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Kingdom of Tricksters and Fools

Series: 
Release Date: July 25, 2024

Princess Emiana is beauty and grace itself. Raised in refinement, nursed in tradition, and fashioned into the perfect bride for the shadowed fae King of Wind and Wild.

Too bad that b*tch ain’t me.
She captured me, cursed me, and forced me to marry in her place.
Now the king has me in his hold.

More beast than man, by day he fashions me a prison of bark and earth. At night, he takes me like a wild animal—his bride and mate till the world burns down around us.

I can’t tell him who I truly am. I can’t warn him of what’s coming. But as deadly plots come to bear and war looms on the horizon, I get the feeling that imposter or not…

…he’s never letting me go.

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Chapter One

“Jaclan? Jaclan!”

The eight-year-old stopped spinning wildly on the browning grass and frowned at me. Seemed I interrupted vital business.

“What?”

“The clouds grow heavy. Bring in the sheets, please. Get Gisela to help you.”

“I don’t need help. I can do it myself.” Jaclan ran headfirst through the quilt, swinging and swiping his arms at the fabric, and ended up blinking and confused on the other side.

I hid a smile as I bounced the baby. Jac had been on this independent streak since he started school. No doubt his instructors were filling his head with stern words of how he would soon be the man of the household—tasked with using his magic to protect his mother and sisters, then one day his wife and daughters.

Jac tried again to tackle the quilt and ended up flat on the grass.

His instructors clearly hadn’t known him long enough. It’d be a while yet before this dreamy, clumsy boy untied from the apron strings, and what was wrong with that? A child should be a child. Not a protector. Not a provider.

My eyes drifted over his head to the sign once again plastered on our door. They narrowed.

And not a pawn.

“Ahh,” Savia cooed.

Shaking myself, I settled my squirmy sister in the sling and knelt down in the vegetable patch. It was doing well despite the sorry state of the rest of our small scratch of land. Meliora and I had been forced to ration our water through the dry season, sharing it with the patch. It paid off in enough green beans, radishes, carrots, and squash to make a vegetable soup that would actually fill our bellies that night.

I worked in a steady rhythm of weeding, digging, cleaning, and singing to the baby. My croons carried on the wind, covering the sounds coming through the window overhead.

Fat, stinging pellets of rain struck my back, signaling its final warning to go inside. I rose on aching knees with my basket of goods. Turning around, I found the sheets exactly where I put them and no Jac in sight.

Sighing, I dropped the basket and quickly took them down myself—running inside as the heavens opened. I paused only to rip that cursed sign from my front door. It’d be back again in a few days’ time, then that parchment would meet the same fate.

Jaclan sat at the table with my second-youngest sister and his twin, Gisela.

“—is the rune for water.” He stuck his tongue out, concentrating hard as he drew directly on our worn, splintered table. “See?”

Nodding, Gisela scrunched up her sweet, cherubic face, swiping her unruly golden curls out of the way as she copied him. A wave of such sadness hit me, I would’ve sworn it summoned the crack of thunder that struck that moment.

“Haeowen, look!” Gisela waved at me, bouncing in her seat. Haeowen as in honored sister. The young weren’t allowed to address those older than them by their given names. Not even within families. I didn’t care in the slightest and told her so, but even as a babe there was a seriousness about Gisela—the perfect balance to her wild twin.

She followed the rules. Did things in the right order. Asked permission before taking a step. She sought law, order, and structure in our world of chaos, as if following the rules would one day bring rewards.

Eight years old was too young to shatter her dreams.

“Did I do it right? Is it good?”

A smile tugged on my lips. “That is the best water rune I’ve ever seen. You’re a natural, Gisela.”

My sweet sister beamed so wide, I saw all of her missing teeth. The smile was a dagger through my heart.

“I can’t wait until I go to school with Jac. He says they’re learning mind riding next week. I’ve gotten better. Look!” Gisela spun around, hand up and face scrunched. Not a second passed before a lump of fur and whiskers crawled out from under our threadbare couch.

I laughed as it bounded up to me. “So that was the mewling noise I heard last night. You and Jac said it was Savia.”

The kitten looked at me through too-intelligent eyes. Behind them, was Gisela. Or at least her mind and thoughts pushed into a smaller, weaker being. It was said her namesake, Gisela Raekin of legend, could meld her mind with her familiar and companion, a dragon.

I suspected that was why our Gisela was so taken with mind riding magic. She’d been practicing with the mice and other critters that have long shared our home, since she was practically in swaddling. Successfully melding her mind with an animal the size of a kitten was a grand accomplishment for a child her age. An accomplishment that would name her a prodigy to be praised in the same name as Gisela Raekin.

But the legend she admired was from a time when dragons still existed.

And freedom.

“Haeowen,” Meliora called. “The water’s boiled.”

I patted Gisela’s head on the way to the kitchen. “You keep practicing, faywen.” Sweet one. “You’re going to leave your instructors speechless.”

Meliora looked up from the pot when I rounded the corner. She didn’t let her voice carry. “You shouldn’t tell her those things,” she said, taking the basket from me. “It’ll just make her hate you when she learns the truth.”

“Did my lies make you hate me?”

She didn’t answer.

She didn’t have to. My sixteen-year-old sister was called stoic, and other unkind things, for the blank, unsmiling expression she carried through our village, but her thoughts always shone like fireflies in the night to me.

She did not hate me for letting her believe in a fantasy… most days.

Today was not that day.

“She keeps asking to go to school with Jac.” Meliora gave her back as she set about washing and chopping the vegetables. “We don’t have two years’ worth of lies to keep her from realizing there’s a bigger reason to why she can’t go. It’ll only take one word from one of Jac’s new friends to shatter her illusions. They’ve started following him home.”

“Because Jac tells them all sorts of fanciful tales of the pet dragon we keep in the barn, and that one of the faeriken visits him at night and tells him the secrets of the wild kingdom.”

“Yes,” she said flatly. “He’s almost as experienced a liar as you. His study of you rivals any accomplishment he could achieve at school.”

I winced. Yes, Meliora wasn’t too pleased with me that evening.

“I sense I’m not all that’s set your teeth on edge.” The line of her shoulders hardened. “After all, you’re quite used to the stories I tell the children. What’s added to your ire today?”

She didn’t speak for so long, I assumed she wouldn’t answer. I turned to put Savia down for her nap.

“The royal wedding approaches.”

The whisper tickled my ear, stopping me in my tracks. “Yes. So?”

“A procession from the wild kingdom arrives in a week’s time. They say the king of Wind and Wild is bringing a hundred men with him. Wonder what it says that despite his upcoming marriage to Princess Emiana, he won’t set foot on our soil without a small army.”

“Why are we speaking of this, Meliora? The likes of us aren’t invited to the wedding. We won’t even be among the crowd of people lined along the main road, watching the procession arrive.”

Her shoulders hunched. The chop-chop-chop slowed as her blade settled on the wood, and stayed.

“They’ve been having trouble finding war wives willing to service King Alisdair’s people. Kirwan offered me.”

Clang! Clang!

I spun, knocking over our drying tin cups and bowls. Savia jerked awake—screaming.

“No! He can’t— You won’t!”

Meliora hunched over, resuming her chopping. Her refusal to look at me proved one thing at that moment.

She was crying.

It was no wonder she was furious with me that day. When she was small, I encouraged her every wish and dream. I filled her head with stories of all the wonderful things she could be.

I certainly never told her that she’d be denied education, work, status, and opportunity. That we’d struggle for food, medicine, and money… until one day a loathsome man offered her up against her will in service of the one thing our kingdom still valued of women—our bodies.

“He can’t do this. Once you take official work, it’s branded your profession for life. A nobleman could take you from us. You could be called to war. And none of that comes close to what the faeriken men would do to you. They’re little more than beasts.”

“I offered s-such arguments,” she rasped. “They fell on deaf ears. The palace has raised the reward to one hundred and fifty kiruna. Kirwan means to have a cut.”

“No.” I spoke with a finality that silenced Savia’s wails. “This will not happen. I lied about many things, Meli, I know. But I did not lie about this. I promised you’d never be forced into that life. Your body will always be your own.”

“He’s coming for me tonight,” she cried. “No doubt he thinks I’ll run and ruin his plans. He told me to be ready by the break of moon’s light.”

“You will leave this to me.” I touched her shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Haeowen—”

“Look at me.” I tipped her chin. Mossy pools rimmed with starlight drowned in a salty, spilling sea. Only sixteen years old, and the lovelier of the two of us by far. Meliora claimed everything from our beautiful mother. The lush, flowing dark locks; shining two-colored eyes; full, dusky lips, and a glow in her cheeks that gave the appearance of health, happiness, and radiance even when nothing could be further from the truth.

It was because her frustration so clashed with the perfect little petal people wanted her to be that they mocked the dull reflection in her eyes.

But my sister was not cold and emotionless. Her feelings—her fear—dangled from her sleeves for all to see. I was just the only one who bothered to look. “I will take care of this, faywen. I promise.”

She searched my face, and I knew she found no lies. “Okay,” she croaked.

I kissed her cheek. “Start the soup. Mama hasn’t eaten all day. I bought some shaela bread from the market this morning to tempt her appetite. It’s her favorite.”

“That must’ve cost half our purse.” My serious sister returned quickly. “How many times, Haeowen? Stories, gifts, and sweets cannot change our reality. Cease wasting our hard-earned coin on them.”

“The bread was half price today in celebration of the royal marriage. Even if it wasn’t, I would still spend the coin. It’s not about changing our reality. It’s about the fact that a life without stories, gifts, and the occasional sweet that brings a smile to Mama’s lips, isn’t a life worth living.

“Once I’ve stopped caring enough to lie to you, then you’ll know I’ve given up on you. That day will never come.”

She sniffed. “I will not make a liar into a hero by praising that speech.”

I laughed. “I’m going to put Savia down and check in on Mama. The shaela bread is in my bag. There’s enough for all of us.”

Baby Savia did not go down easily. I rudely woke her the first time, and she fussed and flailed her anger at me until the sun retreated and the rain stopped. Finally, her lids fell heavy and she drifted off—holding tight to my finger.

I smiled gently while that finger stroked her soft cheek. “I will tell you the same pretty lies too, sweet one,” I whispered. “Because in this reality, we can only be happy in a fantasy.”

I left Savia to her rest and went out into the main room. Meliora came in from outside carrying a sign.

“Why do you have that?”

“They hung another one up.” She glanced behind her. “And they’re waiting to do it again.”

Frowning, I looked past her shoulder outside. Three young men stood on the wrong side of our fence—bold in their intrusion and their glares. In their hands were the signs and glue they were taking through the Gutter Galley—a fond name for the poorest part of town that we lived in. They were most aggressive about their recruiting in this neighborhood.

“Yes,” I called, “we have a young boy in the household, and tonight he curses this door, so that misfortunate befalls any who touches it without permission!”

I slammed door, so angry that I took the sign and ripped it to pieces. Meliora didn’t comment on my outburst and instead went to prepare the table for dinner. I moved to the curtain, watching them through the window.

They were low-powered fae. Only two had a crystal on their lapel and they were small ones at that. I watched them debate if they planned to test me.

“It’s because of the wedding,” Meliora said. “King Alisdair agreed to marry the princess and sign a treaty to end the war. But he did not, and would not, agree to grant access. We are no closer to attaining what we began this war to achieve.

“While we are sticking to the terms of the treaty, Alisdair’s people will grow stronger until he and Emiana give birth to the rightful of both thrones, and they return to conquer our kingdom once and for all. Everyone capable of looking beyond the immediate future sees this marriage for what it is. They believe the war to end us is coming, and we don’t have enough men to stop it.”

“We might if women were allowed to join the army, and not as bedwarmers,” I returned. “The war to end us has always been coming. We fight because we have to, but I don’t believe anyone—not even the king—thinks we can win. One day Jac will have to decide if he wants to fight this unwinnable battle, but that is not today. It is not when he’s eight years old. I will protect his childhood the same as I protected yours and Gisela’s.”

Meliora did not answer me. I looked back and landed on her back as she went into the kitchen. I knew she agreed with me on this—in theory. In practice, one nineteen-year-old girl from Gutter Galley was an unimpressive match against the Royal Army.

King Alisdair will soon arrive with a hundred soldiers, and the response to save us is to conscript my young brother into the army.

I watched Jac roll across the floor, making faces at the kitten.

We’re doomed. I laughed at my private joke—a short, sharp one that ended quickly.

Only boys were allowed to attend magic school, but at eight years old, they were given another choice as well. They could join the academy and begin the ten-year training that would end with a sword, a coudarian crystal, and the name of the regimen they’d go to war with. The end result was non-negotiable. Even if Jac became an advisor to the king himself, if his regimen was called up, he’d have to go—no exceptions. No excuses.

The only men who could not be conscripted were those who did not attend the academy. Naturally, they did not have ten years of fighting experience and would be a liability on the field. But most young men were signed up. That is what happens when the crown pays the families five hundred kiruna for each name on their roster, and then one hundred every year that they complete training.

Surprisingly, the choice to sign our sons up for training was not left solely to their fathers. Both parents had to agreed, and though Jac’s father argued loudly and constantly that Jaclan must do his duty, my mother continued to refuse.

That didn’t stop recruiters from haunting Gutter Galley—home to many a struggling single mother.

One of the recruiters broke the pack, and marched on our door with a recruitment sign—the payment for doing so was written larger than anything else on the parchment.

“Gisela,” I said. “Hurry.”

My sister ran into next room and got what I needed. I threw open the door just as he touched the wood.

“You were warned.” I tossed the basket of Savia’s soiled wrappings in his face.

He bellowed like he was being murdered. “Filthy little kakka!”

I slammed the door before he could lunge at me. He settled for pounding on it instead.

“Don’t think yourself better than us! I was born on these streets too. There’s no future for the likes of you other than whoring for my regimen. You’ll wish you were nicer to me then.”

Walking off, I left the fool to his squawking. He’d do no more to that door other than yell on the other side of it. Magic would allow him to blow it off the hinges and deliver on his many threats, but that was a tiny crystal on his lapel. He didn’t have much magic to waste, and it wasn’t worth wasting it on me.

His noise, and the twins’ giggling at his crude language, muffled as I closed myself in Mama’s room. The lump on the threadbare mattress didn’t stir.

I was gentle withdrawing the sheets, and taking Mama’s hand. She curled around me instinctively—though she did not wake. My chest squeezed gazing at her.

A gaunt cheek rested on the pillow, appearing as though even its gentle touch could break her. Bony fingers wrapped around mine, each tipped with brittle cracked nails. A crown of hair once so shining and full of life, draped limped and oily across the sheets.

Drained.

That is what my mother was. She was drained of life, healthy, vitality—and there wasn’t a single thing I could do to stop it.

“Mama?” I gently shook her. “It’s time for supper. I bought you shaela bread. Why don’t you try a little?”

A watery eye cracked open. “Fay… wen…” Mama’s voice was thin and brittle like the crust on shaela bread. Wind blowing in from the open window tried to steal her soft words away before they reached my ears. “How are you… my precious girl?”

Tears stung my eyes.

This last bout of sickness was worse than ever. For the past two months, Mama’s stomach rebelled at the notion of food. She had not been able to keep anything down and had taken to eating one meager meal a day—if that. And even that single bare meal wound up in the bucket beside her bed most days.

For twelve years, she’s battled bouts of the sickness that’s gotten worse and worse, longer and longer each time, but every day all she wanted to know was if I was okay. She would be such a great mother.

If she could get out of bed.

“I’m well, Mama. It’s you I’m worried about. I stopped by the apothecary this morning. He said we could work out a deal on your medicine if I look after the shop in the evenings.”

She shook her head. Doing so caused her great effort. “Costas Lightfellow will work you more than the medicines are worth at full price. He has used the young women of the Galley for free labor since the shop opened. The man has no concept of fair business, nor of keeping his hands to himself.”

I slumped, dropping my forehead on the mattress. “What choice do I have? You’re getting worse and this is the only way I can afford your medicine.”

“We both know that medicine does little for me, my darling, and less and less every time.” She smiled in spite of everything. “We cannot continue to waste the coin. It does not help me. Nothing can. Nothing will.”

“While it does little for you, it still does something. We will waste the coin until that changes. I will not see you suffer any more than you must.”

“My girl.” Mama stroked my hair as Meli came in with her supper. “So strong. So stubborn. Never lose that, faywen. Your obedience is taken, but your fire is surrendered.”

Mama has told me this since I was old enough to remember. I was certain she said it when I was a babe as well, but I did not know what it meant. If my choices were gone and obedience was taken from me on the knife’s edge of everything I held dear, what did fire matter? I already surrendered. I already lost.

“Here you are, Mama.” Meliora spoke to her with a softness no one else received. “Do you need help?”

“No, celesi.” She squeezed her fingers. “I will manage.”

Celesi. Treasure. We were all Mama’s faywens, but only Meliora was her treasure.

This did not fill me with jealousy—only sadness. Mama did her best to love Meliora twice as much to make up for what my sister did not receive from him.

A fist pounded on the door, snapping both our heads up. Meliora and I exchanged a look.

“What?” A mother’s eagle eyes missed nothing. “What is it?”

“Nothing, Mama.” I got to my feet and tucked the sheets tight around her. “You eat. I’ll see who’s at the door, and get them acquainted with Savia’s wrappings if they dare shove another recruitment letter in my face.”

A chuckle sounded from beneath the blankets. “There’s that fire.”

I mouthed stay here to Meli and left, softly closing the door behind me. Our small little hut claimed only two bedrooms. One for Mama and one for the young children. I picked up Jac’s and Gisela’s bowls and sent them all to their room. I crossed to open the—

The door banged into the opposite wall, rattling half off the hinges. A man in a silken tailored coat stepped over the threshold, wiping his hands on his coat as if the mere act of his magic touching our home sullied him.

His coldly handsome face swept our living space, his mouth curling up at the edges.

I wished I could stop describing him at cold, but there was no denying that Kirwan Dawnbreaker was the handsomest of men. Streaks of silver wove through his raven locks, giving him distinction instead of age. Lily pads floating in a clear stream did not come close to the crisp green of his eyes, and when he smiled at those he deemed worthy of his attention, the wonder of his full lips and teasing amusement knocked you on your back.

Yes, Kirwan earned the turned heads he collected everywhere he went, and it wasn’t just because the hem of his coat was lined with coudarin crystals bigger than my fists.

He was handsome. But to me, I’d never seen a more hideous creature in all my days.

“Where’s the girl?” he asked by way of greeting. Kirwan pushed me aside and came in. “I told her to be ready.”

“Which girl are referring to?” I got in front of him, halting Kirwan with his mere refusal to be touched by me. “There’s no girl here who answers to you.”

Kirwan looked me up and down, and dismissed me. “You will be silent, kakka. You were not given permission to address me. Meliora? Meliora! Get out here now.”

The hairs on my neck stood on end, giving rise to choking rage. It was one thing to be called kakka by a squawking man-boy covered in baby waste, but for the likes of Kirwan to call me such?

Kakka was the worst of insults. Scrapings from a horse’s hooves. Flies that feast on rotted dung. Old chamber pots left in the sun. All of these had more value than you.

“There is only one kakka in this room, and for all his money and station, he’s little more than a soulless broker.” I sniffed. “What am I saying? Even brokers have more honor than you. They don’t barter with their own blood!”

Meliora’s father stiffened. “How dare you. The girl is stepping up in service for the king himself. It is her honor and her duty to aid in the union that will bring our kingdoms together.”

“Strange how her honor and duty fattens your coin purse. You wouldn’t deign to remember her name otherwise.”

Kirwan brushed a thumb over the crystal on his chest, and I went flying.

Screaming, I was blasted off my feet and thrown onto the table—tipping us both over with a resounding crash.

“Haeowen!”

“What’s going on!”

Meliora raced out of the room amid Mama’s shout. She ran to me and Kirwan snatched her off her feet, hauling her back by the wrist.

“Let’s go. The carriage is waiting.”

“No, please!” Meliora strained against his hold. “I don’t want to do this. Please, don’t make me, Kirwan. Please!” She cried in earnest. “They’ll kill me!”

My head lolled, wetness running down my forehead. “N-no…” I tried to get up and pitched forward on my face. “Stop…”

“Meliora?” Mama screamed. A loud thud sounded from her bedroom. “Children, what’s wrong?”

“Enough!” Kirwan dragged her to the door. “You will be silent or I’ll spell your mouth shut.”

Meliora was not silent. She sobbed and wailed, fighting her father harder than she ever had. His mere presence, and the swirling cloud of disdain he brought with him, used to strike her quiet. Not that day. “I won’t go! I won’t!”

I crawled over the splintered wood, vision spinning. “Meli!”

“Leave Haeowen alone!” Jaclan burst from his room, wielding his wooden spoon like a club. He struck Kirwan between the legs, doubling him over.

“Argh!” Snarling, Kirwan raised a backhand to Jaclan.

“Don’t—!”

“I’ll go!”

My scream stopped everything.

Kirwan spun on me, hand still raised. “What?” he barked.

“Take m-me.” I rose on shaky knees. “I’ll do it.”

“No one wants you, girl.”

“No, you don’t want to offer up Meli.” My gaze burned him where he stood. “Advisor to the king. Lord of the House of Dawnbreaker. One of the highest-powered fae in Lyrica… and his daughter can be had for three coppers. You’ll never hear the end of it,” I rasped. “Your comrades with laugh and taunt you of the taste of her, and don’t pretend they won’t.”

Frowning, Kirwan looked from me to her. No denial came.

Kirwan knew well what would happen if Meliora wound up in the grip of men as vile as him. Not for her sake, but for his reputation. His only love in this life and the next.

“I’ll do it,” I repeated. “I’ll become a war wife, you won’t be known for selling your own daughter, and you’ll still get your one hundred and fifty kiruna. Surely, you have no objection? You’ll get everything you want.”

His lips peeled back from his teeth. It was the hard, unfeeling monster in him that wanted to say no just because I asked this of him. But—

“Fine. You’ll do just as well.”

“No!” Meliora broke from his loosened grip and ran to me. I gently dried her tears. “Haeowen, you can’t do this. We promised we would never.”

“I promised that you would never be forced into this life,” I whispered. “I promised we would choose, and I choose to protect you. That’s what I’ll always choose, faywen.”

“But not faeriken. They’ll k-kill you. We’ll never see you again.”

“Let’s go,” Kirwan ordered.

Ignoring him, I forced a smile on my lips. “Of course you will. Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’ll be back after the wedding, and when I do, I’ll tell you all about the palace. It’s grand rooms, luscious feasts, and the queen’s famous gardens. It’ll be like you were there with me.”

Meliora cried harder. Of course she didn’t believe me. She knew I was a liar.

Mama’s door banged open. She huffed—chest heaving and hair hanging lank over her face. The effort that short distance cost her, left her clinging to the doorframe. “What has happened?” She took in the scene, and my weeping wound. “Kirwan, what did you do?”

He sniffed. “The girl’s clumsy. She tripped over the table like a one-footed fool. You should be thanking, not scolding me, Olene. Your circumstances will be improving. You’ll either have two incomes for the household… or one less mouth to feed.”

“Excuse me? What does that mean!”

“It means Kirwan has offered me a job,” I rushed. “A housekeeper in his household. I am to leave now for training, Mama, but I’ll return in a fortnight.”

Her lips drew tight. “If that’s true, why is Meliora crying?”

“Because she knows her father as well as I.” I gave him a hard look. “I will not be treated well.”

“That’s not true, faywen,” she said, voice sharp. “He will treat you well. He’ll care for you better than his own, or I’ll know why. Isn’t that right, Kirwan?”

He smiled. “I can swear no harm will come to her by my or any fae hands.”

Meliora’s nails pierced my shoulder. She understood the meaning behind his word choice clear as day.

“In the carriage, girl,” Kirwan said. “Don’t make me change my mind.” And take Meliora instead.

I untangled from my sister and bent down, opening my arms to Jaclan. Gisela took that moment to shoot out from behind the cracked door. I hugged the twins tight.

“Be well, my loves. Listen to everything Meli says.”

Standing up, I brushed a kiss over Meliora’s forehead. She was crying too much. Mama would figure out something was wrong soon. I had to be gone before then.

Chin raised, I walked to the door without looking back at my family. Kirwan’s smirk taunted me the whole way.

“Tell Adan I won’t be long.”

“What—?”

Kirwan advanced on my mother.

“No, you leave her!” I cried, grabbing his arm. “You know she’s not well.”

Kirwan threw me off. His strength enough to toss me across the room again. I grabbed my siblings as he slammed Mama’s door shut, hurrying them out of the house.

We didn’t make it far down the path. Meli turned on me, clinging tight and tripping me up. Her weight pulled me down onto the earthen lane. I suffocated under Meli’s, Jac’s, and Gisela’s embrace. The twins did not understand what was wrong, but they knew enough to be worried about anything that made Meliora cry.

I opened my mouth—to give them reassurance. Tell them everything would be okay. Say that their worry was silly.

Nothing came out.

A war wife. The polite, official term for what I would be. The actual term. The one that would be yelled at me in the streets. Branded in the stares I received in the marketplace. Hissed at me as I descended back staircases and crept out of darkened rooms.

Was whore.

Decades after King Kazimir decreed that all women must have their magic bound and rendered unusable by age ten, his son set down another decree. The men who now had to fight alone on the battlefield deserved comfort in the long months and years they spent far from home. They deserved a body to warm their bedrolls, soothe their aches, and sweeten their nights.

Naturally, their actual wives had to stay home and fulfill the only role still available to them in a magical society—raising the next generation of sons to fight and daughters to bear them. Thus, a contingent of women would be sent along with the regiments. The war wives.

Over the years, the soldiers would make more demands of their king—binding the chains tighter around women. A war wife could not be claimed by one man. They were to be shared among whoever wanted them. War wives were not only for soldiers. Nobles and high-powered fae could make use of them how they wished. A noble can take a war wife into their home, imprisoning them with the man who now owned her, and his true wife who hated her. And the law that they fought the hardest for—any children that resulted from their union would be her responsibility.

The men were required to do no more than pay for their sons’ education. But if Jaclan went without food, clothing, and a roof over his head, Xandros Waterdancer was not obligated to do anything about it. A sentiment he proved when we went without all three, and I begged him to help the twins—his children—at the very least. He had me thrown away from the carriage and continued on to to his grand manor on the hill.

In the end, when a war wife got too old, when they had too many children, when the sickness took them as it would take every woman of Lyrica, all that was left for a war wife… all that would be left for me was to lie ill and broken in a little room, while my children cried outside—covering their ears.

I opened my mouth to tell my siblings that if I survived the beastly men who slaughtered our soldiers in droves, the life that awaited me afterward was nothing to fear…

…and a sob tore from my throat.

I cried—squeezing them tighter than they squeezed me. I had finally done it.

I ran out of lies.

Chapter Two

“Let’s go, girl.”

Kirwan walked out of my house, his presence imposing and out of place amid our humble home. He tossed a weighty coin purse at Meliora—his final insult upon every exit. Making us take the payments for his time with our mother, even though all payments are supposed to go through the broker.

This is the man to whom you’ll abandon your mother, brother, and sisters.

My fists balled. No.

“No,” I rasped, getting to my feet and taking the children with me. “No crying. I will be back. Nothing will happen to me. I have been there every day since each of you were born. That will never change, faywens.” I meant it with everything in me. “I’ll return.”

Kirwan snatched my wrist, yanking me along.

“I promise.”

Meliora, Jaclan, and Gisela didn’t speak as I was loaded into the carriage. Adan set off before my back hit the cushion, not allowing me a second’s linger in my home. We left Gutter Galley—my faywens becoming still, lonely specks in the distance.

The further we trotted from the Galley, the more noise crowded into the darkened space. Lyrica passed through the sliver in the curtain, warm and alive with the preparations for the royal wedding. The coming faeriken brought fear, but they also brought hope. The hope that the love of a princess and foreign king would return us to Meya.

I turned away, scooting as far away from Kirwan as the carriage would let me. Shadows danced on the curves and lines of his face, concealing him as well as the unmarked carriage. Kirwan tried to hide his frequent comings and goings from my mother’s hut. Not out of shame. The man did not feel such a thing. And not out of respect to his wife. Him respecting any woman was the one skill this master of magic did not master.

He did it to hide his obsession. It wouldn’t do for the kingdom to know that Lord Dawnbreaker’s weakness was a thin, frail war wife from Gutter Galley.

I once asked my mother why this bitter, hateful man kept coming back when it clearly wasn’t for Meliora. There were hundreds of other war wives for him to choose. She gave me another answer I didn’t understand.

“Because he loves me, he can’t stay away… and because I don’t love him back, he hurts me.”

No, that did not make sense. If there was one thing I was certain of, Kirwan was not capable of love.

“You will not embarrass me.”

I jumped at his sudden speech.

“When we arrive at the palace, you’re to speak only when addressed. And when you do, it’ll be in a polite, soft tone and not that barking screech your mother should’ve drummed out of you. You represent all of Lyrica from the moment you step onto the grounds.

“The faeriken are little more than beasts, and yet they look down on us. They see us all as low-powered fae who dress ourselves up in jewels and finery to hide our inferiority.”

Are you certain they weren’t just thinking of you?

I bit my tongue, holding in the retort. Once, Kirwan hit me and my cheek swelled up like a dalia fruit. Mama broke a bowl over his head, and refused him for an entire year. He returned again and again, offering more money until our empty bellies and blistered shoeless feet forced her to take him back.

Ever since, he was only his most vile where she could not see him. And she couldn’t see him then.

“You’re an ugly girl.” He said it as though it was a simple fact of life. “You’re too short, too thin, and too mouthy. And that hair… Only the lowest faeriken with strange tastes will want you. Whatever they tell you to do, you’re not to fight or refuse. To do so would disrespect King Salman. I will not stand for shame to be brought upon the crown. Is that understood?”

I tipped my chin, offering no more than that.

Kirwan seemed to accept it because the carriage lapsed into blessed silence once again.

It was a long ride through the winding streets. Every dip in the road sent a jolt through my heart, taunting me the closer we got. This was it. Once my name was recorded and the money was dropped in Kirwan’s hands, there was no going back. After the wedding, my details would be passed among the kingdom’s brokers.

Any soldier or nobleman looking for a too-short, too-thin, too-mouthy companion would have me offered up on a silver platter. If none of them wanted me, I starved in the streets—denied the right to work in any other profession.

The only thing worse than this being my fate, was if it was Meli’s.

The carriage slowed, jolting me out of my thoughts. I chanced a peek outside and frowned.

“What are we doing here?”

“Have sense, girl. You’re not fit to enter the palace in that state. You will shower, change, and be here waiting for me in exactly one hour.” He climbed out and strode inside, giving no further instruction.

Adan climbed down and waited in his infinite, stoic patience. He was a bit older for his position. Streaks of gray weathered his burnished locks and crow’s feet stamped the corner of his flat, blue eyes. But what value was there in replacing a loyal servant who’d never betray your secrets? A faeriken cut out his tongue decades ago.

I stuck my head out, gaze traveling up, and up, and up to the towering chimney stacks—each stamped with the Dawnbreaker crest.

I knew Kirwan’s home from the one time Meliora and I followed him back, curious about where he existed outside of our small little hut. He led us to this place with its gold-painted doors; rough, umber sand bricks, and large grand windows that were all shrouded in heavy drapes, giving no hint to the lives of those inside.

Adan led me around the back to the servants’ entrance. The least amount of time and kiruna was given to decorating this part of the home, and it was easily grander than anywhere I’d been.

It struck me that Meliora and Mama could’ve lived here—spending their days in a manor within the richest part of Lyrica, where the floors shone with their reflections and painted hills rolled along the sandstone. This would’ve been their life, if there had been no me.

Kirwan made such an offer when Meliora was two and I five. He would end their poverty and bring Mama and Meliora into the manor, if my mother put me—the child of another man—in an orphanage.

Mama sent me and Meli out of the room to give her hot, shouted reply. After that day, Kirwan hated me all the more. My mother had no trace of love for him, but she had it all for me. I would always be the one she chose over him.

Adan bowed beside a door at the end of a short hallway. I crossed the threshold and found myself in a communal bath.

I bathed myself, giving special attention to my hair. The water ran brown, shaming me. Of course Kirwan wouldn’t let me near the palace as I was. The public baths cost coin, and I saved my share so that Meliora and the little ones were never without a bath. That left the rainwater I collected in buckets behind the hut for me.

Maybe it will be a good thing to have another income to fill the family purse. I sat before the mirror, weaving my shining onyx crown into a web of braids. It’s been hard to find decent work since anything that needs to be done, can easily be completed with magic.

My reflection tried for a smile. “You will get back to your mother and faywens. All they’ve known their whole lives is that everyone will let them down or abandon them… except you. That is a promise you will always keep.”

The words cheered me, even while tears mixed with bathwater running down my cheeks.

After dressing in the simple dress and slippers Adan set out for me, I went out to wait next to the carriage. The correct carriage that proudly boasted the occupants inside.

Kirwan returned in his finery. Red slippers with threads of gold, satin tunic, and red breeches. Red and gold—the colors of Dawnbreaker. He flapped an irritated hand at me, ordering me inside.

I climbed up, suddenly hit with the nervousness my anger at Kirwan blanketed. It’d be no time at all until we were at the palace. Forbidden to the likes of me, it would become the place where I would sign away my life in service of a king who’d done nothing to serve me or my family.

It was silent during the jostled ride up the hill. For once I wished Kirwan would speak and distract me from my thoughts, but I dare not voice them to him. What were faeriken truly like? Were the stories of their unhinged brutality true?

Letting him know in any way that I was scared would not return compassion or kindness. On the contrary, it would delight him more than the sumptuous feasts and ever-flowing wine on Meya’s Day.

All through the ride I repeated to myself the only thing that mattered. No matter what happened, I would get back to my family. I would not leave them alone with him.

Lyrica was a monument to fae beauty and advancement in the last two thousand years. Once, we were nothing but slinking, mindless beasts until Meya blessed us and created the fae race. The first pack became a community. Then a small village. Then a bustling town. And finally, a kingdom to rival the human empires in the east.

The stories say the first king was a traveling farmer. He traveled to different fae settlements, teaching our new species to grow and live off the land. He went far and wide, learning everything there was to know—not just about farming, but about everything needed to prosper. During his travels, he saw how the humans lived. With their frail bodies, stunted lives, and not a trace of magic within them, they built grand cities and made huge advancements with no more than their minds, and many hands willing to turn an idea into reality.

How much more could the fae do? How much more did we deserve?

The not-yet-king returned from his travels and pleaded to Meya. Begging her to grant him a palace that would be a beacon to fae all over the country. Come and we will build a nation that will last for thousands of years. A shining jewel of this land and the next.

Meya’s response was to grant him this.

I stuck my face against the glass, lips parting in silent awe as we passed through the gates.

Soaring spires pricked the sky, boasting whipping flags too high for me to see, but I knew were the multicolored flag of Lyrica. Laced through the columns and columns, stacks on stacks of sandstone were vining, snaking veins of deep-sea-blue coudarian crystals.

Miles away as I knelt in my vegetable patch, weeding and singing to Savia—my gaze would travel where everyone’s did, seeking the blueish glow in the distance. Every evening and every morning, the traveling sun would hit the crystals just right and create exactly what our first King Wren asked for—a beacon.

The carriage stopped before the palace steps—a riot of stone and crystal leading to two grand doors that could welcome an army. I made to stand.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Kirwan shoved me back down. “The likes of you do not enter through the main doors. Adan will take the carriage around back. I’ve written instructions for him to give to the steward. You will do everything he says. Go where he tells you. Shut your mouth when he commands. Do you understand?”

Kirwan didn’t wait for me to answer. Which was good because my reply would not have been polite. He always spoke to me like I was stupid, but that was the single thing I was not. I could not claim beauty, grace, humor, or riches, but I taught myself the theories of magic from the old books Mama’s callers once gave her. Well enough that I used to correct the boys from Gutter Galley who did get to go to magic school. Until, of course, they all stopped speaking to the know-it-all kakka.

The carriage door closed, giving me blessed peace. These were my last moments of freedom. The final minutes before nothing, not even my body, could be claimed as my own. The least Meya owed me was the mercy of not spending that time in Kirwan’s presence.

The horses encircled the palace, filling my eyes with its wonder. It’s said each fleck of crystal had been filled with power by kings past. If the faerikens ever attacked, the palace guards would draw on a millennium’s worth of stored power and fend them off for decades.

I wondered how effective that strategy was when they were already inside the gates.

Adan stopped the carriage before a much smaller set of double doors. I decided this was the kitchen entrance going by the baskets of vegetables kitchenhands were carrying inside. Adan opened my door and reached a hand in to helped me out—showing the politeness he couldn’t when Kirwan was nearby.

“Can I read the note?” I asked as we approached the door.

Adan handed it over without hesitation.

I read it—half expecting orders to flay me when I mouthed off. I would’ve preferred that.

My teeth gritted reading that I was in debt to House Dawnbreaker, and all the coin I made was owed to Kirwan. If I ran away or tried to steal it, Meliora was to repay the debt in my place.

Of course Kirwan had to come up with some lie for why he should receive the one hundred and fifty kiruna instead of me or a broker. There’d be no point arguing that I owed him nothing. No one would take my word over an advisor to the king.

“As if I would run,” I said, handing it back. “Honor and loyalty to family are two things Kirwan knows nothing about.”

Adan gave nothing away—in speech or expression. The manservant was a vault of secrets, but deep down I sensed he did not like Kirwan any more than I did. He certainly never hesitated to give us water or sweets on the days Kirwan’s visits to the hut forced me and my siblings outside. I knew he brought them just for us.

We stepped inside and were bowled over by a tide of noise. This was nothing like the quiet, chilling Dawnbreaker home. Fae rushed all about—carrying food there, lifting trays here, and nodding and bowing acquiescence to a barking red-faced woman in an apron.

A grand kitchen it was, we could’ve fit all of Gutter Galley inside, and fed them well for months before another food delivery.

I swept over the feast of ripe fruit, roasted animals, and sharp wine. Who was all this food for? There was only King Salman and Princess Emiana left of the royal family after the death of the queen consort. Did they share this among the advisors and generals too?

Did Kirwan regularly feast on this rich and indulgent food, and yet he attempted to sell his only daughter for some coin? What did he need the money for? A bib?

Adan continued on, so I followed, carrying my anger with me. I would hold on to anger. It was an easier emotion to wrestle than the others lurking beneath the surface.

Adan led me into a small receiving room. I could tell right away this place was for guests, but not for ones the palace respected. Thirty or so women of various ages loitered around the dim, windowless room. A dank, musty smell of a room not often aired out hung in the air.

From the debris and dirt indentations, I guessed the room was used for storage. It had been cleared out and two small benches were placed inside—allowing only six women room to sit. The others leaned against the wall, throwing me horrified glances.

“What are you doing here, shoua!” Young woman. “Does Olene know you’re here?”

Myrna broke from the pact and bore down on me. A hand on my arm stopped her pulling me away. Turning, I blinked up at Adan as he clasped my hand in both of his, and bowed. The look in his eyes as he raised his head…

“Don’t do that,” I whispered, throat closing. “Makes it harder for me to believe I’ll be okay.”

He tried for a smile, and my heart broke in half. Adan never smiled—at me or anyone. He was telling me in every possible way… that he did not expect to see me again.

Releasing me, he held up the note and backed away. He was off to deliver Kirwan’s instructions to the steward. That was it for me and Meliora. Our fate would be sealed.

I let him go, penning in all the things I wanted to scream. Honor and loyalty to family. Kirwan did not understand these things, but I did. I wasn’t going anywhere.

“Shoua.” A woman twenty years my senior and draped in a sheer, crimson dress—her best—tugged me into the center of the crowd. “What are you doing here?” she repeated.

“I had no choice, aya.” Elder. “It was either me or Meliora.”

“Kirwan,” Myrna hissed, lips peeling back from her teeth.

I didn’t need to confirm or deny, my mother’s friends knew what he’d put us through these last sixteen years better than anyone.

I wished I was surprised to see so many women from my part of town here, but who but us would need the money so badly that we’d face faeriken.

“Olene would never let him get away with this,” said Nashwa. She was younger than Mama, but you wouldn’t know it by the touch of wrinkles on her temples and gray weaving through her reddish locks. “What did he do to her?”

“He didn’t have to do anything because she doesn’t know, and you must promise not to tell her. She thinks I’ve taken a position as a housekeeper in the Dawnbreaker household.”

“She must know,” Myrna cried. “Faywen, do you understand why we’re the only ones in this room? Why a dozen more women were here but changed their minds and left too fast to remember their slippers? The faeriken—”

“I know,” I cut in, fighting the band constricting my throat. “And that is exactly why I am here. I won’t stand for Meliora to be here in my place. Please. Don’t tell her. The first time Kirwan hurt me, she refused him and we went hungry. Kirwan spread through Lyrica that he’d ruin any man who touched her, and she didn’t see a single coin for months.

“Now that the sickness has taken her, and we have Jac, Gisela, and Savia, I can’t risk that happening again. It’s better that she believes I’m a housekeeper. I—I can start making real money now,” I said, forcing the words past the lump in my throat. “And she won’t hurt for it.”

Myrna stroked my cheek. “You won’t keep a secret like this for long. You can’t. When it’s discovered, she’ll hurt twice as much for all the days she didn’t know.”

“I—”

Myrna’s gaze flicked up. Her eyes hardened. “Get behind me.”

“What? Why—?”

Myrna shoved me behind. I swallowed a cry as Mama’s friends kept tugging and pushing, dragging me back until I was pressed against the wall and they formed a blockade in front of me.

The door creaked open, inviting a welcome rush of fresh air, and a bobbing golden crown. Rising on tiptoe, I strained to see who came inside.

“Good morning, ayas.” A deep, pleasing voice, and it met with a thick silence. “Forgive me for interrupting but Cook got a bit over ambitious in her preparations for tonight’s alnihaya feast.”

Alnihaya. For seven days and seven nights before a noblewoman marries, there are feasts, parties, and celebrations in honor of her last days as a maiden. Princess Emiana’s alnihaya had spread through all of Lyrica, inviting those who believed in this marriage to celebrate in the streets.

“Saffron pudding, roasted duck, and shaela bread.” Over their shoulders, I saw servants come in carrying trays, tables, and two more benches for us to sit. “Please, enjoy.”

No one moved.

Confused, I tried to push between them. Duck and saffron pudding? I could become the highest-paid war wife in Lyrica and saffron pudding would still be a luxury. What was going on? Why weren’t they descending on the food?

“I hear from the steward that there’s a new addition to your ranks.”

What? Could he be talking about me?

“There you are.”

I jerked, locking on with twin emerald jewels. Their owner smiled and his whole face lit up, knocking the breath out of me.

It wasn’t that I’d never seen a handsome boy before. I’d simply never met one who wasn’t sneering and throwing dirt at me.

This didn’t look to be his intention—smiling wider until a slight crook bent his lips and dimpled his cheeks. Hair shaved all the way around, he left only the top of his head be, and braided it in one long whip hanging past his shoulders.

“You’re quite young. Even more commendable that you’d decided to do your duty for the king and Lyrica. Please,” he said, sweeping out his hand. “Come and enjoy. I’d like to hear your story while we eat.”

I tried again to get through and the women crowded in tighter around me.

“There’s been a mistake,” Myrna said. I could barely make out the hem of her sleeve. “She isn’t here to do her duty. She’s leaving.”

“Is she?” I couldn’t see him anymore, but his tone hadn’t lost its light joviality. “Well, seems the steward was mistaken. I won’t take up anymore of your time, then. Enjoy your dinner.”

They didn’t move until the door closed behind him. I fell in beside Myrna while the others gathered around the table.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Who was that man? Why wouldn’t you let me talk to him?”

She gritted her teeth, staring at the door like he was on the other side. “He introduced himself my first day here as Kaelan Moontreader. I knew from that moment to stay away from him.”

My brows snapped together. “What? Why?”

“Look at where we are, shoua. They keep us in this room all day—bringing our meals to us and only letting us out to use the privy. At night, we’re taken to the abandoned servants’ quarters to sleep. Despite us stepping up to do our blessed duty, the palace has made us a secret. And yet, this young, handsome faeman comes to visit us, welcome every new woman, and bring us treats?”

“Maybe he’s kind.” My stomach grumbled in need of the saffron pudding. “He feels for you all being trapped in here all day.”

Myrna was shaking her head before I finished. “If there’s one thing I know to be true above all… it’s that a man gives with one hand, and binds with the other.”

My lips parted but nothing came out. Myrna suddenly beamed.

“I also know that he has yet to bring us anything poisoned, so eat up, shoua. You could hide behind a broom handle, you’re so thin.”

I went to eat, but not with the same speed I would’ve. So soon after the steward received word of a new addition, Kaelan Moontreader came asking for me. Despite Myrna’s reply, I was not leaving. My name would go down in a book that would make me available to every solider and nobleman in Lyrica. Would he come back with smiles and treats then?

I shook the silly thoughts from my head. I was no stranger to men and boys coming around to ogle the war wife. Mama held her head high through many a town market while hooting and lewd offers followed her. When our curves filled out and breastbands grew tight, the same filthy offers came at me and Meliora. Meli more than me. They liked to tell us in disgusting detail what they’d do to us when we became war wives—as if there was no other path we’d take.

Moontreader may have used food and flattery, but he was no different from the rest. He came in here every day to pick his favorite. Once the faeriken were here, we had to be available to them, but no one said we wouldn’t be available to everyone else. That was not for me to worry about. There were older, prettier, more experienced war wives to thrill a handsome faeman like him.

I claimed a tray and took it to the far corner to eat. I wasn’t alone for long. Myrna and a few of the other women from Gutter Galley came to join me.

I wished they hadn’t.

My luxurious, royal meal turned to acid in my stomach.

“You must act as though you’re enjoying yourself, but not too much,” Shadi warned. She was twenty years of age with dark, shadowed eyes and a smoky tenor that sounded like music. Shadi was far and away the most beautiful of the girls I used to run around the Galley with. Within a month of becoming a war wife, she had three noblemen offering her broker obscene amounts to take her into their home. A month after that, she was back in the Galley.

Mykel Starsinger believed buying women took away her right to say no. One night, he forced himself on her and she beat him with a candelabra. They had yet to take away our right to defend ourselves, so she wasn’t punished. Unless of course you considered it a punishment that most of her callers disappeared after they heard what happened, and she was so in need of coin that she was in that room with me.

“If you get too boisterous, they’ll take it as an invitation to pump harder. The last thing you need your first time is to have some sweaty, grunting lump flopping and flailing on top of you while trying to shove his reed dick deeper.”

I flushed hot. Even the mental depiction of that made the food taste bad on my tongue. Why get mad that Shadi assumed I still had my maidenhood? This would be my first time, and that is what I had to look forward to.

Tamar, another girl from the Galley, nodded in agreement. “Also, if you want it to end quicker. Cup their balls and lick—”

“Thank you,” I cried, cheeks on fire. “That’s enough for now, I think.”

Shadi smirked. “This isn’t the conversation you want to avoid.” She jerked her chin at the women seated at the table. “See that woman in green?”

I followed her gaze to a slender, blonde woman with pale skin and a long, jagged scar on her cheek.

“Of all of us, she’s the only war wife that’s gone to war. There’s a reason none of the others who’ve seen the faeriken on the battlefield even thought of collecting that one hundred and fifty kiruna. If you ask her,” Shadi said softly, “she’ll tell you why.”

I gave the woman in green a long look. “Will what she has to say make what’s coming easier or harder to bear?”

Shadi didn’t answer.

“Then I’ll let her enjoy her meal in peace.”

I wish I could say they let me enjoy mine. For the rest of the night, I was treated to their collective wisdom of dealing with every unsavory, unwashed, overly aggressive situation. I thanked Meya when a servant came in and said it was time to retire.

She led us down a winding, torchlit hallway. The hustle and noise from the busy kitchen had gone silent. It was then I realized why we were made to stay in that room so long after sunset. We were only allowed to pass through the halls after everyone else had gone to bed.

Irritation beat at my calm. It shouldn’t surprise me. All my life I’d witnessed how war wives were treated. I used to dream all the facts and knowledge in my head would amount to something useful. I opened a shop or give something to Lyrica that could only come from my mind, not my magic. The kiruna would flow, and I’d give my mother and siblings a new life.

Instead, I was another castoff slinking through the back hallways.

“In there.” The servant girl gestured at two doors on opposite sides of the hall. “You’re not to leave your rooms until I fetch you in the morning.”

With that she left, not even offering so much as a good night.

I followed Shadi and Myrna into the room on the left. Fifteen cots were scattered about the stone prison. I wanted to call it something else, but no other word came to mind. There was nothing inside barring the cots and four walls.

“They didn’t place a cot in here for you,” Myrna said. “I know where they’re kept. I’ll get another and you can take mine. You’re dead on your feet, shoua. Get some rest. The world’s better in a dream.”

It wasn’t until she said it that a wave of exhaustion bowled me over. My knees buckled, dropping me to the stone. I styled my hair to hide the hard lump from Kirwan’s attack. Didn’t prevent it from thrumming a deep, pricking pain that reminded me with every breath that my life was about to change forever.

Shadi pointed out Myrna’s cot and I collapsed, dropping on the thin blanket with my slippers still on.

Life’s better in a dream.

It was earlier that day that I told Savia the only happiness for her was in a fantasy. Let there be some waiting in mine.

Closing my eyes, I drifted off into darkness.

***

I woke up.

As simply and abruptly, one moment my eyes were closed, then they were open.

My vision cleared on a figure standing above me. He bent down, beaming his crooked smile directly in my eyes.

“Oh yes. I knew you were perfect,” he whispered. “Come with me.”

I kicked off the blanket and stood, following him without a word. A calmness settled over my mind. The part of me shouting and screaming not to go with him. Screaming to call for help, was getting quieter and quieter.

Kaelan Moontreader led me out into the hallway and ordered me to shut the door. Then, he started talking.

“You don’t know how glad I am to see you, sweetling.” He stroked my cheek, his fingers gliding down to take my hand. “All those other hags were useless to me. Too old, too fat, too scarred, too tall, too short. I almost gave up… then you walked in.”

We left the abandoned quarters and turned right instead of left down the only familiar path I knew. A narrow staircase invited me up, its walls hugging my shoulders imparting the coolness of its stone—a final kind embrace before he took me somewhere I knew I would not want to go.

“It’s a disgrace,” Kaelan spat. “That it took me this long to find someone suitable is unacceptable. The king himself sounds the call for you whores to serve your kingdom, and barely any answer. It’s our duty—nay, our privilege to do our part to end this war and reunite with Meya.

“Today, you are given that privilege. You will do more for Lyrica and the war effort than anyone in this kingdom. Be proud of that, girl.”

A stray thought floated through my head that this faeman was insane. What kind of addled, self-important lunatic believed taking me away to do whatever he was going to do to me, was a grand act in service of the war and kingdom?

The thought crossed my mind and evaporated, unable to summon the shouts, biting retorts, or kicking and slaps that it would if he hadn’t bound my free will as easily as they did my magic, all those years ago.

The staircase released us into a space grander than Kirwan’s home could ever boast. Tinkling chandeliers reflected dancing rainbows on the crème walls flecked with gold. Portraits gazed down on me, the borrowed images of queens past who couldn’t help me, and a grave and disapproving look as though they wouldn’t even if they could.

Kaelan stopped before double doors and knocked.

“Enter.”

Fear and disgust tried to push through. He brought me here for someone… or he brought me to share. Why couldn’t I run? How would I get away?

Kaelan got behind and shoved me inside. I tripped over the corner of a rug and dropped to my knees where I stayed, my body refusing the command to stand up.

My eyes rolled in my head, taking in as much as my stiff neck would allow.

We were in the room the likes of which was ten times the size of our modest hut in Gutter Galley.

The finest of furniture stood upon ancient and expensive rugs. I felt their history pressing into my knees. Tapestries climbed the grand windows, allowing the barest sliver of moonlight to grace a bed of silks and downy pillows.

A figure rose from the blankets, concealed in shadows.

“I found her, my love.” Kaelan dropped beside me and bowed low till his forehead touched the rug. “The right height and build. Even better, she’s a nobody. Nothing. Just another war wife desperate for some coin, and not the child of anyone important. No one will notice her absence.”

“Is that so?” A light, almost musical voice floated out of the shadows. “How did such a perfect find land in your lap?”

“It is Meya,” he breathed, raising his head. “She sent her to us. Just when we’d begun to lose hope. Our actions are blessed by the All Mother herself. I know it.”

“As do I, my love. It is as you say. This meaningless waif was sent to me in my time of need by Meya herself. This is her will.”

She stepped out of the shadows, and not a speck of recognition lit in my eyes.

No, wait…

It came to me. Painted flyers in the square. Model figurines in the shops. A name on everyone’s lips.

Princess Emiana.

Hair so red it rejected the moonlight fell around her shoulders and brushed the bottom of her bodice. To say she was lovely was to insult her. So simple a word did not begin to describe the beauty of her emerald eyes, bee-stung lips, rosy cheeks, and jewel-cuffed pointed ears. Robes like angel wings floated around her form, revealing more than it concealed.

I instinctively averted my eyes. A finger under my chin drew them back up where she trapped them in her green pools. I would’ve cringed if my face would’ve allowed it. No one had ever looked at me with such contempt before, and I endured Kirwan’s hatred for years.

She halted in her tracks. “She’s moon-kissed. How—? She’s disgusting,” Princess Emiana spat. “If only Meya had seen fit to send us a comely girl. It sickens me to think I’ll be wearing this face for the foreseeable future.”

Confusion wafted through my mind and dissipated, not allowing the questions it brought to my lips to come out. What in the name of the All Mother was she talking about?

“Disgusting, my love? I wouldn’t say so,” Kaelan spoke up. “She has a certain fairness about her that I thought worthy—”

“Don’t you dare question me.”

The snap closed his mouth.

Irritated, Emiana threw my face away harder than she needed to. “She may be the right height and build, but she is wrong in every other way. I shall be as cursed as her for what we do here tonight. Punishment for dabbling in the unholy arts, but…” She blew out a long breath. “That is how it must be.

“Stand her up.”

Kaelan stood me on my feet, gentler in his touch than she was.

“Undo whatever magics you performed on her.”

“Your Majesty?”

Emiana spoke to him, but looked deep into my eyes. “Her magic is no less bound than mine. There is nothing she can do to fight back against us. No need to restrain her body and mind too, unless she gives us reason.”

Her compassion surprised me for the brief moment I felt surprise. Largely because she was still sneering at me.

Coolness spread down my head and flowed through my body. In the space of a breath, control was mine again.

I lurched back, tripping over my feet and nearly dropping on the carpet. “What is this? What am I doing here!”

“Hey! You address your princess.” Kaelan advanced on me. “You will hold your tongue, and speak only when spoken to.”

“Fuck you!”

Kaelan’s brows blew up his forehead. I suspect it wasn’t often a Gutter girl spoke to him like that.

“Kaelan,” Emiana said, raising a hand. “I will handle this.”

Falling silent, he snapped to the side—ever the obedient soldier. Emiana gave her first change of expression since I was brought into the room. She smiled.

“Fuck you indeed.” Her voice was a soft, light brush. “You’re angry. You’re scared and worried, but just because you stand in my presence, you’re ordered to hide what you feel. To lock it away and put on the face of a happy servant. Faemen…” She slid a look to Kaelan. “Cannot understand what it is to live bound by such chains. You may even believe that I don’t know either.

“I, Princess Emiana, live in a grand castle high above your problems. How could I ever relate to someone such as you?”

I lifted my chin. “Not to be rude to Your Eminence, but, you can’t.”

“That,” she said, turning her back on me, “is where you’re wrong. You see me and think I have wealth, but is that the case when every coin I spend is under the control and permission of others? You think I have power, but is it powerful to sit silently in a room of advisors and rulers, waiting for a single person to ask my opinion. You think I have freedom, and I ask you, what woman in Lyrica does?” she hissed.

“My magic was bound at ten, same as you. My choices were taken from me, same as you. My father sold me to warm the bed of a brutish man, just like you!” She whirled on me, stiffening my spine. “In the end, we are all the same to them… whores.”

I said nothing. What was there for me to say? To compare our lives was to live in a deluded fantasy. True, I knew nothing of the troubles of a princess, but I doubt she knew what it was to go days without food, weeks without a bath, or a lifetime with no dignity.

“I haven’t convinced you,” she said, reading my expression easily. “You don’t believe we’re all the same, no matter the station? Then, this is all I need to say to convince you.

“The royal line passed through my mother, not my father, King Salman. Try as they did, my grandparents were not able to have the son they wished for, leaving my mother to shoulder her birthright. But did they allow her to?

“No.” The skin around her eyes tightened. “At ten years old, they bound her magic—the only and rightful heir to the throne—and they married her off to the outsider who sits on her throne. The sickness took her when I was five. The earliest memories I have of my mother… are of watching her die.”

Hard and steady eyes beheld me. “You share the same fate as a queen, little whore. What more proof do you need?”

I did not react to her name for me. “Why am I here? You did not bring me before you to tell me I share a queen’s fate.”

She shrugged lightly, padding across the room to the grand window. “As it happens, I did. You see, a year ago, my father’s advisor sat me down and told me history would repeat itself. I would not be allowed to rule the kingdom that is my birthright. As his only child and a female one at that, my father was marrying me off for the good of the nation.

“I expected this,” Emiana said softly. “I was raised by tutors and nursemaids. An advisor had to tell me about my impending marriage because my father couldn’t be bothered to untangle from the limbs of his harem to tell me himself. Someone who never had a trace of affection to show me, would not grant me the throne. I knew it was coming, but I never expected the name he uttered next to be Alisdair Shadowsoul.”

I threw a subtle look toward the door. How close could I get to it before Kaelan struck me down?

“For days, I was in shock,” she continued. “I had been ready to do my duty until I heard that name. The truth of him is in the title. King of Wind and Wild. Shadowsoul is little more than a beast. An animal. He will rip me to shreds with the same blood-dripping claws he used to sign the treaty.

“Well, I say no.”

I inched toward the door. Kaelan was too fixed on Emiana to notice.

“The one thing they haven’t taken from us yet is the right to defend ourselves and fight for our lives,” she said to the fallen stars. “That is what I do this night.”

I reached behind me, feeling for the wood.

“I would ask your permission, but I do not need it. I would ask your forgiveness, but I do not care for it. My actions are blessed by Mother Meya and I— Stop her!”

Throwing the door open, I ran. “Help! Someone, help—!”

My knees locked. Scream trapping in my throat, I fell face-first onto polished stone. My nose snapped—spurting blood on the floor and in my mouth.

Kaelan dragged me back into her bedroom. He was not gentle that time.

“Forgive me, my princess.” He threw me on the floor. “She will not get away from me again.”

“It’s fine. I did just finish saying it is still our right to defend ourselves. The girl has some sense of instinct.” Emiana left the window and knelt down beside me. “She knows she should fear what is coming next.”

“What do you want from me?” I forced through gritted teeth. “Why are you telling stories and speaking in riddles? Tell me why I’m here.”

She laughed. “That’s what I was endeavoring to do before you ran off, but if you desire I should speak plainly, then I will grant your request. You are here because I am not marrying King Alisdair. You are.”

A roaring sounded in my ears, muffling the strange nonsense that dropped from the princess’s lips. I would’ve run again but Kaelan did not release the magic he used on my legs.

“Excuse me? I must’ve misheard you, Princess.”

“You misheard nothing,” she said smoothly. She sat me up and propped me on my knees. The softness her laugh granted her, washed away under returning disdain. “I will not marry that monster. I will not endure his bed until he rips me apart or impregnates me with his beastly seed. I will not be ripped from my home and forced to live in the filthy den of feces and unwashed animals that he calls his kingdom. I shall do none of those things. They are to be your fate.”

I stared at her with no trace of reverence or respect in my raised brows or scowl. “Your Majesty, I cannot marry the king,” I said slowly. “You do know this, don’t you?”

She nodded at Kaelan—a signal that sent him to her nightstand. “You will permit me one more story,” she said to me. “One that we all know.

“Five hundred years ago, the kingdom of Lyrica was a matriarchy. Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago, it was decided the matriarchy would be no more. A lone spellcaster created the spell to bind magic, and it was devastating for us.

“Men do not possess magic within them. They must draw it out of the elements, creatures, nature, and beings around them using runes, spells, and incantations. Then, they must store it in coudarian crystals so they can use it at will. The opposite of women who carry magic in their souls, and draw upon that magic to fight and defend.

“It started small at first,” she said, fingers closing over the tome Kaelan handed her. “Whispers of a whisper about a new dangerous spell. By the time Queen Kasra knew it was a serious threat, dozens of women had their magic stolen from them—permanently. She banned the spell of course, but it was too late. Knowledge of it had spread. The incantation itself wasn’t hard to perform. Any middle-powered faeman could do it.

“I don’t know what makes it worse. How easy it was, or that so many were willing to turn on their mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, and lovers. Just like that, they ripped away everything that made them who they were, and no law or punishment was stopping them.”

Laying down the book, she flipped through the thick pages, sadness making her lids heavy. “Faewomen went into hiding or fled the city. They were the lucky ones. The ones who stayed had their last hope taken away from them when Queen Kasra was betrayed by her brother. He bound her magic, then stole her throne.

“During that time of upheaval, he passed the law that said all women must have their magic bound by ten years of age. It was done to prevent her daughters reclaiming the throne when they were old enough. No one knew then that law would condemn us all to death.”

“The wasting sickness,” I rasped.

She nodded. “The wasting sickness. Our magic is within us. It sustains us like the breath of life. It didn’t happen all at once. Some women lived to fifty. Some eighty. Others one hundred. But eventually one by one, losing their connection to magic made them slowly waste away—vomiting, insomnia, fevers, dementia. Illness after illness struck them down until they all died before their time.

“It didn’t take long for physicians to realize these deaths were all connected to their bound magic, but was the law repealed? Did they lift our death sentences?”

“No,” we said at the same time.

Princess Emiana didn’t need to tell me this story. I knew it well.

“Five hundred years,” she whispered. “Half a millennium of dying, having our rights stripped away, and being reduced to nothing but breeding mares. In half a millennium, a nation that boasted righteous queens and powerful female warriors of legend, has become a place where a princess and a whore peasant sit as equals.”

“The term is war wife, not whore,” I sliced in, “and I’m neither.”

She went on like I hadn’t spoken. “Here it is.” Turning the book around, she tapped the page. “The binding spell. It’s right there written down in the book of forbidden arts. No one ever bothered to remove it. I— Oh, I didn’t ask. Can you read?”

“Yes, I can read. What I’m not capable of doing is understanding why you’re showing me this.”

“I thought it was obvious. I want you to understand the ever-present and casual contempt they have for us all. They boldly and proudly commit forbidden magic against us, knowing there’s nothing we can do about it.

“In the same way my father’s pet told me I was to be traded to a cruel and violent brute to spare the lives of a few peasant faemen on the battlefield. He believed there was nothing I could do about it. That would have been true,” she said, tapping the book. “If the means to defy him weren’t held in the same tome that mocks us.”

The soft whisper of pages filled the room, as loud as my echoing confusion. What was this play-acting? She speaks impossible nonsense about me marrying King Alisdair, then goes on about a book that will defy the king of Lyrica. If she had that, why was I here?

“There are spells in here the likes of you could never comprehend. Spells to force someone to fall in love with you. Spells that set fire to cities, cause plagues, set unstoppable fires, and allows you to trade bodies.”

The final word pierced my mind. “No!”

“I will become you and you will become me.”

“No,” I roared, wrenching my body to the side. My legs did not come with me.

“The book doesn’t say how to perform the incantation naturally.” I was a fly in her presence. My buzzing did not stir her. “Since the day I was told, Kaelan and I have been working to recreate the spell. An entire year, with countless failures in our path. The first several servants died outright,” Emiana dropped, devoid of compassion.

“I will not do this.”

“The others lived long enough to show us our mistakes. The person I trade with must be as close to my body type as possible, or the agony of my bones breaking to reach or shrink to a new height would stop my heart.”

“Are you listening to me? I will not do this!”

“We waited a long time for you. It truly is Meya’s will that my life be spared, but what we do is not without consequence—”

I smacked the book and sent it skidding away. “I’m not doing anything. How dare you talk about the right to live and be free while speaking of all the lives you’ve taken without a thought.”

She gazed at me flatly. “Those lives were a necessary sacrifice. I took no pleasure in it.”

“I’m sure that’s what your father said when he bartered you like land and cattle. A necessary sacrifice.”

Eyes flashing, Emiana smacked me soundly across the face.

“The difference is,” she said over my ringing ears, “that I am your true heir and sovereign. It is your duty and privilege to lay down your lives for me.”

I clutched my cheek, grimacing. “I reject the duty and deny the privilege. I have a family depending on me. My mother is being taken by the sickness. My faywens don’t know from one day to the next if they will have food in their bellies.”

“A bunch of poor, wailing brats forever clinging to your skirts? How tiresome. I’m doing you a favor.” She snapped her fingers at Kaelan. “I’m freeing you of their burden.”

I rocked back, her words a worse blow than her hand could ever deal me. “How could you say something so horrible? They aren’t a burden. They’re my family! The last thing I want is to be free of them.”

She looked me in the eyes. “Then I won’t be doing you a favor by putting them to death if you don’t cease your squawking? Good. It wouldn’t be an effective threat otherwise.”

Lips trembling, I quieted—sinking back on my heels.

“As I was saying.” Kaelan handed her the book. “There are unavoidable consequences to this curse. Try as we did, altering the spell only made those consequences worse. Nature requires balance,” she said, smoothing out the pages. “For great reward, there must be great repercussions. This is true in all things.”

I barely heard her, my mind spinning. A body-switching spell? Sacrificing myself to spare my sovereign? It was all crazed nonsense. Of course the tiny, run-down school I went to in Gutter Galley didn’t have ancient forbidden texts. Women were only taught reading, writing, match, and basic subjects, but still, I could not believe magic such as this existed. She was going to kill us both messing around with curses she couldn’t hope to understand, and then what would happen to my family?

They’ll be trapped under the grip of Kirwan.

My nails dug half-moons into my palm. I would not let that happen.

I looked around while she nattered on. The princess wasn’t the problem. She had no more magic than I, and without it, she was a soft and pampered royal who didn’t spend her forming years scrapping and fighting anyone who insulted her mother, or messed with her siblings. I could easily get away from her if not for Kaelan.

I need to find a way to take him out. Maybe if I provoked him into coming closer, I could snatch the book and—

“—once we change, you will not be able to speak things I do not know.”

My ears caught alight. “Excuse me?”

“It’s here.” Emiana pointed to a line halfway down the page. “You will have their body, their knowledge, and their soul. It was only by observing our single successful pair that we discovered what this meant.

“You will not only take my face. You will be granted knowledge of my life and mannerisms. You will also have yours stolen from you. Names and stories that I, the princess, do not know can’t fall from your lips. Memories that aren’t mine will fade from your mind. We will both slowly forget who we are until we become the other completely.”

Blood drained from my face. “This is madness.”

“Nature requires balance, little whore. There can only be one you, and one princess of Lyrica.”

Horror nearly stole my voice. “Why would you choose this? You will forget who you are. Your entire life gone with one selfish curse. How is that any different than getting married? Your life is still over, with mine added to your casualty count!”

“You weren’t listening.” A strange smile curled her lips. “I said you won’t be able to keep memories I do not have. The same holds true for me—”

“Exactly. So why—”

“Have I spent all this time telling you stories and giving you explanations I do not owe you?” She smiled wider. “Because if you know it, I will too. I will remember the night Princess Emiana told me about a curse that switches bodies, and a man she would not marry. I will remember that she is me.”

My head spun. “But then so will I. I’ll know none of this is real. I’ll warn your father and King Alisdair—”

“How do you expect to do that?” She cocked her head. “Do you imagine it’s that easy? Mother Meya, Kaelan, you had to bring me a stupid girl. The consequence of every curse is that the cursed cannot speak of their affliction. You will warn no one of nothing. Your lips will part and silence will come out. Your hand will try to form the characters while you glare at a blank page. Yes, you will remember the truth, but you could do nothing about—”

“Olene, Meliora, Gisela, Jaclan, and Savia!” I rushed. “Remember these names. You love them. You promised you would return to—”

“Kaelan!”

He hurriedly touched a crystal on his lapel and an unseen gag stuffed my mouth, cracking my jaw and trapping garbled speech in my throat.

Fury lit Emiana’s brow, peeling her lips back from her teeth. I thought she might slap me again.

“So you’re not that stupid. But that did you no good. Fine, you will remember the names of whoever those people are, but I will soon know everything about them.” She tapped her forehead. “Even if you did manage to tell anyone what I’ve done this night, ask yourself how many of your loved ones I kill before King Alisdair comes for me?”

“Agh!” The rich food spoiled in my stomach, burning its way back up my throat.

“Do we understand each other?”

Stiffly, I nodded. She would have the means to destroy me more assuredly than I could hurt her. King Alisdair would whisk me away to a land of strangers. While Emiana would march my face and body right into my home… with my unsuspecting mother, sisters, and brother.

“Good. I wanted to be civilized about this, but you’ve left me no choice. Kaelan, keep her silent for the rest of the night. There’s much she must know, and I have no time for her interruptions.”

“Yes, my princess.”

I sat quiet, jaw aching, and chest constricting as she dove into the story of her life and legacy. I was made to listen to everything from her favorite foods and the names of her horses, to her deepest secrets and enemies. She spoke of safe places for her to hide and how to get there. She said in great, terrible detail what to do to the people I loved if anyone questioned her identity or tried to imprison her.

All I could do was sit—trapped and burning with hatred—as she told herself to do something I would never do—abandon my family. Her plan was so insidious in its simplicity. I would lose all sense of myself, believing myself to be the princess, while she ran off with the jewels and gold she spent a year hiding away, waiting until she had a new face that would take her safely out of town.

“If something goes wrong, there is only one way to break the curse,” she told herself through me. “True love. A confession of love for your true self and with your true name. He must know and love you, the real you, not the borrowed face you wear. When that love is sealed with a kiss borne of truth and sacrifice, all that you are and once were will return.

“Remember this in case something goes wrong and you have no choice but to reclaim your body. Thankfully, your true love will always be with you.” She held out her hand to Kaelan, a smile as warm on her lips as the one beaming on his. “Kaelan will protect you, watch over you, and bring you back when the time is right.”

“Yes,” he said. “I will. I love you always, my princess. Forever until the end of time.”

“And after.”

I would’ve vomited if the bile could escape my throat. Not just for their sickening display, but for the certainty that this was the last night of my life. True love would never free me. I’d spend the last of my days with a man who believes me to be someone else. Even if he discovered love somewhere in the depths of his black, twisted soul… My name. He would never know my name.

“I believe that’s it,” Emiana said, rising. “Am I forgetting anything, my love?”

“No, my heart. After the change, we’ll walk straight past the guards into my quarters. They’ll think I took one of the war wives out for a taste. As soon as she’s married, we’ll both be free.”

“Let’s not waste another minute. Father has been sending guards to check on me at night to make sure I haven’t run.”

“Get comfortable,” he said. “I’ll take care of her.”

Getting comfortable for Princess Emiana was stripping naked and lying down on her silky, voluminous sheets.

Kaelan tugged off my clothes and left me on the cold floor—legs locks and jaw trapped. I shook as chill spread through me, tears stinging my eyes.

How did this happen? Only that morning, I was singing in the garden with Savia, smiling at our garden patch’s healthy, growing vegetables. Now I was in trouble the likes of which cracked my spirit. Of course this barbaric spell was named forbidden. It was a curse that allowed you to steal someone’s life. To rip away their image, memories, and future, take it for yourself, and leave them stranded in the misery you’re fleeing. What kind of desperate person created such a spell?

How desperate must you be to use it?

The princess of Lyrica trading lives with a poor, random girl she called “little whore,” she wasn’t desperate. She was terrified… of Alisdair Shadowsoul.

I knew as much about the ruler of our enemy kingdom as anyone in Lyrica did. Centuries ago, the All Mother Meya, created the fae race. Unlike the other gods who retreated to the cosmos, Meya stayed with us. She nurtured us, blessed us, and granted us knowledge, wisdom, and magic.

We lived in harmony with her, and all of faekin, until Alisdair Shadowsoul. Peace and goodwill throughout the lands wasn’t enough for him. He wanted complete and total dominion over Meya, and all the power that would grant him.

One terrible day, he bound and trapped the goddess, imprisoning her forever in chains not even she could break. But Meya had her revenge.

On the very spot of her prison, grasping vines, jagged bush, overgrown trees, craggy rocks, and perilous cliffs sprung up surrounding her. A deadly, twisting forest that would one day become the kingdom of Wind and Wild.

Of course, many brave faemen and faewomen swarmed the forest, fighting to kill Shadowsoul and free Meya. But not all did. It was said the land around Meya was both blessed and cursed. Her nearness blessed the soil with godly power. It grew fruits, vegetables, and grazing land that never spoiled, and was infused with healing properties that let the people who decided to make their home near Meya and not free her live centuries longer than normal fae.

Still, I also said the land was cursed. The longer those traitors stayed there—eating off the land, enjoying the fruits of Meya’s misery—the quicker they changed. Warped from reasoned, normal-mannered faekin into feral, snarling beasts—half fae, half animal.

Our men would come back from the battlefield, speaking of fangs, claws, gills, fur, long ears, and beaks. They spoke of men who lost their faemanity long ago.

And Shadowsoul was responsible for all of it.

With Meya gone, faekin learned war, hatred, distrust, and discrimination for the first time in their lives. They formed groups and retreated to different corners of the land, staking their claims on plots that grew into separate kingdoms.

Hundreds of thousands of years later, Shadowsoul sat on a throne carved from the All Mother’s misery, ruling over a drooling, snarling pack of cursed beasts, and watching my people die in a war we couldn’t lose, because we had to free Meya.

It wasn’t a choice. Every year, the kingdom of Wind and Wild grew—the cursed land bleeding across the borders of Lyrica, Quatassa, Rajadom, and Sarabai. Meya’s will was clear. Free her, or we’d all suffer the same fate as the faeriken. If only they weren’t proving impossible to beat.

Kaelan sat down beside me, carrying a bowl of spelled ink. I knew not the magics that were performed on the ink to make it able to draw runes of power. Those were the kinds of things you learned in the Academy of Magical Arts. No woman had attended in five hundred years.

Kaelan dipped his fingers in the bowl, then began drawing on my body. Whispering to himself, he repeated the incantations over and over, weaving the spell that would destroy my life.

I screamed and railed against the gag, begging him to stop. Pleading with any trace of goodness in him to let me go.

Kaelan didn’t so much as look me in the eyes. I was nothing to him. Just another pawn in their year-long plot to run away together, and leave the rest of us with the consequences.

Only when I was covered head to toe in runes did he leave me on the hard floor. I had to listen to him repeating the process with Princess Emiana, every symbol and word of power bringing me closer to the inevitable.

What am I going to do? I’ll forget my family. I’ll forget my promise. Mama is getting sicker every day. Meliora’s stern face and sharp tongue made it even harder for her to get work. If things got too desperate, what would become of Jaclan? Would Mama have to choose between enrolling him in training or watching all the kids starve?

My breaths picked up, chest rising and falling too fast as my family’s ruin materialized before my eyes. Meliora would try her best to take care of Mama and the kids, but she would have something in her way that I didn’t—

—her shitstain bastard of a father.

This can’t happen. I fisted the rug. Muscles straining, I flipped myself over, and crawled.

My legs were useless sticks trailing behind me. Slowing me down. But I wouldn’t stop.

This was my only chance while he was focused on the princess. She said guards would eventually come to check on her. Let them see a naked girl covered in runes, crawling through the hallway. That was sure to spur them into action.

Come on. I pushed myself up, straining for the handle. Almost.

My body seized. Arms jerking, agony racked me—originating from every rune, and they were everywhere.

I was melting.

White-hot heat burned me to ash. Warped my bones. Incinerated my insides. And left me nothing. I was nothing in the face of such terrible, vengeful magic. It wasn’t just that this curse was forbidden. The curse was alive. Sentient. It knew it’s offense against nature, and did not want to be performed. All who dare ignore this, would know pain that had never been experienced.

Hearing Princess Emiana scream louder than the one lodged in my throat was hollow revenge. I was changing.

My sun-blistered skin paled. Callouses disappeared from my hands. My hair—so unique and reviled—lengthened until it tangled around my jerking arms. Another bind restricting me. Dry, tangled ends smoothed out like the finest spun silk, and I felt it all.

I felt the hair grow from my scalp. Felt my flat, round nose both narrow and shrink. Big feet crumpled with the breaking of a dozen bones, becoming the tiny dainty pair worthy of a princess. Everything I was and could be washed away.

I strained for the handle, tears streaking a face that wasn’t mine. My promise… I won’t break my promise…

My hand fell away. Darkness claimed me before I hit the floor.

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