Book Chat with Cindy Lynn Speer

Continuing our chat about The Chocolatier’s Wife and Beautiful Death, here’s the next questions I asked Cindy and her response.  Head over to Cindy’s blog for my questions/answers re: BD.

How long have you been writing, and where does TCW fit in your bibliography?  And what’s in the works for you next?

I’ve been writing since my teens…about 20 years.  The Chocolateir’s Wife is my third completed book.  Of my first two, Blue Moon is, ironically, my second book.  The first I wrote, Balancing Act, will be out in a year or so.  I’ve also written a lot of short stories and poems.  I wanted to write longer works, but when I was a teen I was more interested in expressing myself…my emotions, what I was going through…in a descriptive way, and I loved poems because I could finish them.  Then I did short stories…when I finished my first novel, it was really a relief! 

And since I missed a week or so over the holidays, I’ll post another.

What’s next for the world of Chocolatier’s Wife? 

As for what’s next for that world…I have several plans.  Someday, I think William is going to have to face the sea…I imagine a mystery, perhaps, happening while he and Tasmin go on a voyage, perhaps to visit cocoa plantations?  I’m not sure.  But I am working on a story set in the “enemy” empire of Pandroth.  I don’t know if I ever will truly write about William and Tasmin again…but I love them so much, it gives me comfort to think I might just.   

Book Chat with Cindy Lynn Speer

Continuing our ongoing book chat, the next question I asked Cindy about The Chocolatier’s Wife:

How did you come up with the idea of the letters between Tasmin and William?  I loved the way the two storylines unfolded!

Her answer:

The letters came about because I needed to create a history between Tasmin and William.  In the story, they aren’t allowed to meet, technically, until their wedding day, a rule that goes out the window when he’s accused of murder, since she is now able to break her promise to be his wife with no repercussions.  So, why would she risk everything to go and see him and help him?  The letters seemed like the only solution, and as I wrote them, I realized that they could tell a completely different second story.  They were a lot of fun to write. 
 

Head over to Cindy’s blog if you want to hear about what attracted me to the Hades myth.

Come back next week for her next question,

Now I have to ask you…are any of your characters partly inspired by actors or actresses? 

Book Chat with Cindy Lynn Speer

Last weeks’s chat and Cindy’s post with my answer about the original inspiration for Beautiful Death.

The question I asked her next was what movie and characters had inspired TCW?  Her response:

Well…I have always loved the movie Master and Commander, and I thought Edward Woodall’s character, William Mowett, was just a lovely, wonderful and much under used person.  Since I’ve seen him in a handful of other things, and he’s a very good actor, he puts a lot into his roles, even the smallest parts become full, perfectly realized people.  So, in a way, that’s where our William gets his sea faring past…and his first name. 

 
I probably shouldn’t have confessed that!   
 

Ha, I love that she confessed it!  If you’re curious to see how I would “cast” Beautiful Death, head on over to Cindy’s blog.

Next week, we’ll continue our chat with my question to her:

How did you come up with the idea of the letters between Tasmin and William?  I loved the way the two storylines unfolded! 

Book Chat with Cindy Lynn Speer

This summer, I was priviledged to chat in depth with Cindy after reading The Chocolatier’s Wife released by Drollerie Press around the same time as Beautiful Death.  Events conspired against us so we’re just not getting this “chat” published on our blogs, but we had a great time discussing the story behind the books and general writing.  We plan on posting part of our “back and forth” chat every Friday until we finally stopped talking shop.  This is very informal, so there may be some overlap…or some juicy tidbit extras!

First off, let me say how much I enjoyed The Chocolatier’s Wife (TCW).  This sweet romance really tugs on the heart-strings.  I absolutely adored the little touches between Tasmin and William.  For most of their lives, their courtship happens through letters.  It’s sort of a fluke, really, that they were even “matched” by the magic that determines who should marry. 

Little things speak so loudly, though.  It’s the care and consideration between the two of them that really makes this story so sweet, long before they ever meet face to face.  The small considerations between these characters really shows how they fall in love bit by bit.  Love comes softly for these characters, and it’s beautiful to watch.

We thought it would be interesting to delve deeper into our stories, because they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, really, for what our niche micropress Drollerie Press is really all about.  Beautiful Death is violent and quite sexy, where TCW is softer and subtler, but BOTH stories combine magic and romance into what we think is a rather rich and unique tapestry.  Both stories are transformative, because I assure you, William is never the same after Tasmin blows into his life, and Isabella can only learn what it truly means to be a “monster” after she becomes a monster herself. 

So the first thing we started talking about was the “story behind the story.”  Here was Cindy’s response:

What started my book was a sort of goofy confluence.  It was nearing Christmas and my then department chair had given me a tower of chocolate…different boxes with all these lovely things inside.  And I had just watched a movie with an actor in it who I was wishing was in more roles…and as i was opening the box, I was wondering what I would like to see him in.  And I took a bite of this square of chocolate…it was, sincerely, one of the best pieces of chocolate I’d ever eaten…and the idea flooded into my head, even the title.  

Sounds yummy, yes?  So head over to Cindy’s blog and read my response about Beautiful Death and its original inspiration.

Next week, we’ll continue with the next question, where I said: 

Oooh, so you know I’ve got to ask:  who was the actor and what was the movie?  

Then we got to talking about “casting” our characters.

And since it’s been quite a while since I posted anything about Beautiful Death, I’ll post an excerpt.  This piece provides some of the backstory about how Isabella became “Beautiful Death.”  Although she doesn’t know it at the time, this “alien” is Hades.  Not exactly your everyday run-of-the-mill “first meet” in a romance.  :roll:  :wink:

Without opening her eyes, she knew someone watched, very close, the stirring of air warning her that a hand stretched toward her.  She exploded into action, rolling to the side and scooping up the knife that she always kept nearby.  Huddled with her back to the wall, she felt her heart stutter with dread.

This monster was the real thing. 

The alien spun silvered rainbows through the alley, leaving her nowhere to hide.  He squatted down to her level, as though that would fool her into trusting him.  “Isabella.  I’ve come to help you.  Your father–”

A cold sweat coated her skin, but she couldn’t hold back the laughter.  Ragged, shrill with grief and rage, her voice grated like broken glass.  “Even if you weren’t a monster, I’d know you were lying.  My father’s the last person I ever want to see again.”

A sound jerked her attention behind him.  More aliens had her sister.

“I’m tired.”  Amelia lay in one of the alien’s arms like a helpless baby, and the look of resignation on her face made bile burn up Isabella’s throat.  “I’m dirty and cold and starving.  I just want to go home.  He said we’d be safe, Bella.  If not…”  she shrugged, “at least it’ll be over.”

Fight!  Why don’t you fight?  Don’t lie there and let them kill you!  “There is no home.  Mom’s dead, and Daddy’s never coming back.  Don’t you understand?  There is no safety!  If they don’t kill you, their virus will!”

Choking on tears of rage, her throat hurt, her eyes burning.  Otherwise, she’d have seen the alien coming at her.

The bastard was good, she’d give him that.  He seized her right arm, his thumb pressing on her tendon until her nerveless fingers dropped the knife, while he pinned her against his body with his other arm.  For all his size and power, he made one monumental error.  He treated her carefully, as though she were just a fifteen-year-old kid, half starved and scared shitless, as though she hadn’t seen people tearing each other apart for food or killed to keep herself alive.

She lunged up and buried her pitiful human teeth in his neck, tearing at that vulnerable pale skin.

The alien’s body jolted against hers, silver burning higher.  Glass shattered in the windows of the abandoned highrise.  Street lamps that had long ago quit working exploded like fireworks.  The ground trembled, glass and metal tinkling, debris falling all around them.

“Bella.”  The alien’s voice sounded shaken, hushed, not filled with fury or pain like she’d expected.  The fool released her hands and cupped her head tighter to his throat, curling his body around hers protectively.  “Your father sent me to you.  I mustn’t…”

Then you’re dead, she thought, fisting her hands in the ridiculously long, pretty hair about his shoulders.  She yanked his head back further and tore deeper at his throat, determined to rip her way to his spine, but he still didn’t release her.  His power burned higher, sinking into her, melting her bones, and swirling rainbows sucked her down into an endless pit of darkness.

Her heart pounded harder, her mind screaming with terror, but her body slipped into neutral while he siphoned off her energy.  Her strength, hatred, and rage that powered her ferocious will to live disappeared in an instant.

He’s feeding on me.  He’s eating me alive.

She’d seen the horrors, watched as the aliens drained their victims and left them mindless shells to die twitching and screaming when the virus struck.  She’d hated those weaklings and despised their stupidity, never understanding the horrific compelling need to give up the fight. 

There was nothing she could do to stop him; worse, the longer he fed, the less she wanted him to stop.

Rest, peace, safety, all lies he silently promised while he crushed her against him and drained her lifeforce.  Surrender, his body purred against hers.  Death won’t be so bad.  I’ll be gentle, sweet, good, I promise.

His blood coated her face, filled her mouth, and slid down her throat in a hot, liquid flood, but she was the one dying.  Little by little, Isabella flickered lower, a candle guttering in the silent, cold night.  Her defenses crumbled.  He was all around, inside her, soaking her up, drinking her most horrible dreams and memories, seducing her to death.

Lost, all she could think about was how incredibly good his blood tasted.

The Fire Within Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

Blessed Lady above, let him kill me quickly.

Eleni refused to cower as her brother strode toward her, his darkened face twisted with rage beneath the simple gold circlet on his head. Blood splattered the front of his velvet frock and once pristine ruffled shirt. The messenger had been reduced to a dark smear on the white marble of the High Court.

From the very first day of Darius’s rule–when he’d killed his predecessor, wife, and their three-year-old child with his own hand–everyone in the Green Lands had learned to fear their new High King’s wrath.

“How close?” Veins throbbed in his forehead and neck, but his voice was painfully calm. Darius didn’t need volume to intimidate. “Can I stop them before they reach Allandor?”

“My contacts confirm she’s already in Rashan.” Eleni’s stomach clenched, but her hands were steady; her face, smooth; her voice, the same melodic and deliberately soothing tone she painstakingly cultivated. From an early age, she’d learned best how to diffuse Darius’s temper in order to survive. “Both Taza and Maston have already sided with her.”

Darius paced before the golden monstrosity he’d stolen with murder, treachery, and lies. Massive lions pawed above the High Throne, mouths gaping, claws like swords. Old blood stained the regal profiles. The last person to infuriate the High King had learned those vicious talons were not merely decorative. The young noble had suffered for two days dangling above Darius’s head before finally dying.

“The North Forest holds strong with me, and the Shanhasson Guard is mine.”

Prudence told her to remain silent, but she couldn’t when her brother needed information she possessed, no matter how much he would dislike it. “Your Shanhasson Guard is down to only two hundred, Your Majesty. An entire division was sent to silence the rising rebellion in the east, along with two divisions of Northerners. All were lost to Princess Jenna. You have few troops on hand, and resources stretched thin. We must–“

Darius whirled, charged, and before Eleni could soften the truth, she found herself dangling with his hand wrapped around her throat. “We, dearest sister? We must what?”

Her heart hammered in her chest, and instinct screamed at her to fight, dig her fingernails into his forearm, scream, and kick toward his groin, yet she did none of these things. Fighting would only inflame him. Crying out would only incite his need to hear more screams and pleading.

“Allies,” she forced the word out through her strangled throat.

He set her on her feet but kept his fingers locked around her neck. “I’m listening.”

Dark spots filled her vision and she couldn’t help a loud rasp, fighting for air through her constricted windpipe. Eleni gasped out, “disposable allies…fighters…no claim to Throne.”

“Who?” His voice was still cold with menace, but he grudgingly loosened his fingers enough that she hauled in a wheezing breath. “The bitch has taken Allandor, my strongest enemy, along with all its allies. Pella will stand with me, but it’s only a duchy, no match for the other countries in our happy republic.”

Eleni took another deep breath of air before answering. She had a feeling he would dislike this answer as well. “Keldar.”

“Savages?” Darius laughed, his dark eyes dancing as he slowly squeezed his hand shut again. “Why should the High King of all the Green Lands seek help from desert bandits?”

A wave of nausea flooded her stomach as the darkness rolled back. So many times she’d feared he would kill her. She’d dreamed it for years, in a thousand gruesome ways. Surely he wouldn’t kill her this way, so easily; endless torture was much more to his liking. She forced the word out. “Revenge.”

He waited for her to continue, but she couldn’t get enough air. Head aching, lungs blazing in agony, she clutched his wrist and tried to keep the pleas out of her eyes. Keep calm, she thought. No panic, no tears. That will only infuriate him.

Impatient, he slung her on the floor. She fell on her back, barely catching herself on her elbows to avoid smashing her skull open on the marble. Panting, she concentrated on breathing. With her skirts tumbled crazily, her silk stockings were bared to the room, but she made no move to cover herself. Darius would enjoy humiliating her before the entire High Court with worse if she acted missish. He’d done so, countless times already. He knew very well how best to torment and punish without a single mark.

“I’m waiting.”

“Would it not be poetic justice for you to use her distant relatives to quell her rebellion?”

Darius stroked his chin and jaw. “Perhaps. The idea has merit, but only if the savages would consider such an alliance. From the little we know of Keldar, they have no such inclinations. They know only thieving and killing.”

Now to play her most important card, the one ace that might free her from beneath her brother’s boot heel. “They’ve shown an undue interest in Green Land women in the last few years, don’t you think?”

Eyes narrowed, he stared at her for several long moments before gesturing that she could rise and continue.

“We’ve lost two caravans to Keldari raiders in the past month, and both times they took the goods and Green Land women. The men were either killed or ignored. The merchant of the last caravan had a Mambian wife, and she was untouched.”

“Perhaps the savages have no taste for exotic women.”

“I can find out for you,” she said, trying to keep the eagerness out of her eyes. “Once they capture me, I’ll bargain with their leader and win them to your cause.”

“You?” Darius turned away, hiding his face from her. He knew how well she read people. “I can’t spare you, Eleni. I considered sending you to Princess Jenna instead to parley.”

“Humbly, Your Majesty, I suggest that might be a mistake. Do you want your greatest enemy to have your best eyes and ears? Why not use me, instead, to win a horde of savages you can loose on the rebels?”

He paced, silent and hard and grim. He valued her skills as a negotiator, but he was also possessive of her. Why, when he enjoyed beating and berating her for the simple pleasure of seeing her broken yet again?

“I can’t lose you, Eleni.”

Despite all the years of torture and abuse, her heart still warmed. He was her only family left in this entire world. He’d done horrible things, and forced her to join him time after time. Yet he was her brother, and she loved him.

“Before Father died, he told me that he’d dreamed I would seize the High Throne and legitimize his royal blood. The key to my success was you, dearest sister. As long as you were by my side, I would hold Shanhasson. But if I lost you…“

Darius threw himself onto the High Throne and buried his face in his hands. Stunned, Eleni went to him and hesitantly laid her hand on his head. She’d never seen such vulnerability from her brother.

“He told me I would be better off to cut your heart out of your chest before ever letting you out of my sight.”

Her hand froze. Horror churned her stomach, burning up her throat. She could well picture their father telling young Darius such a thing. Their family had long been tormented by nightmares, darkness, and taint through their bloodline. Touched by Shadow, they wrought evil in the world without premeditation simply by breathing. Since their grandfather had raped his own High Queen all those years ago, her family’s existence was a testament to the evil done in the world by men’s hands.

Ignoring the terror screaming through her body, she forced her fingers back to his hair. She stroked him like a little boy and deliberately lightened her voice. “I’m never out of your sight, Your Majesty, not when you haunt my dreams every night.”

“True.” Darius raised his head, a smile quirking his sensual lips. His eyes were dark with madness, hurt, and death. Worst of all, though, was the mirth. The foul joy he found in such atrocities. He could kiss and pardon or murder with his own hand, and his eyes would never change. “I will walk in your dreams every night, dearest. I will know if you intend to betray me.”

He reached out and touched her neck with the steel blade of a knife she hadn’t even seen him draw. His voice lowered to a silky smooth seduction that prefaced his most horrific crimes. “I can kill without laying a single hand on you, Eleni. But it would be much sweeter to hear your screams, taste your blood, and earn your agony with my own hands. Do not fail me, dear sister, or I will leave my throne for that bitch, Jenna, who dares to challenge me and hunt you down in the darkest, farthest reaches of the world.”

Relief and terror warred in her heart. He would let her go, for now.

To win her freedom, her brother must die. She couldn’t do it herself, though, and the very people who would bring him to justice would rightfully execute her as well. She had to win an ally for herself. She needed someone far from Shanhasson and strong enough to protect her from him, someone who could kill him.

Darius had chained her at his side her entire life with her love and duty. Now, before the darkness growing in her heart claimed the last bit of the hope, before he killed her with that love, she had to flee.

Survive My Fire Excerpt

Available at Drollerie Press.

A foreign scent intruded while I slept. A warrior. Miles away and on foot, he wouldn’t reach my lair until dusk. Sweat and musk, muscle and pride. Oh, how tasty, how divine a feast.

My dreams became torment in the roasting heat of afternoon. Memories returned from centuries ago, of my life before the curse. Rage crawled in the dark secret fissures of my heart, a fire stoked hour by hour. Trapped in this prison of wing, scale, and claw, I hated the approaching warrior. His phantom blood burned on my tongue.

I would tear him limb from limb. Shred his skin and lick his spicy blood from the unforgiving sands. Crack bone to feast on his marrow. I would dine on his fear, shred his dreams and char his most secret hopes.

As soon as the sun touched the horizon and shadows stretched across the red sands, I crept from my lair.

Hundreds of warriors over the years have braved my domain. They came with sword and magic, bows and shields, hearts bursting with courage, hope, rage, envy, even lust.

They came, and they died.

I killed them all.

This one would be no different.

Ah, but he was a cocky son of a bitch. He stood in plain view on the highest point of my barrens. His back to me, he stared out over the empty Well of Tears. The Well I had not been able to fill despite an eternity of suffering.

The dying sun blazed behind me, outlining his warrior’s body, the proud tilt of his head, and then the chiseled lines of his face as he turned. Dark eyes, shadowed, hollowed with misery. Keldar was a hard land, a hard life, even for a warrior.

A curved scimitar gleamed in the growing shadows, ready in his hand but not offensive. Not threatening, not yet. The black taamid flapped about his shoulders like wings, loose and flowing to the ground. Leather knife straps crossed his chest, and a coiled whip hung on his hip. I could smell the sweet herbed oil used to keep the dragon hide supple.

No fear flickered in his steady gaze. No emotion showed on his stone face. He stared at me, waiting. For what?

Casually, I flicked a wing at him. He ducked, tucked into a smooth roll to the side, and flipped back to his feet. Impressive. Instead of trying to knock him down, I flipped around and grabbed him with my tail as thick as his body. Squeezing scaled muscle around his chest, I locked him in bands of living iron he couldn’t possibly break.

Crush him. I would crush his bones, blood spray–

Pain.

The curved blade slid into my flesh, just enough to anger me. I slung him to the ground so hard I heard his ribs creak. But no grunt of pain. Not from him.

The scent of blood–even my own–brought my hunger roaring to life. I breathed deeply and threw my head back. Flames blazed to the heavens. The ground rumbled and cringed beneath my claws. I heard horses miles away scream in terror and I knew people quaked in their flimsy hide tents and whispered prayers to deaf and uncaring Gods.

The warrior before me licked my blood from his blade.

He dared to taste my blood. A shiver crawled down my spine. This was no ordinary warrior. Already, I felt a gnat’s brush against my mind through the fragile blood bond he attempted to weave.

I dared say mine was a bitter and noxious brew compared to the sweet wealth of his blood that would soon roll in my belly. With my hunger fully awakened, I ignored my unease. I flapped my wings and scrambled at him.

He dodged aside with a roll and then leapt, kicking sand in my eyes. A child’s trick. I didn’t have to see him. I smelled him. Burnt cinnamon, roasted sage, sweat, warrior.

I would eat him alive.

He led me on a merry chase, and I found myself strangely reluctant to end the game. He smelled so good, fought with such tenacity. I felt something other than rage. Or hatred. A strange joy burned in my dragon heart.

Enough. I seized him delicately in my front claws, pinning him flat on his back against the red sands. Panting, he stared up at me. No fear, still, and he even gave me the barest hint of a smile, if the faint wrinkle around his eyes was any indication.

“I’m Jalan tal‘Krait.”

I cocked my head, trying to remember what words meant. Tal, chief, of the tribe called Krait.

“I’m the last Krait dra’gwar.”

I blew hard, shaking my head. I had no understanding of the last word. Warrior class, I guessed. The last? The Kraits were once a mighty clan even in my day, second only to the Mambas. Oh, how the years eroded everything. Even the unshakeable rock crumbled before the winds of time.

Lowering my spined muzzle, I sniffed at his neck. Peeling my lips back, I snagged his clothing in my teeth and tugged it aside to reveal darkly bronzed skin. Black hair spilled like blood against the rock.

I tasted him, just a lick, a graze of teeth. He shuddered in my grasp. My claws broke his skin despite my care.

Blood. Oh so sweet, so rich. I licked the fine red trails from his skin. The only element missing was fear. A few high-pitched screams to flavor my meat.

So I gripped harder, shaking him. No sound, no cry of pain, no harsh intake of breath. Curious, I raised my head.

He searched the sky behind me, and at last a small smile curved his lips. Night fell around us while I played with my food. So why was it so bright?

Why did my scales twitch and dance along my back? Why did my wings tremble, white feathers and scales raining about us? Agony wracked my body, twisting and crunching my bones, reshaping my body. I roared with fury, but flames died in my mouth. Ash filled my lungs.

Straddling my prey, I jerked around. A full moon hung low in the sky, enormous gleaming silver. Melting my shining white scales to skin. My wings to limbs. My powerful body to this slim, fragile gossamer of blood and skin.

Human.

How had he known?

The Rose of Shanhasson Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

Blessed Lady above, why have You forsaken me?

Scanning the waters of Dalden Bay, Shannari looked for some sign of hope. Ceaseless prayers throughout the night, at the holiest site in the Green Lands, had been offered for naught. The silvered full moon mocked her with its silence.

The thick bayside air tasted like tears. Shannari swallowed the choking lump, her shoulders drooping with misery. Weary, she rubbed her aching, dry eyes and turned from the mist-covered waters. Power pulsed with the gentle moonlight, resonating in her blood and soul. Her skin tingled with the sweet melody, her heart aching, yearning to use that inborn gift.

If only she could find some way to restore her magic…

But no. That was another failure entirely. Her heart was dead.

Waiting at the last column, the High Priest took her chilled hands between his own. Father Aran’s snowy white hair and beard gleamed against his scarlet robes. “Our Blessed Lady has heard your prayers, Your Majesty.”

Shame clawed her chest and she dropped her gaze. She didn’t deserve the title, let alone his respect. “Please, don’t call me that.”

“I’ve known since your birth that you would be the next High Queen. I saw the Rose Crown on your head even in the cradle.”

“So you say.” Shannari jerked her hands back and clenched them into fists at her sides. “You also told me of the great power I would have as the Lady’s Last Daughter. Yet here I am, my magic crippled, my country surrounded by enemies, and betrothed to Prince Theo, the one person who most wants me dead.” Her voice broke. She would never forget the malice in the Crown Prince’s eyes, nor the suffocating horror that came over her when he’d touched her. “I’m trapped.”

The High Priest flinched. “The mistake was mine, Your Majesty, I–”

“How can I refuse to marry him now without starting a civil war?”

“Our Blessed Lady wants Her tainted son removed from the High Throne at all cost.” The High Priest stared through her, deeper, seeing beyond to some future that made his eyes flash with hope. “A way will be provided.”

Shannari refused to let that gleam of hope move her. She’d seen the same look in his eyes too many times to no avail. Seeing a possible future and knowing the Lady’s prophesy didn’t make it happen.

“Dark at times, clouded with Shadow and fraught with peril, your path is steep and treacherous with ravines on either side. If you fall, all the Green Lands will fall with you. This I know in my heart. Yet hope comes, though from where I cannot See.”

She knew all too well the dark prophesy of doom waiting for her people if she failed. Other children grew up on nursery rhymes and fairytales; she learned her destiny of blood and darkness and death. Death loomed closer than ever in these dark times.

Inwardly sighing, she joined her waiting father, King Valche. Surrounded by guards, they walked toward the village curving along the shoreline. Chittering raucously, gulls fought for scraps on the beach of sand and broken shells and the stench of rotting fish made her stomach churn.

Vessels ranging from local fishing boats to sea-worthy trading ships lined the docks. From crates full of rare spices from the jungles of Mambia, to exotic furs from the frigid ice of Jjord to the extreme north, exotic things from all over the world came through this port. Without Dalden Bay, Allandor’s tables might miss the sea’s natural bounty, but the largest blow would be felt in the merchants’ pockets.

Shannari ran through her options again and came to the same conclusion. Surely an alliance with Allandor’s greatest enemy was worth the risk to herself if it would save all the Green Lands. Shivering, she rubbed the nape of her neck. She had the nasty feeling that an invisible axe loomed over her head.

“I despise Stephan,” King Valche muttered beneath his breath. “I hate his clingy, sneaky ways, how he always cozies up to Theo, oozing snake oil promises.”

“Tell me any other way, Father, and I’ll do it.”

King Valche sighed heavily and ran a hand through his silvered hair. “We need him, slime or no.”

Dressed in Allandor’s regalia of midnight blue trimmed in gold braid, he presented the perfect image of control and regal civility. Ruefully, Shannari wondered what image she projected in her leathers and chain mail, sword within easy reach at her side. Her father had begged her to wear a court gown to emphasize her lineage and legitimate claim to the High Throne. Nevertheless, Last Daughter of the Blessed Lady or not, she went nowhere unarmed, even when escorted with a full contingent of guards. She’d learned that lesson at a very young age.

“Let’s try polite conversation first and see where we stand with Stephan,” King Valche said. “Maybe he’ll surprise us. Maybe he’ll take a stand against Theo for once and do what’s right.”

“No, I’m afraid not. Stephan knows nothing but taking. The only bargaining chip we have is Dalden Bay.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Lightly, she touched the hidden scar on the left side of her chest above her breast. “I’ll marry him if I must. Anyone’s better than Prince Theo.”

A silent warning shrilled in her head, and ice chilled her blood. Her heart pounded as adrenaline surged through her. Crippled and stunted her magic might be, but she knew a warning from the Lady when she felt it.

Struggling to maintain a normal demeanor, Shannari looked about them with her hand nonchalantly on her sword hilt. While the docks were busy this early in the morning, the main cobblestone street was deserted. The appointed meeting place, the best inn in Dalden Bay, towered above the smaller shops and houses of the villagers.

Flanked by guards, she couldn’t identify a visible threat, but the chill increased. Her teeth chattered and her fingers cramped on the hilt. Danger approached, but from where?

An alley opened up on her right. As they walked past, the shadow of deadly intent raised the hairs on the base of her neck. Choking back a cry, she took another step, waiting, waiting…

Behind her, steel whispered in the crisp dawn air. Shannari whirled and drew the sword. The nearest guard reached for his, too, turning too late. Slipping around him, the assassin rushed the last few steps, closing quickly so she couldn’t entirely block his thrusting blade. She fouled his aim and the knife slammed into her right side.

An iron fist of pain exploded in her ribcage. Grunting, she took a quick step back to gain some space. Thank the Lady for chain mail. Swinging the sword in a hard arc, she slit the assassin’s throat.

Blinking in shock, the man fell to his knees, his hands wrapped around the gaping wound in his neck. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly and he pitched face first onto the ground.

Eventually, she would fail. A knife would find her back, this time slicing her heart beyond repair. She would never forget the dark pool of blood spreading on the floor, her beautiful mother shattered like a porcelain doll.

I must wrest the High Throne from Theo soon, before one of his assassins succeeds in killing me.

King Valche bellowed, his face dark with fury. Shamefaced Guardsmen crowded closer, their swords at the ready. More soldiers raced down the street led by Sergeant Fenton. The baker across the way poked his head out the door.

Firm but polite, Sergeant Fenton brought the baker outside his shop. “Do you know this man? Did you see anyone about this morning?”

Shannari pushed the assassin over onto his back with her boot.

The baker recoiled and shook his head, wringing his hands in his apron. “No one, sir, other than the King when he passed right at dawn. I heard the guards about at The Slumbering Lion, but nothing else.”

Turning her attention to the body, Shannari dismissed the witness with a nod.

The assassin stared upward with glazed brown eyes. He was perhaps thirty years of age with nondescript features. She didn’t recognize him. His brown coat and breeches were clean and cut from quality cloth but not extravagant. His boots were serviceable and scuffed but well made. He wore no jewelry or insignia. Anyone could have sent him.

So many enemies, so much blood on her hands. Her ribs ached and she resisted the urge to hunch over in pain. Wincing, she bent down and wiped her sword and hands on the dead man’s coat. At least the blood hadn’t splattered her leather pants too badly.

“Are you hurt?” King Valche’s voice quivered with rage. “Should we cancel this meeting?”

She stood and sheathed her sword. “We can’t wait, Father. We need the Duke now more than ever.”

“This attempt could very well be his doing.”

“He won’t assassinate me before he learns how much we might offer. I’ll do whatever is necessary to secure this treaty.”

“I wish there were another way.” King Valche stared down the street at The Slumbering Lion, his jaw clenched. “I’ve delayed with every tactic I know. High King Rikard has every right to demand your presence in Shanhasson. If we don’t gain enough support, he’ll send an army large enough that we’ll be forced to accept his terms. Allandor is strong, but could we stand against the entire might of the Green Lands?”

He turned his tired, concerned gaze to Shannari. “I did my best. The betrothal bought us a little time, but I wish I could keep you from bartering away your life and your hand in marriage for a crown, even the Rose Crown of all the Green Lands. Your mother chose me, chose love, instead of the High Throne. I hoped you could have both. I failed you, Daughter, just as I failed to keep her safe.”

Years ago, Shannari had almost made the same mistake as her mother. She’d foolishly believed that love’s power would make her magic invincible. Instead, she now bore a vicious scar as proof that love could never be trusted. “Oh, Father, we haven’t failed. Father Aran said Our Blessed Lady will provide a way. We have to believe.”

“What I believe is that Theo would rather see you dead than beside him on the High Throne.”

The pulse of ice through her veins echoed the assassination warning and confirmed her father’s fears. Shannari hardened her voice to steel. “Then Lady help me, I’ll see him dead first.”

The Shanhasson Trilogy Playlist

Lots of songs inspire me for this series:

  • Faith of the Heart, or Where My Heart Will Take Me (theme from Enterprise)
  • Everything I Do, I Do It For You, Bryan Adams (especially in Rose)
  • Kiss From A Rose by Seal
  • Against All Odds by Phil Collins (especially in Rose)
  • Make This Go On Forever by Snow Patrol
  • Knights of Cydonia by Muse (especially in Road)
  • Deathzone by Apocalyptica  (especially in Road)
  • Bittersweet by Apocalyptica (especially in Road, Return)
  • Behind the Crimson Door by H.I.M. (especially in Road)
  • Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad by Meatloaf (especially in Rose)
  • Burn It To The Ground by Nickelback (especially in Return)
  • Secret by Heart (especially in Road)