Sixteen Years Earlier
"Well? Are the rumors true, Josiah?"
"Rumors?" Josiah repeated the word derisively. "I'm afraid I don't dwell in the grapevine as you do, King Calder. I am entirely clueless to your insinuations."
The King of Concordia was unimpressed. "They say you've been aiding the Noir Users." Calder's eyes hardened when Josiah remained aloof. "The Magi," he emphasized firmly.
"That certainly is a fascinating speculation."
Positioned at the king's left-hand side, Queen Ember lowered her lashes at her brother.
She truly hoped it was just that.
The last time Ember had seen Josiah was over five years ago at her wedding. And what a dreaded goodbye that had been.
He'd only been eighteen at the time, she only sixteen. It was peculiar seeing Josiah as a man now. With long, black hair and aristocratic features, Josiah had the model appearance of an Igni noble.
But he was no mere aristocrat.
He was the crown prince—no—the king of the dead and defeated Igni Empire. He had the remarkable ability of balancing both a polished air of gentry and an intimidating aura of cruel power. Her brother had always possessed that touch of cruelness, yet after five years of separation, that ominousness had only grown.
She could not put her finger on the change.
"So you're denying it," her husband said.
A few of Josiah's personal guards tittered behind her brother. In turn, Josiah inclined his head marginally, his orange eyes alight with something only he was privy to.
He trailed off and looked pointedly at Ember, a cruel-sort of reminder that she was a foreigner here even if she did sit upon a throne.
"My people are still recovering from the war they waged with your people. I would not aid the Noir Users and put what little resources we have remaining in jeopardy."
"Our resources are your resources," Calder said simply. "Now that the Igni people are rebuilding in Concordia, the resources and militaries of both our empires are now one."
The war between the Igni Empire and the Unda Kingdom had ended five years ago.
Both sides had experienced heavy losses, but in the end, victory belonged to the Unda people. As a token of a peace offering, Ember, the sole princess of the Igni Empire, had agreed to take King Calder's hand in marriage.
Subsequently, the two, battle-weary cultures merged as one nation. Calder had even renamed the Unda Kingdom to Concordia Kingdom in order to represent a new age of peace and unity.
Unfortunately, the Igni and Unda people couldn't have been more different from one another.
One was from the south, one was from the north.
One originated from desert-like climates, the other culture was rich with generous lakes and mountains.
One fire. The other water.
Two different gods; Agni—the Fire God, and Varuna—the Water God.
Relations were unsteady. Tense. No matter. Ember firmly believed her son would bridge the gap between the age-old enemies forced to live in the same kingdom.
Orange eyes narrowed marginally. "You would like to believe we are united, but my people are continuously being looked down upon."
"It will take time," Calder insisted calmly. "You came to tell me that the Igni Empire can be rebuilt, but that will take a considerable amount of labor, gold, and restoration. Let your people rebuild here and grow roots. Eventually, they will consider Concordia their home." He considered the detached Igni man. "Because of your father's unfortunate passing, you are now their king."
"A king," Josiah mused wryly. "It is a title that no longer holds any merit."
"Merit enough that your people will always address you as their king," Calder asserted. "Instead of traveling and dwelling over the ruins of the Igni Empire, perhaps you can be a leader to your people and reassure them—here—with your presence."
Ember bit the inside of her cheek at the patronizing tone.
While she agreed with her husband, she knew Josiah was a prideful man.
The Igni man smiled thinly, his gaze piercing. "It is simply an honor to receive your counsel, Your Majesty." Heavy sarcasm dripped from his tone. "Regrettably, you are the ruler of Concordia. I find it doubtful that my word holds much, if any sway."
Calder's pale hair veiled his expression as he gazed down at Josiah.
"Of course it holds sway. Why do you believe I wanted to wed Ember? A king and queen of both races is a sign of unity. And one day, our son—a descendant of both races—will rule Concordia."
Josiah took a step back, feigning surprise. "A son! How could I have forgotten?" He looked at Ember. "How very rude of me. A congratulations on your conception of the royal heir."
"Nearly five years too late," she informed stiffly.
Her brother's sudden smile chilled her, yet she remained deadpan.
"Would you like to meet him?" Ignoring Calder's sharp look, Ember nodded to the female caretaker by the side-entrance. "He is nearly five. I have told him a great deal about you. He's eager to meet his uncle."
"You speak highly of him," Josiah perceived. He turned away from the retreating servant and assessed her. "He is not just the pawn of the kingdom, but—"
"My son," Ember asserted heatedly, "is not a pawn of this kingdom. He will grow to love it and the people within it. Only he will have the strength to truly unite our people." She breathed steadily. "I would appreciate it if you would cease your traveling and stay in the palace. He could use another guardian."
Josiah looked slyly at Calder. "A guardian is a position of trust."
"You mistake me for your enemy," Calder responded smoothly. "I only want what's best for our kingdom and for my family."
Josiah hummed thoughtfully before pivoting the conversation. "Two royals from different races have never conceived a child before. I wonder at his potential. Tell me, is he a fire or water Elemental?"
Upon Josiah's inquiry, Ember and Calder looked at one another.
Josiah was correct. Because Elemental magic was only prominent in royal and noble bloodlines, one could only speculate on the outcome of a child born to Ember—a fire Elemental, and Calder—a water Elemental.
"He has yet to display any signs of either Element," Calder said rigidly. He did a very impressive job hiding his true disappointment on the subject. "The Healer believes he doesn't possess any specific branch of the Elements."
Josiah's eyes became half-lidded and he looked away, bored. "What a shame."
Ember found his nonchalance an insult. Her brother grew up around power. The only people he surrounded himself with were those exhibiting impressive strength. He refused to see the benefits commonfolk had to offer.
"He is your nephew," she said coldly. She ensnared his attention, finding herself unafraid of his intense concentration. "He may not be an Elemental, but he possesses such an endearing quality. You will do well to worship him, Josiah."
The arrival of the royal prince interrupted Josiah's retort.
Ember turned, smiling widely at her son.
Whenever in her son's presence, she found herself admiring his beauty. Even if he was still just a child, she could see the man he would grow to become. He was a proud carrier of both Unda and Igni qualities. His coloring was entirely Igni, with deeply tanned skin and black, loose curls. His facial features were a perfect blend of his parents, with his father's almond-shaped eyes and jawline, and his mother's high cheekbones.
The only trait not inherited from either parent was his eye color.
Framed by dark lashes, they possessed an ethereal quality.
She assumed it was an Unda trait, as they were a very pale blue. However, during her excursions around the Concordia capital, Ember had never seen the shade replicated.
Josiah moved, becoming far more animated than Ember had ever remembered. She immediately stood from her throne, panicked at the unhealthy way he focused on her son.
"You have created a beautiful son for me," Josiah exclaimed. He crouched down and held out his hand to the child hiding behind his caretaker. "Come here, child."
"Created for you?" Calder demanded spitefully, his tone rising as he stood next to Ember. "What are you—?"
"He is my Chosen," Josiah claimed. His tone may have been casual, cool, but the possessive undertone was undeniable.
Ember took a step back before falling into her throne with unbridled shock. She didn't know much about Chosen, only the whispered fables, but she understood enough that her entire being protested against the very idea.
Chosen existed solely for Elementals.
A Chosen could be another Elemental, or they could be a simple commoner. They were the compatible match for an Elemental—a conductor—able to increase their partner's Elemental powers just by mere proximity.
Chosen weren't common, but they were treasured above all else.
But it was impossible. Not her son, not her child.
Not to Josiah!
"You're wrong," Ember proclaimed fiercely. She clutched the armrests and glared at her brother. "You must be speaking of the caretaker."
Orange eyes pinned her with a look of disdain. "My Element is drawn to the child."
"You are his uncle."
"Half-uncle," Josiah corrected callously. "If you have forgotten, your mother was a glorified whore. My mother was a pureblood royal."
Her cheeks scorched at the insult. The last time he had cruelly denied their status as true siblings was before her marriage to Calder.
She would not stand for this. She would not see Josiah lay a single finger on her son.
"Ezra," she called firmly. She caught the eyes of her son. "Come here."
"Ezra," Josiah purred victoriously.
Her brother reached out and grabbed the young child by his tailored jacket, forcibly preventing him from running to Ember. With greedy hands, he captured Ezra's face and cradled it tenderly.
"Do you know who I am?"
Ezra pouted at the rough treatment, but blinked away his tears. "Uncle Josiah."
"That's enough," Calder ordered.
Around the throne room, the Concordia guards advanced closer to the royal family, placing their hands on their staffs or swords. Just as they closed in, however, Josiah's personal guards were quick to protect their Lord's unprotected back.
Josiah hardly paid much attention to his surroundings and only pressed closer to Ezra's upturned face.
His long, tapered fingers covered the majority of Ezra's small cheeks and proceeded to curl into the child's hair with a sense of rightful ownership. The Igni man exhaled affectionately across Ezra's face, his long braid falling over his shoulder in his persistence to lean closer.
"I see much potential in you, young one," Josiah declared quietly.
Ember desperately clutched her throat, too overwhelmed to form a coherent rejection to Josiah's smothering proximity to her son. She could see Ezra's small face frown as he stared up at his uncle, his child-like innocence contrasting sharply to Josiah's malevolence.
Beside her, Calder's expression bordered something frightening. She had never seen him appear so appalled, so angry.
She truly feared his reaction.
"Where is your proof?" Calder's voice cut through the tension of the room. "Where is your proof that Ezra is your Chosen?"
"Proof? There will never be any proof," Josiah chastised, keeping his attention on the precious creature in his hold. "If Ezra truly is not an Elemental, he will not feel the connection to me. You will just have to take my word."
Calder stirred. "Release him. Now."
No matter how much Ember distrusted Josiah and his motives, she knew Ezra wasn't in any physical danger with him, especially if her child was his Chosen.
However, she couldn't say Calder felt the same.
The tranquil fountain in the throne room slushed with angry waves. If Calder attacked with his Elemental magic, Josiah would meet it with flames. Ezra would be stuck in the middle of two extremely powerful Elementals.
Josiah must have foreseen the imminent danger too, for he sighed dramatically and released Ezra.
The action took Ember by surprise. Typically, Josiah was the last to relent.
The young child staggered back a step, appearing uncertain if he should stay at Josiah's side or run to his mother. Taking advantage of the child's hesitation, a blue-clad guard pulled Ezra by the arm and led him to his mother.
Grateful, Ember reached down and gathered her son in her arms, cocooning him against her chest.
Calder stood on the last step of the dais, appearing uneasy, yet far more collected. "Having a Chosen does not require a committed bond. You can go your separate ways and still live a fulfilling life." His lips sneered. "You are a powerful Elemental, Josiah. You do not need Ezra to advance your powers further."
Josiah straightened from his bowed position and swept the tail of his jacket behind him.
"It's very pleasing to see you so ruffled, Calder." He smiled wickedly. "However, who said I didn't want Ezra merely because he is my other half? Perhaps I wish to have him for simple companionship. It's clear we are fated for one another, no?"
Calder growled lowly. "I highly doubt you care about such whimsical and romantic—"
"He is but a child," Ember bellowed, clutching Ezra closer to her bosom despite his stiffening form. "Have you no pride, no honor?"
"He is a child," Josiah agreed. "But he will grow into an adult and mature handsomely." He raised a simple eyebrow at Calder. "Just minutes ago, you reassured me I wasn't your enemy. It seems as if you've changed your mind."
Calder's face was hard, but he slowly exhaled to force away his temper.
He smiled thinly at Josiah. A forced smile. "You are not an enemy."
Hardly buying the king's front, Josiah matched Calder's smile with one of his own. "Then I shall honor Ember's request." He bowed mockingly to his sister. "I will stay in the palace and become one of Ezra's guardians."
Something passed between Josiah and Calder as they gazed at one another and Ember was hesitant to label it as a challenge. She tightened her arms around Ezra, refusing to let him be a game piece between his father and uncle.
Over Ezra's bowed head, Ember watched as Josiah exited the throne room, moving like a corporeal shadow. Her fingers dug into Ezra and he released a whimper of discomfort.
That man would not ruin her son.
He would not touch her son.
"Leave us," Calder ordered the guards around the throne room. The King of Concordia turned to look at his wife and son. "Give him to me, Ember. You're stifling him."
He made a move forward, reaching for his heir.
As the doors slammed shut behind the guards, Ember turned her torso away from Calder, denying him Ezra.
"Don't be ridiculous," Calder scolded with a hint of hilarity. "Give me my son!"
With as much dignity as she could manage under the weight of her child, she stood from her throne. "Get rid of Josiah and then you can see your son again." Over the top of Ezra's loose curls, she eyed Calder harshly. "I don't want Josiah anywhere near Ezra."
"I understand your concern." Calder reached for Ezra, his fingers just skimming the child's leg before Ember turned away once more. "But Josiah is a pivotal figure and necessary for reconstructing Concordia. The Igni people will ease under his presence."
"My presence should be enough," she argued coldly. "My child—"
"Our child," Calder corrected sharply.
Ember tossed her head with agitation. "Ezra is all that is needed for the Igni people. He represents hope, unity. Josiah represents the old ways. Corruption and war."
Calder nodded, evidently favoring the calm approach. "Yes, but Ezra is not old enough. The Igni elders will want a familiar face as they adjust. The last thing we need is an uprising between the Unda and Igni people. Josiah, no matter how many tricks he has up his sleeve, is useful to me alive and here."
Ember parted her lips in a mocking smile.
Slowly, she set down a squirming Ezra and nudged him toward the side entrance.
"Go see Anna, my son."
His pale eyes looked at her and Calder, clearly sensing the antagonistic air between his parents. Frowning, he silently ran towards the side entrance.
Once he was out of her line of sight, Ember turned back to Calder, noticing the man's taut expression. Stepping closer, she grabbed his petulant chin. Her polished nails curled into manicured talons as they clutched his face.
"Do you love me?" she breathed in question.
He had such a handsome face; a face Ezra would more than likely inherit. The chiseled jaw and the wide, angular planes of his visage were all indications of nobility, of high aristocracy. She could stare at Calder for hours and never grow bored at the sight of the fine specimen she was able to wed and bed.
"You know I love both you and Ezra," Calder reasoned calmly.
"I am not asking about Ezra," she insisted heatedly. Could her husband truly express his feelings without mentioning the son she brought into this world? "Do you love me?"
"Yes," the King of Concordia admitted with a hard edge.
Ember's painted lips pursed as she loomed closer to Calder. Her hands were greedy and skillful, raking seductively down his chest.
"I wonder..." she mused huskily, "if your love for me outweighs your love for politics."
"I want my family safe," Calder stressed—insulted—but he didn't pull away from her. "I need Josiah here for a short time. In the interim, we will appease him. We will make him comfortable and allow him time with Ezra."
Through lowered lashes, Ember gazed intensely up at her husband. Her nails plucked at his vest and purposely caught the skin beneath.
"I hope, for your sake, Calder, that you can get rid of him when the time comes." Flashing a coy smile, she patted him once on the chest and turned to leave. "You will not see your son until my brother is gone."
Her heels tapped the ground as she crossed the throne room.
"You cannot keep my son from me, Ember."
Despite the threat in his tone, Ember did not turn around nor respond.
He was so sure of himself.
Nevertheless, Ember was even surer of her own abilities to get what she wanted.
1: Chapter One [15 years later with Ezra aka "Micah"]Keegan loomed over his shoulder. "I need your help with this, kid.""You always need help," Micah replied coolly.He ignored the boy next to him in favor of making last minute changes to his report. Eyes obsessively skimmed over the neat penmanship, searching for any error.It had to be perfect.Perfection was the only way to get accepted into Concordia Military Academy. Living in the slums of Concordia's outskirts hardly got one recognized, after all.Throughout his childhood, he and his mother had moved region to region. While he understood it was imperative that they kept moving, it was beginning to take its toll on his mother.The woman, who once lived a life dripping with luxury as queen, was deteriorating. The illness inside of her steadily grew worse. It was impossible to heal her, not only because of the lack of money, b
The hand stroked his cheek softly before proceeding to brush aside a few loose curls.Micah closed his eyes into the affectionate touch, never feeling as warm nor as comfortable as he did just then. Through the warm, fire-like haze, he was able to discern that he was dreaming.It was one of those dreams again.The dreams that made him feel so good, but disenchanted at the same time. No matter how much he tried to control the dream, he wouldn’t wake up until the flames engulfed him. His body was tiny as it sat upon the man’s lap.“What did you do today, Ezra?”But that voice.Even after years of dreaming about it, the voice always sent a startling thrill down his spine. It wasn’t a deep baritone, but rather softer, almost menacing in quality and every bit serpentine. Many would find the voice allu
When the rhythmic stirring came to a sudden, unexpected halt, Healer Destan looked up from the unconscious boy and toward his apprentice.Healer Kendra's hold on the stirring rod slackened as she looked fearfully at the entrance of the compartment.Curious, he turned, his eyebrows climbing when he saw the dark figure waiting at the threshold. It was rare to see such an influential man concerned with recovering patients, but then again, this was a special patient, was it not?"Lord Josiah," he greeted casually, "good that you're here."Taciturn eyes leveled the female Healer with an impatient stare.Ah, secrecy.Right.Healer Destan nodded to his assistant. "I will take it from here, Kendra."The young Unda Healer abruptly nodded and fled the room. Destan sighed, watching the blonde-haired woman's hasty retreat.<
The dull ache in his chest was still prevalent that morning. Considering it wasn’t anything like the excruciating pain he’d endured yesterday, Micah couldn’t complain.Sitting at the edge of the bed, he marveled at the mattress and the plush pillows.The last time he’d slept on a mattress was at a derelict hostel a few years ago. Typically, his mother had always claimed the mattress and Micah had never expected anything less. He’d only seen a small section of the train, and already, it possessed far more lavish items than he had the honor of possessing his entire lifetime.Next to the bed lay a black and gold military uniform.Micah’s assumptions proved accurate, then. Josiah planned to take him to Concordia Academy.He would recognize that uniform anywhere, as it was on the propaganda booklet when he applied each term.
Micah was grateful he was able to observe the academy before the other students arrived for the next term.There was something oddly lulling about his boots echoing throughout the silent and still corridors. No one was around to observe his dumbfounded expressions. No one was around to witness him walk into dead ends and retrace his steps.It had taken him days to map out and memorize the floorplan.The building was constructed into the shape of a cross with four separate wings. One wing for each cadet year and one for the instructors.Each wing housed study rooms, bedrooms, and large bathrooms.In the middle of the building, there were numerous levels. Classrooms took up the majority of the upper levels, while he discovered an expansive training arena and an array of other amenities down below.On his third day at the academy, he stumbled across
He’d gotten accustomed to the solitude and the quiet halls.He would miss it.For over two weeks, with the exception of the academy servants, he hadn’t encountered another living soul. Josiah, Destan, and Kendra remained elusive.The three individuals understandably had other duties that kept them away from the academy. In Josiah’s case, he didn’t want to draw Calder’s—or anyone’s—attention to Micah. After all, Micah was just an ordinary student under scholarship.At first, he had been delighted in Josiah’s unannounced absence.Yet, as the days stretched, Micah couldn’t help but to think of the man regularly. Trivial and silly sentiments. He unmistakably enjoyed the man’s conversations to the point of dwelling over the possibility of seeing him again before term.In an attempt to ignore Josiah&
My hand aches.” Keegan paused. “But last night was the best sleep I’d ever had. The beds are extremely comfortable! And the showers? I didn’t think I could ever get out!”In the hall, a chorus of scornful laughter sounded upon Keegan’s admittance.Micah looked apathetically at the group of blond-haired students as they gestured towards him and Keegan. Their expressions ranged from hilarity to aversion as they watched the two scholarship students pass.Talia stood amongst their group, positioned at the outskirts, desperate to be a part of them but no doubt an outsider. She looked at Micah, her mouth scowling and her eyes averting.“Enjoy it while you can,” one of the boys remarked spitefully. “You and pretty-boy may be smart, but as soon as we start the physical assessments, you’ll be eliminated and sent back to the desert.”<
“Stop… shifting.”At the cold command, Keegan abruptly realized his knee bounced uncontrollably and he hastily stopped moving. “We’re going to get expelled from the academy,” he explained in a high-pitched tonKai Edlen had already exited the office a few minutes earlier. Besides the dark expression on Edlen’s face, Keegan couldn’t discern what had transpired inside that office. Not only did they face possible banishment from the academy, but the man inside that office also petrified Keegan to the point of nauseJosiaThe true King to the Igni peopl“We’re not going to get expelledKeegan rubbed his sweaty palms across his trousers and looked at the younger man sitting beside hiAs usual, Micah was the picture of serenity and composure. He ran a critical eye down Micah’s f