Chapter One

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Rinnet pressed Kozua against the trunk of a palsa tree, a knife pointed at his stomach. Above him, a thin stream of poisonous sap trickled down toward his flat black hair.

"Come with me or I'll gut you like a fish," Rinnet said, one hand pinning Kozua's shoulder into the ghostly bark. "Or I'll let the sap melt your skin off."

Kozua struggled against her weight. "Let me go," he pleaded, his large dark eyes expanding even more. "You know I can't leave." The sap slid down another inch, and Kozua flinched. Rinnet's knife poked through his pale skin and raised a drop of blood. "Rinnet!"

"I need a servant to carry my stuff and help keep watch," Rinnet said, her voice smooth as the motion of the sap.

"Find someone else!"

"I don't want someone else." Her red eyes flickered to a spot just above Kozua's head. "And at this point, I'm gonna bet you don't want someone else either."

Kozua tried to glare. "You know what I really want?"

"No. I don't care what you want."

"I want you to—" Kozua was cut off as Rinnet edged her knife a bit further into his stomach. He gritted his teeth against the panic and ignored the spot of red spreading out from the knifepoint.

"I said I don't care," Rinnet growled, her face inches from his. The red tips of her wild brown hair flared around her like a halo of flames. She traced a line up Kozua's belly, the knifepoint leaving a trail that bloomed rose petals after it passed. "You go with me, or die alone out here. Your choice."

"Listen," Kozua said, angry at his fear. "If you let me go right now, I won't use my Strength on you."

Rinnet laughed. The sound was as raking as the cackle of the brush birds. "We both know you wouldn't dare."

Kozua's eyes rolled from the sap oozing down toward him to the dagger sliding up to meet it. He could try to call on the spirits, but who knows if it would work? He hadn't been making his sacrifices the past view days. He cursed himself for not listening to his grandmother's advice. Besides, he knew it was dangerous for Hatawans like him to use their Strength here in Coreti. Maybe Rinnet didn't mind manipulating him into using it, but he'd be executed if anyone else knew what he was doing.

Rinnet paused in dragging her knife along Kozua's skin. Part of her hoped he would use his Strength. The immense power of it drew her like a hornet to syrup, and Kozua was the only source from which she could draw this intoxication. She herself could not do any of it, nor could her fellow Coretians. Kozua had told her only Hatawans had the potential.

But he did not do anything, and Rinnet grew annoyed. "Last chance, Kozua. I'd like watching your skin peel off as much as having you come with me."

Kozua could now hear the sap sizzling by his ear as it burned a trail down the trunk. Or maybe it was just his imagination, running wild and brutal with primitive fear. Rinnet's knife had now reached the top of his chest and was close to his neck. Kozua searched desperately within the Passage, trying to find any spirits that might be willing to help. One that was bored, maybe, and wasn't hungry for sacrifice. One who would whisper in Rinnet's ear and make her back off, without her being any the wiser.

"I wonder what would be more entertaining," Rinnet mused, zigzagging her blade across his collarbone. "Slitting your throat now, or letting the sap burn a hole through you—"

"Alright, I'll go." Kozua squirmed against the palsa tree, shrinking away from the steadily approaching poison. "I said I'll go, Rinnet!"

"Are you sure?"

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