His mother was one of the most powerful wizards in the Nurian Empire until she abandoned her people to become a notorious pirate. That choice doomed the family she left behind to a life of disgrace.
Yanko White Fox doesn't remember his mother, but as the only gifted child in the family, he is expected to erase the mark she left on them all. With an affinity for earth magic and communicating with animals, he's not the most natural candidate to become a warrior mage, but it's the only sure route back into the Great Chief's good graces. He has resigned himself to training for that destiny, whether it matches his passions or not.
Long before he's ready for his first battle, insurrection comes to his distant corner of the empire. Rebels take over the salt mine his family manages and slay the only relative who ever supported Yanko. On the heels of the tragedy, a courier brings a message from the Great Chief's son. Whether he is prepared or not, Yanko must undertake a quest, one that could save millions of lives… or fail utterly, leaving him dead, his family forgotten, and his people the victims of starvation and endless war.
"Ultimately, it's an intriguing story with characters well-worth spending time with for an adrenaline rush that hardly ever slows down…even when they spend time researching in a library because of the troubles they have there. But it's also a fun, multicultural exploration with both culture clashes and biases to hinder and aid them."– Margaret McGaffey Fisk
"...a thoroughly enjoyable first installment and I very much look forward to following Yanko on his journey further into his abilities and his blossoming adulthood. Another terrific Buroker book!"– L. M. Sherwin
"Another flawlessly written book by Lindsay Buroker!! This was so hard to put down and I was so into the story that I did not even notice I had reached the end!"– Amanda
"Her books are so addictive that I read straight through without stopping for anything. I literally can't put them down. Masterful. Five stars."– styler
"I'm not sure whether to be more or less alarmed that you have a plan," Lakeo said.
Yanko frowned as the sea breeze whipped at the piece of paper he was trying to write on. He should have done this back at the pub in town, rather than while sitting cross-legged in front of a flat rock alongside the road a mile north of the prison caves. But the idea—the plan, as Lakeo said—had only come to him while he, she, and Dak had been walking out of town.
Another fierce gust came, nearly knocking over the compact travel lantern perched on the edge of the rock. He caught it, but lost his quill in the tufts of razor grass growing alongside the road. The sharp edges scraped his skin as he hunted for the lost quill. He took a moment to send a few tendrils of earth magic into the plants, inviting the leaves to part and flatten down for him. They did so, and he found the quill, only to knock over the small bottle of ink with his elbow.
"Stoat's teats," he growled, lunging and trying to catch it before all the ink flowed out. Even without the others watching, he would have felt like an incompetent idiot. Maybe he should have gone with his first thought, using his earth magic to burrow a hole in the back of the cave system. The problem with that was that he could easily start a rockfall—or earthquake. Earthquakes weren't the sneakiest way to enter an underground complex.
"Careful, Yanko, you'll make my ears burn with such profanity," Lakeo said.
Yanko found the ink jar, sighing at how much had dribbled out. If they hadn't already walked four miles, he would suggest returning to town. How was he supposed to forge a letter on a rock?
Dak lowered a slender stick. No, not a stick.
"Is that a pen?" Yanko accepted it and examined it in the shaky light of the lantern. "I've heard of them." He scribbled experimentally on his scrap paper. "Huh. The inkwell is inside the stick? Simple, but ingenious."
"Yes," Dak said dryly. "It's advanced Turgonian technology. Don't share it with your government."
"Was that... a joke?" Yanko looked up at him, his towering form outlined against the stars. "Dak, I wouldn't have guessed you had a sense of humor."
"My superiors never encouraged it."
"Superiors? Like officers over you in the military?" Yanko supposed he had more important things to worry about than prying into his new bodyguard's background, but he wouldn't be wise to ignore opportunities to learn more about him either.
"Finish your letter," Dak said.
So much for opportunities. Yanko should simply be pleased that Dak had come along. When he had stalked out of the pub, Yanko had doubted whether he would.
He turned his focus back to his impromptu writing desk and examined Prince Zirabo's penmanship under the lantern light, careful not to let the wind sweep those pages away—he had been keeping them in the inside pocket in his leather tunic. At times, he had wondered if he should memorize the words and burn the message, but he had a fear that he might show up at the Golden City one day and need the prince's seal in order to get an appointment to talk to him. His family name would not earn him an invitation to the chief's council room, not these days.
"The letters are swoopie, aren't they? Even when he's in a hurry." Yanko clamped the original message between his teeth and did his best to emulate the style in the new letter. He hoped that Zirabo wouldn't mind someone forging a letter in his name to further his mission. Actually, he hoped Zirabo never found out about it.
Lakeo crouched down on the other side of the rock, watched him write for three seconds, and announced, "That's awful."
"Thank you for your artistic opinion." Yanko bit his tongue to keep from adding, "Now, go away."
"You're better at making illusions. Can you make an illusion of a letter?"
"No, a person can't hold an illusion, and I doubt the prison guards are going to let me pretend to hold the note out to them."
"Why don't you tell me what you want to say, and I'll do it then?"
"You're a practiced forger, are you?"
"I'm a practiced artist, you idiot. You've seen my carvings."
"Yes, and if I needed a tree etched into this rock, you would be the first person I'd ask."
Dak started walking around, ostensibly watching the road in either direction, but he was probably bored. Or wondering why he had ever promised Yanko that favor.
"Here, go ahead and try," Yanko said. He felt bad for sniping at her, even if she had been as sarcastic as he. "Address it to the honored prison warden and—"
"Rekanogee," Dak said out of nowhere.
"That's the name of the prison commissioner."
"You've been here before?" Yanko stood up, relinquishing his rock desk to Lakeo. He recalled that Dak had known exactly what Shark had been talking about when he had referenced the caves south of town.
"Because you were breaking some people out? Or because you were interred?"
Dak's eyebrow twitched. "Yes."
"I see. Were some of the former inmates in those barrels you were loading onto that skiff?"
Dak faced south, pointing to the cliffs the road followed, cliffs that overlooked a maze of pinnacles and sharp boulders sticking up out of the deep water. "The one and only entrance to the prison is halfway up the cliff side down there, a large opening that usually has two guards inside of it along with artillery weapons to defend against sea attacks. There may be more men there now, due to recent prison breaks." Dak's eye glinted, a rare hint of pleasure showing on his face. "The main cavern branches with numerous tunnels leading back into the rock, each lined with cells, some large and some small. There were groups and individuals in the cells when I was there."
Yanko noticed the way Dak avoided answering his question, but he accepted this new information as a fair alternative response. It would be handy if Shark's crew was all being held in one cell, but he could not count on being that lucky.
"There are more guards back in the complex," Dak continued. "Two at the front of each tunnel, and more that sleep on the premises and can be called up at any time. There are also defensive measures that can be activated if there's a break-in—or an attempt to break out. I didn't see all of them, but the portcullis that can drop over the cave entrance can be inconvenient."
"How did you get out?" Yanko wondered how many days had passed since Dak had staged the breakout. He didn't need to deal with extra alert guards.
"So... in the traditional Turgonian way."
"How is it that your people are more technologically advanced than mine?" Yanko looked down at the pen in Lakeo's hand.
"Necessity. We don't rely on magic to solve our problems."
Yanko hoped for an opportunity to show Dak what magic could do. So far, the Turgonian had only, as he had mentioned, seen Yanko heal a fern.
"How's this?" Lakeo leaned the page toward the lantern so they could see it. She had only written the salutation, but she had done a nice job emulating Zirabo's penmanship style.
"Good. All right, here's the rest." Yanko crouched on the balls of his feet. "It has come to my attention that you have a prisoner who smuggled an important artifact out of the Golden City. Arayevo Den Lo. I require she be turned over to Warrior Mage Akaron Sun Dragon—"
"Sun Dragon?" Lakeo protested. "From the legend? The one who singlehandedly held back a Turgonian invasion force of thousands?"
It figured that this would be one piece of history she actually knew.
"Those exploits are a part of legend now, but it's a real family with a long history of serving the great chiefs. I can't use my own clan name. As I found out last week, it's well known here, thanks to my mother's indiscretions."
"Sun Dragon." Lakeo snorted. "Next you'll be claiming descent from Selas the Great."
"Just write the words."
"Are you sure you want to imply your girlfriend is an even greater criminal than she is?"
"She's not my girlfriend." Yet. "And she's not a criminal."
"Right, I'm sure her work for Smuggler Captain Shark has been very noble."
"Have you written what I said yet?"
Lakeo grumbled, but she hunched over the page and went back to penning the note in the prince's hand.
"You're only seeking to get the girl out?" Dak asked. He didn't point out that retrieving only one crew member wouldn't win them passage from Shark, but he didn't need to. It was on Yanko's mind.
"Even if I can only see her for a couple of minutes, it may be enough. If she can let me know where the others are being kept, then I believe I can drill down from above. We can lower a rope without the guards knowing about it." He nudged the coil of rope he had stopped to pick up on the way out of the city.
"Drill down. Yanko, there's at least thirty feet of solid rock between the top of the cliff and the cave ceilings."
"Yes, but I study the earth sciences. I can manipulate rocks, make holes." He hoped he wasn't making a promise he couldn't follow through on. Thirty feet of solid rock was daunting, especially if his attempt was not to collapse it but to find a way to winnow through it. "It might not be a particularly straight hole, but I should be able to make one."
Dak grunted dubiously.
"Oh, he can do the rocks," Lakeo said. Yanko was on the verge of feeling pleased by her faith in him when she added, "Passing himself off as some great and powerful warrior mage from a great and powerful family is a lot more questionable."
"You do know that I'm from a once-great family and that my mother was—is—extremely powerful, right?"
"Doesn't mean anyone is going to believe you are. You're too young. You barely look your age. And your age is young."
"I'm eighteen. That's not that young."
"You have three chin hairs."
"Because I shave."
"Yeah, but you only have three chin hairs to shave."
Yanko took a deep breath and relaxed the fists that had somehow become clenched. "I'll make it work. Just finish the letter, please. I require she be turned over to Warrior Mage Akaron Sun Dragon, who will bring her back to the Golden City for questioning. Your cooperation in this matter is appreciated. Prince Zirabo, son of the Great Chief."
Fortunately, Lakeo returned to writing without further comment on his age. Or his chin hair.
Dak was watching them, perhaps still wondering about the feasibility of the hole-making. Though his new bodyguard hadn't objected further, Yanko felt the need to explain in more depth, to bring him around to his way of thinking.
"Even though I'm certain we could retrieve the men using some of your organized violence," he said, "I'm not comfortable with the idea of hurting—or more than hurting—region-appointed guards in order to free prisoners that, as you pointed out, may have been justly incarcerated. These are my own people, and I'm already questioning the fact that I'm going to break a law here. I don't want to hurt anyone. Not for this. You strike me as an honorable man, Dak. I'm sure you can understand not wanting to make trouble for the authorities."
"I like making trouble for the Nurian authorities," Dak said.
"But not killing people who are just doing their jobs, I hope."
Dak didn't respond. Hm.
"Who took your eye, Dak?" Lakeo blew on the ink, finished with the forgery.
"Nurians," he said bluntly and gave Yanko a flat look.
Yanko did his best not to wither under his stare.
"Here's your letter," Lakeo said.
Yanko examined it under the light, relieved to find the words all spelled correctly. He never got the impression that Lakeo had received a lot of schooling. "Thank you."
He rolled it into a scroll, then carefully removed the deep purple seal from his own note and applied it to the new message. A slight warming of the wax, and it affixed itself to the paper. Zirabo's seal. Who could question it?
No one, he hoped.
"We ready to go?" Lakeo picked up her pack and her bow.
"Not quite. I need to change clothes."