SWORD OF THE GUARDIAN PDF
Sword of the Guardian [Legends of Ithyria] pdf - Merry Shannon a. Phantoms the guardians metal beak was flooded by them as a few times. He is in his second. But what Shasta doesn't know is that her new guardian has a very SKU e: File Formats epub, pdf, prc. Sword Of The Guardian Legends Of Ithyria king james holy bible - av - i preface to pdf version preface to pdf version of the king james holy bible.
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Sword of the Guardian The Legend of Ithyria Brought to you byE-Books from Bold Strokes Books, Inc. cittadelmonte.infor. Sword of the Guardian The Legend of Ithyria Brought to you by E-Books from Bold Strokes Books, Inc. cittadelmonte.infor. A shocking assassination creates an unconventional bond between a princess and her guardian in a kingdom filled with political intrigue, danger and.
By Merry Shannon. When the Goddess Ithyris appoints shy priestess Kadrian to become Her first shaa'din, or holy warrior, in a millennium, everyone is mystified by Her decision—especially Kade herself. On the battlefields of Mondera, as Kade struggles to defend Ithyria from a dangerous new enemy, she's also brought face-to-face with her greatest personal temptation: Erinda was born into the service of the royal family. Endless household chores and a passion for horses fill her days, but her nights are consumed with hopeless longing for the woman she lost to the temple seven winters ago. Erinda knows Kade will never return to her. After all, what mortal could ever hope to compete with a Goddess?
By Melissa Brayden. Hannah Shephard likes her life, her job, and her perfectly cozy apartment around the corner from her shop. Plus, Hannah has bigger problems to focus on. When world famous romance novelist Parker Bristow accepts her request to come in for a signing, Hannah might finally be able to drum up some much-needed attention and save the shop. A real romance is off the table. Parker is flashy, sought after, and Hannah is just, well, Hannah.
But for Parker, it seems like Hannah might be a safe place to fall. The question is, what kind of falling are they doing? This is such a wonderful, special book. It may be the author's first, and fantasy stories may not normally appeal to you, but this was amazing to me.
I completely forgot that this was an "alternative" romance book by a new writer! This is first and foremost a truly exemplary Adventure and Romance novel. As great as any I've read by Eddings, or Zelazny, or Donaldson. And -just- as touching in it's moments of love and heartbreak. And there are many. The plot points of spoiled young princess, court intrigue and treachery, a loving Goddess, a dedicated, dashing yet torn young hero, are all old and familiar, yet the story is refreshing and above all, new, despite this.
And in no small part because the story is told from the author's heart. I could really tell this story has been cherished by the writer, for a long long time.
I started backwards, reading her second book first "Branded Ann" , and what I said then is doubly true with this, her first book. I really got to care about the two main characters, and I was carried away with their lives.
Heck, rumors that I may have gotten teary eyed more than a few times in reading it and re-reading it would be difficult to deny. I love books. Yet I can be honest in being critical of books I don't like. I have just started to discover and enjoy the genre of "lesbian romance" books, and perhaps I'm a bit more comfortable than some in reading them with an open mind and heart, but -this- book truly transcends the genre.
I wish I was a better writer, so that I could be more eloquent, and somehow convince you how unimportant it is that the -hero- is secretly a -heroine-.
It's important to the plot, yes, but not to the -book- itself. This story stands head and shoulders above many other popular fantasy books, on it's -own- merits. I won't deny, there are a number of pages of, er I honestly think you would enjoy getting to know the people inhabiting this world: Talon, with her self-sacrifice and dedication, and the heartache she endures for the sake of the people she loves; Shasta, shedding her mercurial adolescence, and learning to put her kingdom and the ones she loves ahead of herself; Lyris, overcoming her quiet, shy nature to seek out her destiny serving the Goddess, and in doing so finding a strength she didn't know she had, and; Bria, stumbling through being the youngest sister, and the terrible mistakes she makes.
The list of characters goes on, and yet it is not so long as to be confusing. I was delighted to see the author has a website, and to see there that she will return to the kingdom of Ithyria with the book tentatively entitled "Prayer of the Handmaiden". Wherein I hope to see the return of the irascible chambermaid Erinda, and the woman she lost to the Goddess's service??
Ok, I'll shut up now. Sword of the Guardian. Share on. A shocking assassination creates an unconventional bond between a princess and her guardian in a kingdom filled with political intrigue, danger and unexpected romance. Princess Shasta Soltranis enjoys a pampered life of court dances, elaborate finery, and the occasional secret fencing match with her twin brother, Daric. But in the midst of a birthday celebration, her world shatters when a mysterious assassin takes her brother's life.
Shasta, the only remaining heir to the throne, narrowly escapes the assassin's blade thanks to the intervention of a traveling acrobat named Talon. With the threat of another attempt on Shasta's life imminent, her father declares that the young hero will be come the Princess's bodyguard. Chapter Three Shasta awoke the next morning and gave an unhappy groan as a beam of sunlight blinded her with its brightness.
Her eyes felt grainy and hot from her crying episode the night before, and a flush crept across her face as she remembered. He must be in the privy chamber already. As if on cue, a cheerful whistling emerged from behind the privy door, and Shasta smiled wryly. Their living situation was awkward, to say the least, but they were learning to adjust. After several uncomfortable morning encounters, Talon had begun a habit of whistling just before he stepped out of the privy, giving Shasta time to don her dressing robe before he appeared.
He gave a small bow. Nurse had already laid out her black silk breakfast gown and mourning veil, ready to be worn for the morning meal. A thin gold wire encircled its base, strung between tiny holes bored in the shaft to hold it securely.
The wire formed a loop through which was threaded a delicate gold chain. In wonder, Shasta held the feather pendant up for a moment, then turned and ran out of the chamber.
Talon finished buckling his sword belt and looked up. As she approached the black gown from the chair, however, her hand drifted to the feather around her neck, and she made a decision. Leaving the somber dress and veil where they were, she went to the door of her rooms and called for her ladies-in-waiting. Lyris and Bria appeared in the doorway almost immediately from their room down the hall. Come, both of you may help me dress. Bria, will you arrange my hair? When they emerged, Talon nearly dropped the small knife she was sharpening at the sight.
And the little blue flowers scattered across the dress accented the blue feather at her throat. Shasta was strikingly beautiful. In fact, Talon was startled by a sudden irrational desire to touch her, wondering if that flawless skin was as soft as it looked. She checked the impulse quickly, though a flush crept into her cheeks for even thinking such an impertinent thing.
Shasta giggled. Was I that much of a fright before? The Princess did not seem to notice. She giggled again. When she and her entourage reached the dining hall, King Soltran stood up from the table. His face lit when he saw her unveiled for the first time in several moons. You look so well this morning. As the servants began to distribute plates of food, King Soltran waved a hand at the tall young man at the opposite end of the table.
He had risen to his feet when they first entered, and remained standing as the King introduced him. I have invited him to breakfast with us this morning. Fickett was the current viceroy of Mondera, and it came as no surprise to anyone when he appointed his own son to the position of chancellor, second in command of the provincial senate.
Shasta had never much cared for either of them. The noble traits that characterized the Ithyrian royal family seemed to have bypassed Archduke Fickett and his son. They were both intolerably arrogant and dull and, after greeting Kumire with what she hoped was a sufficient display of good manners, Shasta ignored him entirely. Nearly choking on a mouthful of eggs, the King shook his head, reaching for his goblet. But things are different now. At the very least, I should know how to defend myself.
I want to learn the sword. The chancellor has suggested, and I agree, that we should begin to think about your betrothal. To whom, may I ask? I understand perfectly. I am not going to hide from my birthright by marrying the chancellor or anyone else. It was no secret that many in the kingdom questioned his right to wear the crown.
Shasta felt a twinge of guilt and softened her tone. There have been queens before, Father, who ruled Ithyria alone just as well as any man. She had come to think of the Princess as a rather quiet, somber girl, far too wrapped up in herself to summon such passion. King Soltran sighed. Of course I will not force you to marry against your will, but I worry that you may find the responsibility of the crown far too heavy a burden to bear alone.
However, you are still young and we have time, which is why I am going to propose a compromise. In doing so you will learn many of the things you will need should you decide to take the throne yourself, and perhaps it will afford you the chance to get better acquainted with Chancellor Kumire. You might find that you enjoy his company. Soltran rubbed his beard and chuckled.
Shasta shook her head. And a weak chin. I find him absolutely lovely. Shasta rolled her eyes at her companion and stood up, closing the book on the table and rolling up her parchment.
Her guardian was tracing a line on the map with his finger, engrossed in conversation with the captain. Shasta cleared her throat and they both looked up at her. I want to go riding. Lyris and Bria hastened after them, Bria insisting she wished to ride as well.
We will see you this evening. Come on, I have to change. These possessed the same fullness as regular skirts, but had separation for the legs that made it much easier to mount and sit astride a horse. Shasta chose a dark blue riding skirt and a white bodice with light boning, wanting as much freedom of movement as possible. After changing as quickly as she could in her privy chamber, she emerged and gave her guardian an enormous grin. It had been several moons since her last visit, and her excitement and trepidation grew with every step.
This had been their special place, a secret between twins, and for the first time she would share it with someone else. But another part of her felt guilty. Shasta stopped walking, her stomach queasy. He could easily rest his chin on her head, and probably have to duck a little to do it.
We spent a lot of time together. She could order his silence easily and knew he would obey. Talon seemed to understand her ambivalence. It was our secret, together. Once inside, she stood for a moment to allow her eyes to become adjusted to the cool darkness. So Daric brought me out here one day and started teaching me himself. Especially since it will be a while before I can really show Captain Vaughn what I can do with a sword.
Yet to hear Nurse talk, a person would think you were made of fire and thunderbolts. Until the last few days I thought she was making it up. Periodically she looked up at Talon, who was sitting in a chair across the room, sharpening his sword with smooth, methodical strokes. When their eyes met they would exchange grins, and Shasta would return to her reading.
But it was difficult to concentrate on the pages. Talon had turned out to be quite a good fencing partner. It had been a while since Shasta had felt the breathless, contented exhaustion of real physical exercise. And it was fun to have a secret once more.
Nurse came bustling into the room and eyed them suspiciously. As she passed Talon, her nose twitched at the pungent aroma of horses, hay, and sweat. How can you stand it? Shasta waved her hand.
From now on you will use the privy chamber bath at least twice a quarter-moon. Or near horses. Nurse sighed and she, too, eyed Talon critically. Talon grinned back and closed the door as the Princess entered the privy chamber. In truth, she was relieved. She had a hard time trying to arrange for a bath. This new bathing routine would be much easier, and it meant she could remain close to Shasta in case she was needed. Though even if the Princess were as mean-spirited and selfish as Talon had supposed, this was still the best thing that had ever happened to Talon and her sisters, and she was determined to make the most of it.
As a child, she had sworn to avenge herself on those who had murdered her family and sold her and her sisters into a life of brutality and terror. Now her revenge was closer than ever before. Once her sisters were safely established in a new life, Talon would seek out those who had destroyed their village and haunted her dreams ever since. It may have been nearly ten winters ago, but those memories were forever burned into her mind.
Are you all right? She dropped the weapon immediately, rose to her feet, and gazed at the scarlet line dripping thickly down her wrist. Shasta still seemed bewildered, and Talon cursed inwardly. A few moments later, at the washstand, Talon winced as she poured cool water over her hand, staining the liquid in the bowl a brilliant red.
She looked up and met her own eyes in the looking glass. What a strange person stared back at her, she thought: Her lips were too full for a boy but not quite dainty enough to be feminine. Thick black brows jutted out over eyes the color of coal. With a heavy sigh, Talon took one of the small towels from the stand, wrapped it firmly around her injured hand, and sat down to remove her boots.
She shrugged out of her vest and unbuttoned the front of her white linen shirt, making a face as she caught a whiff of the fabric.
No wonder the Princess had complained. Dropping the shirt in a pile next to her boots, she made a mental note to ask Erinda to add her clothes to the laundry the next morning.
Then she began the painful process of removing the wrappings that held down her chest, carefully rolling the strips of fabric as she went. She gave an involuntary gasp as the last binding strip came free, suddenly releasing her chest so that she could breathe fully. For a moment she sat doubled over, inhaling and exhaling a few times to try and accustom her brain to the sudden rush of oxygen.
It was a strange feeling, not being wrapped tightly in layers of fabric. Oddly self-conscious, Talon stood and unbuckled her belt, quickly removed her trousers and undergarments, and stepped into the tub of fragrant water.
It was still very warm, and she mused absentmindedly that the Princess must like her bathwater near scalding. She sank down in the tub so that the soap suds covered her shoulders, careful of her injured hand. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply, enjoying both the feel of the warm water enveloping her body and the scent of lemongrass and chamomile.
A wry smile touched her lips. The captain would surely tease her tomorrow about her sweet-smelling skin and hair. Few luxuries in her life could equal this.
Talon had never regretted the decision to maintain her male disguise, in spite of numerous resulting inconveniences. Nothing in the world was as important as the safety and well-being of her sisters. It had been her last promise to their dying mother, and every day that she saw Lyris and Bria wearing the fine clothes of court attendants, taking tea with the Princess, and studying ballroom dance as if they were as nobly born as the Princess herself, it filled her with indescribable pride.
No sacrifice was too great to bear for such a reward.
Satisfied, she finished dressing but decided against the belt and boots, as she was going to bed soon. When she opened the privy chamber door, Princess Shasta was in bed and was lying very still.
Talon sighed and put it out, undressed and quickly pulled on a clean shirt, then felt her way through the dark to the edge of her cot. In her hands was the necklace Talon had fashioned for her, and she was stroking the feather. If you laid a hand on me my father would skin you alive. What were you thinking about when I interrupted you? On criminals my father has sentenced to death. No one else in the palace ever gets abrupt or cold with me, no matter how obnoxious I am.
You treat me just like your sisters. You have my word. Shasta reached up and caught her hand, which was still wrapped in the thin towel. She held it for a moment, then inspected it in the faint moonlight. I bet this is going to hurt like crazy until it heals. She turned slowly before the tall glass, tugging at the bottom of her jacket. Gold-fringed epaulettes topped both shoulders, and a white sash banded in gold ran from one shoulder down to the opposite hip. A hat completed the uniform, a squarish black thing with red and white ostrich plumes blossoming from a gold decorative facet above the forehead.
Talon had broad shoulders anyway, but she had to admit that the extra bulk was more convincing. Your duties are intensive. Even the lowest-ranking servants in the palace have a day off for their own rest, yet your position does not allow you so much as an hour to yourself.
So this evening, I will assume personal responsibility for the Princess at the Harvest Benediction. You, my boy, have the evening off. It was quite heavy, stuffed with coins. You should go, have a good time at the ball. And I want to be there.
Just in case. And my offer stands if you change your mind. The musicians at the entrance struck up a fanfare as Talon reached the doors. This was it. She made sure her ridiculous hat was tucked securely under her arm and took a deep breath. Shoulders back and head held high, she marched into the vast room, approached the thrones at its far end, and dropped to one knee, bowing deeply before the King.
King Soltran rose to his feet and held up his hands for silence. The musicians stopped playing, and he addressed the room of soldiers. Rise, Talon, and swear an oath of fealty to the Goddess and your King. Although she had every word memorized, their true meaning struck her deeply as she made her own solemn pledge. I enter into this pledge of my own volition, under no adverse influence and without personal reservation, to serve my king and country with all my strength and with all my heart from this day forward.
May the Goddess guide and protect His Majesty and those who serve his will. King Soltran saluted back, as did the captain and all other members of the guard present. Talon bowed once more, then turned and bowed to the Princess.
This gesture was not required, but the crowd noticed it and increased their applause and cheers. She turned back, grinning, to face the King as he gestured for silence once more. You are all invited to attend the entertainment and ceremonies this evening, and we will hold a dance in the palace gardens afterward. The other fellows mean well enough, but they get loud and obnoxious when they have a few drinks in them.
Soltran observed the exchange between his daughter and her bodyguard, and was inwardly pleased at how fondly Talon gazed down at the Princess.
It was difficult to remember at times that Talon was not a boy at all. Six moons ago, had someone suggested that he would one day commission a woman to serve in the royal guard, Soltran would have laughed aloud.
But Talon had worked just as hard, or harder, than most of the young men who were hoping for that same honor. The flowering friendship between the two exceeded his highest expectations. Soltran hoped it meant he would never have to call on the harsher terms of their bargain. Shasta gave her a light smack on the shoulder.
This was entirely new for her, sitting beside Shasta at a table rather than standing behind her chair. She found herself scanning the tables along the sides of the hall with an anxiety that almost amounted to obsession, searching for any sign of the black-cloaked assassin she remembered from the birthday banquet.
Shasta sighed. Have some wine. Shasta sighed again. Now keep drinking. I want that glass empty before the night is over. Shasta watched her take a long draught from the cup, and gave a satisfied smile.
At the end of the table she heard a small gasp and knew her sisters had also noticed the performers. The musicians suddenly changed their tune and tempo, and several dancers twirled out into the center of the hall, waving long ribbons and expertly weaving their bodies in and out between one another.
Talon knew the Harvest celebration well. First a few brightly dressed performers would warm up the crowds, followed by an acrobat or jester. Then would come some sort of sultry dance with plenty of hip jiggling, more acrobatics, and a singer or bard to deliver a poetic tribute to Ithyris. She had been a part of such celebrations every Seventhmoon since she was ten and was so familiar with the routine that it was disconcerting to be the audience rather than the entertainment.
As she had predicted, when the dancers were finished a dwarflike man wearing a ridiculous multipointed hat and oversized slippers waddled into the center of the room and performed a few sleight-of-hand magic tricks, then began to tell jokes while he juggled random food items he chose from the serving platters.
Then came the dancing girls, with their silken scarves and bare bellies, jingling bracelets and chains of coins shimmering at their hips. There were six of them, of various sizes and shapes, all so thin Talon could see their ribs as they bent and swayed. The musicians played an incessant, sensual drum beat and the girls moved their bare feet in time to the rhythm, the sheer fabric of their skirts affording everyone in the room a generous view of their calves and thighs.
After swirling through the center of the room, they scattered, each one going to a different table and choosing a guest to favor with special attention. One of them, a redhead, approached the head table and flicked a scarf seductively at the King. He smiled but lifted a hand, politely rejecting her invitation, and so her eyes scanned the rest of the guests and suddenly locked onto Talon.
Reluctantly she forced a smile, and the girl seemed to take that as a sign she was succeeding. Talon raised a hand to move it, and the dancer, thinking Talon was reaching for her, moved to allow Talon access. Without thinking, Talon jumped to her feet. He snapped his fingers, and quickly the musicians started playing again as a couple of acrobats took to the floor.
The dancer slid off the table, bowing over and over, and Talon watched helplessly as she returned to her position by the wall. Her master would not beat her in the middle of a performance, but Talon could guess what sort of pain he would inflict the moment the troupe left the palace.
Go clean yourself up, kid. As it was, the poor girl was probably going to be beaten within an inch of her life. As she rebuckled her belt, she noticed the pouch of coins Vaughn had given her before the commission ceremony, and before she could change her mind, she grabbed the pouch and returned to the great hall.
Talon waited outside the double doors for the troupe to finish their performance. She could tell by the beating drums that the priestesses were probably finishing with the Harvest prayers, and a few minutes later the hall doors opened so that the Ithyrian women could file out, grains of rice still clinging to their veils. Talon stepped back so they could pass, inclining her head respectfully. The hall erupted in applause as the performers took their last bows and collected the shower of coins that were thrown into the center of the floor.
They exited soon after, passing Talon on their way to the gardens. Talon put a hand on his shoulder as he passed. A word, if you please.
As she expected, his eyes immediately gleamed. Several of them are quite… skilled. When she recognized Talon she looked as though she might be sick, but she approached nonetheless and fell to her knees, bowing her head to the floor. I expect you to serve him well. The redhead stood, eyes downcast, and followed Talon as she strode down the corridor. The loose white shirt she wore beneath was much more comfortable, and considerably cooler.
The Princess eats like a bird, so there should be plenty left. When she turned around she was startled to find the redhead less than an handbreadth away, and before Talon realized what was happening the girl was pressed up against her, little fingers working quickly at the buttons of her linen shirt. Talon reached up and gently prevented the questing fingers from straying any farther. Backing away, she looked into a pair of gray-blue eyes the color of the sky during a summer storm.
Talon had been kissed before, but always by dirty, drunken older men whose advances she was attempting to avoid without seeming openly uncooperative.
It had never felt like this, so soft and warm and pliant, and she had never before found herself desiring more, wanting deeper, stronger contact. Should it? Disturbed, she pushed the redhead away and backed up several steps, finding it hard to catch her breath. The girl on the floor was terrified. I have no other expectations, I promise. Sit with me. A low table before the plush upholstered couch was laden with covered dishes, and Talon seated the redhead on the couch before lifting the silver cover of one of the platters to reveal an assortment of sliced cheeses and meats and a colorful arrangement of fruits.
The lamplight glinted through the red liquid. The dancer ate ravenously, and with a twinge, Talon recalled feeling such hunger herself. She made a mental note to wrap up whatever was left for the girl to take with her later. The chancellor nodded. It sounds lovely. In frustration Talon called to Vaughn. If you insist on going, at the very least let me assign you a guard escort. The Princess wanted a chance for adventure, something she was carefully sheltered from on a daily basis.
Shasta folded her arms. It will draw unnecessary attention. Lyris and Bria, too. No one will have any idea who we are. Someone has to protect the Princess from your poor judgment. Lyris blushed lightly. Shasta laughed again. And when else will I have the opportunity to wear split skirts in public without riding horseback?
Bria flushed but made no effort to deny it. And, Talon, you really have to stop being so overprotective. Most of the time the three siblings treated her like she was one of them, but moments like this reminded her that blood was thicker than water.
Sword of the Guardian
It was a cool day in early winter, and the wind had a slight chill, but the weather was still pleasant enough for business. A thousand intermingled smells, of cooking food and rotting fruit and horse excrement, blended together in a combination that was as fascinating as it was disgusting. Merchants shouted at the people passing by, shoving scarves and jewelry under their noses and promising values that their competition could not match.
Kumire pointed out particular carts and shops, telling the girls whether the wares were cultivated, handmade, or imported, and how that affected their cost and value to the customer.
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Her eyes darted from face to face, every muscle in her body tight. She almost felt sick to her stomach. She could see that few of the passersby gave their small party more than a cursory glance; a merchant with a small group of assistants was hardly an unusual sight. And Shasta seemed utterly fascinated, even elated by the entire experience. She was drinking in the sights and smells, tugging impatiently at the hood that blocked her peripheral vision. She had to smile, but only faintly. Lyris squeezed her fingers.
The Princess looked fatigued, and Talon immediately turned to Kumire. Her Highness is tired. We will retire to that pub over there. A matronly woman bustled up to them with a cheerful grin that split her face ear to ear. Talon could hardly wear her uniform while accompanying the disguised Princess, and so she had insisted on wearing the garb of a mercenary.
It was not uncommon for merchants to hire a blade to attend them while doing business in town, and in this guise Talon could carry a sword without incurring unusual attention. I must ask you to leave them by the door. She tightened her grip on the sword, but Shasta gave her a warning glare and flicked her eyes in the direction of the weapon rack.
With a sigh of annoyance, Talon marched to the rack by the door and removed her sword and the knife in her belt. Still the woman did not look satisfied, and with an irritated mutter, Talon rolled up her sleeve and removed the small dagger strapped to her forearm.
Shasta watched her produce these blades, seemingly from nowhere, and her eyes grew larger and larger as the pile on the rack grew bigger. The tavern hostess beckoned them to follow her to a table and benches in the corner of the room. Kumire appeared equally disgusted. Pheasant was often served at the palace, and the Princess eagerly pushed her hood back and lifted the spoon to her lips.
But Talon reached out and took the utensil from her hand, sniffing at it suspiciously. Shasta gave a frustrated sigh. Waving Talon away, she reached for a mug of water and drank deeply.
It took Talon several moments to realize she had not been poisoned but had simply burned her tongue. Slowly Talon sat down again, wishing for the hundredth time that they had never embarked on this absurd adventure.
Shasta took another sip from the mug before speaking. Something bad is coming. Bria kept heaving exaggerated sighs and Kumire simply glowered as though Talon were sabotaging the outing on purpose. The food and rest seemed to be exactly what Shasta needed to restore her usual cheerful energy, and she chatted animatedly with her companions as they finished their meal, all former weariness apparently forgotten.
As the tavern hostess passed by their table, Shasta caught her arm. It was a long ride back, and Shasta was unaccustomed to waiting.
The busty woman stared. How would it look for you to abandon your master in order to follow his maid outside? Your imagination is getting the better of you. Lyris, the peacemaker, quickly stood. Talon, you have other things to worry about right now. She must have gone to find the outhouse on her own. Cursing, she hurried to the weapons rack to retrieve her sword and smaller knives.
The hostess clucked her tongue disapprovingly as Talon strode out of the tavern, sword clanking. The outhouse was a small, narrow hut not far from the back door. Its distinct, pungent odor made Talon wrinkle her nose in distaste. Appalled, she rapped on the decaying door. With growing alarm, Talon yanked on the door handle and lurched back as the door swung wide. The outhouse was empty. A surge of panic flooded her limbs and she looked around frantically. If someone had taken the Princess, there should be tracks.
Talon began examining the hard-packed earth beneath her feet for any sign of a struggle. It was then that a familiar voice tore through the air. Stop that at once! If her people could relieve themselves in such a place, so could she, and besides, she simply could not bear the pain of her straining bladder any longer. As she stepped from the outhouse, looking forward to her evening bath, a disturbance caught her attention.
Running toward the source of the clamor, Shasta descended the low hill behind the outhouse and was shocked to see a man standing in the road with a long black bullwhip, repeatedly striking a woman in a shabby, nearly threadbare dress. Nearby lay an overturned basket and a few heads of lettuce scattered in the dirt. The woman cried out as the whip tore through the thin fabric of her bodice, leaving long, bleeding welts, and as she rolled a bit to her side, trying to avoid the biting blows, Shasta blanched.
The woman being beaten was very obviously pregnant. Shasta bolted toward them, joining the ranks of the crowd that had already begun to gather to watch the spectacle. Get out of the way. He was evidently a merchant, by the finery of his coat and trousers. Do you have any idea who I am? His black eyes glittered dangerously.
He sounds just like Captain Vaughn when he gets angry. It was far too much blood to be caused merely by her wounds, and Shasta had a terrible feeling that something was very wrong. Help is coming. Sometimes the debtor himself will serve out the indenture, or else he might sign over his wife or children. Occasionally the debt is so great that his entire family must work together to pay it off. It happens all the time. He rolled his eyes with irritation. She rose to her feet, marched over to Kumire, and took his hand, removing the enormous emerald and diamond ring that glittered on his middle finger.
The crowd of onlookers seemed as confused as he was to see a servant girl giving orders to her master. You have purchased her debt in full. With a tip of his hat he picked up the basket still lying on the side of the road and strode over the top of the hill, leaving the ruined lettuce to rot in the afternoon sun. Kumire unfolded the document and looked it over. Shasta reached out and took them, and knelt again beside the injured woman. Too still. She turned to the healer. She leaned forward and put her ear to the still lips, and after a moment shook her head.
In her condition, the strain and loss of blood was too much for her heart. The child did not survive. They could hardly take the royal coach on such a trip, and so Vaughn had arranged for one of the guard transports to be filled with boxes and crates to give the illusion of a merchant wagon, and Kumire drove while the rest of them sat in the back among the cargo.
Talon found herself scanning the passing houses and buildings anxiously as they rode by, expecting someone to jump out at them at any moment. Unconsciously she fingered the hilt of the knife concealed in her vest.
Just a little longer, she told herself. I mean, you were working for that performance troupe against your will. The performance troupe was better than…well, most of the other alternatives. He could beat you to death like that if he wanted. Bria bit her lip.
We were his star attraction, too important to risk. Were you beaten? Lyris laid a hand on her sleeve and frowned slightly at Shasta. Those are very unpleasant memories. The heightened paranoia was beginning to wear on her after so many hours, and she was feeling slightly sheepish.
Maybe she really was being silly. A growing sense of danger plagued the edges of her consciousness. Ulrike was stirring. She could feel his presence, faint but sinister, curling like wisps of smoke somewhere in the distance.
She was not certain what it meant, but she planned to lead several protective invocations during the prayer service. She looked up into a pair of remarkably vivid green eyes, and the young woman quickly stepped back and inclined her head respectfully. I should not allow my troubled thoughts to overwhelm my feet. The strange evil circling above Ardrenn? Qiturah regarded the priestess with curiosity. There are shadows gathering over our capital city.
You will stand by my side at evening rites. As Qiturah led the way to the temple sanctuary, she cast a sideways glance at the tall priestess walking a slight but respectful distance behind her. Silently, she invoked the grace of the Goddess. That meant using the southern palace entrance, which opened onto the moors rather than directly into Ardrenn itself. It was a good, cautious plan, but Talon still felt they were far too exposed and vulnerable.
After fifteen of the most agonizing minutes of her life, they finally reached the southern gates, and Kumire exchanged a few words with the guards posted above. They recognized the Monderan chancellor immediately and, after checking their daily roster, gave the order to open the gates. Only when the wagon was back inside the palace walls and the gates had closed with a resounding bang could Talon finally breathe a little easier. Kumire brought them across the grounds and right up to the palace doors before pulling the wagon to a halt.
Captain Vaughn was the first to come running across the courtyard to greet them. Shasta gave the captain a wry smile.
You can relax now. We walked around the market all afternoon and it was perfectly safe. We just got lucky. Leaning back in her chair, she drew the stone along the knife blade in smooth strokes. I thought for certain someone would recognize you. He wants to marry you. Shasta burst out laughing.
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Talon set her book on the table and glanced into the chamber, then stepped back beside Erinda and bowed. Enjoy your bath. Talon closed the door and returned to her seat by the window, giving Erinda a little salute as the chambermaid excused herself. To her consternation the anxiety tightening her chest had suddenly increased tenfold, until it was difficult to breathe.
This is ridiculous, she thought in a panic. What in the name of the Goddess is wrong with me? Her eyes strayed to the privy chamber and she got to her feet and crossed the floor, reaching out, almost without thinking, to touch the heavy wood-paneled door. Shasta… Chapter Seven Shasta stood before the small round looking glass over her washbasin. It was already beginning to fog over with the steam from the bathing tub and she quickly unpinned her long braids, releasing the ends and working out the plaits with her fingers.
As much as she had enjoyed wearing split skirts for an entire day, the fabric was much coarser than the more delicate materials she was used to, and she was looking forward to the soft, silken touch of her dressing robe.
She removed the robe from a hook on the wall and flung it lightly over her dressing screen in the far corner. Even though she was supposed to have complete privacy in this chamber, somehow she felt better about dressing and undressing behind a partition. After all, the privy door had no lock, and her father had assigned a man to share her rooms.
The silkpaneled screen made her feel more secure. She picked up the chamber pot, preferring to relieve herself behind the divider as well. As she rounded the edge of the dressing screen, her heart nearly jumped into her mouth.
A man was crouching behind the partition. The moment she caught sight of him, he leapt at her. Shasta barely had time to register the gleam of a knife in his hand, and she did the only thing that sprang to mind—she shrieked and flung the chamber pot straight at his head.
With a crash, the china vessel shattered over his skull, momentarily stunning him. Shasta seized the edge of the screen, toppling the heavy wooden frame onto her attacker before bolting for the door.
But he was not so easily deterred. His knife ripped through the silken panels, and rising, he followed after her. The privy chamber door burst open with a bang, and Talon barged in. Shasta reached out for her guardian but was yanked backward sharply. The man had caught a handful of her long hair to prevent her from escaping, and the pain that exploded through her scalp made her scream furiously. Talon gave a roar and flew between her and the would-be assassin.
Talon and the assassin were blocking the door, so she ran to the farthest corner of the chamber and curled into a ball on the floor.
Her lungs felt hot and she closed her eyes, struggling to breathe. Unarmed, how could she defend Shasta? Should she try to distract the assassin instead? As if sensing her dilemma, the assassin saw his opportunity and grinned. In that instant, Talon realized that this was what her nerves had been preparing her for all day. The tension that had built for hours on end suddenly released in a flood of adrenaline.
Her concentration heightened so intensely that everything—colors, smells, sounds—abruptly amplified as time seemed to slow down. The assassin barely took a step before Talon hurled her weight at the man. The man rolled over with a snarl and slashed upward with the knife. Talon felt a sting and threw herself backward just in time to avoid having her throat slit. She struck his wrist sharply with the edge of her hand. She reeled back at the force of the blow but managed to block a second strike, bringing her knee down hard into his abdomen.
Shasta chose this moment to move, scrambling out of the corner and past the brawl. With a grunt of desperation the assassin grasped her ankle, tripping her to the floor.
Her muscles felt like iron. Out of the corner of her eye Talon saw Shasta crawling out of reach. Relief must have loosened her fingers slightly, for the assassin chose that moment to bring his legs up unexpectedly, heaving her through the air. Only her acrobatic training saved her from being pitched headfirst into the stone wall. She twisted so that it was her left shoulder, not her head, that struck the wall first.
Searing pain erupted through her arm and upper back. Stumbling to her feet, she saw that Shasta had paused at the sound, her expression suddenly conflicted. Talon gasped as the Princess took a hesitant step toward her. The blade was just a handbreadth from his grasp. Her left arm was strangely unresponsive as she tried to hold him, and it took only a second for the assassin to flip her over. The breath was trapped in her lungs as he crushed her windpipe with his forearm.
No matter how she kicked, his weight pinned her down. The powerful burst of adrenaline that had lent her such strength before seemed to be dissipating with the lack of oxygen. The knife! A warm liquid rush followed when she withdrew, and the grip at her throat loosened. Talon continued stabbing as her vision gradually cleared, but now all she could see was red.
Everything was covered in a thick, shiny coat of scarlet that burned her eyes. She kept moving the blade automatically, feverishly, until a firm hand at her shoulder caused her to pause.
Blood saturated his cloak and pooled beneath him on the tile, flowing in streams toward the gutters along the edges of the walls and into the bathing tub. The water in the tub was morbidly crimson, steaming like some evil potion being brewed right there in the privy chamber. Talon realized she was still gripping the knife with blood-slicked hands and dropped it, numbly. Shasta was staring with an indescribable expression, and Talon frowned.
Something was wrong. He caught the girl before she could hit the floor and quickly checked her pulse. Her attention was entirely focused on the Princess, whose face was alarmingly pale and still. Finally Shasta gave a shuddering gasp, and Vaughn nodded with satisfaction. Talon swallowed. I expect you to take that seriously, Corporal! Soltran loved his daughter very much, and meant well, but he often set others up for failure inadvertently.
Of course, when things inevitably backfired no one dared to blame the King publicly, and Soltran himself seemed oblivious to his own faults. So Talon simply nodded. I have failed Princess Shasta. I should have been more careful. How could she have become so comfortable with their daily routine that she had lost sight of the very real danger that attended the Princess at every minute of the day? How easy it was to forget that for Shasta, the palace was hardly safer than the streets of Ardrenn.
And the Princess is unharmed, after all. So, this one time, you will not be punished, nor will I impose the special terms of our bargain. This is your one and only free mistake, so learn from it.
Thank you. Every muscle in her body ached. The healer had corrected her shoulder, which had been dislocated when she connected with the privy chamber wall. Talon berated herself for the hundredth time that day as her head hit the pillow. How could she have been so careless? Erinda and the other chambermaids, who had gone in and out repeatedly as they filled the bathing tub, faced particular suspicion. All of them claimed they had not seen any sign of the villain lying in wait behind the dressing screen.
Talon gave a start. But better me than you. I never should have let you set foot in that chamber. Talon was horrified to realize that it had never occurred to her to inspect behind the dressing screen as part of their daily ritual.
Shasta made an impatient sound. You saved my life today. I just threw everything I could at him and ran. As soon as you came in I just…I ran off into the corner like a frightened child.
The fighting is my job. Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, Princess. It can keep you alive. Daric was the perfect Crown Prince for Ithyria. You did everything you could for her. You stayed in the privy and handed me the knife. In fact…you saved my life. When I tell you to run, you run. How could I just run away and leave you to be hurt, maybe even killed? Immediately she released her, and the Princess drew a deep breath.
Who had the most to gain? Talon swung her sword at an imaginary enemy and pondered what the royal guard had been able to gather so far. Captain Vaughn kept her informed but so far, they had more questions than answers.
Everything about him was carefully unremarkable, from his average height and build to the slightly shaggy cut of his brown hair. He had no scars or markings of any kind and wore simple dark clothing that was neither unusually shabby nor unusually fine.
The black-cloaked man she remembered from the banquet had a catlike grace, subtle and sinister. But the man she had killed, though aggressive, relied on brute force and moved clumsily. Pull your shoulder in and put your weight on both feet.
You have to pay more attention, unless you want someone spilling your insides in the dirt. Vaughn gave a grunt of approval. She continued through the exercises, meant to improve form as well as strengthen important muscles, and glanced at her mentor out of the corner of her eye.
They managed to sneak an assassin right underneath the noses of the royal guard in spite of the new restrictions at the palace gates. She held the position for several seconds so that the weight of the blade burned in her upper arm. Someone had to be paying him.
Why would someone try to kill Princess Shasta and not the King? Surely His Majesty has more enemies than the Princess. Perhaps the Princess is a greater threat because of her birthright.
The house of Rane has ancient and powerful enemies.
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