Aerthlan’s five Embraced queens have reigned for twenty years, in peace secured by the power of their magic. But now a new and insidious threat has appeared, to test a new generation.
DESIRE AND DECEPTION
All Princess Eviana needs is an escape. Possessed of an unfortunate and unusual Embraced gift, which she’s been banned from using, she required no training. Now, her overprotective parents want her to wed. As a result, the palace is crammed with obnoxious noblemen…Until Quentin, the enigmatic eagle shifter and royal spy, maneuvers several of the unsuitable suitors into revealing their most embarrassing secrets before the court. Finally, Eviana has an excuse to free herself. If only her family knew the blow that’s shaken her: golden-eyed Quentin’s refusal to let her near…
Heroic, but low born, Quentin’s infatuation with Eviana is as inappropriate as it is unshakable. He must keep away from her, for his own sake. But after a series of suspicious deaths, and the princess’s narrow escape from kidnapping, Quentin knows that only together can they expose the danger stalking Aerthlan’s Embraced. On foot, in disguise, they’ll need trust and quick wits to uncover the vicious conspiracy closing around them. But finding the truth might break down their own defenses as well…
Ebton Palace, Eberon
The torture would be over in an hour or two, Quentin reminded himself as he watched her move gracefully through another dance. She was dressed in a brilliant green gown to match the color of her sparkling eyes, and she was so beautiful, he was tempted to shift into his eagle form and fly far, far away. But in his heart, he knew there was no escape. Running away would not erase the image of her lovely face from his mind, nor the memory of her sweet laughter. It would not keep his heart from wishing for the impossible.
So he stayed put, lurking behind a marble pillar in the Great Hall of Ebton Palace, half-hidden so he could still see her and the grand ball taking place. Such was his life, always present at any important event, but remaining as invisible as possible while he watched, listened, and gathered information.
As the official messenger and unofficial spy for the kings and queens of Aerthlan, he was a frequent visitor at all five royal palaces. But it was only twice a year, during the Spring and Autumn Embraces, that he found himself obliged to attend birthday parties such as this one. Tonight, at the Autumn Embrace, King Leo of Eberon was turning fifty-one.
Quentin glanced over to the dais where Leo and Luciana were seated next to each other on their thrones. Leo glanced at his wife, and with a smile took her hand. Love everlasting, Quentin thought with a pang of envy as his gaze shifted back to the dance floor. She was now dancing with suitor number eleven.
Similar celebrations were happening in all the royal palaces tonight, since it was also the birthday of Queen Brigitta of Tourin, Queen Gwennore of Norveshka, King Brennan of Woodwyn, and King Brodgar of the Isles. It was a shame, Quentin thought, that he couldn’t have stayed another night on the Isle of Moon. Then he wouldn’t be here enduring this torture tonight. But the island queen, Maeve, had insisted he leave immediately to warn Leo and Luciana about her latest dream. A nightmare, she had called it. A dark cloud was hovering over Eberon, poised to unleash death and destruction.
As the Seer, Queen Maeve was rarely wrong, but Quentin had his doubts about this latest prediction. The country of Eberon was prosperous, full of well-fed and happy people. All the nobles here in the Great Hall were well dressed and making merry. A little too merry, he thought as he watched a tipsy baron try to impress his dance partner by leaping into the air, only to fall splat on his rear. The room erupted in laughter, and Quentin’s gaze shifted back to catch a lovely but fleeting smile on her face. Damn, but this was torture.
Don’t think about her. He focused his thoughts once again on the unlikelihood of Eberon being in danger. In recent years, the country had become so safe that General Nevis Harden had let most of the army return home. A few manned forts across the countryside were enough to apprehend the occasional thief.
In reward for his service, Nevis had been named Lord Protector of the Realm and given an earldom, along with Benwick Castle and the surrounding land. He and his wife, Princess Elinor, ran an academy and training camp there for royal and Embraced children. Leo’s two sons-Eric and his younger sibling, Dominic-were both studying at Benwick Academy, but they had returned home for their father’s birthday.
Once again, Quentin wondered why she had never attended the academy. She was both royal and Embraced, so it would have made sense for her to go. Other Embraced females studied there. But whereas her older twin, Eric, had the impressive gift of being able to melt metal, Princess Eviana’s magical power was a carefully guarded secret. What the hell could it be?
As someone who earned his keep gathering information, it irked him that this was one secret he’d never uncovered. He snorted. Knowing the truth would be utterly useless. To whom would he report it? Obviously, Leo and Luciana already knew their daughter’s gift. The other royals probably did, too. But Quentin didn’t dare reveal his curiosity by asking any of them. They might suspect his most carefully guarded secret: his unfortunate longing for the beautiful but impossible Eviana.
She’d turned twenty-three at the last Spring Embrace, and apparently her mother had decided she was in imminent danger of spinsterhood if she wasn’t matched with a suitable man tonight. The ball that was meant to celebrate Leo’s birthday was crowded with eligible Eberoni noblemen, all eager to pursue the royal princess and heiress to the Duchy of Vindalyn. The line to dance with Eviana was so long that she was dancing only half a tune with each man. And in that short time, each was desperately attempting to impress her.
“Go get in line. You know you want to,” a female voice whispered behind Quentin, and he spun around to see who knew the secret he’d been hiding for six years.
“Oh, Lady Olana.” He took a step back as he greeted her, then winced at the injured look on her face. “I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “No need to apologize. Everyone does it.”
Even so, he felt guilty. It wasn’t Olana’s fault that she had such a terrifying power. Twenty years ago, when he and Olana had left the Isle of Secrets, they had been too young to know what their Embraced gifts would be.
He had been lucky. Damned lucky. As an eagle shifter, he’d been the logical choice to step into King Brodgar’s old job as official messenger to the kings and queens of Aerthlan. And, just like Brody, he’d also learned how to gather information. By the time he was twenty-two, he’d made himself an invaluable member at all five royal courts.
Olana had also made herself invaluable to royalty, but he seriously doubted she considered her gift a blessing. At the age of fifteen, she’d taken employment as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Luciana, and that was when her Embraced gift had manifested itself. It was a downright sneaky power, and it had taken several weeks before the queen and Olana had realized what was happening.
Seven-year-old Eric had accidentally cut his finger during an archery lesson, and Olana was treating his wound when he suddenly blurted out that he was the one who had broken the vase in his mother’s workroom. Two weeks later, when Olana was brushing Eviana’s hair, the young princess had broken into tears, crying that she’d torn the lacy hem of her mother’s shift while playing dress-up.
A week after that, a servant had accidentally touched Olana’s hand while serving her tea, then had suddenly admitted to stealing five silver spoons. Curious, Luciana had taken Olana to the servants’ quarters, and with a simple touch from Olana, each servant had blurted out his or her worst secret.
Now she was called the Confessor, and everyone gave her a wide berth in the hallways of Ebton Palace. Some even screeched and ran away the second she was spotted.
The kings of Aerthlan had soon realized that interrogating prisoners was no longer necessary. They simply called in the Confessor. Over the years, Lady Olana had become so famous, all it took was the threat that she was on her way for a criminal to blurt out all his misdeeds.
But what was good for the kingdoms was not necessarily good for Olana. No one wanted to marry her or even befriend her, so now she lived alone in the east tower at Ebton Palace. About a year ago, Quentin had grabbed her when she’d tripped on the stairs, and that had caused him to blurt out his secret. Fortunately, no one else had heard, and she’d assured him she wouldn’t tell anyone.
With a sigh, Quentin realized she was currently hiding in the shadows just as he was. No one was going to ask Olana to dance. She was valued and shunned at the same time.
He glanced back at the dance floor. The princess was still dancing, now with suitor number seventeen, Earl Baedan. About thirty more men were lined up, waiting their turn.
“Why don’t you get in line?” Olana asked softly. “I doubt she would refuse to dance with you.”
He snorted. No, she wouldn’t refuse someone like him. She’d been raised to have better manners than that. But she would see it as part of her royal duty. Even now, as he studied her face, he had a distinct feeling that her smile was forced. She was not enjoying the evening, but simply going through the motions as she was expected to do.
Why would he add to her misery, forcing her to dance with him? Not happening, he told himself as he nabbed two goblets of wine from the tray of a passing servant. “Actually, Olana, I’m quite happy to remain here with you. What have you been up to?”
With a smile she accepted one of the goblets. “I’ve been working in the library. There are a huge number of books, but some of them have yet to be properly catalogued. And in the workroom, I’m weaving a tartan that I’m very pleased with. Beautiful colors.”
Obviously, books and cloth were safe from her touch. “I’d like to see it when you’re done.”
Olana’s smile widened. “That’s kind of you.” She took a sip of wine. “Can you believe it’s been twenty years since we left the Isle of Secrets?”
Quentin nodded. It was a lonely life for Olana, so he understood why she enjoyed exchanging letters with all the other Embraced children who had grown up on the Isle of Secrets. “Have you heard from anyone lately?”
“Aye. I received a letter from Irene yesterday. She’s the head gardener now at Wyndelas Palace in Woodwyn. She married a fellow named Halfric and they have two lovely children.” Olana’s smile slipped as a hint of regret glinted in her blue eyes.
She had probably wanted to have children of her own, Quentin thought. He refrained from telling Olana that he’d met Irene and her family the last time he’d visited Wyndelas Palace. It would only cause Olana more regret because she rarely saw any of their old friends.
She heaved a sigh. “A letter from Peter arrived two days ago. He had some terribly tragic news.”
Peter was now a farmer just south of the Ron River, Quentin recalled. “What happened?”
“Do you remember Uma? She was only four when we left the Isle of Secrets.”
“Barely.” Uma and Victor had lived in the nursery at Aerie Castle, too young for the manual labor required of everyone who had resided in the village.
“Well, it turned out that Uma is actually the third daughter of Earl Ronford.”
“That doesn’t sound tragic,” Quentin muttered. Much better than his own situation. Discovering he was the illegitimate and unwanted son of a stable hand and scullery maid had certainly taken a chunk out of the smart-assed attitude he’d had as a youngster.
“It is tragic,” Olana insisted. “She passed away. And she was only twenty-four.”
Quentin blinked. Damn. “How? How did she die?”
Olana shrugged. “I don’t know. Peter just said it was a terrible accident.”
Quentin narrowed his eyes. Maybe he needed to pay Peter a visit.
“What about you, Quen?” Olana gave him a curious look. “What have you been up to?”
“I arrived about an hour ago from the Isle of Moon.” He adjusted his black leather belt. Since he was a frequent visitor to all the royal palaces and Benwick Academy, he kept a small trunk of clothing stashed in a tower room of each castle. For the party tonight, he was wearing his best: a dark blue velvet tunic with black breeches and boots. “I need to talk to His Majesty, but he won’t be free till tomorrow morning.”
Olana nodded. “It’s always like this on the nights the moons embrace.”
“Oh, that reminds me.” Quentin tapped his goblet against hers. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you.” Olana smiled as she smoothed down the skirt of her lavender silk gown. Her long blond hair had been braided with a matching silk ribbon. “The queen gave me this gown for my birthday.” Her smile faded. “Though I have to admit I’m not terribly pleased about turning thirty-three.”
“You don’t look a day over twenty-three.”
She scoffed, but her eyes twinkled with amusement. “You should practice your flattery on someone who will believe it.”
He affected an injured look. “Would I lie to the Confessor?”
“Shall I touch you and find out?” She laughed when he jumped back with feigned horror. “Oh, Quen, it is good to see you again.”
“Likewise.” He nodded, grateful that he could ease her loneliness.
“You were born on the Spring Embrace, weren’t you?” When he nodded, she asked, “You must have turned twenty-nine?”
“Yes.” Quentin glanced over at the dance floor. Eviana shared his birthday, not that she would have ever noticed.
“And you’ve never wanted to marry?”
He winced inwardly. Who would want to marry the unwanted bastard son of servants? He’d been damned lucky that King Silas and Queen Gwennore of Norveshka had taken him in. In gratitude, he’d worked hard, mastering all four Aerthlan languages along with all the other necessary skills that were required for the position he held today. “Whenever Gwennore asks me that, I always say I have yet to find the right woman.”
Olana glanced at Eviana. “Perhaps you have found her.”
He scoffed. “A princess? Leo would strike me with lightning if I even dared to approach her.”
Olana nodded. “That may be true. He doesn’t think any man in the entire world is good enough for his daughter.”
“Apparently, Luciana thinks more than fifty men are good enough for her,” Quentin muttered. “Look at her now. She’s dancing with suitor number twenty-one.”
“You’re keeping count?”
He shrugged. “It’s part of my job to know how to protect the royal families. For instance, her current dance partner is Baron Northam, who is fond of escaping to his bedchamber so he can dress up as a milkmaid.”
Olana gasped. “What?”
Quentin gave her a knowing nod.
She winced. “You must be jesting.”
“If you don’t believe me, go touch him. He’ll confess it for everyone to hear.”
She heaved a sigh. “This is terrible. It makes me wonder how many of these noblemen could be totally unsuitable for the princess.”
A brilliant idea popped into Quentin’s mind. “We could find out.”
Olana’s eyes widened. “Now? In front of everyone?”
He extended a hand to her. “Lady Olana, would you give me the pleasure of this dance?”
She gave his hand a wary look. “Quen, if I touch you, you’ll announce your secret.”
“I’ll whisper it. Besides, you already know it.”
She bit her lip, considering. “It would be nice. I haven’t danced in years. Everyone is too afraid-”
“I’m not. Let’s do it.”
“It might cause a disturbance.”
“I’m counting on it.”
She snorted. “You want the king and queen angry with you?”
“They might be angry at first,” Quentin conceded as he set their goblets down on a nearby table. “But if we reveal which suitors are entirely unsuitable, we’ll be doing them a favor, and eventually they will thank us for it.” He offered his hand once more and braced himself, clenching his mouth shut. When her hand touched his, he ground out the whispered words, “My heart is forever lost to Eviana.”
Olana gave him a sympathetic look. “Then let’s see what we can do for her.”
He led Olana to the edge of the dance floor. Luckily, the other dancers were too drunk or occupied to notice them. It also helped that there were shadowy spots not well illuminated by the candles, and that Olana was petite enough that Quentin could use his own body to block her from most people’s view.
After letting Olana enjoy a few measures of a lively waltzing dance, he maneuvered her closer to Eviana. So far, so good. No one had noticed them. Suitor number twenty-two was completely focused on his attempt to impress the princess.
“Ready?” Quentin whispered and Olana nodded, an excited glint in her eyes. He swirled her around, and she quickly tapped the suitor’s shoulder. Just as fast, Quentin moved her away, headed once again for the shadows.
Eviana’s partner stopped dancing with a jerk, then announced in a loud voice, “Actually, I’m already married, but if I have a chance with Your Highness, I’ll make sure my current wife has a fatal accident.”
Eviana gasped, and all the dancers around her stopped to stare at her partner.
He slapped a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide with horror, then bolted for the front door.
Meanwhile, suitor number twenty-three saw his chance to take advantage of the last suitor’s disaster, and he dashed toward Eviana, a hopeful grin on his face. Quentin steered his dance partner toward him, and Olana touched his arm.
“I still wet my bed!” he announced, then gasped. “No! No, I don’t! I haven’t done it in a week...Ack!” He also sprinted toward the front door.
The rest of the suitors stampeded toward Eviana all at once. As Quentin and Olana danced toward them, those who knew who she was screamed and ran for the door. The others, still intent on winning the princess, pushed and shoved at one another in an attempt to reach her first. As they streamed past Olana, she extended her hand, touching one after another.
“I want your money!”
“I want to marry royalty!”
“Once I’m in charge of the Duchy of Vindalyn, I’ll lock you in the dungeon.”
“I like to set things on fire.”
“I’m afraid of my own shadow.”
“I’m missing half my brain...I think...”
“I talk to chipmunks. And they talk back.”
“I snore so loud, the windows shatter.”
“My feet stink.”
“My whole body stinks!”
“I love my mommy!”
With gargled sounds of horror, they all scrambled for the front door.
A shock reverberated around the room as everyone gasped and fled to the edges of the dance floor, far away from Olana. She and Quentin were left in the middle of the Great Hall with only Eviana close by, frozen in place with a stunned look on her face.
When Leo and Luciana jumped to their feet, the music screeched to a halt. Then the gossiping and laughter began, growing louder and louder. Eviana blinked, coming out of her state of shock to cast a wary glance at the snickering crowd.
Quentin winced at the injured look in her eyes and the deepening blush on her cheeks. Dammit. He hadn’t helped her one bit. He’d embarrassed her. Hurt her.
Luciana strode across the dance floor, her expression a mixture of horror and outrage. “Lady Olana, how could you?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to her daughter. “Are you all right, dear?”
Eviana shook her head, then gathered up her skirt and dashed for the door leading to the private rooms of the royal family. Upon reaching the portal, she glanced back at Quentin.
His heart tightened in his chest. She was seeing him, finally seeing him, but dammit, the look in her eyes was hurt and angry. He wasn’t sure how he could apologize, but he had better do it quickly. Once she left, it might be months before he saw her again. He stepped toward her, but she slipped through the door and slammed it shut.
Dammit. He’d screwed up royally.
And the royal princes knew it. Both Eric and Dominic stalked toward Quentin, their eyes narrowed and their fists clenched as if they were planning to clobber him.
Quentin bowed his head. “I apologize—”
“You think that’s enough?” Eric growled as he stepped closer, but his mother raised a hand, stopping him.
“Let’s not make matters worse,” Luciana said quietly.
Olana sank into a deep curtsy. “I am deeply sorry for the distress I have caused.”
“It was my idea,” Quentin insisted, not wanting Olana to take the blame. “I talked her into it, but I regret it now.”
With a sigh, Luciana regarded them both sadly. “It is Eviana you should apologize to.” She stepped closer, lowering her voice. “We will appreciate your efforts at a later date, but for now, I would like my husband’s party to continue without any more disruptions.” She glanced at her sons. “Understood?”
Dominic motioned to the front door where so many suitors had fled. “We’re not inviting those scoundrels back, I hope.”
“No. They will be banished from court. I’ll warn the Captain of the Guard.” Luciana turned toward Olana. “And I need to go to the kitchen to make sure Leo’s cake is ready. Will you come with me?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Olana replied.
“Quentin, I’ll have a word with you,” Leo called across the room as he strode toward his privy chamber. “Now.”
Quentin winced. He wasn’t out of trouble yet.
Olana shot Quentin a sympathetic look, then accompanied Luciana toward the front door.
Eric waved for the musicians to resume their playing, then he and his younger brother moved toward the crowd. Young noblewomen rushed toward them, each one hoping to dance with a prince. While everyone filled the center of the room, Quentin skirted the edge of the dance floor, headed for the king’s privy chamber.
Baron Northam stepped in front of him, and the would-be milkmaid gave him an amused look. “You’re in big trouble now, Messenger Boy.”
“Yes, and it’s given me a terrific thirst,” Quentin replied with a bland expression. “Do you make milk deliveries, my lord?”
Baron Northam gasped, then glanced nervously at his dance partner. “I-I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
With an inward wince, Quentin kept walking. Now he’d let his frustration cause him to make a second mistake. He shouldn’t have let the baron know that he was aware of the man’s secret.
Even so, making new enemies was the least of Quentin’s problems. Most probably, he had angered the king, but he doubted Leo would remain angry for very long. No, the worst thing to happen tonight was the look Eviana had given him.
How many times over the last six years had he hoped that she might notice him? Well, now she had.
And he had a sinking feeling that she hated him.