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Blessed Lady above, why have You forsaken me?
Scanning the waters of Dalden Bay, Shannari looked for some sign of hope. Ceaseless prayers throughout the night, at the holiest site in the Green Lands, had been offered for naught. The silvered full moon mocked her with its silence.
The thick bayside air tasted like tears. Shannari swallowed the choking lump, her shoulders drooping with misery. Weary, she rubbed her aching, dry eyes and turned from the mist-covered waters. Power pulsed with the gentle moonlight, resonating in her blood and soul. Her skin tingled with the sweet melody, her heart aching, yearning to use that inborn gift.
If only she could find some way to restore her magic...
But no. That was another failure entirely. Her heart was dead.
Waiting at the last column, the High Priest took her chilled hands between his own. Father Aran's snowy white hair and beard gleamed against his scarlet robes. "Our Blessed Lady has heard your prayers, Your Majesty."
Shame clawed her chest and she dropped her gaze. She didn't deserve the title, let alone his respect. "Please, don't call me that."
"I've known since your birth that you would be the next High Queen. I saw the Rose Crown on your head even in the cradle."
"So you say." Shannari jerked her hands back and clenched them into fists at her sides. "You also told me of the great power I would have as the Lady's Last Daughter. Yet here I am, my magic crippled, my country surrounded by enemies, and betrothed to Prince Theo, the one person who mostwants me dead." Her voice broke. She would never forget the malice in the Crown Prince's eyes, nor the suffocating horror that came over her when he'd touched her. "I'm trapped."
The High Priest flinched. "The mistake was mine, Your Majesty, I--"
"How can I refuse to marry him now without starting a civil war?"
"Our Blessed Lady wants Her tainted son removed from the High Throne at all cost." The High Priest stared through her, deeper, seeing beyond to some future that made his eyes flash with hope. "A way will be provided."
Shannari refused to let that gleam of hope move her. She'd seen the same look in his eyes too many times to no avail. Seeing a possible future and knowing the Lady's prophesy didn't make it happen.
"Dark at times, clouded with Shadow and fraught with peril, your path is steep and treacherous with ravines on either side. If you fall, all the Green Lands will fall with you. This I know in my heart. Yet hope comes, though from where I cannot See."
She knew all too well the dark prophesy of doom waiting for her people if she failed. Other children grew up on nursery rhymes and fairytales; she had learned a destiny of blood, and darkness, and death. Death loomed closer than ever in these dark times.
Inwardly sighing, she joined her waiting father, King Valche. Surrounded by guards, they walked toward the village curved along the shoreline. Chittering raucously, gulls fought for scraps on the beach of sand and broken shells and the stench of rotting fish made her stomach churn.
Vessels ranging from local fishing boats to sea-worthy trading ships lined the docks. From crates full of rare spices from the jungles of Mambia, to exotic furs from the frigid ice of Jjord in the extreme north, exotic things from all over the world came through this port. Without Dalden Bay, Allandor's tables might miss the sea's natural bounty, but the largest blow would be felt in the merchants' pockets.
Shannari ran through her options again and came to the same conclusion. Surely an alliance with Allandor's greatest enemy was worth the risk to herself if it would save the Green Lands. Shivering, she rubbed the nape of her neck. She had the nasty feeling that an invisible axe loomed over her head.
"I despise Stephan," King Valche muttered beneath his breath. "I hate his clingy, sneaky ways, how he always cozies up to Theo, oozing snake oil promises."
"Tell me any other way, Father, and I'll do it."
King Valche sighed heavily and ran a hand through his silvered hair. "We need him, slime or no."
Dressed in Allandor's regalia of midnight blue trimmed in gold braid, he presented the perfect image of control and regal civility. Ruefully, Shannari wondered what image she projected in her leathers and chain mail, sword within easy reach at her side. Her father had begged her to wear a court gown to emphasize her lineage and legitimate claim to the High Throne. Nevertheless, Last Daughter of the Blessed Lady or not, she went nowhere unarmed, even when escorted with a full contingent of guards. She'd learned that lesson at a very young age.
"Let's try polite conversation first and see where we stand with Stephan," King Valche said. "Maybe he'll surprise us. Maybe he'll take a stand against Theo for once and do what's right."
"No, I'm afraid not. Stephan knows nothing but taking. The only bargaining chip we have is Dalden Bay." Well, that wasn't entirely true. Lightly, she touched the hidden scar on the left side of her chest above her breast. "I'll marry him if I must. Anyone's better than Prince Theo."
A silent warning shrilled in her head, and ice chilled her blood. Her heart pounded as adrenaline surged through her. Crippled and stunted her magic might be, but she knew a warning from the Lady when she felt it.
Struggling to maintain a normal demeanor, Shannari looked about them, her hand nonchalantly stroking her sword hilt. While the docks were busy this early in the morning, the main cobblestone street was deserted. The appointed meeting place, the best inn in Dalden Bay, towered above the smaller shops and houses of the villagers.
Flanked by guards, she couldn't identify a visible threat, but the chill increased. Her teeth chattered and her fingers cramped on the hilt. Danger approached, but from where?
An alley opened up on her right. As they walked past, the shadow of deadly intent raised the hairs on the base of her neck. Choking back a cry, she took another step, waiting, waiting...
Behind her, steel whispered in the crisp dawn air. Shannari whirled and drew the sword. The nearest guard reached for his, too, turning too late. Slipping around him, the assassin rushed the last few steps, closing quickly so she couldn't entirely block his thrusting blade. She fouled his aim and the knife slammed into her right side.
An iron fist of pain exploded in her ribcage. Grunting, she took a quick step back to gain some space. Thank the Lady for chain mail. Swinging the sword in a hard arc, she slit the assassin's throat.
Blinking in shock, the man fell to his knees, his hands wrapped around the gaping wound in his neck. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly and he pitched face first onto the ground.
Eventually, she would fail. A knife would find her back, this time slicing her heart beyond repair, just like her mother. She would never forget the dark pool of blood spreading on the floor, her beautiful mother shattered like a porcelain doll.
I must wrest the High Throne from Theo soon, before one of his assassins succeeds in killing me.
King Valche bellowed, his face dark with fury. Shamefaced Guardsmen crowded closer, their swords at the ready. More soldiers raced down the street led by the always reliable Sergeant Fenton. The baker across the way poked his head out the door.
Firm but polite, Sergeant Fenton brought the baker outside his shop. "Do you know this man? Did you see anyone about this morning?"
Shannari pushed the assassin over onto his back with her boot.
The baker recoiled and shook his head, wringing his hands in his apron. "No one, sir, other than the King when he passed right at dawn. I heard the guards about at The Slumbering Lion, but nothing else."
Turning her attention to the body, Shannari dismissed the witness with a nod.
The assassin stared upward with glazed brown eyes. He was perhaps thirty years of age with nondescript features. She didn't recognize him. His brown coat and breeches were clean and cut from quality cloth but not extravagant. His boots were serviceable and scuffed but well made. He wore no jewelry or insignia. Anyone could have sent him.
So many enemies, so much blood on her hands. Her ribs ached and she resisted the urge to hunch over in pain. Wincing, she bent down and wiped her sword and hands on the dead man's coat. At least the blood hadn't splattered her leather pants too badly.
"Are you hurt?" King Valche's voice quivered with rage. "Should we cancel the meeting?"
She stood and sheathed her sword. "We can't wait, Father. We need the Duke now more than ever."
"This attempt could very well be his doing."
"He won't assassinate me before he learns how much we might offer. I'll do whatever is necessary to secure this treaty."
"I wish there were another way." King Valche stared down the street at The Slumbering Lion, his jaw clenched. "I've delayed with every tactic I know. High King Rikard has every right to demand your presence in Shanhasson. If we don't gain enough support, he'll send an army large enough that we'll be forced to accept his terms. Allandor is strong, but could we stand against the entire might of the Green Lands?"
He turned his tired, concerned gaze to Shannari. "I did my best. The betrothal bought us a little time, but I wish I could keep you from bartering away your life and your hand in marriage for a crown, even the Rose Crown of all the Green Lands. Your mother chose me, chose love, instead of the High Throne. I hoped you could have both. I failed you, Daughter, just as I failed to keep her safe."
Years ago, Shannari had almost made the same mistake as her mother. She'd foolishly believed that love's power would make her magic invincible. Instead, she now bore the vicious scar that proved love could never be trusted. "Oh, Father, we haven't failed. Father Aran said Our Blessed Lady will provide a way. We have to believe."
"What I believe is that Theo would rather see you dead than beside him on the High Throne."
The pulse of ice through her veins echoed the assassination warning and confirmed her father's fears. Shannari hardened her voice to steel. "Then Lady help me, I'll see him dead first."
Stephan waited in the inn's private dining room. Sitting across from him at the wooden table laid out for breakfast, Shannari scrutinized the Duke of Pella and Allandor's sworn enemy.
Every inch the nobleman, he was dressed smartly in a dark blue coat and breeches, his hands well manicured, his fingers bearing several expensive but tasteful rings. His dark shoulder-length hair was neatly pulled back in a queue.
Despite his gentlemanly appearance, fierce cunning glinted in his light gray eyes and his mouth reflected a hard slant of cruelty. He didn't rise when she and the King of Allandor came into the room.
His message was clear.
Her palms dampened and she carefully kept her hand near her sword when she sat down at the table. This man was dangerous in ways that Theo would never comprehend. No doubt Stephan had a knife or two hidden on his person, while she'd be forced to clear the table before unsheathing her sword if he attacked. She hated the disadvantage but couldn't bring herself to carry a knife. Not yet. Murderers carried knives, assassins in the streets, shadows in the hallway leaping out to kill her mother. She wasn't quite ready to stoop so low yet, but with Stephan sitting smugly across from her, she was sorely tempted. "Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, my lord Duke."
Stephan inclined his head slightly. "Princess, Your Majesty."
At such blatant disdain, she knew the situation required a full-on assault. A quick glance to her father confirmed the change in plan.
No one performed the political waltz as well as King Valche. "You and I have shared many disagreements over the years, Duke, mostly over this very port. In exchange for meeting with us today, I propose to sign Dalden Bay completely over to Pella."
Stephan leaned back in his chair and propped his boot in the chair beside him. He took a long drink from the heavy cup in his hand--his own, of course, for he would never trust anyone enough to allow unknown food or drink to pass his lips--before answering. "You must desire a very great boon from me."
Ignoring the fluttering of nerves in her stomach, Shannari matched his flippant tone. "I desire the High Throne, and I want you to help me."
"Marry the Crown Prince as you agreed two years ago and the High Throne is yours."
"I will rule the Green Lands alone."
A small smile played about his lips. "What you speak of is treason."
Damn him. Her lips compressed, and she fought to keep her calm, political mask. He knew exactly how crucial his country's support would be in her bid for the High Throne. "Treason? When I am the Blessed Lady's Last Daughter; when more royal blood flows in my veins than in those of the Crown Prince Theo?"
"I care nothing about Leesha's Last Daughter or how much of Her blood you might claim."
"What do you care about?" King Valche demanded. "If Shannari is on the High Throne, she will be a true protector of the lands, not simply a royal brat with too many perversions to count."
"I am loyal to my liege. He has rewarded me richly over the years."
Her laughter wiped the smugness off his face. "Come now, Duke. You and I both know who your true liege is."
Stephan paled. He reached for the cup again and his hand trembled.
She spared a quick glance at her father and he shook his head imperceptibly. Interesting. Where else did Stephan owe allegiance? "Pella and the North Forest have long been allies. With King Challon's support, the entire north would follow."
Stephan's tension eased and his mouth quirked with amusement. "If I present your cause to my great uncle, I'm sure he would seriously consider giving you his support. What you ask is unreasonable, though, without a great deal of protection and assurances. I have been a loyal subject to the royal family and to Crown Prince Theo personally for many years. What can you do for me that the Crown Prince can't?"
Clenching her jaw, Shannari wanted to punch the arrogant smirk off his face. All he cared about was more power, always more power, while people died and their homeland slid a little further into Shadow with each passing day.
She slammed her palms flat on the table and pushed to her feet. "The High Priest publicly refuses to coronate Crown Prince Theo, and Leesha's Temple in Shanhasson is closed. If we sit back and allow Theo to rule the Green Lands, we doom our people to disease, starvation and suffering unlike anything we've ever seen before. How can you--"
A queer look flickered across Stephan's face. "Why Princess Shannari, whatever do you have on your hands?"
Following his gaze, she glanced down. Blood crusted her fingernails and stained the grooves of her knuckles. She shrugged and raised her gaze back to Stephan's. "Someone tried to assassinate me."
His chair scraped on the floor and he rose slowly to his feet, his gaze still locked on her hands.
Cold chills raced down her spine, raising goose bumps on her arms. Dread rolled in her stomach like a cold ball of lead. The Lady's warning screamed through her a hundred times more desperately than before. She felt ill, as disgusted and terrified as when Theo had touched her at their betrothal. She snatched her hands off the table and took a wary step backward.
Stephan raised his gaze to her face and she recoiled. Lust darkened his eyes. "How much blood is on your hands, Shannari? How many men have you killed? I look at your hands and see blood dripping to the floor. An endless ocean of blood, all from you."
She unsheathed her sword and pointed it warningly at his chest. The table's width was suddenly quite inadequate. "Touch me and die."
"I'm yours. Make your offer and Pella will become your closest ally. I'll defy Crown Prince Theo and the High King. I'll bring King Challon to your side. All I ask..."
Panic flooded her heart, racing so hard and fast that black spots floated into her vision. She hated using herself as chattel. She hated arranging her marriage like some stablehand plotting a breeding program for a blooded mare. She hated the thought of living her entire life trapped with a man like Stephan or Theo, cringing each time he touched her. Rubbing her skin raw afterward in a futile attempt to remove his stench and foulness. Hating herself more and more every day.
"Marry me instead of Theo. I'll even kill him for you if you wish, although it will be much more entertaining if you do it yourself." Stephan leaned across the table, the ghastly light from his pale eyes flashing like blades. "And for that, my lovely High Queen, I want to taste the blood on your hands each time you kill."
Horror roared in her ears and she swayed. Shadow threatened to overwhelm her, the Shadow always waiting for her to stumble, to relax her guard for just a moment. Blood and darkness already stained her soul, but she would never murder for the sole desire for blood. Would she? Would all the killing--even in self defense--add up over the years until she was as corrupt as Theo and Stephan both?
Her father tugged on her arm, trying to remove her from the room, but all she could do was stare at the hunger on Stephan's face. Stare and wonder if the same foulness would someday twist her soul as well. She tightened her fingers on the sword, adjusting the hilt in her sweaty palm. She must kill him before he touched her.
If she killed him, she would lose everything. King Challon would never support her claim for the High Throne. Even the full might of Allandor's Guard could not stand against Crown Prince Theo if the North Forest and Pella both supported him.
She was good with a sword, but not that good. Eventually, the assassins would succeed. Without enough allies, Allandor would be razed to the ground.
Stephan licked his lips, and she shuddered. Desperation squeezed her throat and lungs so tightly she couldn't breathe. There had to be some other way.
Blessed Lady, help me!
Sergeant Fenton charged into the room and went to one knee before her. "Captain, Dalden Bay is under attack by the Sha'Kae al'Dan!"
King Valche tightened his grip on her arm and pulled her toward the door. "What, here? The barbarians haven't left their Plains for generations!"
Stephan came around the table toward them. "I brought three hundred of my finest soldiers with me."
Yanking her arm free, Shannari gripped the sword before her with both hands. Stephan didn't carry a sword and his men waited outside. She could eliminate him in one blow. "Get out of the way, Fenton, so I can end this."
The grizzled Sergeant looked into her face and paled. Instead of moving aside as she ordered, he stood and took position before her.
"Shannari, please." Stephan smiled, holding his hands up before him soothingly, well away from the jeweled dagger at his waist. "Accept my troth and I'll drive these barbarians from your land. Then we'll march to Shanhasson and the High Throne will be yours. My life on it."
Fenton drew his sword free, his voice carefully polite. "You will refer to her as Princess Shannari or the Lady's Daughter."
Stephan sneered. "You call her Captain, do you not? We ridicule the Allandorian Guard for letting a woman lead them."
"She is the finest Captain in the Green Lands. Under her leadership the Guard has never been defeated, yet we've certainly defeated your pitiful excuse for an army numerous times. Remove yourself from Dalden Bay, or I will personally skewer you and save her the trouble. My life on it."
Mocking her with a full court bow, Stephan exited through the opposite door, but tension still screamed through her body. Shannari rolled her shoulders to loosen some of the strain. One enemy retreated but would inevitably regroup with the Crown Prince, while a foreign army advanced on her country.
Waiting until she could no longer hear the Duke's retreat, she turned to Fenton. "How bad is it?"
"Bad, Captain. Two hundred barbarians mounted on massive warhorses. I don't know how long our infantry lines will hold."
"I expected trouble, but not from the south." King Valche rubbed a hand over his weary face. "How many troops did we bring?"
"Five hundred." Sheathing her sword, she headed for the door with Fenton. Ordinarily she would scoff at the odds. Fenton did not exaggerate the Guard's fame and success. If he was worried, then they faced one hell of a battle. "I want the front line doubled with half our men in reserve behind them."
"Shannari, please, don't lead the Guard today." Shedding his normal regal reserve, King Valche clutched her hand. "If you're killed in battle, the Green Lands are doomed."
"You made me Captain, Father. You enabled me to learn and practice strategy and battle techniques all these years. You've never tried to keep me out of battle before."
King Valche sighed heavily and released her. "I've just been reminded of exactly how twisted our enemies are. You're precious to the Green Lands, but you're my daughter, first. Lady help me, I wish I could spare you from all danger."
Shannari smiled grimly. She needed no one to remind her of her responsibilities as the Blessed Lady's Last Daughter, let alone the father who had drilled her ceaselessly in politics and strategy ever since she could remember. "If Allandor falls to barbarians then all our work over the years is for nothing. I know my duty, Father, perhaps better than you. I'll do what I must."
No matter the price.
"Have you ever seen such green grass?"
Shaken to silence, Rhaekhar, Khul of the Nine Camps of the Sha'Kae al'Dan, could answer his nearest Blood with no more than a nod. Instead of rolling hills of tall golden-brown grass, startlingly brilliant green fields stretched as far as he could see, dotted here and there with squares of rich black earth. As brightly colored as the emerald memsha about his hips, the grass must also be flavorful. His warhorse took every opportunity to snatch a muzzle full each time he loosened the reins.
"Even the air smells strange and foreign," Varne continued, a frown creasing his forehead. The other eight Blood fanned out around them. "I hope we don't tarry long in these Green Lands."
To his left, Gregar asked, "Where, Khul?"
"In a dream." Rhaekhar cleared his throat, his mouth dry. He never knew which would be quicker, Gregar's mouth or his blade, so the last thing he expected was solemn reverence on the Blood's face. "I saw bright green grass like this in a vision from Vulkar nearly twenty years ago."
A trick of the sunrise made flames dance in the Blood's dark eyes. "A green valley with a special tree?"
Rhaekhar's heart pounded so loudly that his ears roared with rushing winds. He never forgot the wondrous things he'd seen as a fifteen-year-old lad camping alone in the foothills of Vulkar's Mountain. Details of the dream had faded over the years, but the sense of hope remained with him always. "A tree with a bone-white trunk and leaves both black and red."
The Blood rode closer, his low voice pitched for Rhaekhar's ears alone. "And the lake of fire in the heart of the Mountain?"
Squeezing his eyes shut, he saw again the fiery lake, smoldering black rock, and the Great Wind Stallion wreathed in flames. "Aye."
"What did He give you?"
Glancing again at Gregar's serious face, Rhaekhar hesitated. He'd never told anyone but Kae'Shaman about the vision's promise. Besides, it was the Dark Mare, not Vulkar, who showed him the green fields, shimmering white walls and the garden inside where he would find his own beloved. "A Rose."
The Blood smirked, his eyes flashing as he lightly touched the wicked six-inch knife sheathed on his hip. "All I found was my ivory rahke."
"Where is this thing?" Varne demanded.
"I don't know exactly." Truth be told, Rhaekhar almost despaired of ever finding the Rose. The permanent dwellings lining the bay before them didn't resemble the protective white walls of his dream. "I suspect I shall find the Rose somewhere in these Green Lands."
"I would rather have Gregar's rahke." Varne stole a longing glance at the blade on the other Blood's hip. "I shall win it from you yet."
Gregar laughed softly. "I would take the Rose in a heartbeat."
"You speak of a woman?" Varne gave the other Blood a dark look of irritation. Gregar only laughed. "Khul, I don't know who you might find here, but surely you don't expect to take an outlander woman home to the Plains. There's already enough dissent among the Nine Camps. An outlander woman would split the Sha'Kae al'Dan asunder!"
Rhaekhar tightened his grip on the reins, but he couldn't dispute the Blood's words. His enemies were quite vocal in their disapproval of this journey to the Green Lands. Bringing home an outlander mate would be like oil cast on wildfire. "The Great Wind Stallion promised me a love like no other. The Rose of Shanhasson will be my Khul'lanna. I simply must find her first."
Drawing rein, Gregar nodded toward a force amassed against them outside the village. "If the approaching outlanders are any indication, Khul, all you will find at this time is a kae'don."
Rhaekhar shaded his eyes to estimate how many outlanders gathered against them. Easily ten fists of men awaited his warriors' charge. "Great Vulkar, they're on foot!"
"There will be no honor in this kae'don," Varne muttered gloomily.
Even with their greater numbers, the outlanders had no chance on foot, not against the na'kindren. Higher at the withers than the outlanders stood tall, the warhorses would crush them beneath churning hooves until the ground ran red with blood.
"I almost feel sorry for them," Gregar said, shaking his head. "Let us finish this quickly, Khul, so you may find your Rose."