Author’s Note: This excerpt from THE HEIR AND THE SPARE is subject to change. Please excuse any grammar errors, typos, etc. that I haven’t caught yet.
Only two people had to die for Princess Iona to become queen: her father King Gawen, an aloof figure whose passing she would one day mourn, and her older sister Lisenn, whose grave she would gladly dance on should the occasion arise. Of course grave-dancing was frowned upon in Wessett and the likelihood of Lisenn dying first was minuscule, but that didn’t stop the younger sister from sheltering such an inclination in her heart.
And it had nothing to do with wanting the crown, because she didn’t.
“You look exceptionally nice today,” said a voice behind her.
Iona glanced up from the tray of art supplies she had been arranging—oil paints, brushes, pencils, rags—to her cousin leaning against the door casing. Aedan wore a kind expression in his drooping eyes, his brown hair framing his face in waves, perfect for a portrait. Shame he was supposed to be on the other side of the room, positioned between a pair of faux-marble columns instead.
“Thank you…?” she said, her intonation rising as though she were asking a question rather than accepting his compliment.
He pushed away from the jamb and strolled fully into her studio, hands in his pockets and a casual air about him. His dark eyes swept from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. “It’s your hair, I think. Your maid put in some extra effort this morning.”
Her fingertips ghosted against the style. Bina had insisted on working braids into her usual upswept knot, and Iona had been too sleepy to protest. While she preferred to keep her long blond hair in simple order, the occasional elaborate variation wouldn’t kill her.
Aedan shifted his focus elsewhere. “Sticking to your usual somber colors, though. You always seem like you’re in mourning.”
She looked down at herself and pitched her words to sound innocent. “The smock is white.” As if that counteracted the slate gray of the exquisitely tailored dress beneath it.
His mouth pulled to one side and he leveled her with a piercing stare. “Your sister doesn’t own the rainbow, you know.”
Iona suppressed a laugh and motioned him onward to his waiting perch. “I like my grays and browns.” When he made no move to ascend the set of his portrait, her nerves manifested in a warbling chuckle. “Bina did try to dress me in blue today. Heaven knows where she got the gown, but it was the color of a summer sky.” Wessett was barely halfway through spring, but the pale, incomparable blue had called to her nonetheless. It invoked warmth and brightness, a far cry from the thread of cool, damp breeze that wafted now from her row of open windows. Her studio, tucked into the ground floor of the castle’s eastern wing, had only an hour or two of good natural light in the morning, but never the warmth of the sun.
“You should have worn it,” Aedan said, with something akin to sorrow on his face.
Again she shooed him toward the set, impatient. “Why? I’d only get paint on it by day’s end.”
He gave her an odd look but finally walked on, hopping up onto the low scaffold to take his place between the columns. Iona, satisfied that they were beginning their session at last, picked up her palette and selected a long, thin brush from her collection. Before she could so much as touch it to paint, her cousin asked,
“What was the name you used when you were living in Capria?”
Her hand froze. A series of unpleasant memories flashed before her eyes. Carefully she broke the momentary trance and lifted her gaze to meet his. “Why do you want to know that?”
“Were you keeping it secret from me?” he asked, off-hand, and she had to concede the point. She’d told him four years ago, upon her abrupt return from the mainland, but she hadn’t spoken of Capria or her experiences there in ages. Plague her memory though they might, she refused to let them govern her life. Only her lady’s maid knew the full extent, and only because she’d witnessed it firsthand.
But refusing to speak of it when directly asked would only arouse suspicions. Even though Aedan knew a fraction of the truth, he needn’t suspect it still bothered her.
So, Iona focused on the half-finished portrait and quietly said, “I called myself Yanna of Ghemp.”
She leaned closer to the canvas, adding daubs of white to highlight the yellow-gold of her subject’s sateen breeches. “Because it lies in the furthest corner of their kingdom, with only a lower set of nobles who rarely sent their children to the Royal College. Why the sudden curiosity?”
Aedan didn’t immediately answer, and she might have let the conversation drop if not for the charged silence that possessed the room. After three more daubs of white, she stepped backward and to one side, the better to scowl at him.
“You don’t keep up with anything that happens at court, do you,” he said.
She huffed a laugh and resumed painting. “Why should I? I’m just the spare, here to ensure that my father’s bloodline continues on the throne into the next generation. If you want to speak of court, go find Lisenn.”
She didn’t miss the sneer that crossed his face, nor could she blame him for it. Had they been anywhere but her studio—had someone passed the open door to the hall or observed from the garden through the open windows—she might have rebuked him, but since they were alone and she shared his opinions of her sister, she merely allowed herself a wan smile and continued working.
His sudden interest in her time at the Royal College of Capria—four years, starting at age twelve—niggled at the back of her brain, but Aedan often wondered aloud about random things. Surely her parents weren’t considering sending her back, even if it was safe again. She dismissed the very idea.
The breeze helped dissipate the scent of turpentine, but it also worked a chill into Iona’s fingers. She had to pause to rub some warmth back into her joints. Had Aedan’s father commissioned the portrait later in the year, they might have set it in the garden instead of using the lavish backdrop of drapes and columns and worldly gewgaws angled in artistic opposition to one other, but the older generation loved their pomp and polished mementos. Perhaps she would propose a more casual study once this official one was complete. Aedan had an excellent face for painting.
But not, perhaps, a mind for tact. He abruptly said, “They’re coming to negotiate a treaty.”
Iona, absorbed now in the interplay of light and shadow on his canvas double, asked, “Who?”
“Capria. They sent the request last month. Their ship docked in the harbor this morning.”
She frowned, the words tumbling senseless against her own thoughts. Capria had fallen into civil war, the cause of her abrupt removal from its shores when she was sixteen. Of course she knew that conflict had resolved—such news traveled even to her neglected corner of the castle—but that had been more than a season ago. Wessett had helped the Caprian nobles with only a pittance of support during the worst of their battles, but the pair of countries had a troubled past so that hardly surprised anyone.
“Why would they want a treaty with us?” she asked.
“Probably to preempt your father from invading and taking them over when they’re already at their weakest.”
“Io, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re truly oblivious, or if it’s all an elaborate act,”Aedan said. “Capria has proposed a marriage alliance, their new crown prince with your sister, and the two thrones to combine in the next generation. They’re coming today to negotiate.”
Her chest constricted tight. She sucked in a controlled breath, torn between alarm and a strange, blossoming hope. “They’re marrying off Lisenn?”
“They’re negotiating it, I said. You little fool, do you understand what that means?”
The epithet didn’t bother her. Aedan used it more as a term of endearment than a malicious slight. His question, however, spiraled her into visual confusion.
Her cousin released a long-suffering sigh. “They’re sending their crown prince. He’s only a year or two older than you. That means you probably know him, and your parents will expect you at court as a member of the royal family to greet his entourage.”
Again she blinked, several times in rapid succession. Who was the new crown prince of Capria? The former prince’s assassination had kicked off their civil war, and his younger brother had died within a year. Both had been in their thirties, already married with small children, but traitorous militants had targeted their whole families. It stood to reason that the crown had fallen to another noble house.
But who? Someone near her age…?
The elite of the Royal College paraded through her thoughts, a catalog of proud and callous youths, scornful faces that delighted in tormenting their lesser peers.
In tormenting a nobody from backward Ghemp.
She almost flung her palette to the nearby table, fingers quick to work the buttons at the back of her smock. “Help me out of this,” she said on a gasp.
Aedan darted to her aid, deftly freeing her of the over-garment. “Are you going to wear the blue dress after all?” he asked, a gleam of approval in his eyes.
“What?” Iona peered past him to the open door. From further down the hall a set of footsteps echoed against stone walls.
“To court, to greet the—”
“I’m not going to court!” She shoved the wadded smock into his hands and bolted for the nearest window.
Aedan followed her to the sill. “But your parents—”
“I don’t care! I’m not going!” She was already slipping past the leaden frame, intent upon the narrow space between the bushes and the castle wall. As she dangled her legs off the ledge above the gravel four feet below, she glimpsed a figure in her studio door, and the voice of her father’s steward, Kester, filled the room she was in process of vacating.
“Your Highness, your most noble parents, the king and queen, request—”
Iona hit the ground running. If she never received the summons, she didn’t have to obey it. No one would expect her to attend the actual treaty negotiations. Or if they did, she could make her absence more prolonged. Perhaps she could masquerade as a dairymaid in one of Wessett’s far-flung valleys, or help with the early-season planting. The island was certainly large enough to hide her for a solid week or two.
Regardless, she could not meet the Caprian delegation. The nobles at the Royal College had prided themselves on who lay closest to inheriting the throne, and the lower that number, the more insufferable the bully. The worst of the lot, nine places removed from his illustrious birthright, had spearheaded every horrible movement within the school.
The war may have wiped out Capria’s royal family, but it had gutted their noble houses as well. Maybe he was dead. Maybe the crown had fallen to the twelfth in line, or the thirty-seventh. It didn’t matter. If they had a number, they behaved as monsters.
Kester shouted behind her. She glimpsed his more robust figure struggling through the window as she rounded the corner and passed beyond his line of sight. If she could reach the stable and commandeer a horse, she’d have much easier luck getting away, at least as far as the forest. The stablehands wouldn’t know she was expected at court.
Bina must have realized, though. That would explain the more elaborate hair and the plea for the sky-blue dress. Iona would have stuck out like a crocus in a snowdrift wearing such a color, and her sister would have wrung her neck. She thanked the heavens for keeping to her sedate gray, which might have passed as a servant’s garb if its make were not so fine.
Skirts hiked in her hands, she dashed across the back aspect of the castle. Gardeners lifted their heads from among the rose bushes and the flower beds, but she paid them little heed. The stable, with its long gravel courtyard, lay beyond the next corner. If she was lucky, Kester would give up pursuit and return to report her absence.
But luck eluded her, as it ever had. His shout echoed, the words lost on the wind between them.
Perhaps she would have to bypass the horse and rely on her own two feet. She barreled headlong around the next corner, into the shadowed porch that lay across the courtyard from the stable, only to collide with a body—or a whole collection of them. Swift hands grasped her upper arms to steady her.
“I’m so sorry,” she blurted, but as she lifted her gaze to the nearest face, the rest of her apology stuck in her throat.
She registered dark brown hair—cut close to the sides of the head in the Caprian style—along with an angled jaw and a pair of fine, hazel eyes she could never mistake. It was a face from her nightmares, Jaoven of Deraval, formerly ninth in line for the throne of Capria. He opened his well-formed mouth, presumably to inquire whether she was all right, but his initial concern melted into recognition.
A chill shot down Iona’s spine. The grip on her arms tightened.
“Yanna of Ghemp,” said her captor through gritted teeth. The flurry of movement her abrupt advent had created suddenly stilled, the air around her stiff and crackling.
“L-let me go,” she managed to say, but she only feebly struggled. She couldn’t escape his grip. She already knew as much. A fleeting glance toward the others of his party revealed more familiar faces, men and women who, though four years older than her last encounter with them, she could never mistake. She fixed her eyes on the most sympathetic of the lot, Neven of Combran, a brunet who had shared several of her art courses so many years ago. “Please.”
He offered her no help, though remorse practically bled from him.
“The rats always abandon a sinking ship,” Jaoven hissed, leaning in close. “So you fled to Wessett? And you’ve been living a safe and pampered life here ever since, while your countrymen fought and suffered and died—?”
Iona, cringing from her captor’s accusations, wedged open her eyes. Her father’s steward stood panting at the corner of the porch, one hand propping him against the stone wall as he gaped at the scene before him. His gaze traveled from Iona’s face to the hands that gripped her arms and then back.
Jaoven thrust her half-behind him, keeping a firm hold upon her as he said, with feigned cordiality, “Yes. I’m Prince Jaoven of Capria. We had the fortune of meeting one of our countrymen just now and were reacquainting ourselves.”
Kester’s attention flitted past him to Iona, a question in his eyes. She minutely shook her head, a silent plea for him not to name her as the true recipient of his message.
“You’re wanted at court,” he faintly said.
“Excellent.” A smile tinged Jaoven’s voice, his diplomacy on full display. “Do you lead us there?”
“Ah.” Kester looked again to Iona, but finding no command or contradiction, he skirted forward through the Caprian party. “Yes. Allow me to show you, please.”
Once the steward’s back was turned, Jaoven leaned close to her ear and whispered, “We’ll deal with you after this first introduction is over. You’re coming with us, but if you say a word out of line, you’re a dead woman.”
Then he passed her off to Nevan’s keeping with a muttered, “Do not let her out of your sight,” and pushed through his entourage to take the front position.
As the party moved together, bodies surrounded her on every side, men and women alike sparing her bitter glances. She didn’t recognize all of them. Some were certainly servants who would fall back before the official delegation crossed into the great hall, and others envoys who would participate in the negotiations but not this formal greeting. She picked out the nobles among them by the finery of their dress, six in total including Neven and the newly crowned prince. She could name five of them, fellow classmates from Capria’s Royal College.
Near the front, Elouan of Dumene—number twenty-four, in former years, and still as broad of shoulder and golden of coloring—pitched his voice low. “Jove, don’t let this put you out of temper. We need to make a good first impression on the royals here.”
“It won’t be a problem,” Jaoven replied, but the clenching fists at his side told another story.
Iona swallowed against a lump in her throat, her mind racing for any exit strategy she could formulate. To Neven she whispered, “You have to let me go.” As art students, they had shared many of the same woes four years ago. Surely he of all this group might sympathize with her.
Instead he dashed her fledgling hopes. “I can’t.” His attention flitted to the delegates and servants around them. “If your family abandoned Capria in its time of need, you have to face your punishment.”
With increasing dread, Iona buttoned her lips and marched. Strictly speaking, her family had abandoned the embattled noblemen of that land. What punishment it merited, though, was up for debate.
Neven’s hold upon her arm remained loose, but if she tried to break away, the others would dog-pile her. If he would only move to the edge of the group!
Ahead, Elouan and Jaoven continued their consultation. “Do you remember everyone’s name?” Elouan asked.
Jaoven snorted. “Please. I’ve recited them a hundred times since we got on the boat.”
“Say them again. If your mind goes blank at the wrong moment—”
“King Gawen, Queen Marget, Crown Princess Lisenn, Princess Iona. Happy?”
“I will be once this blasted meeting is over.”
“Because you’re looking forward to the days of negotiations yet to come?”
“Your father gave us very strict instructions.”
“Enough, Elou. I have too much on my mind already.” He cast a scowl over his shoulder, briefly meeting Iona’s gaze before resuming his purposeful stride.
Morbidly she wondered how his posture would change in the moments shortly before them. It was almost worth provoking Lisenn’s wrath.
They crossed the main courtyard and arrived at the entrance to the great hall. The Wessettan royal guards in their signature red cloaks lined the way. If any of them recognized Iona’s presence in the foreign delegation, they only raised their brows and shifted their attention elsewhere. No one meddled much with her doings, and because Kester led the group, her inclusion in it could invite no comments.
The steward paused on the threshold, turning back as though to speak. When his gaze met Iona’s her scowl prompted him to look elsewhere. “If you will wait here but a moment,” he said delicately to Prince Jaoven. Then, after a slight bow, he proceeded into the vast and airy room without them.
A crowd of Wessettan nobles lined the walls leading up to the central dais, where four thrones awaited the delegation.
“One of the princesses is missing,” said Elouan with a frown.
“Which one?” Jaoven asked, peering from the raven-haired young woman at the king’s right hand, then over to the empty chair at the queen’s left.
“The younger. That’s Lisenn next to her father.”
“Perhaps the other one’s absence explains the delay. They certainly left us waiting long enough.”
“Perhaps. Or she might not be in town. Our informants said they’ve housed their daughters in different areas of the country before, as a safeguard against any attacks upon the crown.”
Jaoven grunted. “Would that our people had been as wise.”
Iona bit her lips to contain a bitter laugh. She glued her eyes to Kester as he lightly hopped up the stairs to her father’s side and whispered in his ear. Lisenn’s pretty face contorted, proof that she overheard the hushed confidence, but she schooled her ire away again as her father responded.
Kester returned. He gestured inward with a grand, sweeping arm. In a voice that echoed from the vaulted stone ceiling, a cryer announced, “The crown of Wessett welcomes emissaries of Capria into its hallowed halls: Crown Prince Jaoven; Elouan, Duke of Dumene; Lady Denoela of Rosemarch…”
True to Iona’s expectations, the servants and untitled diplomats peeled away, leaving her and Neven near the back of the group, with only one man behind them. The list of names and titles continued as the official delegation processed across the checkerboard marble floor toward the waiting monarch. A murmur arose among the Wessettan nobles who noticed Iona in the foreign ranks. She resisted the urge to shrink out of sight, but it didn’t fully leave until she met Aedan’s gaze near the front of the room. He had every right to attend an assembly such as this, of course, but he must have bolted straight here the instant Kester followed her.
Which meant he either figured she’d get caught or else was curious about the Caprians himself.
When they locked gazes, he tipped his head, his brows cinched as though to ask if she had gone completely mad. She squared her shoulders and glowered at him.
The cryer finished his list of names and the delegation stopped ten feet in front of the dais. Prince Jaoven bowed and then straightened, waiting for his host to speak.
King Gawen, one hand tracing patterns on the arm of his throne, looked past the newly crowned royal to lock gazes with his own daughter.
“Iona, what are you doing?”
A stricken hush fell across the hall. The Caprian delegates exchanged confused glances, and Jaoven actually turned as though to discern where the king’s attention lay.
Iona, resigned to her fate, calmly extracted herself from Neven’s lax grip and skirted by the rest of the delegation. She spared Jaoven only a grim, sidelong glance as she passed, then she mounted the three dais steps and swept into the empty chair at her mother’s side. The fair-haired queen favored her with a smile.
Straight-backed and stoic, the second princess of Wessett met the horrified stares of her former classmates.
And she might have relished this wordless comeuppance had Lisenn’s glare not been drilling into the side of her head.
Thank you for reading Chapter 1! The Heir and the Spare releases February 19, 2021.