Circle of Shadows (Circle of Shadows #1) - Evelyn Skye

Chapter One

There are two possibilities after this stunt—we’ll be the empress’s favorite taigas or we’ll get expelled and taken away in chains,” Daemon said. His broad shoulders hunched as he bent down to talk to Sora. She was tall, but he was much taller—six foot two, officially, but six foot five when he styled his hair like this, stuck up in thick wild tufts of black.

“They won’t kick us out of the apprentice program.” Sora grinned. “I’m an expert at skirting the boundary between what’s technically allowed and what’s not, remember?”

Daemon made a face but still laughed. The slash of scars on his cheek danced, souvenirs from a fight with a wolf cub when he was two. “Trust me, no one knows better than I do how good you are at almost-but-not-quite breaking the rules.” He was Sora’s best friend, as well as her partner—her gemina—and that meant they were inseparable, through triumph and trouble.

With Sora, there were ample amounts of both.

They stood with their fellow students in the courtyard of Rose Palace, a majestic castle hewn entirely of dusty-pink crystal that filtered moonlight through its walls and shone like a prismatic beacon at the highest point of the island. Tonight, the Level 12 taiga apprentices had the honor of touring Rose Palace and performing an exhibition match before Empress Aki. Sora bounced on her toes in excitement.

She looked around the vast courtyard. Her hair, cut short along her jawline and dyed dark—as most taigas did—so she could better hide in the shadows, wisped across her face as she spun to take everything in. The palace walls were flawless and clear, soaring four stories up toward the open sky. There, the pink crystal had been cut like gems, their many facets sparkling and casting winking moonlight onto Sora’s formal uniform—flowing trousers and robes made of black silk, embroidered with the moon goddess Luna’s triplicate whorls in silver thread.

Beside Sora, Daemon gaped in disbelief. Rose Palace was even more stunning than they could have imagined. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Are we sure we want to do this tonight?”

She wrinkled her nose at him. They had spent the entire summer plotting a surprise to be revealed during the exhibition match, and tonight was supposed to be the culmination of their hard work. “You, of all people, are getting cold feet?”

Daemon shrugged. “Maybe there are some places too sacrosanct for us to mess around with.”

“Those are exactly the sorts of places that need us,” Sora said. The Rose Palace invitation was an annual ritual, both to recognize young taigas in their final year before graduation and to instill in them a sense of pride at being a part of Kichona’s proud and fierce history. “Everything is beautiful here, but too serious. Besides, the empress has seen too many exhibition matches that follow the same formula. I think she’ll appreciate a little change. You know my motto. Work hard—”

“Mischief harder.” Daemon shook his head but smiled. “The taiga warriors are going to be really mad.”

Sora glanced over at the teachers who had accompanied them to Rose Palace. Their ordinarily stern faces were even sterner than usual. And they definitely had their eyes on Sora. She and her friends had a reputation for causing trouble—at the end of every term, her report cards inevitably said she was “talented but had difficulty following rules.”

They can’t really blame me, though, Sora thought. If the warriors would stop being so rigid, I wouldn’t have to break their rules. Just because things had been done a certain way for centuries didn’t mean it should continue being done that way forever.

Besides, Sora liked to think that the trouble she caused was the fun sort of trouble.

She grinned at Daemon. “The warriors are going to be more than mad. And I’m looking forward to it.”

Suddenly, the chatter among the apprentices extinguished, and a hush fell like a down blanket across the courtyard. Four members of the Imperial Guard—the elite warriors assigned to the empress—had marched in. Imperial Guards also appeared above, around the entire upper perimeter of the courtyard, eyes focused and weapons at the ready should they be needed.

A moment later, a young woman swept elegantly into the courtyard. Despite being just five feet tall, she could command the attention of the whole kingdom even if she were completely still. All eyes were on her now as she moved, the ten different shades of blue on her chiffon gown undulating like waves, her skirt swirling around her feet as if