Starting to get mighty excited, peeps! It's only a couple of weeks before Price of Mercy hits the racks. And due to this singular event, I'm giving you a peek at the cover (before they put words on it) and a free bonus prequel story based on one of the characters in the book. Just a couple of little somethings to wet your appetite for the upcoming release. Heh heh.
The cover art, by the way, is from Jeff Ward of Stungeon Studios.
Purty ain't it? Hee hee!
“If you could have anything, my dearest madam, what would you wish for?”
Sylvanna turned on her side beneath the covers to stare at her lover. A swath of early morning sunlight lay over them both, coming through the wide window of the hidden attic room in the palace. “Children. I’ve always thought it’d be wonderful to have a gaggle of children.”
A panicked look crossed Emperor Narpess’ blue eyes before they turned deadly serious. Before he could say anything, however, Sylvanna laughed. “Don’t worry. You asked me a question and I answered it, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped taking precautions.” She gently flicked his long nose. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”
She laughed again when his expression didn’t clear. “If you’re going to fret about it so, we can stop our amusements any time you like.” She sat up, her long black hair falling over her breasts like a draped robe. “Then there’ll be nothing to worry about.” A tilted smile took the sting out of the comment. “Tempting as it might be to have a royal bastard, I would prefer to be a properly married woman before creating my throng of offspring.”
Narpess’ expression turned petulant. “I’m not ready for you to leave me. And no one is fretting about anything.” His creased brows disagreed. “I only asked the question as I was thinking of getting you a gift.”
The comment gave her a small thrill quickly followed by a chill. “You shouldn’t, Narpy. You know you shouldn’t. We’ve talked about this.”
“I can be discreet. She won’t find out.” His lower lip pushed out like a spoiled child’s despite his twenty years. “I’m the emperor. I can do as I like!”
Sylvanna shook her head, looking away, surprised yet again how such a man, who could be smart and clever when he applied himself, chose to remain so blind where his mother, his position, and the power of the empire were concerned. “Only within reason. And giving me a gift is not. She gets reports of every expenditure, of everywhere you go, of everything you do. That you stumbled over some of the palace’s secret passages is the only reason we’re able to meet at all.”
Narpess sighed and fell back onto the pillows. “She’s only trying to make sure I’m the best emperor I can be.”
Sylvanna sighed as well, but made sure he didn’t see or hear it. “Yes… It is her duty to do so, of course.” Trillena just didn’t have to go to the extremes she did. But making Narpy understand this was a battle she’d reconciled herself as having lost long ago. Her son would never see Trillena for what she truly was – a tyrant and a master manipulator.
Love could be blind and not just for lovers.
Sylvanna had come to court when she was thirteen. It’d been such an honor to have been chosen to be one of the empress’s ladies in waiting, especially since they’d only met once, and briefly at that. It was only after she’d been here for some time that the truth of why her family had been so honored came to light. Though their duchy was far out in the provinces and her family not all that well off, her father was popular and full of radical ideas. The dowager believed him a little too popular, as it turned out. Having a daughter living at the palace was seen as a mark of favor, but it was also a form of threat.
She fought to hold back another sigh.
Oh, Trillena would never threaten directly, but Sylvanna too clearly remembered what had happened to Kareen. A little dumpy and slow, Kareen had been one of the sweetest people ever to have been forged by the Maker. The only one of the handmaidens who didn’t fawn all over the place, or only thought about how to best better their station in the dowager empress’s eyes. A true and honest friend, only too thrilled to serve. This hadn’t stopped Trillena from ‘losing’ an important item and then having it be said Kareen was the one responsible for taking it. That it was found amongst her things, a clear sign of guilt. So she’d been sent home in tears and covered in shame, ugly welts raking her back from the lashes. Suddenly her father’s new lucrative contracts, which he’d worked to gain independently of the crown, fell through due to the smear. Later, they were conveniently picked up by others more favored by the empress. Those so privileged then in turn increased the empire’s coffers with lavish monetary gifts for the introductions to the foreign dignitaries, of course.
Once the blinders came off, Sylvana hadn’t been able to put them back on - the bars of her prison no longer hidden behind curtains or lace, but clanging with the empress’s every word and action. What had appeared before as stoicism and grace were revealed as total indifference and single-minded selfishness.
She threw a glance at Narpess wondering when and how he’d come to realize his life wasn’t entirely his own, as she had. It was something she’d not dared ask about.
The parties and picnics with the dowager were no longer the glamorous affairs she’d believed them. The lavish presents of dresses and perfumes weren’t true gifts, given only to make them stand out, so those around them would remember what they actually were -- hostages to ensure good and loyal behavior from their parents. Yet the families and the other daughters and sons housed here preferred fooling themselves and those around them, rather than face the facts of their precarious existence.
Sylvanna rose from the bed, the morning chill nipping at her flesh. She reached for her shift, her mood soured. “We should get back. Someone will come looking for you before long and I need to be ready to attend the empress since she habitually rises earlier than her precious son.”
A groan reached her from the bed. “She’s been harping on that lately, but I’m not about to give up on my one and only real vice.” The bead creaked as he rose. “It’s the only way I get to spend any time with you.”
His every waking hour was planned – had been since he’d been old enough to walk. As her eyes had been opened to her real situation, so had they been opened to his. That he’d stumbled upon her as she hid crying behind one of the manicured bushes as he tried to steal a few minutes for himself hadn’t hurt either.
He’d asked her if she was all right, a knowing look in his eyes. Something, which in his position, he need not have done, yet he’d taken the time, even at the risk of being found earlier than he might have. Showing there might be someone living in the gilded cage who actually cared.
Sylvanna had seen a kindred soul in him, someone who understood and didn’t just live the lie, someone in need of help if not a little pity. Compared to him, she had more freedom, more control over her life. She could more easily escape the empress’ notice than he – his shiny prison filled with many invisible chains, unlike her own.
Narpess swept the hair away from her neck and planted a kiss there. “You’ve made life tolerable for me.”
A smile tugged at her face as she turned around. “You’ve done the same for me and more.”
The excitement of their secret meetings gave her something to look forward to. The ability for her to be able to vent her frustrations, safe in the knowledge whatever she said wouldn’t be shared with anyone else. The wonder at the things she learned about the world as she bumbled with him through some of his lessons. The joy at watching a gangly youth grow to a man and the empire’s most important figure – The Maker’s Avatar.
The sex…had been unplanned.
Curiosity mixed with trust and the need for education and relief. It’d worked out well for them.
His kiss migrated to her lips as if agreeing with her.
Sylvanna allowed herself to wallow in the sensation for a moment, then pulled away. “I really do need to go.” She grabbed her green morning robe and slipped it on. “I’ll see you tonight.” She started toward the door.
She glanced back at him, surprised. “Yes?”
He turned his back to her, picking up his own purple robe with gold filigree. “Mother has arranged for a visit.”
She turned to face him. “Another prospective wife?”
“Is there any other kind with her?”
She was surprised she’d not heard of it. But then again with the less than satisfactory results of the last two attempted matches, perhaps the empress had decided to keep the subject private and test the waters first before letting everyone in on the possible match.
“I know she’s only doing this with my best interest at heart, but really. I’m only twenty. Why the hurry?”
Sylvanna couldn’t stop her brow from rising. “You’re the emperor. Your mother and the people expect a secured line of succession, and you can’t get that without marriage and children. You know all this.”
“But I don’t want to marry any of these ‘carefully chosen’ women. Why can’t I just marry you instead?”
“Narpy!” Again that strange thrill and chill wove through her body. “You mustn’t say that. You must never say that! It’ll never happen. We must be reconciled to that.”
A hurt look flashed across his face, and she was sorry for it, but these were the realities of their situation.
He shook his head. “You have noble blood. You come from a good family. It shouldn’t be that unfathomable a thing!” He sat down hard on the bed, scowling at her.
“You mother will not have it. She doesn’t like my family. Not in a thousand years would she think of giving them the power they’d gain by having their daughter become the emperor’s wife.”
“Surely you exaggerate.”
Sylvanna could only stare, a kernel of dread forming inside her. Had she been the one lying to herself all this time? Did he really not understand her precarious placement? Or just didn’t want to? If his mother ever suspected he might want such a thing…
She rubbed her suddenly cold arms.
“Narpy, I’m begging you, if you care for me at all, don’t ever say those words again where someone might overhear.”
Not looking at him, she turned away and fled from the room.
Once out the door, she gasped in surprise, again having forgotten about Narpess’ bodyguard, Lissan. Dark skinned, he blended with the deep shadows in the tight, badly lit corridor. That he towered over her and his skin showed all manner of old scars, didn’t help her feel any easier about him even after all this time. “Apologies…”
She hurried past him, resisting the urge to glance back over her shoulder. He always seemed to know where Narpess was. It never mattered how hard they tried to elude him. Yet her friend never seemed truly concerned. She’d asked about it once and Narpess told her he’d sworn Lissan into secrecy so all was well. He’d insisted Lissan could no more break the oath than she could turn her body into that of a man’s. Despite his reassurances, Sylvanna knew money could loosen all manner of tongues, but after all this time there wasn’t even a rumor of their dalliances, so the oath had been kept.
Lightly touching the wall to count the panels for her turn, she hurried forward.
Often she’d wondered if Lissan were one of the fabled Twelve – the empire’s secret guard. Even living at the palace, she’d never seen any real proof of them. Narpess had never mentioned them, and neither had the dowager empress. But stories of them persisted nevertheless. The Twelve were supposedly creations from before the Age of Blight. Many believed them imbued with powers – as they’d been made before so much was lost to the chaos of the Blight. Though no one trusted magic anymore. Not after what had happened, not after Mad Manta. Those with the aptitude were closely scrutinized and controlled. Yet unlike so much else, the Twelve had seemingly survived and served the empire still, as spies and sometimes assassins, keeping the empire together. Or so the stories said.
But no one had ever seen them. Or if they had, they’d not lived to tell about it.
Sylvanna quickened her steps.
The dowager empress chose to break her fast with her handmaidens in one of the larger gazebos of the extensive imperial gardens. The girls sat at a round glass table beside the dowager’s smaller, more intricate one – a bouquet of bright flowers in taffeta and silk, beside the thin, austere stalk in black.
“You’ve been with me for some years now, haven’t you, Sylvanna?”
The question caught her off guard and made her rattle her teacup as she set it back on its plate.
All conversation at the table died, every last one of them turning to look Sylvanna’s way.
“Y, yes. Almost nine years, Your Highness.” She couldn’t quite keep the slight quiver from her voice at the unwanted attention.
“You’ve been attentive; carried out your duties well. You even keep your tongue in check, which others would do well to emulate.” Trillena’s scathing glare scoured the rest of those at the table and one or two of the girls hunched down in their seats.
They would blame Sylvanna for the rebuke, of course, despite the fact she’d had nothing to do with it -- she was an easier target than the empress. They wanted nothing more than to be seen in the best light possible, not understanding their true standing in this place. It was but one of the many games Trillena liked to play – pitting them against each other.
“Such devoted service should be rewarded, don’t you think?”
Sylvanna cringed inside, knowing such favor would only bring her even more into her fellows’ unwanted attentions. “I live but to serve the throne, Your Highness. No rewards are necessary.”
“Be that as it may, I’m going to insist.” Trillena gave her a small smile. “I’ve arranged a match for you.”
For a moment, Sylvanna couldn’t breathe, the fanciful side of her filled with glee, assuming Narpess had spoken to his mother despite Sylvanna’s wishes and had convinced her to see things his way. But she knew better, she’d always known better. Still, there were worse things than to have your hand given away in marriage with the empress’s blessing. Except, she knew the woman was never kind without hidden reasons, and all of them to her gain. Narpy would be beside himself.
Sylvanna forced her heavy tongue to move. “You honor me, Your Highness.” She slipped off her seat into a curtsey. “Might I inquire as to whom I am to be united with?”
“You may.” The empress’s eyes glittered with barely concealed amusement. “To the handsome Trevor Simille, first son of Duke Simille.”
Sylvanna bowed her head, her chest suddenly tight, her cheeks flaming. The odious woman! Of all the people she could have chosen for a match and it just happened to be someone from the Simille family? She forced in a deep breath and looked up, slipping back into her seat before her shaking legs betrayed her. “That is…an unexpected…choice, Your Highness.”
“Of that I am quite sure, my dear.”
She couldn’t look at the dowager directly. If she saw the smug expression on the woman’s face, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to control herself. Simille, her family’s sworn enemies. And the dowager would be handing her over to them. Fear and anger warred inside for dominance. What slight had her father committed now, or was this just some long term calculated retribution?
“The joining of your two families will hopefully bring an end to the enmities of the past.”
That it would not! And she was quite sure it was the empress’s intention in the first place. This would only incite her father’s anger, divert his energies from anything he might want to achieve politically. It was a cruel distraction. The fact that over thirty years ago a young Duke Partan Simille and some of his cronies had crossed into their territories and run amok in a drunken pillage through one of their outlying villages, despoiling and killing the women, men, and children there and then setting the lot to the torch, wasn’t something they would ever forget. Simille bought off the officials sent for him after her father brought forth charges at the imperial court. The man had even had the gall to spread rumors that her father did this to his own people in order to discredit the Simille family, jealous of their prosperity. It was a point of honor and duty and her father’s main reason for wanting to make changes to policy. Lavish gifts to the crown and her officers should not dictate the justice for the realm and its people.
Her father would be livid at this insult. It would also break her poor mother’s heart. And what would happen to her at the hands of the Similles she shuddered to think about. Nothing good could come of this. And as Sylvanna finally dared glance up at Trillena’s face amidst all the congratulations (some heartfelt and others not) from her fellow maidens, she knew the empress was well aware of all of it.
What she couldn’t understand was what had prompted it. Had Narpy spoken to his mother about them? Or was this some twisted request of the Similles with too much gold being passed to the imperial coffers for the empress to refuse?
Sylvanna tried to smile and appear cheerful though her insides filled with despair.
The reason the empress had done this didn’t matter. It was her inescapable future she should be worried about.
“I won’t allow it!”
Sylvanna flinched as the book smacked against the angled roof of the secret room and fell with a tumble to the floor. “Narpy, there’s nothing to be done. My father cannot refuse. I cannot refuse. It’s an imperial decree.”
She turned her face away, trying to hold back the tears. She’d come to their special place the night before and sobbed herself to sleep, alone. She never heard the door open and had cried out in surprise when she’d been swept into Narpess’s arms. He’d still been wearing a jewel-studded jacket, most likely chosen by his mother to better make an impression on his hopeful paramour.
Though hours had passed since, he was no happier about what happened than when he first learned of it.
“Imperial decree be damned. I am the emperor!” Narpess smashed his fist against his chest. “I am the power here.” He paced the short length of the room and back. “Mother will see reason. I’ll make sure. What’s mine is mine. Not hers to do with as she sees fit.”
Looking upon him at that moment, Sylvanna didn’t recognize him. She’d never seen this hard expression on his face, but had on too many other occasions seen its equal on his mother’s. And rather than give her comfort, it made her more afraid than before. “Please, for both our sakes, for my family’s sake, don’t do anything rash. I beg of you.”
“Have you no faith in me?”
“It’s not that at all! This is just very dangerous. There could be repercussions we don’t know about. To my family, to the empire. The Similles are very wealthy. They wield a lot of power because of it. If she’s already told them of the match, it would be a great insult if it was suddenly taken away for no reason. They could withdraw their monetary support. This could have an effect on the court, on yourself.”
He wouldn’t like hearing it, but Sylvanna went on knowing he must see reason by any means necessary. “Your mother shields you from certain matters.” Something she suspected he was aware of and possibly encouraged, but she never dared ask about. Someone would have taken it upon themselves to inform him and try to profit from it if he weren’t.
“Never from anything actually important.” His nostrils flared. “So what specifically are you talking about?”
“I’ve not heard any of it directly, but there are rumors, and once or twice I’ve overheard comments from visitors after an audience. The empire is not as solvent as it should be.”
He waved at her with impatience. “That can’t be true. She would have told me. And why have you never mentioned it?”
“She’s very protective where you’re concerned, you know that.” Sylvanna shook her head. “And I didn’t want to trouble you. Our time together is to escape from what’s out there. I didn’t want to take that from you by bringing up such things.”
“That explains last night, then…” A snarl marred his face.
“What do you mean?” She was sure she wouldn’t be happy with what he was about to say.
Narpess started pacing again. “My new prospect for marriage – I thought her an odd choice – barely of age and not a foreigner like the others. Mother was even more insistent than usual before the meeting, about keeping an open mind, on making sure of a good impression. The girl’s name is Lareenial Simille.”
Sylvanna gasped, his words feeling like a blow, though they shouldn’t have. That odious family would be tied to the throne? Surely the Maker would not allow such a terrible thing. “Do you see? There’s more than we know happening around us. We must be careful.”
“I will not lose you.” His stare was hard, his body stiff, fists coiled at his sides. “I will not.”
Although she couldn’t quite say why, rather than give her confidence or warmth, his words and manner filled her with dread.
“There you are!”
Sylvanna looked up from her stitching, though in truth, she’d paid little attention to her needle work that morning. Unlike the others, she’d chosen a remote corner of the dayroom – placing herself as far away from the dowager and the other women as she could. Upon her return to her official bedroom that morning, she’d found several of her gowns stained, her pillows ripped, and nails pounded in her shoes. The reprisals and jealous fits had started. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she actually wanted the match, but she did not.
She didn’t recognize the man standing eagerly before her. He was around her age, light brown hair made into a cascade of curls to his shoulders. He also wore more lace than she would know what to do with in a year. His face was round and pleasant, almost pretty, like a slightly overweight aunt’s, which was odd for a man. His clothes were of the newest styles, yet of a dark gray, and looked as if they’d just been freshly tailored.
“I’m sorry, do I know you, sir?” A part of her already knew and wanted nothing but to run, yet the rest of her refused to give him and the dowager the satisfaction.
“Oh, I beg your pardon. I am your future husband -- Trevor Simille. At your service.” Putting one pointed shoe forward, he gave her a sweeping bow, his gaze never leaving her.
So they’d already been told. She shouldn’t have been surprised. If his sister was here, why wouldn’t he be? They were most likely in a hurry to finalize matters before anyone could object. Not that anyone would.
She tried to ignore the hard, nervous clench of her stomach.
“What can I do for you, Monsieur Simille?” Sylvanna tried to keep her tone pleasant, already feeling the curious stares of the others on them. No matter her personal feelings, she must keep this civil, her family the ones who’d be made to suffer for any insult. Had her father been informed of her future fate yet? Or were they hoping to have matters settled before he even knew their plans?
Fear and trepidation crowded in close, perspiration making a cold finger down her back.
“Oh, so formal. But then the very reason for my visit, mademoiselle.” He gave her a small, self-deprecating smile. “If we’re to be joined, I thought it would be wise to get to know each other better and hopefully set your mind at ease as well. You see, I hope we’ll be the messengers of peace between our two families. Bury the deeds of the pasts and make amends if possible. Much will depend on us.”
She couldn’t tell if he meant what he said or if it was only for the benefit of their audience. She supposed time would tell. “Then please sit.” She indicated the far end of the couch she was using.
Trevor sat closer than where she’d indicated, but not improperly so.
“I’m sure our match probably came as quite a shock to you.” He kept his voice low where the others might not overhear. “But please understand, it’s come purely with only the best intentions, despite the fact it will benefit our house. While he will never openly admit it, my father has long regretted the incidents of the past, the ones which put our families at odds. It is a weight I will inherit with his passing, and for which I hope to make amends. I believe the two of us can make up for his error. My family’s fortune used to make the lives of both our peoples an envy to behold. If you are willing…”
Sylvanna studied his face wanting to believe but afraid to. If he truly meant what he said, life for all involved could prove happier than ever before. Her children a mingling of bloods that could make more of what was there. And even if love had no part in it, surely it’d be worth it.
A slight smile tugged at the edge of her lips. “If you speak truly, how could I not be?”
He gently took her hand in his. “You won’t regret this. I swear it.”
“I think it’s going to be all right, Narpy.”
The emperor lounged in a short chair reading a book, his coat and cravat on the floor. “What is?”
Sylvanna hesitated for just a moment, noticing the sunken look to his eyes, and how he was wearing powder beneath them. “The marriage your mother arranged. Trevor, I mean, Monsieur Simille, is not like his father, and seems quite earnest to repair the breach between our families.” She smiled, the memories of the last few days sweeter than she ever expected. “I might be able to have that gaggle of children sooner than I thought.”
“What?” Narpess lunged to his feet. “You’ve given yourself to him?”
She took a step back, startled. “No, of course not. We’ve been chaperoned at all times. Why would you think such a thing? It would be foolish to indulge before the wedding.”
“Then come here and prove it to me.” He slumped back into the chair, beckoning to her.
She stared at him, confused, and didn’t move closer. “Narpy, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
“I told you to come here.” He glared at her. “I am your emperor, do as I say!”
A chill tiptoed down her spine. “No, I don’t think I will. You’re supposed to be my friend, and I yours. Not a servant to piss on or order around whenever you feel like it.”
He sat forward, his lips pressing together into a thin line. “You’ve never denied me before.”
She stomped her foot. “You’ve never demanded before!” She tried hard to reign in her temper. “Besides, if I’m to be married, it’d be best if we stopped. I’ll always be your friend and we can meet until it’s time for me to leave, but the… the physical exercises should come to an end.”
His eyes narrowed to bare slits. “Just like that?”
She felt a pang of sadness, hurting her friend the last thing she’d ever wanted to do. “You knew this wasn’t forever, Narpy. We can only hide from our duties for so long.”
“Now you sound just like Mother.” His gaze was cold. “Go away if that’s what you want. Go fawn all over your precious Trevor.”
Tears prickled her eyes and she furiously blinked them away. She couldn’t do what he wanted, yet she didn’t have the faintest idea how to ease his pain without making things worse. She’d so hoped they could remain friends, but if this was the cost of saving her family and perhaps helping create a better future, so be it. “I’m sorry, Narpy. I really am.”
Giving him a deep curtsey, Sylvanna left the hidden room for what was probably the last time.
Again she almost ran into Narpess’s bodyguard out in the hallway. “Oh! Apologies.” She didn’t look at him directly hoping he’d not notice her wet cheeks.
“Be careful, mademoiselle.”
The deep gravelly voice surprised her. She doubted she’d ever heard the man speak before. Sylvanna nodded then went on her way, her mind frantically trying to figure out if he spoke of rushing into the hallway, or, as a budding kernel of fear exclaimed, meant something else entirely.
Make you hungry for more? Check out the first three chapters of the book here.