Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
I break the next crab leg in half with my hands, conscious of the fact that Jodi is watching me now. “Worwick has a new pet.”
Before I can answer, the door at the front of the tavern swings open with enough force to bounce against the opposing wall. Half a dozen men come through, fully armed, their armor bearing the gold and red crest of Emberfall.
Not Royal Guardsmen, but soldiers in the King’s Army. I freeze, then force myself to turn back to my food. Beside me, Tycho goes equally quiet, for his own reasons.
I suddenly find myself very much wishing for a sword at my hip. My fingers casually wrap around the hilt of the knife.
I am likely being foolish. I only got a cursory glance, but I don’t recognize any of them. It would be very unlikely for them to recognize
. My hair has grown out a bit, and my face is unshaven.
With any luck, no one is looking for me anyway. I simply have no way to know.
One of the men steps up to the bar. He flips a bronze coin down onto the wood. “Food and wine for my men, if you please.”
Jodi pockets the coin and offers a curtsy. “Right away, my lord.”
He’s no lord, but he’ll eat that right up. Two of his men whistle from the table they’ve taken near the door.
The soldier tosses another bronze on the bar and clears his throat. “You have my thanks.”
“As you have mine.” She pockets this coin too, and as he turns away, Jodi winks at me.
I can barely smile back. I’m too worried about what they’re doing here. We’re far from the border. This is not a town that sees many soldiers.
The man pauses before moving away. He’s looking at me now.
I take a sip from my glass and measure the weight of the knife between my fingers. I can lodge it in his throat without thought. My arm remembers the motion. It’s lighter than my throwing knives were, so it wouldn’t take as much—
“Are those steamed crabs?” he says. “We haven’t seen shellfish in ages.”
I clear my throat and force my fingers to let go of the knife. When I speak, my voice sounds rough. “Jodi makes the best in the city.”
“We picked the right place then.”
I finally look at him. I have to take the chance, because otherwise I’ll look like I’m hiding something.
He’s dark-haired, with ruddy skin and a large build. I don’t recognize him at all. Relief slides through my chest, and I take a breath. “You won’t regret it.” I pause. “Traveling far?”
“Heading north, to Hutchins Forge,” he says. “Official business.”
“Of course.” I offer him a nod, then slide off the bar stool. “Travel safely, Soldier.” I drop a handful of coins beside my plate. “Tycho, we’re due back.”
We haven’t finished what was on the tray, but he scurries off the stool and follows me to the door. We step out into the blazing sunlight.
Before the door swings closed, I hear one of the soldiers say, “For the love of silver, Captain, people know towns are rebelling because of another heir. The rumors are in every city.”
I grab hold of Tycho’s sleeve and hold my breath, hoping to hear more.
“What do you think the prince will do when he finds him?” says one of the others.
The captain snorts. “Take his head off, most likely. The king is dead. The crown prince will take his place. He’s not going to let some outsider—”
The door swings shut, leaving us out in the sunlight.
Tycho peers up at me. “Those soldiers made you nervous.”
I don’t like that he saw right through me. I bump him with my shoulder. “They made you nervous, too.”
He blushes and looks away.
I shouldn’t have said that. I was trying to take the focus off myself, but instead, I put it squarely on him. “Race you back?” I say.
“I thought you were out of coppers.”
“If you win, I’ll do all your stalls tomorrow.”
He grins and takes off without hesitation, without even considering the heat or the food that fills his belly. I’ll probably find him vomiting shellfish halfway back.
I keep walking.
The king is dead.
The crown prince will take his place.
The crown prince
take his place. It creates a pull in my chest I did not expect. I once swore my life to Rhen, for this very reason. To be a part of something bigger than myself.
Now I am here, in the dusty streets of Rillisk, barely more than a stable hand. The secret half-brother to the Crown Prince of Emberfall. The missing heir who doesn’t want to be found.
Part of absolutely nothing at all.
I’ve been peering out the carriage window for miles. The air on this side of the mountains has a weight to it, a heavy stickiness that makes me wish I could travel in a vest and leggings instead of my royal robes. The beauty of the landscape is worth it, though. Beyond the mountains, Syhl Shallow consists of miles of flat farmland, broken only by occasional cities and only one narrow river. Emberfall has been a wealth of valleys and forests and varying terrain.
Plus a few burned-out cities, charred remains left by our own soldiers when Mother first tried to take this land.
Those always force my eyes back into the carriage. I have no interest in seeing the destruction wrought by our people.
A pattern of destruction I once thought I could change, until Mother named my younger sister as heir.
Across from me, my sister looks unaffected by the weather and the scenery. Nolla Verin is sitting in the shadows, embroidering with red and silver thread. Knowing her, it’s an adornment for one of her horses.
She would not flinch from the sight of burned-out cities. Nolla Verin would not flinch from anything.
That is why my sister has been named heir, and not me.
Nolla Verin’s mouth is curved with soft amusement. “Lia Mara. You do realize we will be seen as hostile,” she says in Syssalah, our language.
I do not take my eyes off the lush greenery. “Mother has tried to raze this country. How could we be seen any differently?”
“I am thinking you would make an easy target, leaning out the window with your mouth hanging open.”
I close my mouth and settle back into my seat, allowing the sheer curtain to fall over the window.
Nolla Verin’s smile widens. “And everyone always says you are the clever one.”
“Ah, yes. Though I do prefer that to being called the
She laughs softly. “Keep a list. When I am queen, I will have them all executed on your behalf.”
When I am queen.
I smile and hope she does not see the hint of sadness behind it.
Not because I am jealous. We promised each other long ago that we would support whoever was chosen. And though she is two years younger than I am, even at sixteen she could not be better suited to inherit the crown from our mother. Nolla Verin was practically born with a bow and arrow in hand, not to mention a sword at her hip. Like our mother, she has no hesitation in using either. She can break the most aggressive horse in the stables, and in fact many of the Royal Houses have begun sending their colts to her for training, just to brag that their steeds were tamed by the great queen’s daughter.
Nolla Verin and our mother also share the same affinity for swift, brutal judgment.
That is what makes me sad. My sister laughs at the thought of execution.
Because she is not joking.
Their resemblance does not end there. Nolla Verin and Mother share the same build, small and lithe and athletic—perfectly fit for the battlefield. The only trait I share with our mother is my red hair, though mine hangs to my waist, while Mother keeps hers shorter. Nolla Verin’s hair is a shiny curtain of black. I am not small and I am not nimble, leading many at court to remark on my cleverness when they’re being kind—and my “sturdiness” when they’re not.
My sister has gone back to her embroidery. Her fingers fly back and forth across the fabric. If she is nervous, she shows no sign of it.
Our traveling party is not large. Sorra and Parrish are my personal guards, and they ride at the back. Tik and Dyhl, Nolla Verin’s guards, ride at the center. My mother has four personal guards, and they surround her carriage at the front.
“What if the prince rejects Mother’s offer?” I say.
Her eyes lift from the fabric. “He would be a fool. Our forces could destroy this pathetic country.”
I glance at the window. So far, I have not found Emberfall to be
. And Prince Rhen was able to drive our forces back through the mountain pass, so it seems that we would be wise to be cautious.
“Hmm,” I say, “and do you think this destruction will lead to people being willing to work the waterways we so desperately need?”
“Our people can learn.”
“I feel they could learn more quickly from people who already possess the skills.”
She sighs patronizingly. “You would likely beg for instruction with nuts and honey.”
I look away, out the window. I’d rather ask for help than order it with a sword in hand, but this is another reminder of why Nolla Verin has been chosen instead of me.
“We can leave a few alive, if need be,” she says. “They’ll be desperate to help.”
“We can leave them
alive if Mother secures an alliance.”
“And we will. Prince Rhen’s monstrous creature is gone,” Nolla Verin says. “Our spies have reported that his cities are beginning to question his right to rule. If he wants to keep this silly country, he will accept.”
She is so practical. My lip quirks up. “What if you do not like him?”
She rolls her eyes. “As if that matters. I can bed a man without liking him.”
I blush at her boldness. “Nolla Verin. Have you …
“Well. No.” Her eyes flick up to meet mine, and her fingers go still on her embroidery. “Have you?”
My blush deepens. “Of course not.”
Nolla Verin’s eyes widen. “Then you should do it first and tell me what to expect. Are you bored now? I shall call for Parrish right this very moment. Or would you fancy Dyhl instead? You can have the carriage—”
I giggle and throw a brocade cushion at her. “You will do no such thing.”
She dodges the pillow without missing a stitch. “I am just asking you to be sisterly.”
“What of Prince Rhen’s betrothed?”
“Princess Harper?” Nolla Verin pulls her thread tight and knots it off. “She can bed who she chooses, too.”
“Do not be coy, Sister.”
She sighs. “I am not worried. Their alliance means nothing. Three months have passed since the prince supposedly allied Emberfall with the mysterious Disi. No forces have arrived. Mother does not think the prince has been fully honest with his people, and I am inclined to agree.”
I am too. While Nolla Verin prefers to spend her time on the training field, I prefer to spend hours each week under the tutelage of Mother’s chief adviser, Clanna Sun, learning about military strategy or the intricate interweaving of the Royal Houses. Over the last few months, it seemed that Prince Rhen was assembling an army that could produce a threat—but somehow one has never materialized. I do find it curious that the prince would continue courting the Princess of Disi if their alliance has fallen apart. Emberfall is weak. He needs to tie himself to a country that can offer the support his land needs to thrive.
A country like Syhl Shallow.
The curtain flutters at the window, and in the distance, I see the charred remnants of another destroyed town. My throat tightens. Mother’s soldiers were thorough.
I look back at my sister. “What makes you think the prince will even grant us an audience?”
“Mother has information he wants.” Her fingers fly through the fabric. “Do you remember, months ago, when that enchantress came to the Crystal Palace?”
I do. The woman had beautiful alabaster skin framed by silken black tresses, and a gown of the deepest blue. When she first appeared, claiming to be a magesmith, Mother had laughed in her face, but the woman caused one of her guards to collapse at her feet without laying a hand on him. Mother granted an audience after that. They disappeared into the throne room for hours.
Nolla Verin and I had hung back to whisper about it. You didn’t have to be a great student of history to know that anyone with magic had been driven out of the Iishellasa ice forests decades ago. They used their magic to cross the Frozen River, then asked to settle in Syhl Shallow, but my grandmother refused. They sought shelter in Emberfall—where they were granted asylum, but later, after some kind of trickery on the king, they were all executed.
Except, apparently, the enchantress.
“Of course,” I say. “She was the last one.”
My sister shakes her head. “Apparently another survived somehow. Mother told me last night while we were preparing for our journey.”
Of course Mother told her, and not me. Because Nolla Verin is the heir.
I am not jealous. My sister will make a great queen.
I swallow. “Another survived?”
“Yes. She was seeking the other.”
“Because he is more than a man with magic in his blood.” She pierces the fabric with her needle. Scarlet thread flies through the white silk like a bleeding wound. “The other magesmith is the true heir to the throne of Emberfall.”
I gasp. “Truly?”
“Yes.” Her eyes flash. Nolla Verin
a good bit of gossip. “But the prince has no idea who he is.”
What a scandal. Magic is no more welcome in Emberfall than it was in Syhl Shallow. I wonder if Rhen’s people know. I wonder how they will react.
I imagine living the rest of my life like this, learning information about warring kingdoms like a dog seeking scraps beside a butcher’s block.
I swallow again. “Does Mother know who the heir is?”
“No. Before she left, the enchantress said there was only one man who knows his identity.”
“The commander of the prince’s guard.” She ties off her thread and snaps it with her teeth. “A man named Grey.”
By nightfall, we are miles from the last town we’ve passed, and my mother orders the guards to stop and make camp. If we were traveling through Syhl Shallow, large tents would be erected for our comfort, but here in Emberfall, we must be discreet.
Nolla Verin and I share a narrow tent. Sorra and Parrish, my guards, have spread blankets along the ground to make a round space resembling a nest of pillows and blankets. We haven’t shared a space like this since we were very young, and I’m grateful for the chance to be close again.
My sister has already reclined among her pillows, and her eyes narrow mischievously. “These blankets are quite soft. Are you certain you would not prefer to share them with Parrish?”
My cheeks flare with heat. It was one thing to joke in the privacy of our carriage. Entirely another to say such things when the man in question stands on the other side of an opaque length of
fabric. Being named heir has emboldened her—just as it’s stripped away some of my own confidence.
“Hush,” I whisper at her.
Her smile widens. “I am merely asking. It may make for a more interesting evening.”
I glance at Parrish’s shadow on the other side of the curtain, then shift closer to Nolla Verin. “I believe he fancies Sorra.”
Her eyebrows go up. “You do?”
I arrange the blankets around me carefully and force my voice to be bored, because I do not want her to needle my guards. “I have long suspected.”
I have done more than suspect. A year ago, during the midwinter celebration, I found Parrish and Sorra kissing in the wooded darkness beyond our palace. They broke apart hurriedly, stars in their eyes and a blush on Sorra’s pale cheeks.
“Do not stop on my account,” I said to them, then turned and fled back to the party before my own blush could flare.
No man has ever looked at me the way Parrish was looking at Sorra. I thought about that kiss far longer than I’d admit.
Sorra is always cool and distant, stoic and fierce like all the guards, with her brown hair bound into a tight braid that hangs trapped beneath her armor. She wears no adornments on her lean body, no kohl darkens her eyes or rouge brightens her cheeks, but anyone can see the gentle beauty in her face. Parrish is equally lean, slighter of build than many of the men, but he’s quick and skilled. Many think he is quiet, but I know he’s simply careful with his words. When I’m alone with my guards, he’s rather funny. In fact, he can often pull a smile out of Sorra with barely more than a glance.
My sister is studying me. Her voice finally drops until it is almost inaudible. “Lia Mara. Do
“What? No! Of course not.”
Her eyes scrutinize my face. “Do you fancy Sorra?”
“No.” I finally meet her eyes. “I fancy …” My voice trails off, and I sigh.
“Who?” She giggles and shifts closer. “Oh, you
“I fancy the idea of a man fancying me.” My blush deepens. “I fancy the idea of a companion.”
“Ugh.” She rolls onto her back, disappointed. “You are a princess, Lia Mara. They all fancy you.”
is decidedly untrue. No man at court seeks a woman who would rather discuss extensive strategy or ancient mythology than display her skills on the battlefield—or in a ballroom. “I do not want a man to fancy me because I am Karis Luran’s daughter. I do not want someone’s attention because he believes I will bring him political favor in our mother’s court.”
“Well. That is all the women of our bloodline are worth to any man.”
Her voice is so practical—this doesn’t seem to bother her at all. Maybe she wasn’t teasing about bedding the prince or asking me to experience it first so I can describe it to her. Maybe my sister looks at such a thing as just another royal obligation. Something else to practice so she can be perfect.