Kavya’s thoughts were weighted by responsibility, and the ever-pressing knowledge that the Dragon Kings were a people on the edge of extinction. That meant the collection of faithful gathered in a craggy notch in the Pir Panjal foothills of the Himalayas was exceptional. From her secluded place behind an altar made of burnished orange granite, Kavya extended her awareness into the vast crowd.
She was especially heartened to feel so many assembled from the Indranan, one of the Dragon’s sacred Five Clans. Her clan. The telepathic Indranan had been divided for three thousand years of civil war. Northern versus Southern factions. And for reasons every Dragon King knew too well, they were collectively known as the Heartless.
Although physically sluggish from bearing the mantle of her duties, Kavya cleared her consciousness of outside thoughts. She would need the full extent of her limited telepathy for the task awaiting her. Today was special. Intimidatingly so. She would make her first appearance before these hundreds who’d traveled the globe to see her in person.
To see the woman they’d dubbed the Sun.
Kavya waited until exactly noon to ascend the altar’s few makeshift granite steps. This moment was her burden and her joy.
Standing tall, she sucked in a shallow breath. “So many.”
Before her extended a valley, like a deep bowl being held by rocky, jutting fingers. Evergreens were scattered throughout, but few dared set their roots in the valley’s steep walls. Worn canvas tents of varying sizes were packed side by side—countless grains of rice in that mountain bowl, seasoned by smoke from small cooking fires. Despite having grown up in some of India’s most populous cities, Kavya had never witnessed an assembly to rival this, with so many minds and senses working in concert, focused as one.
A gust of cold air rushed down from the slopes. Whispers—those given voice and those passed from mind to mind—faded to nothing. That late autumn wind blowing through crevices became the only sound.
“So many of you,” she said, with volume enough to be heard. “Welcome. Oh, thank the Dragon. Welcome.”
She worked to steady the pitch and cadence of her voice. She hadn’t dubbed herself the Sun, but that’s what most had come to expect—radiance and incandescent light. Kavya had fostered that image for years, for her own anonymous safety and to promote the growing influence of her cause. People responded to symbols even more readily than to earnest people. People could have agendas; symbols had the power to transcend suspicions born of rational thought.
She needed to become everything to everyone. No sudden movements. No reason for anyone to turn around and walk up the valley pass.
Especially the Indranan.
Her head already throbbed from the effort. After all, she had been born as one of three triplets. She possessed only a third of the Dragon’s gift.
“I’m humbled by the distances you’ve traveled and the seas, mountains, and plains you’ve crossed to join me here. You are the first of a new age. Northern and Southern Indranan together, sharing the same air and the same hopes for a future forged of trust, not continued spite. Some of you come to us from the other four clans. I welcome you and ask for your aid as we of the Indranan work to heal old hurts.”
Even members of Clan Garnis were present. They were known as the Lost, but they weren’t extinct. She could pick out those rare minds as if finding diamonds among dust. They were skittish among the press of so many bodies.
“Our people are dying,” she said bluntly.
Many gasped. Some cried out in quiet despair.
Kavya extended her hands before clasping them together—a woman giving a gift, a woman begging for help. She was both. “Please help me. We must not be the ones to bring about our own extinction. Previous generations turned away from the truth. We will be the last if we follow their example.”
Looking out, she couldn’t identify any particular face. Instead she saw black—the ceremonial robes and saris of the Dragon Kings, each accented with their clan’s color. The Indranan were the exception in that they did not wear a uniform shade of blue. Those from the north of the Indian subcontinent wore the pale turquoise of a high mountain sky. Those from the south wore the deep ultramarine of the ocean coastlines they called home. A trio of Indranan women, roughly eighty years old in middle age, stood nearest to the altar with upturned faces. Two Northern and one Southern.
“Each of our Leaderships know that conception has become nearly impossible. Not even the Dragon King Council can deny that we are a dying race—we, who have shaped the civilizations of this world from their infancies. What would each culture, each continent, be without our influence? This has led many, dare I say most of our kind, to believe us better than humans.”
She paused, breathed, recentered. An Indranan could only touch one mind at a time. To mentally project the image of an appealing yet unassuming woman—one who radiated the indescribable shine her followers longed to worship—she individually brushed that impression over every mind in the valley. Over and over again. She used her gift at a speed beyond conscious thought, a skill she’d honed through the years as the number of faithful increased. If she became too impassioned, she lost her trancelike concentration. Yet passion was exactly what she needed to impart.
Those few followers she knew personally were out there somewhere, among the rapt throng. She wished she could find one of them, to derive a measure of comfort, like a familiar blanket to hold during long, frigid nights. Knowing she was in the right would have to shore up her courage.
“What’s the use of thinking ourselves better if we can’t hold children of our own? The time has come for reconciliation, and through reconciliation will come solutions—and the future we long for.”
Her words must’ve touched her followers because the murmurs that had threaded through her soliloquy strengthened into applause and even shouts of approval.
“At dusk this evening, I will make an announcement to reward your faith. Some call us a cult. The Sun Cult. But we are not a religion. We all have our means of worshiping the Dragon. This, our gathering, is a meeting of forward-thinking individuals. And finally, with hope, I can say that two such individuals are here among us, joined in a vow of cooperation.”
With a swell of pride behind her breastbone, she once again lifted her hands—this time in triumph. “Northern and Southern, at last you will have better than bellowed accusations of past crimes and threats of retribution. You will use peaceful voices in thoughtful discussion. As the woman you call the Sun, I swear it.”
The applause was breathtaking. Slack, stunned faces transformed. Kavya saw relief and curiosity, but mostly joy. Some embraced or turned to clap each other on the back. None gave any sign of typical clan suspicions, either physically or with what she could sense of the crowd’s mood. Neither Indranan faction seemed to remember that they’d warred for countless years, or that fresh blood spilled a generation before—at the massacre known as the Juvine—had renewed three millennia of hatred.
Kavya lowered her head and interlaced her fingers. Her mother had taught her, You can hold our homeland in your hands. The rise and fall of your fingers become our mountains and valleys.
That was Kavya’s earliest memory. Her last memories of her mother were colored by madness and an indescribable sense of loss.
She needed order. Although beautiful, the ridges of rock that marked the far western edge of the Himalayas had no order. Random peaks. Irregular riverbeds. High glaciers that changed with the seasons and the passing of time, and trees that bent beneath fierce wind and heavy snow. Kavya aligned her knuckles. None stood higher than the others. Only then did she feel calmer, which was more important than happiness. Those who’d gathered in the Pir Panjal could be happy. She still had work to do.
When she lifted her face to the crowd, she unclasped her hands and lowered them straight to her sides. The silk of her sari was more luxurious than any she’d ever owned. She gently toyed with the flowing fabric. “Now,” she said, “our day must continue as it has. With purpose. Join me in the noon benediction.”
She was no cult leader, but she understood the importance of ritual. The rituals she’d fashioned were an amalgam of practices from all Five Clans. Words from each language. Praise to each version of the Dragon. Affirmation of each special gift. Although the origin of her work had focused on peace among the Indranan, she’d since expanded her purpose to include all of the Dragon Kings. They needed each other. She was convinced.
Thus the words she spoke in daily blessing were meant to appeal to as many as possible, just as her appearance was. Once again, Kavya’s brain—her entire body—ached from the effort. And once again, she persevered.
“Eat, my friends. Peace be with you.”
She turned to the rear of the altar and descended. She was alone. No one followed her. Even her bodyguards maintained a respectful distance on the other side of a natural archway. She basked in the privilege of lowering her mental shields and releasing the crowd from the spell of her mind. There was no need for anonymous luminosity when she was alone.
Yet she was so very alone.
How could she be otherwise?
Pashkah would find her someday. Her triplet would kill her or she would kill him. Relying on even the most devoted follower was a risk she rarely took. That meant hiding her real self. She had long since abandoned the innocent child named Kavya of the Northern Indranan. The little girl she’d been was a photograph faded to gray.
“Very pretty words.”
Her head jerked up by reflex. An Indranan so lost in thought was a telepath stripped naked of defenses. For a slip of a moment, she couldn’t remember how to hide. The danger of her mistake shot flame through her bones.
Had he been Pashkah . . .
Instead the man was a stranger. Not exactly slim, but not overly brawny, he straddled the solid middle ground where muscle and skill hid beneath an unassuming exterior. He was paler than members of her clan, although he retained the golden shimmer of the Dragon Kings. And as a Dragon King, that meant exceptional male beauty. Dark hair was tipped with glinting silver—not the gray of an old man, but a gleam like the shine of mica flecks. His hair didn’t reach his collar, but it was long at his crown and stood in disarray.
He wore lightweight layered sweaters, cargo pants, heavy black boots, and an open leather coat lined with wool. No ceremonial robes. Just the clothes of a human. The straight, narrow swords that crossed in an X at his back, however, were the weapons of a Pendray. He radiated wildness, from that mass of careless hair to the way his relaxed, almost negligent stance proclaimed him a killer.
Her gift would confirm what made her senses prickle and cringe. In self-defense, she reached out to learn his identity and his intentions.
And to her profound shock, she couldn’t read his mind. Not a single thought.
“Who are you?”
He walked toward her with swagger, leading with his shoulders. His scabbards moved with a hiss of leather over leather. Bright blue eyes narrowed. “You’ll find out before I’m through with you.”
The Sun was a fraud.
Worse, she was a vile manipulator.
As an upward surge of violence scribbled red across his vision, Tallis of Pendray could’ve been staring at the interior of a slaughterhouse. Droning pulses of cruelty beat a counterpoint to the rhythm of his heart. He wanted to loose his fury.
He needed to stay in control.
Otherwise he would never be able to discredit the Sun and thwart the commands she had thrust into his mind for two decades.
Always dripping in gold. Always riding away on the back of the Dragon.
A berserker rage would ruin months of preparation—sensible, rational preparation. Finding her hadn’t been easy. Everyone knew of the Sun Cult, but its ever-changing location had taken him almost a year to pinpoint. It was bad enough that the gift of Tallis’s clan, the Pendray, was the mindless fury of a berserker. Because the Sun had deluded him for so long, he’d come to prize rationality. He would not be a pawn to his blood-born impulses or a puppet to a charismatic charlatan.
Yet . . . she was real.
Some part of him had always feared he was well and truly mad. What if he’d been acting on a delusion so clear and all-consuming that he needed a scapegoat? How convenient to blame bloodied hands on a woman conjured by a guilty, disturbed conscience, then top off his mental self-defense with delusions of the Dragon. He put away his doubts and laid the gory blame where it belonged—there on an altar of stacked rocks the color of bronze.
His only regret was that, truth be told, the Sun’s professed ambition was noble and worth his sacrifices. Her appearances were rare enough to be treasured, but constant enough to reinforce her design for the future of the Dragon Kings. And Tallis’s role in it.
However, the violence he’d guided to the home of his niece, Nynn, had sapped his optimism. Whether the Sun’s plan to unify the clans would protect the Dragon Kings from extinction was no longer his concern. After what he’d endured, what he’d done, what he’d become for her—he deserved to embrace a personal grudge.
“You cannot threaten me,” she said, head tilted at an assessing angle. “And you cannot harm me.”
“I did, and I can.”
Tallis leapt forward—the fluid, trustworthy movement of a body honed for fighting. One of his seaxes was easy to retrieve. He grabbed the woman’s hair, twisted fistfuls in his free hand, and held a razor’s edge of steel to her throat.
Her eyes bulged. She froze.
“That’s right,” Tallis said. “Very still.”
“It’s not Dragon-forged.” Her voice was a near-silent rasp.
“Correct.” A Dragon King could only be killed by rare swords forged in the Chasm where the Great Dragon had lived and died, high in the Himalayas. “But killing you would make you a martyr. Not my intention.”
Her appearance as she’d addressed the crowd had struck Tallis like a blow to the jaw. A faint, otherworldly shimmer had surrounded her as would the wavy heat of a mirage. Hair that should’ve been deep brown, flowing in animated waves down her back, had been a bland, neutral shade in a style that sat primly on her shoulders. Her mud-colored eyes had been wrong, too. Nothing distinctive except for that inviting shimmer, urging people to believe the false front she presented.
Now he was near enough to see each lash. Wide irises as rich as amber. Lush hair as luscious as chocolate. Realizing the full extent of how well she could deceive others, including Tallis, was overwhelming.
At least her figure matched his visions. He held her resilient, athletic body close to his. A gold silk sari wrapped around womanly curves he’d seen in the nude.
He restrained a frustrated growl.
The Sun still hadn’t moved, but her lips tilted into a ghostly smile. Nothing about her seemed false, yet he could feel the potential for deception like a slick of oil on his fingertips. His only chance was to keep her distracted. With the ability to focus on only one mind at a time, his threat of violence might keep her from assuming too many of the false impressions she gleaned from other individuals.
“This way,” he said, yanking her hair. The blade nicked a line of red across her delicate neck.
Delicate? No. It was just a neck.
She deserved no adjectives. He could trust no adjectives.
“I don’t know what I’ve done to anger you,” she said with surprising calm. Only her near-frantic respiration gave away her fear. “But we can discuss it. We can make amends.”
“No, we can’t. Now, this blade is going back in its scabbard. You’re going to walk with me.”
She actually laughed, although the action pressed her neck more firmly against his seax. Her laughter was truncated by a gasp as another streak of red appeared. “How do you expect to accomplish that?”
“You have an announcement this evening.”
“I do.” She still breathed without rhythm. “It’s important. More important than you can imagine.”
“You have done my imagining for too long.”
“I’ve never seen you before!”
“Save it. You want to make that announcement, right? Can’t have these people disappointed.”
A gleam of moisture coated brown eyes that matched the rocky landscape of her homeland. “That’s right.”
“Then we’re walking. Calmly. I hold no grudge against anyone else, but I will do harm if you cause them to interfere.”
“They would demolish you in a second. We’re the Indranan. Telepathy can be a nasty weapon. You’d live the rest of your life with your body intact and your mind flipped inside out.”
Tallis pulled her hair and brought their faces together, close enough to share the same chilly air. “How much chaos could I cause before that happened? The precious Sun in danger. A hundred Dragon Kings running scared. Your cult destroyed.”
The woman grasped his forearm with both hands. Her nails dug into his flesh. “You have no right. Why would you plan violence, here of all places? These people live in peace and they believe in me.”
“And in time they’ll learn the truth.” Tallis held her neck in his palm as he sheathed his blade. “Just like I did.”