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.”