The princess of the seven cities was quarry in the moonlit gardens of her own castle.
While the lilting melodies of an orchestra waltzed onto the terrace, she tiptoed between night-blooming lilies, a prisoner within the labyrinth of orchards and small forests and stone paths because her father’s wizard had magically cursed her not to roam beyond the palace’s outer wall.
Pebbles scuffed and crunched under her silken slippers, her voluminous ivory and gold skirts rustling over her knees with every step. The material was too shimmery, too fluffy, too whispery, too princessly, for she was hunted through lush vegetation by highborn men who’d tracked from the ball in their quest for vengeance.
Ha! That made them sound dangerous.
Her bare fingers swept aside a low-hanging tree branch, the bark scraping her bare skin. She’d discarded her gloves somewhere in the vicinity of the terrace, and the balminess of the evening slicked her palms with perspiration.
She peered through the leaves, and there they strutted in their colorful waistcoats down a graveled lane lined with ornate iron lanterns. Pat pat pat; here come the rats.
Hurano’s glossy golden waistcoat manned their forefront over his dark violet knee breeches, his brown hair limned with golden torchlight and his heavy-lidded eyes scanning the trees. His cronies slumped behind him, resembling two rather unfortunately cut gemstones of ruby and sapphire.
All three slunk unaware of the gloveless princess hankering for a sharp point just a few meters from their milksop skin.
Fates. If only she had a dagger. Even a finger-flick of one, nothing too grand, just one that could, say, pop out an eyeball.
You are a shame to your demesne, her mother’s shrill voice reverberated in her mind. A princess does not jab out guts and gall bladders.
Seriah had grown immune to her mother’s jeers, though, having endured the sneering comment gritted from her mother’s smile every day: It should have been you who died.
The queen would never forgive Seriah for being born instead of the destined septuplets.
Fates, Seriah was fed up.
She strode onto the path and halted Hurano and his two cronies quite literally in their tracks, their buckled shoes and white-hosed calves comically half-raised for their next step.
“Looking for me?” She smiled brilliantly, crystal bright but wielding a core of steel.
Hurano’s lackies exchanged baffled glances, one scratching his ear and the other rubbing the side of his nose.
In the trees behind her, a night bird called to its mate.
Hurano’s slightly drink-bleared eyes scrutinized her challenging stance. “You know why I’m here. Your father can pay the weirs’ ransom.”
Yes, he can—could, but he won’t.
The image of the royal council chamber resurfaced: the emaciated weir-panther that had infiltrated her father’s meeting. Transforming mid-leap, the panther had lunged at her and she’d fought, ferocious but only sixteen. She’d lost her sword and—
Evander had thrown himself between her and the beast.
He’d clambered up, panting, bare-handed, bloodied, weaponless. Don’t you look at her, he’d growled full into the panther’s too-sentient snarl. You have to go through me first.
Stupid, futile pang in her heart. Wasted regret, thinking of when he’d been her staunch defender.
No, she was deluding herself. He’d never been her protector—aside from keeping her alive as the crowning pawn in his vengeance.
She pushed the thought away. What mattered was that ever since the day that weir had infiltrated the castle, her father harbored an especial place of aversion in his governing policies for shape-changers.
Now Hurano wanted the impossible, and he knew it.
“You can convince him.” He leaned unsteadily forward, his cheeks liquor-flushed, and pushed back longish strands of dark hair escaped from the ribbon at the base of his neck. His sleepy eyes peered closely at her. “You—”
“Ask my mother.”
“I already have.” He bit back a choice expletive. “Now I’m asking you.”
The sounds of night drifted in: soft, drowsy chirps; the burble of a nearby fountain. Its serenity echoed in Seriah’s fixed expression if not in her heart. “My father won’t listen to me.”
The lantern glow outlined the frustrated twist to Hurano’s lips. “If you refuse to help me, you show every noble in the Demesnes that you would turn your back on any of us.”
Again the night bird’s call threaded through the garden. A feathery breeze carried past the scent of roses and steel. The steel was out of place.
Seriah tried reason. “It won’t help. He won’t budge on the matter of the weirs.”
“You mean you won’t try!” Tension drew the corners of his droopy eyes taut. “If you want the nobility to support you, you have to behave like someone worth following. Someone who can lead us, not merely plot for your own selfish wants against your father.”
“Petty? Selfish?” The edges of her mouth curved in a mirthless smile gone razor-sharp. “Keeping myself independent and unshackled to a weak man is petty?”
Hurano’s return smile proved just as brittle. “Making him refuse my petition for your hand was undoubtedly petty.”
Seriah hesitated. In part, he was right. Marrying Hurano would gain her the support of the nobles… but only in the First Demesne.
There were six other courts of vultures she had to fend off. Hurano’s benefits only extended as far as the First Demesne’s walls.
And his patience didn’t even extend that far, judging by the frustrated rake of his hand over his pants.
Surreptitiously, she surveyed the black shadows pooling like tar between the tree trunks around the path, assessing her chances of navigating thorny bushes with her encumbering skirts while fleeing three men garbed in more maneuverable attire. “You know my requirement for marriage,” she hedged. “Any man wanting to marry me must—”
“First defeat you in combat. I know. I also know I can’t defeat you in that, but—” he gestured at the two awkward men behind him, the grim turn of his mouth conceding that they were hardly admirable specimens of proving his point, but also that the point he made was irrefutable “—the nobles are on my side. You want a united regime. You can have it if you marry me. I’m a good match.”
“And the very instant we wed, you’d either empty our coffers or attempt to dispatch an army outside the walls just to retrieve a single man from the weirs.”
He blanched, and desperation leaked through his darting eyes, baring the truth of what he was: a son who only wanted his father back alive. “Seriah…” His agitated hands almost seemed to want to reach for her, to shake her acquiescence from her, but they stopped themselves at the last instant. “Please…”
She wiped her damp palms against her skirts. “I’ve told you, Father won’t listen to me.”
“But…” His expression turned utterly inscrutable. After a moment, he suddenly smiled, drunken but also sly. “You know… I think you’re right.”
Fates, he’s going to do something idiotic.
Behind him, Pollard and Fiordin shuffled their spindly legs to and fro, little noble doggies unsure of what their master was planning.
Her fingers bunched in her frothy skirts. Hold your ground.
Hurano’s careful, almost smug steps closed the distance between them, crunching pebbles like peasants under his boot. “I’m going about this the wrong way, aren’t I? You really can’t do anything. You are only a woman, after all, and as a woman…” Hurano took hold of her chin, his fingers sweaty, trembling slightly and tightening as if to compensate for it. His other hand touched one of the pale curls escaped from her combs. “You can be compromised. If they catch us naked, together, we’ll have to marry.”
Her muscles coiled inside her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want to do this, but I’ll be gentle. Pollard, Fiordin, get her arms.”
Her knee hit his groin—cushioned by too many skirts and impeded by their heaviness, but fierce enough to bend him over double, keening. She shoved him at his cronies, who leaped apart and out of the way in colorful whisks of padded waistcoat.
Seriah veered in front of them and plunged into the greenery, her skirts hiked up, plants mashed down and pebbles flying underfoot.
Damn the dress! Her skirts snagged on thorny bushes and frothed around her ankles like eddies in a stream.
She ducked under a branch and her slippered foot jammed under an unseen rock. She went catapulting forward, a yelp strangled in her throat. Her hands thrust out to catch her balance—but strong fingers on her waist lifted her completely off the ground. Air rushed up her stockinged calves and perspiring thighs.
She landed roughly on a dirt plot past a scraggy tree and next to a marble bench in a moonlit clearing.
Deposited there by a figure in black boots and pants and tunic, his scent of leather vest, sharpened steel and spicy soap from a recent bath. She sucked in a breath of him in the smoky autumn air and met the dark eyes and angular features of their owner, his hard, handsome mouth firmed by vengeance under high cheekbones framed by an uneven fall of black hair.
Her blood ran cold and hot at once. “Let me go!” She scrambled backward, fingers hefting up her skirts to break away from him and sprint back into the trees, but Evander’s quiet voice froze her in place.
“I wouldn’t advise that.”
Hurano’s invectives spat from the shadows, coming closer.
Panicked, she nevertheless stayed in place while Evander’s hands slipped from her hips. She squinted into the obsidian shadows between the trees, knowing he wouldn’t warn her of the approaching noblemen. Something more lurked in those shadows. She risked a glance at him, but his eyes were trained on the three men crowding into the small clearing to her left.
Seriah stood locked between the bench, the trees, the noblemen with a vile scheme in mind and a commoner who one day planned to kill her.
Hurano and his cronies skidded to a halt a meter and a half away, brows hiked up, Pollard and Fiordin’s frowns fidgety.
Hurano recovered first and hissed, his critical gaze sizing Evander up. “What are you doing here, commoner?”
A corner of Evander’s mouth curved upward and he crossed his arms. “What are you doing here, nobly man?”
Hurano’s hand flew to his sword hilt, his lips white. “I told you not to call me no…”
Evander tendered a cocky lift of an eyebrow, waiting to be chastised.
Hurano’s words clipped out. “If you leave now, I’ll let your infraction pass.”
Evander smiled. “Oh, nobly man, you’re much mistaken if you think I’m leaving when things are about to get interesting.”
Hurano’s chin quivered—his entire body quivered actually.
Seriah kept her eyes on all four of her adversaries, gauging their weakest point and plotting her escape.
Hurano sneered, regrouping. “If you call your demise interesting, commoner, so be it.”
“Actually, I meant you curled up in a pathetic, moaning ball on the ground.”
Hurano swiped a hand over his ruffly collar, loosening it. “You’re too lowly to be worthy of my time.”
“Did I say it would be my hand inflicting your just deserts upon you? How remiss of me.”
Hurano’s cheeks paled even in the wan moonlight. His gaze flicked to the impenetrable abysses between the bushes and trees. “You’ve ensconced a band of rebels in there, have you?”
A branch cracked, making Seriah flinch and Hurano jump. She felt beads of sweat prick in her armpits.
Evander laughed without a single drop of cheer. “I’m talking about her. Your princess.” He drew his sword and presented it to Seriah hilt-first. “She certainly isn’t too lowly for you to fight, is she, nobly man?”
Seriah forced her fingers to relent their chokehold on her gown but didn’t reach for the bait—the trick, or whatever it was he was playing at.
Hurano swallowed, his own sword lowering a bit. “Why would I fight my princess?”
“Because that’s her rule if you want her body, isn’t it? Defeat her in combat and win the hand of an heiress. Giving her a sword evens the odds a bit more.”
He knew—knew what Hurano had tried.
Unbidden, a foolish thrill streaked through her that Evander was acting her ally, again.
Also unbidden, her hand reached out and gripped the sword’s hilt.
He relinquished it with the faintest hint of amusement twitching his lips before coolness replaced it and he looked back at Hurano. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid to attack a woman in a skirt.”
Hurano shifted his attention between Evander and Seriah, perhaps surmising—incorrectly—that they’d somehow colluded in this and lured him into their snare. He licked his bottom lip.
Evander gestured almost crudely. “You’ve the advantage nobly man. She can hardly maneuver in all those fripperies they’ve tied her up with. The sword is too heavy for her, not balanced right, and she’s no time to accustom herself to it.”
Untrue. From the moment she’d clenched her fingers around it, she’d been adjusting her plan, her grip, her stance, compensating for its heavier weight and glad that Thorn had taught her to make allowances for heavier weapons, lighter weapons, even incorrectly balanced ones.
Hurano’s flunkies slunk in closer behind him, seeking shelter from their comrade with steel. He scowled.
“We could report him,” Pollard ventured from their cowardly cluster.
Evander flung out a taunting laugh. “Yes, run off to the pansy party because someone gave your prey something to bite back with.”
Hurano lowered his hand from his still-sheathed sword. “I’m not fighting my princess.”
“Wise choice, nobly man.”
Hurano’s jaw clenched but he nonetheless retreated a step, forcing his lackies back, as well. “If you’re still here when I return, you’re going into the dungeons, sewage scum. Come, Seriah, I’ll escort you back to the ballroom.”
“Not her.” One swift step brought Evander’s arm snaking around her waist in a jolt of familiarity. “The princess and I have unfinished business.”
“No.” She twisted out of his hold and shimmied backward, leveling his own sword at him. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Hurano’s own sword rasped from its sheath, his defiance emboldened by hers, and he strode toward her. “Leave her be, commoner.”
Another branch snapped in the trees around them, succeeded by the muted thuds of numerous pairs of feet hitting the ground.
Hurano froze. Pollard hunched his shoulders and whimpered. Fiordin squeaked and took to gnawing on a fingernail and groping for Pollard’s hand as if he hadn’t outgrown childhood ten years before.
The undeniable pitter-patter of feet through vegetation carried into the night.
The rustles and cracks of crushed foliage ceased only when the unseen foes poised just at the edge of the clearing.
The air echoed with their eager breathing, a warning of more to come at their leader’s word.
Evander pitched his voice so only she could hear. “If you want your noblemen to live, Seriah, you’ll come with me. Refuse and…” He lifted a black-clad shoulder in a callous shrug. “Noble blood holds little meaning for starving commoners, and once you’ve had men murdered before your eyes for your refusal to obey me, I don’t think you’ll be forgetting it soon.”
Her nerves slumped, the sword point thudding to the soil. She bowed her head. “Hurano, go.”
“Go!” She took a single threatening step toward him.
He cringed but held his ground. “I won’t leave you.”
“If you don’t, I swear I’ll write to the weirs myself and tell them your father can rot in the blue hell for all we care, that his ransom will never be paid.”
His jaw clenched. “You wouldn’t.”
“After your threat to rape me tonight? Gladly. Get out of here.”
“You’d dare…” Pure vitriol poured from his eyes. His fingers clamped around his sword and he stepped toward her.
Guttural snickers from the shadows halted him. For a single instant he held his course, about to continue forward, then his bravado deflated. He took a step back, throat jumping, his focus on her. “I thought we might have been becoming friends, but I guess I misplaced my confidence in a girl incapable of anything at all.” He sheathed his sword. “Come on, Pollard, Fiordin. Let the sewage scum deal with her as she deserves.”
He stalked off, his twittering, quivering friends scuttling behind him.
Once they vanished from sight, Evander plucked his sword from Seriah’s limp grip and sheathed it. “Still sacrificing yourself for those who aren’t worth it, Princess?”
“Am I sacrificing myself tonight?” She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the empty hand he’d taken the weapon from.
For a moment he didn’t say anything. Only the thump of her heartbeat in her ears and the emptiness of her hands offered succor.
“Not tonight,” he said.
“Do you hate me?”
The quiet question had come uninvited from her lips, but she did not rescind it because it had fretted inside her this whole month she’d not seen him. Since the day Iminique had told her what her tragic attempt at charity had wrought. Since the day Quentyn had cursed her not to leave the palace grounds, preventing her from taking a single step into the city itself.
Now her words hovered like a plea, a worthless plea for exoneration Evander might decide she didn’t deserve.
She curled her fingers into a fist at his silence. A breeze ruffled her hair, fanning the scent of honeysuckle over her cheek.
“I despise what you are, Seriah.”
His words spurred in her the defiance to raise her head and face him full-on while his dark gaze stripped her down to her naked soul.
“And I despise whose you are, and what he did, and because of that, I will one day abduct you, take you to my bed, and kill you. But if you’re asking if I think you’re a murderer, if I think you responsible for what happened a month ago, then no.”
An invisible weight toppled from her shoulders.
Fates. Her knees wobbled.
Locking them together, she molded her posture back into dignity and offered him a single nod.
He set his palm at the base of her back and guided her through the dark alleyway of trees, the sky above miserly with pinpricks of starlight like gems it was loath to share.
She sensed more than saw the bulky figures of Evander’s men darting through the trees to keep pace with them, but she kept her breathing even, her steps sturdy, her reign tight on her trepidation.
For nine years, she’d known he wanted to use her to get back at her father, and for nine years, she had tried to make him her ally. She had thought their interactions—their swordplay, their discussions, their closeness—might be softening him, making him her friend… but then came the massacre a month ago.
She’d given up all hope of making him her ally after that.
After being blamed for hundreds of lives and imprisoned in a magic curse that would not let her take a single step from the castle grounds into the city.
But Evander didn’t believe her responsible for the slaughter.
She had that, at least. And as for tonight… he would seduce her before he killed her, and he hadn’t done that yet.
Which meant for what it was worth, for now, she was safe.