The ballroom was crowded. The kind of crowded that made the room feel ten degrees hotter and so loud you wondered if you’d ever hear again. But it was beautiful. Two huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling, casting the room in a romantic glow. Gowns in all shades, whispering their own stories as they brushed through the room, made it look like a garden in bloom. Maren’s dress was cream-colored silk and set off her chestnut hair to perfection, like something from a dream.
Except that in beautiful dreams, Maren didn’t have a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach, wondering when it would all go wrong. Her father had left unexpectedly that morning after whispered conversations behind closed doors. Something had happened. Something that had to do with Lord Kern, the dark mage.
Maren shivered, forcing all thoughts of Kern away. Her father would make everything right. There was nothing to be afraid of.
“Maren?” King Daric looked down at her as they twirled around the dance floor, his brows raised in a question. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? Usually when I speak, people tend to listen.” His words were belied by the way his mouth quirked up on one side.
“Well,” she said. “We’re not all overwhelmed by your king-ness.
Especially when we had to endure your teasing for years.”
He laughed. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“You locked me in a broom closet for an entire afternoon.”
“I’m sorry,” he chuckled. “I truly am.”
She pretended to consider his apology. “Well…you did let me out of the broom closet. I’ll forgive you.”
He grinned and stepped away as the music ended. “Good of you.” Then he brought her hand to his lips and winked before being claimed by his next partner.
She glanced through the crowd, looking for Philip. A dance with him was the only reason she’d even agreed to come tonight. He’d been her best friend from the time they were little, and now… Well, now, he was more.
She finally found him surrounded by a group of young ladies. They were obviously flirting. Philip pretended to flirt back. But Maren knew he was laughing underneath. He glanced her way a second later, sharing a private joke. They had a bet as to how many young women would try to win his affections tonight. She’d guessed ten. He’d laughed, said he wasn’t that desirable, and guessed four.
To which she’d rolled her eyes.
He was that desirable. Charming, handsome, titled, good with a sword, everything a young woman wanted.
“He’s much too attractive for his own good.”
Maren looked at Queen Adare and frowned. “And for the good of most the young ladies in the room, apparently.”
“How come he’s not dancing with you?”
“We’re not officially engaged so we only get two dances together.” She couldn’t keep the disgust from her voice. “Why do we even have rules like that?”
Adare laughed. “So parents don’t have to worry about their children getting particularly attached to one person.”
“Because that’s going to solve the problem.”
“Sarcasm, Maren? I never would have expected it.”
She smiled, unable to resist the queen’s teasing. She was her closest friend, besides Philip and Daric — who was like an older brother. But they were men. It was different with Adare. The minute Maren had met the future queen, and despite their four-year age difference, she’d known Adare was worth knowing. They’d been friends ever since, only drawn closer because they were each outcasts in their own way. Maren because she didn’t fit in with the social elites. Adare because she’d been chosen over others who didn’t like a queen who wasn’t beautiful or from one of the best families.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked Adare. “Pretend I don’t care that he has to dance with other stunning, sophisticated young women who all want him to choose them?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter. He only really looks at you. Everyone else he just tolerates.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better, especially when I want to be the one dancing with him.”
“Well, I have some news that might distract you for a few minutes at least.” Adare glanced around to make sure they were alone, and then a huge smile spread across her face. “I’m going to have a baby.”
Maren was momentarily speechless. Then she all but threw herself at Adare, wrapping her arms around her. “How wonderful! When will you announce it?”
“It’s only been three months,” Adare said. “But I’m not going to be able to hide it much longer. Probably in the next few weeks, so we’d appreciate your silence until then.”
“I won’t say a word,” Maren promised.
“I see you told her.” Daric came up behind them and laced his fingers through Adare’s. “We wanted you to know before we announced it publicly.”
“I’d hug you right here in the middle of the ballroom if it wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of half the room,” Maren said.
Daric laughed. “Well, we can’t have that. Although I’d love to see it. But now, if you’ll excuse us, I’m going to claim at least one dance with my wife.”
When they were gone, Maren once again looked for Philip.
His current partner was Lady Kira, who Maren had grown to…dislike – because hate was such a strong word. Maren watched Kira lean closer and whisper something in Philip’s ear. He smiled, his polite smile, formal and practiced. But Kira didn’t know him well enough to recognize the difference.
They spun by her a minute later, and Philip caught her eye. His mouth tilted up on one side and his eyes lit up, laughing. It was one of the things she loved most about him, that laughter in his eyes. It assured her the bond between them was as strong as ever. It was something he let everyone see but only truly shared with her.
The next minute, they were once again lost in the throng of dancers, and Maren resigned herself to the fact she’d spend a lot of time alone tonight. At least it was better than having to be with Kira and her friends, who found every possible opportunity to insult her. Her dress wasn’t stylish enough, she was too educated for a young woman of society, she wasn’t sophisticated, or elegant, or whatever enough.
Maren made her way to a quiet corner of the room and sat on an empty chair, trying not to think about Philip dancing with Kira. And trying not to think about her absent father and Lord Kern.
“Do you really hate these nights so much you refuse to dance at all?”
Her heart skipped a beat, and she looked up to see Philip, devastatingly handsome in black and silver, regarding her with a teasing smile.
She forced herself not to hug him, instead allowing the tiniest lift to the corners of her mouth. “Maybe I’m particular about who I dance with.”
He threaded her hand through his arm. “Well you’re in luck. I am the perfect partner.”
She couldn’t help it. She laughed. He sounded so formal, so unlike the Philip she’d known almost her entire life. It was hard to take him seriously, and she tried to keep her grin from spreading even further across her face. “I wasn’t looking for the perfect partner,” she said with as much composure as she could manage. “I was looking for the right one.”
He looked down at her, a warmth in his eyes that still caught her off guard more often than she’d admit. “Oh, I’m definitely the right one. How could you even doubt it?” He took a step towards the dance floor, pulling her along with him. “So, I saw you danced with the king. I guess you’ve forgiven him for pulling on your braids.”
She smiled. “If I remember correctly, you also used to pull on my braids. And more recently than Daric. He hasn’t done that in a long time, since before…”
“Before Kern killed his parents.”
She nodded. Before. That was the key word. After, everything had changed. The kingdom had been thrown into a state of constant fear. And although Daric had vowed to avenge his parents’ death, it took two years and all the mages he could find to hunt down Kern and seal him in a tomb to die. Or whatever it was dark mages did.
That had been six years ago. Six years of peace.
Philip covered her hand with his – as if he could read her thoughts. “We don’t have to worry about Kern anymore.”
“My father wouldn’t have left so unexpectedly without a reason.”
“He’s being cautious,” Philip said. “Can you blame him?”
No, she couldn’t. She’d seen what Kern could do, the power he had. She’d watched Daric’s then sixteen-year-old heartache as he tried to piece a kingdom back together after the murder of its king and queen. Not many saw that heartache – or knew how desperately inadequate Daric felt. They only saw a young king who was strong and ferociously committed to his kingdom.
Maren had seen. She’d caught Daric alone, staring out over the kingdom, before he could hide his tears.
“Maren.” Philip squeezed her hand. “Kern is still in that tomb.”
“But for how long? I wish Daric would have had him executed instead of trapped.”
“It was your father who advised him against it.”
She sighed. “I know. I’ve never understood why.”
The music started, cutting off any further conversation, but when the dance ended, Philip didn’t let go of her hand. “Do you want to go somewhere?”
She nodded, still amazed he’d chosen her. They’d always been friends, but a year ago, he’d told her he loved her. It was the first time they’d kissed. Six months later he’d asked for her father’s permission to marry her – permission that was denied, even though Philip was like a son. Her father wouldn’t tell them why, and Maren didn’t want to fight about it. She was only seventeen. There was time.
Philip offered his arm, and they headed for a side door that led to the gardens.
He guided her down a path, to a small bench that overlooked the castle’s ornamental lake. Even after they sat down, he didn’t let go of her hand. He just leaned back, crossed his legs out in front of him, and let out a long sigh.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, just enjoying the moment. The moonlight, the view. The company.”
She smiled and leaned her head on his shoulder, allowing him to wrap an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close.
“How is your training going?” she asked.
Although he was young, only twenty, Philip was gaining a reputation for himself as a rising star in the Guard. She’d seen his name mentioned more than once in reports that crossed her father’s desk. She’d even snuck out of lessons to watch him train with the other soldiers. Her favorite was the swordplay. Philip was fast and light on his feet. He nearly always won, even against more seasoned fighters.
“It’s even better than I could have imagined,” he said. “Like I’ve found where I fit. I’m good at it, Maren. Really good.” He paused, and she could sense his embarrassment. “And now you’re going to laugh at me and say I’m conceited.”
“I would never laugh. Or say you’re conceited.” She snuggled a little closer. “Mostly I’d just smile and be happy for you.”
She shrugged. “I might be a little pleased that I know the famous Captain Philip.”
He laughed. “Now who’s conceited? And I’m no captain.”
He sat up, tilting her chin until she looked up at him. “You always believe in me. You’ve never doubted. Not once. I think it’s part of why I love you.”
Then his arms were around her waist, pulling her against him and pressing his lips to hers. A minute later he pulled away, ear turned to the music filtering through the open windows.
“Would you like to dance?” He smiled, a teasing lift to his lips that made her heart beat faster. “It’s your favorite.”
“Well,” she couldn’t resist teasing in return, “since no one else has asked…”
He grinned and led her back inside and to the center of the room.
The music began, blanketing the room in promises yet to be fulfilled, and Philip’s arm went around her waist and her hand was in his. Then they were gliding over the dance floor with everyone else, but somehow it felt as if it was theirs and everyone else was intruding.
And then it was over. Too quickly. Maren was left with a dreadful sense of impending loss. Even though they’d still be in the same room, they’d had their two dances. For the rest of the evening Philip would be dancing and being flirted with, and she would have to watch.
They stepped away from each other, but he kept her hand in his and squeezed it, reassuring her. Then he gave her a quick bow, after which his mouth twitched up on one side and he winked. “Lady Maren, it was a pleas—”
Something metal crashed against the marble floor, sending a terrible echo through the room. And then the screaming started.
Philip spun around, pulling her behind him.
At first, she couldn’t see anything through the chaos. And then a voice rose above everything. It was evil and cruel and sounded wrong, grating against her ears in a way she couldn’t understand. As if it wasn’t completely natural.
“I demand the return of my son.”
Silence, the kind brought on by fear, crushed the room.
A man stepped through the crowd, tall, handsome, with dark hair and even darker eyes. “I demand the return of my son.”
The silence pressed in harder, and then, one by one, harsh whispers cut through the air. “Kern.”
Maren grabbed Philip’s arm and felt him trembling as much as she was.
Kern was here. Not in a tomb. Here. In Daric’s castle. Daric, whom he’d sworn revenge on.
She immediately searched for the king, only to find him trying to push Adare through a door. But she wouldn’t go. She held onto him as if her life depended on it.
But Kern didn’t seem to care about Daric. His eyes darted over the room, examining the young men one by one, until they alighted on Philip.
“What is your name?”
Philip tensed, but he didn’t flinch. “Lord Philip.”
“Lord Philip.” A satisfied smile twitched at Kern’s lips. “Not the name you were born with, but at least the Lord part is correct.”
“What are you talking about?” Philip stood up straighter. “I am not your son.”
“You don’t think you’re my son,” Kern corrected. “And no one would have told you the truth, would they? Lord Kern’s son. The last person anyone would want around their children. But you are my son. Look at me and tell me you don’t see the resemblance.”
Maren shivered. There was something…in the bone structure, the coloring, even the eyes – except that Kern’s were evil.
“Resemblance doesn’t mean anything,” Philip said, his voice shaking only a little.
“No,” Kern admitted. “But this does.”
He began muttering words Maren couldn’t understand. But she could feel them. Something dark wove its way through the room, permeating every corner, every shadow, and she was afraid. More afraid than she’d ever been. She heard cries of fear, saw people cover their eyes against something they couldn’t see, and heard Philip gasp in pain.
Then it was over.
And Philip wasn’t standing as straight as before. She reached for his hand, only to have him draw it away, towards his face, where he stared in horror as one single drop of blood etched its way down his arm.
“Blood calls to blood,” Kern said.
“No!” Philip yelled, wiping his hand on his tunic. “This is a trick.”
“No trick,” Kern said. “In fact…” His eyes moved to Philip’s hand, to the ring she’d given him on his twelfth birthday – the ring he never took off.
“Ah. My ring. I’m so glad you found it – somehow. Did you know it protects against magic? More specifically, it protects someone of my bloodline from magic.”
Maren sucked in a sharp breath and felt Philip stiffen. Her father had given her the ring, told her that it protected against magic, and insisted she give it to Philip since he didn’t have any magical protections in place. Her father must have known all along who Philip really was. And he’d never said anything.
“If you weren’t my son,” Kern continued, “and my magic hadn’t been focused specifically on you, you’d be standing there with much more than a single drop of blood to worry you.”
Philip staggered backwards, his eyes wide with horror.
Kern only laughed. “It’s not so bad. With me as a father, no one will ever hurt you. You can leave behind this farce of ‘society’ and join me. We’ll repay those who have tried to hurt and separate us and build something we can rule together.”
Philip set his shoulders. “The only one who has tried to hurt me is you. You, who tried to destroy the kingdom I call home and all the people I love who are in it. I’ve lived most of my life in fear of you. Hating you.”
Kern frowned. “Hate. Love. Such complicated words. Would your friends have loved you knowing who you are?”
Philip went perfectly still, and Maren was even more afraid – if that was possible. She put a hand on his back, trying to reassure him, but he stepped away from her. No, he pulled away, as if he couldn’t bear her touch.
“They know who I am,” he said to Kern.
He sounded sure, but Maren wasn’t fooled.
Kern only smiled. “Do they? Then by all means stay. I hope your confidence in your friends isn’t misplaced.” He wrapped his cloak around him. “When you discover it is, come find me.” Then with a wisp of gray smoke, he disappeared, leaving the room in perfect, dead silence.
Maren moved first, stepping to Philip’s side and throwing her arms around him.
He caught her wrists, staring at her with suspicion and disbelief.
Then he scanned the room. Every eye was on him, most not even bothering to hide their horror as they backed away, leaving Philip and herself alone in the center of the room.
Maren felt his hands tighten, saw the determination settle in his eyes, and then he shoved her away and fled, leaving her staring after him.