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  • Writer's pictureCait Marie

Sneak Peek: The Missing Legacy Chapters 1-3

It's almost time!! The Missing Legacy releases October 25th, so I'm sharing an exclusive look at the first three chapters right here!

Just a reminder, this is the fifth book in The Nihryst series. It will spoil the earlier books. I recommend reading all of them in order, but you can also jump into the fourth book because it starts a new generation of adventures. So, continue at your own risk.

Want to start the series from the beginning? You can find all the books here!

Without further ado, The Missing Legacy...

Chapter 1

Kal

Kal looked up from where he lounged on the second floor of the library as footsteps clanked on the iron staircase. His favorite chaise sat back in the corner, behind a row of shelves, hidden in its own little nook. It had been his aunt Ada’s favorite spot growing up, and she’d often brought him here as a child to read stories to him, Karey, and his younger cousins.

“There you are.” Shane rounded the tall bookshelves. “I should’ve known to look here first.”

Chuckling, Kal straightened and set his book aside—a collection of tales from the northern kingdoms he’d been gifted years ago. “Yes, you should have.”

His father trailed a hand along a row of tomes as he approached. Something seemed off. Kal stood, wondering if everything was all right. Shane struggled with melancholia, sending him into bouts of dark sadness. And though he tried to hide it, Kal could usually tell when he was having a rough time.

“What’s wrong?” Kal stepped in front of him, full of worry.

“They’ve arrived early.” His father met his gaze.

He didn’t need to clarify. There was only one ‘they’ he could mean.

Queen Lilliana and her retinue.

They were due to arrive in a couple days, and Kal had been trying to prepare himself. This was the woman he’d exchanged letters with for years. Though hers had slowed over the past year, she still arguably knew him better than almost anyone. He’d been eager to meet his friend in person, to hopefully arrange a marriage alliance.

Then, he’d met Zinnia, who sparked his blood like no one he’d ever met.

“Son.” Shane’s tone was soft. “You don’t have to marry her. If you’re still hoping to find—”

“I’m not going to find her.” He’d tried, even asking some of their kingdom’s sailors to keep an eye out for Zinnia when stopping in Tugora—where he first met her. There was a high chance she’d returned home to Frahleyen, but the kingdom in the north was too vast to search.

Besides, if she wanted him to find her, she would have left him some sort of clue. Better yet, she wouldn’t have left him without so much as a goodbye.

The king placed a hand on Kal’s shoulder. “Let’s just go meet the queen. You don’t have to make any sort of proposal today.”

With a sigh, Kal nodded. His father was right; a decision didn’t have to be made right now. Today was just about meeting a friend. He could focus on that. He could ignore the ache in his chest a little while longer.

Phillip was already waiting in a side chamber when they arrived. “It’s a small group.” He pointed to the door that led to the throne room. “It’s just the queen, a handmaiden, her chaperone, and a few guards. The rest of her crew have remained on the ship, it seems, or they’re staying at the inns near the docks.”

“She didn’t bring her whole staff?” Kal’s brow furrowed.

Phillip shook his head. “Apparently, she doesn’t plan on staying long. There are things happening in Frahleyen that need her attention, but she didn’t want to postpone this any longer.”

“You think they want to make an official alliance?” Shane asked.

“I would be more surprised if that wasn’t why she was here.”

Kal crossed his arms. They didn’t need the alliance, but if what Zinnia had said a few months ago about Frahleyen struggling was true, maybe Queen Lilliana did need this. Maybe that was why she didn’t want to put this off longer. Shane turned toward Kal, who felt as if he couldn’t breathe. “This still doesn’t mean you need to decide right away. Hear her out, be courteous, but if you don’t want this, it’s your choice.”

“Agreed. It’s completely your choice.” Phillip patted him on the shoulder and then headed toward the door. “Ready?”

“Yes,” Kal whispered.

As his father began turning the doorknob, someone burst into the room behind them. Kal whirled, drawing his sword.

On his sister.

He cursed, pulling the steel back from her throat. “What is wrong with you?”

“Me?” Karey’s blue eyes were as wide as saucers. “Why did you feel the need to hack someone down for opening a door?”

“I—”

“All right, enough.” Shane stepped closer. “What did you need, Rey? We need to go in.”

She glanced from him to Kal. “Um, I need to talk to you.”

“I’m a little busy. It’s going to have to wait.” Kal turned back to Phillip with another nod. He couldn’t get distracted. Not when he’d finally accepted that this was happening.

“Wait,” Karey said, but Phillip already had the door open.

Kal ignored his sister and followed his fathers into the throne room. She pawed at his arm, trying to stop him, but he shook his head. Walking to the front of the dais, he glared at Karey and whispered, “Not right now. We can talk later.”

“Your Majesties, may I present Queen Lilliana of Frahleyen,” a tall man said as he indicated one of the two women in the center of the expansive room.

Shane and Phillip greeted the guests while Kal and Karey caught up to them. Their fathers stepped aside so Kal could join, and he stopped in his tracks. Karey tightened her hold on his arm, hissing, “I was trying to warn you.”

But he couldn’t acknowledge his sister’s words. He couldn’t even process what he was seeing.

“This is Prince Kal.” Phillip guided him forward.

The young queen inclined her head. A lock of her midnight hair fell across her brow, and then her silver eyes met his. His jaw dropped, his chest heaving as he took in her pale green dress. The tiara atop her head.

He shook his head in disbelief.

“Prince Kal, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said in a soft tone. A voice he had longed to hear for months now.

This couldn’t be real. She wasn’t the queen. Flustered and needing air, he turned and fled out the nearest door. He stormed through the halls, his mind reeling, and didn’t stop until his feet hit the bright green grass outside. Until he reached the far end of the gardens, away from prying eyes.

He ran a hand through his hair, gripping it tightly as he began to pace. An overwhelming need for a distraction had him combing through all the details he knew of the queen. All the things he’d told her during their years of exchanging letters.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the footsteps until they were right behind him. He should have known they’d follow.

“Kal?” Karey asked.

But as he turned, it wasn’t his sister he glared at. It was the queen at her side. “Zinnia, how… why are you here?”


Chapter 2

Lilliana

The betrayal was as clear as day in Kal’s blue glare. Pain and confusion laced his words.

And Lilliana didn’t blame him.

“Zinnia—or Lilliana—stars, what’s even your real name?” He started moving closer but stopped.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to decide where to begin. How did one tell their only real friend that they’d lied so monumentally? What excuse could she give for keeping the truth from him all those months they had searched for his missing cousin?

She had run after him, ignoring Marvin’s protests. Her guards followed, of course, as did Karey, but the former kept their distance to give her some semblance of privacy once she reached the gardens. Once she reached Kal.

“My name is Lilliana,” she said, deciding to go with the simplest beginning. “Zinnia was a nickname my father gave me as a child.”

“Why?”

She lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “He always said I reminded him of the colorful zinnia flowers where he grew up in—”

“No.” Kal cut her off, letting out a huff of frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me? All that time together, and you just… Why?”

Beside her, Karey shifted uncomfortably. She’d been there when Lilliana first arrived, shocked at the reveal. Lilliana had quickly explained what she could, but there hadn’t been enough time to tell her everything. “It’s a long story. Can we go somewhere to talk?”

The gardens were fairly private, but there was so much to share. She needed to know no one would overhear, and there were too many places to hide out here. Too many courtiers lingering about, watching from a distance.

Kal shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Kal,” his sister said with a sigh.

Lilliana had witnessed the royal siblings’ numerous spats on the voyage from Tugora to Terrilion a couple months ago. She’d also seen how much they cared for each other. And right now, she could tell just how worried Karey was for her older brother.

“I didn’t tell you because I was scared,” Lilliana started.

“Of what? Me?” Kal crossed his arms. “Sure didn’t seem like it.”

“Because I’ve been taught my entire life not to let people see the real me.” Lilliana walked toward him so she could lower her voice, and Karey went with her. To his credit, Kal didn’t retreat. “My kingdom is on the verge of collapsing, and I was trying to find a way to stop that from happening. I’ve had to pretend to be the sweet, perfect princess since I was a child, but I couldn’t be that person out in the world, not while traipsing through an island full of pirates or sailing the seas with crews I didn’t know or trust. I had to act tough and fierce to keep people away.”

“Well, good news. You’ve perfected acting,” he mumbled.

She released a slow exhale through her nose. She’d known this would be difficult, but she hadn’t expected this much hostility. If anything, she thought he would eventually be happy about it. He’d opened up, sharing how conflicted he was about his feelings for ‘Zinnia’ because of ‘Lilliana’, and he’d kissed her before running off to face the witch. They’d said they would figure things out afterward, but then she’d left.

Because she was terrified to come clean.

“I tried to tell you in Ferrington,” she said in her best impression of calm that she could muster.

Kal didn’t bother to do the same, though she knew that as the crown prince, he’d been taught similar behavior. His face reddened, his fists clenching. “You cannot be serious.”

“I did. Before you and Elin left Ferrington—”

“After weeks of traveling together!” His voice rose. “I talked to you about—about you! How I felt about the queen I’d yet to meet in person. You couldn’t have told me then instead of making me feel guilty?”

Footsteps approached from behind Lilliana, and she glanced over her shoulder to see the king and prince consort. Both wore concerned expressions. She wondered briefly where Marvin was, but she couldn’t worry about her chaperone at the moment.

Karey went to her brother’s side and put a hand on his arm. “Kal, you need to listen to—”

He yanked away from her. “No. I’m done.”

As he stormed past her, Lilliana reached out. “What about that kiss?”

He paused. Without turning, he said, “I kissed a woman who doesn’t exist.”

And then, he marched away from her, past his fathers. They tried to stop him too, but he continued to the castle. King Shane looked back and forth between them before apologizing and going after his son.

Lilliana’s chest tightened. That had not gone as planned. She hadn’t even been able to ask for his help—the main reason she was here. Putting a hand against her stomach, she whispered, “I need to sit down.”

Prince Phillip followed as Karey led her to a nearby stone bench beneath a tall sycamore tree. Its leaves had just started shifting from green to an array of oranges and reds. She took a seat, trying to remember to breathe.

“Someone care to fill me in?” Phillip stood in front of them with his hands on his hips.

“Queen Lilliana is Zinnia,” Karey said from beside her.

His arms dropped, his eyes going round. “Zinnia? As in the woman who—”

“Saved Kal in Tugora and then helped us find Elin, yes.”

Running a hand through his hair, he said, “All right, start from the beginning.”

So, Lilliana did.

“My distant cousin Ravi is claiming to be the rightful heir of Frahleyen through his mother’s side. The royal council of advisors has held most of the power in our kingdom for the last few decades, and since none of them are eager to put a female on the throne—let alone one who is young and unwed—they are inclined to believe him.” She took a deep breath, trying to keep her chin up. “There have been rumors since long before I was born that there was an illegitimate heir at one point, but no one was ever able to prove it. Ravi and his father are claiming they have proof, but I’ve convinced the council to give me a chance to show they’re wrong and to show that I’m capable of ruling. I cannot have my official coronation until after my twenty-first birthday anyway, so they have given me until then. My title as queen is essentially ornamental right now.

“I have this journal that supposedly holds the secrets to our family’s history, but it’s locked and the key was given away. I’ve tried everything to open it, even taking a sword to the leather, and it won’t give.” Lilliana twisted her hands in her lap. She’d left the journal in her luggage, which made her uncomfortable. She preferred carrying it with her, but Marvin had insisted on putting it away for this initial meeting.

It was also strange to finally tell this story without the one person she needed to share it with present.

“I went to Tugora searching for answers after reading about how some of the islands in the south still practice the ancient ways of magic,” she went on. “I think the journal is spelled to keep anyone from opening it.”

“But you were there alone. How?” Karey asked.

It was Phillip who let out a soft chuckle and said, “Let me guess… You snuck out of the castle and paid for passage before the sun was up and people could notice you were gone?”

Her eyes widened.

“How could you possibly know that?” she asked, as he lowered to the ground to take a seat. She’d left a note for her maid to inform people she was fine and went in search of a way to help her kingdom—that she would return in a few weeks’ time. Ravi’s father—her uncle, for lack of better words—was acting as regent for the time being, so she had known things were under control with or without her there. At least, that was what she told herself to ease the guilt. Her uncle Hamish was on the council, and as the oldest male related to the royal family, he easily took the reins until she was of age. Though, if he had his way, he’d never give them back. But he was a harsh ruler. Her people deserved better.

“You should meet their aunt,” Phillip said, bringing her back to the present conversation about sneaking away.

“Elin’s mother,” Karey clarified before looking at her father. “And they did meet briefly.”

Lilliana didn’t know what they were talking about, why the Queen of Rayerna was relevant to this conversation. There was a story there, but Lilliana needed to finish hers first.

“I happened to see Kal fighting some pirates while there. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I couldn’t just let them…” She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. There was no doubt in her mind that they would have killed him if she hadn’t stepped in.

“Thank you,” Phillip said. “We will never be able to repay you enough for saving him.”

Karey put a hand over hers and squeezed.

She didn’t tell them that she would have done it for anyone. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Kal was alive. They both were. “He saved me too. I would’ve either bled out in the streets after that fight or the pirates would’ve come back to finish the job.”

After a moment, Karey continued the story for her. “And then, she told us that the Nihryst card we found left by the witch looked like a northern style of painting, so we headed toward Terrilion.”

Phillip nodded. “I know the rest, I believe. So, Kal is mad that you lied about who you are? That’s it?”

It was more than that, but she didn’t think that was something to share with the man’s father. “Yes.”

Scoffing, Karey said, “No. He kissed her, and according to Elin, it was a very… passionate kiss.”

Lilliana’s cheeks heated. She glanced down, unable to look at either of them as she quickly explained. “We grew close, but he kept pulling away because of, well, me. He said he wasn’t officially betrothed, but he cared about ‘Lilliana’ too much to just throw all that away for someone he just met.” Growing frustrated, she pushed to her feet and paced. “And I didn’t correct him or tell him the truth because I was scared. He was never supposed to see that side of me. In all my letters, I was the demure princess everyone expected me to be. That’s the girl he cared for, but the woman he met…”

“Your Majesty,” Phillip started as he too stood, “Kal may have cared for the ‘demure princess’, as you said, but the woman he met on that ship was able to steal his heart in a matter of weeks.”

He put a comforting hand on her shoulder that nearly made her tear up. Luna save her. She missed her own father so much. As if sensing her grief, Phillip hesitantly stepped closer, his other arm open in an offering she couldn’t resist. In any other circumstance, she wouldn’t hug anyone she just met, but after years of corresponding with Kal, she knew this family almost as well as her own. She wrapped her arms around him, and he immediately returned the embrace. As she rested her head against his chest, he ran a soothing hand up and down her back. It was safe to assume they all knew of her parents’ untimely deaths this past winter. After all, that was why she was stepping up, fighting to keep the throne and help her suffering people.

That was why she was here, prepared to beg them for help.

“Everything will be all right,” Phillip said in a gentle tone, reminding her so much of Kal.

Lilliana sniffed and whispered, “No, it won’t. I need him, and he hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Karey said.

Phillip agreed with his daughter, saying, “If he hated you, he wouldn’t be this upset. He’s hurting right now because he cares. I know my son; he won’t say no if you ask him for help.”

“He wouldn’t say no to anything she asked,” Karey muttered.

“Rey,” Phillip said, using the nickname Karey had chosen as a child when they realized her name sounded so much like his sister Carys’s.

Lilliana pulled away and saw faint traces of amusement in his eyes as he glared at the princess who was only a year older than herself. Karey simply shrugged. Wiping at the dampness on her cheeks, Lilliana thanked them both. She didn’t have any siblings, and with her parents gone now, she was often utterly alone. Marvin was the closest thing she had to a father. The only other family she had was Ravi and his parents.

His mother hated her.

His father tolerated her and played nice while acting as regent.

And Ravi was trying to take her crown.

That was why she couldn’t postpone this meeting with the Crown Prince of Detmarya any longer. The council had given her and Ravi until the end of the harvest festival to put together an argument and prove who was the rightful heir to the throne. If it came down to it though, she knew they would choose Ravi simply because he was a man. Her kingdom still believed women to be inferior. And as much as she hated it, to prove them wrong, she needed an opportunity to show them she could take responsibility and do what was best for the kingdom.

Even if that meant marrying a man who despised her to form a powerful alliance.


Chapter 3

Kal

“Just hear her out,” Rey said as they walked through the residence wing. The hall held a warm glow from the wall sconces lit every few feet. It was quiet at this time of the evening, with most of the castle staff done for the day or downstairs.

Kal glared at his sister, but before he could respond, Shane said, “She’s right.”

“I don’t want to hear her out. She lied to me. The whole time, she…” He crossed his arms as they neared the main staircase. They were the only three in the hall at the moment. Phillip had to take care of something in the village and would meet them in the dining room.

Kal remembered guards roaming the castle when he and Karey first arrived in Detmarya nearly eighteen years ago. The chaos of preparing for war. Watching Shane and Phillip leave to fight across the sea had been one of the scariest days of his life, especially when mere weeks earlier, he and his sister had been the sole survivors after their village burned on one of the southern islands. Since then, Kal had feared losing anyone else he loved, which was part of what had him on edge with Zinnia—Lilliana.

“Kal, wait.” Shane grabbed his arm when they reached the ground floor. “Rey, go on without us. We’ll be there in a minute.”

She nodded and left. Kal watched her walk through the marble corridor toward the dinner he wanted to avoid.

“Where did you go just now?” Shane leaned against the banister.

Looking down at his feet, the prince shrugged. “Just… thinking about the past. About those first few weeks here.”

His father let out a soft, breathy chuckle. “You wouldn’t leave my side. For months, not weeks. You once fell asleep on my lap in the middle of a meeting. More than one advisor insisted I have someone come get you—they never understood why I let you stay in those meetings to begin with—but I refused. That you felt safe enough to sleep there, surrounded by people you barely knew, meant so much.”

“Because I was with you. That’s why I felt safe.”

“Exactly.” He stepped forward and tilted Kal’s chin up. “It’s always been you and me. Which means I know there’s something else going on. Talk to me.”

Kal swallowed, clenching his jaw for one heartbeat, then another. Throughout his life, he’d been teased—mostly by his sister and cousins—for being too emotional. Outside of his family, he kept it all in check, making sure his people didn’t see that side of him. But here, he could let it out. Stepping forward, he hugged his father. Shane didn’t hesitate to return the embrace.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kal whispered. “I practically told Zinnia I couldn’t be with her because of Lilliana, but then I kissed her and told her we’d figure it out. I just… I feel like such a fool.” He hadn’t wanted to ruin anything with Lilliana because of that same fear of losing her. She had become his closest friend—outside of his family, that was. The thought of destroying that friendship had made him push Zinnia away in the beginning.

But despite his best efforts, he’d quickly grown to care for Zinnia. And then, she was gone… just like the others.

Shane waited a moment before pushing him back, keeping one hand on each of Kal’s shoulders as he met his gaze. “You’re not a fool. And you have every right to be upset she didn’t tell you the truth.”

Two guards walked by, followed by Phillip, who raised a brow as he neared. “Everything all right?”

“Yes,” Shane said. “We just needed a second before facing the others.”

Phillip inclined his head in understanding. “You know, I heard her side of things this morning. What she did wasn’t great, but I think you should at least listen to what she has to say.”

With a smile, Shane stepped forward to kiss the man’s cheek. “Exactly what I was about to tell him.” Turning back to Kal, he asked, “Ready?”

“No,” he mumbled but trailed after them as they headed toward the dining room.

They were using the smaller one, usually reserved for family and a few guests, since it would just be Lilliana and her chaperone, Marvin, joining them. Both were already sitting with Karey and, to his surprise, Carys.

“Carys, I didn’t know you were coming,” Phillip said, crossing the room to hug his much younger sister.

She grinned at him. “I heard Kal’s queen was finally here and couldn’t resist.”

Kal’s steps faltered. He glared at his aunt when she looked his way, subtly shaking his head and taking his seat between her and Phillip. The woman was only two years older than him, but she liked to pretend otherwise. Shane sat at the head of the table, with Phillip on his right and Lilliana on his left. She’d twisted her midnight hair up into elegant braids and had changed into a dark red dress.

When Karey’s foot met his shin beneath the table, he gasped and shot her a scowl.

Stop staring, she mouthed.

He reached for his goblet of wine to hide his wince. She was right; he had been staring at the queen. He couldn’t help it. Despite his anger, she still sent his pulse racing. She was breathtaking.

“Yes,” Lilliana said to Carys, “it’s wonderful to finally be here, meeting Prince Kal in person. After so many letters over the years, it’s incredible.”

Kal’s brow scrunched, and she casually glanced toward her chaperone sitting on Karey’s other side. That was when he realized what was going on. The older man must not have known the truth. He had no idea they’d already met.

Unable to resist, Kal said, “Yes, it’s quite remarkable putting a face to your words. I have to admit, you’re not at all what I expected.”

The silence in the room was insufferable. He smirked and bit into a roll.

“He means that in a good way, of course,” Rey said.

Kal nodded. “Of course.”

“And what did you expect, Your Highness?” Lilliana narrowed her eyes at him, that same ferocity he’d faced on the ship returning to her gaze. There was the woman he’d argued with for weeks.

“Well, you’re shorter than I thought you’d be.” He shrugged one shoulder.

Her own seemed to relax a fraction, some of the tension visibly leaving her. After taking a bite of her potatoes, she said, “Yes, and you’re much more…”

“Handsome?” he supplied when she trailed off, wanting to irritate her.

“Imperious.”

Shane choked at the end of the table, and Phillip reached over to pat his back. Carys chuckled and said, “I like her.”

That was the problem, so did Kal. The corner of Lilliana’s mouth tugged into a smirk as she held his gaze. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from doing the same. This couldn’t happen. They couldn’t just pretend like those weeks together didn’t happen—that she hadn’t lied to him. Looking back down at his food, he moved some of it around before taking a bite of roast. He wasn’t hungry in the slightest, but he wouldn’t let anyone see that her words affected him.

That her very presence affected him.

“Your Highness,” Marvin shook his head at the young queen, “I apologize for the queen’s… bluntness. It was a very long journey, and we’re all tired. We truly are grateful for your hospitality.”

“Mhmm.” Lilliana set her wine down with a nod. “Yes, I especially appreciate the way you ran out of our first meeting.”

“Your Majesty,” Marvin hissed, sounding like a scolding parent, and Kal knew from her letters how true that was. The man had served as an advisor to her father all her life and was practically family.

“Ah yes, our first meeting.” Kal crossed his arms, not bothering to pretend to eat anymore.

Karey cut in before he could say more. “Why don’t we move on to discuss why you’re here, Your Majesty? There was something you needed to discuss with my brother, correct?”

At that, Lilliana straightened with a nod. “Yes, quite right. I apologize. But first, can we drop the formalities please? After so many years of writing back and forth, I feel like I know you all so well. I’d rather you just use my name.”

“Which one?” Kal muttered under his breath.

His sister kicked him again. Hard. He glared at her, kicking her back, and she cursed.

“Kal, Rey, enough,” Phillip said. “Stars above, you’re behaving like children tonight.”

“I wish to discuss a marriage alliance,” Lilliana all but blurted. Marvin looked as exhausted as Kal’s own parents when he sighed and shook his head again.

Kal could only stare at the woman. Did she honestly think that would still be an option? That he would consider the idea?

“I need your help.”

Marvin rubbed at his temple. “Your Majesty, I thought we agreed not to rush right into this. You agreed not to—”

“We don’t have time,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t be laying all my cards out on the table—it puts me in an incredibly vulnerable position—but I’m out of ideas and people to trust.”

Kal’s resolve cracked the slightest bit. He remembered what she’d told him in Ferrington about the queen being overwhelmed and their kingdom falling apart. Then, he remembered what else she had said about a cousin claiming to be the rightful heir to her family’s property—back when she was trying to hide her identity. Was someone actually trying to claim the throne? With a sigh, he said, “Yes, I… I’ve heard rumors about Frahleyen’s recent struggles.”

“They’re not that recent. They’ve just been hidden for too long.” Gratitude filled her silvery eyes as she met his gaze.

“I’ve also heard there have been some problems with a cousin. Is that true?”

She nodded. “My distant cousin, Lord Ravi, is claiming to be the true heir, and the royal council is considering him as a… replacement for me. They do not want a young, unmarried female on the throne.”

“But it’s fine for a young, unmarried male?” Carys scoffed. “I’ve heard of Lord Ravi in court; he’s only a few years older than me.”

Lilliana pointed at her. “Exactly. But to even have a chance at proving myself, I need to play their games. As ridiculously antiquated as their beliefs are, if I must, I will stoop to their level to fight for my crown and my people.”

“Hear, hear.” Rey lifted her glass before taking a sip.

“You want to marry me so that they’ll listen to you?” Kal’s stomach twisted.

“No.” The queen shook her head, one loose curl swaying with the movement. “I want to sign a betrothal agreement, showing the council that I will marry a powerful ally for the kingdom. We’ll hold off the marriage as long as possible. I just need the agreement… and for you to come visit Frahleyen.”

“Hold it off as long as possible? Zi-Lilliana, can’t you hear how absurd this is?”

“Yes,” Lilliana whispered. “But I don’t know what else to do. Kal, my people are suffering. There are so many starving and homeless, and now people are disappearing.”

“Disappearing?” He sat up straighter in his chair. “What do you mean?”

She glanced at those around the table, as if debating on whether to continue sharing. “People suspected of… magic are going missing. A simple accusation is all it takes, it seems. I think it’s been going on longer than anyone realizes, but it’s becoming such a regular occurrence that no one can believe it’s just a coincidence. More and more are being reported as missing, and recently, a few have been found in the forest outside of Nottiram.”

Kal knew where this was going without her needing to spell it out. He clenched his jaw, remembering the fear of when Elin was taken. Her faint healing magic had been the reason behind her kidnapping as well.

“Were any left alive?” Shane asked in a hushed tone.

Lilliana shook her head. “No.”

Karey cursed under her breath, lifting a hand to Lilliana’s shoulder in comfort.

“I know magic is against the law, but these people at least deserved a trial. Though, I think it’s absurd that we are still living by these rules set hundreds of years ago.” Lilliana raised her chin higher. “Regardless, someone is taking the law into their own hands, and it is my responsibility to stop it. But I need to secure my throne before I can do anything.”

Taking a deep breath, Kal relented. “I need to think about it.”

“We don’t have much time,” Marvin added, dabbing at his brow with a fine linen napkin. “We’re only staying a day or two.”

“We need an answer as soon as possible,” Lilliana said.

Kal pushed to his feet. “I said I’ll think about it.”

He stormed from the room, aware that he was once again running from the woman he’d fallen for over the past few years. Fallen for twice, actually. When heels clicked behind him at a quick pace, he whirled to tell his sister to give him space, but instead, he came face to face with Lilliana.

She bumped into him as he turned toward her, and he reached out to steady her before she could fall. Her emerald encrusted tiara tilted in the jostle. Kal righted it, not thinking through the act until it was too late. His fingers had already brushed her silky hair.

“Kal, I need your help,” she said. “I really don’t know what else to do.”

“I know.” As the heir to his own kingdom, he understood these decisions. At least, to some extent. He wouldn’t fully know the weight of the crown until it was passed on to him. Hers had been passed on much too soon, and he could only imagine the pain and stress all of that had caused.

“It’s more than just people suffering and disappearing. These people are being tortured and killed. The bodies found were… mangled and left to rot.” She visibly swallowed.

His stomach twisted. They’d discussed those laws back in Ferrington, but he hadn’t known how bad it was in her home kingdom. That was why she had seemed to feel so strongly on the subject.

“I can’t put an end to this, I can’t help them, until I have my crown. Even then, it’s going to be an uphill battle against the council. They hold far too much power, and most of the members are greedy noblemen who don’t care about this.” When he didn’t respond, she whispered, “You promised you’d help me. With my family journal, remember? You said when everything was over, you’d help me figure it all out. Please, Kal.”

He shook his head, utterly defeated and unable to face her any longer. All of this was too overwhelming. A dull pounding had started near his temples. He knew he had to give her an answer by tomorrow, but right now, he just wanted to collapse in his bed and close his eyes.

“If you’d just told me the truth, Lilliana…” With a sigh, he turned and began walking away again. For months, guilt had consumed him for falling for a stranger when he had intended to marry someone else. It had eaten away at him. In his mind, he had betrayed her. “I’d have done anything for you.”


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