BEATEN. Imprisoned. Banished.
At thirteen, Ayrion learns quickly the consequences of being exceptional. Staying on top is not always a good thing, especially when the head of your clan has a son who can’t stand to lose.
Trained as assassins, competition for an Upaka is serious. The more Ayrion wins, the deadlier his position becomes.
Can he manage to keep his identity as a wielder hidden, or will he ignore his parents’ advice and use his magic to win?
Excerpt: Chapter One
“HE’S A CHEAT!” Brim said as he leaned his muscular torso forward in his seat. Brim was the head of our clan, and the overly-proud father of a not-so-distinguished son, Flon. The same Flon who had taken it upon himself to be my personal tormentor.
“My son is no cheat.”
“Then he’s a liar. No one finishes the Tri’Nephrin in a single day. It can’t be done.”
My father scanned the faces of the two other council members. Neither showed signs of being influenced by his words. Mostly, they looked frightened. It was no secret that once Brim had taken over as Primary, he had seated the Pel’tok with people he knew he could control, those who wouldn’t question his decisions. Talarin was a member of Brim’s extended family. Not too close, but enough that Brim didn’t need to worry about the man challenging his authority. Ness, on the other hand, was of no relation. She hated conflict, and the easiest way to avoid it was simply to agree with whatever the Primary said.
“Obviously it can be done,” my father said, “because Ayrion did it.”
Brim pounded the arms of his chair. He looked like he was ready to jump off the platform and challenge my father to combat right there on the spot. “Are you saying my son couldn’t have?”
“Of course not, Primary.” His voice was tempered, but I knew him well enough to hear the soft hint of anger. Brim, who rarely controlled his own emotions, didn’t catch it and glowered at my father’s apparent calm. “I’m simply stating a fact. Ayrion made it through the Tri’Nephrin in a single day.”
The other two members of the council stared at me as if expecting me to confess the entire thing had been a lie. I kept my face emotionless as my father had instructed, but inside, I was beaming with pride. My father was one of the toughest men I’d ever known. He wasn’t one to back down from anything, even Brim.
“And that’s why I say he’s a cheat!” Brim roared, his eyes bloodshot, as he attempted to stare my father down. He seemed to think that if he glared long and hard enough that somehow my father was going to see the error of his ways and recant.
Unlike the rest of our clan, my father didn’t hang on the Primary’s every word. He wasn’t the biggest or strongest of our clan’s warriors, but his unwavering strength of character had earned him the respect of many.
All three members of the council looked anxious as they sat atop the small platform at the center of the room. Well, maybe two of them did. Brim just looked vindictive. As Primary, he held the central position. He was one of the strongest men in our clan, and known to be the most ruthless. In a society such as ours, where we were trained from the tender age of six to be warriors, your skill as a fighter was your most valuable asset. It raised you and your family’s standing within the clan, and determined your placement within the hierarchy of contracts. Those at the top claimed the most lucrative jobs for themselves.
Some called us mercenaries; others, assassins. To us, it was simply a way of life. We were shunned by all normal society, considered to be nothing more than tools, something less than human. But it never stopped the good citizens of Aldor from using our services when it suited them. There was always someone that needed killing.
“Narris, can you please explain to us how Ayrion managed to complete the course in such a record time?” Ness, in her usual way, tried to calm the situation by acting as an intermediary. “It seems unlikely that Ayrion would manage to come out that far ahead.” She glanced at Brim to ensure he approved her question. The Primary waited for my father’s answer.
“He trains longer and harder than any of the other contenders. Is it that hard to assume he’d come out on top?”
Brim’s face contorted into an angry sneer. I had beaten all the other trainees, including his precious Flon. “No one’s that good, not even Ayrion, which means he’s either a liar or a cheat.” Brim drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair and smirked. “And both require punishment.”
“Punishment?” My father’s face reddened.
Talarin and Ness looked surprised as well, as if they hadn’t expected Brim to go that far. I don’t know why, giving punishments—especially to me—was one of Brim’s favorite pastimes.
“How in the flaming Pits of Aran’gal can you punish him for doing nothing more than completing part of his training?” my father asked, fists clenched.
My heart raced and I took a step closer to my father. I was afraid he was going to lose his composure altogether, which was rare. He was the one who always kept a level head. He had taught me to never jump into anything without plenty of forethought and planning.
I wish I had been a better student of that philosophy. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call mischievous. It wasn’t like I purposefully went out looking for trouble. It just always seemed to find me.
“You cannot punish someone for doing their best,” my father said.
Brim’s eyes narrowed. “I’m the Primary. I can do whatever I please.”
It was clear I wasn’t going to make it out of this without some form of punishment. And with the mood the Primary was in, it would be harsh. The last punishment he’d dished out sent me to the lower caverns where the molten rock flowed. I had been left there for three days with no food or water. I cringed. I had been so weak after that, my father had to carry me all the way home. It took another three days before I could manage to get out of bed.
Brim leaned forward in his seat, his smile cruel. “Ten lashes of Dorin’s whip for the cheating, and ten more for the lying. That way we can make sure he gets punished for the right thing.”
My legs nearly gave out.
“Twenty lashes?” My father’s eyes were the size of ripe figs and his mouth was open wide enough to have poured an entire bushel in.
To Brim’s right, Talarin remained silent. The grin on his face said it all.
Ness fidgeted in her seat. “Primary, do you think it wise to add such a strict punishment to something we cannot prove? Such action may raise questions.”
Brim’s glare made me glad I wasn’t the one sitting next to him. “Are you questioning my judgement?” His tone made it clear her answer would determine whether or not she joined me at the post.
“I . . .” She turned and looked at me, fear in her eyes. I already knew her answer. She lowered her head. “No, Primary.”
“Twenty lashes?” My father shook with rage. “Twenty lashes for making your son look like the fool he is? Why not fifty? Nu’Tarin Fu’Tok! Why not just take him out and execute him while you’re at it?”
My eyes bulged and the air wheezed from my chest. Only twice had I ever heard my father curse, and never in the old tongue. I had to do something. I’d never seen him like this before. If I didn’t stop him, Brim might actually try having me executed out of spite. The Primary hated our family. Always had. This would be the perfect excuse to be rid of one of us.
I took a small step forward. “I accept.” I heard the words, but I couldn’t believe I had said them. I must not have spoken them loud enough, because my father was now telling Brim what he thought about his son, his wife, his house. I think I even heard him say something about his manhood.
This time, I took a deeper breath and shouted, “I accept!”
My father’s tirade faded as he—and every other member of the Pel’tok—turned to look at me. “What?”
“I said . . . I accept.”
“You most certainly will not! No son of mine is going to be punished for doing what is required of him.”
“He will if I say he will!” Brim said, pounding his fist like a mallet on the arm of his chair. “Guards, take Ayrion to the post.”
My father started to argue, but I shook my head and he bit his tongue.
As the guards led me out, I found myself wondering once again how I had managed to end up in yet another mess.