|Publisher:||Meerkat Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||3 Months to 17 Years|
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By Rebecca Gomez Farrell
Meerkat Press, LLCCopyright © 2017 Rebecca Gomez Farrell
All rights reserved.
He was an enticing prospect, Vesperi had to admit. Candlelight enhanced his muscle's curves where they strained against his black tunic. Fluffs of dark feather down stuck to the material, one of the reasons Vesperi knew he was a Raven, a spy from Lansera. The other was the cloak hooked on his pointer finger, its shade the luminous purple of a sunset over Mandat Hall on a cloudy night. A cloak that audacious declared his ambition for Vesperi's hand the moment he rode through Sellwyn's gate. Maybe the spy had chosen it for that effect; her father was drawn to power like a priest to intrigue. But Vesperi doubted Agler had the wits for that deception. Doubtless, the fool simply lacked subtlety.
He stared at her, waiting for an invitation to speak from her bedroom doorway. She let him wait. Meduan men rarely waited for anything. Vesperi constantly had to, especially for her brother Uzziel. She'd cursed the day he was born, and he returned the favor with every contemptuous look he gave her. Not that her curse could have made his life worse than it already was. He'd flown out of their mother's womb with his birth cord tangled multiple times around his neck, lips and nails deep claret. He should have been put to death — if a girl, he would have been — but Lord Sellwyn longed for an heir and wouldn't hear of it. So the whelp lived and spited her with every breath from his sick bed.
"Lady Sellwyn?" Agler broke the silence with a cough. His muscles tensed appealingly. The man's form was extraordinary.
"Oh, please, Ser Agler, come inside," she drawled. "Do take a seat." She shifted on her side, careful to tug her blouse down an inch. Then she fluttered her lashes.
He blushed and slid into the chair farthest from her bed. She laughed. "Such chivalry from a Lorvian, for a lady like me." This spy had no idea how Lorvian men behaved. With words that fine, he could never have been raised a distant northern noble, no matter how long he claimed to have been at court. She patted the bench next to her. "Why don't you come closer?"
He considered it, uncertainty evident in his downcast eyes. But his voice was stern. "Your father is home. I know he gets ... angry ... on occasion." He paused. "I wish to give him no reason to dislike me."
Vesperi grew weary of his manners. This man — this spy — was a waste of her time. She iced her tone. "What do you want with me, Agler?"
"To marry you, of course."
"Of course, of course. So many men come here with that same idiotic idea. I am not the marrying type."
Agler narrowed his eyes. "Are you mocking my proposal, wench?"
Vesperi laughed again. At least he was attempting to be a man now. "No, Agler, I am not mocking you. I am letting you know precisely where you stand."
"I'm a better match than any of those buffoons who've paraded through your father's hall." He spoke faster now, hiding his nerves. "I could offer your father a thousand souzers tonight if you agree to the marriage."
"Yes." She crossed her legs slowly. "But what could you offer me?"
His face flushed, but he had the forbearance to pretend it was anger. "Offer you? That's preposterous, woman. I do not have to offer you a thing. Why, I ought to call the guards this instant to ... to ..."
How precious. He couldn't say the words.
"To beat me?" she finished for him. "Spare yourself the embarrassment. I have taken beatings from the guards since I was old enough to talk. I don't feel the fists anymore." She rose, planting her feet on the carpet. "And you do need to offer me something. My father has agreed I may choose my own husband." A lie. Her father had asked her opinion on the matter once, but that hardly qualified as handing her the decision. He would never do that; no man of Medua would. But Agler did not realize it.
"I have yet to meet a suitor who was man enough to impress me. You certainly do not." Agler may have mimicked the swagger of Medua's courtiers with his garish colors and quick temper, but it wasn't in his blood. She wondered whom he had been over the mountains before becoming a Raven. A field worker from Wasyla? Certainly not one of those disgusting frogmen from Rasseleria. She had seen one once in the convent, wearing the bone-studded robe of the advers, Medua's priesthood. The frogman had felt her staring and trained his yellow eyes on her while his tongue flicked out between his lips.
"Vesperi, tell me then. How can I win you over?" Agler's voice revealed only a hint of the exasperation he must have felt. The Raven was a fish thrown into a pool of sheven here, sharp rows of teeth gleaming from their opened mouths. She almost pitied the spy.
He changed tactics. "You are ravishing. And more clever than any other woman I have met — you would make a good advisor for a man like me. I'm going to rise fast, you'll see, and you should be the lady on my arm. You belong at King Ralion's court, not wasting away in a hovel like Sellwyn Manor." His voice hinted at tenderness. The emotion was a ludicrous possibility, but his bargaining chip was not. If she had to take care of her brother much longer, she would do something completely insane, poison Uzziel's porridge or inflict him with her talent the next time they were alone. By Saeth's hammer, she wanted to be rid of her brother.
Agler breathed heavily, his wavy, sandy blond hair shifting. It begged to have fingers run through it. The spy offered Vesperi an easy escape, but she didn't want it, not in truth. She wanted Sellwyn Manor.
Vesperi sighed then waved her hand toward the door. "Go. We're done here."
"I'll say when we're done, woman, not a whore like you."
Agler almost choked on the words as he spit them out. Did the Ravens think this boy fully trained? He would not last two seconds in a camp tavern, much less at court. Luckily for Agler, Lord Sellwyn saw only what he wanted. In this case, the substantial pouch of coins tied around the spy's waist.
It was fortunate she had convinced her father to let her speak with Agler before saying yes to the mummer's proposal. Vesperi would have been a complete laughingstock after his inevitable discovery, forced back into the convent so Lord Sellwyn need never lay eyes on her again. A man who addressed her as "Lady" wasn't one on whom she could hang her future. The more she considered it, the more his pathetic attempt at winning her hand angered her ... and it had been so long since she had used her talent. She had to hide it until she was ready to show Father how important it could be for him, how invaluable she could be ... But a little play could be explained away well enough.
Agler sputtered on about teaching her to be a respectable wife or some such nonsense, but he never raised a hand toward her like a true Meduan would have. That final mistake sealed his fate. Vesperi gazed out the tiny window high above her nightstand. Three of the four moons clustered close that night, and she focused on the biggest one — silver-hued Esye. With her middle finger raised, she imagined squeezing the moon by its halo, draining the light from it. Energy flowed into her body and churned within her palm like a hound chasing after its tail.
"Vesperi, what are you doing?"
There was fear in the question — I must be glowing. His rounded eyes reminded her of a lizard's, and then his face went white. She wondered what he saw. The last time, the nun had screamed something about fish scales, and she'd been desperately curious to know how she appeared when channeling the talent ever since. Her hair writhed with the force of strengthening energy, and she breathed in sharply, jabbed her raised finger toward him. A single bolt of silver flashed into his chest, and in seconds, she was alone.
A lick of flame lingered over the pile of ashes then vanished. She was disappointed to see she had burnt the chair to a crisp as well as the man. At least there were no marks left on the wall. Vesperi could summon her talent, but she did not know how to control it.
She yelled down the hall. "Servant. Come clean up this mess."
A young girl with bronzed skin scurried inside, keeping her head low.
"Those ashes." Vesperi pointed at the remains. "Sweep them up."
The girl hurried back into the corridor to fetch a broom, deftly sidestepping the incense-shrouded altar to their god, Saeth, that dominated the hall.
A flash of inspiration made Vesperi call after her. "Bring a box with a lid and a quill and paper also." This will be fun.
The girl nodded as she disappeared down the hall, blending in with the shadows.
Vesperi knelt, sticking her hand in the warm ashes. A waterfall of them slipped through her spread fingers. Such a waste. He had been so handsome.CHAPTER 2
Jory's iron-tipped quarterstaff hit Janto's left shoulder guard with a resounding clang. He fell onto the grassy plain with an oomph. Eyes closed, Janto willed the pain to stop. Why did I agree to quarterstaffs? He glanced longingly at his sword, discarded on a nearby patch of mud.
"Did I hit too hard?" Jory's nasal voice acted as a new, excruciating weapon of torture in an already ringing head. Nearly as burly as his father, Cino Xantas, liege-lord of Ertion, Jory resembled a monolith more often than he did a young man. His voice had not caught up to his bulk.
Janto rolled over, letting the distant sight of Callyn — the capital city of Lansera, which straddled the tempestuous River Call — soothe him. A quartz-encrusted bridge connected the city's east and west sides and sparkled so bright, mothers told their children to turn away for fear they'd go blind. It wasn't the shine that caught Janto's eye, however, but the horse and rider bounding through the city's westward gate, barely more than a speck on the horizon. Still, Janto's gut clenched. All members of the council had arrived by midevening yesterday. He knew that too well, recalling the hours of small talk he had been forced to make the past few days. Ser Allyn had insisted on bringing him along as he offered the king's hospitality to each liege-lord and lady. The horse and rider now cresting the first of the hills had to be on another mission.
Janto squinted, making out black feathers lining the rider's cloak and hat. A Raven, then. Ser Swalus, chief of the realm's spies, had arrived yesterday. Why would another of his men come to court?
Jory's voice pierced his thoughts. "My prince? Are you all right?"
"Janto." He pushed aside his worry to correct his friend. Janto's father, King Dever Albrecht, would deal with the Raven's mystery soon enough. "When you have been besting me since you were in swaddling clothes, you have earned the right to call me by my name." Janto reached for the hand he knew his sparring partner would offer. Lanserim always helped their enemies to their feet.
Janto retrieved his staff from the brush where it had fallen. "You know you have to suffer for that last hit."
Jory repositioned himself faster than a rufior could flap its wings. They circled each other for a time, attempting thrusts and cuts. Janto was hard-pressed to avoid Jory's blunt jabs. The tireless youth's tar-colored hair swung wildly with each parry. If Janto's companions at the Murat had anywhere near Jory's stamina, three weeks of agony awaited him, and Janto had had plenty of that already from Serra, his betrothed. He had chosen the year of their wedding to attend the annual competition, and she had made her complaints on that count well known before his father ordered their separation. King Albrecht thought women a distraction from the mental and physical preparations needed for the Murat, so Janto and Serra had not spoken in weeks, though they lived in the same castle.
"Whoa, now!" Jory looked over Janto's shoulder, lowering his staff.
The warning came too late. Something slammed into Janto with the heft of a spooked craval beast. Luckily, it wasn't one of those dim-witted creatures or Janto's back would have broken. Face down in the grass for the second time that morning, he saw Pic, a pock-marked serving boy of eight, tumble beside him. The lad had barreled straight into him while running down the hill.
Pic greeted his prince with eyes like a cat spotting a wolfhound. Janto laughed and patted the scared child on the back.
"Now tell me," he stood and extended his hand to the boy, "what's so important you ran so fast your eyes could not keep up with your feet?"
Pic took a deep breath. "You are needed by the Lady"— he paused to take another big gulp of air —"the Lady Serra needs you, I mean. The king sent me to come find you and —"
"Wait a moment and think clearly." Janto could not imagine his father ordering any such thing. "Are you certain you remember correctly?" King Dever Albrecht did not bend his own rules.
Pic nodded, too busy panting to speak. Janto turned to Jory. "I'm afraid I'll have to forfeit." He added with a grin, "It's the only way you'd win, anyhow."
Jory laughed and poked Janto's chest with his staff. "Keep telling yourself that."
"I'm also afraid you'll have to carry two suits of armor back with you." Janto tossed an arm guard on the pile of outerwear he'd started shedding as soon as Pic's intent had become clear. Armor was too much of a hindrance if he needed to move fast. His father was willing to let him see Serra, so it had to be urgent. Not urgent enough to leave his sword behind, though — Ser Allyn would have his head for that.
"I think we can handle it, Pic, can we not?" Jory ruffled the hair of the serving boy, who stumbled under the weight of a pair of gauntlets. "Be off, my prince!" "Janto!" He sprang into a run. One did not keep a king waiting, and this might be the only chance he'd get to see Serra before he left.
* * *
Janto did not slow as he neared the castle gate — a shimmering curtain of thin rods of Wasylim timber reinforced with platinum and gold threads strong enough to withstand an army's assault. None had ever come this close to the seat of Lansera, though Gavenstone Manor had nearly been overtaken by less traditional methods, and it lay but two day's ride to the southeast. By the time Janto reached the gate, the guards had already partway reeled the metal threads in, pulling the rods back enough for him to sprint through. He hurried past them, shouting thank yous as he made his way to the stone well in the center of courtyard. Drenched in sweat was no condition in which to see the king. Janto splashed his arms and face with the lukewarm liquid, taking care not to spill any on his tunic. The plain shirt he wore beneath wicked up most of the sweat, so the tunic was clean enough. The handful of water he scooped into his mouth was barely enough to satiate, but he did not have time for a lengthy draught. King Albrecht waited.
Janto vaulted up the stairs to his father's chamber. His mother sat near the window, her skin the brownish-green of Ashran marshweeds in winter. The tight, copper-colored curls on her head contrasted with her skin. She wore bell sleeves to cover dimpled arms; few things made Queen Lexamy feel self-conscious, but her weight was one of them.
She moved from the window. "Come closer, Janto."
"Father called me."
"I know. He had to take care of arrangements for the council. Ser Allyn fetched him moments ago."
"Where did they go?" Janto kissed his mother's cheek but kept his eyes on the doorway, ready to resume his search for his father and Ser Allyn, the king's most trusted servant and unquestioned head of the castle's affairs.
"To the scroll room, but you needn't go after him. He told me why he called for you." She paused. "Serra needs you."
Janto swallowed. "Is she unwell?"
"No." His mother took his hand and rubbed a thumb over his knuckles. "Agler is dead."
Suddenly, the Raven's appearance made sense. Serra's brother, Agler, had joined the band of spies last summer, determined to prove his loyalty to the king. Agler had been sent on this mission, his first, at the onset of winter, and the hanging balac vines had only now begun to bloom. But something more than a failed mission must have happened; Meduans did not kill the spies they caught. Rather, Lanserim scouts found them in the mountain woods, their minds addled by the wizards' torture, or they disappeared completely. It took months or years before the Ravens declared one of their own gone with finality. "How do they know he's dead?"
His mother handed him an unrolled parchment bearing the broken seal of a raven in flight. The words were written in the thrushberry's violet ink:
Your highness, King Dever Albrecht, ruler of the meritorious people of Lansera and keeper of the needful peace with the inconstant villains of Medua, I have received unfortunate news for your charge, the Lady Serrafina of Gavenstone. It is grievous to me that I must send lamentable tidings to one who has already borne such sorrow, but as our leader has already departed for your council, this duty falls to me.
Excerpted from Wings Unseen by Rebecca Gomez Farrell. Copyright © 2017 Rebecca Gomez Farrell. Excerpted by permission of Meerkat Press, LLC.
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