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Sneak Peek: Current WIP | Newsletter Excerpt

Sunlight filtering through tall trees; caption: Oh, hi, it's a sneak peek Thank you for coming Please enjoy the excerpt

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.


Author’s Note

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!

The Heir and the Spare (Newsletter Excerpt)

Title plate: The Heir and the Spare, Chapter One

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.

Chapter One

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.”

“Why 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.”

She blinked.

“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—?”

“Your Highness!”

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.

Almost.

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.

You can pre-order the eBook now on Amazon!