[English] FALLING KINGDOMS (Vương Quốc Suy Tàn)

Thảo luận trong 'Thư giãn, giải trí' bởi novelonline, 11/11/2015.

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    Author: Morgan Rhodes

    “A life without wine and beauty isn’t worth living. Don’t you agree, princess?” Aron slung his arm around Cleo’s shoulders as the group of four walked along the dusty, rocky country path.
    They’d been in port for less than two hours and he was already drunk, a fact not unduly startling when it came to Aron.
    Cleo’s glance fell on their apanying palace guard. His eyes flashed with displeasure at Aron’s proximity to the princess of Auranos. But the guard’s concern wasn’t necessary. Despite the fancy jeweled dagger Aron always wore on a sheath hanging from his belt, he was no more dangerous than a butterfly. A drunk butterfly.
    “I couldn’t agree more,” she said, lying only a little.
    “Are we almost there?” Mira asked. The beautiful girl with long dark reddish hair and smooth flawless skin was both Cleo’s friend and her older sister’s lady-in-waiting. When Emilia decided to stay home due to a sudden headache, she’d insisted that Mira apany Cleo on this trip. Once the ship arrived in the harbor, a dozen of their friends chose to remainfortably on board while Cleo and Mira joined Aron on his journey to a nearby village to find the “perfect” bottle of wine. The palace wine cellars were stocked with thousands of bottles of wine from both Auranos and Paelsia, but Aron had heard of a particular vineyard whose output was supposedly unparalleled. At his request, Cleo booked one of her father’s ships and invited many of their friends on the trip to Paelsia expressly in search of his ideal bottle.
     

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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 1



    “A life without wine and beauty isn’t worth living. Don’t you agree, princess?” Aron slung his arm around Cleo’s shoulders as the group of four walked along the dusty, rocky country path.

    They’d been in port for less than two hours and he was already drunk, a fact not unduly startling when it came to Aron.

    Cleo’s glance fell on their accompanying palace guard. His eyes flashed with displeasure at Aron’s proximity to the princess of Auranos. But the guard’s concern wasn’t necessary. Despite the fancy jeweled dagger Aron always wore on a sheath hanging from his belt, he was no more dangerous than a butterfly. A drunk butterfly.

    “I couldn’t agree more,” she said, lying only a little.

    “Are we almost there?” Mira asked. The beautiful girl with long dark reddish hair and smooth flawless skin was both Cleo’s friend and her older sister’s lady-in-waiting. When Emilia decided to stay home due to a sudden headache, she’d insisted that Mira accompany Cleo on this trip. Once the ship arrived in the harbor, a dozen of their friends chose to remain comfortably on board while Cleo and Mira joined Aron on his journey to a nearby village to find the “perfect” bottle of wine. The palace wine cellars were stocked with thousands of bottles of wine from both Auranos and Paelsia, but Aron had heard of a particular vineyard whose output was supposedly unparalleled. At his request, Cleo booked one of her father’s ships and invited many of their friends on the trip to Paelsia expressly in search of his ideal bottle.

    “That would be a question for Aron. He’s the one leading this particular quest.” Cleo drew her fur-lined velvet cloak closer to block out the chill of the day. While the ground was clear, a few light snowflakes drifted across their rock-strewn path. Paelsia was farther north than Auranos, but the temperature here surprised her nonetheless. Auranos was warm and temperate, even in the bleakest winter months, with rolling green hills, sturdy olive trees, and acres beyond acres of rich, temperate farmland. Paelsia, by contrast, seemed dusty and gray as far as the eye could see.

    “Almost there?” Aron repeated. “Almost there? Mira, my peach, all good things come to those who wait. Remember that.”

    “My lord, I’m the most patient person I know. But my feet hurt.” She tempered the complaint with a smile.

    “It’s a beautiful day and I’m lucky enough to be accompanied by two gorgeous girls. We must give thanks to the goddess for the splendor we’ve been greeted with here.”

    Watching the guard, Cleo saw him briefly roll his eyes. When he noticed that she had seen him, he didn’t immediately look away as any other guard might. He held her gaze with a defiance that intrigued her. She realized she hadn’t seen—or, at least, noticed—this guard before today.

    “What’s your name?” she addressed him.

    “Theon Ranus, your highness.”

    “Well, Theon, do you have anything to add to our discussion about how far we’ve walked this afternoon?”

    Aron chortled and swigged from his flask.

    “No, princess.”

    “I’m surprised, since you are the one who’ll be required to carry the cases of wine back to the ship.”

    “It’s my duty and honor to serve you.”

    Cleo considered him for a moment. His hair was the color of dark bronze, his skin tanned and unlined. He looked as if he could be one of her rich friends waiting on the ship rather than a uniformed guard her father had insisted accompany them on this journey.

    Aron must have been thinking the exact same thing. “You look young for a palace guard.” His words slurred together drunkenly as he regarded Theon with a squint. “You can’t be much older than I am.”

    “I’m eighteen, my lord.”

    Aron snorted. “I stand corrected. You are much older than me. Vastly.”

    “By one year,” Cleo reminded him.

    “A year can be a blissful eternity.” Aron grinned. “I plan to cling to my youth and lack of responsibility for the year I have left.”

    Cleo ignored Aron, for the guard’s name now rang a bell in her mind. She’d overheard her father as he exited one of his council meetings briefly discuss the Ranus family. Theon’s father had died only a week ago—thrown from a horse. His neck had broken instantly.

    “My sympathies for the loss of your father,” she said with true sincerity. “Simon Ranus was well respected as my father’s personal bodyguard.”

    Theon nodded stiffly. “It was a job he did with great pride. And one I hope to have the honor to be considered for when King Corvin chooses his replacement.” Theon’s brows drew together as if he hadn’t expected her to know of his father’s death. An edge of grief slid behind his dark eyes. “Thank you for your kind words, your highness.”

    Aron audibly snorted and Cleo shot him a withering look.

    “Was he a good father?” she asked.

    “The very best. He taught me everything I know from the moment I could hold a sword.”

    She nodded sympathetically. “Then his knowledge will continue to live on through you.”

    Now that the young guard’s dark good looks had caught her attention, she found it increasingly difficult to return her gaze to Aron, whose slight frame and pale skin spoke of a life spent indoors. Theon’s shoulders were broad, his arms and chest muscled, and he filled out the dark blue palace guard uniform better than she ever would have imagined possible.

    Guiltily, she forced herself to return her attention to her friends. “Aron, you have another half hour before we head back to the ship. We’re keeping the others waiting.”

    Auranians loved a good party, but they weren’t known for their endless patience. However, since they’d been brought to the Paelsian docks by her father’s ship, they’d have to keep waiting until Cleo was ready to leave.

    “The market we’re going to is up ahead,” Aron said, gesturing. Cleo and Mira looked and saw a cluster of wooden stalls and colorful worn tents, perhaps another ten minutes’ walk. It was the first sign of people they had seen since they’d passed a ragged band of children clustered around a fire an hour ago. “You’ll soon see it was well worth the trip.”

    Paelsian wine was said to be a drink worthy of the goddess. Delicious, smooth, without equal in any other land, and its effects did not lead to illness or headaches the next day, no matter how much was consumed. Some said that there was strong earth magic at work in the Paelsian soil and in the grapes themselves to make them so perfect in a land that held so many other imperfections.

    Cleo wasn’t planning to sample it. She didn’t drink wine anymore—hadn’t for many months. Before that, she’d consumed more than her share of Auranian wine, which didn’t taste much better than vinegar. But people—at least, Cleo—didn’t drink it for the taste; they drank for the intoxicating results, the feeling of not a care in the world. Such a feeling, without an anchor to hold one close to shore, could lead one to drift into dangerous territory. And Cleo wasn’t in any hurry to sip anything stronger than water or peach juice in the foreseeable future.

    Cleo watched Aron drain his flask. He never failed to drink both her share and his and made no apologies for anything he did while under its influence. Despite his shortcomings, many in the court considered him the lord her father would choose as her future husband. The thought made Cleo shudder, yet she still kept him close at hand. For Aron knew a secret about Cleo. Even though he hadn’t mentioned it in many months, she was certain he hadn’t forgotten. Nor would he ever.

    This secret’s reveal would destroy her.

    Because of this, she tolerated him socially with a smile on her lips. No one would ever guess that she loathed him.

    “Here we are,” Aron finally announced as they entered the gates of the village market. Beyond the stalls, off to the right, Cleo saw some small farmhouses and cottages in the near distance. Though far less prosperous-looking than the farms she’d seen in the Auranian countryside, she noted with surprise that the small clay structures with their thatched roofs and small windows seemed neat and well kept, at odds with the impression she had of Paelsia. Paelsia was a land filled with poor peasants, ruled over not by a king, but a chieftain, who was rumored by some to be a powerful sorcerer. Despite Paelsia’s proximity to Auranos, however, Cleo rarely gave her neighbors to the north much thought, other than an occasional vague interest in entertaining tales of the much more “savage” Paelsians.

    Aron stopped in front of a stall draped in dark purple fabric that brushed down to the dusty ground.

    Mira sighed with relief. “Finally.”

    Cleo turned to her left only to be greeted by a pair of glittering black eyes in a tanned, lined face. She took an instinctive step back and felt Theon standing firm and comforting close behind her. The man looked rough, even dangerous, much like the few others who’d crossed their path since they’d arrived in Paelsia. The wine seller’s front tooth was chipped but white in the bright sunlight....
     
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    Jonas collapsed to his knees and stared with horror at the ornate dagger sticking out of Tomas’s throat. Tomas moved his hand as if to try to pull it out, but he couldn’t manage it. Shaking, Jonas curled his hand around the hilt. It took effort to pull it free. Then he clamped his other hand down over the wound. Hot red blood gushed from between his fingers.

    Felicia screamed behind him. “Tomas, no! Please!”

    The life faded from Tomas’s eyes with every slowing beat of his heart.

    Jonas’s thoughts were jumbled and unclear. It felt as if this moment froze in time for him as his brother’s life drained away.

    A wedding. There was a wedding today. Felicia’s wedding. She’d agreed to marry a friend of theirs—Paulo. They’d jokingly given him a hard time when they announced their engagement a month ago. At least, before they welcomed him into their family with open arms.

    A big celebration was planned unlike anything their poor village would see again for a very long time. Food, drink...and plenty of Felicia’s pretty friends for the Agallon brothers to choose from to help forget their daily troubles carving out an existence for their family in a dying land like Paelsia. The boys were the best of friends—and unbeatable in anything they attempted together.

    Until now.

    Panic swelled in Jonas’s chest and he looked frantically around at the swarm of locals for someone to help. “Can’t something be done? Is there a healer here?”

    His hands were slick with Tomas’s blood. His brother’s body convulsed and he made a sickening gurgling sound as more blood gushed from his mouth.

    “I don’t understand.” Jonas’s voice broke. Felicia clutched his arm, her wails of panic and grief deafening. “It happened so fast. Why? Why did this happen?”

    His father stood helplessly nearby, his face grief-stricken but stoic. “It’s fate, son.”

    “Fate?” Jonas spat out, rage blazing bright inside him. “This is not fate! This was not meant to be. This—this was done at the hands of a Auranian royal who considers us dirt beneath his feet.”

    Paelsia had been in steady decline for generations, the land slowly wasting away, while their closest neighbors continued to live in luxury and excess, refusing them aid, refusing them even the right to hunt on their overstocked land when it was their fault in the first place that Paelsia lacked sufficient resources to feed its people. It had been the harshest winter on record. The days were tolerable, but the nights were frigid within the thin walls of their cottage. Dozens, at least, had frozen to death in their small homes or starved.

    No one died from starvation or exposure to the elements in Auranos. The inequality had always sickened Jonas and Tomas. They hated Auranians—especially the royals. But it had been a formless and nameless hate, a random, overall distaste for a people Jonas had never been acquainted with before.

    Now his hatred had substance. Now it had a name.

    He stared down at the face of his older brother. Blood coated Tomas’s tanned skin and lips. Jonas’s eyes stung, but he forced himself not to cry. Tomas had to see him strong right now. He always insisted that his kid brother be strong. Even with only four years separating them, that’s how he’d raised Jonas to be ever since their mother died ten years ago.

    Tomas had taught him everything he knew—how to hunt, how to swear, how to behave around girls. Together they’d provided for their family. They’d stolen, they’d poached, they’d done whatever it took to survive while others in their village wasted away.

    “If you want something,” Tomas had always said, “you have to take it. Because nobody’s ever going to give it to you. Remember that, little brother.”

    Jonas remembered. He’d always remember.

    Tomas had stopped twitching and the blood—so much blood—had stopped flowing so quickly over Jonas’s hands.

    There was something in Tomas’s eyes, past the pain. It was outrage.

    Not only for the unfairness of his murder at the hands of a Auranian lord. No...also at the unfairness of a life spent fighting every day—to eat, to breathe, to survive. And how had they wound up this way?

    A century ago, the Paelsian chief of the time had gone to the sovereigns of Limeros and Auranos, bordering lands to the north and south, and asked for help. Limeros declined assistance, saying that they had enough to contend with getting their own people back on their feet after a recently halted war with Auranos. Prosperous Auranos, however, struck an agreement with Paelsia. They subsidized the planting of vineyards over all the fertile farmland in Paelsia—land that could have been used to grow crops to feed its people and livestock. Instead, they promised to import Paelsian wine at favorable prices, which would in turn enable Paelsia to import Auranos crops at equally favorable prices. This would help both country’s economies, the then king of Auranos said, and the naive Paelsian chieftain shook hands on the deal.

    But the bargain had a time limit. After fifty years, the set prices on imports and exports would expire. And expire they had. Now Paelsians could no longer afford to import Auranian food—not with the falling price of their wine since Auranos was their only customer and could ruthlessly set the cost, which they did, ever lower and lower. Paelsia lacked the ships to export to other kingdoms across the Silver Sea, and austere Limeros in the north was devout in its worship of a goddess who had frowned on drunkenness. The rest of the land continued to slowly die as it had for decades. And all Paelsians could do was watch it fade away.

    The sound of his sister’s sobs on the day that should be the happiest of her life broke Jonas’s heart.

    “Fight,” Jonas whispered to his brother. “Fight for me. Fight to live.”

    No, Tomas seemed to convey as the remaining light left his eyes. He couldn’t speak. His larynx had been sliced clean through by the Auranian’s blade. Fight for Paelsia. For all of us. Don’t let this be the end. Don’t let them win.

    Jonas fought not to let out the sob he felt deep in his heart but failed. He wept, a broken and unfamiliar sound to his own ears. And a dark, bottomless rage filled him where grief had so quickly carved out a deep, black hole.

    Lord Aron Lagaris would pay for this.

    And the fair-haired girl—Princess Cleiona. She stood by with a cold and amused smirk on her beautiful face and watched her friend murder Tomas. “I swear I’ll avenge you, Tomas,” Jonas managed through clenched teeth. “This is only the beginning.”

    His father touched his shoulder and Jonas tensed.

    “He’s gone, my son.”

    Jonas finally pulled his trembling, bloody hands away from his brother’s ravaged throat. He’d been making promises to someone whose spirit had already departed for the ever after. Only Tomas’s shell remained.

    Jonas looked up at the cloudless blue sky above the market and let the harsh cry of grief escape his throat. A golden hawk flew from its perch on his father’s wine stall above them.
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 3



    Someone asked Magnus a question, but he hadn’t been paying any attention. After a while, everyone at a banquet like this began to resemble a swarm of buzzing fruit flies. Annoying, but impossible to squash quickly and easily.

    He pasted what he hoped was a pleasant expression on his face and turned to his left to face one of the more vocal of the insects. He took another bite of kaana and swallowed it without chewing in an attempt to evade the taste. He barely glanced at the salted beef next to it on his pewter plate. He was quickly losing his appetite.

    “Apologies, my lady,” he said. “I didn’t quite hear that.”

    “Your sister, Lucia,” Lady Sophia said, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with an embroidered jacquard napkin. “She’s grown into a lovely young woman, hasn’t she?”

    Magnus blinked. Small talk was so taxing. “She has indeed.”

    “Tell me again, what age has she turned today?”

    “Sixteen.”

    “Lovely girl. And so polite.”

    “She was raised well.”

    “Of course. Is she betrothed to anyone yet?”

    “Not yet.”

    “Mmm. My son, Bernardo, is very accomplished, quite handsome, and what he lacks in height he more than makes up for in intelligence. I think they would make a fine match.”

    “This, my lady, is something I would suggest you speak to my father about.”

    Why had he been seated directly next to this woman? She was ancient and smelled of dust and also, for some bizarre reason, seaweed. Perhaps she had emerged from the Silver Sea and traveled up over the rocky cliffs to get to the frosty granite Limeros castle at the top rather than across the ice-covered land like everyone else.

    Her husband, Lord Lenardo, leaned forward in his high-backed seat. “Enough about matchmaking, wife. I’m curious to know what the prince’s thoughts are on the problems in Paelsia.”

    “Problems?” Magnus responded.

    “The recent unrest caused by the murder of a poor wine seller’s son at market a week ago in full sight of everyone.”

    Magnus slid his index finger casually around the edge of his goblet. “A murder of a poor wine seller’s son. Pardon my seeming disinterest, but that doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary. The Paelsians are a savage race, quick to violence. I’ve heard they’ll happily eat their meat raw if their fires take too long to build.”

    Lord Lenardo gave him a crooked grin. “Indeed. But this is unusual since it was at the hands of a visiting royal from Auranos.”

    This was more interesting. Marginally. “Is that so? Who?”

    “I don’t know, but there are rumors that Princess Cleiona herself was involved in the altercation.”

    “Ah. I’ve found rumors have much in common with feathers. It’s rare that either holds much weight.”

    Unless, of course, those rumors proved true.

    Magnus was well aware of the youngest princess of Auranos. She was a great beauty the same age as his sister—he’d met her once when they were both small children. He felt no interest in going to Auranos again. Besides, his father severely disliked the Auranian king and as far as he knew, the feeling was mutual.

    His gaze moved across the great hall and he locked eyes with his father, who stared back at him with cold disapproval. His father despised the look Magnus got when he was bored at a public function like this. He found it insolent. But it was such a struggle for Magnus to hide how he felt, although he had to admit, he didn’t try all that hard.

    Magnus raised his water goblet and toasted his father, King Gaius Damora of Limeros.

    His father’s lips thinned.

    Irrelevant. It wasn’t Magnus’s job to ensure this celebration feast went well. It was all a sham anyway. His father was a bully who forced his people to follow his every rule—his favorite weapons were fear and violence, and he had a horde of knights and soldiers to impose his will and keep his subjects in line. He worked very hard to keep up appearances and show himself to be strong, capable, and vastly prosperous.

    But Limeros had fallen on hard times in the dozen years since the iron-fisted Gaius, “King of Blood,” had taken the throne from his father, the much loved King Davidus. The economic struggles had yet to directly affect anyone living at the palace itself given that Limerian religion didn’t encourage luxury in the first place, but the tightened straits in the kingdom at large were impossible to ignore. That the king had never addressed this publicly amused Magnus.

    Still, the royals were served a portion of kaana with their meals—mushed-up yellow beans that tasted like paste—and expected to eat it. It was what many Limerians had been choking down to fill their bellies as the winter dragged on and on.

    In addition, some of the more ornate tapestries and paintings were removed from the castle walls and put into storage, leaving them bare and cold. Music was banned, as was singing and dancing. Only the most educational books were allowed within the Limeros palace, nothing that simply told a tale for entertainment’s sake. King Gaius cared only for the Limerian ideals of strength, faith, and wisdom—not art, beauty, or pleasure.

    Rumors circulated that Limeros had begun its decline—just as Paelsia had for several generations—due to the death of elementia, elemental magic. The essential magic that gave life to the world was drying completely up much like a body of water in the middle of a desert.

    Only traces of elementia had been left when the rival goddesses Cleiona and Valoria destroyed each other, centuries ago. But even those traces, whispered those who believed in the magic, were beginning to vanish. Limeros froze over each year, and its spring and summer were now only a couple short months long. Paelsia was withering away, its ground dry and parched. Only southern Auranos showed no outward sign of decay.

    Limeros was a devoutly religious land whose people clung to their belief in the goddess Valoria, especially in hard times, but Magnus privately thought those who relied on their belief in the supernatural, in any form it took, showed an inner weakness.

    Most of those who believed, anyway. He did make an exception for a precious few. He directed his gaze to the right of his father, where his sister sat dutifully, the guest of honor at this banquet touted as being in celebration of her birthday.

    The dress she wore tonight was a pinkish orange shade that made him think of a sunset. It was a new dress, one he’d never seen her in before, and beautifully made, reflecting the image of eternal richness and perfection his father demanded the Damora family show—although even he had to admit he was surprised by how colorful it was in the sea of gray and black his father tended to prefer.

    The princess had pale, flawless skin and long silky dark hair that, when it wasn’t pulled into a tidy twist, fell to her waist in soft waves. Her eyes were the color of the clear blue sky. Her lips were full and naturally rosy. Lucia Eva Damora was the most beautiful girl in all of Limeros. Without a single exception.

    Suddenly, the glass goblet in Magnus’s tight grip shattered and cut his hand. He swore, then grabbed for a napkin to bind the wound. Lady Sophia and Lord Lenardo looked at him with alarm, as if disturbed that it might have been their conversation of betrothals and murder that had upset him.

    It was not.

    Stupid, so stupid.

    The thought was reflected by the look on his father’s face—he hadn’t missed a thing. His mother, Queen Althea, seated to the king’s left, also took notice. She immediately averted her cool gaze to continue the conversation with the woman seated next to her.

    His father didn’t look away. He glared at him as if embarrassed to be in the same room. Clumsy, insolent Prince Magnus, the king’s heir. For now, anyway, he thought sourly, his mind flashing briefly to Tobias, his father’s…“right-hand man.” Magnus wondered if there would ever come a day when his father would approve of him. He supposed he should be grateful the king even bothered to invite him to this event. Then again, he wanted to make it seem as if the royal family of Limeros was a tight-knit and strong unit—now and always.

    What a laugh.

    Magnus would have already left frigid, colorless Limeros to leisurely explore the other realms that lay across the Silver Sea, but there was one thing that kept him right where he was, even now that he was on the cusp of turning eighteen.

    “Magnus!” Lucia had rushed to his side and knelt next to him. Her attention was fully focused on his hand. “You’ve hurt yourself.”

    “It’s nothing,” he said tightly. “Just a scratch.”

    Blood had already soaked through the meager binding. Her brows drew together with concern. “Just a scratch? I don’t think so. Come with me and I’ll help bandage it properly.”

    She pulled at his wrist.

    “Go with her,” Lady Sophia advised. “You don’t want an infection to set in.”

    “No, wouldn’t want that.” His jaw set. The pain wasn’t enough to bother him, but his embarrassment did sting. “Fine, my sister, the healer. I’ll let you patch me up.”

    She gave him a comforting smile that made something inside him...
     
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    Ioannes opened his eyes and took a deep breath of the sweet, warm air. The sun-warmed green grass worked well as his bed, and he pushed himself up into a sitting position. It took him a moment to come back fully into his own body since he’d been traveling without it for quite some time.

    He looked down at his hands—skin had replaced feathers. Fingernails had replaced talons. It always took getting used to.

    “What did you see?”

    Perhaps he would not have as much time as he would like. Ioannes craned his neck to look at the one waiting for his return. Timotheus sat nearby on a carved stone bench, his legs crossed, his flowing white cloaks impeccable as always.

    “Nothing more than usual,” Ioannes said, although it was somewhat of a lie. He, and the others who traveled from this realm in this manner had agreed to discuss with each other their findings before taking any important information to the elders, who themselves could no longer transform into hawks.

    “No clues at all?”

    “Of the Kindred themselves? Nothing. There are as hidden today as they were a millennium ago.”

    Timotheus’s jaw clenched. “Our time grows shorter.”

    “I know.” If they did not find the Kindred, the wasting away that the mortal realm was experiencing would soon bleed over into the Sanctuary as well.

    The elders were uncertain how to proceed. So many centuries and nothing. No clues. No leads. Even paradise could become a prison if one had enough time to take notice of the walls.

    “However, there is a girl,” Ioannes said a bit reluctantly.

    This captured Timotheus’s attention. “A girl?”

    “She could be the one we’ve waited for. She has only now turned sixteen mortal years. I felt something from her—something is emerging that goes beyond anything I’ve sensed before.”

    “Magic?”

    “I believe so.”

    “Who is she? Where is she?”

    Ioannes hesitated. Despite his agreement with the others, he was duty bound to tell the elders what they wished to know—and he trusted Timotheus. But something about this felt fragile, like a small seedling that hadn’t yet taken root. If he was wrong, it would make him look a fool to raise an alarm. But if he was right, then the girl was incredibly precious and had to be treated gently.

    “Leave it to me to learn more,” Ioannes said instead. “I will keep watch over her and report back anything I see. This means I must abandon my search for the Kindred.”

    “The others will focus on that.” Timotheus’s brow raised. “Yes, keep watch over this girl whose identity you wish to protect from me.”

    Ioannes looked at him sharply. “I know you mean her no harm. Why would I wish to protect her from you?”

    “This is a good question.” A small smile touched the elder’s lips. “Do you wish to leave the Sanctuary entirely to go to her side or continue to watch from afar?”

    Ioannes knew several who had become deeply enamored with the world of mortals and with those they watched, but to leave the Sanctuary meant one could never return.

    “I’ll stay right where I am,” he said. “Why would I wish for anything other than to be here?”

    “That is what your sister once said.”

    His heart gave a sharp twist. “She made a mistake.”

    “Perhaps. Do you ever visit her?”

    “No. She made her choice. I don’t need to witness the result. I prefer to remember her as she was—young forever. She would be an old woman now, fading away just as the land she loved more than this one fades away with only her precious seeds to keep her company.”

    With that, Ioannes laid his head back against the soft, warm grass, closed his eyes, and transformed, returning by air to the cold and unforgiving world of mortals.
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
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    “The birds are watching me,” Cleo said as she paced back and forth in the palace courtyard.

    “Really?” Emilia repressed a smile as she added another stroke of paint to her canvas. It was an image of the Auranos palace, well known for its fa?ade of gold set into the polished stone, which made it appear like a glittering jewel upon the lush green land that surrounded it. “Is my little sister paranoid or is she beginning to believe in old legends?”

    “Maybe both.” Cleo’s citron-colored skirts swished as she shifted direction and pointed to the corner of the grassy enclosure. “But I swear that white dove in the peach tree has studied every move I’ve made since I came out here.”

    Emilia laughed and shared an amused look with Mira, who sat nearby working on her embroidery. “The Watchers are said to see through the eyes of hawks, not just any random bird.”

    A long-eared squirrel scurried up the tree trunk. The bird finally flew away. “If you say so. You’re the expert on religion and myth in our family.”

    “Only because you refuse to study,” Mira pointed out.

    Cleo stuck her tongue out at her friend. “I have better things to do with my time than read.”

    For the last week, those “better things” had included much fretting and worrying while awake and nightmares while asleep. Even if she wanted to read, her eyes were bloodshot and sore.

    Emilia finally put down her paintbrush to give Cleo her full attention. “We should go back inside, where you’ll be safe from the beady eyes of spying birds.”

    “You can make fun of me as much as you like, sister, but I can’t help how I feel.”

    “Indeed. Perhaps it’s guilt over what happened in Paelsia that makes you feel this way.”

    Nausea welled within her. She turned her face up toward the sun, so very different from the coldness in Paelsia that had sunk down to her bones. The entire trip home she had shivered, unable to get warm. The chill had stayed with her for days afterward, even once she returned to the warmth of home. “Ridiculous,” she lied. “I’ve already forgotten it.”

    “Do you know that is what Father is meeting with his council about today?”

    “About what?”

    “About...well, you. And Aron. And everything that happened that day.”

    Cleo felt the blood drain from her face. “What are they saying?”

    “Nothing to be concerned with.”

    “If I wasn’t to be concerned, you wouldn’t have brought the subject up at all, would you?”

    Emilia swung her legs around and rose from her chair. She steadied herself for a moment and Mira looked up, concerned, and put down her needlework to come to her side. Emilia had been having some difficulty with headaches and dizziness the last couple of weeks.

    “Tell me what you know,” Cleo urged, watching Emilia worriedly.

    “The death of the wine seller’s son has apparently caused some political difficulties for Father. It’s become a bit of a scandal, really. Everyone’s talking about it and placing blame in various places. He’s doing his best to ease any ill feelings this has raised. Even though Auranos imports a great deal of Paelsian wine, export of it has all but shut down until the crisis eases off. Many Paelsians refuse to deal with us. They’re angry with us—and with Father for letting this happen. Of course, they’re blowing everything completely out of proportion.”

    “It’s all so horrible,” Mira exclaimed. “I wish I could forget it ever happened.”

    That made two of them. Cleo wrung her hands, her dismay mirrored on Mira’s face. “And how long will it take before everything goes back to normal?”

    “I honestly don’t know,” Emilia replied.

    Cleo despised politics mainly because she didn’t understand them. But then, she didn’t have to. Emilia was the heir to their father’s throne. She would be the next queen, not Cleo.

    Thank the goddess for that. There was no way that Cleo could deal with endless council meetings and being cordial and polite to those who hadn’t earned it. Emilia had been raised from birth to be a perfect princess who could deal with any issues that arose. Cleo...well, she enjoyed sunning herself, taking her horse out for long rides in the countryside, and spending time with her friends.

    She’d never been associated with such a scandal yet. Apart from the secret Aron kept, there was nothing scandalous anyone could say about Princess Cleiona. Until now, she realized anxiously.

    “I need to talk to Father,” Cleo said. “To find out what’s going on.”

    Without another word spoken, she left Emilia and Mira in the courtyard and entered the castle, hurrying through the well-lit hallways until she came to the council room. Through the arched doorway, sunlight shone through the many windows, their wooden shutters wide open. A large fire in the hearth also lent light to the large room. She had to wait until they were finished and all filed out before her father was alone. She paced outside the room, bristling with energy. Patience was a gift Cleo had never received.

    Once everyone had left, she burst inside to find her father still seated at the head of a long polished wooden table large enough to seat a hundred men. Cleo’s great-grandfather had commissioned it from the wood of olive trees that grew outside the palace walls. A wide colorful tapestry hung on the far wall, detailing the history of Auranos. Cleo had spent many hours as a child staring at it in awe and admiring the great artwork of it. On the opposite wall was the Bellos family crest and one of many bright, sparkling mosaics depicting the Goddess Cleiona, for whom Cleo had been named.

    “What’s going on?” Cleo demanded.

    Her father looked up at her from a stack of scrolls and paperwork. He was dressed casually, in leathers and a finely knit tunic. His neatly groomed brown beard was threaded with gray. Some said Cleo and her father’s eyes were the exact same color of vivid blue-green, while her sister, Emilia, had inherited their late mother’s brown ones. Both Emilia and Cleo, however, had been born with their mother’s fair hair, unusual in Auranos, where the people tended to be darker-complected from the sun. Queen Elena had been the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the eastern hills of Auranos before King Corvin had seen and fallen in love with her on his coronation tour more than two decades before. Family lore had it that Elena’s ancestors had emigrated from across the Silver Sea.

    “Were your ears burning, daughter?” he asked. “Or did Emilia tell you of current events?”

    “What difference does it make? If it concerns me, then I should be told. So tell me!”

    He held her gaze easily, unmoved by her demands. The fiery nature of his youngest daughter was nothing new to him and he weathered it as he always did. Why wouldn’t he? Cleo never caused more of a fuss than a few words spilled. She would grumble and rant but then swiftly forget about whatever troubled her as her attention caught on something else. The king recently compared her to a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. She hadn’t taken this as a compliment.

    “Your trip to Paelsia last week is a topic of contention, Cleo. A growing one, I’m afraid.”

    Fear and guilt immediately crashed over her. Until today, she didn’t realize he even knew about it. Except for unburdening herself to Emilia, she hadn’t said a word about it from the moment she stepped on the ship in the Paelsia harbor. She’d hoped to put the murder of the wine seller’s son out of her mind, but it hadn’t worked very well. She relived it every night when she closed her eyes and fell asleep. Also, the murderous glare of the boy’s brother—Jonas—as he threatened her life before she, Aron, and Mira ran away haunted her.

    “Apologies.” The words caught in her throat. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

    “I believe you. But it seems as if trouble follows you wherever you go.”

    “Are you going to punish me?”

    “Not precisely. However, these recent difficulties have made me decide that you will stay here at the palace from this day forward. I won’t allow you to take my ship again on your explorations until further notice.”

    Despite her shame over the events in Paelsia, the very idea of this grounding made her bristle. “I can’t just be expected to never leave, like some sort of prisoner.”

    “What happened is not acceptable, Cleo.”

    Her throat tightened. “Don’t you think I feel horrible about it?”

    “I’m sure you do. But it changes nothing.”

    “It shouldn’t have happened.”

    “But it did. You shouldn’t have been there at all. Paelsia is no place for a princess. It’s too dangerous.”

    “But Aron—”

    “Aron.” Her father’s eyes flashed. “He’s the one who killed the peasant, correct?”

    Aron’s violent and unexpected turn in the market surprised even Cleo. Even though she harbored distrust for the boy, she was dismayed by his lack of guilt.

    “He was,” she confirmed.

    The king was...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 6



    Jonas had cleaned the dagger’s blade twice, but it was as if he could still see his brother’s blood on it. He tucked it into the leather sheath at his hip and surveyed the border between Paelsia and Auranos. It was monitored, of course. Guards were assigned to keep watch over it from the Silver Sea in the west and across to the Forbidden Mountains in the east. Stealthy guards, since they couldn’t easily be seen—unless you knew what to look for.

    Jonas knew. He’d been taught by the best—by Tomas. The first time he’d ever come close to this dangerous area was when he was only ten years old, his brother fourteen. Tomas had a secret, one he’d never shared with anyone until he decided to share it with his younger brother. He poached from their neighbors. It was a crime with an immediate death sentence if they were ever caught, but he’d thought it was worth it to keep their family healthy and alive. Jonas agreed.

    Paelsia was once a land of gardens, lush forests, and hundreds of rivers filled with fish; a land filled to overflowing with wild animals to hunt. That had begun to change three generations ago. Slowly, from the snow-capped mountains in the east and across toward the ocean in the west, Paelsia had become less fertile, less able to sustain life. It all began to die, leaving behind brown grass, gray rock, and death. A wasteland. Closer to the sea, it improved, but by now only a quarter of the land was able to sustain life as it once had.

    However, thanks to Auranos, what fertile soil was left was now used to plant vineyards so they could sell wine cheaply to their southern neighbor and drink themselves into a stupor rather than plant crops that could feed those who lived here. To Jonas, wine had become a symbol of the oppression of Paelsians. A symbol of the stupidity of Paelsians. And instead of refusing to accept this and begin a search for a solution, they lived day to day with a weary sense of acceptance.

    Many believed that their leader, Chief Basilius, would eventually summon the magic to save them all. The most devoted of his subjects believed him to be a sorcerer, and they worshipped him like a god, bound to this world by flesh and blood. He took three-quarters of the wine profits as a tax. His people gave it over freely, solid in their belief that he would soon summon his magic to save them all.

    Naive, Jonas thought, enraged. So unforgivably naive.

    Tomas, on the other hand, hadn’t believed in such nonsense as magic. While he’d respected the chief’s position as leader, he believed only in the cold, hard facts of life. He had no problem regularly poaching from Auranos. He would have been more than happy to poach from Limeros as well, but the rocky terrains, wide moors, and frigid temperatures their northern neighbors had to offer weren’t as conducive to wildlife as the temperate climate and grassy valleys of Auranos.

    Jonas had been amazed when Tomas first snuck him across the border into Auranos. A white-tailed deer had practically walked right up and presented its throat to the boys’ blades as if welcoming them into the prosperous kingdom. When the boys disappeared for a week at a time and returned laden with food, their father, unquestioning then as now, assumed they’d found a secret bounty of hunting in Paelsia, and they never told him otherwise. While the old man preferred them to work long hours in the vineyards, he allowed them their frequent journeys without argument.

    If he’d known the truth, he would have been furious that his sons were risking their lives. The brothers had nearly been caught more than once, escaping only by the swiftness of their feet. All for trying to feed their family. For this, they were forced to risk their own necks in a land that could easily share everything it possessed and never notice the loss.

    “One day,” Tomas had said to him while they stood in this very spot just before they crossed the border, “you and I are going to start a revolution. We’re going to make it so anyone can cross this border without getting an arrow in their backs. And everybody in Paelsia will experience the beauty and abundance Auranians get every day of their spoiled lives. We’ll take it for ourselves.”

    Jonas’s eyes burned at the memory. Grief clawed at his throat. It had barely let go for a moment since the murder.

    I wish you were here right now, Tomas. So much. We’d start that revolution of yours today.

    His hand brushed against the hilt of the knife used by Lord Aron to stab his brother in the throat. All while a beautiful princess watched on with amusement.

    That princess had quickly become Jonas’s obsession—the perfect symbol of Auranos itself. Coldly beautiful, greedy, and evil to the core. He found his hatred for her burning brighter with each day that passed. She’d likely already forgotten what happened now that she was back in her golden palace without a care in her pampered world. Evil bitch. After he finished with Lord Aron, Jonas fully planned to use the very same blade to slowly kill her as well.

    “This was meant to be,” his father had said as the funeral flames for Tomas lit up the dark sky.

    “It was not,” Jonas gritted out through clenched teeth.

    “There’s no other way to see it. To bear it. It was his destiny.”

    “A crime was committed, Father. A murder at the hands of the same royals you would still sell your wine to in a heartbeat. And no one will pay for this. Tomas died in vain and all you can talk about is destiny?”

    With the heart-wrenching image of his beloved brother’s spiritless shell branded forever into his memory, Jonas moved away from the crowd who’d gathered to be a part of the funeral ritual. He met his sister’s glossy eyes as they passed.

    “You know what you have to do,” Felicia whispered fiercely. “Avenge him.”

    And so here he was, ready to enter Auranos. A predator prepared to hunt an entirely different kind of prey. And he knew with a calm certainty that he would not return from this personal mission. He would die in the process—gladly, giving his life to avenge his brother’s murder.

    “You look very serious.” A voice spoke to him from the shadows.

    Every muscle in his body tensed. He turned to his right, but before he could reach for his weapon, he was met with a fist slamming into his gut. He staggered back, gasping for breath. A body slammed into his and took him down to the ground hard.

    A sharp blade pressed against his throat before he could summon the energy to get back to his feet. He stopped breathing and stared up into a pair of dark eyes.

    A mouth twisted with amusement. “Dead. Just like that. See how easy it would be?”

    “Get off me,” Jonas gritted out.

    The blade lifted from his throat. He shoved at the figure on top of him, which finally shifted back with a low rumble of laughter.

    “Idiot. You think you could just disappear and nobody would notice you’re gone?”

    Jonas glared at his best friend. Brion Radenos. “I didn’t invite you to come along.”

    Brion ran a hand through his messy black hair. His teeth flashed white. “I took the liberty of tracking you. You leave a substantial trail. Made it easy.”

    “I’m surprised I didn’t notice you.” Jonas brushed off his shirt, now ripped and dirtier than it had been to begin with. “You stink like a bastard pig.”

    “You were never the best when it came to insults. Personally, I take that as a compliment.” Brion sniffed the air. “You aren’t exactly the freshest flower in the valley right now either. Any border guard would be able to smell you when you got within fifty feet of them.”

    Jonas glowered. “Mind your own business, Brion.”

    “My friend running off to get himself slaughtered is my business.”

    “No, it isn’t.”

    “You can argue with me all day and night if you like if it’ll keep you from entering this kingdom.”

    “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve entered this kingdom.”

    “But it would be the last. You think I don’t know what you’re planning?” He shook his head. “I’ll say it again. Idiot.”

    “I’m not an idiot.”

    “You want to march into the Auranian palace and kill two royals. To me, that’s the plan of an idiot.”

    “Both of them deserve to die,” he growled.

    “Not like this.”

    “You weren’t there. You didn’t see what happened to Tomas.”

    “No, but I’ve heard enough stories. I’ve seen your grief.” Brion exhaled slowly, studying his friend. “I know how you think, Jonas. How you feel. I lost my own brother, remember?”

    “Your brother slipped off a cliff when he was drunk and fell to his death. It’s not nearly the same thing.”

    Brion flinched at the reminder of his brother’s shortcomings, and Jonas had the grace to wince that he’d been low enough to bring up such a sore subject. “The loss of a brother is painful, no matter how he meets his end,” Brion said after a moment. “And so is the loss of a friend.”

    “I can’t let this stand, Brion. Any of it. I can’t make peace with it.” Jonas gazed across the open field beyond the thin line of forest separating the two lands. By foot, the palace was still a full day’s...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 7



    Tomas reached out to Cleo as if begging her to help him. He tried to speak, but he couldn’t—the blade was lodged too deeply in his throat. He would never speak another word. The blood that gushed unstoppably from his mouth grew deep around them and swiftly formed a bottomless crimson lake.

    Cleo was drowning in blood. It washed over her, coating her skin, choking her.

    “Please, help! Help!” She struggled to reach up into the freezing air above the thick, hot blood.

    A hand grasped hold of hers tightly to pull her above the surface.

    “Thank you!”

    “Don’t thank me, princess. Beg me not to kill you.”

    Her eyes widened as she looked up into the face of the murdered boy’s brother. Jonas Agallon’s features were deeply etched with grief and hatred. Dark brows drew together over mahogany-colored eyes.

    “Beg me,” he said again, digging his fingers painfully into her flesh, hard enough to bruise.

    “Please don’t kill me! I—I’m sorry—I didn’t want your brother to die. Please don’t hurt me!”

    “But I want to hurt you. I want you to suffer for what you’ve done.” He shoved her back down. She shrieked as the murdered boy himself took hold of her ankle and began pulling her deeper into this ocean of death.

    Cleo sat up in her bed screaming. She was twisted in her silk sheets, her body damp with sweat, her heart pounding loud in her ears. She looked frantically around the room from her canopied bed.

    She was alone. She had only been dreaming.

    The same nightmare had plagued her every night for a month. Ever since Tomas Agallon’s murder. So vivid. So real. But just a dream fueled by endless guilt. She let out a long, shaky sigh and fell back against her silk pillows.

    “This is madness,” she whispered. “It’s done. It’s over. There’s no going back to change it.”

    If there was a chance for that, she would have told Theon to step in and stop Aron’s bartering. His posturing. His arrogance. She would have put an end to it before it escalated in such a horrible, deadly way.

    She’d avoided Aron ever since they returned to Auranos. If he showed up at a social gathering, she would leave. If he moved closer to talk, she would shift her attention to a different group of friends. He hadn’t protested yet, but she knew it was only a matter of time.

    Aron liked to be included in her circle whenever possible. And if he threatened to expose her secret because of any perceived slight...

    She squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to panic at the thought.

    After a full month of avoidance, Cleo knew she had to talk to Aron. She found she needed to know if he too had nightmares about what happened. If he felt the same guilt. If she was to become engaged to this boy at her father’s insistence, she needed to know that he wasn’t a monster who’d cold-bloodedly kill someone and not give a single care for the pain he’d caused.

    If Aron was wracked with guilt, it might change things for her. Perhaps he, like she, was deeply pained over his actions and attempting to hide his true feelings from the world. They would have this in common. If nothing else, it would be a start. She resolved to speak with him in private as soon as possible.

    Yet she still spent the remainder of the night tossing and turning.

    In the morning, Cleo rose, dressed, and breakfasted on fruit, soft cheese, and bread delivered to her chambers by a palace maid. Then she took a deep breath and opened her door.

    “Good morning, princess,” Theon said. He typically waited down the hall from her room in the mornings, ready to do his bodyguard duties—which included lurking about all day long in her peripheral vision.

    “Morning,” she replied as casually as possible.

    She’d need to give her shadow the slip if she wanted to talk to Aron privately. Luckily, she knew this wasn’t impossible. In the weeks since Theon’s new placement she’d tested him a few times to see if she could successfully hide from him. It became a bit of a game that she often won. Theon, however, didn’t think it was very amusing.

    “I need to see my sister,” she said firmly.

    Theon nodded. “By all means. Don’t let me stop you.”

    She moved through the hall, surprised when she turned the next corner to see Mira heading her way. Her friend looked upset and distracted. There was no immediate smile on Mira’s round, pretty face at the sight of the princess like there normally was.

    “What’s wrong?” Cleo asked, clasping the girl’s arm.

    “Nothing, I’m sure. But I’m off to get a healer to attend Emilia.”

    Cleo frowned. “Is she still sick?”

    “Her headaches and dizziness seem to worsen every day. She insists all she needs is more sleep, but I think it’s for the best that someone looks at her.”

    Concern swelled in Cleo’s chest. “Of course. Thank you, Mira.”

    Mira nodded, and with a glance at Theon standing nearby she continued down the hall.

    “My sister,” Cleo said under her breath. “Never one to accept help unless it’s forced upon her. Duty above all. Just like a proper princess should be. My father would be so proud.”

    “She sounds very brave,” Theon responded.

    “Perhaps. But they call me the stubborn one. If I was feeling dizzy all the time, I’d want a dozen healers called to my bedside to make it stop.” She paused at the door to Emilia’s chambers. “Please let me speak privately to my sister.”

    “Of course. I’ll wait right here.”

    She entered Emilia’s bedchamber and closed the door behind her. Her sister stood on her open balcony, looking down at the gardens below. The morning sun brushed against her high cheekbones and picked up glints of gold in her hair, which was a few shades darker than Cleo’s since Emilia wasn’t so given to spending time outdoors. She glanced over her shoulder.

    “Good morning, Cleo.”

    “I hear you’re unwell.”

    Emilia sighed, but a smile touched her lips. “I assure you I’m fine.”

    “Mira is worried.”

    “Mira is always worried.”

    “You might have a point.” Mira did tend to exaggerate things, Cleo remembered, like the time she’d hysterically insisted there was a viper in her bedroom and it turned out to be a harmless garden snake. Cleo relaxed slightly. Besides, Emilia looked perfectly healthy.

    Emilia studied her sister’s face as she glanced toward the door. “You look rather conspiratorial this morning. Are you up to some sort of mischief?”

    Cleo couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe a little.”

    “Of what sort?”

    “Escape.” She glanced out the window. “Using your trellis like we used to.”

    “Really. May I ask why?” Emilia didn’t seem surprised by this admission at all. She’d been the one who’d taught Cleo how to climb down to the gardens when they’d been much younger—back before Emilia had started shifting into a much more poised and perfect princess. Back when she didn’t mind getting dirty or her knees skinned with her younger sister. Now Cleo was the only one who would consider such a feat. A proper future queen like Emilia would never do such a dangerous thing and risk hurting herself.

    “I need to see Aron. Alone.”

    Emilia raised an eyebrow, disapproving. “Our father hasn’t even announced your engagement yet. And you’re sneaking off for some illicit romance before it’s all official?”

    Cleo’s stomach lurched. “That’s not why I want to see him.”

    “He’ll make you a fine husband, you know.”

    “Sure, he will,” Cleo said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “Just like Darius made you a fine husband.”

    Emilia’s gaze grew harsh. “Sharp tongue, Cleo. You should watch where you point it or you might hurt someone.”

    Cleo blushed, abashed. She’d just trod on some extremely unpleasant territory. Lord Darius Larides was the man to whom Emilia had been engaged a year ago at eighteen. However, the closer they got to the wedding day, the deeper Emilia sank into a depression at the thought of marrying him—even though all agreed he was a fine pick: tall, handsome, charismatic. No one knew why, but Cleo guessed her sister had fallen in love with someone else. If it was true, though, she never found out who. Emilia had never so much as cast a flirtatious glance at any of the men in the palace, and for that matter she’d seemed rather sad over the past few weeks. Embarrassed, Cleo changed the subject.

    “I need to go while I have the chance,” Cleo whispered, eyeing the balcony. The trellis outside was as good and strong as any ladder.

    “You’re that intent on escaping from your new bodyguard? And leave him—I would assume—lurking outside my chambers?”

    Cleo smiled pleadingly. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. He’ll never even know I was gone.”

    “And what do you suggest I tell him if he decides to check in on us?”

    “That I suddenly discovered I had air magic or something and made myself disappear.” She squeezed her sister’s...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 8



    “I’m told Father’s up to something downstairs.”

    Magnus’s voice cut through Lucia’s concentration, startling her. She quickly blew out the candle in front of her, closed her book, and turned to face him with what she knew was a guilty expression.

    “Excuse me?” she said as calmly as she could.

    Her brother cast an amused glance at her across the shadows of her chambers, with the sleeping area on one side, a curtained bed with stiff linen sheets and a fur-lined blanket, and the seating area on the other. “Am I interrupting something?”

    She placed her hand casually on her hip. “No, of course not.”

    He drew closer to her lounge next to the window, which looked down to the expansive palace gardens. They were currently covered in frost as they were for all but a precious couple of warmer months. “What are you reading?”

    “Nothing of any importance.”

    “Mmm.” He raised a brow and held his hand out to her patiently.

    Sometimes Lucia didn’t like how well her older brother knew her.

    Finally, accepting defeat, she placed the small leather-bound book in his hand. He glanced at the cover, then quickly flipped through it. “Poetry about the goddess Cleiona?”

    She shrugged. “Comparative studies, that’s all.”

    “Naughty girl.”

    She ignored the flush that immediately heated her cheeks. She wasn’t being naughty; she was being inquisitive. There was a difference. Even so, she knew many, including her mother, would be displeased about her current reading material. Luckily, Magnus wasn’t one of them.

    Cleiona was the rival goddess to Valoria. One was thought of as good; one was believed to be evil. But this difference depended entirely upon in which kingdom one stood. In Limeros, Cleiona was considered the evil one and Valoria pure and good, representing strength, faith, and wisdom. They were the three attributes that Limerians put before all else. Every coat of arms stitched to adorn the walls of the great hall or anywhere else, every parchment that her father signed, every portrait of the king himself held these three words.

    Strength. Faith. Wisdom.

    Limeros devoted two full days a week to prayer and silence. Anyone in the many villages and cities right up to the forbidden mountains who broke this law was fined. If they couldn’t pay the fine, they were reprimanded in a harsher manner. King Gaius had the common areas patrolled to make sure everyone stayed the course, paid their taxes, and strictly followed the command of their king.

    Most didn’t protest or cause a problem. And Valoria, Lucia was sure, would approve of her father’s stern measures—as harsh as they sometimes seemed.

    Limeros was a land of cliffs, vast moors, and rocky ground; a frozen place for most of the year, covered in a sparkling layer of ice and snow before it gave way to greenery and blossoms for that precious glimpse of summer. So beautiful—sometimes the beauty of this kingdom brought tears to Lucia’s eyes. The window in her chambers looked out past the gardens to the seemingly endless Silver Sea, leading to faraway lands, and the sheer drop from the black granite castle walls to the dark waters crashing upon the rocky shore below.

    Breathtaking, even when the winter had closed in and it was near impossible to go outside without being fully wrapped in furs and leathers to keep out the biting cold.

    Lucia didn’t mind. She loved this kingdom, even with the expectations and difficulties that inevitably came from being a Damora. And she loved her books and her classes, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. She read everything she could get her hands on. Happily, the castle library was second to none. Information was a valuable gift to her—more precious than any gold or jewels, such as those given to her by some of her more ardent suitors.

    That is, if those suitors could get past her overprotective brother to give her those gifts. Magnus didn’t think that any boy who had shown interest in Lucia thus far was worthy of the princess’s attentions. Magnus had always been equal parts frustrating and wonderful to her. Lately, however, she wasn’t so sure how to gauge his ever-shifting moods.

    Lucia looked up into his familiar face as he cast her book to the side carelessly. The thirst for knowledge didn’t spread evenly between the siblings. Magnus’s time was taken up by his own classes, mostly horsemanship, swordsmanship, and archery—which he claimed to despise. All of which the king insisted upon, whether Magnus displayed a keen interest or not.

    “Cleiona’s also the name of the youngest Auranian princess,” Magnus mused. “Never really thought about it before. Same age as you are, right? Nearly to the day?”

    Lucia nodded, picking the book up off the lounge where it had fallen and tucking it under a pile of her less controversial books. “I’d like to meet her.”

    “Unlikely. Father hates Auranos and wishes for its ultimate demise. Ever since...well, you know.”

    Oh, she did. Her father despised King Corvin Bellos and wasn’t afraid of expressing his opinion over meals in a fearsome burst of anger whenever the mood struck. Lucia believed the animosity had much to do with a banquet at the Auranos palace more than ten years ago. The two kings had come nearly to blows due to a mysterious injury Magnus had received during the visit. King Gaius hadn’t returned since. Nor had he been invited.

    The reminder of this trip made Magnus absently touch his scar—one that stretched from the top of his right ear to the corner of his mouth.

    “After all this time, you still don’t remember how you got that?” She’d always been very curious about it.

    His fingers stilled as if he too had been caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing. “Ten years is a long time. I was only a boy.”

    “Father demanded whoever cut you should pay with his life.”

    “He wanted the culprit’s head delivered on a silver platter, actually. Seeing a crying, bleeding child troubled our father. Even when that child was me.” His dark brows drew together. “Honestly, I don’t remember anything. I only recall wandering off, then feeling the hot trickle of blood on my face and the sting of the wound. I didn’t get upset until Mother got upset. Perhaps I stumbled down a set of stairs or whacked myself on the edge of a sharp door. You know how clumsy I am.”

    “Hardly.” Her brother moved with the grace of a panther—sleek, quiet. Many might think him deadly, given he was the son of the iron-fisted King Gaius. “I’m the clumsy one in this family.”

    “I beg to disagree with that.” His lips curved to the side. “One of grace and beauty, my sister, with a multitude of suitors at her beck and call. Forced to be siblings with a scarred monster like me.”

    “As if that scar makes you a monster.” The thought was laughable. “You can’t be blind to how girls look at you—I even see maids here in the castle wistfully watch you pass, even if you never notice them. They all think you’re devastatingly handsome. And your scar only makes you more...” She took a moment to think of the right word. “Intriguing.”

    “You really think so?” His chocolate-brown eyes glinted with amusement.

    “I do.” She brushed his dark hair, long overdue for a trim, off his cheek to inspect the faded scar closer. She slid her index finger over it. “Besides, it’s barely noticeable anymore. At least, I don’t see it.”

    “If you say so.” His voice sounded strangled now and his expression had shifted to one of distress. He roughly pushed her hand away.

    She frowned. “Is something wrong?”

    Magnus stepped back a few feet from her. “Nothing. I—I came up here to...” He ran a hand through his hair. “Never mind. You probably wouldn’t be interested. There’s some impromptu political meeting downstairs Father has called. I’ll leave you to your studies.”

    Lucia watched with surprise as he swiftly left her room without another word.

    Something was troubling her brother. She’d noticed it lately, each day worse than the last. He seemed distracted and deeply distressed by something, and she wished she knew what it was. She hated to see him so upset and not know how to help ease his pain.

    And she also wished very much that she could share her own secret, the one she’d been hiding for nearly a month—the one no one knew. No one at all.

    Pushing aside her fear and uncertainty, she prayed to the goddess for enough strength, faith, and wisdom to weather the dark storm she feared was drawing closer.

    ? ? ?

    Magnus followed the noise downstairs toward the castle’s great hall. He pushed past several recognizable faces—boys of his age who considered him their friend. He offered them stiff smiles and received the same in return.

    They weren’t his true friends—not one of them. They were the sons of his father’s royal council, who were basically required to be acquainted with the Limerian prince whether they liked it or not. And a few, as Magnus had overheard in passing, didn’t like him at all.

    Irrelevant.

    He assumed every one of these boys—and their sisters, who would be more than eager if Magnus chose one of them as his future bride—was...
     
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    “I’m very pleased to announce to you all”—King Corvin spoke at the front of the great hall, upon the dais, to a large crowd of friends and nobles gathered for the celebration banquet—“that my youngest daughter, Princess Cleiona Aurora Bellos, shall be united in wedlock to Lord Aron Lagaris, son of Sebastien Lagaris of Elder’s Pitch. I hope that you can join with me in celebrating this happy and joyous union . To Princess Cleo and Lord Aron!”

    The crowd cheered. Cleo tried to hold back her tears as she stood at her father’s side. She couldn’t see faces anymore, only blurry shapes. But she would not cry.

    “Smile, Cleo.” Aron clinked his wineglass against hers as she sat down again behind the table filled to overflowing with the royal feast. The chiming sound made her spine stiffen. “You’ll make everyone think you aren’t thrilled about this announcement.”

    “I’m not, and you know it,” she said through clenched teeth.

    “You’ll get used to it,” he assured her, but he didn’t sound like he cared much one way or the other. “And before you know it, it’ll be our wedding night.”

    It sounded more like a threat than a promise.

    It was official. She was officially betrothed.

    After her unpleasant chat with Aron at his villa three weeks ago, she’d broached the subject with her father, hoping that he would allow her to dissolve the engagement before it was even publicly announced. Instead, he’d told her that it was for the best and that she needed to have faith in his ability to choose a suitable husband for his cherished daughter.

    Her father, Cleo thought with growing dismay, was more in love with the idea of Aron as a son-in-law—a lord who’d allegedly jumped into battle to defend the helpless princess from a savage Paelsian peasant—than she could ever be.

    Since that “talk,” the king had been too busy to speak privately with Cleo. However, happily, he’d also been too busy to make any announcement. Every day that passed without it was a gift. A chance for her to figure out a solution.

    But she hadn’t. Not in time.

    And here we are, she thought dismally.

    She couldn’t eat anything. Her stomach felt too sick to hold down a single mouthful of the veal, stag, stuffed chicken, fruits, or sweet pastries—to name only a fraction of the lavish five-course feast. And she refused to take even a single gulp of wine.

    The first moment she could, she made her escape from the crowded banquet, avoiding Theon’s eyes and slipping past the hoards of well-wishers who seemed excited at the prospect of a royal wedding.

    “How wonderful this is,” she heard one woman say as she passed, “to have such joyful news to celebrate. I hope it will be a spring wedding. How delightful. It’s unfortunate about Princess Emilia, though. So, so sad she isn’t well enough to attend.”

    Cleo’s heart clenched at the words. Every time she grew so selfish as to be concerned only with her own problems, she had to kick herself. There was something much more important going on beyond the issues with Aron.

    Emilia’s dizziness and headaches had only grown worse. She’d taken to her bed, too weak to come to a meal any longer. No healer who’d been summoned to the palace could figure out what was wrong with her. They advised Emilia to get plenty of rest and wait it out. And hopefully, like a fever, her recent health problems would eventually break.

    Hopefully.

    Cleo didn’t like “hopefullys.” She liked certainties. She liked knowing that tomorrow would be pleasant and sunny and filled with fun activities. She liked knowing that her family and friends were healthy and happy. Anything else was unacceptable.

    Emilia would be fine because she had to be fine. If Cleo wanted something badly enough, it would happen. Why wouldn’t it? It always had before. Resolutely, she pushed her engagement to Aron out of her head.

    From the great hall, Cleo headed directly for her sister’s chambers. Emilia was propped up behind the gauzy drapes of her canopied bed on a multitude of colorful silk pillows, reading by candlelight. In the corner on an easel stood Emilia’s most recently finished painting, a study of the night sky. She glanced over, her eyes somewhat glazed, her face pale and drawn, as Cleo entered the room.

    “Cleo...” she began.

    Cleo started to cry, hating every tear that spilled—for herself, for Emilia. Tears were worthless. All they did was make her feel weak and helpless against this current sweeping them all along in its wake.

    Emilia put down the book, pushed aside the canopy draping, and held out her hand to her sister. Cleo staggered forward, dropping down onto the bed beside her.

    “I hate to see you so unwell,” she sobbed.

    “I know you do. But that’s not the only reason for these tears, is it? Father has made the announcement?”

    Cleo just nodded, her throat too tight to speak.

    Emilia squeezed her hand and looked at her very seriously. “He’s not doing this to cause you pain. He honestly thinks Aron will make a good husband for you.”

    No, he wouldn’t. He would make a horrible husband. Why could no one see this but her? “Why now? Why couldn’t he wait two years?”

    “Many, even those who live here, saw what happened in Paelsia as a direct insult to our neighbors. With the engagement of you to Aron, the king is stating that he accepts Aron and finds him to be a noble and worthy match for his precious daughter. The rumors that Aron acted out of protection over the girl he loves is solidified. Crisis averted.”

    “It’s so unfair.” That this was solely a political choice sounded so cold, so analytical. Ideally, to Cleo at least, marriage should be about love, not royal agendas.

    “Our father is the king. Everything he does, says, chooses to have done is in service to his kingdom. To strengthen where it might become weak.”

    Cleo drew in a ragged breath. “But I don’t want to marry Aron.”

    “I know.”

    “So what should I do?”

    Emilia smiled. “Perhaps you should elope with Nic, like you told me he suggested.”

    Cleo almost laughed at that. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

    “You do know that boy is madly in love with you, right?”

    Cleo frowned and pulled back to give her sister a quizzical look. “He isn’t. I’d know something like that.”

    Emilia shrugged. “Some truths aren’t so easily seen.”

    Nic was most certainly not in love with her. They were good friends—nothing more than that. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Theon move past the open door to Emilia’s room, making his presence known. He’d followed her from the banquet and up the winding staircase to her sister’s chambers. She felt an odd rush of pleasure that he refused to let her evade him.

    She took her gaze away from him standing silently at the doorway and returned her attention to her sister. Her breath caught. Blood trickled from Emilia’s nose.

    At Cleo’s look of horror, Emilia grabbed a cream-colored handkerchief already stained crimson and wiped the blood away as if this was not unexpected.

    The sight had made Cleo’s own blood run cold. “Emilia—”

    “I know you’re upset about the betrothal,” Emilia interrupted softly, not acknowledging the disturbing sight. “So I need to tell you something, Cleo, about my broken engagement. Maybe it will help you.”

    Cleo hesitated, surprised. She never thought she’d learn the truth about this. “Tell me.”

    “I was happy to be engaged at the time. I felt it was my duty. Lord Darius was not horrible. I liked him; I really did. I was prepared to marry him. Then again, Father had waited until I was eighteen to pick someone for me. There was no rush as there is now.”

    Eighteen seemed like a small eternity away. If only Cleo could have been given so much time to come to terms with all of this. “What happened?”

    “I fell in love with someone else.”

    “I knew it!” Cleo clutched her sister’s hand. “Who was it?”

    Emilia moistened her pale lips with the tip of her tongue and seemed hesitant to speak. “A guard.”

    Cleo’s eyes nearly bugged right out of her head. It was the last reply she’d expected. “You can’t be serious.”

    “I am. I’ve never felt such love as I felt for him. It overwhelmed me. He was so handsome and exciting, and he made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt before. I knew it was wrong, that a match like this would never be allowed, but when our hearts go on such a journey, all we can do is try to hold on tight. I told Father I couldn’t marry Lord Darius. I begged him not to make me. I told him that if he did, I’d—that I’d kill myself.”

    A shiver went through Cleo as she remembered her sister’s deep depression at the time of her engagement to Lord Darius. “Please don’t say something like that.”

    “It was true at the time. And Father believed that I’d do it. He ended the engagement immediately, holding the life of the future queen of Auranos above an arranged royal wedding. Now I feel bad for scaring him, but at the time...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
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    “She’s just a girl. Nothing more. But you believe?”

    Ioannes could communicate with the others mentally while in the mortal world, even in hawk’s form. He turned his sharp eyes from the dark-haired princess who had emerged from the tall and ominous stone castle to his right to see his friend Phaedra, perched on the branch next to him.

    “I believe.”

    “And what does it mean if she is?” Phaedra asked.

    “Everything.”

    It meant that the Sanctuary could be saved, that they would finally have a chance to reclaim the Kindred for themselves before it fell into someone else’s hands.

    The Sanctuary would continue on well after the mortal world faded completely, but it wouldn’t last forever. What had become their prison would soon become their grave.

    Without elementia, everything eventually faded away. Especially that which was created from magic itself.

    “And what if she isn’t?” his friend persisted.

    “Then all is lost.”

    Sixteen years ago, Ioannes had seen the signs. Even the stars themselves aligned in celebration of this beautiful girl’s birth. He’d watched as she was stolen from her cradle, the witches—descendants of one exiled from the Sanctuary itself—snatching her from her birth mother’s protection.

    It was true that the mother had no idea what she’d given to the world, but the common witches were not right to take the child and hide her away, spilling so much blood in the process. One witch—the one with goodness in her heart—had perished at the hands of her darker sister.

    That sister still lived, watching over this girl as Ioannes watched over them both.

    Patience was one gift a Watcher prized above all. But even Ioannes felt a flutter of nervousness in his chest. He believed, he’d watched, and he waited for a sign that he was right. That she was the one. He hated to say that his belief had begun to wane and that his patience was drying up.

    Within him was now an unfamiliar stirring of anger that this wisp of a girl could become a disappointment to him, nothing more than a regular mortal—at best, another common witch. Being in this world too long was a danger to a Watcher. This growing anger was a sign that he needed to return to the Sanctuary soon to cleanse himself of such burgeoning and unhelpful emotion.

    Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he’d wasted all his time studying this girl whenever she came outside. Whenever she stood on her balcony, gazing down into the frozen garden beneath her chambers. Watching her lips as she read to herself out loud, as she prayed to a false goddess who did not deserve such deep devotion.

    Ioannes wanted to turn away, to spend his precious hours in the mortal world in other pursuits, but he couldn’t leave her.

    Perhaps soon. But not yet.

    He pushed off from the branch and flapped his wings, soaring high into the sky. From the ground, the beautiful dark-haired princess glanced up at him. For the briefest of moments, their eyes met.

    All she would see when she looked at him was a golden hawk.

    For some reason, this realization pained him.
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
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    Lucia stood outside, her breath forming frozen clouds in the cold air with each exhale, watching the hawk fly high up into the bright blue sky. She could have sworn that it looked directly at her.

    Lucia stood outside, her breath forming frozen clouds in the cold air with each exhale, watching the hawk fly high up into the bright blue sky. She could have sworn that it looked directly at her.

    She brushed aside the thought and scanned the grounds, searching for any sign of her brother’s return. After weeks of keeping her horrible secret hidden deep inside, she was ready to unburden herself, come what may.

    Of course, the one time she desperately wanted to find Magnus was the one time he was nowhere to be found. She’d searched the halls of the castle for an hour only to learn from a kitchen maid that he was accompanying their father on a hunt but was expected to return soon.

    It was strange, though. Magnus had never shown much interest in hunting with their father before. Magnus had never showed much interest in hunting at all. She wondered uncomfortably if the recent death of Tobias, whom she knew though she wasn’t supposed to was her half brother, had anything to do with this change. He’d been buried quickly and quietly, with no explanation given for his sudden demise.

    To clear her head of her swirling thoughts, Lucia had gone outside and into the cold air and sunshine, determined to go for a brisk walk around the palace grounds and ready herself for her afternoon classes—art, geography, and, unfortunately, embroidery. She could rarely get through an entire class of needlework without stabbing herself. Magnus didn’t seem to think she was clumsy, but her sore fingertips would claim otherwise.

    To her far left, she caught a glimpse of a boy she knew—Michol Trichas. She raised her hand to wave at him, but he didn’t seem to notice and turned away.

    She picked up her pace to catch up to him, drawing her fur-lined cloak closer to block out the icy chill.

    “Michol!” She greeted him with a smile, the frozen ground crunching under the leather soles of her shoes. They’d taken an art class together here at the palace a few months ago. Her father had wanted to abolish the subject entirely, but Lucia had begged him to reconsider, promising that the study of art was not simply a frivolous pursuit of aesthetic beauty, but one of history and heritage.

    Michol was the son of local nobles who were also friends of the king. She liked him very much—had enjoyed talking to him about sculpture. They’d spent an hour discussing a sketch of a mysterious carved stone wheel located in the northern-most frozen reaches of Limeros, an area that never thawed. It was said to be originally from the Sanctuary itself—a legendary place of magic hidden in the Forbidden Mountains from which eternal mystical beings watched over the mortal world. Some more obscure texts that Lucia had read said that to encounter such a wheel was to discover a location marked by Watchers as a clue to find the lost Kindred—which could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the myths one believed.

    Michol had attended her birthday banquet, and he’d promised to come back so they might go for a walk together and do some exploring of the palace grounds. He’d never returned, and she didn’t understand why. Now he turned to face her with a sheepish expression. He raked a hand through his messy hair. “Princess Lucia, a pleasure to see you again.”

    She pushed away her nervousness and decided to be as straightforward as possible with the boy. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”

    “No.”

    “Are you trying to hide from me?” She tried to smile, but the thought that she was right was disturbing. Still, she was curious to know the truth. “Did I say something to offend you?”

    He made a strange snorting sound, which might have been a nervous laugh. “Hardly.”

    “I’ve been waiting for us to go on that walk.”

    Michol stared at her as if perplexed. “Then I—I don’t understand.”

    Lucia tucked her hands into the sleeves of her cloak to keep them warm. “That makes two of us.”

    “Your brother told me that you wanted nothing to do with me.”

    She blinked. “Excuse me?”

    “I was here before to call on you and he made sure I knew that my presence was unwelcome. That you said I wasn’t to be encouraged. That you, well...that you were interested in taking walks with other boys, but not with me.”

    Confusion gave way to clarity and a hot surge of anger. “Did he?”

    “He did.”

    She struggled to breathe normally and not let her emotions get the better of her. Lately, strange things tended to happen when they did . . . things that she had to keep secret in case anyone found out.

    She let out a long, steady breath and looked directly at Michol. “He shouldn’t have told you that.”

    “Really?” His expression turned hopeful.

    “And you never should have believed him without speaking with me. My brother does not control who I see and when I see them. I do.”

    He blanched. “I didn’t know.”

    “This isn’t the first time this has happened.”

    Magnus had developed a bit of a habit of deciding who was deserving of his younger sister’s attention. But she didn’t need his opinion or his help in weeding out the unworthy. She was quite capable of doing that herself.

    “Honestly,” she muttered. “How dare he interfere in my life like this?”

    “Does this mean we can have that walk after all?”

    Lucia turned her gaze on the boy, studying him closely for the first time. At first glance he was handsome enough, a few inches taller than she, his skin pale and perfect.

    It was too bad that he’d been born missing a backbone.

    She forced a smile to her lips, one that brought a light of optimism back to the boy’s eyes.

    “Perhaps another time. Good day, Michol.”

    She returned to the castle without a backward glance, anger toward her brother swelling with every beat of her heart as she quickly made her way through the shadowy halls. Magnus was interfering, overprotective, deeply annoying, and incredibly vexing. She turned the next corner.

    “Lucia,” Queen Althea said, with no warmth in her voice. Lucia froze in place at the sight of her mother.

    “Yes, Mother?”

    The queen’s dark hair had turned gray in streaks. Her face was pale and drawn, and she seemed to peer down her nose at her daughter even though they were the exact same height. “What mischief are you up to this afternoon? And why are your cheeks so red?”

    “No mischief. I was outside. It...it’s cold.”

    “It’s the dead of winter. Of course it’s cold. Why were you outside?”

    It always seemed to be the dead of winter in Limeros. Lucia cleared her throat, immediately on guard under her mother’s close scrutiny. “I’m looking for Magnus. Do you know when he’ll be returning from the hunt with Father?”

    “Soon, I’m sure.” Her lips thinned, and her eyes scanned the length of her daughter with distaste. “Your hair is a mess. You really shouldn’t leave your chambers looking so slovenly. Someone might see you.”

    Lucia grimaced and touched her tangled hair. “I didn’t think I looked that bad.”

    “Well, you do. I’ll have a maid sent to your room immediately to help you look decent again.”

    Her cheeks felt tight, her insides turning hot as lava. “That’s . . . so kind of you, Mother.”

    “Think nothing of it.”

    It was never a question of telling the queen her secret. While her mother had given Lucia life, she’d never given her a moment’s kindness since. Lucia wondered if the woman was capable of showing love to anyone. She’d never seen evidence of it, apart from a few moments of motherly preening in front of company. Lucia had learned at an early age to seek approval elsewhere since it would never come from the queen herself. So she’d turned to books and learning. Any praise she received had been from her tutors. From Magnus. And, occasionally, from her father. She didn’t go out of her way to seek her mother’s approval, nor would she ever.

    “Go back to your room, daughter,” the queen said, her voice clipped. “Don’t delay. We can’t have anyone see the Limerian princess looking like you do.”

    “Very well.” Despite her disinterest in her mother’s opinion, Lucia had rarely felt as ugly in her entire life as she did at that very moment. She turned away from the queen and began to head toward her room, dreading the visit from the maid to help with her appearance. If her mother sent the usual one, she would be rough and pull her hair, leaving Lucia with a headache for the rest of the day.

    In pain, but looking presentable. Just as the queen wishes. After her frustrating conversations with both Michol and her mother, she felt utterly annoyed. And tangled. And, admittedly, a bit frizzy.

    “Lucia,” a voice greeted her before she reached her destination. “Darling, is there something wrong?”

    Sabina Mallius stood in her path, blocking her path to her room. And now this, Lucia thought.

    “Nothing’s wrong,” Lucia said evenly. “But...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 12



    Cleo was absolutely certain her father would say yes. She waited until he was alone in his study and launched into a nonstop explanation about everything—although she didn’t touch on the topic of Emilia being romantically involved with Theon’s father.

    The king didn’t interrupt. He let Cleo speak for as long as she required.

    Finally, she summed things up as simply as she could.

    “No healer seems able to help her, and she’s only getting worse. I know I can find this woman—the one who’s an exiled Watcher. She holds the magic to save Emilia. But I have to leave soon, before it’s too late. Theon can go with me for protection. I don’t think we’ll be gone very long at all.” She wrung her hands. “I know this is the answer, Father. I know it. I can save Emilia’s life.”

    The king regarded his youngest daughter for an entire minute of silence with a bemused expression.

    “An exiled Watcher,” he said. “Who possesses magic healing seeds.”

    She nodded. “Someone in one of the villages must know where to find her. If I must search every village in Paelsia, then that’s exactly what I’ll have to do.”

    He templed his fingers and watched her through hooded eyes. “The Watchers are only a legend, Cleo.”

    For the first time since she’d entered the king’s meeting room, she felt a twinge of doubt about the outcome of their talk. “Well, that’s what I thought too, but if there’s a chance . . . I mean, you don’t know that for sure.”

    “That there are those who watch us through the eyes of hawks, searching for their precious Kindred is a story that helps keep children in line and fearful enough to behave themselves lest they be witnessed acting naughty.”

    Her gaze flicked to the royal coat of arms on the wall, which bore two hawks, one golden, one black, beneath a single golden crown. It was as familiar to her as her own name and she knew it had to mean something. It was a sign she was right. “Just because you haven’t seen something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’ve been wrong to take that stance until now.”

    He didn’t look angry, just weary. His face was etched in more lines than Cleo remembered. “Cleo, I know how much you love your sister—”

    “More than anything!”

    “Of course. I love her too. But she is not dying. She is simply ill. And this illness, while severe, will pass if she gets enough rest. She will recover.”

    Frustration twisted in her chest. “You don’t know that for sure. You have to let me go.”

    “I have to do no such thing.” The king’s expression only grew more tense. “It’s unwise for you to even consider visiting that place again for any reason. Troubles have increased, not decreased, in the time that has passed since the Agallon boy’s death.”

    “What kind of trouble?”

    He sighed. “The kind that you need not concern yourself with, Cleo. I’ll deal with it.”

    She squeezed her hands into fists. “If there’s trouble growing, then I need to leave soon or I might not get the chance later.”

    “Cleo.” There was a warning growl to her father’s words now. He’d tolerated her up until now, but she knew he was tired and in no mood for anything he considered a waste of time.

    But saving her sister’s life wasn’t a waste of time.

    She crossed her arms over her chest and began pacing the grand room. “I mean, if I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. But I have to try. Why can’t you see that?”

    The king’s lips thinned. “All I see is my sixteen-year-old daughter making up far-fetched stories so she can escape from her new fiancé’s attentions.”

    She sent a look of horror at him. “You think that’s what this is about?”

    “I know it’ll take a while for you to get used to this. By the time the wedding is planned, all will seem better. By then, Emilia will be well again and she can help you prepare.”

    That wasn’t at all what this was all about. But since he’d brought it up...

    “You didn’t make Emilia marry someone she didn’t love.”

    He hissed out a long breath. “That was different.”

    “Why was that different? Because she threatened to kill herself? Maybe I’ll do the exact same thing!”

    The king just looked at her patiently, seemingly undisturbed by the threat. “You’d never do such that.”

    “I wouldn’t? I—I could do it tonight. I could throw myself down the stairs. I could stop eating. I could...well, there are many, many ways I could end my life if I wanted to!”

    He shook his head. “You wouldn’t, because you don’t really want to die. You don’t just live, Cleo. Life itself sings from your existence.” The smallest smile appeared on his lips. “I know one day when you’ve finally outgrown this tendency to be overly dramatic to gain attention, your true self will come forth. And that Cleo will be a remarkable woman—one who deserves to bear the name of a goddess.”

    She glowered at him. “You don’t even believe in the goddess!”

    His expression shuttered. He’d been patient with her up until now, but she’d gone too far.

    Ever since her mother had died in childbirth, the king had turned his back on any kind of prayer or worship, and his subjects soon followed suit. Emilia was the only religious one left in the Bellos family.

    “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

    “You’re young and you speak before you think. That’s how it’s always been with you, Cleo. I expect no better.”

    She ran a hand under her nose. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

    “Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourself. I do. I worry about you constantly when compared to your sister. You’ll get yourself in trouble one day, Cleo, and I just hope that you’ll be all right. It’s one of the reasons I think a marriage to Aron, even at your young age, is a good idea. The duties of a wife will give you some well-needed maturity.” When she flinched, his gaze softened. “I’m trying to help you.”

    “How is this helping? By reminding me that I have no control over my own destiny?”

    He reached down to take her hand in his. “You need to trust me, Cleo. Trust me to make the right decisions for you, for our family.”

    “Family is the most important thing to me. That’s exactly why I need to go to Paelsia,” she said softly. “Please say yes.”

    His cheeks tightened. “No, Cleo.”

    Her eyes burned. “So instead you’ll sit back and watch Emilia die? How is that making the right decisions for your family? You don’t care about her. You don’t care about me. All you care about is this hateful kingdom.”

    He sighed wearily as he sat down at the table and turned his attention to the papers in front of him.. “It’s time you left, Cleo. I have work to do. This conversation is over.”

    Cleo’s heart slammed against her rib cage. “Father! Please, don’t be like this. You can’t be so cruel and uncaring that you’d deny me this!”

    When he shot a look at her of barely bridled rage, she staggered back a step.

    “Go to your chambers. And stay there until dinner. Theon!” Theon stepped into the room a moment later. He’d been waiting just outside. “See that my daughter returns to her chambers and please ensure that she makes no foolish attempt to travel to Paelsia in the coming days.”

    Theon bowed. “Yes, your majesty.”

    There was nothing left to say. There was more that Cleo wanted to say, but even she knew when to hold her tongue. All that could be gained from more arguing was to summon her father’s anger even more. He might move up her wedding to Aron to a week from now as a punishment. Or even tomorrow.

    The king didn’t believe that Emilia was dying. But Cleo believed more than she had before. She felt the truth of it deep in her heart. Only something magical could save her.

    “I’m sorry, princess,” Theon said under his breath as they left the king’s presence.

    Cleo’s cheeks were hot and her feet thudded against the floor as she unconsciously made her way through the labyrinthine halls and back to her chambers. She thought she’d been out of tears before, but there were buckets left. She cried them all when Theon left her, closing the door behind him.

    But when her tears finally dried, their departure brought a slow and steely resolve.

    The whole world—including her father—could repeatedly tell her no. In the end, it made no difference to her.

    Cleo would fix this. No matter what it took or where she had to go, she would save her sister’s life before it was too late.

    ? ? ?

    After dinner, Cleo gathered her closest confidents together—Nic, Mira, and Theon. “I’m going,” she said after she explained everything to them.

    Nic blinked. “To Paelsia.”

    “Yes.”

    “To find an exiled Watcher to beg for some magical grape seeds.”

    She knew it sounded absolutely preposterous, but it didn’t...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 13



    It had taken well over a month of trying, but Jonas had finally been granted audience with Chief Basilius.

    “Color me impressed,” Brion said under his breath as they were led along the dirt path leading to the chief’s gated, guarded compound. “You need to give me a few lessons from the Jonas Agallon school of charisma.”

    “It’s easy.”

    “Says you.” Brion glanced at the gorgeous girl who had her arm around Jonas’s waist. The one who’d finally promised the two of them that they could meet the chief. Also known as her father.

    Jonas had quickly realized that the only way he would ever get a chance to see the reclusive Paelsian leader was through his family. And Laelia Basilius was more than willing to help Jonas when he’d casually approached her at a tavern. She’d been performing there. The chief’s daughter was a dancer.

    And what a dancer she was . . .

    “Snakes,” Brion had said to him with surprise as they’d watched her perform to a crowd of over a hundred a week ago. “She’s dancing with snakes.”

    She was. She really was.

    “I never liked snakes before,” Jonas replied. “But I’m starting to see the appeal.”

    Laelia was a stunningly beautiful girl—a couple years older than he was. And she danced with two snakes, a white and black python that writhed and slid over her shapely body. He felt mesmerized watching her, her hips swaying, her long black hair—to her knees—flowing with the movements of her tanned body.

    But he wasn’t really seeing her.

    All he could see was a beautiful golden princess with eyes the color of the sea standing over the body of his dead brother and next to his murderer.

    Even though Jonas had been diverted from his original plan to sneak into the palace in Auranos to kill both Lord Aron and Princess Cleo, he remained fixated with the memory of her. He hated the royals and everything they stood for with every fiber of his being. But he had to focus. He had no choice. He tried to plaster a smile on his face as he and Brion drew closer to the Paelsian chief’s daughter.

    Before, when Jonas and Tomas had gone to taverns and made conversation with pretty girls—performers or otherwise—after a backbreaking day of work in the vineyards that added calluses to both their hands and spirits, Tomas had been the more popular one. Older, maybe a fraction better-looking. He was a born flirt. Jonas received plenty of attention to brighten his nights after difficult days, but he couldn’t help but think the girls had preferred his brother.

    With Tomas gone, that had definitely changed.

    When he’d finally caught Laelia’s eye that first night, her gaze slid over him with appreciation. After the music stopped, she slipped a sheer, gauzy wrap over her curves and waited coyly for his approach.

    “Nice snakes,” he said, offering her a wicked grin.

    The grin didn’t fail him.

    She was his.

    Laelia Basilius had no calluses on her hands or sunburnt face like the girls he was used to spending time with. When she laughed, it was from pure amusement and not edged in weariness from a hard day of manual labor. She liked Jonas. A lot. And a week later, she wanted to introduce him to her father.

    “Come closer,” the chief beckoned as they came into view. He sat before a large bonfire. Several topless girls danced for him until he waved his hand at them dismissively. They moved off to the other side of the campfire.

    Sparks from the fire danced in the air. Stars speckled the black velvet sky. The carcass of a goat sat on top of the fire on a spit, roasting for a late dinner. The smell of scorched flesh hung in the cool night air. Laelia tugged at Jonas’s hand. He kept his expression neutral, but he was found he was intimidated. He’d never met the chief before. He’d never known anyone who had. Basilius had been in seclusion for years. So this was the ultimate honor a Paelsian could have and he felt deeply honored to be here, no matter what steps he’d had to take to make this possible.

    One thing that had deeply surprised him within the compound was its opulence. While the rest of Paelsia worked endlessly in the vineyards and struggled to find scraps to eat, it seemed that on the other side of the chief’s compound’s walls there were no difficulties at all. Part of him believed dutifully that the chief should be held to a different standard than a common Paelsian—and he was more than entitled to use part of his steep wine tax to make a private home for himself as leader. The other part felt an uneasy ache form in the pit of his stomach over this revelation.

    He sank to his knees next to Brion and they both lowered their heads in deference to their leader.

    “Rise.” The chief smiled, the darkly tanned skin at the corners of his gray eyes fanning out in dozens of wrinkles. He wore his hair long and some of it near his face in texos, thin braids, which was the traditional hairstyle for men in Paelsia. Jonas had cut his hair when he turned thirteen. Short hair was easier to manage. Brion’s hair was longer but not quite long enough to braid. Since the land had begun to fade, many traditions had started to fade as well.

    “Papa,” Laelia purred, running her hand over Jonas’s chest. “Isn’t he pretty? Can I keep him?”

    The chief’s lips curved to the side. “Laelia, my beauty. Please give us a chance to talk. I want to get to better know this boy you’re so taken by.”

    Her shoulders slumped and she pouted. The chief waved his hand at her in dismissal until she finally retreated to join the other girls at the far side of the fire.

    Jonas and Brion exchanged a mutually wary glance.

    They were in. Now what?

    “Chief, it’s an honor—” Jonas began.

    “Are you in love with my daughter?” the chief asked. “Have you come here to ask to be bound to her?”

    Someone brought him a plate of food, turkey legs and venison and roasted yams, piled higher than any plate Jonas had ever seen in his life. His family frequently went hungry, and he’d been driven to illegally hunt in another land to keep his loved ones alive, but there was enough food in the chief’s compound to feed his village for months.

    A part of him deep down inside turned frosty and brittle at the realization.

    Brion jabbed his elbow into Jonas’s arm when he didn’t answer right away.

    “Am I in love with your daughter?” Jonas repeated, unsure how to answer this.

    “Yes,” Brion hissed under his breath. “Say yes, you idiot.”

    But that would be a lie. Jonas couldn’t lie about matters of the heart. He’d tried before and failed miserably. There was a great difference between lust and love.

    “I think Laelia is a beautiful girl,” he said instead. “I’ve been very lucky she gives me any attention.”

    The chief studied him. “She doesn’t bring many boys here to meet me. You’re only the second.”

    “What happened to the first one?” Brion asked.

    “He didn’t survive,” the chief said.

    Brion’s face fell.

    The chief laughed loudly. “I jest. He’s fine. My daughter grew weary of his attentions; that was all. I’m sure he still lives. Somewhere.”

    Or maybe Laelia fed him to her snakes, Jonas thought morbidly.

    But none of this was why they were here. He wanted to get to the point immediately.

    “Chief Basilius, I’m very honored to meet you tonight,” Jonas said. “Because I need to talk to you about something very important.”

    “Oh?” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “And you choose my celebration feast to do so?”

    “What are you celebrating?”

    “A union with an ally. A partnership that will help create a much more prosperous Paelsia in the future.”

    This wasn’t expected at all, but was an excellent thing to hear. Jonas’s discomfort at witnessing the expanse of the chief’s comfort eased a little. “I’m glad to hear it. Because that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”

    Basilius nodded, his eyes glinting with curiosity. “Please, say what you came here to say.”

    “My brother was killed recently by an Auranian lord. His name was Tomas Agallon.” Jonas’s throat tightened. “It was a sign to me that things have to change. That Paelsia’s current difficulties are not acceptable. I believe Auranos is an evil land filled with devious people. Years ago they tricked us into planting only grapes, so that today they can pay us a pittance for our wine while charging the moon for their crops. Yet they have so many resources, all of which are closed off to us. If we even tread a foot past the border, we risk our very lives. It’s not acceptable.” He took a breath and let it out slowly, gathering his courage. “I’m here to propose an uprising against them, to take what’s theirs and make it ours. It’s time we stopped waiting for things to change on their own.”

    The chief studied him for a long, silent moment. “I completely agree with you.”

    Jonas blinked. “You do?”

    “And I’m very sorry for what happened to your brother. It was a tragedy to lose one of our own in such a senseless way. I had no...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 14



    More than a week had passed since his private conversation with the king and Magnus still didn’t know what troubled Lucia. The thought was a constant distraction to him.

    Distractions weren’t recommended in the midst of his swordsmanship class. He winced as a blunt wooden practice sword landed a painful blow to his chest.

    “What’s wrong, Prince Magnus?” his opponent asked with mockery edging his words. “Would you really let me win as easily as this?”

    Magnus gave him a withering look. “I won’t let you win at all.”

    Andreas Psellos was his complete opposite in looks despite their similar tall statures and leanly muscled builds. Where Magnus was dark, Andreas was light with fair hair and pale blue eyes. Where Magnus could never be described as “cheery,” Andreas had an easy manner and a constant smile on his handsome face that rarely held malice—

    Unless he was talking to Magnus.

    They’d moved away from the rest of the class, consisting of four teams of two and an absentminded tutor who tended to wander off in the middle of their sessions leaving them to practice without supervision.

    “The years haven’t change you a bit,” Andreas said. “I still remember that set of painted wooden blocks we battled over when we were only five years old. I believe you threw them out of a window so I couldn’t get the chance to play with them.”

    “I’ve never enjoyed sharing my toys.”

    “Not with anyone but your sister.”

    “She’s an exception.”

    “Indeed she is. A beautiful exception.” Andreas cast a wistful look toward the black granite castle that stretched high into the blue sky. “Do you think Princess Lucia will be coming out to watch us spar like she did last time?”

    “Unlikely.”

    Magnus’s dark mood intensified. Not only had Andreas shown romantic interest in Lucia, but he was also the one boy who’d been mentioned several times by Queen Althea herself as a potential match. The Psellos family was rich, Andreas’s father one of the king’s royal council members, and their expansive villa, which sat only a few miles from the palace, was the finest on the western coast of Limeros.

    The thought that Lucia could become betrothed to this golden boy with his easy smiles sent a rush of icy poison flowing through Magnus’s veins.

    Andreas snorted. “Come on, then. I won’t hold back if you don’t.”

    “Fair enough.”

    As their wooden swords clashed, Magnus now paid very close attention to the swordplay, trying hard not to let his mind wander again.

    Andreas’s lips thinned. “I heard that you ran Michol Trichas off when he showed interest in your sister.”

    “Did you?” Magnus said with disinterest. “Are you offended on his behalf?”

    “Just the opposite. He wasn’t right for her. He’s insipid and cowardly, hiding behind his mother’s skirts when any opposition presents itself. He’s not worthy of spending time with Princess Lucia.”

    “We finally agree on something. How delightful.”

    “However, you’ll find that I’m not quite so easily dissuaded as he was.” Their swords met and held, and Andreas’s gaze turned icy. Magnus’s muscles burned with the effort of taking the point and not allowing his rival to win. “You don’t intimidate me.”

    “Not trying to.”

    “You chase off all of Lucia’s suitors as if no one in Limeros is worthy of the princess’s precious time and attention.”

    Magnus’s gaze snapped to Andreas’s. “No one is.”

    “Apart from you, of course.” Andreas’s eyes narrowed. “I think the attention you lavish on your sister compared to any other girl is...unusual.”

    Magnus went cold inside. “You’re imagining things.”

    “Perhaps I am. But know this, Prince Magnus, when I want something, I get it. No matter what obstacle might present itself.”

    Magnus glanced toward the castle. “It looks like I was wrong. Lucia is coming out to watch us after all.”

    When Andreas’s attention moved away from Magnus, he struck. He knocked the wooden sword out of Andreas’s grip and then slammed the boy to the ground where he lay on his back looking up, temporarily stunned.

    Magnus pressed the blunt tip of his practice sword to Andreas’s throat hard enough to bruise. “Actually, Lucia’s in her embroidery class right now and won’t be able to talk with you again until...well, I’m sure it’ll be quite some time. I’ll give her your regards.”

    Lesson over, he threw his sword to the side and turned from the boy still sprawled on the ground to return to the castle.

    Some victories didn’t taste quite as sweet as they should.

    The idea that anyone, especially someone like Andreas, could guess that Magnus might have forbidden feelings for his younger sister had put a sick feeling into the pit of his stomach. He resolved to force himself to spend more time in the company of other girls to help stave off any future rumors.

    And not girls like the one who approached him along the hallway with a smile stretching her rosy cheeks.

    “My prince,” Amia greeted him cheerily.

    He cast a look around to check if anyone was watching. Speaking openly with a servant—especially such a low-ranking one as Amia—was frowned upon by his father. To imagine King Gaius’s outraged reaction to his son doing more than talking with her was almost as humorous as it was foreboding.

    “What is it?” he asked, his words clipped.

    “You wanted me to keep an eye on your sister.”

    With this, he grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her around a corner and into a shadowed alcove. “Speak.”

    Amia twisted a piece of nut-brown hair around her finger. Her brows drew together. “It’s the strangest thing. I was sent with a tray of food up to her room for a late lunch when she returned from her class just now. Her door was ajar. I should have knocked, but since my hands were full, I didn’t. And I swear I saw...”

    “What? What did you see?”

    “Your sister stood before three candles and I watched as each was lit.”

    Magnus stared at the girl. “That’s all? You watched my sister light some candles and you thought it worthy of mention to me? There’s nothing unusual about that.”

    “No, my prince. It’s just that—I swear, I...” She shook her head, her expression one of deep confusion. “I swear that Princess Lucia didn’t light them. They lit all by themselves as she looked at them, each in turn. I was startled by this but cleared my throat to let her know I was there. She seemed disturbed that I might have been watching her, but I didn’t give her any indication of what I saw. Possessing such an ability to summon fire could mean that she’s a—” Her words cut off immediately at Magnus’s sharp look. She bit her bottom lip.

    Magnus grasped the girl’s chin and looked down into her eyes. “Thank you, Amia. I want you to continue to tell me anything at all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. But know this—my sister is no witch. This was only your imagination.”

    “Yes, my prince,” she whispered before he slipped away from her and began moving toward Lucia’s chambers on the third floor of the castle without another word.

    Lighting candles seemed like such a common practice, but not so common if the wicks caught flame all by themselves. Once at Lucia’s door, he took a deep breath and then twisted the handle. It wasn’t locked. He slowly pushed the door open.

    Lucia sat on her plush lounge, her legs folded under her, holding the head of a daisy on the palm of her hand. The frivolous gift of flowers had been sent the previous day by another random Limerian boy interested in the princess. Her concentration on the flower was so complete that she hadn’t heard the soft creak of the door.

    Suddenly, the bright pink bloom rose from her hand and floated in the air as if suspended by invisible strings.

    Magnus gasped out loud.

    The flower dropped to the ground and Lucia’s startled gaze snapped to where he stood at the open doorway.

    “Magnus.” She stood up, brushing off the front of her skirt. Her expression was tense. She beckoned to him. “Please come in.”

    Hesitating only a moment longer, he pushed the door open all the way and entered her chambers.

    “Close it,” she instructed. He did as she asked.

    She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You saw what I just did?”

    He nodded, his throat tight.

    Lucia wrung her hands, pacing to her window to look outside just as a hawk flew away from its temporary perch on the edge of her balcony, its large golden wings flapping against the bright blue sky. He continued to wait, afraid to give voice to his racing thoughts.

    This must be what he’d heard his father and Sabina talk about the night of her birthday banquet—of prophesies and elementia and signs held by the stars themselves. This was what he’d been asked to watch for.

    “Lucia is now sixteen,” Sabina had said. “The time is drawing closer for her awakening, I know it is.”

    ...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 15



    Theon Ranus had experienced anger, grief, sadness, and desire many times. But not fear.

    Theon Ranus had experienced anger, grief, sadness, and desire many times. But not fear.

    Not until today.

    “The princess isn’t in her room. She’s nowhere to be found!” The maid’s cry quickened his steps as he made his way down the hall, the maid who was supposed to be stationed outside Princess Cleo’s room during the hours that Theon slept and couldn’t keep watch over her.

    Cold fear crashed over him.

    He knew immediately where she’d gone. She’d done exactly what she’d threatened. She’s escaped the palace to go on her journey to Paelsia. Even after he’d refused to accompany her, she’d gone anyway.

    Foolish girl. Strong-willed, foolish girl.

    It was as if his heart had been wrenched from his chest. Then, close on the heels of his fear for her safety, came a hot line of rage that she’d do this, blatantly ignoring his warnings.

    The king had to be told. And Theon knew he had to be the one to deliver the news that Cleo and Nic had disappeared from the palace.

    That was when he began to feel another glimmer of fear. This time for himself.

    “How could you let this happen?” the king raged, his face bright red with anger.

    Theon had no worthy answer. He knew Cleo wanted to do this. He knew she was stubborn and single-minded when it came to her sister’s fading health. He should have anticipated this.

    “I’ll go to Paelsia myself and search for her.”

    “Damn right you will.” There were dark shadows beneath the king’s eyes as if he hadn’t slept well. He looked much older than his forty-odd years today. “Of all the things I need to concern myself with, this only troubles me more. You were supposed to keep her safe. You failed me.”

    Theon could argue that he couldn’t be by Cleo’s side all the hours of the day or night apart from sleeping in the princess’s bed with her, but he held his tongue and studied the floor obediently. King Corvin was not a cruel king, but he doled out punishment when necessary. Failing an assignment to keep the princess safe was not something that could go unanswered.

    Why would she ever do something so foolhardy as this?

    Even he didn’t have to think too far on the subject. She did it because she was absolutely convinced that she could save her sister’s life by chasing after the legend of an exiled Watcher. Breaking every rule to save Princess Emilia was both idiotic...and brave. Pure-hearted and courageous. Only Cleo would do such a thing, Theon thought.

    “I’ll leave immediately,” he said, his eyes still lowered. “With your permission I’ll take a few more men.”

    “No more than two. We don’t want to draw attention to this embarrassing situation.”

    “Yes, your majesty.”

    When the king didn’t say anything else, Theon looked up to see that his face was now more pale and haunted than angry.

    “Sometimes I feel as if I’m cursed,” he said softly. “A slow, hungry curse that has worked its way across my entire life, stripping me of everything I love.” He paused, his brow furrowing. “I met a witch once...in my youth. She was very beautiful.”

    Theon was surprised at the seeming non sequitur. “A witch? A real one?”

    The king nodded with a sharp jerk of his head. “I hadn’t believed in magic until I met her. She had her sights set on becoming my queen, but I . . . well, I met Elena, and that was it for me. The witch was but a momentary dalliance of a youth who enjoyed the attentions of pretty girls before his wedding to the woman who would become the true love of his life.” He let out a slow exhale. “When I ended things with this witch, she was furious. I believe she cursed me. I lost my beloved Elena moments after she’d given my youngest daughter life. Now Emilia is so unwell. I fear Cleo was right when she said she’s dying. And Cleo herself—” His voice broke. “She has a mind of her own, one that will get her into trouble. More than she even realizes. You must find her.”

    “I will, your majesty. I swear I will.”

    “See that you do.” The king raised a dark gaze to Theon’s and a chill went down his spine. “Fail me again and you’ll pay with your life. I’ll kill you myself with my bare hands. Do you understand me?”

    Theon nodded. He expected no less. He left the meeting room, his steps rushed, his heart beating hard.

    He should have said he’d go with the princess. She was stubborn enough to go by herself—with only Nicolo Cassian to protect her. But he was no more than the king’s squire, with no training, no strength, no carefully honed survival instincts. It wasn’t nearly enough. Theon was the one who should be by Princess Cleo’s side no matter what was to come. Today and always.

    The king would kill him if he failed. And if something happened to Cleo...he’d want to die. The thought of her bright eyes extinguished, her merry laugh silenced . . . he broke into a cold sweat and had to lean his forehead against the marble wall of the hallway.

    I’m falling in love with her.

    The realization hit him like a sword plunged through his chest.

    There could be no real future for them. He wasn’t royal—not even a knight. And she was already betrothed to another.

    But he’d seen something in her eyes—a joyful alertness when they argued. A catch to her breath. A flush to her cheeks. He’d come to enjoy spending time with her more than he ever would have believed or been willing to admit, even to himself. He wanted to be by her side and not only as her bodyguard.

    He wanted her.

    But he couldn’t give in to these feelings. Even admitting them to himself was dangerous. For now, all Theon knew for sure was that he would find her and bring her back safely to Auranos. The future was uncertain, but this much was crystal clear. He would not fail.
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 16



    The king had summoned Magnus to his throne room.

    Goddess forbid that his father actually visited his son’s chambers. No, instead he had to be summoned quite officially like a servant.

    Irrelevant.

    He took his time to arrive. He would obey, of course. He had no other choice, but even with the king’s seemingly newfound appreciation for his son’s existence, Magnus wouldn’t rush to do so.

    He had spent two days with Lucia coaching her on a variety of exercises to help hone her control and skill. A lot of it seemed to depend on his sister’s fluctuating emotions. When they argued—especially about the subject of her suitors that Magnus tried to discourage—her rising temper helped bring forth her magic. When her confidence wavered, it faded.

    Therefore, he’d made sure that they argued frequently. It didn’t take very much at all to bring a flush to her cheeks.

    It would still take her a while to open herself up to her magic completely. Even if she wouldn’t readily admit this, she feared it. That which one fears, one typically won’t embrace with open arms.

    Magnus felt similarly toward his father.

    “You summoned me?” he said drily when he was finally in front of the king in his throne room.

    King Gaius raised his gaze from the papers he studied and honed in on Magnus like an eagle spotting mildly interesting prey. “It took you long enough to get here.”

    “I came as quickly as I could.”

    The lie slid smoothly.

    “What have you been up to, Magnus? You’ve been keeping to yourself a great deal the last few days. You missed an opportunity to go out hunting with me again just this morning.”

    “I’ve been reading.”

    The king smiled at this, but the warmth of it didn’t reach his eyes. “I find that difficult to believe.”

    Magnus shrugged. “Did you just want to get an update on my hobbies or were we to discuss more important matters?”

    The king leaned back in his iron and black leather throne and regarded his son. “You remind me so very much of myself at your age. It’s truly uncanny.”

    Magnus wasn’t sure if this was meant to be taken as a compliment or an insult.

    “How go your plans with Chief Basilius?” he asked, wanting to shift the focus off himself.

    “Everything is lining up. Don’t worry, my son, I’ll keep you informed of every important step. And I’ll be requiring your assistance in larger matters very soon.”

    Since the position of the king’s valet was currently vacant due to the unexpected death of Tobias, Magnus was certain the king would need a new personal assistant to bridge such a gap. It sounded as if it would be him.

    “As the king wishes, I obey.” It was nearly impossible to say without noticeable sarcasm. Old habits died hard.

    “I did call you here for a specific reason.” The king studied him for a moment. “What of Lucia? Have you noticed anything unusual about her?”

    Magnus knew this was coming, so he was prepared. He glanced briefly off to the side to see the Damora coat of arms, bearing the familiar words Strength, Faith, and Wisdom. “I’ve been watching her very closely, but she seems just as she’s always been. If she appears distracted to you in some small way, maybe she just has a crush on some insipid boy.”

    “No, it wouldn’t be something as meaningless as that.”

    “Well, I wouldn’t know exactly what I should even be watching for, would I? You refuse to share any details with me.”

    So much for him being a part of the king’s important future plans for this kingdom. Perhaps those were only words. The thought was oddly disappointing.

    The king leaned forward from his plain but intimidating iron throne—the ornate golden, jeweled one Magnus’s grandfather had ruled from had been permanently removed years ago. He pressed the tips of his fingers together. “I think you might be ready to learn the truth.”

    Magnus raised a brow, surprised. “So tell me.”

    “I keep forgetting that you’re not only a boy anymore. You are very nearly a man and as such should be included in everything I do. Honestly,”—the king stood up from his seat and walked a slow circle around Magnus, his gaze sweeping the length of his son with an odd mix of criticism and approval—“it’s like looking into my past. Sabina mentioned this to me only the other day.”

    “Sabina mentioned what?”

    “How very alike we are. You know, I met her when I was not much older than you.”

    Magnus’s stomach soured. “How nice for you. Was she already married back then or did you wait until after her nuptials to bed her?”

    The king gave him a thin smile. “Your tongue is tipped with spikes. But that’s all right. A future king needs every weapon he can get at his disposal. Trust me, when you’re on the throne, there will be very few you can trust.”

    “And yet you trust Sabina?”

    “I do.”

    The only way to get answers from this impossible man was to ask questions directly—while not appearing to really care about the answers, of course. If he seemed too eager, he knew his father would continue to withhold the truth from him indefinitely.

    “What prophecy is it that relates to Lucia? What are you waiting to see from her?”

    The king didn’t say anything for a long time. His eyes narrowed. “You know how I feel about those who listen in on my private conversations, Magnus.”

    He cringed internally. Sometimes even he knew not to speak so bluntly unless he wanted his father to lash out. It was difficult to remember sometimes. But he was on edge and having a difficult time controlling himself. His mask of indifference usually served him much better than this.

    Learning that Lucia was a witch, however, had knocked his world off balance. He’d found that the mask he’d depended on had shifted. It was difficult to set it back into its proper position without great effort.

    Magnus was certain his father would not answer him. Perhaps he would send him away without any new information. That would be fine since he could go immediately to Lucia’s chambers and continue with her practice.

    Finally the king spoke. “If I admit something like this to you, Magnus, we’re treading on very dangerous ground.”

    “The truth is only dangerous if it can inflict injury.” He pretended to be more interested in a platter of apples and cheese on a nearby table than on every word his father uttered.

    “Lies can make harsh truths less painful. But I believe pain is essential for growth.” The king’s gaze was unflinching. “Do you think you’re ready for such honesty?”

    Magnus looked his father right in his eyes, which were the exact same color as his own. As he studied his father’s face, he couldn’t help but see the coldness there. The king had reminded him of a serpent for as long as he could remember—just like the cobra that adorned the family crest. A slippery one with venom and fangs.

    “I want to know about Lucia,” Magnus said firmly. “And I want to know now.”

    The king stood up from his throne and paced to the other side of the room so he could look out a window down the sheer, frost-covered cliff side to the sea far below. “Many years ago, Sabina and her sister studied the stars looking for a sign of a special birth. A child to become one of legend and magic.”

    “Magic.” The word itself was dangerous.

    The king nodded slowly. “Sabina is a witch.”

    Magnus felt himself pale. He’d never cared for Sabina, but he’d never seen any indication that what his father claimed was true. “You took me to see a witch burn when I was twelve years old. It was a lesson on what happens to them should they try to work magic here in Limeros. And yet you say that your mistress is one? I didn’t even know you believed in such things other than making examples out of those who might spread evil and lies.”

    The king spread his hands. “There are hard choices one must make as king. For a long time, I didn’t believe. But it’s true, Magnus. Magic is real.”

    “You would condemn one woman to death for being accused of witchcraft yet consider Sabina your closest advisor? One you also take to your bed?”

    “I don’t expect you to understand, only to accept that what I’ve done—what I’ve always done—has been for the benefit of my kingdom. Sabina is a rare exception for me.”

    His mind reeled. “What does this have to do with Lucia?”

    “There was a prophecy of a child born who would one day possess the power not of a witch, but of a sorceress.”

    Magnus went very still. “And you believe it’s your own daughter.”

    The king grabbed Magnus’s shoulders and pulled him closer. “I have waited a very long time to learn if it’s true. But there’s been no sign that Lucia is anything as extraordinary as this. Sixteen years, Magnus. I grow frustrated.”

    His stomach clenched. “I don’t know what to say.”

    “You’ve seen nothing. Nothing? Truly?”

    Magnus chose his words wisely. “Truly. There is nothing for me to report....
     
  18. novelonline

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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 17



    Finding an exiled Watcher in Paelsia was not proving to be as simple a task as Cleo had hoped. And stowing aboard a cargo ship carrying wine back and forth from Auranos to Paelsia wasn’t as luxurious as being aboard her father’s lavish yacht. But she and Nic had successfully arrived.

    Cleo carried a bag of necessities, including a change of clothes and a small sack of gold and silver coins, generic currency rather than recognizable Auranian centimos stamped with the face of the goddess, which might draw attention to their travels. She kept the hood of her cloak over her sun-swept hair most of the time, but it was more to keep out the cold breeze than to remain incognito. There would only be a small handful in this goddess-forsaken land who’d have any idea who she really was.

    And they walked. And walked.

    And walked some more.

    The journey to find Aron’s wine the last time she’d been here felt as if it was an endless trip. It was but a glimpse of this.

    Each village was a half day’s journey from each other—at the very least. A couple times they’d managed to catch a ride on the back of a horse-drawn cart, but mostly they walked. Each village looked the same as the last. Small, poor, with a cluster of cottages, a tavern, an inn, and a market selling various modest wares, including small, sad-looking fruits and vegetables. These food items didn’t grow so well in the cold soil as the grapes did. It was only more evidence that the vineyards and the grapes themselves were specifically touched by earth magic. This realization helped Cleo remain optimistic as the days dragged on.

    Shortly after their arrival, they wandered through the vineyards themselves, wide expanses of green vines planted in neat rows, the ground frosty, the pale green grapes cold to the touch but large and plump and sweet.

    Before anyone could see them, catch them, they’d gathered as many bunches of grapes as they could and ran away. It wasn’t a perfect meal served by servants in front of a blazing fire, but it filled their bellies—especially since Nic had proved useless at catching a quick-moving rabbit for dinner. They’d come upon an awkward and slow-moving turtle, but neither of them had had the heart to end its life. At the time, they hadn’t been hungry enough for turtle meat. Instead, they ate the remainder of their dried fruit.

    Beyond the west coast, where the harbor hugged the rocky shore and the vineyards grew, they traveled farther east along narrow dirt roads, stopping in each village to ask if anyone knew of the legends—and if there were any rumors of an exiled Watcher living amongst the peasants.

    To anyone who asked, Cleo and Nic introduced themselves as a brother and sister from northern Limeros who were traveling together to research such stories. The thought was humorous to Cleo and she could barely keep the grin off her face whenever Nic told his tale—each time it became more grand. Before long, they were the son and daughter of a famous Limerian poet who’d asked them with his dying breath to complete his life’s work—a book about the Watchers of the Kindred.

    Nic had an incredible imagination and an inviting way about him that set everyone’s mind at ease. Paelsians were not open to visitors from other kingdoms, but they made an exception for the two once Nic got talking. He rarely failed to bring a smile to their weathered faces. Children especially loved Nic, gathering around him at a campfire beneath the stars for more stories that he made up on the spot. Before they left a couple of the villages, a few children followed them, begging Nic to stay just a little while longer so he could continue to entertain them.

    Cleo had hoped to find the answers she sought quickly, but it was stretching into nearly a week since they’d arrived and she began to grow weary. Some days were better than others. They had gold that paid for rooms in village inns so they could get a semi-comfortable night’s sleep on straw-packed beds. The meals served in the taverns weren’t nearly the same as the ones in the Auranian palace but were far from horrible.

    But tonight, after leaving such a tavern and beginning their walk to the inn to rent a room, they were cornered by a few large, rough boys who took her weighty sack of coins and left them with only a precious few found at the bottom of Nic’s pockets.

    Cleo cried for the first time since they’d arrived. It was a clear sign to her that their trip to Paelsia would get worse before it got better. Barely any money meant she’d soon have to return to Auranos, admitting failure and accepting punishment for running away from home to chase after myth and magic.

    Not wanting to waste what little coin they had left, they slept in a dry, dusty riverbed, Nic’s arms wrapped tightly around Cleo to stop her shivering. Her large, baggy cloak was drawn around the both of them for warmth.

    “Don’t cry,” he whispered. “It’ll be better tomorrow.”

    “You don’t know that.”

    “You’re right; I don’t. But I can hope.”

    “We haven’t found anything. Nobody believes there’s a Watcher living here.”

    Maybe there wasn’t.

    She let out a long, shaky sigh and pressed her cheek against Nic’s chest to listen to his heartbeat. The stars above them were bright in the black sky, the moon a shard of silver light. She’d never studied the sky for so long before, only looking up now and then in an absent kind of way. But she’d never seen it, not like this. So clear and vast and beautiful even in such a hopeless moment.

    “Why would a Watcher be exiled from their home, anyway?” she asked.

    “They say that some fall in love with mortals and they leave voluntarily. Once they leave, they can never return.”

    “To do such a thing for love. To leave paradise.” She swallowed. “It seems like a waste.”

    “Depends who you’re in love with.”

    This was true.

    As Cleo looked up at the stars, she thought about Theon and wondered if he too might be looking up at the same moment. She knew he would have been furious to learn that she’d left and that she’d lied to him. At the time, she hadn’t worried about it, thinking she’d return victorious before too much time had passed and all would be forgiven.

    I’m sorry, Theon, she thought. I wish you were here with me.

    As much as she adored Nic, the thought of instead having Theon’s arms around her to keep her warm made her heart begin to race. She’d run away from him, from his stern looks and serious words—but now she missed him desperately. There was nothing about Theon she would ever change, not even the fact that he wasn’t royal. She hoped that he understood why she’d had no choice but to come here. That he’d forgive her. Eventually.

    “What do Watchers look like?” she whispered. “I never paid attention to the legends.”

    “Hardly anyone believes them anymore. The Watchers are all young and beautiful. Light shines from their golden skin. They spend their days in endless green meadows surrounded by splendor.”

    “But they’re trapped in that paradise?”

    “That’s what the legends say. Since the Kindred was lost, they don’t possess enough magic to leave. It’s their punishment for losing what they were supposed to guard.”

    “But they can still watch us through the eyes of birds.”

    “Not everyone, I’m sure. Some they’d find quite boring to watch. Aron, for instance. All they’d see is him drinking wine all day long and admiring himself in a mirror. How dull.”

    She laughed despite herself. “You might be right about that.”

    “I just had a thought.”

    “Uh-oh. What is it?” She looked up at his face.

    “Imagine what Aron would say if he saw us like this. Sleeping in each other’s arms. Would he be jealous?”

    She grinned. “Insanely. Especially of the fact that we’re broke and starving and freezing to death, with not a drop of wine between us.”

    He closed his eyes, his lips quirking at the edges. “For the chance to die in the arms of Princess Cleiona, it might just be worth it.”

    He constantly made silly comments like this. She normally brushed them off as only humor, but sometimes she wondered if her sister had been right—that Nic might be a little bit in love with her.

    The worry drifted away as she fell asleep and dreamed instead of Theon.

    ? ? ?

    “This is it,” Nic said the next day when they resumed their search. “If we find nothing today, then we need head back to the harbor and go home tomorrow. Agreed?”

    Disappointment and weariness thudded with every step she took. “Agreed.”

    Nearly out of money and with no clues to give them hope, it was time for this adventure to end and for Cleo to accept defeat.

    She squeezed her eyes shut as they walked and said a rare prayer to the goddess for assistance in their search.

    Her stomach grumbled unhappily as if in reply. They’d found some dried-up fruit on some dried-up trees that morning, but it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy her.

    “Yes, excellent,” Nic said. “We’ll follow your inner gurgle like a compass. I think it’ll help.”

    She smacked his arm and tried not to grin since it was the last expression...
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 18



    “I had to escape,” Sera said later at the tavern. With its dirt floors and dirty glasses, it wasn’t much and wasn’t large enough to accommodate more than a couple dozen, but it served its purpose. It was a place for the work weary to find a cheap drink and some company.

    “Really. Why’s that?”

    A smile played on the lips that half the boys in a ten-mile radius were well acquainted with. “My grandmother’s taken in a couple of strays for the night. Had to suffer through her stories again. Immediately thought of you when they were introduced to me. The girl’s name is Cleo—just like that hateful princess. I’ve never known anyone else with that name.”

    Jonas stared with shock at the girl seated next to him at the small wooden table in a darkened corner of the tavern. He’d never heard of anyone else with that name either. “What did she look like?”

    “Looked like a princess, if you ask me. Blue eyes. Fair hair. Around my age. Pretty thing, I suppose.” Sera twisted a piece of dark brown hair between her fingers.

    “You said her name was Cleo.”

    “That’s right.”

    Blondes weren’t that common in Paelsia. They weren’t common anywhere, really, but there were still a few, more often from northern Limeros. Jonas remembered Cleo’s hair, bright as the sun, long and flowing down her slim body.

    He’d dreamed of tearing that hair out a piece at a time while she begged for mercy.

    Jonas cast a glance to the other side of the tavern to see Brion sitting by the warmth of the fire, his eyes already closing. They’d been busy for days scouting and had stopped for a nightcap before spending the night at his sister Felicia’s and her husband’s, a short distance outside of the village. Chief Basilius’s men were way ahead of them. All eligible men—and boys—on the west coast had been signed up to join the Paelsian army. In their travels, they’d found no sign of any troublemakers or spies. Unless this girl Sera, whom Jonas knew casually from his visits to Felicia and Paulo, spoke of was the Auranian princess herself.

    “Maybe I’ll tell you more later.” Sera boldly scooted her chair closer so she could slide her hand down Jonas’s chest and over his abdomen. He grabbed her wrist and she flinched.

    “Tell me now.”

    “You’re hurting me.”

    “No, I’m not. Don’t exaggerate.”

    She bit her bottom lip and looked coyly at him, her feigned distress forgotten. “Maybe we should go somewhere a bit more private where we can discuss anything you like.”

    “Not tonight.” He wasn’t the least bit interested in going anywhere private with her tonight or any other night. No, he was only supposed to have private time these days with Laelia, a girl he was already tired of spending time with. But until everything worked out with the chief and Jonas’s hope for a successful rebellion against Auranos, he thought it best not to end things between him and the snake dancer. It might backfire on both himself and Brion if they offended Chief Basilius’s daughter. Being kicked out of the chief’s trusted circle would be the least of their worries then.

    “You said this Cleo girl is at your grandmother’s cottage?” Jonas said very quietly and very firmly.

    “That’s what I said,” she replied, now sullen. “She and her friend are staying there overnight.”

    “This is impossible.” He let go of her completely. “She wouldn’t be stupid enough to show her face around here.”

    “You don’t think it’s actually the princess, do you? She didn’t act much like a princess.”

    If the blonde was Cleo—and he had a sickly gut feeling that it was—then she had a specific reason for being here. But what was it? Was she a spy for her father? He’d seen intelligence and cunning in her eyes that fateful day at the market, an ugly maliciousness that betrayed her outward beauty. He wouldn’t underestimate her. “Who is she with?”

    “Some boy named Nicolo. He seemed harmless.”

    He relaxed by a fraction. If Sera had said that she was here with Lord Aron, he wouldn’t have been able to control his rage a moment longer.

    Jonas’s jaw was so tight that it made it difficult to speak. He pushed back from the table and got to his feet. “Thank you for telling me this, Sera.”

    “You’re leaving? So soon? Just because this girl might really be Princess Cleo?”

    Jonas flinched as if his brother’s death had happened only minutes ago rather than over two months. His grief was as raw and bloody as it had been that very first day.

    Revenge. That’s what he’d wanted. But now with his newfound association with Chief Basilius, he wasn’t sure that was the best course of action. He needed to talk to the chief and find out what to do next. By horse, the chief’s compound was only a two-hour ride away.

    He glanced over at Brion. His one hard-earned mug of dark ale sat untouched while he slept, his face lit by the crackling fire.

    Jonas would let him have his rest. He’d go and see the chief alone. Only then would he decide what the princess’s ultimate fate would be.
     
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    Falling Kingdoms
    Page 19



    Magnus stood on the balcony of his chambers, staring off into the darkness. He’d stayed in his room tonight, opting to take dinner there instead of trying to deal with his family downstairs. He still didn’t think he could look his father in the eye after their private conversation earlier that week.

    There was a knock at his door and he moved off the balcony toward it, certain it would be Amia come to pay him a visit. He wasn’t sure if he was in the mood to appreciate the maid’s particular talents tonight, no matter how enthusiastic she might be.

    But it wasn’t Amia.

    “Magnus.” Sabina leaned against the edge of the doorway when he opened it. “Good evening.”

    “Good evening,” he said without any feeling. This was a surprise. Sabina had never knocked on his door before. After what he’d learned about her from his father, he watched her warily, but with interest.

    Everyone had secrets.

    “Everything all right?” she asked. “I was worried when you didn’t come down for dinner tonight.”

    “I’m fine. Thank you for your concern.”

    “I wondered if I might speak with you.”

    “About what?”

    “A private matter.”

    He tensed. Sabina and the king were such close confidants that he worried what this might entail. However, he didn’t think he could refuse. He was certain she wouldn’t be deterred if he simply tried to ignore her.

    “Of course.” He opened the door wider. “Please come in.”

    She did, her silky red dress hugging her body. He’d have to be blind not to notice her beauty. While his mother, the queen, was quite plain and showed her age with every passing year, Sabina looked the same as he ever remembered. Tall, willowy, with long dark hair and amber-colored eyes. Her lips were always turned up in a smile that never looked entirely friendly.

    “Close the door,” she said.

    With only the slightest hesitation, he did as requested.

    She moved toward the window, trailing her fingertips over each piece of furniture she passed including the wooden posts at the foot of his bed, each carved to resemble a serpent. “Goodness, it’s cold in here. You should close your window and have someone light a fire.”

    “Perhaps later. What do you want to talk about?” If he could move this along, he’d be happy. If Amia wasn’t going to stop by tonight, he’d rather spend the rest of the evening alone.

    Sabina slowly turned to look at him. “The king told me about the conversation you had together.”

    He couldn’t find his breath for a moment before he managed to shift his invisible mask of indifference back into place. “Is that so?”

    “Yes.”

    “He’s very sharing.”

    “He can be when he’s in the right mood.” She smiled at him. “So you know.”

    Magnus weighed his words before speaking. “Can you be more specific? I know lots of things.”

    “Not that many. Just enough to cause trouble. But I think we can trust you, can’t we?”

    “With what?”

    “Don’t be coy, Magnus. It doesn’t suit you. With the secret about Lucia, of course. Of the prophecy of her being a sorceress. Of the magic that I’m sure she’s already shown to her trusted brother.”

    He looked at her sharply. “You’re mistaken. She’s shown me nothing of the sort.”

    She laughed. “Oh, Magnus, you do amuse me. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that you’re Gaius’s son. The resemblance is uncanny, of course, but you have a much softer heart. Especially when it comes to your sister.”

    He knew she meant this not as an asset, but as a fault. “It’s not nearly as soft as you might think.”

    “Isn’t it? But perhaps a heart takes experience and time to harden. When you will not flinch to learn shocking truths. I hope to be here when that happens. I think you have the potential for greatness, even if you don’t believe it yourself.”

    He’d rarely noticed before how much he utterly disliked this woman.

    “Thank you for your opinion, Sabina. Now, what exactly was it you wanted to see me about? Or was it just to rehash part of my conversation with Father that, really, is none of your business?”

    “I thought I’d come for a visit. We so rarely get to spend any time alone together.”

    “Ah,” he said blandly. “And I so enjoy your company.”

    She watched him with that predatory look he’d noticed her give other people when they weren’t watching. She was the most intimidating woman he’d ever known. Her dead husband, on the other hand, had been the kindest man who had ever stepped foot inside the palace. But he’d always had a look on his face as if he constantly expected someone to strike him. Perhaps his wife.

    Magnus hoped very much that he didn’t share the same look. Those who appeared to be victims were always the easiest to victimize.

    “You know, without that scar, you’d be a flawlessly handsome young man.” Sabina cast a leisurely glance over him. “Even with it, you’re still very attractive.”

    He absently brushed his fingertips against his scar. “I appreciate the compliment,” he lied.

    “Aren’t you going to compliment me in return?”

    “I grow weary of games, Sabina. Either get to the point or leave.” He gave her a piercing look. “Unless you want to demonstrate your magic. My father said you’re a witch, but I’ve never met a real witch before and I must say I’m curious.”

    “A real witch would never blatantly use her powers in the open for anyone to see. That would be risking exposure to those who might mean her harm.”

    “I suppose you’re right.”

    “You’d best tell Lucia the same thing.”

    His chest tightened. “My father believes she’s a sorceress, but I’ve seen no evidence of anything unusual.”

    “Are you sure?” Sabina eyed him with open amusement. “I think you’re lying.”

    “I’m not. What I am sure about is that I’d like you to leave my chambers.” He forced a smile. “If you please.”

    “Am I making you uncomfortable?”

    “Not at all. But I’m tired and I wish to sleep.”

    That annoyingly amused look remained on her face. It was as if nothing he said had any effect on her. “I like you, Magnus.”

    “I’m deeply honored,” he said drily.

    She moved closer to him, sweeping her gaze over his tall frame from head to toe and then slowly back up again. “Your father has become obsessed with this drive to conquer Auranos. He hasn’t had much time for me lately, except to seek guidance on certain decisions. He’s spent today organizing a meeting in Auranos with Chief Basilius and King Corvin himself to discuss matters before they escalate.”

    “He’s a busy man.”

    “I grow lonely.” Again she walked slowly around him. Her gaze felt weighted and uncomfortable. “And I know that you’re also lonely. You haven’t yet chosen a future bride, even though you’re only weeks from turning eighteen. And you spend so very much time all by yourself. Whatever do you do with your days and nights, Magnus?”

    “Nothing that would interest you.”

    “I know you enjoy the attentions of a pretty kitchen maid, don’t you? But she’s the only one I’m aware of. I don’t believe for one moment that you’re interested in such a girl as anything more than a short and meaningless distraction.”

    He hated that she knew so much about him. “It might be meaningless, but it’s not always short.”

    He tensed when he felt her hand brush over his back, trailing across to his shoulders as she circled him. “You are very nearly a man. And a very fine man at that. A bit soft around the edges still, but I think the right handling would help sharpen your edge. You could become a fine weapon in many ways.”

    Magnus stared at her, unclear about her meaning. But not all that unclear. “What are you suggesting?”

    “The same thing that I suggested to your father when he was not much older than you. I’m offering myself to you as a lover.”

    “Is that so?” His words were measured, quiet.

    “Yes.”

    “You’re old enough to be my mother.”

    This finally helped her smile to slip at the edges. “Age can be an asset, Magnus. With age comes experience. You are young and, apart from that maid and perhaps a handful of other meaningless girls, you have no experience.”

    “You have no idea how much experience I have.”

    “Not nearly enough. It’s clear in every move you make. You want to feel wanted. Needed. Desired.” She trailed her fingertips over his chest. “I can make you feel those things.”

    Magnus couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

    “And what does my father have to say about this offer of yours?”

    “Gaius doesn’t know, of course. Nor does he need to know.”

    “Sharing a mistress with my father doesn’t sound...
     

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