Sneak Peek: The Lost Dreams
Hello! The Lost Dreams (A Collection of Nihryst Short Stories) releases December 8th, so it's time for a sneak peek! This collection is made up of five short stories and twelve bonus chapters.
Three of the stories have been previously published, but they've all been re-edited and fixed up a bit. However, since many have already read those, today, I'll be sharing the beginning of Queen Mariella's story!
The Lost Love
130 years before The Lost Legends
Mariella paced back and forth, wearing a path into the ornate rug spanning her bedroom. She couldn’t rid herself of this horrid sense of dread. Wringing her hands together, she silently prayed to the stars yet again. She’d sent up her deepest wishes her whole life, but never had it mattered as much as this day.
The tall clock in the corner ticked, mirroring her steps. In the distance, bells chimed throughout Ferda, and the queen nearly fell to her knees in fear.
Now. She was supposed to be down there now.
Loxley would never forgive her for not showing up in their spot, but if it meant saving his life, she’d do anything. He’d think she abandoned him—a pain that the kind man didn’t deserve.
A thought came to her, and she stilled, her breath catching. He might not believe she just didn’t show up; he could think something happened to her. And then, he’d arrive at the castle, demanding to see that she was all right. Of that she had no doubt. He was selfless in a way she’d never seen in anyone else.
She needed to get word to him. Running to her desk, she pulled out a piece of parchment and wrote a quick letter, explaining why she couldn’t meet with him. She sealed it and slid it into a pocket in her dress before leaving her room. There were few she could trust to deliver such messages to O’ Chwedlau, but she knew the kitchen workers would without question. Just as they’d helped her and Loxley steal extra food from the castle stores to be shared with those in need throughout Ferda.
Mariella raced down the main staircase and into the grand foyer. Before she could reach the back stairs that led to the subfloors, the king called her name. She stopped in the middle of the wide hall, her heart pounding. Steeling her spine, she put on her best false smile and turned toward her husband.
“Where are you off to?” Henri asked as he approached.
“The kitchens,” she said, remembering what Loxley once told her about putting truth into lies to make them more believable. “I’m famished and was hoping they had some of those apple tarts left from last night.”
Henri’s smile looked as forced as hers. No one else would likely notice, but she’d known the man her whole life—had been friends with him since they were children. There was a time she’d loved him. Just not in the way he wanted. He was almost unrecognizable from that boy now, with the heavy crown on his head and stress lines across his brow. Back then, he’d been carefree and laughed so often.
Then, everything became a competition. Who was the best swordsman? Who could shoot an arrow into the middle of a target from the farthest point?
Who did Mariella love most?
That last one was what drove them apart. Henri’s greed and power overcame him when he learned that she had fallen for Loxley. Henri proposed at a ball, surrounded by hundreds of people, knowing she couldn’t say no to the heir of Detmarya.
“That sounds delightful,” he said, hooking an arm through hers. “I shall join you.”
“Perfect.” She leaned into him as they walked downstairs. It was always best to play along. When his father died, passing on the crown, Henri had changed even more. Now, his temper often controlled him. He’d never harmed her or raised his voice to her, but she’d seen him do it to others—seen the strain of not turning the anger on her.
The kitchens were as busy as always. Three women prepared food on the wide, center worktable, and on the far side of the open room, a maid sat hemming a dress at a smaller dining table. Other castle staff came and went, going about their work.
“Your Majesties,” Orey said, inclining her head.
Mariella greeted the head chef with a hug. Beside her, Henri stiffened, but he didn’t reprimand her casual behavior.
“Do you have any more of those apple tarts?” Mariella asked. She kept one hand on the woman, who took notice.
Orey nodded, and the queen knew she was aware there was another reason for the visit. “Of course, Queen Mariella. They’re in the cellar. Come with me?”
She started to agree, but Henri stepped in, finally speaking. He took Mariella’s hand. “Actually, we have somewhere to be, so she cannot get her dress dusty. Could one of the other girls help you?”
His voice was kind, but Mariella caught the threatening undertone. The woman nodded and signaled one of her young helpers. While they walked away, Mariella pulled her hand from Henri’s and strode over to the last woman, who was slicing strawberries.
“What are you working on?” Mariella took a piece of the cut fruit.
The woman smiled and started describing the dessert she was preparing. Mariella’s attention stayed on her husband though, watching him in her periphery. He stood with his arms crossed as he leaned against the stone countertop behind them.
“That sounds delicious. I can’t wait to try it,” Mariella said when the other two returned.
Orey held out a plate with the apple treats, and the queen took one. Taking a bite, she considered how to hand over the letter without Henri seeing. But it was as if he sensed the true reason for her visit and stuck by her side.
A door slammed down the hall, and footsteps neared. When two guards entered and went straight toward them, Mariella placed the half-eaten tart down. The tallest of the two men leaned in close to whisper something to Henri. She knew this was her chance. While her husband was distracted, her hand went to her pocket.
However, Henri turned to her before she could remove the parchment, and she froze in place. He put a hand on her wrist. The gentle touch didn’t match his glare. “We’re needed in the council chambers. Now.”
He pulled her hand out and laced their fingers together. She sent one final glance at the chef and then followed him back upstairs.
The atmosphere in the castle had changed. Tension filled the air. Maids and guards whispered as the two made their way to the chambers that appeared like a small throne room. Chairs sat in a row along the far wall, with two raised seats in the center.
Henri led her to her designated spot, and then he moved to an approaching advisor. Mariella twisted her fingers together as she waited for what felt like hours. Slowly, more and more advisors trickled in. With each passing minute, Marielle grew more restless. Something had happened, but they were all whispering too far away for her to catch anything.
When the last joined them, Henri nodded to one of the guards. He took his place beside Mariella, giving her a look she couldn’t decipher. This man she’d known her whole life. She clenched her jaw and faced forward. If he wasn’t going to tell her what was going on, she’d brace herself for anything.
But there was no way she could have prepared for what happened next.
The heavy oak doors creaked open. Half a dozen guards marched in, surrounding a prisoner. The man stumbled with his head hanging low. Chains linked his hands—his ankles. The leading guards moved aside, one of them shoving the man to his knees.
And then, grabbing him by the hair, he yanked the prisoner’s head up.
The world stilled. Everything stopped. Mariella couldn’t breathe—couldn’t think. Someone was speaking, but their words were muffled by her pounding heart. Her eyes burned with tears.
“Henri.” The familiar voice almost broke her. The sea green gaze she’d loved so much met hers, and nothing else seemed to matter.
At least, not until Henri said, “I have already decided upon your punishment. I’m not going to kill you, Loxley."
Mariella couldn’t catch her breath. She felt like her entire world was crashing around her. Down in the dungeon, far beneath her feet, Loxley sat in a cell. His crew sat behind bars.
And it was all her fault.
If she’d just stayed away—if she’d never agreed to meet him…
She stood at her vanity, bracing herself with palms against the smooth wood. As tears fell, she glanced up into the mirror. Her chest heaved while her lungs tried to bring in oxygen.
Henri wasn’t going to kill them. He wouldn’t kill their oldest friend. But sending him to fight in Rayerna was practically a death sentence in itself. When Loxley questioned how the king planned to make them fight, Henri had given a vague answer that made Mariella’s stomach twist. Whatever he had in mind to keep the crew in line couldn’t be good.
Wiping at her tears, she ripped the letter from her pocket and turned toward the fire blazing in the hearth. She tore it in half with a gasp before tossing it into the flames. She’d been too late.
But she needed to speak to Loxley one more time. She strode to the tall painting in the corner of the room, unable to stand still anymore.
It didn’t matter that Henri had placed guards outside their bedroom; she knew how to navigate the castle without being seen. Sliding into the tunnel behind the hidden door, the queen headed down the familiar dark labyrinth. Sconces lit the path at distant intervals. Sconces she kept alight for this very reason.
When she made it to the sub-level floor, she slowly eased the door open to see if anyone was in the hall beyond. It was eerily empty and quiet. Mariella closed the hidden entrance to the tunnels, making sure no one could see the crack in the otherwise bare stone wall without closely looking for it.
Smoothing down her dress, she straightened her shoulders and walked around the corner. At the end of this hall, two guards stood near the barred door to the dungeon. Both inclined their heads, and she was happy to see one was Tristan.
Her long-time friend gave her a sad, understanding smile as she approached. “Your Majesty.”
“I’m sorry, but the king has ordered no one in or out,” the other guard said—Samuel, she thought was his name.
Before she could think of a reason for them to let her pass, Tristan turned to the man. He whispered something in his ear, and Samuel’s eyes widened a fraction as he nodded. They each stepped aside.
Tristan pulled out his keys to unlock the door and opened it for her. “You only have a few minutes. It’s too risky.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, grabbing and squeezing his hand as she passed.
The door closed behind her in a soft creak. Her footsteps echoed off the stone floor as she made her way along the cells. Most were empty, save for the few at the end that held two dozen men and women she loved like family. She saw Reynold first. He held her gaze for a moment before looking to the cell across from him and the others.
A lone figure sat slumped against the wall near the bars. His knees were drawn up, with his arms draped over them. His head was rested back, and his eyes were shut, but even in the dim moonlight streaming through the high window, she knew it was him.
“Loxley,” she whispered, barely more than a breath.
He couldn’t have heard her, but as she moved closer, he said, “You shouldn’t be here.”
Her lips parted, and her eyes burned with more unshed tears. “I’m sorry.”
It was all she could manage. She had no other words.
Loxley glanced up finally, and it shattered the rest of her heart. Her best friend. The man she once loved more than anything in this world. He stared at her, his own hurt shining in those ocean-colored eyes that felt like home.
They’d been friends since they were children. He and his sister, Willa, had spent so much time with her family growing up because their mother worked for her parents. The woman didn’t have any other relatives or friends nearby, having moved here from Rayerna, so she didn’t have anyone to watch over her children while she worked to provide for them. Mariella’s mother insisted she bring them with her.
Loxley and Mariella grew close immediately, and Willa felt like her own sister. When Mariella and Loxley fell in love, it was as if she was living out a fairy tale.
Though, most assumed a then-prince proposing was the happily ever after.
She loved Henri. He’d been her friend just as much, but he was selfish. She never knew for certain whether he’d proposed because he was truly in love with her or because he couldn’t stand the thought of her and Loxley being happy without him.
“Why did you do it?” Loxley asked, bringing her back to the present.
Mariella sighed and knelt by the bars. She thought about the letter she’d intended to send.
“He knew. Henri found out somehow. I think he was having me followed. I thought if I didn’t show up, you’d leave and he wouldn’t be able to find you.” She didn’t bother stopping the fresh tears from rolling down her cheeks. “I am so sorry, Loxley.”
He looked down at his hands. “I know you are, Mari. I know you are.”
She leaned against the bars that separated them. Neither spoke, but she continued to cry softly. She wanted to curl into his lap, let him hold her as he always had when she was upset.
But she couldn’t. She would never be able to again.
At the end of the hall, the door opened, and she turned to see Tristan nod at her. It was time to go. Loxley reached through the bars to hold her hand, and she choked on a sob. His thumb brushed across her knuckles.
There was so much she wanted—needed—to say to him. But she couldn’t. Letting out a shaky breath, she kissed the top of his hand, stood, and walked away.
Mariella didn’t let herself look back. She didn’t stop until she returned to her bedroom. Her vision blurred with tears as she sank to the floor against the painting. Her entire body trembled as she wept into her hands.
“Was I ever going to be enough?”
Sniffing, Mariella lifted her head. Henri sat in an armchair near the hearth. She swallowed and pushed herself to her feet. Slowly, she moved closer. He didn’t say anything about the hidden door or tunnel, nor did he seem surprised.
“Henri…” She trailed off, unsure what to say.
He stood, turning to face her. For once, the usual anger had been replaced with sorrow. As if he knew exactly where she’d gone. As if he knew her heart would never fully be his.
“I love you,” she said. “But you cannot do this to him—to them. If you send them to Rayerna, they will die.”
“They are thieves, Mariella. They’ve stolen from us and made a mockery of my crown.” Henri crossed his arms. “It’s either this or the gallows, and I can’t…”
Despite everything, despite his anger and selfishness, Henri still cared deep down. She caught a glimpse of the boy he’d once been. The prince who loved to make her laugh. Her husband who was gentle with her, even when he could be cruel to others.
Mariella closed the distance between them. He hesitated only a moment before opening his arms to hold her. She wrapped hers around his back, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered for the third time that night.
His fingers brushed through her long auburn hair as he kissed the side of her head. Then, almost abruptly, he pulled away. He cleared his throat and said, “He won’t die; I’ll make sure of it. But I can’t just ignore his actions. It wasn’t just that he was stealing goods. I know what you two planned.”
She clenched her jaw. The plan had been to meet Loxley at the church and run away with him. She’d wanted to leave this place far behind her and start fresh somewhere new. Whether that meant with Loxley or not.
“Tell me, how long has this affair been happening?” Fury returned to the king’s tone. “Or did you never stop seeing him? Have you been sneaking around with him this whole time?”
“It wasn’t like that.” She could never bring herself to do that to Henri. Never had she so much as kissed Loxley since making her wedding vows four years ago. At least, not until in the dungeon tonight when her lips touched his knuckles. “I’ve only ever been with you, Henri. I swear.”
He looked as if he wanted to argue, but instead he asked, “Are you still going to leave?”
The words were quiet and full of pain. Mariella stared at him for a long moment. With a deep breath, she shook her head. “No, Henri. I’m not going anywhere.”
Seemingly satisfied, he nodded. He opened his mouth then closed it, glancing toward the bed. With a sigh, he headed to the door instead. “Goodnight, Mari.”
He left her alone, likely returning to his study. Most nights, he stayed in there, working on the stars knew what, until late. Too often, he crawled into bed long after she’d already gone to sleep. This life had grown lonely. It was why she’d considered leaving.
But they had their moments together. The tender moments that contradicted everything else. And that was precisely why she didn’t.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she placed a hand over her stomach. That was why she couldn’t leave with Loxley. It was why she wouldn’t leave Henri.
The heir to Detmarya was growing within her. This baby was her family. And he or she gave her hope for a better future.
Because she would teach their child to love and be kind. She would tell them about how she once stole from her own stores to try to help her kingdom. They would grow up knowing that it was their duty to aid those in need, not take for their own desire. She would raise a generous ruler.
Knowing that gave her more purpose than she’d ever felt.