I’m so excited you stopped by for more.
I hope you enjoy reading about the day Saga saw Ari for the first time.
The prince was bustling about more than was typical. Then again, Bracken was often moving about.
“I knew there were skirmishes, but an entire overthrow?” Bracken adjusted the silver circlet on his head, so it rested at an angle. He grinned at his reflection. “Gods, it’s strange to think the North finally has fae folk on the throne again. Our non-magic trade partners were dull and prejudice, it will be interesting to see how things change.”
“It will deplete the resources the isles must give to their Night Folk refugees,” I said with hardly a tone in my voice at all.
“Saga,” Bracken said with the look that told me he thought I was being rude. “It is our duty to offer refuge for any folk who can add to our isles. Bring them to us and we will remind them why the isles are the homeland of the fae.”
I recalled when the isles were war-torn too. I would not say the Southern Isles were always much safer than the cold peaks of the Northern Kingdom.
Sofia rolled her eyes from a padded seat in the corner of the prince’s room. I knew she did not care for my briskness, but I saw little point in not speaking directly. I didn’t see a purpose in embellishing or spreading half-truths simply to spare feelings or build another’s self-importance.
“Shall we?” Bracken turned from the mirror, grinning. “We have new allies to meet.”
“Allies aren’t certain unless the High Queen makes the determination.”
Bracken snorted. “Saga, my dearest, even my mother holds a bit of fear for this earth bender king and his people. She is most interested, at least in the current moment, to hear what the new kingdom may offer our isles.”
He chuckled, Sofia joined in.
I didn’t see the joke, nor was there any desire to care.
Bracken was right in the sense that Queen Astrid wore more than one leery expression when tales of the earth bender king and his ferocious queen reached the shores of the isles. For now, the Court of Hearts would play their games on the friendlier side of battles.
Outside the Borough the sun burned over drying dew drops. Every leaf and shrub glistened in a wash of crystal light. Most mornings Alvheim sparkled as though the grass to the creek beds were made of precious gems. Folk often fawned over the beauty of the isles—what I saw was plant life beneath sunlight. There were moments I wondered if I once gasped and grew teary over natural beauty.
In the far reaches of my mind, I knew my stoicism was in place for a purpose. But as time dragged forward, the emptiness within swallowed much of what I once knew.
Those who’d once shared my blood, who’d left me to live the rest of my long life without them, were beginning to fade in my thoughts. A brief memory of laughter with my dead brother was the only hint that there once was a time I found a touch of thrill at life.
Now, I existed. Nothing more.
We took one of the High Court’s carriages to the docks. I never released my grip on the seax hilt tethered to my belt. Sofia, also a guard, found more purpose in laughing and giggling with the prince at all the folk who’d overdressed for the arrival of the Northern ships.
Seemed pointless to be a royal guard if one was never going to defend the royal.
A line of Borough guards slammed the ends of their gilded spears when the carriage pulled alongside a dais near the shore. The High Queen would be greeted in the Borough, but Prince Bracken would take the first greeting with our potential allies at the docks.
Black velvet hemmed in silver thread had been draped across a bench cushioned with moss and fresh lilac blossoms.
At the door to the carriage Rune and Bo, Bracken’s innermost guards, stepped on either side.
“My Prince, the ships are docking.” Rune had his wings glamoured away, and had two blades crossed over his back. On the battlefield, Rune would have a fully iridescent wingspan, and his eyes would be steely as he filled an enemy’s veins with stone.
“Then we ought to get in our places,” Bracken grinned. “Do I look princely enough? Shall I be intimidating, or greet them with a grin? Fear or friendship.”
“Greet them as an honored prince of the isles,” I said plainly. How else would he greet a dignitary.
Sofia snorted, and picked a fleck of dandelion fluff off Bracken’s shoulder. “If I may, My Prince, this meet is for the forming of a new ally. One we have not had since the former Northern rule was done by folk fearful of fae. Our Night Folk cousins have ended centuries-long oppression. We ought to celebrate with them.”
“A revel.” Bracken beamed at the huldra. “Brilliant as always, Sof. What better way to introduce them to the isles than sweet wine and lutes.”
I could think of at least half a dozen ways that were better suited, but I kept my mouth shut.
Bo took the left step of the dais and Rune took the right.
I stood beside Rune, hand on my blade, cold and truly uninterested in this alliance but for the fact it could strengthen the securities against enemies for the isles.
Safety for the fae folk was the only desire I could fit in my chest.
“Any thoughts, Saga?” Rune asked, voice rough and low.
He was not a man of many words, but I think he appreciated my aloofness and devotion to protecting the royal family. Sometimes it meant he spoke to me or inquired into my instincts.
“I think we ought to always be on guard,” I said.
He didn’t respond but for a grunt and curt nod of his chin. I took it as he agreed. Rune had the most to prove by way of loyalty, being a son of the Court of Blood. Most folk carried a healthy trepidation toward the blood fae. I would experience the same subtle prejudice as Rune if folk knew the truth of my glamour.
Bracken never wavered in his acceptance of Rune. I didn’t understand many things, friendship being one. I saw duty and purpose alone, but even with an ice covered heart, the affection the prince gave to both Bo and Rune kept me at ease that neither guard would betray Bracken.
A horn blew, causing a flock of sea birds to burst free from a tidepool and take to the sky. Dock men caught ropes, they tugged the sleek longship to the docks. A small party, then again if the new Kingdom of Etta was only reforming after their battles, they likely could not afford to send too many.
Lines of fae from the Court of Hearts, Bracken’s aunts and their daughter from the Court of Hearts were at the base of the knoll, eyes pointed at the sky even if the sun had devoured the stars. Along the path to the dais, a few curious folk from the Court of Serpents adjusted briar and rose petal headdresses, or satin doublets. Then, speckled about, some blood fae watchers and warriors kept a slight distance.
Lord Gorm would want to know what the newcomers brought, but he rarely left his borders since the Blood Lady died.
A precession of border guards, dock workers, and a few haggard looking travelers began the climb up the cobbled path to the first knoll. I lifted my chin, unable to make out how many Northerners had arrived.
They took too bleeding long to traipse the hill, stopping here and there to greet the fae folk. Insolence. They ought to move straight for the prince, the highest-ranking figure here, not spend time gossiping with merchants and their wives.
My grip tightened on my sword, always ready, always a warrior.
The line curved around the bend. It wasn’t difficult to pick out the Night Folk Fae. Their skin was varying shades of brown, from sun-kissed to rich and deep. They stood half a head taller than most of the Southern fae, and the only faeish features distinguishable from them and mortals were the sharp, tapered points to their ears.
I could make out three men who appeared to be warriors. Leather guarders on their forearms, scuffed jerkins over their chests, and no less than four blades tethered to sheathes and belts.
Truth be told, they all seemed to be warriors, but I was certain the queen had spoken of a dignitary.
Both men in the front were absent fae ears, and both had a russet color to their beards. The third was Night Folk by height, ears, and the midnight shade to his eyes.
A pace behind them, a man with tousled autumn golden hair was holding the hand of an elderly fae woman with cracks in her skin so deep, they nearly swallowed her eyes. The woman grinned and laughed at something he said. His shoulders shook as though he were laughing too.
Was this the dignitary? He dressed no better than the soldiers joining him.
The sides of his hair were braided off his face, and I took note he was Night Folk fae. The leanness of his height, the ears, they distinguished him from the first two of his companions. But his cloak was frayed at the hem, and there still seemed to be blood splatters on the edges.
“The southern prince, Ari—” one of the warriors began. “I mean, Ambassador.” He snorted. Like it was a joke.
“You must get used to my glittering title someday, Axel,” the golden Night Folk man said, and released the old woman’s hand.
He turned over his shoulder. I’d been told most Night Folk boasted dark eyes like the night, but this man had brilliant swirls of amber in the darkness of his gaze.
And they were lethal.
I coughed. A pain, like jagged stones piercing the center of my heart, slashed through my gambeson, my tunic, my ribs, straight to the meaty numbness that had kept me alive but unfeeling for turns.
The Night Folk tilted his head.
Gods, all gods. I pressed a hand to my chest. What was happening. My blood tingled with a surge of warmth. Uncomfortable, almost painful. The rush flooded my skull, it spun my head. I was going to topple over to the side.
I couldn’t catch a deep enough breath and doubled over my knees.
“Saga?” Rune glanced at me.
I gasped. A thousand burning feelings bombarded my core. Feelings, emotions. Fear I’d left behind in a dull past. Memories of my brother, my father, my family—hells—the pain of bidding them farewell was destroying me.
I knew they were dead. I’d always known they were dead. But I had little to think or feel on the subject. Now, a heady, devastating sting grew behind my eyes. Dammit, was I . . . crying?
“Saga. What has happened? Are you hit by something?”
Hit? All hells, I was being devoured.
I lifted my gaze again. The new Night Folk visitor was even closer. He was smiling and greeting a few seers from the Court of Stars.
There were fading gashes on his face, his hands. Signs he’d stepped off a battlefield and barely had time to breathe before he’d been sent on his way.
He was . . . stunning. A kind of handsome I wanted to gawk at until sleep forced my eyes closed.
His eyes flicked to mine.
The same torturous burn flooded my chest anew. I cried out and touched my heart. It thudded so viciously in my body, I was certain it was about to break out.
“Is she ill?” Bracken asked, a bite to his tone.
“My Prince,” Rune said. “I don’t know.
“Take her to a healer.”
I wanted to protest, I had no desire to leave my post, but Rune was already dragging me away from the procession. One glance over my shoulder, and the new visitor watched us leave with a furrowed brow before his attention was drawn back to Bracken.
Deep in the Mossgrove trees, I cried out and fell to the ground.
“Saga—” A touch of concern lived in Rune’s tone. His rough hands gripped my shoulders.
No. No, gods, not here. My bones bent, they started to shift against the brutal pain wracking my chest.
It was too late.
Rune cursed his surprise when my second form took hold.
I spread my wings and took the trees, desperate to find some semblance of sanity again. What happened at the docks? I’d not had any hint of deep emotion for as long as I could recall.
“Saga.” Rune had his wings spread, and was eye level with the branch. “Is that . . . you?”
I couldn’t hide from him. Astrid would punish me, but the only option to keep Rune from speaking of what he’d seen was to kill him. My beating, broken heart wouldn’t do that because, icy as I’d been, now that the layers were pulled back, my heart informed my brain that I liked Rune.
I fluttered back to the ground. Rune followed. Once I unfolded from wings and feathers, the cool of the morning air struck my bare, naked skin. I gasped and tried to cover myself. Rune landed beside me and had his tunic stripped and around my body in the next breath.
“Saga . . .”
“Rune,” I said, breathless. “Please . . . please say nothing.”
“What has happened? Are you . . . have you always been a shape shifter?”
I nodded. “But no one is to know of me. Please, say nothing. It will be unsafe for . . . you and me. I am bound to the crown.”
He knew Astrid. He knew of her brutality. Rune’s jaw tightened.
“What happened just now? You looked like you were stepping into the Otherworld.” He lowered to his knees and tugged the tunic tighter around my shoulders. Like a friend might.
The agonizing burn gathered again behind my eyes. To feel was too much, to unbearable. How did anyone do it. With a few more gentle urgings, I uttered my greatest secret to a fellow warrior. I spoke of a curse of emptiness, my penance to the crown, and now . . . something had lit a fire in my heart.
It was once more alive.
By the time I finished Rune had my hands in his, oddly comforting for a blood fae. Then again, we were of the same court. Perhaps there was a natural kinship I’d never noticed before.
“She harms you.” Rune touched one of the scars on my shoulder.
“Please, Rune,” I begged. “Say nothing. It only gets worse.”
He seemed like he wanted to say a great deal, but simply tightened his grip on my hands. “I shall look out for you.”
I scoffed. “Why?”
“We are fellows, Saga. Warriors together. We look out for each other.”
“You . . . you won’t use this against me?”
“We’re also kin from the same court,” he said with a stiff grin. “Blood fae ought to stick together, not use each other.”
“I love Bo.” Rune’s face flushed a deep crimson.
My mouth parted.
“There,” he said, and swallowed roughly, avoiding my gaze. “Now you know my greatest secret the way I know yours. You can trust me, Saga.”
A strange, unnatural twitch tugged at the corners of my mouth. It was a bizarre sort of movement, but my lips spread into a twisted grin, revealing my teeth. No mistake, it was more frightening than anything.
Rune gave me a look of exasperation. “Mock me if you’d like, but it is no small confession.”
“I’m not mocking,” I said softly. “I’m quite unaccustomed to smiling, but all at once I cannot stop.”
Then, Rune smiled, much calmer and more dignified than mine felt. He laughed. “It is a rather crooked smile. Keep practicing.”
I shoved his shoulder. Playfully. Like an instinct took hold and my body knew what to do, but I apologized straightaway.
Once he assured me it was nothing he’d take offense over, I let out a long breath. “Dozens of moments observing you beside Bo are now making a great deal of sense.”
Rune blanched. “He does not feel the same, I’m sure of it.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t; it’s just a feeling. You’ll soon understand the more you feel.” Rune dragged his long fingers through his hair. “Listen, Saga, should I be found out, it would be against the oath we took of no lovers within units. To my superiors, I’d be biased and a liability. No doubt, I’d be deployed elsewhere. Likely sent to serve Lord Gorm. Bo can never know, no one can know. Not if I wish to remain here, protecting my prince, which I desperately do.”
My fingers trembled, but slowly, I covered his hand with mine. His skin was warm. I forced my fingers to curl around his, even if the urge to flee and hide from this wretched newness in my heart was pulling me under into a fog of confusion.
I squeezed his fingers. “You secret is mine to take the Otherworld.”
“Yours as well.” One corner of his mouth curved up. Rune stood and helped me to my feet. “Shall we return, or do you need to see a healer?”
“No healers. Nothing that draws attention to me, or the queen will hear of it.”
A muscle pulsed in Rune’s jaw, but he nodded. “As you say. Then let’s return to the Borough and meet these newcomers. After you are clothed, of course.”
He chuckled and took the lead step.
I licked my lips. The newcomers were terrifying. Something had shifted and broken within me—perhaps healed in brutal ways—when the amber-eyed Night Folk man had met my gaze.
I wanted to avoid him until my final breath.
But the lingering memory of his eyes, his grin, another part of me wished never to be parted from the man another day.