The messenger falcon wheeled overhead, a black stamp against the pink sunset sky. It turned, and turned again, riding an updraft, angling its wings, flashing a pale, speckled belly, and the bars on its tail. Then it winged off toward Drake Hold, fading to a speck, swallowed up by the last blaze of gold along the horizon. “It came from the North, my lady,” Malcolm said, to her left. On her right, his father, Thomas, hummed in agreement. “From your sister, perhaps.” “Perhaps,” Amelia agreed. She gathered her reins and touched Shadow with her heels. The stallion was tired, but not spent, and sprang into an easy canter in response. “We should hurry. We’re already late for supper.” She said it grudgingly, and Malcolm laughed as he – and the rest of her scouting party – fell into stride alongside her. They’d been gone longer than she’d anticipated, and she knew a moment’s twinge of guilt before she tamped it down. This trek – and what they’d learned on it – was more important than social frivolities. Her mother wouldn’t classify supper as such, but Amelia could find no other word for dining with the lord of Hope Hall.
Their party emerged from the tree line, and a wide, flat stretch of winter-brown field opened up before them. Ahead lay the low walls of yellow brick, and the great winged ducal estate of the same material: the seat of the Drakes of Drakewell, duke-less for now. The horses were tired, but their ears pricked, and their strides lengthened now that home was in sight. The low sunlight glinted off the armor Shadow wore down the crest of his neck, and on the fastenings of his chest plate where they crossed at his withers. Taller than either Malcolm or Thomas’s mounts, the big stallion tugged at the reins, eager, outpacing them, and, with a grin, Amelia let him have his head. She leaned low, wind streaming tears back from her eyes, and he was in a full gallop by the time they reached the gates. The guards on duty snapped a quick salute, and she steered Shadow up the wide, curving drive that led back toward the stables, her men thundering along behind. Shadow knew their routine: he slowed of his own volition as they reached their destination, pirouetting neatly to a halt before the stable doors; the grooms were already coming out to take everyone’s reins. All but Shadow’s. Amelia dismounted and pulled his reins over his head, led him into the barn herself.
He’d bitten one of the new stable lads last week, and she wasn’t eager for a repeat. The usual chaos of arrival ensued. Dismounting, handing over horses. Stripping off gloves, and hats, gladly accepting waterskins and wetting dry throats. Amelia had always been glad of the routine of caring for her own horse. It gave her time to decompress and compose her thoughts after a ride; and it was important bonding time besides. She led Shadow to his stall, stripped off his armor, untacked him, and rubbed him down with burlap; brushed the sweat stains from his coat, threaded a chain through his noseband and took him for a walk in one of the back paddocks. That was where a runner found her, a folded parchment envelope in one hand. “Message for you, my lady.” “Newly arrived?” “Just before you returned.
One addressed to you and one for your lady mother.” “Thank you.” When she accepted it, he didn’t run off straight away, but hesitated, scuffing a toe through the dirt. “My mother is angry that I’m late for supper,” she guessed. He winced. “She…wishes you to come inside. As soon as possible.” Amelia grinned. “Tell her I’ll be right there.” He nodded and ran off.
And Amelia let Shadow stretch down to crop at the half-dead grass while she broke the seal and unfolded her letter. Tessa’s elegant script greeted her: Dearest Sister, I write to you now with a heavy heart – because, in part, I know that I should have written to you before now, and because I feel that, after what I tell you, you’ll think I’m only using you as an outlet for fear and grief. King Erik’s younger nephew, Prince Rune, lies now in a sickbed, fighting for his very life. He was attacked the night of the Yuletide Feast, and has not awakened since. The perpetrator was punished was executed by the king, but that will not heal Rune. I pray for his health and wellbeing, and hope that you and Mother might extend your prayers as well. Prior to this tragedy, things were going quite well here in Aeretoll. We have settled in comfortably, and the royal family and their retainers have been most welcoming and kind. As for the king…I have told Mother this in the letter that I penned to her as well, though I fear she will not understand. (Don’t tell her I said this.
I love her dearly, but you know how she is: duty above all else.) King Erik will not wed me, as Mother had hoped. I must admit that I felt slighted, at first, and feared that some part of me of ered of ense. But it isn’t like that at all. King Erik is in fact a very kind-hearted and fair-minded man, beneath his chilly exterior. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this firsthand, and, in fact, must tell you that I have watched with my own eyes as he fell quite madly in love with our dear cousin. “No,” Amelia said, shocked, delighted – she could feel the smile stretching her face. “Ollie, you fox.” She read on, leaning on the fence and letting out a bit of Shadow’s lead. It appears that Erik is to take Oliver as his royal consort, and is taking him with him to the Wastes for the annual Midwinter Festival, so that he may be introduced to the Northern lords and clan leaders that live beyond Aeretoll’s borders.
A dangerous trek to be sure, with natural and human obstacles that lie in wait. I’m worried for Oliver, but he wants to prove that Erik choosing him as consort is not a sign that Aeretoll is showing a favoritism toward the South over the North. Which brings me to another problem: Northern politics are complex. From what Oliver tells me, Erik has been met with resistance from his own lords. There is suspicion of the South here, and an unwillingness to enter what they see as a foreign war. I wish I could of er better news, but all I can say now is that King Erik has of ered me his nephew’s hand – that of Rune’s older brother Leif – and said that Leif shall marry me and become the Duke of Drakewell. I know you won’t like hearing this, Lia,– “No shit,” Amelia muttered. –and I do agree that you should inherit as duchess outright. But I can promise that Leif is a kind, gentle, generous man, and that he feels a deep sense of responsibility. He will lead Drakewell honorably, I know.
“What’s that?” a familiar voice asked. Amelia lifted her head and was met with a very up-close glimpse of the V of skin and chest hair visible at the open throat of Malcolm’s shirt. It was a very nice view. As was his strong neck, and his stubbled jaw, and his sharp-featured face, with its twice-broken nose, and slanted dark brows over sparkling blue eyes, half-obscured by sweaty, wind-tangled hair as the breeze tossed it over his brow. He reached to push it back with one gloved hand, a casual-seeming gesture betrayed by the spark of amusement in his gaze when she swallowed on helpless impulse. “We’re out in the open,” she whispered. He shrugged, and swayed forward – then swayed back. “So I’ll wait and kiss you later.” He smelled of horse, and sweat, and the leathers he wore. No fine silks and gleaming breeches and tall boots for Malcolm, no: a man at arms of the Drake family dressed accordingly, in brown leather, stamped on the sleeves with the Drake crest, a dark, travel-stained cloak, his hair too long and his boots dirty and every inch of him leaving her wanting.
He nodded toward the letter. “What’s that?” he asked again. She passed it over. “A letter from my sister.” Amelia had been the one to teach him to read, when they were children; she loved the way his lips still had a habit of moving when he did so. She watched him mouth madly in love and then his head jerked up, blue eyes wide. “Oliver and the King of Aeretoll? Is she serious?” “When have you ever known Tessa to tell tall tales?” He shook his head and returned to the letter, still wide-eyed. After, he whistled and handed it back. “Your mother’s going to be furious.” Amelia tucked the letter down the front of her leather jerkin, a movement Malcolm’s gaze followed, gratifyingly.
“She already is, I’m sure. I’m late for supper.” Malcolm made a face. “With Sir Prance.” “That’s Lord Prance to you,” she said, drawing a laugh from him. She tugged on Shadow’s lead and he lifted his head to follow. “Come on. If we’re going to be late, we might as well make a fashionable entrance of it.” In the barn, the rest of her party waited, as covered in road dust and dried sweat as Malcolm, each dressed in leather, none of them bearing the poise and fashion of tonight’s supper guests. All of them worth ten times as much as any lord.
Amelia put Shadow away, then peeled off her gloves and stuck them in her belt. Lifted her brows. “Shall we?” Earned smiles and laughs in return. Flanked, as ever, by Malcolm and Thomas, Amelia led her dusty party in through the side door of the mansion; across black-and-white check marble tiles and beneath soaring ceilings; down a hall, past the kitchens, to the dining room. Its double doors stood cracked, and Amelia didn’t slow; she pushed them open and strode into the room, found it full of all its usual shine: the crystal teardrops of the chandeliers; the gleam of candlelight on the polished mahogany table; the glint of silver and bonewhite china. Duchess Katherine sat at the head of the table, in the place her husband used to sit, in an iceblue gown and layers of diamond necklaces, hair piled atop her head in an intricate Southern style. Pale and severe, she held a crimped scrap of parchment in one hand – Tessa’s letter – and her gaze snapped up to meet Amelia’s as she entered. Katherine did not scowl in public, as it wasn’t becoming of a duchess. Her face remained perfectly smooth and impassive – but her eyes, if you knew what to look for, blazed brighter than every candle in the room. Might as well get it over with.
“Hello, Mother,” she called, and walked all down the length of the table – her party was too smart to follow suit; they hung back just inside the doors – and leaned down to kiss Katherine on the cheek. “Sorry I’m late, but the Strangers have come raiding again.” In the breath before Amelia could pull away, Katherine’s gaze flashed toward her, the hazel more like flint this close up, and she hissed, “Later. Greet out guests.” “The Strangers?” one of said guests asked, followed by a huff of disbelieving laughter. “The Inglewood outlaws? They don’t go raiding like the old bear-skinned Northmen.” Lord Reginald, heir of Hope Hall to the south, still possessed that particular, grating note of condescension Amelia had always loathed – but his voice had a cracked quality to it now, as if he hadn’t spoken for months. She saw why, when she finally looked at him outright. Seated to Katherine’s left, there was no denying Reginald was a man who’d been through hell and back. Though an excellent jouster and tourney swordsman, he’d always been slender and faintly effete, with his cropped golden curls, and his elfin features, and his unrelenting dedication to all the latest fashions.
He was fashionable, still, in watered ice-blue silk, with a froth of white neckcloth – one that failed to cover the scar around his throat. He bore the mark there of a man who’d been hanged – unsuccessfully. The grain of the rope had left a lasting impression. And his face was marked, too, in its thinness, in the scar that bisected one brow, in the haunted way that all youthful vigor had left him. He was only twenty-four, but he had gray streaks in his cropped golden curls now. Though he presented a haughty picture, with his rings flashing, and his mouth puckered faintly, there was a wildness in his eyes, now, one Amelia didn’t envy. Pity didn’t spawn liking, though. “They didn’t use to, no,” she said, “but something has changed in the forest. They’re coming onto Drakewell land, now, rather than hunting: stealing sheep from pens and milk from springhouses. The farmers are frightened.
” Reginald had brought his lady mother, seated beside him, the easily-alarmed Daphne, and she touched the pearls at her throat with a quiet sound of alarm. Reginald tilted his head to a challenging angle. “And so you’ve gone to rescue them?” His gaze traveled disdainfully down her outfit, and back up. The steward of Hope Hall, a grizzled older man who’d managed to win Amelia’s grudging approval years ago for his practicality alone, said, “Perhaps this is not the best topic while ladies are at the table.” “Don’t change the subject on my account, Mr. Whitman. This lady isn’t offended – I’ve been hunting the bastards all day.” “Amelia,” Katherine snapped. “Apologies, Mother. I don’t suppose I’m in the proper headspace for company.
” If Katherine wanted her gone, this was the moment to allow her to retreat – which she desperately wanted. But Katherine, jaw like iron, said, “Be seated.” Amelia lifted her brows and gestured toward her riding leathers. “Be seated.” “Very well.” Amelia sent a look to Thomas, who nodded and ushered the scouting party out of the room, then sat down at her mother’s right. Across from Reginald, who watched her with catlike curiosity. “When you go ‘scouting,’ as you put it…” A footman set a glass of wine before her and Amelia reached for it immediately. “…do you ride pillion, or–” “I have my own mount.” His mouth gave a sideways twitch that wasn’t a smile.
“Of course. A lovely mare, I should think?” She set her glass down, half-empty, already feeling the wine’s effects on an empty stomach. “A stallion.” Had Tessa been here, she would have offered a lovely description of Shadow that managed to compliment Amelia without being so blunt. John would have said, “Now see here, L’Espoir, my sister could outride any man. That stallion would take your face of if you tried to of er it a carrot.” Father would have said, “Yes, a stallion,” and sent her one of his warm, approving looks. But Father was dead. John was dead. Tessa was sitting vigil over a Northern prince’s sickbed.
So Reginald said, “Ah,” in a condescending way, and sipped his wine. His food, she noted, sat untouched and cooling. When a plate of fish and potatoes landed before her, she dug in, hungry from the day’s riding. “Your mother was just telling me – before your grand entrance – that your sister has gone harking off to the North,” Reginald continued. Amelia darted a glance toward her mother, whose expression was clearly that of a woman who’d read Tessa’s letter, but who didn’t want its contents shared across the dinner table. Amelia didn’t care much for scandal, but, in this instance, she and her mother were in agreement: Hope Hall didn’t need to know all their business. At least not yet. “Something about a marriage?” Mr. Whitman prompted. Amelia swallowed; dabbed her lips.
She did possess some manners. “Yes, that’s right. Our cousin Oliver–” “Alfred’s bastard,” Reginald put in, as if anyone at the table didn’t know that. “Our cousin Oliver escorted her to the kingdom of Aeretoll in the hopes of securing a marriage alliance.” Mr. Whitman flashed a tight smile. “To secure the strength of the Great Northern Phalanx, you mean.” “It’s my understanding, Mr. Whitman,” Katherine said, “that all is fair in love and war. Are we not at war? If Tessa’s marriage can secure us an army to protect Drakewell, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t try for one.
” “You do realize,” Reginald drawled, “that the moment the other lords heard you’d sent her away that they all wrote to King Erik in an attempt to offer their own daughters, don’t you?” His lowlidded look was accusatory. Katherine gave the tiniest facial shrug. “I don’t see why any of their daughters should be more attractive than Tessa.” Not that King Erik was interested in anyone’s daughter, Amelia thought with an inward chuckle. “She’s beautiful and gracious to be sure,” Reginald said. “With the loveliest manners.” This with a pointed glance toward Amelia. His features tweaked with regret, and it might have been true, but he was the consummate actor. “I had hoped…” He trailed off, and his gaze dropped to the tabletop. Lady Daphne touched his arm and said, “Reggie has always been very fond of Tessa.
” Amelia remembered a May Day tourney, and Tessa’s blushing face as she leaned down from the stands to tie a ribbon to Reginald’s lance. He’d winked at her, after, with the lazy, roguish, disingenuous flair of a womanizer. Amelia fought to keep her lip from curling. “It would have been a smart match,” Katherine agreed. “But with you off to war, my lord, there was no way to be sure if it was a possible match.” A clever way, Amelia thought, of saying we thought you might die. The scar on his throat proved that had been a correct thought. “But now,” Katherine said, “Tessa is in Aeretoll and affianced. I cannot in good conscience rescind that offer. We must make do with the alliances we have available to us.
Which is why I wanted to host this dinner.” With a sudden, sick drop of dread in her stomach, Amelia set her fork down. “Mother.” “Amelia, I propose that you and Lord Reginald wed.” Silence. Uncomfortable silence. Mr. Whitman drew in a deep breath. Amelia said, “Mother, that’s ludicrous.” Katherine’s resultant look should have turned her to stone.
“I think it is plain, Mother – from this dinner alone – that we would not, would never suit. It would be more of a war than a marriage.” “A war?” Katherine’s tone went very flat, and her brows lifted. “Even now, we stay awake at night worrying when the Sels will finally march through Inglewood to come battering down our doors, but marriage would be a war for you.” Amelia frowned. “You may dress up as a man, and go gallivanting through the forest all you like, but in this moment you sound every inch the child, Amelia, and I raised you better than that.” The words hit her like a slap. But Katherine wasn’t done. She was so stalwart, it was easy, at times, to forget all that she’d lost, too; that beneath her cold and commanding veneer, she was as jagged and raw-edged as Amelia, as all of them. “Do you think I wanted to marry when I was eighteen? No, but I did, and I found love and understanding with your father.
You are a Drake of Drakewell, and it is your duty – to this duchy, to this people, to your family, and to the crown – to marry so that our lands and titles might be defended. Your sister – your younger sister – never protested, even when I sent her up to that barbarian twice her age.” Amelia’s eyes burned. She’d always had trouble holding her tongue, and now was no exception. “Well, Tessa’s not marrying him, is she?” she snapped. “She isn’t?” Lady Daphne said. “No?” Reginald asked, much more eagerly. He sat forward in his chair, so that his neckcloth slid down, and the scar on his throat was brought closer to the candlelight, dark and ugly. It was that, more than anything – the sight of someone she disliked so much having been marked horribly by their common enemy – that fueled the flare of rage in her chest. That had her turning to the L’Espoirs and saying, “No, she’s marrying the nephew.
It’s Oliver who’s fucking the king.” Reginald’s eyes flew wide with true shock. Daphne gasped. Katherine bolted to her feet, swaying with her anger. “Amelia.” Amelia drained her wine and stood. “Don’t worry, I’m leaving.” She was still shaking, a half-hour later, when a quiet knock sounded at her bedroom door. She’d taken off her boots and stockings, but still wore her leathers: the brown jerkin and laced chaps over her linen tunic and breeches; the squeak of leather was oddly comforting as she paced the length of her carpet, worrying her rein-callused hands together, glancing out the window for – for she didn’t know what. For something to latch onto, perhaps.
That something – someone – it seemed, had come to her. She hurried across the room to unlock the door and found Malcolm leaned negligently against the frame, arms folded. He’d changed into clean shirt and trousers, hair curling damp and freshlywashed on his shoulders. He lifted his brows. “You didn’t stay long at dinner.” Amelia grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him inside her room. “Shit,” he chuckled, stumbling. He managed to right himself, heel the door shut, and reach back to lock it. “Gods, you’re–” She stood up on her toes, flung her arms around his neck, and silenced him with a kiss. Shock held him still a moment, but this between them, this heat born of knowledge and affection, was long-familiar; his hands found her waist, and he kissed her back, mouth slanting hot over hers, tongue pressing for entry – one she welcomed.
He smelled like soap, and sun-bleached linen, and still, under that, horses and hay. Like home. When he pulled back – their foreheads resting together so they could both catch their breath – he petted over her ribs and said, “Was L’Espoir even worse than usual tonight?” “Even worse: Mother wants me to marry him.” His head lifted with a jerk; his hands stilled. “Can you believe that?” She felt hysteria building, a hard knot of it at the base of her throat. “Can you believe she would even suggest such a thing?” His expression closed off. He wet his lips, and said, carefully, “I actually can, yeah.” The knot in her throat became a spiked ball, sharply painful. “What?” When she pushed him, he released her and stepped back. “You what?” “Lia, it makes sense–” “No! No, it makes no sense, because I can’t stand that damnable fop!” “Lia–” “Why would you defend this?” She threw up her hands, whirled, and stormed away, unable to look at his expression of quiet resign.
He was her best friend – he was supposed to agree with her, damn it. She stood in front of the window, hands on her hips, pulse pounding, trying to catch her breath. She felt as if she’d been sprinting. Behind her. Malcolm sighed. His booted footfalls padded across the rug, and she heard the faint shakiness of his next inhale; felt the warmth of the exhale on the back of her neck. She was trembling – with so many emotions – but she didn’t try to bat him away when he slowly, deliberately wrapped both arms around her waist and snugged up against her back. Angry as she was, she leaned back against him. Moments like these were too rare and precious to waste.