Zara stretched out her hand, signaling for the men behind her to get ready as their boat glided through the still, moonlit waters. They’d waited weeks for the perfect night to launch their attack. She offered a quick prayer to the Lady Moon the first part of their plan had already gone into place without a hitch. If not, then she and her men were in for a fight.
The submerged paddles drew to a stop as the men powering them ceased pedaling in order to draw their weapons. Zara peeked out from under the tarp that concealed them from the Thallian soldiers and gave the last steering instructions to Parros, who sat on the opposite end of the small boat. Their hull scraped against the prison ship in Boznac’s harbor and inched closer to the rope ladder that dangled from the deck above.
Zara grabbed it and threw back the tarp, not missing Parros’s disapproving frown just before she started climbing, her fitted leather breeches allowing her to move with greater stealth than the bulky skirts she’d been forced to wear before the invasion. Let him think what he wanted. She was the leader of this mission, and that meant she’d go first.
All six of them climbed up the deck with the silence of the dead. The same silence greeted them when they surveyed the surroundings. Parros leaned in close to her and murmured, “Keep your guard up, m’lady. We both know how tricky those Thallians can be.”
The knotted scar across her abdomen burned, despite the icy cold of the winter’s night. She loaded her crossbow. “I’m never in danger of forgetting that.”
Bodies littered the deck. Two of her men fanned out, creeping toward each crumpled mass and nudging them with their boots before reaching down to check for a breath or a pulse. After they’d inspected each one, they circled back to her. “All dead.”
A weight lifted off her chest. The poisoned cask of wine she’d bribed a local merchant to send to the ship had worked. And if she found the person she was looking for, the exorbitant price she paid would be more than worth it. “Seems the Thallians liked their holiday treat.”
“Just be grateful tonight fell during their solstice celebrations,” Parros grumbled. The hardened soldier’s eyes continually flickered across the deck. “If the timing hadn’t lined up as it had—”
“But it did.” She’d learned long ago to stop thinking about “what if.” She cared only about the here and now. “Stop talking and help me find him before it’s time for the crew change.”
Five large Thallian ships sat in Boznac’s harbor, each holding hundreds of Ranellian prisoners deemed too dangerous to be forced into slavery and too valuable to kill without first gleaning some information about the kingdom’s workings. Every night just before dawn, two boats from each ship left carrying twenty soldiers. Once they reached the shore, they’d be replaced with fresh soldiers, who went back to guard the ship. Zara had studied their movements, their schedules, their faces for weeks as she waited for her plan to fall into place. And now that it was in action, she had every move choreographed down to the last minute.
She counted the bodies on the deck. “Twelve. That means there are eight below deck with the prisoners.”
Her men nodded and followed her to the stairs that lead below.
The foul stench of filth and human excrement assaulted her nose the moment she opened the door. Her stomach threatened to hurl its contents onto the deck, but she clamped her jaw tight and breathed in through her teeth until the sensation subsided. She couldn’t appear weak in front of the others. She was their leader, and nothing was going to stop her from getting what she wanted.
Two more bodies lay at the base of the stairs, both cold to the touch. Dim candles illuminated the galley, casting shadows on the hollow faces of the prisoners crammed into the cells. A few of their glazed expressions brightened as they noticed the new arrivals, but most looked as though their souls had already fled their still living fleshly confines.
A twinge of pity filled her heart as she studied their faces, hoping she wasn’t too late to find him. The rebellion needed him more than ever now that winter had settled over the beaten Ranellians. They needed a leader who would drive the invaders from their homeland and free them once again. And if he was still alive, she’d risk her last breath to restore him to the throne.
“That’s fifteen.” Parros kicked another body on the floor. “Are you certain he’s on this ship?”
She nodded. “I tracked the sword back to a prisoner on this ship. He has to be here.”
“Then I pray to the Lady Moon you’re right.”
As do I.
She continued to search each prisoner for confirmation of his identity, but they all blurred together. Same dark hair and eyes. Same scraggly beards and hair that were most likely crawling with vermin. Same gaunt frames. Same haunted expressions. Her eyes burned as she took in each one, imagining what they must have suffered at the hands of the Thallians.
“Please help us,” one of them begged, his voice hardly above a dry whisper.
“I will,” she replied, every word part of a sacred vow she’d promised to uphold, “but first I need to ensure the safety of one of our brethren. Then we’ll release you.”
After she made her way past each of the cells, a twinge of doubt crept into the back of her mind. Maybe she had waited too long.
Parros approached her with a set of keys. “I found this over there,” he said, pointing to the soldier sitting in a chair with his neck tilted back, his wide eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“That’s sixteen.” Her shoulders tightened. “Four more to be accounted for.”
“And another deck to check.”
Thank the Lady Moon.
She waited until the rest of the men joined her before venturing down into the lower level. Little had changed from the deck above, but her stomach still twisted into knots. The hair on the back of her neck rose, and her senses heightened.
A flicker of movement came from her left. She raised her crossbow, but Parros was faster. He jumped between her and the Thallian soldier, killing him with two quick flicks of his blade. He shoved the corpse back. “Seventeen.”
“And if one was still alive, there’s a good chance the last three are, too.”
The second those words left her mouth, the remaining Thallian soldiers leapt from the shadows. Their eyes were bloodshot, and their movements clumsy. They’d ingested the poison, but later than their comrades. It didn’t matter, though. Zara aimed her crossbow at the center of one of the soldiers and fired. The bolt penetrated his chest as though it was a needle piercing cloth, passing through his heart and out the other side. The man stuttered to a stop and fell flat on his back.
Her men disposed of the last two Thallians just as easily. Now the only enemy left was time.
She gathered them back in a circle. “Let me know if any of you think you’ve found him.”
They all fanned out to the cells. Zara picked apart all of the prisoner’s features. How much would this ordeal have aged him? Would he even be the same man she remembered? She was just about to call the mission a failure when her candle lit up the hazel eyes of one of the prisoners. She came closer, her heart pounding, and brushed back his hair to reveal a tiny scar on his temple.
She’d been seven the day he’d gotten it. They’d been playing with her brother, Bynn, along the ramparts of her father’s castle. He’d tagged her, laughing the whole time as she chased after him, always just out of her reach. She’d been closing in on him when she slipped on some loose gravel and tumbled headfirst into his chest. On the way down, he’d hit his head on a stone wall. Although he never lost consciousness, the gash bled like she’d opened up an artery. She’d been so terrified that she’d mortally wounded him until Cero, the healer, told her all head wounds bled like that, even the minor ones.
Now she stood inches away from the man she’d set out to find. His head was bowed, and his arms bound in chains to the ship’s wall. He was cachectic and disheveled from his months on board the prison ship, a thin resemblance to the carefree prince she’d known. The Thallians hadn’t killed him, but had they broken his spirit? She whispered his name to see if he responded. “Kell?”
A glimmer of recognition sparked in his eyes. She repeated his name, and he lifted his head. “Yes?” he croaked.
Joy surged through her being, leaking out from her eyes. “We found you! You’re alive.”
The other men rushed toward her, the keys in Parros’s hands clanging as joyfully as the bells of the grandest temple to the Lady Moon. They’d all risked their lives to find Prince Kell, and now they would be rewarded for their weeks of patience and planning.
Parros unlocked the chains that bound him, and Zara caught him as he fell forward. He was still so weak, so malnourished that if they weren’t careful, they might lose him to illness once they got him back to the shore. “Let’s get him to the boat,” she ordered.
The other prisoners cried out in protest as they passed, each demanding to be freed, too. But if she released them now, they’d stampede their way to the boat and ruin the rescue operation. She’d keep her promise, though, but only once Kell was safely on board the boat they’d bought.
Kell’s eyes were half-closed when they reached the top deck, his feet dragging behind him.
Parros frowned. “There’s no way he’ll be able to climb down, m’lady.”
“Then I’ll go down first to catch him while you and the others find a way to lower him to the boat.”
“And the others?” He glanced over his shoulder to the stairs leading to the prison cells, the keys still in his hand, his expression unreadable.
She flung her crossbow’s strap over her shoulder and stepped out onto the rope ladder. “Once we get him on board, you can give the keys to the prisoners. But make sure they don’t sabotage our mission. The last thing we need is to alert the other prison ships and have one of their cannons blow us out the water.”
The men wrapped a rope around Kell’s chest and used it to lower him into the boat. Zara caught him and dragged him to the bow of the small boat. His eyes remained half-closed, his mind drifting in and out of consciousness. She cradled him in her lap and brushed the hair out of his eyes, her heart wavering between hopeful and wary. They’d rescued the only remaining heir to the throne, but would he be the leader they needed?
Parros was the last one on board. He leveled his gaze with Zara, his mouth set in a firm line. “I did as you asked, m’lady. I just pray the prisoners will follow my command.”
Shouts rose from the other side of the hull, and her throat tightened. “Let’s get out of here now before they alert the Thallians.”
“I warned them not to,” Parros said as he pushed off. “I explained the ship was theirs, and they’d be far better off sailing away on it than trying to reach Boznac.”
“What if one of the other ships gives chase?”
Parros laughed and took his place at the rudder. “Even the Thallians know it’s suicidal to sail in winter. One good storm will sink an entire armada.”
“Then why did you send our people on such a journey?”
“I told them about the cove. If the weather holds, they’ll make it safely there by dawn.”
Zara offered yet another quick prayer to the Lady Moon for the prisoners’ safety. If the Thallians caught them, there’d be no mercy.
She pulled the tarp over their heads and gave the command to go, her stomach knotting up. At this rate, they’d barely miss the changing of the guards. The paddles under the boat whirled to life under the power of her men’s foot pedals, and the boat moved back to shore. Although she spent most of the trip keeping watch and telling Parros which way to steer, she lost count of how many times she checked Kell to make sure he was still breathing.
Once they reached their hiding spot on the edge of Boznac, they pulled him ashore and carried him inside the warehouse they used as their base of operations. Thao greeted them with a lantern and opened the floorboards that hid the entrance to the secret cellar he’d built for the rebels. A grin appeared under his extravagant moustache. “Successful, Lady Zara?”
“Very much so.” She grinned at him, savoring the first stirrings of joy in months. “Ranello finally has its king.”
Arden inched closer to the ledge that served as Sazi’s balcony and looked down. Her cousin, Empress Marist, was coming through the main gates of the Conclave, followed by at least two dozen riders dressed in finery. “Is the Empress holding court here?”
“No,” Sazi replied without looking up from her scroll, “she is here on business.”
“Who are the men with her?”
“Knights.” Sazi stretched her ebony wings high above her head in the same synchronized movement as her arms before standing. The Ornathian mage towered everyone in the Conclave, but once she allowed Arden to see inside the gentleness of her soul, Arden no longer feared her. She joined her on the ledge. “They are here to be evaluated by the Mage’s Council.”
“For what?” This was the most excitement she’d had since being transferred into the Conclave’s walls two months ago.
Sazi’s brows drew together, and a furrow formed in the dark skin of her forehead. “Didn’t Dev tell you?”
“Dev never tells me anything.”
“That’s because he fears being near you,” Loku whispered. The chaos god’s soul resided in her body, his words always invading her mind. All of his previous Soulbearers had been driven mad by his antics. Arden always wondered when he’d manage to push her over the edge next. “That’s what you get for being honest with him, though. One little kiss, and you have him running scared.”
Arden didn’t try to hold back the heavy sigh that rose from her chest. She’d fallen in love with Dev, had even turned down a prince to be with him, but he kept claiming that nothing could ever happen between them as long as he was bound to protect her. She’d even been bold enough to try to convince him otherwise with a passionate kiss, but that resulted with him avoiding her every chance he could. “I suppose I made a mistake kissing him.”
“No, you made a mistake by stopping the kiss. What you should have done was tear his clothes off, thrown him on the bed, and had your wicked way with him. Then the two of you would both be post-orgasmically content, and I wouldn’t have to deal with your constant moping.”
Arden’s cheeks burned, but the images Loku supplied tempted her more than she cared to admit.
“Is something troubling your soul?” Sazi asked.
“More like your heart—am I right, my little Soulbearer?”
Arden shook her head. “I’m just getting frustrated. No one ever gives me a straight answer here.”
“Perhaps because there are things you are meant to know now, and things you are meant to learn in the future.” Sazi’s accent, normally so musical, now grated upon Arden’s ears with its smug condescendence as she returned to her desk.
“Are you going to allow her to talk to you like that?” Loku hissed. “Perhaps we should remind her who we are.”
Divine magic exploded from her core, wrapping her body in its power. A blast of wind soared in from the snow-covered mountains beyond the Conclave, flickering the magic-lit lamps and flipping the pages of the open books. When Arden spoke, she heard Loku’s voice echoing her words. “Tell us now.”
Sazi pursed her lips together. “Are you trying to intimidate me, Arden Soulbearer?”
“You know what we’re capable of doing.”
But instead of cowering in fear, the tall Ornathian reached out and closed her fingers together as though she was pinching the air. Even though Sazi stood halfway across the room, her spell ripped through any shields Arden scrambled to raise and cut off her air like a hand was on her neck.
Stars bloomed on the edges of Arden’s vision, bleeding together to form a dark tunnel that grew narrower with each passing second. She fell to her knees. Loku’s magic faded as the invisible vise tightened around her throat. She clawed at the air, desperate to free herself before she lost consciousness. Another blast of wind assaulted the room, but it lacked the strength of the first one.
“Release her, Loku,” Sazi ordered, her tone as dark as her skin, “before you are forced to have me as your jailor.”
“Another time, my little Soulbearer,” he whispered in her mind before withdrawing completely.
As soon as he did, Sazi released her from the spell. A series of hoarse coughs rattled Arden’s chest while she gulped in the delicious air. She pressed her pounding forehead against the cool stone floor and waited for her pulse to return to normal.
Sazi knelt beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. Warm magic flowed from her touch, driving away the chill of near-death and the pain lingering in her throat. “I am sorry I had to resort to such measures, but I knew of no other way to make him release you.”
Arden lifted her head and stared into the Ornathian’s unreadable dark eyes. How many secrets did they hold? “You could have just told me what I wanted to know.”
“You are letting him influence your actions too much.” She placed a finger under Arden’s chin. “Remember why you are here. It is to learn how to control him, not to let him control you.”
She recounted the last few minutes in her mind. Loku had seized control of her so quickly, she’d hardly realized what he was doing. In the past, he’d always asked her permission. But this time, he grabbed control of her body, her mind, her voice in less than a second. She shuddered, anger filling the void left as her fear faded. What else was he capable of doing? “And how do you suggest I do that, should this happen again?”
The Ornathian replied by offering Arden one of her rare smiles. She lowered her finger to Arden’s chest and pressed it into the place right above her heart. “By looking inside here. Only you can control him. Remember who you were before he entered your life, and draw on that for your power.”
Arden almost laughed. Before Loku’s soul entered her body, she was a nobody. A skinny, yellow-haired witch who constantly lived in fear of being burned at the stake. An outsider who reminded her mother every day of the man who’d abandoned them. A girl who wanted nothing more than to disappear completely. “And what if I want to forget that person?”
“Then you will succumb to the madness as quickly as the others.” Sazi stood and walked away.
Arden wrapped her arms around her stomach to drive away the chill forming deep inside her gut. Sazi had managed to hit upon the one thing she feared the most—losing her mind to the chaos god just like the prior Soulbearers had. Memories of the prior Soulbearer, with his wild eyes and incessant muttering, filled her mind and added a chill to her blood. “Is that what you’re trying to do, Loku? Turn me into Robb?”
“Of course not, my little Soulbearer.” A pair of invisible arms wrapped around her. Normally, Loku’s embrace comforted her, but now she only wished to shake it off. Loku seemed to sense her thoughts and retreated. “They are the ones who wish to control you. You are the closest thing to a goddess they will ever encounter. Remember that.”
Her mind swirled as she rose to her feet, throwing her off balance for the first few steps. Who should she believe? Sazi? Loku? It wasn’t until she was halfway down the tower’s spiraling stairs that she decided she needed to be wary of both of them. Gravaria was a land seeped in both magic and secrets. It made her wish for the simple hostility of Ranello. At least there, she knew where she stood.
When she reached the bottom, she went straight for the wing where the Mage’s Council met. These men and women were considered the ten most powerful mages in Gravaria, although she questioned their power after seeing what Sazi was capable of doing a few moments before. Since Nelos’s priest had killed the Mage Sextus in an attempt to get to Arden, a new mage had been elected to the council. She only hoped the new Mage Decius would be willing to divulge some information about the Empress’s entourage.
Unfortunately, her path intersected with Empress Marist instead. The two women stopped a few feet apart and eyed each other warily. Arden had only recently learned that she and the Empress were cousins, although there was no denying the strong family resemblance. They were the same height, the same build, possessed the same golden hair and blue eyes. If her mother hadn’t clipped the tips when she was a baby, perhaps Arden’s ears would’ve formed the same elegant points as Marist’s.
But instead of welcoming her to the family, the Empress seemed to view Arden as a threat to her power. She lifted her chin ever so slightly and regarded her with cold blue eyes.
Arden mirrored her stance, the only person in the room who dared not bow before the Empress. “Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Soulbearer.” Her eyes glittered silver for a moment, heightening the Empress’s icy nature.
“To what do we owe the honor of your presence?” She secretly hoped Marist was here to lift the spell that kept Arden captive behind the Conclave’s walls. The Empress had arrested her after she and Loku defeated Nelos. The Tribunal of the Gods feared what would happen if she actually killed a god, but since the order of the world didn’t fall out of balance, Loku had reassured her that Nelos’s soul had survived. It was crippled, perhaps, but not destroyed. Hopefully, enough time had passed to convince the Empress of that.
Marist arched one golden brow. “I’m here to oversee the selection of your new Protector.”
Her supply of spit doubled, forcing her to swallow faster. “I already have a Protector.”
“Yes, but he’s asked the Mage’s Council to be relieved of his duty.”
The blood drained from her face so quickly, her head swam. She took a step back. “Dev no longer wants to be my Protector?”
“Didn’t he tell you?” A slight smirk adorned the Marist’s lips.
“I was hoping to wait until we’d found a suitable replacement before telling her, Your Imperial Majesty,” Dev said from behind Arden.
She turned around, scarcely believing what she was hearing. Dev’s face remained unreadable, as always, but a glint of some unrecognizable emotion glowed from his dark green eyes. Yet, despite the news that he was planning to abandon her, her heart quickened, and she was drawn to him as though he’d looped a rope around her waist and was pulling her toward him. “Why?”
He winced and tightened his jaw, his gaze stripping through all her defenses until he came to the raw pain of her soul. “You know why,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.
She drew in a sharp breath, the air burning her nostrils and making her eyes water. Her hands trembled. Yes, she knew why. She’d crossed the line by letting him know she wanted something more. She’d risked her heart by showing him that she loved him. And this was his answer.
Her feet backpedaled, stumbling over themselves as she placed some much needed distance between her and the man who was breaking her heart all over again. But she refused to let him see her cry. She fought to keep her emotions concealed, her face as hard as her cousin’s and her voice as cold. “Then so be it.”
She kept her steps slow and deliberate until the shadows of the narrow hallway consumed her. Then she ran back to her room, the sound of Cinder’s padded feet following her through the twisted paths of Conclave. Once she was behind closed doors, she sank to the floor and let the tears fall. The fire wolf nudged her with his muzzle, inviting her to run her hands through his coarse fur and cling to it while she cried.
“Forget about Dev,” Loku said. “You’ll always have me, and I promise never to hurt you.”
“So you say.” After his little demonstration in Sazi’s tower today, she doubted his sincerity.
Loku replied with a snort of disdain. “If you wish for me to abandon you like Dev—”
“Just shut up and let me mourn.”
“No, I refuse to let you cry over a man who obviously is too stupid to know what he has. He’s not worth your tears.” He paused, filling her mind with an image of a man with long black hair whipping in the wind, glowing yellow-green eyes, and lines that chaotically danced across his skin like lightning bolts. It was the same form he’d revealed to her in a dream many months ago, a glimpse of what he’d looked like before his body had been destroyed. “If I still had my body, I’d prove to you that you didn’t need any other man but me.”
The seductive tone of his words snapped her from her world of self-pity and halted her tears. Over the last year, she’d come to view Loku as a confidant, a friend, but never a lover. She could only imagine the trouble she’d be in if she accepted his invitation. “Thankfully, you don’t have a body.”
“But imagine what you’ve been missing.” A breeze bathed the back of her neck as though Loku was standing right behind her. “I’d make Kell look like an inexperienced boy.”
More images flooded her mind—scenes of tangled bodies and tangled sheets, of two people caught in the throes of passion. A rebellious spark of desire ignited deep inside, flushing her skin. A whimper rose from her throat. She closed her eyes and surrendered to the world Loku painted for her, only to realize that she was the woman in the scenes. Her mouth went dry, and her pulse quickened as the man’s face came into view. She knew that dark auburn hair, as soft as silk, and the eyes the color of evergreens.
Fury replaced her lust. She jumped to her feet so quickly, Cinder tumbled back on his haunches. “That wasn’t funny, Loku.”
“You did that,” he replied, his voice laced with acid, “not me. If I was in control, it would have been my face you saw as you came, my body giving you pleasure.”
Arden pressed her hands against her flaming cheeks. Her legs twitched, forcing her to move from one end of the room to the other. “I can’t stay here. I can’t be near him any longer, not after he made very clear he wants nothing to do with me.”
“I can’t.” Even if she could sneak past the spell that held her prisoner, where would she go? Crawling back to Kell? No, she couldn’t do that, not after she’d chosen Dev over him. She reached for the comfort of her mother’s necklace, the object that had always served as her anchor in times of trouble, only to be reminded once again that it was gone. She’d lost it the night she fought Nelos.
“I can help you. I know how to get past the Empress’s spell,” Loku teased. “I even know where you can find your mother’s necklace.”
She froze, weighing his offer with care. Why would be offering to help her now? “What makes you think you can do that?”
“I am still a god, you know. I’m just trapped by your body.”
“And what do you want in return?”
He chuckled. “I just want you to be happy, my little Soulbearer.”
Somehow, she doubted that. But he offered the only solution to her current situation, and if he could help get her mother’s necklace back, she’d be willing to take the risk. “Then we’ll leave in the morning.”
“Who says we have to wait until morning? The Empress and the entire Mage’s Council are occupied at the moment. What better time to leave than now?”
Cinder whimpered as though he knew the contents of their private conversation. He came between her and the door, leaning against her and pushing her back from the escape route.
“Isn’t it dangerous to go down the mountain at night?”
Loku laughed. “That’s want they want you to believe. Besides, I’ve been up and down this mountain so many times over the centuries, I could navigate it while you slept.”
“Sorry, but I don’t trust you that much.” The last glowing embers of the sun slid behind the mountains. Scaling the steep path in the dark would be dangerous—one false step could lead to a hundred foot drop—but Loku had a point about this being the perfect time to escape. She ruffled Cinder’s fur to calm him. “Let me change and pack up a few things.”
It only took her a few minutes to switch her dress for a tunic and leggings that were more suitable for travel. She stuffed the dress into a sack and grabbed a few apples from the bowl in the center of the room. There wasn’t much else left to take. A fire had destroyed most of her belongings several months ago, but at least it made for lighter travel.
When her gaze fell on Dev’s bed, however, her heart hiccupped. She’d been a fool to ever think she could change his mind… or win his heart. He was a knight, sworn to uphold a vow he made a century before he met her and unwilling to let anything come between him and his duty. And as much pain as his choice had caused her, it also made her admire him for his unwavering devotion to his promise.
At least, until tonight. After learning that he wanted to be released of his vow to protect her, she no longer held him in such high esteem. He was a coward who chose to run away from his feelings rather than embrace them.
You have no room to talk, she reminded herself. You’re running away, too. But I can’t afford to be hurt by him anymore. It’s time I took charge of my own life.
She draped a warm cloak around her shoulders and hurried down the stairs, constantly checking around corners to make sure the path was clear before darting forward. Her hands trembled, and her magic simmered under the surface of her skin, ready to be called upon if needed. Cinder stayed close beside her, no longer hindering her escape but making it very clear he was coming with her.
By the time she reached the stables and saddled up her horse, confidence had replaced any fear that may have choked her up. With each step, she grew more resolute. This was the best path for her to take now. She’d find her mother’s necklace and then find a way back home to help Kell. If there was any truth to the rumors that Thallus had invaded Ranello, he’d need her help. Months had passed since she’d last spoken to Kell through the mirror, and every attempt since then had ended in silence. She prayed it was because he was angry with her and not because of something more dire.
Her steps slowed as she came to the main gate of the Conclave. Magic hummed along her skin, growing stronger the closer she got. She paused a couple of feet away, the humming morphing into dozens of tiny pinpricks. Any closer, and she feared what pain awaited her. “How are we going to get past the spell?”
“By tricking it.” Loku’s magic wrapped around her like a blanket, soothing the prickling fire. “The spell was meant to keep you from passing through the gate. It wasn’t armed against me.”
Arden knew what was required of her. She’d have to surrender to him if she wanted to sneak past the spell. “You promise to release me once we’re free?”
“Upon my soul.”
As soon as she gave her consent, Loku pushed her consciousness back into a remote corner of her mind. It always felt like this when he seized control of her, like she was watching her life play out in front of her without having any say in what was happening. This time, however, there was no necromancer to defeat, no god to battle, no chaos and destruction. After she’d gone past the gate, he simply released her.
“See?” he asked as she mounted the horse. “You can trust me, my little Soulbearer.”
“And the best part of this plan is that your little bracelet there will keep them from finding you. Once we’re past the Imperial City, you’ll never have to worry about being their prisoner again.”
She glanced down at the bracelet the Mage Primus had created for her. The magic inside had been cast to keep Nelos’s servant from finding her, but now it would be used against the creator. “I guess it’s a good thing I’ve never taken it off.”
“Don’t, because the moment you do, they’ll hunt you down and drag you back to those mithral chains.” His laughter carried a sinister tone at the end, one that prickled her skin with gooseflesh. “Yes, my dear Arden, we have many adventures ahead of us. But first, I’ll keep my promise to help you find your mother’s necklace.”
She nudged the horse forward, her vision sharper than it had ever been at night. Her hesitations about going down the mountain at night eased, but she still couldn’t shake the sensation that she’d just landed herself in even bigger trouble.
Dev rubbed his face and glanced at the clock for the twentieth time in less than an hour. How much longer could these knights drone on and on about their accomplishments? He knew from the moment he saw them that none of them would be good enough for Arden.
His attention turned to the door, his feet itching to leave and find her. He’d worked so hard keeping this a secret. In a perfect world, he would’ve been able to wait until a new Protector was chosen, thus relieving him of his obligations and allowing him to pursue Arden as suitor.
Actually, in his mind, he saw himself asking her to marry him and then dragging her to bed for a week. Their last kiss still haunted him, still kept him awake long into the night and made his body howl in frustration. Every time he kicked himself for not taking her up on her offer then, he remembered what happened when he let his emotions cloud his judgment. She was aptly named Trouble, and until he knew someone with a clear mind was looking out for her, he couldn’t let anything compromise his duty, no matter how much he wanted her.
Arano, his father and Mage Primus, leaned over and whispered, “Are you even listening to any of them?”
Dev discreetly shook his head. Right now, all he cared about was getting through this and finding Arden so he could apologize for blindsiding her with his news. He’d even come clean with a full confession if it wiped away the look of betrayal that had filled her eyes.
The Empress’s eyes slid toward them, her brow raised. She waited until the last knight finished speaking and stood. “Thank you all for coming. Tomorrow, I will meet with the Mage’s Council to discuss your merits, and from there, the individual interviews will begin.”
Dev bit back a groan. Screw the bloody diplomatic process. Just pick one and be done with it.
As the others filed out the room, the Empress lingered by her throne. Her lips pressed together as sternly as any governess who’d caught her charges splashing around in a mud puddle rather than attending to their studies. “Mage Primus, I’d like to have a word in private with you and the current Protector.”
“My quarters are at your disposal,” his father replied.
They passed through the now empty corridors in silence. At this time of night, most of the students were already in bed. Part of him wanted to sneak away to make sure Arden had done the same, but he doubted the Empress would allow that based on the tone of her order. At least he knew Cinder was with her. If he couldn’t be there, Cinder was a good substitution, especially since the damn wolf practically doted on her.
It didn’t escape his notice that the Lord Chamberlain, Caz di Milori, was notably absent from the Empress’s entourage. As the head of the Milorian family, Caz had successfully ensured that just about every important position in the empire was held by one of his blood relatives, all the way up to the Empress herself. By now, he probably knew Arden was his niece and was most likely already scheming of a way to fit her into his political machine. His absence had Dev even more uncomfortable with the current circumstances.
“May I offer you something to drink, Your Imperial Majesty?” Arano asked as they entered.
“Brandy,” she replied and took the chair closest to the fire. When his father gave her the glass, she nodded. “You may sit now.”
Oh, how gracious of her to give us permission to sit. Dev missed the days where he was fighting undead and other monsters. Courtly etiquette was a form of torture to men like him. Still, he gave her a tight smile and sat on the edge of the sofa, hoping this conversation would be brief.
Empress Marist took a sip of the amber liquid, her imperial demeanor relaxing. “I take it you never informed the Soulbearer of your request, Sir Devarius.”
“No.” In case you couldn’t tell by her reaction.
“May I ask why?”
The muscles in his legs tightened as though they wanted him to spring from the couch and run away from the Empress’s interrogation. He looked to his father for guidance. Only Arano knew the real reason Dev had asked to resign. The Mage Primus had guessed from the moment he saw Dev with Arden that his son had fallen in love with his charge. “I didn’t want her to fly off the handle and do something stupid.”
“As she’s prone to doing,” the Empress finished. She took another sip. “You had frustrating Soulbearers in the past—Syd comes to mind—but you never asked to be released from your vow. What is about this particular Soulbearer that pushed you to this decision?”
“I have my reasons.”
When he refused to elaborate, she turned to his father. “Your son is proving to be a riddle.”
Arano cleared his throat, taking a generous gulp from his own glass of brandy before speaking. His father was an older version of himself, his auburn hair long since faded to gray but his dark green eyes still wily with centuries of experience. “He is a grown man who has served the Empire well for many years.”
“Was this his choice, or was he steered toward it by members of the Mage’s Council?”
He no longer could sit still. “It was my choice,” he said, rising to his feet. “The Mage’s Council knew nothing of this until I approached them with my request.”
Empress Marist tilted her head to the side. “So none of them suggested you resign from your position based on your inability to protect the Soulbearer from Nelos’s servant?”
By Jessup, the Empress could ignite his temper almost as quickly as her cousin. Must be a Milorian family trait. “No,” he said in a clipped voice.
His father spoke before the Empress did. “Considering the events leading up to that night, I’d say Dev has done a remarkable job protecting the Soulbearer.” He took another sip of brandy before adding, “And I’m not just saying that because he’s my son.”
“Of course not,” she replied with a hint of sarcasm. “But since we are on the subject of family, you’ll forgive me if I seem to be just the slightest bit interested in the protection of my cousin.”
A single note of dry laughter broke free from Dev’s lips. “So you’re willing to claim her now, huh?”
“I never denied her. One could tell just from looking at her that she was a Milorian.” A silver halo flashed in her eyes, giving him the sneaking suspicion that the Empress’s interest in Arden was far more than just familial concern.
“Any idea when you’re going to stop keeping her a prisoner of the Conclave?”
The Empress nodded. “I’ll release her when I’m certain she’s not a threat to herself or others.”
“Knowing Trouble, that would be never.” He ran his fingers through his hair, gritting his teeth then he came to the ends sooner than he would’ve liked. He’d cut it short after the fire singed the tips, and it was taking far too long to grow back out. “We’ve done our best to keep her from learning any news about Ranello’s fall, but with your people here, it’s only a matter of time before she learns that bit of news, too.”
“And what do you think she will do?”
“She’s fiercely loyal to a kingdom that would’ve burned her if it hadn’t been for Kell’s intervention. If she thinks her homeland is threatened, she’ll turn to Loku for help once again.”
Empress Marist paled. “We can’t allow that. He’s already gained too much influence over her as it is.” She looked away, taking a long drink from her glass while her eyes flashed silver again. “Our first priority is to continue to train her so she’ll resist Loku’s influence.”
“That’s easier said than done.” The sober realization struck him like a fist to the gut as he added, “She probably trusts him more than she does me at the moment.”
“And is that why you wish to resign?” The Empress came toward him like a golden cat stalking its prey. “Because of your personal relationship with her?”
Dev tried to raise his defenses, but he was too late. The Empress had already invaded his subconscious, searching for the answer to her question. She probed the corners of his mind until she discovered the truth. When she found it, her eyes widened, and her lips parted with a faint gasp.
He tightened his jaw, on edge now that she knew his weakness. “You can say that.”
She withdrew from his mind and took a step back, blinking several times. “Very interesting, indeed. This certainly complicates things.”
His father refilled his glass, then the Empress’s. “Now that we all know the truth, what are we going to do about it?”
She kept her back to them, staring into the dying fire while she held her glass in her hand. Normally, she was so in charge, so ready to answer any question brought before her that her silence surprised Dev. At last, she said in a hushed voice, “Does she know?”
The pain in Arden’s eyes appeared before him once again, squeezing his chest and constricting his airways. She’d looked at him as though he’d ripped her heart out and stomped all over it. “No.”
“Why not?” Empress Marist turned around, an odd glitter forming in the corner of her eyes. “If you truly love her, why can’t you tell her?”
He struggled, both to draw in a breath and to find the words to explain his conflicting emotions. “I’m not free to love her as long as I’m her Protector.”
“But you of all people know what fate lies in store for her.” Pity washed over her face. “And yet you’re willing to give up everything to be with her?”
A lump formed in his throat, restricting his speech, so he simply nodded.
The corners of her lips rose into a sad smile. “Then I will do all in my power to help you, Sir Devarius.”
For the first time in weeks, hope—albeit, cautious—bloomed inside him. He bowed to the Empress, wondering why she’d offered to help him after years of their strained relationship. “Thank you, Your Imperial Majesty.”
A knock sounded at the door, ending their conversation. All emotion vanished from Empress Marist’s face, leaving behind her haughty mask of imperial composure. “Enter,” she said.
The Mage Secundus stuck his head into the room, worry adding extra lines to his round face. “Good—all of you are here.”
Arano set his glass aside and stood. “What is it?”
“I was a bit worried about the young Soulbearer after seeing her reaction to this unfortunate business, so I went to speak with her.” He paused, wringing his hands for a moment before saying in one swift breath, “She’s nowhere to be found in the Conclave.”
Redness stained the Empress’s cheeks. “Impossible. My spell prevents her from stepping past the walls. She has to be here.”
The Mage Secudus shook his head. “I’ve searched everywhere. I’ve asked the Mages Tertious and Quartus to help me.”
Dev cornered him. “What about Sazi? Have you checked her tower?”
The Mage Secunduss nodded. “We’ve even tried casting a search spell for her.”
Bitter laughter came from his father. “You won’t find her as long as she still wearing the bracelet I gave her.”
A string of curses exploded from Dev’s lips. Leave it to Trouble to make him look completely incompetent in front of the Empress and the entire Mage’s Council. “Has anyone seen Cinder?”
The Empress snorted. “I think you should be more concerned about your missing Soulbearer than your wolf.”
“You don’t know how much that damn wolf likes her. If anyone can find her, it’s him.” He paused, another possible scenario playing through his mind and turning his blood cold. “Or, if by some chance she’s found a way around the Empress’s spell, he may be with her.”
Shock replaced the Empress’s fury. “Are you suggesting she’d attempt to scale down the mountain in the middle of the night?”
“Yes.” He curled his hands into fists, wishing he had some object of hers to help him form the mental connection he’d had with her when Nelos’s servant had taken her. Arden’s father, Varrik, had the necklace now, though, and he doubted she cared about anything here in the Conclave. He could only use the intensity of his feelings for her, which ran along teeth-grinding frustration at the moment. He closed his eyes and called out her name in his mind.
After a few seconds, a deeply divine voice he’d unfortunately known for the last century answered with three terse words.
“Leave her alone.”