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.”


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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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.”


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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For more original fiction, check out these posts:
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