★ Pay it Forward ★
Purple Monkey Press
The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Archmage Wilhelm Blackflame.
When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.
“Mgeni! Stay a moment; I have your future for you.”
I grin, turning towards the voice. Mama Ali sits beneath the cloth shade of her market stall, her husband’s catch heaped on the wooden counter before her: mounds of sardines, glinting silver bright in the sun. Today there’s also a single little octopus that must have gotten tangled in his nets, it’s fleshy body turned over to show the white of its tentacles.
With her wide smile and heavy girth, Mama Ali is a well-known fixture of the fish market, her laughter booming across the crowded aisles and her penchant for sharing people’s futures indulged in even by the locals. Her son, ten years old and shrewder than a hundred year-old owl, perches beside her, watching me.
“You can keep my future, Mama Ali,” I reply. “It will probably do you more good than me.”
My words draw laughter from the women at the surrounding stalls. The market stalls are packed tightly together, and every counter offers up the bounty of the sea, scenting the air with salt and sea. Above the stalls flap brightly-colored cloth shades, protecting both the women and the fish from the sun’s heat.
I hear someone ask what she missed, and a woman replies, calling me mgeni again. My smile slips a notch. I may have adopted the traditional, brightly colored long skirt and tunic of the local women, as well as the tightly wound head wrap, but my sand-gold skin and the slant of my eyes will always mark me as someone else. Mama Ali may use the term as an endearment, but the echoes I hear now brand me as an outsider.
Mama Ali holds out her hand imperiously, a queen demanding tribute from the riffraff that forms her court. “Come, my friend, keeper of secrets, let us see what we can.”
“What will you give me?” I ask, hoping ‘keeper of secrets’ is just a phrase she uses on potential customers. Regardless, I don’t have the coin to pay her, so I may as well be clear I won’t be giving anything.
“Give you? Your future, muddle-brain! And, because you are always admiring my wares, I will give it to you for free.”
“Oh, very well.” I acquiesce none too gracefully, offering Mama Ali my hand. Trying not to fidget, I wait, her palms clasped around my hand. I may be running a little late, but there’s no reason to think the meeting will have started on time. Besides, since I wasn’t invited in the first place, no one will miss me. “Don’t tell me I’m going to meet someone new, dark of skin and—”
“Short,” Mama Ali agrees.
I nearly choke. “Short?”
She drops her voice. “Well, if I want to be sure it happens, short is so much more likely than tall, isn’t it? At least,” she nods her head to suggest the market, not to mention the rest the island, “here.”
I laugh. I think this must be why Mama Ali and I get along so well. “Right. Short and dark.”
“No.” She pulls a frown. “For you, something different.”
I glance towards the sky, gauging the angle of the late morning sun. Magic is one thing, but divining the future? Not so much. “I really have to—”
“You are going somewhere,” Mama Ali intones, closing her eyes. I glance at her son in disbelief. Ali grins wide, his teeth showing pearly white against his earth-brown skin.
“I was before you stopped me,” I agree.
Mama Ali heaves a theatrical sigh, squeezing my hand rather painfully. “Somewhere important,” she clarifies. She tilts her head as if listening for something. And Mama Ali hears a lot—she has her pulse on the happenings of Karolene. Maybe there is something she knows. Has she heard something about the League? Or the Ghost?
She drops my hand, sitting back with a gasp. “Run!”
“Look what’s here,” the leader says, calling the other soldiers’ attention to me. My steps falter as they veer towards me, quickly closing the distance between us. “What do you think she is? A mutt or a half-breed?”
A half-breed they might not bother because those who are half-human and half-something-else often have some strength or ability that could cause more trouble than these men are looking for. Unfortunately for me, the secret I guard is fully human. I glance sideways at the fish seller in the stall beside me, wondering if I can count on her. She is young, no more than a handful of years past my own fifteen, her eyes wide with panic. No help there. I swallow hard, trying to ease the fear thrumming through my veins.
I begin to back away, offering a hesitant smile to the soldiers. A smile? What am I doing? I should run—
But it’s already too late. Two of the soldiers have moved ahead of the others, circling past me. I’m surrounded.
“Mutt,” says one of the soldiers, taking in my features. I feel myself flush slightly. My parents may have been from different lands, but a good number of islanders have other blood in them, even if it dates back a few generations. How else did the noble women come by their sleek hair? Their problem isn’t with my bloodline. It’s with the fact that I visibly don’t belong, and I’m an easy target.
“Half-breed,” two others posit, their boots sounding unnaturally loud in the quiet.
“Definitely a mutt,” a soldier behind me says. He’s come to a stop a couple paces away, no doubt waiting for his leader to make the first move.
“Well, girl, what are you?” the leader asks.
I refuse to answer in the words they’ve afforded me. “Human,” I say. “Sir.”
Intisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveler. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She first remembers seeing snow on a wintry street in Zurich, Switzerland, and vaguely recollects having breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo when she was five.
Intisar currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Until recently, she wrote grants and developed projects to address community health and infant mortality with the Cincinnati Health Department—which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy.
Intisar’s latest projects include a companion trilogy to her debut novel Thorn, featuring a new heroine introduced in her free short story The Bone Knife…and of course, she’s hard at work on the remaining installments of The Sunbolt Chronicles.