The Sleeping King: Chapters 1-5

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Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from The Sleeping King, about a desperate quest to save the collapsed utopia of Urth. The conclusion of the trilogy, The Wandering Warwill be available January 30th. 

The Sleeping King is the first in an epic fantasy series by bestselling author Cindy Dees, featuring the best of the genre: near immortal imperial overlords, a prophecy of a sleeping elven king who’s said to be the savior of the races…and two young people who are set on a path to save the day.

CHAPTER 1

Anton Horatio Constantine fidgeted anxiously in the solid gold doorway behind an Imperial secretary, who announced in the flat intonation of a deaf man, “Anton Constantine.”

Insolent bastard didn’t even announce his full name. As if he were a lowly servant himself.

“Bid him enter, already!” a male voice snapped.

Anton recognized the irritable tones of his mentor and sponsor at court, Archduke Ammertus, whose coattails he’d been shamelessly riding in the Imperial Seat, The archduke was not only an angry man, but also an ambitious one. The kind who would aggressively place his favored servitors in critical positions of power. Anton had parlayed his service in Ammertus’s army into continued service at court in hopes of becoming one of those favored ones.

His own relentless lust for power flared and he quickly tamped it down. With downcast eyes, he glided into His Resplendent Majesty, Maximillian the Third, Emperor of the Eternal Empire of Koth’s private receiving chamber. It was a much smaller version of the Great Golden Throne Room, but still fabulously opulent in its own right.

The floor was made of solid gold, as were the jewel-inlaid golden walls and ceilings. Even the line of servants off to the left were beautiful and perfect, as still as statues, deaf one and all.

The display of raw wealth was such that Anton felt faintly ill with envy. He could swear the green serpent tattoo on his forehead actually burned with jealousy.

“Come closer, Constantine.” The resonant, terrifying voice of the Emperor emanated from the black throne at the far side of the room.

Shock slammed into Anton. Maximillian himself was present at this meeting? What could it mean? Terror and avid excitement warred like serpents knotted in his stomach. Hastily Anton knelt and made his obeisance at the foot of a magnificent gold dais leading up to the sinuous carved obsidian throne in the shape of a flame.

He held his forehead to the floor until Ammertus cleared his throat and intoned, “Rise and bask in the glory of Koth, Constantine.”

Anton rose and assumed a ramrod-stiff position of attention before his ancient benefactor, an ageless warrior of a man with a thick, messy head of red hair. The archduke stood to the right and one step down from the Emperor in the position of the Emperor’s champion. Ammertus’s son and demi-scion, High Lord Tyviden Starfire, stood at his father’s right hand one more step down. Only slightly less violent and twisted than his sire, Starfire was possibly more ambitious even than Anton.

To the Emperor’s left stood his chief advisor, High Perceptor Iolanthe, mother of Maximillian’s daughter and heir, High Princess Endellian. One step below her stood High Marshal Korovo. Ammertus stood as representative of the Emperor’s nine archdukes and duchesses, while Iolanthe and Korovo served as his personal advisors. What topic could possibly draw so many of such power to this council? And why on Urth did they summon him into their midst?

“You served me faithfully as an Imperial Army officer in the Changing Lands of Kentogen, Constantine, and you served me well in Haelos.”

Ammertus’s words twisted around him, living things, probing the edges of his mind, seeking chinks in his mental armor. Anton blinked them away, immediately regretting the display of lack of control.

He forced his mind back to the topic the Emperor and his council apparently discussed today. Haelos? The northern continent? Why that?

Images rolled unbidden through his mind. Or perhaps were called forth by the Emperor’s will. Whether Anton wished it or no, the memories overtook him. A more uncivilized, uncouth place he’d never seen. The prisoners-turned-colonists who lived there, scraping a living from the untamed wilds, were little more than savages, criminals and malcontents banished from Koth to live or die as their will to work dictated. The continent’s natives were no better—a motley assortment of races, many of them monstrous half-breeds born of unnatural unions.

“Haelos has not been restless in a while,” Maximillian commented.

That was good. Right? Why then did he hear dissatisfaction in Ammertus’s answering grunt? Was that a flash of avarice in Starfire’s hooded gaze? Anton waited cautiously. He would not speak unless told to.

“His Resplendent Majesty has decided to grant the penal settlement of Dupree on Haelos the status of full colony. Which means its warden will need to be replaced with a governor.”

Was that why they’d summoned him to this meeting? Were they considering him to be governor of the new colony? Exultation roared through him before he managed to corral its rampage.

“You have served me loyally and well these many years hence, as well,” Ammertus declared. Emphasis on “loyally.”

He was widely known to be Ammertus’s man, as faithful a dog as the archduke’s own son. That the archduke saw fit to remind him of it in the context of this discussion was intriguing. A message to Maximillian that Anton was his man, mayhap?

Ammertus continued, “You are suited to Dupree as well as anyone. And of course, you safeguard the Emperor’s interests tirelessly at all times, do you not?”

He opened his mouth to agree most fervently that he lived only to serve the Empire, but a movement off to his right startled him into glancing away from the Emperor for a second. Horrified, he slammed his gaze back to the throne. To look away from the Emperor uninvited was an egregious insult to His Resplendent Majesty. Abject relief turned his gut to water as he saw that Maximillian, too, had looked over at the opened golden door and failed to notice Anton’s unpardonable breach of etiquette.

“What is it, Oretia?” Ammertus snapped.

Anton’s eyes widened. Oretia? The oracle of the Imperial Court? It was said the powerful Child of Fate had never been wrong in centuries of prophecies. Supposedly, it was she who foretold the death of the first Emperor, she who predicted the mysterious disappearance of the second Maximillian. It was also rumored that she was a key power behind this Maximillian’s throne for the almost thirty-two hundred years of his reign.

Given her age, Anton expected her to look old. He expected wrong. She was born of the extremely long-lived race of janns, her skin swirling with the colors of the elements to which janns aligned themselves. However, if the rumors of her age were accurate, the Emperor himself must have gifted her with exceptional longevity. At a glimpse—and that was all he dared allow himself out of the corner of his eye—she could pass for a woman of middle age, the sort who worked hard at preserving herself. Her bare arms were firm even if the mottled skin covering them looked somewhat leathery. Fine wrinkles crisscrossed what Anton could make out of her face, but as her scowl eased, her skin smoothed into a falsely young mask.

“A prophecy comes,” she announced in a surprisingly lush and throaty voice.

Ammertus retorted, “Write it down and show it to His Majesty later. We are busy now!”

Anton gaped at her scornful gaze, locked in anger with Ammertus’s. She dared defy one of the archdukes, only exceeded in power by the Emperor himself? Did she have a death wish? Belatedly, Anton remembered himself. He hurled his gaze back to Maximillian and missed the rest of the silent battle of wills raging around him. But the air fairly crackled with it, a faint, metallic smell of ozone abruptly permeating the golden room.

Oretia snarled, “Your petty politics can wait. The power building within me is unique. Olde magicks touch me this day!”

The Emperor’s eyebrows twitched into a momentary frown—a mighty loss of control for him. So. Olde magicks worried him, did they? Interesting.

Maximillian leaned back casually on his throne, whereas Ammertus leaned forward aggressively. “Is this prophecy about His Resplendent Majesty?”

“Would I be here if it were not?”

Maximillian ordered in a bored tone, “Tell me, then.”

“It comes an-o-n…,” her voice trailed off, taking on a singsong tone as she drew out the last syllable. “Ahh, the power of it. Perhaps I shall not share this after all.…”

Ammertus moved faster than Anton would have believed possible, launching himself off the dais and across the room to the oracle. The archduke embraced her head in his hands, shoving her up against a golden wall, staring into her eyes as if he would suck her brains from her skull. A visible field of energy built around the two of them, pulsing with almost sexual intensity.

“Sing for us, little Oretia,” Ammertus crooned.

Anton shuddered at the depravity and power in that voice. Gads, and to think the Emperor surpassed that power by orders of magnitude.

The oracle moaned, her body arching into a taut, vibrating bow, only her head still, trapped between Ammertus’s clutching hands.

“The end,” she gasped. “I see the end.”

“Of what?” The archduke was breathing heavily, something repulsive throbbing in his thick voice.

She spoke in bursts torn from her throat. “A nameless one … wakes in the wilds … shackles break—” Her voice broke on a hoarse cry and she sagged in Ammertus’s grip, clawing ineffectually at his hands on either side of her head.

“What?” he shouted, shaking her violently. “Show me.”

The force of that mindquake drove Anton to his knees, buffeting him nearly unconscious. His thoughts scattered, ripped asunder by that awful voice. Struggling to hang on to his fragmenting sanity, Anton stared up at the Emperor sitting at ease on his throne, completely unaffected by the massive mental energy flying through the air. His ageless face was devoid of expression, his eyes reflecting only bland disinterest.

Even Starfire seemed to be experiencing metal distress, and a look of concentration wreathed his features as he shielded himself from his father’s psychic assault. Iolanthe and Korovo did not appear mentally overly distressed by Ammertus’s outburst, but they did look mildly annoyed by it.

Of a sudden Oretia straightened in Ammertus’s grasp and, to Anton’s amazement, tore free entirely. She paced the width of the golden room, sparks flying from her hair as she whirled to stalk back. She paused before the throne, staring at it and the man on it, nodding to herself. The guards on either side of the Emperor tensed as she stalked up the stairs to stand directly in front of Maximillian, who might have been carved from the same obsidian as his throne for all that he reacted.

Her voice, preternaturally deep, resonated off the walls like a terrible storm. “Hear this, for I speak true. A nameless one comes. From the depths of the untamed lands to destroy us all. Olde magicks returned, change born of earth and stars. Greater than thee, Maximillian, Last Emperor of Koth. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood, your fate is written and cannot be undone. The end of Eternal Koth is anon.”

Profound silence enveloped the room. Everyone stared at the oracle standing defiantly before them, her head held high, the tips of her hair glowing in a bright nimbus around her.

The building fury upon Ammertus’s thunderous features made Anton cringe in spite of himself. He knew that look. The archduke was dangerously close to snapping. Ammertus had never been known as a reasonable or particularly stable man when crossed.

Anton was stunned as the oracle raised an accusing finger and pointed it at the enraged Kothite noble. “And as for you, Ammertus, Archduke of the Colonies. Your saga shall end in the Cradle of Dragons.”

Ammertus and Starfire both jolted at this. But it was Ammertus who drew in a long breath of outrage and fury, all the more frightening for how long it took him to fill his lungs. And then he screamed. “You lie!”

The mind blast accompanying the accusation knocked Oretia off her feet, flinging her backward violently. She must have hit her head, for she collapsed in a rag doll heap, spilling blood over the golden dais. She rolled bonelessly down the steps and came to a halt at Anton’s feet, a disheveled tangle of limbs and hair.

Terror for his own fate exploded within Anton. It was a cowardly impulse to think of himself first before the broken oracle dying before him, but he’d never claimed to be a hero. And he had seen just how insane Ammertus could be in the midst of one of his rages. Anton dived to the floor beside Oretia, not to aid her, but to hide behind her.

“She lies!”

This mind blast rippled through the air in visible waves, spreading outward faster than the eye could track to slam into everyone else in the room. From his vantage point on the floor, Anton watched the worst of the wave pass overhead. He grabbed Oretia’s elbows and yanked her body across him. Just in time, too, for the mind blast ricocheted like a living thing, now bouncing crazily throughout the space, smashing into any and all soft living thing, sundering flesh and blood more easily than the sharpest sword. Even Starfire hit the floor, arms thrown over his head and face buried against the steps.

Blood erupted throughout the hall as the servants fell like ninepins, sliced neatly—and not so neatly—into ribbons of meat and bone. Oretia took the brunt of the blast above him, bathing him in hot blood.

Her head turned slightly and he nearly gagged at the sight of her eyeball dangling out of its socket by slimy strands of nerve and vein. Her remaining eye locked on his, unfocused, glazing over with encroaching Death. She moved feebly, struggling to gather herself for one last effort.

Her flayed facial muscles twitched uselessly. Whether she managed to speak it aloud or merely projected it into his brain, Anton registered only a single croaked word.

“Remember.”

And then her bloody and broken body went limp across his.

Ammertus ranted and raved for several minutes, storming around the room, destroying anything and anyone who dared cross his path. Anton lay frozen on the floor, unashamedly pretending to be dead.

“Enough, Ammertus,” Maximillian said with quiet authority, all the more sinister for its lack of emphasis. “And henceforth, please refrain from slaughtering Children of Fate. Prophets of their power do not grow on vines, and I have use for them.”

Anton risked peeking up. The Emperor had not moved from his casually seated position. Starfire pushed cautiously to his feet, looking around at the carnage with disdain.

Anton stared at the destruction. The entire room was covered in blood. Floors, walls, ceiling—where there once was gold, now there was only obscenely red blood, flowing, dripping, clinging to every surface. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood …

Had the prophecy already begun to come true? What was the last bit? Oh yes. When Imperial gold is bathed in blood, your fate is written and cannot be undone—

“Get up.”

Anton lurched as Ammertus snarled from directly above him. The archduke’s fury had transformed to something bitterly cold and a hundred times more vicious than the screaming rage of the past few minutes.

“I have a job for you, Constantine.…”

 

Anton shook out his black court robe, sending the embroidered golden serpents on the sleeves dancing, their emerald eyes glinting malevolently. A mask of confidence was frozen upon his face as a matter of habit. But for once, it was truly a mask. He’d been meditating frantically since the earlier incident, and since he’d received the summons to present himself in open court to the Emperor.

Anton shivered in involuntary terror at the prospect of coming under Maximillian’s direct and public scrutiny. It marked the pinnacle of a courtier’s life … or its end.

Two stone-faced Imperial guards opened the massive amber doors before the milling crowd waiting to enter the golden hall. The air crackled with great events afoot this night.

The magnificence of the Grand Receiving Chamber of the Flaming Throne, as this room was formally known, stole his breath away as it always did when he first entered. The floor was solid gold, which accounted for its less formal nickname. Frescoes thickly encrusted with gold and rare jewels adorned the soaring ceilings. The chandeliers dripped with thousands of thumb-sized diamonds.

The scale of the golden hall was enormous, befitting the epicenter of the mighty Kothite Empire. From this space the Emperor’s power emanated outward across the massive southern continent of Koth and thence across the entire planet Urth.

But for all of its grandeur, it was the gigantic throne at the far end that utterly dominated the massive space. A long flight of golden steps led up to it, but the throne itself was black obsidian taken from the heart of Moten’s Furnace. It rose ten times the height of a man in the irregular shape of a rising flame—the Eternal Flame of Koth. The actual flame burned black in its great cauldron outside the Imperial palace, never waning, never weakening. The throne’s sinister curves and inscrutable surface were apt expressions of the massively powerful being who sat upon the seat carved into the base of the flames.

Anton had machinated so long positioning himself for this moment he could barely believe it had finally arrived. Rumors were already circulating at court that tonight he would be named governor of the newly formed colony of Dupree on the northern continent. For the past fifty years, Henrik Volen, Dupree’s longtime warden, had been in charge of taming the penal settlement. But tonight Volen was here, recalled home at long last by Maximillian.

The wealth, the power, the prestige of a full governorship … greed for all of it throbbed through Anton’s veins. An entire new continent his for the conquering, the possibilities were limitless—

Trumpets blasted demanding silence, and Warden Volen was called to the throne. An aging human, he looked and moved like a tired man as he laboriously climbed the golden steps using his weapon of office as a cane. Volen’s shepard’s axe had a narrow, pick-like head that doubled as cane handle for the elderly man. Life on Haelos was dreadful, and the fellow showed every year of his long service in the hinterlands in his stooped frame and haggard face. Volen would have been young and brash, full of big plans, when he last left this place. How odd it must be for the warden to walk among people who appeared not one day older now, while he stood on death’s doorstep, overtaken by old age.

Anton did not listen as the Emperor thanked Volen for his faithful service and relieved him of his duty as warden. Instead, he made a mental list of luxuries he would build into the new governor’s palace that he planned to make his first priority when he arrived in Dupree.

“Anton Horatio Constantine. Present yourself to His Most Resplendent Majesty.” The voice of the Emperor’s chamberlain emanated from the vicinity of the throne, its clever acoustics amplifying and broadcasting his voice across the hall.

It was generally believed that the Emperor could pluck thoughts right out of a man’s head; hence Anton performed one last quick thought check. It is a great honor to be here. Humbling. I am overjoyed to serve the Empire.

The Emperor spoke formally. “You have served me well, Anton Constantine, and have demonstrated initiative and leadership.”

And those were not just empty words, he thought with pride. Few in the Empire could have captured a Heart of Kentogen and brought it back to Koth or rescued the entire Kithmar clan of rakasha from Pantera and made them faithful servants of the Empire. The cat changelings were notoriously stingy with their loyalty to authority figures. But he, Anton Constantine, had converted them.

Even though he knew what was coming next from the Emperor, exultation leaped in Anton’s breast. He knelt and received a silken banner of the newly created Constantine heraldry and listened while the High Herald read it into the record—a palewise inverted golden sword entwined in a vert palewise serpent in an argent bend sinister on a sable field—with all the pomp and ceremony Anton could have hoped for. The coiled green serpent was identical to the one tattooed upon his forehead at birth. The heraldry had been granted to the line of Constantines by the Emperor himself in return for the family’s faithful service to Archduke Ammertus.

The Emperor spoke once more. “Rise and be known as Lord Anton Constantine henceforth.”

He’d done it! He’d become a Lord of the Imperial Court! He had raised his family’s fortunes like no other member of his house had ever managed. All the years serving in the Assassin’s, Slaver’s, and Merchant’s Guilds … all his work leading the Coil … all the drudgery of military service … it had finally paid off.

The Emperor gestured indolently, and a servant held out a long, tasseled pillow. From it the Emperor lifted one of a pair of magnificent golden short swords exactly matching the one on the banner. “These are infused weapons.”

Anton’s jaw literally dropped open. Infused? Not plated, or even made of regular gold, but infused? The magical forging process imbued the essence of the sword’s base material—high-quality steel most likely—with another material, in this case gold, at the most fundamental level of its existence. Maximillian turned the blade in his hands, examining the craftsmanship. The gold winked far too brightly in the light of the thousands of candles, as if it actually glowed from within.

Can it be? Is that Solinar gold? The substance, found only on the Sunset Isles, home of the solinari—sun elves—not only glowed at night, but also held the power to capture magic, and, furthermore, to cast that magic again at a later time. Solinar gold was among the rarest and most prized metals on Urth.

The Emperor planned to gift him with such a magnificent weapon of office? It shouted of just how high in Maximillian’s esteem he stood. The envy pouring off the other courtiers in the hall was palpable. Anton did not even try to contain his swelling pride.

A chamberlain turned to the retired Warden of Dupree, who still stood slightly to one side of the throne, and said formally, “The key to the warden’s residence if you will, Volen.”

The old man held his hand out, and in his palm rested a large, ugly iron key. The Emperor reached for the key just as a small disturbance came from behind the throne.

Anton spied Princess Endellian, Maximillian’s daughter and heir to the throne, slipping out from behind the giant stone flame carving. She was slender, almost waif-like, with long, dark hair that floated around her like a sable cloud. Her complexion was golden, her features vaguely elfish, with slanted, sultry eyes as black as her father’s throne.

Maximillian’s hand paused over the key.

Anton had to fight to tear his gaze away from the mysterious princess, forever caught in the bloom of young womanhood. He never made the mistake of underestimating the Emperor’s offspring, though. She was fully as devious and brilliant as her sire, if not quite as powerful. It was likely her mental manipulations that made males unable to look away from her. Maximillian listened as she leaned down to whisper in his ear. Anton caught snatches of the exchange.

“… oracle glowed … spoke in a strange tongue … prophecy appears to be about you, Sire … cannot force it from her mind … neither of us can read her … need your permission to use the sands…”

The Emperor frowned. Without a word of explanation or apology to Anton, he stood and followed his daughter through the private doorway behind the throne.

 

Endellian led her father quickly down the undecorated stone hallway to the special room where the Emperor’s personal oracles were housed, a plainly furnished but comfortable chamber. Her father’s chief torturer had no need for racks or hot irons to extract information from his prisoners. It was all much more civilized—and effective—than traditional blood, gore, and screaming.

Magically suspended in midair, this oracle was an aged woman who had lasted much longer than the majority of her kind. Normally, her interrogator did not have to resort to such measures to get her to talk. The Crone, as she was known, generally had no compunction compared to previous Children of Fate about giving up her visions. Perchance, the cynicism that came with age had helped her grasp quickly and well that resistance was pointless. Which was why, when the seer refused to give up her prophecy tonight no matter what persuasion or coercion Laernan tried, Endellian had fetched her father.

Lord High Inquisitor Laernan Zaphre, the Emperor’s personal interrogator and her half brother by way of their shared mother, reported briefly, “The Crone was speaking of Haelos before she abruptly refused to continue.”

Endellian studied her father’s torturer carefully. Layers of nuance danced in his words. An interesting man, Laernan. Handsome, of early middle age, he had stolid features, a sturdy build. Everything about him announced his dependability. He was the kind of man soldiers wanted at their back.

She stared into his wise, intelligent eyes and noted that their habitual sadness was more guarded than usual tonight. His special talent was to see into the minds of prophets. His father, the Sand Pharaoh of Kufu, was a Master of Time Magic. High Perceptor Iolanthe, their shared mother, was the sage council to Emperors of Koth. Together, his parents had passed Laernan an ability to look into prophets’ minds and see through the cracks in Time along with the seers. Whereas her father could brute-force his way past obstacles any mind placed before him, Laernan’s gift was one part surgery and one part subtle art.

If Laernan was alarmed by the things the oracle had been seeing and saying, Endellian, in turn, was alarmed. It took a great deal to perturb steady, unflappable Laernan. How on Urth had the oracle managed to sever his connection to her visions?

“The north seems to be much on my seers’ minds of late,” Maximillian commented.

Endellian had not paid much attention to the newly discovered continent since Ammertus led an army to it and broke the Council of Beasts. He did not manage to kill any of the Great Beasts, but he had captured a few animal lords before requiring rescue by her father’s personal legion, the Dark Amphere. The few who knew of it considered the expedition a failure. Not only had Ammertus failed to subdue the continent; but his near defeat had required Maximillian to unleash the third forgetting, and furthermore, forced Koth to begin its campaign for Haelos anew.

Her father stepped near the oracle, who struggled fruitlessly against the magic gripping her as he approached.

“Tell me what you see.” Her father’s command was accompanied by a burst of mental power designed to force the old woman’s thoughts into her conscious mind where Maximillian could read them.

Endellian watched the suspended Child of Fate carefully. As the prisoner’s unwilling eyes glazed with other vision, Endellian sought the source of this glimpse beyond the fracture in Time the seer peered through. But even as Endellian tried to trace the link, it slipped away from her.

“Ahh. There it is,” the old woman sighed.

“Tell me,” Maximillian demanded more dismissively than Endellian would have. Something in the prophet’s voice disturbed her. She sensed a seed of danger germinating.

“So powerful…,” the seer’s voice trailed off, then rose again in disbelief, “No. Truly? Is it possible?” The Crone’s staring eyes widened in something wavering between wonder and awe as she watched the vision unfold in the landscape of her mind.

Abruptly she laughed, a hyena’s cackling howl that made everyone in the room jump. And then she lurched within her restraints as if a bolt of lightning had struck her. She blinked and looked around the chamber. For all the world, it looked as if the oracle had been ejected from her vision. Endellian frowned, relieved that she had summoned her father.

The Crone announced to Maximillian, “The Mistress has reminded me of who I am. Shown me that hope is not lost. Resistance is not meaningless.” Her voice gained strength. “I will not give this vision to you, Maximillian of Koth. This is not the end of me. It is the end of you.”

Shock rolled through Endellian—a sensation she could not recall the last time she experienced. No one spoke thus to the Emperor.

Maximillian stepped forward and grasped the Crone’s throat. “Show it to me,” he ordered coldly.

“I will not … give … it … up.” The words sounded ripped from the oracle’s throat, as if her vocal cords were slowly being torn free of their moorings.

And then she shouted, “Unto the last, I shall resist thee, Usurper of All! You shall not have this final vision. Die blind, Murderer of Hope, never knowing what struck you and from whence—”

Her screamed curse cut off with a strangled cry, her body abruptly limp. Lifeless. The magics holding her aloft collapsed, and the Emperor cast her corpse down in disgust, a broken and useless toy.

“Shall I revive her, Your Resplendent Majesty?” Laernan asked emotionlessly.

Maximillian shook his head, staring thoughtfully at the body lying twisted at his feet. “It was not I who ended her life. The vision itself killed her and consumed her spirit in the process. Neither your skills, nor even mine, will bring her back. Her spirit is no more.”

Endellian’s jaw sagged. A vision so powerful it destroyed the seer who looked upon it? A prophecy that protected itself from the Sight of the Emperor? What strange magic was this?

The Emperor ordered no one in particular, “Clean that up. And bring me another oracle. The weakest one you’ve got. I shall have this prophecy. Now.”

 

Gabrielle Aquilla, the young Queen of Haraland, smiled carefully as gossip erupted around her. Why the interruption in naming a new governor? What crisis called the Emperor himself from his throne?

Privately, she considered Anton Constantine an extremely poor choice for the job. Whispered rumors had swirled around him for as long as she’d been at court of graft, bribery, and excesses of the worst possible kind. Even the Imperial guilds were said to despise him, and they were renowned for their corruption.

Her own astute and experienced husband had been mentioned as a possible candidate to become the first governor of the new colony. It wasn’t that Regalo Aquilla was a thorn in the Emperor’s side. Quite the opposite. If anything, Regalo was too popular and successful a ruler in his kingdom not far from the Imperial Seat.

Haraland, one of the largest and most prosperous of the hundred kingdoms of Koth, was blessed with a mild climate, fertile valleys, ocean access, rich mines, and thick forests. Not to mention a contented populace. More than enough to draw Maximillian’s suspicion.

Realizing the deadly turn of her thoughts, she hastily shifted her attention back to Anton fidgeting before the throne. Her impression of him was of a slimy social climber at best and a vicious whoreson at worst. She felt a frisson of sorrow for the colonists who were about to inherit him and his insatiable appetite for wealth and power.

“If you will excuse me, my dear,” Regalo murmured at her elbow, “I have business to attend to. Sir Darius, if you would escort my lady wife in my absence?”

“It would be my honor, my lord.” Her husband’s knight bowed courteously and took up a position at her side.

An automatic smile upon her face, she spied an old childhood friend who was also another young newcomer to court, wife of the ambassador from the Heartland to the Imperial Seat. The Heartland was the only known source of Heartstones, the magical stones that allowed dead spirits to return from the Spirit Realm to the land of the living. A massive organization of healers had sprung up around the use of the stones over the millennia, and its headquarters were in the Heartland as well.

“Come, Darius. Let us give our greetings to Lady Stasiana and help her feel welcome.”

Exotic and expensive colognes warred with one another all around her, and Gabrielle felt her breath grow short as she was forced to inhale the cocktail of fumes. She wended her way slowly across the ballroom praying all the while for the imaginary iron band that tightened around her chest from time to time to stay away tonight.

Some high functionary, mayhap one of the archdukes, must have signaled a dance, for abruptly the center of the floor cleared. The crush around the margins of the room became even worse. Her breath began to come in wheezing gasps. Air. She needed air.

Blessedly, Gabrielle spied a small opening in the press of bodies and slipped through it. Of a sudden the ambassador’s wife was only a few feet away, looking as bewildered as she had when she first arrived in the capital.

“Well met, Madame Ambassador,” Gabrielle said warmly.

“Gabrielle! I was hoping you would be here to guide me through this madness.”

“Welcome to court, Sasha.” They traded kisses on both cheeks as was the current court custom, followed by affectionate hugs.

“Is that your servant trying to dance his way through the crowd?”

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and laughed as Darius frantically dodged dancing couples in an effort to rejoin her. “That’s Sir Darius, my ever-faithful watchdog,” she replied fondly.

“This crush is terrible, and I confess, I am still afeared of crowds,” Lady Sasha murmured.

For her part, Gabrielle desperately needed to sit down and loosen her stays until her breathing returned to a semblance of normal. She glanced around. “Let us retire to an alcove. There is one just over there with its curtain open.”

“I do not have sufficient rank to use one,” Sasha murmured in alarm.

“You are the wife of an important ambassador now, Sash. You’ll be fine. And besides, I’m a queen.”

They giggled for a moment like the schoolgirls they had once been and, ducking Sir Darius again, made their way to an arched opening leading to one of many small chambers adjoining the golden hall. Ostensibly, high-ranking nobles were invited to rest and refresh themselves in them. But in point of fact, conspiracies and romantic trysts were the stuff and fare of these private niches. The two women climbed the steps to an alcove whose curtains hung open and paused for a moment to look out across the swirling kaleidoscope of dancers.

“Come,” Sasha murmured. “Your breathing does not sound good. The old affliction has flared up again?”

“Aye,” Gabrielle sighed. “It does not like the stress … and perfumes … of court.”

They ducked into the dim alcove.

“Well now,” a male voice said from within the alcove’s deepest shadows. “What manner of peacocks do we have here?”

Gabrielle flinched at the power vibrating through the voice. A Kothite lord. And she knew this one—or of him, at any rate. Tyviden Starfire, son of Archduke Ammertus and of the Corona of the Shattered Isles. A Dread High Lord by virtue of his father’s well-earned honorific,”Dread,” Tyviden was no one to trifle with.

Starfire and her husband had crossed swords with each other a few years back. Ammertus had been ordered by the Emperor to increase production of Black Ships, and in turn, Ammertus had sent his son, Starfire, to Haraland and Quantaine to increase the harvesting and preparation of the rare and magical ironwood from which the ships were built. Tyviden had promptly provoked the Forester’s Guild and shipbuilders so badly that all ironwood and Black Ship production had been seriously threatened and even temporarily ceased.

Regalo had stepped in and smoothed everything over, not only restoring but also increasing production. Tyviden’s anticipated glory at court had been quietly stolen by Regalo, and Starfire had not forgiven her husband for it. It was never a good thing to thwart an Imperial noble. Sooner or later, they always got even. And given Kothites’ indefinite life spans, they could be extremely patient in taking their revenge.

The iron band around her chest tightened even more as her anxiety climbed. “My apologies, Dread High Lord Starfire,” she said carefully. “We did not see that this chamber was occupied. We shall leave you to your rest.”

“Nay. The floor is crowded with simpletons and sycophants. Ladies such as yourself should enjoy better. Join me.” Starfire added, “I insist.”

Sasha glanced at her anxiously, and Gabrielle cursed silently. It never served to show fear to this particular Kothite. In her experience, he fed upon it like a drug. She stepped partially in front of her friend, blocking her from Starfire’s view.

“Tell me, Dread High Lord,” Gabrielle asked cautiously, “how are you enjoying the entertainment this evening?”

“I was sorely afflicted with a case of melancholy and suffering through these stodgy proceedings until you were delivered unto me, dear ladies. However, I feel my spirit stir in your presence.”

Gabrielle did not miss the innuendo in his words. Were it anyone of less rank who insulted her thus, she would call them out for it. She watched on grimly as Tyviden adjusted his formal court garb with a flourish. The white satin robe with its long ceremonial cowl was decorated at hood, wrists, and hem with the signature black flames of a High Lord. She didn’t need the blatant reminder of his rank and clenched her jaw against a sarcastic remark.

“The orchestra is magnificent, High Lord. Perhaps a dance would relieve the ennui of this gathering for you. Lady Sasha and I are planning to do that very thing as soon as we repair our appearances.”

Sasha took the hint and nodded in agreement with the lie about dancing. But Starfire did not take the hint and do the polite thing, which was to leave. In fact, he took a step forward and placed himself within a hair’s width of an inappropriate distance from Gabrielle. She eased one foot backward a tiny bit. Then the other one. Inch by inch, she backed away from him.

“May I convey a greeting or message to my lord King of Haraland?” she murmured.

Starfire studied her intently enough that her skin fairly crawled. His stare flaunted every rule of polite behavior, leaving her feeling vulnerable and on display. He replied silkily, “Not to worry, my dear. Your husband will certainly know when I decide to deliver a message to him.”

All the while, Starfire stared at her. She found herself alternately repelled and fascinated by the hypnotic power of his stare. What would it be like to have such an ability? Would she make people adore her like Endellian was said to? Or mayhap plant suggestions deep within their minds that even her victims did not know lurked there? She took a step forward. The possibilities were endless. And all of them were right there, in Starfire’s dark, beckoning gaze. Another step. The lure was irresistible. He would teach her all the secrets of it—

“Stop that!” a voice shouted from somewhere very far away. But the words barely touched her as she stared deep, deep into Tyviden’s mesmerizing eyes.

A fist shot past her so fast she barely saw it and smashed into Starfire’s nose with a sickening crunch of flesh and bone.

Starfire howled, and abruptly the spell upon her shattered, leaving Gabrielle disoriented and dizzy. Where was she? Oh yes. An alcove. With someone … who … of course, Sasha. They’d come upon Starfire by accident. And Darius had just hit him—

The ramifications of a common knight striking a Kothite lord slammed into Gabrielle every bit as hard as that fist had struck. Horror screamed through her. Darius would be permanently killed. His entire family tortured and enslaved. Perhaps the town he came from torched and razed. Starfire could choose to call Darius out in a duel and slice his mind to ribbons before doing the same to his helpless body.

And all because Darius had dared to protect her from whatever seduction Starfire had attempted upon her. The injustice of it burned like brimstone in her gut. As Starfire snarled in rage, she leaped forward, throwing herself bodily between Darius and the furious Kothite.

Darius’s knuckles looked shattered, and his face was draining fast of color. The pain must be intense. She looked back at Starfire quickly. His nose didn’t look particularly injured beneath a little blood on his face, and he seemed more shocked than anything else. But in a moment he would recover and explode, and her faithful servitor would be destroyed.

Her constricted lungs finally gave out and her knees began to buckle. Sasha placed a solicitous arm around her, steadying her. And mayhap Sasha attempted to provide moral support in the face of Starfire’s rage. Or mayhap she was caught in the same web of hypnotic seduction that Gabrielle had been.

“Sasha,” she gasped urgently, “find my … husband … bring him … quickly.”

The young woman blinked several times. A look of horror came over her face, and she fled the alcove.

Clearly in terrible pain, Darius took Sasha’s place at her side, bending down in concern to address her through clenched teeth. “Is it your breath, my lady?” Her malady was known only to those closest to her, but, of course, dear Darius was one of those trusted few.

Starfire raised his hands and brandished them like weapons, preparing to rend her man from limb to limb with his formidable magic. Despite his injury, Darius took a defensive stance in front of her.

A rose-colored glow began to gather around Starfire. A terrifying image of Haraland’s bravest, youngest, most trusted knight being shredded and disgraced poured over her. That was what Starfire had in mind for her man. The rose glow continued to build until it formed a wave of dread and despair that broke over her, so horrible and crushing she wanted to kill herself.

Darius trembled in front of her but did not yield his position. So brave and true he was. It gave her the courage to gather herself. To step forward, toward that frightening gathering of thought power. To cry out, “Sir Darius! I place you under arrest!”

Tyiden froze. He stared at her almost as if he did not comprehend her words. And then his face rapidly began to turn a violent shade of red. “Oh no,” Starfire snarled. “He is going to die. Now.”

But her outburst had cost him a moment’s concentration. And moreover, that moment gave Sasha time to race back into the alcove followed closely by her own husband, the ambassador from the Heartland.

“Your husband comes,” Sasha panted to Gabrielle.

Fury and chagrin danced across Starfire’s face.

The ambassador stepped forward, pulling a cloth out of his pouch. “Dread High Lord, are you wounded?” he exclaimed with slightly exaggerated concern. Gabrielle’s jaw dropped as he actually mopped a few specks of blood off Tyviden’s face as one might wipe a child’s nose.

“My mistake,” the ambassador announced in apparent surprise, stepping back as he realized Starfire’s face was completely uninjured. It was, however, approaching purple in hue.

The ambassador reached for Darius’s shattered hand. “The blood must have come from you. That looks painful. Let me heal it.” He added low, “I will not have time to do this slowly. I apologize.”

Darius nodded, which did not surprise Gabrielle. He’d been slammed with healing in combat enough times to be familiar with the sharp discomfort to come.

As the healer incanted his magic and thrust it into her man’s mangled hand, Gabrielle noticed Starfire gloating momentarily with pleasure, almost as if he sniffed Darius’s pain and found its scent seductively sweet.

Shuddering, she pulled the handkerchief from her sleeve and wrapped it tenderly around Darius’s healed, but still red and swollen, knuckles. Her knight’s fingers clutched the token tightly.

Afraid of what Starfire would do next, she made her way weakly to the arched doorway, which had the effect of forcing Darius to support her and moving him away from the depraved Kothite behind them.

She squeezed her man’s forearm in silent gratitude, then took as deep a breath as she could manage and called out, “Sir Darius, in the name of His Resplendent Majesty, Emperor Maximillian the Third, I place you under arrest for the crime of treason!”

Her declaration froze everyone within earshot. Treason was among the most serious of crimes.

Starfire burst out of the alcove, narrowly missing knocking her off her feet. He was all but snarling in fury. She had effectively snatched revenge out of his grasp by throwing her knight under the boot of Imperial justice instead. Starfire’s face shifted from fuming to outright fury. No question but she’d made a dangerous enemy this night, and it was personal, now.

“What is this?” a familiar voice demanded.

Thank the stars. Regalo. “My king,” she wheezed, “I request … an immediate hearing … in the matter of treason … committed by Sir Darius … against the person … of Dread High Lord Tyviden Starfire.”

Her husband started to move toward her in concern, but she shook her head slightly at him and he checked his step, frowning. He glanced shrewdly at Starfire’s enraged visage, Darius’s clenched fists, and her own hectic face. He knew her well enough to interpret the terror and desperation in her eyes correctly and go along with her odd accusation.

Regalo announced formally, “This man is under arrest. Take him away.”

Tyviden stepped forward angrily. “I invoke my right of vengeance over this cur for laying a hand on me.”

It was exactly this that Gabrielle hoped to avert. Once vengeance was invoked, Kothite nobles might legally contract with the Imperial Assassin’s Guild to murder the target of their vendetta, or, of course, they could choose to hunt down and kill the target themselves.

King Regalo replied smoothly, “I apologize, my Dread Lord, but according to Imperial law, you may not invoke vengeance at this time. An accusation of treason is so serious that it merits a hearing before the Emperor himself. Until His Resplendent Majesty has ruled in the matter, Sir Darius must remain a prisoner … and alive so that proper justice may be done. Do you not agree?”

Starfire looked apoplectic with fury, but also seemed to know himself outmaneuvered. With a growl, he nodded once, grudgingly.

Regalo waved over several Imperial guards to seize Darius, and Tyviden snarled, “I shall have my pound of flesh one way or another, Haraland!”

Regalo’s personal guard whisked Darius out from under Starfire’s sputtering rage and led him away. As they passed by, she murmured to the knight, “Ahh, Darius. I am so sorry.”

He paused long enough to reply, “It has been my privilege to serve you, my lady. If I am forfeit in defense of your honor, then the coin of my life is well spent.” He pressed something cold and hard into her hand, and she looked down to see his signet ring, mangled by the blow to Starfire’s face.

She pressed the back of her trembling hand to her mouth as her husband, his visage stony, followed the soldiers leading away his most faithful knight to face possible torture and certain death. All for the crime of protecting her from a vengeful Kothite.

“You are upset, Gabi. Perhaps a little privacy to collect yourself and your breath…,” Sasha murmured.

Burgeoning fear finally registered in Gabrielle’s overwrought mind. What had she just done? Nobody called themselves to the Emperor’s attention if they wished to live for long. Had she just ruined them all?

 

Endellian watched Laernan hand-signal a pair of deaf-mute guards to remove the lifeless body of the Crone between them. Moments later a heavy door at the far end of the room swung open and the same guards shoved forward a young man, little more than a boy, really.

Maximilian stalked over to the youth. “You will prophecy for me, Child of Fate. Tell me what the last oracle saw.”

“I do not know. I was not given the prophecy.”

“Then see it for me. Now.”

“That is not how the gift works, Your Resplendent Majesty—”

Maximillian cut him off. “There are ways to make it work thus.” He stared fixedly at the boy, and Endellian felt Time ripping in the youth’s mind. And then, without warning, the prophetic link was severed, cut off like wheat falling before a scythe.

Her father frowned. “Bring the Sands of Time,” he ordered one of the guards.

The fellow nodded and hurried from the room. In a matter of minutes a small chest was presented to Maximillian. He waved his hand across it, releasing the magical lock of his making . He opened the lid and lifted out a glass orb about the size of a melon.

It was said the orb itself was made from Sands of Time, too, fashioned by the master glassblowers in Scythia. They made infused glass harder than steel, able to hold and release magic energy without breaking and, in this case, magical enough in nature not to drain the delicate power from the sands within it. The sands came from Kufu, a loose conglomeration of desert trade cities that straddled several distant kingdoms and was home to Laernan’s father.

Maximillian carefully unstoppered the orb and poured out a small handful of the sands from the Lost Deserts of Time into Laernan’s palm. She suspected that, if her father tried to use the sands himself, it would draw unwelcome attention from the Accord in her father’s direction.

The Accord was a living contract. It bound all of the greater beings to its immutable laws and none were above its swift justice, not even Maximillian. Created at the end of the First Age by the Dragons of Haelos when a disastrous elemental war nearly destroyed all of Urth, the Accord bound all of its signatories and their descendants in an irrevocable pact.

If her power grew enough, it might bind her one day as well, but she had been careful never to put herself crossways of it. She’d seen a Time Warden, once—from a distance. They were created by the Accord to aid in enforcement of its laws and to adjudicate the Games, where elders vied for prominence and power without destroying the mortals around them.

In spite of Laernan’s gift of manipulating visions through time, he was not powerful enough in his own right to be bound too tightly by the Accord. Most seers were not talented enough to harness the magic of the sands, but Laernan was attuned to them by birth and able to use them not only to pull visions from seers but also to share those visions with others.

Her half brother murmured something in a tongue so ancient and strange that Endellian had no idea what it meant, and then he tossed the sand over the youth’s head. It was so fine that it hung suspended around the boy like glittering dust.

Laernan had described the effect of the sands to her once. He said it was as if invisible beams of light were suddenly revealed as they struck the tiny particles of sand. And each beam was a snippet of Time released from behind the Veil. In the presence of the sands, he could see the crisscrossing patterns of the beams and decipher the lightning-fast snatches of visions that leaked through the fractures in Time.

“Ahh,” Laernan sighed in satisfaction, staring fixedly at his invisible beams of prophecy.

Within moments the boy oracle began trembling almost too violently to stand and breathing too hard to sob as the unwilling vision was dragged through a crack in Time and forced into his mind.

Endellian felt her father mentally brace himself to hold off whatever force might try to claim the boy before Laernan captured the youth’s vision.

“Now then,” Maximillian said, his voice growing in power with every word he uttered. “Tell me true what you see, and tell me all.”

As the oracle continued to resist the vision flooding his mind, Laernan murmured gently, “Do as he says, boy. Work with us and your life and death do not have to be in vain. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee what will happen to you and every one of your blood … until the end of them all. Either way, we will have the vision. Such is the will of Koth.”

The Emperor was blasting the seer with such compulsion to reveal the prophecy that Endellian wondered how the boy still lived. The youth’s knees buckled before the Emperor’s power, and impassively the guards leaped forward, snagged him under the arms, and dragged him, whimpering, to his feet.

She felt Laernan insinuate himself into the young prophet’s mind, forcing the tear full open, flooding the boy’s head with vision upon vision upon vision, far too fast for her to register or process. How Laernan managed to unscramble that mess she had no idea.

“The end,” the boy gasped. “I see the end.”

“Of what?” Maximillian demanded.

The young oracle spoke in sobbing bursts torn from his throat. “No name … walks out of the wilderness … broken chains—” His voice broke on a hoarse cry and he sagged, dead in the guards’grips.

“You shall not have him!” her father snarled. Maximillian willed life back into the seer, driving the boy’s spirit back into him in spite of the force attempting to rip it out. Perhaps the boy’s stronger constitution allowed him to overcome the lethal effect of the prophecy more readily than the previous seer. Or perhaps Maximillian’s preparedness for this attack and his speed of reaction made the difference. But whatever the cause, her father was able to drag the boy back from the precipice of oblivion.

Of a sudden the oracle tore free of the guards and stood trembling, actual sparks flying from his hair and clothing. His eyes appeared covered by a milky film, as if the vision had blinded him to this realm and trapped him entirely in the grip of some unseen future. Endellian reeled mentally.Never had she seen a prophecy act upon its seer thus. She spared a glance for Laernan, who dealt with the oracles constantly, and even he looked rattled.

Laernan spoke, describing the vision the boy would not—or could not—give voice to.

“From the Dragon’s Cradle the heroes came,

Who break the hold upon the Black Flame.

Without a name or history stands bold

Heir to a blood both wondrous and old.

A true child of the roses will be born,

With flames of the first city to mourn.”

Along with his words, Laernan projected a series of images into Maximillian’s mind and hers. Even sorted and clarified by Laernan’s talents, the images still came so fast she barely had time to process them. Rebellion. Armies. Destruction. And blood. So much blood. Annihilation on a breathtaking scale and, finally, Maximillian himself’s destruction scrolled through her mind’s eye.

Profound silence enveloped the room. Endellian stared at the oracle standing defiantly before them all, a slender reed defying a mighty storm, his head held high, the magic of the Seeing casting a halo of light around him. Now that the Veil of Time was not only ripped but also temporarily demolished by the sands, images and visions crowded forward one on top of another through the conduit of Laernan’s talent.

“Erase him,” her father ordered flatly.

It was no simple order to kill the boy. A spirit could be contacted within the Void or even brought back from the Void, and her father wanted no record whatsoever of what the four of them had just seen to remain … anywhere.

Laernan bowed his head, looked over at the oracle, and projected a mental command to forget … everything. When the inquisitor was certain that the boy’s mind was completely emptied of everything he’d ever heard, seen, or known, Laernan nodded at her father.

“To the Flame with him,” Maximillian ordered dismissively.

Laernan signaled the guards to take the mindlessly staring boy to the Eternal Flame and cast him in, alive. The youth’s now-empty spirit would be flung directly to the deepest corner of the Void, rent into useless and, more important, irrecoverable, fragments by the Black Flame, and consumed entirely.

“An alarming prophecy,” Endellian commented cautiously, unable to gauge her father’s reaction.

“More alarming than usual, I suppose.” Maximillian replied with a shrug. “But I shall head off this doom as I have before. Our future is written by me, not some meddling being or unwashed mortal. Knowing in advance what Fate has in mind makes it easy enough to foil.”

True enough. She’d seen him rewrite both past and future to his own ends more times than she could count. Still, the nature of this prophecy’s arrival must surely give even her father serious pause.

Laernan spoke up hesitantly. “We have no more Children of Fate in custody, Your Majesty, and they have become exceedingly difficult to locate of late. Their sect is small and adept at hiding from our hounds.”

“Call in the High Lord Hunter and his hounds to find these mortals. Whatever resources you require to acquire more of them are yours, High Lord Inquisitor. I may have need of more of these Children in the days to come.”

“So shall it be, Your Resplendent Majesty.”

A diffident knock on the door just then turned out to be the Emperor’s chamberlain reporting a disturbance between two nobles that required Maximillian’s personal attention.

Her father muttered in disgust, “I leave the matter to you, Laernan. Meanwhile, I must go deal with the other children.”

Maximillian ordered the chamberlain, “Take these bickering nobles to my library. Now.”

She did not envy him having to referee the petty squabbles among his nobles. They never seemed to grasp that he had more important matters to deal with than their jealous arguments and transparent maneuvering.

Maximillian paused, thinking, and then murmured more to himself than her, “There is a prisoner in Dupree. I was planning to have Constantine’s wife, who is one of the Amber Mages, encase him in amber and send him back to me. But in light of this prophecy, it might be prudent to keep him in play. He must stay confined in the northern wilds, however, dead to all who knew him. A change in plans, then…”

His voice trailed off as his formidable mind examined the problem. Then, decision apparently made, he said briskly, “Have the astral rose brought to me from my garden. Now.” He also rattled off a list of magical components that indicated he planned to fashion a physical item of some kind. A weapon, perhaps.

Maximillian turned to her and asked, “Who is the greatest pyromancer at court among my lesser nobles?”

“Aurelius Lightstar, I should think.”

“Have him brought to me immediately.”

A pyromancer? Why a fire mage? A whiff of her father’s thoughts passed through her mind. Balance. He sought to balance an opposing magic. Ice. Winter. Hand of Winter—she reeled as the identity of the prisoner flashed briefly across her father’s mind. General Tarses lived? He had led the spectacularly successful invasion and conquest of Pan Orda, the great elemental continent across the Western Abyssmal Sea. He also had been tainted by the Hand of Winter—a powerful fae ice lord—while he fought in that elementally based land.

Tarses had been as close to a friend as it was possible for a man of Maximillian’s power and station to have, highly favored by her father, and for good reason. Tarses was a brilliant strategist, charismatic, and beloved by his troops.

However, Tarses had been changed by his only partially successful union with the Hand of Winter. How he’d been changed was anybody’s guess. Which meant he was no longer reliable or even predicatable to her father. And that could not be tolerated anywhere near the Golden Throne.

The story had been put out that Tarses died in glorious battle, soon after delivering Pan Orda to the Empire. She recalled well his triumphant return to court, in an air ship of all things, laden with wondrous gifts for her father—a bottled water elemental and close to a hundred diviners and dousers of things magical.

No doubt General Tarses languished in the deepest, darkest hole Haelos had to offer.

The components, the bright green magical rose from Maximillian’s garden, and the golden-skinned solinari fire caster were delivered to the Emperor within minutes. She recalled vaguely that Aurelius was the last of his line. She suspected the only reason he yet lived was his potential usefulness to her father. And lo, that day had come.

“A weapon,” her father mused, his gaze lighting upon the staff Aurelius carried. “A staff will do.”

Aurelius passed his hands over the magical components and rose laid out on a table before him. The perfect bloom’s petals trembled slightly, and then everything disappeared, replaced by a stunningly beautiful staff. Unlike lesser beings who must incant magics, and perhaps accessed the innate magic contained within certain components, her father had but to think a thing into existence. Such was the unity of his body, mind, and spirit in the production of magical energy.

Vines and leaves spiraled up the staff’s wooden length. At the top of it was an exact replica of the rose, but fashioned from wood as well. Only a green gem nestled within its delicate petals gave any hint of the living, astral rose it had been moments before. The only one of its kind to her knowledge, her father had been known to spend long hours gazing at it in his garden. What was so important that he had given up a prized possession thus?

Her father spoke. “You are now the Guildmaster of the Imperial Mage’s Guild of Dupree. Take this staff with you, Lightstar. Go to Haelos. There you will remain in service to me, awaiting my command to use this staff.”

Curiosity emanated from the solinari mage, but the golden-skinned elf did not dare to speak aloud as he accepted the weapon from her father.

Maximillian murmured, “Balance, Lightstar. You shall restore it to one who has lost his.”

Of course. Tarses. In light of the prophecy, her father must deem it time to recover his lost general. Maximillian must have imbued the staff with some sort of magic for restoring the general’s true nature to him and removing the taint of the fae lord’s magic upon him.

“Kane. Bring me Kane,” her father ordered abruptly.

Kane? ’Nandu’s son? The assassin? She did not have long to contain her curiosity over what Maximillian wanted from him.

Kane glided out of the shadows in a matter of seconds and bowed deeply before her father.

“You shall accompany this elf to Haelos. I charge you with his safety until further notice.”

Kane blinked in consternation. “That is not what assassins do, Your Most Resplendent Majesty—”

“It is what a son does for his mother.”

Her father’s snapped observation silenced Kane, who bowed again before moving to stand behind the stunned solinari mage.

Endellian also bowed her head respectfully as her father prepared to take his leave. Maximillian might not be worried by what Laernan had just shown them, but she had never seen the like. A prophecy with the power to kill? The end of the Eternal Empire? Or of the Emperor himself? Such a future might take considerable planning to avoid. Her intuition said the seed of powerful events had been planted tonight. It would take a skilled gardener to eradicate this weed.

Her father turned back to his chamberlain, who had been waiting patiently all this time. The servitor quickly filled in her father regarding a request by the King of Haraland for an immediate audience regarding a matter of treason. Treason? At the court itself, under her father’s very nose? Who would be so foolish?

While Maximillian was mentally distracted, she turned furtively to Lord Laernan for a quick word about the meaning of the rest of those visions she’d glimpsed.

“How do I look?” Gabrielle fretted. This would be her first-ever private appearance before the Emperor. It was imperative that she strike exactly the right note, not only for Darius’s sake but also for the reputation of all of Haraland.

“As lovely as always,” her husband replied soothingly. “You are the pride of Haraland. You could wear sackcloth and Maximillian would know a true lady stands before him. The only question in his mind will be why a young beauty like you married an old fossil like me.”

She paused in her fretting long enough to chide gently, “You are the noblest man I have ever met. That is why I married you.” She went back to twisting her skirts nervously. “Is there nothing I can say to save him?”

“Do not be foolish,” Regalo replied with an edge to his voice. “Darius is guilty, and traitors must die. If you were to abase yourself unduly, all of Haraland would lose face and status that have taken centuries to build. Every one of our subjects would suffer for your moment of weakness.”

Regalo spoke more gently as if to ease the harshness of his words. “Darius knows what he did and why. I am certain he is at peace with the consequences. He knows we will make his family understand that he sacrificed himself for us all and that we will take care of them. Even if he walks through the Flame tonight, he will have met a noble end protecting you. I will not forget that.”

Gabrielle did her best to share her husband’s faith in Maximillian’s justice, but it did not come so easily to her. Regalo saw the Emperor as the compass of the realm, guiding Koth through eternity, wise, all-powerful, and impartial, knowing things the rest of them did not. While people of other races lived and died, acquired and lost knowledge, Maximillian and his Kothite cadre were immortal, amassing vast stores of knowledge and wisdom in their endless lives. Regalo trusted the Emperor’s decisions implicitly. Her husband did not see Maximillian as vindictive or cruel; the Emperor merely did what was necessary to keep the Empire on course.

She was more inclined to wonder whether or not Maximillian was in a generous mood tonight, and how high a price he would extract from them if, by some chance, he chose to let Darius live. Of one thing she was sure. Although it might not be demanded of them in gold, there was always a steep price to pay for crossing the Emperor’s path.

“Sit, dear. Your breathing is not fully returned to normal, and the stress of an audience with the Emperor could set off another attack.”

She did as Regalo suggested, but only because Darius would certainly not survive any show of weakness from his sovereigns before the Emperor.

The Emperor’s chamberlain opened the door and gestured silently for them to come. Reluctantly, she followed Regalo down a grand corridor, which housed an art collection that would make the curator of any museum in the land weep with envy. They were ushered into the Emperor’s personal library. She hoped desperately that the location for this audience signaled that Maximillian did not plan to make a public example of Darius.

She and Regalo were led across an enormous high-ceilinged space, famed throughout the Empire for its priceless collection of trophies, and Gabrielle stared about in awe. There were books aplenty—a wonder in their own right, for they were rare throughout the Empire—but that was only the beginning of the marvels.

The husk of what appeared to be a giant eyeball was the first trophy she noticed mounted high upon a wall. Beside it were three identical and monstrously reptilian heads. She gasped, “Are those the heads of a chimera?”

Regalo looked where she pointed. “I do believe so.” Then he added under his breath, “Look at these.”

She gazed at a crystal bowl large enough to hold fruit punch for a hundred guests. It was full of gemstones in every color of the rainbow. “Are those…”

The chamberlain glanced over his shoulder and murmured casually, “Mindstones. From Mindor.”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. Each stone was said to be capable of storing a person’s entire lifetime of memories and knowledge within it. A single mindstone was worth a king’s fortune. Hundreds of them were heaped in that bowl.

Beside the bowl of magical gems rested a pile of technical sketches executed in astonishing detail and complexity. Upon second glance, she realized she was looking at blueprints for a Black Ship. Ever a fan of engineering, Regalo paused and ventured to lift the first sketch. She spied what looked like a schematic for construction of the massive canal that linked the Inland Sea to the great Abyssmal Sea many hundreds of miles away.

Regalo ran his fingers lightly down a tall, polished column of wood standing beside the table. “Teak. Do you suppose this is the last shard of Duskendar? I heard the Emperor possesses it.”

“The great teak treant?” she replied, stunned.

“His Resplendent Majesty awaits,” the chamberlain urged.

Regalo lengthened his stride and caught up with his and Gabrielle’s guide. A pair of golden doors loomed ahead and her heart pounded nervously.

“The Swords of the Dwarven Kings,” Regalo breathed.

Gabrielle glanced up and saw a magnificent pair of swords mounted upon a carved ironwood shield. Space for a third sword gaped empty beside the other two.

The blades were legendary, the most recognizable symbols of the great dwarven races. Deep Fang, the blade of the errock—deep dwarves—hung beside the Kelnor hill dwarves’ great sword, the Battle Brand. Absent only was Mountain’s Edge, the symbolic weapon of the Terrakin, the dwarves of Under Urth. The Terrakin claimed that it had been lost in battle, but rumors persisted that the Terrakin Kingdom merely hid the weapon from Maximillian.

Then her gaze locked upon the statue beside the door … not a statue at all, but a human being encased entirely in amber. Even Regalo’s eyes widened at the sight.

“Is he alive?” she asked no one in particular.

The chamberlain glanced at the frozen man whose open eyes stared back at them with eerie awareness. “I do not know. But His Resplendent Majesty does stop often to admire the piece. I sometime wonder if he … communicates … with the prisoner.”

Whether the Amber Man, the last thing the Emperor’s subjects likely saw before an audience with him, was merely a curiosity or a stern warning she did not know. Either way, she shuddered with apprehension as the chamberlain threw open the golden doors before her.

She stepped warily into a receiving chamber similar to, but on a much smaller scale than, the golden hall, complete with its own Black Flame throne. Maximillian stood before it conversing quietly with—

—Oh no. Archduke Ammertus. Starfire’s father and a madman of the first order. The man positively thrived on violence and death, suffering and misery. He terrified her a great deal more than Maximillian, who was marginally sane. At the base of the dais, a disheveled Darius knelt, shackled. Grief poured through Gabrielle and she let it flow freely. Let the Emperor see Haraland’s care for its own.

She and Regalo made their obeisances to the Emperor and she made sure not to skimp on the depth of her curtsy or the length of time she held it. While she was thus contorted, she heard a commotion behind her. Someone else made an entrance to the chamber.

Starfire hurried in and bowed briefly. “Your Resplendent Majesty, I attend at your request. My humble apologies for making you wait.”

Maximillian sat down upon his throne, taking a moment to adjust his robes. He looked up, casting a razor-sharp look at his assembled subjects. A look of decision crossed his face, and only then did he announce in supreme boredom, “Speak, Starfire.”

The chamberlain indicated that they could rise, and Gabrielle straightened. She was startled to see that Princess Endellian had slipped into the room and stood at her father’s right hand. The symbolism of her position was not lost on Gabrielle. A dangerous woman, Endellian, heir to a throne that would never be vacated by her immortal sire.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth as Tyviden gave a more or less accurate account of the events leading up to Darius smashing his fist into the Kothite’s nose, but spun in such a way that he appeared to be entirely the victim. It galled her that he was allowed to act so badly and her man was arrested for merely doing his duty.

Although kings and queens technically held similar rank to High Lords and Ladies, the reality was that Kothites took precedence above all others. The Council of Kings was also technically a governing body, but everyone knew they were merely a rubber stamp for Maximillian’s decisions. The Emperor might make a show of appeasing one of his powerful kings tonight, but in reality, Starfire was guaranteed to get away with his atrocious behavior. And Darius was guaranteed to pay.

Her indignation must have been palpable, for the Emperor glanced over at her more than once during Starfire’s recitation.

When the whoreson was finished, Maximillian asked with deceptive mildness, “Have you something to add, Queen Gabrielle?”

As much as she burned to defend her loyal defender, she must not. “No, Your Resplendent Majesty. Nothing.” The words were acid on her tongue. They ate at her spirit, which was, of course, exactly Maximillian’s intent in voicing the question in the first place.

Regalo took a breath as if to speak, then waited for the Emperor’s permission as protocol dictated.

“Speak, Your Noble Highness of Haraland.”

She took it as a good sign that the Emperor was dropping Starfire’s title and honorific, but using her husband’s. It was a clear signal of Maxmillian’s displeasure with his High Lord.

Regalo spoke formally. “If it pleases Your Resplendent and Just Majesty, we acknowledge Sir Darius’s error and cannot forgive it. However, I would like to offer the fire of youth and his extreme eagerness to protect his queen as explanation. He mistakenly perceived a threat where there was none.” Gabrielle caught the subtle emphasis Regalo placed on the word “mistakenly,” as if perhaps his knight had not been mistaken at all. Surely Maximillian caught it as well.

Her husband finished, “There can be no excuse for his rash and reckless behavior other than excessive zeal to serve.”

“Your knight punched me in the nose!” Starfire exclaimed.

“Would you not love to have ten thousand knights as eager as Darius and so devoted to you?” Regalo observed dryly to Maximillian.

Gabrielle noted that not by a single hair’s breadth did Regalo’s gaze stray toward Starfire, even though that last comment was clearly a veiled criticism directed at the High Lord.

Maximillian’s eyes flickered briefly with amusement at her husband’s smoothly delivered dig. She spotted a hint of annoyance in the Emperor’s eyes as he glanced over at the High Lord, who had obviously caused this whole stew. Gabrielle closed her eyes in a moment of abject gratitude. The stars bless Regalo’s skill at reading the Emperor’s moods. Perhaps there was a minuscule chance Darius would escape this debacle alive, after all.

The Emperor sat silent upon his throne until she thought she might die of the suspense. Was it possible he was rethinking his decision? Turning his attention away from the insolent mortal who punched a High Lord and toward the failings of the High Lord, himself?

Abruptly the Emperor ordered, “Let the prisoner stand forth.”

Darius was dragged upright. Stoic to the last, he stood at attention and stared straight ahead at nothing. Pride for Haraland’s native son swelled in her bosom.

“I find your devotion to your queen touching. I also find you guilty of treason against the person of Dread High Lord Tyviden Starfire. And in consequence, I hereby strip you of…”—a pause, and then Maximillian uttered lightly, “… everything.”

He said that last word so simply, so matter-of-factly, that the import of it did not fully register upon Gabrielle until he leaned forward on his throne, glaring down at Darius. “You shall have no country, no queen, no rank.” The slightest of pauses. “And no name. Henceforth, you will be known as … Krugar.”

Gabrielle suppressed a shudder. Krugar was the name of a nasty little man in Haraland whom Darius had caught tricking unwed mothers into indenture under illegal contracts that amounted to slavery and working them and their young children nigh unto death. Darius despised the fellow and for good reason. The Emperor must have plucked the name from Darius’s mind as someone her knight hated.

Now why would the Emperor take away Darius’s name? The rest of it was no great surprise. But his name?

Ammertus made a sound of disgust, bit off quickly, but not before enough of it escaped to express his opinion of the Emperor’s sentence.

Maximillian was speaking again. “As for you, Krugar. I shall leave your memory intact that you may know him whom you insulted, and that you may never forget the reason for your fall from grace. If, however, you make any attempt to contact any person or persons from your past, they will not live long enough to utter your true name.”

The extent of the Emperor’s punishment dawned slowly on Gabrielle. Darius would have no home and no title … but furthermore, he would have no honor, no reputation that lived beyond him, no noble death. He had been banished to obscurity, never to be remembered, never to be spoken of fondly by family, friends, or his fellow knights. Even his honorable sacrifice for her and for Haraland was to be stripped from him. For a knight, it was a more cruel punishment than death.

The Emperor was speaking again. “I banish you and your zeal permanently to Haelos to spend the rest of your days serving me in the Imperial Army.”

So. The Emperor had plans for her knight. Except he was her knight no more. Sadness flowed through her. Such a waste of a fine man. She amended her thoughts hastily. If Darius could be of more use serving the Emperor, then his life was not wasted, after all. Not in the least. An honor to have a Haraland man serve His Resplendent Majesty.

A … ripple … passed through the room, seeming to emanate from the throne. And a great, dark, surging power responded to the call. It felt as though a monstrous beast roused from the depths of the earth below their feet and heaved to life, spewing its evil with every breath. Alien, focused intent to destroy rolled over Gabrielle’s mind like air surging from a smith’s bellows, and yet her hair did not stir in the awful breeze of its passing. She frowned, and found herself blinking a few times to clear her head.

She realized with a jolt that the Emperor was speaking once more and she was not attending to him. “… beloved queen shall remain here, bereft of your protection—another shame for you to live with, Krugar.”

Shame … and a threat against her. The shackled prisoner must be a Haralander, although she could not place his face. Krugar’s gaze flickered briefly toward her at Maximillian’s words. He, too, had caught the implied threat. If he stepped out of line or in any way failed the Emperor, the consequences would land upon her head.

Gabrielle winced. It was not that she feared the Emperor’s wrath, although she certainly did. Any sane person would. But she winced at how thoroughly Maximillian had locked this man, Krugar, into his punishment. For the barest instant something felt strange about that name, but then the feeling passed.

Maximillian continued, “You shall be sent to the furthest outpost of the Empire buried in the most remote forest of the northern colony, Krugar, where you shall impart your zeal to serve me to the Imperial Army legion there. Whether you succeed or fail, live or die, I leave to you and your own industry or lack thereof. You shall depart immediately.”

Gabrielle murmured the ritual response along with everyone else in the chamber. “So shall it be.”

Regalo touched her arm, reminding her to make her obeisance to the Emperor. She did so with alacrity. This Krugar fellow would live, at any rate. Not many prisoners who came before the Emperor could claim that.

“My deepest gratitude for the mercy and wisdom you have bestowed upon my house,” Regalo intoned as he bowed beside her.

A foreboding that great events had been set in motion this night filled her for a moment, but then the Emperor spoke, erasing the sensation. “Indeed,” Maximillian replied as dry as dust.

Oh yes. Repayment for tonight’s favor would be demanded. And part of it would be the agony of anticipation while she and her husband waited to learn the shape it would take.

 

Endellian turned to her father the moment the golden doors clanged shut behind the departing Haralanders and the prisoner. She murmured in alarm, “Father, we and the archdukes talked about this. I thought we agreed you would not call upon … that thing … again, so soon. It has been barely a century since you released its power in the north.”

Maximillian snapped, “Have a little faith in me, Princess. I see clearly what needs to be done. This was necessary. Let us not forget I have ruled for thousands of years. I do not invoke such power lightly!”

“I worry about you—”

He waved a dismissive hand. “Speak of it no more.” But his tone was more affectionate than angry. And in truth, she should accept that he was, at all times, in control of everything within his Empire. For a bare instant she wondered what it would be like if he were not, and a shudder of dismay rippled through her. She’d heard the stories of mad Maximillian II, and it was a bad time for Koth.

She subsided behind her father’s shoulder, her worry not entirely assuaged. Great avalanches began with one tiny pebble. Then another. And before long the entire mountain was crashing down.

“As for you, Tyviden…,” her father commented, jarring her from her dark thoughts.

The High Lord bowed elaborately to Maximillian. “My gratitude is boundless that you took swift action to punish that cur, Your Majesty.”

She picked up speculation in his voice. Curiosity. He, too, wondered why Maximillian had resorted to such terrible and dangerous power to wipe out the name of a simple soldier. Too smart for his own good, Starfire. Always looking for an angle to manipulate and harm others.

The line of Ammertus thrived on others’ despair and fear, operated from a place of chaos and rage. While her father was a pillar of strength and control, of will over all, Ammertus and his demi-scion son were the polar opposite. It was no surprise that Ammertus had earned the honorific “Dread.” It fit him … and his son.

Unease settled in her stomach that Starfire and the line of Ammertus had come into play at this particular moment in time. It made an already-complicated situation even more complicated. Why the escalation of events, so many and so sudden? This confluence of disturbing threads was unlike anything she’d seen in her long existence to date.

She turned her attention back to Starfire fidgeting before her father. No matter how hard he tried to disguise it, she felt the frustration roiling within him. He’d wanted blood from Haraland’s man. Did he not understand that taking away a man’s identity, a man’s place in history, a man’s hope,was worse punishment than death? Her father had proven that over and over through the centuries of his reign by doing the same to entire nations, entire races. It broke them more surely than the most devastating war upon them.

A flash of Maximillian’s thoughts came to her mind. Ammertus and Anton Constantine were cut from the same cloth. She had to agree. At the end of the day, they were greedy, lustful, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing thugs. The old warden, Henrik Volen, had been firmly her father’s man, but Anton was … not.

“Have I not served you well, Your Resplendent Majesty—” Starfire started.

Maximillian cut him off, his voice resonating with irritation. “I know who got me my Black Ships.”

Her eyebrows lifted. Her father rarely slapped a noble—metaphorically—so openly. He must be more annoyed than she’d sensed. For his part, Ammertus seemed to soak up the tension in the chamber like a thirsty sponge.

Maximillian leaned forward, his voice growing in anger as he addressed Starfire. “By what right do you involve the Heart in a scandal at my court and potentially strain our ancient relationship with them? And then you anger the king of a powerful nation and a good friend of this throne? He ismy subject to do with as I will.”

Endellian contained a flare of amusement. Would Starfire be subtle enough to understand he’d just been told not to play with the Emperor’s toys? That he was replaceable, and he had shown himself not to be entirely and loyally her father’s man? She doubted it.

Her father continued, glaring, “You went too far this time, Starfire.”

Ammertus blustered, mayhap just now realizing the depths of his liege’s ire, “He’s young … impulsive … a small prank—”

Starfire added hastily, “My apologies, Your Majesty. I did not mean—”

Maximillian cut them both off. “You have offended the throne. Embarrassed yourself. Created tension and bad feelings with the Heart that I shall have to repair. For this, I am sending you away.”

“Where to?” Starfire managed to croak.

“Go south. To Georwell. Traverse the Bridge of Ice.”

Starfire and Ammertus stared, appalled, as well they should be. Although many Kothites had crossed the Bridge in search of fame and fortune, none had ever returned from the other side. The Bridge was not actually made of ice; rather, it was always covered in ice. It was made of titanwood and stretched south into the Sea of Glass as far as the eye could see. Given that it was giant made, one could assume it stretched across the entire sea to some unknown location. Being sent across it was tantamount to a death sentence.

Maximillian was speaking again. “Bring me back something … interesting … from the other side. New. Powerful. Impress me.” The real meaning of her father’s words hung unspoken in the air. Not only must you survive this test, but you must prove to me that I should reinstate you in my good graces at court.

Starfire stared thunderstruck and, for once, entirely speechless. Although she contained her reaction better than the High Lord, Endellian shared his shock.

What game did her father play at, now? Even the Emperor did not lightly sentence a demi-scion to death. They were the grandchildren of the greater beings, children of the scions of the greater beings, and immortal themselves unless brought to an untimely death by some special means.

Maximillian had taken a series of quick, forceful actions in the past few minutes that were entirely unlike him. Normally, he was thoughtful and deliberate in his decisions, diabolically so. Moreover, she got the distinct impression he was not finished, yet, this night.

Perhaps the oracle’s prophecy of the end had shaken her father more than he’d initially let on. Now was probably not the time to share what else Laernan had shown her, the other things the oracles had been revealing about this nameless threat destined to emerge from the wilds to threaten the Empire.

Anton fretted every second the Emperor was absent. So close. He could taste the heft and weight of yon iron key in his palm. His impatience to officially be the governor was almost too much to stand. He itched to examine his new swords more closely, but it would not be seemly to do so in front of the assembled court. Let them see him accept such a shockingly extravagant gift as casually as if it was his due.

A veritable eternity after he’d disappeared, Maximillian finally reappeared in the doorway behind the throne, accompanied by Princess Endellian. Anton barely refrained from scowling at her for her untimely interruption earlier.

“Now where were we?” Maximillian said. “Ahh, yes. A governor for Dupree.”

Anton took a deep breath and held it as the Emperor continued.

“I hereby appoint former warden Henrik Volen to be the first governor of the colony of Dupree.”

What? What is this? Anton exhaled so hard he nearly expelled the contents of his stomach as well. A joke. That’s it. The Emperor jested. The old warden looked nearly as flabbergasted as Anton, and shocked silence echoed in every far-flung corner of the Golden Throne Room.

“Come forward, Volen,” Maximillian ordered. The warden stumbled to Anton’s side, and the Emperor reached out to wrap the man’s gnarled fingers around the key already resting in his aged palm.

The Emperor’s voice lowered so the court at large could not hear his next words. “I sent you a prisoner some years ago with orders never to let him see the light of day. Do you remember?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Volen croaked.

“See to it he remains in the dark and never walks free.”

“So shall it be,” Volen muttered.

A seed of rage took root in Anton’s breast, growing rapidly into a living thing invading every corner of his mind. Why the colors presented to him? Why the cursed swords? Was this all an elaborate plan to humiliate him?

“Anton Constantine,” Maximillian said formally, “I hereby appoint you First Advisor to the Governor of Dupree.”

First advisor? The unfortunate whoreson who does all the grunt work, wades through endless piles of paper, attends to all the minutiae and gets none of the glory? None of the wealth? None of the power of a virtual king?

“Tread carefully, Anton!” the Emperor snapped.

Maximillian then devolved into a lengthy series of orders for the new governor regarding resource development, production, guild participation, and who knew what else. Anton jerked back to attention when the Emperor mentioned something about Volen naming guildmasters.

That was supposed to be his privilege. He’d spent weeks in consultation with Ammertus devising his list of appointees.

Volen mumbled, “I have given no such thing a thought, Your Resplendent Majesty.” The old bastard turned to him and had the gall to say generously, “You may name a guildmaster if you wish, First Advisor.”

“Kenzarr,” Anton blurted. “He shall be Master of the Slaver’s Guild.”

Volen frowned faintly but nodded his assent readily enough.

It wasn’t much. But the appointment would have to be enough. With his man in the Slaver’s Guild, Anton would have access to manpower. A little extra income skimmed on the side. Retainers here and there with specialized skills. And eventually, an army. It was so little in the face of what he could have had—

His enraged gaze lifted to Endellian. Two seconds. Had she delayed a miserable two seconds interrupting her father earlier, he would have been the governor of Dupree and not that doddering old fool Volen! Seething fury ripped through him as he stared at the great key now hanging from Volen’s hip, winking at him in the candlelight as if this had all been a great joke upon him. That key should have been his. Overwhelming desire to snatch one forth one of his new short swords and bury it the princess’s bosom roared through him—

Panic exploded across his brain as the direction of thoughts dawned on him. He revised his murderous thoughts frantically.

—I would, of course, only kill her if the Emperor so wished it and for the greater glory of the Empire of Koth.

Endellian threw him a murderous look that declared him exceedingly lucky to be standing in her father’s presence and not hers alone.

Anton was too appalled at his momentary loss of control to hear it. That slip had just cost him years. Cursing himself for being a thousand kinds of fool, he reluctantly conceded that, after revealing such violence to his liege, if anything even remotely suspicious were to happen to the new governor—should the old coot die of anything other than an unquestionably natural death of extreme old age—the Emperor would now suspect him.

Anton turned to face the court and descended the golden steps heavily. The overriding emotion emanating from the sea of faces smirking up at him now was derision. Amusement. He spied his wife near the front of the crowd in time to see her turn her back on him, a look of disgust on her face.

It had all been right there. Moments away from being his. The rage and ambition roiling in his gut formed a poisonous sludge with a life of its own. It took a name—revenge. Everyone present this night would pay for laughing at his humiliation. He would show them all. He would accomplish in the colonies feats beyond their wildest imaginings and would achieve such wealth and power that they would tear their hair with jealousy.

He cast his contemptuous gaze across the crowd … and caught the eye of one in the crowd who visibly shared his sentiments exactly. Ammertus. Yes indeed. There would be retribution for this night’s mischief by Maximillian.

The archduke made his way to Anton for a private word, which was not difficult to achieve given that suddenly no member of the court would speak to him.

Ammertus growled significantly, “You will do your best for the Empire and the Emperor in the colonies, will you not, Anton?”

“Of course, Your Dread Grace.”

“You and I have both seen the potential of the place. Develop it for the Empire. Exploit it to the fullest.”

The briefest mental image of a storeroom filled to the ceiling with gold, precious gems, and other riches flickered into Anton’s mind. He nodded infinitesimally. Message received. He was to squeeze the place until it bled.

“Do not ever relax your vigilance. Press hard and keep pressing hard for the Empire.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Let no threat to the Empire arise on your watch, Lord Constantine.”

“Never, Your Dread Grace.”

“I trust my colonies into your able stewardship, Lord Constantine.”

Ammertus could not have been clearer. His man Anton had the archduke’s permission to do whatever he pleased in Haelos as long as the Empire’s political interests were served.

Ammertus leaned close and breathed in Anton’s ear, “I shall see to it you have short swords even more spectacular than those paltry toothpicks. And mine shall be infused with even greater magic.”

With Ammertus’s endorsement in hand, in the most guarded and secret corner of his mind Anton commenced scheming anew. Circumspect. Subtle. Patient. He must now be all of those things. Each one galled him to his core, but he had no choice after his earlier mental slip. He could no longer reach his goals by the simple, straightforward means he’d planned before. But his goal remained the same. Dupree and every ounce of its wealth would be his.

 

CHAPTER 2

SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, IN A REMOTE SOUTHWESTERN CORNER OF THE COLONY OF DUPREE IN HAELOS

A distant cicada buzzed in the noontide heat, the harsh note rising until it broke, leaving behind only a lazy breath of breeze. Raina, second daughter of the House of Tyrel, lay on a carpet of fine, soft grass, gazing up idly at the trees overhead.

As far as anyone could tell, a land as large as or larger than Koth stretched away to the west and south of the lone inhabited corner of this great continent, as yet unexplored. Dangerous. Unknown. The colony of Dupree clung to its little corner of the continent tenaciously, carving a place for itself in the great forests and untamed wilds of a new land. Tyrel lay at the very edge of that inland expansion, not entirely safe, but not entirely uncivilized, either.

The day’s warmth, its stillness and somnolence, called for a nap. Even the swarm of gnats flitting in and out of the dappled sunlight like tiny sparks of faerie dust moved more drowsily than usual. Only the little brook at her feet was in a hurry, rushing from rock to rock on its busy way to wherever it eventually went.

“I know a secret.”

Raina turned her head indolently to gaze at her companion and the source of the words. Her surrogate big brother and best friend in the whole world, Justin Morland.

Lanky and lean, he was two years her senior and showing signs of becoming a man. He ought to be training with the men-at-arms this warm afternoon. But instead, he’d invited her to go fishing. Just like the old days when they were carefree children. A rare treat, this, what with his duties around the castle and her studies occupying so much time.

She retorted, “Of course you know a secret. Today is my sixteenth birthday, and my mother tasked you with getting me out from underfoot so my surprise feast can be laid!”

He grinned, flashing devastating dimples. “Well, there is that. Promise to act shocked so she doesn’t have me caned.”

Raina plucked a blade of new grass and commenced chewing the stem. “She’s strict, but she’d never flog you. You’re like one of her own sons. Still, I vow to act positively stunned.”

They both chewed on grass stems for a time, extracting the sweet green tang within. Then Justin drawled, “I know another secret. A big one.”

That roused her to a more alert state. “Do you know what my birthday gift is?”

“No. But I know where it comes from.”

“Where?”

He didn’t answer.

She sat up. “Tell me!”

“I’m not sure I should.”

“You can’t tell me you’ve got a secret and then not share it!”

“But I like tormenting you.”

“Tell!” Raina pounced on him, pummeling his chest with her fists. They were probably too old to be cavorting thus, but they’d grown up together scrapping like a pair of puppies and it was simply what they did. Their mothers would be appalled—after all, he and Raina were no longer children. Awareness of his maturing masculinity and her budding femininity hovered at the edge of her consciousness, but she pushed it away. This was her Justin.

“Your mother told my mum you’re getting a visitor. He’s bringing your surprise.”

“Who?” Raina demanded. She ought to play coy if she wanted Justin to tell her anytime soon, for he was a terrible tease. But she was too curious about all the heavily charged secrecy surrounding her birthday gift this year to restrain herself.

He sat up abruptly, dumping her on her backside. She laughed up at him, and without warning she attacked again. They wrestled like the old days, except he was careful with her now. They both knew he was stronger and a more skilled fighter than she. Still, he let her win.

Panting, her face hot and her hair flying akimbo out of its braid, she straddled his chest, her skirts tangled around them both. The necklace she never took off dangled between them, its silver medallion embossed with a tiny tri-petaled blue flower nestled among three leaves, winking in the sunlight. “Do you yield?” she demanded.

He grinned up at her. “To you, my lady, I shall always yield.”

“Then spill. Who brings my gift?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where does he come from?”

His voice pitched low as befitted the telling of something forbidden, Justin murmured direly, “Alchizzadon.”

Alchizzadon.

The word whispered through her mind like a dark incantation, thick with threat. The sun slid behind a cloud just then, and a chill shivered across her skin. Or was it the single uttered word itself, shrouded in mystery and menace, that sent foreboding chattering down her spine?

What little she knew of Alchizzadon was stolen knowledge, overheard in tiny bits gathered over many years. The word made her father’s jaw go rigid with fury. But in the privacy of Lady Charlotte’s solar, the word made Raina’s mother’s eyes wistful, filled with regret and … if Raina wasn’t mistaken … longing.

What was this place, Alchizzadon?

She’d pored over every map in her family’s magnificent—secret—library and never once found it. No village or city bore the name, no castle or keep. She’d asked her older sister, Arianna, once if she knew what or where it was and had gotten slapped for her troubles, along with a hissed warning never to utter the word again. And the mystery around Alchizzadon had only deepened.

She was to have a present from that very place? She climbed off Justin and plunked down in the grass, hugging her knees to her chest. The laughter suddenly sucked out of the day, she asked on a sigh, “How long are you supposed to keep me out here?”

He squinted up at the sky. “At least another turn of the hourglass.” Then he grinned up at her. “I bet I can catch a bigger fish than you.”

“Hah! Do you have line and hooks?”

“Of course,” he replied scornfully.

He always had them stashed in a pocket or pouch somewhere on his person. She rose to her feet and reached down to help him up. His hand swallowed hers nowadays, new calluses on his palms abrading her tender flesh. He rose to his full height, a hand span taller than she, even though she was somewhat tall for a human female. He was growing up. They both were.

But they had today.

“I’ll race you to the willow grove,” she challenged.

He laughed. “With those skirts? Hah. You’ll eat my dust.”

Laughing, she darted off through the trees. He didn’t let her win this time and was casually trimming a long, supple sapling when she finally arrived, breathing hard. She held her side until the pain in it abated and then picked out a likely fishing pole. Using the dagger from her healing pouch, she sawed at the young willow.

“Let me do that. We’ll be here all day waiting for you to cut it through, muckling.”

She scowled. He’d called her muckling after the manor’s squealing piglets for as long as she could remember. “You’re still a pest!” she retorted.

He lifted the dagger from her hand. “You adore me and you know it.”

“Hah.”

Grinning, he made short work of cutting down the tree. “You need to keep this dagger sharper. You never know when a keen blade will save your life.”

“You sound like my father.”

“He’s a fine swordsman. He knows whereof he speaks.”

“I care not for such things.”

“Of course not. You’re a girl. Not to mention you stink with swords.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, but he was right. As talented as she was with magic and healing, she was equally untalented with anything that had to do with weapons.

The two of them made their way to the stream and got down to the serious business of fishing, arguing good-naturedly over whose fish was bigger. The largest on her string was a finger width longer than any of Justin’s, but his biggest catch was the heaviest of all, a fat female with a belly full of roe.

Regret tugged at Raina as the sun inevitably began its descent toward the horizon. As excited as she was for her birthday feast and her mysterious visitor bearing gifts, she didn’t want this day to end. A perfect day.

Finally, reluctantly, they declared the fishing contest a draw. Justin picked up both strings of fish and threw them over his shoulder. She captured his free hand and swung it back and forth jauntily as they hiked out of the woods. As the trees thinned and the low, gray outline of the keep came into sight, he gently disentangled their fingers.

“It is not meet for us to be seen skipping along holding hands.”

“Why not? We’ve done so our whole lives.”

His face went closed. Serious. “Times change. People change.”

Sudden dread coursed through her. Call it premonition or silly, girlish superstition, but her chest clenched so tight she could hardly breathe. She stopped, dragging at his hand to swing him around to face her, and forced words past the heavy lump in her throat. “Promise me you’ll never change.”

He frowned at her. “Why do you say that?”

“Just promise.” She added earnestly, “Please?”

“All right. Fine. I promise.” A pause. “And you’re still a silly muckling.”

Her throat relaxed of a sudden, and all was right with the world once more. He would always be her Justin. They continued on, walking toward the long shadow of the walls looming ahead. Her family’s keep was neither fancy nor large, a lump of rock designed for practicality and defense. But it was home.

“What do you suppose the visitor is bringing for my birthday?”

“A bucket of spiders.”

She punched his upper arm. Ever since he’d dropped a giant hairy black spider down her dress when she was six she’d been terrified of the creatures.

He snorted. “You hit like a girl.”

A new, arch voice intruded from nearby. “She shouldn’t hit at all. It isn’t ladylike.”

Arianna.

Raina rolled her eyes at Justin. As usual, her older sister was perfectly turned out, every glossy lock of brunette hair in place, her gown impeccable, her manicure flawless. Raina abruptly became painfully aware of the dirt caked under her own broken fingernails from digging in the riverbank for worms. She glanced down furtively. As she feared. Her dress was covered in grass stains and dried mud. Wisps of hair straggled in her face, as fair and golden as her sister’s was dark and sable. Raina pushed her disheveled locks back defiantly.

“At least we did something productive today. Justin and I caught your breakfast for the morrow while you sat around being pretty and useless.”

Arianna drew herself up and said huffily, “I shall be the bride of—” She broke off.

“Of whom?” Raina challenged. To her knowledge, no match had been arranged for her or her sister. Tradition held that the elder daughter got to travel the wide world and seek a husband far away for herself while the younger daughter stayed home and managed the family’s lands and holdings. It wasn’t fair in the least, not that anyone had bothered to ask her about it.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Sooner than you know,” her sister replied smugly.

Raina didn’t have the slightest idea what Arianna was talking about and, furthermore, couldn’t care less. Such matters were still a lifetime away for her. She shrugged and continued walking toward the keep.

“Who’s that?” Justin asked suddenly.

She followed his pointing finger and spied movement on the rise where the Tyrel Road topped it. A cluster of robed men walked this way at a steady, traveler’s pace. “Probably guests arriving for my party.”

“I don’t recognize them. Nor the symbols on their robes,” Justin muttered.

Raina frowned. The only strangers who came to this remote little corner of the colony were tax collectors. But it was far too early in the year for that. She squinted at the two tall figures leading the little party. Justin was right. The dark green cloaks and angular silver runes upon them were foreign to her.

“Let’s go greet them,” she declared.

“It would not be wise until we know who they are…,” Justin started.

Impatient of his caution, she burst into a run. Of course, he was obliged to keep pace beside her. “You’re an idiot,” he grunted.

“You forgot to add ‘reckless and impulsive,’” she panted as his stride lengthened, forcing her to work at keeping up with him.

The travelers stopped sharply, seemingly startled at the sight of locals racing at them pell-mell. Justin slowed, and Raina was grateful to pull up. The stupid corset her mother had recently taken to making her wear was giving her an awful pain in her side.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” Justin said formally. “Welcome to Tyrel.”

One of the new arrivals was of an age with her father; the other was perhaps two dozen summers in age. The three men behind the pair in dark blue were obviously servants and each carried a bulky pack.

Raina eyed the two in front. Their cloaks were made of rich wool, the clasps at their throats finely worked silver with triangular symbols on them. Even at a glance, she saw the craftsmanship in the baubles was superior. And yet, for all their finery, a disturbing air clung to the men. Sinister. She frowned, failing to put her finger on the source of her disquiet.

“Well met, young sir. And who might you be?” the older one replied formally.

“I am Justin Morland, a servant of the manor. And this is Lady Raina, second daughter of the house.”

Both travelers’ gazes snapped to her with avid interest … and something else. Something that sent a ripple of unease climbing her spine. It was as if they measured her. But for what? The younger one’s mouth curved up in a self-satisfied smile that made her skin positively crawl.

The older one asked, “Is Lady Charlotte in the manor?”

His tongue wrapped all too familiarly around her mother’s name for Raina’s liking. She replied stiffly, “Aye.”

Arianna, who had not deigned to run like a hoyden, caught up with them just then, not a hair out of place and not the least bit out of breath. “Greetings. Welcome and well met, I am Arianna of Tyrel. To whom do I have the honor of speaking?”

Raina gritted her teeth at her sister’s smooth courtesy. How come she could never manage to sound so calm and collected?

“Greetings, my lady,” the younger one murmured as he bowed deeply. “It is an honor, indeed, to meet ane lu kagiri.”

Raina started. She’d heard rumors of dead languages actually existing, but had never found any real evidence to support the rumors. Where did these men gain access to knowledge of any tongue other than Common, which was spoke by everyone, everywhere? The syllables the young man spoke barely tickled at the edges of her understanding as if they were some incredibly ancient form of Common. She took a stab at its meaning. She who waits? Why would the fellow call her sister that?

The older one spoke hastily, as if to distract from his young companion’s slip. “Our journey has been long and the road dusty. Perhaps a drink to wet our parched throats is to be had?”

Arianna went into full hostess mode, then, bustling about and calling for servants to come relieve the travelers of their loads and bring water and wine right away.

Raina trailed along behind the party, Justin faithfully at her side. She muttered to one of the mud-spattered load bearers, “From whence come you?”

He looked startled to be addressed, and answered in a bare mumble, “We be Jena men. But them two’s”—he jerked his chin toward the men in green and his voice dropped into a bare whisper—“said to be Mages of Alchizzadon.” He made a hand sign to ward off evil magics.

Although Raina wasn’t generally superstitious, she understood the man’s fear. There was something ominous about the pair. What on Urth could her mother have obtained from such men for her birthday present? Frankly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to receive such a gift.

The parade passed under the sturdy portcullis and gained the outer bailey of the keep, which was paved more in muck than cobbled stones at the moment. The visitors were ushered into the manor proper, and abrupt quiet fell in the yard. Justin made to leave her side and head for the kitchens with the fish, but Raina touched his arm. He halted questioningly.

“Thanks be to you for today,” she said softly. “It was the best gift ever.”

He smiled down fondly at her. “You are most welcome.”

The moment froze itself in her memory, imprinting indelibly upon her mind, never to be forgotten, the pungent scent of lye from the recently cleaned stables and the crusty smell of hot bread, fresh from the brick beehive oven beside the kitchen; the red glow of the sunset highlighting one side of Justin’s face and casting the other in shadow; the coolness of coming evening upon her bare arms.

He spoke quietly. “Go get ready for your party, muckling.”

“You will be there, will you not?” she asked anxiously. The new guests gave her a bad feeling, and a corresponding compulsion for him to be near surged within her.

“I would not miss your party for all the world.”

Impulsively she stretched up on tiptoe and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. It wasn’t the sort of thing they did between them, and her face heated up. She whirled and ran for the keep.

THE SOUTHERNMOST MARGIN OF THE COLONY OF DUPREE

Will jumped carefully from boulder to boulder at the bottom of Hickory Knot, the big hill just beyond the village of Hickory Hollow, balancing his precious cargo in one hand and trying to remain silent all the while. It was his favorite moment of the day, taking the evening meal to the watch. The sun slipped below the horizon and long shadows hid his movement as he climbed.

Adrick was on duty this eve. Will always tried to sneak up on the seasoned barbarian hunter, and Adrick always spotted Will first. Once the pot of stew was delivered, as often as not the older man invited Will to sit with him for a while. He’d regale Will with stories of his latest hunt or show him a thing or two with whatever weapon he happened to be carrying that night: spear or bow, dagger or axe.

It galled Will that his own father steadfastly refused to teach him even the most basic weapon skills, muttering instead about the danger of being discovered carrying such knowledge in his head. As if the Empire would ever bother investigating the thoughts of a cobbler’s son living on the very farthest edge of the civilized world. Oh, Ty taught Will plenty about sweeping floors and stoking forge fires and threshing grain, and even about controlling his emotions, silencing his mind, and marshaling his thoughts. But his imagination ran to heroic adventures and glory in battle.

Into thick brush, now, Will crept more slowly, easing through the brambles cautiously. The slope grew steeper, and he had to use both hands to steady the ceramic pot, which made the climb all the trickier. He’d never approached the clearing atop the knot from this direction before. If he could be quiet enough about it, he would finally win the ongoing contest with Adrick for certes.

He reached the ring of stones crowning the Knot and crouched low, crawling with three limbs while he cradled the stew pot in his left arm. In the gathering dusk, he spied a corner of Adrick’s fur-trimmed cloak on the far side of the giant old hickory that gave this spot its name. Will grinned. He eased upright, stepped carefully over the low stacked stones, and charged the tree on light, quick feet.

“Got you this time, Adrick!” He gave the cloak a victorious yank—

—and the rough wool fell to the ground, slithering off the butt of the lone spear planted in the dirt. He started to whirl, to seek his tricky prey, when cold steel bit at the joining of his chin and neck.

“Not bad, boy. Not bad at all.” The steel pulled away.

Will huffed in disgust. “I’ll never be as good as you, Adrick.”

“It is nae true. Ye’ll make a fine hunter fer sure, if yer father ever lets ye off the leash and out of yon hovel.” The older man swept the pot from Will’s hand and held it to his nose, taking a long, appreciative sniff. “Ahh, yer ma’s squirrel stew. Best cook in the Ring, she be.”

Adrick made his living traveling the ring of settlements surrounding the margins of the Wylde Wood, hunting and trapping as he went. The woodsman sat down on a flat-topped boulder that made for a decent bench and gestured Will to sit beside him.

Will looked down at the hollow, a muddy village straddling the intersection of two footpaths in the middle of nowhere. While some might call it a fine enough place to live, far from the prying eyes of the Empire, he called it his prison. He desired nothing more than to leave home and see the world. To seek adventure. Honor. Glory.

“Truth be, boy, it is the stew that gave ye away. Smelled it afore ye set foot upon the slope. Good climbing, by the by. Watched yer whole ascent, I did. Clever to come by the most impassable route.”

Will’s spirits lifted at that. He rubbed idly at the sore spot under his chin where the razor-sharp dagger had pressed into his flesh. “Mayhap I should not have talked my father into making you that dagger, or at least not making it so sharp.”

“Ty’s blades take an’ hold fine edges, they do,” Adrick replied, running the pad of his thumb lightly along the gleaming blade. “Woodsman’s best friend, a good blade. Yer sire should make ye a sword, and soon. It is time and more that ye’ve a long blade at yer hip.”

Will snorted. As if he hadn’t had that argument with his father a hundred times or more already.

“’Ave ye ever asked yer ole man where he learned to make such a weapon,? It is a passing strange skill fer a cobbler in the Wylding.”

Will shrugged. Ty had long refused to answer any and all questions about his past.

Silence fell as the woodsman dug into the pot of stew with gusto. Finally, Will’s impatience was such that he had to blurt, “Will you show me a new trick tonight, Adrick?”

“Tell ye what, boy. If ye can run back to yer house, give yer ma this rabbit I snared, get yer folks’ leave to come back to the Knot, and run back here afore I take my fill of this here stew, I’ll let ye stand watch with me. And I might just be talked into showin’ ye a thing or two.”

Exultation leaped in Will’s chest as he jumped to his feet. “I’ll be back before you’ve finished half the stew!”

“I’m thinkin’ gettin’ permission from yer pa’s goin’ to be the real test!” Adrick called after Will as he took off running.

“You underestimate my skill with words!” Will shouted over his shoulder as he sprinted down the curving path to the vale below.

Will ran down the main street and skidded to a stop at the threshold of his family’s freshly whitewashed cottage, last in the row, only a little ways from the encroaching woods. He wiped his muddy boots upon the rope mat before the door. His mother was nothing if not a stickler for cleanliness. He supposed it had something to do with her being an elf. None of the human women in the village worried nearly so much as she did about a little mud on their floors.

He ducked through the low door and into the homey warmth of the cottage. The interior glowed golden from the light of the fireplace and his mother’s prized oil lamp. “Here’s a rabbit for you, Mother. Adrick sends it with his regards and says thanks be to you for your delicious stew.”

Serica smiled from the rocking chair where she was currently attending to some mending. “Hang it by the fire. Your father can skin it when he’s finished with his work.”

Will glanced over at his father, hunched on his cobbler’s bench, sewing on an upside-down leather boot. Ty made the sturdiest, warmest, and most waterproof boots in the Ring and had steady work keeping the locals’ feet shod. Often as not, payment came in the form of food or labor traded, which meant it was an annual struggle to raise enough coin to pay the Imperial taxes. But they got by better than most, Will supposed. Their house was warm and snug, and there was always enough to eat upon the table.

“Adrick says I may stand watch with him, tonight,” Will started.

Serica looked up in alarm, and then gave a little cry as she pricked her finger with the needle. She sucked it as Ty answered without looking up from his boot, “No.”

“Why not?” Will cried. “You never let me do anything. I am not a hothouse flower that will wilt at the first sign of frost!” He wasn’t entirely sure what a hothouse flower was, but he’d heard his mother make the same complaint a while back when Ty didn’t want her to go out visiting a friend a few villages over by herself.

One corner of Will’s father’s stern mouth twitched in amusement. Sensing an opening, Will pressed his point. “Adrick’s the finest woodsman in these parts. If I am not safe with him, then there is no safety to be had in the Wylding. It is just for one night. And he promised to show me—” Will broke off. He’d almost slipped and mentioned their secret weapons lessons. “—woodcraft skills,” he finished lamely.

Serica and Ty shared a long look.

“Every other boy in the Ring my age has been standing watch for years,” Will pleaded. He added with more heat, “You have to let me grow up sometime.”

Serica spoke in her gentle, modulated voice. “He has a point, my dear. Perhaps he could stay a few hours.…”

Will held his breath in agony as his father considered the idea.

Finally, Ty laid down needle and sinew and stood slowly, stretching the kinks out of his back. “A few hours, only,” Ty said heavily. “I shall place a lamp in the window. Come home when I put it out.”

Will whooped and swept his mother up in a hug, twirling her around in his joy. She protested in her gentle way and he set her down, laughing.

“You will need a blade, Son.” Ty moved over to the big iron-banded trunk in the corner. The lid creaked open and he fished around within it. He emerged carrying a tangle of leather. He held out what Will saw was a belt and long sheath. The leather-wrapped handle of one of Ty’s longer weapon-daggers stuck out of the sheath.

Will threw himself at Ty and wrapped him, belt and all, in a quick, hard hug. “Thank you, Father!”

His father rummaged in the chest again, and this time emerged with a leather coat with metal rings sewn onto it. Will recognized his father’s armor and shrugged into it with a certain reverence. It was a little big on him, but would keep him warm and dry and stop a wolf bite.

As he put the armor on, his father pulled a staff out from under the bed. Will was more comfortable with that weapon than with edged weapons. He took it and tested the balance. Like all of Ty’s weapons, it was superb.

“Off with you, then,” Ty said gruffly. “No sleeping on the job, eh?”

“No, sir!” And Will was out the door into the gathering dark with another whoop of joy. His mother’s soft laughter carried on the firelight spilling out behind him.

Full dark was upon the vale, and a sliver of moon was just rising behind him as Will charged up the path to the Knot. He burst into the clearing in hopes of seeing Adrick still seated with his stew pot, but the woodsman was standing, an odd expression on his face. Blast it. Adrick had won, yet again.

Will screeched to a halt. “I told you I’d talk them into letting me—” Why was Adrick looking down at his own belly like that? “Is aught amiss—” Will started. But then he spied the dark, wet … something … sticking out of Adrick’s chest.

The woodsman looked up at him in blank surprise. Adrick’s legs crumpled, and Will dropped his staff to leap forward and catch the woodsman as he collapsed like a puppet whose strings were let go all at once.

Behind Will’s friend stood a huge monster with undershot tusks, crude leather armor over bumpy green skin, and massive muscles. A bloody spear dripped in the orc’s left fist. A giant jagged-edged axe rested in his right hand.

Orc!

As that realization exploded across Will’s mind, the beast leaped with shocking speed across the small clearing, putting himself between Will and the vale below. It took no great woodcraft to know the monster had just cut him off from the village and help.

The orc grunted something unintelligible and took an aggressive step forward, axe held high. Will took a stumbling step back and bumped into the giant hickory at his back. He fumbled for his father’s long dagger clumsily and brandished it awkwardly. The short weapon was sure death against an opponent with much longer weapons, though.

The orc grunted and scooped up Ty’s spear, then stunned Will by tossing it to him. He dropped the dagger and caught in midair the lighter, faster weapon with its metal-sheathed tip.

The orc settled into a fighting stance. Will seated the spear under his arm as well. The orc grunted approvingly and advanced, circling to Will’s left. It was a fight the beast wanted, then. The orc stowed his own spear as Will stared. Was he actually trying to even the odds?

The orc used his now-free hand to thump his chest and grunt, “Du’shaak.”

What on Urth does that mean? Not that Will had any time to ponder it, as the beast took a swipe at him with that gigantic axe. A weapon that large and heavy was, perforce, slow. Will jumped back out of its arc, and the fight was on.

Not that it was much of a fight. This creature was clearly an experienced warrior. And he was a boy from the hollow, untrained in the ways of war thanks to his stubborn father. He stabbed awkwardly at the orc with the spear as Adrick had shown him to do. Spears were thrusting weapons, after all.

Using one giant fist, the orc grabbed the spear just behind its metal head and lifted it up into the air, with Will clinging in panic to its hilt. His feet cleared the ground entirely and the orc swung the spear, slamming Will into the giant hickory, shoulder first. Dazed and in pain, he stubbornly refused to release the spear. The orc yanked it again, sending Will hard into the tree trunk and to his knees this time.

“Du’shaak!” the orc snarled as Will scrambled frantically to his feet. Adrick had told Will time and time again, never go down. To do so in a fight was to die. Desperation coursed through him, as the bigger, stronger, obviously trained, obviously angry beast shook the spear, jerking him around like a rag doll.

The orc swung his axe in a short, sharp arc, splintering the metal head entirely off the tough hickory spear. The beast tossed the spearhead away in disgust.

Realization broke over Will that he was going to die. The orc would pound him to death against the tree soon if the monster didn’t cleave him in half with that cursed axe. Already he felt beaten to a pulp and was losing strength.

Without real thought, Will’s desperation changed forms. Shifted from fear to thought, thought to intent, intent to action. Golden light crackled down the remaining length of the broken weapon, exploding off the jagged tip like chain lightning in a burst of force magic.

The spear nearly flew out of his hands as the magic discharged violently. His opponent was thrown backward even more violently, flying across the small clearing and slamming hard against a tree. The orc roared, his ugly face contorted in rage, and charged, seriously intent on killing Will now.

What was that?

It was one thing to dabble with his secret talent for magic alone in the woods. To push flexible limbs away from him and create tiny glowing points of light. But that massive bolt of damaging energy? Where did that come from? If anyone found out he could do something like that—

—the thought did not bear finishing. If someone from the village had spotted that distinctive flash of magic and reported him to the authorities, orcs would be the least of his problems. If he was lucky, he would be reported to the Mage’s Guild as an unlicensed magic user. He could ended up forcibly drafted into the guild to serve it. If he was unlucky, he would be reported to Governor Anton’s men. Then Will could expect to be arrested and sold into slavery to wield magic for his master until death.

The orc scrambled to his feet with a roar of rage and Will concentrated with all his power upon maintaining his grip on the broken spear. It was the only thing separating him from death at the hands of the enraged beast.

Hastily he called more magic to himself, blasting it down the length of the mangled weapon. The bolt of force damage wasn’t nearly as powerful as the last one, and the orc was prepared for it this time. The beast absorbed the magic with a painful grunt and only staggered back momentarily.

Will stumbled back as well, doubtful that he could throw magic at his foe a third time. The spear was now effectively a wooden staff. This was a weapon with which he was much more familiar. He’d threshed more wheat than he cared to think about with just such a stave over the years. Ty had shown him a dozen different ways to swing a threshing pole to prevent muscle fatigue, too. He waited for the orc grimly as the beast gathered himself one more time in the scant moonlight.

The orc charged with a wordless shout, axe high over his head. Will ducked and dived left, sweeping the staff with all his strength into the orc’s shins. It wasn’t an elegant move by any means, but effective. The beast tripped awkwardly. Staggered. Fell. And the momentum of his fall threw him headfirst into the stacked rock wall.

Will stared as the orc lifted his head in a daze. A strange, reddish, mark in the shape of a barbed seed was on the beast’s forehead. Adrick had spoken of orcs marked by irregular red scars. Boki. The Lords of the Boar. The fabled orcs of the Forest of Thorns who nearly laid Dupree to waste when Will was but a babe. What was one doing here so far from his home?

It dawned on Will belatedly that this was his chance to leap forward and drive the broken end of the spear through the beast’s neck. But the idea of having to look that creature in the eye and kill him in cold blood froze Will in place. He was no murderer. Some might argue that yon orc was no better than a boar or a stag, but Will could not deny the orc was intelligent and had demonstrated a rough honor in giving him the spear to defend himself. He owed the orc no less respect. He would not cut the defenseless creature down in cold blood.

A faint smell, as of rotting meat, caught Will’s attention. He lifted his head sharply, scanning the valley below. All was quiet. Too quiet. The entire wood around the hollow had gone dead silent. And creatures of the forest never lied. Furthermore, it made no sense for an orc to travel alone. This one must be a scout of some kind. Which meant—

Will fell to his knees beside Adrick’s corpse and tore open the woodsman’s belt pouch. He fished around frantically, fumbling through the bits and baubles jumbled within. His fingertips encountered a smooth, curving surface, and he grasped it firmly. In a single swift movement he pulled the ox horn forth and stared in dismay. Its entire small end, the blowing end, was smashed. Useless.

Swearing, he scrambled to find Adrick’s whistling arrows and bows. The scream of one of them would warn at least some of the villagers. But the arrows, too, were broken into worthless matchsticks. The orc scout had done his work well.

Hoarse shouts—dozens of them—erupted behind Will, an unintelligible gibberish of harsh grunts and growls. Great stars above. That was no simple raiding party. It sounded like a small army erupting from the forest behind him. Tree branches splintered and leaves flew every which way as orcs, goblins, and even ogres burst out of the woods almost on top of him.

Great Lady, grant me speed, he whispered in his mind as he turned and ran as if the Lord of the North Wind himself blew Will forward. A roar went up behind him as the creatures spotted him and gave chase. He could only pray to reach the village and rouse its inhabitants before everyone was slaughtered in their beds.

He headed straight down the hill, leaping over fallen logs, dodging low-hanging boughs, and tearing recklessly through brambles that snatched at his clothes. He hoped his knowledge of the slope would lend him speed while the rough terrain slowed his pursuers.

His heart lodged in his throat and flailed there like a dying sparrow. His thighs pumped up and down, heavy with panic. Sweat popped out on his forehead. A stitch stabbed at his side. His lungs caught on fire. And still he ran as if a reaper from the Void were after him. Which wasn’t so very far from the truth. An arrow schwinged past his ear.

As he burst into the valley from the north, he spotted a second wave of orcs and goblins charging the village from the west in a coordinated flanking attack.

He drew within shouting distance of the cluster of huts. “Orcs! Ogres! Goblins!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “To arms! The hollow is under attack!”

Charlotte of Tyrel was as nervous as a maiden as she waited impatiently for her guests to freshen up, Pacing in agitation, she flung her hands up in disgust as it dawned on her she was wringing them. Bah. This would not do. She was the Lady of Tyrel, now. Not that sixteen-year-old girl from long ago.

She glanced at the paper-wrapped package sitting on her desk and wondered yet again at its contents. It had arrived the previous week with a note saying that it was for the elder of her two guests. What was Kadir up to, the sly old dog?

A knock on her office door had her whirling toward it. She forced herself to take a steadying breath, then called out imperiously, “Enter!”

She nodded formally at the older of her two guests. “Kadir. Welcome.” Awareness of him shivered through her like the magic of his caresses all those seasons past.

“Lady Charlotte,” he murmured, emphasizing her title with faint irony. He remembered, too, did he? “How do you fare?”

“Very well, thank you. And you? I trust your journey was pleasant.”

Kadir grunted, “It was long. The roads between Jena and here are dismal.” Jena, largest city in the Midlands, was at the exact opposite corner of the region from Tyrel.

They traded a few pleasantries before he brought up the reason he was here and the one subject she most dreaded discussing with him. Kadir asked soberly, “Does she know yet?”

Charlotte was taken aback at his directness. He had to know full well this was a subject she much preferred to talk circles around. She had hoped their old liaison would count for something, that he might find a gentler way of breaking the news to her daughter than he ultimately had to her all those years ago. But apparently not. Her back stiffened and she moved behind her desk to sit. If his desire was for this conversation to be purely business, so be it.

She moved around her desk and sat down. “I believe this package is for you.”

“Ahh, yes. I was expecting that. I am relieved to see it arrived in a timely manner.” He leaned forward to pick it up.

She watched curiously as Kadir unwrapped the package to reveal a rather ugly stick, no longer than her forearm and no thicker than her finger, covered with bumps. “What is that?”

“It’s just a dousing rod.”

She was scholar enough to know that it was not just any dousing rod. Rather, it was a magic-imbued rod and, given who was holding it, likely a powerful one. “Where does it come from?” she ventured to ask.

“The Council of Beasts. It is made from wood of the treant Whisper.”

“The progeny of Spirit? That Whisper?” she blurted, startled.

Kadir shrugged disinterestedly. “I believe the council said something like that. I have no interest in their totems and nature mysticism. All that concerns me is that this rod aids in finding and transporting objects and people. If my companion and I had this a month ago, our journey to Tyrel would have taken a fraction of the time and misery.”

She eyed the rod askance. So much power in such an unassuming little twig? It was hard to credit. Almost as hard to credit as the mythic Council of Beasts itself having touched an object that now rested in her study.

“And why do you have need of such a thing here?” Charlotte asked.

Kadir smiled, a false politician’s smile over an inscrutable gaze, and she needed no further answer. It was a contingency in case her daughter gave him problems. Charlotte almost wished Raina would. Almost.

“With the accidental death of the young man you were planning to overtly pledge Raina to, we have had to move up the schedule for her,” Kadir announced.

Charlotte stared, stunned. “I beg your pardon?”

“We cannot risk something happening to her before she can do her duty to us.”

“And how do you plan to explain her offspring if she is not safely married off to some local boy?”

“That is not my problem.”

“Well, it is mine!” she snapped. “The tradition is that the daughters of Tyrel become engaged in their sixteenth year. They marry soon thereafter, and then you get your babes on them. After they marry. By law, bastard daughters do not inherit landholdings, which would give both of us headaches in training the girls and trying to explain why they do get to become the Ladies of Tyrel.”

Kadir shrugged. “The decision is made. How you explain Raina’s sudden offspring is up to you. But this happens now.”

Dismay poured through her. Kadir did not understand. The shame of it … the logistic problems … and then there was Raina herself. She would never agree to bear children outside of marriage—

Justin. He and Raina had been inseparable forever. He was common born, but educated enough and a good-looking lad. Charlotte’s husband said he showed promise as a swordsman, and she herself had sensed a latent talent for magic in the youth. He was not ideal, but he was close at hand, and Raina would likely agree to a betrothal to him. Yes. Justin could work.

“It will take some time to arrange, but I think I can salvage the situation here,” she said slowly, her mind racing.

“No,” Kadir replied firmly. “Now.”

Impossible! She opened her mouth to say so, but the younger mage of Alchizzadon, the one to whom she had yet to be introduced—an omission she was intrigued by from Kadir—spoke up first. “Does the girl know aught, yet?”

“The girl” was her daughter. And had a name. An impertinent question, that. But then, she supposed he might be somewhat impatient to meet his future lover. A little resistance overcome by a love poison and, stars willing, Raina’s experience would leave behind the same sorts of pleasant memories that it had for her.

Why then the sudden rage bubbling within her breast? It took her wholly by surprise. Memory came pouring back; she’d nearly revolted against this long tradition of her family’s when she’d been Raina’s age, and a remnant of that rebellion flared in her now.

Her adult reason took control once more. In spite of the wrinkle Kadir had thrown at them with his insistence on proceeding immediately, all would turn out right. Justin would cooperate. He was obviously sweet on Raina, and who would say no to marrying into a title and wealth? As for Raina, she would not fight a betrothal to Justin. Regarding the other part, the one involving the mages, she would be upset at first, stubborn even. But after the love elixir … yes, everything would be fine.

It had been Kadir’s eyes that turned aside the crisis for Charlotte all those years ago. They’d had been dark and soulful, brimming with sympathy for her, and had softened her heart just enough that logic and cajolery—and a love draught—had won the day. Something similar, some tiny thing, would soften her own stubborn daughter’s heart. Eyeing the young man speculatively, she allowed that he was handsome enough to capture her daughter’s fancy.

“Your husband? Does he remember anything?” Kadir asked.

She pulled her attention back to the conversation at hand. “No. The spell of forgetting has held.”

“Bring her to us, Char,” Kadir said gently. “It is time she knew the truth. Do you wish me to be with you for the telling?”

She gasped at the old endearment, her lingering doubts punctured by it. The moment of rebellion drained away, leaving her empty. Sad. “No. It will be best if I tell her in private.”

Kadir nodded in understanding. “As you wish.”

She rose from her desk to fetch Raina, personally. She needed the time to compose herself after Kadir’s bombshell revelation that everything must happen right away. She had no doubt there was more to the decision than simple concern that Raina might have an unfortunate accident. Which alarmed her mightily. What information was he keeping secret? A prophecy of some kind? A vague notion of warning her daughter nagged at Charlotte. But how could any young girl truly prepare for the revelations to come? How was she supposed to prepare herself for it as a mother?

She had dreaded this moment her entire adult life. But, inevitably, sickeningly, it had arrived. The moment of betrayal was upon her.

CHAPTER 3

Raina was surprised that her mother had yet to make an appearance at her birthday feast. Charlotte was nothing if not a fine hostess. Arianna had, of course, stepped in and taken over welcoming the guests and ordering the meal served. Raina suspected, though, that most here were more interested in the ale than the food.

The great hall had been transformed by streamers of white gauze and cascades of spring wildflowers into a magical bower for the night. As she looked out across the assemblage, warmth filled her at the collection of familiar faces. Neighbors and servitors alike, this was her family, and she felt safe and loved surrounded by them like this.

Interestingly enough, the visitors from Alchizzadon had not put in an appearance. It was almost as if they knew themselves to be intruders to this gathering.

The hour grew late and the assemblage was well into its cups, and still there was no sign of her mother. Raina spied Justin seated near the back of the hall with a brace of manor lads. He grinned and hoisted a brimming mug of ale at her. She smiled fondly as he broke into a bawdy song that was taken up immediately by the other feasters.

“Daughter.” She started at her mother’s voice behind her on the dais. She had not seen Charlotte arrive.

“Oh, Mother, my party is wonderful—” she started.

“Come.” Charlotte cut her off; her voice was as hard and cold as diamond under the raucous singing.

Alarmed, but sensing the need not to make a fuss, Raina pasted on a false smile and slipped from her seat. As she stood, she happened to glance at the crowd. And caught Justin’s concerned gaze upon her. He knew her too well. He’d marked that something was amiss. A question gleamed in his eyes, and she gave him a reassuring smile. He nodded slightly, but a promise remained in his gaze. If she had need of him, she had but to ask.

Her mother’s agitation was such that Raina did not ask what was wrong, but merely followed, worried, to her mother’s office. Charlotte held the door and Raina stepped past her into the chamber.

Raina ought not have been surprised that the Mages of Alchizzadon were behind her mother’s disquiet, not to mention the untimely interruption of her birthday feast. She studied the men closely, not bothering to disguise her interest. Both were tall, the older one thick and powerful under his cloak. The younger one was leaner, enveloped in restless energy.

Her mother closed the door, then sat down stiffly behind her desk. This was to be a formal meeting, then. Her mother gestured her to a chair by the corner of the desk, and she perched on the edge of it obediently.

Raina glanced sidelong at the mages and then looked again. From this angle, with the lamplight striking him just so, faint tattoos had become visible all over the older man’s face. The slashing lines and curlicues were reminiscent of the runes upon his cloak and had the effect of obscuring his face until all she really noticed was his eyes. They were black and penetrating, with power that stripped a spirit bare.

The older man’s gaze thankfully slid away from hers and locked with Charlotte’s. They traded a long, intense look that Raina could not make heads or tails of. There was most certainly a history between the two of them, but she could not fathom its nature.

The younger man had a single runic mark on his neck, climbing the left side of his jaw. If she looked at him straight on, it was barely noticeable. He was handsome in a bland sort of way. In a crowd, her gaze would slide off of him without ever really lighting upon him. Although self-disciplined, he betrayed faint discomfort in the hunch of his shoulders. He met her gaze for the briefest moment. And in that instant she could swear she glimpsed pity.

Pity? Normally, she was acutely aware of and able to interpret the unspoken currents flowing through situations like this, but for once she was confounded.

“It is time,” Kadir finally broke the silence by announcing.

Charlotte’s mouth compressed into a thin, white line of displeasure. Raina’s anxiety momentarily gave way to amusement at seeing her mother so discomfited.

“Give us a moment alone, if you please, gentlemen.”

Without comment, both men stood and moved to the door. “We shall be directly outside,” Kadir murmured gently. That almost sounded like words of support from him. Her mother’s gaze softened for an instant at his turned back.

The door closed behind the two men, and in a moment a magical glow became visible between the wooden panels and the floor. A wizard’s lock? The mages had locked her in here with her mother?

What in the world was afoot? Raina turned to Charlotte expectantly and was stunned to see the woman at an apparent loss for words. “What in stars’ name is going on, Mother?”

“Perhaps I should have told you from the beginning that this day would come. But it seemed kinder to let you have your childhood in innocence.”

The same dread that had overtaken her earlier when the mages arrived crept along Raina’s spine once more, running its cold fingers insidiously up the back of her neck.

“As you know, our family has a long history of holding these lands. Since the time of a great king: a human named Hadrian who was also a great mage.”

Raina blinked. The Kothites had always ruled Urth. This Hadrian must have been a king within the Kothite Empire, then. But here? In Haelos? A legend, then.

“… and this man chose for himself a bride. A daughter of the House of Tyrel by the name of Arianna.”

The dread fingers slid around her neck to clutch at Raina’s throat. Her sister was named Arianna. The firstborn daughter of the house was always named Arianna. Tradition had it that, to every generation of the family, the first two children born were always girls. No one seemed to know why it was so. But so it incontrovertibly was. Maybe not entirely legend, this tale of her mother’s.

Her mother continued, “The story has been handed down through the Mages of Alchizzadon since the time of its occurrence that, on their wedding day, a great attack happened. Hadrian took up sword and wand to defend his lands. He vanquished his foe, but at great personal cost. He called upon more magic than his body could withstand and burned himself out entirely. He would have died had not his court mages rushed in to stabilize his body and trap a small piece of his spirit within it. But without a massive infusion of great magic, his … husk … could not be revived. He has lain in stasis, neither alive nor dead, ever since, awaiting the day when the descendants of his court mages find a means of gathering enough of the raw, unchanneled magics of a bygone age to infuse them into his remains and revive him.”

In spite of herself, Raina’s mind raced, reviewing her training in the healing arts. A spirit balanced forever on the sword’s edge between life and death was not natural. Spirits fell into one realm or the other, but they did not hover endlessly between the two. Such a state, defying the laws of life and death, would have to be caused by powerful ritual magic of some kind not to have worn off eventually. Surely high-magic cures had been tried to restore this king.

Charlotte was speaking again. “Time passed. Generations came and went. Yet, the Great Mage—as he became called—slept on. Meanwhile, the House of Tyrel waited.”

How could a story like that have survived so long? Frankly, it sounded like an overblown hearth tale to Raina. She asked skeptically, “And you are certain these mages speak truth with this tale of theirs?”

Charlotte nodded firmly. “They have hidden and guarded the story from the Empire with great care. I am confident they speak the truth as they know it.”

“Mayhap they use it to gain favors and gold from us!” Raina retorted.

“They take nothing from the House of Tyrel. At least not in the way you think.” Her mother paused, apparently searching for words. Charlotte’s gaze drifted to the window and her eyes darkened with memory.

Raina waited so long she wondered if her mother had forgotten she was not alone. Finally, unable to contain her curiosity, Raina asked, “How do they seek to restore the Great Mage, Mother?”

Charlotte started. She seemed to gather her thoughts and then continued, “Our family made a promise to the king moments before he left to do battle for his kingdom. We vowed that when he returned, his bride would be waiting for him. Arianna of the House of Tyrel.”

The dread tightened its hold on Raina’s throat, digging its claws in so painfully she struggled to breathe. How would a bride restore this mage of theirs?

“For all these centuries, we have kept our promise. The firstborn daughter of each generation is given the name Arianna and is trained in all the arts and skills befitting a queen. And when the Great Mage finally rises, she will be ready and waiting.”

It was as if a bright light exploded inside her head. So much suddenly made sense! All of her sister’s years of training that seemed so useless out here on the edge of civilization. Etiquette and comportment, art, dance, and music. Training in managing great castles and estates. Endless study of history and politics and diplomacy. Arianna was being prepared to be a queen. Oh yes. It all made perfect sense.

Of course, as the little sister, Raina had been forced to tag along and endure the same education from the expensive tutors. In addition, her early talent for magic had secretly been nurtured outside the purview of the distant Imperial Mage’s Guild, who, thankfully, had no chapter house or members for a hundred leagues around. It added yet more hours of study and practice to her days, for mastering the physics of magical energy was an arduous endeavor at best.

Charlotte remained silent, yet Raina sensed the real crux of the tale had yet to be told. “This is all well and good, Mother, but how does it affect me? So far, my sister is the point of your story.”

“Ahh, but you are wrong. This story is about you as well. For you see, any bride of the Great Mage must remain unmarried. Pure.”

“But I thought Arianna was supposed to travel. To find a husband abroad.”

“That is the story we put forth to explain our tradition to outsiders.”

It was all a lie? Her mother was speaking again.

“Another daughter must be born each generation to take the previous Arianna’s place. And that task falls to the second daughter.”

Raina felt like one of her brothers had just punched her in the belly. She was the second daughter. She took a steadying breath. Then said reasonably, “So I am destined to bear daughters as my first two offspring. And I shall be expected to raise one of them as a queen. I can do that.”

Charlotte sighed. “Your duty extends beyond that, I am afraid.”

Now Charlotte’s eyes gleamed with pity, too. Grief, even. Raina glanced toward the door, a desire to bolt so strong she barely managed to keep her seat. The trap her mother had laid was near ready to spring.

“How so?” Raina asked cautiously.

“There is a problem in producing a bride fit for the Great Mage.”

Here it comes. “What sort of problem?”

“He was born long ago. In a time when magics were more powerful than they are today. Much more powerful. And the king was an exceptional mage even for his time.”

Charlotte hesitated.

“And?” Raina prompted in an agony of impatience and fear.

“And it has fallen to us to produce a bride of sufficient magical tolerance that lying with the Great Mage and bearing his children will not destroy her.”

Destroy her? Destroy her? Her brain refused to make sense of the words. By main force she managed to choke out, “Destroy her? How?”

“I speak of olde magick. Raw. Unchanneled. If magic today were the flame of a candle, by comparison this olde magick would be a wildfire roaring before a storm. Exposure to it would burn out the spirit of any person of normal constitution. Kill them permanently.”

Raina frowned. Suspicion blossomed at the back of her consciousness. Her own extraordinary talent for magic. Her ability at an unheard-of age to harness and channel tricky ritual magics. Her capacity to produce huge amounts of magical energy—much beyond what most adult mages mastered with a lifetime of practice. “We’ve been bred to tolerate such magics, haven’t we? The daughters of the House of Tyrel.”

Charlotte nodded, looking mightily relieved that Raina comprehended. “You understand, then, why the father of your daughters must also be a powerful mage, carefully selected—”

“What?” Raina started to stand. She would’ve run from the room, but her heavy gown tangled around her legs and prevented it.

Charlotte’s voice rang out, lashing Raina before she could escape, driving her back down into her seat. “It is your duty, Raina. Three hundred generations of women before you have done their duty, and so will you.” Her voice softened. “A marriage will be arranged for you to a nice young man. When that has happened, the mages will … provide one of their own of sufficient magical power to strengthen the line. Your husband will be given poisons of forgetting. He will believe, along with everyone else, that your daughters are his. Once you have borne the required daughters, you will be free to have children with your husband and live out your days in peace.”

Comprehension burst across her brain and she leaped to her feet. “I am not your husband’s child?”

And then the rest of it hit.

The mages were here. Now. Did they expect this travesty to transpire soon, then? How soon? Was one of them supposed to be the father of the next generation of daughters? A total stranger? Would they marry her off and then have one of them force himself upon her until she bore a child? She stared at her mother in horror.

Charlotte held up an imperious hand. “Don’t say it. Listen to me, Raina. They have elixirs. Magical drinks to make you deeply infatuated with the young man they have chosen, and him deeply infatuated with you. Trust me, it will be a special and wonderful experience. One you will never forget. A cherished memory.”

“How,” Raina demanded in a terrible voice born of rage and outrage, “can drug-induced rape to make a … a broodmare … out of me possibly be anything other than humiliating and appalling?”

Charlotte opened her mouth to speak, but Raina cut her off. “How can you ask this of me? You’ve been a victim of this degradation … this crime … and yet you would perpetrate it on me? Your own daughter?”

Her mother stared at her, stricken, and said soothingly, “I know it comes as a shock. But give it a little time. You will grow used to the idea.”

Raina enunciated carefully, “I will never consent to be anybody’s broodmare. I will choose the father of my children, and I will not cuckold my husband. If I happen to have a daughter, I will agree to raise her in the family tradition of preparing her to be a queen. If she chooses to do the same for her daughter someday, that will be her choice. Her choice, Mother.”

Charlotte closed her eyes for a long, pained moment. “I understand you are shocked. I reacted the same way at first. But it gets better. Who knows? You may even grow fond of the father after a fashion.”

Raina put her palms on her mother’s desk and leaned forward, staring daggers into her mother’s eyes. “Know this, Mother mine. I will never lie with a man of your choosing to satisfy those mages. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal.” Placating Charlotte gave way to authoritarian Charlotte. Raina’s mother glared back, matching dagger for dagger. “And know this, Daughter mine. You will do your duty if I have to tie you up and pour the poison down your throat with my own hands.”

Raina whirled and yanked open the office door. She threw up her hands and blasted away the wizard’s lock with so much violence that two mages waiting outside staggered back against the far wall. She raced past them, furious tears burning her eyes. The younger mage made a grab for her, but she ducked under his arm and darted for the stairs.

She heard the beginning of a confining spell incant behind her in Kadir’s voice and then Charlotte interrupting him sharply, “No! Let her go. We do this my way.”

An instant’s gratitude for her intervention was swallowed up quickly by Raina’s burgeoning sense of outrage and betrayal. She did not know how she would avoid the fate those monstrous mages and her mother had planned for her, but she would find a way.

CHAPTER 4

Something slashed through Will’s sleeve, plowing a furrow across his upper arm. He ignored the searing pain. A stray arrow was the least of his troubles at the moment.

Frantic figures appeared in windows, yanking wooden shutters inward and slamming them shut. Thank the Lady. At least the villagers wouldn’t be taken completely by surprise and slaughtered in their beds. A few men emerged, half-clothed in nightshirts, trousers, and assorted bits of armor, awkwardly wielding rusty swords, cracked wooden shields, and various farm implements. They formed up in a crooked line. The local militia, such as it was.

He veered left for the tidy cottage at the far end of the lane. Home. The front door cracked open, and Will was stunned to see two dark-cloaked figures slip stealthily into the night. He recognized the tall form of his father and the petite, elegant silhouette of his mother.

What were they doing? A mob of monsters was attacking! His parents needed to take cover inside!

A clash of steel and shouts of battle rang out behind him. The first villagers had engaged the orcs just beyond the clustered huts.

“This way!” his father called out low and urgent, waving at Will to join them.

Not understanding, he nonetheless angled left as his parents sprinted for the woods.

Will caught up with them as they reached the first hedgerow. His father hurdled the wall easily. His mother paused to rip off her skirt, revealing hunter’s leggings beneath. Shocked, Will watched her clear the fence in a single graceful leap. He followed suit.

All three of them flinched as a bright orange glare burst into the sky behind them, and a howl of enraged glee went up. Green-skinned goblins had just set Rand the lumberjack’s roof afire. The dry thatch flared like an enormous torch against the night sky. Goblins danced around the hut in a frenzied orgy of bloodlust. A scream curled forth from within. Will stared in horror. Rand’s wife and four young children were inside that cottage!

“Get down,” Will’s father bit out under his breath in a tone that brooked no disobedience. Will dropped to his knees beside his parents and peeked through a crack in the wall.

One of the largest of the orcs stepped forward, brandishing a long sword and shield. Slung across his back was a gnarled club made of wood a bloodred hue. He bellowed in guttural and barely intelligible Common something to the effect of, “Cattle of Koth, bring me your bull!”

Will frowned. What did that mean? Apparently, the beast wanted the village’s leader to step forward and fight. Except Hickory Hollow had no need of a leader. How were the villagers to answer the gruesome creature’s challenge?

“Ki’Raiden,” Will’s father breathed. “Sixth Thane of the Boki.”

They were Boki. What were they doing so far from their traditional territory a hundred leagues and more to the north of here? And what in stars’ name were they doing issuing challenges in a nothing little hamlet in this out-of-the-way corner of nowhere?

Will stared at the Boki leader, attempting to ascertain how his father was able to tell one orc from another. He spotted a long white scar passing vertically over Ki’Raiden’s left eye … perhaps it was by that his father identified the Boki thane.

“Whey-uhh dra-gon? We see his fire.”

One of the villagers stumbled forward as if he’d been elbowed unwillingly out of the ragged line of defenders. Lars. A lumberjack, and the strongest man in these parts, if not exactly the brightest. He was probably as good a fighter as the hollow had to offer this Ki’Raiden.

“Stan’ an’ figh’. Foh lif’ ub yo’ pee-puh!” the orc shouted.

Stand and fight for the lives of your people? That sounded like an honor challenge. What did a Boki army want with such things?

The goblins and ogres behind Ki’Raiden let out a chorus of ululating howls. The thane snapped something over his shoulder, and his mobbed troops fell mostly silent. The thane thumped his chest and grunted something too quietly to hear from here.

Lars and the Boki warrior commenced circling each other warily, each measuring his opponent and seeking an opening in which to attack. The combatants went in and out of sight between the powerful torsos of the orcs now forming a rough circle around them.

Into that suspended moment of violent anticipation, something disturbing occurred to Will. How did his father know the name and rank of a Boki thane? And, furthermore, recognize him on sight? Ty was a humble cobbler. A man turning old before his time and settling into the weary drudgery of advancing years, waiting to die.

But then Ki’Raiden leaped on the attack, and Will’s horrified attention was riveted by the quick and brutal slaughter of Lars. Will had never seen a man gutted before. Blank surprise showed on Lars’s face as his entrails slithered to the ground in a cascade of glistening silver for several seconds before his legs buckled. A woman wailed from inside a hut. Deb. Lars’s wife.

The Boki thane threw his axe to the ground in disgust and bellowed, “Bah! Iz no honor kill peasan’!” Ki’Raiden stomped down the line of terrified villagers, sniffing each of them in turn. “Whey-uhh dra-gon?” he repeated. Why he no defen’ yo ho-nor?”

Will frowned in surprise. Was the Boki insane? Dragons were the stuff of children’s hearth tales and not real. And if even if they were, what would a dragon have to do with this tiny hollow? The villagers stirred in consternation before the furious orc.

“Whey-uhh yel-low dra-gon? We see magic. Know he hee-uhh!” Ki’Raiden roared.

One of the men must have said something to the effect of the orc being mistaken, for Ki’Raiden backhanded the fellow viciously across the face. The villager dropped to the ground like a stone.

Will’s stomach sank just as hard. He whispered to his father, “They saw me. I used magic to defend myself from their scout. They’ll be looking for me.” Oh, stars. Lars is dead because of me. His father stared at him, and something akin to fierce pride flared for just an instant in Ty’s eyes.

The Boki continued his tirade in broken Common, finally declaring the villagers no better than sheep and deserving of a sheep’s life. Shame burned in Will’s gut. He had to do something. He couldn’t just sit here and watch them die, slaughtered like lowly beasts. His legs uncoiled and he drew breath to shout a challenge.

This was his fault. He had to fix it. As Will began to rise, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, forcing him back down.

His father whispered sharply, “Do not be a fool. You would die for nothing. And there is more at stake here than you know.”

“But—”

His father threw up an imperious hand, cutting his argument off before it found air. What? Didn’t Ty think Will was good enough to fight for his friends and neighbors? Nothing he ever did was good enough for his father. Will hadn’t even been allowed to join the local militia when other boys had long served in it. Ty had merely drilled Will in how to use a broom and a threshing pole. To paint and shovel and chop wood. He acted as if Will were a stripling lad who couldn’t begin to handle himself in a real fight.

Mayhap Ty was ashamed of his human son. Had he wanted so badly for Will to be an elf like his mother? Of course, Will was disappointed that he hadn’t inherited his mother’s centuries-long life span. But it didn’t mean he was flawed. He was simply human. And after all, Ty was human. Most people on the northern continent were.

Will hissed, “He’s going to slaughter them all. We must do something!”

“No!” Ty hissed back. “We must not.”

“Those are your friends. Neighbors. Have you no heart? How can you watch them be killed like sheep? Or are you truly the coward they whisper you to be, hiding from anyone who might recognize you and name you gutless?”

“Is that what they say of me?” his father muttered.

“Is it true?” Will demanded.

Ty scowled at that.

“Fight, Father. Be a man. Defend your home, curse you!”

“You do not understand what you ask … the time is not yet right … the cost—”

“To whom? You? To the next man that beast guts?” Will battered at his father’s resistance, but words failed him as outrage clogged his throat. “Did you not teach me to do the right thing? To stand up for justice? For the weaker man who cannot defend himself? What do you stand for if you will not stand by your friends?”

To his credit, Ty looked intensely chafed.

Will’s mother spoke up, adding, “If not now, my love, when will we make our stand? For all these years we have bided our time while memory of freedom slips away. The values you would pass on to your son are being forgotten, stripped away one by one by the Kothites. Perhaps this is the portent you have been waiting for.” She glanced back at the village. “You can win this fight. You know you can.”

Ty took a long, assessing look at the carnage behind them as if trying to decide if this was the moment he’d been waiting for. Will held his breath while his father measured the enemy and weighed the options. Finally, unable to hold his silence any longer, Will whispered raggedly, “We have to help them.”

Ty exhaled hard, his face settling into steely determination. “All right. It is time. I will do as you ask.” Will started to pump a fist in triumph until Ty’s voice cut across his celebration low and hard. “But we do this my way.”

Will glanced at his mother for support in resisting his father’s condition. But as always, her solemn, wise eyes pierced his anger, making it seem impetuous and childish. Sobered, Will reluctantly muttered, “Your way.”

Ty nodded briskly. “To the woods, then. And the emergency stash.”

What emergency stash? Will’s mother nodded as if she knew what Ty was talking about. These two had made plans for a Boki invasion?

“And bring along that spear. I’ll see what I can do with it.”

Will blinked as his father took off running low and fast into the woods.

Townspeople screamed and the seething mass of monsters howled behind them as his parents started for the woods. Will glanced back and caught sickening glimpses of the massacre unfolding—the invaders waving bloody axes and pikes in the hellish glow of the fires, orcs hacking through doors, dragging women and children out by the hair. He saw one of the men bearing a pitchfork face off against an orc. He was all but cut in half by the beast’s axe.

Nauseated, Will turned away and crawled as fast as he could for the trees, envisioning the wholesale slaughter that accompanied the screams and groans and howls behind him. He risked another look back and swore he saw an ogre lift a severed arm and take a bite of its bloody meat. Gorge rose in Will’s throat.

And somewhere in the midst of his anguished impatience for Ty to get on with saving the villagers, rage took root within him. The deep, implacable kind that grew and festered over time, that made a man hard and cold, that vowed—and delivered—violent reprisal. An eye for an eye. A limb for a limb. Blood for blood.

His mother reached the end of the stone fence and angled right, following the shadow of an alarmingly sparse line of gorse bushes. Will could barely make her out, so well did she blend in with the shadows and so fluidly did she creep along. He’d had no idea she could move with such stealth!

Will read her lips as much as he heard her whisper over her shoulder to him, “Stay low. We must reach the woods unseen. Whatever you do, do not look back.”

Too late. Images of the nightmare behind him had burned themselves into Will’s memory forever, nesting like serpents in his mind. Creeping on their bellies through the cold, wet weeds, he and his parents made for the shelter of the trees.

A few more screams split the night, but then those, too, faded away, leaving only the wailing and howling of the monsters and their orgy of death. The tangy smell of burning wood and the sharper smell of burning flesh filled Will’s nostrils. His stomach heaved, and he arched his back, catlike, as the contents of his stomach poured out upon the earth.

Just shy of the tree line, Ty’s voice floated out of the trees, surprising Will mightily. Ty ordered, “Stay here, Son. When your mother signals you, gain the attention of one or two orcs, then run for the woods. You know the pine-split boulder atop the first ridge?”

He knew the spot and nodded. It was a broken boulder, its halves pushed apart on either side of a mighty pine as if the towering tree had grown right up through the middle of it.

“Lead the orcs to me there.”

“Then what?” Will whispered back, his heart already pounding at the prospect of being chased by orcs.

“Stay out of the way and do not get hurt. I will do the rest.” Will gaped at his father’s terse response as Ty continued, “We must make haste. The Boki will send out search parties, and we must be in place before then.”

Who or what were the Boki looking for this far south, so far from the Forest of Thorns? What could they possibly care for a place like Hickory Hollow?

Will swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, which now tasted foully of bile, and crouched, readying himself to run. Those beasts had killed his friends. His neighbors. He would avenge their deaths. Every last one of them. He knew not how, but he vowed it would be so.

How long he waited for his mother’s signal Will couldn’t say, but it seemed a dozen eternities. Finally, blessedly, he spotted her just within the first tree line. She waved at him once, twice, three times.

He pushed to his feet and looked back at the village, which was fully ablaze now. The glare of the fires blinded him to the fate of his neighbors, for which he was grateful. A pair of huge shadows crossed between him and the flaming village. He started to shout, but then thought better of it.

Ty had said to draw out one or two orcs, not the entire war party. Will kicked a stone hard into another one, and as he’d hoped, the resulting clatter made both orcs’ heads jerk up sharply.

He ducked and took off running then, bent low and dodging back and forth in case they thought to send spears or arrows his way. The trick was to be hard enough to spot that the pair of orcs would not be certain of what they’d seen and would not send up a general alarm. The orcs were shockingly fast, though, and gained on him much more rapidly than he had anticipated.

He was not hollow born for nothing, however. He knew these woods as well as he knew his own hand. As he reached the first trees, he dived flat on the cold ground and wiggled through a low gap in a stand of dead blackberry canes left over from last summer. The dried thorns should slow the orcs down enough to give him a greater margin before them.

He headed for the split boulder at a dead run. As he flew through the trees, he imagined an orc behind every one, a goblin lurking in every shadow, and his heart lurched at each and every one. But finally, he made out the silhouette of the mighty pine ahead. He put on a last burst of speed up the hill. Those cursed-fast orcs were closing in on him yet again. He dashed around the boulder and nearly bowled into his father.

“Stay here!” Ty hissed as he stepped out from behind the rock. “Have you still got your bracelet?”

Will frowned, startled. He never took the braided leather band with its greenish stone off. It had been a gift from Adrick. “On my wrist,” he replied.

“Good. Keep it on.”

Adrick had said that the bauble would protect Will from harm, but he’d thought the woodsman was just being superstitious. Was there some truth to the claim, or was his father just as superstitious as his old friend?

Ty thrust a staff into his hands as he moved past. Will examined the weapon quickly. It was his spear. Except the broken end had been cut off, the new end banded by a piece of metal. How had his father accomplished such a repair so quickly? There was no time to ask, though, as his father moved down the hill.

Will stared in disbelief. Where on Urth did his father get that shield? It was not a foot soldier’s round, wooden implement. Rather, strapped to his father’s left arm was a kite-shaped shield made of thin metal painted a rich shade of blue. The ease with which his father carried it announced its extraordinary lightness.

Ty assumed a fighter’s stance, and a chain-mail shirt caught what little starlight filtered through the trees. Not the heavy, clumsy, hand-riveted mail manufactured in the colonies, this mail had impossibly tiny rings so tightly woven it looked almost like cloth. The beautifully crafted gambeson under the mail looked made of thin, supple leather. It was dyed the same blue as the shield and inlaid with gold wire in an intricate design. Will’s father’s leather gauntlets were similarly dyed and decorated.

“Get down!” Ty snapped over his shoulder as he strode down the small slope.

Will rolled his eyes at his father’s back and blatantly disobeyed. No way was he missing seeing Ty fight orcs. He eased around the boulder, keeping to the dark shadows under the heavy pine boughs.

The fight, if one could call it that, was so short and fast Will could hardly believe his eyes. Two bolts of bright golden light shot from Ty’s right hand, one after another, striking each of the orcs squarely in the chest. The pair dropped like rocks. Ty leaped forward and with quick flashes of a dagger slit their throats from ear to ear.

What. Was. That. Light?

Oh, Will knew the answer well enough. He simply couldn’t believe his eyes. His father possessed magic? Was that where he’d inherited his own gift for it? Why, in stars’ name, hadn’t Ty taught him how to use it, then?

And not only did his father have magic; he also could cast spells powerful enough to drop a full-grown orc like a rock! Battle mages were incredibly rare, and what few there were lived lives of luxury in Imperial guild houses in big cities. They were not humble cobblers struggling to scrape out a bare living on the edge of civilization.

His mother jogged up to him, then, and he was stunned to see that she had added a ranger’s leather jerkin to her attire. It was covered with small, sewn-in pouches that looked stuffed with the tools of the trade. An elegant long bow and quiver were slung over her shoulder with the ease of long familiarity.

As shocked as he was by her tracker’s attire, his first words were, “What is all of that?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward his father methodically cleaning his blade on the loincloth of a dead orc.

That is your legacy, my son.”

He hated it when his mother went all cryptic and elven on him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped.

“You have all the tools to become what your father is.”

“A humble cobbler on the edge of civilization?” he retorted sarcastically. “No, thank you.”

“This is not the time for childish attitudes!” she snapped back. “Listen to me, Will. You can be as great a battle mage as your father if you wish. He has given you all the building blocks you need to develop your abilities.”

Of a sudden all the boring lectures about calming his mind, emptying his thoughts, and disciplining his emotions took on a whole new meaning. He’d always thought Ty merely taught him how to avoid the sorts of thoughts and words that would get him killed by the Empire.

His mother muttered, “It is time for you to become a man and take up the torch your father has passed to you.”

Now she told him to grow up? After all those years of treating him like a helpless child?

“How am I supposed to master magic if he never taught me?” Will demanded.

“Because it is a simple and powerful truth that cannot be taught, cannot be proven, and cannot be measured. The most powerful magic is all around us. It is in the air we breathe, the earth we stand on, the water we drink, and the fire that warms us. It is always and forever, never waning, never fading. It is what you feel in your heart, what you know in the deepest part of our spirit, and what you believe in your wildest dreams. It is simple and pure like the scent of lady’s breath.”

Lady’s breath was a beautiful plant that produced sweet-smelling white flowers. Its leaves were burned as incense and made healing poultices for wounds. It was said the last breath of the Green Lady upon the land had created the plant.

Something rustled in the bushes behind them and Will whirled. Without thinking, he channeled his magic through the broken spear he clutched and blasted the orc scout into an unconscious heap. Will watched in shock as his mother darted forward and efficiently finished off the beast by slitting its throat.

Ty, who’d raced up the hill, no doubt at the sight of Will’s magic blast, reached them, sword drawn and hands glowing dangerously.

“It’s handled,” Will’s mother murmured.

Ty turned an amazed stare on Will, who glared back, furious.

Serica interrupted the burgeoning confrontation sharply. “There is no time for this. Husband, the trail is laid.”

Trail? Was she a trained tracker, too? What other secrets had his parents kept from him all these years? Will shot her a thunderstruck look, brimming with demands for answers. Her exotic uptilted eyes flashed him back one of those severe “not now” looks of hers that quelled all questions.

“Give me that.” His father held out an expectant hand, and Will laid Adrick’s broken spear in it. “Close your eyes, both of you,” Ty ordered.

Will did as instructed. A bright flash shone beyond his eyelids for an instant but was gone before his eyes could fly open and see the source.

His father held out Adrick’s spear to Will, remade yet again. The entire end of the staff, a forearm’s length of it, was now wrapped neatly in what looked like copper. “How—” Will started.

“An old spell I know,” Ty interrupted impatiently. “Go back to the edge of the forest and draw another patrol to me.”

“Are you mad?” Will demanded.

“You are the one who insisted I save your friends. Bring me another pair of orcs.”

Will ran down the hill without giving voice to the myriad questions dancing upon his tongue and went in search of another Boki patrol. He did not need to leave the forest to find one. He darted across the path ahead of this duo and the chase was on. This time he had no way of slowing the orcs’ pursuit and the creatures had drawn frighteningly close by the time he charged up the hill toward the split boulder.

He caught a flash of reflected light as his father leaped out of the brush on the attack. The weapon in Ty’s hand looked like a long sword, but made of no material Will had ever seen before. It gleamed milky white in the shadowed glen. Will skidded to a halt underneath the pine tree and lurched as his mother materialized beside him.

“What is his sword?” Will whispered.

“Dragon’s Tooth,” his mother replied absently, her concentration entirely on the scene below.

Was that its name, or was she suggesting that was an actual … Dragons didn’t even exist. Right? Right?

Will’s jaw sagged as his father slipped his left arm free of his shield and thumped his chest with his left fist, uttering something in what sounded for all the world like guttural orcish. His foes bared their huge teeth in bloodthirsty grins as Ty donned the shield once more and gestured the orcs forward with the tip of his sword. Both orcs pulled huge battle-axes off their backs and advanced.

Will started forward, but his mother grabbed his arm tightly. “Hold,” she breathed. “He wishes to make enough battle noises to draw more orcs this direction.”

“But he’s outnumbered,” he whispered back.

“It is only two orcs,” she replied dismissively. “And it is not as if they are thanes.”

He stared aghast at her unconcerned face. What was he supposed to say to that? Boki were known to be among the fiercest and most skilled fighters in the land. The last time they had poured out of their forest and attacked the humans, they had nearly annihilated Dupree. A clash of weapons captured his horrified attention, and he watched in shock as his father’s gleaming white sword danced like chain lightning, darting in and out, leaving nicks and cuts behind everywhere it went.

If he didn’t know better, he would say that Ty was toying with the orcs. Apparently, the orcs concluded the same, for they began to growl. The pair separated, attempting to flank Ty, concentration now grim upon their hideous visages. Will would have stepped forward again to help, but again his mother forestalled him.

Apparently tired of swordplay, Ty abandoned his light fencer’s stance and settled into a deeper, bent-kneed stance Will recognized all too well from years upon years of beating wheat to knock the grains loose with staves. Which, now that he thought about it, had often been about the heft and length of an actual sword.

With casual efficiency, Ty went on the attack using a swift, turning move that Will had seen many times before on the threshing floor. His mother flinched as the left-most orc’s decapitated head thudded to the ground a second before the body collapsed. Ty reversed the sweep to his right, smashing past the orc’s defenses and burying his weapon in the creature’s chest.

The orc bellowed as Ty yanked his blade free. Before the second orc had barely hit the ground, Ty grabbed the creature by the feet and commenced dragging it into the brush.

“Go help him,” Will’s mother urged. “That roar will bring more orcs than your father hoped for.”

Will rushed down the hill and grabbed the roughly shod feet of the headless orc. The stench was unbelievable as he dragged the heavy corpse after the first one. His father kicked the orc’s head into the bushes just as the sounds of more orcs approaching disturbed the woods.

“Get out of here,” Ty ordered tersely. “Go cover your mother, and give her time to kill orcs as they come. And no more magic out of you unless you are going to die. I’ll continue to use mine so they concentrate on me and not you.”

Will nodded, taken aback at the terse tone of command ringing in his father’s voice. It was unlike anything Will had ever heard from Ty. To Will’s ear his father sounded just what he thought a Kothite general in charge of a great army would sound like.

Numb with shock, Will took the spare quiver of arrows his mother shoved into his hands as she strung her bow and assumed an archer’s stance. His mother? A trained archer?

“Keep the quiver on my back full,” she ordered, her gaze trained on the slope below.

He had a feeling that this time when the orcs came there would be many more. And this time there would be thanes among them.

CHAPTER 5

Princess Endellian did her best to look bored as she followed her father, Emperor Maximillian, down the long hallway to the most isolated corner of the Imperial palace where the Empire’s most secret business was conducted. It was isolated for good reason. Even now, faint screams echoed down the ornately decorated hall toward her. With casual ease of long experience, she blocked from her mind the terror and desperation accompanying the noise.

The smaller “interrogation” chamber behind her father’s throne was used mainly for oracles who had already been made to understand their need for utter cooperation with Maximillian. But the chamber to which they proceeded now was where that cooperation was learned.

Harder to block than the agony accompanying the echoing screams was the random and frequent mind probing her father projected in an all-encompassing net around him. Even his daughter was not exempt from his continuous scrutiny.

In fact, he particularly watched her. As his heir, she posed perhaps the greatest threat to his throne of all. Not to mention that of all their kind, she came closest to matching her mighty father in mental power. Even the nine archdukes who were Maximillian’s contemporaries in origin were not as powerful as she.

And then there was her suspicion that he actually wanted her to intrigue against him. Not seriously enough to threaten his throne, of course, but enough to hone her skills in the art of manipulating the complex politics of the Imperial Court.

Even so, it was a delicate dance to shield her innermost thoughts from her father without him realizing she was doing so. Whether she succeeded or not was anyone’s guess. Mostly, she made sure to couch all of her plotting in terms of how she was serving the best interests of the Empire with her machinations.

“You are unquiet, my princess.”

She turned an innocent gaze upon her sire. “I confess I cannot abide the mewling of these oracles of yours. Please forgive me if I block their whining from my mind.”

“These Children of Fate are a fragile lot to be sure but their gift for true prophesy cannot be denied. Their Mistress has imparted great power in them.”

And yet it is an enduring mystery from whence came their extraordinarily accurate tellings of past and future, as if they see beyond the Wall of Time itself.

Maximillian commented, likely in direct response to her thought, “The Children have a taste of Fae magics about them. Such power allows them a certain freedom from the limitations of our world. While their powers of prophesy are enhanced, their forms lack any real protection from the rigors of that power.”

Ahh, but the weakness of those bodies also gives you power over the Children of Fate.

Maximillian responded to her thought dryly, “True enough.”

A pair of guards swept open the door before her father and she followed him into a torture chamber outfitted to take maximum effect upon the vulnerable flesh of the Children, who were becoming harder and harder to find throughout the Empire. It had been nearly a year since one had been brought in, and Laernan had reported secretly to her that the latest one was not particularly talented or the least bit cooperative. Apparently, this one had expected to be tortured for his visions and flatly refused to give them up shy of torture. Although it was not Laernan’s preference to resort to such crude tactics, he was willing to get his hands bloody when necessary.

The uncooperative oracle turned out to be a shirtless man of middling age chained upon the left-most wall, wrists and ankles manacled in a sprawling X well above the floor. His gut was split open at the moment, Laernan’s fist buried in his innards. The prisoner screamed hoarsely, his voice cracking and abruptly falling silent.

Of course, the prisoner did not die. The Lord High Inquisitor was of sufficient mental power to forcibly hold the man’s spirit within his body, regardless of how broken it might be. The prisoner could be roused to full consciousness with little more than a thought by his torturer, and Laernan did so now. The screaming took up where it had left off.

“How are we doing today?” the Emperor asked his chief inquisitor pleasantly over the din.

Laernan extracted his hand from the prisoner’s gut, wiped it upon a towel, and bowed deeply to his liege. “This one exerts much effort of will to die. He will fail, of course.”

The oracle slumped in his shackles, sweat and blood streaming down his body. Endellian noted that this one had the distinctive hourglass-shaped infinity sign of his kind crudely carved into his right side. It looked as if the prisoner had marked himself thus.

The oracle was bold in his defiance of her father to display his symbol so aggressively. Ahh, well. Laernan would extract the defiance from the fellow soon enough.

“What details have you garnered?” her father asked a little less pleasantly.

Laernan answered, “The Children continue to be stubbornly silent on the subject of this nameless one who thinks to threaten you. Either they do not know, or else they guard the secret with particular tenacity.”

“Get me a name.”

“That’s just it, Your Majesty. There is no name.”

She noted with approval that Laernan had carefully avoided any mention of the end of Maximillian’s reign. As unconcerned as her father had seemed that night sixteen years ago at hearing the prophecy, she had always suspected he’d been secretly alarmed by the oracle’s death brought on by the prophecy of his own end.

“Get me a name before I am forced to take extreme measures,” her father growled, openly displeased now. The waves of his ire rolled through Endellian’s mind, and she was careful not to block them in any way. It would not do to show resistance to her father while he was in this mood. He was apt to mind blast first and get around to regretting the results later.

The only other person in the room, a woman leaning against a far wall well back in the shadows, commented wryly, “If Laernan’s Taming does not constitute extreme measures, surely your … guest … must quake to think what actual extreme measures will entail.”

Endellian glanced up and, out of the corner of her eye, spied a yellow tint and hint of vertical, slit irises in the woman’s bland face. She looked more fully upon her pet, and the impression faded away, replaced by entirely unremarkable, brown human eyes.

Endellian’s gaze narrowed. ’Nandu—short for gudeanandu, a low-quality beast of burden in Maximillian’s native tongue—never let her human form slip with the Emperor. But then, he was probably the only being in Koth who could truly hurt her.

Irritated at her own inability thus far to cow the gift from her father, Endellian glided over to the woman who was technically her slave. “’Nandu. I did not feel your presence,” she purred as she rested a hand on the woman’s impassive cheek. The faintest ridges of layered scales and the thinnest blush of blue appeared under her fingertips. “Clever pet. Do not shield yourself from me again.”

“Does my gift displease you?” Maximillian inquired lightly.

That made ’Nandu’s eyelids flicker briefly, for even she feared the wrath of the Emperor.

Without breaking eye contact with her pet, Endellian answered, “Not at all, Father. My gift pleases me greatly.” To her slave, she murmured low, “You please me at all times, do you not?”

“Yes, Mistress,” the woman replied emotionlessly.

Better. Endellian sifted through the human thoughts shifting upon the surface of ’Nandu’s mind. Nothing to be concerned about. But as always, the deeper, alien portion of the woman’s mind was impervious to her probing. Sensing no immediate malicious intent, however, she backed out of her slave’s rather unpleasant-tasting consciousness.

One day. One day she would make ’Nandu submit to her. Only when she controlled a being of such power as totally as her father did would she truly have achieved the full powers of her kind—

—Which she would, of course use for the greater glory of her father’s Empire.

Greed for the kind of power her father wielded pulsed through her. The kind that stopped entire armies with a word. That killed with a mere thought. That shaped reality itself with casual, brutal efficiency. Someday, she would have such power, and it would make her impervious to the threat ’Nandu posed.

Oh, ’Nandu would never harm her as long as Maximillian lived. She dared not, for the Emperor knew her son, Kane, and where to find him. Ironic how Kane, an accomplished killer in his own right, should be so very vulnerable at the end of the day.

Ironic, too, that a “gift” from her father could be both slave and jailor. Endellian held no illusions about ’Nandu being Maximillian’s watchdog against any youthful rebellion from his heir. Should Endellian ever move against him, or make a terrible miscalculation and lose her mind—the whole, unfortunate Maxmillian II incident was never entirely forgotten in her family—her father would not hesitate to remove ’Nandu’s leash long enough for her to correct … or destroy … his daughter.

Endellian’s responsibility, as Maximillian no doubt saw it, was to make sure ’Nandu hated her enough to kill her, a task Endellian approached with relish. A deep, almost sensual, satisfaction was to be had in taunting a being of such power, in knowing ’Nandu could crush her instantly and yet dared not.

The obvious lesson of ’Nandu’s servitude to the Empire was never to fall in love and never, ever, to indulge in offspring. If those things could bring such a being low, they were weaknesses a future Empress could ill afford.

The oracle was screaming again, this time in an even higher pitch and with greater intensity than before. Endellian recognized the sound of a mental invasion by her father. It was utter domination of the mind. Whereas Laernan tamed the will, Maximillian broke it. No one could resist him. She was told there was no more exquisite pain anywhere than when Maximillian stimulated every single nerve in the body to the most excruciating and unbearable agony. His victims were, of course, forced to remain fully conscious all the while, unable to faint, unable to die.

“Tell me!” Maximillian snarled at the hapless oracle twitching on the wall. “Who does this prophecy speak of? Give me the name.”

A liquid splat announced the moment when the oracle’s body literally exploded.

“Revive him,” Maximillian ordered in disgust.

This oracle was lucky. As often as not, Maximillian simply ordered another oracle brought in and strung up. Or perhaps her father sensed special vulnerability in this one. She eyed the mangled corpse of the seer speculatively.

Laernan stepped forward obediently and forced the oracle’s spirit back into its broken body, which the inquisitor also used his mental powers to repair just enough to sustain life’s functions. Whimpering announced that the oracle lived once more. Meaningless babbling announced, however, that the oracle was not in his right mind.

“Enough for now,” Maximillian announced.

“Yes, Your Resplendent Majesty,” Laernan answered. “So shall it be. If I might—”

The Emperor cut him off. “Come, my dear. I am hungered.”

Personally, her appetite was ruined by the sight, smell, and general squishiness of the oracle’s innards, and she made no secret of it as she took a mincing step over the mess on the floor and headed for the door. Maximillian swept out of the room with no further delay, for which she was grateful.

But as she nearly reached the exit, Laernan did something odd. He made direct eye contact with her, which was a blatant breach of protocol. She raised a questioning eyebrow. His urgent gaze darted to the broken oracle hanging limp upon the wall and back to her.

The inquisitor muttered low, “He has not given us the information we seek, but he has been speaking. Quite a bit, in fact.”

Prophecies? “Interesting,” she responded carefully.

He nodded significantly in the affirmative.

She cast a wary glance at the door through which her father had passed. “I will return. Speak of this to no one.”

Laernan bowed in acknowledgment.

With a quick, resentful look over at ’Nandu watching passively in the corner, a suggestion of a scaled crest topping her skull and disappearing down her back, Endellian swept from the torture chamber, hurrying to catch up with her father before he noticed her delay. ’Nandu might despise her but was also honor bound to serve her. The creature would not tell her father of the brief exchange with Laernan.

Raina looked up and down the dim hallway, deserted for the moment. She had to escape now. Her mother would expect her to rant and wail for a few days against the whole idea of bearing babes for the Mages of Alchizzadon but eventually to bend to her will. No one stood against the will of Lady Charlotte for long; the woman always got her way. Therein lay her weakness. She would assume Raina would give in. And if she gave her mother time to employ the cajolery and bullying tactics she was so good at, Charlotte might very well be right.

She should go to her father for protection. He would never stand for what Charlotte and the mages had planned for her. Which made her frown. He would never stand for it. Her mother and the Mages of Alchizzadon must have altered his memory. Could they also alter his loyalties? If his mind had been tampered with, she could not trust him to aid her. He might turn her over to her captors instead.

Time. That was her greatest enemy. She must leave right away. Tonight, even. But where to go? How to escape the heavily fortified keep? She knew nothing of such things. Help. She needed help. Justin. As children, he and her brothers had forever been slipping out into the woods to play against the orders of their parents.

He should still be at the feast. She raced for the great hall, desperate to beat her mother there. Hopefully, Charlotte and her two henchmen would seek her first in her own chambers. Or mayhap the stables.

She slowed to a more moderate pace as she reached the kitchen. Grabbing a rough apron to cover the bright white velvet of her gown, she slipped into the hall behind a gaggle of servants bearing platters of bread. It was said to absorb the liquor in one’s belly and reduce the effects of drunkenness. She looked around desperately. There. Justin was still at one of the long tables in the back, seated upon a wooden bench. She slipped onto the bench beside him, slouching low to avoid being seen.

Her father shouted a toast from the head table, and everyone around her hoisted a mug. Ale sloshed and the crowd grew even more boisterous as the mugs were emptied and refilled.

“Drink up, muckling.” Justin shoved a tankard of ale into her fist. “What’s brought you slumming with the common folk?”

Someone guffawed and made a coarse comment about the Ladies of Tyrel marrying young because they hankered to lie with a man. Any man.

Raina stilled abruptly. Why not? What was to stop her from dragging Justin outside this very minute and lying with him? Even if she didn’t make a child with him, her mother and those cursed mages would have to wait some weeks to find out for sure that she was not with child before they proceeded with their plan. It might buy her enough time to come up with another idea.

She leaned close to him on the bale of straw and placed a shy hand upon his knee as if for balance.

“What the—” Justin brushed her hand aside quickly. “No more ale for you,” he announced, alarm lurking at the back of his gaze.

She murmured under the din, “I need your help.”

“With what?”

“I need you to lie with me, right away. Tonight.”

His eyes popped wide open in shock. “What?”

“Surely you know what I speak of.”

“Of course I know!” he retorted sharply. “I was hoping you did not know what you spoke of.”

She spoke in an urgent whisper. “They want to feed me a love poison and let a stranger get a child on me.”

He stared at her in blank incomprehension. “Who wants to do this?”

“My mother. And those men. The Mages of Alchizzadon.”

Ever the quick one, he grasped immediately where she was going with this. “But if I am with you first, we might make a babe instead.”

“Exactly.”

“Raina, I can’t. You’re a daughter of Tyrel. And I’m—”

She cut him off. “—the one I would choose if I had to do this thing.”

“—and I’m a commoner. Besides, it is not honorable. It is not worthy of either of us.”

“You don’t understand,” she wailed in a whisper.

“I cannot believe they’d really do such a thing.”

Panic erupted in her belly. He didn’t believe her. The idea was too outrageous for him to accept. Had she not looked into Charlotte’s eyes and seen her blind belief that she was doing the right thing, she would never have believed it herself. But she had glimpsed her mother’s eyes. And she did know it to be true.

“Go back to the dais and your party, muckling. We’ll talk on the morrow and sort out this misunderstanding. If it comes to being with you, we’ll do it properly with your family’s permission and our troths pledged.” A short pause and then he added, “But I am sure it will not come to that.”

Come to that? He said it as if being with her were a worse sentence than slavery aboard an Imperial galley. Not to mention that marriage apparently would not interfere with their cursed plan in the least. Far from it, in fact. Despair burned wetly in her eyes. If Justin wouldn’t help her, then she was truly alone. As strong-willed as she was, she couldn’t hold out against them all forever. Particularly if they planned to imprison her and poison her.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

He squeezed her hand briefly, then gave her a little shove. “Go. Before someone sees you down here and we both get in trouble.”

Right. Go.

Ty backed up the hill, joining Will and his mother under the pine boughs. His father muttered, “If he has any inkling that I am nearby, Ki’Raiden will send out most of his men looking for me.”

“More likely he will come for you himself, my dear,” Will’s mother answered as unflappable as ever.

Will whispered into the ensuing pause, “What in the Lady’s great, green forest is going on? First Boki attack the hollow, then you cast humongous battle magic, and now you say the Boki are looking for you?”

“It is a long story. Another time, boy.”

Serica’s whisper floated out of the dark. “No. Now, I think.”

“What say you?” his father responded in surprise.

“Think, my dear. Will must leave us. Now. Before Ki’Raiden finds us. You know the thane will not stop until he succeeds. Our son must take the quest with him—”

Will cut her off with a wordless sound of fury and fear. “How can you be so blasted calm when that monster’s coming for us?”

“Quiet!” she snapped back at Will. “Quickly, my love. It is time. You saw him channel that magic. He is ready.”

“More than ready,” Ty grunted. “I can name on one hand the mages who can do that. And completely untrained, no less.”

If one of them didn’t explain what was going on soon, Will was going to explode.

Ty continued quickly, “There is much you do not know of me, Son. I have not always been a cobbler tucked away in a tiny village.”

Will had to restrain a guffaw at that. This much he could figure out for himself after seeing that flash of deadly light from his father’s fist. Not to mention the fancy armor and weapons. Will’s parents huddled for a moment, whispering.

From the pine trunk at his back, a thread of … something … flowed. A faint energy. Awareness. Mayhap Mother Urth herself sensed and responded to his rage and disbelief. Living as he did so close to the land, he doubted not that the Green Lady lived and that her life’s force flowed through all living things, binding them one to another in an endless cycle. So his elven mother had taught him, and so his own heart told him to be true.

But of a sudden he found himself wondering what was true and what false. Was everything his parents had taught him a lie? His world, so simple and orderly, had been turned to chaos in the span of a single hour, and nothing made sense anymore.

His father continued, “I have spent my life in search of truth, Son. A truth that will change the world. And now you must take up the search in my stead—”

His mother tensed beside him, interrupting, “Someone comes.”

Ty whispered urgently, “What do you hear?”

Her words were mere breath, the sound traveling only a few feet. A tracker’s skill, that. “Boki. Scouting party. Four, maybe five orcs spread out in a line.”

Will gulped. If that many orcs found them, he and his parents were dead. Unless, of course, Ty’s magic was sufficient to blow up an entire band of orcs.

Serica murmured, “They have acquired the countertrack I laid. They follow it now.”

She could track and countertrack? Will’s jaw sagged stupidly as he stared at her shadowed face.

“Quickly, Tiberius,” his mother muttered. “We have two, maybe three minutes.”

His father nodded and whispered urgently, “Will, you must get word of this attack to a man in Dupree right away.”

“Have you lost your wits? There are Boki out there. Let us hide—together—until they leave, and then we all can take the message to this man.”

“There is no time.” Ty added heavily, “The Boki will not leave until they find me.”

“We have mayhap one minute until they are close enough to hear us,” his mother whispered.

“What do the Boki want with you, Father?”

Serica intervened smoothly. “Ahh. They have gone off the track again.” She added in satisfaction, “They pursue my second countertrack.”

She was a master tracker? The world had officially gone mad. She must have caught the thought in Will’s eyes, for she muttered, “I was not always a cobbler’s wife and your mother, you know. Quickly, Ty. Tell him. If you would send him to die, he has a right to know why.”

Ty scowled, but did not argue with her.

Will looked back and forth between the two of them expectantly.

Ty took up his unspoken challenge. “I dared to search out a man whom the Boki are rumored to guard. A sleeping king. An ancient and powerful elf who, when woken, prophecy says will lead us all to freedom.”

The words rippled across Will’s skin with a life of their own, their power making him shiver. A sleeping king. Prophecy. Freedom.

“Freedom from what?” Will whispered.

“The Kothites.”

Will inhaled through his teeth on a hiss. Rebellion? To be caught thinking of it was suicide. To try it, even in small measure, was a death sentence for your family and all the people you’d ever known as well. Everybody knew rebellion was impossible.

Ty continued urgently, “The elven king ruled this continent before the coming of the Kothites. No one knows how or why, but he fell into an eternal sleep. The old legends say he waits until his people’s moment of greatest need to wake again and lead them to safety. You must take up the quest, now.”

“You want me to go into Boki-infested woods and risk dying for a children’s hearth tale?”

“It is no hearth tale. I have seen the evidence of his existence myself. His crown. Made of eternally living, gold-edged leaves. A thing of great magic. Meant only for his brow. He’s real, all right. You must find the Sleeping King. Wake him.”

“Me?” Will’s voice broke on the syllable in patent disbelief.

“They come this way,” Serica muttered.

Ty glanced at her and continued in haste, “I was not alone in my search. Aurelius Lightstar. Selea Rouge. Leland Hyland. We were companions in the endeavor. But we failed. You must complete the quest in our stead. Seek them out. But trust no one else. No one.”

“He cannot do it alone!” Serica burst out.

Ty cut her off sharply. “He is all we have left. He must do it. We are old, tired men. This quest calls for fresh legs. The courage of youth.”

“The rash recklessness of youth—” Serica started. She broke off abruptly, listening. “Ki’Raiden comes,” she breathed. She turned fast and pressed something smooth and faintly warm into Will’s hand. “By this token, Aurelius will know you and help you.”

Will jumped as his father’s hard hand clamped down on his upper arm. Hot breath touched his ear. “Go now. Run like the wind. Your mother and I will occupy the Boki as long as we can. Go to Dupree. The Mage’s Guild. Speak only to Aurelius. Tell him what happened here.”

The hand loosed Will with a hard shove, and Ty took off running in the opposite direction, toward the approaching war party, gathering speed for a one-man charge.

“I will not leave—” Will started.

“Go!” his mother bit out with a ferocity he’d never heard from her before. Her bowstring twanged in the dark and then twanged again so quickly that the two sounds were barely distinguishable.

Ty crashed into the first of the orcs, his sword swinging like a thing possessed. Will stared in horror at the violence of it.

His mother muttered an apology and then something hit him in the chest. A faint, musical tinkling of glass breaking was audible over the din of orcish battle cries below.

Copyright © 2015 by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin

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