CHAPTER ONE: The Visionary
If Zi Yan Oohara could choose a special ability, sealing her dorm room door would rank near the top of the list. She slumped against the insufficient barrier. Unfortunately, The Visionary, as she was known to people in the Eastern Coalition, she didn’t get a choice. She had visions of the future. The thought made her scowl at her short, slender legs as she strode across the narrow room to a window overlooking the campus.
On the horizon, the Himalayan Mountains loomed like sentinels. The tallest, Mt. Everest, drew Zi’s focus. Earlier in the day, she’d envisioned herself beside a deeply tanned boy from the Pacific Islands. In front of them, a wall of ice sparkled, as if made of diamonds. During the vision, strange heat radiated down her back, so intense she shivered in the absence of the warmth when the brief episode passed. Why would she feel heat atop Everest?
An ominous song played from her communication tablet. So much for figuring out the strange vision. The tone signaled an incoming call from her father. Of course, he’d expect a video conference.
Can’t keep the important Mr. Oohara waiting.
She dragged her feet over the matted beige carpeting. On the desk, the screen on the thin device lit up as the tone sounded again. A message across the face screamed “Incoming Video Call from Father.” Delightful. She’d rather her floormates swarmed into her room again.
Zi gritted her teeth and tapped the tablet. She rubbed her thumb over a button at the bottom and was granted immediate access. Her father’s stoic Chinese features popped into view.
“Daughter.” Because she didn’t have a name?
“Father.” Zi picked up the device and flopped onto the divan, staring at her closet rather than the screen. When he cleared his throat, she shifted her gaze to her father’s unblinking black eyes, nothing like her pale blue eyes.
“I request your presence at a dinner engagement.”
“I’m in school.”
“That doesn’t hinder trips to Paris or Milan.” That had been months ago, when she was at her former school. This place was located in the middle of nowhere. The nearest airport for her jet was a two-hour drive away.
“That was last year.”
His smile reminded her of a shark. “It is the Friday after your term ends. You will attend. It’s the least of your duties.”
Back to veiled hints about how she shirked her responsibilities was he? A few years ago she’d decided she owed nothing to him or Oohara Conglomerate. Not when all he cared about were profits. But maybe he referred to the tradition for Visionary’s to visit with Chinese officials. Either way, she wasn’t interested in fulfilling the role.
As if he knew her thoughts, he said, “It’s a state dinner. The governors of the Eastern Coalition will be present.” He fingered his expensive watch. “Flippancy toward The Visionary role would have disappointed your mother.”
A low blow. Zi expected her father’s conniving attempts at manipulation would only get worse. Her refusal to use her sight to expand his coffers stabbed the heart of his true love: money. Not surprising for him to strike at her weakness. Her mother had groomed her for The Visionary role before her death. The gracious woman wouldn’t have wanted her using her gift for financial gain, but what about how Zi used it to predict dates and test scores?
“Don’t say her name.” Zi glared at the screen. “Send the details of the dinner. I’ll look into it.”
His icy stare chilled her, sending a troupe of goosebumps marching up her arms. She gritted her back teeth and forced herself to meet his eyes.
“The Sultan States-”
“I have class.” She knew better than to give him an opportunity to plant information about his current business dealings in her mind. Thanks to his greed, she’d witnessed more destruction and desolation through premonitions in her short seventeen years than most people did in a lifetime.
“At least you’re successful at that.”
Zi tapped the disconnect icon on her screen, letting it fall onto her knees. She sloughed the cruel words off with a roll of her shoulders. He wanted to control everything and hated that she hadn’t allowed him to direct her visions. Not since the disastrous viewing of the Eastern Island War when she saw her uncle’s death.
Seeing the death of people she loved might be her special skill. At least her uncle’s death hadn’t repeated over and over every day for a week. No, that was reserved for her first vision of death, when she was eight and her mother died.
Zi tossed the tablet aside and bolted to her feet. One more class and she could lock herself away in her room. That’s what being The Visionary really meant in her life.
The wide aisle of a stable shifted into view. Scents of hay, manure, lime, leather and sweat overwhelmed her senses. Muffled nickers from the left and steady thumping from directly ahead fought for attention.
She moved through the barn until she reached a corner stall, cast in shadow from the open doors at the end of the row. The top half of the door, an iron-barred window, stood ajar. Snuffling sounded from within the enclosure.
Zi stepped closer, glancing over the door. Black pointed ears and a wavy riot of mane sprang into view as the horse raised its head. The beast towered above her, its head taller than the standard doorway. When the mammoth horse shifted forward, Zi saw its shaggy forelegs were white from the knee down. The head bobbed, drawing attention to its regal face and flared nostrils.
Slow and steady, the head turned toward her. An enormous lizard eye dilated in the majestic face. The eye, amber flecked with green, blinked once and focused on Zi. She felt the immobilizing power of the stare from head to toe. Where was the horse’s gentle brown eye? The strange oval pupil, pointed at top and bottom, covered the top third of the noble face. The pupil shifted again, shrinking and expanding as if beneath a flickering light.
“Come to me,” a deep voice commanded.
Zi blinked. The red coverlet over her double bed flickered into view. The vision was over. A strange one. She rarely heard voices during her premonitions, although both sounds and smells often accompanied the moving pictures.
She grabbed the books for her literature class, stacking the discarded tablet on top. Why had she seen the barn? She had done nothing recently to compel the strange vision.
Looked like this afternoon would be perfect for a ride. Maybe today was the day this most recent vision would be fulfilled. They never failed to come to pass.
At least this one, strange though it was, didn’t indicate forthcoming death and destruction.
Zi Yan pulled a pair of riding breeches, insulated sweatshirt and knee-high riding boots from the full-wall closet. How students, most from affluent families, managed with less than half this space for clothes bewildered her. The supple leather of the cream-colored boots slid easily over her foot and calves.
Outside her room, the deserted hallway stretched off to the right. She pushed open the door in front of her, tromping down the stairs. Her footsteps echoed in the stairwell during the three-flight decent.
When she shoved open the exterior door, thin mountain air cleansed her throat. The cold draught stung her nostrils and cheeks. Spring on the Tibetan Plateau didn’t include balmy temperatures, even with sunshine staring down.
The academy, a re-creation of a medieval fort, occupied a hilltop overlooking the Mekong River. The stables resided outside the inner wall but within the wall of the outer keep. Zi stepped from the stone path to a gravel-strewn roadway. Crunching footsteps carried her to the long, low building with its double-doors thrown open wide.
Inside, a groom bowed his head toward her. His handwoven wool shirt and pants identified him as a resident of the local village.
“Can I help?” he asked, his use of the common tongue, English, tangled with a heavy accent.
“I know my way around the tack room,” she answered in perfect Mandarin. Why make the poor man struggle? Thanks to the foresight of her mother, she was fluent in several languages.
He bowed his head.
“If I ride at all.” She stared down the brightly lit aisle, seeking a match for her premonition. Hadn’t it been a corner stall?
The scents of hay, manure, lime, leather and sweat mingled in the air around her, reminding her of the vision. On her left, a horse nickered, and another answered from near the open doors. She strolled ahead. Reality matched her vision. As always.
She ignored the snuffling of a friendly bay which poked its head over a stall on her right. The iron-barred window comprising the top half of the door on the corner stall sat ajar. This was the place.
A muffled snort sounded from within the enclosure. Zi stepped closer and glanced over the door. As she expected, the horse raised its head. Black pointed ears and a wavy riot of mane coalesced from the shadows. The beast towered above her; the vision portrayed his height with deadly accuracy. When the mammoth shifted toward her, Zi saw a flash of white, his forelegs.
With a bob of its head, the horse pulled Zi’s attention to its regal face and flared nostrils. Time to pull back the curtain and reveal the strange eye. The horse blinked. Zi leaned closer. She covered her mouth at the sight of a gentle brown eye staring out of the black face. Where was the lizard eye?
You came, seer. A voice boomed inside her head.
Zi clapped her hands over her ears, stumbling away from the stall, jamming her shoulder against the metal window. Vibrations rattled inside her skull.
Who spoke? And why had reality veered from her vision?