Novel Update


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

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

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

Calling


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

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

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

“Dreams.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Their will brought you to me.”

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

“Of course, clanmother.”

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

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

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

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

“Kìlashà!”

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

“Lasha, what happened? Are you injured?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’ll be alone.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Map Madness

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

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

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

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

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

Gifts and Gambits


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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For more original fiction, check out these posts:
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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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Homecoming


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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s dead, Kyli.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the timing is too close.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Fresh Heir


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come, Ymari.”

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

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

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

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

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

“They lie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Stolen Time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Papa, you need a proper healer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Em, Papa wants ya,” she said.

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

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

“With what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

“Ain’t got nothing. Tell yer master—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Papa, are you—”

“What’ve ya done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Free Reign


Arkaen Sentarsin, son of High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, loitered in the hallway, kicking a booted toe against the wall. His father’s study door remained firmly shut, the noise of his fidgeting not enough to disturb the discussion within. Negotiations over Arkaen’s future. Arkaen’s father hadn’t seen fit include him in those talks. Just another asset of the province, traded away for what stability could be found under High Emperor Laisia’s growing corruption. As if any alliance his father might plan could protect them if High Emperor Laisia chose to turn his gaze on them next.

A door opened further down the hall, releasing a muttering cluster of his father’s lower lords. Arkaen straightened, his nerves tingling as he cast around for a distraction. But his personal guard, Vaiyen, wouldn’t be in the palace for nearly two hours. The central figure—not a lord at all, really, empowered to speak with the voice of Arkaen’s father in minor points of debate—caught sight of Arkaen and excused himself from the group. The other lords sauntered away as Oren Kalmer strode down the hall to face Arkaen.

“What brings you to the formal business wing, young lordling Arkaen?” Oren inclined his head in a slight nod. The barest deference to Arkaen’s rank as heir to the province.

“Father is negotiating a contract for me,” Arkaen replied. “I’m waiting until he needs my input to finalize the details.”

Not that his father would ever ask his opinion. Oren’s frown told Arkaen that he was aware of Arkaen’s insignificance to the negotiations, as well.

“Your lord father will no doubt summon you when he has news to share,” Oren said. “Until then, I do believe you have lessons to attend.”

But it’s about my—” Arkaen’s whine cut off at Oren’s raised hand.

“Forgive me, young lordling.” Oren dropped his hand with a smile. “I’m afraid I have several matters yet to manage for your father. Allow me to escort you to our latest political adviser. It seems you had some trouble locating his study yesterday.”

With a sulky frown, Arkaen followed in Oren’s wake as the steward led him away from his father’ study. The stone walls of his home keep hung too close for comfort, the fading tapestries his mother had hung to lighten the feel now too worn for their purpose. Just more reminders of the lost joy her death had inflicted on Arkaen and his younger sister. Arkaen dragged his booted heels on the floor, the scrape drawing a glare from Oren.

“Princes don’t pout, young lordling,” he said.

“Princes don’t get sold to strangers like prize breeding stock,” Arkaen countered.

Oren shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time and likely won’t be the last. And if the worst you suffer under our emperor’s rather profligate reign is an unpleasant wife, I hope you’ll count yourself fortunate. Too many of your people suffer far worse.”

“Then why doesn’t father do anything?” Arkaen kicked at the wall again, forgetting Oren’s disapproval. “Sentar Province has the resources. We could at least send aid to the northern lands, and if he’d lead the empire in talks we could—”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Oren said, shaking his head. “The north has more complaints than a simple idealogical dispute.” He paused beside a plain door and leveled a stern glare at Arkaen. “Which is why you need to attend lessons. Now mind your tongue with your tutor. Proper manners make proper lords and our empire could use a proper lord or two.”

Arkaen laid a hand on the latch with a sigh. “Yes, Oren.”

He’d never have let another servant speak to him like that. Not even Vaiyen. But Oren wasn’t really a servant. Not in the way his father’s pages or cooks were, at least. Oren had been connected with the family since Arkaen was an infant and possibly before. He’d practically raised Arkaen and his sister when their parents had been too involved in the ever more treacherous world of imperial politics.

“Oren.” Arkaen’s word caught the man mid-turn. They stared at each other, Arkaen tense under the questioning gaze of his mentor.

“Look after Sayli, will you?”

“As I always do, young lordling,” Oren replied. He cast a glance at the door. “You expect to experience some harm in your lessons?”

“No, I just—” Arkaen shook his head. He couldn’t tell Oren. Oren might understand, but he’d never let Arkaen go, no matter the cost. “I just worry about her. She’s been so isolated since mother died.”

Arkaen met Oren’s eyes again and saw the understanding there. Oren knew without being told. Of course he would. For an instant, Arkaen was sure Oren would say something—do something—to prevent him from slipping away.

“Well, be safe, young lordling,” Oren said, turning away. “Our province needs you more than you know.”

He strode down the hall and stepped around a corner, leaving Arkaen at the door wondering if he’d misread Oren’s look. He couldn’t be approving of Arkaen’s half-formed plan. Hardly more than a thought that had been brewing since Arkaen had learned of his father’s meeting this morning. But Oren was giving him a chance to slip away. Whether he meant it or not, Arkaen would never have a better opportunity.

Releasing the door handle, Arkaen turned on his heel and dashed down the hall. Even if Oren intended to let him go, he wouldn’t have much time. Maybe a quarter of an hour before the entire keep was hunting him. It should be enough time. He detoured down a side hall and slipped out a servant’s door into a yard stinking of pungent horse droppings. Close enough to the kitchen gardens for fertilizer without spreading the stench through the keep. Arkaen peeked around the corner, searching the broad courtyard for any sign of activity. None yet. His father’s guards would check the stables first, then the weapons master. By the time they realized he wasn’t in the keep, Arkaen would be well into Torsdell proper.

Arkaen slipped past a barrel of rainwater and edged around the keep, disappearing into the broad alley separating the fine houses from his father’s home. These homes were a jumble of varied styles—stone monoliths beside sprawling wooden mansions depending on the personal style of the merchant or minor noble who’d built there. The more prominent Sentarsi lower lords kept full town estates toward the edges of Torsdell. Beyond the immediate view of the high lord’s palace, where they could imagine the town one of their own holdings. In other provinces the lower lords built their city residences as close to the high lord’s palace as possible, but fawning had never bought leniency in Sentar province. Not before Emperor Laisia’s recent excesses, at least.

With a sigh, Arkaen edged down the lane, scanning for the smaller alley that led toward the commoner’s tavern where Vaiyen had once taken him. Run down, with rough-hewn benches and watered down ale Arkaen’s father wouldn’t serve to his least esteemed rival. But for once, Arkaen had sat in a tavern and shared a private drink with a friend—far more than a friend. An ally. A voice he trusted and a shoulder he needed now.

As the twists led him further from the wealthy districts, he shed his fine silk cloak. More for fashion than warmth, anyway, and his sister had far more interest in fashion than he ever could. Arkaen glanced back at the palace, pausing at the mouth of another alley before the towers of his father’s keep vanished from sight behind the building. This marriage plan didn’t make any sense. Baron Weydert was a long-time family friend. A loyalist in every sense of the word, while others among the lower lords challenged his decisions. But Baron Weydert sat in his father’s study negotiating a marriage contract for Arkaen’s bed. There couldn’t be any real value in further that alliance more. Not that Arkaen would have been any happier with a different woman.

The jostle of voices, shouts, and music echoed down the alley, growing in volume as he neared the door. A warm glow spilled through the windows onto the cobbles beyond. Wealthier farmers and merchants shared tables, a few guardsmen in his father’s flashy gold livery at one table by the door. And in a corner, visible through the window beside him, Vaiyen.

Arkaen cursed. With his father’s household guard seated by the door he couldn’t possibly slip inside without being caught. And he couldn’t afford to wait them out. Oren would never openly defy the high lord. Arkaen knelt, foraging among the dim cobbles of the street for loose pebbles. A loose stone too large for his needs—no need to break the window—the rough edges of a few replaced stones. His fingers dipped into a greasy pool of warm liquid and he snatched his hand back. He wiped his hand clean with a shudder.

Finally, he found a few loose bits of pavers and edged closer. He tossed the first rock at the window, focusing on the lower edge of the thick glass. A clink against the frame, barely earning a glance at the window. A second. Tap-clunk against the window, then the frame. Vairen looked over again. Arkaen tossed a third pebble. Tap-clunk-tap. Vaiyen snapped alert this time, watching the window close enough to see the pebble hit the window on the rebound. He peered outside and Arkaen stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to raise a hand in greeting. In moments, Vaiyen dropped a handful of coins on the table and slipped out the door.

“Arkie, what are you doing?” Vaiyen asked, joining him in the relative safety of the alley. “If your lord father finds you down here, he’ll—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Arkaen met Vaiyen’s eyes, the diminutive nickname barely registering. He bit at his lip. Looked away. “Father’s planning a wedding.”

“Oh.” Vaiyen looked away and stepped back.

The silence stretched out, hanging between them as Arkaen tried and failed to meet Vaiyen’s eyes again. What had he expected, anyway? Not like a common-born house guard could challenge the high lord. And Arkaen wasn’t entirely sure Vaiyen would want to.

“Arkie.” Vaiyen frowned. “Look, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want this, but—” He paced away, pausing at the mouth of the alley to stare back at the tavern. “I know you aren’t surprised. You’ve been of age for a wife for two years now. You’ve a duty to the province.”

“Gods above, Vaiyen! I don;t give a damn about my duty.” Arkaen slammed his back against the wall, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe you’re giving me that line. Don’t I have a duty not to lie to my future wife? To honor my wedding vow and not take another to bed? Is this how you expected us to end?”

Vaiyen flinched, his shoulders trembled, and he laid a hand on the wall. Gods. He had expected this end. And maybe Arkaen should have as well.

“We couldn’t have kept doing this.” Vaiyen’s words still cut, though Arkaen had known they were coming. How long had he Vaiyen been waiting to be freed from Arkaen?

“It’s not just about your duty,” Vaiyen added. “Emperor Laisia banned any union such as ours near ten years back. If anyone learned of us, Arkie—”

“Lord Arkaen.” Arkaen’s pain shifted into fury at the repeated nickname he’d long hated. “I’m not a dog to nip at your heels, begging for scraps.”

“It’s not like that,” Vaiyen protested. “It’s just—”

“I would have fought for you.” Arkaen pushed away from the wall, each breath aching in his chest. “I would have refused this arrangement. Argued for another solution. I would have sacrificed everything for you.” His body shook with the force of his pain, anger laced in every movement. His jaw ached with suppressed tears. “I came to ask if you would come with me. Run away, find somewhere we could be together.”

“What about the province?” Vaiyen’s shock turned his voice harsh. But the shifting of his gaze revealed his true fears. That Arkaen would find a way to make that happen.

“The province has never given a damn about me,” Arkaen said. “Why should I give up everything for them?” Shaking his head, Arkaen turned away. “I would have fought for you, Vaiyen. The least you could have done is tell me you didn’t want me to.”

“Ark—” Vaiyen stepped forward. “It’s not…Just wait!”

Arkaen ran away, down the alley, ducking around corners to avoid Vaiyen’s following steps. Stupid for a noble in fine clothes to lose his way in these streets. Torsdell had its share of thieves, and though they’d never attack the high lord or his son in the finer parts of town, these streets were anything but fine. But his eyes burned and he couldn’t choke back the ache of sobs in his throat long enough to pick a direction that might be safe.

When he was sure Vaiyen wasn’t following, Arkaen paused long enough to take stock of his surroundings. A wider street at the end of the alley opened onto another tavern. One that made Vaiyen’s haunt look expensive. Hide stretched across he windows in place of glass and the door was barely more than a slab of wood attached to one wall. Too poor for any proper maintenance, and he hated to think the quality of the ale. But damn he needed a drink.

“You lost, boy?”

Arkaen froze at the end of the alley, eyes locked on the thickly muscled man leaning against the door to the tavern. A thrill of fear ran up Arkaen’s spine.

“Ya ain’t this’n’s usual type.” The man nodded at the door behind him. “Reckon you don’ wanna be near here in them clothes.”

No need to look down to know what he meant. Arkaen’s tailored breeches and embroidered tunic looked nothing like the loose trousers and plain shirts commoners wore. In Vaiyen’s favorite tavern he might have looked rich. Here he could only look like a target. Arkaen glanced back, but no one else lurked in the shadows waiting to ambush him. But that meant he’d have to have to bluff his way out of this.

“Nah, ain’t needing no thing but a drink.” Arkaen could tell his attempt at a commoners accent failed before the man laughed.

“Don’t try, boy. No one gonna think yer anything short a rich.” A smile eased the harshness of the words, turning his expression kind. “Yer what? Noble’s bastard?”

Arkaen nodded. A lie, but one close enough to truth that he could probably pull it off. A better bluff than his plan. Unless someone recognized him. But in this part of town that seemed less likely. Still, this was his home city. While he wasn’t known for wandering the streets, Arkaen was hardly unknown.

“Tell ya what.” The man examined him. “You got training? Most noble boys do, though does ya a shit lot a good here. Might find a place up north, though. Them Sernien rebels could use a good blade.”

“I don’t…” Arkaen forced a smile. “May see about it. But I best be gone.”

He couldn’t just run off and join a war. Though the war wasn’t truly in swing yet even in the north. And he’d planned to leave, thought for other reasons.

The idea settled into his thoughts as he walked. What other choice did he even have? Stay and marry Baron Weydert’s daughter? Live a lie. Or tell his father the truth and hope he escaped the emperor’s vicious retribution? Vaiyen had already given up on him over the emperor’s orders. The thought stopped him.

What if the Serniens won? What if he led them to victory and convinced Vaiyen that they could be together. It was mostly fear keeping them apart.

Arkaen turned down another alley, diverting from the path that would take him home. After all, if his training could save others from the emperor’s cruelty, could he really say no? The image played in his mind. Himself leading the disorganized northern cities to victory. Returning a hero on a finely trained war stallion and proving himself to his father and the province at once.

Navigating toward the edge of town, Arkaen shivered at the bite of the wind. If he’d hid the cloak instead of throwing it aside he’d be able to retrieve it. But Serni was only a few days journey and then he’d be among the rebels. How bad could it really be?


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Lady Saylina


Saylina peeked around the pillar, slight shoulders hunched beside the servant’s benches as her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, paced the great hall. The half dozen lower lords milling about the hall muttered under their breath to the attendants they’d brought, casting uncertain glances at their ruler. In the center, Baron Oskari Weydert stood proudly, head high and pompous chest thrust outward. Like an heiress too proud to let the younger girls join in her play.

“I don’t know, Oskari,” Saylina’s father said. “Arkie’s a bit flighty, but that sounds…”

“Treasonous?” Baron Weydert laid a hand on his sword pommel, indicating the marble and gold room with a sweeping wave of his free hand. “He’s already abandoned your exquisite home to avoid his betrothal. I assure you, my lord, that this information comes at the greatest of costs. He has turned against us.”

“Not wanting to marry your daughter is a far cry from leading an army against our rightfully crowned emperor.” Her father paused, glaring at Baron Weydert for several breaths. “I’ll not condemn my son without solid proof. And the lot of you better keep your gods-damned mouths shut if you find any.”

The other lords stilled, a flock paralyzed in the sight of their most feared predator. High Lord Sentarsin had certainly shown himself a different man than she remembered—the man she wanted to remember. She could no longer find the gentle father who’d soothed her brother Arkaen’s skinned knees and brought her new fashions from imperial court.

Saylina crept a little closer, the hem of her skirts dragging on the polished floors. Her mother’s old maid would scold her again, but the lecture was worth the risk. If her father was protecting Arkaen even after he’d run away he might forgive a little eavesdropping. He might even stop listening to everything Baron Weydert said. Saylina’s father paced the floor again, frowning at his jittery lower lords.

“What the hell are you all staring at?” he demanded. “You can’t wonder at my intent. Arkie isn’t ideal, but he’s my only heir. If you bring me proof he’s a traitor, you’d best bring a replacement for him with it.”

“As it turns out, my lord.” Baron Weydert smiled at the other lords. “That’s part of why I’ve come.”

Saylina’s father shook his head. “The last time you had a plan my heir ran off without a word, Oskari.”

“You said yourself he’s been flighty, high lord,” Baron Weydert replied. “You can’t—”

The far door swung open, admitting a handful of giggling girls ranging from ten to twelve years shepherded by one older girl whose eyes flew wide at the sight of Baron Weydert. Lady Camira Weydert clapped a hand to her perfectly accented lips, her free hand grabbing at the more rambunctious girls. Saylina took the moment of distraction to edge back from the benches, lifting the heavy skirts off the floor to minimize the swish of the fabric. She’d heard plenty of tirades on the impropriety of a child eavesdropping on court business over the few years since she’d learned to escape her nursemaid. No need to add his latest round of criticisms.

“What are you lot doing?” Saylina’s father glared at the young ladies that made up Saylina’s entourage. “You know better than to interrupt a lord’s council, I’m sure.”

“Yes, milord. Begging your pardon, High Lord Sentarsin. We was looking fer—” The trembling response cut off before the girl could reveal they’d been hunting Saylina. It could only come from Saylina’s maid, Caela. Young Lady Camira would never dare speak without permission from her father.

“Have you lost my daughter, lass?”

The eerie calm in her father’s voice held a danger Saylina had come to know far too well in the four years since her brother had run away. She’d known, in the casual way of a younger child listening to her elders, that Arkaen argued with their father over his lessons. She’d even known that their father got angry enough that Arkaen sometimes moved through the palace in a silent creep, alert for any sign his daily tasks might bring him into contact with their father before the fury had calmed. Not until he’d left had she known that fear herself, or the madness in her father’s eyes when he was denied a thing he felt entitled to have. Saylina paused by the hidden servant’s door, torn between her escape and the threat to Caela. But Saylina’s father had never harmed a woman, from his wife to his child to any of the maids, and he’d never done any permanent damage to Arkaen. Not physically, at least.

“Milord, twas jus’ a spat a misunderstanding,” Caela replied. “She’s like as not in her sun garden. We’ll be goin’—”

“Haven’t I told you to keep that gutter speech out of my house?” A pointed break in her father’s speech told he’d stepped forward, though she could no longer see the center of the room and his court shoes made no sound on his newly-laid marble floor. “I could have thrown you to the streets when your mother died, girl. I still could, and maybe—”

“Father!”

Saylina moved before the word left her lips, rushing across the floor against the pull of her skirts against the floor. A weight holding her back, fighting to keep her safe from her father’s wrath. Shoving herself between her father and Caela, she spun around to meet his eyes. Her entire body shook, a tension thrumming in here skin, her nerves, pounding in her chest. The narrowed slits of her father’s eyes bored into her.

“There, lass. I see you’ve more knowledge of where my daughter is than you thought.” He waved Caela back, as if she’d never mattered.

A trap to lure Saylina from her hiding place. Saylina’s breath hissed through her lips, her hands clenched, and nothing she could do would force the tight fists open. But Caela’s face—the glimpse she’d seen of terror and relief—spoke louder than Saylina’s father ever could.

“Caela is mine, father,” Saylina said. “You’ve no right to punish her, and no right to banish her.”

She flinched at his sharp laughter. Another sign of weakness. One he’d exploit if he thought it useful to his case. With the lower lords as witnesses, though, she had a chance. He preferred to be seen as a doting father.

“You’re gaining spunk, little filly,” he said. Calm, some might have said. Possibly even indulgent of her defiance. But she could hear the taunt under the words. “But I’ve a right to punish anyone I choose. And my daughter knows better than to talk back to me.”

The tension kept her vibrating, almost as though she were a string and a musician had plucked at her. There was nothing she could do. He was the ruler and her father, and she just a child. But if she backed down now—

“You gave her to me. Caela is mine. If you hurt her…”

The empty threat hung between them, her father smirking down at her. The muttering of the lower lords cut through their battle of wills, a reminder of the stakes. Saylina could do something. She could run away, as Arkaen had, and leave her father childless. Leave her people with no heir, no stability, and no one to speak for them when the lower lords demanded higher taxes from the poor and more indulgence from the crown. And for all his anger, her father had never hurt her. Yet.

“Of course, Sayli.” Her father’s indulgent smile promised his fury would return when he had the time to address her in private. But she’d won this round.

He turned away, sauntering back to his lower lords with a casual reminder over his shoulder. “But don’t forget the girl only works for you. Even Emperor Laisia frowns on slavery.”

Saylina’s terror drained from her in an instant, leaving her unstable on her feet. And still her body shook, a retort she didn’t dare voice lingering on her tongue. Like the boy you hired for Arkaen? She muttered the words under her breath as Caela led her toward the door, giving voice to the disgust Arkaen hadn’t known to feel.

Technically, Arkaen’s boy had been a personal guard. To all appearances, the two had been the closest of friends. Saylina had only recently learned about the threats her father had made to keep the boy loyal to the crown and not Arkaen. What could her father have feared so badly that he’d threatened murder on his own citizens to place a spy on his own son? But he must have been right. Arkaen had fled at the first rumors of a marriage between himself and Baron Weydert’s daughter, Camira.

Biting at her lower lip, Saylina pulled away from Caela and took the lead. Beyond the confines of her father’s great hall, Saylina smiled at her entourage. More playmates than true courtiers, only Lady Camira Weydert was older than her. Six years older, in fact. At nineteen years, she would be far too old for a child’s retinue under normal circumstances.

But Lady Camira shined here, shouldering the disgrace of being relegated to the children’s court with a pleasant disposition and a willingness to play with the younger girls that Saylina often borrowed. If she held herself distant from Saylina herself, who could truly blame her, after Arkaen’s actions?

“Lady Camira.” Saylina looked up at the older girl. “Would you do me the favor of bringing the other ladies to my solarium? I need to attend a few minor matters in my chambers.”

“Of course, my lady.”

Lady Camira’s curtsy was as proper as any full lady, her bowed head at Saylina’s level for just a moment. She rose with a carefree poise and gestured to the other girls. The group followed her away, turning a corner mere breaths before Saylina’s control broke.

Her trembles rushed through her, leaving her in a fit of shivers as her eyes burned with tears. Caela grabbed her arm and led her down the hall. Further from any prying eyes and as close to privacy as she could get in her father’s palace. Saylina sank to the floor as soon as Caela stopped, hugging her knees to her chest to still any visible signs of her distress. Caela sat beside her, quiet and waiting for Saylina to speak.

“I—” Saylina choked on her words, coughing to clear her throat. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Caela nodded. A quick glance revealed she was shaking as well. Of course she was. Two girls facing down the ruler who sent people to execution for defying him. Even if Saylina was his daughter.

“Don’t wanna know what mighta happened if ya ain’t come out,” Caela said finally.

“What else could I have done?” Saylina asked. “I couldn’t have just left you. Not when you were following my orders.”

Caela frowned, her small face puckering into an anger she rarely admitted. “Could wish yer brother felt the same. His lad…”

“I don’t think he knew, Caela.” Saylina sighed. “Gods, but if he ever learns what happened, he’ll be devastated. He thought they were real friends.”

“I ain’t thinking ’bout how he’ll feel.”

Caela’s dismissive reply couldn’t mask the unintended question that had slipped into Saylina’s words. Saylina’s father had purchased a spy against his son with the threat of blood. Caela had been a gift from Saylina’s father, hired as her first personal attendant with no task beyond Saylina’s whims. And Saylina’s father had made good on his threat when Arkaen ran away, leaving Saylina as the sole child of the Sentarsin bloodline. The high lord had good reason to keep tabs on Saylina.

Fiddling with her skirts, Saylina tried to find some to say. Anything to distract from the thought that now wouldn’t leave her alone. But Caela must have been thinking the same thing.

“Ain’t like he never asks,” Caela admitted. She glanced up, small hands clenched in the folds of her plain skirts, dull compared to Saylina’s own fine gown. “I told him some, now and then, ’cause a what he did to yer brother’s guard. But it ain’t like I want ta talk. He don’t protect me. Don’t treat me kind, or let me see me cousin when I need.”

Saylina nodded, her eyes burning harder and bits of liquid forming at the inner corners. She should have expected that. Caela was as much as spy as Arkaen’s guard had been. Wiping the tears away before they could fall, Saylina forced herself to sit upright. The knowledge hurt, but it gave her a bit of power. As much as she might ever get from her father.

“Milady.” Caela laid a hand on her knee. “You tell me what he needs ta hear. That’s what I saw.”

“But you can’t,” Saylina said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Ain’t like his way is safe.” Cale nodded back toward the great hall. “You saw. And yer brother’s guard did just what he’s told. Least we work together, we got a chance.”

Saylina smile, heart pounding as she held up a hand with one pinky extended. To defy her father with his own spy… But what choice did she have? He’d given her no other resources.

“Sisters?” Saylina offered her hand.

After a moment, Caela linked her own pinky through Saylina’s “Aye. Sisters.”


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

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For more original fiction, check out these posts:
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