“Ninu, on the other hand”—Kalla touched her forehead to the windowpane, only the red spot of her lips visible in the reflection—“when he was human, the world had already shifted away from worshipping us, directing their prayers to our progeny. The mahjo. It was a century before Rebirth. His predecessor, the Conquest before him, came to an unexpected end at the hands of one of his descendants. An accident, from what I gathered.”
How did you accidentally kill an immortal? There was obviously more to the story.
“Ninu—Jem, as he was called then—had been nearby. He tried to help my brother, but nothing could be done.”
Condensation spread across the glass as she spoke, fogging her image. I didn’t understand why she was telling me this. She had wanted Ninu dead. There was no point in sympathizing with him now.
“The number of Infinite is constant. Seventy immortals to shape the human world but never directly interfere.”
“I’d say that rule was shot,” I muttered. But I remembered that when Irra first told me about the Infinite, he had said something about maintaining a constant number of them. Seventy was a daunting amount. I hoped I’d never have to meet them all.
“This is not the first time the Infinite have interfered with the humans, you know.”
Considering that their human descendants were still running around, this was hardly difficult to believe.
“Although Ninu was the first to insert himself publicly among them. I suppose it was wishful thinking.” By the tone of her voice, she obviously didn’t share Ninu’s desire to be anything less than Infinite.
“What did you get out of all this?”
She looked at me imperiously. “Me? The Infinite are not always so self-serving. Ninu violated our laws and had to be stopped. But it left us with a difficult choice and a position to fill. There are laws among the Infinite that aren’t so easily broken. Just as there are ways to eliminate the Infinite who have strayed from their purpose, there are ways to fill the void after such a loss. For coming to my brother’s aid, we chose Jem as his replacement.” Her eyes shut as if she was picturing a memory. “In the beginning, the wonders of being immortal awed him. He took joy in exploring his new world.”
“But he grew discontent. Lonely, perhaps. He longed for the lost years of his human life and the people he’d left behind. So he appealed to Kronos and asked for access to the River. He wished to return to that day he found Conquest and change his fate, to alter his decision to help him so that another might have been chosen.”
I think I understood where she was heading. “I don’t want to be Infinite. I thought I made that clear. I’m never going to be like you or Ninu, not after—” Not after everything they’d done to me and the people I loved.
But I still had questions, the most demanding of which was, if Kronos was my father, then who was my mother? I was the daughter of an Infinite, but I wasn’t mahjo. Ninu had said I was born of the River, but what did that mean? Why was I different? Were there others like me? I knew that a part of me would always yearn for the truth and wonder What if . . . ?
Kalla stepped away from the window, her head bowed. “Sometimes, I think it best you remain human. We have seen the chaos of one Infinite who longed for his human life. But you are of the River. The damage you could inflict on the balance between humans and Infinite far exceeds anything Ninu has done.”
“Then tell Kronos to find another heir. And get yourself a different Ninu while you’re at it.”
“The world has grown so fragile,” she said softly.
There was a bit of longing there as well. What did someone who had never known human emotions long for?
“The humans are resilient, but time weathers all things. Eventually, they too will leave us. What then, Kai?” She crossed the room, stopping in front of the table with the crystal decanter. It was empty.
I leaned against the window. “What do you want?”
She looked at me. “To introduce you to Conquest. Our newest brother—”
The door in the alcove opened. A man walked in. I felt suddenly weightless. It was as if the window behind me had given way and dropped me into free fall.
Avan approached Kalla. He wore a red tunic with flowing sleeves trimmed in gold and a braided belt at his waist. His matching pants and black, knee-high leather boots fit him perfectly. He looked as if he belonged here.
My eyes blurred with tears. I drew in a broken, desperate breath. I stepped forward but then paused. Was this even real?
Avan’s expression was blank, his gaze cool. He regarded me the way he would a stranger—a weird, weepy stranger.
I tried to speak but couldn’t. My hands clenched, afraid to reach out.
He nodded at me politely and addressed Kalla. “You called for me?”
His voice was low and rumbling, a beautiful sound I never expected to hear again. It vibrated around me and lingered in the room, draping my shoulders like a warm shawl. I dug my fingers into my chest in a vain attempt to contain the spreading ache.
My eyes met Kalla’s. “What did you do?”
“I brought him back.”
I had wanted to rip apart the River myself and change things. But not like this.
“Why?” I whispered. “Why would you do this to him?”
“I thought you’d be pleased,” she said, red lips curving.
Yes, I realized. Even now, she was still trying to manipulate me. She had thought I would be happy enough to change my mind.
As Conquest’s replacement, was Avan meant to replace the Kahl as well? All Avan ever wanted was to live his life according to his own rules, but now he was tied to the Infinite in a way that he hadn’t been even to his dad.
My anger strengthened me. I searched his face and prayed for something, anything, of the old Avan. But there was only a stranger’s curiosity.
“Who are you?” Avan asked me. Some of that familiar wariness returned in the way his brows twitched together, and my heartbeat stumbled before picking up again.
I was at a loss for how to answer him. Even if there was a way to undo this—which I doubted—I wouldn’t be able to let Avan die again. He couldn’t remember me, but it was enough that he was here. He was alive.
I tried to control the torrent of emotions swirling inside me. I joined them by the table. Standing in front of him, I saw that his eyes were no longer brown, but a lucent shade of gold. They reminded me of the Sun right before it broke through the clouds.
I looked away. His eyes cut through me in a way no blade ever could. Staring at his chin, I thrust out my hand and offered a weak smile. His fingers closed around mine.
“I’m Kai,” I choked out, and pulled away.
Except he didn’t let go. His gaze moved over my face. He tugged on my hand. I followed, letting him pull me closer. He brushed his knuckles along my cheekbone.
I exhaled slowly, afraid to hope. “Avan?”
“I don’t know you,” he said quietly.
A tremor fluttered through my body.
“But I think I must have. Looking at you . . . It makes me want to remember.” He gave a small, crooked smile. “Does that make any sense?”
I stopped fighting myself and leaned into him, resting my forehead against his chest. For a second, he did nothing. Then his arms closed around me. His hands rested against the curve of my back. He even smelled the same.
“Kai,” he said into my hair, a note of wonder in his voice. “Kai,” he repeated, as if to imprint my name on his memory.
Outside this tower, the city continued in ignorance of what had happened to its Kahl. But not for much longer. I didn’t know what would happen now—if Kalla and the new Kahl, whoever that was, would allow the much-needed changes to take place. Every wall Ninu had erected was like a collar to control and divide the people. Would they embrace a city without divisions? Or would they build even stronger ones to replace them?
Avan and I had left Ninurta with only one purpose. None of this had ever been about changing anything. But whether by the Infinite’s design or not, we had made our decisions, formed new friendships and enemies, new loves. We had changed too much. Our previous lives felt as distant and surreal as a dream.
I held Avan close. Now, in this moment, we could begin to shape a new kind of home.
INFINITE THANKS TO my agent, Suzie Townsend, for being my champion and for believing wholeheartedly in this book. Thanks also to the team at New Leaf: Joanna, Kathleen, Pouya, Danielle, and Jaida. I’m so grateful for their tremendous support and expertise.
Immeasurable thanks to my brilliant editor, Robin Benjamin, the perfect advocate for this book with her invaluable insight and sharp-eyed editorial skills. I wonder every day how I got so lucky. Thanks also to the team at Skyscape for taking a chance and believing in a debut author: Courtney Miller, Miriam Juskowicz, Timoney Korbar, and Erick Pullen. Thanks to Tony Sahara for a stunning cover that I want to creepily caress and to Megan McNinch for visualizing Kai’s world into a kick-butt map.
Enormous thanks to my amazing critique partners: Mindee Arnett, who is a marvel and inspires me daily; Lauren Teffeau, who practically oozes talent; and Anna Adao, who is as clever as she is awesome. I could not have done this without their constant support and spot-on input. Thanks also to my early beta readers: Chessie, Brent, Raven, and especially Kalen.
Super special thanks to the ladies of GfA: Natalie Parker, Amy Parker, Amy Tintera, Corinne Duyvis, Michelle Krys, Gemma Cooper, Deborah Hewitt, Ruth Steven, Kim Welchons, and Stephanie Winkelhake. I can’t imagine how I could have gotten through the last few years without them. Thanks also to the dear friends I first met in fandom who have stayed with me through the crazy years and supported me in the pursuit of my writing dreams, especially Sofi, Patricia, Carolyn, and Emily. I adore you ladies.
Of course, none of this could have been possible without the support of my family. My mom, who had to deal with me reading all night until she caught me with my bedroom light on at 4 AM. My older brothers, La and Nai, who always believed I could do it. My brother Matt, who shares my love for all things geeky. My sisters May and Kay, who were among the first to kindle my love for reading and who’ve always supported me, even when I was just a snot-nosed kid jotting down stories about exploding heads. And to Kou, whom I miss with all my heart.
Last but not least, all my love and thanks to my husband, Cha, who tolerates my insanity when I’m freaking out about a deadline, and my children, Katalina and Oliver, who are the world to me.
Lori M. Lee was born in the mountains of Laos. Her family relocated to a Thailand refugee camp for a few years and then moved permanently to the United States when she was three. She has a borderline obsessive fascination with unicorns, is fond of talking in capslock, and loves to write about magic, manipulation, and family. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband, kids, and a friendly pitbull. Visit her at: www.lorimlee.com.