Death Marked cover reveal
16
Mar

Death Marked – Cover Reveal + Excerpt

Fans of Brandon Sanderson and Sarah J. Maas will feel right at home with Death Marked, my new dark fantasy series.

Death Marked is the first of four planned books. Throughout the story, I’ll be exploring themes such as religion, discrimination, social divisions, corruption, and how a single lie can alter the fate of an entire world.

Series Synopsis:

To the immortal Adrassans, emotion is a human weakness. Sentinels, peacekeepers, they have worked for two millennia to save the world from itself, carefully shaping it into the image of their goddess.

A legacy built on a lie.

They are about to discover that humanity is not the danger. No, the real enemy lurks among them, a truth that could destroy everything.

Book Synopsis:

The Rite of Descent.
Sixteen-year-old Camdin has spent her entire life preparing for this day. Her people’s most sacred tradition, she is to enter the Hollows, the network of caverns below the city, and form a pact with one of her ancestors.

Pacts are powerful, granting abilities that she can use to distinguish herself in the service of Suria, the Adrassan patron goddess.

After obtaining her pact, Cam will return an adult bound for the Adrassan military, a chance to see the world beyond the capital’s high walls. Joining the military will also allow her to spend more time with Mikala, the older half-sister she has seen little of for the past ten years. All she has to do is make it through the next 20 days.

Upon entering the Hollows, Cam’s aspirations gutter as, one by one, the other candidates start to disappear. Alone in the dark, she finds herself facing the most ancient of foes: death itself.

No matter the outcome, Cam will emerge forever changed. Even an immortal cannot hope to tangle with death and remain unmarked.

Now, on to the cover art!

This lush cover was created by the talented Marcela Bolivar. It captures a key moment in the novel’s early chapters and is a depiction of Camdin of Mirobe, one of two POV characters.

The inspiration for the design came from dark fairytales. It’s meant to represent the eerie call of the unknown as Camdin transitions into a new phase of her life, a path from which there is no turning back.

Death Marked releases April 26, 2018, with pre-orders beginning on Amazon April 1st.

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Excerpt

As promised, here is chapter two, which looks at the world from the perspective of the second POV character, Mikala, daughter of Kadian.

Chapter Two – Mikala I

 

Watching her half-sister disappear into the tree line, memories of Mikala’s own Rite rose to the surface. She had chosen to challenge the Second Court, easier to reach than the First and nearly as powerful. After completing a series of tasks, each more challenging than the last, Second Premier Camelai granted her the privilege of forming a pact with Jakobe Dalenna, the bismuth-forged who served as one of her primary advisers. A portion of his power now lived inside her, granting new abilities and enhancing her original blessings.

She hoped Camdin would have a similar experience, despite her insistence on challenging the First Court. If she could master her emotions, she would be a valuable addition to the military. Titanium-forged did not come along every day.

The onlookers started the walk back to the city-proper. Turning, she fell into step beside young Fylliis, Cam’s only friend as far as she could tell. She had seen her fight often enough to know she was shaping into a fine soldier. With her flexibility, she might even be assigned to one of the elite infiltration units.

Passing through the Hesper Gate, the two females re-entered the city in a companionable silence. Mikala was required to report to Lieutenant General Adonias for briefing and assignment and Fyliis was bound to return to the Telfar Training Center. They said their brief goodbyes before turning towards their separate destinations.

Mikala veered right, entering the military administration building. Though the Descent ceremony started later than anticipated, she arrived at Lieutenant General Adonias’s office with a few minutes to spare. Lingering in the doorway, she waited for the arsenic-forged to acknowledge her presence.

Looking up from his papers, Adonias waved her inside. “Come in, Major Kadian. Please, have a seat.”

She sat in the chair he indicated, folding her hands in her lap before returning her attention to the man behind the desk. The Lieutenant General was in his early 300’s, scarcely young enough to have avoided retiring to the Between with the Fourth Court. His skin was a strong brown-red, a few shades lighter than her own, and his long, golden hair was secured at the nape of his neck.

Something inside her twinged. When it was her time to reproduce, he would make an ideal partner. Only a few more centuries to go.

As was their custom, Adonias’s arms were bare, placing toned-muscle and bright yellow engravings on display. With the exception of the premiers, the arsenic-forged were the most ostentatious of the Adrassans, but that came with the territory. They usually served as leaders or diplomats, climbing swiftly through the army’s ranks. Her own star had ascended at a slower pace, though she now commanded one of their primary triage units.

Adonias regarded her with his hazel-tinged gaze. He often called upon her to serve as a member of his staff. Would this meeting have a similar outcome?

“No doubt you’ve heard the rumors about the attack on our Limaetran allies by the Khrayten Empire?” Mikala signaled for him to continue. “The rumors are true. Emperor Revaetros has brought a host of 100,000 men to Limaetra’s doorstep.”

A mortal army composed of 100,000 soldiers? The Adrassans could field around 40,000 soldiers if the need arose, but they typically marched with far less, sticking to the 5,000 to 8,000 range. Due to their natural resilience and superior fighting skills, one Adrassan was the equivalent of at least ten mortals.

Bringing even 5,000 soldiers was mostly for show. Their arrival led to a quick surrender by the enemy force. They were Suria’s peacekeepers, chosen by the goddess to protect the Living Facet, often from itself.

“We are sending 10,000 of our best to reinforce Limaetra’s forces. The Emperor is both cunning and determined, dangerous traits for a mortal sorcerer to possess. We expect the situation to play out as they always do but we do not wish to underestimate him. Which leads me to your assignment,” He twined his fingers together on top of the papers lining his desk. “Due to your experience and advanced healing abilities, you have been chosen to act as Prince Fane’s personal guard while we are in Limaetra.”

From what she knew of Limaetra, the assignment made sense. Isachar, the capital city, was known for its parties and commerce, not military might. No doubt their prince preferred ballrooms to battlefields.

“The Prince is the second of three royal children. I have assigned Captain Toshala to serve as Crown Princess Kathera’s protector. The youngest, Princess Bethari, is still small enough for the royal guard to look after.”

Mikala and Davion Toshala, more commonly known as Davi, were of a similar age and had served together for many years before receiving their subsequent promotions. As a wolfram-forged, Davion’s heightened senses and ability to move unseen made her an ideal choice for anticipating attacks and detecting intruders. Her company handled reconnaissance missions, though Mikala guessed they would be remaining in Kallias since their commander would be otherwise occupied. “An excellent choice, general.”

“Since you both will be attending strategy meetings with the prince and princess, you will also be acting as my first and second in command for the purposes of this mission. If all goes well, each of you will receive a promotion.”

“I am at your command, General.” This statement caught her off guard. First, it was unusual for a major and a captain to fill the roles of a major general. Second, she found it odd the eldest royal children would be taking part in the war council. Usually, this responsibility fell to the monarch or the nation’s field marshal. Perhaps they were being groomed for leadership?

“Good. We are gathering at the cathedral in one hour. Use this time to prepare any supplies you need for the trip.” Adonias stood, sending Mikala lurching to her feet. He regarded her coolly. “Dismissed.”

***

Mikala arrived at the cathedral early, taking her place beside Davion at the head of the marching formation near the main entrance. Sancta Suria, the center of the Goddess’s worship, made an impressive sight. With its walls of white marble, the building shifted in color throughout the day depending on the orientation of the sun.

The cathedral’s large ebony doors remained closed, bordered on either side by the smaller north and south towers. The main tower, located at the building’s center above the nave, sprang up behind the two, dotted with recessed windows. Not long after the Grand Alliance had gone into effect, the windows were replaced with vibrant panes of Limaetran glass. The famous glasswright, Darwin Mazish, had personally overseen the project before dying four years later.

She seized the opportunity to catch up with her old friend while they waited for Adonias to arrive.

“Captain Toshala.” Davion’s hair was a fine white and the violet engravings that lined her alabaster skin gleamed in the afternoon light. Their uniforms were almost identical, except Davion’s was a deep gray, nearly black, and Mikala’s a cornflower blue. She wore a single, golden arch at her collar while the other female sported three silver discs.

“Major Kadian.” She liked the deep rumble of Davion’s voice. It lent her a certain gruffness which demanded respect.

“It’s been awhile,” Mikala ventured, attempting to bait her into conversation.

“Yes. It seems there are always more reports to file, just as there’s always some poor soul who needs patching.”

“Well, it looks like we’ll be spending some time together on this assignment. Tell me, what do you know about Limaetra’s royal family?”

Raising a finger to her lips, Davion tilted her her head to the back right, indicating Adonias’s approach. Their postures straightened as he halted in front of them. They exchanged the proper greetings before Adonias called for the corps to enter the cathedral.

Only Adrassans and supplicants were permitted inside Sancta Suria. She had performed her fair share of guard duty at the main entrance. Every day, a new face arrived, attempting to uncover one of the secrets of their faith.

They marched down the long, cobalt-blue carpet that covering the central aisle, pivoting to the right before the dais. Suria’s image, fashioned in gold, rose up towards the ceiling from the high altar just beyond. Dozens of lit candles were arrayed around her, though no one prayed before the idol as they would have done on any other day, had their corp not been on the move.

Their path took them beneath the Lesser Arch and into the Elder Gallery. There, five finely carved marble statues were on display, one for each of the premiers: Enakai, Camelai, Amasai, Tarisai, and Damarai, the gold-forged who now commanded their nation.

The golden form of the Greater Arch rose up near the far end of the long hall. Adonias led them towards it, calling a halt once the bulk of their soldiers had crowded into the room. He approached the arch alone, stopping a few paces short and lifting both of his arms, palms facing outward as if he were pushing against an invisible stone block.

For a few long breaths, nothing seemed to happen. At last, the engravings along Adonias’s arms began to glow, the light transforming into tendrils of vivid yellow that pooled between his hands.

The Lieutenant General remained rooted to the floor, rolling tulere between his fingers. At last, he threw his arms out wide and the yellow orb soared to the apex of the arch before flashing outward.

The area below the arch was no longer empty but instead contained a shifting field of opalescent tulere. She imagined it was how a rainbow might look if it were captured in liquid form.

“Move out!” Adonias’s command echoed throughout the empty room and they began to march. Mikala had traveled via portal many times throughout her life but she still held her breath as she passed through the barrier.

They emerged two-by-two into a large, domed chamber. Mikala’s eyes took in the riot of color saturating the area in shades of yellow, red and gold. Stained glass windows, similar to those installed in Sancta Suria, lined the walls, casting vibrant reflections onto the floor. Hand-painted tiles covered the upper arches, laid out to form the images of various flowers, fruit, and the red citolo, the key feature the royal crest. Another golden arch rose up behind us. The large room had been constructed specifically for Adrassan use to quicken travel between Isachar and Kallias.

Adonias marched forward at a brusque pace, approaching a middle-aged man draped in green and blue silk. He had the Limaetran look about him with dark hair secured at the nape of his neck, golden-brown skin, and an impressive handlebar mustache.

Quickly adapting to the shock of the opulence surrounding her, Mikala strode after the Lieutenant General, Davion at her side. Despite the obvious display of his rank and wealth, the man fidgeted while they approached as though he would rather be somewhere else.

“Lieutenant General Adonias,” the man bowed smoothly. “All of Limaetra welcomes you.” His words were accompanied by a thick dialect, though he spoke the trade tongue well. Many of Sital’s nations maintained their own languages, which had made commerce difficult until the Limaetrans developed the trade tongue. As they were the primary economic power on the continent, the other countries had quickly adopted it.

“Adviser Alejo,” Adonias returned the bow, perfectly imitating the Limaetran flourishes. “Please direct my soldiers to the area where they can set up camp. Is the council assembled in the war room?”

“Yes, general. The prince and princess are already waiting for you, along with the others. I will escort you to the council room and then return for your soldiers.”

Adonias shook his head. “Escort my forces now. I know the way.”

“Of course, general.” The tightness of the adviser’s limbs loosened, as though the hard part of his job were over.

Adonias turned to address his forces, who were still filing into the room. “Go with the adviser. He will show you where we are to set up. I expect all to be in order by the time I return.”

“Yes, general!” The acknowledgment echoed through the room, eliciting a wince from Alejo.

Adonias stalked past him as if he no longer existed, Mikala and Davion following closely at his heels as he led them through a series of vibrant hallways. It was clear when they entered a new area of the palace due to the shifting color schemes. The wing they had arrived in maintained the coloring of the portal chamber, which gave way to blue, green, and red as they walked. The only consistent feature was the royal crest.

The general strode with purpose as though he knew exactly where he was going. She wondered at this, before remembering he had served in the palace as the Adrassan ambassador for many years. His experience in Isachar, the Limaetran capital city, was likely the reason he had been chosen for the assignment.

They stopped in front of a mahogany door carved in the semblance of a red tree, its massive limbs stretching up towards a golden sky. Two guards stood on either side of the door, dressed in the red and blue of the royal family. One of them nodded at Adonias and opened the door for them before returning to his post.

Compared to the rest of the palace, the decor of the council chamber showed a remarkable amount of restraint. It lacked the characteristic tiles and stained glass, though the walls were painted a bright, sky blue.

With its simple furnishings, the main feature of the room was the massive war table at its center. Cut from more mahogany, someone had painted the surface to reflect the layout of the continent. Color-coded, wooden figures rested at key spots, no doubt representing the forces of the upcoming battle.

Four people stood around the table, examining it intently. Their heads came up as they entered.

“Adonias!” Cried the young man in the middle before he quickly corrected himself. “Excuse me, Lieutenant General Adonias.”

The speaker had dark brown hair, similar in color to Adviser Alejo’s, though this man wore it shorter, falling in thick waves to his chin. His skin was darker than the adviser’s as if he spent a great deal of time outside and his face was clean shaven, highlighting his youth. It was hard to pinpoint human ages due to their shorter lifespans but she guessed he was about 25.

Adonias paused, bowing to the young woman who stood next to the man who had spoken. “Your Royal Highness.” Only then did he turn to the person Mikala guessed to be Prince Fane, bowing once more, though not as deeply. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Your Highness.”

“Be welcome, general.” The Crown Princess spoke quietly but firmly, the ghost of a smile stealing across her lips. Her looks were similar to her siblings, though her hair fell nearly to her waist and had been pulled back using a collection of golden bands.

Dressed in an azure tunic embroidered with gold thread at the collar, Fane matched the décor of the room. In contrast, Kathera wore a cap-sleeved, red silk top that ended in a beaded hem just above her midriff. To Mikala’s surprise, loose, high-waisted pants covered her lower half. Beautiful and breathable, they were clearly designed for both fashion and functionality. Though she had smiled, the crown princess appeared markedly less enthusiastic about the general’s arrival than her brother.

An older woman stood at the end of the table wearing a red uniform. Five golden feathers were pinned across the left side of her chest, identifying her as the Limaetran field commander. Her thick auburn hair had been secured in a neat bun, threaded with the occasional strand of silver.

Perhaps the most startling member of the group was the male who stood to the right of the prince. He had crimson skin and yellow eyes. As if his coloring weren’t enough of an attention-grabber, his hair had been shaved away. Black whirls covered the smooth left half of his head, bisecting his face and snaking down his neck before disappearing beneath his black shirt. The design gave the impression half of his body had been engulfed by flame.

Mikala knew at once he was a fire baki, though she had seen few of them in the century she had been alive. Due to a large amount of wood and water, they weren’t common in this area, usually preferring desert climates.

Baki had short life spans. They aged at about double the rate of a human before burning out somewhere around their 30th year. The Adrassans suspected this was because of their strong connection to the elements. Their mortal bodies were not strong enough to contain such power for long.

The baki stared at Davion, ignoring Mikala and Adonias entirely, while the marshal observed their group in silence.

“General, I would like to introduce Field Marshal Petrona Asturias.” The princess motioned toward the older woman at the end of the room who nodded in acknowledgment. “And next to my brother is Brigadier Jaumet of House Ibarra. He commands our sorcerers.”

Jaumet offered a courtly bow to the room. “Charmed. Now tell us, general, who are your lovely companions?”

Adonias motioned for Mikala and Davion to step forward. Obediently, they both moved to stand at his side. “Princess Kathera,” he motioned towards Davi, “May I present Captain Davion Toshala. She will be guarding your royal personage until this unfortunate business is settled.”

A cat-like smile spread across Jaumet’s lips as Davi offered the princess and prince a bow, in that order. Mikala remained unconcerned. Her companion could handle her own in the face of the baki’s baser nature. Adrassans did not indulge in trysts with mortals.

Adonias turned to the prince, indicating Mikala as he did so. “Prince Fane, this is Major Mikala Kadian. She will be acting as your primary protector throughout the upcoming conflict.”

Like Davion, she bowed to both of the royals. Fane’s gaze slid over her as she straightened again, lingering on her engravings. “You are what is called an osmium-forged, correct?”

She nodded, impressed he understood the distinction. “Yes, your highness.”

“Adonias taught me a great deal about your people’s customs. I look forward to learning more.”

Princess Kathera broke the flow of the conversation. “Is this really necessary? Surely the royal guard is capable of stopping any attacks.”

Adonias started to respond, but it was Marshal Petrona who got there first. “I know the crown chafes, princess, but you are letting your desire for independence cloud your judgment. The royal guard are skilled but these women,” she swept her hand towards the new royal bodyguards, “have dedicated their significantly long lives to warfare. It would be foolish to turn away their aid.” Mikala detected a hint of respect in her voice, though it came grudgingly. Perhaps she found it difficult to hand over command of her men to an officer from a foreign army.

The princess sighed. “I acknowledge your point. They may stay.”

Adonias inclined his head. “Thank you, your royal highness. My only objective is to keep you and the prince safe.” He said this as though the two of them had a choice in the matter. They might be royalty but she knew Adonias had already cleared the directive with the king and queen.

Jaumet clapped his hands together. “It’s decided then. Shall we talk strategy?” The fire baki seemed far too pleased by the fact Davion and herself would be staying in the palace. Mikala made a note to keep away from him whenever possible, though she could already tell from Jaumet and Fane’s familiarity this would prove difficult. They were clearly friends.

Petrona leaned over the table, identifying the different groups represented. “As you already know from reviewing the report, Makarin and Cindrillon have both sent soldiers. With the arrival of your own units, this puts our army 40,000 strong, with an additional 15,000 in our fleet, should the Emperor choose to bring in more troops by sea.”

Adonias studied the war map. “What about our allies in Vinceslao?”

It was Kathera who answered his question. “They are too far south to risk taking the land route. Instead, they are sending another 10,000 by ship. Their plan is to land on the coast and then march north to flank our enemy.”

As the commanders discussed tactics, Mikala found herself studying Prince Fane. He had an athletic build and held himself like a soldier, indicating he had at least some experience in the arts of war. A rapier hung at his belt and he rested his hand on the ornate hilt. It had been crafted into the image a golden citolo with a small ruby for an eye. A pretty piece but how well could he use it?.

Kathera was also armed with one visible weapon. The long dagger rested on her hip, secured in a simple leather sheath. Her posture indicated an intense alertness as if she were evaluating each word spoken, probing for every possible meaning, noting the accompanying micro-movements of the speaker. She reminded Mikala of an eagle, waiting for the right moment to pounce on its prey.

Mikala returned her attention to the prince only to discover he was studying her in much the same manner. Their eyes met for a few brief moments. His were dark, but from where she stood she could not determine the exact shade, though this made little difference. Unlike Adrassans and baki, human eye color was not indicative of the individual’s abilities. He smiled at her and she quickly looked away.

Five crisp knocks sounded at the door in rapid succession. The conversation faltered as the seven occupants of the room all turned towards it, hands straying to weapons. A moment later, one of the guards from the hall stepped inside, carrying a small, white envelope. He strode over to the princess, offering a quick bow before handing the envelope to her and retreating from the room.

Kathera opened it, removing and unfolding a thin piece of paper. She scanned the document carefully before passing the letter to Adonias. “Emperor Revaetros requests a parley. No doubt he has received word of your arrival, Lieutenant General.” The princess sounded both relieved and annoyed by this.

“He wishes to meet at dawn in a pavilion erected 50 paces beyond the city gates. Each side may send up to five people.” Adonias placed the letter in front of him on the table, glancing around at those assembled. “Princess Kathera, I suggest you remain here with Captain Davion and the royal guard. We cannot gamble the heir to the throne on the emperor’s honor.”

Mikala could tell from the set of the princess’s shoulders she wanted to protest but she remained blisteringly silent as Adonias continued. “Marshal Asturias, Brigadier Ibarra, Major Kadian, and I will accompany the prince to the parley in the morning. Are all in agreement?” No one objected.

“Let’s see what the emperor has to say tomorrow and then re-adjourn here to discuss any adjustments to our plans.” Petrona nodded at the others. “For now, I believe we have a sound strategy in place. No doubt everyone here has other preparations they need to make.”

“You are correct, marshal.” Adonias turned towards the prince and princess. “I believe the king and queen have already made arrangements for your new protectors to be housed in your apartments. It is of the utmost importance you go nowhere unattended. As I’m sure you’ve heard, Revaetros is not above having his opponent’s assassinated, royalty or not.”

Fane smiled. “The details are all in order, Adonias. I, for one, have no desire to perish on an assassin’s blade.” He glanced towards his older sister who nodded and strode from the room, Davion trailing in her wake. Mikala could tell her friend was going to have her hands full. The prince seemed much more manageable.

Adonias bowed to the prince. “If you require anything more, I will be with my soldiers.” His eyes met Mikala’s as he left the war room. He did not need to remind her of the importance of her assignment.

Petrona also moved towards the door, pausing briefly to bow to the prince. “You know where to find me, your highness. Otherwise, I will see you in the morning.”

“Thank you, field marshal.” Fane responded politely, though Mikala thought she could see a hint of exasperation in his eyes as the older woman disappeared into the hallway.

“Kathera is in fine form today.” Jaumet drawled, examining his nails. With Adonias and the others gone both men visibly relaxed. Mikala, for her part, silently moved back a few paces so she would have a better view of the windows and door.

Fane chuckled. “You know how much she loves being ‘advised’, especially by foreigners.” His brow furrowed and he glanced at her. “No offense intended, major.”

“There is nothing to be offended by, your highness.” Mikala responded, her gaze flicking over to meet his. She could feel Jaumet staring at her as though he had only just noticed she existed, though he quickly lost interest and turned back to the prince.

“Looking at this map is making my eyes ache, Fane. Lunch and cards in your chambers?” As if for emphasis, the baki gingerly rubbed his temples.

The prince grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

***

It quickly dawned on Mikala that the prince’s mild manner in the war room had all been a facade, a mask he wore only for official business. She had spent the last three hours standing in the corner of his recreation room, listening to the two men discuss everything from thoroughbred horses to the women they had recently bedded over drinks and cards.

She tried to keep her attention centered elsewhere, assessing for threats while ignoring the rich furnishings and raucous laughter of her surroundings. She had already unpacked her spare uniforms and other necessities in the smaller bedroom off of the receiving area. All she could do now was fulfill her assignment while remaining as unobtrusive as possible.

“Major Kadian, are you certain you don’t want to get in on this hand? It’s less exciting with only two people. I would be happy to lend you the money to bet with.” Jaumet’s voice was like the purr of a satisfied house cat.

“No thank you, Brigadier.” Mikala responded for the sixth time.

Fane twisted in his seat to look at her. “At least sit with us. You can’t be comfortable like that.”

“I prefer to stand, your highness.”

“And while I respect your wishes, I would prefer you sit.” Mikala shook her head and Fane sighed heavily. “Look at it this way. You’re supposed to be protecting me, yes? Well, Jaumet here is robbing me blind.” He grinned. “I need you to save me from his diabolical scheming before I lose my entire fortune.”

Mikala’s expression did not alter as she walked over to the table, seating herself between the two young men. She kept her legs tucked under the chair, as far away from both of them as possible. “I will watch you play until I have a better grasp of the game. And I have my own money to bet with. We do pay our officers in Adrassa.”

Jaumet raised his glass to her before taking another swallow of wine. He had already drained several glasses of the ruby liquid but looked no worse for wear. She suspected his lineage gave him a higher alcohol tolerance. “That’s the spirit.”

The prince did not match his friend’s breakneck pace, mostly sticking to water. Based on his behavior during the afternoon, his display of moderation took her by surprise. Perhaps he had an idea of what was at stake after all.

“Have either of you met the emperor?” She asked as Jaumet shuffled the playing cards, hoping to steer them away from more musings about their lives at court.

Fane shook his head. “As you might guess from our shared history, Khrayte and Limaetra are not on the friendliest terms. I would imagine His Imperial Majesty is not too fond of Adrassa either, given the role your people played in securing our independence.”

Mikala nodded. “I remember it well. The Grand Alliance was formed during my final year as a novitiate.”

Jaumet, who had been in the process of dealing the cards, suddenly paused, throwing her a sharp look. His face immediately softened as he retreated back behind the veil of mild boredom which appeared to be his default state. It didn’t matter. She had caught the brief spark of bitterness in his eyes.

Fane, on the other hand, regarded her with intense interest as he worked out the math in his head. “That would make you at least 130? Assuming I have my dates correct.”

“It’s dangerous to ask a woman her age, Fane, especially one so well armed.” The fire baki’s gaze swept over her again, lingering first on her engravings before moving to the sword at her belt. “Though, I confess I am curious to find out what exactly it is she can do.”

Mikala ignored him. “I am 138, your highness. I was 15 when the treaty was signed.”

“And she doesn’t look a day over 30. You simply must tell us your secret.” More cracks formed in Jaumet’s charming facade.

“Stop teasing her, Jaumet. I doubt you would survive getting on her bad side.” The prince smirked at his friend, who placed his hand over his heart and sighed heavily in mock pain. Mikala could already tell this was going to be one of her more uncomfortable assignments.

She watched them play several more hands in silence. The prince had not been lying when he’d claimed the fire baki was robbing him. Jaumet won the majority of the time. She hoped he was as skilled on the field of battle. Despite what she had said earlier, she decided against placing any bets of her own.

“I grow weary of cards.” Jaumet said with a dramatic huff as he collected his latest winnings.

“And here I thought you’d never get tired of taking my money.”

“Don’t fret, your highness. Taking your money will never grow old. I’ll simply have to come up with more interesting ways to do so.” The fire baki stood, bowing first to Fane and then Mikala. “I’m afraid I must leave you now. I have a previous dinner engagement I am already late for.”

Fane laughed. “Go, go. Just make sure you’re back before sunrise.”

Jaumet bowed again before slipping out of the room. “You can count on me.”

Mikala watched him go, staring at the door long after he had disappeared. She had spent even less time around baki than she had with humans. She didn’t quite know what to make of the one who had just left, with his oily words and cutting glances.

Breaking free of her thoughts, she turned her attention back to the card strewn table to discover the prince was looking at her again. An odd expression creased his brow.

“Jaumet is a good man.” He said, examining her face. “I know how this must have looked to you but it’s not what you think.”

“You are royalty, your highness. My opinions about your choice of pastimes should not be a factor.”

Fane sighed heavily. “But, they are. I do not know how long it will take for this war to play out. We may be spending a lot of time together. I would prefer not to pass those days in awkward silence.”

She regarded him calmly. “Then say what you would like to say. I will listen.”

He ran his hands through his hair, pushing it back from his face. “I have known Jaumet and his family for most of his life. We came of age at around the same time. By then we had already become friends, despite the differences in our rates of maturity. I looked out for him and now he looks out for me. More than once, we have saved each other from disaster.”

Mikala understood such a bond bond, though it was difficult to imagine between a human and a baki due to the differences in their lifespans.

“Jaumet is nearly ten. We might get to enjoy another ten years together, fifteen if we’re lucky. Either way, our time is limited. When his life runs dry I will still be a man in my prime. So, I indulge his whims and attempt to make his remaining days as enjoyable as possible.”

What was it like to know you would die someday? She’dconsidered it before when the mortals were first permitted to settle in Kallias. They seemed so vibrant and fragile, like stained glass threatening to shatter at any moment.

No earth-shaking insights filled her mind, so she settled on an easy response. “That is kind of you.”

“Kindness and selfishness are two sides of the same coin. I do it for myself as much as for him. I don’t know how I will move forward once he is gone.”

Fane’s manner, boisterous and playful at one moment, tumultuous and sad the next, reminded her a great deal of Camdin. She thought of her half-sister winding her way towards the First Court. She then considered what it might be like if she never came back. The image of her mother flashed in her head.

“I understand what it is like to lose someone who is important to you.”

The prince seemed surprised by this revelation. “I did not think Adrassans could die.”

She did not so much as blink as she spoke the lie. “We can’t.”