Artifice of Power Series Planning


Finally, after an unexpectedly long break after the release of my first novel, Wake of the Phoenix, I am making good progress on the second book of the Artifice of Power saga. Since a lot of self-published authors choose to go rapid release, I want to take the opportunity of having a good visual of my sequel to talk about my process in a way that I hope helps other writers and gives readers some insight into when they can expect more content.

Publishing Plans

I am not a rapid release author. Primarily, this is because my genre doesn’t lend itself well to rapid release, and I want to explain why that’s true because there’s a lot of tension between some rapid release authors and some other self-publishers. The books in epic fantasy are expected to be long (120k words is on the low end for epic fantasy and at the absolute maximum for most traditionally published books of all genres). As well, there is an assumption of complexity of plot and character interactions that is much more difficult to write in a short period of time.

That’s not to say rapid release authors have simplistic writing, plots, or characters or that all their books are overly short. Plenty of rapid release authors have characters well designed for their stories. They just don’t write epic fantasy. The good rapid release genres are romance (the pillar of this publishing style), urban/contemporary fantasy (which has a much lower world-building requirement), other contemporary books, and a lot of young adult books. Sometimes steampunk works well as rapid release, as well. Plenty of other books have gotten some traction as rapid release (I certainly don’t have an exhaustive list), but these are the ones that tend to thrive. And the one thing they all have in common is they tend to be shorter than epic fantasy by a lot. A 110k word romance novel had better be damned good to survive; the standard is more 70k-90k. Same with YA and most books set in contemporary settings. Go above 100k in those genres and you’re struggling to hold readers. If I go below 100k my readers will be sorely disappointed. Rapid release authors thrive on quick, well-paced books that hit the aspects their readers love. Epic fantasy thrives on a sense of wonder and evolving conflicts, typically mixed with slowly growing stakes.

As a result of these differing expectations, if I were to try to follow a rapid release publishing schedule, my books would suck. As a result, the plan for my publishing plan is this:

  1. Most of the fiction content here will be compiled into a series of anthologies, to be released between my book releases. This may seem like a bit of double dipping. After all, I’m putting the content here for free and then asking people to buy it also? But that’s not the plan. The content from here will be the foundation of each anthology, but the stories will undergo significant revision and likely expansion from the version released here, and will go through formal editing. I have a typo problem in blog posts and I only have so much time to fix them. As well, I intend to include at least one new, previously unreleased story in each anthology, preferably two or three, depending on existing content.
  2. Primary books in the Artifice of Power saga will be released approximately every 2 to 2.5 years. While I would love to release more often, at this time I still have a day job and that’s not going away any time soon.
  3. Several off-shoots of the series are already in planning stages. These plans include the prequel novels to the Aritifice of Power Saga that several reviewers have commented on wanting (I promise this is where this story arc starts; the prequels are already in initial drafting and have an entirely different set of storylines). Another set that is under consideration is a companion series that would cover some of the neglected storylines in areas where the main plot simply doesn’t have a reason to go (Kyli Andriole’s progression through the political landscape, for example). Those books are less likely to begin drafting before the end of the Artifice of Power Saga, given the potential for those storylines to intersect directly with the primary arc.

Tentative Release Plans

Below is a chart which outlines the rough plans I have for my release schedule for the Artifice of Power saga.

BookPlacement in storyTentative release plans
Tales of the Laisian Empire, Volume 1All content occurs before the beginning of Wake of the Phoenix, book 1 in the Artifice of Power sagaTentatively planned for late 2022
Artifice of Power saga, Book 2Direct sequel to Wake of the PhoenixTentatively planned for late 2023/early 2024
Tales of the Laisian Empire, Volume 2All content occurs between the end of Wake of the Phoenix and the beginning of Artifice of Power saga, Book 2Tentatively planned for late 2024
Artifice of Power saga, Book 3Direct sequel to Artifice of Power saga, Book 2Release not yet planned
Tales of the Laisian Empire, Volume 3All content occurs between the end of Artifice of Power saga, Book 2 and the beginning of Artifice of Power saga, Book 3Release not yet planned
Artifice of Power saga, Book 4Direct sequel to Artifice of Power saga, Book 3Release not yet planned
Tales of the Laisian Empire, Volume 4All content occurs between the end of Artifice of Power saga, Book 3 and the beginning of Artifice of Power saga, Book 4Release not yet planned
Artifice of Power saga, Book 5Direct sequel to Artifice of Power saga, Book 4Release not yet planned
Tales of the Laisian Empire, Volume 5All content occurs between the end of Artifice of Power saga, Book 4 and the beginning of Artifice of Power saga, Book 5Release not yet planned
Artifice of Power saga, Book 6Direct sequel to Artifice of Power saga, Book 5Release not yet planned

Anyone who browses this blog for any length of time will undoubtedly realize that I call myself a “pure pantser” or “an extreme discovery writer” and I have even said things like “the more I know about what’s coming, the more difficult it is for me to write the book. This is all true. I typically sit down at my computer for a new book with nothing more than a character concept and a place where that person is standing. Typically not even a name. As a result, the fact that I already know the above rough outline of the series—I even have titles for each of those books, though I won’t release them until I’m sure they won’t change—is a sign of the life this story has in my imagination. It’s also a bit terrifying to me, since I know that makes it a bit harder to get the books started. It took me almost eight months to get the second book working right. The good news is…it’s working now! Below I’ll discuss a quick overview of the status of book 2. Please note that, since I am a discovery writer, some of this “progress” may sound a little crazy (I.e., “how did you write a book without knowing THAT?”). That’s just the nature of being a discovery writer. Even our sequels are pulled out of thin air.

Artifice of Power, Book 2 Progress

I’m very excited to share the progress on book 2 of the Artifice of Power saga. It’s shaping up to be a very fun book with a lot of implications I didn’t quite predict. Currently I’m 20k words into the draft. That’s not a lot of content, but I don’t write linearly. What that means is, so far, I have the likely events of two, maybe even three or four major shifts in the narrative. I have content for the rough arc of the characters, and I know that at least two new side characters from Wake of the Phoenix are getting POV chapters in the sequel. That last bit undoubtedly means the book will be longer than Wake of the Phoenix, which is not entirely unexpected. However, because of the plot moments I already know, it should also have a bit of a faster pace. That means more plot will happen in the length, not less. The element that most excites me, though, is that several moments in Wake of the Phoenix that otherwise had no follow-up have already influenced the events of book 2. While I obviously knew some elements needed to move forward in book 2, I’m very excited at how elements that I had wished I could pursue further have woven into the narrative of the second book, several of which I didn’t expect to come back.

How do these unexpected tie-ins happen? Well, I’ve talked a bit in the past about discovery writing flowing from the natural and logical consequences of events that already happened. At least, that’s how it works for me and every other discovery writer I’ve spoken to about their process. But don’t take that as gospel—I only know a few true discovery writers (as opposed to architect writers who think they should do more discovery writing). But in terms of my sequel, here’s an example from Wake of the Phoenix that illustrates the concept (I’ll keep this mostly spoiler-free, but I’m a strong believer that if spoilers ruin the book I did a bad job writing it).

What’s happening in the sequel is basically the same as Saylina having tea with Prillani in Wake of the Phoenix. Originally that scene didn’t exist. Readers of the book will likely wonder how the book could have worked without it (the book didn’t work, thus the addition). But that scene, which is actually critical to the progress of the book, came from the logical reactions Saylina would have to the scene where Arkaen pushes her out the door to talk to Prillani in private. Saylina has every reason to be confused and concerned over Arkaen’s actions, so she follows her character and investigates on her own. The result is Prillani is pulled into a completely different arc than she would have had if she hadn’t been invited to tea with Saylina. The entire course of the book would have changed.

Similar things have happened in book 2. Events from Wake of the Phoenix which didn’t have a logical follow-up in that book still have consequences for the other characters involved. Following those characters to their logical reactions, they have re-collided with the primary storyline in new and very, very interesting ways. I can’t wait to get this draft done so I can start recruiting beta readers.

NaNoWriMo Project–excerpt 1


“Mistress!”

The boy scurried across the open square, pausing beside her with eyes wide and breath misting in the night air. Niamsha Pereyra frowned at him. Another of Nijel’s spies, but one she couldn’t bring herself to dismiss. His brown eyes tugged at her grief in a way that Nijel must have intended, the innocence and hue reminiscent of the brother Niamsha had failed to save.

“What, boy?” Her sharp words sent the boy cowering into the shadows of her porch.

“Ya asked fer news when the merchants come,” he replied. “First one’s coming in just now.”

“Then get to the tavern.”

A twinge of guilt rubbed at her conscience. He was just doing what she’d asked. Or so he said.

Niamsha hiked her skirts up, hands full of rough fabric and hem still brushing the ground, and stepped into the dark. She knew these paths by now, her feet well accustomed to midnight treks through the worn, smooth dirt roads. The tavern sat behind a row of houses, hidden from the street. A poor place for a public business, but this town didn’t have the bustle to support a proper tavern anyway. Not enough to support much of anything. No tavern, no inn, the makeshift guild hall lost to the brutality of war almost a decade ago. Most would have taken one look at the ramshackle community and kept moving.

Instead, Nijel had appointed Niamsha to take over the long-abandoned guild hall and turn it into a place where he could gather his followers when he passed through. Perhaps he’d intended for her to create a less wholesome establishment, but she’d had other plans. And a local tavern brought in enough coin from the field workers to cover expenses for her side projects. Nijel had always been expedient in that way. Between the Rendell house in High Lord Arkaen’s home town and this guild hall, she was beginning to think he enjoyed repurposing old, forgotten buildings into new life.

Pushing the door open, Niamsha strode into the dim light and scanned for her guests. Just arrived, the boy said, but the common room sat empty. They should have been here. Unless the boy had lied to her. Her heart pounded at the thought. She had no illusions as to the boy’s loyalties. He’d slipped up several weeks back, hiding a note in a poor spot when she entered a room. Common-born gutter boys didn’t read. Not in these parts, at least.

The door cracked open behind her, just enough to let the cold breeze rush up her spine.

“Nisha.” Nijel’s voice was colder than the wind that chilled her hands. “What a pleasure to see you tending to my partners so diligently. I knew you could be trusted with my interests.”

Niamsha spun around to face him. “Of course, Nijel.”

He must have known she intended no such thing. His eyes sparkled with malice, the shared secret a threat he held over her. One word and he could take her life.

“Come along.” He waved a careless hand at her. “We should prepare. I’ve word a new speaker plans to join our cadre. I’ll need as much information as possible before answering his petition.”

“Yes, Nijel.”

She followed him into the back room, the table chipped and scarred from past negotiations gone wrong. A pitcher of ale sat in the middle of the table, the clay starting to sweat as the heat from the room clashed with the chill of the liquid. No seating, so Nijel wanted his guests off guard. Niamsha stepped forward, circling the table as if her life didn’t hang on Nijel’s whims. He chuckled.

“Don’t be ashamed of ambition, dear,” Nijel said. “I did not find my place by letting others choose for me. I only ask that you respect the efforts I’ve taken for your well-being.” He fixed her with a knowing smirk. “You wouldn’t be here, but for me.”

“Would that be worse?” She shouldn’t have said it, but the wear of this life weighed too heavy for a moment. Just enough to betray her own disgust with her new position.

“Nisha.” His sorrow almost sounded genuine. “How cold this country would be with you removed from it.”

He didn’t sound like her ‘removal’ would be a simple matter of living elsewhere. She hadn’t meant it that way. Emrys’s death still haunted her–she might seethe for the chance to avenge his loss–but she had no plans to let her life to end early.

The door opened before she could answer. A heavyset man entered, pausing at the sight of Nijel as he rubbed at a scar on his chin. He glanced at Niamsha. Stared at Nijel. Stepped inside.

“Didn’t think you lived, lad.” The merchant, Heikkan Carrillo, nodded at Nijel, his casual tone a shock against the tension of the room. “She got you here, too? Just like the rest of us.”

“Young Nisha is my liaison,” Nijel replied. “Though I admit I’m quite surprised you answered, Heikkan. Obedience was never a strong quality of yours.”

Heikkan glowered for a half-dozen breaths. “Obedience is for pets. Men offer loyalty, and loyalty must be earned.”

“Indeed.” Nijel grinned, but she could hear the rising fury in the clipped tone of his voice.

“Earned,” Nijel continued. “Just as your Lord Phoenix earned the men Griffin gathered, protected, and trained. As Kumiho and the Dragon earned the honor and respect the Serr-Nyen owed to their proper rulers. As Griffin earned the betrayal of her army?”

“Griffin went mad.” Heikkan snarled the words like a curse. “I know you believed in her, but you weren’t in the meetings. You didn’t hear. Lord Phoenix–“

“Told you lies,” Nijel interrupted. “Griffin had plans to support Sernyii through our transition. To give power to those who aided her cause. What has Lord Phoenix done for your land since the war? Nothing but enslave his former allies and sell his loyalty to the very empire he opposed.”

“Well.” Heikkan jerked his head at Niamsha. “I did come for a reason. Girl said we got a new power in town. Calls himself the Siren. Supposed to have plans for us all.”

“That is perhaps the first true thing you’ve said.” Nijel paced around the table and lounged against the wall, his lips curling into another smirk. “I do have plans, old friend. Many, many plans.”

Heikkan took a step back, eyes widening at the response. His gaze locked onto Nijel’s, an instant of locked eyes and matched wills. And then Heikkan laughed.

“It would be you, I suppose. Too damned smart for your own good. Always were. We’ll talk, then. When the others get here, we’ll have plenty to discuss.”

Prologues: A Defense and a Primer


I have long been a supporter of prologues, especially in longer fantasy works. My own debut novel has a prologue that I fought for when I was considering traditional publishing. But the stigma against prologues still runs strong in many communities and is stronger than ever in traditional publishing circles. Let’s take a moment to look at what prologues are good for and discuss proper prologue usage.

What is a prologue?

We all know the obvious answer. It’s that opening chapter of the book that is often confusing or boring and is labeled “prologue” instead of “chapter 1.” But there’s actually a specific purpose for a prologue–or, more accurately, a few specific purposes, each mutually exclusive. So, here’s a quick listing of some good reasons to use a prologue:

  1. Give a first-hand account of a specific event that is central to the primary story line but does not take place in the natural arc of the story. A great example is the Game of Thrones prologue, which kills everyone involved but makes clear to the reader that White Walkers do, in fact, exist.
  2. Tease a particularly cool aspect of the world-building which won’t become obvious to the reader in the opening chapters of the book to build excitement in–and offer context for–the opening.
  3. Offer a POV that is useful for the reader to understand but doesn’t fit in the main narrative. Often termed the “villain POV prologue” because of a trend to use these to explain villain motivations, this is a tool that can be great, but it better be very important or you’ll get a lot of complaints for extraneous information.

I hesitate to say this list covers everything, but if it doesn’t fit any of these three elements, be very cautious about using a prologue for that. As a general rule of thumb, if your reason for including the prologue is anything other than “I think this addition will help my readers get greater enjoyment out of the primary story arc that starts in Chapter 1” then you should cut your prologue.

Is this thing working?

Once you’ve determined that your prologue fits into one of the above reasons for use, you need to make sure your prologue accomplishes what you set out to do. Prologues are a much finer art than many realize. Here’s some common mistakes and ways to correct them.

First, did you spend your prologue dropping a bunch of world-specific terminology without much explanation? You probably have a problem. If readers are on page one or two of your book and don’t understand what you’re saying because of world-specific words, you’re going to lose a bunch of readers. And I completely understand that the prologue is not the place to explain those words. Please, for the love of all decent writing, do not edit your prologue to have a definition after every world-specific word. Instead, find ways to make clear through context what the words mean. My husband uses the Rage of Dragons prologue as an example here (and not a good example). See below for his full opinions on that prologue. The important part of this point is, it doesn’t matter if the word has a typical meaning that you’re leaning on. Evan Winter uses “the Chosen” and “the Gifted” as world-specific words, which can easily be assumed to mean something we understand. But it’s clear that the usage isn’t the general sense, and as a result, the lack of clarification can be confusing. If possible, don’t use words which have world-specific meanings in your prologue, or if you must, make clear through the immediate context what the word means.

Now let’s talk about how long your prologue is. Is it more than 3 or 4 pages in the printed book? This is typically about 1500 words on the high end, and shorter is almost always better. If your prologue is longer than this, you’re probably not focusing on the correct elements, or you’re explaining too much context, or maybe even mixing goals. Chapters can have multiple reasons for existing. Prologues must be lean, precise, and clearly understandable. Evaluating a prologue that is too long can be a challenge, so get some beta reader feedback to determine how to cut it down.

Prologues are typically designed to hint at information that will be important later in the book, but this often leads to an additional problem. Does your prologue go out of its way to avoid explaining what’s going on in that specific moment, and/or intentionally end without resolving the scene in an attempt to be mysterious? Stop that. You’re trying too hard and I guarantee it will fall flat for a lot of readers. If you’re writing from a POV you don’t want to go into too deeply for fear of breaking a later reveal, change the POV. Nothing frustrates a reader more than feeling like the author is intentionally hiding things from them. We are, but they shouldn’t feel it.

Finally, what’s the effect on the book if you remove the prologue entirely? Does the story remain completely unchanged by dropping the prologue, including context and reader engagement? If so, cut that thing. It might be the coolest scene in your mind, but if it doesn’t enhance the story, the reader doesn’t care. Conversely, does your book fail to make any sense or feel like it’s missing major story elements if you pull the prologue? Well, turns out, you don’t have a prologue at all. What you actually have is a first chapter and you need to connect it more directly to the main story. If the events are too removed to fit in the story arc there, find ways to drop the information throughout the narrative (or, if it fits your book, through the dreaded flashback) instead of in a prologue. Or maybe consider if your story starts in the right place.

Why even try?

As disliked as prologues are in the modern publishing world, you may be wondering if it’s even worth trying to write one. Some agents will reject on the prologue alone and those that don’t are extremely critical of prologues. Maybe even more critical of prologues than of first pages.

Absolutely you should write one.

Despite everything I’ve said about the dangers and pitfalls of prologues, I would never tell you not to write one if you think it fits your story. Prologues serve a very specific set of uses and are often misunderstood and misapplied. But in those instances where they are done right, they are absolutely critical to the story. I’m going to use my own work as an example here.

I went back and forth on a prologue several times and had several different drafts of my potential prologues. I queried initially without a prologue. Rewrote to improve flow and queried with a prologue, but got some backlash over my prologue. Pulled the prologue and got significant reader feedback that my opening was too abrupt. I finally settled on the prologue I have because it fits my rule above. The story was complete without it, but my prologue gave readers a chance to explore the political landscape and underlying tensions between a handful of important side characters. It was a short, direct scene that addressed the setup of the story without giving you a full history of the world, or even the recent war. This is the sort of prologue that supports the main narrative without frustrating the reader with world-building details or being so removed that the reader only understands the context several books later.

The same can be said for the Harry Potter prologue (you don’t have to like the books or the author, but the prologue does it’s job: telling you that Harry is important); the Game of Thrones prologue (you, the reader, have knowledge that the characters only learn later, so you feel more tension when Eddard Stark says that White Walkers are myths); the Red Sister prologue (you know from page one that “a nun” has a very different training than in our modern world and that becoming a nun must be dangerous); and many others.

A final, cautionary comment

Many epic/high fantasy authors and epic science fiction authors make a very specific faux pas that is often credited as the reason prologues have a bad name. They use the prologue to info-dump setting or history. I’ve even seen numerous advice web sites describe this as a potential use of a prologue.

Do Not Do This!

Unless you are well-established author with a loyal following of dedicated readers, you will, not get away with this. An agent who sees this in a debut author’s submission will auto-reject (if they even look at a submission with a prologue at all). A reader who picks up your book without knowing you as an author will look at this and skip it–or they might just put the book down. Either way, that prologue isn’t helping and might be hurting. Feel free to add an appendix discussing these things if you think some readers might be interested. Some people will be. But placing it in a prologue has a very, very high likelihood of harming the marketability of your book.

To Catch a Prince


High Lord Johannus Sentarsin scowled at his court, their fidgeting and the glitter of their finery grating on his nerves. Spineless sycophants, the lot of them, milling around his marble-floored great hall waiting for a chance to snatch an advantage from their peers. And now they cast terrified glances at his throne, judging how likely he was to let them renounce their vows to follow the newly crowned emperor.

“My lord.” A messenger shoved through the crowd, his rumpled livery covered in mud. He dropped to his knees as soon as he reached the foot of the high lord’s dais and slammed a hand to his chest in salute. “News on the foreign soldiers spotted entering our lands. They’ve done no damage, avoided all our patrols and troops as though they know the and, and—” The messenger licked his lips, casting a glance at the lords to either side. Or maybe at Johannus’s guards lining the walls. “Pardon, my lord. Reports say your son, Lordling Arkaen, rides at their head.”

Gods damn it all. Johannus clenched his fist on the arm of his throne. The boy should have been handled by now. He would have been if Emperor Laisia’s men had brought him home as intended, instead of trying to interrogate him. They’d nearly broken the boy with their tactics, and now there was no telling where his loyalties might lie.

“Have you any reports on his intentions?” Johannus sat forward as he spoke, scanning the assembled lords for any potential spies. The wrong ears in this room could damn the entire province.

“None, my lord,” the messenger said. “But the soldiers are outfitted for war.”

“Then we must assume he plans an assault,” Johannus replied. And Arkaen would know how to weave his army through the province to avoid any positions where they might catch him off guard. “Ready the guards and call conscripts from the villages. We’ll also need—”

“Father, no!” His daughter, Saylina, shrieked the protest as she burst through the hidden door behind his throne. Skulking where she shouldn’t be, as usual.

“Silence, child.” He flashed a glare at her, noting the servant he’d hired to watch her hiding in the shadows of the doorway. Useless, just like Arkaen’s guard had been. Johannus waved her away. “Your sentiment won’t change our status. Your brother is lost to us now.”

“Arkaen wouldn’t attack his own people!” Saylina insisted, reaching a hand forward as though she could sway the entire court by sheer force of will. Her plea almost worked and a whisper of uncertainty swept through the gathered courtiers.

“I said silence!” Johannus slammed a fist onto the arm of his throne and fought the urge to stare the girl down. A high lord didn’t answer to children before the entire court.

Examining the now-silent crowd, his eyes settled on the messenger, still kneeling at the foot of the throne as though nothing had interrupted him. Waiting for orders. Thank the gods he had at least one loyalist.

Johannus rose, facing his lower lords with stately focus. “Our prince has overstepped his place.” He should disown the boy here and now, but Saylina was too naive to take his place as heir. “Ready the guards. Call conscripts from the villages. And send word to the nobility to ready their elites for combat.” He spared a glance back at Saylina’s pale face. “First we’ll bring my son home, then we’ll decide what to do with him.”

Saylina frowned, her shoulders trembling with fear in contrast to the frustrated crinkle of her forehead that so nearly echoed her mother’s fury he almost relented. But there was nothing to be done. She was just a child and could never understand the danger of misplaced trust. Perhaps she could be of use, though.

“You.” Johannus thrust a finger at a servant. “Bring Lady Saylina paper and a writing table. She has a message to send to her brother.”


The lower lords’ council cowered under his gaze, every eye turned away from the crumpled note in the center of the table. As if ignoring the insolent response Arkaen had sent would somehow turn this into anything other than a war council planning combat against their own prince. And through it all, Saylina’s plea hung in his mind. Arkaen wouldn’t attack his own people. Johannus snatched the note up and read the words again.

To High Lord Johannus Sentarsin—

You are ordered to submit to judgment by High Emperor Deyvan Corliann, such judgment to be administered by the emperor’s appointed arbiter. Said arbiter will arrive at your capital in five days’ time. Any attempt to delay his arrival or inhibit his review will be considered an act of treason.

—Signed and penned by hand of Arkaen Sentarsin

As if a runaway noble boy had any authority to speak for the emperor. But then, rumors from the north claimed any number of absurdities. Arkaen pandering to the imperial heir to get his way was hardly the most preposterous rumor he’d heard.

“My lord…” The tentative voice of his Lord Chancellor faded at his sudden focus.

“What?”

The Lord Chancellor dropped his gaze, falling silent again, but Baron Oskari Weydert stood.

“You know, my lord, what must be done.” Oskari gestured at the message. “This cannot be tolerated.”

“He’s still my son, Baron Weydert,” Johannus said, fixing Oskari with a glare. “He’s still your prince.”

“Is he, my lord?” Oskari asked. “He’s claiming a role in the imperial council. We both know this empire has seen its best days long past. This is our only chance to act.”

Johannus shook his head, leaning back in his chair. Too impulsive, as Oskari had always been. Even when they were children together making plans to conquer their teachers’ classrooms. But for all the recklessness of Oskari’s comments, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Any plans to break free of imperial oversight would die in the grip of a secure imperial succession. And the newly-crowned emperor was young enough with enough respect that even without a wife he’d no doubt solidify his power in short order.

“My son has chosen his side.” Johannus pushed up from the table.

None of the other lower lords would meet his eyes. No doubt too frightened of Arkaen’s empty threats to admit the truth of the situation.

“We’ll need another method of bringing him to heel without bloodshed. Lord Chancellor, send word to my personal guard. I need to speak with my guest in the high lady’s parlor.” Johannus waved at Oskari. “Attend me, Baron Weydert.”

Johannus stepped around the table, leading Oskari into the hall beyond. They strode down the hall, bare stone interspersed with the elaborate—and now painfully worn—tapestries that Johannus had bought for his wife decades ago. Anger simmered in his thoughts as he walked, Oskari silent but too obviously tense beside him.

“You’ve no standing to challenge me before the council,” Johannus said at last. “I’ve long known your counsel on my son, but the choice is my own.”

“Then I encourage you to honor the plans we made,” Oskari said. After several breaths, he added, “My lord.”

“Don’t test me, Oskari. I’ve enough ire to vent already.”

“Vent on your wayward boy.” Oskari paused, crossing his arms and glaring to the north. “He’s the source of these complications.”

“Arkaen’s a brat.” Johannus scowled. “Spoiled by his mother. But he still has value. Without a proper heir, we can’t bring any change but chaos.”

Oskari turned back to him. “You’ve another child for an heir.”

Johannus looked away, running a hand along the edge of one of his wife’s tapestries. Fifteen years dead and he couldn’t bring himself to take them down, but he stood before them discussing the sale of his only daughter. How could he value his wife’s ornaments more than the daughter she’d given him? But Saylina needed a proper rein if she was to serve the province, and she was the last of his line able to do so.

“Write the contract, then,” Johannus said. “Saylina’s to young to wed as yet, but you can set a date a few years out. Let her settle into her woman’s moons before she takes to a bed. The contract should be enough to secure my legacy.”

“I’ll have my clerk draft the papers.” Oskari bowed. “Are you certain of the other matter? I don’t know that your… guest is to be trusted.”

“It’s the only option if we’re to avoid open war.” Johannus cringed at the thought. That Arkaen could be susceptible to the charm of such a man always made his skin crawl. “Keep your men ready in case the louse fails again.”

“Yes, my lord,” Oskari said. “I hope your boy comes home, for your sake, but beware. By rumor…” Oskari hesitated. “Well, they say he may be as like to use you as follow you.”

Johannus waved the concern away and walked toward the parlor where he’d set his meeting. Down a long-disused set of corridors he hadn’t been able to reclaim after his wife’s death. No servant would let dust collect in the high lord’s palace, but the silence spoke volumes of the ghosts that lived in this wing. A place no one dared lurk lest Johannus find them there defiling his wife’s memory. The twists of his keep felt like a maze here, all corridors he’d known forever but hadn’t seen for almost two decades. He’d courted his wife in that study, securing an alliance with the tumultuous Istalli bloodline. Another turn. There was the servant’s common where Arkaen had hidden as a boy after lashings. He wouldn’t have endured so many if he’d taken his lessons to heart. At least Saylina hadn’t followed her brother into those flaws as she had so many others.

Finally, he reached the carved wood door that led into his wife’s private parlor. The low table inside had already been set for tea, the polished wood gleaming in the soft light from a distant window. No candles lighting the room, but he didn’t need much. Johannus inspected the twin sofas on either side of the table, worn fabric still elegant despite the age. He settled into one and poured a cup of tea savoring the blend of herbs and spices that he’d imported from the southern hills. A slight knock announced the arrival of his guest, escorted into the room by a pair of guards, each holding one end of the heavy chains. Matted brown hair hung around his face and from his unkempt beard. Young enough to be Johannus’s child, the man looked almost ten years older than he truly was. Lines on his face hinted at wisdom he had yet to show.

“Vaiyen.” Johannus gestured at a seat across from him. Sit and have a respectable drink. Let’s talk.”

Vaiyen collapsed into a seat with a rattle of chains and the guards took up positions on either side.

“Yes, my lord.”

His voice was raspy with disuse. What would he use it for in an empty cell among an empty dungeon, anyway? Johannus waited for him to pour a cup of the tea, drop a cube of sugar in, and take several sips. When Vaiyen had settled into his seat and replaced his cup—after the heavy sigh of relief from the warm liquid escaped his lips—Johannus leaned forward.

have a task for you, Vaiyen,” Johannus said. “One which you alone have ever managed, and I hope you can do so again.”

Vaiyen froze, his eyes going wide. “Me?” His gaze swept through the room, realizing, perhaps for the first time, the peculiarity of their meeting. “You can’t mean… My lord, I can’t. Even if he were he, he won’t listen to me.”

“He will be here,” Johannus said. “In five days. You will meet his forces before they try to enter the city and you will gain an audience with my son. Bring him home—peacefully—without his army.”

“I said, my lord, he won’t—” Vaiyen hesitated, looking up at the guards on either side of him. “How would I even convince him to see me?”

“You’ve been quite adept at managing his decisions in the past.” Johannus steepled his hands, hiding the grimace of distaste the admission elicited from him. “One might say you were something of an expert in that task. Until your mistake.”

“I could have done nothing more, my lord,” Vaiyen said. “Lordling Arkaen had already decided a course. The only question he brought to me was the choice of whether to betray my own oath, as well.”

Johannus smirked at him. “So you’ve said. Consider this an opportunity to prove your claims.”

“But—”

“If he asked you to join him, then he will surely welcome your return to his side. Use that and bring my son home.”

Vaiyen scowled, staring into his tea, but nodded. “I will try, my lord.”

“You will succeed,” Johannus snapped. “Or you will watch your family flayed before joining them in Eiliin’s hell.”

Vaiyen paled, taking a deep breath. “Yes, my lord.”

Release Day!


Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s release day for Wake of the Phoenix!

I’ll admit this feels like a day that both came way too soon and took way too long. I’m very excited to share this world with other readers and find the audience that loves it as much as I do. A very special thanks to all the ARC reviewers who have already given this book a shot and shared their comments. Special bonus for anyone in the Colorado Springs area: I have a couple in-person events coming up over the next couple weeks! Here’s the initial list:

  • Mile Hi Con–Denver, October 1 through October 3. Vendor table on author’s row
  • Book signing–Colorado Springs, Barnes and Noble at (on Briargate near Academy), October 9 from 12-2

I’ll make sure to announce any other events I schedule. I’m hoping to be able to attend more events (when it’s safe) throughout the next few months, possibly outside of Colorado.

The Demon and the Thief


Kìlashà san Draego de Mìtaran paced the elegant confines of his assigned room, a snarl of frustration on his lips. The quiet murmur of the city drifting through his window grated on his patience. Five years in this place and still he’d found nothing of what his gods wanted him to cultivate here among these… humans. Always complacent in the face of danger and joyous at the destruction of plausible dissent. And he sat here among them, wasting time trying to mold the humans into a usable ally when he could have been preparing his clan for the threats whispered by his seeker’s power.

A sharp knock at his door broke into his thoughts and Kìlashà spun toward the sound, a hiss escaping his lips. An instant later, a voice spoke through the door.

“Pardon the interruption, Lord Kìlashà. May I enter?”

Kìlashà let the tension drain from him. Kaen, his gods-chosen kai’shien and lord of these lands, was the one balm to this cursed pursuit. He crossed the room and threw the door open just as a younger male rounded a corner.

“My lord Arkaen, Count Skianda—” The male froze, his eyes focused on Kìlashà.

Anger rushed through Kìlashà, his lips pulling back in another silent snarl. As if he would harm this human for simply speaking to his liege lord. The slightest tingle of his hair brushing the nape of his own neck reminded him of the real reason for their fear. Kìlashà had no people any longer. Not since his sacrifice to save Kaen years before had turned his skin the palest white and left his veins glowing in rivers of magic patterned across his skin.

Kaen stepped forward—between Kìlashà and the younger human—and cast a reassuring smile at the boy. His slender body and slightly shorter stature hid nothing from Kìlashà’s vision. But Kaen would never try to hide events from him.

“Count Skianda needed what?” Kaen asked.

The messenger stuttered, eyes still locked on Kìlashà despite Kaen’s attempt to interject himself. Kìlashà dipped a mental thought into his seeker’s power, twisting the gods’ gift to his will. A minor shift of the timelines and he could see the moment that would have occurred had he waited to open the door.

“My lord Arkaen, Count Skianda demands your presence.” The young human bowed, his palms clench in the folds of his tunic. A sign of his fear at the response he might receive. They had never learned how to trust Kaen.

“Demands, does he?” Kaen replied, smirking at the boy. He stepped away from Kìlashà’s door. “By what authority does my count makes demands on my time?”

“I—Apologies, my lord. He said—”

Kaen chuckled, striding down the hall to lay a hand on the messenger’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, lad. I’m sure he just wanted to impress upon me the importance of his concerns. I’ll see to him shortly.”

Kìlashà let the vision go, focusing on the hallway before him again.

Kaen reached a hand out in entreaty. “You did say—”

“Your human lord desires an audience, kai’shien,” Kìlashà said. The messenger would likely never get the words out.

Kaen glanced back, a flicker of a frown indicating his frustration, before turning back to the messenger. “Count Skianda needs to speak with me in person?”

The messenger nodded, still mute. After a moment of silence between them, he found his voice. “The count said… He needs you n—” Another glance at Kìlashà and froze. Took a deep breath. “Count Skianda said to tell you, my lord, that his need was immediate.”

Definitely not what the human lord had said. Kìlashà could hear the lie this human messenger used to avoid a confrontation. But Kaen nodded as if he couldn’t hear the deception as clearly as Kìlashà. More so, likely. He understood humans far better.

“Please inform the count that I have heard his request and will attend him as soon as I’ve finished matters here,” Kaen replied.

He turned away, gesturing for Kìlashà to follow as he strode into Kìlashà’s room. A ploy to avoid any follow up and give them a few moments to speak alone. Kìlashà stalked back into his room, the messenger’s fear still irritating his volatile temper. He’d never harmed Kaen’s people since they’d declared the war ended. Not even when they’d deserved it.

“Could you manage to not terrify every new servant I hire?” Kaen asked, pushing the door closed behind him. “That’s a perfectly decent lad from a family struggling to get their feet back under them. If he leaves for fear the high lord’s terrifying demon might eat him, the entire family will starve.”

Kìlashà shrugged, crossing the room to collapse into a chair set by his reading table. “And what, precisely, did I do to frighten the child?”

“You…” Kaen slumped against the wall, drumming his fingers against the adorned stone in thought. “Gods. You answered your door too forcefully.” He let out a humorless chuckle. “What are we going to do with them?”

“Forge them into the tool my people need to face their coming adversity, to protect the lives of as many Drae’gon as can be saved.”

“And protect their lives.” Kaen pushed off the wall, gesturing toward the window. “You swore to me that my return was needed to protect my people as much as yours.”

Kìlashà scowled. The humans would have been back at war already had they not returned. And yet…

He was no longer certain that Kaen’s people were worth their efforts. Not that Kìlashà could ever choose to leave, with the visions granted by Ancient Spirits nagging at his conscience. These humans held some value to the gods of his people and none of the Drae’gon had seen it before Kìlashà. He was starting to understand why.

“Kìlashà.” Kaen took a step forward, crossing his arms and glaring. “You swore it. To me.”

“And I did not lie. These humans need your guidance.” What little of it they chose to follow.

“So what…” Kaen trailed off, turning away to stare out the window.

But the accusation flared from Kìlashà’s power.

“What are we supposed to do next?” Kaen demanded. “I’m no good at these half-truths and manipulations. Everything I do here seems to make the province worse. More poverty, more theft, more division.”

“I should see to Brayden,” Kaen said. “The Skianda family has always supported mine. His request may give us some hint of what’s coming.”

He meant something more for Kìlashà’s seeker’s power to use, allowing him to finally identify what they needed to accomplish in these lands. Unspoken, but they both heard the implication. They both chafed at the obscurity of the visions that had sent them here.

“You came for a reason, kai’shien.”

“I just—” Kaen hesitated, sweeping his gaze over the rich furnishings of the room he’d designated as Kìlashà’s haven.

Kìlashà could see the room as Kaen saw it without the aid of his power. Rich furnishings, magnificently broad bed, gilded decorations. All of it crammed into a space barely half the size of the entry room of Kaen’s high lord’s suite. More than either had during the war, and a pittance by the standards of Kaen’s nobility. A slight toward Kaen’s strange, foreign comrade that he hadn’t been able to prevent without revealing too much. But Kìlashà cared nothing for the opulence of the room and Kaen’s anger burned over the insult, not the result.

“I’m not helping them.” Kaen slumped back against the wall, his words an echo of the frustration in Kìlashà’s vision. “It’s been—” He sighed, pacing across the room and back like a caged beast. Like Kìlashà had only moments before. “Too long. You brought us here to unite them, and I’m not able to do that. Are we failing?”

“They are further from war than when we returned,” Kìlashà replied. But they hadn’t accomplished what he’d expected when he’d convinced Kaen to return. Still… “The Spirits do not speak in absolutes. Should we fail to serve Their purpose, it will not be the result of any choice now past.”

Kaen laughed. “So I haven’t completely dismantled the plans of the all knowing gods who grant the ability to see the future just yet? How reassuring.”

“Kai’shien.” Kìlashà hesitated as Kaen focused on him. But he deserved to know. Pushing up from his chair, Kìlashà strode over to where Kaen stood. “I did not foresee this path. Not precisely. But you have done only what you believed best and thus cannot have forsaken the path the Spirits desired you to take. The Ancient Spirits knew of your skill in these matters when They chose you.”

“They chose you for this, Kìlashà.” Kaen scowled, leaning against the wall again. “They chose me for a far different purpose, and I doubt it has anything to do with my political acumen.”

“The Ancient Spirits are immortal gods seeking to protect Their followers,” Kìlashà said. “You think that spent a great deal of time locating the correct person to warm my bed at night?” Kìlashà smiled at the flush that tinted Kaen’s cheeks. “Even that would be a sign of your unique qualities. They have never before expressed an opinion on a Drae’gon’s choice of mate.”

“All right, They have a plan for me, too.” Kaen shook his head. “I’m not entirely certain that’s a good thing.”

“It is a truth. Beyond that—”

Kìlashà froze, the surge of his seeker’s power flowing through him in a sudden flash of vision. Staggering, Kìlashà caught himself on the wall as the moment overtook his senses.

The young female slipped through the crowd, adept at avoiding notice in all the right ways. People saw her, but they’d never remember the grubby form hunched to mimic an older child more than the young adult she truly was. Her hands acquired meaningless trinkets as she strolled, the last swipe catching the attention of Kaen’s guards.

“Hey, you there!”

This was one of the gaudy guardsmen, left over from Kaen’s father but not immediately corrupt. Or not enough to justify banishment, Kaen said. The guard ran toward the female and she dodged past a pair of shoppers huddled over a stall. The crowd seemed to freeze, the young female and her guard weaving through a sea of shocked faces and angry shouts.

Finally, she broke free of the crowd and hurried toward an alley, the guard close on her heels. Both seemed ignorant of the figure shoving through the crowd on the other side. Baron Oskari Weydert reined his war horse to a halt a scant few steps shy of trampling Niamsha, and she fell back. Oskari’s boots hit the ground an instant later, his boot flying into her gut. Niamsha puked on the ground as he stepped back for another blow. The guard stopped behind her, a flash of uncertainty on his face.

“Kìlashà?” Kaen’s hand on his shoulder, the cool feel of stone beneath him. He’d fallen when the vision took hold. “Do you need anything?”

“I am well.” Kìlashà pushed up from the floor, head still spinning with the vision. Too clear. Every color held the sharp precision of a certainty, every action felt like a truth he’d always known. A vile, horrific truth. This would happen, and the Ancient Spirits desired it changed. “I must go to the city. To the market where the merchants built your statue.”

Kaen nodded. “Then I’ll go with you.”

For an instant, Kìlashà hesitated. The human noble would be angry. But Kaen would argue if he tried to refuse the company and the human female did not have that much time.

“Swiftly. Come.” Kìlashà strode from the room with Kaen in his wake. Finally, the Spirits had given him something to do.

Sample Pages!

2021-09-28T07:00:00

  days

  hours  minutes  seconds

until

Wake of the Phoenix Release Day!

My debut novel, Wake of the Phoenix, has finished distributing ARC copies and early reviews are coming in. While the book is not for everyone (and no book is, really), you can tell from early comments on Goodreads that a number of readers are connection well with characters and are intrigued by the political conundrums. If you missed getting an early copy, take a look at the sample chapters below or go pre-order your copy!

More traditional blog posts will be back next week, including part 4 of my Self-Publishing Guide, this time discussing the challenges of Marketing, as well as potentially a new fiction story the same week.

Sacrifice


The door slammed, startling Arkaen Sentarsin out of the rough plans he was outlining on the map before him. A glance up. Kìlashà leaned against the wall, the noise of his arrival clearly an intentional warning to Arkaen. His heavy black cloak made a stark contrast to the ghost-pale skin and glowing veins that always set Arkaen’s heart racing with a touch of fear. Not of the man himself but of the power that had taken hold when Kìlashà sacrificed his own will to that of his gods in return for more power. A bargain to save Arkaen from a deadly wound.

Arkaen pushed the memory away and sank into the chair behind him, dropping the bit of charcoal he’d used to mark targets. “It’s done, then?”

Kìlashà cocked his head, the glow of his veins pulsing in time to his even breathing. Too calm for the task he’d just finished. The pose sent a shiver through Arkaen. Hardly the man he’d known before this transformation. But then, no one really knew Kìlashà before Arkaen had been taken captive. Before Kìlashà had risked everything he believed in to save Arkaen—barely more than a spoiled noble brat—from his own stupidity.

“Your tyrant has been removed.” Kìlashà’s hesitation seemed almost planned to allow Arkaen to finish his thoughts before interrupting them again. “You have made the arrangements?”

The statement barely qualified as a question. Kìlashà had no need to ask what Arkaen had prepared. Another courtesy he’d adopted to ease Arkaen’s discomfort. Guilt left an ache in Arkaen’s throat. How much change could he demand from Kìlashà and still claimed he honored the man beneath?

“We both know that answer,” Arkaen said. “Deyvan’s in position to claim his throne. The resistance will crumble without a proper leader. We’ll be at peace in a fortnight, at most. As soon as the messengers reach the northern armies.” He drummed his fingers on the makeshift table before him, the slab of rough wood a reminder of the squalor he was dooming his comrades to endure. As if he needed more to regret.

“They are better served by your absence than your contrition, kai’sh—”

Kìlashà cut off, a shudder running through his body. For barely an instant, he looked unsure, eyelids drooping as if to shut out the world and shoulders tense. A moment of the humanity Arkaen had brought into his life, and the one thing they shared in equal measure: fear that Kìlashà’s gods were wrong about Arkaen and about the relationship Arkaen and Kìlashà supposedly shared. Arkaen pushed up from his seat, crossing the room in three quick strides to lay a hand on Kìlashà’s cheek. Cool to the touch, as a gentle breeze on a warm day, the glowing veins releasing no heat.

“I trust you.”

The tiniest hint of a smile touched Kìlashà’s lips. “A kai’shien bond is not a matter of trust.”

“But you saw it,” Arkaen replied. “You’ve told me over and over that a seeker’s visions are driven by their own skill. You saw this connection, and I trust you.”

Kìlashà cast a look up through the long, elegant lashes that would have had a dozen noble woman tumbling over themselves for his attention. If they’d stopped screaming at the rest of his appearance long enough to notice the sculpted beauty of Kìlashà’s face. Or the lean strength of his physique, or the gentle care behind his too-often harsh decisions. But none of Arkaen’s people would ever see beyond the flaws they perceived in Kìlashà to know the truth. With a gentle nudge against Arkaen’s hand that served both as affectionate caress and a reclamation of his personal space, Kìlashà stepped around Arkaen and stared into the empty shelving on one wall.

“How certain are you of that trust?”

“What?” Arkaen turned to frown at him. “I’ve told you. I’ll go anywhere with you. I—” Arkaen sighed. “Once I might have argued for my duty to my homeland, but they left me. Abandoned me to be tortured into submission by a malicious bastard. I owe them nothing any longer.”

“But they need you.”

“I don’t—” Arkaen froze, the tone of Kìlashà’s statement registering. Hesitation mixed with sorrow. They both knew what returning to the Laisian Empire meant. For Arkaen’s freedom and their relationship. “You want to go back?”

Kìlashà shifted to lean against the shelving, fixing an impassive look on Arkaen’s face. “It is not a matter of what I desire. It is what the Ancient Spirits have set before me. Without your guidance, your homeland with fall into further conflict and many would die that the Ancient Spirits require alive.”

“So your gods want me to go save the people They’re protecting your clan from?” Arkaen’s skepticism was audible even to his own ears. But this new vision of Kìlashà’s couldn’t be true, anyway. Arkaen’s father held sway over his homeland with an iron grip no one would dare challenge. Unless his father was the problem.

“Humans so closely tie destiny with desires.” Kìlashà scoffed, waving a hand as if to dismiss Arkaen’s questions. “It is not that They wish for you to do Them a favor. They have selected me as Chosen of Their will and designated you as my kai’shien. The performance of Their will demands the preservation of your human empire intact. Were we to choose a life among the clans, that empire would fall and the will of the Ancient Spirits would be thwarted.”

Arkaen smirked. “So it’s not that your gods want a hand. They just chose to warn you that not doing what They suggest results in the destruction of civilization as we know it.”

“Precisely.” Kìlashà’s whimsical response held enough mirth that Arkaen almost wondered if he’d lied about the vision to tease Arkaen. But no. The tension in Kìlashà’s posture was real. And he’d been genuinely worried about Arkaen’s trust in his powers.

“Then we have no choice,” Arkaen said, his voice turning sober. “Gods. I’d hoped—”

No need to finish that sentence. They both preferred to avoid the den of lies, intolerance, and pompous self-importance that had overtaken Arkaen’s home province after he left.

“There is always a choice, kai’shien,” Kìlashà pointed out. “We could leave them to their fate.”

“You don’t believe that.” Arkaen shook his head, leaning back against the door Kìlashà had used. “Leave Deyvan to face a second rebellion newly crowned? Or my sister alone in that mess? And even beyond the ones we care about…” Arkaen hesitated. He’d always been so sure of Kìlashà’s opinion on unnecessary death, but too many of their comrades wouldn’t agree. A glance at the intense focus in Kìlashà’s face eased his concern. “You wouldn’t leave innocents to die simply because the other option was more comfortable.”

Kìlashà strode across the room, laying a finger under Arkaen’s chin, tilting his face up as if to kiss him. “I would.” Kìlashà’s voice was barely a whisper. “For you.”

A thrill of excitement ran through him, Kìlashà’s finger sending a jolt of pleasure into him, running across his entire body. Of all the people in this war—in all the nations of these lands—Kìlashà, the chosen hand of the gods, desired Arkaen. And desired Arkaen enough to abandon his service to his gods. The enormity of it left him speechless, staring into Kìlashà’s tar-black eyes without any sense of an appropriate response.

A sharp knock on the door broke the tension, a painful release of the connection between them.

“I will follow where you lead, kai’shien.” Kìlashà stepped away, returning to the shelves as if the empty space would answer the question lingering between them.

Arkaen sucked in a deep breath to calm his racing pulse and stepped forward, pulling the door open. Beyond the portal stood Jarod, the stocky, blond-haired Serr-Nyen native who had appointed himself captain of Arkaen’s personal followers. He snapped to attention, clapping a fist across his chest in salute.

“Milord Phoenix,” Jarod said. “Yer flameguard stand ready. What orders?”

Another twinge of guilt hit him. Arkaen’s followers—the self-proclaimed ‘flameguard’—would have nowhere to go without him. At least half had defected from armies he’d defeated, and a decent number of the rest had been thieves or cutthroats before he’d conscripted them. Only under Arkaen’s leadership had they found a sense of unity and purpose. Where would they go if he vanished into the wilds with Kìlashà?

“Come in.” Arkaen gestured to the table where he’d been mapping out targets. The last bastions of support for the now-dead emperor, Caildenn Laisia, and the places where Kìlashà’s visions said no negotiation could succeed.

Jarod cast an appraising glance at Kìlashà and crossed the room, scanning map with a swiftness that couldn’t have given him any information. But Jarod had a network of informants almost as extensive as Kìlashà’s gods-given powers. He likely knew the plan already and had come only to hear the orders in person. Arkaen paused beside him, tapping the map in pensive thought. The flameguard had stood by him as no one but Kìlashà had. The northernmost post would be impenetrable without them. But they’d earned his respect.

“Which one’s ours, milord?”

“None of them. The main forces can split between these three.” Arkaen pointed out a trio of targets. “I need you south with me.” Arkaen turned away, fighting to hide the guilt of his decision. The northern outpost couldn’t ignore the attacks he had planned. Leaving them unharried would mean a much higher casualty count. But returning to the empire would require Lord Phoenix to disappear and lordling Arkaen Sentarsin to return from war by emperor-apparent Deyvan’s side.

“We leaving our men to die?” Jarod’s voice held none of the condemnation it should have. Trusting in Arkaen’s decisions even when he knew they were wrong. “Ain’t like you.”

“This war won’t be ended in battles over strategic citadels,” Arkaen said. “Kumiho is heading south to take Bloody Emperor Laisia’s throne. I’ll be by his side, and I want my flameguard as protection.” He cast a sharp glance at Jarod. The flameguard had always been a bit hesitant about Deyvan. “For his protection as much as mine. We need this transition smooth to put any bitterness to rest.”

Jarod smirked. “That ain’t how war ends, milord. But we serve.”

With another salute, Jarod strode from the room to deliver his orders. Arkaen stared at the door, not seeing the room as his hands squeezed the edge of the table, the rough wood digging into his skin. Home, where his father had set a guard to spy on him and that guard had lied, using his childish insecurity as a tool to control him. To manipulate him into—

“Kai’shien.” Kìlashà stepped away from the wall, pausing in the middle of the small room. “There are preparations to make if this is to work.”

Like preparing himself to face Vaiyen once more. His own parting words rang in his head. I would have fought for you. The least you could have done is tell me you didn’t want me to. But that was false. Vaiyen had done far more than fail to tell him a truth. Arkaen looked up, meeting Kìlashà’s eyes.

“Will I regret this?”

“Hundreds of times,” Kìlashà replied. “But not for the reasons you expect.”

Arkaen smiled, his fears soothed by the answer. Not a lie to spare his feelings and not a manipulation to get his way. Kìlashà trusted him as Vaiyen had not. As his father had not. As no one in his life had. He pushed away from the table.

“Then let’s go save the bastards.”

Desperate Times


Saylina strode down the hall, her eyes trained on the wall just above her escort’s head and fingers rubbing gently on the grip of her fan in tension. Just enough decorum to look in control while her nerves ran wild. Her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, hadn’t summoned her for nearly a year now, leaving her to the care of her tutors instead. Had he found the notes she’d been exchanging with Lady Arianne Skianda and her brother? Or maybe he’d heard about Saylina’s vigorous search for a malleable husband. The southern trade lord’s youngest looked promising, but without a favorable contract to go with it, her father would never agree.

The servant pushed aside the wide double doors, revealing that smallest court gathering Saylina had ever seen. Her father standing on the dais. his long time friend, Baron Oskari Weydert, loitering near the steps where the herald should have been. But only five other lords graced the chamber. Too few for even a facade of formality to feel reasonable. She crossed the floor, newly bought marble that must have drained the province coffers to scraps. But her father had more concern for image than frugality these days. Not that she could blame him, when his image as a loyal servant to the bloodthirsty emperor was all that had saved her from the dangers of imperial court.

Saylina paused several feet from the group and bowed her head. “You summoned me, Father?”

“Saylina.” Her father gestured to the chair by his side. By his left side, where tradition sat his blood heir. “It’s time we discussed your future, girl.”

“Of course, Father.”

She stepped onto the dais, each step seeming to grow as she crossed the distance from common courtier to province heir. The chair felt too hard under her hands, her narrow, girlish frame of not quite fifteen years too small to fill the place intended for her brother, Arkaen. Saylina eased onto the seat and lifted her chin, meeting the eyes of the few courtiers her father had allowed to attend. Only the most notable of the lower lords. Not even the Skianda family, although he might have simply refused to allow Lordling Brayden Skianda to fill his father’s shoes. But Baron Oskari Weydert was here, along with a handful of others her father had known for decades. Everyone, she realized, who had voiced fears over Arkaen’s loyalties.

“What did you want to discuss?” Saylina pushed an innocent smile onto her lips, turning away from the lower lords to meet her father’s gaze.

Her father scowled. “You’re not a halfwit, girl. You know what that chair means.” He cast a glance at the other lords and sighed. “We can’t trust him any longer. It’s more than rumors, now. Our own scouts saw your brother at the head of a rebel army.”

A chill ran through her. Rumors of treason had been enough to tear the lower lords’ council apart, some defending Arkaen’s honor while others demanded he be removed from the registry of Sentarsin kin. If there was real proof…

“How many saw him?” The calculations circled her mind. If it was only a couple scouts they could cover it up. Prevent High Emperor Laisia from blaming the entire family for her brother’s treasons.

“That’s not the point,” her father replied. “Your brother is lost to us. We need to find you a proper husband to rule—”

“Gods damn your pride, Father.”

She leaped from the chair, her formal skirts swirling in a flash of temper she rarely showed. A flash of temper that drew her father’s fury to the surface and she could see his rage brewing under the calm facade of his mild frown. Her heart pounded against her chest, the danger of her insolence leaving her entire body shaking. But this was bigger than her or her father.

Saylina turned to meet his eyes again, fighting for some semblance of reason in her tone. “Emperor Laisia won’t care who’s to blame or who you plan to succeed you. Can we hide Arkaen’s actions and protect our home?” Her throat clogged at the next thought. But it might be the only way. “If we send assassins…” Her eyes burned. Arkie, her beloved brother, who used to sneak sugary treats into her bed after the cook had banished them both. “We can claim he was coerced.”

“Emperor Laisia has no reason to doubt my loyalty,” her father replied. But she could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “I have served his needs since he confirmed my seat when he was still a boy.”

“She’s got a good head on her shoulders, my lord,” Baron Weydert said. “Better to protect the province first. I did warn you of these actions when he first left.”

Not someone she wanted to agree with, and certainly not on the proper way to depose her own brother. But if these reports were true, Arkaen had damned himself.

Her father spun to face Baron Weydert. “I don’t need your lectures any more than I need strategies from a barely weaned girl, Oskari. I’ve seen to the boy, of course. No one who saw him will tell any tales, and Arkie won’t be sighted anywhere else. Not living, at least.” He fixed a narrow-eyed stare on Saylina as her heart skipped and her eyes burned. “I called my council to name an heir.”

Saylina stepped back, the back of her legs rubbing against her brother’s chair. A chair he’d never sit in again.

“Your lords serve.” Baron Weydert bowed low, his cloak falling to one side and dragging the floor. “I only thought it prudent to discuss the matter, my lord. My guards reported these measures have only just begun. Surely additional caution only serves the needs of our subjects.”

Baron Weydert cast Saylina a guarded smile. And winked. Almost a conspiratorial, friendly gesture, as though he were a peer trying to impress a crush. Gods above. He’d tried to marry his daughter to Arkaen. His son was betrothed to a lady serving at the imperial court. And his wife was long dead. Surely the baron couldn’t mean to take her hand.

“Then do what you will, Oskari.”

Saylina’s focus snapped back to her father, the casual dismissal of Baron Weydert’s challenge impossible to ignore. A lower lord did not spy on his liege. Or at least, he didn’t admit to doing so and the reigning high lord pretended not to notice that everyone did. It was a matter of etiquette. To treat such a breach as meaningless could only mean that her father had been in confidence with Baron Weydert on this already.

“Thank you, Father.” Saylina straightened. Gods, let her be mistaken. If only she could be sure she’d read the situation wrong. “I feel better knowing our council is monitoring the situation.” She licked her lips, casting a hopeful glance at the other lords. All silent and most bored. They had no intention of challenging Baron Weydert for whatever he’d planned with her father. “I’ve given thought to my marriage. There’s a southern trade-lord’s son—”

“No.” Her father shook his head. “When you were just a daughter, maybe, but not as my heir. We need to solidify the province.” He turned toward Baron Weydert and Saylina knew she hadn’t been wrong.

“Brayden.” She nearly shouted the word in a rush to speak before he suggested his childhood friend for her husband. Her father froze. “Brayden Skianda. The family is old but his father has taken to focus on his own lands more than the province. Brayden is more than a little frustrated with his own impotence. An ally for your heir and a chance to honor one of our valuable but less prominent allies with a gift of Brayden’s sister as a bride.”

Except Brayden was halfway through a very complex negotiation for his own wedding to another woman. But at least it was a name her father couldn’t immediately reject. He turned back, the endless pause hinting that he wanted to dismiss her suggestion. Finally, her father sighed.

“I’ll talk to Count Skianda, but that’s a complicated suggestion. Don’t get your heart set on him, girl.”

And just like that she had a reprieve. Time to find a husband that her father wouldn’t reject. If such a man existed. Saylina rose and curtsied.

“Shall I retire, then, to write the invitation?”

Her father considered her for a moment before nodding. “See to your lessons. I’ll write the invitation. Province business is none of yours.”

As though he hadn’t just named her heir in her brother’s place. But she’d expected it. Saylina straightened and crossed the room, refusing to meet the eyes of any of the other lords. A high lady did not beg for approval from her subjects. Stepping out the door, she counted out twenty steps before she let herself run through the halls, her finely held control finally on the edge of breaking. She’d better warn Lady Arianne that her brother was about to get a marriage proposal before her plans fell apart before she got them started. And hope she hadn’t just chosen an ally of someone about to betray her.

Fragile


Niamsha Pereyra skulked at the edge of the scorching hot room, watching the other candidates trading jokes—and some coin—with the journeymen. Glasswright boys she’d called peers barely three quarters a year past. No one called her anything but gutter scum now, no matter that her papa would have given his last coin to aid these same children when he’d had the coin to spare. At least her now-ragged clothes helped the sweat keep her body cooler.

A series of furnaces built into the walls kept the temperature just within bareable, the breeze coming through the windows serving only to push the heat around as if to ensure everyone felt as uncomfortable as possible. But the tests couldn’t be held anywhere else. The guild craft hall was the only space large enough for a dozen amateur glasswrights to work at once with the masters that would be supervising. Niamsha had only been here once before, when her papa had brought her as a girl to introduce the guild to his intended apprentice. Long before his illness had robbed her of any chance to practice her craft.

“Nia, girl, come here.” The heavily-built guildmaster stood barely a head taller than the hopefuls. Too short to comand his own respect. But the guild gave him enough.

Niamsha slunk through the crowd, feeling the stares and smirks of her former peers as her too-short skirt swayed just below her knees. She’d barely managed to keep her and Emrys fed since her papa had sent the away. New clothes were no more than a dream. Or they had been, until the guildmaster’s servant had found her crouched under the eaves of a market stall and told her the news. Her papa had gone to the guild and done what he swore never to do: sold his personal secrets to the guild in return for a chance at apprenticeship. For Niamsha.

“Aye, Master Ferndon. Whatcha—” Too late she remembered her papa’s endless warnings. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. They didn’t need any more excuses. “What can I do for you?”

Master Ferndon smiled, gesturing to the furnaces. Behind him, seated at a work table with a fruit tart dangling from his hands, sat a tiny copy of Master Ferndon. His son, Janne Ferndon. Clumsy, slow-witted, and guaranteed an apprenticeship despite the new high lord’s change to the laws. All apprentices had to pass a trial, and any born beyond the guild given training before the tests. But Master Ferndon would never let his own son be rejected from the guild.

Niamsha’s stomach rumbled against the day’s emptiness. She’d never hated someone just for their luck before, but in that moment she hated Janne Ferndon.

“Just wanted a look at ya, girl,” Master Ferndon said. “Guild ain’t heard from ya or yer father since he took ill. Shame he didn’t make it ta see ya here.”

A lie, but one she couldn’t challenge. Master Ferndon had heard plenty of pleas for help from her papa. And, later, from her.

“Papa always…” The words clogged her throat like a hunk of burnt bread dug from the scrap cart. Her only chance to protect Em. “He ain’t been at gettin’ help.”

Another smile on Master Ferndon’s thin mouth, cutting across his pale face. “Glad he came to reason at the end. Yer always welcome in the guild. If you’ve the skill, of course.”

Niamsha clenched her jaw and nodded. No one could doubt her skill. She’d had apprentice offers when she was barely old enough for them but her papa wanted her schooled before she learned the trade. And now, because the gods-damned high lord thought he knew how to manage craft, she might not get a trade at all.

“Now.” Master Ferndon stepped away from the table and clapped his hands. “Let’s begin!”

A cluster of children—all too young to have apprenticeships yet—hurried in from the side alcoves, each attaching to a candidate as if it had all been rehearsed. Guild-provided assistants, each chosen specifically for their inability to influence the quality of the craft. The last girl stood frozen in the middle of the room, sweeping her eyes across the group before finally settling on Niamsha. With a determined smile, the girl scampered across the floor and grabbed Niamsha’s hand. They crossed to one of the massive furnaces. Two stations down from Janne Ferndon with his hands still sticky from the fruit tart.

Niamsha scowled at the boy before scanning the station. Colored glass rods, serviceable tongs and blowpipe and a proper marver and table where she could shape the glass. One of her father’s stemmed goblets with speckled color across the base would be a good piece.

The heat from the furnace throbbed against her skin, a call to the craft like a lost friend pinching her to make sure she was real. For the first time since entering the craft hall a smile tugged at Niamsha’s lips.

Grabbing the thick leather apron and gloves hanging beside her table, Niamsha snapped orders at the girl she’d been given as an assistant. A solid base of clear glass, then—

The clatter of glass rods scattering across the table interrupted her thoughts and she spun around, a sharp reprimand ready. The girl looked up through wide, terrified eyes, pale face gone white and the last couple rods slipping from her fingers. Niamsha snatched the rods away. Incompetent. They’d given her a useless, untrained girl who couldn’t even be trusted with cold glass. How could she hope to match the skill of apprentices who’d been training for this test for months?

Two furnaces down, Janne Ferndon fumbled his blowpipe into the glory-hole of his furnace, grunting as the heavy metal rod clanged against the interior wall. Master Ferndon’s invitation suddenly made sense. He couldn’t just give his boy an apprenticeship. Law forbade it. He needed Janne to do a passable job in a test where another guild-born apprentice failed so he could justify giving his son a place. And he’d chosen Niamsha, over a year out of practice and saddled with an inept assistant.

“Pick ’em up.” Niamsha smiled at the girl. Eiliin take Ferndon’s plan for her. She’d survived more than he knew. “One at a time. Set them here.”

Niamsha took one of the uncracked rods and slid it into the furnace with the long-handled tongs. She’d have to change her plans to something simpler. Cracked glass was dangerous to heat too fast and if she let it blow she’d do more than lose a test. But she could still best Janne Ferndon.


The simple glass goblet sat on the bench, riddled with bubbles from her haste, cool enough to touch, and in one piece. Far from Niamsha’s best work. But Janne hadn’t even managed to properly attach his base, presenting two separate—and therefore useless—bits of glass instead.

The judge gave a final opinion to the boy next to Niamsha and came to her table, offering a cursory nod before turning to her goblet. No one Niamsha had known, and not anyone her papa had talked about in her memory. But the judge seemed to know the craft. She checked the weight of the piece against the glass Niamsha had used, noted the size and distribution of the air bubbles. Finally, she set the piece down and consulted a list her servant held out for her.

“Niamsha, yes?” She drew the name out, hesitating over unfamiliar syllables, but made no attempt to shorten the name. “A commoner?”

“I—” Niamsha considered her choices. Her papa had told her to leave his name behind and Master Ferndon hadn’t marked her as born to the guild. But her papa had a reputation that should have reached beyond the city. That reputation could be her salvation. “Me papa was Master Treiu. He took ill, but taught me basics. Only I ain’t—”

“Oh.”

The disappointment told Niamsha her choice was wrong. The judge shook her head.

“A guildie, then. Guildies typically get clearer glass than that.”

“I’s all rushed ’cause—”

“Everyone had the same time, Miss Treiu.” The judge shot her a glare, a hint of reproach in the words. “We know the time is short but we haven’t all day to leave our craft. Young master Janne didn’t even finish his piece, but his glass is clean. His can be salvaged. Yours…”

“But…”

The word died on Niamsha’s lips, unheard or ignored. It didn’t matter. Niamsha had assumed a finished piece would be worth more. Few commissions tolerated delays and with unguilded, foreign glasswrights sending their wares in the guild couldn’t afford to lose commissions. But Master Ferndon must have known this judge. He’d told his son what to do.

The judge scanned her list again and shook her head. “I’m sorry, girl. With that impatience your only fit for cheap work and we’ve no room for scrap ‘prentices. Cheap glass doesn’t sell through the guild under the new laws.”

“I can do better!” Niamsha leaped forward, grabbing for the judge’s sleeve. “I can. Jus’ need ‘nother chance. I—”

“Let go.” The judge tore her sleeve free from Niamsha’s grasp. “You’re kind are the reason High Lord Arkaen instituted these tests. Assuming you’ve a place simply because you’re born to it. A guild-born child has plenty of chances to learn and take these tests. If you could do better, than you should have. As is, the guild is best rid of you.”

The judge spun around and stormed off to the next table, leaving Niamsha staring in her wake. How was she going to care for Em? The scrap-glass traders didn’t want someone else to pay and no guilded master would risk an unguilded apprentice. She hadn’t been given any chances. By design.

Master Ferndon’s smirk from his son’s table caught her eye. He’d planned this. Brought her in to fail. Tricked her papa into selling his trade secrets for this chance and then assigned her an incompetent assistant. And he’d done it all to steal her place for his own boy. He’d won.