Chapter 1 – Captive Princess
Hidden from a world she might never rule, the princess of the seven cities 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 made her a prisoner here—for her own safety, of course—magically ensuring she could not roam beyond the palace’s outer wall, where peril lurked.
Thus it was that she roved beneath soaring towers and whimsical cupolas as elegant and quaint as tea cups, where melodies drifted into the night from arched windows lit up with welcoming radiance.
Beneath that faint illumination, she had become quarry.
Her fingers swept aside a low-hanging tree branch, the bark scraping her bare skin, as she’d discarded her gloves somewhere in the vicinity of the terrace.
While the orchestra’s lilting symphony waltzed through the bower of night, she strained to distinguish the patter of footfalls.
As she edged forward, pebbles crunched under her silken slippers, and her voluminous cream-and-gold skirts rustled over her knees. The balminess of the evening slicked her palms with perspiration.
In this gown, she was too shimmery, too frothy, too frail.
A dagger would remedy that—or a sword, even better.
A shame to the demesne, her mother’s voice reverberated shrilly in her mind. A princess wearing a tunic and hose? Carrying a sword and sparring with it? A public disgrace! A pariah among her own.
But Seriah had grown immune to her mother’s jeers, having endured the disparaging remarks from the queen’s gritted jaw every day in an endless mantra: It should have been you who died.
The queen would never forgive Seriah for being born instead of the destined septuplets. In the queen’s eyes, she had birthed Seriah; therefore, she should also have been allowed to kill her.
A thirteen-year-old healer had thwarted that, whisking the infant princess from the maw of danger and raising her as the only surviving child of the ruling magnate and his embittered queen.
Disdaining her wayward thoughts, Seriah peered through the leaves.
There strutted her frivolous and inebriated pursuers in flamboyant waistcoats, meandering down a graveled lane lined with ornate iron lanterns.
Hurano manned their forefront, wearing a glossy golden waistcoat over dark violet velvet knee breeches: royal shades for a pompous giblet.
No longer the eight-year-old boy who had tormented five-year-old Seriah, now he was the cossetted darling of the noble class that spurned her still. Everyone fawned at his knee and hung on his sardonic squint while daintily removing their gazes from her offensive person.
Two of his cronies reeled behind him, their attire askew from earlier adventures making them resemble two rather unfortunately cut gemstones of ruby and sapphire. Arms linked, eyes alight, they bumbled their tongues through another bawdy ditty.
Disengaged from his comrades’ frolicsome warbles, Hurano scanned the trees through heavy-lidded eyes, his brown hair limned with golden torchlight, unaware of the gloveless princess hankering for a sharp point just a few meters from his milksop skin.
Fates, Seriah was fed up.
She strode onto the path, whipping Hurano’s gaze to her from the opposite side.
His cronies halted quite literally in their tracks, their buckled shoes comically half-raised for their next step, their mouths rounded mid-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 as she thought of the secret calls of the rebels.
In front of her, Hurano’s lackies set down their feet and 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. “Your father can pay the weirs’ ransom.”
“Yes, he could. But he won’t.”
Seriah shut her eyes against the images. The royal council chamber. The emaciated man strolling in wearing simple clothes. His shocking pale, yellow-green eyes beneath unkempt dark hair. Her father ordering him out.
The man transforming mid-leap and targeting her, his nearest enemy.
She’d fumbled out her sword and swung, stumbling while dodging on mere instinct, ferocious but only sixteen and unused to violence, lacking the weir’s desperation.
She’d landed hard on the floor, winded, her loosed sword skittering out of reach and no time to dive after it.
The weir-panther had lunged. She’d looked right into those pale yellow eyes.
Then Evander had hurled himself into the council chamber and between her and the beast.
They’d landed in a knot of matching snarls and disentangled.
Evander had 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, for 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 aversion for shape-changers in his governing policies.
As did most of the city, if not all.
She firmed her tone and steadied her stance. “You want the impossible, Hurano. Father will never barter with the weirs. And I fail to understand why you think I can make him. Try asking my mother.”
He 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.
“You have to convince him.” Hurano 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’re the last one left to ask.”
Pity gripped her, and she didn’t know what to say.
The sounds of night drifted in: drowsy chirps; the burble of a nearby fount, its serenity echoed in Seriah’s fixed expression if not in her heart.
She couldn’t help with a father who refused to budge.
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.
Rebels, she thought again. Evander.
She tamped down both the fear and hope and tried reason. “My father won’t relent.”
“And you won’t try!” Tension drew the corners of Hurano’s 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?” Her mirthless smile went razor-sharp. “Keeping myself unshackled 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.”
Seriah hesitated. In part, he was right. Marrying Hurano would gain her the support of the nobles…but only in the First Demesne.
She had to fend off six other courts of vultures if she planned to one day rule, assuming 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 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 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 idiotic.
Behind him, Pollard and Fiordin shuffled their spindly legs to and fro, little noble doggies unsure of what their master was planning but ready to ineptly pounce on command.
Seriah’s fingers bunched in her frothy skirts.
Hurano’s 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 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 curls 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 hit his groin—cushioned by her manifold skirts and impeded by their weight, but the impact was 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 catapulting 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 ruffly 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 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 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 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 just desserts by offering your prey something to bite back with.”
Hurano sheathed his sword in a decisive thrust. “I’m not fighting my princess.”
“But you’d force yourself on her body?”
Hurano flinched and retreated a step, forcing his lackies 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 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 and 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.