Sneak Peek & GIVEAWAY: The Nihryst: Complete Trilogy
The Nihryst: Complete Trilogy special edition releases Wednesday (May 18), so I thought I'd share... the first five chapters! That's right, you can read that much of the first book, The Lost Legends below!
Before jumping in though, a quick reminder to enter the GIVEAWAY for a paperback copy over in my Facebook group. It closes May 18th.
You can also pre-order the ebook here: books2read.com/the-nihryst Paperbacks will be available soon!
Without further ado, here is the beginning of The Lost Legends (Copyright 2020/2022 Cait Marie):
His feet slid across the loose gravel as he pulled himself around the corner of a tall brick building, nearly dropping the bag hanging from his shoulder. The bay glistened at the bottom of the hill, mere blocks separating him from his escape. Footsteps pounded the cobblestone streets all around. The sound of clanking armor and people rushing to get out of the way of his pursuers echoed off the stone buildings.
Loxley ran down the shadowed, narrow alley, keeping his goal in sight. He glanced over his shoulder to see a dozen of the king’s guards trailing behind him. Trying to slow them down, he grabbed onto a stacked tower of crates and shoved it to the ground as he ran by. He was yards from the open docks, where his crew waited for him on the ship.
Or so he thought.
As soon as he stepped out of the alley and into the sun, guards came at him from both sides. He turned, looking for a way out, but the men who had followed him caught up. He was completely surrounded. With the water ahead as his only option, Loxley took a deep breath and prepared to jump.
He’d only taken a single step forward when a path cleared among the guards to reveal his crew. Ropes and chains restrained each of them. One guard held a dagger against the throat of Loxley’s second in command, Briar. Though his crew subtly nodded for him to go, he knew he could never leave them.
After all, it was him the guards truly wanted. He was the one who’d betrayed the king.
Slowly, he lowered the bag of stolen goods from his shoulder and raised his hands in surrender.
“Then what happened, Mama?” Adalina looked up at her mother with big, expectant eyes.
The queen pulled the blankets up tighter around her daughter’s shoulders with a smile. Adalina knew the story. She had asked to hear it almost every night for years. Once, she’d even overheard her mother saying she knew it better than the man behind the legend himself.
With a chuckle, the queen shifted on the edge of the bed to rest against the headboard. “You know the rest.”
“But I like when you tell it,” the young princess insisted.
“Well,” her mother continued, “they were brought to the castle’s dungeon to be sentenced by the king. But when most of his advisors called for their death, the queen begged for mercy and the king agreed. Loxley and his men had caused trouble in the kingdom for years. They were smart and strong. So, the king came up with a different punishment. They were forced to serve as soldiers and spies in the war against Rayerna for three years.”
Adalina sucked in a breath and covered the lower part of her face with the blanket. She knew what was coming.
“Just as they were brought to the ship, the king’s mother appeared.” As if tired herself, the queen moved lower in the bed and put an arm around the princess. “It was rumored that she was a witch, but no one was ever certain until that day. The king had collaborated with her in secret. On the day they were to depart, she went to the crew and pulled out a stack of cards used to tell the future.”
Grinning, Adalina sat up a little, and her mother reached over to the bedside table. The princess held out her hands with anticipation as the queen placed two dozen cards in her palms. Together, they flipped through them, looking at the painted faces on each. Adalina stopped on her favorite and pulled it out on top. The dark-haired man looked brave, not cruel or troublesome like the story depicted.
“With their faces on the cards, she cursed the crew. So long as their images stayed intact, the Nihryst would remain whole. Never aging. Never dying. The king promised that, after three years, the curse would be removed, and they would simply be banished from Detmarya for their treasonous acts. But when the war ended, instead of being brought to a different kingdom and set free, they were stranded on a remote, secret island called Cyfrin.
“The rest of their lives wasn’t enough for the witch though. She believed them to be responsible for her second son’s death during the war—the king’s younger brother. She wanted them to suffer for all of eternity, so she refused to lift the curse, leaving their lives connected to the cards that couldn’t be destroyed.”
“They were to live on the island forever as immortals,” the princess finished in a whisper. She grazed a thumb over the ancient language that swirled in gilded symbols along the edges of the cards.
“With the cards as the only clue to break the curse.” The queen kissed the top of Adalina’s head as her eyes began to flutter shut.
“I will break their curse.”
The queen didn’t open her eyes, but she smiled at her daughter’s words. “Yes, my little blodau, perhaps one day you will be the one to find them and break your great-great-great-great grandmother’s curse.”
Adalina settled back down in the bed. She held the cards close to her chest with one hand while the other held up the most treasured item in her possession. Looking at his intense sea green eyes, she quietly made her vow. “I will find you one day, Loxley. And I will set you free.”
14 years later…
“How many times are you going to read that?” A boot nudged Ada’s foot.
With a sigh, she closed her book and set it aside. She blocked the sun with her hand, squinting up at her brother. “Do you need something, Shane?”
He laughed and sat down across from her in the grass. The bright blue sky reflected in his eyes as he leaned back on his hands. Sensing something was wrong, Ada sat up straighter, her back leaving the great oak trunk she loved to relax beneath.
“Shane?” Her gentle voice questioned his silence.
“It’s nothing,” he replied, looking back down at the ground. He picked at a couple blades of grass. The light breeze blew the small pieces around as he pulled them apart. “Just stressed. I needed a break.”
“Is he still planning something?”
Shane scoffed. “Isn’t he always?” He tossed the remaining strands of grass and raked a hand through his dark auburn hair. “He’s being very secretive, yet he demands my presence. It’s confusing.”
Ada understood. She knew how sporadic her father had been since their mother’s death. It was as if he wanted to confide in someone, but he couldn’t make up his mind who that should be. He constantly acted paranoid and on edge. After fourteen years, it only seemed to be getting worse instead of better.
“Hey.” She bumped his knee with her toes, and his eyes met hers reluctantly. “It’ll be all right. You’re doing as much as you can.”
“But is that enough?”
At that, Ada crossed her own legs and scooted closer. She covered his fidgeting hand. Knowing what he was really thinking, she squeezed his fingers and said, “Yes, Shane, it’s enough. You are going to be a great king when the time comes. No one cares about this kingdom more than you. The people know that; they love you.”
The tension in his shoulders loosened, and he gave her a small smile. Though they were five years apart, they had always been close. Along with Phillip, Shane’s lifelong best friend, they often felt as if they were all each other had in the world.
“So,” Shane said, changing the subject. He reached around her to grab the book off the ground. “Why are you reading this today? Don’t you know every word by now?”
Ada rolled her eyes and made to take it back, only to have it pulled out of reach. Shane quickly got to his feet, and she followed. He held it up in the air, teasing her. With resignation, she leaned against the tree trunk and crossed her arms.
“You’re going to laugh,” she said.
He flipped through the worn pages of their mother’s book. It opened to reveal the Nihryst cards lying between the middle pages. Scanning the familiar faces, the corner of his mouth tugged up as memories flooded them both. He looked back up, waiting for her to continue.
“I think I can find the island.” Her words were barely more than a whisper.
“Ada.” Sadness filled Shane’s blue eyes as he stepped forward with the book. “It’s just a story. We’ve been through this. There—”
“Is no island,” she said in unison with her brother. She had heard the same thing more times than she could count. “But look.” She moved to stand beside him and pointed to the open book.
The pages were designed similarly to the cards. The story of the Nihryst was handwritten, just as she vaguely remembered her mother reading it with her all those nights. The edges, however, had the same swirling language as the cards. At the center was the most beautiful map she’d ever seen. Small painted images of her kingdom and the other nearby islands were surrounded by symbols as well. Though she couldn’t read the language, she’d started recognizing a little of it by where each marking appeared in the book.
Every time she looked at the map, the colors and letters whirled together, forming images in her mind. She spent hours staring at it, trying to decipher the meanings. Sometimes, it felt as if her whole life had been about decoding the book.
“See this symbol here? Well, it’s on a couple other pages, always near the bottom left corner,” she explained frantically, taking hold of the leather book. “I think it means southwest.”
Shane looked at his sister with raised brows. He had never seen the pages as she had, as if they themselves were full of magic. No one had, except their mother. Even then, it was as if she couldn’t see them but knew the princess could. After her mother died, Ada stopped mentioning the symbols because of the anger it brought to her father’s eyes.
“And here, this one.” Ada pointed at the image of a rose seemingly in the middle of the ocean. A rose Shane saw simply as a decoration was a clue in her eyes. “Do you remember that island some of the sailors used to speak of? The one they hated stopping at and avoided whenever they could?”
“Tugora,” he answered. “The—”
“Pirate island, yes.” She looked up, excited that he understood and followed her train of thought. “Well, I overheard one of them talking about a Rosy Inn one time, and I think that’s what this symbolizes. I think the key to finding Cyfrin is there!”
Shane sighed and stepped away, pinching the bridge of his nose. Ada held her breath and waited. Surely, he saw it too. He had to understand.
“Ada, it’s just a flower. It’s a decoration on a pretty page,” he said, shattering her heart with each word. “This was fun when we were growing up, but we’re adults now. It’s time to move on.”
She couldn’t meet his eyes. She’d known it was coming, but it still hurt. No one had ever seen the things she put together. Only her mother had ever entertained the idea that she might piece together the clues one day.
“I know you think this is just some make-believe game,” Ada said softly. “You don’t have to believe I’ve started figuring it all out. But these aren’t just stories, Shane.”
She finally looked up and met his gaze, his blue eyes matching her own. He shook his head slightly. “They are though. They’re bedtime stories meant to teach children not to steal or go against the crown.”
“But they were real people! Our great-great—”
“Great-great grandmother was accused of being a witch, and she was the mother of King Henri,” he continued. “Yes, they were all real people. Real people with exaggerated stories for entertainment.”
Ada started to turn away, but Shane grabbed her elbow to stop her from leaving.
“In all likelihood, the Nihryst were the band of thieves we’ve heard of, but they were probably thrown in the dungeon and never seen again.”
When she didn’t respond, he walked around to face her and continued, “It’s been over a hundred years, and no one has ever found the island. Cyfrin doesn’t exist. They weren’t turned into immortals.”
Ada’s eyes began to burn, and she hugged the book tighter to her chest. She knew with every fiber of her being that he was wrong, but he was right about one thing: it was time to stop daydreaming under trees and talking about coded maps as if she were on a treasure hunt. If her own brother didn’t believe her when he’d grown up with the stories alongside her, who would? She could act the part of the mature princess—who no longer believed in fairy tales—that they all thought she should be.
Clearing her throat, she glanced at her brother with a nod. “You’re right. It’s childish to believe in these stories. I just held onto them for so long because…”
She trailed off. While she had started off with a lie, the last part was true.
“Because our mother gave you the book and the cards,” Shane finished. “She believed they were real too.”
Ada nodded again, trying to swallow past the lump in her throat. The prince wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed before guiding her back toward the looming castle. They walked slowly, neither eager to return to their duties. The wind stirred the bright green grass as they made their way to the stone walkway shadowed by the towering stone walls. The shining sun reflected off the many windows.
Inside, they continued toward their father’s study. They both knew he would still be in there looking over scattered books and papers that made sense only to him. Ada had started to fear that Shane may need to step in as king sooner than expected. She kept those thoughts to herself though. She was the princess, but it would still be considered treason.
“Are you excited for the ball? It’s getting close,” she said, trying to sound casual as they crossed the marble floor. Guards stood near the doors, but no one else came through. The entryway was quiet as the staff went about their work elsewhere.
“No,” Shane replied with a groan.
She looked at him in surprise. Lady Saundra spent little time in Detmarya—a short visit each year—but Shane had never complained about her presence or their impending proposal.
“I thought you liked Lady Saundra?”
Shane rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. Their steps slowed when they reached the staircase. They stopped beside it, wanting to prolong going up to their father.
“I do,” he said, bracing a hand against the banister as he turned to face her. “She’s sweet. I just…”
“Don’t love her?” Ada gave him a soft smile.
He nodded. “And I really don’t want an entire celebration just to announce the official betrothal.”
“The celebration is for the end of the harvest season,” she said, correcting him. “Your announcement is an added surprise for the people.”
He shrugged as if to say it didn’t matter. He’d be the center of attention regardless, and Ada was one of the few who understood how much he didn’t love that aspect of this life.
“Are you excited?” He raised an eyebrow with a smirk, changing the focus to her.
“Wipe that grin off your face.” She smacked his arm with a laugh.
“Rumor has it that a certain prince is attending…”
“It’s not a rumor if he’s on the guest list,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“You’re right.” Shane’s face shifted into a mischievous grin. “Those weren’t the rumors I heard about Michel’s visit.”
Ada felt the heat rise in her cheeks. As Shane turned to go up the stairs, she grabbed his wrist and yanked him back around.
“Fine,” she said in an exasperated whisper. “Tell me.”
He laughed and crossed his arms. “He’s extended his stay. I saw the letter myself.”
She raised her brow and urged him to continue.
“He’s asked to stay an extra couple of weeks. He is coming earlier than planned, and the rumor is,” he dragged out the words, making her suffer, “he wants to stay because he has proposal plans for some mystery girl.”
Ada’s eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. She quickly covered it with her hand, trying to appear unconcerned. She knew she wasn’t fooling him though. She and Michel had talked about it months ago when they were in Rayerna, but she hadn’t actually thought he’d do it so soon. A thousand butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Words wouldn’t form as she tried to come up with something to say.
Shane shook his head with a quiet chuckle. “Most people seem to think it’s one of the noble ladies.”
That eased some of her worry. It would be extremely difficult to carry on as normal for the next couple months if the people thought their princess was getting married.
Before she could respond, a handful of people rushed through the doors. There was an urgency in the way they moved down the hall. Once closer, Ada saw that they carried a man between them on a blanket. Melanie, her lady’s maid, led the group. She met the princess’s eyes and rushed over.
She bowed her head. “Your Highnesses.” As she raised, she lifted a hand to usher them up the stairs. The group passed. The carried man looked barely conscious, and his low moaning could be heard over their movements.
“What’s wrong with him, Melanie?” Ada asked as she paused.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” she explained. “He’s come down with something, but he’ll be fine. You two should head upstairs though. We don’t want to take any chances.”
Shane thanked her and grabbed Ada’s elbow to pull her along. As they climbed, she looked back over her shoulder and saw the people disappear around the corner. Ada knew something more serious was going on—the former nursemaid didn’t even scold her for addressing her improperly—but she let it go for now.
“Don’t worry, Ada,” Shane said as they reached the landing. The study was a few feet away, the door firmly shut. “They’ll bring him to the infirmary and take care of him.”
Ada looked to Shane and released a breath. Moments like these, when he took charge and comforted her, reminded her of the king he would one day become. His air of confidence made him appear older and wiser than his twenty-four years. They paused outside the door that led to where the king schemed. There were still three months before the ball, but the closer it got, the less they saw of him. It concerned both of his children.
“You never answered me,” Shane said, bringing her back to the present. “Are you excited about Michel coming?”
She laughed and shook her head. “You’re very persistent.”
“It runs in the family.” He nodded toward the book tucked under her arm.
“Of course, I’m excited,” she replied, moving a strand of red hair behind her ear.
“Good.” With a hand on the doorknob, he added, “Just wait until after my own engagement announcement for yours please.”
Then, he was gone, and she was staring at the dark, wooden door. With a sigh, she turned and walked up another flight of stairs to her bedroom. She thought of the prince across the sea and couldn’t stop a grin from spreading. Biting her lip, she quickened her pace, nearly skipping to her door.
Her room sat empty, but a small flame crackled in the fireplace. It fought off the chill that made its way into the air with the changing season. Though they still had a few days left of summer, today was cooler than usual.
Outside of those in the castle, Prince Michel was her closest friend. She remembered visiting Rayerna after her mother’s death—spending the summer with a prince who knew nothing about cheering up a little girl only a year younger than him. But that hadn’t stopped him from trying. Images of running through the gardens and bright-colored flowers that seemed to glitter in the sunlight filled her mind.
Unlike her brother, Ada loved celebrations and couldn’t wait for the ball. The thought of Michel proposing made her heart pound. Every year, she and Shane stayed across the sea for the warm season with the Rayernan royal family. They’d only just returned a couple weeks ago.
Ada crossed the room and sat on the edge of her bed. Her fingers slid between the pages of the book and expertly pulled out the card of Loxley. She trailed her thumb down the side. Clenching her jaw, she put the card with the others and then put the book into the drawer of her bedside table.
She flopped back onto the soft, cream-colored comforter, replacing the book that was so often held to her chest with a small pillow. In a few months, she would be engaged to a man she loved. She would one day rule beside him as the queen—not that that truly mattered to her. What she wouldn’t have was her mother there to see her marry someone who made her happy.
Thinking of her mother and the book safely hidden away, Ada rolled over and hugged the pillow tighter. Shane was right; she needed to move past the fairy tales. She needed to live in the real world.
Knowing he was right didn’t make it easier. She thought about his disbelief in the story—in her understanding the symbols—and she fought the tears threatening to fall. Instead, she focused on the memory of hazel eyes and a prince who always made her smile.
Ada kept her promise. She didn’t bring up the book again. It stayed in her drawer, locked in her room, until she was alone at night. She knew she was onto something with the rose. Other symbols had started making sense too.
“All right, turn for me, Princess.”
Ada slowly turned on the spot. She faced the mirror, and her eyes went wide. The annual harvest ball slowly approached, and she’d been eager to get a new gown for it. Every year, the streets filled with makeshift markets and celebrations for a couple weeks. At the end, the castle gates would open and a ball would be held for the people. This year, it would be used to make Shane’s betrothal with the Duchess of Prillia official.
With about a month to go, Ada had visited one of her favorite dressmakers. The gown she wore was beautiful. Its lavender bodice was tight and firm, with off-the-shoulder sleeves that flared out once they reached her elbow. But the skirts took her breath away. The multiple layers of tulle mixed with chiffon would have made anyone feel like a princess.
She moved her hips back and forth, watching the fabric swoosh around. In the mirror, she saw the seamstress watching with anticipation.
“I love it,” Ada told her. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”
The elderly woman was pleased and resumed pinning different pieces of the fabric. Ada held as still as possible, but her mind floated up to the clouds as she imagined what that night would bring.
The sun hovered high in the sky when she left the small shop. With two guards in tow, she walked down the cobblestone streets of Ferda. The atmosphere bustled with activity as people prepared for the following weeks. It wasn’t just the prince and duchess visiting for the ball. Foreign dignitaries from all over came for the celebrations. People in every trade would sell their goods and services to the visitors.
A group of children ran down the street, their laughter contagious. Ada couldn’t help but smile. She stepped to the side to let them pass, and her shoulder bumped into something hard. Turning around, she gasped as she took in the sight of a tall, very angry man.
“I am so sorry,” she quickly apologized. He ignored her, squatting to retrieve the supplies she’d knocked from his hands. She knelt beside him, grabbing bandages and vials before they could roll away.
“It’s fine.” His deep voice surprised her. He appeared only a few years older than her, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. As did the rags he wore. He placed the errant medical supplies in a bag at his feet.
Ada reached for the bag to add what she’d collected, but a hand grabbed her wrist to stop her. She winced as his fingers dug into her, and the two guards stepped forward, their hands on their swords. She raised her free hand and told them it was all right. The man stared at her, not releasing his strong grip.
“I said it’s fine,” he repeated through a clenched jaw.
“I was just trying to help.”
He let go of her wrist with a huff and slid the bag closer. Careful of the glass vials, she placed them inside and ignored the pain throbbing in her hand.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” the stranger asked. “A luncheon or tea, or whatever it is you nobles do with all your free time?”
Ada stared at him, taking in his appearance once more. He obviously didn’t know who she was, and she didn’t correct him. She wondered if he was from Detmarya or visiting for the upcoming festivities. His bedraggled clothing led her to believe he was from the impoverished part of the kingdom, but on closer inspection, she saw a cleanliness to his skin and hair. They placed the last of the supplies in the bag and stood.
“You know,” Ada said as the man made to leave, “instead of insulting someone with assumptions when they apologize and try to help, most people usually just say thank you.”
He continued walking away, but she heard a mumbled thanks under his breath. She shook her head in disbelief. A shadow fell over her as one of the guards stepped closer. The other stood a few feet away watching the people passing by in the street.
“Are you all right, Princess?”
Ada forced a smile. “Of course.”
Phillip took another step closer, looking down at her wrist. “He didn’t hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She held up her hand but couldn’t hide the grimace when she rotated it. At his concern, she added, “Really, it’s fine.”
“Ada,” he whispered.
He reached for her but hesitated before touching her. When she nodded in approval, he gently held her hand and forearm as he inspected the damage. She sucked in a breath as he tilted it back.
“It’s not broken,” he said. “I would be cautious of it though. It’s probably going to be sore for a bit.”
Ada nodded. “Phillip,” she said nervously. “I know he’s your best friend, but please don’t tell Shane about this.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but she cut off his words. “There’s no real damage. Please, he’s got enough to worry about right now.”
With a sigh, Phillip agreed. He knew all about her brother’s stress. He knew their father and what difficulties they faced. A throat cleared. Ada reluctantly pulled her hand away. She looked at the other guard still on alert with a chuckle and continued down the street.
She stopped in a few shops, buying trinkets along the way. The bookshop had always been a favorite, so she made a point to stop there and say hello to the owner. He gave her a new book, and she bought some stationery before leaving. As she neared a bakery, where delicious smells wafted from the open door, she heard yelling from across the street.
“Guards!” An older lady ran out as they moved closer to inspect the commotion.
Phillip stepped in front of Ada, asking what was wrong, and the woman replied in a flurry of words. “A man came in, asking about different medicines. He asked about something I don’t have on display, and when I went in the back to look for it, he stole from me!”
They stepped inside, and Ada went still. Along one wall were vials and jars of a number of concoctions. Scattered about were medical supplies, and she could see curtained-off beds along the other wall.
Ada clutched her stomach. Guilt rolled through her as she realized she had inadvertently helped the thief get away. The woman gave a detailed account for the guards of the man they had just encountered. Neither mentioned seeing him, and Ada silently thanked them.
When the woman finished, Ada reached for her hands. “Ma’am, my name is Adalina.”
“Princess Adalina?” The woman’s eyes widened, and she bowed. “I did not recognize you.”
Ada lifted her hand, insisting she stand. “I am deeply sorry for what happened today. I cannot replace your store, but I can pay for what was taken.”
She pulled a few coins from her small handbag and placed them into the woman’s palms.
“Thank you so much, Princess Adalina.” The woman looked on the brink of tears while she thanked the princess again and again as they left.
Having had enough excitement for one day, Ada decided to head home. Reaching the safety and privacy of the castle halls, Phillip bumped her shoulder. She hadn’t said a word the whole way.
“It’s not your fault,” he told her with a friendly smile. “There is no way you could’ve known he was a thief.”
The second guard continued down the hall as they paused in the entryway. He patted Phillip’s shoulder as he passed them and laughed under his breath. Ada watched as he shook his head and walked away. She sighed and thanked Phillip.
It was nearly time for dinner, but she was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to collapse in bed. As she headed to the stairs, she asked Phillip to tell her brother that she’d be having her evening meal in her room. He reached out a hand, careful to avoid her wrist.
“You sure you’re all right, Ada?” he asked as she turned on the first step.
At this level, they were closer in height. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “I’m fine. Go. Your shift should probably be over by now anyway.”
Phillip laughed. “Is my shift ever really over?”
She shook her head with a grin and playfully shoved her friend away. “Go find Shane.”
* * *
A knock sounded on Ada’s door as she sat down to eat dinner, surprising her. Before she could respond, her brother walked in with his own tray of food and sat across from her. The round table in the corner of her large room was smaller than those downstairs. It was cozier and far more comfortable with a blanket over her lap and a low fire burning in the nearby hearth.
“Please, won’t you join me?” she teased.
Shane ignored her and began eating. “How was your trip into the village?”
She shifted and took a sip of wine. “It was good. I have a dress for the ball. The seamstress is finishing up the final touches. I got a new book and some stationery from Pierre. The people are excited and already preparing for the celebrations. Some were even building a platform in the square.”
“That sounds exciting,” he said.
She ripped off a small piece of bread and ate it before continuing. “We should probably increase security near the shops. A healer stopped us in the street to report a thief. A lot of her supplies were stolen. I paid for the items…”
“Yes, I heard about that.” Shane gave her a pointed look.
“Phillip.” She sighed, rolling her eyes. “He promised he wouldn’t say anything.”
“And you believed him?” He laughed. “Ada, we’ve been best friends for over twenty years. Besides, he shouldn’t have to be the one to tell me these things.”
“I didn’t want to worry you. You have enough going on right now. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Oh really?” He raised a brow. “How’s the wrist? I see you’re eating with your other hand tonight.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Ada muttered under her breath.
“Don’t be mad. He was just concerned. Despite my objections, you’re his friend too. He loves you.”
“I know,” she said. After their mother died, Shane basically raised her, but Phillip had always been right there beside him. He’d been like a second brother all her life.
Shane reached across the table and covered her hand with his. “I don’t want you to hide from me. No secrets, remember?”
Ada smiled. As children, they’d promised to always tell each other everything. “Fine. No secrets.” She took in his somber stare. “You really need to lighten up. When is Lady Saundra arriving? Maybe she can help.”
Shane scowled, but she could tell he didn’t truly mean it as he reached for his wine glass.
Music played softly in the distance as Adalina twirled around the ballroom. Blurry faces surrounded her while she looked for her missing prince. It had been months since they last saw one another. As if her thoughts summoned Michel, he swept her away in his arms. He tightened his grip on her hand, but when she looked up, his blue eyes morphed into sea green. Her breath caught in her throat, and her heart pounded as she focused on the different familiar gaze.
“Princess,” he whispered into her ear. “Where are you?”
Ada’s eyes snapped open, and she bolted upright in bed. She rested her forehead in one hand, trying to steady her breathing. It was the same dream she’d had every night that week. The same dream that haunted her throughout her entire life. The early morning sun peeked over the horizon, bringing its golden rays into her room through the curtains she’d forgotten to close the previous night. Knowing sleep would not return, she stood and wrapped a warm, woolen robe around her. She held it tight, and with crossed arms, she made her way to the hall.
The guards stationed outside the royal family’s bedrooms said hello but didn’t question why she was up. With her father’s paranoia, their presence had increased over the years, and they were used to seeing her wander the halls at random hours. She had started doing it as a child. It helped her think and relax.
She walked through the dimly lit hall and down the grand staircase, trailing a hand along the banister. The quiet castle at such an early hour held a peacefulness that calmed her nerves. A maid left the small dining room and held the door open for Ada as she approached. The woman curtsied, and the princess greeted her with a smile.
Shane already waited in the room only ever used by the royal family. A fire crackled in the fireplace, warming the space. The smell of pastries, bacon, and eggs made her mouth water as soon as she entered.
“Good morning,” Shane said with a nod as she took a seat.
“Good morning,” she replied before glancing to their friend standing against the wall. “Phillip.”
“Your Highness,” he said, bowing his head slightly.
Ada let out a soft laugh and shook her head. Shane smirked as she began piling a plate with fruit, trying to hide his grin. They ate in silence for a few minutes. The sounds of their silverware and the fire behind them was the only noise in the room.
“Stars, this is awkward,” Shane said with a chuckle, pointing to a chair. “Will you just sit?”
Ada choked on her orange juice and nearly spit it out. A laugh escaped her between coughs.
It wasn’t proper for a guard to join them, but Ada knew no one would question it, even if they hadn’t been alone. Everyone knew Phillip’s relationship with the royal siblings. They had all known his father, who was captain of the guard until his death five years ago. Phillip relented and took a spot across from the princess. Shane sat at the head of the table since their father rarely joined them anymore.
“You’re ridiculous,” Phillip told her with a grin. “What are you doing today?”
Ada glanced at Shane then back down to her food. She poked a grape with her fork, pushing it around the plate. “I thought I’d see if Father needed anything done for the ball.”
When she looked back up to her friend, she saw him shift his gaze between her and Shane. “What’s going on?”
Shane took a drink of his tea before saying, “Ada has decided to start performing more of her duties around here. No more sitting around with fairy tales.”
Ada clenched her teeth shut. Under her breath, she mumbled, “Decided.”
“I thought something was missing lately,” Phillip said.
“Shane told me to put the book away. He’s very adamant about it being just a story.” Ada ignored her brother’s sigh as she talked about him like he wasn’t there. “He’s right though; it’s childish of me to be carrying around fairy tales all the time.”
She winced at her own words.
“You don’t really believe that.” It wasn’t a question. Phillip knew her too well. The queen had been friends with his parents—she’d grown up with them—so when Phillip was born, she insisted they bring him to the palace as often as possible so Shane might have a friend his own age. Phillip had been a part of Ada’s life since her birth, and they grew just as close.
“How’s your mom?” Shane nudged Phillip’s shoulder. His tactic to change the subject worked.
“She’s good. Carys has been giving her trouble, keeping her on her toes.”
Ada chuckled. Phillip’s younger sister was the complete opposite of him. She did not inherit their father’s serious attitude and work ethic. Carys was more than a decade younger than Ada, and the girl exhausted the princess with her bubbly, nonstop energy.
“I think she’s lonely,” he continued about his mother. His father had passed just before Phillip joined the guard, and his mother never really moved on. Phillip had trained with Shane when they were boys and had known he would follow in his father’s footsteps. His father’s death had been unexpected, making the job that much more important to him—he wanted to make him proud. “I feel guilty for not spending more time with them.”
“We should visit her,” Ada added, looking to her brother.
He nodded in agreement. “It’s been too long.”
“She would love that,” Phillip said. “They both would.”
“Good! Perhaps the five of us could have dinner soon.” Ada took another drink before shoving a chunk of biscuit in her mouth.
“I’m sure that could be arranged,” he said, laughing at her lack of etiquette.
“Oh, no,” she said around a mouthful. She knew what he was thinking. “We’ll bring other guards. You’re not going to be on duty while we visit your own family.”
He smiled and nodded, not arguing for once. His face softened. “The Nihryst were real, Ada. They’re in our history books.” He ignored the prince’s glare. “They fought for the kingdom in the war against Rayerna. For three years, they defeated the enemy, becoming fierce warriors.”
“Because they had to, that was their punishment,” Ada added.
Beneath the table, Phillip tapped her shin with his foot. “That’s part of the story we know, but even if some don’t believe in the magical parts, there is proof the people existed. They were said to be undefeatable, feared among all those who opposed the king.”
“Which spread the rumor of them being immortal.” Shane brushed a hand through his hair. “That’s what I said.”
Phillip went on as if his best friend hadn’t spoken. “I know you’re going to still believe no matter what you pretend out in those halls. You can say you’re done and put away your book and cards, but it will always be there. It’s a part of you, Adalina. A part I don’t want to see you lose.”
He gave Shane a pointed look. Ada was grateful to have someone who understood—who didn’t want her to stop believing. Though he didn’t show it as much, she knew Phillip truly believed too. He had loved the story just as much when they were children.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Do you remember when we’d run around pretending to be them as children?”
At that, Ada laughed and pointed at Shane. “Yes, you two always made me be the witch.”
They laughed with her. Their childhood had been filled with make-believe games, even with their age gap. She remembered running around the castle with them, yelling and having fun.
“Well, who else were you going to be? We were obviously Loxley and Briar,” Shane said, gesturing between him and Phillip.
“I could have been Queen Mariella,” she insisted.
Phillip tossed a grape at her. “Where’s the fun in that?”
Before she could respond, a loud crash sounded in the hall. The door slammed open, and to their surprise, the king sauntered in. He froze a few steps away and looked at the three of them.
The first to recover, Shane cleared his throat and stood. “Good morning, Father.”
Each grabbing their food and drink, Phillip moved over a seat and Shane took his friend’s spot. King Emyr only grunted in return and took the vacated chair at the head of the table. They stayed quiet, unsure of his presence, as he began eating.
“Mr. Lavens, it’s been a while,” the king said without looking up from the stack of papers he held beside his plate.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Ada could tell Phillip was debating whether he should stay or go. Shane gently laid a hand on his arm, silently telling him to stay, and she smiled.
“Father, how are the negotiations with Prillia going? Is everything in order?” Shane asked. Ada let out a breath, and some of the tension visibly left Phillip’s shoulders.
“Yes, everything is working out. Lady Saundra and her people will be arriving the day before the ball,” the king replied. Then, with a scoff he added, “It’s Rayerna we’re having issues with. If that prince thinks he can just—”
“Father,” Shane interrupted with an apologetic glance toward Ada. She bit the inside of her cheek, afraid of the king stopping the expected proposal. “Prince Michel is a good man.”
“Prince Michel is a sniveling brat, who doesn’t know the first thing about leading a country.”
Ada gritted her teeth. She took a deep, calming breath and sat up straighter in her chair. “The people of Rayerna love Prince Michel. He’s kind and generous. Besides, his father is in good health, so Michel will be learning for a while still before becoming king.”
When her father finally looked her way, she willed his eyes to soften. She barely remembered the kind father of her early childhood, though she missed him all the same. The one who would chase her through the halls before swinging her up into his arms to plant a big kiss on her cheek. He had been so loving when she was a child. Now, she only got a bored look of indifference. She reminded herself it was better than anger.
“There are other princes for you to marry, Ada. Other ways of becoming queen.”
She couldn’t believe his words. “I don’t care about that,” she whispered.
The king let out a disbelieving laugh and looked back at his papers. Ada ignored the burning behind her eyes. With a tightness in her throat, she placed her cloth napkin on her plate and pushed to her feet.
“Excuse me,” she said as she turned to leave the room. Shane and Phillip stood, but she waved them off and stormed out.
Shaking her head, she angrily brushed away the tears as she made her way back up to her bedroom. Ada hated how cruel and bitter her father had become.
“Are you all right?” Shane asked when he and Phillip entered Ada’s room later that evening.
Ada placed her book to the side, grateful it wasn’t the one about the Nihryst. That book and the cards were still safely stored in her bedside table. She sat up straighter, leaning against the headboard of her large canopy bed while the boys approached. She pulled her feet up under her to make room for Shane, then Phillip flopped on the bed beside her. He leaned back against the wooden frame with his hands behind his head and his ankles crossed.
“How is your bed always so much more comfortable than the others?” he asked.
Shane snapped his head toward his friend with narrowed eyes. Laughing, Phillip tossed a small, decorative pillow at the prince. Ada watched them with amusement.
“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m used to it at this point.”
Phillip reached a hand over and held hers while Shane said, “You shouldn’t have to be used to it though.”
She shrugged. “Michel is a good man.”
“We know.” Phillip squeezed her fingers.
“Not that it’s a guaranteed thing, but marrying him would be good for the kingdom. It would strengthen the alliance and—”
“Ada, you don’t have to defend him,” Shane interrupted her rambling. “Regardless, it’s your choice. You don’t have to marry for the kingdom; it can be anyone.”
“Even a guard,” Phillip teased with a wink, trying to lighten the mood.
Shane sighed. “Yes, even a guard if that’s what you want.”
Ada smiled at her brother. “I know. Thank you.” She looked to Phillip. “Both of you. Father’s just so…”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “It’s like he can’t fathom that I want to marry Michel for any other reason than to become queen.”
“Ah, but you do want to marry him?” Shane asked.
Ada’s cheeks heated up. They teased and laughed, but she knew they both supported her. She knew they were happy for her.
“Wait,” she said suddenly. She turned toward Phillip. “What are you doing here? Don’t you work in the morning?”
“Yes, I should probably head home soon.”
“Yeah, you really need more sleep,” Shane said with a laugh. “You would not believe how badly I beat him at poker earlier.”
“I let you win.” Phillip let go of Adalina and grabbed the pillow back from Shane.
“Sure you did.”
“You could always just stay here.” At their raised brows, Ada laughed, pointing to the bed. “Not literally here. Relax, Shane. We have dozens of empty beds for a couple more weeks. That way you don’t have to walk all the way home just to get a few hours of sleep.”
“She’s right,” Shane said. “You know you’re always welcome to stay.”
Phillip smiled at his friend and agreed to take his usual spare room down the hall. The Lavens family owned a small home in the village. It didn’t take long to get there, but Ada knew he hated making the trek before the sun came up.
Even though the purpose of him staying was to get more sleep, the three of them stayed up talking well into the night. It felt like when they were younger and they’d all pile into one room for the evening. Ada could remember her mother coming in over and over telling them to go to sleep. They’d stay up all night laughing and telling stories.
“I miss her too,” Shane said when Adalina mentioned the memory, and Phillip nodded. “She never really minded, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“She would come in and pretend to be frustrated, but I saw her smiling and shaking her head as she left one time,” Shane explained. “I asked her about it the next day, and she told me she was actually happy hearing us laugh all night. She loved that the three of us were so close.”
A tear rolled down Ada’s cheek as she smiled. Phillip moved closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He wiped her tears away and then pressed a kiss to the top of her head. They stayed a little longer, talking about the queen and laughing about how much trouble they always got in. After a while, they finally said goodnight, and the boys went to their separate rooms.
Ada pulled the Nihryst book out and hugged it to her chest as she lay down. It was a familiar comfort—one she didn’t think she would ever truly be able to rid herself of, no matter her age. Before long, she drifted off into darkness.
* * *
“Where are you, Princess?”
She bolted upright. Once again, her dreams woke her just before dawn. After placing the book back into her bedside table, Ada brushed a hand through her hair and grabbed her robe. This routine grew tiresome. She walked through the quiet, peaceful hallway—soothing as always after her confusing dreams.
“Your schedule exhausts me just thinking about it,” she said when someone joined her.
Phillip’s deep laugh as he caught up made her smile. They walked down the hall in comfortable silence. It felt natural after so many years.
“You all right?” he asked. When she didn’t respond right away, he gently tugged on her elbow to stop her.
She slipped a hand around his arm and stood close, drawing in his body heat. “I’m fine.”
“Adalina.” Phillip sighed and continued along the corridor. After a few paces in silence, he asked, “Does this walk have anything to do with the ball?”
“Not really. I had a dream about the Nihryst,” she said, laying her head against his shoulder.
“Ol’ Loxley still the star of the dreams?”
“Yes.” It was barely more than a whisper. He squeezed her arm lightly, steering them toward the stairs.
They reached the second floor and turned down the hall. Voices from the king’s study startled them. Ada hesitated, but her curiosity won out, and she crept forward with Phillip following close behind.
The door to the study wasn’t completely closed. Silhouetted figures moved around the large desk in the center of the room. Ada recognized her father’s voice immediately.
“No, I told you it has to happen right after the ball,” he argued with two others in the room.
A second voice said, “But they’re almost in place now. What are we supposed to do?”
“We have to have a reason,” the third deep voice chimed in.
“Make something up!” Ada hadn’t heard her father get so worked up in a long time.
“Perhaps we can say we received threats and wanted to ensure their convoys were able to get here safely.” The second man proposed the idea more like a question.
“That could give us some time, but will the excuses work until the ball?” the third asked.
A slam startled Ada. She jumped, and Phillip placed a comforting hand on her back.
“I don’t care what it takes, make it happen! We attack after the ball. Both kingdoms, simultaneously.” The king’s harsh tone made Ada’s heart pound. “By then, the duchess and that blasted prince will be here, engaged to my children. If their two countries don’t surrender, we’ll already have the perfect hostages in place. After all, the rest of their parties will be dead by the end of the ball.”
Ada could no longer breathe.
“Emyr, are you sure about poisoning them all there? What if it accidentally goes to the wrong person?”
“It won’t. Because there won’t be a wrong person. Everyone not sitting at the high table with my family will receive the same thing. We need to at least appear to have a cause. And when our own people are killed alongside theirs, we’ll pin it on Rayerna.”
Ada’s mind whirled. What in the stars was going on? Surely this wasn’t happening. Her father couldn’t actually want to kill people.
“You do know that in doing this, the surrounding kingdoms will send them aid, right? This is likely to end in war with the entire mainland, not just Rayerna,” one of the men commented.
“Oh, I’m planning on it.” Adalina could almost hear the malicious grin on her father’s face. “First, we take Rayerna and Prillia, then we move on, conquering each insignificant country one after another. We will control this world. There’s no one to defeat us. We have the grandest military in the world, all under my command.” He stood up straight and reiterated, “There is not a soul out there who can stop us. I have the power.”
Ada couldn’t listen anymore. She stood from her crouch, intent on running to Shane’s room to tell him what she heard. As soon as her weight shifted though, a floorboard creaked beneath her feet.
Her heart stopped. Eyes snapped to hers through the cracked door. The sliver of light illuminated her enough for them to recognize her long fiery locks.
The king sighed in frustration. “Grab her.”
A hand wrapped around hers and yanked her around. She ran with Phillip as the door behind them fully opened, and the two men chased after them.
They turned a corner, and Phillip pulled her through a hidden door that popped open along a wall. He held her close in the dark, trying to mask her frantic breathing. She had no idea where they were and prayed to the stars the men didn’t know about the spot either. Footsteps slowed on the other side of the door. Ada buried her face against Phillip’s shoulder as he held a hand to the back of her head.
“Oh, Princess,” a man’s voice drew out her title. The sound of doors opening along the hall echoed in the cramped space. “You might as well come out; we’re going to find you at some point. You have nowhere to go.”
Phillip’s lips pressed to her temple as he tried to calm her shaking. The arm wrapped around her back tightened.
“You can’t hide forever, Princess. We know it was you. If not now, your father will get you tomorrow. He can’t let you ruin his plans.”
After several minutes, the footsteps finally receded down the hall and Ada let out a shuddering breath. She felt Phillip’s mouth move down to her ear.
“Come with me,” he whispered.
He took her hand and slowly led her through a dark tunnel. In the pitch black, she bumped into him and stumbled over and over. With a hand on the wall, Phillip guided them through a labyrinth until they reached a small stairwell.
“We have to get you out of here,” Phillip whispered as they reached a dimly lit juncture at the top of the stairs.
“Phillip, where are we?”
“There are hidden passageways that lead from each of your bedrooms to different escape routes. They’re all throughout the castle, but no one knows about them anymore.”
“We don’t have time.” His rushed words caused her stomach to drop. She had to leave her home. Her father was going to kill hundreds of people before sending Detmarya into war with the kingdoms across the sea. He was the most powerful man on this side of the world. To even get close enough to the king, someone would have to be near unstoppable.
Phillip pulled Adalina toward the hall he pointed out as an exit, but she stopped abruptly.
“I have to go to my room.”
“What? No!” he hissed.
She heard the fear as he tried to stay quiet.
“That’s the first place they’ll look.”
“I have to get the book.”
“Ada, I know it means everything to you, but it’s not worth the risk.” He tried pulling on her hand again.
“I think I figured out how to find the island.”
That stopped him.
“What?” He slowly turned to face her.
She quickly explained the clues she figured out. Unlike Shane, Phillip didn’t brush it off. “You heard my father, there isn’t anyone out there strong enough to stop him. But what about a group of immortal warriors?”
“He has to be stopped.” She stepped closer. In the faint light, she looked up into his eyes. Growing up, they’d bonded over the Nihryst. If anyone was going to believe her, it would be him. “Please,” she whispered. “We can’t just let him destroy all those people and go to war with the world.”
Phillip closed his eyes briefly and inhaled. “You really think you can find the island?”
The corner of her mouth lifted, and she nodded.
“And if you do miraculously find them?” he asked. “What then? You think they’re going to help the descendants of those who cursed them—the kingdom that took everything from them?”
“I have to try,” she whispered.
He sighed then reached out a hand and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “All right, let’s get your book.”
They reached her room, and, to their relief, it was empty. The sun had started to rise while in the tunnels. It lit up the bedroom, making it easy to retrieve the book. Ada told Phillip where to find it while she quickly changed into dark leggings and a sweater before shoving extra clothes into a small bag with a coin purse. As she laced up her boots, he sat beside her and opened the book. He looked through the cards, shaking his head.
“I can’t believe you figured it out.” They stood and walked back to the secret door that had been behind a bookshelf. “We’re actually going to look for Cyfrin.”
Ada whirled around and placed a hand on his chest. “We’re not doing anything. I’m going to look for help. You’re staying here.”
“Absolutely not,” he said a little too loud. They glanced at the door then quickly moved to the safety of the tunnels. He took her hand and led her through the hidden walkways down to the ground floor. As they went, he explained that her mother showed him the tunnels and that he kept the sparse, long-lasting torches lit just in case. They reached another door near the kitchens, and from there, she could get to the service entrance. They were certain none of the kitchen staff would stop her, even if spotted.
Before he could open the last hidden door, she grabbed his wrist. “Phillip.”
“No. I’m going with you.”
“Phillip,” she started again as she pried the book from his hands. “They didn’t see you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“It is though.” Ada reached one palm up to his cheek to make sure he met her gaze. “I need you to stay here with Shane.”
He cursed under his breath. She knew she had him with that—he would do anything to protect her brother. He’d never leave him. Shane couldn’t be left in the dark. Standing on her toes, she kissed Phillip’s cheek.
“Protect him,” she said, her throat tightening. “Tell him I love him and that I’ve gone for help. Keep your heads down and pretend you don’t know anything.”
Phillip pulled her into a tight hug. “Be careful, Ada.”
She could hear the pain in his voice but quickly detached herself and slipped out the door and to the streets beyond. People came and went, preparing for the day. No one paid her any attention as she headed to the docks with a plan forming in the back of her mind.
The sun lingered just beneath the horizon and set a soft glow over the ships and boats by the time Ada reached the water. She walked the length of the docks and back, inspecting each vessel. Crew members loaded supplies onto several. Passengers boarded some. But she needed something more private, smaller. People shuffled past her, and she walked back and forth between a few ships near the end. She found a handful that suited her needs, but she had to figure out a way to convince one of them to take her where she needed to go.
“You look lost,” a voice called out.
Ada turned to see a woman leaning against a post, her arms crossed over her chest and her legs crossed at the ankle, as if waiting for someone. One of the ships Ada had considered was tied to the posts behind her. Ada took a deep breath and walked over.
“What are you looking for?” the woman asked. Her dark hair hung in tight curls down to her shoulders, and she wore tight brown pants and a simple corset over her white shirt. There was an aggressive air about her, and Ada wondered if it was her ship. It was rare for a woman to captain a ship, but it wasn’t completely unheard of.
“Someone to hire.” Ada stood taller, trying to exude confidence. “I need to get to Tugora and then to an island nearby.”
“Tugora?” Shock filled the woman’s wide brown eyes. Not many chose to go there unless in some kind of trouble. “Why does a pretty thing like you want to go there?”
“Private business,” Ada said, refusing to give more information than needed just yet.
The woman narrowed her eyes. “Well, we’re not for hire.”
She unhitched herself from the post and turned to leave. Ada reached out to grab her shoulder. As she did, the grip on her book started to fumble, and a couple of the cards fell to the ground. She quickly kneeled to gather them and found the woman helping her.
“Where did you get these?” she asked.
“I… bought them.” Ada didn’t know why she lied. It wouldn’t have mattered, but she thought it best to hide the truth of her identity and quest as much as possible. “They’re used to tell the future. Well, that’s what they’re supposed to be used for; I just thought they were pretty.”
The woman nodded, still looking at one of the cards. “What did you say your name was?”
“Ada. Please, I can pay you in gold. Plenty of it.”
“We have no need for that much gold.” She handed Ada the card back of Briar, Loxley’s second. “However, I’ll take those cards as payment.”
“The cards? Why?”
“They’re the cards from the myth about the Nihryst.”
A group of royal guards rushed the docks and began questioning people.
“Yes, but they’re nothing special. You can buy a set in just about every kingdom.” She’d seen them in shops around Ferda, as well as Senfyr across the sea. Ada’s pulse quickened. This needed to be settled quickly. If the guards saw her, it was over.
“Yes, but these are exquisite, and they have the gilded ancient language painted on them. Think of what I could get from pretending they’re the real deal.”
Ada thought about it. This woman clearly wasn’t going to accept anything else. Ada couldn’t just hand them over. They weren’t just clues with the map; she would need them to help break the curse.
“Get me everywhere I need to go, then they’re yours.”
The woman squinted, contemplating. Ada bounced on the balls of her feet, willing her to decide quickly. After a moment, she thrust a hand forward. “The name’s Brienne. Welcome aboard The Seren.”
Brienne led her up the dock and onto the ship. Ada looked around in wonder, hugging the book closer to her chest. The ship wasn’t the biggest she had ever been on—it was half the size of her father’s navy boats, if that. It was big enough to do the job though. She watched as crew members ran about, preparing to leave. As soon as she set foot on the wooden deck, they stopped to stare.
“This is Ada; she will be joining us,” Brienne called out loud enough to be heard by the dozen visible sailors.
A large man walked over, towering Ada, and asked, “What about Captain?”
All right, so this woman wasn’t the captain.
“Let me worry about him,” Brienne cut the man off quickly. She grabbed Ada’s elbow and dragged her to what appeared to be the captain’s quarters. “Stay in this room until I tell you otherwise. You’ll be safe here. I just need to persuade him to go along with our plan.”
Ada nodded and clenched her jaw to stop from asking questions. When the door clicked shut, she released a breath. She looked around at the bookshelves lining the room, the large table bolted down in the center, and the bunk in the corner that looked to be built into the wall. Despite it being on a ship, the cabin was almost cozy. Navy curtains hung on either side of the large window that faced the dock. Lanterns hung around the room, with only a couple lit. She sat in one of the tall leather-backed chairs, trying not to worry. Placing the book on the table in front of her, she began wringing her hands. It was hard to believe this was finally happening. She had dreamed of this moment her entire life. She just wished she was going under different circumstances. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around it all.
A commotion outside startled her. She ran to the door but stopped with a hand on the knob. Remembering what Brienne had said, she sat back down and waited. People moved about, shouting commands beyond the cabin. Soon, the ship began to rock, and she saw the docks grow smaller through the window as they set sail. Footsteps stomped toward the door.
“—tell you something,” Brienne finished saying as the door banged open.
Ada stood and whirled around. A man stood in the doorway, appearing as shocked as she felt. A sense of déjà vu had her looking closer. It was his eyes she finally recognized.
“You!” she exclaimed at the thief from a couple days earlier. He wasn’t in rags today, just a simple attire all in black.
“Brienne,” he said through his teeth.
Brienne moved past him and stood in front of Ada with hands raised. “Just hear me out.”
“We don’t pick up strays.” He slammed the door hard enough that the opaque glass pane shuddered before he moved to the captain’s chair behind the table. Both women turned to keep an eye on him.
Brienne stood beside Ada and explained, “She’s paying us to take her somewhere.”
“No,” he said, his tone flat as he looked down at the map painted on the table.
“You’ve already set sail.” Ada finally worked up the courage to speak. “Are you just going to throw me overboard?”
His green eyes snapped up to hers. “Not a bad idea.”
Her heart pounded at the thought. She quickly said, “I will pay you a handsome amount.”
“She has these cards too,” Brienne continued. She looked to Ada and nodded to the book. Ada pulled them out.
He glanced at the cards, his brow furrowing. Flipping through them, Ada could sense his curiosity as Brienne told him about trading them for favors. Everyone knew the stories. Though these two didn’t know they were the real cards, Ada was hoping their quality would convince him.
“And where are we taking…?”
“Ada,” she responded. “To Tugora and then a nearby island. I will tell you how to get there after the first stop.”
“Tugora.” He let out a breathy laugh, shaking his head. With a nod to Brienne, she left them alone. “Fine, we’ll take the cards and gold.”
“Fine.” She didn’t argue that Brienne had said just the cards. At this point, it didn’t matter. “But I keep the cards until you get me to my final destination.”
He sighed and handed the cards back over. “Fine. But if you’re joining us, you’re working as part of the crew.”
“How much do you know about sailing?” When she hesitated, he tugged a hand through his dark hair. “Seriously? Then, how are you supposed to tell us where to go?”
“I’m not completely incompetent,” she argued. “I can read a map. And I’m a fast learner, so just tell me what to do. I’ve spent time on my father’s boats. I’ve seen what needs done.”
She decided he didn’t need to know that those ships were massive in comparison and so advanced they didn’t need as much manpower.
“I don’t want to hear complaints because you’re not used to working with those hands.”
He sighed. For a moment, he stared at her, tapping a thumb on the table. “My name is Lee, I am the captain, and this is my ship. What I say goes.” He moved to stand closer. The scent of the sea and something unnamable hit her. It was almost overwhelming, and she couldn’t tell if she wanted more of it or to step away. He didn’t look as old as she’d initially thought. He looked maybe a few years older than her, but there was something in the way he held himself—like he had already seen a lot in his young life—that aged him.
“Stars, you’re a stubborn one, aren’t you?” he said.
Ada crossed her arms in response, refusing to move one way or another.
“You know,” he smirked and took a step forward, “when someone offers to act as a personal chauffeur, most people usually just say thank you.”
She glared at him—at the echoed words of their previous encounter—which caused him to laugh again. He stepped back and pointed to the bunk.
“You’ll be more comfortable up here. You can stay as long as you’re out of my way.”
Ada looked at the single bed, then back at him.
“Don’t worry, princess, I’ll find a bunk down with the crew,” Lee said, winking as if he read her mind. Her breath caught at the title, but she quickly realized he was using it as an insult to her assumed status. He didn’t know who she was.
“It’s Ada,” she corrected. She placed the cards back in the book and moved to sit in on the edge of the thin mattress.
With a huff, he stomped toward the door and called over his shoulder, “Well, come on. I’ll introduce you to the crew, then we can see how dirty those hands get before you quit.”
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling before walking past him as he held the door open. Just as he had a couple days earlier, she muttered a thanks under her breath. She heard a deep chuckle behind her in response.
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