From the national bestselling author of the “must-read” (The Best Reviews) Sons of Destiny and Guardians of Destiny novels...a magical novella of an extraordinary journey of profound pleasure and exquisite danger...
Who is entitled to the Flame Sea throne? For twin beauties Arasa and Kalasa, the question of their royal birthright has driven them both to find the answer by any means necessary. But to determine the rightful heir means that they must discover who was born first. So begins a legendary pilgrimage for the twins, each accompanied by a man of their most sensual dreams. For Kalasa it’s her devoted fiancé; for Arasa, it’s the handsome sorcerer Elrik.
But the legendary odyssey is not without its dangers—for one of them is not at all whom they appear to be, and their true motives are in question. Now, as treachery and desire become one, the truth of the birthright could be as perilous as the very future of the Flame Sea itself.
Birthright previously appeared in Elemental Magic
Praise for Birthright
“Exciting fantasy romance...brimming with sensuality and adventure. [It] illustrates why Johnson is a rising star in the paranormal romance genre.”—Romance Junkies
“Ms. Johnson does a wonderful job in holding her audience captive.”—Coffee Time Romance
Jean Johnson is the national bestselling author of the Sons of Destiny novels, including The Sword, The Wolf, and The Master, and the Guardians of Destiny series, which includes The Grove and The Tower. She lives in Seattle.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Author’s Note: Please notice that for all Flame Sea words, “j” on its own is pronounced with a distinct “y” sound, which forms its own consonant-vowel pairing, such as “yih” or “yuh”; “dj” is pronounced like a normal English “j.” Endjoj—er, I mean, enjoy!
Arasa scowled at the map the trader had spread on the table between them. The crude markings the barbarians of Kumron had used to draw their landscapes were confusing her. She could read and speak in Kumronite-lon, but it had only been a month ago that she’d heard of a “Womb of Tarden,” some holy-place deep within the southern lands beyond the mountain peaks of the Frost Wall. Not nearly enough time to brush up on their map-symbols.
Frustrated, she turned the map sideways, then upside down, hoping that it would make more sense that way. The trader gave her a look that said she was the barbarian, and deliberately turned the map back around.
“Here is the Third Tree Pass, which is the one southeast of us, if you follow that road into the mountains,” he explained with exaggerated patience in his native tongue. That, and he was having to speak over the drunken laughter coming from two tables over. “And this is the Spotted Deer Path, the main road through this section of Kumron. If you stay on it until you reach the king-state of Copper High, then turn east and follow this road, which is called the Dog’s Leg, you will eventually come to the king-state of Flying Fangs. Inside the walled city of Flying Fang Tribe is where you will find the Womb of Tarden. Now, just to view the map is two Moons. To buy the map, and take it with you, is two Suns…and that, only because I am somewhat familiar with these roads.”
Since she was trying to budget her expenses, Arasa grimaced. “How much to just let me copy it?”
“Eight Moons,” the leather-clad trader allowed, dipping his head thoughtfully. “Six, if you can copy it tonight, before I retire for the night. And if you must hold it overnight, I’ll need collateral to ensure I’ll get it back. But good luck finding a scribe in this place.”
Since they were seated in the tavern portion of a walled cross between a trading post and a small hunting village, she didn’t doubt his skepticism. Scribes didn’t exactly flock to such a remote location. “I can copy it myself. So long as this map will take me to the Womb of Tarden and back, I’ll be happy.”
“It will take you there,” the man agreed, holding out his hand. “Two Moons for the viewing, which you will pay now.”
One of the other patrons in the tavern, wending his way back from the kegs in the corner, peered over the trader’s shoulder as she dug the silver coins out of the pouch slung on her sword-belt. He had odd pale skin flecked with tiny brown spots, and vigorously curly, coppery colored hair. Even his brows and lashes were copper-colored, accenting the green of his eyes. He looked rather exotic, really.
“What’s that supposed to be?” he asked, lifting his mug to his lips.
“A map of Kumron, just south of here,” Arasa replied, sorting out six coins.
The redhead snorted. “And you’re paying for that?”
The trader craned his head, glaring at the other man. “Do you mind? We’re in the middle of a business transaction! Business which is none of yours.”
“You should Truth Stone him,” the stranger stated, “to make sure he’s not cheating you.”
“I would, if I had a Truth Stone,” Arasa pointed out dryly. “But I don’t.”
The freckled man flashed her a smile. “Then you’re in luck. I happen to have one.”
“You?” the trader scoffed.
“I’m a mage. I make them. Tell you what,” the redhead added to Arasa, nodding at the map. “If he’s telling the truth about that being accurate, I’ll only charge you a single Star for the use of my Stone. If he’s lying, you pay me one of those Moons.”
Arasa weighed the cost against the accuracy she needed, and nodded. Her quest was too vital to risk being tricked. Slipping the rest of the coins back into her pouch, she kept one silver Moon and fished out a copper Star. “You have a deal. Bring out the Stone.”
“I will not sit here and have my honor questioned like this!” the trader protested, rising from his seat in indignation.
The redhead planted his palm on the trader’s shoulder, forcing him back down with a thump. “You’ll sit here and answer the sajé’s questions, or be judged a liar and suffer accordingly.”
Given that she was still clad in Flame Sea–style clothing—loosely gathered layers of beige trousers, tunic, and poncho, with her hair wrapped up under a turban and a second sash wrapped under her sword-belt—Arasa couldn’t object to being pegged for an Imperial. The trader eyed both of them, but subsided without protest. The redhead removed his hand, reaching for the flap of the red-dyed leather bag slung crosswise over his chest. Arasa lifted her gaze from the trader, curious to know what was in the mage’s bag beside a Truth Stone.
Snatching at the map, the trader bolted out of his seat, flinging himself between the half-empty tables. Disappointment flooded her. Just when she thought she’d finally gotten a decent lead on where to go, the Goddess of Luck insisted on giggling in her face. She opened her mouth to ask the redhead how he knew the map wasn’t accurate, but was interrupted by a roar from one of the other patrons. The trader, dodging through the room on his way to the door, had tripped and stumbled into a large, muscular fellow in a fur-trimmed vest. A large, muscular, drunken fellow, who did not take kindly to having his mug knocked out of his hand and his drink spilled across the table.
With a curse that made her ears burn, the big fellow rose, grabbed the trader by his leather tunic, and flung him into another table…which was occupied by more inebriated patrons. Naturally, they took immediate exception to being interrupted so rudely. Blinking, Arasa shoved the two coins back into her purse, yanked the strings shut, and escaped her chair. She would have to circle around the edge of the room if she wanted to get to the door.
A hand caught her wrist as she turned to do so, tugging her toward the back of the tavern. “This way,” the redhead offered, jerking his head at the door to the kitchen. “There’s a door out back.”
Arasa winced and ducked reflexively as someone threw a mug past her shoulder. It missed her by a good body-length, but it smacked into the table behind her. Being made of waxed leather, it didn’t crack and break, but it did slop its contents all over the place. It wasn’t the only mug being thrown, nor the only object. Quickly following her erstwhile guide, Arasa shook her hand free so that she could dodge a chair skittering across the floor, flung by the tavern owner as he bellowed for his customers to behave and settle back down.
The door into the kitchen lay directly across from the door into the backyard of the tavern; it took a matter of moments to make their way outside. While the yelling continued out in the common room, they nodded politely to the harried-looking woman peeling vegetables at the wash-basin. From the look of the place, Arasa was glad she hadn’t risked eating any of the food; those counters needed a serious scrubbing.
The night air was cool compared to the heat inside the tavern, but not unpleasantly so. It was early autumn, not exactly the most propitious time of the year to be planning a trip over the Frost Wall and back. Arasa didn’t have much choice, however. Her instructions were quite clear: make a barefoot pilgrimage from the Womb to the Heart if she wanted to clear up the dilemma of who should have been born first, herself or her twin Kalasa. If the matter hadn’t been so important, she wouldn’t have contemplated leaving the Empire of the Flame Sea. The silhouetted shapes of the bushy evergreens ringing the wooden palisade enclosing the trading village were a far cry from the spiky, fan-leafed date palms she was used to seeing.
“I think it’ll be safe to go back inside in about half an hour, possibly less,” the mage at her side offered. He held out his hand. “I think you’ll agree that you owe me a Moon. He wouldn’t have run if he hadn’t been telling a lie.”
“I agree.” Fishing out one of the silver coins again, she dropped it into his hand. “Thanks. How did you know it was a lie?”
The mage dug into his satchel, pulling something out. “The Womb of Tarden is located in the king-state of Melting Vipers, which is farther east than that map showed. And Dog’s Leg Path lies along the coast of the Hamijn Ocean, not in the midhills region.”
Unfurling his fingers, he displayed the white marble disc in his grip, shifting his arm to the side so that the light from the open kitchen door played over his hand. Flipping the disc over, he showed her the backside, where it had pressed against his palm. Pure white, proving he hadn’t lied to her.
“As you can see, you just got your money’s worth.” Gripping the stone again, he added, “My name is Malika.” Uncurling his hand, he displayed the blackened outline of his fingers. The marks faded from the polished surface of the stone after a few moments, proving the stone was indeed enchanted to prove or disprove the truth.
“You know your geography. And your Truth Stone spell,” she praised as lightly as she could. Disappointment still leaked into her voice. All she knew now was that she had to go much farther east in her quest, adding days of travel to what was already a disheartening distance to contemplate riding across, never mind traveling barefoot, of all foolish things.
“And you sound very disappointed that the map was false. I’m surprised,” he stated, leaning back against the wall by the kitchen door. “It’s not often that an Imperial is so eager to climb the Frost Wall, given how winter comes sooner, the higher you climb. It’s a few months away, still, but it’s a very long way to the Womb of Tarden from here.”
“I don’t exactly have a choice. I don’t suppose you have an accurate map of how to get from here to this…Melting Vipers king-state?” Arasa asked, trying not to hope too much.
“Not really. I know the names of the major roads to take,” he said. “But I couldn’t draw you a map. I’ve never been there. Nor would I want to, given Tarden’s reputation.”
That made her frown softly. “What do you mean, Tarden’s reputation?”
“He’s one of the less friendly Gods of Kumron. His worshippers venerate the vipers of their tribe,” the mage clarified. “Including the poisoning of their enemies. Considering that whole eastern region isn’t too happy with the Flame Sea at the moment, what with the Empire pushing them back up over the eastern passes this last spring…” He shrugged eloquently.
“Well, as I said, I don’t have much choice.” The noise inside the tavern was finally dying down. Arasa figured she could go back inside in another handful of minutes. Even if the counters in the kitchen weren’t spotlessly clean, it was too early to retire to the stables, where she would be sleeping in one of the stalls claimed by her steed and her two remounts.
Sleeping on the floor, the benches, or the tabletops of the common room didn’t appeal to her, but this place wasn’t an inn, just a lowly tavern; all they had were benches, tables, and spots on the floor, no real beds anywhere. Not to mention that, traveling on her own, she was safer sleeping with her horses anyway. They, at least, would guard her while she slept.
The curly-haired mage tilted his head, studying her. He stuck out his hand. “Elrik of Snow Leaper.”
Since he had helped her, she politely clasped it. His flesh was warm, his grip comfortably firm. She returned the pressure evenly, giving him her name. “Arasa.”
“Just Arasa?” Most of his face was in shadow, since the lamps from the kitchen didn’t stretch around the edge of the door, but she could hear the skepticism in his voice. “You are UnShijn?”
Clanless? She suppressed a snort at the mere thought. If only my life were that simplified. “You know a bit about the Flame Sea, for a Kumronite.”
He switched languages, speaking in nearly flawless Adanjélon, albeit with a Falijn-lon accent. “I may have been born to the Snow Leaper Tribe, but my grandmother was a mage. She taught at the Academy in Aben-hul out on the west coast, so I went to live with her for several years when my powers manifested at the age of ten. Being fluent in both languages, I ply my trade along the borderlands of the Frost Wall. Not many can bridge that particular gap.”
“A profitable niche,” Arasa agreed. He was still holding her hand. She freed her fingers with a little wriggle, and he dropped his arm back to his side. Her skin itched a little, almost as if it missed touching him.
“It can be, when the southerners aren’t trying to make war across the border, and the Imperials aren’t trying to push them back over the peaks.” He shrugged, tucking his hands between his back and the wooden wall he leaned against. “At least you Imperials stop yourselves at the mountain passes. I can’t say the same for my father’s kin. I’ve always wondered why, though. I mean, you have better technology, better mages, better soldiers…. Why hasn’t the Flame Sea invaded and taken over the southlands?”
That question, she could answer. “Because of the covenant between the Am’n Adanjé and Djin-Taje-ul, Mother Goddess of All. The Ruling Fmily may claim all of the land from Wall to Wall and Sea to Sea, but not one inch more. So we can only go up to the peaks of the mountains to the north and the south, and stretch ourselves out from the western to the eastern shore. To go over the Cloth and Frost Walls would be to go beyond them, so we can claim only up to the tops of the peaks and passes.”
“A covenant, eh? Do you also follow this covenant of your leaders?” Elrik asked her, curiosity lacing his baritone voice. “Because if you do, it’s an odd thing, wanting to travel so desperately to the Womb of a foreign God. I’d think you would be smart and stick to your own Wombs.”
Our own…what? Blinking, Arasa stared at him. “What did you say?”
“What do you mean, what did I say?” he repeated, pushing away from the wall so that he could stand upright. “I’m just asking why you feel like you have to go visit the temple of a God whose followers would hate you on sight.”
“A Womb…is a temple?” Arasa asked him carefully, needing that point clarified. Her heart pounded in her chest at the possibility.