After the Ilian War, Tamsen Ka’antira settled into ruling the Elven Realm with her husband, Brial at her side. But when a diplomatic crisis occurs between Ansienne and Hippolytos, Tamsen and Brial are lured out of Leselle into the treacherous currents of human politics.
Tamsen realizes these escalating events are driven by something inimical—something determined to bring the Elven Queen from behind the magical barrier that protects her realm. Whispers of new sorcerers and upheaval among the gods soon coalesce into a single frightening truth. The peace the gods had granted to Tamsen is over, and the rising threat will turn erstwhile enemies into allies.
Only the greatest danger could persuade the Elven Queen to serve the god that once threatened the existence of her entire race. If Tamsen becomes the servant of Dis, the peril overshadows not just the mortal realm, but the realms of the gods.
I looked up from the pile of parchment that had been baffling me for hours. Bryse hovered in the doorway.
“Yes? What is it?”
“The scouts have sent word that a visitor is approaching Leselle,” she said.
“Who is it?”
“They didn’t say. They said that whoever it is, he is human and riding his horse hard for the city.”
“That can’t be good.” I sighed. “Are the children in bed?”
“Barely,” she replied, her eyes twinkling.
I grimaced. Although the twins were reasonably obedient for eight-year-old boys, Tamarisk was a handful.
“I’d best go down and see who it is.” I stood from my mother’s writing desk and reaching for my cloak.
“Of course.” Bryse curtseyed.
I pulled the hood over my head as I descended the stairs from my little study to the warm central room of our house. As I donned my gloves, I passed the nursery where our children slept, the telltale sounds of regular breathing reassured me that they were truly asleep. I laid a hand on the guardians who warded our home. Instantly, they slid aside, rearranging the disguising trunk of the colossal tree, and I ducked outside into the swirling whiteness of the storm.
The streets of Leselle were silent and empty, due not only to the lateness of the hour but also to the bitter wind that accompanied this early winter storm. I kept my head low as I negotiated the broad snow-covered branches that served as streets in this ancient city. Only in the Elven forest could trees grow to such a size as to support an entire city.
Leselle was built within the protective limbs of six towering oaks, trees so ancient their origins were lost in the dim beginnings of myth. Once, this lovely city had been leveled—razed by Elven mages to prevent its despoiling by my so-not-mourned uncle, the Duke de Spesialle. At my crowning, the Virgin Huntress had resurrected Leselle to stand as the jewel of the Elven Realm once more.
The only bad thing about it was trying to descend icy tree branches at night.
I slid the final few feet to the city gates where Malvern, one of our most experienced scouts, saluted. Behind him, a shadowed form stood next to a steaming horse whose head was lowered.
“What is it?” A tingle of premonition suddenly raced across my mouth.
The cloaked man lifted his head. I looked into the tired face of Mylan de Phoclydies. Although we were nearly the same age, his face had aged. He wasn’t much older than thirty-five, but deep creases lined his stern face, creases, I knew, that were placed there by the death of Anner de Ceolliune on the Ilian flood plain over a decade earlier.
“Mylan!” I rushed forward to embrace my old friend. I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him hard. He was smiling when I pulled back, but shadows lingered behind his eyes.
“We’ll go up to the house,” I said quietly. “Malvern, find Prince Ka’breona and my uncle. I think they’re down here somewhere. Send them up immediately.”
“At once, your Majesty.”
I linked my arm through Mylan’s, and we began the climb through the thoroughfares of Leselle. “It’s good to see you, old friend,” I said.
The young scouts behind us led Mylan’s exhausted horse to the stables Brial had built on the lower outskirts of the city.
“What in the world possessed you to come to Leselle in this weather, and nearly riding a horse to death in the process?”
“We’ll wait,” he said.
His voice was much deeper and more resonant than I remembered. I hadn’t seen Mylan for three years, not since the funeral of Hyagrem de Silenos in Geochon.
We hurried through the snowy streets, and I opened the guardians to escort my guest into the warmth of our home.
We preferred to live simply in Leselle. Nothing really indicated that this home was the residence of the royal family, save perhaps the shelves full of books that few Elves would own. I removed Mylan’s heavy fur cloak and pushed him onto a couch before the heaped Elfstones glowing on the hearth. I added cinnamon and nutmeg to a tankard of wine and heated it with a thought. One of our servitors appeared with a tray of cheese, bread, and fruit as I handed the hot drink to him. I dismissed her for the evening and served the Earl myself.
His green eyes were dulled with fatigue as he thanked me. I sat on the couch opposite after pouring myself a glass of wine. The guardians slid aside, and Brial strode into the room. A wide grin split his face as he walked toward his friend, arms outstretched. Mylan rose and the two men embraced, Brial almost dwarfed by the greater bulk of the human knight. Behind them, Wilden Ka’antira, my uncle and the last male of the Ka’antira line, smiled. When Brial pulled away with a hearty slap on Mylan’s back, Wilden stepped in and clapped Mylan’s shoulder.
Brial came to my side, and his smile faded as he looked into my face. “What is it, cariad?”
“I’m waiting for Mylan to tell us.” I turned my attention back to the man who had fallen back into the cushions of the couch.
“I came to fetch you two,” Mylan said gruffly. “You are needed in Geochon.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s trouble over the Spesialle succession.”
“Why didn’t Mariol come to tell us, then?” I asked, puzzled.
“Mariol sent me to you. Dantel de Tizand is doing everything he possibly can, but—” Mylan spread his hands. “There are complications. If Dantel knew I was here, he’d probably throw me into a dungeon. The Council is divided.” Mylan’s voice hoarsened. “I have come, not for the Elven Queen, but for the Countess of Asphodel. Dantel needs friends, and you are probably the only two that can help.”
“Naturally, we’ll come,” I said. “But what could be the problem with the Spesialle succession? Rontil has held the duchy for over ten years.”
“Rontil has finally chosen a wife.” Mylan spoke carefully, as he always had when he was concerned about my reaction.
Of all the dear friends I’d made while on the Huntress’s game, he was the one whose good humor and high spirits had remained intact. Whatever he’d come to tell me, he was worried about how I’d take it.
“Well, that’s good isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “The wife he’s chosen is Alcmene, the sister of Queen Antiope.”
I sat back in my seat, thinking quickly. Thirteen years ago, Alcmene and her sister, Admete, had been sweet-faced little girls. They would be fully-grown warriors now who stood in line to the Hippolyte crown behind their older sister, Antiope. Antiope was still without an heir; the only child she’d borne was the posthumous son of Anner de Ceolliune who could not inherit the throne of a fabled race of female warriors. The political ramifications were obvious—and threatening to those who didn’t understand the terms of the Geochon accords as well as I did.
Brial let out a long whistle. “That’s an awfully big army for an Ansienne Prince to lay claim to. At least, that’s what the courtiers probably think, isn’t it?”
“You’ve got it,” Mylan said. “It doesn’t matter how many times we tell them that men are just a convenience to Hippolytes, the stupid Council doesn’t listen. All they can think of is Rontil sitting in Spesialle and his wife’s sister controlling the legendary legions of Hippolytos and what a huge military power that alliance forges.”
“How did they meet?” I asked.
“They met when Antiope paid a visit to her son,” Mylan wrapped his big hands around the tankard, as if he was trying to warm himself. “She and Mariol agreed to meet in Spesialle, so Mariol took Anteros down to Rontil’s palace. Antiope brought her sisters along and, well, you know Rontil. One thing led to another, and the two became betrothed.”
“How did Antiope take it?” Brial asked.
“She seemed to be all for it at first, but when word of the Council’s uproar reached her, I guess she forbade the whole thing. As a result, the girl took off and now is lodged firmly in Geochon while the whole thing plays out.”
That premonition was back again. I rubbed the back of my newly tense neck. “Where?”
I was afraid I already knew the answer.
“Alcmene is staying with your cousin,” Mylan said blandly. “For some reason, Cetenne thinks this whole thing is funny.”
So without my knowledge, Cetenne has involved the Elven Realm. No wonder Mylan is being so cautious.
I rolled my eyes to the heavens and let out a long-drawn sigh. “By the gods! Why didn’t Mariol come to tell us sooner? We could have headed this whole thing off weeks ago.”
Mylan’s expression darkened. “Mariol couldn’t come, Tamsen. He’s dying.”