NaNoWriMo Project–excerpt 1


“Mistress!”

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

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

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

“Then get to the tavern.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Nijel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arcana Hydrogista


Caryllie Shaw frowned, her hand trembling over the bucket of water on the table beside her and her nail-beds aching in the dry heat. One dip and her magic would burst free. She could feel the pressure as a writhing creature under her skin, its desires fighting her own. The dry skin of her fingers throbbed as she clenched and relaxed each hand. Just the right pressure along the edge of her index finger and blood would flow from the cracks that had formed in her skin. The council would be forced to pull her from the front.

“Dammit, Caryllie, do something.” Llyr Moreno grunted as he dropped another bucket of water beside her, splashing her thick, leather hiking boots with the liquid. “I’ve got plenty of materials for more water, but I’m running out of space to store it.”

A chorus of quick, snapping noises drifted from across Centennial Boulevard, followed by a loud pop as a burst of sparks flew into the air. Cary looked up, scanning the area.The roads had long been evacuated, but the raging forest fire crept closer to the boundary. Anyone else would have needed full fire gear with masks and still would have been forced further from the edge of the fire. But Cary and Llyr stood protected behind a wall of aerogystas, each pouring their very selves into the effort to blow the heat back and away from where Llyr and Cary worked.

“We should go, Llyr,” Caryllie said, dipping a hesitant finger into the water. Still warm from Llyr’s magic forcing it to convert from separate gasses into liquid. She glanced back, at the distant forms of vehicles approaching their location. “If the firefighters see us here—”

“They bloody won’t if you do your job.” He waved at the growing flames. “You’re the only hydrogista in a hundred miles. Get this water onto those flames or we won’t have homes to go back to.”

As much as she hated to admit it, he was right. Centennial was a large enough road it would stop most fires from tearing through the city, but this monstrosity was no ordinary fire. It grew with a speed that seemed almost supernatural, even in the parched land west of Colorado Springs on a particularly dry summer. Wind blew into her face, pulling loose strands of brown hair away from Cary’s face. And sending the sparks drifting toward the untouched greenery of Ute Valley Park.

Cary dipped another finger into the water, sending a stream out of the bucket to douse the sparks before they found purchase. But that small stream was all she could manage with her hand still clear of the water. Proper control required full contact, her hand fully submerged and becoming one with the liquid, imparting her will on the foreign substance. A tactic she didn’t dare risk. Instead, she sent another stream into the heart of the fire, cooling a flare into a burst of heat. Uncomfortable, but not a risk of breaking free. Yet. Another stream pushed the flames back from the far side, where the fire had been creeping toward the elementary school to the south. A minor shift, but enough to keep the fire moving away from the school. Firefighters had already fought for Chipeta Elementary, further south and west, the night before. Cary shifted her stance, dipping the fingertips of her other hand into the water, as well. Stream after stream, like water guns, soaked fresh fuel and cooled the edge of the flame. Not enough. Like fighting a tidal wave with sand bags. Each shot slowed the fire less as the heat burned away any moisture before she could get a second blast in.

To her left, one of the aerogystas wavered. A blast of heat swept past, tearing the breath from Cary’s throat. Llyr, beside her, gasped in shock and collapsed on the ground, sweat dripping from his face. Cary’s body would take several more minutes to realize the danger and start producing sweat, and those minutes would likely be too long. Heat exhaustion would quickly drain her of any ability to manipulate the water and might leave her unconscious. Her fingers sank further into the water, the edge just below the damaged skin on her fingers, and she splashed the water closer. First on herself, drenching her clothes from top to bottom in controlled bursts. Then the aerogysta, who was far too close to danger to wait. Several splashes and the woman rose, nodding in thanks as she applied herself to the task once more. And finally, Llyr.

Llyr stood when she was done, fixed her with a damp glare. “You’re holding back. This isn’t practice.”

“My skin’s too dry,” she replied. “If I go deeper, I might bleed.”

He cursed. “I can’t allow blood work in my region.” Llyr glanced up at the still raging fire, creeping ever closer. “But that thing isn’t slowing down. Can you use gloves?”

Cary shook her head. “I need to connect. It’s not like air work. It’s not inside me already.”

A series of shouts sounded from behind her and sirens blared over the roar of the blaze. She’d waited too long and they’d been spotted. The firefighters would be there any minute. How many of their lives would her hesitation cost?

“Do it, Cary.”

Llyr turned away, running toward the far side of the park where a half dozen officials were waving at them. He could stall them, but only for a few moments. Hold this fire back now or lose the town.

For an instant she was paralyzed. Dip her hand into the water when she knew the aching dryness like an old, long-despised acquaintance? If she bled into the water as she used it, her soul would be bound to this place forever. Any other home would feel empty, devoid of the life she’d built and savored here. Llyr couldn’t be asking her to sacrifice her freedom for the whims of the arcane council. But if she didn’t, the entire town would burn.

Drawing in a deep breath, Cary dipped her hands deeper into the water. At first, the moisture seemed to soften her too-dry skin, soothing the ache of broken skin. She smiled, narrowing her eyes as her hand clenched in triumph and the water from all the buckets Llyr had filled leapt to her command. Then the pain started. First in her fingers, where the cracks had been in her skin, then growing and radiating further. The pulsing sting arced through every muscle. Her body throbbed in time with her heart, the essence of the ground beneath her suddenly an extension of her pain. She could almost feel the heat of the fire drying the trees, the needles screaming as they burst into flame. Cary stared at the water that streamed from her closed fist, sending a torrent toward the sparks that drifted across the road. A thin, nearly invisible line of red wound through the liquid, threading its way out of a deep crack in her skin. She was bound now, for better or worse. This land was hers, and she would allow no harm to it.

“No.” Llyr’s voice was a distant plea from across the park. “Cary, what are you doing? Stay here!”

The dry ground crunched under the heels of her boots. This land was hers.

To Catch a Prince


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

To High Lord Johannus Sentarsin—

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

—Signed and penned by hand of Arkaen Sentarsin

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

The Demon and the Thief


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Count Skianda needed what?” Kaen asked.

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

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

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

“I—Apologies, my lord. He said—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the accusation flared from Kìlashà’s power.

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

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

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

“You came for a reason, kai’shien.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is a truth. Beyond that—”

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

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

“Hey, you there!”

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

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

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

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

Kaen nodded. “Then I’ll go with you.”

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

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

Desperate Times


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

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

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

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

“Of course, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gods damn your pride, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then do what you will, Oskari.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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