SUN AND IRON
Seventeen-year-old Aelia remains hidden deep in the forest protecting the only remaining Soul Tree. When the tree grows strong, the magic inside it will help Aelia free her enslaved people. But when a misstep leads to her capture and she’s dragged into a Roman-like gladiator school, it seems the hope for Aelia’s kind is lost.
Eighteen-year-old gladiator Zenon has thirteen more battles before he can finally claim his freedom. Then his master sets him up to fight chained together with Aelia. She’s unpredictable and weak, and Zenon can’t imagine a worse partner. But even though Aelia refuses to kill her own people and stands in his way toward liberty, Zenon finds himself falling for her.
Trapped between the will to survive and the duty to help her kind, Aelia sees only one way to escape: start a slave uprising. But when Zenon finds out about her plan, he’s determined to do anything to stop it and save the many lives a rebellion would cost. If Aelia can get out, she still has a chance of using the tree’s magic. If she can’t, getting killed by her own kind would seem like salvation compared to what the masters have in store for her.
Sweaty hands catch my wrist, holding me back from getting lost in the crowd. I turn to glare at the merchant and purse my lips to stop them from trembling. This is exactly why I should avoid markets. But damn, I couldn’t resist the sight of so many unattended coin pouches hanging on the shoppers’ belts.
The man’s raspy voice makes me jump. “What’s the hurry, girl?”
I shoot one last longing look at the trees—safety had been just a few steps away. Pulling the hood of my cape lower over my face, I turn back toward the merchant. He smiles, revealing yellow teeth in a perfectly pale face, but his meaty fingers squeeze me tight. I toy with the idea of kicking him and making a run for it, but I can’t draw more attention to myself.
A girl stands behind him with chains on her neck and wrists. Her copper skin—identical to mine—is stained with sweat and dirt. One look at her reminds me why I have to hide day after day. With my free hand, I touch my cheeks to check the state of my disguise. I painted any visible skin white, but with the sun burning through my dark cape, I can only pray I didn’t sweat it off.
“Please let me go, sir. My mother is sick. She needs her medicine.” I lie in a small voice trying to look as desperate as I feel.
I hold up the small bag containing the harvest of today’s pickpocket spree and hope for both our sakes that he doesn’t insist on opening it.