As of writing this post at the end of November, 2020, the fifth and final book in this story arc is being edited. I wanted to share a sneak peek with y’all, because frankly, you’ve earned it after the hellish year we’ve all had. Tentative launch date for Book 5 is mid-July of 2021.
After Book 5, I’ve got a TON of stuff planned, so stay tuned. 🙂
“This isn’t going to work.” Kali threw the brush on the bed and glared into the hand-held mirror. Her sodding hair had decided to curl in all the wrong places and slip free of every attempted braid, just when she needed to appear at her most presentable. Worse, the inky-purple robes the Cipher had given her closed high around her neck, obscuring her scar but also making deep breaths uncomfortable. The close-fitting hem at her wrists, while they hid her mage-mark, also felt far too much like hematite cuffs.
“Natanaree’s a few rungs short of a ladder if she think I can pass as a priestess of Nox,” Kali grumbled, tugging at the robe’s neckline. The belt of onyx and moonstone beads, carved into intricate skulls, clattered with each motion. “The priests won’t allow me near the Circle archives, let alone have me paw through their books and scrolls.”
Tal appeared in the doorway between the bedchamber and the living area of the room they’d been allotted… together. That was bizarre enough on its own. Add to that the impeccably furnished space, complete with two bedchambers joined by a seating area, and Kali could hardly believe she was living such a life. It would have been pleasant to languish all day in the downy bed, savoring the seemingly endless supply of food and drink, but so far all she’d been able to enjoy was a proper bath. Everything else was either too surreal, or a painful reminder that she lived while so many, too many, had gone to their next lives.
In direct contrast to Kali’s internal turmoil, Tal had simply accepted their new space without question and made herself at home. Now, of course, the former commander’s hair was braided and pinned into submission, and her new armor—polished iron engraved with swirls and stars—was clean enough to eat off of. She studied Kali, tilting her head as if in great thought. “Let me.”
Kali drew away of habit, edging to the other side of the bed. “This is no problem a sword can solve, though I’m tempted.”
“Do you wish to arrive at the Temple of the One looking like you were mauled by a wild boar?” Tal asked evenly.
That made far too much sense. Damn her. Kali’s stomach flipped. “Is it too late to go back to mage jail?”
“I’m sure Argent could arrange it.” Tal picked up the brush. “May I try?”
Half an hour until Natanaree had scheduled Kali’s appearance at the Circle archives, and Kali looked like she’d been attacked by wild pigs. At least her dress was clean; thank the Cipher for that. Thank the Cipher for all of this, really. Apparently priestesses of Nox were rare enough to be strangers to most, and inscrutable enough to account for, as Natanaree had put it, “any unusual behavior.” Kali hoped that not believing in the gods counted as “unusual” and not “criminal,” at least to the Circle folks here.
Nothing for it; there was too much at stake. Kali grimaced and limped back to Tal. “Be gentle. My hair likes to tangle.”
At Tal’s instruction, she sat at a wooden desk—heartwood, polished to a sheen—and held the mirror up while the former sentinel stood behind her. Kali’s admittedly hasty braid fell apart with a touch, sending her dark brown hair tumbling over her tense shoulders and down her back. Nimble fingers combed through the strands, then Tal gathered Kali’s hair and began to brush the ends. Kali stiffened, ready for a painful tug or snarl, but Tal worked the brush with gentle efficiency. Some of Kali’s tension slipped away and her shoulders sank.
After a few minutes, Tal had suitably removed the tangles, and set to braiding. Kali tensed again, tilting the mirror to try and see what the former sentinel was doing to her. “Nothing too tight,” she said. “I can’t concentrate if my head’s pounding.”
Tal gave a half-smile in the mirror. “Understood.”
She gathered strands of Kali’s hair from the sides and began to separate and twine the strands into a neat plait. There was no pain, no sharp tugs, only the pleasant, tingling sensation of fingers winding through Kali’s hair and occasionally brushing against her scalp. Gradually, Kali relaxed more, sinking into the cushioned chair as Tal braided, stopping at the nape of Kali’s neck. Eventually, Tal switched to the other side, her movements swift, certain.
“You braid hair often?” Kali could not help but ask.
“Only my own,” Tal replied. “But it isn’t exactly cooperative, so I’ve learned a few tricks.” She was quiet as she worked. “You have your mother’s coloring.”
“My father’s hair was arrow-straight, and blond enough to blind you in the sun.”
“I take after my mother, too,” Tal said after a moment. “Except for my nose. Foley always said I had his nose.”
“Do you remember your mother?”
“Bits and pieces.” Tal finished the other side and gathered the ends of both braids, and continued her work. “You?”
“I never knew your mother.” Tal was silent and Kali winced. “Sorry. No, I had no memories of Kamala until Stonehaven. I’m not sure it’s better, now that I have some.”
Tal was quiet again. “She was friend to me. One of few I have ever known.”
Tears gathered at Kali’s eyes. She let them fall. “I wish we’d had more time.”
“As do I.” Tal drew back. “Is my work satisfactory?”
Kali swiped her eyes and went to the tall mirror by her bed, using the hand mirror to assess the former sentinel’s handiwork. Two braids crested either side of her head, curving down to her neck, where Tal had joined them in a single braid which she’d then tied off using a silk ribbon. The last six inches or so of Kali’s hair flowed freely down her back, where the loose waves nestled peacefully together.
Kali skimmed her fingertips over the braids. “No trace of a wild boar here… Are you all right?”
Tal leaned against the chair, fist to her mouth. The words had barely left Kali’s lips before the former sentinel broke into a coughing fit that forced her to her knees. Kali rushed to the other woman’s side, but Tal waved her back. “I’m fine,” she managed at last, gasping. “I’m fine.”
Blood speckled Tal’s hand before she swiped it clean on the underside of her tunic.
“Well, you definitely seem fine,” Kali said. She didn’t move away but she did suppress the urge to place a comforting hand on Tal’s back. “This happens a lot?”
The fit ended and Tal rose with the grace all sentinels seemed to possess. “My lungs suffered some damage in Whitewater City,” she said, smoothing out her immaculate hair. “The heat from Sadira’s fire.”
And my fire, Kali thought with a flash of guilt that she tried to snuff. She, Sadira, all of them had been fighting for their lives. Surely guilt was pointless.
“Has a mage examined you?” Kali asked. “Naree might be able to send for someone from the bastion.”
Tal shot her a sardonic look. “No mage could heal me, especially now.” She patted one of the pouches at her belt, where Kali had seen her stow her hematite – another gift from the Cipher, no doubt.
No, not exactly a gift, but a precaution against Kali’s deadly magic. Against Kali, herself – for all the good it would do. As Kali had learned, with enough stolen power, even hematite wouldn’t stop her magic.
Heat crept up her neck and she decided to change the subject lest she say something she regretted. “My hair is perfect, for once. I’ll try not to get used to it. Thank you.”
Tal’s smile did not light up her face, nor did it make her stern features beautiful, but the expression softened her edges; a candle’s glow in the moments before true dawn. “Are you ready, then?” Tal asked.
“No,” Kali said. “But we should go, anyway.”
What did you think?! Inquiring minds wanna know!!! 😊
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Thanks, and take care! 💜