Josan clutched the doorframe, doubling over with a ragged cough. Smoke pricked his eyes with a hundred tiny daggers. He gagged, pressing his face into the crook of his arm.
Orange flickers laced the opposite side of the great hall, wreathing ornate tapestries in smoke. Josan’s guard gripped his shoulder from behind. As if Seris could defend against this siege.
Josan tore away, dashing his free hand across his face. His fingers trembled, slick with tears and sweat. He clenched his fists. He’d kill the marauders who thought they could get away with burning the royal palace. He’d kill them all.
“Josan! Your High—” Seris’s voice behind him broke into a hacking cough. “Idiot.”
“They’re here.” Josan pressed farther into the room, shielding his face from the heat with one arm. “They have to be here. Mother always—” He tripped over a prone form and crashed to one knee.
Blood streamed from the guard’s forehead and partially concealed the royal crest emblazoned on his breastplate. His chest rose and fell in shallow gasps. By the fates themselves…
The guard locked his dark, fragmented eyes on Josan. “M-my prince. You need—”
“Shut up.” Josan seized the man under the arms and hauled him back the way they’d come.
Seris sidestepped, trying to help support the wounded guard. Josan shoved him away and released the man outside the broken doors. The guard crumpled with a muffled groan. Arson and thievery were contemptible, but outrightly attacking the royal family and their guards was unforgivable.
Josan gritted his teeth. “Seris, get this man out of here.” He glared at the guard. “And you’d better have a good reason for your failure to protect this place by the time I return.”
Iron fingers latched around Josan’s wrist. “Don’t…” The guard heaved himself up halfway. Blood flecked his lips and his eyes gleamed too bright. “They…they’re dead.”
“The king…and queen…are dead.” Each word dragged itself free like a blade rusted to its sheath. “We tried. We all tried.”
“They’re not dead.” Josan heard his own voice as if from a distance. The guards were symbols of status—his father could defend himself without aid. His mother too. Vaguely he was aware of the guard slumping back and Seris steadying him as he sank to one knee. “They aren’t dead.”
The guard’s eyes drifted shut. “They…they took…the princess. They…”
Josan blinked. Once. Twice.
This was treason. Blatant treason.
The man’s chest didn’t move.
“Josan. Josan.” A palm stung his face.
He barely felt it. “Lissa…”
“Josan, we need to get out of here!” Seris’s voice shattered the haze, bringing the smoke and flames back into lurid focus. Wood crashed in the room behind him. Fire licked across the floor.
Josan lurched to his feet. “We have to get Lissa. South wing. We—”
“They have her.” Seris spun him around, slamming him against a fragment of a door. “Remember the girl who found our camp last night? She said they wanted leverage. Authority. They’ll not kill a mere child, especially when she’s a princess. Not yet.”
Josan squeezed his eyes shut.
A strange wisp of a woman had warned them of the raiders. She’d been dressed in red like a flame and had eyes much too intense for such a small face. But he’d laughed at her. Marauders wouldn’t dare attack the royalty of Athera.
Masked raiders had tried to assassinate him that night after she left. They couldn’t have realized his identity. Simple thieves didn’t have the courage to assault their own heir. He’d slept the rest of the night and well into the morning.
When he arrived at the palace, it was already in flames against a gathering dusk.
Josan jerked straight and shook his head. “We’re getting Lissa. Now.”
She’d be in her room, huddled in the nook at the back of her closet that even the guards didn’t know about. She hid there when she was scared.
He sprinted through the corridors. Away from the fire. Away from the smoke. Away from Seris’s protests.
His guard followed with a muttered oath.
Metal clashed in irregular storms, and screams, dull thuds, and pounding boots echoed through a web of passages. Seris wrenched Josan back as half a dozen marauders raced along an adjacent hall. They were spattered in blood and blackened with ash and grime. A singed plume flashed crimson as the leader vanished. A half-ignored bit of politics leapt into Josan’s mind, then connected to another and exploded into a huge, bloodstained picture. His mouth went dry.
Not mere thieves after all, but usurpers banded together. Cowards unable to depend on their own strength, led by one who knew his all too well.
“The traitorous lord,” Josan choked.
“Stop.” Seris tightened his hold. “Justice later, unless you’d rather die here.”
“Let me be.” Josan pulled free, but he turned from the passage and ducked around the last corner to his sister’s room.
Two guards lay in pools of blood before the shattered door.
“Lissa!” Josan thrust the broken wood aside.
The closet door had been ripped from its hinges. Clothing and blankets blotted with muddy footprints were strewn on the floor. Firelight glared through an open window.
Her nook was empty. Blood smeared the wall. The blasted guard had been right.
Josan staggered back and gripped the splintered frame.
Seris set his lips in a grim line. “We’ll rescue her. But not if—”
A shout down the passage cut him off, followed by another.
“Bloody rifts.” Seris yanked out his blade. “Get out of here.”
Josan stood straight. “No.”
Seris crossed the room in three strides. “Yes.” He slipped his free hand into his pocket and with his forearm he propelled Josan to the far wall. “You’re the heir. You will escape. And you will live. Understand?”
Did the man believe he could defeat a coup on his own?
“Like rifts I am,” Josan gritted out. Boots thundered in the passage leading to the room. “You need me.”
“No.” A sharp pain stabbed Josan’s upper arm. He gasped as Seris withdrew a thin needle. “You need me.”
The room spun. Josan tried to pull away but his limbs wouldn’t move. The fires were dying, or at least darkening. Fresh air mingled with the smoke, and a windowsill brushed his fingertips. “S-Seris…”
“I’m sorry, my lord.” Seris hurled him out the window.
For a moment, the night grasped at him, then he smashed through shrubs and vines and collided with the ground. The shadows deepened, tangling with each thought.
Overhead, blades clanged. Something crashed. And then blackness descended upon him, pierced by his guard’s cries.
Josan awoke to a weight on his back, a dagger pressed against the corner of his eye, and a peppery, minty smell permeating his lungs. He sneezed, flinching away from the blade. Ash choked him as he inhaled and the world dissolved into ragged coughs.
The dagger shifted. Thin knees jabbed his ribs and hot breath grazed his neck. “About time you woke up, obstinate princeling.”
Not the traitors then. Josan stiffened. “You little…” The word cracked into another round of coughs.
“Me?” The girl’s elbow dug between his shoulder blades. Red cloth caught his gaze. “I’m not the one who scorned warnings of an attack. Did you have sweet dreams instead of hurrying to alert your family?”
“Rift-bitten daughter of shadows.” Josan arched his back and swiped at the knife.
She yelped. The dagger sliced a shallow cut along Josan’s cheek, then clattered to the ground. She locked her other arm around Josan’s neck as he shoved himself to one knee. Pain flared in his left shoulder as thin fingers clamped around it. Shadows tunneled his sight.
He collapsed with a gasp. “Get off.” His left arm was trapped beneath him at a weird angle, awash with pain.
“Only if you behave.” Her fingers pinched him harder. “Maybe listen this time.”
“Listen to what?” Josan gritted his teeth. “Kill me if you dare. I’m not helping you.”
“Really?” The voice slowed to a drawl. Her head rested against the back of his while her fingers probed at the bone in his upper arm. He strangled a scream. Her hand paused, then she rolled off with a short laugh. “I don’t need your help, princeling.”
He lifted himself up on one trembling elbow. She looked more girl than woman in the dim light of dawn as she crouched across from him, mud and dampness marring her tattered dress. Black tresses had been swept back from a white throat. Dark lines shadowed her eyes, but they still sparked with intensity. The dagger she’d retrieved glinted between her fingers.
Josan slumped back against the rubble. A gray haze wafted through the courtyard, and blackened holes gaped from the palace. The gates hung ajar. The silence was almost total except for the faint sifting of fractured stone and the occasional sighing of the breeze. Ash itched at his skin. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to prevent this.” She gestured at the ruins. “The fates be thanked that at least you and your sister survived.”
Lissa… The name seared all other thoughts from his mind.
Josan jerked upright. “Narn—I know the man who’s leading this. If he’s taken her…” He cursed. “Seris went to face them.”
He climbed to his feet, almost tripping over a body concealed in the brush and turf. Blood stained the jerkin through multiple tears and stabs. His guard’s glassy eyes stared unseeing up at him. Josan’s stomach twisted. “You fool,” he rasped. He should never have let Seris force him out the window.
A hand around his elbow steadied him. “I’m sorry.” She tugged him back down. “I’d give anything to change it if I could.”
Josan’s throat tightened. “Not yours to change. I’ll find Lissa. Kill Narn while I’m at it.”
“Not alone, I hope.” She knelt beside him and probed his arm, more gently this time.
He winced. “Why would I need help?”
“Your arm is only fractured.” She ignored him and removed several bandages from her satchel. “The name is Koralie, by the way.”
He blinked at her. “So?”
“Never mind.” She sighed and pressed his arm against his chest, then bound it in place. “This usurper will expect you to come though. The raiders didn’t find your body, but they know you’ll not abandon your sister.”
He scowled at her. “More is the pity for them. They’ve not dealt with me yet.”
She raised her eyebrows as she tied the last knot. “And last night was what?”
“A cowardly ambush.” He pulled away and stumbled to his feet. They wouldn’t have infiltrated the palace otherwise, or murdered his parents or… He sucked in an aching breath. “I’ll find Lissa. Bring her back.”
“And then?” She rose with him.
Why did she care? She’d already proved she was right. He glared at her.
Koralie didn’t flinch. “Let me help.”
“You?” he scoffed. “You couldn’t even warn the palace. Narn would kill you.”
“He’d try.” She raised one hand. Light danced about her fingertips, a white that was almost blue, or a blue that flickered to white. A windwarden. Josan’s eyes widened.
“I used too much starlight detouring when I heard of the assassins after you.” Her voice grew brittle. The breeze quickened, tangling with her hair, though not a breath of it reached Josan.
He looked away. “You shouldn’t have bothered.”
Silence settled between them, then she touched his shoulder. “I’ll help you recover your sister if you ask me.”
“You want me to beg?” Heat flushed Josan’s neck. “The house of Athera is not that broken.”
“There is a treaty of sorts between wards. I’ve stretched it to the limit even warning you. We can aid in battles, but only if invited.” She seized his good hand. “Your sister needs you, as does Athera. And you’re going to confront the marauders on your own?”
Or die trying. He didn’t deserve Athera’s loyalty if he couldn’t handle a few traitors. Josan shook off her hand. “Find someone else to help.” He pivoted.
“Lady?” He didn’t look back.
“Koralie. I already said.” She tapped his shoulder.
Why couldn’t she leave him be? Find someone who truly needed help?
She held out a pouch and water skin. He wavered, his fist clenched at his side.
She met his eyes. “You’ll need nourishment to keep you on your feet. Take it.”
“Fine.” He snatched the straps and threw them over his shoulder. “Anything else?”
She opened one hand. A globe of translucent glass rested on her palm, half the size of a plum. “If you change your mind, all you have to do is crush this. I’ll come.”
Josan spun away. “No, thank you.”
Her hand closed over his shoulder. “You’ve spirit and will, princeling. But sometimes you need more. You needn’t face this alone.”
As if a ward could understand fighting for respect and authority. “I’ll rescue my sister.”
The treasonous usurper extended no mercy and would receive none. Only justice. Josan jerked his cloak straight and marched across the cracked stone. Death for death.
She didn’t follow.
He hesitated at the gate, peering into the mist-sodden valley.
“They went south.” Her voice was as soft as a gentle breeze. “They didn’t travel far.”
Of course not. Who would pursue? Josan swallowed an ache in his throat. “I think I can track them well enough.” His shoulders drooped. So much death, and for what? “If…if you find the wounded here, tend them. Please.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, nor did he glance back. But once he reached the valley, he struck to the south.
Josan lay on his stomach beneath sweeping maiden vines that dangled from the trees and shrubs.
Even a child could have tracked the marauders. Josan’s lip curled. Confident, were they? Assassinated the rulers. Subdued the heir. Abducted a child barely eight summers old. With a few men at his back, Narn considered himself invincible.
Leaves brushed his cheeks. Soft as a bride’s dress, some said. Others claimed they were named after a lover’s tears. Tonight they resembled ropes, ready to twist and bind and strangle.
Fires snapped in the hollow below. The smell of roasted meat mingled with spice and smoke. Josan licked his lips. Little food and water remained from the supply Koralie had given him. He swallowed, ignoring his parched throat. Lissa would need it more than him.
His fingers curled around the worn leather of his dagger. He’d lost his sword in the fall the night before. Didn’t matter. A dagger would kill just as well. He rose to a crouch, listening to the measured steps of the sentry as he passed. The sound faded.
He unfastened the bindings on his left arm. Fractured, not broken, she’d said. The pain was only physical, after all. It didn’t compare to the ache in his chest.
Narn would rue the day he thought he could spill royal blood without punishment.
The sentry paused. Started back on his path.
Josan waited until the sentry was a pace beyond him, then sprang silently to his feet. He yanked the man’s head back with his left arm and slid his dagger across the exposed throat.
The guard fell with a gurgled gasp. Josan suppressed his own cry as a twinge lanced his arm.
Several minutes elapsed as he donned the makeshift uniform. Warm blood still soaked the front of the sentry’s tunic. Josan swallowed a gag and arranged his own cloak to cover most of it. Bloodstains wouldn’t be conspicuous after their bladework the night before. He looped his left arm in a loose sling that could be released with one tug.
“I’m coming, Lissa,” he whispered. Narn could murder all he pleased. He’d made one dire mistake.
Josan confiscated the guard’s sword and headed toward the camp. Trap or no trap, the traitor ought to have confirmed Josan’s death.
Low laughter and voices rang around several fires, interspersed with snores. Armor clinked softly. Josan approached with even, steady strides. Not too hurried. Not too slow.
Four tents faced inward at the center of the camp. Only one was guarded.
Josan continued without hesitation, then circled to the rear. No one moved in the shadows. How had these men managed a siege when they couldn’t spot one intruder now?
Josan sliced through the canvas of the guarded tent and ducked inside. Dim firelight wavered through the slanted sides. The space was bare except for a small, empty cot.
Josan dropped to his knees and gently tapped the cot’s frame. Once. Twice. Two more times in quick succession.
A faint, strangled whimper responded, and a thin hand groped for his wrist.
“Lissa.” He barely breathed the word as he grasped her hand and pulled her out.
Lissa stared at him with wide eyes, then she threw herself against him and clung to his neck.
Josan buried his face in her frazzled curls. I have you. He didn’t dare speak the words, but he squeezed the trembling form. You’re safe now. He wrapped her in the blanket she clutched to her chest and draped his cloak over her as she snuggled into him. Then he exited the tent.
“About time, my lord.” A mocking drawl cut the silence. Steel pricked the back of Josan’s neck. “You didn’t think we’d let the princess go so easily, did you?”
“Narn.” Josan ground out the name. Never underestimate an enemy. He should have guessed.
Shadows detached from deeper shadows. Soldiers in dark armor, with darker smiles.
Josan turned slowly, allowing the blade to glide around his neck and rest at the base of his throat. Time to play. “You don’t suppose I’d be foolish enough to attempt a rescue alone, do you?”
Narn cocked an eyebrow. “I do, actually. I taught you strategy, remember?”
“You taught the wisdom of wandering into a murderer’s camp?” Josan forced his voice to remain even. He hugged Lissa tighter. “I’ve fifty men waiting for my signal. They’ll attack whether I escape with my sister or not.”
“No, they won’t.” Narn shook his head with a smile. “You were never good at relying on others for aid.”
Josan narrowed his eyes. “Get out of the way, Narn. Maybe I’ll grant you mercy when I assume the throne.”
“Now that is tempting.” Narn grinned. “But not practical. Let’s see these fifty men of yours, shall we?” He dropped the tip of his blade. “Take the girl.”
“No!” Josan twisted away from the grip on his shoulder and stumbled to one knee. He ripped the sling from his arm, shielding Lissa with his body. Hands closed about his shoulders and arms, yanking him back.
“Josan…Josan!” Lissa shrieked as one of the men snatched her around the waist and hurled her to the ground.
“Wolf-born monsters.” Josan lurched forward, but a dull blow slammed into his legs, pitching him back to his knees. Hands clamped onto his shoulders to restrain him.
Narn intercepted Lissa as she scrambled back toward Josan. “Hold her.” He shoved the child at another soldier and strode forward.
Josan’s breath caught in his throat. Each beat of his heart thudded in his ears.
Narn tangled his fingers in Josan’s hair and jerked his head back, studying him. Josan glared back.
“It was a good bluff,” Narn finally said. “Stupid to try on anyone who knew you, but played out well.” He released him and crouched. “You might have had a chance, if you’d ever heeded your lessons.” He gave a small shrug. “Now there’s no one else.”
A breeze tickled Josan’s cheek. Lissa’s screams subsided to muted weeping.
Narn stood. “Ought to use this night, next time I tutor you. Maybe pound some reason into your brain. Except…” He raised an eyebrow. “I’ll not be teaching you again, will I? Not unless it’s worth more than your courage and honor.”
“You’d have the heir bowing and scraping to you?” Josan growled. “You killed everyone.”
“Not yet.” He flicked one hand. Two men pulled Josan to his feet. Narn sheathed his sword and drew his dagger. “Might do the people good to witness a little humility. It wouldn’t harm your sister at least.”
Josan closed his eyes with a shudder. The hands slipped from his arms, leaving him free. He tensed.
Narn’s step crunched the ground softly. “Well?”
No matter his actions, they’d spare Lissa. Marry her to some lord when she came of age. At least she would live.
A hand fell on his shoulder and pain tore down his arm. “Come, Josan. Comfort for your sister. An easier death for you. The choice isn’t hard.”
Josan lifted his head and spat in Narn’s face.
Narn’s smile vanished. “Royal brat.” He slammed the hilt of his dagger against Josan’s head.
Josan staggered, but a kick hit his midsection, sending him to the ground. He strangled a groan as his wounded shoulder bore the brunt of the fall.
Lissa screamed. Why did she have to see? Please, don’t let her see.
An object dug into Josan’s side from the pocket in his cloak. What in all…
Narn pinned him to the ground with his boot. Josan groped for the pocket with his left hand.
Would no one have the mercy to drag her away?
“Really?” Narn bent close, shifting all his weight onto Josan. “No one to care if you live or die and still you choose this?”
Josan gasped for breath. As his fingers closed over a small crystal globe, he grew rigid. That incessant windwarden. Why did she even care? Heat pricked the back of his eyelids.
The sights and sounds surrounding him wavered. Lissa’s wails. Her tear-stained face as she struggled against her captor. The faint disappointment in Narn’s gaze as he flipped his dagger. The stars beyond them all, watching impassively. They’d known all along that this was beyond him.
You needn’t face this alone.
Of course he had to. His name, authority, and identity were at stake.
Lissa’s eyes locked onto his.
Josan inhaled a ragged breath. None of it was worth this.
Overhead, metal glinted in the moonlight.
Josan crushed the sphere. “Save Lissa. Please.” Shards cut his skin and warmth mingled with pain. “I don’t deserve… Just help her.”
Something thudded against the ground beside his head.
Josan’s eyes flew open.
Narn stared. The dagger glittered in the corner of Josan’s gaze, embedded in the earth. A wave of wind tore overhead, barely ruffling Josan’s hair as it hurled Narn back with an invisible hand.
“Koralie!” Josan rolled to his knees.
A gust hurtled around him, slamming into the soldier holding Lissa. The man crumpled with a curse. Josan lunged and caught his sister.
Koralie emerged from the shadows, wind twisting her crimson dress and loose hair. Her hands glowed white and blue. She furrowed her brow, her face taut as wind encircled two more soldiers. The rest retreated, wide-eyed.
Josan grabbed a dagger as Narn struggled to one knee.
“Josan!” Koralie’s voice carried above the shouts and wind.
He didn’t glance her way. Narn must die first. But more soldiers burst into the clearing from three sides. They staggered, struck with lashes of wind. Koralie swayed.
Josan hesitated, the dagger clenched in his good hand.
Narn blinked and rubbed one arm back and forth across his eyes.
“Josan.” Two small hands tugged at his wrist.
Josan stared into Lissa’s gaze, then gritted his teeth. Rifts take it all. Justice will have its day when others are here to help.
He dropped the dagger, swept Lissa into his good arm, and sprinted toward Koralie.
“Come on.” She spun and dashed from the camp. Soldiers collapsed on both sides, flung against tent posts or tangled in canvas. Koralie stumbled as they ducked beneath a web of trees. The light flickered between her fingertips.
“On my back.” Josan hoisted Lissa higher. Her legs girded his ribs and her arms latched onto his neck. His left arm throbbed, hanging loosely. Josan ignored it and slid his right beneath Koralie’s shoulders. “Careful now.”
“I’m fine.” She panted.
Fine indeed. He searched the shadows. Empty, for the moment.
Koralie led the way, and their trot slowed to a walk as the trees thickened. The steps behind them faded. Narn’s men weren’t foolish enough to chase a windwarden into the gloom. The faint flicker from Koralie’s hands barely lit the ground before them.
Lissa’s head slumped against Josan’s shoulder as her breathing slowed and her hold relaxed. The forest blurred, the ache in Josan’s hand and arm spreading until it trembled in every fiber of his being.
“Almost…” Koralie stumbled between two trees.
Starlight bathed a small hollow.
Josan crumpled to one knee and slowly loosened Lissa from his back. She stirred, then curled close as he cradled her in one arm, still asleep. Josan’s head drooped. A shadow blocked the moonlight, then gentle fingers touched his bloodied palm.
His breath hissed between his teeth.
“I’m sorry.” Koralie extracted several shards of glass from his skin. “It’s not the ideal way to call for aid.”
Josan choked on a rough laugh. “Hardly your fault. You tried.” He bit his lip, watching Lissa.
“Well?” Koralie fashioned a sling for him again.
He shook his head. “Narn has men who follow him. If I’d immediately summoned reinforcements… But they’ll be hiding now. Or dead.”
“You’re still not alone, Josan.”
He clenched his hands, then met the silent challenge in her gaze. “Even if you helped, it wouldn’t be enough.”
A smile twitched at her lips. “Do you want my help?”
“Y-yes.” He forced the word out, ignoring the flush creeping up his neck. “If you are willing.”
She peered at him for a moment. “I am. And though some may be hiding, I know others who will join us if you ask.”
Josan studied Lissa’s face, then drew a soft breath. “Yes, I… If they want to.” The words dragged from reluctance of habit. A tiny smile crooked his lips. “I guess.”
She laughed softly. “It’s not as bad as all that.” She tied off the last bandage and sat back. “Tomorrow, princeling. Tonight you need to rest.”
He nodded, rubbing a bandaged hand against gritty eyes. Lissa still nestled at his side.
Dimly he heard Koralie’s goodnight and the rustle of her movement as she went to stand watch. Tomorrow was time enough, even if he would be standing side by side with others.
He brushed a strand of Lissa’s hair from her face. Tears streaked her cheeks, yet her expression was peaceful.
Hope Ann likes to think herself a dragon-riding, griffin-taming founder of worlds and explorer of legends. Using chocolate, she bribes a wide ring of spies, from the realm leapers of Aslaria to the double agents of Elkbend, for their stories. She thrives on frost, steel, and the tears of her readers, which she secretly mixes into iced coffee. Deep in her hobbit hole, her actual life involves staying up too late writing, reading, researching stab wounds, and struggling to remember the difference between effect and affect. Based in Indiana, she is the self-published author of the Legends of Light series. Hope Ann helps other writers as a personal writing coach and the newsletter manager at Story Embers. You can download her free Beauty and the Beast prequel here.