When the Teryn emperor goes missing, Lilla must uncover who is behind the conspiracy before it's too late.
Unfortunately her success depends on the Proud Pada.
“You are so beautiful, Lilla,” Callum says. He looks striking in his form-fit- ting, black military uniform, which emphasizes his tall, muscular body. The lapels of his jacket, turned to the side, reveal dark gray lining in a V shape. Colorful triangular buttons line up on the inside of the lapel in three rows. Tight black pants show the shape of his muscular thighs. Knee-high black boots complete his outfit.
I can’t look away from his blue eyes. They shine with so much love and happiness on his tanned face, framed by short black hair. A thin, jagged scar runs from his eyebrow to his strong jawline—evidence of the dangerous life he’s lived in his twenty-five years. A lopsided grin appears at the corner of his mouth.
Behind Callum, an orange-red sun ascends above the horizon. Along with it rises the already humid heat. It will become overbearing in a few hours. Small purple birds burst from the evergreen tropical trees, soaring across the cloudless, green-tinted, blue sky. They chirp and twitter, adding to the cacophony of the waking jungle.
Excitement raises goose bumps on my arms. I can’t believe today is the day our life together begins. The day I’ve been waiting for, ever since I invoked the Teryn traditional marriage proposal called Bride’s Choice on Callum.
With shaking hands, I smooth the front of my gray, sleeveless dress, end- ing in a wide skirt that does not reach my sandaled feet. So many feelings wash over me. Excitement. Worry. Joy. How I wish for the impossible that my mom and brother could be here.
Callum reaches for my hand, the calluses from wielding his longsword rasping on my olive-toned skin. “Are you nervous?”
I glance at him and raise my eyebrows. “Have you changed your mind?” We’ve only known each other a few months. During that time, we fought an
archgod and survived; became separated for days; and learned that not all his family members were supportive of our pending union.
A soft breeze, scented with sweet flowers, tangles with my dark violet tresses, blowing them across my face and into my dark violet eyes.
He touches my cheek, his thumb rubbing a circle. “You didn’t answer my question.”
How do I find the words to explain that I am bursting with so much hap- piness, like I’ve never felt in my nineteen years? That I can’t wait for my Bride’s Choice claim to be honored by his father, Caderyn, praelor and ruler of the Teryn Praelium—the most dangerous empire in the Seven Galaxies? Yet I fear that something will happen to prevent us from getting married. “I’m not nervous. You?”
“Nothing could make me change my mind,” Callum says and tucks the loose strands behind my ear. “I am sorry your father couldn’t be here.”
I look away, trying to sort through my warring emotions.
My friends mingle among thousands of black-clad Teryn warriors who are getting ready to line up for our wedding ceremony, held on this orange-green planet in Galaxy Seven named Cathal. The location of my next mission as sybil, right hand and general to the Archgoddess of the Eternal Light and Order—one of the ruling archgods of the Seven Galaxies—or The Lady, as I like to call her. We’ve been stationed here for more than a week now but nothing has happened. Not. A. Single. Thing. That was the only reason Callum and I were able to wear down Caderyn’s resistance against this cer- emony and convince him to officiate it now. We all needed a change from the monotony of, well, boredom. Hence the impromptu wedding, announced yesterday.
“I wish Father could have joined us,” I say, “but he could not have made the journey in time. He did send his best wishes and blessings when I talked to him this morning.” Our relationship will always be complicated, but at least we’re talking to each other.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Callum pulls me closer to him with a quick mo- tion. I brace myself with a hand on his rock-hard chest.
I crane my neck to look him in the eyes. “Impatient, are you?”
He leans down and kisses my nose. “Very.” He places his hands on my
waist and studies my face, drinking in my features. “I know this is not how you must have imagined your wedding—”
I press a finger on his lips. “I never wanted the pomp that came with the royal court even when I was a princess. Now that I am a princess only in name, I have even less need for it.”
We could not have picked a more perfect place for the ceremony even if we had tried. The clearing we’ve gathered in, not too far from the im- posing black Teryn warship, is bursting with life. Flowers in all colors and shapes bloom around us—on branches and vines that snake around the thick trunks of yellow-tinted trees. Critters rush by, rustling leaves of the thicket that covers the ground in orange-brown patches. Pink-hued steam puffs from cone-shaped mounds from time to time. Sunlight sparkles on drops of water clinging to the wide leaves of the native plants. Three moons, each smaller than the next, line up in the distant sky in a half circle. Peace and calm satu- rate the atmosphere of the otherwise uninhabited planet. I wonder anew why The Lady sent me here with the whole Teryn armada, when there is nothing happening here.
I turn back to Callum. “Where is your family? They should have joined us by now.”
He kisses my cheek, then frowns in the direction of the black warship, the size of a small city. “They are late. More importantly, he is late.”
I stifle a sigh of worry. “I’m sure Caderyn will be here any moment.” Callum shakes his head. “He’s always punctual. This is not like him.” “Maybe if we wait a bit longer . . .” My voice trails off. Even I don’t believe
Caderyn will show.
Callum growls. “I’m done waiting.” He reaches for my hand and adds,
“We’ll drag the praelor here, whether he likes it or not.”
Glenna, my petite best friend and healer, falls into pace with me. “What’s happening?” We cut a path through the remnants of the crowd. She shoves a white strand of hair—a clear sign of the corruption growing in her—off her shoulder.
I open my mouth to answer my friend’s question when Moira—the fabled queen of the original Teryns, my melded spirit, and the Heart Amulet her- self from the Teryn tales—interrupts me. What did I miss? she asks in my head and yawns, showing off white fangs in a wolfish face framed by black lyon mane and covered with tiny scales that glint with a multihued light. She clasps her lyon-like paws in front of her long red dress, which accentuates the athletic curves of her bear-like body in a flattering way. Ever since we joined, or melded, the two of us can communicate in thought, share my body equally, and transfigure into a unique battle form no other Teryn has.
“Caderyn never showed up,” I say to both, staring at the humongous black warship that seems to swallow the sunlight with its darkness. For a second, I despise that ship. It reminds me how cold, ruthless, and close-minded the Teryns can be to outsiders—a lesson I learned the hard way, almost dying in the process. All they care about is their weapons and fighting, and oh, yes, how could I forget? Their honor. The problem is that they seem to have a different description of what honor means than I do. Case in point: Caderyn going back on the promise he made not even a day ago. I push down my rising irritation.
Callum glances at me. I detect the same anger in his eyes. He just hides it better.
Glenna pats my arm in comfort, then glares at Ragnald, a two-hundred- forty-year-old battlemage and friend, who hurries to catch up with us.
“What do you mean he ‘never showed up’?” Ragnald asks. He reaches into the pocket of a black mage robe he wears over a gray suit and black shoes. He takes out a leather string and pulls his long silver hair into a ponytail. A colorful circular emblem, embroidered with all six light elements, stands out on the black fabric, showing: azure blue A’qua for water, dark brown T’erra for ground, ruby-red Fla’mma for fire, sky-blue A’ris for air, straw-yellow A’nima for all living souls, and golden-white Lume for light. “This reminds me of the time when the Academia of Mages sent me to the Monarchy of—”
“We don’t have time for your tales,” Arrov, my seven-foot-tall, ex-rebel friend says. He wears an all-white outfit that makes his light-blue skin tone, midnight-blue hair and eyes even more striking. Plenty of Teryn warrior women eye him as he passes by.
Marauder crown princess Intonia Varia Yanna, aka Ivy, elbows Arrov to the side. “Did you poison him like I taught you?” She chews open-mouthed on a purple mass of gum. She swipes a hand through her long blond hair and arranges her boobs in the tight, teal-colored minidress that has more holes in it than material. Her green eyes flash with mischief and intellect.
Belthair, my ex-boyfriend and ex-rebel captain, wave his six hands in ag- itation. “Of course she did not poison him.” Dressed in a leather jacket with pants tucked into black boots, he looks menacing. He raises a black eyebrow in question. I shake my head, indicating that I did not poison Caderyn. It had never occurred to me, but now I find the idea tempting.
Arrov nods toward Ivy. “Why is she still here?”
Ivy pouts. “You know I can’t go back to the Marauders Syndicate. They will kill me for failing the dowager queen’s command. Probably.” She tilts her head at Callum. “Though he is still up for grabs.”
I slice out a hand. “There will be no poisoning, or grabbing—outside of mine, that is.” Even if it’s the last thing I do.
That’s the spirit, Moira says, then laughs. No pun intended.
Ivy asks around her gum, “What’s wrong with poisoning? It’s the Ma- rauders’ way.”
Isa and Bella, twin princesses from the scientific world of Barabal, my good friends and best hackers in the Seven Galaxies, giggle. “There are a lot of things wrong with poisoning,” Bella says and shakes her black hair styled in a bob. She wears a yellow jumpsuit on her petite and slender body, along with ankle boots.
“We discussed this, remember?” Isa asks, looking almost identical to Bel- la, elegant and stylish in a similar jumpsuit.
Ivy eyes the twins with a frown. “I thought you two were joking.”
Arrov crosses his arms, making his bicep bulge in his white jacket. “That’s just great. What if Ivy decides to poison all of us in our sleep?”
“If I wanted to poison any of you, it would have been Lilla for stealing Callum from me—”
Callum scowls at Ivy. “Lilla did not steal me from anyone.”
Ivy pulls her skirt lower, which keeps riding up her legs. “But I am a much more forgiving soul than that.”
Arrov blinks at Ivy. “In what reality are you a forgiving—”
Belthair smiles at the Marauder princess. “You are so humble, too.”
Ivy blushes. “I know.”
Glenna and I exchange a look. Neither of us has missed the fact that Ivy
hasn’t answered Arrov’s question. Her life in the court of the Marauder Queen was anything but easy. She survived assassination attempts from her family by becoming a spoiled and superficial princess, someone who was not a threat to the queen’s throne.
We enter the enormous black ship and stride onto a narrow and window- less corridor, taking one hallway after the other until they all blur. Angled panels with a fur-like texture make up most of the wall. Soft light comes from around the perimeter of the rectangular panels but fails to make the ship feel warm. Under my feet, a metal grate covers a tube full of yellowish gas fuel. In the gas, long beaked-salamanders swim, cleaning it from space particles as they feed on them.
I should have known the wedding wouldn’t happen. Neither Caderyn’s wife Sorcha, nor Callum’s sister Rhona, nor his two older half brothers, Sachary and Sawney, were present in the clearing. Caderyn probably told them not to bother.
You cannot know that dear, Moira says. They could have a legitimate reason for their absence.
Like what? I cannot think of any.
Something, uh, important, Moira says, then winces. We take another turn and run into Caderyn.
Caderyn—an older image of Callum with his wide shoulders and similar height but with gray hair and beard—stops and stares at us for a second, looking lost. He clears his throat. “There you are. I was looking for you.”
Callum narrows his eyes. “What do you mean you were looking for us? You know we were outside, getting ready for our wedding—”
Caderyn dismisses his son’s comment with a flick of his wrist. “That’s not important now.”
I take an involuntary step back. I have long suspected that Caderyn didn’t like me from the moment we met, but to dismiss my wedding as something unimportant hurts like a deep cut from the prickliest seashell.
Moira shakes her head. Don’t let him see how much he hurt you, dear. We’ve proved him wrong once; we’ll prove him wrong again.
Callum takes a step forward, but I stop him with a hand on his corded forearm. He cannot challenge his father on the ship, or he’ll break one of the Ground Rules that govern all Teryns.
An orange-reddish light flashes in Callum’s eyes, a clear sign of his anger. “Would you care to explain to us what was more important?”
“It’s best if you see for yourself,” Caderyn says. Something akin to pain crosses his face, making him look older than his age of fifty-five. “Follow me.”
Caderyn stops at the entrance to one of the ship’s living quarters. He waves his palm on the raised panel, and the inward-angled door opens with a quiet swish.
For a moment I don’t see anything wrong in the spacious room. On the left, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall opens to verdant green vegetation. On the right, a light gray bed, attached to the wall, and two chairs with a table complete the furnishing. My gaze lands on a tall, dark-haired woman wearing a black mil- itary-style uniform. Sorcha, Caderyn’s second wife and Callum’s mom, with haunted eyes in her pale face, stands in the middle of the room with her daugh- ter Rhona hugging her shoulders. A bald Teryn warrior with a green medic ribbon on his pocket waits next to them, a forlorn expression on his face.
Rhona, dressed in the black military uniform, drags a hand through her black hair, a motion I’ve seen Callum do a hundred times. When she looks up, her blue eyes look pained.
Dread spreads from my belly all the way up my spine.
Callum stops, his body rigid.
The women move back as I enter, and that’s when I see it. Blood—spreading in a widening pool on the gray carpet around a prone
and black-clad body behind the table.
Inhaling the air, scented with copper, I cover my mouth with a hand. My
heart drums in my ear.
I recognize the body with his dark brown hair. Sachary—Callum and
Rhona’s older brother from Caderyn’s first marriage—lays on the carpet, lifeless.
Glenna rushes into the room and kneels by Sachary. She threads transpar- ent ribbons of A’ris magic into him, attempting to heal him.
For a second, I see a different dead body floating facedown in the shal- low water of Frida’s Bay back in Uhna. A young woman with fake, dark vi- olet hair, wearing a torn and bloodstained evening dress that drifts around her, while the waves push at her slim body with small blue crabs crawling all over her.
“I just talked to him yesterday at dinner,” I say and my voice quivers as I try to come to terms with the thought that he will never join us again. How can he be dead? Who would want to kill him and why?
Callum squeezes my hand, his mouth in a thin line. He looks at me with eyes pained, then strides to his mother and hugs her. Sorcha buries her head in his shoulder, her wails muted.
Glenna shakes her head. “His body is still warm. I estimate the time of death to be less than an hour ago. Cause of death is a single puncture wound to the heart.”
Caderyn grinds his teeth. “That’s what the medic said.”
“I wonder . . .” Ragnald’s voice trails off. He closes his eyes, then moves his hands in a circle, mixing transparent red ribbons of Fla’mma with brown ribbons of T’erra before blanketing the room with the magic mix.
Every inch of the living quarters lights up, with dark footsteps around Sachary and a single line of footsteps leading out of the room.
Ragnald opens his eyes and puts on the yellow glasses that allow him to see magic. He relays the magical pattern he sees for the others then adds, “There is no sign of struggle. Only one attacker.”
I study the magical marks. “Nor is there a sign that Sachary tried to trans- figure to defend himself.”
Moira nods. I don’t detect any shimmer sparks left over from a transfiguration.
Caderyn sighs. “That’s what I concluded as well.”
Rhona crosses her arms, looking more like her old self. “Whoever at- tacked Sachary was someone my brother must have known. He trusted this person enough to let him or her into his room. I wonder if it was one of Sachary’s old enemies. We all know that my brother’s temper can, I mean, used to get the best of him—”
Caderyn snaps, “Yes, we do know that. I issued a command to prevent anyone from leaving the planet. All the reports coming back state that no one managed to escape via shuttlecraft or left my ship. I know that much. The killer is still here.”
“Have you issued a search yet?” Callum asks.
Caderyn pales. “I, uh, ordered everyone to get back and put the ship in a lockdown, but I, uh, haven’t thought of . . . I can’t believe I haven’t thought of . . .”
Sorcha, with tearstained face, hugs him. “You were too distraught, my love, but it’s not too late now.”
Callum hits his fist in his open palm. “The killer has nowhere to go. Have your most trusted warriors search for anyone who is not at their station.”
Caderyn nods and presses on his earlobe to use his k’bug—the Teryn communication device that is a living insect attached to the back of his ear. Activating the long, thin hairs on its legs, the sound waves created can reach other k’bugs. He barks the order, then looks at Callum. “Anyone can be the culprit . . . how will we . . .”
I never thought I’d see the praelor so bewildered, dear.
My heart aches for Callum’s family. I cannot know what they are going through, but having lost my brother Nic, who was murdered in front of me, I can imagine their pain all too well.
Callum strides to the door. “I will find whoever did this, Father.”
Ragnald raises a hand. “If you could wait for a second.” Then the mage steps outside the room, ahead of Callum.
We follow Ragnald. There he uses Fla’mma magic to highlight a trail of dissipating footsteps heading to the right. “At least I can help you with a direction to start your search. May the Archgoddess of the Eternal Light and Order guide you.”
Belthair cracks his twelve knuckles. “We’re coming with—”
“I’d rather you stay,” Callum says, interrupting him. “I need you to protect my family.” Then he turns to his father. “I’ll find the killer.”
I clasp Callum’s hand. “I’ll help you.” He hesitates for a second, then nods. Together we hurry down the corridor.