October 20, 2014

The Spirit Heir -- Chapter One Preview!

The Spirit Heir (A Dance of Dragons #2) goes on-sale in only TEN days!!!! 

Here's a little teaser in celebration of the upcoming release day :) I hope you enjoy the first chapter!


1
JINJI
~ RAYFORT ~


Something about the dark made time pass both slowly and quickly. There was no dawn. No dusk. No trail of twinkling stars leading to the start of a new day.

And yet, there were other signs.

The drip of invisible water, counting the seconds as they wandered by. The scuff of metal on stone, hinting that other life rested out of reach. The pain of raw flesh, promising that death was close, but still so far away.

And the screams, Jinji thought, shuddering. The screams came once a day, echoing through the void, crawling over her skin, haunting her.

There had been no screams for a while, but that didn’t mean they were done. It meant they were closer than ever. And Jinji knew that time was running out. It would soon be her cries of agony that rippled across these moist stones, filling the damp air.

Every day someone new was taken. At first she didn’t know why, but gradually Jinji came to understand. One man shouted, I don't know anything. Another, I'm sorry. Still more pleading for forgiveness, denying any involvement, promising to swear loyalty. The traitors of Whylkin groveling at the feet of their failures.

And somehow, Jinji had been placed among them, to rot in the dungeons until it was her turn to be questioned—and the spirits knew what else.

She shifted her weight, wincing as the shackles holding her hands scraped against her wrists, a stinging pain she was almost getting used to. Almost.

I can help you, the voice said.

Stop. Jinji sighed, wishing for peace in what little time she had left.

Somehow, her mind had been invaded. When she had awakened in the dungeons, something woke up with her—inside of her. Jinji had no idea who, or what, it was—crawling around, making a home, trying to force a past on Jinji that she wanted nothing to do with. All she knew was that she had touched the shadow and now found herself possessed.

Talk to me. Let me ease your worry, your fears. You do not have to be alone, not while I am here. There is much to be done. Please—

Jinji gritted her teeth and slammed her head back against the stone, blinking as colors flashed before her eyes.

Get out of my head, she yelled back—but the voice was gone, pushed out by the pain as it always was. The voice would return, Jinji knew. It would try to talk to her again, to coax her into submission under the cover of kindness.

But mostly, the voice came to her in dreams—the only time she could not force it from her mind. Memories springing to life in sleep, calling to her, urging Jinji to welcome them. Sometimes, she wanted to give in, to open her thoughts, and let the mystery reveal itself. But then what? Would the voice have control? Would Jinji still remember who she was, would she remember her family, would she remember Rhen?

It was not a risk she was willing to take.

Pain was familiar to her now. She had begun to welcome it with open arms. Pain at least was predictable, comforting in that it always felt the same.

Pain of the body.

The pain in her soul was different though. It crept up on her when she least expected it, stealing her breath, making her chin quiver and her eyes burn with dryness.

Rhen. She sighed.

The ache in her heart scorched, the sort of fire only Rhen could quell. If he were alive. If he could forgive her. If she could just see him one more time.

So many questions without answers.

The last time Jinji had seen Rhen, a day that seemed so far away yet so close to her heart, he had been dying. Stabbed in the gut by the shadow, left in a heap on the ground, cradling his wound, holding onto life with all the strength he had left.

Jinji had abandoned him to fight the shadow, to kill the dark spirit that had murdered her people, to save Rhen from its deadly grasp. But she had woken here, surrounded by night with no memory of the fight. No idea if the shadow still lived or if she had succeeded in its demise. Or far worse, if it rested inside of her now.

Would she ever know if she had been fast enough?

The possibilities weighed heavily on her conscience.

If Rhen had died, it would explain why she remained in captivity. No other man of Whylkin would vouch for her loyalty, would risk himself to release her from this prison. But if he were dead, then everything was lost. Everything. Rhen had become her family, her best friend, her home. If he were gone, Jinji was not sure she could live—how much fight did one person have in them? How much suffering could one person overcome?

Yet, if he had lived…

The possibility scared Jinji even more. Because then she was truly alone, abandoned without even his memory to hold close. If Rhen were alive, then he had willingly left her down here to slowly suffer, to die where he could not hear or see. By now, he would surely know she was a woman—meaning he had chosen not to forgive her, meaning her lie was more than he could bear.

Nonetheless, Jinji held tight to the dream that he still breathed, the hope that she could win back his trust, the prayer of a chance to try.

That wish was all she had.

It made her open her eyes every morning and say goodbye to the warm embrace of sleep, an embrace that could easily be everlasting if she let it.

Jinji breathed deeply, letting her chest stretch and expand while she welcomed the spirits into her vision.

There was one other way Jinji had learned to tell time in the dark. Her favorite way. A small indulgence. Once a day, between the screams when her fear seemed too strong and her grief too heavy, Jinji wove the elemental spirit threads.

The illusions came even easier since dueling the shadow, almost as though something had been unlatched inside of her, some gateway that had kept them blocked was now open. The first night, Jinji wove an entire forest around her—complete with a breeze, the warmth of the sun, the presence of her brother Janu—so real she wanted to leave it there, to pretend. But, Jinji had come to learn that the truth, hard as it was, needed to be accepted.

Most of the time.

Jinji sat straighter, ignoring the strain of her muscles, and closed her eyes. Hands limp at her sides, the spirits heeded her mental command, letting her dreams unfold in real life.

She opened her lids.

And there he stood, so real, red hair glowing in the dark.

Rhen.

Fingers inching forward on their own accord, Jinji's body yearned for him, for his comfort. For a moment, she imagined this as truth.

Rhen stepped forward. His arm reached to open the bars, but his illusion stepped through them, ignoring the metal and meeting no resistance. Silent steps brought him closer, closer, until he was kneeling before Jinji—green eyes like a fire in the night, drawing her home.

His callused hand stretched forward, just enough for his palm to gently kiss her cheek, his thumb to rub her soft skin. And his touch felt real—warm and sturdy. That was how strong this illusion was tied, almost solid, so close to alive—so, so close.

Jinji's eyes began to water, remembering the truth—that this was false, all in her head.
But still, commanded by her thoughts, Rhen sat down next to her, opening his embrace and encircling her in his muscular arms. Her torso leaned in, letting the illusion hold her, letting the dream wash over her. His arms tightened, hugging her close, a touch that felt firm.

And then the tears came. Slowly at first. Then racking her body, shaking her limbs and scattering her breath.

It was the only time Jinji let herself cry—surrounded by the love she wished could be real. The only time she felt safe enough to let her fear surface, and her guilt.

A crack echoed down the hall.

Jinji sat up, alert. Rhen disappeared.

Time had run out.

Far away, boots clicked on stone.

Her heart skipped.

Somehow, Jinji knew they were coming for her. Dread filled her, threatening to boil over, but she hardened her muscles—fighting.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Jinji promised herself that they would not break her. They would never see her cry. Her pain would not echo down these halls—there would be no screaming hour today.

The boots continued. Soft. Getting louder. The beat was steady. Slow. Menacing. Steps of complete control.

Jinji calmed her breath, firming her resolve.

The sound grew and moved closer.

Until she saw it. Orange light reflecting off the misted walls. A dull glow. Jinji shrank away, blinded by the brightness. Her eyes stung, but remained dry. Resolute.

Ghostly figures stepped into view, hidden behind the light that blocked her sight. Keys jingled. Voices grumbled, murmuring softly to each other.

An illusion, Jinji thought as her terror mounted. She could weave one, pretend the cell was empty, that she had escaped.

The torch light grew stronger.

It was now or never. In a minute, the light would reach her toes, would travel up her dirty legs, would reveal her.

Her mind itched to keep pretending for as long as it took, to turn her illusions into real life and to live down here wrapped inside of them forever—in a place where her family lived and Rhen was beside her. A magical place.

A false place.

It will be all right, the voice promised. Jinji wanted to shut it out, to throw her head against the wall and push the phantom from her mind, but she didn't. For the first time, not being completely alone was comforting.

The halo entered her cell, revealing black speckled feet and copper calves that looked pale for the first time.

It was too late.

The men stopped outside her bars. The key was inserted, the lock twisted, and the door opened.
Jinji clenched her teeth.

One man stepped forward into the glow of the fire, revealing his ruby garbed body. A member of the king's guard. Jinji recognized the uniform—she had pretended to wear it not too long ago.

Her eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, holding a small iron key in his hand.

"I am going to unlock these chains, do you understand?" he asked, voice soft, almost as though trying to calm her anxiety. But his face was still masked in shadow, hiding the truth in his eyes.

Jinji nodded. The skin around her ankles and wrists was exposed, scratched, and it burned. Now in the light, she could make out the red streaks of caked-over blood and other spots that glistened, fresh and stinging. Removing the weights would be a small relief.

Slowly, he stepped closer, trying not to alarm her. The rings unclasped, dropping to the floor with a resounding clang. One. Two. Three. Four. Echoes that Jinji hoped might lift the spirits of those around her.

"Can you stand?" he asked and offered a hand.

Jinji ignored it, using muscles she had not accessed in a while. Her thighs yelled at her, protesting, begging her to remain seated. But she rose, gritting her teeth the entire way up. Creaky bones cracked as she stretched, bringing life back into her battered body.

One step at a time, Jinji moved slowly across the cell. The closer she got to the exit, the more she wondered if it were all a trick. Were they about to slam the door in her face, laughing, like a sick game?

But she passed through the threshold, between the iron bars, and into the dark hall. Her feet didn't want to stop—they wanted to race into the abyss and keep going until she reached the sun. Jinji did not let them. Instead, she planted her toes and turned to face the captor behind her, his features now revealed in the light.

Shock—that was the word that came to mind. But Jinji couldn’t place it. Was he shocked at her silence? Did he wish for her to plead her innocence, to promise there had been some mistake? She would not give him the satisfaction.

No. She met his eyes, resistant, and he was the one who looked away.

The other man was not so gentle.

"Come on," he said—to his companion, to her, to them both.

Grabbing her arm roughly, clenching his fingers around her frail frame, he pulled her forward. Jinji stumbled, her body not prepared to move so fast, but held on.

Swiftly, they passed through the corridors. Jinji tripped, floundering at this rapid pace she had grown unaccustomed to, stubbing her toes on the uneven path. Her feet were cold against the stone, but her body was hot with exertion. Even if she walked toward death, it felt good to walk. To move.

The men didn't say anything else. Gave no hints as to their destination. But it seemed as though they traveled upward. Away. Out.

They stopped at a door.

As it swung open, Jinji gasped. Her fragile body finally faltered and she fell, eyes burning as she clutched them, covered them.

It was too bright. Too white after so long in the dark.

She blinked rapidly, bringing moisture to her eyes, trying to bring her vision back. The shadow of her hands provided some relief, blocked out most of the glow until it was just her skin, streaked with orange where the sun tried to break through.

Gently, she shifted her fingers, letting the cracks widen. Gradually, her eyes adjusted despite the burn.

The castle of Rayfort.

Jinji recognized the white stones reflecting the sun, the red tapestry hanging on the wall painted with the stallion Rhen wore proudly on his clothes. She was still in Rayfort, still at his home.

Gaze shifting further, Jinji met wide-eyed stares. Three women stood a few feet away, talking with two men. Their clothes were gold-lined and rich in color, spotted with little pearls. The conversation, whatever it was, had stopped. Now they stood aghast, unable to speak at the sight of her cradling her head, stuck on the ground.

Jinji let her hands fall into her lap. Her vision followed. And it was her turn for shock. The scars around her wrists looked more painful in the daylight, more gruesome. Her fingers were black with dirt. Her arms were covered by it. Her skin, once a beautiful tan, was now ghostly. The white shirt looked gray. Her pants were ripped, shredded by her knees.

Suddenly cold, Jinji hugged herself, covered herself. Shame tugged at her heart. How could she have been dragged so low? Once the future leader of her people, now a beggar.

Jinji stood and lifted her head, trying to cover the embarrassment with stubborn pride. Straightening her spine, she dropped her hands and met the eyes of the guards. It was time to move on, and they understood, walking forward and trusting her to continue.

A few turns later, a few shocked looks later, and they had arrived at another door. The more forceful guard pushed her inside and shut it.

Panic immediately clenched her heart and Jinji turned, slamming the door with her fist, still not making a sound.

She fell forward, hugging the wood, afraid what she might turn to find. Silence welcomed her. No sounds, not even breathing, filtered into her ears.

Would they really bring her here to watch her scream? Jinji reasoned with herself. It made no sense to take her through the castle unless a different fate waited for her. The fate only a friend could provide, one very specific friend, the only one she had left.

Hesitant, Jinji turned, hoping she might find a dream come to life.

But the room was empty.

There were no people, only things. Fluffy chairs she would not stain with her soot. Tables holding games she did not know how to play. Shelves displaying books she could not read. Everything was luxurious. Everything was foreign.

A fire blazed to one side, and a window sat at the other. Though she was cold, Jinji yearned for the sight of the outside world and made her way to the glass, padding carefully across the rug.

A silk cushion sat below the pane, lined with carefully arranged pillows, but she did not rest her weary muscles. Instead, Jinji stood, strengthened by the scene before her.

Trees.

Far off in the distance, past the castle wall, beyond the sea of rooftops, was a strip of evergreen. Minute maybe but everything to her. The world. A sight she wasn't sure she would ever see again. A sliver of home she could hold close.

A smile spread her lips, and Jinji's hand rose to rest gently against the window, trying to touch the leaves she could almost hear swaying in the breeze. Her vision cut everything else out, letting her forget Rayfort and to feel free for a moment. Jinji's forehead followed her hand, meeting the cool touch of the glass, and feeling secure, she let her mind wander.

It had to be Rhen. How she wished it were Rhen. But she had to think clearly.

The queen had been possessed by the shadow. It could be her, demanding justice against Jinji or perchance needing to question her.

It could be one of his brothers, feeling obligated to tell Jinji the bad news of Rhen's death since she was his friend.

It could be a cruel trick, to show her a glimpse of the world before stripping it away.

Or it could be Rhen.

Her insides skipped a beat, fluttering around her stomach—a wish that would not be denied.

Rhen.

At the thought, something behind her clicked. Jinji held her breath and turned around slowly, searching for the source. To her side, a different entrance from where she came in, a knob was twisting. She paused, unsure if this was real or fake, an act of her mind playing tricks or the impossible manifestation of dreams coming true.

The entry swung open, and there he stood. Commanding. Taking up the entire frame of the doorway, hair just as bright as Jinji remembered, eyes just as sparkling.

All breath left her body and she stood speechless, still not sure if she was awake.

Rhen looked at her with an expression Jinji couldn't read. Confusion. Horror. Sympathy. Longing. All of them or none of them, she couldn’t decide.

Jinji watched, waiting for him to disappear, to wink out of existence just like her illusions. But he seemed so solid.

Seconds ticked by but the room felt frozen in time.

Why was he just standing there? Jinji silently commanded he step forward, but Rhen didn’t move. Stubborn.

He must be real, she thought and bit her lower lip, almost afraid to find out the answer. But Jinji had waited a long time in the dark, and she would wait no longer.

Stepping cautiously forward, she approached Rhen. He watched on, impassive but not moving away. She stopped close enough to feel the heat radiating from his body, but far enough away to keep herself composed.

There were so many things to say, but her lips would not open. So many words that would not come.

Jinji wanted to collapse against him, to fall into his arms and let them catch her, protect her, convince her that it was all real. But she wouldn't, no matter how much her body protested against her. If this Rhen were real, he did not trust her. He did not view her as a woman to comfort. He did not ache for her in the way she ached for him.

To Rhen, she was a liar. A stranger. Without Jin, he didn’t know who she was. In time, she might change that. But now was not that time.

Still, she needed to touch him, to feel his strength, his solidity.

So instead, Jinji simply reached her hand up, cupping his warm cheek—peachy against her dirty fingernails. To her surprise, his eyes softened and his hand followed, holding hers tightly against his freckles.

"You're alive?" she asked, her emotions hanging by a thread. There was one thing her illusions could not do, one thing only a real person could create—noise.

Rhen smirked, left side of his lip raising slightly, and responded, "Barely."

Joy flooded Jinji's body, filling her up, and spilling over into tears that she could not contain. Just as she thought her legs could hold her no longer, that it was too much and she would fall against him just to feel his embrace, it was Rhen who faltered. Clutching his stomach, he slumped, stumbling as one leg gave out beneath him.

Against all of her predictions, Jinji was the one who caught him. 

###

The Spirit Heir goes on-sale October 30th and is available to preorder now!

            

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