Authors: Erin Lindsey
“Strong romantic elements and a dash of humor.”
New York Times
bestselling author of the Agent of Hel novels
“Action and intrigue and flawed but likable characters who, in complex political/personal situations, make hard decisions and stand by them.”
âTanya Huff, national bestselling author of
An Ancient Peace
“Fabulous, descriptive storytelling, coupled with high-stakes conflict and distinctive charactersÂ .Â .Â . A stellar fantasy!”
RT Book Reviews
“Lindsey does a fine job of building tension.”
“A great epic fantasy novel with a strong yet flawed heroine.”
âThe Book Pushers
“[A series] no fantasy fan should miss.”
âAll Things Urban Fantasy
“Palace intrigue, military strategy, and plenty of sword fighting keep the story line interesting and exciting.”
âBitten by Books
“Lindsey's writing has that fun and addictive quality that sucks you right in and won't let go.”
“Full of witty banter, immensely likable characters, and swoons aplentyÂ .Â .Â . not to be missed.”
“A terrific series that balances the conventional pleasures of epic fantasy with unconventionally brilliant storytelling.”
“This series is totally engaging, and the books are so hard to put down!”
âDark Faerie Tales
Published by Berkley
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright Â© 2016 by Erin Lindsey
Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.
ACE is a registered trademark and the A colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN: 9780698168619
First Edition: October 2016
Cover illustration by Lindsey Look
Map by Cortney Skinner
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Nora, Edith, and Bill, in loving
There are certain things you only get to experience once in life. A first kiss, say, or a first novel. Moments you'll always remember and look back on with a certain bittersweet nostalgia. Finishing your first trilogy definitely belongs in that category. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I'll try to savour the momentâbut already I feel that inevitable hint of sadness, knowing it's a milestone that's forever behind me. It's also a milestone that would never have been reached without the guidance and support of some truly wonderful and patient people. Writing novels is a team sport. Joshua Bilmes and Lisa Rodgers coached me through some pretty shaky drafts before the manuscripts were game-ready. Danielle Stockley and Rebecca Brewer kept me focused on the goal. My husband, Don, and my parents, Billie and David, cheered me on tirelessly, making sure my spirits never flagged. Leslie and Owain, Jordan, Pippa and Selwyn, Matt and Manda, and many others too numerous to mentionâyou've all helped and supported me throughout this adventure. I'm enormously grateful to all of you, and I hope you're as proud of the result as I am.
As bittersweet as it is leaving Alix, Erik, Liam, and Rig behind, I have no doubt they'll get on perfectly well without me. And who knowsâmaybe I'll run into them again somewhere down the road.
e're ready, Captain.”
The anxiety in Pollard's eyes belied his words. A sheen of sweat glistened under the edges of his helm, and he clutched his spear in a white-knuckled grip. He might have been marching into battle against a horde of bloodbound thralls instead of preparing to walk down the burnished hall of the royal apartments. Behind him, the rest of the royal guardsmen fared no better, shifting on their feet and trading uneasy glances, a restless herd smelling a storm. One of them, a bull of a fellow called Notcher, looked like he might actually throw up.
Alix might have pitied them if she weren't too busy fighting down her own queasiness. “Remember,” she told her new second-in-command, “this needs to be handled quickly and quietly. I'm counting on you, Pollard.”
A convulsive, thin-lipped nod was the guardsman's only reply.
Feeling a hand on her arm, Alix glanced at Liam. Her husband was as pale as the rest of them, grey eyes haunted with guilt. “Are you sure you don't want me to come? Maybe I could talk to him, try toâ”
“Nothing we do will make this all right. It's better you stay out of this. No point in the prince getting his hands dirty too.”
“My hands are already dirty,” he snapped. “They're never going to come clean, either, not after this.” His voice dropped to a hiss. “It's
Alix scowled. “You think you need to tell me that? I'm the king's bodyguard, Liam. I'm supposed to protect him.”
“And I'm his brother. I'm supposed to support him.”
Behind them, someone cleared his throat. Alix turned to find Albern Highmount levelling a reproving stare at both of them. Somehow, the chancellor managed to look both grave and impatient at the same time. “Your Highnesses. We have discussed this to exhaustion. We have no choice in the matter. The king is bewitched. We are at war. There is not a priest in the world who would condemn us for what we are about to do.”
Alix wasn't sure about that, but she wouldn't argue with the chancellorânot now, in front of her guardsmen. “We've lingered here long enough. The last thing we need is a servant running to Erik and telling him we're about to stage a coup. Let's just get this over with.” She marvelled at the steadiness of her own voice. She was about to lead her guardsmen into the royal apartments to arrest the king. Her brother-in-law. The best man she'd ever knownâuntil the enemy poisoned his mind. Her insides were thrashing about like a fish on a barbed hook, but her expression remained firm, a mask of resolve.
Maybe you've finally learned a thing or two from Erik about controlling your emotions.
What a bitter irony that would be.
“With me,” she said, starting down the corridor.
Sunlight slanted through the arched windows on the east side of the hall. It glared off the marble tiles, harsh in Alix's eyes, as though Rahl himself rebuked her for what she was about to do. Unwittingly, her gaze fell to the sunburst emblazoned on her breastplate. Rahl, the sun, first among the Holy Virtues and patron of the royal family. Patron of King Erik White, whose crown was about to be usurped by the people he loved most.
, she commanded herself.
This must be done. We have no choice.
So why did it feel like a cold hand clutched at her throat?
Her mind snagged on a memory from their days at Greenhold: Erik sitting across from her in the solar, clasping her hand in gratitude.
You are a true friend, Alix.
A golden smile, blue eyes filled with trust and warmth and something more, something Alix hadn't recognised until later. He'd been hurting then, rolling the bitter taste of Prince Tomald's betrayal on his tongue.
I may have been deceived in my brother, but there are others I know I can rely on.
They'd stayed up all night, the two of them, drinking and laughing, Alix basking in the sunshine that had once been Erik White.
A true friend.
The memories flashed mercilessly through her mind now, one after another, each more painful than the last: Erik's arms around her, comforting her as she wept; shoulder to shoulder in battle, defending each other's flank; his laughter when he'd stumbled across her in her wedding dress, that cheeky winkÂ .Â .Â .
She rounded the corner and there he was, on his way to his study. She froze.
Erik cocked his head. “Alix, whatever is the matter?” At first, she thought he meant the guardsmen, but he didn't even seem to have noticed them; his gaze, filled with concern, belonged only to her. “Are you crying?”
She touched her cheek; her fingers came away wet.
His glance flicked over her shoulder, taking in the guardsmen now. “What's happened?”
“IÂ .Â .Â .” Though she'd rehearsed the words a hundred times, they died on her lips.
Erik gazed at her expectantly. He was immaculate as always, dressed in a blue doublet and leather breeches, red-gold hair tied back in a short, tidy tail. His posture was straight, eyes keen and focused. The enemy's dark magic left no visible mark upon him, and for a fleeting moment, a worm of doubt wriggled in Alix's belly.
But no. She knew him too well, and she'd seen too much. Erik was certainly bewitched.
Pollard, bless him, stepped into the breach. “With regret, sire, we must seal off this wing of the palace.”
“Seal it off? Why would we do that?” There was no suspicion in Erik's voice. He trusted Alix too much, even with the bloodbond gnawing at his mind. The enchantment wasn't yet at full strength. The bloodbinder, whoever he was, must still be too far away for his cursed magic to command Erik completely. Which only made Alix's task all the more painful.
She swallowed, tried to master herself. “Your Majesty,” she began, before faltering again. Gods, it was so hardÂ .Â .Â .
“Sire,” she said. “Erik. I'm afraid you're not well.”
“Not well,” he repeated blankly.
“There's a bloodbinder. An Oridian, one who knows how to warp men's minds. We thought the secret died with the Priest, but we were wrong. The magic is still out there, and the enemy is working it against you.”
Erik's eyebrows flew up. “I beg your pardon?”
“It sounds strange, I know. I need you to trust me.”
“Of course I trust you. More than anyone, butÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
The words cut her to the bone. Alix forced herself to press on. “Then you have to believe me now. The enemy has you in his sway, just as the Priest controlled his thralls on the battlefield. But I promise you we'll fix it. We'llâ”
“What did you say?”
He spoke the words in a cold, horrified whisper.
“The bloodbond. The Priest's dark magic. The Oridians are working it against you, manipulating you.”
He stared at her, the blood draining from his face. “Why would you say something like that?”
“I know how it soundsÂ .Â .Â .”
? Have you taken leave of your senses?” Still in that horrified whisper, as though he willed the conversation to be private, just the two of them, so she could take it all back and they could pretend it never happened.
“You have to trust me,” she said again, pleadingly.
He took a step toward her, hands raised as if he were approaching a madwoman. “I don't know what in the gods has got into you, but you're not thinking clearly. The Priest is dead. We destroyed him. You were
, Alix. His magic died with him, and even if it hadn't, the enemy cannot simply snap
his fingers and turn someone into a thrall. They would need my blood, a great deal of it. You
Your blood, or your twin's.
She couldn't explain it to him, not like this. Whatever happened, they needed to keep the existence of Erik's twin an absolute secret, even from her guardsmen. Besides, in his current state, he probably wouldn't believe her anyway.
“I'm sorry, Erik.” At her signal, the guardsmen moved, heaving on the great panelled doors.
“What are you doing?” Erik cried. “Stop that at once!”
One of the guardsmen wavered, gaze darting between his captain and his king.
“Pollard, get him out of here!”
Her second obeyed, shepherding the reluctant guardsman away. The others resumed closing the doors, all except the four who had been chosen to stay behind to guard the king from within.
Alix began to back away through the narrowing gap.
“Wait!” Erik started toward her, but a pair of guardsmen grabbed his arms. He looked from one to other in stunned disbelief. “Alix?”
Tears splashed cold down her face. She continued to back through the doors.
“Alix, look at me, for gods' sake! Do I look like a thrall to you?
“I'm sorry, Erik. I'm so sorryÂ .Â .Â .”
“You can't do this!” Then, with quiet intensity, “Please, don't do this.”
The doors were almost closed now. Through the gap, Alix could only stare at him, heartsick.
She saw it the exact moment he broke: his eyes, so painfully blue, went dull, and he wilted in his captors' grip. Alix's vision swam with tears, blurring out everything but his sagging form.
The doors came to with a cavernous
. Alix slumped to the floor, hand over her mouth to stifle the gasps of grief. Above her, the guards hammered makeshift bars in place before withdrawing, leaving their captain alone with her misery and betrayal.
A soft rustle sounded against the far side of the door, as of someone sliding to the floor.
“Are you there?” In spite of the thick wood, it sounded as if he were right beside her, as though they leaned against each other instead of the barrier between them.
She laid her hand against the door. “I'm here.” The words came out in a strangled whisper; she doubted he even heard.
“It's Liam, isn't it? He's poisoned you against me.”
Alix squeezed her eyes shut, sending another flood of tears over her cheeks.
“Whatever he's told you, it's not true. He wants my crown. Can't you see? Just like Tom.”
Her gaze strayed to the window, into the glaring sun. “I'm going to fix this. I swear to you, Erik.”
I swear on my blood, and the blood of my family. I swear on the Nine Virtues and anyone else listening.
A long silence. Then: “I never thought it would come to this. LiamÂ .Â .Â . I believed he might betray me one day. Highmount too. But youÂ .Â .Â .” When he spoke again, the ache in his voice was more than she could bear. “I tell you truly, Alix, I would rather have died than see this day.”
She curled into a ball, arms over her head, shaking with silent sobs.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“It's done,” Alix said dully, dropping into a chair across from Highmount. Beside her, Liam took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Even the ever-stoic Highmount looked sympathetic. “I know this has not been easy, Your Highness.”
She laughed bitterly and swiped at her eyes. “You have a gift for understatement, Chancellor.”
“You did what you had to,” Liam said. “We had no choice.”
“Can we not do this, please?” Her voice wavered precariously. “I can'tÂ .Â .Â . I'd rather focus on where we go from here.”
“Quite right,” Highmount said with a brisk nod. “Your men are deployed, then?”
She drew a deep, shuddering breath.
Forward. Erik needs you to move forward.
“Four inside,” she said, sounding
steadier now. “Though Pollard thinks we should increase it to six when we bring the first meal.”
Highmount grunted sceptically. “I do not think it wise to bring additional men into our confidence.”
“Agreed,” Alix said. “If we did augment the detail inside, it would have to come from the existing dozen.”
“Meaning only six outside,” Liam said. “Is that enough?”
“We don't dare have too many,” Alix said. “People will notice, and our story won't hold up. There's no reason to post extra guards at the doors if the king is sick with fever.”
“What do you intend, then?” Highmount asked.
“We'll keep to four inside for now. Two on the doors. The rest will patrol outside, keeping an eye on the windows. They're less likely to be noticed that way.”
“And the bars on the doors?” Liam asked. “How do we explain that?”
“Those were only temporary, so we could get it done quickly. Pollard will replace them with something more discreet. We'll just say that the locks on the other side are broken. Those doors are ancient; no one will question it. Besides, I don't want anyone getting close enough to take a look. From now on, the corridor to the royal apartments is off-limits.”
“Due to the risk of contagion, of course,” Highmount said.
The old man nodded, satisfied. “Everything would seem to be in place, then. And what of your journeyâwhom will you take with you?”