Welcome to a sneak peek of my current work-in-progress! A few extra details at the end, but for now I’ll let you dive right in.
Chapter 1: A Dangerous Expedition
The empire is under attack. Hardly a day goes by that doesn’t bring tales of death and destruction, inhuman creatures in the west descending from the mountain forests to wreak havoc on our borderlands. They scorch our fields and consume our cattle, and the people plead for imperial magicians to counter this devastating onslaught.
But our magicians’ hands are tied because the magic itself grows scarce.
I’m not supposed to know this much, yet rumors flood the halls of the imperial palace, whispering that the reservoirs are drying up across the empire’s expanse, and that this magical drought leaves us vulnerable to a degree that all our well-trained armies cannot counterbalance. Felix says it’s an exaggeration, misinformation sown by enemies to the crown. He thinks reports of the attacks are distorted as well, framed in a way to stoke our fears.
If so, the campaign is working. Tension stretches tight in every corner of the palace. The imperial prince is always on edge. Even the emperor himself is concerned, however much he hides his thoughts.
Melanthos has long been mighty, a protective force with dozens of tributary states within its fold. They depend on us for safety. If we fall, almost the whole continent will fall with us, and our only true adversary will rise to take our place, subjugating countless innocent lives into servitude.
Emperor Petronius has forbidden casual mention of that country, cautious of the fear it strikes when spoken aloud. Celina might cringe every time she hears its name, but I refuse to let such superstition dictate my life.
Our foe is Lenore, an insidious bastion of dark power ruled by a supernatural being they call the Eternal Prince. This monstrous creature governs in shadow, his face hidden from even his own people, his reach extending throughout the impenetrable forests that mark our western boundaries. The Eternal Prince directs these onslaughts that plague our people. He feeds off the magic that steadily vanishes from our land.
Therefore, the Eternal Prince must die.
And if the stars are on my side, I, Rosia Hilaria Domitius, will be the one to kill him.
A shift in the air indicated the exact moment they crossed the border. Rosia hunched deeper into her cloak, the hood falling a fraction lower over her dark eyes as her gaze flitted from one side of the dirt road to the other. She couldn’t pinpoint what exactly had caused that shift, only that an unseen something engulfed her.
A prickly, sinister something, as if a thousand needle-sharp eyes stared from the depths of the forest. It rippled over the whole company, from Captain Valerius at the front of the column to the very last soldier in the line.
Was it a warning? A threat? They had every right to investigate the source of attacks on their borderlands.
Not that a Lenorean patrol would agree.
Self-consciously she cast a glance behind her, to that invisible line and the land beyond. The trees thinned, with a glimpse of yellowing meadows between trunks that seemed oddly withered from this vantage point. The province of West Anrich, despite the early summer season, had displayed more brown in its landscape than green. Its fields—the ones not yet blackened by fire—grew only feeble, emaciated crops, and many of its people had already fled to better prospects.
It was worse than the reports had said. The local magistrates claimed that a month had passed since the last attack, but then, little remained to destroy. Logically, the enemy forces had already set their sights on a different target, leaving the area to lie in wait for the next strike.
She swiveled back for a second assessment of her surroundings. The trees here were sturdy, almost plump, with supple bark and dark green foliage. Sunlight filtered through the broad canopy above, caught in the webbing of leaves and branches so that only scattered shafts pierced all the way to the fertile earth.
And it was fertile, nothing like the desperate, half-starved terrain they had traveled these past three weeks.
A lump lodged in her throat. Like a parasite, this forest was sucking dry the land it bordered. She glanced to the woman riding alongside her. Tatiana, one of the emperor’s own magicians, swept her ice-blue gaze from limb to shrub. Surely she recognized the leeching. Surely she would know how to counter it.
But Tatiana made only brief eye contact, and she offered no reassurance in that fleeting look.
Rosia’s heart sank. The ultimate solution to their woes might be weeks more away. The empire needed help now. She craned her neck for a better view of the road ahead. With twenty of the emperor’s finest soldiers in this company, any opportunity to plunge further into Lenore, to confront the nefarious villain who drove this predation, would be difficult. The emperor had been most explicit: caution was to be their guide as they investigated.
Caution, however, would not spare those most vulnerable to Lenore’s attacks. Her hands clenched around her reins, the brown leather of her gloves tight against her knuckles. If she could somehow slip away, she could end this whole conflict. She had been trained in the imperial court, and even if she had never completed such a mission before, her inclusion with this party signaled Emperor Petronius’s expectations. Prince Felix and Princess Celina had bidden her a fervent farewell. Even their older brother, the imperial prince Blasius Drusus, had favored her with a solemn nod as she rode among the departing column, and Blaise had only ever scowled at her before.
If she could prove she was useful, perhaps she would never see that scowl again.
But first she had to survive this treacherous forest and reach the forbidden lands beyond. After that she had to accomplish her purpose without casting a shadow of disgrace on the Imperial Crown of Melanthos.
The rich earth dampened the clop-clop of horse hooves, the beasts’ ears swiveling to the side and behind. Birds and insects chirped from among the shrubs, but nothing larger manifested, though that sinister feeling yet loomed. Half an hour passed in this smothered unease, until, at the head of the column, Captain Valerius held up one black-gloved hand. The company halted.
No one spoke. The forest itself seemed to hold its breath. Pollen drifted through sunbeams, the only movement in an otherwise frozen vista.
After a silence that stretched far too long, the captain twitched his middle and forefinger to the right and promptly guided his horse off the road.
Rosia’s heartbeat spiked. What had he heard? An approaching patrol? A monster lurking in the bush? She strained her ears but could pick out only the burble of a river meandering somewhere through the woods.
And it was to the river that Captain Valerius led them, dismounting so his horse could drink. The trees stood back from the bank here as though to allow access to the flow. Soldiers’ boots landed in the soft, tufted grass, and irritation laced around Rosia’s throat like a tight-drawn court gown. It was barely afternoon. They could have pressed on further before resting.
“Patience,” Tatiana murmured, tucking a silvery lock behind one ear. Rosia swallowed the faint, instinctive growl that had betrayed her mood. Awkwardly she patted her own dark brown hair, wary that a curl might have fallen loose from the crown of braids she had worked it into that morning.
“Is it wise to stop so soon?” she asked, her voice low.
“Valerius knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure it’s wise to venture much further than this, and I’m almost certain he agrees.”
“Then I’m not imagining it, this strange atmosphere?”
Tatiana lifted her chin, her eyes shifting toward the twisted lattice of branches and blue sky above. “You’re not imagining it,” she said simply.
The pretty magician’s elegance never failed to make Rosia feel all the more like a fraud, like she would never be more than little dirt-smudged Rosie, scampering from the scullery to the stables and everywhere in between, hardly worth anyone’s notice. Tatiana was seven years her senior but had already apprenticed among magicians before she appeared in the imperial court almost a decade ago. She had slipped easily into their ranks at a mere seventeen, while Rosia, now nineteen, was lucky the emperor had finally seen fit to give her official employ.
She carried the vague and unimpressive designation of “imperial envoy.”
Granted, she couldn’t claim to be an imperial assassin until she actually killed someone, and even then, Emperor Petronius wouldn’t want to trumpet that event. Part of the reason he’d had her trained was the unpredictability of it: a slim young woman with a deceptively sympathetic face. No one expected a knife in the back from such gentle hands as hers appeared to be.
Even she didn’t expect it, but she would overcome her buried qualms for Melanthos. Anything for her home.
The river, narrow and swift, tumbled over slick black rocks and eddied in small pools. Her horse dipped its muzzle for a long draw among water-spiders, while tiny opalescent fish streaked beneath the surface, almost too quick to see. Rosia eased away from the group, glancing longingly toward the road, the path by which she should orchestrate an exit.
“Don’t wander off,” the captain called in her direction.
She bit the inside of her cheek. Grudgingly she pivoted back toward the others.
Several soldiers had already tromped into the shrubs, taking the opportunity to relieve themselves. She lifted her nose in the air, too proud to use such an undignified excuse to escape.
Tatiana, meanwhile, had extracted a glass vial from her ever-present satchel and was catching river water into its depths. She held it up in a shaft of sunlight, studying the crystalline liquid.
“Is it safe to drink?” Rosia asked, suddenly worried for her horse and the dozen others quenching their thirst.
“Perfectly so,” said the magician, and she poured the water back into the flow. “It’s probably as pure a source as any in Melanthos. I’m surprised there’s no settlement along here. Unless…” She replaced the vial and withdrew a second one. A red wax seal held its thick cork in place. The pale contents sloshed against its glass prison, the faintest blush pink reflecting in its limpidity. Rosia caught her lower lip between her teeth, her shoulders tense, but Tatiana’s hand hesitated over the seal.
In the end, she did not break it. Instead, she wordlessly shook her head and replaced the vial in its pouch.
And Rosia breathed a careful sigh. Magic was too precious to waste on a mere suspicion, whatever that suspicion might be.
“According to every map we have,” said Captain Valerius, startling her from behind, “there are no settlements between here and Lenore’s capital, past the mountain ridge. We haven’t even discerned any army outposts—not that our spies have much luck beyond the border. Most of them don’t return.”
Those who did bore terrifying tales, of voracious beasts that attacked in the night, of vines that crept through the shadows to strangle victims in their sleep. Lenore didn’t need outposts if the Eternal Prince had magicked the land to defend itself.
“So we’re not likely to run into any patrols,” Rosia said, her mouth suddenly dry.
“It’s still possible, but I expected them more within the first mile. If they catch us this far onto their lands, we have our ready excuse.” His lips turned upward in a faint smile, the crow’s feet around his eyes drawing tight.
She nodded. Had the patrol caught them at the border, they could cite the attacks against their own lands. Now, two or three miles past that imaginary line, they would pose as an official delegation from the emperor himself. Such a ruse could theoretically give them passage straight into the heart of Lenore if the enemy soldiers honored their claim.
Yet another uncertain if.
“Tatiana, how long do you need?” the captain abruptly asked.
The magician glanced around. “An hour should suffice. We can be back to the village by nightfall.” Again she dipped her hand into her satchel, but this time she withdrew tightly rolled parchments, pre-formed spells that she could release with nothing more than a lick of her thumb and a whispered phrase. The other magicians had added to her store before the company left the imperial palace. Rosia had observed the simple dowsing spell several times already; Tatiana used it to trace the veins of magic through the land as they journeyed.
Last night, in the border village, the phosphorescent lines had been faint, barely discernible, and had faded to nothing almost as quickly as they manifested. What would they look like here, if Lenore’s predatory forest was truly siphoning power?
“Rosia, let her work in peace,” the captain said, crushing her expectations of observing such a display. A glance toward Tatiana showed no objection in that corner. With a controlled huff the younger woman turned away. She tucked her arms in her sleeves, stepping closer to the riverbank, but a casual glance over her shoulder showed the captain and the magician waiting for her to move beyond earshot.
Rude. Tatiana had let her watch every other time.
Still, she knew to make herself scarce when she wasn’t wanted. She kicked a tuft of moss into the flow and kept walking, past the soldiers settling in to play dice or take an afternoon nap, past the first line of trees at the edge of the clearing.
Again she sneaked a peek. Valerius ducked his head close to Tatiana’s, neither of them even glancing in her direction.
If she’d thought to lead her horse along, she might vanish into the depths of Lenore. She could plunge into the bracken without the creature now, though she wouldn’t get nearly as far before they noticed her absence.
Even ten steps into this gluttonous vegetation seemed enough to disappear, though. None of the plants themselves looked predatory, but they exuded a well-fed aura. With a deep breath, she ventured further into the trees.
Faint laughter followed her, the soldiers swapping stories as they wagered. A horse whinnied into the air. A few more steps, and the trees cut the clearing completely off from view.
If only she weren’t facing the exact wrong direction. At this rate, she’d be back in Melanthos by dusk. She twisted her path, circling around with the floating sounds from the clearing at the edge of her ears. She could cross the river further downstream and press through the forest, back to the road on the other side. The mountain pass into Lenore’s capital would take her two or three days on foot if she could survive a night in these insidious woods.
She stopped short.
Could she survive? She swallowed hard, taking comfort in the knife tucked into her boot, the extra rations squirreled away in one pocket, and the warmth of her cloak. Her wide-legged riding trousers would allow her to travel quickly, even to run if needed. She could rest in the late afternoon and travel all night.
“You can do this, Rosia,” she murmured.
Another glance in the direction of the river clearing showed no one tramping through the brush in search of her. This was her perfect window to press ahead.
The empire was dying. Its murderer lay in the heart of Lenore. If she could not sacrifice her own safety to free her nation from the evil that preyed upon it, she deserved every unkind word, every skeptical sneer she’d ever received.
“For Melanthos,” she uttered, and she started forward again.
Only to collide with a man who appeared out of thin air.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I said back in January that if I wrote a third Ruses book it wouldn’t be for many, many years. But I’m also reformatting the other two, and I really, really don’t want to have to dig out an old formatting template/style guide however many years that is from now to make it match.
And since I wasn’t ready to wade back into my Namesake sequels yet, I figured, why not?
The working title is Guardian of Ruses. No word on publication dates yet, as the draft is still ongoing, but I hope you enjoyed the sneak peek of Chapter 1 anyway.
Edit (7 Oct 2021): The listing is up on Amazon! Guardian of Ruses releases November 1st!