Chapter 1 – Captive Princess
The princess of the seven cities laughed softly, perhaps madly, as she tiptoed between the night-blooming lilies of her castle’s moonlit gardens, traversing a labyrinth of orchards, small forests, and stone paths.
Her father’s wizard had trapped her here, a prisoner hidden from the world, where melodies drifted into the night from arched windows lit up with welcoming radiance. She roamed freely only beneath these soaring towers and elegant cupolas as quaint as tea cups.
Here, things were deemed ‘safe’. For her own protection, she could not set foot beyond the palace’s outer wall, where peril lurked.
But other treachery roved here.
An embittered queen. Poison-laced bonbons. Rancorous repartee.
Entitled noblemen inebriated far beyond the veneer of civility.
The former, though, the wizard could contend with.
And the last, she could.
Her fingers swept aside a low-hanging tree branch, the bark scraping her bare skin—bare because she’d discarded her gloves somewhere in the vicinity of the terrace.
Above the orchestra’s lilting symphony waltzing through the bower of night, she strained her ears to distinguish the patter of footfalls.
As she edged forward, pebbles crunched under her silken slippers; her voluminous cream-and-gold skirts rustled over her knees.
The gown was too shimmery, too frothy. Too much like a butterfly one could pin to one’s bosom to expire there in feeble shivers.
The balminess of the evening slicked her palms with perspiration. A dagger would remedy her nerves—or even better, a sword.
Her mother’s shrill voice reverberated in her mind. A shame to the demesne! A princess in tunic and hose, brandishing a sword and sparring with it! A disgrace! A pariah among her own.
Seriah had long grown immune to her mother’s jibes, having endured disparaging remarks from the queen’s gritted jaw every day in an endless mantra: You should never have been born.
Oh, the queen had attempted to remedy that, for, having birthed Seriah, the woman also rather thought she should have been allowed to kill her.
Seriah peered through the leaves.
They weren’t her mother’s assassins today.
Frivolous in flamboyant waistcoats, there strutted Seriah’s pursuers, down a graveled lane lined with ornate lanterns.
They meandered in a sloshed sort of jocundity, arms akimbo and legs a-flail. Hurano manned their forefront, garbed in the royal shades befitting a pompous giblet: a gaudy golden waistcoat over glossy violet knee breeches.
No longer the eight-year-old boy who had tormented five-year-old Seriah, now he was the cosseted darling of the noble class that spurned her. Every courtier fawned at his knee and hung on his sardonic squint while daintily removing their gazes from her offensive person, for she had been born instead of the foreordained septuplets. She was judged as though she had singlehandedly ousted seven boy babes from her mother’s womb and implanted her infant self there instead.
Of course they would hate her. She had usurped the future, for without the seven next rulers, their world was destined for ruin.
So quoth the Book of Promises.
So believed the entire court.
And if their world hurtled toward demise, the aristocrats rationalized, then what better way to meet it than teeth-rottingly drunk? Imbibe oneself into borrowed bliss before perishing in the unfeeling stupor of doom!
Hurano’s cohorts merely staggered along with the trend like everyone else. They reeled now, resembling rather unfortunately cut gemstones of ruby and sapphire, their attire askew from prior seedy adventures. Arms linked, eyes alight, they bumbled through a frolicsome ditty.
Disengaged from his cronies’ warbles, Hurano scanned the trees from beneath his heavy-lidded eyes, his brown hair limned with golden torchlight, his person unaware of the gloveless princess hankering for a sharp point just a few steps from his milksop skin.
Fates, Seriah was fed up.
She strode onto the path, whipping Hurano’s gaze toward her.
His comrades halted in their tracks, their buckled shoes comically raised for their next step, their mouths rounded mid-bawdy-lyric.
Seriah smiled brilliantly, her speech crystal-bright but wielding a core of steel. “Looking for me?”
In the trees behind her, a night bird called to its mate, making her heart jump.
The secret call of the rebels.
In front of her, Hurano’s lackeys exchanged baffled glances, one scratching his ear and the other rubbing the side of his nose. “Yes?”
Hurano’s slightly less drink-bleared eyes scrutinized her challenging stance. “You know why. Your father can pay the weirs’ ransom.”
“Yes, he could. But he won’t.”
Why would he, after that disastrous attack nearly a decade ago when Seriah was sixteen?
Seriah shut her eyes against the images, but it was too late.
The royal council chamber.
The emaciated man rife with bitterness but smug with schemes, a tatterdemalion in threadbare clothes. Matted hair, and beneath it, shockingly pale, yellow-green eyes.
He’d transformed mid-leap, targeting her because she’d thrown herself in front of her father, fumbled out her sword, and dodged on instinct.
But, untried in combat and unused to spur-of-the-moment violence, she’d lacked the weir’s desperation. She’d landed hard on the floor, winded. Her loosed sword had skittered out of reach, with no time to dive after it.
The weir-panther had lunged.
Evander had hurled himself in front of it, between her and the beast. He’d heard the commotion and come running into the council chamber—to save her.
He and the weir had landed in a knot of matching snarls, disentangled, and clambered up.
Evander was 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 Evander had been her staunch defender.
She shoved away the delusion.
Evander had never been her protector; he kept her alive only as the crowning pawn in his vengeance. Even fighting the weir in the council chamber had been a calculated risk to keep her alive for his retribution.
What mattered now, though, to Hurano, was that ever since that day the weir had infiltrated the castle, her father harbored an especial aversion for shape-changers in his governing policies.
As did most of the city.
Perhaps all of it.
Seriah firmed her spine and wedged out the cold truth. “Father won’t barter with the weirs. You want the impossible. Try asking my mother.”
Hurano bit back a choice expletive. “I already have. Now I’m asking you.”
“He won’t listen to me.” And in fact made a point of dismissing her at every opportunity: not letting her attend council meetings, not naming her his heiress even though the absence of a clear future sovereign aroused unrest…well, more unrest than the lack of septuplets had already bred for two and a half decades.
“You have to convince him.” Hurano listed unsteadily forward, cheeks liquor-flushed, and pushed back dark strands of hair that had escaped from the ribbon at the base of his neck. His sleepy eyes peered at her, and his voice broke on the despair of a son nearing the end of his hope. “You’re the last one left to ask.”
Pity gripped her, but she didn’t know how to reassure him when no hope remained. Her hands were tied by a father who refused to budge and a mage who had magically confined her to the palace.
To fill her silence, the sounds of night drifted in: the burble of a nearby fountain, drowsy chirps, the shiver of leaves in the breeze, the shuffling of Hurano’s cohorts in the background.
The lantern glow outlined the frustrated twist to his lips. “If you refuse to help me, you show every noble in the Demesnes that you would turn your back on 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.
Rebels, she thought again. Evander.
She tamped down both the fear and yearning and tried reason. “My father won’t relent.”
“And you won’t try!” The corners of Hurano’s droopy eyes drew 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 petty, selfish wants against your father.”
“Petty? Selfish?” Her mirthless smile went razor-sharp. “Keeping myself from being shackled to a weak man is petty?”
Hurano’s return smile went just as brittle. “Making him refuse my petition for your hand was undoubtedly petty.”
In part, he was right. But marrying Hurano would gain her the support of the nobles only in the First Demesne.
She had six other courts of vultures to fend off if she planned to rule, presuming her father ever named her his heiress. 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 fair hair.
Surreptitiously, she surveyed the shadows pooled like tar between the tree trunks around the path and assessed her chances. She’d be navigating thorny bushes in encumbering skirts while fleeing three men garbed in more maneuverable attire, but they were hampered by drunken reflexes.
“You know my requirement for marriage,” she hedged. “Any man wanting to marry me must—”
“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 they were hardly admirable specimens to prove 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 dispatch an army outside the walls just to retrieve a single man from the weirs.”
He blanched, and anger leaked through his darting eyes along with budding terror, 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, allowing her exasperation to show. “Father won’t listen to me.”
“He would if—” His expression turned utterly inscrutable. After a moment, he smiled, drunken but also sly. “You know…I think you’re right.”
Fates. Seriah tensed. He’s going to do something stupid.
Behind him, Pollard and Fiordin trundled their spindly legs to and fro, little lap doggies unsure of what their master was planning, but they primed to pounce, inept and zealous, on command.
Seriah’s fingers bunched in her frothy skirts.
Hurano’s self-assured steps closed the distance between them, crunching pebbles like peasants under his buckled feet. “I’m going about this the wrong way, aren’t I? You really won’t do anything.” 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 spirals escaped from her combs. “But you can be compromised. If they catch us naked, together, we’ll have to marry. Then I’ll wield the power you refuse to.”
Her muscles coiled inside her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want to do this, but I need the power you’re refusing to use. I promise I’ll be gentle.” His tone tried to firm but still shook. “Pollard, Fiordin, get her arms.”
Her knee smashed into his groin—cushioned by her manifold skirts and impeded by their weight, but the impact came 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 plunged into the greenery, her skirts hiked up and pebbles flying underfoot.
Damn the dress! Her skirts snagged on thorny bushes and frothed around her ankles like uselessly pretty eddies in a stream.
She ducked under a branch and her slippered foot jammed under an unseen rock. Fates!
She catapulted forward, falling, a yelp strangling her throat. Her hands thrust out—but strong fingers grabbed her waist and lifted her off the ground.
Air rushed up her stockinged calves and perspiring thighs. She landed roughly on a dirt plot beyond a scraggy tree, by a marble bench in a moonlight-flooded clearing.
Deposited there by a figure in black boots, 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 compressed 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 nobleman with a vile scheme in mind, and a rebel 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 between bared teeth, his critical gaze sizing Evander up. “What are you doing here, commoner?”
A corner of Evander’s mouth curved 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 that.”
Evander tendered a cocky lift of an eyebrow, waiting to be chastised more.
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.
Seriah kept her eyes on all four of her adversaries, gauging their weakest point and plotting her escape.
Hurano sneered, regrouping and drawing his blade. “If you call your demise interesting, commoner, so be it.”
“Actually, I meant you curled up in a moaning, pathetic ball on the ground.”
Hurano swiped a hand over his ruffled collar to loosen it. “You’re too lowly to be worthy of my time.”
“Did I say it would be my hand inflicting your just desserts 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 entrenched a band of other guards in there, have you?”
A branch cracked, making Seriah flinch and Hurano jump. Beads of sweat prickled in her armpits.
Evander laughed without a drop of cheer. “I’m talking about her. Your princess.” He drew his sword and presented it to Seriah hilt-first. “She’s not 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 sword—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 a woman who might one day be heiress. Giving her a sword evens the odds a bit more.”
He knew. He 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.
Evander 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 had no time to accustom herself to it.”
Untrue. From the moment she’d clenched her fingers around the sword, 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 just desserts by offering your prey something to bite back with.”
Hurano sheathed his sword in a decisive grunt. “I’m not fighting my princess.”
“But you’d force yourself on her body?”
Hurano flinched and retreated a step, forcing his lackeys back, as well.
“Wise choice, nobly man.”
Hurano’s jaw clenched. “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 again, his defiance emboldened by hers. 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.
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.”
He clamped his jaw. “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 clinched around his sword and he stepped toward her.
Guttural snickers from the shadows halted him, and his bravado deflated. He took a step back, throat jumping, his focus on her. “I thought we might have been becoming friends,” he said, “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 Seriah’s 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 that 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 emboldened her defiance enough 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 its 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 ten years, she’d known he wanted to use her to get back at her father, and for ten years, she had tried to make him her ally. She had thought their interactions—their swordplay, their discussions, their closeness—might be tempering him, possibly even making him her friend.
But then—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 by a magic curse on the castle grounds.
But Evander didn’t believe her responsible for the slaughter.
She had that, at least.
And as for her safety in his presence 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, he’d leave her unscathed.