Enjoy Reading SciFy? Check Out the New Release Blitz for Destructive Forces (The Galactic Captains #4) by Harry F. Rey (excerpt and giveaway)

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Title: Destructive Forces

Series: The Galactic Captains, Book Four

Author: Harry F. Rey

Publisher: NineStar Press

Release Date: April 22, 2019

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: No Romance

Length: 70400

Genre: Science Fiction, LGBT, sci-fi, futuristic, war, space, war of worlds, gay, lesbian, military, royalty

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Synopsis

In the far reaches of the Kyleri Empire, young Captain Mahnoor travels around the system to escape the cultural pressures to marry. But his infatuation with a handsome imperial pilot leads him into a galactic war.

On Jiwani, Viscamon is attempting to consolidate his power, by blaming the Ingvar for the royal massacre and calling armies from across the Empire to track down the missing prince, and achieve his dream of destroying the Galactic Balance. However, Antari knows the truth about Osvai and must find the courage to stand up to the prince’s enemies, and his own, no matter the risk.

Meanwhile on Aldegar, Daeron is being held prisoner by the few remaining Ingvar forces and must find a way to break free to rescue his mother and the crew of the Daring Huntress once again, as well as the missing Prince Osvai, before the Kyleri come to take back what’s theirs.

Sallah, no longer the last Tevian, returns to Aldegar with no choice but to enlist the help of the man she hates and the woman she once loved to see her son again.

As the Galactic Balance tips ever more towards chaos, time is running out to save Ales from the destructive forces he has unleashed.

Excerpt

Destructive Forces
Harry F. Rey © 2019
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One
“Don’t let him get away!” Sallah screamed at the top of her lungs through the chaos of the fiery corridor. Two Ingvar soldiers had her by either arm. They’d dragged her out of the Trades Council plenum-turned-battle zone against her will. Her life was of paramount value to the Ingvar star-state, but she couldn’t care less about that now. Not while this Turo was getting away.

His words, spoken only minutes ago, haunted her mind. I have your son, he’d said, with a swirling sneer. Then everything exploded. Sallah had lost sight of General Morvas and Councilor Nexia in the shooting. Ingvar soldiers had also jumped on them, but the smoke and noise of weapons fire made trying to get back to the ship impossible. Yet it was the last thing Sallah wanted to do—the insurrection in the heart of the Trades Council be damned.

“Get off me.” She struggled against their armor-plated bodies, but they did not relent. Sallah’s feet kept slipping against the smooth marble floor; she couldn’t find a grip. Yelling and the ricochet of weapons banged around the air from every direction, stinging smoke encroaching on their position. Sallah yanked her head around to a din of shots being fired, and the two soldiers pulled her back from the brink of the great hallway where volleys of laser shot fired backward and forward into unknown, unseen sets of troops.

“Get back.” One of the soldiers said and knocked her head back against the wall, trying to avoid edging around the corner into the wide trench of ongoing warfare the great hallway had become. Sallah remembered the way. They had to get across to the other side, through the firing range.

A far-off explosion shook the walls of the building, seeming to strike at the core of the planet itself. The firing ceased, but silence did not return. Instead, the screeching sounds of warplanes entering the Targulian atmosphere filled the once-gilded walkway. Down beyond their position, toward the end of the great hallway, Sallah saw figures moving through the smoke. The shapes could be Turo, or even Ales. The only thing clear was her need to get to them.

Her Ingvar captors looked distracted, scanning the now eerily silent hallway through black visor helmets. One had his hand pointed backward in a halfhearted attempt to keep her still. She edged away from the wall, then glanced into the great hallway. It had the air of some ancient temple; high ceilings reaching up to a glass-domed roof to the hazy orange Targulian air. The heart of the Outer Verge, now consumed in inter-factional war, the Union against the Trades Council, while a foreign power circled the planet like some great mountain vulture. And here she was, the former last Tevian alive. She couldn’t let her life end this way. Not while her son might be right around the corner—hurt, or in danger. Sallah gritted her teeth and launched herself against one of the soldiers. With a swift kick, she booted him in the side, and he tumbled away from her into the space of no man’s land, his footing lost to the smooth-edged floor.

“What are you doing?” the other one cried out through his visor. But it was too late. A volley of weapons fire began again from both sides, riddling the Ingvar soldier’s body from the left and right. Puffs of vaporized blood and brain floated into the air as his lifeless body collapsed in a haze of reddish death.

The living soldier floated in front of her, as if suspended in time, now unsure if she was friend or foe. She wanted to leap toward him, grab the sidearm from his belt, flip, and blast him in the back. The sinews of her body, the echoes of Sallah’s yearning for her son she’d thought lost along with the rest of her home-world, ached for the ability to push him aside and sprint to her destiny. Yet something exploded against her back. It felt as if the walls themselves had collapsed onto her as the polished marble rushed up to meet her face. But she stopped. There was no impact. Something, no, someone grabbed her, saved her from being smashed to the ground.

“I have her,” a metallic voice said through the helmet. Sallah caught the edge of her reflection in the onyx visor. The whites of her eyes enraged and bloodshot against skin the color of a dark and stormy night.

“Let’s go,” said another.

The sound of many more boots smacking against the ground joined with the fire of weapons. Someone held her back, as a stream of Ingvar soldiers rushed from behind, firing their weapons to either side of the great hallway, building a wall of cover fire to cross to the other side. A black-gloved arm pulled her back by the chest, and she struggled to no avail.

“This way, general,” a voice said behind her. “Increase fire, don’t hold back,” it yelled to the soldiers holding the line the breadth of the hallway to the narrower corridor across the other side. General Morvas staggered past, helped by two soldiers. His soft, gray hair and distinguished features were dripping in blood from an open wound across his skull, his robes torn and wrapped around an arm as a makeshift bandage. The volley of fire from the soldiers turned into a crescendo of noise and smoke. Most likely no one was firing back from either side, but they kept the rate up as the half-crouched general crossed the hallway like a child being rescued from a fire.

Councilor Nexia came along next, her frail elderly body slung over the back of a soldier as if she were won as a prize of war.

“Sallah,” the Trades Council leader cried out. “Come with us, now. The Union are starting a war.”

Sallah pushed against her captor’s arm with all her power. “No! I must find Turo. I must—”

“We have him. He’s on the ship.” Nexia said. The soldier carrying her didn’t stop running. “Get her back to the fleet,” Nexia yelled over the rage of battle toward Sallah’s captor. She was a prize they couldn’t lose.

Powerful armored hands grabbed her from behind, squeezing her sides so hard she felt the pain through the adrenaline rush. There was no way to break free. Turo, Ales—she had to find them. Sallah struggled against her captor, legs flying back in a wild storm of trying to find any weak point in the armor and land a kick to skin.

“Let me go.”

He’d had enough. He didn’t think twice. Like Nexia in front of her, the soldier hoisted her body across his shoulder and ran after the others, darting through the protective enclosure. It was terrifying. The world had turned upside down. All she could see was the smoke from the far end of the great hallway rising up to the glass convex ceiling, here and there blocking out the hazy orange above. Yet through the glass, she saw the flashes of war and the trails of missiles and strike ships painting their destructive pattern. The Ingvar invasion had begun.

The bouncing became rhythmic, and she lost all sense of thinking beyond the next few minutes. Get to the ship, get to Turo. She’d beat that man to a pulp to find out where her son was. She’d swear to the Ingvar to never conduct another experiment again if they did not help her track down Ales. She’d gouge the secrets of galinium and STAR drives from her brain and cast them into the black void of nothingness unless the entirety of the fleet of the Ingvar Empire cast every ion toward finding her son. She’d rip apart the Outer Verge to find…

“Hurl her inside. That’s it.”

Sallah was flung upward, then caught by firm hands and dragged into the confines of a compact shuttle. Nexia and Morvas were stretched out alongside her, being tended to by soldiers with their visors up. The women and men in Ingvar uniform and their faces consumed in the rapid swirl of action. They had no time to think, only do.

“That’s all; time to go,” a voice said. She turned her head to the left through a sharp edge of pain to the two pilots in the narrow cockpit. One was gesturing to get the soldiers out of the shuttle.

“Wait,” Sallah screamed. “I need my son. I need Turo.” She pulled herself to her feet, ready to boot everyone else out of the shuttle and fly around the city-world herself to find him.

“No time,” the pilot yelled back, looking ready to meet her fists. “I’m taking you back to the fleet now. Strap in.”

Out of options, Sallah briefly contemplated jumping on one of the soldiers currently assisting the bruised-looking Nexia and Morvas into their shuttle seats against the narrow walls. Something caught her eye at the back of the shuttle, a soldier she now realized had been standing over someone. He moved out of the way, ready to exit the ship, and then she saw him, strapped in against his will and hands frozen in electromagnetic cuffs.

“You piece of flank,” Sallah yelled at Turo in the crowded confines of the ship. The rest of the soldiers ducked outside to the increasingly loud sounds of weapons fire.

“Strap in!” The pilot yelled from behind her as the shuttle door snapped closed.

“I’ll fucking kill you right now unless you tell me where my son is.” Turo’s green eyes looked up at her, his face smoky and bloodied from the fight, but his eyes alive, and a thin, narrow smile across his lips. The look of a man who, even in defeat, would prefer to watch everything he’d worked for go up in noxious flames than surrender. She launched her fist straight down into his stomach, the straps holding him back keeping him from bending over in reaction to the blow as the ship rumbled into action.

He spat out a gob of phlegm and blood onto the polished floor and returned only a smile. She cocked another fist.

“Sallah, stop,” Morvas called from behind, as the ship jerked up from the ground. She grabbed a metal bar above her head as the shuttle rumbled into the hazy sky. The sight through the windows dissolved her anger into terrified wonder. Targuline had descended into full-on war. Fighters dipped and dived behind the great trunks of Shards; missiles from space streaked across the orange sky as billows of black smoke infected the world.

Sallah turned her attention back to Turo. She held on above as the shuttle bounced around the atmosphere, worried it would drop from the sky at any moment—or perhaps be torn in two from heavy weapons fire. Neither was acceptable. She slammed her free hand into Turo’s throat, squeezing the sinews hard.

“Where is my son?”

Spluttered nothings fell from his mouth. Clearly, he hadn’t expected to be choked. As he raised a cuffed arm, where his wrist-tech sat, she released him from her deathly grip.

“I have him,” he coughed. “Tracked, here.”

Sallah twisted the arm with the wrist-tech, causing him to writhe in pain. Arms were not designed to twist in such a way, but she took comfort in his obvious agony.

“Find him.” Her eyes flashed with the power of a supernova. One primed for explosion

“Locate Ales,” he said into the device. The screen built a rudimentary map of the area with a clear green dot showing him less than fifty kilometers away. “Look, he’s still close by.” Sallah tried to make sense of the map, but the shaking shuttle and the moving blocks of images on the wrist-tech made it almost impossible to follow. She kept her eye solely on the distance counter, which steadily ticked upward as the shuttle flew up into the atmosphere toward the void of space.

“He’s on a ship, look.” Turo twisted his wrist-tech farther around, with an edge of humanity in his voice, which took her by surprise. The view of the outside moved around Morvas and Nexia from the hazy, orange battle-scarred sky to the cool blackness of space. Shards poked through the stratosphere, but the normally bustling routes in and out of the planet and its space stations were frozen by the invasion.

She stared past Nexia at the Ingvar fleet assembled in battle formation. She’d flown with them from Aldegar in the odd position she held as both a prisoner and most-valued individual, across their emerging empire. She knew this was every ship the Ingvar had. Battle Cruisers and troop transports, command vessels and fighter carriers; an entire fleet constructed from the scraps of the Crejan occupation force the young star-state liberated themselves from.

They had gambled their empire on this force, throwing everything they had against the Outer Verge, the only power in the galaxy weaker than themselves, in order to seize the STAR drive and power into the unknown universe beyond. Now, with their fifty-ship fleet amassed around the Targulian atmosphere and the Verge descending into civil war, they needed to get their hands on the raw galinium mined in the far edge of the Outer Verge.

Sallah reminded herself she didn’t care for whom she provided the prototypes of the STAR drives or which empire seized on her research. The Union, the Seven Suns, the Ingvar—she cared not for any of them. She had cared only for herself and the chance it may give her to rebuild the world she had lost. Sallah’s hands clasped her stomach as if it was about to explode.

“What’s that?” Nexia called out behind her, pointing to the window and the Ingvar fleet beyond. A single ship with a strange greenish glow around it was racing up from the orange haze toward the mass of ships. Sallah had only ever considered that glow in the theory of her work. It can’t be.

“It’s Ales,” Turo said, shifting his wrist-tech toward her line of sight stuck on the window, staring at the fleet the shuttle jiggered toward. Her throat flicked closed, a lifetime’s worth of tears held back by nothing but a single hope that soon she may be reunited with the son she’d thought lost.

“Tell them to bring him in,” she screamed at the pilot. He looked back with a gasp of worry. Morvas quickly nodded his approval.

“Fleet command, there’s an unidentified small vessel headed right to you from the planet. It’s friendly. Repeat, friendly. High-value cargo,” the pilot said into the comms.

Sallah left Turo in his strapped-down position and pressed her face against the clear window. His ship was getting closer to the fleet, like a single drop edging ever closer to a waiting beast. But the greenish glow around him grew ever bolder. She pressed her hand against the glass as Morvas, and then Nexia, unclipped from their seats and joined her.

“What is it?” Morvas demanded. “Is that a weapon? Is this an attack?”

She couldn’t even whisper a No. Sallah felt as if her mind had been severed from her body. It may as well float in the empty void of nothing. Her mind, her soul, unable to comprehend the things she was seeing. Who had built such a thing? Everything had been theoretical, only experiments. How could her research, her life’s work, sever her son from her once again?

The glow became stronger and ever brighter as the STAR drive ignited its galinium core. The space around his ship warped and swirled in a cloud of green as the horizon point broke free from the ship’s engine, the greenish bubble growing wide enough to encompass the entire Ingvar fleet.

“No. It’s too much. It’s too powerful.” The beat of her heart burst into her skull as the horizon point from Ales’ ship reached its zenith.

“What?” Morvas demanded. “What is? Tell me now.”

The flash forced Nexia and Morvas to turn away. But Sallah did not. Her eyes burned and ached for the briefest moment, but then the darkness returned. The black, blank darkness of space above the hazy orange orb. Now empty except for a long, glowing white streak of nothing where Ales and the entire Ingvar fleet had just been. Whoever had created that STAR drive had grossly miscalculated the proportions of weaponized galinium required.

“Sallah, he’s gone,” Turo said in quiet shock, a note of fear in his voice Sallah would never have thought a man such as he would have.

“Where’s my fleet?” Morvas shrieked. “For infinity’s sake, where is my fleet?”

Sallah said nothing. Her eyes focused on her own reflection as she watched a single tear drip down her cheek. It was too painful to look at the empty space where her son and all the ships of the Ingvar empire had been, now lost in some unknown galaxy.

Purchase

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Meet the Author

Harry F. Rey is an author and lover of gay themed stories with a powerful punch with influences ranging from Alan Hollinghurst to Isaac Asimov to George R.R. Martin. He loves all things sci-fi and supernatural, and always with a gay twist. Harry is originally from the UK but lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his husband.

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Love High Fantasy? Check Out the New Release Blitz for Royal Rescue by A. Alex Logan (excerpt and giveaway)

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Title: Royal Rescue

Author: A. Alex Logan

Publisher: NineStar Press

Release Date: April 8, 2019

Heat Level: 1 – No Sex

Pairing: No Romance, Male/Male

Length: 111500

Genre: New Adult Fantasy, LGBT, asexual, high fantasy, dragons, royalty, magic, young adult, gay, family drama, hurt/comfort

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Synopsis

At age eighteen, when they become marriageable, all royal children in the Thousand Kingdoms must either go questing to rescue another royal or be hidden away to await rescue themselves. Some go the traditional route of princes rescuing princesses, but not all princes want to be rescuers…and some would rather rescue other princes.

Then there’s Prince Gerald, who has no interest in getting married at all. When he refuses to choose a role as either rescuer or rescuee, his royal parents choose for him and have him magicked away to a distant tower to await a spouse.

Gerald, however, is having none of it. He recruits his guardian dragon and a would-be rescuer and soon the trio is dashing to all corners of the united kingdoms on a quest to overturn the entire system.

Excerpt

Gerald followed the steward to the study wearing an expression that would have been more appropriate if he were being led to the dungeon. The steward rapped on the door twice before opening it and stepping aside for Gerald. She gave the young man an encouraging wink, but he was too intent on bracing himself for the upcoming confrontation to notice.

He took a deep breath, visibly set his shoulders and stepped through the doorway. The steward closed the door behind him, and Gerald fought back the feeling of being trapped.

“Don’t lurk in the doorway,” an imposing voice scolded. “Come in where I can see you.”

Gerald did as he was told, stopping and giving a shallow bow when the woman came into view. She nodded, acknowledging the courtesy, which caused the sunlight streaming in through the window to catch and reflect off her golden crown.

Gerald resisted the urge to reach up and touch his own circlet—silver—which he too late realized was probably once again askew.

“Well?” the Queen asked. “Have you made your decision?”

Another deep breath, another forceful straightening of his shoulders, and Gerald said, a hint of defiance in his tone, “I have.”

The Queen’s harsh expression broke into a smile. “Oh, Gerald, thank goodness. Your mum and I were about at our wits’ end! There’s barely enough time left to make all the arrangements. So, what will it be? Rescuer or rescuee?”

“Neither.”

The smile melted off the Queen’s face. “Neither! Don’t be ridiculous, Gerald. You said you had made your decision.”

“I have,” he said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I’ve decided not to participate.”

“That is not an option,” she said coldly, the warmth in her voice gone the same way as the smile. “As you are well aware.”

“I don’t wish to marry,” Gerald replied, trying to match her tone but not quite managing it. “As you are well aware.”

The Queen waved her hand dismissively. “This is merely the first step. It may take a year or even two for you to rescue—or be rescued by—someone who appeals. Then there’s the courtship, the inter-kingdom negotiations, planning the festivities…why, unless it’s True Love and you two want to rush things, I doubt the wedding will happen before you turn twenty-one.”

“I didn’t say ‘I don’t wish to marry in the next three years’,” Gerald said, forcing himself to keep his voice level even as he balled his hands into fists. “I said, ‘I don’t wish to marry.’ As in, ever.”

But the Queen was no longer listening.

“I really don’t know where we went wrong with you,” she said. “We never had this sort of problem with your older siblings or even your twinling…”

“Don’t call her that,” Gerald snapped. “You know how much I hate that—we’re not twins, we’re not even sort-of twins. We’re half-siblings at best and maybe not even related at all.”

The Queen looked up at the ceiling as if imploring it to give her strength. “Now you’re being deliberately obtuse,” she snapped back. “You know very well that the term ‘twinling’ has been in use for at least a century throughout every single one of the Thousand Kingdoms, and it’s a perfectly apt word. You’re acting like your mum and I made it up to irritate you. You’re acting like a child, Gerald.”

“Isn’t the point of all this that I am a child?” he responded. “Isn’t the entire purpose of this whole charade of rescue and marriage to make me into an adult?”

“It’s hardly a charade. It’s—”

“—a well-respected, long-established tradition to encourage young royals to broaden their horizons, explore more of the Thousand Kingdoms, find love, and forge stronger connections among the Kingdoms, yes, yes, I know,” Gerald interrupted. “I still say it’s a charade. It’s perfectly possible to accomplish all of those goals without forcing every royal into a ridiculous marriage quest the moment they turn eighteen.”

“You seem to be forgetting something very important here, Gerald,” the Queen said calmly.

“What’s that?”

“This isn’t optional.”

“You can’t force me to choose,” Gerald said. “Why can’t you leave me be and let Lila broaden her horizons, explore the Kingdoms, forge alliances, and all that rot? She wants to.”

“You have ten days,” the Queen continued, as if Gerald hadn’t spoken. She turned away without even bothering to dismiss him.

Purchase

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Meet the Author

Alex Logan is an asexual, agender librarian from New York state. Always an avid reader, Alex has branched out from reading books to writing them. Alex’s other main interest is soccer, which they enjoy watching, playing, and (of course) reading about.

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New Release Book Blitz for Ibuki by Kathryn Sommerlot (excerpt and giveaway)

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Title:  Ibuki

Author: Kathryn Sommerlot

Publisher:  NineStar Press

Release Date: January 29, 2018

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: Female/Female

Length: 26000

Genre: Fantasy, LGBT, lesbian, fantasy, cleric/priestess, magic users, abduction, royalty

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Synopsis

Ibuki: the gift of healing through breath. Chiasa has possessed the ability since childhood and shares it with her father as they care for their Inuru community. Chiasa has never doubted the stability of her simple life. That is, until Namika, a water-gifted priestess, shows up outside the Ibuki shrine gates with information promising Chiasa’s doom.

With Namika’s help, Chiasa is determined to find the secrets behind the ritual that will claim her life, but her growing feelings toward the other woman reach beyond her control, adding to the confusion. Time is rapidly running out, and Chiasa can’t seem to sort out the lies woven through the magic of Inuru and its emperor.

Caught in a tangled web of immortality, betrayal, and desire, Chiasa must find the right people to trust if she hopes to stop the ritual—or she will pay the consequences.

Excerpt

Ibuki
Kathryn Sommerlot © 2018
All Rights Reserved

When Chiasa first saw the young woman standing outside the shrine, her throat seized in fear around a single thought: the emperor is dead. A moment later, she realized the woman appeared far more nervous than grief-stricken, and she relaxed, only to wonder why a seseragi priestess would be on her doorstep before the sun had fully risen.

The woman was unmistakably one of the water-chosen. Her hands were fidgeting and pressing tiny creases into the telltale blue of her silk robe, its pale folds hanging uneven above her shell-lined sandals, and above the short collar, a silver clip in the shape of an ocean wave held her hair in two overlapping plaits. She glanced down either side of the empty road, shoulders bowed, before starting up the stairs.

Chiasa hung back to observe.

It took the woman a minute or so to climb the steps that led to the small fountain, and with the shrine deserted, her footsteps echoed through the grounds. Her hair seemed to have been hastily done as an afterthought—long strands had come free and hung down her back like splatters of black ink across parchment.

She did manage a jerky half bow when she reached the slotted board holding the wooden ladle, though most of the water she then tried to pour over her hands ended up splashing onto the front of the blue silk, a testament to the shaking in her arms. Chiasa let her continue without interruption until she reached the top of the stairs and clapped her hands together before the silver bell. Any farther, and the seseragi priestess would make her way inside the sanctuary, to where the ibuki power-stone was held, and the thought was unsettling enough to push Chiasa forward.

“If I can help you with something,” Chiasa began, slipping out from her hiding spot between the side of the sanctuary and the hall of worship where she spent many hours praying in solitude.

The young woman started, nearly tripping on the hem of her robe. One hand went to her mouth as she stared far longer than was comfortable, and then she bowed again, the force of the action throwing the loose tendrils of hair over her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t send word, and…well, I know it’s strange for me to be here, but I must speak with an ibuki priest, please.”

Chiasa took a step back, one corner of the hall’s intersecting wall panels jabbing between her shoulders.

“My father is the head priest, but he’s not here. He’s out with the herbalist to tend the sick. If you wish, I can leave him a message for when he returns—”

“It’s urgent,” the other woman whispered. “Please.”

At a loss, Chiasa looked around the shrine grounds she knew by heart. There was no one else to summon. Her father wouldn’t be back until much later, perhaps even after midnight, and old Isao was seldom of much use anymore, relegated to menial groundskeeping tasks and selling talismans. As the morning breeze broke through the tree line and nipped at the exposed skin of her cheek, she felt acutely alone.

Chiasa tried to imagine what her father might do were he present as the young woman, still bent in an awkward bow, began to shake with the exertion of it. Chiasa, afraid she would topple over entirely, sprang forward and dropped the broom she was holding, the tool clattering noisily across the pathway.

“He’s not here,” Chiasa repeated, though she wanted to help the woman when she was in such a state. “But please don’t panic, I will not send you away. If you’d like, I could make you some tea?”

“Yes,” the woman said. Her hands went to her face, cupping cheeks that were tinged with an uneven smattering of powder. As Chiasa watched, her gaze seemed to get lost in nothing, until she finally blinked and focused once again, settling on Chiasa’s face. Again, there was something sparking in her eyes that Chiasa couldn’t entirely read. The woman lowered her hands and nodded. “Yes, I would appreciate it. I’m sorry to intrude.”

Chiasa thought briefly of disagreeing, but it felt best to avoid lying. Instead, she led the seseragi priestess into the hall of worship and through to the small back room where they kept a low, small table and supplies unrelated to the shrine itself. There was a heavy iron kettle, which was so old that one side of it was slightly lower than the other, making the whole thing lopsided. Chiasa placed it onto the small fire in the center of the room with care and waved the smoke up into the open flume built into the roof’s small, soot-blackened bricks. Her strange guest knelt at the table, smoothing her silks beneath her knees.

“I don’t know when my father will return,” Chiasa apologized as she waited for the water to bubble. The other woman deflated somewhat, her shoulders curving in and over on themselves as she ran a finger over the grain of the table.

“Is there no one else?” she asked. Then, a half second too late, her eyes snapped up, wide and frightened. “I didn’t mean… I meant no offense. I’m sure you are quite capable at the breath—”

Chiasa waved her apology away. “I’m not offended. But I am afraid there is no one else. It’s only my father, myself, and old Isao.”

“Then, your father is part of the emperor’s circle?” the woman asked. The expression on her features changed from nervous to suspicious, and Chiasa couldn’t follow the reasoning behind it. Her guest tapped her fingers against the tabletop as she pursed her lips together, and her gaze shifted away from Chiasa and the teakettle. “Perhaps it was unwise to come here. I thought there were more in the ibuki shrine.”

The kettle whistled its completion, and as she poured the fragrant hibiscus blend, Chiasa frowned, puzzled by the transformation in both the conversation and the woman’s demeanor.

“My father is not advising the emperor today,” she said, again, in case it had been missed, as she handed the other woman the small teacup of hollowed bone. Her guest held the cup between her fingers, but didn’t sip from it. Her gaze seemed lost again, her eyes focused on something far beyond the table and the crackling fire pit, in a place Chiasa could neither see nor touch.

After quite some time, the woman raised her head once more. “My name is Namika. I suppose with your father too close to the source I should not have asked for him at all. You are the youngest within the shrine?”

“Yes,” Chiasa answered, though she regretted doing so in the next heartbeat when the oddness of the question fully registered.

Namika’s brow furrowed as her fingers knit together around the bone cup. “Then I must tell you of my discovery.”

“Discovery?” Chiasa repeated.

“I’m afraid it’s not good news,” Namika said and grimaced. “I was tasked with sorting through our cellar, where many of the old texts and records are kept. The majority of them are simply logs of visitors to the shrine and the actions our priests performed at the emperor’s command. But within the piles, I discovered what seemed to be a set of entries detailing the truth behind the emperor’s longevity.”

“The gods have seen fit to bless him with immortality,” Chiasa said, but she felt suddenly very cold, crossing her arms over her chest and running her hands over her sleeves. The small room seemed to constrict even further around them, squeezing the air from Chiasa’s lungs until she was gasping for it. They should not even be discussing the emperor. They were far too young and unimportant to think they had more wisdom than a man who had been ruling Inuru for nearly three hundred years, and despite their solitude within the shrine, Chiasa got the distinct feeling someone, somewhere, could hear them. The sensation sent toe-curling shivers down her back.

“No,” Namika said. She leaned forward, like she, too, was reacting to the sudden chill permeating the air. “It’s unnatural, his lifespan— He is stealing it, all of it; he is stealing his life.”

“That’s impossible,” Chiasa snapped. “No magic could grant a mortal so much time.”

Namika shook her head and set the cup of tea down, still just as full as when Chiasa had handed it to her. “He is stealing it through blood. He’s drinking blood to absorb the life within it and add it to his own.”

Chiasa stood so suddenly that the table shook, splashing tea across the surface. The scent of steeped flowers and herbs grew even stronger.

“You’re lying,” she said through clenched teeth, hands curled into fists at her side. The flash of indignation that flared up beneath her skin came from a source she couldn’t identify, but she knew from years of practiced obedience that it was necessary. “My father is on the emperor’s circle, and he would never allow such a thing, even if it were possible.”

“But that is why I had to come!” Namika exclaimed. “It’s written in the documents, by the seseragi high priest himself. I swear to you I did not come here with a lie!”

Chiasa wove her hands through her hair, tugging bits of it free from the tortoiseshell clasp holding the twist snug at the nape of her neck. Her father couldn’t possibly be implicated in such a monstrosity—and beyond that, the insult to the emperor weighed like a stone within her gut. The emperor protected them all. The emperor loved them all.

“It’s impossible,” Chiasa said, letting her hands fall back down to her sides. “What blood could possibly grant such—”

“Those with the breath!” Namika cried out and then sat back on her heels, cheeks flushed and pink. As Chiasa stared at her across the table, the unwanted and uninvited woman with the poison-tipped tongue of lies inhaled deeply and then pushed the air back out, slowly, through red lips.

“He is drinking your order,” she said. Her voice was far quieter, filled with something that sounded an awful lot like sympathy. “He is drinking the blood of ibuki priests.”

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Meet the Author

Kathryn Sommerlot is a coffee addict and craft beer enthusiast with a detailed zombie apocalypse plan. Originally from the cornfields of the American Midwest, she got her master’s degree and moved across the ocean to become a high school teacher in Japan. When she isn’t wrangling teenage brains into critical thinking, she spends her time writing, crocheting, and hiking with her husband. She enjoys LGBTQ fiction, but she is particularly interested in genre fiction that just happens to have LGBTQ protagonists. You can find Kathryn on her Website.

 

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It’s the Release Day Book Blitz for Run in the Blood by A.E. Ross (excerpt and giveaway)

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Title:  Run in the Blood

Author: A. E. Ross

Publisher:  NineStar Press

Release Date: December 25, 2017

Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex

Pairing: Female/Female

Length: 78700

Genre: I

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Synopsis

Raised on the high seas as an avaricious corsair, Aela Crane has turned her back on her roots, but she can’t seem to stem the ancient magic that courses through her. Del is a soft-spoken soldier who seems to know more about Aela’s inherited powers than she does. Brynne’s the crofter’s daughter who’s reluctantly learning to become a princess, if she could just get a certain swashbuckling someone off her mind.

Originally hired on (okay, blackmailed) by the King of the island nation of Thandepar, Aela’s light monster extermination gig takes a fast turn into kidnapping-for-profit. Del tries to ignore family issues by searching for a long lost friend, and ends up getting both for the price of one. Brynne’s prepared to give up her heart for her country until her own personal heartbreaker shows up with the most terrible timing.

As the three of them become more entwined in their own political predicaments, and each other’s lives, they may discover that the legacies their parents have left them aren’t as solid as they seemed. In fact, they may just slip through their fingers, leaving all three fumbling to forge their own future, before the kingdom comes crashing down around them.

Excerpt

Run in the Blood
A.E. Ross © 2017
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

A sharp blast of seawater hit Aela Crane square in the face, soaking her curls. As she gripped the rim of the crow’s nest with dark knuckles, the surface of the ocean seemed to rise up to meet her as the brigantine listed at a dangerous horizontal angle. The captain was throwing out all the stops to catch up to the mercantile cog just ahead of them.

Just below, her shipmates flew through the rigging, raising and lowering the sails as the ship made a shuddering turn to the right. On the deck, she could see a familiar spark of flame as their archers held lit arrows nocked to their bows, ready to release them into the air.

The corsair ship, faster and sleeker, gained on the struggling cog. Aela knew that their captain, the infamous man named Dreadmoor, would not give up his quarry. He did not like to lose. She heard his voice call out gruffly from the fore as he ordered the archers to release the flaming shafts. The arrows arced up and over, some sinking into the cog’s starboard side with a dull thunk, while the truer ones found their targets. Screams rent the frigid air as the brigantine finally veered within spitting distance. Several grappling hooks sank into the cog’s side, stabilising the two vessels.

The dull sound of boots on soaking wood thundered below her as the corsairs swarmed across a boarding plank, their swords ruthlessly singing with the blood of the merchant sailors. Aela leaped down from the crow’s nest; her hands burned on the coarse rope as she swung herself down to the deck where her own salt-weathered boots landed with a wet thud. The rigging above her head shook as the lookout boy scrambled down, eager to cross the planks and join in the fray. He landed beside her and slipped a dull blade from his belt. Shaking back his shaggy red hair, he grinned up at her. She clicked her tongue in reply and hefted her speargun with muscular arms, scarred by the marks of a dangerous life. Knife wounds and near misses were etched into her powerful limbs, evidence of her trade.

A corsair almost since birth, Aela Crane had grown to womanhood in the crow’s nest, her only masters the sea and the sword. She and the freckled boy, Timlet, made for the gangplank and the merchant ship, but as Timlet took a step onto the cedar board, it lost its purchase on the other side and fell free, crashing into the ocean below. Aela grasped Timlet’s arm and pulled him stumbling backwards before he could follow the plank down into the waves.

“Thanks.” Timlet smiled graciously, blushing. Aela released him as he took several steps back, readying himself. He burst forward towards the side of the ship and then leaped off the edge and across the gap to land safely on the other side. Not a moment after landing, he flew into the fray, confronting a young merchant sailor who had naught but a trowel to defend himself.

Aela stepped back, considering the jump. The gap between the ships wasn’t large, but she didn’t have the same acrobatic knack as Timlet, and above else, valued style over substance. She aimed her speargun into the mast of the merchant ship and let it fly. The spear arced through the night sky, and the spear tip buried itself deep into the mast, pulling the line taut. Aela took a run and swung herself across the gap to land up on the aftcastle.

Knees bent, she scanned the action. Her fellow corsairs fought man-to-man on the deck below. She could see Timlet dodging the young sailor’s trowel, bobbing and weaving as he prepared his attack as she had taught him. He ducked and danced away from his opponent’s lunges, letting him tire until he could get in behind and slit the throat. As he pulled his knife across the boy’s neck and released his blood, the body fell backwards, collapsing onto Timlet. Aela shook her head. The boy still had a lot to learn. As Timlet struggled to free himself, another man fought his way along the deck, past the body of the young sailor.

The man swung and jabbed at every corsair he could reach, seeming to search the boat until his gaze met Aela’s as she stood on the aftcastle. Here was the captain of the vessel. It was clear in his purposeful stride, which hastened after he saw her and made his way towards the stairs. Trying to think quickly, she tugged on the line of her speargun and flipped the retraction lever as the steel tip came free of the mast. The line reeled back into the gun and the sharp metal shaft came shooting back towards her, clicking as it locked back into its place in the barrel.

The merchant captain was almost upon her as she pulled her long dagger from its sheath and turned to block his first swing. She scanned his form. He wore a vivid purple coat. Its crest featured the North Star, a sign of his patronage to the king of Thandepar, the frozen country in whose waters they currently sailed, and whose merchants they currently slaughtered. She smirked as he lunged again, and blocked him easily.

“Don’t worry. We’re here to relieve you of your extra cargo.” She grinned, lowering her gaze as she flicked his curved sword away with her blade. She circled him, daring him to strike again.

“What goods? We’ve nothing but a hold full of bodies, thanks to you.” His hair was grey, and his skin was sickly pale. Still, there was something familiar in the ridge of his nose and the set of his brow. The captain tried to gauge her skill as she stepped around him, dancing away as he tried another strike. She clicked her tongue at him.

“Oh come on. You’ve got to have something good down there, sailing in the dead of night like you are. No lights. No noise. Quiet as a thief.” She lunged in with her blade, not to cut but to tap him on his waist, teasing. Furrowing his brow, he jumped back out of his range, a curious look in his pale blue eyes.

“So quiet we were, one almost wonders how you found us.” He raised an eyebrow and stepped aside quickly as Aela pounced forward for a true strike. He was spry, which surprised her. He was much sharper than he seemed, in his delicate purple coat.

“Come closer,” she said, still taunting. “I can make you a free man.” Her tongue brushed her lower lip as she stepped in close, tucking her blade between his arm and abdomen. “One plunge of my dagger and you’ll have no king but the patron of the dead.” Aela jumped back rapidly as the captain struck at her shoulder. She was too quick, and his sword cut only air. He sneered.

“You corsairs are all the same. You think you are the only free people in this world.” His voice was strained.

“Yes, as that is the case.” She mocked him smugly as she sidestepped another blow.

“Ah, but is it? I have land, I have a lord, and I have—” He stepped in towards her, catching her off guard. “—a family.” He thrust his blade against her outer thigh, pressing its sharp edge through her rough trousers, splitting threads and drawing blood, but barely wounding. “And your lifestyle will not allow you those things. Is that freedom?”

Aela jumped back, feeling his blade slide free of her flesh. She gave a quick glance down to the deck to see Timlet scrapping with another sailor.

“What is it you people say?” the captain continued. “I pledge allegiance to the sea. Landless, lawless, honour free?”

She spat at his feet. “My crewmates are my family, and this ocean is my land.” She thrust forward, but the captain stepped free of her blow. She was becoming irritated, and she knew that it made her vulnerable to attack, but she pressed onwards, striking again and again but failing to land a blow. He had made her angry, and the heat rolled off her body, warming her blade, fueling her fire. She tried to blink it away, but it was too late—she could not recover her concentration. The captain lowered his sword as he gaped at her. She knew that her eyes had blazed from their usual deep brown to a candle’s twin. Blazing orange, flickering like a flame, and the pupil ringed with blue. Before this moment, she could have been any woman to him, from any place. Her complexion was not unusual; deep brown eyes with skin the colour of a sequoia tree, its strength echoed in her muscular frame. Her head was crested by a bluster of curls, the sides haphazardly shaved for ease of maintenance at sea. Besides the profiteer’s attitude, the sea-dog smell, and the uncanny bloodlust, she would have been passed without notice in any marketplace.

Monster.” He choked out the word. His eyes were locked on hers. She allowed herself a moment to hate the familiar fear in his gaze before she lunged forward, striking at him, forcing him to defend himself.

“Do you want to keep staring? A second ago, you wanted to kill me.” Aela sliced into his leg, letting the blade bite before ripping it back.

She burned on, forcing him backwards. She had him up against the railing of the aftcastle, her dagger at his throat, the sea at his back, ready to finish him off when she heard a noise behind her. She glanced back, expecting a sailor come to defend his captain, but she could see the battle had ended. It was only Timlet, scrambling up the stairs towards her. That one look back cost her the chance for a killing blow. The captain pushed her back, and before she could strike him, he leapt over the railing and into the sea, swimming clear of the rudder and away from the cog. Timlet joined Aela at the railing as they stared out at the sea and the merchant captain swimming away in the waves. Aela’s eyes still burned.

“You little bastard, you let him jump!” She swore at Timlet, and a red blush spread under his freckles as he edged away to avoid her wrath.

“It was an accident! I was only coming to make sure you were all right!”

“I protect you. It doesn’t work the other way around.”

“Well, he’ll never make it to land anyways! He’ll just bleed out in the water or get speared by a narwhal or somethin’,” Timlet stammered. Aela stepped towards him and he flinched as if expecting a blow. Instead, she let out a laugh. The fire faded from her as she put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

“Speared by a narwhal? You’re ridiculous.” She gave him a slight push backwards and turned back to the sea. She pulled her speargun from its holster on her back and set it on the railing to steady her aim. She found her mark through the sight and pulled the trigger, sending the metal spear flying through the night. It landed with a thunk in the captain’s back, as his desperate swimming ceased with a shriek. His body bobbed on the frigid waves, spear sticking out like a dorsal fin.

She cut the rope that connected the spear to the gun. She would buy replacements on their imminent return to port, and had no desire to keep this one as a reminder that she had failed to keep her cool. Timlet squeaked behind her. She turned to see him rocking on his heels.

“He wouldn’t have made it far before drowning,” he remarked to his feet. Aela returned her gun to the holster and stepped towards him. She could hear the sound of the other crewmates’ celebratory hoots as they carried goods from the merchant ship back to the brigantine.

“Ah, but drowning is a long and painful death.” She shrugged and guided Timlet back down, across a new gangplank, and onto their ship. They would break the cog, sinking it with the sailors’ bodies inside, and find a less conspicuous spot to spend the night.

They chose a deep cove to drop anchor in until the morning. Its patchy evergreen forest was part of a small strip of land along the southern coast of Thandepar that its people referred to as the green belt. That coastline was one of the few fertile places on the northern continent where crops could be grown in abundance. The only others were a handful of deep river valleys tucked between the glaciers, the meltwater carving out hollows where the people of Thandepar had settled their major towns. It was a country made beautiful by its desolation. The valleys and the green belt produced the majority of the food for the small nation, but its trade wealth lay elsewhere.

Dreadmoor directed his corsair crew as they carried their bounty deep into the brigantine’s hold. It contained a rich cargo: gold from Thandepar’s deep mountain veins and vibrant dye squeezed from its tundra lichen. The refugees from Old Ansar had found it that way when their ships arrived on its shores. Empty. They came from southeastern lands of heat and spice, overcome with brimstone, to a world so penetrated by frost that it could scarcely feed their children. Gradually, they rebuilt their civilization, digging deep in the mountains for gold to trade and squeezing what little life they could out of the permafrost. Their capital, called Ghara, was built in the ruins of a stone stronghold they found etched into a high peak, its previous inhabitants long gone. But not entirely gone…

Aela floated on the surface of the ocean. Her evening swim was a chance for solitude. She could reflect on her thoughts without interruption. Heat radiated from her body, warming the water in her perimeter, another aspect she had inherited from unknown ancestors.

Tiny chunks of ice bobbed by, lazily melting as they entered her range. She tried to rein in her feelings, considering how the merchant captain had broken her practiced cool. He had known what she was, so she had killed him.

Aela dipped her head back into the warm water, letting it pool around her temples and in the hollows of her ears. It would have been a lot more therapeutic if she wasn’t jolted to reality by the sound of Timlet hollering at her from the deck. She jerked upright, flipped onto her stomach, and swam towards the rough rope ladder that hung down from the deck.

She climbed up, hoisted herself over the edge, and grabbed her worn pants and light-weight tunic from where they lay, then pulled them on as Timlet waited patiently. He had his usual expression of half-cocked excitement, but there was an odd pall behind his cheerful expression. He had seemed alarmed when she killed the merchant captain, although he himself had dispatched a young sailor only minutes earlier. He was easily her favourite crewmate, maybe because he was so different from the others. There was no question of their archetype—like her, life under the sign of the Corsair had made them reckless, charming and avaricious. Timlet, on the other hand, seemed like he might be more at home under the sign of the Merchant, working at a bakery or a grocer. He was a fair-weather fiend, but a true friend—almost like a younger brother. Aela didn’t think she’d enjoy her days half as much without the chance to ruffle his ginger hair or coax out his ragged smile. She meant what she had said to the merchant captain. Her crewmates were her family, for better or worse.

“Captain’s called a moot in the galley,” Timlet said, sweating slightly as he averted his gaze from the damp linen hugging her form. Aela considered him for a moment with a wry grin and then made her way to the meeting.

As soon as Aela stepped into the ship’s galley, she was hit with a hot blast of salt, sweat, and aging pork. The furnace was lit, the flames roaring behind Dreadmoor as he shouted orders at the crew.

“We’ll make port tomorrow morning at the city docks. If any one of you shit-brained amateurs draws the attention of the guard, you’re on your own.” Brine-aged ale sprayed from his tankard as Dreadmoor slammed it down on the table. Aela smirked. As much as he played the rough sea dog, she knew that the captain was a family man at heart. After all, he was the closest thing she had ever known to a father.

She rested her forearms on the cool surface of the ice box, listening to her crewmates chatter about the prospect of fresh food. After weeks of nothing but stale bread and salt pork, Aela was salivating at the prospect of a nice ripe orange or a handful of figs. She couldn’t wait to slip unnoticed through the dockside souk and grab some fresh piece of paradise, letting the juice of the fruit run past her teeth as she bit through its flesh. But those weren’t the only fruits she was looking to pluck. While every port had its own special delicacy, the city of Marinaken held her favourite—a crofter’s daughter by the name of Brynne. Aela traced her teeth with her tongue as she thought about the smell of hay and the warmth of sunbeams that highlighted scattered freckles, that thread of common themes came to Aela each night as she slept. She always woke with a fleeting internal warmth that could never seem to be replicated during her waking hours.

“Seabitch!”

Aela’s reverie snapped in half as Dreadmoor roared his name for her and shook his tankard. She wiped flecks of salty ale from her cheeks and bared her teeth at the old captain.

“Aye, Captain?”

“Something tells me you haven’t heard a word I said,” he barked.

“Memorized them, Captain.” Aela grinned, standing to attention. The captain gave her a dark, humourless glance.

“You better watch your shit-eating mouth. One more insolent word and I’ll declare open season on your hide.” His lips parted to show crooked, rotten teeth as Dreadmoor brokered a threatening smile. At his words, lude jeers and slurs erupted from the rest of the crewmen and women. Timlet shrunk back, appearing genuinely concerned. Aela peered around and raised her eyebrow at the hardened crew as she shifted into a defensive stance.

“Good idea, Captain. We’ve been riding a bit low with all the new cargo. Could stand to throw a few bodies overboard.”

Her hand rested against the smooth leather of her dagger’s hilt as she anticipated a brawl. Aela was used to the captain testing her ever since she arrived on the ship as a child. She had assumed he was trying to prepare her for the realities of corsair life, and if so, he’d succeeded. She moved into a crouch, ready to cut the first bitch or bastard to try to prove their mettle against her.

Before anyone could reach her, Dreadmoor’s tankard hit the slick deck like a shrapnel round, spraying ale and glass shards into jockeying crewmen.

“Get out of my fuckin’ sight, all of you!” he roared as his crew tried to flee from the blowback, piling out on to the deck. As they scrambled, Aela backed up and stepped discreetly down the narrow stairs that led below deck. She slipped into the belly of the ship, taking a shortcut through the cargo hold, and paused to run her hand over the looted crates. A surprisingly good haul for a mercantile cog of that size, especially one so close to the coast. Normally that kind of ship would be carrying food and supplies up to the river valleys, but the cargo in the hold was full of Thandepar’s best trade goods. Each crate featured a violet seal bearing the North Star, some holding high-value dyes, others good-quality seal pelts.

Aela poked and peeked, checking out the haul. Definitely one of their better ones in quite some time. Along with the crates were a couple of bulging gunny sacks. The first one made a clinking noise as Aela kicked at it with the tip of her leather boot. She raised her eyebrows and bent down, her suspicions confirmed as she opened the top to see that it was absolutely stuffed full of gold coins. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized she was looking at enough currency to establish a small estate. She picked up a gold piece, sliding her thumb across the design. One side bore the familiar North Star. The other side featured a profile of the Ansari king, his small tight mouth and high cheekbones standing out in stark relief. Aela stood up, flipping the coin across her knuckles, and tucked it into the lining of her tunic.

She left the hold, her head spinning over their newfound nest egg. Surely Dreadmoor had plans for it, but she had a few suggestions in mind now that they were apparently filthy fucking rich. But those could wait for tomorrow, she thought as she climbed up into the crow’s nest to watch the sun rise.

The clouds split open, bloody hues sinking down behind the buildings of Marinaken as the ship shuddered into its natural deepwater harbour. Reedy stretches of land reached out on either side of the boat as they slid up into the mouth of the estuary. Farmland spread out on either side, meeting in the middle at the crooked port. Like most towns in Thandepar, the buildings tipped the past into the present. Ancient stone foundations were topped by timber refits as the community built itself upon the bones of unfamiliar ancestors.

As the ship reached its mooring on one of the many rickety finger docks, Aela slipped down the rigging and landed on the deck with a thud.

She stalked across the ship, then vaulted over the side and down onto the salt-stained planks to help secure the brigantine along with the other crewman before taking a look around. After being so long at sea, the sounds of the harbour rang in her ears. The main marketplace for the country’s breadbasket, the dock area was full of every kind of salesman—fish, produce, baked goods, and those identifiable few selling something slightly more intimate. Aela smirked to herself. She had learned her lesson years ago in the southern ports. Young and hungry, she had handed her gold to the first woman to give her a peek, and ended up with a delicate and painful rash that made the local medic blush.

In the centre of the square, a crier stood on a raised platform, barking the horoscopical advice of the day for each of the archetypes. Not unusually, the Corsair was not included. Aela toyed with the gold piece from the hold as she approached the end of the dock, trying to decide which pastry seller seemed the most desperate. One sweet bun to get her energy up, and then her only plans involved freckles and moans.

As she stepped off the dock, she lurched forward, thrown off balance as Dreadmoor’s massive arm landed around her shoulder.

“Aela, dear. Spare a moment for an old sea dog?” He bared his ugly grin and offered a hand as she tried to regain her balance.

“Can it wait? I have somewhere I need to—”

“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that little ginger muff. Word on the cobble is that she’s up and moved.” He pulled Aela in conspiratorially.

“How do you know about her?” She knew that the captain didn’t give a shit what she did once she left the ship. She was instantly put off by the idea that he would bother to find out. Had he been watching her? Anticipation began to grow in her chest, prickly and strange. It was not a feeling that Aela Crane was used to. She tried to take a step away as he dug his fingers in tighter.

“Oh come now, pip. I know everything. What kind of captain would I be if I didn’t have all the information? After all, information is worth a lot.”

Aela’s stomach flipped as she stared at Dreadmoor. His blank expression was a threat. Not aggressive, not victorious—all business. Behind her, she could hear the townspeople scatter to clear the square at the sound of marching boots drawing near. The sound of the barker abruptly ceased as he quit the square, his monetary advice for followers of the Merchant abandoned midsentence.

Aela shuddered as she gazed past Dreadmoor onto the dock, where the crewman were lined up behind their captain. Not a single eye met hers—except for poor Timlet. He was peering around, concerned and confused. The idiot, he had no idea what was about to happen.

Aela knew. She knew that the person she trusted most had just bent her over a fucking barrel. She knew who she would see when turned around. She had his face tucked inside her tunic, imprinted onto the gold coin that rested against her skin.

“You sold me out,” she hissed at the captain, as she turned to face the king of Thandepar.

He was regal and refined. His skin wasn’t so different a shade from the coin itself. It was a deep bronze, his expression far from welcoming. The skillful etching on the metal’s surface had the same tight mouth and rigid cheekbones that framed a crooked general’s nose and two eyes like fine marble. His deep purple general’s coat matched the uniforms of the score of soldiers standing in formation behind him, the North Star insignia embroidered over their hearts.

The king cleared his throat pointedly in the midst of the awkward silence that had fallen as Aela looked him up and down, calculating. His attention lifted past her to rest on Dreadmoor, who still kept his arm firmly around his furious charge.

“I trust you received the payment?” His tone held no mirth. It was merely official, like chalk on slate.

“Like fish in a barrel.” Dreadmoor smirked. Aela shuddered at her own idiocy. Two full bags of Thandepardine gold on an inland trader? She bit her lip in fury, the taste of blood dancing on her tongue. Dreadmoor gave her a rough shove forward and she stumbled to her knees.

“Go south.” The king spat his words at the corsair captain. Clearly dealing with his kind left a poor taste.

“Move out, boys!” Dreadmoor shouted, herding the crew back towards the ship as the king’s soldiers surrounded their new captive. Aela tried to think quick, but her mind felt sluggish. She tried to rise, letting out a guttural cry as the nearest two soldiers slammed her to the ground, prone. The adrenaline fought its way through her veins, blocking out sight and sound. She hardly heard Timlet’s shouts. She only barely registered his body flying off the dock, knife bare, in the direction of the soldiers. What she did feel was the warm spatter as his arterial spray hit the cobbles of the dockside market.

“Up!” barked the king as the soldiers lifted her roughly to her feet. Now upright, she could see that he held the young sailor by the collar of his tunic as blood flowed loosely out of the gash in his neck. Red bubbles slipped out between his lips like glass orbs. Aela’s heart pounded viciously against her ribs as the taut string inside her snapped. She roared, furious and wild. Heat radiated across her face as her eyes ignited, burning as her veins caught fire. She lashed out with every limb, every ounce of strength remaining. The guard scattered and re-grouped, coming at her in fours and fives, overcoming her once again. They had order, control, and military training. She had only desperation and rage. She lunged her head and chest forward as two soldiers pulled her arms behind her, the metal irons ringing as they were clasped around her wrists.

“The longer you struggle, the less chance he has of surviving.” The king spoke evenly, devoid of emotion. Aela’s gaze snapped back to Timlet. He gasped raggedly. For a bare moment, his eyes met hers, projecting desperation. Breathing deeply, she tried to centre herself.

“What…do you…want from me?” She stumbled on her words as she tried to calm the bloodlust that controlled her. The soldiers’ grip held tight even as she swayed on her feet.

“I need your help with a task. And if you care about this misshapen pup as much as you seem to, you’ll agree to assist me.” He gazed down at her, his expression unreadable. This king seemed to have a knack for mystery. It suddenly occurred to Aela that she didn’t even know his name. Call it a perk of living the corsair life, but there was no need to pay attention to local politics. Aela turned from the inscrutable king to Timlet. Her instinct was to resist, to be self-serving and stubborn. But in the end, he was the only person from her so-called family that cared about her fate. The rest of the crew was already scrambling onto the ship, preparing to make sail.

“If I help you, you’ll get him to a medicinary?” she asked, hesitant to trust the strange monarch.

The king nodded.

Aela bit back the urge to keep fighting, her temperature dropping as she continued to breathe. “Then I agree.”

As two soldiers left the pack to carry her bleeding friend in the direction of the city’s healers, she cursed his idiocy under her breath. She always knew that he didn’t belong among the bruisers in their crew. There’s no place for a hero on a corsair ship.

With white-gloved hands digging into her arms on either side, Aela let herself be half marched, half dragged across the square to the nearby teahouse. A tiny bell hanging from the lintel chimed softly as they entered the fairly well-appointed establishment, startling a plump shop woman who dozed at the counter. The stone floors were covered with soft hand-woven rugs, giving an air of cozy sophistication. This was not the worst scrape that Aela had gotten into, as a career corsair. The prim atmosphere of the teashop was alarmingly calm, a juxtaposition given the events that led her there. It was not the kind of place that made Aela feel comfortable; she preferred the hay-and-piss stench of shithouse taverns.

The good shop woman mopped her gray bangs out of her eyes and then jumped up to bring her sovereign of a fresh pot of tea and two cups, at his signal. The high, strained whistle of a kettle sounded from the kitchen. She must have been in the process of making herself a morning cup, only to have it co-opted by the man to whom she already gave a quarter income in fealty. Thandepar was not a nation made rich by coincidence.

Jerked roughly into a chair at an intricately carved wooden table, Aela resolved to keep quiet until she figured out exactly what the king wanted from her. As he sat down opposite, he smoothed the rich fabric of his uniform and stared back at her, impassive. She studied his face, trying to pick out any thread of humanity that she could exploit. Like any good brigand, Aela knew that finding the human side of your enemy could mean finding their weak spot.

His fingers were slick, long creatures. He held the teapot in one hand, pouring it into two cups held with the other. She wondered about his family. She wondered who he asked for strength at night, when he scanned the stars. He had a military look, so perhaps it was the Guardian, but there was something about his demeanour that didn’t seem to fit. Aela had learned to pick out the constellation of the Corsair from a young age, though she had never stepped foot in one of his few blood-soaked temples. Dreadmoor taught her well in that regard. Aela flinched as she tried to squeeze that late fond feeling out of existence. Across the table, the king failed to hide a smirk. He had found her humanity first. She had lost their unspoken contest. He slid a cup of tea in front of her and signaled to her left guard. She heard the iron scrape as he unshackled her wrists. Aela resisted the urge to rub them as she stared hard across the table and repeated her question from the market square.

“What do you want from me?”

The king flicked his gaze up from his tea to meet hers as he took a sip. The steam from Aela’s own cup rose in front of her like a soft breath across her lips and nose. She took the cup in her hands, letting the warmth spring through her aching muscles. The king opened his mouth to speak, pausing slightly before his delivery.

“I knew your father,” he said.

Aela surprised herself by laughing sharply. Maybe she had overestimated this character if he thought that was going to help his cause.

“Congratulations. I didn’t.” Strangely, she thought she caught sight of a well-repressed smirk on the king’s lips as she took a sip of tea.

“Aela Crane, I have a proposition for you.” He poured himself a second cup as he waited for her to respond.

She didn’t.

“Perhaps you’ve heard of a little problem we’ve been having in the mountains surrounding the capital.”

Aela shook her head. “I’m afraid I haven’t been paying that much attention to the local gossip of your country.” Aela shrugged.

The king plowed on with his pitch. “The short version is that we’re having something of a pest problem. A certain type of beast that your family is particularly…proficient in hunting.” She didn’t like the way his gaze bored into her as he spoke.

Aela raised her eyebrows, skeptically. “Well, I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but it can’t be much, because I’m not a hunter, and my parents didn’t teach me a damn thing.”

“Trust me, you may not know it, but you’re a natural-born hunter. And you’ll have four of my finest men to accompany you.” He gestured to his uniformed guards, standing in formation outside the empty tea shop.

“You mean guard me?” Aela glanced at the guards on either side of her chair.

“Not at all.” He paused to sip the tea. “You’d be leading the expedition.”

Aela stared at him, scrutinizing his every movement as he spoke, searching for a tell. She was waiting for the other boot to drop. So far nothing about this interaction added up.

“I’m sorry. Let me get this straight. You paid off my captain and crew to deliver me to your feet so that you could ask me for a favour?” Aela sat back, crossing her arms.

“Let’s just say you’re a difficult woman to get ahold of, and I was happy to do whatever it took to make that happen.” His cold expression wasn’t giving away any secrets as he spoke, so Aela decided it was time to push her luck a little. She kicked her feet up on the table and swigged the remainder of her tea.

“And what’s in it for me?” she asked, dropping some swagger. The king shook his head almost imperceptibly, his mouth tightening.

“A room in my household and a position as the Master of Hunt.” His lips twitched upwards at the corner as if he might attempt a smile. “The position your father once occupied.”

Aela pursed her lips, confused. This strange hard man was offering her something she had been purposely avoiding her entire life: security, patronage, and a link to her roots. Aela smiled, knowing her decision was an easy one.

“Sorry, man. That’s not really my thing.” She pushed her chair back and stood up. “But thanks for the tea and bloodshed.” The king signaled the guards to let her leave.

“Well, you’re more than welcome to go on your way. We’ll always be able to find you if we need you.” He broke into a truly terrifying facsimile of a grin.

Aela smiled. If that was the threat she was waiting on, it was one that she could live with. She shrugged and walked away from the table. Already, she formed plans in her head: a new crew, a new boat, and the waves beneath her once again.

As she hit the door handle of the tea shop, the king called out: “But I’d worry about that young friend of yours if I were you. Modern medicine can only do so much.”

Aela froze, her stomach dropping. Timlet. The king had managed to zero in on the one thing that made her human. Her blood flowed hot as she thought about the only person in the world she cared for, and realized that she should have let him die rather than be held over her head as a bargaining chip. She turned back to the king. He didn’t even have the decency to smirk victoriously. He was as blank as ever. It was the Bureaucrat, Aela realized. That was the patron that he looked to in the sky in times of need, if he even had any.

“When do we leave?” Aela said through gritted teeth.

Purchase

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Meet the Author

A.E. Ross lives in Vancouver, B.C. with one very grumpy raincloud of a cat. When not writing fiction, they can be found producing and story-editing children’s cartoons, as well as producing & hosting podcasts like The XX Files Podcast. Their other works have appeared on Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Netflix (and have been widely panned by 12-year-olds on 4Chan) but the projects they are most passionate about feature LGBTQIA+ characters across a variety genres.

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Megan Derr on How the Trilogy Came About and her latest release ‘Waiting for You’ by Megan Derr (guest blog, excerpt and giveaway)

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Title:  Waiting for You

Series: Lifesworn, Book 1

Author: Megan Derr

Publisher:  NineStar Press

Release Date: June 5, 2017

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: Male/Male/Female (Male/Male interaction)

Length: 40000

Genre: Fantasy, fantasy, friends to lovers, reunited, royalty, bodyguard, established couple, political, spies

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How the Trilogy Came About by Megan Derr

So a question that crops up pretty often is what comes first, plot, setting, or characters? For me, that varies from story to story. This particular one started with the characters and some of the plot (I wrote another post on the exact inspiration for this story).  I had a princess in danger, a prince, and his bodyguard, and an eventual threesome. I had an evil parent (though father become stepfather).

Since this had originally been meant as an erotic short for ARe, I decided to keep the setting simple. Two countries, one with obvious medieval Europe influences, the other with medieval Middle East influences. No magic. Pretty confined plot, in that there’s a small cast and they don’t move between a whole lot of locations. But as is my want and practice, I also built a world where all things queer are accepted. Her stepfather hates her, but only because she’s a threat to his power, not because she’s bisexual. It doesn’t matter to him if she marries a man or a woman, if they’re cis or trans. He just wants her out of the way or under his control once and for all.

And I felt it was important to lay out how this story came about, because there’s this idea that persists in writing, in art, that we must wait for inspiration! and be struck by muses! and listen to the voices! and that to purposely write something with a goal like money in mind makes us less. And that’s stupid and worse harmful. I always write what I want, but sometimes what I want is something that does not tax and exhaust me the way High King or Dance-verse or Tavamara-verse does, something that is easy to write, appealing to more readers than usual (since queer fantasy romance is never going to have the draw that contemporary romance does), and makes good money.

So that is how this trilogy came about.

Synopsis

Shanna has spent her whole life waiting—waiting to be old enough, waiting for the day she must pick a consort, waiting for a chance to finally overcome her despicable stepfather… and waiting for someone to finally banish the loneliness that comes with being a queen-in-waiting one step away from being murdered.

On the eve of the two-week event during which she must pick a consort from a bevy of suitors, two strangers arrive claiming to have been invited—though she knows full well they did not receive any such invitation. But the handsome, mischievous Prince Kallaar is too intriguing to resist, and his quiet bodyguard too compelling to ignore…

But she’s learned the hard way never to let anyone get too close, and on the verge of gaining true independence her stepfather will stop at nothing to see she never gets it.

Excerpt

Waiting for You
Megan Derr © 2017
All Rights Reserved

Prologue

Shanna sighed in the gloom of the stables, enjoying the dark and quiet, even the smell of horse, dragon, and manure.

Gingerly touching her sore cheek, the result of a stepfather who’d succumbed to a rare fit of temper and struck her, she went to get some treats for the animals.

After she’d given apples to the horses and hazelnuts to the dragons, she pulled out the small flask of wine she’d brought with her, upended a bucket to make a seat, and settled in front of her favorite dragon’s stall for a night of drinking.

She’d prefer to be making merry, a proper ceremony honoring her mother, two years dead now, but of course her worthless stepfather, Mercen, preferred a much smaller, quieter, and more somber affair. Just one more occasion for him to do what he needed to further his own goals while paying token respect to the woman who’d made him consort.

At least it was late enough she’d be left alone out here. Everyone else was asleep or on duty. The only person who’d be in the stable at that hour was Tikki, the stable boy, and even if he woke and realized she was there, he’d leave her alone.

All the problems of the day—week, month, past two years—tried to rise up, but Shanna had endured more than her fill of them for the present. They’d have to wait until tomorrow. Instead, she drank wine and tried to focus only on happy memories of her mother, the sorts of things her mother would tell her to think about.

She’d almost managed to achieve a good mood, or something close enough, when she heard voices outside. Voices that were not speaking Remnien. If she wasn’t mistaken, they were speaking Morentian, which was bizarre. Morentians didn’t travel this far north very often, and certainly not in the dead of a winter night.

Pushing to her feet, Shanna headed for the stable doors—and barely jumped back in time to avoid being whacked in the head by one.

Two figures, accompanied by horses, hurried into the stables and closed the doors behind them. The shorter of the two said something, and Shanna caught snatches of “finally” and “snow” and something she didn’t understand but suspected was a curse. Her mother had never taught her those words, though Shanna had tried to learn them.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

They spun toward her, going still a moment before removing the snow-crusted wrappings from their faces—which revealed extremely handsome men, tired and travel-worn though they were. Shanna swallowed, painfully aware suddenly of her own unkempt state: the old, ragged dress she’d thrown on, her hair only loosely knotted back, the bruise slowly forming on her cheek.

Oh, what did it matter? She was a princess—a queen in waiting—what did it matter if she looked good to a couple of travelers she’d never see again?

“I am sorry to disturb,” the shorter man said, mouth curving in a smile that reminded Shanna of the kitchen boy, Benni, who caused no end of trouble but always charmed his way out of it with smiles like that. “We are humble peddlers from Morentia and not accustomed to your wretched snow. We were hoping to reach the royal castle tonight, but I honestly have no idea where we are right now.”

Shanna laughed. “You’ll be relieved to know you’ve reached your destination, though you’ll have to wait until morning to peddle your wares. But come, there are places aplenty for you to stay the night, and the kitchens can give you a meal.”

“We’d be most grateful, Lady…”

“Shanna.”

Both men stilled again briefly before venturing farther into the stable, closer to Shanna. She moved backward a few paces and nearly collided with one of the two lanterns that lent the stables light.

The shorter man said something in Morentian she didn’t understand, the words spoken too low and fast to catch. “You are no lady, but the fine princess herself,” the man said, his wickedly charming smile returning. “We are most honored to make your acquaintance, my princess.”

Shanna shivered. My princess. She liked the way he said that.

“Shall we tend the horses before you attempt to flirt with someone too good for you, Kallaar?” the second man asked gruffly.

“Yes, Ahmla.” Kallaar glanced back at Shanna. “Where should we put our horses, Your Highness?”

“This way.”

Once the horses were tended, Kallaar returned to her side immediately, almost but not quite standing improperly close. “Now then, what brings a lovely princess to the stables so late at night? And all alone. Surely there are better places to be in this terrible weather? I should think anywhere else at all would be better.”

“It’s not that cold.”

Kallaar looked at her like she had lost her mind. “There is snow.”

Shanna laughed at his affronted tone. “Yes, but it’s early winter yet. Soon it will be so cold every breath feels like knives in your lungs, too cold even for snow, and everything that ventures outside unprotected freezes immediately.”

“How can it be too cold for snow?” Kallaar sounded affronted. “That sounds like a nightmare come to life.”

Ahmla made a noise that sounded like agreement.

“I’m certain many people say the same about the heat of Morentia. What brings you so far afield this time of year? Surely your wares could wait to be traded in weather you find more pleasing?”

“I come from a very bossy family, and there are things that must be done, and I am the one to do them,” Kallaar said, looking oddly intent for a man who probably traded in bobbles and knickknacks. “Not that I mind, of course. I am just as bossy and demanding as the rest of them—” He gave a snickering Ahmla a look. “Anyway, despite our grousing, we are happy to be here, my princess. Now, I do not suppose there is anywhere in this place where a couple of frozen strangers might thaw?”

“I think I can help with that,” Shanna said, smiling in a way she hadn’t since her mother had died two years ago. Hard to find anything to smile about when she was a prisoner in her own castle, constantly afraid she would join her mother in the afterlife while Mercen stole their kingdom.

“Splendid!” Once they were outside, Kallaar offered his arm.

Amused and charmed despite herself, Shanna made to accept—and slipped on a patch of ice, but even as she drew breath to scream, she was scooped up before she hit the cold, hard ground.

Shanna blinked at Ahmla, who held her like she weighed nothing, and was shockingly warm for a man who had seemed cold and miserable. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Um. Yes. Thank you, Master Ahmla. That would have been a nasty fall.”

“My honor to serve, princess.” Instead of setting her down, though, Ahmla carried her all the way to the castle and only put her on her feet once they reached the stones of the kitchen yard, which were kept clean by the staff so they could work safely.

“Thank you again,” Shanna said and hastened inside to hide her flushed face.

In the kitchen, she found the late-night cook in the pantry and requested she see about food and beds.

Returning to Kallaar and Ahmla, she said, “You’ll be taken care of quite well from here by the staff.”

“It’s most appreciated, my princess. You are even kinder and more gracious than rumors say.”

Shanna highly doubted any such rumors existed, but she smiled all the same. “It’s sweet of you to say so.”

“No, it’s not. Don’t encourage him,” Ahmla said. “He’s enough of a brat.”

“You wound me,” Kallaar said with a pout.

Shanna laughed. “I will leave you to charm sweets from the cook, for I must to bed. It was a pleasure to meet you both. Perhaps I’ll see you again before you continue your travels.”

“Count on it, my princess. I could never leave here without seeing your lovely face at least once more.”

Ahmla lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and even the cook snorted as she brought them bowls of the soup kept on the fire for staff and soldiers working through the night.

Smiling again, Shanna bowed her head as they bowed. “Goodnight, dear sirs. Sleep well.”

“And you, my princess,” Kallaar said. “Sweet dreams.”

As she headed off to her room, still smiling at Kallaar’s antics and how nice it had felt to be held so easily by Ahmla, Shanna thought maybe for the first time in a long time, her dreams just might be sweet.

Purchase

NineStar Press | Amazon | Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

Meet the Author

Megan is a long time resident of LGBTQ fiction, and keeps herself busy reading, writing, and publishing it. She is often accused of fluff and nonsense. When she’s not involved in writing, she likes to cook, harass her cats, or watch movies. She loves to hear from readers, and can be found all over the internet.

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Tour Schedule

6/5 – Erotica For All

6/5 – Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Word

6/6 – MM Good Book Reviews

6/6 – Sharing Links and Wisdom

6/7 – millsylovesbooks

6/7 – Divine Magazine

6/8 – A Book Lover’s Dream Book Blog

6/8 – Happily Ever Chapter

6/9 – Bonkers About Books

6/9 – Stories That Make You Smile

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Love a Fantasy? Check out ‘The Castaway Prince’ by Isabelle Adler (author interview/excerpt/giveaway)

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Title:  The Castaway Prince

Author: Isabelle Adler

Publisher:  NineStar Press

Release Date: May 15, 2017

Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex

Pairing: Male/Male

Length: 20000

Genre: fantasy, fantasy, royalty, androgyny, cross-dressing, friends to lovers, disguise, princes

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Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to host Isabelle Adler here today.  Welcome, Isabelle, tell us a little bit about yourself!

✒︎

~Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words Interview with Isabelle Adler~

✒︎

If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?

There are so many superpowers I’d like to have! For instance, the power to slow or stop time entirely. I’d get so much done! Telekinesis would be rather useful as well; and don’t get me started on teleportation!.. The one thing I definitely wouldn’t want, though, is telepathy.

If you could trade places with one of your characters, who would it be and why?

If you could sequester yourself for a week somewhere and just focus on your writing, where would you go and what would the environment be like?

I guess my perfect writing getaway would be a ski lodge somewhere in the Swiss Alps, sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of a roaring fire, with snow falling outside and an endless supply of hot chocolate. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

What’s the one thing, you can’t live without?

Coffee. Definitely coffee.

What internet site do you surf to the most?

YouTube and Thesaurus.com

When you got your very first manuscript acceptance letter, what was your initial reaction and who was the first person you told?

Oh, wow. When I got the acceptance letter for Adrift from the editor at NineStar Press, I was ecstatic. I could hardly believe my eyes! I mean, somebody thought my manuscript was good enough to publish! I wish I could say I did a happy dance, but unfortunately, I was too busy organizing my kids in the morning. I told my husband right away, though; he was even more excited than I was!

Synopsis

Ostracized by his family for his sexual identity, Prince Stephan is forced to flee his homeland before his older brother ascends the throne.

Stephan has been drawn to feminine things for as long as he can remember, so when the dire need for secrecy arises, he seizes the chance to don the perfect disguise. With the help of his loyal servant, Stephan picks his way through hostile territory, hiding his identity by posing as a woman. His only hope for asylum lies with the man who had been his friend and lover three years ago. But when that man also happens to be the crown prince of a rival country, things are a bit more complicated.

With war looming on the horizon, the danger of discovery grows by the moment. With all odds stacked against him, will Stephan find a safe place where he can be his true self, or is he doomed to remain a castaway?

Excerpt

The Castaway Prince
Isabelle Adler © 2017
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

“My, aren’t you a beauty.”

“Shut up,” Stephan said as he hoisted his skirts. The wind and the rain had made the pier boards slippery, and he nearly fell over as the wet fabric twisted around his legs. All his surreptitious practice wearing dresses and feminine undergarments hadn’t prepared him for the trials of this kind of miserable weather. In the course of a few minutes after stepping out of the relative coziness of their private boat cabin, he’d managed to get soaked through down to his stockings and narrowly avoided falling into the river.

Warren, his manservant, seemed to be rather amused by Stephan’s efforts. He was grinning as he watched him try to drag his bags onto the pier. Stephan really wasn’t supposed to do that, but the port hand was currently busy unloading another boat, and the prospect of warming up in front of a cozy fire had lost Stephan all patience.

“Help me, you oaf!” Stephan glared at Warren from under the hood of his fur-lined cloak. The man was having a bit too much fun at his expense.

“Watch your language. You’re a lady, remember?” Warren said, quickly coming to his aid, shouldering the heavy travel bags. “One who’s too pretty to be so bad-tempered.” He winked at Stephan and led the way across the busy dock, farther into the streets of the city.

Zenna, the capital of Esnia, sprawled on both banks of the river, its two halves connected by a multitude of stone bridges. This was a city Stephan had never thought he’d be visiting—certainly not in his current predicament. The royal castle, partially visible from the docks, was an ominous presence that loomed over the city and more resembled a prison. It spanned the narrowest point of the river with its massive arch of a weathered stone bridge. Built to withstand invasion and siege, it was supported by great rectangular pillars rooted deep in the riverbed, now almost entirely green with centuries-old buildup of slime and algae.

Stephan was glad when its daunting bulk was lost from view as they headed to the more genteel part of the city, where the smell of fish and refuse wasn’t quite as overpowering. They had to walk a good distance from the docks, but as they left the bustle of the riverfront and fish markets behind, the streets became broader, and the mud was replaced with cobblestones. The rain was bitterly cold, making him miss the slightly gentler climate of his homeland.

Thankfully, with so much traffic this time of day, they didn’t attract too much notice. They found a respectable-looking inn, situated on one of the main streets, where noble folk, even those traveling ostensibly without a retinue, weren’t an uncommon sight.

“My sister and I require lodgings for tonight,” Warren announced with a haughty air as they stepped inside the common room and the innkeeper rushed to meet them. Really, Stephan thought as he pushed back his hood to watch Warren dispense silver coins, the man was doing a startlingly good job imitating nobility, even considering he came from a well-off merchant family and not some backwater village. Stephan stood aside, waiting meekly for his “brother” to finish giving instructions regarding their meals and baths, and then followed him upstairs. He would be overjoyed to finally see a dry bed and a lit fireplace in a room that didn’t sway with the river’s tides.

They were given two adjacent rooms on the second floor. Warren deposited Stephan’s bags in his room before retiring to his own, where Stephan could hear him unpacking on the other side of the wall. He took off his cloak and fumbled with the lacings of his bodice, cursing under his breath. The wretched things were so wet it made them more difficult to handle, but finally the knots came undone, and the heavy dress, crumpled and dirty from the journey, slipped from his shoulders to the floor. The corset that cinched his waist and added discreet padding to his chest was next to come off, and Stephan could finally draw an unrestricted breath, standing in nothing but a fine cotton chemise and bloomers.

As this was a room intended for a lady, there was a large standing mirror in one corner. Its ornate frame must have been the pride of the innkeeper.

Looking into the spotless polished surface, Stephan had to admit his bedraggled state didn’t quite mesh with his idea of feminine charm. The paint he’d used to accentuate his lashes had smeared beneath his eyes, and his chestnut hair, usually done in a low bun, was now in complete disarray.

Despite the dress being uncomfortable at times—particularly when it was nearly soaking wet—he was growing more and more accustomed to it. At the beginning of their journey, he’d been nervous about appearing ridiculous, despite all the previous careful preparation and the endless hours spent on modulating his voice and perfecting his posture in front of the mirror. His shoulders were too wide, his hips too narrow, his gait too awkward. Perhaps he’d been lucky no one had peered too closely at a noblewoman traveling under the protection of her fierce-looking older brother.

It was one thing to put on a costume once in a while for the sheer fun of it, and quite another to wear it constantly, living in it and assuming it as a part of his identity, affecting a wholly feminine character at all times. Especially when this identity—as attuned as it was to his preferences—was the only thing keeping him alive.

Still, as he wiped away the streaks of paint and grime from his face and leaned in to look more closely—at the smooth cheeks so rarely in need of shaving, the long lashes, and the finely arched brows—the familiar similitude of womanly features reasserted itself. There was nothing overtly masculine about the face staring back at him. Turning slightly, he lifted a shoulder, affecting a coquettish pose, and smiled at his reflection. Maybe the possibility of him pulling this off wasn’t so entirely unfeasible.

There was a knock on the door, and he turned around in alarm, clutching the chemise that had slipped off his shoulder, but it was only Warren, carrying a tray with two steaming cups of tea.

“Your Highness,” he said, after shutting the door with his heel.

Stephan took the cup gratefully, warming his fingers. The scalding-hot fragrant tea made him feel marginally better about the world.

Warren set the tray on the table. He took a quilted silk robe out of one of the bags and helped Stephan put it on, after which he proceeded to pick up the discarded articles of wet clothing strewn across the floor.

“It would behoove you to be a bit more circumspect,” he observed in a neutral tone as he shook the water out of the velvet. “For a pampered aristocrat, you behave like a loudmouthed milkmaid sometimes.”

Stephan barked a laugh and turned away from the mirror. “Only when I’m too cold to wait on my servant’s alacrity.”

It was meant as gentle ribbing, not real censure. Warren seemed to take it as such, because he draped the dress neatly over a chair to dry, and sat down without waiting for permission, pouring another cup for himself.

While Stephan had been busy ogling himself in the mirror, Warren had taken the opportunity to change out of his travel clothes. The plain linen shirt clung to his broad shoulders, and his short auburn hair was half dry already. He was tall and solidly built, the very image of hale masculinity, whereas Stephan was slender and almost petite, with fine bones and delicate features. He’d been teased for these attributes since adolescence, but now he worried they were not nearly as effeminate as the situation required.

“You seem glummer than usual,” Warren observed. “I’d have thought it would take more than a bit of rain to dampen your spirits.”

“The prospect of being thrown in prison and possibly executed if anyone were to recognize me doesn’t exactly make me cheerful,” Stephan said dryly, setting his cup down and removing the needle-sharp pins that held his long hair back. “And it’s so…dreary here.”

He supposed his own anxiety made the surroundings seem more depressing than they truly were, but so far nothing about this city had appeased him, apart from the tea.

“At least we’re off that cursed boat,” Warren offered wryly, watching him over the rim of his cup. He’d had some difficulties adjusting to that mode of transportation, and spent the first few days on the upper deck, leaning over the rail. The experience hadn’t served to lighten the moods of either of them. “And no one has followed us.”

Stephan nodded in acquiescence as he languidly finger-combed his hair, working out the knots. There had been no signs of pursuit, or of anyone actively looking for them, as far as he could tell. Of course, he was counting on the likelihood of his seeking refuge in Esnia being rejected as outright preposterous. Just as his outfitting himself as a woman would have been thought to be. It was one reason—though admittedly not the chief one—why he’d resorted to this type of disguise.

“We’re due to arrive at the royal castle tomorrow,” Warren reminded him. Stephan could tell he’d been steeling himself to have this conversation. Again. “Are you absolutely sure you want to go through with this? You know what I think about this whole matter, Your Highness. It’s not too late to turn elsewhere.”

“We’ve come this far already,” Stephan said. “To back down now would be—”

“Prudent,” Warren interjected. “Up until now, we’ve been traveling by the waterways, which was safe enough. Not a lot of people, more privacy to be had, no fear of discovery. And if anyone thought you behaved strangely—well, gentle-born women are peculiar in their manner, you know? But it won’t be like that in Zenna. Here, there are real noblewomen aplenty, around whom you will need to take special care of how you conduct yourself. Not to mention people who might recognize you from before.”

“Who? The only ones who might would have been the members of the Esnian delegation to Seveihar, and that was three years ago. A lot has changed since then.” Three years was a long time, especially in that awkward age between sixteen and nineteen. Stephan was reasonably sure it would be difficult enough to associate him with the shy, lanky youth he’d been back then, even without the disguise.

Warren shrugged and took a sip of tea. For a moment, his eyes lingered on Stephan’s hands going through his hair, and then he looked away. “When you have reason to hate someone as the Esnians hate us, you remember your enemies’ faces. You send spies that would know what they look like. We’ve talked about this already, but what makes you think Prince Arlen himself won’t call the guards when he sees you? As you’ve said, a lot has changed in three years.”

“He wouldn’t,” Stephan said with a conviction he wasn’t feeling.

Warren rolled his eyes, his expression that of a long-suffering voice of reason. At twenty-five, he was only six years Stephan’s senior, but at times he acted like Stephan’s aged grandfather.

“It’s not as if I have a lot of choice,” Stephan said bitterly. He finished combing his hair and picked up his tea, which was rapidly growing cold. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Arlen is the only one who might grant me asylum.”

“There are other people who could help you,” Warren said carefully. “I mean—”

“You know very well there aren’t,” Stephan cut him off. “None that would support me against Robert and my uncle.”

Warren opened his mouth and then paused as he seemed to reconsider what he was going to say.

“With all due respect, you have no idea what kind of man Arlen is now. Do you really want to risk your life on his ability to handle seeing you in a petticoat?”

Stephan turned away and walked to the fireplace, letting the warmth spread through his weary body. As much as he wanted to snap back at Warren, he couldn’t. Warren was right, of course, and it wasn’t only Stephan’s life that hung in the balance. Stephan’s title as the prince of Seveihar—even while he was fleeing his own country—offered at least some semblance of protection, while Warren had none. Furthermore, the circumstances in which Stephen’s identity could be discovered—namely, pretending to be a woman—would mean nothing but shame and ridicule for his family, regardless of his ultimate fate. Shame and ridicule that they would not react well to.

Stephan often wondered why Warren had agreed to accompany him and share in his uncertain fate—loyalty notwithstanding. More than loyalty, really, as a bond had formed between them, tenuous but certain. But it had become clear from their first night on the road that Warren’s plan had been to continue to dissuade him from this folly—a plan that had proved futile in the face of Stephan’s blind determination.

It wasn’t as if Stephan wasn’t aware of the risks. He knew exactly how dangerous this scheme was. He’d known that when he’d first devised it, but then it had seemed like a daring idea, a shockingly outrageous adventure, even if it had been conceived of out of sheer desperation. Making his way through enemy territory, securing invitations to the High King of Esnia’s annual ball under false names—all for a chance to reconnect with the man who had been his first love and best friend years ago, and seek refuge with him—it all seemed improbable.

But after surviving a third alarming “accident” at the royal palace at Sever, his home in the valley-situated capital of Seveihar, Stephan was more than ready to risk appealing to an old lover rather than tempting fate by remaining in the family nest.

Certainly, in coming to Esnia, he was placing himself in no lesser danger. Seveihar’s relations with Esnia had been tenuous for decades, and then there was King Feden’s personal dislike of him. If exposed, Stephan would most likely face captivity and incarceration.

At least the choice of disguise for his escape had come easily to Stephan. If he was going to be persecuted for his idiosyncrasies, he might as well embrace them fully. Stephan had always enjoyed exploring his feminine side, and despite the audacity of it, when the idea of this subterfuge entered his mind, he’d directed all his efforts to delving deeper into it. He was still not entirely certain of his ability to fool others, of not making some stupid mistake that would give him away, but it was attainable, given time. He just wasn’t sure he had enough of it at his disposal.

“I have to at least try to get through to him,” he told Warren. “I can do this. I promise I’ll be careful. And it’s not like anyone would miss me should anything happen.”

Warren wisely didn’t contradict him, but his expression grew pensive. He seemed to put his arguments aside, as he’d done so often before when Stephan refused to be swayed.

“I wish you’d listen to reason, Your Highness. But since you won’t, and we’re here, we might as well go through with it. I’ll fetch you some food and hot water,” Warren said. “I’ve requested for you not to be disturbed.”

“Thanks, War,” Stephan offered him a smile. The man insisted on addressing him by his title, but in truth he was more a friend than a servant; he’d become the only one whom Stephan could trust when so much was at stake.

Warren left to get their dinner, and Stephan shed his robe before stretching on the bed, luxuriating in the crispness of clean starched sheets against his skin. After a three-week boat journey at the wane of autumn, he was grateful for all the little comforts he’d always taken for granted. The linen smelled vaguely of lavender. Stephan liked lavender. His household staff had scented his pillows with the dried flowers, and he remembered the smell clinging to Arlen’s hair as they rolled about in bed, laughing.

He closed his eyes, breathing in deeply. The memory of that long-ago summer had lingered on the edge of awareness. Now, he could see in his mind’s eye the bright-colored light that had spilled from the stained-glass windows of the throne room, lending an almost festive appearance to the first and only Esnian delegation to Seveihar. How handsome Prince Arlen had been, wearing a silver circlet in his hair and Esnian royal blue. How happy they’d been later, finding joy in each other’s company. He wished he could stay in that memory a little bit longer, but it dissolved in the warmth, transforming into deep, exhausted sleep.

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Meet the Author

A voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.

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