Finding Purchase


“Where do you think you’re going, Brayden?”

His father’s sharp words stopped Brayden Skianda in his tracks, a handful of folded clothes hanging from his frozen fingers. The goldenwood paneled walls of his room shone in the late morning light, marking every inch of the life he’d known since he grew out of boyhood and into the Heir’s Suite of his father’s home. Luxurious bed, chest and armoire for clothing matched by a writing desk under the window and a carved framing on the fireplace. Brayden turned to meet his father’s blue eyes, lifting his chin in defiance.

“My prince has gone to war, Father,” he said. “I can hardly let him travel alone.”

“Don’t be a fool. We don’t even know for certain that’s where he’s gone.”

Brayden scoffed at the suggestion, one hand clenching in the soft fabric of his travel breeches. “And where else would he be? His guard says he’s left. The headsman admitted suggesting a noble-born lad head north the same night Arkaen vanished. He’s gone to war and he needs his lords beside him.”

Brayden’s father crossed the room to stand by the window, his heavy robes of office seeming to weigh his shoulders down with the responsibility. First adviser to High Lord Johannus should be an honor. Instead it was a burden Brayden wasn’t sure his father could bear. High Lord Johannus spent little enough time listening to his lower lords, anyway. At those not in league with the high lord’s childhood friend, Baron Oskari Weydert.

“I respect your honor, lad.” His father waved a hand as if to dismiss Brayden’s intentions and turned back to the room. “But we both know you’re no great talent with that blade. Run off after lordling Arkaen and all we’ll have is another noble’s heir dead.”

“So I should let him die?” Brayden threw the clothes onto his bed, frustration bubbling into the back of his throat. “Arkaen trained under my weapons master. Dined with us two nights out of five near every week. I grew up with him, I called him a friend, and I know him. He didn’t abandon our province for something trivial.”

“He was set for an arranged marriage. Wouldn’t be the first to run from a woman he didn’t want.”

Brayden shook his head, slamming a hand into the tall post of his bed frame. All evidence pointed toward his father being right. Arkaen had been seen sulking around the palace for days before vanishing, and High Lord Johannus had planned a marriage to a girl Arkaen probably didn’t want to wed. His personal guard even agreed he’d run off to avoid the wedding. But that wasn’t everything. Brayden could feel it in a certainty that ran through his blood. There was more to the story.

“He wouldn’t leave Lady Saylina like that,” Brayden said. “She’s just a child. Not nearly ready for the political mess this will throw her in the middle of.”

“As you intend to leave Arianne? Is your sister ready to manage the politics of becoming heir?”

“That’s not a proper comparison and you know it,” he said. “Arianne is a year and a half my senior and has been preparing to run her husband’s household for years. Lady Saylina is nine.”

Brayden frowned, staring out the window at the bustle of the city. Common-born dragging their goods to a market that had long forgotten their value. High Lord Johannus spent too much time with imperial sycophants to realize the brewing tension in his own city. Arkaen had known. Arkaen had cared about the lower classes and now he was gone. Only the gods could guess what might happen to the city, or the province, while Arkaen hunted his own goals among the horrors of war.

“Brayden, you know this can’t be,” his father said. “Arianne has been training as a lower lord’s wife. You are heir to one of the most prestigious households in the province. When I’m gone, you’ll have the high lord’s ear. She has no knowledge of how to navigate that.”

“Then train her! Father, I—”

“I’m going home, Brayden. Tomorrow.”

“What?”

The words hit him like a shock of cold water. Leave court right now? But everyone would, he realized. Summer court was coming to an end, which meant the landed lords would need to return to their own holdings to manage the estates. The horse stock of the Tenison estate needed constant care, the two lake lords would be back to fighting over who held what part of the fish and oil trade. Even his own family’s wooded estate couldn’t be left alone forever.

“Can’t the steward see to it another year?” Brayden asked. “You know what will happen if we leave. High Lord Johannus is far too volatile to be left alone with only the unlanded lords as counsel.”

“Which is precisely why I need you to stay,” his father replied. “I doubt he’ll listen to a word you say. Likely he’ll take one look at you and see his boy. But at least you can monitor the discussions and warn me before he puts us into the war.”

Brayden bit at the inside of his lip, thinking. “Would that be so bad?” He waved a hand before his father could protest. “I know. War is ugly and thousands of innocents will die. But the emperor is sending his armies north. Innocents will die either way. Shouldn’t we at least try to protect them?”

“You assume High Lord Johannus would fight for the Serr-Nyen.” Brayden’s father shook his head. “Johannus is too smart for that. He might mourn their deaths, but he’d never risk our province’s limited soldiers protecting a foreign people. His family is loyal to Emperor Laisia for a reason.”

“Even High Lord Johannus can’t ignore this.” Brayden shoved away from the bed, scowling. “It’s a genocide. If Emperor Laisia could kill everyone north of the Sentar border he would. Arkaen knew that. He—”

“You think he went to save them,” his father said. “Maybe he did. But we need to save our own people.”

Anger chafed at Brayden’s thoughts. But his father was right. Emperor Laisia’s wrath might be targeted at his newly conquered province right now, but imperial whims were fickle. If the emperor learned the heir to Sentar had left under rumors he planned to join the rebellion against imperial rule, Sentar could become the next target. A closer, less protected target with a populace proud of its position within the Laisian Empire. The Sentarsi nobility would be wiped out and no one would fight for them.

“So what do you need?” Brayden’s words sounded flat even to himself. Defeated by an enemy who hadn’t even raised a hand yet.

“The princess.” Brayden’s father waved toward the palace. “She needs supervision from a source with the province’s interests at heart. You can guide her.”

Brayden frowned, disgust souring his thoughts as he considered his options. “I’ll try, but the high lord isn’t prone to letting full-grown men with political ambitions court his nine year old daughter. And I certainly hope you’ve no intentions for me to do so in earnest.”

Brayden’s father burst out in a hearty chuckle, the sound cutting enough to reveal the absurdity of the assumption. Beyond the wide gap in their age, the marriage would never work politically. A count’s heir wed to the high lord’s daughter would cause more problem than anyone could want.

“Gods above, no, lad.” His father coughed on another chuckle and smiled. “There are so many better ways to influence a child. And besides, she’s not even had her first woman’s moon. You’ll be well settled before her marriage is designed. I only meant to keep watch on her, provide outlets for her rather expansive imagination.” Brayden’s father turned serious again, fixing a stern look at Brayden. “Outlets which encourage her down the paths best for our province. A cautious and well educated high lady is essential to our survival. Especially now that we can’t rely on Arkaen.”

“He’ll—” Brayden bit back a curse, his instincts screaming to defend Arkaen. But what Arkaen did or did not intend mattered nothing to Brayden’s next steps. And if Arkaen had taken the time, he’d have asked someone to look after Lady Saylina, anyway. “I’ll see to it. Offer a servant to watch and guide her, perhaps. Her father will want a spy like he had on Arkaen.”

“Perfect.” Brayden’s father crossed the room, pausing by the door. “Fare well. I’ll be at the city gates before you rise in the morn. And be careful. The city isn’t what it used to be.”


Brayden kept a careful eye on the side alleys as he strode through the city, a young girl scurrying in his wake. With any luck, his key into the young princess’s circle of trust. Dusk hung over the city, lanterns just beginning to shine on the larger, wealthier streets and the shadows filling with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. The girl behind him shied away from the beggars, as if afraid proximity would drag her back into their place.

“Come along, Caela,” Brayden muttered over his shoulder. “High Lord Johannus can’t select you if we miss the ceremony and I didn’t pluck you from the streets to add another child to my own household.”

He regretted the words the instant he said them. Impress the high lord or I throw you back on the streets. He hadn’t intended to threaten the child, though he couldn’t see another way to interpret his statement. And by the glare she shot him, Caela had already taken his measure from that threat. Nothing he said now would convince her of anything more than his own guilt over a callous verbal misstep. Still…

“I meant—”

“I ken tell.” Caela hurried to keep pace with him, her shorter legs pumping almost twice as fast to match his longer stride. “Ya ain’t got place fer me. None a ya do.”

“That’s—” Brayden sighed. “I hired you for a reason. That’s all I meant.”

With a careless shrug, she turned the next corner without waiting for him to lead. Not her first time slipping onto the high lord’s estate, then. Gods help him if any of High Lord Johannus’s guards knew her from those previous visits.

The houses here were larger, many sporting multiple small plots for various styles of gardens. Miniature attempts to recreate a proper lord’s estate. A few even had stone walls mimicking the defensive structure of the high lord’s palace, complete with iron gates barred from the inside. The rich merchants, hoping that enough showy wealth would turn them into lords in their own right. Under the increasingly fickle Emperor Laisia, they might just be right.

Brayden stepped in front of Caela as they turned the final bend toward the high lord’s palace, waving her back into his shadow. The gate guard looked up, raised a hand to halt them, and froze when he recognized Brayden. A smile spread across the guard’s face. Brayden pulled a copper coin, new-minted with the face of Emperor Laisia’s insignia and named for his house, to ease the guard’s conscience. The guard pushed the gate open and waved Brayden inside, shooting a silent glare at Caela edging in behind him.

The courtyard beyond was lit with dozens of lanterns. An flagrant waste of oil that even most of the lower lords wouldn’t have allowed. So much easier to hold the event in the day and save the cost, though High Lord Johannus must be ashamed of the need. Probably scheduled late in the day to avoid the chance his daughter would sneak out and offer her own opinion. Even at her young age, Lady Saylina had a tendency to object when the high lord stole her choices. A voice rang across the courtyard as Brayden approached, leading his young candidate.

“My lord, surely you’ve more to attend than your daughter’s personal servants.” Viscount Andriole stepped forward. Likely protecting his own daughter, who had just come of age to wed and stood now milling amongst the collection of young women the high lord was examining. “Our high lady is still a child. Far too young to hold a true court.”

“Don’t be a fool,” High Lord Johannus said. “I don’t want her to hold court. I want to know what she’s up to. If I’d gotten to Arkie sooner I’d have him still home.”

Brayden smiled at the opportunity, stepping forward. Before he could speak, another young man stumbled into the courtyard. Two stone-faced guards stalked behind him and Brayden’s blood turned to ice. Executioners, and the man was the personal guard High Lord Johannus had hired for Arkaen.

“My lord Johannus.” Brayden waved at Arkaen’s guard. “For what purpose have you brought your son’s guard? Sure he cannot inform this decision.”

High Lord Johannus smirked. “He already has, young lordling.” A casual glance at the guards and he turned back to the women, calling an order over his shoulder. “See to it.”

Brayden glanced at Caela, wishing, suddenly, that he’d studied the request more before choosing an innocent child for his ploy. The guards stripped Arkaen’s former companion of his shirt and shoved him to his knees.

“My lord,” the man pleaded. “I did what you asked. I begged him to stay. What more could I have done?”

The first crack of the whip echoed through the courtyard. The scream followed, torn from the man’s shocked throat. As if he’d never truly believed the whipping was real. A second crack. The next scream vibrated with fear.

“This is not the lord I serve!” Brayden sprinted across the distance, grabbing High Lord Johannus’s arm. And froze with a third guard’s knife at his throat, the high lord’s sleeve pulled from his grasp.

“You’ll want to watch your tongue, boy.” High Lord Johannus waved the guard back, releasing Brayden. “Your father has my respect. You are expendable.”

A fourth scream, emotion fading into pain.

“What did you expect him to do?” Brayden demanded. “Lock Arkaen, his sworn lord, in chains?”

“He knows what was expected.”

A fifth scream, and then a sixth. The humanity was starting to fade. Brayden trembled under the fury of high Lord Johannus’s glare. Arkaen hadn’t run for any trivial reason. Not to avoid a woman he didn’t care for. He’d run to escape a monster he didn’t dare challenge.

A brush of soft cloth against Brayden’s arm and Caela stepped up to the high lord. She glanced at the man—at her likely end—and scoffed.

“Ya shouldn’ta called a high-born ta do a gutter-rat’s job.”

“Caela—”

“Shut it, lord’s boy.” Her callous dismissal felt false. Not a proper insult, just enough to prove her guts without offending him. A ploy. “Ya ain’t got nothin’ fer me anyhow.”

High Lord Johannus choked on a laugh, a brutal counterpoint to the whimpering of Arkaen’s former guard. The tension vibrated, strung tighter with each strike of the whip. Gods, they were going to kill the man for not forcing Arkaen to bow to his father’s will. And High Lord Johannus knew it. He didn’t even spare a glance for the man he’d hired to watch his son.

“What possible purpose could you serve, girl?”

“I know what ya ain’t thought to look fer,” Caela replied. “Yer boy? He ain’t run off random. Wasn’t gonna leave. Ole Jaki sent him off, realized too late, told tha guards. By then, what they gonna do? I ken keep her here. Keep her handled.”

“And I’m supposed to trust your word?” High Lord Johannus asked. “You’ve just admitted to being a thief.”

“Ain’t—”

“I’ll vouch for her,” Brayden said.

The words sat heavy in his gut, but she’d made the move now. All he could do was what he’d promised. Speak for her, help her as he could, and offer her a retreat if needed. Not that he could do much if Lady Saylina disappointed her father as Arkaen had.

Brayden laid a hand on Caela’s shoulder. “I brought her for this purpose. She’s smart and she’s loyal to our province.”

Or she’d sworn to be and he had no choice but to believe her now. High Lord Johannus frowned at the girl for a moment, then finally nodded.

“Fine,” he said. “Send her to the palace in the morn. And teach her to speak properly. I want none of that gutter-speak in my home.”

High Lord Johannus strode into his keep, leaving the rest of the lords alone with the continuing screams of Arkaen’s guard.


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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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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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