Raised in isolation on the magic-shrouded Isle of the Moon, five girls became five sisters. Now women, they are ready to claim their places in the world—and perhaps change it forever . . .
FLAME AND FORTUNE
Sorcha knew the mission was dangerous. Leaving the safe grounds of her brother’s kingdom and parlaying with the elves across their border . . . well, treachery seemed at least as likely as true peace. But to support her sister, Sorcha would brave far more than the underhanded ways of the elves. Or so she thought, before she was taken hostage.
Of course, her captors didn’t count on her particular abilities—or on the help of the Woodsman, the mysterious thief who made his home in the forest. He saw the battle from the trees, saw the soldier attacking against incredible odds to save a comrade—and then saw the valiant fighter revealed as Princess Sorcha of Norveshka. He can’t tell if he wants to kidnap her or kiss her. But despite Sorcha’s stubbornness, his inconvenient honor, and a rebellion on the cusp of full war, something burns between them that neither can let go . . .
You may be wondering why there is such a long wait between books 3 and 4 of the Embraced series. The answer is simple—the publisher who published the first 3 books declined to finish the series. I was determined, however, to complete the series for my readers, and that meant I had to find a new publisher. I did—Kensington! I am grateful that they were willing to pick up a series midstream, but of course, whenever an author goes to a new publisher, he/she is automatically placed at the end of a publishing schedule that has been planned far in advance. So book 4 ended up with a release date in February 2020. Fortunately, book 5 will not have such a long wait.
Since a new publishing house will be producing the last two books, they needed to change the name of the series. The last two books will be part of the Embraced by Magic series, books 1 and 2 for the new publisher. But for the rest of us, they are the last two books of the Embraced series. Thank you for your patience as we wait for How to Love your Elf (Sorcha’s story) and the final book, which will belong to Maeve and Brody.
“Sparks' crafting of distinct kingdoms and fantasy races is the strongest part of the series…An adventurous fantasy romp”
“Fantasy and paranormal romance fans will be immediately immersed in this fast-paced adventure from Sparks (The Vampire and the Virgin). A total delight, this new series launch will have readers scrambling for the next enchanting installment.”
Crystal Renfro, Kennesaw State Univ., Marietta, GA , for Library Journal Review
“How to Love Your Elf is an inspiringly positive fantasy romance…The sweeping adventure and the potential for Sorcha and the Woodsman’s future relationship make How to Love Your Elf a promising start to Sparks’ new series.”
“Satisfying chemistry, a playful sense of adventure, and the threat of more danger to come keep the pages turning. Readers will revel in this fun, fast-paced fantasy romance.”
“Overall I found How To Love Your Elf to be an enticing read that leads you on a beautiful adventure into this fantasy world of intrigue, unique elements and endearing characters….you definitely don’t want to miss out on this one!!! A TRUE TREAT!”
Addicted to Romance Reviews
“Dragons, Elves and Magic. Oh my! What a wild ride!”
Reviewed by Steph from the Bookaholics Romance Book Club
Sorcha lunged into an attack, but with a swift kick, her opponent knocked the weapon from her hand.
“Ouch.” Sorcha rubbed her wrist as the dagger clattered onto the wooden floor of the castle roof. “That hurt.” She aimed an injured look at her cousin.
Annika waved a dismissive hand. “If this was a real battle, I would have stabbed you a dozen times by now. Then you could complain about being hurt.”
“I don’t think she could,” Dimitri muttered. “She’d already be dead.”
“Oh, thanks. My confidence is now soaring.” Sorcha shot him an annoyed look, but he merely shrugged.
“Pick up the knife,” Annika said as she widened her stance. She was dressed in the brown breeches and green shirt of the Norveshki army uniform. For this lesson, she’d loaned Sorcha one of her spare uniforms. “We’ll try again.”
“Must we?” Sorcha motioned to the assortment of weapons that lay scattered upon the wide planks of wood, weathered gray from years of exposure to sun, rain, and snow. “You’ve disarmed me ten times in a row. I’m obviously not any good at this.”
“Obviously,” Dimitri agreed, ignoring the face she made at him. “But the king ordered us to teach you self-defense, so we must persevere.”
“Don’t worry,” Annika assured her. “You just need practice. I was bad, too, when I first started.”
“Not this bad,” Dimitri grumbled.
Sorcha whipped a dagger off the floor. “Can I stab him, please?”
Annika’s mouth twitched. “You don’t want Dimitri for a sparring partner. He would break some of your bones.”
He stiffened with an affronted look. “I would never injure Her Highness.”
Sorcha groaned at the title she wasn’t yet accustomed to. Life had been so much simpler at the Convent of the Two Moons, where she’d grown up with her adopted sisters. There had been no fancy titles, no uncomfortable gowns or pinching headdresses to wear, no long, boring banquets to endure, and no need to learn how to defend herself. “I’m not sure I could actually plunge a knife into somebody.”
Dimitri gave her a stern look. “If an assassin is trying to kill you, then you must.”
“Is it really that dangerous now?” Sorcha asked. “Didn’t Silas sign a truce with Woodwyn?” Her brother, Silas Dravenko, the new king of Norveshka, was doing his best to live peacefully with the elves on his border.
“We can’t trust the elves to abide by the truce.” Dimitri scowled as he folded his arms over his wide chest. “Besides, danger could come in many forms. The Chameleon could make himself look like someone you know and take you completely by surprise.”
Sorcha groaned. That much was true. In the past few years, the Chameleon had proven himself a formidable enemy. Not only was he a gifted shifter, but he was a vicious murderer. And he had proved impossible to catch, since no one knew what he really looked like.
“I bet we haven’t seen the last of him,” Annika muttered. “We foiled his plan to take over Norveshka, so he’s probably looking for revenge.”
“And we also have the Circle of Five to worry about,” Dimitri added. “We’re fairly certain they’re in league with the Chameleon, but we don’t know who the members are, so danger could strike at any time.”
“Exactly,” Annika agreed with her husband, then turned to Sorcha. “If the Circle wants to conquer Norveshka, they could target you since you’re the heir to the throne.”
“You’re an heir, too,” Sorcha muttered. Her cousin was currently second in line.
“I can defend myself. You can’t.” With a sigh, Annika planted her hands on her hips. “If a man attacks you, just remember this: Stomp on his feet. Go for his eyes. Then kick him in the balls.”
Dimitri winced. “She wouldn’t have to resort to that if you taught her how to properly wield a knife.”
Sorcha snorted. “You sound like you’d rather be stabbed than emasculated.”
Dimitri shrugged. “A man has his priorities.”
“So does a woman,” Annika declared. “We do what we must in order to survive.” She smiled sweetly at her newly wedded husband. “Perhaps you would help me demonstrate?”
Dimitri’s eyes narrowed.
Sorcha suppressed a grin. “That’s right. I need to know exactly where to kick.”
When Annika crooked her fingers at her husband, he arched a brow.
“If you attack me,” he said softly as he took a step toward her, “I will be forced to retaliate in a manner that you might consider overly...aggressive.”
Annika lifted her chin with a defiant look, even though a blush was sweeping across her cheeks. “I can handle whatever you dish out.”
He stepped closer. “Are you sure? You have yet to experience the full extent of my...wrath.”
Annika bit her lip. “Try me.”
When he leaned forward to whisper something in her ear, her blush flared red-hot.
Ick. Sorcha grimaced. Newlyweds. At any second, she expected them to pounce on each other. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just throw myself off the nearest turret, shall I?”
Annika nodded. “That sounds lovely...” Her voice faded as Dimitri stroked a finger down her cheek.
With a groan, Sorcha turned away to give them privacy. Not that they needed it. Her two instructors had forgotten she was there. And if this wasn’t bad enough, she had to endure the same sort of behavior from Gwennore. She and Silas kept disappearing to their suite of rooms. Even in the middle of the day. They’d been married for six whole weeks. Weren’t they tired of each other by now?
Sorcha glanced back, and sure enough, Annika and Dimitri were kissing. A pang reverberated through her heart as she looked away. A small part of her was worried she would never find the gloriously passionate kind of love that her cousin and older sisters were enjoying.
But a much larger part of her was afraid that she would. And it would be an utter disaster.
At the convent, she’d grown up loving her adopted sisters and the nuns who had raised them with kindness. Love there had been soft and comforting. Easy and natural. But that safe cocoon had been ripped to shreds the day Luciana had left to face the unknown.
For the first time, Sorcha had found herself floundering in a deep well of fear, a fear so profound she’d had trouble eating or sleeping. After a few weeks, they’d learned that Luciana had found her true love, but by then, Sorcha had felt physically ill. She’d hid it well, concealing her pain and distress behind a facade of anger and strength.
Life had become peaceful for a short while, but then, the notorious pirate, Rupert, had kidnapped Brigitta in the middle of the Great Western Ocean. Once again, Sorcha’s fear for a loved one had consumed her.
Brigitta had fallen in love with her kidnapper, so Sorcha had tried to relax in the following three peaceful years. But then something dreadful had happened. The sister closest to her heart, Gwennore, had been snatched up by a dragon and taken off to Norveshka. There, Gwen had learned that she was half elf and half Norveshki, two peoples who were constantly at war.
Even though Gwennore was now happily married to Silas, the new king of Norveshka, all these events served to reconfirm something Sorcha had suspected about herself for over three years now. When she loved, she loved too desperately. She loved without reason. She couldn’t be practical like Luciana, trusting like Brigitta, or clever like Gwennore. When her loved ones were in danger, she was overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. Love didn’t make her strong as it did her sisters.
Sure, she could put on a good show of being fierce. If someone was rude to her sisters, she had no problem cursing or threatening the offender. This had most people fooled into thinking she was strong, but deep inside she knew she was weak. Whenever her sisters had been in danger, she’d been unable to help them. And that had nearly killed her.
The best solution, as far as she could see, was never to allow anyone else into the small group of those she loved. Recently, she’d had to include her newly found brother and cousin, but that was where she drew the line. No one else would be given entry into her heart.
Unfortunately, her older sisters were so happy in their marriages that they wanted her to experience the same sort of marital bliss. And, just as unfortunately, now that everyone knew she was the Norveshki princess, suitors were swarming around like a pack of greedy rodents.
Noblemen from Norveshka as well as the nearby kingdoms of Eberon and Tourin had made offers for her hand. She’d turned them all down. There had been a few Norveshki courtiers who had been reluctant to take no for an answer, so she’d finally resorted to publicly slapping each one of them in the Great Hall. Now, the courtiers were spreading the word that the princess was a volatile creature with a temper as fiery as her red hair.
Her hands curled into fists as she wandered over to the battlements. She was on the roof of the southern wing of Draven Castle, where Annika had insisted they would have enough room for a proper self-defense class. Now that the truce with Woodwyn was in place, Annika’s medical skills were no longer needed at the Norveshki army camp.
In spite of the truce, the elves remained encamped just south of the Vorus River. So Silas had no choice but to keep his army close to the border in case the elves suddenly decided to restart the war that had gone on for over two years.
Sorcha propped her elbows on the stone battlement and leaned forward to gaze at the garden below. It was a shame she couldn’t turn into a dragon like her brother. Then she would be tempted to simply fly away. Or breathe fire on anyone who threatened her sisters.
Oh, how she missed them! Her sisters had come for Gwen’s wedding and coronation six weeks ago, but a month ago they had left. Brigitta and her husband, Rupert, had gone back to Tourin. Luciana and her husband, Leo, had returned to Eberon, and Maeve had gone with them. The youngest sister liked being close to the Ebe River, where she could shift into a seal every month when the moons were full.
When they were all here, they had talked and laughed into the wee hours of the morning. They’d also played the Game of Stones to predict Sorcha’s future.
The number five, the colors white and lavender--those were the stones Luciana had selected for Sorcha. They had suspected the five referred to the mysterious Circle of Five, who wanted to take over the world. No one was quite sure who the Five were, but they figured the Chameleon and the power-hungry priest, Lord Morris, were two of them.
As for the colors, white and lavender, none of Sorcha’s sisters had wanted to state the obvious. They only had to look at Gwennore’s white-blond hair and lavender eyes to predict that Sorcha was fated to meet an elf.
Ha! Ridiculous. No way would she ever fall for an elf. The white and lavender had to signify something else. White teeth? That would be nice. Maybe he would give her lavender flowers. Or his clothes would smell of lavender. Not that it mattered, for she had decided never to fall in love.
A movement in the distance dragged her away from her thoughts. A group of horsemen was headed north, along the Norva River toward the village of Dreshka. The men in the back were holding flags aloft, one white, one dark, the material stirring slightly in the constant breeze that swept down the river valley from the surrounding mountains.
Perhaps the men were merchants? Sorcha knew from her visits to the village that different shops used different flags to indicate what type of goods they were selling. And this group of men had several mules packed with parcels.
As they came closer, she was able to count ten men. Six were dressed in the uniforms of the Norveshki army. They seemed to be escorting the other four men, who all wore hooded cloaks.
A stronger breeze whipped down the river valley, causing the flags to unfurl for a few seconds. Sorcha’s breath caught as she realized the white flag had a golden sun in the middle. All four mainland kingdoms worshipped the sun, calling it the Light, an all-powerful male god that reflected their male-dominated society. This flag, with a sun in the center, meant these men were requesting a peaceful parlay. They were probably official envoys.
But from where? Brigitta and her husband usually sent messages by carrier pigeon, and Luciana and her husband sent Brody. Since his Embraced power was the ability to shift into any animal, Brody was able to reach them quickly when he took on the form of an eagle.
That left Woodwyn.
Elves. Sorcha grew tense. Was the elf predicted by the Telling Stones on his way to meet her? Good goddesses, she hoped not. She shook her head, trying to convince herself that these men couldn’t possibly be from Woodwyn. The elves never ventured this far away from their homeland.
Only once had she encountered any. A few months ago, three elfin envoys had crossed the border to the nearby Eberoni encampment, and there, they had demanded the return of their princess, Gwennore.
At first Sorcha had been struck by their handsome looks and elegant demeanor, but their snooty attitude had quickly annoyed her. And when Brody had overheard them calling Gwen a half-breed and a pawn, Sorcha had realized that beneath their pretty exterior, they were ugly, two-faced bastards. Luciana and Leo had been relieved that Gwen was far away at Draven Castle, so they’d been able to send the nasty elves back home empty-handed.
Now, as Sorcha watched the approaching horsemen, she focused on the four men wearing dark cloaks, their heads hidden with hoods. Who would wear a hooded cloak in the summertime? Maybe an elf, who was hiding his pointed ears so no one would know who he was?
After all, most people here hated elves. The Norveshki had lost too many loved ones in the war with Woodwyn. That would explain why this group had a military escort.
Her gaze narrowed on the second flag. Brown. The flag of Woodwyn boasted a tall green tree on a brown background. A strong gust of wind whistled down the river valley, unfurling the flags once again and blowing the hoods off two of the men. Sorcha gasped. They had white-blond hair, just like Gwennore. And the brown flag had a green tree in the middle.
She jumped when a horn suddenly blasted from the southeastern tower. The guard there was alerting the castle.
“What is it?” Dimitri demanded as he and Annika dashed toward her.
“Elves.” Sorcha motioned toward the horsemen as, once again, fear for a loved one clawed its way into her heart. “What if they insist on taking Gwennore?”
Annika frowned. “They can’t have her. She’s our queen.”
Dimitri waved a dismissive hand. “They just want to talk. We’ve known about them since they crossed the border two days ago.”
Annika’s mouth dropped open. “And you never thought to share that with me?”
“Well, I...I’d better tell Silas that they’re here.” Dimitri ran to the stairwell.
“I’m not forgetting this,” Annika yelled as he disappeared from view. “I can’t believe he didn’t tell me.”
Sorcha huffed. “I didn’t know, either. You would think Silas would keep us informed of this sort of thing. After all, we’re his heirs.”
“Men,” Annika muttered.
“Well, I’m relieved you can still get mad. I was afraid marriage had turned you into a meek lamb.”
Annika snorted, then pressed against the battlements to study the elves. “The two in front have the white-blond hair of the River Elves, so they must hail from the area around the Wyn River. They could be from Wyndelas Palace, where the king of Woodwyn lives.”
“That would be Gwen’s grandfather?” Sorcha asked.
“We believe so,” Annika replied. “When Dimitri’s uncle went to Woodwyn as an envoy, we think he may have had an affair with the king’s daughter, and Gwennore was the result. Since she’s half Norveshki and our queen, there’s no way we’ll let these envoys take her.”
Sorcha watched as Dimitri and a group of soldiers strode from the southern gate to meet the elves. “Where do you think Silas and Gwen will talk to them?”
“The Great Hall, most probably.”
“Then, let’s go.” Sorcha headed for the stairwell.
“Wait a minute.” Annika scooped a dagger off the floor and slid it into her boot. “They won’t allow us in there.”
“But I have to know what’s going on. I have to...” The fear in Sorcha’s heart tightened painfully. Good goddesses, she was so sick of feeling useless whenever her sisters were in danger. “I refuse to be left out!”
Annika’s eyes lit up. “The minstrels’ balcony. I know a secret way in.”
They could hide there and hear every word. Sorcha ran to the stairs. “Let’s go!”
# # #
Sorcha was grateful she was wearing a shirt and breeches as she sprawled on the wooden floor of the minstrels’ balcony at the far end of the Great Hall. The balcony was usually accessed by a staircase in the Great Hall, but Annika had shown her a hidden staircase that originated in a nearby waiting room.
After blowing out the candle they’d used to light the dark stairway, Sorcha and Annika had hurriedly closed the balcony’s thick, velvet curtains. Now, they were lying on the floor, peeking under the curtain’s hem and between the wooden slats of the balustrade.
The afternoon sun was streaming through the long westward-facing windows, illuminating the large, rectangular room and cooling it with a mountain breeze, but up here in the balcony with the curtains drawn, it was dark. And hot.
“What’s taking them so long?” Sorcha adjusted the belt buckle that was digging into her stomach.
“Silas and Gwen must be putting on their finest clothes. And they probably sent for their crowns,” Annika whispered. “They’ll make the elves wait.”
Sorcha wrinkled her nose. She hoped the elves had been told to wait outside in the courtyard, where it tended to get hot and stuffy at this time of day. “We’re Silas’s heirs,” she grumbled. “He should have invited us to this meeting. I’ll be letting him know how aggravated I--”
“Sorcha.” Annika sounded impatient. “You’re still too naïve. I guess it comes from growing up in a convent. But this is strategy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Silas doesn’t want the elves to know what his heirs look like. It will keep us from becoming easy targets.”
“Oh.” Sorcha swallowed hard. Her cousin had a point. If she was going to be useful, she needed to be smarter. And stronger. And if she was going to survive as the heir to the throne, she would have to be wary and suspicious of almost everybody. Completely the opposite from the convent. “I’m glad I have you, Annika.”
Her cousin gave her shoulder a squeeze, then lifted the curtains a bit more to peer down into the room.
The curtain and floor were dusty and made Sorcha’s nose twitch. “I’m afraid I’ll sneeze.”
“Don’t you dare.” Annika handed her a handkerchief. “Here, hold this against your mouth and nose.”
Sorcha pressed the lavender-scented cloth to her nose as a creaking noise reverberated below. The doors were being opened. Footsteps sounded on the stone floor and a low voice spoke in Norveshki. It was Dimitri, giving orders. Only two elves had been allowed in, the two with white-blond hair. The other two, who had been tasked with carrying the flags, were most probably servants.
Sorcha couldn’t tell much about the elves as they crossed the hall, since she was seeing them from the back. With their hooded cloaks gone, their fancy clothes were now revealed--blue velvet tunics over cream-colored silk shirts and cream-colored leather breeches. That had to be hot, she thought, although they didn’t show any sign of discomfort. They were tall, as tall as Dimitri, but whereas he moved like a wildcat stalking his prey, the elves were as smooth as a pair of swans gliding across a cool lake.
Dimitri instructed them to stop a good six feet away from the dais and to move to the left. They set down two parcels encased in blue silk, then stood, facing Dimitri.
Now that Sorcha had a side view of them, she could see they were not the same envoys who had come to the Eberoni camp. But they were equally as handsome, damn them.
Hopefully, the Telling Stones had not referred to either of these men. One was shorter and looked quite a bit older than the other with strands of silver gleaming in his hair. Sorcha glowered at the younger and taller elf. He was as pretty as Gwennore. She was tempted to run down there and mess up his hair.
They were just too perfect. No wrinkles in their elegant clothes, even after a long journey. Not a single smudge on their flawless complexions. Like Gwennore, these elves had black eyebrows, which made a stunning contrast to their white-blond hair that fell to their shoulder blades like silk curtains. Side braids kept their hair back from their noble brows, which were decorated with circlets of gold.
The elves had no weapons on them, so they must have been disarmed before entering the Great Hall. But they didn’t seem at all intimidated by Dimitri, who glared at them with a hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Another sheath was strapped to his thigh, the jeweled, golden handle of a vicious dagger clearly on display.
“You are in Norveshka, so you will be expected to speak Norveshki,” Dimitri announced.
The elves gave him a bland look, then the older one spoke quietly in perfect Norveshki, “We did not come to speak to you.”
Sorcha gritted her teeth. Arrogant bastards.
The door creaked again and more footsteps sounded. She pressed her face against the railing and spotted Silas and Gwennore, walking arm in arm toward the dais, followed by Aleksi Marenko, a captain in the army, who was as fiercely armed as Dimitri.
Sorcha couldn’t help but smile at how radiant Gwen looked in her sparkling gold gown. Silas was quite dashing in his army uniform. They were both wearing their newly crafted crowns.
They stopped briefly in front of the elves, giving them a slight nod of their heads. At least the elves were well mannered enough to bow. But it seemed to Sorcha that they were bowing more to Gwennore than to Silas.
Her brother helped his wife step up on the dais; then they both took their seats on the gold, jewel-encrusted thrones. Aleksi positioned himself next to Gwennore’s throne, where he eyed the elves with suspicion.
“Your Majesties.” Dimitri bowed to Gwen and Silas, then added, “General Caladras and his son, Colonel Griffin Caladras, extend greetings from King Rendelf of Woodwyn.”
Silas gave the elves another nod. “I bid you welcome to Norveshka.”
The elves bowed slightly, and then the general spoke. “His Majesty, King Rendelf, asked me to congratulate you on his behalf. He was quite impressed by your quick and successful ascension to the throne.”
Silas’s eyes narrowed.
Sorcha winced. Silas wouldn’t have become king if his older brother hadn’t been killed by the Chameleon. Since a spy had been caught trying to cross into Woodwyn, it was very possible that the Chameleon had been working with the elves. Silas even suspected the Chameleon might be an elf.
“Thank you,” Silas replied curtly. “I trust your king wishes to continue the truce between our two countries?”
“Of course.” The general motioned to Gwennore. “We would also like to congratulate you on your marriage to our beloved princess, Gwennore.”
Sorcha wadded the handkerchief in her fist. Beloved, her ass. The general had to know that Gwen had been rejected as a babe and shipped off to the convent.
Gwennore looked tense but was doing a good job of keeping her face blank.
“Our Majesty, King Rendelf, has sent a wedding gift. We hope it meets with your approval.” General Caladras untied the knot at the top of the bigger parcel, then let the blue silk fall into a puddle around an ornate box of carved wood inlaid with pearl.
As the general opened the lid, Dimitri stepped close to check what was in the box. Then he stepped back, his hand tightening on the hilt of his sword till his knuckles turned white.
The general lifted out a sculpture, carved entirely of wood. “Not to sound overly boastful, but I believe this piece proves that the craftsmen of Woodwyn are the best in all Aerthlan. It is magnificent, yes?”
It was an exquisite dragon, delicately carved and polished to a lustrous gleam. A pair of sparkling rubies marked its eyes.
Sorcha swallowed hard, and next to her, Annika hissed in a quick breath. Was this genuinely a present, or were the elves hinting that they knew the true nature of the Norveshki dragons?
As a member of the royal family, Sorcha had been told the secret, that a few male descendants of the Three Cursed Clans were capable of shifting into dragons. Silas, Aleksi, and Dimitri could, along with about a dozen others. For centuries, it had been Norveshka’s most closely guarded secret.
The three dragon shifters below grew very still.
Silas’s mouth thinned; then he nodded. “It is, indeed, a work of art. Thank you.”
“I’m delighted you’re pleased.” The general’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he returned the dragon to its box. He unwrapped the smaller parcel to reveal a small flat box of polished wood. “And this one is for our very own Princess Gwennore.”
“She is a queen,” Silas corrected him. “Our queen.”
“Of course.” The general opened the box to display the contents. “Woodwyn also has the best silversmiths. This necklace was made especially for you, Your Majesty.”
“It’s quite beautiful. Thank you.” Gwennore accepted the open box.
“It was designed by your own mother,” the general continued, and Gwen’s hands flinched slightly. “She is thrilled at the prospect of seeing her beloved daughter once again.”
“Who is her mother?” Silas asked.
“You didn’t know?” The general exchanged a smirk with his son. “Princess Jenetta, of course.”
“How would we know who she was?” Gwennore asked quietly. “She sent me away when I was two months old.”
“And it broke her heart!” The general placed a hand on his chest. “She was a victim, too, in that dreadful mess. Not only was she forced to part with you, but she was sentenced to seven years of solitude in the white tower.”
Gwennore grew pale. “My...mother was punished?”
“Yes. But now that Princess Jenetta is heir to the throne, His Majesty greatly regrets his decision. He no longer blames his daughter. She simply fell prey to the seduction of that insidious foreigner, Lord Tolenko.”
Annika hissed in another breath at this blatant insult to Dimitri’s uncle.
With a muttered curse, Dimitri took a step forward, but Silas lifted a hand to stop him.
Gwennore’s cheeks flushed as she snapped the jewelry box shut. “Do not insult my father. It is bad enough that he met an untimely death while in your country.”
“I understand.” The general bowed hastily. “Your loyalty to your father is commendable.” He removed a letter from his tunic. “I hope it will not deter you from reading this letter. Your mother wrote it.”
Gwennore accepted the letter, her face growing pale once again. “I will look at it later.”
“Of course.” The general nodded. “Your mother and grandfather are extremely eager to see you. His Majesty is not well, I’m afraid, so if you would please visit them at Wyndelas Palace—”
“Too far,” Silas interrupted.
“We would make sure she was comfortable on the journey,” the general told him. “After all, she is our princess.”
“It is too far,” Silas repeated, leaning forward. “I cannot allow our queen to venture that far into what was enemy territory only a few weeks ago.”
The general stiffened. “Surely you are not suggesting we would do harm to our own beloved princess.”
“We will be happy to meet Her Majesty’s family at the border,” Silas said.
The general sighed. “As I said, King Rendelf is not well. His health is too precarious at the moment to undertake such a long journey.”
“My wife is not up to a long journey, either,” Silas countered. “She is now carrying our future heir.”
Sorcha gasped. Gwennore was with child? And this was how she found out? Annika nudged her, and Sorcha winced, now realizing that Gwen’s gaze had shot up to the balcony for a brief second. Elves had notoriously good hearing, and even though her gasp had been muffled by the handkerchief, Gwen had still heard. Even the younger elfin colonel turned his head slightly.
Gwen coughed as if to draw their attention to her. “What you fail to understand, General, is that I have no desire to meet my grandfather, not when he had my father executed and my mother imprisoned.”
The general’s hands fisted for a few seconds before he relaxed them. “Then we will meet you at the border.”
“Excellent.” Silas stood. “We will make arrangements. As for now, no doubt you wish to rest after your long journey.”
He and Gwen stepped off the dais and, followed by Aleksi, they sauntered across the room and out the door.
“I will escort you to your rooms,” Dimitri told the elves.
“If you don’t mind, we’re extremely parched after our long journey,” the general murmured. “Would you be so kind as to bring us some wine?”
Dimitri’s back stiffened at being treated like a servant. “There are refreshments in your rooms, but since you’re unable to endure your discomfort for a few more minutes, I will have a servant tend to you in the waiting room.” He motioned toward the door. “This way.”
The general and his son followed Dimitri out the door.
After the door slammed shut, Sorcha scrambled to her feet.
“What an ass,” Annika muttered. “Did you hear how he talked to my husband?”
“Come on. We have to hurry.” Sorcha used her gift as one of the Embraced, snapping her fingers to make a flame and light the candle. Then holding up the candlestick, she slipped quietly down the secret staircase.
“We can’t leave this way,” Annika whispered as she followed behind her. “We’ll end up in the waiting room where the elves will be.”
“We’re not leaving.” Sorcha reached the ground floor and held a finger to her lips to warn her cousin not to talk.
Annika joined her next to the exit, and Sorcha quietly set down the candlestick and blew out the flame. Then she pressed an ear to the thick canvas that served as a hidden door.
The waiting room was small, its walls covered with wooden paneling. Numerous paintings of former kings and queens lined the walls, and one portrait, a large floor-length one, had a hidden latch, so that it opened like a door. With just the canvas separating Sorcha from the waiting room, she could hear every word said inside.
“A servant will attend to you soon,” Dimitri announced. “A guard will remain outside this door, so please make yourselves comfortable.” The door was shut firmly.
“Comfortable?” the colonel grumbled in Elfish. “In this dark and dreary little room? No windows, just these hideous portraits to look at.”
“Indeed,” the general agreed. “The artists here are definitely inferior to what we’re accustomed to.”
“Look at this monstrosity.” The younger elf’s voice sounded very near, and Sorcha guessed he was standing only a foot away from her. “I guess these barbarians think the bigger the better.”
“I suppose so,” the father murmured. From his footsteps, he seemed to be pacing about the room.
“Did you see how many jewels they crammed onto those gaudy thrones? It took all my willpower not to wrench the princess off—-”
“Watch what you say, Griffin,” the general interrupted. “The walls could have ears.”
The colonel was silent for a moment. “I think I did hear someone up in the minstrels’ loft.” He knocked on the paneling. “This seems solid enough, though. Besides, I don’t think any of these barbarians understand Elfish.”
Sorcha smirked. Think again, bastard.
Griffin pounded a fist harder on the paneling. “It’s bloody unfair! The princess was promised to me!”
“Relax,” the general grumbled. “We must remain patient. So far, the plan has worked well.”
“Not well enough,” Griffin whined. “It’s bad enough I have to take that half-breed after she’s already been bedded, but now she’s with child!”
“Calm yourself,” his father growled. “A babe is not difficult to get rid of. It is her freakish husband that will be the problem.”
Sorcha pressed a hand against her mouth to keep from making a sound.
The door creaked open, and a servant murmured in Norveshki, “Excuse me, my lords, I have brought your refreshments.”
“Pour me a cup and be quick about it,” the general ordered in the same language. “Then take us to our rooms.”
“Yes, my lords.”
After a few minutes, footsteps clumped on the wooden floor and the door closed.
Sorcha held her breath for a minute longer, making sure the elves were truly gone.
“Did you understand what they were saying?” Annika whispered in the dark.
“Yes.” Sorcha inhaled deeply. The elves planned to capture Gwen and murder her brother.
“When Silas and Gwen travel to the border, we must go with them.”
“All right,” Annika agreed.
Sorcha pressed her fingers to her thumbs, making two circles that signified the twin moons. Goddesses, hear my vow. I will not stand by, feeling helpless once again, when my loved ones are in danger. Never again.