In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage’s blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head–and assassins at his heels.
Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld’s side as his armsman, both protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of the Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing between him and death.
The novel is currently in ORM’s “Coming of Age” eBook promotion. CR published a review of the novel when it first was published, in 2011. Read on for the excerpt…
The diplomatic seal had brought them this far: into Osgaard’s marble palace with an escort of armed guards, along echoing corridors where nobles stared openly and bondservants wearing the iron armbands of slavery cast cringing glances at them, into the throne room to stand before the king and his heir.
King Esger sat on his throne like a bull, thick-necked and massive with fat. Prince Jaegar sat beside him, bullish too. Both men had ash-blond hair and silver-gray eyes. Their expressions matched their coloring: cold.
Dareus had said they would walk out of the palace, that there’d be no need for bloodshed—but Innis knew he was wrong. The king’s pale eyes, flat with hostility, told her that. Like everyone in the Seven Kingdoms he saw them as monsters, abominations from across the sea.
He wants us dead.
King Esger and his heir wore golden crowns. The crowns didn’t rest on their heads; they were bound there, woven in place by their own long hair. Innis averted her gaze. The crowns seemed to grow from the king’s head, from his son’s, like misshapen antlers.
Guards flanked the throne, standing to attention. Their uniforms were gaudy—gold breastplates over scarlet tunics, loops of gold braiding—but the men were fighters, their arms corded with muscle. Sharp-edged swords hung at their sides.
Curse shadows shrouded the guards, a promise of coming death. The shadows lay on her, too, now that she’d set foot in the Seven Kingdoms. Innis saw them clearly—as if a veil of black cobwebs had been thrown over each person in the throne room—but the guards couldn’t see them. They stared ahead, stony-faced. She’d caught one looking sideways at her as they’d walked through the corridors, the ceilings resonating with the sound of booted feet. The expression on his face had been easy to read: fear, revulsion.
Innis counted the exits silently: the wide double doors at the far end and the smaller doors on either side of the room, all decorated with gold leaf.
Six doors and a score of guards. And four of us.
Only the silver disk around Dareus’s neck, stamped with the seals of kings half a world away, kept King Esger from ordering them dead. It seemed insubstantial protection, as puny as a child’s wooden shield against a battle-axe.
Tapestries stitched with gold thread hung on the walls. Between them, gilded mirrors were suspended, so tall they reached nearly to the ceiling. Innis saw herself in one, elongated and twisted slightly to the right. Beside her were Cora and Petrus, and one pace in front, Dareus. The mirror didn’t show the magic that was buried deep within them, the fire inside Dareus and Cora, the animal forms within Petrus and herself—lion, wolf, hawk.
They stood silently, waiting. Innis tried to be still, tried to not shift her weight, but it was unnerving to be surrounded by so much hatred. They’d behead us if they could, dismember us, burn us. Her heart beat too fast. Magic was a low hum beneath her skin. She wanted to grab hold of it, to change her body into something less vulnerable.
Footsteps echoed in the throne room. A young man dressed in brown with a royal’s long hair entered, and one pace behind him, a guard in scarlet and gold wearing the silver torque of a personal armsman.
Her nervousness intensified. This is it. Don’t make a mistake.
For a brief moment she heard the voices in her head again, the councilors debating: She’s too young to be a Sentinel. Her inexperience will jeopardize the mission. Innis pushed the voices aside. She drew a deep breath and measured the distance to the nearest guard, preparing herself for what might come.
“Father.” The newcomer bowed. He was dressed plainly in a shirt and trews and huntsman’s boots. A few grains of sawdust clung to his trews. He’d come from the practice ground, Innis guessed. Wrestling. He had no sword belted around his waist and wore no golden crown; instead his brown hair was tied simply at the nape of his neck.
King Esger turned his gaze to Dareus. “Prince Harkeld. As you requested.”
The prince looked at Dareus, at the close-clipped gray beard and the plain traveler’s clothes, at the diplomatic seal, heavy and silver around his neck, and then glanced briefly at the three of them, standing behind. “You wish to speak with me?”
The differences between the two princes were obvious: dark brown hair instead of ash-blond, hazel eyes instead of gray, sun-browned skin instead of pale. There was nothing bullish about Prince Harkeld, he was lighter on his feet, leaner, but he had the same strong jaw as his half-brother, the same strong nose and brow, the same strong, square hands.
“And you are?” the prince asked.
Dareus bowed. “We are from Rosny, highness. In the Allied Kingdoms.”
“They’re witches,” King Esger said. “Come all the way across the ocean to speak with you.”
Shock flared in Prince Harkeld’s eyes. He stepped back a pace. His face twisted for a second—revulsion, fear—and then settled into an expression as hostile as his father’s. He glanced at the diplomatic seal. His jaw tightened. “Then speak.”
Dareus bowed again. “You’ve heard of the Ivek Curse, Prince Harkeld?”
“A peasants’ tale.” The prince’s voice was curt, dismissive. “To frighten children.”
“No tale, your highness.” Dareus shook his head. “The curse spreads in water. In lakes and rivers, in town wells. Those who drink become monsters. Mothers eat their babies’ flesh. Fathers violate their children and then slaughter them—”
“A peasants’ tale,” the prince said again. “If this is what you wish to talk to me about—”
“The curse has risen on Vaere’s eastern coast,” Dareus said. “Unless it’s broken it will roll across the Seven Kingdoms like a tide. It will claim this continent. Every village and town.”
The prince shrugged, his disbelief evident. “Why come to me?”
Innis glanced at King Esger. He was leaning forward slightly, his eyes on Prince Harkeld. The back of her neck prickled as tiny hairs stood on end. He hates his son.
“Because you are the only person who can break the curse.”
Prince Harkeld laughed. “Your wits are addled, witch.” He turned to the king. “Father, must I listen to this nonsense—”
King Esger silenced him with a flick of his hand. “Listen.”
The prince turned back to face Dareus. Anger colored his cheeks.
“The curse can only be broken by someone of royal birth. A direct descendent of the house of Rutersvard.”
“So? I’m hardly the only—”
“Someone who also has mage blood.”
Fury flared on Prince Harkeld’s face. He took a step towards Dareus. “How dare you—”
“Your mother’s father was a mage,” Dareus said.
Prince Harkeld halted. Shock rustled through the throne room. The guards stirred. Prince Jaegar jerked back. Only the king sat unmoved.
Innis’s magic spiraled closer to the surface. She braced herself for whatever came next.
Prince Harkeld swung round to face the king. “Father?”
Prince Jaegar’s expression was exultant. He laughed aloud. “Witch blood!” He leaned forward, his expression hardening into hatred. “Get out of this palace—”
King Esger halted him with a raised hand. “No.” The king wasn’t looking at either of his sons, he was looking at Dareus. “Harkeld is useful. Isn’t he, witch?”
Prince Harkeld swallowed. His face was ashen.
“He’s the only person who can break Ivek’s curse,” Dareus said.
“My son…or his blood?”
Foreboding gathered in Innis’s chest, squeezing her lungs.
King Esger smiled. He sat back and folded his hands over his stomach. “Harkeld will do it.”
The foreboding evaporated. Innis drew in a deep breath. Dareus had been correct—they’d walk out of here. There’d be no bloodshed.
Dareus bowed. “Thank you, your highness.”
“Once certain conditions have been met.”
“Payment for my son’s services. For his blood.”
“Payment? Your highness, I have no—”
“Not from you,” King Esger said. “From my fellow kings. They shall pay for Harkeld’s blood.”
“But your highness. I have no authority to negotiate—”
“That’s what ambassadors are for,” the king said.
“But your highness, there’s no time—”
“There’s plenty of time,” King Esger said dismissively. “Where’s the curse now? Vaere’s east coast? More than a thousand leagues from here.”
“People are already dying in Vaere.” Dareus took a step towards the king.
One of the guards flanking the throne drew his sword.
Innis shifted her weight, standing on the balls of her feet. Her heart was beating fast, her magic close to the surface, tingling on her fingertips.
Dareus stood his ground. “Thousands will die if we wait, your highness. Tens of thousands.”
“Then I’m certain the other kingdoms will be happy to meet my terms.” King Esger turned his head to one side, dismissing them. “You may leave now.”
Not without the prince. Innis took a deep breath, ready to move at Dareus’s signal.
Emily Gee‘s The Sentinel Mage is out now, published in eBook by Open Road Media. It was published in the UK by Solaris Books. The second and third novels in the trilogy are The Fire Prince (2014) and The Blood Curse (2015), are published by Solaris Books.