by A.M. Deese
Release Date: March 2018
Cover Design by: https://www.desireedeortodesigns.com/
Summary from Goodreads:
A NOBLE DAUGHTER.
A FORMER SLAVE.
DARK MAGIC AND VOLATILE ALLIANCES COLLIDE IN A WORLD ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE.
“Jura imagined it sounded like rain.”
Juggling death is nothing new for seventeen-year-old Jura, daughter of the First of the Thirteen, successive rulers of the Republic of the Sand Sea. However, when a blood chain ensnares her father, she is thrust into the seat of power and forced to rule her elders.
“To Tylak, water had never tasted sweeter.”
Jura must track down her father’s assassin and balance a country on the verge of collapse. To find the Prince of Shadows and uncover the truth, Jura puts her trust in Tylak, a former slave accused of stealing from the Everflame—a man she once condemned to death.
In a world where water is currency and enemies lurk around every corner, Jura will use her wits or risk igniting a world war.
Jura imagined it sounded like rain. The steady tap of grains of sand pounding against the glass walls and ceiling was almost musical. The sands were still untamed but she was safe from the dangers of the earth. No, death was more likely to come from inside—and she was late.
Her robes were on backwards. The last several hours plotting what to say and just how she would say it had all been a waste of time. It was doubtful the Thirteen would take a young woman seriously, especially if she wasn’t even capable of dressing herself. The gold and purple stitching on the formal black court robe was only slightly different in the front than the back. Would anyone notice? Jura could feel their eyes watching her, swore she could hear the occasional chuckle thrown in her direction. She wanted to run, she wanted to die from embarrassment right on the spot.
Don’t panic. You don’t have time to change; just breathe. She inhaled sharply, letting her breath slowly leak out between clenched teeth. Had the justice dome always been so tall? She felt dwarfed by the massive walls towering around her. She lifted her thick maiden’s braid as a trail of sweat escaped from the nape of her neck to drip down the stiff collar of her robe. She sidled to a pillar on the least populated side of the dome and pressed her back against the cool marble.
The members of the Thirteen milled about the concave room, flitting in and out of conversation and tossing distrustful glances at one another. No one else was wearing the traditional court robes, and Jura suddenly remembered they were only used on voting day or when foreign diplomats were present. She bit her bottom lip, blood rushed into her cheeks. Wearing the robes now proved her inexperience; wearing them backwards showed she was an inexperienced idiot. Her spectacles slid down the bridge of her nose. She sighed as she shoved them back up. Why had she even worn the flaming things? The glasses, not the robes. Although they were both giving her trouble. She scanned the room and noticed that almost all of the Thirteen had arrived. The council meeting would start in a matter of minutes.
If the council didn’t accept her, her house would lose everything.
Kader, Eighth of the Thirteen, was making his rounds with refreshments. The members of the Thirteen took turns serving one another, and Jura was grateful that she didn’t have to add the duties of serving girl to her growing list of anxieties. Kader stopped in front of her, offering water from his silver serving tray. She reached for a glass and was about to bring it to her lips when she became aware of the Eighth’s beady black eyes following her movement. She paused, her hand faltering in mid-air. Water was the standard beverage during council meetings. Not only was pure water a nod to the Thirteen’s stature, it was also the most difficult liquid to poison without detection.
Jura rolled the glass in a slow circle, watchful for any residue that might have stuck to the clear goblet as it tilted. Was he watching to see if I’ll drink it or just curious because I shouldn’t be here? She raised her eyebrows and forced the corner of her lips to tilt upward. Kader inclined his head politely before turning to offer water to another council member. She deliberately set the glass down on the floor beside her. She wouldn’t drink from it, just in case.
Jura frowned as a woman entering the room caught her attention. There isn’t enough water in the world to make me wear something so scandalous. Not only was Denir, Fifth of the Thirteen, flirting prettily, but she also wore a low cut golden gown that clung to her figure. She smiled up at Jabir, the Seventh, a tall narrow man in neutral shades of gray with dark curly hair and a devilish gleam in his eye. He leered down at the Fifth.
He’s married, isn’t he? Jura couldn’t remember, and honestly, it didn’t seem to matter. She struggled to place a name for a few of the others but couldn’t recall any except Ahmar, the Third, and father of her closest friend. He was deep in conversation with a man who seemed impossibly wide for his short stature. The fat man’s jowls quivered as he spoke, and he leaned back from the Third nervously, his hand hovered just above his sheathed dagger. It was forbidden to have one’s Arbe in attendance, but nearly everyone carried a weapon. The dagger seemed to be the favored choice, although Jura noticed a few scimitars and even an assegai strapped to the back of a tall, skinny man in pale yellow robes. Jura fingered the whip holstered at her waist. No one, aside from Kader, had even acknowledged her presence. If she had acted when she first had the thought, she might have been able to sneak away before the—
“Daughter of the First, good evening. I almost didn’t see you there, skulking away in the corner as it were.” Velder, Second of the Thirteen, lifted a hand and twisted his fingers into the complicated gesture that signified a greeting as he walked toward her.
“Making a new fashion statement, I see?” He raised his eyebrows.
Jura muffled a groan, of course he’d noticed her fashion faux pas. She grimaced before intertwining her fingers and wriggling her thumbs in reply.
“Councilman Velder. How good to see you?”
“Indeed. And how very odd it is to see you, alone. Where is the First? It’s nearly time to start the session.” The councilman’s long, tapered fingers stroked his thin gray mustache.
This was the moment she’d been dreading. Council meetings were closed to all except the voting members of the Thirteen families; everyone knew that. Jura was not the voting member; her father was and had been for the last twenty years, but now they were stuck with her. Her worst nightmare had come true.
“Yes. I mean, no. That is, the First is…indisposed.”
Velder frowned down at her. “Is that so? His presence is needed to preside over the council meeting.”
“I understand,” she mumbled. Father hated when she mumbled. If he was here, he’d have pulled her by the ear and given her a lecture on leadership and her responsibility to the family name. Leaders didn’t mumble. Her fingers flew up to her throat, as if scratching at her tender skin would send the words pouring forth. She just had to spit something out, anything.
Anything but the truth.
“Councilman Velder, the First is—”
“Absent for the second day in a row.” Velder’s dark eyes narrowed. “The people of the Republic cannot rule themselves. The First—”
“The First is indisposed!” She had not meant to shout. She lowered her eyes, frowning at her shoes. People would stare.
“He is unwell,” she said in a softer voice. Her tongue darted out to moisten lips gone impossibly dry. She considered drinking Kader’s offered water, even poison was better than this.
“I will judge in his stead.” There. The words were strangled, but she’d said it.
Velder barely concealed his chuckle beneath his hand. “With all due respect, the Thirteen will never approve.”
“The Thirteen? Or you?” Velder had never liked her. He didn’t seem to like anyone. Jura bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Her hands were shaking, so she squeezed them into fists by her sides. She was seventeen years old, hardly a child. She could do this, she had to do this.
Father will never forgive me if I cause the house to lose Rank.
She pushed her dangling spectacles up the length of her nose and glared at the councilman. At least, she thought she was glaring, it felt like she was squinting up at him, and she hoped she appeared stern. She felt ridiculous.
“I am the only heir to house of the First.” He didn’t respond, and she took the opportunity to raise her voice and address the room. She flinched when her voice came out as a high-pitched squeak. “It is my duty to serve as interim First if my father is incapable. His sickness—” She frowned, correcting herself. “His minor illness has forced me to step forward and fulfill my duty as his heir. Who will oppose this law?”
“Not I,” chimed out Fatima. Jura rewarded her with her best smile. Fatima currently held a low Rank, she was from the House of the Eleventh or Twelfth. Jura could never keep the Rankings of the lower houses straight, they were never stagnant and the bottom three didn’t even have a vote when it came to Rank. The councilwoman probably thought her quick approval would secure her position when the next vote occurred.
“I second it,” Ahmar boomed. He was the Third and father of Amira, Jura’s closest friend. He was her best bet at gaining quick acceptance from the Thirteen. The giant of a man tossed a curious smile in her direction.
Jura hid her sigh of relief behind her grin. His approval was all she needed; the others would follow.
Velder stepped back, bowing low. His face was apologetic, but his tone dripped with sarcasm as he straightened and said, “Of course I, as a humble servant to the laws of our great Republic, would not have a place to question it. I will, naturally, accept your ruling. It’s such a shame his Greatness is too ill to issue the proclamation himself…” He trailed off, raising a bushy brow.
She let out a sigh and squared her shoulders, glaring up at Velder. This time she was sure it was a glare. If she didn’t appear tough, the vultures at court would peck at her. It was only a matter of time before someone discovered her secret.
“The council has spoken.” Thank the Everflame. She shot another smile in the direction of Fatima and Ahmar. “Consider this matter closed and call the council meeting to order.” She brushed past him and hurried up to the dais before he called her bluff.
She struggled to keep her pace normal, the result was an awkward cross between a jog and a shuffle as she made her way across the dome to her father’s chair. She stumbled into the seat.
It was the duty of the Second to call out the beginning of the session, and Velder did so as Jura straightened in the imposing glass throne meant for her father. Like most of the palace, the massive throne was made entirely out of glass. This late in the day, the setting sun shone through the crystal clear domed ceiling, casting out prisms of pale pink and dusty orange that shone down on her and created a natural spotlight. Jura clasped the seat of the throne, squirming against the rigid glass. She tried to ignore the fact that all eyes were on her. They probably all saw her as a little girl playing dress up. Well, she had more important things to think about. For instance, how was she to lead a meeting she had never attended?
As acting head of council, she was granted four votes. The house in the number two Rank held three votes, the Third house held two votes and the six remaining houses held one. The bottom three council members had no vote at all. The First also had final say on any crime worthy of a death sentence and in all matters of war. Though they held weekly meetings, the council only voted on the rankings of the council members once a month. Today was not a voting day. At least something was going her way.
The Thirteen seated themselves in a neat row of chairs lined against a long stone table ahead of her, and Velder took his position just to the right of her father’s throne. The first citizen was called for judgment. After a few minor issues were judged, Jura began to relax. The session was going smoothly and there were only two citizens left to place judgment.
The first was a complaint between two merchants. One merchant argued the other was poaching on his district by setting up a stand of pottery not far from his own and selling duplicate wares. The other potter argued that his product differed. Jura granted the second merchant a stake of property in a neighboring province but placated him by giving him more property than he’d had before. Easy. Velder called in the final citizen.
“This is Tylak,” Velder sneered,“citizen of Ish.” His voice dripped with condemnation. Ish was the poorest of the thirteen provinces, probably because its leadership was held by the Thirteenth, a position that was never stable.
Tylak, a slave name, and yet he had citizen status. Interested, Jura leaned forward. It was rare for a slave to gain enough wages to purchase his freedom and even rarer for a slave to be granted such freedom from his owner.
“Tylak is charged with thievery,” Velder paused, meeting her eye. “The council suggests execution.”
Jura squeezed her father’s chair so tightly it was a wonder the glass didn’t break off in her hand. It was true that execution was the maximum punishment, but it was seldom carried out. Especially not for a crime as petty as thievery.
“I see,” she whispered.
Velder smiled, revealing teeth stained brown from tobacco.
She cleared her throat. “What did the accused steal?”
“Fire.” He paused, his gaze sweeping over the seated members of council before settling on Jura. “From the Everflame.”
“Is this true?” Jura looked down at the young man, his appearance was unkempt, but he appeared strong rather than haggard. His dark hair was greasy and hung in lank locks over his pale face.
The man shrugged.
Velder’s eyes burned into her. She looked up at him. “What proof stands against the accused?”
“He was captured within the walls of the glass tower, carrying a torch, and he is no Fire Dancer. Where else would he have acquired it? He has stolen Fire from the Everflame and as such has stolen from the Republic. This is unnatural magic at work. This man is clearly dangerous. Not to mandate an immediate execution would make the Republic seem weak.”
Jura understood his implication. The Second was testing her. Pompous, manipulating worm.
If she did not order this man’s execution, she would appear weak and she would lose any footing she’d gained today. But how could such a man, how could anyone besides a Fire Dancer, have done such a thing? Unless…she squeezed the throne tighter to keep her hands from shaking in excitement. After all this time, was she finally being faced with some tangible evidence? What did this man know? She leaned forward.
“Tylak, was it? Tell us how you accomplished such a feat. Answer me truthfully and you will be spared.” She ignored Velder’s glare. Tell me, please.
The young man lifted his face up to her, and she resisted the urge to gasp. The man had gray eyes that cut into his chiseled features and smoldered with hate. A pale, jagged scar traced from beneath the corner of his left eye down to the edge of his lips. He was beautiful. He was terrifying. Jura swallowed against the massive lump in her throat.
“I didn’t steal anything. But kill me; I don’t care.” He spat at her feet.
Velder backhanded the man and he fell to his knees, head bowed. He said nothing else. “Greatness, his insolence must be punished.”
Jura could not take her eyes off the man. He was dirty and poorly dressed but he didn’t look like a crazed villain. And yet, according to Velder he was entirely too dangerous to be allowed freedom. A man that could accomplish what this man was accused of was more than just an idle threat to her family’s Rank, he was a threat to the entire Republic. He was also her only chance. What kind of person would dare steal from the Everflame? Could she really sentence this man to his death? Did she even have a choice? She needed more time.
She nodded. “See that it is done.” The prisoner was escorted from their judgment hall. Jura watched him leave.
“Was that all?” She couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Jura stood up, wishing nothing more than to run to her chambers and tear off the insufferable robes. “Velder, call the session to a close.”
She hurried from the auditorium and was jerked to a stop so quickly her glasses flew from her nose.
“Flames,” she mumbled, stooping down to pick them up. She pulled her arm from the stubborn grasp of her friend Amira.
If the circumstances were different she would have been happy to see the friendly face. Amira was opinionated, tall, and beautiful; she could have befriended anyone in the court. Yet despite her busy social calendar, she had chosen Jura, who normally preferred to spend her time alone. If not for Amira, Jura would spend all of her free time gardening or reading in her room.
“I thought I saw you enter the judgment halls,” her friend squealed. It was a trait that bothered Jura in most people but on her best friend it was endearing. “Tell me everything! And how did—wait, are your robes on backwards?”
Stalling for time, Jura adjusted the delicate frames of her spectacles and once again perched them on her nose, only to have them slide down the bridge and dangle precariously. She should have left the flaming things in her room.
“What’s going on?” Amira pressed.
Immediately, Jura wanted to tell her. Amira had just returned from a tour with her father. It was the first time the Third had opted to take his daughter along and the two hadn’t had alone time in weeks. There was so much to tell her.
She wanted to fall into Amira’s arms and cry to her that she had just killed the one man who might hold the answers she’d been searching for. That she didn’t want the position she was thrown into. That she was worried for her father.
But she couldn’t tell her anything.
“My father is ill,” she said slowly, working out what information was safe to share. “It was my duty to attend council in his stead.”
Amira’s khol lined eyes widened. “I can’t believe you did that!” She was squealing again. “Well, tell me everything. How was it? What happened? Your father must be on his deathbed to allow you to attend the session.”
Amira had always wanted to attend a session, but anytime her father went away on a business trip he’d always chosen her younger brother as his representative. Her eyes narrowed and her lips drew into a pout in the tell-tale sign that she was jealous.
“Nothing serious. I’m sure he’ll be back in no time at all. He’ll definitely be back by next week’s meeting.” Jura forced a smile as years of conditioning kicked in. The histories contained countless stories of houses that had fallen simply because they’d thought to confide in a friend. Her father would want this kept a secret.
None of the Thirteen could be trusted. No one could, except maybe Markhim.
Her Arbe stepped up behind her and Jura started at their arrival, still not used to their presence. Unable to attend the meeting, the four bodyguards had been forced to wait outside the Justice Dome’s imposing double doors. They appeared now, a silent towering mass. Grateful for their intrusion, Jura excused herself to flee to her rooms. Amira would have to wait.
She entered her chambers and dismissed her house staff immediately, needing to be alone. She ripped off the robes. They landed in a heap on the cool stone floor. She sank down beside them and let the hot tears slice down her cheeks. She had just killed a man. He’d known that she would, and he’d hated her for it. And she’d given the orders to end his life. The knowledge was crushing.
She drew in a shaky breath and wiped at the tears. They served no purpose and even though she never wanted for water, she knew better than to waste it. Father hated when she cried. She’d never seen him cry, not even when mother had died. She could just imagine the disappointment in his eyes if he saw her now.
She shouldn’t have allowed Velder to bully her into the execution. If she talked to the prisoner, convinced him to admit how he’d done it, she might be able to reduce his sentence before his execution was carried out. And although she didn’t want the man’s death on her conscience, she had to admit that questioning him served another purpose. If the man truly did know how to accomplish the impossible, perhaps he held other secrets. Maybe he held the key to the answers she’d been searching for all this time.
It was unlikely she could maintain control of the Thirteen for very long. It was only a matter of days before someone would demand to see the First. What would she do then?
She knew she was alone in her salon, but she thoroughly checked again to be sure. The room was sparsely decorated. Despite their vast family wealth, her father believed they should live a frugal lifestyle. Jura didn’t mind, her only luxuries were found in her books. She had hundreds of the leather-bound pages resting on shelves that lined the stone walls of her chambers. She frowned down at the weathered, ornate floor rug before pulling it back to reveal a heavy trap door. The door was large and imposing. It took all her strength to pull it open. She descended the small ladder into the darkness, blinking to adjust her eyes.
The man inside was bound and gagged, he stared up at her with furious dark eyes. He tried to speak, but the gag prevented it. Jura knelt down beside him, careful not to get too close.
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***About the Author***
Alexis Marrero Deese is an avid reader of young adult and fantasy. Her favorite authors include Brandon Sanderson, Jaqueline Carey, and Orson Scott Card. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and a sun tan she misses dearly since her move to northern Georgia. She has a passion for cooking, spends entirely too much time on Pinterest, and is a self-proclaimed dog training expert to her family’s legion of dogs.
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