The Key to Castle Krondolee

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen’s love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

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Fantasy Fiction Short Story Accented with a little Romantic Drama

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen’s love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.


Book Data
Edition n/a
ISBN n/a
Pages 90
Publication Date 2013-03-06
Publisher Jayden Woods
Series Broken Balance
BCRS Rating CA-13
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Jayden Woods

Jayden Woods

Born and raised in Bethesda, TN, I grew up surrounded by woods and hillsides. I have little doubt that my natural surroundings had a strong impact on my creative and personal development. My friends and I had adventures in the woods and let our imaginations run rampant.We loved to take a camera with us and knit stories together from our wild ideas. I began sprouting novels in middle school.

My hobbies also included drawing and composing music, which I always combined with my writing and led me to pursue an education in film. As much as I loved the hills of Bethesda, I needed to get away and explore a different side of the world. I moved to Los Angeles where I earned a BFA in Screenwriting at the University of Southern California.

Internships abounded, and I even landed a full-time job on a prime-time TV show. But I wanted to keep exploring other aspects of my writing, as well as my other creative skills. I decided to leave Los Angeles, at least for a time, and focus on writing novels. As a result I landed in St Louis, where I spent a grueling year and a half of unemployment or part-time jobs. During this dark time, I got hit by some of the most intense inspiration I've ever experienced and churned out "Eadric the Grasper" in a period of three months. I took a short break between each book, but wrote the following sequels just as quickly.

Since then, I have eagerly pursued the publication and promotion of the Sons of Mercia series, though I continue to churn out other stories as well. I am addicted to writing and see it as an important form of communication between my deepest self and the outside world, as well as a method of personal therapy and growth.
Jayden Woods

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    The Key to Castle Krondolee

    Jayden Woods

    Published: 2013
    Tag(s): adventure romance novella original serafina saga epic “broken balance” gods pagan “high concept” savanna jungle castle

    The Key to Castle Krondolee

    Jayden Woods

    Copyright 2013 Jayden Woods

    Cover design by Jenny Gibbons

    Stock photo reference:

    Castle Stock” by Skinywitch

    (http://skinywitch.deviantart.com/)

    *

    “The Key to Castle Krondolee” is a stand-alone novella. However, the story will continue in the form of an animated webseries, “Serafina’s Saga,” releasing online Fall 2013. This story also takes place in the same world as the fantasy book series, The Broken Balance, and features some of the same characters. To learn more about The Broken Balance series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com. To learn more about “Serafina’s Saga,” visit www.serafinasaga.com.

    *

    BROKEN BALANCE SERIES

    Ashes of Dearen

    Sands of Hanubi

    ***


    Prologue


    The horses were saddled, the bags packed. Arken’s most trusted servants waited at the Forest Gate to open it as soon as he gave them the signal.

    But he should have given the signal fifteen minutes ago.

    His plan had been to leave before sunset. Now the sun sank below the horizon, scattering hues of pink and orange across the sky and stretching shadows over the stones of the castle. Arken knew how quickly night fell in Krondolee. Soon enough, the walls and towers of the great fortress would swallow the ground in darkness. Arken did not fear the night. He only feared what tonight brought with it.

    When darkness closed around the castle this evening, it would fail to envelop the Grand Courtyard. Hundreds of glittering candles would chase away the creeping shadows. A thick ring of torches would blaze around the fortress walls, burning with the sweet chinder bark of the Darzian jungles, said to be enchanted by the goddess Demetral herself. The lovely wood released a scent like a garden of roses and jasmine when burned, and the light it gave off would flicker slightly with all the colors of the rainbow. This celestial light would bathe the entire courtyard with its luminescence, as well as the large multitude of people standing within it. But most of all, it would illuminate a path of bleached white pebbles, which would seem to glow under the moonlight. And nothing would look so magnificent as those who would walk down the path, glittering with jewels and fine fabrics—and soon, maybe crowns.

    But Arken didn’t want to think about that. He paced back and forth over the cobblestones, his silk cloak whispering around his shoulders. He could hear the courtyard thrumming with energy and excitement, though a few walls separated him from the festivities. He wished he could already move further away. The distant sounds thundered in his ears and increased his own restlessness. He could hear the guards rustle about in a jangle of metal weapons and armor while trying to keep order. Peasants cheered or yelled while shoving each other about. A herald strained his sonorous voice over the clamor to announce lords and House Leaders as they entered the chaos. Every peasant and noble capable of squeezing through the castle gates today had done so to witness the marriage of Princess Nadia Elborn to Prince Gerald Feldren, making Nadia Queen of all Darzia.

    If Arken’s own plan succeeded, the wedding would never occur.

    He heard a horse’s hooves against gravel and pulled back into the shadows, trusting his own two horses to stay calm. He had hand-picked the finest. But just in case, he gripped the pommel of his short-sword.

    He watched through the red rays of sunlight as the rider came closer. Even as a silhouette, the rider’s broad shoulders and boxy head suggested a man, and a large one at that—or at least wide. The creak of strained leather and thudding metal portended weapons and armor. Then Arken distinguished more soldiers on foot behind the rider, perhaps four in all, male and female, armed to the teeth.

    Who could this be? A noble, most likely, judging by the entourage. But why was he not at the wedding, as every honest man right now ought to be?

    Finally, as the rider pulled to a stop, Arken glimpsed the sparkle of jewels upon the man’s cloak. A slight turn in the light revealed that the young man wore diamonds all over his person: they lined his tunic, his belt, his gauntlets, and even the sword resting across his horse’s flank.

    Arken sighed and stepped out of the shadows, releasing his weapon. “Tristan. You shouldn’t be here.”

    Tristan jolted with surprise, then fixed his beady eyes on his older brother. “I shouldn’t be here? Look who’s talking!” Tristan grumbled to himself while beginning to dismount. Doing this took awhile, for despite his youth at barely eighteen years of age, Tristan was not a particularly lithe young man. He possessed small bones under his bulk and a sweet ringing voice like a minstrel’s, both of which he squashed on a regular basis with wine and delicacies. He might have been a handsome fellow, with hair so blond it was almost white and eyes that sparkled like the diamonds he so cherished, but the strain of his waist against his belt and his chin against his collar reduced any natural charm. Once he had landed with a jingle of swishing diamonds, he resumed a slow swagger towards his older brother.

    Arken, meanwhile, closed the remaining distance between them with a few brisk steps of his long, booted legs. At age twenty-one, Arken was only a few years older than his brother, but possessed a far more intimidating physique of tall stature and lean muscle. His cloak billowed and helped cast a shadow over Tristan like a storm-cloud. The younger brother cowered appropriately. “Leave now, Tristan. I’m expecting someone. And she might not come here if she knows someone’s watching.”

    “I know who you’re waiting for, brother.” Tristan’s jowls trembled with fear, but he held his ground, nonetheless. When he saw an even greater fear reflected in Arken’s eyes, he stood a little taller. “Everyone knows. Your little secret plan to elope with the future queen of Darzia was exposed this morning. The Royal Duma knows everything.”

    “What?” Before he could stop himself, Arken reached out and grabbed Tristan’s tunic. As he shook the chubby fellow about, Tristan’s bejeweled clothes chimed like a music box. “How did they find out?

    “I don’t know!” Tristan flailed back at Arken until he finally wriggled free. By then, both were breathless: Arken from fury, Tristan from exhaustion. “In any case, the Royal Duma held a vote. They unanimously agreed that if you and Nadia eloped, she would no longer become queen of Darzia—and you would not become Grand Prince.”

    Tristan might have kept talking after that. Arken hardly knew anymore. All he seemed to hear was a thunderous roar in his ears. All he felt was the fierce pounding of blood in his veins. He and Nadia had been so careful. How did the Royal Duma discover their plan?

    “… understand? It’s over, Arken. You can’t become king of Darzia this way.”

    Arken let out a coarse, rasping breath. Then he spoke before he had fully thought his own words through. “I don’t care.”

    Tristan blinked a few times. His eyes, the fierce golden hue that any descendent of Mallion possessed, reflected shards of the sunlight as he squinted, trying to discern Arken’s expression. “What’s that now?”

    “I don’t care about the throne. I want to marry Nadia. That is all that matters to me anymore.”

    “All that… matters?” Tristan laughed nervously, then reached out to grip Arken’s shoulder. “Brother, I think this defeat must have made you lose your senses. Think about what you just said. ‘You don’t care.’” He laughed again, even louder this time. “Mallion’s plenty. As if we haven’t both dreamt of wearing the crown since birth!”

    Tristan’s laughter faded as he met Arken’s unwavering stare.

    Arken flung Tristan’s hand from his shoulder. “I don’t care. I choose Nadia. If we can only be together without crowns on our heads, then so be it.”

    Tristan staggered backwards. He gaped for a long while at his brother, trying to discern some crack in Arken’s bold proclamation. But he could not. At last, he shook his head. “I can’t believe it. I never thought you capable of such a… foolish decision!”

    “Think what you’d like. Just stay out of my way.” He turned back to his horse and grabbed the saddle.

    “Wait. What are you doing now?”

    “Going to find Nadia.” Arken pulled himself up and felt the stallion stir with eagerness beneath him. “I will make sure she knows that I haven’t changed my mind.”

    “It’s too late for that, Arken. She’s already—”

    “Then I’d better hurry.” Arken slapped the reins and drove his horse deep into the fortress.

    *

    He already knew where to find her, if he wasn’t too late. The Elborn family lived in the oldest part of the castle, a place where large chinder trees rose up alongside the walls and towers. If one didn’t know any better, one might have assumed that this part of the castle had been abandoned for decades, allowing giant jungle trees to invade the architecture of the castle. But upon closer look, one would see that the structure of both worked harmoniously together. Man-made mortar and natural wood arose in support of each other, leaning on one another and combining strength. The result was something strange and beautiful, if rather archaic—something only House Elborn would fully appreciate.

    Arken jumped from his horse to race up the steps of the Elborn Tower. The Elborn guards in colors of blue and yellow gave him puzzled glances, but did not dare stop him. After all, most recognized him as someone who visited often; and those that did not could easily discern by his clothes and bearing that he was a noble of some importance. If any of the guards still thought for a moment to question him, his determined frown and brisk pace made them quickly reconsider.

    Only when Arken had nearly reached Nadia’s chambers did someone dare to step in his path. Arken had already put his hand on his short-sword before he recognized the bold servant as one of Nadia’s closest hand-maidens.

    “Selene! Thank the gods.” Selene Perin rarely left Nadia’s side. If she were still here, then there might be hope yet. “Take me to Nadia. Now!”

    Selene trembled in response to his thunderous demand, but not in fear. To Arken’s surprise, he saw tears crinkling the young woman’s deep brown eyes. She turned away and covered her mouth, but failed to hide her distress.

    “Selene.” Arken stepped closer, his tone shifting quickly from brusque to imploring. “Please. I need to see her. I have to let her know that nothing has changed.”

    “I hoped you wouldn’t come here. I waited, just in case, but I didn’t really think… ” Selene took a long, shuddering breath. “I hoped that when you heard the Royal Duma’s decision, you would choose not to marry her.” She looked at him suddenly, her face twisting with anger. “You’re a Jeridar. So I don’t understand. There must be something else you’re after.”

    “Nothing, Selene,” he assured her. He understood why she would think that. His family descended Mallion, god of greed. Most of them would stop at nothing to obtain riches and power. “I just want Nadia.” Unable to restrain himself, he reached out and grabbed Selene’s shoulders. “Now tell me where she is!

    Fresh tears dropped from Selene’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Arken,” she gasped. “You and Nadia have different goals, it would seem. She has decided to marry Lord Gerald Feldren, and become the next Queen of Darzia.”

    “I… I don’t understand.” Arken refused to believe it. Nadia loved him, he was sure of it. She was nothing like the greedy members of his own family, who cared only for the throne. She would easily forget about this ridiculous castle, the tiring politics, if only they could live their lives in peace. They had dreamed of eloping for months now, and had hoped to rule alongside each other. But most of all, they just wanted to be together. Didn’t they? “Someone must have gotten to her. Poisoned her mind against me. Betrayed us both to the Royal Duma… ”

    Selene shook her head, even as she continued to shake with sobs. “She made this decision, Arken. She worried that the Royal Duma would not accept your union, so she went to them and confessed. And she was right. The Duma agreed that her House would lose its standing unless she married Lord Feldren.”

    That’s when the bells chimed: sharp, clanging peals that made birds scatter. A sound that made the distant crowd roar with excitement. A sound that portended the marriage of Queen Nadia Elborn to Lord Gerald Feldren.

    It was a sound that Arken would never forget. The sound that made Arken’s heart wrench apart.


    Chapter 1 The Girl and the Assassin


    My dearest Serafina,

    As you grow in my womb, I imagine that one day you will become a queen, as I am. But that fate is not a certain one. The Krondolee Royal Duma has favored House Elborn for many generations now, but that could always change. Here in Darzia a great number of Houses possess power, and the Royal Duma could elect any one of them to rule after me. The Houses are always fighting, whether they scheme against each other from within the Castle of Krondolee, or fight openly across the lands of Darzia, spreading violence and unrest wherever greed takes them.

    Sometimes I feel it is a horrible system. I wish that we could be like other kingdoms, where one family rules, and the heir to the throne is unquestioned. But then again, sometimes I think that the chaos of Darzia is what makes it so great. The constant struggles of the ruling Houses is not unlike the brutal wildlife of the great Darzian Jungle, where the fiercest of creatures fight daily against each other, and only the strongest survive. If not for that system, perhaps such incredible beasts as the griffin or wilderhorse would have never evolved. But I still hope that peace can be obtained, at least for a little while. That is why I chose to marry Lord Gerald. I might have chosen differently and let someone else seize the crown. But I hoped that if I…

    Nadia’s hand shook, causing the quill to scratch a line across the parchment. She sighed and put the quill away before she could cause any more damage.

    “Here, let me help you with that.” Lady Selene swept quickly to the queen’s aid, as she always did. She stoppered the ink and stashed the unfinished letter in a tiny compartment of Queen Nadia’s desk, where no one else would find it.

    Nadia smiled gratefully at Selene Perin, who was not only her most trustworthy of hand maidens, but dearest of friends. She was a beautiful woman with long chestnut hair, so dark it was almost black, and hazel eyes that were deep brown and green like the dappled soil of a Darzian jungle. “Thank you, Selene.” She started to rise from her chair.

    “Easy… ” Selene reached to grip her arm.

    “Gods, Selene, I can stand.” But Nadia still wore a smile of appreciation as she rose to her feet. Surely enough, her belly swelled close to bursting; she expected to have the baby within a few weeks, if not sooner. But the physical burden of the baby did not weigh upon her so heavily as the responsibilities she bore as queen, the growth of which seemed to increase with the development of her unborn child and her concern for its future.

    Selene studied her a moment, her dark eyes probing gently. “I couldn’t help but notice. Serafina? You’re so certain the child will be a girl?”

    Nadia should have been mad at Selene for spying, but she couldn’t resist a smile of pride. “Very certain. I can’t explain it. I just know.”

    Selene smiled back at her. “Perhaps the growth of your child is blessed by Demetral herself.”

    Nadia hoped Selene was right. Some believed Elborns shared blood with Demetral, goddess of love and growth. But the descendents of most gods possessed obvious traits that linked them to the god of their ancestry, and often had special abilities. Children of Mallion, god of greed, all had bright golden eyes and yellowish hair. A few of them could transform everyday materials into objects of great value. Descendents of Belazar, god of hate and war, possessed fierce red eyes and enhanced senses. Children of Friva, god of bliss, had purple hair and multicolored eyes… and so on. But relations to Demetral had never been so obvious. After all, the goddess of love had a great many children. The only distinguishing trait shared among her children, if one existed, was that of incredible beauty, and the ability to make others fall deeply in love with them.

    Nadia caught her own reflection in the mirror, but she felt little pride in the glorious visage staring back at her. She had long red hair that flowed in spiraling curls down her neck and shoulders. She had light tan skin, like a ripening peach, that freckled when she spent too much time in the sun. Her big green eyes shone like emeralds from within her thick black lashes. She knew she should be grateful for such beauty. But she often wondered if her ability to seize the hearts of others had brought her more sorrow and heartbreak than true happiness.

    Selene, sensing the queen’s inner turmoil, spoke gently. “We should make our way to the Grand Hall. Before I came to your chambers, most of the Royal Duma had already assembled. And they seemed very agitated about something.”

    “They are always agitated,” Nadia sighed. She reached for her crown, a thick gold piece with a ruby in the middle, and found it unnaturally heavy as she placed it upon her red curls. “But it’s true: today’s Duma will be strange. House Leader Grandil asked to bring two foreigners to this gathering. He would not describe who they were, nor explain why he wanted to bring them. He only said they had an important message, and they would only deliver it to the entire Duma at once.”

    “How interesting,” said Selene.

    Nadia hoped that nothing would be interesting at all. She hoped that this Royal Duma would be like any other, full of empty bickering and challenges, after which everyone would return to their normal business.

    But deep in her gut, where the baby grew within her, she could already sense that she would not get her wish.

    *

    All of the House Leaders already waited in the Grand Hall, stirring with excitement and restlessness. Queen Nadia arrived last. Everyone stood as the herald announced her entrance.

    Even after a hundred dumas like this one, and despite Nadia’s growing distaste for them, the magnificence of the royal gathering never ceased to give her a moment of pause. Dark powdery stones from the deepest quarries of Darzia surrounded the chamber with large walls, a yawning ceiling, and granite columns supporting a series of V-shaped archs over the Duma table. The Duma table stretched in a long rectangle from one end of the Grand Hall to the other. Made of polished chinder wood, the green and orange hues of the slickened bark provided a pleasant contrast to the monochrome stones of the fortress.

    Meanwhile, banners from all the major Houses of Darzia decorated the walls with splashes of color, sporting animals from every corner of kingdom to symbolize the royal families: the Elborn hare, the Perin jackal, the Grandil lion, the Jeridar crow, the Feldren hound, and so forth. The House Leaders themselves were no less colorful or diverse than the banners themselves. Over thirty people surrounded the table, representing a wide range of races and cultures, wearing any number of fabrics and armor. Nadia took pride in her country’s diversity. The lush terrain and valuable resources of the continent had drawn a wide range of travelers from across the world to settle here over the centuries. Some of them came to hunt the exotic game of the jungles or mine the kimberlite dikes of eastern Darzia. Many of them never got to leave, even if they intended to—the fierce life of Darzia always had a way of destroying people or ensnaring them, permanently.

    Nadia took her place next to Grand Prince Gerald at the far end of the table. She gave her husband a quick nod before settling into her seat. Then she sneaked another glance at him as he turned the other direction. She did this all the time, hoping to find some hint of his mood on his exterior, whether by the expression on his angular face, or by the way he assembled his immaculate red robes, or even the manner with which he groomed his short brown hair. He was a man of few words and noble countenance, two traits which combined to form a chiseled, stalwart expression that hardly ever revealed his thoughts or feelings. A face like that could serve many uses as a king or Grand Prince. Nadia only wished that he might drop his shields during their few moments of privacy. She didn’t even know whether his emotions were impenetrable, or simply not there at all.

    As soon as she sat, the other nobles sat in turn, and the Duma proceeded as usual. An honored priestess, Matria Odelle, led the meeting. She allowed the House Leaders to speak and present their issues in order of michevno, feudal hierarchy, represented by where each House Leader sat at the table. Those who possessed the most power and favor sat closest to the Queen herself, and could also speak before those who sat further down the table.

    Nadia grew weary of the system of michevno and the dissent it engendered. Even now, she saw men and women glaring at each other because they had been moved to one seat or another since the last Royal Duma, and their concerns would be heard last, if they even got to speak at this Duma at all. The ruling House Leader—in this case, Nadia herself—could always change the order of presentations if she so desired. But normally, she did not exercise this power, for by doing so, she would always manage to make someone angry.

    “House Leader Reinhald wishes to discuss the hiring of miners in the eastern regions,” Matria Odelle intoned. “Next, House Leader Jeridar wishes to discuss the tax regulations of the Tanzen province. Thirdly, House Leader Grandil wishes to introduce two visitors with valuable messages to the Royal Duma.”

    For the first time in awhile, Nadia appreciated the breadth of her power. She glanced at House Leader Tristan Jeridar and felt her stomach lurch for a number of reasons. She despised Tristan Jeridar, a chubby youth who glittered with jewels and wore a constant leer on his face—the leer of a man who knew the blood of a god pumped in his veins. But it was Nadia’s own fault that the younger son of House Jeridar had become its Leader, and not his more rational elder. Arken Jeridar would have sat at this table and represented his family, if not for what had happened almost a year ago. If not for her own conceit and selfishness…

    She squirmed in her chair, and found herself speaking before she thought her words through. If there had ever been a time to exercise her right as Queen at a Royal Duma, it was now. “I elect House Leader Grandil to speak first,” she blurted. “I wish to receive his two visitors!”

    A long silence followed Nadia’s proclamation. Tristan Jeridar’s face stretched into an expression of shock an indignation, an image Nadia tried to burn into her memory for future consolation.

    Matria Odelle nodded and proceeded gracefully. “House Leader Grandil may now address the Duma.”

    House Leader Grandil stood slowly, his whole body trembling with the weakness of his age. His long white hair, wound in dozens of tiny braids, lay in stark contrast against his dark brown skin. More than eighty years old, House Leader Grandil surpassed everyone else at the table in age and wisdom. Everyone held him in high esteem, even if they competed against him daily for a seat so high up the table. The only reason he did not sit at the head, next to the queen herself, was that his ambition had lessened as his age increased. Even so, the entire room fell silent as they waited for the elder to speak.

    Grandil cleared his throat. He took his precious time preparing to talk, his head bobbing slightly on his weary neck, his dark eyes darting about the room as he gathered his bearings. But at last, his deep voice rang out and seized everyone else in its tremor. “Fellow House Leaders. Queen Nadia Elborn. Grand Prince Feldren.” He nodded to each in turn. “Today is one you will describe to your grandchildren, and their children after that. For if you are like me, then in all your years at the Castle of Krondolee, you have wondered what lies in the Grand Keep, but never had a chance to find out.”

    A murmur of surprise rumbled around the chamber. The Grand Keep? Everyone knew of its existence, but people rarely spoke of it, for no one understood its significance beyond a legendary mystery. The name referred to a compartment deep below the center of the fortress, guarded by an enormous door of metal. The door seemed to lead into an underground cave, for the area was surrounded by rocks. Otherwise, whatever treasures or mysteries lay beyond the metal door remained completely unknown. The door had been there for centuries, but no one ever managed to open it, nor discover why it had been built in the first place.

    House Leader Grandil waited for the room to absorb this tantalizing intro. Once all attention had returned to him, he proclaimed, “It is my great honor to welcome two special visitors to the Royal Duma. They are new to Darzia and its customs, so please forgive them for any unintended offense. I now invite Vivian Trell and her guard to address the Duma!”

    Just like that, two people seemed to appear suddenly in the room. Nadia shook her head, unable to recall where or when they had entered. They moved so gracefully across the floor, they could have emerged from any corner in the Grand Hall and she probably wouldn’t have noticed. Had they been here the whole time, or slipped soundlessly from the shadows? She felt dizzy trying to figure it out, so at last she gave up. Her efforts were far better utilized studying the newcomers’ appearance.

    The first foreigner was a small and wiry woman with long blonde hair and strange, boyish clothes—Vivian Trell. If Nadia had glimpsed the young woman on the street, she would have never thought twice about her. But Vivian’s ability to blend into the background probably served her well. The girl moved with the grace of a cat and wore a smug smile on her face to match. Tight leggings wrapped her legs along with tall leather boots, over which hung a large shirt that puffed at the sleeves but tightened around her torso with a slim leather vest. Combined with the spring in her step and her big blue eyes, she might overall be described as “cute.” But Nadia sensed there was much more to this girl than appearance suggested.

    Her “guard’s” significance, meanwhile, was much more obvious. His manner provided a complete contrast to his lively companion in almost every way possible. He moved slowly and with purpose, as if to ensure he did not waste a single shred of energy. He wore a large black cloak that covered almost all of his body. As such Nadia could see little of the man’s figure or clothes, but his face was pale and gaunt, the skin almost white. The long black hair flowing down his cheeks and neck only made him seem paler. But none of this mattered so much as the red eyes peering through his black lashes.

    The rest of the room came to the same realization as Nadia at about the same time. Most of them tensed or shifted nervously in their chairs; others gaped openly or murmured to their neighbors.

    “Wolven,” they hissed. The word seemed to echo around the room from a dozen directions. And if that wasn’t enough, Wolvens already possessed heightened senses. Descendents of Belazar had noses and ears as acute as a hound’s, and their hawk-like eyes could see in extreme darkness. They were also notoriously cold-hearted and excellent fighters, two traits which combined to make them the most effective and highest-paid assassins in the world.

    But the Wolven kept a calm composure, even as the room stirred with distress from his presence. He was probably accustomed to such a reception wherever he went, if not worse.

    The woman, Vivian, kept a huge smile on her face as if she didn’t even notice the room’s discomfort. “Greetings, Royal Duma of Darzia!” Her chipper voice rang around the chamber and silenced all the House Leaders once more. “Wow, it really is amazing to see so many royal faces all in one place. I mean, you are all royalty, aren’t you? That’s how this whole thing works, right? Your kingdom doesn’t have just one royal family, but twenty or something?”

    Everyone stiffened again. House Leader Grandil cleared his hoarse throat and interceded. “Once again, I ask that the Royal Duma be patient with my guests, and forgive their ignorance of our customs. They are not from our kingdom.”

    Vivian just kept smiling from ear to ear, her big blue eyes sparkling. “Well then. I guess I shouldn’t keep you all waiting. You all want to know why Xavier and I have traveled all this way to see you, eh?”

    The Wolven’s red eyes flicked angrily towards his master, and perhaps the slightest snarl pulled his thin lips. But the slight surge of anger faded quickly into his normal expression, which looked very similar. Wolvens did not like for people to know their names, even their employers. Despite this, Vivian had blatantly announced it in front of the entire Duma. Was the girl stupid? Or just overly daring? Either possibility seemed equally dangerous.

    The girl’s hand reached into her vest and fished around. Some of the men shifted uncomfortably in their seats, for Vivian appeared to be groping her own breasts, which were generously large for a girl of small stature. Then she made a yelp of delight and pulled out what she had been looking for.

    “Here it is! For a minute there I thought I had lost it. Now that would have been bad.” She released a bubbly laugh, then held up the sparkling treasure for everyone to see.

    It was a key, and nothing more. Perhaps it had an unusual shape, with sharp teeth on the tip and a jewel on the end, but it did not look particularly special to Nadia otherwise. It even looked rusty and unused. A small gold chain looped through the key and around Vivian to form a necklace.

    Vivian seemed disappointed by the room’s lack of excitement. For a long while, they all just stared at the key curiously.

    Finally, Vivian laughed again. “Right, I guess you’ve never seen it before, so you don’t know what it is. Well this, my friends, is the key to the Grand Keep of Krondolee!”

    After that, the room seemed to explode. Many people spoke up at once. Some of them stood and waved their hands to be heard above the others.

    “It’s not possible!”

    “It doesn’t exist!”

    “But if it is real, then she should give it to us now!

    Nadia couldn’t resist watching Tristan Jeridar, for she knew that this news would excite him more than anyone else in the castle. But shock had paralyzed the poor young man. All the blood drained from his chubby cheeks. His golden irises were reduced to tiny dots in the circles of his wide, gaping eyes.

    Finally, Nadia found her own voice. She stood up and shouted loudly enough to cut through the House Leaders’ clamor. “SILENCE! Everyone in their seats now, or I will arrest you for misconduct!”

    The nobles obeyed, if with some reluctance, and their faces were red with anger or embarrassment. Only Nadia remained standing, her sharp green eyes slicing across the room towards Vivian. Vivian met her stare without wavering, a little smile still stamped on her pink lips.

    Nadia glanced at House Leader Grandil, though only for a moment. “I trust you have verified this ridiculous claim, Lord Grandil?”

    The old man nodded his head, letting white braids fall about his shoulders. “I have indeed, my queen. I inserted the key into the door, turned it, and the door unlocked.”

    More gasps echoed around the room. Nadia’s harsh glare cut them short.

    “I did not open the door, of course, Majesty,” Grandil continued. “I knew that you should see the contents of the Grand Keep before anyone else. So I relocked the door and intended to bring you the key. However, Vivian Trell and her guard made it very clear they would only give up the key on their own terms.”

    Queen Nadia could not help but shake her head in amazement. Only House Leader Grandil possessed the honor and self-control to unlock the most mysterious door in all of Darzia and then resist the urge to open it. She did not doubt his word in the slightest. So she turned her attention back to Vivian, who still wore that damnable smirk on her face.

    “Where did you find this key, girl?” she demanded.

    If only for a moment, the slightest hint of uncertainty crossed Vivian’s face. Perhaps she had not expected Nadia to address her so rudely. She wanted to feel that she held power over everyone, even the queen herself. But Nadia would not offer respect where none was given.

    “I found the key in Norsidia,” said Vivian at last.

    Immediately, Vivian regained the room’s full attention. Even Nadia’s heart skipped a beat. Norsidia was the land of the gods. Few mortals set foot on the large island, if they could even find it; supposedly, the island constantly changed location in a manner that defied reason. “How did you…  ?”

    “How I got this key shouldn’t concern you,” said Vivian, her eyes giving another flare of indignance. “What matters is that I hold the key now, and I haven’t yet decided who I’ll give it to.”

    This time, it was Nadia’s own husband who rose to challenge Vivian’s audacity. His boxy chin, stern eyes, and perfectly composed appearance had a way of demanding respect, even from an upstart like Vivian. “There is no question about who shall receive the key,” said Grand Prince Gerald in a rich, booming voice. Nadia didn’t know whether to be grateful for his support, or annoyed by his interference. “You shall give the key to Queen Nadia Elborn. If you give it to anyone else, or otherwise keep it from her, you will be arrested for contempt of the crown.”

    “Oh really?” Vivian’s teeth flashed with a smile. “Contempt for the crown! That sounds bad. But please explain to me, Grand Prince—that’s your title, right? Not a king, exactly? Because technically, the queen’s family is currently the ruling House?”

    Even Gerald’s stone-like composure wavered briefly, his mouth pinching with the slightest hint of anger.

    “Forgive me, I’m just trying to understand all these Darzian politics.” She batted her lashes innocently. “Anyway, as I was saying—please explain to me, your Grand Princeliness, why I should be arrested for giving away—or keeping—an item that has been in my possession since before I ever came to your corner of the world? It seems to me the key is mine, and I’ll do with it whatever I please.”

    “The key was never yours at all,” said Gerald, who had regained his placidity. “If it is the key to the Grand Keep, then it belongs to the crown.”

    Nadia sat back down and motioned for Gerald to do the same. She wanted to continue to appear in complete control of the situation, even if she did not feel that way. Besides, her back ached from the pregnancy and she felt as if a pile of rocks kept rising around her ankles. But as she and Gerald settled back into their seats, Vivian began to pace around the room with a little hop to her step, pausing to look into the eyes of this or that noble as she went. Nadia felt more restless than ever, confined to her restrained position.

    “Let me assure you all of one simple fact,” piped Vivian. “The only way any of you will get the key—and I mean any of you—is if I give it to you willingly. If you try to arrest me, I will disappear, and the key along with me. I’m really not kidding. If you test me on this, you’ll regret it. Because I’ll be gone, and so will the key. Forever. Your one and only chance to discover what’s in the Grand Keep—” She snapped her fingers, so sharply that a few people flinched. “Puff! Gone! Like it was never even here at all!”

    Nadia’s heart pounded against her ribcage. She felt the baby stirring within her. This girl seemed to assume that she could easily escape capture. Perhaps she did not know the full power of the Darzian Royal Guard. Or perhaps she did, and knew she could escape anyway. Perhaps she had planned all of this out from the beginning. She didn’t seem capable of such a cunning and intricate plot. But who else would dare this entire charade? What if the girl really could vanish as mysteriously as she’d arrived? Was it worth losing the key permanently to find out?

    While Nadia considered what to do, Vivian continued to stroll about the room, sizing up the House Leaders, and even giving some of them flirtatious glances. Finally she approached Tristan Jeridar, and Nadia’s breath stopped in her throat. This, most certainly, would not be good. The girl leaned close to the young noble, giving him a generous view of her tightly-vested breasts. The man was practically slobbering at the mouth, but his lust burned only for the key that hung from Vivian’s neck. As she dangled it in front of him, the jewel on the tip sparkled, like the dozens of precious gems on Tristan’s own person. It was almost as if Vivian knew that this simple gesture would send the poor man hurtling over the edge.

    And it did. Tristan reached for the necklace.

    Vivian darted away so quickly, Tristan grabbed only air. But he might as well have grabbed a noose and hung himself from the ceiling. For in the blink of an eye, the Wolven stood behind Tristan and pressed a blade to his throat.

    “No, Xavier,” snapped Vivian.

    A slight amount of tension went out of the assassin’s arm, so slight Nadia almost didn’t notice. She felt a chill creep down her back when she realized what had just happened. The Wolven would have slit Tristan’s throat without thinking twice if Vivian hadn’t stopped him. For better or worse, Vivian had just saved Tristan’s life.

    Xavier released Tristan with a shove and stepped back. Nadia caught a quick glimpse under the Wolven’s cloak before it closed back around him. He wore a tight leather suit around his entire body, thick enough to protect him like a second skin, but thin enough to keep him quick and agile. Furthermore, the suit was full of straps and buckles, holding a multitude of weapons. She didn’t have a chance to figure out what they all were, but she suspected he wore a large number of small knives, and probably tiny vials of poison.

    “Now then,” said Vivian, then took a deep breath. “That was unfortunate. But I guess most of you have never seen a Wolven before, either. Let me explain something: Wolvens kill. Whenever they get the chance. And they love doing it. Isn’t that right, Xavier?”

    To Nadia’s astonishment, Vivian reached over and pinched Xavier’s shoulder. He seemed to glare back at her, but with those fierce red eyes of his, who could really say?

    “Oh, I have an idea!” Vivian gasped with excitement. “Let’s show them all you mean business. Go on, then. Swear to kill whoever takes the key without my permission.”

    Even the Wolven’s eyes widened with surprise. Then he spoke. And his voice was not nearly so deep and gravelly as Nadia would have expected from such a cold-hearted killer. He even sounded somewhat whiny. “Perhaps we should discuss this—”

    “No discussion. I’ll pay you, you know I’m good for it. Just go ahead. Swear the oath!”

    Xavier took a deep breath. Whatever this oath entailed, he seemed reluctant to make it. But Vivian seemed to possess a power for him as tangible as the one she held over the entire room. For at last he bowed his head, then pulled a knife from under his cloak.

    Everyone in the room seemed to hold his breath as he watched.

    “With Belazar as my witness,” said Xavier, “I will kill anyone who takes the key from Vivian without her permission, and Belazar will feast upon the blood of my victims.” He nicked his thumb on the blade, then licked the red blood that swelled from his skin. “Krenzi u morde ah Belazar.”

    The entire room seemed to drop suddenly in temperature. Nadia felt her stomach turn within her. She winced as the unborn baby flailed its little limbs against her belly. She did not know how to describe the mood that swept through the room other than “evil,” as if a wind of hatred swept across the table and brushed everyone with its presence. Without a doubt, this must be the power of Belazar, god of wrath and destruction.

    Whatever shadow of Belazar the rest of the room experienced, Xavier felt it tenfold. His body tensed, his head tilted back, and his eyes gaped into space until their redness seemed to glow. Then he closed them and dropped his head with a grunt of exhaustion, his entire body going limp around his spine.

    “There,” said Vivian. But even her bright and perky smile had vanished during the oath. “I hope you all understand now. I am not just playing around here.”

    Vivian had made her point, without a doubt. But Nadia suspected the girl was still playing a game, of some sort. Nadia just needed to figure out what.

    Forcing a calmness she did not feel, Nadia rose to her feet. Then she spoke for all the room to hear. “Very well, Vivian Trell. You have made yourself clear. We can only hope to acquire the key to the Grand Keep by following your terms. In that case, what do you demand of the Royal Duma?”

    “Demand?” Vivian smiled again, then released a burst of chiming laughter. “Oh, I’m not here for anything specific, Queen Nadia! I just want to make sure the right House—or the right person—gets the key. That’s all.”

    Nadia repressed a small twitch of anger. “And how will you judge who this ‘right person’ is?”

    “Oh, I don’t know.” Vivian shrugged her little shoulders. “If any of you want the key, you just need to convince me to give it to you. It’s really as simple as that! I don’t even bite, I promise. Oh, but Xavier does, so don’t forget that.”

    Nadia felt her nails scratch against the table with anger. She didn’t want to let this silly little girl get the better of her. But Vivian had already won. She wanted to play a game in which the entire Duma competed for her favor. And a game like that would not be simple at all. It could very well unravel the kingdom. As Nadia looked around the room, she could already sense the wheels turning in the heads of the nobles, scheming for a way to win Vivian’s prize.

    Nadia saw only one option ahead of her. She would have to win the key from Vivian Trell before anyone else did.

    *

    The rest of the Royal Duma proceeded quickly. Every member’s concerns seemed insignificant in the wake of Vivian Trell’s key. For centuries, no one had bothered with the Grand Keep, or even wasted much time wondering about it. Now, nothing mattered so much as getting inside. What if it was full of treasure? Or maybe something even better? Maybe a magical substance from the gods, such as safra, which made its consumers feel happy, or something no one else even knew about?

    Everyone wanted to know. And the entire Duma would tear itself apart trying to find out. All because of this Vivian Trell.

    Nadia’s heart felt heavy as she left the Grand Hall and turned to go to her chambers. Normally, she stayed after the Duma to talk privately with the House Leaders, allaying any outstanding concerns. This time, she felt the need to keep her distance. She needed to get her own plan together for how to proceed. All the other House Leaders would be doing the exact same thing.

    Her husband, Grand Prince Gerald, stood quietly by her side. She wanted to know what he really thought of all this. But when she asked, he only offered a predictable reply.

    “The key should go to you, or no one at all. If we cannot take it from the girl, we should let no one else have it.”

    Nadia shook her head. “That isn’t wise. We would alienate the other Houses beyond repair. Some of them will not be able to let this go.”

    “Perhaps.” Gerald looked around. They still stood in a hallway far from their chambers. A few of the House Leaders still wandered around after the Royal Duma. “In any case, we should not discuss it here.”

    Sure enough, Nadia glimpsed Tristan Jeridar down the hall, the very man she knew would not rest until he held that key in his grubby fingers. “You’re right,” she sighed. “We’ll discuss it later.”

    “Later,” he agreed. Then turned and walked away without another word. She felt disappointed as she watched him leave. More than ever, she could have used some words of encouragement, perhaps even a gentle caress. But Gerald never offered such things unless prompted.

    Queen Nadia remained in the hall for some time, staring out the window at the grounds of the castle, catching tidbits of the nobles’ chatter around her. Eventually, Selene Perin came to her side, as Nadia hoped she might.

    “Nadia.” There was urgency in Selene’s voice. She did not even bother to address Nadia formally, which she usually did in public. “I came as soon as I heard.”

    “Oh, this too shall pass,” sighed Nadia. “I just can’t help but wonder if Vivian Trell has some ulterior motive.”

    “Vivian who… ?” Selene shook her head in puzzlement. “You’ll have to tell me about this Vivian later. She’s not who I’m concerned about.”

    “What? Then who…?” But as soon as Nadia looked up, she understood.

    Further down the hall, speaking to Tristan, stood Arken Jeridar.

    Nadia froze. Her breath stopped. Her heart stopped. Time seemed to stop altogether. Nadia had not seen Arken ever since she chose to marry Lord Gerald. She might have tried to explain herself to him, if she ever got the chance. But Arken had left the castle that day and not returned since. That had been almost a year ago. Tristan had resumed Arken’s seat at the Royal Duma, while Arken supervised their land holdings to the south.

    Nadia thought her heart had long since moved on from Arken. Often, she regretted that their relationship ended the way that it did, but she thought the pain she felt was guilt and nothing more. Now she saw him standing down the hall, his blonde hair flowing down his shoulders, his silk robes softening his muscular stature, and her heart fluttered back to life in her chest. When he looked up at her, she felt a jolt through her entire body.

    Meeting his gaze, she realized that she had underestimated her own feelings for him. But the truth she saw in his own stare frightened her even more. His bright golden eyes, which had once gazed upon her with passion and adoration, burned as fiercely as ever. But they no longer burned with love. Now his fuel came from pain, regret, and rage.

    As quickly as he had appeared, Arken vanished, pulling his brother with him. It seemed he did not want to look at her a moment longer than necessary. Nadia felt somehow as if he had yanked some part of her away with him, until only a shell of herself remained, weak and trembling in the hallway.

    “My lady?” Selene put a firm hand on her shoulder. “Are you well?”

    “No, I am not.” Nadia’s voice sounded hollow and distant in her own ears. “It seems that more than one enemy has arrived in my castle today.”


    Chapter 2 The Man of Silk


    Arken paced around his chambers, as if his footsteps would eventually lead him far from the castle and back to his cotton fields in the south. Why had he even come back to Castle Krondolee? He knew why in theory: a year on the plantations had made him yearn for his former life of luxury. But only a few hours in the castle of Krondolee had proven more insufferable than the worst days on a cotton field. Either he should never have left at all, or he never should have come back. For Tristan had most certainly made a mess of things.

    Even Arken’s chambers, which should have felt grand and spacious in comparison to his country home, felt incredibly cramped—perhaps because he had not yet had the chance to enjoy them in solitude. Right now, four other souls watched him pacing: his mother Tanya, his brother Tristan, and the newest additions to their family, Lily and Kallias.

    Arken had only met Lily for the first time today. The woman did not belong here; even she seemed to know that, for she remained in a state of constant uncertainty, her eyes darting about the room as if she might need to make a quick exit. Lily grew up on the outskirts of the jungle, and still knew very little about life among royalty. But Tristan had been forced to marry her many months ago, not long after Arken’s departure, when Tristan discovered that Lily had born him a son. Tristan’s mother Tanya hastily arranged their union, and even forged the paperwork so that the union seemed to take place two years ago, making baby Kallias a legitimate child.

    “I don’t understand,” said Arken at last. “This Wolven put a knife to your throat and somehow… no one cared?

    “Oh, it was terrible.” Tristan rubbed his neck and stared into the crackling fire as he relived the memory. “His eyes were red… so red… as if the flames of Belazar were rising to engulf me!”

    Tristan’s wife, Lily, reached out in a desperate attempt to comfort him. But Tristan just squirmed beneath her touch.

    “Arken’s right,” snapped their mother, Tanya. And as he looked upon his mother, Arken remembered his most important reason for coming back to Krondolee.

    The tall and radiant woman sat quietly next to Tristan—not moving, unassuming—but she lit up the room more than the fire itself. For their entire lives, Tanya had guided her sons towards power. No matter what foolish decisions they made, Tanya helped them learn from their mistakes and grow smarter. When they were small boys, Tanya cast out their father so they would never have to compete with him for power. Like a true Jeridar, Tanya did not like to share. But she desired success for her sons even more than she desired it for herself. And for that, Arken was grateful. He did not like to admit it, but he felt lost without his mother. He felt lost in many ways, lately. Now, he could only hope that his mother would help him find his way again.

    “We cannot ignore the fact that someone nearly killed you today,” Tanya continued smoothly. She took a lock of her long blonde hair and wrapped it around her finger as she spoke. She did this often when forming an intricate plot. “Wolven or not, he should be punished for such behavior.”

    “No, neither of you understand,” cried Tristan. His forehead was breaking into a cold sweat. “The Wolven terrified everyone in the Duma. He threatened to kill anyone who took the key without Vivian’s permission. He even swore this… this oath, of some sort. An oath to Belazar. So for shit’s sake, let’s stay the hell away from him!”

    “You think a Wolven is bad,” said Arken. “I had to fight a griffin off my field a few weeks ago!”

    “That’s remarkable, son.” Tanya’s golden eyes sparkled with admiration. “How did you do it?”

    Arken couldn’t help but smile with pride. “I laid a trap with some bait. It took several days and nights to build, even with the help of some thirty field-hands, but we did it. And the next time that griffin landed on our crops, it got a dozen arrows through its gullet.”

    “Well done.” Praise from Tanya did not come easily. For a moment, Arken felt as if he could float off into the clouds. But quickly enough, Tanya returned to the task at hand. “Perhaps we should consider laying a trap of some kind for the Wolven. First we will need to figure out what bait to use.”

    “Can we just… forget about the Wolven for a little while?” Tristan wiped some sweat from his brow. “I think we should just focus on winning the favor of Vivian Trell. If she decides to give me the key of her own will, then the Wolven doesn’t matter. See?”

    “Vivian Trell will never give you the key,” said Tanya.

    “What? Why?” squealed Tristan.

    “Because you are unavailable.” Tanya’s quick glance at Lily dripped with resentment. “And even if you weren’t married, you have never been graceful with women.” Slowly, calmly, Tanya turned her eyes towards Arken. “You, on the other hand… ”

    Now Arken felt himself breaking into a sweat just like his brother. “Me… ?”

    “You’re the Man of Silk. But I think your abilities extend beyond transforming fabric. You also have a way with people. Especially women.”

    Arken’s cheeks grew hot with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. “Oh really? Need I remind you why I’ve been gone for a year?”

    “Forget about Nadia.” Tanya walked towards him, her silk robes whispering around her tall figure. Arken had made that silk for her many years ago by laying his hands on a shaggy blanket of wool. She reached out to grip his shoulder. “I didn’t say this when it happened, because I feared you were far too fragile. But I am glad that she betrayed you, Arken, for several reasons. First of all, I never wanted you to marry her in the first place, even if the Royal Duma approved your union. If one of my sons takes the crown, he will do so as King; not as Grand Prince. To rule as ‘Grand Prince’ is not to rule at all. Your power would only be an illusion, like Lord Gerald’s. You might have a special influence over the queen, but you would remain a servant to the ruling House, all the same.

    “Secondly, your heartbreak taught you an important lesson. You can trust no one in this life, even those you love or who love you. Especially those you love. For your emotions will blind you, and keep you from achieving success. Your love for Nadia would have ruined you, had you run away and married her. I am glad that she had some sense where you did not. But I hope you would make a better decision next time.”

    Arken’s fists clenched so tightly, his nails sliced into his palms. He had never felt so furious towards his mother as he did at this moment. He wanted to grab her, strike her, throw her upon the floor. But he didn’t know whether he felt that way because she was wrong, or because she was right.

    Sensing the turmoil of emotions under her touch, Tanya released him. But her golden eyes shone as fiercely as ever. “This is your chance to redeem yourself, Arken. You must meet this Vivian Trell. You must befriend her. Seduce her. Do whatever you must. Only get us the key to the Grand Keep. For the Jeridars. For Mallion.”

    Arken cared little for maintaining his family’s pride. He didn’t see much reason to impress the god of greed, either. Tanya claimed to have met Mallion when she was a little girl, as she was the deity’s granddaughter. She said the experience changed her forever. The god had everything: looks, wealth, fame, women. But no matter how much he acquired, he wanted more. And he had served as Tanya’s model for living life ever since.

    “I’ll do it,” he said at last, releasing a shuddering breath. Then he reached out and gripped Tanya’s hand. “I’ll do it for you, Mother.”

    *

    Arken remembered the Castle Commons as a dreary place, where all the nobles gathered to pretend to be friendly while pulling secrets from each other or forming tentative alliances. Even the food, roasted throughout the day and constantly stuffing the large stone chamber with aromas, tended to make him nauseous. After all, servants and lesser House members ate here as well, so the menu consisted of scraps. If the nobles desired, they could easily go to the upper balconies, where they would only encounter other House Leaders or their closest kin. But most of them chose to wallow in the mess of the Castle Commons instead, befriending those poor souls who were more desperate for power, or even gleaning precious information from the servants themselves.

    Arken strongly suspected this would be where Vivian Trell chose to spend her evenings in the Castle of Krondolee. As he descended towards the dreary chamber, he steeled himself for the nauseating smells, the skull-aching sounds of nobles lying through their teeth, and the filthy appearance of a large room frequented by far too many people and cleaned by too few. He expected to feel altogether sick by the time the evening was over. And yet as he walked down the steps, he wondered if he had taken a wrong turn.

    Laughter, light, and captivating music rang from the chamber below. Arken shook his head in disbelief, but his perception remained the same. Unwilling to believe it, he kept moving forward.

    He found the Castle Commons in a state of genuine revelry. People danced around the tables and laughed throughout the room. Most of them gathered around a group of musicians with flutes, drums, and tambourines. Such musicians could often be found in the Castle Commons. But normally, their music went ignored. Instruments would strain to make themselves heard over the grumble of plotting castle-folk. Tonight they filled the room with song, so that the stones themselves seemed to reverberate with melodies. Arken didn’t understand. What had changed?

    Then he saw the woman in the center of it all: a small, bouncing, cute young woman who twirled across the tables from one man to the next with the rhythm of the pounding drums. She had curly blond hair that swished about her face as she dipped and turned. Her pink lips were spread in a wide, beaming smile full of so much joy, Arken could feel its contagious power, even from across the room. She had the beauty and grace of a seasoned woman, combined with the innocence and vigor of a young child, that combined to make her incredibly captivating.

    Captivating, at least, to any man who could still be captivated by such things.

    For a long time, Arken stood in the corner of the room, watching. Eventually he got himself some ale, then returned to the corner and kept watching from afar. Soon enough, he gathered that the woman was Vivian Trell. He knew that his mother would want him to join the dancing, to introduce himself to her, to attempt to sweep her off her feet more gracefully than any other man had done yet. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.

    He knew himself to be a good liar. He had successfully tricked and charmed more people than he could remember. To pull it off, he pretended to feel whatever emotion he wanted to convey, like a very skilled actor. But to join the scene before him, to join a celebration of such pure joy and happiness… this was something he could not do. He could not fake an emotion he could no longer feel. Not now. Maybe never again.

    Gradually, he became aware of a looming presence in the corner next to him. The presence had been there a long while, he realized, but stayed hidden beneath his consciousness until now.

    He turned and looked at the bystander at the very same moment the bystander looked at him.

    Red eyes. Long, black hair. A thick cloak, covering his wiry body. A knife spinning in his spindly fingers.

    As soon as their gazes met, they both quickly looked away.

    An awkward silence stretched onward. Arken sipped from his ale. Pretended to pay complete attention to the dancing once more. But he couldn’t. Now that he had seen the Wolven, he could focus on nothing else. Not because he felt particularly afraid of the Wolven. He knew that he should be afraid. Without a doubt, the Wolven could probably kill him before Arken ever noticed him moving. These days, nothing really scared Arken. To be afraid, one needed to fear losing something.

    “Aren’t you going to join them?”

    The voice surprised Arken, a pinched and drawling voice, and it took him a moment to realize that the Wolven had spoken. Xavier wore a bitter frown on his face as his red eyes flicked from Arken to the party in the center of the room.

    Arken cleared his throat. He couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated. “I uh… I don’t think it’s my sort of gathering.”

    “Oh really? Fumbling bodies? Stinking breaths? Idiotic glances? What’s not to love?” Xavier snorted, then resumed spinning the knife in his hands.

    Arken studied the Wolven with fresh curiosity. He had always wondered what a Wolven would be like in real life, and he wasn’t sure whether Xavier met his expectations, or exceeded them. In any case, Arken felt increasingly at ease around the bitter youth. “So. You’re an assassin?”

    “Oh, so perceptive!” Xavier scoffed and shook his head again.

    “Just checking.” Arken’s gaze focused on the blade in Xavier’s fingertips. “The knife is your weapon of choice?”

    The blade stopped spinning. And then, before Arken could even blink, the knife flew towards him. He was vaguely aware of a breeze against his face and something tickling his ear. Then he saw a few strands of his own hair floating to the ground below, and turned to see the knife quivering in the table behind him.

    “One of many,” said Xavier. Then he went to collect his knife.

    Arken took a moment to recover his breath and wait for his heart to stop pounding. He finished his ale with a few quick gulps. Then he noticed that the musicians had stopped playing, and the dancing fools in the middle of the room were finally parting ways. Vivian had left them to approach Xavier and see why he had flung a knife across the room.

    “Sorry, sorry,” grumbled Xavier, before she even said anything.

    Still breathless from dancing, Vivian looked from Xavier, to Arken, and back again. Even though the girl was small and altogether adorable, Arken found himself intimidated by her presence, though in a different way from Xavier. Her big blue eyes had a sharp clarity that seemed to pierce straight through him. Her cheeks were flushed from dancing, her chest heaving with breath and straining her breasts against her vest. Arken could not resist feeling physically attracted to her, despite his desire not to be.

    He found himself speechless for a moment, staring dumbly at the young woman while his hand kept searching his hair for its missing strands.

    “And who are you?” snapped Vivian at last, wholly unamused.

    “I’m… I’m Arken Jeridar,” he replied. Then he made a belated bow, letting his silk cloak swish around his shoulders. “Pleasure to meet you.”

    “Jeridar?” Vivian made a gagging sound. “Mallion spawn, in other words.”

    Arken blinked with surprise. Tristan had warned him of the woman’s audacity. But she had insulted both a god and a powerful House in one quick blow. Such brazenness verged on stupidity. “He is… my great grandfather.”

    “And you’re proud to be a child of avarice?”

    “Why not?” Instinctively, Arken felt the need to defend himself. He even stood a little straighter and took a step closer. “Greed has many forms, you know. Like anything in this world, it can be bad, but it can also be good. Without the desire to achieve something, people would live their lives in a state of meaningless labor. Greed gives us purpose. It fuels our ambition. Who are any of us without it?”

    Vivian’s scowl lifted, replaced by a look of curiosity. Arken found himself surprised by his words, as well. He recited them easily; Tanya repeated mantras like that on a regular basis. But he had said the words as if he actually meant them, and he had not expected to do so.

    “Nice speech,” said Vivian, perhaps sarcastically, but her pink lips twisted with a smile. “You’re better spoken than your brother, at least, who just reached for my necklace like a baby for its mother.”

    Some of the nobles nearby laughed. No doubt they reveled in hearing the Jeridars insulted, though none of them dared to voice such insults themselves. Instinctively, Arken’s golden eyes scanned the room and made note of everyone who laughed at his brother. The laughter stopped abruptly.

    “I wonder.” Vivian reached into her shirt and pulled out the necklace. “Are you as easily tempted?”

    She walked towards him, turning the key before his eyes. Arken couldn’t help but stare. After all, everyone in the room wanted that key, and to pretend otherwise would only make him look like a fool. But he only wanted to get the key to show that he could obtain it—to impress his mother, and to prove that certain items in this world were still in his grasp. He had little interest in the key itself. It was a strange and rusty thing, and its sharp teeth looked like they could slice the hand of whoever gripped it incorrectly. He realized he did not even want to obtain the key easily. If he wanted to redeem himself, he would need to endure a worthwhile struggle. He wanted a real challenge.

    And as Vivian watched his reaction, she seemed surprised. She could see that the key itself did not tempt him, even though the rest of the room continued to drool in its presence.

    “We all want something,” said Arken, feeling more calm now than he had felt all day. “It is only a question of what. What do you want, Vivian Trell?”

    Her eyes widened, then she let out a giggle. “Oh! If only you knew! Then everything would be too easy, don’t you think?”

    “Perhaps.” He smiled back at her. “In that case, I have a proposal for you. Tomorrow, I would like to take you riding with me. I think you would enjoy it.”

    “Riding horses?” Vivian shrugged. “How… trite.”

    His smile only widened. “Have you ever ridden a wilderhorse, Vivian? I assure you, I could use many, many words to describe the experience. But I would never use the word ‘trite.’”

    Her little mouth gaped with surprise. “You have… a wilderhorse?”

    “Yes. I caught it and broke it in myself. Though I must warn you, a wilderhorse can never fully be ‘broken.’ If you wish to ride it yourself, that would be very dangerous.”

    “Oh… my.” Vivian’s eyes sparkled with so much excitement, Arken felt dizzied. Then she clapped her hands and turned to Xavier with a cry of delight. “Did you hear that, Xavier? Cancel all our plans tomorrow.”

    Xavier’s frown deepened, if such a thing were possible. “I… wasn’t… ”

    “I’m going to ride a wilderhorse!

    Vivian leapt forward and clutched Arken’s hand. And for the first time all day, Arken felt as if he belonged here in Krondolee, after all.


    Chapter 3 Intervention


    Nadia knew that she should eat, for the sake of the baby. But as she stared down at her plate of breakfast, her stomach turned with nausea. And she was long past the stage in which she could blame her unborn child.

    “Does the food not please you?” asked Gerald.

    “I’m not hungry.”

    “Hungry or not, you should eat.”

    Nadia glanced across the table at her husband, wondering whether he really cared how she felt, or if he merely asked such a question out of obligation. The Grand Prince sat perfectly composed in his chair, fully groomed and dressed as always, his brown hair swept neatly beneath his golden crown. Even though they sat upon an open balcony, prone to a hot summer breeze and pesky bugs, he did not seem bothered by the small beads of sweat upon his brow, nor did his hair or cloak ever fall askew. He actually looked handsome in the morning sunlight, his tan skin glowing, his green eyes crisp. Indeed, Gerald seemed as if he had been born to wear the crown. No matter what, he always looked regal.

    Stricken by a sudden urge, a question burst from Nadia’s mouth that she had never dared ask before. “Gerald. Which god do you worship?”

    He sat a little straighter. His brows furrowed slightly. He dabbed his lips with a napkin. Otherwise, he did not look disturbed in the slightest. “I thought you knew. I worship none of the pagan gods. I believe that there is only one.”

    “Yes. I know that is your family’s tradition. But I have never understood it. After all, we have seen adequate enough proof that the gods exist. The Jeridars… ” Her heart fluttered, and she realized she had stumbled onto another sensitive topic unintentionally. But Gerald did not even flinch. So she forged on, emboldened. “The Jeridars possess special abilities from Lord Mallion. Tristan can change rocks into diamonds. Arken can change simple fabrics into silk.” She managed to say his name without pausing. But after she finished the sentence, she needed a moment to catch her breath. “And I… I do suspect I am related to Demetral. Perhaps not closely. But the Elborn gardens provide the most succulent fruits in the kingdom; our harvests have always been the most plentiful. So how can you ignore the gods altogether?”

    “I see little reason to discuss it. No matter what I say, we shall disagree on this matter.”

    “I don’t care. I just want to understand what you believe, damn it.”

    He stared at her long and hard. Nadia wondered if the squinting of his eyes represented a hint of irritation, or whether he merely guarded himself from the sun’s glare. “You call them gods. I call them concoctions of chaos; impure deviations of the one true God, God of balance and order, a power not blinded by wayward emotions. The Guardian.”

    “The Guardian.” Nadia had heard the term before, as a child, when her parents tried to educate her on the many religions of the world. But she had never fully understood this one. “But if you believe in him so strongly, why do you never speak of him? Why don’t you show any outward signs of worship?”

    “The Guardian is not subject to pride, nor does he require some sign of human affection from a person like me. To worship the Guardian, I simply need to live my life in a state of reason and balance. And by example, perhaps I will convince others to do the same.”

    Gerald’s example did not tempt Nadia to relinquish her emotions, however. In fact, the more he sat there with that cool stare of his, explaining his beliefs as if they were rules from a math lesson, the more she wanted to scream and shout at him, throw her food over the edge of the balcony, and demand to know why life mattered at all if it never made him feel something.

    Instead she took a deep breath, looked out at the golden savannas stretching out towards the sunrise, and found what comfort she could from its beauty. “You’re right. We’ll never agree on this. But I am still glad you told me.” Steeling herself, she finally reached for her plate and picked up a sausage. “What will we teach our daughter, when the time comes?”

    “Daughter?” He blinked curiously. “We will teach our son—or daughter—the full range of Darzian religions, so that he or she may choose for himself. It is the sensible thing to do.”

    “Yes. I suppose you’re right.” Nadia swallowed a bite and waited for it to settle.

    “In any case, we have more important concerns right now. Have you decided what to do about the two foreigners? My sources tell me that the young woman will go riding with Arken Jeridar today.”

    Nadia’s food hit her stomach like a rock. “What?”

    Gerald watched her reaction carefully. But if he harbored any of his own emotions about Arken, he hid them well. “If the Jeridars get the key, then you know they will keep whatever is in the Grand Keep for themselves, no matter how important it might be. We should not let the key fall into their hands.”

    “Yes. Of course not.” She folded her hands over her lap to hide their trembling.

    “You should speak to him,” said Gerald.

    She looked up with a start. “What?

    “You should talk to Arken Jeridar. I suspect he is a very emotional man. It is why he would listen to you. Convince him that he should not pursue the key. Tell him it is in his own best interest, if you cannot appeal to his reason. It is in the interest of the entire kingdom that this key belong to you. So you should do what you must to ensure that happens.”

    Nadia stared back at her husband long and hard. How could Gerald speak so casually of a man whom she had nearly run off with on their wedding day? Everyone knew that shameful little fact: after all, she had been the one to confess it. Was this a test of some sort? Did Gerald believe she never really loved Arken? Or did he simply not care?

    She felt a fury burning in her veins she could not quite explain. She would never understand how easily Gerald discarded his emotions. But if he was going to do it anyway, she might as well use his indifference to her advantage. “Very well,” she said at last, throwing down her napkin. “I will talk to him. Though I do not think his current ‘emotions’ towards me will incline him to listen.”

    “You’d be surprised, Nadia.” The tone in Gerald’s voice was one she did not recognize. He looked away from her, as if for once, he could not meet her gaze. “You have a stronger influence on people than you seem to realize.”

    He got up and left the table before she did.

    *

    She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t.

    She stood in the hallway, trembling so fiercely she feared for the health of her baby. Elborn mothers rarely miscarried or suffered complications during childbirth. It was one of the many reasons people suspected they carried the blood of Demetral. But Nadia still worried that the fears and burdens she suffered might have some negative impact on her little Serafina. She could not remember the last time she felt so physically unstable. Her hands sweated uncontrollably. Her body felt weak from lack of food. And yet her one bite of breakfast continued to churn in her stomach.

    Two rows of Darzian soldiers shared the hallway with the queen, prepared to give their lives to protect her. She wore a crown on her head, ensuring her that everyone on this vast and powerful continent must obey her command. And yet she felt as vulnerable as a small child alone in the wild. Any moment, Arken Jeridar would come strolling down this hallway. She had chosen this part of the castle for that very purpose, so she might intercept him. But the thought of seeing him again—of staring into those fierce golden eyes, full of anger and maybe even hatred—terrified her beyond belief.

    “I, uh… I’m not feeling well,” she said aloud, even though the soldiers were trained not to speak to her. Some of them exchanged puzzled glances, as if wondering whether to respond. “I’m going back to my room!” she declared. Then she started to turn around.

    But it was already too late. For at that very moment, Arken appeared at the end of the hallway.

    He froze at the same time that she did. He stared at her across the stones of the hall, through the bright beams of sunlight from the windows, and she wondered how she looked to him. There she stood, fat and pregnant, her ridiculously large dress spreading out from her swollen midriff, a look of shock on her face. Crowned, bejeweled, and surrounded by soldiers, she still managed to feel pathetic and sickly.

    Meanwhile, Arken looked as radiant as ever. He had traded his silk robes for leather riding boots, simple trousers, and a loose-fitting shirt that showed the softly-sculpted lines of his chest. He had pulled his yellow hair behind him, tied with a silk ribbon, though a few soft strands still fell to accentuate the squareness of his jaws and the sharp length of his nose.

    He recovered before she did. He resumed walking, and his steps did not waver as he swept his long legs down the hallway. He stopped just a few feet away from her and feigned a graceful bow. Somehow, this theatrical submission felt equal to the most flagrant insult he might have thrown upon her.

    At long last, she closed her gaping mouth and tried to recover her breath. But despite how many times she had rehearsed this moment while waiting for him to appear, she could not find the words to say.

    He looked up at her, revealing a tiny smirk on his mouth, and found his voice before she did. “Most beautiful and gracious queen. Forgive me for interrupting you on my way through this hallway.”

    He might as well have slapped her across the face. And perhaps that was for the best, for at last, she felt her senses returning to her. “Arken,” she said. “I came here to speak with you.”

    He straightened from his ridiculous bow, but continued to wear that smile on his face—a smile that, despite its charm, she knew to be fake. Whatever warmth it provided, the coldness in his eyes overwhelmed it tenfold. “Oh really? Why would the great Queen Nadia ever trouble herself with the likes of a man like me?”

    He poised the question as a mockery. But she sensed a sincere curiosity behind his words, as well. “Arken, I… ” She glanced around at the soldiers. “Leave us.”

    The soldiers hesitated. They could not disobey. But they could not abandon her, either. They did not know what to do.

    “Wait for me… over there,” she snapped, pointing to the end of the hallway.

    With a great shuffle of armor and weaponry, the soldiers obeyed her. Arken watched them go with an amused expression.

    “Arken, when you left here so suddenly, on that day… you never gave me a chance to explain myself.”

    “What must you explain? You chose to marry another man. Quite… ‘suddenly.’” The fake smirk, the feigned amusement, vanished completely. His lips curled with a snarl. “Whatever you would say to me, I don’t wish to hear it.”

    “But you must. I… ” Her palms were sweating again. She rubbed them against the fabric of her dress, to no avail. “I did what I thought what was best for the kingdom. I wanted to marry you. But to do that would have been selfish, especially when I realized the repercussions. If I had abandoned the throne without warning, the castle would have fallen into chaos. Relationships between the Houses were so heated, I feared a civil war.”

    “I see. Marrying me would have been selfish?” He snorted, a sound that reverberated from one end of the hall to the other. “Gods forbid you do something selfish! I don’t suppose choosing the crown over love is selfish at all? Nor the assumption that you must sit on the throne or the kingdom will fall to ruin? Naturally, you did what you had to—for the kingdom.”

    “You know that it’s true, Arken! Our actions could have had dire consequences.”

    “But that’s not the full truth, now is it?” His eyes narrowed on her, and she felt as if they pierced her to the core. “If you really worried so much about the consequences, you would have spoken to the Royal Duma about marrying me long before your scheduled wedding with Lord Gerald.” He stepped closer to her, his gaze crushing her as surely as a boot upon her throat. “If we had proceeded more carefully, we might have gained everyone’s approval. So if you cared so much about that, why didn’t you try? Why did you not announce our intentions sooner?”

    Nadia opened her mouth, but no words came out. She realized that for better or worse, Arken sensed the truth. He knew that she had loved him. But despite her love for him, she had never believed he could rule as Grand Prince without causing trouble. She worried that he would always want more power—that his inheritance as a Jeridar would get the best of him. And that even if married to the monarch, his power would fail to satisfy the greed in his bloodstream.

    “You misjudged me,” he hissed, his breath blowing the red curls from her face. “You thought I cared only about the crown. You were wrong. But not nearly so wrong as I was about you.”

    He pulled back, just a little, but she still felt as if he had smashed her to powder against the floor of the hallway. She felt tiny and small, unable to argue, helpless against his accusations.

    “May I pass now, my queen?” His voice dripped with derision. “Or must you explain yourself further?”

    “I… ” She took another deep, shuddering breath. She stared into the floor, finding that her courage increased the longer she avoided his gaze. “I think that you should not go on this ride with Vivian,” she said at last. “I think that if you obtain the key—more specifically, if your family obtains the key—then the consequences will be dire.”

    “That’s not really my concern, is it?” She glimpsed a shrug of his broad shoulders. “Such concerns are for the people with crowns. So why should I worry?”

    “Arken. I am begging you… ”

    “Beg all you’d like, Nadia.” This time, a true hint of joy rang upon his voice, and it chilled her to the bone. “But the more you beg, the more you will assure me of my purpose. For I wish you to understand what it feels like to want only one thing in this world—to want it with every fiber of your being—only to have it denied you.”

    And then, without waiting for permission, he swept past her.

    For a moment, the soldiers grabbed their weapons. Even from afar, they sensed the queen’s distress. But she shook her head, and they let Arken pass.

    She had found the strength to deny him, once. But perhaps that strength had broken, just as surely as his devotion.


    Chapter 4 Wilderhorse


    As soon as he turned the corner and left the queen’s vision, Arken stopped to recompose himself. His whole body trembled. The pounding of his blood roared in his ears. But he hoped that he had hidden such emotions well enough for Nadia not to notice. He hoped that he had appeared completely calm and collected, undisturbed by her presence. For if she had any idea what power she still held over him…

    “Are you all right?”

    Arken turned with a start to see Vivian standing beside him. Her presence surprised him, for he had never sensed her approach. Had she been there the whole time? But he could not feel disturbed for long, because she looked so very pretty. In truth she wore an outfit almost identical to what she wore yesterday. But somehow she still looked ready to go riding; she had a way of looking ready for anything.

    “I’m… I’m fine.” He started to keep walking, but she reached out and caught his arm. Her grip carried surprising strength, and yanked him to a stop.

    “Was that the queen back there?” asked Vivian. “I heard you two talking. Well, I didn’t hear what you said to each other. I just heard… you know… angry voices.”

    He tugged his arm free of her. “She doesn’t want me to get the key from you,” he snapped. “Is that a surprise?”

    “Well, no. It just sounded like… something else was going on.”

    “It’s none of your concern.” He straightened the folds of his shirt and tried to smooth his composure in the meantime. “Now. Shall we go to the stables?”

    He started walking, and she followed. But for a time, a tense silence lingered between them.

    “I asked around about you,” burst Vivian at last. “I know you and Nadia almost got married.”

    He turned to face her. Vivian shrank against the wall. “And why does that matter?”

    “I was just… just… curious!” She fingered a little contraption on her belt, which Arken eyed warily.

    “What’s that?”

    “Oh, just a little something I made.” She pulled it out and held it up for him to see. It looked like a tiny wooden pipe, with holes in it, like a flute, but so small she could enclose it with her fist. “I call it a Wolven whistle.”

    “A Wolven whistle?” He took a step back.

    “Yes, well, I didn’t want Xavier to be… you know… looming around all day. He has a way of ruining the mood, you know? But I figured I should have a way of calling him. So I made this.” She put it to her lips and blew.

    Arken didn’t hear anything but the swish of her breath. And yet a few seconds later, Xavier stepped up behind him. Arken couldn’t restrain a jolt of surprise.

    “Something wrong?” grumbled Xavier.

    “No, just testing it.” Vivian giggled with delight. “And it worked!”

    Xavier rolled his eyes, then walked away again.

    “Isn’t that great?” Vivian kept laughing, even though the Wolven could probably still hear her. “We can’t hear it, but he can. The sound drives him crazy, though.”

    “Impressive,” said Arken.

    Vivian studied Arken curiously. “You really mean that, don’t you? You’re not scared of him. I mean, of course you’re a little scared. But not like everyone else is.”

    Arken shrugged. “I have no intention of taking that key without permission. So he is not my enemy. Just as I am not yours.”

    He offered his arm, and she took it. “Yes,” she said, and winked. “I think you’re right about that.”

    *

    Vivian wanted to ride the wilderhorse immediately, but Arken insisted that she pick a normal horse from the stables first. House Jeridar possessed a lot of fine horses, most of them of Arken’s choosing. But Vivian pouted as she took the reins of a very large Kresdil. It was a tremendously big beast, built for hard labor. Its body possessed a much thicker frame than a wilderhorse, and long fur grew all around its hooves as if it wore skirts of fur beneath each knee. Arken thought the Kresdil was a magnificent animal, but Vivian refused to be impressed.

    When he climbed onto the saddle with her, she made a sound of shocked indignation. “You didn’t say we’d ride the same horse together!” But her tone was warm with flirtation, and she leaned back against him, until their proximity made him truly uncomfortable.

    “I don’t keep the wilderhorse in the stables,” he said, goading the horse forward so he could focus on riding instead of the sensation of her body against his. “It would never accept that.”

    “Oh. I see.” Her voice rang with wonder.

    Arken led them through the side streets of the fortress and out of the Forest Gate. As he left the castle behind them, he thought he saw a dark shape flitting across the edge of his vision, and wondered if it was Xavier. But as he had told Vivian, the Wolven’s presence did not bother him.

    To reach the wilderhorse, they needed to ride through almost a mile of savanna to the edge of a small forest. The Kresdil’s large hooves plowed through the yellow grasses, creating a constant thunder of churned earth and weeds around them. Arken had not ridden a Kresdil in a long while, and he forgot how bumpy and ungraceful the beast could be. But Vivian just laughed with delight as they plodded along.

    “I think he enjoys crushing grass,” she giggled, and stroked his mane lovingly. “Good boy!”

    Arken took a deep breath of the fresh air and closed his eyes as he let his skin soak up the sun. He had only spent one full day in the castle, but he already felt in need of the clean wind, the vast horizon, the sensation of nature and wilderness all around him.

    Vivian, though she could not see him, seemed to sense him relaxing. “I’m not sure what to think of you, Arken Jeridar,” she said. “Either your plan is to take me to a clearing and murder me, or you really do have a wilderhorse, and if so then you are full of pleasant surprises.”

    He didn’t know what to say. All of a sudden, he tired of playing this game. He just wanted to enjoy the outdoors and take a ride on his wilderhorse. A long silence answered Vivian’s statement.

    “So, how did you catch this wilderhorse, if it really exists?”

    He smiled at the memory. “A few years ago, when I turned seventeen, I wanted to catch some game in the jungle and prove myself as a man. You probably already know this, but the jungles of Darzia are very dangerous, at least if you don’t know how to survive them. The most innocent-looking plants or bugs can be fatally poisonous. Even the smallest game can be difficult to catch, and incredibly crafty. Many of them will get rid of you by leading you to a larger predator, such as a bear or a tiger. In any case, I just wanted to catch something in the jungle; I didn’t really care what.

    “I proceeded with a great deal of caution—perhaps too much caution. I camped outside the jungle and returned one day after the next without any luck. I refused to chase the game far so they could not lead me into a trap. I never ventured into areas where I saw signs of deadly creatures. I survived a long while eating berries and mushrooms I knew to be safe. I found a small stream where I returned every morning for water.

    “One day, while I filled my pouch at the stream, I looked up and saw a wilderhorse. There she stood, just… staring at me. I have never seen a creature so beautiful before. I’ll not even try to describe her. When you see her, you’ll understand. I was bewitched. I must have sat at the stream for an hour, just staring at her, while she stared back at me. I knew, somehow, that the wilderhorse had been watching me for a long time, following me from a distance as I tip-toed around the jungle. Perhaps she expected me to die off quickly. Perhaps she grew tired of suffering my presence. And now she had decided to confront me.

    “Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, the wilderhorse charged me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life. I turned and ran, as any sensible person would do. I dove between narrow trees and dense bushes so that the horse could not follow me. And of course, that nearly killed me. I got stung by a group of poisonous wasps. The wilderhorse left me for dead. And I barely managed to crawl back to my camp before nightfall.

    “It took me days to recover. I went through the last of my supplies and ran out of water. I could have walked in the opposite direction to get more; there was a town less than a mile away. But for some reason, I refused. I couldn’t stop thinking about that wilderhorse. For better or worse, I decided that the wilderhorse would be the creature that I captured from that jungle. I wanted her so badly, I would have died if only to possess her for a few minutes of my miserable life. So I crawled back to the stream. I filled my pouch with water. And I found the wilderhorse staring back at me. Once again, neither of us moved for a long while. But I refused to go away. I knew that if the horse charged me, this time I wouldn’t be able to escape. Silently, I challenged her to try. Then she turned and sauntered away.

    “This continued for days. I slowly regained my strength and scavenged fresh food. And every single morning, I waited at the stream for the wilderhorse. We stared at each other in silence. But those moments of silence were not meaningless. No; even if neither of us moved, even if nothing appeared to happen, we were fighting, the two of us. It was a battle of the wills. And eventually, I conquered. Finally, one day, I approached her.”

    He tugged the reins of the Kresdil.

    “What? Why are we stopping?” cried Vivian.

    “We’re here,” he said, and nodded to the forest on the edge of the savanna. “We should continue on foot.”

    “Oh.” Vivian sounded disappointed. “But I want to hear the rest of the story.”

    “You’ve heard enough to get the idea.” He dismounted, then reached up to help her. “I was foolish. I wanted that horse more than life itself. And eventually, I got her.”

    “I understand now.” She smiled as she fell down towards him. Instead of stepping into the grass, she leaned in close, wrapping her arms around his back. “What you said about greed. It can take many forms. And not all of them are bad.”

    She looked up at him, her blue eyes dazzling, her soft lips crinkling as she bunched them together. Arken’s heart raced, his loins ached, and he feared she became all too aware of this as she pressed herself against him. Now she strained up on her toes to bring their mouths closer.

    He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her away. “Stay here,” he said hoarsely. “Silven won’t come out if you’re in sight. I’ll bring her to you.”

    “Silven?” Vivian giggled. “That’s the horse’s name?”

    He flushed despite himself. When she said it like that, the name sounded silly. “Well, I had to call her something.”

    “Silven. I like it.” She reached out and grabbed his hand. “But I’m coming with you. If she doesn’t come out, she doesn’t come out.”

    He frowned at her. “If you really wish to see a wilderhorse, you’ll do as I say.”

    “Arken, you’ve already proven to be more than I expected. Now give me a chance to prove myself back.”

    He blinked at her with surprise. Then he nodded, and led her onward.

    They walked to the edge of the forest, leaving the Kresdil to roam the grasses behind them. Arken released Vivian’s hand, but still felt her close beside him. To his surprise, he realized he enjoyed her presence. He didn’t know why. He was supposed to be manipulating her, not the other way around. And he wasn’t supposed to enjoy doing it.

    “Stop here.”

    The trees of the forest loomed before them. This forest did not stretch into a full jungle, at least not anymore. If it had been large once, the developments of Krondolee settlers had gradually reduced its size until it transformed into savanna. In any case, it provided a perfect area for Silven to roam while he stayed at the castle.

    He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled.

    Birds scattered from the treetops. Leaves and bramble within the forest shook as animals fled from the shrill noise. Arken wished he had a more graceful method of calling Silven to him. But shouting out her name would have been even more embarrassing. In any case, the wilderhorse would come, or she wouldn’t.

    They waited a long while. Arken thought he saw a shadow move within the forest in the vague shape of Silven. But it was only his imagination. Disappointment sank into his belly. He had really hoped to show the horse to Vivian and prove the truth of his story. Not only so he might “win” her favor. But also because he now desired her respect.

    He sighed with frustration. “I told you. She won’t come out if you’re—”

    “Hush.” Vivian reached out and grabbed his arm. Meanwhile, she stared intently into the trees. “I think I see her,” she whispered.

    Arken froze as he followed her gaze. Indeed, he thought he saw movement, ever so slight. A whispy gray shape forced the shadows to slip around its body. Then, as silently as the breeze, it stepped into the sunlight.

    Just like every time Arken saw her, Silven stole his breath away. She was a very large beast, but not in the same way as the thunderous Kresdil. Silven might equal such a giant horse in height, but her body was slender and lean, her legs long and wiry, always bending or moving in the most elegant of arcs. To describe her color, some might call her gray, but that was why Arken did not even attempt using words to portray her magnificence. The grayness of her short velvety fur was so deep and creamy it resembled blue, like the purest of water. The sloping shape of her body reminded Arken less of a horse than the skinny but lightning-fast hounds used in dog races. And surely enough, she could run faster than any creature in the world, he suspected—faster, even, than the cheetahs that roamed the savanna.

    “Come on, Silven,” he said softly, watching the beast’s pale white eyes fixate on Vivian. “It’s all right. She won’t hurt you.”

    “I don’t think she’s worried I’ll try to ‘hurt’ her,” whispered Vivian. But a wry smile pulled at her lips, and a strange look had entered her bright blue eyes. Then she lifted a hand and took a step forward.

    “Don’t—!” hissed Arken.

    But Vivian ignored him completely. And to Arken’s surprise, Silven did not flee. The wilderhorse watched Vivian approach with a bearing Arken had never seen before. The beast’s slender face, much like a deer’s, wore an expression almost like shock. Her long, tufted ears stood straight up, twisted towards Vivian, and did not flick or turn towards any other sound in the jungle. A breeze blew, pulling at the wilderhorse’s silky mane and tail until they flapped like banners. But the creature’s body remained as still as stone.

    Chas frem, ziri’lee,” said Vivian. “Fenturan ugal devoro.”

    And then something amazing happened. Silven bowed her head, and stepped closer.

    Arken blinked several times, but the sight before him did not change. In fact, it only became more unbelievable. Now Vivian reached out and stroked Silven’s head. The wilderhorse moved even closer, as if relishing Vivian’s touch.

    “What… how did you… ” Arken’s surprise turned suddenly to anger. Vivian made it look so easy. In a matter of minutes, Vivian had made his weeks of endurance and patience seem wasteful and pointless. “What did you say to her?

    Silven snorted and lifted her head, responding to the fury in Arken’s voice.

    Vivian drew back and looked equally disturbed, as if for a moment, she had forgotten Arken’s presence. “Oh, that? It’s just… an old saying I picked up on my travels.”

    “Sure as shit that’s an old saying.” Arken clenched his fists at his sides, but could not hide the fact he was trembling with anger. “What language was that?”

    Suddenly, Silven snorted and stomped her hooves. She turned towards Arken as if towards an enemy. She had the same look in her eyes the first day she chased Arken out of the jungle and nearly got him killed.

    Any sensible man might have run as soon as a wilderhorse got into that stance. But Arken could only stare at her in shock. He couldn’t believe it. After all their years of friendship, Silven would choose to attack him for the sake of some silly young woman?

    Quickly, Vivian stroked Silven’s neck and calmed the horse down again. But Arken didn’t care anymore. The damage had been done.

    A sorrow he thought he’d never feel again wrenched at his guts. He blinked back the tears that threatened to prick his eyes. He clung to his fury, so it might distract him from feeling anything else. His hand moved instinctively to his short-sword. “Who are you?” he yelled at Vivian. “Why have you come here? What is this… game that you’re playing?”

    “Arken… ” Vivian blinked her big eyes, looking hurt. But Arken refused to be fooled by her innocent demeanor. “I think it’s amazing that you have a wilderhorse. I still want to ride her with you.”

    “Ride her alone,” he snarled. “Clearly, you don’t need my assistance!” He turned and started back towards the Kresdil.

    “Arken, wait!” cried Vivian. But he ignored her completely.

    He had been wrong to return to Krondolee, he realized. Wrong to think that he could redeem himself, or even bother trying. Wrong to believe that he could trust anyone or anything in this world, especially a gods-damned wilderhorse.

    He climbed onto the Kresdil and rode for the castle without looking back. He no longer cared if he ever saw Vivian or Silven ever again. In fact, he hoped that he wouldn’t.


    Chapter 5 The Righteous One


    Nadia was in the middle of signing charters when she heard a strange sound.

    “Hello? Someone there?”

    Her small scriptorium was empty, save for the guards near the entrance. She liked to be alone while reading and sorting papers. The room answered her with the soft, hollow sound of a stone room full of parchment.

    Snap! Crack!

    She realized that the sound came from her window, which was several floors high. Suspecting a pesky animal of some sort, she approached carefully, drawing a knife from her belt.

    “Queeeen! Queen Queen Queeeen!”

    The little voice resonating from the ground below, distant and shrill, sounding vaguely familiar. And just as Nadia leaned her head out to look, another pebble nearly struck her in the face. She barely managed to dodge considering that the girth of her pregnancy made it difficult to lean over in the first place.

    Nikolaos! Stop that right now!”

    Nadia recognized both voices now. The second was Selene Perin, and the first had been her little son Nikolaos, whom she soundly scolded.

    When Nadia thought it was safe, she looked back out the window. She saw mother and child wrestling playfully in the grass.

    When Selene saw the queen’s face frowning down at her, however, she quickly scooped the toddler in her arms and held his squirming body tight. “I’m so sorry, Majesty. Ever since he turned three, he has just been a little monster.”

    “Then perhaps you should bring him up here so the queen can teach him a lesson.”

    Nikolaos’s little face stretched wide with shock and fear. Sensing Nadia’s ploy, Selene responded in a deep, grave voice. “Yes. I think that he needs the queen’s justice.”

    Soon enough, Nadia met Nikolaos and Selene in the hallway, where little Nikolaos was somewhat subdued by the rows of armed soldiers. Selene took a breath of relief when the toddler finally grew still and looked around him in a state of quiet awe.

    “I’m sorry we disturbed you, Nadia. I just don’t know what to do with him lately. He’s a little demon.”

    “No matter. The scriptorium was giving me a headache. And I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I’ll have a little demon of my own to contend with!” She put a hand on her belly as she looked down at the three-year-old. Selene put him on the ground, where he remained clutching her skirts.

    “Very soon, I suspect,” said Selene. “You look like you’ll burst any day now!”

    Nadia’s smile wilted. “I hope not that soon. I need all of my wits about me until I’ve dealt with this Vivian Trell.”

    Selene bowed her head. “The timing is terrible. But perhaps you should forget about this key altogether. Let the other nobles fight for it. Stay out of the dog pit and you won’t get bitten.”

    “I wish it were so simple,” Nadia sighed. “I have considered ignoring the key many times. But I can’t afford to take that risk without knowing what the Grand Keep holds. What if it is a divine substance? Like the safra in Dearen? Or the pulch of Demetral? Or something that could be used as a weapon, like Belazar’s vega powder?” She shook her head. “I can’t let something like that fall into someone else’s hands. I just can’t. I have to get to it first.”

    Selene nodded grimly. “I suppose you’re right. So what is your plan?”

    Nadia took a deep breath. “I have invited Vivian to dine with me tonight. And I think the only thing I can do is simply be myself. I will do my best to exemplify honesty, compassion, and pure intentions. If such traits do not win her respect, then she does not deserve mine.”

    Selene smiled warmly. “A plan worthy of your name, Nadia Elborn.”

    A soldier yelped suddenly. Nadia turned to see that little Nikolaos had crept away while Selene was talking and kicked a man’s leg from behind. The soldier grabbed his sword, but found himself helpless against the tiny grinning child.

    “I am Lokke, master of mischief!” cried Nikolaos.

    “Not that again!” groaned Selene. “Ever since his father told him some old stories of Lokke, Nikolaos wants to be the god of guile.”

    “Oh dear. I’ll make sure not to tell Serafina any of those stories.”

    “And that is what makes you so wise, my queen. Now if you’ll excuse me… ”

    Nadia could only shake her head piteously as she watched Selene chase her son down the hallway.

    *

    Nadia found herself unexpectedly nervous about her upcoming dinner. She wanted to be calm and collected, completely assured of her own right to possess the key. She hoped that if she remained secure enough in her position, her confidence would grow contagious. But how could that plan work if she kept worrying that it would not?

    To make matters worse, Vivian arrived late. The food on the table was cold, the candles of the room burning low on their wicks, by the time the young woman walked in with the Wolven. She sat down at the table with little ado and stared in a daze at the grand preparations laid out before her, while Xavier began stuffing his mouth without ceremony.

    Already, this dinner was not going as Nadia had hoped. “Welcome to my table, Vivian,” she said belatedly. “I trust this food is to your liking?”

    “It looks fine,” grumbled Vivian. But she didn’t start eating, and continued staring into space, as if her true mind dwelt in another time and place altogether.

    All the while Xavier grabbed food and gulped it down like a pig at a feeding trough. Apparently, his grace of movement did not extend to table manners.

    “I, uh… ” Nadia cleared her throat. “I trust you’ve been enjoying the Castle of Krondolee so far?”

    Vivian released a big sigh. “Oh, it’s about what I expected. Lots of slippery nobles all competing with each other, sliding around like snakes in a basket.”

    Nadia shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The analogy was terrible. But perhaps she could use such an admission to her advantage. “I am sorry you see it that way. But sometimes, I admit, I feel the same way about our political system. It is unfortunate that the lords are constantly distracted by their own advancement, rather than the welfare of the entire kingdom. Sometimes I wonder if we became a strict monarchy—”

    “No, don’t do that, it wouldn’t be any fun at all.” Vivian lifted a knife suddenly and stabbed a nearby piece of meat with it. Nadia jolted with surprise. But Vivian just brought it to her mouth and ripped off a large bite as if she had done nothing amiss. As she chewed, she said in a whimsical voice, “I am very surprised by Arken Jeridar, though. Not at all what I expected. What can you tell me about him?”

    Nadia blinked rapidly, but that did not help her regain composure. How had everything spiraled so quickly out of her control? “He… he… ” She gulped so loudly, the sound echoed against the walls. “He is a very charming man, I know.”

    “Do you?” Vivian studied her closely. “So why didn’t you marry him?”

    Nadia felt her cheeks burning. But she knew better than to dodge the question. Doing that, she suspected, would only ignite Vivian’s interest. “Because charm is not everything. Charm does not mean a man is fit to wear the crown. I cared for Arken. I still do. But… he is a Jeridar. The great grandson of the god of greed. I feared for the kingdom under his rule. I also worried who might take the throne in my stead if I abandoned it. I don’t feel the need to explain myself further.”

    Vivian just stared at her, quietly, from across the table. Nadia had no idea what the young woman must be thinking. So she found her own thoughts, her own judgments, railing upon her from within. And she found those much harder to contend with than any insults Vivian might have spoken aloud.

    “I’d like to show you something,” burst Nadia, suddenly, desperately. Most of the food on the table remained uneaten. But she couldn’t keep talking about Arken anymore. She refused to. She felt herself unraveling. “You may return here later and eat more if you wish, but I want to show you something first. Something that will help you get to know me.”

    Vivian hesitated, but her eyes sparkled with curiosity. “All right then. Let’s go!”

    Xavier frowned across the table at his master.

    “Oh, you can do as you please, Xavier.” Vivian winked at him. “I’ll call if I need you!”

    Shaking her head at the oddness of the pair, Nadia led Vivian from the room.

    Together they walked through hallways, across bridges, and down staircases, until at last they entered the Elborn courtyard. A few times, Nadia had to stop and rest, placing a hand upon her burdensome belly, but at least they reached their destination. And when they did, even Vivian gave a gasp of surprise.

    “It’s beautiful!” she breathed.

    “It is with great pride that I present to you,” said Nadia, “the Elborn Gardens.”

    Lush green vines and thick bushels of flowers crawled around the pillars and platforms of the courtyard, sprinkling a hundred hues of color over the gray stones of the room. The plants’ aromas flowed thickly through the air, so that as one stepped forward, she might catch the scent of a dozen different flowers with one breath. The scent of so much life and greenery in the middle of a rocky fortress was intoxicating, even to Nadia, who visited almost every day. The beauty of the creamy petals, spiraling vines, and colorful blossoms could dizzy a person with radiance. Vivian seemed on the verge of such exhilaration, herself, as she stumbled deeper into the chamber.

    “Incredible. Amazing. I’ve only seen one man-made garden nearly this beautiful, and that was in Dearen.”

    “Dearen?” Nadia blinked with surprise. “You have been to the Three Kingdoms? You have been to the City of Bliss?”

    “Oh… ” Vivian laughed nervously, as if she had let something slip on accident. “Never mind that. I just meant to say: this is quite a garden you have here.”

    “Yes. It is even more beautiful in daylight, when the sun’s rays pour through the windows and skylight. Unfortunately… you weren’t available for lunch.” The queen smiled reverently as she brushed her fingers over a thorny rosebush. “Gardens like this are the pride of the Elborns. They are why I believe in my family and our ability to nurture this country. All over Darzia, wherever an Elborn lord or lady supervises the land, it flourishes. Crops grow in abundance. Harvests are plentiful. The people do not starve or lack resources. But there are not many of us; less than a dozen in seats of power. And we can only do so much to heal this land from the atrocities constantly striking it.”

    “Atrocities?” asked Vivian, scratching one of her thick blonde curls.

    “Yes. You may not know this, but Darzia was not always covered with so much savanna. Long ago, teeming jungles, green pastures, and lush forests spread nearly everywhere. The savannas only formed when too many men settled on the land and began stripping it of trees and resources, to build cities, or simply to export the unique plants and flowers to other corners of the world. It was human greed that began to reduce the kingdom to large, lifeless swathes of yellow grass.”

    Vivian made a face. “Not entirely. Nature is as much to blame as man. When an elephant goes on a trek across a field it helps make the savanna, as well.”

    “Perhaps. Nevertheless, selfish humans tipped the balance. And where nature once flourished, now it flounders. Groups of people throughout Darzia struggle to feed themselves while their lords fail to cultivate the land, or export too many resources without returning some of their profits to the cycle of life. It is not always from lack of trying. Many great families, like the Feldrens or Grandils, tend their lands with fairness and diligence. But even that is not always enough. Drought, disease, and pestilence can easily overturn their most sincere efforts. Again and again, people fail to maintain balance on this tumultuous kingdom.

    “I believe that this happens because the land and the wildlife are angry with us. They have not forgiven us for our greed and gluttony. So a constant battle rages across Darzia between humans and nature. And so far, only the Elborn family has managed to keep the land happy—to give back to the soil, and help the land flourish. I believe it might be because we descend from Demetral; but we have no proof of that, except our ability to nurture this kingdom.

    “And that, Vivian Trell, is why I wish to obtain the key to the Grand Keep. I have no ulterior motive, except to ensure that the balance of this kingdom is maintained; that my family members and I can continue to cultivate resources across Darzia, so that we can protect the kingdom from those would abuse it, and put food in the hands of the hungry.”

    Vivian just stared at the queen with wide eyes for a long while, saying nothing. Then she lifted her hands and clapped.

    Nadia blinked back with surprise. She didn’t know whether to be offended, or honored. But concerning a woman like Vivian, she feared the former response was most appropriate.

    Soon enough, Vivian confirmed her suspicions. “Great speech. So noble. So righteous. So… humble.” The last word dripped with sarcasm, and with it Vivian abruptly stopped clapping.

    Nadia refused to be daunted. “I cannot afford humility. To remain in power, I must believe in my cause. To doubt it would make me vulnerable to my enemies.”

    Vivian tilted her head sideways, squinting closely at the queen, plump lips pursing with concentration. “No,” she said at last. “I see very little resemblance to Demetral.”

    “Excuse me?” gasped Nadia.

    “You said you might descend from the goddess Demetral. I’m telling you I don’t think that’s true. Or if it is, you are very far removed from her.”

    “But… the plants. And… the… ” Nadia found her mouth flapping helplessly. “How could you possibly know such a thing, anyway?”

    “Well it seems pretty obvious to me. Demetral is the goddess of love, right? And that’s how she is: loving. To a fault, really, but that’s what makes her who she is. She can find goodness in almost anyone and anything. Sometimes her heart gets stretched out in a dozen directions. But she finds a way to keep the love growing, one might say.” Vivian grinned so wide, her teeth seemed to flash in the candlelight.

    “I… I am loving,” gasped Nadia. She grasped her swollen belly, as if clinging to her primary evidence. “I love my kingdom. I love my people. I love my unborn child. And I want to do what’s best for them.”

    “And Arken? Did you love him?”

    Nadia’s throat clenched up. She turned away, finding it difficult to speak, or even breathe. “I wish you would stop asking about him. Our past relationship is none of your concern.”

    “He said the same thing. But you’re both wrong. Because right now, you’re my top two candidates for receiving the key. And to make my decision, I want to know the full story. So out with it. What happened between the two of you?”

    “I already explained that, damn you!” cried Nadia. Unshed tears pricked her eyes; her stomach clenched with sobs. And she didn’t know why, if she had already explained everything. “We… we were going to elope together. We had planned every detail, in secret, because the Royal Duma wanted me to marry Lord Gerald Feldren, and we knew no one else would approve of our union. We were going to run off on my wedding day. But… that morning, I awoke with a clear head. I realized I’d let my emotions get the best of me. I feared that if I ran off with Arken, I would leave the kingdom in chaos. So I went to the Royal Duma. I told them my true intentions. They held a vote. And they determined that if I married anyone other than Gerald, I would not become Queen.”

    So far, Nadia had managed to keep from crying. But Vivian kept prodding at her with those cruel blue eyes. “And what did Arken do, when he found out he wouldn’t become Grand Prince?”

    “He… he… he wanted to marry me anyway.” She couldn’t hold back anymore. Tears streamed down her face. She wept openly. And all the while, Vivian watched with a mixture of pity and disgust.

    “So… ” mused the cruel foreigner. “In the end, against all odds, a Jeridar chose love over power, and an Elborn chose power over love?”

    “Yes… it’s true.” Nadia collapsed onto a leafy bench, unable to hold herself up anymore, releasing her last hold on dignity. “There’s your proof, I suppose,” she groaned. “I must not be a descendent of Demetral after all.”

    Vivian shrugged. “Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you are. Or maybe, greed and love are really not so different from each other.”

    Nadia looked up with surprise. “What?”

    “I said maybe the gods are full of nothing but shit.” Vivian sighed and shook her head sadly. “In any case, you and I have a lot to think about. I’ll leave you to it.”

    So Vivian wandered off, and Nadia could not find the strength to call her back. She felt as if she had lost this battle, and maybe another—one she didn’t even know she was fighting until now.

    “I’m sorry, Arken,” she whispered to the silence of the garden. “I’m so sorry… ”

    She felt the baby stir within her, and though she pressed a calming hand to her stomach, she failed to comfort her little Serafina.


    Chapter 6 Triumph


    Arken nearly packed his things and returned to the plantation as soon as he rode back to the castle.

    But he did not. To leave now would be to admit defeat.

    Despite his urge to leave these accursed politics behind him once more, this time he did not. He had done that before, and he knew what would happen. The bitterness and regret of his failure would continue to eat at him, and nothing he achieved by growing crops would remove it.

    His anger now fueled a new ambition within him. And his mother helped foster it.

    “You are upset,” Tanya observed as she joined him on the balcony. Before them, the houses and streets of Krondolee shone silver in the moonlight, while the savanna beyond cast a bright amber glow.

    “That woman Vivian is more than she appears to be,” growled Arken. “I feel as if she knows something the rest of us do not, and she wishes to toy with us.” He took a frantic gulp of wheat liquor.

    His mother reached over and took the cup from him. Then she drank a sip for herself. “I confess, my son, that when I said you had a way with women, I did not speak the full truth. You have developed such skills out of necessity. For women are also your weakness.”

    “What?” he snapped irritably. She handed what remained of the liquor back to him.

    “Your brother wants money and power, as do I. It is nothing to be ashamed of. For if you have power, then you can acquire everything else. But all too often, you forget this. You aim for much smaller targets. You have made that mistake many times before. And now I fear that you are making it again. And once more, it involves a woman. You want a woman to love and respect you. You always have, my dear.” She reached out and ran a hand through his hair. “Your desire to earn my approval is the most pertinent example.”

    He tensed and pulled away from her grasp.

    The smug smile on Tanya’s lips remained strong. “For that, I am grateful. But you must not let your weakness get the best of you. My son, if you obtain that key and become king, you will have the adoration of every man and woman in the kingdom. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration—some will despise you, inevitably, or wish to replace you—but you will certainly have their respect. True love is a myth, after all. You should know that by now. You thought Nadia loved you. And look what she did to you.”

    Arken turned away, glaring up at the dim stream of stars overhead. But his blood continued to boil in his veins; his hand clenched against the coarse stone wall of the castle.

    “Arken, I suspect that whatever has happened between you and Vivian, you can fix it. You can still obtain the key. You would not be so upset now unless you came very close to obtaining your goal. This time, do not let your emotions for a woman be your downfall. Get the key. And then you will probably be able to obtain anything else you desire. Imagine: even Queen Nadia will come crawling to your feet.”

    He started to imagine it, then shook his head of the temptation. “You speak as if taking the key will make me a king. The two are not one and the same.”

    “Hm.” With a wry little smile, Tanya leaned against the wall next to him, her golden eyes sweeping the nightscape. “Tristan and I have been working on a plan. Once you have the key, everything else will fall into place.”

    “What plan?” His heart surged against his ribcage. He could not help but feel both worried and intrigued both at once. “We don’t even know what’s in the Grand Keep!”

    “In the end, it won’t matter. Once you have the key, we can claim that the Grand Keep contains whatever suits our purpose, and everyone else will believe us. So you must still focus on getting the key. Let us worry about the rest.”

    “Mother, tell me.”

    She regarded him carefully and saw that he would not back down. “It involves the Wolven, Xavier. Like any Wolven, he has a price. And I had to work hard to convince Tristan to help, but your brother is making and selling as many diamonds as he must in order to collect the necessary funds.”

    “Why would you need the Wolven once I have the key?” Arken’s head spun. He suddenly wished he had not drank so much liquor. “The only reason to buy off the Wolven is if you plan to steal the key. And if I obtain it rightfully… ”

    “Oh, it’s merely a safety measure. I realized it would be a good idea when I saw how much power Vivian held over the Royal Duma just by having a Wolven to guard her. Once we have the key, we might need that protection.”

    “Mother. Don’t lie to me!”

    She flinched from the anger in his voice, then scowled fiercely in return. “Do you really want to know? I know how sensitive you can be. You can keep a clean conscience if you don’t know how dirty this game will get.”

    “Too late,” he snarled. “Just tell me! I want to know.”

    “Very well. We’ll hire the Wolven to kill Grand Prince Gerald, and make it look like an accident.”

    Arken heard a ringing in his ears. He clutched the wall for balance. But he kept listening. He had to hear this. He had to stay strong.

    “Believe it or not, a subtle death costs more than a blatant assassination.” She sighed irritably. “Wolvens like to get blood on their hands, apparently. In any case, we’ll arrange something. Once that is done, and you hold the key, the rest will be easy. You are the most obvious candidate to marry Nadia as soon as Gerald is… removed. And we will convince the Royal Duma to name you as King, because you managed to get the key, and Nadia did not. I have been talking to the other House Leaders, feeling them out. And I am certain they will lose all respect for Nadia if she cannot get that key. Your place will be assured, my son. Not only will you be king. But you will have Nadia, once and for all. And your victory will taste all the sweeter for your vengeance.”

    He raked his nails against the wall until they ached with pain. He clenched his teeth until his head hurt. He heard a little voice in his head, ever so quiet, telling him that such a union with Nadia would not be the kind he desired. But he snuffed out such bothersome qualms. Tanya was right. He had set his aim poorly in the past. If he could not win Nadia’s love, he would seize her respect. He would take the crown. And then he would have the adoration of everyone in the kingdom.

    He threw his cup over the balcony and turned to walk away.

    “Arken? Where are you going?” snapped Tanya.

    “I’m going to get that key,” he replied.

    *

    Arken knocked on the door until his knuckles hurt. He didn’t care if he awoke everyone else in the hallway. He just kept knocking harder.

    At long last, the door swung open, and Arken frowned at the face on the other side of it. Dark rings surrounded Xavier’s red eyes; his black hair tangled and criss-crossed around his snarling face. His torso was bare; he wore only a pair of slender trousers to cover his pale, ashen body. But even if Arken saw no apparent weapons, he suspected the Wolven could murder him just as easily with two bare hands.

    “If you knock on that door one more time,” hissed Xavier, “I swear to Belazar—”

    “It’s all right, Xavier.” Vivian appeared behind him, equally disheveled. She blinked through the shadows at their visitor. “Arken! What are you… ?”

    “I want to speak with you.” Arken glared at the Wolven. “Alone.”

    Xavier’s hand twitched, perhaps as he imagined ripping out Arken’s throat. But Vivian seemed intrigued by Arken’s insistence, and her blue eyes dazzled with delight. She shoved the Wolven out of the room. “You heard the man!” she declared.

    Even the graceful assassin stumbled as Vivian pushed him into the hallway, his face full of surprise and fury. “But… I was sleeping!”

    “I’m sure you can find somewhere else to sleep,” said Vivian, and motioned for Arken to enter.

    Arken sneered at Xavier as he stepped into the bedroom. Xavier’s fingers curled into fists; his teeth bared with a snarl. He looked ready to pounce, but Vivian slammed the door shut before he could.

    “You really shouldn’t test him like that!” she said, her breath short and fast.

    Arken looked down at her, letting his eyes explore her freely. She wore only a thin nightgown, and the candlelight revealed every slope and curve of the body beneath. Her curly blonde hair ran in thick spirals around her shoulders and breasts. This time, his gaze lingered on the glittering necklace against her chest. “You’re not afraid of his temper,” he pointed out.

    “Yes, well, he and I have a… special relationship.” She noticed his stare upon her, and her breath quickened even more.

    Arken glanced briefly around the room and noticed only one bed. “Are the two of you… ?”

    “No. Don’t be silly.”

    “Good.”

    She moved closer to him, redness flushing her cheeks. “Arken, I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. I should have told you I had some experience with—”

    He put his hand against her neck, gripped her tightly, and stopped her mouth with a kiss. Her body melted against his.

    When she finally drew away, she was breathless. “I thought… you wanted to speak with me about something.”

    “I lied.” He pressed against her firmly, forcing her across the floor towards the bed. “I see no use for words right now.”

    “Oh.” Her hands clenched against his shirt, and for a moment, he worried she would push him away from her. Instead, she used her grip to wrench him closer. “Fine with me.”

    She wrapped her legs around him, and together they fell in a tangle on the blankets.

    *

    He awoke long before the sun rose, and found himself staring at the darkness outside Vivian’s window. The castle walls surrounded him with deafening silence. He realized that, as king, he would have to spend all his time in the castle. He would miss the sounds of creatures and insects singing in the moonlight. But he would have other things to comfort him, he reminded himself. A soft body beside him, just like this one, warming him every night…

    He shifted in bed to see Vivian wide awake, her blue eyes studying him curiously.

    “What’s wrong, Arken?” She reached out and ran her fingers through his yellow hair.

    He tensed at her touch, but tried not to show it. “Nothing.”

    “Hmm.” She chewed her pink lips with amusement. “I suspect you’re usually a much better liar than you were just now.”

    He frowned and looked away from her, but knew he could not hide the torment writhing within him.

    “What changed?” asked Vivian softly. “Why did you come here to see me tonight? When you left me out there in the savanna, I thought you were finished with me. And to be honest, I was angry enough to feel finished with you, too.”

    He forced himself to hold her gaze. “I knew you could handle yourself. I also know that you are lying about something, or at least hiding something important. No one should be able to seduce a wilderhorse as easily as you did. No ordinary person would come to the Castle of Krondolee and flaunt the key to Grand Keep as casually as you have, either. What changed, you ask? I decided I don’t care about your secrets, or why you’ve decided to play this damn game in the first place. I’ve decided that all I really want now is to win it.”

    For a moment, she stared back at him with shock. He heard a roar in his ears again. His stomach churned with fear. He worried that he had ruined everything. He should have answered more gracefully. He should have given a stirring speech about greed or desire or some such nonsense. But right now, his emotions burned too fiercely to hide them. And he worried that Vivian would see straight through any lies he concocted. So he breathed deeply, twisted the blankets in his fingertips, and anxiously awaited her verdict, whatever it might be.

    At long last, she sighed, and her expression of astonishment shifted to one of sadness. “I confess, this is not how I imagined I’d make my decision. Nor did I expect to make it so swiftly. Then again, if the game wasn’t full of surprises, then I would have no interest in playing it.”

    She sat up and reached behind her neck. Arken watched in awe as she pulled off the necklace with a single graceful sweep of her arms. Then she took his hand, opened it up, and placed the bejeweled key in his palm.

    “Congratulations, Arken Jeridar,” she said softly. “The key to the Grand Keep now belongs to you. I hope that you find whatever you’re looking for.”

    He stared down at the tiny device with wonder. So small, so simple. And yet it seemed to lay in his hand with the weight of a kingdom.

    He stood up and began to get dressed. It didn’t feel right to wear the key just yet, so he slipped the necklace into a pouch at his belt.

    “Really? Just like that?” sighed Vivian. “You sure know how to make a lady feel special.”

    He flushed with anger, finding her sarcasm more harmful than she probably intended. “Xavier won’t kill me as soon as I walk out of here?”

    “Oh, I can’t promise that he won’t kill you, especially if you keep treating him like an ass. But I promise he won’t kill you over the necklace.” With no warning, she reached over to a pile of her belongings on the floor and pulled out the Wolven whistle. She didn’t even bother to clothe herself before blowing it.

    Arken was still hastening to lace up his shirt as Xavier came bolting through the door. His disheveled hair looked like a mane of hackles around his neck and shoulders. His entire body bristled, ready to do murder.

    But Vivian stopped him quickly. “Xavier, the key belongs to Arken now. I gave him my permission to keep it. Understand?”

    Xavier stared long and hard at Arken, red eyes glowing from the shadows. A few times, his gaze flicked from Vivian, naked in bed, back to Arken, and his scowl seemed to deepen. Arken suspected that Vivian had not been completely honest about her relationship with the Wolven, after all.

    For just a moment, Arken feared for his life. Now that he held the power of the key in his hands, he did not want to lose it. But what if he had been too careless? Perhaps he should have stayed with Vivian until sunrise, after all. And maybe he should have been a little more polite to the Wolven. But he had cared too little, too late.

    “You don’t pay me not to kill,” hissed Xavier at last. “I promised Belazar blood.”

    For a moment, even Vivian looked nervous. “Xavier… ”

    “Don’t worry.” Arken smirked back at the Wolven, his confidence returning. “You’ll get your blood soon enough, Xavier. I promise you that.” He settled his silk cloak around his shoulders and started forward.

    Xavier’s hand wrapped around his throat, then thrust him against the wall. As soon as the cold stones slammed the last of Arken’s breath from his chest, Xavier tightened his inhuman grip around Arken’s windpipe and kept him from drawing another. A dry rasp was all that could escape Arken’s throat as his vision began to spin.

    Xavier!” yelled Vivian. “Mordin ata, int gan zubeten.

    The Wolven grunted with anger, then released Arken with a violent fling of his hand. The Wolven turned away as Arken struggled to catch his breath, as if to stare at Arken any longer would test the assassin’s resolve.

    “Arken.” Vivian’s voice remained as harsh now as when she spoke that strange language to the Wolven. “What did you mean, Xavier will get his blood soon? What are you planning?”

    “Stay at the castle a little longer, Vivian,” said Arken hoarsely. He rubbed his tender neck as if to ensure that it hadn’t been broken. “I think you’ll find that the game isn’t over.”

    “Arken!” she cried.

    With a flourish of his cloak, he was gone.

    *

    He should have gone straight to Tanya and Tristan. He looked forward to showing them that he had fulfilled his part of the plan. He anticipated the joy and approval he would see on his mother’s face.

    But somehow, that wasn’t enough.

    You want a woman to love and respect you, she had told him. You always have, my dear. Your desire to earn my approval is the most pertinent example.

    He gripped the key at his side, feeling its sharp teeth bite his skin.

    In the end, it won’t matter. Once you have the key, we can claim that the Grand Keep contains whatever suits our purpose, and everyone else will believe us.

    He imagined the death of Lord Gerald at the hands of the Wolven, and he enjoyed the vision greatly. But wouldn’t it be even better if he could take the crown all on his own? If he did not depend on his family, or a damnable Wolven, to take what belonged to him? And what if he could win back Nadia’s heart in the process?

    He still had some time before dawn. And now that he held the key in his hands, he didn’t want to wait any longer. He wanted to see what precious item lurked in the dark stones of the Grand Keep. Whatever treasure it contained would be his, and his alone. He wanted to enjoy that before he let Tanya and Tristan taint his victory with their own machinations.

    So he took hold of a chinder torch and made his way to the Grand Keep.

    He stood before the large, metal door a long while without moving. He found it difficult to breathe, and he did not think the aching bruise on his neck was the only reason. He watched the colorful flames of the chinder torch shift in the door’s reflection, and wondered what could possibly be so important that someone locked it away for hundreds of years. Could it be a trap of some kind? If he died as soon as the door opened, would he deserve it? Or what if it held some item of unspeakable power? Could he trust himself to wield that power wisely? Or would the curse of his namesake get the best of him?

    He forced a long, deep breath through his weary throat. There was only one way to find the answer to his questions. He pushed the key into the lock and turned it.

    Click.

    His heart skipped a beat. The sound was so soft, so simple. Yet as soon as the lock released, he felt the steel shift under his hands.

    He pushed with all of his might, and the door to the Grand Keep swung open.

    A dark cave yawned before him. He waved the torch around, hoping to spread the light far enough that he would not have to step inside. But only sheer blackness rewarded his efforts.

    Finally, he stepped through the entrance.

    Once again, he saw only shadows. He waved the torch further. For a moment, he thought he glimpsed a silvery shape, but further inspection revealed just a cobweb. He took another step.

    Eventually, he worked up the courage to explore the entire keep. He walked from one end to the other, sweeping the torch over every which way, examining every stone and cobweb in the gods-forsaken cavern. But no matter where he looked, he found nothing.

    The Grand Keep of Castle Krondolee was completely and utterly empty.


    Chapter 7 Life and Death


    Before she heard the rumors, Queen Nadia sensed the truth.

    Vivian Trell no longer wore the necklace around her neck, people whispered. The key was gone. But no one knew its whereabouts. Vivian would not name the lucky winner, and whoever possessed it had not yet come forward. Many people suspected that Queen Nadia procured the key after eating dinner with Vivian; after all, the timing made sense.

    Nadia knew the truth. She did not have the key. But she had a very strong suspicion of who did.

    So if Arken had the key, why had he not yet come forward?

    She spent a large amount of the day pacing in her room, or rocking angrily in a chair when her ankles began to hurt. She tried to come up with a plan to counter-act whatever the Jeridars would have in store for her. She sent guards to watch the Grand Keep and alert her as soon as it opened. But as far as they knew, it remained shut all morning.

    Wouldn’t the Jeridars try to enter the Grand Keep as soon as the key came into their clutches? Vivian didn’t understand. How could she prepare for the worst when she had no idea what that might be?

    Nadia considered calling together an emergency meeting of the Royal Duma. But she feared that tempers would be too heated, and she had little doubt that the Jeridars would use the chaos of a frenzied Duma to turn the tables against her.

    Instead, she called some of her most trusted Houses to meet near her chambers. To avoid drawing too much attention, she did not just invite the House Leaders, but their entire families. This would make the meeting seem more like a social gathering than a formal assembly.

    Among those who joined her in the Upper Balconies for breakfast were the Perins, the Feldrens, and the Grandils. Slowly, carefully, Nadia drew in the House Leaders for a more intimate discussion. But Selene stood close by her husband Williard, House Leader of the Perins, and the elderly House Leader Grandil kept his teenaged granddaughter close by his side.

    When Nadia shot the young girl a curious glance, House Leader Grandil said proudly, “This is my son’s daughter, Belatrix. I need a young pair of ears with me because I’m a little hard of hearing these days. I assure you, Belatrix can be trusted with the most sensitive of information.”

    “If you say so, Lord Grandil, then I believe you,” said Nadia. In fact, she believed it just by staring into the teenager’s eyes. Though she couldn’t be much older than thirteen or fourteen, Belatrix’s dark eyes suggested wisdom beyond her years. She possessed some of her family’s most outlandish physical traits: dark skin, light brown eyes, and thick red hair. But far more captivating was her small but muscular frame, accented by a lovely but stern face. The young woman exemplified a rare combination of beauty and strength working harmoniously together. A Grandil daughter, indeed.

    “In that case,” Nadia continued, “I’ll get straight to the point. You must all suspect why I called you for ‘breakfast.’ I hear that the key to the Grand Keep has vanished. Vivian Trell admits she gave it away. Many people suspect she gave it to me at dinner last night. I see no reason to deny such rumors publicly; the longer people believe that, the better. But I will admit to those of you here now that the key is not in my possession. I strongly suspect that the Jeridars have the key.”

    A solemn silence followed the queen’s confession. House Leader Grandil tapped Belatrix’s shoulder, who then whispered in the old man’s ear. Afterwards, he just shook his head until his long white braids rattled around his shoulders.

    “This cannot be,” said the honored elder.

    “I feel the same way,” said Nadia with a weary sigh. “For the Jeridars to possess the key presents the worst possible scenario. But it is one we must prepare for—”

    “No, I mean it cannot be,” insisted House Leader Grandil. His shaky hand tapped his granddaughter’s shoulder once more. “Tell them, Belatrix!”

    She nodded, then fixed Nadia with a fierce brown stare. Even the queen felt intimidated by the intensity of the young girl’s gaze. “What my grandfather means is: you are wrong. I often visit the Jeridars to look after Tristan’s toddler son, Kallias. I looked after him all of last night because Tristan claimed he had work to do. This morning, I heard Tristan and his mother Tanya arguing about the fact that they didn’t have the key yet. They heard the same rumors you did and became very upset. So you must be mistaken.”

    “I see,” said Nadia. But now, she felt annoyed by the girl’s indignant tone. She also found it harder to deny the apparent truth. Perhaps Arken had the key, but had not yet shared it with his family. In that case, what could he possibly plan to do with it?

    “I find it suspicious that Tristan Jeridar had ‘work’ to do,” scoffed Selene Perin.

    Nadia appreciated her friend’s graceful intervention, for the queen found herself at a loss. She was supposed to have all the answers. Why did she grow so easily confused as soon as Arken became a part of the problem?

    Gerald’s calm, resonant voice filled the silence. “All we can do from here is speculate,” said the Grand Prince. “I see little reason to entertain theories without solid proof. So with the approval all the House Leaders we can gather, I think the queen should seize the Jeridars for questioning. She has every right to do this if she fears for the kingdom’s safety. And until we know what the Grand Keep contains, we must assume that its contents could be dangerous. This situation merits extreme measures. Don’t you agree, Nadia?”

    Nadia continued to stare off in a daze, her concentration shattered. She hadn’t slept much last night. Vivian’s cruel words kept echoing in her ears, over and over and over again. So, in the end, against all odds, a Jeridar chose love over power, and an Elborn chose power over love? Or maybe, greed and love are really not so different from each other.

    “Nadia?” said her husband. “Are you well?”

    A gentle hand reached out and gripped Nadia’s shoulder. It was Selene’s. “Um… maybe you won’t have to seize the Jeridars for questioning, after all, Majesty.” Her grip tightened with urgency.

    Nadia looked up at her friend with surprise. Selene nodded across the balcony.

    Nadia followed her gaze to an adjacent bridge that stretched between towers. Upon it stood Arken Jeridar, his silken robes gleaming in the morning light, his golden eyes fixing her from afar.

    *

    If Arken wanted to avoid the queen, he could have easily outpaced her slow, waddling footsteps. But if that had been his intention, he would not have wandered up to the Upper Balconies and waited for her to notice him. So she tried not to rush as she dragged her swollen body out to meet him, and he remained in place, waiting patiently.

    Even from a distance, she sensed that something about him was unusual. When she came close enough, she quickly discerned what. The Man of Silk was disheveled, his yellow hair tangled, his pale skin stained with dirt, his eyelids sagging. She suspected he had gotten even less sleep than she did.

    “You look terrible,” she greeted him.

    He smiled wearily back at her. “I wish I could say the same about you, my Queen. But even in your condition, you remain somehow… radiant.”

    She could not take his words as a compliment when he said them so bitterly. She leaned on the railing next to him, out of necessity, and released a heavy sigh. Her regret filled her up so completely, she worried that it would spill out even sooner than her unborn child. So she took what control of it she could muster. “Arken, I wanted to tell you I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened between us. And I think I owe you—”

    “Don’t. I already told you. I don’t wish to hear it.” This time, however, his tone carried more sadness than anger. And without further ado, he reached into a pouch against his belt and pulled out the necklace.

    Nadia gasped with surprise as the key to the Grand Keep sparkled before her.

    “I obtained the key with Vivian’s permission,” said Arken. “You need not worry about that. And yes, my family had an elaborate scheme as to what I should do with it. I nearly gave in to them. But I can assure you that if you hate me now, you would hate me ten times more if I did what they wanted. And despite everything… even when I want you to experience the pain that I’ve suffered… I do not think I could bear for you to hate me.”

    “Arken… ” Nadia’s whole body trembled. “I could never… ”

    “Don’t, Nadia. Just… don’t.” He shook his head sharply, then sighed and looked out at the horizon. “I have tried to find other ambitions. I am young. Mother tells me the world is mine for the taking. But most of the world doesn’t interest me. I like the idea of ruling the kingdom, just as any man would. I especially like the idea of ruling alongside you. But all of that would mean nothing to me if you did not believe I deserved it—if you saw me as no more than a power-grabbing Jeridar. If you did not believe that my feelings for you could root more deeply than that.”

    She resisted the urge to speak again as he took her hand, peeled her fingers open, and held the necklace over her waiting palm.

    “The necklace is yours if you’ll only say one thing to me, Nadia. Say it and mean it.”

    “Say what?” she asked breathlessly.

    His voice hardened, deepened with need. “Admit you were wrong about me. Tell me you made a mistake. That is all I want to hear from you. And then the key is yours.”

    She nodded weakly, desperately. She knew she needed to say the words, even if he hadn’t requested them. Tears spilled down her cheeks as evidence of her guilt. “I was wrong about you, Arken. We would have ruled well together. And when I chose Gerald instead of you, I made the wrong decision. I know that now. But it is too late to change what happened. And we must both live with the consequences.”

    His hand tightened against hers. He took a quick, rasping breath. Then, as he dropped the necklace into her hand, he leaned over to brush his lips against her cheek. “Must we?”

    He pushed her fingers over the key, until its sharp teeth raked her fingers. Then he turned and walked away.

    *

    Nadia fell into a daze. When she walked back to her guests, she could not find the strength to explain herself. She could only say, “We need not worry anymore. I have the key now.”

    They surrounded her with questions, but she could not answer. She fell into a chair, clutching her aching head. “Thank you all for coming,” she groaned. “But now you must go.”

    Must we?

    They fussed. They lingered. They asked questions. She couldn’t even ignore them; that would require some effort. She simply couldn’t pay attention to them. Fortunately, Gerald helped persuade them to leave. Only Selene remained; perhaps little Nikolaos still ran in circles around his mother’s skirts, Nadia wasn’t sure. She felt a sharp pain seizing her midriff. She leaned back and watched the clouds spinning above her. At least they seemed to be spinning.

    She cried out suddenly. She felt as if the gods reached down from the heavens, gripped her body with a hand on each end, and wrenched her in opposite directions.

    “The baby is coming,” someone said. “We must take her inside.”

    Selene helped Nadia to her feet. Wetness trickled down her legs. Gerald stood on the other side, his eyes wide with shock. Could the man of perfect balance feel surprise, or fear?

    To her own puzzlement, she found herself smiling with a confidence she did not feel. “Don’t worry, Gerald. No matter what happens, Serafina will be fine. Of this, I am certain.”

    Her strength went out of her, and she gave in to the support of her companions. For once, she appreciated the stability of Gerald’s composure as he guided her to her chambers.

    Seconds and minutes stretched into what felt like hours of agony, one after another. Nadia eventually collapsed in her bed and succumbed to the contractions searing through her. She writhed in the blankets, yelled, and cursed. Selene brought in a midwife and then offered her moral support. She wiped cool water over Nadia’s brow in moments of stillness, and offered a hand for Nadia to grip and twist in moments of agony.

    Eventually, Gerald left the women alone, muttering that he needed to assure the other House Leaders that Queen Nadia now possessed the key. At one point, he reached to take it from Nadia. But even through a haze of pain, she yanked it from his grasp and flung it around her neck.

    “Tell the House Leaders whatever you want,” she hissed. Selene winced as Nadia twisted her hand every which way. “But we don’t open the Grand Keep until I say so!

    “Very well, Nadia.” Gerald bobbed his head in submission, then attempted a quick pat on Nadia’s leg. “I’ll be back soon. May the Guardian be with you.”

    If he tried to say anything else, his words quickly became lost in another scream ripping from Nadia’s throat.

    The day wore on, and Nadia wondered if the pain would ever stop. She found herself mumbling to Selene as the kind maid brushed another rag over her face.

    “I hoped… childbirth… might be easy… for me.”

    Selene snorted. “Easy! I doubt bearing a child is ever easy, even for Demetral herself. But trust me, Nadia, this childbirth is going more smoothly than most. Your contractions are coming so quickly, the baby should come out any moment!”

    Nadia screamed as a contraction seized her more fiercely than all the ones before it, confirming Selene’s suspicions. The queen’s nails dug into the bed, the midwife reached between her legs, and inch by inch, push by push, the baby began to slip out of her.

    She tried to concentrate on breathing and pushing, though distracted by the fear that her body would rip in half as she forced the newborn from her womb. She tried not to let the pain overwhelm her, to sweep her away from the miracle of Serafina’s creation.

    At long last, the baby’s cry echoed through the room, and Nadia collapsed back on the blankets.

    “It’s a girl!” announced the midwife.

    Nadia wept tears of joy and exhaustion as she received the wet, squirming bundle into her arms.

    “Just as you suspected,” said Selene, running her fingers through the queen’s sweat-ridden hair.

    “My little Serafina,” whispered Nadia. And she knew without a doubt that the tiny infant in her arms would grow up to be the most magnificent woman in Darzia.

    “I will fetch Grand Prince Gerald,” said Selene. She leaned down and kissed Nadia’s forehead before rising to go. “Congratulations, Queen Nadia.”

    Even though the key to the Grand Keep remained nestled against Nadia’s chest, she forgot its existence. Suddenly, nothing on earth mattered more than the life she had created. And she suspected that no matter what else she accomplished as queen of Darzia, Serafina would remain her greatest achievement.

    *

    Nadia waited a long while for Selene to return. The midwife remained to nurture the mother and child. A host of guards stayed outside the room, as always. Nadia lost track of time as she sat and stared down at her baby. Briefly, she wondered what Gerald would think of their child. Despite all her frustration towards Gerald, Nadia knew that Serafina would never have existed if not for their union. Perhaps even Gerald would find awe in that concept.

    Eventually, she began to wonder why Gerald had not yet arrived with Selene. Would Gerald really think that consoling the House Leaders took precedence over his newborn daughter? To make matters worse, she heard the echoes of shouting through her chamber window. When she looked outside, she also realized that the sun was setting. Somehow, today seemed like the shortest and longest she had ever experienced, both at once.

    “I think something’s wrong,” she finally said to the midwife. “Will you check outside?”

    But as soon as the midwife made for the door, Selene stumbled inside, her face as pale as the moonlight. She just stood there a moment, staring at the queen, her mouth agape, but forming no words.

    “Selene? Selene, what’s wrong?”

    “Gerald. He’s… he’s… ” Selene covered her mouth, but failed to hold back the truth. “He’s dead.”

    Nadia’s arm tightened around her baby. Serafina wailed with her mother’s dismay.

    “I… I… ” She felt dizzy. Any strength she had regained since birthing the baby seemed to dissipate all over again. “I don’t understand. How?”

    “He… he fell from a balcony. Even the guards don’t understand what happened, except that he must have tripped. One minute he was walking along one of the bridges. And the next… ” She shuddered as her own sobs overcame her. “Nadia. I’m so sorry.”

    Nadia didn’t know what to say, what to think. For this to happen now… in her current emotional state, she simply couldn’t accept it. “Help me up. Take me to him.”

    “Nadia… the castle is in an uproar. You still need your rest… ”

    Nadia flung off the blankets and began to rise, even though her whole body trembled and Serafina continued to scream with dread. Seeing that the queen would not be deterred, Selene rushed forward and took the baby from Nadia’s arms.

    “Where is he?” Nadia demanded.

    “His… his body… ” Selene gulped desperately as if to clear a lump from her throat. “His body is far below. At the bottom of the Elborn tower.”

    Nadia tried to take a step forward and nearly fell. The midwife came forward to catch her. Nadia clutched the woman for support as she willed strength back into her body. Her hips and thighs still ached as if they had been wrung like a wet rag all day—a comparison not far from the truth. “I just… I need a moment to compose myself. Bring me my blue cloak from the dressing room.”

    “Very well.” Selene looked down at the baby, calming in her arms, then back at the trembling queen. “Would you like me to take Serafina with me?”

    “I suppose you should,” Nadia conceded, even though she didn’t want the baby to leave her sight for a moment. Right now, she could not even stand without the midwife’s help, much less hold a newborn.

    “I’ll return before you know it.” Selene hurried through the side door, taking Serafina with her.

    While Nadia waited, she tried to make sense of the tumultuous thoughts spinning through her mind. She needed to see Gerald’s dead body in order to know—to accept—that he could really be dead, today, now. She didn’t understand how it was possible. How could he trip and fall from any of the wide bridges or walled balconies of Castle Krondolee, which he walked every day? No one had fallen from a Krondolee balcony in all of her lifetime. And for Gerald to trip, of all people—a man who walked with perfect balance and utmost care…

    When I chose Gerald instead of you, Nadia had told Arken, I made the wrong decision. I know that now. But it is too late to change what happened. And we must both live with the consequences.

    Must we? Arken replied.

    Must we?

    She tried to take another step forward, but would have stumbled again if not for the midwife.

    Yes, my family had an elaborate scheme as to what I should do with the key, Arken had said. I nearly gave in to them. But I can assure you that if you hate me now, you would hate me ten times more if I did what they wanted.

    “The Jeridars,” gasped Nadia. Her heart nearly stopped in her chest. Had she been wrong about Arken after all? Or had his family acted without him?

    Strange sounds reverberated through the main door: the ringing of swords leaving their sheathes, faint grunts of exertion, and thumps like falling bodies. She clutched the midwife so tightly, she would surely give the woman a bruise.

    “What’s going on? Did you hear that?”

    The midwife could only stare at the door with her mouth gaping wide, rings of white surrounding her irises. It was the last expression she would ever wear. For as soon as the door swung open, a knife seemed to sprout from the midwife’s neck and she dropped to the floor.

    A dark shape stepped forward. The Wolven had tossed his cloak to reveal a slender body covered with dozens of leather straps to hold as many glittering knives. He twirled one such knife as he stepped forward, his red eyes flashing in the candlelight and fixing upon the key.

    “Vivian did not give you permission,” he hissed. And then he leapt towards her.


    Chapter 8 Traitor


    As soon as Arken learned of Gerald’s death, he rushed back to the Jeridar tower. He found both his mother and brother waiting for him in his chambers.

    “Oh, look at that!” Tristan sat sprawled across an armchair, his diamond tunic casting rainbows across the entire room. “We look for a man all day, and as soon as we don’t need him anymore, he appears before us!”

    Arken did not know what angered him more: the smug smirk on Tristan’s face, or the irritated scowl on Tanya’s. But in truth, what probably angered him most was his own state of emotional confusion. “So… you killed Gerald.” He didn’t know what else to say to them.

    “Yes,” said Tanya. “Even though you nearly ruined the plan.”

    “I… I panicked.” Arken ran a hand through his tangled hair. He wished he had taken the time to clean himself up today, rather than wasting most of his time pacing around the castle and trying to determine his next move. “When I acquired the key, I could not resist. I went to the Grand Keep and opened it. And much to my surprise, it was empty!

    “What?” Tristan’s fat cheeks dropped into a frown. “Empty? After everything we’ve done to—”

    Tanya silenced her son with a flick of her long fingers. Her gaze remained burning on Arken. “I told you, it didn’t matter what the Grand Keep contained. You should have brought the key straight to me.”

    “Yes, but… ” Arken shook his head helplessly. “It all felt so useless. I figured it would only be a matter of time before the rest of the Royal Duma learned the truth. And once that happened, we would lose all our leverage. I thought it would be wiser to win the queen’s regard. If I could do that… ” He cleared his throat. “The reward would be much greater. And in the meantime, she would take the fall for the empty Grand Keep. So I gave her the—”

    “You asked me not to lie to you,” hissed Tanya, “yet you stand there and lie through your teeth. You gave Nadia the key because, as always, you could not restrain your feelings for her. You avoided us because you knew we would not approve of your decision, even if we knew about the Grand Keep. And you also avoided us so that you could convince yourself you had no part in arranging Gerald’s death. We would do the dirty work while you walked around the castle and played the part of a selfless hero. In that case, Arken, congratulations.” Her hand pulled frantically at her own hair, her agitation so strong that she could not keep it still. “Gerald is dead, and your hands are clean of his blood. But I think you will soon discover that betraying your family makes you filthier than the Wolven himself. And your illusion of innocence will shatter a thousand times over.”

    Betraying… ?” Arken shook his head. “Mother, don’t exaggerate. Your plan can still work. Nadia respects me because I gave her the key. I hoped that we could avoid killing Gerald, but now that he’s dead, the rest will be simple. I can still marry Nadia. I may do so as Grand Prince, but Nadia will respect my council, and we can all—”

    “You fool!” Tanya swept forward, her arms thrashing against her sides. Her teeth seemed to snap at Arken’s face as she yelled at him. “You will never be Grand Prince! And you most certainly won’t become King! I already had my doubts about you. But now, I am quite certain: you are not worthy to wear the crown of Darzia, especially with the Jeridar name. If we succeed, your brother will become King of Darzia.”

    Shocked, Arken’s gaze turned slowly to his brother, still wearing that damnable smirk upon his pudgy cheeks. “But… Tristan? You can’t be serious. He is far too incompetent! And he is already married, to some penniless field-hand… ” He shook his head frantically, unable to make sense of anything anymore.

    “Tell me how you really feel, brother.” Tristan pushed himself up with a grunt of exertion. Then he swaggered closer, his round shape glowing with pink light as the sun set through the windows behind him. “You’re right. I am already married; I even have a son and heir. We won’t need Nadia Elborn. And you already gave us a way to dispose of her.”

    “Dispose… ?” Arken staggered backwards, but could not rip his eyes away from the vicious sneers on his family’s faces.

    “Xavier already swore to kill anyone who possessed the key without Vivian’s permission,” said Tanya. “We did not even have to pay him when we learned what you had done; only make sure he knew about it.”

    “No… no! What have you done?”

    “You did this, Arken,” sneered Tanya. “Her blood is on your hands.”

    The world seemed to rock around him; he could barely see straight, much less keep his balance. But he had to try anyway. He had to get out of here and stop this from happening. He stumbled towards the doorway, grabbing his short-sword as he went.

    Tristan followed him into the hallway. “You can’t stop a Wolven, Arken!” cried Tristan. “He’ll kill you!”

    Arken didn’t care anymore. If he lost Nadia, he had nothing else to live for, anyway. He kept going, gradually finding his bearings. He put his hand against the wall as he continued pushing forward.

    “I won’t let you interfere again!” screeched Tanya. “Guards! Stop him! He plans to kill the queen!”

    “I… what?” Arken glanced back to see a group of armed soldiers turning towards him. “No! I—”

    The guards had already drawn their swords, and judging by the looks on their faces, they would listen to none of his pleas. Even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t let him anywhere near the queen.

    He turned and took off running at full speed.

    *

    Once again, he wished he had taken some opportunity during the day to rest and regain his senses. Instead, he functioned on a lack of sleep and food, while his mind felt in shambles. He stumbled on in a daze, depending on habit and muscle memory to lead him to the Elborn tower. All the while, the guards ran fiercely behind him.

    He waited until he entered a narrow stairway spiraling upward. He realized this would be his best—perhaps only—chance to fight the guards and survive. They would not be able to surround him, nor fight more than two at a time. The windows were small and scarce enough they would not be able to surprise him with arrows. There were five soldiers in all. And though they no doubt practiced their sword skills on a more regular basis than he, they were probably unfamiliar with his style of fighting. Arken had always preferred the short-sword, or baselard, as a weapon for its speed and dexterity. He also tended to gain the upper hand when sparring thanks to its element of surprise. The uniqueness of his weapon would be his primary advantage in a situation like this one.

    Location would be next-most important. He found a tight spot in the stone stairway and turned to face the guards on his heels.

    Once more, he tried to appeal to them. “The queen is in danger, and I wish to help her.”

    “Leave that to the Royal Guard, Jeridar,” said the soldier in front. “Put down your weapon and come back with us.”

    Arken saw no other choice. He began to lower his short-sword…

    And as soon as the soldier stepped forward, Arken stabbed him through the gut.

    The shock and anger of the guards further back worked to Arken’s advantage. They surged forward, eager for vengeance. If they had been inclined towards mercy before, now they hungered for Arken’s blood. The two in front nearly stumbled over the body of their companion, then found themselves crammed together between the walls as they tried to attack Arken simultaneously.

    The two soldiers remained in an awkward position, but defeating them would still prove a challenge. After all, they wielded two broad-swords against Arken’s short blade. Two swords would normally be better than one. Unless Arken could turn them against each other…

    He held his ground, assuming a defensive stance while he considered how to defeat them. But the longer he delayed, the more time he gave the soldiers to form a plan on their own. They swung a few attacks, feeling out his strength with the weapon. He dodged and parried, trying not to reveal any weaknesses. Then he noticed the two guards behind his opponents turning to run the opposite direction.

    Damn. The soldiers weren’t stupid; they had already figured out they could turn Arken’s advantage to their own if they cornered him from the opposite direction. These two soldiers only needed to occupy him long enough for the others to find a way around. They might even call for reinforcements on the way. Then they could squash him like an ant between their fingers. But if he ran now, back to open ground, he would no longer stand a chance against them.

    He had no more time to dally. He knew how long it would take the soldiers to find an alternate route up the tower, and he would have to kill these two in less time than that. So he surged forward in a sudden flurry of thrusts and swipes.

    As he hoped, the swordsmen were not certain how to fight against his short-blade. It moved more quickly than a typical sword, and could swipe at them from a variety of strange directions. Soon enough, they were swinging and stabbing back in a nonsensical frenzy. And then Arken made his move.

    He sliced his blade right between them, and both men tried to parry at once. Their broadswords clanged together in a shower of sparks, and while they were staggering from the impact, Arken slashed his blade across their throats.

    As he watched them fall in a puddle of blood, his stomach turned. Before today, he had only killed humans on one occasion: when a group of bandits attacked his plantation. Like now, he had acted in self-defense; if he had not killed them, they would have killed him instead. But even then, their deaths had weighed on his conscience. He wondered if the bandits only attacked in order to feed themselves; perhaps they fought for survival just as surely as he did.

    Now, watching members of the Royal Guard fall at his feet, Arken’s guilt slammed his chest like a pile of rocks. These same men would have given their lives for the queen’s protection; in fact, they probably died believing they did. Maybe they truly had. After all, if not for Arken, Nadia would not be in danger to begin with. And now, what could he possibly do to save her? If he struggled to fight off five guardsmen, the Wolven would probably kill him before he managed to draw his short-sword. He didn’t stand a chance.

    But he had no other choice. Ever since he returned to Castle Krondolee, he had hoped somehow to redeem himself, to win back the confidence and self-respect that Nadia took away from him. Instead, he had only plunged the castle into chaos. Nothing had gone as he intended. Now, he would be completely and utterly ruined. Not only had he betrayed his family, but he had set the assassin’s sights on the only person in Krondolee he still wished to protect. His blade dripped with the blood of the Royal Guard. Everyone in Krondolee would see him as an enemy. And perhaps they would be right to do so.

    That didn’t matter anymore. It was too late to redeem himself in the eyes of anyone else. He could not even believe in himself anymore. Not unless he kept going. Not unless he proved that he would do anything to protect the one person he still loved.

    He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Mallion, be with me.”

    He had never thought so highly of the deity that sired him as his mother. But he accepted that the god was a part of him, whether he wanted divine blood in his veins or not. His unique skill would not help him so much right now as a Wolven’s: he certainly wouldn’t save Nadia by magically creating silk. But he still had a strong link to a god that most mortals did not possess, and that had to count for something. Mallion might still choose to ignore him. But Arken knew that nothing moved the god of greed so much as desire. And right now, his heart ached with so much need that Mallion would have to take notice.

    Surely enough, Arken felt a surge of strength through his limbs. His head cleared of all the doubts and irksome guilt that had nearly overwhelmed him a moment ago. All of his exhaustion, physical pain, and mental confusion fell away so that only one thing remained: the need to reach Nadia before Xavier.

    He lifted his sword, turned from the fallen guards, and resumed running up the tower.

    To his luck, he exited the stairway just before the two remaining guards could trap him inside. He met them on a bridge stretching between towers. Here, the soldiers would be able to surround him more easily. But they would still need to maneuver carefully to make that happen.

    Night had fallen upon the castle. Arken strained to study his opponents through the faint flickering of chinder torches on either side of the bridge. The soldier on the left looked frazzled and angry; without a doubt, Arken would try to take him out first. The other seemed vaguely familiar, and after a moment, Arken realized why.

    The man had dark brown skin, a thick muscular body, and short red hair beneath his helm. His brown eyes stared steadily at Arken through the moonlight.

    “Cristoff Grandil,” said Arken. Cristoff was the son of House Leader Grandil, one of the most respected members of the Royal Duma. “You are making a big mistake. Queen Nadia is in danger, and I wish to help her. I might be the only one who can.”

    Cristoff studied him a moment longer, then shook his head briskly. “I don’t believe you, Arken. I don’t believe your mother, either. Perhaps you don’t plan to harm the queen. But I don’t trust a single word from a Jeridar’s mouth, so I’m not going to risk it. All I know is that Grand Prince Gerald is dead, and I find it hard to believe his death came by accident. If you truly wish to proceed, you will surrender your weapon and tell me everything you know.”

    For a moment, Arken considered. Perhaps he would stand a better chance against the Wolven if he could convince someone like Cristoff to help him. But he didn’t have time. And even if he did, he no longer possessed the patience.

    He lunged forward and swung at Cristoff with all of his might.

    Cristoff blocked his attack easily. But Arken had expected this. He also knew that as soon as he attacked Cristoff, the less experienced soldier would try to move behind him. Arken continued to fling attacks at Cristoff, forcing the larger warrior to stay on the defensive, while the younger guard attempted to flank him.

    Arken waited for his moment. Then he jumped back, crouched down, and swept the soldier’s feet out from under him. As the guard lost his balance, Arken pushed back up with all of his might, and rammed the fellow’s chest with his shoulder.

    The guard yelled with surprise, then fell toppling from the balcony to the ground far below.

    Cristoff watched with a brief gasp of shock, but as soon as Arken tried to take advantage of his surprise, Cristoff struck back. Arken shifted to deflect the tremendous sword swinging towards him, but he could not redirect the strength behind the strike completely. He felt a jolt of pain through his arms, and though he grit his teeth against it, his hands lost their grip on the baselard. It clattered onto the floor as he tried to dodge the blade speeding towards him.

    He moved back in time to keep Cristoff’s sword from slicing him in half. But the tip of the weapon slashed across his torso, cutting a deep gash through his stomach and chest.

    Arken fell forward onto his hands and knees, curling over the wound as he watched the blood pool beneath them. He felt a moment of numbness before the pain struck all his nerves like a whiplash, and he cried out with agony.

    He watched Cristoff’s feet settle next to him, sinking into a rock-steady stance as he lifted his sword above him. He planned to deliver the fatal blow swiftly, before Arken had a chance to recover.

    One small factor saved Arken’s life: Cristoff assumed he had wounded Arken more deeply than he actually had. Arken recovered more quickly than Cristoff anticipated—quickly enough to watch the reflection of Cristoff’s sword in his shinguard and wait for the right moment to dodge it.

    He dropped and rolled just before Cristoff could hack him apart. He retrieved his short-sword as Cristoff’s heavy blade slammed against stone. Then he stood in plenty of time to stab the Grandil warrior in the stomach. He could not stab directly through the chest, thanks to the warrior’s armor. But Arken angled his blow upward, aiming for Cristoff’s heart.

    His efforts paid off. He waited to make sure that the large man would not recover. Then Cristoff fell forward with a wet sigh, slipping from the tip of Arken’s blade.

    Arken took a moment to regain his breath. Briefly he recalled that Cristoff had a wife and daughter. He had been one of the noblest members of the Royal Guard. But Arken could not afford to dwell on that now. He flung the blood from his sword and kept moving.

    No one else opposed him as he neared the Elborn tower. Anyone who might have done so was already dead. Arken found himself wading through a river of blood. But these men and women had not died at his hand. Most of them exhibited small puncture wounds or slices near their throats or chests. A few still had knives sticking from their flesh.

    Xavier.

    Arken saw the queen’s chambers ahead, across another trail of dead bodies. Xavier had given Belazar more than enough blood, Arken suspected. And all because Arken had tested the Wolven’s temper.

    He saw the door to the queen’s chamber hanging open, and another stream of blood trickled out of it.

    “No. No… ”

    Arken staggered onward, pushing through the corpses, his vision constricting until nothing seemed to exist but for a narrow tunnel leading to Nadia’s dead body.

    “NADIA!”

    He fell at her side. He lifted her torso from the floor and clutched her body to him. He stared into her face, white as snow, beautiful even in death. But the life of her deep hazel eyes had been washed out by a veil of oblivion. His tears dropped onto her cold skin.

    “Nadia… ”

    His blood mixed with hers in a growing pool beneath them. He felt his life and spirit flowing out of him, just as surely as hers had, and he wished that he might die here beside her, if it was the last thing on earth he ever desired.


    Chapter 9 Luck of a God


    Selene kept running, even when she didn’t know where to go. She didn’t know anything anymore, except that she no longer trusted anyone in the castle. The tears streamed endlessly down her face; Serafina wailed and wriggled in the tight grip of her arms. Fortunately, in the chaos of the castle, where guards ran in a confused frenzy and the House Leaders shouted accusations at each other through mobs of yelling people, a weeping woman with a crying baby drew little attention.

    She had watched through the side door as Nadia fell to Xavier’s blades. And as much as Selene wished to stay by her best friend’s side, she knew she would accomplish nothing by doing so. The last good deed she could do for the queen was to protect her newborn child. So she ran, and kept running. She didn’t talk to anyone—never paused to explain her purpose or ask for anyone’s help. Right now, she trusted no one but herself. In the wake of Gerald’s death, and now Nadia’s, no one else even knew of Serafina’s birth. Best that it stayed that way.

    “Lokke’s luck be with me!” she prayed as she ran.

    Without thinking it through, Selene found herself at the castle stables. She didn’t know where to go next. Her instincts told her that the safest place for Serafina was as far from the castle as possible. But could she afford to keep going alone? She did not wish to leave her family in the midst of this madness. Even the safety of the queen’s daughter did not equate to the cost of her own.

    Then she saw someone else climbing on to a horse nearby. There was no mistaking the perky young woman with thick blonde curls spiraling around her little shoulders.

    You!” cried Selene. “You’re Vivian Trell, aren’t you?”

    The young woman turned with a frown, her foot pausing in the stirrup of a giant Kresdil horse. “Who’s asking?” Vivian blinked through the shadows as Selene walked closer, the baby squirming in her arms.

    For just a moment, Selene wondered at her own stupidity. The Wolven had killed Nadia. This foreigner, Vivian Trell, brought the Wolven into Krondolee. Nadia’s death might very well be this woman’s fault. But something deep in Selene’s gut told her that she could trust Vivian, for reasons she did not understand. And right now, she saw no other option.

    “Oh… I know who you are. Selene Perin.” Vivian’s blue eyes seemed to pierce straight through Selene as they examined her. And when they fixed on the baby, they widened with shock. “I think I know who that is, too.”

    Selene didn’t understand how. She had seen Vivian from a distance and heard plenty about her ridiculous antics from Nadia. But they had never been introduced. If she truly recognized the baby… “Then you know more about us than I know about you. And I can only hope that you are a friend, and not an enemy.”

    Vivian sighed wearily. “I don’t feel like anyone’s friend today, dearest. I never meant for all this to happen, you know. Then again, I didn’t really come here with a plan. I should have known one of Belazar’s bastards would ruin everything. Right now, I just want to get away from it all. ”

    “If you wish to make amends for the damage you’ve caused, you can take this baby with you. This is the queen’s daughter, Serafina.” Her heart thundered with fear as she pushed the baby forward. She prayed silently to Lokke that she was not making a huge mistake. Tears of desperation pricked her eyes. “I beg you. If the Jeridars find out she’s alive, they will probably try to kill her. She is not safe in the castle. All I ask is that you take her away from here. Help her live. And give her a good life if you can.”

    Vivian looked uncertainly from the baby, to Selene, and back again. She reached up to scratch at one of her big curls. “Um… maybe I would… except, you see, I don’t plan on staying in this body much longer.”

    Selene’s heart skipped a beat. She blinked a few times. “What?”

    Vivian grinned and stepped closer. She reached out and clamped her little hands on Selene’s shoulders. “I know who you are, Selene, because you’re one of the smart ones. You know that most of the gods are full of nonsense—except for me. Hmm… maybe especially me. Anyway, at least I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. Except that I do, all the time.” She giggled and shook her head. “Oh, explain it however you’d like. In any case, I am the master of mischief.”

    “You… ” Selene might have dropped the baby, if Vivian did not lower her grip and help support her. “You’re… Lokke? But… how? And… why… ?”

    “I couldn’t keep my honor as a trickster if I explained my methods,” said Vivian. “As to the why… isn’t it obvious?”

    Selene could do nothing but shake her head in bafflement. This was all too much. Nothing made sense anymore.

    Vivian’s grip tightened, steadying her. “Listen to me, Selene. This is what you should do. Take the baby to Arken.” Vivian closed her eyes a moment. “I believe he is on his way to Nadia’s chambers now. You may think the worst of him, but he never meant for all this to happen, either. He loved Nadia very much. And if there is any hope for that poor fragile heart of his, I trust that he will love her daughter, as well.”

    At first, the idea seemed ludicrous. Then Selene remembered Nadia’s wedding day. Like most people, Selene had believed Arken would abandon the queen as soon as he learned he would gain no power by marrying her. Instead, he would have left the entire castle behind if only to stay with her. She remembered the hurt and pain on his face when he realized Nadia didn’t feel the same way.

    “Yes… ” she breathed at last. “You may be right. But how will I reach him? The castle is in an uproar. Everyone has turned against each other. Arken will have a harder time escaping than anyone. Most will believe he arranged Nadia’s death on purpose.”

    Vivian nodded as she considered this. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll clear the path for you. I’ll clear the path for Arken, as well. I’ll leave a horse for him at the Forest Gate, with what supplies I can muster.” A wry grin twisted up her face. “I’ll make sure he gets the fastest horse in the kingdom.”

    Again, Selene wanted to ask how Vivian would manage such a feat, but she resisted. “Oh, my lord Lokke, I don’t know how to thank you.”

    Vivian leaned over and kissed Selene’s cheek. “That’s thanks enough for me, my dear. Now run along. Stay swift, and you’ll have all the good luck you need to succeed.” Vivian winked.

    Selene nodded, and rushed back to the Elborn tower as quickly as she could.


    Chapter 10 Escape


    Arken waited for death to come to him, in some form or another. Night darkened beyond the windows, and the one lingering candle of the queen’s chamber melted to the bottom of its wick. Nadia’s blood grew cold and hard against his clothes. Her hair tangled in his grasp. He heard the sounds of yelling and swordplay echoing through the fortress around him. But to his surprise, no one came to seize him.

    Why, in the name of the gods, did no one else come for Nadia? Did they not even know she had died? Whatever the case, he had a plan, once they arrived. He would pretend to put up a fight. But he would let no one else die for his mistakes. He would lose on purpose, and let the Royal Guard finish him off.

    To his surprise, a high-pitched wail announced the approach of his first visitor. He peeled Nadia’s body from his with all the tenderness he could manage. Then he rose to his feet with his sword held before him. He winced as the pain of his wound nearly pulled him back to the floor. But he gripped the edge of the bed and stayed strong.

    He staggered again when he recognized who walked through the door. It was Selene Perin, sweaty and out of breath. A tiny bundle wriggled in her grasp.

    “Selene? What…  ?”

    “Arken. There’s no time to explain.” She held out the baby. “You must take Serafina.”

    “Serafina… !” He gasped, then winced and clutched his wound. Even drawing breath caused him agony. “This… this is Nadia’s child?”

    “Yes. But… I didn’t know you were injured.”

    “I’ll be fine.” For the first time since seeing Nadia’s dead body, hope fluttered through his heart, feeding his body strength. Nadia’s child lived. Her body had been covered with so many slashes, he had assumed the worst. But if Serafina was alive… “No one else knows about her?”

    “I think everyone who saw her birth is dead now, except for me. I fear that if your family finds out… ”

    “Yes. They would kill her.” He peered anxiously at the squirming bundle of life in Selene’s arms. Serafina’s survival changed everything. If Tanya and Tristan didn’t know about her, then they would not even know to come looking. Arken could raise her in secret. He would do it for Nadia. And he would do it for himself, so that when Serafina turned old enough, Arken could bring her back to Krondolee and use her to take the crown from his brother.

    Trembling, Selene took another step forward. Her dark eyes studied him carefully, daring to trust him. “So. You are willing to protect her, at the risk of your own life?”

    “My life is already forfeit. My family believes I betrayed them. And now… I most certainly have.” He reached for the baby, perhaps a little too eagerly.

    Selene moved back again. “What will you do with her?”

    “I’ll protect her. I’ll take her far from here, where my family can’t harm her. I’ll raise her as if she were my own flesh blood.” The hesitation in Selene’s eyes angered him. “After all that has happened, how could I do otherwise?”

    At long last, Selene nodded. Then she motioned to her shoulders. “Take the cloak. It was Nadia’s, but… ” She rapidly blinked tears from her eyes. “You can use it to carry the baby.”

    “Yes. Good idea.” The fabric was heavy and coarse as he pulled it from Selene’s shoulders. He knew the weight of the baby would be strain enough on his injured torso. He closed his eyes and focused his will upon the fabric. He felt the fibers shifting under his fingers, transforming shape and then reweaving thread by thread. When he was finished, he held a long swath of silk in his hands. He extended it towards Serafina.

    Ever so carefully, Selene placed the baby in the silk. As her weight sank into his hands, Arken realized the extent of his commitment. He didn’t know anything about raising a child. How could he possibly hope to protect her? But this would be his true chance for redemption. This little girl would be his, and his alone, to nurture and foster for the rest of their lifetimes. The thought was both terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

    He groaned as Selene tied the silk around him, doing her best to avoid his wound. Together they lifted Serafina and positioned her on his back, so that he could hold up her weight with his shoulders.

    As soon as Serafina was secure, Selene nodded. “You must go now. A horse will be waiting for you at the Forest Gate. It has all been… er, arranged. Head straight for the gate, Arken. Do not let anything distract you, understand? You must move swiftly if you hope to succeed.”

    He could think of a few things he would love to bring with him. But he forced a nod. “Very well. There is only one last thing… ” He crouched down next to Nadia’s body and reached for the necklace.

    “Arken, leave it!”

    “No.” He gripped the key and lifted the necklace free. Then he placed it around his own neck. “I won’t let this cause any more damage.”

    “If you insist.” Selene shook her head helplessly. “Now go!

    And so he did. Despite his wound, his exhaustion, and the crying baby on his back, he kept moving. He used the night to his advantage and slipped through the shadows whenever he got the chance. He found himself recalling the same route he had once planned for Nadia to escape on her wedding day. He didn’t know whether to consider it poetic or tragic that he would use it now to save the life of another man’s baby.

    In any case, he found it much easier to move through the castle than he expected. Small riots broiled at every turn and corner, heated enough that no one bothered to notice him. Only when he nearly reached the gate did he fear for his success.

    A group of royal soldiers stood near the Forest Gate, blocking any passage. Arken crouched in the shadows a long while, not sure what to do. And just as he was beginning to form a plan, Serafina cried out from between his shoulders.

    The guards drew their weapons and turned towards him. Arken saw all his hopes dashed once more before him. Everything would be for naught if he could not even take Serafina from the castle.

    “Look! Over there!” cried one of the soldiers suddenly. “I see Arken Jeridar, I see him! He’s trying to climb over the wall!”

    To Arken’s puzzlement, the guard pointed in a completely opposite direction from where Arken actually stood. The section of the wall he indicated seemed to contain nothing but shadows. But all the soldiers turned eagerly, yelling with their lust for Arken’s blood, and ran from the gate towards the empty wall.

    The guard who had pointed remained last, and as soon as the others were gone, he turned towards Arken and winked. “Now’s your chance. Go on!”

    Arken blinked at the man in puzzlement, but decided not to question his luck any further. He took off running.

    As Selene had promised, a horse waited for him on the other side of the gate. And when he saw the tall, slender beast standing in the grass, her long ears twisted towards him, fresh tears welled in his eyes.

    “Silven… ”

    He climbed onto his best friend’s back, and together they ran from the castle of Krondolee, faster than the wind itself.


    EPILOGUE


    “Oh Papa, please let me come with you! I hate it when you’re gone so long!”

    “I am sorry, Sera, but it has to be this way. If you came with me, who would protect the treehouse?”

    Arken knelt next to fourteen-year-old Serafina, feeling his heart twist with a mixture of joy and bittersweet sorrow. These days, he did not have to crouch down very far to meet her eye level. She was growing ever so quickly into a beautiful young woman. And he feared that she would turn seventeen before he even knew it: the age at which she would be old enough to wear a crown.

    Truly, he hated leaving her alone in the jungle. He had done everything possible to create a safe home for her. After he escaped from Castle Krondolee, he rode for the largest jungle possible. He trekked as deep into the forest as he dared, deeper than he thought any other man would be willing to go. He followed the signs to an area where he knew the largest and most dangerous beasts would not frequent, due to its limited variety of bugs and fauna. He and the baby lived off plants and easily-baited game for years as he worked to build a house high in the trees, where they would have even more protection from any casual predator. Many times, he thought death would be certain for them. He feared that the few plants he scavenged would not be enough to sustain a small child. He had several close encounters with bears and tigers. But somehow, he learned to survive. And as Serafina grew older, she learned alongside him.

    He had little doubt that Serafina would be able to protect herself in the treehouse. Sometimes, she made dangerous choices, such as chasing small game or venturing into the riskier areas of the jungle. He berated her harshly for such behavior, even though she already knew better. But the girl could run swiftly through the trees, and she was very sharp-witted. She knew this jungle even better than he did. And he had little doubt that she was strong enough now to survive here without him.

    Despite all that, he did not like to leave, and the reason was simple: he did not like to spend any time away from his favorite person on earth. He wanted to stay with her every minute and second of the day. But even the lush jungle did not always provide the supplies they needed to live a comfortable life. So once every few months—or longer, if possible—he ventured into the nearest town for supplies.

    “And who’s going to protect you,” said Serafina, “if you fall and hurt your leg again?”

    Arken laughed nervously. Serafina did not know where he really went when he disappeared for several days at a time. She did not even know what “towns” were. Arken saw no reason to trouble her with details of the world beyond. She knew that other humans existed—Arken could not avoid that completely—but he taught her to see them as enemies, just like any other cruel predator roaming the jungle. Arken even taught her how to read and write from a small collection of books he had rummaged from his visits to town. She would have to know such things if she wore the crown one day. But Arken feared corrupting her mind with any unnecessary knowledge.

    Once, he had met a group of people in town who suspected his identity. Ever since his escape from Krondolee, Arken became known as the Grand Traitor. King Tristan Jeridar offered a high price for Arken’s capture. Most people wanted him dead anyway, because they believed he was to blame for the death of the Elborn family. So when a group of people suspected who he was, Arken led them deep into the jungle towards the lair of a griffin. The griffin killed all of them, and nearly killed Arken as well. He escaped with a broken leg to show for his troubles.

    Arken did not want to admit that he had encountered a griffin—which he had taught her so meticulously to avoid—much less why he had done so. He told Serafina he had simply fallen and hurt his leg. She had no idea how close he had come to ruining their precious life in the jungle that he had worked so hard to establish.

    “That won’t happen again,” he told her. “I promise.”

    He put a hand on her cheek and looked into her deep green eyes, so much like her mother’s. He fought back a wave of joy and pain as he leaned over to kiss her forehead. Then he hurried to leave before she could see the torrent of emotions on his face.

    “I’ll be back soon,” he said tightly. Then he hurried from the treehouse.

    *

    Arken felt a sense of urgency as he entered town, a feeling he did not know how to explain. He always hated leaving Serafina. But lately, the mere idea filled him with an increasing amount of anxiety. Perhaps because he sensed the approach of something inevitable.

    Serafina kept growing older so quickly. Eventually, he would have to think about his plan to return to the castle of Krondolee. He would have to prepare her for assuming the crown. He still yearned for retribution. But other times, he imagined continuing his excluded life with Serafina in the jungle forever. He couldn’t do that.

    Could he?

    Once he reached town, he bought his supplies as quickly as he could, trading rare jungle herbs and plants for simple items like knives and candles. Briefly, he even considered hurrying back into the jungle as night fell. Trying to wander back to the treehouse overnight would have been suicide. But the notion tempted him, anyway.

    He wore a hood over his yellow hair as he succumbed to caution and found an inn for the night. One of the only things he enjoyed about his occasional visits to town was a cold mug of ale and the possibility of a casual female encounter. This time, however, he kept the ale to himself and did not let his gaze linger on a single woman as he enjoyed his drink. Once he finished, he would hurry to bed. He would make his way back to the jungle as soon as the sun rose.

    Even hunched within his hood, however, he could not keep his ears from hearing snippets of the conversations around him.

    “… just fell over and died, in the middle of dinner.”

    “You don’t think it could have been poison? Some say that Wolven still lurks in the castle. Maybe somebody paid him?”

    “No, the Jeridars could afford to pay the Wolven more than anyone else. I hear the youngest can even turn metal into gold. I don’t think it was anything like that. They say the man was fat and lazy, anyway. I say he ate himself to an early grave, and good riddance!”

    “You can’t talk about the king like that!”

    “Why not? He’s dead now!”

    Arken’s heart beat so violently, he feared it would break out of his ribs. He held onto the table for balance as the world seemed to spin around him. The roaring in his ears deafened him briefly. But he had to know more.

    He stood up suddenly, knocking his chair out from under him. “You’re talking about Tristan? Tristan Jeridar? He’s dead?”

    The entire inn fell silent. Everyone looked at him curiously. Then the woman who had been speaking last shrugged and said, “Who else? The king of Darzia—or at least the former one. He died a few days ago. This is the first you’ve heard of it?”

    “I’ve… I’ve been in the jungle… hunting.” Arken took deep breaths and tried to regain his composure. “Has the Royal Duma decided who will rule next?”

    The woman shook her head. “No one knows yet. But as great a fool as King Tristan was, he did keep Darzia wealthy. I think his son Kallias will turn seventeen soon. They might make him king before he’s of age, if it means keeping their pockets stuffed. I wager the Jeridar brat takes the crown next, if those spoiled nobles in Krondolee have anything to do with it.”

    Murmurs of reluctant agreement echoed around the room, and several people drank to the woman’s words. Belatedly, Arken picked up his ale and drank with them—whether to celebrate, or wash away his sorrows, he wasn’t sure.

    His brother was dead. The crown was vulnerable. Serafina was not quite of age, but in a few years she would be. And if the nobles could make an exception for Kallias, maybe they’d make one for Serafina, as well. Here, at long last, was the moment he had been waiting for: the chance to redeem his own name. The chance to ruin the remaining Jeridars. The chance for Serafina to take what belonged to her.

    So many times, Arken had wished this day would come sooner. Yet now that it had finally arrived, he cursed under his breath.

    *

    Serafina lay asleep in her bed when Arken returned to the treehouse. He might have reprimanded her for napping while the sun was still out. Instead, he could only smile and shake his head fondly.

    As he sat down beside her, she jerked and lifted a knife to his throat.

    He gulped against the blade, then managed a wry smile. “I see you’ve kept your wits about you. Well done.”

    Her eyes beamed with pride, then she laughed mischievously. “I may or may not have heard you coming, and thought you could use a good scare.”

    If it had been anyone else in the world, he might have been furious. But when Serafina smiled at him like that, he could only smile back.

    She leaned towards him, wrapped her little arms around him, and squeezed tight. These days, her grip was so strong that she constricted his breath when she did that, but he tried not to show it.

    “I’m so glad you’re back, Papa. I missed you so much.”

    “I missed you, too, Sera.” Against his will, tears pricked his eyes and threatened to spill over. He couldn’t hide them from Serafina as she leaned back to look at him.

    “Papa! What’s wrong? Did you have trouble getting supplies?”

    “No, no… I got everything we needed. It’s just… I have something to tell you, Serafina.”

    He reached down and gripped her hand, so hard she winced. But she did not draw back. She blinked her green eyes and stared back intently. “I’m listening.”

    “I… I… ” I’m not your father. Your mother died because of me. When you were a baby, I stole you away so that one day, I could use you to take vengeance on my family. You’re actually the heir to a large and magnificent kingdom.

    Now that he actually came close to saying the words, he found himself incapable. He could not let those words out of his mouth—not now, not ever. He never wanted Serafina to know what had happened in Krondolee. He never wanted her to visit that accursed castle. He never wanted her to experience pain like what he’d suffered. He no longer cared about the welfare of the kingdom, or taking vengeance on his family. The only thing in the world he wanted sat right here next to him, and he refused to let it get away.

    “I just want you to know… that I have never been happier than I am right now, at this very moment. I love you, Serafina.”

    For a moment, her eyes flickered with the faintest hint of disappointment. Then she smiled back at him. “I love you, too, Papa.”


    *

    Serafina’s Saga

    (the animation)

    releasing online

    Fall 2013

    *

    “The Key to Castle Krondolee” is a stand-alone novella. However, the story will continue in the form of an animated webseries, “Serafina’s Saga,” releasing online Fall 2013. This story also takes place in the same world as the fantasy book series, The Broken Balance, and features some of the same characters. To learn more about The Broken Balance series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com. To learn more about “Serafina’s Saga,” visit www.serafinasaga.com.

    *

    BROKEN BALANCE SERIES

    Ashes of Dearen

    Sands of Hanubi

    ***

    Continue for an excerpt from

    Ashes of Dearen: Book 1

     


    Sneak Peak: ASHES OF DEAREN: BOOK 1

    Excerpt from Chapter 1


    *

    “Where do you think the Haze comes from?”

    “I don’t think about it at all.”

    “Why not?”

    “Why should I?”

    The brother and sister strolled the hillsides beyond the grand Dearen palace. As heirs to the throne of Dearen, Kyne and Fayr Violeni spent more of their time within the palace than without. Today they took the rare opportunity to stare at their home from afar. From a distance, it became more obvious that the soft glowing Haze covering the whole land of Dearen lay most thickly upon their own royal abode. What made this fog distinct from any other in the world was the magic substance that floated within it: a glittering dust known as safra.

    Safra brought intense pleasure and joy to anyone who consumed it—anyone, that is, but for the few remaining members of the royal Violenese bloodline.

    The large fortress glittered like a pile of jewels in the distance. Part of the palace’s charm was its inconsistency; some sections gleamed with deep silver stone, others with crystalline pillars, while yet more sections dazzled the eye with inset gems. The sprawled structure was a compilation of sections built by different cultures and peoples, all of whom came to Dearen for a pinch of the safra obtained from the Haze.

    But as young Prince Kyne had observed, the beauty of the palace was offset by the coils of smoke drifting from its surface. Sometimes, the smoke had a beauty of its own. Tiny pieces of debris caught the sunshine and sparkled with brilliance. Across the vast landscape, the rolling Haze diffused the light and made the entire land glow as if with an enchanted fog.

    “Do you think safra creates the Haze, or the Haze creates safra?” asked Kyne. His eyes opened wide with wonder, even though his purple hair lashed sharply against his face.

    “Neither!” Fayr turned up her sharp little nose, enjoying how highly she towered over her brother. She had just turned eighteen. He was not yet thirteen years of age. She liked to think she knew a lot more about the world than he did, although at times like this, the difference seemed slight. She had to take pride in what little knowledge she had, or else spurn it altogether. “The Haze always has safra in it. They are both created, simultaneously, by something else. At least, that seems obvious enough to me.”

    “Then what creates them?”

    “You already asked that.”

    “Not exactly. Anyway, you didn’t answer.”

    “Nor will I ever. You sound like a commoner, asking such foolish questions!”

    “Why is it foolish? Why can’t we ask where the safra comes from?”

    “Because we can’t!”

    Fayr began to feel flustered by the conversation. Once upon a time, she pondered the same questions as her younger brother. In truth, she still did sometimes. But she gave up asking them a long time ago. Better not to ask such things; better not to think of them at all.

    A wind blew and made the Haze ripple across the landscape. As she breathed the fresh air, Fayr realized something strange. For just a moment, she smelled the air as it should smell: pure, without safra. And it smelled wonderful.

    “Look over there,” said Fayr suddenly. “Did you see that?”

    “See what?”

    “Over there!” The Haze was settling again, but in one area, it remained thin enough to see through.

    “What is it?”

    “I think those are the cliffs of Vikand!”

    “Are you sure?” He strained, as she did, to stare through the silver grip of the Haze. But there, on the edge of the foggy horizon, lay a large shadow, slicing the smoke with sharp black crags. “How could it be? I thought Vikand was further away!”

    “Dearen is a small place, physically,” said Fayr. “Haven’t you paid any attention to Jayn’s lectures?”

    “Yes, but … ”

    “The entire kingdom of Dearen can be crossed in a day on horseback.”

    “Are we really so small?” Prince Kyne’s little face drooped at the thought.

    She put a hand on his velvety shoulder. “Only in size, brother. And yet we are the most powerful kingdom in the world. Don’t let it bother you.”

    He seemed comforted by this, although he could not rip his eyes from the looming shadow of Vikand. Neither could she.

    “Let’s get closer to it,” said Fayr. The mere thought set her heart pounding.

    “How much closer?”

    She didn’t answer, but turned and made her way to the dense grove of lemon trees where they’d tethered their horses. She looked down at herself, watched the undulating colors of her skirt ripple beneath her, and pondered the strange sensations roiling through her body. She relished the quickening of her heart and the warm excitement in her belly. And that wind … why had it smelled so good? She’d lived in the palace all her life. She was accustomed to the strange Haze that made most people happy. Most people said it smelled like roses. But now that she was further away from it, she wondered if it stank.

    A strand of purple hair fell into her vision and she reached to brush it back. It reminded her that she was not like most people in more ways than one. The violet hair shared by herself, her brother, and her father made them different from anyone else in the world. It indicated their ancient heritage, and thus their distinct inability to enjoy safra.

    In the silky soft shade of the grove, she found their horses. There were three steeds in all: two white palfreys for herself and the prince, and a gray destrier for Sir Gornum of the royal guard. The guardian himself lay spread under a berry bush, his bearded mouth hanging open, his large eyes closed in sleep. He wore no armor, only studded cloth, for who needed armor in Dearen? She hoped the studs jabbed him as she kicked his drooping belly.

    “Gornum. Gornum, wake up!” She sent a scowl to her brother, who trailed doggedly behind her. “You gave him too much safra.”

    “Father told me to!”

    “He told you to reward him with safra, small pinches at a time, and only after he has completed each service. Don’t you understand? That is how it works. Why can’t you ever get it right?”

    “Oh … ” Kyne’s nose crinkled a little. He blinked rapidly.

    “What are you doing now?” She grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “Are you about to cry?

    “Of course not!” But the moisture in his eyes betrayed him.

    “I can’t believe you, Kyne. If Father saw you right now, or if he heard the sort of questions you were asking … ”

    “Please don’t tell him. Please, Fayr!” His blinks became more rapid and violent.

    She shook her head and clicked her tongue reproachfully. “Not this time, I won’t.” She moved to her horse, grabbed the saddle, and climbed upon its back.

    “Are we going back home now?” asked Kyne.

    “No.” She huffed as she settled her skirts about her. The heavy jewelry upon her neck and wrists only made her movements awkward. She resisted an impulse to rip them all off. “I want to go further.”

    “Father won’t like that at all!”

    Fayr flung her head back and breathed deeply of the air. “Can you smell it, little brother? I didn’t realize it until now. The Haze. It stinks!”

    “Mother says it smells like jasmine.”

    Their mother was not like the two of them. She was their mother, of course. But she did not have the Violenese blood of their father. She did not share the bright purple hair of her husband and children. “Does it smell that way to you?

    “Well …” He bowed his head, letting his short purple locks fall over his brow. “I suppose not … ”

    “Come on then.” Her horse could feel her impatience. She pulled on the reins as the beast writhed beneath her. “Let’s go just a little further. Let’s get away from the safra.”

    “But Father says the Haze covers all of Dearen!”

    “Then we’ll get closer to the cliffs of Vikand!”

    “What about Gornum?”

    “Never mind him. If the Haze covers all of Dearen, then it will protect us as always.”

    She did not wait for him, but kicked her horse and bounded forward. She did not even care if he followed.

    Now that she had caught a whiff of fresh air, she wanted more. She wanted it like a horse wants water after running for miles. All her life, she had lived in the safra-infused Haze and endured it. While it intoxicated everyone else with joy, it blinded her with its constant glow. The stench, which she’d breathed so long that she stopped noticing it, had been suffocating her since birth. Now she needed to escape, if only for a moment. She needed to breathe pure air. She did not know if she would find such purity any closer to the cliffs of Vikand. But it seemed worth a try.

    The palfrey’s white hooves thudded down the slope and into a thickening stretch of trees. The cliffs of Vikand always seemed to cast a long shadow over the Dearen valleys underneath, even if the sun shone upon them. For this reason, the forest growing beneath them was called the Shadowed Woods. The tree limbs cast shapes like intertwined hands across the soft auburn soil. Dandelion tufts from the meadows floated through the air and brushed her skin as she passed. The darkness wrapped around her and sent a chill down her back. For some reason, she liked it.

    “Fayr? Fayr!”

    She glanced over her shoulder and saw her brother galloping after her. Very well. He would catch up to her, or he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. The only creatures in the woods were birds and tigers, and the latter never attacked Dearen natives: only strangers. Whether the siblings got separated or not, neither of them faced any danger.

    A dark shape flitted past her vision.

    For a moment, she felt fear. But almost as quickly as it came, the fear dissipated. She had thought she saw a man in strange leather clothes. For a moment he had seemed to glitter, but of course this was probably a consequence of the safra in the air. Even here, deep in the Shadowed Woods, safra hovered about, drifting and sparkling. In one sense, its presence continued to irritate her. But on the other, she was relieved, because wherever there was safra, there was safety. It was a tremendous blessing, even if sometimes it felt like a curse.

    Her horse neighed and flung Fayr from its back.

    As she flew through the air, she watched the soil rise up to meet her, and in that moment before she struck, she pondered what had happened. A breath ago, she and her horse had thundered through the forest with a perfect rhythm. The shadows danced, the safra blurred by, and her hair trailed behind her in soft purple streams, unable to keep up with her momentum. Now everything stopped, and her hair spilled ahead of her.

    Her cry became lost in the soil as she smacked against the dirt.

    Pain. Pain. Pain. She forgot that anything else existed. Then she heard the moans of her horse. She also heard the snapping of twigs as something crept towards her. The second sound came from the opposite direction.

    With a groan, she tried to rise up. The world spun. She wondered how long she had been lying there, and how badly she was hurt. But more importantly, what had happened? Horses were rarely so clumsy as to fall like that. She saw the beautiful white beast sprawled in the dirt some distance from her. Crimson blood rolled down its leg.

    A leather hand wrapped around her mouth and nostrils. A knee struck her between the shoulder-blades and pushed her back down. The pain was excruciating, but she couldn’t scream. She couldn’t even breathe.

    “Fayr? Fayr!”

    Tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision. Even through the watery ripples, she saw the white shape of her brother riding closer.

    “Call to him.” The voice of her captor was as deep and grating as metal against stone. It also sounded muffled, as if he spoke through a mask.

    She wriggled and thrashed, but this only tightened his grip on her. He flung her around, pressing her back against the earth. He straddled her chest, and if she could have, she would have screamed with terror as she looked up at him. He was the same man she glimpsed running through the trees. He wore a tight suit of leather, and indeed it did glitter, but not because of any safra. It glittered because it was covered with metal spikes, small but sharp. A mask covered his face, shaped and painted to resemble a wolf’s. Through two small holes she saw his real eyes, glinting with a cruel shade of red.

    Cold metal pressed to her neck. This surprised her because he did not seem to be holding something as large as a knife. “Call him here, or you die now.”

    END OF EXCERPT


    ***

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Jayden Woods is the author’s pen name. She grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee, then pursued her dreams of film-making in Los Angeles. After receiving a BFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California and working on a primetime TV show, she decided to return to her original passion of writing novels. Since then she has lived in St. Louis with her wonderful husband and three beautiful pets, throwing all her will and energy into becoming a successful writer.

    www.jaydenwoods.com

    ***

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