From the dark recesses, he watched them enter, the torch light flickering across their golden masks as they filed into the main chamber. Tonight, the Tribunal of the Gods would meet for the first time in over a decade. Tonight, they would discuss the fate of the newest threat to their power.
He adjusted the mask of Nelos, concealing his face from everyone. It didn’t matter who he was, only the god he served. And he did more than just serve Nelos—he was his voice in this realm. Out of all the priests and priestesses in the chamber, only he spoke with the true authority of a deity. Only he could channel the God of Law’s power. And only he could lead them on the crusade to rid the world of the god of chaos, Loku, once and for all.
He waited until everyone else had arrived before he made his grand entrance. With a flick of his hand, the torches brightened, bathing the main chamber in light. The jewels that adorned the wall winked at him as if they already approved of his plan.
“So nice of you to join us,” the priestess wearing the mask of Ivis said as he entered. “We could have done without the theatrics, though.”
“The light of the Law will drive the darkness of Chaos away,” he replied, quoting the teachings of Nelos. As he sat in his appointed chair and draped his silver robe across the seat, he surveyed the other eleven members of Tribunal, trying to pinpoint each of their weaknesses. “After all, that’s why we’re here—to discuss what to do with Loku.”
“In a way, yes.” The Priestess of Ivis narrowed her eyes as if to challenge him.
He muffled his snort. Ivis may have the most followers in Gravaria, but she was a weak goddess. Too kind, too merciful, too aligned with the so-called “Lady Moon” worshipped in Ranello.
The Priestess of Ivis finally turned her gaze away from him. “Loku has a new Soulbearer.”
“Why should it concern us?” the Priest of Jussip asked as he toyed with the golden battle ax dangling from his belt. Like the god he served, he was a soldier, a man of action. He was probably wishing the Tribunal to end as quickly as possible, but he would also be the easiest to sway to Nelos’ plans.
“Agreed.” The Priestess of Sulia twirled her hair around her fingers. “Loku has had many Soulbearers, and they all suffer the same fate. Why is this one any different?”
He leaned forward. Did they really not know? Had they all turned a deaf ear to the rumors coming from Ranello? “For starters, she’s a woman.”
One of the other priestesses gasped, and every pair of eyes behind the golden masks focused on him. Nelos had told him everything about her, every detail about the girl known as Trouble. For once, he had the upper hand, and he would use it to bend the others to his will.
The Priestess of Sulia stopped playing with her hair. “But Loku’s never had a female Soulbearer.”
“She’ll probably succumb to the madness sooner than a man.” The Priest of Jussip fidgeted in his chair. “Is that why you called this meeting, Ivis? To mark this milestone in Loku’s regression?”
“No.” Ivis’s voice echoed off the wall, and a current of magic rippled through the air.
A shiver raced up his spine, and his muscles locked. Could she have the ability to channel her deity as well?
“Do not fear her, my servant,” the familiar voice of Nelos whispered in his mind. “She is the one resorting to theatrics. Ivis doesn’t hold her in the same regard that I do you. You are my chosen one. You are the one who will bring peace and order to this realm.”
He relaxed back against his chair. “She’s a Ranellian.”
Once again, he held their attention, and the Priestess of Ivis appeared slightly perturbed by it. “Correct. And since you know so much about her, Nelos, do you care to offer a guess why I’m so concerned?”
A smile curled up behind his mask. “Unlike the others, she’s used Loku’s powers for something other than personal gain.”
“So I’ve heard.” Ivis addressed the other members of the Tribunal. “Arden Lesstymine is the girl’s name. From the reports I’ve been given, she channeled Loku’s powers to destroy a necromancer that was terrorizing the kingdom.”
“But magic is outlawed in Ranello.” The Priest of Kylow, god of the sea, rubbed his chin. “King Heodis will order her burned at the stake before she’s a threat to us.”
“Or he will use her against us and try to conquer our Empire.” Jussip grabbed his ax and jumped to his feet. “I say we destroy her before she crosses the border.”
Several others echoed his sentiments. It was all too easy to get them riled up. Yes, they served their deities, but in their hearts, they were all staunch Gravarians.
All but him. He served a higher calling. Out of all the priests in the empire, Nelos had chosen him to help usher in a new age of peace.
“Silence, please.” Ivis’ voice boomed over their shouts, and once again, another burst of magic blew through the air. “Heodis knows of her abilities and has even bequeathed a title upon her for her efforts. But I do not think she will be manipulated by him.”
“Is Devarius Tel’brien still the Soulbearer’s protector?” The Priestess of the Ornathian goddess, Lireal, startled everyone with her question. Normally, she remained silent, following the nature of the goddess she served. On the rare occasions she spoke, people listened.
Jussip chuckled. “Poor Dev. Always the protector, never the Soulbearer. How’s that for a never-ending punishment?”
“Yes, Sir Devarius is still her protector,” Ivis replied in a tight voice, ignoring Jussip’s snide remarks.
“Then we have little to fear from her.” The winged Ornathian priestess sank back into her silence and let the others dwell on her statement. The knight had a reputation of keeping the Soulbearers under control, never mind his unwavering loyalty to the Empire. They almost seemed convinced that the new Soulbearer was not a threat as long as Devarius remained in the picture.
Rage boiled up inside him. He needed to renew his momentum. He needed to convince them that she was as dangerous as the god living inside her. “Perhaps, but from what I’ve heard, she’s channeled Loku numerous times and has not shown any signs of madness. Could he be trying a new strategy? One where he could manipulate his Soulbearer into doing his bidding without raising any of our suspicions?”
“What are you suggesting?” Jussip’s knuckles turned white as his grip tightened around his battle ax.
“She was a witch before she became infected with Loku. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s stretching his influence over her in a different way. Instead of turning her mad like he did the others, perhaps he’s seducing her into becoming a willing servant. Loku didn’t open the portal to the Realm of Chaos without help from his followers.”
His threat had the desired effect. Doubt filled all of their eyes.
All except Ivis. She lifted her chin in defiance. “Your point is made. We should watch her as carefully as we have other Soulbearers in the past. Spring is near, and Sir Devarius will bring her here as quickly as he can. Once she is encased in the Mage’s Conclave, we will have ample opportunity to study Loku’s influence over her.”
The others nodded their heads in agreement, but Nelos curled his hand into a fist, banging it on the armrest of his chair. “We’ve only seen a glimpse of what she’s capable of doing, and look what she did to her home kingdom. She leveled the city walls of Trivinus. I say we strike now before she brings chaos to Gravaria.”
Ivis stood, her unwavering gaze fixed on him. “Would the God of Law sentence someone without having absolute confidence she has broken any laws?”
“She has broken laws, or have you forgotten magic is outlawed in Ranello?”
“But not here.” She moved to the center of the circle, turning slowly to speak to each of the priests and priestesses in turn. “We have little concrete information on this new Soulbearer other than the rumors that have made their way here. I urge all of you to pray to your deities for guidance on this matter, but do not act until we have all the facts. If she has managed to resist the madness thus far, then perhaps we have found the most powerful Soulbearer yet.”
She finally came to him. “Does that sound agreeable to you, Nelos?”
Inside, he seethed. She had somehow managed to turn them all against him, to reduce them to cowards that would rather wait until the threat was on their soil before they struck.
“Patience, my servant. You do not need their help to dispose of Loku. I am all the power you need.”
His god’s word soothed him, and the red faded from his vision. “I will pray on the matter,” he replied in an even tone. And strike when he tells me to.
“Where are you taking me, Kell?”
The Third Prince of Ranello winked at Arden and tightened his hold on her hand as he pulled her through the palace hallways. “It’s a surprise.”
“Dev’s going to be pissed off if you’re trying to sneak me out of here.”
“I’ve been away for over a month, and that’s all you can think about?” He stopped and pulled her into his arms, his lips brushing against her cheek.
A shiver rippled down her spine from his seemingly innocent kiss. When winter had started, she thought Kell’s attention toward her would fade as it had with prior women who’d caught his eye. Instead, he remained steadfast in his affections, despite his long absences.
“That’s because he hasn’t gotten what he wants from you,” Loku hissed.
She stiffened at the sound of the familiar voice in her mind. The other thing that had remained constant was the continuous stream of lewd comments from the disembodied chaos god living inside her. “You mean he only seems to care until he beds me.”
Loku laughed. “He wants you in more ways than you suspect, my little Soulbearer.”
Kell noticed the change in her demeanor and pulled away. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her head and studied him. Devilishly handsome with dark brown hair that curled around the edge of his face and a dimple when he smiled, Kell could have any woman in the kingdom he wanted. It still puzzled her why he’d chosen her, a low-born witch in a place where magic was forbidden. If it hadn’t been for Kell, she would’ve been burned at the stake months ago for using magic. Instead, she enjoyed a place of honor not only in the palace, but at his side.
Hurt darkened his hazel eyes, and she fixed a smile on her face. “I’ve missed you,” she admitted and leaned her head on his shoulder.
It was the truth. Despite being recently titled for her part in defeating the necromancer terrorizing the kingdom a few months ago, most of the nobles either ignored her or went out of their way to remind her she was beneath them. Even Dev, her protector, had grown more distant over the season, preferring to hide in the palace archives when he wasn’t instructing her on what he called basic magic.
“I’ve missed you, too.” Kell held her a moment longer, the rich timbre of his voice full of emotion and easing any doubts that lingered in her mind. “But if we don’t hurry, my surprise will be ruined.”
As she followed him down the candle-lit corridors, Arden tried to figure out her own feelings for Kell. She once thought she knew the essence of her heart, but she’d been proven wrong. Dev, the man she’d thought she loved had pushed her away, choosing duty over her and leaving her with an empty void. Kell’s friendship helped ease the pain and left her wondering if she cared for him more than she first realized.
“Admit it—you like the way his kisses heat your blood and make you wish you could shed your dress in a matter of seconds.”
Arden’s cheeks burned as Loku dared to give words to her body’s reaction every time Kell came near her. The prince had always had that effect on her, as she suspected he had on many of the kingdom’s young ladies based on his reputation. She touched the golden pendant that hung from her neck and reminded herself she wouldn’t make the same mistakes her mother did.
Their journey ended in the orangery at the edge of the palace. The air dripped with humidity, forming tendrils of steam that wafted up from the exotic palms inside. In the center of the building, a ring of candelabras circled a picnic dinner on a blanket.
Arden grinned. For a prince who grew up dining at the finest tables in the kingdom, the relative simplicity of the meal seemed more appropriate for her rather than him. “What is this?”
Kell led her to the blanket. “Did you know there’s a lunar eclipse tonight?”
Arden sat down and looked up at the three moons above. Despite the fogged windows below, the glass ceiling of the orangery remained clear, revealing a shadow creeping along the border of the largest moon. “How did you know about it?”
“It happens every twenty-seven months. I raced home from Cordello so I could watch it with you.”
His breath bathed the back of her neck, melting both her resolve and her body as she leaned back into his arms. Kell remained persistent in his pursuit of her, but little moments like this made her wonder if he was after more than her body. “You planned all this?”
“You sound surprised.” He guided her chin so her face tilted toward his. “Do you think I’m incapable of being romantic from time to time?”
The intimacy of his touch combined with the bluntness of his question sent a wave of unease crawling through her stomach. She pulled away from him. “I think you are very capable of being romantic, Kell. After all, you know the center of the maze very well.”
Kell drew in a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “Dammit, Arden, what do I have to do to prove I’ve changed?”
“That’s right, my little Soulbearer. Be just like Dev and push everyone away. After all, if you don’t care for anyone, you can’t get hurt.”
Loku’s taunt revived the heartache she thought she’d buried months ago when Dev told her there could never be anything between them. Was Kell experiencing the same sting of rejection she’d felt? She rested her hand on his arm, struggling with the strange tumble of emotions stirring inside her. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry for what? Oh, never mind.” He jumped to his feet. “I understand.”
As he started to walk away, Arden’s pulse quickened. She couldn’t bear losing him, not after he’d been there for her when she’d needed him most. Desperation tightened her throat. She grabbed his hand and pulled him back to the blanket. When words failed her, she conveyed her plea in a kiss.
Kell’s mouth opened, mostly from shock, but she used it as an invitation to deepen the kiss. A second later, his arms tightened around her, and he was kissing her back in a way that made her head spin. His kisses always had that effect on her, leaving her dizzy with want and breathless when he finally pulled away.
“I meant, I’m sorry I said that,” she said once she was able to breathe. She ran her fingers along his jaw, thankful she’d been given a chance to see the true Kell and not the rake that everyone else in the kingdom saw him as.
He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “So does this mean that perhaps we can be more than friends?”
She wasn’t ready to answer that question yet, and he caught her hesitation. “What is it?”
She closed her eyes and fell back on the blanket. It would be so easy to lie and tell him that she didn’t feel anything for her protector, but Kell deserved the truth. “I’m scared of getting hurt,” she admitted.
He arched a brow. “And you think I’ll consciously do that?”
“Fear is rarely rational, but it usually has a cause.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “Did Dev hurt you that badly?”
“This goes beyond him.” She played with her necklace as images of her mother crying flashed through her mind. “My mother—”
Her voice broke. She’d never told Kell about her past, afraid he’d want nothing to do with her when he learned of her origins. She was the illegitimate daughter of a woman who’d been cast aside, the lowest of the low in society. What chance did someone like her have with the Third Prince of Ranello?
She drew in a shaky breath. It was time to test him. “My mother was cast aside by my father when she was pregnant.”
There. She’d told him. Now all she had to do was wait for him to wrinkle his nose in disgust and put an end to his amorous advances.
Kell’s expression sobered, but he didn’t move. “Do you know who your father was?”
“My mother never spoke of him. I know I must look like him since I barely resemble her.” She paused and added, “And I know how he broke her heart.”
“Then perhaps it’s best that you can’t claim him as your blood. He’s a man without honor.”
Her fingers tightened around the small pendant, refusing to let go of it. Kell made it sound so simple, so easy to forget the man who ruined her mother’s life and made Arden an outsider in her own homeland. If only it were. “But doesn’t it bother you to know this?”
“Are you expecting me to judge you based on the actions of your parents?”
“Most people in the kingdom do, or have you not noticed the way most of the people in the palace pretend I don’t exist? Or worse, shrink back in fear because I’m a witch.”
Kell threw his head back and laughed. “People shrink back in fear when my father passes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t respect him.” He inched closer to her. “I’m more concerned about the woman I see before me.”
“And what do you see in me, Kell?” Besides a yellow-haired witch with an insane chaos god living inside her.
“I resent being called insane,” Loku chuffed.
Arden ignored him and waited for Kell’s response. When he didn’t answer right away, an ache formed deep in her chest.
He cleared his throat and brushed a stray hair out of her eyes. “I see a beautiful woman with a good heart. A woman who possesses great power, but uses it to help others rather than enslave them.” His voice took on a husky note as he added, “A woman who’s far above any woman I’ve known.”
The ache intensified from the fluttering of her heart. “Do you really mean that?”
“What do I need to do to convince you of that?” He pulled her closer, his hand on her hip.
“I’m not the one who needs to be convinced.”
He snuggled closer to her until their foreheads touched. “Who do I need to work my charms on then?”
“Your father, for one. He seemed quite intent on keeping us apart this winter.”
He frowned. “I’m a Prince of Ranello. It’s my duty to carry out my father’s business in the realm.”
“Including going into the northern mountains in the dead of winter? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Not where there are reports of Thallian troops gathering along the border.” Kell the lover vanished, and in his place stood the man she’d known from the moment she first met him, the man who sought to protect his kingdom at all costs. “Besides, if anyone seems intent on keeping us apart, it’s your protector. He’s determined to whisk you away to Gravaria as soon as he can find a ship.”
“You don’t understand.” She pulled away. “I have to go to Gravaria.”
The last thing she wanted to explain was the never-ending conversations she had with the voice inside her mind. The thought of turning into Robb, the prior Soulbearer, still terrified her.
“Funny how you can tell him about your slut of a mother, but you don’t want to tell him about me. I don’t know if I should be honored or offended.”
A ripple of magic flowed along her arms as Loku tried to gain control of her. She clamped down on the flow as Dev had taught her and pushed the chaos god back. “Do you want me to be burned at the stake?”
“There’s little danger of that. Kell already knows you’re a witch.”
“If you take control of me, you might change his mind.”
Kell jerked her from her conversation with Loku. Like most people in Ranello, Kell only believed in the Lady Moon. The concept of other deities was as foreign as the elves that lived in Gravaria—Ranellians might know they exist, but refused to acknowledge them. Even if she tried to explain what it meant to be a Soulbearer, she doubted he would believe her. “It’s complicated,” she said at last.
“I don’t see what’s so complicated about it. Dev is your protector, not your blood. You can choose to stay here, and he’ll have to live with your decision.”
She played out the scenario in her mind and chuckled. Dev would probably drag her Boznac bound and tied if she refused to leave, and for good reason. If she wanted to keep her sanity, she needed to learn how to control Loku before he drove her to madness.
“Are you laughing at me?” Kell leaned over her, blocking her view of the eclipse and wearing the seductive grin that had cost more than one young lady her virtue. “I stand by my prior statement—the one I should be convincing is you.”
Her body grew warm, and her arms rebelliously wrapped around him. “And how do you intend on doing that?”
“By being completely irresistible.” He kissed her again, pressing his body against hers in a way that did nothing to hide his desire.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she scrambled to resist, but the longer the kiss went on, the fainter that urge became. In its place rose a more primal urge, one that—as Loku so eloquently put it—made her wish she wasn’t wearing the tightly-laced woolen gown.
“Enjoy it while you can. It won’t be long before Dev takes you away from him.”
Loku’s reminder lingered in the back of her mind, weighing in on the struggle that always warred inside her whenever she was in Kell’s arms. It would be so easy to live in the moment, to indulge in the pleasures Kell offered, to let herself fall in love with him.
Her eyes flew open as his lips traveled lower along her neck. The moon was entirely concealed now, letting the stars around it twinkle brighter than they normally did without its glow. She lay still, inhaling his familiar scent of bay leaf and soap, scared to move for fear she’d ruin this moment. But the fire in her veins grew too intense, and her body rolled in response to his touch. A moan broke free from her throat, signaling the fall of her resistance.
Emboldened by her reaction, Kell traced a path along her body with his hands, moving from her hips to her breasts. While his lips blazed along her bare skin, his fingers worked at the knot that held her dress together. The way he murmured her name between kisses sent delicious tingles through her chest.
Then something changed. The tingles grew more intense, shooting up her spine like a bolt of lightning. Her breath caught, and her fingers dug into his flesh. The earth shook underneath them, ending Kell’s seduction as quickly as a sudden rainstorm.
He jerked back. “Arden, are you doing this?”
She shook her head. This magic was strange even to her. The metallic taste of panic filled her mouth. “Loku?”
The guard tower beside the orangery swayed, moving side to side before toppling toward them. She grabbed Kell and rolled to the side, gathering her magic to raise a shield. The glass ceiling shattered, and Arden screamed.
Cinder’s whining pulled Dev’s attention from the stack of scrolls in front of him. The fire wolf sniffed the air and whined again.
Dev reached down and patted him on the head, noticing how Cinder’s hackles remained raised. “What’s wrong?”
The fire wolf jumped to his feet and scratched at the closed door.
“I’ll let you out after I’m finished.” Dev resumed reading the transcript from the last Gravarian diplomatic envoy to Ranello. Knowing some of the players involved—including his own father—he doubted the pleasantries recorded were said as civilly as they were written. But it mattered little to him what was said—only who said it.
As far as he could tell, only two members of the Milorian family were part of the envoy.
And one of them had to be Arden’s father.
Unfortunately, neither one of them seemed like the sort that would be enamored enough to call a palace maid “the brightest star in the sky.” Caz was far too conceited and ambitious to even consider a dalliance with Arden’s mother. Varrik was far too studious and aloof to even notice a woman. If it wasn’t for the Milorian rose on the pendant, Dev would’ve been able to name ten other more likely Gravarians as the man who sired Arden. But as it was, he needed to determine which man was her father before she was thrown into the mess of Gravarian politics.
Cinder’s whining rose an octave higher, followed by a yip. His claws tore into the door, leaving scars behind in the wood.
Dev banged his fist against the table and stood, grumbling about what a pest Cinder was being. His mood changed as sweat prickled his skin. The air crackled with magic, and the ground rolled under his feet. A scream rang through his mind.
He flung the door open and raced Cinder up the stairs. Fragments of plaster showered down on him, stinging his eyes from their dust. His heart pounded, and he offered a quick prayer to Lady Luck that he’d find Arden safe.
Cinder led him through the main hallways of the palace. The earthquake had stopped by now, and the residents were left pale-faced from the force of nature they’d just witnessed. Dev made a note to ask Arden if this region was prone to such tremors once he found her. Everything in his being, though, told him this was the work of powerful magic. The question was, why?
A growl from Cinder parted the crowd of guards clustered around the entrance to the orangery. The tower next to it had collapsed on the delicate glass ceiling. Dev halted when he saw the rubble piled up inside, his heart in his throat. Images of Arden crushed under the massive stones flashed in front of him. But as the guards stepped aside, he caught a glimpse of her golden hair.
He pushed his way through the guards to her. “Are you hurt?”
Dust caked her face, and her dress was torn at the sleeves, but she shook her head. Like the others he’d passed, her expression was wide-eyed, and her face was ashen.
He wrapped his arm around her, leading her to a boulder where she could sit while he looked for any hidden injuries. “What happened?”
“Kell and I were watching the eclipse when the ground starting shaking.”
Dev’s gaze lingered on her hastily tied bodice, and an unwelcome emotion seethed inside him. “Watching the eclipse, huh?”
Arden’s cheeks flooded with color, and she yanked her hand back. “Yes, or did you fail to notice it because you were too busy assuming I was doing something else.”
Above, the moon was beginning to peek out from behind the shadow, signaling the end of the eclipse. That still didn’t mean Kell had kept his hands—or his lips—off of her. He took a step back and crossed his arms. “How did you escape injury?”
“I managed to raise a shield around us.” Her eyelids hung heavy. “I never realized how draining it could be.”
Dev finally managed to push his unwanted emotions aside. As much as he hated the idea of her being in Kell’s arms, he couldn’t let jealousy guide his actions, especially after what just happened. “Did you feel the blow?”
She nodded. “Even though I didn’t physically feel it, my head is still swimming like I’d knocked it against the wall.”
“It takes strong magic to maintain a shield under such forces.” He placed his hands on either side of her head and let a stream of healing magic flow into her. “Better?”
“Yes.” She stood, her color back to normal now, and tagged along as he surveyed the damage. “Do you know what happened?”
“I take it earthquakes are not normal here.”
“No, they’re not.” Kell came alongside them, his normally immaculate clothes wrinkled and dirty. But like Arden, he appeared unharmed. “I’ve never felt such a force in my life.”
“And hopefully, you never will again.” Dev continued to walk around the ruined orangery, stepping around the remnants of the guard tower strewn across the floor. The stark scent of magic still hung in the air. “You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?”
He asked more to Loku rather than Arden, and based on the way the green ring in her eyes brightened, the chaos god answered. “You should know the answer to that,” she replied, her tone flat.
In the center of the room sat the largest piece of the tower. A blanket peeked out from underneath it. “You were sitting there?”
Arden nodded, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He glanced back to where the tower once stood, trying to calculate the trajectory of the falling rock. Had this been a normal earthquake, the tower should have imploded on itself. Only a precise wave of the earth could have thrown the chunk directly onto the blanket.
He knelt on the ground, but the magic had faded. There was no way to tell where it came from now.
“What are you thinking?” Arden crouched next to him, the press of her lips telling him she was coming to the same conclusions he was.
He turned to her so he could gauge her reaction. “I think you’ve made some powerful enemies, Trouble.”
Her eyes widened, but she said nothing. Another flash of green in her eyes told him Loku was sharing his opinion with her. He’d have to ask her more about it when they were alone. “Let’s get out of the cold,” he said, ushering her back into the palace. “You’re going to need some sleep before we leave for Boznac tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” She jerked to a stop. “What do you mean, tomorrow?”
Kell came to her side and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Are you planning on leaving so soon?”
Dev bit back the urge to pull her away from Kell. “Yes. She needs to get to Gravaria as quickly as possible.”
Kell took a step toward him, his eyes narrowed. “Why? So you can turn her into some weapon for your Empress? Or because you know she’ll want to stay here if you let her.”
Dev’s fingers curled into a fist. What he wouldn’t give to beat the Third Prince of Ranello into a bloody pulp. Instead, he focused on keeping his voice quiet and level. “In case you failed to notice, what happened tonight was not natural. And if she hadn’t raised a shield in time, you would both be dead.”
The challenge melted from Kell’s stance, allowing Dev the opportunity to whisk Arden away. As they came closer to her room, she stopped and asked, “Do you really think someone was trying to kill me?”
“Either you or Kell.”
“Then perhaps we need to stay here and figure out which one of us they’re after.”
Dev grabbed her wrist and pulled her the rest of the way to her room with Cinder tight on their heels. “I’m your protector, not his, and I’m not going to hang around here and wait for the next assassination attempt to sort this out. I need to get you safely inside the walls of the Mage’s Conclave.”
“And what if I don’t want to go?” Her chin rose to a stubborn angle when he turned around. The last time he saw this look, she ran out to take on an army of undead.
Dev closed his eyes and forced himself to count to ten. She was his fifth Soulbearer, and none of them had vexed him like she did. She was stubborn to a fault, but her courage and loyalty earned his admiration. The way she awakened his long-suppressed desires with a mere glance was an entirely different matter. “I’m not ready to lose another Soulbearer, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe, even if it means taking you to Gravaria against your will.”
He waited long enough for Cinder to slip past them before shoving Arden into her room with the fire wolf and sealing the door shut.
“His Majesty wishes to speak to you.”
Kell watched Arden disappear with Dev around the corner. They’d both been shaken by the earthquake, but at least they were unharmed thanks to her magic. He turned to the guard that delivered the summons. “I’m coming.”
He was pretty sure his father wanted a damage report, almost certain he’d try to point a finger at Arden for causing it, and knew without a doubt he’d rejoice in knowing she’d be leaving for Gravaria in the morning. If Kell hadn’t seen the increased number of Thallan troops along the border, he might have believed there was some truth in Arden’s accusation that his father was trying to keep them apart.
The door to his father’s study was open, allowing the messengers to flow freely back and forth with their reports. King Heodis stood behind his desk, bent over a map. He didn’t even look up when Kell entered. “Tell me what happened.”
“Don’t tell me your spies haven’t already told you every detail of what happened, Father.” He stopped a few feet in front of the desk and crossed his arms. “What more can I add?”
“You can start with your account of the events.” Heodis finally met his gaze. “I understand you were with the witch when this happened.”
Kell rolled his eyes. “Father, you’ve made Arden a member of our titled nobility—why do you continue to call her a witch?”
“Because she is what she is.” Heodis banged his hand against the table to drive the point home. “Did she cause this?”
“No. What makes you think she did?”
“I’m still repairing the city walls she destroyed months ago. She’s done this kind of magic before.”
A messenger slipped into the room, interrupting the conversation. “Your Majesty, there are no signs of any other damage to the palace or city walls.” He bowed and ran out as quickly as he’d entered.
“Close the door, Kell.” Heodis sank into his chair and stroked his grizzled beard. “For the second time in less than a year, the people of Trivinus have been shaken from their beds, and walls have fallen. And both times, she’s been at the center of it.”
Kell remained standing, not fooled by his father’s less aggressive stance. The minute he conceded, his father might reverse his judgment of Arden. “I won’t argue that she used magic to cause the earthquake to defend the city from Sulaino, but this time, she is completely innocent of it. If she hadn’t used her magic to save me, I wouldn’t be standing here now.”
The king’s expression softened. “Are you saying she’s a hero?”
“She’s saved my life more times than I’m comfortable admitting.” He relaxed his posture, relieved to have found something that turned the tide for the moment. “Dev thinks this was an attack targeted for Arden.”
The king snorted. “He’s a Tel’Brien. Be careful what you believe from an elf.”
“But what if it’s the truth?” Kell took a step toward the desk, hoping he might be able to keep Arden here. All he needed to do was convince his father to order her to stay. “Dev plans on leaving for Boznac in the morning.”
“Then good riddance to them both. I have more important matters to deal with. Thallus is threatening, and I need to make sure they stay on their side of the mountains. If she didn’t cause it, then I wouldn’t be surprised if one of their mages was behind this attack.”
“All the more reason why we need to have a powerful mage on our side.” Now was the moment to take the lower stance. He sat in the chair, leaning forward as he pleaded, “If we were wise, we’d do everything to keep Arden here. She’s used her magic to defeat one threat to the kingdom—she’ll do it again.”
His father’s expression hardened. “And you have no idea what impact your suggestion will have on the kingdom. There’s a reason why magic has been outlawed here for centuries. You think it will bring order, but history has told us it will only bring chaos, especially from the likes of her.”
Heodis opened his mouth to speak, then clamped it shut again. “I’ll speak of this to you when you are ready. Until then, I will not endanger my kingdom any more than I have to. She leaves in the morning, and that’s final.”
“But you can’t fight magic without magic.” Kell jumped to his feet. “If Sulaino taught us anything, it’s that. Thallus has mages—powerful mages—and we’ll be slaughtered if they unleash that power against us. We need magical allies.”
Heodis rose from his chair, the volume of his voice rising with it. “No, we need a strong army that will make Thallus think twice before invading our land. And I need an heir I can trust to lead my people if we come to war.”
Kell’s response remained lodged in his throat. There’d been little talk of the succession since Gandor was imprisoned for his part in the plot to overthrow their father. Kell had always assumed the throne would go to Therrin, his older brother, even though Therrin had declared over and over again he didn’t want it. “What are you saying, Father?”
His father remained tall and stern. “Don’t act so surprised. I’ve been grooming you for years to become king after me. You possess all the qualities needed to rule. You just need to stop your needless infatuation with that witch and take your place by my side. Together, we can gather our forces and be waiting in Cordello to defeat the Thallan troops when they cross our borders.”
Kell swallowed hard, taking a moment to digest what his father had just told him. He would be king one day. He’d rule Ranello and be responsible for the safety of its people. But his vision of the future did not match his father’s. “And what if I wish to avoid war?”
“It’s too late for that. They’ve made the first move by gathering along our borders. You saw them yourself. They’re preparing to invade as soon as the snow clears from the passes.”
“I saw more soldiers in the garrisons along the border, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to invade. They may have heard about Arden’s powers and are taking a defensive stance of their own.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Kell leaned on the desk, getting as close to his father as he dared in the hope he’d see reason. “Have you even considered diplomacy? Perhaps this is all a big misunderstanding that can be resolved by communication between our nations.”
“Diplomacy is for the weak.” The king mirrored Kell’s posture. “I’ve tried it in the past and gotten nowhere. We need to show we will not bow down to anyone and not waste time talking in circles.”
“Then perhaps you need a different person talking.” Kell pushed back from the table and turned to leave, his mind racing.
“Don’t you dare leave my presence without my permission.” The king’s voice thundered off the walls, and the crystal chandelier above them tinkled in the silence that followed.
Kell paused and slowly faced his father. The king’s neck was red from rage, the muscles in it stretched tight to reveal the fast pounding of the arteries beneath the skin. Any other man would have cowered before Heodis when he was like this, but Kell clung to his beliefs. “I’ve said my piece, Father.”
“And I’m still King.”
They stared at each other for several long seconds, testing Kell’s will. Just when he thought it best to give into his father, he was reminded of how crucial Arden’s power had been against Sulaino and his army of undead. Ranello needed her. He needed her. And he’d eventually show his father that.
At last, Heodis lowered his eyes back to his papers. “I’m sending a regiment of the Royal Guard to Boznac with them, so don’t get any ideas of kidnapping her.” He dismissed Kell with a flick of his hand.
Kell bowed and left the room. As he wandered the corridors of the palace, he formed a new plan. Perhaps it was time Ranello sent a diplomatic envoy to Empress Marist of Gravaria.