(Ascension Series, #1)
by: K.A. Linde
“Let them in.” King Maltrier pulled in a shuddering breath and then coughed raggedly for a minute.
“Your Majesty, are you sure?” his longtime servant asked. He had the same relentless attitude that he always had, but he sounded more earnest than ever, as if he could will the King not to die.
“Get them, Solmis. Now.”
Solmis walked wearily across the darkened room. He heaved open the weathered door to the King’s bedchamber and spoke to the pair of guards standing watch, “Get the boys. The King wishes to speak with them.”
One guard punched his right fist to the left side of his chest in a formal Byern salute and then walked into the outer chamber. A moment later, he returned with two young boys with the same dark hair and blue-gray eyes that marked them as Dremylon heirs.
“This way, boys,” Solmis said. He was one of the few people who could get away with calling the Princes boys.
“Thank you, Solmis,” Edric, the crown prince, said with a smile and the confidence of someone who never wanted for anything.
The second son, Kael, pushed past them both, mimicking his brother’s stride. His face was set in a scowl. Some of his youthful exuberance had already drained out of him, and in its place was cynicism from losing a mother too young and from having a sick father, but mostly, it was from being second.
“Father,” he called out.
“Come here, Kael,” the King said. He patted the side of the bed. “You, too, Edric.”
Edric walked to his side and settled into a chair while Kael hoisted himself up onto the bed.
With Edric being fifteen and Kael at thirteen, both were much too young for this kind of loss.
The King had seen his youngest, Jesalyn, earlier that day. She had cried the entire time, understanding what was coming and knowing she could do nothing to stop it. In tears, she had run out of the room and straight into Consort Shamira’s arms. She had all but raised the child after his wife, Queen Adelaida’s unceremonious death.
But he couldn’t waste thoughts on that now. He was tiring with every passing moment. The boys…they had to know.
“Solmis,” the King said, regaining a shred of strength.
His servant, his old friend, left the room, giving them the privacy they needed.
“Father,” Kael repeated impatiently.
“I’m dying,” King Maltrier said.
Silence followed the declaration. Kael looked aghast. Edric tried to hide the shock of what he knew would be coming next.
“Edric will succeed me.”
“I’m too young to be king,” Edric whispered.
“Fifteen is not too young.” The King thought that was questionable, but he would not dispute it with his son. Edric had to be strong. He had to rule. “You have the Consort and my High Order to help and guide you.”
Edric swallowed and nodded. “Yes, Father.”
“Trust in yourself, and all will go as planned. I have formed an alliance with Aurum for Jesalyn to be queen and another with Tiek, who has offered you their young Princess Kaliana. Honor these matches to keep our people safe. A strong king is one with an heir.”
The King leaned over and coughed into a handkerchief for several minutes. His throat was raw, and his lungs ached. He didn’t know how much more he could take, but he had to pass on their legacy.
But could he put that burden on them?
He had to decide now.
No. He would tell only one. He would pass it on to the boy most like himself—the one who could handle the knowledge, the one destined to rule.
The King turned to one of his sons and said, “I need to speak with your brother alone for a moment.”
His eyebrows knit together as hurt and confusion clouded his features. “But, Father—”
“Go,” King Maltrier commanded.
He clenched his jaw, stood, and left without another word.
It was the last time the King would ever see his son.
The door closed roughly behind him.
King Maltrier turned to his other son. “You know the story of our ancestor Viktor Dremylon.”
He nodded, but the King continued anyway.
“Viktor struck down the evil Doma court that subjugated our people. Then he claimed the throne for himself with the sole purpose of ruling in a fair and just system.”
“History is told by the winners.”
“What do you mean?” He tilted his head and looked concerned.
Perhaps he thought the King had already lost his mind.
“Viktor did destroy the Doma court, and he ushered in a new era of Dremylon rule that has persisted two thousand years up until you today. But what is not in the stories is that the Doma court had ruled because they had powerful…abilities.”
His son laughed like his father was telling a fairy tale.
“Listen!” the King snapped. That sent him into another fit, and his son helped him sit up, so he could cough into his handkerchief.
When King Maltrier leaned back again, the King saw blood had coated the white silk.
“Father, you should rest.”
“I need to tell you—” He was interrupted by another cough. “—the truth. Viktor beat the Doma court and the most powerful leader they had ever known, Domina Serafina, by stealing magic—dark magic, a magic that cursed Viktor and all his ancestors. It cursed me…and you…the entire Dremylon line.”
His son remained silent and still. The King had gained his attention.
“Now, I must leave you with this, Son.” The King retrieved a heavy gold key from around his neck and placed it in his son’s hands. “A lockbox in the wall in my closet contains Viktor Dremylon’s writings. Collect it, and tell no one. You must continue our legacy. Anyone who has Doma blood and discovers their magic must be eliminated. They threaten our power, your power. They threaten the very world we live in.”
“A storm is brewing.” Cyrene pushed open the textured glass windowpane to better assess the ever-darkening sky.
“It looks dreadful out there,” her sister, Elea said.
Cyrene could smell the dankness of the damp air and feel the pressing humidity against her pores. She brushed her long dark brown hair off her shoulders and stepped away from the window.
“Of course it would rain on the day of my Presenting. It hasn’t rained in a month.”
“It will hold off.”
“I hope so.” Today was her Presenting ceremony, and it would be the biggest day of her entire life. She swallowed hard, but her mouth felt as if she had gone without water for days in the middle of the Fallen Desert.
“Oh, Cyrene, you’ll do fine today.” Elea grabbed Cyrene’s hand, lacing their fingers. “Aralyn was selected as an Affiliate, and I’m sure you will be, too.”
Cyrene refocused her thoughts, channeling the self-assurance that so often came to her, and she put on a brave face for Elea. “Of course I will. I hope Rhea is feeling as confident.”
“Don’t worry about Rhea. She will be fine.” Elea retrieved a neat ribbon of pearls from the dresser and strung them around Cyrene’s neck. “There. All done.”
“Thank you, Elea,” Cyrene said. She pulled her sister into a fierce hug. “I’ll miss you when I become an Affiliate.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Elea said, laughing. “You don’t even know if you’ll be selected into the First Class, but you practically believe you will be the next consort by nightfall.”
“I will be, right?” Cyrene asked sarcastically.
One of the most revered positions in all of Byern, the consort was personally chosen by the king and acted as his right hand in all matters of the state.
Elea snorted. “Don’t count your chickens before they have hatched.”
“Now, you sound like Mother!”
“Someone has to,” Elea said, shaking her head at Cyrene. “Come on. We can’t keep everyone waiting.” She ushered Cyrene out of the bedchamber.
Cyrene and Elea descended the spiral staircase to the large open foyer where their mother, Herlana, awaited them. Her daughters were mirror images of her, but Herlana had poise and grace that could only have been acquired through age and from serving as the previous queen’s Affiliate.
“Girls, you both look stunning. Though, I do say, Elea, I’m glad you still have another year. You need to get over that gawky awkwardness you still possess to have a chance at the First Class. Luckily, Cyrene never underwent that, or else I would have been more nervous for her,” Herlana muttered unabashedly.
Elea’s cheeks colored in embarrassment. She had grown to a surprising height in the past couple of years and was having trouble adjusting to the changes that had accompanied such a growth spurt.
“Thank you, Mother,” Cyrene said, redirecting the full weight of their mother’s attention.
“Well, you’re not out of it yet.” She eyed her daughter up and down. “Why your father ever approved of that harlot-red color on you, I have no idea. You’ll be the only one wearing something so tawdry.”
“I’ll stand out then.”
“As if you wouldn’t already at your own Presenting,” Herlana huffed.
“I think she is a vision in red,” Elea said, defending her sister.
“Thank you, Elea.”
“Yes, well…she would do better in your green,” Herlana said. “Do you remember everything required?”
Cyrene gulped back her moment of fear. “Yes, Mother. The very words I must speak have been etched into my brain since infancy.”
“You’ll need to watch that mouth of yours. The King doesn’t take kindly to insolent subjects. Now, where is that husband of mine?”
“I’m right here, Herlana,” Hamidon called. Entering the foyer, he thumbed through a small stack of letters in his hand.
He was a bulky man of medium height with a stern, self-important air about him. Despite his aristocratic appearance, he dearly loved his four children and doted on them even when his wife would scold him about it.
“Good morning, my beautiful children.” Hamidon kissed Elea and then Cyrene. “The Royal Guard have arrived,” he said, turning to his wife. “Are the Gramms here yet?”
“Yes. They’ve arrived just now,” Herlana said. She gestured out the door where a pair of carriages pulled into the circle drive.
“Perfect,” he said, wearing a pompous smile. “Shall we depart?”
Cyrene’s mother and father paraded out of their house, and as she was about to follow them, Elea threw her arms around her older sister.
“Who is going to tend the garden?” Elea croaked.
“What?” Cyrene asked. She attempted to pry herself out of Elea’s grip.
“I’m certain to kill everything without you here.”
“Just remember to water, and the garden will be fine.” She couldn’t help her disbelieving giggle. “Really, Elea, you’re only going to miss me because of the garden?”
Elea looked back at her sister and shook her head.
“Ladies,” Herlana snapped as they stalled in the foyer.
The girls jumped at their mother’s voice and hurried out of the house. Royal Guard ushered them toward three magnificent horse-drawn carriages attached to black stallions. Her family sat in one with a pattern of interchanging blue and silver diamonds, the colors of Cyrene’s family house. The Gramms’ two carriages were striped in orange, brown, and gold.
Rhea was demurely seated in the Gramms’ second carriage. She waved at Cyrene as she approached.
Cyrene and Rhea had been born on the same day, and thus, they were a rare exception for a First Class Presenting.
Members of the First Class would have their children individually presented on their seventeenth birthday. Every member of the Second and Third Classes who had a child turning seventeen in that year would celebrate their Presenting on the same day as the Eos holiday. In honor of Byern’s emancipation, an enormous party would be thrown in the capital city each year, and all would be invited to attend the festivities.
Cyrene clambered into the carriage seat beside Rhea. “Rhea, can you believe it’s finally here?” She reached out and grasped Rhea’s hand.
“No.” The wavy wisps of Rhea’s dark red hair brushed against her back as she shook her head. Her forest-green gown was simple and light with flowing long sleeves and lace edging. It really brought out the green in her eyes.
“Me either,” Cyrene whispered. Her gaze shifted out to their surroundings.
The carriage pulled them forward through the inner city. Towering stone mansions lined the streets as they navigated the First Class quarters and headed for the immense Nit Decus castle carved into the side of the Taken Mountains.
Second and Third Class families lived nearest their occupational crafts. Seconds were prone to martial involvement as well as careers related to and assisting with guard services. Thirds were a mix of craftsmen, merchants, and farmers who performed essential functions to support the kingdom. Both Seconds and Thirds lived along the second tier of the city walls, farther down the rocky foothills of the capital city. Additionally, Seconds assisted with border protection, and many Thirds traversed the land for mercantile purposes or lived in remote villages, assisting in the daily functions of life.
The roads through the inner city were cobbled, and the two girls jostled lightly as they rolled higher and higher toward the castle looming on the horizon. It was a nearly impenetrable fortress forged from gray-and-black limestone carved out of the mountain. More than half of the colossal structure was hidden within the heart of the Taken Mountains. What remained visible was a glorious edifice with high peaked towers, arching railed bridges, and intricate stone masonry that had withstood thousands of years of wear.
The sight of the sky-high towers had been a fixture throughout Cyrene’s entire life, yet the grandiose structure always managed to elicit gasps of awe from her. As they approached, the girls gazed up at the impossibly tall barred doors.
“Do you think we’ll make the First Class?” Rhea whispered.
Cyrene looked at Rhea whose ever-present pallid complexion had only turned more ashen with fear. The touch of rouge on her cheeks couldn’t hide her waxen appearance. In the faint carriage light, her hands visibly trembled, a problem she’d had since childhood.
“How could we not?” Cyrene asked with a false sense of confidence.
“What if we don’t?”
“Don’t even think about it, Rhea. We’ve been together this long…”
She couldn’t imagine life without Rhea. Cyrene knew that the First Class children were rarely placed into a lower Class, but it had happened. Only last year, a girl from Cyrene’s own neighborhood had been selected into the Third Class.
Cyrene shuddered at the thought. She had worked and studied too hard to spend the rest of her life reaching for a place where she already belonged.
The three carriages swiftly passed through the gates, entering the lush garden paradise. As far as the eye could see, the royal grounds were covered with flourishing trees, brightly colored flowers, acres of fresh green grass, and even a slowly trickling creek with a stone bridge. Birds chirped overhead as the carriages rattled forward through the sprawling garden. In such a natural habitat, the drone of city life was all but obscured.
A footman descended the castle stairs and opened the carriage door. Cyrene dropped Rhea’s hand and exited first. She regally tilted her head up as she placed her expensive Biencan gold slippers onto royal land. The corners of her lips turned up, and years of etiquette training took over.
A gentleman directed her inside, and Rhea followed behind on the arm of another escort. Their families had already entered the castle and were being ushered into the Grand Hall.
Allowing her escort to lead her away from Rhea, Cyrene silently wished she had told her friend good luck. Each Affiliate was given his or her own Presenting chamber, so Cyrene wouldn’t see Rhea until this was all over.
Cyrene’s escort walked her through several winding hallways to a broad stone door. With anticipation, her heart thudded wildly in her chest. This was the entrance to her Presenting chamber.
Richly colored curtains and tapestries hung on the walls. The cost of the thick Aurumian carpet could provide a year’s worth of meals from the Laelish Market. An ornate silver pitcher and several crystal glasses sat atop an artfully constructed mahogany table against the back wall.
Cyrene poured herself a glass of water and brought the cup to her lips.
The room reminded her about the ancient history of the reign of the Doma court under the dreaded Domina Serafina. Nearly two thousand years ago, Byern had been ruled by an aristocracy that took everything for themselves, laid waste to the land, and starved the populace they deemed to be lesser. Then Viktor Dremylon had risen up against the court, seized Byern for the people, and freed the realm from oppressive rule. All the Doma’s horrible practices had been reversed, and the prosperity of the past two millennia had validated the Dremylon victory. Now, only rare artifacts, history lessons, and folktales were left of that time period.
A rustling of the carpet drew her out of her thoughts, and she turned quickly.
Shrieking in surprise, she nearly dropped the glass. She rushed across the room and threw her arms around her older sister. “Aralyn!”
Aralyn held her tightly.
“It’s so good to see you,” Cyrene gasped out.
“I’ve missed you.” Aralyn examined Cyrene at arm’s length. “Why, you are positively gorgeous! And in red! Did Father approve this color?”
“It’s not a court color.”
Cyrene ignored her sister’s slight. “Forget about the color, Aralyn. I haven’t seen you in a year. What is it like in Kell as an Affiliate Ambassador? Tell me everything!”
“I didn’t come to discuss my travels with you. I came to make sure you were prepared. I have your Presenting letter.”
Aralyn extracted a letter from the sash on her gown. Cyrene reverently took the letter in her hand.
“You don’t have much time before they call. I came to be your Advisor.” A small smile played on her features. “I couldn’t miss my little sister’s Presenting.”
Questions bubbled inside of Cyrene, but she held her tongue.
“What you read inside that envelope may not be spoken of to anyone, save other citizens in kind as well as King Edric, Queen Kaliana, and Consort Daufina, but know that they might not hold any answers, or they might even lead you astray. Do you understand?”
No. How could I possibly understand until I read the letter? She prayed to the Creator that she’d become an Affiliate, so she could ask Aralyn all these pressing questions.
“Cyrene, do you understand?” Aralyn repeated more sternly.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Very well. After you read your letter, proceed to the far door, and wait for an official to open it for you. When you are given the signal for dismissal, return to this room to await your Selecting.”
“Will you be here?” Cyrene blurted out.
“No. You must await your Selecting alone.”
Cyrene glanced down at the letter within her hands and back up at Aralyn. “Do you think I’ll make First Class?”
Aralyn produced her first real smile. “I’ve no doubt you will be selected to your proper place,” she said, pulling Cyrene into a hug. “You’ll do fine. Now, I must go. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Aralyn placed a peck on each side of Cyrene’s cheeks and departed the room.
A weight formed in the pit of Cyrene’s stomach. It was judgment day. The small piece of paper in her hands felt like a heavy load.
After turning the cream envelope over, she tore the royal seal back from the parchment and pulled out the letter. The royal crest, a green Dremylon D wrapped in gold flames, was stamped on the front of the card.
She flipped the card open.
What you seek lies where you cannot seek it.
What you find cannot be found.
The thing you desire above all else risks all else.
The thing you fight for cannot be won.
When all seems lost, what was lost can be found.
When all bend, you cannot be as you were.
It’s gibberish! Just a series of riddles!
What am I seeking? A position as an Affiliate, next to my sister? Yet that makes no sense because that position is available to me. Is it the same thing I need to find? If it is, how can I find something that I can’t pursue and that can’t be found?
The second part was slightly more straightforward. But what do I desire? She didn’t know how becoming an Affiliate would risk everything else in her life. Plus, she wasn’t fighting anyone. Byern hadn’t been at war for two hundred years!
The next line made even less sense. She felt pretty lost right now, but she hardly thought that was what the line was referring to. Am I to lose something…everything? She reread the final line once more and tried to puzzle out the hidden meaning. Who is bending? If people were bending in some way, how would I lose myself? That seemed to be the most troubling part to her. She didn’t know how she could possibly be something she was not.
She didn’t have time to figure it out now. She had to complete her Presenting. She stuffed the card back into the envelope, placed it on the table, and walked to the far wall. As soon as she reached the entrance, the doors began to creak open.
Standing before her was the Royal Court of Byern.
The Byern court rose from their elegantly crafted chairs, turned to the corner of the ballroom, and stared at Cyrene in the open doorway.
Cyrene held in her gasp. The ballroom was exquisite with interchanging cerulean, jade, and mother-of-pearl columns and gold-outlined ornamental moldings. Her eyes tilted upward to the hand-painted ceiling with a grand clock designed into the artwork. Through a dozen floor-to-ceiling windows, the ever-darkening clouds outside shed a murky glow on the room.
Soft music came to life from the strings of a musician’s harpsichord.
That was her cue.
Pushing her shoulders back, Cyrene stepped one gold slipper and then another onto the marble ballroom floor. All traces of her previous anxiety vanished from her powdered face, and she produced an easy smile for the awaiting crowd. She walked gracefully down the back of the room to a long center aisle. At the end of the path sat King Edric on a high-backed gold throne. With her fair hair tied up into a tight bun, Queen Kaliana was on his left, and the dark-haired Consort Daufina was to his right.
Cyrene’s heartbeat pulsed through her fingertips and thumped against her neck. Her stomach seemed to drop out of her body as she made eye contact with the King. The intensity of his gaze made her cheeks flush. She hoped her rouge hid her nervousness.
With her chin held high, Cyrene proceeded. She passed her parents seated in the front row alongside Aralyn, Elea, and her older brother, Reeve. On the other side of the aisle sat the Gramm family. Cyrene wondered if Rhea had been presented first. Cyrene couldn’t judge from the Gramms’ expressions.
After walking the remaining few feet to the front of the dais, she climbed the stairs to stand before her King, and then she dropped into the lowest curtsy possible.
She held her position for what felt like an eternity before King Edric’s voice boomed throughout the ballroom. “You may rise.”
Her knees shook as she lifted herself off the ground.
King Edric had changed since she last saw him at Aralyn’s Presenting. His father, King Maltrier, had died from unknown causes when Edric was only fifteen years old. Edric had shouldered the responsibility of the kingdom as well as the welfare of his younger sister, Jesalyn—now Queen of Aurum—and his younger brother, Prince Kael. Five years later, King Edric was now twenty and had rightfully come into his own. His very presence exuded a confidence no one but a king could manage.
Slowly, King Edric rose from his throne to his full height. In her thoughts, Cyrene couldn’t even capture the full extent of his intrigue. He was incredibly tall with a strong jawline covered in stubble and piercing blue-gray eyes that surveyed the crowd behind her.
“Welcome. We are here today for the Presenting of a daughter of the Strohm family, who nobly served my father, King Maltrier—son of King Herold, son of King Viktor of the royal line of Dremylon. Creator rest their souls.”
The crowd softly murmured their own blessings to the former kings.
“Come today to stand before the throne to be presented is one of our own,” he said. “She was raised in our land, educated in our land, and will forever be part of our land. Her Presenting today signals acceptance of the traditions and values of Byern. Such a step represents her desire to be part of the everyday improvement of our land. Acceptance of her Selecting requires responsibility and adherence to the foundation of Byern principles.”
Cyrene’s head swam. She was agreeing to be presented and selected, no matter the consequences. No matter if she was placed in the Third Class. This would decide her entire future, and her heart constricted painfully as possibilities flooded her conscious.
“Today, I Present Cyrene Sera Strohm, daughter of Hamidon and Herlana; sister to our own devoted member of the High Order, Reeve; and our trusted Affiliate, Aralyn. We shall begin the Presenting now.”
King Edric took a step toward her, and her blue eyes met his. An electric shock shot through her at his nearness. For a moment, while locked in the King’s gaze, all she saw was the here and now. There was neither time nor distance between them. It was just a pull as if they would be tethered together from this point on.
King Edric jerked back a step and shook his head, pulling her out of the trance that had come over her. What just happened?
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he pulled himself back together. Then, he spoke softly for her ears only, “Cyrene.”
She silently cursed and dropped her gaze to the polished floor. What am I doing? She wasn’t even supposed to directly look at him yet.
“You may look at me.”
Surprised, Cyrene did as commanded. She didn’t understand what had passed between them, but looking at him made something within her fall into place.
“Miss Strohm, I stand here as your King, willing to select you into a proper position within the Byern community. Are you prepared to do your duty?”
Her lips quirked up into a haughty smirk. “Yes, My King.”
King Edric paused, eyeing her mouth. “Do you always wear that smirk?”
She tried to tamp down the expression on her face, but she didn’t seem to be able to. “Yes, My King.”
His blue-gray eyes narrowed, and her heart thumped. Why can’t I keep a lid on my attitude today of all days?
“Every Class performs fundamental tasks for the improvement of Byern. Are you aware of the three Class tasks?” He returned to the Presenting dialogue.
“The Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Essentials,” she said, giving the formal names for the three Classes, “perform vital tasks to improve Byern. Guardians keep the system functional. Auxiliaries offer protection. The Essentials see to the daily needs of the many.”
“And why are the Classes necessary?”
Cyrene responded as if she were reading straight from a script but with more conviction than she had ever felt before, “To maintain peace and prosperity. After Viktor Dremylon freed our people from the Doma overlord, he founded the Class system to utilize the benefits of all his citizens.”
“Have you any skills necessary for acceptance into one of these three Classes?”
Cyrene knew she was supposed to admit that the skills she had learned would be sufficient for any Class, that no talents dominated one Class over another, yet the words were stuck on her tongue like a lie. She did have talents that would be more useful for the First Class, and she couldn’t stand before her own King and tell him that she did not, no matter how much training she had been given to say otherwise. Staring up into his face, she felt compelled to offer him the truth even if she knew that she should not.
“Yes, My King.”
King Edric cocked his head to the side. The silence between them stretched and felt weighted with her indiscretion. She bit her lip, and the stress of the afternoon pressed in on her. Did I just ruin my chance at the First Class?
“Well, what are your skills?” King Edric demanded.
“My sister says I can predict the weather.”
“As can most witches.”
Cyrene looked up at him under her full black lashes. “I don’t believe I like your accusation,” she murmured in a near whisper, “My King.”
The King of Byern had just apologized to her.
Her breathing was heavy as she forced herself to keep going. “Of course, it’s not possible to predict the weather, but I believe I have more determination and will than you might find in a hundred people. I will fight for my kingdom until my last breath.” Her voice was hoarse with emotion.
“A loyal subject.”
“Byern’s most loyal subject.”
“And as Byern’s most loyal subject, you would use this determination and will as instructed?”
“Yes, of course, My King.”
“Do you always wear this shade of red? Few wear such a daring color in my court.”
Much of her family had said as much. Soft colors were always in fashion, but Cyrene was not soft. She had never cared about how it would look if she wore red until the moment she was standing before the King.
“Do you like it?” she couldn’t help asking.
After a moment, he nodded. “Yes, my lady. It seems it is not just your clothing that is daring.” He did not seem displeased. “Once you are selected, you will be announced to your Receiver and placed in his or her charge for proper training. Do you accept the circumstances of your Selecting?”
“However I am fit and however I am able,” she breathed. She had never meant the words more than when she was speaking them to King Edric. She felt an electric tug when she delivered the words.
He quickly stepped away, and she wondered if he’d felt it, too.
“You may proceed, Miss Strohm.”
Cyrene faced her audience with a million thoughts running through her mind. How did that conversation go so far off course? And why would I give anything to speak to the King one more time?
She pushed her thoughts away from King Edric and continued with her Presenting ceremony.
“The Royal Court of Byern, I have taken the Oath of Acceptance, tying myself to my Selecting, to my Receiver, and to the land. I trust in the decision of the court to utilize my services to the best of their abilities for the people of Byern. I, Cyrene Sera Strohm, daughter of Hamidon and Herlana, fully present myself on the day of my seventeenth birthday to shirk the immaturity of my youth and take on the responsibility of my adulthood.”
Cyrene dipped into another low curtsy.
“Miss Strohm, you may return to your anteroom until you are received for Selecting,” King Edric announced.
“Thank you,” she said before walking back the way she had come.
Soft murmurs sounded all around her, but she couldn’t hear anything that was said. Her head was abuzz with her conversation with the King and the pull that made her want to turn around and go back.
A member of the Royal Guard opened the door to her waiting room. She ducked inside and breathed out a huge sigh of relief. She had successfully been presented to the Royal Court.
It was over, yet it had just begun.
Cyrene stumbled toward a divan covered in a mountain of throw pillows and collapsed on top of the heap. Her body sank into the padded plush seat as she crumpled from exhaustion. For so long, she had been anticipating her Presenting. She could hardly believe it was over. Her fate was out of her hands now.
She buried her face into the pillows. Her body was shaking from shock. I just spoke to the King of Byern as if he were a common suitor! She didn’t care how handsome he was. And he was very handsome. It was not proper to flirt with the King, and it was certainly not proper to reprimand him for his tone, yet she hadn’t been able to stop herself.
She felt drawn to him in some inexplicable way. And she was almost positive it had affected him, too. Why else would he have responded to me in such a manner? It hardly fit with her vision of the King of Byern.
Just as her frustration about the Presenting ceremony was about to become unbearable, the far door pried open. Cyrene rushed to the door, expecting to be ushered out of the room by a castle official. Instead, a tall figure walked inside.
“Reeve,” she said aghast, “what are you doing here? Aralyn said I’m not supposed to have any visitors.”
“I know, Cyrene.” Her brother crossed his arms over his chest.
“Then, what are you doing here?” She stomach knotted.
“I came at the request of King Edric to inform you that he needs a longer period of deliberation before your Selecting.”
“What?” she nearly shrieked. “Why would he need more time?”
“Your tone, Cyrene.”
“It’s just you. It’s not like he can hear me,” she grumbled.
“If King Edric wants more time, then he is perfectly entitled to it even if it is slightly unconventional.”
“Slightly unconventional? Have you ever heard of this happening?”
Reeve sighed and dropped his arms to his sides. “No, I haven’t. I don’t know what the King could possibly be considering. Do you?”
“No.” She shifted on the balls of her feet.
“What did you and King Edric talk about when you were standing before him?” He narrowed his eyes as if he already knew she had done something wrong.
“Nothing. We went through the questions and the Oath of Acceptance. That’s all,” she lied, defiantly crossing her arms.
“It took longer than it should have.”
“What are you still doing here, Reeve?” She turned away from him and strolled over to the mahogany table. “You’ve delivered your message.”
Reeve cursed under his breath. “What have you done, Cyrene? Don’t you know how serious this is?” He strode toward her. “Your life hangs in the balance.”
She whirled around. “I am not going to die for bantering with the King.”
He hissed through his teeth. “You bantered with him in the middle of your Presenting?”
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Yes. He went off script, and I followed his lead.”
“Off script? You think it was right to go off script for something you have been preparing for your entire life? A script every single person of age recites?”
The last thing Cyrene wanted to do was give in to this line of reasoning. Otherwise, she might legitimately have a breakdown right then and there.
“Yes,” she finally answered him.
“And you think this has nothing to do with his extended deliberation?”
Reeve paced the room once before looking back at her. “What did you two discuss?”
Cyrene shrugged. “I told him I was a loyal Byern subject, and he commented that he liked my dress, but no one wore red in his court.”
“He commented on your dress?” He raised his eyebrows.
He rubbed his chin. “And that was all?”
“That doesn’t sound too damaging,” he admitted.
“Are you finished?”
“Cyrene,” he said soothingly, “you know I’m just worried about you.”
“Well, don’t. You have as much control over what happens as I do.” As much as she wanted her brother to comfort her, she couldn’t let herself show weakness. She still had to get through her Selecting in one piece.
“High Order Strohm,” a royal official called into the room, “you are needed at your seat.”
Reeve moved to give Cyrene a hug, but she backed away from him. Reeve’s face hardened before he exited the room, leaving her all alone once more. Her body heaved. She hated acting like that to Reeve, but she did not want him to know how terrified she was.
After another thirty minutes, the door finally opened once more.
“Miss Strohm, the King has come to a decision. He is ready for you.”
Cyrene briskly exited the room and walked across the marble floors. The King had made her wait nearly three times as long as any other presented individual, and she was ready to get this over with. She stalked up the front steps to the platform and nearly forgot to bob her curtsy. At the last second, she politely dipped down.
King Edric gestured for her to stand. “Cyrene Sera Strohm, you have been presented before the Royal Court of Byern and have taken the Oath of Acceptance to fulfill your duties to your land. Under deliberation with Queen Kaliana and Consort Daufina, I have come to a decision regarding your Selection.”
Cyrene gulped, nervously wringing her hands in front of her. She glanced left into the pale blue eyes of Queen Kaliana, who looked none too pleased, and then right into the hooded eyes of Consort Daufina, who was practically glowing. Cyrene did not understand either response.
“It has been decided that you will be selected into the Guardian First Class.”
Cyrene’s heart leaped with joy. First Class!
The King rose from his throne and walked to Cyrene. “Your Receiver will be Queen Kaliana.”
Cyrene’s mouth dropped open in utter shock.
“And from this day forth, you shall be known as the Queen’s Affiliate.”
The applause from the court was deafening as people stood and cheered for their newest Affiliate. The honor was so rare and the position so coveted that no one in the court had anticipated it. In two years, only three girls—including Cyrene’s sister—had been placed in the position.
As if the Creator herself was responding, lightning flashed beyond the windows. A crack of thunder erupted overhead. The storm that had been threatening them all morning was about to open up on top of the ceremony.
As gazes shifted to the window, the sky commenced a torrential downpour, hitting the castle in sheets. She couldn’t remember the last time a storm with such force had hit Byern. Maybe it never had.
Coming back to the reality of what had just happened, Cyrene returned her gaze to the King in awe. Her heart rate skyrocketed.
He gestured for Consort Daufina to move forward. He held out his hand, and she lightly placed something into his palm. He returned his focus to Cyrene. “Give me your hand.”
Cyrene obeyed, holding her hand out to him.
“In your palm I place the Queen’s symbol, a circular pin of Byern climbing vines. So long as you have this with you, you will have a piece of your land, our land, and you will be known throughout the world as one of our own.”
Cyrene closed her fingers around the small circular charm that she had been waiting for her entire life. “Thank you, My King.”
She stared at the symbol of the Affiliate, and her heart fluttered. The pin was an incredible piece of craftsmanship. The filigree pendant was intricately woven into a circle of gold leaves, as if the artist had plucked real climbing vines right out of the garden, with a clasp that she could attach to any of her garments.
King Edric addressed the awaiting crowd, who had finally quieted down, “Thank you all for attending Affiliate Cyrene’s Presenting. There will be a customary ball in her honor tonight to welcome your newest Affiliate.”
At the end of the ceremony, the crowd cheered one more time, and then courtiers began dispersing.
“Affiliate Cyrene,” King Edric said, drawing her attention away from the commotion, “we need to speak with you before you can leave the castle.”
Cyrene glanced over at her parents. Beaming, they addressed the line of nobles congratulating them. Two Affiliates and a member of the High Order in one household. It was almost like breeding well-trained horses.
“Yes, My King, of course.” She trailed behind the royal procession and entered a small anteroom far removed from the previous one.
A large ornate desk took up the majority of the far side of the wall, and several high-backed chairs were placed around it.
“Sit.” King Edric gestured to the chairs as he took a seat behind the desk.
Cyrene sank into the nearest seat. The Queen and Consort both moved fluidly to seats on either side of the desk, neither looking at the other.
“After today, your belongings will be moved into the Queen’s quarters,” King Edric informed Cyrene. “As your Receiver, Queen Kaliana will make sure everything is taken care of for your new position as an Affiliate. You will report to the Queen tomorrow morning for instructions on proceeding with your regimen. Of course, you are equally responsible to Consort Daufina, who might have additional directions. Do you have any questions?”
Cyrene’s mouth went dry. She had a million questions, but one was more pressing than the others. “What happened to Rhea?”
“You may speak with your family regarding other Presenting ceremonies, but now is not the time. Do you have any further questions?”
She wanted to know more about what they had discussed during her Presenting and what had made them come to the conclusion to make her an Affiliate. If it had taken them so long to decide because I went off script, why did they decide to make me an Affiliate? Staring between Queen Kaliana and Consort Daufina, it was clear that they disagreed with each other. The Consort must have spoken in her favor and the Queen against her. The last thing I want is to make powerful enemies.
None of these thoughts were something she could vocalize.
“No, My King,” she said quickly.
“Very well. Your family has instructions on the festivities for the evening,” he said. They all stood. “Congratulations, Affiliate Cyrene.”
“Thank you, My King.” She dipped a low curtsy and darted out of the room.
The ballroom was now mostly empty, except for her family and a few stragglers. She descended the stairs and threw herself into Reeve.
“Congratulations,” everyone cheered.
Reeve wrapped her in a big hug, clearly having forgotten their earlier altercation. She was passed from sister to sister before reaching her parents.
“We’re so proud.” Herlana bawled with tearstains on her cheeks.
“Oh, Mother,” Cyrene said.
“And a whole ball in your honor,” her mother murmured as if this wasn’t the case for every member of the High Order or an Affiliate. “We’ll have to find you something suitable to wear.”
Cyrene’s family bustled around her out of the ballroom. Considering how doomed she had felt only a short while ago, she couldn’t have been happier. The King had made her an Affiliate!
They approached the castle doors that would lead them out to their carriages when Cyrene stopped abruptly at the rain-splattered steps. “Where is Rhea?”
Her family stared at the floor, at the ceiling, outside at the rain—anywhere but at her face.
Cyrene’s hands began to shake. “Mother? Father? Reeve, Aralyn, Elea…please.”
They all purposely looked away.
“She…she made First Class, right?” Her voice trembled.
Elea finally stepped forward and took Cyrene’s hand in hers.
The tears Cyrene had been holding back all day sprang to her eyes. “No, no, no, no, no.”
“She has been selected into Second Class,” Elea whispered. “Her new Receiver is in Albion.”
“Albion?” Cyrene spat. “By the Creator, that’s a hundred leagues away!”
No one spoke. Everyone already knew what this meant to Cyrene.
She had been given everything in one day, yet the most precious person in her life had been torn away from her.
As soon as Cyrene returned to her home, her mother whisked her upstairs to be fitted for her new ball gown. She didn’t question how the seamstress, Lady Cauthorn, one of the most sought after in the city, had been acquired for an in-home creation in the span of an afternoon or the price it was costing her parents.
She simply stood stiffly as the seamstress poked and prodded her while she listened to the constant babble of her family. They surely thought their words were comforting her against the pain at the loss of Rhea. They all talked about how she had finally gotten the position she always wanted, how important her future work at court would be, and how her life would be so busy with all her new duties.
So, she wouldn’t have time to miss Rhea—though they never said that.
When they thought she wasn’t paying attention, her parents whispered about how she would get through this and make new friends, how the pain would pass, that this was why everyone took the Oath of Acceptance, and how Selecting was the best process even if it didn’t feel like it now. None of those words were much comfort either.
Unable to coax much life out of her, they left her alone with the seamstress.
Several hours of intense labor by the seamstress and two of her assistants produced a dress fit for the Queen herself.
“All done,” Lady Cauthorn said. “Take a look.”
Cyrene stepped stiffly onto the box in front of the trifold mirror, and her mouth dropped open. The softest red silk draped across her fair skin in the most flattering manner. Thin straps on her shoulders led to a sharp V-cut neckline between her breasts. The back mirrored the front, revealing the soft contours of her back. The dress cinched at her slender waist with a thick ribbon tied at the base of her spine. From there, the silky material cascaded like a waterfall over her narrow hips before pooling at her feet on the ground. She had never seen such a bold design.
She knew one thing for certain. She would make a splash at the ball tonight.
“I love it, Lady Cauthorn.” Cyrene turned slowly. “I would like to pay you for this.”
Lady Cauthorn shook her head. Her mouth was set in a bright smile, and her eyes glowed at her creation. “Your parents commissioned the dress. They will pay.”
Cyrene wrestled with her newfound position. “As an Affiliate, I will make plenty to cover the costs.”
“Your parents will pay,” she insisted.
“What if I pay you from my endowment?”
Lady Cauthorn raised her eyebrows. “Why do you insist on paying?”
“I want this to belong to me and only me.”
The seamstress seemed to see straight through her. She tilted her head and continued to examine her. Her eyes turned glossy and far off for a moment, and then she snapped back to reality. “You are meant for great things, Child.”
“Thank you,” she said automatically. “But in the matter of the dress…”
“The dress.” Lady Cauthorn busied herself with cleaning the mess she had made. “It’s a gift.”
“What? No. Lady Cauthorn, I have the money!”
“No bother, girl.” She snapped her fingers at her stunned assistants, and they rushed into motion.
“I cannot accept this,” Cyrene assured her. “It’s too much.”
Lady Cauthorn looked back up at her once more and smiled, but it wasn’t a kind smile. It seemed almost calculated. “A gift is a precious thing. Perhaps we could negotiate the price of the dress for a favor.”
“A favor? That’s it?”
“Yes. Just one favor from you at a time of my choosing.”
“I don’t understand. This dress must have cost a fortune. What is the favor?”
“Whether a high cost or a low cost, it won’t be one you will pay for today.” She gave Cyrene a toothy grin. “The dress for a favor. Are we in agreement?”
Cyrene nodded at her in bewildered accord. “Yes, I agree.”
“Perfect.” Lady Cauthorn walked forward and attached Cyrene’s Affiliate pin to her chest. “I’ll inform your parents that the gown has been paid for.”
“When will you collect your favor?”
“Likely when you least wish it so. Good luck in the lion’s den.” Lady Cauthorn bowed her head and then exited the room.
Cyrene wasn’t sure what to make of the entire exchange. All she knew was, she was certainly indebted to Lady Cauthorn and wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good thing.
Cyrene tucked her Presenting letter away into a fold in the gown. It was the only thing she was bringing with her tonight. She touched the wall of her bedroom one last time before leaving the comfort of it behind. She was no longer a little girl anymore. In her place was a woman who would begin a new life as a palace noble.
Tilting her chin, she descended the staircase to a vacant foyer. Her fingers trailed along the climbing-vine pin attached to the bodice of the gown, and a tremor of excitement ran through her. She couldn’t believe she had been appointed an Affiliate, especially considering Rhea had not been given the same honor.
Trying to put aside the depressing thoughts, Cyrene opened the front door and stared out to the cobblestone road beyond her home. A light trickle of rain was still falling from the sky. She breathed in the crisp dewy air. The comforting smell reminded her so much of the rainy seasons of her childhood, such as the time when she had kissed a boy in the stable yard to prove to Rhea that she wasn’t afraid. After she had been caught, Rhea had crept up into her room and brought her dinner. They’d giggled about it until she had to go home.
Cyrene laughed, but there was a touch of sadness and desperation in the hiccupping sound. They could never be those children again.
At that moment, Rhea stepped out of the shadows. “What’s so funny?”
Cyrene started at her friend’s sudden appearance. “Rhea!” She rushed out of the doorframe to the covered front porch.
Rhea stepped away from her. “You’ll ruin your dress!” She had changed into a much simpler dress with her heavy rain boots and a cape to cover her head, but she was still dripping with water from head to toe.
“Why are you soaking wet?” Cyrene demanded. “You’re certain to catch a cold.”
“I snuck out.” She shrugged off her drenched coat and hung it on a nail. Her long red hair hung down her back. The ends were damp, and the wisps around her face had formed into ringlets.
“And what? You walked over here?”
“It’s not that far. I couldn’t risk getting caught, and I couldn’t leave without seeing you.”
“I would have come to see you, but they wouldn’t let me out of their sights.”
“I know.” Rhea’s boots squelched as she fidgeted. “But we promised to share Presenting letters with each other, and I thought you would have some idea what mine meant.”
Cyrene’s smile grew. She had thought the same thing about Rhea.
The only problem was, Aralyn had said Cyrene was not to tell anyone about the letter—save other Affiliates, members of the High Order, and royalty.
Cyrene bit her lip in consternation. “Did your Advisor tell you not to talk about it?”
Rhea eyed her with mirrored trepidation on her face and then shrugged. “Are we going to start listening to other people now?”
“Of course not.” Cyrene retrieved her paper from her gown and exchanged it for Rhea’s.
Cyrene read Rhea’s Presenting letter, and her eyebrows knit together. Rhea’s letter made no more sense than Cyrene’s own letter with talk of helping those who cannot be helped, submitting to a lost cause, and keeping determination in the face of her greatest fear.
The blank look on Rhea’s face was enough to convince Cyrene that neither of them knew what to make of these cards.
“How do we sort out this gibberish?” Rhea handed Cyrene back her letter, likely having already memorized the lines.
“No, Cyrene. How do we sort this out without each other?” Her voice quavered. She cast her eyes out across the lawn.
“I don’t know, Rhea.” Cyrene’s heart hammered in her chest. “Wha-what happened? I mean, in your Presenting?”
The normal soft lines of Rhea’s oval face hardened. She clenched her hands into fists at her sides. “Nothing out of the ordinary. We went through the ceremony as planned, like we had rehearsed for hours on end. I don’t know how I could have done better. What was yours like?”
Cyrene sighed at the question. “I went off script and…flirted with the King.”
“You did what?” Rhea asked in disbelief.
“I know. I thought I would become Third Class, Rhea. I don’t know why he picked me,” she said, splaying her hands flat in front of her.
“Well, I do,” Rhea said. “You’re brilliant and beautiful and a loyal friend. You deserve it, Cyrene.”
She flushed at the compliment. “Did the King tell you why you were becoming a Second…erm, being put into Second Class?”
“No,” she said, her voice clipped. “They most certainly did not. I tried to ask them, but they kept up with ceremonial talk about the Oath of Acceptance and the Selecting process. Either way, by the end of the week, I’ll be off to Albion, working for my new Receiver Master Caro Barca.”
“Why does that name sound familiar?”
“He’s an inventor, supposedly a genius.” She dismissively waved her hands. “He studies militaristic development and strategy and is working on some new weaponry plans. He sounds like a raving lunatic in the scant literature I could acquire about him. However, I couldn’t find much, and King Edric hardly elaborated.” Her shoulders slumped.
“Didn’t we read about Master Barca?” Cyrene asked.
“I don’t remember the name.”
“Are you sure? Didn’t he invent Bursts?” Cyrene was pretty sure that was where she remembered him. One of their tutors had been fascinated that something that could produce bright colors in the sky just by lighting a fuse. The inventor had never given up his secret.
Rhea’s eyes illuminated in the fading light. “Cyrene, you’re right! How could I have forgotten? I don’t understand Bursts, but I am certain that Master Barca was the inventor.” She threw up her hands in derision and started muttering to herself. After a moment, she turned back to Cyrene, looking aghast. “By the Creator, I am going to be meddling in magic!”
Cyrene burst into laughter at her friend’s outrageous statement. “Now, you are talking about fables, Rhea Analyse! You’ll certainly gain much knowledge in your work with Master Barca, but magic? Magic doesn’t exist! I’m sure Bursts have a perfectly logical explanation that you’ll have to tell me about as soon as I am allowed to travel to Albion.”
“As soon as you are allowed?”
“I’ll not wait one day. You’re my best friend, Rhea.”
After a moment, Rhea brushed the circular pin on Cyrene’s dress. “So, you’re really an Affiliate then? You have the luckiest family in the city.”
Cyrene received the retort like a slap in the face. She wanted to be an Affiliate more than anything else so that she could travel and find adventure, but she had always envisioned that with her best friend at her side.
“You’ll outshine them all, Cyrene,” Rhea said. There was no malice in her voice.
Rhea smiled faintly and then began to dictate a course of action regarding their Presenting letters. Cyrene listened to Rhea’s plan, desperately wanting to believe in it even with its uncertainties.
“Promise me you’ll find time to do the research,” Rhea said as if reading Cyrene’s pessimistic thoughts.
“Good. I promise, too. No matter what.”
Someone called Cyrene’s name from inside the house.
Rhea’s gaze darted nervously to the open front door, and she grabbed her cloak off of the hook it had been drying on. “I have to go.”
“I love you, Rhea.”
“I love you, too.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she promised.
Rhea nodded and then rushed off the front porch, around the corner, and out of Cyrene’s line of vision. The rain finally halted with Rhea’s departure, but Cyrene didn’t move. Even when she had gone on holiday with her parents to the countryside, she had never been without Rhea for longer than a few weeks. Most of the time, Rhea had come with her.
“There you are!” her mother gasped. “I had no idea why this door was standing ajar.”
“My apologies.” Cyrene scurried inside.
“We’re to leave soon. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Mother. Let me say good-bye to Elea.”
“I’m so proud of you,” her mother said, positively glowing with excitement for her daughter. She planted a kiss on Cyrene’s cheek.
Cyrene smiled faintly at her as she left to retrieve her husband. Elea rounded the corner from the kitchen, entering the hallway.
“I’m…I’m sorry.” Elea bit her bottom lip. “About Rhea. We’re all sorry about Rhea.”
Cyrene released a heavy breath. Although she knew it was not their fault and that her family was sorry for what had happened, they were not the one losing their best friend in a span of an afternoon…just a daughter and a sister.
“Mother simply wants what is best for you.”
“And didn’t I get it?” She flicked the gold pin on her chest.
Elea grabbed her sister’s hand. “Don’t deny that this is what you wanted. There was always a chance that one of you wouldn’t make the First Class, and it was almost inevitable that you both wouldn’t have been made Affiliates.”
“I know, and I can’t change it. I’m just…”
“Angry and sad,” Elea finished for her. She wiped a lone tear from Cyrene’s eye. “You and Rhea are my best friends, too, and now, both of you are leaving.”
Cyrene grappled with Elea’s comments. She had no idea how to respond. “I didn’t mean for you…I wouldn’t want—I can’t make anything right, Elea.”
“You would if you could.”
Cyrene pulled Elea into a hug.
“Take care of Mother and Father for me?” Cyrene asked.
“Of course. I wish I could attend the ball though,” Elea said. “But I suppose I shouldn’t even want to stand in the same room as you when you are wearing this. No one else would look at me.”
Cyrene laughed. “You’ll be an Affiliate next year, and they’ll throw a whole ball in your honor! I’m sure no one will look at me twice by then.”
“That’ll be the day,” Elea said disbelievingly. “Anyway, I have something for you.”
“You didn’t need to get me anything.”
Elea removed a small book from her purse and handed it to Cyrene. “It’s your birthday. I bought it from an Eleysian peddler in the Laelish Market when I went with Mother and Father to pick out your slippers.”
Cyrene’s hand slid down the cracked leather spine where minute black letters had been artfully written in a language she didn’t recognize. She scrunched her eyebrows together as she attempted to decipher the scrawled words. “Is this Vitali writing?” Her eyes wide, she glanced up at her sister.
“You got it in the first guess. Big surprise.” She bounced on her toes.
“Who travels with Vitali translations? Doma books were burned for heresy after the First Dremylon War.” Cyrene flipped the book to the front. The only thing clearly legible was a symbol with a stick-straight line parallel to the binding and two additional lines painted at an upward angle. It resembled a tree missing branches on the left side.
“I don’t know, but the man was so strange. He kept saying such odd things, like this book was for the Children of the Dawn and the Heir of the Light. Have you even heard of such things?”
Cyrene shook her head as she traced the symbol. It looked familiar, but she wasn’t sure where she had seen it. “It’s so beautiful. I can’t believe he had this sitting out.”
Elea sighed forlornly. “I wish there was more to it than the binding, but all the pages are blank inside. I thought it was worth it for the Doma binding at least. I know how you love history.”
“I do.” Cyrene opened the book to the first page and scrunched her eyebrows together. “You said that it’s blank?”
“It is. See?” Elea pointed her finger to the page.
“What are you talking about?” Cyrene turned to the next page and the next. Iridescent glossy ink covered every single one of them.
Elea’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “I thought you’d be pleased even if the book was empty.”
“You can’t see that?” She jabbed her finger onto one of the pages.
“Cyrene, are you all right? Nothing is there.”
How could Elea not see the words? They were there. All of them were there, shifting from gold, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green, and back to gold. The handwriting was superbly fierce with sharp edges and large looping swirls. Cyrene had never seen anything quite like it, but she felt as if she should know what the words said.
“Cyrene?” Elea questioned, her voice soothing.
Their father stuck his head into the hallway. “Darling, your mother is waiting in the carriage.”
“I’ll be along, Father,” Cyrene said, waving him off.
He nodded and ducked out of the hallway.
Cyrene sharply closed the book, suddenly feeling possessive of the small thing. At the same time, she was frightened of its meaning. If Elea couldn’t see the writing, then something must be wrong. Cyrene had no idea what to make of it. How can I see the words and Elea cannot?
“You’re the best sister. Can you make sure this is sent with the rest of my things?”
“Of course I will.” Elea hesitantly took the book from Cyrene and tucked it under her arm.
Cyrene bent down and kissed both of Elea’s cheeks. “I’ll see you as soon as I can.”
Cyrene left in a daze, her thoughts lost on this strange book and her grief. The best she could hope for was that her duties as an Affiliate would leave her little time to think about the new development and would mask the sadness of leaving everyone she loved behind.
“By the Creator,” Cyrene whispered.
She stared through the massive double doors that opened to the ballroom where her ascension as an Affiliate would take place. The room had curved ceilings and stained-glass windows in beautiful blues and greens. Black marble, imported all the way from across Emporia at the base of the Barren Mountains, tiled the vast floor. A six-foot-high fireplace roared to life at the far end of the room. Multiple black wrought iron chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, illuminating the room with large wax candles.
A string quartet with their quick-paced melodies guided couples across the open dance floor. Dozens of Affiliates and High Order were in attendance, and gold pins glimmered from gowns of nearly every passing woman.
A shiver ran down her. She pushed back the thought of what Rhea’s reaction might have been. It wouldn’t help Cyrene this evening.
She took a breath and then walked into the room. She had only made it a few steps before someone drunkenly careened into her. She yelped on impact and stumbled forward, reaching out for the nearest person to keep her from toppling to the ground. A faint tear sounded as she seized the sleeve of a man in front of her.
Turning, he snatched her out of midair, twirled her in place, and held her in his arms. Cyrene’s cheeks were flushed in horror.
“Are you all right?” he asked, slowly placing her back on her feet.
“Yes…yes, I’m fine.” Her head swiveled from side to side, trying to search out the person who had run into her. What kind of mule headed idiot barreled into someone like that? There he was. She watched a disheveled man with dark hair drunkenly lurch through the crowd.
“Affiliate?” The gentleman reached out for her hand.
“Yes. Sorry.” She glanced at the man for the first time.
Her world tilted as her eyes met blue-gray orbs shining with concern. He had the same strong jawline, the same broad-shouldered stature, the same eyes. She would have recognized the similarities between the man standing before her and the King any day.
A knowing smirk crossed his face. “I don’t believe we have been formally introduced.” He reached for her hand and softly kissed it. “I am Crown Prince Kael Dremylon.”
The formal title felt like ice throughout her bones. How could I have been so stupid as to tear the Prince’s garment?
She dropped a hasty curtsy. “Your Highness, my apologies for tearing your garment. I am Cyrene Strohm…Affiliate Cyrene Strohm.”
“Ah, the newest member of court, I see,” he said with a laugh in his voice she didn’t understand. “You may rise, Affiliate Cyrene. The ball is in your honor tonight, is it not?”
“Yes, that it is, uh…Your Highness.”
Prince Kael raised her chin. She could smell his heady musky scent, and she felt a small zap of electricity pass between them. She swallowed hard but didn’t look away.
This close, she could tell the differences between him and King Edric. The King was roughly shaven with high-chiseled cheekbones, cropped short hair, and strong, hard features. Prince Kael was more beautiful than handsome with a smoothness that showed he was a youth of only eighteen. But it was the smug smirk on his mouth, the arrogant set of his shoulders, and the daring, almost brazen look in his eyes that truly set him apart from his brother. He looked much more like his mother, Queen Adelaida—the Creator bless her soul.
There was an underlying deviousness she found herself attracted to despite herself.
“Kael will suffice, if you please.”
“Of course, Your High—Kael.” She couldn’t believe she was addressing a member of the royal family by his given name. “I am terribly sorry about your dress garments. Do allow me to replace them.”
“Nonsense. All I’ll require from you, Affiliate Cyrene, is the first dance.” He formally bent forward, offering her his hand.
Cyrene’s head swam with delight. The Prince was asking her for the first dance of the evening. The honor was typically reserved for a queen or consort. At the very least, royalty would bestow their graces on men and women of their high circle. But he had picked her!
She lightly placed her hand in his own, and he wheeled her toward the dance floor. The quick jig ended and flowed into the smoother melody of “Haenah de’Lorlah,” one of her favorites. The movements slow and deliberate, the intimate dance was meant to appear as if the couple was floating effortlessly above the surface.
Prince Kael was by far the best dancer she had ever partnered with. Leading her around the room with ease, he made the steps seem as if they were actually floating. It shouldn’t have surprised her, given he was royalty, but having never experienced such an incredible match, she could hardly keep the shock and exultation from her face.
He swept her along, passing a blur of faces she neither recognized nor cared about in that moment. Thoughts of the exotic dress draped across her frame and the firm embrace of the Crown Prince of Byern were lost to her as she kept up with Prince Kael’s graceful footwork.
Their feet stilled on the black marble surface at the close of the song. With a flourish, Prince Kael bowed deeply, and Cyrene sank into a graceful curtsy.
As the emotions of the dance had taken over, her breathing had turned ragged. While the steps had not been difficult, she felt as if she had somehow poured more of herself into the movements. The feeling was exhausting yet exhilarating. She was on fire, and she needed water to even begin to douse the flames.
Cyrene broke from her reverie by the sound of faint applause. She tore her eyes from Prince Kael’s and realized that guests were openly staring at them.
“Cyrene, you are an intoxicating dancer.” Prince Kael drew her away from the crowd.
“Thank you,” she breathed unsteadily. “You are quite good yourself.” She hid the true weight of her statement behind hooded eyes and a coy smile.
“Allow me to get you a refreshment.”
He reached for two goblets of wine, and she gratefully took the glass out of his hand and took a sip. She didn’t drink often, but the wine was extremely high quality, and she could hardly resist.
Cyrene noticed when Prince Kael’s attention was diverted. Following his gaze, she jumped slightly in surprise, nearly slopping the wine out of her glass.
Cyrene fell into a deep curtsy. “Your Highness.”
“Affiliate Cyrene.” King Edric inclined his head as she rose. “Kael,” he brusquely acknowledged his brother, grasping his forearm. “You seem to be capturing all of Cyrene’s attention at her own ball.”
If Cyrene didn’t see the sneer cross Prince Kael’s face, she would never have believed it were there when he addressed King Edric.
Prince Kale’s demeanor seamlessly shifted into an aloof front with a mocking smile. “How could I not steal the attention of such a beautiful woman?”
“I certainly cannot blame you.”
She hastily took a sip of her wine to avoid the heated gazes of the men staring down upon her. Her heart was still thumping from the dance, and the magnetic pull she felt from both of them kept her even more off balance. How did I end up between the two most powerful men in the kingdom?
“You are quite the dancer, Cyrene,” King Edric said with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“You flatter. My dance skills are perfectly adequate.”
“On the contrary, you and my brother ignited the floor.” His gaze shifted from her to Prince Kael, who was hiding a steely glare behind his own blue-gray eyes.
“I thank you very much. However, I must give credit where credit is due.” She lightly laid her hand against Prince Kael’s shirtsleeve and smiled at both men.
“Then, perhaps you will allow me to show you the steps of a king.” King Edric held his hand out for her.
Cyrene slowly removed her hand from Prince Kael and placed it in King Edric’s. Her throat tightened. She was about to dance with the King of Byern. She couldn’t believe it.
Affiliates associated with the queen and consort on a regular basis. But the king?
King Edric turned his attention back to his brother. “Kael, I do hope you would do Queen Kaliana the same honor you bestowed upon Affiliate Cyrene and entertain us with the next dance.”
Prince Kael nodded, his jaw set. “Of course,” he said with a stiff bow. He strode across the room to where the Queen stood, surrounded by a cluster of brown-nosing Affiliates.
“After you,” King Edric said.
Two columns of dancers formed in the center of the floor, men on one side and women on the other. King Edric took the head of one, and Cyrene fell into place across from him. Queen Kaliana placed herself opposite Prince Kael on the other end. Cyrene tore her gaze away from the other dancers and laid her eyes on the man—the King—standing before her.
King Edric snapped his fingers at the string quartet, and they immediately straightened, drawing their bows.
Violinists seductively strummed the opening chords of “Cat’s Cradle,” and men bowed as the women demurely curtsied. The dance was intricate with elaborate weaving patterns, opening and closing circles, and partners swapping at specific times.
The King seemed much at ease with the steps as he flawlessly led her through the first weave.
“You’re wearing that color again,” King Edric said.
“I thought you quite liked it.”
“Have your eyes failed you tonight?” He twirled her around another couple.
“What could you possibly mean?”
“I’ve told you once before that no one wears such a color in my court.” He eyed the cut of the dress rather deliberately.
“I guess I will have to return the commission I ordered today.” She knew she had to act quickly as the time in the dance where she would be swept from person to person was approaching, and then it would be over. “I informed my seamstress of your affection for the color, and she redid my entire wardrobe in the bright hues, My King.” Or at least, she would do so when she left.
King Edric looked down upon her face, his expression as near to shock as Cyrene had ever seen on him. He recovered swiftly, clearly determined to set her straight on his opinion about her attire, but at that moment, she was pushed into the arms of a member of the High Order. As she was carried from person to person throughout the dance, she hardly remembered their names. Some of the men were simply adequate, and others spun her in circles that made her neck ache while one or two more were nearly on par with King Edric and Prince Kael—though certainly no one would suggest it.
A moment later, she was thrust back into the King’s arms, and she smirked up at him.
“You really do wear that smirk all the time, don’t you?”
“I said I did at my Presenting. Are you inferring that I would lie to Your Majesty?”
“No more than your insinuation for having an affinity for the weather,” he countered.
Cyrene almost laughed. She had been joking of course when she had told the King that Elea thought Cyrene could predict the weather.
As the music changed, they filed back into the two lines in which the couples had initially stood. She dropped her curtsy to the men’s side, and the King nodded in acknowledgment. The dancers broke off and returned to the circle of friends they had left behind.
King Edric approached her once more with a smile for the watching courtiers. “A fine dance, Affiliate Cyrene,” he complimented openly.
“You do me a great honor.” She tilted her head in acceptance of his praise.
“I do wish you good luck in your training tomorrow.”
“With your blessing, I am certain I will do all I can for Byern,” she murmured.
He stared at her thoughtfully for a second before he turned and strode away to his Consort. Cyrene had no idea how she had garnered this much attention or what it all meant.
With the crowd’s eyes hot on her face, Cyrene promptly exited the dance floor. Retrieving a glass of wine from a passing waiter, she searched out the family she had all but forgotten after Prince Kael’s request to dance. She could pick Reeve’s towering figure out of any crowd, and she seamlessly maneuvered around the ballroom to his side.
“Cyrene,” Reeve boasted, throwing an arm around her.
He staggered forward against her, and he reeked of alcohol. She had never seen her brother in such a state before.
“Congratulations again, little sister.”
She glanced around at the array of men standing before him. All of them wore the Dremylon crest on their chests.
“Let me kindly introduce you to my good men of the High Order—Brayan, Surien, Rhys, and Clovis.” He pointed out each man as he called each one by name. “Gentlemen, meet my sister and now Affiliate Cyrene.”
The level of intoxication among the mix was on a level that she didn’t even deem worthy of a curtsy.
“Pleasure is ours, Affiliate.” Rhys dipped slightly at the waist.
“Thank you,” she said, trying to remember her manners and not his demanding looks.
“Have any of you heard from Zorian?” Clovis asked. “He was supposed to be back for your sister’s Presenting.”
“I haven’t heard from him.” Brayan took a swig from his mug.
“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” Reeve said.
“Yeah, he told me he would be in from Carhara,” Surien confirmed.
“Must have ended up with one of those Carharan women. I’ve heard the ones in the capital city work you—” Rhys began.
Reeve smacked Rhys on the chest and threw his head in Cyrene’s direction. The weight of the men’s gazes landed on her, and she tried not to feel vulnerable in their midst. Something in their nature reminded her of a pack of wolves stalking their prey.
Cyrene searched for a way to exit the conversation. She didn’t know this Zorian, nor did she have any interest in hearing about his adventures with Carharan women.
“Have you seen Aralyn?” she asked Reeve.
“Aralyn?” Reeve asked in disbelief
Reeve’s friends laughed at the suggestion.
“What would anyone want with that prude?” Clovis asked.
Rhys chortled drunkenly next to him. “I could think of a few things.”
Reeve shook his head, but he was laughing at his friends’ indecency. “I don’t know, Cyrene. The ice queen sticks to her Ambassadorial snow castle in Kell. She probably has her nose in a book somewhere.”
Reeve might as well have punched Cyrene in the stomach. How could he speak in such a manner about their sister and let his friends laugh at her? They had always had their differences since Reeve was older, more boisterous, and more outgoing where Aralyn was austere, studious, and rather particular about everything around her.
Apparently, Cyrene had quite a few things to learn about court life. If she had it her way, she would certainly unlearn this lesson from Reeve.
“Well, I’m going to go find her,” she said. She snaked out of his embrace and stumbled away from their circle. She tried to block out their snickers as she left.
Eventually, she located Aralyn sitting with one other woman. They were just removed from the entrance to the grand hall.
“Aralyn, I’ve been looking for you.”
“Hello, Cyrene,” Aralyn said with a small smile. Her wavy light-brown hair was dead on the ends, and she had circles under her eyes. Her shoulders seemed too tight with tension. The travels the Queen requested of Aralyn had obviously taken a toll on her.
“You seem to be in a better mood than when I left you. Could it be because Prince Kael and King Edric asked you to dance?” Aralyn suggestively arched an eyebrow.
“That could have something to do with it.”
“Oh, forgive me,” Aralyn said. “This is Affiliate Leslin. She works for the Queen’s library division.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Cyrene said.
A disturbance at the entrance cut off further conversation. All eyes in the hall turned to the broad double doors as two men of the High Order hauled a man up off the ground and shoved him forward. The man threw expletives in such a slur that Cyrene only understood half of what he was saying.
As they approached where she was standing, she recognized this man. Of all the people she had met tonight, she could distinctly remember this person even if she had no clue of his name. He was the man who had run into her when she first entered the room.
They forcibly threw the man out the doors, and he landed heavily on his backside and rolled a pace before lying still.
“And stay out there, Ahlvie,” one of the men yelled.
“We’ve had enough of you tonight,” the second one chimed in.
Cyrene winced, and a twinge of pity hit her.
Several women gasped in outrage at the treatment, but Ahlvie slowly righted himself. He glared at the two members of the High Order and tossed a few more choice swear words in their direction.
“I’ve go-got to ge-get out of here.” He staggered to his feet. “Too many damn ru-rules in this forsaken pl-place!” Ahlvie staggered away from the hall, all the while muttering to himself.
“He is insufferable.” Leslin shuddered.
“A bit of a drinking problem?” Cyrene asked. She knew full well he had been beyond drunk when he careened into her earlier.
“A bit? If that…that man comes into my library again with a drop of alcohol in his system, I’ll murder him myself. I don’t care if he is a genius. His behavior is uncalled for.”
“Decidedly uncalled for,” Prince Kael agreed, walking into their conversation, unannounced.
Cyrene’s back had been turned, and she jumped at the sound of his voice.
“Perhaps I’ll have a word with him.”
Aralyn and Leslin looked at Prince Kael as if he were a large mythical Indres with huge talons and a body twice the size of a wolf.
Prince Kael acted oblivious to their bug-eyed expressions. “I’d hoped for another dance, Affiliate Cyrene. Will you oblige me?”
“Of course she will,” Aralyn said without thinking for once. “We were just leaving. Weren’t we, Leslin?”
“What?” the older woman squawked. “Oh, yes. Yes, we were just”—she cleared her throat—“leaving.”
Cyrene didn’t know whether to be grateful or humiliated by their hasty departure. Prince Kael stood before her with a humorous look on his face.
She linked arms with Prince Kael, and he escorted her back to the dance floor.
Prince Kael moved to the beat of the music and pulled her along for the ride. He would dance with her once or sometimes twice in a row, and then he’d hand her off to another gentleman. When they had completed their circuit, the man would promptly return her to Prince Kael’s arms. Some dances, they would speak of nothing, content to let the music carry them through. Other dances, they would chatter about such a variety of subjects that Cyrene began to wonder if she would be tested later.
At the close of another dance, Cyrene plopped down into a nearby chair and fanned herself with her hand, dizzy from the energy of the night. The exhaustion of the day was settling in. After hours upon hours of dancing, her poor feet were sore. It was so late now that the room had all but emptied of people.
Arriving at her side, ever merry, Prince Kael offered his hand to her once more. “You look drained. I would hate to keep you from your beauty sleep. Please allow me to escort you back to your room”
Cyrene stood with his assistance. “I’m not even certain where they are.”
“Then, you are lucky you have me here to guide you.”
Prince Kael directed her out the double doors. Cyrene didn’t even care how it might look to the remaining attendees. She only wanted to find her new living quarters and sink into her bed.
“How do you know where my room is?” Even in her state, she found that odd.
“There’s a directory,” he said nonchalantly. “We’ll cross by it before we reach the Vines.”
“Oh.” Why did no one tell me about the directory?
Prince Kael stopped at a corner where one of the biggest books Cyrene had ever seen sat on a podium. He easily opened it and found her name within the contents.
“This way.” He led her down a hallway took a few turns and then ended up in front of an archway with climbing vines that mirrored Cyrene’s Affiliate pin. They had found the Queen’s chambers, the Vines.
She marveled at the entrance for a minute and then followed Prince Kael through the corridors. After a few more twists, he stopped in front of a door where her name was written in a swirling green script.
“Thank you very much. I would never have found it without you.”
“It is my pleasure.” He held the door open for her as she entered.
“I can’t see anything.”
Prince Kael let the door close behind him. He struck a match and lit a lantern sitting on a wooden table. The dim glow cast light across the space, revealing a lovely sitting room complete with a brocaded silk sofa and soft-pink-and-cream armchairs. Tapestries in complementary colors lined the walls, and a beautiful braided rug took up a large part of the floor.
Prince Kael leaned one hand against the table, watching her.
“It’s beautiful.” Her quarters were incredible.
She couldn’t wait to see what the bedchamber looked like!
She turned to face Prince Kael, heat rising to her cheeks. Those intense blue-gray eyes looked back at her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
He prowled toward her. “You’re blushing, Affiliate.”
Cyrene swallowed but didn’t respond. The same current, an inexplicable connection, zapped between them just as it had earlier.
Then, without warning, Prince Kael’s lips were on hers. His strong arms circled her waist, and he pressed his chest tight against hers. She could feel every solid inch of his abdomen as his fingers dug into the silken material of her dress.
He pushed her backward against the wall, wedging her body between him and the hard surface. Her heart seized with panic when she realized there was no escape. She was at his mercy, and he used this to his advantage to snake one hand up into her hair.
He tried to coax life out of her as his other hand moved further and further down her waist, grabbing at her through the thin material. At this moment, the utter shock of the moment wore off, and Cyrene wrenched her head away from him, gasping in horror.
“What are you doing?” She shoved roughly against his chest.
He only grabbed her hair harder and pulled her lips back to his own. She muttered a few choice insults, which he swallowed through his kisses. Ignoring her protests, he kissed down her neck, across to her ear, and over her exposed collarbone. She breathed in quickly, both at the feeling of his mouth on her and the astonishment of being in such a position.
He had no right to kiss me in such a manner without my permission!
His knee moved up between her legs and drove them apart. Cyrene redoubled her efforts, not caring that her hair was ripping from the roots.
“Kael!” she screamed. “What are you doing? Get your hands off of me!” The shriek gave her an inch of leeway, and she stumbled sideways, away from him.
Breathing heavily, Kael narrowed his eyes.
Her entire body trembled. She swallowed hard to try to hide her terror as best as she could. “How dare you touch me!”
“How dare I—” He broke off with a snarl. “After I danced with you all night and escorted you back to your room, you turn me aside?”
Cyrene’s eyes were storm clouds, her jaw set in stone. “Turn you aside? You say that as if you were a suitor.” She couldn’t believe he could be so cavalier after he had forced himself upon her. “You certainly know nothing of being a suitor.”
Kael’s eyes lost the pale blue color that accentuated his features and turned a formidable slate gray. “I know nothing of being a suitor? I have roamed these castle walls my entire life. I have seen more courtiers come and go than you could imagine in your lifetime.”
“Then, you should leave the walls more often!” The fury of the incident still scorched through her veins. “You seemed to have lost your sense of reality if you believe that escorting me back to my bedchamber would suffice.”
Anger flared up in Kael’s face, but Cyrene did not regret her words. She might be making a grave mistake by angering the Prince, but she damn well was not going to be treated like a common whore. She didn’t care who the man was. This was not acceptable behavior!
“For all the education they give you women, I would think they would have taught you something of society, outside of your parents’ four walls,” he sneered.
“And for all your education, you seemed to have forgotten the appropriate behavior between a man and a woman.”
His mocking laugh unnerved her. “You’re a beautiful woman, Cyrene,” he said, the seductive tone of his voice returning. “I won’t be the only man vying for your good graces. You’ll learn soon enough that I’ve treated you with much honor by being here tonight.”
He stepped forward again and stroked his hand across her cheek.
“Have I made myself unclear?” She slapped his hand away from her. “Have I shown you one morsel of interest since you made your intentions clear? I think not.”
“It is hardly your words that have enticed me onward. It is the soft blush against your skin—from your cheeks to your ears and down to your breasts,” he softly murmured the last word as he glanced down at her supple curves peeking over the top of her dress. “The increasing heaviness of your breathing as we speak, and—might I?” He drew his fingers to her neck, and she pulled away from his touch as if he were a viper ready to strike. “The rapidity of your heartbeat as we stand so near together.”
“Leave now, Prince Kael.” She added the formality to place a barrier between them.
Kael was handsome and did tempt her, but the manner in which he had approached her and the cutting edge of his voice at her refusal forced her hand. His presence in her room was nothing less than humiliating to her, her family, and their good name.
“Affiliate Cyrene,” she reminded him.
He ground his teeth at the correction.
“Do not expect to receive an invitation again,” she said. “I now know what an invitation entails. Thank you kindly for instructing me in my first lesson in society.” Her narrowed eyes told him if he made one further move, she would not be as considerate for his position as she had been thus far.
“I hope you are so kind to your other suitors,” Prince Kael purred. “May your nights be as warm as the one before you.”
He bowed with excessive flourish, and with that, he thundered out of her living area. The door crashed shut behind him.
Cyrene’s heart fluttered wildly, but it was not from fear. It was pure anger. If he weren’t the rightful Prince of Byern, she would have gone straight to the nearest member of the Royal Guard and had him arrested for indecency.
She collapsed on her new sofa, pulled up her feet to hug her knees to her chest, and let a lone tear fall down her cheek. For what felt like the hundredth time that day, she wished Rhea were here with her.
Hands fell heavy on Cyrene’s shoulders, ripping her out of her sleep. Her eyes opened wide with terror. A forceful scream escaped out of her lungs. Adrenaline coursed through her body, and she pelted out another ear-shattering shriek.
A hand clamped down over her mouth, smothering her shouts. Cyrene struggled against her assailant in the pitch-black room. Another pair of hands pushed her out of her bed, but Cyrene clawed at the hands and kicked out. Her foot connected with something hard, and a person cried out. The hand covering her mouth wavered, and Cyrene took the liberty to bite down hard.
Her captor yelped and withdrew the hand from her mouth. Cyrene hopped out of bed and made a break for the door. Before she could even make it out of her bedchamber, hands latched on to her on both sides. Another scream was cut off mid-cry as a hand slapped her across the face, hard enough to turn her head.
Cyrene gasped in shock as her vision blurred. She had never, ever been hit before, and she was glad for that because the whole side of her face stung like nothing she had ever experienced.
“Move along,” someone said gruffly, pushing her through the door.
Cyrene jostled out of her room. Her feet were bare, and she was wearing nothing but her thin white shift. Her hands fisted in the material. She hated that anyone could see her so exposed.
She was pressed forward into the hallway of the Vines, and she received her first view of the captors. They wore oversized masks shaped like grotesque animals and mythological creatures. It was as if she were at a disturbing re-creation of a masked ball. She hadn’t been to one since she was a girl, but even then, people had worn beautifully constructed masks to shape their faces with glitter, feathers, and painted designs. The captors’ masks were nothing of the sort.
A giant spotted hyena’s face appeared next to her. The wearer shoved her down the hallway, and she collided into another person, who turned around and snatched up her hands. Staring back at her was an otherworldly snarling Indres with a fake like a wolf with large fangs protruding over out of its mouth.
“Watch where you’re going!” the Indres screeched.
“What are you doing to me?” Cyrene demanded, hysteria taking over.
“You will speak when spoken to,” another voice growled. It belonged to a Leif-masked figure, standing nearly the same height as Cyrene. Strawberry-blonde locks fell out of one side of the mask that was all glittering smooth skin with high-pointed ears. The Leif was a deceptively beautiful creature prone to stealing children in the middle of the night.
“No! You will answer me immediately! I am a Queen’s Affiliate,” she said, brandishing the title like a weapon. “You will stop this at once.”
Laughter filled the corridor.
“Be quiet, little girl.”
Something sharp jabbed her in the back. Her feet stilled as the knife punctured her skin. She sucked in a harsh breath at the pain shooting through her body.
“Keep your feet moving, or I’ll use this on your throat.” The hyena cackled in her ear.
Terrified, Cyrene clamped her mouth shut and followed the strange masked troupe. The torches along the hallway had been extinguished, and Cyrene couldn’t make out the route they were taking through the Vines.
Suddenly, the Leif came to an abrupt halt, and Cyrene barely kept from running headlong into the person. The Leif pressed against a nearly invisible door in the pitch-black hallway, and it creaked open. Cyrene bit her lip, trying to rein in the fear threatening to burst out of her.
Her captors shoved her through the pitch black entranceway. Cyrene helplessly stumbled forward and went down a few stairs. At the last second, she latched on to a railing and saved her body from smashing on the hard stone steps.
The group huddled together and descended the steep flight of damp stairs. They seemed to drop farther and farther beneath the castle, spiraling endlessly, and she became dizzy from the descent.
An eerie glow appeared around the next bend. Cyrene’s legs shook with the effort, and she was thankful to finally leave the stairs behind even if it meant they were that much closer to wherever her kidnappers were taking her.
Once they reached the bottom step, someone nudged her to keep moving. Through her terror, she put one foot in front of the other. They traveled through a maze of corridors before entering a room.
Upon closer examination, Cyrene realized it was actually a monstrous cave with ruby-red stalactites dripping dangerously from the ceiling and crystallized stalagmites precipitously shooting up from the floor. From her location on a raised stone platform, a flat black lake stretched out before her across the cave. As Cyrene’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed several large boats docked at a distance, and a few smaller skiffs were tied near her. The lake must empty out of the castle on the Keylani River, which ran along the city’s perimeter.
She turned away from the lake to the matter at hand and steeled herself for whatever was about to come.
Two rows of fiercely masked faces in high-backed black chairs sat before her. They were absolutely still, staring at her and quietly waiting.
But for what?
Suddenly, ice-cold water cascaded down on her head. The water drenched her hair, matting it to her face, and soaked through her thin shift. As the frigid water hit her skin, Cyrene cried out in shock. She brushed her hands over her eyes to dispel the water. Almost at once, another assault crashed onto her, soaking her to the bone. She had just enough time to close her eyes and mouth before more water rained down.
“What in the name of the Creator is going on?” she screamed through her chattering teeth.
Someone jabbed her in the ribs with a knife blade, and Cyrene flinched from the touch.
“You will speak when spoken to,” the person said, repeating the Leif’s mantra.
“How dare you!” She held her arms around her body to try to retain a semblance of modesty.
A fourth torrent of water poured on top of her head, and she doubled over in an effort to block herself from the frigid water. Her whole body trembled, and her fingers and toes curled in on themselves. Her white shift did nothing to cover her body, but the cold was so all-encompassing that she almost didn’t care.
Cyrene waited for more water to fall, and when it didn’t immediately come, she took a moment to brush her hair back. She stood as regally as she could muster. Staring her captors down, she defiantly tilted up her chin. She didn’t know who these people were or what was going on, but she would not be broken.
“Do what you will.”
“Little girl, you will learn your manners,” a person said from behind her.
A gloved hand shot up in the air, staving off the next surge of water.
“That will quite do.” The man was wearing a terrifying depiction of a Dragon, the fearsome warriors in the Age of the Doma. “Do you think yourself worthy to wear the climbing-vine pin of an Affiliate?”
There. She had been spoken to.
“Then, you must prove it,” a squat, short individual with a rather fitting dwarf mask said.
“I do not have to prove my worth to anyone. I am an Affiliate. I was selected into receivership to Queen Kaliana. There is no going back.”
“There is if you’re dead,” a peacock-masked individual trilled.
Cyrene blanched. Were they here to kill her? Had they dragged her to this place to send her remains down the Keylani River?
“Enough,” the Dragon rumbled.
Cyrene shivered. She had always feared the tales and fables that included the fire-breathing creature that could level a town with a swish of its tail.
After a short pause, a dreadfully emaciated individual wearing a terrifying Braj mask spoke up.
Braj were even more horrifying to her than dragons. They were vicious killers, who were all but invisible in the shadows. It was said that if a person ever saw the true face of a Braj, it would be the last thing they would ever see. The monsters would carve off the faces of their victims and wear them as a prize.
“Did you know that Affiliates and High Order were once warriors?” the high-pitched voice asked.
“Warriors?” she asked. She had not heard such a thing before.
“That’s not right. After Viktor Dremylon destroyed the Doma, he created Affiliates and High Order for the restoration of Byern. He wanted the country to flourish, and he used the Class system with his new Affiliates and High Order at its head to bring about the peace the citizens all so desperately desired,” Cyrene told them.
“Yet what exactly were they restoring?” a man in a fierce lion mask asked.
“They were restoring the lands for the prosperity of Byern,” she said tentatively. “They were restoring education and knowledge for the people. They were restoring order to the world that they now ruled.”
What else would they have been restoring? The Doma had ruled for too long. They hadn’t seen the plight of the everyday people. Viktor Dremylon had saved Byern.
“And how do you best restore order?” the Braj-masked woman asked.
Cyrene blankly stared forward. It took her a second to piece together what the Braj had meant. After Viktor had pushed the Doma out of Byern, he’d had to restore order and implement his Class system. She had never thought to question how he’d done it. And now that she was, it dawned on her.
Oh Creator! She had been backed into a corner.
The best way to restore order after rebellion was surely through…force.
“He used his warriors to restore order,” she said, understanding it for the first time. “The first generation of Affiliates and High Order were people he could trust through and through. They were Viktor Dremylon’s…warriors.”
The Dragon laughed. “Yes, it is true, and now, you know it. The answer we must know is whether or not you are a warrior.”
“You want to know if I’m a warrior?”
“Yes, and you must prove it to us now,” the dwarf squeaked out, “as we do not believe you belong among us.”
“How can I—”
“You will prove it!” the Dragon called out. “You will prove that you are worthy of such a title.”
“We will leave in a moment and lock the door behind us,” the peacock interrupted. “You must find a way to exit this cave and return to your quarters. If you make it, speak of this to no one. If you make it, then you can consider yourself a warrior, an Affiliate, in truth.”
“Be warned. You are not the only thing in the room.” The Braj giggled.
Cyrene stared at them in utter shock. She was supposed to escape this cave, wearing only her shift, in the dead of night with something else in here. Are they absolutely mad?
“What if I choose not to?”
“Then, you will die,” the peacock said with bloodlust in her voice.
Slowly, the two rows of people stood and crossed the room to the door. A lock clicked in place, and the sudden all-consuming feeling of being alone wrenched itself over her heart. Panic seized her consciousness, and she forced herself to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. She needed to keep her wits about her and think.
A torch glowed in a metal slot next to the door, and she jerked it from where it hung. The flame skittered along the lakefront as she searched for something, anything that might help her. She walked half the length of the cave floor and found nothing but water through the entire room. Thrusting the torch out in front of her, she gazed out into the depths revealed by its light. The flames showed no more than a few additional feet in front of her. She gnashed her teeth together in frustration.
How in the name of the Creator do I get out of here?
Still shivering in her soaked nightgown, she returned to the center of the room. What did I see when I entered before they had humiliated me, pitched me in darkness, and left me to die? Red stalactites, the lake, the river, the boats—
Cyrene rushed back in the direction of the entrance and gazed out across the flat lake. She would no doubt be unable to man the huge boats alone, and she did not think that she had the skills to do so. The skiffs though were closer and smaller. If she could find an oar among them, then she could paddle her way out of this dank hellhole, regardless of what the river current might be outside of the cave.
Unfortunately, the skiffs were tied quite a bit farther than she had originally thought. It wasn’t too far to swim by any means, but can I even get in the water? What is the thing the Braj had warned me about?
Beyond the depths of the Keylani River, Cyrene had never seen so much water. With the Fallen Desert creeping closer and closer on the other side of the river, scant water survived a summer season. She knew what could be within the depths for she had studied aquatic life, but the real question was if anything could survive in such an endlessly dark lake under the Taken Mountains.
Running the torch along the edge where the mountain met the lake, Cyrene searched for footholds or a ledge that could help her cross. A ridge on the opposite side led up to a dock, but she didn’t know how deep the water was, and she certainly couldn’t jump that far.
She cursed under her breath, smashed the torch back in its holder, and paced in circles. She didn’t want to believe that the masked figures would have put her down here in a hopeless situation. There had to be a way out, and she would find it.
If only the stupid lake would just recede!
A spark lit in her chest at her thought. She felt a tug back to the waterline. Staring at the ledge on the other side, paces away from where she was, she resigned herself to the fact that there was no other way to get out of the cave than to get to those boats.
Cyrene grabbed the torch once more and returned to the edge. She swallowed hard before placing her toe in the water. Surprisingly, it was warm, nearly the temperature of bath water. She sank her foot deeper into the depths, silently praying she might reach the bottom or at least something that would help her get to the other side.
When she was knee-deep in the water, her foot jarred roughly against a jagged rock. She cried out. Wheeling backward, she pulled her leg out of the water. The cut across the ball of her foot was shallow but bleeding more than she would have liked.
Gritting her teeth, she shoved her foot back into the water and found the rock again. She tested her weight on it, and it didn’t budge. She sighed happily and eased her other leg into the water. She carefully kicked her leg out in front of her, and to her relief, she found another rock. Ignoring the pain in her foot, she nearly giggled when she located another and another.
A ripple pulsed in the water.
Cyrene froze stiffly. There it was—another ripple. Her heart hammered against her chest.
What’s out there?
She was as close to the ledge as to where she had started. She had to risk it. A ripple closer than the last steeled her nerve, and she dashed across another group of stones as fast as her feet would carry her through the black water. She didn’t dare look across the lake as she searched desperately for secure footing.
The ledge was up ahead, and all she could hear behind her were snapping jaws. Her breath came out ragged as the sounds approached faster and faster, gaining on her. Without a second thought, Cyrene dived for the ledge. Narrowly making it, she landed roughly on her right side, skidding against the rough stone. As she rolled away from the lakefront, she lost her torch in the process.
Her face shot up from her crouched position in time to see a pack of feral fish with red scales and razor-sharp teeth jumping eagerly out of the water toward her. She screamed and skittered farther away from the edge. Several flapped against the ledge, ferociously snapping their jaws before crashing back into the depths.
Rising uneasily to her wobbly legs, Cyrene forced the image of dying by flesh-eating fish out of her brain.
She had torn her shift in several places, and massive bruises blossomed on her hip, knee, and shoulder. In addition to scrapes on her leg and shoulder, a trail of blood ran down her right leg from her knee. Ripping off a piece of her nightgown, she tied it around the injury as best as she could. She would deal with it when she got out of here.
Striving not to put pressure on her right side, Cyrene teetered over to the edge of the wall and grabbed another torch, this one dim and barely flickering. Blowing on it brought the flame back to life. She tried to open the only visible door, but it was locked, so she moved back to the docks.
She yanked an oar out of the smallest boat, the only one she might be capable of rowing by herself, and untied it from the end of the dock. After seating herself within, she shoved off and allowed herself to drift out on the open waters.
Tentatively, she dipped the oar into the water and waited for the little monsters to come back.
Nothing moved in the cavernous lake.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Cyrene painstakingly rowed herself toward the large arch exit. She didn’t waste her time with the other doors, assuming they would also be locked.
After what felt like an eternity, Cyrene approached the huge carved doorway, molded with gray-and-black stone that was similar to the interior of the castle. She rowed under the arch, and the boat collided with something, emitting a loud gong-like sound. She sprawled backward onto the planks of the boat. Her small boat swayed from the force of the impact, and she waited until it stilled.
Cyrene righted herself and let her fingers graze a smooth metal surface. No wonder the inside of the cave was black as night. It was closed off from the outside world. Her gaze scoured the archway and found a thick worn iron chain. She grappled with it and gave it a tentative tug. A creak set the hairs on the back of her neck on edge, and the water rippled around the door where it moved marginally away from the wall.
The heavy metal chain tensed her shoulders as she pulled it, hand over hand. Voices sounded over the drone of the metal door screeching against the rock archway, and Cyrene rested her cracked hands as she craned her neck and listened. She hadn’t thought anyone else could access the cave.
The voices picked up again, but Cyrene couldn’t decipher what they were saying. She couldn’t see anyone, yet the voices were getting clearer. Then, her gaze landed on something in the water. Her stomach sank through her body, and she held back the nausea that threatened her.
A Skrivner snake.
Even though she couldn’t make out the entire outline of the body, she was sure of it, and she wasn’t going to wait around for it to get any closer. A Skrivner was the deadliest water snake. Its three-inch-long fangs caused hallucinations as the snake feasted on the blood of the victim. Plus it could mimic human sounds, and if she was right, then that was where the voices were coming from.
Ignoring the sharp pains in her hands and the blood she’d left behind on the chain, Cyrene wrenched it with every ounce of strength she had in her aching muscles. The metal door seemed to move even slower than before, as if her efforts were becoming more futile. She muttered every curse word her father had ever used as she heaved the chain putting her shoulders, back, and legs into the motion of yanking on the insufferable chain.
She glanced over her shoulder just once. The Skrivner approached fast, his crimson eyes bright with bloodlust.
Finally, the door opened far enough for her to be able to maneuver the boat through. She quickly tied off the chain, sank back down, picked up the oar, and paddled like the prize of becoming consort waited on the other side.
Tonight was not her night to die. She had too much to accomplish. She still had to see the world!
With one final push, she glided forward through the archway, and a fast-moving current seized her boat. She swiveled around in her seat to see the Skrivner strike out at her, but it was just out of reach, so it slithered back into the black lake.
“By the Creator!”
Tears trickled down her face while blood boiled under the surface of her skin. She had never felt happier to be alive.
At the first turn, she paddled off the current. The river flowed more smoothly down this path. Her head swelled with curiosity as rowed past several more turns. Where did they all lead?
Her mind focused on the bits and pieces she knew of the underground passageways within the castle. Hidden doors wound up to the rooms above, and some even led to the grounds themselves. Finding one that might be open was her only chance.
She traversed the pathways, passing doors with giant iron locks on the outside. Someone had been down here long ago to prevent intruders from infiltrating the castle. Cyrene panicked at the thought. If they are all locked up tight, then how can I find a way out?
A spark ignited in her chest, and out of it, a thought flickered to the surface. Believe in those whose honor doth shine.
Where did I read that? Cyrene didn’t have a clue, but somehow, it felt right. It just felt right.
Her heart beat in her temples, her bloodied fingers, and her splintered feet as she searched out the inscriptions on the doors before her. She didn’t want to think about how many doors lay within these walls or of the possibility that none of them would lead her out of here or what would happen if she encountered another Skrivner, feral fish, or the mouth of the Keylani.
Then, as if she had conjured it up from nowhere, a door without a padlock appeared with words gleaming on the surface. She could just make out the words shine and honor. She didn’t have another option. This one had to be it.
Groaning in weary relief, she rowed toward the ledge. She barely made it as her throbbing arms worked against the current. After tying up the boat to a peg stuck in the ground, Cyrene exited the boat, reached forward for the door, and recited the words that she felt were her saving grace, “Believe in those whose honor doth shine.”
The door easily swung open at the touch of her fingers, and she entered into a small dusty room, empty of all belongings. This entrance had surely not been used for years.
Her legs felt like lead as she followed a winding flat pathway upward for what felt like an eternity. Finally she reached a large cellar door that blocked the passage in front of her. She pushed it open with her shoulder. Hay exploded all around her, sticking to her skin that was slick with water, blood, and sweat. Cyrene coughed at the sudden onslaught and shielded her eyes with her arm against the brightness. Light filtered in through the slats of the stable, but thankfully, Cyrene didn’t see anyone else.
After stepping through the cellar door, she closed it and covered the area over with hay again. Since the door had clearly fallen into disuse, the last thing she wanted was for people to notice it.
As she started to walk cautiously away from the door, she hit something sturdy and toppled forward. Gasping, she landed hard on a solid body. Her eyes flew open, and she struggled to get away from the man beneath her. When he didn’t move, she lightly nudged him with her uninjured foot. After everything that had happened to her tonight, she prayed to the Creator that he wasn’t dead.
A gargling noise came from the man, and she blew out a breath.
As he sat up and stared at her through bleary bloodshot eyes, she scrambled to her feet. He didn’t look much older than her, but he already had the body of a sturdy hunter. He had haphazardly tousled dark brown hair intertwined with hay. Blood and dirt caked one side of his face where he had been lying down. His clothes weren’t in a much better state. One sleeve hung almost completely off, and he had a gash across the stomach of his shirt. It looked as if it had been sliced through with a knife, but she saw no blood. His pants were frayed at the ends, and he had somehow managed to lose just one boot.
“What ya want?” he grumbled, closing his eyes and pressing his hand to his head.
“For you to get your putrid stink away from me,” she said with no tolerance for anyone after this night’s events.
Cyrene was surprised to find her voice unchanged. After running, rowing, pulling, and climbing her way away from her own death, she’d thought it would have changed somehow, yet she still sounded strong, maybe even stronger.
He roared with laughter and then covered his mouth as he leaned away from her. He held his side and coughed into his hand. After a minute, he turned back to face Cyrene and really seemed to look at her. His eyes bulged, and he whistled lowly. “What in the Creator’s name happened to you?”
Cyrene blushed despite herself. She didn’t even want to know what she looked like in her torn white shift. Her body was relatively numb at this point, but she knew the extent of her injuries—sliced open foot; bruised everything; aching and cramped arms and shoulders; bloodied hands and fingers; stiff legs—but it was better than being dead.
“What happened to you?” she countered.
He looked nearly as bad as she did.
A rueful smile crossed his tanned features. His mischievous eyes were deep dark brown with rings of gold around the pupils.
“Too much fun,” he said with a shrug.
“I see. Remind me never to have fun with you.”
He laughed again, harder than before. This time, he turned and vomited out the contents of his stomach. Cyrene’s stomach seized at the sound and smell, and she nearly wretched herself.
“Sorry,” he moaned. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“I have to return to my quarters.”
“Wait, you never said what happened to you.”
“Too much fun,” she said bitterly.
She pivoted on her heel to walk away from him.
“You’re Cyrene, right?”
She stopped in her tracks. “Yeah, I am.” She was surprised he knew who she was.
He stood and leaned against a wooden beam that had been driven into the ground. “I’m Ahlvie. Ahlvie Gunn, at your service.”
“Ah, the drunk,” she murmured, remembering how he had gotten thrown out of her Presenting ball.
By the Creator, was that only yesterday?
“If the shoe fits.”
She nodded at him and staggered forward to leave.
“Might I be of assistance? I’m quite good at getting through the castle without being seen. And if I were you, I wouldn’t want to be seen like that.”
Cyrene looked down at her torn nightgown that was wrinkled and splattered with her blood. He was right, of course. She couldn’t be seen like this.
What if the King saw me? Or even worse, the Queen? Cyrene couldn’t bear it.
Ahlvie smiled crookedly at her. “This way.”
She followed him through a back passage that wound all through the castle. As soon as Ahlvie got her into the Vines, unseen, she thanked him, and then she rushed to her room and slammed the door with force.
Cyrene threw her ruined shift in a heap on the ground and buried her naked self under the goose down comforter. A rustle of someone passing by her door made her get up to investigate to make sure she had locked it. She didn’t want to be disturbed ever again.
As she reached her chamber door, a piece of paper stamped with the royal seal slid underneath it. She ground her teeth as she snatched it off the ground and jerked it open.
Welcome to the ranks, Warrior.
She didn’t know who had subjected her to this torture and then left this note, but she hated them. She would always hate them. She would hate them with every fiber of her being for making her suffer through that, for making her risk her life for some ill-brained cause. She was not a warrior, nor would she ever consider herself one.
But if they wanted to believe they had won the battle, she would show them that she could win the war.
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