PREVIEW: The Raven Queen
The Ending Legacy, book 1
Sometimes, I could feel the soft curve of her cheek in my palm and the warmth of her skin against mine. Sometimes, I could still taste her lips and smell the lavender in her black, curly hair, silky between my fingers.
But her form and features were a mirage, like so many things in the desert, blurred and undefined, and the memory of her was just as fluid. It evaded me when all I wanted was to see her, hoping that if I did, she would stop haunting me when I closed my eyes.
Del was one more ghost from my past. One more regret.
Blinking, I stared up at the cave ceiling. Scant morning light seeped in from the wooden door, illuminating the cool stone walls that were both a reverie and a cursed, daily reminder of my naive childhood hope.
Remembering the woman I’d found comfort in last night, I looked to my left, the cot beside me surprisingly empty. Exhaling, I rubbed my hands over my face. Another night of vague dreams and restless sleep, followed by another day in the desert.
I sat up, and the earth was cold against my bare feet as they hit the dusty ground. I wondered how many new folks we’d have by the end of the week.
“Sir?” came a chipper voice from outside. I groaned and stared at my closed door as Callon’s footsteps crunched closer. “Are you up yet, sir?” He called me that to rankle me, and it worked.
Elbows on my knees, I waited for my best friend to dare to open the door.
“Oh, sirrr,” Callon sang.
“What?” I growled.
“You wouldn’t happen to have company in there, would you?” he asked with a smile in his voice.
I tugged on my pants. “Why? That’s never stopped you from interrupting me before.” I took three steps to the door and opened it, meeting Callon’s gleeful brown gaze. “It’s too early for you to be so . . . annoying,” I grumbled.
He smirked, his teasing grin one I’d counted on many times over the past ten years and half-heartedly despised for as equally long. His dark eyebrows danced over his slightly slanted eyes as he peered over my shoulder, surveying my quarters. “I didn’t want to intrude,” he said insincerely.
“Since when?” I muttered and met Tick’s coyote gaze from her burlap bed outside my door. Her tawny, fluffy tail thumped languidly as she stretched in a patch of morning sunlight.
“I saw you leave the fire last night with the new girl,” Callon explained and stepped inside.
I grabbed my boots beside my bed.
“The tall one,” he whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. Callon’s gaze swept my quarters again—over the rickety table, the carved-out shelf in the cliff wall, my unmade cot and the trunk of clothes at the end of my cot—everything with a thin layer of sand covering it.
“You think she’s hiding somewhere?” I asked dryly, lacing my last boot.
“No, but it seems she got the drop on you,” Callon mused. “She left before you could and before the sun rose, even. Someone must have tipped her off to your usual ways.”
Callon was an amazing tracker and one of our strongest human Telepaths—he could communicate with familiar minds from miles away—but he was also a pain in my ass most of the time. I would never change that about him, except for most mornings.
“Are you finished yet?” I asked and rose to my feet. “Because you only prattle on like this when you’re procrastinating.” Needing to wash the night away, I splashed water on my face from the bowl on the table. It was chilled from the cold night, and I reveled in it.
“I’ll admit,” Callon conceded as I wiped my face dry. “I was sussing out your mood.”
“By making it worse?” I retorted, and when Callon’s silence lingered, I peered over my shoulder at him. He was suddenly very sober, which was un-Callonlike. “What is it?” I turned to face him. “Is it Dylon? Has he gotten worse?” One of our newest arrivals had a sick son, and we weren’t sure if he would make it. It was likely the result of a weak constitution and the stress of so much travel as they fled their home in the north. The journey through the desert wasn’t easy.
Callon’s expression was cautious as he shook his head. “Not Dylon,” he hedged. “Some, uh . . . uninvited guests arrived in the night.” He held up his hand as my body tensed, my stomach dropping instantly.
“And you’re only just telling me this?” I bit out.
“There was no point in saying anything until we knew what was going on, Fin,” he said defensively. “We have twenty pairs of eyes and ears on them. I wanted more intel before I, um—” He glanced at my cot again. “Disturbed you.”
I stiffened, and I glared at him. “That’s not for you to decide,” I gritted out, and any ease and comfort I’d found last night evaporated. I rubbed my forehead instead of shoving Callon against the wall for assuming anything was more important than the safety of the 1,012 people who relied on us to keep them safe. “Who is it? And how many are there?”
“A small team set up camp in the Rainbow Hills. About two dozen of them.”
“From?” I held my breath.
Callon blinked at me before finally answering. “No one knows for certain yet—the men carry no banners—”
“Then they’re mercenaries.”
“Aye, and they have Ferals for slaves.” Callon watched my reaction carefully as his words settled in. It could have been because he knew Ferals killed my parents when I was young or that it was a ballsy move to enslave Ferals, people who, by no fault of their own, were more animal than human. Who were wild and unpredictable. Or so most would say.
“It has to be King Eduart,” I said through clenched teeth. “Only Sierra Kingdom would have the hubris to think that was a good idea.”
“It could be Eduart’s ally,” Callon added carefully. “The Corvo Kingdom.”
Unbidden, my mind drifted to the princess, and I realized then why Callon hadn’t wanted to tell me. But we said nothing about it.
“Who’s got their senses on the mercs?” I asked, knowing it could have been any of the fifteen perimeter teams who watched our borders and telepathically communicated with Callon, the lead of all safeguarding measures.
“Lyra,” he reported with a dip of his chin. He knew in that, at least, I would feel slightly more at ease. She was new to the team, but she was fiercely dedicated and alert, and her hyper-senses made her an invaluable asset to the security of this place.
I grabbed a T-shirt from the trunk by my cot and absently sniffed it. It smelled clean, even if it didn’t look like it. “Have the mercs made contact?”
“No contact. In fact, Lyra doesn’t think they know we’re here.”
I frowned in confusion. “Then they aren’t here for us.”
Callon shook his head. “No, which is why we wanted to wait to see what they were going to do.”
“And?” I impatiently tugged my shirt over my head and snatched my tan headscarf from the table. “What are they doing?”
“Digging for something.”
My frown deepened. “Digging?” I deadpanned. That both surprised and unnerved me as I stepped out into the cool morning.
Tick popped up, and I bent to scratch her behind the ears, her left leg twitching as I hit the perfect spot.
“There’s nothing out there to dig for,” I thought aloud.
“Which is why it’s more unsettling than usual,” Callon added.
Mentally, I surveyed the valley, taking stock of what mercs could possibly be here for, if not for us. Aside from scant vegetation, old bones, rocks, and metals in the volcanic earth, there wasn’t much else.
Shaking my head, I peered out at our camp that covered the desert floor nearly as far as I could see. There was nothing to find here. That’s why we’d chosen it years ago. When we first fled to the old mining dwellings carved in the cliffs, they were shelter enough to keep what few of us there were hidden from the blistering summer temperatures. It was a place to rest, not a place to live. Now, though, it was a refuge—more than that, it was a proper settlement, a hodgepodge of wood cabins and tents that surrounded the mudbrick buildings storing our food and providing shade for the people to work in. Tanners, farmers, blacksmiths, doctors—our camp had become a proper town in all the ways that mattered, and now, potential danger had found us again.
As Callon and I wove our way through camp toward the stables, woodsmoke tickled my nose, and distant chatter met my ears. “They’re digging in the Rainbow Hills?” I clarified. The settlement was bustling as if it were already mid-day, people making use of the cool morning before the sun grew too hot and we all retreated into the shade again until nightfall.
“Yes. At the fork in the canyon.”
Some people nodded in greeting as we passed, likely wondering where we were hurrying off to, so I tried to smile with forced reassurance. But most were too busy cleaning laundry, dredging and filtering water from the wells, or tending to the gardens to notice us.
Stride unwavering, I looked at Callon, my mind sifting through the possible reasons the hills would be of any interest to outsiders. “It must be for the metals in the soil.” I wrapped my scarf loosely around my head and face. The sun was already warming my skin, and though I’d grown used to the heat, the sun remained relentless. I had the farmer’s tan and freckles to prove it.
Callon shrugged. “Yeah, maybe metals. Lyra wasn’t certain the last time I checked in, and I’ve been too busy harassing you to ask her again.”
Dusty’s gray and white spotted head bounced up as we strode into the adobe stable. It smelled of damp clay and manure, and a few other horses looked out to greet us. With limited resources, we had only the horses we needed, but they were necessary with such a vast landscape to patrol and our numbers growing every day.
Instinctively, my mind connected with his, and a featherlight tickle brushed the back of my mind. “Time for a ride, buddy,” I murmured, and I barely unlatched the gate before he nudged it open the rest of the way and walked into the sunlight that filtered through the windows. Dusty’s tall frame took up the entire aisle, and his hooves clomped over the stony earth as he made his way through the entrance and into the blue-sky morning.
Callon rubbed his hand over the mustang’s face, leaning into him like they were old friends. “Lyra said our uninvited guests only have a few guards. Do you want me to get Taggart and the rest of the team prepped for a visit?”
“No.” I hoisted myself onto Dusty’s bare back and glanced again at the tent city stretched before us. These people came here for sanctuary, and I wasn’t ready to cause a stir. “Not yet. I want to know more first.”
Resting my palm on Dusty’s neck, I closed my eyes. To the Rainbow Hills. It was a single thought but all I needed to get Dusty walking in that direction. “Tell Lyra I’m coming,” I called to Callon over my shoulder.
“Done!” he answered. “I’ll just wait here then!”
Callon disappeared as we headed toward the horizon. Dusty and I trotted at a fast clip, as Tick loped over to join us. Together, the three of us made our way into the rugged mountains bordering the western edge of our settlement, Dusty’s long strides eating up the desert floor as we rode with the morning breeze.
Along the way, I sifted through Tick’s mind, but having been at the Badwater Basin hunting shrew and rattlesnake all night, the coyote knew nothing that would help me discern what the hell these people were doing so far east of the Seven Kingdoms. The desert lands, unlivable and desolate at best, were nothing compared to their lush forests.
The farther we rode, the more the landscape changed, barren in some places and remarkably dangerous and otherworldly in others. Though our village was a thousand people strong, with more coming every week, we’d found a peaceful existence in Death Valley over the years. Especially with our powers to better serve us.
The Elementals could manipulate the soil for crops, control fire for cooking and warmth on cold, cruel nights, and find underground water sources to keep us, our animals, and our gardens hydrated. Telekinesis and enhanced strength, speed, and senses came in handy with daily chores and helping the patrol teams. And Telepaths, well, they were invaluable for communication between outposts in an expansive place like this, where security in our hidden oasis was paramount.
We’d found a way to live out here, away from the unrest of the Seven Kingdoms, and it worked. Even if it never quite felt like Fallen Wood—like home.
What home? I had to remind myself it hadn’t been home in a very long time. The memories were as painful as they were precious, and as much as I hated dwelling on the past, I couldn’t stop myself from missing it, either.
I told myself this bout of nostalgia was because Jake had been abroad for so long this time, searching for whatever it was he never seemed to find. Being the last of his kind—an original changed during the Turn and celebrated by so many as the Patron of Healers—Jake was always wandering and restless. He was always searching, but for what, I was never certain. And I missed the only family I had left. That was only part of my reminiscing thoughts, though.
I missed my sister. Had Autumn survived Queen Corisande’s attack on our village, she would have been thirty-eight yesterday. More than that, had I killed the Corvo queen when I was in the castle ten years ago looking for Jake, she never would have been able to go back on her word and slaughter my people.
Bottom line, had Jake and I been there when it happened, we might’ve stopped the siege on our village, and my sister might still have been alive. Instead, now we were out here, living off lands too brutal to be claimed, with the treacherous Sierra mountains stretching between us and the trading ports and outposts we needed to better survive.
Sensing my darkening mood, Dusty rode harder and faster, as if he, too, wished to outrun my memories. And as soon as the eroded Rainbow Hills glinted into view, we slowed, Tick, Dusty, and my human eyes scouring the rocky canyon for unwanted attention as we approached.
Tick trotted ahead in search of Lyra, sniffing as she scaled the smooth rockface to the hiding post. Through Tick’s eyes, I could see Lyra and Martin, her scouting partner, crouched in the shadows of the outer cliff as Tick crested a boulder. Everything was so crisp and clear through the eyes of a coyote, even if our mental connection made my senses tingle a little.
Absently, I dismounted Dusty, prepared to follow Tick.
When Lyra saw the coyote, she nodded in greeting and gave me the signal that our visitors were a klick south. Nulling myself so that any probing minds wouldn’t sense me, I left Dusty in a patch of shade in the foothills and began to climb.
“They arrived in the middle of the night,” Lyra said as I crawled into place beside her. Her blue eyes were fixed on the scene below.
I nodded. “Callon reported no banners.”
“No, none. And out of the two dozen of them, most are enslaved.”
I peered down into the shadows of the rugged valley, the greens, blues, and purples of the metallic soils shimmering in the rising sun as I took in the sight of our intruders working below. I hated that they were here, bold and brazen as ever. Whatever the mercs’ reasons were for coming, it had to be important to have driven them to no-man’s-land.
“They started at sunrise,” Martin offered gravely. “So far, they’ve kept to the lower valley.”
“Any idea what they are digging for yet?” I squinted, seeing only a glimpse of what Lyra’s enhanced vision and hearing could glean. She was the eyes and ears I relied on most that patrolled the perimeters of our band of castaways and refugees. “Hematite?” I asked. “Manganese?”
Lyra shook her head. “I’m not certain, but they need samples for someone in the Sierra Kingdom,” she said, confirming what I’d feared. “But that man, right there—” Lyra pointed to a guy in brown garb who stood no bigger than my thumb in the distance. Though she could see every minute detail and twitch of our visitor’s mouth from here, to me, he looked like nothing more than an insect I wanted to smash between my fingers.
“He doesn’t know who he’s working for,” she explained. “Only that he’s been ordered to collect samples and return by the full moon if he wishes to receive his coin.”
Martin handed me his binoculars, and as my eyes adjusted, an emaciated Feral came into view, his hair shaggy and as long as his beard. He moved like a beaten animal, only going through the motions he knew would get him food and water at some point.
I eyed the three guards patrolling the tops of the hills behind them. The man in the brown cape had disappeared into the single tent they’d set up in the flattest part of the valley.
“Why so many wagons?” I asked. There were far more than they needed to transport the Ferals.
“They need enough of each soil color to fill one of them,” Lyra explained. “They should be finished before nightfall.” She stared at me. Her dark blue eyes glinted in the sunlight, and I knew that look. It was the same one I’d seen the day I found her and her ailing father, half-starved and hiding in one of our outposts. An all too familiar weight hung in the air. Fear. “From here, they’re headed to Mantis.”
Dread needled its way into my shoulders, and I peered down at their temporary camp. “I was afraid you’d say that.” Nothing good ever came from the Sierra capital.
“If we go,” Lyra started—she clearly knew what I was thinking—“getting in will be one thing. But getting out . . .” She huffed derisively.
The Sierra Kingdom was known for its armies, and King Eduart was known for taking resources and tech from everywhere he could—more than what he needed to protect his lands against the Ferals and anyone else who would think to encroach on his territory. His kingdom was as vast as it was dangerous, with his military spread throughout, patrolling every border and town. No village was untapped or untaxed, nor were they free of constant military occupation and perpetual mistreatment. I hated King Eduart almost as much as I loathed Corvo’s Queen Corisande.
“No good ever came from that king’s plans,” Martin said, mirroring my thoughts. He shrugged. “Maybe it has something to do with a new weapon?”
“Maybe, but whatever it is,” Lyra said, “Corvo is likely involved too.”
Despite how hard Princess Delphinia had tried to convince me the queen had changed her tyrannical ways ten years ago, and despite her promise to leave us alone, the queen had done what, in my heart, I had known she would do—exterminate my entire village.
I’d been the idealistic idiot who thought that after all that transpired between Del and me, of all the lies we’d uncovered and the truces that were made, we’d secured at least a temporary safety for my people. But I’d been deathly wrong, and my village—my sister—had paid the price.
Did Del know what had happened and how bad things were? Was she still fighting for good? A part of me had to believe she was still the rebel princess I remembered. But then, I wasn’t as young and idealistic as I once was, so I doubted she was either. By marrying into King Eduart’s family, Del had aligned herself with the Sierra Kingdom, combining the reach of both their realms.
So, no, I wasn’t sure what to think about Princess Delphinia. Not anymore.
I looked at Martin. “Stay here and stay sharp. If anything changes, alert Callon immediately.”
Martin nodded, he and Lyra looking at me for additional orders.
“I’m sending Tick out to sniff around, see what she can discover. We need to learn all we can before they head out again. If they’ve come once, they’ll likely come again, and next time, they won’t be collecting samples.” I nodded to Lyra. “You, come with me.”
I squinted out at the workers below, already sheening with sweat. The longer I thought about it, the more my resentment and anger grabbed hold of me. I was tired of anticipating the enemy, of running from the Corvo queen—from all the kingdoms that ruled with greed and fear.
But I knew living this life was an endless battle for freedom, for the right to live, and I would fight that battle until my dying breath. It was what my ancestors—my direct ancestors Dani and Jason—had to do centuries ago, alongside Jake, Zoe, Becca, and so many others after the virus spread. Together they learned to survive what was left of the world warped by Ability-amped chaos and to protect those they loved. And it was Becca, Jake’s sister and the Oracle who prophesied it would come to this, who helped give them a fighting chance.
Meeting Lyra’s expectant gaze, I knew what had to be done. Fighting to survive was in my blood and what Jake had been training me for, even if it felt like I’d been treading water for the last twenty-nine years.
“What’s the plan then, boss?” Lyra asked.
I pushed off the boulder. “Whether it’s on behalf of Corvo or King Eduart is acting alone, we have to know what they are searching for. If that means following them back to Mantis, then that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
“In addition to his usual debauchery, Alastor has been meeting with an inordinate number of dignitaries in Mantis,” Garath said, his voice a gentle rumble from across the breakfast table. “From the Seven Kingdoms, and from elsewhere.”
I continued to gaze out the sitting-room window, staring at the Tower of Solitude as I trailed a fingertip back and forth over the two-inch-long pink scar on the back of my wrist. The forbidding stone tower stood all alone on that tiny island near the eastern edge of the moat, and a lone castle guard stationed at the door at the tower’s base was just visible through the thinning morning fog.
No matter how hard I racked my brain, I couldn’t recall who was imprisoned in the tower. Someone, obviously, or there wouldn’t have been a guard stationed at the door. But who?
“My eyes in Mantis suggest Maylar may have been among the visitors,” Garath added.
My focus snapped to Garath. His amber eyes were glassy and slightly bloodshot, like he had been up late into the night. That, on top of his several days’ worth of stubble, made him appear positively roguish. A fleeting thought crossed my mind, prodding me to tease him about his usual nocturnal activities and his current lady-of-the-month, but I didn’t have the energy for it.
Garath wasn’t the only one who had been up most of the night, though my lost sleep stemmed from far less pleasant roots. Liam’s tenth birthday was approaching, when he would be tested and officially placed in his Ability Class. It should have been simple in his case, little more than ceremony, since both of his parents descended from pure Empath lines. But his strong thread of telepathy told a different hereditary story.
There was no question that I was Liam’s mother. His paternity, however, was another matter entirely. Which meant the kingdom would finally know the truth I had kept hidden all this time.
And Liam’s life would be in grave danger.
I shook my head, dispelling the troublesome thoughts. “Maylar may have been among the visitors?” I said, repeating Garath’s words back to him to confirm I had heard him right. I raised my eyebrows.
Garath nodded solemnly.
Dread coiled in my gut. Calling Maylar a snake would have been cruel—to snakes. He was snake excrement, always sniveling and scurrying around. Mother had dismissed him from his post as spymaster nearly a decade ago. I found out after the fact that she had intended to assassinate him since he knew too many of the kingdom’s secrets, but Mother’s attempts failed, and he escaped. We had heard whispers of him every few years since, but there was nothing concrete enough to track him down.
“But you’re not certain?” I clarified. I wondered if Mother had already heard, if she had already directed her people to follow the trail.
“No,” Garath said. “We’re not certain.”
I narrowed my eyes. “And these other dignitaries, the ones from elsewhere,” I said. “Are you suggesting they came from outside the Seven Kingdoms?”
I couldn’t remember the last time we had hosted an emissary from beyond the borders of the Seven Kingdoms within the walls of Corvo City. The western border of the allied kingdoms was an ocean as far as the eye could see, and a vast desert bordered the east. So far as I could recall, the last outsiders who had stayed in Castle Corvo had been from the Evergreen Nation, the strange land far to the north of the Seven Kingdoms, where Abilities were outlawed. How they functioned on old-world tech in place of Ability-run amenities was beyond me.
Mother had diplomats stationed in all the richest foreign lands, of course. After all, the Corvo Kingdom was the trade center of the Seven Kingdoms, making our kingdom the wealthiest and most well-connected because of our ports. Still, most of the negotiating was done via our diplomats in those distant places.
I glanced at Hills, the diminutive general of the Corvo army. She tensed the corners of her mouth and lowered her chin in confirmation that Alastor had, in fact, been meeting with dignitaries from outside the Seven Kingdoms.
“Hmmm . . .” I leaned forward, tapping the tip of my index finger on the oak table. We had long since pushed our breakfast plates away, leaving them clustered together in the center of the table. I stared into the last dregs of tea in my mug, counting the specs of tea leaves that had settled at the bottom and stood out against the cream-colored ceramic.
“Which kingdoms has he been meeting with specifically?” I asked, my finger continuing to tap.
“Crescent and Zenia.” Garath settled back in his chair, his leather armor creaking as he crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I’m still waiting on intel to identify the origin of the outsiders and to confirm Maylar’s identity.”
“Maybe it’s some of those desert people we’ve been hearing whispers about?” I said, thinking out loud. “This supposed Ghost King and his followers?”
Rumor placed them somewhere on the fringes of the Seven Kingdoms, but I had yet to hear any concrete evidence that they actually existed. None of the southern kingdoms had the military resources or manpower to spare on scouting so far beyond their borders with the Sierra Kingdom openly readying for war from their fortress in Mantis. So long as I kept Alastor and his father, King Eduart, happy, Corvo City wasn’t in immediate danger. Their forces freely moved across our kingdom’s borders but not with Corvo City as their target. King Eduart wanted control of our ports, but at the moment, he seemed content with using Alastor to ensure the Sierra Kingdom had a say in our trade relations. Which meant his sights were turned to the other kingdoms bordering us, and they all lived in constant fear of invasion.
“Where did all this happen?” I looked up from the lukewarm tea. “Ironwood Keep?”
Garath shook his head. “A tavern in Mantis.”
Which meant either King Eduart didn’t know about Alastor’s secret meetings, or he knew but wanted the rest of us to think he wasn’t involved in whatever Alastor was plotting. I considered reaching out to the Sierra king through one of Garath’s people to feel him out, but the relationship between our two kingdoms was increasingly tense, hanging by the ever-thinning thread that was my marriage.
What a joke. I might have laughed if I wasn’t so miserable.
I sat back in my seat, setting my forearms flat against the arms of my chair, and returned to staring out the window. “What’s that bastard up to?” I muttered.
Sid, perched on the back of my chair, snapped his beak upon hearing me utter my favorite nickname for my husband. The raven, with me since I was a baby, as was tradition among the Corvo royal line, was my most loyal companion and greatest champion.
I raised one hand to stroke the puffed-out black feathers on his neck.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Garath said ominously.
I looked at him, my stomach twisting into knots. “He’s returning?” I asked, once again tracing the scar on my wrist. It was Alastor’s most recent gift.
Garath’s heavy stare told me his answer before his words confirmed it. “It looks that way,” he finally said. “A raven arrived this morning carrying word of travel preparations at his mistress’s estate.”
Which meant I needed to make my own preparations, to steel myself to welcome my dastardly husband back into my home. Back into my bed.
I tensed instinctively. Even thinking about Alastor’s cruel hands on my body made my skin crawl. But it had to be done. I needed an heir. A female heir, as was the Corvo way.
And until I had one, my claim on the Corvo throne would be increasingly precarious. But if I could just bear a girl and prove to the other kingdoms that the Corvo line was still stable, my position would strengthen tenfold in the eyes of the other rulers, and King Eduart would back off, feeling more secure in his hold over my kingdom once he had a granddaughter destined to sit on the Corvo throne. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
The only upside to having to try for a legitimate heir with Alastor was that the instant his skin touched mine, I could skim his mind for some of his carefully guarded secrets. We were both Empaths, both powerful in our own ways, but when our skin was touching, my ability to dig into his mind far overpowered any attempts he might make to keep me out. I couldn’t see everything, but I could usually catch enough of a glimpse of his schemes to stay a few steps ahead of him.
He knew it too, which was why he filled his mind with thoughts of all his other women while he was with me. Of the myriad of ways he enjoyed breaking them. Of the times he went too far. Of how desperately he wanted to hurt me, just as he hurt them. It turned my stomach, more often than not, leaving me vomiting in the washroom after we were together.
But I would experience that revulsion a hundred times over so long as it continued to keep me apprised of his duplicitous ways. So long as it continued to reveal the ever-narrowing path I needed to walk to keep his father from invading Corvo City and ripping away my waning power once and for all.
So long as it continued to show me how to keep my son safe.
“Who’s in the tower?” I asked, purposely changing the subject.
Hills cleared her throat. “The queen caught wind of an enterprising pharmacist quietly peddling a synthetic healing elixir to some of the noble families.”
I sat up straighter, my attention snapping to Hills. Her gray-streaked dark hair was pulled back and bound at her nape, further sharpening her angular features. “Does it work?” I asked, hope surging.
A synthetic elixir would fix everything. It would eradicate the wasting sickness plaguing our nobles, whose desire to preserve Class purity had made them vulnerable to the congenital ailment. To the other kingdoms, we appeared to be dying a slow death, but if we could show that the wasting sickness was no longer an issue, we would be seen as strong again, no longer the tempting, low-hanging fruit King Eduart had his heart set on claiming.
The wasting sickness had first emerged among the pure, inbred elite of Corvo City several decades ago, but recent reports suggested it was branching out to the murkier bloodlines of lowborn people throughout the Corvo Kingdom—and possibly elsewhere. It was hard to say for sure, as many of the symptoms were similar to those of strix addiction, and the drug ran rampant throughout the mixed-class commoners of not only the Corvo Kingdom but throughout the Seven Kingdoms. We had yet to receive reports of the wasting sickness appearing outside our borders, but I was holding out hope that it would—if only to take the target off our backs.
But a cure, even more than a female heir, would strengthen our kingdom’s position—my position. Maybe, just maybe, it would be the key that unlocked the cage of my marriage. It would free me.
Hills’s brow furrowed, and she shook her head. “It’s a sham,” she said. “Just an opiate in a corn starch solution with some glitter added to replicate the iridescent shimmer of the true healing elixir.”
My shoulders slumped, the hope within me fizzling out.
For ten years, we had been searching for a cure to the wasting sickness that didn’t involve harvesting blood from a stable of captive Healers. We could produce some of the true elixir from the few who volunteered their blood, but the production quantity wasn’t even a thousandth of what it had been when those same Healers had been Mother’s slaves. It’s not that I approved of her methods—slavery, forced breeding, and what essentially amounted to daily torture—but watching the rapid deterioration of the Corvo Kingdom now that we were without ready access to the healing elixir had helped me to understand her reasoning. Desperation would drive even the noblest queen down a corrupt path.
“What does Mother plan on doing with the prisoner?” I asked, returning my attention to the tower. The fact that the pharmacist had been imprisoned in the tower at all suggested she meant to make an example of them.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Hills admitted. “Perhaps you should pay her a visit. I hear she’s bedridden again today.”
I sighed, nodding slowly. I wasn’t due to meet with the ailing queen, my mother, until tomorrow, but digging into the situation surrounding the prisoner would provide a much-needed distraction while I awaited my despised husband’s return.
“Are we done?” I asked, glancing at both of my trusted advisors. The simmering hatred for my husband burning in Garath’s eyes hit too close to home, and I slid my chair back like I was preparing to stand. “I should get cleaned up if I am to visit Mother.”
“Just one other thing,” Hills said, frowning. “I considered not mentioning it, but . . . ” She hesitated.
“What is it?” I asked, surprised to see my no-nonsense general second-guessing herself.
“The Ferals,” she finally said. “Our rangers stationed in the east have been receiving reports from the outlying villages of organized attacks on small farms and hunting camps.”
My eyebrows rose. “That’s impossible.” I laughed under my breath and shook my head. “Ferals don’t organize. It’s probably just Sierra soldiers.” Their occupying forces had camps all along our eastern border, and they were often just as brutish as Ferals.
Hills raised one shoulder. “I sent a special team out to investigate. It could be nothing.”
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Or it could be something.”
The Ferals—the descendants of the people who had devolved three hundred years ago during the Turn, when the same virus that gifted my ancestors their superhuman gifts tore away the humanity from theirs—had been a thorn in our kingdom’s side since before I was born. Despite our best efforts to eradicate them from our forested wildlands, they were still often sighted around the smaller villages, especially those nearer the Sierra Kingdom’s ever-encroaching border.
At least King Eduart had a much larger Feral problem to deal with in his territory.
I wondered if we could use that to our advantage. Even if the Ferals weren’t truly organizing, perhaps we could plant evidence that corroborated the reports—just enough to pull King Eduart’s focus away from our kingdom long enough for us to regroup and formulate a plan to regain our independence. If he would just pull back his occupying forces and remove his implied threat to invade Corvo City should I displease him—or his son—there was a chance we would be able to actually fight back.
I have given my husband many gifts over the ten years we’ve been married, to appease him and his father both. But if King Eduart were to focus his military efforts on the Ferals, it might finally be time to give Alastor the one gift he actually deserved. An accident. The kind he wouldn’t recover from.
“Nyx is coming,” Garath warned, sensing the youthful raven a few seconds before she swooped in through the open window.
Nyx flew around the sitting room before landing on Sid’s vacant stand in the corner. Nyx—short for Onyx—has been Liam’s faithful companion since the day of his birth, just as Sid has been mine. If she was here, then Liam wasn’t far behind.
Sid’s talons clicked on the chairback behind me as he fluffed his wings. The younger raven’s dramatic window entrances always ruffled his feathers, probably because he had injured his left wing a few years ago, making him far less agile in tight spaces.
Right on cue, the door to my private quarters burst open, and Liam barreled into the sitting room, the gangly nine-year-old closely followed by the last remaining member of my inner circle. Prim, proper, and pretty, Adasia strode in, her blond braid pulled over her shoulder and her long, lavender skirts swishing. Ada was deceptively dangerous, hiding her ferocity behind a ladylike veneer.
She had impressive combat skills, and as a Gauge, she could amplify or nullify the gifts of those around her. I kept her close to Liam to increase the strength of his empathy to a level befitting the son of two powerful Empaths—and to block any searching minds from sensing the other facet of my son’s Ability. The progeny of two pure Empath lines absolutely should not have also been able to talk to animals in their mind.
If anyone outside my trusted inner circle knew Liam was also a Telepath, they would suspect my secret, and the truth would get back to Alastor. The second he realized Liam wasn’t his son, Alastor would throw Liam in the Tower of Solitude and use him to force me into officially handing over the kingdom to him as soon as Mother was gone. The Corvo Dynasty would be dead, destroyed by the mistakes I had made as a young, idealistic fool.
“I found it, Mom!” Liam exclaimed, skidding to a halt beside the table and placing a palm-sized stone on the polished oak surface. His auburn hair was wild and unruly, as usual.
The glossy face of the stone displayed a painted raven the size of my thumbnail. The stone had been hidden somewhere within the castle—by Garath this time. To Liam, it was a game that just so happened to force him to exercise his empathy, but the rest of us saw it for the potentially life-saving training it truly was.
Not only would strengthening his ability to delve into the minds of others protect him from potential threats, but the stronger his Empath gifts appeared, the more secure our secret. If we could increase his empathy until it overpowered his telepathy before his tenth birthday, he would qualify as an Empath during his testing. At least then, one of my problems would be solved.
“Garath hid it really well, too,” Liam said. His green eyes shone like emeralds when he was excited, like he was now, and he turned his wide grin toward Garath. “Tell her. Tell her where you hid it.” Liam returned his attention to me. “You’ll never guess, Mom.”
I glanced at the smudge of white powder dusting his cheekbone and pursed my lips to suppress a smile.
“The flour canister in the kitchen,” Garath said, nodding slowly. He studied Liam under raised eyebrows.
“You don’t say,” I said, the corners of my mouth rising.
Garath shrugged one shoulder. “It was a good spot.”
“Tell your mother the rest,” Ada said, joining us. She perched on the sofa nearby and adjusted the layers of her skirt, then folded her hands together on her lap.
I would never understand her preference for the long, cumbersome dresses favored by the ladies of the elite houses, but Ada called the dresses her armor. I only ever swapped out my leather-reinforced tunics and leggings for dresses when ceremony required it, and even then, I did so grudgingly.
Liam flashed me a boastful smirk. “I found it all by myself. Ada didn’t help me at all.”
At that revelation, I was the one raising my eyebrows. I looked at Garath. “Could you feel him rooting around in your mind?”
Garath shook his head, then let out a muffled laugh. “Which is a little terrifying. I’ll have to strengthen my mental shields around the princeling.”
I beamed at my son. “Well done, Liam!” I said, standing and wrapping him up in a tight hug. “I’m so proud of you.” I squeezed him until he squirmed in my embrace, then let him go.
“I’ll take that,” Hills said, snatching the raven stone off the table and heading for the door. “I’ve got the perfect spot in mind,” she tossed over her shoulder. “You’ll never find it.” She grinned wolfishly, and then she pulled the door open and left the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
“My clever boy,” I said, reaching out to smooth down Liam’s unruly curls. There was another smudge of flour on his neck beneath his ear. I wiped it away with my thumb before he could swat my hand. “Go with Ada and get cleaned up. I’ll meet you down in the courtyard for our morning rounds.”
It was good for him to see and assist the people who served the castle. It helped strengthen the bond between us all. Besides, I refused to raise a son who had been handed everything. Even if Liam would never rule the Corvo Kingdom—only a female could carry on the Corvo line—he would always have privilege and power. I would not let him abuse that power. He would never end up like the man he believed to be his father.
Liam followed Ada toward the door but paused in the middle of the sitting room and turned back toward me. “Can we go for a ride around the grounds again—like yesterday?”
I had about a million things to do, especially with the threat of Alastor returning soon, visiting Mother chief among them. But when Liam turned those hope-filled green eyes on me, I couldn’t resist giving in, despite the tightness in my chest that appeared every time I thought about Liam venturing over the bridge that crossed the moat, even if only to explore the castle grounds beyond. This was an unkind world, more so for a boy believed to be the son of a man whom the masses feared only slightly more than they despised.
I glanced at Garath, hoping he was available. I really did want to go, but only if we had adequate protection. When I was on horseback, galloping across a meadow, or leaping a fallen tree, it was the only time I felt truly free. I could shift my training session with Hills to the evening. Sparring before bed usually led to unsettled nights for me, but I hadn’t had a restful night in so long that one more wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Garath dipped his chin, confirming he could make room in his schedule to join us.
“All right,” I said, forcing an easy laugh. “We’ll go for a ride after lunch.” I made a shooing motion. “Now go! Clean up!”
Nyx launched herself off the raven stand as Ada opened the door. She swooped across the room and careened through the doorway ahead of the pair.
My smile slipped as soon as the door latched, and the trembling set in. I turned my back to Garath, closed my eyes, and hugged my middle. If Alastor didn’t kill me, this anxiety would. One day, it would suffocate me.
Wood scratched against wood as Garath pushed his chair back. He stood, his footsteps marking his approach behind me, and rested a heavy hand on my shoulder. “You can’t keep this up forever, Del,” he said, keeping his voice hushed to ensure his words were private, even to anyone with Ability-enhanced hearing. “My offer still stands.”
I shook my head, then inhaled a deep breath, releasing it slowly through my nose. “We can’t kill Alastor,” I whispered. “Not yet.”
If I let Garath kill my husband, I would replace one demon with another, and King Eduart was far more calculating and ruthless than his son. He wouldn’t be interested in playing power games with me like Alastor so enjoyed. He would invade. He would slaughter. He would destroy.
Liam and I would have no choice but to run. To hide. And that was if we managed to escape Corvo City with our lives in the first place.
“You could go to him,” Garath said. “Live a different life—your own life.”
His words reminded me of something Fin had said during that single, blissful night ten years ago when I had dared to dream of what it might have been like to run away. To be free for the first time in my life. If I closed my eyes, I could still hear the crackle of the bonfire, still feel the waves of warmth.
Fin’s voice whispered through my mind, “Don’t you deserve to have a life of your own? To choose your own path?”
“How?” I asked Garath, choking on something that was a cross between a laugh and a sob. There was nothing I wanted more than to run away, to take Liam and flee from the dangers and responsibilities that had plagued me my whole life, but it was impossible. “I don’t know where he is. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
With a heavy sigh, Garath pulled me close and wrapped his arms around me. He tucked his chin over the top of my head and held me, letting his strength seep into me while I collapsed under the mounting weight of my burdens. I could be weak now, with him.
To the rest of the world, I had to be strong. Hard. Cold.
I had to be the Corvo heir, just as Mother had taught me to be.
For two days, Lyra, Callon, and I followed the merc envoy through the forest toward Mantis. Their wagon of rocks and soil samples was heavy, keeping us at a slow pace as we lingered a few miles behind on horseback, out of sight. We were there for reconnaissance, not to make ourselves known, so using my Ability, I nulled us and used Tick and the other forest animals’ eyes to see what we couldn’t.
We’d learned little more about the mercs and what they were up to than what Lyra had already gleaned from them in the desert, but we knew they were being paid an exorbitant amount by way of a messenger. A messenger whom they were scheduled to meet in the Silver Bow Inn at the edge of the city tonight, when the full moon was at its peak.
By the time we neared the capital, the sun was already setting, which meant once we were inside, we could move about the streets in darkness with more ease. Still, we stopped, needing to leave the horses and Tick behind. The last thing I wanted was all of us locked inside the city walls should something happen; going in was always the easy part, but if the Mantis officials took any interest in us—specifically in me—it would be far harder to leave.
“I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a lamb shank,” Callon murmured as he grabbed an apple from his saddlebag. He patted his horse’s rump, shooing him to the brook to drink, and draped his cloak around his shoulders. Callon’s eyes glittered as he smiled to himself, lost in daydreams. “Or maybe I’ll find one of those kabobs, the ones with the caramelized dressing.” He groaned and licked his lips. “The markets here are famous for their spiced pork—” He kissed his fingers. “It’s the best I’ve had in the Seven Kingdoms.”
Lyra stared at him, incredulous, as she untied her cloak and sack from her horse’s saddle. “Didn’t you just finish the last of our jerky? Now you’re eating an apple while lusting after your next meal.”
Callon bit a hunk out of the fruit and shrugged. “So?”
I loosened Dusty’s saddle and the bags tied to him, so he could relax a little while we were gone.
“So?” Lyra mimicked in a deep, flippant voice. “Do you ever stop thinking about food?”
Callon made a point to contemplate her question, then shrugged again. “Not really. Just ask my ma. She says it’s a good thing I work for Fin, or we’d be indebted to him even more for all the food I consume.”
Dusty nudged me goodbye and walked over to the water with the other horses.
“You don’t work for me,” I reiterated for the dozenth time, but Callon ignored me and continued.
“Besides, this”—Callon tossed his apple up, catching it with a wink—“is for the road. In case I need the energy.”
Lyra rolled her eyes and clasped her cloak around her shoulders.
“If you two are ready,” I prompted, knowing I’d be standing there until midnight listening to them bicker back and forth if we didn’t get moving. I tugged a hat over my head to hide my hair, ensured our weapons were stored out of sight since we couldn’t take them with us, and we headed for Mantis.
My steps were heavy and adamant as we made our way through the forest to the thick walls of the city. They sparkled in the waning daylight, but it was more ominous than beautiful. Mantis reminded me of a poisonous flower, a beautiful and blooming city luring its victims closer. Protection. Wealth. Comfort. It boasted all those things, but the citizens and visitors of Mantis—all the Sierra Kingdom, for that matter—weren’t given such graces for free. And I hated that we were walking into the city, knowing that once we were in, we were at the mercy of King Eduart’s goodwill and generosity, traits he wasn’t particularly known for.
Callon snorted about something, and Lyra hit him with one of the empty sacks we planned to fill with provisions while we were there. “Do you ever take anything seriously?” she hissed.
“Of course.” Callon tossed his finished apple core behind us. Tick smelled it and then continued to hang back, scoping out the area for any danger. “Do you ever smile?” he countered. “It doesn’t hurt, you know?” Lyra glared at him, and Callon threw up his hands in defense. “I’m just saying, you should work those smile muscles a little more before they atrophy.”
“You should shut your mouth more. You might actually get a woman that way.”
He laughed. “Touché.” And that earned a small, victorious smile from Lyra.
I couldn’t help but chuckle watching them. Even if they acted as if they didn’t get along, Callon had risked his life for Lyra on multiple occasions, and she for him.
Only months ago, after she’d arrived, he’d pulled her off a ledge when she’d slipped during a bandit attack at a trading post in Noctem, the kingdom southwest of here. And Lyra relied on Callon more than any of the men or women on our monitoring and scouting teams, trusting him the most. Because as silly and immature as Callon could be, he never screwed around with people’s safety. He’d been with me for years and seen too much death to find any humor in that.
Still, if Callon could find humor in just about everything, Lyra could always find the danger or stupidity in it, and their clashing personalities made for a few laughs and lighthearted moments that we were in short supply of these days.
The long missions, the trading trips, and the nights around the campfire were more pleasurable with them around, and despite my sour moods, I was grateful for them.
They continued bickering until the Mantis gates came into view. Then we all sobered.
Guards lined the stone parapets and flanked the barred portcullis. And as I assessed what we were walking into, I hoped that what should be a straightforward recon would be fruitful and go off without a hitch. I knew better than that, though. Callon said I was cynical and pessimistic, but I was realistic, and we needed to stay on our guard. Especially in this place.
“Explore all you want,” I told them under my breath. “But keep a low profile and make sure you’re back at the inn before midnight. I’ll stick to the outskirts of the city.” With only a handful of hours until the meeting at the inn, less could go wrong, and I was grateful for that, at least.
“Why the outskirts?” Lyra whispered, should any prying senses start probing. “Don’t you want to scout all that you can? We’re allowed in Mantis, right?”
“Aw, you’re cute,” Callon whispered, unable to resist. That earned him a huff from her and another eye roll. “We are allowed in the city,” he clarified, pointing between the two of them. “But Fin here has a target on his back, and that moppy, red hair of his is hard to forget, no matter how haggard he’s looking these days.”
“You’re hilarious,” I muttered, but despite my smile, Lyra frowned.
“Fin’s been around a while,” Callon explained, and I braced myself for some theatrically embellished account of a scrape I’d likely forgotten. “He’s quite the rebel—his hair ain’t that color for nothing, you know. He’s got a fire in him that’s gotten him into a few tight spots over the years.”
Lyra’s eyes widened minutely. “I never thought you to be reckless.” There was as much awe as there was reproach in her voice.
I smirked at that. “I’ll be the first to admit I belong on no pedestal.”
“He keeps it under wraps now that he has to set a good example and all.” Callon sobered a little. “But trust me, someone will recognize him if he’s not careful.”
“That’s enough,” I told them as we neared the gate, our bags and sacks slung over our shoulders to fill with market goods, like anyone from outer lands coming for a routine trade would do. I lifted the hood over my hat for extra precaution and continued inside.
The air was buzzing with chatter and commotion once past the gate, and I felt my muscles tense in preparation for the next few hours. In and out—that’s all we needed to do. We had hundreds of people relying on us back at the settlement, and we couldn’t afford any missteps.
I thought about Callon’s mom’s missing eye from the Feral attack she survived as a young woman and how her hands shook from nerve damage, making it harder for her to work in the garden every morning. Callon was her only light left in this life, and without him, she had nothing. I thought about Lyra’s father, hunting and skinning his kills to help put clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. They were both waiting for us back in Shoshone and relying on me to bring their children home, safe.
In and out. I breathed as I thought the words, exhaling the ever-present knot tightening my shoulders. We only had to last the night and could leave at dawn when the gates opened again.
The guards patted us down, and after a few grunts, they nodded for us to be on our way. The sun was setting behind Ironwood Keep, casting the city in evening shadows. Men and women wearing red robes moved along the streets, the colored attire marking them as Elementals as they expertly flicked their flames to light the torch lamps lining the alleyways.
Lyra paused, taking in the sight before her. Watching her, I could almost appreciate Mantis as if I was seeing it for the first time. Almost. Having lived off the land most of her life, moving from one settlement to another after being run out by soldiers and Ferals, Lyra had never been to a city like this one.
She peered up and down the flagstone streets. Stretched out before us, on the top of the mountain and surrounded by a forest of pine trees, was Ironwood Keep, a granite monstrosity that lorded over the city below. The roads wound their way up the foothills like riverbeds, carving out a cliff face. They stopped at the city’s inner walls, dividing the castle grounds from the rest of us.
Callon’s eyes lingered on the Communication Dome, its rounded glass ceiling rising above the townhomes in the distance. He knew as well as I did that Mantis liked to collect powerful Telepaths for their communication efforts across the kingdoms, and I could practically feel the chills raking over him as he tore his gaze away.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing that place,” he muttered.
Lyra glanced at both of us.
“Just keep to the city streets,” I told him. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I’ll null us as much as I can.” While most people only had one power, like Lyra and Callon, there were some of us with a stronger, purer lineage and two Abilities, a combination of our ancestors, like I had. I could null others’ powers like Jason and had animal telepathy like Dani, my great-great-grandparents. “We’ll be fine,” I reassured them, and with a warning glance at Callon, I focused on our surroundings again.
Mantis was much like any other capital within the Seven Kingdoms, congested and bustling, but the buildings were uniform, and the streets were clean. Guards were posted on nearly every corner, which was strange, yet I wasn’t entirely surprised either. This place wasn’t feared for no reason. There were as many laws to follow as there were creative punishments for breaking them.
The streets were teeming with people. Some men and women rode vehicles powered by Elemental slaves with metal collars on their necks, boasting wealth and status. Other traders hauled their goods in creaking, hand-drawn wooden carts. There were robotic and whittled toys, herbs and paints and scarves. Traders and merchants bartered with customers, and children ran through the alleyways, some playing while others haggled for coin.
The old world met the new as we made our way deeper into the city. Ancient artifacts filled crates and bins. Some contraptions I’d seen before, like handheld communication devices with cracked and shattered screens, were obsolete but a part of history for which collectors paid exorbitant amounts. There were booths displaying handmade jewelry, with rings made from old keys that would never open anything again, and boxes of photos long forgotten but fascinating nonetheless. There were food booths, which caught Callon’s eye, and there were furs, silks, and woolen blankets hung from clothing lines.
Wide-eyed, Lyra took it all in.
“A bushel of sage, my lady?”
I glanced over at Lyra.
A young girl with blonde braids, a dirty but tailored red dress, and matching torn stockings stood in front of Lyra, offering her herbs with a wide smile. “It will chase the evil spirits away and bless your stayrooms during your visit. It’s only a quarter-piece, miss.”
Lyra opened her mouth to say something, but I shook my head at the girl, knowing what scheme she was playing. “I can smell the hawthorn from here,” I told her.
The girl’s open, smiling expression dropped. She no longer looked young and innocent but twice her age and thwarted. She scowled at me, but just as quickly, she locked eyes with her next victim, her smile returning as she hurried away.
“Hawthorn?” Lyra asked, her brow pinched in question. “Was she trying to kill me?”
“Only sedate you,” I explained. “They follow you to your stayroom, wait for you to light the ‘sage’ before you pass out, then they rob you blind.”
Lyra’s mouth hung slightly open. “But . . . There are guards everywhere. Why would they even try such a thing?”
Callon snorted. “Guards are in on the take,” he grumbled. “And probably the king as well,” he added under his breath.
“I need a moment,” I told them, stepping off to the side by a milliner’s shop while I searched for a pair of willing bird eyes above to help me locate the Silver Bow Inn.
Vaguely, I could hear Lyra and Callon talking, but I was too busy scouring everything through hawk eyes, looking for our midnight meeting place. There was no short supply of taverns and inns, and my hawk gaze narrowed on the signs and banners as I flew over the darkening city.
Finally, I spotted the inn nestled between a brothel and a dye caster a few blocks away.
And that’s when I saw it. In the upper city, the blue, up-lit holograms stood tall and ostentatious at the inner gates of the keep. They cycled through images and tributes to the king and other members of the royal family.
First, King Eduart and Queen Tam, with their sour-faced expressions, as if they were too good to even pose for their own portraits.
The three princes followed, though only one posed with his princess.
Hawk landed on a finial atop the castle wall, and I stared at the couple in the next image.
Princess Delphinia and Prince Alastor.
Del. Princess. Tough Stuff. Heir of the Corvo Kingdom. A frozen picture of the girl I once knew beamed at me in a black and silver gown fit for a queen. Her dark curls were gathered atop her head, her silver and black-feathered crown gleaming in the uplighting that brightened her dark features. She was just as striking as I remembered.
Beside Del stood her pale husband, whose auburn hair was combed away from his grim face. He looked equally disapproving and cruel. But it was the boy that my hawk eyes lingered on the longest.
Del had a child, something I’d known for years, but to see it was gutting. She was not only a princess; she was a wife. A mother.
Meanwhile, I was much the same. Still living off the land. Still fighting to survive for only a semblance of peace. It was at that moment I realized I hadn’t changed at all. Not really. Yet seeing her up there as she was made all that had transpired in the past ten years feel more real. More lonely.
“Did you hear that, Fin?” Lyra asked, and I felt her hand on my arm.
Blinking myself from the hawk’s mind, I swallowed thickly.
“Fin!” she hissed, shaking me.
I glowered at her. “What?”
She pointed to the man walking toward us, his eyes scanning the onset of a crowd. His words drifted in and out of my ears as I gathered my bearings again. He looked like a priest from the old world, with a black cloak and a cap on his head. His gray beard was long, his teeth crooked, and his eyes were wide and fervent.
“Beware the prophecy!” he boomed. “The kingdom will fall if we don’t repent. If we don’t sacrifice! If we don’t give back to the king and queen, who—”
“What’s he talking about?” I whispered so low only she would hear. I watched the crowd thicken around him. Their faces were fearful as they gripped pamphlets in their hands and clutched them to their chests.
Lyra shook her head, her eyes fixed on the old man. “Listen.”
“At dawn, we meet at the King’s Church in Prior Square. We pray for the royal family. We pray for all our souls and future selves, for if we do not uncover and destroy the destructive force hidden under the earth in Death Valley, we will all perish!”
“What?” I blurted. Frowning, I scanned the square, noticing for the first time what rhetoric was plastered on posters and holograms projected on the sides of buildings: Join the king’s army. Save the kingdom.
“Fin,” Callon hedged conversationally. “This wouldn’t be something you’ve heard of by any chance, would it? Something Jake told you about—one of his sister’s old prophecies he loves so much?” Callon was being sarcastic. Jake loathed Becca’s prophecies. Her predictions had upended the lives of everyone he loved centuries ago, and I was beginning to understand why he resented them so much. They always came at a heavy price.
I shook my head, my heart racing as I processed how bad this was. Uncover and destroy the destructive force hidden under the earth in Death Valley. Our Death Valley, where we lived?
“That’s why they were digging,” I realized aloud. “They think their salvation is in the ground.”
“What if it is?” Lyra asked.
“Then everyone is in danger,” I said brusquely and ran my hand over my face. Fuck. “Whatever fear they’re spreading, and whatever they’re trying to find, more of them will come to Death Valley, that’s for certain.” And it will be an army. I didn’t say that part aloud, but by the way Callon and Lyra were looking at me, they already knew.
“What do you want us to do?” Callon asked. “We have to get back—to get organized. But we still need to confirm who’s behind this. I mean, the answer seems obvious, but if it’s Eduart, why hide it?” He shook his head.
Realizing my hood had fallen, I pulled it over my hat again with more force than was necessary, and I glanced around, ensuring we hadn’t caught anyone’s attention. “We go on as planned,” I told them. “We see what happens at the meeting tonight. I’ll do some reconnaissance at the pub, where minds are plied with ale and tongues are looser. See what you can learn on the street. We need to know what else they’re fearmongering here, and get all the intel we can. I want an estimate of how many soldiers might be coming and when.”
“At least they no longer have the element of surprise,” Callon offered, shedding light on the silver lining, though it felt like only a scant glimmer in the looming darkness ahead. “We can prepare for this.”
The three of us were quiet as our situation settled in.
“Did you find the inn?” Lyra asked.
“Uh, yeah. It’s three blocks down.” I cleared my throat, the image I had seen of Del projected onto the palace walls flashing to mind. “I’ll secure us a room for the night and meet you there.”
Callon and Lyra nodded, and without a word, I made my way toward the pub I saw next to the inn to see what else I could find out and to grab a much-needed drink.
* * *
The three of us hadn’t been tucked in the corner of the inn’s tavern room for more than a handful of minutes, ale in our mugs and Lyra’s senses open and probing, before the merc we’d been following strode into the Silver Bow Inn. He maneuvered around tables of drunken patrons and over to a bench on the other side of the room where a nondescript man with a brown hood pulled up over his head was already sitting. They made no gestures in greeting and simply sat across from one another.
Lyra listened while Callon and I counted our breaths in suspended anticipation. Callon rubbed his stomach, full from too much stew and bread, and I took another hearty gulp of ale.
My head was light, having downed two pints already, just enough to take the edge off. Other than the prophecy, we’d unearthed no other concerns, for which I was grateful. King Eduart was raising additional men and women for his army, intent on going to the desert lands, and that was plenty for us to be worried about for now.
We had people who could fight, warriors and others capable and willing to give their lives for the greater good. But that they would have to at all was as disheartening as it was enraging. They’d already been forced from their homelands, all of them seeking refuge in the outerlands because they’d lost everything else.
Now, I would have to return to tell them they needed to prepare themselves to fight again and perhaps die in the process.
“Do you think the prophecy is real?” Callon asked in Lyra’s silence.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Regardless, they are using it to build a bigger army, one that will be at our doorstep, probably within a matter of months. We have no choice but to be ready for them.”
More silence hung between us as Lyra listened. Callon took another swig from his mug, his fingers tapping on the table. “What are they saying, Lyra?” he hissed. “The suspense is killing me.” He took another sip of his ale and looked at me. “I don’t think she knows how this works, Fin. She has to relay the information, not just—”
“Shut up,” Lyra bit out. “They haven’t said how, exactly, but—” Lyra took a sip of her ale to wet her lips, staring at her mug as she focused on their conversation. “Corvo’s definitely involved.”
Callon straightened as I stared at Lyra, unblinking. It took all the focus I had to register her words—to mull them around and let them root—because that was the last thing I’d wanted her to say.
I cleared my throat. “What else are they saying?”
Lyra’s face was a mask of consternation as she continued to listen. “He says his master wants half of the samples taken to Corvo . . . To a temple . . . a temple on an island.”
Callon gasped, and my blood ran cold as chills prickled over my skin.
“Isn’t that where they were harvesting Healer blood?” he asked.
I nodded, reluctant to believe it was all circling back to where it started in the first place.
“He’s telling them they have to leave tomorrow so they can get to the city before the equinox.” Lyra shook her head, rolling her eyes and completely oblivious to the gravity of her words. “God, they’re superstitious bastards.”
“So . . . we have to go to Corvo,” Callon said, his gaze burrowing a hole through me.
I hadn’t stepped foot inside the Corvo Kingdom in ten years, not since the massacre in my village that sent us on the trek for refuge. Corvo was the last place I wanted to be—the only place I swore I’d never return. But . . .
“We have to know what they’re doing on that island,” I said to no one in particular. And I knew what that meant. As much as it twisted me up inside, my path was glaringly clear.
“Fin,” Callon said cautiously. “Are you sure? I mean, I know you can do this, but—” He grabbed my shoulder. “Maybe you should think about it.”
Lyra glanced between us, knowing very little of my past with the Corvo princess. But Del’s mother was up to something like always. I would find out what it was. “I have to go,” I told him. There was no other choice.
Callon filled my mug to the brim and slid it closer to me. The ale sloshed over the side, and I gladly grabbed the handle, gulping the entire contents down. Then, with a heaving breath, I ran the back of my hand over my mouth, and Callon poured me another.
Despite the time that had passed, seeing Del would not be easy. But I refused to believe she would intentionally put my people and me in harm’s way or that she would knowingly sit by while her mother used that damned island for her schemes again. I had to believe that.
I gulped down half of my ale and stared at Callon and Lyra. Both of them watched me with concern.
“You should get some rest,” I said curtly. “We leave at first light.”
My steps echoed down the shadowed corridor like the dreadful ticking of a clock. I was in no mood to sit and speak with Mother, to bear witness to her accelerated deterioration. But it had to be done.
We were closer than ever before, she and I, thanks to the weekly empathic check-ins that forced near-absolute honesty between us—it had taken all my effort and focus to conceal the truth about Liam’s paternity—and it seemed a cruel twist of fate that she would be taken from me soon. Now, when I had finally come to know her, to trust her, to seek her council. How unfair that the same circumstances that had breathed life back into our relationship were also killing her.
I paused at the door to Mother’s private chambers. A guard stood on either side of the doorway, their gazes weighing a thousand pounds each. I slowly drew air into my lungs, reinforcing my resolve to enter her rooms.
After blowing out the deep breath, I nodded to Saira, the dark-skinned, bright-eyed guard on the right. She was from a long line of royal guards, like Garath, and she was absolutely devoted not only to the kingdom but to our family. She stepped toward the doorway and pushed the door open, entering the dark sitting room ahead of me. The waning flames in the fireplace cast flickering shadows across the dark wood furnishings. I wrinkled my nose. Even out here, the scent of sickness tainted the air.
“Thank you, Saira,” I murmured.
She bowed her head and retreated out to the corridor. The door clicked shut behind me as I rounded the back of the sofa and crossed the sitting room, and I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I was alone.
When I reached the doorway to Mother’s bedroom, I paused on the threshold, my heart lodged in my throat.
Mother lay in her bed, flat on her back, still as death. Her long white hair had been wound into a thin braid that disappeared under the covers, but her arms were on top of the blankets, her frail hands folded over her middle, her veins clearly visible through her transparent, crepe paper skin.
I stared at her chest in the dim illumination from the lamp on her nightstand, waiting for it to rise, too long uncertain if it moved at all. The golden tint to the lamplight told me either Donis or Clover was the electric Elemental on duty tonight, powering the castle’s electricity.
Mother’s eyelashes fluttered suddenly, and her eyes drifted open. A terrible weight lifted off my chest.
“Del?” Mother said, her voice raspy where it had once been resonant. Her rheumy stare searched the room before latching onto me in the doorway. She squinted, then smiled. “It is you.”
Groaning, she rolled part of the way onto her side and stretched her arm toward the bedside table, her fingers reaching for her eyeglasses but falling short.
I rushed forward, retrieving her glasses off the nightstand and handing them to her, then helped her lean forward so I could add a couple of pillows behind her back to prop her comfortably in a sitting position. The physical contact between us sent images flitting through my mind, too fleeting and indistinct to understand. But her emotions were clear enough—sorrow, longing, regret.
And above all else, fear. Fear for herself and what she might soon find in the hereafter, and fear for the kingdom she would leave behind.
“I thought you were coming tomorrow,” Mother said, watching me as I turned away to fetch the chair in the corner and move it closer to the side of the bed. “Or are you worried I won’t make it that long?”
I set the chair down and stared at her hard. “That’s not funny,” I said, rounding the chair to sit.
She chuckled, but the laughter quickly transformed into a deep, rattling cough.
I waited until she had regained her breath and handed her the glass of water from the nightstand. “The cough is worse again?”
She nodded, raising the cup with one shaking hand. The hand tremors were one of the first telltale signs of the wasting sickness. She closed the fingers of her other hand tightly around the silver raven pendant she had worn for as long as I could remember. She looked so unsteady that I reached out to help her lift the water to her lips. When she finished drinking, I set the glass back down on the table.
“A small dose of the elixir would eradicate the pneumonia,” I reminded her. And it would knock back the progression of the wasting sickness a little.
Mother sighed, and even that rattled the fluid in her lungs. “Perhaps, but then what? In another week, it will be some other ailment.” This was how it always was in the end stage of the wasting sickness. The body was so weakened that every cold became a deadly illness. “No,” she went on. “We need to continue rationing doses to those with less severe cases, and we will reserve the rest for the labs. It would be wasted on me.”
I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest, huffing out my displeasure. “How long do you have, then?”
“A few days,” she said. “Perhaps a week.”
I clenched my jaw, my focus shifting past her to a painting of two women walking through a grain field hanging on the far wall. I had memorized the description on the bronze placard attached to the bottom of the frame long ago: Zoe Annabell Cartwright, Patron of the Empaths, and Rebecca Marie Vaughn, Patron of the Oracles. It was a common enough image in the iconography of the Temple of the Seven Kingdoms, but this was an unusually lifelike and vivid depiction of the two women.
Zoe’s dark hair, fair complexion, and keen aquamarine stare reminded me so much of how Mother had looked a decade ago, before the wasting sickness reclaimed her stolen youth and beauty, that I wondered if there might just be some truth to her claims that the Corvo line was descended from Zoe herself. I had my father’s darker coloring, so it was harder to make the comparison to myself directly.
I released a silent, bitter laugh. What did it matter? The Temple of the Seven Kingdoms was a sham. The Patrons weren’t gods. They had just been ordinary people trying to survive during extraordinary circumstances. They had lived through the Turn, and their momentous actions during the viral outbreak that transformed the world inevitably shaped the Seven Kingdoms into what it was. Only history and the Temple’s ever-evolving scriptures had warped them into something godlike.
“You’re in a sour mood,” Mother noted, still clutching her pendant. She had been doing that more and more frequently, as if it were a holy object, linking her to the Patrons themselves. “Alastor must be on his way back.”
My lip curled at the thought of my husband, but I said, “It’s not that.” My arms relaxed as the next breath left my body, and I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees and scrubbing my hands over my weary face. “It’s Liam,” I confessed.
Mother’s stare sharpened, and it was as though she had shed years right before my eyes. “What exactly is troubling you about my grandson?”
I lowered my hands and swallowed roughly, hesitating. Reconsidering. Doubting myself and the wisdom of finally sharing this secret with her. But the brief spark of hope from his empathic triumph this morning had been snuffed out by what I had witnessed during our ride.
I closed my eyelids, needing the visual shield from her penetrating stare. “Alastor is not Liam’s father,” I confessed.
Silence hung in the space between us, and my heartbeat became deafening to my ears.
Until Mother let out a bark of laughter that set off another round of coughing.
My eyes snapped open, and I waited for her to settle once more.
“Oh, Del,” she said, her chest still quaking with aftershocks of the coughing fit. “That is the best news I’ve heard in years.”
My mouth fell open, and I slowly shook my head.
“That would explain his Ability to communicate with animals,” she said, shocking me with the revelation that she had already known he was more than just an Empath. “Who is the father, then? A Telepath, obviously, but who?” Mother mused aloud. “Garath?”
Before I could respond, she answered for me. “No, that doesn’t fit with Liam’s coloring. Those green eyes and that auburn hair . . . ” She narrowed her gaze, pursing her lips.
I saw it the moment she connected the dots to the events of ten years ago. To the day I learned what she and Maylar had been up to, imprisoning and harvesting blood from Healers to create an elixir to keep the inbred elite of our kingdom alive. The same elixir had allowed Mother to extend her lifespan decades beyond what was natural. And the same elixir had caused a rebound effect within her body, resulting in her rapid decline over the past decade since she finally stopped dosing herself.
Ten years ago, we could have passed for sisters. Now, she appeared old enough to be my great-grandmother.
“It was that boy,” she said, her eyes unfocusing as she recalled the confrontation in her study. “The meddlesome Telepath who helped you steal Jake away from me.”
“We didn’t steal Jake,” I snapped. “You were holding him prisoner, Mother. You were torturing him. Your own ancestor. One of the Patrons.” I scoffed, disgusted by her past actions. “We freed him.”
She had captured Jake ten years ago, the only Patron who still lived, thanks to his Healer blood making him essentially immortal. She had intended to use him as she had the hundreds of other Healers she and Maylar had imprisoned, forcibly taking their blood to process into their precious healing elixir. She hadn’t planned on my interference.
“You know,” she said, ignoring my correction. “When you chose Alastor as your consort, I remember thinking you had a type.” She smiled to herself. “Big men with red hair.”
I frowned, seeing Fin in my mind’s eye. He had been on the taller side, his body honed by a life of hard work and survival with his people in the wildlands to the north, but he had been nowhere near as large as Alastor.
“His magnitude was more in his presence than in his physical size,” Mother said, picking up on my train of thought.
My mental shields had slipped, and she had plucked the thoughts right out of my mind. I slammed my walls back down, locking her out of my head.
“That’s why you fought me when I advised you to pick another suitor as your consort,” Mother mused. “I thought infatuation had blinded you to Alastor’s cruel nature, but you needed him to disguise your indiscretion. He was the closest in appearance to Liam’s father.”
The fight left me, and my shoulders sagged. Earlier today, during my ride around the castle grounds with Liam, he had proudly introduced me to each of the animals whose paths we crossed, even telling me many of their life stories.
“Liam’s telepathy is overshadowing his empathy,” I told Mother. “When he is tested on his birthday, I have little doubt that he will be classified as a Telepath, and then Alastor will know the truth.”
“Then I guess you have your deadline,” Mother said resolutely.
My stomach lurched. “My deadline for what?” I asked evenly.
Mother’s thin lips twisted into a sly smile, deepening her many wrinkles. “Don’t play the fool, daughter. You’re smarter than that.” She paused, letting the implication sink in. She was talking about killing Alastor. “Will you do it? Or will Garath take care of it for you?”
I straightened in my chair, my heart beating faster.
“He will kill you, Del,” Mother said. “He will kill you and Liam, both.” A statement. A fact. “The instant Alastor realizes Liam is not his blood, both of your fates will be sealed, if only to contain the truth of his inadequacy from his own father.”
My chin trembled, my eyes filling with tears. My heart leaden and sank into my stomach.
“Liam’s existence threatens Alastor’s claim to the Sierra throne,” Mother continued. “You have borne a healthy child—one healthy child—but not Alastor’s child. After all the failed pregnancies conceived by Alastor, his father will see him for the unqualified heir he truly is. He is incapable of fulfilling a regent’s most basic, essential duty—producing an heir of his own. If the truth gets out that the fertility issues plaguing your union are almost certainly born of his defective seed, he will lose everything, Del. He will silence every single person who knows.”
I swallowed the rising panic. “But if he kills me, he loses his hold on the Corvo Kingdom.”
Mother released a breathy laugh, then cleared her throat loudly. “It’s not quite as simple as that.” She offered me a sad smile. “Your death leaves the Corvo throne vacant. The nobles will fight over it like starving dogs, and I have little doubt that Alastor will take advantage of that power struggle. One way or another, he and his father will have our kingdom and our ports.”
I stared at Mother in disbelief. “What are you saying?” I shook my head. “That it’s a lost cause? That I should take Liam and run?” It was impossible not to think back to what Garath had said that morning. “I would be abandoning the kingdom to a monster. The Corvo Dynasty would be over. Your legacy . . .”
Mother’s focus drifted past me to the window and the view of the moonlit sea and the starry sky. “It was over before you were ever born,” she murmured. “But at least if you run, you and Liam will be alive.” Her lips quivered. “The two of you will be my legacy.”
I shook my head again, more firmly this time. “I’m not ready to give up just yet. There may be another way,” I said before filling her in on the reports of organized Feral attacks and my idea about playing those up to distract King Eduart.
I sat in silence, watching Mother’s carefully guarded expression as she considered my proposed plan. “It’s not a bad idea.” She angled her head to the side. “It would take time—far more time than I have left. You must be patient and subtle, or Eduart will catch wind of the subterfuge.”
“I can do that,” I assured her. “I can be subtle. And if it doesn’t work, Liam and I will leave before his birthday.” Before his ill-fated testing.
Mother was quiet, her stare assessing. “In the meantime, there is one other thing you will need to do to make this work,” Mother said.
I raised my eyebrows, a silent question.
“You will need to have a child, Del,” she said. “Another child. A successful pregnancy will divert Alastor’s attention from Liam and bolster his reputation with his father—both are essential while you lay your trap. It wasn’t hyperbole when I said you would need to be patient. This plan will stretch beyond Liam’s birthday.”
I was already shaking my head before she finished speaking. “I’ve been trying to bear Alastor’s child for ten years,” I reminded her. “Dozens of pregnancies—all ending the same way. Alastor and I can’t have a baby together.”
Mother’s eyes twinkled, and the corners of her mouth tensed. “I never said Alastor needed to be the father. He only needs to believe the child is his.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it again and leaned back in my chair.
“Garath and I aren’t—” I took a steadying breath, reorganizing my response before speaking again. “I don’t want to put him in that position. He’s the head of my personal guard and is always with me. He would have to be around his child every day but never be acknowledged as the father. It would be unfair, and worse, it would be cruel.”
Mother guffawed. “Garath is more of a father to Liam than either Alastor or that red-haired rebel has ever been, and it would be no different for his own child, regardless of what the rest of the world believed.” She inhaled a faintly gurgling breath. “He is a good man, and those are increasingly hard to find.” She raised her hand and tapped her temple with two fingertips. “Trust me, I know. And he is absolutely devoted to you. That man would walk off a cliff if he believed doing so would save your life. Besides, there has been no trace of the wasting sickness in his family.” She nodded definitively. “It should be Garath.”
My chin trembled at the thought of approaching Garath with this request. He was my best friend. My most trusted confidant. He was strong and handsome, and he truly was like a father to Liam, but he wasn’t . . . we weren’t . . . I didn’t feel that way about him. After so many years with Alastor, I wasn’t sure I could feel that way about anyone.
I knew she was right. Garath would do it. But in the end, it would wound him deeply.
I captured Mother’s hand and lowered my mental shields, allowing her to see the secret history I shared with Garath. I needed her to know exactly what she was asking me to do.
When I first learned I was pregnant with Liam, I had attempted to seduce Garath into eloping with me to disguise my indiscretion. But Garath had seen through me, and once he coerced the truth from me, he convinced me to tell Fin—to give my baby’s father a chance to be the father. We had made plans to meet at the summer solstice festival, but Fin never showed up. I was two months along, and I was scared—and desperately in need of a husband to preserve the perceived purity of my child’s bloodline.
Once again, I had turned to Garath. He had pledged his life to me but refused to marry me, knowing my heart lay elsewhere. He had claimed he feared he would end up falling in love with me, and the knowledge that I loved another would eat away at his devotion until he grew too bitter to fulfill his sworn duty. In the end, he had said, it would kill him.
He hadn’t liked my choice of Alastor for consort any more than Mother had, but none of the other available suitors had red hair or green eyes, like Fin, which meant the ruse would be pointless should the child emerge resembling its father. I had been foolishly determined to make my marriage and family appear legitimate, so much so, that I had been blind to just how unlike Fin Alastor truly was. Too late, I discovered the rotten core hidden beneath his charming exterior.
I had bled so heavily after Alastor’s rough consummation of our marriage that I felt certain I had lost the baby. Garath had been prepared to end Alastor’s life then, but two weeks later, I felt the first flutters of movement within me, and for the time being, Alastor’s life had been spared.
“Enough,” Mother said, withdrawing her hand. Tears streaked her heavily lined cheeks, and she wiped them away with one hand. “This changes nothing. If you wish to preserve your relationship with Garath, gather Liam and leave Corvo City now—tonight. If you wish to fight for the kingdom and follow through with the Ferals plan, then you must commit to this course, Delphinia, wholly and completely.” She suppressed a cough. “Or you will surely fail.”
Her shoulders hunched, her chest jerked with the most violent coughing fit I had witnessed yet. Blood splattered her hand and sprayed on the sheets. All of this talking was taking its toll on her body.
“I’ll fetch Dr. Robins,” I said, standing abruptly and rushing out of the room.
As I raced down the corridor, Mother’s words echoed in my bones, leaving me feeling hollowed out and incapable of making a decision. A decade ago, I had cursed her for her ability to make ruthless decisions with an ice-cold heart. But after all these years, I finally understood.
She had sacrificed the few—the Healers—to save a kingdom. She had made the tough call, time and again, so nobody else would have to do it. She couldn’t trust anybody else to do it, certainly not her tender-hearted, idealistic heir.
And now she was dying, leaving the fate of the kingdom in my hands.
All my youthful idealism had fled the moment the midwife set Liam on my chest. The world had crumbled and reformed around a new focal point—my son. Nothing else mattered as much as Liam and my desperate need to keep him safe. To protect him.
Motherhood had made me ruthless where my son was concerned. My marriage had hardened my heart, surrounding it with walls of iron and ice. Giving up hope of ever seeing Fin again had taught me about sacrifice, and each lost pregnancy strengthened my will to survive, press on, and persevere.
I could make the hard decisions now. I could be the heir Mother needed.
But was it enough to fool a greedy king? Was it enough to save a dying kingdom? Was it enough to protect my son? Was I enough?
Thanks for reading this preview of The Raven Queen (The Ending Legacy, book 1).
The book is available for preorder and will be released on 2/07/2023.
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