Read on for an excerpt from the book:
The wind whipped through her midnight hair, blowing it out behind her like a dark nimbus. Her hands gripped the thick leather reins as she leaned forward and rocked her hips in time with the horse’s powerful movements. The sun kissed her face, warming her cheeks and bringing a smile to her face. A sense of bliss filled her as she gave the horse its head and they all but flew across the desert.
Calinda glanced over her shoulder at her companion. He was keeping pace with her, which was unusual. Most people, no matter how much time they spent in the saddle, simply did not ride as well as she did. But this man wasn’t typical, so she should not be surprised that he could keep up when very few others could. He was one of the most skilled warriors the Empire had ever produced. Currently, he was second only to her father.
Thoughts of her father were like a black cloud settling around her, so Calinda turned her face back to the sun. Its warmth was more than physical. It filled her very being as they raced across the desert. Her horse, a beautiful black mare given to her by her parents, thundered over the sand, never putting a foot wrong. With Sesi moving between her thighs, Calinda had no need to watch the path ahead. She could just give herself up to the brightness of the day and the serenity of the desert.
Finally, after galloping for what felt like the better part of a day, Calinda drew to a halt. The other horse came up beside her and Calinda smiled saucily at its rider. She had a plan, and this man was a part of that plan. If only he would cooperate…
“Don’t give me that look,” Payton drawled, determined not to be taken in by Callie’s bright smile and dancing eyes. “A ride. That’s it. That’s what you told your brother and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Calinda dismounted and laughed. “Why do you think I didn’t tell my father we were going for a ride?” His look of confusion had her laughing harder. “Because he’d have seen through the lie.”
“Get back on the horse, Your Highness.” She was his best friend’s sister, and he usually didn’t bother with the title, but he was trying not to strangle her. A little formality would help remind him that she was royalty. And Royal Guards did not strangle royalty. Usually.
“I’m not getting on. You’re getting off.” Her hand glowed a soft purple and she snapped a tiny bolt of energy through the air. Her magicks were powerful, but she also had more control than most mages her age. At eighteen, she could destroy a building or light a candle. It was all a matter of degrees.
She hadn’t hit Payton that hard, but he still went flying off his horse. Landing on his ass in the sand, Payton groaned. The sound made her smile as she skipped across the sand to his side. He didn’t stand, but he did rise up on his elbows to glare at her. Calinda flopped down on the ground beside him, trying not to laugh at his plight.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Payton complained. Then his eyes widened as Calinda began to unlace her gown. “Don’t do that!”
“Oh, relax.” She continued to work the laces. “It’s not like I’m naked underneath.” The gown slid down to her hips and Calinda rolled onto her back, kicking her feet in the air to throw the silk gown across the sand.
Payton’s eyes widened, though he was not surprised. Clad in black leather breeches and a grey leather tunic, Calinda reclined on the sandy ground. Her riding boots matched the breeches and she pulled a pair of grey gloves out of the belt that cinched her waist. Once the gloves encased her slim hands, the young princess jumped to her feet and struck a casual pose.
“How many blades are you carrying?” There was a twinkle in her eyes as she looked down at him.
Crawling slowly to his feet, Payton just shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We’re not doing this.” If he didn’t keep some control of this situation, it was going to spiral out of control.
“We’ve done it before,” she reminded him with a slight singsong to her voice. “What makes today any different?”
Payton threw his hands up in the air. “It’s different because last time Tristan caught us. Your brother might have thought that it was a big joke, but he did promise to tell your father next time. And I, for one, do not want to have to deal with Emperor Damuk when he’s in protective father mode.” Just the thought made him shiver.
“Where is your sense of adventure? It’s not like I’m asking you to sleep with me.” She stubbornly planted her feet in the sand and stared up at him, willing him to obey her wishes.
“What happened to the sweet young girl we used to know?” he retorted, more than a little appalled by her words. Ladies did not discuss such things. Ever.
To that question she had a ready answer. “Squashed by my father.”
“That’s not fair. Your father is a good man.” One of the few things he was proud of was his loyalty to the Emperor. He couldn’t let anyone besmirch the man, even if that anyone was his youngest daughter.
“It’s fair enough.” Realizing that Payton wouldn’t respond to demands, she changed her tactics. “Please, Pay. How am I ever supposed to prove myself if you don’t help me learn?” She put her hands on his chest and smiled sweetly up at him. Few men could resist that smile.
And Payton wasn’t one of them. “Fine.” He rolled his eyes as he drew the sword at his hip. He tossed it to her and noticed the ease with which she caught it. “But only for a candlemark. Then we go back before we get caught.” The sword across his back made a hissing sound as he pulled it free and twirled it in his right hand.
Calinda flexed her calves, stretched her shoulders, and made sure her grip on the sword was secure. Then she waited for him to come at her, anticipation rushing through her.
“I don’t know. I think William can handle it.” Tristan pushed his jet-black hair out of his eyes as he reined in his horse. This one was young and jumpy and not fully gentled yet. It took all his concentration to keep the steed under control.
Damuk glanced at his eldest son out of the corner of his eye. “It’s far too much for a former thief to take on.” Tristan might be Crown Prince, Commander in Chief of the Imperial army, and a father in his own right, but the young man was still naïve in many ways.
Since he was quite fond of Marella’s husband, Tristan might have defended his brother-in-law. But he saw his father’s concentration drift and immediately came alert. “What?”
The Emperor pierced his son with his icy blue gaze. “Why is your sister outside the city?”
He couldn’t outright lie to those eyes. “She wanted to go for a ride. Payton took her. They… might be around here.”
“That wasn’t what you were going to say.” Something was happening with Calinda and he was quite sure he wasn’t going to like it. For just a moment he considered using his magick to look into Tristan’s mind, but ultimately dismissed the idea. He was too moral a man to invade his son’s thoughts, but it was a near thing. Especially when it concerned his youngest daughter. His errant youngest daughter.
Tristan wanted to tell him. He didn’t exactly approve of what Calinda was doing, even if all she was doing was wandering outside the city without their father’s permission. He suspected there was much more to it, and he should immediately tell his father. But she was his sister and he’d promised he would say nothing unless he caught her a second time. Finally he said only, “I can’t tell you. But we could… wander in that direction.”
Damuk raised an eyebrow. “You want me to find her.” It was a statement, not a question. But Tristan nodded, encouraging Damuk to guide his horse toward his youngest daughter’s aura. He shielded his own aura, and that of his son, so that Calinda would not sense their approach.
But Calinda was more than a mage. She had excellent hearing. So he held his steed to a fast walk in an effort to muffle the hoof beats. Phoenix moved like a ghost, hardly disturbing the sand as he walked. The roan was young, barely two years old, but he’d proven himself in battle more than once. It was unusual to see the Emperor mounted on a horse that wasn’t black, but Phoenix was singularly intelligent, loyal, and steadfast. Besides, the horse had been a gift from his wife. He’d have ridden the roan if the beast had been a ragged nag. He was only glad the beast had proven to be so much more. His wife had excellent taste.
Tristan came up beside him and Damuk held up a hand. His son slowed his pace and together they moved in silence. The sound of swords clashing echoed through the air and Damuk reached for his sword. But Tristan shook his head and Damuk eased the blade back into its sheath. His son might be naïve, but he knew his little sister. Possibly better than her own parents did.
They crested the sand dune a moment later and Damuk’s eyes widened. There was his youngest daughter, but she wasn’t going for a scenic ride through the desert. No, she was grasping a sword and sparring with Payton. More than that, she was dressed in leather and scrambling across the sand like a trainee. And she was not a trainee.
Anger darted through him at her blatant disobedience. Weeks ago, when she’d asked if she could join the guard, he’d clearly refused to entertain the idea. Women did not wield weapons, especially not women in his family, with the sole exception of his daughter-in-law. There had never been a woman in the guard, and his daughter would not be the first.
And yet here she was, scuttling around in the sand. He urged Phoenix forward, no longer caring if the pair heard him. And hear him they did, for they sprang apart as if they’d been burned. When Payton caught sight of both the Emperor and the Crown Prince, he stood immediately at attention but said nothing. He did, however, drop his sword in the sand.
Calinda also stood, but she was slower about it and she didn’t drop the sword she held. Instead, she stood glaring at her father, defiant and angry. But Damuk could tell that she was also uncertain and afraid. Good, he thought to himself, let her fear what I will do. He was angry enough to beat her, but this wasn’t the time or the place. He’d never struck one of his children in anger. It was his belief that if he was going to strike one of them, it would be only for discipline. And discipline and anger were never a good pair. No, discipline could wait. After he got her back to Crown City and had managed to control his burning rage.
But his anger was fresh and ready for a target. It found one in Payton. “Tristan,” he said over his shoulder, “Take your friend into custody.” His voice was quiet and controlled, almost calm. But anyone who knew him would also know this was when he was at his most dangerous.
Tristan shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. “On what charge?” He and Payton had been friends for almost twenty years, since they were just six years old. They’d been through a lot together, nearly died together. Arresting him just didn’t seem right. Especially when he’d not really done anything to deserve it.
“Treason. Lock him up.” His gaze shifted to his daughter, still so defiant. “And you will get on that horse and accompany me to Crown City.”
“I will not!” she snapped, clearly not willing to give in.
Damuk dismounted in one quick motion and advanced on her. He stopped when he saw her gown lying in the sand. It was the yellow silk riding habit that looked so stunning against her black hair and sun-kissed skin. Her mother had bought it on the other side of the mountains, deep in the Yarian Republic. And Calinda had just thrown it in the sand like a piece of trash. He picked it up and flung it toward her.
“Put it on!” Instead of waiting to see if she complied, he strode over to her horse. Sesi was high-strung and pulled away from him, but Damuk simply grabbed the reins and tied them to the pommel of Phoenix’s saddle. The roan would keep the mare in line. When he glanced over his shoulder, Calinda was clutching the gown to her chest. A single raised eyebrow had her scrambling to pull the yellow silk over her head.
When she’d tied the laces, he grabbed her elbow and almost tossed her on her horse. He considered having her ride pillion behind him, but he wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t throttle her if she was that close. Calinda opened her mouth to say something, but a sharp look silenced her. He wasn’t in the mood for her excuses.
Remounting Phoenix, Damuk shifted his gaze to Tristan. “I’ll see you back in Crown City. After I’ve dealt with your sister.” He didn’t so much as glance at Payton.
Tristan just nodded and watched as the pair rode off toward the capital. As they disappeared over the nearest sand dune, he urged his own horse closer to Payton. “That was stupid, Pay.”
“She said she just wanted to go for a ride,” he protested. “How was I to know she’d pull this again?”
“You could have refused. She can’t be doing this.” Tristan ran a frustrated hand through his hair, looking and sounding remarkably like his father in that moment.
Payton moved to pick up both swords. “Why can’t she? Your wife isn’t exactly the prim and proper lady.”
In that, Payton was certainly correct. Jewel, Tristan’s wife, wore breeches more often than not, had her hair cut short, and carried several small blades at all times. Still, Tristan shook his head. “Jewel is Kin. She was born and bred to be… well, not a lady. Callie is a lady and should act that way.”
“All she wants to do is serve in the guard.” Sheathing both swords, he gathered his own horse. “You’d let Jewel serve if she asked.”
“I would not,” Tristan said sharply. “Women don’t serve in the guard. Doesn’t matter who they are.” He firmly believed that. Women and men just… shouldn’t serve together. At all.
“But she’s good, Trist,” Payton insisted as he mounted his horse. “She moves like… well, like your father. She could maybe be as good as he is with a little training. She could certainly be as good as you are.”
“It doesn’t matter. And now she’s going to pay for your serious lack of judgment.” He set off toward Crown City, Payton slowly following behind him. After several long moments of silence, Tristan glanced over his shoulder. “She’s really that good?”
Payton just nodded, thoughts elsewhere. “Are you going to arrest me?”
Tristan snorted. “Of course not. But do yourself a favor and stay out of my father’s line of sight for a few days. Give him time to cool down.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Payton had already decided that it was better if he and Emperor Damuk didn’t cross paths for a while.
Silence reigned until Tristan quipped, “It was still stupid.”Payton had to agree.