- 26 feb 2017
Lees de eerste drie hoofdstukken van The Wish Granter in het Engels
Epicreads heeft voor ons een speciale 'sneak peek' van het nieuwe boek van C. J. Redwine, The Wish Granter. Dit boek is op 14 februari uitgegeven door Harperteen. C. J. Redwine kennen we van de Ravenspire serie. De proloog en de eerste drie hoofdstukken van The Wish Granter zijn wel in het Engels geschreven. Maar voor de fans maakt dit natuurlijk niks uit!
In The Wish Granter zijn Thad en Ari Glavan de bastaardtweeling van de koning van Súndraille. Hun moeder is vermoord en de koninklijke familie is op mysterieuze wijze overleden. En nu is Thad degene die de kroon draagt. Hij heeft de leiding over het Koninkrijk dat opeens door geweld wordt overspoeld. Hij kan dit geweld niet stoppen.
Ari heeft nooit een prinses willen zijn. Maar wanneer Thad haar begint te trainen om zijn plek in te nemen, realiseert zij zich dat haar broers beklimming van de troon meer was dan het lot. Het was het werk van een wensenvervuller, een slechte fae die Thad bedrogen heeft. Nu moet Ari haar broer en haar Koninkrijk redden, terwijl er ook nog een monster in haar weg staat! Het belooft dus zeker wel een spannend boek te worden!
Lees hieronder de 'sneak peek' van The Wish Granter, C. J. Redwine:
Once upon a time . . .
Humans were pathetically predictable. Always longing for more. Always desperate to get their way. Shamelessly grasping for what remained out of reach, even when it cost them dearly.
He despised them.
Alistair Teague rubbed his fingers absently over the smooth surface of his carved ivory pipe—an unwilling gift from the human who’d betrayed him—and raised his nose to sniff the air. A midnight breeze blew in from the nearby Chrysós Sea, sweeping through the leaves of the olive grove with a faint hiss and carrying with it the sharp scent of a human’s terrible desperation.
The magic in Teague’s blood responded, surging through his chest, cold and insistent, and he drew in another deep breath as he pocketed the unlit pipe and straightened his immaculately tailored dress coat.
The salty tang of the sea and the wild sweetness of the trees tugged at the part of him that missed living on the fae isle of Llorenyae, but the scent of a human ready to stake everything he had for a chance at gaining the deepest desire of his heart was the true intoxicant.
Teague had lived in exile among the humans in the kingdom of Súndraille for nearly two hundred years, and it never got old.
Their desires. Their greed.
Weaknesses that had kept his business thriving and his pockets full of coin but had failed to silence the fear that one day another human might get the best of him, and this time, instead of being exiled, he might be killed.
He shivered as he turned south toward the scent of the desperate human. The thought of losing the centuries he still had left to live—of sinking into the dark abyss of the unknown where he would no longer be the Wish Granter of legend—haunted him.
It was the gnawing terror of what came after he’d breathed his last that had given him an idea that was going to guarantee no human ever had power over him again.
He moved through the trees, his steps a whisper against the loamy soil, his magic drawn unerringly toward the human in need.
Toward the young man who was the key to Teague’s plan.
Passing by the boy’s sister, huddled asleep at the base of a tree, dirt smudging her tear-streaked face, he made his way to the edge of the grove where the land fell away and the sea hurled itself against the shore below. The boy stood facing the water, his hands fisted at his sides while he stared at the night sky as if hoping the answer to his troubles could be found among the stars.
Teague smiled, his magic unfurling from his chest to flood his veins. The boy’s fear was heavy in the air. His shoulders bowed beneath the weight of it. He was out of options, out of hiding places, and out of allies.
He was exactly where Teague wanted him to be.
“You won’t find answers in the stars, Prince Thaddeus,” Teague said.
The boy whirled, his dark eyes wild. “Who are you?”
“My name is Alistair Teague”—he leaned closer, his gaze locked on the boy’s—“but some call me the Wish Granter.”
“The Wish Granter?” The prince’s voice shook. “That’s a bedtime story to frighten children.”
“Oh, I do more than frighten children.” Teague smiled coldly as his magic begged for release. “I give people the deepest desires of their hearts. What do you want, dear boy?”
As if he didn’t already know that the bastard prince and his twin sister had been exiled from their father’s palace upon the birth of the queen’s son—her womb miraculously opened after seventeen years of barrenness thanks to the bargain she’d made with Teague. He’d tried to make an additional bargain—a seat as the king’s adviser in exchange for getting rid of the bastards so that the queen’s son had no competition for the throne—but she’d refused and sent her own hunters after the twins and their servant mother instead.
Maybe she’d suspected that Teague had no plans to remain a mere adviser to the throne. Maybe she’d wanted the satisfaction of killing her son’s rivals without magical help. Either way, Teague had been forced to change tactics. A simple word in the ear of one of the queen’s hunters had sent the man straight to the family’s hiding place with instructions to kill the mother and the sister and bring the prince to Teague for double what the queen was offering as reward. The man had succeeded only in killing the prince’s mother before the princess had taken him down with a hay rake, but it didn’t matter. The prince understood the terrible danger he and his sister were in. He knew more hunters would track them down. He knew they wouldn’t survive without help.
Help Teague was happy to offer.
For a price.
If the queen wouldn’t give him access to the throne, then he’d put Súndraille’s crown on one who would.
“If you really are the Wish Granter, then prove it.” The prince raised his chin in challenge, but hope flickered in his eyes.
Teague’s smile widened, and he clapped his hands. The sound reverberated through the ground like a thunderclap. The crash of the waves against the cliff became a deafening roar as the water surged upward toward them. The prince shook as the enormous wave crested the cliff, curving toward the fragile human who trembled beneath it.
“Athrú,” Alistair said, and, as the water fell, it became showers of golden coins that spilled across the boy’s shoulders to pile around his feet. With another clap of his hands, Alistair sent the sea back to its rightful place and bent toward the prince. “Tell me your wish.”
The boy swallowed hard as the coins slid across his boots. “I can wish for anything?”
“I can’t bring back the dead, and I can’t force people to love you, but anything else is well within my powers.”
“Can you protect my sister and me from the queen?”
Teague’s eyes narrowed. Trust a human to think of something so small when the world was laid at his feet. He needed the prince to wish for more, or his plan was never going to work. “Is that really all you want?”
“That’s all that matters. We’ve lost our home. Our mother.” The prince’s voice caught, and he swallowed hard. “All we have left is each other. The queen’s hunters won’t stop chasing us until they kill us. I just want to keep my sister, Arianna, safe.”
The boy held Teague’s gaze, and Teague swore silently. The stupid prince was telling the truth, and that kind of wish wasn’t worth the price Teague needed him to pay. It wouldn’t put Teague anywhere near the throne, and it wouldn’t give him the power he needed to protect himself from the fickle betrayal of humans.
He had to get the prince to wish for more.
“Your sister would be safe if you were the ruler of Súndraille.” Teague kept his voice soft and compelling, but anger flared as the prince shook his head.
“My father is the rightful ruler of—”
“Your father betrayed you and sent you into exile.” Teague’s voice sharpened. “The queen won’t rest until your family is dead. And there’s only one way to change that. You have to take the throne.”
The boy recoiled. “I can’t do that. I just want my sister to be safe.”
Teague’s smile stretched wide and feral. “The hunters are closing in. It’s only a matter of time before she’s dead, just like your mother. I can keep her safe, but I will only do so if you make the right wish.”
The wish that would put Teague one heartbeat from the throne and set his plan into motion.
The prince considered Teague in silence, his eyes haunted. Finally, he said, “And if I don’t wish to be the king? If I wish for my sister’s safety instead?”
Teague’s smile winked out. “Then I will decline to grant your wish, and will leave you to the mercy of the queen’s hunters.” He leaned forward. “All you have to do is wish to be the king of Súndraille. No one would have power to hurt you or Princess Arianna again.”
No one but Teague.
“In the stories, wishes always come with a price.” The prince squared his shoulders as if braced for a blow.
“Everything comes with a price.” Teague stepped closer. “But I’m all that stands between your sister and death. Is there a price you wouldn’t pay for her life?”
The prince closed his eyes as if something pained him, and then said quietly, “No, there isn’t.”
Magic burned beneath his skin, as cold and absolute as the triumph that filled Teague’s chest. Removing a scroll of parchment from his inner pocket, he unfurled the wish contract and quickly pricked Thaddeus’s finger with the tip of his dagger. Pressing the boy’s bloody finger to the debtor’s signature line, he whispered, “Go ahead, dear boy. Make the wish.”
Three weeks later
This corset was going to be the death of her.
Arianna Glavan, (suddenly official) princess of Súndraille, leaned against the long wooden table in the center of the busy palace kitchen and threw chunks of butter into her bowl of flour, remembering at the last second not to wipe her fingers on her fancy silk dress.
How any girl with her rib cage cinched in a vise was supposed to dance her feet off, much less eat from the buffet table, was a mystery Ari had no desire to solve. It was bad enough that she was going to have to stand in the receiving line with Thad and greet the nobility who, up until the royal family’s unexpected death three weeks ago, had treated her brother with thinly veiled contempt. To smile at them with bones cutting into her waist while her lungs labored to take a full breath was more than she could bear.
Especially when she planned to eat at least one of every item on the buffet table. Stars knew, it was the only thing she was looking forward to tonight.
Quickly cutting the butter into the flour with her fork until a pastry dough formed, Ari passed the bowl to one of the kitchen maids, who’d just finished whipping up a sauce to go with the basted lamb shanks, and turned to her best friend, Cleo. “Help me out of this.” She gestured vaguely toward her dress.
Cleo tugged at the blue scarf that held her curly dark hair out of her eyes and returned to pitting the bowl of dates in front of her. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Thad already knows I lied about you being sick last week for Lord Mitro’s banquet, and attending your brother’s coronation ball is far more important than that. You have to go. You’re supposed to be a real princess now.”
“I meant help me out of this corset.” Ari motioned her friend toward the enormous walk-in pantry that was nestled on the far side of the kitchen, opposite the hearth ovens whose heat flooded the room, leaving everyone who was working with flushed cheeks and glistening brows. “Please, Cleo. I’ll probably die if I have to dance while wearing this.”
“Fine. But if you get me in trouble again, you’d better buy me a year’s worth of art supplies.” With a quick glance to make sure Mama Eleni—head cook, undisputed boss of anyone who set foot inside the kitchens, and Cleo’s mother—was distracted by the crepes, Cleo wiped her fingers clean on her apron, ducked past a trio of maids carrying trays of thinly sliced apples baked into cinnamon-dusted florets, and followed Ari into the pantry.
When the door was firmly shut behind them, Ari swept her hair into a messy knot at the top of her head and turned her back to Cleo. “Unbutton me, but make it quick. Mama Eleni will have heart failure if she finds me undressing in her pantry.”
“She won’t have heart failure.” Cleo’s fingers flew down the row of tiny pearl buttons along the back of the dress, and golden silk, several shades lighter than Ari’s skin, sagged away from her bosom, revealing the bone-ribbed torture device her new handmaid had sworn Ari couldn’t do without. “Mama will make sure we have heart failure.”
Ari wiggled her shoulders, and the gown’s tiny scalloped sleeves edged down her arms. “You have to unbutton it further. The corset is tied at my waist.”
“Cleo? Ari? Where are those girls?” Mama Eleni’s voice cut through the air.
“No time to unbutton. Give me the scissors,” Cleo said as someone answered Mama Eleni. “If Mama finds us and gives me hearth-scrubbing duties again, you’re helping me. I don’t care if you’re supposed to act like a princess now.”
“Maybe as princess I can order Mama Eleni not to punish you.” Then at least there’d be a benefit for having traded her comfortable anonymity as the bastard daughter the king was happy to forget existed for the trappings of a royal life.
Ari reached for the scissors that hung from a ribbon beside the door and handed them to Cleo, who paused for a second. “This looks expensive. Are you sure you want me to—”
“I can’t breathe, my ribs feel like they’re touching my spine, and my stomach is being squished so tight, it’s leaking out over the top of this thing.” Ari turned to let Cleo see the situation.
“Stars help us, you look like you’re growing another set of breasts. Here.” She whirled Ari around and tugged hard on the laces holding the princess in place.
Ari choked. “Can’t. Breathe.”
“I can’t get any leverage. It’s laced too tight. How did Franci get you into this in the first place?” Cleo jerked the laces, and Ari began worrying that the raisin bread she’d eaten earlier was going to make a reappearance.
“There was . . . a lot . . . of pulling and . . . swearing.”
“I didn’t know Franci swore.” With a sharp snip, Cleo cut through the laces. Ari drew a deep breath as the corset loosened.
“She didn’t.” Ari tugged at the corset until she could pull over her head. “I did.”
Cleo laughed. “You aren’t supposed to do that anymore, Ari. You’re a proper princess now.”
“Hardly.” Ari dropped the offending corset to the pantry floor, adjusted the straps of the regular undergarment she’d had the foresight to wear under it, and pulled her gown back into place. The silk was surprisingly comfortable now that she wasn’t fighting to breathe. She rubbed it between her fingers as Cleo quickly redid her buttons.
Ari wasn’t a proper princess. She was a girl who’d slept in the servants’ quarters with her mother, who’d been almost entirely ignored by her father, and who’d only been allowed to attend lessons with her brother when the king realized that Thad, his chosen heir despite the boy’s bastard status, was serious about refusing to perform to expectations unless his sister received an education too. She’d scrubbed floors, cooked feasts, bargained with merchants, translated ancient texts, and memorized the history of her kingdom—but nothing she’d done had prepared her to be acknowledged as Súndraille’s true princess and to have the eyes of the nobility watching her every move.
If the corset was any indication, she was going to be a disaster.
An ache blossomed in her chest, spreading through her veins with every heartbeat. Tears pricked her eyes, and she blinked rapidly.
“There.” Cleo turned Ari to face her, and her dark eyes filled with sympathy. “Don’t cry. You’ll ruin the mysterious golden-girl look you’ve achieved with this gown.”
Ari gave her a wobbly smile. “I’m the least mysterious girl anyone has ever met.”
Cleo smiled. “The nobility doesn’t know that. To them, you’re the princess the king kept mostly hidden from them all these years. And now you’re going out there in this gorgeous gown with your big brown eyes and your Ari attitude, and they’ll be enthralled.”
“I miss my old life.” Ari’s voice trembled, and a tear spilled down her cheek as she whispered, “I miss Mama.”
Cleo wrapped her in a tight hug. “I do too. She’d be so proud to see you like this. Now get out there before Thad starts looking for you and—”
The pantry door flew open, and Mama Eleni stood glaring at them with Thad peering over her shoulder. “What are you two doing in here?” she asked.
Ari aimed a swift kick at the corset and sent it sliding beneath the shelves of preserved cherries beside her. “Last-minute wardrobe consultation.”
“You have flour on your hands,” Thad said.
“That happens when you make pastry dough.” Ari quickly dusted her palms together and blinked the last of her tears away. Thad needed someone to stand with him tonight, and she was all he had left. It didn’t matter that she kept forgetting to behave like a real princess. It only mattered that when he faced his new subjects she was at his side.
“Princesses don’t make pastry dough,” Thad said, his dark eyes on hers.
Ari snorted. “This one does.”
“Princesses also don’t snort.” Thad’s voice was strained, but he didn’t sound angry. He hadn’t sounded angry since the night they’d fled from the bounty hunter who’d killed their mother and awakened to the news that the entire royal family had taken sick and died, leaving Thad, in the absence of any other blood relation to the king, with an uncontested claim to the throne. Instead, Thad sounded tense. Worried. And grieved in way that even Ari, with her shared heartbreak over their mother’s death, couldn’t seem to touch.
“I did not approve of her helping,” Mama Eleni declared as Ari straightened her shoulders and walked out of the pantry with Cleo at her heels.
“You specifically told me not to use so much butter,” Ari said.
“Lies! The king was very clear that you are only to do the things a true princess would do, and I would never disobey him. Even when I am understaffed, and he has yet to fill my requests for more help.” Mama Eleni reached out with her rough hands to tug Ari’s hair out of its knot and smooth it behind her ears. “Look at our princess in a gown. Ready to dance! Maybe you’ll find a nice young man tonight and be swept off your feet. Now, no kissing behind the ballroom pillars, and no—”
“Stop, Mama,” Cleo said as Thad tugged on his collar as if it were choking him, and the princess’s cheeks heated. This wasn’t a fairy tale. She was in more danger of losing her footing while dancing than of being swept away by a handsome nobleman’s kisses.
Ari’s stomach fluttered, and her pulse raced as Thad took her arm and turned toward the hallway that led to the ballroom. Casting a desperate look at Cleo, she asked, “You’ll be there?”
“Of course. I’ll be the girl with the tray of fizzy wine.” Lowering her voice, she cast a quick glance at Mama Eleni, who’d turned away to supervise the assembling of the fruit platters and then gave Ari a reassuring smile. “If you need me to accidentally dump wine on anyone, just give me the signal. You’ll be fine. This will be over before you know it.”
“No dumping wine on anyone.” Thad pulled Ari out of the kitchen. “No sending signals of any kind.”
“Cleo was kidding.” Ari pushed her nervousness and her longing for her mother into a corner of her heart and tried to pretend she felt up to the task ahead as she matched Thad’s pace down the white stone hallway that connected the kitchen to the ballroom. Arched windows lined the passage, and long, sheer curtains fluttered in the sea breeze that swept in through the open windows and chased the lingering heat of the summer’s day out of the palace. Bells rang from the palace’s tower, sonorous and deep, announcing the beginning of the coronation ceremony.
The same bells had announced the royal family’s funeral three weeks earlier, and black bunting still fluttered from the tower in honor of their deaths.
“I know Cleo better than that,” Thad said. “She may be the accomplice instead of the instigator when it comes to the two of you, but dumping beverages on unsuspecting people is a habit of hers. Remember what happened when we were twelve?”
Ari snorted. “You deserved it.”
“Maybe I did.” He slowed his pace as the door to the ballroom came into view, spilling a cacophony of voices and music into the hallway. “Ari, I’m serious about you acting like a proper princess tonight. It’s important.”
“Why? You’re the king. You’re the one everyone is here to see.”
Thad glanced at the doorway and spoke rapidly. “We can’t hold a kingdom without alliances, both from within and without. Tonight there will be a host of potential allies in that room. Members of Súndraille’s Assembly, royalty and nobility from seven of the ten kingdoms—”
“Yes.” He gave her an exasperated look.
Ari brightened. “I’ll be in charge of courting a relationship with the Eldrians. Draconi make excellent allies.” And if she was really lucky, maybe she could convince one of the Eldrians to step outside and shift into a dragon for her. She’d always wanted to see a dragon in real life. Maybe the dragon would even give her a ride. Thank the stars she’d had Cleo cut her out of that corset. The night was starting to look interesting.
“I’m being serious, Ari.”
“So am I.”
He looked at the ceiling and drew a deep breath. “You have to be a proper princess. No snorting in scorn.”
“Even if someone richly deserves it. Understood.”
“You dance with everyone who asks.”
“Wait . . . everyone? Even if they’re old?”
“Yes. And you make polite conversation. No wayward opinions about how boring you think small talk is.”
“It’s not just boring, it’s entirely useless.” Ari twitched her skirt to the side as the first trio of maids from the kitchen, carrying trays of food for the buffet table, hurried past.
Thad lowered his voice. “It’s not useless. Think of it as an interview to see if you both understand how to be diplomatic.”
Ari sighed. “So to be clear, I’m not supposed to show my true opinion—”
“If your true opinion is something other than polite, diplomatic interest.”
“I can’t express myself with inarticulate noises—”
“Not under any circumstance.”
“I have to dance with everyone who asks, even if my feet hurt or I want to go eat some snacks in peace—”
“And that’s another thing. Don’t get caught stealing snacks.” He gave her a stern look.
Stars, not this again. “It was only the one time. Besides, technically you can’t steal something that is offered to you for free.”
“It was still difficult to explain to Lady Barlis why the newly acknowledged princess of Súndraille would stuff one of every appetizer in her handbag and try to smuggle them out of the ballroom.” Thad held her gaze. “Just be a proper princess tonight. Please. We need allies, and these people need to believe wholeheartedly that you are next in line for the throne in case . . .”
“In case you die? You’re seventeen, in perfect health, and nearly always surrounded by guards. Why are you talking like this?” Her voice was sharper than she’d intended, but his words had ignited a spark of fear she didn’t know how to extinguish. The loss of her mother was a dark pit of grief inside her. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing her brother too.
He cast a quick glance at the open doorway fifty paces to their left and leaned closer to her. “There are only two of us left, and it’s my job to make sure Súndraille stays safely in the hands of a competent leader. Someone the people will follow. When—if I’m not here to rule, then you have to be ready to take my place. That means you need powerful allies. And you don’t get powerful allies unless people view you as a real princess. A true heir to the throne.”
There was an edge of desperation in his voice, and she studied her brother for a moment. He’d lost weight in the three weeks since the rest of their family had died. She’d baked obsessively—it was the only thing that kept her grounded in the chaotic upheaval of her new life—but even Thad’s favorite dessert hadn’t tempted his appetite. His formal coat hung a little loose across his shoulders, and his high cheekbones were sharp slashes in a face that otherwise looked remarkably like her own—golden-brown skin, full lips, and the wide dark eyes they’d both inherited from their father.
Whatever burden of grief Ari was bearing, his was twice as heavy. The weight of the kingdom had fallen across his shoulders, and if he needed her to pretend she was comfortable acting like nobility, she could do it. They only had each other now.
Before that thought could worm its way into her heart and send another piercing ache through her veins, she forced herself to give him a little smile. “Fine. No scorning dumb ideas, no turning down dances with potential allies, no complaining about small talk, and no sneaking a Draconi into the garden for a little midnight dragon ride. You really know how to take the fun out of things.”
Thad laughed—a quick burst of merriment that seemed to surprise him as much as it did her. Tucking her arm in his, he said quietly, “Thank you. You and me against the world, right?”
The coronation sped by in a blur of droning words from the head of the noblemen’s Assembly, the unfamiliar weight of the princess’s crown he’d placed on Ari’s head after crowning Thad, and the stomach-churning knowledge that the eyes of Súndraillian nobility and the invited representatives from seven other kingdoms were focused on her. It was a relief when the ceremony concluded and the dancing began. At least now she had to deal only with the scrutiny of one dance partner at a time.
Also there were the delights of the buffet table to consider.
Three hours later, Ari was busy wishing a pox upon the ballroom and everyone in it. She’d danced with every person who asked (oh joy). She’d made small talk until she was in danger of losing her mind (more joy). And she hadn’t put a single snack into the beaded bag that hung from her wrist (one giant stinking heap of joy).
She’d been the most proper princess who ever set foot in a ballroom, if you didn’t count the times she’d accidentally stepped on the hem of her gown and been forced to clutch her dance partner to keep from tripping. Three hours of behaving like royalty and all she had to show for it was a headache and a list of dance partners who’d wanted to talk only about Thad and the sudden death of the royal family as if she might spill a tidbit of gossip for them to devour.
Lord Hamish from Ravenspire had speculated that someone from the Assembly had poisoned the king, queen, and baby prince in the hope that Thad would make a more malleable ruler. Sir Jabin of Balavata had talked for ages about the economic ramifications of having a seventeen-year-old king whom half of Súndraille seemed to distrust. Lord Kadar of Akram had winked and assured her that many a throne had been taken with bloodshed and there was no shame in it.
But none of the foreign guests was as bad as her partners from Súndraille itself. Each wore a black cravat in honor of the mourning period that would continue for another three weeks. And each asked razor-sharp questions that both grieved and infuriated Ari. She had her answers memorized by now.
Yes, their father had asked them to leave the palace after the baby prince’s birth, but he hadn’t done so out of anger, and he’d given them a generous stipend to help them build a new life somewhere else.
No, she hadn’t realized the queen had placed a bounty on their heads and ordered their deaths so that there would be no competition for the throne.
No, Thad hadn’t killed the royal family. They’d all died in their sleep from some sort of blood disease while Thad and Ari had been several cities to the west of Súndraille’s capital, Kosim Thalas.
Yes, Thad was capable of ruling. He’d been raised to assume the crown, and she’d yet to meet anyone who took the responsibility of his position more seriously than her brother.
Her current partner, Lord Pachis, hailed from the eastern coast of Súndraille and was old enough to be her father. Her cheeks ached from smiling up at him while he lectured her on the rigors of ruling a kingdom where crime was growing and the economy was shaky. When he launched into speculation that Thad might not be up to the task, Ari stopped listening.
Over his shoulder, she caught sight of the beautiful queen of Ravenspire, who was dancing gracefully with her new husband, the king of Eldr, despite the length of her bloodred gown.
Beautiful, graceful, and married to a dragon. Sometimes life was so unfair.
Lord Pachis paused and looked at her expectantly. Ari cursed silently and ordered herself to remember what he’d just said. Asked. Whatever.
She came up blank. She’d been too busy being jealous of Queen Lorelai to pay attention to anything else.
He frowned. “I meant no offense, Your Highness, but it is a pressing question on the minds of many in the noble class.”
His frown deepened. “The issue of parentage and bloodlines. How do you and the king propose to deal with those who say a bastard shouldn’t be given the throne? Especially when the royal family died under mysterious circumstances and the new ruler is of such a tender age—”
Ari barely managed to keep a pleasant expression on her face as she said, “I propose that those who have an issue with the coronation take it up with their representatives from the Assembly. Thad was declared the lawful king because he and I are the only remaining blood relatives of King Waldemar, and Thad is the elder twin. The royal family’s death was determined to be caused by a blood-borne disease. Unless you’re suggesting that the entire body of the Assembly is somehow involved in covering up murder with the intention of putting a seventeen-year-old on the throne, I would like to stop having this discussion.”
He blinked and drew back.
Her stomach dropped, and her cheeks heated. She’d been too blunt. Too outspoken for a princess who’d only been invited to the coronation because Thad had refused to cooperate with what was expected of him unless she was given equal consideration. She’d offended Lord Pachis, and she couldn’t afford to give anyone more reason to distrust Thad and speak ill of him behind his back.
“Forgive me, my lord. I am not myself.” She tried a wide smile, though it felt like her lips were stretched too thin across her teeth. “I’m afraid that after three hours of dancing, I’ve become quite famished and am feeling a bit light-headed.”
He glanced once at the generous curve of her hips and then stepped back and bowed. “I can see that you are not accustomed to going a few hours without food. Allow me to procure some refreshment, Your Highness. Perhaps a bit of fruit and some lemon water.”
Ari caught herself mid-snort and tried to swallow the noise. The terrible, half-choked gurgle that caught in the back of her throat sounded for all the world as if she intended to vomit.
Lord Pachis’s eyes widened. “Are you quite well?”
“Thank you for the dance, my lord.” Ari turned on her heel and hurried away before the duke could insult her again or renew his offer. Who danced their feet off for three hours and then pretended to be refreshed by a bit of fruit?
Not this girl. She needed meat and at least three pastries. Lord Pachis could think what he wanted.
Ducking away from the dance floor, she limped to the massive tables set up along the northern wall, grabbed a plate, and filled it. Popping a stuffed date in her mouth, she turned and scanned the ballroom, skimming over the busy dance floor and the clusters of people conversing over full plates of food until she met Cleo’s gaze. Her friend was standing near a clump of ladies in bright, frothy gowns, her face expressionless as she held a tray half full of wineglasses.
Just past Cleo, another middle-aged nobleman caught Ari’s gaze and began moving toward her. Panic tied her stomach in knots at the thought of having to endure one more round of diplomatically answering another set of questions while dancing on the packed ballroom floor. The room was too warm, too close, and the clash of voices and music surrounding her felt like it was closing in.
Ari met Cleo’s eyes once more, glanced around the room, and then jerked her chin toward an open door that led out to the palace gardens. Cleo instantly began weaving her way through the guests as Ari hurried along the edges of the room and out the door.
The moment she was outside, she drew in a shaky breath and willed herself to be calm. Lanterns with tiny bells hanging beneath them swayed from the branches of the trees closest to the ballroom. A path of crushed stone cut through lush flowering bushes whose waxy blooms filling the night air with a honey-sweet scent. The distant thunder of waves against the palace cliffs and the chirrup of crickets in the trees eased the panic that had driven her from the ballroom.
A breeze drifted through the garden and cooled the heat from her skin. She slipped her shoes off to let her feet sink into the luxurious carpet of grass that edged the bushes. Taking a bite of a crepe stuffed with beef and sweet cheese, she tipped her head back to gaze at the stars that dusted the heavens like silver sugar.
Maybe somewhere in the night sky, her mother was looking down on her. Maybe she already knew the kind of trouble Thad was facing with his subjects. The kind of trouble Ari was having adjusting to being a real princess.
Ari closed her eyes and remembered her mother’s soft voice. Telling Ari not to scrub the floors because she’d chap her hands. Consoling Ari when the king refused to acknowledge her by weaving stories of poverty-stricken princesses who did heroic deeds and saved kingdoms. Urging her to take care of her brother, who lived beneath the weight of his father’s expectations without the benefit of his love.
“I’m trying,” she whispered, hoping her words would somehow find their way to her mother’s ears.
“What are we doing out here?” Cleo asked as she came to stand beside Ari, the tray of wineglasses still in her hands.
“Escaping.” Ari opened her eyes.
“If I escape for too long, Mama will hear of it,” Cleo warned, though she made no move to go back inside.
“I’ll cover for you. I can’t go back inside yet. If I have to suffer through one more conversation about how father and his family died or why Thad is too young to take the throne, I’m going to forget how to be diplomatic.” Ari took another bite of crepe.
“I doubt Thad would like that very much,” Cleo said as she set her tray of wine down and stretched her back.
“What wouldn’t I like?” Thad had left the ballroom and joined them. His black cravat was still perfectly tied, his dress coat impeccably smooth, but he looked haggard. Like a bone-deep weariness was consuming him. Maybe this was what being king did to a person.
Or maybe, like Ari, his night had been filled with people speculating about his ability to rule Súndraille and the possibility that the royal family’s death had been a convenient way for Thad to come into power.
“I was saying that you wouldn’t like Ari to forget how to be diplomatic, Your Highness.” Cleo lifted her hair from the back of her neck and turned toward the sea breeze.
“You don’t have to start calling me Your Highness simply because I’m king now.” Thad pressed his fingers to his forehead as if he had a headache and then looked at his sister. “And we really do need you to keep being diplomatic, though I’d love a front row seat to you putting a few people in their place.”
“Point me in the right direction,” Ari said, and was rewarded with a weary smile.
“Things will settle.” Thad sounded cautious. “Once people see that I can work with the Assembly and that I can take a strong stand against the violence and crime that seem to be spreading out of the slums and into the city proper.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.” A short, immaculately dressed man with pale skin, auburn hair, and unnerving golden eyes stepped out of the garden and into the light of the lanterns.
Thad sucked in a sharp breath. His voice shook as he asked, “What are you doing here? You weren’t invited.”
The man smiled, slow and cruel, and Ari shivered.
In a voice like polished marble, he said, “Come now, dear boy. Did you really think something as inconsequential as a guest list could keep me away?”
Ari stared at the man, and then looked up at Thad’s face.
Her brother’s lips were set in a thin line, and anger—for the first time since the night their mother had been killed by the queen’s hunter—lit his eyes. Without looking at her, he said quietly, “Ari, Cleo, go back to the ballroom.”
“I don’t think I should.” Ari moved to stand by Thad while Cleo took a tiny step back toward the ballroom door, torn between obeying her king and staying with her best friend.
The princess faced the man in front of them. He barely came up to her shoulder, and his clothing suggested nobility of some kind; but the cold, calculating look in his eyes reminded Ari of the man she’d once seen the palace guards haul into her father’s throne room on charges of attempting to assassinate the queen.
“Go.” Thad spoke through gritted teeth.
Right. Because ordering his sister to do something she didn’t want to do had worked so well for him in the past. Besides, she was done with Thad’s subjects questioning his abilities and his right to the throne.
She met the man’s gaze. “You aren’t on the guest list. Leave at once, or I will call the guards to deal with you.”
The man cocked his head to stare at her, and Ari clenched her fists to control the tremble that shuddered through her. She felt like a helpless mouse pinned beneath the claws of a ravenous cat.
“She’s of no interest to you,” Thad said sharply. “And you have no reason to be here.”
“Ah, but I do like to check in on my debtors.” The man turned his gaze back to Thad. “Especially when he owes me so much.”
Thad was the king of Súndraille. He didn’t owe anyone, and Ari had had enough of this man with his cold eyes and his creepy smile.
“Guards!” she called sharply.
Two uniformed guards who were standing just inside the ballroom door pivoted toward her voice. The man in front of her snapped his fingers, and the door separating the garden from the ballroom slammed shut. The guards pounded on the door, but it refused to open.
“What have you done?” She meant her words to sound commanding, but there was a tremor in her voice. Cleo mumbled prayers to the stars and hugged her arms across her body as Thad stepped in front of the girls, his broad shoulders nearly eclipsing Ari’s view of the man.
What kind of man could shut a door with the snap of his fingers? He couldn’t be from Morcant, because only the females of royal lineage had magic there. He couldn’t be from Vallé de Lumé because it was a sorceress, not a wizard, who controlled the land.
That meant he had to be fae.
And that meant Ari and Thad were in way over their heads.
Thad took another step toward the man. “Open that door and leave us be. We’ve settled our terms. I owe you nothing for the next nine years and eleven months.”
Ari stared at Thad, her mind racing to make sense of his words and coming up empty. The panic she’d felt in the ballroom earlier snaked through her veins again, sending her heart racing. What was going on?
The man smiled. “Didn’t read the fine print, did you?”
“Why do you think I wanted a king in my debt?”
Thad glanced at Ari, his gaze haunted.
The man closed the distance between them. “The fine print, my boy, says that you are to do nothing to impede my business in your kingdom. You cannot interfere with my activities. This is simply a courtesy visit to let you know that there will be a little trouble at the docks tomorrow morning, and that you are to order the city guard to stand down. In fact, stand them down in the merchant district as well. Not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future.”
Ari glared at the man while her heart pounded. She didn’t know what kind of business he had in Súndraille, but if he didn’t want Thad’s interference, it was likely he was part of the growing wave of crime and violence Thad’s new subjects desperately wanted him to stop.
“And if I don’t?” Thad’s voice was full of the kind of bravado he used when he knew he’d been beaten but was refusing to admit it.
The man’s smile winked out. “Then you will pay your debt in full. Immediately. Nobody crosses Alistair Teague and survives.”
Thad’s shoulders bowed, and the man snapped his fingers again. The door flew open, and the guards tumbled out, but the man turned and disappeared into the darkness.
“We should go back inside,” Thad said quietly. “People must be looking for us by now.”
Ari dug in her heels and pulled him to a stop when he tried to move toward the ballroom. “That’s it? No explanation for the creepy little man with the debt he’s holding over your head?”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” She glared at him. “Did you see what he did with the door? He has to be fae. Why are you mixed up with someone who can do magic? And what did he mean when he said that when you pay your debt in full, you won’t survive?”
Thad met her gaze, his expression fierce. “I was backed into a corner, and I had to make a bargain with him. It’s my problem, and I’ll deal with it. But you are going to stay out of this, and whatever you do, you are going to stay far away from Alistair Teague. Promise me.”
“Fine. I’ll stay away from Teague.” It was an easy promise to make. Teague made her feel like she was dangling by a thread over a deep, black hole. But if Thad thought she was going to stay out of this and ignore the threat to her brother, he was a fool. It was the two of them against the world; and the last thing Thad needed to deal with on top of questions about the legitimacy of his kingship and an economy shaken by a spike in crime was a fae man threatening him over a bargain.
She couldn’t stop the nobility from questioning Thad’s ability to rule. She couldn’t stop criminals from targeting Súndraille’s cities. But she could figure out what kind of fae creature Alistair Teague was and maybe that would help Thad figure out how to get free of him.
As a group of Draconi who appeared to be close friends of the Eldrian king spilled out into the garden, laughing and dancing, Thad straightened his shoulders, nodded to Cleo as she snatched up her tray of fizzy wine, and then took Ari’s arm and gently steered her toward the ballroom.
Ari stayed by his side, smiling until her face felt like it would never resume a normal expression and gritting her teeth at the barbed questions and insinuations many Súndraillians tossed at her brother.
Thad was going to have to make time in his busy schedule to have a heart-to-heart with her about whatever bargain he’d struck. In the meantime, she’d start asking questions about Teague. If a fae creature with magical power was in Súndraille, someone would’ve heard of it.
If Teague thought he was going to use the bargain he’d made with Thad to take her brother’s life, he was going to have to go through Ari first.
Alistair Teague surveyed the docks with cold satisfaction.
Deckhands hauled boxes of freight up the long ramps that led from the dock to the ships rocking gently in their berths along the inner harbor. Merchants scurried around piles of goods, issuing orders, while the ships’ captains called out commands to check rigging and move lively. At the mouth of the dock where the weather-beaten planks met the crushed seashell road that edged Kosim Thalas, the harbormaster stood with a schedule of departures and arrivals in his hands.
Not a single city guard in sight.
The sun crept higher, tearing through the early morning mist with pale fingers. Flocks of seabirds cawed as they swooped over the golden waves of the Chrysós, diving deep to snatch fish with their sharp beaks. Alistair allowed himself a small smile. Like a seabird, he was prepared to descend on his prey without warning.
And now he no longer had to account for interference from the crown. With the new king of Súndraille firmly in Alistair’s debt, he could conduct his business out in the open.
His would be the name whispered in secret by a kingdom too terrified to speak of him in broad daylight. He would be the cautionary tale parents told their children at night and the clarion call of hope for those desperate enough to bargain their lives away. He would do as he pleased with relentless force; and by the time he made a move for the throne, there would be no one left to dream of opposing him.
Once upon a time, he’d served a crown with no desire to wear one himself.
But that was before the betrayal. Before his exile.
Before the fear of another human uncovering his secrets turned his dreams into nightmares.
When he was in power, when the kingdom was cowering at his feet, he would force every subject to sign a contract with him in blood. A promise that if they ever asked questions about him—his present or his past—they would immediately pay for with their lives. He’d finally be untouchable.
He glanced around once more, meeting the eyes of Daan, his debt collector, and the handful of enforcers who were scattered about, blending in to the busy rhythm of the dock until the time came to spring the trap.
A flurry of activity at the mouth of the dock caught his eye, and Teague’s eyes narrowed as a woman carrying a small child on one hip and a worn satchel over her shoulder shoved a piece of parchment into the harbormaster’s hands and gathered her other four children close while he read the document.
A shipping order. Confirmation that she’d scraped together her meager coin and purchased a berth for herself and her miserable brood aboard a large Eldrian cargo ship bound for the remote port of Ailvansky.
She’d been careful. Secretive. She’d trusted no one.
It didn’t matter. Teague had spies everywhere, including the dock. Cold rage filled him as she took the parchment from the harbormaster with shaking hands and urged her children onto the dock and toward the ramps.
Humans. Greedy, easily manipulated, and unfaithful to their last breath.
He eased behind a merchant who was loudly ticking off the items on his cargo list and waited while she rushed her children past his hiding place. She was muttering desperate pleas for them to move faster. Be quieter. Hurry.
As the last child, a boy who looked maybe ten years old, moved past Teague, pushing a younger girl ahead of him and glancing around the dock with worried eyes, Teague left his place of concealment. Lunging forward, he grabbed the boy’s arm and spun him around.
The boy’s eyes grew big, and he pulled back, but he was no match for Teague.
“Oh, Sela, I believe you’re forgetting someone,” he called, his voice cutting through the dockside clamor and bringing the woman to a halt.
She spun, and terror flooded her face at the sight of her son caught in Teague’s grip.
“Please.” She dropped the satchel and raised a trembling hand toward Teague as her other children clustered around her, their eyes fixed on their older brother. “Not my boy. Not him.”
Teague stepped toward her, dragging the boy with him. “It wouldn’t have been your boy at all, Sela, but you tried to cheat me.”
“I didn’t . . . I wasn’t . . .” Her voice faded, and tears gathered in her eyes. “Please.”
“Your collection day isn’t for another three months, but trying to break your contract with me makes the debt come due immediately.” Teague reached a free hand into his vest pocket and pulled out a glittering diamond flask with a golden stopper.
“No!” Her voice broke.
He shoved the boy toward his siblings and unstoppered the flask as Sela pulled her son close. “Nine years, eight months, three weeks, and two days ago, you made a wish that I would save your dying husband. You promised me your soul if I would take away the disease that was killing him.” His eyes snapped to hers, and rage burned in his chest while his magic spread through his veins like ice. “I kept my end of our bargain. And how do you repay me? You try to run!”
“Because my children need me!”
“They have your husband.” His gaze was pitiless.
“He died. Two years ago this fall. Hit by a horse and carriage while we were at the market.” She threw the words at him, desperate and fierce. “When I made the deal, I thought he would be alive to take care of any children we might have. To provide for them. But he died.”
“That’s what people do,” Teague said viciously. “And that changes nothing about our arrangement.”
“But my children! They’ll be left with no one to take care of them.” Tears streamed down her cheeks and fell to the dusty wooden planks beneath her feet.
Teague smiled. “They’ll have me. At least until I sell them to a slaver in Balavata.” He met the gaze of his collector and motioned sharply for his men to move in.
Sela looked wildly around the dock as the enforcers stepped forward. “Run!” she yelled to her children, but it was too late. Teague’s men had them surrounded.
“Please, I’m begging you!” She fell to her knees and clutched for her children as the enforcers dragged them away from her.
“Beg all you want.” His voice was soft as he stepped toward her. “Plead. Grovel. Promise me anything if only I won’t take what you already agreed to give.”
She reached for his boots with trembling hands. “Not my children. They aren’t part of this. Please. Take me, but spare them.”
He crouched beside her.
“And if I do that, what will my other debtors think? Why would they not also try to defy me?”
She looked around wildly, as if hoping for help that wasn’t coming, and choked out her children’s names between sobs.
Teague raised his voice to be heard above her cries. “Ghlacadh anam de Sela Argyris agus mianach a dhéanamh.”
Strands of brilliant white streaked through her veins to gather in her chest. Somewhere behind him, a child wailed. Sela’s eyes rolled back in her head, and Teague stood, holding out the flask as the light slowly separated from her body and hung in the air before gently winding its way into the mouth of the bottle. Sela’s body hit the dock with a thud, and her children screamed.
Teague pushed the stopper back into the flask and returned it to his pocket.
Another soul captured and ready to join the hundreds of souls that had come before it and be turned into apodrasi, a new drug of his own creation that was lining Teague’s pocket with enough coin to make a lesser man happy.
Teague wasn’t happy. Coin didn’t protect you. It didn’t save you from your secrets.
Only absolute power did that.
He looked around the docks, smiling grimly at the shocked, terrified faces of those who were close enough to have seen Sela’s soul exit her body.
Still not a single city guard in sight.
Power was telling the king to leave the docks unprotected and having him obey.
Power was knowing when his debtor was going to betray him.
Power was the fear he saw on the faces of those who dared to meet his gaze as he stood over Sela’s body.
Leaving her corpse crumpled on the dock, Teague turned on his heel and walked away.
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