Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
I don’t expect fanfare for our arrival.
I don’t expect to be surrounded in the woods and taken prisoner, either.
Guards weren’t stationed this far from the castle grounds when we arrived earlier, but maybe they widen their patrols after dark. Or more likely, maybe Rhen doesn’t trust my mother to such an extent that he expected an attack.
“This is an outrage,” I say to Prince Rhen’s guards, who are binding my hands. “I have told you that we come here to discuss a means to peace with your people.”
Darkness blankets the woods and hides the expressions of most of the men surrounding us, but I can see them similarly binding Sorra and Parrish as well. They say nothing.
The guard behind me jerks tight at the rope, and I suck in a breath. “There are only three of us. I am unarmed. Surely you do not think we intended to attack the castle like
“Be cautious, Lia Mara,” Sorra says quietly in Syssalah.
At the sound of her voice, one of the guards pulls a blade, but another man says, “No. Leave them unharmed. We will let the prince decide.”
The man who spoke steps through the darkness to stop before me. Many of the other guards and soldiers carry longbows, but he has only a sword hanging at his hip. He’s slightly older, with dark hair. He’s also missing an arm.
“I’ve seen the kind of peace your people wish to bring to Emberfall,” he says. The look in his eyes is unkind, bordering on vengeful.
I glance at his missing arm again and wonder if soldiers from Syhl Shallow caused the injury. “Our armies have withdrawn,” I say. “I cannot undo what has happened to you, but I can attempt to forge a new path forward.”
He grunts and turns away. A hand gives me a push between my shoulder blades, and I stride forward.
We’re taken into the castle. In the daylight, the cream-colored bricks made the building look warm and welcoming, but now, in the darkness of night, the castle stands tall and foreboding. The main doors creak open, leading to a massive grand entranceway lined with velvet floor coverings, and dark wooden walls hung with tapestries in every color. The ceiling stretches high overhead, an unlit chandelier strung above us. During the day it must be a spectacle of wealth and privilege that rivals my own palace home, but just now, the shadowed corners and echoing space are unnerving.
“You will wait here,” says the one-armed man. He strides across the floor and up the wide staircase along the opposing wall.
We’ve been gone for a while now. I wonder if the other guards have begun to wonder at our disappearance. After what happened
in the courtyard this afternoon, I do not know if Mother would dare to come after us.
The longer we stand here, the more I begin to wonder at my actions.
I think of the daughter of the trapper, crouched under her father.
I think of the one-armed man who led us into the castle.
I think of the anger in his voice and the fear in the eyes of the girl hiding in the woods.
beyond these negotiations. People whose lives will be affected by an alliance or a war or a stroke of a quill against parchment. My sister has been named heir, but she failed this afternoon.
I have one chance to make this right.
When the prince appears at the top of the staircase, I expect surprise or anger or some flash of emotion on his face, but his expression is cool and guarded, just as it was earlier. His attire is more casual, which makes me think we interrupted his sleep. The princess is not with him.
He does not hurry down the stairs but instead studies me as he descends.
I do my best to stand tall and look confident, which is more of a challenge than I expected, especially with my hands bound at the small of my back.
The prince comes to a stop five feet in front of me, and I do not flinch from the scrutiny in his gaze.
Finally, he says, “When Jamison mentioned your intent to discuss peace, you are not the sister I expected.”
Of course I’m not. “I have not been named heir, but I am still a daughter of the queen.”
He considers this for a moment. “If you truly wish for peace, why did you not speak up during your visit? Why attempt to sneak onto the grounds of Ironrose well after dark?” He glances at my guards. “With the bare minimum of protection, no less.”
I all but feel Sorra and Parrish bristle behind me.
“Do I need protection?” I say to the prince. “You did not take action against us today, though you could have.”
“Your mother is no fool,” he says. “If I had harmed any of you, vengeance would have been swift and assured, I have no doubt.”
That is true. Mother would not have ridden all this way without contingencies. “I do not wish to speak of violence and harm.”
“Ah, yes. You wish to speak of peace.” His tone is amused, but his eyes narrow slightly. “Forgive me for forgetting.”
“You do not believe me.”
“I believe you are either very brave or very stupid for attempting to sway my opinion of Syhl Shallow in this way.”
I hold his gaze. “I am not stupid, Prince Rhen.”
“You still have not answered my question. Why did you not speak of this desire for
Because I did not wish to speak against my mother or my sister.
Because I did not know how badly things would go.
Because I did not know if he would have listened.
I still don’t.
“I am here now because I wish for no further bloodshed between our people.”
“I wish for the same.”
He speaks those words with enough gravity that I believe them. His kingdom may be falling apart around him, but he truly does care for his people—as much as I care for mine.
“In truth,” he adds, “I was surprised to hear of Karis Luran seeking an alliance at all, as she seems so certain she can claim my lands on her own terms.”
I hesitate, thinking of what Nolla Verin told me, or what Sorra said beside the campfire. Prince Rhen will never believe that Mother wants to spare lives.
His eyes search my face. “If you are seeking an alliance, Lia Mara, perhaps you should begin with honesty.”
“Fine,” I say. “My mother needs access to your seaport trade routes and would like to be able to establish commerce between our people.”
He smiles, and I know he’s seen right through me. “The Queen of Syhl Shallow is lacking in silver. How interesting.”
“We may be lacking in silver, but we are still wealthy in weapons and warriors.”
“So I’ve heard.” He doesn’t look like I’ve been fully convincing. “I offered to discuss trade with your mother months ago, and she refused.”
“I cannot change the past. I can only offer myself to you as a symbol of good faith.”
“Offer yourself?” His smile widens. “If you know of my search for the rightful heir, then surely you know of my love for Princess Harper. If you are offering yourself as an alliance through marriage, you will be sorely disappointed.”
“Ours does not need to be a marriage of love,” I say, lifting my chin. “I have heard how such things work in your lands.”
“Truly? Enlighten me.”
This is worse than Nolla Verin’s teasing. I feel my face heat, and he laughs.
I want to scowl at him, but he’s so composed, and I’ve already lost ground. “I will not be made a spectacle, Prince Rhen. I came to you to discuss peace. To see if we could find a way to save all our people the cost of another war neither of us wishes to fight. If you would like to poke fun at me, so be it. Unbind my hands and allow me to leave. My mother and my sister could not see your love for your people, but
do. I thought possibly you would see the same in me.”
That steals the smile from his face. He studies me for the longest time, and I never drop his gaze.
Eventually, he speaks. “I
love my people, as you say.” He pauses, then glances at one of the guards. “Unbind her.”
A knife is drawn, and my hands are cut free. A sudden feeling of hope bursts in my chest.
Another servant is sent for paper and quills. “Write a letter to your mother,” the prince says. “Tell her we will discuss an alliance between our people, and you will send word to Syhl Shallow once we have agreed upon terms. Choose one of your guards to deliver it safely, so your mother will know the truth of your intent. I will send one of my guards along to retrieve Karis Luran’s response. If she is willing to allow you to negotiate, then so am I.”
I wet my lips and take the quill. I can hardly write fast enough to convey all the words I wish to say.
Mother, please forgive my rash actions, but I saw a path to peace and I wanted to do all I could to protect the people of Syhl Shallow as well as Emberfall. The prince has agreed to allow me to negotiate for trade and safe passage through his lands. I know Nolla Verin has been blessed with your gift to rule, but I have been blessed
with your gift of intellect and insight. Please allow me the chance to unite our people for the good of all.
I sign my name with a flourish, then draw my seal.
I look to Parrish and Sorra. “Unbind them,” I say to Prince Rhen. Then, as an afterthought, I add, “If you please.”
He nods to one of his soldiers, and my guards are cut free.
Parrish looks uncertain. His eyes are dark and untrusting in the dimness of the room.
Sorra is more composed, coolly considering the state of the guards surrounding us.
I fold the letter and press it into Parrish’s hands. “Please,” I say to him. “Please tell Mother how badly I long for this to work.”
His eyes find mine, and he nods. But then he says, in Syssalah, “This does not feel right, Lia Mara.”
“Do we have a choice?”
“We always have a choice.”
I think of the girl in the woods. “If we expect his trust, we must extend our own.”
Parrish looks up at the prince, then back at my eyes. He nods and takes the folded letter.
Prince Rhen looks to one of his guards. “Ride with her guardsman. Return with Karis Luran’s response.”
The man nods. “Yes, my lord.”
A look passes between Parrish and Sorra, and then my guard is gone, followed by Rhen’s.
I take a breath. I have done what my sister could not. We will
strike an accord for peace. Mother will have access to the waterways she seeks. Lives will be spared.
Think of our future
, Parrish said.
Prince Rhen takes a step toward me. “Do you truly believe your mother will agree to terms of an alliance that you have negotiated?”
“Yes,” I say, “I do.”
He frowns. “I believe you.”
The words are right, but the expression on his face is not. I frown in return. “Then why do you look displeased?”
“I believe you trust your mother.” For the first time, his eyes are not cool, but instead disappointed. “Unfortunately, I do not.”
At my back, Sorra says in a rush, “This was a trap, Lia Mara.”
Prince Rhen glances to his guards. “Arrest them both. Lock her guard in—”
Sorra’s body slams into me, and it takes me a moment to realize she’s knocking me out of reach of the man who was about to seize my arm. I stumble to the ground.
“Run!” Sorra yells at me. She whirls to draw the dagger from the guardsman’s belt. Without hesitation, she drives it into his midsection, and he falls. Before he’s even on the ground, she’s stabbed another.
I scramble toward the door. Sorra plunges the dagger into a third guardsman, and with a quick whirl, she gets her hands on a sword, too. Blood is in the air in a crimson arc. I want to scream, but I can’t find my breath. Everything is happening too fast. Guardsmen are suddenly everywhere.
One pulls a sword, swings wide, and drives it straight into Sorra.
Her body goes down. There’s so much blood.
I scream, long and loud, hoping Parrish is still close, that he’ll hear.
No. I don’t want him to see.
A man seizes my arm and jerks me to my feet. My vision feels washed in blood. I still can’t breathe.
I wanted peace, and now Sorra’s bleeding out on the floor.
“You will be unharmed,” the prince is saying. I can barely process the words. “But your presence here will ensure that your mother leaves Emberfall alone for good.”
The narrow tunnel to the arena muffles the sound of the crowd. I haven’t worn proper armor in months, but my limbs remember the weight. Journ is broader than I am, but his breastplate fits well enough, his bracers snug against my forearms.
“Worwick likes to rile the fighters up,” Journ is saying. “He’ll tell them to draw blood. Sometimes it’s better to give the crowd a little.”
I eye his scarred arms and say nothing. We’re alone here in the tunnel, but no one knows I’m taking his place. Worwick will figure it out the instant I set foot in the arena, but by then it’ll be too late for him to question it.
Hopefully I’ll put on a good enough show that it won’t matter after that.
“He won’t like it if
draw blood, though,” Journ says. “No one wants to be made a fool. Let them think they can win for a while.”
I know this, but I let him keep talking anyway. My heart sends blood pulsing through my veins.
“Four matches,” Journ says. “Can you stay alive through four matches?”
“Ask me when I’m done.”
He starts to chuckle, but his breath catches and he presses an arm to his abdomen. “Most of these men don’t have much skill,” he says. “They’re all just out to have a good time and bring home bragging rights. But sometimes they’ll surprise you.”
I nod. Above us, the drums begin a familiar rhythm. The resulting cheer is near deafening, even from here.
I don’t need to be exceptional. I just need to put on a good show. I just need to stay alive.
I take a step toward the end of the tunnel, but Journ catches the shoulder of my armor.
“Hawk.” He swallows. “I will owe you for this.”
How I wish Kantor had taken a hoof to the chest instead of this man. “You owe me nothing.”
“I’ll have a chance to repay you one day.”
I smile. “Then let’s hope I survive the night.”
The drums beat again. Worwick’s voice calls out. “From the depths of the Valkins Valley, a man nearly forged in steel, rarely defeated, my champion, Journ of Everlea!”
I step into the arena, and the crowd screams so loud that I worry they’ll bring down the roof. After the quiet dimness of the tunnel, the light and sound are overwhelming. I draw my sword the way I’ve seen Journ do a hundred times, then lift it high.
Worwick stands high in the crowds, and my back is to him, so I have no idea whether he’s noticed me. I hold my breath and wait for his next words.
“We have a special event for you all tonight,” Worwick croons, his voice carrying to the crowd. “A very special event.”
He hasn’t noticed. Good.
“As usual, betting is closed once the second fighter enters the arena,” he calls. “I believe we’re in for a good match. A man of this skill doesn’t often visit Worwick’s Tourney. Place your bets now. I think we’ll see a lot of money change hands tonight. Who feels the kiss of luck on their cheek? Is it you? Is it
He’s good at what he does, because there’s always a frantic last-minute scrambling to lay money down on the match.
“Now,” calls Worwick. “Our second fighter is ready to enter the ring. Champion Journ, to your—” His voice breaks off, and he clears his throat. “Ah,
, to your position, please.”
Silver hell. He noticed.
Well, he can do nothing about it now. I sheathe my sword and move to the center of the arena.
“Our opponent hails all the way from Silvermoon Harbor,” Worwick calls. I spot the shadow of a man jogging through the opposite tunnel. My vision narrows down to the entrance. The crowd, the arena, this is all a show.
The sword at my side, the battle before me—those things are real.
My hand finds the hilt. I cannot draw until the other man does. If he’s from Silvermoon Harbor, he’s likely a fisherman or a dockworker. Someone dared into this challenge by friends drunk on ale.
The man’s hair becomes visible: sandy blond. Then his shoulders, the leather of his armor rich and gleaming. Not borrowed tourney armor, then. Each silver buckle sparks with light.
Gold and red stripes adorn his shoulder, bound together by a crest stamped in gold, a lion entwined with a rose.
I go still. I know that crest. I know those stripes.
“From Ironrose Castle,” calls Worwick, “we have the honor to host the Commander of the Royal Guard, Dustan of Silvermoon.” He winks at me from the stands, like we’re in on some joke. “Be sure to keep your head, Journ.”
The crowd screams with approval.
I take a few steps back before I can help myself. I know he’s riling the crowd. He has no idea what this means for me.
I know Dustan. I chose him myself. He was one of the first guards to swear to Rhen under my command. Does that mean the prince is here, watching this match? I want to search the crowd, but there are too many faces. Too much noise. I cannot tear my eyes from my approaching opponent.
My instincts are screaming at me to take action, but I see no path here.
Dustan has not drawn his sword. My hand has gone slick on the hilt of my own.
He slows as he approaches, and his eyes narrow slightly. As he stops in front of me, he frowns and takes his hand off the hilt. “You look anxious,” he says, his tone easy. “Journ, is it?”
The words take a moment to register in my mind.
He does not recognize me.
But of course he doesn’t. It’s been months. We only knew each other for a matter of weeks—and then, I was clean-shaven, with shorter hair and richly adorned armor and the manner of a leader.
Today, I am little more than a stable hand dressed up like a soldier. I’m Hawk. Or right now, I suppose I’m Journ.
Dustan leans in as if to share a secret. “The Royal Guard is not so vicious as rumor would have you believe.”
He believes I am nervous about the match.
“We’ve been on the road for weeks,” he continues. “My men dared me to enter.”
Then Rhen must not be with him. The prince would not leave Ironrose for weeks—and his guard commander certainly wouldn’t leave him unguarded for sport.
We’ve been quiet too long. The crowd is growing restless. Booted feet begin a relentless stomping. Any moment now, they’ll begin chanting.
“Do not withdraw,” Dustan says, misreading my silence for fear. “I’ll go easy.”
As predicted, the crowd begins its chant.
Fight. Fight. Fight.
It spurs my heartbeat and sharpens my focus.
Dustan puts his hand on his sword hilt and meets my eyes. There’s a question in his gaze.
I give him a quick nod.
He begins to draw. As the blade slides free, recognition flickers in his expression. “Journ—is there a chance we’ve met before?”
“No.” My sword pulls free like an old friend, and I swing hard and fast before he’s ready. He barely has time to block. Our blades collide, and the crash of metal sings through the arena. The crowd roars with approval.
Dustan loses ground quickly, backpedaling as he waits for an opening to retaliate. He expected me to fall back and be an easy mark. He underestimated me—a failing I’d reprimand him for if I were still his commander.
When the opening comes, Dustan strikes with a fierceness I don’t expect, and I’m forced to yield ground. My body remembers the movements, this dance of swordplay. When he swings for my midsection I slap his blade down, and we break apart, circling.
know you,” he calls. His eyes are shadowed with anger. “Who are you?”
“I’m no one.” His swords lifts, and I advance.
He’s good. Better than I remember. When we break apart again, a strain builds in my forearms that he likely doesn’t feel at all. An hour in the dusty arena with Tycho is not equal to the amount of time the Royal Guard spends training.
He must sense this, because his next attack is brutal and swift and brings me to the ground. I taste blood and dirt on my tongue. I roll before he can pin me, then drive off the ground to put a shoulder into his midsection.
I thought I could get him off his feet, but he’s quick and grabs hold of my armor, using my momentum to his advantage. We crash to the ground together. He kneels on my sword arm before I can raise it.
It’s a good move, but I know it. I use my free hand to snatch the dagger from his belt, and I aim for his throat. He swears and jerks back, but it frees my arm and puts him off balance. I surge forward and flip our positions.
He’s quick enough to get his sword up to block mine, but I’ve got leverage. I bear down until he’s in danger of cutting his own neck. He’s breathing as hard as I am, but on his part, it’s more anger than anything else. “Tell me who you are.”
“That was a clever move,” I say. “With the armor. Who taught you that?”
Dustan speaks through gritted teeth. He’s straining hard, and a thin line of blood appears below his blade. “If you kill a guardsman, you’ll lose your head.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. The sounds from the crowd have turned to a confused murmur.
Worwick’s voice calls out over the crowd, and he sounds a little strangled. “Journ! I will remind you this is not a death match.”
Motion flickers from the opposite side of the arena. Other guardsmen have sensed that their commander may be in danger.
I put the point of his dagger right against the vulnerable spot just below his jaw. “Tell your men to stand down.”
“That’s him!” a voice shouts from the sidelines. Familiar, but I can’t place it. “That’s
. I knew he wasn’t dead.”
A spike of fear drives through my heart. Dustan is glaring at me—but slowly his expression changes. The anger flickers to puzzlement. “Commander Grey?”
I need to make a decision. The blades between us tremble from our opposing efforts.
“Don’t you dare let him get away,” shouts a voice.
“I am not your commander,” I say to Dustan.
I punch him in the side of the face with the hand holding his dagger. It barely buys me a second, but I sprint for my tunnel. An arrow whistles by my shoulder and lodges in the wall. Another quickly follows, striking my armor and skidding harmlessly away.
The tunnel opens into the storage yard, but I grab hold of the ladder mounted into the side wall and swing myself up, taking it two rungs at a time. I ease into the loft just as guardsmen pour into the yard. Dirt and cobwebs slide under my fingers, and I hold my breath. My heart sprints along, begging for air.
The crowd is going wild in the arena, voices echoing throughout the entire tourney. The men fan out, going in opposing directions. As soon as they’re a safe distance away, I crawl, keeping low against the loft flooring.
I’m on the opposite side of the tourney from where Tycho and I sleep above the stables. If I were a lucky man, I could crawl the full distance, drop into the stables, and be galloping away before anyone knew better.
I think of the silver ring hidden in my mattress. I could escape completely.
Either way, I’m not a lucky man. The loft on this side of the stadium only runs as far as the armory. I’ll need to climb back down and somehow make it through the packed crowds to find my way to the stables.
It takes less than ten minutes to crawl through the dusty shadows, and I find the armory empty. I drop from the loft silently, but the scraver startles and rattles against its bars, hissing at me.
I ignore it and pull knives from the wall to slide into my greaves, then add two more under my sword belt.
Worwick’s voice carries over the crowd, loud through the door. “Yes, Commander.” He sounds panicked. He also sounds very near. “I
, I will provide whatever assistance is necessary.”
I pull back into the shadows near the scraver’s cage. The ladder to the loft is beside the door into the tourney. I’m trapped here more effectively than I was in the arena. My heart beats in my throat.
The scraver screeches at me, fangs bared, clawed hands scrabbling against the floor of its cage. I remember how easily it sliced into Kantor’s arm when provoked. Maybe it can do the same to armored guardsmen.
I draw a dagger and begin sawing at the rope holding the cage closed.
It stops growling.
My breathing is rapid and loud and these damn ropes are so thick. A key rattles in the lock on the door. Silver hell.
The scraver hisses at me. Then it whispers, “
My hands go still. I look up, wondering if I really heard that. My eyes lock with its solid black ones.
A cold breeze sweeps through the room. The scraver cuts a stripe across the back of my hand with his claws, and it growls, “Hurry!”
I don’t have time to consider what this means. I swipe hard. The rope gives. The door opens.
The scraver launches forward with enough force to knock me back. Once clear of the cage, its wings unfurl and it screams with rage. Men shout and scramble as they try to escape its path—running into others who are trying to come through the door. Blood flies as its claws find bare skin.
I sprint through the melee, back to the ladder, and hoist myself up.
“Scraver!” I call, then whistle.
I don’t wait to see if it follows. I just run.
When I reach the storage yard again, I don’t drop gently from the loft. I land hard and roll. I come up running, sprinting into the dusty alleyway behind the tourney.
With a screech and a flapping of wings, the scraver sails out of the loft, gliding to the ground. I expect it to stop, like a chained dog who’s been liberated and found a new master, but it doesn’t. Its clawed hands and feet grip at the dusty ground, find traction, and it takes flight again, wings beating hard against the air. In seconds, it’s high above me.
A whoosh of air announces an arrow, and I duck sideways, my
body responding before my thoughts do. I dodge the first, but not the second. Pain pierces my thigh, and my leg goes out. I stumble hard and fall, skidding several feet in the dust.
I force my legs to hold me again, and I’m on my feet, sword and dagger drawn, before the guardsmen get to me. There are only three. Dustan is one of them. His lip is swollen and bloodied from where I hit him. I don’t know the other two, but they both have arrows nocked and waiting. One has three deep scratches across his face and jaw.