Authors: Tera Lynn Childs
by Tera Lynn Childs
“They are coming, Princess.”
Arianne did not look up from the message she scribbled hastily on a scrap of parchment. “I know.”
Margaux, her most trusted maid and confidante, rushed to her side. “It is worse than we feared,” she continued, her voice taut with worry. “They have rallied their forces. We will not—“
“I know,” Arianne snapped. Her tone was too harsh, too abrupt. Margaux did not deserve such treatment. But they could not afford to waste time on proclamations of doom.
News had spread quickly of the attempted assassination of the Moraine prince. Rumors were thick in the air, many saying that the villain had been colluding with the Deachair. With her clan.
As there had been no communication since, she had to assume that the Moraine were choosing a military response over diplomatic.
Yes, the situation was dire. The Deachair could not fall, she would not allow it. And she was the only one left to ensure their safety.
Knowing her royal title would have no effect on the note’s recipient, she signed only her first name, then folded the parchment and addressed the note.
“Take this.” She thrust the note into Margaux’s shaking hand. “Send it by our swiftest raven.”
Margaux glanced at the parchment. Her face lost all color. “Princess, no—“
“It may be our only option.” Arianne pushed to her feet.
“There must be another way.” The maid could not tear her gaze away from the single word scrawled across the folded note. A most powerful word. A name.
“Go,” Arianne insisted, taking her friend by the shoulder and nudging her toward the door. “Hurry.”
Their gazes met briefly; Margaux’s wide with terror, Arianne’s steady with a certainty she forced herself to feel. Any doubt she felt, she pushed deep into her toes. Yes, it was a risk. A dangerous choice.
It seemed as though dangerous choices were the only ones available to her anymore.
When Margaux still hesitated, Arianne drew herself up to full height, lifted her chin with as much hauteur as her royal tutors had repeatedly drilled into her, and commanded, “Now.”
It was enough. Margaux nodded, then turned and rushed into the hall.
The weight of her position, her responsibility, nearly crushed her. If she were the sort of fae to bemoan her lot, she would think herself too young for such a burden. She would melt under the pressure, give up the throne and let someone else—anyone else—be in charge.
In truth, it was not duty that weighed on her. She had been born a princess and always knew she would eventually become queen. Though the duties came earlier than expected, she was well prepared. She had been trained countless hours in the arts of leadership and negotiation, diplomacy and confidence. She was made to rule.
She was not, however, made to keep secrets. She learned at a very young age that she was not skilled at concealing the truth. If she snuck an extra cake from the kitchen, the cook got her to confess. If she did not finish her assigned reading, the tutor knew immediately. If she feigned illness to escape a boring royal ceremony, her mother saw through the deception.
Her heart ached at the memory of her mother—the always laughing, always moving, always hugging, kissing,
woman from whom Arianne got her dark curls and steadfast courage.
Shaking off the past, Arianne crossed to her wardrobe and pulled open the doors.
Missing her mother would not bring her back. Just as wishing things were different would not change their course.
If that were so, her world would have changed a decade ago.
Her fingers moved nimbly as she unlaced the front of her simple, everyday dress. It was too ordinary by half. If she were going to convince the Moraine to go along with her plan, she would have to play the part of proud, powerful,
leader to perfection. She needed something bolder, more conspicuous.
She pulled the shimmering silk gown out of her wardrobe.
Margaux flew back into the chamber, breathless. “It is done.”
Arianne nodded. “Good.”
She stepped out of her dress and tossed it to the floor.
When Margaux began to reach for the discarded gray cotton, Arianne said, “No. Leave it.”
“There is no time.” Arianne handed Margaux the lavender silk. “But I have a plan.”
Margaux did not question, just started helping Arianne into the gown. If luck was on their side, this might just save them all. Luck had not been on her side for some time. Some might believe that cause for despair. Arianne chose to believe she was long overdue.
Tearloch Donne surveyed the gathered forces of the Morainian army. They were smaller than he would like. Less organized. And less powerful.
There was nothing to be done for either weakness.
Even with the combined numbers of the Royal Guard under Tearloch’s command, the Palace Watch under Liam’s, and the volunteer forces, if their sources were correct, the enemy would still outnumber them by a significant factor. The Moraine had never been the largest clan, but they had at one time been the most powerful. Were they still half so strong, the traitor Ultan never would have dared to attempt assassinating the Moraine prince. Never would have declared war on his own people and then fled in cowardice. And their meager forces would not now have been spread out around the Deachair palace, bathed in the glow of the setting sun and resting on the brink of battle.
Their powers were so diminished that many could not even transform into
to make the journey easier, instead relying on horses to speed their travels.
What they lacked in power and numbers, he hoped they made up for in fury. No fae royal had been assassinated in any of their lifetimes. That their much-loved high prince had been a feather’s-breadth from being the first brought their people to anger.
Tearloch took the betrayal all the more personally since the prince happened to be his best friend. Raised in the palace together, his earliest memories were of sparring with Cathair and their friend Liam in the courtyard. Fighting with wooden swords, pretending to declare war against their enemies.
Now the three friends stood ready to go to war in truth. From the moment they crossed into Deachair territory some hours back, Tearloch had felt the constant prickle of warning at the base of his neck. Perched on the hill overlooking the royal palace, the prickle had escalated into a stab of dread. As much as he wanted revenge, want to hunt down the cowardly traitor and subject him to a thousand tortures, he could not be confident that this was the best course.
They were vastly outnumbered. Most of their numbers were untrained. The rest were undertrained. In recent years, the queen’s focus had been on diplomatic relations. With no hope of military success, she poured their resources into political negotiations and treaties.
Tearloch had been frustrated by the lack of support, but he understood the realities of the situation. Alliances would protect them when magic and strength could not.
Revenge had made them all too emotional to think clearly and tactically.
Reasoning with Cathair had no effect. He would not listen. The prince was determined to attack, to retrieve the traitor and punish his collaborators. No matter his hesitations, Tearloch would not defy his prince.
He only hoped they did not pay too high a price.
At least they had listened to reason concerning the queen and the prince’s younger brother. Eimear and Aedan remained safely within the palace walls, though each had argued to join them. They could not risk the entire royal family in one foolhardy campaign.
Their only advantage was surprise. They barely had time to develop a strategy, let alone time for any spies to send notice of their plans. The Deachair could not be expecting them.
Tearloch sensed someone move next to him and knew before turning it was Liam. The head of the Palace Watch moved more stealthily than any creature in the forest, even without the use of his powers.
Liam looked no more happy about this than Tearloch felt.
Then again, Liam never looked happy.
“Your force is in place?” Tearloch asked.
Liam nodded, his jaw set in a grim line.
Their plan was simple: surround the palace, lay siege, and make sure no fae or raven escaped to call for reinforcements. The Palace Watch would take the rear flank, the Royal Guard the front, while the volunteer force would guard the right side. Nature guarded the left side in the form of a sheer cliff, solid rock that loomed taller than the palace itself.
“Cathair is ready to approach,” Liam said.
Tearloch nodded. According to fae tradition, before any military action, the leader of the offensive force would seek audience with the defenders, to give them the opportunity to negotiate or surrender.
If the Deachair chose not to fight, instead handed over the traitor without drawing bow against the Moraine, they all might have a chance of surviving the night.
But Drustan, the Deachair king, had never been known for his restraint. This more than anything else made Tearloch nervous. Which was why Tearloch and Liam would approach at Cathair’s side. Their prince’s life could not be risked.
“All is ready?” Cathair asked, emerging from the circle of Royal Guards that had been assigned to protect him on the journey.
“It is, my prince,” Tearloch replied. He stepped closer, dropped his voice low so only Cathair could hear. “It is not too late to reconsider. If your temper has cooled—“
Cathair speared him with a royal glare. “My temper is not inflamed. The traitor cannot be allowed refuge in the home of our would-be ally.”
Tearloch nodded. “I understand.”
The decision had been made. They would proceed with the plan, come what may.
Without another word, Cathair turned and started down the hill. Liam fell in step on his left, Tearloch on his right.
As they reached the path that led to the palace entrance, Cathair stopped. Feet braced wide, he called out, “King Drustan of the Deachair, I, Cathair O Cuana, High Prince of the Moraine, seek audience with your duplicitous highness.”
“Well that’ll get things off to a great start,” Tearloch muttered.
Cathair ignored him.
They watched the huge palace doors, waiting for the royal page to emerge and invite them within. But the doors did not move.
A flutter of color caught Tearloch’s eye and he looked up at the battlements.
“Prince Cathair,” a female voice called down, “I am afraid my father is away from the palace at the moment.”
The three of them stared up at the young woman who stood between a pair of heavily armed guards. Her dark hair fell over her shoulders in heavy curls and, even across the distance between them, her tawny skin glowed in the torchlight.
Her pale purple gown fluttered in the evening breeze.
Though he had not seen her in many years, he recognized her instantly.
Princess Arianne. The fae Cathair was to marry, before the assassination attempt. And before the prince fell in love with the human girl, Winnie.
Tearloch saw the glint of the arrowheads trained on their party. His muscles tensed, ready to place himself between the prince and the palace if things went badly.
“Then I seek your audience, Princess,” Cathair called out.
“That, I am afraid,” she said, her voice less steady than Tearloch would expect from a royal, “is impossible.”
Arianne’s hands shook as she gripped the edge of the battlement. She forced herself to take a calming breath, to project more surety than she felt. For years she had managed to lead her clan and deal with allies and enemies without revealing the truth of their situation. It was a matter of survival. If the other clans knew how weak they truly were, if they knew her father was missing, that the Deachair were being led by a teenager, her people would not survive a fortnight.
At first, the deception was supposed to be temporary. Just until her father came home. But as time went by, season after season, it became more and more obvious that King Drustan would not be returning.
By then, she had fallen into the routine of pretending her father was away. Of managing to keep her kinsmen and visiting diplomats from suspecting the truth. It seemed easier to maintain the facade.
The facade that could not end today. The Moraine could not be allowed within the palace walls.