Today is my stop on the Escapists Tours book tour for Hands Like Secrets by Mariah Norris. This book has some incredible representation and the worldbuilding, especially the magic system is fascinating, and in this post I have an extract to whet your appetite as well as a chance to win a copy for yourself. Please do also check out the other blogs participating in the tour.
Saeli has always been different: she is autistic, in a world that doesn’t have a word for people like her.
She attends the exclusive institute of Aschamon, learning to harness her inner qi and preparing to join the battle between her people and their enemies, the Crimson Cowls. But despite her years of work, her teachers still refuse to elevate her to Silver Mantle status and dedicate her to their god’s service.
When notorious Crimson Cowl Rafel Kailar breaks into her school, it is either cruel irony…or fate…that Saeli is there to confront him.
But Rafel is nothing like the Cowls she’s been taught to hate. He draws her in with his charm and reveals his ultimate ambition: to overthrow the gods of Verre and end a hundred years of war. And he needs Saeli’s help.
As she is pulled deeper into Rafel’s schemes, Saeli fears she’ll be forced to choose whose side she’s truly on: her people, who have never understood her…or Rafel, who’d gladly turn her world upside-down to kill the gods.
Hands Like Secrets is the first installment of The Seven Strands, a new adult epic fantasy series that follows a young autistic woman who joins an assassin on a hunt across worlds for a god-killing immortal. Along the way, she’ll have to come to terms with love, loss, betrayal, and the shifting nature of good and evil itself.
Isasar’s Temple is dark, but for the moonlit windows. Stained glass captures and fractures the wan light into jeweled greens, smoky silver blues, and cool yellows.
I slip through the gaping sanctuary doorway, pausing to let my eyes adjust. Colored moonbeams frame the outline of the altar and glint like crystals off candles and prayer glasses. My gaze subconsciously follows the familiar massive mural of our god Isasar: seated in his psittacine-drawn chariot, the huge birds’ tail feathers streaming behind, commanding in his frozen romp along the vast windows’ length and breadth.
The Temple is unsettlingly silent for a break-in.
I’m not supposed to be here.
I edge further in, slipping from pew to pew and using a trickle of qi to muffle my steps.
It takes a moment to spot them: two figures, struggling silently in the arched entryway to the sorarc tower on the other side of the Temple. One is a student: Jeroen, his white-blond hair easy to pick out in the dim light. Against our High Priestess’s orders, he’d rushed headlong into the Temple in some misguided attempt to be a hero.
But it is Jeroen’s assailant I’ve snuck in to see.
The intruder is tall and clothed entirely in black, blending into the darkness so well I can make out little about him. Boots, pants, tunic; a face-obscuring, deep red hood; and fingerless gloves that stretch up his forearms. His bare upper arms are radiant in comparison.
The red hood betrays his origin, and I carefully exhale.
A Crimson Cowl.
These words, in Mantle culture, invoke images of hooded demons who laugh as they swoop out of the night to burn and kill. The Cowls have been at war with our people for over a hundred years. They are hedonistic, erratic, unredeemable, and their raiders are the reason all Silver Mantles watch their backs after the sun sets.
Despite having studied them and their ways for years, I’d never thought I’d see one here, on my school’s most sacred ground. Aschamon has stood for generations on its hill, within the safest city in the safest Mantle region on Verre.
Yet here is this raider, boldly violating our god’s sanctuary, holding a trained student captive with only his fist and his qi.
I’m not supposed to be here, I scold myself again. The High Priestess told me to report the break-in to Professor Lars, and a Silver Mantle always obeys her superiors. If I ever want to be one…
I stifle a sigh.
On a superficial level, I know myself to be a nearly perfect candidate for the Mantle. I am well-learned, loyal, logical in debate, methodical in my studies, level-headed when I need to be—too level-headed if my classmates’ gossip is any indication. Yet of all the students my age, I alone at Aschamon still wear the gray of not-yet dedicated…which means I have no right to call myself a Mantle, not even in my head.
And not a day goes by that the entire student body doesn’t feel the need to remind me of it. They whisper, snicker, fall silent when I walk past. The worst ones clear out of any space I enter like I carry a contagious aura of failure.
It’s been this way since my third year at this school.
I’d turned nineteen last Equinox. This is supposed to be my graduation year.
“Rot in shayol!” Jeroen snarls in a low, rough voice. Startled, I duck behind a pew.
Where is the High Priestess? She’d rushed in after Jeroen, mere minutes before me, but now she is nowhere to be seen. I stay low, not wanting to be caught by the Cowl, of course…but I don’t want to be seen by the woman who ordered me away, either.
Jeroen’s defiance chokes off as the intruder grips him harder. He holds Jeroen with ease, tension apparent in the lean muscles of his arms. The Cowl’s body speaks more of agility than sheer strength, but those arms and chest do not lack definition. My eyes have adjusted enough to make out a hint of nose and chin under the deep shadow of his hood.
He’s intimidating, I suppose, but there’s nothing unnatural or otherworldly about him.
“Last chance, ankarka,” the Cowl retorts, and I bite back a gasp.
I hadn’t expected to be able to understand him.
A Crimson Cowl who knows Ilun, who’s studied our tongue enough to speak it! From my studies, I assumed Cowls only knew Haan, that barbaric tongue from beyond the southern mountains. How…?
My fists clench. Here I am, hiding, while a fellow student is in trouble, and my brain chooses to fixate on languages. A real Silver Mantle would do something; jump up, wave their arms, distract the Cowl, and then…?
“Unhand him,” a deep feminine voice commands, nearly startling me out from behind my pew this time.
Our High Priestess, clad in silver from head to toe, strides out from behind a screen by the altar.
My hands unclench in relief. Oh, thank Isasar. Her presence spares me the need to do anything more than stay out of sight while she takes care of the situation. With any luck, she’ll never know I was here.
Subtle colors flicker around her body as she advances, lighting the fury on her face, and now I have my answer as to why she’d hidden at first. She put up her defensive forms while out of sight, so the Cowl won’t know which ones she chose.
I let my gaze relax and pass a wisp of qi through the energy node in my forehead. Colored trails flare up in my vision, the auric remnants of every person who’d walked the Temple within the last few watches. Majahel sight, as this is called, allows one to see the actual arc light of qi, not just the physical manifestations.
The High Priestess’s flickering colors shimmer into visible patterns of woven energy strands, dancing around her body.
Fleetness, grounding, stamina, I count, all standard wards for combat. She means to fight him, then. Block. Deaden. Mirror-back, as if block wasn’t enough. I frown as my gaze traces the various qi patterns. Heal, wow. Does she really think she’ll need that? And is that a fireflash trap? My Advanced Forms instructor, Lars, had explained that a fireflash explosion would take down anyone around you, friend and foe alike. You only put one up if you needed to win at any cost.
By Isasar, she’s warded herself to face a small army. I shake my head. Who is this Cowl?
The Cowl shoves Jeroen to the side and folds his glove-clad arms.
“Your Ladyship,” he croons. His voice reminds me of sunshine on a midsummer afternoon—warm and self-assured, with an undercurrent of pride in its own strength. Had it belonged to anyone else, I might have enjoyed listening to it.
“What do you want here?” The Priestess pauses mere feet from my hiding place.
The intruder laughs.
“The fact that you came alone tells me you already know.”
I still can’t quite reconcile hearing fluent Ilun coming out of a Cowl’s mouth. He has the faintest of accents: a flattening of the wider vowels, and he leans on his n’s and s’s more than a native speaker would. But I imagine these quirks are nearly unnoticeable unless you’re like me, with an ear for subtlety in speech.
And, I realize, a bilingual Cowl is likely a literate Cowl. Most scrolls, especially older scrolls and those involving qi traditions, are written in scholarly Ilun. Is this one unusual, or are they all more educated than we give them credit for?
He slowly draws off his hood, brings his hands to the front, and flicks his wrists. Light blossoms between them, blindingly bright in the dimness, and I get my first real look at our enemy.
My eyes widen.
His face suits the warm timbre of his voice; strong, clean lines, with a dark arrogance in the set of his jaw and the way his mouth curls in a smirk. Thick hair past his shoulders, pulled back in a tail. Eyes so pale I can’t distinguish their color.
More surprisingly, he can’t be more than five or six years older than I.
The Priestess sighs and lifts her chin. “Rafel Kailar. I wondered when you would finally come for me.”
I gasp for real this time and smack a hand over my mouth.
That’s Rafel? The Rafel?
Every Silver Mantle from Aschera to the southern mountains knows that name. The infamous assassin, practically a dark anhelas in mortal flesh; he’s been marauding for close to eight years now. This is a man who single-handedly assassinates Anjahel generals and decimates entire towns. Uncatchable and unstoppable as a midwinter storm, or so I’ve heard.
That’s insane. This guy can’t be out of his twenties!
But he doesn’t deny the allegation, and the High Priestess’s eyes follow him like they would a venomous viper.
Plus, hadn’t he already broken into our school, alone, without a trace?
Unease, cold and sour, settles in my stomach at the thought. The Rafel of Mantle lore isn’t just any Crimson Cowl; he’s the worst of them. The Priestess’ earlier command for me to keep the other professors away suddenly takes on sinister implications.
He gestures, and his light bursts into a thousand tiny sparks that scatter about the Temple. Each ignites a lamp or one of the tiny prayer cups on the altar. The room comes alight in lurid, flickering yellow.
A figure in silver darts into his path.
“Get back, gila spawn!” Jeroen growls, a fanatical light in his eyes.
Was that what I’d contemplated doing before the Priestess showed herself?
“Jeroen!” the Priestess warns. He ignores her, holding up his hands in preparation for a form.
“Stand aside, boy.” Rafel’s nose wrinkles. “This doesn’t concern you.”
“You dare pollute our sanctuary with your foul presence?” Jeroen sneers back. “I say that concerns all who proudly wear the Silver in Lord Isasar’s name.”
Arrogant white cords.
For god’s sake, Jeroen. This isn’t some hero fantasy to brag around Nolen Hall later. Stop showing off and get out of the Priestess’s way!
See, Jeroen is an Anjahel, a gifted one, one of Aschamon’s elites. They are marked by a braided white cord worn around their waists. Everyone but our professors and the city Council gives way to them. Unfortunately, some of them take that as permission to bully anyone they don’t like.
I’d borne the edge of Jeroen’s jeering and “jokes” for years; for my lack of Mantle, mostly, but he and his little group of friends also like to mock the way I speak, and especially the way I don’t always control my hands when I’m talking.
To say I don’t like him is putting it mildly.
Instead of retreating, Jeroen spins his arms in a warding gesture that ends in smacking his wrists together. Tongues of crackling white split the gloom, shooting from his hands to engulf the Cowl.
Three-Pronged Lightning. My eyebrows lift. It’s a complex pattern of Spark and Flow, two opposing elemental energies, and I’ve never seen it danced in earnest before.
Blazing with sattva energy, Jeroen resembles one of Isasar’s psittacine birds: silver and white and oh so sure of himself. What I wouldn’t give for a taste of that poise and peace and clear vision all Silver Mantles seem to possess. He’s probably never experienced a single doubt in his life.
Light and sound vanish, like the darkness sucked it up; I recognize Void energy when I see it. Jeroen’s target stands with one arm outstretched, unharmed, that amused smirk still on his face.
Now, I’m no combat student, but even I could appreciate the raw power and speed behind Jeroen’s strike. And yet this Cowl had brushed aside a fifth-tier hex like a cowen would swat a bluefly. I’m not even sure my Advanced Forms professor can do that.
I remember again whom they face, and a barb of fear slides back into my chest.
“Don’t make me hurt you,” the Cowl says. “Last warning.”
The Priestess lifts her hands but hesitates; she can’t attack without catching Jeroen in the crossfire. He stands his ground, pale-faced but straight-backed, and I can almost admire his sheer, if stupid, courage.
The tension breaks in a flurry of movement.
Jeroen hurls another Spark form. The Cowl shifts fluidly to one side as he brings his hands up and around to form a wing arm; yellow Push energy crackles from his fingertips. Energies arc across the ceiling and blast over the pews, scything together in a sharp crack. I drop to the floor, barely in time to duck the resulting blast.
The heat is so intense I smell varnish liquefying on the pews.
I grit my teeth and dig fingernails into my fists. This isn’t anything like my combat classes; this is like being on an actual battleground. People die messing with power like this.
The forms disintegrate in a final burst of light; ear-ringing silence descends.
I dare to look.
A handful of guttering fires surround the aftermath of Jeroen’s attack. The Priestess kneels over the Anjahel, who sprawls unmoving in the flickering light. She holds her hands above his head and moves them to his chest. After several passes, she stops and drops her head, her hands curling into fists.
By the silver god. Is he dead?
I taste blood and realize I’ve bitten my lip. Oh gods, he is. A bully’s life, snuffed out like a candle, never to torment me or anyone else again. My uncharitable thoughts echo mockingly back at me. I’ve had it in my head somehow, despite the Cowl’s threats, he wouldn’t actually hurt Jeroen because…who would hurt a student?
A Crimson Cowl, brainless, that’s who.
When the Priestess opens her eyes again, they are full of cold fire. She flows to her feet, straight into Mountain stance.
Jeroen’s killer waits with crossed arms.
“I did warn him,” he comments.
Like swatting a bluefly, I repeat to myself. Oddly, the strongest emotion I can summon through shock is a twisty sort of disappointment. And not because Jeroen is dead, but because his death means Rafel truly is a murderer. I honestly don’t know why this surprises me; every textbook I’ve ever read about Cowls makes their bloodlust and heartlessness clear.
Rafel lifts his arms, bares his teeth in a wicked smile, and I push down my ambivalence as I do with any feeling I cannot immediately parse.
“Now it’s just you and I,” he taunts.
My breath catches as I wait for someone to make a move. I hate that this raider’s arrogant, cocky attitude is compelling, despite what I just witnessed.
The High Priestess answers his taunt with Immortal Points the Way, a spiral of gold-tinged energy that sweeps the Temple. The Cowl whips his arm in an indigo circle-snap, causing the spiral to burst into a thousand shining shards. A few alight on my exposed sleeves and back, making my robe smoke.
I slap out the little embers and shudder to think of what damage that form could have done, had it been aimed at me.
“Really, now, is that all you’ve got?” He bounces lightly on his toes, maintaining a loose long guard, one arm outstretched in front and the other bent at the elbow.
The High Priestess laughs.
“Your arrogance will be your downfall, though I am willing to spare your life.” She raises a graceful hand. “If I can.”
“How considerate.” The Cowl slides into a crouch.
I recognize the components of the next attack, Water Flows Downhill and Cross the Courtyard; Flow and Root energies twisting into a hex pattern I’ve never seen. White light halos the Priestess’ chest, lifting her hair away from her face. She flicks both wrists downward in a cast-off. Ice crackles across the carpets, chilling everything in its wake.
With my majahel sight still up, I can track the glowing energy strands as they crystallize the air.
All this she executes in the space of a breath, but it’s still too slow to touch him. A sharp withdraw-and-push on his part, and the ice gathers in a frozen wave at his feet. He crosses his hands and thrusts, palms out, dividing the energy so that both streams spiral back from opposite sides.
The Priestess’ lips thin, but she steps aside easily and sends the energy into the ground.
“You are welcome to pretend this isn’t a fight to the death.” Rafel’s voice hardens. “But don’t expect me to share that delusion.”
He pivot-steps into Ribbon in the Air, sending a concussive shockwave through the Temple. I duck instinctively but look up again in confusion. The blast sends oil lamps and prayer glasses smashing against walls, pews…and little else. Most of the lamps drown in their own fuel as they fall.
Ribbon is one of those forms my professors jokingly call a “light show”; a one-tier, all glim and little mox. Inefficient. Why waste the energy? If he’d hoped to start a proper fire, higher-tier forms existed for that. And if he’d simply wanted to darken the room, why light all the lamps in the first place?
Even the Priestess frowns, standing tense like she expects a follow-up attack.
An oil-spattered tapestry, unbalanced by the wave, breaks free and falls with a muffled thump. The resulting gust flares the little leftover fires and draws the Priestess’ eye for a critical moment.
Faster than even my enhanced gaze can follow, Rafel leaps forward and spins into a new dance. Blue and orange flames ignite the air around him, blasting my face with heat, and the Priestess only barely dodges away. The move brings the Cowl parallel with my hiding place.
Ribbon was a feint and a distraction, I realize. And I think I know why he chose Isasar’s sanctuary for this showdown; he knows she cares what happens to it.
Hot fury flickers in the Priestess’ eyes, dangerous for a Mantle.
Our professors drill this principle into us time and again: emotion and sattva qi, a Silver Mantle’s power, cannot work together. Sattva requires a cool, collected mind to flow.
With a chill, I wonder if this Cowl assassin knows about sattva’s weakness. Is killing a student and vandalizing the Temple merely theater to keep the Priestess distracted? Or is it part of an overall plot to make her too angry to fight efficiently?
Our High Priestess is not so easily manipulated, however. She breathes in and lifts her hands, settling into high guard. Rafel’s mouth twitches as though he’d smile, but the Priestess strikes with such speed that the smile never manifests. I identify Snake Strike, a Bind hex designed to lock an opponent’s limbs together.
Caught flat-footed, with no time to dodge, he flings arms in front of his chest and catches the hex with unrefined Push energy and an audible grunt. The Priestess rotates her wrists; in doing so, she tightens the warp and, therefore, the pressure of the form.
I hold my breath.
I am a writer and artist living in Largo, FL, where I live with my husband, son, and our three cats. When I’m not writing, you can usually find me drawing portraits and fantasy art, dabbling in anything from gardening to candle making, or spending far too much time on Twitter.
Prize: An eBook or Paperback Copy of Hands Like Secrets!
Starts: May 30, 2022 at 12:00am EST
Ends: June 5, 2022 at 11:59pm EST
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