Tessen and Lo’a, describe yourselves to us.
Lo’a: Well, I think I should start. By describing him, of course.
Tessen: *sighs* I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?
Lo’a: *grinning* Probably. But hush and listen anyway. My people stay in shape—with how much we travel in a year, it is an absolute necessity—but I have never seen anything like Khya, Tessen, and their friends. They have skin in all the richest shades of growing land, and it covers ridiculously sculpted muscles I never knew bodies could have.
Tessen: There’s nothing wrong with your shape, even without the ridiculously sculpted muscles. Khya seems to like your soft curves as much as she likes muscle.
Lo’a: *continues talking, but smiles* And they have trained their senses to be so sharp that predators should be jealous. Tessen and Khya—though I guess I should be focusing on you, right?
Tessen: *rolls his eyes* It is what they asked, Lo’a.
Lo’a: Then I have to mention his incredibly startling eyes. Piercing, I think it the best term. No one else in his group has eyes any paler than soft brown, but his are the same as iron in sunlight. And I must look up to catch a glimpse of them, too, because this man is almost annoyingly tall. Khya is, too, so I guess they really are a good pair.
Tessen: Thank you, I think. But I don’t think a difference of a few inches should be allowed to be classified as annoying.
Lo’a: It is when trying to kiss someone several inches taller than you.
Tessen: *nodding* Okay, fair.
Lo’a: Despite that, he is pretty in a comforting kind of way. He has scars and imperfections, but they make him more real, and they made it easier to believe when I first met him that he was someone who knew how to keep himself and those he loved safe. To me, little is more important than that.
Tessen: *clears his throat and shrugs* I try. Lo’a, though, leads. Her family follows her without question, and she may not have the musculature of a lifetime of battle training, but she’s strong. Few people in Itagami have hair as long as hers, but it’s dark and beautiful. As is her smile when she feels like showing it.
Where do you call home?
Lo’a: That is a secret, but it certainly is not Ryogo.
Tessen: Why am I surprised even your home is secret? Well, yours might be, but mine isn’t. Home is always going to be Sagen sy Itagami, for me, but I think I can call anywhere Khya is home.
Do you have a special skill?
Lo’a: *smirks* So many. Picking one is hard.
Tessen: *sighs* Does an extreme amount of patience with one particular person count?
Lo’a: If that person is Khya—which you cannot even pretend to tell me it is not—then yes.
What is your biggest dream/wish/desire?
Lo’a: To be part of something that changes the course of the world.
Tessen: *glances at Lo’a, then down* To make sure Khya is still around after she changes the course of the world. I have plans for us. I’d like it if she was there for them.
What’s your biggest regret?
Tessen: Not realizing sooner that antagonizing Khya wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
Lo’a: *laughs* It will get you pushed off a cliff if you keep it up long enough, I am sure.
Tessen: I already said I regretted it, didn’t I? And we’ve moved past it by now. Hopefully.
Lo’a: Definitely. Do not worry, though. A life with no regrets is too short. A life filled with regret is one of missed opportunities.
Tessen: So what’s your regret, then?
Lo’a: *looks mildly annoyed* Oddly enough, I most regret all those history lessons I skipped when I was younger. If I had known how important ancient Ryogan history would be in my life, I would have paid more attention!
What’s your favorite pastime/hobby?
Lo’a: *grinning* Khya has told me enough stories. I know the answer to this one, and if you do not admit it, I will.
Tessen: *mutters* You two spending time together is dangerous. For me.
Lo’a: That is true for so many reasons, Tessen. But tell them anyway.
Tessen: Fine. *sighs* Eavesdropping is what I know they want me to say.
Lo’a: Do not worry. *she pats his hand* Yours at least has use. Apparently, my favorite pastime is falling for unattainable people.
Who is your hero?
Lo’a: My cousin, Ania. She is quite a bit older than me, and she was traveling with another family through a place called Menlai when a plague swept through the land. Some were immune, but those who got sick? Thousands died. If someone survived, it was not without injury. Ania was barely twenty-three, but she was the one who lead the caravan out of the country and saved twenty others, most of them children. Half of them were Menlaini and not hanaeuu we’la maninaio—orphans the plague had left behind.They became part of Ania’s family, and once they were healed from the worst of the illness, they helped her distribute supplies and medicinal herbs to some of the worst hit towns. Eventually, she fell ill herself, and it was bad enough that whatever had kept her healthy until then was not enough to save her. She died, but the work she did saved so many lives, and the children she protected became part of our family, and the welcome Menlaini has become warmer ever since. I still miss her, but I admire what she did, and it means a lot to know how well her name is remembered in Menlai even years later.
Tessen: Part of me wants to say Khya, but I think it’s more Sanii. Even more than Khya, ey risked everything to help Yorri and expose what Varan and the others were doing. Tyrroh has spent most of his life watching Varan and working against him from inside the city. Sanii, though. For em, it was even a risk to come to Khya about anything. If Khya had told a single person, ey would’ve been facing severe punishment. Honestly, knowing what I do now, Varan probably would’ve killed em. Just taking that first step took a kind of strength and bravery that most people don’t have. So…yes. Sanii.
What is one thing would you refuse to share?
Lo’a:I cannot imagine there is much of anything Tessen wouldn’t share, especially if it was a member of his clan asking, but even if it was a stranger.
Tessen: *shrugs* She’s not wrong. I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t share with someone who needed it. Allow someone to take is different, but sharing? Why wouldn’t someone share what they had?
Lo’a: Lots of reasons, most of the coming back to either greed or distrust. Then again, most people were not raised in a society like yours. My family lives something close to that ideal, but if a stranger asked for something that belonged to me or someone in my family? Circumstances would have to be very special to make me share anything more than food and water with someone who is not family.
Favorite fictional character?
Lo’a: Hee’lia. She is from a story that has been told by the hanaeuu we’la maninaio for so many years that no one knows how or when it started anymore. The story is beautiful, about Hee’lia and her persecution for a crime she didn’t commit. When the alua’saliona’anoshilua’a—the gods—heard her pleas for help, they gave her wings. Then, everyone who had been chasing her turned against Hee’lia’s family instead. They had been left behind and were defenseless, but Hee’lia swept down on the enemies from above, battering them with her wings and clawing at them with her nails until they broke off their attack and her family had a chance to escape.
Tessen: I’m honestly not sure how many of the stories I grew up hearing are fact and how many are fiction. Even the ones I enjoyed are more than a little…
Tessen: Yes. That.
Lo’a: *smiles* You and Khya will be the center of your own stories soon enough.
Tessen: Somehow that isn’t as comforting as you might think it is.
Lo’a: *shrugs* No one said becoming a legend was a painless process, Tessen.
Liked this interview with Tessen and Lo’a? Then check out this swoony and a little bit sexy scene between Khya and Tessen as they discuss Soanashalo’a (aka Lo’a):
Soanashalo’a watches me, her smile warm. Sometimes I feel as though she can guess at my thoughts. She and Tessen would be dangerous together. Dangerous for my peace of mind.
“If not for your mission and the obvious bond you have with Tessen, I might try to convince you to stay for a while, Khya.”
“If not for my mission and Tessen, I might agree.”
Soanashalo’a’s help is a big part of why we’ve made it this far. If Yorri were already with me, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask if we could all stay.
“But you are heading off to infiltrate Mushokeiji, and only the alua’saliona’anoshilua’a know what you will face after that.” She approaches with a smile, and with invitation in her eyes. “Do you and Tessen share the way Miari and hers do?”
“I… Yes, but it’s not the same—touch is hard to handle for Tessen, so he’s cautious choosing lovers.” I smile at the memories from the caves weeks ago even as I shrug one shoulder and try to explain. “Honestly, entirely exclusive partnerships are rare in Itagami.”
“It is the same with us. A little. Probably not to the same degree as Itagami. Still…” She stops in front of me, watching me with the same intensity that I’m watching her. There’s a question on her face, one I’ve seen most recently from Tessen.
When I nod permission, she presses her lips to mine.
Her hands cup my face; mine fall to her waist. She’s soft in ways almost no one in Itagami is, not unfit, but far from carved in stone, and her skin is noticeably warmer than mine. And noticeably softer, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a girl. Soanashalo’a is compelling, and I’ve wondered more than once what it would be like to kiss her, so I run my tongue along the seam of her lips and slide my hands under her coat to the bare skin of her back.
And then I ease away.
Soanashalo’a is lovely and skilled and kind, but I think Etaro and Rai were right weeks ago. They said I needed someone who fought with me, who challenged me, and whose edges fit with mine. Tessen is all those things, and when I’m kissing him, there usually isn’t room in my mind for much else.
Soanashalo’a’s smile is rueful. “See? I would try to convince you, but it would be a wasted effort.” She brushes her hand along my short hair—which is getting longer than I like it—and then kisses me again, only a faint brush of our lips. “When this war of yours is over, you are welcome back any time. Tessen, too. The two of you are quite something to behold.”
“He’s been…” How do I even explain Tessen? “I misunderstood him for a long time, but he’s persistent. And probably more forgiving than he should be. At least with me.”
“Love makes that easy,” Soanashalo’a says with a smile.
I blink, my chest warming. Love. I trust few people. I love even fewer. It’s not a word I’ve connected to Tessen even inside my own head, but I can’t say she’s wrong. Somehow,Tessen snuck up on me in plain sight.
“I’ve never been as good at forgiving mistakes and disagreements, but I’m learning. And I’m incredibly glad to have him here.” But we’re leaving in the morning, and we have someone vulnerable to worry about. “You’re sure you don’t mind watching Ahta while we’re gone?”
“Your little one has made friends with our own. I think they will be doing most of the watching for us.”
The words are a relief. The hanaeuu we’la maninaiodon’t seem to be as strict with their secrecy around Ahta, and I’m glad. Maybe because ey’s been cast out from Ryogo and orphaned—ey doesn’t really belong anywhere, and ey definitely isn’t loyal to Ryogo.
“Do not worry about any of us. Focus on coming back alive.” She squeezes my hand and then steps back.
“I’ll certainly try.” We say goodbye, and then I leave the wagon, the pendant hidden under my clothing. It’s likely no one but Tessen will even notice the thin chain visible at the back of my neck, something he proves less than five minutes after he finds me.
“A gift?” He murmurs the question in my ear, his finger trailing the bare skin on my neck, less than an inch above the chain.
“A promise of help from the rest of her clan if we need it.”
“And not the only thing she gave you, either.” He runs his thumb along my bottom lip.
“She’s good, but you’re better.” I kiss the pad of his thumb and grin as his expression shifts from amusement to arousal.“She’d be more than happy to give you the same thing if I brought you along.”
He smirks. “Is that so?”
“She’s more than a little interested in you, too. Or maybe us.” I lightly bite the tip of his thumb. “But somehow I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.”
“I don’t know. I mean, where would we find the time?” Tessen jokes, but then his expression turns rueful. “It’s not an unappealing offer, but I told you—touch can be overpowering. And that’s with one. Two would be…”
“You could just watch,” I say with a shrug. And then start chuckling when his eyes go wide and he stops breathing for a beat. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to respond to that particular image anytime soon, so I take pity on him and look for something else to talk about.
Know your enemy if you want to survive…
The only way for Khya to get her brother back alive is to kill Varan—the immortal ruler who can’t be killed. But not even Varan knew what he was doing when he perverted magic and humanity to become immortal.
Khya’s leading her group of friends and rebels into the mountains that hold Varan’s secrets, but if risking all their lives is going to be worth it, she has to give up everything else—breaking the spell that holds her brother captive and jeopardizing her deepening relationship with Tessen, the boy who has been by turns her rival and refuge since her brother disappeared. Immortality itself might be her only answer, but if that’s where Khya has to go, she can’t ask Tessen or her friends to follow.
Erica Cameron is the author of books for young adults including the Ryogan Chronicles, the Assassins duology, and The Dream War Saga. She also co-authored the Laguna Tides novels with Lani Woodland. An advocate for asexuality and emotional abuse awareness, Erica has also worked with teens at a residential rehabilitation facility in her hometown of Fort Lauderdale.