RELEASING JULY 27th
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Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kyra stepped off the airplane, the loaded carry-on bag heavy on her shoulder. Sirius had told her what to expect, but she’d been wary to leave Europe without bringing most of her belongings. She didn’t own much, but what she’d kept over the years was precious to her. A lock of her mother’s hair and a book she’d found in her meager belongings. A picture of her and Kostas. Another picture Ava had sent her from Istanbul with all the scribes and singers there. A locket. None of these were things she was willing to risk to the vagaries of checked baggage.
It was her first time out of Europe. Her first time on a long international flight.
Her first time traveling alone. Anywhere.
She’d already muddled through the visa lines in Bangkok where her flight from Istanbul had landed. Now she headed toward the baggage claim and hoped her bag would show up. And her ride. And someone who spoke English, Bulgarian, Serbian, Turkish, or French.
Kyra wasn’t used to being alone. From the time she’d been born, her brother had been with her. Now Kostas thought she was visiting Istanbul where she was familiar with the streets and the language and the customs. Sirius hadn’t told their brother he was driving Kyra to the airport.
She put her hand in the pocket of her loose pants and touched the phone Sirius had given her. It was prepaid and loaded with the names and numbers of his contacts for the small city in Northern Thailand.
Kostas would be furious.
Kyra took a slow breath and tried not to panic. She was a grown woman, far older than even the oldest humans on her flight. She was powerful and trained in self-defense against both human and supernatural opponents. She was well versed in Thai history after the crash course she’d taken in the previous two weeks, and well shielded thanks to multiple meditation sessions and a last-minute call to Ava for advice.
She was terrified.
Catching sight of her bag, Kyra nearly ran over an elderly man in her rush to grab it.
“Khor toht krab,” she said awkwardly. “Sorry. So sorry.” She was relieved when the old man smiled and patted her arm. After grabbing her bag, she pulled away from the crowd and leaned against a wall a small distance from the rush of people leaving the airport. She took a deep breath and bolstered her shields. She closed her eyes and pressed a mental hand to the door in her mind, feeling the burgeoning pressure of so many people and so many voices. They had been muffled and silent on the plane with many humans sleeping, but in the airport, where worries and anticipation filled their minds, the voices shouted, tumbling over each other in a rush that would quickly overwhelm her unless she took a moment to steel herself.
The door stayed closed, but the pressure remained.
She needed to get out of the airport. She glanced around, hoping no one had noticed the odd European woman and double-checked that she had her bags before she walked with purpose toward the exit.
If you don’t know where you’re going, just act like you do. Ava’s advice came back to her. If all else fails and you get lost, stand out of the way and look at your phone until you figure things out. Cell phones are the best for pretending that you’re busy and important.
She walked out of the airport and into the surprisingly crisp air of the city. Chiang Mai was in the mountains. In the early evening, the air was cool and dry, though she could hear the hum of mosquitoes as she stood under the artificial lights of the walkway.
Kyra pulled out her phone to see if she’d received any messages. She texted Sirius that she’d landed just as another message came through.
Your picture doesn’t do you justice.
She looked up, her eyes scanning the crowd, but no one was staring at her.
Walk to the right and look for a silver Toyota pickup truck.
Who are you? she typed back. Something about his initial flattery rubbed her the wrong way.
I’m the man your brother sent to pick you up. Why else would I have your phone number?
She couldn’t find any fault in his logic, but she was grateful Sirius chose that moment to text back.
Glad you landed safely, her brother typed. Did Niran find you?
Did you send him my picture?
Sirius typed, A bad one, but yes.
Kyra smiled. I think he just texted me. He’s here at the airport.
I’ve only met him once, but I trust him. I know you’ll be cautious. If there are any problems, call me. We have other resources in Chiang Mai.
Kyra was unsure what that meant, but she didn’t want to keep her host waiting longer.
I’ll walk toward you, she texted to her first contact. Who is this?
“My name is Niran,” a voice said.
Kyra looked up. The Grigori was like all of her race. Perfectly symmetrical and pleasing features with an unmistakable aura of power. He was taller than she’d expected—just slightly taller than she was—but angelic blood usually produced larger-than-average offspring. His eyes were golden brown and his skin a warm bronze.
He was beautiful.
The Grigori offered her a polite nod, his hands held in front of his chest. “And I am Niran. Welcome to Chiang Mai.”
* * *
“You’re staring,” Niran said, glancing at Kyra from the corner of his eye. “Don’t they have Asian people where you’re from?”
“I’m not from anywhere,” Kyra said, averting her gaze. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Istanbul. There are many Chinese tourists there.”
“This isn’t China.”
“I know that.” Kyra forced herself to restrain the temper that wanted to break through. “I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were.” Niran sounded amused.
They had driven out of the city quickly. Large buildings gave way to smaller ones. Neat hotels and shops grew farther and farther apart as they drove away from the bustle and traffic of Chiang Mai and into the countryside. The press of voices had eased as they sped away, and Niran’s own soul voice was unusually pleasant and calm when she cracked open the door in her mind.
“Is this your first time in Asia?”
“Technically, Istanbul bridges Europe and Asia. So this is not my first visit to Asia.” She glanced at Niran, who looked skeptical. “This is my first visit to Eastern Asia,” she admitted.
“Thailand is a very welcoming country for most visitors.”
Niran shrugged. “My mother was Burmese. It’s a complicated history.”
“I understand.” If there was anything Kyra did understand, it was complicated history.
She picked at the seam of her jeans. She was already chafing at the constricting travel clothes. From the look of the tourists she saw in the city, she would be able to wear her dresses and skirts without attracting undue attention. That was good. She’d never liked the feeling of trousers, but she wore them to fit in with modern human women.
“I met Sirius fifteen years ago,” Niran said. “We’ve only spoken over the telephone since then. He is well?”
“He is.” Kyra smiled. “He is as he has always been.”
“An honorable man and a formidable warrior then.”
“He seemed quite certain that you would be able to help us.”
Kyra opened her mouth but paused. “Tell me what it is you need help with. Sirius told me of your agreement, but I would like to hear it from you.”
“Understandable.” Niran turned off the main road and into a stand of trees. “The road is rougher from here to the monastery. I hope motion sickness isn’t a problem.”
“Not usually.” They went over a pothole that caused Kyra’s jaw to snap shut. “But we’ll see.”
They drove farther into the forest before Niran spoke again. “The deal is this: if you can help our sisters to protect their minds, we will help your brothers control their magic.”
Kyra looked at the dark markings that peeked from Niran’s collar. “You tattoo yourself like the Irin?”
“Not like the Irin,” he said. “We learned this discipline from humans. But we think it may accomplish something similar to Irin tattooing.”
“And it works?”
Niran narrowed his eyes. “Do you feel unsafe with me?”
“No, but you wouldn’t attack one of our kind, would you?”
“Wouldn’t I?” Niran said quietly. He held out a hand. “Touch me. Feel my energy. See for yourself.”
Kyra was surprised to find herself hesitating. It was just a hand. He was just another angelic bastard like herself. She reached out and took it. Immediately, Niran’s fingers closed around her palm. Her first impulse was to pull away from the presumptuous hand, but she relaxed into his touch when she felt the nervous energy built up over hours of travel leave her body and flow into Niran like water releasing from a dam.
Kyra let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“Better?” Niran asked quietly.
“How do I feel?”
She poked at the emotions she sensed from him. “You feel… steady. Calm.”
He released her hand to grab the wheel and steer the car across a shallow stream. “You feel powerful.”
She watched him, but his eyes remained on the road.
“I’m not a warrior like Sirius.”
“There are many kinds of power,” Niran said. “It is a foolish man who thinks physical strength is a substitute for mental discipline.” He smiled a little. “I am not a foolish man.”
“Can you truly teach my sisters how to make their minds safe from humans?”
“I think so,” Kyra said. “Their father is dead? You’re sure of it?”
“How are you sure?” Kyra had thought her own father was dead for decades, only to find out he’d been in hiding with help from his allies. The knowledge that she’d been living in false freedom had been devastating.
“I know my father is dead because my brothers and I killed him,” Niran said quietly. “We killed him with our sisters’ help.”
* * *
The temple where Niran took her was hidden in the hills northeast of Chiang Mai, surrounded by lush green forests of bamboo and fat-bottomed trees covered in moss. Sunlight filtered in where the road and courtyard had been cleared. Ferns and orchids covered the leaf-strewn forest floor, competing with sprawling roots for space.
The temple was the first human structure to meet her eyes, its grey steps ancient but neat and in good repair. Though the temple didn’t have the lustrous gold-covered statues and brilliant painted columns of the wats she’d seen in her research, this place hummed with power.
She could feel the energy contained within the humble structure as she stepped out of the car. Stone dragons flowed down either side of the stairs, and potted palms dotted the courtyard in front of bungalows surrounding the central structure. The houses were simple stilted buildings. Dark, varnished railings lined the front of each one with flowers flowing from window boxes and hanging baskets. Orchids clung to tree trunks, and the air was filled with the scent of fragrant flowers and the chirp of birds.
“Welcome,” Niran said, walking to the back of the truck to grab her suitcase. “I’m sure you’ll want time to wash and rest. A house has been prepared for you. It’s not modern—”
“I’m not modern,” Kyra said. She couldn’t stop turning to take in the forest around her. It was so quiet, yet so full of life. “Are there animals here?”
“Birds. A few deer. Pigs sometimes. Nothing dangerous.”
Niran smiled. “There are always snakes. And bugs. I hope you’re not afraid of them.”
“No more than is sensible.” She walked toward a fountain in the center of the courtyard and trailed her finger in the water, watching the shy goldfish dart away. “Plumbing?”
“We have a very nice bathhouse—men on one side, women on the other. We share that, but your room will have a pitcher and sink. You can refill at any of the fountains. The water is from a spring here, and it’s very good. We eat together in the evenings unless…”
Kyra said, “Unless there is conflict. Then some of your sisters will want to be alone.”
“Yes.” Niran appeared relieved. “You do understand.”
“I’m no different than they are.”
Niran stepped closer. “But you are. When I first saw you at the airport, I didn’t really believe that you were one of us even though Sirius had sent your picture. You didn’t appear to be in pain or cringing from people. When the cab drivers shouted at you, you simply walked away.”
“I couldn’t always do that. I used to hide from the world just like they do.”
Niran’s eyes shone. “My youngest sister, she reads books on mathematics that are beyond my comprehension. Her mind is beautiful and brilliant. She could do so much, but even going into the nearest village gives her seizures. Another sister is an artist so gifted she should study with masters. She has a gentle spirit and weaves the most intricate tapestries, but she cannot be around people without wanting to hurt them. We have a sister as fierce as any warrior in battle. She has tried to fight but cannot concentrate on her opponent. Anytime she is touched by a human—”
“The voices only get worse,” Kyra said. “I know all this. And you have to realize, this life I have”—she motioned to her suitcase—“this ability to travel, to be part of the world around me, it is very recent. Two years ago I was as sheltered as they are. My hearing is so acute that my own twin would have to leave me at times because when we’re together, my hearing amplifies.”
“Some would find a use for that.” Niran frowned. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”
“I’m not offended.” She wasn’t. Exactly. But there was some uncomfortable emotion that pushed at the back of her throat and caused her heart to race.
“But this new magic the Irin taught you—”
“It’s not new. It is ancient.” Kyra’s voice rose. “It is what we should have been taught for generations. What we should have learned from our fathers if they had any care for us.”
Niran stepped closer. “Did your father harm you?”
Had he harmed her?
Kyra’s throat tightened. She wanted to scream. Wanted to rage. She didn’t allow herself.
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m over two hundred years old,” she said carefully. “Far older than most of our kind. Now that my brother has severed his ties to the Fallen, he and I will die. They have no reason to give us the magic that could keep us alive. I live on borrowed time, Niran. I lived two hundred years as a prisoner, and just as I am tasting freedom, my life begins to wane.”
Niran’s eyes flashed, but he did not speak.
“I want to do something important before I die.” Kyra looked into the trees and saw the shadow of simple houses hidden in the brush. Windows, like dark eyes, looked back through the forest. She could feel their eyes. Sense their curiosity. She was being watched. “I don’t need to rest. Give me a moment to wash, and then I want to meet your sisters. I can help them.” She’d never felt so sure of herself. “I know I can.”
The girl was no more than thirteen. Her hair was straight, black, and chopped short to frame a round, pale face. She didn’t spend much time in the sun. Her full, round lips pursed for a moment before she let out a long sigh and relaxed into Kyra’s arms. Her eyes were closed and her cheek rested on Kyra’s leg as she sang along quietly with the song the kareshta was teaching her.
“Emetsam tarrea me. Kul-me shayen ya-ohme.” Kyra sang the spell to a playful tune, exactly the way Ava had taught her.
Shut the door in my mind. Give me peace this day.
It was the simplest of tunes, and the spell only lasted for a few hours, but it was enough to get some rest. Enough to silence the worst of the voices. Plus it worked quickly. It was the first spell Ava had taught her, and the one Kyra started all kareshta with. More complex shield spells could come later.
To begin? Peace.
The girl named Intira breathed out in one long exhale and fell into a deep sleep. Kyra sang over her for a few more minutes, then she eased the girl’s head onto the pillow near her leg and moved away. This was the youngest of Niran’s sisters. The one whose birth, Niran told her, had given them the final push to break free from their angelic sire no matter what the cost.
As Kyra rose and looked around the room, she felt profound wonder. Complex equations, the likes of which Kyra had never understood, covered the walls of the room. White plaster covered by black charcoal pencil marks, as complex and beautiful as the intricate tattoos that covered Niran’s arms. She looked at the neat stacks of books sitting by the girl’s pallet and the rolls of paper she used to write even more equations. A star map covered one wall, and a telescope perched delicately in the corner. Constellations were drawn around the windows.
Niran watched the girl as she slept, disbelief battling with wonder in his expression.
“How long will it last?” he asked, staring at his sister.
Kyra nodded toward the door and walked out, slipping on her shoes before she walked down the wooden stairs to the gravel path linking the forest houses.
“That spell lasts only few hours,” she said softly when Niran joined her.
“A few hours?”
“I can teach her more complex spells once she clears her mind, and I can guide her meditation. Those spells will last longer. It’s obvious she’s extremely bright, so—” Kyra nearly fell over when Niran grabbed her hands in both of his and bent over, pressing his forehead to her fingers in a deep bow.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “Forgive me. I cannot…” His voice was hoarse. Thick with emotion. “Forgive my rudeness, but you have given her hours. She has never had hours before. You are a miracle. This is a miracle from the gods.”
“It’s not a miracle.” She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t accustomed to physical contact from men. Not unless they were related to her. Niran’s previous reservation was comfortable and safe.
“Anytime you need me, Kyra. All you have to do is ask.”
The memory of Leo’s voice threatened to break her. Leo was the opposite of comfortable and safe.
She was worn out. Exhausted. And Niran’s gratitude overwhelmed her. It was the only reason, she told herself, that her thoughts turned to “that damn scribe” again.
“I wrote you letters. Do you want to know what I wrote? I can tell you. I remember every word.”
“Everything isn’t possible… Not for me.”
“Forgive me,” Niran said again, releasing her hands and pulling back. Two spots of red colored his dark bronze cheeks. “I apologize. I don’t usually…”
“You are grateful for your sister,” Kyra said diplomatically. “I understand. I was also grateful when my Irina friends taught me. Shielding your mind is like finding a medicine that you never imagined existed.”
“I know you have more sisters,” Kyra said. “But for tonight, I think I need to rest.”
“Of course.” Niran motioned toward a house farther along the path that led to the temple. It was already glowing with warm lamplight, and the smell of woodsmoke and spices scented the air. “Please rest, Kyra. We are so grateful you are here.”