Zuhra and Inara have grown up in the Citadel of the Paladins, an abandoned fortress where legendary, magical warriors once lived before disappearing from the world—including their Paladin father the night Inara was born.
On that same night, a massive, magical hedge grew and imprisoned them within the citadel. Inara inherited their father’s Paladin power; her eyes glow blue and she is able to make plants grow at unbelievable rates, but she has been trapped in her own mind because of a “roar” that drowns everything else out—leaving Zuhra virtually alone with their emotionally broken human mother.
For fifteen years they have lived, trapped in the citadel, with little contact from the outside world…until the day a stranger passes through the hedge, and everything changes.
Sisters of Shadow and Light by Sara B. Larson will be available on November 5, but you can read an excerpt below!
[dropcap type=”circle”]T[/dropcap]he worn soles of my leather shoes—old Paladin ones found stashed in a closet—made a soft slap against the stone floors. I moved quickly through the hulking innards of the citadel, eager to reach the main door and fresh air—and my sister—beyond. The oppressive heat rose up while the emptiness pressed down as I passed shut door after shut door. I’d never understood how the lack of something could be felt so acutely, I only knew it could, because that pulsing, aching hollowness was a constant companion on the rare occasions when I was able to wander through the citadel alone. When Sami or Mother or even Inara was by my side, the sensation melted away, chased off by their voices or maybe just their mere presence. But when I was by myself, slipping through the endless hallways and stairs, a single being traipsing through a place intended to house hundreds, sometimes the sensation of vacancy was enough to send a chill skittering over my skin.
Brushing off the familiar but still unsettling feelings, I tipped my chin at Terence, the name I’d given the Paladin statue that stood, unmoving, at the top of the stairs like a sentinel, feigning a braveness that didn’t quite reach my soul. I should have been used to the statues scattered throughout the citadel, but no matter how many times I walked past their glittering lapis lazuli eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the stone likenesses of the beings who had once truly walked these halls were still watching me as I passed, somehow marking my presence in their domain. No one had ever said how old the citadel was, but it felt ancient. I’d often wondered if it had been hewn directly from the mountain it perched beside eons ago, long before Mother, or Adelric, or Gateskeep, or possibly even Vamala itself. Had the Paladin merely claimed it as their own once they arrived here, to save us from the rakasa? I didn’t know . . . would probably never know. That not knowing was like an itch beneath my skin, unreachable and, at times, unbearable.
When I finally reached the grand entrance, with its soaring ceiling high above and the massive door that led to the main courtyard straight ahead, a sigh of relief silently slid past my lips. But even outside the citadel, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being watched.
I slipped out the door, into a wall of heat and glaring sunshine. To my left, the dilapidated stables where the Paladin’s gryphons had once lived hunkered against the north side of the citadel. To my right were the orchards and gardens were Inara worked and lived. And surrounding it all was the hedge. It loomed across the courtyard, a hulking monster of vines and thorns. Averting my eyes from it, I hurried toward the orchard and Inara’s gardens beyond. Though I wished to spend all my waking time with Inara, that meant being outside from sunup until the shadows of sunset stretched across the courtyard, and part of me didn’t blame Mother for staying indoors at all times. As much as I longed to be with my sister, I couldn’t stand the sensation of the hedge hovering behind me; a presence so real, so tangible, at times I would spin around expecting to find someone standing there, watching me, only to face an empty courtyard—save for the impenetrable wall of vines, our living captor.
I’d wanted to ask Mother if it had always been that way, even before he left, before it grew into this monster. Had the hedge always been this . . . menacing? Or had he done something to change it that night—something beyond just increasing the size of it? Itch, itch, itch, beneath my plain, human skin. More not knowing . . . because I didn’t dare. I knew better than to broach the subject of before.
Inara kept her gardens closer to the citadel itself, on the southeast end of the grounds, where the sun shone longest—when the sun shone at all. Gateskeep was surrounded by sky-scraping peaks and cliffs, including the one the citadel had been built on, that were most often enshrouded in choking clouds and creeping fog. It was normally gray and waterlogged, even in summer, other than the occasional week of unbearable heat and sun, such as this one. I had no doubt that if I’d tried to grow the fruits and vegetables, we would have starved years ago, especially during the winter. But Inara had a way with plants, no matter the weather. With all living things, really. Well, all those that weren’t afraid of her.
I headed toward the boxes where she grew the vegetables and herbs in the spring, summer, and fall, winding through the small grove of trees, their branches already heavy with fruit, early even for Inara’s abilities to have coaxed out a harvest.
I found her bending toward one of the tomato plants, her long hair falling over her shoulder like night spilling across the evening sky, muttering in that way of hers, the cadence rising and falling, but most of the sounds unintelligible. The sun was hot on my back, as it had been all week. An unaccountably cloudless and blistering snap of weather, especially for the beginning of June.
“It’s a beautiful afternoon.” I spoke softly, hoping not to frighten her. She paused, her fingers briefly going still, but when she didn’t respond, returning instead to her work, I gently touched her elbow.
Inara jerked and straightened, spinning to face me. Even after all these years, my gaze was immediately drawn to her eyes before anything else—to her irises that glowed like the blue flames closest to the fuel of a fire. Her burning, ever-changing, fear-inspiring eyes.
“Can I do anything to help you?”
Inara cocked her head to the side, staring at my mouth as I spoke. I repeated the question, even as her uncomprehending gaze traveled over me and then moved on. If she’d been lucid, she surely would have questioned my inappropriate attire for working in a garden. Mother and I had spent hours upon hours repurposing many of her finer dresses to fit not only my height, but also what Sami claimed were the modern styles—insisting I be dressed to catch the eye of a potential suitor at any given time, no matter how much I protested the ridiculousness.
Inara, on the other hand, was mostly given Mahsami’s extra clothes, leftovers from the Paladin, or the more drab offerings from Mother’s closet and left to have her ankles (and half of her calves) on display beneath the too-short skirts.
We had no income to speak of, except for the meager funds Sami could sometimes acquire through selling off objects from the citadel, so new clothes were scarce. For some unfathomable reason, Mother’s drive to see me well dressed didn’t extend to selling more, though the massive structure was replete with antiques and valuables of all sizes and worth—including an obscene amount of diamonds, some probably near to priceless. But the fact was, even if Mother had asked Sami to go to market more often, the hedge wouldn’t have allowed it. It opened for Sami—and only her. And only when things were so grim our very lives depended upon it. Mother, Inara, and I had to wait inside the citadel.
“Help,” Inara finally repeated, loudly, almost a shout. I tried not to flinch. “Help.” She shook her head, a short, jerky movement. “Two. Four. Six. Four. Two.”
“Yes.” I glanced past her to the rows of tidy boxes where all of her plants grew, some leafy and wide, others stretching tall and thin with vines that snaked up wooden stakes. The air was full of the loamy scent of earth and vegetables. Most often, Inara spent her time trying to keep the plants from drowning, but not this week. “Do you need help harvesting anything? Or weeding?”
She turned back to her boxes and the words turned unintelligible once more.
I watched Inara silently for a moment, as she bent to prod at the soil at the base of some stakes that were leaning a bit, grown too heavy with beans, before moving forward to stand beside my sister. I’d forgotten to braid her hair that morning, but luckily it didn’t look as though she’d ripped any of it out. She did that sometimes, especially if she was cooped up too long in the citadel. She’d grab at her hair, even her face sometimes, as if trying to claw away the roar in her head. But in the gardens, she kept her hands in the soil and on her plants, leaving her hair and face untouched. She was her most lucid when she worked in the garden, which was why I wished to spend time with her there. Inside the citadel when I approached her, she wouldn’t even respond to me. There was only her incessant chanting and muttering, pacing and jerking, her hands trembling. It set Mother’s nerves on edge, but far from annoying me, Inara’s inability to communicate made me hurt inside, a wound that I couldn’t pinpoint or heal, but that ached constantly. At times worse than others—such as the nights when Mother refused to even acknowledge her younger daughter at supper.
Out here, Inara really looked at me sometimes, and on her best days, she even spoke of her plants in brief spurts. There were times when we actually had what could pass for a normal conversation. That’s when the chasm inside me felt the smallest and hurt the least. I prayed today might be a good day; that would at least make the sour tang of guilt at the back of my throat easier to swallow. “Nara . . . these strawberry plants look like they’re wilting.”
She didn’t look up from the beans, so I slowly reached out and touched her elbow again, drawing her attention. When her blue-flame eyes met mine, I smiled and repeated what I’d said, while gently tugging her toward the plants that indeed appeared as if the sweltering heat were a bit too much for them.
“Can I do something to help?”
Inara was fifteen, three years younger than me. Though we were the same height, where I had inherited some of Mother’s softness—my hips were wider, my breasts larger—Inara was leaner, almost too thin. “One, two . . . three . . . one, two, three, four . . .” she mumbled, with a shake of her head.
“Tell me how I can help. Do you want me to fetch more water?” I’d never been able to figure out what the counting meant—but it usually was something she did when she was agitated. I glanced past her to the well, where a few empty buckets were piled haphazardly. An underground river ran below the citadel, and our well was dug down deep enough for us to gather water from it. Just outside the hedge, at the edge of the citadel, a huge waterfall suddenly broke free from underneath the structure, crashing to the earth far below us. It was depicted in multiple paintings and tapestries in the citadel—and though I’d never seen the waterfall myself, I knew them to be accurate because I could hear the waterfall on this side of the citadel.
But she ignored my offer to get water and stepped forward, reaching out to the plants.
“Four . . . five . . . five, six . . .”
Her fingers brushed over the brown-tipped leaves and the tiny buds where miniature strawberries had already begun to form with the gentleness of a mother’s soothing caress. Her eyes fluttered shut and her hands stilled . . . and then Inara stiffened with a sharp intake of breath as if she’d been stabbed.
Unbridled elation coalesced through my limbs, laving every trace of guilt away. This was worth almost any cost—even the hurt in my mother’s eyes and the bloodstain on her stockings. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whispered my gratitude to the Great God as the blue fire that constantly burned in Inara’s eyes suddenly flared beneath her skin, racing through her veins—her cheeks, her neck, down her arms to her hands.
The very air changed when her eyes opened once more, so bright I couldn’t look directly into them. There was an acrid hint to the previously dry breeze, reminding me of the smell from striking flint with rocks to start a fire. I could even taste it on my tongue, a bitter, sharp tang.
There was no other explanation for what my sister could do, for the way the strawberry plants immediately straightened, the previously curled, semi-brown leaves unfurling into full greenness, as if woken from a slumber and stretching toward the sun and their full potential. Even the tiny strawberries grew before my eyes, turning a shade closer to red as Inara brushed her glowing fingers over them.
And then, with a groan, as if it took no small amount of effort, she pulled her hands back and the blue fire in her veins dimmed and then vanished.
When I looked into her face again, her eyes had dulled, the fire dimmed a bit. Inara blinked once, and then cocked her head as if listening for something. I heard nothing except for the nearby waterfall and the sound of leaves being rustled by the breeze that had turned fresh again, the bitter scent of her power gone with the disappearance of the Paladin fire in her veins; but I knew Inara suffered under the weight of a roar that remained silent to me. When she sighed, I couldn’t help but do the same, spurred by the sound of bone-deep relief issuing from my sister.
Then Inara looked directly at me, truly looked this time, and smiled—the first I’d seen in . . . a while. “Zuhra?”
My answering smile was accompanied by a tightness in my chest that somehow seemed attached to my eyes. I blinked rapidly to hold back the moisture that threatened to escape. This was why I begged to come out with her, why I cajoled Sami into getting more and more seeds for new plants on the rare occasions that she was able to venture to the market, why I prayed for inclement weather—or for days without rain. Why I preferred winter to summer, even though it was cold and dark and miserable and we rarely left the citadel, because that was when Inara had to work on keeping her plants alive inside the citadel, to encourage the vegetables to grow with almost no sunshine and very little warmth, which meant using her power far more often and greater amounts of it, too. And when I got Inara to tap into that magic, to help her plants, I got this in return. A handful of minutes with my sister in the summer, and sometimes a couple of miraculous hours in the winter, before she disappeared again, as surely as the fire in her veins always retreated back to her eyes.
Inara looked past me to the citadel, to the windows of the sitting room. “How long has it been?”
“Not that long,” I assured her, even though it actually had been over a week since she’d been this lucid. She’d tried to explain it to me once, years ago, about the roar in her head, the constant noise that drowned everything else out and threatened to drive her mad.
For some reason, when I got her to tap into her power, it abated and I got my sister—my real sister—to myself. Even if it was only for a few minutes.
There was so much to say, and yet I couldn’t decide where to start. There were never any guarantees of how long we had.
“Where’s Mother?” It was always the first question she asked, after wondering how long it had been. I forced myself to keep my gaze on her, not letting it trail up to the window where we’d both sat plying our needles for most of the day. My answer, too, was the same as always.
“Inside. She’s mad at me again,” I quickly added to keep Inara from dwelling on the fact that Mother avoided her as much as possible.
“What did you do now?” Inara pulled her gaze away from the empty window. Her words were slightly off. Mother claimed she was difficult to understand, but she was trying her best. I knew it wasn’t possible for us to comprehend how hard it must have been for her to learn language in such brief spurts throughout her life. Her lucid times had lasted longer as a child; I remembered reading stories to her for hours when she was little enough to sit in my lap, pointing out pictures to her, having her try to mimic my words. But as she grew older, her eyes got brighter and her lucid times began to shrink. In my opinion, it was a miracle she could speak at all. And if that meant expending a bit more effort for us to understand her, well, that was nothing compared to what she endured every minute of every day.
“She caught me reading one of the Paladin books again,” I admitted. “I snuck it out of the library. I thought she’d gone to bed, but apparently not. She noticed the candlelight beneath my door and walked in on me before I could hide it.”
“Did you find anything out—anything useful that—”
The eager questions cut off abruptly. Her eyes widened, her mouth falling open at something behind me, her face going pale beneath her sun-browned skin.
I spun around and screamed, stumbling backward.
There was a stranger in the gardens.
A male stranger—standing next to one of Inara’s trees.
My first irrational thought was that Terence had somehow come alive, but it only took one frantic beat of my heart to realize he was no Paladin. His eyes didn’t glow. And statues didn’t come to life. I’d hoped and feared that for too many years to believe otherwise.
“Pardon my interruption, but I was hoping you could help me. I’ve traveled some distance to visit the Citadel. We’d heard it was abandoned, but . . . obviously . . .” He gestured toward us. “Do you work here—can you direct me where I can go to inquire about lodging?”
I stared. My blood roared beneath my skin, my mouth gaped open. A stranger. There was a stranger. Here. Right now. I’d never seen a real, live male before, except for vague, time-smeared memories of my father. But this . . . this . . . person was standing there and he was talking and the hedge . . . The hedge had let him through?
The hedge didn’t allow anyone through. I still remembered the terror from the last time a group of soldiers had tried when I was ten; their shouts, the smoke from the torches they’d wielded rising above the immovable thorny beast that surrounded us, their screams when they’d tried to cut it down and the hedge had attacked. No one had come since then. No one had dared.
Then where had this . . . this man come from? Was that what he was? For some reason “man” didn’t seem like quite the right word. He appeared closer to my age than Mother’s or Sami’s.
After all these years—after all of Mother’s dreams that I’d never claimed for myself—she’d actually, unbelievably been right. The hedge had allowed a boy through.
As the disbelieving silence drew out, he cocked his head to the side, then his eyebrows lifted a bit. Was he . . . confused? I belatedly realized I had mirrored his movement. Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do. I straightened my head again so fast it sent a sharp ping up my neck.
He cleared his throat and his voice was so different from mine or Sami’s or Mother’s when he started to speak again. “I realize I may be—” His gaze had been on me at first, as I stood closer to him, but then it flickered to Inara and he stopped. Stopped talking, stopped moving, perhaps even breathing.
It was like having Sami dump a bucket of icy water over my head during the winter months when I needed a bath but firewood had to be saved for more vital uses than warming water. It was unpleasant but effective at forcing me to act quickly. His reaction to Inara was that bucket of water sluicing over my astonishment at his appearance, propelling me to respond.
“Who are you?” My words were halting and uncertain and furious all at once. My legs were strangely stiff—from panic? From shock?—but I forced them to move, to carry my body in front of Inara, blocking my sister from view, though it was already too late. He stared through me as if I weren’t even there, as if he could still see Inara’s burning eyes through my skull. “Who are you?” I repeated, my voice rising. An unfamiliar sensation gripped me; I was hot and cold at once, my pulse a rickety thing, my blood careening through my body. Hope and fear clashed in a tangle of confusion.
Then Inara touched my arm—as I often did to her—and stepped up beside me. “Who is he, Zuhra?” Her fingers trembled but she stood shoulder to shoulder with me, the picture of courage— of poise . . . if one ignored the dirt crusted around her nails, laced in the grooves of the skin on her hands, the streak of it across her cheek, her ill-fitting clothes, bare ankles, her hair cascading over her shoulders, loose and wild in the breeze.
And her glowing blue eyes.
“I don’t know,” I murmured below my breath.
The stranger couldn’t take his gaze off her, which raised my hackles, the way our cat Louie’s ears flattened and his hair rose when he was agitated. But I couldn’t quite quell the curiosity that also swelled.
“Why are you at our home?” Inara asked, more loudly this time.
He blinked and visibly straightened, as if just realizing that he’d been staring at us—at her—in a daze for far too long. He was tall and angular, as if someone had stretched him a little bit further than they’d intended before he finished growing. His clothes were loose on his narrow shoulders and hips, but they looked fine enough, as if he’d purposefully had them made that way, rather than not having any other options like me and Inara. I scrambled to make sense of his sudden appearance in our garden. Sami was the only person the hedge had allowed through before. Why now—why him? My heart ricocheted off my ribs.
“I’m sorry, my manners . . .” He shook his head, cheeks flushing as he folded his frame forward into a bow. “I am Halvor Roskery, a scholar and traveler.” He straightened and pushed one hand through hair the color of dust, somewhere between light and dark brown with a suggestion of auburn woven through.
Halvor Roskery. My fingers twitched at my side; the rough fabric of Inara’s skirt brushed my skin.
“And . . . you are?” he prompted, his gaze still trained on my sister.
“Inara,” she said, her name coming out short, almost clipped. The tension radiating from her only amplified my own; she was shaking so hard I almost took her hand in mine to steady her.
“I’m Zuhra.” It was so quiet in the courtyard . . . could he hear the thundering of my heart? “We’re Inara and Zuhra Montieth.” He’d told us his full name—was that what was expected? Mother had taught me needlepoint but failed to explain how to introduce myself. Montieth was her last name, from before marrying our father. She always told us she used her surname because he left us. But I suspected it was because he had no surname—no Paladin did, from what I’d gathered in my subversive research.
“A pleasure to meet you.” He—Halvor—inclined his head once more, his eyes still on Inara.
“Why are you here?” I knew it wasn’t polite, but my limited time with Inara was wasting away by the second. And he had yet to spare me a second glance.
“Zuhra . . .” Her fingers sought mine and I clenched them tightly.
“No, she’s right to be suspicious.” Halvor mistook Inara’s reaction as scolding, rather than seeking comfort. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” I echoed.
“I am going about this all the wrong way. You must understand how . . . unexpectedly thrilling this is, though.”
“Thrilling?” Stop repeating everything he says!
“After years of study and planning and traveling, I’m finally here. I made it. And not only did I find the Citadel of the Paladin . . . I found . . . well . . . you.” He gestured to Inara.
“You traveled for years to come here?” I tried to hide my shock at his casual naming of the citadel, but he didn’t even seem to hear me. So few wished to speak of the Paladin in any tone other than fear or anger—but he sounded . . . awed.
The way he looked at Inara went beyond wonder, however, his expression bordering on worshipful. “In all my preparations and hopes, I never dreamed . . . I mean, to find her—here—alive and in the flesh. I’m sure you’re accustomed to it, being her . . . governess?”
“What? No, I’m her sister.”
“Sister?” he repeated, eyes wide. “That’s not possible.”
“I assure you she is.”
“But . . . you’re a human. And she’s”—Halvor paused and looked to Inara once more—“she’s a Paladin.”