Realm of Askara, City of Feriana
Runes burned hot across my wrists where slave bands were inked into my skin. Inhaling the rich mélange that was Feriana on market day, I wished I was anywhere other than here, anyone other than me. Shifting my bag, I patted the bulge weighting its bottom. Good. It was still there.
As it had been the last five times I’d checked.
Guilt flavored each swallow to wet my throat. Remain calm. Impossible when my tattoos stung persistent warning. You have what he wants. All will be well.
I choked on a dry laugh. All was never well. Those who penned fairytales should be stabbed through the heart with their quill.
Pretending interest in the fresh produce, I surveyed the crowd. He was here, but where?
“Isabeau?” A firm hand tugged at my sleeve. “I asked what you thought of these dates.”
I spared them half a glance, then continued skimming the crowd. “You’ve chosen well.”
Lindsay’s smile lit the corner of my eye, and regret tugged at my conscience. She deserved more attention than I could afford to give her. I’d make it up to her later, assuming I had the chance. Procuring supplies wasn’t a priority for me, though I knew it should be. Right now, other worries occupied my mind. Such things as how willing I was to use defensive glamour if I must.
As the telltale burn of building magic scalded my palms, I supposed I’d made my choice.
Another tug at my arm swiveled my head toward Lindsay.
“I’d like to search the scarves, if I may. I had hoped to purchase a mating gift for Emma.”
Emma. What would she think if she knew my reason for being here?
Tugging at my collar, I swallowed past the sensation of her strong fingers wrapped about my throat. As acting consul of Askara, she’d wring my neck for this betrayal, and I would deserve it.
Living at the consulate with her, putting my healing craft to good use, helping ex-slaves begin new lives in either the city ofFerianaor its colony…I loved that life. And it was all a lie.
Glamour crackled over my skin, but the only things I concealed were the black spell-crafting runes inked from my forearms to my fingertips. Still, the static shock of power coating my skin led others to believe my concealment was more than cosmetic, a misconception I let flourish.
Given my consulate position, most assumed I was a female Evanti hiding in plain sight.
They were wrong.
“Go.” I indicated my favorite stall. “Enjoy yourself.”
“I will.” Swiping flaxen hair from her eyes, Lindsay cast me a broad grin. Despite being a halfling, she resembled the Askaran side of her parentage more than the human. “I promise I won’t touch anything I don’t intend to buy, and I won’t break anything.” She rushed to add, “If something happened, by accident, I’d pay the damages from my wages.”
“You’re fine.” I shooed her. “I trust you.”
Trust was a broad word. Lindsay wouldn’t break any of the wares on purpose, but she was a halfling mastering self-control late in life. Enslaved in an outland mining camp since birth, she’d had no need for learning social graces, only the art of survival. Relying on the brute strength that characterized her breed saved her from playing the role of camp whore. Now she wanted more, better, and as someone familiar with the other half of the equation, I wanted that for her as well.
Hissing as my skin throbbed with renewed heat, I gasped as the impression of male lips and teeth left their damp sting on my bare neck. Roland. Sultry whispers caressed my ears, beckoned come unto your master, and I was helpless not to obey his summons. Pressure from his phantom fingers compelled me toward a figure coalescing in the shade of a billowing tent. Swirling tendrils of power cloaked him from passersby and elicited a shiver of recognition from me. Inclining his head, he acknowledged me, and his smile made my pulse race with the stirrings of genuine fear.
Fighting the urge to check my bag, I dove into the crush of bodies, and they engulfed me.
When I reached the spot where Roland had stood, he was gone.
“You kept me waiting.” Hot breath hit my nape before he shoved me against a sandstone wall. My shoulder bounced as Roland pressed into me. His hand snaked around my waist, teased the underside of my breasts, squeezing before slipping under the flap of my bag. “Is this all?”
“It’s what we agreed upon.” I winced. “Where is my proof?”
“Are you so eager to be rid of me?” He pressed a string of kisses down my throat. “Well?”
Yes. My voice was a husky rasp. “Is bedding you a requirement for obtaining my proof?”
His chuckle caused my gut to clench. Nothing good came of his laughter.
“I prefer my partners willing.” A lie wrapped in a pretty half-truth. He was accomplished in magic, as all those trained by Sereian priests were. Glamour, the root of his power, twisted minds to suit his whims. I knew, because mine bore the spiral imprint of his amusement. “Here is the proof I promised you.” He slid an envelope in my bag and waited. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of witnessing my reaction. “I trust you.”
Trust was a broad word indeed.
“This is exquisite,” Roland murmured. I glanced over my shoulder in time to see him hold his prize aloft. A fist-sized chunk of embolite sat heavy across his palm. “You did well, but this is no longer enough.”
Stomach roiling, I pushed from the wall and said again, “It’s what we agreed upon.”
“We agreed once I had control of the mine, your services would no longer be required.” His grip on the sample whitened his knuckles. “The entire point of freeing you to work for Emmaline was to monitor the Feriana colony’s mining operation and the Evanti controlling its distribution.” He struck before I saw him swing. Jagged rock hit my cheek and sliced it open. “Such an arrangement no longer benefits me since Emmaline has mated the Evanti in charge and is more protective of Harper than ever. Since he won’t negotiate for exclusive rights to the mine, alternate means of procurement are required.” His gaze met mine. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
I swallowed past the pain. “What do you have in mind?”
“We are eager today, aren’t we?” He pocketed the embolite. “Somewhere you’d rather be?”
Anywhere other than here. “No.”
“Good,” he said, smiling, “because you’re going on a trip.”
“I am?” I glided a wary step back.
“How is that Evanti you tended?” He appeared thoughtful. “I believe he’s called…Dillon.”
My pulse spiked at the mention of his name. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
He measured me for a moment longer, and I wondered why he had mentioned Dillon at all. The wounded Evanti demon had spent weeks under my care at the consulate before returning to the freemen colony on the outskirts of Feriana.
Withdrawing a handkerchief from his pocket, Roland dabbed my split cheek. “During those weeks, nothing happened between you?”
I sensed a trap but was unable to locate its mechanism. I stilled myself against the urge to strike his hand. My blood allowed his glamour to work on me no matter what our proximity. A single drop, a murmured spell, and he could find me, taunt me, anywhere. His illusionary kiss was benign compared to the power blood sparked in our connection. But why ask if something happened between Dillon and me…?
Mortification tightened my chest. “You’re a bastard.”
Of course he would spy on me, and my behavior around Dillon made heat creep up my neck.
“I assure you, I’m not. Bastards can’t become kings. You’re Sereian.” He stalked me until I backed into the wall. “You’d do well to remember Askara’s antislavery laws don’t apply to you.”
As if he ever let me forget.
When his gaze fixated on my mouth, I reminded him, “You cast me aside years ago.”
“Still bitter are we? I’m in the market for a wife.” He cupped my cheek. “And you,” he said, so near his lips brushed mine, “are a whore.” His thumb swiped over the fresh wound he’d given me, and my wince resulted in a low growl of approval from him. “Albeit, you’re a talented one.”
“You have what you came for.” I gritted my teeth as he pressed on the cut. “Leave me.”
“Not quite and not yet.” He painted my lips with blood, its copper tang curling my tongue. “As I said, the terms of our agreement must be altered. As a token of appreciation for pleasure you once gave me, for the loyalties I still enjoy, I’m offering you a chance at earning freedom.”
I gave the ringing in my ears a chance to subside. “What are your terms?”
“I want a full shipment of salt delivered to my estate.” He patted the pocket where his core sample resided. “I don’t mean this. I have no use for embolite in the rough. I want the processed salt.” He waved a dismissive hand. “The silver portion of the shipment is unimportant. Keep it if you wish. Use it to finance your new life.” His sigh rang with displeasure. “It will mean showing restraint, but it will suffice. I must have the salt. Do you understand? It’s of critical importance.”
I blinked. “Are you mad? I’d have to steal direct from the colony, and there’s an enormous difference between me pocketing core samples after they’ve been tested and hijacking an entire caravan.” I leaned into the wall for support. “The former goes unnoticed, the latter is…suicide.”
One life exchanged for the good of many. It was Harper’s credo, and I was not of the many.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” he murmured. “I heard Emma and Harper are visiting their siblings, on Earth.” I gave him no confirmation. He had no way of knowing where they had gone, and I wasn’t about to tell him. “They’re no doubt spreading their happy news.” His motive became clearer. “That leaves your patient in charge of the colony in Harper’s absence. I’m sure two such friends can find understanding. After all, he owes you for saving his leg, doesn’t he?”
What he implied made my cheeks burn. Of course he would spend me so cheaply.
Still, despair and hope warred within me. “And if I manage this feat…”
He tapped my wrists, and fresh pain flared. “Then you will be freed.”
I lifted my chin. “My freedom is not the only price I require.”
“So I assumed.” His pause left me breathless. “Deliver the salt, and the girl is also yours.”
A pent-up breath whistled between my lips. “Give me your word, and it’s done.”
Words held power. Breaking his promise would weaken that power. Roland wouldn’t risk it.
Not around me.
“My word is given.” He turned and black mist shrouded him. Then he was gone.
As the sting in my slave bands lessened to a dull throb, I sagged against the wall. The girl is yours. With trembling fingers, I reached into my bag and withdrew the envelope. Tucked into the crease was a lock of auburn hair with a slight curl at the end. Fishing into a different pocket, I withdrew a similar strand and compared the lengths. One hung slightly longer than the other. I held it to my nose and inhaled the violet-scented strands until hot, useless tears pricked my eyes.
I knew this was a disaster in the making, but he’d baited his trap too well for me to resist.
Footsteps warned me in time to hide my bribe. Past the wall, I spotted Lindsay barreling toward me, scanning the area where Roland had stood seconds earlier. She ducked past the tent.
“Are you all right?” She grabbed my chin and tipped my head back. “What happened?” Her voice took on a dangerous edge.
“Your poor face.” She noticed my bag. “Who did this? A thief?”
“Yes.” In a manner of speaking, he was. I choked on the insane urge to laugh, to scream that freedom was within my reach, but I tamped it down. “The thief took something dear from me.” I wiped away my tears. “Don’t worry. I will get it back.” Taking her arm, I led her from the alley into the sun. I basked in its heat. Let it chase the chill of Roland’s presence. “Are you finished?”
“I—” She frowned at my eager tone. “Yes. I suppose I am.”
“Good.” I compensated for the slip with a wobbling smile. “Let’s go home.”
I had plans to make.
Different worlds, different colonies, but still the same damn meetings.
Responsibility weighted the air on this side of the desk. Each inhale settled heavily in Dillon’s lungs. He’d much rather occupy his usual spot by the tent flap, his gaze trained on the dunes beyond than wear the mantle of interim colony leader. Harper hadn’t done Dillon any favors by yoking him to the colony bandwagon, asking him to lead with fanfare in his absence.
Rolling his shoulders, he cast aside the niggling suspicion Harper had made the appointment out of pity. Another time he might have gloated when Harper brought in two males a quarter of his age as his replacements. Instead, it made him feel every day of his ninety-eight years. No dancing around it. He was getting old, even by their race’s standards. He should be finding a female, settling down, doing his duty to pump fresh blood, pure blood, into their dwindling race.
His leg twinged when he shifted in his seat, a reminder of how he ended up paper-pushing in the first place. Pinning his shoulders to the back of his chair kept him from leaning down and rubbing the dull ache in his calf, or where his calf used to be. His jaw tightened. No need to go there. Not now. Not while two fresh faces were staring him down, looking for signs of weakness.
While drumming his fingers on his knee, he inspected the two newest transplants from Earth. Two young males eager to taste what Askara had to offer, curious to see if their memories of enslavement held up against the new reality of this being a kingdom of freemen. Their optimism made him cringe. Then again, he’d seen the files the freeborn legion had kept on them.
They had both belonged to the sthudal slave caste, and slaves with that designation recalled their time spent in labor camps with fewer nightmares than those who wore the title of sthudai.
Dillon knew which life he would have chosen.
Better to break his back in a mine, die of hunger or thirst, than live on the end of a chain like a f**king animal, fed and watered only when his performance merited such a reward. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed hard and ground his heel into the packed sand floor. Ruined muscle screamed in protest, but the burst of agony was his reward, his reprieve from the memories always a stray thought away from choking him. Yeah, he would have loved to have been sthudal.
Figuring he’d kept the pair waiting long enough, Dillon asked, “You two have any questions?” He lifted a cup and swallowed its tepid contents down to the grit in the bottom. His teeth crunched when he set his jaw. Damn, he’d be glad when the new aqueduct was completed.
“Yeah.” Church eyed the tent flap warily. “Is there anything out here besides sand?”
“Sure there is.” Dillon suppressed a grin when Church’s shoulders relaxed. “Didn’t you see all the tents? That’s why the colonists call this place tent city. The only buildings with walls are the clinic and the stable. You’ll get acquainted with those soon enough.” Harper would strangle him for adding, “You two arrived just in time for the winter sandstorm season. When they hit, all we can do is pack ourselves like sardines into those buildings and pray the spell crafting holds.”
Church cast one more glance past the flap to the desert beyond. “Great.” He twisted in his seat and eyed the male beside him. “Russ, you got any last requests before we’re blown away?”
Russ’s smile was faint. “What are our duties while Harper’s away?”
Scratching his cheek, Dillon admitted he wasn’t sure what to do with the pair. Until his leg mended, he was on light duty, in theory. These two had prior experience, as most legionaries did, so they knew the basics of guard duty. The rest, training them as bodyguards, hinged on Harper and Emma’s return since Dillon was a big believer in learning in the field. Sink or swim.
Until that happened… “You’ve got two choices. Our courier is swamped. One of you can train with Mason. He deserves the break.” He paused in consideration. “The other can train with Uriah, our silversmith. He oversees the extraction of silver and salt from the embolite we mine.”
At their blank expressions, Dillon exhaled on a curse. Their files expounded the fieldwork each had done for the freeborn legion, and each had service records spotless enough he felt Harper would be safe with them, but his decision to skim their locational information had just jumped up and bit him on the ass. “Where were you two working when the legion found you?”
“The outlands,” they replied in unison.
Okay, so maybe he had read their information right. “Were you in the mines?”
“No.” Church frowned. “I was a brickmaker by trade. I still am, or was, on Earth.”
Ah. That explained why Harper had picked him. As the colony expanded, so did the need for structures beyond tents they used for, well, everything. Dillon sized up Russ. “How about you?”
Russ held up ink-smudged fingers. “I was a scribe employed by an exiled noble.”
A scribe was, well, less useful. Dillon asked, “Do either of you know what progesaline is?”
“Females need it during pregnancy.” Church shrugged, signaling the end of his contribution.
Russ appeared to consider his answer. “Progesaline is a supplement females of some demon breeds require during pregnancy. Without it, they become anemic. They might die before or during childbirth, as could the children, unless they consume enough to maintain healthy levels.”
Dillon blinked. Maybe having a scribe around wasn’t such a bad idea.
“It’s found in rare salt veins,” Russ continued. “While I’ve never heard of it being found in veins of embolite, it’s certainly possible. I’d think the problem would be extraction.” He paused at Church’s scowl. “Embolite is a mineral containing both salt and silver in their natural forms.”
“Someone did his research.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t have guessed embolite over chlorargyrite. Dillon gave Russ a slow second glance. There was something familiar about him.
Russ frowned. “I’d hardly accept the position otherwise.”
“So what gives?” Church twisted in his seat. “How did Harper get such a sweet deal?”
“I’ll hazard a guess the queen’s advisors signed over this tract of land for two reasons.” Russ waited until Dillon nodded.
“First, it shares a city with the vernal castle, which means it’s near enough forFirst Courtto monitor and close enough for the queen’s troops to attack if necessary.”
“Go on.” Dillon caught himself leaning forward.
“Second, the mine had potential, enoughFirst Court’s gift appealed to Harper and their offer wasn’t insulting. Though I bet they assumed even if he was foolhardy enough to work the mine, he wouldn’t figure out how to process the embolite and separate the silver and the salt from the core mineral. Yet he did, and he likely doubled his profits.” Russ smiled slowly. “Am I right?”
“Damn.” Church whistled. “That explains the raiders, plus the bounty on Harper’s head.”
“Right on both counts,” Dillon said, forcing his attention from Russ.
He was right, though Dillon and Harper were just drawing the same conclusions. They had guessed the only reason the queen’s advisors had given consent for Harper to take over the mine was they were certain there was nothing here worth mining. Now that Harper had proven them wrong? Yeah, they were pissed and wanted a share. Damn if Dillon didn’t find that a little bit funny.
“This colony pays its bills with the mine, and, as Russ said, we mine embolite.” No two ways about it, Harper must have told Russ. “It’s damn hard work and not worth much in the rough, if anything at all. Then Uriah works his magic and we get pure silver and pure salt. Six times more silver than salt, but silver has its uses and our salt, well, it’s almost pure progesaline.”
Russ murmured something Dillon didn’t catch because Church stood with a grunt.
“So do we pick now or what?” His back popped as he stretched. “Mason or Uriah, right?”
Good to know Dillon wasn’t the only one bored by meetings. “Yeah, have at it.”
Church didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll take Uriah.”
Dillon almost felt sorry for him. While they were the obvious match, Uriah burned through apprentices faster than he could match faces to names. Not that he tried too hard. Mostly he called them all the same thing, dier hest eirdth or eirdth for short, which was the Demonish equivalent of dirt. Those under his tutelage chose to believe he meant they were clay and he was molding them into…whatever struck their fancy. Dillon suspected Uriah meant the more literal translation of ground beneath my feet. His attitude explained why even his ex-masters had given him a wide berth. The male was a god at his forge, and he knew it. The fact a story was floating around about him flinging molten silver in the face of an Askaran noble had cemented his reputation as a bastard. Something Dillon could respect. So long as Uriah did his job, Dillon didn’t care.
“That leaves me with Mason.” Russ slanted a look toward Church that punctured his mood. “If I’m playing courier, then I guess I’ll find out if there’s any life beyond those dunes after all.”
“Now that we have that settled,” Dillon said, giving Church time to school his glower, “you’ll each pull border patrol and sentry duty. That won’t change even after Harper gets back.”
Russ frowned. “We won’t alternate day and night shifts?”
Church stilled. “Harper needs someone watching his back at night too.”
“He has someone.” Dillon stood, Church’s restlessness feeding his own. “Her name’s Emma.” Before they earned enough rope to hang themselves, he silenced their protests. “One of you will remain on perimeter duty after dayshift ends. That means frequent passes by their tent. The trick is being close enough you can keep an eye on Harper—and Emma—while giving them the illusion of privacy.” He admitted grudgingly, “No one’s more invested in Harper’s wellbeing, and few are more capable of ensuring his safety. Plus few realize what she is before it’s too late.”
Once they moved past the honeymoon period in their relationship, Harper might not need a guard beyond his mate. Emma was a halfling, stronger than most full demon males, and Harper had trained her to protect her sister, Askara’s Princess Ascendant Madelyn DeGray, since they were children. If it meant protecting Harper and Maddie, there was nothing Emma wouldn’t do.
Dillon ignored the tightness in his chest and sharpened his scowl. He wasn’t jealous.
“Fair enough.” Russ pushed from his seat. “Where do you want us?”
“Head back to your tents for now. I’m handling border patrol tonight.” No reason not to while Harper wasn’t here to bench him. “I expect to see both of you here at six.”
Russ’s gaze dipped toward Dillon’s leg, his brow furrowing, but he kept his mouth shut. Good. He just might make it here after all.
“The faster you learn your way around, the better.” Dillon crossed the tent and brushed aside the flap. “I want you two broken in by the time Harper and Emma get back.”
His first step outside blinded him. Hot air rushed into his lungs, baking them, and his tongue dried in the time it took for his mouth to open long enough to say, “Welcome to Askara, boys.”