Chapter One

Autumn 1032, the Year of Attia’s Spear

The Lanark River Estate

North of Ballentrae, Arravan

 

It was the celebration of the autumn moon and Jessa, the Princess of Lyoness and lover of Darrius Durand, had never before encountered such a good-natured and straightforward event. The main barn of the Lanark River Estate had been transformed in a rather spectacular manner, the wood floor swept clean, the boards smooth and polished with not a wayward nail or peg. The doors and windows had been thrown open for days, and the air was heavy with the scent of pine and roasted meats, the odor of spices and baked apples layered beneath the heartier aroma of mustard seeds crushed with wine and onion.

Small bronze lanterns hung throughout the barn, and their golden light filled the structure with a welcomed warmth. One of Darry’s Boys, Lucien Martins, played the fiddle upon a small dais, accompanied by the daughter of Raymon Kenna. The Seneschal of the estate stood beside a table laden with sweets and sugared fruits as the delicate sound of his daughter’s flute moved beneath the strings. He had been speaking with Theroux Cain for days about the horses Darry wished to purchase, and no doubt their conversation continued. Emmalyn’s first husband, Lanark’s former owner, had long dreamt of running a stable of prized steeds, and that dream was now shared by many at Lanark.

Jessa’s gaze found Darrius with little trouble, and her emotions intensified as Darry stepped about Bentley and Etienne in search of a goblet. The former Princess of Arravan, and the now unofficial captain of Darry’s Boys, always seemed at home no matter the circumstances. The soldiers who followed her without question were not only Darry’s brothers in arms, but her brothers in spirit, as well. A family that had accepted Jessa into their ranks without hesitation.

Their flight from Blackstone Keep, the official seat of power in Arravan and home to the Durand royal family, was still fresh in her mind, though four months had passed since that dark night. That the Crown Prince of Arravan had sought to murder his own sister was still a shock to her. She was not unwise to the ways of a royal son, for her own brothers represented the worst in men, at least from what she had seen thus far. The sons of Durand were of a different sort, however, and it continued to haunt her thoughts. Prince Malcolm had murdered his own advisor that night, and implicated both Bentley Greeves and Etienne Blue, two of Darry’s most trusted friends, in the bargain. It was an unholy mess of power and greed, with pieces moved upon a board that stretched beyond the borders of two countries. And we are right in the thick of it, Jessa thought as she watched the lamplight catch upon her wine.

King Bharjah, Jessa’s own father, had been assassinated, which had left her brothers entangled in a civil war that was destined to pull her country apart at the seams. Arravan was on the brink of war, not only with Lyoness, but the Fakir of the Kistanbal Mountains. Her grandmother and teacher in all things, Lady Radha, had left her for the journey home, and Jessa’s own majik had blossomed beneath the weight of her need for it. The world had opened to her in all its unexpected glory and darkness, just as Radha had promised it would. Not so long ago, actually, beneath a spring moon.And we will have to face it all, at some point.

Jessa turned her left hand over and moved her fingers, rubbing her thumb against them. She could still remember her panic when Etienne had stumbled through the door of Sebastian’s Tower with Darry in his arms. Her hands had been bathed in blood, and at times, Jessa could still feel its heat upon her skin.

“Stop.”

Jessa smiled but did not look up.

“How am I to woo my lady on this fine autumn eve, if she is caught within memories that darken her heart against my words?” Darry asked in a sultry voice.

Jessa felt the heat of her lover’s body as Darry stepped closer.

“There is no poem, nor song sweet enough, that might charm your clever thoughts from the endless tide of strategies and countermoves that wash ashore. I cannot compete.”

Jessa lifted her face at that, wanting to laugh.

Darry’s eyes were bright with both humor and love. She was lean and powerful in her dark coat and red silk tunic, her black trousers tucked in her polished boots. Her hair fell about her shoulders and down her back, the main weight of her golden curls tied with a scarlet ribbon between her shoulder blades. Jessa understood that, as a warrior, Darry no longer needed a weapon—she wasthe weapon. And yet, there was an undeniable softness and warmth to her steel, and a taste unlike any other enticement in the world. It was a taste that Jessa ached for at any given moment.

“You have no competition and you know this, Akasha.”

Darry surveyed the room. “I would not dare entertain such an arrogant idea, my love,” she said beneath the music. “I am not worthy of so fine a woman as you. That is what I know.”

Jessa’s thoughts caught upon the words, surprised.

“Though I will say, now that I have you?” The quiet nature of Darry’s expression softened with the arrival of a smooth playfulness Jessa recognized. It made her heart quicken. “You shall not be going anywhere without me, anytime soon.”

Jessa’s smile returned as Darry set her goblet on the table beside them. She took Jessa’s, as well, and then held out her hand. “I would dance with you, my sweet Jess. As we should have danced in the Great Hall, not so long ago upon Solstice Eve.”

Jessa slipped her hand in Darry’s and the warmth of her lover’s touch spread beneath her skin and pushed its way along her arm. She could feel her blood rise and a blush heat the skin of her neck.

Jessa followed her onto the center of the floor and Darry spun upon the toes of her boots. Jessa caught her breath as she was pulled close, and she let her gaze drift along the curve of Darry’s mouth and the shape of her nose. Darry’s eyes were filled with fire, the deep blue of the sea beside the intense green of the forest.

The music faded into silence and Jessa’s knees were oddly weak. She felt as she had the night of her welcoming fete at Blackstone Keep, at the mercy of her heart and not knowing what to do about it. The Mohn-Drom had been danced and she had fallen in love.

Darry’s expression was filled with mischief. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’m saving the Mohn-Drom for later.”

Jessa’s heart thrummed in her chest and then she laughed happily as the odd spell was broken. She stepped close, took Darry’s face in her hands, and kissed her soundly. She tasted of Darry’s tongue for a brief instant and then Darry took her hand. Darry found Lucien, who waited for his cue upon the small dais. “The Amandeese, Master Martins, if you would, please.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” Lucien responded with a grin.

Jessa remembered all too vividly their first dance as she stepped close and turned her head to the side. Her left hand was raised high in Darry’s right, and just as before, the touch at Jessa’s waist burned through her dress as if it was not even there, and then the music played.

They stepped into the opening turn and Jessa found Darry’s eyes. Their thighs pressed close as they moved, so much closer than before, with Darry’s left arm against the side of her breast. It was wonderfully intimate and familiar, so different than that afternoon in the solar all those months ago. Darry led with a sleek confidence that had been lacking in their first dance, and Jessa understood this time the true majik of Darry’s attention.

Darry stepped away and Jessa lifted her arm high, Darry’s touch like a flame across the skin of her palm as she spun beneath Jessa’s outstretched arm, once, twice, and then she was close once more.

Darry’s right leg was deep between her own as they turned and then twirled through the last sequence of steps. She fell into her lover’s strength quite willingly, and without the shyness that had once been her closest companion. The last steps were upon them before she knew it and the quick step turning passed away as they spun as one through the finish.

They stood before all of their friends, their new family, and it did nothing to temper Jessa’s passion in the sudden silence. Darry’s lips were so close, and the scent of her skin overwhelmed Jessa’s senses, musk and the sea impossibly entwined.

“Are you going to kiss me?” Darry asked in a whisper.

“I might,” Jessa responded, her desire awake and alive in her belly.

Darry’s full lips curled with a smile and Jessa lifted her eyes. “I think you should.”

“So do I,” Jessa agreed as her left hand found the back of Darry’s neck and drew her down. She opened Darry’s mouth and kissed her with passion, her hand fisting within Darry’s hair. Darry bent her back in response, and she gave Jessa the kiss she so desperately wanted, passionate and hot-blooded with promise.

A riotous cheer went up and the fiddle burst forth with sound, a reel that sang out bold and fast beneath the high roof of the barn.

Jessa felt the lack of Darry’s lips as Darry released her in a swirl of movement, and Tobe Giovanni, Matthias Brave, and Matty the Younger crowded close. Orlando Davignon reached out and took her hand. “Dance, my Lady?”

Jessa’s eyes found Darry as Matthias said with conviction that he’d been promised the reel that very morning.

Darry returned her gaze, her eyes intense as she smiled in a most beautiful, open manner.

Jessa licked her lips for any last taste of her lover. “I love you,” she said in a soft push of words.

Darry’s expression deepened and her eyes flared, and then Bentley took hold of his dearest friend and danced her away before Jessa could speak against it.

“My Lady?” Matthias demanded. “Tell him.”

Jessa laughed. “I believe I promised Matty.”

The younger man laughed happily and let out a whoop as Orlando grabbed Matthias by the collar. “Dance with me, you handsome fool.”

Matthias slid in close as he took Orlando by the waist. “You’re such a tart.”

“I have a nice ass, too.”

Matthias flashed a subtle and yet somehow wicked smile. “You do, actually, it’s true.”

“What about me?” Tobe called as they spun away from him.

Jessa found Matty the Younger, suddenly quiet and still as he considered his unexpected victory. “Do you know the reel, Matty?”

The young man stared at her offered hand and his face was red as he looked up.

Jessa stepped closer and took his elbow. “Then I will teach you. They’ll never know.”

“I didn’t expect to be chosen,” Matty replied, startled.

Jessa pulled the young man with her as she stepped onto the open floor. She caught sight of Darry as Bentley and her lover spun smoothly near the dais. Jessa smiled as Matty took her by the waist with an uncertain touch. “Neither did I,” she admitted.

 

Chapter Two

Autumn 1032, the Year of Attia’s Spear

Lokey, Arravan

 

“Do you think it will work?” Emmalyn, the eldest daughter of the Durand family, studied each of her younger brothers in turn.

Jacob’s expression was uncertain. “I don’t—”

“I don’t give a whore’s cock whether it will work or not,” Wyatt Durand said as he moved from the shadows and into the firelight. He was nearly six and a half feet tall, with the broadest shoulders Emmalyn had seen upon any Durand, even her uncle Sullidan. His formal uniform was cut close about his chest, and his white tunic was bright beneath it. His sword belt caught the light from the fire, as did his blue eyes beneath his tightly cut curls of black hair. He had shaved that afternoon, but the light caught upon a fresh dusting of beard growth and turned it gold. “I will fucking beat it out of him in front of the entire rotting court.” He glared at Jacob, frustrated. “These bloody games will get us nowhere!”

“Please, Wyatt.” Emmalyn’s voice was quiet and calm. “Keep your voice down.”

“Why?” he demanded, leaning back at the waist. “Because of his spies?”

Jacob sighed and sank farther into his chair. “Yes.”

“Aren’t yousupposed to be the bloody Prince of Spies?”

The silence was thick within the room and then Jacob rose up, his chair shoved back with such violence that it tipped over with a clatter.

“Listen, you bloody oaf.” Jacob’s right hand stabbed against Wyatt’s chest, but Wyatt’s feet did not move. “If this is the truth, and Gamar help me, I know that it is, then Malcolm has done murder…aside from trying to kill his own sister, a daughter of the blood. Do you think he will confess that information just because you knock his nose to the side in front of the ladies? He is playing a game deeper than any I have seen, and if Jessa was right, his assassin has killed a king. And that assassin was my man, an honorable man who sacrificed his life for his family.”

That Malcolm had coerced a man into murder by threatening the lives of children had changed the game and sent them all tumbling into an ethical and moral darkness they might never escape from.

“And where is his family?” Jacob continued. “They are not where I last left them, I can tell you that much. Five young girls and their mothers fled from the only homes they have known, and their fathers, caught in the turning and forced to entrust their children to the son of their country’s greatest enemy. And where did thatget them?”

Jacob took a small step closer, looking up. His anger was on display and it was a rare thing. “Into the mouth of a hell I had promised to save them from, that’s where it got them. Until we find them, Wyatt, we can do nothing without proof, or the heirs of Almahdi de Ghalib will haunt us for the rest of our days.”

Emmalyn could see that Wyatt took Jacob’s warning to heart. It dampened the fire of his anger in a way that Emmalyn had not seen from him before. When he had gone north five years ago for the Greymear border and Senegal, he had been a hotheaded young man with confidence and charm to spare. Emmalyn could see that while he still possessed those traits in abundance, he had grown in both subtlety and compassion. His temper was much the same, although that, too, had changed into something more measured and somewhat mysterious in its presentation.

He had been home for over a month, and he had returned to a house in turmoil, embroiled in scandal and on its heels. He had been informed of Darry’s absence from Blackstone, but he had borne the news with a quiet, frustrated expression and not much else. It had been a true surprise to both Malcolm and their parents that his reaction had been so hardened.

Emmalyn had Royce to thank for that. Her lover’s secret trip to Kastamon City in order to meet with Wyatt, before the Seventh crossed the Armasha River for the last leg of their journey home, had been the key to everything. Royce had delivered Emmalyn’s letter with no one the wiser, and Emmalyn knew that Wyatt had wept when he read it.

“But she is truly well now, isn’t she?” Wyatt asked in a worried, almost defeated voice. “She is fully recovered from whatever he did to her, isn’t she? Telling me she is well is not good enough. You must tell me where they are, Jacob, please. Don’t make me keep asking.”

Emmalyn met Jacob’s gaze. Jacob stepped to the side and said, “Then you must ask our sister. Even I don’t know where they are.” Jacob gave her a grudging smile. “She takes my missives and they end up where they end up.”

Emmalyn lifted her eyes to Wyatt’s. “No.”

“That isn’t fair and you know it, Em.”

“Perhaps not. But what will you do if I tell you?”

Wyatt considered the question. “I would find some way to see her, and let her know that she’s not alone in this.” Wyatt’s handsome expression was filled with tender emotion. “I would…I would kiss the hand of her beloved.”

Emmalyn’s heart gave a tug at his words, and she recognized the wonder in his tone. “She is not alone, and she is recovered from her wounds. She has Jessa, and she has the Wild Bastards.”

Wyatt blinked and then his brow went up. “The Wild Bastards? When did thathappen?”

“When Darry’s Boys rode through a cyclone that tore half the barracks to the ground, sucked the stones from the mortar of the solar walls, and then disappeared into a magical garden never to be seen again,” Emmalyn said with a sly grin. “It’s too dangerous, Wyatt, and I will not allow it. She is well, and she is not alone. You have my oath on it.”

Wyatt stared at her and Emmalyn tilted her head to the side, ever so slightly.

“Yes, my Lady.”

“Father excludes Mal from what he can, but if it is known that the succession is in jeopardy, a schism will break the court. With Father’s impending war against the Fakir but a careless word away from spilling into Lyoness instead, on the backs of a screaming Arravan horde, he can only do so much without pitting himself against his firstborn son for all the world to see. Malcolm’s following among the young lords on the council has become too great.”

Emmalyn pushed from her chair and smoothed at her skirt as she stood before her brothers.

“Find Almahdi de Ghalib’s family, Jacob, and see if you can find a reliable spy in the Salish home. I’ve not forgotten Melora’s treachery against Darry, and with Marteen dead, she may have become more of a confidante to Mal than she wished to be. Though how that may end when the truth of what happened that night is finally revealed, I have no idea. Malcolm’s tale of Bentley seeking revenge for Darry’s downfall may make sense to those who know him by reputation alone, but the scene and the circumstances of the crime are a lie in the worst way, and everyone sees it. And they see it without having the information that we do.”

Emmalyn’s eyes drifted to the flames in the fireplace as she remembered how Etienne Blue had refused to leave her side during the Siege of the Great Hall. When the Sahwello had broken past the wall of tables, he had stepped in front of her and stood his ground. I won’t leave you, he had said, and he hadn’t.

“I will speak to Lord Greeves myself, on Etienne Blue’s behalf,” she added as she turned from the fire. “That he has no one to stand for him, as Bentley does, is its own injustice. Treemont Greeves will listen, and I’ll not have the crimes of another fall onto Etienne alone, for the sole reason that he lacks a rightful name. I think Malcolm is finding the Greeves family more powerful than he had imagined they were.”

Jacob nodded. “I agree, on all of it, Emma.”

“And let us not forget the weakest link in Malcolm’s chain.”

“I’ll see to that one.” Wyatt’s tone was dark as he acknowledged her words. “It shouldn’t take much to woo him over.”

“No,” Emmalyn countered. “Leave Captain Jefs alone. Your sudden attention will raise suspicion, if not with Jefs, then most certainly with Mal. He is the man who supports Mal’s story of what happened that night. He is either under his thumb, as Lord de Ghalib was, or a partner in whatever Mal is planning. Either way, he’ll be closely watched.”

Wyatt frowned. “Then what in all seven hells am I supposed to do?”

“Become a charming new member of Malcolm’s circle,” Emmalyn answered with ease. “Avoid any talk of Darry. Your affection for her is a well-known fact, and he’ll not forget that. Don’t overdo things, but side with him against Father when you see the advantage. Take him drinking at Madame Dubassant’s and pay for his pleasure. Throw your arm about his shoulders when he becomes frustrated, and then, when the moment is right? Share with him your belief that Lyoness will be ripe for the picking. When the bloodletting between Jessa’s brothers comes to an end, any soldier with an eye for such things will know it for the truth. Invite him into the inner circle of the Seventh, which he has always looked upon with great desire.”

Wyatt’s shoulders fell somewhat.

“Ask him for his advice on matters of war.”

Wyatt’s expression contorted. “Gamar’s balls, Emmalyn.”

Emmalyn couldn’t help but smile. “Wyatt, you are the only man Malcolm has ever openly admired. That is a weapon entirely too useful to leave rusting by the side of the road, merely because it is heavy. We have no choice but to seek justice, not only for Darry, but for Marteen Salish. We have Bentley’s account of what happened from Nina, and Jessa’s word, as well. Do you have faith in Darry’s honor?”

“More than my own,” Wyatt replied with a slight grin.

“Then you must give Jessa’s words the same weight you would give Darry’s.” A lift of her eyebrow silenced any further comment. “And I don’t care if Marteen wasa toad, as Darry was wont to call him. Murder is a crime that demands justice, and I will not stand by and watch the throne of Arravan be sullied, nor turned into a game piece for Malcolm to gamble with.”

“I’m with you, Emma, but you’re not letting me use my best weapon. Intrigue is a blade I might open my own throat with, and we all know it.”

“Then improve your skills as quickly as you can,” Emmalyn advised. “Because I assure you this is Darry’s best hope, and ours, as well.”

Wyatt sighed and his face cleared somewhat. “What was Bentley Greeves doing in Nina’s bedchamber, anyway?” He gave a smile. “I thought our little water rat was going to marry Hammond Marsh.”

“She still is, as far as I know.”

Wyatt’s blue eyes gave a playful flash. “Cousin Nina is all grown up.”

“Stow that in your pocket, littlebrother,” Emmalyn warned. “Hammond is lovely, but he’s a complete bore and we all know it. Nina will follow her heart, and you will both be nothing but supportive of her, and you will defend her honor to the last if it comes to that. Bentley Greeves may have the reputation of a cad, but he is one of the most honorable and trustworthy men I have ever met. I’m not surprised that he’s not met his match until now.”

Wyatt set a hand upon his brother’s shoulder and looked at her, his scrutiny as keen as she had ever seen it. “Are you still unbeaten at Kings and Jackals, sister?”

“She is,” Jacob answered for her. “And so what now?”

“Now we attend the autumn moon celebration. Alisha and Nina can only keep the wolves at bay for so long, before our absence is noted.” She looked to Wyatt. “And make sure that you dance with your queen, or I shall tan your tall and pretty hide for all the Seventh to see.”

Wyatt’s expression softened. “Yes, my Lady.”

Emmalyn turned with a swirl of her silken skirt and walked away from them. When she reached the door, Wyatt’s voice stopped her.

“We should talk soon, Emma, about Mother’s place in all of this. We’ve not spoken of her yet, and I think it’s time we did.”

Emmalyn felt the cool iron of the door handle against her palm. “She mourns the loss of a second child…” The words burned through her chest and she let them light her way. And she will lose another before this is over, one way or another. “Darry shall not return to us, unless it is to kill Malcolm. And so I believe she’s not likely to ever return.” Emmalyn closed her eyes against what she knew to be true. “Mother will come to us when she is ready.”

 

Chapter Three

Jessa followed Darry down the shadowed hallway, a single lamp left lit by the top of the stairs. They had danced and they had eaten. They had laughed and played games of chance, and they had told stories. And then they had danced some more, leaving an empty cask of spring wine in their wake. Her feet had never been so sore, but she had one last dance left, and the music of its beat sang within her veins as she tightened her fingers about Darry’s. She had never danced the Mohn-Drom with another, but she was about to, and she had been ready since Darry had first spun out the intricate steps upon the polished floor of the Great Hall.

Darry opened the door, and Jessa moved smoothly as she twirled into their room. Darry closed the door behind them and then followed, close at Jessa’s hip. She caught Jessa by the waist and Jessa swayed and bent away from her, smiling at the certain strength that pulled her back. They turned across the floor in a glide of close steps.

Jessa felt the hands low upon her hips, and the press of Darry’s body, her powerful thighs and the smooth, defined muscles of her upper body. Jessa pushed back, the pulse between her legs pounding well beyond her memory of the bodhran’s beat. Darry’s left hand was possessive as she cupped Jessa’s breast, Jessa’s hardened nipple caught beneath Darry’s thumb. Jessa kissed her and Darry lifted her from the floor as their tongues met, Jessa grasping Darry’s curls and pulling the ribbon free.

Jessa’s mouth opened fully and she moaned, her body demanding more. “I don’t…” Darry turned them toward the bed and Jessa’s feet touched the floor. Jessa began to undo the buttons at her waist. “I don’t think you’re meant to finish this fiklochedance.”

Darry stepped back and yanked her jacket off, her hands moving down the buttons of her tunic an instant later. Jessa took advantage, her hands gliding upon Darry’s exposed skin and over her heavy scars. The scar upon her ribs from the Siege of the Great Hall, and the lighter one beneath that, the cut to repair the damage her duel with Joaquin had caused. Her touch was fervent upon the dark tissue below Darry’s left collarbone, a constant reminder that their love held a price in blood. She closed her hands upon Darry’s breasts and leaned in. Darry kissed her again, naked from the waist up as the remaining buttons at the back of Jessa’s dress opened beneath the subtle skill of Darry’s fingers.

Jessa pulled free of the bodice and pressed her breasts against Darry’s.

“I love you,” Darry said in a strained voice. Her different-colored eyes were on the edge of wild, and yet they held a keen awareness that tipped Jessa’s world.

Jessa’s hands slid upward until she held Darry’s face. Her mouth brushed against Darry’s as she spoke. “You are the sweetest thing I have ever tasted, Akasha.” Jessa kissed her deeply, a hard quiver of pleasure sliding along the flesh between her legs. She wondered if she would spend her spirit upon a kiss. It would not be the first time she had done so, nor the last, her heart wagered.

Darry’s hands pulled at Jessa’s skirt and the fabric rustled as Jessa pushed completely free of her remaining clothes. The buttons of Darry’s trousers popped open beneath Jessa’s fingers, and she slipped her hand beneath the soft material of Darry’s breeches as well. She felt briefly of the heat and then slid her hand free, moving her nails along the tight skin in a teasing manner. She licked her lips as Darry’s abdomen jerked in reaction. “Kiss me, Akasha.”

A smooth whoosh of air rushed along Jessa’s skin as she fell.

The bed caught her with softness and Darry moved between her legs, Jessa’s hands sliding about Darry’s ribs, and then lower, grasping at her buttocks as the firm muscles pushed smoothly. Darry’s mouth opened Jessa’s, and Jessa felt the fierce rise of her pleasure, pulling her hands back as Darry slipped her arm between them.

Jessa was lost at the first passionate caress upon her sex, her hips thrusting in reaction as she tried to breathe within the depths of their kiss. Darry’s fingers circled and stroked her flesh with ever increasing speed, and Jessa fell from the edge as she spent in a wave of heat, the fullness of Darry’s fingers slipping within her body. She cried out, her hands pulling at Darry’s shoulders as her head pushed into the soft covers of their bed. Her flesh seized and convulsed with the purest of pleasures, Darry’s left hand closing in Jessa’s hair. Darry turned Jessa’s head as Jessa spent beneath her, her open mouth tasting of Jessa’s neck. The bite caused a sharp burst of pleasure to blossom atop the first, and Jessa’s cry moved along her throat in a decadent manner, never released, as the muscles of her neck strained beneath her satisfaction.

Jessa’s hands moved weakly in Darry’s hair as her body jerked and then shuddered into that profound place beyond the intensity of her bliss. Darry’s touch gentled in a slow manner and Jessa opened her eyes, her heartbeat still wild as her hands tightened in Darry’s hair. Darry’s fingers slipped free of her flesh but did not leave as Darry shifted her weight.

Akasha…” Jessa whispered with love and closed her legs upon Darry’s hand.

Jessa took hold of Darry’s face and lifted it to her own.

She stared into Darry’s eyes while she caught her breath, and she remembered the midnight streets of Karballa, where she had worn her loneliness like a second cloak beneath the protection offered by the Veil of Shadows.

Her steps had been silent amidst the people, and she remembered having no fear as she moved through the darkness. She remembered the sea of voices, and the music of stray laughter somewhere in the distance. She remembered the heat, and the sound of music, as if from a dream as it drifted above the rooftops. Lovers glimpsed through a window, their passion shared as their bodies moved beneath the cries of pleasure given and received. Things she had long understood would never be hers.

Jessa grabbed Darry by the shoulders and pushed away from the bed, rolling them over.

She straddled her lover and kissed her, breathing in Darry’s scent, tasting her, savoring and living their love. She reached beneath Darry’s clothes and stroked her, Darry’s hands taking hold of Jessa’s thighs in a rough manner. Jessa’s tongue stretched and searched, her heart dazed by the silken, swollen touch of Darry’s need. She let her fingers play and tease, and then like a hunter, she demanded her price.

It was always this, this wonder that filled her soul when Darry was beneath her touch, the certain knowledge that Darry loved her regardless of what the Great Loom might want. That she had found so much passion in a life that had always promised so little of such things. It was as intoxicating as any other joy they experienced together.

Jessa could feel it in Darry’s flesh and she freed her lover’s mouth, pressing her face against the heat of Darry’s cheek. She closed her eyes and bit her lip at Darry’s rough, aching cry, Darry’s legs tightening as her hips lifted from the bed in a rush of spirit.

 

v

 

“What is this?” Jessa asked as she ate another piece of blackened meat.

“It’s rabbit.”

Jessa licked her fingers as she leaned back between Darry’s legs, at her leisure against the warmth of Darry’s naked body. They were covered by the sheet and light blanket of their bed, the plate balanced between Jessa’s chest and raised knees. The lamp upon the bedside table had been lit, and its light was filled with warmth. “It does not taste like rabbit.”

“There is a sauce of sweet peppers and spices, and then it’s baked.”

Jessa leaned to the side and smiled back at her lover. Darry accepted the piece of meat she offered with a slow, playful mouth.

“It’s very good,” Darry agreed. “Give me your fingers.”

Jessa’s eyes closed slightly and her lips parted in a heady wave of desire as Darry sucked the sauce from her fingers, one at a time. Her stomach flipped in a slow manner and she felt it deep within her thighs. “Your mouth might topple an entire kingdom, Akasha, if used in such a manner.”

Darry’s legs tightened their embrace. “Not when my feet hurt this much.”

Jessa laughed and returned to their food. “The Mohn-Drom is the only dance that did not crush my toes.”

Darry laughed with her. “Praise the gods.”

“I will say, though, that never once did you, Darrius Lauranna, overstep your boundaries upon the dance floor.” She ate another piece. “Nor did Arkady or Bentley, for that manner.” Jessa stopped chewing and turned her head slightly. “Did you dance with Arkady?”

“I did not dance with Arkady, my love,” Darry answered, and Jessa could hear the smile in her voice.

“A wise decision.”

Jessa could feel Darry’s face in the fullness of her hair, and then the warmth of Darry’s breath along the side of her neck. The flesh between her legs clenched in reaction. “Do not be jealous, my Princess.”

“This very bed, Akasha, is proof of how the Mohn-Drom is meant to end.” The sudden, subtle push of the Vhaelin was in her blood and Jessa set the plate aside, sensing the panther’s presence. “I could not take it,” she confessed as she twisted about at the waist. “To see another person touch you so, I could not take it again.”

Darry shifted them both in a quick movement and Jessa opened her legs. Their bodies came together and Jessa filled her hands with Darry’s hair. “I will not ever leave you, sweet Jess. Not ever, I promise. Do you not understand that I am only here in this life for you and you alone?”

Jessa smoothed Darry’s brow, easing the crease her passionate emotions had caused. It was a new expression for Darry, since her encounter with Malcolm. Darry had lost something that terrible night, some essential part of her carefree spirit. That lost innocence had been replaced with a dangerous ferocity and, oftentimes, a sadness that Jessa knew would always be there. “I have only just found you again, Akasha…For the rest of our lives, I will have only just found you.”

Darry’s hips thrust smoothly and Jessa caught her breath as her passion flared. Her nipples ached with the sweetest of pains, pressed beneath Darry’s. “Then let us make the most of it.” Darry kissed her and bit gently at Jessa’s lower lip. “And feast while we may.”

Jessa smiled as Darry moved down her body, Darry’s lips burning a trail of intent. Darry’s fingers traced along Jessa’s swollen sex, flirting through her spirit before she parted Jessa’s legs. Jessa reacted to the delicate touch and scattered the pillows in search of the carved spindles of the headboard.

Darry took hold of Jessa’s hips in a decisive manner and pulled her closer before she kissed her belly, slowly, tasting of her skin so thoroughly that Jessa felt the delicious echo of Darry’s lips within her legs. “The Kingdom of Lady Jessa,” Darry said softly, and Jessa could hear the smile in her voice.

Jessa laughed in her throat and turned her face to the side, closing her eyes in pleasure. “Perhaps I should jus—” Darry kissed her sex, no longer teasing but decidedly certain of what she wanted. Jessa pulled against the headboard as she caught her breath. “Surrender.”

 

v

 

Darry walked through the throne room of Blackstone Keep, the light from the lamps above twisting in the hot breeze that washed through the chamber.The light slashed and cut across her vision and she narrowed her eyes against it. She moved with caution through the haze that floated just above the floor, a fog of warmth rolling over the worn stones.

She was dressed for battle, her heavy homespun blacks worn beneath her armor, the layered leather vented and shifting with her as she moved. The studs and buckles on the dark brown leather would flash into the shadows and she would have to turn her head against it. She flexed her fingers upon the grip of her sword.

“Is this better than a cell?”

Darry crouched and spun upon her toes, only to rise up in the heat and slash with the back edge of her blade. The heat parted upon her steel and she turned smoothly, her father’s throne rising up on her left with an odd screech of sound. The ornamental leaves rattled and shook upon their branches until they broke free of their fasteners and clattered across the floor, disappearing.

“Do you think a cock for a tongue will please her?”

Darry whirled into the dance and the chamber filled with the unbroken sound of her sword. Her movements flowed like water, without a hitch or a stutter.

She slid to a stop as her weapon slashed downward, held beside the length of her right leg with a final ping of sound. She fell within a stillness she recognized and tried to focus. The heat swarmed about her boots and it was hard to breathe. She could feel the sweat slide down her back as the lamp above her went out beneath the whisper of her name.

The girl appeared from out of the mist and walked toward her. Her dress was a dark blue, a silk that shimmered and flowed until it stopped just below her knees. Thick black hair tumbled about her shoulders, blue ribbons caught in the curls.

Darry’s heart hammered in her chest and she took a step, her sword falling lax at her side as she stood up straight and her shoulders eased. She recognized her mother’s eyes in the child’s face and a pang of sadness twisted through her heart.

“You came back,” the girl said in a pleased voice. She lifted her hands, and the fragile, faded petals she held floated into the air upon a wave of indigo light. “These are for you.”

Darry felt the arrow enter between her shoulders despite the armor she wore, the broad head ripping and pushing through her flesh. Her back bowed forward as the leather gave way between her breasts and the bolt tore free in a shower of blood. Her sword clattered to the stones as she slammed to her knees, tipped to the side, and fell.

 

Darry stumbled from their bed and dropped to her knees in reaction to the pain. It swarmed through her body, and she pulled her chin back as it threatened to split her skull. Her fingers dug into the rug, and the darkness behind her eyelids flared with a piercing light that tumbled away from her in a shower of stars.

The blood that fell between her hands soaked the rug. It was but a few drops at first, and then it was more, too much, and she knew it. Darry pushed to her feet and swayed as the room tipped, her blood hot as it filled her nose and slid over her lips. Her voice was strained. “Jess…”

She stepped to the end of the bed and pulled on her trousers, concentrating as she did each of the buttons. Her hands shook, and though she willed them to stop, they did not. She coughed in a rattling manner as she stepped back with her tunic and shrugged her shoulders into it. The birds of morning had begun to sing, though the sun had yet to crest the edge of the world. It was coming, though, and she could feel it as her heart took on a new beat, a faster beat, a more powerful beat.

She blinked and looked down as she pulled her touch along the skin of her stomach, her hand coming away rich with blood. Jessa’s presence filled her body and she could smell her lover’s flesh, the very essence and heat of her blood, as well as the sweet aroma of her sex. She turned in a stilted manner, unable to stop the release of strength that poured through her muscles.

She had not allowed her full Cha-Diahblood to come since the Sahwello had attacked, and so she let it, understanding that it was far too late anyway. She let go and a soft moan slipped along her throat. Her muscles shuddered with a bone-deep relief that was both wondrous and terrible at the same time. “Jessa.”

“Darry,” Jessa whispered, pulled from her sleep. Jessa blinked and took a deep breath through her nose as she stretched. The majik overwhelmed her senses in an instant, its pungent, ancient scent trampling over all else. She pushed up and twisted about, her eyes wide.

Darry stood near the bureau across the room, barefoot and half dressed, her dagger in hand. The curved blade caught the lamplight as it stretched away from the back of her hand. Her power rolled in waves, pouring over her shoulders in a cascade of soft, golden light, flecked through with a strange blue. Blood painted her lips and chin, curving its way between her breasts and over the muscles of her stomach.

Jessa moved with extreme caution as she pulled herself to the edge of the bed. She dropped her feet to the floor and pushed the covers aside with a slow, deliberate hand. “Akasha, come to me, please,” she said softly, her mind searching instantly for the proper spell. She did not possess the proper runes, however, and she knew it. She did not even know what those runes might be. Darry’s majik had overwhelmed her, and Jessa had no idea how she might stop it.

Don’t…” Darry’s voice was a low growl of sound from deep within her body. “Don’t be afraidJess.”

Jessa smiled as she stood up and reached out, the gesture measured and gentle. “I’m not,” she lied. “My love…come to me now, all right? It will be all right.” She took a careful step.

Darry turned, and Jessa jerked at the burst of movement, startled as Darry bolted onto the balcony, swung her legs over the railing, and disappeared into the darkness.

Jessa ran and slid to a stop against the railing, tipping past its safety for just an instant until she grabbed it with strong hands. The courtyard below her was empty, the trees caught in the fall of moonlight and shadows both. The hedges that were trimmed so neatly and the pathway which led to the front hall were eerily still and silent, and her gaze was pulled to the gates that had been left open. That way lay the gardens and the orchard, and beyond them both, the depths of the forest.

She pushed back and turned her right hand, her palm wet with blood from the rail.

She took a slow step back, and then another, the air before dawn cool against her naked body. A shiver moved along her spine, and she closed her eyes, her heart sinking like a stone as a sea of regret opened wide beneath her. She could hear Radha’s voice in her head, rightfully harsh with disappointment. How could you not have looked for the runes, you foolish child!