Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.
“My prince,” a young man knelt at the entrance of Ever’s tent. Ever gave him a quick glance and a nod before returning to the map that was spread out before him and his favorite general.
“Acelet, I understand what you’re saying, but the plan won’t work if we move out a moment before dawn. I won’t give them the upper hand of the night. The whole reason we planned this for the morning was so they won’t be able to use the hawks. We’ll have more than enough time to send scouts ahead and split our men here.” General Acelet’s sharp eyes followed every move Ever’s hands made on the map. Impatience was in the general’s face when he finally jerked his chin at the disheveled figure still waiting in the corner of the tent.
“You’re one of the king’s men, aren’t you? What are you doing here?””
“Prince Everard, your father bade me to deliver this!” For the first time, Ever looked directly at the man who thrust a sealed, water stained parchment at him. His voice shook and his clothes were tattered. Something must have gone very wrong. His father had been adamant that their regiments not communicate between campaigns.
“Where is Corbin? Why did the king send you instead?” The young man could have been no older than seventeen. His thin shoulders shook as he spoke, though whether from fear or being soaked by his rainy trek, Ever couldn’t tell.
“Corbin is dead, Sire. I barely made it out before they took the camp completely.”
“Dead?” General Acelet stared at him in disbelief. “That man has been the king’s favorite messenger for twenty years.” He frowned at the skinny boy. “I find it hard to believe that the enemy could get close enough to kill one of the king’s favorites.”” The young man paled and glanced at Ever. Seeing that he was expected to speak, he went on, his voice still trembling.
“The king’s campaign was unsuccessful. We took too long to reach the valley, and it was nightfall by the time we arrived. Princess Nevina was upon us before we could set up the defenses. Her men burned our supply wagons on the first night, and the hawks have kept us trapped in our own tents ever since. Not that they needed the monsters,” his eyes clouded. “The darkness the princess sends over us is . . . too much.” He finally looked straight at Ever. ““Your father says he cannot master it.” Fury rippled through the prince. All thoughts of the map aside, he strode over to the trembling young man and grabbed him by the shirt.
“I don’t know what game you think you’re playing,” he snarled, ““but no matter who has bought your allegiance, you will regret blaspheming my father’s name with such insults of weakness.”
“Sire!” The young man desperately pointed to the letter still in the prince’s other hand. “I beg you, read the letter! I cannot read, but the king spoke the words as he wrote them. I heard as I waited in his tent!” Ever glared at him a moment longer before dropping him at Acelet’s feet. When he finally held the wax seal up to the candlelight, he could see that the seal was still unbroken, so the young man could not possibly have read it. A wolf with jewel shaped eyes stood over the corpse of a serpent, baring its teeth and crouching for another pounce. An uncomfortable voice in his head wondered if the messenger might be telling the truth, but he dismissed the thought before it was complete. Breaking the seal, he read what his father had hastily written.
“Everard, our campaign has failed. Their hawks have multiplied greatly since our last encounter. Whether through informant or traitor, they knew the location of our first encampment, and were upon us before the first night had passed. We lost many men to the hawks and even more to the arrows they rained upon us in the dark. The siege would have been manageable if their arrows had not burned our supplies, also. Their worst weapon, however, has been the dreams. More men have gone mad with each passing night from the visions of confusion and blackness that the abominable princess sends. And those who avoid sleep grow mad with exhaustion. I am finding my own thoughts difficult to follow as I fight the darkness. It is with shame that I admit I cannot match her power. We cannot wait until tomorrow. You must come now.”
For the first time since he had become a man, Ever felt a cold shiver of fear run down his back, despite the misty heat of the spring rain. His father had never been as powerful as Ever was, but he’d never been rendered helpless in battle. Was he completely unable to protect anyone but himself? Numbly, the prince read the letter again. He could feel Acelet’’s eyes on his face, keenly measuring his reaction.
“What does the king say, Your Grace?” Ever straightened his shoulders and cleared his face of all emotion.
“Nevina has apparently gathered numbers greater than we had anticipated,” he answered carefully.
“Will we be moving out earlier then?” Ever took a deep breath before shaking his head.
“No. I will not give her the advantage of the night the way my father did. I can protect us here, but not in the mountain passes. We’ll move in the morning as we planned.” Acelet bowed his head in acknowledgment and excused himself to finish making arrangements, taking the unfortunate messenger with him. Ever returned to the bench and looked at the map again. As he traced the paths his men would take the next morning, his mind drifted back to the days of planning he’d spent with his father. He couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. They’d been so careful.
“I don’t want Nevina close to the Fortress. She knows too much,” King Rodrigue had stated before they’d even discussed any strategies. “I want to cut her off in the desert valley just north of the border. If my men and I wait in the valley before she arrives, you can bring your men through the mountains to close in on her from the east side.”
“How do we know when she plans to attack?” Ever had wondered.
“Acelet has sent spies, but he believes it will be within two weeks. If we leave soon, we should be prepared to strike by the time she reaches the valley. Even if she guesses that we’ll cut her off, she will expect to see our forces coming from the south, directly from the Fortress.
“You’ll wait here,” his father had pointed to a crevice on the backside of the mountain. “Instead of coming from the south, you’ll be poised to pour down from the east.” Ever nodded. He knew the place well. There were large caves there that would shield the men from view, should Nevina send her hawks in for a closer look. The large caverns would allow him not only to hide two hundred men from Nevina’s spying eyes, but they were close enough together for him to shield his men’s minds from her visions as well.
“I’ll send a runner to the valley to let you know when we’ve arrived,” Ever had begun, but his father was already shaking his head.
“No messengers. No communications of any sort. You may be able to shield your men in the caves, but you cannot be expected to do it for travelers as well. I will be too busy to look for messengers. Without our protection, the runner could easily be discovered. Nevina would have the information out of him in minutes.”
His father had been so confident in their plans. And he had every reason to be. King Rodrigue had never lost a battle. Small skirmishes happened often with some of the border lords, but few kings were foolhardy enough to challenge Rodrigue directly. With the strength of the Fortress and the harsh determination of its monarchs, Destin’s borders had not been breached in over two hundred years. Most of the king’s great battles had been fought coming to the aid of their allies in neighboring lands.
Ever’s father had followed in the footsteps of his fathers, and it had served him well. King Rodrigue had known nothing but the study of warfare since boyhood under the watchful eye of his own father. When Ever and his father had drawn plans up against Nevina, there had been no bravado in the king’s schemes, nor had there been a false confidence. The preparation had been as straightforward and focused as his plans always were.
And yet, as they’d strategized in the king’s study, Ever hadn’t been able to ignore the waning light in his father’s eyes. The glowing rings of blue fire had been growing dimmer for years, but Ever had lacked both the courage and the heart to bring it to his father’s attention. It would have drawn both shame and outrage to question the Fortress’s power that resided within him. Besides, the Fortress wouldn’t allow his father to falter in the midst of his greatest battle. Ever had been sure of it.
But now, here on the mountain as that battle raged, Ever felt the fear stir within him as he reread the lines his father had written. The Fortress had indeed allowed his father’s power to weaken, enough for him to call for help in a way he never had before, enough for his men to die horrible deaths of fear and fire as the king cowered in his bed, hoping his son would save him. Every weakness Rodrigue had ever despised, he had assumed in sending that letter.
In his weakness, Ever decided, his father must have succumbed to the shadowy deceptions of his enemy. Those suggestions of hopelessness and confusion must have galled him into sending the messenger. And Ever knew that when his father was once again in his right mind, he would look back on Ever’s decisions now and judge them as harshly as he ever had. Ever had been right in telling Acelet to stick to the plan. Besides, it didn’t matter if things were as dire as his father described. His men would not survive the night outside the caves. They would have to wait until dawn.
The next day, everything went as planned. The sun was bright and hot, and as soon as its rays touched the mountain paths, Ever’s men fanned out. They crouched along the rocky paths, awaiting Ever’s signal to move. Ever lay down on a ledge that jutted out over the valley and crawled toward the edge to get a better view. It seemed the situation had gone from bad to worse since the messenger had been sent. Throughout his father’s camp, Tumen’s yellow banner fluttered brazenly over the tents. Those of his father’’s men that he could see were sitting cross-legged on the ground, chained to one another and watched by large guards. Not only had Nevina attacked his father, but she had beat him soundly. It was alarming how quickly her strange band of ragtag vagabonds had grown into an army of hundreds.
Still, from the arrangement of her regiments, it was clear that Nevina expected him to come from the south. Ever breathed a sigh of relief as he realized he still had the upper hand. The dark princess might have many men, but her powers were limited. As terrifying as they were, most of Nevina’s monstrous hawks could not stand to fly by day, and her men’’s arrows did not shoot as straight without the dark of night to guide them. Without the winged scouts to circle the skies, the enemy wouldn’t see Ever’s men until it was too late. Satisfied, Ever gave Acelet the nod. The general, in turn, motioned to his archers to begin the assault.
Their arrows filled the morning sky, sending the enemy scrambling as Ever’s footmen began to descend upon the camp. The prince poured his strength into his men as they moved. He could feel Nevina attempting to fill their minds with visions, but she could not penetrate the shield he had created around them. Her rogue forces were caught off guard as Ever’’s men surrounded them. In just minutes, his father’s men were freed, and the valley once again belonged to Destin.
Most of the enemy had fled in fear by the time Ever followed his men down into the valley. He surveyed the carnage and was somewhat surprised at how little blood had been shed. None of his own men had been lost, although he had no idea what kind of damage had been inflicted upon his father’s men before he’d arrived. The same couldn’t be said for Nevina. Although it seemed that the princess had escaped unscathed, her numbers were devastated. Acelet had the captives that remained rounded up and executed on the spot.
And yet, in spite of the enormous victory, Ever’s stomach churned as he entered the king’s tent. King Rodrigue tossed and turned in his makeshift bed, moaning. Beads of sweat ran down his white temples. His appearance was so shockingly altered that even the healer hesitated before walking to his side. The arms that had been hard as rock when the king had left the Fortress were now thin and shaking. The king’s face was haggard, and his features emaciated. When he turned to look into Ever’s eyes, he didn’t look like the most feared king in the region, but a frightened old man.
Ever immediately ordered everyone out. The healer grumbled, but Ever still sent him away. The prince couldn’t understand how the king had lost all of his strength to Nevina’s power so quickly, but he could see that the blue fire in his father’’s eyes was nearly extinguished. This was something only the power of the Fortress could heal, and the only two persons with that strength were staring at one another from across the room.
Ever needed to work fast. Pulling his gloves off, he knelt by his father’s side. Taking his father’s hand, he clutched it tightly in both of his. Closing his eyes, he focused on the dim light his father was still clinging to. He caught his breath as the enemy’’s power bit back at him. He hadn’t known his father could suffer the power of evil like this. The princess’s darkness had indeed grown. The desire to tremble filled him greatly, but he could not give in. He tried with all his might to reignite the fire in his father’s eyes, but every time he pushed, it flickered dangerously.
“Son,” Rodrigue rasped. Ever opened his eyes to see his father staring at the wineskin of water on his small bedside table.
“Father, I need to draw her power out. I need you to help me.” Ever felt as if he were talking to a child. His father shook his head, however, looking again at the water. Frowning, Ever let go of his hand and gave him the water instead. After the king drank, he whispered,
“Why didn’t you come?” The look that passed through Rodrigue’s eyes pierced Ever to the heart. Was his father actually blaming him?
“You know I couldn’t have protected my men in the pass at night. If we had tried, my men would have been in the same position as yours.” His words were as close to a rebuke as he had ever dared to give his father, but the frustration that welled up in him was nearly more than Ever could take. After thinking for a moment, the king nodded heavily and laid his head back down. Ever picked up his hand again, but the king withdrew it.
“Everard, my mistake was not arriving too late, as you might think. My mistakes have been years in the making. My eyes are dimming. I know you’ve noticed. I’ve left my people unprotected. I could see it in the Chiens’ eyes when Nevina took the camp.” He grabbed Ever’s shirt and pulled himself up, suddenly glaring at his son through leaden eyes.
“The Fortress has chosen a new king, one that will be a better king than I. But it will reject you, too, if you ignore the cry of our people. You must protect them!” Exhausted, he fell back into the bed. Ever tried once again to take his hand, but the king whispered, ““Just let me go, Son. The spirit of the Fortress will carry me to my fathers, and I will rest with them. It’s your turn now.” And with those words, the king was gone. In a dirty tent with one candle to light the room, the great warrior king had admitted defeat and left his son to pick up the pieces.
“Your Highness,” Acelet knelt at the doorway of the tent. “The grief of the kingdom is with you.” Ever swallowed hard and finally stood, still staring at his father’s body.
“How are the survivors?”
“Not well, Sire. I’m afraid I must ask you to go to them. Many have gone mad from the dreams. There’s nothing else I can do for them.”” With a nod, Ever turned sharply and left his father’s body. He had work to do, and he was suddenly grateful for the princess’s poison. The work of healing would occupy his mind for now. Deep down, however, he knew he would have to mourn sooner or later. For all the monsters he could slay, for all the darkness he could pierce with his light, for all the unearthly strength that he possessed, he did not know how to mourn. And it terrified him.
. . .
The king was properly lamented by the kingdom, but Ever had an uneasy feeling that it was more out of respect than true affection. Although the Fortress courtiers and servants wore black and offered him all the right words in the wake of his father’s death, he often heard them speaking excitedly of his upcoming coronation when they thought he couldn’t hear. This irritated him more and more as the week drew to a close.
“Shall I tell them you wish to be left alone until the midday meal?” Garin calmly gestured to the manservants present that they could leave. Ever put his head in his hands and took a deep breath before answering. Although his annoyance at one of his barons still lingered, he sought to control himself. His father had taught him not to share too much with his servants, but Ever had never quite been able to sever the connection he had with the Fortress steward. During the early years when he was still too young to be of much use to his father, Garin had been there. And he needed him now more than ever before. The prince sighed.
“I’m supposed to meet with the Duke of Sud Colline in an hour,” he wearily told his steward. The duke was prudish and had been since they were boys. If Ever was too blunt, his distant cousin was just as likely to speak for an hour without actually getting to his point. Garin put his hand on Ever’s shoulder and spoke softly.
“I don’t think it would be too much to ask that your subjects give you time to mourn. It’s only been five days, and the funeral is tonight.”” Ever groaned, and Garin walked to the door. “I’ll speak to your cousin. If he is not satisfied with my words, then he shall simply have to remain unsatisfied.” Ever couldn’t help the small smile that escaped his lips. Garin smiled back and bowed before leaving the prince alone. Unfortunately, while the silence allowed him to elude his courtiers, it made it even harder for him to avoid his own thoughts.
The sensation settled upon him quickly as he wandered over to the balcony that overlooked the mountain. He’d heard others wonder at the terrace’s purpose, as it showed nothing of the kingdom or its boundaries, but it was one of his favorite spots in the Fortress. It faced the peak of the mountain, just higher than the slope the Fortress was built upon, rather than the valley and its city that spread out below. It gave him the illusion of solitude more than any of the other windows in the citadel. The lush green tree line abruptly ended below the bare summit. During the warm months the summit was covered in nothing but dirt, but in the winter it was covered in crisp, clean snow.
He closed his eyes and imagined how the snow would feel now. He’d hiked there once as a child. Though it was still considered part of the Fortress grounds, no one went that high. He’d been young, only nine, too young to venture out on his own, but old enough to know better. Still, he recalled how the snow had felt as he buried his bare hands in it, how quickly they’d numbed. If only he could feel that numbness now. If only he could shove his heart in the snow and leave it there. It didn’t matter what he desired, however, as the guilt was going nowhere fast. His father had always lectured him that guilt was pointless.
“It forces you to look inward,” he’d growled once when he’d caught Ever apologizing to a servant. “It leaves you open, susceptible to attack by others. When you are focused inward, you’re distracted. A distracted king is a king begging for enemies to show their faces.” And Ever had tried. He’d learned over the years how to ignore the feelings that welled up within him. It was hard, as it is for any child born with strong affections as he had been. But he’d trained himself to push those feelings away, to lock them up by focusing on what needed to be done. And yet, this guilt he couldn’t push away.
It’s not fair, he thought to himself as he turned back to prepare for the funeral. He’d gone over every detail, every scenario in his head. He’d searched for any way he possibly could have saved his father. But each scenario he’d imagined still ended the same way. He’d listened to his father’s instructions down to the letter, and in the end, he knew he’d made the right decision to wait. He simply could not have protected his men in the night. They would have all suffered the same fate as his father and his men. And yet, that did not erase the guilt that now coursed through his veins and made his face run hot and his eyes moisten at the corners.
The funeral was perfect down to the last detail, thanks to Garin. The tapestries had been drawn, shutting out the light of the fainting sun. Candles lit the huge hall only enough to see the casket at the head of the room. The black coffin had been polished so well that Ever could see his dim reflection in its sides as he approached it. His father lay there in his military robes, a gold braid draped across his chest. In his hands he held a scepter carved out of chestnut wood with a small crystal at its tip. The royal priest uttered words of tribute to King Rodrigue, describing to the kneeling mourners the king’s great feats and his daring victories, but all Ever could focus on was his father’s face. It was stern now, as it always had been, except for the night of his death. Then, it had been full of fright. Just like the girl’s had been.
Ever nearly took a step backward when her face flashed before his eyes. He had tried his best to push her away, but her midnight blue eyes, wide with terror, had followed him in his dreams every night since his father’s death. It was all her fault.
He’d never had a reason to feel great guilt before she’d stumbled, literally, into his path. He felt his anger burn suddenly as he struggled to keep up with the priest’s words. He was sure the guilt over his father’s death would have been easier to push aside if it hadn’t also been for the lingering guilt brought by the nameless peasant who haunted the dreams of her prince.
Ever had been thirteen when it happened. The day had started out beautifully. It was the morning of the Spring Holy Day, and he was out exploring the Fortress’s lands, as usual, before it was time to watch the annual procession. He remembered it so well because he’d nearly fallen out of a tree from shock when his father suddenly appeared in the clearing below him.
“Everard,” Rodrigue had called. “I can feel you’re near. I want to speak with you.” Ever knew it must be something of great importance. His father never fetched him personally. He always sent a servant instead. If it had been a servant calling him, Ever might have dropped out of the branches right in front of him for fun, but he knew pranking his father would end badly. He climbed down instead.
“Ah. Garin said you’d be here. I want you to return to your chambers and prepare for the procession.” Ever knew better than to question his father, but he was confused. The procession was still two hours away. As if Ever had spoken his thoughts, his father answered them. “This year you will be riding in the procession with me.” As they began to walk back toward the Fortress, Ever had turned and looked up at his father in wonder. He’’d never been allowed to hold a place in any of the capitol processions.
“You are old enough,” King Rodrigue continued, “to be seen as a leader. When you take the throne one day, I want them to be confident in your strength and ability to protect them. If we begin showing them now that you are indeed serious about your duty, they will accept you readily, even hungrily when I am gone.”
“Before we leave, there are expectations you must know about, duties that if you neglect them today or any other time, could be disastrous to your future rule. Do you understand?” He’d turned a gray eye and glared down at Ever through the blue rings of fire, and Ever had nodded ruefully. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like these rules.
“First, you must remember that you are to be present with the people, but you are above them. And that includes the servants. You are not to speak with them unless giving an order. While I wish you would adopt these habits in court, the way I’ve been telling you to for years, you cannot forget them in public. You know our strength makes us responsible for these people. We must protect them from our enemies at all costs, but to be vigilant we must be removed. You cannot be scanning the horizon for spies, so to speak, when you are giving your attention to one or two peasants in particular. Distraction makes us vulnerable.”
“Will we be looking for spies during the procession, Father?”
“We are always looking for spies. You are no longer a child, Everard, and today is the day I expect you to begin acting like a man. Now go to your chambers and the tailor should have your clothes ready. You will meet your mother for the procession when you’re finished. I will be there soon after.”
Ever had done as he was told. When he arrived on the Fortress steps, his mother was already on her horse. He bowed to her, and she gave him a small smile and nod before turning to instruct one of her ladies-in-waiting about the smelling salts she needed to forget the stench of her mount.
The procession was grander in person than Ever had imagined. He’d only ever seen it from balcony windows. His horse was stationed behind his father and mother’s horses. All around them, tall flags with the royal wolf seal were raised up high on green velvet squares edged with gold braided trim. The procession always began at the Fortress, moving down the mountainside and into Soudain. Once in the town, it snaked through prominent streets before returning back up the mountain in a giant loop.
Since the monarchs were always at the end of the procession, the first performers would be returning to the Fortress before the royals even left. His father’s best soldiers were scattered in groups of six throughout the performers, and more were stationed along the procession path. They wore no bright colors. Gaudy men had never been of any use in battle, his father always said. They were too easy for the enemy to see. Instead of wearing the Fortress colors of blue, green, and white, his father’s men simply had the image of the wolf impressed upon their chest plates in black silver, burned into the metal by the finest artisan blacksmiths in all of Destin.
Ever had to remind himself to look regal. He’d never been allowed to visit the capitol city before. Soudain was too full of distractions to be good for a prince, his father had always said. Until now. Now the streets glowed with the brilliant orange of the setting sun, and flames lit the tops of the lampposts that stood on every corner. Families crowded one another on the edge of the streets to wave to their rulers. They always bowed low before his father, and Ever couldn’t help but notice that their smiles nearly disappeared when he turned to glance in their directions. Fear, he decided, was the overarching emotion they wore. To Ever they remained bowed, but he noticed many of them dared a peek at their prince. A number of them, particularly the girls, gambled a smile. He would nod and turn back to the street, hoping his actions were as his father expected.
As his horse rounded a corner, a movement in the crowd caught his eye. A few boys were pushing to get to a better spot in line. One of them shoved too hard, and a girl who was standing at the edge of the crowd was knocked right into the street. Without thinking, Ever hopped off his horse and bent down to help her up. She was lanky with auburn hair and large midnight eyes. Her dress was simple, but neat and tidy, which meant her family probably belonged to the skilled worker class.
As soon as his hand touched hers, he felt his face redden with shame, and he could feel his father’s icy glare on his back. So much for staying removed from the crowd. Helping the girl stand, he nodded quickly at her and turned to get back on his horse. His father would have some choice words for him later. He didn’t dare look at the king. The procession had come to a halt as the people watched the actions of their young prince with a sudden pride, but none of their opinions mattered. He had failed his father.
Eager to be on his way and ready to forget the whole ordeal, Ever was nearly on his horse when he felt a tug on his sleeve and a gasp from the crowd. Turning, he saw the girl had lost her bewildered expression of shock, and had followed him to his horse, and even dared to do what his servants did not.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” she looked up at him with eager eyes. Anger pulsed through him. Why couldn’t she just let him alone? Impatient to be rid of her, he roughly pushed her hand off his arm. As he often did, however, Ever forgot the amount of strength that ebbed through him. What he’d meant as a simple brush shot blue fire from his arm to hers. She fell backward, right in front of a cart horse. The horse startled and reared, and with two sickening cracks, landed on the girl’s wrist and ankle. Ever watched in horror. She screamed as the villagers rushed to her side.
“Everard!” His father’s voice was sharper than he’d ever heard it. Slowly, he tore his gaze away from the mess he’d made to look at the king. “On your horse!” The fury in his words was unmistakable, and Ever miserably nodded and did his best to finish the procession. But as he rode, he could hold his head high no longer, and every time he closed his eyes, the look of pain on the child’s face was there before him. To make things even worse, Ever’s father was not kind that evening after the celebration was over.
“Not only did you deliberately disobey me, but you made the situation worse with that wretched temper of yours! Now we have one more cripple to live on the streets and beg, one more unproductive citizen to waste precious resources on!” Ever doubted she would live on the streets, judging by the clothes she was wearing, not that his father would ever notice that kind of thing. But his father was right. He’d added one more helpless, unproductive citizen to his kingdom, one more thread of weakness for the enemy to target. His mother said little about the incident, except to complain that the pause in the procession had been bad for her hair. Garin and Gigi were the only ones who seemed to understand how he felt.
“And is the young prince wanting some hot cider tonight?” Garin had slipped in that evening, as he often did when his duties were done. Despite the enormous load of work that King Rodrigue placed on the steward, he always seemed to have time for Ever. That night, however, not even Garin could cheer him up. The boy had shaken his head as he stared sullenly into the fire.
“Come now, Your Highness,” Gigi, the Fortress’s head kitchen matron slipped in from behind Garin. Despite his protests, she set a cup of steaming cider down beside his bed, and proceeded to adjust the pillows around the boy. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” She smiled gently at him from underneath her mop of silver curls. She patted his cheek affectionately with a soft hand before wishing him goodnight, leaving him alone with Garin. Garin walked around the room straightening chairs as Ever sipped his drink. The only sounds were the crackle of the fire and the scrape of furniture against the floor.
“I did something bad today,” Ever finally spoke, his voice cracking twice. Instead of denying it, as all of the courtiers had done, however, Garin spoke with painful honesty.
“I heard about that. How badly do you think she was injured?”
“It looked pretty bad,” Ever admitted. Garin just nodded. He waited a few moments before speaking, and Ever found himself strangely anxious to hear what the older man would say. Disappointing his father had been bad enough. He didn’’t know if he could bear to have the steward disappointed in him as well.
“We all make mistakes, Sire. Some, unfortunately, cannot be mended as easily as others. I have found, in my humble experience, that when we hold positions of power, our mistakes often hurt more than just ourselves. They hurt others. It is something we must live with.” He was quiet for a moment before adding, “But the important thing is that we learn from our mistakes. What you did today was indeed unkind. But you will be no better off if you simply regret it. You must learn from it so that you never hurt another like that again. Everyone makes mistakes, Ever, but a true leader takes the knowledge he gains with him, and he applies it toward his future.
“Now,” Garin gave Ever a smile, his eyes crinkling kindly in an expression very different from the one the king had worn when they’d parted. “It’s time for you to sleep. Like Gigi says, tomorrow will be a new day.” Ever had hoped their kind words would make sleep easier, but the moment he shut his eyes, he saw the look of hurt and betrayal in those dark eyes again.
The incident took longer to forget than he’d hoped, but eventually, with the help of his father, he learned to shut it out, along with any other distractions that bothered him or might steal his attention from defense of the kingdom. For that was his duty, his father said.
“Other kings live in soulless buildings, cold and austere, castles that provide little motivation for defense other than their own personal comforts. But this place, our Fortress,” he ran his hand lovingly over the marble walls as they walked. “This Fortress is the source of our strength. It is what sets us apart from others of our rank. It must be protected at all costs, and its kingdom as well. There is no other like it, and there never will be again. And it knows,” he had turned a sharp eye to his son, “when we lose our focus. Keep your eyes on the horizon, Everard. You never know who might be coming to steal that focus and this Fortress from you.”
It hadn’t been an easy road. Ever’s father, always able to focus on the horizon, was like a statue with eyes that never wavered, or even closed for that matter. Ever didn’t have that kind of vision, the ability to block out all but the goal. Instead, he was inclined to notice the slight changes in seasons, or when a servant was acting differently because of an illness or suffering.
From a young age, he’d loved exploring the Fortress grounds. He found a peace, a quiet communion of the soul with the colossal citadel when he was deep in its sheltering greenery or underneath its stone arches. It took great effort for him to throw off the childhood desire to pause sometimes and simply exist in the secret places of his beloved home. It was somewhat painful to treat the servants like people other than his friends, particularly those who had been just that during his solitary childhood years. And yet, his father said, it was what he must do in order to protect it all from the destructive forces of those who would destroy such a paradise.
Little by little, under Rodrigue’s guidance, Ever gained the ability to focus as his father did. His strength, which had been unusual since he was a small child, was honed, and by the time he was a young man, he’d been wrought into the warrior prince not even his father could have dreamed of. The girl’s face had faded into little more than a bad memory by the time he was twenty-six years old. She only surfaced when he was tempted to feel guilt, which thanks to his father, wasn’t often. She had reappeared, however, the night his mother died.
Ever had been out riding his horse, training with some of the archers, when a distant figure waved him down from a great distance. As he approached, Ever could see Garin’s thin frame, and something in his stomach had turned uneasily. While he’d obeyed his father and cut sociable ties with most of the servants, he’d not been able to tear himself from Garin. Out of respect for his father, they didn’t flaunt their communication, however. If the steward was coming out to find him personally, something had to be wrong.
“Your Highness,” Garin had bowed in his saddle as he rode up to the men. “I think you might want to call today’s practice short. I have . . . a message for you.” Dismissing his men, Ever guided his horse over to walk beside Garin’s. The older man’s graying hair was messy, as if he’’d pulled it back in a hurry, and his clothes, for once, were rumpled. “Your Highness . . . Ever,” he finally turned to the prince. “I’m afraid I am not quite obeying your father’s order, but I thought you should know before he called you.”
Ever gawked at the steward. While Garin often stretched boundaries and rules, he had never disobeyed King Rodrigue outright. “Your mother has died,” Garin continued in a quiet voice. “You know she hasn’t felt well in weeks, and today she slipped away from us while she slept. Your father wanted me to wait until he could tell everyone, but I thought you should at least have time . . . .” His voice faded, but Ever nodded unhappily. As much as Ever had become his father’’s protégé, he still was unable to completely block feelings like Rodrigue. Garin had known he would need time to think before he was called before the entire court to hear the news.
Garin had gone after that and left Ever time to be alone before the courtiers were gathered for the official announcement. He struggled to pin down a name for the emotions that flooded him. That there were emotions was undeniable, and none of his father’s training could banish them. Many feelings swirled around in his mind as he thought. Strangely, what bothered him most, he finally decided, was that he was not sad.
Ever had spent years watching his servants interact with their families, and as a young child, had even interacted with them when his father wasn’t looking. The parents would call, and the children would respond with shrieks of delight, running to their parents for hugs and kisses. It had never been so with his family. His father had shown him affection in his own way throughout the years by preparing him to be the best king he knew how. Queen Louise, however, had never seemed to feel the maternal affection he saw in the servants and even the mothers of noble blood. Ever and the queen were amiable, and greeted one another always with respect and kindness, but there was never anything more. Guilt, he realized, was the emotion that ran through him. He felt guilty because he recognized very quickly that her death did not bring him pain. He would have felt more pain if Gigi had died.
On the night of his mother’s death, the girl’s face had visited him in his sleep for the first time in years. The pain in her eyes and her look of utter heartbreak broke his heart. He might have been able to ignore her in his wakeful hours, but at night, he was hers.
He wasn’t yet completely recovered from the queen’s death when his father had announced that it was time for him to pick a bride. All the eligible women and girls of proper status and bloodlines from the surrounding kingdoms were invited, and within a week, they had arrived at the steps of the Fortress, each aspiring to be the next princess of the most powerful kingdom in the land. Ever had watched them descend from their great coaches, each girl glittering more brightly than the one before her, decked with diamonds and pearls and silks.
“You look as if someone has just handed you a prison sentence,” Garin had teased him while they prepared.
“Any chance my father will rely on the Fortress tradition to choose one?” Ever had asked glumly. Garin’s smile vanished, and he shook his head.
“I doubt it. As much as your father loves the Fortress, there hasn’t been a queen chosen the old way in three generations. Your father will be evaluating the political strengths of each union, rather than the girl herself.” Ever could only nod. He’d suspected as much.
His mother had been a duchess from a neighboring country, and her marriage to his father had joined their armies as allies. It was a wise political match, to be sure. Still, Ever was decidedly against having the same relationship with his wife as King Rodrigue had fostered with his mother, one of polite greetings and farewells in passing. And yet, it seemed an unavoidable fate. Within an hour, he was presented to the court and was obligated to begin dancing.
The weather was fair, and the moon shined brightly on the balcony on which dozens of couples twirled in time alongside him. Fortunately for Ever, though there were many, many girls, he was a good dancer, and making conversation was easy for him. Beautiful faces and lovely smiles surrounded him, and sweet greetings and giggles filled his ears, blending together despite his attempts to remember which princess or noble lady belonged to which land. He’’d had no idea as to how he would choose one, but as always, he worked to honor his father’s wishes. His confusion aside, the evening was fairing tolerably until he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a woman he more than recognized.
Princess Nevina was indeed a beauty, but not in the typical sense. Nothing about her was delicate. Her dress, made of black, silky feathers sewn together tightly with gold threads, was cut low to reveal her generous proportions. Her arms were also bare, and boasted sturdy muscles, not large, but rock solid. Her hair was dark like her dress, and her eyes were a surprising green against her bronze skin. Every move she made was lithe, and her eyes glowed brightly as she looked Ever up and down shrewdly before accepting the hand he’d automatically extended.
“Everard,” her low voice was smooth. “It’s been a while since we’’ve met on such amiable terms. I think in our separation you might have outgrown your father.
“Perhaps so,” Ever’s voice sounded strange in his own ears, tight. He had not expected the Tumenian princess to be among the invited guests that night. As they began the dance, he dared an accusatory glance at Garin, who shook his head ever so slightly. That meant his father had invited her. Had he lost his mind?
The princess of Tumen and the prince of Destin had not last parted on pleasant terms. Introduced as young children, as most of the royal children were at this ball or that tournament, they had gotten to know one another well enough. Nevina was unlike the other children, however, in that the moment Ever laid eyes on her, he’d realized she had a deep strength akin to his own. But where Ever’’s strength had always been one of light and life, the young princess’s power was heavy, nearly sickening. She seemed to be aware of her effect on him, too, as she’d smiled when Ever had to ask Garin to accompany him back to his chambers early, away from the tournament festivities.
He’d been seven at that first meeting. As they got older, not only did he train himself to resist her powers, but to even mute them as well. They didn’t see each other often, as Tumen’s continuous push for influence among the surrounding nations strained its relationship with Destin. It wasn’t until they were eleven that the two young royals met again, and much to Nevina’s outrage, not only did Ever stop her attempts to torment him, he’d stopped her attempts at tormenting anyone else at the gathering as well.
Their encounters had been sporadic over the next ten years. When he was a young man, diplomats had begun to report that Tumen had given up its ambitious goals, and desired nothing more than peace, but Ever was skeptical. Even if her father was seeking to give up his ancestors’ dark power in order to obtain peaceful relations, Ever never doubted for a moment that the princess had every intention of keeping and using those powers to boost Tumen’s strength, with or without her father’s blessing. Only recently, her schemes had been interrupted by an unexpected arrival.
“Come now, Prince,” Nevina gave a little laugh, jolting him out of memories and back to the present. “Let bygones be bygones. Our kingdoms have grown beyond their conflicts, have they not?”
“I certainly hope so,” Ever responded curtly. He doubted it, however, as he watched the gold fire dance around her green eyes.
“Then dance with me as you would a woman who might actually deserve you,” she drew herself closer to him. Ever’s heart beat even faster as he tried to keep a chivalrous distance between them, looking desperately for his father over her shoulder as they turned.
“I hear things have changed in Tumen,” Ever tried conversing again, desperate to keep her from continually pressing her body against his. It was distracting, and he could see people beginning to notice. Court gossip was inevitable, but this was one tryst he did not want gossiped about.
“If you’re speaking of the birth of my brother, then yes.” Her eyes tightened just enough for him to see the gold fire roar in spite of her calm appearance.
“I’m sure there are many men desirous of your hand.” Ever’s voice was polite, but Nevina didn’t miss his words’ significance. “You have much to offer.”
“Pray tell then,” the princess purred. “Why exactly am I here?”
“Sire,” A small voice interrupted their spin. Sending up a prayer of thanks, Ever stopped dancing and released the princess so he could turn and talk to the boy who suddenly stood beside them. It was inappropriate behavior for a servant, but the boy was young, and Ever was grateful for the break in the conversation. Before he could appropriately reprimand the boy, however, Nevina had reached down and slapped him across the cheek. Ever couldn’t keep the indignation from his face as he turned to look at her.
“You dare touch my servant?” His voice carried loudly, and for once, he didn’t care. The music stopped as everyone watched.
“Prince Everard!” She gaped back. “His impertinence was an insult to me and my kingdom. If anyone should be apologizing, it should be you. In my country, our servants know their place!”
“I don’t care how you abuse your useless Chiens! My people are in the service of the Fortress, and you will not touch them!”
“So this is the strength you boast of, you who are revered far and wide.” Her voice was suddenly cool and quiet, and somehow, even more unnerving. “And yet, you do not have enough control over your own to allow you a single dance with me. Your Fortress is weakening, Everard Perrin Auguste Fortier.” Her mouth had curved up in a strange smile, and her eyes were nearly closed as she spoke. He realized suddenly that she had been waiting for this, the opportunity to test and push him. She wanted his kingdom and was searching for any chance to challenge him for it. This revelation infuriated him even more.
“Get out of my home. Leave my kingdom, and do not return,” Ever growled.
“Oh, we will be leaving,” Nevina’s captain of the guard was suddenly at her side, glaring at him. Nevina’s golden flames blazed even more brightly as he spoke. “We cannot, however, allow this insult to our sovereign to go unchallenged.”
“Soon,” Nevina’s voice was a purr once again, “as you watch your men fall, Everard, remember who it was that caused the bloodshed. Know it was your own weakness and cowardice that was your undoing.” Ever gritted his teeth as she then waved her hand dismissively. “Let’s take our leave of this place, Captain. We’ll be back soon enough.” With that they turned, Nevina’s skinny Chien girl hobbling along behind them as quickly as she could.
And that was where it had all begun. Within an hour, the guests had been dismissed, none of them announced as his bride. For that, Ever was grateful, but he had little time to revel. He was immediately called to his father’s study. It was there that they chose spies, ran through battle scenarios, and had agreed to break the army into two camps, one on the mountain and one in the valley. It was on that eve that King Rodrigue had insisted they have no communication between the camps before they engaged their enemy from the north.
“Father, there is one thing I don’t understand,” Ever had hesitated before returning to his chambers when they were through. ““Why was she even invited? Was I supposed to ask for her hand in marriage?” His father had sighed.
“It was a foolish hope on my part. Our relations have been better these past few years. I believed we could forge a union between our powers that would prevent future wars of this sort.”
“But their power is not like ours,” Ever frowned. “It’s one of deception and darkness. The Fortress would not abide that sort of queen.”
“Everard,” his father had fixed his gaze on him in a strange way. “I’ll be honest with you. Where I once felt the strength of the Fortress run through my blood, there is emptiness now. I do not feel its direction anymore. It’s up to us now more than ever to protect our home in these strange times.” It had been on that night that Ever had noticed the extreme dullness of the fire in his father’s eyes, the slight trembling of his arms and hands. And yet, he’d remained silent.
Now he was dead. And as Ever stared into the casket in which his father lay, he could see nothing but the face of the girl.
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