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Six Years Ago
The cell around him was pure cement and the bars were unbreakable. Madn Damari knew the stories of the jails of Krudare. Everyone did. No one escaped. Ever. The king’s justice was swift for anyone who tried.
At first he’d paced in the small space allotted to him. He was fortunate enough to have his own cell. On his way into the facility, he’d passed by cells filled to the brim with the dregs of society, and the stench nearly overwhelmed him.
He was one of those dregs now.
He couldn’t regret it. He knew his duty as a soldier and as Kru’dari. His honor was worth more than his freedom. He only hoped he would be strong enough to keep believing that once the judge passed down his final sentence.
Boots pounded down the hallway, nearly drowning out the tippy-tap of daintier shoes. But Mad heard the footsteps, and he recognized them. He shot up from the bench and crossed the two steps to the bars. It only took a moment for his sister to appear.
“You have ten minutes,” the guard grunted at her before stepping back.
They wouldn’t have true privacy, but he stood far enough away that they could speak quietly enough to not be overheard.
“Oh, Mad.” Taiana reached her hand into the cell and clutched at him. She was everything a Kru’dari lady should be—regal, poised, and nearly as tall as him, but wearing a flowy dress that hid her bulk. Her skin was pale and her hands uncalloused. She spent her days working with the upper echelon of the king’s government.
He’d been a lowly soldier.
“No need for tears,” he said, putting as much confidence into his voice as he could muster. “We’ve hours yet before the judgement is passed.”
She sucked in a shaky breath and pulled her hand away.
Mad’s heart sank. Taiana couldn’t hide her emotions from him. She’d never learned the trick. And the fear and anguish he saw on her made his heart crack in two. The guilt, though—that emotion stole away his hope and drowned it in the sea.
Taiana straightened her shoulders and fixed her expression. He’d seen soldiers look softer before charging into battle. “Arbyn spoke with the judge.”
Mad growled. He didn’t want his sister’s slimy fiancé anywhere near his case.
She glared at him for a minute before steeling her resolve once more. “He pulled as many strings as he could. Execution was strongly considered. But you’re not to be killed.”
“Exile?” His heart sank, and he pulled at the energy that ran through Krudare. Called the Fount, it was the source of his people’s prosperity. Energy ran through the planet, and all Kru’dari could access it. It made them stronger, faster, and sharper than anyone else.
And being separated from that power was supposed to be a fate worse than death.
“How long?” He gripped the bar tight and wished he had the strength to bend it. But he could drink the Fount dry and the bars wouldn’t move an inch.
“Indefinite. Arbyn can’t work miracles.” She looked away.
It was for the best. She didn’t see the way he snarled. It sounded to him as if Arbyn had done nothing. Yes, execution had been on the table. But the king didn’t like the spectacle. He far preferred to send his problems away. Indefinite exile had always been the most likely outcome.
“Have Mother and Father been to see you?” she asked once she’d collected herself.
“Not since the trial.” The look of utter disgust on his parents’ faces should have hurt him, but there was no way to please them. They’d always had a favorite child, and she was standing on the right side of the bars.
“I’ll speak with them,” Taiana promised.
“Don’t waste your breath.” She might need them one day now that he wouldn’t be there to protect her. “Listen, about Arb—”
“Time’s up,” the guard announced, stepping close. “Say your goodbyes.”
His sister didn’t cry and he was glad. If tears fell from her eyes, he wouldn’t have been able to keep his composure. She reached into the cell one more time and clasped his hand. “Stay strong. I’ll work every day to get you a pardon. I’ll bring you home.”
The guard led her away but sent a scowl Mad’s way, reminding him that his sister might believe in him, but no one else did.
He didn’t expect to sleep that night, but there was a funny taste to his evening meal, and he succumbed to darkness not long after.
He woke with a gasp and sucked in heavy breaths. His lungs were on fire and his guts felt like they’d been torn out. He writhed on the ground and tried to figure out what was going on.
Was he being executed? Had the judge changed his mind?
But there was dirt under his fingers rather than hard cement, and when he finally pried his eyes open, he saw a dark night sky studded with stars.
He was on Guerran, Krudare’s planet of exiles.
And he’d been ripped from the Fount.
Mad had heard the stories of what it felt like to lose a connection to the Fount, but he’d never let himself believe it could happen to him. The Kru’dari had evolved to need the excess energy the Fount provided. Without it, their bodies eventually starved.
Or they found other ways to feed.
A boot kicked him in the stomach, and Mad realized he wasn’t alone. Then a hand clamped on his neck and dragged him to his feet. His attacker was another Kru’dari, and his eyes seemed to glow red in the pale light.
But that must have been a trick of the light.
“Fresh meat.” The exile grinned.
Mad risked a look around and saw he and his attacker were alone. He didn’t know why he’d been abandoned like this. He was almost certain there was supposed to be some sort of orientation for life on Guerran.
Instead he had a trial by fire.
And he wasn’t about to lose.
The Kru’dari who had him was strong, but Mad was skilled. He kicked him where it hurt and jerked back when his attacker loosened his grip. Mad was groggy, weak, and unarmed, but he wasn’t going to die in his first hours on Guerran. He refused.
He charged his attacker and took him to the ground, letting out all of his frustration with each angry punch. And as his fists unleashed their fury, something happened.
His gut-wrenching pain faded. Energy seeped into his bones. And he almost felt whole.
He pulled back before he killed the man. He was an exile, but he wasn’t a murderer.
He heard rowdy men getting closer and clenched his fists. The energy within him was weak, but it was there. It wasn’t the Fount, but it meant Guerran wasn’t a death sentence.
It would be if the rowdy crowd found him, though.
“New guy, over here.” A Kru’dari in dark clothes with his hair tied back beckoned him to the shadows.
Mad didn’t move. “Show yourself.”
The man stepped into the light. He had a scar on his cheek and blond hair. He was tall, even for a Kru’dari. “My name is Jaek. I mean you no harm. Now grab your bag before we’re discovered.”
Mad looked toward the ground where Jaek had nodded, and, sure enough, there was a cloth sack lying there. Mad looked inside and saw some clothes, a wallet full of credits, and a leather pouch brimming with power. He pulled it out in confusion.
Jaek hissed. “Hide that if you know what’s good for you. A Pitcher is worth more than both our lives in this territory.”
A Pitcher. A fragment of the Fount’s power preserved for long travel. It was the only way Kru’dari could leave their home planet. And even then, the Pitchers couldn’t preserve power for long.
Mad stuffed it back in the bag and slung a strap over his shoulder. He followed Jaek away from the scene of his attack. He hoped the exile didn’t kill him. But given his welcome on Guerran, Mad wasn’t sure how long he’d want to survive.
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