Read on for an excerpt from the book:
Prince Tristan, first-born son of Crown Prince Damuk, and future Emperor of the Abital Empire, was bored. He sat in the Emperor’s study and tried not to fidget, or at the very least, to not let his father catch him at it. He listened to the conversation flowing around him, but really didn’t absorb any of it. He was only here because, as his father so frequently explained, it was expected of him.
Tristan was slouched in one of the many comfortable chairs, as far away from his grandfather, Emperor Raewkon, as he could possibly get. No one was paying him any attention, which was probably for the best. He didn’t have anything to say anyway. If someone had asked him what his opinion was, he’d have to admit that he didn’t even know what they were talking about at this point. And if he did that … well, to say his father would be less than pleased was a massive understatement. Just the idea of facing his father’s wrath — again — had him paying a little more attention. He sat up a bit and pushed his jet black hair out of his emerald green eyes, trying to look as if he cared about what was going on. He began to catch snatches of the conversation around him.
His gaze wandered to his parents, sitting on the long couch against the wall. His father, Prince Damuk, was in the middle of explaining how the economy of the desert would eventually crash if they didn’t do something about the declining desert wolf population. It was true, of course, but only someone like his father, who had spent years away from Crown City, and who had an avid interest in ecology, would really understand it. Tristan knew, because his father had told him, that desert wolves were an important part of the desert ecosystem, and when an ecosystem was in trouble, so was the economy, even if that didn’t appear to be the case at first. It was the reason overhunting was so dangerous. The state of the environment had a direct impact on the state of the Empire, though that fact was often disputed by less-learned men.
There were several Councilors in the room, and they were all staring blankly at their Crown Prince as he proposed a ban on the hunting of desert wolves. Tristan rolled his eyes, though he made sure no one was looking at him first. It was a good thing that they actually didn’t have to gain the agreement of the Council to act, or nothing useful would ever get accomplished. The Emperor or the Heir would simply issue the order, expecting the Council to see it done. A good system when the Council was full of stupid old men, totally convinced of their own importance. If Tristan had his way, the Council would be replaced with those young men who could keep an eye on the future, men who had a care for something other than how many crowns they had in their pockets. He had this fantasy that when he eventually became Emperor, he’d dissolve the Council permanently, instead having some very wise, very close friends to advise him. With that thought in his head, he returned his attention to his surroundings.
His mother, Princess Arianna, was curled up next to her husband, her head resting on his shoulder, while his arm was draped casually around her. Every so often, his hand would lightly caress her side, and the Councilors pretended not to see the blatant display of affection. Women were generally not present at these semi-formal meetings, but his mother was the exception rather than the rule. She had been heavily involved in everything her husband did since before Tristan could remember, from governing to internal politics. It was unusual, but then, his parents were soulbonded, and that alone made both of them unique. Though everyone had heard of soulbonds in the tales of old, they were extremely rare, practically unheard of. Actually, now that Tristan thought about it, he didn’t know of another soulbonded couple, not in the whole of the Empire, or its neighbor, the Yarian Republic. He supposed that it made his parents rather legendary. For certain their relationship was something every young girl dreamed of, and many young boys as well.
His parents were in stark contrast to each other. His mother had pale skin, so white that it nearly glowed, and hair the color of golden wheat, with the same emerald green eyes that Tristan had. Damuk was the image of the Emperor, with hair and skin just as dark as Tristan’s. The only real difference between Raewkon and Damuk were the eyes — Damuk’s eyes were a sky blue, while his father’s were almost black. The three of them — Raewkon, Damuk, and Tristan — were obviously related; they all shared the same angular facial structure, with jaw lines that were both strong and intelligent.
Tristan caught his mother’s eye, and she smiled softly at him. He returned her smile with genuine affection. He and his mother were very close. She’d always been there for him, and she had never judged him, never made him feel inferior, not once in his nineteen years.
Unlike his father. That thought wiped the smile from his face. His father was a good man, and no one doubted it. Arrogant, maybe, but that arrogance was well earned from years of patriotic service and sacrifice. And yet … Tristan and Damuk had never really been close. Not even when Tristan had only been a small child. He knew with certainty that his father loved him. Love was never the question. It was more that they just didn’t understand each other. And Tristan knew that he was a disappointment to his father, that he never could really live up to the Crown Prince’s expectations of him.
His thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the study door. Since there were two guards directly outside, there were only three people who would be allowed to enter, and one of them was too young to be wandering about the palace on his own. That left only one of his two sisters. Tristan closed his eyes in despair when he saw which one it was.
Marella slipped into the room, practically bouncing, though gracefully so. She almost fell onto the couch at Arianna’s side and pouted prettily. All this was done quite dramatically, and it made Tristan roll his eyes once more; this time his father saw it, and frowned at him. Tristan inclined his head towards Marella, and received a small nod from his father. Tristan almost sighed in relief. His lapse had been excused by Marella’s entrance.
Marella was his sister, sixteen now, and she wanted nothing more than to be sent to their Uncle Darian’s court in the Yarian Republic. Apparently, there were just not enough eligible young men in the Empire to satisfy her extremely finicky tastes.
Marella was the picture of everything that was exotic in the Empire. She had hair so blond that it was almost white, and her eyes were an even clearer blue than her father’s. Her body was exactly what every young man yearned for in a young woman, and she had the same natural grace their mother possessed. Her utter perfection, at least physically, irritated just about everyone, including Tristan.
Tristan and Marella did not get along, and they didn’t bother to pretend they did. Of course, Tristan didn’t really get along with any of his siblings. Maybe that was a little unfair to his younger brother, Rowan, since the boy was only four years old, but still …
Even if he and Rowan eventually learned to tolerate each other, there were still the girls. Marella was in what their mother called a ‘phase’ right now. Everything was all about her, her clothes, her hair, her presentation at court … it was more than Tristan could possibly bear, even if she was his sister. And now their younger sister, twelve-year-old Calinda, was beginning to act just like her. He could only hope that his mother was right, and that they would eventually grow out of it. If they didn’t, Tristan wasn’t entirely certain that he wouldn’t commit murder.
Marella was tapping her foot now, obviously impatient to be heard. If the Councilors hadn’t been in the room, she would have immediately launched into whatever tirade was building inside her now. In fact, she had done that before, but only once. Their father, who would not permit a lapse in manners from any of his family, had reacted immediately and forcibly removed her from the study. All her crying and pleading hadn’t prevented the beating that had followed. It hadn’t been a serious beating, just enough to make a point.
He had then locked her in her room and ordered her kept from court for a full month. No amount of crying or screaming on Marella’s part had made him change his mind. It had been the perfect punishment for her, since court was the one thing she valued above all else. Marella had never again interrupted the adults. She was probably a little afraid of what Damuk would do if she did. Their father was very good at coming up with the perfect penalty for each child, and it tended to make all his children just a little wary. Since he rarely repeated the same punishment twice, his children were never sure what was coming. Tristan smiled, thinking that it was a good system, one which he would one day use with his own children.
Finally, after what must have seemed like candlemarks to his little sister, the Emperor called a halt to the meeting. He did this rather abruptly, with a distinct edge to his voice, obviously having had his fill of the Councilors. He was an old man, and very ill, and no longer suffered fools easily.
The moment the men had filed out of the room, Marella spoke up. “I want to go west,” she whined. It was hardly unexpected. For the past month she’d taken every opportunity to remind everyone that she was sixteen now and no longer a child. She wanted to go to visit their uncle, King Darian, at the Republican court. She made no secret of the fact that she was more than interested in the young men there. She was convinced that she’d find her perfect mate if only her father would allow her to explore the many possibilities available in the Republic.
“Not now, Marella,” their father said softly. Too softly.
“Marella.” Damuk’s voice hadn’t changed at all, but a single eyebrow was now raised. Knowing from experience that pursuing the issue wouldn’t get her anything more than a scolding at the very least, Marella rose and almost stormed from the room, deliberately sending a carefully sorted stack of papers flying on her way past the desk.
Damuk sighed and almost rose to go after her, intending to take her to task for such unseemly behavior, but Arianna smiled and placed a restraining hand upon his arm. “We should just let her go,” she said, shifting slightly so that she could look into her husband’s face. It was no secret that Arianna favored allowing her daughter to travel to the west.
It was Raewkon who responded. “She’s too young. When she’s eighteen, maybe.” He shifted, having a sharp pain in his chest. Since there was nothing to be done for it, the others in the room pretended not to notice, trying to preserve the old man’s pride. He wouldn’t even take anything for the pain, since he felt it diminished him, especially in the eyes of his only son. It was nonsense, of course, but that didn’t change the way the Emperor felt about the issue.
Arianna laughed slightly at Raewkon’s comment, facing her father-in-law. “I know she’s your little darling, your favored granddaughter, but we’re all going to have to let her go eventually. And the Republican court might just be good for her. At the very least, she’ll learn what it’s like not to be the very center of attention.” She shrugged. “When I was her age, I was already pregnant with Tristan. Most girls are at least engaged at sixteen.”
Tristan privately thought that it was a wondrous idea. Marella was the pet of the entire Imperial court right now. She was the only princess of marriageable age, and every eligible man, young or old, was determined to have her, to marry into the royal family. There had even been duels fought over her, and that only made Marella’s attitude worse. At the Republican court, she would have to contend with their cousin, Princess Boann, who was about the same age as Marella. Boann was the only child of their uncle, King Darian, and she was just as obsessed within finding a husband as Marella, but she tended to be more subtle. She was also a stunning example of a western beauty. Seeing another girl of equal status and loveliness getting the attention of the male courtiers might be good for both of them. Besides, the two girls acted more like sisters than cousins, so they’d certainly enjoy each other’s company.
As the other three discussed sending Marella west, Tristan’s thoughts turned completely inward. Marella’s plight had given him an idea, a possible solution to his own problem. Maybe his sister wasn’t the only person who needed time away from Crown City and the pressures of the Imperial court. Maybe he could go somewhere as well, if only for a little while, just long enough to find himself.
He even had an idea of where he would go. The far north was entirely unexplored. A long sea voyage would be just what he needed to take his mind from his own difficulties. And it might even give him the chance to prove himself worthy in his father’s eyes, to show that he had some redeeming qualities.
If only his father would listen.
That evening, Tristan paced impatiently in the outer chamber of his parents’ quarters. He had asked to speak with his father privately after dinner, and had been told to wait. Waiting was not his strong suit. Especially now, when there was something he wanted so much, more than he’d wanted anything in recent years. The thought that he might be denied this opportunity was not to be borne. His nervousness was increasing by the moment.
Before Tristan had the chance to work himself into a nearly-panicked state, Damuk emerged from the bedchamber. The Crown Prince was immaculate, as always, resplendent in a blue velvet doublet, and wearing a short black riding cloak. He had a second cloak draped carelessly over one arm.
All he said was, “I thought we might ride out.”
Tristan nodded and accepted the cloak, but remained silent.
Father and son walked side-by-side to the stables, neither choosing to speak. Damuk declined the services of a groom, and they both saddled their own horses; the Crown Prince had always tried to instill personal responsibility into his children, and saddling their own horses was a symptom of that. As they did so, he regarded his son carefully, wondering what was on the boy’s mind. Tristan was obviously nervous, and Damuk knew that he intended to ask for something. He just didn’t know what it could be; it must be important for his son to be so anxious. Whatever it was, Damuk knew he wasn’t going to like it. He gave a purely mental sigh at the thought, and decided to use a hackamore instead of a bridle, preferring not to use a bit. He noticed that Tristan chose a bridle, and wasn’t surprised. Tristan wasn’t quite the horseman that his father was, though Damuk tried not to think less of him for it. Damuk had been practically been raised in the saddle. Tristan had not.
The two mounted and rode through the palace gate after a brief confrontation with the palace guard. The guards weren’t too pleased that the Heir and his son were riding out without any escort at all, but they had little choice. Damuk, as Heir, was the Commander in Chief of the military in the Empire, and his word was law, at least as far as the military was concerned.
Damuk and Tristan descended into the city, taking the ancient path that followed the side of the mountain. The palace sat atop a mountain that rose hundreds of feet from the very center of Crown City. The only way to get to the palace itself was to travel up the path that spiraled around the mountain. This path had a mountain wall on one side, and open sky on the other. At least, it would have been open sky, if the homes of the aristocracy hadn’t been floating upon what looked to be light-filled clouds, all around the single path. These homes were huge manors, and each had a team of mages whose only job was to keep the estates in the air. It was shocking to anyone who had never visited the capital before. Damuk and his son, both having been raised in the Empire, took it in stride.
The pair finally reached the base of the mountain, and Damuk led the way, intending to leave the city entirely. The sun had already set, and the desert was cold now, which was why they were both wearing cloaks. The Abital Empire was all desert, so while the days were scorching hot, the nights were bone-chilling cold. The people who had been born in the desert were used to it, but those who hadn’t been … well, Arianna still hated the climate, even after twenty years. She claimed she’d never get used to it, and she was always either too warm or too cold when outdoors.
As they exited the city, Tristan thought he knew where his father was heading. “You’re going to see Faylene?” he asked, speaking for the first time. He wasn’t interested in making conversation at the moment, but thought he should say something.
Damuk nodded, his hand going instinctively to the packet inside his doublet that his healer-wife had given him. “Your mother asked me to deliver some salve for her aching joints.”
While his father said nothing more, Tristan could hear veiled emotion in his voice. Faylene had been Damuk’s nurse when he was a boy, and they were still close. Faylene was almost a mother to him, since his own had died in childbirth. The old woman, once a midwife, was nearly eighty now, and suffered for her age every day. Her joints pained her greatly, and she had a cough that never really went away. Arianna didn’t think that the midwife would make it through another season, though not very many people knew that.
The thought made Tristan sad, since he knew Faylene well. Until her health had failed her roughly six years ago, she had been midwife to his mother whenever she was pregnant and nurse to her children. She’d been friend and teacher to Tristan, Marella, and Calinda; Rowan was too young to have really known the old woman. When she’d fallen ill, Arianna and Damuk had ensured that she was well cared for. Faylene now had a small but beautiful cottage just outside the city and had only to send a message to the palace if she had any needs at all, and either Prince Damuk or his wife would respond personally. No other person in the whole of the Empire enjoyed that privilege. Faylene had definitely earned it.
Finally, the small cottage came into view. The lights were still on, even though the sun had set. Obviously, Faylene was expecting them. As they pulled their horses to a halt just outside the cottage, Tristan took a deep breath. He did not want to go in there. Even if his mother hadn’t told him that Faylene was dying, Tristan would have known. The small cottage felt of death as strongly as any graveyard. Any mage would have been able to sense it.
His father dismounted and looked at his son, utterly patient. He said nothing, but Tristan could almost hear his voice, reminding him of his ‘responsibility.’ Tristan took a deep breath. If she can bravely face death, he thought to himself, well aware of the fact that his father could probably hear him, I can at least sit in her cottage. His decision made, he slid off his horse and joined his father. He was rewarded with a slight smile and a strong hand on his shoulder. Well, at least he approves of something I’ve done. Tristan clamped his shields tightly over that thought, not wanting his overly-powerful father to hear it. He realized very quickly that he’d failed when his father’s hand tightened painfully on his shoulder for a moment, right before releasing him.
Tristan regretted the thought, and wondered if his father would say anything. Probably not. Damuk usually respected the privacy of another’s thoughts, no matter what he overheard. And he overhead a lot, being now the most talented mage in the Empire, even more so than the Emperor, who was beginning to decline with age. Tristan envied his father, even though he too was a mage; he couldn’t even come close to rivaling his father’s power, not now, and not anytime in the future. He often found himself wondering if perhaps he and his father would be on better terms if Tristan himself was more of a mage, or more of a warrior, or more of … well, anything.
His thoughts ended abruptly as he found himself being ushered into the small cottage by his father. Tristan did his best not to show his reluctance. Both men stopped to remove their cloaks once in the tiny entryway, hanging them on the pegs provided for that purpose, then proceeded into the parlor. Faylene was seated there, before the blazing fire. Her slave, a small dark man who had been gifted to her by Damuk, was nowhere in sight at the moment.
Her withered face broke into a smile as she saw the two of them. “I’d get up,” she said with humor in her voice, “except that I can’t get up.” She chuckled softly as Damuk leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“I’d never ask you to,” Damuk assured her, watching as his son followed his lead. Finding nothing to criticize in the boy’s manner, the Crown Prince turned his attention back to his one-time nurse. He removed the packet from his doublet and handed it to Faylene. “From Arianna. She says it’s stronger than the last batch.” Damuk seated himself on the couch opposite the old midwife.
Tristan took a seat beside his father as Faylene opened the packet and smoothed some of the violet-colored salve over her hands. He smiled as he saw her eyes widen in appreciation. He felt guilty for not coming to visit his old nurse very often. He knew that his mother often took Calinda and Marella to visit, but he always declined to accompany them. He resolved to visit once a month, as his father did. Surely he owed the woman that much.
Damuk and Faylene chatted amicably for almost a full candlemark, mostly about court gossip. Faylene might be removed from the palace now, but she still wanted to know everything that Damuk could share. Finally, the conversation turned to Marella, and her increasing desire to leave the Empire for a time. Faylene completely agreed with Arianna’s assessment of the situation, and made no secret of it.
“Let her go, young man,” Faylene said in her no-nonsense way. Even though Damuk was fifty this year, she still insisted on calling him ‘young man.’ What was even more shocking was that Damuk didn’t mind. She was the only person in the Empire to enjoy such an intimate relationship with the Crown Prince, other than his immediate family. In fact, Faylene had a better relationship with Damuk than most of his own children.
Damuk sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair. “That’s what Arianna says.” He didn’t exactly sound happy about it.
Faylene nodded briskly. “When will you learn to listen to your little wife? She’s got a good head on her shoulders. You should have learned that years ago.”
Tristan took note of that comment. If his father wouldn’t listen to him, maybe his mother would. He resolved to go to his mother with his request if his father turned him down.
Several more moments of light conversation passed before his father rose and bid Faylene a good evening, and Tristan did the same. The two men stepped once again into the dark of the night, swinging their cloaks about their shoulders.
As they remounted, Damuk looked at his son once more. “What is it you wanted to discuss?” he asked without preamble. It was late, he was tired, and he’d rather deal with whatever his son wanted now.
Tristan hesitated. He knew that his father wasn’t going to react well, but he had to try. There was nothing to do but ask. “Father … I want … that is, I would like …”
Damuk took a deep breath. He would not deliberately invade his son’s privacy and read his thoughts, though it was tempting. Earlier, Tristan had been thinking so clearly and so strongly that the thoughts had been there, on the surface, for anyone with the ability to read. Now, his thoughts were buried and confused, and unless Damuk purposely pulled the thoughts from his mind … no, he’d never do that. Still, his patience was running thin. “Just tell me,” he ordered.
Tristan swallowed. His thoughts were still in disorder, but he tried again. “I want to leave,” he blurted out, and visibly flinched. He hadn’t meant to say it like that.
Despite the anger Damuk found rising within him, he couldn’t help but notice how very like his mother Tristan was. Arianna, when she was upset, tended to blurt her thoughts out as well. That trait had been the cause of more than one of their arguments over the years, and probably would cause many more in the years to come.
Forcing his anger down, Damuk replied calmly, “Leave? Where, and why?” The least he could do for his son was to hear him out. Besides, Arianna was always telling him that he was too quick to anger where Tristan was concerned. He’d try it her way, staying calm and composed until he’d heard what his son had to say.
Tristan sighed and stared between the ears of his horse, very deliberately not looking at his father. “I don’t know. I was thinking of sailing, maybe. North, I guess. We don’t really know what’s up there; it could be anything. I could lead an expedition …” His father was already shaking his head.
“No, Trist. You’ll stay close to home. You have responsibilities.” In Damuk’s mind, that statement ended the conversation.
Not so for Tristan. “But, maybe I could open up new trade routes, or establish alliances, or something. Or I could …”
“Did you not hear me the first time?” Damuk asked, his voice as smooth as silk. That tone usually warned his offspring that he was approaching the point where he would stand no more.
Tristan recognized the warning, but was not ready to give up before he’d had his say. “Maybe, if I talk to Mother …”
“No!” Damuk snapped, letting his anger shine through at last. “You will not bring this up with your mother. She has enough to think about.” The Crown Prince dug his heels into the sides of his horse, galloping back towards the city. He didn’t even look back, fully expecting his son to follow.
Tristan did, but at a slower pace. He realized now that he’d just made a fatal error. He should never have mentioned his mother. The Heir to the Throne had just given him a direct order. Even more than that, Tristan was an Imperial officer. And his father was the head of the army in the Empire. To disobey this order could potentially get him court-martialed. It wasn’t likely that his father would court-martial him over speaking to his own mother, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Now he was faced with a choice: to obey his father and give up the idea entirely, or to disobey the man who was his Commander in Chief and speak to his mother.
An impossible choice, it seemed. This was not his day.