“We have more Exiles at our city gates every season. If we have to distribute more than our allotment of grain, my people will face starvation this winter. Terrshon has threatened to tax even more of our trade routes. My hands are tied.”
The heavyset man stopped his wild gestures long enough to glance out the tent flaps, which had been stirred by another procession. The delegation from Niniever was making its way with its finest meats to the feast tents.
“I hear your concerns,” Ayla reassured DaVu as soon as she was sure they couldn’t be overheard. “But as the ambassador of Galistan, you have the opportunity to intercede on behalf of those who are more vulnerable to Terrshon’s bullying. Why let him divide the kingdoms further and weaken a valuable ally when your coffers enjoy a surplus of dried fish from two expeditions—”
“Three. There will be another before the winds change.”
“Three?! DaVu, our ancestors watch over you.”
He leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. Ayla pretended not to notice DaVu as he rubbed his stubbly chin and glared at her across the crude table. In the growing silence, she sipped her tea and adjusted her gloves, in no hurry. Her compliment was as much a courtesy as it was a damning call to action, and they both knew it.
A crowd cheered in the distance and the drums sounded. The dancing between the pavilions had nothing on the revelry spilling out of dozens of tents like this one. It was Ayla’s eighth negotiation, and there was still one more day to the three-day festival.
“Ayla, you are still of Galistan,” DaVu whispered. “Your mother may refuse to return or claim any of her birthrights, but yours still awaits you. Our people would welcome a woman of your foresight and diplomacy. Age breeds fear, and I’m not long for this post.”
“You are very kind, DaVu, but you know I serve all the kingdoms of this world until peace is restored, not just the province of my birth. Any official position would be a direct challenge to Terrshon, which would endanger the people I represent,” Ayla said, reciting her mother’s words as if they were her own. Each negotiation made them more her personal mantra, reminding her of the work they’d pledged their lives to. But it was little comfort to people caught between the impossible hope for a long-dead princess and a fear of Terrshon’s increasingly divisive maneuvers.
“Surely enough time has passed that your mother—”
“Ambassador,” Ayla cut him off before he could speak the words that, if they got back to Terrshon, could end both their lives and start a war. No shadows lingered at the edge of their tent, but she knew better than to act like they were completely alone. “Following the untimely death of Queen Mira and King Norwyck, it was my family’s honor to answer the call of the people of Moldara. That we were unable to discover and punish the murderers of my beloved aunt and uncle remains our family’s greatest shame. As a result, my father also fell by their hands. We are disgraced, a queen and a princess in memory only, as we must remain. We owe our lives to the people of Moldara, who forgave us and compelled a pardon from Terrshon.”
“Yes, yes, we all know the official story. Forgive me for asking you to speak of such dark times. I meant no insult.” He looked around the tent nervously. “I would never speak ill of a standing king, especially in his kingdom. I’ll be sure to send the goods in three shipments, just like last winter.”
“Thank you, for your generosity, DaVu. You have always been a truly courageous friend.”
Ayla stood, patting him gently on his shoulder as she turned to leave. He stayed in his seat, his expression troubled. Before she had a chance to take a step, he grabbed her hand and pulled it down until it was over his heart. He held it with two shaking hands.
“DaVu, what is it?”
His dark skin suddenly looked a few shades lighter. Ayla scanned the edges of the tent. They were still alone. She went to one knee.
“The Sacred Waters. You are aware of the rationing?”
He continued, patting the hand he still held against his heart as if she were the one that needed soothing. “You are too young to remember a time when every sanctuary in every province had more than enough of the Sacred Waters to aid the people it served. The rationing we’ve endured all these years…it appears we are about to look back on even that time with longing.”
“DaVu, what are you trying to tell me?”
“The Sages are now sending all who can make the journey to sanctuaries inside the borders of Moldara. At first, it was just an inconvenience, but now it’s become dangerous. The lucky ones still have enough of the Waters to recover from the beatings of bandits, but others…”
“A young couple from my own city. They were traveling with a dying friend.”
“Are you sure?”
“The sources are reliable. Their own parents are afraid to search for them. My position limits my ability to intercede. Galistan needs the trade agreements and my king, your uncle, to stay neutral. But if this continues, and the Sages are blamed—”
“Yes, I see the problem.”
“You’re in a unique position—influential, respected in trusted circles, but politically overlooked. Your connections could help us avoid further bloodshed without threatening those in power.” The ambassador let go of her hand and shifted in his seat, adjusting a tan waistcoat as if it held in the weight of the world.
This was neither new to her, nor was he the first ambassador to make this request. In fact, she was sure that if DaVu knew what she and her mother’s spies had been reporting these last few months, he would find swallowing the last of his festival mead far more difficult.
“The people of Galistan should be honored to have your protection.” Ayla stood, straitening DaVu’s short, brimless cap and dusting off his high-collared coat. Brushing off the fear, her mother had called it. “Be assured, you are not alone in your concerns. I will look into what can be done and send word.”
“The spirits be with you, child.” DaVu bowed his head, lifting the end of his sash to kiss one of the many symbolic coins stitched into the heavy cloth.
“And with you, old friend,” Ayla whispered, bestowing a kiss on his cheek before slipping between the tent flaps and disappearing into the crowd.
Ayla tucked the hem of her ruffled skirt into the wide belt that accented her corset before she stepped over horse manure and mud from the recent rain. The last thing she needed was to walk back into the main gathering smelling like she’d slept in the stables. The key was to move just fast enough to distance herself from her meeting with DaVu without drawing attention. The prominent guests, and their entourages of commoners who’d made this area their home for the last week, all had agendas beyond the annual harvest celebrations.
As she strode through the temporary village next to the imposing city walls of Moldara, children rushed around her, spattering mud on her boots. She chuckled. A highly anticipated wrestling match had just been announced. That night at the feast, the winner’s province would be awarded the host city’s surplus of honeycomb.
A straggler suddenly plowed straight into her.
“So sorry, my lady,” the boy apologized. “A portion of my honey will be yours if you will pardon my clumsiness.”
“Promise me you will share it with a friend from the losing side, and all is forgiven.” The boy’s eyes lit up and he nodded eagerly. Ayla returned his grin, tussling his blond hair as she sent him on his way. “Well, hurry. You’ll not see this match again.”
As much as she wanted to join the crowd and yell encouragements to the two men wrestling in the ring, she had unfinished business. Despite the disagreeable terrain and the growing crowd, she doubled her pace.
Usually, that year’s host of the Harvest Feasts held the celebrations within the castle grounds, and the revelry spilled out into the surrounding city. This year Moldara’s gates had closed at the arrival of the first delegation. Rumors of heightened security had every ambassador and their network of informants buzzing with predictions of war. Indeed, for Terrshon to treat century old allies as Exiles could be interpreted as an act of war. But without knowing why he’d broken with tradition in such an aggressive way, no one was willing to do more than protest.
So now the rolling hills between the nearby city of Oslo and the gates of Moldara had been filled with just that—an informal protest. The change had elevated a routine celebration and the usual updating of trade agreements to a full-blown allegiance reevaluation. It gave a normally carefree event an air of foreboding and made her moves against Terrshon all the more dangerous.
Ayla cut through one of the improvised main squares, passing merchants, and musicians setting up everywhere. She stopped at a table already filled with fruits and fresh baked goods. The sight of a bowl of berries with cream and a small butter pastry on a black plate made her mouth water. She slipped off her gloves and tucked them into her belt, took both the bowl and the plate, and claimed one of the few open benches in the crowd. What a relief to finally take a few seconds to enjoy herself and fill her growling belly. The food was the perfect distraction from her aching feet, and she savored the simplicity of the moment as she watched the crowd and waited for her signal to be seen.
Suddenly, a squirrel dressed in a little suit jumped up next to her. He straightened his bowtie, bowed, and stretched out his hand as if asking her to dance. Delighted, Ayla set the plate on her knee and offered her finger. The squirrel took it, swaying, twirling, and swishing his tail in a little dance until he was practically on her lap. In one deft move, the animal dropped her finger, snatched the last of her pastry from the plate, and shoved it into his mouth until his cheeks bulged. Then, tail in hand, he bowed and jumped from the bench, scurrying over to a young lady with an assortment of forest creatures following her like ducklings.
The woman leading the group smiled knowingly before turning her attention back to organizing the performing animals. Their whisperer, Ayla thought. Even though she had a different bond, Ayla had been taught that all creatures had a will of their own. The bond over them wasn’t always strong enough to overpower the temptation of a butter pastry, no matter what mission they were on.
Ayla sighed as she looked at the sky. The sun was still warm and bright, even though they would soon sound the evening bell and light the bonfires. She stood and started walking, making sure she wasn’t followed before she checked her pockets. Sure enough, there was a tiny note left by the squirrel.
The fire is in the hearth.
Ambassador Aht-see-lah, whose name literally meant “fire,” was canceling her meeting with Ayla and returning home early. Ayla crumpled the paper and dropped it in a cook-fire as she passed, a dozen alternate plans forming in her head. She needed to reach the stubborn woman before she was too far away. She’d been counting on Aht-see-lah to guarantee the protection of the supplies DaVu had just promised. Aht-see-lah’s departure, though separate from that of her delegation, did not bode well.
The air cooled just a little as Ayla approached a small stream that, in the absence of a city fountain, had been transformed for the festival. The normally dull footbridge had been painted with the colors of every nation, with more colorful rocks and baskets of offerings trailing off either side like marks on a compass, each pointing toward that people’s home country. It was beautiful. An inspiring improvisation. The only thing that marred the overall effect was the dozen soldiers from Terrshon’s personal guard standing watch.
The spring that fed the stream was believed to flow from the Waters of Creation. Tradition held that all water was once sacred. However, in this stream, only the crystal vial submerged near the footbridge held the true Sacred Waters. It was why Terrshon’s men were there. When the event had concluded, they would return his one concession to the palace.
Reaching into her pouch, Ayla paused on the tiny bridge to look over the rail and take in the individual offerings—flowers, rocks of all shapes and colors, fruit, even some bright fish swimming in the clear water, although most were glass tokens. She’d chosen her glass token in Bronia, in honor of her late aunt.
She rubbed the smooth embossed glass, hesitating while she formed the message to the spirits in her mind. She reached out her hand toward the water, token between her fingers as she pictured all those who had been lost since that terrible night.
Ayla closed her eyes and began.
Spirits, it has been generations since one bonded to the healing waters has been discovered, and we are in need of such a person more every day—
A shove at her elbow pushed Ayla off balance. Her token slipped from her grasp and plopped into the water. Her eyes popped open. She was no longer alone on the bridge.
“I’m making mine first!”
“No, Father said I could!”
She glared at the two teens as each shoved and pulled on the other’s clothes in hopes of being the first to throw their offerings into the water. Their opulent and heavily layered clothes told her their parents were people of influence, but their manners gave away their birth nation.
It was another disgusting reminder of how far the country, under Terrshon’s rule, had strayed from its most basic tenets.
“What good is an offering stained by blood? Or are you both trying to curse your family for the rest of time?” Ayla demanded, glaring at the startled youths until they assumed a more respectful demeanor. They each mumbled something and dropped the offerings, silently shoving each other as they continued to the area designated for livestock. She caught one of the guards watching the exchange. When he noticed her gaze, he looked away quickly.
Ayla cursed herself for drawing attention and quickly disappeared back into the crowds.
Ayla found a seat inside the largest of the tents, a giant pavilion whose size rivaled many castle dining halls. She’d chosen a table near the back to give her a good view of the crowd without being noticed. She’d also picked a spot close to a door so she could slip out at a moment’s notice. She longed to rid herself of the yards of fabric that advertised her station. The weight was already making her lower back ache.
Ayla placed her head in her hands, eyes closed, and took measured breaths. In a crowded tent, while music played, it was harder to hear the whisperings, but it could be done. Ayla’s bond wasn’t as powerful as some, but Soren’s years of secret lessons came back quickly. Everybody picked up the vibrations of another whisperer in their own way; her awareness came through inner stillness.
Feeling a presence beside her, she lifted her head and watched a woman her mother’s age pinching the wicks of the evening candles. The friction of her fingers created a spark, and the candle flamed to life. Ayla never ceased to be amazed by the mastery women like these had over their bonds, but it came at a steep price; a period of service—surrendering a decade of one’s life to improve the lives of everyone else—was a burden not always offset by the honor.
Usually, those who trained with the Sages served right after being educated. But there were always a few instances where service wasn’t suitable, due to pregnancy or a sudden death in the family. Those who buried a loved one could postpone the rest of their training and service for up to eight seasons. Those who conceived and chose to attempt delivery during training or service had their time deferred until their children were old enough to provide for themselves. The bonded could then go on with their lives or study to become a Sage. No person with a bond strong enough to be trained and to serve was allowed to rule a kingdom for any reason.
Ayla closed her eyes and took another slow breath, attempting to go deeper. Deeper into the stillness, deeper into the quiet, deeper into her bond. There—in the subtle ruffle of the tent flap—she felt it. It moved toward her through the tablecloth, stirred the flowers in the centerpieces and then the hem of her skirt, a connection she could trace back to its source and meant only for her.
The vibration filled her, blocking out all other distractions.
Men have emerged from the falls—
“You’re tensing up.”
She felt Taft’s large body fill the space beside her, but she didn’t open her eyes. The whisper wasn’t complete.
“This is supposed to be a celebration, and you’re working too hard. People are going to notice. Can I get you something to relax?” he asked. “They’re sampling the wine from last year’s crop. It’s good, but if you ask me, the older vintage has a better kick.”
Ayla glanced up at him through her fingers.
“The older vintage it is,” he guessed knowingly. “Don’t move or you might lose it.”
When she tried to go back into her bond, she realized he was right. She had lost the connection.
“Sorry,” Taft offered as he set a large stemmed glass filled with a deep purple liquid in front of her. “If I’d known what you were doing, I’d never have interrupted.”
“It’s not your fault I have to keep my bond a secret.” Ayla took the glass, drinking deeply. Somedays she wished it was strong enough to train with the Sages, to erase her birthright, to lose herself in a service that had consistent, tangible results.
Taft finished his drink. “I saw Ambassador Yona outside. Have you met with her yet?”
“I could get her for you. Maybe the two of you will be overlooked in here.”
A giant gong sounded from outside. The feast had begun.
“I’ll find her in a minute. I have something she wants. It will be good for her to wait for me for a change.”
Taft put down his glass and scooted closer to her.
“I keep hearing rumors of a royal union,” he said, keeping his voice low.
Ayla snorted. “No doubt Terrshon has suddenly decided to take yet another helpless child-bride. We expected some stunt in an attempt to draw emissaries into more compromising treaties.”
“These rumors are said to be coming from the dungeon guards.”
“The dungeon? I thought all his wives were either the daughters of political adversaries or another ‘little sister’ his Sages were claiming as the long-lost princess.”
“No one knows where this one came from,” Taft continued. “The most repeated speculation is that she’s royalty and that he kidnapped her to use as leverage against one of the northern kingdoms.”
Ayla looked into the rich liquid she held, but she didn’t see it. “Are you sure about your source?”
“He was very eager to share,” Taft said, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly.
“Glad to hear someone is having fun. Did he happen to mention when this union might take place or will be officially announced, or were you too busy to ask?”
“All he said was it wasn’t to be held in public,” Taft replied, no longer hiding his proud grin. “But then why bother barring Moldara’s gate to the festival at the last minute? Was this unplanned somehow?”
“Maybe. Another drink?” Ayla asked as she realized her glass was already empty. This was clearly going to be a longer night than first anticipated. Taft stood and bowed playfully, clearing their glasses and crossing the tent with his familiar swagger.
Ayla watched her most trusted bodyguard and close friend move through the growing throng of people toward the wine barrels. She marveled at the way he sweet-talked the young woman pouring the drinks, admiring his ability to so effortlessly mix work and play.
Maybe it was time she put herself in a more powerful position too. When there was no place else to turn, people looked to her for assistance. And this wasn’t the first time she’d heard about the strange disappearances and attacks, or about Terrshon’s men emerging from the falls.
Taft returned with another drink and sat beside her.
“I think it’s time I accept a union of my own,” she said.
“What did they put in this wine?!” He eyed the goblet suspiciously.
“Exactly why are you suddenly ready to fall on that sword?”
“Because it’s time.” Ayla took a deep breath. “Terrshon is slowly strangling our allies with all his plots, and I’m tired of how little I’m able to help them. Be it with this poor doomed union or the next, he is going to make his move soon, and I need to be strong enough to stop him. We need help, Taft.”
“Ayla,” he took her hand, rubbing it lightly. Her warm brown skin almost made his look black as midnight. “You don’t have to do this. There are other ways.”
She leaned into him, resting on that familiar place against his shoulder. His arm came up around her and he sighed heavily.
“You deserve so much more.”
“We all deserve more. But this is what we have been given, so we must use it as best we can.”
“Well, look at this.” Prince Laurion of Niniever emerged from a passing group of people. He had a glass in one hand and a pitcher in the other. “Is this garishly oversized brute why you never return my letters?”
She felt Taft stiffen. He leaned in and whispered, “Say the word and no one will ever find his body.” Then, he stood and offered a bow, “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Prince Laurion,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t sound strained when she’d spoken. “To what do I owe this loud and very public greeting?”
“You look stunning,” he said, his eyes drinking her in as he filled Taft’s seat.
“And you look drunk.” She could smell the spirits on his breath.
“It is a celebration, Ayla. Not all of us have your patience for passing notes among impotent rulers,” he said, his mouth set in a perpetual pout as he poured himself another drink. The alcohol had amplified his already arrogant demeanor.
“Any news from your little brother?” Ayla asked as she slid the pitcher out of his reach. “It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of Zarian’s company. He was always such a calming influence on you.”
“He’s an ungrateful brat who runs away from responsibility,” he spat. The musicians changed songs, inviting others to join the new couples on the dance floor. The prince stood and offered his hand. “It’s time you had a man who knows what to do with you.”
Ayla thanked the years of diplomatic training that kept her from falling off her chair laughing. Instead, she swallowed her retort with a swig of his wine and a shake of her head. He took it as an invitation and pulled her onto the dance floor, nearly upsetting their table.
“As entitled as ever, I see,” Ayla hissed.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, his eyes tracking the lines of her cascading silver necklaces before he pulled her close. His breath warming her neck, he pulled her still closer, until the brass buttons on his vest dug into her ribs. They swayed to the music, and Ayla tried to keep her stomach down.
“I’m serious, Ayla,” he said into her ear. “Do you ever wonder what might have happened if I’d given us a real chance?”
She pulled away and gave him the coldest expression she could muster.
“I’m the firstborn of Niniever,” he said. “I can choose who I want. I’m not bound by the oath of the second, like my brother. Denounce that crazy excuse for a mother, leave the shame of your family behind, and you can still be mine. We were good together once—”
“You never were good at change, or listening.”
His fingers tightened around her hand and waist. “I’m serious. I’ve been with a lot of women. They clamor to me like bees to a flower. If I said the word, they would be mine.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because we have history, Ayla. You are my proper match. You have the bloodline of a queen, but you need a king like me to restore you. Together we can fight for whatever cause amuses you. But without me, you have no right pretending there is still a crown on your head. Face it, you need me. And most importantly”—his hand came up, fingers tracing the silver chains down her neck—”I want you.”
He stopped in the middle of the floor, and suddenly his lips were crushing hers, his hand groping her as he searched for a way under her skirt. She knew from other encounters he wanted her to pull away, to fight him. He was most excited by a bit of danger, as long as the object of his affections was the one feeling the fear.
Latching onto him, Ayla returned the kiss, her arms disappearing into his coat like a snake coiling around its prey. Laurion struggled in shock, trying to pull away, to regain control. When Ayla finally loosened her grip, it was to place the dagger she’d pulled from his belt against his throat.
“If you ever insult me like that again, I will start by cutting off your lips and feeding them to your dogs,” she murmured seductively. The menace behind her words registered in his eyes. He tried to sneer dismissively, but his expression was confused. “And I might not carry a title, but I have friends who do. They’ll be more than happy to bury the tiny pieces of you that your dogs leave behind. Think on that the next time you wonder what remains between us.”
Ayla shoved him. He stumbled back, hands going to his neck.
“Prince Laurion,” she announced dramatically for anyone within earshot, “I must apologize for my poor dancing. My dinner doesn’t seem to agree with me. I will have to leave you in the capable hands of our fellow countrymen.”
Ayla used her curtsy to stash the newly acquired dagger in her boot. Laurion watched in silence as the trophy disappeared. A flock of youths descended on the now publicly recognized royalty with wreaths of fall leaves and bouquets of flowers for the next dance. Ayla slipped into the crowd and out the nearest exit. Taft was waiting for her by a merchant wagon, a smirk on his face.
“That was terrifying to watch.” He held out his arm. “Who taught you to do that?”
“My mother. She’d always tell me, ‘Your enemy’s weakness lies in the weapon they think they wield over you. Whatever it is, find a way to turn it back on them, and you’ll defeat them twice.’ Since Terrshon’s rise to power, it’s possibly the most valuable thing she’s ever taught me.”
“I’m not sure I’d have handled an assault like that with such grace.” Taft offered her a flagon. “Care to wash your mouth out before we both become ill?”
She rolled her eyes and took a swig. “Don’t go soft on me now. I have two more negotiations to get through before this night is over.”
“I can’t help you with people, but you pit me against any wild animal, and I’m your man.”
“Too much more of this and we won’t be able to tell the difference.” Ayla sighed, taking one more swig and handing the flagon back. They passed the merchant stands, their wares covered. When night’s revels spilled around the bonfires, the merchants would return to set up shop again.
A young servant emerged from the thin crowd and approached her. “Excuse me, my lady,” she said, looking around to be sure they were alone.
“What is it?” Ayla encouraged.
“Only for you.” She looked at the man on Ayla’s arm.
“What you have to say he can hear,” she reassured the young lady.
“If you say. This came tonight from the castle.” She looked over her shoulder and scanned the area to make sure they were still alone. “Your castle. Some still hope.”
“You’re too kind.” Ayla sighed. “Who sent word?”
“They only sent this.” The servant handed Ayla a small bundle wrapped in a dirty old rag. She then bowed and quickly excused herself.
Ayla met Taft’s gaze before looking at the mysterious package in her hand. Carefully, Ayla unwrapped the bundle. Upon the cloth lay a leather cuff stained with blood. Embossed in the leather was a symbol: a circle with a line through it. Droplets of water cascaded down from that line.
The hairs on Ayla’s neck stood up. The whisper came, weaving through her mind.
The blood call has been answered. You must steal back the Last Secret.