In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage's blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head--and assassins at his heels.
Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld's side as his armsman, both protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of the Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing between him and death.
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The Sentinel Mage
By Emily Gee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Emily Gee
All rights reserved.
Jaumé was in his father's barn when the curse broke free of its dormancy on the easternmost rim of the Seven Kingdoms. As it burst into life, shadows settled like dark stains on every man, every woman, every child in the kingdoms. No one noticed; these were shadows only mages could see, and the Seven Kingdoms had purged itself of witchcraft centuries ago.
The curse began its slow, inevitable creep westward, passing through the fishing village of Girond. Grains of soil trembled as it passed, blades of grass quivered faintly, and the water in wells and creeks shivered. Girond's inhabitants knew nothing about magic and no one realized anything was wrong until it was too late.
Jaumé was playing in the loft. He burrowed deep in the straw, digging with his hands, wriggling and twisting, holding his breath, and then the straw parted between his scrabbling fingers and he looked down at his little sister, Rosa.
Rosa sat cross-legged in a patch of sunlight, singing. Jaumé gulped for breath and watched as she arranged the dolls in her lap. Four dolls, a family.
Da had carved them in the evenings while Rosa slept, and then he'd painted smiling faces on them and glued wool to their smooth wooden heads, and Mam had stitched clothes out of scraps of fabric.
Jaumé began to burrow backwards. It was harder this way—
The door swung open. It slapped lightly against the wall and stayed there, shivering on its hinges. Rosa stopped singing. "Da?"
Jaumé peered through the straw. He saw his father's curly brown hair and the scarred blacksmith's apron and—
Blood. Blood on the thick leather apron. Blood streaking his father's forearms. Blood staining his mouth and chin.
"Da?" Rosa said again, her voice thin and uncertain.
Da's lips curled back from his teeth. He reached down and grabbed Rosa by the hair and lifted her off the floor. The dolls tumbled to the ground.
Jaumé lay frozen in the straw. He couldn't breathe, couldn't utter a sound, couldn't move.
His sister began to scream, high-pitched.
The scream broke through Jaumé's immobility. He pushed backwards, bursting free of the straw, scrambling across the rough floorboards. Panic bubbled inside him. He pushed headfirst out the small window, tumbled down the shingle roof, and fell to the ground.
Rosa's scream stopped abruptly.
Jaumé stayed where he was for a moment, panting, sobbing, his face pressed into the dirt, and then he pushed to his feet and began to run, around the back of the barn, through the yard, scattering hens, up the shallow stone steps to the kitchen.
He barreled through the door. "Mam!" His voice was as shrill as Rosa's had been.
Mam lay on the floor with the clothes torn from her body. The kitchen stank of her blood.
Jaumé stood, gulping for breath. The wooden floorboards seemed to tilt beneath his feet. Silence filled his head, echoing, so loud it was almost deafening—
A flurry of squawks erupted from the yard.
Da's coming for me.
Jaumé ran through the kitchen, his bare feet slipping in Mam's blood, and into the front room. He shoved at the door, wrenching the latch open, and then he was outside, running so hard it felt as if his heart would burst.
It was only a quarter of a mile to Girond. He ran it blindly, panic blurring his vision. It wasn't until he reached the first house that he realized something was wrong.
The door hung slightly open, crooked on its hinges, and in the middle of the whitewashed planks of timber—a handprint in blood.
Jaumé shied off the road. He scrambled over the stone wall into Farmer Gabre's cornfield and pressed himself flat to the ground. For long minutes he heard nothing but his own heart beating. The sound filled his head, squeezing out everything else.
Gradually his heartbeat slowed. Other sounds returned. Birds sang. A dog barked. Corn plants rustled in the breeze. Everyday noises. And beneath them—
A woman screamed.
Jaumé rolled over. He looked up at the sky. It was the bright blue of early autumn. High overhead, seagulls wheeled and soared.
He inhaled, his breath catching in his throat like a sob, and then froze. Someone was running towards the village. A man, grunting with each step.
He knew it was Da.
The stone wall seemed to shrink, to become made of nothing. He waited for the footsteps to stop. For Da to find him.
The runner passed.
Jaumé lay for several minutes not daring to move, breathing shallowly, smelling dust, smelling wood smoke and the stink of curing fish, smelling the scent of Mam's blood. Then he rolled onto his belly and crawled deeper into the cornfield, burrowing as he'd burrowed in the straw, hiding.
* * *
Jaumé stayed in the cornfield until night fell, then he scrambled back over the stone wall. The village was burning. Flames leapt from the thatched roofs. Figures moved, silhouetted against the blazing houses. He heard yelps of laughter, like something from an animal's throat.
He ran away from Girond, barefoot and quiet, on the very edge of the road, pressed against the forest, heading west. Thirst burned in his throat, in his chest. The creek flowed on the other side of the road, but he dared not drink, dared not even get close to it.
Those who drink the water shall thirst for blood. They shall be as wild beasts.
The tales he'd heard all his life were true. The curse was real, and if he drank from the creek it would take him too.CHAPTER 2
The diplomatic seal had brought them this far: into Osgaard's marble palace with an escort of armed guards, along echoing corridors where nobles stared openly and bondservants wearing the iron armbands of slavery cast cringing glances at them, into the throne room to stand before the king and his heir.
King Esger sat on his throne like a bull, thick-necked and massive with fat. Prince Jaegar sat beside him, bullish too. Both men had ash-blond hair and silver-gray eyes. Their expressions matched their coloring: cold.
Dareus had said they would walk out of the palace, that there'd be no need for bloodshed—but Innis knew he was wrong. The king's pale eyes, flat with hostility, told her that. Like everyone in the Seven Kingdoms he saw them as monsters, abominations from across the sea.
He wants us dead.
King Esger and his heir wore golden crowns. The crowns didn't rest on their heads; they were bound there, woven in place by their own long hair. Innis averted her gaze. The crowns seemed to grow from the king's head, from his son's, like misshapen antlers.
Guards flanked the throne, standing to attention. Their uniforms were gaudy—gold breastplates over scarlet tunics, loops of gold braiding—but the men were fighters, their arms corded with muscle. Sharp-edged swords hung at their sides.
Curse shadows shrouded the guards, a promise of coming death. The shadows lay on her, too, now that she'd set foot in the Seven Kingdoms. Innis saw them clearly—as if a veil of black cobwebs had been thrown over each person in the throne room—but the guards couldn't see them. They stared ahead, stony-faced. She'd caught one looking sideways at her as they'd walked through the corridors, the ceilings resonating with the sound of booted feet. The expression on his face had been easy to read: fear, revulsion.
Innis counted the exits silently: the wide double doors at the far end and the smaller doors on either side of the room, all decorated with gold leaf.
Six doors and a score of guards. And four of us.
Only the silver disk around Dareus's neck, stamped with the seals of kings half a world away, kept King Esger from ordering them dead. It seemed insubstantial protection, as puny as a child's wooden shield against a battleaxe.
Tapestries stitched with gold thread hung on the walls. Between them, gilded mirrors were suspended, so tall they reached nearly to the ceiling. Innis saw herself in one, elongated and twisted slightly to the right. Beside her were Cora and Petrus, and one pace in front, Dareus. The mirror didn't show the magic that was buried deep within them, the fire inside Dareus and Cora, the animal forms within Petrus and herself—lion, wolf, hawk.
They stood silently, waiting. Innis tried to be still, tried to not shift her weight, but it was unnerving to be surrounded by so much hatred. They'd behead us if they could, dismember us, burn us. Her heart beat too fast. Magic was a low hum beneath her skin. She wanted to grab hold of it, to change her body into something less vulnerable.
Footsteps echoed in the throne room. A young man dressed in brown with a royal's long hair entered, and one pace behind him, a guard in scarlet and gold wearing the silver torque of a personal armsman.
Her nervousness intensified. This is it. Don't make a mistake.
For a brief moment she heard the voices in her head again, the councilors debating: She's too young to be a Sentinel. Her inexperience will jeopardize the mission. Innis pushed the voices aside. She drew a deep breath and measured the distance to the nearest guard, preparing herself for what might come.
"Father." The newcomer bowed. He was dressed plainly in a shirt and trews and huntsman's boots. A few grains of sawdust clung to his trews. He'd come from the practice ground, Innis guessed. Wrestling. He had no sword belted around his waist and wore no golden crown; instead his brown hair was tied simply at the nape of his neck.
King Esger turned his gaze to Dareus. "Prince Harkeld. As you requested."
The prince looked at Dareus, at the close-clipped gray beard and the plain traveler's clothes, at the diplomatic seal, heavy and silver around his neck, and then glanced briefly at the three of them, standing behind. "You wish to speak with me?"
The differences between the two princes were obvious: dark brown hair instead of ash-blond, hazel eyes instead of gray, sun-browned skin instead of pale. There was nothing bullish about Prince Harkeld, he was lighter on his feet, leaner, but he had the same strong jaw as his half-brother, the same strong nose and brow, the same strong, square hands.
"And you are?" the prince asked.
Dareus bowed. "We are from Rosny, highness. In the Allied Kingdoms."
"They're witches," King Esger said. "Come all the way across the ocean to speak with you."
Shock flared in Prince Harkeld's eyes. He stepped back a pace. His face twisted for a second—revulsion, fear—and then settled into an expression as hostile as his father's. He glanced at the diplomatic seal. His jaw tightened. "Then speak."
Dareus bowed again. "You've heard of the Ivek Curse, Prince Harkeld?"
"A peasants' tale." The prince's voice was curt, dismissive. "To frighten children."
"No tale, your highness." Dareus shook his head. "The curse spreads in water. In lakes and rivers, in town wells. Those who drink become monsters. Mothers eat their babies' flesh. Fathers violate their children and then slaughter them—"
"A peasants' tale," the prince said again. "If this is what you wish to talk to me about—"
"The curse has risen on Vaere's eastern coast," Dareus said. "Unless it's broken it will roll across the Seven Kingdoms like a tide. It will claim this continent. Every village and town."
The prince shrugged, his disbelief evident. "Why come to me?"
Innis glanced at King Esger. He was leaning forward slightly, his eyes on Prince Harkeld. The back of her neck prickled as tiny hairs stood on end. He hates his son.
"Because you are the only person who can break the curse."
Prince Harkeld laughed. "Your wits are addled, witch." He turned to the king. "Father, must I listen to this nonsense—"
King Esger silenced him with a flick of his hand. "Listen."
The prince turned back to face Dareus. Anger colored his cheeks.
"The curse can only be broken by someone of royal birth. A direct descendent of the house of Rutersvard."
"So? I'm hardly the only—"
"Someone who also has mage blood."
Fury flared on Prince Harkeld's face. He took a step towards Dareus. "How dare you—"
"Your mother's father was a mage," Dareus said.
Prince Harkeld halted. Shock rustled through the throne room. The guards stirred. Prince Jaegar jerked back. Only the king sat unmoved.
Innis's magic spiraled closer to the surface. She braced herself for whatever came next.
Prince Harkeld swung round to face the king. "Father?"
Prince Jaegar's expression was exultant. He laughed aloud. "Witch blood!" He leaned forward, his expression hardening into hatred. "Get out of this palace—"
King Esger halted him with a raised hand. "No." The king wasn't looking at either of his sons, he was looking at Dareus. "Harkeld is useful. Isn't he, witch?"
Prince Harkeld swallowed. His face was ashen.
"He's the only person who can break Ivek's curse," Dareus said.
"My son ... or his blood?"
Foreboding gathered in Innis's chest, squeezing her lungs.
King Esger smiled. He sat back and folded his hands over his stomach. "Harkeld will do it."
The foreboding evaporated. Innis drew in a deep breath. Dareus had been correct—they'd walk out of here. There'd be no bloodshed.
Dareus bowed. "Thank you, your highness."
"Once certain conditions have been met."
"Payment for my son's services. For his blood."
"Payment? Your highness, I have no—"
"Not from you," King Esger said. "From my fellow kings. They shall pay for Harkeld's blood."
"But your highness. I have no authority to negotiate—"
"That's what ambassadors are for," the king said.
"But your highness, there's no time—"
"There's plenty of time," King Esger said dismissively. "Where's the curse now? Vaere's east coast? More than a thousand leagues from here."
"People are already dying in Vaere." Dareus took a step towards the king.
One of the guards flanking the throne drew his sword.
Innis shifted her weight, standing on the balls of her feet. Her heart was beating fast, her magic close to the surface, tingling on her fingertips.
Dareus stood his ground. "Thousands will die if we wait, your highness. Tens of thousands."
"Then I'm certain the other kingdoms will be happy to meet my terms." King Esger turned his head to one side, dismissing them. "You may leave now."
Not without the prince. Innis took a deep breath, ready to move at Dareus's signal.
Prince Harkeld spoke. "Father."
King Esger looked at his younger son. Displeasure was evident on his face.
When Prince Harkeld had entered the throne room he'd had the arrogance of a king's son; he no longer did. Gone was the confidence, the pride. His skin was pale with shock, and beneath the shock was something that looked like fear.
You are right to be afraid, Innis told him silently. You're one of us now, an abomination. They'd kill you if they could.
Muscles worked in Prince Harkeld's throat as he swallowed. "Father, I must break the curse as soon as possible—"
"Be silent." It was a command, flat and final.
"Or I shall have your tongue cut out."
Prince Harkeld closed his mouth. Innis saw on his face the realization that his father hated him.
"The curse will reach Osgaard," Dareus said into the silence.
The king shrugged. "Not for many months. And I have the means of stopping it before it does."
"But whole kingdoms will be emptied!"
King Esger smiled slightly, his cheeks pouching. "I'm aware of that."
There was a moment of stillness, of silence. Innis stared at the king. Disbelief grew inside her. No one could be that—
"You intend to use the curse to increase Osgaard's wealth?" Dareus asked. His voice was uninflected, without censure.
King Esger shrugged lightly. "It's my duty to expand Osgaard's territory." He lifted a hand from his belly, waved it in dismissal. "You may go now."
Dareus didn't move. "It will be the worst kind of butchery, your highness."
King Esger lost his smile. He straightened on his throne. "Get out of my palace."
Innis tensed. She took hold of her magic. Clarity expanded in her mind. She inhaled, feeling magic running under her skin, stinging—
"No, Father!" Prince Harkeld stepped forward. "Osgaard loses its honor if you do this. I won't allow it!"
"Allow?" King Esger laughed, a loud crack of sound. He leaned forward on the throne, hatred twisting his face. "You'll do as you're ordered! You are nothing here. Nothing!"
Excerpted from The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee. Copyright © 2011 Emily Gee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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