Family Ties


“Father, we don’t have a choice.” Deyvan Corliann reached out a hand, pleading with his father to understand. “Uncle Caildenn won’t let this go.”

“And that is exactly why I cannot agree,” High Lord Mikkal Corliann replied. “Surely you see that. I’ve relinquished the management of my holdings to you and accepted your appointment as his heir. Nothing I’ve done since hints at rebellion. If he won’t trust my word, how can I trust his?”

Deyvan collapsed into the heavily padded chair beside his father’s desk, his hand falling on a pile of ignored papers. Papers that Deyvan should have answered weeks before, but for his uncle’s demands. The entire office overflowed with bits of work Deyvan had yet to examine. Requests for his blessing on new trade agreements, demands he resolve disputes between minor lords, adjustments in laws and regulations that he’d never realized needed the high lord’s approval at all. And more than a dozen contracts with marriage clauses attached, each hinting not so subtly that an alliance with that family might aid him should his uncle remarry and father another heir. No one trusted Uncle Caildenn’s word. Not even Deyvan.

“This isn’t about trusting my uncle,” Deyvan said. “It’s about showing the empire that the provinces remain united. The northern rebellion has been growing for almost six years now and any day they might break out from skirmishes and ambushes into a real war. Uncle Caildenn is our emperor and he needs the show his enemies that our nation is not to be dismissed. What if Mindaine decides the rebellion is a distraction they can use to take back Sentar Province? Or Osuvia wants to rebuild the former country on their lower border as a puppet state?”

“Then the imperial army will rally to our nation’s defense regardless of home province, as they always have.” High Lord Mikkal shook his head, as if the answer were obvious. “Caildenn knows that as well as I. My abandonment of an empty title does nothing but force me into subservience. It’s not about unity, Deyvan. It’s about cruelty.”

“That’s—” But Deyvan couldn’t really argue. Uncle Caildenn had a bad reputation, and nothing could make Deyvan forget the look in his uncle’s eyes when Deyvan had sworn his father’s loyalty. After the province high lords had forced Uncle Caildenn to marry into the Corliann bloodline much too young, he would never trust the brother-by-law he’d gained in High Lord Mikkal. “Uncle Caildenn has his flaws, but he only needs a proper family. The high lords took one chance of that from him by selecting my aunt as his bride, the Serr-Nyen took another with their assassins. Give him a chance, father. Uncle cares about me. I can help him and our empire.”

A sharp knock at the door interrupted their discussion and both Deyvan and his father spun in their chairs to face the entry. If anyone had overheard this discussion it could too easily find its way back to Uncle Caildenn’s ears. One hint that Deyvan or his father disapproved of Caildenn’s actions could tear the fragile truce between their families apart. After a few breaths, the knock came again. A servant poked his head in at Deyvan’s call.

“Pardon, my lords, but there’s a visitor for Prince Deyvan.” At Deyvan’s blank look, the servant pointed toward the formal study. “From up north.”

“Oh, yes.” He’d never get used to being Prince Deyvan. His cousins had been the princes, murdered in their beds by foreign warmongers hoping to disrupt the treaty Uncle Caildenn planned with the now-conquered nation of Sernyii. “Thank you. I’ll be down in a moment.” Deyvan waved a hand to dismiss the servant and turned back to his father. “I’ve a foreign trade discussion. But I promise, Father, I can turn Uncle Caildenn into a decent ruler if you’ll help me.”

High Lord Mikkal sighed. “I know you aren’t that naive, but I can see I won’t convince you. Let’s table this discussion for this evening.” He pushed up from the desk, offering a resigned smile. “May I join your discussion? I’ve missed the dance of negotiations between equal powers.”

Deyvan hesitated. He knew that tone from too many forays into the sweets cupboards as a child. High Lord Mikkal thought he knew something Deyvan shouldn’t be doing. And if he had found out about Deyvan’s communications with Mistress Varela of Serni Province he could wreak havoc on Deyvan’s carefully laid plans. But if no loyal-born imperial could trust a Sernien merchant-lord’s daughter after the massacre they’d made of Uncle Caildenn’s sons. Deyvan’s eyes settled on a piece of paper on his father’s desk. Innocuous but for the seal in a bottom corner. Uncolored wax as any commoner might use, but with a gryphon head pressed into the center.

“I’d be pleased to have you join me, Father,” Deyvan said, a weight lifting from his shoulders. This was the answer to his frustrations. If Deyvan’s father had plans with the Varela family, he could use that to find them a middle ground.

“I’m not certain you’ll feel the same in a few moments.” High Lord Mikkal gave him a knowing smirk. “But it’s better we have these things in the open.”

The warning gave Deyvan only a moment’s pause. For all his worries, he did trust his father. Even if it meant revealing a secret that most would use to control him. Family could be trusted.

Rising, Deyvan motioned for his father to follow and led the way through his keep—his father’s keep. High Lord Mikkal needed no guide through these corridors. Deyvan’s skin prickled under his father’s scrutiny like a child playing at adulthood under a critical gaze. Any moment he could misstep—greet a foreign dignitary with the wrong honorific or offer too much information at the opening of a trade deal—and his father would see. He’d pause, raise one hand and stop himself, smile, and politely comment on the difficulty of keeping etiquette up to date. A reminder that High Lord Mikkal had taught Deyvan everything he knew about politics and could still run circles around him. Deyvan swept his gaze along the hall, looking for anything to distract himself from his nerves, and settled on examining the tapestries adorning the walls. Each was a symbol of some great conquest or treaty that broadened the family holding. Priceless work that could have fed hundreds of refugees for years if his family had spent the money more wisely. Uncle Caildenn’s excesses weren’t so different from those his high lords and their vassals had indulged for generations.

Before Deyvan could sink too far into that train of thought he arrived at the door to his father’s—his formal study. He tapped quickly on the door to warn his guest and opened the door, smiling at the pretty blond woman seated by his crackling fireplace.

“Mistress Varela.” Deyvan crossed the room, waving a hand behind him to indicate his father. “Thank you for coming so far. Allow me to introduce—”

“Lord Sphinx!” Mistress Varela sprang to her feet, dropping immediately into a curtsy. “I hadn’t realized you had connections here, my lord.”

Deyvan froze, staring at her shocked face. Mistress Varela had been barely sixteen when her family came to reside at Deyvan’s home in the upheaval over the death of his cousins, but surely she knew High Lord Mikkal was Deyvan’s father. Except Deyvan’s father had been away at court, he realized. Dealing with the aftermath of the betrayal while some of the suspected perpetrators sheltered among his family. Mistress Varela’s mother and younger brother were dead now, leaving no one to tell her who High Lord Mikkal was. And yet…

“Lord Sphinx?” Deyvan asked, casting a glance at his father. No one had reason to call his father anything of the sort. Their family crest was a fox and High Lord Mikkal was known among all the high lords as the most direct and honest.

“Please pardon the secrecy, High Lord,” Deyvan’s father replied, offering a nod as if greeting an unknown but respected rival. “I consider a man’s identity his greatest commodity and the mistress had recently advised me of a Serr-Nyen tradition I quite like. To choose the name of a mythical creature as a war title for the protection of those you hold dear. She named me Sphinx for my refusal to reveal any details of my status.”

And there it was, buried amongst the casual explanation that would have satisfied any other. A hint of frustration, a nudge to follow his example, and a hidden—exasperated—statement. You knew better, Deyvan. As if his father had shouted the criticism in his ear. Deyvan bit back a curse and nodded.

“Of course. Lord Sphinx.” And Deyvan had better come up with his own title before he took any further steps toward joining Mistress Varela’s cause. If his father feared her knowledge he didn’t dare question that wisdom. He’d already given Mistress Varela enough power by letting her know his true name at all. Ymari’s face swam before his eyes, her strange culture a mystery in itself. A place where Deyvan could learn tricks even his own father didn’t know. “I do think I’ll follow suit. Among your allies, mistress, please refer to me as Kumiho.”


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United


Saylina Sentarsin tossed the folded bit of paper aside, frowning at the growing pile of invitations beside her chair. A mess her brother would have scolded her for. If he hadn’t run off four years before.

“Got one here.” Caela handed a note across the table.

Taking the message, Saylina broke the seal and smoothed out the paper. Yellow and black wax didn’t bode well. The last lordling from the northern lake regions had smelled of fish and wanted nothing more than a pretty face to flaunt on the decks of his boats.

To the highest of ladies and the fairest of maidens—

Rumors of your beauty reach far and wide.

If you will allow me by your side,

Together may our fortunes ride…

“Oh gods above.” Saylina choked on a laugh, waving the note at Caela. “You are joking, right?”

“Rich.” Caela shrugged, but the twinkle in her eyes revealed her. “Your lord father’d be happy with ya bringing in that coin. An’ this one got such a nice—”

Caela burst out laughing, her front cracking at last. Saylina sighed and dropped the message, shaking her head. Every proposal came with more absurdities and proclamations of affection, often with less and less chance she’d ever met the sender at all. And none had a truly legitimate reason for writing her. All just hints that her impending birthing day—and the leap in maturity from girl to woman it implied—had escaped no one’s notice.

Once she might have been flattered. Years ago, when Arkaen had skulked through the corridors to her door nearly every night to deliver forbidden treats and mock the tutors he so disdained and she so adored, she would have loved these messages. She would have seen them as hints that the lower lords thought her important and hadn’t forgotten her in the shadow cast by her much older and more problematic brother. But to receive them now, when Arkaen had been years fighting a war no one expected him back from and she was the only heir? Each meaningless line of flowery praise was an insult to her carefully laid plans.

“We need someone I can use,” Saylina said, sifting through the papers on her polished wood table. “Father will have spoken to everyone here. They’re only writing me because they think I can use my girlish charms to sway his opinion.”

As if her father would ever respect her wishes on matters of state. But the province didn’t know that. High Lord Johannus Sentarsin had mastered his role as doting father when anyone might see.

Caela pulled another missive from the pile and froze. The paper slipped from her fingers, fluttering through the breeze from the window to land with the seal up. Blue and silver wave with a stallion’s head embossed into the seal. Saylina frowned at Caela, grabbing the message.

“What does Count Skianda want?” She slipped a finger behind the seal and pried it free.

“I’m sorry!” Caela’s voice burst from her lips as if she couldn’t contain herself, her eyes wide and childish as she had rarely been despite her age. “I shoulda—” She cut off, scrunching her lips together in a miserable scowl. Pained, ashamed, and resigned.

The Skianda family had been involved in helping Saylina’s father place Caela as a spy. Caela could have shouted the admission from Saylina’s balcony and been more subtle. Saylina’s hands turned cold, her breath caught in her throat as her heart ached. The friend she’d recruited—had trusted with everything—had a secret master. Not so much smarter than her brother, after all. But Caela, at least, looked remorseful as Arkaen’s false guard had not.

“What have you told them?” Saylina could hear the ice in her own voice, her pain transformed into a parody of anger she couldn’t feel. Yet.

“Nothing!” Caela shook her head as if to convince herself as well as Saylina, the gutter speech she’d been working hard to lose creeping back into her words. “At first I’s just—he asked after you. If you’re doing well. Then your father, he wanted to know what your father’s doing. But I said nothing since we agreed ’cept what we told your father.”

“You truly think he sent you here to ensure I was handling the transition properly?”

Caela scoffed, waving the suggestion off. “Nah. He wanted you controlled, but I ain’t the type for it. I’m a starter. I’d bet one of these is his man.” She nodded at the pile of letters, then looked up to meet Saylina’s eyes. “He’s not…I ain’t with him. Not no more. He just wanted another gutter-born to do his dirty work.”

Saylina clenched her hand, considering Caela’s claim. She made a point. And what choice did a common-born girl like Caela have when a nobleman demanded they spy for him? No doubt Count Skianda had simply wanted a source of information. Especially since he’d been away at his estate so frequently over the past years. With Arkaen gone, Lordling Brayden Skianda had no easy access to the palace to gather information for his father. And Caela’s pleading gaze was so desperate.

“Count Skianda is a different force than my father,” Saylina said, deliberately keeping her voice cold. “He needs a different hand.”

Caela nodded, dropping her eyes to stare at the pile of papers. Disappointment and fear flashed across her features. But no anger. No surprise. Caela had never expected Saylina to forgive her.

“Next time, sister, come to me first.” Saylina smiled. “It’s much easier to plot together, and I have a bit of pressure we could have used on the count. Have you met his son Brayden?”

“The younger lord?” Caela nodded without waiting for Saylina’s confirmation. “He’s the one that found me. Never met the older, though I reckon he knew. Lately, though—” Caela frowned. “He hasn’t asked for me. Like he knows something without my news.”

“Interesting.”

If Brayden had chosen her, that changed things. Arkaen had considered Brayden a friend, though not one close enough to confide in. And if Caela was truly working for the Skianda’s she’d have no reason to correct Saylina’s mistake. Caela hadn’t truly betrayed her any more than before. And sisters forgave each other. Saylina flipped the message open and scanned the note.

My Lady Saylina—

I am led to believe we share mutual interests. I would be honored if you would grace my sister with a visit morrow-eve. Perhaps we will find the chance to speak.

—Brayden Skianda

Saylina frowned at the note. “That’s not a proper invitation.” It wasn’t a courtship, either, though she’d never have expected one from the heir to one of the most prestigious holdings in the province.

“What’d he say?”

Nothing,” Saylina replied. “Just that he’d be honored if I visit his sister.”

Caela bit at her lower lip. A habit she hadn’t yet lost from the streets. “He’s smart, that one.”

“Part of why Arkaen liked him,” Saylina said. “I don’t have the resources to learn his plans, though.”

“But I’ll guess he knows you’re planning something even without me.”

Saylina dropped the letter, meeting her gaze. “That’s a poorly kept secret by design. Are you implying he’ll try to stop me?”

She shook her head. “No telling.”

But Caela stared at the message like it held a meaning they were both missing and the urge to look again crept through Saylina. The timing was too close to be chance. A message inviting her to discuss mutual interests right as she was hunting a pliant husband to name heir in her brother’s place? The Skianda family was loyal to Sentarsin rule, but they weren’t fools.

“You gonna see him?” Caela asked.

“I have no reason not to.” Saylina took the message back, examining the too short, too cursory invitation. “I might learn quite a deal from such a meeting.”

Caela nodded. “Then I’m going with you. Not as a maid. Sisters fight for each other.”


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Novel Update


I’m posting a little bit of a different format today because I want to share some exciting updates on my upcoming novel, Wake of the Phoenix. Over the past few months I’ve been going through the process of preparing my book for publication and I have hit several milestones.

  1. Edits are complete. This is a huge milestone. Some self-published authors make edits even after they’ve released a version of their novel and every author releases their book and then wishes they could make one last change. Despite those constant insecurities, my editing is complete. This is not to say that no changes will be made to any of the content between now and my release date. After receiving my professional edits back, applying the changes, and calling my manuscript “done but for the formatting,” the first thing I did was see it in a different format and find typos. There will no doubt be more typos. Nonetheless, this does mean that all substantive changes to the novel have been made.
  2. Maps are finalized for first book status. The maps released a couple weeks ago are now confirmed as the final maps depicting the status of this world at the beginning of Wake of the Phoenix. These maps were created on Inkarnate using their premium subscription. I initially made sketches on the free version and figured those would be okay, but I do have to plug the premium version now. Aside from more complexity, it allows you to make more traditional styles of internal maps and I greatly enjoyed playing with the expanded tools and stamp options. Those maps will be present in the opening pages of my novel, but they can also be used as reference material for events recorded in the fiction posts on my blog.
  3. Interior formatting is in its final stages. This is exciting news, in no small part because I have spent years working at a legal publishing company where my job was to skim PDF documents of official court cases looking for formatting errors. These included everything from weird hyphenations to misspelled words to backwards quote marks. It has been a genuinely surreal experience applying those same skills to making my own book look professional and complete.
  4. Cover design has progressed from concept into detailing. Many authors walk into their books with a concept of their cover art or with an image that represents the story to them. I’ve never been that person. As a result, gathering visual ideas and trying to craft those into something to represent the book I worked so hard on was a daunting task. Thankfully, I had a skilled cover artist who sketched a rough concept in 20 minutes on the phone with me. While the initial concept was exciting, he has had two weeks to work on building that concept into a solid cover design and I am expecting a second draft in the next day or two. From there I will discuss any concerns and suggest and specific changes and wait for the final draft, in 1-2 weeks. I can’t wait to share the result with everyone. I’ll be revealing my final cover in early July both here and on Twitter. Keep an eye out. I’m pretty excited by my artist’s work.
  5. Advance Review Copies will be available to request in 2-3 weeks. I’ve been saying for some time that my book, Wake of the Phoenix, will be released this fall. That means it’s time for ARC readers! I’m still waiting on my cover to send any copies, but I’ll begin collecting information for anyone interested in a free copy of my novel soon. I hope to be able to send e-book ARCs starting in early to mid July and physical ARCs by the first week of August. Keep an eye out here and on Twitter for a form to request an ARC if you’re interested. My only request is that if you accept an ARC you write me an honest review on Amazon. I am a firm believer that truth brings the right readers and unreasonably inflated ratings just piss people off.
  6. A release date has been selected. This is a bit of a funny announcement, since I’ve been saying my book is coming out “this fall” for months. As well, anyone who has ever self-published knows that you pick a release date much earlier than this. The exciting news here is that my plans are coming together, my tasks are getting completed, and the book is ready. This means that my release date (which will be announced when I reveal the cover in a couple weeks), will be the same one I’ve been targeting for several months now.

Here’s a couple sneak peaks of formatted pages from the book:

Calling


Kìlashà snapped awake from the Dream, heart pounding as the images played through his mind. Another death, this one slower and harsher—bloodier than the last. Each vision came with the same face, not always present but always a part of the slaughter. The golden blond hair that had marked a long-dead prince framed a far crueler face, etched as though from a stone gone mad with bloodlust. A face he knew and yet could barely recall.

With a shudder, he pushed back the hides that served him as bed coverings and rose, the cold stone of his home a solid comfort against his visions. The sparse decor of a table, a rough bench, and a discarded wooden rack for drying hid beneath the evening’s cloud-darkened skies. But Kìlashà had no need of light to see these surroundings. He strode across the space, a flash of warning from his power warning him in time to sidestep the pile of wood his clanmother had left by his door after he’d fallen asleep. The darkened camp beyond his doorway still held a few flickers of campfires, twinkling up from the base of the cliff as he peered over the edge of his own narrow path. Sentries waiting for the next shift. No one dared sleep without guards while war raged in distant lands.

“Good eve, Kìlashà.” His clanmother’s voice sang like water tumbling over rocks, her bluish skin shimmering in the darkness. “I thought you retired for your rest.”

“Dreams.”

He couldn’t bring himself to explain further, but she would understand. As the kin he’d known as a babe could not. His clanmother stepped closer, her skin too bright for comfort though her colors shifted to mimic the rustling waves of a restless sea. Her worry showing through in her skin.

“The seeker’s power will yield to your will in time,” she said. “All our people struggle to master their talents, and yours are more demanding than most.”

Kìlashà shrugged. “I do not fear—” She would know the lie. No reason to mislead the one who had cared for him when no other would. “Such fears are not what takes my rest from me. I feel a duty to see my visions answered.”

She laughed, the sound somehow deeper and more grating than her usual voice. A glance showed her skin had changed again, lightening to a sky blue as she shook her head in amusement. Not understanding what he’d said, no doubt. She always believed their powers nothing more than a tool when he could feel the deeper pull behind the information gleaned.

“Lasha, my child.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, gesturing to their sacred prayer house. “The Ancient Spirits grant you skill and allow you to glimpse Their wisdom. They do not make requests. There is nothing to answer.”

“You have not seen the moments in my Dreams,” he insisted. “They do not come to the others of our clan. Why to me, if I am of the clans? There is a need for my actions among the western lands.”

“No, Kìlashà.” Her hand clenched on his shoulder, though she kept her voice calm. “Those creatures have earned nothing from you and shall have none of my child.”

“You cannot be the one to decide.” He spoke the words with a conviction beyond his own knowledge, certain as he did that he could only cause her pain. But deception served no purpose here. “I am marked by the Ancient Spirits. We must follow Their will, not our own.”

“Their will brought you to me.”

But not for this purpose. He couldn’t explain how he knew what the Ancient Spirits intended, but the confidence rang in his very being. His clanmother sought to protect him from the very destiny she had insisted was his. But no value came from disabusing her of such beliefs at this time.

“Of course, clanmother.”

Kìlashà stepped away from her, examining the patterns of the fires below. Two fires by the western edge, where barely a fortnight past they had only maintained one. Another skirmish close to the borders of clan lands? Or had the council simply added guards to ease some of the restless tension suffered by the younger members of the clans. Hunting restrictions and travel limitations. Every week a new caution and smaller area to range and learn and train. Not as it had been when Kìlashà was still a child. Before the northern humans had rebelled over a murder more than a decade old and sworn vengeance for a crime they didn’t understand.

With a sharp twist of his vision, Kìlashà’s power flared to life and dragged him into a full fledged vision. An alternate moment of time similar to the flashes that had permeated his childhood, but this one stronger. He could barely hear his clanmother’s shout of alarm as he lost himself the the new moment before him.

Kìlashà lay back on the branch, watching the empty woods beneath him in casual disinterest. The spirits called him here, but They had not bothered to reveal their purpose. He’d learned by now to trust in Their will and so he waited, one leg dangling beneath him as though he were a child playing. A rustle of branches echoed through the forest sounds, cutting the bird songs short and sending the foraging rabbit ducking into a nearby thicket. Kìlashà examined the ground below for signs of the intruder, finally noting the branches of a bush the swayed ever so slightly against the breeze.

Not entirely inept at maneuvering, he noted. But clearly this intruder had no close knowledge of these lands and his inexperience left him announcing his presence to any who had lived and loved this forest. And Kìlashà knew this intruder was male, young, and important to the Ancient Spirits. This was why They had sent him to this mome—

“Kìlashà!”

His clanmother’s sharp voice cut through the vision, dragging him back tot he current moment. Darkness closed over him and for just an instant he was blind, deaf—he couldn’t breathe. Then everything returned at once, like a wave crashing down upon him, searing his eyes with the dim light from his clanmother’s skin as her worried face floated before him.

“Lasha, what happened? Are you injured?”

He shook his head, more the clear his thoughts than to answer, and pushed away from the cliff wall where he’s fallen.

“I am well, clanmother. I was simply unprepared. My visions are not usually so forceful.”

Or so unexpected. He’d rarely had an uncalled vision sine he’d come to live among the clans, and never one so strong and clear. Not even as a child, when his visions had led him from his bed and into the safety of the clans.

“That was not a seeker’s vision, child,” his clanmother said, her voice still heavy with worry. “The Ancient Spirits grant access to knowledge. They do not drag our people into visions unasked for. Think of the danger. A seeker unprepared could get lost in such a vision.”

“But…” He looked up into her eyes, paled to a seaweed green from their usual emerald. “The Spirits have always spoken to me thus.”

She shook her head, skin paling further into a barely blue-tinted haze as she considered the import of his words. Kìlashà frowned, considering the images again. She would like what They’d said even less.

“Perhaps you misunderstood.” She sounded as desperate to convince herself as to explain to him. “Many born of the clans use their skills without knowing. In dreams and when desperate. You’ve been worried. You just said your visions have invaded your dreams again.”

He turned away, looking to the est as if he could find the forest branch where his older self had sat. Not much older. Two, maybe three years. But he’d known the lay of that land as he knew the land beneath his feet here. A home he’d built for himself.

“The Spirits have ever spoken to me thus,” Kìlashà said. “And They have given me a task to see done.”

“Lasha, you can’t follow a single vision,” his clanmother cautioned. “You know the dangers of an unconfirmed moment. Any number of factors could lead to the moment you saw.”

“But some things must be done to achieve Their ends,” he replied. Kìlashà smiled at her, his reluctance to leave tugging at the need to follow his visions. “I know your frustration, clanmother. But these are the same as the visions which led me to you. The Spirits have a design for me and it lies to the west.”

“You’re twisting the vision to suit your own ends,” she said. “Seeing a solution to your nightmares and your vision at once. Lasha, you must bring this to the council.”

Kìlashà nodded. “Yes, the council should convene. I’ll need to explain my intentions.”

He slipped past her and hurried down the path. The council should still be in session. They’d met until long past moon-set for weeks now, everyone fearing for the safety of their clan. A safety he could now provide. His clanmother’s steps on the path behind him came too fast. Not following, but hurrying to catch him before he could say his piece to the other leaders of his clan. Kìlashà paused at the bottom of the path to wait.

“What do you plan to tell them, Lasha?”

“A simple truth.” He met her eyes, his voice steady despite her frantically shifting colors. “Our people need a guardian. Someone to serve as a buffer between the clans and this human conflict. We need this guardian to be someone unable to reveal our people simply from a glimpse through the trees, lest a human wander into view. Only one among us can handle such a task.”

Kìlashà held up a hand, the mix of tan and pink a sharp contrast to his clanmother’s bluish tones. Too much shade to be born of the air, too little to be born of the earth, and none of his clanmother’s watery coloring. Human-born.

“But you’ll be alone.”

As alone as she had been before the Spirits had sent Kìlashà to her. He could read the sorrow as clearly as any of the languages he had studied under her tutelage. But it could not change the will he’d seen in the Ancient Spirit’s plan.

“I am not leaving, clanmother. Only taking the invitation to educate myself.”

And perhaps, living at the edge of the people who had birthed his body, Kìlashà might learn what the Ancient Spirits had intended by cursing his soul to live in such a frail incarnation.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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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.

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

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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Map Madness

Thanks for everyone taking a look at the blog today. My goal is to release a new post every Tuesday morning but unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I am not able to get a full post out today. Instead, I’d like to share two preliminary maps with everyone while I take the next week to prepare my story for release.

With no further delay, here are a couple locations within the setting of my upcoming debut novel, Wake of the Phoenix.

All of the original fiction released so far on my blog, Tales of the Laisian Empire, are set in Myiratas. Many of these stories take place in or relate to Sentar Province, a province contained with the Laisian Empire. The capital city of Sentar Province is Torsdell, marked on the map just above the central mountain range. Here’s a preliminary map of Torsdell, where the main action of Wake of the Phoenix takes place.

Some of the items marked here relate specifically to events in book one, as this map is intended for inclusion in the opening pages.

Thanks for your patience while I finish my next post, and check back regularly for updates on Wake of the Phoenix!

Gifts and Gambits


“There.” With a final tug, Prillani Kitorn settled the hem of her new gown around her waist and twisted to see the effect in the mirror.

The bodice of the dress clung to her skin, dipping lower on her chest than anyone without a crown would dare reveal as the ruby skirt swirled around her hips. The silhouette had a far more muted flare than was traditionally popular, accentuating the height that put her at eye level with many men and taller than most women. A minor scandal if she wore this on her southern visit. A perverse desire made her grin. Southern men liked their women short, prudish, and brainless, or so all evidence implied. They’d hate to see Prillani in this.

A cursory rap at her door announced the arrival of her father, King Aran Bira. Her father stepped inside without waiting for her invitation, muttering under his breath at the wealthy merchant who matched his steps. Their conversation cut short as Prillani dropped into a curtsy.

“Gods above, child.” Her father turned away from her in shock, his pale skin flushing with embarrassment. “Put a proper chemise under that.”

“It wouldn’t fit—” Her reply was lost in the merchant’s laughter.

“Your majesty, it’s intended to show as much,” the merchant said. “A beautiful creature like your daughter here? It would be a crime to hide that richly colored skin beneath a chemise and formal gown. This color truly shines against her complexion as it would not on your true-born child.”

Prillani’s mirth faded at the comment. Not as dismissive as some of her father’s courtiers, but still a heavy dose of condescension. She wasn’t a person so much as an exotic display for his wares, complete with unusual skin tone to better highlight certain colors. Prillani rose from her curtsy and crossed the room to join them as her father scowled.

“My daughter is not a creature,” he snapped. “And you’d better placate her or your wares can find another complexion to match and another purse to milk.”

“Pardon, please I meant no insult.” The merchant’s words tumbled over each other. He scanned the room as if looking for an explanation, finding nothing but the tightly shuttered windows and heavily draped walls of Prillani’s dressing chambers. “I’d no intention of taking coin for this gown. It was sent as a gift from my patron. He hoped your majesty might honor him by receiving his envoy.”

“Your patron is who?” Prillani smiled at the merchant, letting her own irritation simmer in her words. “We’ll need to check his ancestry. The royal family of Osuvia can hardly host any random commoner as an envoy, however wealthy.”

“Oh course, your highness,” the merchant said. “I’m afraid I cannot give you his heritage, only that my patron comes from old blood in Sernyii. With recent events, he fears to reveal too much to the wrong ears.”

She scoffed at the claim. “Another descended from old Sernyii? Of course he is. Take your claim elsewhere. I’m sure a man as well-versed in genocide as the late imperial high emperor could properly exterminate the noble bloodlines from his enemies.”

“The royal family graciously accepts your patron’s gift, however,” her father added. “Now that I’ve adjusted, I do like the cut of that gown on my daughter.”

The merchant hesitated, glancing from father to daughter and back. “I throw myself on your mercies, your majesty. Your highness. Allow me to explain.”

He prostrated himself on the floor, hands shaking in a way Prillani had rarely seen. Only a few times, when a brutal punishment was needed to keep the peace and the prisoner stood before the block. What could terrify the man so much? Another reason to reject this patron. Anyone who scared his own servants this deeply could only be dangerous for her family.

“What more could you have to say?” her father demanded. “Your patron claims a bloodline none can prove in a country that no longer lives. Whatever influence he thinks he might gain here, he offers no value to our court.”

Prillani waved a hand to silence the merchant before he could reply. Turning to her father she whispered in the northern dialect of her father’s birth. Unknown beyond their borders, it ought to give them a moment of privacy even without expelling the merchant.

“If we recognize Sernyii, it may put a buffer between the empire and our mountains.”

“The kingdom surrendered long before the war ended,” her father replied. “What claim would we have? A stranger’s word means nothing without a story and the power to spread it.”

“Rumors say the surrender was coerced,” she replied. “And none doubt the conflict started over blood thirst and not vengeance. What harm in crowning a false king beholden to our nation?”

Her father bit at his lower lip, considering her words. There was harm in crowning a false king, of course. Osuvia’s nobility spent most of its time protecting the bloodlines of the older families from the contamination of a single-term ruler. A ruler who didn’t understand the pressures of power could easily tear carefully crafted negotiations apart. Still, her father had recently embraced the heart of their own long-standing tradition to appoint each new ruler from a new family line. After years of trading favors between the fine houses, his succession would be the first to place an adopted commoner on the throne. If he could prove the concept was viable by supporting a foreign ruler, it would ease her adopted sister’s transition to the throne.

“We cannot accept your patron’s envoy here,” her father said, turning back to the merchant as his dialect transitioned back to the main tongue. “Not until his heritage and claims can be verified. But perhaps a meeting can be arranged on neutral ground. My daughter travels south to discuss our trade routes in the imperial province of Sentar this fall. As your patron claims to be of Sernyii, he surely knows his way around the lands she’ll travel through.”

“Indeed he does.” The merchant sagged against the tiled floor, his relief a tangible thing. He cast a smile up at them. “And as your majesty said a neutral location would suit better, I can offer for my patron to speak with your esteemed daughter in Sentar Province. He holds a refuge there, as the local high lord has some sympathies for the Sernyii homeland.”

“Very well.” Her father gestured to the door. “My steward will arrange the details.”

The merchant retreated out the door, bowing over and over as he backed away. Clearly he had no real knowledge of a royal court, but for all his blunders he might be useful after all. Prillani walked over to her dressing table, picking through the jewels she’d laid out. This dress needed a very specific set of accessories to focus the eyes in the right place. No diplomacy ever survived a lecherous man staring at her breasts. She selected a tight choker with an exquisite emerald set into the front and turned back to her father.

“Do you think the new high lord of Sentar will like this?”

Her father frowned. “You’ll stay away from the new high lord down there. I’ve heard plenty of rumors about his interests.”

“Father.” She chuckled. “You can’t think I’d fall prey to any of his entreaties. We worked too hard to find me a husband who wouldn’t treat me as a trophy. No tumble, how ever experienced the man, is worth losing that.”

She suspected the rumors held more speculation than truth, anyway. There were other, older rumors about the new high lord of Sentar Province. Rumors no one liked to talk about because the newer ones held so much more scandal. Supposedly, he single handedly revitalized the rebellion against the Laisian Empire’s brutal high emperor. He may have even killed the emperor himself in retribution for the atrocities the empire had suffered. She had trouble reconciling the principled, driven warrior with the careless womanizer who cast off his conquests as soon as he’d finished his own pleasures. One of the stories had to be false. Much easier for a war hero to fake promiscuity than a fop to pretend war prowess.

“I don’t trust him, Pri,” her father replied. “There’s something off about him. You know the history he’s supposed to have. If he wanted those rumors quelled they would be, so what benefit is he getting from looking weak? And why do I hear so much about the army he’s building?”

“We won’t know until we approach him.” She set the choker back down, fiddling with the clasp. Maybe another. She couldn’t get out of that one easily, and if this new high lord was dangerous she couldn’t afford anything he might use as a weapon. “I’m going to wear this dress to his palace.”

“You’re begging for a diplomatic incident, aren’t you?” But he laughed. “As chaste as they expect their women, what respect will they show you in that? You’re there for diplomacy.”

“Imperials aren’t going to listen to me,” Prillani said. The bitterness sat in her throat, unvoiced. But she knew he’d understand. “I’m not only female, I’m visibly foreign. Of the sort they actively tried to expel a decade ago. Send the steward for the standard trade deals. He’ll manage as well as I. But the high lord—”

“I don’t want you getting too close to him.”

“I don’t mean that.” She waved at the dress. “The merchant said his patron has a house in Sentar because of the high lord’s sympathies. I’ve heard a dozen things about the high lord’s time in the war, but betraying his current emperor? That’s something we should investigate. And if I alienate the other nobles, I’ll have time to meet this patron and evaluate if the high lord is really an ally in my plans for Sernyii.”

Her father paced away, to the door and back, his lips set in a grim line. Finally, he turned back with a sigh.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll authorize one negotiation with the high lord, but only if you have evidence and surety of his support against any future aggressions of his homeland. Make it a military resource, so he has to commit to helping us.”

“Perfect.” And she knew exactly what resource to ask about. One that would test his knowledge of Sernyii’s resources and his loyalty to his homeland all in one.


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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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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Homecoming


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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s dead, Kyli.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the timing is too close.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Fresh Heir


Deyvan Corliann leaned back in the plush chair, pushing the thick red hair back from his face as he examined the message his servant had delivered. A summons in his uncle’s hand. Uncle Caildenn never wrote his own summons. It could only mean he wanted to discuss something away from the prying eyes of the imperial court. The last time Uncle Caildenn had sent a personal summons to call a meeting, he’d invited Lady Mirjari Varela and her entourage from the northern kingdom of Sernyii to negotiate trade. Two weeks later, Lady Varela had sought sanctuary among Deyvan’s household as the empire marched north to war seeking vengeance for the murder of the Uncle Caildenn’s sons.

A twinge of guilt ran through Deyvan’s heart. Prince Jaylen had known, somehow. Poor boy, barely old enough to start learning the ways of a royal house, and yet he’d clung to Deyvan like a lifeline, begging not to be left behind. I’ll miss you when I’m gone, the boy had said. And despite the desperation in his eyes, Deyvan had been sure he meant the imperial family’s coming tour of the provinces. Who could have guessed the boy knew his father’s guests intended murder that very night.

Deyvan rose, pushing the memories away. Jaylen and his older brother had been gone ten years now and Uncle Caildenn had refused to wed in all that time. The time to name a new heir was long past. Everyone knew that heir was Deyvan’s father. This summons seemed to say otherwise.

He crossed the opulent study Uncle Caildenn had given him and threw the door open. Two guards snapped to attention at his presence, their tunics finely pressed in imperial purple, swords polished to a shine. More like statues than trained men at arms. Lounging in a far more natural indolence against the far wall, Ymari Sandrine licked the last honey from an oat roll off her fingers and looked up at him through the natural frizz of her hair. He could feel the anger his own guards directed at the woman, her foreign disregard for Deyvan’s rank simmering in their narrow-eyed glares.

“Ymari.” Deyvan stepped across the hall to lean on the wall beside her. “What brings you to my study this morn?”

She grinned at him, the bright white of her teeth a sharp contrast to the darker brown of her skin. “I come for this news.” She waved a hand at the slip of paper he still held. “Words say you go to speak with him. My people have desires to know the intent.”

“Your people wish to know,” he corrected, biting back his frustration at her broken speech. She’d proven herself too smart to mangle the imperial tongue, but she made no effort to correct her language. As if she was proud of her foreign accent and the misconceptions it bred.

“You will tell?” She pushed away from the wall, turning down the corridor toward his uncle’s study. “Or may it be true that the gods stole your will when They stole your skin’s colors and your wits?”

Deyvan sprang forward, throwing a hand up to forestall the guards before they could react. No one dared speak ill of the native imperial bloodlines in Uncle Caildenn’s palace. Not if they hoped to live long enough to utter an apology. But Ymari had never shown the sense his countrymen had learned through blood and brutality. One of the guards advanced despite his warning, hand clenched on the hilt of his sword.

“My companion jests, goodsir,” Deyvan said, stepped between the guard and Ymari. “Stand down or face my uncle’s wrath.”

The guard glared for another few breaths while Deyvan’s heart pounded in his chest. With the newly established Serni Province still threatening rebellion and their western neighbors in Mindaine pulling away from imperial treaties, the last thing Uncle Caildenn needed was a holy war from Ymari’s homeland because a guard couldn’t take a joke.

“As you command, my lord,” the guard said at last. “But your companion may wish to watch her tongue before she faces your imperial uncle’s anger herself.”

“Come, Ymari.”

Deyvan strode down the hall, not waiting for her to follow. She had no reason to stay with the guards anyway. She’d come to see him, or so she claimed, though she had yet to tell him what her people wanted with the prince of an all-but-dead province who only held a title from his aunt’s marriage into the imperial bloodline. The treaty that had sealed his province into a land-pact with the imperial high-realm had stripped any true power his father held and left Deyvan a meaningless extra in the cycle of inheritance. Unless Uncle Caildenn’s summons meant what he suspected. What Ymari seemed to have guessed. But such a change could only harm her plans. If Uncle Caildenn named Deyvan his heir, the responsibilities would keep Deyvan far too busy for whatever Ymari wanted.

“You will speak?” Ymari paced beside him, her eyes fixed on Deyvan as he walked. An arrogance that would have gotten her flogged for insolence if she hadn’t arrived on a diplomatic assignment.Not that Uncle Caildenn showed much respect for the sovereignty of his neighbors.

“I’ll have to talk to my uncle,” Deyvan said. “I won’t know anything until I hear what he wants to discuss.”

“You know of what things he will speak,” Ymari said. “My Eldreign has decreed. He sees much to find your courage, hidden in your lamb’s heart.”

Deyvan chuckled. “That’s hardly complimentary, Ymari. My people would say I have the heart of a lion, or perhaps a warig fighting for its den.”

“They lie.”

Ymari shrugged, examining the tapestries Uncle Caildenn had hung along the hall to his private study. Each one depicted a moment of triumph in war, typically with Uncle Caildenn or one of his ancestors standing victorious over the mass of dead bodies. Deyvan grimaced at the glorified gore, frowning at the floor. Ymari was baiting him. He’d practiced ignoring her callous dismissal of his skills, but this one stung more than he cared to accept. She knew he wasn’t timid in a fight.

“So if I’m a lamb, why would your holy leader, your Eldreign, send you to me? What good can a coward serve for your cause?”

“I called you not a coward, Day-van.” Ymari smirked at him. “Not always is a lamb fearful. But always is it gentle, and often is it smart. A lion, brave he may be, but also vicious and without mercy.”

A smile crept across his face, his wounded pride soothed by the explanation. He knew better than to think the worst of her. Ymari seemed as fascinated with Deyvan’s life as he was with her culture. And whatever her intentions, she’d never treated him poorly before.

Deyvan paused at the final turn that led to Uncle Caildenn’s study. “Well, my lady, I’ll have to leave you here. My uncle gave no indication he’d allow a guest at this meeting. Shall we reconvene to discuss our plans this eve?”

“See you when I am ready, I will.” She retraced her steps, gaze trailing across the violent scenes as though she were a mindless girl wandering a flower garden.

With a deep breath, Deyvan stepped around the corner and pasted a smile on his face, knocking briskly on the door of Uncle Caildenn’s study. A moment of silence, then a shuffle of papers and whispered words, and after a few more moments the door swung open. No sign of Uncle Caildenn’s visitor.

“Uncle, how are you?” Deyvan placed a hand on his heart and offered a slight bow, waiting for the response before moving further.

“Come in, Deyvan.” Uncle Caildenn waved the guard by the door away. “Leave us. My nephew has no reason to wish me ill and we have matters of state to discuss.”

Deyvan straightened, entering Uncle Caildenn’s cherry wood paneled study to take a formal stance by the cold fireplace. The guard wasted no time vacating his post, closing the door behind him with a swiftness that spoke of Uncle Caildenn’s mood. Whoever Uncle Caildenn had ushered out just before Deyvan arrived, they’d brought unwelcome news.

“I’m honored by your summons, Uncle, but what matters of state need my attention?”

“Tell me of the woman who stalks you,” Uncle Caildenn replied, running a hand across his mustache. “I’ve heard rumors. What does she want in my empire?”

“Ymari?” Deyvan scrambled for an answer. He’d sworn to keep what he knew of her presence quiet, although he couldn’t help but wonder if that had been wise. “Her ruler sent her to gather information on our empire to determine if they were interested in offering an alliance. Of course I haven’t given her any information that would jeopardize our security. She clearly doesn’t have solid alliances here anyway, given that she was sent to someone as insignificant as me.”

“Insignificant?” Uncle Caildenn considered him from behind his steepled hands. “You, nephew, were born into privilege and power. Why, if not for my grandfather’s treaty, you’d be heir to a province by now.”

“But I’m not,” Deyvan said. “I’ve never been in line for a throne and I never will be. Corlin Province is dead, and though my mother’s sister had the honor to be your wife, I have no blood ties to the imperial family.”

“No one has blood ties to the imperial family any longer.” Uncle Caildenn’s face clouded with anger as he spoke and he frowned down at a report on the table before him. His golden blond hair fell across the sharply defined cheekbones that had always marked the imperial bloodline.

“I’m sorry, Uncle.” Deyvan grimaced. “I didn’t mean to remind you of your boys. Such a terrible tragedy.”

“It’s been a decade,” Uncle Caildenn said. “And I’ve caught and punished the assassins responsible.” With visible effort, Uncle Caildenn looked up, the anger clearing from his features. “But that’s not why I called you here. You’ve more import than you know, and I suspect our Yllshanan guest has seen as much.”

“Well, Uncle—” Deyvan hesitated. Ymari had trusted him. Or had she? “She hasn’t told me much. Just that her ruler thinks a connection with me would benefit both nations. It’s clear she has plans, but as yet I’ve no reason to think she means us ill.”

Uncle Caildenn sighed. “You’re too naive, boy. Anyone would take our land if given the chance, Yllshana more than most. Think of the benefit if they married into our royal line. We’d be forced to support them when they next feud with Osuvia. Those mountain passes would be the end of our soldiers.”

“Ymari’s not even in a position to unite our royal houses, and neither am I.”

“You’re not so stupid as to misunderstand my summons.” Uncle Caildenn scoffed. “I’ll need your aid with the details, though. By law your father should get the title. He’ll have to be removed.”

“I—” Deyvan swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat. Removed? He couldn’t mean to harm Deyvan’s own father.

There were rumors, of course. Vile speculation that claimed Uncle Caildenn had falsely blamed Sernyii assassins for his son’s deaths when their murderers lived closer to home. Some even said the killers lived in Uncle Caildenn’s own palace, and that Uncle Caildenn defended those murderers for reasons of his own. Other stories told of executions for minor crimes that shouldn’t have even warranted a fine, or women forced to serve at Uncle Caildenn’s pleasure against their will. But for all the talk, no one had acted against the empire. Surely if there were truth to the rumors, the high lords would never stand for it. Except they had no other heir. Deyvan’s father might be the closest to a blood relative Uncle Caildenn had, but plenty of other high lords would protest if he tried to take the throne by force. How many would protest with steel in their hands and an army at their back? And already threats of rebellion trickled south from Serni.

Deyvan pushed the fears away, focusing on Uncle Caildenn. “Certainly Father will understand choosing me. He’s near fifteen years your senior, Uncle. Naming an older man as heir seems unwise.”

“He may,” Uncle Caildenn replied. “Or he may feel that I’m delaying a transition that was long due. After all, the wisdom of such a decision depends entirely on when you intend me to die. The Serniens would see me hanged in plenty of time for your father to rule. And he might aid them.”

“Father would never betray his nation.” Deyvan paced across the room, his shoulders tight in agitation. Deyvan’s father would never turn on the empire, but Uncle Caildenn might have a new concern if he learned some of the whispers Ymari had spread in Deyvan’s chambers to Deyvan’s friends. “I swear it. Father is loyal. I’ll prove it.”

“Precisely how, nephew?” Uncle Caildenn asked. “I hardly expect a traitor to answer a direct question honestly.”

“I’ll make him sign over his title,” Deyvan said. His father had been pushing Deyvan to take the title for three years already. Probably because he expected to be named heir, but Deyvan could manage those specifics. “And the transfer will include an abdication of any claim to other titles previously held or implied to him. Any such will be transferred to me, and then you’ve no need to—” Deyvan froze. If he’d misread the comment, he’d sound treasonous. “No need to fear repercussion should you choose another as heir.”

Uncle Caildenn considered him for a long time, his silver-grey eyes boring into Deyvan. A trail of ice ran down Deyvan’s spine at the look in Uncle Caildenn’s eyes. Like fury made flesh, ready to rend anything or anyone who opposed him limb from limb. A side to Uncle Caildenn he’d never seen, hidden beneath the generous uncle who’d taken Deyvan on his first hunt and mourned the lost princes at Deyvan’s family estate. The uncle who’d treated him more as a younger brother than a nephew by forced-marriage now glared at him like an enemy.

“See it done, nephew,” Caildenn said. “If he won’t sign, I’ve no choice. The only reason to name him is because they seek my death, and I can’t trust my high lords. Prove I can trust you and I won’t harm your family.”

“Of course you can trust me, Uncle.” The words stuck in Deyvan’s throat, the horror of Uncle Caildenn’s admission lingering in his thoughts. He planned to murder a brother-by-marriage to secure the heir he wanted. And he’d expected Deyvan to understand.

With a nod and a cursory bow, Deyvan backed out the door and headed toward the imperial scribes. Maybe Ymari’s whispers held more truth than he’d given them credit for. It was time to start his own network of ears to learn as much truth as he could. And he knew exactly where to start. Turning down a side corridor, he grabbed the arm of an off duty page.

“I need to send a message,” Deyvan said, pulling a thick coin from his purse. “And I need it sent free from prying eyes.”

The boy eyed the gold coin in Deyvan’s hand. “What ya need, milord?”

Leading the boy toward an empty supply room, Deyvan grabbed a quill and paper from a stack and scribbled a quick message. He signed the end with an old nickname and folded the paper, dripping hot wax onto the fold. A plain circle served for a seal. The message would be enough identification when she opened it. Deyvan spun around and handed the message to the boy.

“To the merchant criers, a private message for Mistress Varela of Serni Province,” he said. “She’ll be in a manor house outside Lorwall. She sees no visitors, but her servants will take a message.”

The boy nodded, taking the paper and the gold coin that came with it. “As you say, milord.”

It was a start, at least. Now if he could convince Ymari to tell him her plans, he might get a handle on how bad things truly were in the Laisian Empire. Deyvan scowled and headed back to his study. One informant would do him no good without allies. And after Uncle Caildenn’s threats, potential allies were something he could no longer afford to dismiss.


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Stolen Time


Niamsha Pereyra sank to the floor beside the worn out cot her papa used for a bed, her eyes fixed on the sweat-streaked paleness of his face. A slight bluish tinge clung to his skin as he coughed, the deep, rattling sound a sign his illness had weakened him further.

“Papa?” Her voice shook, the childish whisper barely audible over the crackle of the fire from their small hearth. Niamsha steeled herself against his raspy breathing, forcing more courage into her words. “Papa, whatcha need? I can get—”

“No, girl.” Her papa’s mouth stretched into a pained smile. An attempt to soothe her fears, no doubt. “Watch yer speech. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. That gutter speech is all they need ta—”

He cut off, thin frame shaking as he held back another fit. Niamsha reached a hand forward, pausing with her fingers just over his cheek. The darker tint of her skin stark against his too-pale figure. She laid the hand down and shook her head.

“Ain’t gonna take no ’prenticeship,” she said. And she couldn’t, anyway. Not now that the physic had raised his price again. But her papa didn’t need to know. Niamsha smiled at him. “Not with you sick an’ Em too young ta care fer ya.”

Her papa sighed, patting her hand with one of his own. His gaze settled on her hand and she knew his fears without needing to hear them. Niamsha’s coloring mirrored the mother she barely remembered, darker than the native-born residents and always drawing looks when she wandered the streets. Not many foreign-born had remained through the old emperor’s abuse, and those that stayed chose to sequester in small villages of their own over retaining their spaces in larger cities. With the war’s end that was changing, but not fast enough. Guilds had shifted apprentice policies and standing had been lost that no lord could give back to them. Her papa’s worry the glasswright’s guild would reject her held more weight than either of them wanted to admit.

Niamsha frowned. “I leave ya, who pays the rent? Who gets yer dose from the physic? I’m gettin’ good enough at glass here. I’ll learn from you, when yer better.”

“I’d wish you wanted another trade—” He coughed again, his breath tight and pained as he waved her away.

Hovering over him, Niamsha dipped a hand into the bowl of cool water she kept by the bedside. Sweat beaded on his face again as a fierce heat swept through his body. Same as every time the physic’s dose wore off. Her hand found the scrap of cloth in the water and clenched down, wringing the water out and folding the cloth into a cool patch to ease what little pain it could. The doses wore off sooner every time. Barely two hours this time.

“Papa, you need a proper healer.”

“We’ve no coin for that, girl,” her papa said. “And I ain’t taking more tinctures. It’s time. Call Emrys in.”

“He ain’t ready,” she protested. But her papa had already slumped, eyes closed as his chest rose and fell with labored breaths. She couldn’t deny Emrys a chance to speak with their papa when he was this ill. They all knew he’d never fully recover.

Niamsha laid the cool cloth on her papa’s forehead and rose, pushing aside the curtain that separated the bed from the rest of the house. The main room—just large enough to fit a table beside the dual cots for Niamsha and her brother and a set of rickety shelves that once held her mother’s books—was dark and cold. She paced through the room toward the back door. No fire in the hearth and the doorway on the far wall revealed her papa’s long-abandoned workshop. The chairs had seen better days, but they’d be sturdy enough for any guests. Not that anyone came to see them now that her papa’s health had faded.

Rumors swept through the other crafter’s children of evil magic tinting the kingdom. They said the new high lord had a demon servant whose skin ran red with the blood of human sacrifices. Some even said the blood had seeped into his being, leaving a constant glow of an unholy tattoo that flowed through him. A curse from the gods, no doubt.

Except the rumors were silly. Holy Aeduhm and His divine children protected the Laisian Empire in return for the devotion old Emperor Laisia had shown. That’s what temple taught her, and her papa had never contradicted it. Niamsha’s gaze drifted to the alcove hidden behind her mother’s shelves. The books she’d once placed there had slowly vanished over the months of her papa’s illness, the value too high to let sit untouched while Niamsha and Emrys starved. But the salves had stayed, masking the small table where Niamsha’s mother used to pray to the foreign gods of the homeland she’d loved. If Aeduhm protected the empire because of the old emperor’s devotion, then what did He think of a loyal family hiding the heretical shrine of a long-dead woman?

Niamsha stepped over the the shelves, dust thick on the aging wood as well as the table and figures behind. She should throw them out and beg forgiveness from the divine Father and His children. But her mother’s cheerful humming lingered in her memory, stopping her hand before she touched the figures. She closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to Aeduhm. Even He couldn’t save her papa now, anyway. No need to discard the last thing left of her mother in such a futile effort.

She pulled the back door open instead, walking out into the bare patch of garden where her brother played. Emrys sat in the dirt, drawing crude pictures with a stick. A few months ago he’d been running wild through the streets with the other glasswright’s sons, his paler tan skin blending better with the locals than her darker tones did. But even those children they’d called friends wouldn’t risk coming near for fear her papa’s illness might spread.

“Em, Papa wants ya,” she said.

Emrys rose with a shrug, his shoulders hunched in the way of a child who knows he’s about to be scolded. A look he’d been wearing since their papa had first closed the shop to the sickness. Niamsha caught Emrys’s arm as he passed.

“It’s gonna be okay, Em.” She squeezed once, releasing him as he pulled away. “Papa’s sick, but you an’ me. We’ll make do.”

“With what?”

Emrys stepped inside without waiting for her answer. And what answer could she give? They had one apprenticeship’s worth of coin, almost a full gold jayl in value, but when their papa died the deeds for house and shop would go to the guild. No heirs of age to take possession unless he could hold out another ten months for Niamsha’s birthing day. Under the guild’s new rules they didn’t even have to pay fair value in trade. A response to the high lord’s new regulations, her papa said.

Niamsha sighed, leaning against the wall and swishing the worn skirts of her dress around her legs. Her friend’s mother made it for her near two years back, when they’d gone together to a formal gathering of the glasswright’s guild. The dress hung too short now, after two years of growing, and only Niamsha’s too-skinny frame let her fit into it at all. But it was still the nicest dress she owned and the only clothes she could wear to temple without disgracing her family. Temple might be the only chance for her and Emrys to get help. The new high lord had ordered charity for the poor, handed out by acolytes to those most in need. He must have known the temples would choose their favorites among the needy, but Niamsha had connections there. Her papa had paid a small fortune for her to get schooling—three or four times the apprentice fees he’d gathered now. Enough money, her papa had hoped, to overcome the hostility imperial natives felt for those with foreign blood. And not enough to buy her security among the chosen servants of the merchant god Istvan.

With a shove against the rough wall behind her, Niamsha stepped away from her home and strode to the gate, stepping between the small patches of dirt that had held her mother’s garden years before. She pushed the gate wide, glancing down the narrow alley in a habitual search for the poorer customers who used to buy trinkets of scrap glass to set beside a candle flame for a brighter burn. Save on candles by throwing the light, and her papa had always sold the scraps too cheap for their value. Said the low had to help each other or be stepped on. But no one dared linger near their house any longer, and there’d been no scrap to sell even if they did.

The unmistakable chime of her papa’s door bell rang out the back door behind her. Niamsha hesitated. Her papa wasn’t working and Emrys was old enough to send whoever it was away. She counted her breaths, waiting for the repeated jingle that would mark another customer lost to the illness that plagued the house. If she turned back, asked what commission the customer needed… She couldn’t work glass like her papa or any other glasswright, really. Even the apprentices had more practice that she did. But Niamsha knew a few of the techniques her papa hid from his fellows. A simple commission for reduced price might pay for another visit to the physic.

Twelve breaths, heart pounding as she debated the choice, and she heard voices drifting out of the shop. Not Emrys. He should have handled it. Should have looked after their papa. But Niamsha knew her papa’s thick voice even through the weakened breaths that left him wheezing. She hurried toward the door. Her papa should be in bed.

The back door swung open at her touch, the conversation barely audible from the workshop. He’d walked so far? Niamsha turned toward the open doorway, the form of her papa’s visitor hidden and voices muffled. Emrys caught her arm.

“Father said wait,” he whispered. “Something ’bout an old pact.”

“You knew better, Em,” Niamsha snapped. “Papa ain’t up to handlin’ nothing. What you think he’s gonna do if they ask fer work, or a favor?”

“But…”

She pulled away, storming to the doorway, and froze at the hushed tones of her papa’s voice. His back was turned to her but the hunch of his shoulders held as much deceit as weakness.

“Ya know I can’t pay,” her papa said. “What ya plannin’ ta take? Me last bits a scrap?”

“Master says ya got something he wants,” the other man replied. “Debts get paid, one way or t’other.”

“Ain’t got nothing. Tell yer master—”

The door bell chimed again and the heavy clunk of boots entered from the street. The men fell silent, Niamsha’s papa wheezing against the strain of standing so long while waiting for the newcomer to say or do something. Niamsha peeked around the corner, but all she could see was the bulky form of the first arrival and the narrow form of someone else behind, neither offering any consideration for her papa. Swallowing a lump of tension, Niamsha edged further into the room for a better view.

“Master Trieu, I’m pleased to see you standing,” the newcomer said, her papa’s family name rolling off his tongue like a fancy flag waving in the wind.

His voice was smooth as the water in a new-drawn bath, pitched too high for any man she’d known. Niamsha’s papa nodded, lips pressed into a tight line. Why wouldn’t he say anything? Even her papa’s stubborn dedication to his craft had faded by now.

The slight figure nudged the larger man. “Our friend looks a bit under the weather. Do get him a chair. Debts can’t be paid by dead men, now can they?”

“Aye.” The larger man took two steps to one side and grabbed her papa’s work stool, swinging it over to her papa’s side. “Sit.”

Her papa hesitated, glanced toward the doorway into their house, and sat. His face gave no sign he’d seen Niamsha, but he must know she was listening. Her papa hadn’t hidden anything from her since her mother died.

“I can pay,” her papa said, turning back to the men. A lie he’d just contradicted, but they waited for him to continue. “Me shop. Worth half the sum at least. An’ me girl ain’t takin’ to the glass, so I got her ’pprentice fees.”

Niamsha clapped a hand to her mouth, muffling the sharp gasp of breath his words drew. Give away the shop and the last of their coin? How would they live?

“The shop seems excessive,” the slim figure said. “How would you earn the rest of my due? Hand over the coin, and I’ll offer an adjustment. Take some time to recover. No further payment due this season. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement once you’ve recovered.”

Her papa nodded and pushed himself to his feet. The other man stopped him, pushing her papa back onto the stool before crossing the room to dig out her papa’s strongbox. Hidden where no one ought to find it, but this man pulled it out as if Niamsha’s papa had left it on the table in plain view. They knew the shop, then, and had no need to speak to her papa if they planned to steal. Niamsha’s heart thudded in her chest as the man dug through and pulled out the handful of coins to count.

“Three cails short fer ’pprentice fees,” the man announced.

“Shorting me silver, are you, Master Trieu?”

Niamsha’s papa turned in his seat, lips parting in shock. “Can’t be. I put it there safe. She’s got full fees just waitin’.”

The smaller figure stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to scan the room. He looked almost a boy, barely grown into his shape as his eyes fixed on Niamsha’s hiding spot. He smiled.

“I imagine your daughter helped herself, Master Trieu,” he said. “You’re so very ill, she must have feared for you.” He waved at his companion and turned away. “Come on, then. We’ll take it. I’m not one to punish a child for loving a parent.”

Niamsha waited until they’d both left the shop before darting out of her corner to grab her papa’s arm.

“Papa, are you—”

“What’ve ya done?”

He muttered the question under his breath, clearly not expecting an answer. Niamsha frowned, kneeling on the cool stone of the workshop floor.

“Physic said ya needed a new dose. Old one ain’t working. What should I done?”

Her papa shook his head. “Don’t matter now. Ya gotta go. Get Emrys, pack yer clothes, get gone.”

“But papa, who’s gonna take care of you?”

“Nothing left ta care for,” He caught her face in his hands, his worn body trembling. “Go. Take nothing from no one. Can’t know who to trust. An’ don’t tell no one my name no more. Yer mother’s. She always said ta give ya hers fer the bloodline. Use it, find yer brother a safe place.”

“I can’t, papa.” Niamsha shook her head. “How’m I gonna keep us fed?”

“Yer smart. Find a way. Take care of yer brother. You promise me.”

The words stuck in her throat. But he’d never asked her for anything like this, and she’d never seen him so frightened. Whoever that boy was, he had power her papa feared.

“I promise, papa.” Niamsha swallowed a lump, squeezing his hands as she stood up. “I’ll take care of Em.”

With a nod, her papa shoved her toward the doorway into the main house. A fit of coughing took over as he leaned against the stool, hands on knees. But he waved her away as she hesitated. Nothing she could do would help him now. But the new high lord might be able to help her. Word on the street was he fancied himself a man of the people. Her father’s words stuck with her. Trust no one, take nothing, and protect Emrys. She’d only promised to protect Emrys.

Niamsha choked back a sob a grief and walked into the other room. “Come on, Em. Papa says we gotta go.”


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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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