Merry Christmas! My gift to you this year is Chapter One of the third Shanhasson book. Deena hasn’t gotten her hands on this yet, so all mistakes are mine. Warning: there are inevitable spoilers to the first two books.
Blessed Lady above, if these vipers are my allies, then I am already doomed to Shadow.
Masking her disgust and impatience, Shannari struggled to keep silent while her advisers argued. After three years of ruling afar from the Plains, she felt less the High Queen than ever.
She watched the tells her father had trained her to notice: the tiny glances between King Phillip of Maston and Royce, the new Duke of Pella who’d replaced Stephan after his own peasants revolted; the deference every single one of these arguing idiots paid to King Challon, who sat silently at the opposite end of the table; and the utter disregard for her presence.
Her father, King Valche of Allandor, met her gaze and gave her a brief nod of encouragement.
Silently, she stood. The raised voices continued about her, the majority of her Council oblivious to her displeasure. King Challon noticed her signal but did nothing to alert the other men at the table, confirming his power at this table and his silent refusal to assist her. It’d been a mistake to include him on her Council. She knew that now. The others were powerful men in their own right but not threats.
King Challon appeared to be one of her closest allies—and had saved her life years ago when Theo would have murdered her outright–but she could sense the silent, invisible undercurrents eddying about him. He had his finger in the current and knew exactly which way the waters flowed, and it certainly wasn’t to the High Queen, Rose Crown or not.
Refusing to give any sign of her displeasure, she waited in silence until the elderly King of Taza noticed that she stood. Of an age that had long ago passed, he feebly pushed to his feet in respect. “Your Majesty!”
The raised voices slowly tapered off into an awkward silence. Royce, a very young cousin of Stephan’s and so a distant nephew to King Challon, actually blushed. Phillip refused to meet her gaze, but he’d possessed a rather weak stomach with respect to her ever since he’d seen how she opened the Gates of Shanhasson with the help of her Blood.
At the thought of them, their bonds suddenly filled her mind, gleaming so brightly that her vision tinged red.
As always, Dharman stood behind her, one hand on her person nearly every minute of the day. Most of the time, she honestly forgot his presence, until some small thought made her realize how close he was, how attached and attentive. Nothing passed him; no one approached her but through him.
Sal and Jorah crouched on either side of her. She’d tried to persuade them to stand, or at least allow her to provide them with chairs, but they both refused. They wanted to be ready to grab her and carry her to the floor beneath them at a moment’s notice. Each of them occasionally touched her, just a brush of a hand, their shoulder against her hip, some small assurance that she was well and they were near. It had become so constant and engrained that she forgot them.
Until they purposely reminded her.
:Let us clear this room for you, Khul’lanna.: Sal purred in her mind, the rich pelt and smug arrogance of an adored cat winding through her mind. :Allow me to slice off that one’s ears and the rest will listen to you.:
She knew he meant Phillip, the King of Maston. As if the man knew they were thinking of him, he flushed a dull red and averted his gaze. Sal gave a little rub with his head, a quick feline brush against her waist, begging not for attention, but for permission to gut the outlander who’d insulted her years ago.
Her stomach fluttered, an uneasy and unwanted response to the glide of that incredible auburn hair gliding across her. She couldn’t feel the soft heaviness of Sal’s hair through her armor, but she knew its weight and texture, and especially its scent. Sal smelled like one yummy gingerbread cookie that simply begged to be devoured.
She’d managed to avoid devouring him for years–a feat indeed.
He rumbled softly, very much a purr of satisfaction. The damned bond told them all entirely too much. Keeping a secret from one of them was next to impossible.
:You keep secrets only from yourself, Khul’lanna.: Dharman’s mental voice was slow, thick and sweet, the dark amber of honey. He might smell sweet and innocent like honeycakes, but over the years, he’d managed to lose most of his innocence.
Thanks to me. The thought pained her. The Blood had killed numerous times to protect her, and the body counts always increased when they were in the Green Lands. Her own countrymen made the Death Rider assassins appear lazy. A Plains assassin hadn’t tried for her in over a year.
Forcing her attention back to the table of expectant men, she let a small smile curve her lips. Benton, the Steward of Far Illione who had proven instrumental in Allandor’s acquisition of swift Keldari mounts for her army, immediately relaxed and smiled in return. The poor man was inept at politics, hence his post in the very far reaches of her kingdom. The others thought little of him, but she’d placed him on her Council for a reason.
She never forgot a favor or a gesture of good faith. That trust had been ill-placed in King Challon. Hopefully Benton was more worthy of her trust.
She reached up to remove the gold crown from her head and placed it on the gleaming mahogany table before her. Intricately carved roses wound about the crown with long spiked thorns sharp enough to make her scalp bleed if she didn’t place the crown carefully.
Silence deepened in the room. The nobles stared at the symbol of her right to rule this land as if the deadliest serpent uncoiled in preparation of a vicious strike.
Keeping her voice low, soft, and pleasant, she said, “Would any of you like to wear this crown?”
Royce made a small sound very much like a whimper, Benton blanched, averting his gaze and shaking his head so hard he lost his quizzing glass, while Phillip turned green as though he might vomit beneath the table.
“It’s very heavy,” she continued, keeping her manner casual. “Every day that I’m here in Shanhasson, I hesitate before putting it on my head. You see, when I’m here so very close to the Great Seal, He stirs.”
She didn’t mention His name, but every Green Lander in the room shuddered and muttered a quick prayer to Our Blessed Lady.
Lygon, the Blackest Heart of Darkness, had walked her Dreams for years, trying night after night to lure her into Shadow. She didn’t try to hide the quiver in her voice or the dread thickening her voice.
Dharman pressed fully against her back and dropped both hands to her shoulders. He held her against him, the heat of his body solid and protective.
“He knows when I’m here and strains harder to break free of His prison. Each day the chains weaken and thin. Each year, He touches the world easier. Someday He will stretch out his hand…” She met King Challon’s light blue gaze, so similar to his dead nephew’s eyes. “…And simply throttle us all.”
“Not unless you die, Your Majesty,” King Challon replied, thoroughly unruffled by her grim prediction. “As long as you live, your blood bars Him away from Our Blessed Lady’s Green and Beautiful Lands.”
Somehow, she thought he meant those words as a curse instead of a blessing. “So why are there so many attempts on my life each time I return to Shanhasson?”
None of them dared answer. Even King Challon broke and glanced down, avoiding the question. Someone in this room wanted her dead very badly.
Perhaps all of them.
:You know that is far from the truth.: Sal touched her again, deliberately nudging her thigh harder, a playful attempt to distract her from such grim thoughts. :I want something very badly, and I assure you, Khul’lanna, it is not your death.:
Heat crept across her cheeks, but she carefully kept her gaze up instead of looking down at the young man rubbing himself against her side. At least most of what he did was hidden beneath the table so her Council didn’t know.
“Enough.” Directed at Sal, the word came out harsher than she intended. King Challon’s gaze jerked back to her face, narrowed in consideration. If a sharper tone got her Council’s attention, all the better. “Am I High Queen? Do you want my protection against Lygon’s foulness, or shall I allow His Shadow to taint you all until Our Lady’s Green Lands are destroyed utterly?”
They hesitated. They actually had to think about it.
She was losing them. Inch by inch, day by day, her Council plotted more openly against her. She lost another acre of her country to Shadow. She couldn’t be here every single day. Lady help her, the few days she managed to travel such distance from the Plains was already difficult enough. She and Rhaekhar both had extensive responsibilities to the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan. At least they treated her with some amount of respect.
Most of them, she amended. Even after three years, not all of her husband’s people welcomed an outlander in their midst.
I’m losing, she thought sadly, shaking her head. Blessed Lady, forgive me for failing you.
Sadness and guilt, regret and heartache, another brick stacked on her heart, another weight she had to carry. So many deaths lay along her path to the Rose Crown and the High Throne of the Green Lands, only to be mistrusted, doubted, and betrayed. The unfairness of it strangled her.
Without another glance, she turned away and strode toward the door. Dharman glided at her back, Sal and Jorah each at her side without a single command from her. They knew her thoughts before she did. Two Blood proceeded her; the rest trailed to protect her back from the roomful of outlanders they knew would eliminate her without a second glance.
“Your Majesty! Your Crown!”
Bitterly, she replied over her shoulder, “Wear it if you dare.”
Her threat carried little weight. No one would touch it. Legends said that any man who dared lay a single finger on Our Blessed Lady’s Rose Crown would instantly fall dead. If only her enemies would dare such a foolhardy attempt then they’d all be eliminated effortlessly.
By the pale, tight look on her face, Rhaekhar knew her meeting had not gone well. He suppressed a sigh. If she felt his impatience to return to the Plains, then she would only feel more guilt and frustration that she kept him from his duties as Khul.
Muttering, Varne shook his head. “Why doesn’t Dharman simply gut them all?”
Amused, Rhaekhar agreed, noting the grim slant to her First Blood’s mouth and his white-knuckled grip on his rahke. Each of her Blood glowered at any and all outlanders, frustrated by their inability to punish those who didn’t support their Khul’lanna wholeheartedly. That so many of them plotted to murder her infuriated them all.
Even when Khul approached his mate they were slow to make way and allow him to touch her. As soon as she stepped foot on Green Land soil, the assassins attacked each and every day. Rhaekhar could forgive her Blood much as long as they kept her alive and well.
“A tough kae’don, my heart?” Rhaekhar cupped her cheek in his hand, stroking his thumb tenderly over her lip. “May I challenge any of your Council this day?”
“No,” she grumbled, burying her face against him. He felt her breathe deeply and immediately some of the tension eased from her shoulders. “If I let you kill everyone who disagreed with me, they’d all be dead.”
“Perhaps you need a change in strategy.”
She raised her face, her gaze narrowed in thought.
“You have tried well-reasoned arguments and bargains with men who have no honor.” Rhaekhar couldn’t keep the distaste out of his voice and didn’t try to hide it. She knew very well what each trip to the Green Lands meant to him, to her Blood, to any warrior used to wearing his honor and pride for all to see. These people had no understanding of honor. How could they, when they wished their own Queen dead? “You are a warrior at heart, Shannari dal’Dainari. Challenge them in a way they don’t expect.”
“I can’t whip out my rahke and cut them into agreeing with me.” Mouth quirked, she shook her head. “They’re not warriors. They wouldn’t understand it, and certainly couldn’t meet me likewise.”
“I didn’t mean a kae’rahke, na’lanna, although I admit I find the thought amusing.” His warrior woman was fierce with a blade. He proudly bore many scars from her rahke, as did her Blood. “You attempt a Market Day with curs who simply shred and gnaw your hides, oblivious to the goods you offer.”
“When you bargain with Shadow, all are compromised.” At Rhaekhar’s surprised glance, Varne flushed. His nearest Blood had always been most vocal in his disapproval of an outlander Khul’lanna, so any word of wisdom was most unexpected. “Toss a bone among them, and they tear each other apart. It’s folly to linger among them.”
Dharman gave Khul’s nearest Blood a gruff nod. “I agree. Give us the word, Khul’lanna, and we shall eliminate them all.”
“You cannot force them to respect me.” Shoulders drooping, she rubbed her eyes. “I must win this kae’don myself, but Lady help me, I’m losing.” Bitterly, she sharpened her voice. “I hate losing.”
Rhaekhar’s heart went out to her. All day she hid her emotions and fears, constantly wearing that proud mask he had come to despise. He dreaded each trip to the Green Lands. Not because of the time away from his homeland, but for the cost she paid in pride. It was a constant drain on her spirit to be here among her own people, and that saddened him more than he could say.
“Let us return to your room, my heart.” Rhaekhar threaded her fingers in his and led her down the hallway. The twins would put a smile on her face when nothing else could. “You have neglected to join me for a Green Land bath this trip.”
She squeezed his hand and the heat in her eyes squeezed his heart in turn. He had made love to her countless times, but he would never weary of her passion. “I get to give you a massage this time.”
“Your wish is my desire. However, whatever you do to me, I–”
“Get to do to me, I know.” She laughed softly and leaned into him, rising on her tiptoes. He obliged by leaning down so she could whisper in his ear. “I bet I can make you lose control.”
“You challenge me, na’lanna.” The rumble in his voice made her eyes darken, her lush mouth softening as she dropped her gaze to his lips. “I accept.”
Dharman bumped into her, smashing her fully against Rhaekhar. Thinking the lad meant to insinuate himself into their challenge, he growled a challenge. If she had invited her Blood, Rhaekhar would accept him without question, but he refused to tolerate a warrior’s interruption, not even one as close and loved by her.
Turning toward Dharman, she opened her mouth to take the lad to task, but the harsh look on his face stalled her retort. He gripped her close, tucking her against him while backing them both tightly against Rhaekhar. Someone cried out and the Blood didn’t hesitate. He took her to the ground and covered her protectively with his body.
Rhaekhar let her go else find himself on the cold tile as well. His own Blood pressed closer but Varne’s manner of protection was much different. Rahke in hand, he took up stance shoulder to shoulder with Khul and the other eight Blood, wary but not alarmed. They all knew to whom any threat would be aimed, and she was safe beneath her nearest Blood.
A crossbow bolt quivered in the wooden doorframe, not a hand’s span from where her head and been moments ago. Immediately, he glanced down at her, but he couldn’t see anything but her Blood’s broad back covering her.
“Great Vulkar,” Rhaekhar ground out, gripping his rahke but not drawing it. There was no need: her golden-haired Blood, Jorah, charged after the assassin. “Will she never have any peace?”
Varne shook his head. “Not while she returns to these Green Lands.”
Listening to her na’lanna bond, Rhaekhar searched for any hint of pain to make sure she hadn’t been wounded. He trusted her Blood implicitly, and they would take any wound to her body, no matter how small, as a grave failure. All Blood possessed a fierce sense of honor, but Khul’lanna’s Blood extremely so. Only lads when Vulkar had sent them to her side, they had never worn their own kae’valda and never would.
Until she dies.
Rhaekhar pushed that horrible fear away. He’d already sworn to die before her. If Vulkar called her home to His Clouds early, Khul would ride at her side.
He felt a wrenching in her bond, an unexpected emotion. At first, he thought she had picked up on his grim thoughts of death, but Dharman jerked his attention down to her. Whatever he saw, the lad dropped his body fully against hers instead of politely hovering above her.
There was no mistaking the surge of physical response through her bond. Rhaekhar hold his breath a moment, and then let it out, slow and steady. He’d known this day would come eventually. She was too close to her young Blood to ever deny them her heart and body for long. That she’d made it so many years since she claimed them had astounded him.
He still didn’t like the thought. She was his, his na’lanna and Khul’lanna. She carried his honor and had borne him two children. That another warrior encroached on Khul’s woman sent a rush of…
Rhaekhar breathed deeply again. Not jealousy or rage, not exactly. If she loved another, he would see to her need, as he’d done with Gregar, but he’d been different. The laughing Shadowed Blood had been his friend and protector for years before they even set eyes on the outlander who would own their hearts.
Gregar had been his; Dharman would only ever be hers.
A sense of finality washed over Rhaekhar, and he felt a moment of weakness. His knees trembled enough that he leaned his weight against the wall. He suddenly felt as old as his nearly forty years, every kae’don and kae’rahke he’d battled, the scars he carried, the sheer weight of honor he carried weighing him, dragging him.
Great Vulkar, he prayed silently. I beg you, don’t call me home yet.
After years of agony and yearning, the untouchable mated woman Dharman had loved since the first moment he met her looked upon him as a warrior and not a lad. Her lips pressed against his chest, her breathing ragged, her heart pounding so hard in his head through the Blood bond that he couldn’t hear. He managed to give a quick signal to Sal, alerting him to his own incapacitation as her First Blood.
How could he think to protect her with his blood pounding so hard his skull threatened to crack open? She arched beneath him, and Dharman nearly died at her soft cry of desire. Tightening his arms around her, he breathed the words against her lips. “At last.”
She shuddered, her fingers digging into his back. Emotions tore through her, no secret to him through the bond. She was shocked, afraid, guilty, her first thought of Khul and how he might feel. All these emotions Dharman knew and expected. Yet overpowering it all was the fierce ache in her body. That she would need him so much…
After all these years.
He couldn’t resist a slow rock of his hips, giving her his weight, the grind of his hips against hers. She made a low sound of need that rocked through his mind. Thick, sultry roses, heated by her desire, clogged his nostrils. She wants me.
Sal placed his palm on Dharman’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to help break through his physical instinct that demanded a quick, hard thrust to claim her as his before she changed her mind. He remembered their location, and most of all, the extremely close presence of her mate. Before he could do anything, he must request permission else find himself challenged by the greatest warrior on the Plains.
“All clear,” Sal murmured, his low voice aching with yearning. Would she respond to him the same way?
As lads, they had sworn an oath in blood, deeper than brothers, deeper than Camp loyalty, deeper, even than honor, for at the time, they’d possessed none. With Khul’lanna bleeding and close to death on the ground between them, Dharman had known one thing and sworn it to Sal.
Where he went, so too, did Sal. If she didn’t want the red-haired Blood, Dharman would not go to Khul’s blankets, either, no matter how much he wanted to love her.
Deliberately, Dharman rolled off to the side and allowed the other Blood to assist her. Of course, Sal–as wicked and salacious as Gregar had ever thought to be–took advantage of her rather dazed and needy state. Sal backed her into the wall, shielding her with his body with admirable determination that no assassin steel should touch her without first sliding through his flesh.
Without even seeing her face, Dharman knew the way her breath caught in her chest, her throat tight, the scent of spice in her nose that felt as familiar to her as his own scent. Unerringly, her mouth found the mark on Sal’s throat that she’d placed an eternity ago, her teeth in his throat, his blood hers to command.
Dharman stood and met Khul’s fierce gaze. Squaring his shoulders with determination, he strode to him, ignoring the glower of Khul’s Blood. He knew Khul had felt her response. No thought or need passed through her mind and heart that her bonded warriors didn’t feel, whether Blood or na’lanna or both. She simply didn’t know it yet.
“Khul, may I challenge for right as co-mate?”
“As soon as we return to the Plains.” Khul replied curtly. “Sal, too?”
“Aye.” Despite his confidence, Dharman felt a twinge of…not fear exactly, but wary respect. Khul would make him earn the right to come to his blankets. The kae’rahke between Khul and Gregar before she’d accepted the Shadowed Blood was burned into Dharman’s mind. “Where I go, he goes.”
Khul glanced at her. Relieved and reassured that she would want him as much as his friend, Sal had backed off and allowed her to push away from the wall. She stared at Khul, pale, her midnight blue eyes large and dark with her emotions. Khul’lanna was not a woman to run from any battle, no matter how grim, but this kae’don threatened to tear her apart. She gripped the rahke on her hip and thought seriously about challenging both of her Blood.
Dharman sent some of his eagerness through her bond and her eyes widened even more with alarm. A little blood would only inflame them all the more.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. Misery filled her, regret and anger and unwanted need wrenching her heart, tangling her bonds into knots in her mind. After all these years of serving as nearest Blood, Dharman had yet to understand her reluctance to admit any love, let alone the love she felt for anyone but Khul.
“I will not pressure her this time,” Khul said, drawing Dharman’s attention. At least Khul’s face had softened with acceptance, touched with wry sympathy. “I forced her to admit her feelings for Gregar, only because he swore he would not live long. I chose to bear her anger rather than any long-held regrets that she’d never loved him as he deserved. I won’t do it again.”
Dharman hadn’t expected any assistance. He certainly knew Khul’lanna well enough to accept that simply because she’d felt desire for him and Sal that she would not immediately ask them both to Khul’s blankets. In fact, he expected the reverse. Her reluctance to hurt Khul in any way was too great. “How much leeway do I have to convince her myself?”
Khul grinned widely and slapped him on the back. “As much as you dare, lad.” He paused, ignoring Khul’lanna’s sharp inhale and fierce surge of ire through their bonds. “Nay, you’re a lad no longer. If you desire to win your way to my blankets, warrior, then you are welcome to try through any means you deem necessary.”
“Over my dead body.” Khul’lanna advanced on Khul and shoved him in the chest. The mighty warrior didn’t even budge. “You’re not going to simply stand there and let them…”
“Nag you?” Sal asked brightly.
Her cheeks flooded with color. She whirled, but froze. A flood of nausea swamped her bond.
Dharman immediately stepped up to her, his senses alert. Sal took her other side, all thoughts of co-mates and finally making love to her wiped from their minds. They scanned the hallway, seeking any shadow or threat that would clutch her stomach with such fierce cramps of sickness reserved for the darkest, most tainted Shadow, but all they saw were the twins.
Nearly three years old, Rhyra and Anya ran toward their mother, hair sungold and dark sable respectively. No one questioned the stamp of each child’s parentage. Both as lovely as their mother with dark-blue eyes, Rhyra was obviously Khul’s daughter, while Anya was the Shadowed Blood’s. Khul’lanna might have only taken Gregar to Khul’s blankets the one time before he died, but his gift lived on his daughter.
Both girls had sticky faces and hands, as though they’d been eating a special sweet, and Rhyra held a small china plate.
Whatever was on that plate made Khul’lanna stagger. Lunging forward, she smacked it out of her daughter’s hands and fell to her knees, retching and crying.
“Mama, Mama,” the girls cried, clutching her.
“You didn’t eat that, did you?” She cupped Rhyra’s face and stared deeply into her eyes. Dharman felt a wash of cold spring water fill their bond, the Lady’s power rushing through her blood. She turned to Anya. “Did you?”
“Nay, Mama, but Sara’s sick. She fell down.”
“Oh, Lady.” Khul’lanna wrapped her arms around the girls and hugged them tight. She looked up at Dharman, desperate horror shadowing her eyes despite the gleam of her tears. “Someone tried to poison my babies.”