QSFer Julia Ember has a new MM YA fantasy book out:
Sixteen-year-old Tashi has spent their life training as a inhabitor, a soldier who spies and kills using a bonded animal. When the capital falls after a brutal siege, Tashi flees to a remote monastery to hide. But the invading army turns the monastery into a hospital, and Tashi catches the eye of Xian, the regiment’s fearless young commander.
Tashi spies on Xian’s every move. In front of his men, Xian seems dangerous, even sadistic, but Tashi discovers a more vulnerable side of the enemy commander—a side that draws them to Xian.
When their spying unveils that everything they’ve been taught is a lie, Tashi faces an impossible choice: save their country or the boy they’re growing to love. Though Tashi grapples with their decision, their volatile bonded tiger doesn’t question her allegiances. Katala slaughters Xian’s soldiers, leading the enemy to hunt her. But an inhabitor’s bond to their animal is for life—if Katala dies, so will Tashi.
Ashes of Gold Book One
WHILE THE capitol burned in a smoky hailstorm of tar and arrows, we escaped by elephant to the Chirang monastery. The elephant struggled to keep his balance on the slick, frozen ground as Pharo clicked his tongue to urge him forward. I rode behind the beast’s ears, both arms wrapped around Kalx’s warm, limp body.
An arrow hissed past my ear. I nearly screamed, but Pharo’s brown hand covered my mouth as he pushed me down onto the elephant’s neck. The coarse hairs on the creature’s nape stood up sharp against my cheek. Another arrow flew over my head. The yellow feathers in its tail quivered as it embedded in a tree trunk just feet away.
The beast flattened his ears and charged through the graveyard of butchered trees that surrounded the city toward the remaining forest in front of us. Smoke rose like a paper screen at our backs. I tried to breathe in time with Kalx’s steady, unconscious heartbeat to keep myself calm. Once we reached the trees, we could disappear into the mountains, but until then, we were exposed to the Myeik soldiers who guarded Jakar’s outer wall.
Fear made bile churn in my empty stomach. If the army caught us, we’d die.
I tightened my hold around Kalx.
“Call Katala,” Pharo hissed, his breath hot against my frozen skin. His muscular arms circled around my waist, enveloping Kalx and me together. “I’ll brace you.”
I bit my lip, considering. The elephant picked up speed, nearly throwing us backward. “What if you can’t hold us? We’ll all slip.”
A bolt of fire pierced the dawn as a flaming arrow blasted through the sky like a falling star.
Pharo shook me. “We don’t have time to argue. Just do it!”
I closed my eyes and searched for the thread of magical connection with the animal I’d trained alongside for the past seven years. I could sense her in the distance—poised and waiting, watching us. My body went rigid in Pharo’s hold as my link to Katala solidified. Silver orbs formed in the air and hung around us. Then Katala’s growl echoed through me. I felt ghost leaves brush my fingers as she crept through the foliage, her sharp eyes trained on an archer’s gray mare. The soldier’s yellow cloak was streaked with soot and ash. His fear made the air smell of musk. Katala crouched low, her muscles gathering beneath her as she prepared to pounce. Gasping, I broke our connection so I wouldn’t have to watch the slaughter. She knew what needed to be done.
A moment later, a scream ripped through the smoky air. The sound curdled my blood like sour milk. Then with a final burst of speed, the elephant stampeded under the cover of the trees.
I exhaled slowly. Cold sweat dripped down my neck. Pharo unwrapped his arms and leaned back as the beast slowed to a trot.
“Do you think he was the only one following?” I asked.
Pharo shrugged. “I think however many there were, Katala will handle it.”
I attempted a smile and reached for his hand, giving it a squeeze before wrapping both of my arms around Kalx again. Pharo was right; Katala had always surpassed any challenge thrown at her. And I didn’t think the soldiers would try to follow us now. The forest scared the Myeik. Their country was all open plains and stretches of water. The trees hid traps and disguised beasts they didn’t understand.
The elephant answered to our teacher, and he knew where to take us. We settled into silence, catching our breath and watching the path behind us with fear-sharpened eyes. I didn’t know what to say to ease the tension, so I reclined atop the great beast lumbering below us and watched the sun rise above the snow-capped mountain peaks. I wanted to search out Katala again, to check on her, but if she was midfight, one second of distraction could get her killed. Kalx shivered in my hold, and I pulled my cloak tighter around him.
After an hour of silent travel, Pharo leaned across the elephant’s back to speak, straining his voice over the moaning wind. He pointed to the chiseled, narrow ridge ahead of us. Years of blistering ice wind had whittled the rocky mountain into the jagged shape of a tower. “We should be getting close. Mistress Lhamo said it was just below the castle peak.”
His voice was cheerful, falsely light. I pushed my fingers deeper under Kalx’s armpits to warm them and tried to ignore the wet cold seeping through my woolen cloak. “I need a bath.”
Pharo laughed. He tapped the elephant’s rump gently with his stick when the animal stopped to pull a pinecone from the tree above. “Do you think they even have hot water up here? Everything looks wet or frozen. What do they burn?”
I stuck my tongue out and caught a snowflake on the tip. The lone drop of water only teased my thirst. After weeks of siege, the rivers of the capitol had smelled of urine and decaying vegetables, too putrid to drink. I relished this first, fresh taste of the mountains. “After these last few weeks, I’ll be glad to see clean water at all.”
He clapped my shoulder, but I could feel his fingers shaking through his threadbare gloves. He turned and looked behind us as the elephant pushed through a barrier of sapling pines. “I hope the wind picks up. Those tracks are deep. I don’t want to lead them straight to the monastery.”
I nodded, and we went back to our silence.
Originally from Chicago, Julia Ember now resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. She spends her days working in the book trade and her nights writing teen fantasy novels. Her hobbies include riding horses, starting far too many craft projects, PokemonGo and looking after her city-based menagerie of pets with names from Harry Potter. Luna Lovegood and Sirius Black the cats currently run her life.
Julia is a polyamorous, bisexual writer. She regularly takes part in events for queer teens. A world traveler since childhood, she has now visited more than sixty countries. Her travels inspire the fantasy worlds she creates, though she populates them with magic and monsters.
Julia began her writing career at the age of nine, when her short story about two princesses and their horses won a contest in Touch magazine. In 2016, she published her first novel, Unicorn Tracks, which also focused on two girls and their equines, albeit those with horns. Her second novel, The Seafarer’s Kiss will be released by Interlude Press in May 2017. The book was heavily influenced by Julia’s postgraduate work in Medieval Literature at The University of St. Andrews. It is now responsible for her total obsession with beluga whales.
In August 2017, her third novel and the start of her first series, Tiger’s Watch, will come out with Harmony Ink Press. In writing Tiger’s Watch, Julia has taken her love of cats to a new level.