Read an Excerpt From The First Sister

First Sister has no name and no voice…

We’re excited to share an excerpt from Linden A. Lewis’ debut novel The First Sister, publishing August 4th with Skybound Books.

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.


 

 

CHAPTER 1

[14] The men came unto Sister Marian and demanded of her the truth that belonged to her Captain. [15] But Sister Marian was a woman of the Goddess and refused them. [16] She said unto them, “By betraying my Captain, I betray myself.” [17] And she took the knife with which she prepared the supper for her Captain and cut out her tongue, so that no man might compel her to speak.

–The Canon, Works 3:14–17

 

The new fool captain arrives in two hours, so I sort my belongings and pack them into a small bag. Even with all of them together, I have plenty of room. Ringer offered me one of the military trunks that all Gean soldiers keep locked at the ends of their cots, but I refused him because there is nothing I can take that does not technically belong to the battleship ACS Juno, my gray uniforms included. My shoulder bag carries only three sets of underclothes and one pair of boots, but I hold tight to it regardless; just because these items are nothing important does not mean I will leave them behind for the next person who claims my title. What’s mine is mine, even if the room no longer will be. Today I am leaving this ship, and I refuse to come back.

Will I miss it? It’s not the bed, wide enough for two, or the immense size of the suite, nearly three times larger than the rooms the other Sisters share, that will carve this space into my mind; it’s the presence of memories here, haunting me like ghosts. I remember lying sprawled beneath the livecam screen, watching the stars streak past. The way the sheets brushed against my cheek, soft as silk, when I pressed my face into the pillows. How I would wake in the night and feel steady, recognizing even the shadows in the corners, instead of lost in an unfamiliar land.

I shouldn’t miss it, though. Soon I will have a whole house full of beautiful rooms like this one.

To think, I will own a house. Me, who has never owned anything substantial in her entire life. I shouldn’t care that Second Sister will move into this room when I leave, this place as close to a home as I have ever had; I will have so much more than her that I won’t even think of her again when I settle on Mars with Captain Deluca. With Arturo, I correct myself.

I wave my hand at the room as if to erase it from my mind, and let my eyes blur to take in the shapes instead of the actual furnishings. The spherical screen like a port window with its live view of the stars, the dresser and its three drawers, the sturdy square bed—all become vague hazes of colors instead of solid objects. I step into the hallway with my head held high and let the door slide closed behind me. I do not look back.

Since the Juno is an Athena-class warship of Icarii make, seized a year ago in battle, the hallways are wide enough for two men to pass by without breaking stride. The oblong ship, black as space, is both stealthy and comfortable. My first ship assignment had been a small Gean pleasure liner, cylinder-shaped and constantly spinning to create gravity, and even as thin as I was, I had to shift sideways to walk down certain corridors. I never understood how the broad-shouldered soldiers made do, men like Ringer, who stands solid in his navy-blue Gean uniform at end of the hallway, waiting to see me off.

“First Sister.” Ringer bows his head to me, ever the faithful parishioner. His piousness is eclipsed only by the kindness in his silver eyes. If we were alone, he might pull me against his wide, muscular chest and hold me tightly, but that would be all he would do. His hands would not wander, his eyes would not burn with lust, unlike so many of his fellow soldiers’. “Are you ready?”

I put on the mask of happiness tinged with concern, a slight furrow of the brows mixed with a tentative smile. As a Little Sister at the Temple of Mars atop the glorious heights of Olympus Mons, I always pleased my Aunt Delilah with my animated expressions, with the way I imparted a mix of feelings with a simple adjustment of eye and mouth. She impressed what an exceedingly important skill communicating in subtle glances was for Sisters to learn. A necessity, once your voice has been taken.

“I know you’ll miss us here—and we’ll miss you—but you’ll adjust to your new life.” Ringer’s thin lips pull taut in a smile, but the rest of his expression remains static. His face is that of Mars stone, sharp and deeply pitted, an unfinished sculpture of a warrior at rest. “You deserve what happiness Captain Deluca can give you.”

My smile fades. I offer a solemn nod. I will soon be free of the Sisterhood’s politics—no more jealous Sisters, no more controlling Aunties—but I must not look too eager.

Another reason I maintain a steady friendship with Ringer: he intuits what I want to express. I wish to look like I will miss the Juno, like Arturo is taking me away from duty and home, instead of appearing excited and ready to abandon my post, and that is what Ringer sees. He may be one of the few from this ship I will think of fondly on Mars.

“Do you need an escort?”

I shake my head and clutch my bag to my chest. Ringer has been good to me on the Juno. In thanks, I hold out my hand, and Ringer, a head taller than me, kneels. I press my palm to his forehead between his blond hair and thick dark brows and close my eyes as if praying, offering him one last blessing. But the words running through my head are those that Arturo whispered to me, a description of my new house. A home in the gravity-controlled dunes with a little patio in the sun where you can grow pansies and honeysuckle…

“Thank you, First Sister,” he whispers.

My fingertips slide from his forehead to his cheek and trail down his stubbled chin. He watches my hand retreat to join the other gripping my bag. When Ringer stands, he offers me a traditional Gean salute, his right fist clenched over his chest, his arm parallel to the ground. The salute is meant for those higher ranking, usually officers, and while the Sisterhood is exempt from military hierarchy, his gesture is an honor. I am unaccustomed to being saluted, and pride swells within me.

I make sure to keep my smile bright as I part from Ringer and back into the elevator. Just as the door is closing, an arm snakes into the gap, and the door reopens fully lest it crush the slender limb. Second Sister steps inside, and Third Sister trails close behind, both dressed in the same gray as me, only without the white captain’s armband pinned about their right biceps. They smile like I do, but I can see through their expressions; the rest of the cosmos might be blind to our true meanings, but we Sisters know each other well.

Aunt Marshae comes floating after, prim face pinched into a smile that does not quite reach her eyes. I do my best not to let my frustration show; I had hoped to escape the Juno without facing her, cowardly as it might be. Our Aunties are charged with the task of speaking on behalf of the Sisterhood, and while Aunt Marshae has trained Little Sisters to hone their expressions, she rarely masters her own. But another reason for her sour look flowers in my mind.

She wants me to see her displeasure.

“You look lovely today, First Sister.” My Auntie sniffs pointedly. The door closes after her, trapping me in the circular elevator with the three of them. I am deeply aware of each sharp pair of eyes turned in my direction.

I tuck my bag beneath my arm and tangle my fingers in my skirt, purposefully keeping my hands still. Aunt Marshae straightens her uniform, the same gray as mine but more covering, with a scarf about her neck and a hemline that falls to the floor. “Perhaps leaving the Juno and its believers thrills you?”

I quickly put on the mask of hurt. Furrowed brows and a trembling lip. I’d cry if I could. Of course not, my face says. I would never want to leave my Sisters. At least, I hope it does, but my Auntie laughs.

“Your face does credit to your training,” she mutters, but she finally looks away from me. “If you girls have anything to say to First Sister, now is the time.”

Second Sister’s milky white fingers tuck inky black hair behind her ears in order to give her hands something to do while she considers what to say. I expect her to rebuke me or express her thankfulness at my leaving; Second Sister was Captain Deluca’s favorite companion on their previous ship, but as soon as we all moved to the Juno, Arturo promoted me over her. I suspect I will never be forgiven for that. But instead of the expected hatred, her hands move with grace and poise. Her smile is genuine, reflected in her amber eyes. Much luck in your future, she signs in the hand language reserved for the Sisterhood by law.

I’m so surprised by her gesture it takes me a moment to respond. Thank you, I sign at last.

This is our sole method of communication, we Sisters, for we are not allowed to write and we cannot speak.

Third Sister shoulders the smaller Second Sister aside on her way to me. If Second Sister has held a grudge against me, Third Sister outright hates me. She glares at me, her lip curled, fury radiating out of her green eyes. Her vibrant red hair looks like fire as she whips it over her shoulder. Her hands flash at me. Get out and good riddance, she says, ending with an offensive gesture that even the soldiers would understand. She flattens her hand like a blade and slaps it on her sternum, as if cutting her heart in two.

I straighten to my full height and look down on her. She is almost as tall as I am, but I have long been favored for my slender legs and golden hair, and I remain defiant even in the face of her anger. Second Sister seizes Third Sister’s biceps and digs her fingers into the soft flesh there, stopping the red-haired girl from doing anything more than signing. Aunt Marshae says nothing.

Long ago, when I was not a ranked Sister, just a girl first assigned to the small pleasure liner, Third Sister might have cornered me in the bunks where there were no cameras. She could have had others hold my limbs so that she could pull my hair or strike my body with the flat of her hand, avoiding my face and trying not to leave bruises.

But that is the way of being a Sister, and all of us have both endured these attacks and led them.

For now, I am lucky, and I have been so for a long time. With my excellent physical features, I became a ranked Sister quickly, and the Mother herself rewarded me with my posting on the Juno. From the moment I met Arturo, I received his favor, and he rewarded me with private quarters and the captain’s armband, allowing only him to call on me for anything more than confession. Third Sister has never been able to lay a hand on me. She is as powerless now as she has been since I was promoted above her.

“Walk with the Goddess in this new season of your life.” Aunt Marshae’s words are but an empty platitude from the Canon, the book that guides the Sisterhood. She also favored me until Arturo asked for me as a lifelong companion in his retirement. Since his request, she has made it clear that she had higher hopes for me. Your success is my success, niece, she used to say. Now she says little other than to shame me.

I will bloom in Her Garden as She commands, I sign in answer to Aunt Marshae, but my Auntie simply scoffs, clearly believing I am not blooming as I should be. Farewell, I sign to the others.

As soon as the elevator reaches the docking bay, we trail out—me first, as befits my rank, followed by amber-eyed Second Sister and red-haired Third Sister, whose bitterness somehow hasn’t put her at a disadvantage in life. Aunt Marshae comes last, herding the other two girls in the opposite direction from me.

I shouldn’t have expected heartfelt goodbyes from anyone on this ship, particularly when a large part of my reason for accepting Arturo’s offer was to escape people like them. On Mars, I’ll only have to care for and impress Arturo; how much easier it will be when I don’t have to worry after my fellow Sisters and Auntie too. My stomach unclenches as I enter the docking bay and cast my eyes about the various ships moored there. Which one will I be taking away from the Juno?

The side of the hangar gapes, open mouthed and beyond it the swallowing black of space and the light of a thousand burning stars. It looks like a window to the cosmos, a thick pane of faintly glowing glass between the outer vastness and the Juno’s interior, but it’s actually advanced Icarii tech that allows ships to launch and dock at will while keeping oxygen inside. The shield is created by the hermium engine, technology built with a substance specific to Mercury. Hermium is so influential to Icarii designs that it’s also the basis for the Juno’s gravity generators and power system. Most Geans will never experience technology like this in their lifetimes.

If only the Icarii would share their hermium. Doing so could save all of our planets. But the Icarii have forgotten their origins now that they live lavishly on Mercury and Venus, abandoning their humanity just as they abandoned Earth and Mars. We Geans remember; we have a long memory, and the Sisterhood’s is longer than that. We have been here since the beginning of it all.

We were the ones who worked on Earth against the pollution that tore apart the planet. We were the advisers to captains from the very first mission to colonize Mars. We preached against the excess of machinery, rightly predicting the Synthetic rebellion against humanity. And now we watch over both Earth and Mars as half of the Gean government, providing homes for the homeless, jobs for the jobless, and health centers for the sick. We exist to ensure no one repeats the mistakes of our past. As a species, we simply cannot afford another Dead Century War.

The ships moored in the docking bay vary in size from small cruisers, two-man craft used for errands, to military carriers that drop infantry planetside, a mix of Gean-made and those seized from the Icarii. I don’t see Arturo anywhere, but the bay is full of workers, as usual, men and women in jumpsuits unloading crates of rations, mechanics working under metal panels or on the humped backs of various craft. A group is gathered on the far side of the bay. Since Arturo was the Juno’s captain for its first year of service under the navy-and-gold Gean flag, he is sure to be in the middle of that crowd, receiving praise and saying his goodbyes. He’s had a home here on the Juno, one that I’ve helped to provide with my loyalty and love.

It is an odd sensation when no one looks at me as I approach; I am accustomed to attracting attention as if I were shouting aloud. But then, all at once, faces turn to me and blanch.

I keep my expression neutral. Unease ripples through the crowd as more people turn to me, as their voices quiet to murmurs, as someone points at me but says something only to their companion.

A fist tightens in my chest, holding my heart captive. Why is everyone acting like this? Where is Arturo?

The crowd steps back from me at my approach, creating a bubble around me, a liminal space they cannot—or will not—touch. The jovial chatter dims and dies, and only whispers remain. Eyes look anywhere but at me: at their formal uniforms, at the surrounding shuttles, at the glasses of sparkling water filled with strawberries as red as my lips from the hydroponic gardens.

But where is Arturo?

I look at the clock: 0900 hours, the time of his disembarkation. Yet I don’t see him or any members of his family come to retrieve him.

“You must be the First Sister,” a smoky voice says. Some girl in Gean uniform steps forward; it’s hard to tell her age, but I doubt she’s even a handful of years older than my twenty. As soon as she speaks, the crowd takes it as encouragement to resume their celebrations, chatter picking up as if, thank the Mother, someone put an end to the First Sister’s hysteria.

I clutch my bag tightly to keep my hands from shaking. I have eyes only for this soldier, her hair shaved on the sides but long on top, fluffed up like some greenboy’s. If I look anywhere other than her, I may wither, so I harden my face.

“Captain Deluca wanted me to personally offer his thanks for your year of service on the Juno,” she says, her voice low and heady. She places a hand on my shoulder and guides me to her side, turning my back to the crowd. She doesn’t want anyone else to hear what she has to say. Or, more likely, she doesn’t want anyone to see my naked reaction to her words.

She leads me deeper into the docking bay, back toward the elevator, ushering me away from where I should be. Where I need to be.

Where is Arturo?!

I cannot ignore my panic any longer. I ground myself and stop walking. She halts as well when she realizes I no longer intend to follow. “Do you know who I am?” she asks.

I shake my head. Perhaps because she was part of the celebration, her uniform is disheveled, her jacket unbuttoned, revealing a white tank top beneath. I cannot see her command rank. Besides, I don’t care. I shouldn’t be answering to anyone other than Arturo.

He promised me.

“I’m Saito Ren.” As soon as she says her name, I realize that I do know who she is. She’s the new captain of the Juno.

She’s Arturo’s replacement.

And if she’s already here, if she’s part of his farewell party, then he really is—

I spin back to the docking bay and look for his ship through the crowd of people. Where is it? Where is he? How could he—

He promised me.

Captain Saito seizes my shoulder and turns me toward her, quick and effortless. “I’m sorry you missed him. He wanted to say his farewells, but he didn’t want to miss his flight.”

But it was supposed to be at 0900 hours! That’s the time now! That’s the time he told me, and yet he’s already gone…

He left me.

The truth sinks bone-deep and leaves me shaking. The fist holding my heart squeezes until it pops. All of his promises whispered between white sheets meant nothing. The house he described is gone, the two bedrooms and the patio I could fill with flowers and the latest gadgets, the home he would visit twice a month when he could get away from his wife and children.

Did that house even exist? Why would he promise to take me with him and then abandon me as he left? Why would he promise me my freedom from the intricacies of the Sisterhood only to leave me in their clutches?

Certainly this is a mistake. He didn’t mean to leave me. Surely he’ll send for me when he gets settled, and this Captain Saito just hasn’t given me that part of his message yet.

I look at her, but…

“Should I call a medic?” Captain Saito’s voice is stern, almost disapproving. I realize how unsteady I must seem, and I quickly school my face into blankness. I press a hand to my stomach and count my breaths. Even if my heart races, I cannot outwardly show how utterly destroyed I am. How terrified I am.

Because if Arturo really left me—And he did, a little voice whispers—then I am stuck here as First Sister with a new captain who may promote someone more favored to my position. I am not free, and I am not safe. And if I cannot keep my position as First Sister?

I press my hand to the white captain’s band on my arm and remember Third Sister’s hateful gesture in the elevator. Back to the bunks, back to the beatings.

I need to leave—I need to return to my room and reassess before someone sees me so undone—

Aunt Marshae appears at our sides before I can extract myself from the conversation with Captain Saito. Goddess wither it, now I must deal with her as well.

“I just heard the news,” she says, and this time her smile radiates through her entirety—her lips, her eyes, even the roots of her sculpted auburn hair, hard as an Ironskin helmet. “What a blessing that you will continue to work alongside us, First Sister.” I clench my fists to hide their trembling as her deft hands strip the white band from my arm. “Though this belongs to you, Captain Saito, until you see fit to distribute it.”

“I suppose so.” Captain Saito takes the armband and rubs her thumb over the coarse fabric.

I look at my bare arm, and… I am as good as naked now.

I am again property of the soldiers. My body is their property.

“Aunt Marshae, I’d like to see all the highly ranked Sisters, and even some of your best unranked girls, in my quarters later. First Sister, will you come by?” Captain Saito calls my attention back to the docking bay. She makes it sound like a suggestion.

But it’s an order. With a captain, it’s always an order.

My Auntie nods encouragement, and I mimic her though my eyes burn. I want to retreat to a hidden room and cry—wordlessly.

“Then I will see you soon,” Captain Saito says. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a schedule I must keep.” She marches away without a second glance. I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry.

“May you bloom in Her Garden as She commands,” Aunt Marshae says in a sick parody of my earlier words. Second Sister and Third Sister start across the docking bay to join us, and I break away at their approach. I do not want them to see how shattered I am. I do not want to read their gloating words on their hands.

I start my long walk back to my quarters, my few belongings in the small bag clutched tightly to my chest. This is not the way a First Sister should act, but for the life of me, I cannot do anything other than run away like a fool.

At least I reach the elevator before the tears come. I try to blink them away, but then the intercom overhead clicks on in warning and Captain Saito’s voice fills the small space with me. Haunting me, even here.

“As of 0900 hours this morning, you are no longer under the command of Captain Arturo Deluca.”

The tears roll down my cheeks in thick tracks.

“I am Captain Saito Ren, and I am honored to be taking this journey alongside such a brave and diverse crew on the most advanced battleship in the Gean fleet. You are the pride of Earth and Mars, and together, we will more than fulfill our duty to protect Ceres and keep our newly claimed territory clear of Icarii ships.”

My nose runs. I do what Aunt Delilah told me never to do and rub my face; in this moment, it does not matter that I’m breaking the sensitive capillaries in my skin.

“I have one simple goal: to serve the Gean worlds.”

The elevator doors open, and I thank the Goddess that the hallway is empty except for a single Cousin with a broom. She turns her wrinkled face from me. The hard laborers of the Sisterhood and the only sect that accepts men, the Cousins are nothing more than servants—and a reminder of what happens to a Sister when she is no longer beautiful or wanted.

Is that what will become of me now that Arturo has left me behind?

“I will fight without mercy to keep the Gean people from perishing as our planets wither.”

Finally, finally, I come to my quarters and open the door with shaking hands.

“I will not allow for any distractions that interfere with our future.”

My knees give out beneath me before I can even reach the bed.

“This is no longer Captain Deluca’s ship. This is my ship. And you will find it a different place than before. A changed place.”

There is nowhere I can go that Captain Saito cannot follow. There is nowhere to hide that she might not snatch from me and award to someone else. I had thought I was safe with Arturo, but now I know: I am not safe anywhere.

“I expect absolute dedication and hard work. There will be no handouts here, no special treatment for anyone on board.”

I reach for my armband—only to remember Aunt Marshae has already taken it away. No special treatment, Captain Saito says. Not like Arturo and his playful eyes and wandering hands. At least I knew what he wanted. I could protect myself with that knowledge.

“Now all of you get to your stations,” she says over the intercom, and I think of my little chapel and its accompanying bed.

“Earth endures,” Captain Saito begins, and I hear other voices lift to join her in response, “Mars conquers.”

I drop my face into my hands and let the silent sobs break me apart at last.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Like Icarus, our forefathers flew close to the sun. But unlike our mythological predecessor, the scientists aboard the Icarus who seeded Mercury and, eventually, Venus, were aware of their mortality and the necessity of a future protected by those who understood peace. It was peace that split us from Earth and Mars, and it is peace that will guide us on our path through the stars.

–First Icarii president Pablo val Cárcel,
address to the Venus Parliament

 

In the split second that Talon’s arm twists, his mercurial blade lengthens, and I hunch so that even with his extra distance, he cannot stab me in the stomach. He curses as his feet hit the ground. My movement has changed the diameter of battle, and he’ll have to recalculate the angle if he wants to pin me.

Students hate mathematics, but it’s integral to everything, even battle. Especially battle.

“You’re swinging wildly,” I tell him. “Your anger will get the better of you unless you do away with it.”

I hold my arm at a ninety-degree angle from my core, my blade’s point thrust at Talon’s face. This is the math of it: My arm is longer than his. My blade has more reach. There is a line between us, and the circle that eclipses that line is the diameter of battle. If he can shift that diameter in his favor, getting inside my long reach, he can win. Or so he thinks.

Then again, I have a decade more of experience than him.

I see him calm, his face blanking as his neural implant washes away his feelings. When I was a student like him, our old professor would hold my wrist in this very stance and provoke my opponents with taunts. Sol Lucius is the top of the class, which makes you, what? Space trash! I used my implant to erase any bitterness at his throwing my inferior name around, while my opponent would seethe. Math, like war, should be performed with a cool head.

I’ll give Talon this: he’s the best in his year. Throughout the week I’ve been training with his class as a mentor, he’s the only one who has come close to hitting me. But so far, the only things that have cut me are Talon’s geneassisted yellow eyes with irises that narrow like a cat’s.

“Again,” Talon says, a demand more than a question, and his mercurial blade ripples into silvery liquid, shortens, and hardens into his preferred form, a short sword that suits his growing limbs. In time, his blade will become standard length, but the benefit of a mercurial blade is that it can change with the flow of battle. Sometimes short’ll do it.

“You don’t have to ask, Talon, you can just attack.” Even after months of alternating classes, I’m still not used to being someone’s teacher and receiving an instructor’s respect, but I’ve been out of Icarii military rotation for so long that I’m itching to do something— anything—and that includes dueling with kids.

“Yes, sir. I mean… Lito.” My name is so soft, like he fears to say it aloud. I don’t know why. I’m no hero that kids look up to.

Not anymore. Not since Ceres.

He jumpjets forward, shortening the diameter. He wants, like so many others, to get inside my arm’s reach, and he hopes to do that by being quicker than me. It’s a solid plan, but in the same way that my arm length allows me to strike more easily, my leg length allows me to step and shift the geometry back in my favor.

I see what he’s doing and do the same—only successfully. My mercurial blade never changes form as I slide sideways on the balls of my feet and press the thick of my blade near the hilt against the tip of his. Even without my superior strength, leverage says I win.

Talon curses again, face going red with frustration; if I actually were a professor, I’d write him up for the loss of temper, especially after I already commanded him to watch it. But I’m not a professor, and I’m far more concerned with his foolishness than his bucking command. He grabs the base of his blade with his hand and twists it more like a wrench than a sword.

“Talon!” I snap.

His blade pivots around mine and liquefies as it prepares to lengthen—right toward me.

The scar between my shoulder and chest wakes and burns like a wildfire.

His blade is already forming, crawling toward my skin, and my instincts kick in like a primal scream in my gut—

Shift shoulder. Swing blade beneath his arm. Gut him.

For a moment, he is an Ironskin soldier on Ceres, and my arm is dripping blood—

But as my muscles twitch in response with the impulse to kill, I realize—he’s a damn kid, not an enemy. Through the haze of adrenaline pumping in my veins, I kick the jumpjets in the heels of my boots to life and bound away.

Mierda.

He’s breathing hard when he lands. I realize I am too.

Thousand gods. Did I almost kill a kid?

Worse: Why is the memory of Ceres haunting me now?

I force my implant to erase my anxiety, to slow the racing of my heart. I refuse to let Talon take even a peek at the shadow that war has left on me, at the machine it has made of me. I want to curse at him for being such an idiot, or praise him for coming so close to hitting me. Instead, I settle for instructing. “Talon, what’s the first rule of engagement?”

I send a thought command to my mercurial blade from my neural implant; the metal turns liquid and seeps back into the hilt. When the metal disappears, the blade’s gentle glow does too. I place the hilt on my belt as I meet Talon back in the middle of the sparring courtyard. It’s only now, as I take in the world around us, that I realize every uniformed kid in Talon’s class—and some in the classes above at the oblong windows—is staring wide-eyed and pale.

“Don’t lose control,” Talon recites, looking at his gloved hand that touched the blade. The fabric is burned through, the skin beneath a bright pink and bubbled with blisters.

“And what did you do?” I ask, straightening my spine.

His face is burning with humiliation when he responds, “Lost control.”

“It was a good strategy if this was a life-or-death situation,” I admit. “But this was not that. Now go see the medic.”

Talon tosses his wounded hand aside without care for his injury. “I don’t want to miss practice because of a damn doctor’s visit.”

I snort. I was like him at this age, begging for another fight even if I got my ass handed to me. It was the only way to get better.

No, a little part of me whispers. At his age, you were already kicking ass with Hiro at your side. And because of the strength that Hiro and I possessed as a pair, I was pulled into the grinding gears of military life, assigned to the dangerous planetoid Ceres, and battling Geans before I even turned nineteen, making me a legend at the Academy and causing boys like Talon to look up to me.

With the scar on my shoulder still aching and memories of Hiro too fresh to ignore, teaching is the last thing I want to do. “We’ll continue training tomorrow,” I tell him. “Now get to the damn medic.”

Talon’s a Rapier like me. A Righthand. His Lefthand, his Dagger, lurks nearby, and as soon as I dismiss Talon, the girl rushes toward him like a well-aimed shot. “Let me see,” Key says in a tone that clearly brooks no room for disagreement, her dark brown hands grasping for Talon’s.

Talon sighs and offers his Lefthand his literal left hand. “I’m all right, Key,” Talon whispers, but when their eyes meet, something passes between them in the silence.

This scene has played out time and again in this cobbled courtyard. How many times have teachers watched in wry amusement, surrounded by a blur of faces, at the connection between a partnered pair?

Even now, do Key and Talon speak without words? I remember the comforting feeling of Hiro on the other side of my neural implant, the two pieces of tech inserted in our brains programmed to link our thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t telepathy, or anything so invasive; it was something soft and soothing. The warm acknowledgment of an inside joke. A communion. A bond.

At last, Talon’s shoulders slump, and Key leads the way to the double doors that open into the school’s hallowed hallways. She’s clearly won whatever invisible battle waged between them—most likely convincing the stubborn Talon that he should listen to his elder and see a medic. It’s only as I watch them walking shoulder to shoulder that I realize how badly I miss my former partner. How long it’s been since I last saw them. How home isn’t home without Hiro.

“Lito val Lucius!”

My name rings over the courtyard, sending a wave of silence after it. The class turns toward me, even Talon and Key, who pause mid-stride. They watch me like they did during the duels, as if my name is a challenger’s call.

“Lito val Lucius?” A uniformed man strides into the courtyard, the wooden door surrounded by old stone falling closed behind him.

“It’s sol Lucius, actually,” I tell him, fighting the sinking feeling of my old friend inferiority.

To the class, I order loudly, “Get moving!” They shuffle twenty pairs of identical black boots into the looming Icarus Prime Military Academy, some groaning at the order. So much for having a teacher’s respect…

Even if this man is wearing military blacks, he’s not here to duel me. As much as the Academy prioritizes dueling in its curriculum, duels don’t just spontaneously occur. Especially once you’ve been assigned, as I have been.

And when you’ve been assigned a chump job like this, training various groups of kids as the months scrape by… you only have so much pride left.

Better than nothing, I remind myself. I could be rotting in the basement still. I repress a shudder at the thought of that dark and cold place, and my shoulder throbs.

“Lito sol Lucius,” the man says, correcting himself. He hands me a summons paper when he reaches me. His hair is the downy white of feathers, obviously geneassisted. The soldiers of Venus—especially those in Special Forces—trick themselves out as flamboyantly as they can—eyes, skin, hair—all to better stand out when wearing the plain, slim-cut military blacks. He’s a Dagger, I note from the pips on his shoulder.

The last time I saw my Dagger, Hiro’s hair had been rose red, a bright flower above a bloodstained bandage around their forehead, half their face the purple of a sick bruise. I try to imagine what color it is now before I remember that, since Hiro is on assignment, it’s likely a natural shade to help them blend in. Brown or black, something they wouldn’t like at all.

“Thank you.” I salute with two fingers to my temple. The Dagger salutes in return and heads back for the Academy proper, letting his eyes linger on the courtyard in remembrance. He too hears the ghosts of duels long ago, remembers training with his Rapier before he was assigned his place.

Once I’m alone in the courtyard, I open the summons, marked with Command’s blazing phoenix symbol. It’s from my commander, which I expected, but it doesn’t say anything close to what I’d imag-ine a summons from him to say. Four simple words, and within them a multitude of possible meanings:

Get here. New assignment.

 

I take the bullet train downtown, watching the Academy’s melted-wax spirals retreat into the distance. Its ancient, bonelike architecture is soon swallowed by the clustered gemstone skyscrapers of the floating city Cytherea. The sky is an autumnal tree, hung in reds and golds as the dome above simulates the sun’s descent to nighttime.

This city and its hermium-powered shell were created after scientists perfected the building technique on Mercury’s Spero. Hung as carefully as a cocoon on a leaf, Cytherea floats in what our scientists call the “sweet spot” of Venus’s atmosphere, a place with the perfect pressure and temperature for human life. Cytherean air filters turn Venus’s carbon dioxide into oxygen for breathing, and the basic genemodding we receive as children helps us with the variations in gravity. The domed cities are a marvel of science and proof that a government led by scientists works for the betterment of all mankind.

Not that there aren’t drawbacks to Cytherea, of course. They just won’t be found here on the uppermost layer.

Because of the evening hour, the train is packed with commuters, those who either can’t afford a podcar or don’t want one. Since the majority of those involved in science, industry, and commerce reside on Mercury, these travelers are probably low-level government employees or manual workers in Cytherea’s vast entertainment industry. There are definitely no factory workers on board. No one whose name bears my inferior title, sol.

I watch fingers dancing in the air as passengers engage with the images on their com-contact lenses, watching the news or reading the latest studies; kids in various school uniforms, absorbed in biobooks or sleek compads in order to finish their homework; and, oddly, a couple of Asters in sand-colored, bandage-like wraps that cover them from head to boot, save for the green goggles they wear over their eyes.

The scar on my shoulder aches—it was an Aster who shot me on Ceres, I recall all too vividly, before pushing those thoughts and the pain away. Why is my past so determined to haunt me today?

The Asters are… other. Humanoid, but not human. They have two arms and two legs, but they are tall and thin, stretched out with odd proportions. Few make Icarii planets their home. The gravity, the light, the pressure on Mercury and Venus—these are all things that Asters grew beyond with the help of those first ancient gene-assists on Earth who made them the perfect spacefarers but had no idea of the mutations their modifications would allow to take root. Centuries later, the Asters are their own people, living and working and breeding in the asteroid belt, deformed compared to the humans they used to be.

The Asters have a range of skin colors, but all of them are as translucent as long-dead bodies, like walking bruises in blue and purple and gray. Their hair is white, devoid of color like bleached bones, and beneath their goggles, their eyes are swallowing black and soulless. Their wraps keep sunlight from burning their sensitive skin, while their goggles allow them to see in our bright lights. But as secretive as they are, it’s no wonder the majority of people find them unnerving, even if the rumor that they carry disease is completely false.

Still, they usually live apart from humans. On Spero, they stick to the Under, a series of stone tunnels burrowed into the surface of Mercury, but here on Cytherea, they live on the lowest levels, where the pressure is higher, or even on the surface of Venus, where they oversee mining efforts. It’s rare they’re this far up, mixed with normal humans, and the unease in the air is palpable. A mother keeps her energetic child from venturing to their side of the car. Others clutch their bags to their chests protectively. Many eye the Asters with suspicion, while a group of teens glare with open hatred. Only once the toddler starts to cry do the teens lose their tempers.

“Ey, bruv!” A boy with a geneassisted white eye and the bright, choppy clothing favored on the higher levels of Cytherea calls out. “Cockroaches, I’m talking at you! What’re a couple of bugs doing off the surface?” When the Asters don’t answer, he leans across the aisle toward them. “Can’t you see you’re making people uncomfortable? You’re scaring children.”

The Asters do their best to ignore him, leaning as far into their seats as they can. I doubt they speak any of our human languages, but they understand the boy’s expression and body language clearly enough.

His daring seems to catch and inflame the others in his group. A girl with pink hair sings an off-key song about catching rats. A skinny kid with some sort of metal implant above his right eyebrow turns to me. “Bruv in black come down from his Spire to shit among the rest of us and don’t do a thing to protect the people from the real problems. That right, bruv?”

A few others look up at me expectantly. Even the Asters’ green goggles turn in my direction as if expecting me to intervene. But I’m not in the peacekeeping division, I’m a duelist, and patrolling trains isn’t even close to my job description.

“Fucking useless.” The kid spits at my feet.

As much as I want to mess up his geneassisted face, I calm myself with my implant and let my eyes wander to the windows and catch on the overflowing plants on apartment balconies, greens interspersed with a thousand jewel tones. Kids like him and his friends want to feel big, and any reaction I give them will just fuel them.

The Asters leave at the very next station, their heads bowed to avoid hitting the ceiling with their great height, their spindly limbs tucked tightly to their sides. The remaining passengers pointedly avert their eyes but immediately relax when they’re gone, slouching into their chairs, chatting with the person next to them, smiling at things other than their screens. The kids who’d hassled them slap shoulders, celebrating a job well done, and return to their inside jokes. The entire incident is forgotten.

I don’t feel bad for the Asters. I grew up in the lower levels of Cytherea, side by side with several of them, but I pulled myself out. I got my family out. I used my talents playing gladius, earned the Val Roux Scholarship to the Academy, and secured a future for my little sister so that she can involve herself wherever she wants in the entertainment industry—cinema, theater, music. My name, sol Lucius, is proof of where I belong, yet here I am, having climbed the ladder of success one painful rung at a time.

The bullet train reaches Cytherea’s central terminal, Einstein Station, and I shoulder my way through my fellow passengers to disembark. In the very center of the station, a statue of two men stretches toward the ceiling, three meters tall and made of clear quartz. One man places wings of copper and gold on the other’s back. This statue and the numerous others like it throughout Cytherea depict Daedalus placing his grand invention on his son’s shoulders and serves as a reminder in two parts.

The first reminds us what our ancestors faced. During the Dead Century War, they left Mars for uninhabited, unexplored, and dangerous Mercury on the science vessel Icarus. But instead of perishing in fire, they flew to the planet closest to the sun, survived, and flourished.

The second reminder is this: while technological advancements can carry humankind to impossible heights, power must be exercised responsibly. After all, people tend to forget that Daedalus’s wings for his son did work; it was Icarus who used them incorrectly.

Despite the overwhelming crowd in the station, I stand apart. Black isn’t a popular color among fashionable Icarii, and my uniform carves a space for me in the press of people. A peacekeeper, an officer of the law also clad in black but in a different cut, respectfully nods to me at the exit of the station. As I descend the stairs toward Cytherea’s main thoroughfare, Newton Street, the city overwhelms me.

Cytherea is a wild and sprawling youth. Where other cities breathe sighs of relief, Cytherea sings of its glory. Mercury’s domed city, Spero, was created in a time of necessity, but Venus was seeded out of prosperity; every corner is full of substantial sights and sounds that assault me as I walk by—pulsing music from floating speakers that zip through the air like insects, Paragon influencers in the newest fashions lounging on the trendiest furniture as if they’re selling nothing at all, holograms of celebrities encouraging everyone to come to their newest interactive play. Everyone who’s anyone has a building on Newton Street, from vid studios to the president of the Icarii. Even the military.

The Spire is an obelisk of a building as black as our uniforms that stretches into the domed sky. It houses the Command division that provides orders to all branches of the military. Surrounded by other buildings in pearl white and shimmering opal, neon-bright advertisements pasted on street-level windows, the Spire stands out in its restraint. The building is bare of ornament other than one bold word that flashes red in the three most used languages, English, Spanish, and Chinese. ENLIST. ALÍSTATE.參加軍隊, the Spire reads.

But everyone knows the truth behind the Spire’s command: those who don’t attend the Academy won’t be duelists of the Special Forces, one of the elite Icarii soldiers. Instead they’ll be low-ranking infantry, their neural implants programmed to answer to their commanders en masse. In the Academy the duelists joked they were like worker bees, unable to make decisions without their queen. Dad just called them cannon fodder. I went to primary school on the lowest level of Cytherea with a few kids who were so desperate for credits, they joined up to pay their debts, and I’d quickly lost track of them. They’d ship out on a vessel bound for the Gean space around Earth or Mars, and they’d disappear into the stars, never to be heard from again.

When I reach my destination, a scanner confirms my neural implant at the Spire’s gate, and an infantryman in a formal black-and-silver uniform salutes me as I enter. The grounds in front of the building have well-maintained green bushes but no flowers, another thing that separates the Spire from the lively surrounding buildings that overflow with vines and blossoms. Still, we do our part toward air purification, even if our hedges are plain.

While the exterior is imposing, the interior is similar to what you’d find inside any other of the skyscrapers downtown: clean, white hallways blink with interactive maps on the floors, and people stroll through the lobby on their way to their assignments. But that’s where the similarities end. The workers here are soldiers, duelists, and commanders. There are no animated images acting as advertisements on the walls, as would be common in other buildings, and there are no desks or secretaries; to even get this far, you have to belong.

“I’ve been summoned by High Commander Beron val Bellator,” I say aloud.

The intelligence in charge of the lobby reads my neural implant, checks scheduling, and opens a gold-trimmed elevator door in less than a second. It’s not quite AI; it doesn’t approach the Marian Threshold—not after the Dead Century War, when the Synthetics left the inner planets because of Gean abuses—but it’s smart enough, following yes/no protocols with ease. Beneath my feet, a red arrow points toward the elevator. “Please proceed, Lito sol Lucius,” a genderless voice replies.

I enter the elevator, and my stomach pitches at the descent. While the Command division holds offices on the top floors of the Spire, Beron prefers to assign missions below. But the dark, plantless basement and its incessant pressure can drive someone stir-crazy even with the sunlamps and fresh air pumped through the vents that line the hallways.

I remind myself I won’t be stuck here this time, that this visit is only temporary. I suck in a deep breath and let it out slowly, picturing the ocean to calm the nervousness that tightens my chest. There’s something about Earth’s seas, something I’ve only seen in vids, that soothes me. The rhythmic lapping of the waves, the sound of the water…

“Refreshment while you wait?” the intelligence in the elevator asks, pulling me from my attempt at meditation. But before I even have a chance to refuse, I arrive at my destination and the doors part.

The basement levels are a nondescript gray, long tunnels of concrete and sharp turns. Only Beron, a slender man of average height with close-shorn brown hair and cutting blue eyes, serves to differentiate the space.

“Lito,” Beron rasps, standing poised with a thin black compad tucked beneath his arm, the red phoenix with wings displayed pinned on his chest and the crossed rapier and dagger pips on his shoulder denoting his rank in Command. I have a hard time believing that he wasn’t waiting for me. The harsh lighting from above deepens the soft scarring of his face, something he had his geneassist leave when he rewound some years. I suspect Beron is in his eighties, since his neural implant has been removed, but I can’t know for sure, since he looks not a day over forty.

“High Commander.” I salute him with two fingers. “You summoned me?”

“I did. I have a new assignment for you. Follow me.” He turns before I have a chance to drop my salute.

I trail him down the identical corridors, unsure how he navigates this place where everything looks the same, or why he even wants to. The building regulates the temperature so that it matches the lobby, yet I can feel the change in the air. The basement seeps into my skin and permeates my lungs in such a way that I just know that I’m in the lower levels. Underground and trapped, just like I was as a kid. Just like I was after Ceres.

Beron opens an unnumbered red door seemingly at random and motions for me to enter ahead of him. Did he choose this room on impulse, or is there something here we need? I aim to sit in one of the two chairs when I realize that it’s already occupied. Coming here was clearly part of his plan, then. With nowhere else to sit, I remain standing as Beron takes the chair on the opposite side of the metal desk.

“This is Ofiera fon Bain,” Beron says, motioning to the sitting woman without even looking at her. Fon, indicating she comes from a lineage of government workers and politickers. It doesn’t matter what her family does now; the title remains. All of the titles, from the lofty scientist val to the lowly maintenance worker sol, can be traced back to the first Icarii who left Mars during the Dead Century War. The three letters were a code that our ancestors used to denote their jobs aboard the Icarus, and while the titles don’t restrict our movement through Cytherean society, the prejudice remains.

I fear in my core why he’s introducing me to another deulist when I am currently partnerless, and my stomach twists into a horrid shape when she stands. I command my neural implant to neutralize my nervousness so that I can objectively measure this Ofiera fon Bain.

She is slender with willowy limbs, good for fighting, and of average height for a woman of her age and build. From her musculature, I determine she would be quick in combat. The crossed dagger and rapier pips on her shoulder denote that she’s also Special Forces Command. Strangest of all, she’s plain. If she’s ever seen a geneassist, I can’t find their work. Her eyes are hazel, one slightly darker than the other, her hair a chestnut brown. But normal. Someone you would absolutely look past in a crowd even if she has pretty features, like well-formed lips and dark brows that keep her face in a perpetually serious scowl.

“Ofiera fon Bain,” I say, and salute.

She salutes in return. “Lito sol Lucius.” Her eyes flick over me once, as if she’s unimpressed with what she sees; or perhaps she has already sized me up and finds me lacking. Maybe it’s that sol in my name. That feeling assaults me again: I don’t belong here. Her eyes dart away as if she would prefer to look anywhere else.

I straighten. I’ve earned this. I do belong here. How much more must I do before I prove it?

“Good, then.” Beron reads something from his black compad. “As you know, Lito, after the Fall of Ceres, the Geans have much to celebrate. They’re currently planning something to honor the Mother, whom they credit with the idea that wrested Ceres from us.”

Beron’s eyes come up to meet mine, hard and full of anger. As if it’s personally my fault that Ceres fell. And since I was there on the ground with Hiro, he does blame me… at least partially. Me and every other duelist who was surprised by the Gean coup, who lost a battle that could turn the tide of the entire war.

Hell, I don’t know that he’s wrong to blame us. The weight of that loss has dragged me down every day for the past year.

Because we lost Ceres, Hiro was sent on assignment away from me, punishment enough, and I was confined to the lower levels of the Spire for six months until Beron let me out to teach kids…

For a moment, I remember waking in the cold, stale air of the basement, my shoulder aching and bandaged, reaching out for Hiro with my neural implant, and finding nothing but silence. The fear that Hiro was dead overwhelmed me so quickly that I couldn’t send it away, and I screamed and screamed, flailing against the vast ocean of fear like a drowning man, until nurses came to sedate me. The next time I woke, it was only Beron’s explaining to me that Hiro was alive and on assignment that calmed me enough to allow the doctor to patch the wound I had reopened.

But that emptiness has remained with me, and the fear still clings to me like a shadow.
It rises now, burning like bile in my throat, and I command my neural implant to do away with it. Save it for another day. I can’t use that emotion here, now, just as I can’t openly miss Hiro when the man who took them away from me is sitting across the table with a smug look on his face. I’m lucky Beron isn’t one of the commanders who utilizes an implant to sense what his inferiors are feeling. I’m sure he’d notice the wavering emotions rising and falling within me like the tide.

But Ofiera—is she watching for that?

“We have several operations already in place regarding the Mother’s Celebration.” Beron drops his gaze to his compad. The faint wrinkles of his forehead smooth as his judgment dissipates. “We want you on the ground for one of them.”

“On Ceres?” I’m sure the surprise filters into my tone. “We lost Ceres only a year ago.”

“Do you have a problem returning there?” Beron asks, his words a loaded weapon.

“Of course not,” I respond quickly. “But without Hiro—”

“Yes, about them. Unfortunately…” Beron’s lips thin as he considers his words. “Hiro has been compromised.”

Compromised.

What is that supposed to mean? My hands shake at my sides. There’s no way Hiro could be—they can’t be—

“Hiro was assigned some months ago to return to Ceres alongside Ofiera.” Beron rubs his eyes with thumb and forefinger. When he pulls his hand away, the bags beneath his eyes look deeper. “But Ofiera reports they’ve gone completely dark.”

So they’re not… ? I still can’t ask.

“Off book is Hiro’s style,” I manage in a weak voice.

“Not this time, Lito.” He motions to the compad on his desk as if I could read the file he references. “This time, I’m afraid Hiro has defected.”

A shudder runs down my spine. Hiro had only been reassigned to spy on Ceres as punishment for the Fall. Beron had assigned them there, and now Beron wants me back on the ground for the Mother’s Celebration—and what else? My mind races.

“You assigned them to Ceres as a spy for us, and then—”

“They disappeared. Stopped working with Ofiera. I think you get the picture.” Beron flattens both hands on the desk. “We fear the Geans may have turned them.”

Somehow this is worse than Beron telling me that Hiro is dead. Because if Hiro betrayed us to the Geans, then they’re as good as dead. There won’t be a single place in Icarii space where they will be safe, even if their father is Souji val Akira, CEO of Val Akira Labs and one of the richest, most powerful men in the system.

“And Ofiera fon Bain?” I ask.

Ofiera squares her shoulders at her name.

“Your new Dagger,” Beron says.

My eyes shoot to Ofiera and land on the crossed rapier and dagger on her shoulder. There were always rumors that some in Command could act as either Rapier or Dagger despite the years of training each position required. Most of us at the Academy waved it off as the talk of the drunk or braggarts. But if Ofiera was Hiro’s Rapier and she’ll now be acting as my Dagger… it’s absolutely true.

But despite discovering the answer to this old mystery, all I can focus on is this: What does her presence mean? Why would Beron assign someone so highly skilled to accompany me on this mission?

What kind of mission is this?

“What’s our assignment?” I ask, forcing my words through numb lips.

“Two parts. First, finish Hiro val Akira’s assignment: assassinate the Mother.”

Thousand gods, is that what Hiro had been assigned—hunting down and killing the religious leader who commands half of the Gean government? And right after what happened to us on Ceres?

Beron dips his chin but keeps his eyes on me. Watching, waiting to see what I will do. “You will be given a full debrief regarding this mission, should you accept.”

But I don’t do anything because I fear, in the deepest pit of my stomach, that the worst is yet to come. “And the second objective?” I prompt.

Thick brows furrow as Beron meets my gaze. “Find Hiro val Akira.” Even Ofiera turns to look at me when Beron speaks. “Kill them.”

My shoulder throbs. “Kill—not capture?” I ask, ignoring my scar until it stops aching. “Certainly Hiro deserves a trial, a chance to explain their reasoning—”

“Those are your orders, Lito.” Beron’s voice is harsh, his anger rising to the surface as his face reddens. “Are you unable to follow them, sol Lucius?”

The emotions swarm me, one after another. Blinding anger, deep sorrow, claws of agony. My mercurial blade hums on my hip, itching to be released. There is only animal instinct, only the urge to fight and kill as I’ve been trained. But as these feelings come, I wish them away, banish them, as I place one gloved hand into the other and bend my fingers backward. I want to feel that pain, disappear into that hole, not drown in the tide of unwanted emotions that cloud my judgment.

The pain brings clarity. I cannot lash out here. These are my people. This is my assignment. This is who I am, Lito sol Lucius, a soldier of the Icarii before all else. And I will not falter, I will not fail and doom myself and my family back to short, shallow lives.

I focus on the physical for three more seconds. Five. I stand a whole fifteen seconds in silence before I release my own hand and leave myself a clean slate. The emotions are gone, the sorrow and sting of betrayal banished, the anger and anxiety quieted. My blade is hushed. My head is blank. Even the burn of my fingers lightens until the soreness is nothing more than a dull pang. My scars are silent.

“I accept this assignment, Commander,” I say at last, the binding words that grant my assent. And even as I say it, I wonder if this is my punishment, just as assigning my former partner to spy on Ceres after the Fall was Hiro’s. Because now I will return to the place where it all shattered, where I almost died, where we lost a battle that could lose us a war, without Hiro at my side.

And this time, my blade will be wielded to kill them.

What have you done now, Hiro?

 

 

PLAY: 01

Fucking gods, I’ve started this recording over a hundred times now. I’m never going to figure out what I want to say before I say it. You’ll just have to deal with the shitty, rambling quality of it. It should answer your questions.

At least, I hope it will.

That’s the only reason I’m bothering with all this. I know how dangerous it is to leave any trail connecting us now that we’re no longer Rapier and Dagger. I know Beron will be watching you like you’re compromised and your every sneeze is a sign to a Gean agent.

But I also know you, Lito.

I know how you sleep on your back with your arm thrown over your eyes so no one can tell if you’re awake or asleep. I know you hate when people see through the perfectly cultivated persona you wear like a uniform. I know you chase not just the first layer of truth but also the why behind it with a single-minded focus that you’d never let anyone, least of all yourself, admit to.

And you…

[A deep breath in. A heavy, rattling breath out.]

You at least deserve the truth. The unaltered, full version of it. The why of it.

So I’ll make this easy for you.

I’m guilty.

There. Easy, right?

And I know what you’re thinking: I can’t be guilty of everything they say I am, because so much of it is conflicting.

But I am guilty. Maybe not of everything, but of some things.

This doesn’t help you, does it? It doesn’t help me either. Saying it aloud doesn’t lighten the load on my shoulders. But isn’t that what confessions are supposed to do?

Maybe this isn’t a confession. It’s certainly not meant to ask for forgiveness. It’s not meant for anyone other than you. And I don’t care what the Icarii think of me—what my father or Beron thinks of me.

So please. Just listen, Lito.

Let me try to explain everything.

 

Excerpted from The First Sister, copyright © 2020 by Linden A. Lewis.

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