Wild Savage Stars – Kristina Perez

THE WAVES MOCKED HER. Discordant laughter swelled in Branwen’s mind and twisted her heart. She couldn’t remain on the ship one moment longer. Her skin itched. Branwen rubbed her thumb along the raised flesh of her right palm, trying to quell her anger. She couldn’t. The gangway creaked beneath her feet as she disembarked the Dragon Rising at a brisk pace. She needed to get away from everyone on board. With a shallow breath, Branwen took her first step onto dry land—the land of her enemies. The kingdom of Kernyv had terrorized her beloved island of Iveriu for generations. Kernyvak raiders were responsible for the deaths of Branwen’s parents, and countless other Ivermen. But she wasn’t here for revenge. She was here to make peace. And she had already killed for it. Her eyes skittered over the cliffs that towered above the Port of Marghas; their lurid green had faded to a melancholy hue in the hour it had taken to make landfall.

The rocky vista reminded Branwen deceptively of home, of the view from the beach below Castle Rigani. She quashed a pang of longing. She couldn’t afford to look backward; Branwen had been sent across the sea to ensure that the future would be brighter than the past. The late-autumn breeze coming off the waves was warmer than it would have been in Iveriu. The Kernyveu called the body of water that separated their two kingdoms the Dreaming Sea. Branwen scoffed. Her voyage had been filled with nothing but nightmares. Loosening her fur-lined shawl, she panned her gaze across the fishing boats and other merchant vessels moored in the sheltered harbor. Kernyv occupied the southwestern peninsula of the island of Albion and, being so close to the southern continent, it owed much of its wealth to trade. Both legal and illegal.

Kernyvak pirates were feared throughout its neighboring seas. The din of bartering and gossiping lured Branwen toward the jetties, which were littered with stacks of crates, wicker baskets, and ceramic pots. Albion had been ruled by the Aquilan Empire until a century ago. At the empire’s peak, it had dominated half the known world, and Kernyv maintained strong trading ties with its distant corners. Farther inland, near the end of the pier, Branwen spied a market where fishermen were selling their fresh catch. Also, she reckoned, where foreign merchants were trying to tempt the locals into purchasing jugs of sweet Mílesian liqueur or weapons forged from the toughest Kartagon steel. Her throat tightened. Those weapons would never be used against the Iverni again. Branwen would die before she let that happen. She glanced back at the sail of the Dragon Rising.

A swath of red cloth was stitched between the white. Branwen had risked everything for the deepest magic known to her people because she’d rashly believed she could mend the rift between Kernyv and Iveriu in the same way. Blood and bone, forged by fire, we beseech you for the truest of desires. To bind the peace with love, she had conjured the Loving Cup. This morning, the streak of red looked like blood on the moon. The Land, Goddess Ériu herself, had chosen Kernyv as her Champion in a sacred ritual, but Branwen had wanted more for the Princess of Iveriu—for the sister of her heart—than a political alliance. She had wanted her cousin to know love. Her aunt, Queen Eseult of Iveriu, had cautioned Branwen that forced fruit is nearly always bitter. She hadn’t listened. The Old Ones, the Otherworld-dwellers who guarded her homeland, had sent her warnings.

She’d ignored them. And now … no one could ever know the Loving Cup had existed. No one could know the potion intended for the Princess of Iveriu and the King of Kernyv had been imbibed by the wrong couple. Not even the new lovers themselves. The knowledge could only bring ruin—to Iveriu, to Kernyv, to everyone Branwen cherished. When she’d discovered the golden vial empty, she hurled it to the bottom of the sea, disposed of the evidence. In trying to break the cycle of war, Branwen had led others into treason: both her cousin and the only man she had ever loved. The truth threatened to strangle her from within, but, if that was the price of her transgression, she accepted. The burden of this secret was hers alone. Lost in her thoughts, Branwen continued walking toward the market.

Thud. She smacked straight into a solidly built chest. The man she’d stumbled into regarded her shrewdly, silver eyes gleaming, and Branwen studied him right back. Light brown hair and a precisely trimmed beard framed his pale, slightly sunworn face. The angles of his cheekbones were too severe to be handsome, but not unappealing. He was at least a head taller than Branwen, and she ventured a guess he was also about ten years her senior. “M-Mormerkti,” she stuttered. “Mormerkti?” the stranger repeated. Branwen flushed. Mormerkti was the Kernyvak word for “thank you.

” His eyes remained steady on hers, not unkind, no doubt puzzling at why she would offer thanks for barging into him. Scrambling to recall the few other words of Kernyvak she knew, Branwen tried again. “Dymatis,” she said, tentative, her pronunciation halting. It was a greeting that translated as “good day.” The stranger must have realized Branwen was a foreigner from her accent, but could he tell she was an Iverwoman? The Iverni had also spilled much Kernyvak blood. Branwen had come to the land of her enemies, but she was their enemy, too. She braced herself to be rebuffed. Unconsciously, she touched the brooch pinned to her shawl. It had belonged to her mother and bore her family motto: The right fight. Slowly, the corner of the stranger’s mouth lifted in a guarded quarter smile.

“Dymatis,” he said in return, and Branwen released a small sigh of relief. Pointing toward the other end of the dock, in the direction of the ships, the man launched into a torrent of Kernyvak words. Branwen couldn’t keep up. His tone was friendly and, from his cadence, she thought he was asking a question—although she had no notion as to what that question might be. The heat on her cheeks intensified. Biting her lips together, she dropped her gaze, landing on the sash that the man sported across his tunic. In the center of smooth white silk, a sea-wolf had been embroidered in shiny black thread. The hybrid beast was the royal emblem of Kernyv. Morgawr, the captain of the Dragon Rising, had informed Branwen that King Marc would send an envoy to meet them at the port. This man must be in the king’s service.

His leather trousers and sumptuous linen tunic indicated affluence, perhaps even nobility. An idea sparked in Branwen. The language of the Aquilan Empire was still spoken at most royal courts across their former territories. Ivernic nobles also learned the language so as not to be at a disadvantage in diplomatic negotiations. Steeling herself with a deep breath, Branwen said to the man in Aquilan, “I beg your pardon, but I’m not fluent enough in Kernyvak to be able to understand your question.” His eyebrows shot up in surprise, followed by a tensing of his features. He stroked his beard. Tamping down on her nerves, Branwen summoned a smile of encouragement. She hadn’t been graced with the same natural charm as some other members of her family. She was less interested in public life than her patients in the castle infirmary.

But that had been in Iveriu. Branwen was in a new land, and she needed to become someone new. She needed to make allies for her people—to do everything in her power to secure the peace and prevent the chaos of her magic from being unleashed. “Forgive me,” the envoy replied in Aquilan after a moment. His voice held something close to trepidation. “You’ve arrived on the ship that just landed?” “Yes.” She nodded. “From Iveriu?” Another nod. His agitation mounted. “Forgive me,” he said again.

“I’d planned to meet you on deck. A pressing matter … delayed me.” “You were sent by the king?” Branwen inferred. The envoy didn’t answer, just worked his jaw. He began to bow from the waist. “I—” Branwen stopped him, touching a hand to his shoulder. “There’s no need to bow before me,” she said. He looked like he was about to protest when he was distracted by something over Branwen’s shoulder. “Brother!” he exclaimed. His face relaxed into a brilliant smile, and she suspected that this was a man who smiled less often than he wanted.

He looked younger when he smiled. Affinity, instant and unexpected, rippled through Branwen. Intrigued, she turned, following the envoy’s eye line, to see who had inspired his sudden joy. Her heart liquefied. Tristan. The man with whom she’d shared her first kiss—with whom she’d wanted to share her life until a few hours ago—raced toward them. And behind him, still on deck, was the woman whose happiness Branwen had prized above an entire kingdom. “Marc!” Tristan called out as his feet pounded the dock, and Branwen failed to suppress a gasp. She swung her gaze back toward the other Kernyvman. Marc.

King Marc. The man destined to wed her cousin. The man for whom the Loving Cup had been devised. She staggered back a pace and raked her eyes over him with fresh scrutiny, guilt and fear roiling inside her. And hate. During the voyage, Branwen had been tormented by images of horror sent to her by Dhusnos: The Dark One who ruled the Sea of the Dead. He’d used a kretarv—a carnivorous bird—to send her a vision of her parents’ deaths. A young Kernyvak raider had watched Branwen’s mother die. He’d seen the blood spurting from her chest and run away. A raider named Marc.

Was it truly the king? Had it been recognition rather than affinity she’d felt a moment ago? Dull sunlight shimmered on Tristan’s warm brown skin as he halted before them, and Branwen couldn’t stop her eyes from seeking out the small scar above his right eyebrow, concealed by dark, messy curls. When she’d first rescued him, half-drowned from the waves, that tiny imperfection had endeared him to her. For a moment, Branwen was back on that beach. For a moment, he was all she could see. The moment passed. King Marc wrapped an arm around Tristan, clapping him on the back, pulling him into a hearty embrace. Although he’d called Tristan brother, the Prince of Kernyv was actually his nephew. He was the son of Marc’s older sister who had died in childbirth. With only seven years between them, the pair had grown up together, raised by Tristan’s grandparents. Tristan had always spoken fondly of Marc to Branwen—when she was still interested in hearing anything he had to say.

Wind whipped her long black tresses across her face, the air instantly colder than the song of a Death-Teller, the Otherworld women whose laments foretold your end. Hugging his nephew, the raw affection on King Marc’s face didn’t tally in Branwen’s mind with the ruler who had sent raiders to decimate Ivernic villages; nor with the gangly pirate she’d seen ambush her parents. Tristan’s expression was uneasy as he broke his uncle’s embrace, the edges of his smile brittle. Marc didn’t appear to notice. Branwen could read Tristan only too well. She’d spent too long mastering the meaning of each different smile, dreaming of him, begging the Old Ones to keep him safe—learning to love her enemy. But that was done. He was a Kernyvak prince and she would accord him the respect that his status required. Nothing further. Glancing between Branwen and the king, Tristan wet his lips.

“You’ve met Marc?” he asked her in Ivernic. There was a quaver in his voice. “I was just making his acquaintance.” Branwen’s answer came in Aquilan, and she struggled to keep her words from stinging like nettles. She no longer wanted to share her native tongue with Tristan. Angling her shoulders toward Marc, she commanded her lips to part in another polite smile. She pictured a wooden shield between them, protecting her from the past. Lowering her eyes deferentially, Branwen added, “Although I hadn’t realized he was the king,” and sank into a curtsy. She needed to ingratiate herself with the monarch for Iveriu’s sake, and yet, as her gaze flitted over her right palm, over the purple welt that ran the length of her heart line, rebellion stirred. To protect the Land, the Old Ones had imbued Branwen with terrifying power: the Hand of Bríga.

Ancient magic. She could set Tristan alight with her fire where he stood. She could kill the king. It wouldn’t be the first time she had burned a man alive. Marc reached forward, resting a hand lightly on Branwen’s elbow. “There’s no need to bow before me, either,” he said. He sounded sincere. Drawing back, she tugged on the sleeve of her dress, covering her palm. “I’m not as fluent in Ivernic as I’d like to be,” Marc went on, apologetic. “Perhaps we can teach each other, Princess—” “Branwen,” she interrupted.

“I am Branwen.” Confusion puckered his brow. “I—I thought you were named Eseult? Like your mother?” The king shot Tristan a quizzical look. “The princess is called Eseult.” Branwen was the one to reply. “But that’s not me.” Despite the bustling of the port, a strange silence descended on the three of them. Branwen wondered if Tristan’s mind had also darted back to the night when he returned to Iveriu for the Champions Tournament. He’d thought she was the princess at first, too. Memory was more dangerous than any quicksand.

“There she is,” Tristan told the king, directing a glance toward the Dragon Rising. Eseult loitered at the end of the gangway, hesitant to leave the relative safety of the ship. Having felt Tristan’s gaze settle upon her, she canted her head. Her golden hair was gathered hastily into a braid tossed over one shoulder. Without Branwen’s expert fingers to tame her locks, they ran wild. And yet, it suited her. Branwen looked at Eseult and saw her own broken heart. Tristan raised his hand, beckoning. The princess began processing down the dock as if she were walking toward her own execution. Indeed, if anyone learned what had passed between Tristan and Eseult on the ship, it would mean death for them both.

As well as untold numbers of Iverni and Kernyveu. When Branwen discovered Eseult in his bed, Tristan had offered to confess his crime, to die for the peace. Branwen had forbidden it. She wouldn’t allow anything to throw the alliance into question. Tristan would have to learn to endure his own disgrace. A clean conscience wasn’t worth a war. The awkward silence that cloaked Branwen, Marc, and Tristan as they watched Eseult approach was sheared by a booming voice. Rix was the only word Branwen could pick out. King. She wheeled around to face the speaker.

The two men did likewise. A few of the hawkers and their customers shot curious looks in the king’s direction. “Rix!” called the newcomer again as he strutted from the market to meet them. He seemed closer to Branwen’s age than Marc, and he carried himself with confidence, shoulders back. He had donned a tunic and sash that matched the king’s, but his face was clean-shaven and his dirty-blond hair reached his shoulders. A guard, perhaps. He flashed Branwen a ready smile. The guard was undeniably attractive, but, unlike Marc, she surmised this man smiled too much. When he addressed Branwen, he took her aback by immediately speaking Aquilan. “You must be the reason why my king left me in the dust,” the guard said with a laugh.

There was something haughty about the sound. Cutting Marc a look, he said, “He bolted from the stables like a colt as soon as the ship was sighted by the spyglass.” Another laugh. “It’s hard to protect the king when he’s nowhere to be found.” Marc shrugged at the mild chastisement, unbothered. Branwen bristled. None of the Royal Guard at Castle Rigani would take such a liberty, even in jest, with her uncle, King Óengus. Marc’s court at Monwiku must operate very differently. “Not that I blame him.” Sliding his gaze from the king to Tristan, the guard said, “I’m glad you’re back, cousin.

” He squeezed Tristan’s shoulder. Cousin? Tristan had never mentioned this man to Branwen. “Otherwise,” he continued, “the ladies might start complaining that taking your place as King’s Champion is aging me prematurely.” Branwen restrained a snort. Pompous noblemen had never been to her liking, and this one had let his strong jaw, dazzling topaz eyes, and prominent dimple make him vain. “Bran—Lady Branwen,” Tristan said. “May I introduce my cousin, Ruan?” “Prince Ruan,” he corrected him, and his eyes danced as he met Branwen’s. “Delighted to meet you, Lady Branwen.” “And you,” she lied. Men impressed with their own titles didn’t impress her at all.

Ruan’s smile twisted in question. “But, where is Princess Eseult?” he said, running his thumb along his lower lip. A small cough. Eseult had sidled next to them quietly, positioning herself halfway behind Tristan. Her creamy cheeks were splotchy, and she shifted her weight anxiously from one foot to another, skittish as a doe. She looked wretched. Up close, Branwen could see her cousin’s eyes were puffy from crying—those emerald eyes that glittered like Rigani stones; they always made Branwen think of her mother, Lady Alana. Essy. Her first impulse was still to kiss away her baby cousin’s tears. She had always felt the princess’s sadness as her own.

Branwen clenched the hem of her shawl. She could no longer concern herself with her cousin’s wants or needs. The princess remained silent, worrying her hands together. Branwen forced herself to speak instead. “Princess Eseult is still recovering from the attack last night, my Lord King,” she said directly to Marc. She shuddered, and it wasn’t feigned. The Dragon Rising had been attacked by Shades: unclaimed souls of the dead transformed by Dhusnos into half-kretarv, half-human creatures. The ship was nearly lost. “It … it was horrible,” Eseult rasped. Alarm streaked King Marc’s face.

“Attack?” He pivoted toward Tristan. “What happened?” he pressed his nephew. Branwen saw Ruan’s hand drop to the sword at his waist, posture becoming rigid as he leaned toward his king. Marc was unarmed. The King of Iveriu never bore arms, either, because his retainers were supposed to protect him. Carrying a weapon would indicate that he didn’t trust them. It would make him appear vulnerable, as if he had something to fear. They likely had a similar custom in Kernyv. “Pirates,” Tristan lied through gritted teeth. “Ours?” Fury underscored Marc’s question but not surprise.

Had Kernyvak pirates grown so bold that they dared attack royal vessels? Tristan dashed a glance at Branwen. He had promised to keep knowledge of her magic to himself —of the fire that had sent the Shades fleeing back to the merciless depths. She had saved the ship, but something inside her had been unleashed that scared Branwen even more than the Shades. “Not ours,” Tristan said to Marc, holding Branwen’s gaze. The king nodded, jaw relaxing a fraction. Under his breath, he muttered a Kernyvak phrase often shouted by the crew of the Dragon Rising. A curse, to be sure. “When Captain Morgawr has finished unloading the ship,” Marc instructed Tristan, “tell him I expect a full report.” “Of course.” Would Marc even believe that they’d been lost in the Otherworld, that they’d crossed the Sea of the Dead and been set upon by its inhabitants? The king clasped Tristan’s shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re home, brother.” Tristan only ducked his head in response. Marc took a step toward Eseult, and the princess sucked in a breath. Branwen should have gone to her cousin on the ship, coaxed and cajoled her to play her part, to do her duty to Iveriu despite her indiscretion. But she hadn’t. She couldn’t push the image of Eseult’s legs wrapped around Tristan from her mind. Had either of them had a moment’s hesitation before they betrayed her? “It grieves me that your journey was so menaced,” Marc told the princess, searching for the words. “But you’re safe now in Kernyv. I swear it.” Eseult’s lips trembled.

Gesturing at Ruan, Marc explained, “Prince Ruan is to be your Queen’s Champion. He won’t let any harm befall you.” “It will be my greatest honor to serve you, Rixani.” Then, “My queen,” Ruan translated, bowing before Eseult with a flourish of the hand. The princess swept her gaze from Ruan to Marc to Tristan. “I want … Tristan—Prince Tristan—to be my Champion.” The words punched Branwen in the gut. She pressed her mouth into a line as bile rushed up her throat. Rage obliterated any guilt or pity she had for her role in Eseult and Tristan’s treason. Consternation creased Tristan’s forehead, and Branwen prayed that nobody else could read the conflict in each line.

Eyes widening, Ruan straightened to standing. He looked to the king. Marc rubbed his beard, glancing between his nephew and his future wife. “If Tristan is agreeable,” he said, a trace of reluctance in his voice. “I, of course, want you to feel welcome in your new homeland, Princess Eseult. You are very welcome here. You will be safe and…” He faltered. “Happy. I hope.” Tristan sought Branwen out once more with his gaze.

She held her breath as she waited for him to give his answer. “Thank you,” Eseult said softly. She fidgeted with her braid, scratching at the base of her skull. “The prince saved me last night. He is my only friend in Kernyv—except for Branny.” When the princess had been thrown overboard wrestling with a Shade, as she vanished beneath the inky blackness, Branwen had thought her world would evanesce. Now the shadow-stung part of Branwen’s heart whispered that it might have been better for Iveriu if the Dark One had swallowed her cousin whole. “I understand,” Marc told his bride-to-be. “I trust Tristan with my life, too.” The edges of Tristan’s mouth went taut.

Branwen willed him to decline the request. He simply stared at his boots. From the corner of her eye, Branwen saw Ruan grimace for less than the space of a breath. Laughing, he said, “Well, I’m happy to accept the permanent promotion to King’s Champion,” and slapped Tristan on the back, dispelling the renewed tension. “Thank you, cousin!” “What about the ladies at court?” Branwen said, playful and acerbic at once. “I thought you were afraid to disappoint them.” She knew she shouldn’t antagonize a member of the royal family, especially within her first hour in Kernyv. But it felt good. Ruan barked another laugh at her barb. It was fuller than the last, more open.

“I think you’ll find I’m never a disappointment, Lady Branwen.” “That remains to be seen, Prince Ruan.” Branwen felt Tristan’s eyes on her, but she ignored him. “It’s decided, then,” Marc declared. “Tristan will be the Queen’s Champion and poor Ruan will go gray looking after me.” He peered at the nobleman sidelong, and his lips quirked. Ruan chuckled, then gave a swift nod of acquiescence. “Always, Rix.” The levity faded from his voice. “Kernyv forever.

” After a stunned moment, Tristan bowed formally to Eseult. “I am your servant,” he said, and she blushed. “My Champion,” the princess said, a longing note to the title. As Branwen watched Ruan watching the future Queen of Kernyv and her Champion, narrowing his gaze, the tide surged against the dock, splashing Branwen’s feet. She had been naive to hope her nightmares might end with the voyage. They were just beginning.

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