” Kai called out, noting Micah’s humor.

“Just dumbfounded that I can find your sheer arrogance both endearing and revolting at the same time.”

Something like fondness crinkled at the corner of Edlen’s eye as he loomed even closer to Micah. “You know I wouldn’t change my mind about being at your side. So why insult me by inquiring?”

Micah, inclined to create space, sidestepped and approached the other mattress against the wall. As Talia did before, he flung it back to the floor, revealing the bedframe behind it. “Because. I feel as if you are destined for more than just being my guard.”

“Is that what you see me as? Just your guard?”

Edlen’s tone was carefully void of any emotion.

Micah shook his head at his slip of tongue. “No,” he started calmly, turning back around. “You’re more than that, Kai.” The other man still appeared unconvinced. “I just meant, with your name and bloodline, you have an endless amount of opportunities at your disposal. I want you to do something that will challenge yourself.”

“Oddly enough, you just described my current position. Dealing with you is always a challenge.” Edlen’s lip curled as he redirected the conversation. “I want to hear exactly what I am to you, Egan. Perhaps your answer will help me determine if I’m wasting my time.”

Micah knew he’d insulted Edlen by addressing him as ‘just his guard’, yet this was ridiculous. “Would you like a proper list, Edlen? A serenade, perhaps?”

Despite Micah’s scorn, the man appeared oddly serious.

This wasn’t about stroking Kai’s ego, Micah realized. This was something more.

“A list would be just fine,” Kai replied.

“You’re asking for sentimentality.”

“I’m asking for sincerity, Egan. Is it really that difficult for you to say—”

“It’s not difficult.”

“Then say it.”

Micah clammed up. He licked his lips, realizing that it really was a challenge to declare things like this aloud. It was difficult to admit when someone meant a great deal to him. As evidence with Keegan, whom Micah could not even acknowledge his importance until after his death. It was easy to reassure people like Viktor and Talia, whom both seemed satisfied with general encouragement. What Kai was asking was deeply personal. He was asking Micah to relay something he’d rather keep private.

But this was his opportunity, wasn’t it? Did he want to miss the opportunity as he’d missed with Keegan?

Would he be toasting to Kai’s memory, drunkenly admitting to his ghost that he had considered him like a brother?

“I love you, Egan.”

Micah looked up, disconcerted.

Kai grinned, clearly knowing how uncomfortable Micah must feel. “I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m only sorry that it’s so difficult for you to do the same.” He approached Micah’s shell-shocked form. “Love can be entirely platonic, Egan. Don’t act as if I just professed that I wanted to take Lord Josiah’s place. You’re like a little brother.”

“I’m two years older than you,” Micah retorted angrily.

“Well you act younger. Have you never said it yourself?” Kai asked quietly. “That you loved someone?”

Micah frowned, wondering how this conversation took such a ridiculous turn. “Of course I had.”

“Besides to your mother when you were a young child?” At Micah’s cold stare, Kai smirked and came to a stop opposite of him once more. “I know your sentiments towards me, Egan.” Somehow, the arrogance was both warranted and appreciative. “I just thought I’d be able to get you to say it aloud. Perhaps one day you’ll feel inclined to shower me with the proper praise I deserve.”

“You’re a bastard, Edlen.”

“I just adore how confident you came strutting in here, how cool and nonchalant. But as soon as we talk about feelings, you get as uncomfortable as a virgin on his wedding night.”

Micah strode past Edlen. “This conversation was moot.”

Edlen reached out and shackled Micah’s wrist, holding him back. “I appreciate your concern for my future endeavors, Micah.” Kai tightened his hold before dropping Micah’s hand. “But I’m looking forward to what I can accomplish as your political aide, as your guard, and as your friend.” He paused. “Just don’t make me wear a damn uniform. I firmly believe I can rival your own wardrobe.”

“That’s assuming daddy has relinquished your control of the Edlen purse strings.”

Kai tsked. “I’d imagine the royal family would reimburse me for my services.”

Micah made an unimpressed sound in his throat as he opened the door to the compartment. Talia pushed off from the far wall, her features once again crafted into their practiced impassiveness. “I will see you both tomorrow. Do try to behave.”

Talia smirked, watching Micah’s retreat with a considering light.

 

* * * *

 

When the capital came into view, Micah felt the anticipation burning in his stomach.

Before, back in Region 20, he’d dreaded this moment. He hadn’t been strong enough to imagine a homecoming amongst the bloodthirsty nobles. While he was returning with a failed endeavor under his belt and health that was still questionable, Micah had since adapted a stronger mentality.

He’d spent a few more hours in the company of Calder and Agni yesterday, but never with the latter alone. Either Agni felt as if Micah wanted distance after their intense morning together, or he was intentionally avoiding him. No matter the god’s intentions, Micah had felt Agni’s presence during his sleep last night.

The thought that Agni still kept his promise, to keep Micah’s nightmares at bay, tore something relentlessly affectionate within him.

“Ara may need assistance planning your coronation,” Calder murmured. He eyed the nearing palace with barely-veiled gratification. It was all his, after all. “I trust you will keep your end of the bargain and play nicely for some time. No more spur of the moment rendezvous or otherwise foolhardy ventures.”

Micah tapped his fingers across the table between them, looking down at the chessboard with disinterest. “I always assumed coronations were practiced and rehearsed from previous generations. Not much planning required, is there? Just age old traditions.”

A body slid next to him, perching itself upon the arm of Micah’s chair.

Josiah loomed serenely, looking at the chessboard with apathetic consideration. The man considered the several pieces discarded next to Calder, almost an overwhelming imbalance of lost soldiers. The orange eyes then turned and gazed down at Micah. Just a hint of smugness lingered in those eyes before he refocused his attention on the board.

Tearing his eyes from the hovering god, and trying to fight his grin, Micah noticed an unnatural silence radiating from Calder.

As he looked at his father, he noticed the man’s unamused expression.

“What?” Micah inquired, truly at a loss of what he’d done this time.

“You have yet to promise me.”

“Promise?” Micah repeated, leaning back in his plush chair. Ah, yes. “Yes. I promise no foolhardy ventures.” At Calder’s searing gaze, Micah relented. “I will try to play as nicely as I can, but if poked, that amiability can only go so far.”

Calder seemed to accept Micah’s word, for he refocused on the chess pieces. “As far as your coronation, this one will undoubtedly be different from previous generations. We must integrate both the Azeri and Talise royal family traditions into a tasteful ceremony. Agni and Varuna both need to be included in the ceremony as well. It is not something we have executed before.”

Micah placed a curled hand under his chin, eyeing his father sullenly. “Yes. Please make sure you reserve front row seats for Varuna and Agni.” Calder pursed his lips and Micah considered poking further. “What if I decided to omit religion from the coronation ceremony?”

“You can decide all you wish,” Calder murmured pleasantly as he plucked his rook and knocked away another one of Micah’s pawns. “Your decisions need approval from me, however, and I can assure you, that you will kneel readily before both gods.” Calder smiled satisfyingly as he added Micah’s pawn with the pile of others.

“I’ve already kneeled before Agni,” Micah murmured casually, unable to resist the debauchery and the wicked humor curling his insides. “I don’t think he’d appreciate me doing the same with Varuna.”

His father wouldn’t understand the innuendo.

Agni would.

Josiah shifted and threw an arm around the back of Micah’s chair. The bite mark on Micah’s shoulder seared with heat, a vivid reminder that Micah only kneeled for Agni. In that sense, at least. Micah rolled his fist from under his chin to rest against the corner of his mouth, an attempt to muffle his hilarity. There were times Agni was so easily riled.

“It will have to be done for both,” Calder replied, unaware of the amusement stemming from his son.

“I suppose it cannot be helped,” Micah quipped resignedly. He reached forward and moved his rook into position, trapping Calder’s king against the board with the threat of two rooks. “Checkmate.”

Calder stared down at the board with perfectly veiled surprise. The aristocrat then leaned back in his chair and studied the board with a shrewd eye. Calder stole far more pieces from Micah, but they were mostly all pawns. The only pieces remaining on Micah’s side were powerful players and they currently surrounded Calder’s forces. Whichever way Calder hoped to move would result in the death of his king.

His father looked up at Micah, his eyes alight with something wicked. “What a ruthless leader you are, my son.”

Micah smirked, knowing, without looking, that Agni was mirroring him. “Whatever gets the job done,” he said, feeling his words echo oddly in his head, as if someone were speaking them at the same time.

Not someone—but Agni.

A pleased heat settled in his belly. He’d felt this before, a disquieting connection to Agni that seemed surreal.

Never before had it felt like this… as if they were extensions of the other.

So strongly too.

It felt as if they were sharing the same body, but Agni controlled one side and Micah controlled the other. Freely to move at will and opposite of the other, but still working together, still linked together. Extensions of the whole. As odd of a sensation as it was, Micah couldn’t deny the power and the giddiness that came with it.

Calder’s attention drifted to Josiah, who silently perched alongside Micah, then back to his son. A line appeared between his brows, as if deeply unsettled. The expression disappeared a moment later. “Sacrifice the lowly soldiers in favor of keeping your more powerful players.”

“If the war were to continue to wage, you outnumber me greatly,” Micah said. “But it’s what’s remaining on the board after a king is eliminated. Your pawns, while great in numbers, will struggle without their leader and their queen. They’ll be forced to face the larger threat all by their lonesome.”

“Unless they are strong pawns.”

The smile that curled Micah’s lips was chilling. “They’re not. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be mere pawns. They’d drop. Quickly. The only thing impressive about them will be their valiant dedication to keep fighting a lost cause.”

Calder reached for his drink, drawing Micah’s close attention. Either Agni hadn’t destroyed the man’s supply or Calder had reserves. The king hadn’t mentioned anything to Micah about the topic of shattered bottles and spilt whiskey. He also hadn’t asked Micah if he wanted a drink. A certain meddling god could have had something to do with that.

Micah could imagine Agni, cloaked in Josiah’s skin, informing Calder of his son’s alcohol abuse.

Still resting heavily against the back of his chair, Micah observed the chilled amber liquid, trying not to notice how it tempted him. Instead, he turned his attention to the window. They passed over the lakes and entered the heart of the capital. It would only be a matter of minutes before they reached the depot.

“I have reassigned your personal Healer,” Calder informed. “Healer Brenton and Haken Anwar are still on reserve, but I’ve replaced your primary care with another Igni Healer. He’s still learning, but I think it best. Anwar’s ties to you are inconvenient and damning.”

“Haken was no threat,” Micah retorted. “He would have been just fine.”

“He’s still residing at the palace.”

“As a prisoner? Or a guest with esteemed abilities?”

Calder continued without pause, ignoring Micah’s taunt. “He just won’t be your primary care facilitator. It would be inappropriate.” He swirled his drink, appearing as if he were readying himself to speak about something unpleasant. “It’s suggested that you also start thinking about our previous discussion regarding a consort.”

Micah hissed between his teeth.

He didn’t even want to consider this now.

“Moreover, perhaps you two can…” Calder trailed off, looking between Josiah and Micah. “Separate a bit until the consort is decided.”

“For what purpose?” Josiah finally broke his silence. “Everyone believes we are Chosen.”

Besides Calder. And Kai. And Haken. But Micah wasn’t about to interject.

Calder tipped back the rest of his drink. “Your sexual relationship makes me shudder,” he spoke hoarsely into his glass. “I don’t want to see it. Think about it. Hear it…” The man sighed insufferably.

It took Micah a mere second to comprehend.

Oh god, Calder heard them yesterday morning.

Micah’s ears warmed. He then laughed. He had to. It was both mortifyingly uncomfortable and comical. He’d tried to be quiet, but he was sure a few moans slipped past his defenses. Just as well, the bed had been far from silent.

“No,” he started breathlessly. “That wasn’t Jos—”

Agni interrupted him. “Close quarters will not be an issue when we arrive at the capital. You can trust us to be discreet as all royalty are when it comes to these particular activities.”

Calder looked suspiciously at Micah then back to Josiah. “I had an inkling about this before, even when you tried to deny the physical aspects. I didn’t agree with it then, but after hearing it, I find it disturbing and inappropriate. Yet, you’re an adult.” Here, he addressed Micah pointedly. “You are more than capable of making decisions and consenting.”

“It wasn’t Josiah,” Micah informed sharply, preventing Agni from interrupting him again.

“Then pray tell who was it?”

“Someone you would find equally as inappropriate.”

Upon Micah’s concession, Calder looked imploringly at Josiah.

Whatever expression Josiah wore was enough to convince Calder that it was, indeed, him.

Micah furiously turned to Agni. “What are you playing at?”

“A Chosen bond does not discriminate between blood ties,” Josiah said, looking at Calder and ignoring Micah. “A mere inconvenience that it turned out to be my half-nephew. The public finds it scandalously comical, but accepts it as consequential. Therefore, our relationship is both expected and anticipated. I will not hide my fondness for him as if it were an abomination. A Chosen is a gift from the gods. I will treat him as such and make sure everyone knows it.”

Micah sat stiffly.

In his hand, he absentmindedly turned over his black queen.

This was the first time Agni verbally admitted and defended their relationship to Calder, one of the few who knew they weren’t truly Chosen. Initially, Micah had been furious over the man blatantly telling Calder he was the one pounding his son into the mattress. His anger steadily bled away as he recognized Agni’s desire to defend and claim a true, public relationship with him.

It left Micah feeling… delighted.

If not a bit suspicious.

“You don’t understand my point, Josiah,” Calder said sternly. “I know you two aren’t Chosen. Don’t proceed to feed me the story you plan to tell the court. I don’t want to see it. Ever. Ever again.”

“I’m simply trying to inform you that my relationship with Ezra will be public. And you will see it.”

Calder smiled dangerously. “That’s not entirely your decision.” He looked at a contemplative Micah. “You both have to be on board with a public courtship. Moreover, a courtship does not guarantee you the position of his consort. In this specific case, if he were to declare you as his consort, it still does not rule out the need to choose a woman to bear an heir. A proper woman of the court.”

“Josiah is merely suggesting that he anticipates putting his name on the list of candidates for my consort. It’s something we both knew before.” Micah set down his queen. He didn’t plan to take Josiah as his consort, but he was truly pleased at the man’s attempts. “I also don’t believe it is a good political move to announce our current…” he trailed off, struggling with the term. “Liaison.”

He looked up at Josiah, noticing the displeased eyes gazing down at him.

“Tactfully evade any confirmation of liaisons, but leave it implied?”

Micah turned the proposal around in his mind and smirked. He looked back at the chessboard. Agni wanted to make it abundantly clear that Micah was his. He could understand the possessiveness. He’d felt it just as well. It was a suffocating, unpleasant emotion.

“Isn’t that what we’re currently doing?”

Calder released an ugly sound. “Ezra,” he addressed calmly.

“Father.” He looked up at the man as the train came to a steady stop. “Didn’t you tell me the political advantages of tying myself to Lord Josiah would be great? Why are you suddenly against it?”

“I’m against the liaisons, not the prospect of a platonic, political consort. He is your blood relative.”

“Kings and queens were often times related, sometimes as close as siblings.”

“In barbaric times.” Calder leaned forward. “They also weren’t my child.”

Before Micah could reply, he grew distracted with the happenings outside his window.

Men and women crowed the train depot in the masses. Even when he leaned to the side and gazed further down the way, the number of people on the platform and the surrounding area was great. As he turned back to look toward the carpet of amethyst rolled out, he noticed the men and women closest to the aisle dressed entirely in mourning clothes. Some with veils. Others covered completely in black.

“What happened?” he inquired.

Calder turned to look as well. He appeared pensive. “There has been a passing. Someone of high esteem, it appears.”

As Micah turned back to observe, thick steam from the train rose and blocked his view. Instead, he watched as his father stood from his chair and straightened his clothes. It was a bracing if Micah ever saw one.

He immediately felt the urge to do the same.

Standing up to relieve some of the agitation, he looked pointedly at Josiah’s legs blocking his way. The man gazed at him tauntingly for a moment, not moving an inch. “Quite the turnout to witness your homecoming, Your Highness,” Agni murmured coyly. “It appears as if distance made the hearts grow fonder.”

“Is that what it did for you?” Micah murmured quietly, taking Josiah’s knee and forcibly moving it out of the way. “The distance?” His father was far enough away that he would not hear past the sighing train engines.

As such, he also kept his back to them, as if still repelled by their previous conversation.

“I am never too far,” came the nearly inaudible response. “There will never be distance.

“So your heart doesn’t grow fonder?”

Orange eyes deepened, appearing almost blood-orange. “My heart is eternally yearning and growing fonder for you each day.” 

Micah pushed himself into the aisle, keeping steady eye contact with the god obscured in mortal skin. His lips twisted cynically at the words, recalling his theory that Agni was merely using him for Yama’s return. He would hold on to that theory, yet he would not let it rule his actions. He needed proper investigating before he shunned Agni entirely.

“For being centuries old, you’d think you’d have a much smoother and lyrical delivery,” Micah quipped smartly.

Josiah appeared delighted. “I’m millenniums old, centuries out of practice.”

A true grin tightened the corners of Micah’s mouth. “I suppose your rusty delivery can be forgiven, then.”

“Much appreciated, child.”

The way Agni gazed at him left Micah’s mind blank. Even if he was clothed in Josiah’s skin, Agni still had the ability to peer through every layer of Micah’s conscience. The fire god possessed the capability of finding every hidden doubt and insecurity and scrutinizing it with utmost fascination. Micah wondered, with that stare alone, if Agni could sense his doubts.

Agni reached for his hand, shackling Micah’s wrist with his fingers. He expertly parted Micah’s sleeve from his glove, revealing the exposed flesh of his wrist. Without saying anything, Agni raised his arm and pressed his lips firmly against Micah’s wrist, just above his pulse point.

In his gaze, in his actions, he was telling Micah something.

Reassurance.

“Lord Josiah and I will go out first,” Calder informed.

Micah tugged his hand from Agni’s grasp and paced a distance away.

“You will bring up the rear, Ezra.”

Micah nodded distractedly. “The guards? When will they be out?” He thought of Kai and Talia.

“Long before us.”

Micah glanced out one of the windows, watching as the royal guards exited the train and lined up alongside the aisle, forming a human barrier for royalty. It felt surreal. All these men and women standing and ogling just to catch a glimpse of royalty. Of him. Micah followed his father’s lead and straightened his jacket and waistcoat vest before tugging at his tunic sleeves.

Appearances were everything, after all.

A knock sounded at the door of the compartment before it swung open to admit Conway Edlen. “Your Majesty.” The blond-haired captain bowed low at the waist, his high ponytail falling over his shoulder. “The carriages are prepared and ready for you.”

Calder nodded sharply and exited the train without as much as a backward glance. Josiah unhurriedly stood from the arm of his chair and waited for Micah. He held out an arm, gesturing him to go before him.

“You’re breaking protocol,” Micah mused wryly.

Agni offered him an unfathomable look.

Not wanting to create such a large distance between himself and Calder, least it demonstrate a disunion to the observers, Micah promptly followed his father. As he stepped on to the train balcony, he adjusted his coat, buttoning the waist with one hand.

It was a humid day at the capital. Grey. Colorless. Rather gloom in its despondency. It was misting, far too light to be drizzle or rain, but plentiful that it dampened his skin and curled the ends of his hair. There was a heaviness in the air, Micah noted distractedly as he climbed down the train stairs. A heaviness, but almost a sense of familiarity.

He couldn’t put his finger on the unease he felt.

It tasted both of trepidation and… home.

Above, a few crows took off from neighboring posts with loud, shrill cries and led chase with a larger bird of prey. Micah hardly paid them much heed as he focused on walking down the aisle with impassive control and confidence. He could hear them. The observers. See their anchoring gazes as they followed his every move. Even through veils of black mesh, he could sense their intense regard.

In the distance, further from the aisle, the public did not attempt properness and compliance. Instead, they shouted for his attention, cheered his arrival, and screamed endearments. The ones closest to the aisles, clearly nobles, carried a gloominess that all but deafened the public’s rambunctious, homecoming welcome.

Micah hoped the dead noble was not someone he knew.

Sachiel…. Cordelia…

One of his teammates or their family members.

Micah hastened his steps, bred far too well not to react as Josiah positioned at his side with obnoxious grace. The lightest touch applied to the small of his back, burning hot with possessiveness and a sense of ownership. He wanted the onlookers to know of his claim. They were a power couple in every sense of the word and no one would ever come close to comparison.

That man.

A scoff stuck painfully in his throat as he willed it away. The smirk, hidden at the corners of his lips, bucked against his tight control. Agni was not going to make Micah react in public.

Instead, he maintained a deadpanned, but pleasant expression as he followed his father down the aisle and toward the carriages. He found he did not mind Josiah’s claim. He was secure enough in the man’s ability, in his status, that everyone should know they could never compete with him.

He kept his attention straight ahead, yet his peripheral vision observed the familiar faces ahead of him.

He saw Brooke Glyndwr and Councilman Glyndwr. He saw Wayde’s father, Councilman Devereux. The more he looked, however, the more he worried. He did not see Cordelia Abital. He did not see Sachiel. And despite the academy concluding their summer semester, he did not see Viktor or Cain.

Micah caught the eyes of a very proud and observant aristocrat to his right. He hadn’t made the man’s acquaintance, nor had he ever seen him before, but Micah was captivated. The tall, broad-shouldered man was around the same age as Sachiel and Cordelia. The intelligence in his eyes was noteworthy. Moreover, the predatory gleam in his gaze, as he focused exclusively on Micah, was exceptional. 

Striding past the man, Micah observed Kai and Talia standing at the end of the aisle, along with the nobles who’d accompanied Calder to Region 20. Just at Kai’s shoulder, a familiar man murmured into the young man’s ear.

Sachiel.

At seeing the nobleman, Micah found it easier to breathe. However, the councilman was properly clothed in black as well, indicating he also thought highly of the individual who passed away. Sachiel would not feel obligated to follow social expectations if he did not feel it necessary. Micah caught Kai’s eye, noticing the young man’s lips thinning grimly. 

Caring little about protocol, Micah inched closer to Edlen, needing to hear. Needing to know.

Kai and Sachiel watched his approach.

“Abital,” Kai informed quietly.

Micah stopped suddenly, inhaling past his disbelief.

“Trent Abital,” Sachiel clarified.

Micah nodded sharply, eyeing Josiah, and further down, Calder whom had approached one of the carriages. “Is she at home?”

“She is,” Sachiel confirmed, forced to stand behind the barrier between royalty and nobility. “She would appreciate a visit.”

Their alliance would require his condolences and anything else he could offer. Even without expectations of the alliance, he would be there for her as she’d been there for him. “We will meet you there,” Micah informed sharply, moving on and gesturing for Talia and Kai to follow. He looked at Agni, who gazed steadily back. “Can you—”

“Tell your father you’ve decided to partake in a spur of the moment rendezvous or otherwise foolhardy venture? Yes.”

Despite the heaviness of Trent’s passing, Micah still managed to find amusement in Agni’s words. He faultlessly recited Calder’s expectations word for word.

“Precisely.”

“Then I suggest you take your leave before I tell him you’ve already broken your promise to behave.”

Micah did just that.

Under Agni’s close regard, he informed the driver of the second carriage to bring them to Cordelia Abital’s residence. As Kai and Talia closed the door behind them, the carriage veered away from Calder, from the palace, and entered the noble district.

 

Chapter Text

8. Chapter Eight

 

Excited whispers spread across the Terra community.

They were not the whispers kindled by wonder and eager intrigue, but rather of morbid disbelief.

Men, women, and children gathered underneath the garden platforms that suspended high into the air and near the earthy partitions. The string of twinkling lights, that had once carried mystical charm as they crisscrossed across the entire village, seemed rather ominous as heads craned back to stare at the earthy, dark ceiling.

The dozens of garden platforms, housing an array of flowers or produce reliant on direct sunlight, were empty of their gardeners. Said gardeners were trembling within the crowd of gawkers, accepting comfort from the otherwise mystified individuals who could only listen to their tales with incredulity.

No one understood what the gardeners discovered that morning. Yet, what they did understand was enough to frighten them.

Gaia absorbed all this as she approached the crowd of villagers alongside her father. Of the eight delegators, only four accompanied them, having been the only ones nearby when the news reached Chief Heres. The other three, who represented parishes far too distant from the Hortus Parish, would join them when they could.

“Chief Heres.” Delegator Barth, the representative of the Hortus Parish, and by proxy the Sanctuary Region beneath their feet, moved forward to greet them. He nodded sharply to Gaia and the four delegators. “He was discovered early this morning by one of the gardeners.”

Here, he motioned toward a distraught man whom sat amongst a crowd of comforting supporters.

Gaia caught the eyes of a young boy standing amid the crowd.

She nodded firmly to the child, knowing exactly who gazed out from those large, green eyes. Said child simply stared back, his expression drawn with startling bleakness. Goose bumps raised across Gaia’s arms at the disquieting countenance. Turning her cheek on the earth goddess, she reassessed the crowd, noticing the ominousness reflected in just about everyone.

“Where is he?”

At her father’s inquiry, Delegator Barth frowned deeply. He turned his shoulder and raised his arm, pointing to one of the high garden platforms. “We haven’t lowered him down yet. We—we decided to wait for you.”

The crowd parted, allotting them room as they stood beneath the suspended garden platform. Her father’s long dreadlocks reached the small of his back as he tilted his head to gaze at the platform. After a moment of pause, he then turned to Gaia. “Will you do the honors?”

“He may be… attached.”

Gaia turned to Barth upon his proclamation, perplexed. “Excuse me?”

Barth appeared uncomfortable. “From what I’ve gleaned, the scene is very disturbing.”

There was a hush amongst the group as they finally realized the severity of the situation. This was no ordinary death. This was enough to shake the residents to their very core. 

Heres turned and surveyed the crowd.

“I want all the children gone!” His normally good-natured expression crumbled into an uncharacteristic scowl. “Now!”

Gathering her long skirt in one hand, Gaia repositioned her stance and regarded the high garden platform. Behind her, the sound of rushing feet indicated the citizens hurriedly followed the chief’s order. Inhaling, Gaia closed her eyes, focusing on the humidity in the air and the gentle thrum of nature. As if sensing her attentiveness, nature’s placidity and mystical chime darkened and deepened into a thrumming bass.

Gaia reached out, willing herself to become one with the wildness of Mother Nature.

Like a reaching, enthusiastic vine, the Element soared through the soles of her bare feet and coursed through her body, connecting her firmly with the earth beneath her feet. Opening her eyes, she smiled thinly at the vibrant greens and the array of browns. Her eager pulse thumped in tune with nature, a reminder that she was but a conduct for nature’s fierce and violate powers.

She lifted an arm, reaching toward the platform.

Her fingers flexed as she massaged the roots that anchored the platform in the air. From her position below, Gaia knew this particular platform cultivated tomatoes and cucumbers. She could smell their ripeness. She could see their vibrant colors. 

But there was something not of nature also on that platform.

Gaia frowned, drawing back her hand as she touched the unnaturalness.

“What is it?” her father inquired, sensing her disquiet.

“I don’t know,” Gaia replied quietly. “Something blackened.”

Determined, Gaia reached for the roots again, pulling them from the earth. Like elastic tendrils, they snapped from the platform, allowing Gaia to tug the garden free. With both hands, she beckoned the platform down slowly. She remembered her first time lifting a platform of earth into the air. She’d been four-years-old and wholly enthusiastic at the power Prithvi had given her.

As the garden lowered, Gaia noticed the tops of the tree’s naked branches.

There shouldn’t have been trees on this platform. It did not grow apples, nor lemons.

But—

“Oh… Prithvi.

At her father’s muttered curse, Gaia’s eyes widened and her mouth opened in silent horror. Her control slipped and the platform dropped several feet, causing a cloud of earth to explode and cloud their vision.

Several people coughed and turned away from the plume of earthy dust. 

Raising her arm, Gaia placed it over her eyes, not entirely sure she wanted to look.

When the dust finally settled at her feet, Gaia shakily dropped her arm, peeking over her forearm. Her trembling lips pressed against her raised arm as she observed the monstrosity before her. Judging from the heavy and stunned silence around her, the others were trying to digest the scene just as well.

The first thing she obsessed over was the gardener’s face, twisted and frozen in death with an expression akin to endless torment. His eyes squinted closed, his mouth open wide with a noiseless scream. His face emerged from the trunk of a tree, his cheeks and jawline both cracked with bark contours. It was difficult to tell where the skin and bark differentiated.  

His entire torso also curved unnaturally into the trunk of the tree while his arms disappeared somewhere above him where the naked tree branches sprouted. His legs warped and twisted alongside the gnarly roots anchoring into the garden.

It was as if a tree had grown from inside the gardener’s body and immortalized him within its selfish embrace.

“It’s… It’s…” a delegator stuttered.

And someone screamed.

Another followed.   

A set of heavy hands settled on Gaia’s shoulders, pulling her close to a warm embrace. She allowed her father’s comfort, disturbed over the scene, yet her eyes could not leave the man’s tormented expression.

“Killed by his own Element?”

“Prithvi help us.”

“Suicide?”

“No. Murder?” 

“Blood brother’s betrayal. Unthinkable.”

Gaia gazed over her father’s arm, searching the distant and distressed crowd until she found the child, hovering inconspicuously behind a pair of adults. The goddess inhabiting the child gazed unblinkingly at the corpse, a petulant frown creasing between his eyebrows as if just as bewildered as the grieving citizens.

A gut-wrenching sob suddenly escalated high above the grim murmurings.

Gaia jerked in her father’s arms as a woman came stumbling forward, deep, fathomable anguish twisting her face into unrecognizable features. The cries that expelled from her mouth were both loud and heartbreaking. She staggered onto the platform, touching first the man’s face with trembling fingers before collapsing at the base of the tree. Sobs shook her body as she hugged the trunk, most likely hoping the man could sense her desperation to come back to her.

As Gaia moved forward to comfort her, another woman got there first.  

The grieving woman fended off the attempt at consolation, her focus returning to the corpse of her loved one.

Several attempts later, the two women finally connected in a tearful embrace.

Gaia shifted, turning her shoulder on the women to give them a semblance of privacy. She caught her father’s eyes, surprised to see the level of forbiddingness in his expression. He shook his head at her inquiring stare, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“You are right, Gaia,” he murmured quietly. “There is a taint in the air. A nasty sort of blackness that often accompanies future tragedies.”

“You think there will be more of these deaths?”

If he sensed the shakiness of her words, he did not comment, but rather tightened his hand on her shoulder. “We must pray. We must all pray to Prithvi. We must give her our strength and ask for hers in turn.”

Behind him, the delegators nodded in unison.

Gaia lifted her chin, glancing once more at Prithvi, only to find the goddess gone.

 

* * * *

There were several people congregated in the tight space of the townhouse hallway.

The haziness in the air was prevalent, smelling of lilies, fragranced ivy, salt, and other incense.

Micah walked slowly down the corridor and toward the parlor, examining the mourning rituals of a high noble family. Traces of Varuna were everywhere. His presence claimed every nook and cranny, exhibited proudly on all the tables, and even hung on the walls, all carefully placed to entice the god to treasure the newly departed soul.

Micah once again found himself wondering if Varuna—if any of the Big Four—even had a role with the souls of their departed followers.

Water lilies floated in bowls of clear water with small, ivory candles floating serenely beside them. Pearls gathered at the bottom of the bowls, evidently another object that embodied the water god. Several guests dropped in additional pearls, the amount of white orbs growing at the bottom nearly overwhelming the glass bowl.

The egret—Varuna’s spirit animal— was everywhere.

Feathers of pure white gathered proudly on the tables. White satin ribbon carefully bundled the offered feathers and fanned them in showy display. Proud, egret statues stood in corners of the corridor while framed photographs of the majestic bird graced the walls.

Everywhere he looked, it was Varuna. White. Serene. Elegant. The sounds within the townhouse even represented Varuna. Trickling water. Steady droplets. The aromas, just as well, smelt of water and purity.

Micah felt as if he were tainting the mourning home, his odor no doubt reeking of Agni. The musk, the heat, the spice.

Varuna would be repelled.

Yet, even if the Unda people prided themselves by worshiping Varuna so religiously, and shunning the fire god, Micah couldn’t help but notice they still required Agni for their ceremonies. The candles were lit with flame. The wax incense melted over the warmth of heat. Even the bodies of their loved ones burned with Agni’s fire.

As Micah walked the familiar corridor, men and women parted for him.

Up ahead, he could see the open parlor.

Trent’s favored room.

He saw Cordelia and Cain, both mother and son dressed entirely in white as they accepted condolences. Micah knew, from Ember’s teachings, that the wronged family members wore white until their loved one’s ashes submerged into the depths of the water.

Wearing white wasn’t only for mourning purposes. It was said Varuna showered attentions to those suffering, to those who needed his blessings, to those celebrating. The color white would allow the water god to identify those in need of additional consideration. It was poor etiquette, for those who were not immediate family, to wear white before the ashes were at rest or during a particularly large celebration.  

Fortunately, while he was not in appropriate mourning clothes, Micah was not wearing white today. Cordelia would understand his misstep with the lack of mourning attire. She would recognize he’d forsaken his duties at the palace in order to stand by her side.

The butler stopped before the double doors and cleared his throat. “His Royal Highness.”

Those who hadn’t noticed his presence before certainly did so now. They flattened themselves against the walls and inclined their heads as he entered the parlor. Micah paid them no heed as he focused exclusively on Cordelia.

The Abital matriarch would not allow herself to be vulnerable, even with the death of her beloved. She stood tall and proud amongst the black-clothed mourners. With a clear and polished face, and with her honey-blonde hair styled into an elegant side bun, she approached Micah with measured, confident steps. Her blue eyes were alight, appearing sharp despite the dark lighting.

“Prince Ezra.”

Propriety dictated she greet him first despite the circumstances. Micah waited until she curtsied down low before he offered her a gloved hand. She reached for it and he abruptly cupped her small hand between both of his.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” he managed, squeezing her hand. “We mourn his absence, but celebrate his unification with Varuna.”

From the corner of his eye, a flicker of red-gold caught his attention. The hairs on his neck stood and his hackles yearned to rise agitatedly. Keeping his attention affixed mostly on Cordelia, he let his eyes drift quickly to the man standing but a few feet from him. The Unda man gazed steadily back, his dispassionate eyes only for Micah.

He knew it was Varuna.

The same way Agni, if he were present, would know it was his brother. Just as he’d known of Prithvi’s presence. Micah didn’t know how he knew. It was just a strong sentiment. Something within him related to the man across from him.

Familiarity.

Trying not to dwell over the water god’s presence, yet surprised Varuna willingly grounded himself in the mortal realm, and here of all places, Micah forced his attention back on Cordelia. The woman nodded solemnly, accepting Micah’s words as proper commiseration. With so many people present, it was better to remain chokingly formal.

“Please,” she started quietly. “Speak to Councilman Sachiel privately. He knows what I wish to relay to you.”

He nodded then, realizing she’d be far too busy with arrangements and proper mourning traditions to get away and cut herself off from her support group. He squeezed her hand once more, acknowledging her request, before turning to his teammate.

“Cain.”

Kai took his place opposite of Cordelia, offering his own condolences. Talia and Sachiel would most likely do the same, giving Micah ample time to examine his teammate. After performing a deep bow, Cain reached for Micah’s hand, similar as his mother had done. His expression was drawn, a formidable line of defense against the pain he most likely felt.

Micah didn’t blame the boy, knowing how close he’d been to his father.

Trent was a good man. The retired warrior had seen a great deal of things during the war. He’d become bitter, resigned, and uncaring of anything else but his family. He’d swallowed the expectations of the head of the household and trusted Cordelia to make the decisions for him. Trent had been real. He’d been simple.

Micah had admired that trait and he mourned the man’s death.

Cain’s face crumbled and Micah quickly brought the man forward for an embrace.

Informal, and breaking protocol, but entirely necessary. Despite being particularly bloodthirsty in battle, Cain was the most empathetic and sentimental member of their team. Even if he had remained strong all day as he accepted everyone’s heartfelt condolences, he chose now to let himself go when faced with the presence of his captain.

“Micah,” Cain murmured quietly into his shoulder. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Sorrow and pain.

Death was a curse.

And Micah was the new god of all of it.

His lips pursed as he reached up and clapped the taller man firmly on the back.  “You can do this,” he said quietly, but with enough emphasis that his words would spear through Cain’s veil of grief. “What you do now is take everything your father has showed you and you continue his legacy. He was always so very proud of you, Cain.”

Micah felt lost. Muddled. How had Trent died? Had it been an accident? Natural causes?

His ignorance made his words heavy with formality and stringency, far too generic for this circumstance.

Nonetheless, Cain seemed to appreciate his words, for he nodded fiercely. He tightened his hold on Micah before letting go. As he pulled away, his eyes were red, his expression unsteadily impassive.

“It doesn’t seem real yet.” He looked at Kai and Talia, who’d finished with Cordelia. “I hadn’t… I hadn’t prepared for the possibility that he just wouldn’t be here. I thought that I could control when my parents left. I thought I had more time. That I could somehow know and prepare myself for it. I realize now that death is unpredictable. And you’ll never be prepared for it.”

Kai moved forward and embraced Cain, muffling the other man’s words with his shoulder. He’d be thinking of Wayde, Micah knew.

He stood back, mulling over Cain’s words.

Death would never be controllable. It would remain unpredictable and prodigious with its forceful and unannounced coming. It was one of the most powerful forces of nature if only for its volatility, for its independence, and for its quick, relentless strike. Beautiful, in such a morbid way. Peaceful, quiet, and unmoving after its departure and conquest.

Micah lips thinned, feeling something within him stir at his musings.

A seductively dark yearning curled in his stomach.

Unsettled with the calm determination, he distracted himself by glancing once more at Varuna. The man’s vessel remained standing against the wall, in conversation with those around him, yet there was no red-gold indicating the water god’s possession.

Varuna was gone.

 

* * * *

 

Something about the prince had shifted and revolved.

Darkened and matured.

After departing from the Abital manor, Sachiel requested Ezra’s presence for dinner. After the young man’s consent, Sachiel had then politely asked Kai and Talia Bay to run back to the palace and inform the king of his heir’s whereabouts. For propriety’s sake, of course, not only because it allotted him the prince’s solitary presence. He’d gladly endured Kai’s cautionary look when the young man departed with Bay.

Sachiel did not need his old student’s cautioning. He was well aware of the dangers his fascination with the prince presented, but he found himself unconcerned at the repercussions. He’d already gotten his wrist slapped once by Lord Josiah.

Ezra didn’t seem to mind. Varuna knows the young prince was fully aware of Sachiel’s interest.

If it wasn’t for the fire lord staking his claim long ago, Sachiel knew his relationship dynamic with the prince would be entirely different.

He pitied the lost opportunity.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t admire from afar.

As soon as the double doors closed behind them, Sachiel yearned to stretch like a satisfied feline. His eyes drank in the prince’s form as it stood before the lit fireplace. Making his way to the liquor cart, Sachiel’s attention lingered longer than socially acceptable as he immersed himself with the model male physique. The sharp, cut line to the young man’s wardrobe drew attention to the narrow hips and waist, as well as the slight expansion of his shoulders.

Despite his mixed race, Prince Ezra inherited far more Igni characteristics. While the man was not small or petite, he was compact and lithe. Elegant. Shorter than the average Unda male, yet a bit taller than most Igni men. 

His hair appeared recently cut. The loose waves parted to the side in a gentleman style, yet several strands rebelled with a wayward curl or two. The long, arching neck brought attention to the sharp and aristocratic planes of his face. He’d lost weight, Sachiel noted, yet there was a healthy, vibrant flush to the boy’s cheeks.

As Ezra turned to him, Sachiel stopped to admire the pale eyes surrounded by thick, black lashes.

Varuna. The young man was…

‘Beautiful’ seemed far too tame. Too ordinary. ‘Pretty’ too youthful and feminine. ‘Handsome’, far, far too masculine.

Devine. Godly. Otherworldly.

Sachiel did not know anyone who could possibly hold the same level of attractiveness. That attractiveness seemed to have matured quite a bit during the prince’s absence. Sachiel noted it immediately when Ezra stepped off the train. There was a certain darkness, as enthralling as it was, that clung to the young man. It just served to turn the man’s charm into a poisonous, lethal lust and lure.

There was more confidence there. More self-assuredness.

Ezra Talise was going to be the slow death of Sachiel. Pity he found the idea so very satisfying.

“Are you going to ask if you can pour me a drink, Sachiel?” Ezra inquired, lifting a brow of amused intrigue.

Sachiel reached for the decanter of cognac. Varuna, he’d missed the young man. “Where are my manners?”

“I imagine they’re somehow lost between your blatant lust and arousal.”

“Is it that painstakingly obvious?” he inquired casually, not at all bothered as he held up the crystal tumblers, inspecting gold-rimmed glass for any smudges or prints. Once they passed his scrutiny, he poured the amber liquid. “You must enjoy it immensely.”

“What do I enjoy?”

“Seeing us mere mortals crawl after you and beg for the smallest hint of attention.” 

Something akin to dark, cynical humor crossed the young man’s face. He watched Sachiel make his way over before accepting the offered tumbler of cognac with a murmured thanks. “I don’t notice these things as you do, Councilman. I am more pressed to notice allegiances, deaths, betrayals, and destruction.”

“And as misfortunate as you are, you’ve experienced quite a bit of those lately.”

He’d spoken to Kai and Talia about the conclusion of Region 20’s assignment. By tomorrow morning, every noble would hear of the devastating outcome to the prince’s tour. Some would scorn. Some would pity. Some would still admire the prince for his attempts. They would all watch and wait to see how he would proceed. They would take special interest in watching how gracefully he landed.

Sachiel felt a scowl upturn his lip, as ugly as that would make him. “They are barbaric out there.”

They are barbaric everywhere,” Ezra corrected. “They just cloak themselves with finery here and make it less evident. A fancy veil, of sorts.”

He did not argue against that observation. He, himself, made sure his appearance counterbalanced his perchance for the barbarity. He sipped at his drink when the prince did, watching as the younger man all but sighed with reprieve.

The lithe shoulders relaxed. The lines of tension around his face eased. He appeared younger.

Sachiel motioned to the available seating. “Please sit. Make yourself comfortable. Dinner will not be ready for another hour.”

He pretended to take interest in the flames as he waited for Ezra to select his choice of seating. Would it be one of the two armchairs, propped tall by the fireplace? Alternatively, would he select the intimate divan that seated directly in front of the fire? Much to Sachiel’s pleasure, Ezra chose one side of the divan, leaving the other end open for Sachiel.

If he were a proper and modest man, he would sit in one of the armchairs, leaving enough space for his guest. As it were, he was selfish and greedy, far too inclined to share the same space as his lovely guest.

As he sat down next to Ezra, he acknowledged the need to address politics first. Then pleasure. He was, after all, one of Prince Ezra’s advisors. He couldn’t let Kai Edlen have all the fun, now could he? “My… personal opinions for the outskirt regions aside, I truly am sorry for what happened. It sounded as if you made impressive leeway there.”

“We did make impressive leeway,” Ezra replied impassively. He eyed the drink in his hand before sipping. “All of it erased by one man.”

“Whom you executed. Publically.”

Ezra glanced at Sachiel. “You seem displeased.”

“I am,” Sachiel confirmed. “Displeased I couldn’t be there to witness such a spectacle. I am certain it would have been pleasantly paralyzing to the senses.” He sipped his drink, comforted by the burn and the steady numbing of the mind. “You would have been ravishing in your cold anger.”

Ezra did not respond to that, but rather observed his profile. “You’ve cut your hair,” he remarked.

Sachiel smiled into his tumbler. “Is it not to your liking?”

He’d sought his barber the moment Ezra left the capital for his tour in Region 20. His hair had been his pride and joy. Carefully groomed, cultured, and pampered throughout several decades to create a silky and long curtain of spun, platinum blond hair. If there was one tradition he found difficult to part with from his overbearing and fundamentalist family, it was the long hair of a proud and esteemed noble warrior.

Nevertheless, he cut the length for the new movement.

Once he got over his shock, the shorter strands were far more efficient. Much easier to take care of. The strands just reached the tops of his shoulders. At the time, he was unable to part with more. He believed, when he should go back, he would go even shorter.

Ezra shifted next to him and turned to survey him coyly. “It suits you. You decided to no longer shroud yourself in sheep’s skin, but rather reveal a side of you that slumbers beneath such monotonous social constraints.”

A shift. Eager. Needing. “And what do you believe slumbers beneath, my prince?”

The expression that crossed Ezra’s face was lovely. “Savagery.” The word, while simple, held Sachiel captivated with its bewitching dark tenor. “I’ve heard the stories, after all, during your time as a warrior. I am…” he trailed off, considering his empty tumbler. “Eager for an opportunity to see you shed every single shade of your disguise and show the kingdom exactly how dangerous you are. They believe you’ve grown complacent.”

“As long as you are not considered in that consensus.” Sachiel shifted closer, his pulse piquing pleasantly and remaining high.

“I have no doubts,” Ezra replied pleasantly, not at all bothered with the closer proximity.  

Sachiel licked his bottom lip, pleased to see Ezra following the movement with his eyes.

He stood up slowly, towering over the smaller man, savoring the very brief act of dominance. Small moments like these were all he was allotted. He would make sure he took advantage when he could.  

Pale, intelligent eyes watched him knowingly, yet Ezra’s face remained pleasantly deadpan.

Sachiel turned his heel.

“Optimistically, through quick and smart political maneuvers, we will not have to reveal the ugliness of ourselves to get what we want.” He sauntered over to the cognac decanter, playing the generous host to the royal prince propped prettily on his divan. “I do not believe Calder aims for a civil rebellion. He aims for total domination and control over Concordia’s entire kingdom. He sees you as the enticement for the outer regions’ loyalty. Something that has remained far from his reach since combining the two cultures.”

“You claim your inner self is ugly.” Ezra straightened and handed his empty tumbler to Sachiel as he returned. “I find the rawness of exposing our true selves arresting. It is unfortunate that social constraints and standards stifle such occurrences.”

“We are all but marionettes, dancing and revolving around a set of standards and moralities society deems acceptable.”

“All these painted and proud faces hide a great deal of things,” Ezra agreed, watching as Sachiel poured him another few fingers of cognac. “As evidence of what we saw during the capital unrest.”

Sachiel stiffened at the mention of the Noir User debacle that swept across the capital several weeks ago. His lips pursed with displeasure. “I can assure you, Your Highness, that despite the aesthetics and the prettiness of our culture, we really are savages and righteous beasts. We will not go down easily while defending what we believe to be right.”

He set down the decanter and turned back toward the prince. After he handed the young man the crystal glass, he reclaimed his seat, albeit a few hairs closer. Their knees knocked just slightly.

Neither pulled away.

“Which is why you won the war.”

“Scarcely.” He held his own drink aloft, only allowing himself small sips. He wouldn’t want to grow too loose-tongued or too bold. He knew the boundaries when sober. He knew what boundaries he would break when addled. “The Igni breed are far more savage than we are, but you know of the advantage we possessed that ultimately won us the war.”

Ezra offered a polite noise of acknowledgement as he mused over the stories his mother most likely told to him.

“Speaking of healing,” Sachiel started airily. “Are you fully recovered from your…” heart failure. He refused to say it. To acknowledge such a fine specimen was prone to such a thing. “Ailments?”

The twitch of lips indicated Ezra knew of Sachiel’s reservations.

He waved his gloved hand dismissively. “All better.”

He remained facing the fire, as if captivated by the orange and golden flames in the marble hearth. The parlor’s ambiance suited the other man. The flames highlighted and claimed the prince’s bronzed skin greedily, accentuating the sharp planes and casting the rest in shadow.

Sachiel took a rather large sip of his cognac, his captivation growing.

Again, he deliberated the changes to the prince. There was a certain nakedness to the young man’s aura. He had, after all, experienced a traumatic setback that left him vulnerable in the eyes of those who would judge him the most.

Such vulnerability would leave Ezra feeling exposed for quite some time. Some men caved under such experiences. Their shoulders slumped. Their pride wounded. Other men, like Ezra, appeared to armor himself with reinforcements and shelter such vulnerability with a wall of untouchability.

There was something else… however… something that Sachiel could not pinpoint.

It raised the hairs on his neck. It cautioned him.

It excited him.

“And you?” Ezra inquired. At Sachiel’s inquiring look, he shifted and rotated his torso to face him. He threw a casual leg over the other and placed an arm along the top of the divan. “You were scorned by the Unda elite. Their actions politely excused by the Noir Users.”

Sachiel smiled sharply. “I am carefully waiting for their defenses to lower.”

Something shifted in Ezra’s eyes, a sense of recognition as if he heard the words from another. “It is said Seaton was especially influenced by the Noir Users. He claimed he did not remember sending Kai to Region 20, but rather Region 5.”

Anger consumed him. “I’m aware,” he replied with a clipped tone. “Surely, you do not believe that.”

“Muriel admitted he remembers the destination being Region 20, but claims himself a victim of the Noir Users at the time. Complacent. Confused. He went along with his brother.” Ezra’s fingers tapped the top of the divan once. Twice. “You would think that Seaton would have done the same. If he had something to hide behind, like the Noir Users, to rationale his actions, he would have taken it. Yet, he still claimed himself victimized.”

“Seaton is a smart man,” Sachiel informed frostily. “He and Muriel lied blatantly to the king about Kai’s whereabouts. Do you truly believe Calder would overlook that? Noir Users or not? Seaton believed he could avoid punishment if he claimed himself oblivious.” Sachiel’s hand tightened around his tumbler. “Do not defend him,” he hissed.

Ezra stirred, watching him curiously.

He responded calmly, a cool counter to Sachiel’s growing ire.

“You mistake my musings for defense, Sachiel. They butchered Kai there.” He tipped back more of his drink, making it appear elegant instead of primitive. “Those who are responsible, while ignorant or not, should be held accountable. Yet, they seem comfortably secure in their current positions. You and Calder, while both claiming to be vindictive of their deeds, keep them both comfortable.”

Sachiel detected scorn and ire from the prince. Focused exclusively on him and King Calder.

He laughed once, finding his drink gone and wondering when he’d drank it. Despite his intentions of staying entirely sober, Sachiel reached for the decanter once more and refilled his and Ezra’s glass.

“Irving Dover.”

Ezra tilted his head with consideration. “The name is familiar. Ember may have mentioned him as one of Calder’s old advisors.”

“Oh, my dear prince,” Sachiel crooned. “That is a name you will become intimately familiar with. When he is around, you will do well to keep your wits about you.” He sipped. “We spoke of monsters beneath masks of porcelain and superb aesthetics. I can assure you, his mask is remarkably crafted and the monster beneath is impressively vicious with well-played pleasantries.”

“He sounds like you.”

Sachiel tried not to preen. “Seaton Edlen and Irving Dover despise one another.” He shifted even closer, his mind growing addled, the boundaries buckling. “King Calder prides himself by not depending on just one advisor. He has several. Dozens. He gets along with all the elite nobles and treats them all kindly. It’s what encourages support throughout several lineages. It’s what earns him respect. Gold. Protection. Loyalty. The man is powerful. Not because he is king, but because of the alliances he forms.”

Ezra smiled thinly. “I’m assuming that Irving Dover may be more than a simple advisor.”

“If King Calder ever admitted to having a right-hand man, it would be Dover.” Sachiel swirled his drink. “Irving was Calder’s close advisor during the war. Afterward, he stuck close, becoming a supporter in merging the two kingdoms together as one. He even suggested that Calder take Ember on as his wife and queen. He made a very large impact on society, on Calder, but he left for Region 5 shortly after your birth.”

“And Seaton Edlen assumed he took Dover’s place.”

Smart boy.

“Assumed. Yes. Seaton delusions himself into thinking he was Dover’s replacement. He grew comfortable when the man did not make any reappearances at the capital since his retirement from politics.”

“Calder recently brought him back, I gather.”

“You are correct. I am surprised the king was able to convince Irving to return. With his family, no less.” Sachiel smirked. “Irving will slowly replace Seaton’s reach. He will replace Seaton’s voice with his own. He will replace Seaton by becoming the leader of the noble elites. He will replace Seaton as Calder’s primary resource and contact.” He paused. “During your absence, Lord Josiah had, intermediately, taken the role as the acting Chairman of Concordia Military Academy. However, I am to believe that Dover will take that position when the next term starts. Just as well, he will undoubtedly take someone’s spot on the Royal Council. I am assuming it will be Muriel’s position.”

Ezra appeared to absorb the information with a quiet and still countenance. “I am fortunate that Calder decided to keep his word by dismantling Seaton, yet somehow, I can sense that you are still displeased by the move.” Eyes, with the ability to freeze Sachiel’s mind, turned and analyzed him. “This move can also damn us, will it not?”

Sachiel yearned to touch.

So he did.

He reached over and placed a hand on Ezra’s wrist. Ezra watched the movement through carefully veiled eyes, yet he did not pull away. He was appeasing Sachiel, he knew. He then pondered on how far Ezra would appease him. Their attraction was mutual. Sachiel proudly identified, aside from Lord Josiah, he was probably the only one who brought this seductive and sensual beast to the surface.

And yet…

Sachiel considered the blueblood next to him, feeling a new sentiment stemming from this transformed man.

He felt almost humored.

Belittled.

It may not have been a conscious effort on Ezra’s part, but Sachiel felt it. Perhaps Ezra would not appease him any further than this. Perhaps small touches were means to lure Sachiel, to keep him fascinated, interested, and playing. There was nothing on his expression, but Sachiel felt as if Ezra deemed no one, Sachiel included, worthy enough to stand opposite of him in such an intimate light.

Well, almost no one.

He thought back to the train platform. To Lord Josiah’s hand possessively claiming the small of Ezra’s back. As brief and proper as it was, it was a claiming and a branding. A mark of ownership to every single nobleman and noblewoman present and smart enough to identify it.

Sachiel released a sigh, realizing that Lord Josiah may have been the catalyst of Ezra’s change.

He yearned for circumstances to be different.

He was unaccustomed to feeling inferior and unworthy.

Removing his hand, he cradled his drink and nursed it a bit longer before responding.

“Irving Dover and Calder share a very common belief. They are supportive of the nobility and the partition between the elite and the mundane. While Calder has softened throughout the years, and striven to cure the outskirt regions of the crippling poverty, I believe Irving may reinforce his more ruthless beliefs. He will undoubtedly approach you with intentions of taming you.”

“He can try.”

“His approach will be very appeasing to you,” Sachiel cautioned. “He will not tilt his hand until he gets a feel for you. Unlike Calder, who needed a great deal of time to observe you, Irving will do it quickly. He and Calder refuse to let the nobility suffer with your rule. They refuse the change you plan on implementing. The equality. The passing of power to hands deemed incapable. Ordinary men. Incapable females. Ill-bred citizens. Those who are not nobility.”

Ezra roused, just as Sachiel knew he would.

Ill-bred citizens who were intentionally suppressed and stunted,” Ezra countered angrily. “These ordinary men, these incapable females, these ill-bred citizens, could have all been great. They could have used such power to make imperative changes to society. They were robbed of the opportunity to be their best selves.”

Sachiel stared at the passion in the young man’s eyes, finding himself blissfully lost.

“Forced to fit within the tight constraints of society and oppressive monarchy rule,” Ezra continued. “Calder may try to pacify me. He may honestly wish to cure the poverty in the outskirt regions. Yet, I’m not fooled to believe that he’d let it go further than that. The education wouldn’t improve. The opportunities would still be lost to men and women who wish to grow larger than their restraints allow them.”

Sachiel merely purred and sipped steadily from his cognac.

He inhaled the heady scent of passion.

It was electrifying. The alcohol all but fizzled on his tongue.

Ezra took a steadying breath, eyeing him narrowly. “Tell me why you support my beliefs, Sachiel. You strike me as a man who enjoys the upper hand nobility allots you. You appear to hold women in low regard. Moreover, you find little to appreciate in the mundanity of men. Yet, here you are. Humoring me. Do you not believe I can win?”

I am humoring you?” Sachiel repeated with calm hilarity. Throwing all reservations away, he leaned closer. “I enjoy the excitement your inevitable rule has to offer me. I tire of the systematics of our society. I am confident, if you should win, that my intellect, power, and efficiency will be enough to keep my position of power and supremacy. I am not reliant of my family’s name nor riches.”

“And if you find yourself growing bored with me?” Ezra inquired.

Sachiel closed his eyes briefly, enjoying Ezra’s breath on his cheek. “I will never grow bored of you.”

Ezra allotted him a noise of amusement. “Tell me about Cordelia’s concerns.”

The change of topic was nearly jarring enough to force Sachiel away. Yet, he held still, seeking the heat of Ezra’s presence. “She believes Trent Abital was murdered,” he replied carefully. “Specifically, Irving Dover the assailant.”    

Ezra shifted.

Sachiel withheld a sigh as Ezra removed his arm from across the divan and uncrossed his legs. The distance displeased him.

“Trent collapsed in town. They claim he died of dehydration.” Sachiel looked down at his drink. “It is inexcusable to consider another water Elemental as the cause of another water Elemental’s death. Yet, the evidence speaks for itself. As he lay dying, Cordelia claims he started saying the words ‘fratris proditione. It has several meanings, but in this specific case, it means a brother’s betrayal. Unda against Unda.”

Ezra’s emotions were impressively unreadable. “You mean to say—”

“A water Elemental used Trent’s Element against him. He was killed by his own Element.” Despite the cognac clouding his mind, Sachiel grew upset for the old warrior’s fate. “It’s not the same thing as attacking another Elemental. That is upfront. Confrontational. Honest. Trent would have had the ability to fight back. A blood brother’s betrayal, however, triggers a self-destructive instinct in their victim. The victim’s Element turns against them. Trent would have drowned, while simultaneously feeling his Element all but wringing out the water in his body, leaving him a dripping and dehydrated husk.”

Silence met his explanation.

A heaviness settled in the air and Sachiel submerged in the feeling.

“Can any water Elemental accomplish this?”

“Only highly skilled Elementals. It typically requires contact with the victim beforehand. Contact that allows the predator to invade the victim’s body with a small invasion of his own Element. That invasion, in turn, starts the self-destruction process.”

Ezra leaned forward again, resuming his earlier position. His features were drawn. “Can you do this?”

Sachiel smiled grimly. “I can. I never have. Yet, I understand the methodology to execute it myself.” He glanced at Ezra’s empty glass, wondering if the young man even realized how much he’d drank. He didn’t appear to be loose-lipped or affected by the consumption. “Cordelia and Trent encountered Irving Dover just minutes before his collapse.”

“But you don’t believe he did it.”

“No. As much as I may dislike him, Irving is a proud Unda nobleman. He would never stoop so low.”

Sachiel took Ezra’s empty glass and leaned forward to collect the decanter. Only, a hand curled around his wrist, stopping him. When Sachiel turned, he noticed Ezra leaning forward just as well, their torsos facing the other. There was no relevant distance between them.

Sachiel slowly removed his hand from the decanter and reached for Ezra.

His hand fell greedily on the younger man’s knee.

“Have you tried to convince Cordelia of this?”

“She will believe anything that helps explain her husband’s sudden death.” He looked down at his hand that claimed Ezra’s knee. Gradually, daringly, he moved it up the thigh. “Now you’re just a tease, my prince.”

Ezra’s lips upturned into a soft smile as he stared levelly at Sachiel. “Not a tease.” He placed a gloved hand against Sachiel’s wandering fingers, holding it firmly in place. “I don’t typically enjoy starting things I cannot finish.”

“Typically?” Sachiel mused quietly. “The only exceptions are when the cognac flows and the cat is away?”

He leaned ever so slightly forward, inhaling the young man’s cognac-coated breath. His eyes lingered on the lips, naturally parted with a sly, pleased smirk. He then looked into the pale eyes, wanting. Needing. He leaned forward, feeling his groin stir with the danger it all presented. Such a seductive and unrelenting creature Ezra Talise was.

Ezra closed the distance, tracing his lips across Sachiel’s cheekbone. Besides the hand holding Sachiel’s daring fingers at bay, and the teasing lips across his cheek, Ezra kept contact at a minimum. He sat prim and proper, rivaling a well-respected lady of the court who grew daring with a persistent suitor. All for a tease. All for a spasm of debauchery.

Sachiel couldn’t find it in himself to care of Ezra’s intentions, nor his sentiments.

He only knew what he wanted.

He turned his cheek, claiming the lips that he’d wanted to for so long.

The hand that Ezra did not hold captive reached up to tilt the young man’s chin. The lips beneath his proved stubborn in their insistence to remain a disinclined partner. Such endearing loyalty. The Igni king could rest easily knowing his Chosen was not one to take advantage of his turned, ignorant back.

“Ezra,” Sachiel breathed disarmingly, his desire only growing for the boy’s charming faithfulness.

The prince released Sachiel’s fingers and reached both hands towards him. Fine leather gloves cupped his face, cradling it. Duel thumbs stroked the thin skin beneath Sachiel’s eyes, a delicate, tender caress. A genuine, true warmth settled in Ezra’s gaze as he examined Sachiel. That, at least, reassured Sachiel that Ezra wasn’t merely humoring him. His earlier uncertainties abruptly vanished.

“I admire you too much to extend this further, Councilman Sachiel.”

Sachiel released a breath that was far too shaky for his liking. “Duly noted,” he replied. Strained. “Do tell me if you and uncle dearest are ever in need of a separation.”

Ezra smiled. “You’ll be the first to hear of it.”

Rather abruptly, the young man’s face closed off and his hands dropped quickly from Sachiel’s face. Seconds later, the doors opened to the parlor, emitting the dark figure without any sort of announcement. Sachiel stiffened as Lord Josiah entered assertively, the butler fumbling awkwardly behind him.

The expression on Josiah’s face was forbidding. The aura he carried was even more chilling. Orange eyes glanced at the decanter of cognac back toward Sachiel, pinning him in place.

Though Ezra had his back turned toward his uncle, the young man seemed to have known the exact moment that the Igni king had neared those doors. Moreover, rather peculiarly, Sachiel caught Ezra glancing at the cognac decanter at the same moment as his uncle, refocusing on him simultaneously. Ezra cocked his head to the right, unconsciously mirroring the Igni man at his back.

Sachiel observed the unison.

The emulating.

Even the smallest shoulder twitch replicated back in the other. 

He frowned, feeling a sense of unease.

He did not recall Lord Josiah and Ezra sharing this intimate intuition with one another.

Was this the Chosen bond at play?

“Your father requests your immediate presence at the palace,” Josiah informed icily. “There is a situation that requires your attention.”

Ezra blinked and the emulating ceased. The young man’s lips thinned as he stood from the divan. Sachiel stood with him, keeping his eyes on Josiah. The Igni king paid no heed to Ezra, clearly inclined to keep his smothering attentions on Sachiel. From the corner of Sachiel’s eye, the flames in the hearth flickered and roared audibly as they heightened.

Unimpressed at the man’s show of ire, Sachiel merely lifted an eyebrow.

Perhaps he’d be more intimidated if he weren’t a skilled water Elemental.

Almost as if sensing Sachiel’s thoughts, and finding his backbone humorously uninspiring, a sinister smile curled Josiah’s lips. That expression alone was enough to douse Sachiel’s cognac-addled mind back into cold reality. He kept his ground, yet he acknowledged the delicacy of the situation. Clearly, the Igni king did not appreciate the comprising position he walked in on.

“Wait for me in the carriage,” Josiah instructed Ezra without looking at the prince.

If he’d bothered to pay attention to the younger man, he would have seen the way Ezra’s entire body stiffened and jerked at the order. Instead of following the command, Ezra turned and calmly watched Josiah with equal amounts of predatory intensity as Josiah currently leveled Sachiel. Uncaring of the consequences, Sachiel smiled pleasantly, admiring the coldness to Ezra’s expression.

Josiah gradually tore his attention from Sachiel, finally taking note of the reaction he’d initiated in the prince.

The two observed the other.

Sachiel unabashedly enjoyed the tension-filled spectacle before him.

Sinister pleasure bubbled in his chest as the two men communicated without words.

Ezra hadn’t simply changed. So had his relationship with his Chosen. The power dynamics of their relationship, while once painfully skewered, appeared to have levelled out substantially.

Unexpectedly, Josiah inclined his head and stiffly made for the exit of the parlor. While maintaining eye contact with the Igni Lord, Ezra rotated until he was beside Josiah and accompanied the man out into the hallway.

Together.

Sachiel sat down heavily. His eyes unfocused on the ghost of their presence.

He truly did not understand what he’d just witnessed.

Whatever it was, he knew he’d never be able to comprehend.

The unease was still present. The awe. The desperation.

For a long while after their departure, the flames continued to reach out of the hearth with wild abandon. Only, something kept them at bay, muffling their reach with cold and careful control.

Chapter Text

9. Chapter Nine

 

Displeasure never tasted so rancorous.

Micah gazed determinedly out the carriage window and into the darkness of the capital. His eyes caught the lit lanterns and the glowing windows of the surrounding shops and residencies. Floating lanterns claimed the manufactured streams and large fountains, forever shedding light on the proud egret statues erected nearby. What would have been pleasant to the eye was merely held in contempt, for the ominous body next to him all but secreted palpable irritation and influenced Micah just as well.

He could have endured the silence until they reached the palace. He could have brushed aside Agni’s mood as something that would pass.

It probably would.

Pass.

Yet, something persisted that he shouldn’t leave this issue unaddressed.  

“You’re overreacting,” Micah stated, breaking the silence. “Nothing happened.”

That only appeared to intensify the man’s silent ire.

Micah finally turned away from the window and eyed his companion. Submerged in Josiah’s skin, the god sat stiffly on the cushioned bench next to Micah, cloaked in richly dark robes. His hands, gloved, curled inertly on his lap. Eyes stared forward. Expression entirely unreadable. A single braid draped over his shoulder, the only source of movement as the carriage traveled over uneven road.

The stillness reminded him of the last time they were intimate. When Micah took Agni in his mouth, the man had been still like this.

Coiled. Agitated.

Roused.

A precarious predator lying dormant.

For a moment, Micah savored the scene presented before him. He’d have to agitate Agni into reacting. Otherwise, who knew what Agni would do with the pent up aggression and ugly sentiments?

Revisit Sachiel, no doubt.

“He’s simply a mortal. He should be of no concern to you.”

Predictably, his words slid under Agni’s skin like a blade. With unnerving slowness, Agni turned his head and focused his tunneled eyes onto Micah. The younger man tried to hide his anticipated glee, yet the marginal narrowing of orange eyes indicated he’d failed in that regard. The god scrutinized him silently for quite some time.

“Perhaps it best that you allowed Sachiel’s happy hands to poke and prod you,” Agni said with an impressive amount of control. 

Micah raised his eyebrows before dropping them in a furrow. “On the contrary, Agni, I prevented his happy hands from going any further. Before jumping to conclusions and drawing accusations, maybe it best that you understand the situation.”

“I understand it just fine.” Still propped against the seat with unnatural stiffness and regality, Agni seemed to have lost a fraction of the tunneled look and regained a bit of fury. “You encouraged him enough to inspire this overdue discussion regarding boundaries. Expectations. Loyalty. I had believed we hadn’t needed to have this conversation, though tonight proved otherwise.”

“What conversation is that?” Micah inquired scathingly. “That I belong to you?”

The look Agni offered him was inexpressible. “And I belong to you.”

Something churned in his stomach at the words. Whether it was a pang of sentimentality or arousal, Micah recovered promptly. “I appreciate the consideration, but I am already familiar with the concept of fidelity. Just as well, I’m familiar with your expressed disapproval of unfaithfulness. You’ve mentioned it several times in the past.”

“Despite your extensive experience with intimacy, you have never once held a lasting relationship built on trust and loyalty. When you say you are familiar with the concept of fidelity, you do not mean personally familiar, but rather in theory. There is a difference.” Agni inhaled deeply, as if trying to grasp the patience of an instructor teaching a pupil. “An effective method that will assist you is simply imagining the situation reversed. Would you find it acceptable if you’d walked into a room in which I was intimately involved with another?”

Micah recoiled. “I wasn’t— You don’t have to lecture—.” He snapped his mouth shut to stop his stuttering. He glowered at the man. “No,” he answered firmly. “I would not find it acceptable.”

He started.

Realizing what they were inadvertently admitting to, he nearly took his words back. Fidelity. Faithfulness. Those were all aspects of a relationship. As mundane as that term was, Micah acknowledged that this conversation was evidence enough that Agni also considered it a relationship. That they were in a courtship. Moreover, he was entirely confused how it came to this point.

To the point of expressing boundaries and necessitating loyalty.

He’d been so careful.

The first time they’d had sex, Micah had anticipated it was only physical. He’d needed the fire god to ground him back to reality.

He pretended as if it had no circumstance. No consequence.

Only, he acknowledged, since then, he’d entered into areas that would no longer allow him to proclaim impartiality. He was no longer unclaimed by Agni. The man claimed all aspects of him. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. He’d carefully unraveled Micah’s defenses and inserted himself into the disorder with confident tranquility.

As he looked at Agni, he had the strangest sensation to scowl fiercely.

Eyes mocked him. Saw what he saw.

Celebrated over his triumphed victory of having Micah for himself.

Micah gazed steadily back and exhaled carefully. “I think I preferred when this,” he resisted the urge to motion between himself and Agni like a child, “didn’t have a name, but just an unspoken rule of ‘no touching others’.”

“Who is giving it a name, Micah?” Agni teased vindictively.

A grimace slotted Micah’s mouth. Agni called it a relationship back on the train on their way to the capital. The god was merely attempting to get Micah to admit the complexity and intimacy of their relationship. How it had altered. How it wasn’t about sex any longer.

Nonetheless.

“I still don’t trust you entirely. I don’t appreciate your sly manipulations,” Micah said harshly, pleased when something indeterminate flickered in Agni’s eyes. “No matter how much you wish to tell me differently, you still hold all the power. All of it. And until you don’t, until we can stand on equal footing, then I may consider this a true relationship.”

Agni’s—or rather—Josiah’s expression closed off entirely.

Micah wondered why he felt remorseful amidst his triumph of putting Agni in his place. His words, while possibly harsh, were true. Considering their previous interactions, he understood Agni’s insistence that they were in a relationship. And perhaps they were in one. Yet, Micah could not reasonably acknowledge an equal partnership with Agni.

Not yet.

He needed balance. He needed knowledge. He needed strength to stand opposite of the fire god.

Agni slipped back into his unfocused state and Micah felt a stab of pity. He cleared his throat. “I will respect what we do have and refrain from being intimate with others,” he said quietly. “They don’t interest me anyway.”

Not like you do.

A brow quirked. “Even Sachiel?”  

Micah maintained steady eye contact with the god next to him. Marveling. “It really upsets you, doesn’t it?” He had assumed, with Agni’s disinclination toward mortals— “I believed you were rather dismissive of my previous exploits with others because they were mortal.” The man’s jawline clenched noticeably. “You had to have known about them, even though you claimed ignorance to them when we first met.”

The hand that reached for him abruptly grabbed his hair and pulled his head back against the seat. Another hand curled around his throat and applied enough pressure to convey Agni’s displeasure.

“You were a naughty little boy, weren’t you?” Agni hissed, his fingers tightening.

Micah stared into the decadent eyes, noticing the fine tremor in Agni’s hand.

“I allowed it because they were warm bodies for you to experiment with,” Agni continued tightly. “Vile animals that they were.”

Trying to ignore his body’s intrigued and excited response to the manhandling and the wicked words, Micah focused stubbornly on Agni. “Did you watch?” he taunted. He didn’t know why he asked. He didn’t know what he would feel if Agni admitted that he had watched. Humiliation? Excitement? Unease? Pity? He imagined he’d feel all those sentiments and more.

Agni’s eyes narrowed and the hands abruptly released him. “I said you were a naughty little boy.” The tenor of fury smoothed into impassive control. “Far too young to elicit any sort of sensual reaction from watching. Nor would I appreciate the show if you’d been older.”

Micah adjusted his disheveled clothing and pondered the man’s words.

It was true that Micah started to sexually experiment at a young age. Thirteen—fourteen?— if he recalled correctly. Twelve if he counted heavy petting. He’d wanted to replace the memory of nearly being taken advantage of when he’d been younger. He’d been curious as a boy. Excited at the allure he discovered he held over others. He’d learned what he enjoyed. What he didn’t enjoy. He learned how to please women and men and how to take care of each gender’s needs.

As he grew older, his interest and curiosity tempered.

Things like sex hadn’t seemed entirely important as he focused on his studies and putting his efforts into dueling.

“Still doesn’t alleviate the possessiveness you might have felt,” he pointed out.

“You assume it didn’t trouble me.” Agni preoccupied himself with securing the gloves around his hands. “But it did.”

Micah immediately deadpanned upon the expressed susceptibility. He turned his attention back out the window, rolling his tongue against his teeth to refocus his mind. “Then I’m sorry you had to see that,” he remarked quietly, yet earnestly.

If he’d been in Agni’s position, as a silent and distant guardian, he—he probably would haven’t reacted very well.

Distractedly, he wondered at Agni’s previous lovers. The man claimed he was centuries ‘out of practice’, yet that didn’t necessarily eliminate casual trysts. It also indicated he’d had a relationship in the past, albeit long ago. Just what god or goddess ensnared the elusive fire god’s attention? Had they created a child together? The man never spoke of a son or daughter.

Micah realized he didn’t know much about Agni. Just that the god often looked down on the other deities and that he preferred his own company. He was a secluded god. Micah also didn’t know much, if anything, about the immortal realm. Mortals called it Elisium. Was that even its true name? Did mortals truly go there after death and live among the gods?

It seemed unlikely.

“You were not immune to the curiosities of mortal puberty and sexual experimentation,” Agni replied neutrally, refocusing Micah’s attention. “There is nothing to apologize for, as I had the power to look the other way.” His tone chilled. “What is in the past shall stay in the past. Replicating those experiences, I’m afraid, will no longer be possible.”

Micah’s eyes turned hooded at the tightfisted reminder. “Duly noted,” he repeated Sachiel’s earlier croon. He paused, ascertaining his jealousy was under control least Agni detect it. “Did you have a partner in the immortal realm?”

“A partner.”

It wasn’t a question, but rather a command to elaborate.

Micah squinted into the night. “An intimate and long-lasting relationship.”

Agni didn’t appear as if he would answer the question, for he stayed quiet for quite some time. Surprisingly, he responded, though his words were clipped. “I had a consort,” he admitted. “Long ago.” Before Micah could ask further, Agni explained. “Consorts in our realm are not these petty and superficial bonds you have here. Rather, it is a union between deities, tying them together as spouses. It is a treasured and ceremonious bond and official in the eyes of all the other gods and goddesses.”

Micah glanced away from the window, not quite looking at Agni, not quite knowing where he focused his attention in the dark carriage. He heard a white noise in his ears and wondered if it was from the blood rushing hot through his veins. “Who?”

“Her name is Svaha, the goddess of ash.”

“Fitting,” Micah responded tightly, taking the name ‘Svaha’ and forever cementing it into his mind. “Fire and ash.”

“At the time, I’d believed so as well.”

If Agni hadn’t phrased it that way, or allowed unpleasant feelings to lace his words, Micah may have experienced a far more unforgiving bout of jealousy than he had. “You had a consort,” Micah repeated the words Agni used earlier. “But her name is Svaha. That indicates she’s still alive but no longer yours. I wasn’t aware gods had things like annulments.”

“Nothing quite so elaborate. When it’s done, it’s done.”

Micah glanced at the god, noticing Agni focused straight ahead with nothing discernable on his face.

“Does immortality make love and partnerships tiring and mundane?” Micah wondered. “Do you just grow bored?”

Agni turned, catching Micah’s eyes and holding them with quiet intensity. “Nothing like that,” he vowed. He did not patronize Micah on his bitter view of immortality, but rather explained why he was wrong. “When it is the right partner, the right chemistry, spending immortality together would be a blessing. Challenging. Arousing. Treasuring.”

Micah tried not to shift under the stare, knowing Agni was no longer thinking of Svaha. Could someone who looked so adoringly at Micah really be plotting against him with Yama?

“Then what happened?” Micah inquired, trying to erase the intensity in Agni’s gaze by reminding him of his previous consort. It worked. Micah wondered why he regretted it. “She just wasn’t the right partner? You both knew the steps but could not find the synchrony.”

“You sound disappointed our separation would be that easily explained.” Agni’s lips twitched before turning solemn. “I was different when I was younger. I was far more pretentious and social. Far more concerned with appearances and arrogant in my prestige. I was ruthless with demonstrating my power and impatient when things did not go my way.”

Micah withheld the cheeky comment that things didn’t appear to have changed with old age, but thought better of it. Something was not right in the way Agni’s words reverberated with hollowness.

“Circumstances and age brought me down from my high ground. It taught me humility, loss, betrayal, and patience. I no longer saw her as my equal, but someone to be pitied for their shallowness and dependency on image.”

A cold pang that was not his to feel nearly choked Micah.

He pressed his back against his seat, submerging in the dark feeling, recognizing it as something similar to what he’d felt upon Keegan’s death. It was the same regret. The same pain and suffocation. “You’ve lost someone.”

Agni considered him thoughtfully. “In a sense.”

Micah mused on the vague, albeit enlightening words.

Not death, then. There were worse things than death, weren’t there? Micah had experienced several hardships in the past, but nothing like this muffled sentiment stemming from Agni. Nothing quite so strong to replicate a passing of a loved one. But Agni had, leaving Micah to wonder at the circumstances that shaped Agni into the god currently sitting next to him.

“Any children?” he asked to change the topic and to alleviate the pang in his chest.

“Why the sudden interest in my—”

“Life?” Micah finished sharply, giving the man a cold stare. “You can thoroughly imbed traces of yourself in every single aspect of my life, past, present, and future, but I can’t ask if you had a child with her?”

Agni exhaled in amusement. “No need for hostility, Ezra.” He watched as Micah turned his cheek, gazing back out at the carriage. “I was merely curious what brought on these lines of enquiries. I’ve told you that your questions are always welcome.” At Micah’s continued silence, Agni pressed onward. “A son. I have a son.”

The revelation jarred Micah, more so than discovering Agni had a previous consort.

“A—a son.” He licked his lips. “God of firewood?”

“Endearing sarcasm, child, but no. No relation to fire or ash.”

Agni reached out and grabbed Micah’s averted chin. The gloved fingers hooked possessively around Micah’s jawline, turning his head until their eyes locked. The god shifted closer. Their thighs pressed together. Micah watched the man lean forward, tauntingly close, yet far enough to create a building static of tension.

“His name is Kartikeya, the god of war.” A pause. “You and he would have gotten along very well.”

“Would have?”

“I’m afraid he’s much like his mother.”

Micah hummed. “And you didn’t seek to change that?”

“It is an inevitable lost cause.”

Micah found that peculiar. The taste of Agni’s sour bitterness on his tongue even more so. Agni was clever and he was manipulative. If anyone could coerce a child of theirs to adhere to their image, it would be Agni. It’s what he’d done with Micah. Then again, Micah had been vulnerable and susceptible to Agni’s influence with his young age and mortality.

“Is there anything else you wish to know?” Agni murmured pleasantly, keeping his fingers tight around Micah’s jawline. Controlling and authoritative. “You only need ask.”

Gazing at the man, Micah pondered on Josiah. The real Josiah. He hadn’t thought of his uncle for quite some time. Considering Agni spent some time in the immortal realm, forced to retreat there as he sheltered Micah in Region 20, Josiah had acquired a taste of freedom. He wondered at the man’s mental state. Wondered if he were closer in renouncing his permission of Agni’s possession.

Josiah knew of Micah’s thoughts on the matter. He’d heard his unsubtle hints to regain control of his life.

But that was Josiah’s personal battle.

The man would only leap when he was ready. He would not welcome a shove from behind.

“Yes,” Micah responded levelly. “I want to know. Everything.”

Something unpleasant flickered in the orange eyes and the fingers tightened further. “Such a curious and determined thing you are tonight.”

“I want to know what you found brushing Kai’s mind. I want to know what you and Varuna agreed upon before my conception. I want to know who the white-haired goddess is, who Yama was, what he did to create such havoc and fear in the gods. I want to learn what the god of death and justice is expected to do with his realm forever locked down and cast as a purgatory. What is death like for mortals without Yama? What is afterlife? What is your realm, Elisium, like?”

Micah inhaled deeply, spurred by a new light, a new confidence.

He curled his hand around Agni’s wrist, the one that held his jaw captive, and pressed on. “What is a Syphon, exactly? What is a daemon? What are their purpose—or—what was their purpose when Yama was in power? What are your intentions, Agni? What were your intentions by creating me? How far was your reach when I was a child? Why are you feeding me your soul?”

He’d expected displeasure.

He’d expected some sort of unpleasant reaction to his questions.

What he didn’t expect was a proud and haughty expression lighting Agni’s face. “It seems,” the god started silkily, “That you’ve finally decided to emerge from the sand and confront these things that you’ve avoided. You now acknowledge the importance of being aware. Perhaps soon you may actually accept your destiny instead of turning sharp corners and ducking into alcoves.”

Micah acknowledged the importance of being aware, yes, but he also acknowledged the need to keep up with Agni. He didn’t want to be a victim. He didn’t want others to consider him ignorant and prone to manipulations.

Moreover, he was beginning to consider the god of death in a new light.

Cain’s words had inspired him today.

He yearned to be that force of nature.  

Yet, a part of him remained hesitant over Yama. Over immortality. He was steadily accepting this aspect, however gradual his pace. Otherwise, if he were simply planning to roll over to Yama’s whims, he would care little if he were Agni’s equal or not.

“I’ll find those answers.” Micah bypassed Agni’s observation and let it suspend. “I know you aren’t the type to spoon feed me.”

“I will always welcome the opportunity to spoil you,” Agni replied smugly.

“You’d prefer to watch me struggle and climb over that wall myself.”

Agni did not deny this but rather cocked his head to the side and neared closer to Micah. His lips teased over Micah’s cheekbone in a slow, languid caress. He exhaled, his breath warm against Micah’s cold skin. “Is that your way of saying you wouldn’t trust my answers?”

Without responding, Micah turned his head as much as the hand along his jaw allowed. He butted Agni’s forehead with his own, all but nuzzling against the man’s heated skin. The hand loosened, allowing Micah the opportunity to rub his cheek against Agni’s, marveling at the sensation. His arms reached out and encircled the man’s waist, pulling their chests flush against the other.

His eyes fluttered closed as he held Agni close, smirking when the man returned the embrace with equal ferocity.

“Micah?”

He closed his eyes briefly, preening at the sheer power his name elicited.

“Partially,” Micah finally responded. He moved his face and pressed it into the crook of Agni’s neck. He inhaled, smelling the heat, the spice, the fire. He didn’t want to part with it. “What I need from you is what you were going to tell me earlier on the train. Those things you said you could have handled differently. Those things that you claimed could incriminate you. I want to know about Kai, too.”

“Your noble doggy is just fine.”

Micah pulled back, searching Agni’s—Josiah’s—closed off expression. “Just fine?”

He released Agni’s waist, his arms falling at his sides.

In response, Agni tightened his hold around Micah. “There is no possession. No corruption from another source. He is… who he is.”

Before Micah could delve into the unusual wording, Agni persisted.

“As for the other topics, I’m afraid it will have to wait.” The carriage abruptly stopped in front of the palace. “Such conversation requires time and uninterrupted settings.”

Micah agreed now was not the time, though he wondered how often Agni would conveniently work that to his favor. Missed opportunities. The promise to talk later. The avoidance. The fire god was especially clever at sidestepping issues as much as Micah was at avoiding them. They really did make the perfect pair, didn’t they?

“Do you know what Calder wants? Or was this a ruse to get me out of Sachiel’s parlor?”

Agni unwound his arms from Micah’s waist, straightening his cloak and sleeves. “No. He intercepted me in the corridor and requested that I bring you back immediately.” He did not hesitate in exiting the carriage and held both the door and his hand for Micah. “Whatever the concern is, he did not appear pleased.”

“Does Calder ever appear pleased?”

“Touché.”

Avoiding the outstretched hand, he stepped from the carriage unattended. He climbed the steps of the palace, thankful for the late hour. There were no spectators around the entrance and no noblemen inside the palace walls. Tall and ornate candelabras dotted the perimeter of the large front entrance leading to the throne room. The candlesticks twisted around one another in a fury of firelight and splendor. The glow from the flames stained the glossy white floors a golden hue and shed light on the rich tapestries and portraits hanging on the towering walls.

Up ahead, a group of nobles waited outside the closed doors of the throne room.

Micah hadn’t seen them earlier, for they were half-cast in shadow and eerily quiet.

He spied Kai and Talia standing together.

A sense of forbidding eased its way down Micah’s spine when he discerned the general atmosphere of somberness and unease.

With a face crafted from grim stone, Kai nodded sharply to the closed doors.

In a daze, Micah waited for the guards to open the double doors. Once allowed entrance, he stepped inside the throne room with only Agni accompanying him. The throne room, untouched by the modern age of electricity, was just as dark as the front entrance. With the large, floor to ceiling windows reflecting the fall of night, a plethora of candles were lit, offering enough source of light to highlight his surroundings.

Standing near the empty and silent fountain was Calder and a nobleman Micah had seen on the platform. Irving Dover, most likely. Also standing in their shadow was none other than Ladon. Micah had no time to dwell on his half-brother’s presence, for Calder hurried over, the other two Unda men staying respectably behind.

“Ezra. Josiah.”

Calder closed in quickly, his expression just as poorly masked as the group of nobles outside the throne room.

The intricate and stylishly embroidered jacket he wore earlier on the train had since been discarded, revealing a slightly rumpled tunic rolled to his elbows. His brows were furrowed. His strides were quick, almost desperate in hopes Micah would not preemptively take notice of the coffin in the middle of the room.

He did.

Take notice.

He gazed at the open coffin with incomprehension before Calder invaded his space and cut off his sights. Micah did not speak. He couldn’t with his tongue weighing as heavily as it did. He knew what this was.

He knew.

Just as he knew he’d discover Kalama’s corpse that morning in Region 20.

His intuition of what was about to occur struck a horrifying chord within him, leaving him a mere husk to the outside world. Internally, he shuddered. Unexpectedly, a handkerchief pressed firmly into his palm, smelling strongly of peppermint oil. He glanced at the individual who’d given him the cloth, spying Healer Destan smiling at him with pity.

Pity.

Rather numbly, Micah moved with Calder toward the casket, allowing his father to escort him with a heavy, solid arm around his shoulders. Josiah went ahead, his own handkerchief in his hands. The moment the smell of foul, pungent decay hit their senses, Josiah quickly covered his mouth and nose with the cloth, Micah and Calder instinctively following suit.

Micah observed as Josiah peered rigidly into the casket. His eyes darted to Micah before the man physically recoiled with a stumble, the red-gold aura flickering weakly, the silver aura of mortal life nearly overcoming the godly possession.

Micah averted his eyes numbly, well aware of Josiah fighting for control over his own body, most likely a result of his shock. Somehow, Micah was unsurprised when his uncle once again fell under Agni’s control. None of this was important, however. He did not find it in himself to care about Agni, about Josiah, nor about Calder and his quiet words of ‘Noir Users’ and ‘external preservation magic’.

Instead, he stopped before the casket and stared into the face of his mother.

A bubble of bitter hysteria threatened to overcome him.

He shuddered out a heavy breath, inhaling far too much strong-smelling peppermint oil. It made him choke and cough. Once he started, he wondered if the coughs would turn to cries of disbelief and unfairness.

As his cough tempered, he shook off Calder’s arms and inched closer to his mother.

His father had been right.

It certainly was some sort of preservation magic that kept Ember’s skin flawless and whole, though she appeared far paler in death. An elegant, black lace gown dressed her body, a startling contrast to the pallor of her skin. Someone took a great amount of care to display her properly. A single black braid, representing royalty, curled around her shoulder and settled between her breasts. Her lips were painted carefully with crimson, the same vibrant shade as the piece of silk fabric covering the left side of her face.

To hide the scars.

To hide whom she was.

The only thing that gave away her decaying state was the strong smell of internal rot that threatened to overcome the peppermint oil.

As it was, the hands clasped peacefully over her abdomen also carried the signs of rotting, black flesh.

He thought back to when he’d last seen her. In the underground caverns of Region 20. When Yama possessed her, he’d noticed the hands then, too. All this time, she’d been dead. Hadn’t she? It was why Yama claimed he would gladly release his hold over her. He knew she was a broken, useless toy for him. Unlike gods, who needed living hosts, a Syphon—a daemon—did not require a beating heart to control a body.

Micah reached for the silk fabric hiding Ember’s scars.

“Ezra,” Calder called once again.

Repeating his name, reaching out to him.

Micah suddenly realized he was panting desperately through his handkerchief. It seemed oddly deafening to him in the silence of the throne room as he choked himself with the piece of cloth.

A delirious sort of reaction to seeing her in the flesh again, wasn’t it?

To confront the gnarly mess of emotion he held for her.

His fingers tightened and fisted the silk fabric over her face, noticing the tremors of his hand. With a grunt of frustration and loss, he tugged the silk away from her, revealing the glimmering, shiny mess on her face. A familiar sight. His own palms seemed to burn with a fire that died long ago, a physical connection to the woman who raised him with both unyielding affection and cruel life lessons.

Seeing her true face, underneath the silk, underneath the peaceful rest, spurred Micah into finally realizing what lay in front of him.

She was truly gone.

“Ezra!”

“Let him go.”

Calder’s call and Agni’s command came from behind him. It wasn’t until Healer Destan hurriedly opened the doors for Micah that he realized he’d subconsciously fled. As he exited through the doors, the handkerchief fell from his grasp and swayed to the ground in his wake. He kept tight hold on the silk cloth as if it were a lifeline, hurrying past the crowd of nobles with a face far too expressionless to fool anyone.

Talia called to him, but she did not follow.

Kai most likely recognized he needed time to himself and held her back.

For that, Micah was grateful.

As he climbed the stairs, he found he had stopped breathing. His shoulders were tense. His back proud. The eyes watching his retreat were far too heavy to endure, yet somehow he kept his composure.

The moment he was out of sight, he broke into a sprint.

He left her behind, yet her memory relentlessly stayed with him.

No matter how fast he ran, he could still smell her rotting organs through the prodigious peppermint.

The silk fabric trailed behind him like a flailing, crimson ribbon. He ran past his own wing, his feet leading him to her old quarters. The queen’s wing. It was off limits to everyone but the palace staff who tended the empty chambers in anticipation of a future queen. He hadn’t ventured there yet, far too leery of the sentiments it would have trudged up, though he desperately sought it out now.

His lungs burned with overexertion.

He only pushed faster.

He ran past the curved stairwell that would lead to the tower above the queen’s quarters. The nursery. The same nursery stairs Agni had hurriedly climbed nearly sixteen years prior when a young Micah sat bawling amongst the flames. There were still scorch marks against the stone walls, inerasable evidence despite the renovations undoubtedly taking place after the fire.

Bypassing the nursery wing, he entered through a set of intricately carved doors. He submerged inside the dark room, slamming the doors behind him. Sagging against the wood, he broke the silence with several heaving breaths.

With his head bowed, he vaguely made out the silk fabric clutched tightly in his fist. There was only a single sconce lit on the adjourning wall, casting everything in various hues of grey and black, too dark to reflect color. Steadily, he observed his surroundings. Sixteen years ago, the fire had started in the nursery and stayed contained there. Everything here was left how she’d left it.

He pushed off from the doors and shuffled closer to the bed.

He hated her.

So much.

His fingers traveled over the expensive quilt. If he inhaled, he wondered if he could catch a ghost of her scent but knew how improbable it was. It was years ago. Since then, multiple bodies filled this room and cleaned away her imprints. He scowled into the dark, prowling the length of the footboard.  

He hated her.

Despised, really.

So much.

He was ecstatic she was gone. He no longer had to confront this disorderly mess of emotion he harbored for her. He could go on forgetting about her. Avoiding the thought of her. Telling everyone how cruel she was. How depraved she was. He no longer had to acknowledge her role in his upbringing and realize, despite the hate, despite the unhealthy adherence, he—

He sucked in a sharp breath and grabbed hold of the bedpost with both hands.

For a moment, he braced himself, composing.

He tried to calm his mind. He tried to erase her memory. Perhaps recovering from her death would be easier than what he’d originally feared. If he could just… settle. If not erase her from his mind, then perhaps he could wrap her memory into the depths of his subconscious.

Only, as he attempted to do so, she bucked, rising once more to the surface.

Micah nodded to himself, recognizing they both deserved better than evasion. He’d promised himself he would learn to face things without the blindfold.

It was due time he start.

Raising the crimson fabric to eye level, and wrapping it around the bedpost, he buried his face against the silk. A dying exhalation stuttered past his lips and he caressed the material against his face, nuzzling.

She was no longer in this world. 

It seemed surreal.

Despite her sickness, despite her debilitating vulnerability, she’d still seemed indestructible.

He had proclaimed Ember unkind. She had taken away his childhood, after all. She’d treated him callously as she revealed the flaws of humanity. She’d gone from a loving, nurturing mother and queen, to a hard, impatient teacher. Her words were often times condescending, claiming he was nothing until he proved his worth.

His worth, consequently, was measured on his hate for Calder and Josiah. He would only be someone, someday, if he conquered the husband who shunned her and the brother who played her.

Regardless of her shift of character, Micah had doted on her as a young child.

As he grew older, he realized the inappropriate behavior according to society’s standards. He knew the way she treated him was emotionally abusive just as it was unacceptable. It’s what he told himself. It’s what he told others like Calder. Like Josiah. Like Agni. To them, they couldn’t possibly understand or accept the relationship he had with Ember.

Often times, either could he.

Others would find his real feelings of her improper. They’d claim him a victim.

So he proclaimed himself indifferent to her.

In order to cope with their sudden separation when Agni took him from Region 20, he’d stopped thinking of her entirely. He avoided her just as easily as he avoided everything else that made him uncomfortable. However, faced with her corpse, with her departure of this world, he finally accepted her influence and unlocked the true extent of their relationship.

He fisted the silk fabric and wrapped it around his wrist several times before tucking the edge underneath and securing it in place. He looked up, ensnaring his reflection in the floor-length mirror. His features were dark, murky with gloom. Without seeing himself, he submerged into the ghost of her as if she stood beside him.  

Finally facing her. Finally acknowledging her.

With startling vividness, as if transported into the past, he remembered her sickness.

He remembered her fatigue.

She’d be perspiring with a fever and the overall temperature of the south.

He remembered standing uselessly at the end of the bed, his belly painfully empty, watching as she curled in on herself amongst the wet sheets, too weak to move properly or speak in coherent sentences. Far too weak to make them breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. He’d gone days at times without food, far too pampered and naïve from the palace to fend for himself.

Something in him had shifted in those early days.

A maturity, a sense of duty and protection.

Ember was his. Moreover, he had to take care of her when she was unable to do so herself.

He’d experienced hardships and trauma on his quest to obtain independence and capability. Eventually, he’d learned. Eventually, he was able to cook food. He was able to shelter. To provide.

As a child, he would sit at Ember’s bedside, spooning her broth. He’d brush aside her sweaty hair, caring for her. He’d help her bathe. He’d help her get fresh air. Often times, he’d held her hair when she vomited into a bucket. He’d clean the bedsheets when she was unable to muster up enough strength to use the toilet.

Such vulnerability, such weakness…

Micah had absorbed it all and strived to protect her.

The days when she wasn’t sick, often weeks—months— at a time, Micah listened to her teachings, readily absorbing her lessons. As she became the provider of the household, the power balance shifted. Sometimes she was cruel. Sometimes she was excessively affectionate as if wanting to soothe away her harshness. He’d kneel before her, recognizing the imperative need to acknowledge her authority. He’d hoped, with his obedience, she wouldn’t find a reason to relapse.

He enjoyed when she was the one in charge. The one to take care of him.

But she always did.

Relapse.

And then the power balance would tilt once more in his favor.

He would often times sit at the edge of the bed and watch her sleep during her most vulnerable, recalling her slips of callousness and belittling. A primitive side of him marveled how easy it would be to smother her with a pillow in her weakened state. He wouldn’t need to fend for her anymore. He wouldn’t need to fear her hot and cold treatment. He wouldn’t need to ponder what Ember he would interact with the next morning. Always different. Always something unpredictable.

Sometimes scary. Sometimes endearing.

Instead of reaching for the pillow, he had curled next to her. He wrapped his arm around her and held her close. She’d reciprocate, often times clutching him urgently, holding on to him with startling desperation.

As if he could anchor her. As if he could absorb the pain and the sickness.

Often times he’d wanted to. Hoped to.

Yet he never absorbed her sickness, no matter how much he’d wanted to cure her.

Standing in front of the mirror in her old bedchambers, Micah grimaced at the memories. He observed his reflection, more particularly the features he’d inherited from her, seeing her in his face.

A sudden jolt of fury coursed through him at his oversentimentality.

She shouldn’t have evoked this much emotion from him.

He reached for the fire iron next to the empty hearth, curling his fingers around the solid metal. He’d feared admitting what she really meant to him. Embarrassed, ashamed, and fearful. But all this time, underneath the resentment of her, underneath her treatment, underneath his denial… it was always there. Thrumming strongly. Underneath the hate, Micah acknowledged how much he had loved her.

He brought back the iron and slammed it into the large mirror.

The glass shattered and veined, yet stayed intact.

Like ice on the verge of collapse.

He laughed once. Bitter. Readjusting his hold, he went for the mirror again. And again. The glass shards rained to the ground, creating a lovely sound that reverberated across the chambers. Was he doomed to discover the true value of bonds only after they died? Could he only admit to them when they were no longer relevant?

Like Keegan. Like Ember.

It was exactly as Kai had pointed out on the train.

He was incapable of admitting when someone meant a great deal to him. He recoiled at the very idea. Yet, he couldn’t deny the emptiness and the suffocating pain at having missed the opportunity to say it aloud to them. Before they left.

He had loved her as much as he had despised her.

He still did.

Love her.

In a desperate, bated breath, he whispered to her.

“I’m sorry.”

His words floated whimsically in hopes of reaching their intended recipient. Only, they remained unacknowledged and soon turned hollow and empty, lost forever. Useless in their message that may have once carried meaning. He’d failed her. Discarded her to the cruelty of the world, unprotected. He’d saved Idris that day at the tavern, not only because he had respected the old warrior, but also because he would have found Ember and helped her during Micah’s absence.

Clearly, that hadn’t gone as anticipated.

Protecting her had been entrenched into his bones since childhood.

He’d let go.

Knowing how fierce and capable she was when needed.

Only to see her folded in that box…

In a hazed frenzy, he attacked anything worth shattering with the fire iron. Anger, fierce and cold, coiled his muscles and made them rigid. He smashed the wood, dented it, before moving on to the vases and the portraits of petty, insignificant sceneries. The clashes and the shattering rang pleasantly throughout the room. When that wasn’t enough, he returned to the armoire, hacking at it repeatedly.

His pulse thrummed loudly in his ears.

Rage never seemed quite so satisfying.

The dent in the wood became a gouge. The gouge became a splinter. Micah hacked away frantically. Over and over and over again.

His arms became sore. His shoulders locking.

The pain helped distract him from all the contradictory feelings.

The hand on his shoulder frightened him enough to turn and swing the iron at the intruder. He knew who it was. He knew. Knew. He knew this man was responsible, in some way, for Ember’s fate.

Therefore, he aimed.

And he aimed true.

Agni ducked abruptly before reaching out with frighteningly quick reflexes and grabbed hold of the fire iron. Visible clouds of breath left his lips as he tugged the iron completely from Micah’s grasp and tossed it across the room. The fire god then reached for Micah, warding off the frantic hands that sought to fend off his touch, his console.

“When it is coddling you require, I will offer it immediately.”

With the memory of Agni’s earlier admission, Micah recoiled and furiously fought the man.

“No!” he denied furiously. “I don’t need help,” Micah snarled, disgusted even saying the word. “I don’t need coddling!”

In the end, Agni was able to wrangle him into a tight embrace. The difference in their height allotted Micah’s head to tuck cleanly under Agni’s chin. As strong, unyielding arms enveloped him, Micah immediately shuddered at the jarring difference of their body temperatures. He just noticed the dense, cold fog swathing the room. The shards of glass and broken ceramic had a fine layer of snow on top of them. Just as well, a thick layer of frost claimed the windows of her quarters.

He hadn’t noticed the reach of his Element until he felt the startling heat emitting from Agni.

Small flames danced on top the shattered objects on the floor, a result of the fire god’s presence and his display of power. Micah realized, as Agni pulled him closer, that the god wasn’t using his Element to comfort or distract, but rather to protect himself against the sheer amount of frigid iciness secreting from Micah’s trembling form.

At their dueling, opposing Elements, a shiver of both pain and pleasure danced across his limbs, eliciting an erotic sensation he did not want.

Not now. 

He simply slumped into Agni’s resilient hold. A strong, protective hand splayed the back of his head and guided him closer, into the shelter of the fire god’s warmth. Micah allowed the action, burying his face into Agni’s chest. 

No words were said. No words were needed.

He was emotionally exhausted.

His mind felt tattered, torn.

He loved her. Hated her. Hated that he loved her.

He was happy she was gone, but devastated at her death.

He was ashamed for adoring her.

He was conflicted on what to feel and how to feel.

He felt everything and nothing.

Micah just wanted to fall to his knees, overcome with a startling rush of detachment.  

Nevertheless, Agni was there to keep him standing.

Always standing.

Chapter Text

Intermission: Ember’s Story Part 2

 

She was confined inside a mirrored box.

A glass coffin.

It had to be.

She breathed harshly, her terrified expression rebounding off the mirrored panes and emphasizing her panic. As she pushed against the barrier above her head, her wide, yellow eyes reflected back at her. She screamed shrilly, hoping someone, anyone, would hear her. The air seemed thick. And grew thicker. Her oxygen would run out. Screaming again, she slammed her palms against the ceiling of her prison, hoping to shatter it and break free.

As her palms grew raw from repetitively smacking them against the unbreakable barrier, Ember slumped back.

Defeated.

Sobs frantically shook her body for several long minutes as she contemplated her death.

As she considered her son, Ember gasped out a determined breath and resumed her attempts to break loose. When the ceiling proved futile, she turned her head to attack the sides of the mirrored coffin. Only, she abruptly stilled. Instead of her terrified reflection, a pair of ice-like eyes stared back at her. A familiar woman lay on her back, imitating Ember’s prone position.

Silky, white hair haloed her faultlessly sculptured features. Ember almost wept at their perfection.

As Ember raised her hand, the woman next to her reflected the movement. Their fingertips pressed against the mirror at the same time, reaching out to one another through the glass barrier.

Ember frowned and the woman frowned.

Turning her cheek, Ember stared at the ceiling, blinking in confusion at the reflection staring back at her. Her reflection was almost the replica of the woman lying to Ember’s right, only, masculine features replaced the feminine curves. Ice-like eyes gazed back at her, and hair, painfully white and smooth, clung against an equally pale, sweaty face.

Ember whimpered with unease and the man’s reflection mirrored her.

Suddenly, flames consumed her feet and climbed the walls of her mirrored coffin.

Ember desperately fought the heat sweltering her skin, hoping to avoid the flames at the edges of her coffin. She would die here. Die by her own Element under the watchful eyes of two twin-like strangers.

A hand abruptly shattered through the glass, reaching out to her. The skin was noticeably cold, frozen, but she cared little. Ice was a welcomed element to the fire gradually consuming her. She reached for the hand, fingers closing against fingers. Reassurance flooded Ember’s body. A sense of fond love and admiration tickled her senses as the hand clung to her, pulling her from the depths of her coffin.

Such love. Such protectiveness.

Ember wept.

Blankly, she stared across the expansive room, drowning in the memory of her latest nightmare. Her senses, prickly with sensitivity, coiled around her, creating a palpable sense of unapproachability. Her son easily sensed her mood, for he’d quickly sought out his uncle that evening. She’d followed him at a distance, detached from her person, but still driven by her need to protect her child.

They currently sat in the library.

Ember claimed a chair in the corner, her unfocused eyes on the uncle and nephew pair. Ezra sat on his uncle’s lap, listening to Josiah as the man read him stories from the old Igni Empire. She didn’t hear the words. She just watched as Josiah’s fingers combed through Ezra’s unruly waves, smoothing out snarls and parting it effortlessly.

Ezra smiled bashfully into the touch, staring shyly at his uncle as the man read. Josiah would make eye contact with his nephew intermittently, smiling fondly and tugging tenderly at Ezra’s hair.

Ember couldn’t even muster up enough repugnance at the scene before her.

Ezra doted on his uncle. Josiah doted on his nephew.

Yet, even Ember felt the malicious undertones of her brother. His presence, as she’d felt before, secreted something foreign, something unnerving. Her hands fisted as she submerged in the sensation of being in close quarters with a predator. She was putting her child at risk, but she realized that said predator appeared to hold true affection for her son.

Just what was he?

What was Ezra to him?

“I don’t appreciate them speaking that way,” Josiah’s voice broke through Ember’s tense musings.

Ember blinked, realizing they were alone in the library. Ezra was nowhere in sight.

She stiffened in her chair, wondering how long she’d submerged into her own mind.  

“They speak as if he’s a godly reincarnation.”

“Excuse me?”

Josiah reclined in his seat, skeptically surveying Ember. The orange eyes of high nobility narrowed as they assessed her, bordering on intrigued and amused. She readjusted her posture, quickly remembering it was past dinner. The palace servants most likely had possession of her son, wrestling him into the bubbly waters.

Ezra hated bath time.

“How are you fairing, dear sister?”

She narrowed her eyes at his inquiry and stood from her seat. “More than fine, brother.” Placing her book on her chair, she turned and straightened her gown. “The servants of the palace are enthralled with what Ezra has to offer. Their admiration is understandable. He is something new. Something worth following.”

“But entirely unwelcomed and unappreciated,” Josiah countered. “The boy is far too young. Such reverence will spoil him. Taint him into something irredeemable.”

Josiah appeared genuinely displeased.

For just a moment, Ember paused in her retreat of the library, taking note of his pinched lips. “Ezra is a sweet boy—”

“For now,” Josiah interrupted sharply. “Such worship will overinflate his ego and his sense of importance.” Gradually, Josiah stood from his position with intentional slowness. He maintained steady eye contact with her, unaware of the vulturine air he gave off. “It’s best we catch it before it grows out of hand, no?”

His eyes squinted at her.

“You leave Ezra’s childrearing to me.” She tried to ground herself and squint back. “I have it handled.”

As she turned and exited the library, she heard his soft, nearly inaudible words following her wake.

“Do you?”

It was enough to put her on edge with the knowledge of his scrutiny.

He’d be watching.

Waiting.

 

* * * *

 

“Yama?”

Ember tightened the shawl around her face, nodding gravely. “Yama.”

The woman gazed at her suspiciously before it soothed out into reluctant forthcoming. “The god of death and justice.”

“There are only four gods—”

“Says the modern day religion, yes.”

Through lowered lids, Ember gazed around the small shop. Outfitted as an antique shop, it was ‘normal’ in every pretense of the word. Clocks, in all shapes and sizes, hung on the walls next to ornate mirrors. Behind glass display cases, an assortment of jewelry lay, jewelry that had once been in fashion in the Igni Empire.

Now all relics of a dead empire.

Ember stared at the body chains, feeling her chest lurch, before moving her attention to the small pocket watches. Minuscule tools lay next to an open watch, the tiny gears displayed underneath the magnifying glass.

Look for the Igni woman who fixes time, they told her.

Instead of finding a forthcoming woman eager to share the dark secrets of the Noir Users, Ember encountered a suspicious and leery adversary. She supposed it made sense. Noir Magic was not entirely popular and welcomed. Most, like Ember, looked down on it with distrust. How could she embrace something she did not understand?

“The god of death,” Ember repeated thoughtfully.

“And justice,” the Igni woman, who proclaimed herself ‘Alice’, repeated. “Do not forget justice. It is perhaps his most imperative role, though most dwell on his fearsome quality of death and decay.” She sat behind the counter, watching Ember curiously. “All the departed souls will stand before Yama and incur his judgement. Only he decides if they are fated for eternal paradise or eternal damnation.”

Ember swallowed dryly. “I had believed Agni—or one’s chosen god or goddess—decided on such a vital outcome. Who better than judge a child than his or her own father? Mother? Only Agni knows if we’ve lived up to his expectations.”

“Yama’s very purpose makes him fit to judge all souls appropriately. He can see them, whereas Agni could never match that power.”

“But why? Why… if there is a god as vital as Yama that we no longer acknowledge his existence?”

“There are reasons religions die and new ones take shape in the mortal world,” the old shopkeeper informed despondently. “Something monumental must have transpired with the gods to destroy the very mention of Yama and all others.” She stood up, leaning prominently on her cane. “While his power was considered great, worshipping Yama was only for the fearless. Others considered it ill advised to worship death. Rather, they saved their worship for the gods that could improve life. They wished for good fortune, good health, fertility, love. All things living. Often times, they prayed to their gods to save them from Yama’s reach.”

Ember submerged into the words, understanding, but finding it difficult to grasp.

She wondered what happened to erase Yama from religions.  

Briefly, she thought back to the dreams and the whispers. She thought of the cold and the betrayal.

Alice looked from Ember’s pale dress to the shawl wrapped resolutely around the lower half of her face. She would see nothing that stood out as royalty. “Where did your interest in Yama originate, child? As you are Agni’s daughter, it is surprising to hear your awareness of the god of death and justice.”

Ember balked at the ‘child’ address.

While Alice had aging wrinkles, and hair peppered with far more white than black, Ember was no child.

She straightened to her full height. “My son,” she lied ambiguously. “Has been having dreams as of late. He wakes up with the names ‘Yama’ and ‘Yamuna’ on his tongue. He’s so young. He does not understand what he sees.”

Dulled amber eyes widened a fraction. “Indeed?” The surprise fled and the old Igni woman appeared forlorn once more. “Forgive me. These days I am leery of newcomers expressing an interest in Noir Magic. We are being hunted.”

“Hunted?” Ember repeated with disbelief. “I hadn’t—”

“What is it you want from me?”

Ember faltered at the impatience and sharp tone. Alice’s hard eyes settled on the display window over Ember’s shoulder and watched the men and women pass by. Shadows clung greedily to her, and the hand holding her cane turned white with tension. As stooped as she was, she resembled a frightened, cornered animal.

“I don’t wish to learn Noir Magic,” Ember stated quietly. “I only wish to help my son. To learn more about the old religion. I—I believe he may be possessed.”

Only, Ember would be the possessed victim

Not Ezra.

Not her sweet child.

That ensnared the old Igni’s attention. “Possessed by whom, exactly?”

“A daemon?”

That seemed to further the haunted look in Alice’s eyes. “Highly doubtful, but possible. Daemons belong entirely to Yama. Often times, they are immoral creatures, but they are loyal to their master. If Yama wishes to tell your child something, he would most likely use the daemons to deliver him a message.”

Ember frowned, unsettled. Could the daemons be trying to deliver her a message from Yama? That didn’t seem right. The dreams she had, the visions she experienced… they were so real.

“He… my son… says he feels what Yama feels.”

Alice did not turn away in time to hide the growing unease across her face. “Well then…”

The woman tapped her way into the backroom, leaving Ember standing at the front of the shop. She shifted uneasily, looking at the display window and expecting to see palace guards nearby. They weren’t. She hoped Ezra and Anna were faring well at the market. It shouldn’t be much longer…

A cane striking the wood floors recaptured Ember’s skittish attention.

“A book… original and hand-written, about the old gods and goddesses. It is not properly formatted, but the information is plentiful.” The woman’s gnarly hands pushed a small, leather-bound book across the glass counter. “Keep it in good hands.”

Ember stared down at the inconspicuous book. “I—I couldn’t.”

Alice sighed. “I don’t know the fate of my people and I do not anticipate living much longer.” Yellowed fingernails touched the book once more, pushing it in Ember’s direction. “Something urges me to give this to you. Death hovers over your shoulder, dear one. Take it.”

Uneasy at the words, Ember accepted the small book and quickly pocketed it in her traveling cloak. She then took notice of the tiny vial.

“What is that?”

It was no bigger than her pinkie finger. Light purple liquid swirled inside, shimmering and glittering.

Alice pinched it between her two fingers and held it to Ember. “For your… son.” Her mouth twitched, as if she knew it was not Ember’s son whom experienced such symptoms but Ember herself. “Ingest this. It gives you the ability to identify auras for a very short time. You will see evidence of possession. If so, I expect I will be seeing you again very shortly.”

The shimmering liquid winked at Ember, but she withheld the temptation to reach for it. “How will I know he’s possessed?”

“A daemon’s possession stains the bloodstream black.” Alice held up her sleeve, motioning to the normal, protruding veins across her hands and up her arms. “The longer or more intense the possession, you may see the black stretch across the neck and face. Naked mortal eyes cannot see the possession, but you will.” She set down the vial. “For a time.”

Wary to ingest anything foreign, especially from a Magi, Ember hesitated. “And if he’s not possessed? He will appear normal?”

“All mortal auras are silver.” Her wrinkles deepened. “If you see a red-gold aura, it best you take caution.” At Ember’s strained silence, Alice smiled forbiddingly. “That indicates you are dealing with a deity, dear girl. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to assist you then.”

Upon the mention of possible god-like possession, Ember fretted. She remembered her dreams. Those individuals standing before Ember, the ones who stared at her—at Yama—with animosity… they’d been deities. She knew. She was beginning to understand that Yama had earned the disfavor of fellow gods.

But why she was experiencing his sentiments…

She plucked the vial with a gloved hand and reached for her purse.

“No.” Alice waved her angrily. “No gold.”

“But—”

Alice made a grunting noise as she settled herself on her high stool. Placing her cane against the counter, she readjusted the stand of her magnifying glass and peered down at the pocket watch gears. Nothing more was said as she dismissed Ember with silence.

Ember lowered her lashes demurely. “Thank you for your kind help.”

As she made move to depart, the woman croaked out behind her.

“Remember it’s only temporary. Be certain to be by a mirror, my dear, for that’s the only way you can see your own aura.” The Noir User removed her magnifying glass with an annoyed huff and squinted into it. Her one eye was exaggeratedly large, the wrinkles deep crevices. She spoke softly but with wicked amusement. “Reincarnations are messy things…”

Ember ran from the shop, the word reincarnation turning her blood to ice.

 

* * * *

 

As she returned to the hustle and bustle of the popular shopping district, she stopped short. Panic tightened her throat as she observed the palace guards positioned throughout the market. Anna, dressed identically as Ember, had lowered her shawl. Pretenses were long gone considering Josiah lingered nearby.  

Ember inhaled deeply as she identified Josiah speaking firmly to Ezra, whom appeared petulant and on the verge of tears.

She hurried over, dropping her shawl and forcing her way past the crowd of growing spectators.

“But I want it.”

A shopkeeper stood awkwardly across from Ezra. In his hands, he held a jeweled fish. The scales were different gems—emeralds, rubies, and sapphires—all glittering in the dim sunlight of the capital. With all the luminosity and bright colors, it was no wonder it had caught Ezra’s eye. All that aside, it was a fish.

“Just because you want something does not mean you get to have it,” Josiah responded resolutely. Orange eyes focused exclusively on Ezra, yet his posture indicated he was more than aware of Ember’s proximity. “You must learn this.”

Ezra started crying.

Loudly.

Ember bustled forward, shushing him. Ezra was not prone to outbursts like this. She did not know what transpired before her arrival or how it escalated to such a scene. Undoubtedly, Josiah was acting harsher than usual, for her brother had begun to criticize Ezra’s upbringing as of late. The man made no attempt to hide his distaste for the palace servants and all others who simpered before his nephew.

She pressed Ezra’s face into her side, stifling his cries while stroking the soft curls of his hair.

At her coddling, Josiah’s eyes gleaned dangerously.

“Now is not the time,” Ember warned quietly.

Unfortunately, the sight of the crying prince spurred others to act. Vendors from shops approached, their hands full of treats or candy or small trinkets. The merchant with the glass fish crouched down next to Ezra, completely unaware of the sharp regard he’d garnered from Josiah. He reached out, offering the jeweled fish to the crying child.

“Please. It would be an honor if you took this, Your Highness.”

That immediately stopped Ezra’s crying. He turned, revealing his red and wet face. His large eyes softened with wonder. As he reached out to grab hold of the fish, a much larger hand curled around his small wrist and tugged him away.

Even Ember had to take a startled step back at the irate expression on her brother’s face.

Josiah pulled Ezra away from the vendors, spurring another temper outburst from his nephew. The child screamed at the rough treatment and the unfairness of it all, dragging his feet and trying to fight off his uncle’s hold. That immediately prompted Josiah to lift him up and throw him over his shoulder. Small fists beat across Josiah’s back and screams, entirely unlike the Ezra she knew, tormented their surroundings.

“I want the fish! I want it!”

Ember smiled apologetically to the shopkeeper, thanking him softly before hurrying after her brother. Her cheeks scorched at the attention they garnered. Men and women looked on with various degrees of mortification, amusement, or even revulsion. Josiah seemed unnaturally stiff as he marched a struggling Ezra to the carriage. Clearly, he was not accustomed to dealing with children.

“I hate you!”

“Hate me all you want. You still won’t get the fish.”

That spurred another vicious tantrum.

Fortunately, they reached the carriage and Josiah promptly deposited Ezra inside before entering immediately behind him. Ember followed, closing the carriage door and watching as Ezra crawled across the seat and away from his uncle. His crying softened into woeful mewls. Every few moments, he looked over his shoulder at Josiah’s stern expression and started anew.

Josiah did not look away from his nephew, undoubtedly finding amusement spurring the young child into further cries.

“Stop that,” Ember scolded. “You’ve done enough.”

“Clearly not enough,” Josiah responded, his eyes relentless on Ezra’s trembling frame.

Something within Ember whispered that he was right.

As she looked at Ezra’s quivering form, she felt a spasm of aversion and disappointment.

Recognizing where her thoughts were heading, Ember gasped, pushing away the sentiments and focusing on what she truly felt. “This is your fault. If you hadn’t spurred his obsession with fish—”

“My fault?” Josiah inquired, finally turning away from Ezra. “On the contrary, it is you and Calder who are beginning to fail at the boy’s upbringing. What a spoilt child he is…”

“That’s exactly right. He is but a child. Every child has tantrums. Every child is prone to outbursts. If I recall correctly, you were a terror. Stop treating him as if he should be an adult,” she snapped irritably. “Your impatience to see him past childhood is painfully obvious. Do not take away his childhood simply because you are eager to see him as a grown man.”

That seemed to silence Josiah.

Orange eyes stared at her without truly seeing her. For a moment, she believed her words finally sunk in.

Then his eyes narrowed and the atmosphere in the carriage darkened.

Silence stretched, broken only by Ezra’s sniffing. Something shifted within Josiah. She could tell by the purposeful way he held himself. She could tell by the way he looked at her, considering, scheming. She tried not to shift under his stare, acknowledging, once again, that her brother was not the man she once loved.

They spent the rest of the carriage ride without speaking.

Oddly enough, he did not even broach the subject of her disappearance act.

 

* * * *

 

Smooth.

No black.

Veins were ordinary. Normal.

As was her aura.

She stared at her reflection jadedly, wondering why she felt so frustrated at the outcome. Silver, as Alice stated, was normal for unpossessed mortals. Had she hoped to find the black veins under her skin? Had she hoped to see the red-gold of a god’s presence? Ember stared at her reflection for a long while, drowning in her confusion and dismay.

Her mind was blank.

Her emotions wild.

Despite her distrust of the Noir User, Ember had succumbed and drank the vial of purple liquid that morning after a particularly uneasy dream. She hadn’t remembered it upon waking, only haunted by the alien emotions it left behind. It left her a hollow shell, filled to the brim with another’s emotions.

Walking the corridors of the palace, she noticed the brilliant shine of silver encompassing the palace servants and wandering noblemen. They were far brighter than her aura. Much brighter. Vibrant. Healthy. Not dull and darkened. Not tinged and stained. Was it merely a result of gazing into a reflection? Or was her dulled aura significant somehow?

Her feet carried her to the palace gardens, knowing Ezra to be there with his uncle.

As she entwined through the pillars of the open verandah, she gazed steadily at the two forms dueling with wooden swords. Her attention lingered for only a brief second before she gazed at the man sitting and observing the two.

A silver aura clung to him greedily.

“Ember,” Calder greeted pleasantly once he saw her, motioning for her to sit at his side. “It’s such a pleasant day out today. Come join me.”

Ember hesitated before approaching her husband.

Her eyes rose, staring first at her son. Just as his father, the silver hugged him stubbornly, yet like his mother, it was also dim. She squinted, unnerved with the very faint, hardly discernable crimson around the small child. Her chest lurched. Was this the red-gold of god possession?

As she moved her scrutiny to Josiah, she felt her heart stop.

No.

Yet, through her astonishment, it suddenly all made sense.

Her hate.

Her fear.

Her suspicions about her brother…

A god currently occupied his body. There was no mistake. It radiated brilliantly. It hurt her eyes. The red-gold aura reached wantonly toward Ezra, often times coiling around the young child possessively before retreating. A very small link-like thread stretched between Josiah and Ezra, something like an umbilical cord as it tied them together.

“Ember?”

At Calder’s uncertain call, Ember turned her shoulder and shuffled back into the palace.

Numbness stretched.

Nothingness returned.

 

* * * *

 

“It is a beautiful design.”

Ember sat and stared out her window, not minding Josiah’s presence nor Ezra’s, who’d cuddled alongside her. Her son placed his head on her lap, hoping to seek security and love. Her fingers, while tangled in his hair, did not stroke him gently, nor appease him with any comfort. Her vacant attention spilled across the palace grounds, seeing the gloomy, rainy day, but not truly seeing it.

In her mind, she could only see him.

Yama.

Him and his brilliancy.

His drive.

His vengeful determination to give his people the prominence they warranted.

She remembered crouching next to a black, merciless river. It flowed quickly and precariously as it reflected her pale, pointed features and stubborn pale eyes. White hair fell forward as she leaned closer to her domain. She saw the silver orbs flowing throughout the depths of the water. She’d wanted to reach out and console them affectionately. She felt protective of them. Impatient. She would see to their fate shortly. They shouldn’t wait much longer. They were warm. Comforted until their final destination.

However, the grey, mucus-like orbs drew her deep contemplation.

Very few in numbers compared to the silver orbs, but so dull, so discarded.

Such a waste.

Such a… tragic ending for a deity that had once been almighty and graceful.

Gods hunting gods.

Distasteful. Hideous.

Ember reached into the river, her fingers ghosting across a forgotten god, punished for his ugly sentiments. Like all the other greyish orbs, they’d linger in this river for eternity. They were incapable of going into paradise or purgatory, both realms meant entirely for the mortal souls. Instead, they were discarded here, mindlessly flowing along the currents, the realm of nothingness.

Soft vibrations jolted across her fingers as she cupped the deity’s dead Essence.

“You were not meant to be forgotten. I shall make you whole once more.”

Ember came back to herself, realizing she’d spoken aloud.

She blinked, incurring the attention of Josiah and Ezra. Stiffening, she pressed her back against the window seat, avoiding the former’s sharp regard and focusing exclusively on her son. The young child held a piece of parchment in his hands. It took her a moment to identify it as a concept for a building she’d drawn for the Igni district where Calder approved the rebuild.

“You’re a good artist, mom.” Ezra frowned, undoubtedly tentative with his mother’s current behavior. His small fingers traced the serpent head and the open, gaping mouth of the tunneled entrance. “I like snakes.”

“It is a magnificent sketch,” Josiah agreed, running his hand tenderly through Ezra’s hair.

To soothe him when his mother could not.

Gazing silently at her son, Ember realized someone had cut Ezra’s hair. Seeing the short, unruly wavy locks would have once sent her into a fit of rage, but now it merely tickled at her annoyance.

Josiah picked Ezra up from the window seat and placed him on the floor. “Go to the library. I will meet you there shortly.” He smiled fondly as he accepted the concept drawing from Ezra’s small hands. “Pick out a book and we shall read it together.” Josiah watched the child run from the room before turning and scrutinizing Ember.

She simply turned her cheek, vacant eyes staring outdoors.

“Is there something I can help you with?” the imposter inquired.

Ember’s lip upturned.

She didn’t know whom to turn to. She’d gone back to Alice, devastated to find the shop vacant. No one—with the exception of a Noir User— would believe that a god possessed Josiah. A god with cruel intentions towards her son. Moreover, no matter how much the idea bothered her, no matter how many times she saw that thread-like link when she closed her eyes, she could not muster enough energy to fight the time Josiah and Ezra spent together.

She was so tired.

Confused.

Even Alice proclaimed herself unhelpful if Ember faced a deity.

What good could she—a mere mortal—do?

She’d begun reading the book of the old religions, tracing the names of several forgotten gods and goddess. She’d unearthed Yamuna. Twin sister to Yama. Whereas Yama was the god of death and justice, Yamuna was the goddess of life and fertility. Something tugged relentlessly at Ember after reading about Yamuna. About fertility. There was just something there…

“Yes,” Ember replied numbly. “Leave me alone.”

Whomever possessed her brother was an enemy of Yama, yet the stranger did not incur the same emotions as the Yamuna in Ember’s visions. Perhaps the god occupying her brother’s body was someone who did not play a significant role to Yama’s downfall. He felt familiar. The god standing next to her was familiar, yet she could not place it.

Not just yet.

Josiah looked down at the concept drawing of the serpent structure and then back up at her. “Chin up, dear sister, before people take notice…”

He took his leave.

Ember continued to stare into oblivion.

 

* * * *

 

The snow crunched beneath her racing strides. She sprinted through the naked trees and the evergreens, feeling them pursue her with relentless tenaciousness. The typical sleeping eyes of Brahma were now wide open, following her just as well from a distance. The great entity’s attention raised the hairs on her arms. Enormous power caused the air to static. The other gods acquired the Creator’s sympathy; therefore, Ember was now Braham’s enemy just as well as theirs.

She had nowhere to run.

She’d been unprepared for Brahma’s involvement.

Her allies had either forsaken her or had fallen. The Syphons shied away, recognizing the inevitable. The daemons, already vulnerable to the gods’ powers, hid in the depths of the snow. She could feel their tremors of unease beneath her feet. They were frightened. For just a moment, she grieved over the mistakes she’d made. She grieved for putting her people—her children— in this position.

The panic flaring through her was unfamiliar.

Usually haughty with unsurpassed power, she stared into the eyes of inevitable failure.

She didn’t want to be destroyed.

She wasn’t finished!

The ice forming at her hands seemed insignificant under Brahma’s relentless attention. Yet, she would fight.

She would.

Suddenly, shadows entwined through the trees, their forms solidifying and standing with her. Her children. They hadn’t abandoned her. The Syphons stretched high into the air, mere shadows as they loomed before the approaching enemies.

Ember laughed deliriously, turning her heel and facing the threat head on.

Below her feet, the realm trembled mightily.

Brahma had decided to act.

Screaming roused Ember awake.

It took a long moment to tear her mind away from the icy realm and back into her palace bedchambers. Fire reflected off the terrified eyes of her son and she gasped loudly, realizing her arms, which hugged him, were engulfed with flames. She released him abruptly and scrambled up in bed, sobbing and trembling madly.

Her hands shook as she reached for him, her racing pulse skipping a beat when she realized there was no damage.

There had to have been…

She’d lost control of her Element in her sleep. There’d been rare cases where fire Elementals unintentionally injured a spouse in sleep. Sometimes mothers, who slept with their children, also harmed their young. It was such a rare occurrence, Ember never believed she’d experience such a tragic incident.

Yet here she was.

And there was Ezra.

Unharmed, but frightened.

The blatant disbelief across her face undoubtedly spurred Ezra to shy away from her, crossing the large bed in a hurry. Something made Ember reached for him again. Something fearsome, intrigued, and extremely wicked. With her fingers aflame, she grabbed his ankle, watching in disbelief as the flames simply beat against him with no ill intent.

He was immune!

Remarkable.

“Momma!” Ezra cried.

Realizing what she was doing, Ember released her bruising hold and scrambled from the bed. Self-disgust caused her shoulders to slump forward. As she hurried over to the bookcase, she noticed the temperature in the room had plummeted. Shivering against the cold, she collected her small journal and curled up on the window seat.

With the aid of the full moon, she opened to the worn page of ‘Yama’ and lovingly traced over the name.

When her pulse finally settled, she glanced over at the bed, curious at the silence.

Ezra leaned against the headboard with his legs raised to his chin. Wide eyes peeked over his knees at her, simply watching her in silence. His frail arms wrapped around his legs and his hands patted the ankle she’d clutched just moments ago with her fire Element.

Ember turned away, disinterested. Numb.

She tried to summon up regret or shame for her actions.

Concern for her son.

Such sentiments were unforthcoming.

Clinically turning her attention back to the pages, her finger relentlessly rubbed against ‘Yama’ until the pad of her forefinger came away black with ink. Jadedly, she lifted her finger and held it under the moon’s rays. She considered her stained skin, wishing, that when she drank that tonic from the Magi, that she’d seen the black evidence of possession.

Like a shadow, she stood from the window seat and shuffled toward her eye charcoal.

With patience and careful deliberateness, she began to trace the veins in her hands and forearms with the charcoal stick. Soon, a spider-like web of black mapped her skin. Her mind blank. Her body calm.

All under the watchful yet frightened eyes of her son.

The palace servants found them that morning.

As Calder hurried in later, he promptly carried Ezra away from her chambers.

Ember paid them no heed as she continued drawing veins up to her elbows.

 

Chapter Text

10. Chapter Ten

 

Shula Idris carefully observed her companion, noticing his glassy blue eyes directed at the distant, sleeping palace.

Over the course of several weeks, he’d grown reserved. Not that the god had been particularly talkative or forthcoming initially, but Shula noted the change. He shroud himself with petulant and brooding consideration. Often times, he watched Shula and the rest of her coven with vacant, uncaring deliberation.

As if he weren’t truly present.

Shula did not understand the circumstances surrounding Yama’s position. From what little she knew, the god of death wasn’t at his full strength. He was an incorporeal entity in need of a mortal host. He proclaimed the gods were responsible for his current weakened state, which was a reason why he had approached Shula for an alliance in the first place.

Naturally, she found outsiders untrustworthy. Those who were not members of her coven were of little interest to her. As it was, she reluctantly admitted to needing assistance against Agni. Against the kingdoms of Concordia and Terra.

Who best to assist than the god of death?

Shula had been in mute fascination for several days after his reveal. Besides his capability of understanding gods like Agni, Yama also possessed age-old knowledge, knowledge Shula was eager to learn.

He could shed light on the old religions.

A particular subject cut short during her teachings.

After the Igni and Unda war, Shula, along with a young Clarence, accompanied her husband on his travels with Prince Josiah. Raised as a high noble woman, she’d been naïve to the outside world. Her husband suggested she stay behind, yet, Shula refused to stay in Concordia. She refused to watch her defeated people humiliate themselves by clumsily assimilating to the Unda society.  

When Josiah’s small group settled with the Noir Users, Shula instantly became obsessed with the dark, tenured whispers of power.

Of dominance. Of the sheer temptations.

Against her husband’s wishes, she’d grown captivated with magic. Engrossed. Obsessive. Nothing else mattered. She learned quickly. A natural born Magi, her elders had claimed. There’d been something so seductive and wanton about Noir Magic. There still was, she consented. When she’d started learning, however, it had consumed her entirely, mind, body, and soul.

Noir Magic had, and always was, more important than family. It was a possessive lover, requiring her enraptured attention.

She had just started to learn of the dead religions—the prospect of other gods and the advantages of alternative worship— when that night happened. She, along with a select few others, were away that night recruiting prospective new members.

When they’d returned… when they’d run into the panic-stricken survivors…

Years later, she still smelt the noxious scent of burned human flesh.

Visions of the crisp and blackened bodies of her people.

Of the elders.

Of the children.

A few had survived just hours past the initial burning. They’d been degenerated to animated, charred corpses. Shula recalled the trembling skeletal-like figures of her peers as they clawed at the ground and emitted ear-piercing screams.

She still heard those screams in the dead of the night.

She and the others had killed those unlucky few to put them out of their misery.

That night, she’d experienced many losses. Her husband had gone. As had Lord Josiah and his guards. As had her son. Her people dead. As were all their books and their precious histories. The survivors claimed it was a summoning ritual gone wrong. They claimed a daemon of such righteous power had possessed Lord Josiah and destroyed their people. Skeptical, Shula retreated to the shadows with her close followers, refusing to act before she knew the name of the monster she would inevitably face one day.

Others, whom started their own faction, were not so patient. Foolish as they were, Shula had tried to warn them.

After what happened to them, to her husband and to Clarence—

Shula inhaled deeply, also gazing at the palace with focused rage. She’d carefully performed charms from a distance as means of surveillance. Her suspicions had been confirmed that night in the storage facility and by Yama himself. She knew it was no daemon possessing Lord Josiah. The Magi performed the ritual correctly. Faultlessly.

They hadn’t known they’d be confronting a god.

A god whom Shula and the rest of the Igni people had once worshipped reverently.

“Are you reconsidering?” Shula inquired to her companion, not entirely pleased with his brooding countenance.  

The fair-haired man leaned against the tree, his handsome features remaining constructed from stone. “Everything is already set into motion. No sense in turning back now. Calder, Agni, and the rest of Concordia and Terra will receive their due.” He pressed his lips together, smacked them mockingly, before looking at Shula. “And you?”

Shula raised her chin. “No regrets or reconsideration on my part.”  

He observed her turned profile. “No, I suppose there wouldn’t be. You and your people have been scapegoats for many generations. Monarchy has blamed the Noir Users for the actions of petulant and immoral gods. I eagerly look forward to what shall happen when the gods are to be blamed for the actions of vengeful Noir Users.”

“Eager?” Shula repeated. “Eager is such a pacified word. I am exhilarated.” Glancing over her shoulder, she observed the tents her coven had to live in. “Monarchies and democracies proclaim us the enemies. It prevents us from establishing roots. It takes away security. It forces us to remain in constant peril and movement, forever chased by dishonest and untrue deeds. When we finally had the opportunity to push back—”

“Agni destroyed it all. Destroyed your people and your knowledge. It left you scrambling to the shadows to lick your wounds.”

“We live differently than the general population. It frightens leaders and kingdoms when their people transcend into things they cannot predict. We scoff at their religion. We are not one race, but all. We despise their nobility and hierarchy. They fear our power and abilities. We just want to be left in peace, free to live our own way.”

Yama did not respond. He typically remained a silent spectator.

Or perhaps he was merely jaded to the woes of mortals.

“Whispers claim the prince is radical,” Shula remarked carefully. “Though whispers may not be the appropriate term. He is actively radical.”

She watched Yama carefully, noticing the god of death’s reluctance to mention Ezra Talise. There were few times he did, the name sounding emphasized on his tongue with a plethora of muddled sentimentalities. It was unlike the straightforward derision he held for Calder.

“Of course he is,” Yama replied tonelessly. “The queen raised him, after all.”

Shula narrowed her eyes at the jadedness she detected there. “Perhaps it may be possible to negotiate—”

“I was under the impression you wanted to destroy Agni.”

Raising to her full height, she offered Yama her focused attention. Intimidation was not her end goal as she faced Yama. Not when she recognized the decadent and sinister musk encompassing the slouched, indifferent figure opposite of her. No. Yama may not be to his full power, but it was unwise to anger him. Her people once worshipped this god. They would learn to worship him in the future.

In her stance, she conveyed confidence and capability.

She’d suffered enough losses to be unafraid of death.

“What does destroying Agni have to do with negotiating with the prince?”

Apathetic eyes levelled her with an unimpressed glance. Above him, in the naked branches of the tree, a murder of crows appeared. Their wings were the only source of noise as they landed on their perches. Unfazed with their appearance, Yama simply raised an eyebrow. “Agni’s claws have hooked possessively into Ezra as soon as the prince emerged from his mother’s womb.”

Shula pondered on what importance the prince served to garner the complete, obsessive attention of the fire god.

“You are suggesting they have an alliance.”

“For now,” Yama said coolly. “Our strategies will not only shake the foundations of Concordia and Terra on the mortal level, but it will annihilate the gods, Agni in particular. It will leave him vulnerable and weak.”

“He could retreat back to his own realm.”

A sharp, ominous smile touched Yama’s mouth. “He could. But not when Ezra remains here. In possible peril.”

For a god to remain in a realm that progressively destroyed him was unfathomable. Experiencing unease was unfamiliar to Shula, yet she could not help but ponder the prince’s relationship with Agni. Just what was she missing? What was Yama withholding? Perhaps Yama was overestimating Agni’s regard for Ember’s son.

“Negotiations with the prince can come after Agni’s downfall and when the kingdoms experience their due share of suffering.”

She found little to appreciate in his condescending tone. “My consideration over prospective negotiations with Ezra does not indicate reluctance to carry out our plans.” Shula’s eyes grew distant as she remembered the burned, half-dead bodies writhing in ash. “I want to see them suffer as we have suffered.”

Yama seemed satisfied with her answer.

Above, a crow gave a single caw.

Another mimicked soon after.

“You know of Agni’s offences against me and my people,” Shula said. “Was he one of the gods responsible for your current condition?”

Yama pushed off from the tree and gazed down at his body, as if surprised to see it. “Remarkably, Agni had nothing to do with my downfall.” Yama looked back up, ensnaring her attention. “His indiscretions were more of a recent event.”

The murder of crows suddenly erupted in high-pitched cries. Amongst those caws were rattles, the sort of noise crows emitted to one another to express their territorial alliance.

Shula gazed up at them, overwhelmed at the shrill cries of warning. She gazed steadily at her surroundings. Typically, the presence of so many crows indicated Dhumavati’s proximity. However, the goddess was nowhere in sight. Several members of Shula’s coven escaped their tents at the disturbance, murmuring amongst each other with fearful, hesitant tones.

Her attention settled on Yama, noticing his cruel eyes directed to a spot above Shula’s head.

Turning, she immediately spied the black bird sitting solitarily in a naked tree.

It was much larger than a crow. Far more majestic.

A raven.

It perched high in the branches. Even in the darkness, she discerned its concentrated, intelligent regard of both her and Yama.

Get out of here,” Yama whispered icily amongst the cries of crows. “Be gone!”

The raven cocked its head.

Despite the sheer volume of angry crows, the raven produced an audible, amused croak. The raven then leapt off his perch, causing the naked branches to sway in his wake. The raven’s graceful wingspan soared him into the night skies, back in the direction of the palace. With the retreat of the raven, the crows gradually quieted, releasing sporadic caws until they silenced completely.

Shula squinted into the darkness, inhaling the cold temperature of the mountains.

“A friend of yours?” she inquired, her breath turning visible in the frigid air.

Beware the raven.

Both the raven and crow were associated with death.

Generally, crows related more closely with witchcraft and dark magic, whereas the raven commonly represented bringers and omens of demise. Shula learned of such symbolism early in her teachings. She saw enough black birds to understand that such death omens were not entirely true with every sighting.

Yet…

It depended on the individual controlling the bird. As seen by Dhumavati, who was associated with death and unfulfilled desires. Shula learned from Yama that Dhumavati was indirectly responsible for the origins of Noir Users long, long ago. The goddess had granted knowledge and magic to a widow struggling to extract revenge against unstoppable enemies. It explained the crows, an anchor to witchcraft and Dhumavati herself.

However, the raven sighting upset Yama, who proclaimed himself the god of death.

Surely…

“A very old friend,” Yama admitted. “It is best we watch our surroundings from now on. He is not an ally.”

Suspicion remained, yet the explanation was acceptable enough. Shula did not know the intricate details of the afterlife.

“And who does he align himself with?”

Yama glanced at her, rewarding her question with a flash of amusement. “A painfully young and inexperienced master.” Yama turned his shoulder on the palace, on the retreating raven. “Tell me, Shula. Is your source in place?”

A surge of enthusiasm nearly caused her to laugh aloud.

She hadn’t felt so confident in years.

“They are in place.”

Yama blinked. “Good.” He observed the dozens of tents that housed their growing numbers. “We will move after Agni’s celebrations. It’s best we scatter and create a far-reaching presence. Protect the queen and the colony thrives.” At his words, something cynical twisted his mouth. “The unfolding events are so thick with expectancy that even the air is restless. His empire will finally crumble.

Yama’s breathless anticipation captivated Shula. She offered an indulgent smile, curious. “And just what man has your focused rage? Calder or Agni? You claim it’s the gods, though I’m beginning to think you hold Calder with equal aversion.”

At Shula’s careful inquiry, Yama’s face cleared. He offered her an enigmatic tilt of his head as he gazed back at the palace.

“They will both crumble.”

“And you will return to full strength.”

She longed to see it. With Yama as a prevailing god, it opened new possibilities for the Noir Users. They could worship Yama, just as their ancestors had done eras ago. They would have a deity—perhaps several deities to choose from—to protect them and reap the benefits.  

Yama placed a hand against the naked oak tree.

What came from his mouth was an ancient and weary tone she had yet to hear from him. His tenor, along with the haunted gaze, enhanced the overall disconcerting environment.

“The gods will know fear once more.”

 

* * * *

 

“Where have you been?”

Brooke looked demurely at her father as she handed her traveling cloak to the butler.

Just over her father’s shoulder, she spied her mother’s obtrusive hovering. Like a meddlesome old fool, Waverly scrutinized her daughter with a concoction of glee and envy. Glee, for Brooke’s imminent punishment for being out after curfew, and envy for Brooke’s youth, and most importantly, her ability to stay afloat in a male dominated society.

Did Waverly not see the plethora of inconspicuous weapons at her disposal?

Unfazed with the scent of her father’s booze-addled breath, Brooke looked down forlornly.

“Comforting Shannon Rialta,” she replied with exaggerated wretchedness. “You know… the one who is about to marry Clifford Bourne. She needed moral support. I didn’t have the heart to refuse her.”

She knew her role.

Most importantly, she knew how to play it well.

She swayed nonsensically in the lobby of the manor like an inane little girl. Instantly, her father cleared his throat and motioned for her to enter the back parlor. His expression softened upon her coy play, always malleable when he had one too many drinks for the evening.

“As long as you weren’t with a gentleman,” he grumbled behind her as they retreated into the fire-lit parlor.

Waverly watched the two with resentful eyes before retreating into the shadows of the manor.

Brooke merely smiled, thin-lipped.

Her father did not need to know the extent of the comfort she offered Shannon tonight. Nor would he understand the sensual pleasure between two women. It was something her father would never even consider in his small, traditionalist mind. Absurdly, it was tolerable for men to fool around with other men.

For a society as stiff as the Unda elite, talk of sex was taboo. Yet, often times, in social circles, especially with flowing booze, men barbed with others regarding homosexuality.

Men appraised other men highly, especially those of high nobility. They took affairs amongst their own gender seriously. To them, there was something highly erotic about two individuals, of the more superior gender, going at each other in the throes of passion. Even if some did not approve of homosexuality between men, Brooke knew they were fascinated with the gossip. Behind closed doors, such affairs between men were acceptable, just as long as those silly, foolhardy lads eventually settled with a woman to create an heir.

Because that’s the extent of a woman’s worth, wasn’t it? 

There were no talks, no excited gossip of women sharing the company of other women. If such an event occurred, men would scoff, thinking nothing of it. Disturbed, perhaps. Naïve to the true pleasure women could offer another. They would find it humorous in a condescending, belittling way.

Of that, Brooke found more than acceptable.

If men intentionally remained ignorant, it made for easy and secret affairs.

That wasn’t to say Brooke found little to appreciate in men. She did not discriminate between the sexes and often times found several males attractive. Especially if they respected and appreciated women. Especially if those men proved to have pretty, pale eyes, dark hair, and brooding, princely confidence.

Then again, who wasn’t attracted to the wayward prince of Concordia?

“The Rialta family is receiving quite the compensation for marrying off their daughter,” Llyr Glyndwr informed, escorting Brooke into the parlor. He shut the doors behind him and ventured over to the alcohol cart. “She should be honored to carry the future Bourne heir. Becoming a Bourne will grant her high status and esteemed connections.”

Connections? For what, father? Embroidery lessons?

“Yes, her very existence made her father quite wealthy, didn’t it?” Brooke remarked airily, her sarcasm hidden well from many years of practice. “It was unfortunate when families produced female heirs, so we’ve developed a very ingenious, if not insulting tradition of the groom’s family paying the bride’s family for their newly acquired breeder.”

They called it a bride price.

Brooke called it a breeding debt.

“Depending on the bloodline of the bitch, it can make for a very hefty settlement,” Llyr responded, overlooking his daughter’s acerbic words.

He heard them before, after all. He cared little for Brooke’s liberal views.

“I am a very high end breeding bitch, aren’t I, daddy?” Brooke inquired coquettishly. “One day, I’ll make you even wealthier.”

Despite the late hour, and undoubtedly already having his fair share before her arrival home, Llyr poured himself a hefty amount of clear alcohol from the decanter. As he turned around, he ran a slow, languid eye down her developed form.

“You are a very prized possession, dearest.”

The Glyndwr line was nearly as prominent as the Edlen line, after all.

A poor stud would have to pay quite a bit for Brooke’s hand in marriage.

A poor stud like Nereus Edlen.

Used to her father’s awkward glances during his sober hours, and more than familiar with his lewd glances during his drunk hours, Brooke merely tempted fate and reclined further against the divan. While his gazes may have carried lust, it was with the sentiments of an owner gazing at his prized stock and envisioning the amount of gold he would fetch upon a successful transaction.

He was lusty at the thought of gold.

Not his daughter’s figure.

Brooke accepted such sentimentalities long ago. She’d since swallowed her nausea and her hate, choosing to carry but a shadow of calm, simmering resentment. She used her abhorrence to find her footing and carefully conceive ways to deal with it.

“Not only for your bloodline, but also for your deception, your poise, and your startling sharp intelligence for a woman.”

Throwing a slender arm over the divan, Brooke tucked her legs underneath her and smiled past the ‘woman’ offense. Aside from Llyr’s noxious attitude toward women, he did carry a sliver of awareness to Brooke’s true persona. Often times, with the aid of alcohol, he would acknowledge the cracks he’d gleaned through her mask and praise her in a cautionary way.

He shook his tumbler, staring into his glass. “I pity the poor fellow who has to deal with you.” He gazed at her sharply. “No doubt a proper and hefty dowry needs to accompany you wherever you go.”

Brooke lifted a strand of her hair, admiring the cool shade of blonde. The curls she’d carefully procured had since flattened under the ministrations of Shannon’s eager hands. “Assuredly, you are not insinuating anything. It is an age-old tradition.”

The smile Llyr delivered was sharp. “No insinuations on my part.” 

She paused, considering his sharp smile and mirroring it with a brief one of her own. Dropping the loose curl, she repositioned her hand on top the divan. Her father immediately noticed her gloves.

He appeared displeased. “What are those?”

Brooke held up her fingerless gloves, admiring the sheer, white material with lace patterns. They were stunning. Moreover, they showed off the perfectly manicured nails.

Sensual. Feminine. Daring.

“A recent trend,” she replied, bored. “Surely, you’ve taken notice of Prince Ezra’s rather charming insistence of wearing fingerless gloves. I can assure you, father, that many men and women have started following suit.” She waved them in his direction, showing off the expensive gloves. “They are far more functional, as well as more stylish than typical gloves.”

He appeared unmoved.

Repulsed at the mention of Prince Ezra.

“Many men have also opted to cutting their hair,” she informed casually.

“Younger men,” Llyr corrected sharply. “They are naïve. Blind to the sheer importance of upholding such proud traditions of our people.”

“Traditions meant to placate the warriors of old,” Brooke responded, carefully, yet knowing her father’s hazy—drunk— mind would accept her bold words as a proper conversationalist and not just a female. “We are no longer at war with the Igni nation. We’ve since combined our resources and numbers. It is due time we start welcoming new traditions and customs. The long hair warriors and noblemen wore no longer serve a purpose. We won the war, daddy. It’s over.”

Llyr stared at her silently, haunted by memories of old.

Taking pity, Brooke softened her hard gaze and focused on caressing the back of the satin divan. “Councilman Sachiel cut his hair. I know you respected him as a proud, Unda warrior. His short hair doesn’t mean he disrespects the sacrifice of his fellow comrades. He just realizes the importance of acclimating new traditions.”

Briefly, she lamented that Sachiel Alwyn made no public indication he was looking to replace his late wife.

Brooke frowned. The late Alwyn matriarch didn’t realize the power, the sheer status she’d received upon marrying Sachiel, the golden warrior. The woman failed to understand how to use Sachiel. To take advantage of him and his name. Brooke didn’t know all the details. She was blind in regards to the situation between Sachiel and his late wife.

Yet, she heard the gossip.

And the gossip had disappointed her.

Sachiel’s wife had been a bitter, jealous woman. She’d been as beautiful as she was rich and wicked. It was running amusement amongst high society that Sachiel preferred warrior males as opposed to the softness of females of high court. He made no efforts to proclaim he would change his ways upon marriage. In fact, he verbally expressed his displeasure of marrying a woman but declared he needed an heir and someone who would accept such predicament while reaping the benefits of an Alwyn matriarch.

Sexuality was something Brooke could respect and acknowledge.

If a man truly had no interest in woman, he truly had no interest.

And Sachiel had never deluded anyone to the pretense that he would change his ways. When it came to the bedroom, his wife would not hold a position of esteem. Nonetheless, the woman he married, Anahita, believed she was an exception. She believed she was enough for Sachiel to change his ways. When he proceeded to take men to bed, she’d grown resentful.

Ugly.

Unfortunately, her resentment focused on her unborn fetuses.

Brooke shifted uncomfortably on the divan, hostile toward the mere mention of the woman who chose to damage her unborn children in attempt to spite Sachiel. While Brooke fully believed a woman had full control and power over her own body, and could elect to such methods, she could not support such immature, self-indulgent motives to abort a child.

Eventually, Anahita had died in childbirth.

Or so they claimed.

Some also claimed Sachiel became aware of his wife’s motives and choose to end her himself.

Brooke doubted Sachiel would ever remarry. If only because of his experience with Anahita. Their past together had only cemented his dislike, his displeasure of women. Nonetheless, he remained by Prince Ezra’s side and Prince Ezra made no secret of his support of Cordelia Abital. Cordelia, in turn, was beginning to fan the flames of women’s rights.

“Sachiel has his cock so far up the prince’s tight ass—”

Daddy!

Upon her loud, offended protest, her father correct himself. “Sachiel has changed his ways.”

“Ways? You mean he has acknowledged the significance of revolution.”

“Revolution is indication of a cusp of war.”

“There will be no war, only a reckoning and change of policies,” Brooke countered. “Prince Ezra will lead the way to transformation.”

Again, her father flinched at the very mention of Ezra.

Brooke thought it silly.

“I heard the boy’s mother was delivered to him in a box tonight.”

She recoiled at the vindictive words and tone.

Calmly, she removed her arm from the divan and shifted to her feet. When her father was tipsy, it was fun to spar with him. When he was too intoxicated, it was unbearable.  “That is repulsive,” she proclaimed quietly. “That is Concordia’s queen you are referring to in such a callous, undignified way. Just as well, your sympathy for the prince speaks volumes.”

Llyr chuckled at her apparent disapproval, hardly bothered.

“There are so many unpleasant speculations on the queen that I cannot begin to feel sympathy for her passing. She went mad. I know it. King Calder claimed she’d already passed when his son was rediscovered attending Concordia Military Academy. No one understands the history behind Queen Ember’s disappearance nor the prince’s upbringing.”

Brooke knew the queen raised Ezra. She had no doubt.

What man of such power—in this society— would willingly look at women and acknowledge their worth? If not for the woman who raised him? Brooke also speculated that discovering his mother tonight would have affected him in some way.

To have the news spread and gossiped about so callously…

“Be that as it may, we must offer proper condolences.”

“The whole kingdom will be offering mass condolences. Now that there is a body,” he added ruefully. “Now that it is public.”

Brooke moved past him, sensing this conversation was over. “I will need a new mourning gown,” she said slyly. “I cannot wear the same one to both Trent Abital’s and Queen Ember’s service. Highly inappropriate.”

She already had possession of two mourning gowns, but her father didn’t need to know as much. She had more than enough gold stored away without her parents’ notice. Over the years, it steadily compiled into a significant amount. Brooke was proud to contribute so much to her cause. It wasn’t necessary, not with the other funding, but she’d wanted to do more.

“Perhaps we can call on Muriel and Nereus tomorrow after the tailors.”

Pausing, her hackles rose at the mere mention of Nereus. “I hear he will be visiting Kai now that he’s returned to the capital,” she lied distractedly. “And you know I don’t like to be rushed at the tailors. I would prefer to go myself.”

“Whatever you say, dearest.”

She kissed his cheek and retreated from the parlor before he could propose more invitations to visit her betrothed. Her focus had been elsewhere these past several weeks. Unfortunately, wiggling her way out of Nereus’ hands was still a pressing conflict in need of solving. She had time, but she could only hold off the arrangement for so long.

 

* * * *

 

“It’s truly her.”

Calder’s bastard considered the casket as the Healer and other men carried it away. Once they closed to door, silence encased the throne room. Despite the queen’s body arriving only hours ago, a veil of mourning already plagued the palace. Every nook and cranny carried imprints of death, of eerie echoes of a life extinguished from the realm of living.

Irving found the atmosphere after a recent passing to be unendurable.

While most would be indifferent over the loss of someone they barely knew, Irving discovered he could not be as apathetic.

He wondered if it was because he empathized with the mourners.

Or simply because he was sensitive and afraid of death more than others.

It reminded him of mortality. It reminded him that he and his family were not immune to the cold hand of death. They, too, would pass. He would feel heartbreak once more, just as he had for his parents and fallen comrades during the war.

Across the room, Ladon stood where the casket once occupied, considering the closed doors. He pivoted back to gaze at Calder, whom had moved toward the dais of thrones. The boy’s face was contemplative as he absorbed the reactions around him, no doubt sensing the disquiet.

“It is,” Calder confirmed tiredly. He wandered over to his heir’s throne and sat down. “You and your mother have nothing to fear anymore.”

Irving lifted a careful eyebrow, bemused at the comment.  

The boy examined his father thoughtfully. “Will he—” he stopped abruptly, glancing once more over his shoulder at the doors the prince and Lord Josiah had disappeared through. “I hadn’t anticipated that reaction from him. I was under the impression she was…”

Calder levelled his son with a sharp stare. “No matter how broken, she was still his mother.”

Unaffected by the austerity of the tone, Ladon merely nodded with acceptance.

Irving examined the royal bastard from his position against the pillar. Years ago, he’d been displeased when he heard of the boy’s existence. Calder should have known better than to share a bed with another woman, especially with the tension of a war-weary capital. Creating a pureblooded Unda child would entice negative reactions of an already delicate nation.

It was imperative the heir of the new kingdom was, without question, a biracial child.

While never—and probably ever— baptized as a Talise, Ladon’s existence still brought forth tense sentimentalities between the Igni and Unda nobility. Ladon’s existence, along with Ezra’s disappearance as a child, set the kingdom back several years.

“But why—”

Calder interjected. “If you wish to know more about his relationship with his mother, you need to ask Ezra.”

“Then I shall bid you both goodnight.”

Recognizing the rigidity around his father’s words, Ladon merely inclined his head to both Calder and Irving, turning and departing from the throne room. He had a proud stance. An acceptable gait. His posture was adequate. He was appropriately meek around his father, a man of superior ranking. He was intelligent. Attractive. The royal bastard mirrored the long line of previous Unda kings.

He was traditional. Expected.

Prince Ezra, on the other hand…

If Irving had to describe Prince Ezra with few words, it would be unashamedly rough around the edges.   

The royal heir did not lack grace. His posture, gait, and appearance were more than acceptable for a royal. Yet, he had aggressive purpose in his steps. His cold eyes a bit too focused and perceptive. Wildly independent, the young man carried rebelliousness around him like a second skin. All these traits were far too forward for a king meant to pacify with quiet, mysterious intimidation.

For the few moments Irving watched him at the train depot, he’d also noticed something unnervingly prevalent.

Prince Ezra had power, darkness, and melancholy.

Moreover, everyone worthwhile identified this, even on a subconscious level.

Irving eagerly looked forward to interacting with him. He needed to observe longer to decide if he would aim to tame such a wild young man or redirect such wildness in another, safer direction.

“It is good to see you, old friend,” Calder said.

Pushing away from the pillar, Irving approached the king. “Unfortunately, under grim circumstances.” He stopped before Calder and bowed at the waist. Sincere. “I am sorry for your loss, Your Majesty.”

Calder smiled grimly. “I find myself desperate for information. How she died, how she lived all these years with so little, how she raised my son with the broken mind I’d last seen her possess.” 

“Answers will eventually find you.”

“I don’t anticipate I will find comfort in those answers.”

Irving straightened and clasped his hands behind his back. “Your son appears to have turned into a formidable man. If such a broken mind raised him, at least it proved to be efficient.”

Calder appeared tired.

He leaned back in the throne and crossed his legs. “Please sit.”

He motioned to the throne nearest to him. The king’s throne. Irving heeded the order, but chose to occupy the third throne. While they were on familiar terms, every protocol hastily prevented him from sitting upon the king’s perch. As he settled in Lord Josiah’s position, he turned to the man he’d sworn everlasting loyalty to.

They’d been through much together.

It was good to see Calder once more.

“He has,” Calder responded belatedly. Turning in his throne, he adjusted his position to interact more easily with Irving. “Grown into a formidable young man. I do not question his sanity, like his mother, nor his intentions. He has expressed them openly.”  

“Such open expressions are why you called me out of retirement.”

“Which I am entirely grateful for.”

Irving waved a dismissive hand. “The girls are older. They were excited to come live at the palace.”

Something of dry amusement slanted across Calder’s face at the mention of his daughters. “Four daughters,” the man proclaimed with quiet admiration. “My, my, Irving, Varuna wanted to test your patience.”

“I believe it has been tested and then some.” Irving did not bemoan that he had no male heir. He’d gotten past his disappointment long ago and acknowledged the blessing given to him. “You have brought me here at an opportune time. The capital just recovered from a Noir User attack. Reconstruction and change is inevitable and anticipated. My presence will not be too jarring, nor suspicious.”

“The noblemen need a positive influence. Most importantly, my son needs to see a suitable and respectable noble at my side.” Calder’s face hardened. “I need someone who will not snarl at Ezra at every opportune time. Someone who can assist me in showing him aristocrats are intelligent, cunning, and suitable to assist the crown.”

“You believe it is too late,” Irving observed carefully.

Calder tilted his head. “After the influences of the Noir Users, Ezra’s dislike toward the aristocracy has grown and cemented. He sees nobles, aside from the more radical, like Sachiel and Abital, to be his enemies.”

Irving deliberated for a moment.

“They are his enemies,” he said. “I understand their plight. Ezra has made no secret his dislike toward aristocracy and even monarchy. He has flirted with the prospect of democracy. The noblemen have every right to fear for their status and their power should Ezra take the crown. If you should pass away without properly conditioning him, they are left with a king who will destroy their family honor. One who will destroy beloved monarchy tradition. He is not experienced enough to implement a transition between a monarchy to a democracy.”

“Their sentimentalities are exactly my own,” Calder replied calmly. “I recognize his more radical intentions and seek to calm them. I cannot do this when Seaton and Muriel are undoing my work at every turn.”

“You intend I replace them.”

“Naturally.” Calder paused. “Though they are useful to keep nearby, as Ezra’s dislike for them keeps him on his toes.”

“Then keep them nearby.” He offered a smug smile. “They will learn their place. Their influence amongst the other nobles will disintegrate. They will be meek soldiers of the crown, afraid to even whisper out of turn.”

A dangerous glint entered Calder’s eyes, a gesture that reminded Irving that his majesty was no defenseless fawn.

“Seaton and Muriel are of little concern to me. Their blatant and humiliating behavior will earn them several rungs down the hierarchy.” Calder shifted in his throne and stood, appearing restless. “What I need is to gradually reform Ezra. That is the challenge I face.”

Irving shifted back and gleefully identified the hidden excitement of his old friend. “You are eager for a challenge.”

Calder faced the expansive throne room. “I am eager to have my son with me once more. I am eager to reclaim what was lost to me several years ago.” His profile displayed the tense, clenched jawline as his attention dropped on the area the casket once occupied. “She took many years from me. She conditioned him to resent the crown. To be leery of me.”  

“Now she’s gone and you have full claim on the boy.” Even from his position, Irving could see the unfocused stare of his king.  “It must be difficult to accept the loss.”

At Irving’s careful words, Calder turned back and regarded him quietly.

Irving stared back. “You mourn the loss of not being able to show her that you could unravel her influence and make your son entirely yours once more.” He wondered at the relationship his king had with the late Ember Azeri. From what he was observing at the current, it hadn’t been entirely domesticated. They were enemies, lovers, and competitors. “That is what you mourn, yes?”

Calder appeared as if he would not respond.

When he did speak, it was heavy with memories of old.

“I cared for her very deeply, yet Ember and I always hid from what we both recognized as natural rivalry and antagonism. We did not act on these impulses often, but in the end, she—”

“Claimed victory over the largest competition yet. Your heir.”

“Just as she’d promised. I despised her for what she did,” Calder responded quietly, but with a valid attempt to hide the emotion in his words. “I can never forgive her for taking my precious child, my precious boy, and returning him as a hardened and jaded man.”

Irving stood and approached Calder, detecting the hidden depths of true sorrow. “You may have lost those precious years of childhood, Calder, but you have him here now. A bond between a father and a grown son can be very strong. It will be rewarding and worthwhile if you do not dwell on the past, but rather focus on such opportunity presented to you now.”

Calder nodded. “You are right. I shall not waste such opportunity by dwelling over what could have been.”

Irving clasped Calder’s shoulder, squeezing once, before dropping it and walking down the dais. “I need more time to observe, but it is my perception that we need all nobility on our side. That includes the Igni nobles who have chosen to keep to themselves. Their silent support of Lord Josiah is evident, but perhaps we can work on their alliance.”

“If we all stand together, race aside, it will draw more consideration from Ezra.”

“We demonstrate the positives of aristocracy.”

“And the benefits of monarchy.” Calder watched Irving as he positioned himself at the bottom of the dais. “He committed a public execution in Region 20.”

Irving offered a brief laugh. “Does he realize if he were in a democracy, such actions would have sent him immediately to prison?” He understood where Calder was going and inclined his head approvingly. “You grant him power. You demonstrate what the position of royalty allots. He will eventually learn to appreciate his position.”

“Ezra is a smart boy,” Calder said unnecessarily. “He’s simply passionate and feels he stands alone.”

“Then perhaps we should begin devising ways of meeting him halfway on those passions.” 

“Such an approach would undoubtedly surprise him.”

Irving’s lips twitched. “I do not blame Seaton Edlen for his attempts of rallying the others against Ezra.” He gazed down and adjusted his coat, carefully contriving the right words. “While I do not appreciate Seaton’s methods, he was fooled into thinking that Ladon was a suitable alternative to a boy who stumbled his way back to the palace after a fifteen year absence.”

Here, he looked pointedly at Calder.

“You disapprove of me treating Ladon as a possible heir.”

“Do you deny the ramifications such an action caused?”

Calder chuckled unenthusiastically. “I was… instructed to give Ladon the same training and the same upbringing that I had.”

Irving straightened. “Instructed? By whom?”

Cerulean eyes turned and considered the empty fountain in the middle of the throne room. “Varuna.” Before Irving could splutter out an accusation, Calder continued. “He promised me the safe return of Ezra so long as I upheld my promise to give Ladon the upbringing worthy of a future leader.”

“You believe this.”

“Call it an intuition if you do not believe Varuna would contact his children directly.”

Calder hardly seemed to be in the jesting mood. Irving was a religious man. He raised his children to worship Varuna just as well. Yet, he never considered the possibility of Varuna reaching out directly. He’d heard of such occurrences, yes, but to hear Calder speak so casually about Varuna’s contact indicated his majesty had experienced it enough times.

“And why, do you imagine, would Varuna want Ladon to harbor such an upbringing when we have a perfectly acceptable heir already?”

Calder’s expression darkened. The smile on his lips both bitter and nearly broken. “Who knows the whims of the gods? Aren’t we merely props rotating nonsensically for their entertainment?”

Irving did not have anything to say in response to this.

Rather, the bitter words stayed with him long into the night.

 

* * * *

 

There was no answer when he knocked.

Kai gazed at the royal guards situated outside the prince’s quarters. They were dressed in navy blue with the Talise crest embroidered on the back of their warrior robes. He was relieved to see they were Calder’s men, simply because that meant it was unlikely Lord Josiah was inside with Micah. Subsequently, that meant if Kai barged inside, he would not see something that he would forever hope remain unseen.

Caring little for protocol, Kai opened the doors, pleased they were unlocked.  

He shut them quickly behind him, preventing any stranglers from entering. Talia had retired for the night in her new quarters—across from Kai’s own. He’d told her he was also going to bed, but something had kept him awake.

Something nagged at him persistently.

Egan needed him.

He could feel it.

Now standing in the pitch darkness of the heir’s living quarters, Kai wondered if he was wrong. Perhaps Egan had already retired for the night. Perhaps sleep had come easily. The door was shut to his sleeping quarters, indicating that may have been the case. Micah never spoke much about his mother, and Kai knew he had a complicated childhood with the queen.

He couldn’t really feel much sympathy for the queen’s death, only because she’d been the one to hold Kai captive.

At least the face of his captive.

But he would sympathize. For Micah’s sake.

As he moved to leave, he caught sight of the figure standing before the windows out looking the distant mountains. The solitary form stood stiffly with hands clasped behind his back and his feet planted shoulder-length apart. The moon just touched his features with the shyest hint of attentions.

Kai moved across the sitting area, approaching the figure that drew him forward with an invisible lure.

Accustomed to the unfamiliar emotions these past several weeks, especially when it came to Micah, Kai simply followed his instincts. Like Lord Josiah, Egan instilled an odd, hair-raising instinct that told him to snarl. To fight if he was able, or to run if he was incapable. This particular instinct had been strong when he’d first woken up at the capital after his incarceration in Region 20.

Since then it had dulled.

Being around Egan had been soothing. Comfortable. The other man had not elicited feelings of anything unusual.

Then, on the train ride to the capital, things changed once more.

When Micah had walked in on Kai’s duel with Talia, he’d appeared different. Seemed different. Most importantly, he felt different. A new confidence was there, as was power. Being in Micah’s presence now was a perfect mix of the two sentiments he’d experienced before. Both the flight or fight response, but also the comfort and soothing presence.

Contradictory feelings, but something Kai understood to be enthrallment.

A lure.

An inferior being acknowledging the supremacy of a superior being. 

When he pinpointed these sentiments, it had grated on Kai to consider Micah in this way. From the very first day he’d met Egan, he’d been fascinated with the other man. Whether said fascination was healthy or not, they’d since established a comradeship that went both ways. Despite their difference in social ranks, Micah never gave any inclination that he thought Kai as anything less than an equal.

To experience this new sentiment that Micah was something of greatness… something untouchable…

It did not sit well with him.

It was a new twist in their relationship and something Kai would struggle to suppress.  

Struggles were nothing new. As of late, all he did was struggle. He struggled to eat. To sleep. He struggled to remain upright and fight through the fatigue weighing down his bones. He fought the terror and he struggled through the cold. He had to push himself. He had to struggle in order to remain standing next to Micah.  

It’s why he didn’t say anything to Egan.

He didn’t want to lose his position. He didn’t want to be seen as weak. He didn’t want to be a God Eater’s damaged goods.

Coming to a stop behind the smaller male, Kai’s struggles ceased and turned silent.

All that remained was just the two of them.

He recalled the night where he’d requested Micah to stay behind with him. To watch over him as he slept. To be there when he was weak and vulnerable. He wanted to offer the same sort of comfort, to repay a debt that was invaluable. 

“I can leave if you want to be alone,” Kai said as he approached Egan’s turned back. Reaching over, he placed a hand on Micah’s shoulder, unnerved with the other man’s immobility.

Micah’s head tilted marginally, his sharp features emphasized in the ethereal glow of the moon. Kai watched his reflection in the windows, unsurprised to see no discernable emotion on the young man’s face. Micah did not do well with grief. Just as he did not do well with expressing himself. Kai knew Micah would feel restless and caged. He had nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide himself until the sharp, suffocating grief passed.

So many eyes. So many expectations.

The golden and jewel-encrusted chains were invisible, but they were undoubtedly heavy as they kept Micah in his place.

Micah suddenly reached up, clasping Kai’s hand with his own, leather-clad grip.

A small smile played around Egan’s mouth as he squeezed Kai’s hand.

He didn’t have to say anything.

And Kai did not say anything further.

Chapter Text

11. Chapter Eleven 

 

“Easy! Easy!”

The horse snorted violently, stamping its hooves against the ground with agitated unease. Micah backed away from the animal, feeling the eyes on him from the guards, the spectators, and the noblemen. Despite it being the second horse to rear away from his touch, he appeared entirely unconcerned at the reaction. Clearing his throat, he approached the bay-colored horse, the third and final option.

A stablehand calmed the second horse while two other stablehands moved with Micah, anticipating holding back the third animal as well.

Uneasy with the predicted reaction, Micah reached out a gloved hand. The horse snorted uneasily, its wide eyes warily watching Micah’s approach. He didn’t understand. He’d been around horses before, mainly in Region 10.

They’d never acted like this.

The third horse, a mighty and powerful mount, endured Micah’s touch. Endured. But did not appreciate. The horse breathed fiercely through its nose, yet it kept its stance. Micah moved his hand down the horse’s neck, trying to get it acclimated to his presence.

Calder and Josiah waited nearby, already mounted on their white horses.

He avoided their stares and focused on the horse.

“Looks like she’s the one, Your Highness,” a young stablehand commented. He moved alongside the horse and adjusted the saddle straps. “I can give you a leg up. She’s a bit larger than the others.”

Not wanting to rely on a hoist, but acknowledging it had been far too long since he’d ridden, Micah simply nodded. He kept a hand on the horse as he approached the saddle. The young man crouched and offered a hand to Micah. Grabbing the saddle, he stepped into the assistance and maneuvered onto the horse.

As soon as he mounted, the horse quickly backpedaled and cantered her head restlessly.

The palace staff made a fuss.

Micah simply reached for the reins, paying no heed to the frantic staff rushing to aid him.  “It’s fine,” he informed shortly, just as uneasy with their franticness as the horse. “Just give us some space.”

From the sidelines, Edlen appeared greatly amused as Micah jolted forward, unintentionally breaking away from their clutches. The horse galloped restlessly, most likely uneasy with Micah more than it—she— was with the reaching assistance. Micah held on uncomfortably, hearing the shouting behind him from several sources.

Despite the situation, despite the grim atmosphere, he had to laugh as he broke free.

He was tempted to continue running.

Past the palace grounds, out into the streets, and away from the ceremony about to take place. Or, what should have been taking place. The bells rang out minutes ago, a signal that they were behind schedule. Ara, the palace coordinator, appeared greatly displeased as she watched Micah race from the group of assembled royalty and noblemen.

He just wanted to be alone.

The past day had been a whirlwind of endless condolences and preparations. It was exhausting and Micah hadn’t had the opportunity to be truly alone. But maybe that was for the best. He’d done his mourning. He’d done his venting and his self-loathing. He could feel the ugly sentiment shimmering underneath his careful control, eating away at his resolve.

Every time he thought of Ember, it only grew more difficult to contain.

Reaching forward, he soothed the uneasy mare with a gentle touch and spoken reassurances.

When his words reached her, the horse’s ears twitched in his direction and her strides slowed. He continued to soothe her, finding the act doing wonders to his own anxiety.

To know he could be placated like a horse all this time…

Agni probably knew that particular detail, for it would explain why his caresses often times compared to petting.

Eventually, the horse settled enough to adhere to his control. As he turned back in the direction of the others, he quelled the temptation to charge towards Muriel Edlen under the guise of lack of control. The horse deserved better, however, and everyone would see under the pretense. The last thing he needed was the noblemen muttering behind his back like petulant children for the duration of the service.

Upon his calm return, the uneasy palace staff relaxed visibly.

Ara took the moment to bark out orders.

Micah sauntered over to his father and Agni, conscious of the mare readapting her regal posture. Unquestionably trained since a foal, she held her head high and her strides exaggerated with grace and refinement. Agni’s attention drifted down around Micah’s spread thighs, his expression tightening and his gaze turning inward.

“You ride well,” Agni commented, the huskiness in his tone unmistakable.

“If only I would be allowed to ride more often,” Micah snapped back, referring to Agni’s disclamation to grant him control in the bedroom.

The man chuckled pleasantly.

“You’re allowed to ride anytime you’d like, Ezra,” Calder offered, completely missing Agni’s lewd stare. “In fact, I encourage you to take advantage of the stables. Your posture leaves room for improvement. Straighten.”

“His posture is acceptable enough, Calder,” Agni argued. To Micah, he pitched his voice lower. “It’s all in the hips.”

Micah quirked an unimpressed brow, watching as the entity turned back forward with a guiltless expression. Around them, Ara shepherded the nobles together with frantic hand motions.

A sea of black and gold filled the front lawn of the palace.

Noblemen wore formal jackets made entirely of plain black material. The only source of color were the gold fastenings down the chest. Women wore gowns made of black lace and satin, several choosing to wear black mourning veils as was appropriate. The royal guards no longer wore colors to display their loyalty to one king, but rather to the kingdom as a whole. Black and gold combative robes dressed all the guards in flattering lines and contours.

In Micah’s eyes, such unity should be a permanent change.

Ara came bustling over and adjusted Micah’s knee-length cape, making certain to drape it over to one side in order to display his tailored jacket. She fussed and scowled, nitpicking his clothing as if the public would be looking exclusively at his wardrobe. Micah simply endured it, already having traded scathing words with the woman this morning when she’d barged into his rooms with an array of tailors and hairdressers.

Hairdressers.

His formal robes were dark charcoal with raised embroidered designs across the fitted torso and clenched waist. The designs branched out in whimsical tendrils, black in color to offset against the charcoal. The needlework was stitched with gold, making the fancy designs come alive with shimmering thread.

“Try to keep still, Your Highness. I know it’s challenging for you,” Ara scolded, the only staff member who could get away with such a reprimanding tone. “Please remember what I told you. Sit up straight, keep—”

“Keep my eyes forward on her casket. Do not look around. Keep in line with Lord Josiah.” Micah nodded once. “I think I can handle that.”

She did not find anything to adjust on Calder or Josiah.

Naturally, they were graced with impeccability.

Calder waited for Ara’s signal before he started to lead the sea of men and women across the front lawn and toward the wrought iron gates. Micah and Josiah followed immediately behind him with the noblemen and guards trailing by foot. Somewhere behind him, his team members blended effortlessly into the large crowd of black-clad mourners. Just as well, he’d seen Ladon, Sachiel, Cordelia, and Haken yesterday as they, among hundreds of others, stood before the three thrones and offered generic condolences.

He hadn’t remembered much about yesterday’s parade of condolences.

He’d just sat in his throne as people—essential strangers—offered their sympathies, no matter how false.

Micah had zoned out most of them, so lost in his thoughts.

Absentmindedly, he reached up and touched the cold circlet around his head, suddenly aware of its weight. They’d placed it upon his head earlier that morning, the design simple, much simpler than Calder’s crown or his crown if he’d had his coronation. He’d wanted to protest against the circlet, but found such an argument moot.

As Micah turned the corner, her heavily-decorated casket came into view.

A steady hush fell over the group of mourners as they too happened upon the queen’s casket. Two guards, also on horseback, led the way out the palace gates, both men holding the Concordia flag high. The large horse and the black-cloaked rider, who escorted Ember’s casket, followed the two guards.

It was Calder who shadowed his wife and queen first, followed by her son and her brother.

Their pace was slow as they travelled through the streets of the capital.

Shops were closed for the day.

Events cancelled.

It was not mandatory to mourn the queen publicly, and yet, when Micah and company turned the corner onto the main street bisecting the capital, he was taken aback at the sheer number of mourners waiting for them. Men, women, and children lined the streets, all cloaked in black, and most faces veiled or bowed low as her casket passed before them. In their hands, they held lit candles, the flames solemn and still.

Citizens stretched as far as he could see. Gradually, they too joined the crowd of nobles escorting Ember to the cremation grounds.

There were no trumpets, no instruments announcing their arrival. Only the simple rhythm of horses’ hooves and the nearly inaudible roll of the coach wheels. The quiet was deafening.

So profound with its concentration.

The people had loved her.

No matter the stories, no matter the gossip.

She’d been loved. She’d been respected.

A bubble of emotion welled up in Micah’s throat as he realized he’d never known the woman they had known, but only a distorted version. Distorted by gods, by illnesses. The emotion blocked his airways, choking him as he tried to muffle the reaction. A thin veil of tears blinded him and he struggled to keep his face unaffected.

He failed miserably and emitted a pathetic sound, bowing his head as the tears fell onto his clenched hands.

It seemed as if his anger upon discovering her passing had turned into sorrow.

Sitting high upon his perch for the entire kingdom to observe was the worse place to lose control.

He tried to summon the ugly memories of her. The memories that had caused him to consider abandoning her years ago. Only, in his current frame of mind, he could only dwell in the memories of her tenderness and her affection.

Another gasp emitted from his lips as he lost further control, slumping forward in his saddle. He didn’t just mourn her. His mind replayed the children in Region 20 that were lost. Their infectious laughter and their bright, optimism for their future. Their sheer innocence. Destroyed. He recalled Kalama, her pretty features slack in her last quest to reunite with her children.

Shame burned his ears as he felt Calder turn back to look at him, breaking his own protocol.

Suddenly, arms wrapped around his chest with astonishing strength. It was enough to startle Micah into losing his suffocating grief. Looking down, he observed the ghostly shape of red-gold arms pulling him into a firm and warm chest.

The face pressing into the crook of his neck was also familiar, even if he could not see it.   

He glanced at Josiah, whom faced forward obstinately, yet eyed Micah keenly from the corner of his eye. Around his uncle, the man’s aura was silver. Agni was no longer in possession of Josiah, but rather latched on to Micah’s back, feeding him waves of strength. He gradually came down into a calm, hazy-like mood.  

“You are strong. You are capable.”

Micah nodded discreetly as the whispered words breathed across his ear.

His face cleared and he straightened as much as the possessive arms allotted him.

Instead of shrugging off the arms, he greedily absorbed the resiliency stemming from the god who all but intertwined with his own soul. They meshed, a conflicting sensation, yet so very welcome as a distraction. Agni wasn’t quite possessing him, yet it was close enough to be considered a conjoined attachment.

The humming link between them transferred both cold and hot, both dark and light.

Josiah claimed he could not feel Agni’s emotions when the god possessed him, yet Micah could feel them as if they were his own.

Dark protectiveness was the most prevalent emotion. It wrapped around him securely, squeezing until it hurt. Affection was there, as was lust and—and… Micah frowned at the blatant devotion, not believing it and choosing to focus on the sliver of guilt.

Before he could scrutinize the attached soul further, Agni disappeared, bringing the warmth with him.

Micah kept his shoulders proud and straight, recovering his control. He nodded once to Calder, who glanced back at him once more. Embarrassment ate away at his resolve, yet he kept it at bay. Ember had been his mother. It did not matter that their relationship had been complicated. They’d shared a bond. It was typical—normal—for a son to mourn his mother’s death.

Unless that son is the crowned prince.

Micah pushed aside the derisiveness and focused instead on Ember’s casket.  

His mind remained blank as he examined the crimson and white flowers decorating her casket with long, twisting and curling stems. They were imported from the southern regions—a rare find in the capital, but a few stores provided them. Such beautiful flowers were wasted. Like all the bodies of the deceased, she’d be cremated. Her ashes would then be gathered into an expensive, elaborate urn, and stored inside the royal mausoleum.

She’d be the second Azeri lain to rest inside the mausoleum. Her father—King Brantley of the Igni Empire—had died when Micah was around the age of five. Brantley had received the honor of a royal cremation and a place on the shelves alongside the Talise descendants.

His daughter would soon join him.

As would his grandson someday, Micah thought morbidly. Perhaps sooner than later.

Micah strongly believed he would die before Calder.

That thought was enough to plunge him into layers of despondency. 

Pushing aside his melancholy, he focused on the bird who had suddenly landed on Ember’s casket. It was large and black. It seemed far larger than a typical raven, yet he knew from the feathered tail and the beak that it was, indeed, a raven. The bird seemed content to ride the casket for a time, quiet, and otherwise unassuming as it observed the passing surroundings. It cared little for the flowers that dropped to the streets as it shifted from one foot to the other.

Micah narrowed his eyes, sensing something abnormal.

A kinship of sorts.

A familiarity.

The raven then snapped its head around, catching Micah’s eyes immediately. Micah gritted his teeth in an uncomfortable sneer when the raven’s eyes suddenly flashed white. White eyes were dead souls. They were daemons. They were Syphons. This bird—whatever it was—was associated with death.

But it was not an enemy.

The raven flapped its wings before it started pecking at Ember’s coffin with overzealous urgency. It ignored the slight chastising from Calder and the shooing from the carriage driver. It paused momentarily, as if lulling his detractors with false victory, before beginning to peck faster, harder. As the carriage driver lunged back to swipe at the bird, it jumped into the air and dove straight for Micah.

He withheld the temptation to dodge like an idiot but rather stayed upright on his horse.

A talon clipped his forehead just barely, eliciting a spasm of pain, before the bird arched higher. Micah watched it soar into the skies and follow the funeral procession from afar.

He lowered his gaze back to the coffin, wondering, wildly, if it was trying to suggest Ember was still alive.

But no.

When he’d gazed down at her the other night, he knew she was dead. The smell of rotting organs was indication enough. Yama’s quick agreement to release his control of her body another indication. The god of death had known, at that time, that Ember was just an empty, lifeless husk. Something he could possess and string along for his sole amusement.

Micah’s hands clenched around the reins, staring unseeingly ahead as a warm trail of blood dripped down his forehead and between his eyes. With a distracted hand, he brushed it away, most likely smearing it across his entire face.

It didn’t matter.

After making a loop across the capital, they finally came upon the cremation grounds.

Three members of the Azeri royal guard, and three members of the Talise royal guard, hurried forward and lifted Ember’s casket from the open carriage. Micah dismounted, briefly touching Josiah’s outstretched hand for assistance and jumping to the ground.

“It’s fine. Don’t—” Micah started to protest as Agni took hold of his face.

The man ignored him entirely and rubbed a gloved thumb across his nose and forehead, wiping away the blood smears. “If it was up to me, I would gladly leave it in place. It accentuates the fragility in your eyes.”

Micah exhaled with bitter amusement. “That was a lapse of control. I am not fragile.”

“Of course not,” Agni replied nonchalantly.

If Calder were not nearing, Agni would have said more, no doubt to rile Micah further.  As it was, his father looked between Josiah and Micah. In his eyes, there was exasperation. He opened his mouth, as if to inquire over the events of the ride here, but then closed his mouth abruptly. Eventually, Calder would grow accustomed to unexplainable events that transpired with Micah.

Like wayward and rebellious ravens.

Calder held out an arm. “Ready?”

Micah moved forward, walking with his father as they followed the casket.

Large, mature trees separated the royal cremation area from the public grounds, where smaller mausoleums peppered across the rolling hills, both large and small, plain and elaborate. There were also different levels of cremation platforms across the expansive grounds. Depending on the financial background of the deceased, their service would be either extravagant or humble.

The royal cremation platform was all but a small coliseum built into the ground on one side.

Stone benches and stairs led down to a large dais. Upon the raised dais was a decorative cremation pyre and an area for the preaching vicar. Just behind the dais was the royal mausoleum. Considering its size, however, it was not so much a mausoleum as it was a small palace. The arches and the pillars were every bit extravagant and overzealous here as they were on the royal palace. Stained glass windows, with breathtaking colors, decorated the sides of the mausoleum, displaying proud egrets and water-like sceneries.

It truly was a Talise burial ground.

Nevertheless, they tried to incorporate as much Igni influence as they could with such short notice.

He could see the crimson and black draperies near the funeral pyre. The serpent-entwined stone basins burned a unique scent of charcoal and cinnamon as well as housing beautiful crimson flames, no doubt colored with ceremonious sands and powders. There was the old Azeri crest standing proudly behind the pyre. Upon the black flag was a crimson, and surprisingly well-detailed, crest of two desert snakes entwining around a beautifully Igni-crafted sword.

It was an acceptable nod toward Ember’s heritage.

As soon as Micah reached the bottom of the staircase, he settled next to Calder on the high bench with Josiah settling next to him.

Jadedly, he watched as they secured Ember’s casket on the pyre, hiding most of the casket behind intricately carved stones. Below her, the fire basin was already prepared with wood and fire accelerants. While the casket was beautiful, he also knew it was cheaply built and made to burn swiftly. Just as well, he knew they’d treated her body before securing it in the casket.

She would burn quickly.

Micah’s jaw tightened at the thought of the fire consuming her.

He recalled the brief flashes of fire those many years ago.

He recalled her high-pitch howl.

Her ugly and soul-shattering sob.

Micah shifted, focusing instead on the present. It was not royal etiquette to glance behind his shoulder, yet he knew the stands filled quickly with observers. From his peripheral vision, he could see several black-clad mourners forced to stand outside the amphitheater, the benches evidently already filled with the nobles.

Micah placed his hands on his lap, politely listening as the vicar began his service. It was an elderly Igni man who proclaimed his personal connection with Ember. He told stories of her devotion at the temple of Agni here at the capital. He boasted her gentle and determined nature. He commented that he’d known Micah as a child just as well, and tied in the generous and devoted maternal role that Ember played.

Keeping his face a pleasant mask of attentiveness, Micah zoned out the service when the vicar started quoting lines from Agni’s Scrolls with a few implementations from Varuna’s own manuscripts.

He never bothered learning either works of literature—finding them silly, unnecessary.

Fables.

Keegan wouldn’t have appreciated Micah’s cynicism. Yet, what good had memorizing Agni’s Scrolls done for Keegan? The fire god had stood by and watched the death of one of his most devoted worshipers. Keegan was mere material used in the ‘growth’ of Agni’s counterpart. Thus, his existence mattered little to Agni, whereas his death had been advantageous.

Micah hated funerals.

So very unnecessary.

He sat there, dwelling further and further in his black mood.

A drizzle of rain hit his upturned face. Raising his eyes to the sky, he noticed the rolling clouds approaching from the north. It was an odd direction for weather to approach. The air turned cooler. The wind picked up with intensity. Several murmurs sounded behind him as the clouds darkened further, swelling with dark greys and navy blues.

The vicar pretended as if it were a marvelous, sunny day as he continued the service without break or pause. He smiled widely, completely unbothered as he readjusted his wildly swaying robes.

Calder shifted beside Micah, yet he was far too groomed to say anything during a public service.

Micah straightened, inhaling the cooler air and feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck. His attention fell on the trees, noticing the oddly silent black birds landing in the branches, veiled by the full leaves.

If it weren’t for Josiah’s unnatural stiffness, Micah would have considered it a coincidence.

“What is it?” Micah murmured quietly, leaning closer to Agni.

Orange eyes assessed the trees before glancing down at Micah. “A goddess,” he replied, his words barely audible as they spoke near Micah’s ear. “Her name is Dhumavati. The crows are an essential familiar of hers. She typically dwells in cremation grounds.”

“Is she the white-haired goddess?”

Josiah’s expression appeared confused for just a moment before understanding took its place. “No,” he replied. “She is not.”

Dhumavati. Micah played with the name in his mind, cementing it, remembering it. “She’s here now?”

“Unquestionably. I just don’t know where.” Agni appeared resolute for a moment, as if he were to do something extremely foolish.

Micah reached over and grabbed Josiah’s arm, tightening his hold. “You’re vulnerable without a mortal vessel. Do not go looking.”

He thought of Yama lurking about in his weakened form. He thought of the other Syphon who’d consumed Dushyanta with black, possessive tendrils and an eager mouth. As much as Agni claimed himself invincible, Micah knew he was not.

Especially in a bodiless form in the mortal realm.

Especially with two capable and powerful Syphons lingering in the shadows.

Josiah turned and looked at Micah. Through his uncle’s eyes, Agni gazed down at him contemplatively, a deep frown marring his features. His expression then softened and warmed. He reached out, stroking Micah’s chin with a firm thumb. “If that is what you wish.”

Calder cleared his throat pointedly, looking meaningfully at the vicar.

Comforted that his father wouldn’t have overheard, but not willing to take further chances of irritating him and drawing attention, Micah withdrew his hand from Josiah and faced forward. He kept an eye on the red-gold surrounding Josiah, hoping Agni would keep his word and not flee from the protection of his mortal body.

The service appeared to be drawing to a close.

In the royal mausoleum, a bell suddenly began to chime. It was a deep-setting toll, far more ominous as it was cheerful. One of the younger vicars grabbed hold of a torch and lit it from the ceremonious base of flame.

Micah sat up, feeling his pulse beat restlessly as they approached the pyre.

They reached the torch inside the wood stove and lit the fire. With a whoosh, the entire pyre went up in purple flame. The spectators made noises of excitement and amazement, the deep amethyst of royalty shining so bright, it hurt the eyes. Smoke accumulated above the pyre, and with a disbelieving twist, it shaped into a winding and mighty serpent. More noises of disbelief and wonder filled the stadium.

Micah gave a pointed, unimpressed look at Agni who remained the picture of perfect innocence.

“Let us pray to Agni!” the vicar proclaimed passionately, his voice reaching over the noise of the amazed audience. “Let us plead and ask for him to welcome his child, Ember Azeri-Talise, home and into his palace.”

Micah turned his head, drawn suddenly to his left.

Heads simultaneously bowed low across the entire amphitheater, yet, amongst the large group standing at the mouth of the opening, one man kept his head raised proudly. Even from afar, Micah discerned the man’s eyes locked with his own. Blond hair fell into his impassive blue eyes, but even with the lack of emotion, there was something there. Something intense with passion and bitter sentiments.

Micah stared back, noting the very faint red-gold hue, dim enough to leave him puzzled.

Movement abruptly drew his attention away from the pale-featured man. A cloaked woman, for she was diminutive and narrowed-shouldered, sashayed across the mouth of the amphitheater. She moved with uneasy grace and impeccable eeriness, invisible to the mortal eye. At her sides, her fingers moved with signs and her wrists twisted restlessly and dramatically.

When the she turned marginally, Micah balked at the ugliness he saw there.

Dark eyes ensnared not Micah, but the fire god sitting next to him, leering, seeing.

Unlike her pale-haired companion, the red-gold hue encompassing her was absurdly bright, a shrill and harried warning.

The crows in the trees suddenly all took flight, circling and engaging the plume of smoke as it rose into the air.

An enormous power breezed by Micah’s cheek, stinging his skin with warmth and hostility. He blinked, watching as flames licked the edges of the red-gold aura as it chased after the now formless woman. Turning back to Josiah, he noted the unpossessed vessel before looking back at the area where Agni and the goddess disappeared.

He exhaled with frustration, realizing Agni was at his strongest during this time of year, but not appreciating the separation.

The god was still vulnerable in his current form.

It put Micah on edge.

For what seemed like hours, Ember’s service finally ended as the vicar approached the royal family and offered his condolences. The spectators gradually departed, the fire still burning low as it ate away at the last of her remains. Micah sat stiffly on his bench, the perfect specimen of an untouchable and detached royal.

His father and uncle remained sitting just as rigidly, their silence indication of not knowing what to say to one another. Besides a few groundskeepers waiting to collect Ember’s ashes, as well as several royal guards standing at the mouth of the amphitheater, the three monarchies were alone.  

Calder was the first to break the silence. “I’m sorry for your loss. Both your losses.”

Micah and Josiah both gazed at the man, the latter no doubt still reeling from the sudden departure of the god ruling his body and mind.

“The same could be said for you,” Micah murmured. “Assuming you and her got along more than—”

“It was not a perfect marriage, but we got along just fine,” Calder interrupted. “She most likely filled your head with toxicity allusions about our relationship.” He clasped his hands together and gazed at the pyre. “I’m just left pondering how it was even possible for her to survive on her own with a young child and little gold. As sick as she was…”

Micah raised an eyebrow.

“It was Agni, wasn’t it?”

At Calder’s inquiry, Micah’s other eyebrow soon joined its partner. He looked at Josiah, whom appeared far more passive than Micah had ever seen him. His uncle merely gazed unseeingly at his sister’s remains, apparently tuning out Calder and Micah.

“That’s a far leap,” Micah quipped.

Calder levelled Micah with an unconvinced eye. He placed a gloved hand on his white trousers, having chosen to wear white to keep with his own religious traditions. He and the rest of the Unda nobility believed the color was enough to attract Varuna’s considerations during such a ‘bleak’ time. Briefly, Micah wondered if the water god had reached out to Calder and offered his sympathies yet.

The thought roused a black humor from him.

“It would be arrogant of me to assume I was the only ruler whom the gods contacted. Before you left for Region 20, and we sat down to have a conversation, Josiah claimed Agni and you were already in contact.” Calder’s deep, sapphire eyes squinted. “He watched over you and her, did he not? It’s the only way I can imagine her surviving. It’s the only way I can imagine you turning out so well.”

“Or perhaps you just underestimated us.”

Calder’s lips quirked. Again, there was no true humor in his tone or expression. “Perhaps.” He turned back to the disappearing casket. “Or perhaps Agni has played you. Perhaps Agni had played her. Perhaps… we’re all subjected to the whims of the gods.”

“I thought you were reverent to Varuna,” Micah commented. 

“I am. That does not mean I cannot put simple evidences together, Ezra. Moreover, it doesn’t mean I cannot look upon our own fates and realize what little power we truly have over our destinies.”

“Oh come now, Ezra,” Josiah drawled excessively. “Do not lead Calder off his scent of discovery. Only the powerful mortals eventually realize such power is borrowed from the almighty deities.” He stood up, drawing Calder’s close attention and Micah’s suspicions. “Count yourself fortunate, Calder. Agni may have taken away your wife and your child, and Varuna may have caused your kingdom further duress after convincing you to combine it with the Igni Empire, but at least Agni does not frequently possess you.”

The Igni lord then pointed at Micah.

“Do not,” Micah warned chillingly.

Josiah ignored him entirely. “At least Agni does not frequently fuck you.”

Calder jolted, emitting a sound not quite a shriek but most definitely not royalty approved. “Excuse me?”

“You are free to deny him possession,” Micah said quietly, gazing at his uncle. “Take your fate in your own hands, Josiah.”

Josiah offered an unpleasant laugh. “Taking fate in my own hands, nephew? That’s rather amusing, coming from you. Are you without your typical blindfold this morning? Would you like to borrow mine?”

Micah unfolded from the bench, feeling a rage he hadn’t felt in a long while.

Calder stood just as well, reaching out a hand and settling it on Micah’s shoulder. “Explain from the beginning—”

Josiah threw his hand out, motioning toward Ember’s remains. His face twisted with such sorrow and regret, he appeared on the verge of crying or cursing. When Josiah spoke, his words were sharp, clear, and unkind. “The war began because of you. We lost many people in battle because of you. We’re in this turbulent society because of you. She’s—” his words broke briefly. “She is dead and twisted because of your existence. You were an abnormality and still are. Such an existence destroys the natural order of things.”

“That is enough!” Calder placed himself entirely in front of Micah. He rounded on Josiah. “You are out of line.”

“The sooner he leaves, the sooner the gods can stop meddling with us mere mortals.” Josiah collected himself, tucked away his anger, and met Micah’s chilling stare from over Calder’s shoulder. “So when you claim I should take fate into my own hands, Ezra, it is you who is stopping me from attaining that by avoiding your own fate.”

The heavy clouds released a low roll of thunder, yet the rain remained a sporadic light drizzle.

The three men stood in tense silence.

Anger, confusion, and grief the most prevalent reasons keeping their tongues.

Micah absorbed the words. Something rancorous curled and withered in his stomach. Josiah may not have been the best candidate to offer advice about facing one’s destiny with a courageous spine, but he was partially right.

He dwelled over the admissions, wondering if they were true.

He’d had his suspicions over the origins of the war before. Prithvi all but told him about it, yet he had refused to believe her. Similarly, he had wondered why his father had combined both races together. Was it truly because Agni and Varuna willed it to happen? But why? To conceive him? The thought made him ill. Hundreds of lives lost because of a future child born to two races. Why was a war necessary to achieve that? Biracial children were very rare before the war, but not unheard of.

Moreover, what he said about Ember—

“Ezra.”

Micah looked at his father, pleased to see Calder was both calm and patient as he waited for clarification.

“He’s wrong,” Micah said. “Even if I was not here, the gods would still meddle.” He looked at Josiah. “You know this. The gods have shepherded their mortals since the beginning of time. They typically go through the ruling body of the kingdoms.”

“What are you?” Calder’s tone was even. Curious. “For the gods to take such interest in you that they would create a war just to have you?”

“That is not proven—”

“Ezra,” Calder interrupted, using his name as imploration. “I understand my position. I am king, but against the gods, I am utterly and completely powerless.” He took a step closer to Micah, his eyes just as world-weary as Josiah’s were. Just as used. Just as discarded. “I am not accustomed to such a helpless role. It is both demeaning and belittling. If I am to play this role, at least grant me knowledge and awareness so I do not look entirely foolish.”

Calder and Josiah both waited for Micah.

Did he blame them? Whether Josiah already knew Micah’s role, he deserved just as much an explanation as Calder. The gods had used both men. Calder’s request was reasonable. Micah knew what it felt like to be tugged in every direction without truly knowing why.

Knowledge was power.

So why was Micah constantly trying to run from it?

“I…” He looked between the two, wondering why the words were so heavy on his tongue.

Because it was a newly acquainted revelation, he thought. Something he knew very little about, but the implications were great. Something he struggled months to accept. He was just beginning to flirt with the idea, with the possibility of shrouding himself in the role.

He lifted his chin. “Agni is preparing me to be the next… the next god of death and justice.”

Both men blatantly stared at him.

It seemed like several moments passed before Calder blinked and an incredulous laugh startled from his lips. He moved forward, clasping Micah on the shoulder, his fingers squeezing reassuringly. Out of all the reactions Micah had anticipated, a proud and animated Calder was not one of them.

“What an honor.”

Micah nearly recoiled. “Honor,” he repeated numbly. “It is no honor.”

Calder appeared bemused. “To be a god?”

He struggled for words, his entire person jarred at the reaction he garnered from both Josiah and Calder. They gazed at him as if he were an abomination. What mortal did not want to be a god?

“There is more to it than simple grandiose powers and splendor. Several conflicts must be resolved in that realm. There are uncertainties, struggles, and a power imbalance so great—”

“My son,” Calder interrupted patiently. He placed his other hand on Micah’s shoulder, holding him at arm’s length and truly looking. “I may not understand the situation entirely, but you were born to rule during difficult times. It brings things into prospective, does it not? It certainly makes me feel better knowing Varuna had his reasons for doing what he did.”

Micah could only stand there in face of a new perspective.

In face of the truth.

“I am certain you feel unsettled with such obligation,” Calder continued, suspiciously perceptive.

Suspiciously good at having the right words.

Yet, his aura remained silver, proclaiming no god possessed him, but his words sounded scripted.

Prepared.

Micah shuddered, realizing, subconsciously, that Calder did not prepare these words.

“It’s undoubtedly a shock,” his father continued. “Something you—something I—will struggle with accepting. Nevertheless, remember when you and I first reunited. You were opposed to taking the crown until you realized what good you could do with such an esteemed position. Think of the good you can accomplish now.”

Despite Micah’s growing suspicions over Calder’s source, his father’s words still hit him.

Hard.

He tried to shift ground, to get his father to see. “I didn’t want immortality—”

“Don’t be a fool,” Josiah intervened, gazing pointedly at Micah. “Nothing is truly immortal, is it?”

No. It really wasn’t, was it? Even gods could die. Micah found it difficult to breathe. His entire person was protesting against the revelation that loomed in the back of his mind. It hovered there, laughing with taunting persistence. It prodded him, urging Micah to face it. To look. To acknowledge.

Again, he tried to look the other way. “I don’t want to leave here.”

“I don’t imagine you’re quite done with your training,” Calder agreed. “There is still much left here to accomplish.”

Standing awkwardly between his father, who still held his shoulders captive, and Josiah, who didn’t seem as nearly as hostile anymore, Micah could only stare stupidly. The revelation that loomed in the back of his mind was now front and center. He nodded nonsensically, to distract himself from expressing something undesirable, before pulling himself away from his father.

He needed to be alone.

“May I visit the mausoleum?”

Calder gave his affirmative and Micah swept from the scene.

He bypassed his mother’s remains and climbed the stairs of the royal mausoleum. The two guards standing before the doors abruptly stood aside upon his approach and offered him entrance. As the doors closed behind Micah, the heavy silence of total isolation hit him.

Inhaling, exhaling, he walked down the aisle that was fitted with endless shelves. A beautiful and elaborate urn position above each gold-platted nameplate. The torches on the stonewalls were brightly lit, shedding enough light to accurately observe his ancestors, yet dim enough to give himself a semblance of shadow.

He slowed his pace, staring down at the glass tiles stretching the middle of the aisle. Moving over to the center of the mausoleum, he squinted at the tiles, not seeing anything but his murky reflection.

Alone with only the sound of his steadied breathing, Micah finally acknowledged what he’d avoided for so long.

He was a fool.

Pressing his lips together, he endured the humiliation, realizing it was important to face it.

He’d been especially stagnant these past few months, hadn’t he? Perhaps he would stumble across a self-revelation, something that encouraged him to change, to grow, yet it did not take proper root. As a result, he reverted to his old habits. Denying truths. Turning away from revelations. Hiding his face from change and possible transformation.

Maybe he’d taken small, stuttering steps to make the changes. Maybe he had grown a bit.

Nevertheless, it hadn’t been enough.

Accepting was not reacting.

Not when he faced entities of divine power and strength. Not when there were groups of creatures who relied on him. Not when he had a counterpart who endlessly tried to rid him of his vulnerabilities and evolve into something greater.

He was the god of death and justice.

Micah crouched down low, touching the glass tiles.

He was the god of death and justice.

Not Yama.

Him. Ezra.

His gloved fingers splayed the cold glass, feeling the frigid temperature begin to grow colder and colder. A small, hesitant smile crossed his lips as he contemplated his destiny. For a moment, for the first time, he allowed the revelation to fill him with visions and anticipations of the future. A sense of excitement lingered. Excitement of the unknown. Excitement of the powers he had yet to discover. Excitement to cause stir amongst the other gods who were afraid of such change. Excitement to ease the situation for the Syphons and daemons.

It seemed so very similar to his current predicament in the mortal world.

As he pondered his anticipations with his future, his reservations reared their ugly head. They were the same exact reservations that Calder had countered with very few words. Every argument Micah had about being the god of death turned on its side, useless. Calder, and even Josiah, whom hardly knew all the circumstances, had seen more sense than Micah.

Immortality was not guaranteed. Even gods died.

Being a god of such importance was an honor, not a curse.

The prospect of helping the suppressed shouldn’t be a determinant. It was what Micah lived for. It was his passion. 

Leaving the mortal realm was not going to happen so soon, but when he was prepared. Micah refused to do it sooner.

So why had he protested so adamantly against the prospect of becoming the god of death and justice? Why had he agreed to step aside and allow Yama to take the position? He sympathized with the god of death, yes, but the man had failed once.

It was Micah’s turn now.

Cold rushed through him, embracing him. Micah closed his eyes into the sensation, no longer experiencing fear of the cold, but rather the determination to wield it with confidence. The cold seemed to respond positively to his sentiments, for it softened its touch.

Opening his eyes, he noticed a layer of frost coating the clear tiles.

It drew his attention to the small latch he’d missed earlier.

Curiously, he unlatched the lever and tugged at the tile. It detached from the frost with a noise of protest, its hinges clearly unused and rusted. As Micah held up the clear tile, he gazed down at the deep, fathomless pit of black. The sound of slow moving water sounded, and if Micah squinted hard enough, he could see the rippling waves reflecting off the mausoleum’s dim lighting.

“Most mausoleums are built above channels that flow to the river and out into the lake. The Unda people firmly believe, upon death, they become one with water. After the cremation, the ashes are scattered into the channels to assist their loved ones an easy path to me.”  

Micah stared unseeingly into the black waters, taking notice of the burning rune across his chest.

Slowly he turned, staring into the face of a man he assumed to be Varuna.

He considered the water god’s presence, pondering the chances of their encounter being a mere coincidence. He then disregarded such happenstance as he recalled Calder’s optimistic reaction after Micah’s god of death admission. Replaying their conversation, he finally understood why Calder’s words sounded so scripted. His father had seemed especially apt at knowing what to say and how to say it, enough to shake Micah from his deep-seated uncertainties.

Pale eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

The gods couldn’t help themselves from interfering, could they?

Micah leaned back on his heels, prepared to give Varuna his careful and guarded attention.

 

Chapter Text

12. Chapter Twelve 

 

As if sensing Micah’s skeptical regard, Varuna looked away from the deep well and turned his concentrated gaze on to Micah’s face.

Unsurprisingly, power clung to the ancient deity.

It reeked of purity, of goodness. Like a breath of fresh air Micah hadn’t realized he’d needed. Or wanted. It was not provocative, not like Agni’s sinful tendrils of dark seduction, but rather mature with age-old righteousness. It all but glimmered as visibly as the threads of silver claiming the man’s body chains, bangles, and rings. As gaudy as his jewelry should have been, it was absurdly striking just as it was subtle. Like silver moonlight reflecting off the gentle ripples of a tranquil pond.

Micah shifted, realizing why the man’s aura disconcerted him.

Because the goodness stemmed from his aura, not his person.

Any god could wave around that power, fooling everyone into thinking his morality was as impressively ‘good’ as his aura. But underneath it could lay a scheming, dangerous predator.

Masked predators were always the most precarious.

He turned rigid.

“In contrast,” Varuna continued his previous line of conversation while simultaneously absorbing Micah. “The royal line has opted to remain behind for their descendants.” He raised a ring-clad hand, motioning toward the numerous urns on the shelves. “They believed it crucial to offer guidance to their successors. All one must do is visit the mausoleum and stand before their ancestors, seeking assistance.”

The man’s eyes were familiar, as Micah had seen them during Region 20’s attack.

They were just as blue as he remembered, putting Calder’s sapphire hue to shame. They were vivid. Surreal with their shards of teal. Both Varuna and Agni possessed age-old wisdom in their eyes. Yet, whereas Agni appeared mischievous and scheming, Varuna gave the impression of being far more serious.

Solemn.

Micah absorbed the god’s appearance, taking advantage of their close proximity.

Varuna’s skin was the same shade as Agni’s—a deep, golden tan. While several of his features resembled Agni, Micah could only obsess over the differences. Varuna’s nose was rounder, his eyes rounder, and his jawline not quite as sharp. Like Agni, Varuna’s hair was a refreshing change from the ordinary as it fell just past his shoulders in tranquil, light brown waves. Micah was certain, if they were in a well-lit room, he’d see several other shades of varying colors.

“And who answers their calls?” Micah inquired cynically. “Their long-departed successors? Or the god who enjoys controlling the kingdom through the man currently wearing the crown?”

“The latter.”

“Of course it’s the latter.” Micah exhaled, torn between hilarity and skepticism at Varuna’s casual admittance.

He closed the well cover and stood calmly from the ground.

Varuna stood with him.

Unsurprisingly, he was exactly Agni’s height and standing well above Micah. His robes would have been unfamiliar if Micah hadn’t seen Agni wear similar ones. A sash tied around the waist of the tailored robes, open to the chest and the fitted blue material underneath. There were shimmering patterns of silver across the blue robes, accentuated near the hems.

Micah knew from experience that the material was softer than silk and heavy with quality needlework.

He tried not to remember the feel of rubbing against them with nothing on.

“I imagine Calder came here often, seeking guidance from his predecessors.” He sauntered around Varuna, keeping steady eye contact with the god. “By now, I’m sure you two schedule weekly visits and have dropped all pretenses of smoke and mirrors.”

“Smoke and mirrors is still an effective tactic should I ever need an element of surprise and unpredictability.” Varuna watched Micah pace, appearing amused before abruptly adopting an intrigued expression. His eyes tracked Micah closely. “Occasionally, Calder does not appreciate my intrusiveness, therefore, I am forced to approach him by other means.”

Occasionally, Calder does not appreciate my intrusiveness. Micah found that proclamation exasperatedly comical. Judging from Varuna’s tone, the deity believed it burdensome that Calder would have the gall not to appreciate his meddling.

Micah stopped moving, choosing to settle into an unwavering stance.

He thought of what Josiah just admitted. He thought of what Prithvi told him. And Sachiel’s comments about Irving Dover. He recalled the way his father was especially vague and tight-lipped about his decision to combine the Igni and Unda cultures together.

“By other means, you are referring to using Irving Dover as a puppet.”

“I’ve used him in the past. Calder has since discovered it was not entirely his trusted advisor giving him suggestions.”

“You’re not denying any of it,” Micah observed, partly surprised at how open Varuna was with his answers.

“Why should I?” Varuna countered. “I am not like Agni. I will not coddle you from the truth.”

“Is that what Agni does? Coddle me from the truth? Or is he protecting himself should the truth come out?”

The water god blinked, as if taken off guard. His lips then parted in a small smile and he laughed. “Why should Agni fear how the truth reflects on to him? To the likes of mere mortals?” he asked. “Agni is one of the most powerful gods in existence. He does not have to answer to those whom are inconsequential.”

Micah’s ears grew warm at the condescending words.

He’d nearly forgotten why he disliked gods. The reminder stood before him with airs of ridiculous superiority. They were all arrogant. Entitled. They looked down on those whom they deemed inferior, never recognizing those inferior beings still had their strengths and their purposes. It grated on Micah. It raised his hackles with aversion. Something within him coiled resentfully as he recalled his longstanding fury over those who built themselves high and mighty pedestals.

He’d possessed this particular belief since he could remember, but he’d grown complacent.

He’d grown complacent because Agni had… morphed his character to coexist with Micah. While he was still a smug, arrogant bastard, he’d tempered his god almighty superiority complex. Micah just hadn’t realized how much until Varuna opened his mouth.

“Such a cruel perception for a god who has thousands upon thousands of mortals worshipping him every day.”

Varuna considered Micah, his mirth gone once more. “I admire my mortals. I simply do not feel as if I need to justify my actions to them. Just as I do not believe Agni needs to justify his actions to any mortal.” He paused briefly. “But I suppose you’re an exception, aren’t you? His counterpart. Our future god of death and justice. He needs to tread carefully with you.”

Everything Varuna said, he said with a conceited tone.

Micah smiled cruelly to suppress his snarl. “I don’t like you very much.”

“The feeling is quite mutual,” Varuna responded pleasantly, as if he admitted to this sort of thing every day. “I don’t like things with power that I cannot predict or understand.”

“Or control, I imagine.” Micah bared his teeth in a grimace. “Yet, you’re trying your damnest to control me through Calder.”

“And what do you believe I’ve done to control you?”

“Aside from Calder’s pep talk just now?”

Varuna merely blinked, entirely unbothered. “We needed a new approach with you.”

The confession nearly left Micah breathless with frustrated anger. “We?” He dipped his head, laughing with bitter resentment. “What? So you and Agni work together now? You seem to have switched positions remarkably quickly. You go from nearly destroying me and the rest of Region 20 with your tantrum to working alongside Agni?”

Micah didn’t understand why he was more upset with Agni and Varuna working together than he was with Varuna playing with Calder.

If Varuna was at all insulted Micah labeled his actions as a ‘tantrum’, he did not show it. “You know very well that if I had wanted to destroy you, I could have. I have since discussed this with Agni and realized a great deal of things.” He seemed amused at Micah’s cold stare. “Using Calder to reach you was necessary.”

“How so?”

“It worked, did it not?”

Micah’s scorned smirk dropped quickly into thin, displeased line.

“You are conditioned to buck against Agni’s word,” Varuna continued unconcernedly. “He suggests you go right; you determinedly stride to your left. If only to spite him. If only to explore what he is not telling you about that left side. You are so prepared to go against anything he may say or do. Perhaps your desire to rebuke him has clouded your judgement in accepting your destiny. Therefore, a new voice, a new perspective was used to reach you.”

The cold that had been hovering at the tips of his fingers abruptly disappeared at the words.

Micah refused to feel guilty for the accurate observation. He acknowledged he was often times wary of Agni’s intentions and he had every right to be so. Yet, he was a bit ashamed to identify that maybe all this time, maybe his aversion to being the god of death and justice, was a result of Agni’s approach in the matter.

Agni wanted him to be immortal. Micah refused to succumb to that desire.

Agni wanted him to be the god of death. Micah wanted to argue against such a position, if only because it was prearranged for him.

Only… there was so much more to his destiny than just Agni. While Agni would always be a very large part of his future, Micah was beginning to realize he had his own powers. He had his own people. He had his own conflicts to work out and solve. Such independence from such a powerful and ancient god like Agni was vital.

And exactly what he needed to accept his destiny.

“And Agni agreed to use Calder like that? To give Calder scripted lines and have my father feed them to me as if he actually believed it?”

Varuna inclined his head. “Agni suggested it would be ideal if you heard another perspective about your destiny. He did not know about my decision to use Calder.”

For a moment, Micah mourned the opportunity of not witnessing Calder’s true reaction to hearing his son was destined to be the god of death. As he pondered over it, he had a sudden premonition that several of Calder’s reactions were a result of Varuna’s hold over him.

“Aside from using Calder…” Micah trailed off, gathering a hold of his ire and looking at Varuna once more. “Your manipulations don’t stop there. My very existence relied on your influences.” He searched for any sign he was drawing the wrong conclusion, yet Varuna was a mask of indifference. “You and Agni started the war between the Igni and Unda races. You took away their water reservoirs. You requested Calder merge the two kingdoms even when you knew how difficult it would be to harmonize.”

“On the contrary, it was Agni who orchestrated everything.”

“And you gladly agreed to let your people go to war? To die?”

“When I agreed to help, it was my stipulation that my people win.”

Micah made an ‘awing’ noise, as if winning were an impressive consolation. “Like a predetermined game of chess.”

Varuna examined Micah as if he were a strange specimen. “It must be difficult for a… fledgling like yourself, raised amongst mortals, to comprehend the extent of our powers and purpose.”

“What I am unable to comprehend is your complete lack of empathy for the lives lost.”

The water god abruptly moved forward, crowding Micah, whom remained stubbornly in place. As Micah stared up at the god, he realized, aside from the slight pang behind his eyes, that Varuna’s presence did not affect him negatively. He didn’t know if Varuna was shielding himself, like Agni did, or if it was something else entirely.

Judging from Micah’s rune burning frantically in effort to smother the god’s presence, Varuna was not shielding himself.

Something nipped at the back of his mind.

Another small piece of the puzzle settled into place.

If a god, as powerful as Varuna, hardly caused him—a mortal— physical discomfort, Micah’s soul truly was inching closer to immortality.

How close, he did not know.

Clearly, not close enough to experience the extent of his powers as the god of death and justice.

“I did more than just empathize,” Varuna started menacingly. “I felt all the lives lost. I heard all my children’s pleas and cries. I ignored most, simply because I agreed to help create you for Agni. Until recently, I regretted that decision. How could one soul, who was impressively unimpressive, be worth several of the hundred souls that had perished?”

Micah tried not to be insulted.

Because it was true.

He felt just as perturbed over the thought of all those men and women dying just so Agni could have Micah conceived under the right circumstances.

“When I realized you were the god of death, my regret only intensified. From my observation, you would simply fall as soon as you crossed over into our realm. You would not offer any sort of change, you would only offer further destruction. You represented a failure, a lost opportunity—perhaps the last opportunity—we have to rebalance.”

“Then what changed your mind?” Micah asked tightly. “That you no longer regret your decision?”

“Agni’s cunning.” Varuna’s gaze was shrewd. “I had initially believed he’d been taken by surprise. That his counterpart was not what he intended. That he, too, discovered your destiny when the rest of us had. A new god of death? One so painfully untrained and uncontrollable? It was another Yama, only one who was far less remarkable.”

Micah had his suspicions about Agni knowing he was the god of death well before he claimed he had.

Varuna simply confirmed his doubts.

Micah had known before, yet it never seemed quite as prevalent as it did now.

Agni was a master manipulator.

Nevertheless, why had Agni feigned ignorance with the other entities when Micah started demonstrating signs of his powers? How had Agni known so early on about Micah? Had he specifically requested a god of death as his counterpart? Micah found himself questioning several aspects of his origins, origins that Agni had a heavy hand in playing.

“You weren’t angry that he’d lied to you?”

“I was relieved,” Varuna said. “The god of death’s grooming requires delicate handling. Agni did a remarkable job creating you. Preparing you. The environment you find yourself in now is vital for what you will face with immortality.” Varuna’s mouth twisted in a mockery of a smile. His ring-clad finger poked Micah’s chest once, twice. “You actually have a chance to succeed now. Creating you, creating the war, wasn’t for naught. While you are still unimpressive—”

Here, Micah’s eye twitched.

“Your morality, your character, is the foundation of a successful destiny. Everything else can improve with training. Time.”

Micah frowned, suddenly unnerved when he absorbed Varuna’s words. “You say the environment I find myself in now is vital,” he repeated cautiously. “The war was necessary, which only means you believe it was imperative that I experience the warring cultures. The social unrest between two races.”

“And that you are of both races.”

Micah tossed his head with agitation. With disbelief.

“Being biracial was… training?” he asked, his tone thick with skepticism.

Varuna leaned down, settling his face inches from Micah. His blue eyes were bright, eager. “You don’t belong.” The whispered words were heavy. “In either world, do you, child?”

Micah recoiled, mentally protesting at Varuna using Agni’s preferred pet name.

“If you were to hold a mirror up to your mortal life, you would see a ghastly, misshapen reflection of your future in our realm. Not only will it reflect the unrest of the inhabitants, but you, yourself, a figurehead of both, will dwell between two worlds, two races. You’ll experience the prejudice, not only because of your predecessor, but also for what you are. Such exclusion and scorn would warp any new soul without proper experience. Agni has armored you with such experience. He’s thought of everything.”

Micah tried to grasp what Varuna was insinuating.

One thing in particular did not sit well with him.

“I don’t…” he trailed off, gazing into the handsome face creased with polite humor. “I am half-god? Half—?”

Varuna.”

The hiss that resonated across the mausoleum raised the hairs on Micah’s arms with wicked excitement. He sensed Agni’s presence before the god materialized directly behind Varuna. Blood-orange eyes regarded his brother, whom, in turn, watched Micah.

“Come now, Agni, let the poor boy figure it out. He’s capable.”

“Capable, but still impressively unimpressive,” Micah quipped cynically.

Varuna grinned, approving. “And he learns quickly.”

Agni observed both Micah and Varuna, undoubtedly sensing the tension, the animosity. Perhaps Agni also sensed Micah’s discomfort standing before two ancient gods and being addressed so dismissively, for he stepped away from Varuna and toward Micah.

“Ezra,” Agni addressed deliberately, emphasizing Micah’s name and imploring his attention. “Pay little attention to Varuna’s regard, simply because he cannot reasonably see past his overinflated sense of importance. It is something you should pity him for, while taking great pleasure for how pathetic he appears. It’s entirely subconscious on his part, which is all the more entertaining.” 

Micah felt his lips curl with delight.

Agni mirrored his grin with one of his own.

“Please.” Varuna straightened, watching as Agni approached Micah. “Grounding yourself in the mortal realm for so long and becoming one of them does not automatically deflate your own ego, Agni. You are not humbled. You are not any better.”

“What do you think, Ezra?” Agni breathed, sliding behind Micah and leaning forward to murmur in his ear. “For someone Varuna deems ‘capable’, surely you are an acceptable neutral party. Am I any better than Varuna?” His hand touched the small of Micah’s back, plucking the tailored robes and the skin beneath. “Or am I also impressively unimpressive?”

“Assuredly the latter.” He resisted the urge to lean against the hand that remained a persistent weight on his back. “Though if you are going to be unimpressive, it’s better to be impressive about it.”

“You have a miniature version of yourself, Agni, I applaud you. Surely, after so many decades in isolation, you’d grow bored with your own company.” Varuna looked between Micah and Agni, clearly finding little to appreciate in their comradeship. “We’ve strayed far off topic. I think I’d like to revisit your earlier inquiry.”

Abruptly, Micah’s mood soured.

Agni, noticing Micah’s displeasure, firmly palmed the small of his back. “You have done enough. He and I will speak privately.” While the dismissal was not unkind, it certainly left no room for argument. However, when Agni spoke again, his tenor lingered at the edge of anger and ominous threat. “Meanwhile, you can expunge your misstep.”

Varuna paused, contemplating the fire god. “Misstep? I consider it a victory.”

Varuna looked between Agni and Micah once more, both men gazing back at him dispassionately. The water god made an intrigued noise in his throat before he sauntered to the middle of the mausoleum. He stopped on the clear tile and looked over his shoulder at Micah.

“We will see each other again, Ezra, I’m quite certain it will be a pleasure.”

As the god turned away, his body dissolved in a shower of falling droplets. The beaded moisture rolled across the ground like clear pearls before flattening and seeping underneath the well cover.

Micah watched, entranced.

God. That was impressive.

Varuna probably knew it was, too.

“He’s pompous and vile,” Micah remarked to the fire god at his back. “I never believed there could be anyone worse than you.” He scuffed the toe of his boot lamely before inching forward, away from the warm presence. “Did you find Dhumavati?”

“Is that truly what you wish to ask me?”

“It’s not the only thing I will ask.” He moved forward, staring at the nameplate underneath a particularly beautiful urn. The middle name ‘Zale’ stood out, confirming his father’s proclamation that all crowned descendants carried the name. “But it’s the first thing I want to discuss. What is she doing here? What did you find?”

The last thing he wanted was another Dushyanta wreaking havoc across the capital.

“Dhumavati is especially apt at ripping the veil between the mortal and immortal realms. I did not catch her before she disappeared. Moreover, I do not know her reason for being here.” Agni paused. “She is a very isolated goddess. Always has been. As I said before, she dwells in cremation grounds, so it is not unusual to see her here.”

“Her attention was on you,” Micah said, his tone unemotional as he walked the line of urns.

He was more than aware of Agni following at a respectable distance.

“I don’t imagine she would know about you yet. Most the gossip about the up-and-coming god of death is through the grapevine of sociable gods and goddess.”

Micah considered the peculiar urn of dexterously painted roses and fire. He urged to touch the immaculate design, wondering what, about Bayou Zale Talise, inspired the design. It was unfortunate Micah did not know an in-depth history of his ancestors. The design was particularly Igni-like, a startling difference from all the gentle and cool hues of the other urns.

“Then her intentions, if ill, are geared toward you.” Micah clasped his hands behind his back, angling his head to the side and glancing in Agni’s direction, yet not quite meeting the god’s eyes.

“Are you trying to insinuate that I did something to her and I am now reaping the rewards?”

A frown slotted Micah’s mouth as he turned back to the urns and paced further down the line of ancestors. “I have learned you’re not entirely as innocent as you claim to be.”

“Stop the tiptoeing, Ezra,” Agni commanded, his tone frigid. Cool. “Let us discuss what is bothering you.”

“What good would it do?”

“It has affected you in some way.”

Micah twisted his hands behind his back before turning and finally looking at Agni. The entity stood several paces away, yet his intimate gaze made up for the distance. He watched Micah with single-minded intensity, as if he only had Micah now and always on his mind. That stare made Micah uncomfortable, because certainly it wasn’t real.

“I have never been reminded of our partition as much as I am now.”

Agni shook his head. “There is no partition.”

“But there is. And I don’t know why you keep trying to ascertain that we’re equals. Because we’re not. It couldn’t be further from the truth.” Micah gave a brief laugh that died as soon as it escaped his mouth. “You’ve tried hard to act mortal-like. To wear mortal skin and pretend as if you weren’t more superior, more powerful than the norm. You did it to ease me into accepting your presence.”

The fire god stood patiently. “I am not going to deny any of that. What I don’t understand is why that makes you uncomfortable.”

“Because you’re using it as a control mechanism,” Micah countered angrily. “All this time. You knew. You knew well before my conception that I was the god of death. You and Varuna started the war with the Igni and Unda nations just so I could be born into this world. The way it is now. You… you have mapped out my life to the smallest of details. From the obstacles to the victories.”

Agni did not speak, he simply watched Micah.

“And I knew that. I knew it.” Micah’s shoulders tensed as he squared off against Agni. “I knew you manipulated my childhood. I knew you were responsible for so many things in my life. But to know you had worked behind the scenes from the very beginning. From even before Calder and Ember met. Perhaps even before they were born. It just now feels like—” 

“Like?” Agni prompted.

Micah bit back another delirious laugh. “Like I’m your most treasured, hand-crafted weapon.” He lifted his hands part way, a nervous habit as he clenched and unclenched his fingers. “Like I’m your most fearsome and obedient solider. Stepping in tune with every single silent command of yours.” He looked into those fiery eyes. “And everything else just falls away as lies and deceit. As means of control and emotional manipulation. You wouldn’t want the weapon to turn against you. You wouldn’t want the solider to establish a self-identity.”

There was nothing spoken between the two for a long while.

Micah felt his pulse race against his ribcage as if he’d just exerted himself. It did not help that Agni was an immovable statue, his eyes staring at Micah—no—through Micah.

If he listened close enough, he could hear the flames eating ravenously at the torches on the walls. He could hear the gentle lull of the channel below them as it sought the wide, expansive lakes. Everything else was silent. Agni was not quick to deny the allegations. He was not quick to deter Micah away from his doubts.

Which only made his uncertainties fester.

Agni suddenly bowed his head.

His hair was tied back in a half-knot today, allowing Micah to see his chiseled features as they briefly creased into what appeared to be insecurity. What he was insecure about, Micah could not fathom. He could speculate, but such speculations turned into wild theories. It was an unusual expression for Agni.

A vulnerable expression.

“You silly, silly child.” Agni looked up, ensnaring Micah’s regard once more. “I am going to say this as many times as I need to before you believe me.” He paused, making certain he held Micah’s complete attention. “You mean a great deal to me. You have for quite some time.”

The words nearly undid Micah’s calm control.

Agni stepped forward, and this time, Micah did not continue the set distance between them.

The god was dressed differently today. He’d forgone his robe and emulated Micah’s preferred style of dress with fitted black trousers, boots, and a cut-tunic that revealed the skin near the collarbone and shoulders. Body chains claimed his shoulders and chest, all twisted charcoal in color and contrasting against the black tunic.

Micah found it easier to focus on the body chains than on Agni, whom had stopped when the toes of their boots hit each other. 

“I would be lying if I denied any of what you claimed.” Agni reached forward, his hands clad with gloves. Said fingers touched the underbelly of Micah’s chin, tapping him sharply in silent demand to raise his eyes. “You were but a weapon. You were but a solider. A fragment. An idea. An undeveloped anticipation of what I could accomplish if I played my cards right.

“Yet, it would take a very cold, cruel man not to establish feelings for the life under his protection. While I may be cruel at times, I am certainly not cold. I have developed an array of emotions for you as I watched you grow into yourself.”

Gathering his confidence, Micah followed Agni’s directive and lifted his chin, locking eyes with the fire god.

“When I asked for a counterpart, I hadn’t intended to use him as an equal, but rather, admittedly, as a weapon. I couldn’t create you myself, but the goddess who had the ability couldn’t know my intentions. So I lulled her into a false sense of belief, giving her the impression I just wanted a counterpart. I knew she had her own objectives when creating you. She would create the next god of death—”

“How? Who?”

Agni did not mind the interruption. “The white-haired goddess you’ve met before. She created you.”

Of course Micah recalled her.

In his hazy dreams, he remembered her hovering over him when he’d been on the verge of death. And again, during the attack at the capital, she’d been there to discourage his desire to consume a god. Once more, she’d been there, arguing with Agni when Agni claimed complete ignorance to Micah’s status as the god of death after he’d summoned a Syphon.

He’d wanted to know her. Know her name. Her story.

He wanted to know why she elicited emotions of betrayal, loss, and regret.

“Her name is Yamuna,” Agni said calmly. “She is Yama’s twin sister. The goddess of life and fertility.”

Several things raced through Micah’s mind at the revelation. Of the most important was reluctant understanding and relief. Relief, in knowing, that his emotions of stark betrayal and longing belonged to Yama. All this time. When Yama fell from grace, he and Yamuna must have stood on opposite sides of the battlefield.

He felt better, knowing that information.

“You knew she’d create the god of death as your counterpart? You hadn’t indirectly hinted—”

“No.” Agni smiled, but it was a disconcerting smile. “I told you exactly what I requested for my counterpart. Do you remember?”

He had.

He remembered that night with Agni. No matter how drunk, no matter how dismayed, he remembered Agni holding his scarred hands and admitting to Micah what he’d requested in a counterpart.

“Yamuna once claimed, long ago, that if it wasn’t for her, Yama and I would be counterparts. He represented death. I represented several factions of life. He represented decay. My fire represented purity. He ruled the cold, and I ruled the warmth. At the time, I didn’t give her words much thought. I did not appreciate Yama, nor did I enjoy his company.

“But the words stayed with me. Decades after Yama’s death and fall, I approached her. I didn’t want my intentions known. I wanted to remain as clueless and ignorant as possible to the other gods should they suspect something. To give me more time with you without attention and interference. But I had faith, faith that if I were to request a ‘counterpart’, that Yamuna’s mind would automatically fall to her twin brother, someone whom she missed greatly. Whom she grieved for. She would create a new soul with my contribution. My fire would construct a soul that was capable of carrying the Essence of Yama.”

“Essence of Yama…”

“Every god and goddess possesses Essence—or grace. It is the equivalent of a soul. It is what makes them deities. Gods. Typically, Brahma, The Creator, creates new Essence. Or conjoined gods and goddesses create children, whom are also deities.”

“Like you and Svaha. You created Kartikeya. A new Essence.”

Agni offered a brief smile, as if charmed Micah remembered their names. “Yes. Yet, I’m assuming it was Brahma’s desire to create a god of war. We just happened to be the conduct for such a happening. If Brahma did not wish for a major god, Svaha and I would have created something minor—something that would still possess Essence, yet so trivial, that it would not have had a platform to represent.”

“A minor god. Are there many of them?”

“Countless,” Agni confirmed. “There is a whole civilization of gods and goddess. Some are far more powerful than others.” Agni gazed at Micah with fond regard. “When a god dies, what do you believe happens?”

“It depends on how he died,” Micah responded. “If he was killed, say, by other gods, he’d turn into a Syphon. If he was consumed by a Syphon, the god would merely be nourishment to a Syphon and cease to exist.” 

“While you are correct, I was inferring to what happens to our realm when a god, such as Dushyanta, dies. It is important to have a god representing enmity and the destroyer of evil, is it not?”

“So… a new Essence is created in Dushyanta’s name?”

“A literal copy that starts from scratch,” Agni said. “Dushyanta has been replaced since his fall in Region 20. Yet, said replacement is young and lacks all memories, all experiences of his predecessor. While he may be called Dushyanta, god of enmity and destroyer of evil, he is not the same god whom was killed. The balance must be kept in play, therefore, major gods and goddesses are replaced upon their deaths.”   

That didn’t sit well with Micah. “A literal copy?”

“Literal,” Agni confirmed solemnly. “Same face. Same name. Yet not the same.”

“Like reincarnation.”

“No.” Agni shook his head once. “Reincarnation is using the same soul in a new body. If a god dies, truly dies, his Essence is gone. Depending on the circumstances of his death, he is either a Syphon or inside a Syphon. The doppelgänger that replaces a major god possess a new Essence with no ties to the previous predecessor. Yet, some gods and goddesses would like to fool themselves into thinking they are reincarnations.”

Micah frowned, gazing into Agni’s hard, impassive expression and wondering at it. “Yama… Yama wasn’t replaced?”

“Those responsible for creating doppelgängers of major gods decided a god of death and justice was far too corrupt. Twisted. Dark. After Yama’s reign, it was decided not to replace him.”

“They were that afraid?”

“They were that afraid,” Agni murmured. “Or simply haughty. The god of death holds several powers, abilities, which many deities fear. They decided not to replace Yama in fear the doppelgänger would follow Yama’s path. They’ve also decreed such a god far too tainted to inhabit their current society. Their current society of pure, unadulterated gods. Even if a new Yama were young and naïve, easily twisted to their whims, he would still be too tainted for their likes. They are superior. Good. Pure.” 

Micah absorbed the information quickly, keenly.

Now he understood why Varuna indicated that the other gods would discriminate against him.

It was because he was tainted.

Not him, per say, but his powers. His abilities.

His Essence.

No.

Yama’s Essence.

“Yamuna and—and—you, indirectly, created my soul to be strong enough to withhold Yama’s Essence.” Micah contemplated that for a moment. “Then I am his reincarnation. You—”

“You are not. You are not his reincarnation, but a part of Yama’s Essence was used to create you.”

Micah shook his head, frustrated. “You just said that reincarnations are using the same Essence with a new body.”

Agni appeared just as frustrated as Micah. He suddenly pressed two gloved fingers together and a ball of fire appeared in front of Micah’s face. It was small, about the size of a gold piece and vibrantly colored crimson. It hovered enthusiastically in the air with small tendrils sporadically uncurling from its sphere-like contour.

Another ball of flame appeared next to the crimson sphere, this one nearly four times larger and a vibrant gold in color.

Micah’s eyes unfocused, transfixed as he watched the blazing flames dance and rotate.

“Not all of Yama’s Essence was used,” Agni started, much calmer than earlier. His voice was a serene lull as he motioned to the small crimson ball that evidently represented Yama’s Essence. It started to rotate around its much larger companion. “Insignificant compared to the sheer size of a whole soul—or a whole Essence. Your soul. Your self-identity. Your individualism. Your own Essence—as blank as it was—would dominate Yama’s Essence and absorb it.”

Agni touched the gold sphere fondly and it shivered under its touch.

“Yamuna used a sliver of Yama because she had to. She would have never been able to create a god of death otherwise without proper assistance and permission. But she was able to manipulate things to her favor because she possessed a piece of Yama, a piece that she’d used in creating you.”

Micah watched as the gold sphere began to move just as well, circling and chasing the crimson ball before it abruptly consumed it whole. The gold sphere turned nearly translucent, revealing the small crimson sphere within its confinements.

“Undoubtedly, when you were much younger, Yama’s Essence remained separate from the whole. Your Essence remained mostly dormant during conception, making it possible for your mother to carry you full term. As you recall, mortal women cannot carry demigods and certainly not major gods.”

In demonstration of Agni’s explanation, the crimson sphere representing Yama’s Essence was relentless, uneasy as it ricocheted off its prison walls and bounced all around. Eventually, the faster it bounced, the more it began to blur. Micah had to strain his eyes to keep track of the crimson ball that had gradually began to turn translucent.

“Your Essence became less dormant as you grew older, resulting in a more cohesive relationship between your Essence and his Essence.” Agni paused, offering Micah a pleased, secretive smile, as if reminded of a joke only he was privy to. “You have a very rapacious Essence. An appropriate trait to have as the god of death. So, eventually, you consumed Yama.”

As the crimson ball inched closer to the walls of its golden prison, it suddenly merged and disappeared. The gold sphere blinked, dimming, before suddenly alighting in a vivid flash of orange. The soul was a new color, a new vibrancy. There was no evidence of two separate spheres, but rather a new one.

“Souls are enthralling,” Agni confessed. “I do not deal with them as intricately as the god of death or the goddess of life, but I’m familiar enough to recognize their sheer remarkability.” He looked at Micah, his sharp-featured face accentuated with the vibrant, orange flames. “You are you. Utterly. Completely. As of now, your mortality is but a prison—stifling—suffocating your Essence. Upon your mortal death, you will inherit the full capability of the god of death and justice. ”

It sounded suspiciously similar to Yama’s explanation those many months ago on the train.

How there were shards of him, shards that had attached on to Micah. Only, Yama claimed he’d known about Micah’s conception and willingly merged with him. Agni claimed Yamuna had forced Yama’s Essence inside him upon conception.

Did Agni truly not know?

Did the god of fire believe that Micah and Yama’s Essence were now one?

Yes. He did.

Micah could sense it. He could feel the utter honesty. He could feel the excitement radiating off the god.

“I am an abomination,” Micah proclaimed, disconcerted and drily amused at the same time. “A shortcut. An under the radar god in the making. This goes against the natural order of things.”

“It does. You are,” Agni agreed, not sounding empathetic to Micah’s origins in the least. He reached forward, palming the orange sphere. It suddenly grew smaller and disappeared into the palm of his hand. “Deities are not created this way. Ever. Yet, you are incredibly important. Incredibly powerful. You are essential for balance.”

It’s what Varuna hinted at.

It’s what Micah heard several times before.

Balance. Balance.

“The other deities don’t believe that.”

“The other deities wonder at your presence. Some believe Brahma was responsible for creating you—another reaper. Others are suspicious of Yamuna. Others are suspicious of me. Most will not appreciate your existence.” Agni gazed at Micah then, his blood-orange eyes becoming radiant and adapting an unfathomable gleam. “I can assure you of the difficulties you’ll face. I can assure you of the bigotry and the scorn you’ll endure. The attempts on your life. But I can also assure you that I will forever remain by your side.”

Micah had to look away.

His uncertainties grew.

He didn’t know what Agni wanted. He didn’t know Agni’s intentions. He didn’t know how to broach the topic of Yama.

Why had Agni wanted the god of death created in the first place?

Was it simply for ‘balance’?

Micah doubted it.

“You—you want balance.”

He didn’t even know what that balance meant.

“I do. I can assure you Varuna is also recognizing the need, which is why I allow his and Prithvi’s proximity to you. For now. Nevertheless, no matter how powerful we are together, against all the others, we are not enough to tip the balance and create change. We need the god of death.”

“And you don’t believe Yama could be that someone?”

Agni suddenly appeared repulsed. “That is a rather unusual question.”

Micah turned again, lingering near the wall of urns and finding his grandfather’s name. Next to King Brantley was Calder Zale Talise and Ember Lebone Azeri-Talise. He considered their urns, unsettled they already had their names engraved in the plaques of gold along with their birth year and the empty space for the deceased year. Both of their decorated urns appeared to have influences from the Igni and Unda culture, more so Calder’s than Ember’s urn which was mostly all crimson.

“Micah,” Agni called his name, drawing his attention. “Tell me.”

“I want to know why you’re feeding me a… ‘bit of your soul and mine’.” Micah turned, glancing at the god. “Every time you feed me, I instantly feel better. Stronger. It’s as if you know what to do and why you do it.”

“I do.” Agni clasped his hands behind his back and straightened, his expression expectant. “I stand behind Varuna when I say that you are more than capable of deducing why I feed you our souls, Ezra.”

“I want to first know how. How am I consuming your soul? Does it not weaken you? Do you not need it?”

Agni gave something akin to a sigh, though it was far more dignified than one. “Things that burn at the highest temperature are then transformed into their purest forms. I have the ability to ingest a part of your mortality and burn it until it gleams with immortality. I then feed that to you, purging much of your weaker mortality and replacing it with indestructibility. Speeding up the process, so to speak.

“A side-effect of this, of course, is that I am consuming and absorbing a part of your Essence. It mixes with my own Essence, my own soul. I give back the same amount of soul that I took, yet it is inevitable that a part of my own Essence resides in you and a part of your Essence, now immortalized due to my fire, resides in me.”

Micah stood silently, grabbing the words, turning them over, and reacting. “Hence our strengthening bond.”

“Hence our strengthening bond,” Agni repeated, smug. “We are firmly linked.”

He approached then, shortening the distance. Micah didn’t look away, neither did Agni as he fell to a stop directly opposite of him. The man’s hand reached out to cradle Micah’s jaw, tender, gentle.

Leaning forward, the god of fire hovered. “Will you put everything together now, Ezra?”

He closed his eyes into the touch, unable to stop himself from falling. He opened his eyes when Agni rested their foreheads together, cementing their proximity. “I don’t belong in any world,” he repeated Varuna’s words as he put things together. “I dwell between two races. A reflection of my mortal life to what I should expect in my immortal life. Clearly, you and Varuna believe I am part-god, part-Syphon.”

Agni’s lips twitched, pleased, before they deepened into a frown. “Believe?”

Micah leaned against the hand holding his face captive, pleased when it remained strong, unyielding. “I’d like to believe I am part-god and part-Yama, for he certainly isn’t dead, but rather waiting in the wake, eager to reclaim his throne.”

“Ezra. No.”

True distress creased Agni’s expression, leaving Micah breathless with both disbelief and wonder.

“There is no—”

The doors of the mausoleum opened, emitting Calder. “Ezra.”

And the warmth was gone.

Micah nearly stumbled when the hand and the forehead disappeared abruptly from his person.

He readjusted his stance, staring at his father, whom stared back. “Yes, father?” he inquired casually, acting as if it was socially acceptable for someone to dwell inside a mausoleum for as long as he had.

Calder considered the flickering torches on the mausoleum walls, his lips thinning before disappearing completely. Calder actually sighed and moved away from the entrance of the mausoleum. He approached Micah with all the regality of a proper monarch despite the blatant hesitancy he displayed in the doorway.

“Did you get what you came here for? Clarity?”

“I would say I gained clarity for the price of more ambiguity.”

Micah’s cynicism stopped Calder short.

The two gazed at the other, recognizing the jaded emotion in the other’s eye and the wary, unnaturally stiff stance. As they faced each other, there was familiarity there… a recognition of facing another marionette, another toy for the gods to play with. It devastated Micah to know of Varuna and Agni’s involvement with Calder’s regime. No—not only Calder’s regime—but also his life.

Calder was just as much a host to the god’s manipulations as Micah was.

If not more so.

As Ember had been.

Without words, without any sort of expression, Micah knew exactly what Calder was saying with his eyes.

The understanding seemed to break, splinter, before something unusually formal crossed Calder’s face. “I understand,” Calder said quietly. “Ember meant a great deal to you despite her shortcomings.”

Micah frowned, feeling a stab of uncertainty, of unbound unease. “What?” he asked unintelligently.

Calder offered a grim smile, as if thinking Micah’s confusion was a result of his overwhelming grief and emotion. “You came here to find a sense of understanding for her passing. I understand that, Ezra. It has taken me quite some time to acknowledge her presence in my life as well. We did not see eye to eye often, but I did respect her. She was a good mother. She was a very intelligent woman. And she was passionate about a great deal of things that you seem to share.”

“Meanwhile, you can expunge your misstep.”

“Misstep? I consider it a victory.”

As Micah stared at his father, he finally realized the context behind Agni and Varuna’s earlier words. Varuna had adhered to Agni’s command about ‘expunging’ his misstep. The god of fire hadn’t agreed to, nor consented to using Calder as a source to reach Micah. He supposed Calder had discovered quite a bit upon Josiah’s emotional outburst as well as Varuna’s meddling.

Evidently, after Calder proved his worth, Varuna all but erased those memories from his mind.

Micah bowed his head and released something akin to an ugly, dry sob.

He didn’t understand the feeling of isolation as he realized his father no longer knew the truth and supported his transformation into a god. Though Micah would not revert to rejecting his destiny, his acceptance was now tinged with a hollow sense of bitterness.

Of loneliness.

Not only that, but he grieved for Calder.

The man had so much potential. So much strength and power.

Yet, the gods used him so carelessly.

Stifled him. Limited him. Discarded him.

As if he meant nothing at all.

Micah reached for his father, pulling him into an embrace. Calder seemed stiff in his arms, most likely taken aback at Micah’s uncharacteristic reach for comfort, yet he melted easily enough and tightened his own arms around Micah. He pressed his forehead against Calder’s broad shoulder, vowing that he’d find a way to sever his father’s strings. He’d find a way to disrupt the man’s predestined path and give him the tools to venture his own way.

He refused to have Calder face the same fate as Ember.

Calder pulled back, placing both hands on Micah’s shoulders and offering a grim smile. “She raised you well,” he said. “I look forward to working with you. Together. There is plenty of work that needs to be done for Concordia.”

Micah nodded.

He did not trust himself to speak.

“Come. It is time to gather Ember’s ashes.”

As Calder collected the urn from Ember’s shelf and turned to leave, Micah hesitated. His attention landed on the very last urn. The one to Ember’s right. His eyes fell on the engraved plaque and he felt a horrible spasm of shock paralyzing his insides. Reaching forward, his fingers traced over the engraved name.

‘Ezra Zale Talise’

Exhaling shakily, he gazed up at the urn.

His urn.

It was beautiful. Breathtaking. It resembled the Concordia flag. Powerful crimson met a resilient sapphire in a fiery clash of amethyst. The amethyst spread across most of the urn with elaborate and extravagant tendrils. It represented unity. It represented and prophesized an impressive destiny of the ashes it would undoubtedly hold one day.

Something steely and resolute settled within Micah as he reached out to the urn.

He caressed the amethyst.

He vowed to himself that he would live up to his destiny.

Whether his victory or failure was predestined by the gods or not, he would surmount.

Mortals needed a god that looked out for them, even if he was not worshipped in turn.

He would love them.

All of them.

“Ezra.”

Micah was slow to remove his eyes from the urn, nodding distractedly to his father. Withdrawing his hand, he gradually made his way down the mausoleum, feeling the heavy gaze of Agni all the while.

 

Chapter Text

13. Chapter Thirteen 

 

Trent Abital’s funeral, albeit less extravagant, was far more religious than Ember’s had been yesterday.

Micah was beginning to suspect Varuna just enjoyed having far more rituals than the three of his siblings.  

He stood at a distance, pleased he was not the center of attention. While heads cantered back and strained to catch a glimpse of him, Micah was more than willing to ignore them in favor of watching the ceremony. He’d caught the eyes of both Cordelia and Cain before the service began, earning their appreciative nods.

Several decorated and uniformed Unda warriors stood at attention near the cremation pyre. Their navy blue and silver uniforms stiff and regal. In their hands, they held staffs, the weapon of choice for older Unda warriors. The cremation area was smaller, less elaborate than the area they’d used for Ember, yet it was still impressive compared to all the others.

Micah couldn’t hear the preaching vicar.

There were countless of spectators for Trent’s service. Instead of sitting up front, Micah opted to stand at the very back with Kai, Talia, and Viktor flanking him on either side. In the distance, a group of royal guards stood, giving him a wide berth, yet their presence served as a reminder. He needed to ask Calder to remove the security, for he already had more than enough protection from his team.

He blinked, his lashes lowering and staying lowered for a moment as he appreciated the silence and the stillness. There was a cool breeze this morning, cutting through the humidity and easing the weight of the blistering sun. Even if it was the warmest part of the year, this was, by far, unusually warm for the capital’s standards.

With all the formal wear and the several layers of proper clothes, enduring the heat proved futile.

As he opened his eyes, he watched several noblewomen fan themselves, having forgone their veils for comfort.

“It’s hot,” Viktor lamented.

“Thank you, Viktor, for stating the obvious,” Talia muttered quietly.

Viktor, asserting unfairness that he did not accompany them to Region 20, vehemently claimed his position next to Micah during the service. Taking advantage of their proximity, the young man leaned against said prince with the lethargy of a lazy feline. “Micah,” he bemoaned, fortunately whispering out of respect for the ongoing service. “It’s hot.”

Micah stayed perfectly straight, his impassive attention unwavering on the vicar despite his teammate bumping and brushing against his side. When Edlen hissed out a ‘silence’, Micah relented and glanced down at his teammate. The boy gazed up at him adoringly, a mischievous grin stretching across his lips.

“What would you like me to do about it, Viktor?”

That only garnered a wider grin. “Well, you are as cold as ice,” he suggested.

“Just because I may feel cold, does not mean I do not feel the sun’s impact,” Micah murmured quietly. “The heat is even more apparent when I have to carry the weight of an additional man against me.” He looked pointedly at Viktor’s side pressed up against his own.

Next to them, Edlen sighed distastefully, throwing Viktor a look full of frustrated scorn. “Will you cease? He’s not just your captain anymore, Viktor, he is your prince. Such casual touching is an extreme lapse in protocol.”

Viktor hissed something in turn, resulting in a back and forth.

Micah tsked at their bickering.

He reached over and touched Viktor’s cheek with the shyest hint of his Element, electing a sharp, startled cry from the boy. It drew the attention of several men and women in the back row of the service. When they turned around, they would only see Viktor stumbling ungracefully and an otherwise, completely unemotional prince watching Trent Abital’s proceedings with polite somberness.  

Kai laughed under his breath. “Serves you right.”

Talia shook her head at their antics.

Micah calmly turned his attention back to the service, but his mind drifted to yesterday’s conversations.

The most prevalent thing he took away from Agni and Varuna was the sheer extent of their meddling. It was something he acknowledged before, something that had displeased him before. Nevertheless, the revelations yesterday revealed just how intimate they were with mortal proceedings. They had no shame. Absolutely no infamy.  

He felt powerless. Just as Calder. Just as Josiah.

The gods had wound them up and watched Micah and his family march a foreordained path.

He told Varuna it was like a predetermined game of chess.

The comparison truly was applicable.

Micah could protest at the unfairness, yet sulking would never change anything, would it? They—Micah and his family— would still be in their current positions. Instead, he needed to focus on what lay ahead and try to prevent the gods from interfering further.

Aside from their intrusiveness, Micah admitted it was a relief to hear the story behind his conception. To know of Yamuna. To know of the origins of his soul and Yama’s Essence. Yet, it still left unanswered questions.

What were Agni’s intentions?

What were Yamuna’s intentions?

She thought she was fooling Agni while Agni believed he’d been fooling her. Had she just missed her brother? Had she thought that Yama’s Essence was strong enough to overcome Micah’s Essence? Had she hoped Micah would be a simple shell, functioning as a reincarnation for her twin brother—the more dominant soul?  

Contrarily, it was clear that Agni intended for Micah to conquer and absorb Yama’s Essence.

For how familiar Agni boasted he was with souls—with Essences—if he were truly ingesting a part of Micah, wouldn’t he have noticed Yama’s Essence apart from the rest of his soul? Growing stronger, more independent?

Was Yama wrong all this time? Was Micah’s weakness and unsated hunger attributed to what Varuna and Agni believed? That he was part Syphon? That would mean it was not Yama’s influence causing Micah’s bouts of weaknesses. But how was he part Syphon? Had Yama been part Syphon? Yama had the ability to consume godly souls—was that attributed to his Syphon half or just because he was the god of death?

Or maybe Yama was being truthful. Maybe Agni was the one deceiving Micah. Preying on his vulnerability.

No.

Agni wasn’t lying.

The god of fire was a snake, the evidence supporting this fact staggering, yet Micah could sense the honesty in Agni’s words yesterday.

Initiating the possibility of a soul bond would not be in a manipulator’s best interests. Nevertheless, Agni had done so. Not only did he initiate their link, he continued to strengthen it. Perhaps it satisfied a possessiveness within Agni to link Micah fully to him or perhaps he’d done it in order for Micah to truly see him.

To demonstrate his true intentions.

Agni was all but proclaiming he had nothing to hide.

However, that wasn’t entirely true, was it?

“Where is your other half?” Kai inquired once Viktor regained his wits. He ignored Viktor as the boy touched his cheek frantically, patting it to regain feeling in the numb skin. “Aiden?”

“Back home until fall term, though he may come back after learning about Cain’s father and Micah’s mother,” Viktor muttered, looking accusingly at an otherwise guileless Micah. “And he’s not my other half.”

Kai made a disbelieving sound in his throat but did not press the subject. Rather, he turned to Talia and quietly engaged her in conversation. Micah moved his eyes from the lit pyre to the two Undas. As heads across the cremation grounds bowed in reverence to Varuna, movement near the tree line, just over Kai’s shoulder, caught Micah’s attention.

It was the same woman.

The goddess.

Dhumavati.

As smoke from the pyre reached for the sky, crows suddenly took flight from the trees. Micah spared them a suspicious glance before watching the goddess’ dark hands slip from her robe sleeves and motion wildly to an invisible audience. Her hips swayed in tune with a silent rhythm and her head cantered toward the skies.

No one else would see her, as Micah observed the trees through her ghostly torso.

Nevertheless, the red-gold was there, thrumming intensely and powerfully.

He moved forward, his pulse racing not out of fear but anticipation. Despite the eeriness she radiated, he did not fear her. He sensed a kinship with her, an instinctual sentiment that he’d felt with the raven on his mother’s casket. Dhumavati dwelled in cremation grounds, she had crows as familiars, and her very aura secreted a darkness that was familiar to Micah—or was it to the Yama inside him?

She was attuned with death, surely.

“Micah—”

“Don’t follow me,” Micah murmured quietly to Kai. “Please.”

Naturally, Kai, Viktor, and Talia ignored his request.

Micah pursed his lips, realizing the royal guards would eventually trail behind as well.

No matter how skilled they may be as warriors, they were inconsequential against a goddess. He pondered if he should appeal to Agni, knowing that as soon as he called the god’s name he’d hear and react.

Not wanting to make a scene should the spectators be watching, Micah allowed his team to follow as he slipped into the trees and away from surveillance. He walked the tree line, a mere shadow amongst the trees as he approached Dhumavati’s unaware back.

Was it stupid of him?

Perhaps.

Should he call Agni?

Most definitely.

Yet, Micah stalked closer, watching her consider the plume of smoke from Trent’s funeral pyre. Something did not sit right with Micah as he observed her observing the smoke. She did the same at Ember’s funeral.

Someone behind him stepped on a twig, snapping it cleanly in half and incurring Dhumavati’s instant attention.

She turned, locking eyes with Micah.

Viktor questioned, quite loudly, what they were doing, yet it fell on deaf ears as Micah and Dhumavati observed the other. Both surprised, both considering. Her face was deeply lined with sagging jowls. Her features resembled that of a crow with a large, beak-like nose and beady little eyes full of wicked intelligence and mystery. What Micah found odd was her tattered clothing, clothing that accentuated her sagging chest, but contradicted the beautiful jewelry adorning her wrists and neck.

“You reek of Agni’s regurgitation,” she rattled.

Micah blinked.

Of all the things he’d anticipated and feared, her observation of his scent was not one of them.

Agni’s regurgitation…

What a very pleasant association.

Considering Agni’s description yesterday, it was also a very accurate association.

A tree branch suddenly swayed next to Micah, incurring their attentions. A familiar raven walked the length of the branch as it settled in the tree next to Micah, its wings spreading wide in what appeared to be a gesture of safeguard. It omitted a low, gurgling croak, its white eyes directed toward Dhumavati.

When Micah turned back to the goddess, she was gone.

Micah caught sight of her frizzy, wild hair as she traveled deeper through the trees, not quite fleeing, but clearly dismissing him. Finding it difficult to comprehend a deity just leaving him alone, Micah pursued her. He was accustomed to gods and goddesses spitting on his very existence, whom made it their duty to abolish him.  

To offset his foolhardiness, he decided he should at least do the sensible thing and call for—

“Agni,” Micah said under his breath.

As he called for the god, an unexplainable sense of awareness and acknowledgement washed over him. Micah pushed it aside as he raced after Dhumavati, knowing his confused team followed at his heels. Something urged him to follow her. Something reckless. Something curious. He heard the soft whispers of the forest haunt his every step. The air cooled. The atmosphere thickened. The crows screamed their glee as they glided from tree to tree.

She turned and twisted between trees before disappearing entirely.

She left behind something that Micah recalled Agni mentioning yesterday.

Dhumavati is especially good at ripping the veil between the mortal and immortal realms.

A ‘rip in the veil’ was not a figurative way of speaking. It truly appeared like torn and tattered cloth, glowing a transcendent gold and fluttering serenely. Micah inched closer, entrapped, and so very curious as he placed a hand timidly through the tear. His fingers flexed, not noticing anything particularly off-putting. He could still feel his fingers.

Next to him, the raven emitted a loud cry of warning.

Agni said he was all but accelerating the process of Micah’s immortality. Therefore, Micah’s soul was part immortal, was it not?

What an opportune way to test that theory.

Micah stepped through the tear, nearly cackling at his own foolhardiness. It felt good to do something entirely out of line. Something that Agni would disapprove of. Something that set him outside the normally strict bounds of the fire god’s protection. For all the danger he’d faced in the past, it was always, entirely, and completely under Agni’s strict supervision.

He was experimenting with things past his level of comprehensiveness, but it was something he needed to learn for himself.

And Agni did it feel delightful!

As he stepped through the veil, the discomfort and slight pain disappeared before it could truly begin. He felt a large weight leave him. His lungs felt clearer, stronger. The air he breathed was lighter and rejuvenating. Endless and disbelieving possibilities teased the ends of his fingertips. He stretched and laughed. He tipped his head back and bathed in the sensations.

Power. Power. Power.

“Just what are you, little one?”

Micah turned abruptly, coming back down to the gravity of the situation.

Across from him, Dhumavati stood cloaked in shadow. All around them, there was nothing but darkness, a far cry from the sensations of life and rejuvenation that Micah felt coursing through his veins. Above, a small crescent moon shed enough light to highlight his immediate surroundings. He realized he stood in ankle-deep water, and in the distance, he could hear the rushing stream of a river.

Evidently, the river had flooded over and traveled across the lands. Water entwined through the naked and ugly trees with a sense of not belonging. A sense of abnormality and alarm.

It was not Yama’s realm Micah was familiar with, but something similar.

Something like home.

Something that held the same grief and unattended suffering.

Behind him, a bird emitted a sound of both pain and alarm. Micah whirled around, watching as the tear between realms attempted to close. Yet, the raven held stubborn as it inserted itself in the tear and prevented the collapse. Its wings flapped agitatedly and it pummeled Micah with ear-splinting cries of outrage and anger.

Something grabbed his ankle.

Micah shuddered, looking down and suddenly seeing himself for the first time.

He held up a hand, ogling at the skeletal fingers beneath his fingerless gloves. He flexed them, watching morbidly as the joints bent and followed his order. His momentary distraction earned him another grab around his other ankle. Dropping his hand, he stared down, observing the black hands as they reached out through the water and curled around him.

The whispers he heard in the woods suddenly increased in volume.

Crying, pleading, screaming.

Reaper.

In the distance, the river audibly picked up speed and came rushing in his direction. Above, in the sky, the moon unexpectedly jolted across the atmosphere and hovered directly over Micah, acting as a spotlight as it revealed the hands and faces emerging from the black waters. Mouths agape in moans and screams, eyes open wide in silent pleas for help.

Murky limbs entwined and twisted amongst hundreds, thousands of others. Silver orbs, bright, luminous, floated alongside the limbs of emerging men and women before losing their shape and darkening into a face or an arm. More and more bodies raced toward Micah. The water around his ankles grew deeper. Faster. More hands appeared around his feet, his bony ankles, calves, and thighbones.

Touching. Brushing. Yearning.

Micah emitted a noise of disbelief amongst their desperate and pleading reaches.

Despite the uncanniness, despite the palpable fear in this realm, Micah did not panic. Instead, he stared into the eyes of the lost men and women, feeling a sense of calm. A sense of duty and desperation to help these people. As they reached for him, they did not reach out of hostility, but like that of a child reaching for their father in distressed hopes for redemption and liberation.

Across from him, Dhumavati continued to stand, simply observing.

Above, the hovering crescent moon suddenly filled at an alarming speed. The crescent-shape turned into a half-moon, and then accelerated quickly to the full phase. Upon the additional light, Micah felt something look down on him and take awareness of his presence.

Sleepy.

Exhausted, but curious.

His teeth bared as a new source of power blossomed across the realm.

Upon the moon’s change, Dhumavati made a noise of protest and slinked into the depths of the trees, the hands leaving her be. They did not reach for her as they did Micah. She was virtually invisible to them.

Enduring the weight of the needy hands, Micah stared rebelliously up at the moon, unnerved at the brightness. He felt as if the moon were an eye, gazing down and measuring him, peering through the several layers of his person and seeing everything. Micah held his chin high, confused, albeit determined to hold his ground.

And then suddenly, there was unimaginable light.

Warmth.

The hands gripping Micah released him abruptly upon the arrival of the newcomer. Raising an arm, Micah covered his face from the onslaught of golden light, knowing, without looking, that Agni was here now. From the shadow of his arm, he gazed down at the men and women—mortal souls, he presumed—whom had retreated. They were not frightened at this new light, the new warmth, but rather pacified.

Their limbs retreated, their faces blurred and disappeared, and they turned back into shimmery, luminous silver orbs.

Eventually, the light lowered in intensity and Micah took a chance to drop his arm. He knew what he would find in Agni’s face, as he could feel the displeasure and the anger simmering in his belly as if it were his own. Yet, as he looked at the god, he realized he could not remember a time Agni was justly angry with him. In the past, it was typically fond exasperation or amused displeasure.

Not true anger.

Nonetheless, the eyes that levelled with him were truly that.

Angry.

Micah touched his face with his boney fingers, feeling nothing but a skull meeting his inquisitiveness. He was fortunate, he supposed, that skin and features did not make up his face, otherwise, Agni would read the trepidation and uncertainty there.

“I hope that Dhumavati found a way to lure you here,” Agni crooned, his words far too ice-like for being the god of fire.

Micah’s teeth slid against each other in a leer-like smile. It was his only way to convey his cautious amusement without lips. Without skin.

“In a sense,” he lied, his words surprisingly understandable despite the necessary accessory of lips. He looked up at the sky, noticing the moon had turned back to its crescent shape and the reaching power had disappeared from the environment.

Yet a new power took its place.

His head riveted back to Agni, realizing he was witnessing the true extent of Agni’s aura without any negative side effects, without any shielding, without any sort of mortal realm stifling him. The man was truly a force all on his own. Agni claimed he was not powerful enough to sway or defeat his opposition.

However, facing such raw and unfiltered power made Micah disbelieving of such a claim.

The power was heavy. Awe-inspiring.

Micah stood in reverence, contemplating his body’s intrigued reaction—or—what was left of his body. He yearned to shift closer, to bask in such a power, yet he resisted. He stood stiff and motionless, delighting in the feel of invisible tendrils of power reaching out and beckoning him closer. He suddenly recalled Prithvi proclaiming the other gods and goddesses were jealous Agni had shown interest in a ‘mere mortal’.

Such an elusive god.

Selfishly hiding himself and such power from all others.

Focused instead on a single young mortal man.

For once, Micah could understand such sentiments. Lesser beings always flocked to those with commanding auras. This kind of power could drive many to do unreasonable things. Just to be seen. Just to be closer.

“In a sense,” Agni repeated Micah’s words flatly. Small flames smoldered on top the ankle-deep waters, flashing brightly upon Agni’s sudden spark of irritation. “You are a fool.”

“And you seem utterly unabashed at my lack of skin. My lack of everything, really.”

Micah lifted an arm, clicking his boney fingers together and creating a rattling, unsettling sound across the blackness.

As Agni watched Micah’s morbid fascination focus on his hands, his expression remained unsurprisingly blank. He then twitched. Eyelids, made heavy with annoyance, lowered over incandescent fiery eyes. Agni then pinched the bridge of his nose, stifling something that Micah dared to call exasperated amusement.

Micah looked away from his fingers, swearing he heard the breathless, nearly inaudible exhalation of ‘fledgling’ coming from Agni. As if the god were reminding himself to harness a necessary patience with such a young god.

For a horrible moment, Micah wondered if Agni was recalling the tolerance he’d needed to harness with his son, Karitkeya, upon the god of war’s creation. He imagined newborn gods would be much like Micah. Clueless, naïve, and enthralled with the power they wielded.

They’d need guidance from elder gods.

Micah balked at the thought.

As if he needed more reasons to consider Agni as one of his paternal figures.

“It is one of your many forms,” the fire god replied, his tone strained. He composed himself before proceeding to drop his hand and advance suddenly upon Micah. Amusement was gone, in its place was a calm fury. “The rest of you is back there.” He lifted a hand, pointing at the tear that remained open with white fire. “Who knows what would have accompanied you here.”

Micah’s own fascination with the situation bubbled and disappeared entirely upon Agni’s anger. “What do you mean?”

“Did you know what realm Dhumavati opened before you thoughtlessly stepped through?”

Agni already knew the answer, but he waited to hear Micah admit to his recklessness.

“The god realm.”

Agni’s eyes slit in response to Micah’s cheek. “Try again.”

“No, I didn’t know,” Micah replied monotonously.

“No.” Agni paused, somehow conveying the irrationality of Micah’s actions with just that one word. “What if you arrived somewhere occupied by other deities? You’d be defenseless. I can assure you, with how vulnerable fledglings are, the other deities would jump at the opportunity to destroy you. Everything we’ve accomplished thus far would have been futile. You would have been destroyed.”

As Agni spoke, it only seemed to accelerate his anger. Micah could feel the rage beat across him in hot, relentless waves.

He refused to cower.

He’d accepted the ramifications of doing something like this when he decided to follow Dhumavati.

Agni had every right to his fury.

In fact, Micah had anticipated this reaction. That didn’t mean, however, that he was unaffected by the sheer vehemence in both Agni’s words, his eyes, and the flickering flames atop the water.

“Moreover, you could have also stepped through the veil without your memories. Without your understanding between what is right or wrong. Such consequences, of an undeveloped half-god, half-Syphon, with no knowledge of the power he wields, could have spelled disaster.”

“Something drew me here,” Micah defended quietly. “I knew as soon as I saw Dhumavati that we were somehow tied together.”

“It is not you she is tied to, but rather the god of death,” Agni corrected.

“Is that not the same thing? I am the god of death.”

“She does not know who you are, though I am certain she has her suspicions now.” Agni observed Micah closely. “You are not ready for this step, Ezra. You are so far from this.”

“When will I be ready?” he demanded. “My lack of experience and skill seem to be the general answer to everything.” He drew up to his full height. “Then make me ready, damnit!”

Agni stared, far too skilled with masking his emotions to display his surprise. The god plucked aside a few strands of his wayward hair, taking the time to collect himself. “That certainly is a new tone you’ve established. Perhaps you may question yourself why I always claim you are never ready. It is simply because you never wanted to be ready.”

“It’s because I never understood my purpose.” He held out his arms, encompassing the area around them. “What is this? Hundreds of years of mortal souls, abandoned? Unattended in their misery of endless nothingness? You claim what you admire most about me is my empathy for the voiceless. To get me to accept my status as the god of death, you should have showed me this.”

“This?” Agni stepped forward, crowding Micah, looming in his anger. “This is neglected, yes. No one can touch the deceased souls but the god of death. Yet, they are pacified. Content. Only the older souls are beginning to grow awareness of that nothingness. The Syphons and the daemons need your true sympathy. They do not experience content nothingness but rather endless pain and torment.”

“I am fully aware of that, Agni,” Micah responded steadily.

His tone seemed to placate Agni, whom smoothed out the lines of tension around his eyes. “You needed to accept your destiny yourself. Showing you this would have pushed you, undoubtedly, yet would you claim, years later, that you were forced into accepting such a role?”

Micah scoffed, remembering Calder’s scripted and forced reassurance at his mother’s service. “Using Varuna and Calder to talk sense into me was not pushing? Not underhanded?”

Agni appeared unmoved. “I did not approve of that tactic.”

“Only because you hadn’t thought of it first,” Micah said acerbically. Agni gave him an unimpressed stare in turn. “I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done,” Micah admitted. “Calder deserved better. My mother deserved better. I understand why you did it, but I’m asking that you just stop. You leave Calder alone before he ends up like my mother.”

“Your father has been manipulated since birth,” Agni said somberly. “Not just by the gods, but by his mortal predecessors. As tangled as the strings have become, Calder has learned to move uninhibited with their weight and encumbrances. If you take them away, he may flounder.”

“Or readapt admirably,” Micah shot back quickly.

“Calder is essentially Varuna’s toy. It is not up to me.”

Micah gave him a hard stare, but faltered, realizing such facial expressions were nontransferable without a face. “And what, exactly, does Varuna hope to gain from an alliance with you? What exactly are you and he planning for the god realm?” Micah held up a hand when Agni began to answer. “Please don’t say ‘restore balance’.”

“Why ever not?” Agni lifted an arm, smiling bitterly as he gestured around him. “Mortals are suppressed with decades upon decades of new souls, unexperienced and stifled of proper growth. Moreover, without death, without darkness, there is a crooked belief of what is right and wrong. There is no fear. No adversary to haunt the heels of such righteous and foolish gods.”

Micah absorbed this, dwelling in a cold pit of realization. “You want me… to be a villain?”

“There is much you will come to learn about this new realm of yours,” Agni responded vaguely, essentially unconcerned with Micah’s accusation. “There is no villain. There is no hero.”

Micah remained unmoved and unconvinced. “I am never going to be your villain.”

“My villain?” Agni repeated fondly. “You are going to be my terror if you keep doing reckless things.” He held out a hand. “Come. You’ve dwelled here for too long. It is time you go back.”

Knowing there was much more to learn, but acknowledging the importance of gradual absorption, Micah reluctantly reached for the hand. Agni eagerly wrapped his hand around Micah’s skeletal fingers and pulled him toward the torn veil. He sheltered him with a blanket of warmth and security, taking his role of guardian quite seriously.

Micah’s resolve melted as he realized the lengths Agni would go to keep him safe.

While there was still so much for him to learn, he was comforted with the knowledge that Agni wouldn’t be going anywhere.

As they closed the distance to the torn veil, Micah glanced back at the black forest and the shimmering orbs of mortal souls. They needed him here. Just as the Syphons and daemons needed him in the locked-down realm. Just as the impoverished, the women, and the Igni people needed him back in the mortal realm.

The indecision split him in two.

His duty in the mortal realm prevented him from asking Agni to convert him here prematurely.

“You’ll train me?” he asked. “You will prepare me for this?”

Agni stopped, considering Micah. “I will. If that is what you wish.”

And then Micah suddenly realized the next phase in Agni’s plans.

From before Micah’s conception, to the present, Agni took the role as the controller, the planner. He moved Micah across the board with predetermined goals and anticipations. Now, he was taking a step back. Guiding from the shadows, nudging every once and awhile when Micah turned the wrong way, yet he was expecting Micah to make the decisions.

“It’s what I want.”

Agni measured him briefly, his face unreadable.

He then inclined his head, a true smile creasing his lips. “Then fly, child.” He pushed Micah toward the torn veil, releasing his hand. “Your instincts will guide you.”

Agni proceeded to shove Micah through the fiery veil with an ominous little chuckle.

He knew perfectly well the agonizing sensation awaiting for Micah.

As Micah squeezed through the realms, his senses compacted painfully and his body folded in on itself. He screamed, expressing his displeasure at the disquieting sensation. No wonder gods and goddesses did not appreciate grounding themselves in the mortal realm. The heaviness returned, the vulnerability was sharp, and Micah was hypersensitive to the danger as he drifted, paralyzed, into the mortal realm.

His power left him.

The power that had felt so good disappeared from his fingertips.

The mundane returned.

Invisible manacles curled around his limbs, weighing him and his power down.

Stifling. Suppressing.

The sense of time sped up. Far too quickly. Far too abnormally. The colors seemed dull. The air unclean and heavy. The noises far too loud and earsplitting. Micah twisted and turned, writhing against the uncomfortable sensations of the mortal realm. He wept at the sensation, rebelling against the loss of something that had felt so good to him.

He’d only experienced the immortal realm for several minutes.

He couldn’t imagine the sentiments of deities who’d left behind years—decades—worth of the immortal realm to come here.

Micah gradually opened his eyes, finding himself pulled through the woods at alarming speeds. Something dragged him through the capital, urging, crying, and screaming for his presence. It was undoubtedly the other half of his soul, pleading for his return. Micah complied, allowing his instinct to carry him through the streets and then through the walls of the palace.

He found his body on a bed.

His bed.

While only minutes had passed when he was with Agni, hours undoubtedly stretched here in the mortal realm.

As he gazed down at his body, he noted he appeared dead. Pale. He could see his chest rise and fall. The piece of suppressed Essence that kept him alive was thrumming, awaiting the rest of him to return. An unknown Healer hovered above him, nodding encouragingly to Calder, whom lingered at the foot of the bed.

“His pulse is weak, but still normal.”

Red-gold tendrils floated in Micah’s line of vision. He tried to glance down at himself, but all he saw was a red-gold aura. A red-gold aura that was far too faint to resemble Agni’s vibrant Essence.

Displeasure soured his mood.

He couldn’t fathom conjuring more strength to make his body physical like Agni and Varuna.

He couldn’t fathom holding it as effortlessly as they could.

Even if it didn’t seem like much, Agni demonstrated so much power and capability in the mortal realm. Just by being here for so long. Just by making himself physical for Micah. When he battled against Dushyanta, here, in the mortal realm, Agni demonstrated further capability by harnessing control over his abilities at the same time.

Meanwhile, Micah was exhausted just floating here in a shapeless, useless form.

Suddenly a wave of enormous power crowded behind him.

Agni was there, pushing Micah into his body on the mattress.

Even if he wanted, he could do little to ward against the push. It was then when Micah accepted that Agni had thousands of years’ experience. Agni was not only a major god, he was one of the four major gods.

However…

“Above all else, you had to keep up with me in terms of power and intellect.” 

Agni wanted an equal. He requested someone with power that would rival his own. Comforted by this, Micah acknowledged the necessary patience he needed to harness. He could not compare himself to Agni, especially when he wasn’t even a full-fledged god yet. Especially when he had no idea how to properly function in this state.

With no choice in the matter, Micah merged with his body.

The sensation was odd.

Peculiar.

Yet, he pushed the discomfort away as he dressed himself in skin that did not seem to fit the same as it had before. The other half of his soul—his slumbering Essence—wrapped around its separated half. A brief moment passed when everything turned numb and black.

And then suddenly, the numbness disappeared and painful awareness reared its ugly head.

Excruciating sutures all but pierced through his consciousness, sewing him back into one, complete soul.

Micah had never experienced this level of pain before. When the paralyzing shock wore off, he opened his mouth and screamed piercingly, convulsing on the bed. Hands grabbed at him, trying to keep him on the mattress. He sobbed. He salivated. His vision blurred. He clawed at the sheets and the hands and arms grabbing him. He panted and heaved, throwing something up.

It felt like a needle sewing his organs together without any sort of numbing agent.

Without any sort of mercy.

He wondered why he didn’t feel this way when Agni consumed his mortality and returned it with immortality. However, that wasn’t nearly half his soul at one time and it wasn’t gone nearly as long. It felt as if his soul grew accustomed to the separation and resorted to ripping and tearing in order to meld the two halves back together.

Eventually, as he came back to himself, he found himself on his stomach with his head hanging off the mattress. Blinking past the tears, he saw the vomit across the tiled floors.

Both pairs of hands holding him down were trembling, undoubtedly taken off guard at his sudden attack.

Sweat-soaked hair fell into his eyes as he turned, finding Agni standing nearby. The god quickly veiled his shocked expression, choosing to alter it into irritating, smug amusement. He stood near Micah, his body, his presence, veiled by mortal eyes. He reached over and tapped Micah on the head mockingly.

“You won’t be going through any more torn veils in the future, will you?”

“Fuck off!” Micah screamed.

“Ezra?” Calder inquired with bemusement.

Agni crouched down, his face mere inches from Micah’s own. His pupils shrank into mere slits as they appraised his sweaty features. “I have never realized how striking you look while in pain.”

Micah released a snarl of both agony and fury before succumbing to the pain and blacking out.

 

* * * *

Micah readjusted the cuffs around his wrists, while simultaneously securing his fingerless gloves. He stared at his reflection in the floor-length mirror, not seeing any evidence of the pain he’d endured. No one would realize he’d been thrashing around in bed just hours ago, vomiting and sweating through the sheets. No one but Calder and the Igni Healer.

He still felt sore, but he could not pinpoint what part of his body produced the soreness.

He was also famished.

And not for food.

A soft knock sounded on the door of his sleeping chambers.

“Come in.”

Glancing briefly at the door, he nodded to Kai before returning to the endless task of buttoning layers and clasping random buckles.

“Are you going to explain what happened?” Kai leaned against the wall next to the mirror and watched Micah with his wardrobe endeavors. His single eye appeared hooded, unimpressed with either Micah’s hurried state of dress or the topic of conversation. “Because something definitely happened in those trees.”

“As embarrassing as it is to admit, Edlen, I fainted,” Micah informed casually. “You witnessed it. The Healer suggested I get proper fluids and a hearty dinner.” He tightened the strap around his last glove, smirking wryly at the Healer’s diagnosis. Calder had stood, nearly agape with disbelief, over the Healer’s suggestion of fluids solving his violent ailment. “I’m running late for a meeting with Irving Dover.”

As he made to leave, hands abruptly grabbed his shoulders and pinned him against the doorframe.

Micah blinked.

“Micah.” Kai loomed and braced his weight against Micah’s shoulders. His expression was set, revealing nothing but determined lines around his eye. “I felt it. The god eater—the Syphon. The unexplainable uneasy feeling in those trees.”

There had been no one there but Micah and Dhumavati.

Only—

The raven.

Of course it was a Syphon.

Was it the Syphon? The one Micah had summoned by chance? The one who followed him everywhere? It had to be, though Micah couldn’t remember the Syphon ever transforming into a physical form for all to see—mortals included. Moreover, he did not experience the extreme sense of unease in its presence as he normally had.

Just a kinship.

Was that another sign of his changing immortality?

Why had Kai sensed it? Was the other man still sensitive to daemons and all things associated with Yama? Agni reassured Micah that everything was right with Kai.

“What exactly did you feel, Kai?” Micah inquired quietly, serene and unruffled in face of Kai’s fervent accusation.

Kai seemed taken aback at the question, as if now just realizing he’d admitted to feeling something otherworldly. Under Micah’s careful consideration, Kai morphed his expression back into cool regard and removed his hands. “There was just something unnerving about those woods and then you collapsed. I don’t think it had anything to do with a lack of fluids, Egan.”

“It didn’t.” Micah pushed off from the doorframe. “You’re right. It was a Syphon.”

“The one who’d possessed your mother?”

“No.”

At least, he didn’t think it had been Yama.

Kai didn’t know about Yama. He didn’t know about Micah’s status as the god of death. All he knew was that the gods had been angry with him for summoning a Syphon. He knew about Dushyanta. He knew Agni was the god whom protected Micah during the capital unrest. He knew Varuna had been upset when he’d attempted to drown everything and everyone.

“It was entirely my fault this time,” Micah admitted. “I was stupid. It was avoidable. It won’t happen again.”

Edlen threw open the door of his sleeping quarters.

His expression drawn.  

“You wouldn’t want to miss your meeting with Dover.”

Micah surveyed the other man, noting the set jaw and shoulders. Kai was never one to force Micah’s hand when it came to sharing information. It’s how he and Keegan had differed. Keegan always demanded answers. Kai was more inclined to rely on his quiet observation to piece things together.

Micah wondered if Varuna and Agni would also erase Kai’s memories if he learned too much. 

“Come with me.” Micah left no room for argument as he turned his heel and entered the sitting area. “I was going to summon you on my way out, anyway. As my political advisor, I would like you to join us.”

Edlen’s silence all but proclaimed he had expected Micah’s invitation.

Micah smirked at Kai’s silent arrogance and opened the door to the corridor. He ran a critical eye across the crimson-clad guards, zeroing in on Uriel and Nuri Mishaal. The Igni twins stood at attention, though Uriel let his attention wander and catch Micah’s eyes. A tight smirk curled the edge of his mouth and his eyes gleamed wickedly.

Always so much vigor with that one.

“Where are Talia and Viktor?”

“With Cain.”

They walked down the corridor and down a flight of stairs. Josiah’s royal guards flocked them and eased into a formation. Kai gave them a brief glance, but kept his attentions forward as they walked through the palace. “Perhaps it would be best to give them something to focus on. Some training. A duty. I think they would be interested in becoming your personal guard. Talia has already expressed an interest.”

“And I know just the person to make them shine again,” Micah murmured.

“Naturally.” Kai paused. “They would appreciate if you also trained them. With them.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He had his own training, preferably with Agni.

“And you still haven’t met with Viktor’s family. I also know Cordelia has a few others she’d like you to call on.”

“I know.”

Edlen detected the tense note in Micah’s tone. “It’s not easy being the royal prince, I know.”

Despite the sarcasm, Micah knew Kai was sympathetic, only because they knew each other well enough. Micah preferred almost anything to long conversations and political court. It was something he needed to become accustomed with, however. Nevertheless, he also had obligations and duties outside of being the Prince of Concordia.

There was a possibility of having too much to balance by straddling the mortal and god realm.

It would be easy to tune out the immortal realm if Micah didn’t know how many individuals relied on him.

As it was, he was already burdened with the knowledge.

“Any advice?” Micah asked quietly. “With Dover?”

Kai gazed at him from the corner of his eye. “Remain sharp.” He appeared contemplative. “My father and Sachiel explained enough that I know Dover is intelligent and he knows how to maneuver things well. Nevertheless, Seaton and Sachiel are also biased by past behaviors. Over twenty years passed since Dover left the political scene. He has since raised a family. He could very well be a different man.”

Micah stopped before the council chambers and considered Edlen.

A fond smile slipped past his control and eased across his mouth.

Edlen quickly grew suspicious. “What?”

“It is simply good advice, Edlen.”

Micah entered the council chambers, greeted to the sight of Irving Dover and Calder rising from their positions around the table.

“You’re late.”

Master Idris’ voice suddenly echoed over Calder’s words. For a mere second, Micah envisioned himself back in Region 20, calmly striding down the tavern’s staircase under Idris’ disgruntled and gruff stare. He’d heard those words one too many times not to deliberate his old master when he heard them again. The thought of the old Igni warrior always inspired bitter, yet empathetic sentiments.

Another life Agni had played with.

Not to mention the mess he’d made of Clarence Idris.

While Agni had caused Clarence excessive and gruesome suffering as retribution for endangering Micah, it still did not exclude Clarence as another number. Just one of many on the long list of men and women Agni had manipulated, destroyed, or brutally ended.

“I was detained,” Micah responded.

He endured Calder’s suspicious regard.

Earlier that afternoon, Calder had stayed near Micah’s bedside until he woke from unconsciousness. Micah had no explanation for what happened and the Healer had been likewise conflicted. Indisputably, Calder was displeased over another ailment and circumstance of Micah’s that was unexplainable.

Calder proclaimed he would cancel the conference with Dover, yet, after several reassurances from Micah, he decided to keep it on the schedule. Unsurprisingly, Calder now watched him as if he were waiting for Micah to drop to the floor and start convulsing.

“A simple apology for keeping us waiting should suffice.”

To Micah’s amusement, Calder was now in the habit of tossing some etiquette training in their interactions. It was almost as if the man believed these things would stick better if he applied it in real-life examples.

Micah tried not to smirk but rather adapt an acquitted countenance. “I apologize for being detained which undoubtedly kept you waiting.”  

Calder’s lips pinched.

Chagrined.

And then Irving Dover intervened by stepping forward.

Micah had seen glances of him earlier on the train platform and again when he’d viewed Ember’s body. He agreed with his earlier assumption that he was the same age as Sachiel and Cordelia. If not a few years older. There was plenty of silver at his temples and streaking sporadically through the platinum blond hair.

Lines also creased his eyes and around his mouth.

Laugh lines.

Micah honed on those lines with interest.

Such wrinkles would not have been prevalent if Dover had stayed here at the capital and dwelled at court.

The man’s blue eyes were deep, dark, and keenly intelligent as they surveyed Micah. He was a tall man with an impressive stature that may have thinned since his prime. Dressed to the last stich with regality and money, he was the picture of a proud, established nobleman. The man clicked his heels together and bowed in front of Micah, his low-slung ponytail falling over his shoulder.

“Your Royal Highness,” he intoned smoothly. “It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance.”

Micah smiled thinly, always feeling a bit silly when the bowing and reverence started.

“Ezra, I would like for you to meet Irving Dover, a very good friend and advisor of mine,” Calder introduced.

“A pleasure to meet you, sir.” Once Irving straightened from his low bow, Micah offered his gloved hand. “I’ve heard much about you and looked forward to our meeting. I hope you don’t mind if I brought along my own good friend and advisor, Kai Edlen.” He shook Irving’s hand firmly while glancing at Calder.

His father did not appear outwardly displeased at Kai’s presence nor did he verbally request Kai’s departure.

Good.

Irving and Kai traded a quick handshake and offered generic greetings. Micah watched Irving size Kai up, a considering light in his eyes. Yes. That’s right. No doubt Irving perceived Kai’s position of esteem to Micah and acknowledged all the possibilities such knowledge presented.

Kai was more than capable of holding his own against someone like Dover.

Calder then led them to the table, taking position at the head with Micah at his right. Calder nodded to Irving, whom inclined his head in turn, clearly some sort of silent exchange.

“I asked Irving to return to the capital and assist me with some reorganization within the nobility ranks.” Here, Calder’s eyes drifted briefly across Kai before returning to Micah. “I have offered him a position on the Royal Council. He has agreed to accept my offer and has relocated his family here to the capital.”

Micah nodded, unsurprised with the announcement. “And who will be asked to leave the Council in turn?”

“No one as of yet,” Calder responded pleasantly. “There will be thirteen members. Sixteen including yourself, Josiah, and me.” Calder pressed a gloved hand on the table. “I wished to inform you of the addition of Irving before our next Council meeting.”

“An odd number of Unda nobles over Igni nobles,” Micah observed, a bit peeved Muriel and Seaton still had a chair.

“No,” Calder started pointedly. “Josiah can be considered an Igni noble, though he is technically on the Council as a monarch representative and Lord. That leaves you and I to be the neutral party.”

“Are you truly neutral, though?”

“Are you?” Calder shot back just as innocuously.

Micah conceded that point with a grin. As he turned his attention to the man sitting across from him, he realized Irving had been watching him closely. Though, closely seemed far too tame of a word. There was an enthusiastic gleam in Irving’s eyes as he noted every single jerk and twitch Micah made, implementing that into his memory to turn over and analyze.

Irving offered a very small smile to soften his intense scrutiny. “I requested we meet before a Council meeting, Prince Ezra, so I can be on the same level as the others in terms of what I have missed.” He straightened in his chair, though he couldn’t possibly straighten much further. “I will not play coy. I’ve heard many things about you. One such thing is that you are an outer region sympathizer.”

Micah did not warrant this with a response.

Irving did not wait for one.

“An admirable passion. To cure the incurable outskirts.” Irving nodded once. “I’d like to know what makes the outskirt regions worthy of further attention. We already send them supplies. We send them means to barter for gold. We had sent security in the past, as well as aid, but hostility met our attempts.”

“Why do the outskirt regions need further attention?” Micah wanted to make sure he heard correctly.

As silly as Irving’s question was, the man simply inclined his head.

“I don’t believe there is much to be explained, Councilman Dover.” Using the man’s new title seemed to warrant a riveted shine in turn. “The numbers speak from themselves. Compared to Region 5, and compared to the capital, Region 10 and 20 both experience high levels of poverty, death, and high mortality rates.” 

“One could argue that’s simply because they have a very high population. Much higher than the capital. Much higher than Region 5. Undoubtedly, there will be higher indicators of deaths and poverty.”

“Then let me rephrase myself.” Micah’s pulse began to race. “On average, the typical man dies younger in the outskirt regions. On average, the typical man touches far less gold in the outskirt regions. The average person lives far longer here because their way of living is suitable for prosperous health. Easier access to health care. Tighter security. Far more gold to provide food and refuge.”

Irving watched him expressionlessly. “All statistics. All black and white.”

Micah balked.

“I can read this in the reports sent to us across the kingdom, Prince Ezra. I want to hear your personal account. I want to hear your passion. I want to feel true empathy from your words.” The man reached across the table. “Let me share your lust for change. Just what did you experience in your youth to light that torch you carry?”

Micah could not recall the last time someone outright asked him about his childhood.

Calder and Kai came the closest.

Yet, Irving Dover was bluntly asking. 

An essential stranger.

Micah didn’t know what he felt about that. Appalled that Irving had the audacity, certainly, yet he also respected Irving for asking. The other nobles heard the gossip and proceeded to make assumptions. They turned their nose at him, thinking they knew it all. Thinking he had a ‘troubled’ past and therefore was sympathetic to the Igni race because of it.

Calder and Kai’s attention felt like physical weights.  

“I experienced everything you would imagine a child to experience in the outskirt regions,” Micah responded, gauging Irving’s response.

“Death?” Irving inquired quietly, unaware he’d just walked into Micah’s snare. “Poverty? Thievery, hunger, and pain? Murder?” He squinted and carefully asked, “Rape?”

Calder stiffened.

Micah inhaled fiercely through his nose. “If you believe the average child would experience those things in the outskirt regions, Councilman, how could you ever assume they do not need assistance? Immediate assistance?” He cocked his head. “Or do you believe it is acceptable for children to experience those things just because they are poor? Just because they are of a different race? Just because they are uneducated?”

Irving’s mouth creased into an approving smirk as he realized his misstep, yet it was gone a moment later. “As unfair as the racial sensitivity is in this capital, we are not discussing race. We are discussing the outskirt regions and the problems they face.”

“Race has everything to do with the outskirt regions.” Micah roused, suddenly becoming animated. “The racial segregation is astounding. The Igni people never had a chance to stay afloat in this kingdom because they were several steps behind the established Unda citizens. Aside from the nobles, the average Igni man and woman had to relocate from their homes in the Igni Empire to essential slums.

“They had to leave behind their homes and their trade careers and find something new here in Concordia. The capital and Region 5 were far too expensive for their modest means, so they were forced further south. Into the projects with few jobs and much higher crime rates. Their living situations only festered from there. Their resentment grew as did their animosity toward the kingdom.”

Micah looked away from Irving and to his father.

“The assimilation was handled poorly,” he said quietly. “There wasn’t enough living arrangements. There wasn’t enough aid made available initially. Not enough jobs. The Igni people entered here wholly alone and fending for themselves.”

“It was not handled poorly, but rather within our means,” Calder explained calmly. “Our kingdom was not built, was not designed, to house several thousand more people, Ezra.”

“Housing and living arrangements, I understand,” Micah conceded. “But what of after the merge? You should have realized the concern. We’ve made no progression to expand villages. We made no effort to introduce lower income housing in Region 5, a much safer, more economically secure region for families. For children. Instead, those inactive years lost us a generation of loyalty from our people, who have then passed that loathing and resentment down to their children.”

Micah sat back in his chair, gazing first at Irving, whom appeared particularly inexpressive, and then to his father.

Calder watched him with a hollowness.

An empty sort of sadness that Micah could not reasonably decipher nor understand its meaning.

A sudden, very horrid suspicion occurred to Micah just then.

Why Calder hadn’t expanded. Why Concordia hadn’t expanded.

Agni and Varuna were planning on—

“There are several points I can agree with, Prince Ezra,” Irving started. “Particularly our need for expansion.”

“I’m only asking…” Micha trailed off, his mind heavy with suspicions and theories and hurriedly trying to refocus. “I’m only asking for better security, for better education, and for better opportunities for the outskirt regions. I do not believe that is an unfair request.”

His attention settled firmly on Irving, recalling Kai’s earlier words.

He has since raised a family.

So Micah implored to the family man.

“You asked me what I experienced in my childhood, Councilman Dover.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands together and placing them calmly on the table. “I was pampered at the palace until the age of six. Moving to the outskirt regions with my mother was like plunging into an ice bath. I learned things about corruption, loss, and suffering far more quickly than I was prepared for.

“Whether be literally or figuratively, there is a devastating amount of parentless children. These children rely on each other and build hierarchy systems to protect themselves against preying adults. We learned how to scavenge for food and earn gold. The boys often aligned themselves with delinquents who shepherded them and instructed them how to commit crime. The girls were taught young that their bodies could earn them several days’ worth of food.”

Micah nearly missed the shadow that passed behind Irving’s eyes, especially at the last bit.

He has a daughter then.

At least one.

“I’m not proclaiming every resident in the outskirt regions is a delinquent or that they are suffering.” Micah smiled softly as he thought of Keegan. Kalama. “There are close-knit families who thrive there. Several individuals found ways to adapt and live happily. Some citizens don’t consider their living arrangements in need of remedying. But there is just enough destruction that we need to recognize the issue and seek to resolve it.”

Irving reclined in his chair, somehow making the act acceptable by nobility standards. He curled his hands around his armrests and gazed unabashedly at Micah. “That was all I asked for, Your Highness. Some passion. Some reasons. Things I could stand behind and preach as if they were my own beliefs. As they are. As they should be for everyone.”

The silence that stretched after his proclamation was heavy with pause.

He was not yet finished and he would deliver something that would require proper bracing.

“However, if I asked you for that same passion, for the same logical reasons behind abolishing nobility, could you deliver such an inspiring speech?” Irving’s eyes twinkled dangerously. “Or would your words carry nothing but bitter discrimination? I imagine such scorn would spur others to turn against you quite readily. You would lose your platform. You would lose support for accomplishing things that truly matter, like curing the outskirt regions.”

“Ezra does not want to abolish nobility,” Kai intervened sharply. “He simply acknowledges the inequality between social classes.”

“Every kingdom and territory have inequalities amongst social classes,” Calder said. “The Terra Kingdom you idolize so much, Ezra, have citizens who are far wealthier than others. They may not be called ‘nobles’, yet the wealthy do receive additional privileges due to their standing.”

Micah and Irving regarded the other carefully.

As if they were the only men in the room.

“To be blunt, Your Highness, when you look into the mirror, you indubitably still see yourself as that child dwelling in the slums and playing the game of survival of the fittest. You’ve adapted their discrimination and their abhorrence of the wealthy and now consider yourself amongst enemies.” Irving tapped the armrest. “Ironically enough, aside from your father, you are the wealthiest man in this kingdom. You have the highest position in the social hierarchy. Do you experience self-disgust for being born into such a role? Do you believe you should be stripped of your princely power because it is not ‘fair’ to those in the outskirt regions?”

Micah remained silent, recognizing the truth in those words but also unwilling to let go of his desire to equal the opportunities amongst all citizens. Because it was unbalanced. Because it needed adjusting.

“Someone needs to lead this kingdom,” Irving continued. “If you were to abolish the nobility and create a democracy, who would be fit enough to become these ‘delegators’ you seek to mimic from the Terra Kingdom?”

Kai shifted.

“Surely you’d want men and women whom are properly educated. Experienced with the political scene.” Irving smiled unfriendly. “And guess who those individuals are? Nobles. They’d still be in a position of power. It sounds as if you would accomplish nothing.”

“Because we lack the resources to educate others to that same level,” Micah snapped, growing impatient. “That is exactly what I’m trying to express when I say there is unequal opportunity between nobles and the everyday man and woman.”

“And that we can agree on,” Irving said. “Our education system needs reorganizing.” He leaned forward again. “I’m trying to demonstrate what a disaster it would be to transition a kingdom, groomed generations as a monarchy, to a democracy. These things cannot happen overnight. Concordia is not set up to support such a government.”  

“You have a poor perception of me if you believe I’d suddenly wake up and announce Concordia is now a democracy,” Micah drawled. “I understand these things take time.”

Time is an understatement,” Calder murmured. “Schools. Educational programs. Proper expansion. Creating more jobs. A full-scale reformation is required as we groom future generations. If Concordia were to transition successfully into a democracy, it would take several generations, Ezra. You will never be here to see it implemented. You’d simply be here to plant the seeds.”

A sense of despondency settled at Calder’s words.

Would he even be here long enough to plant the seeds?

“If I may.” Irving called for Micah’s attention once more. “I admire your quest to improve this kingdom, Your Highness, but perhaps you should focus on the advantages of a monarchy system instead. You possess an unlimited amount of power, power that can grant you a much faster track of solving issues across the regions.

“Let us focus on the small things first. I heard about your work in Region 20’s main village and I full-heartedly approved of your ideas. I believe we can implement them and expand on them if we have the force of the nobles fully behind us.”

Micah smiled bitterly. “Nobles want nothing to do with the outskirt regions.”

“That is unfortunate,” Irving remarked. “Simply because they have no choice in the matter, do they?”

Micah’s gaze sharpened.

“Nobles are influential and they have a plethora of connections you could not even fathom,” Irving explained. “But in the end, you possess the authority. That’s not to say you should turn into a tyrant. I am here to coax the nobles accordingly and to teach you how to use them to your advantage. They are proud and entitled creatures. They like to be commended, admired, and praised. Like simpletons.”

It’s what Calder had tried to explain to Micah before.

That he held all the power, yet he still treaded carefully with the nobles simply because they were useful. They were powerful. He could not make enemies out of them when he planned to reap their loyalty.

Irving then delivered his trump card. “If you can play them well, you can play them anyway you please.”

Micah sat in silence for quite some time, absorbing those darkly humorous words.

Either Councilman Dover would become a worthy opponent or Micah would learn to like him.

Very much.

He hoped it was the latter.

 

Chapter Text

14. Chapter Fourteen 

 

The female tailor held up the ivory and blue sherwani with a ridiculous amount of pride. It truly was a beautiful sherwani with several beaded and embroidered details. It would have taken an exhausting amount of work and diligence. “It would accent your darker complexion.” She gushed and her male partner fervently nodded his accord. “While bringing out the blue in your eyes.”

“His eyes are grey,” the male tailor muttered.

“Light blue,” she corrected.

“They are far too pale to be blue.”

“You’re simply color blind.”

“I wouldn’t hold this job, my dear, if I were color blind.”

Micah ate a spoonful of potatoes while a hairdresser stood behind him and struggled to tame his hair. He paid the tailors hardly any attention as he finished his dinner.

He’d just returned to his rooms after a productive day of touring the capital with his father. Earlier that morning, Calder had collected him for a quick breakfast before showing him the reconstructed capital. Underneath the mass of colorful Igni decorations for tonight’s festivities, Micah admired the work they had accomplished during his absence.

Everything was set back to the way it was before Dushyanta’s wrath.

During the tour, he’d seen several areas of the capital he hadn’t seen before, including numerous parks as well as more housing districts and the prestigious Concordia Women’s Academy. 

His father then took him to the Igni noble district and pointed out several buildings that Ember had designed, including Lord Josiah’s royal barracks. Micah had been inside that underground structure and had especially admired the serpent design, thinking, at the time, that it was all Josiah’s doing. To know Ember had been the one to model the building made him feel connected to it—to the entire Igni noble district.

Ember had never mentioned anything like that.

She never mentioned the positive imprints she’d left on the capital.

The day had been unplanned. Entirely unpredictable. Spending it with Calder, whom often took the role as a chauffeur and history lecturer, proved enjoyable. During the tour, Micah grew to love more things about the capital, finding himself proud to call this his terrain.

This was his to protect, no matter if Varuna and Agni had placed him here.

It was exactly as Calder anticipated, undoubtedly. To encourage Micah’s love for the kingdom he now ruled.

After seeing more of the capital, they then proceeded to the royal house of worship. Micah had been impressed with the architecture. He’d been in awe at the extraordinarily high ceilings, arched, curved, and intricately carved. It was a gothic presence with dark influences touching the sacred and phenomenal building. The stained glass had been… unbelievable. On one side, the glass was hues of blues and beiges. On the other side, crimsons, oranges, and dark greys. Agni and Varuna both shared this house of worship, yet it was still divided in half.

As they walked the aisle, Calder informed Micah he would hold his coronation in the church and in the nearby courtyards.

The same day as his twenty-second birthday.

Only a couple of weeks away.

The thought accelerated Micah’s pulse, if only out of trepidation.

He didn’t know what Agni planned. He didn’t know how far Agni would push until Micah was immortal. He wanted to experience his coronation. He wanted to be in the mortal realm until he accomplished his objectives. However, he had his suspicions that Agni wasn’t willing to wait that long, especially if he was accelerating the process of immortalizing Micah’s Essence.

It was something he needed to speak to the fire god about, preferably sooner rather than later.

“The next sherwani, please,” Ara interrupted the two bickering tailors. “We’re already running late.” Here, her gaze settled resentfully on an otherwise oblivious Micah.

“It’s a festival,” Micah murmured and pushed away his dinner plate. “It started two hours ago with the parade. They are not waiting on me.”

“It would have been ideal if you’d been present for it.”

“Lord Josiah was there,” Micah pointed out, nearly cringing when the comb snagged near his roots. He glanced out the window, noting the darkening sky. “This is his festival. He’s the Igni king.” And the fire god. “Besides, Calder said he wasn’t going to attend.”

“Your father hasn’t attended the festival for several years. Neither do many Unda nobles,” Ara informed. She clapped her hands impatiently, spurring the two tailors to hurry and unzip another garment from a protective bag. “Lord Josiah requested your presence tonight.”

“And I’ll be there. Tonight.”

From what he knew about the capital celebration, the festival was geared toward children and family for the first few hours. The parade started the festivities, followed by several stands made available for an array of activities and traditional Igni merchandise. Micah wasn’t so much interested in that as he was for what happened after the children retired for the night.

No.

He wasn’t going to lie to himself.

He was most interested for the activities after the festival.

With Agni.

“No. Absolutely not.” Ara shook her head as they unveiled another sherwani. “That is… no. What about the one we discussed earlier, hm?”

Micah glanced over at the dreaded sherwani, wondering if those were ruffles designed to give his torso the appearance of sprouting gills. The tailors appeared genuinely abashed as they reached for the third and final option. Just before Micah grew too restless, the hands working a liquid through his hair suddenly withdrew. As Micah reached up to explore with his fingers, Ara made a hissing noise.

“Will you desist?”

Micah stood agitatedly from the couch, not understanding the need for hairdressers when his hair was so short. He’d tried to argue with Ara about it during Ember’s service, but his attempts were met with an impressively chilling stare. His fingers found the loose curls again, noting they were immaculately parted and tamed with product.

“I think that will do nicely.” Ara’s attention was not on Micah rebelling against his hair, but on the next sherwani.

Not caring what he wore, just as long as it did not have gills, Micah ran an indifferent eye across the new sherwani.

His mind paused.

And a wicked smirk crossed his lips.

“You and I can finally agree on something, Ara,” Micah murmured.

“I think I’m beginning to understand your preferences, Your Highness,” Ara replied mischievously. “Traditional but with a twist of modernization and rebelliousness.”

“It’s handsome.” He walked over to the garment, well aware of the two tailors shaking with excitement. He reached for the sleeve of the sherwani, feeling the black mesh beneath his fingertips. “Very handsome.”

“See what happens when you and I get along?” Ara said slyly, gazing up at him. “I can make you look sharp. Nice. Handsome. Or I can make you look as if you’ve just emerged from the palace pond.” The emerald green sherwani with gills appeared like a sad little garment. “That is entirely up to you.”

Micah smirked, not at all bothered by the vindictive shine in her eyes. “You play a dirty game.”

“And don’t you forget it, my prince.”

The perky palace coordinator ushered the servants out the door, giving Micah ample time to wrestle inside the sherwani with body chains. When he untwisted himself from the chains, and somehow managed to duck and spiral beneath them, he looked in the mirror. He ran an appreciative hand down the front torso as it fell just above his knees, admiring the black and crimson patterns and embroidery.

Traditional. Striking. Handsome.

That was where the traditionalism ended.

The sleeves were form-fitting black mesh, transparent enough to catch a glimpse of the oxidized armlet wrapped around his bicep. When he turned around, the back of his sherwani was also black mesh; only, it was decorated with an array of metal jewelry. A silver serpent twisted along his spine, from the nape of his neck all the way down to the small of his back. Chains wrapped attractively around the serpent, keeping it in place, and gathering beneath two leather pockets at his shoulders.

A pair of black, form-fitting churidars completed the ensemble.

Micah was not particularly fond of clothing or fashion, but the tailors truly created a work of art.  

The door opened to his quarters, unannounced.

Kai stuck his head in, catching Micah’s attention. “I can’t hold them back any longer, Egan. I apologize.”

The door pushed further open and bodies spilled inside his quarters. Talia, Cain, Viktor, Aiden, and… Haken all clambered inside as if they were expected. Immediately, he noticed Haken, Viktor, and Aiden standing in close proximity, nonverbally cementing their comradeship.

Micah was pleased to note all of them dressed in traditional clothes tonight.

He was sure many of the Unda nobles who attended couldn’t even bother with that much.

Micah approached his team, in addition to Haken, whom seemed pressed up against Viktor as if unsure how Micah would take his presence. “Haken,” Micah greeted, not at all bothered with his attendance. When they celebrated Kai’s return to the capital, Haken had gotten along surprisingly well with everyone, particularly Viktor and Aiden. “It’s nice to see you again.”

The pull was there.

It would always be there.

They were Chosen.

Yet… after so many days dwelling in Agni’s presence, and cementing their soul bond, such a superficial and unestablished bond like he shared with Haken seemed insignificant. Easily ignored. Micah was thankful for that, as he never found Haken appealing in that sense. The other man had a long ways to go in terms of strengthening himself.

He was curious to know the state of his memories, however.

When Agni had possessed him—used him—during the mission to Region 20, he’d left behind faint and altered memories. Particularly, the memories of his existence and his attachment to Micah.

Understandably, Haken had been unnerved that he retained those particular memories. It was a claiming by Agni, a warning, a threat to keep a distance with Micah. One that Haken would heed if his unease over the god’s presence was of any indication. Truthfully, Agni had overacted. Micah had little interest in Haken that way.

“My grandfather and I have been reinstated as your personal Healers.” Haken smiled and bowed shortly. “Apparently, His Majesty did not appreciate the health scare you experienced yesterday and the way it was handled. I hope you have recovered since the attack.”

Accusing eyes turned in Micah’s direction.

He endured them all with ease and mentioned nothing about yesterday’s brief moment of… foolishness. “I always did prefer you and your grandfather as Healers, Haken. I am glad Calder reinstated you,” Micah said formally. He then focused on Aiden. Aiden then focused on him. “Aiden…” he started deliberately. “So good to see you again. Thank you for taking the trip back to the capital.”

Aiden pulled away from Haken and Viktor, inching closer to Micah. His sherwani was authentic and detailed but ill fitting. No doubt belonging to another male member of his family. “I am so sorry for your loss, Micah.” He held out a hand. “Queen Ember will be missed but we know she lives on through you.” He gazed imploringly at Micah. “I also carry the sentiments of my father and my grandparents. They were devastated to hear of the news and wish you well.”

Micah smiled, truly, and clasped Aiden’s hand.

Aiden tightened his hold, his eyes expressing his empathy and his regret.

Placing his other hand on top of Aiden’s, Micah patted him reassuringly. He and Aiden hadn’t gotten along last term, the blame mostly on Micah for not understanding Aiden’s character. It got them into several arguments until he learned to accept Aiden was just a struggling Igni, determined to find his footing in such an Unda-dominated society.

Cain quickly took Aiden’s place. The large-statured Unda man engulfed Micah into a tight embrace.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Micah.”

Micah smirked into Cain’s shoulder, unable to move, breathe, or speak with the tight hold around his torso. His boots lifted from the ground and waved several exaggerated inches from the floor. The laughter that accompanied the gesture was like a sweet, chiming bell that warmed his insides. They were all there. They were all here.

His team.

Safe.

And sound.

“Alright, enough with the melodramatics!” Viktor called to attention, trying his damnest to separate Cain and Micah with a feeble forearm. “I brought the good stuff! Fifty years aged. My brother didn’t need to know I took it.” Viktor waved the bottle of scotch for all to see before proceeding to open it. “No glasses, but who needs ‘em?”

Surprisingly, Talia was the first to settle next to Viktor to get her share of scotch.

“You look beautiful tonight, Talia,” Micah praised sincerely, knowing the other men wouldn’t have dared be so complimentary.

Talia flushed red. Her hair was loose tonight, falling to the middle of her back with soft curls. She wore a blue kurta that accentuated her coloring and brought attention to the intelligent gleam of her eyes. Kai smirked next to her, touching her briefly on the shoulder.

“I can’t possibly compete with you, Micah,” Talia teased, earning her a round of approving laughter. “But thank you.”

“Just who are you going to impress tonight, Egan?” Kai inquired, sipping from the bottle and passing it to Micah.

Micah eagerly grabbed the bottle and took a large sip. It went down smooth and he nodded his appreciation to Viktor. “Extremely good scotch, Sedna.” Upon Micah’s drawled praise, the boy’s cheeks turned pink. To Kai, Micah toasted and sipped again. “I’m going to impress the masses tonight, Edlen. Don’t you know that is the prince’s duty?”

“Something tells me you’re rather callous when it comes to ensnaring the hearts and crushing them,” Haken muttered.

A pause swept across the group as they contemplated whether Haken was being sincere or failing to jest.

Of course Micah knew it was the former.

Kai gazed at Haken incomprehensibly.

Viktor gave a strained little chuckle. “Micah?” he asked with disbelief. “He definitely has the potential to be that way with his pretty boy face.” The boy smirked across the circle at an unimpressed Micah. “Instead, he prefers to lure his uncle and Sachiel by the blue balls. I don’t even think Micah is into sex. He’s like the ice prince.”

Despite Talia and the others reprimanding him, Viktor snickered at his own pun.  

Micah took another swig of scotch before handing it to Haken.

The Igni man took it with an apologetic look.

“Not everyone has to loudly express their every carnal desire like you do, Viktor,” Aiden said. “In fact, for how often you talk about it, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re a virgin and know nothing about what you’re boasting about. Your big brothers fill you with stories?”

Viktor spluttered.

“There is nothing wrong with being a virgin,” Cain defended.

“Oh god,” Micah said under his breath, wondering how he’d ever found himself in this conversation.

“Of course there isn’t,” Talia agreed.  

“No need to be ashamed…Cain and Talia.” Viktor smirked when their expressions darkened. He then clapped his hands. “I’m excited to see the Igni women!” he declared. “Every year, the dancers make an appearance at the capital. They’re… sinful,” he whispered scandalously and made a motion with his two hands and hips.

Micah would rather never see that gesture again in his life.

“Their hips move as if they are completely separate from the rest of their bodies.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “Beautiful!”

Edlen scoffed. “You wish you could do more than touch, Viktor.”

“Watching is all I’ll need,” the young man replied, awe-struck. “They are goddesses.”

“The food is what I’m looking forward to,” Cain ventured, earning appreciative nods from both Micah and Aiden. The former more so out of gratitude for changing the subject. “The spices, the sheer flavor. Everything of Igni cuisine is particularly delicious. If only we could sample such recipes more often at the capital.”

As Aiden grabbed the bottle from Haken, he motioned approvingly towards Cain. “You should start your own diner at the capital! You’d get good business! I’m sure of it. There are more people interested in the exotic as they are the ordinary.”

Cain appeared pensive. “I wouldn’t have any idea where to start.”

“You’d need to employ an Igni cook,” Haken volunteered. “I know one here at the capital if you’re interested. He’s planning on pitching several dishes to Prince Ezra for his coronation.” The Igni Healer glanced at Micah. “He’s been working hard to perfect his dishes and hopes you’ll find them acceptable.”

“Anything other than the bland slop of the capital will be acceptable,” Micah muttered.

The Unda nobles made noises of offense, earning a vindictive smirk from Micah and a laugh of agreement from Aiden and Haken.

“You’re making it sound as if the food is better than the women,” Viktor complained. He then considered. “Now I’ll have to try some dishes. I haven’t before, but I’m sure you can recommend something I’d like.”

Kai hid a smirk as he grabbed the bottle from Cain. “Careful, Viktor. The Igni food often times disagrees with inexperienced stomachs. Too spicy and you’ll find yourself missing the dancers in favor of squatting between two buildings. Things can get… rather explosive.”

Talia’s eyes widened and she and the others burst out laughing. “The ladies will find you irresistible then, I’m sure.”

Instead of being appalled, Viktor appeared genuinely intrigued. “Really?”

“I’ll be sure to show you what you should eat, Viktor,” Aiden said.

Micah observed the sinister spark in Aiden’s eyes but chose not to intervene.

If it kept Viktor away from ogling the women, perhaps it was in everyone’s best interests he be otherwise preoccupied.

“I think now is a good time to bring up the topic of Ezra’s royal guard,” Kai started, earning everyone’s quick attention at his formal tone. He drew himself up, adapting a commanding presence that earned a small, approving grin from Micah. “I’ve spoken with King Calder on the topic.” Here he looked at Micah. “I hope you don’t mind I took the initiative.”

Micah waved away his concern.

“King Calder has agreed to open up positions for Ezra’s royal guard.”

There was an all-around air of enthusiasm.

Kai was quick to deflate it.

“Trials.”

Micah watched as faces froze and then fell.

Edlen scoffed. “You didn’t truly believe the king would hire bodies who couldn’t even compete with other interested parties, did you? These positions will be paid positions. Room. Board. Food. Gold. There will be other people interested in applying for the position.”

“How much gold?” Aiden inquired.

Kai’s gaze was sharp. “More than your family could possibly get their hands on in Region 10.”

“Edlen,” Micah intervened harshly.

Kai and Aiden never truly got along, but they typically tolerated each other. Micah supposed it stemmed from before they established teams, during the academy’s trials. When Kai had humiliated Aiden in front of so many noblemen and students. Then again, Kai found little to appreciate in Aiden’s desire to stand apart from the team and not fully and completely support Micah.

“It’s not about the gold, Egan,” Kai said aggressively. “This is about sacrifices. This is about duty.” He pointed at Micah. “Taking this position means we gladly lay our lives down for our prince and future king of Concordia.”

The mood subdued.  

“He’s not our captain and our friend,” Kai continued. “He’s going to rule this kingdom. I think its due time you all realize this.”

Micah pressed his lips together when eyes sought him for reassurance. “Behind closed doors…” he ventured. “Such as the present, you can be informal and open. Like old times.”

“But when we go back out there, there are certain lines we cannot cross.” Kai delivered a sharp look at Viktor, who gaped like a fish. “Micah’s coronation is in little more than two weeks. For those of you who are interested…” he looked at the team. “I will be holding training sessions. While the positions are open to everyone, it would be ideal if we could all claim a position. He needs people he can trust at his back.”

“When do we start training?” Talia asked without pause.

“I’m ready,” Cain agreed. “Whenever you want to start.”

“Same,” Viktor replied quickly. “I’d be damned if I let some lecherous unknown watch Micah’s pert backside.”

Micah rolled his eyes slowly to the ceiling of his quarters.

“I’d also like to know when we start,” Aiden said.

“I thought you wanted to attend the Academy.” Kai’s inquiry did not carry scorn, but simple fact.

“It’s the summer between terms,” Aiden defended. “I’d like to train. I can decide what I want to do if I get accepted a position as Micah’s royal guard.” He raised his eyebrows. “Is that wrong? That I want to improve myself and—”

“I want you to train with them, Aiden,” Micah interceded, side eyeing Viktor as he took generous sips from the scotch bottle. “You’re part of our team. It wouldn’t be the same without you.” His words had their intended impact on Aiden, whom softened his defensive stance. Without missing a beat, he said, “That is more than enough liquor, Viktor.”

At Micah’s abrupt reprimanding, Viktor appeared dazed. “But—it’s a festival!”

“I cannot even fathom you drunk in public.” Micah started for the door to his quarters. “Let’s go.”

He heard the bottle passing quickly between hands and suppressed an exasperated sigh.

 

 

* * * *

 

The festivities were in full swing by the time they arrived.

Micah stood outside the carriage and took a moment of quiet reflection.

Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply, feeling a sense of nostalgia. The food permeated the warm, humid air, bringing him back to a time when things were difficult, yet somehow precious. He could smell the meat, the spices, the charcoal, and the sweet sauces and seasonings. He could smell the baking pastries and breads.

His mother often proclaimed the Igni dishes back home, in her Empire, were of such flavor and delight. She’d then tell him stories of the past. Of colorful ancestry and proud heritage. Of inked hands. Of vibrant fabrics. Gaudy jewelry. Free-spirited people. During those nights, Ember’s eyes had unfocused with bittersweet and careful affection.

Micah mourned the opportunity of seeing the Igni Empire at its peak.

Region 20 and 10 were simply sad versions of what was lost.

Here, however, at the capital with so many Igni nobles in charge of tonight’s festivities, Micah knew he would see a reflection of that dead empire. He looked forward to what he’d see. Taste. Smell. Hear. His sense were open wide, absorbing.

And then Viktor was quick to bring him back to the present.

He bumped into Micah. “Look! Real life camels!”

Micah opened his eyes, observing the line of camels with little interest.

They set up a small area for the camels to walk and carry younger children. Currently, there was a hoard of exuberant Unda and Igni children clambering to the line, eager to get their turn on the camel. As Micah’s eyes passed over the group, he paused, disbelievingly, on Irving Dover and a group of young girls.

He averted his eyes, quickly escaping Viktor’s clutches and venturing toward the park where he knew Agni expected him.

As he traveled further away from the streets and toward the park, he could hear the music. The drums. The sitar. Their melodies and bass far more different from the classical music belonging to the Unda people. The amount of children lessened the further he ventured and the amount of sari and sherwani increased. He hadn’t seen this many Igni people in one place since his time in Region 20.

It was if he stepped away from the blueblood society of Concordia and into the Igni Empire of the past.

Paper lanterns of vibrant colors hung everywhere. Some floated into the dark skies, dotting the heavens with beautiful and ethereal specks of light. The banners and other decorations were mostly of the serpent, yet Micah saw the silhouette of Agni, with his two heads, and four arms, painted on several canvases.

The flames roaring in the ceremonious basins seemed to hone on Micah as he passed. They reached wantonly after him. He offered them a guarded look, feeling the hairs on his neck stand as an encompassing presence stalked him. 

The music seemed to become background noise as he watched a mother and daughter light a sky lantern and whisper prayers to Agni. They held hands as it floated into the sky.

Another lantern amongst hundreds.

Hundreds of whispered prayers, thanks, and praises.

To Agni.

Micah’s eyes fluttered closed, feeling his presence. His power. Everywhere. Steadily growing stronger as the night wore on. It was almost as if he were back in the immortal realm, facing an unmasked Agni. He wondered if the mortals felt anything unusual, or perhaps they just experienced a dreamlike sentiment that typically accompanied festivities like this.

He pressed onward, earning lingering glances from others he was otherwise ignorant to in his haste. To see him.

His team carried conversations around him as they entered the park. From his position, Micah saw the empty platform for the entertainers, as well as the elevated dais for two monarchy observers.

Both chairs were unoccupied.

His disappointment hardly had the chance to settle before he caught the eyes of the predator standing across from him. Startled at the intensity at first, Micah swiftly recovered, discerning the quickening of his pulse in answer to Agni’s focused attention. He smirked, pleased to see his quarry interested, yet Agni did not reflect his amusement back.

The god was all seriousness as he continued to watch Micah.

He stiffened, feeling his stomach twist pleasantly at the concentration in that gaze. Even cloaked in Josiah’s skin, Agni delivered an astounding amount of need in his stare.

A similar desire made its presence known within Micah, causing him to shift impatiently.

And then everything plunged into a cold, gripping realization that erased the pleasant buzz in both Micah’s head and groin.

Gods.

Were everywhere.

Two red-gold presences were next to Agni, engaging the distracted fire god in conversation. Micah then broke eye contact with Agni, his eyes raking across the large crowd of festival-goers, irritated to see several more lingering about. Some stood in pairs, in threes; some stood solitary and observed Micah cautiously.

Displeasure soured Micah’s mood and he turned his shoulder on Agni, disappearing into the crowd.

“Is there any liquor around here?” Viktor inquired, having just reappeared from lingering several long minutes near the camels.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Micah agreed, swimming through the masses and avoiding eye contact with the red-gold presences. They didn’t need to know he knew of their proximity or the fact he could identify them with just a glance.

“You just discouraged him from drinking more at the palace,” Kai objected.

I haven’t had enough and I’m not his caretaker.” At his short-tempered comment, the team shared a look. Micah took a steady breath, composing himself. “It’s a festival. We don’t often get to take advantage of a night of no obligations.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say!” Viktor bemoaned.

Kai muttered something under his breath about royalty always having an obligation regardless of festivals.

Micah slapped enough gold coins on the bar to order them all two rounds. A part of him cringed at spending money in such a way. It was precious. Ingrained on him to keep and hoard later for food. Nonetheless, as he stood around the high table with his team, he acknowledged the need to enjoy himself tonight.

He’d drink enough to relax, yet retain his sharpness.

For if one of those gods dared touch and possess one of his teammates, Micah would render them apart.

God politics be damned.

Selfishly, he watched his team around the table, staking his claim with a protective proximity. When the bartender brought out a tray of drinks, Micah smiled at the teams’ rambunctious reactions. As he joined the others and plucked his shot glass from the tray, he immediately noticed the atmosphere growing tense. Across the table, Cain’s and Viktor’s faces blanched as they looked over Micah’s shoulder.

A hand curled around Micah’s wrist, forcing him to lower his drink.

He turned, getting a face full of a displeased fire god.

Ah, yes. Agni wouldn’t appreciate the cold shoulder, would he?

Micah maintained a pleasant expression. “Lord Josiah,” he greeted. “We started without you, I’m afraid.”

Viktor tittered nervously before Agni offered him and the others a pointed stare. It was enough to encourage everyone to huddle on the other side of the table and pretend to look elsewhere. Unfazed, Micah grabbed Agni’s hand, promptly removed it from his wrist, and proceeded to tip back the liquor. He smirked victoriously at Agni as he set down the glass.

“I was under the impression you were an elusive god,” Micah murmured, speaking first. “You look quite popular to me.”

“They came here on their own merits,” Agni replied. His earlier anger seemed to shimmer and disappear under a fond expression. “Do you believe I invited them to my mortal birthday celebrations, Micah?” At Micah’s hard look, Agni dropped his humor. “They wouldn’t dare try anything to hurt you. Not with myself and Varuna here.”

Micah laughed harshly at that.

“Thank god for Varuna.” He leered perilously.

“Ezra.” Agni placed a hand on Micah’s lower back.

“I’m not afraid of them,” Micah informed. He looked at his teammates, whom were engrossed with the flamethrowers across the park. “I just anticipated it would be the two of us tonight. I certainly didn’t anticipate sharing you with them.” He did not hide his scorn. They were the same insincere and shallow entities who’d attack him at the capital just because of rumors and assumptions.

They were all repulsive.

“And it will be just you and I. They don’t exactly have an excuse to follow us into the palace, do they?”

Micah’s irritation only prickled more sharply at Agni’s teasing. He dwelled in his black mood. Sinking in it. Submerging in it. Wondering over the sheer intensity of it.

“Is your consort here?”

As he reached for another drink, Agni took his hand captive once more, firmly drawing him away from the table. The fingers around his wrist were painful as they turned him around, nudging his back against the ledge of the table. Agni loomed, but Micah kept his attention on Josiah’s braid falling over his shoulder.

“I do not have a consort. Yet.

“You know what I meant,” Micah retorted sharply.

Agni was quick to match Micah’s tone. “I did. And I disapprove of it. It is disrespectful.”

Micah fed off Agni’s rage and it became his own. “Is she here?”

“Svaha is here,” Agni responded forcefully after several moments of silence. “As is Kartikeya.” His hand tightened around Micah’s wrist until his bones rubbed uncomfortably against one another. “As is several other gods and goddesses whom have only come to stare. Watch. Observe. Under the guise of a crowded room. They are insignificant to me as they should be to you. Stop this foolishness. It is unlike you.”

“What have they come to observe, exactly?”

You. You and me. So let us try to present a unified front, hm?”

Micah raised his eyes to a politely masked Josiah. “Like you said, we’ll spend time together in the palace tonight. I have my team here now and I’m sure you have some Igni nobles or deities to catch up with.”

It was a dismissal.

A cruel one Micah regretted as soon as he said it. He never observed politeness drop from someone’s face as quickly as it did on Josiah. The look Agni delivered rendered Micah breathless. A prickle of unease danced down his spine, abruptly bringing Micah down from his preconceived high ground. His black mood curled and withered, recognizing that Agni was not someone to push too far.

As curious as he was to see what happened if he pushed Agni even further, Micah acknowledged tonight was certainly not the time. Especially with so many mortals in the vicinity.

He realized jealousy had triggered his sour mood.

No.

Not jealousy.

Insecurity.

Just thinking it made him cringe and berate himself. It was an unfamiliar sentiment for Micah, whom thrived on confidence and control. Yet, this relationship with Agni reached a depth Micah had never ventured to before. Unfamiliarity. Newness. Inexperience. A sense of isolation as he stood alone. However, Agni hadn’t done anything to warrant Micah’s foulness.

If anything, Agni was especially attentive of showering Micah with consideration and reassurances.

Micah exhaled. “I apologize.”

Agni’s hand still curled tightly around Micah’s wrist and his wide, perceiving eyes watched him disbelievingly.

He did not speak.

No doubt his anger still simmered and escalated.

Hiding his morbid excitement, Micah reached out and clutched Josiah’s handsome sherwani, fisting it. “I said I apologize,” he said, stepping closer. Though they were nearly of equal height when Agni possessed Josiah, the god still loomed. His presence was unyielding and stiff under Micah’s ministrations. “I’m not accustomed to competing with deities and feeling… inferior.”

The word tasted vile.

“You are not.” Josiah turned his head, his nose just brushing against Micah’s cheek. He seemed even angrier at Micah’s admittance. “You fool. You are a deity. A powerful one at that. Far more powerful than all the others here.”

“And according to you, a half god.”

“Doesn’t make you any less of one,” Agni avowed vehemently.

His hands, slow and sly, slid around Micah’s waist.

It was dark enough in the park that such an action would go unnoticed unless others were blatantly staring.

Agni pressed closer. “You grew up surrounded by unsupported preconceptions. That should not bother you. You simply strive harder. Faster. Being half-Syphon does not make you inferior.”

“I know,” Micah said monotonously.

It was not so much his half-Syphon status that caused his feelings of inferiority. He couldn’t care a less that the other gods looked down on him for something like that. As Agni said, prejudice was something he lived with his whole life. Rather, his insecurity was because Agni had centuries of established relationships with others and Micah could not even come close to comparing to nor understanding.

As if sensing his sentimentalities, Agni pulled back, surveying Micah’s hard and impassive expression. “Is that all?” he inquired. “Or is there something else you wish to tell me?”

Micah didn’t want more reassurances.

He did not want the coddling and the words that would do little to ease his opinions.

Instead, he straightened, readopted his confidence, and banished his bad mood entirely. 

“That’s all,” Micah lied.

Agni watched him for a moment longer before his attention fell over Micah’s shoulder. “Enjoy your evenings,” he drawled politely. “I’m afraid I will be taking your prince from you for the unforeseeable future.”

Micah barely had the chance to glance over his shoulder and observe his team looking after him. He mourned their company, finding it innocent and light. With Agni, he was walking the path of grim earnestness and heavy destinies. Nonetheless, as long as Agni walked with him, the path seemed far more exhilarating and worth traveling.

They walked side by side for quite some time, absorbing the sights, the people, and the music.

It wasn’t long before Agni commented on Micah’s mood.  “You can be quite petulant.”

Micah scoffed. “Petulant is a very polite word for ‘sulky’.”

“Too true. I could have also said cantankerous. Moody. Childish.” 

Micah’s eyes grew half-lidded. “Not as if you’re ever petulant.”

“Oh, I do not deny my petulance.” Agni smiled but it dimmed a moment later. “I just don’t recall it ever being this prevalent with you.”

Micah chose not to comment. He’d already apologized. He’d already explained himself, albeit vaguely. Only, Agni knew he’d misread Micah’s sentiments and was now trying to pry the real truth from him.

Unfortunately, for Agni, Micah was not going to broach the subject again. His insecurity over their… relationship was an obstacle he needed to tackle himself. It was abundantly clear Agni alienated all others and chose to seek out Micah’s company. Perhaps he should learn to take that information and use it to construct a barrier of self-assurance. 

“When does the show start?” Micah inquired, changing the subject entirely.

Agni offered him a look that spoke volumes.

He let the subject drop.

“Not for several more minutes.” He held out a hand. “Come. I’d like you to taste something.”

Micah cautiously eyed the extended hand.

Agni grabbed his fingers, leaving no room for arguments. Men and women parted for them quickly and with fascination, as if they carried some sort of invisible barrier. Micah tried to detract his hand from Agni, knowing what it must look like to the public and fiercely protesting against such a political claim.

Only, Agni was also thinking of the political claim.

To the immortal observers.

Fortunately, they stopped before a food vendor and Agni released his hand. When the female vendor recognized Josiah, she made a quick, excited little bob and hurried to the back of her station. She came back a moment later, her movements tense. Enthusiastic.

“As you requested, My Lord.”

She held out the plate, bypassing the several men and women in line. Josiah paid them little heed as he gathered it from her hands before presenting it to Micah. Unnerved with the bravado of Josiah’s actions, Micah glanced down at the plate of skewered and fried food. He looked back up at Josiah, whom waited patiently for Micah to try it.

Shuffling away from the vendor to a more private area, Micah picked up a skewered morsel and placed it on his tongue.

The flavor. Micah’s hummed pleasantly, resisting the temptation to close his eyes. The tender meat came apart quickly on his tongue, the flaky and fried coating delivering spices like turmeric and red chili powder that lingered and made his mouth water.

Something warm and sickly affectionately pulled at his chest.

“It’s fish,” he proclaimed quietly.

Agni seemed proud of himself. “I didn’t think you would have had it in the outskirt regions yet, as fish—”

“Is a capital delicacy,” Micah finished, recalling their first dinner together at the Academy when Agni was still Josiah. Who knew Agni could be a romantic? “Combining fish and Igni food certainly wins you a few points, Agni.”

“Would it be against protocol to miss the festival?” Agni’s tone and stare readopted the hungry gleam Micah had first seen on him tonight. His attention dropped reverently to Micah’s body, his hands twitching and flexing impatiently at his sides. “Before the temper tantrum—excuse me, the petulance—”

Here Micah sighed.

“I was going to tell you how remarkable you look tonight.” Agni refocused on Micah’s face. “It would please me very much if we could hurry this along. Make our appearances, applaud for the masses, and disappear for the rest of the evening.” He shifted closer and pitched his voice to a mere croon. “It is improper of me to say this… but I wish to make sitting very uncomfortable for you these next few days.”

In mid-chew, the food in Micah’s mouth turned to ash and his fingers dropped the speared fish. They then shook with fine tremors of unbridled eagerness. He looked up at Agni and swallowed his mouth full of food.

It went down in one big, dry lump.

He smiled demurely. “When have you ever worried about properness?”

They shared a smile.

“I simply didn’t want to sound too crass.”

“No matter how you phrase that,” Micah started, amusement making his throat tight. “It is unavoidably crass.”

“My apologies.”

Micah suddenly laughed, feeling his ears turn extremely warm when he realized Agni was flirting and he was flirting back. He pressed the back of his hand against his face as he struggled to regain his wits. God, he was pathetic. Something as mundane as flirting with an ancient god shouldn’t have made him this giddy.

Agni pulled his hand away from his face. “Don’t hide from me,” he reprimanded, a pleased smile softening his features.

Micah recovered, allowing his hand to be removed. “I know this will probably sound insincere—”

“Unavoidably insincere no matter how you phrase it?”

Micah scoffed, bowing his head back to his plate and tinkering with the speared fish. “It will undoubtedly be insincere, because it is so belated, but I do want to wish you a happy birthday.”

Agni’s smile widened. He then looked at Micah as if there was nothing else worthy of looking at. Ever. “As endearing as you are right now, child, I can reassure you it’s not my true birthday. You can be forgiven for your belated well wishes.”

Micah recalled Agni’s earlier phrase of his ‘mortal birthday’. “Of course.” He nodded once. “Time passes differently in the mortal realm. Quicker.” He smirked up at Agni. “Just how often do you experience a mortal birthday in your realm? You get a surge of power from the mortals every… what? Every several weeks?”

Agni moved and stood at Micah’s side, touching the small of his back as they gradually started for the platform and dais.

“A little more than a month.”

It suddenly became apparent to Micah that there were far more people milling about now than there had been earlier. Yet, they still parted for Micah and Josiah, often times bumping into their neighbors in their haste to move and stare blatantly.

It was surprisingly easy to give them little regard.

“That’s fortunate then,” Micah muttered as he picked up another speared fish. “I hadn’t known what to get you. How does a mortal shop for an ancient deity? It’s not as if they have enchanted and powerful objects, like tridents, for mortals to purchase.”

Agni laughed. Truly laughed. “Enchanted tridents? What exactly do you believe an enchanted trident would be useful for?”

Micah pondered. “You’re right. It’s probably a better gift for Varuna. Proclaim it enhances the overall preeminence of the wielder.”

“But it’s truly not enchanted and just intended to make him appear dafter?” Agni smiled sinfully. “I approve.” His hand applied more pressure on Micah’s back as the closed in on the dais stairs. “Remind me to never get on your bad side.”

“Enchanted tridents will be the least of your concerns.” Micah held out the plate. “Would you like some?”

Agni looked down at the last two pieces of fish before offering Micah an unappreciative look. Regardless of his incredulity, Agni took the plate and ate the remaining morsels.

Truthfully, Micah just wanted to get rid of the plate, but he’d let Agni assume he’d wanted to share.

He climbed the dais, suddenly positioned far above all the festival-goers. He claimed one of the chairs, his expression fixed and cold as he focused on the vacated platform. His posture was stiffly proud as he placed a hand on either armrest, emulating Calder when his father sat on the throne. The man always appeared like a porcelain doll, handsome, yet vacant and untouchable.

It was his only way to deal with the sudden attention riveting in his direction and staying there.

Hordes of people gradually congregated to the platform and the dais, as if taking his presence as indication the festivities would begin.

And indeed they did.

As Agni climbed the dais and took his position next to Micah, the lanterns dimmed across the park and the music suddenly ceased.

Cast in shadow, the crowd grew quiet.

Two silhouettes climbed the platform, their movements synchronized and identical.

When the ceremonious basins of flames flickered and brightened, Micah found himself looking at both Uriel and Nuri Mishaal. Both Igni twins stood side by side on the platform, dressed in nothing but a pair of loose pants that tapered at the ankles. They held their arms out in front of their bodies with their left palms cupping their tight fist.

Both twins kept their heads bowed to Micah and Josiah.

Silent. Still.

As the drums started with rambunctious vigor and volume, Uriel and Nuri stepped back and faced each other simultaneously. They threw down their fists, and suddenly, flames engulfed their hands.

The crowd cheered.

All pretenses of playing the untouchable and detached royal flew from Micah’s mind as he surged forward in his throne, an insane spark of glee swelling through him.

He was about to witness a proper duel between fire Elementals.

He was so eager and restless for battle again. Regrettably, he would have to settle with watching a battle instead.

For now.

 

Chapter Text

15. Chapter Fifteen 

 

The duel was choreographed, but that didn’t make it any less exciting.

It appeared real enough to get Micah’s pulse racing.

Uriel and Nuri were like reflections of each other. While their routine was more like a dance than true, tenacious battle, Micah admired the elegance. It was common for experienced warriors to emulate dance more than battle. It was in the graceful way they moved. The precise and perfect strikes, parries, and blocks. If both partners were proficient, it warranted mutual respect despite their opposite sides of the battlefield.

Micah curled his hands around his armrests, nearly rocking off his chair as Uriel flipped backward, his body a perfect and flawless arch.

He barely avoided the fire that shot just shy across his chest. As he landed on the platform, he jumped twice in quick succession to avoid the leg swipe. He punched Nuri, his hand and forearm engulfed with flame. Nuri ducked just in time, his ponytail nearly catching on fire. He then sent an uppercut to his twin, whom leapt backward and blocked the uppercut with his own flame-engulfed forearm.

Their arms clashed in a flurry of flames.

The tempo picked up speed.

They traded close range hits. Flames encased their arms from their fingers to their shoulders. It would protect them from each other’s Element if they met fire with fire. Micah strained his eyes. Their Element was so bright in the dim atmosphere and they moved so quickly. They kept in rhythm with the drums as they punched and blocked and dodged. Their high kicks were extraordinary, more so when their feet suddenly shot out a stretch of flame, a hairbreadth away from alighting their brother on fire.

They were in a constant state of movement.

Both twins suddenly back flipped away from each other, an arching flame following their wake.

As soon as they landed, they executed several more backflips until they created enough distance. All the while, on their way to the ends of the platform, they harnessed their Element like wide, swooping ribbons. The more fire they conjured, the more Micah could feel the waves of substantial power swell across the park. It was a rumbling sort of power. One he felt deep within his bones.

It was a god’s power.

A god’s gift to his mortals.

They traded long-ranged assaults next, their bodies twisting nimbly with each attack.

Micah watched as they manipulated the oncoming fire assaults expertly, often times making it look beautiful as they twisted and coiled the flames high into the night sky. It was all about the performance, the beauty, and showing off their sheer athleticism.

As the drums quickened their pace to incredible levels, Micah lurched forward, grinning wickedly. 

It was the finale.

It had to be.

Nuri was the perfect picture of an agile warrior as he made long, swooping movements with his hands, arms, and hips. The fire under his control grew and grew until he harnessed an enormous cloud of orange and yellow. He then made a lunging movement, thrusting his arms out toward Uriel.

The wave of fire sought its target.

And Uriel charged towards it.

His strides wide. Strong. His arms pumped rapidly. His muscles rippled beneath his skin as he leaped and pounced, landing on his hands, and pushing off the platform just in time to avoid the fire onslaught. Only, as he flipped through the air, over Nuri’s head, Nuri directed the blast of flame toward his brother.

In midair, Uriel spread his arms wide and manipulated the fire attack to his favor. The fire rippled and danced alongside his arms, appearing like enormous and majestic fiery wings as they stretch high into the sky.

Micah’s breath caught at the scene.

Uriel seemed to hover, just briefly, the fiery wings bright, surreal.

He then descended, flipping over his brother.

He landed on the platform, back to back with Nuri.

A pause reached across the crowd before they burst into fervent cheers.

Micah found himself on his feet, applauding alongside with everyone else. The amount of energy and stamina needed to pull off the duel—those flips and round offs— must have been astounding. The two brothers were truly a remarkable pair of warriors. They took pride in their Element, in their art, and they performed beautifully.

The Mishaal twins stood up, joined hands, and bowed down low amongst the loud cheers.

They held their last bow the longest as they stood before Micah and Josiah.

As Uriel straightened, he winked at Micah and offered a mischievous smirk.

Micah returned it with a soft grin before lowering back down to his throne. When his heartrate gradually settled, he turned to Agni, noticing the indifferent eyes. “Oh, come now,” he protested, a bit more loudly than typical due to the sheer volume of cheering echoing across the park. “That was extremely impressive.”

“Far too fancy,” Agni replied apathetically. “Though I know how much you adore leaving your feet in battle. The flips must have ensnared you from the start.”

Micah shook his head, grinning. Idris had tried to expunge his habit of leaping in battle. And by proxy, Agni. Yet, there was something about jumping, something about flipping and soaring through the air that had called to Micah. A certain freedom.

“Are you saying you don’t combat like that?”

“I’m not nearly as aesthetically pleasing.” Agni dropped his hands, having at least participated in clapping the twins off the stage. “My power is all about destruction and chaos.” The man’s eyes flashed a brilliant red-orange. “It is not pleasant.”

And Micah believed it.

Completely.

He realized he really, really wanted to see Agni battle.

The true Agni.

No mortal realm stifling him. No mortal vessel stifling him.

Oh god… Micah found himself strangely aroused at the thought of Agni harnessing his true power and annihilating the opposition. Moreover, he knew, even without fanatical visualization, that he would get his chance to witness such an event someday. He wanted to be just as ready, just as prepared to match Agni’s prowess with his own.

“When do we start training?” Micah inquired.

“Anytime you desire,” Agni answered. “I will not be instructing you with your Element, however.” He glanced at Micah, noticing his confusion. “Need I remind you what typically occurs when our Elements clash?”

Micah sat back in his throne and subdued his instinctive rebuttal.

Agni was right. The intense difference in sensations often times led to more… antagonistic pleasure and arousal.

“I will work to improve your swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat. The enemies you may face in the future are equipped to handling swords.” Meaning gods. “Varuna will teach you how to wield your Element.”

“Excuse me?” Micah demanded.

Agni hushed him with a distracted hand when the park grew silent once again. Micah continued to glower at the man, whom intentionally avoided his ire and feigned interest with the next performance.

When the music started, a slow sensual and rhythmic beat, Micah finally turned in his throne and observed the group of scantily clad women. They wore long, flowing skirts down to their ankles and jeweled halter-tops that showed off their toned abdomens. Their bellybuttons were all pierced and they all possessed flashy waist chains. 

Micah cleared his throat awkwardly, blasted uncomfortably to the past.

How many years had it been?

Seven? Eight?

He shifted uneasily as they started swaying to the music, their movements just as in sync as Uriel and Nuri’s had been. There were eight women lined in perfect formation. Shrill and impressed whistles sounded from the men in the audience, Viktor most likely amongst them.

Micah cleared his face, watching indifferently as their long arms stretched far above their heads.

Just as Viktor proclaimed earlier, their hips moved quickly and with a mind of their own. They used their entire body, all an extension of itself. Gradually, the slow, sensual rhythm increased to an energized tempo. It reflected the sheer vitality of their culture, which mirrored the Terra Kingdom in several ways.

Their movements hastened, their pace animated. Even with the faster momentum, they somehow seemed to move at the same time.

It was if they were copies of just one woman.

Nonetheless, he found his attention drawn to the woman in the front whom exuded an air of confidence and sensuality. His brows furrowed as a sense of familiarity tugged at him. Even with all the makeup, even with the hair falling into her face, Micah knew her. How could it not be her? How could he not recognize her?

Adeen Zohar.

The first girl he’d been intimate with. As awkward as that first encounter had been, he’d been infatuated with her—a girl two years his senior and one whom just started her career as a dancer in Region 10.

Micah inhaled deeply, hoping he was invisible to her. He’d been Micah Egan back then. There was a chance she was ignorant of the gossip surrounding Prince Ezra’s past. However, the way her eyes automatically landed on him at each turn, the way she swayed and lowered, the way she always sought him after each maneuver, like in the past, made Micah realize that she was more than aware of his presence.

Just as he was very aware of Agni watching him.

Micah turned, catching the stare that was chillingly void of emotion.

“Friend of yours?”

He grinned tightly. “Not a previous consort, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

He then turned back forward, feeling Agni’s relentless observation linger. The man’s possessiveness was amusingly outrageous. What right did Agni have to get angry over a previous infatuation when he, himself, had a consort for hundreds of years? One he created a child with, whom turned out to be the God of War?

Agni’s current bout of possessiveness made Micah’s earlier petulance appear tame. 

A drunk man suddenly stumbled between the dais and the platform, a place void of bodies, and began to wiggle his hips and sway his arms in the air alongside the dancers. Micah blinked, realizing the drunk man was none other than Viktor.

Viktor was a mere shadow as he tried to replicate the dancers’ movements. He was nearly close to climbing on the platform before he turned around and faced Josiah and Micah. “Micah!” he hailed, his voice faint over the music, but drawing attention from the observers closest to the dais. He said something else, most of it drowned out but the word, “Hips!”

Cain came rushing forward, promptly dragging a protesting Viktor away by the arm.

“Another friend of yours.”

“I have never seen that man in my life,” Micah murmured, placing a hand on his face to hide his mortification.

Fortunately, the dance ended not too long after Viktor’s disturbance. Micah offered a polite applause, an insignificant addition to the sheer volume dispensed by the crowd.

As the dancers filed off the platform, the music restarted to a general tune, indicating an intermission to the entertainment. The crowd backed away from the platform and began to intermingle across the park in groups and near the vendors. Micah stood, stretching his legs, unsurprised when Agni escorted him down the dais. The man hovered protectively at his shoulder, no doubt shielding him from the lingering deities.

Micah didn’t understand the gods’ fascination nor reason for coming tonight.

If what Agni said was true, and they only wished to observe from a distance, Micah could not imagine how bored they must be in their realm.

Agni suddenly stiffened and touched Micah’s waist, halting him. His attention was on an approaching Igni man with a red-gold aura clinging around him. Micah felt his own spine stiffen, wondering if he was about to meet Agni’s son or previous consort. However, the hostility emitting from Agni was great, making Micah doubt this approaching god was a relation.

“Calm down,” the stranger had the audacity to say, smirking at Agni. “I only want to introduce myself to the new Reaper.” He stopped before Micah and bowed with a ridiculous flourish. “Is that how it’s still done here?” he whispered in question, looking up at Micah for clarification. “Mortal royalty can’t be much different than immortal royalty, can it? Fanfare. The pompousness.”

Micah gazed down into the grinning eyes, feeling his hackles rise at the proximity of another god. 

He didn’t like them.

It didn’t help that Agni was all but feeding his anxiety with his palpable displeasure.

The Igni man straightened, seeming amused at their silence. “Easy now,” he placated. “We’re not all that bad.” He looked Micah up and down, seeming delighted at what he saw. “I am Surya. Sun god.” He leaned forward and whispered, “For the record, I am much hotter than Agni.” Here, he winked.

Micah’s resolve softened and he reached for the offered hand despite Agni’s hold tightening in response. “A pleasure to meet you.”

Surya seemed ecstatic at Micah’s reciprocated greeting. “Likewise, young one.” His eyes sought Agni. “No need to be so overwrought, Agni. You’ll have to share him eventually.” With his hand still holding Micah’s, Surya leaned down. “If this old man ever gets to be too much for you, call for me and I can introduce you to the fledglings who are closer in age. They’d show you a good time.”  

“I think that is more than enough,” Agni intervened, drawing Micah away by the waist under the amused eyes of Surya.

They created enough distance before Agni stopped and grabbed hold of Micah’s shoulders with surprising force. His fingers dug painfully into Micah’s shoulders, but his furious gaze was what took Micah off guard. They were in public, with several pairs of eyes focusing on them, yet Agni cared very little.

“Don’t ever trust them,” he commanded, his tone nearly unrecognizable in its fury. “Ever. Especially when you’re so young. Stay away from them and trust little.”

Startled, Micah immediately rose up to the challenge.

“It was a handshake, Agni,” he hissed, shaking away Agni’s hold by stepping closer. “I didn’t profess my unyielding allegiance with him.”

At Micah’s unfolding anger, Agni seemed to recover himself. He inclined his head, acknowledging his misstep. His posture readjusted to something less intimidating, yet he remained close to Micah. This wasn’t a simple case of possessiveness, Micah realized. Agni truly did not trust the other gods and wanted to instill his own distrust onto Micah.

“I would like to spend time with you in a more private setting.” Agni gazed across the park. “Will you meet me in my quarters?’

“Your quarters? Or Josiah’s quarters?”

Agni’s attention dropped back to him. He appeared uninspired with Micah’s quip. “I imagine you want to bid farewell to your… friends. But I anticipate you won’t take long. I will be attuned with you very closely should you need anything.” He reached over and adjusted Micah’s sherwani, his thumb brushing tenderly across his collarbone as if apologizing for his earlier treatment.

When Micah nodded his consent, Agni pressed his thumb more firmly against the base of Micah’s throat.

They shared a look that managed to convey their mutual longing and desire. Micah shifted, restless and eager to spend time alone with Agni without looking at Josiah’s face or having to share him with lingering deities.

With one last obsessive look, Agni swept away and brought the warmth with him.

Glancing over his shoulder, he watched Agni all but glide amongst the mortals. To his displeasure, he observed a man and woman approach him, clearly eager to see him finally unoccupied with Micah. The red-gold in their aura had Micah strongly suspecting that it was Svaha and Kartikeya, especially when they greeted Agni with a nauseating amount of informality.

With his gut wrenching unattractively, Micah turned his shoulder on Agni when the god glanced back at him.

He had absolutely no desire to watch the reunited family any further.

While he sought the crowd for his team, he noticed the significant decrease in red-gold auras.

Good. They must have gotten their fill.

Movement from the corner of his eye drew Micah’s attention to the bird sitting atop a neighboring street lantern. The raven readjusted his wings, all the while, gazing down at Micah. “I want to speak with you,” Micah said firmly. “I want answers. Will you meet me tonight?”

The raven stared.

It then emitted an irritated croak before taking flight.

Micah blinked at the slight.

“Royalty spurned by a raven? The sheer audacity,” a voice mused behind him.

He turned, his face crafted from stone as he regarded the woman. It took him a long while to recognize her. While she was of Unda race, her makeup, clothing, and hairstyle were so authentically Igni, that he’d mistaken her for someone else entirely. As it was, he inclined his head politely, readopting his royal persona.

“Miss Glyndwr. A pleasure to see you again.” He raised his eyes, catching her small grin. She then curtsied smoothly. “You look…” he trailed off, noticing the group of other Unda women standing just a short distance away. They giggled amongst each other as they watched Brooke interact with him. Clearly her support group. “Beautiful.”

She looked down at her sari.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it? I burrowed it from one of my Igni friends who couldn’t make it tonight.” She flattened a hand against the rich and vibrant crimson fabric, drawing attention to the black laced fingerless gloves. “It is a pity Igni fashion hasn’t integrated here at the capital.”

“The more dominant culture proceeds over the weaker. Consumes it.”

Brooke looked up at him then, her eyes steely and firm. “You don’t truly believe that.”

Micah smiled politely and took a few steps closer. “That’s what happened.”

“But not what you believe.”

He paused, considering the extreme difference between the woman standing before him and the giggling bunch behind her. “It doesn’t really matter what I believe. It doesn’t matter which fashion, cuisine, or religion is most dominant and prevalent. What matters most to me is the equality and the sense of unity.”

“A sense of unity would indicate an equal demonstration of both cultures and their arts,” Brooke countered. “Celebrating the sheer uniqueness of the Igni race just once a year is hardly an equal demonstration. There is no unity there.”

Micah hid a smile.

Charmed.

“No there isn’t, is there?” She was stiff, proud. A true noblewoman as she engaged Micah in fierce conversation. She was no doubt the leader of the other young women. “I’m not accustomed to many Unda nobles vehemently arguing the importance of demonstrating both cultures on an everyday occasion.”

“I don’t imagine it’s easy being you,” Brooke proclaimed bluntly. “Fighting there, in political court, by your lonesome.” Her eyes sparkled. “Just know there are more of us scattered across the capital. More of us who share your desires for change. Most are forced to be silent.”

“The silent majority,” Micah mused thoughtfully.

Something changed in her eyes as she looked up at him. Her lips, painted crimson tonight, parted with soft amusement. “An apt description.”

“Perhaps it is time, then, for the silent majority to start being heard.”

Her blue eyes widened. “Lend our voice to you, Your Highness?”

“You did say I was by my lonesome,” Micah said. “It would be nice to hear that is not the case.”

She stood there, considering. Just over her shoulder, the music shifted and several couples congregated toward the low platform to dance. He smiled then and motioned toward it. “Would you like to dance, Miss Glyndwr?”

Brooke faltered before recovering. “I assumed you came with Lord Josiah.”

There was no scorn, no mockery in her tone. Just simple observation.

“Aren’t assumptions for the ill-informed?”

Amusement flared before she looked back at the dancing couples. “I—I may have put a lot of research into my appearance tonight out of respect for the Igni culture, but I’m afraid I don’t know any Igni dances. I wouldn’t wish to offend anyone by my ignorance and miserable attempts of emulating their dance.”

Micah took special care not to smile. She truly was concerned of insulting the Igni culture by fumbling her way through the dance. It was a refreshing opinion from a high Unda noble. And it spoke of a proper, well-bred female politician, did it not? He’d observed something carefully intelligent in Brooke when she’d sought him out several months ago to inform him about Kai.

This interaction only proved there was far more depth behind that pretty façade.

He bowed slightly at the waist and offered his hand. “It’s fortunate you’re with a partner who knows the steps.” He paused. “It is extremely improper to refuse the prince, Miss Glyndwr.”

She smiled, approving, before placing her hand in his.

Leading her to the low platform, he assisted her with the step up. “I don’t plan on keeping you from your friends for too long.”

Brooke cast a careful look at the group of women. “They are easily amused. I apologize for their insistent tittering.” She looked at him dourly. “You seem to have that effect on them.” She then smirked. “Unfortunately, it seems your charm does not extend to birds.”

“I believe I can eventually persuade them.”

Standing opposite of her, he slowly led her through the steps. Fortunately, this particular song involved a lead and follow dynamic. Several Igni dances were often times independent of their partner, the male and female possessing their own steps and cues. A stubborn line appeared between Brooke’s brows as she focused intently, clearly determined to become an expert in a matter of seconds.

By the time she got a semblance of understanding, the song would be over.

The stares they’d incurred were heavy with both fond appreciation and intrigue as they watched their handsome prince with his smartly dressed noblewoman. Ignoring the gawking, Micah sighed and clasped Brooke’s hands, urging her to loosen her uptight countenance. She was well aware of the stares, no doubt accelerating her determination to master the dance as quickly as possible.

She looked at him imploringly as he tugged on her hands again.

“The most important aspect of Igni dance is the freedom. Steps are suggested, but not required. Enjoying yourself is the essential goal of their dance.” He motioned to the others with a tilt of his head.

Brooke observed the other couples’ missteps and their unsynchronized movements with those in their proximity. Some were doing entirely different dances, but they were laughing all the while, visibly enjoying themselves. It was undoubtedly a very unfamiliar scene for Unda nobility, whom relied on poise and exceptional beauty and aptness.

Brooke turned back to Micah, her lips twitching. “If you don’t mind, Your Highness, I’d still like to learn the proper steps to this dance.”

Ezra is just fine,” Micah replied.

“Then you can stop calling me ‘Miss Glyndwr’,” she insisted in turn.

“I can certainly teach you the proper steps as long as you stop focusing so hard on your feet and trust me to lead.”

She offered a consenting nod, her body turning pliable under his hold. He then swept her away, across the platform, leading her along quickly and with a vigor she wasn’t expecting. Startled laughter escaped unguarded and fond lines appeared near her eyes as she jumped and hoped and spun with him upon cue. 

Micah found he preferred this version of Brooke Glyndwr.

He circled her, his hands lingering across her waist, as what was proper for the Igni culture, yet improper for the Unda culture. She didn’t seem to mind the more intimate form of dance and only tried to mimic the other women around her. As they rotated around one another, he caught a brief glimpse of Agni in the crowd.

Micah moved too quickly to establish any sort of eye contact or assessment of the man’s state of mind.

All Micah cared about was sending a message.

While his interest in Brooke was genuine, more so on a political level, he wanted Agni to know he had the capability of creating his own life. Agni may have established a life before Micah was even conceived, and rightfully so, as it had been centuries, but Micah also had the power to build a life outside Agni. A part of him whispered it was essential to have interests—relationships— outside Agni lest he become consumed by their bond.

As obsessive as Agni might be with Micah, he had his own interests and relationships outside Micah, did he not? While he chose not to acknowledge them in front of Micah didn’t mean they weren’t there.

The song eventually tapered off, earning a round of applause from the select few who’d observed and participated.

Brooke was amongst them, clapping politely and smiling thinly up at Micah. “You are an exceptional dance partner.”

An exceptional dance partner.

Subconsciously, his eyes lifted, searching out Agni.

The god was nowhere in sight.

He smiled politely through his disappointment and held out his hand. As she placed her hand in his, he kissed the back of her palm that was covered with lace. Fingerless gloves touched fingerless gloves as he squeezed her hand admiringly. “And you, a quick and exquisite pupil.”

Brooke surveyed him carefully as he led her off the platform. Several others took their place as the music started again. The noise across the park had increased in volume, both the music and the level of conversation. No doubt the alcohol was flowing freely and everyone took advantage. Food also continued to perfume the air, the amount of fried foods prodigiously delicious.

“I hope to converse with you again in the near future, Prince Ezra.”

Guiding her to the group of impatiently squirming women, Micah caught and held a pair of dark amber eyes just a distance away. He nearly faltered, but managed to recover as he safely returned Brooke to her party.

“You have an exclusive point of view that I’d like to explore further. It is inevitable we speak in the future.” He smiled politely at the other girls as they gazed up at him in rapt attention. They appeared to be waiting eagerly for something and Micah had the strongest urge to shy away from those high expectations. Clearing his throat, he bowed formally. “Enjoy the evening, ladies.”

Managing to slither by them without appearing too hasty, Micah drew closer to those dark amber eyes.

It would be disrespectful not to acknowledge her. 

She watched his approach with wry amusement and pulled away from the other dancers to meet him halfway. “Always the charmer,” she declared, her hoarse, husky voice a memory from a time buried long in the past. “I imagine the charm intensifies when you add a royal title in front of your name.”

“Adeen,” he greeted evenly.

Her thick, dark lashes lowered upon his greeting. The wry smile twisted further, as if she were reminiscing their past together and looking on it with bittersweet fondness.

He certainly was.

She’d been no mere conquest, but rather a burning infatuation of his young teen self. His first crush. He’d been a gangly and long-limbed fourteen-year-old. She a developing, agile, and spirited sixteen-year-old. She’d rebuffed his awkward attempts of flirting several times, teasing and taunting him mercilessly before he grew enough confidence to charm her.

Micah never imagined he’d see her again. Nevertheless, now that she stood before him, he acknowledged they both shed the awkwardness of their teenaged years and stepped into their adult selves.

She was beautiful, he acknowledged.

Yet, Micah’s interests lay in an entirely different direction now.

Her inked hands gathered her long, flowing skirt in one hand. As her slipper-clad feet slid across the ground, the silver anklet shimmered quite noticeably as she lowered into a low and proper curtsy. She looked up at him teasingly, but always with a hint of sensual playfulness.

Fortunately, Viktor was nowhere nearby.

Or Agni.

“Your Royal Highness,” she returned his greeting. “Do you prefer Prince Ezra? Or Prince Micah?”

“You seemed to have taken the revelation with stride,” Micah observed, watching as she straightened.

She tossed her head indifferently, her dark, straight hair inching further down her back. “I had some suspicions, long ago, that you were not who you claimed to be.” Her dark eyes twinkled. “When the gossip reached us, I was relieved to finally have my answers.”

Micah’s brows furrowed. “Oh?”

Adeen looked like someone who harbored a scandalous secret only she was privy to. “Indeed.” She glanced at the platform over Micah’s shoulder. “Did you enjoy the performance?” At Micah’s sincere nod, she then motioned to the girls behind her. “I’m noticing each new dancer gets younger and younger. I wonder if it’s almost time to retire from dance.”

Micah barely spent much time observing the other girls before reaching a deduction. “You’re not even twenty-five and you don’t look a day older than any of the others. You’re in your prime.”

She offered a fleeting grin and turned somber. “I feel as if I’ve lived a lifetime already.”

“The outskirt regions tend to have that impression on people.”

Adeen’s eyes riveted back to Micah, observing him warily. “They say you’re our savior.”

He found that ironic. “You don’t need saving. Never have.”

“That’s true. Region 10 is my home. I’ve traveled to many places in the outskirt regions and have discovered such beauty amongst the despair. Beauty you tend to overlook in your quest to only see the undesirable and devastation.”

Fair enough, but he’d come a long way from his young, naïve self whom she knew. “I know and acknowledge the beauty, but simply wish to amplify it on a much larger scale.” He paused, regarding her stubborn, petite features. “You’ve been fortunate to have a certain skillset that earns you a healthy living.”

Adeen shifted and seemed to take it as an insult. “Not fortunate,” she countered. “Determined.” She held her head high. “I am in control of my own destiny, Micah. Just like the rest of us. Hard work and dedication can lift you—can lift anyone— from the fog most Igni people settle beneath. Many of us have pulled ourselves upright.”

He inclined his head, seeing her point and acknowledging it. “I would never deny the hard work you’ve put into your art. You’re dedication and strive is an admirable trait.”

She deflated and watched him with a piercing, mysterious intensity.

As if judging him, weighing his worthiness.

The frown she wore carried a somberness he was not familiar seeing on her normally playful face.

“I’ll be at the capital for another month. My parents and I are visiting and staying with my aunt and her husband.” She hesitated, as if weighed down by a substantial burden. “Would it be… would it be appropriate if I visited you at the palace? Allowable? There is something I wish to speak to you about that would require a different setting, I think.”

Assuming Adeen needed assistance with something, Micah nodded readily. “I will add you to the prescreened guest list.”

She cleared her throat and mirrored his nod. “Just go in and request for you?”

“Request for Ara. She will take care of you.”

Adeen picked up her skirt and shuffled one, two steps away from him. “Then I’ll be seeing you soon, Your Highness.” She bowed again, readopting her playful demeanor before rejoining the other dancers.

They eyed him as hungrily as Brook Glyndwr’s friends did.

Casually, Micah looked away from them and directed his stare into the sky, gazing at the clear moon.

It was due time he bid farewell to his team and meet Agni.

He’d kept the Fire God waiting long enough.

 

* * * *

 

It was fortunate that Josiah’s royal guards were not surrounding his personal quarters tonight.

Micah had ducked Kai’s attempt of escorting him back to the palace, proclaiming Viktor and Aiden needed more attention than he did. When Micah had bade his team farewell, the two men had been slumped over a rubbish bin, heaving up their stomachs. He pitied Haken and Kai for having to escort them back to the palace and cater to them when they were just as tipsy.

All the other Igni guards were probably still at the festival, Josiah most likely giving them the night off.

As it was, Micah was free to sneak inside his chambers without having the whole palace knowing of it.

His palms were sweating. His pulse raced.

Agni, he was looking forward to this and dreading it at the same time.

With Agni at his most powerful tonight, the man undoubtedly had more energy and time to dwell in a physical form. Considering Agni’s refractory period was already disproportionate to Micah’s, he was morbidly interested to see how tonight proceeded. If stimulated properly, could Micah keep up with Agni? Would Agni attempt to keep Micah’s desire piqued?

There was also the notion of trying something new and exploring their limitations.

As he entered the chambers, he immediately found himself under the scrutiny of five pairs of eyes.

Their eyes relayed an array of sentiments, from cautiousness to belittlement.

Stiffening, he quickly adopted a taciturn façade, returning their scrutiny with cool regard. When he identified them as gods, the first thing he wanted to do was turn his heel and storm from the chambers with a scathing insult aimed at Agni. For the god had to have agreed to their presence. Undoubtedly, his consort and his son were present, which added insult to injury.

Was this a subtle revenge for Micah dancing with Brooke? For Adeen’s reappearance in his life? For shaking hands with the Sun God? Agni would never admit to doing something so childish and immature, yet, Micah wouldn’t put it past the man to agree to their company out of sulkiness.

Therein lies the truth of it all and Micah would not stand for.

If the man dared…

If this were Agni actively using Micah’s insecurities against him, it would not bode well for the man.  

Therefore, instead of giving into his anger and lashing out, Micah instead harnessed it coolly and calmly. He closed to door softly behind him and stepped confidently into the room. The shadows peeled away from him as he approached the group, the lit fire highlighting his dispassionate, focused eyes. Some of their smirks faltered upon his stealthy, assertive approach.

When he came to a stop near the divan, he planted his feet in a steady stance and clasped his hands behind his back.

“Am I interrupting?” he crooned pleasantly with a faint, forbidding smile.  

He would not cower.

 

Chapter Text

16. Chapter Sixteen

 

“Am I interrupting?” he crooned pleasantly with a faint, forbidding smile. 

Agni, free of Josiah’s skin, sat at the very end of the divan. In his hand, he held a glass of wine as if it were some self-proclaimed goblet pertaining the liquid of unsurpassed supremacy. His smug eyes appraised Micah intently as he raised the glass to his lips, hiding the pleased and sinister smile that curled upon Micah’s dark, unimpressed inquiry.

“Interrupting? No, child, we were expecting you.” He placed a hand on the cushion next to him. “Please sit.”

“You call him ‘child’,” a man proclaimed with an amused gasp of disbelieving irony. “The same one you’re physically intimate with.” He looked at the only woman in the room. “I always wondered why you two separated. Now I realize you don’t quite fit Agni’s proclivities. Perhaps Kartikeya would have been a better fit for him.”

Agni stared at the man.

Said man chuckled. “I jest, Agni!”

Micah could sense the tension in the room. It thickened the air, giving the already warm, fire-lit room an oppressive feel. They all dwelled together in a mockery of pretentious politeness and fake comradeship. Micah wondered why they forced themselves to interact. Was it because of Agni’s power? His status in the god realm? 

Agni said his previous consort was all about image. Status.

So why was Agni allowing them the ‘honor’ of his attention and presence?

Was Agni also using them to his advantage?

“Have some tact, Tvastr.” The woman looked fleetingly at Micah and then away, as if unable to stand the sight of him. “Agni simply calls him by what he is. A child. A very young one at that.”

The man leaned back and nursed his own glass of wine. “Well, child or not, the boy is attractive. Even in his mortal skin.”

Having moved toward the spot Agni gestured to sit, Micah suddenly veered toward the outspoken man. Even in his hazy resentment, Micah acknowledged the commanding auras these individuals harnessed under their mortal vessels. He would not underestimate their potential to be dangerous enemies, especially the man he loomed over.

The god, whom currently possessed an unknown Igni, gazed up at Micah.

His appreciation of Micah’s features was clear, yet there was something ominous underneath those eyes. He had the air of a warrior. Of a skilled hunter. Underneath the unkind, arrogant words, he evidently had skill to back up said egotism.

“Perhaps Agni did not inform you yet, but my name is Ezra,” Micah said deliberately. “Not ‘the boy’. Not ‘the child’.”

Agni was suddenly behind him, a hand pressed firmly—possessively— against his ribs. “Introductions are in order, of course.” He hovered at Micah’s shoulder. “This is Tvastr, the God of Weaponry, or as many call him, the Heavenly Builder. He is also one of King Indra’s most trusted and respected generals.”

Earlier that evening, Surya, the Sun God, had mentioned royalty in passing. Micah hadn’t thought much on it, but now he had a name and he wondered.

King Indra.

A king among gods. He must be impressive.

Micah wanted to ask more about Indra, yet he would not parade his ignorance so blatantly in front of these deities.

Before Tvastr could say anything in turn, Agni rotated Micah to the man whom had yet to say anything. While they all cloaked themselves in mortal skin, hiding their true features, this man’s sullenness and watchfulness fit well with his vessel’s appearance. The thick, drawn brows, the heavy jawline, and the strong and brooding countenance all coincided with his blatant soberness. The unnamed god observed Micah closely, having the same patient awareness as Tvastr.

Another warrior. Another hunter.

Micah remained on his toes.

“This is my son, Kartikeya, the reputable God of War.” Agni’s tone was clipped, formal, and again, he pulled on Micah’s waist, turning him to face the rigid woman. “And his mother, Svaha, the Goddess of Ash.”

Agni did not introduce her as his previous consort. A slight, certainly, considering how reverent consorts were in the immortal realm. At least, that’s what Micah assumed from Agni’s previous discussions.

She gazed at Micah coldly.

Her entire demeanor unapproachable.

This he could handle.

He expected such behavior from her—Agni’s spurned lover. She was predictable. Petty. It was Kartikeya and Tvastr whom Micah needed to watch closely. Even with Agni standing behind him, Micah felt the eyes of the immortal warriors weighing him. Judging him. Looking away from Svaha, Micah focused on the two gods, his own gaze unflinching and critical.

“And as all of you know, this is my counterpart, Ezra, the God of Death and Justice.” The pride in Agni’s tone was unmistakable. “I trust you all to be amicable to him. He may be young for our standards, yes, but he learns quickly. Slights will be remembered.”

Here, he looked at Tvastr.

“The last thing you should do, Agni, is threaten us with his foreseeable retribution.” Tvastr was sharp and unkind. “We’re already on edge with his presence, whether his unnatural creation be by Brahma’s whims or someone else entirely.”

“You mistake me, Tvastr,” Agni started with a low murmur. “I am not simply threatening you with Ezra’s foreseeable retribution, but also my own should you misstep against him.”

Tvastr rocked back against the divan, gazing at Agni narrowly. “There will undoubtedly be several ‘missteps’ among our kind whether intentional or not. Such acts of careless disrespect is no reason for retribution. Even for you, that is a lot of potential adversaries to face.”

Micah pointedly ignored the posturing around him, his mind dwelling on Tvastr’s earlier comment.

Brahma.

Brahma was another name Micah had heard before, recollected, and soon forgotten. Agni once said Brahma was the Creator God, and judging from Tvastr’s tone, Micah assumed Brahma held a position of great reverence to the other gods. Moreover, at every mention of ‘Brahma’, something prickled at the back of Micah’s neck.

A sense of unease. Of disquiet.

A whispered prophecy of tragedy and destruction.

Micah’s attention fell to the last individual in the room whom had yet to receive a proper introduction. He realized she did not have a red-gold aura like the rest of her companions. More so, from the submissive way she held herself, Micah hesitated to call these three deities her companions.

She had the silver aura of a living mortal, but Micah quickly noticed her hands. Folded in front of her, the tips of her fingers were stained black and the veins on the back of her hands were just as murky and dark as they stretched up to her elbows.

Something of bitter and upsetting remembrance pulled at Micah’s memory as he observed the black, tainted veins. Almost as if it were a nightmare, he recalled the foggy apparition of a defeated woman swaying at the edge of insanity. He remembered the dark room, lit only by the full moon. Under the moon’s watchful gaze, the woman’s lithe and undeniably frail figure slumped forward as she carefully traced the veins on her arms with black charcoal. Unruly waves of hair fell into void eyes as she looked frequently back at him, as if checking the status of his well-being, but unable to muster enough emotion to care.  

“And you are?” Micah inquired.

The young Igni woman looked up with surprise.

Her wide, gold eyes stared at him desperately. Whomever this—whatever—this was, it was frightened and defeated.

Just like the woman in his dreams.

Terrifyingly alone.

“Do you not recognize your own kin, Reaper?” Tvastr inquired, spurring the young girl to look down hurriedly. “It is a daemon.”

“A daemon,” Micah repeated faintly. With the exception of the few who’d been in the mortal realm at the time of the lockdown, Micah thought they all dwelled in Yama’s icy and agonizing realm. “I had believed they were all imprisoned in Yama’s realm.”

So much for veiling his ignorance.

Yet, the scene before him left him breathless with quiet fury.

“We could not herd them all in the realm in time for the lockdown,” came the unsympathetic response. “Those left behind make themselves useful or face execution. This help, I see, is beginning to slack. Pour some wine for our guest, daemon. Must you wait for such orders?”

The girl flinched horribly and shuffled forward with the bottle of wine and an empty glass. Though Micah wanted to reach forward and console her, a hand beat him to it.

Agni placed his long-fingered hand over the glass and spoke with a level gentleness. “Ezra does not appreciate the taste of wine. Perhaps you could pour him some whiskey from the side parlor, please?”

Agni pulled Micah away, finally convincing him to sit on the divan.

Micah did so stiffly, rocking forward and keeping a steady eye on the trio of deities looking back at him. His attention wanted to linger on the daemon, whom currently followed Agni’s order and sought the whiskey from the side parlor. Yet again, he found his ignorance a fault. He hadn’t realized the situation was so dire. Not only were the mortal souls left in limbo, and the immortal creatures damned to eternal suffering, but the gods were also forcing daemons into servitude. 

Gods could destroy daemons, unlike their Syphon counterparts.

These entities were vulnerable.

Displeasure soured his stomach and made its way up his throat.

He could barely breathe.

He didn’t know much about daemons. Only what the Noir User guru, Beck, had told him and the few references in the demonology books he’d read long ago. Moreover, who knew if that was fact or ignorant mortal folklore? When he’d first faced daemons, he’d combated against them in Region 20 during Kai’s rescue. He’d hated them then. And when Yama showed him of the daemons’ torment in his realm, Micah’s hatred turned into sympathy.  

Now…

Just like the hands emerging from the river in the immortal realm, whom reached to him in helplessness, Micah found yet another party of suppressed, despairing entities.

A hand touched the small of Micah’s back in gentle understanding.

A simple gesture meant to placate and tell him he was not alone.

“A god who does not appreciate wine? That is rather unusual,” Svaha commented airily, sipping haughtily at her own wine.

Micah tempered the eye roll, recalling wine being the pillar of many offerings and rituals for gods, whom, if Agni was any indication, adored the deep, red liquor. In which Svaha and Tvastr currently nursed it as if it were a high delicacy.

“He is part—”

“It is not entirely unusual,” Kartikeya interrupted Tvastr. He leaned forward in his seat, mirroring Micah’s perched posture. “Despite its approbation in our world, it dulls the senses, slows the reflexes.” In his hand, he held a glass of what appeared to be water. His eyes bored into Micah. “Among enemies, it be best you don’t even have that whiskey you adore.”

Micah stared.

Kartikeya stared back.

Kartikeya shared his father’s intensity. That quiet, predator-like impression. Instead of it eliciting an excited and eager response in Micah, as it did with Agni, he felt marked. Targeted. Just as the name ‘Brahma’ brought forth unfamiliar sentiments, so did Kartikeya’s presence and attention. He could not pinpoint what he felt, only that he felt connected to Kartikeya.

Micah’s lips twisted in a sarcastic grin as he accepted the tumbler of whiskey with a polite nod of gratitude.

The daemon bowed and backed away quickly, reemerging into the shadows until it was needed again.

Raising the tumbler of whiskey, he offered Agni’s son a mock toast.

“I appreciate the forewarning.” He was not talking about the whiskey slowing his reflexes. He was referring to Kartikeya’s warning of being among enemies. Current onlookers included. Judging from the gleam in Kartikey’s eyes, he recognized exactly what Micah meant. “But I can handle my liquor quite well.”

Kartikeya watched as he sipped from the whiskey.

“What is your specialty in combat?” he inquired, filling the tense silence with talk of something he was clearly more interested with than politics. “Your stature is rather small and underwhelming for a close-range warrior. Are you a long distance fighter? Elemental like my father? Or archery?” His tone was not dismissive, but rather matter of fact. He then gave a firm nod, as if answering his own speculations. “Long distance would suit your physique.”

Micah paused, his glass halfway to his lips.

He then gave a quick, inquisitive glance down at his body, wondering what, exactly, was so small and underwhelming.

He had the average build of a typical Igni warrior, if not a bit larger due to his Unda heritage.

Agni, while broader than Micah and possessing more defined muscles, wasn’t overwhelming by any means. He had a suspicion that Kartikeya would have the body of a formidable and impressive warrior. He probably towered over Cain. He probably possessed rippling muscles and powerful thighs. And he would be able to maneuver as quickly and as lithely as any other warrior would.

Micah couldn’t exactly say it was surprising.

Considering what Kartikeya was.

“I wield the sword,” Micah answered, hardly bothered to hide his dry amusement. “Though I’m probably no match against the God of War.”

At this, Kartikeya rocked further forward. “We must spar sometime.” He looked around, as if searching for something. His sword. “This mortal’s body is a fit competitor for you. Perhaps we can—”

“Kartikeya.” Svaha reached over and patted his knee. “Not tonight.”

Micah watched mother and son inquisitively. Something lingered. Something danced at the edge of his awareness. Kartikeya seemed to possess a child-like countenance during discussions of combat. Upon his mother’s light chastising, however, the God of War reclined in his seat, adopting a stern, albeit blank expression.

Kartikeya looked first to Tvastr, and then to Agni.

Whatever Kartikeya searched for in his father’s face—acceptance?—he found none. When his attention flickered back to Micah, something hostile shimmered there, as if reminded that Micah was the bane of his and his mother’s existence.

Obviously, Micah did not know the whole story between Agni and his family.

Whatever had transpired between the trio…

Had been tragic.

Micah couldn’t help but feel further away from Agni than he had in a long while. What would happen if the family eventually worked things out? It was clear there were suppressed emotions among all three. Unexpressed confessions and sentiments. There would be tears, angry admissions, outpours of guilt, and eventually forgiveness.

What was Micah in the grand scheme of things?

Compared to a marriage that spanned over centuries?

Compared to a child born out of such a sacred unification?

He was but a child. A fledgling. Someone who relied on Agni like a crutch.

Micah stiffened against Agni’s hand that remained resting on his lower back, resisting the childish urge to squirm away from it. Instead, he raised his whiskey and drank from it greedily.

Tvastr cleared his throat. “Kartikeya is rather enthusiastic when there is talk of combat.” He adopted a fond politeness as he looked at Kartikeya, as if trying to reassure him in place of Agni. “There will certainly be many opportunities to duel our fledgling Reaper, Kartikeya. Why, I would say it’s almost prophesied you two will see many battles together.”

Micah’s attention zeroed in on Tvastr, sensing the sly insinuating.  

Battles together. As allies? Or as enemies?

“Indeed?” he inquired wryly. “Are there many battles in your realm?”

Tvastr turned an appraising eye on Micah. “Our realm. Yes. Many. There is always a darkness to vanquish. Our army is great. Our warriors impeccable.” He glanced at Agni. “And when necessary, the Four will intervene. There is much to protect. Several defenseless deities, several treasures, several wonders. Our splendor and honor is always on the brink of attack, but we do well in defense.”

His appraising turned steely, as if warning Micah of their unflinching defenses should he care to attack.

“A darkness to vanquish,” Micah repeated the words carefully. “And what would be your definition of darkness?”

“There are several variations of darkness,” Tvastr replied. “Presently, we face more beasts from the depths of Naraka.”

“Naraka is also known as ‘hell’, or more commonly here, purgatory,” Agni emphasized. “The God of Death rules over the levels—realms— of Naraka. The bottom depths of such a place is where several creatures of old slumber. Without a proper master ruling over Naraka, numerous beasts have escaped and lay torment to Elisium—our deity homeland.”

Tvastr straightened and keenly considered Micah. “You truly don’t know much…”  

Agni’s hand slid from Micah’s back and cupped his shoulder possessively. “I have told you as much, Tvastr. He is not Yama.”

Tvastr looked to Svaha, whom gazed steadily back at him. “He needs training.” He looked back at Agni. “King Indra wishes to meet with him. With you, fledgling.” Here, he directed his attention to Micah, as if finally realizing he’d been speaking about Micah as if he weren’t there. “Someone needs to train you. Educate you properly.”

It was then when Micah realized Agni had wanted him to display his ignorance in front of Tvastr. An ignorant God of Death was far less of a threat than one who was knowledgeable. He would be ripe for manipulation. Brainwashing. To Agni, it was undoubtedly a more favorable outcome than instant annihilation.

Their presence tonight finally made sense. 

Agni did not invite these three deities back to his rooms to spite Micah, but rather to demonstrate Micah’s naivety.

“Do you not trust me?” Agni asked charmingly. He tightened his hold on Micah’s shoulder. “I will train him when it is necessary.”

“You will be the boy’s lover, friend, brother, father, and master, Agni? Is there anything you will not be to him?” Svaha inquired bitingly. “I pity you, poor fledgling.” She looked at Micah. “Like the element Agni controls, he is all-consuming. Selfish. He will absorb every aspect of your life. Let us hope he does not lose interest in you as quickly as he did me. You’ll be left standing without a pillar in the harsh winds of reality.”

Before Micah could respond, Agni animated.

For how laid back he’d been since the beginning, the change was jarring no matter how slow and purposeful he moved.

“Do not,” he started quietly, “Bring Ezra into your illusory feud with me.”

“Illusory?” Svaha whispered disbelievingly.

Agni perched at the edge of the divan. “Illusory, Svaha, because you need two participating parties to share a feud. Holding a grudge would indicate I harbor strong emotions for you, emotions I can assure you have long since shriveled and died.”

Svaha’s expression schooled. “I have every right to warn Ezra of the precarious relationship he’s in, but perhaps I’m looking at it wrong.” A slow, vindictive smile curled her lips. “Perhaps lady karma will pay you a visit. As your counterpart, he was made for you, Agni, but you were not made for him. One day, he may desert you as cruelly as you have deserted me. And that will be all the reprisal I need.”

She was trying to rouse him.

Yet she did not succeed.

Agni simply reclined on the divan and crossed his legs. His arm snaked across the back of the divan behind Micah. “Perhaps,” he replied agreeably. He sipped at his wine and looked at Micah. “No one can know what the future holds.”

Micah tapped his fingers against his empty tumbler, uncomfortably looking at the bottom of the glass to avoid Agni’s stare. Agni may have acted as if Svaha’s words did not affect him, however, Micah felt the spike of uncensored vehemence before it tempered away.

Was Agni waiting for Micah to say something in response to Svaha’s foretelling? Did Agni want Micah to publicly defend their relationship? The very thought of ascertaining he would spend eternity with Agni seemed petrifying. What he shared with Agni—whatever it was—was far too new to vow himself to the God of Fire forever.

His words would be false.

And they would all know it.

He started when a pair of black-stained fingers collected his glass and disappeared with it into the side parlor. As he looked after the daemon, he caught Tvastr’s eyes, noticing the general watching him closely with an absurd amount of calculation and scheming. Micah simply returned the man’s regard, finding it easier to meet Tvastr’s eyes than Agni’s scrutiny.  

“How long do you plan on playing mortal?” Tvastr inquired lowly.

Micah’s offered him a cold look. “However long it takes for me to accomplish my objectives here.”

Tvastr then turned to Agni, as if Agni were the deciding factor.

Micah mulled that was probably the case.

Agni’s answer surprised him. “It is something Ezra and I will decide together.”

Even if Agni did not intend to allow Micah a say in the matter, he was alluding to the others of a united front. An equal partnership. Micah looked at the man, whom rewarded his scrutiny with a small, pleased smile. Unseen to the others, one of his fingers brushed the nape of Micah’s neck, electing a spasm of warm pleasure in Micah’s lower stomach.

“I sincerely hope the mortality game does not extend much longer.”

Tvastr stood from his seat, Kartikeya and Svaha fluidly following suit. It was clear Tvastr held a position of power in their realm. It was in the way he held himself. In the way both Kartikeya and Svaha followed his lead.

Even Micah had to resist the urge to stand at attention.

“Our king will most certainly have a say in Ezra’s training, Agni. Perhaps a longer visit next time, with dictates from King Indra, but I believe we’ve overstayed our welcome tonight.” He looked pointedly at Svaha, whom gazed back unflinchingly.

Agni merely lifted his glass in farewell.

He did stand before his son, however. Micah watched as they firmly clasped each other’s forearms. Warriors and soldiers practiced the gesture when greeting or bidding farewell to their close comrades. He would have thought they’d at least embrace, but they treated one another like fellow warriors. Masculine. Proud. Honorable.

Father and son had a peculiar relationship. Micah could not decipher it. Then again, he considered his own relationship with Calder. While they were growing closer, their interactions were often times awkward and strained.

Kartikeya nodded firmly to Micah before turning his shoulder.

His attention lingered across the God of War’s back, contemplating the man and wondering a great deal of things.  

“Is it true?” a whispered voice inquired near his ear. “Master Yama is back?”

Micah turned, nearly nose to nose with the daemon whom thrust a full tumbler into his hands. “Is that what you hear?”

The daemon looked to Tvastr, whom was in deep conversation with Agni, before looking back at Micah. Its eyes flashed white before they turned back into liquid gold. “The other gods don’t seem to notice yet, but I hear the whispers from my kin. I can feel echoes of his presence. But I can feel your presence, too. It’s more powerful than his. Warmer, but unfamiliar.” Its voice softened even further. “Can there really be two of you?” The daemon appeared hopeful.  

Unfortunately, not. Yama wanted to absorb Micah’s Essence once his mortal body perished. It would make him more powerful. It would make him complete. Micah could never foresee an alliance with Yama, for the previous God of Death was determined to reclaim his throne.

When he shook his head to express this, the daemon’s hope faltered and disappeared.

The daemon then adopted a look of deliberation. “Would you free us? Or will you be under the thrall of the gods?”

Daemon.”

Before Micah could respond, the daemon slinked over to Tvastr, becoming his meek shadow.

Tvastr then moved to hover above Micah, most likely trying to use intimidation as his endgame. In turn, Micah simply reclined in his seat, adopting Agni’s early position by crossing his legs and smirking up at the God of Weaponry. “It was a great pleasure to meet you, General Tvastr,” he said cheekily.

Tvastr appeared unimpressed, if not indulged. “Stay out of trouble, Reaper. You and I will be seeing each other again shortly.”

“I look forward to it.”

Tvastr offered him one last look before he shepherded Svaha and Kartikeya out of the room with a lone daemon trailing their heels. Once the door closed, Micah stood from the divan and inhaled his drink. He passed before the roaring fire, looking at Agni, whom simply gazed back in his typical unreadable fashion.

“That was awkward.”

“Was it?” Agni drawled. “I thought it went rather well.” At Micah’s contemptuous stare, Agni sipped from his wine and settled back on the divan. “You had to meet them eventually, Ezra. You could not turn a cold shoulder forever. Though I do not interact with Svaha and Kartikeya often, they will undoubtedly make an appearance. And Tvastr—”

“Hail the ignorant, naïve, and malleable God of Death,” Micah interrupted fiercely. “I appreciate you drawing attention to that.”

“Do not pretend you do not see the benefit of that.” Agni appeared amused in face of Micah’s growing ire. “Silly child.”

“Yes. I am that. A child. A boy. A fledgling.”

He detested that word.

Agni set down his glass and reached out a hand to him.

“Come here, my little fledgling.” His blood-orange eyes were bright with wicked humor, yet his face remained serious. “Ezra,” he purred when he recognized Micah’s black mood. “They do not understand mortals. A twenty-year-old mortal’s maturity is but equivalent to a two-hundred-year-old god. They simply see your physical age and liken you to a mere newborn.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“That you’re so much younger than I am?” Agni teeth flashed and he beckoned Micah closer once more. “You keep up with me and you’re mature beyond your years. Far more mature than many ancient gods.” Something danced behind Agni’s eyes. “Please. Come here. Ezra.

Micah withheld a sigh and moved closer.

When he was within range, Agni’s fingers hooked into Micah’s sherwani and tugged him closer. He then forced Micah to sit on his lap, ignoring the younger man’s stiff and unyielding posture. Micah stared unhappily across the room, finding this position a mockery of the whole ‘child’ and ‘fledgling’ debacle. Instead of voicing his distaste, however, he simply raised his whiskey glass.

Only, Agni intercepted it before he could partake and placed it with a heavy, definite clink on the table.

“I think that is more than enough,” he said obstinately. “I want you coherent tonight.”

At the authoritative tone, a spark of wanton pleasure tightened Micah’s stomach. He hardly had much chance to recover before Agni’s hands found his waist. The man pulled him down firmly on his lap, rocking his groin against Micah’s ass once, twice, before releasing him. His fingers then ran determinedly up Micah’s sides before cupping his shoulders.

“You did well tonight and held your own. Being ignorant to a vast majority of things will work in our favor. For now. I do not intend to throw you to Tvastr entirely clueless and susceptible to manipulation, but it is ideal he and Indra thinks this is the case.” Agni caressed Micah’s shoulders. “I do not understand your tension.”

“No?”

“The daemon?”

“It should be entirely unsurprising by now.”

Agni held a contemplative silence. “Svaha and Kartikeya?” Micah stiffened under Agni’s hands. “You seem to hold the notion that I am merely amusing myself with you. As if this is to pass the time.”

“No amount of reassurance will change how I feel,” Micah ground out. “Please don’t try tonight.”

The hands paused. Instead of arguing, however, Agni simply clucked his tongue disapprovingly and refocused his attentions on Micah. Gradually, he kneaded his tense shoulders, his thumbs pressing into the nape of Micah’s neck and kneading there too.

Sighing, Micah relaxed into the touch, nearly purring when Agni found his scalp.

“Are you… gentling me?” Micah asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

Micah smirked at the blunt answer. “Well then. Please do continue.”  

Fingernails scraped through his hair and paid special attention to his scalp. Micah sagged forward, bending to the pressure. His eyes slipped closed as the hands worked through his hair, pulling, massaging, and soothing. Before Micah could consider falling asleep, one of the hands slipped away and settled forcibly against his chest.

Agni nudged him until Micah’s back pressed against his chest. The Fire God then leaned closer, trailing his nose against Micah’s neck and inhaling. The light traces across his skin was invigorating and enough to rouse Micah. Satisfied relaxation turned into agitated and mischievous pleasure. Micah shifted purposefully on Agni’s lap, provoking a satisfied noise deep within Agni’s chest.

He could feel the hardness pressed up against him and he smiled fondly.

Agni was always so eager.

So responsive.

Micah turned, rolling his forehead against Agni’s own. His smile widened when he met the intensity in Agni’s gaze. He reached for the man, trailing his fingertips across Agni’s face. Fiery eyes slipped closed, a faint, delighted smile on his lips as Micah traced his features.

Micah hadn’t had the opportunity to appreciate Agni’s appearance tonight, not with their impromptu guests, but he took his fill now.

The man’s imposing robes were black with brilliant crimson accents. The crimson patterns were elegant, yet masculine, appearing rather serpentine and whimsical like dancing flames. The body chains Agni wore were deep charcoal, nearly invisible against the black robes as they draped across his shoulders and chest. He wore his hair down tonight, the vibrant strands falling past his shoulders in a thick, smooth curtain.

Micah removed his fingers from Agni’s peaceful face and occupied himself with the hair.

Always the hair.

Clutching the strands, he fixated over their vibrancy. The red, orange, and golden blond strands entwined through his fingers like an overeager serpent, serving to fuel Micah’s obsession. As he played with the long hair, he felt the hand in his own hair respond favorably. Tugging when he tugged, smoothing when he gentled. 

Halfheartedly tearing his attention from the hair fisted in his hand, he studied Agni’s face. His chest tightened as he reached with his free hand, truly marveling at the man’s attractiveness.

Agni was handsome.

A strong, masculine handsomeness.

It was something Micah noted before, acknowledged before, but never truly admired. Those features were open and soft under Micah’s ministrations, a vast difference from their sly detachedness from earlier that night with the others. Seeing Agni so exposed, so revealed tugged at something within Micah.

Agni’s eyes remained closed as Micah continued his curious exploration of his straight nose and smiling lips. His smooth, chiseled jawline. His blond eyebrows and lashes. His high cheekbones.

“Ezra,” Agni murmured, his voice hoarse. “You’re putting me to sleep.”

Micah hummed in his throat. “You certainly don’t feel asleep.” As if to prove his point, he wiggled against the erection.

Blood-orange eyes opened and narrowed spiritedly. “You’re sitting the wrong way.”

“You put me in this position.”

“Normally, you aren’t so compliant. I didn’t think you’d stay in that position for long.”

Micah complied and turned around to face Agni, planting both of his knees on either side of the man’s thighs. His pulse raced with anticipation as Agni’s eyes turned entirely red with hunger. His attention focused on Micah’s spread thighs, his hands reaching out, brushing Micah’s hips, before smoothing down both his legs.

Smirking, Micah bounced experimentally atop Agni, making sure to hit the man’s growing manhood and rub against it provokingly. “You told me I ride well.” He placed a hand on the divan just above Agni’s shoulder and leaned closer to the gasping man. “You haven’t truly witnessed my proficiency at riding.”

Agni’s nails clawed at the fabric over Micah’s hips, his expression no longer exposed, but rather contorted with unresolved and angry tension. He suddenly reached up and grabbed Micah’s jaw, cupping it aggressively. “You’re rather arrogant for someone who has never ridden anyone.”

He pulled Micah closer, observing him intently.

His opposite hand pressed down on Micah’s back, forcing the smaller male to make contact with his erection and stay there.

“You just can’t give up control, can you?” Micah said as best he could past the hand holding his jaw.

Agni hissed between his teeth.

It was exhilarating. Agni’s passion was angry. The way he stared at Micah was unnervingly erotic.

God.

Micah made a noise of frustration when Agni continued to clutch at his jaw and back, holding him in place. Unexpectedly, both hands were removed from his person, causing Micah to blink in surprise. He found himself deposited on the divan without the sweltering body beneath him. Gathering himself on his hands and knees, he turned and watched Agni cross the sitting area.

“What?” he choked angrily. “Where are you going?”

His growing erection throbbed at the jarring and unappreciative turn of events.

“One moment, my love.”

Micah exhaled with disbelief, watching as Agni disappeared into the side parlor. He leaned back against the divan, running a shaking hand through his already disorderly hair. Before he could reach for his abandoned drink, Agni came gliding back into the room with a box in his hands. He moved serenely, silently, as if he did not sport a painful erection.

Unexpectedly, Agni stopped before the divan and got on one knee.

Micah’s mind stopped.

And then he panicked.

“What are you doing?” Micah demanded frantically.

Agni watched him with interest. Whether he was disappointed or amused with Micah’s panic, he did not express it. Instead, he opened the box, revealing a dark serpent ornament. Micah calmed a fraction, yet not entirely. From the formal way Agni held himself, on one knee before him, was particularly telling that this was no ordinary gift exchange.

“I anticipate we will be quite preoccupied the rest of the evening. I had wanted to give you this beforehand.” He held it out to Micah. “Ezra Zale Talise, under the witness of Lady Parvati, I implore you to accept my first gesture of affection and expression of—”

“No, no,” Micah interrupted, hearing the words, feeling the words as if they were a ceremonious ritual. “Please don’t.”

Agni offered him an unimpressed look. “And expression of eternal devotion and faithfulness,” he concluded as if Micah had not interrupted him. “It is nothing but an armlet, Ezra. One that I have forged especially for you. What are you so against?”

“Don’t play me,” Micah argued. “This is no simple gift.”

Agni blinked slowly. “What do you believe it is?”

Micah sat up, feeling weak-limbed. “A consort ritual.”

“Indeed.”

Micah looked away from the armlet to Agni’s practiced expression. He had expected Agni to sidestep the issue or at least divert it to something that would mislead Micah. It was what he normally did. Instead, he admitted to a truth that left Micah profoundly speechless. Consorts. The idea was entirely implausible to Micah.

He and Agni… as… consorts.

“It is the first step in courting a chosen consort,” Agni started again. “Accepting this gift will not make you my consort.”

“How many gifts are there?”

“Three in this specific ritual,” Agni replied. “Even if you accept all three does not mean you will be my consort. This particular ritual will recognize when you are ready to accept me as your consort, as your partner. It already recognizes my desire, Ezra, but I will wait for however long it takes for you to feel the same.”

Agni regarded Micah before sighing and moving even closer with the armlet.

“Just give me this chance,” the man requested quietly. “Wearing this, accepting it, and keeping an open mind that we can be exactly what you fear we cannot be.” When Micah caught his eyes, Agni inclined his head submissively. “Equals.”

Micah inhaled deeply, leaning forward and looking closely at the serpent armlet. What he first thought to be crafted from charcoal turned out to be rock. A rough, uneven, and rigid rock. Dull black in color. It wasn’t a very attractive rock, if Micah were honest with himself. The armlet itself was masculine and ruggedly handsome with simplicity.

As much as he wanted to reject the gift, he held his tongue.

Agni was asking for a chance.

And it wasn’t binding. It did not mean they were consorts. Yet. Moreover, even if Agni were deceiving him, and this was a consort bond, Micah knew those bonds were not permanent. Agni and Svaha were no longer consorts and they most likely went through their own ritual.

He could think of it as just a gift.

A gift.

Micah took another deep breath and nodded his consent.

Agni allowed nothing but a very small smile to slip past his defenses. He inched closer, reaching for Micah’s shirt. With Agni’s assistance, Micah wrestled out of the sherwani. The man then removed his oxidized armlet he’d worn for the festival and placed it aside. His attention lingered on the warm pendant across his neck and the few scars it left behind after burning into his skin.

“You don’t need this any longer.” Agni’s long fingers caressed a heavily raised scar over Micah’s sternum that he’d received during Dushyanta’s consumption in Region 20. “Despite you not needing it, it will continue to work and leave unnecessary burns.”

“I’m immune to the power of an unveiled god in the mortal realm now?”

Micah came to that conclusion when conversing with an unveiled Varuna in the royal mausoleum.

Hearing it now…

“You’ll experience some adverse effects, but you will endure. I am concealing much of my power now, but you will most likely feel a headache or strain behind your eyes should you face a powerful god in his true form.” Agni removed his fingers from their inquisitive worship before collecting the gift. “All you must do is reach for it and it will come to you.”

Micah looked suspiciously at Agni.

The god simply returned his regard with an air of innocence.

Reaching for the armlet, his fingers barely brushed against the rock before it animated and slithered up his arm. It looped up his forearm, stretching, lengthening as it made its way around his elbow and up around his bicep. Micah watched the progress through disbelieving eyes.

Clearly, this was no simple armlet.

This was—

The rock brightened and burned, turning a fiery red, like burning charcoals, before stilling and subduing back to its dull black. It did not appear to be a piece of jewelry anymore, but rather an inked tattoo. Its tail just touched the beginning of Micah’s elbow and coiled around his bicep until its head rested against his collarbone.

Micah’s fingers reached for it, feeling the uneven pattern, but it seemed flushed against his skin.

“Agni,” Micah started warningly.

“It is not permanent and mortals cannot see it. It will fade away should we both feel our bond unsalvageable.”

Micah scoffed. “Both.”

It might as well be permanent, as he knew Agni would never let him go.

There was dark satisfaction in the man’s eyes as he looked upon the coiled serpent. Micah shook his head, exasperatedly unsurprised. His own attention returned to the claiming, the branding. He was not entirely unhappy, no matter the implications. It was attractive. Moreover, despite outwardly appearing frustrated, Micah could not deny the sublime pleasure of Agni physically claiming him.

“What is this material? Rock?”

“Volcanic rock.”

“Volcanic?” Micah looked back at Agni, unfamiliar with the term.

“Volcanoes are similar to mountains; only, they have the capability to erupt with lava, a fiery and lethal sludge that will destroy anything and everything in its path.” He reached out to touch the serpent fondly. “This was crafted with rock from Mount Sineru, one of the most impressive and dangerous volcanoes in Elisium.”

Micah found himself entrapped by Agni’s faraway expression.

“It is here, Mount Sineru, where many claim my greatest battle victory.”

“Many claim?” Micah repeated pensively. “Do you not feel as if this battle was your greatest victory?”

Agni, still kneeling before Micah, snatched his hand from the serpent and looked up at him. Micah was acquainted with a wide range of Agni’s emotions, whether the man wanted to hide them or not. However, the expression Agni adopted as he gazed up at Micah was unfamiliar.

The man’s mouth parted with silent awe and his pupils turned to mere slits.

Admiration?

The god moved forward and cupped his face between both hands. “That, Ezra, is a story for another time.” His thumbs caressed the thin skin beneath Micah’s eyes. He then leaned forward, claiming Micah’s lips in a gentle, chaste kiss before pulling away. “I find myself far more eager to resume our previous activities. Don’t you agree?”

“I find you have far too many layers on for that,” Micah returned slyly.

He batted Agni’s hands away from his face and reached for the man’s robes. His fingers played with the body chains before finding the buttons of his robes and unfastening them. Agni aided him, unhooking his body chains and dropping them to the floor. The chains landed on the hardwood floor with a heavy clank, accentuating both their eagerness.

Micah unfastened the last button on the immaculate robes, his hands greedily roving up the naked chest.

Oh god.

“Off with these, foolish child.”

Agni grabbed Micah’s wrists and hastily tugged the fingerless gloves from his hands. By now, the sight of his unsightly scars in Agni’s presence caused Micah very little distress. He watched as Agni tossed the gloves aside along with his discarded robes, before stepping from the pile of clothing and descending onto the couch.

“I assume someone is occupying the bed?” Micah leaned away from Agni as the man loomed.

“It was either the bed or the closet for our misbehaving uncle,” Agni replied huskily, watching as Micah slid to the opposite end of the couch. “As much as I would have preferred depositing him in an unconscious heap in a closet, I did not want to deal with the soreness tomorrow.”

“Surely there will be soreness tomorrow whether you take care of your vessel or not,” Micah teased seductively, his foot finding Agni’s abdomen and pressing his heel into it as the man advanced.

Agni’s eyes flashed with unveiled excitement. “Far more soreness for you.”

He grabbed Micah’s foot and tugged.

Micah’s head hit the arm of the couch as Agni pulled him closer. With his entire back flushed against the couch cushions, and his leg held captive by Agni, he lay vulnerable to the man’s ministrations. Agni took careful advantage, placing himself between Micah’s spread legs and settling his heavy weight on top of him.

They were both clad with thin, fitted trousers.

Hardly much barrier as their erections pressed against one another.

Micah tipped back his head and groaned.

He then laughed delightfully as Agni began rocking against him, creating an irresistible friction. With the couch pressed against his head and his entire left side, Micah was caged and trapped, unable to do much of anything but succumb to Agni’s whims. He reached out, his hands finding Agni’s broad shoulders and clutching.

Agni gazed down at him, amused. “Troubles?”

“Far too small of a couch,” Micah panted.

“Good. Keeping you confined is a fantasy of mine,” Agni said mischievously, yet there was a certain truth to his words.

Micah gripped Agni’s shoulders. “What else do you desire?”

Agni paused, perched above Micah and gazing down at him. His hair swung forward and tickled Micah’s bare chest. “I just desire you.”

Pressing his lips together, Micah tightened his hold on the man above him. “What else do you desire, Agni?” he repeated, firmly this time. Agni regarded him closely, as if he couldn’t quite determine if Micah would appreciate what he had to say. He could feel the swell of Agni’s erection becoming harder, warmer. “You want to hurt me.”

Agni inhaled deeply.

His hand splayed next to Micah’s head, the only source supporting his weight. “Yes.” A pause. “Very much.”

At the words, Micah stilled, finding himself far more aroused than he thought possible.

Agni mistook Micah’s silence for hesitation. “It is something I have fantasized about with you, but have never practiced before. It has only recently become a yearning. It may be something that I don’t enjoy, but if you allow it, it is something I would like to try.”

Micah couldn’t speak for a long while.

He was first overcome with the silly notion that Agni fantasized about him. Secondly, he found it satisfying that Agni never practiced things like this with any other before. Micah was his first. Just as Agni was his first. Thirdly, Agni was asking Micah’s permission to try, to experiment.

Together.

Micah’s hands slid from Agni’s shoulders and pressed against the man’s chest. He could feel the pulse there. “I would very much like to try.”

The unbridled excitement Agni revealed was evidently too strong for the god to mask. He leaned closer, pushing past Micah’s hold on his chest. “Do you trust me?” He examined Micah carefully, searching for anything that would indicate their bond far too fragile for this particular step.

“In this?” Micah inquired. “Yes.”

And he did.

He would give up control and trust Agni to keep them both afloat.

Agni sat up and quickly pulled down Micah’s trousers before ridding himself of his own. Micah’s gaze settled between the man’s legs, feeling a spark of unrestricted excitement at the large, curved erection. He almost took back his agreement to try something new, for he just wanted Agni inside him. Yet, he held his tongue, knowing this was something Agni desired, something he desired too.

“You will tell me to stop if ever you feel it too much.”

Micah shifted against the couch, looking up at Agni. “I will.”

Then all the pretenses fell away.

Agni’s eyes bled with sadistic pleasure as he reached for Micah, his fingernails raking excruciatingly down his chest and abdomen. Micah made a noise of surprise, feeling his skin burn in the trail of Agni’s nails. And then something fiery and orange danced across his vision before curling around this throat and wrists.

The fire was not hot, but it was tangible and solid as it forced Micah’s arms above his head.

His neck arched as the fire tied around his throat just as well. Any small movement from Micah caused the pressure around his neck and wrists to tighten. He stilled, the compression around his throat nearly constricting his breathing. His cock twitched at the rough treatment and twitched further when he identified the look of adulterated lust across Agni’s face.

The Fire God breathed heavily through his nose as his fingers roamed wantonly across Micah’s exposed and vulnerable torso. As his fingers dipped low around Micah’s pelvic bone, a sudden, unexpected shock snapped between them. Micah yelped more so in surprise than pain, stilling when the fire-like rope tightened around his throat.

He closed his eyes.

Agni planned to use his fire.

Micah should have foreseen this, yet he grew nervous as he watched white flames dance across Agni’s fingers. Their proximity against his skin was warm, but not scalding. He scolded himself for his fear. Agni was the God of Fire. He had control over the Element and that included temperature. Still, Micah was surprised when he felt his own Element rise to the surface in defense.

Agni looked at him then, sensing the shift in temperature.

“Very well,” he crooned, his eyes narrowing as he adjusted to the change. “It may make things more pleasurably volatile.”

Micah’s body turned cold and reacted violently when Agni shocked him with a particularly hot fire burst.

He heaved in surprise, the pain numbing and the shockwaves traveling straight to his cock.

The man’s fingers roamed his body possessively, sliding down his defenseless ribcage, shocking him there and moving on before Micah’s ice Element could react. The air around them turned humid with the conflicting temperatures and Agni’s breath came out visibly. Despite the cold encroaching, Agni remained ecstatic as he plagued Micah’s flesh with scorches and burns, seemingly stimulated when Micah jerked and cried out loudly.

“Easy,” Agni murmured throatily. A large palm landed on Micah’s heaving chest, settling him with a wave of comfortable warmth. A single finger tapped against his breastbone in tune of his racing pulse. “Easy.”

“Do you trust me?”

Micah did. Said he had.

Yet, he was still tense, still fighting the pain. The pleasure. Still fighting Agni.  

He closed his eyes, forcing himself to sag against the couch. Agni seemed to recognize Micah’s need for a reprieve, for his large palms ran assertively up his heaving sides without their earlier attempts at causing pain. The rope-like fire remained securing Micah’s wrists, but abruptly disappeared around his neck. Agni then adjusted his position, now straddling Micah’s knees instead of his thighs.

Lips traced the tender skin around his pelvic bone where Agni had delivered a painful burn.

At the distance, and the removal of the rope around his neck, Micah relaxed further. His body still appreciated the restraining around his wrists as well as Agni’s heavy weight against his legs, but it was not as stifling as it had been previously. In response to his calming, his Element gradually subsided, recognizing the threat as dormant before disappearing completely.

His eyes cracked open, catching Agni’s closely observing stare.

Maintaining eye contact, Agni pressed his lips against the dip of his pelvic bone before lapping it with his tongue. Micah sighed shakily, his feet twitching when the burn gave a dull thud at the contact.

Agni sat up, running a languid eye down Micah’s bound and exposed figure.

He moved forward, his forearm intentionally brushing against the top of Micah’s erection. A teasing touch. Purposeful, yet deliberately avoiding much contact. Micah hissed, watching as Agni raised his forearm, displaying the pearly trail of precum on his skin. With the smugness of a feline, Agni licked it from his arm, all the while keeping watch of Micah’s expression.

Micah kept eye contact, feeling his eyes widen marginally.

His breath came out with a quick gasp as Agni loomed down quickly, planting both palms against Micah’s upper chest. Agni regarded him carefully as his fingers hooked into claws and raked down his chest. The earlier burn was back, the flames of gentle white reaching out and trailing across Micah’s skin with enough heat to make it painful, yet not enough to torment.

The pain was what made it feel good.

Having finally put his trust in Agni, Micah succumbed to the blissful side of the pain. He surrendered fully to Agni’s ministrations, feeling his senses start to blur. Haze. When Agni found his nipple, he twisted with a sharp, painful shock, prompting a loud moan and gasp from Micah. His cock strained painfully and he gladly fell into the abyss of pleasure. 

His breathing sounded loud and deafening. As labored as it was, his inhales and exhales resonated inside his ears, nearly drowning out Agni’s own purrs of appreciation. Everything fell away and all that remained was him, Agni, and the sensations between them.

Agni’s fingers were sure, confident, as they traveled across Micah’s flesh. The man experimented with the temperature and the length of his touch, gauging Micah’s reaction through the volume of his cries or moans. The man soon turned relentless, driving Micah inane with excruciating pleasure in sensitive areas that elicited the hoarsest of cries and the quickest of jerks.

Micah’s face flushed warm when he realized how painfully erect he was with the treatment.

Agni held him down.

He asserted his dominance through pain and pleasure and physical force.

Sweat dripped steadily down his face and stained the cushions beneath him. Without the rope around his neck, he found himself throwing back his head several times, expressing his frustrated pleasure. No matter where Agni touched him, the pain stretched from his toes to the tips of his bound fingers. His eyes rolled backward when a particularly hot shock touched his inner thigh and traveled down to his toes and engorged the heaviness between his legs.

Somewhere in the haze of his mind, he knew he wasn’t going to last much longer.

Often times, Agni teased his cock with haunting touches, earning an anxious squirm from Micah when the fingers did not linger.

His face was aflame. His entire body trembled madly with pleasure he had never realized possible. His limbs were both heavy and too light, uncooperative and unmoving besides the harsh jerks Agni provoked.

“Look at you,” Agni murmured approvingly.

His tormentable fingers found and curled around Micah’s straining and leaking manhood, finally granting him reprieve.

A pathetic whimper escaped Micah’s lips as Agni firmly stroked him.

His whole body burned pleasantly, sore and abused.

Used.

His skin was on fire.

His limbs twitched with after-shocks of the phantom and dancing fingers.

He couldn’t think straight.

A few more strokes and Micah came with a loud cry of liberation. Slowly, the fire around his wrists retracted, leaving him slumped against the arm of the couch in a delirious haze. He felt dazed. Lost. So out of sorts.

He’d never given up control during intimacy.

To give his entire person over to Agni…

He caught a glimpse of Agni’s angry-looking erection before the man crowded him, embraced him, and whispered soothing words of encouragement and appreciation in his ear. The man’s fingernails traveled up the sides of his torso in gentle, reassuring strokes. As his hand moved up Micah’s body, the burning seemed to subside from his flesh and travel back into Agni.

With his head tucked underneath Agni’s chin, and his body engulfed in the man’s protective embrace, Micah relaxed.

Vaguely, he was aware of Agni tightening his hold around him, rocking against him, breathing heavily, and finally climaxing with an audible shudder. Micah’s eyebrows and lips twitched, finding it intriguing that Agni chose now to lose control. Not during the pain. Not when Micah found release. But afterward. After he’d caused the pain and while he was comforting Micah.

Did that arouse him?

Being the one to cause Micah pain and being the one to care for him afterward?

He blinked.

Just for a second.

Nevertheless, when he opened his eyes again, he found himself on his stomach. Just a distance away, he could hear the firewood snap from the roaring flames in the fireplace. His cheek pressed against the couch cushion and he felt a weight on his legs. Talented hands moved up and down his back, smoothing down the tension and breaking apart the overwrought knots.

Micah smirked. “If this is my reward after I play nicely, I anticipate we will do this more often.”

The weight shifted forward, pressing Micah deeper into the cushions. Lips found Micah’s throat, pressing reverent kisses against the sensitive skin. Micah sighed into the caress, feeling the teasing touch of an erection just across his backside. He closed his eyes and thrust his hips up to make contact.

As exhausted as he was, he wanted more.

He wanted Agni inside and he knew that’s where Agni wanted to be.

He found his own body responding eagerly to Agni’s smothering and firm hold.

A hand cupped his ass cheek, squeezing, before dipping and finding his entrance. Fingers worked at stretching him, preparing him. Micah pressed his forehead against the couch cushion, withholding a moan as the finger turned into two. Three. Thick and cool liquid coated Agni’s fingers and Micah assumed it was leftover semen from their earlier exploits.

That only served to arouse him further.

Agni’s weight disappeared.

“On your hands and knees.”

A filthy stab of arousal made Micah nearly breathless at the order.

When he did not move fast enough, a hand curled into his hair, pulling him up forcibly. Micah grinned cruelly at the treatment, obliging Agni and falling to his hands and knees. The man was behind him, touching him, pressing close to him.

Truthfully, Micah hadn’t believed Agni capable of this position.

The man typically seemed possessive of Micah’s attention and usually wanted eye contact.

However, he could sense in the desperate way Agni touched him that the man was not in an intimate mood. He wanted his carnal desire sated and he wanted to use Micah to sate it. Micah hadn’t witnessed this side of Agni yet, though he had glimpsed at it earlier during their session with the fire. It was a burning need. An unbridled lust and a demand to claim.

And claim he did.

Agni wasted no time with further foreplay.

He entered Micah entirely, buried as deep as possible. Micah lowered his head, gasping at the fulfillment. He raised his hips further, allowing Agni easier and deeper access.

When Agni eased Micah to the invasion of his girth, his thrusts became hard and fast. Micah whimpered as the thrusts rocked him forward, nearly causing his balance to fail. He raised an arm and bit his forearm to muffle his moans, barely able to keep both him and Agni upright with just one arm.

“Stop that,” Agni demanded, grabbing Micah’s bitten arm and holding it captive behind his back. “I said not to hide from me.”

Micah breathed deeply as Agni drove into him, skin slapping against skin. His stimulated prostrate simpered with unexplainable desire, causing Micah to turn his head and bite his bicep. He’d already expressed enough pleasure tonight during their earlier interactions. He refused to be a moaning bitch in heat, no matter how much Agni warned him against hiding.

The god was quick.

Soon, Agni’s hold dropped from his hips and grabbed both his arms, twisting them behind his back. Micah made a noise of surprise as he hung—suspended— only by Agni’s grip on his wrists and the thighs planted on either side of him. Agni continued to ride into him, faster, brutally. Micah laughed through his whimpers, feeling the pain and the pleasure once more.

The noises Agni made—the grunting and the quick breathing only intensified Micah’s pleasure.

He wasn’t alone.

Agni was just as vocal.

His cock throbbed.

He would come untouched.

Agni then grabbed his hair, pulling him flush against his chest. As Micah stood on his knees, Agni wrapped a restraining arm around his chest, pulling him as close as possible against him. His lips found and played with Micah neck, biting, sucking, and drawing blood. He continued to drive his hips forward into Micah, his thrusts deeper, slower. Less frantic. Micah could feel him nearing the edge.

The breathing in his ear was labored.

Micah moaned and Agni pressed his free hand against his abdomen before proceeding to tease his cock. Just like before, Agni simply needed to stroke him a few times before he climaxed with a cry.

Agni hugged him from behind, releasing his own seed in Micah.

He could feel the gods’ trembling thighs against his own, pleased to identify signs of Agni’s own weaknesses during intimacy.

When the arms released him, Micah fell forward with a grateful sigh, curling on the couch cushions. He turned on his back, accepting Agni when the man descended on top of him. His fingers reached for the god, feeling the sweat-slicked skin beneath his inquiring fingers. Agni offered him a small smile as he moved, finding Micah’s entrance once more.

Agni.”

“Just let me enjoy you one last time, Ezra,” Agni murmured beseechingly, nosing Micah’s cheek. “Please.”

When Micah did not protest again, but instead hooked his legs around Agni, the man moved inside him slowly, gently. The slick from Agni’s previous release allowed for an easy and painless insertion. The god before him transformed into the man Micah had seen earlier that night, when he was tracing his features with feather light touches. The eyes boring into his own were liquid fire and warm with appreciation.

Micah closed his eyes when Agni’s hand moved through his sweaty curls.

He opened himself up to Agni, feeling the touches linger across his face, his scalp, and across his throat. Though he could not replicate Agni’s aroused state, he did enjoy the gentle and affectionate sensations.

Agni held on to him tightly, pressing himself inside Micah greedily. Possessively. The man’s fingers found the serpent coiled around Micah’s arm and traced it deferentially. He then turned back to Micah, pressing his lips down his jawline before finding his mouth. Micah kept his eyes closed, smiling into the kiss and accepting Agni deep inside him.

They exchanged a few lazy kisses before Agni tensed.

Panting against Micah’s lips, Agni refocused his attention in order to watch him obsessively.

The pleasure rippling across Agni’s face as he climaxed was a delightful experience to witness.

It held a certain air of vulnerability to it.

Micah accepted Agni as the man settled on his chest and pressed his face into the crook of his neck, finally spent. He wanted to say something sarcastic, something to lighten the mood, yet he determined now was not the time. No words were needed. What he’d just shared with Agni was—it was profound and something Micah had never anticipated that he’d experience in his lifetime.  

His entire body was weak. Spent.

It was terrifying.

And exhilarating to have experienced it with Agni.

His fingers found and combed through Agni’s hair. He could feel Agni’s nails make lazy patterns across his hips, creating small goose bumps in their wake. Just as the fingers began a lulling massage, they stopped short. A displeased noise sounded deep within Agni’s chest, reverberating across Micah’s own.

Gradually, the man sat up.

“Prithvi is calling me,” Agni said, gazing down at Micah.

“Something wrong?”

“Not that I can sense, but it is unusual for her to reach out.”

“Well off you go,” Micah murmured drowsily.

Agni examined him, from his disorganized hair to his exposed chest. A small, pleased grin stretched the man’s lips until it grew into an indulged smile. Micah found himself mirroring it with a silly grin of his own.

“Would it be presumptuous of me to expect you to stay here until I get back?”

“Very presumptuous.”

Agni leaned down, just barely touching his nose against Micah’s cheek. “Then I will find you.”

Micah stayed reclined against the couch, watching as Agni got up and began to dress. Despite his body screaming at him to rest, Micah never felt more awake. A fierce and roaring adrenaline rushed through his veins as he watched Agni approach the fireplace. He managed a small grin and nod before Agni’s body dissolved into the fire, the flames flickering brightly.

A moment of silence and tense anticipation passed before Micah jumped from the couch.

He hurried with his own clothes, realizing he did not have much time.

Whatever Prithvi needed from Agni surely wouldn’t take long.

Before Agni returned, Micah vowed he would have his answers.

Finally.

 

* * * *

 

Wispy and thin curtains swayed in the light breeze, bringing with it the distant smells of the festival that had long since ended. From the open window, a large black bird landed on the ledge, staring into the dark, unlit room. Its attention lingered to the charcoal pentagram drawn on the floor and the bowl of blood set out as an offering.

It flapped its wings before waddling further on the windowsill.

As it stuck its head inside, it suddenly turned, finally catching sight of the dark figure standing in the shadows.

Micah regarded the raven steadily, standing against the wall next to the window. “Will you speak now?”

The raven looked back to the bowl of blood before leaping from the window and swooping inside the room. Its dark, feathered body blended into the shadows, expanding and becoming a mere blur. The sound of wings silenced, and in its place was a slow, nearly soundless shuffling noise. A silhouette of man stood across from Micah.

Glowing white eyes regarded the rune across the floor before raising and settling on Micah. “It’s missing one thing.”

Hairs on the back of his neck rose at the haunting melody. His pulse accelerated as he stepped away from the wall and stalked the perimeter of the rune, closer to the Syphon. His attention gradually left the silhouette before refocusing on the pentagram. He’d drawn it from memory. Several things could be wrong with it.

“Perhaps you are still not ready to have this discussion,” the Syphon concluded, blending back into the void of shadow.

“I am!” Micah said authoritatively, pitching his voice low. He searched the darkness, unable to pinpoint the entity’s location. “I don’t claim myself an expert at summoning daemons or Syphons.”

“You did not summon me.”

Micah stared across the room, feeling the Syphon’s presence standing directly behind him. While he no longer experienced the crippling unease and horror at the entity’s presence, there was still the aftertaste of disconcertment. His body was hyperaware of a larger threat standing a mere hairbreadth away.  

Whereas gods provoked awe with their crippling and impressive power, Syphons commanded the dark and harnessed it masterfully.

“I was under no delusions that I’d summoned you tonight,” Micah replied levelly, keeping his attention forward.

“Not tonight. You have never summoned me.”

Micah turned slightly. This was the same Syphon he’d summoned. The same Syphon who’d proclaimed feeling a familiar imprint that encouraged him to follow Micah to his summoning. He’d called him a fledgling then. In awe that Micah was even in existence.

“Much of my earlier days in the mortal realm were clouded. I was weak. My mind fractured. I’d slept long, yes, but it was not a restful sleep. It was a sleep plagued with pain and torment. I heeded the summoning because I identified something familiar. It was enough to rouse me from sleep and pull me from my personal hell. You were standing on the other side.”

The entity moved then, circled him.

“You. An undeveloped Reaper. Slumbering in your own way. Unconscious to your true potential and power.” The shadow stood shoulder to shoulder with Micah, his attention on the rune. “Naturally, I assumed you had summoned me.”

“I did,” Micah ground out.

White eyes turned to Micah before a pair of sharp-looking white teeth flashed. “You may have partially summoned me, but you had help.”

Micah took a steady breath. He then focused on the bowl of shallow blood in the middle of the pentagram. “I am missing fire.”

He remembered striking the match.

The fire burned brightly as it fell into the bowl of blood.

Micah suddenly crouched down, feeling his mouth twist. “Agni summoned you, using me as the conduct.”

The Syphon crouched down next to him. “When I regained my strength and wits, things became much clearer. The familiar imprint I’d felt initially was not you, but Agni. It appears, young Reaper, that your fire god has kept much from you.” The voice then twisted, darkened. “And you’ve allowed him lead you by a noose.”

Micah touched the charcoal pentagram across the floor, wiping his fingers against the edge. Smearing it.

“How did he summon you?”

“A god can summon a Syphon, but I also believe it is necessary to have the cooperation of the Reaper. Agni had both your cooperation and the name of the Syphon he wanted to summon. He called me by my old name. It was my name that pulled me forward, among all the other available Syphons trapped in our realm.”  

He turned then, considering the dark silhouette. “And what is your name?”

“I no longer have a name.” He was being intentionally difficult. “My identity, my name, my powers all stripped bare the moment I became a Syphon.”

“Then what was your godly name?”

“Chitragupta.”

Micah’s lashes lowered at the mouthful. “And Agni called you by this. He wanted you specifically.” He shuffled forward. “Why?”

“I suppose he thought I would take pity on you and become a sort of guardian, watching you in places he could not follow.” The teeth grinned. “He wasn’t wrong.”

Micah ignored the word ‘pity’ and quickly worked through the information handed to him. “In a sense, he has manipulated you as well. He grants you freedom, recognizing your character, and expects you to follow his preconceived intentions for you. You seem more than happy to oblige with his plans.”

He paused when Chitragupta made no effort to rebuke him.

The Syphon still hadn’t directly answered his question. He was much like Agni in that sense and Micah realized he needed a new approach, one that would garner straight answers.

“Why you?” he repeated again. “What makes you the one probable to follow Agni’s expectations?” Micah turned fully to the fallen god. “What were you god of before the others killed you?”

Chitragupta’s eyes gleamed in approval. “I had no official title.”

A minor god?!

Micah sat back on his heels, his mind racing. “Then what were your duties as a minor god, Chitragupta?” He stood from the ground, towering over the menacing-looking figure. “Agni must have recognized your importance, someone who would guard and protect the Reaper. Just what is it about you that led him to this belief?”

The Syphon gazed up at him with narrowed eyes. “I was Yama’s most trusted advisor and assistant.”

Micah had not expected that.

“I kept and maintained thorough records of all mortals. Recognized their potentials, their downfalls. I assisted Yama in his justice decisions. I was, in all sense of the word, his right-hand.”

Recoiling, he looked upon the Syphon with mistrust. Why would Agni summon this particular Syphon? One whom was undoubtedly loyal to Yama? His earlier suspicions of Agni resurfaced with ugly and devastating ferocity. Yama and Agni were truly working together, weren’t they? It was the only reason Micah could deduce given the current revelations.

“Then why are you guarding me and not Yama? Why would you support my rise when your master is struggling to regain his footing?”

The laughter that resonated across the chambers served to stiffen Micah’s spine and raise his hackles.

The Syphon disappeared.

“I have no doubt that Yama still exists,” came the silky response somewhere in the void of shadows. “Somewhere. His Essence was splintered, scattered, yes, but you have consumed the master soul and absorbed it as your own. What is left of Yama is most likely dwelling in his realm, trapped alongside his creations of Syphons and daemons.”

“But what of the one here, in the mortal realm?”

“Indeed, what of it?”

The words were spoken in Micah’s ear, yet when he turned, he saw nothing but inky blackness.

“It is Yama.”

“And here we discover another one of Agni’s marionettes. Only, this puppet recently untangled its strings.” Chitragupta’s voice came from everywhere and nowhere. “That entity you faced is not Yama but rather a Syphon that was once under Agni’s thrall.” The volume quieted. “Granted, it is just as dangerous, for it still intends to consume you and become the God of Death.”

“How is that possible? If a mere Syphon consumed my soul, he would not absorb my abilities. My Essence would only strengthen him.”

“That is true.” A pause. “But this Syphon also possesses a small sliver of Yama’s Essence. Therefore, if it consumed you, it would absorb your abilities. The small sliver of Yama would grow and the Syphon would then possess the master soul.”

Micah shook his head, not understanding. “I knew it was a Syphon carrying a piece of Yama. It told me as much. The only new information you’re giving me is the fact that Agni had attempted to control it.”

“Agni all but created it,” came the concentrated response. “You might question how this Syphon came to possess a piece of Yama.”

“He said he was scattered after his downfall,” Micah said calmly. “He said a large part attached on to me while another part of him waited until I was strong enough. He said it was similar to a parasite attached to my soul. The stronger I became, the more strength I lent him. After my mortal body died, he would reassemble as a whole entity.”

The laughter this time was not eerie, but mocking.

“Let me assure you, young Reaper, that your soul is whole. There is no parasite on your Essence.” A pause. “The one calling itself Yama could consume you and become whole, yes, but when you should die a mortal death, you will, without question, inherit all your abilities as the God of Death and Justice.”

It was what Agni tried to explain in the royal mausoleum several days ago.

Micah thought the god just didn’t know about Yama’s parasite.

Now…

“The one proclaiming itself Yama most likely believed this… parasitic relationship,” Chitragupta started again with careful deliberation. He remained in the shadow, not revealing any part of himself. “Because that was what Agni told it. Agni… is devious. He believed he could control this Syphon and use it to his advantage. By feeding this Syphon lies and false hopes, he kept the Syphon stifled and chained.”

He still didn’t understand.

So it was a Syphon with a sliver of Yama’s Essence. Agni had seen to control it before it became a threat.

Evidently, according to Chitragupta, said Syphon had wiggled from Agni’s hold and was now free of the man’s manipulations.  

Micah was not quite grasping something. He was missing something. “You asked me how this Syphon came to possess a piece of Yama,” Micah deduced pensively. “I assumed he just attached itself onto this Syphon. But you’re proclaiming that Agni all but created it.”

“Unfortunately, what makes this Syphon a threat is that it possesses Yama’s memories. No matter how small the influence, Yama has undoubtedly corrupted the Syphon making it believe itself to be Yama’s reincarnation. Agni simply encouraged this. He planted the seed, proclaiming this poor, vulnerable Syphon was Yama reborn.”

Micah stilled. “What aren’t you telling me? Do I know this Syphon?”

Something heavy settled in his chest.

Dread.

“Interesting that you mention parasitic relationships, Ezra,” Chitragupta crooned. “It’s similar to that of a mortal mother carrying a child, wouldn’t you say so? Only, in this case, the growing and developing child is the parasite, all but gnawing off the source carrying him.”

Micah’s veins turned to ice.

“An abomination,” Chitragupta continued. “That’s what you are. The God of Death carried by a mortal woman? Absurd. I wouldn’t assume it would have a favorable outcome, least of all for the woman. Yamuna thought herself clever by keeping your Essence mortal and slumbering, allowing a mortal to successfully carry you, but she did not consider your latent abilities as part Syphon.

“The Syphon that Agni twisted, used, and manipulated, was once a mortal woman whom found herself deep into things she could not explain. She turned to the only source of help she could find. The God of Fire. Whom, in turn, only served to make her another pawn in his game.”

Micah bowed his head.

A sense of despondency settled, grew, and overtook him.

What did this mean? The endless deceit by Agni in regards to Ember. What of Region 20? What of Kai? Had that been a ruse? Had Agni planned that out as well? Or had Ember escaped his control by then and acted by herself?

If they had acted together… if Agni had intentionally put Kai in danger...

His lips parted into a grimace.

He was surprised, then, when a dark, bitter chuckle left his mouth. He looked back up into the darkness, unafraid of the void of nothingness. A spark of determination grew and broadened.

“Tell me everything.”

 

Chapter Text

Intermission: Ember’s Story Part 3

 

They’d taken Ezra away from her.

She hadn’t seen her son in weeks.

She brooded around her quarters. Hardly touched her food. Forced herself to bathe. Without his presence, she felt like a shadow. She lacked a duty. A purpose. Initially, she distracted herself by reading from Alice’s book of old religions. She hadn’t found any reference to a ‘Brahma’ in the book, yet she knew, without a doubt, that there was a god by that name. Brahma was the Creator. Somehow, she knew most deities had never seen Brahma, but rather felt the almighty presence when he woke from his slumber.

The knowledge was nearly second nature to her, though she did not recall the memories that granted her that information.

She also understood other pieces of information without cause.

Syphons. Daemons.

Such beautiful creations. Each with their own purpose and importance. She felt a spasm of pride thinking of them.

Yamuna.

One of the most treasured and beautiful goddesses in all of Elisium. Ember smiled warmly, feeling an ache in her chest—both bitter and adoring—at the thought of Yamuna.

She often found herself flipping through the sections of worshipped gods and goddesses, lingering frequently on ‘Agni’. Her eyes obsessively examined the sketch of her god, likening him to a sinister entity escaping the pits of purgatory. While he was only a humanoid silhouette emerging from flames in this sketch, his posture, flexed fingers, and toothy, demonic grin emitted an eeriness. She did not doubt this old version of the Igni god was more devious and unforgiving than their current version.

Staring at the figure, Ember was unsurprised to feel the stab of dislike as she did for most the other deities in the book. Above all else, she was leery. She recognized him as a threat but he did not invoke the same feelings of adherence and betrayal as some of the others.

Deliberating her reaction, she couldn’t help but compare it to the sentiments Josiah’s presence evoked.

Cautiousness.

Days passed and she paced her bedchambers, feeling caged. While she felt more like herself, she could not deny the separation anxiety. Ezra. She did not like the distance from her son. She wanted to be physically near him at all times. Who knew what they were teaching him? Who knew what Josiah was doing to her son? The god possessing her brother—whomever he was— had ill intentions.

Pushing her way into the corridor, with guards trailing cautiously behind her, Ember made her way to the king’s quarters.

Beside the occasional guard shadowing her, Calder had not prevented her from leaving her rooms and roaming the palace gardens. The king simply kept his heir close by, refusing to allow Ember access to him until she ‘got better’. She would have to convince him of her stable mind to see Ezra again. She’d simply had a bad dream that night. She hadn’t been herself.

In all truth, she hadn’t been herself in many years…

“I told you never to come here.” Down the corridor, Calder’s voice sounded firm, displeased.

Ember slowed and silenced her steps.

The words that followed were muffled, broken, yet most definitely female. “…wanted… see you…”

Ember gazed around the corridor, staring in disbelief at the scene before her. A woman, with blonde hair down her back, stood before Calder. Her common gown indicated her low rank in society, yet the child she touched fondly wore clothes far too fine for a simple commoner. The boy was around Ezra’s age, far larger in stature, and far purer in Unda blood.

The boy’s eyes—deep sapphire—resembled Calder’s own. The small face scrunched up to gaze at the king was also painstakingly familiar. Yet, where the bone structure should have been sharp with aristocratic planes, Ember noted the softness of a commoner.

Despite Calder keeping a strained distance, Ember was smart enough to deduce the situation.

Her first reaction was heartbreak.

The gutted feeling of betrayal was familiar to her—as it was to the Yama in her dreams. Yet somehow, this was far more personal. It twisted her gut and rendered her breathless. To discover that her husband had created another life—another child—with another woman…

And then the rage settled and grew.

Ember stepped around the corner. Fire ignited around her curled fists and danced up her forearms. Calder was the first to see her. He stepped forward, throwing his hand in front of the woman and child.

Go.

Something inside her snapped. Broke. “Such a protective stance. Such a revealing stance,” Ember snarled lowly. Her eyes focused on the wide, blue eyes of the woman and child. “I will kill you,” she vowed heatedly. “I will kill both of you. If not today, then someday. A common whore and a bastard should never fool themselves into thinking they can encroach on territories belonging only to royalty.”

Ember.”

Behind Calder, the mother and child ran down the halls, briefly enticing Ember to give chase.

Calder lunged in front of her. His arms crossed over his chest and water swirled lazily between his hands. “It was before we renewed our vows of fidelity, Ember,” Calder explained steadily. “I did not wish to tell you about him, if only because he would never ‘encroach’ on our territory as a royal family. A mistake. It was a mistake I regret every day.”

He shook his head at the guards behind Ember, calling them off.

“So all your advisors and guards know of his bastardly existence? Not your own wife? Your own queen?” Ember moved a fist in front of her body, staring at Calder behind an orange flame. “Give me my son. Give me Ezra.”

Calder remained lowered in a defensive stance, watching her warily. “You must think me a fool if you believe I’d give you possession of our young child.” He appeared saddened. “Look at you, Ember. What has become of you?”

Ember dropped her arms at her sides, the flames extinguishing upon his words.

What has become of her?

Did he not see her suffering?

Did he not acknowledge her silent plea for help?

Did he not realize he’d broken her with the existence of another child? One he kept hidden from her?

Calder relaxed his defensive stance and gazed down the hall at Ember. “You can see Ezra, so long as you are supervised. So long as I am also in the room. I do not want to be your enemy, Ember, but you must understand my concern when it comes to Ezra’s safety.”

Ember hung her head. Her nostrils flared and soft, desperate pants escaped her lips. A warm tear slid down her cheek with several more following in quick succession. She closed her eyes to the emotional pain, feeling herself detach further from reality. She needed Ezra. She needed her son. She needed him.

Needed him.

Her frail and diminishing body trembled madly.

When she looked through the fall of her lank, lifeless hair, she watched as Calder turned his shoulder and advanced down the corridor in a whirl of expensive robes. A sudden spike of desperate fury traveled through her at the dismissal. The fire coursed through her body and out her hands before she had the chance to reign her fury.

The ribbon of flame extended down the hall and toward her unaware opponent.

Calder turned just in time, lifting his arm.

The flames wrapped around his forearm and set his arm and robes aflame. Water cascaded down his body, extinguishing the flames but not before they had scorched his skin. He then thrust his uninjured arm forward with rapid swiftness, reaching out and absorbing the water splashed across the tiled floor. The droplets all gathered together with remarkable speed before coiling and slapping Ember across the chest.

She grunted as the force knocked into her, sending her across the corridor and into the wall. The water whip separated the skin across her chest, leaving behind a bloody lesion.

Her arms were immediately taken captive by two guards. Upon the restraining, her vision flashed and it was no longer Calder standing across from her, but a group of leering gods and goddesses. The hands pulling her back and holding her in place were hostile with unnecessary force. She could feel something fitted over her thrashing face.

Something suffocating.

She—he— screamed.

They tightened the contraption over the lower half of his face. To prevent him from killing. From consuming. The eyes looking at her were derisive, horrified at what he’d become.

Yama quieted.

And then he laughed.

And laughed.

Fools.

They could never hold him.

Ember came back to herself, finding the guards hauling her down the corridor. There was nothing around her face, she realized. There were no gods standing opposite of her, but rather a wounded Calder watching her through wide, disbelieving eyes and smelling of burned flesh. It was when Ember was out of sight that she realized her laughter resonated harshly across the palace corridors.  

 

* * * *

 

The days blended as one.

The nights seemed endless and uncomfortable.

She found no rest. No comfort.

Ember lay prone on her bed, often times wet with fevered sweat and vomit. She was far too exhausted to see Yama in her dreams. Far too weak. Nonetheless, she often hallucinated Yamuna stretched beside her. She found herself soothed by the soft, pale skin and the fall of bone-white hair. It was an escape, she realized, to admire the Goddess of Life and Fertility.

She admired Yamuna’s beautiful smile and mirrored it with a lazy one of her own.

Pale, ice-like eyes watched her and Ember watched her back.

Caressing the velvet skin above Yamuna’s pulse point, Ember felt an overwhelming amount of affection.

Such peace never lasted long.

Yamuna’s vision disappeared when Ember drank the tonics and swallowed the drugs. It was a haze of never-ending fumes and concoctions. Some brews sent the room spinning, often times leading her to vomit across her bed until her empty stomach spasmed crazily. Other times the drugs gave her a happy, floating feeling, making her delirious with contentment.

The leeches were there again.

Bloodletting.

She’d had this treatment before and vowed she’d never be in this position again. Yet here she was, lost in her own mind. She sobbed when she was able to, pleading with the Healers to stop. They only continued relentlessly, often times accompanied by vicars and priests whom repeated hymns from both Agni’s and Varuna’s religion. Dressed in their robes of service, they swung a chain of incense that filled the room with thick smoke and suffocating scents.

She fell asleep to their hymns, feeling forsaken by her god.

When the days continued to stretch, and the treatments grew worse, Ember decided to plead to Agni herself. It was something she would never consider in her right mind, if only for the mistrust she felt for each and every one of the deities. However, she was losing herself. She could feel herself slip further and further from reality.

There was nothing else to do but beg.

Though she was too weak to move across the room and grab hold of her book, the words flashed clearly behind her heavy eyelids. Gradually, she opened her mouth, swallowing several times to clear the thickness. Her voice was raspy with disuse and hesitant with uncertainty.

She felt unclean when she spoke the mantra.

Agni’s mantra.

A god as powerful as Agni would not see reason to listen to her summoning. Especially when she had no sacrifice to offer. No flame to build and nurture. Yet, she persisted, nearing delirious when nothing but silence met her shaky and clumsy mantra.

Ember trailed off sobbing but gasped a moment later when fire suddenly encircled her bed.

She moved her cheek against the pillow, desperately searching the dark room for a sign of the god. When she could not sweep the room from her position, Ember struggled to rise. A wave a nausea hit her hard, yet she swallowed past the initial reaction and raised herself on trembling arms. She searched the dark room again, her pulse stopping before accelerating upon identifying the silhouette at the foot of her bed.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered. His long hair seemed to suspend and dance alongside the tall flames encompassing her bed. Nothing else was discernable, and no matter how much Ember squinted, she had her suspicions that Agni would not reveal more.

“A-Agni?” she whispered disbelievingly. “I am hallucinating—”

“You are not.”

Ember drew back and hunched in response to the power that accompanied the bone-chilling voice. Her pulse had not calmed upon identifying the presence of her god, but only raced faster. Being in his presence was not a comforting experience. She felt small. She felt hunted. She wanted to flee from her bed but was too weak to move. A migraine erupted behind her eyes, making her nausea flare.

“Why have you summoned me?”

“I… I have…” she trailed off with a breathless whimper. “I am in need of your help.” She looked up at the silhouette. “I’ve worshipped you since a very young child. I have been blessed. You have blessed me… but I—”

“You are ill.”

Ember bowed her head.

“Illness of the mind.” She clenched her damp bedsheets. “The treatment is slowly killing me. All I ask is to see my son one more time.”

No answer came from the god. Ember shivered from the sudden chill in the air. The flames around her bed seemed to heighten and grow brighter, serving to fool her into thinking this was a simple delusion. A fever dream.

This was not real.

“You have no illness of the mind,” came the delayed response. “They are simply memories that plague you, are they not?”

Ember looked up again, not at the god, but in his general direction. For how afraid as she was, she would avoid the unnerving presence looming at the foot of her bed. “Yama,” she spoke the name reverently through numb limps. “I relive memories that are not my own as someone else. As Yama, the God of Death and Justice.”

The flames abruptly disappeared.

She looked around frantically, fearing the name ‘Yama’ was enough to chase away the God of Fire.

“Will you allow my possession? Let me see inside…”

At the serpentine request, the hairs on Ember’s neck and arms stood on end. She nodded reluctantly, not seeing anything, hearing anything. Nothing until a power she had never known—had never felt—encompassed her from the inside. Ember gasped at the feeling of raw power, her entire body trembling madly to compensate for the strength returning to her limbs.

Agni seemed to bat away the drugged haze and the nausea, as if refusing to be burdened with them during his possession.

Ember squinted at the odd feeling. She still felt in control of her own body, yet the presence inside her mind was unmistakable.

Several long moments passed before she heard a voice in her mind.

“There is no reason to fight,” Agni murmured. He seemed amused. “You are a reincarnation. Yama reborn.”

It was something Ember had feared as soon as the dreams and memories became more persistent. It was what Alice, the Noir User, had slyly hinted at during their visit. It was why she’d felt devastated when she took the tonic and saw no hint of possession. She had wanted to be possessed by a daemon. “When I took the tonic,” she started desperately, “What I saw was a very dim aura, but nothing godly—”

“You are very weak and predominately mortal now,” Agni interrupted. “You wouldn’t have seen the red-gold of a deity in a simple reflection. Not yet. It is here, let me assure you.”

She saw a memory flash before her eyes and Agni’s instant attention on said memory. It was of Ezra and Josiah dueling with wooden swords and the dreaded red-gold thread linking them together. Not only that, but the memory emphasized Ezra’s dim aura, dim like her own, and a barely-there red hue.

She felt the memory tug from her hold and she grew desperate and protective. “What are you doing?” Ember demanded, pulling the memory back and hugging it. “Stop!”

Agni was silent for quite some time.

Ember remained tense, clutching on to her memories and afraid he’d try again.

“Relax, young one. I was simply observing.”

She did not relax and she remained suspicious. “What did it mean?” she pressed. “My son. I saw the red around him. It was faint, yet it was there. And my brother. The link—what god possesses him?”

“Your son has an important destiny.” The voice turned possessive and tight with barely-there restraint. Agni’s presence shifted and it felt like serpent coils tightening around her. “Do not concern yourself with him. Focus on your own mentality.” There was a pause while Agni carefully loosened his hold and his tone of voice was neutral once more. “I will do what I can to ease your suffering.” 

He was gone and he took with him the strength.

Ember sagged against her pillows, unable to stop her body from tremoring with fatigue and fear.

Summoning Agni did little. It revealed little. It only confirmed what she’d feared all this time.

She was truly Yama reborn.

Agni told her not to fight it, yet how could she not? It felt invasive. Yama was not her.

Ember submerged into the darkness, staring unseeingly into the blackness of her sleeping quarters. Her breathing steadied as she envisioned Yama. The power he harnessed. The confidence. The brilliancy. There was a tragedy there—when he fell. She felt his disappointment and his desperation that he faced the end without accomplishing his goals.

He now had a second chance. Through her.

No, she had a second chance.

A rush of excitement surged through her.

She pushed it away and turned on her side. There was nothing to be excited about, not with what she’d seen of Yama. Fear was the most prevalent emotion. She couldn’t remember everything of her past life and it was vital she remember it all. His mistakes. His wrongdoings. She also feared the gods and goddesses. There were so many against her. Whom did she—he— trust? None.

Yama could only rely on the Syphons and daemons.

She wasn’t afraid, she realized.

She was petrified.

She slept restlessly that night.

She did not dream of Yama, but rather of Ezra. Fire encircled him and his screams abruptly stifled. Ember reached for him then, through the flames, through the fire, drawing back when a set of fangs snapped at her hand. She stared uncomprehendingly at the black serpent coiled possessively around her child. It hissed softly at her, warning her away.

Be wary of the serpent.

“Your son has an important destiny.”

Ember’s eyes snapped open with dawning horror.

“Ezra! Ezra! Bring me my son!”

No matter how much she pleaded, they did not reward her with her son’s presence. 

They simply administered more treatment.

 

* * * *

She sat listlessly in the gardens.

The sun was mocking her, as were the cheerful birds. Her attention was on the egrets walking in the shallow waters of the palace ponds, wondering, briefly, if Varuna was at all like his counterpart, Agni. Cruel. Cruel. Cruel. A simmering hate boiled in her chest and her hands remained curled tightly on her lap.

“Fairing well, Your Majesty?”

Ember glanced briefly at the Igni Healer and offered a brief smile. “You are my savior, Healer Brenton.”

Brenton Anwar had stepped in as Ember’s primary Healer only a day after Agni’s appearance. Whether the Fire God kept his promise of ‘easing her suffering’, or Brenton’s appearance were a mere coincidence, Ember did not know nor care. Brenton had appeared appalled at her state of health and promptly stopped the treatments.

Fresh air, a healthy diet, and exercise was his itinerary for her recovery. Though she still had trouble eating and still felt weak, she hadn’t felt so wonderful in ages. Even her mind seemed clearer albeit filled to the brim with Yama.

“What would make the day complete would be the appearance of my son,” she added lightly, but with edge.

She’d asked every day to see Ezra. Every day since they’d taken him away.

It felt like weeks—months—since she’d last touched her son.

Brenton inclined his head. She prepared herself for another rebuke. He always offered an apology and a promise to approach the king; however, it never surprised her when he always returned without Ezra.

Only, today, there was no rebuke. He simply looked over Ember’s shoulder.

She turned, staring in surprise as Ezra approached from the palace. Ignoring the two men accompanying him on either side, as well as a few guards trailing behind, Ember stood from the bench, her blanket falling to the ground. Her chest swelled as she advanced toward her son. Though he was still a great distance away, she reached towards him. How would he react? Would he be frightened of her now?

That night had been difficult for both of them.

She would not blame him for his hesitancy.

Yet, as soon as Ezra saw Ember, he pulled away from his father and uncle and sprinted towards her.

She gave a sad and joyful laugh, moving to meet him halfway. He was so much bigger than she’d remembered! There was no picking him up like in the past. She simply crouched down and readily accepted the armful of excited Ezra.

He embraced her fiercely, burying his face into the crook of her neck.

And Ember was finally complete.

Even the turmoil inside her mind quieted at Ezra’s presence. Ember stroked her child’s hair, closing her eyes into the feeling. She hadn’t realized how much she’d needed Ezra until she held him against her chest. Everything silenced.

Just for a moment.

But a moment was all Ember needed.

“I missed you, Mom. Father said you were sick.”

Ezra pulled back from the embrace, undoubtedly anxious to shift and turn his attention elsewhere. He was always fidgety. So full of energy. It reminded Ember that he was a growing boy and already in the phase of exploring his independence. In response, she simply tightened her hold and kissed his cheek.

She glanced up at the men lingering nearby, unable to acknowledge Calder or Josiah. She hated both men. Held them both accountable for her current state of mind and health. The resentment was hot and boiling, but she focused obstinately on Ezra. She would not lose control of her Element again, especially with Ezra in her arms.

“I have missed you more,” Ember replied, framing his beautiful face and kissing his forehead and his other cheek. “Come. Let us walk. I want to hear all about what you’ve been learning.”

As she stood from the ground, she caught Josiah’s considering gaze. The man regarded her closely before moving his attention back on Ezra. The attention on her son was unsettling, as it had been since her brother’s return to the capital. In the back of her mind, she could hear the slow, warning hiss of the serpent in her dreams.

Questions plagued her.

Was Agni truly possessing her brother? If so, why was the Fire God hovering near her child?

How could she lure him out?

Did she really want to lure out such an entity?

Legend of the current religion spoke of a relentless and unforgiving Agni. He was difficult to please and his temper was great. Ember had absorbed the stories, but had never contemplated that the god, whom she worshipped since birth, would treat her poorly. The vicars claimed if one earned his regard and followed him loyally that Agni would offer his own devotion in turn.

So why did she feel as if Agni would sacrifice one of his children without a moment’s hesitation?

Did their worship and love mean so little to him?

Ember offered her hand to Ezra, whom was slow to take it in turn. It saddened her, knowing he was growing older and would rely less on physical comfort. Less kisses. Less handholding. It would soon be uncomfortable and unacceptable for him to show affection in public. It wouldn’t surprise Ember if Calder and Josiah had already said choice words to him during her absence.

They walked together and Ezra babbled about his dislike for swimming lessons and his new horseback riding lessons.

He spoke of sword lessons with Josiah and Calder’s history lessons.

Ember listened with a faint smile, yet she could not help but feel as if she’d already missed so much.

The palace was quick to replace her.

She let him run ahead of her, watching as his little legs propelled him across the gardens and toward the pond. He clambered into the shallow water, shooing the egrets away with a lunge and a wicked laugh. When she reprimanded him for his behavior, he simply replied that his Uncle Josiah did not like egrets and he did not either.

Josiah and Calder followed at a distance, yet it was clear the former found the scene greatly entertaining.

Ember did not.

She spent some time with Ezra skipping stones and inquiring after his other studies. As good as it felt being near Ezra again, it suddenly reminded her of his draining capabilities. His energy level was too much to handle with her current condition. She found herself growing irritable and short, but found the necessary patience not to reveal this to her son.

Fortunately, Healer Brenton stepped in and suggested it was time for Ember’s rest.

Ezra hardly batted a lash at the dismissal and pressed a kiss to Ember’s forehead. “I love you, Mom.”

She hugged him fiercely and whispered her own endearment into his ear. He smiled shyly before pulling from her arms and racing toward Josiah. The man grabbed him and hoisted him into the air. Ember turned away from the peal of childish laughter, unable to look in their direction without hearing the serpent.

“Ember.”

“I don’t wish to speak to you,” she said firmly to Calder.

Brenton moved inconspicuously into the background while Josiah and Ezra retreated to the palace. She remained sitting on a boulder, observing the egrets whom had relocated far from Ezra.  She stiffened when Calder sat next to her, his own expression faraway as he watched the pristine and graceful birds.

“I am sorry.”

“For what are you apologizing for?” Ember asked dully. “For creating a bastard heir and not telling me about it? For subjecting me to barbaric torture and disguising it as ‘treatment’? For allowing our young son to be in the presence of a Noir User? For denying me any visitation with my child when I needed him the most?”

“I am aware of Josiah’s ability to use Noir Magic. He has told me. He has told the court. From his accounts, he went through a troubling time and he regrets the decisions he’s made.”

“I am certain he spun a very convincing story,” she replied darkly.

“We are watching his interactions with Ezra. You need not worry for our son.”

She shook her head, fury holding her tongue. Not worry for Ezra? Her entire being worried for Ezra every moment he spent in ‘Josiah’s’ presence. She could say nothing to change Calder’s mind in regards to Josiah. Her brother was useful as a second guardian to Ezra when Ember was incapable. He was also useful in court. Ember could only imagine all the Igni nobles simpering in subservient respect now that her brother graced them with his presence.

There should be no subservience. Their hostility and anger was necessary to make change.

The black mood, which made its presence known with Ezra’s energy levels, reared its head now.

She glowered across the pond, grinding her teeth together as a rush of cold washed through her.

“As for the other—”

“Just stop,” Ember interrupted cruelly. “You will get your due one day, Calder Talise.”

You, your whore, and your bastard.

And your compliant, ugly empire.

A rush of vindictiveness curled Ember’s mouth. She embraced the cold, submerged in it, and recognized the confidence and power it offered. Something enclosed around her and she was no longer Ember, disgraced queen and spurned wife, but rather a fallen god who’d failed once, but not again. Falling into Yama hid her from the pain of Calder’s presence.

It made said pain insignificant to the tragedies Yama underwent.

“I beg your pardon, Ember?”

“Your Majesties,” Brenton intervened. “It really is due time for Queen Ember’s rest.”

Yama remained facing forward, even when Calder lay a hand on his arm. “I didn’t know what to do. How to help,” he implored quietly. “Please understand me when I say I only wanted to help you. Cure you. I hired the most notable Healers in the capital.” When Yama remained silent and listless, Calder removed his hand and stood. “She’s freezing, Healer.”

Brenton rushed forward with a blanket and draped it over Yama’s frail shoulders.

He didn’t even flinch at the added warmth, as submerged in the cold as he was.

He stood from the boulder and made his way to the palace. A simmering resentment lingered and only served to propel him forward. He would have his revenge on all the immortal and mortal souls whom had wronged him.

 

* * * *

 

Books strewed across the floors. Personal items scattered and broken.

Ember hurried across her sleeping quarters, searching for her book of old religions. She’d placed it within the pages of an old text of whimsical and silly romances, yet when she opened it this morning, there was no leather book within. Upon noticing it missing, Ember panicked and ripped all the books from the shelf.

Her finger longed to trace over the mention of ‘Yama’ until her skin stained with ink.

It was a comfort. A security.

A reality.

Falling to her knees, she reassessed her books with frantic hands, her entire body trembling madly. Her greasy, unwashed hair fell into her face as she crawled amongst the hard-covered books, her knees pressing painfully against the hard corners. She chucked the empty, unrevealing books into the large hearth, watching in satisfaction as the flames ate the useless pages.

Breathing harshly, she stared at the fire until her pupils dilated.

Transfixed.

“Agni,” she growled vehemently.

She sat on her haunches, lost in the fierce flames of the hearth.

Egrets. Coins and wishes to Agni submerged in water. His precarious and unapproachable aura. His possessiveness over Ezra. His casual and informal talk of Agni while in her presence. The dream. The serpent.

Ember began to rock back and forth, her breathing harsh as she planned and schemed.

She did not appreciate a predator hiding its face.

She did not appreciate a predator playing schemes behind the scenes.

It was vital she draw him out, if only for her sanity, if only for proof of her suspicions. She wanted answers. Answers to her own existence. Answers to Ezra’s existence and what attracted Agni to him. If it was Agni. The very idea seemed ludicrous to her. Such a powerful and untouchable deity dwelling amongst mere mortals just to play caretaker to a prince? Was it simply because he was royalty of the new nation of Igni people? Did he want to rule through Ezra?

It didn’t seem that easy. Not with the faint red-gold hue around Ezra.

Not when Agni claimed the boy had an important destiny.

Ember hunched over, playing nonsensically with a faded book of Igni folklore. From what small amount she’d gleaned from Agni’s possession—and later her nightmare— it was that the god possessing her brother considered Ezra irreplaceable. Precious. The way ‘Josiah’ interacted with the child, full of endearment, yet with an underlying amount of impatience, had her contemplating.  

Yes.

Ezra was irreplaceable.

How could she use that to her advantage while keeping Ezra safe meanwhile?

She rocked in front of the fire until she fell into a stupor, her mind scheming all the while.

 

* * * *

 

After several weeks of playing docile, the amount of security lessened around Ember. They’d grown content with her progress, never realizing she was waiting for the opportune time to move.  

That evening, her emotions were detached from her actions.

She succumbed to Yama.

His confidence. His coolness.

With Ember’s knowledge of the palace security and the routines of the guards, Yama decided to intervene during Ezra’s bath time when security was at its thinnest. Otherwise, Calder kept his heir in his antechambers at night with enough armed guards to ward off a small army. Tonight, there was also the added distraction of the ball.

There would be guards posted outside the palace and inside, watching the spectators come and go.

This would lessen the number of guards typically stationed elsewhere.

The entire palace was abuzz with music from the great hall. The ball was taking place in the lower levels of the palace, the sheer amount of bluebloods crowding the halls all but perfuming the air with noxious entitlement. Yama used the sound to his advantage, approaching the single guard stationed at the exit of the royal baths and knocking him unconscious.

It was not uncommon for Ezra to run away from his bath time.

If he fled, it often took an hour to locate him.

Therefore, they typically posted a guard on the second exit and two caretakers at the front. Ezra was also at that age where he wanted to bathe himself without the addition of spectators. It would be the only opportunity to lure him away without additional guards or caretakers.

Yama remained hidden when the caretakers nudged Ezra gently inside before shutting the door behind him. The bath was already drawn, the amount of bubbles nearly overfilling the large tub. They would give the prince ample time to clean, and if he did not meet their expectations, they would scrub him down themselves.

When the sound of shuffling approached the large tub, Yama emerged from around the corner.

The boy took a startled step backward, his eyes round. “Mom?”

“How about we skip bath time and go for a horseback ride? Just you and I?” Yama smiled thinly as he held a finger to his lips. “It will be our secret.”

A wicked and wide smile crossed Ezra’s face as he ambled toward Yama. So very trusting. He eagerly took the outstretched hand and allowed himself to be led out the second exit of the bathing quarters. It would be quite some time before the caretakers noticed his absence. When they did, they would notice the missing guard and assume Ezra had ran from his bath.

It would be a slow search. No guards or alarms raised.

But if Yama anticipated things correctly, a lingering god would notice the exact moment when Ezra was in peril.

“Why are we going to my nursery?” Ezra bemoaned.  

“To get your riding clothes, of course,” Yama replied distantly. He tightened his hold possessively, luring Ezra up the stairs. “We wouldn’t want to ruin those nice robes, now would we?”

Ezra did not reply but rather trusted his mother and climbed the stairs with her. When they entered the dark nursery, Yama released his small hand and lightened several lanterns. As Ezra wandered near his wardrobe, Yama made his way cleanly across the nursery, putting a large distance between them. He stared at the far wall, merging with Ember, becoming both at once.

She regretted her actions. Yama did not.

The lantern fell purposely to the ground and a fire sprouted unnaturally fast. Ember reached out, regulating the flame, yet allowing it to grow and spread under her control.

Ezra stumbled back from his wardrobe, screaming for her, yet Ember persisted.

“Stay calm, my son,” she instructed soothingly. “You will not be harmed.”

She and Yama watched through the flames as Ezra’s small face scrunched up in horror. He looked both ways, noticing the fire had encircled him in every direction. Gradually, she shifted the wall of flame closer, knowing he was immune, but he hadn’t yet grasped the importance of his ability. Fire was just as fearful as water to him. Just as much the enemy.

He fell to the ground, throwing his arms over his head as if he could somehow protect himself that way. He rocked back and forth, chanting her name and begging for her help. Ember kept her expression schooled, immediately noticing the flames surrounding Ezra pulsating in harmony with his cries. As if listening and conveying.

Bending and relaying.

Ember watched in disbelief as the flames all but bent away from him despite her insistence.

As if they listened to another master.

And the nursery door slammed open.

She barely had enough time to heighten and increase her attack before the figure lunged, unafraid, onto his knees and directly into the fire. His focused attention was on the child and only the child. He did not harness his Element, he did not maneuver the flames away, yet they moved as if they had a mind of their own. He reached into the fire, grabbing Ezra, whom desperately reached back for him.

With noticeable worry, Josiah held Ezra at arm’s length, running his hands down the child’s body and searching for any irreversible damage. When he found none, he held the sobbing boy close, all but squeezing him in reassurance.

He then snapped his head up, his eyes locking on Ember’s blank stare.

“You crazy bitch.”

“I knew about the immunity,” Ember responded languidly. “I simply wanted to lure you out of hiding.”

The flames suddenly slipped from her control and roared with intensity. They brightened as they climbed up the walls and swallowed the fabrics across the room. She watched as he slowly moved to stand, keeping a firm and almost distressed hold on a trembling Ezra. She swallowed her trepidation, having anticipated his fury, having accepted it.

This was truly Agni.

Her excitement was short lived, for when he smiled, it was not Josiah she saw but rather a merciless entity with dark energy. “You succeeded,” he crooned, his eyes bleeding red. “My question for you, my dear, is what you shall do with the beast now that you’ve unleashed him?”

She looked at the floor.

He looked too.

And then he laughed chillingly. “You may hold me in place with this rune, but you’ve miscalculated on two accounts. One, I have your child.” He placed a hand on Ezra’s head, whom remained pressed against his side. “Secondly, I can still control my surroundings. All I need to do is knock you unconscious to leave the borders of the rune. And then what shall you do? Defeated? Defenseless?”

“I simply had questions.” She grinned eerily. “And I will take a wager that you consider Ezra too irreplaceable to harm him.”

Her statement siphoned the amusement and scorn from Agni.

In its place was something far more unnerving.

True anger.

The fire around the nursery suddenly suspended from the floor and floated toward the ceiling. Ember took a startled step back as the fire began swirling above like a funnel cloud. The scorching wind was powerful enough to pull at her gown and twist her hair in every which direction. Small veins of lightning shot from the fiery cloud, filling the room with angry hisses and setting the air with dry static.

Ember held up her hands, fire growing around her palms. A meager, silly defense to the sheer supremacy before her.

“What parent—even one as unstable as yourself—would wager their own child’s life?” Agni’s voice held an enormous amount of warped power. His words echoed and boomed across the entire nursery, shaking the very foundations. “What did you truly expect to happen tonight, Ember?” He looked at her defensive stance and chuckled darkly. “Were you arrogant enough to believe I would bend to your whims and answer to you? With my power I granted you?”

Desperate and afraid, Ember fell back on her Element. She knew it was unwise.

She knew… yet her instincts told her to defend herself.

She thrust a wall of flame toward the beast. Agni released a hair-rising hiss, throwing his arm out and reversing her attack back at her. The cloud of fire consumed both her hands. She turned, but not quick enough to prevent the left side of her face from catching fire.

She released a blood-curdling scream and fell to the ground.

Years of training instincts overrode the pain. Harnessing her Element, she pulled the fire from her flesh, yet it was too late. The damage was already done. Her left eye was sealed shut. Her face aflame. Her damaged hands curled defensively near her chest, the skin already discolored and oozing. All she could smell was burnt flesh and wondered if she would ever smell anything else again.

With a single eye, she looked up at the advancing god cloaked in her brother’s skin. The funnel cloud above his head shifted and focused directly over her. As he lifted his arm, the funnel cloud touched the tips of his fingers and lingered there. Ember whimpered, knowing it was her end. Knowing she’d incurred the temper of the most violate gods in existence.

They’d warned her.

She hadn’t listened.

She’d just wanted answers.

The ground underneath her abruptly turned icy and she felt the cold air leave her lungs. A surge of strength traveled through her limbs, cooling her burnt flesh. As she opened her eye, ready to defend herself once more, a body suddenly dove in front of her.

“No!” Ezra held out his hands to Agni, pleading. “Please. Please don’t hurt her!”

Agni abruptly dropped his arm, his eyes wide as they regarded the small child.

Ember sighed and slammed her head against the floor, unable to hold on to consciousness.

 

 

* * * *

There was a subtle movement.

And the pain reared its ugly head.

Ember sat up in the dark carriage and vomited. She trembled, recognizing the start of a fever.

“Lovely.”

She looked up, her single eye observing the stranger. He was of Igni descent and he currently had Ezra draped over his lap. The boy was sleeping soundlessly, perhaps lulled to a deep sleep by the hand combing through his hair. She shivered. Looking up at the man again, she knew this was Agni, unrelenting in his tormenting presence.

“You wanted answers.” The god was calmer. Far more in control. Instead of fury lacing his tone, he was cool and calculating. He did not watch her, but rather Ezra’s slumbering form. “Your child will be the new Reaper.”

The shock rendered her speechless.

And then fear.

Unexplainable fear.

No!” she gasped and struggled to sit up. “No! You said I—”

“Both of you hold a piece of Yama,” came the unconcerned reply. “You see—when Yama was destroyed, his soul was shattered into several pieces. You carry the majority of his soul, his memories, but there is a small shard attached to Ezra. You put it there, anticipating it would grow stronger until you could merge with it. Become complete upon Ezra’s mortal death.”

“But that would mean I would be the—”

“If you live long enough,” Agni interrupted. “You did quite the number on yourself before your death, Yama.” Despite the raised voices, Ezra did not stir on Agni’s lap. “Do you not remember?” came the goading inquiry. “You destroyed half your Essence to create the Syphons. You all but became a Syphon yourself.”

The mask.

The stares.

The urge to consume.

Ember sagged against the carriage bench when the pieces fell together.

“It is what is happening to you now,” Agni said callously. “You’re dying. Turning into a Syphon with a feeble, struggling sliver of Yama’s godly Essence.” Agni’s hands suddenly stopped combing through Ezra’s hair and he leveled her with an apathetic stare. “But I can destroy you before that happens. I can destroy you and the new Reaper position would fall to the only living soul that harbors a piece of Yama.”

The panic was back and Ember jerked forward. She looked at the innocent child laying peacefully on the monster’s lap, recalling the red-gold hue around him and knowing it to be true. She could not fathom her son walking Yama’s path. Such innocence. Such a precious life. She refused to see her son subjected to the same trials Yama had once faced.

She would do anything to protect him from that fate.

Out of options, Ember fell to the carriage floor and reached beseechingly for Agni.

“Please. Not my son.”

“Oh yes, your son.”

At the hard-hearted response, Ember’s hopelessness spiraled further. She grabbed Agni’s leg and pulled at him, pleading. “I beg of you. Please. I will take the position. Leave my son alone.”

“You beg for him now when you were so ready to wager his life earlier.”

Ember bowed her head.

The hopelessness, the isolation, and the confusion were familiar to her. She’d felt these sentiments for the past several months until they suffocated her and blurred her own voice, her own identity. She was exhausted of feeling these things. Her only source of help came in the form of an angry and sadistic god.

“I will give you an ultimatum, Ember Azeri,” Agni started. “You can’t go back to the palace now. You will take Ezra and raise him away from the capital. You will raise him how I see fit. You will make him stronger. You will take away his innocence and raise him with the knowledge he needs in order to stay afloat in such a cutthroat society.”

“Why?”

“That parasitic shard of your soul needs to be strong enough for the fusion with its other half. If he doesn’t mature past a spoiled prince, that shard will never be able to make you complete and more powerful, now would it? The stronger he is, the stronger the parasitic soul he carries.”

Ember pressed her eye closed, feeling her entire head throb from the burning, the blistering, and the information.

“You would also have to agree to the possession of a god.”

She opened her eye then. “No.”

“Then it will be Ezra I will focus on—”

“I’ll do it,” she consented tiredly. Losing her fight. “I’ll do it.”

On her knees before the powerful god and her child, she surrendered entirely.

“It is a minor god. You won’t even notice his presence. He will be there to ensure your… less stable instincts do not harm your son.” Agni paused and the carriage traveled over uneven road. “I will keep in touch while you keep a low profile. I will give you gold, but you will not be comfortable. You will have to work for a living. Scavenge.”

The carriage stopped and Ember tried not to sob at the helplessness coursing through her.

“This is on you, Yama,” Agni murmured dispassionately, as if sensing her desolation. “You chose a mortal soul in order to gradually gather your strength and draw little awareness from the other gods. It is on you that you also infected your mortal son. Nevertheless, if you stray from our agreement, I will be prepared to destroy you.”

He leaned over and opened the door to the carriage.

Ember stared out into the dark evening, eyeing the trees and the distant town.

“Through those trees, there will be a station. Find a train. Depart on it. Never look back.” With his free hand, he roused Ezra, whom sleepily lifted himself from the man’s lap. “Follow your mother, child.”

Ember took a deep breath and moved to exit the carriage.

Only, she stopped.

“The gods are against my very existence. I remember that much of my previous life.” She looked at Agni. “So why are you supporting the Reaper’s rise?”

Agni assisted a drowsy Ezra from the seat and pushed him gently to the exit of the carriage. “It’s all about balance, my dear. It has been too long without a Reaper. Without proper order.”

She sat there, remembering… remembering a face.

A name.

She regarded Agni closely. “Your son…”

Agni froze. Once Ezra stumbled from the carriage, the god slowly turned his head and stared at Ember with such surprising malice and coldness. She halted in place, terrified now more than she’d been in the nursery.

“Get. Out.”

When Ember was unable to move, to breathe, Agni animated.

Get out!” He shoved her from the carriage.

She landed heavily on the ground and a small trunk nearly hit her in the head. The door slammed closed and the carriage departed in a cloud of dirt. She sat up, watching in disbelief as the carriage drove off the grass and back to the dirt road. She stared after it until she couldn’t see it, her mind in a sudden haze.

“Mommy?”

Ember began to cry without holding back.

The first thing she felt was freedom. This was for the best. She’d been on the path to a slow death at the palace. She’d been caged by the expectations of being queen. With her mind breaking into two, she had difficulty hiding her suffering. Such suffering was unacceptable for royalty. Any relapse and Calder would subject her to the treatments that only made things worse.

It suddenly dawned on her that this was real.

What she’d been seeing—feeling—was real. Yama was very much real.

Concordia suddenly didn’t seem important when she knew there was far more suffering in the immortal realm. Not only the Syphons and the daemons, but also the mortal souls. Without her—without the God of Death—

She felt responsible. She felt at blame.

She couldn’t remember the details of her fall. Not yet. Nevertheless, she’d left behind so many of her people. So many had died, perished because of her. Him. Because of him. Yet, he was clever enough to persevere, wasn’t he? Being reborn as a mortal. Separating himself into pieces. It was unfortunate she’d grown attached to Ezra, whom carried a part of him. Yet, if what Agni said were true, Yama would connect with that piece upon Ezra’s death.  

That didn’t mean Ezra had to die anytime soon.

She would love her child. He would train his child.

The pain in her raised hands abruptly disappeared and her crying ceased out of surprise. She lowered her hands from her face, staring at Ezra in disbelief. The child whimpered and then began crying, holding his hands out to her and revealing bright red and rippled flesh.

“What did you do?” she asked sharply, grabbing his small wrists.

“I wanted you to feel better,” he managed to say through wails of pain.

Ember examined the burned palms and then examined her own hands. There was no injury on her hands any longer. He’d absorbed it on to himself. She’d never seen anything like it before. Never heard of anything like it. Water Elementals had the ability to heal, perhaps he’d inherited it from Calder, and yet, this was not normal.  

She tightened her hold on his wrists. “Don’t ever do that again. You hear me?” She shook him fiercely.

He only cried harder.

Standing from the ground, she ignored him in favor of opening the trunk. A callous side of her—him?—found the situation favorable even if it had put Ezra through unnecessary pain. Without her hand injuries, she’d be more useful in putting distance between herself and the palace. Looking through the trunk, she eyed the small pouch of gold and the few articles of clothing. She pulled out the cloak, hiding her gown until she could purchase plainer clothes.

She wrapped Ezra in his own inconspicuous robe, trying not to coddle him.

Aside from the obvious pain of his hands, the boy was undoubtedly confused, lost, and scarred over the events he’d seen tonight. She should explain things to him, calm him, yet something persisted that it be best to find shelter first.

And distance.

Distance.

She wasn’t going back to the palace and neither was Ezra.

“I know it hurts,” she managed to say between his wails. “But you must be silent.”

“Home?”

“We’re not going back home.” She slammed the trunk closed.

“But what about father? Uncle Josiah?”

Ember took a deep, steadying breath to pacify her temper. “They are bad men. We are not going back to see them.”

That silenced Ezra abruptly.

And then he started anew.

She tore off a piece of her gown, wrapping her son’s palms with fabric. Her own face burned. The breeze only served to make it sting and ache all over again. Her left eye remained sealed shut and she knew she would never regain vision, even after healing. Her face would scar horribly. Ezra’s hands would scar horribly. She only hoped they did not incur an infection, but it was likely they would need to spend a good chunk of their money on medication. Without the palace water Elementals—

She stopped, considering.

Then she stared at Ezra.

As immune as he was… he would never benefit from a water Elemental’s healing, would he? Like the Ignis of old, he would need traditional healing and medicines.

She pressed onward, finishing wrapping his hands and tapping him smartly on the cheek. “Hush.”

“You consent to my possession? I am Kapardi.”

Ember stopped, her entire body growing rigid. She wanted to deny the voice consent, yet Agni would find her. Agni would make good on his promise to take Ezra away and destroy her—him—before she even had a chance to recover her memories. When she nodded, she felt the possession, yet it was so unlike Agni’s that she nearly laughed with relief. There was no overpowering presence. There was no second identity. The god—Kapardi—remained silent and unnoticeable.

“Come. We need to find the train station.” She hauled the trunk behind her, waiting on Ezra to stumble after her.

Soon, his cries turned raspy and hoarse, and then he had no voice left.

 

* * * *

 

They’d boarded a train once—twice—before Ember and Ezra were on the last leg of their destination to an outskirt village in Region 10, north of the main railroad bisecting Concordia. It was far enough from the capital, yet a wealthy enough district to ease them into a new way of living. On their destination, they’d incurred several stares, but the further south they traveled, the less of an anomaly they were.

She had ample time to reflect during the train ride.

She had moments of doubts.

There was a possibility Agni was lying. There was a possibility he led her astray. Nevertheless, what memories she did have of her past life, and what she’d witnessed at the palace, told her Agni couldn’t be far from the truth. She just didn’t know his intentions. She didn’t know if she could trust him to keep their location a secret from both mortals and immortals alike.

What choice did she have?

The further they traveled from the palace, the more her indecisiveness disappeared.

No.

This was for the best.

Her resolve hardened. Her emotions shriveled.

She may rely on Agni. For now. But that would eventually change.

She’d nodded off several times, feeling a familiar exhaustion in her limbs that wasn’t attributed to her current injury but rather an age-old ailment. Undeniably, the pain in her face was also unbearable. She felt the fever sink into her very bones, emphasizing her already sick and worn body. They would need to search for a Healer when they stopped. For the pain. For the infection.

After that…

They would need to blend in. They would need to scavenge as Agni referred to it. She knew exactly what the god wanted Ezra to experience and Ember was more than prepared for the hardships ahead of them. Ahead of Ezra, especially.

Her bright little boy…

Ember swallowed the lump and reached to shake Ezra awake. The boy had fallen asleep, curled on the seat next to her. His hands bent defensively towards his chest, bandaged and red. Even in sleep, he had a prominent frown between his brows. If she moved closer, she could see lines around his mouth that suggested a heavy grimace.

She licked her lips hesitantly and tried out his new identity.

“Micah.”

She shook him again.

“Micah, my son, wake up. We are here.”

Charmed yellow eyes opened slowly, already appearing old and world-weary.  

Ember’s soul shattered.

Chapter Text

17. Chapter Seventeen 

 

The Four rarely met.

When they did, the very air tensed with anticipation, for these four imposing figures exuded auras of untouchable exaltedness. Nature was restless. Eager over the prospect of hosting such commanding entities whom were all but one with nature herself. Upon a hill of waist-length grass, a goddess stood patiently as she awaited the arrival of the other three.

The mischievous wind continued to push her tight curls into her face, though she remained unbothered and distracted. She stared unseeingly into the distance of the wide-open fields, listening to the buzz of insects and the hooting of distant owls.

Above, the dark sky harbored a plethora of distant stars.

The very soil embraced her presence and whispered her stories of nature. It spoke of the red fox stalking its prey in the distant trees. It showed her the colorful mirage of frogs clumped on tree barks and greeting the night with their song. She smiled endearingly when she heard the hymns of her mortals as they prepared for bed.

Yet, it was only several days ago when something unreachable arrived, hovering just at the edge of nature’s awareness.

Something foreign. Something dark and plague-like.  

Prithvi could not identify it, neither could nature, but it tasted like decay.  

Abruptly, Prithvi withdrew from her meditative state when nature warned her of the approaching reptile. She turned, watching the tall grass as it separated and swayed, soon revealing the dark serpent that sashayed its way through the fields. The impressive length coiled and twisted, moving with a beautiful, lethal grace.

She smiled. Appeased to see her brother.

“Agni.”

The serpent moved quickly, lunging, before morphing in midair.

Agni moved across the grass without pause, as if he had never shifted from his reptilian form. “Prithvi.” He carefully observed their surroundings, no doubt reassessing for threats, possible spectators, or additional company.  

“We’re waiting on the others.”

As predicted, his expression, albeit masked, left little room for interpretation. Distaste clouded his features as he gazed into the sky.

Prithvi took advantage of his distraction to observe him closely, pleased to note the changes. While gods were immortal and eternally young, trials and tragedy had the ability to dim their features and line it with after impressions of grief.

Prithvi had seen Agni at his worst. After his personal tragedy, she believed he would have carried grim lines for eternity. Yet, observing him now, Prithvi was surprised at the youthfulness of his face. A steady glow resonated beneath his skin, emphasizing the beauty and immortality of their kind. The lines around his eyes were not gone, but they were subtle, eased.

In fact, his entire person seemed at ease despite the inevitable meeting with Vayu and Varuna.

“How is Ezra?” Prithvi inquired knowingly.  

Agni looked away from the sky and regarded her warily.

Like the most selfish of beasts, he would hoard his treasure as closely as possible. Everyone else was a threat, someone not to be trusted. In Agni’s case, Prithvi did not blame him for being on the defensive about his young lover. He had every right to be.

“He is well,” came the predicted, clipped response.

She giggled. “Oh come now, Agni, I adore him. I mean no harm in my inquiry.”

“He is well,” Agni replied again, looking away from her to study the deserted fields of the Terra Kingdom. “He is gradually growing acclimated with our realm. Learning new things. Meeting others.”

Prithvi raised her eyebrows at the distant tone. “A very challenging adjustment for a born mortal, I am certain.” She frowned, sensing something was not quite right when he emphasized ‘meeting others’. “Don’t tell me he already met Svaha.” At Agni’s silence, Prithvi pressed. “That is a very bold step and one to make him feel exceptionally uncomfortable.”  

“It was not planned, but the opportunity presented itself tonight.” Agni looked at her. “Kartikeya, Svaha, and Tvastr.”

“A family reunion,” Prithvi proclaimed dryly, momentarily dwelling on Tvastr’s attention of their Reaper. Indra undoubtedly sent Tvastr to be his ears and eyes and that did not bode well with her. “I’m sure that went well.”

“He handled it well. He knows he has my commitment.”

She looked at him unconvincingly.

Prithvi had never liked Svaha. When she was Agni’s consort, Agni had regressed. His personality had been similar to that of Vayu, an entitled and pompous god with little empathy and patience for others. He’d stopped doing things he enjoyed, such as visiting the mortal realm and engaging in battles. Instead, he’d dwelled more at court and forced himself to interact with vultures.

Now…

It was as if the poison had bled from Agni.

Prithvi knew much of it had to do with his misfortunes and his separation from Svaha, but she knew Ezra was just as responsible for Agni’s shift of behavior. The dynamic between Agni and Ezra was night and day to the one Agni had once shared with Svaha.

“Cherish and treasure that boy, Agni. Make him feel as if he’s the center of your existence. He’s already done you a world of good.”

“I know.”

She looked at him quickly, not expecting his answer. There was a trace of somberness in his words as he watched the approaching birds.

“I have trouble convincing him of this.”

“Then try harder,” Prithvi returned sharply. “He has a mortal mentality. To him, you are untouchable and almighty. Make him see your vulnerabilities. Make him realize he can obtain an equivalency of a true partnership. I know you. You like to hide behind a cruel detachment. Stop treating him like a mortal child and regard him as a trusted warrior, friend, and partner.”

The arrival of their two brothers put an end to their conversation.

The proud egret soared in from the northeast, looping around a bird of prey approaching from the east. The hawk nearly clipped the egret with a large talon before the white bird rolled underneath it with an irritated cry. In a flurry of feathers, Varuna and Vayu appeared, mildly vexed, and in the latter’s case, smug.

“I see you two are getting along,” Prithvi mused.

“Prithvi, Agni,” Vayu nodded to each of his siblings as he ran a hand through his windswept hair. “To what do we owe this pleasure? It has been several decades since we’ve all been together.”

“That’s simply because you always dwell in Elisium,” Varuna remarked.

“You’re one to talk, Varuna. Besides, Prithvi and Agni are always grounded with their pet mortals.”

“Your pet mortals could certainly use your exclusive attention,” Agni said disdainfully.

Vayu turned, his grey eyes derisive. “Speaking of pet mortals, Agni, how is your lovely counterpart? Have you properly leashed him yet?”

Prithvi lifted her chin and cleared her throat, incurring the attention of the three imposing gods. “I’ve called you here because we are under attack.” She noticed the smirk on Vayu’s lips. “This is no joke, Vayu. Dhumavati has crawled from the shadows and has started a reckoning.”

“Dhumavati!” Vayu laughed once. “A reckoning? She is a coward. She is of little concern to me.”

“She is of concern to me, to mortals of every race, therefore your concern,” Prithvi said intensely. The ground beneath their feet trembled and gave off the impression of rolling thunder.  “You may have forsaken your mortals, Vayu, but I still love mine.”

“I have not forsaken my mortals. I simply recognize the end of a cycle.” Upon his remark, both Varuna and Agni made to start an argument. Vayu held up a hand, silencing them. “I will approach King Indra about this. It is time for a new beginning. We have a new God of Death, do we not? Mortals haven’t had a God of Death in centuries. They lack growth. Enlightenment. Ezra and Yamuna will need to work together—”

Now he’s convenient? I will never allow you to use him,” Agni interrupted menacingly. “Do not mistake your condemning blunders for the need of total destruction amongst mankind. What state your kingdom is in now is entirely your own doing. Varuna, Prithvi, and I will all vouch for the unnecessary actions you plan to purpose to Indra. He will not overrule us.”

“Perhaps you should spend what energy you may use at Indra’s court and instead use it to fix the Eurus Empire,” Varuna suggested airily. “Brahma knows, however, how much you and Indra enjoy preening each other’s plumages. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you.”

Vayu rounded on the amused Water God.

“Don’t act as if you and Agni have not thought the same for mankind. Just what is the state of the Igni and Unda nations?”

Enough!” Prithvi roared. “This isn’t just about the mortals. This is about an attack on us. The four of us.” She looked at the three gods, feeling an anger she hadn’t felt in a long while. “Something is not right. Something is in the air. In the soil. In the very roots. It does not sit well with me and I fear it is growing behind the scenes. Once we comprehend what is happening, it will be too late to stop it.”  

“What are you experiencing?” Varuna asked.

“There have been two attacks on mortals. Both of them Elementals. Their gifts have turned against them.” Prithvi shook her head. “It’s unsettling. I can feel her. Dhumavati. But I can feel something else, something I cannot isolate from her taint.”

“There has been a water Elemental that faced the same fate in Concordia,” Varuna informed. “Drowning by his own Element. No such report of fire Elementals going up in flame.”

“Nevertheless, I witnessed Dhumavati attending a cremation service four days ago,” Agni said. “The body being cremated was that of a fire Elemental. Unfortunately, she escaped before I could grab hold of her.” He nodded to Prithvi. “Had I known she was also causing trouble in your territory, I would have attempted to follow her through the veil.”

All eyes turned to Vayu.

The god shook his head. “No such attacks reported in my kingdom.”

“That you are aware of,” Agni hissed.

Vayu offered the man a narrow look. “There have been no similar attacks,” he repeated firmly. He then straightened and his scorn turned to smugness. “You know whom has the power to control Dhumavati? The God of Death. But we are told we cannot implement the Reaper’s talents, in fear it will infuriate our brother…”

“Ezra is not a full-fledged god yet.” Agni paid little attention to Vayu’s taunt and only responded with matter of fact. “Whatever sway he may hold over Dhumavati will not work.”

“Then perhaps it’s time to make him a god,” Varuna murmured contemplatively. “We can train him in your realm, Agni. He possesses enough Essence that a death will immortalize him. A quick passing should suffice. Snapping his neck is rather abrupt and final. I will perform the act if you cannot do it yourself.”

“Or I could certainly do so,” Vayu volunteered casually.

Agni’s expression revealed nothing. “Ezra is entitled to be present for this conversation and certainly for the decision of his mortal death.”

“I agree with Agni,” Prithvi said firmly. “It is not your place, Vayu, or yours, Varuna.” She looked out across the rolling hills. “Transforming Ezra into a god before he is ready may be for naught. For I believe that Dhumavati has already accomplished her task. Whatever it was.” A heavy silence resonated among the group. “We will have to deal with the consequences.”

“I will search for Dhumavati,” Vayu surprisingly volunteered. “She’s no doubt lurking somewhere near the bowels of Naraka.”

“If you should find her…” Varuna trailed off, looking pointedly at Agni.

“I believe we are more than capable of handling Dhumavati on our own. We will not need Ezra’s godly intervention.” Agni grew impassive. “She can listen to reason.” He considered Vayu. “Annihilation of another god or goddess solves little. We only need her for information.”

“She is tainted. Ugly.” Vayu curled his lip. “She should have been hunted down and killed when Yama fell.”

“Yama…” Varuna trailed off, keeping a deliberating look in Agni’s direction. The God of Fire ignored it entirely. “May not be as gone as we believe. He may be the one pulling her strings, in which case makes perfect sense. Who else would devise ways to attack us? Dhumavati is a simple pawn.”

Vayu and Prithvi both regarded Varuna skeptically.

“That is impossible.” Vayu looked to Agni. “Two Reapers? Yama? Yama was destroyed, Brahma saw to that.”

Agni simply inclined his head, giving the impression of casual indifference. “There are not two Reapers. There is only one. If Yama has resurfaced, he will be fragile.”

Prithvi easily saw beneath Agni’s inconsequence and recognized his gravity.

That only served to worry her.

“Despite his fragility, Yama is a threat and no doubt behind Dhumavati’s recent sightings.” She looked at her other two brothers, noticing their ominousness. “As much as I agree that Ezra needs to accept his transformation into a god, this is just another development pushing for his rebirth. If this turns out to be a battle for the Reaper’s throne, you must give Ezra an advantage to stop Yama. For all our sakes. Waking Brahma may not work this time.”

The three watched Agni.

“Give us a few years—”

“Weeks,” Vayu interrupted.

At the interruption and correction, extreme ire brightened Agni’s eyes. He turned, shuffling closer to Vayu. “Press further and he will die of old age before we even consider lending assistance to you and your repellent comrades.”

“We may not even have a mortal year, Agni,” Prithvi replied gently before Vayu could escalate things further. “You and Varuna mentioned training. I think that is a wonderful idea. Train Ezra. Do not concern yourselves with time, but rather his progress. Once he makes strides, we can reassess the situation. Does that sound agreeable?”

Vayu and Agni continued to regard the other, palpable distaste radiating from both gods. Varuna looked on eagerly, as if anticipating a great, far-spreading grass fire. Prithvi would not put it past Varuna to incite the two and readied herself in case that should happen.

Unexpectedly, Agni was the first to relent. “I will discuss it with Ezra,” he replied flatly. 

“Vayu?” Prithvi inquired, giving the smug man a stern look. “Don’t you have someone to hunt?”

Vayu bowed mockingly. “As always, it has been a pleasure, my brothers. Sister.”

Instead of his typical fanfare, Vayu simply dissolved into thin air. The wind picked up speed and intensity, whisking his presence high into the sky. Prithvi closed her eyes into the heavy breeze, knowing Vayu’s first stop would be Elisium, in particular, the palace. She did not concern herself over Indra’s anticipated response after Vayu proposed an end of a cycle.

Indra was a great deal of things, but foolish and unintelligent were not one of them. He would not move against Prithvi and her brothers, yet he may find a way to divide them if it suited his own purposes.

When she turned back to Agni and Varuna, she noticed both were already gone, leaving her alone once more.

 

* * * *

“Then I will find you.”

Micah closed his eyes against the memory of Agni’s promise. He slowly reopened them when the sting of something painful and cold served to make him uncomfortably miserable. How could it not make him miserable? Hours before, he’d happily succumbed to Agni. He’d felt good. He felt good about their relationship. He’d given himself up to the god during intimacy, trusting him where he had never trusted another.

They’d made such progress these past several days.

Said progress had started in earnest that morning on the train. That morning Agni implored Micah to see the prospect of being equals.

Remembering it now only served to darken Micah’s mood and make his chest twist.

After his discussion with Chitragupta, Micah had raked his mind and recalled his many conversations with Agni. It was almost amusing, really, that he couldn’t remember an outright lie from Agni. For everything the god kept from him, the amount of probable lies were impressively sparse. He was sure there were white lies he missed, some that he could not recall, but for the most part, it was all careful phrasing. All omissions of the truth and clever sidestepping.

Micah would come up with a theory or speculation and Agni would sometimes play off that and be incredibly vague.

Shifty.

When Micah first discovered Kai missing, Agni had used misdirection.

“Then where is Kai?”

“It is your job to keep a better eye on your toys, not mine.”

When Micah spoke of summoning Chitragupta he recalled it being a plethora of misdirected information and sly insinuating.

“And how do you explain my ability to raise one from slumber?”

“A god could summon a Syphon from slumber, though they would never do so. Gods fear their abilities, though most god eaters would be extremely weak at this point of time. You, specifically, are a demigod, hence your ability to awaken one.”

Upon Josiah’s admittance, Micah’s mind spun. “You’re lying.”

The man chuckled sinisterly. “With my presence smothering you, quite literally cocooning you, you appear to be half-god, half-mortal in the eyes of many creatures. Daemons and gods alike.”

“You’ve become a part of me.”

It was the closest to an outright lie that Micah could recall aside from mentions of Ember. Yet, it was also the truth, was it not? The ritual needed both Agni and Micah. Agni had become a part of him. He had cocooned him. Agni just chose to focus on how Micah was capable of summoning a god eater when it normally required a deity to do so.

And Ember! Ember. He vividly recalled the train ride to Region 20, after he’d escaped the palace with his team. Agni finally had to admit to the existence of a second Syphon. Any mention of Ember was carefully vague. Unclear.

“What are you implying, exactly?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

Pulling his gaze from the sky, he reassessed the lazy figure of Haken. “She was possessed by a Syphon.”

“Close, but not quite.”

Micah frowned. “A god.”

A small, nearly obscured smirk lifted the corner of Haken’s mouth. “Correct, child.”

Clever. For how could a Syphon possess Ember when she was already a Syphon? Agni had also claimed he’d sent Kapardi, a minor god, to possess Ember and keep watch over Micah. Perhaps, when Agni mentioned a god possessing Ember in that conversation, he also meant Yama. Both Yama and Kapardi were gods. Both were tormenting Ember in their own way.

After the events in Region 20, both Agni and Micah intentionally avoided any further mention of ‘Yama’— of this second Syphon. They danced around each other for months, not touching the topic, both for their own reasons.

Micah’s reluctance to mention Yama had clearly served Agni’s purposes.

Now he knew why Agni never pressed when it came to the topic of Yama.

Micah couldn’t even think on Ember right now without losing himself. Ember, whom believed herself to be Yama. Ember, whom been utterly innocent in everything. Ember, who had to fight insistently just to keep control of her body. Ember, whom was destroyed because of—

He shook his head, staring out the window and at the distant mountains.

Most recently, he recalled Agni’s response when Micah asked about Kai’s condition.

“Your noble doggy is just fine.”

Micah pulled back, searching Agni’s—Josiah’s—closed off expression. “Just fine?”

“There is no possession. No corruption from another source. He is… who he is.”

He is… who he is…

How cute. How clever.

Perhaps no outright lie, but it was outright deception.

Micah once claimed he could not envision an upfront and honest Agni. The man was clever, manipulative, and he liked to play games. It was who he was. Micah boasted he didn’t mind playing that game with Agni. And that was true. For the most part. He embraced the god’s scheming side and even claimed he enjoyed it. Yet, this was on an entirely different level of scheming. Of manipulation.

Agni destroyed the lives of the people Micah loved.

That was something Micah could not tolerate.

He smiled darkly and without humor. “What did Prithvi want?” he inquired when he felt the light breeze across the sitting area. The familiar presence flickered near the fireplace, yet Micah remained facing away, not yet knowing if he had the conviction to look at the god.

He would lose it.

And it wouldn’t be anger that would come forth, but rather a weaker expression of the pain he felt.

“She has become aware of Dhumavati in her own realm. Elementals are being killed by their own Element. Vayu will hunt for her and find answers.” A pause. “I am surprised you are still awake. I would have believed you to be tired.” Agni seemed to sense that not all was right, for he stopped a distance away. His regard on Micah’s turned back was nearly physical. “What has happened?”

Micah’s dark, cynical smile grew further. He kept his hands clasped behind his back and maintained a sturdy stance. “I recently became acquainted with Chitragupta.”

The silence was deafening.

Micah turned his head, tracing Agni’s tense expression with a cold eye. “He has told me a great deal of things.”

The shock on Agni’s face was fleeting, but so openly vulnerable that Micah could hardly believe he’d witnessed such a spectacle. Shock then darkened and closed off. Blood-orange eyes examined him thoroughly, as if searching for the best way to salvage the situation. He was probably wondering how much Micah knew and conceiving ways to twist his way out of it.

“He had no right,” Agni spoke with quiet malice.

“He had every right,” Micah countered with equal malice. He pivoted on his heel and faced Agni. “Isn’t that the reason you summoned him in the first place? To be a protector of sorts? A guardian to me? Even against the god laughably proclaiming himself my equal?”

“We both summoned—”

“You know what? I don’t even care,” Micah interrupted loudly, his ire growing. “I don’t care about Chitragupta. I don’t care about the fucking Syphon.” He inhaled deeply to control his sudden spike of fury. “When were you going to tell me about Ember? When Yama tearfully embraced me and said he was proud to be my mother?” Micah smiled with teeth. “You were there. You held me up after seeing her body. You were there to lean on—”

His voice broke and he could do nothing to hide the pain that rippled across his face.

He turned away before he could make a further display.

“I had every intention of telling you. It was what I intended to say those many days ago on the train,” Agni said gently.  

“And I didn’t want to know then,” Micah responded dimly. “But since that morning, I inquired after it again. I wanted to know. You had opportune times to tell me, Agni. Perhaps you could have told me the night I discovered Ember’s body. Perhaps that day in the royal mausoleum.” Micah laughed jadedly. “Tonight? No… not tonight, for you wanted to sate your desires. That is far more important.”

“That is—”

I’m the one doing the talking,” Micah whispered icily. Recovering, he turned back to Agni, making a slow turn around the divan. “I will be the one asking you questions and I want a straight-forward, honest answer from you.” He stopped until the divan was between them and grinned eerily. “Are you even capable of straight-forward, honest answers?”

Agni observed Micah, his expression blank.

“You may answer the question, Agni,” Micah prompted.

The Fire God’s eyes hooded with displeasure. “Everything—”

“A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ should suffice for this particular answer,” Micah interrupted again, maintaining just as blank a face as Agni.

The two faced each other silently. As if sensing Agni’s wrath, the fire behind the god increased in both height and intensity, casting Agni in shadow. Micah, whom faced the fire, did not flinch away from the additional light shedding across his face. He simply maintained his indifference, not at all intimidated, but rather reluctantly amused.

Agni was humoring him by remaining docile and subservient in the conversation.

What did the god hope to gain by keeping his temper in check and bowing to Micah’s whims? Did he truly think he could salvage their relationship by submitting to Micah’s demands now?

“Yes.” The word rolled off Agni’s tongue with emphasized pronunciation.

“When did Ember become a Syphon?” Micah clasped his hands behind his back and readopted the warrior’s stance. It was a posture engrained on him since Idris’ training. It conveyed an air of strength, a shield to the true vulnerability he kept hidden. “Keep in mind I know many things already. Do not test me by trying to omit the truth this time.”

“Dead mortal souls can typically be turned into daemons, not Syphons, yet, clearly, the God of Death is more than capable of creating a Syphon out of a living mortal soul. It’s a disease of sorts.”

Agni emphasized his s’s, revealing the true extent of his controlled temper.

“In this singular case, the process was not instantaneous. It was a painful progression for your mother. It began the moment she conceived you. The moment you—in the womb— desired substance. You consumed a part of her, and in return, you gave some of yourself back to her. A mortal cannot live long without a complete soul. You all but punctured tainted holes in her soul that possessed the necessary foulness to start her transition into a Syphon.”

“That’s why she was ill all that time. She was dying.”

“It would have started off as depression. Food would not truly sate her, she would feel cold, she wouldn’t sleep well, and she would lose interest in many things. She’d become sensitive to death and those that death rules. I believe it took her so long to turn into a full Syphon because you gave her some of yourself in the womb.”

“How long did it take for her to turn into a full Syphon?”

“The moment she consumed Kapardi.”

Micah blinked, the only telltale sign he was taken aback. “The god you assigned to watch over us. When was this?”

“Around the time I collected you from Region 20. When you were with Idris at his tavern.”

He inhaled deeply, feeling a heavy pang of misery for his mother. Flashes of her pain, her sickness, her fragility crossed his mind. “It took that long? Over twenty years for her to succumb?” Because of me? He paused, grateful that Agni recognized it as a rhetorical question. “And you, what? Found her then? Implanted a sliver of Yama—”

“No.” Agni shook his head. “You are making this far more complicated than it has to be, child.”

Upon the familiar pet name, Micah stiffened. He wanted to create as much distance as possible from Agni now and in the future. “Ezra,” he corrected frostily. “Don’t ever call me ‘child’ again.”

The silence that stretched was once more heavy with surprise and deep contemplation.

When Agni spoke again, he did so in a controlled tone of voice. “I said you gave back some of yourself in the womb. That included a piece of Yama. You were supposed to possess all of Yama’s master soul, yet your mother absorbed a piece during her pregnancy. Yamuna should have foreseen this possibility—this connection— between mother and son during pregnancy.”

Micah stared unseeingly at Agni’s dark figure.

He had thought—

He had been so ready to assume Agni had been the one to transform and create Ember into what she was today. When, in reality, it had been him. Micah had corrupted Ember. Just from their connection during pregnancy was enough for Micah to taint her. Destroy her.

He recalled Chitragupta’s words earlier that night.

“The God of Death carried by a mortal woman? Absurd. I wouldn’t assume it would have a favorable outcome, least of all for the woman.”

How much had she known? How much did Agni tell her? Had she personally held Micah accountable?

“I was supposed to absorb Yama’s memories? Not her?”

“I would hope not,” Agni replied stiffly. “Everything I told you that day in the mausoleum is the truth. Your soul—your Essence—was created to withhold and withstand Yama’s Essence until you were old enough to absorb it as your own. Dissimilarly, Ember’s soul was malleable. That small sliver of Yama was enough to overcome her.”

“She had no fight left,” Micah surmised. “She gave in to the influence of his Essence and now she believes she’s Yama reincarnated.” His gaze hardened. “However, Chitragupta told me you were responsible for creating her. Forgive me if I find your explanations unreliable.”

“Are you… hoping to find an alternative reason for her fate, Ezra?” Agni inquired dispassionately, abruptly turning the tables and no longer acting the subservient, chastised lover. “Hoping that you aren’t solely the reason for her deterioration?”

“Once I look above the haze of your presence, it’s easy to see past your tricks, Agni,” Micah responded with cold confidence. “You cannot bait me. You cannot lead me astray.” He unclasped his hands behind his back and reached for the back of the divan. Both his hands spread across the upholstery as he levelled Agni with a firm stare. “Why are you responsible for creating her?”

Agni’s tone was callous. “I pushed her over the edge.”

Micah examined the silhouette across from him, feeling the anger smolder and swell. It was cold. Easily contained. For now. “You manipulated her,” he concluded quietly. “You did nothing for her sanity but make it worse. You saw a weak, feeble mortal and thought what best way she could serve you.”

Chitragupta spoke figuratively when he said Agni created Ember. Micah may have been the one to turn Ember into what she was today, but Agni was responsible for taking advantage and twisting things to his favor.

“No. I saw a mortal transforming into a Syphon and sought to delay the alteration. Killing her would have only completed the transformation. When I possessed her many years ago, I saw her mind all but splitting itself into two,” Agni replied calmly. “She was trying to keep them separate, but I simply merged them together by offering false reassurances. I lied and told her she was Yama’s reincarnation. How else could I explain Yama’s memories replaying in her mind? How could I explain her altering physical body? Her changing demeanor? It put her at ease, hearing she was Yama reborn.”

“She could have been strong enough to endure,” Micah argued. “She could have kept her own individualism while maintaining Yama’s Essence as a separate, distant influence. You never gave her that chance—that encouragement— to fight back.”

“Perhaps.”

“But?” Micah pressed sharply. “But that wouldn’t serve your agenda, would it?”

“I wanted you out of the palace. I wanted you away from the servants. The simpering. I wanted you away from your father. I couldn’t raise you. I didn’t want to raise you so intimately. It was evident you adored your mother and would go wherever she led you.” Agni inclined his head marginally. “So I devised a story. I told Ember that she was Yama reborn, but a part of her soul was attached to you. That, when she—Yama—had been killed, his soul had scattered into pieces. The piece of Yama attached to you would grow stronger the stronger you grew.”

Micah shook his head, hearing it all before, hearing it from Yama—Ember—that day on the train. When he—she?—had possessed Kai.

“You told her that she would have to take me away from the palace and train me. Prepare me. That’s the only reason I can imagine Ember agreeing to the circumstances of my childhood.”

“I told her it was vital to make you as strong as possible, for when you died a mortal’s death, she would absorb the rest of Yama and become whole once more. She did not detect a lie. She believed what I said to be true. And it is partially the truth. Instead of a parasitic soul, however, you possess the master soul. She could simply consume you and become stronger.” Agni paused, appearing, for the first time, hesitant. “Power was not what drove her to agree to the proposal, however.”

Micah simply rose an eyebrow, spurring Agni to explain.

“Ember did not agree to train you, and then proceed to merge with the rest of her ‘soul’ because she wanted to, but rather to protect you. She seemed desperate—afraid—over the prospect of you harboring a piece of Yama,” Agni replied monotonously. “At the time of her departure from the palace, she possessed many of Yama’s memories, but not all. She would reclaim the Reaper position because she could not stand the thought of you experiencing the same pain, the same horrors that Yama had during his reign.”

Micah removed his hands from the back of the couch and straightened when a wave of agony hit him.

Hard.

“Even now, I believe fear is the prevailing reason for her tenacity,” Agni continued. “That day she possessed you on the train, and sent you to Yama’s realm, was the day she realized I’d been deceiving her for several years. When she possessed you, she undoubtedly noticed that you did not simply harness a shard of Yama, but rather the master soul. It was clear to her that you were the intended Reaper. Not her.”

Micah bowed his head, taking a moment to contemplate and digest the information.

All this time he’d feared being a simple host for Yama’s parasitic soul. He’d feared Yama and Agni had been working together. It was a very small victory to learn that was not the case.

The Yama he had spoken to on the train had been wrong about that, but he—she— had also been deceived.

By Agni.

It had been Ember this whole time believing she was shouldering the responsibilities of the Reaper so that her son would not have to. She had taken her child away from the palace, perhaps recognizing things much larger than mortal politics, in order to prepare him. Make him stronger. She’d wanted him to live a full, mortal life, before ‘reconnecting’ with the rest of her soul after his death. 

Finding out Micah was the true God of Death most likely devastated her.

Enraged her enough to surmount and find a new way to take the position and spite Agni for his endless years of deception.

“Is there anything left of her?” Micah asked jadedly. “You said her fear is still a driving influence behind her actions.”

“Fear for you is undoubtedly the driving influence, yet I believe it is a subconscious instinct at this point. It was appropriate that you mourned for her, for Ember and Yama have merged as one. She would consume you to protect you, but it will also suit Yama’s purposes to reclaim his position.”

All he could dwell over was his childhood.

Everything finally made so much sense.

A lot more sense than when he thought it was simply Kapardi possessing her against her will.

A lot more sense than mental illness.

She’d been dying and struggling to fight off a phantom disease that no Healer could diagnose and treat. A sickness Micah could never absorb for himself when he’d tried to heal her. All the while, she was fighting against memories and sentiments that were not her own. Voices that were not hers. An identity that was crushingly dominant and influential.

The days she’d been gentle and loving where the days Ember persevered.

The days she’d grow callous and cruel where the days Yama persevered.

Two identities in one body and Agni was there to push her toward seeing herself as just one entity. Micah was upset, yet it was a passive anger. Agni may have put Ember out of her misery by telling her she was Yama’s reincarnation. Clearly, despite his meddling, there were still times Ember fought against succumbing. She and Yama were too dissimilar. No doubt she was fearful over what would happen if she gave in.

Micah suddenly recalled Josiah’s delirious accusations the day of Ember’s cremation.

How he claimed Micah was responsible for warping his sister.

Ironic how the man’s simple intuitions turned out to be accurate. 

Then Micah recalled the man with blond hair and blue eyes in the crowd of mourners at Ember’s service. The man had watched Micah with eyes that desperately tried to hide how bitter and passionate he’d felt. He and his faint, red-gold aura left Micah puzzled. Now he realized that it had been Ember attending her own cremation service.

With Dhumavati.

“She’s working with Dhumavati.”

“Yes.”

Micah looked up at Agni. The fire in the hearth had died down since his deep musings and Agni appeared on the other side of the divan, standing but a few feet away. Across the room, candles and lanterns flared to life, casting the sitting area in a bright, almost quixotic ambiance. He shuffled a step backward, in which Agni simply replicated with a step forward.

“Does Prithvi know what Dhumavati has planned? Killing Elementals aside?”

“No.”

Micah planted his feet in a steadfast stance, refusing to retreat. Agni mirrored him. “Kapardi.” He lifted his chin. “You once proclaimed you sent him to watch over me and that Ember’s illness was attributed to fighting off his possession.”

“That still remains true. I could not always watch you. Kapardi was a safeguard. Despite Ember agreeing to his presence, the sliver of Yama did not appreciate his presence. Even if Kapardi never intended to take control, his possession would have emphasized her illness.” Agni cocked his head to the side and regarded Micah. “He was also used as substance once she fully turned into a Syphon. I would not have a Syphon wreak havoc across the kingdom because it is too hungry to think logically.”

Kapardi.

Another name on the list of Agni’s victims.

The god had actually planned to sacrifice Kapardi from the very beginning. Either Kapardi did not know of Ember’s Syphon status or he’d simply underestimated the danger of remaining in close proximity to an underdeveloped god eater.

“Chitragupta?”

“Had more control than Yama.”

“Your control over Ember did not last long.”

“It lasted long enough,” Agni countered quickly, with venom, as if considering Micah’s observation an insult to his manipulating skills. “I