Forbidden Things: Book One
by Nikki McCormack
Ascard power can strengthen, heal, and create. It also has great potential to destroy. Indigo’s country restricts the use of ascard, so she must channel her ability into the healing arts or risk severe punishment. An orphan from a disgraced family, trapped by her father’s treason, she is struggling to find her place in society.
Then a mysterious stranger from a neighboring country asks for her help escaping his prison so he can bring an end to his emperor's oppressive rule. His devotion to his cause and the passion behind his cool arrogance move her. She decides to use her power in forbidden ways to help him at the risk of being branded a traitor like her father.
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Title: Dissident, Forbidden Things Book One
Author: Nikki McCormack
Publisher: Elysium Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Length: 395 pages
Release Date: July 2015
Excerpt from Dissident: Forbidden Things Book One
by Nikki McCormack
Copyright © 2014 by Nikki McCormack. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
There were too few things to enjoy in this life. She’d be a fool to squander a lovely day.
Indigo inhaled the rich smell of a recent rain and tipped her head back, closing her eyes to let sunshine fall full upon her face. Gritty cobbles crunched underfoot. Snippets of conversation from other walkers and clacking hooves of occasional equestrian traffic blended to a meaningless hum.
Her feet knew the path. She and Andrea walked the same route home from the academy every lesson day for nearly two years. Behind them, the twin spires of Caithin Healer’s Academy twisted toward the sky like the gold horns of some great beast. In the bright sunshine, they were almost blinding in their brilliance and she fancied she could feel reflected light from them on her back.
Her student’s robes dangled over one forearm and the backless summer dress she wore left her skin exposed to warm afternoon sunlight. With her hair pulled over one shoulder, the sun’s touch fell hot upon the tattoo between her shoulder blades. The symbol of her studies to become a healer, the blue rose of the Caithin Healer’s Academy, displayed for anyone to see.
“Indigo, are you listening?”
Opening her eyes, she glanced at Andrea and smiled an apology. “Sorry. It’s a beautiful day for this early in the year. I got caught up in it.”
“Judging by that dress, you think it’s summer already.”
The other woman’s huffy tone stifled her enjoyment. The colorful dress might be more suited to a mid-summer party, but the playful style bolstered Indigo’s withering spirits. In contrast, Andrea’s conservative blue dress did nothing to emphasize her shape or set off her features. Not the type of garment that could bring the bounce back to one’s step.
“It’s a fun dress.”
Andrea responded with a sour look. “No wonder Jayce gets edgy every time you step outside.”
Distress rose in response to the comment and Indigo slapped it down. She spotted a woman stepping out of a nearby building in a bright yellow dress that cut low in front and clung to her hips, emphasizing feminine curves. She raised her eyebrows at Andrea, wiggling her fingers in the direction of the woman to show she wasn’t the only one dressing to the day.
Andrea dismissed the woman with a roll of her emerald eyes. “While you were flouncing about in your early spring daydreams, I asked if you had decided on flowers for the wedding.”
Indigo adjusted her bag on her shoulder then started to pick at her fingernails, making soft clicking sounds with them. “I haven’t had time to think about it.”
“Well I have. Neither of you is upper nobility, so violet would be presumptuous.”
Indigo struggled not to bristle at the superior tone. Andrea’s parents trained her in the fine art of looking down on anyone of lesser status. It never occurred to her that it might be insulting, though Indigo intended to point it out someday, just not today.
Andrea pressed her lips together, then a bright smile lit her face, her enthusiasm for the subject leeching away Indigo’s better mood. “You know, if you play up your uncle’s status, I imagine you could get away with pink or maybe… And there you go again.”
Indigo started. “What?”
“Every time I bring up the wedding you get gloomy. What’s wrong?”
Andrea placed a hand on Indigo’s arm and stopped. Indigo allowed the other woman’s gentle pull to turn her. She avoided Andrea’s eyes, glancing first at the early spring flowers in a window box behind her then gazing back the way they had come.
Some distance back, an Ascard Watchman leaned on a light post, his tan military uniform accented with the deep maroon of his special division. His hooded gaze took in the late afternoon traffic. Prickles of fear crept up her spine. Despite a few years living in the city without incident, she couldn’t stop dreading the day they would find her out and punish her for her deception.
Never let them know your true strength.
Hadris and her father must have told her that a thousand times as a child. Did it matter now, with both of them gone? Would the Watchmen do anything to her other than force her to use her ascard ability in service to the crown? Her father would have detested that, but it didn’t seem so disagreeable from her current position.
Besides, maybe they were wrong. Maybe her ability wasn’t that strong. Hadris helped her construct barriers around her inner aspect as a child and she couldn’t bring herself to take them down to find out. It chilled her blood to remember how they’d beheaded Hadris for hiding her own ability, but Hadris had been a Lyran slave.
And I’m the daughter of a traitor. She liked her head where it was.
She forced her attention back to Andrea. “I don’t have time to keep up studies and plan a wedding. I hoped to wait until my schooling was finished, but Jayce insists.”
When she'd suggested waiting, he accused her of infidelity. His face had gone ruddy with rage and he’d thrown a vase at the wall, one of her few keepsakes of her mother, shattering it. If only she could do more than postpone the wedding, but it was too late. It had been too late the moment her uncle accepted his proposal. In proper society, one didn’t back out of an engagement and her noble status depended upon this marriage because of the scandal around her parents’ deaths.
You tried to do so much good for others, Father, but what did you do for me?
Andrea tittered, disregarding her deepening melancholy. “He doesn’t want someone stealing you away.”
How true. Indigo held her tongue. Andrea and Jayce were friends long before she moved into the city. She was the outsider.
“I’m surprised you’re not in a hurry to see this marriage through, considering.”
Indigo swallowed a foul taste. “Considering?”
“It isn’t easy to find a man of noble birth willing to marry someone with your background.”
“I know.” How could she forget with Andrea and Jayce always willing to point it out?
Her attention wandered to the fountain sprouting up in the center of a nearby courtyard, simple and elegant like a great stonework lily. A man stood by the fountain, watching water droplets falling with the shimmer of multicolored gems in the bright sunlight. Long silver hair hung to the middle of his back like a frozen waterfall. His smooth pale skin and unusual hair marked him as Lyran, but his regal bearing and rich attire didn’t befit a slave or merchant. Curious.
“Have you seen him before?”
Andrea turned, following her gaze. “Who?”
“The man beside the fountain.”
“There’s no one by the fountain.”
Andrea’s reply tugged at her awareness, but the silver-haired Lyran was turning toward them now. His pale eyes met hers and the air pressed from her lungs as if a corset were being pulled too tight. The buildings lurched and spun in her vision.
She sank to her knees. Andrea crouched down with her, her eyes wide and frightened. She held Indigo’s shoulders tight, her lips moving. Indigo heard only the pounding of blood in her ears. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes. The pressure eased and her heartbeat slowed to some semblance of normal. At a tug on her arm, she opened her eyes and let Andrea help her to her feet.
“Are you well?”
Leaving a hand on Andrea’s arm for balance, she glanced at the fountain. No one was there now. Where had he gone? She scanned around them and spotted a Watchman striding over. His shrewd gaze picked apart the area around the fountain then settled on them with open suspicion.
Indigo’s breath caught in her throat. Her hand tightened on Andrea’s arm.
“Are you ladies all right?” His tone was polite, but his gaze bored into them, into her.
Was her ability still hidden? Had her masking slipped? Did he know what she was hiding? She didn’t dare access her ability to find out for fear he would notice. She opened her mouth to respond and her voice caught on the lump of fear in her throat.
“Indigo?” Andrea’s worried tone broke through the cold terror.
“Yes. We’re fine.” She forced a light tone. “I had a dizzy spell.”
She started to turn as if to continue home and he raised a hand to stay them. Her pulse pounded, a thousand drums beating triple time. How could he not hear it?
“You’re students from the academy?”
“Yes, Sir,” Andrea answered, sparing Indigo the effort.
His suspicious gaze lingered on Indigo for seconds that threatened to stretch into eternity. He gave a curt nod. “Best be on your way.”
They finished the walk to the student residence in strained silence. When they arrived, Indigo dashed up the stairs and to her bedroom past a startled Jayce. She closed the door and leaned against it, her heart racing at the thought of facing her fiancé in such a flustered state. Forcing slow breaths, she listened to Andrea greet Jayce in the next room.
“I’m guess that passing breeze was Indigo.”
Andrea responded in a low voice so Indigo had to put an ear to the edge of the door to hear. “Something peculiar happened on the way home. We were talking near the Healer’s Courtyard and she said she saw someone by the fountain. The strange thing is there wasn’t anyone there. Then she swooned and sank to her knees gasping. She wouldn’t respond to me for almost a minute. I’m worried. I think you should keep an eye on her.”
Indigo touched her neck, remembering the terrifying sensation of suffocation. Had it been as long as a minute?
“Who did she see?”
The edge of suspicion in Jayce’s voice made her skin prickle with alarm. Don’t tell him.
“Some man, she said, but there was no one there.”
Her palms grew sweaty in the brief silence that followed.
“Thanks, Andrea. I’ll take care of her.”
“Tell her I’ll see her tomorrow.”
Indigo sat on the edge of the bed and focused on making her breathing regular. The outer door clicked shut. The door to the bedroom creaked open and Jayce stepped in. His hazel eyes narrowed, the short cut of his brunette hair adding severity to the expression. It was exhausting dancing around his temper. Where had he hidden this possessive jealousy when he was courting her?
Perhaps, if his parents knew where he spent his nights out, they would insist he stay home, though they didn’t appear to care what he did in private so long as he didn’t publicly disgrace them. She could talk to her uncle, but he was away too often to have much influence as her guardian. Besides, if she got her fiancé into trouble, regardless of the reason, it would reflect badly upon her.
She turned away, her gaze following rays of late afternoon sunlight that trickled through the window. The residence maid had missed a smudge in one corner of the glass pane. An inconsequential thing. A dingy spot upon the glass just as she was a dingy spot upon society. One misstep and they would wipe her away as they had her father.
Did she deserve any better?
The mattress sank a little when Jayce sat next to her. He rested a hand on her far shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. She leaned into him. Maybe he wasn’t angry. Maybe he would be supportive the way he always had been before their engagement.
“Are you well?” He brushed her hair back over her ear to see her face.
“I had a little dizzy spell. I’m fine now.”
“Maybe you should take a few days’ rest.” He kissed her neck and a small shiver of pleasure ran through her despite her trepidation.
“Tomorrow is a rest day. It’ll be enough.”
His breath tickled across her ear, but his hand tightened on her shoulder, crushing any enjoyment she might have gotten from the sensation. “Who was this man you saw?”
She pulled away and went to stand near the window. “No one, Jayce. There was no one there.”
He stood, muscles in his jaw jumping, his eyes closing down to angry slits. “A hallucination then. Of whom?”
She took a deep breath. One of them had to remain calm and rational. Why did it always have to be her? “It wasn’t anyone I remember seeing before. Maybe a face from my childhood. I don’t know.”
“Was he handsome?”
So very handsome. “I don’t recall. I couldn’t breathe. That was a little distracting.”
He clenched his fists and she cringed inside. Letting him see her fear would only encourage him though, so she lifted her chin and met his eyes.
“I think you should stay home a few days.”
“I can’t get behind.”
His face flushed and his gaze roamed her body, contemplating what he stood to lose to this hallucination. “What if it happens again?”
“Then I’ll be surrounded by healers. They’re equipped to handle such things.”
He stared at her for a long time, but even he couldn’t come up with a good argument to that. Instead, he walked over and kissed her hard. A possessive, angry kiss.
She lay awake long into the night after Jayce finished showing her how she belonged to him. Every detail of the man by the fountain was vivid in her mind, from his intense gaze to his ethereal highborn Lyran allure. She’d never encountered a pureblooded Lyran who wasn’t a slave. According to her Uncle Theron, whose work for King Jerrin put him in position to know such things, true Lyran nobility possessed an uncanny grace and beauty. Given that, what else could the stranger be?
But why would a Lyran nobleman be wandering the streets of Caithin?
She listened to Jayce sleep for several minutes, his breathing deep and even, hers quick and fearful. Then she slipped from bed and donned a pair of fitted riding pants and a blouse. It wasn’t appropriate attire for a woman of noble breeding in the city, but it would set her apart from any courtesans and whores about at this hour. As an afterthought, she snatched a deep blue shawl from the vanity, the one her uncle had given her because it matched her eyes, and wrapped it around her shoulders on her way out.
The education district had a livelier nightlife than all but the market and low-town districts because of its young populace, but her destination was close enough to academy grounds that it would be quieter. The Healer’s Courtyard sometimes drew pairs of lovers. Tonight it was empty and solemn, lit by the soft glow of a half moon.
Trepidation slowed her steps as she walked to the fountain. She stopped by where Lyran man had stood and watched the surface of the lower pool ripple with droplets falling from above, shining like clear crystals now in the moonlight. It was mesmerizing, watching the play of a single ripple colliding with others and rebounded from the edge of the pool. So much like life itself. Each decision a droplet hitting the water, the ripples reaching out and affecting countless others.
She became aware of someone standing next to her and her lungs contracted in response to the extraordinary power surrounding him. She stared hard into the fountain, fighting the urge to flee.
This was why she had come, to see if he was real.
Unnerved by his silence, she forced a deep breath into her tightened chest and spoke in the Lyran trade dialect in case he didn’t speak Caithin. “Might I ask your name, my lord?”
“Where is this place?”
His voice was deep, melodious. The refined Lyran dialect he used supported her suspicion that he was aristocracy. How then, had he come to be here?
“That wasn’t an answer, my lord.” She dared a glance at him. He was gazing into the fountain. His eyes were pale silver-blue, like glacial ice, beautiful and cold. She turned back to the fountain, terrified and excited by the mystery of him. When he said nothing, she relented. “The education district.”
Startled by the question, she looked at him again. He was looking around at the rest of the courtyard now. Was he serious? How could he not know what city they were in?
“The Caithin capital, Demin.”
A faint smirk touched his lips. He looked at her then and she felt again as if the air were being pressed from her lungs. An icy spike of fear froze her to the spot.
“Who are you?”
He took one of her hands in his, his grip warm and gentle. “Help me.”
The courtyard faded around them. The sharp tang of sulfur stung her nose. Their environment transformed. Moonlight vanished behind thick storm clouds. A rugged black landscape surrounded them, riddled with cracks emitting a red glow and stifling heat. The Sinner’s Hereafter of passionate priests’ sermons given solid form.
Any who use the ascard for aught but good shall burn in the Sinner’s Hereafter.
He who turns his back on his countrymen shall burn in the Sinner’s Hereafter.
Any woman unfaithful to her husband shall burn in the Sinner’s Hereafter.
A panicked cry ripped from her throat. She yanked her hand away and fell back, landing hard on the cobbles in the courtyard.
When she looked up, there was no one by the fountain.
Her heart pounded and the sting of sulfur persisted in her nose. She grabbed her shawl, scrambled to her feet and ran back to the residence. At the stairwell, she sank panting on the bottom step and covered her mouth to muffle frantic sobs. Panic faded. When the frightened tears stopped, she stood and made her way up the stairs, still trembling like the last fall leaf clinging to its branch before the onslaught of a rising storm.
In the bedroom, she lit a candle and sat at her vanity. She checked her elbows in the mirror. Both had raw scrapes from her fall on the cobbles. She chewed at her lip as she dabbed them clean. How would she hide this from Jayce?
She could heal them with ascard, but students were banned from using those skills outside of the academy until their third year. Punishment for breaking that rule wasn’t severe, but she couldn’t afford any negative attention.
Ascard Watchmen, with their fine-tuned ability to sense ascard use, enforced that rule and other laws governing ascard use. Any use of ascard outside of healing was illegal and immoral, excepting the Watchmen themselves. They were the reason her father had Hadris teach her to hide her ascard ability. He hadn’t wanted them taking his daughter away. Now, with Hadris and her parents dead, she had to manage on her own. Her engagement protected her noble status. Becoming a healer gave her value in Caithin society.
Do those things matter if I’m miserable?
Jayce moaned in his sleep and her heart jumped.
When he didn’t move, she relaxed and stared into the mirror. She could still see those glacial eyes piercing into her, the need in them powerful and captivating. The hand that held hers had been strong, but he hadn’t held her against her will.
He asked for your help and you ran away.
She scowled at the mirror then shuddered, remembering the smell of sulfur, the red glow, the broken landscape. There was power involved in this beyond her understanding, forbidden power that enticed her with the visage of a handsome stranger.