The Exalted – Kaitlyn Sage Patterson

“It’s strange, to remember a time before I met you, before I knew you were there at the other end of this connection. For most of my life, I assumed it was my twin, pulling me toward the afterlife, but now it gives me a comfort I’d never imagined, even as you travel across the ocean, even as the light between us grows fainter by the day. Deep in my heart, I harbor that flicker of you, and I know that I’ll never be truly alone again.” —from Vi to Bo For days after my brother’s ship disappeared over the horizon, I watched the sea. I spent hours on the balcony of Mal and Quill’s house in Williford, staring out over the rooftops at the vast span of open water that swelled between my twin and me. Though I’d once again upended their lives, Mal and Quill had made space for me, had taken care of me with a generosity so fierce, I teared up if I thought too much about it. As the sun set on the fifth week since my brother’s departure, I leaned back in my chair, bare feet up on the railing as the sun sank below the horizon. The air buzzed with a chorus of cicadas, and somewhere down the street a fiddle sang, harmonizing with a chorus of trilling birds. Sweat pooled irritatingly in the crook of my elbow. Mal and Quill’s housekeeper, Noona, insisted that the shoulder I’d pulled out of socket wouldn’t heal unless I kept the arm strapped to my chest in a sling for another two weeks. My shoulder hardly ached at all anymore, but it was easier to argue with a stone wall than with Noona when her mind was made up. I froze as a flash of white by the gate sent my heart racing. The Shriven, the knives in the temple’s belt, prowled the streets in greater numbers every day, but I was safely hidden in the Whipplestons’ house. Safe, at least, until the governor granted the temple the right to begin ransacking folks’ homes. Then one of the puppies I’d brought with me from Plumleen, the house Bo and I had barely escaped from with our lives, tumbled out of my bedroom and onto the balcony, yipping and shattering the illusion of fearful stillness on the balcony.

A moment later, Quill appeared, the lamp he carried bathing us in a golden glow. “Learned how to read in the dark, have you?” he asked, grinning down at the open book in my lap. I flipped the book closed and treated Quill to a sharp glare, tempered by a smile I couldn’t keep from my lips whenever he was around. No matter how upended and useless I’d felt as my shoulder healed, Quill’s presence always brought a shine of joy to my days. “It wasn’t dark until a few minutes ago.” He leaned down and kissed the tip of my nose. “I knew you could see in the dark. Part bat, part girl, just as I suspected. Next thing I know, I’ll come out to find you hanging from the rafters by your toes.” “Hush,” I said with a laugh.

“Is Mal back?” “He and Curlin are playing brag in the sitting room. Supper’s almost ready. Do you want to come down?” I made a face at the mention of Curlin’s name. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I’d been right to insist we not leave her in the woods behind Plumleen Hall. Quill set the lamp down and leaned against the railing, crossing his arms over his broad chest and studying me intently, as if he could see into my treacherous heart. “She’s trying, Vi. And she’s lost just as much as you have. More, even.” I bit the inside of my cheek, frustrated. “Trying doesn’t erase what she’s done.

The promises she’s broken. Trying doesn’t bring back the dead.” “Curlin used to be your best friend,” Quill insisted. “You can’t keep punishing her for her desperate choices. She’s remorseful. She wants the same things you do. You both want to see the temple fall.” “It’s just not that easy to trust her again.” Quill knelt next to my chair and cupped my cheek in his warm hand. I leaned into his touch, despite my irritation.

He was right, and I knew it. “It’d be easier if you spoke to her. If you tried, Vi.” “I’m not the only one who could make an effort,” I sniped, then immediately felt a spike of guilt at the expression on Quill’s face. Before he could open his mouth, I put up a hand. “I’ll try. Promise.” “Good. Then come downstairs. Noona’s made a feast.

” Quill scooped up the puppy and the lamp and I followed him inside, glancing one last time over my shoulder at the gate. I didn’t see anyone, but I knew better than to feel safe when I’d spent so much of my own life hidden in shadows. We found Curlin and Mal in the sitting room, glaring at one another over a table littered with coins and cards. “Who’s winning?” Quill asked. Mal’s smile lit the room. “I don’t think Curlin understands that the game’s about lying. Or if she does, she’s truly terrible at it.” Curlin huffed and threw her cards down on the table. “I fold. This game is aggressively pointless.

” I crouched just inside the threshold to pet the mama dog, awkward and unsure where to look. Thankfully, Noona appeared a moment later, wiping her hands on her apron. “Food’ll get cold if you lot keep dillydallying,” she chided. “Let’s go. You girls won’t heal if you don’t feed those bodies of yours.” My eyes slid to Curlin and found her looking back at me with a small, tight smile. Noona’s tone was so like the one Anchorite Lugine had used to berate us when we’d taken too long to clean our plates as brats. The smile I returned was half-hearted at best, but it was something. It was a start. After a supper taut with long silences and weighted looks exchanged between the Whipplestons, Curlin caught my eye and raised an eyebrow.

I could have pretended not to see the look, ignored the question painted across her face as clearly as her tattoos, but I knew it was time. The moment we’d cleared the table, after Noona and her brother retreated to the kitchen for their evening pot of tea, I blocked the door before Mal and Quill could escape. “Maybe the four of us could go out to the garden—” Curlin cut me off with a sharp shake of her head. “Upstairs. One of the rooms at the back of the house.” Mal furrowed his brows, shooting quizzical looks around the room, but Quill seemed to understand immediately. “We’ve got time,” he insisted. “The both of you still have weeks of healing ahead of you, and we still haven’t made contact—” Mal heaved a deep sigh and ran a hand over his face. “Quill. They’re right.

It’s time.” “Well past time, I’d say,” Curlin agreed. “Fine,” Quill said, snagging a bottle of wine off the bar cart. “Upstairs, then. Mal? Glasses?” Mal, frowning, collected four long-stemmed crystal glasses and followed his brother, refusing to meet my eyes. Curlin tugged absently at the bandage covering her bicep and the wound that had nearly killed her. “You know what it is your sweetheart’s been keeping so close to the chest?” I shook my head, wary, as my mind churned with the possibilities. Had he found the rebels and kept it from us? Or could he have heard from Bo? What was he hiding behind that perfect smile? “He’s got secrets, Vi. I can promise you that.” I rolled my eyes, but my stomach was in knots.

“I’m sure he’ll tell us what we need to know.” Curlin shrugged and followed me up the stairs. At the end of the hall, lamplight spilled from Quill’s bedroom door. I walked past my room and down the corridor, hopping over the squeaky boards between Quill’s room and mine without thinking. Behind me, Curlin snorted, and the hot flood of a blush washed up my neck and burned bright spots on my cheeks. Mal stood at the window as we entered the room, lifting the edge of the curtain to peer out into the dark night. Quill was perched on the corner of his bed, but hopped up to hand Curlin and me each a glass of wine the same gold as his eyes. I sank into one of the two overstuffed armchairs that flanked Quill’s bookcase, and Curlin leaned against the wall just to my right, positioning herself so that her injured arm and mine were side by side. I didn’t think she even realized she was doing it, putting the two of us in a defensive position like that—the instincts earned from years of the Shriven’s brutal training would probably never leave her, though I hoped the haunted look would someday fade from her eyes. “Well,” I started, “what’ve you got to tell us? Have you found the rebels?” Mal crossed the room and locked the door, reaching out to give Curlin a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he passed.

She danced out of his reach, glaring. “Out with it,” she spit. “Finding the resistance has never been a problem,” Quill said, staring down at his hands, knotted together in his lap. “I’ve known where they are all along.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “What do you mean?” Quill took a deep, shuddering breath and met my searching gaze, his golden eyes glitteringly bright in the light of the sunlamps. “Several years ago, when my brother and I first started coming to Ilor with Uncle Hamlin, I saw the way that the laborers here were being treated, and it grated at me. But when I learned that the temples were contracting laborers to grow philomena, I knew I couldn’t stand by and watch. Like everyone else in the colonies, I remembered what’d happened the last time folks farmed philomenas. I had to do something.

” “Do what, exactly?” My mouth went dry. I knew what was coming. I could feel the anger burbling in my belly, ready to erupt just as soon as he said the words. “I had the resources and the ability. I knew I could make a difference. And I’d started to. Dealing in contract labor gave me connections in places I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, and I made sure that the folks I placed were either well cared for and happy or got away clean.” Quill paused and gave me a small, sweet smile that I could not—would not—return. “And then you came along. You turned me on my head.

Gods, you turned the whole of Ilor on its head. There’s not a soul in the colonies who doesn’t know your name. And then, when you stayed behind after Bo—” “You lied to me.” I cut him off. Frustration bubbled up in my chest, threatening to set me alight. I wanted him to come right out and say it. Tell me what it was he’d been hiding from me all these weeks. Quill, to his credit, kept his eyes on mine, though a muscle in his jaw twitched, betraying the sting in my words. “What, might I ask, are they saying about me?” I spit. Crossing his arms over his chest, Quill glanced at his brother, whose eyes were on the toes of his boots, offering him no help at all.

With a deep breath, Quill said, “That you’d hardly been in Ilor for a moment when the man who’d bought your contract was dead and his estate razed. There are rumors that you harnessed some kind of power from being diminished and have turned that rage and hate into magic. They say that you’ve taken over the leadership of the rebellion and that you plan to end Alskad’s grasp on the governance of Ilor.” I snorted, and laughter spilled out of me. It was absurd. All of this was absurd. “I know the truth,” Quill said, “and it was hard even for me not to get caught up in the rumors.” “What’s the truth, then?” Curlin asked, her voice steady, far more measured than I could manage at the moment. I shot her a grateful look. “I know where the rebellion is camped.

I’ve always known.” Quill hesitated. “I’m one of its leaders.” I blinked back furious tears. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Don’t you trust me?” “Because it’s not just about me,” Quill said. “There are hundreds of people whose lives depend on my keeping their existence secret. If I’d just shown up in camp with you, they’d have panicked. I have to convince the rest of the leaders that you’re a useful asset.” “They think we’re a liability,” Curlin said bitterly, and my heart wrenched at the truth in her words. How I could’ve been so clueless before was beyond me.

I was no one. I was utterly useless to the people I wanted to help, and the Whipplestons had spent weeks trying to protect me from that truth. Mal nodded. “We’ve been going in circles for weeks, trying to figure out how to keep you safe. To keep them safe.” “It’s not your job to keep me safe,” I spit. “If I’d wanted to be wrapped in cotton wool and put away on a shelf, I would’ve gone back to Alskad with Bo. I’m here to do something. To make a difference. And if you can’t see that, then maybe it’s time for me to leave.

” I shot out of my chair, flung open the door and, before any of them could say another word, stalked down the hall to my room. Hot, wrathful tears spilled down my cheeks. Just when I’d finally felt the burden of being a dimmy lifted from my shoulders, I’d come to realize that I had just as little say in the direction of my life as I’d ever had. Less, even. It seemed I was of no use to anyone. CHAPTER TWO Bo “Despite having trained rigorously for a position of political power almost every day of my life, not a day goes by when I feel entirely confident that I’ve managed to do the right thing, or even the adequate thing, in a given situation.” —from Bo to Vi I paced the length of the council chamber, in part to keep from shivering, but mostly because I simply couldn’t sit still and wait any longer. Despite the fires roaring in the large hearths on either side of the long table, the council chamber was one of the coldest rooms in the palace. Its bank of windows faced north, and no effort had been made to insulate the stone walls and floors with rugs or tapestries. Runa didn’t want the councillors to be comfortable here.

She wanted them on edge, the better to see the holes in their armor. In fact, the whole chamber was uncharacteristically bare compared to the rest of the palace. The only decorations were a collection of ancient, ornately decorated rifles tarnishing on their hooks over each fireplace. Undyed, moth-eaten sheepskins hung over the high backs of the chairs on either side of the table, and the thrones that sat at the head and foot were plain, cushioned affairs draped in furs only slightly less worn than the sheepskins. The table was the most beautiful thing in the room by a long stretch. Old as the empire itself, and with the scars to prove it, the table had been made from a single slice of a tree trunk that must’ve once measured more than ten feet around when it stood. “They won’t expect to see you.” The low, measured voice of my grandmother, Queen Runa, effortlessly filled the council chamber. “Some of them will be thrown off guard by your presence here. Allow them the time they need to adjust.

” Swinton, who’d returned to Alskad with me after helping me find my sister, laughed. “He isn’t nervous—are you, Bo?” I bit the inside of my cheek and studied the spread of smoked fish, soft cheeses and fresh shoots of bitter greens on the table. I wasn’t nervous; I just…felt out of place. I’d come back to Alskad changed, and having seen more clearly into the lives of the people I was meant to rule someday. But Alskad was the same. The same people, the same parties, the same endless political scheming that did nothing to better the lives of the people of our empire. Though I had never enjoyed it before, now that I was back, I found that I had no patience for the lies and manipulations of the court—and even less than none for the Suzerain, the treacherous leaders of the temple who’d been poisoning our people. Runa tapped out a rhythm on the table as she studied the collection of gilded perfume bottles that sat, innocuous as a nest of vipers, in the middle of the table. “Let’s finish reviewing, then,” she said. “The boy in the basement.

Which details will you use to convince the royal council that this part of the story isn’t heresy?” It was the third time she’d asked me about the boy my twin sister, Vi, had seen in the temple basement back in Ilor. Every time I repeated the story, my heart broke a little more for his poor soul. And each time, I grew a little angrier. In a fair imitation of my accent, Swinton said, “His name was Tobain. He was nine years old. The only thing he’d ever harmed was a chicken…” Runa cut him off with a glare, but Swinton merely waggled his eyebrows at the queen, grinning, and slid into the nearest chair. It had taken no small amount of doing, but the moment we’d landed in Penby three weeks ago, Swinton had set his sights on finding every remaining drop of the philomena perfume that had inspired the Suzerain’s horrifying experiment in Ilor. He’d bought two bottles off noblewomen who’d kept them as reminders of investments gone awry. Another turned up in the poorest section of town, the End, purchased for no more than a few tvilling. The fourth was a vial Runa herself had locked away in a cabinet after she’d shut down the perfumeries in the wake of the Ilorian tragedy.

We knew that the perfume wasn’t exactly the same concoction the temple was using to poison the diminished, but I certainly felt better knowing it was safe in our hands. Furthermore, it was all the proof we could procure without storming the temple itself. Swinton, wary of the fact that he might have been secretly dosed at some point in his life, had stayed well away from the stuff, but both Runa and I had each taken a single, cautious sniff. It had a light, almost citrusy scent, like sunlight and greenery and the first bloom of spring. It didn’t smell like violence distilled in a bottle. I picked up where Swinton had left off. “Tobain’s mother had made him wring the chicken’s neck for supper. He had eyes like cherrywood knots. The temple in Ilor was a nearly exact replica of the temples here in Penby, which is, to be frank, remarkably impractical. The people in Ilor build their houses with wide windows and fans to cool the rooms for a reason—the temple there trapped the heat of Ilor like an oven.

” “Good,” she said. “Now, just remember—sit up straight. Don’t fidget. Try not to let them rattle you.” Since my return from Ilor, my grandmother had kept up a near-endless soliloquy on the ideal behavior of a monarch. I must dress with care and richness, but never gaudy vanity. I must walk more determinedly, but less quickly. I must speak at a softer volume in a loud room and with greater volume in a quiet one. I mustn’t eat with too much enthusiasm or too little. And on and on and on.

But when we’d spoken about this meeting, this conversation, her only requirement was that she be the one to actually inform the council of the temple’s crimes. She insisted that, were I to bring the news before the council, I’d be laughed out of the room. Any respect I’d gained as the future leader of the empire would be shattered. I must function only as a witness. Swinton swung his feet up onto the table, one ankle over the other, and leaned his chair back, studying his nails. I bit back a smile and watched Runa out of the corner of my eye. She’d immediately warmed to Swinton upon our arrival, charmed by his outright refusal to treat her with the same obsequious, pandering respect that she got from nearly everyone else in the kingdom. They’d settled into a playfully antagonistic rhythm over the past few weeks; a rhythm that I would have enjoyed immensely, had I not been so nervous about the meeting of the council that was set to start in less than an hour. It was truly a thing of beauty, watching the scoundrel I adored tease and chivy the most powerful woman in the world. Runa looked up from her papers, and her face paled in horror when she saw Swinton’s boots propped on the ancient table.

It didn’t take her long to regain her composure, though, and her eyes were twinkling when she said, “Young man, do you know anything about the history of this table?” Swinton looked at the table and yawned. “Can’t say as I do.” “Perhaps you will consider removing your feet and allowing me to enlighten you.” The story of this particular table and the tree it came from was one I’d been told a thousand times or more—as had every child in the Alskad Empire—but I’d never heard Runa tell it. I leaned in, unrepentantly excited to hear the history of my nation recounted in the queen’s own words. Long ago, in the earliest days after the cataclysm, the first empress and her people journeyed north, camping and scavenging what food they could manage. So little of the earth had been habitable then, and the empress had led her people over miles of devastated land, searching for a place where they might settle. Somewhere safe from the earthquakes and floods, the hurricanes and tsunamis, and the shards of the fractured moon that still rained from the sky. One night, having walked as far as they could, the group set up camp in a clearing in the woods, beneath an enormous old tree. One of the children was sick, and in hopes of keeping the disease from spreading, the empress gave her tent to the mother and child so that they might isolate themselves from the rest of their family.

The empress nestled her own blankets among the roots of the ancient tree and quickly fell asleep. Her rest was not peaceful, however, for in the middle of the night, she was startled awake by a resounding crash and a hair-raising jolt of electricity. The tree had been struck by lightning. The empress got to her feet, and as she stood, looking up into the branches, the tree swayed and heaved. Before she could call out a warning to her people, the tree crashed to the ground. But rather than falling on the hundreds of souls who’d survived their long journey, the tree fell away from the group, harming no one. And instead of sending the empress, standing at the base of the trunk, toppling head over heels, the roots lifted her high above the crowd.

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