Today I am delighted to be joining the Escapists Tours blog tour for The 13th Zodiac by L. Krauch, the first book in the Zodiac series, with the second book Dreamtaker due for release next month on the 13th. If you are a fan of Final Fantasy then this is the book for you, and below I have an extract to whet your appetite as well as a chance to win a copy for yourself.
Running from his past finally catches up to Jase Raion, an ex-member of the Ashen Guard and the Crown Prince of Chall. After settling on the island of Aria, he receives an unexpected contract: The lost princess of Aria was discovered living in the port town of Brighton, on the outskirts of the island Kingdom.
A trip to the markets in Brighton ends abruptly as Liya Fairaway stumbles into Jase. She vanishes in the busy marketplace when Jase realizes who she is, the lost princess of Aria and the bearer of the 13th Zodiac: Eternity. And his target.
Something ancient pulls them together, a bond that neither can deny. Reluctantly at first, Jase joins Liya and the other Zodiac to end the threat of Soren Raion, the King of Chall.
Time is not on their side, and Fate has other plans.
~Brighton, port of Aria~
Day 26 of the 6th Month: Cancer
Jase Raion sighed, opening the missive one more time. The broken seal of Chall—a lion’s head backed by both a sword and a gun—stared back at him. His father’s seal. He closely reviewed the description of the woman with dark skin and black hair that matched the princess’s guardian. The princess would be about eighteen, almost three years younger than he was. The princess had been presumed dead for ten years. His father had him tracking ghosts.
Jase crumpled the missive and dropped it to the dirt. With the heel of his hiking boot, he dug it into the ground. His light brown hair fell into place over his forehead as he ran his fingers through it. A streak of black mixed into his bangs. He collected his thoughts while merchants rolled past him on carts full of goods led by horses.
A peregrine falcon flew over the tops of scattered trees, landing on a tall post. Beneath the bird’s nest, a flag adorned with the crest of Aria fluttered in the wind. Rows upon rows of green apple trees appeared in the distance, giving way to dirt and overgrowth. The wide cobblestone road exited the orchards leading to Brighton, a small town resting on the edge of the ocean. Salt hung heavy in the air.
Jase meandered down the streets of the market. He adjusted the sleeves of his brown leather jacket. Touching his right bicep, he brushed off a stray apple blossom. The leather covered his tattoo of a sword crossed with a gun beneath a crown—the brand of the Ashen Guard. He didn’t need the attention it warranted.
An elderly man wearing a tattered suit jacket motioned from the shadows. Jase glanced in his direction. The ragged man nodded feverishly at Jase, motioning him closer. A wide toothless grin spread across his face. The man opened his suit jacket, a few revolvers were sewn inside the lining. Jase waved a dismissive hand. Tucking his hands into his pockets, he shifted away from the shady merchant from Chall.
The merchant motioned to a different person walking through the gates. “Sunglasses, polyester clothing, easy to clean! And now in stock, a few select goods from the factories of Chall.” Jase shook his head. Time’s influence had changed his home. And not for the better. Technology was advancing at an unusual rate under his father’s rule and Time’s guidance.
A prospective male buyer with long blond hair pulled back in a bun, pushed past Jase and bounded up to the old man. Coins tinked in exchange. The buyer nodded at the shady old man and tucked away his purchase. Jase didn’t see what the buyer had chosen, but he hoped it wasn’t a gun.
A second shopkeeper shouted about the gorgeous new crop of red apples imported from Undall. Jase’s attention shifted from the black market Chall merchant to the shopkeeper in green and purple silks. He approached the fruit cart to browse. Selecting an apple, he turned it over, making sure there were no bruises or imperfections. The red of it seemed out of place; most apples in the kingdom of Aria were green or a golden yellow.
Jase tossed a few coins onto the stand and nodded at the vendor. He shined the apple on his shirt and glanced around the area again. This time he spotted her—the woman from the missive. The description matched perfectly: a tall, dark bronze-skinned woman with black hair tied in a tight braid. Easy enough to spot in the sea of milky white skin, and at least a few years older than he was. She spoke to the buyer from earlier.
He couldn’t make out what they said. The man appeared annoyed with her. She brushed him off and walked away. The buyer huffed and leaned against a building with his arms over his chest. Concern crossed Jase’s face as the blond man looked directly at him, then smiled. Dismissing it as strange, Jase took a bite of the fruit and walked toward his target.
Before he could reach her, the apple flew from his hand. A woman carrying a woven basket slammed into him. The contents of the basket littered the cobblestone, his apple resting amongst them.
The woman let out a frustrated growl and knelt to gather the ginger and garlic bulbs. A careless passerby stepped directly onto the garlic, breaking the paper-like outer covering and squashing a few with their boots.
“Hey, do you—” Jase knelt beside her to help her gather the groceries.
“No, I got this. I’m sorry. I should have been looking where I was going.” The woman shook her head as hazelnut brown hair fell around her shoulders. The right shoulder of her simple blue dress fell out of place. “It’s the first crop of garlic this year and…” She turned to look at him. Their eyes met.
Jase nearly lost his footing when he gazed into her ocean blue eyes. No, it can’t be… can it? He shook his head. No, she died ten years ago when… This is merely a coincidence. He reached into his pocket, forgetting he had ditched the missive at the entrance of Brighton. Clearing his throat, he averted his gaze. He had been staring.
Jase stood and held out his hand, helping her to her feet. Her cheeks were red; he wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed or just shy. The woman forced a smile and placed his dirty apple back into his hands.
“I’ll buy you a new one.” She tucked her hair back behind her ear with an apple blossom-shaped pick. The basket returned to the crook of her arm.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to buy me a new apple. I was here looking for someone, and I saw her…” Jase glanced around. The bronze-skinned woman had vanished into the crowd. But the blond man remained. Cursing under his breath, he turned back to the brunette.
She reached out to greet him properly. “I’m Liya Fairaway, but everyone calls me Li.”
“I’m Jase, Jase Rai… you know, my last name doesn’t matter.” Jase, trying to be cordial, took her hand in greeting. One awkward handshake later, Liya shifted the basket to both of her arms.
“Nice to meet you, Jase. I would love to stay and chat, but I’m late to catch up with someone.” Liya moved away from him backward and bumped into someone else. She laughed nervously, apologizing to the person. As Liya turned away from him fixing the sleeve of her dress, he saw it. There, on the square of her right shoulder blade, something peeked out from where the sleeve of her dress had fallen. The symbol of Eternity.
“Shit!” Jase gripped his sword’s hilt to draw the blade. He pushed it back into its sheath as he lost sight of her. Liya, like the other woman, vanished into the bustling port town. Patrons and merchants went about their day oblivious to what happened.
Liya, the one he was sent for, had run into him. Ten years passed since the day he last saw her. Ten years and she fell into his arms, got up, brushed herself off, and walked away.
Liya returned to the wagon tied up on the outskirts. Apple blossoms littered it, and the occasional apple rested on the goods left inside. A green apple leaned against a wood axe. Jemi was nowhere in sight. It wasn’t like her to be late. Her mind focused on the man she had seen in town. He seemed familiar.
Hoisting the woven basket into the wagon, Liya grinned and went to wave when Jemi came around the corner. Her smile vanished, and her hand returned to her side. Jemi’s frown caused her to worry.
She carried a bag of groceries in one hand and a parchment clutched in the other. Her dark skin contrasted with the white apple blossoms. A few stray petals rested in her raven-black hair.
Jemi grabbed Liya by the arm.
“Jemi! What are you doing!” Liya protested, trying to wrestle her arm free. She stopped when Jemi’s piercing brown eyes bore into her.
Jemi wordlessly dragged Liya around to the front of the wagon and tossed their groceries behind her. Turning to Liya, she snapped, “Why were you alone? Where’s Jiroo?”
“He went on ahead…” Liya said cautiously, freeing her arm from Jemi’s grasp. “After he walked back to the wagon with me.”
“Good,” Jemi grunted and motioned for Liya to get in. “Let’s head home.”
Liya quietly climbed into the wagon. Something had set Jemi off, it was unlike her to be so gruff. Jemi growled at the parchment as she opened it and passed it to Liya. She hopped into the front of the wagon and snapped the reins. The horse started forward.
“The king’s son found us,” was all Jemi said after Brighton disappeared in the distance. The ocean sky broke apart into rows of apple trees and a dirt road.
“The king’s son? You don’t mean—? Where did you get this?” Liya held the tattered piece of paper in her hands.
“That man discarded it, and I found it. Take a look. You might not like what you see,” Jemi didn’t look back from the reins when she spoke.
Liya uncrumpled the dirty parchment. A broken wax seal of Chall flaked at the top of the letter. Written inside was a detailed description of Jemi and herself. She held her breath when she saw the words: Eternity on the right shoulder blade.
She dropped the parchment and touched her shoulder, trying to feel for it. The unending loop was there. And now someone else knew. Searching her thoughts, she could only think of the invasion of Aria ten years ago. She knew the King of Chall sat on Aria’s throne. But she wasn’t anyone important.Just some nobody from Brighton. A girl living with her two adoptive twin brothers, their mom, and Jemi. What would the King of Chall want with her and that mark on her shoulder?
Jemi’s scowl stopped Liya from asking anymore. For the rest of the mile-long ride, the two of them rode in silence until they reached home. Liya held her hand to her shoulder blade, lightly touching the symbol of Eternity with her fingertips. Her mind wandered, trying to find a reasonable explanation of what was so important about it. It was a weird birthmark, nothing special. But now, after running into Jase in the markets and how Jemi was acting, was there something they weren’t telling her?
The cart rolled to a stop. Liya looked up from where she was staring at the wood of the cart and took in the view of her home. The house had an orchard surrounding it. It was set back in the depths of a maze of trees and brush. The cottage had additions attached to the original form. They had adjusted it to fit more than three after Liya and Jemi arrived. Jemi, along with Liya’s two adoptive twin brothers, had built the extensions before Liya turned nine. The mismatched wood had flowers placed lovingly around the windows.
“Tokei! Jiroo! It’s time to move!” Jemi’s commanding voice startled Liya out of her thoughts. Jemi hopped off the cart, still scowling, and marched over to an axe resting against the side of the house. It was two-handed with a single blade and nearly as tall as Liya. The handle was wrapped in dark brown leather. Retrieving and clipping her two-handed axe onto her back, Jemi marched toward the cottage door.
“What’s going on? Why all the shouting?” Tokei greeted them first. The oldest of the Fairaway twins pushed his sandy blond hair back as stray pieces fell out of place. His deep blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight. Liya grabbed onto Tokei’s shirt to steady herself as he lifted her out of the wagon with ease.
“Ugh, what now?” Jiroo kept his distance as the women left the wagon loaded with supplies. As the smaller of the Fairaway twins, he kept his hair much longer than his older brother. Metal framed sunglasses hid his brown eyes.
Jemi stopped, stared at Jiroo, then pointed at the sunglasses resting on his nose. “Where did you… get those?”
“I bought them.” Jiroo frowned as he marched past Jemi. Jemi twisted her face in disgust as she shook her head at Jiroo. Liya went to speak, but Jemi continued to cut across her.
“Anyway, a mercenary from Chall arrived in Brighton. We need to get to June’s boat and head to Undall. Before he catches up with us.” Jemi turned to Tokei and tossed him a bag to pack.
“A mercenary? We can take him. Easily.” Tokei slung the pack over his shoulder. He flexed unnecessarily and winked at Liya. She giggled in response.
“Not just any mercenary, the king’s own son.” Jemi turned to him, her eyes narrowed.
Tokei let the bag drop down his shoulder. “The King of Chall sent his son?”
Jemi nodded at Tokei. She glanced over at Jiroo, who had a sour look on his face. “Jiroo, do you think you can convince June to take us to Undall? Since she’s your girlfriend?”
“Probably…” Jiroo groaned loudly and pushed past them, bumping into Liya. He looked at her from over the sunglasses. His brown eyes stared into her. He shook his head and scoffed. Liya followed him with her eyes, clutching her dress in her hands. He always had such animosity toward her, even when she was little.
Jiroo climbed into the wagon and picked up the dirty parchment from the floor. He opened it, then quickly closed it. Liya watched him tuck it into his pocket. He shot a quick glance at her; the color drained from his face when he saw her looking at him. A shiver rolled down her spine as she looked past him, hoping his eyes weren’t locked on hers. Something made her want to puke. She narrowed her eyes and thought, What was that about?
Averting her gaze, she turned toward Tokei. Tokei rolled his eyes at his brother, then furrowed his brow at Jiroo’s expression. Tokei pulled the pack onto his shoulder and sighed. “I’ll get started packing.”
“Good, we’ll need bedrolls and supplies for—”
“Jemi! Will you stop! Are you talking about the man in Brighton with the black streaks in his hair? Jase?” Liya dropped her shoulders in frustration.
Jemi stopped pacing between the wagon and the cottage. “How do you know his name?”
“I ran into him in the markets, and he told me. He doesn’t seem like a threat to me.” Liya crossed her arms over her chest.
“No, this isn’t good. Did you tell him anything?” Jemi paused, trying to compose herself.
“I told him my name. You know, something you do when you meet someone new? I don’t see why you’re so worked up.” Liya pressed her fingers to her temple.
“You shouldn’t have told him. That man… Jase… is the Crown Prince of Chall. His father is responsible for the fall of Aria.” Jemi pressed her hand on Liya’s shoulder.
“I know, Jemi.” Liya pushed her hand off her shoulder. “What are you not telling me?” Liya pressed.
Tokei shifted nervously. He went to put his hand on Liya’s shoulder. She brushed him away and glared at Jemi. Tokei sighed and spoke calmly, “Jemi, from what you said, I don’t know if we have time to—”
“No, Tokei, we don’t, but Li needs to hear this.” Jemi shook her head. Liya waited, staring at her friend’s downcast eyes. “Your father and my father made me promise to protect you no matter what. They sent me here, with you. You were eight, I was… sixteen. Liya…”
“Don’t call me Liya… only Mom calls me that.” Liya didn’t like how she was talking, using her full name instead of the nickname she had given her when they were children.
“You might want to sit down, Li, this isn’t going to be easy to hear.” Jemi held her hand out to Liya. She already knew Liya wouldn’t sit down. She had been keeping her safe for most of her life. Jemi did not like how it made her feel when Jase arrived in Brighton. All her efforts to keep their secret under wraps unraveled a lot faster than she wanted. She had grown complacent and risked their safety so Liya could go shopping. They needed to get moving. “Perhaps this story would be best told at sea, why don’t we—”
“Tell me, now,” Liya interrupted her.
Jemi sighed and pressed her fingers to her temples. Time was running out. She didn’t want to have to explain herself, but she knew Liya wouldn’t let it go. “All right, it was ten years ago, the night of the invasion. When the King of Chall came and killed everyone, including your parents…”
The 13th Zodiac is a High Fantasy, slow-burn romance with a hint of Anime. Originally, L. Krauch wrote it as a comic book in high school. Back then, it was merely pages drawn on computer paper to bring smiles to her audience of 13. The problem was, it had no plot. Now, 20 years, and three kids later, she sat down, gave that plotless comic a plot and turned it into a sprawling high fantasy novel.
Her day job is sticking things to newborns, and by sticking things to newborns, she means hearing screens.
In her free time, she hangs out with her black cat, Luna, and keeps three small humans from killing each other. She and her husband have been happily married for 12 years and originally met in a MMO. To maintain her sanity, she now writes. And she may or may not have a thing for apples.