Homecoming


Lady Kyli Andriole leaned back against the cushioned seat of her carriage, the tight fabric of her corset digging into her abdomen. A minor annoyance, the bone ribbing leaving nothing more serious than bruises on her pale body. Not like his touch, or his blades. The memory sent a shiver down her spine, skin crawling at the memory of his hands running over her as she lay tied to the bed. And then the blood, pouring fresh from his neck as the demon pulled its claws free and snarled. A smile crept onto her face. Dead at last.

The carriage slowed, bouncing heavily before coming to a stop before the modest doors of her father’s home. Excitement and nerves fluttered in her stomach, mingling into a knot of uncertainty. Almost three full years since she’d been home. The carriage door swung open, her servant standing just beyond with a hand offered to help her down. Leaning forward, she took the hand and stepped out into the warm summer air. The courtyard spread before her, half a dozen cobbles loose and several roughly trimmed hedges where once everything had been pristine. Kyli frowned. Why…

“Kyli!” Her father hurried down the last few steps of his mansion, rushing across the space to take her hands. “Gods, I feared for you so much. My child.” His voice cut off in a rough choke, the beginnings of a sob. She knew too well how her leaving had hurt him.

“I’m well, father.” A lie, but one he needed to hear. She would be fine, when her lands were given the due they’d been promised. Kyli waved at the two servants that had stepped outside with him. “Where are the rest of the household?”

“There’s been so much,” her father replied. “Come inside. We’ll get you settled. A nice cup of tea and a rest first. Then we can discuss matters.”

“But—”

She looked around again, following her father for a better look at the house. Several windows were smudged. No one to clean them in months if not more. Most rooms shuttered despite the warmth, meaning no one used them. Not the well-maintained family home she’d grown up in, and not the fine lord’s palace her father should have.

“We made an agreement.” Her anger rose, seeping into her voice as she glared at the worn runner beyond the front door. As if the threadbare state were personally responsible for the ache that still lingered in her joints. “Where is he, father? Where’s the high lord? He promised to see my family rewarded.”

“Kyli, it’s not time for that,” her father insisted. “Come inside and get cleaned up.”

“I’ve done plenty of cleaning up over these last years.” She snatched her hand away, turning back to the carriage.

How dare he? Short her family after she’d offered her own life to save his daughter? Oh, the little high lady was charming and she’d certainly never have forgiven herself for subjecting her to him. But High Lord Johannus Sentarsin owed her family for what Kyli had suffered. And she’d be damned if she’d let this be swept away with the day’s leavings. Her father caught her arm, his breath panting behind her.

“Stop, Kyli,” he said. “You can’t talk to the high lord. He’s—”

“I don’t give a damn where he is or what he’s doing,” she replied. “He owes us.”

“He’s dead, Kyli.”

That stopped her. Kyli spun around to stare at her father. How? High Lord Johannus had been adamant about staying clear of the conflict and by everything she knew, the fighting had never gotten south of Serni.

Her father sighed. “He died a few weeks back. The lower lord’s council just confirmed the boy in his place.”

“Arkaen? He came back?” There’d been whispers about Arkaen Sentarsin in the imperial palace as well. None of them good.

“You can’t talk to him, Kyli,” her father said. “Even it it weren’t for the new seating, he’s…” Her father shook his head, at a loss for words. “Something’s changed about him. He’s dismissed half the province business without even consulting the council, consorting with foreign traitors as guardsmen. And he’s got some… thing with him.”

“Can’t be worse than the monster High Lord Johannus served.”

She muttered the words to herself, another shiver running through her body. But she knew better. Arkaen had a reputation now that no one in Sentar Province would have believed when she was a child playing at court in his family palace. Not that anyone had thought much of Arkaen when he was a boy. Just a poor copy following in his father’s shadow, chafing at the demands of his birth. He’d certainly stepped out of that shadow in the war.

“Kyli, you’re home and you’re safe. That’s all I need. The money doesn’t matter.” Her father urged her inside again. “I’ve had the maid set tea and oat cakes. With the honey you like. She can—”

Kyli’s gut churned at the thought. Honey sweetness on her lips as the blade cut into her skin, tear sliding free from one eye and her hand shaking. If he saw—

“No honey,” she said, just a bit too fast.She forced a smile, hoping to ease the worry sharp in her father’s eyes. “Not in the mood. But let’s have tea and discuss. Our family needs rebuilt.”

Following behind, Kyli swept her gaze over her house. Too many little reminders of her wasted sacrifice. Fluffs of dust in a corner. The maid-staff wouldn’t have allowed it, but clearly her father didn’t keep a proper staff any longer. Dust cloths laid over furniture in the first three rooms they passed. Easy to prep should a visitor arrive, but she could tell no one had visited recently. Her father led her into a well-lit receiving room, candles spread across the room in what she now knew was extravagance her father couldn’t afford. The faded painting of her long-dead mother hung over the cold fireplace, adding a touch of love to an otherwise shabby room. Kyli took a seat on the couch, smiling at the soft fabric and thick cushioning. Some few luxuries he still had, then. A maid entered from one doorway and poured her a cup of tea.

“Thank you.” Kyli smiled, a flutter stirring in her chest as the maid smiled back. For once, someone she didn’t have to fear. Who couldn’t report her to him even if she’d wanted to.

“A pleasure to have you home, lady,” the maid said.

She poured a cup of tea for Kyli’s father and left, leaving them to speak privately. Another thing Kyli would have to relearn. Privacy. The imperial palace wasn’t a place anyone felt truly safe.

“Are you certain we should talk now?” Her father watched her, his cup ignored on the table beside him. “You’ve had a difficult…” He looked away. Bit his lip. “You should recover.”

“I’ll not get better for brooding,” Kyli replied. “If we’ve a new high lord and new emperor at once, I can’t think it’s coincidence. How did High Lord Johannus die?”

Her father shook his head. “No, no. It was an accident. He took the boy hunting and they got caught in a storm. Trail gave out under his horse.”

“But the timing is too close.”

“We checked the body, Kyli,” he said. “No sign of foul play. Nothing a proper fall wouldn’t cause. That’s one thing the boy’s innocent of.”

“He’s not a boy anymore, Father,” she said. “He’s your high lord. He could have done any number of things you don’t know about.”

Her father took another long sip of the tea, staring into his cup as if it would release some magic to aid them. With a sigh, he finally set the cup back down.

“I’m far more concerned with the lower lords council,” he said. “Baron Weydert has taken control of many seats. Bribery, blackmail. He approved our high lord, but I can’t help but wonder what schemes he might have planned in return. If he has the boy’s ear…”

Trailing off, he glanced up at the drawing of Kyli’s mother and fell silent. Kyli frowned at her cup, taking her own sip of the spiced tea. Arkaen Sentarsin had been many things, but she hadn’t seen him be just a boy since years before he’d run off. And the stories from the war painted him far more fierce than she’d ever seen him. Razing entire towns because imperial sympathizers lived there. And now he ruled an imperial province? That her father dismissed him—the new high lord of Sentar Province—so quickly spoke ill of the local politics. High Lord Johannus had his flaws, but he’d always kept the delicate balance of politics in check.

“I could speak to the baron at my dinner tomorrow, if you like,” Kyli offered. “I’m sure he must mean well for the province.” She had no such belief at all, but the baron’s son, Rikkard, wouldn’t stand for his father endangering the province. “Rik will help. We can keep Baron Weydert under control.”

Her father frowned at her. Set his cup down. And after several uncomfortable breaths, he sighed.

“Just be careful, Kyli,” he said. “You’ve just come home. I don’t want you harmed.”

“I’ll be fine, Father.” Kyli glanced out the window at the dim courtyard beyond. She’d be damned to Eiliin’s eternal prison before she let the grandson of a common-born merchant who married well tear her province apart. Not after what she’d given to save it. No matter if the new high lord planned to help or not.


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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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