I am Alynah Commonborn, a concocted lie. Decoy, princess, murderess, spy.
I play the overlord’s heartless daughter to save my family’s lives, but by so doing, I condemn my nation to an alliance that will destroy it.
But my country isn’t the only one this alliance will destroy.
An assassin and his band intercept my contingent and take me captive to prevent the coming disaster.
And he wants my secret.
“And would you go?” Kirian shifted his fingers on my wrist, making it almost a lover’s caress. The skin of his chest heated beneath my hands, penetrating his leather vest as his every inhalation pressed it against my trembling fingers. From under his silver eyelashes, his irises shone like flakes of ice shaved off a glacier, glittering with the blaze behind them, the fire within. That gaze roved over my face, seeking… something. He ducked his head close to mine, brushing the next words across my temple while my exhalation came on his neck. “If you freed yourself from me, wouldn’t you run where they could never find you?”
I swung my head up, the yearning for my own freedom too powerful to hide for a moment as our gazes clashed and truths merged, my head shaking and my tongue mute.
Kirian let me go, his eyes flickering. I staggered back and heaved in a breath as if he’d taken it all.
Something had just changed.
His stance altered. He pulled his hand completely away from my captive strand of hair. The movement was somehow decisive, and his next words emerged on a set path now, too, and I thought—I did something wrong.
“Do you want your subjects to be happy?” he asked flatly.
“I don’t care one way or the other.” I am all things cold and heartless, my stony stare and severe lips told him, even though I felt the glaring unevenness of my steps now, the blindness of navigating through a thicket he’d snared me in. “As long as they don’t get in my way.”
“And if they do get in your way?”
I curled my lip in a sneer. “A whip is long and my hand is fast.”
“Is it?” One step later, Kirian repossessed my hand and positioned it palm upward. He traced the mesh of lines there as if outlining my fate, designing his own destiny for me. His tone came light but edged. “I could ruin its quickness.”
Every nerve within me thrummed. “I could ruin yours.”
His voice lowered. “We could ruin each other.”
Spirits, I wasn’t up to this—this game he played.
“But,” he remarked neutrally, his fingertips still resting on my palm, “you do realize that a dagger is surer than a whip, don’t you? For killing commoners.”
I leveled him with a look reserved for idiots and Deminians. “I prefer whips,” I dripped acidly, “because a dead commoner’s even more useless than a live one, and whips don’t kill fast but get them to move quick. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“I’ve noticed only that you purport to revile peasants, but you scheme to save the lady’s maid you’ve barely known for three weeks and you’ve been fucking a baseborn general for the past two years.”
“So I’m a hypocrite.”
“You blush like an innocent when you speak of him.”
“So I’m ashamed.”
“Are you?” His thumb rested on my pulse. “Your heart is racing.”
“What’s that mean?” I whispered.
He dropped my hand, his face going cold. “It means you’re wasting my time because you’re lying to me.”
I can’t let him know I’m a nobody, not the princess he wants, just a decoy leading him astray so the true princess forges a union that will doom his country as well as mine.
I hate what I’m doing, how many lives I’m responsible for, and I seek escape from life in the spirit world to end it all.
But not even there am I free.
A league of whispers rustled through the trees, stringing a thread of unease right through me.
The ever spirits.
Eternal spirits that dwelled on the human plane, inhabiting the same sphere as us but unseen by us, untouched by us, and unheard. Ulrian had known next to nothing about them, only ancient tales of spirit priests who occasionally encountered them.
In all my previous forays into the spirit world, I’d never met them.
But they were coming now. There was nothing else it could be.
Their distant whispers curled around me, disembodied and weird and growing louder: a swarm of them, an army. A foreign trace of terror trickled through my soul.
Forms shrouded in ragged black rags fluttered from the trees on ebony wings. Their presence swept the coldness of a biting north wind before them, gusting across the road so that even a few of Kirian’s men looked round and hugged their shoulders, shaking off clinging shivers.
The shadowy tatters of beings converged upon me, surrounding me. The scraps of their attire brushed my pale nimbus of soul and infiltrated it like something wet and intrusive. Tendrils of gray wormed through my spirit and germinated seeds of fear.
You shall go back, Alynah Commonborn, they whispered in an eerie ghostly chorus.
They make me go back, and Kirian keeps me close. Sitting next to to him at the campfire, riding with him on his mount as we travel.
I try to escape, again and again…
Letting the tension flow out of my body, I relaxed against Kirian, feigning fatigue. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel my muscles bunching and thwart my plan as I readied to jump off the footbridge into the River of Sorrow far below.
Only… the arm he had wrapped around my waist tightened slightly.
I wanted to growl with frustration.
Breathe evenly, Alynah. Inhale, exhale.
I turned my head, hating the way the motion resembled more a burrowing cuddle rather than a clandestine peep at the waters below. His fingers inched up my waist, his heat seeping through his clothes to my cheek.
Spirits, my heart hammered inside my lungs more from his touch than from my imminent dive off the bridge.
I angled my gaze down the rocky gorge to the swollen river congesting its center like an overfull vein. The aquamarine darkened here where the bottom plunged deeper.
A few more seconds. Inhale, exhale.
I fought to keep myself relaxed when every nerve wanted to stretch taut; my muscles strained to tense for escape, but I couldn’t let them wind tight. My spring into freedom had to be instantaneous—as instantaneous as it could be with me astride and planning to launch off with one heel.
I shoved Kirian’s hand off my waist and slid sideways off the saddle, launching off with my foot—my other ankle just narrowly missing his grab. I shot over the bridge’s hand-rope and plummeted past it headfirst. Weightlessness engulfed me until I was all flailing limbs and freefall scream, rushing air around me whipping back my hair while hungry water rose up below in impatient eddies.
I jackknifed into its heart, sinking deep into its shockingly cold embrace. The current billowed up into my face, and I shoved my arms down to regain the surface, but the merciless current hauled me deeper underwater and towed me downstream.
My lungs burned for air. In another ferocious effort, I thrust my arms down and propelled myself upward. The fringes of the murky green world around me taunted me with their serenity.
I broke the surface, sucking in deep, gasping breaths.
I almost didn’t hear the splash behind me.
Kicking my legs to stay afloat, I twisted around.
Kirian surfaced not a bear’s length behind, and it didn’t look like he was in any danger of drowning.
Curse all Deminian assassins.
Every escape attempt fails, and the stakes keep rising.
I start falling in love with my silver-haired captor, making it harder to fight him…
Kirian spun me until we were flying, our faces flushed, our feet not even grazing the ground. Exultant birdsong embraced me, heart and soul; I was a burning flame in the center of the forest. I could illuminate the whole world if only it turned its head my way.
Then Kirian’s hand on my waist thumbed under the hem of my shirt, and that contact on my bare skin pulled my gaze to his.
Our eyes locked and my laughter faded. I couldn’t catch my breath—my footsteps fumbled and his slowed. He pinned me to his hips, my heart thundering in my ears. The tips of our noses touched, his pale blue eyes on mine. His breath brushed my cheek and halted over my lips. Leaves whispered between our now-entangled legs. His mouth—
A branch snapped in the woods, freezing us in place inside our intermingling breath, his lips trembling so close, mine parted almost under his.
The birds stopped singing.
Fate twists too much as I hold my secret within, and too many die for my deception. It becomes clear that more than my family’s lives hang in the balance, and not only my people will break if I fail.
But I am Alynah Commonborn – what’s left of her – and I will not fail.