Circle of Shadows (Circle of Shadows #1) - Evelyn Skye Page 0,1

she were being carried in by the sea. The light from the crystal prisms above played with the gold in her hair. Empress Aki didn’t need a crown; members of the Ora family were born with the gleaming color of royalty already upon their heads.

Sora and the other apprentices fell to their knees and bowed, completely prostrate to the ground. “Your Majesty,” they said in unison.

“I welcome you to Rose Palace,” the empress said. “And I wish you a happy Autumn Festival.”

The apprentices bowed again, then rose to their feet as the empress settled into the only chair in the courtyard. The chair was surprisingly simple, made of unadorned wood. It didn’t even have a cushion. The only thing that marked it as the empress’s seat was the Ora imperial crest etched into the crystal wall behind it, a crowned tiger standing proudly beneath the sun and the moon, surrounded by the words “Dignity. Benevolence. Loyalty.”

Then again, perhaps the simplicity wasn’t so surprising. The palace may have been grand, but that was the doing of past rulers. Empress Aki was known for spending only what was necessary on herself, preferring instead to use Kichona’s coffers for the good of its people. In her ten years of rule, she’d ordered all the old schools in the countryside rebuilt, and new books for every child across the island. She invested in farms and agricultural research, and thus improved harvests, making sure no citizen went hungry. The kingdom had also grown wealthier than ever, thanks to her edicts that made trading with the countries on the mainland easier, stoking appetite abroad for Kichona’s colorful silks and delicate jewelry.

And then there was the constant stream of smaller details, like her frequent surprise visits to villages that had never had a member of the imperial family set foot on their soil before, or the fact that she paid for the Autumn Festival feasts throughout the kingdom. Empress Aki wasn’t known as “the Benevolent One” for nothing. Sora—and pretty much everyone in the kingdom—loved her.

“Your Majesty,” one of the taiga warriors said. “I am pleased to introduce you to this year’s Level Twelves. It is an honor for us to be here, and they have a gift for you as a token of their gratitude.” He nodded to Sora to step forward with the present, but his eyes narrowed, warning Sora not to do anything to embarrass the warriors.

She wouldn’t. Yet.

Sora reached into a hidden pocket in her sleeve. Usually, she stashed a knife there—there were many such places for weapons in the taiga uniforms—but tonight she retrieved a small velvet pouch. She wasn’t the teachers’ favorite pupil, but that had the opposite effect on her classmates, and Sora had been elected first chair, which meant she had the traditional honor of representing Level 12 before the empress tonight.

“Your Majesty,” Sora said, bowing again, “if I may, I would like to present to you a gift from our class.”

Empress Aki smiled kindly, and although she was only twenty-five—a mere seven years older than Sora—she had the gravitas of someone twice her age. “What is your name?” the empress asked.

“I am called Spirit.” It was the name the Society had given her at age seven, when she’d graduated from the nursery and become a taiga apprentice. No one called her Sora anymore except Daemon—also known as Wolf—who’d insisted on continuing to use their birth names so they’d have something special between them.

“Come forward, Spirit,” Empress Aki said.

With the permission of the Imperial Guards who stood on each side of the empress, Sora approached and placed the pouch into the empress’s delicate hands.

Empress Aki opened the drawstrings and let out a gasp of delight. A string of tiger pearls—black-and-orange-striped jewels that could be found only in the deep, underwater coves off Kichona’s southwestern shore—tumbled into her palm. Daemon had rallied everyone in Level 12 to contribute more to the gift than any class before them had managed to raise. Sora could feel his joy, warm as a campfire, beaming through their gemina bond. She smiled.

“It’s beautiful, thank you,” Empress Aki said, fastening the pearls around her neck, right next to an abalone shell locket. “Of course, there is also something else I am looking forward to before we tour the palace. I believe you’ve prepared an exhibition match?”

Sora’s nerves twinged. Fighting and magic were things she had no reason to be anxious about, but this would also be when she and her friends would reveal their surprise. It’s