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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.
The day I became an inhabitor, Mistress Lhamo had carried me into the forest outside the capitol and left me there. I was eight and small, so small that the robes the academy gave me swathed my body and made me look like a slug as I trailed fabric behind. She set me down on a tree stump and kissed my hair. Then she had wandered back through the trees to the city without a second glance. I guessed, then, I had been expendable to her. If I didn’t work out, then Jakar had plenty more poor children and orphans to choose from.
I held a ragged stuffed owl against my chest as I shivered and prayed, repeating the words of the spell I’d been taught. Master Amo thought I might attract a doe or a hare. Something agile, he said, but shy and timid. Something to match me so I wouldn’t feel conflicted within myself. I just hoped nothing would eat me and that Mistress Lhamo would return soon.
Sunlight dwindled, and the forest got darker and colder. I paced around the stump. The terror of being eaten had ebbed, replaced by the more insidious fear that I wouldn’t be chosen at all, that the rest of my friends would go on to be inhabitors and I would become an outcast—a failure with nowhere to go and doomed to a life of begging on the street corners.
I threw the owl on the ground. It had been a present from Master Amo when he selected me two years before. If they were going to reject me now, then I didn’t want the stuffed bird anymore either.
The wind carried a pungent scent into my nostrils. It was sweet yet musky, tinged with something sour. I breathed more deeply and looked around for the source. At the edge of the forest clearing, a deer carcass lay stretched out and mutilated. Her throat had been torn out, and dark brown blood was splashed over her tan hide. Even in death, the doe had a calm, gentle look in her unblinking eyes. I had bitten my lip and struggled not to cry. There was my doe, just like Master Amo had said.
A growl made me turn. A large, lean cat with rose-gold and white fur lowered its belly to the earth. Its yellow eyes bored into me, and its tail flickered back and forth. I sucked in a breath. I’d seen a tiger up close before, rubbing its cheeks against Master Lin’s thigh before it turned and snarled at an apprentice who drew too close. But that tiger had been orange and black, normal. This creature looked like something out of a temple painting, as though her fur had been expertly flecked with tiny pieces of gold leaf by a monk’s skilled hand.
The animal’s haunches had tensed. Her legs had gathered to pounce. But instead of terror, I felt calm. She tackled me, pushing me down with an enormous paw. Her claws were sheathed, and the pad of her foot rested over my heart. My breath stopped as I understood late what it all meant. The tiger rolled me onto my back like a cub, licking my chin with her barbed tongue. My arms, still chubby with baby fat, curled around her neck.
When her weight settled over me, I felt the acceptance in the silky embrace of her fur. And for the first time since I left my real family, I felt something like love. But her message was clear: I would never control her. From that moment, when our souls connected and I became an inhabitor, I knew I was the vulnerable one and she would forever be protecting me.
About the Author
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.