Starlight Jewel by E.L. Lyons
Series: Gifts of the Auldtree Trilogy
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: September 13, 2022
Publisher: Self Published
Axly, the Starlight Company’s premier seductress-thief and assassin, will do whatever it takes to keep her human brother hidden. The secrets of his origin could tear their world apart, and keeping them has driven her to lies and murder. Her people, the sprygan-human hybrids that live under the city of Minalav, aren’t keen on allowing their most skilled asset to roam free. A job with a human offers a chance to get her brother out of danger, but it comes at a price. Divided loyalties, duty, romance, and the twisted hands of fate intertwine in this epic fantasy adventure.
Gifts of the Auldtree is a world of mythology, glamor, mud, blood, civilizations in conflict, and hints of distant powers. In the center of this is the mysterious Starlight Jewel of Minalav.
Amazon (Paperback, KU, Ebook): https://a.co/d/6cV7fpG
Barnes & Noble (Hardcover w/ dust jacket, US only): https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/starlight-jewel-el-lyons/1142255152
Author Bio & Information
E.L. Lyons holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Regent University. She’s worked as a pool manager, beauty department manager, relief counselor at a youth shelter and as a live-in caregiver. She hopes to finish her next novel from a loft overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Kyper swallowed hard. “Everyone respects Jory—and you. Despite your auras being opposed. But I think most of us trust him more. At least he didn’t… you know.”
Axly chuckled. “Kill his own friends and teammates? No. He didn’t. So how did he get so tainted? If I remained this pure, even after doing something that terrible, what would someone have to do to get as dark as him?” Kyper shrugged and she met Jory’s gaze. “How did you get so tainted, brother?”
Jory clenched his teeth but didn’t answer.
She dropped the pretense of friendliness, letting her true feelings edge her tone. “You know there are so many kinds of love. Romantic love seems… almost paltry to me. So easy to fall prey to its fire and it takes no good sense or loyalty to follow it like a fool. But familial love, love between brothers and sisters, I revere. For it takes character and commitment to devote oneself to family, to the love that burns cool.”
Jory furrowed his brow as he held her gaze, questioning what she meant with his eyes.
She stood and pushed her untouched plate of food toward him. “I’ve been given three weeks ‘til I have to do palace work. Let Baj know I’m back. Have her deliver my meals to my room ’til then.”
She left toward the exit from the church but paused at the staircase. Tarley had agreed to give her complete freedom of choice. She could choose any hybrid child she wanted. Any. What birds had the least to lose, the most to gain? What birds were the keenest? And how better to ignite chaos than to free a scaled bird among those with feathers?
She turned and walked more quickly toward the lower chambers. The air grew cool, damp, and stale as she descended the steps.
Opening the Starlight Door at the bottom revealed the vast chamber of the Nameless. Hollows in the walls held thin mattresses, most only reachable by ladders. The middle of the chamber was filled with craftsmen, tables, and makeshift workshops. It had been years since she’d been down here, but it looked the same, felt the same, and smelled the same as she remembered. A grave of despondence and decay.
A dozen or more men were playing Stars ‘n’ Rats by the entrance, drinking what smelled like watered-down beer as they laughed and chatted. People spoke as much in Sprygan as in Norgan. The sound of the mixed languages echoing off the walls made a strange ambiance. Most everyone older than twenty had rashes from lack of sunlight.
Axly stepped up to the men playing cards and cleared her throat. They saw her and froze.
She wanted to find it comical. The rough men all suddenly silent and still as statues, mouths agape as if she was some great terror. But she felt only shame and self-loathing. As if to twist the knife, two stood and bowed clumsily after a few moments.
“Miss—m’lady—I…” The man who spoke had no visible barkskin, but he wore long sleeves and a high-collared shirt.
“Where are the Nameless children at this hour?” she demanded, wanting to be done with the exchange.
The largest of the men, sporting a scalp of barkskin and the beginnings of a branch on his arm stepped up. He spoke in Sprygan, suspicion reverberating from the sound. “What for?”
“It’s not your concern. Direct me to them.”
He shook his head. “Our children. Our concern. Use your mother’s tongue.”
I was. And only in the way that would most suit her—to cause destruction and chaos at the expense of my own kind. At the expense of a child, no less. Her mother’s image surfaced in her mind, placid with a pure aura, further testament that the auras were no true telling of the heart. She could almost hear the sound of her raspy croaks, the memory pulling her in.
Axly took a breath and spoke in Sprygan. “I must choose a child. To teach. Our Austringer demanded it.”
The men all looked at each other in confusion and the large one spoke again. “He demands you teach a Nameless?”
“No. He demands I teach a child. But he allows me to choose which one. As long as their age allows for them to start Starling training.” Her words were met with a few chuckles from the men, but the large man didn’t laugh.
The man considered it for a moment before continuing in Sprygan. “Your words feel… ashamed. Guilt. Justice. You want to do a good thing—not this. You give a child hope, but she will amount to nothing. She will not be accepted. If even our own keep us in shadows, humans… will never let us live in light.”
She pursed her lips, then continued in Norgan, not wanting further betrayal from her emotions. “I’m not interested in doing good things. I’m not interested in imparting hope. I’ve been asked to teach. I’m only interested in finding someone who’s teachable, which is more likely down here. These children have more gifts and more boredom. If it gets under Tarley’s skin that I’ve chosen a Nameless bird, all the better.”
The large man thought for a moment, then gestured to a Starlight Door on the far end of the room. “Do one good thing—tell her a good lie. Don’t let her hope.”
Axly left toward the door without a nod. Nearly everyone around the room stopped to stare as she wove her way through the many workers making items for vendors in the city above. In her periphery she noted the models of the Starlight Palace that she’d admired a few years ago. The vendor had claimed to make them himself. The real artist was a woman whose only human feature seemed to be her hands. She glanced indifferently at Axly with pupilless amber orbs, then bent back to her work.
Axly pricked her finger with the blade tucked in her bun and found her fingers trembled as she touched the door. This is ridiculous. I’m not a Nameless bird. I’m Axly, the Starlight Jewel of Minalav. No one is locking me down in this pit. Every inch of this city is mine.
She steeled herself and walked through the door. Children of various ages were studying different crafts and works, from arts to weaponry to clothes. There were three or four children to each instructor. Axly made her way silently to the emptier side of the room, found a vacant chair, and listened.
The words of the Starling Workings were in the back of her mind. A good Starling will listen more than she speaks. She must be without opinions, strong urges, or a strong sense of self. She must be malleable, heed her senses well and learn to love even the men whom she hates. Prejudice against humans is a poison that will spoil the work. The last is what Axly had to be most cautious of with this group.
She caught the scent of jasmine with a hint of spruce just before Camille’s voice whispered over her shoulder. “What a strange thing to do. I’ve never known you to go to such lengths to get under someone’s skin. Will you tell me what you’re plotting?”
Axly wondered how Camille had gotten inside and behind her without her noticing. Perhaps she knew about the Starlight Door from the kitchens.
“Sorry, Cami. I can’t.”
Cami pulled a chair up beside Axly’s. “Then tell me how I can help.”
Axly met Cami’s ice-blue eyes and considered. “You can help me pick out a student.”
Camille shrugged and scanned the room. “I guess you’re not worried about looks.”
“I am. I’m looking for one like Baj. Gifted, smart, and beautiful.”
“None of them are going to be like Baj. No one’s like Baj. She… Well, she had you and your strange fascination with her. Pretty only if you ignore the barkskin. And if you aren’t aware, she wants you dead.”
“I’m aware. But the relationship between the two of us aside, she was always the smartest of us. And if it weren’t for the right side of her face, she’d be the prettiest too.” She looked out over the children, each seeming oblivious to all they’d been denied. “I’ve always wondered what Baj could have done, could have been, if she’d been given a proper teacher. Not as a Starling—just as a person. Instead they had her copying scrolls and tending Starlings. Mindless work.”
Cami looked around the room and started discreetly pointing to girls. “Alright, there are about ten pretty ones out of the lot—if we’re disregarding the bark bits on them. Of those, three have amber eyes—both gifts of sight. One of those didn’t get pupils though. I doubt you want a girl that gives everyone the creeps and makes you wonder what she’s looking at. That’s down to nine with three hopefuls.” She winced as she nodded to one. “That poor soul has my sad blue eyes, so definitely neither of gift of sight in her. We can ask the last eight about their gifts or wait around and see—the one there’s getting up now. Not a softstep.”
“I don’t want to go about asking. Having the gifts isn’t as important as how they use them. Let’s just wait.”
“You wouldn’t have picked me, would you?”
Axly grimaced at the hint of disappointment in her friend’s tone. “Cami, I’m trying to find someone I can teach to be like me. You’ve got your own skills and you don’t need all the gifts. Tarley’s a fool for not recognizing how skilled you truly are. You can’t hear well, smell well, see hearts, or see in the dark and yet you still manage to be the second-highest earner in the Company. It defies my understanding. What could I possibly teach a child like you? I’ve no idea how you manage.”
Camille grinned. “With jealousy and spite to spur me on. That one over there has quickstep. Maybe I ought to teach too, pick one of these unfortunates to take under my wing. Also, I surpassed your earnings while you were gone. Not that it matters unless you get yourself killed. The one by the carpentry set’s a keenears but she doesn’t balance it well, keeps flinching.”
“What’s that one doing?” Axly asked as she heard a faint scraping, drawing her eyes to one of the candidates who was hunched over in a shadowy corner. “Stars, she’s starting a fire…” Axly watched as the girl, thinking no one was watching, set fire to a bedsheet that was hung between two teaching stations.
“Void take us, who would start a fire down here with all this trash? It’s like a tinderbox.”
It took only a few moments for others to smell the fire and panic ensued. The closest instructors hurried to put the fire out as the girl walked off unnoticed. She made her way to one of the stations and slipped a book in her shirt.
“Well, you were looking for one like you.”
Axly grinned. “The one like me is the one she’s going to give the book to.”
Sure enough, the girl walked across the room to one of the early candidates who’d been eliminated, the one with both gifts of sight and no pupils. She looked to be about ten, no hope left for a name, not a chance in the Stars of surviving topside. At least not on her own.
The instructors started smelling hands and one identified the culprit, smacking her head and dragging her from the room. Axly winced, reminded of Jory.
“It looked promising for a minute. Maybe you can still take the accomplice. She’s not bad. Not much barkskin on her face.”
Axly stood. “No. I don’t need an accomplice. I already have two of those.”
Cami chuckled and followed as she made her way to the girl. Some of the children and instructors took notice of them, giving confused and nervous stares. The girl with the book, now hidden in the waistband of her pants, noticed their trajectory and set off at a run.
Axly pushed herself to a sprint and grabbed the girl’s hair, which was tied up with a leather band. The girl’s arm flew back and loosed a dagger from Axly’s sleeve, then sliced her hair off at the band. She took a few running steps, then turned to face her pursuer.
Axly looked down at the mousy brown bundle of hair in her hand, then at the girl. “So you know I’m faster. That’s smart enough of you. But you really think you can best me with my own blade?”
“Don’t know until I try,” the girl retorted.
“What’s that book about?”
The girl tilted her head but didn’t lower the blade. “Nothing that would interest a High Bird like you.”
A woman’s voice chimed in from behind Axly. “It’s a book on the variations of hybrid anatomy. She asked me to train her, but I already have enough students.”
Axly noted the girl’s aura, not bad for her age, but certainly nothing to brag about. “Give me the book or try to kill me. Those are your options. Pick quick.”
“What…? If I kill you, they’ll kill me. I just don’t want you to kill me. I’m defending myself,” the girl said indignantly.
Axly chuckled. “Camille, you wouldn’t kill her if she killed me, would you?”
Camille was twirling a lock of her blonde hair absently as she shrugged. “No. I’d take her to Tarley. Tarley’d kill her.”
“See there? If you killed me, you’d just have to give Cami here the slip before she got you upstairs. The rest of these birds don’t care about me. Do you really think they’d kill you? The people who actually know you and have never met me?”
The girl looked about nervously and tightened her grip on the blade, her knuckles going white. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just want to train in medicine.”
Axly took a step forward and pulled a blade from her boot. “Train then. I didn’t need a book to teach me anatomy. You’ll learn it faster with a blade. Cut me open and see for yourself. Or else I’ll learn about yours. Compare your left lung to your right to see if the inside’s a reflection of the out.”
Axly lunged forward with the blade. Steel clattered on stone and Axly’s blade sunk in—to the book, now held out like a shield in front of the girl.
The room was silent for a moment before Camille broke the silence with laughter and clapping. “The little Apprentice is smart after all!”
Axly took the book from the small trembling hands and tossed it back to the instructor without bothering to remove the knife. “Have Baj bring my knives back to my room. I’ll take the thief off your hands.” She would have been your best student. Fool of you to let her go.
The girl looked down at the ground as Axly led her out of the room. “I’m sor—”
“I don’t care. It’s a book. It’s not even a good book. If you’re going to steal a book, steal one worth stealing.”
Axly led the girl up the stairs and down two halls to the library.
The librarian, Nishley, nodded to Axly, then bristled when she saw the girl, her eyes darting to the ringless hand. “No Nameless in the library. These are Company books.”
“Noted,” Axly said as she pulled the girl in the rest of the way, not stopping ’til she got to the shelf on hybrid anatomy and physiology. “Pick one.”
The Nameless girl shifted nervously, eyeing Nishley. “I’ll pass…”
Axly assessed the girl more carefully. A piney scented, Norgan-colored child with one barkskin hand. Long sleeves and pants covered the rest of her, concealing how much barkskin she had. Probably a lot by the smell of her.
“You’ll not pass. You’ll do as I tell you or I’ll cut out your eyes and sell them. I know a few Ashites who think they’re worth more out of your head than in it. Now pick a book.”
“Because you want to learn. Now you’re going to.” The girl shook her head and Axly sighed, looking to Camille. “Cami, can you go draw a bath in the cabochon and have Fria—well, whoever’s making dresses now come up?” Camille tilted her head, then shrugged and left.
Axly continued once she was out of earshot. “I was younger than you when I got these two stains. Do you know how I got them?” The girl shook her head. “I got them because I made a decision. I decided to choose safety and obligation over freedom. I had the chance to be my own person, and instead I chose to become Tarley’s. This is your chance. Not to be your own person—not yet—but to be mine instead of his.
“You decide now and there’s no going back. You can choose to live down there and eventually die of dark rot, or you do as I say, everything I say, without question, and the next time I leave, I take you with me.”
“To somewhere where you can study whatever you want and see the sun whenever you please.”
The girl pursed her lips and looked back to the shelf. After a few moments of deliberation, she slowly selected a book and pulled it to her chest.
“Good. Think up a name for yourself by morning.”