The first time I saw the Kereseth brothers, it was from the servants’ passageway that ran alongside the Weapons Hall. I was several seasons older, fast approaching adulthood.
My father had joined my mother in the afterlife just a few seasons prior, killed in an attack during our last sojourn. My brother, Ryzek, was now walking the path our father had set for him, the path toward Shotet legitimacy. Maybe even Shotet dominance.
My former tutor, Otega, had been the first to tell me about the Kereseths, because the servants in our house were whispering the story over the pots and pans in the kitchen, and she always told me of the servants’ whispers.
“They were taken by your brother’s steward, Vas,” she said to me as she checked my essay for grammatical errors. She still taught me literature and science, but I had outstripped her in my other subjects, and now studied on my own as she returned to managing our kitchens. “And Vas dragged them across the Divide kicking and screaming, to hear the others tell of it. But the younger one—Akos—escaped his bonds, somehow, stole a blade, and turned it against one of Vas’s soldiers.”
“Which one?” I asked. I knew the men Vas traveled with. Knew how one liked candy, another had a weak left shoulder, and yet another had trained a pet bird to eat treats from his mouth. It was good to know such things about people. Just in case.
The candy lover, then.
I raised my eyebrows. Kalmev Radix, one of my brother’s trusted elite, had been killed by a Thuvhesit boy? That was not an honorable death.
“Why were the brothers taken?” I asked her.
“Their fates.” Otega waggled her eyebrows. “Or so the story goes. And since their fates are, evidently, unknown by all but Ryzek, it is quite the story.”
I didn’t know the fates of the Kereseth boys, or any but mine and Ryzek’s, though they had been broadcast a few days ago on the Assembly news feed. Ryzek had cut the news feed within moments of the Assembly Leader coming on screen. The Assembly Leader had given the announcement in Othyrian, and though the speaking and learning of all languages but Shotet had been banned in our country for over ten seasons, it was still better to be safe.
My father had told me my own fate after my currentgift manifested, with little ceremony: The second child of the family Noavek will cross the Divide. A strange fate for a favored daughter, but only because it was so dull.
I didn’t wander the servants’ passages that often anymore—there were things happening in this house I didn’t want to see—but to catch a glimpse of the kidnapped Kereseths … well. I had to make an exception.
All I knew about the Thuvhesit people—apart from the fact that they were our enemies—was they had thin skin, easy to pierce with a blade, and they overindulged in iceflowers, the lifeblood of their economy. I had learned their language at my mother’s insistence—the Shotet elite were exempt from my father’s prohibitions against language learning, of course—and it was hard on my tongue, which was used to harsh, strong Shotet sounds instead of the hushed, quick Thuvhesit ones.
I knew Ryzek would have the Kereseths taken to the Weapons Hall, so I crouched in the shadows and slid the wall panel back, leaving myself just a crack to see through, when I heard footsteps.
The room was like all the others in Noavek manor, the walls and floor made of dark wood so polished it looked like it was coated in a film of ice. Dangling from the distant ceiling was an elaborate chandelier made of glass globes and twisted metal. Tiny fenzu insects fluttered inside it, casting an eerie, shifting light over the room. The space was almost empty, all the floor cushions—balanced on low wooden stands, for comfort—gathering dust, so their cream color turned gray. My parents had hosted parties in here, but Ryzek used it only for people he meant to intimidate.
I saw Vas, my brother’s steward, before anyone else. The long side of his hair was greasy and limp, the shaved side red with razor burn. Beside him shuffled a boy, much smaller than I was, his skin a patchwork of bruises. He was narrow through the shoulders, spare and short. He had fair skin, and a kind of wary tension in his body, like he was bracing himself.
Muffled sobs came from behind him, where a second boy, with dense, curly hair, stumbled along. He was taller and broader than the first Kereseth, but cowering, so he almost appeared smaller.
These were the Kereseth brothers, the fate-favored children of their generation. Not an impressive sight.
My brother waited for them across the room, his long body draped over the steps that led to a raised platform. His chest was covered with armor, but his arms were bare, displaying a line of kill marks that went all the way up the back of his forearm. They had been deaths ordered by my father, to counteract any rumors about my brother’s weakness that might have spread among the lower classes. He held a small currentblade in his right hand, and every few seconds he spun it in his palm, always catching it by the handle. In the bluish light, his skin was so pale he looked almost like a corpse.
He smiled when he saw his Thuvhesit captives, his teeth showing. He could be handsome when he smiled, my brother, even if it meant he was about to kill you.
He leaned back, balancing on his elbows, and cocked his head.
“My, my,” he said. His voice was deep and scratchy, like he had just spent the night screaming at the top of his lungs.
“This is the one I’ve heard so many stories about?” Ryzek nodded to the bruised Kereseth boy. He spoke Thuvhesit crisply. “The Thuvhesit boy who earned a mark before we even got him on a ship?” He laughed.
I squinted at the bruised one’s arm. There was a deep cut on the outside of his arm next to the elbow, and a streak of blood that had run between his knuckles and dried there. A kill mark, unfinished. A very new one, belonging, if the rumors were true, to Kalmev Radix. This was Akos, then, and the snuffling one was Eijeh.
“Akos Kereseth, the third child of the family Kereseth.” Ryzek stood, spinning his knife on his palm, and walked down the steps. He dwarfed even Vas. He was like a regular-size man stretched taller and thinner than he was supposed to be, his shoulders and hips too narrow to bear his own height.
I was tall, too, but that was where my physical similarities with my brother ended. It wasn’t uncommon for Shotet siblings to look dissimilar, given how blended our blood was, but we were more distinct than most.
The boy—Akos—lifted his eyes to Ryzek’s. I had first seen the name “Akos” in a Shotet history book. It had belonged to a religious leader, a cleric who had taken his life rather than dishonor the current by holding a currentblade. So this Thuvhesit boy had a Shotet name. Had his parents simply forgotten its origins? Or did they want to honor some long-forgotten Shotet blood?
“Why are we here?” Akos said hoarsely, in Shotet.