CAST OF CHARACTERS
Table of Contents
She’d never killed before tonight.
“Stay back,” her sister hissed.
Jana pressed against the stone wall of the villa. She searched the shadows that surrounded them, briefly looking up at the stars, bright as diamonds against the black sky.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she prayed to the ancient sorceress. Please, Eva, give me the magic I need tonight to find her.
When she opened her eyes, fear shot through her. On the branch of a tree a dozen paces away sat a golden hawk.
“They’re watching us,” she whispered. “They know what we’ve done.”
Sabina flicked a glance at the hawk. “We need to move. Now. There’s no time to waste.”
Keeping her face turned away from the hawk, Jana pushed away from the safety of the wall to follow her sister to the heavy oak and iron door of the villa. Sabina pressed her hands against it, channeling the magic that had been strengthened by the blood they’d spilled earlier. Jana noticed that Sabina’s fingernails still bore traces of red in the cuticles, and she shuddered, remembering. Sabina’s hands began to glow with amber light. A moment later, the door disintegrated into sawdust. Wood was no barricade against earth magic.
Sabina sent a victorious smile over her shoulder. Blood now trickled from her nose.
At her sister’s gasp, Sabina’s grin faded. She wiped it away and entered the large home. “It’s nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing. Using too much of this temporarily enhanced magic could harm them. Could kill them if they weren’t careful.
But Sabina Mallius was not known to be the cautious one. She hadn’t paused earlier tonight in using her beauty to lead the unsuspecting man from the tavern to his fate, while Jana had hesitated far too long before her sharp blade finally found its mark in his heart.
Sabina was strong, passionate, and completely fearless. Heart in throat as she followed Sabina inside, Jana wished she could be more like her older sister. But she’d always been the careful one. The planner. The one who’d seen the signs in the stars because she’d studied the night skies all her life.
The prophesied child had been born and she was here in this large and luxurious villa—built of sturdy stone and wood compared to the small, poorer straw and mud cottages in the village nearby.
Jana was certain this was the right place.
She was knowledge. Sabina was action. Together they were unstoppable
Sabina cried out as she turned the corner of the hallway up ahead. Jana quickened her pace, her heart pounding. In the dark hallway, lit only by wall-set torches that flickered their meager light on the stone walls, a guard had her sister by her throat.
Jana didn’t think. She acted.
Thrusting out her hands, she summoned air magic. The guard lost his grip and flew back from Sabina, slamming into the wall behind her hard enough to crush his bones. He crumpled to the ground in a heap.
Sharp pain sliced through Jana’s head, agonizing enough to make her whimper. She wiped at the warm, thick blood that now gushed from under her nose. Her hand trembled.
Sabina gingerly touched her injured throat. “Thank you, sister.”
This fresh blood magic helped speed their steps and clear their vision in the darkness of the unfamiliar, narrow stone hallways. But it wouldn’t last long.
“Where is she?” Sabina demanded.
“I’m trusting you.”
“The child is here. I know she is.” They proceeded a few steps more down the dark hallway.
“Here.” Jana stopped outside an unlocked door.
She pushed it open and the sisters moved toward the ornately carved wooden cradle inside the room. They looked down at the baby, swaddled in a soft rabbit’s fur coverlet. Her skin was pale white with a healthy, rosy glow to her chubby cheeks.
Jana adored her instantly. The first smile she’d been capable of for days blossomed on her face. “Beautiful girl,” she whispered, reaching into the cradle to gently pick up the newborn.
“You’re certain it’s her.”
“Yes.” More than anything else in her seventeen years of life, Jana was positive of this. The child she held in her arms, this small, beautiful baby with sky-blue eyes and a fuzz of hair that would one day be black as a raven’s wing, was the one prophesied to possess the magic necessary to find the Kindred—four objects that contained the source of all elementia, elemental magic. Earth and water, fire and air.
The child’s magic would be that of a sorceress, not a common witch like Jana and her sister. The first in a thousand years, since Eva herself had lived and breathed. There would be no need for blood or death to play any part in this child’s magic.
Jana had seen her birth in the stars. Finding this child was her destiny.
“Put my daughter down,” a voice snarled from the shadows. “Don’t hurt her.”
Jana spun around, clutching the infant to her chest. Her eyes fell on the dagger the woman pointed toward them. Its sharp edge glinted in the candlelight. Her heart sank. This was the moment she’d been dreading, had prayed wouldn’t come to pass.
Sabina’s eyes flashed. “Hurt her? That’s not what we plan to do at all. You don’t even know what she is, do you?”
The woman’s brows drew together with confusion, but fury hardened her gaze. “I’ll kill you before I allow you to leave this room with her.”
“No”—Sabina raised her hands—“you won’t.”
The mother’s eyes grew wide and her mouth opened, gasping. She couldn’t breathe—Sabina was blocking the flow of air to her lungs. Jana turned away, face screwed up in misery. It was over in a moment. The woman’s body fell to the ground, still twitching but lifeless, as the sisters sidestepped her and fled the room.
Jana gathered her loose cloak around the baby to hide her as they left the villa and ran into the forest. Sabina’s nose bled profusely now from using so much destructive magic. Blood dripped to the snow-covered ground.
“Too much,” Jana whispered as their steps finally slowed. “Too much death tonight. I hate it.”
“She wouldn’t have let us take her any other way. Let me see her.”
Feeling oddly reluctant, Jana held the baby out.
Sabina took her and studied the child’s face in the darkness. Her gaze flicked to Jana and she gave her sister a wicked grin. “We did it.”
Jana felt a sudden rush of excitement, despite the difficulties they’d faced. “We did.”
“You were incredible. I wish I could have visions like you do.”
“Only with great effort and sacrifice can I have them.”
“It’s all a great effort and sacrifice.” Sabina’s voice twisted with sudden disdain. “Too much of it. But for this child, one day magic will be so easy. I envy her.”
“We’ll raise her together. We’ll tutor her and be there for her and when the time comes for her to fulfill her destiny, we’ll stand by her side every step of the way.”
Sabina shook her head. “You won’t. I’ll take her from here.”
Jana frowned. “What? Sabina, I thought we agreed to make all decisions together.”
“Not this one. I have other plans for the child.” Her expression hardened. “And apologies, sister, but they don’t include you.”
Staring into Sabina’s suddenly cold eyes, Jana at first didn’t feel the sharp tip of the dagger sink into her chest. She gasped as the pain began to penetrate.
They’d shared every day, every dream . . . every secret.
However, it would appear, not every secret. This was not something Jana would have ever thought to try to foresee.
“Why would you betray me like this?” she managed. “You’re my sister.”
Sabina wiped away the blood that still trickled from her nose. “For love.”
When she yanked out the blade, Jana collapsed to her knees on the frozen ground.
Without a backward glance, Sabina swiftly walked away with the child and was soon swallowed by the dark forest.
Jana’s vision dimmed and her heart slowed. She watched as the hawk she’d seen earlier flew away . . . leaving her to die alone.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
“Alife without wine and beauty isn’t worth living. Don’t you agree, princess?” Aron slung his arm around Cleo’s shoulders as the group of four walked along the dusty, rocky country path.
They’d been in port for less than two hours and he was already drunk, a fact not unduly startling when it came to Aron.
Cleo’s glance fell on their accompanying palace guard. His eyes flashed with displeasure at Aron’s proximity to the princess of Auranos. But the guard’s concern wasn’t necessary. Despite the fancy jeweled dagger Aron always wore on a sheath hanging from his belt, he was no more dangerous than a butterfly. A drunk butterfly.
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said, lying only a little.
“Are we almost there?” Mira asked. The beautiful girl with long, dark, reddish hair and smooth, flawless skin was both Cleo’s friend and her older sister’s lady-in-waiting. When Emilia decided to stay home due to a sudden headache, she’d insisted that Mira accompany Cleo on this trip. Once the ship arrived in the harbor, a dozen of their friends chose to remain comfortably on board while Cleo and Mira joined Aron on his journey to a nearby village to find the “perfect” bottle of wine. The palace wine cellars were stocked with thousands of bottles of wine from both Auranos and Paelsia, but Aron had heard of a particular vineyard whose output was supposedly unparalleled. At his request, Cleo booked one of her father’s ships and invited many of their friends on the trip to Paelsia expressly in search of his ideal bottle
“That would be a question for Aron. He’s the one leading this particular quest.” Cleo drew her fur-lined velvet cloak closer to block out the chill of the day. While the ground was clear, a few light snowflakes drifted across their rock-strewn path. Paelsia was farther north than Auranos, but the temperature here surprised her nonetheless. Auranos was warm and temperate, even in the bleakest winter months, with rolling green hills, sturdy olive trees, and acres upon acres of rich, temperate farmland. Paelsia, by contrast, seemed dusty and gray as far as the eye could see.
“Almost there?” Aron repeated. “Almost there? Mira, my peach, all good things come to those who wait. Remember that.”
“My lord, I’m the most patient person I know. But my feet hurt.” She tempered the complaint with a smile.
“It’s a beautiful day and I’m lucky enough to be accompanied by two gorgeous girls. We must give thanks to the goddess for the splendor we’ve been greeted with here.”
Watching the guard, Cleo saw him briefly roll his eyes. When he noticed that she had seen him, he didn’t immediately look away as any other guard might. He held her gaze with a defiance that intrigued her. She realized she hadn’t seen—or, at least, noticed—this guard before today.
“What’s your name?” she addressed him.
“Theon Ranus, your highness.”
“Well, Theon, do you have anything to add to our discussion about how far we’ve walked this afternoon?”
Aron chortled and swigged from his flask.
“I’m surprised, since you are the one who’ll be required to carry the cases of wine back to the ship.”
“It’s my duty and honor to serve you.”
Cleo considered him for a moment. His hair was the color of dark bronze, his skin tanned and unlined. He looked as if he could be one of her rich friends waiting on the ship rather than a uniformed guard her father had insisted accompany them on this journey.
Aron must have been thinking the exact same thing. “You look young for a palace guard.” His words slurred together drunkenly as he regarded Theon with a squint. “You can’t be much older than I am.”
“I’m eighteen, my lord.”
Aron snorted. “I stand corrected. You are much older than me. Vastly.”
“By one year,” Cleo reminded him.
“A year can be a blissful eternity.” Aron grinned. “I plan to cling to my youth and lack of responsibility for the year I have left.”
Cleo ignored Aron, for the guard’s name now rang a bell in her mind. She’d overheard her father as he exited one of his council meetings briefly discuss the Ranus family. Theon’s father had died only a week ago—thrown from a horse. His neck had broken instantly.
“My sympathies for the loss of your father,” she said with sincerity. “Simon Ranus was well respected as my father’s personal bodyguard.”
Theon nodded stiffly. “It was a job he did with great pride. And one I hope to have the honor to be considered for when King Corvin chooses his replacement.” Theon’s brows drew together as if he hadn’t expected her to know of his father’s death. An edge of grief slid behind his dark eyes. “Thank you for your kind words, your highness.”
Aron audibly snorted and Cleo shot him a withering look.
“Was he a good father?” she asked.
“The very best. He taught me everything I know from the moment I could hold a sword.”
She nodded sympathetically. “Then his knowledge will continue to live on through you.”
Now that the young guard’s dark good looks had caught her attention, she found it increasingly difficult to return her gaze to Aron, whose slight frame and pale skin spoke of a life spent indoors. Theon’s shoulders were broad, his arms and chest muscled, and he filled out the dark blue palace guard uniform better than she ever would have imagined possible.
Guiltily, she forced herself to return her attention to her friends. “Aron, you have another half hour before we head back to the ship. We’re keeping the others waiting.”
Auranians loved a good party, but they weren’t known for their endless patience. However, since they’d been brought to the Paelsian docks by her father’s ship, they’d have to keep waiting until Cleo was ready to leave.
“The market we’re going to is up ahead,” Aron said, gesturing. Cleo and Mira looked and saw a cluster of wooden stalls and colorful worn tents, perhaps another ten minutes’ walk. It was the first sign of people they had seen since they’d passed a ragged band of children clustered around a fire an hour ago. “You’ll soon see it was well worth the trip.”
Paelsian wine was said to be a drink worthy of the goddess. Delicious, smooth, without equal in any other land, its effects did not lead to illness or headaches the next day, no matter how much was consumed. Some said that there was strong earth magic at work in the Paelsian soil and in the grapes themselves to make them so perfect in a land that held so many other imperfections.
Cleo wasn’t planning to sample it. She didn’t drink wine anymore—hadn’t for many months. Before that, she’d consumed more than her share of Auranian wine, which didn’t taste much better than vinegar. But people—at least, Cleo—didn’t drink it for the taste; they drank it for the intoxicating results, the feeling of not a care in the world. Such a feeling, without an anchor to hold one close to shore, could lead one to drift into dangerous territory. And Cleo wasn’t in any hurry to sip anything stronger than water or peach juice in the foreseeable future.
Cleo watched Aron drain his flask. He never failed to drink both her share and his and made no apologies for anything he did while under its influence. Despite his shortcomings, many in the court considered him the lord her father would choose as her future husband. The thought made Cleo shudder, yet she still kept him close at hand. For Aron knew a secret about Cleo. Even though he hadn’t mentioned it in many months, she was certain he hadn’t forgotten. Nor would he ever.
The revelation of this secret could destroy her.
Because of this, she tolerated him socially with a smile on her lips. No one would ever guess that she loathed him.
“Here we are,” Aron finally announced as they entered the gates of the village market. Beyond the stalls, off to the right, Cleo saw some small farmhouses and cottages in the near distance. Though far less prosperous-looking than the farms she’d seen in the Auranian countryside, she noted with surprise that the small clay structures with their thatched roofs and little windows seemed neat and well kept, at odds with the impression she had of Paelsia. Paelsia was a land filled with poor peasants, ruled over not by a king, but a chieftain, who was rumored by some to be a powerful sorcerer. Despite Paelsia’s proximity to Auranos, however, Cleo rarely gave her neighbors to the north much thought, other than an occasional vague interest in entertaining tales of the much more “savage” Paelsians
Aron stopped in front of a stall draped in dark purple fabric that fell down to the dusty ground.
Mira sighed with relief. “Finally.”
Cleo turned to her left only to be greeted by a pair of glittering black eyes in a tanned, lined face. She took an instinctive step back and felt Theon standing firm and comfortingly close behind her. The man looked rough, even dangerous, much like the few others who’d crossed their path since they’d arrived in Paelsia. The wine seller’s front tooth was chipped but white in the bright sunlight. He wore simple clothes, made from linen and worn sheepskin, and a thick wool tunic for warmth. Feeling self-conscious, Cleo pulled her sable-lined cloak closer around her silk dress, pale blue and embroidered in gold.
Aron eyed the man with interest. “Are you Silas Agallon?”
“Good. This is your lucky day, Silas. I’ve been told that your wine is the best in all of Paelsia.”
“You were told right.”
A lovely dark-haired girl emerged from the back of the stall. “My father is a gifted wine maker.”
“This is Felicia, my daughter.” Silas nodded at the girl. “A daughter who should be getting ready for her wedding right now.”
She laughed. “And leave you to work all day lugging cases of wine? I’ve come to convince you to close shop early.”
“Perhaps.” The pleased glint in the wine seller’s dark eyes shifted to disdain as he took in Aron’s fine clothes. “And who might you be?”
“Both you and your lovely daughter have the great privilege to be acquainted with her royal highness Princess Cleiona Bellos of Auranos.” Aron nodded toward her and then Mira. “This is Lady Mira Cassian. And I am Aron Lagaris. My father is lord of Elder’s Pitch on the southern coast of Auranos.”
The wine seller’s daughter looked at Cleo, surprised, and lowered her head with respect. “An honor, your highness.”
“Yes, quite an honor,” Silas agreed, and Cleo couldn’t detect sarcasm in his tone. “We rarely have royalty from either Auranos or Limeros visit our humble village. I can’t remember the last time. I’d be honored to give you a sample to try before we discuss your purchase, your highness.”
Cleo shook her head with a smile. “Aron’s the one interested in your wares. I simply accompanied him here.”
The wine seller looked disappointed, even a little hurt. “Even still, will you do me the great honor of tasting my wine—to toast my daughter’s wedding?”
How could she refuse such a request? She nodded, trying to hide her reluctance. “Of course. It would be my pleasure.”
The sooner she did, the sooner they could leave this market. While colorful and well populated, it smelled less than pleasant—as if there was a cesspit nearby with no fragrant herbs or flowers to cover its stench. Despite Felicia’s palpable excitement for her impending wedding, the poverty of this land and these people was distressing. Perhaps Cleo too should have stayed on the ship while Aron fetched the wine for their friends.
All she really knew about small, poor Paelsia was that it had one form of wealth that neither of the other two kingdoms flanking it could claim. Paelsian soil this close to the sea grew vineyards that put any other land’s to shame. Many said that earth magic was responsible. She’d heard stories of grapevines stolen from the earth here that withered and died almost immediately once they crossed over the border.
“You’ll be my last customers,” Silas said. “Then I’ll do as my daughter asks and close up shop for the day to prepare for her wedding at dusk.”
“My congratulations to you both,” Aron said with disinterest as he scanned the bottles on display, his lips pursed. “Do you have suitable glasses for our tasting?”
“Of course.” Silas moved behind the cart and dug deep into a rickety wooden case. He pulled out three glasses that caught the sunlight and then uncorked a bottle of wine. Pale, amber-colored liquid trickled in the glasses, the first of which he handed to Cleo
Theon was suddenly right next to Cleo, snatching the glass away from the wine seller before she touched it. Whatever dark look was on the guard’s face made Silas take a shaky step backward and exchange a glance with his daughter.
Cleo gasped, startled. “What are you doing?”
“You would taste something a stranger offers you without any second thoughts?” Theon asked sharply.
“It’s not poisoned.”
He peered down into the glass. “Do you know that for sure?”
She looked at him impatiently. He thought someone might poison her? For what purpose? The peace between the lands had lasted more than a century. There was no threat here. Having a palace guard accompany her at all on this trip was more to appease her overprotective father than out of any true necessity.
“Fine.” She flicked her hand at him. “Feel free to be my taster. I’ll be sure not to drink any if you fall over dead from it.”
“Oh, how ridiculous,” Aron drawled. He tipped his glass back and drained it without a second thought.
Cleo looked at him for a moment. “Well? Are you dying now?”
He had his eyes shut, savoring. “Only from thirst.”
Her attention returned to Theon and she smiled slightly mockingly. “May I have my glass back now? Or do you think this wine seller took the time to poison each one individually?”
“Of course not. Please, enjoy.” He held the glass out for her to take it. Silas’s dark-eyed gaze was now filled more with embarrassment than annoyance at the drama her guard had caused.
Cleo tried to shield her immediate appraisal of the glass’s questionable cleanliness. “I’m sure it’s delicious.”
The wine seller looked grateful. Theon moved back to stand to the right side of the cart, at ease but watchful. And she thought her father was overprotective.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Aron tip his glass back and drain a second sampling the wine seller’s daughter had poured for him.
“Incredible. Absolutely incredible, just as I’d heard it was.”
Mira took a more ladylike sip before her brows went up with surprise. “It’s wonderful.”
Fine. Her turn. Cleo took a tentative taste of the liquid. The moment it touched her tongue, she found herself dismayed. Not because it was rancid, but because it was delicious—sweet, smooth, incomparable to anything she’d ever tried before. It stirred a longing inside her for more. Her heart began to pound faster. A few more sips was enough to empty her glass entirely, and she glanced around at her friends. The world suddenly seemed to shimmer with golden halos of light around each of them, making them appear even more beautiful than they were to begin with. Aron became marginally less loathsome to her.
And Theon—despite his overbearing behavior—looked incredibly beautiful too.
This wine was dangerous; there was no doubt about it. It was worth any amount of money this wine seller might ask for it. And Cleo had to be careful to stay away from it as much as possible, now and in the future.
“Your wine is very good,” she said aloud, trying not to seem overly enthusiastic. She wanted to ask for another glass but swallowed back the words.
Silas beamed. “I’m so glad to hear that.”
Felicia nodded. “Like I said, my father is a genius.”
“Yes, I find your wine worthy of purchase,” Aron slurred. He’d been drinking steadily during the trip here from the engraved golden flask he always kept with him. At this point, it was a surprise that he continued to stand upright without assistance. “I want four cases today and another dozen shipped to my villa.”
Silas’s eyes lit up. “That can certainly be arranged.”
“I’ll give you fifteen Auranian centimos per case.”
The tanned skin of the wine seller paled. “But it’s worth at least forty per case. I’ve received as much as fifty before.”
Aron’s lips thinned. “When? Five years ago? There are not enough buyers these days for you to make a living. Limeros hasn’t been such a good customer over the past few years, have they? Importing expensive wine is at the bottom of their priority list given their current economic straits. That leaves Auranos, because everyone knows your goddess-forsaken countrymen don’t have two coins to rub together. Fifteen per case is my final offer. Considering I want sixteen cases—and perhaps more in the near future—I’d say that’s a good day’s work. Wouldn’t that be a nice gift of money to give your daughter on her wedding day? Felicia? Wouldn’t that be better than closing up shop early and getting nothing?”
Felicia bit her bottom lip, her brows drawing together. “It is better than nothing. I know the wedding is costing too much as it is. But . . . I don’t know. Father?”
Silas was about to say something but faltered. Cleo was only half watching, concentrating more on trying to resist the urge to sip from the glass that Silas had already refilled for her. Aron loved to barter. It was a hobby of his to get the best price possible, no matter what he was after.
“I mean no disrespect, of course,” Silas said, wringing his hands. “Would you be willing to come up to twenty-five centimos per case?”
“No, I would not.” Aron inspected his fingernails. “As good as your wine is, I know there are many other wine sellers at this busy market, as well as on our way back to the ship, who’d be more than happy to accept my offer. I can take my business to them if you’d prefer to lose this sale. Is that what you want?”
“No, I . . .” Silas swallowed, his forehead a furrow of wrinkles. “I do want to sell my wine. It’s the reason I’m here. But for fifteen centimos . . .”
“I have a better idea. Why don’t we make it fourteen centimos per case?” A glint of wickedness appeared in Aron’s green eyes. “And you have to the count of ten to accept or my offer decreases by another centimo.”
Mira looked away from the debate, embarrassed. Cleo opened her mouth—then, remembering what Aron could do with her secret if she chose, closed it. He was determined to get this wine for the lowest price he could. And it wasn’t as if he couldn’t afford to pay any more, since Cleo knew he had more than enough money on him to buy many cases even at the top price
“Fine,” Silas finally said through clenched teeth, although it seemed as if it deeply pained him. He flicked a glance at Felicia before returning his attention to Aron. “Fourteen per case for sixteen cases. I’ll give my daughter the wedding she deserves.”
“Excellent. As we Auranians have always assured you . . .” With a small smile of victory, Aron dug into his pocket to pull out a roll of notes, counting them off into the man’s outstretched palm. It was now more than obvious that the total sum was only a small percentage of what Aron had with him. By the look of outrage in Silas’s eyes, the insult wasn’t missed. “. . . Grapes,” Aron continued, “will never fail to feed your nation.”
Two figures approached the stall from Cleo’s left.
“Felicia,” a deep voice asked. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with your friends, getting all dressed up?”
“Soon, Tomas,” she whispered. “We’re about to finish up here.”
Cleo glanced to her left. Both boys who’d approached the stall had dark hair, nearly black. Dark brows slashed over copper-brown eyes. They were tall and broad-shouldered and deeply tanned. Tomas, the older of the two, in his early twenties, studied his father and sister. “Is there something wrong?”
“Wrong?” Silas said through gritted teeth. “Of course not. I’m conducting a transaction, that’s all.”
“You’re lying. You’re upset right now. I can tell.”
The other boy cast a dark glare at Aron and then at Cleo and Mira. “Are these people trying to cheat you, Father?”
“Jonas,” Silas said tiredly, “this isn’t your business.”
“This is my business, Father. How much did this boy”—Jonas’s gaze swept the length of Aron with undisguised distaste—“agree to pay you?”
“Fourteen a case,” Aron offered casually. “A fair price that your father was more than happy to accept.”
“Fourteen?” Jonas sputtered. “You dare insult him like that?”
Tomas grabbed the back of Jonas’s shirt and pulled him backward. “Calm down.”
Jonas’s dark eyes flashed. “When our father’s being taken advantage of by some ridiculous silk-wearing bastard, I take offense.”
“Bastard?” Aron’s voice had turned to ice. “Who are you calling a bastard, peasant?”
Tomas turned slowly, anger brimming in his gaze. “My brother was calling you a bastard. Bastard.”
And this, Cleo thought with a sinking feeling, was the absolute worst thing someone could ever call Aron. It wasn’t common knowledge, but he was a bastard. Born of a pretty blond maid his father once took a liking to. Since Sebastien Lagaris’s wife was barren, she had taken the baby on as her own from the moment he was born. The maid, Aron’s real mother, had died soon after under mysterious circumstances that no one had dared to question either then or now. But there was still talk. And this talk was what had met Aron’s ears when he was old enough to understand what it all meant.
“Princess?” Theon asked, as if looking for her command to intervene. She put her hand on his arm to stop him. This didn’t need to become more of a scene than it already was.
“Let’s go, Aron.” She exchanged a worried look with Mira, who nervously set down her second glass of wine.
Aron’s attention didn’t leave Tomas. “How dare you insult me?”
“You should obey your little girlfriend and leave,” Tomas advised. “The sooner the better.”
“And as soon as your father fetches the cases of wine for me, I’d be more than happy to do just that.”
“Forget the wine. Walk away and consider yourself lucky that I didn’t make a bigger deal of your insult toward my father. He is trusting and willing to undersell himself. I am not.”
Aron bristled, his previous calm now thrust aside by offense and inebriation, making him much braver than he should have been when faced with two tall, muscular Paelsians. “Do you have any idea who I am?”
“Do we care?” Jonas and his brother exchanged a glance.
“I am Aron Lagaris, son of Sebastien Lagaris, lord of Elder’s Pitch. I stand here in your market accompanied by none other than Princess Cleiona Bellos of Auranos. Show respect to us both.”
“This is ridiculous, Aron.” Cleo hissed a small breath from between her teeth. She did wish that he wouldn’t put on such airs. Mira slipped her arm through Cleo’s and squeezed her hand. Let’s go, she seemed to be signaling.
“Oh, your highness.” Sarcasm dripped from Jonas’s words as he mock-bowed. “Both of your highnesses. It is a true honor to be in your shining presence.”
“I could have you beheaded for such disrespect,” Aron slurred. “Both of you and your father. Your sister too.”
“Leave my sister out of this,” Tomas growled.
“Let me guess, if it’s her wedding day, I’ll assume she’s already with child? I’ve heard Paelsian girls don’t wait for marriage before they spread their legs to anyone with enough coin to pay.” Aron glanced at Felicia, who looked mortified and indignant. “I have some money. Perhaps you might give me a half hour of your attentions before dusk.”
“Aron!” Cleo snapped, appalled.
That she was totally ignored by him was no surprise. Jonas turned his furious gaze on her—so hot she felt singed by it.
Tomas, who seemed the marginally less hotheaded of the two brothers, turned the darkest, most venomous glare she’d ever seen in her life on Aron. “I could kill you for saying such a thing about my sister.”
Aron gave him a thin smile. “Try it.”
Cleo finally cast a look over her shoulder at a frustrated-looking Theon, whom she’d basically commanded not to intervene. It was clear to her now that she had no control over this situation. All she wanted to do was go back to the ship and leave all this unpleasantness far behind. But it was too late for that now.
Powered by the insult toward his sister, Tomas flew at Aron with fists clenched. Mira gasped and put her hands over her eyes. There was no doubt Tomas would easily win a fight between the two and beat the thinner Aron into a bloody pulp. But Aron had a weapon—the fashionable jeweled dagger he wore at his hip.
It was now in his grip.
Tomas didn’t see the knife. When he drew closer and grabbed hold of Aron’s shirt, Aron thrust his blade into Tomas’s throat. The boy’s hands shot up to his neck as the blood began to gush, his eyes wide with shock and pain. A moment later, he fell to his knees and then fully hit the ground. His hands clawed at his throat, the dagger still deeply embedded there. Blood swiftly formed a crimson puddle around the boy’s head.
It had all happened so fast.
Cleo clamped her hand against her mouth to keep from screaming. Another did scream—Felicia let out a piercing wail of horror that turned Cleo’s blood ice cold. And suddenly the rest of the market collectively took notice of what had happened.
Shouts sliced through the market. There was a sudden rush of bodies all around her, pushing and shoving. She shrieked. Theon clamped his arm around Cleo’s waist and roughly yanked her backward. Jonas had started for her and Aron, grief and fury etched onto his face. Theon pushed Mira in front of him and pulled Cleo under his arm, Aron close behind. They fled the market while Jonas’s enraged words pursued them.
“You’re dead! I’ll kill you for this! Both of you!”
“He deserved it,” Aron growled. “He was going to try to kill me. I was defending myself.”
“Keep going, your lordship,” grunted Theon, sounding disgusted. They pushed their way through the crowd, making their stumbling way onto the road back to the ship.
Tomas would never live to see his sister get married. Felicia witnessed her brother’s murder on her wedding day. The wine Cleo had drunk churned and soured in her stomach. She yanked away from Theon’s grip and threw up on the path.
She could have had Theon stop this before it got so far out of control. But she hadn’t.
No one seemed to be following them, and after a while it became clear that the Paelsians were letting them leave. They slowed to a fast stride. Cleo kept her head down, holding on to Mira for support. The foursome walked through the dusty landscape in absolute silence.
Cleo thought she’d never get the image of the boy’s pain-filled eyes out of her mind.
Jonas collapsed to his knees and stared with horror at the ornate dagger sticking out of Tomas’s throat. Tomas moved his hand as if to try to pull it out, but he couldn’t manage it. Shaking, Jonas curled his hand around the hilt. It took effort to pull it free. Then he clamped his other hand down over the wound. Hot red blood gushed from between his fingers.
Felicia screamed behind him. “Tomas, no! Please!”
The life faded from Tomas’s eyes with every slowing beat of his heart.
Jonas’s thoughts were jumbled and unclear. It felt as if this moment froze in time for him as his brother’s life drained away.
A wedding. There was a wedding today. Felicia’s wedding. She’d agreed to marry a friend of theirs—Paulo. They’d jokingly given him a hard time when they had announced their engagement a month ago. At least, before they welcomed him into their family with open arms.
A big celebration was planned unlike anything their poor village would see again for a very long time. Food, drink . . . and plenty of Felicia’s pretty friends for the Agallon brothers to choose from to help forget their daily troubles carving out an existence for their family in a dying land like Paelsia. The boys were the best of friends—and unbeatable in anything they attempted together.
Panic swelled in Jonas’s chest and he looked frantically around at the swarm of locals for someone to help. “Can’t something be done? Is there a healer here?”
His hands were slick with Tomas’s blood. His brother’s body convulsed and he made a sickening gurgling sound as more blood gushed from his mouth.
“I don’t understand.” Jonas’s voice broke. Felicia clutched his arm, her wails of panic and grief deafening. “It happened so fast. Why? Why did this happen?”
His father stood helplessly nearby, his face grief-stricken but stoic. “It’s fate, son.”
“Fate?” Jonas spat out, rage blazing bright inside him. “This is not fate! This was not meant to be. This—this was done at the hands of a Auranian royal who considers us dirt beneath his feet.”
Paelsia had been in steady decline for generations, the land slowly wasting away, while their closest neighbors continued to live in luxury and excess, refusing them aid, refusing them even the right to hunt on their overstocked land when it was their fault in the first place that Paelsia lacked sufficient resources to feed its people. It had been the harshest winter on record. The days were tolerable, but the nights were frigid within the thin walls of their cottage. Dozens, at least, had frozen to death in their small homes or starved.
No one died from starvation or exposure to the elements in Auranos. The inequality had always sickened Jonas and Tomas. They hated Auranians—especially the royals. But it had been a formless and nameless hate, a random, overall distaste for a people Jonas had never been acquainted with before.
Now his hatred had substance. Now it had a name.
He stared down at the face of his older brother. Blood coated Tomas’s tanned skin and lips. Jonas’s eyes stung, but he forced himself not to cry. Tomas had to see him strong right now. He always insisted that his kid brother be strong. Even with only four years separating them, that’s how he’d raised Jonas to be ever since their mother died ten years ago
Tomas had taught him everything he knew—how to hunt, how to swear, how to behave around girls. Together they’d provided for their family. They’d stolen, they’d poached, they’d done whatever it took to survive while others in their village wasted away.
“If you want something,” Tomas had always said, “you have to take it. Because nobody’s ever going to give it to you. Remember that, little brother.”
Jonas remembered. He’d always remember.
Tomas had stopped twitching and the blood—so much blood—had stopped flowing so quickly over Jonas’s hands.
There was something in Tomas’s eyes, past the pain. It was outrage
Not only for the unfairness of his murder at the hands of an Auranian lord. No . . . also at the unfairness of a life spent fighting every day—to eat, to breathe, to survive. And how had they wound up this way?
A century ago, the Paelsian chief of the time had gone to the sovereigns of Limeros and Auranos, bordering lands to the north and south, and asked for help. Limeros declined assistance, saying that they had enough to contend with getting their own people back on their feet after a recently halted war with Auranos. Prosperous Auranos, however, struck an agreement with Paelsia. They subsidized the planting of vineyards over all the fertile farmland in Paelsia—land that could have been used to grow crops to feed its people and livestock. Instead, they promised to import Paelsian wine at favorable prices, which would in turn enable Paelsia to import Auranian crops at equally favorable prices. This would help both countries’ economies, the then king of Auranos said, and the naive Paelsian chieftain shook hands on the deal
But the bargain had a time limit. After fifty years, the set prices on imports and exports would expire. And expire they had. Now Paelsians could no longer afford to import Auranian food—not with the falling price of their wine since Auranos was their only customer and could ruthlessly set the cost, which they did, ever lower and lower. Paelsia lacked the ships to export to other kingdoms across the Silver Sea, and austere Limeros in the north was devout in its worship of a goddess who had frowned on drunkenness. The rest of the land continued to slowly die as it had for decades. And all Paelsians could do was watch it fade away.
The sound of his sister’s sobs on the day that should have been the happiest of her life broke Jonas’s heart.
“Fight,” Jonas whispered to his brother. “Fight for me. Fight to live.”
No, Tomas seemed to convey as the remaining light left his eyes. He couldn’t speak. His larynx had been sliced clean through by the Auranian’s blade. Fight for Paelsia. For all of us. Don’t let this be the end. Don’t let them win.
Jonas fought not to let out the sob he felt deep in his heart but failed. He wept, a broken and unfamiliar sound to his own ears. And a dark, bottomless rage filled him where grief had so quickly carved out a deep, black hole.
Lord Aron Lagaris would pay for this.
And the fair-haired girl—Princess Cleiona. She stood by with a cold and amused smirk on her beautiful face and watched her friend murder Tomas. “I swear I’ll avenge you, Tomas,” Jonas managed through clenched teeth. “This is only the beginning.”
His father touched his shoulder and Jonas tensed.
“He’s gone, my son.”
Jonas finally pulled his trembling, bloody hands away from his brother’s ravaged throat. He’d been making promises to someone whose spirit had already departed for the everafter. Only Tomas’s shell remained.
Jonas looked up at the cloudless blue sky above the market and let the harsh cry of grief escape his throat. A golden hawk flew from its perch on his father’s wine stall above them.
Someone asked Magnus a question, but he hadn’t been paying any attention. After a while, everyone at a banquet like this began to resemble a swarm of buzzing fruit flies. Annoying, but impossible to squash quickly and easily.
He pasted what he hoped was a pleasant expression on his face and turned to his left to face one of the more vocal of the insects. He took another bite of kaana and swallowed it without chewing in an attempt to evade the taste. He barely glanced at the saltedbeef next to it on his pewter plate. He was quickly losing his appetite
“Apologies, my lady,” he said. “I didn’t quite hear that.”
“Your sister, Lucia,” Lady Sophia said, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with an embroidered jacquard napkin. “She’s grown into a lovely young woman, hasn’t she?”
Magnus blinked. Small talk was so taxing. “She has indeed.”
“Tell me again, what age has she turned today?”
“Lovely girl. And so polite.”
“She was raised well.”
“Of course. Is she betrothed to anyone yet?”
“Mmm. My son, Bernardo, is very accomplished, quite handsome, and what he lacks in height he more than makes up for in intelligence. I think they would make a fine match.”
“This, my lady, is something I would suggest you speak to my father about.”
Why had he been seated directly next to this woman? She was ancient and smelled of dust and also, for some bizarre reason, seaweed. Perhaps she had emerged from the Silver Sea and traveled up over the rocky cliffs to get to the frosty granite Limeros castle at the top rather than across the ice-covered land like everyone else.
Her husband, Lord Lenardo, leaned forward in his high-backed seat. “Enough about matchmaking, wife. I’m curious to know what the prince’s thoughts are on the problems in Paelsia.”
“Problems?” Magnus responded.
“The recent unrest caused by the murder of a poor wine seller’s son at market a week ago in full sight of everyone.”
Magnus slid his index finger casually around the edge of his goblet. “A murder of a poor wine seller’s son. Pardon my seeming disinterest, but that doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary. The Paelsians are a savage race, quick to violence. I’ve heard they’ll happily eat their meat raw if their fires take too long to build.”
Lord Lenardo gave him a crooked grin. “Indeed. But this is unusual since it was at the hands of a visiting royal from Auranos.”
This was more interesting. Marginally. “Is that so? Who?”
“I don’t know, but there are rumors that Princess Cleiona herself was involved in the altercation.”
“Ah. I’ve found rumors have much in common with feathers. It’s rare that either holds much weight.”
Unless, of course, those rumors proved true.
Magnus was well aware of the youngest princess of Auranos. She was a great beauty the same age as his sister—he’d met her once when they were both small children. He felt no interest in going to Auranos again. Besides, his father severely disliked the Auranian king and as far as he knew, the feeling was mutual.
His gaze moved across the great hall and he locked eyes with his father, who stared back at him with cold disapproval. His father despised the look Magnus got when he was bored at a public function like this. He found it insolent. But it was such a struggle for Magnus to hide how he felt, although he had to admit, he didn’t try all that hard.
Magnus raised his water goblet and toasted his father, King Gaius Damora of Limeros.
His father’s lips thinned.
Irrelevant. It wasn’t Magnus’s job to ensure this celebration feast went well. It was all a sham anyway. His father was a bully who forced his people to follow his every rule—his favorite weapons were fear and violence, and he had a horde of knights and soldiers to impose his will and keep his subjects in line. He worked very hard to keep up appearances and show himself to be strong, capable, and vastly prosperous.
But Limeros had fallen on hard times in the dozen years since the iron-fisted Gaius, “King of Blood,” had taken the throne from his father, the much loved King Davidus. The economic struggles had yet to directly affect anyone living at the palace, given that Limerian religion didn’t encourage luxury in the first place, but the tightened straits in the kingdom at large were impossible to ignore. That the king had never addressed this publicly amused Magnus.
Still, the royals were served a portion of kaana with their meals—mushed-up yellow beans that tasted like paste—and expected to eat it. It was what many Limerians had been choking down to fill their bellies as the winter dragged on and on.
In addition, some of the more ornate tapestries and paintings had been removed from the castle walls and put into storage, leaving the walls bare and cold. Music was banned, as was singing and dancing. Only the most educational books were allowed within the Limeros palace, nothing that simply told a tale for entertainment’s sake. King Gaius cared only for the Limerian ideals of strength, faith, and wisdom—not art, beauty, or pleasure.
Rumors circulated that Limeros had begun its decline—just as Paelsia had for several generations—due to the death of elementia, elemental magic. The essential magic that gave life to the world was drying up completely, much like a body of water in the middle of a desert.
Only traces of elementia had been left when the rival goddesses Cleiona and Valoria destroyed each other, centuries ago. But even those traces, whispered those who believed in the magic, were beginning to vanish. Limeros froze over each year, and its spring and summer were now only a couple short months long. Paelsia was withering away, its ground dry and parched. Only southern Auranos showed no outward sign of decay
Limeros was a devoutly religious land whose people clung to their belief in the goddess Valoria, especially in hard times, but Magnus privately thought those who relied on their belief in the supernatural, in any form it took, showed an inner weakness.
Most of those who believed, anyway. He did make an exception for a precious few. He directed his gaze to the right of his father, where his sister sat dutifully, the guest of honor at this banquet touted as being in celebration of her birthday.
The dress she wore tonight was a pinkish orange shade that made him think of a sunset. It was a new dress, one he’d never seen her in before, and beautifully made, reflecting the image of eternal richness and perfection his father demanded the Damora family show—although even he had to admit he was surprised by how colorful it was in the sea of gray and black his father tended to prefer.
The princess had pale, flawless skin and long, silky, dark hair that, when it wasn’t pulled into a tidy twist, fell to her waist in soft waves. Her eyes were the color of the clear blue sky. Her lips were full and naturally rosy. Lucia Eva Damora was the most beautiful girl in all of Limeros. Without a single exception.
Suddenly, the glass goblet in Magnus’s tight grip shattered and cut his hand. He swore, then grabbed for a napkin to bind the wound Lady Sophia and Lord Lenardo looked at him with alarm, as if disturbed that it might have been their conversation of betrothals and murder that had upset him.
It was not.
Stupid, so stupid.
The thought was reflected by the look on his father’s face—he hadn’t missed a thing. His mother, Queen Althea, seated to the king’s left, also took notice. She immediately averted her cool gaze to continue the conversation with the woman seated next to her.
His father didn’t look away. He glared at him as if embarrassed to be in the same room. Clumsy, insolent Prince Magnus, the king’s heir. For now, anyway, Magnus thought sourly, his mind flashing briefly to Tobias, his father’s . . . “right-hand man.” Magnus wondered if there would ever come a day when his father would approve of him. He supposed he should be grateful the king even bothered to invite him to this event. Then again, he wanted to make it seem as if the royal family of Limeros was a tight-knit and strong unit—now and always
What a laugh.
Magnus would have already left frigid, colorless Limeros to leisurely explore the other realms that lay across the Silver Sea, but there was one thing that kept him right where he was, even now that he was on the cusp of turning eighteen.
“Magnus!” Lucia had rushed to his side and knelt next to him. Her attention was fully focused on his hand. “You’ve hurt yourself.”
“It’s nothing,” he said tightly. “Just a scratch.”
Blood had already soaked through the meager binding. Her brows drew together with concern. “Just a scratch? I don’t think so. Come with me and I’ll help bandage it properly.”
She pulled at his wrist.
“Go with her,” Lady Sophia advised. “You don’t want an infection to set in.”
“No, wouldn’t want that.” His jaw set. The pain wasn’t enough to bother him, but his embarrassment did sting. “Fine, my sister, the healer. I’ll let you patch me up.”
She gave him a comforting smile that made something inside him twist. Something he tried very hard to ignore.
Magnus didn’t cast another glance at either his father or his mother as he left the banquet hall. Lucia led him into an adjoining room, one that was chillier without the body heat of the banquet guests. Hanging, muted tapestries did little to warm the cold stone walls. A bronze bust of King Gaius glared at him from a tall stand between granite pillars, judging him sternly even though he’d left his father’s presence. She asked a palace maid to fetch a basin of water and bandages, then sat him down on a seat next to her and undid the napkin from his wound.
He let her.
“The glass was too fragile,” he explained.
She raised an eyebrow. “So it just shattered for no reason at all, did it?”
She sighed, then dipped a cloth in the water and began to gently clean the wound. Magnus barely noticed the pain anymore. “I know exactly why this happened.”
He tensed. “You do?”
“It’s Father.” Her blue eyes flicked up to meet his. “You’re angry with him.”
“And you think I imagined his neck in place of the stem of the glass, like many of his subjects might?”
“Did you?” She pressed down firmly on his hand to help stop the flow of blood.
“I’m not angry with him. More like the other way around. He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you. He loves you.”
“Then he would be the only one.”
A smile lit up her expression. “Oh, Magnus. Don’t be silly. I love you. More than anyone else in the whole world. You must know that, don’t you?”
It felt as if someone had punched a hole through his chest and taken hold of his heart to squeeze it tightly. He cleared his throat and looked down at his hand. “Of course. And I love you too.”
The words felt thick on his tongue. Lies always slid smooth as silk for him, but the truth was never quite so easy.
How he felt for Lucia was only the love of a brother for his sister.
That lie did feel smooth. Even when he told it to himself.
“There,” she said, patting the bandage she’d wrapped around his hand. “All better.”
“You really should be a healer.”
“I don’t think our parents would consider that an occupation befitting a princess.”
“You’re absolutely right. They wouldn’t.”
Her hand was still on his. “Thank the goddess you weren’t hurt worse than this.”
“Yes, thank the goddess,” he said drily before his lips curved. “Your devotion to Valoria puts my own to shame. Always has.”
She looked at him sharply, but her smile remained. “I know you think such strong beliefs in the unseen are silly.”
“I’m not sure I’d use the word silly.”