The Rogue of Ciraea – Chapter One (1/2)

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Chapter One

Kaeleer

present

1 / Ciraea

Jakob!

The young man flinches and drops his rag into a bucket. Ali, a barmaid of an age with Jakob, giggles as she sweeps past him to the bar. “What did you do, Jak, to make Theia sound like that?

Jakob turns his gold eyes to her. The thin white scar along his jaw-line crinkles when he smiles. “Don’t know, Lady. Mistress Theia blames me for everything, whether it’s short change or a misplaced rack of meat buns.”

“Because usually it is your fault,” Ali shoots back. She stacks ale mugs onto her tray. “No need to play the innocent with me, Jakob. We all know you are a mischievous little boy at heart!”

The Warlord Prince bares a hint of teeth. “I’m a grown man.”

“Men, boys,” Lady Alia says with a sigh. “Usually the same thing. Mother Night. If I had a silver mark for every time that Whit did something so utterly childish—” She breaks off as she slides the heavy-laden tray off the bar.

Jakob is at her side in an instant, attempting to take it away from her.

“I’ve got it!” the witch snaps.

The tray becomes stuck in mid-air. Jak’s eyes twinkle.

“Stubborn male, I swear—”

“Now don’t swear, sweetheart.” Jakob waits until Ali rolls her eyes and drops her hands, then he releases the tray and heads to the kitchen with Ali stomping behind him. “What would you do if your fiancé came in and found you putting old Herb to shame?”

Old Herb is a retired sailor who smells like leather polish and has a fascinating repertoire of vulgar language. Most little boys in town end up with a mouth full of soap after an hour or two of listening to Herb’s tales.

Alia snorts and says something extremely unflattering about bossy males. Jakob grins. He un-stacks the mugs into the sink. When he’s done, Ali shoos him out of her way. The witch calls over the sound of running water, “Go apologize to Theia before she makes us all miserable!”

He makes a rude noise, walks through the swinging door—and straight into the Mistress of the Rose & Thorn Inn in the riverside town of Havenstry.

“Jakob.”

He is too busy watching a large rolling pin go smack-smack-smack against her palm to reply.

“Jakob, Lawl says that you borrowed two barrels of ale.”

Damn. He shouldn’t have forgotten that the bartender takes no sides.

“Well,” he clears his throat, “you see…”

Theia sighs and lowers the rolling pin. “Jak, I cannot afford to keep replacing so many kegs.”

“I’m sorry, Theia. I really am. You know why—”

“Yes,” she says softly, “I do. But don’t ever speak of it aloud, Prince. Don’t.”

He nods in understanding. “You can take the expense out of my pay.”

She shakes her head. “No.” Before Jakob can protest, Theia adds, “Your wages are little enough, Jak. However—” When the Mistress chuckles to herself, he resists the sudden urge to backpedal. “—you will be performing a bit of free labor.”

Ah shit. “Theia!” It’s not quite a whine.

“Don’t complain to me, Prince. It’s your own doing.”

He’d rather chew off his foot. “I’ll chop wood for the winter!”

“You did that last time. We’re stocked and it’s still the middle of the summer.”

“I—uh, I’ll tend the bar. Give Lawl the night off.”

“Do I look stupid, boy? I’d be missing more than two kegs of ale an hour into your shift!”

“Aw, Theia…” That was absolutely not the sound a Warlord Prince makes, but right now Jakob is less of a warrior and more of a boy facing a day of icky chores. Only it’s no chore he will be doing. Chores he can handle, no matter how dirty or unpleasant. Baking? He hates it with a passion.

And he is good at it too.

“You’ve got talent, Jak,” Theia says with an unnatural glee. “If you’d only agree to—”

“No!” It’s not quite a growl.

Theia smiles. “Suit yourself, hon. But you’d be the most popular Warlord Prince in town!” She winks, suddenly seeming so much younger than her twenty-two centuries.

Jakob sighs. He knows a lost battle when he sees one.

That never makes it any easier to accept.

“I want them found!” Phaedra snaps to her Master of the Guard.

Nyx, a hard-eyed man, simply bows in the face of his Queen’s anger.

Reed wipes at the sweat on his forehead. Nyx unnerves him; and the fact that the cold-blooded bastard shares the Queen’s bed is almost… disgusting.

But he had little say in the Warlord Prince’s appointment to Master of the Guard. The Steward did try to warn his Queen of the possible repercussions of granting Nyx a position in the triangle of power. Phaedra had simply said, as she watched guards remove the body from the courtyard, “I need a replacement for Fallon. Nyx has proven his loyalty. He stays.”

Sometimes Reed catches the intense look that Nyx fixes on Phaedra. Is it possible that the Warlord Prince feels the pull of her? That Phaedra is truly the Queen who holds his leash?

Then what does that say about Phae?

Reed sighs and closes his ledger. He tells the livid woman, “It’s more than a matter of the rogues stealing goods, Lady. The people of Ciraea are—”

At the icy look she shoots him, Reed feels his heart pound unnecessarily hard. He clears his throat, continues. “The people of Ciraea are… relating to the rogues and their cause.”

Her words are sharp like a blade. “And what cause would that be, Warlord?”

The Steward says as gently as he can, “Slandering your good name and undermining your authority.”

Phaedra says nothing. He knows that she understands the politics of her province much more thoroughly than any other person. After all, how often has the Queen played a game or two in her favor? To keep her seat of power?

Reed punches down the memories which still have the power to haunt him. He cannot afford to be distracted, not when Phaedra seeks blood.

The Queen rises suddenly, and the males in the council chamber scramble to their feet. “I wish for privacy at this time,” she announces.

They bow low as she walks past. At the door, Phaedra turns back to them. “Rogues against the Queen will not be tolerated in any province.”

Not unless there is ample cause. Lord Reed keeps his silence.

“If we do not… quell these males soon, word will pass onto my Sisters. I cannot have that, gentlemen.” Her eyes are frozen. “Then it will be only a matter of time until the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan turns his attention upon us.”

Even Prince Nyx goes pale.

Reed clutches at his traitorously trembling hands.

“I doubt we would survive an inquiry from Prince Sadi.” With those final words, Phaedra leaves them.

Reed sinks back into his chair.

No, Daemon Sadi must be kept out of Ciraea. He, like every other Dhemlan, has not forgotten the rumor of the Black-Jeweled Prince’s rage in Amdarh some years ago.

The room stinks of fear. At least Reed is not the only man who will worry long into the night.

The rogues must be dealt with discreetly. But he knows that they may not be able to repair the damage already done. The people of Ciraea are restless, ill-content.

And Phaedra, appointed Queen of Ciraea for the last two centuries, will not relinquish her power without a fight.

Prince Jakob sets down a barrel of ale and cracks his neck with a grimace. Lawl is busy at the other end of the bar, filling customers’ orders.

Theia catches the tail-end of a thought on a distaff-to-spear thread. It is aimed at Jakob. *Quit hiding back there and get to work!* Theia snorts at the look that Ali shoots towards the young male from across the noisy room.

Jakob snarls. “Tell that wench I am working.”

Theia does not laugh, though she wants to. Jakob and Ali are no better than two children. Brother and sister, by temperament. She did right, Theia smiles softly to herself, by taking them both in. And Alia will make a good daughter-in-law. That is, if she and Whit ever get around to officiating their hand-fasting. Theia longs for grandchildren, but she would never pressure either her son or Ali.

There is time enough.

It’s another busy night at the Inn. Theia is pleased. They might actually turn a profit. While the Inn has always been fairly popular in their river-side town, she is well-aware that the increase in business has little to do with Jakob’s baking skills. Business at the Rose & Thorn Inn is proportionate to the amount of gossip to be shared.

These days the entire province of Ciraea is riled with talk. Queen Phaedra’s latest proclamation has stirred the hornet’s nest. Any male suspected of involvement with the pirating activities across Ciraea will be subject to more than a night’s imprisonment in local cell holdings. The male shall be immediately escorted to the Queen’s residence for questioning by the Master of the Guard. And every Ciraean man and woman knows that Prince Nyx’s “questioning” is more likely to involve torture than interrogation.

The Queen’s favor has slowly waned over the last few decades, after the trial and execution of Prince Fallon. But as a long-lived race, the people of Ciraea are slow to act until need for change is ripe. By Blood law, they cannot demand that their chosen Queen step down without due cause. For a Queen to relinquish her rule is a serious matter; a case must be presented against the Province Queen to the Territory Queen, as dictated by hierarchy. Since Dhemlan has no Territory Queen, the duty would fall to the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan. No one finds fault enough with Phaedra that they have the balls to approach Daemon Sadi.

This, Theia feels, is partly why anarchy is consuming the province. Daemon Sadi is a dangerous unknown. His father had ruled Dhemlan in name for so long—an intangible presence. When the High Lord returned to Kaeleer, it caused a small shockwave through Dhemlan; they were reminded that the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan is more than a myth. Sadi, since accepting the position in his father’s stead, has shown this Territory on more than one occasion what a Black-Jeweled temper can do.

It has scared people, and trust in general is a slow thing to build.

Unfortunately, Phaedra shows no intention of stepping down. She has never allowed a Queen-in-training into her Court or invited another Queen’s interest in Ciraea. Then there is a sudden influx of new additions into the higher Circles of the Court as Phaedra prunes the older and less enamored members. All these instances paint a picture that bodes ill. Phaedra clearly wishes to remain as Queen of Ciraea into the next century and is arming herself to this extent.

In light of the newest round of the Queen’s commands, Ciraea roils with unease.

Theia has been listening to her regular customers talk for years. She has shared some of their concerns, as a business owner and head of a household.

“How can I feed my family with these extra tithes?”

“When did the vegetable harvest become taxed?”

“Why are we paying for goods we don’t use? Are we expected to buy them too?”

Queen Phaedra is not a bad Queen, not in the way that caused people to disappear after that Witchstorm ten years ago. But the Queen’s will is law, and the people depend on Phaedra to act responsibly and with care for her subjects. Theia suspects that the extra profit that Phaedra has been collecting is going to a personal purpose. Perhaps to secure the woman’s future, when the money should be funding new supplies for the schools or be available for loans to fix up the older districts of Ciraea.

It is little wonder, then, that each new exploit by the band of mysterious rogues is met with a growing sense of approval from the Ciraeans. Were the rogues merely acting on selfish impulses alone, they would have been ousted by their loved ones and summarily punished for their crimes. But the piracy acts have proven to benefit the lower classes of Ciraea—that is, the majority of Ciraea. The rogues are the collective voice of displeasure and protest against Queen Phaedra. The rogues are all Ciraea has at the moment.

There are no District Queens with whom they can seek guidance, ask to speak on their behalf; there have been no District Queens since the beginning of Phaedra’s reign. Theia easily remembers the way Phaedra rose in Ciraea society, like a gleaming star in the night. The witch had charm and appeal. She has insisted that if they allowed her to be Queen that she, and she alone, would care for Ciraea as a mother does for her babe.

It was a grave mistake, one that no Ciraean could have known at the time. Well, maybe one, Theia thinks wryly. Theia had not heeded Moira’s warnings. The local Black Widow had said, “Phaedra is a disease that gives no sign of illness yet slowly festers inside.”

Now, when people ask Moira for her opinion, the witch merely shakes her head. “The path was chosen; we cannot turn back. We must meet our fate.”

Moira’s words are direr than most villagers want to hear. Theia shivers.

It worked, for a while. People were happy enough, as Queen Phaedra ruled fairly. District Queens were abolished, but after the shock wore off, people accepted that. After all, haven’t they long accepted that they are the only Territory not to have a Territory Queen? Instead each district appointed a council which took the people’s concerns directly to the Queen and her Court.

But good things do not always last. People change—especially those with a hunger for power.

“Is something wrong, Theia?”

She starts, catches Jakob’s look of concern. At her hesitation, he reaches across the bar to take her hand, pats it as if soothing an upset child.

“I’m fine, Jak. Just thinking of… Ciraea.”

His eyes darken, and Theia wishes she could take back her words. She does not know why, but Jakob feels deeply for the people of Ciraea—an almost personal responsibility. Some days she wants to ask, but she promised him long ago, that first night she gave him a place to sleep and food to eat, not to ask about his past. Back then he was just a boy-turning-man and alone.

“We’re taking care of Ciraea.” His voice is quiet but she hears the promise in his words.

Her eyes close as her heart aches. They’ve argued about this before. “Not the proper way, Jakob. If only someone would go to—”

His snarl is terrible and low. Theia stands her ground.

“He won’t help us. Hell’s fire, Theia, the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan hasn’t been to see this province in person for years.”

“You cannot judge him based on that alone,” she says quietly.

“Can’t I?” he snaps and turns his back.

Theia stares at those tight shoulders for a moment. When a young girl comes scurrying out of the kitchen, yammering about burnt bread, Theia lets go of the breath that she had been holding. The Inn demands her attention and Jakob would not be thankful for her pestering. So she marches to the kitchen to handle the next crisis.

His vision is tinted red.

Jakob clenches his jaw. Sadi is a selfish, twisted Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince who cares nothing for the people of Ciraea. There’s no one but him, only him, to right the injustice that Ciraea is suffering. That the Queen—

At the sound of a sharp crack, his eyes snap open. When did they close? In his hands is a piece of the barrel rim, which he had broken in his flash of rage. He tosses the wood into the trash, takes a deep breath. But the chattering and the mix of too many psychic scents in the air are scraping at raw nerves.

He places his hands flat against the bar counter and scans the jovially drunk groups of people. When Jakob catches the glimpse of a familiar weathered face, something inside him uncoils. Half of the clients tonight are workers from the docks, so the man does not stick out. Jak quickly finishes reattaching the pump to the barrel and gives it a satisfied pat.

“Goin’ to help Ali,” he calls to the bartender. Lawl shrugs and Jak hops over the bar. He idly cleans up a few spills and chats with one or two people.

When he passes by a particular table, Jak stops and asks “Refill, sir?”

The Warlord glances at him before looking back down at calloused, dark hands.

At the slow nod, he calls in a pitcher of ale and pours the Rose & Thorn Inn’s popular dark brew into the empty mug. The Warlord remarks off-handedly, “Shipment comin’ in a fortnight.”

“Oh?”

The man grunts.

Jakob sets down a full tankard of ale next to one Jeweled fist. “Harvest crops?”

“Too late for harvesting,” is the only reply.

The Warlord Prince nods once.

That gruff voice wants to know, “You’ll be passin’ along my thanks?”

Jakob’ eyes are molten gold as he replies softly, “I will. And my thanks to you, Warlord.”

The Warlord says nothing, merely takes a long swallow of his ale before slapping a few coins on the table to pay for his drink. Jakob vanishes the money, watching the fellow shoulder his way back through the crowd and disappear into the night.

It’s in the early morning hours, close to dawn, when the tavern portion of the Inn closes its doors. Jakob completes his last task and slips out the back.

He rakes a hand through his short hair as he strolls through the dockyard. He checks once behind him, closes his inner barriers tightly and wraps a sight shield around his body. The Opal Jewel against his tan skin glows in the pre-dawn dark.

A Prince is propped against the railing, lazily surveying the river past the docks.

Jak calls softly *Eyan.*

The man’s head tilts slightly to the right, but that body stays relaxed. They have played this game many times. The secrecy is necessary.

*Jak?*

*There’s word on the product from Little Terreille. Should be here in two weeks or so. Can you dig around?*

*Sure.* A hesitation. *Do you want me to gather the men?*

*No, not yet.*

Silence stretches. Jakob is sliding back into the shadows along the dock when Eyan calls out on a spear thread. *You can’t keep Charon leashed much longer.*

Jak does not answer.

Lord Charon is becoming a problem. The Warlord’s hatred for the Queen gives him some common links with them, but Charon is driving for a full-scale declaration of war—which would be a drastic mistake. There has to be a way to save Ciraea without damaging the people. The Warlord Prince knows that if Charon slips his leash, Jakob may be forced to show his hand too soon.

That cannot happen, not until he is ready. Not until Phaedra is properly cornered and all of Ciraea is watching.

2 / SaDiablo Hall

Daemon signs his initials on the document and places it to the side. A headache is growing behind his eyes. The influx of paperwork has become routine over the years, especially during the months directly after Winsol.

Winsol. Daemon pauses halfway through his perusal of a letter as his mind recalls the spider silk gown his wife had worn. Or rather, that lovely sweet skin under the dress and how much he enjoyed tasting it after the dancing had ended.

A knock on his study door interrupts his daydream. Daemon has to clear his throat before he can manage a proper “Come.”

“Prince.”

Ah, Beale. The butler is stoic-faced per usual as he presents a sealed envelope.

“Your secretary’s report.”

Daemon accepts it and nods his thanks.

The report is from both his second-in-command and secretary, but Surreal cannot be bothered to write anything down. Daemon recalls in particular how she expressed her incredulity over his suggestion. It ended with Daemon agreeing to buy her a fancy dinner for upsetting her nerves.

Which is ridiculous because no Dea al Mon witch suffers from a case of upset nerves. But Daemon knows when to concede a battle with a witch, especially one of Surreal’s temperament.

He leans back in his chair and reads the report. Reads it a second time, front and back. The report is then vanished; later he will ask his father for an opinion on it. Daemon narrows his eyes and scratches at his chin with a long, black-tinted nail.

Rainier hints that trouble may be brewing in one of Dhemlan’s provinces but his secretary “cannot confirm the rumors as of yet.”

Ciraea.

That name means little to him, except that its Queen is a beautiful woman who sets him on edge. He stayed once in her residence, after first accepting the role of Warlord Prince of Dhemlan. Thereafter, if any matter requires his presence, he swore that he would have Beale alert the nearest family estate. But Ciraea has not required the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan in person, and Rainier and Surreal have handled the yearly visits to that province. Nor has Queen Phaedra—yes, a name he has not forgotten—come to SaDiablo Hall to address a concern with him.

Sadi closes his eyes and rubs the back of his neck.

With his unfortunate luck, in all likelihood circumstances are about to change.

3 / Ciraea

“Tell me again why we’re here?”

Rainier sighs. “Lady, you wanted this job.”

Surreal picks at her nails with her stiletto. Rainier is thankful they are not in public while she does this. The pair have a hard enough time doing their work without Rainier having to soothe male nerves too.

“I’m not complaining about the job, Prince. Though I should demand a pay raise for dealing with the kind of incompetent fools that we have to.”

Mother Night.

Rainier does not know exactly what Sadi pays her, but considering the roomy house they share and how often she drags him to Amdarh for a shopping spree, he wonders if Daemon shouldn’t be going broke by now.

“Then what’s the matter?”

Surreal drops her hands into her lap. “I’m bored.”

He stares. “You’re serious.”

“Deadly.” That half-smirk of hers does not make him feel better in the least.

“You can stay at the hotel if you prefer, Surreal. I can—”

The witch snorts. “Absolutely not. I can’t keep an eye on you if I am lounging in the hotel, sugar.”

Rainier sputters. “Excuse me?”

She turns amused gold-green eyes on him. “How’s it feel, Prince?”

He narrows his eyes in return.

Their staring contest is broken by the slight jerk of the Coach as it stops. No matter. This isn’t the first time they have had one, and most certainly won’t be the last. Of that, Rainier is sure.

He steadies himself on the door and eases out of the Coach. Surreal accepts his hand as she descends and then links their arms. Her gait, after many companionable years, is perfectly matched to his. Rainier feels a pang for a brief moment that he no longer has the dancer’s stride he used to, but that passes easily enough.

Watching Lady SaDiablo narrow her eyes at the hotel’s receptionist, there is no regret for the price that he paid.

Surreal purrs lethally to the white-faced man, “Would you like to explain to the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan why you cannot accommodate his second-in-command and secretary? Because, sugar? I’d be more than happy to call him for you.”

Rainier bites back a laugh and decides that he’d better save the trembling man before the fellow passes out. Ah, yes. Prince Rainier has no idea why Surreal pretends that their jobs are boring. His, at least, is just that more daunting because he not only has to handle delicate Court business, but he also has to maneuver through the disaster in one particular witch’s wake.

May the Darkness be merciful.

He fervently hopes that the strange feel to the air in Ciraea is just his imagination. If not… Well, he may just demand an increase in salary, too.

“Lady. Prince.” The Steward of the Court executes the proper bow to those who represent the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan. “I am very sorry. I must have misread the date of your visit. We are not prepared to see you both until next month.”

Reed hopes that none of his anxiety is tainting his scent. Their visit is unexpected and… not at the best of times, to say the least. But it would not do to tell them that they are unwelcome and to come back later.

The Warlord Prince, a man with shoulder-length brown hair and green eyes, smiles at him and that eases Reed’s nerves somewhat. “Our decision to visit Ciraea was rather sudden, Lord Reed. We are… touring, shall we say?” Prince Rainier assures him, “Our official meeting with Queen Phaedra will remain as scheduled.”

Unless we decide otherwise goes unsaid. Reed knows that as well as Sadi’s representation does.

The woman, Lady Surreal SaDiablo, is no longer paying attention to either one of the males. She is strolling up and down the hall, almost casually. Too casually.

“Lady?”

“Hmm?”

He cannot even complain that she does not give him the courtesy of a proper answer. He doesn’t dare complain, not with the Opal-Jeweled Warlord Prince watching him and the knowledge of the kind of power the family who backs Lady Surreal wields.

“Lady, how may I serve?” Protocol.

The witch laughs. “Stop fretting, sugar. I don’t bite.”

He has heard otherwise but wisely holds his tongue.

“Would you care for some refreshments? Oh!” He makes it sound as though the thought has just occurred to him. “Lodging arrangements. We have several suites open for guests…”

Lady Surreal wanders back over to the Warlord Prince, slips her arm into his and addresses Lord Reed. “No need. We have a hotel that will do.” She smiles up at Prince Rainier but her smile drops when she turns back to him.

Of course he knows about their hotel. He knew the minute they arrived so close to the Queen’s residence. It is his business to know these things—especially now, with the Court’s fate balanced on a knife’s edge.

“Well,” he says with sincerity. “If you wish to speak with the Queen, she will have time for an audience tomorrow afternoon. And if you need anything else, anything at all, please do not hesitate to ask us for assistance.”

Rainier nods. “A short audience with Queen Phaedra would be most appreciated, Lord Reed.”

He swallows, forces a smile on his face. “Of course. I will send a confirmation of the details to your hotel.” As they turn to leave, he adds, “I hope your stay in Ciraea is pleasant.”

The witch replies, her Gray jewel glinting in the morning light, “So do we.”

Lord Reed returns to his study and collapses in a chair. This is not good, so much worse than he had imagined. Phaedra won’t be pleased. And Sadi’s snoops won’t be easy to deter either.

He wishes, for a moment, that he had drowned himself in that river all those years ago. But he had been too much of a coward to do it, to deny Phae her will.

He is still a coward.

Reed pours himself a shot of whiskey—a liquor he usually indulges in when the night-terrors are fairly severe—and steels himself to face his Queen with the bad news.

Surreal remarks casually, “The Steward looked like a man who’d been told the date of his execution.”

Rainier raises an eyebrow. “Really? I thought that perhaps he was suffering an… unfortunate irritation of the bowels.”

She laughs and smacks his arm. Surreal knew there had to be a good reason that living with a Warlord Prince bordered on acceptable. “Shit, sugar. Don’t make me cry. I just touched up my makeup.”

They continue to stroll down the avenue in companionable silence.

But there is something still niggling at her. Something that seems… off. “What do you think he’s hiding?”

“I don’t know.”

That’s no help. Sometimes pulling an opinion out of a tight-lipped Warlord Prince is impossible until you threaten his balls or something he considers equally important. She snorts at that thought. On the other hand, there are times when getting the bossy-stubborn Warlord Prince to NOT share his opinion—or poorly disguised command—is an ordeal all on its own. Those are moments when Surreal ends up waving a sharp blade around like she means business.

But back to the discussion at hand, because Surreal is now positive that there is a problem afoot. “Reed must know that we have heard the rumors.”

“About the rogues?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, sugar—the one that says Phaedra has a cock under her dress.”

He’s laughing at her again. Rainier always seems to be laughing at her. Surreal narrows her eyes.

Rainier coughs once, quickly. “It is possible. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that Lord Reed finds our presence in Ciraea intimidating.”

“No shit.” She releases her hold on his arm and points across the street. “Before we start talking business, let’s eat. If I remember correctly, this place serves some fantastic tarts.” She is already halfway across the street when Rainier catches up to her.

He looks annoyed that she decided to ignore his right to escort her. So Surreal shoots him a look with which he is very well-acquainted.

Rainier lets her go first into the restaurant. Smart male.

Surreal smiles to herself. She has become fairly adept at this game between witches and snarly males.

Jak walks into one of the unoccupied rooms of the Rose & Thorn Inn, shuts and Opal-locks the door. Besides himself, only two males in this room could possibly break that lock. Eyan wears Birthright Purple Dusk descended to Opal—the darker Opal. Charon wears the Green.

But if Charon’s smart—and Jakob has had his doubts over this—then the Warlord won’t challenge him. Jakob is a Warlord Prince, not just the leader of their little band.

Charon breaks the silence. “The ship is passing by Mist Falls two nights before the new moon. I say we stall it there.”

Jakob slips a hand into his trouser pocket and leans against the door. “Mist Falls is too heavily guarded a port, Warlord.”

“That’s the point!” Charon snarls. “If we can steal the goods there, then it will send a message to all of Ciraea that we are not to be taken lightly!”

He keeps his voice mild, though Charon’s pacing scratches at his temper. “We’ll accomplish our task, Charon, but I won’t risk the men’s lives so foolishly.”

“Who are you to dictate—”

Jak launches himself off the door. Eyan steps between them.

“Fighting amongst ourselves gets us nowhere.” Eyan says this as he lightly shoves at Jak’s chest. Jak flares his nostrils but steps back.

The air is cold. “Charon, I don’t give a damn who you think you are compared to us. You’re free to go back to your society whenever it pleases you.” Jakob snarls that last sentence. “This business is rogue business. Don’t you understand? We cannot flaunt ourselves to the public. We have families to protect, need to protect just as much as Ciraea itself. Do you want your little sister to end up whoring on the streets because you can’t keep your damn mouth shut?”

Charon’s face reddens. “I’m sacrificing a lot by simply being here tonight, you bastard.”

Jak doesn’t flinch. This man may not know it, but Jakob knew his own father—remembers vividly the last time the man stroked his hair and said “Be a good boy, Jak.” In a way, what he is trying to do today is as much about his gentle father as it is about fighting Phaedra’s chokehold on Ciraea.

“You want what we want, Charon. If we work against each other, then Phaedra wins.” He sweeps an eye over the dozen or so men in the room.

“I need a man on the inside of that ship. One of ours.”

A Warlord named Traye steps forward. “I’ve got a cousin that works in a port south of here. I can get myself recruited when they stop for a cargo check.”

Jak nods. Traye is new to the band and young, about fifty years his junior, but Eyan brought him in and Jakob trusts the Prince’s judgment.

“We’ll take over the ship two ports shy of Mist Falls.”

“At Halesford,” Eyan says with approval.

“Yes.” He paces to one side of the room and back. “You all know how this works by now. No killing. We are not murderers, not in the name of justice.” Not yet. “And what we take goes back to the people.” He stops, looks each man in the eye. “Understood?”

The men nod, even Charon despite the fire in his eyes.

“All right. That’s it then.” Several sets of shoulders relax. A few men push a table into the center of the room and grab chairs. Jakob grins. “Who’s the first man out?”

It’s Eyan who looks sheepish. “That’d be me, Jak. The wife’ll have my head on a platter if I’m late for Rani’s recital.”

Jakob snorts. “That tonight?”

“Yeah. You’d never guess by the sound of her practicing. Mother Night, I’ve heard cats in heat that sound better.”

That earns a few chuckles from around the room. Rani is Eyan’s stepdaughter whom he loves dearly, but Eyan is also a man of blunt truth. Besides, everybody on this side of the wharf has heard the girl’s singing and… well, no man envies Eyan his fatherly duty.

“May the Darkness be merciful,” Jak says with a laugh.

He releases the lock on the door and Eyan slips out. Everyone else gathers around the table. Jak sighs and rubs at his face. He guesses that tonight will be poker.

Charon props a boot against Jak’s chair and eyes him. “My deal. You’re going down, Prince.”

Jak shows his teeth. “That’s what you think, Warlord.”

His eyes are aching and his pockets considerably lighter when the last man folds and leaves the Inn. Jak runs into Theia as he groans his way down the stairs. She gives him a measured look, one he cannot read, and silently offers him a set of clean bed sheets. Jakob watches as she climbs the stairs and disappears down the hallway.

She’s a good one, Theia. A woman he almost thinks of as a mother. But Jakob has a mother—one he’ll have to face very soon.

Until that time, he will try his best to protect this small piecemeal family he has come to cherish. He hopes that they will forgive him, in time, for his deception.

4 / Ciraea

Prince Sadi’s second-in-command and secretary pack their bags and head farther south into the province. The meeting with Ciraea’s Queen proved to be of little help—and infinitely more problematic. Phaedra remained evasive, talked of the profitable yields from the harvesting season—useless information, essentially, for the purpose of their discussion—and Surreal seemed unwilling to play their hand by announcing that she and Rainier are in the middle of an investigation. Or perhaps Surreal was just providing the woman more rope with which to hang herself.

Rainier is unsure.

But he can conclude that no answers will be easily uncovered near the Queen’s residence. It makes sense, then, to continue their “tour” of Ciraea elsewhere. Rainier suspects that the Queen will have her loyal men following them—shadows which shall effectively silence potential sources of information and curtail honest opinions. It is a game he has been involved in before. He would like to prolong the hunt for this mysterious band of rogues until he has a clearer idea of where—and what—needs hunting.

He wants time to decide if a call for assistance will be necessary. That call will have dangerous results for Ciraea.

Rainier relaxes into the cushions of the Coach. Surreal’s head lies against his shoulder, the witch making cute little noises that he would never dare think of as snores—not if he values his balls, which he does.

Theft seems to be the main crime committed by the rogues. With this in mind, and the layout of the province, Rainier doubts that the rogues are waylaying Coaches and wagons. Ciraea is a long narrow strip of land which has a major river acting as its eastern border. The fastest route through Ciraea—barring riding the Winds—is by riverboat. This means that Ciraea has two major ports, one at the northernmost and southernmost ends of the river to control the embargo of goods. There is also a decent-sized port, with the Queen’s residence in close proximity, which acts as an intermediary check-point for river shipments.

Mist Falls.

A misnomer of a name. The land in Ciraea is relatively flat. Mist Falls refers to the heavy fog which can envelope the port and surrounding city with little warning. Rainier recalls the first time he was privy to this experience. Surreal had taken one glance out of the window of their shared parlor in the Queen’s residence during an annual visit and told Rainier in no uncertain terms that if they planned to venture outside, he had to wear a leash so she wouldn’t lose him. Of course, the fact that she was grinning soothed his sensitive temper and indicated that she was joking. (It would be unwise to assume Surreal never means what she says.) Later that day, he ended up losing track of her in the fog; by the time they found each other again, he had reconsidered the option of a leash, if only to keep Surreal in his sights. They’d spent the better part of the evening arguing over that. Rainier still thinks he is in the right.

The memory causes him to chuckle but, luckily, it does not awaken the witch beside him. He sincerely believes that Surreal’s morning personality is on par with Jaenelle’s before the coffee arrives. Lucivar and Daemon don’t believe him. Eventually, he’ll find a way to prove it.

Their traveling Coach drops from the Winds just outside of a small wharf-side town. Surreal wakes up with an indelicate snort that has Rainier biting his lip. He wisely refrains from comment and accepts her annoyed glare with a mild look. They manage to pay the driver without trouble and disembark. Rainier is about to lead the way to the better part of town to search for a hotel—a decent one, he hopes—when Surreal starts walking in the other direction.

*Surreal!*

She stops to wait for him. His leg is beginning to ache from the long motionless journey. Her look is apologetic, but he waves off whatever she would say.

“Do you want to go to the river, Lady?”

Surreal shrugs. “I don’t know.” Then she adds, privately, *This direction seems… right to me. I can’t explain it better than that.*

Rainier looks at her sharply. He trusts her instincts. She accepts his offered arm and they set out towards the wharf. Surreal, surprisingly, makes no comment about the mixed smell of fish, brewed ale, and sweat. He is about to suggest that they stop to ask for directions for lodgings when a woman calls out to them.

He turns, placing Surreal just behind him. He can feel amusement rolling off her in waves.

A witch with a long braid of black hair swinging behind her steps out of a shop. Her psychic scent hits him a moment later.

Black Widow.

Not a strong one, Jewel-wise. But a White-Jeweled Black Widow can be as dangerous as a dark-Jeweled Black Widow if a man gets pumped full of the venom from a snake tooth, or ingests a particular gruesome brew of poisons.

She does not welcome them with a smile, though she is the one who initiated contact. The woman merely says, “You’ll want the Rose & Thorn Inn. Two streets down.”

He can feel Surreal shift behind him, wonders if she is itching to call in her stiletto. She surprises him by asking, “What’s your name?”

The woman wipes her hands on a rag from her pocket. “Moira.” Then she turns her back to them, reminds them before re-entering the building, which Rainier deduces by the detailing must be her trade shop, “The Rose & Thorn Inn.”

The door swings shuts and Rainier hears locks snick into place.

He stares at Surreal.

She says little except, “I guess we know where to go.”

Yes, he supposes that they do.

[ prologue | masterpost | next ]

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About KLMeri

Owner of SpaceTrio. Co-mod of McSpirk Holiday Fest. Fanfiction author of stories about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

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