Eva Marteinn never wanted to be a killer.
Raised in the Commonwealth, where citizens live and die by the code of the Seven Sins, Eva is sickened by the barbaric punishments the High Priests inflict. She sees the Bellators of Light, the Commonwealth’s executioners, as no more than conscienceless killers.
When she’s Chosen as the first female bellator—and can’t refuse, on threat of exile or disgrace—Eva is devastated. But she turns out to be inordinately gifted at the very role she abhors…no thanks to her mentor, Ari Westergaard, who alternates between ignoring her and challenging her to impossible tests.
Ari’s indifference conceals a dangerous secret: He’s loved Eva since they were children. When Eva falls for Ari too, she knows they should do anything to avoid each other. Love is forbidden. Lust is a death sentence. But as mentor and apprentice, they’re bound by the blood oath they swore the day of Eva’s Choosing.
Balanced on a razor’s edge of desire and betrayal, the two uncover a secret that could overturn the Commonwealth itself. Now Eva must make an impossible choice: Turn her back on Ari, and remain loyal to the only home she’s ever known—or risk everything on the slim hope of freedom, and stake her life on the boy she’s come to love.
There is also a prequel novella.
Excerpt from SWORD OF THE SEVEN SINS by Emily Colin
Blue Crow Publishing, August 2020
The first time I condemned a man to death, I was ten years old.
I was standing with the rest of the Commonwealth of Ashes in Clockverk Square, beneath the giant clockwork tower that stood watch over us all. Lined up at the front of the crowd with the other children from the Nursery, I was there to bear witness, judged by the Commonwealth to be of an age to understand the dire consequences of rebellion and sin. We children stood at the edge of the square, dressed in white, vibrating with excitement. Our days had a familiar, soothing pattern—wake, eat breakfast, exercise, have lessons, eat again, complete assigned activities, cleanse, sleep, repeat. Today was different. Today we would see a man die.
The other children were thrilled at the prospect—had been chattering about little else all week—but I felt nothing but creeping dread.
Mother Erikson stood behind me, her grip on my shoulders tight and unforgiving, so I could not look away. She needn’t have. I made it my policy to face as much as I could, so I knew where my weaknesses lay.
At the edge of the square, the condemned man between them, stood two of the Bellators of Light. The Bellatorum Lucis were the Commonwealth’s defenders, mysterious figures who dressed always in black and carried razor-sharp blades in sheaths stretching the length of their spines. They were an elite fighting force, trained to protect the Commonwealth against Outsiders and administer justice when called for. They would put the man to death today.
The bellators brought the man into the square, one gripping each arm. It hardly seemed necessary. He wasn’t a large man, and he was blindfolded. Plus, he was unsteady, tripping over the stones, so that the bellator on his right had to yank him upright. He wore the gray clothes of the accused. His skin was pale, his hair dark against the whiteness of his face. He blinked when they removed his blindfold, trying to accustom himself to the light of the rising sun. And then he looked out over the crowd, as if he was searching for someone. Again and again his gaze lit on people’s faces, but they shifted and looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. He had been one of us, and now he was not. We could not afford for his wickedness to contaminate the rest.
In the middle of the square stood the High Priest, a thin man in heavy red robes. He nodded to the bellators, who stepped back, retreating to the edge of the square. In his familiar, sonorous voice, the Priest said the man’s name and listed his crimes. This man, he said, was guilty of the sins of greed and gluttony. He had been responsible for tending the vineyards, making the ceremonial wine the Priests used for blessings and ritual. He had been found to be selling the wine on the black market, hoarding the best vintages for himself. I wondered if that was why the man seemed unsteady, stumbling into the square—if he had lost his footing because his eyes were covered or because he had been consuming too many of his own wares. Later, I wondered if it was because he was summoning the bravery to face his fate.
The Priest faced us, hands high, silhouetted by the dawning sun. Executions were always held at sunrise, a righteous death signaling a new beginning. For this man, he said, it would be a righteous death indeed, a punishment deserved. A chance to go before the Architect with his soul washed clean.
The Priest made it sound as if the man should be grateful to die, and everywhere I looked, I could see people nodding in agreement. Better to die this way, judged and absolved at the hands of the Commonwealth, than fleeing in exile toward the Borderlands.
I knew I should nod like everyone else, knew the Mothers were watching the children from the Nursery to make sure we showed the appropriate response. But within me, from some unknown and dangerous place, came a spark of resistance. I thought of the times I’d sat at the Mothers’ feet, struggling to pay attention as strange, toothed shadow-creatures writhed on the wall. Of the disdainful way Mother Erikson regarded me, as if she knew the face I presented to the world was a mask, concealing the ways I was different from the rest. If I let something slip—if I told her about the shadow-beasts—what would happen to me? Would I wind up like this man, suspected of increasingly unacceptable behavior until one day I wound up exiled or sentenced to death?
Regardless of his sins, I did not believe the man should be grateful to die like this, no better than a slaughtered animal. And even at the age of ten, I couldn’t nod and pretend. I have never been very good at lying.
So I didn’t nod. I didn’t shake my head, either. I didn’t protest, but I didn’t show my agreement, the way I could see the other kids doing. To my left, Rósný was nodding vigorously, her blonde pigtail bouncing. To my right, Jósefína was doing the same, so vehemently I was sure it would make her dizzy. I was a still point between them, a silent place of negation. It wasn’t wise, I knew that. But I couldn’t help myself.
The Priest’s eyes scanned the crowd. They paused on Rósný, and his lips lifted in approbation. Then they passed over me and found Jósefína, who was still nodding like one of those bobbing paper birds the Mother had taught us to fold and perch on the side of cups, pretending to drink water. He smiled even more broadly. And then his gaze drifted back to me, pinioned between them, and I froze. Maybe, I thought, he’ll forgive this. There is a man to kill. Surely that is more important than one small girl’s nod.
I should have known better. The Priests never forgive.
He motioned me forward, to stand with him and the condemned man in the middle of the square. I looked behind me, to my left and right, but that was a formality; I knew the Priest was gesturing to me. Perhaps he had seen into my heart, the way the Mothers were always warning us Priests could do. Perhaps he could tell I was not worthy of a life in the Commonwealth, and would banish me to the Borderlands—in the wreckage of the floods and the Fall, where the savages dwelt, waiting to attack.
For most members of the Commonwealth, exile was the worst thing they could imagine. Certainly, I had never found any reason to feel differently. But as the Mother relinquished her grip on my shoulders and I stepped forward out of the white-clothed line of my fellow students, I was not afraid. If this were my fate, then I would go to meet it, and come out the other side. Fear is the enemy, I told myself, even as I lowered my eyes, because to hold the gaze of a Priest is the highest insult. Fear is the force that can break the strongest of men. But it will not break me.
This was my mantra, found in an old, discarded book in the Commonwealth’s library and repeated silently in the deepest hours of the night, when all the other children were asleep. I had never slept well; I saw creatures sliding in the shadows where there were none, heard voices chattering in the walls and beneath the windows until I had to cover my head with my pillow to silence them. I knew without being told I had to hide this—from the Mothers, certainly, but also from the other children, who would relish the opportunity to pass on such a juicy tidbit. There were Informers amongst my playmates, poised to report the slightest transgression, and I was determined they should have nothing to say about me.
My shoes crunched on the gravel, slid on the rain-slick stones, still wet with the morning’s dew. As I came to the Priest’s outstretched hand, my back ramrod straight and my head lifted high, I could hear the crowd’s collective intake of breath. To be called onto the stones by a Priest was a great honor. Later, in the Nursery, I would hear the Mothers whispering, would know they found it as extraordinary as I did—though for different reasons. But now, I stood still, my body moving with the force of my breath, gaze fixed on the green line of moss that traced the cobblestone at my feet. I breathed, and shut my eyes.
The Priest’s hand came to rest on my head. Even through the thickness of my braid, I could feel the cold, damp pressure of his fingers. “Speak your name, child.”
“Eva Marteinn, Father.” My voice came clear and high. I was pleased it did not shake.
“You’ll not have seen justice enacted before, Eva Marteinn. How do you feel, to witness it here today?”
The question hung in the balance between us, and my life hung with it. Slowly, I lifted my head, looking not at the Priest but beyond him, into the eyes of the man condemned to die. The man met my gaze without flinching, and his mouth lifted in a smile. It wasn’t the unfocused, wild grin of a madman, nor yet the grimace of a man who was resigned to his fate. The condemned man smiled at me with what I could swear was happiness, and in his eyes was that most dangerous of emotions: Pride.
For the life of me I could not figure out what there was for him to be proud of. In any other circumstances I would have dropped my own eyes, lest my expression give him away. But this man had already been sentenced to die. He could choose to fornicate on the stones, provided he could find a partner willing to sin with him, or drain a dozen bottles of wine to the dregs. Nothing he did now would change his fate, which had been sealed the moment the Priests discovered the truth.
I held the man’s eyes with mine as I answered the Priest’s question. It was all I had to give him, the only way I knew to show courage. Fear is the enemy. Fear is the force that will break the strongest of men. But it had not broken me today, and I could see it had not broken this man either. He would die with his spirit intact, and I found this mattered to me.
Before I could lose my courage, I looked away from the man, to the edge of the square, where the two bellators stood at attention. “He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty,” I said, raising my voice for everyone to hear.
The crowd breathed in again, this time in horror. These were the Priest’s words to say, words that signaled the death of the man in the square. They were a call to arms, and not for a child to utter.
I knew this. And yet I had said them, because I was suddenly certain the guilty party here was not the man, but the rest of us—the Priest, the Mothers, the bellators, the judgmental crowd. I had said them, but not with their usual intent—a trigger that would loose the blades of a bellator, severing the condemned man’s head with a single vicious downswing. I wanted the man to know that, though he might not be innocent of the charges the Priest had leveled, all of us were implicated in his death. And I wanted him to hear these final words from someone who understood.
“Eva Marteinn,” the Priest said, his voice inscrutable. “Look at me.”
And so I lifted my eyes to his.
For what felt like forever, the Priest searched my face. And then he turned toward the bellators. “Answer her call,” he said.
As one, the bellators’ gaze fixed on me. When they spoke, it was in perfect unison. “Either by meeting or by the sword.”
The Priest had made me the instrument of the man’s destruction, lent me the power to command the Bellatorum. It was a heady thing—but I knew there would be a cost.
The bellators moved into the square, prowling toward us with a pantherlike, anticipatory grace. One forced the man down to his knees and held him still; the other freed his sverd and raised it, gleaming silver in the light. The man did not struggle. He closed his eyes, the sun’s rays glinting off his dark hair, and I saw his lips move silently. “Do it,” he said.
The blade came down, unerringly finding its target. The man made a terrible noise, and then we were standing in a pool of blood. It spread around my shoes, made squelching noises when I tried to lift my feet.
The man crumpled on the stones, the life gone out of him. I couldn’t look at him anymore. So instead I looked straight ahead, at the children who had come with me from the Nursery. Their faces were as white as their uniforms, and they stared at me with big, shocked eyes. I couldn’t tell which they thought was worse—my hubris in speaking the Priest’s call, or the death of the man, which had not been the glorious, thrilling event they’d imagined. Either way, I had a sinking feeling I would be the one to pay the price.
I hadn’t been afraid when the Priest called me into the square, or when the man had died. But I was afraid now, and I despised myself for it. The world faded into the background, the only noise the roaring of my blood in my ears. And then I saw his face.
He stood behind the line of children that had come from the Nursery, with a group of other kids—a tall, lithe boy whose face looked vaguely familiar. He was wearing a green uniform, to show he was in his last year of study at the Under-School, before he turned thirteen and began his preparation to be Chosen. I studied his face—a stubborn jaw, cheekbones that were beginning to take on the sharp definition of adulthood, lips that curved upward even in repose, belying the angularity of his features. His eyes were wide and green and fixed on mine.
I could appreciate the boy’s beauty, but the notion held no significance. It was not as if I would ever be allowed to touch him. In the Commonwealth, romantic love—and, of course, lust—is forbidden. Our children are conceived in test tubes, then implanted in an unrelated carrier who gives birth to them, avoiding unnecessary attachment. From there, they go to the Nursery, where they are raised with interchangeable groups of other children their own age, supervised by a rotating group of Mothers.
So what drew me to the boy was not the hope of a future with him, however fantastic. I looked at him because he was the only one who looked back, without horror or shock or anything but a cool acceptance. Him, and one other. Standing in the second row, Instruktor Bjarki met my eyes, wearing an expression that might be interpreted as sympathy. Then she glanced down, disassociating herself from my foolishness—and how could I blame her?
But the boy did not look away. As I watched, he inclined his head toward me, and in the gesture I saw affirmation: You’ll do.
I drew a deep breath, and sound roared back around me—the murmurs of the crowd, the Priest’s benediction for the dead man. The bellators had retreated to the edge of the square, and the one who had killed the man was cleaning his blade. The other stood guard, contained and watchful.
These two were young—no more than twenty—and their bodies were pure muscle, honed to do battle and survive. Their faces were expressionless, identical in a bone-deep way that went beyond the differences of hair and skin and eyes. As I watched, the one who was cleaning his blade slid it back into his sheath without needing to look. If I had tried that, I’d have sliced off my braid.
There was no law saying only boys could join the Bellatorum. I didn’t know why there were no girls among their ranks. Maybe none had ever wanted it—after all, life was easier almost everywhere else. Not more certain. Just…easier. Or maybe they had wanted it, and the Executor had refused.
I had seven more years until my Choosing Ceremony, but I knew what I hoped for: a career in comp tech, the field for which I’d already shown the strongest aptitude. There had never been a female bellator, so I didn’t worry I’d be inducted into their ranks. Nonetheless, the rush that flooded me as the bellators stepped forward to do my bidding, the fleeting sensation that it was I who swung the blade, whistling through the air to cleave deep into flesh and bone—it disgusted me. How could I see the horror in such things, and yet delight in them? Surely taking pleasure in such things was a terrible sin.
There in the square, my feet soaked in blood and the sun breaking bright over the horizon, I felt cold certainty settle over me. The Priests and the Executor claimed to enforce these punishments in the name of creating a sinless society, of suppressing our base, savage instincts to prevent another Fall like the one that had destroyed the natural order of things centuries before…but staring at the body of the dead man, I doubted their convictions.
The Caretakers had always told us that the Executor held us to such strict standards to keep us safe—from our own failings as well as from the threat of the barbaric Outsiders who roamed beyond our gates—but the Priests’ punishments were far more savage than any infraction we could hope to commit. As for the Bellatorum, they were meant to be the arbiters of justice—but in that moment, standing in the square, I saw them for what they truly were: murderers whose violence was sanctioned by the authority we citizens held dear. And when I spoke the words that belonged only to the Priest, when I held the black-clad warriors’ power in my hands—I’d been just as guilty.
You are a monster, I thought, daring to glance back at the red-robed Priest, a wolf covered in blood. You’re no better than an animal. And now…neither am I.
Sickened, I squelched across the stones of the square, leaving a trail of red footprints behind.
Emily Colin’s debut novel, THE MEMORY THIEF, was a New York Times bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors Pick. She is also the author of THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER (Ballantine Books) and the editor of the YA fiction anthology, WICKED SOUTH: SECRETS AND LIES (Blue Crow Publishing). The first book in her new YA series, SWORD OF THE SEVEN SINS, was released by Blue Crow in August 2020, and SACRIFICE OF THE SEVEN SINS, a prequel e-novella was released in September 2020. Emily’s diverse life experience includes organizing a Coney Island tattoo and piercing show, hauling fish at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, roaming New York City as an itinerant teenage violinist, helping launch two small publishing companies, and serving as the associate director of a nonprofit dedicated to immersing youth in need in the arts. Originally from Brooklyn, she lives in Wilmington, NC with her family. She loves chocolate, is addicted to tiramisu, and dislikes anything containing beans.