The Emperor’s Arrow

Carina Press | Share

by Lauren D.M. Smith

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Sent as one of the emperor’s bride candidates, Evony isn’t pleased. She might be a trained Amazzi warrior, but she know little of the palace. It’s her difference that draws the attention of the emperor and as she finds out more about the man who conquered the world, she can’t deny her attraction to him. She knows she’s falling for him, but she can’t crack the shell he erected after the assassination of his sister. As a plot for his throne unfolds, Evony has to choose her honour and that of her people or her love for the emperor.

Chapter 1: The Palace

Evony stopped just across the road from her destination and tilted her head back to get a better look at it. With its high sun-bleached limestone walls standing out palely against the harsh blue of the sky and a wide, barred gate bracketed by columns, the entrance to the imperial palace was an awe-inspiring sight. Evony’s eyes roved past the light stone structures and hints of greenery that could be seen through the iron bars, her gaze focusing on the closed gate and the uniformed guards in front of it. That paired with walls that were nearly an actus high and made of heavy stone had her nodding. She was glad that at least the mainlanders seemed to have some sense of proper defense.

She sighed and hiked her pack higher on her back, grimacing slightly as her thin wool cloak twisted underneath it. Not that she really needed it with the sun beating down as it was, quite a difference from the thick forests of her home. She inhaled and her nose was again assaulted by the mixed scents of refuse, hot earth, animals, and too many people. Evony hadn’t been in the city more than a few horas and she already hated it.

Still, there was no helping it. Keeping a wary eye on the horses, carts, and chariots that always seemed to come out of nowhere, Evony made her way across the street. Not for the first time she cursed her luck. Finally, finally she’d won an archery competition against her sisters but instead of a proper prize she’d been sent here. Under normal circumstances she might have considered it exciting.

But not when she was being sent as a potential bride.

Evony glowered, not that anyone could see her face under the cloak’s brown hood. Her sisters had nearly hurt themselves with laughter when they found out what her prize was. Then they’d had to go and tell her all the horror stories they’d heard about the beast-like emperor. He was power-mad and land-hungry which is why he’d conquered the whole continent. That he was a hideous old man with a penchant for young girls. How he beheaded everyone who displeased him. At least Obelia hadn’t been completely heartless and had told her to stab the emperor if he tried to dishonour her.

It had only been three years since Emperor Galen had finished his war on the world, having conquered and absorbed every country on the continent so there wasn’t anywhere that didn’t bow to him as their supreme ruler. Evony wondered what kind of man this emperor was to have done such a thing.

Even more, she wanted to know why he’d decided now of all times to choose a bride. And why he’d had every noble family send one of their daughters to him as a candidate. Evony sincerely hoped she was sent home quickly, even as she wondered how the emperor was going to be making his decision.

She shook herself free from the distracting thoughts as she came to a stop in front of the gate. Both guards, who had to be hot in their black tunics, iron cuirasses and helmets, had their attention on her, one readjusting his grip on his pike, the other had his hand hovering near his sword. They were alert, she had to give them that. Evony was still pretty sure she could have taken care of both of them before they could yell the alarm, but she wasn’t about to test that theory.

“I’m Evony of clan Aureline,” she said, dropping her hood so they could see her face. “I’ve been sent to see the emperor.”

“Aureline?” Said the one holding his pike white-knuckled. “Where’s that?”

“Doesn’t matter. The emperor doesn’t see just anyone,” said his grizzled partner. “Move along.”

Evony resisted the urge to challenge the man for his tone. She was tired, hot, and farther from home than she’d ever been in her life. And, as she realized, she’d forgotten to give them her title. “I’m Princeps Evony of Aureline,” she told them. “I’m from Silvinsula. I was summoned by the emperor so I would very much appreciate it if you let me in.”

“Ha! You expect me to believe you’re one of those crazed warrior women?” said the older one, a smirk playing across his lips. “Try selling that story somewhere else. Unless you’re trying to sell something more…”

A muscle jumped in her cheek as she clenched her teeth, but Evony kept her temper in check. Barely. She couldn’t remember a time she’d been spoken to so rudely, especially by a man. This might be the mainland, but she’d expected better manners, especially when it was the emperor who had called her here. “I will not ask you again,” she said, her voice rising as her emotions bled through despite her best efforts. “Let me in, or you can be certain I will see that the emperor hears of this.”

The younger one shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked towards his partner. The other man snorted. “You’re starting to become a lot less amusing there, girl. You’d best leave now, before we move you along.”

“Try it,” Evony snapped, temper breaking. One hand crept towards the large daggers she kept over each hip when a shout interrupted her.

“What’s going on over here?”

She flicked her eyes towards the tall man striding towards the gate from the other side. His black tunic embroidered with gold and with an elaborate cuirass, even Evony could tell that he was of a much higher rank than the two in front of her. They turned to look and stiffened before saluting. “Legate,” they chorused.

Evony eyed the man, noting the streaks of grey in his brown hair, the lines in his weathered face, all above a body that was still that of a warrior despite his age. He was a man who would have been in high demand at home.

“This woman,” said the grey one, jerking his chin in her direction. “Claims she’s been summoned by the emperor but has no documents or anything.”

The legate kept his stare on the man long enough for him to shuffle his feet before he turned to look at Evony. “And you are…?”

She tossed her head, the curly mass of her hair, barely contained by the horsetail she’d tied it in, slapping against her back. “I am Princeps Evony, daughter of Princeps Zarina, leader of clan Aureline. I have been sent to answer the emperor’s call.”

“Forgive me, but we’ve had several people try to trick their way into the palace lately. Do you have proof that you’re an Aureline?”

Evony’s eyes narrowed as she considered her options. This man at least seemed to have some knowledge and was reasonable, which was more than could be said for the other two. She reached behind her and untied the strings that held her favourite recurve bow to her pack. She slipped her other hand into one of her belt pouches and pulled out a string, smoothly fitting it onto her weapon with the ease of long practice.

While the men watched, she opened the closed quiver that was attached to her belt and put an arrow to her bow. Then she turned back towards the legate. She noted his gaze was on her leather wrist guards, while the other two just stared at her. She jerked her chin at the tree that was just visible from behind the wall that separated them. When the men turned to look, she said, “I’ll hit the dead leaf.”

She exhaled, pushing all her emotions out as she did so. She needed to be calm. The tiny patch of brown amongst the green was a bit of a stretch but she didn’t want there to be any doubt that she was a true Amazzi. She properly nocked the arrow and aimed, feeling for the wind and trying to account for the drier air here. She was glad she’d done some practicing on the way over and since arriving on the mainland or this might have been more difficult.

Once she felt everything was perfect, she let her arrow fly. It sped through the sky and sliced straight through the brown leaf before burying itself into the thick branch behind it. She lowered her bow, letting it hang parallel to the ground with one hand while the other went to her hip. “I hope that is proof enough.”

The guards looked at her with wide eyes while the legate nodded. “You are truly of the Amazzi,” he said to her, before his stare went to the other men. “Let her in. She is one of the bride candidates.”

The youngest man hurriedly scrambled for the keys at his side, his face pale as he unlocked the gate. Evony paid him little attention, focused on carefully unstringing her bow and putting it back on her pack. When she finished, she found the legate’s eyes still on her. He seemed to be studying her. She returned the attention briefly, taking better stock of his weapons, a long sword and dagger, before she stepped through the now open gate.

“Allow me to lead you to the main hall,” the man said, stretching one hand out to indicate the palace.

“Thank you,” Evony said, following him inside. To her left lay an open green space that stretched out for a few actus before being interrupted by a long wooden building while to her right rose the palace proper. Alabaster columns with elaborate capitals marched along the breezeway that lay between the buildings and the grounds that surrounded everything. The main building rose two stories above her, made of the same stone as the walls with arched doorways and windows that lay open to catch the slight breeze that fluttered through the leaves of the scattered trees.

The palace was more of a complex, with several buildings attached by covered walkways with gardens and courtyards interspersed between them. Evony only got a hint of all of it as the legate led her into the closest building.

It was cooler inside, out of the sun’s glare though still too hot by Evony’s standards. The hall they entered was tiled in cut rock in shades of brown and yellow, laid out into circular patterns. This hall was delineated from the centre with more columns, leaving walkways around the periphery of the middle rectangle.

There were plenty of people hurrying by, their long robes flapping as they hurried or shushing as they glided by. Most of the men seemed to wear long white robes over a shorter under tunic of various colours. The women dressed the opposite way, with a long white inner dress over which a variety of styles of over dress was placed, generally in bright colours.

To Evony it looked hot. She much preferred her knee-length chiton. It was cooler, easier to move in, and required a lot less effort to get into than some of the things she saw the other women wearing. She didn’t even know how you fastened half of them. Only the warriors and guards she saw wore the shorter tunics. They were definitely the sensible ones as far as she was concerned.

Her musings were interrupted by the legate stopping. He pointed across the centre area to a man who stood near the top edge of the section, a board with several papers in one hand, a bronze stylus in one hand. “Speak to him. He’ll have someone take you to where you need to be and make the appropriate arrangements.”

“You have my gratitude,” Evony said, clapping a closed fist over one shoulder in the Amazzi gesture of respect.

The legate’s lips quirked up into a half smile and he gave her a little bow before walking off. She watched him go. So far he was the only decent man she’d met and that worried her. If his type was a rarity on the mainland then her secondary mission was going to be hard. And she’d been so excited about finding a worthy man to serve as stud to her before this, to finally experience the pleasure of two people instead of just what she could bring to herself. Evony sighed. This whole trip was just a disaster.

With a last glance back at the door she’d come through, Evony strode towards the man the legate had pointed out and whatever nonsense this competition had in store for her.

Evony tugged at the long chiton she wore, not liking how it encased her legs. That and an overdress of golden yellow completed the outfit she’d been presented with as something all candidates had to wear. Evony had at least been able to fit a several knives under everything, and two of her longer daggers with their sheathes in crossed belts over her hips.

Despite the look the maid had given her, she’d refused any hairstyle more than her usual horsetail. She didn’t have the patience, not when her hair fought her doing anything to it. Evony shook herself free of her thoughts, cursing not for the first time the way her mind wandered. She concentrated instead on the scenery she passed rather than the far more boring back of the guard she was following. He’d swallowed when he’d noticed her weapons and so far hadn’t done anything to improve her impression of him.

The breezeway they walked down was limestone, like all the buildings they passed. To their right, a line of evenly spaced alabaster columns separated the walkway from the gardens. The ones they passed now were filled with white and yellow flowers that were heavily attended to by bees.

Rounding a corner, Evony could see their destination to the left. At least, she assumed the garden filled with what looked like two dozen women dressed in outfits that were identical to hers in a variety of colours was where they were headed.

The inner garden was surrounded on three sides by limestone walls that held a variety of arched doorways while the last side was the breezeway that Evony was just now leaving. The guard gestured towards the assembled women before turning and hurrying back the way they’d come. Evony snorted at his lack of manners and not properly conveying her as she was sure he’d been ordered to. Still, maybe this was normal for mainlanders.

She strode towards the other women, noticing the rainbow of colours. Except, as she got closer, she found she was the only one in yellow. She realized then that their dress colours had been assigned by their provinces. And as the Aurelines were the only family from Silvinsula, she would be the only yellow among the group.

That accounted for the stares she was getting. Several of the other girls whispered things behind their hands, while some were clearly avoiding her stare. Evony swept the whole lot with her eyes, noting that in addition to being among the oldest, she was the only one armed. That had her frowning slightly. She’d heard that most warriors on the mainland were men, but this was the first time she’d really felt that difference.

She wondered how the other women defended themselves. She supposed they could have unarmed defensive skills, though that would make keeping oneself safe from an armed attacker all the harder. Evony mentally shook away her distracting thoughts as she came to a stop at the back of the crowd of women, near a girl in red and another in blue. The one in red glanced at her briefly, but when Evony met her gaze, the girl ducked her head and stared at the ground.

Shrugging, Evony took a better look around the courtyard garden they were in. Several serving girls stood along the wall to their right, while directly in front of them was a small portable wooden dais that was flanked by two guards on each side. Even as she watched, a man climbed up the few steps it took to reach the platform and looked down at them all.

His red-brown hair and thin features were visible to everyone, not just Evony’s elevated vantage point. Though she had noticed at least two other girls who were of a height with her. “Welcome,” the man said, his voice deeper than Evony had expected. “I am Rakin, chief aide to his imperial majesty, Emperor Galen. In his name, I thank you for journeying such great distances to be here.

We are most honoured to have you all with us. As you are aware, his majesty has decided it is time he takes a bride and has summoned you all here with that in mind,” he said. Evony couldn’t help the face she made. While her honour wouldn’t allow her to deliberately attempt to get sent home, she still hoped she would be among the first released from this insanity.

“To ensure that the most appropriate choice is made, we have prepared a variety of competitions to decide the suitability of each of you. These contests will continue until such a time as only one of you remains or until his majesty makes a choice. I hope you all find that satisfactory?”

Rakin didn’t wait for a reply. “Our first competition is a simple one,” he said as several of the girls leaned in, eager looks on their face. Even the girl in red beside her looked up. Evony kept a calm expression on outwardly while inwardly she wrinkled her nose in distaste. She was all about competition, but not for something so important and so deeply personal as choosing a proper lifemate. There was a reason so many of her clanswomen only used men as studs instead of bringing them back to their island. It was hard to find someone you could share the rest of your life with, someone who you were sure of.

She focused back on Rakin’s words as he continued. “We want each of you to go out and find something that is important to being an empress. You must bring that object back here and offer an explanation as to why you believe it is important for an empress. You will all have a time limit of one hour. Anyone who does not return here at the end of that time will be automatically disqualified. Is that clear?”

Head nods and soft murmurs of assent seemed to be enough for him. Rakin glanced briefly at something that lay in front of him before he looked at the women before him. “Then you have until the second hour as the sundial has it. Begin!”

For a moment, the whole crowd of women froze. Then, like some loud noise had startled them all into flight at the same moment, they all sped off. Evony stood where she was, watching with some amusement as the others hurried past, heading for every doorway like water heading for a drain. It was obvious from the way they moved that more than a few were unaccustomed to running.

In moments the courtyard cleared. When the crowd was gone, Evony saw that it was only her and the girl in red beside her who remained of the bride candidates. She looked over at the other girl. Taking in the way the stranger worried her bottom lip with her teeth and how her trembling hands had grabbed giant fistfuls of her scarlet overdress, Evony had a good idea of why she hadn’t raced off with the others.

“Are you alright?” she asked, not liking how pale the other girl looked.

Light brown eyes met her darker ones for a moment, before they dropped to the ground. “I…That is to say…”

“Are you feeling unwell?”

The other girl shook her head. “No. I…I don’t know what I should bring back,” she whispered, cheeks suddenly flaring up in imitation of the colour she wore.

“Ah. Is that all?”

The stranger jerked her head up to stare at her, lips sagging open slightly. Evony smiled. In a way, this girl reminded her of her brother. He was always stared at people with his mouth open when he was surprised too. “I can’t afford to be eliminated,” the girl said, voice rising and cracking a little. “I can’t.”

“Then think of it another way. Instead of what item you should bring, think about what traits make a good empress in your mind. Once you have an idea for that, thinking of an item should be much simpler.”

For several seconds the other girl said nothing, face hidden by her black hair as she stared at the ground. She looked up after a couple of moments and hesitantly said, “M-mercy?”

Evony smiled as reassuringly as she could. Her brother was like this sometimes too, whenever he thought of the reality of leaving their clan and joining another. The idea of moving away from them all occasionally sent him into a panic, and it was Evony who always had to calm him down and get him to think. “That’s a good idea. Do you know of anything here that represents mercy that you could bring here?”

She bit her lip for a moment, then her eyes lit up and she nodded. “I have an idea.”

“Then go get it.”

The girl smiled. “Thank you,” she said, raising her right arm up in the mainlander gesture of respect. She took a few steps forward then stopped and turned back around. “Are you not going to find something?”

Evony chuckled. “I already have what I need right here.”

“Then thank you again, on my name as Admina of Miletum,” the girl said.

“I am Evony, daughter of Zarina, of clan Aureline. It is an honour to share names with you,” she replied with a closed fist against one shoulder.

“Until later,” Admina said with a faint smile before she hurried off.

Evony watched her go before glancing around. The people remaining in the courtyard, the serving girls, guards, and Rakin, were all staring at her. She hid a smile at the range of their expressions, most clearly thinking she was touched in the head. As funny as it would be to leave them staring, she supposed it was time she finished her part in this first competition.

Chapter 2: Living Together

Humming quietly to herself, Evony crossed the courtyard, ignoring the fact that everyone still there was watching her. It seemed to her that since she’d arrived at the palace she’d been stared at near constantly, and at this point, she was getting used to that fact. She wondered if her people and their ways were really so different from these mainlanders.

She pushed her idle thoughts away as she stopped in front of the serving girls who stood under the partial shade offered by the position of the wall and the sun. The three of them glanced at each other, one actually paling. Evony smiled and her gaze went to the brown-haired one, the only one of them who didn’t seem completely terrified of her. “Would you mind accompanying me briefly?” she asked.

The girl looked at the other two, who both glanced away, before she swallowed and nodded. Evony smiled again and tried to project the feeling that she meant no harm. The way everyone reacted to her was beginning to make her feel like some kind of beast, like she was a wolf that someone had let into the flock and that everyone was hoping would just pass them by.

With the serving girl trailing behind her, Evony made her way towards the dais, where Rakin still stood. The man’s stare tracked her movement, his face a mask of polite interest. Closer up, he was older than Evony had thought, the faint lines around his eyes betraying him. He gave off an aura of capability and properness that she could practically taste. She almost immediately struck him from her list of potential sires for her children. She had the distinct feeling that they wouldn’t get along at all, even for as short a time as she’d heard it took to lie with a man.

Evony’s gaze flickered briefly towards the guards that stood closest to the dais, not that much could be seen of them in their uniforms. All she could tell was that the one on the left had blue eyes, while the one on the right had brown. She wondered at the sheer number of guards that seemed to be everywhere in the palace. Realizing what she was doing, Evony focused back on the task at hand.

She halted in front of Rakin and waved her hand in the direction of the girl she’d brought with her. “The most important aspect of an empress is her people. Without your people there wouldn’t be an empire. Without them to support you, to grow food for you, to fight for you, to do the things you can’t, you would have nothing. They are what makes an empire.”

Rakin stared at her for a moment before he blinked twice rapidly and inclined his head. “Thank you for your answer,” he said slowly. “It would be best if you would wait here until the other candidates return.”

Evony nodded and gave him a quick fist to shoulder salute. Then she turned to the serving girl. “Thank you for the help,” she said, smiling. “I appreciate it.”

The girl ducked her head in way of reply before she scampered back to where she’d been standing previously. Evony watched her for a moment before she turned towards the breezeway she’d entered the courtyard by. In one corner where the walkway met one of the buildings was a large tree.

As she approached it, Evony recognized the leaves of the huge, spreading tree as those of an oak. Smiling up at it briefly, it reminded her of the massive trees of her home, she settled down beneath it with no care to her dress. Leaning back against the thick trunk, she spotted a chunk of branch that was just a little longer than her forearm and as thick as her thumb and pinky put together at the thinner end.

She reached over and snagged it, dragging it into her lap. She ignored the way the bits of bark clunk to the fine fabric of her dress and pulled out one of her shorter knives off of her ankle. Using the knife and her fingernails, she began peeling the bark carefully from the pale wood inside.

Once most of the brown casing had been removed, Evony dug into the wood. It didn’t take long for the skirt of her dress and the grass around her to acquire a veritable snowfall of wood shavings. She hummed absently as she worked, feeling at least partially at home for the first time since she’d left Silvinsula.

Evony had the roughest beginning of a shape started when the first of the other candidates returned. Her brown hair in a braid that had been wrapped around her head like a crown and her green dress fluttering behind her as she moved gracefully across the courtyard, the girl walked with an air of confidence.

She raised one hand and bowed when she reached Rakin, and Evony had to strain her ears to hear what was being said. “A good empress needs to be just,” she said, holding up a set of brass scales. “Otherwise she cannot be trusted by others to be impartial.”

Rakin’s reply was even harder to hear, but Evony assumed it had been similar enough to hers to make no difference to her. Moments later, the green girl moved to the corner opposite Evony, standing in one of the few patches of shade that could be found in the garden. She glanced briefly at Evony who smiled. The stranger bowed her head before she turned to examine the flowers nearest her.

The next two girls came at almost the same time. The one in purple brought a flower and spoke of beauty which had made Evony snort, while the one in orange bore a knife and said an empress needed strength. Once they had finished, the one in purple hovered near the flowers closest to the wall where the serving girls still stood and the one in orange floated around the whole garden, not settling anywhere.

The following candidate was dressed in blue. She came bearing a pomegranate and offered it up while speaking of an empress’s ability to produce heirs. Evony actually looked up at that, unable to help her stare of disbelief. If that were all it took to rule and rule well, no man would ever hold power.

By the time Admina returned, the garden had just shy of a dozen young women in it. Evony smiled when Admina looked at her, and the other girl returned the expression before she hurried towards the dais and Rakin. This far away she couldn’t hear what Admina said, but she knew that she was talking about mercy, and the wooden bowl was one that Evony had seen the kitchen staff distributing leftover food to the poor in. She thought it was a good choice and one she wouldn’t have thought of.

Once she was finished, Admina joined Evony, settling herself carefully onto the grass after checking to make sure it wasn’t too wet. Despite the heat of the day, only Admina, and the blue girl who had stood beside them earlier had joined Evony under the tree.

“What is it you’re making?” Admina asked after a few moments of quiet, her eyes on Evony’s still moving hands.

“A spoon,” Evony said without looking up. She’d tried to look at someone, talk, and carve all at the same time, and every attempt so far had ended up with her bleeding. She had never gotten the hang of multitasking the way her oldest sister, Balera, had.

Admina was silent for a minute. “Do you think we passed?” she whispered.

Evony sighed. “I don’t know. It depends heavily on what they think is important for an empress. I think your answer had merit, so you should be safe.” She didn’t say anything about wanting to be sent home herself, not to someone who seemed desperate to stay. “As for the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see. I can’t imagine we’ll be too much long. Not when everyone’s coming back far more quickly.”

Her new friend glanced at the line of three girls in front of Rakin and nodded. “I’m glad. I’m not sure how much longer I could handle this tension.”

Under ordinary circumstances Evony might have made a flippant remark about Admina trying to outwit another person in their multi-day hunt trainings, but she only shrugged. She actually liked the other girl, something she found a bit odd. They were nothing alike and yet Evony couldn’t deny her friendly feelings towards Admina. Still, it was nice that even in a strange place, even in a competition, she could still find friends. Evony smiled.

A sharp double clap drew Evony’s attention away from her carving and made Admina start. “That is time,” Rakin called, his eyes sliding across the garden. “If you ladies will kindly rejoin us here?”

In a quietly chattering group, the girls crowded in, looking like a rainbow being swept into a small, misshapen box. Evony ended up near the edge, standing beside Admina and a girl in white. Her gaze was on the emperor’s aide and she didn’t have to wait long.

“Thank you for your patience,” Rakin said, bowing at them. “As it is now time, Ductor Zelenka has been disqualified for failing to return. It is with the deepest gratitude that we thank you ladies for your participation. Unfortunately, at each stage some of you must be taken out of the competition.”

Evony heard steps coming from behind and glanced back to see the serving girls moving forward so that they stood between the crowd and the breezeway. Realizing why they’d been there in the first place, she looked back at Rakin who continued. “To that end, we thank Magna Simin, Ductor Bialis, Ductor Harkin, Rector Porfirio and Rector Gormain for your answers and spirit, but must eliminate you. If you will follow the girls behind you, they will escort you to your rooms,” he said, gesturing towards the servants.

Watching the girls named shuffle out of the crowd, Evony felt a bit of regret. Both that she wasn’t one of them and that she hadn’t gotten a chance to speak to the one in silver. She carried herself with pride and looked like someone she would have gotten along with. The one in purple looked ready to cry, the one in white looked stunned and like she wasn’t sure what was happening, the red one seemed disappointed, while the one in blue just looked angry. Evony didn’t know why, not when her answer had been about having heirs. It had been the worst one she’d heard by far.

Rakin waited until all five girls had been escorted out by the serving girls before he spoke again. “Congratulations to you twenty for passing the first test,” he said, smiling slightly. It made his nose look more pronounced and gave him a faintly animalistic air for a moment. Evony thought he looked much better that way, but the expression didn’t last long.

“From here on, all bride candidates will sleep in the same hall, share meals together, and live together. Each of you has been assigned a room in the same hall and your things have already been moved there. You will be escorted there shortly,” Rakin said, before pulling a small piece of paper out of the inner pocket of his robe and looking it over. He put it back after only a moment and turned his attention back to them.

“Your personal clothing has been put into storage. For the duration of the competition and ensure that everyone is equal, all candidates are required to wear the clothing provided. This will help identify you to the rest of the palace and allow us to more easily find you should we need to. You will find several changes of your dresses already placed in you rooms.

So that you can better rest and settle, you will all be allowed the remainder of the day free. You may explore the palace as you wish, but must not go into any area that you are told is forbidden. You must not leave the palace without permission either, as the city is not always as safe as we would like. Meals will be served in the dining room at the end of your hall and will be at eight in the morning, noon, and six at night respectively unless otherwise indicated. You are expected to eat with everyone. If you have any questions, please refer them to the guards and serving girls who will be assisting you. I thank you for your attention and will speak with you in the morning,” Rakin finished, giving a quick raised arm bow. He turned without another word and walked towards the archway to his right, followed closely by the two guards who had been closest to the dais. They were gone in moments.

While several of the girls looked at each other or towards the archway that had swallowed Rakin and the guards, Evony looked around the edge of their little cluster and the garden. Movement drew her eye and she saw a soldier dressed in a cuirass that was engraved with a lion and a red cloak heading towards the dais. His clothing and armor were good, and far better than most of the guards Evony had seen, but they were still not as good as the legate’s. She still guessed the man was reasonably high ranked. An optio at least was her guess.

The soldier didn’t climb the dais, only walked around so he stood in front of it. He cleared his throat as twenty pairs of eyes went to him. “If your brightnesses will follow me, I will escort you to your hall.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, but marched towards the breezeway. After a moment of hesitation, the crowd surged forward, and in seconds, the man had a chattering, rainbow tail. Evony let the others pass her, deciding to take up the rear. It made the most tactical sense since she assumed only she and the man leading them were trained in combat. Not that she really expected to be attacked but she didn’t want to risk anything. Admina held back as well and walked beside her.

They moved down the breezeway for a while, passing occasional people who stopped and gave them a wide, staring berth. They passed a few other gardens, most heavy with flowers, along with a few stone floored courtyards, one of which held a fountain. That one had looked delightfully cool and Evony made a mental note to remember where it was for later.

Their escort turned them away from the main building and down the covered walkway that led to one that was just a few dozen passus away, near the wall that encircled the whole palace complex. Like the main building it was made of limestone and it was surrounded by an overhanging roof held up by more alabaster columns, each of their capitals carved with various plant life.

As they got closer, Evony noted that this limestone was a touch more yellow than that of the main building. She wondered if that meant it was newer or not. Their footsteps and chatter echoed as they got under the building’s roof. They were led straight in through the nearest arched opening.

Evony welcomed the cooler air inside, looking around the main hall they were in. Its floor had been left as limestone, the columns that supported the roof of the same material and less carved than those outside. A quick left turn brought them to a hall that allowed them all to spread out, and had they wanted, they could have walked with five of them shoulder to shoulder.

This hallway was lined with wooden doors, which ended ahead in a wider room that Evony could just see through the crush of girls who were milling about in the middle of the hall. Each of the doors had a piece of papyrus with a name inscribed on it, fastened just above a coloured circle of fabric that had been nailed into the wood. Evony had to admit that this area, much plainer and quieter looking than some of the other rooms she’d seen, appealed to her.

“This will be your home for the duration of the competition,” their escort said, bowing deeply with one hand raised. “I am Centurion Levka, and I will be in charge of your safety and your guards. If you have questions for me, please ask one of your guards and they will relay it to me. I will take my leave so that you may get settled.”

Levka bowed to them again before heading back the way they’d come, the girls parting for him like he was the prow of a ship and they the waves. Watching him go, Evony studied the man. He was definitely fit, his wide biceps and corded calf muscles drawing her gaze where they could be seen under his tunic and armor. His blond hair and blue eyes were also exotic and she mentally added him to her list of candidates. She’d have to speak with him first before she could really put him on her list, but at last, Evony was beginning to find men of potential.

“This is practically a hovel!”

The raised voice drew Evony’s attention. One of the two remaining girls dressed in silver was staring at the open door to a room, her upper lip twisted. “They can’t expect us to stay here!”

Her eyebrows up, Evony, with Admina trailing behind her, found her room, which wasn’t hard since it was the only yellow one. She opened the door, curiosity piqued. Inside her square room was one of the raised mainlander beds she would have to get used to, a plain wooden wardrobe that she presumed held more of what she was wearing, and a small wooden desk and chair. Her pack had been laid carefully at the foot of the bed, her bow and quiver leaned up against the wall just as neatly. Bigger than her room at home, Evony couldn’t understand what the other girl’s problem was.

Evony turned around to ask Admina if that was normal, when she realized the other girl wasn’t there. She looked out the door and saw the other girl coming out the room across from hers. Admina caught her focus and smiled. Evony returned the expression, glad that the other girl was nearby. She hadn’t realized how wearing it was to be surrounded by strangers all the time until now. Having a friendly face made all the difference.

While the other girls slowly filtered into their own rooms, Admina joined Evony in hers. “What should we do now?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the palace,” Evony said, itching to get a better lay of the land. “Would you like to join me?”

Admina’s smile was all the answer she needed.

Chapter 3: Exploring

Evony led the way out of the building they’d just entered, Admina just a step behind her. Rather than follow the breezeway back to the main building, she step out between the columns and crossed through one of the gardens that always seemed to border the walkways.

The bright sunshine made Evony squint as sweat began to form on her back and neck. She ignored it. The garden, filled with big white, blue, and pink flowers, buzzed with numerous fat bees. Their droning gave out a feeling of calm, warm sleepiness that made Evony think back to childhood days of running through fields barefoot, of napping underneath trees and playing at adventures with her sisters.

But she had her duty to perform, and to do it well, Evony needed more information. So she shook off the impulse and continued through the garden into the grassy expanse that lay between it and the wall.

She assumed that was forethought and approved. With a few dozen passus of empty grass, it would be almost impossible for an invading force to sneak up to the palace without being spotted. And that only if they could get by the walls. Really, the only way she could see the palace falling was through treachery.

Evony turned as they reached the centre of the grass and headed down along the wall, away from the building that now housed them. “Do you know the palace well?” she asked Admina. She realized she really didn’t know much about her new friend and had to admit to being curious. As well as figuring an insider’s perspective could only benefit her.

Admina shook her head. “Miletum is a great distance from here. Not as great as Gormain or Aoi, but very far. It’s my first time here. If I hadn’t been summoned…I don’t believe I’d have come without the call the emperor sent out. My brother-He was considering a match for me with Azar, Deniz, or Flanna.”

“Your brother? Why would he be considering the match? It’s your decision, is it not?” Evony asked, frowning.

Her friend’s eyes were wide as she looked at Evony. “My brother is Rector. Our father passed this last year. We have only just come out of mourning,” she replied, her focus dropping to the grass. “He is to decide the match for me. He… This competition has interfered with his original plans.”

Evony’s gaze narrowed. To let anyone besides yourself choose your lifemate seemed like sheerest insanity to her, and doubly so for one’s brother. She also didn’t much care for the way Admina spoke of her brother, especially given the way she’d seemed with regards to staying in the competition.

Admina seemed sweet, kind, and intelligent. Maybe a little shy and hesitant, but with time she thought that could be fixed. Inwardly, Evony nodded. She liked Admina and thought she would make a decent empress. She certainly would be of no danger to the emperor and would likely be a gentle partner. Which given the stories she’d heard of the emperor, he needed as a balance. Provided the emperor seemed a decent sort and that Admina was interested, she would do her best to help her win the competition.

But now she needed something to break the growing silence between them. It was a heavy thing, and more oppressive even than the heat of the day. Evony glanced around, and noticed the long stone and wood building they were approaching. Her nose twitched at the familiar scent of hay, sweat, and droppings, the unique combination alerting her to what the place had to be.

She smiled and Admina and tilted her head at what her nose told her was a stable. “Do you ride much?”

Admina looked up at her then, staring for a moment before she shook her head. “I can, but I’ve never ridden for much more than an hour or two.”

“We’ll have to go out. I can teach you some tricks, if you want to learn. And nothing is better than racing across the ground on a horse, with the wind in your hair and the sun on your back. We Amazzi do a lot of riding, so I’ve got more than my fair share of tricks. Though I was sad I couldn’t bring my mare with me. But she wouldn’t have liked the journey by ship, and I would have worried about her.”

“What does being Amazzi mean? I have only heard a few tales and I’m sure time and distance distorted them,” Admina asked as they strolled past the stables. Several heads hung out of the windows in the side of the stable, a rainbow array of horseflesh.

While she itched to examine the mounts and perhaps try the paces of a few, Evony looked away from the horses to answer her friend. “We are the Amazzi, a people. There are several clans of us and all of our people live on Silvinsula. I’m of the Aureline clan. We have long had a relationship with the emperor, or Adnuhom as we call him, and so are considered something of the leading clan. Though in reality each clan governs themselves. We are all trained warriors, though most of us have our own occupations since war is not something that will feed or clothe you.”

“That’s why…” Admina trailed off, her eyes on the knives Evony still wore.

She nodded. “I don’t feel right without them. What is your home like?”

“Oh, we’re quite high up. We have mountain all along our eastern border, but that has worked to our advantage since they’re rich in iron. We do great metalwork and make everything from swords to plows. We’ve long exported the ore and our metal works to others, though because of the distance, we don’t do nearly as much trade as we could. If we could expand our trade routes, our people would truly prosper.”

Evony smiled, glad to see her friend relaxing. It was clear that at the very least, Admina loved her homeland. And that was something she could understand since Evony loved and missed Silvinsula. She really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

They turned as they came close to another building. This one was also made of stone and wood, but from the sheer number of soldiers coming and going from it, Evony could tell it was the barracks. She eyed a few of the ones they passed, but didn’t do more than that. She could feel the stares they were getting from the upper floor windows but chose to ignore them. She imagined this was the first time any of them had seen an Amazzi. They hadn’t been called into battle by the emperor or his predecessor, so they had not left the island in force in decades.

Ahead of them lay several fields, some delineated with low wooden fences, some just left open. Even from a distance, Evony could see the neat formations the identically dressed men marched in right in the centre of the field in that lay directly in front of them. In the one to their right, soldiers practiced with swords and long shields, while the one to the left lay empty, but the targets told her what its purpose was. She decided to come out in the mornings when she had time to practice. Her sisters would never let her hear the end of it if she came home with her skills gone rusty.

Evony led the way towards the right field, Admina looking around in short bursts, looking back at the ground any time one of the soldiers met her gaze or even looked in her direction. That was something Evony thought she’d work on with her friend especially if she was going to try and make her empress.

She didn’t stop until they were at the fence that surrounded the grassy field. Evony leaned her crossed arms over the top of the wood barrier and eyed the practicing men. Admina stood beside her, hands carefully folded in front of her, looking around with some interest.

The soldiers were uniformly men, something that Evony found unnatural. Why use only half your potential troops? Still, the soldiers she watched weren’t half bad. Their foundations looked good, though she thought they ought to practice a stab passing under the arm that held the shield in case of an opportunity to attack on that side. Turning would take time during which the chance could slip away. Then again, her people’s ways relied heavily on speed.

The sound of footsteps drew Evony’s attention away from the practice to look behind them, Admina turning a few moments later. Three men were just coming to a stop by them, one a soldier, one some kind of official in a long chiton and overrobe of black, while the last wore a short chiton, half-length robe of gold and black and a black cloak.

It was the last who drew Evony’s attention. He was lean, but had the whipcord kind of muscle that was more common among the Amazzi warriors, his bare calves giving her a clear enough view of that. His eyes were the blue shade that was so rare among her people, his hair the tawny colour of the lion pelt that it was said her great-grandmother had slain. He looked them both over, making Admina duck her head and stare at the ground, his attention mostly focused on Evony.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, light voice holding a mix of curiosity and surprise with just a hint of accusation.

Evony’s eyebrows rose. “We’re exploring the palace. We were given leave to go where we liked, provided we weren’t told it was forbidden. Are the training grounds forbidden?”

He frowned slightly. “No, they are not.”

“Then there should be no issue,” she replied, crossing her arms over her chest.

“You are a warrior, yes?” he said. At her nod, he continued. “What do you think of our soldiers?”

Evony considered briefly saying nothing, but if this man was asking honestly, it was her duty to reply honestly. “They have good foundations. They do leave their one side incapable of attack with the heavy shields and don’t seem to practice a cross body stab. A blow with the shield might keep off an attacker, but the sword will deal better damage, especially with good aim.”

His frown deepened and he eyed her again. “Interesting,” was all he said. Before Evony had a chance to say anything else, he turned and left just as abruptly as he’d arrived.

She stared after him. He hadn’t even given his name, let alone asked for theirs. She shook her head and looked at Admina, who was just now glancing up. “Who was that?”

Her friend shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Evony snorted. “Well let’s hope we don’t run into him again,” she said, turning her attention back towards the practicing men.

Chapter 4: Attack in the Night

Evony’s eyes snapped open. All she could see was darkness as her eyes slowly adjusted to the tiny amount of light that crept in from around the edges of her room’s door. Noiselessly she rolled out of her bed, grabbing the knife that lay under her pillow and drawing one of the ones that she wore even in sleep.

The footsteps that had stopped in front of her door hadn’t restarted, but every instinct and ounce of training told her that whoever was out there hadn’t moved. She ghosted over so she stood to one side of the door and pressed her back against the cool stone of the wall, keeping her breathing even as she strained her senses.

Her door burst open, the attacker rushing in a few steps before freezing as he noticed the empty bed. Evony didn’t hesitate. She jumped up and lashed out with one hilt-laden hand. Her blow slammed into the side of the man’s head and he dropped to one knee with a moan. Evony didn’t let him move more than that, turning her landing into a pivot that had her foot smashing into his head again, this time with his momentum only stopping when he hit the wall.

Gripping one knife in preparation for finishing him, Evony’s attention was caught by a scream. Several other screams followed it. She threw herself towards her open door to see another man outlined in the doorway of Admina’s room.

Evony’s body followed her first impulse and she was halfway across the hall before she even realized she was moving. Her training asserted itself, allowing her to continue moving as her heart pounded in her ears and her mouth went dry. When the man half-turned to meet her, Evony’s body moved almost on reflex.

She ducked down, under his attempt to grab her, dodging around him so she was at his back. She shot one leg out so that it connected solidly with the back of his knee, sending him stumbling off balance. She spun and stabbed him in the side. He jerked away from her strike before she could rip down and across, crying out as her knife was yanked free of his body.

The blood dripped from Evony’s knife without her paying any attention to it, her attention focused on her opponent. He had one hand pressed to his injury, blood welling up between his fingers. She took a step towards him and he scurried back and fell. “Please,” he said. “Please, brightness, I never meant you harm.”

Evony’s eyes narrowed as she studied him, her brain finally acknowledging what the main was wearing. The long black tunic was familiar though she hadn’t immediately recognized it without a cuirass on top. A low hiss escaped her lips. “You’re a soldier.”

The man nodded rapidly, face still pale and his gaze alert to her every movement.

The other screams combined with the shouts and other noises she could hear coming from outside Admina’s room painted a clear enough picture. Her eyes alight with barely controlled emotions, Evony glared down at the man. “Was this a test?” she whispered, arms trembling with the force she used to clench her hands around her knives.

The soldier gulped. “Yes, brightness.”

Evony’s eye twitched but she managed to keep herself from striking out the man that sat prone in front of her. She couldn’t blame him for following orders, as much as she wanted to lash out at someone right now. His honour demanded he follow orders much the same as hers did. No, she had to take this up with the people who had authorized this.

She turned her attention to Admina instead. It took her a moment to find her friend. The sound of shaky breathing alerted Evony to Admina’s hiding place. She certainly approved of her friend’s strategy, especially since the other girl had no defensive training to speak of. Evony leaned over the bed so that she could see the back of Admina’s head, her friend’s hands pressed into her hair as if to ward off a blow.

Evony took a deep breath and did her best to send out all of her anger at the same time so she didn’t frighten Admina, sheathing her knives as she did so. “It’s safe now,” she called. “You can come out.”

Her friend flinched and then slowly looked up. When she caught sight of Evony, her face crumpled up and she began to cry. “Evony!”

She offered Admina her hand. “You’re safe,” she said.

Admina scrambled out from under her bed and practically threw herself at Evony. “I thought I was to going to be killed!”

Evony awkwardly patted her friend as the other girl clung to her. She really didn’t have any words or ideas for this situation, and settled instead for giving her opponent a look that she hoped made him feel guilty for scaring Admina so much. He might not have had a choice in the matter, but he still deserved to feel bad given what he’d put her friend through.

The heavy tramping of synchronized footfalls drew Evony’s attention away from Admina. There was only one reason a whole unit of soldiers would be on their way and she hoped they were accompanied by someone in charge or none of them were going to be very happy when she was through.

Carefully she pulled away from Admina, patting the girl’s shoulder. “Everything’s fine,” she said. “Just stay here. I need to speak to the new arrivals.”

“But-” her friend stopped as she caught sight of the man who was still on the ground and bleeding. “Ev-“

She cut her off. “This was a test and he’s a soldier. I didn’t realize until I’d already marked him. As he is now, he’s no danger to you. Please, stay here while I sort the rest of this out.”

Admina hesitated for a moment, biting her lip, before she nodded. “Please be careful.”

Evony offered her a hint of a smile before she strode out of the room. Every door along their hall was open, some with people still visible inside, while the hall itself was chaotic. Young women in nightdresses sat, lay, and stood throughout the hall, several pale, some still crying, and one looked unconscious. Various men in identical black tunics to the men she’d fought stood awkwardly around, most trying to avoid looking at the women around them, while a few were trying to calm girls down.

At the very end of the hall were six soldiers in full uniform standing in two neat lines at attention. The man in front of them all was familiar. Evony hadn’t seen anyone else with that peculiar red-brown hair of his, and she was hardly likely to forget what the emperor’s aide looked like.

Her target acquired, Evony stalked towards him, noting the way he looked around. Her swift movement quickly caught his attention and he watched her approach. The men around him tensed and she realized one hand had fallen to the knife at her waist. A flick of her eyes told her that the short chiton she wore would need to be bleached to erase the blood splatter along the bottom.

Evony stopped in front of Rakin, consciously making the effort to drop her hands to her sides so she wasn’t tempted to pull a weapon. The anger that had flared back up she was sure showed in her eyes. Her mother had always said that when she was angry, it was like lightning flashed through her eyes. “Whose idea was this?” she demanded, not bothering with any sign of respect. Anyone who had ordered such a test didn’t deserve respect from her.

Rakin eyed her for a moment. “This was by order of his imperial majesty,” he said, stressing the title ever so slightly.

She took a step closer so that there was barely a hand’s difference between the two of them. “Then tell his imperial majesty that he is an idiot!” she snapped. “What kind of person thinks that terrifying a group of people, doubly so for a group of non-combatants, is a good idea? I don’t know what this was intended to test, but I can assure you, it wasn’t worth this!”

The aide leaned back from her words, his eyes widening slightly. “You-“

Evony had warmed to her subject and her voice rose along with her anger. “Most of these women are barely out of girlhood and you attack them in the night? If the emperor thinks this is an appropriate test for those not trained in fighting, I’ll be happy to help him practice dodging arrows! And just so you’re aware, two of your men almost lost their lives tonight because of this test.”

Rakin blinked. Evony didn’t wait for a response but turned around and headed back towards Admina’s room. She was sure her friend still needed to be calmed down and as much as telling Rakin what she thought made her feel better, Admina was the higher priority.

Chapter 5: Third Test

While a rare sleep-in and breakfast had calmed Evony down, she still wasn’t much impressed with the whole competition. Even if the girl from Vernell had told her attackers that she’d give and tell them anything they wanted if they left her alone and been cut from the contest because of it. Knowing that still wasn’t worth putting the rest of the girls through terror, especially since none of them would ever likely see battle. If it had been her and other Amazzi, she could have seen the merit, but not untrained girls.

And having spent two meals with them, listening to their chatter and seeing some of their behaviour, Evony knew that they were mostly girls. Only a few other looked to be of majority to her. Then again, Amazzi ways were not the ways of the mainland so she supposed she should adjust her thinking.

She was also glad that Admina had interests outside of clothing, hair, poetry, and dances which was most of what she’d heard the others talking about. While she liked all of those things, except poetry, she preferred to talk about things that were more…meaningful was the best word she could think of. She wondered if it was because she was older than most of the others, Amazzi, or because of the competition, but none of the others seemed to have much interest in anything of substance.

Evony sighed and leaned back against the wall beside Admina’s door as she waited for her friend to finish changing. She also made a mental note to either wake up earlier or go in the evening to the training fields for practice. Though she supposed last night had to count for something.

She glanced around, noting that several of the girls had formed groups, with only a few alone or in pairs. One group, the one headed up by the loud silver girl, were whispering and looking at her. She ignored them. She’d overheard the comments at breakfast that they’d obviously intended her to hear, but if they thought saying she was mannish and violent was going to bother her, they clearly didn’t know her or her people. She wasn’t here to make friends or to fit in. She was here because her and her people’s honour demanded it.

Still, she smiled when Admina finally emerged in a fresh dress, having knocked her eggs into her lap when she’d heard what the other girls were saying. For all that she was quiet, hesitant, and a little fearful, her friend did still have some fire to her. It made Evony like her all the more.

The sound of marching feet drew Evony’s attention towards the entrance to their hall. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she saw Rakin coming in, followed by only two guards this time. She eyed the small wooden box he held for a moment, before she pushed off from the wall. She nodded to Admina who flinched a little but followed her to where the emperor’s aide was now stopping.

It didn’t take long for all the girls to assemble around him. Nineteen sets of eyes watched Rakin’s every move as he stepped forward. “Congratulations on passing the second test. While some of you,” he said, his gaze flicking to Evony for a brief second before he looked at all of them again. “Have protested the methods, this test, while rough, was designed to see how you would each deal with personal danger. While rare, assassination attempts and attacks do happen. Being able to keep yourself from being killed or kidnapped before help arrives is imperative. I’m glad that so many of you passed and you do have the emperor’s apologies for any fright it caused you.”

Evony snorted quietly. If it was a sincere apology the emperor would be there, making the apology himself. She didn’t think much of anyone who had his subordinate doing his dirty work for him.

“For our third test, I require each of you to draw a slip of paper from this box. If you would come up one at a time?” Rakin said, holding up the small box so that not even Evony would have been able to see over the top of it.

After some brief jostling, something like a line formed in front of Rakin. Evony and Admina were near the back, mixed in with the others who didn’t see a point in being first. Evony doubted they’d only have enough papers for part of the group, not that it would have bothered her if she were disqualified for that. But for Admina’s sake, she hoped that wasn’t the case.

By the time she reached Rakin, several of the girls were comparing papers, and she could hear numbers being whispered. So it was with little surprise that when she reached into the box and pulled out a paper, she found hers had a number four on it.

She moved to the side, waiting for Admina to join her with her number. “I have number one,” her friend said when she came to stand beside Evony. “What number do you have?”

“Four,” she replied. Admina’s face fell a little and Evony smiled. “I’m sure it will be fine. There are plenty of others who seem quite nice.”

“Now that you all have your numbers,” Rakin said as the last girl shuffled away from him. “I want you to form groups with the others of the same number.”

Evony smiled a temporary goodbye at Admina before she followed the shouts of four to where the rest of her group stood. She glanced back and watched Admina trudge towards hers, glad that at least the loudmouthed silver girl wasn’t in either of their groups. She was annoying.

Looking around at her group, only the girl in blue would meet her gaze. The other two kept their eyes to the floor for as long as she looked at them. Evony heaved an internal sigh. Working with them was certainly going to be interesting.

“Each of your groups will need to work together to perform a task for this evening. You are permitted to use any free servants you wish to help you with your tasks and to make free use of the facilities and stores within the palace, though if you are told something is forbidden, you must respect that. Your group will be judged as a whole,” Rakin said, sweeping them all with a look.

He waited a few seconds to allow his words to sink in before he continued. “Group one will be in charge of arranging light refreshments for approximately one hundred people. Group two will be in charge of drinks for the same number. Group three will need to arrange entertainment for an evening of conversation and gentle amusement. Group four will need to arrange decorations for an evening of the same. You are all expected to complete your tasks and present yourselves at the Pleasure Hall at eight of the evening. Any group not on time will be disqualified as a whole. Good luck.”

Rakin didn’t wait for questions or acknowledgements but turned and left, his two guards following close behind him. Everyone watched him go for several moments before one girl in group one said, “I think we should have a lot of fresh fruit and sweet desserts.”

That sparked a debate amongst the rest of her group, and in minutes, every group was talking, each girl wanting her ideas to be heard. Evony didn’t have much experience with decorations, except for making simple daisy chains and the like, so she just listened. The one girl in her group wanted to do something dark and mysterious, using black as an homage to the imperial family as well.

The next group over, clearly delineated from the other with the space between, was talking about having food that represented the different seasons so that there was a rich variety. The group on drinks was being told by the silver girl that they should serve only the richest of wines and heavy liqueurs in special drinks so that their group stood out most. The last group was talking about finding some kind of performers instead of doing the expected musicians.

Evony pictured all these things being presented at once and winced at the mental image. It would be a mess. Each one of their groups was acting as an individual unit, not interacting with the others. If this were a battle it’d be chaos. Evony knew the best strategy was when everyone fought as a whole. And while they might be in a competition, she guessed the point of this test was to see how well they worked together, and how better than to have all of them creating a common theme and ensuring the evening was a seamless whole?

“I think,” she began, but her words were swallowed up by the loud conversations around her. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Hello!”

Only her group glanced at her for a moment, before two of the girls went back to discussing the merits of dark vs. light decorations. There were too many voices and even shouting, Evony knew she’d be ignored. There were already a few girls yelling over each other to be heard. There was no help for it.

Inhaling sharply, Evony threw her head back a let out her clan’s war cry. Her voice rose and fell in the traditional call that was part imitation of an eagle’s call, part imitation of a wolf’s call, mixed in with an ending high that could cut through a battlefield.

It worked and when Evony dropped her head, she found everyone staring at her. “Thank you,” she said, bowing her head in acknowledgement and apology in one. “I know we’ve been separated into groups, but if each group does whatever they like without speaking to the others, the evening will be a mess. If we all discuss it together and connect what we’re doing to each other’s, the evening will be cohesive and much more pleasing. We need to find a common theme or connecting thread.”

No one said anything for a second. Then the silver girl, Venita Evony thought her name was, laughed harshly. “Really? That is what you think? You’re a barbarian who pretends at being noble. What could you possibly understand of civilized gatherings?”

Evony turned slowly to stare at her. She held Venita’s eyes without saying a word, just staring at her unwaveringly. The other girl tossed her head, but Evony could see the way she’d shifted back ever so slightly. Which was good as far as she was concerned.

“I believe you are correct,” said another voice. Evony waited until Venita turned to look at her before she broke the staring contest to watch the girl in green. “Without a common idea, it will be a sloppy mess. Does anyone have any thoughts to a theme that would work for all groups?”

No one said something immediately. Then someone from Admina’s group said, “What about the four seasons?”

The girl in green, Primus Chana of Yarkona, Evony remembered, nodded. “That’s an idea.”

“What about the night sky?” called one of Evony’s group mates.

In moments, ideas were being thrown out left and right while Chana did her best to mediate. Evony left her to it, recognizing someone with talent for managing people. She’d already made most of the contribution she was capable of and was happy to follow her group’s lead for the rest. At the very least she’d be helpful in getting anything heavy moved and in getting anything that needed to be high up. The actual decisions she was less confident in. Still, she’d do her best.

Evony settled herself into her station near the main entrance of the hall, just across from Magna Asahi of Aoi. Their other two group mates, Praetor Fiorella of Gavino and Regulus Neah of Dimon, each stood by one of the lesser entrances. Evony wasn’t entirely surprised at the arrangement. Asahi was the only one who would meet her gaze, and she doubted anyone in her group trusted her at one of the entrances alone, not after what she’d done to the soldiers in the last test. She knew better than to argue, especially since it didn’t matter to her where she was.

She looked around the Pleasure Hall again. The handiwork of her group was evident everywhere. Between each of the columns they’d hung large swathes of undyed gauze, bringing the fabric together into the centre of the hall, making the whole inner area look like a light, airy tent. From the middle they’d hung stars, with a sun near the main entrance, and a moon on the opposite end. The outer area was an open walkway, with a few breaks for people to come through.

The paper lanterns they’d strung along the walls started in the blue of the morning sky and ran through all the colours of the sky, from the reds, oranges, and yellows of the sunset to the black of the night. They lent a glow to the fabric and worked to make their theme of the sky really show.

The fabric had been Evony’s idea, something her and her sisters had done as children to create special spaces where they would hide, and pretend to be camping out in the wilderness like their elders. She was glad it had turned out. Asahi’s lanterns were what really made it though. She didn’t think the fabric would have fit otherwise.

Small tables ran along one side of the room, each covered with small finger foods. Colourful vegetables arranged in patterns that reflected the sky, light breads with soft cheeses, and oils for dipping were in full force. The only meat to be found on the tables were all poultry and gamebirds, the settings decorated with feathers.

The opposite side held tables with drinks. Evony wasn’t too sure what those tables held, since the drinks group had decided not to participate in the theme and had refused to tell the other groups what they were doing. She thought it had been a poor decision, but they weren’t her group so she didn’t much care.

At the far end, a wooden dais had been set up where a small group of musicians had set up. The entertainment group had found a mix that ran heavily to strings and woodwinds and the sound that floated towards them was ethereal and soft. The entertainment group only had one of their members near the musicians, the others were scattered throughout the hall.

The nearest was the girl from Yarkona, Chana, who’d acted as mediator for everyone. She stood not too far from Evony, speaking quietly to one of the girls from the meal group. The sound of approaching footsteps drew Evony’s attention to her duty and the people who entered.

She smiled, doing her best to counteract the impression the weapons she wore gave. The first people who came in appeared to be high-ranking soldiers, their cuirasses covered in unique designs, their short black tunics the same as always though they looked to be made of fine linen rather than the more common yarn and coarse cotton of the ordinary soldiers.

The women who accompanied them Evony presumed were their wives. In long chitons and beautifully embroidered overdresses, they seemed to glide more than walk. Not a single one wore weapons and again, Evony felt the difference between her and these mainlanders. She still hadn’t seen another female warrior since she’d arrived and was beginning to wonder if they existed.

“Welcome,” Evony said, giving a slight bow, her fist over her heart. She heard Chana come up beside her, smiling an additional welcome at their guests. Across from them, Asahi bowed deeply, her voice soft as she welcomed everyone.

It didn’t take long for the room to fill. Small groups of people chatted, while others wandered around the tables, sampling this and that. The general mood of the room seemed to be relaxed and cheerful from the expressions she could see on people’s faces.

Watching a man with close-cropped grey hair accompanied by two soldiers pass by Asahi, Evony glanced towards Chana and nodded in his direction. “Is that the emperor?” she said, thinking he matched the description her sisters had given her.

The brunette stared at her with wide eyes for a moment. “Have you never met his imperial majesty before?”

“I had never left Silvinsula before coming here. My people don’t travel much.”

Chana shook her head. “His imperial majesty is not so old as that. When he arrives I will let you know.”

“Thanks,” she replied with a smile. Chana was one of the few who didn’t seem to react with fear to her, but then again, she was also a member of the first families and would have been aware of the tales of her people.

The girl inclined her head, offering a hint of a smile in return before turning her attention back to the arriving guests. Evony did the same. She had her duty, and beyond that, she didn’t want to bring her group down.

One of the other girls from Chana’s group, Sheshan of Phenice, had joined them when the brunette caught Evony’s gaze. She nodded towards the centre of the room, mouthing the words, the emperor.

Evony turned to follow Chana’s gesture. She spotted Rakin first before the crowd shifted and she could see the man that stood beside him. Just a hair taller than the aide, with his tawny hair in waves that just brushed the bottom of his earlobes in front and continued to cover the back of his neck in the back, he stood out from the other men who mostly wore their hair short. Dressed again in a knee length white chiton with a short over-robe of black, Evony recognized the blue-eyed man from the training fields.

She studied him, noting the way everyone moved out of his way and that there was nearly a passus between him and everyone except Rakin. He moved along the tables of food, stopping here and there, but never eating anything. Several of the other candidates did their best to smile at him, though Evony could tell even from a distance that not all of them were comfortable in his presence. She wasn’t surprised. The stories about the man who’d conquered the world were many, and few painted him in a good light.

Still, Evony made a mental note to hit her sisters for telling her he was an old man. He was anything but, looking to be of age with her or at most, a few years older. To have done so much at such relative youth, even Evony had to admit to being impressed. Though his manners the other day were still a mark against him in her books. And that without counting their second test.

Between greeting the arriving guests, Evony kept flicking her gaze in the emperor’s direction. She watched as he slowly made his way towards her group, stopping several more times along the way. When he finally reached them, the event was in full swing and almost no one was still arriving.

Chana offered the full bow and double raised arms above her head that was the highest form of respect among the mainlanders and whispered “Your imperial majesty.” Across from them, Asahi bowed so that she was nearly perpendicular with the floor, her hands in front of her, her eyes on the ground, whatever she might have said lost in the sound of the gathered crowd.

Evony offered her own people’s highest sign of respect, crossing her arms over her chest, her hands in fists, she bowed. “Greetings and best wishes, Adnuhom,” she said before straightening.

She frowned slightly as she realized the other two were still holding their positions. She was about to say something when the emperor spoke. “Thank you, Primus Chana, Magna Asahi.”

As they straightened, he turned towards Evony. “I have not heard the title Adnuhom before.”

Evony raised her eyebrows slightly. “It’s the term my people refer to you as. It means ‘the man we bow to’. I’m surprised you’re unfamiliar with it.”

He blinked and then frowned slightly. “Why would that surprise you?”

“We are your people. I would have thought you would be familiar with our word for you. The Amazzi have been the allies of the Fuscienne before your family became emperors.”

“Then you are displeased with me?”

Evony shrugged. “No. Merely surprised.”

“You are not particularly respectful,” the emperor, Galen, said, eyeing her.

“I owe you my loyalty and I will obey your orders. That is the highest form of respect Amazzi show. We don’t believe in treating our leaders special, we treat them as we treat each other. Acting as if they’re something special only encourages attitudes that can create leaders who believe they are above everyone and make them forget that their job is to act in a way that is best for all Amazzi.”

“And do you believe your ways are better than ours?”

Evony put one hand on her hip as she shook her head. “Not better, simply different. We have our traditions just as you have yours. Or do you believe any one of your provinces is better than the others?”

His brows knitted together slightly. “I do not believe that is an apt comparison.”

“It is from my perspective.”

Galen was silent for a few seconds, his forefinger circling he nail of his thumb. “You do not fear me or my displeasure.”

It had been a statement, but Evony took it as a question. “No, I don’t. You have given me no reason to. I might not agree with your decisions,” she gave that word a slight emphasis in case he thought she’d forgotten the fake attack he’d orchestrated. “But you and your predecessors have always dealt with my people fairly. Should I fear you and your displeasure?”

Her raised eyebrow had his lips tilting upwards slightly. A slight cough from Rakin drew both their gazes. Evony blinked momentarily, having forgotten that there were other people around. She mentally shook herself. That was the kind of mistake that could get a warrior killed.

The aide glanced towards the other side of the room then back to the emperor. Galen’s expression flickered before he turned to look back at Evony. “Thank you for speaking frankly,” he said, then inclined his head towards the other two candidates. “A pleasure making your acquaintances.” With Rakin just a step behind him, Galen left, heading towards the other side of the room at a leisurely pace, his eyes seeming to take in everything.

Evony watched him go for a moment before she turned her attention back to her job. She still wasn’t sure whether she actually liked the emperor or not. At the very least, she could say he was interesting. She did wonder if he was capable of smiling. Every time she saw him, his face seemed to be set in stone, with only the occasional frown to change it. She’d have thought that man who ruled the world would be happier, but then again, that was a lot of responsibility to be on anyone’s shoulders.

She looked over at Chana to see the girl in green was staring at her. “What?” she asked, glancing down to make sure she hadn’t somehow gotten dirt or something on her.

“How are you able to speak to his imperial majesty like that?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper, her eyes wide. “He’s the man who conquered the world!”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with me. He’s the Adnuhom, and for Amazzi, that’s all that matters. As well, I wasn’t lying about our belief in treating leaders like people. It’s part of our culture.”

Chana slowly shook her head. “You are not what I had expected,” she said. She gave a half bow to Evony before turning and sliding through the crowds, heading towards the musicians.

Evony frowned, wondering what exactly it was that Chana had expected.

Chapter 6: Practice

Evony tied off her short chiton, one that the maids obviously thought was nightclothes to leave it among her things, making sure it was secure before she strapped on her weapons, wrist guards, quiver, and grabbed her bow. Only then did she make her way outside. The eastern sky was awash in gold and orange, the blinding sphere of the sun only a quarter over the horizon. The cool of the night was just now retreating making Evony smile. Dawn was her favourite time of day.

Going to bed shortly after the end of the competition last night, and the subsequent removal of the girls from Cam, Flanna, Lavan and Kai, had been worth it. Evony enjoyed the reduction of noise being down to fifteen girls had caused. While she certainly didn’t mind chatter, there seemed to be too much of it in her mind. Then again, she’d never been big on crowds.

Evony saw almost no one as she crossed the palace complex in the early morning light, revelling in the rare opportunity to be alone. It often seemed she was only by herself in her room. She hummed slightly and hurried her steps as she passed the barracks. It was the only place outside of the servants’ areas that showed activity.

She looked over the uniformed men she could see moving about for a moment then turned her attention back towards her destination. She was glad to see that the archery range was still empty, though the centre and right fields at the front were both in use. The former with men doing some strengthening exercises, the latter with soldiers doing basic sword drills. At least that’s what they looked like to Evony.

Tossing her unstrung bow to her left hand, she vaulted over the fence using her right. She eyed the targets, each a large circle of woven reeds painted with various types of targets. There was the coloured rings that she understood was the standard on the mainland, the scattered small circles of black, and the one she was most used to, the outline of a person. It was in front of one of those that she stopped.

Evony grabbed a string out of one of the pouches on the belts that held her daggers and carefully slid it over both ends. Once it was set she opened up the drawstring of the quiver that hung over her hip and pulled out her first arrow. She used it to practice drawing a few dozen times, just to warm up her muscles and get her ready. It had been long enough since her last chance to practice that she wasn’t taking any chances.

She wiggled her feet as she settled into a proper stance facing the target. Only when she felt like she was properly aligned and ready, did she knock her arrow and actually aim at the target. Typically, she’d have aimed at the eyes, but thought it was best to start more slowly. She concentrated instead on the small circle that was being used as an example of the heart.

Inhaling, Evony waited a second to make sure everything was just right before she exhaled. As the last bit of air left her lungs, she released her arrow. It thudded solidly into the circle she’d been aiming at, though even from this distance, Evony could tell it was just a bit too much to the right. She hissed a little. That’s what she got for neglecting her training for over a week. She could practically hear her sisters laughing at her. And it wasn’t like fitting the odd hora of training into her schedule was that hard.

Evony sighed, doing her best to shove all of her irritation out with it. That would get in the way of her shooting. Once she had herself relatively calm, she pulled out another arrow and nocked it. This time she did aim at one of the eyes, and when she released it, she could already tell it flew truer than her first had.

Her fifth arrow was the last she sent in for precision work, this one aimed exactly halfway between the two eyes that she’d already marked. She shifted slightly in her stance, ensuring that she was still in the right position before she reached for her quiver. In rapid succession she sent the next fifteen arrows flying towards the target.

When her quiver was empty, all fifteen arrows were clustered near where the nose of the person would be if the target had been real. A low whistle drew Evony’s attention to the fence behind and to her left. Four soldiers were clustered there, two actually sitting on the fence, the other two leaning up against it. One of them actually flinched as she turned to look at him. The others all shifted backwards.

She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t bite,” she called, one hand on her hip. “As long as you’re not threatening me and mine, that is.”

They started whispering amongst themselves and Evony shrugged. She turned back to the target and headed towards it, studying her arrows as she walked. Overall she didn’t seem to have slipped too badly. She thought the first arrow might have been more due to nerves and the less humid air she found here on the mainland. She obviously hadn’t adjusted as well as she thought she had to it yet.

Evony carefully pulled her arrows out and returned them to her quiver, walking back for another go. She noted that her audience seemed to have grown by two, and that all six of them had moved to the closer portion of fence, still watching her. One of the newcomers whispered something only to be hit by one of the original four. She wondered if any of them were archers, but it was hard to tell when they were out of armor.

She absently touched the leather of her wrist guards before she stopped back in the spot she’d been in before. She eyed the target for a moment and then took a few more steps back. She ought to be stretching herself more. The last thing she wanted to do was be out of practice when she returned home so that her sisters weren’t even challenged in beating her. She’d never live something like that down, not if they had their way.

It wasn’t until she returned from retrieving her arrows the second time that the soldiers watching her approached. Or rather, two of them shoved the third forward, and he stumbled a few steps in her direction. She watched, amused, as he squared his shoulders and came closer. Studying him, Evony thought that her audience was younger than she’d thought previously, more likely relatively new recruits from their lack of any kind of facial hair. Well, not entirely true. One looked to be trying and failing to grow a mustache, but she was pretending he wasn’t for his sake.

“Good m-morning, brightness,” the boy said, voice only wavering slightly. His dark eyes were wide in his face. He didn’t look much older than her brother and she had to repress the urge to chuckle.

“Good morning. I hope I’m not in the way of your morning practice.”

“Oh no, brightness. This is our free morning. We thought we’d watch the training, but they’re only doing basics today and then…”

She could fill in the blanks and smiled. “My name’s Evony. We don’t use titles on Silvinsula often, so I’m not much one for being called brightness.”

The boy stared at her for a heartbeat then offered a hint of a smile back. The sound of many feet approaching interrupted her reply. Evony looked up as several men filed into the field, headed up by two men in the elaborate cuirasses of officers. She frowned slightly at the far one. Something about him was familiar…

“What is happening here?” barked the nearer man, his blue cloak practically gleaming in the light of the new sun.

The recruit beside Evony flinched before he turned to salute the man. “We were watching training practices, sir. When brightness arrived, we decided to observe hers as well.”

The officer’s gaze went past the boy to Evony. “Who gave you permission to be here?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “No one. I wasn’t told the training fields were forbidden. Am I not allowed to make use of the targets?”

“What use could-“

The other man stepped up beside the officer and smiled at Evony before looking at his compatriot. “Surely there’s no harm in letting her practice. I wouldn’t mind seeing how the Amazzi style differs from our own, wouldn’t you?”

Now Evony recognized the man, but realized she still didn’t know what his name was. The first officer glowered for a moment before he nodded. “One round should show us what we need to see.”

“Well then, Evony, daughter of Zarina,” the legate said, turning to wink at her. “Will you give us a demonstration?”

She offered him a half bow with her fist over her heart. “With pleasure,” she said.

While her original audience resumed their positions by the fence, including the one who’d been brave enough to speak to her, Evony eyed the target. She was being judged not only as herself, but as a representative of her people. She needed to make sure she performed in a way that brought honour to both.

Evony stepped back until she was just a few paces in from her limit. Whispers sprung up among the soldiers, obviously archers by their bows and quivers, waiting for their turn to practice. She ignored them. If they wanted to see a true Amazzi, she’d show them the skill her people prized.

She used the pressure to narrow her focus, so that everything outside of her body, weapons and target practically disappeared. She inhaled deeply, letting the air move through her like a calming balm. She nocked her first arrow to the string before she carefully exhaled. Her arrow escaped her bow at the same moment the last of the air she’d brought in left.

Evony didn’t wait to see where it hit, going for a rapid-fire release of as many arrows as she could get in as quickly as she could. The target was less in front of her eyes and more in her mind as she fired shot after shot. She only stopped when her hand came up empty from her quiver, the string of her bow still vibrating. Every one of her arrows was clustered neatly around the small circle of her target’s heart, not even the tiniest sliver of the black circle visible for all the arrows that overflowed it.

For a second, the only sounds were the light breeze through the surrounding trees and the shouts coming from the two adjacent fields. Then the legate grinned. “I see the tales of Amazzi skill with the bow aren’t simply tales.”

She bowed her acceptance of the honour he did her people, deciding she liked the man. “Thank you,” was all she said.

“Th-that was…You said she was Amazzi, Legate Balint?”

The older man grinned at his fellow officer, his smile holding a razor edge. “This is Princeps Evony of Aureline, one of the fifteen remaining bridal candidates for Galen and a true Amazzi.”

The first officer visibly swallowed before he turned to Evony and offered her a deep bow with one arm raised. “Thank you for displaying your skills. We would be honour if you would continue to practice here.”

Evony smiled slightly, thinking better of the man for being able to see his mistake. “I would be honoured to return,” she said, giving him a quick fist over heart salute. “Thank you for allowing me the space to practice.”

He bowed his head, and Evony took it as time to leave. She was obviously in the way of the archers’ usual practice. It didn’t take her long to collect her arrows, under the collective gaze of the men, most of who were obviously staring at her. She ignored it. From what she’d seen, her being a female warrior was enough to cause stares. She could only imagine what actually demonstrating her skill had caused them to think.

She offered one final salute to the two officers before she headed off towards the women’s bath. While she hadn’t quite worked up the sweat she’d been intending, she still needed a wash. Especially since she had no idea what the rest of the day had in store for her.

Chapter 7: Fourth Test

The soft wind that had sprung up wound its way through Evony’s still damp hair. It tried to send strands flying, but her curly mane had been partially tamed by a low horsetail and the added weight of the water made the individual pieces too heavy to move. Still, it felt nice to be cool after the sweat she’d worked up.

Heading into the building that housed their quarters, Evony had barely stepped foot into the hall when Admina rushed towards her, eyes wide, face pale. She frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Her friend twisted her hands together. “It was in the eating hall when we awoke. The fourth test has been announced and our time slots decided. I-I don’t know how to do this.”

“Only someone who pretends at being nobility would require the aid of the barbarian,” said a voice as three girls passed them by.

Evony turned her gaze to the speaker, Venita of Argentia, while Admina flushed. “It is manners and honour that make someone noble,” she said, tired of the constant snipping comments. “Otherwise you’re no different than a broodmare.”

Venita choked and Evony took the opportunity to grab Admina and gently tow her into her room. She had to change anyway and it would keep her from being drawn into a pointless argument with the other girl. She really shouldn’t have even given into the impulse to say anything, but the Argentia girl was just so…wearing.

Once they were safely in her room with the door closed, she turned towards Admina. “What’s this test that has gotten you into a lather?”

Her friend stared at her for a moment. “Oh. Oh! We’re all to take it in turns to walk his imperial majesty through the gardens. Our time slots have already been assigned and it’s happening today! I’m to be second last and you last! What am I supposed to say to him? How do I speak to-to the emperor? He is the man who rules the world!”

Evony raised her eyebrows slightly. “I thought the point of this competition was for him to choose a bride. And that you wanted this. I would think you’d have to be able to talk to someone you were considering as a lifemate. I think it’s a good opportunity to see if you’d be at all comfortable being his bride.”

“You…you speak like I have a choice,” Admina whispered, looking at the ground, her hands fisted around the sides of her dress.

“Don’t you? It would be easy enough to get yourself kicked out of the competition.”

“The alternative is much worse.”

Evony’s eyes narrowed but she didn’t press Admina. Her friend would tell her when she was ready. “There is another option.”

Admina jerked her head up to stare at her. Evony smiled. “You could always come home with me. Amazzi have been known to adopt girls in the past, especially those who are in situations that are less than ideal. Once you are Amazzi, it would take the force of several armies to remove you from Silvinsula and the person would have to go against the emperor to do so. Our rights and treaties that were agreed to would leave him no choice.”

“B-but I’m no child.”

“By our laws you are. No one becomes an adult until they are twenty years of age.”

“But I can’t use a bow.”

Evony chuckled. “We could teach you. And it’s not like my people are all warriors. We wouldn’t get anything done if we were. There are plenty of other trades and jobs available that you could learn to do, if you were so minded.”

A ghost of a smile tugged at Admina’s lips. “I have always wanted to go to Silvinsula since I first learned of Amazzi as a child.”

While she smiled back, a thought niggled into Evony’s brain. She left it at the back to percolate, concentrating instead on the immediate. “You always have options. I won’t let anyone force you into anything you don’t want to do.”

That brought a true smile around. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve a friend like you.”

Evony laughed. “And I could say the same. You’ve explained a number of mainlander things that would have confused me. Especially at meals. I had no idea people here used so many pieces of cutlery! And I wouldn’t worry so much about the emperor. Just speak to him like you would anyone else.”

“I couldn’t do that! It wouldn’t be proper. And I don’t know what to talk about with most people…”

“He’s a person, the same as you or I. Ah! That’s it! You don’t have a problem talking to me, do you?” Evony waited for Admina’s nod before she continued. “Then pretend the emperor is me. And just be yourself. If he’s choosing a bride, I imagine he’d appreciate honesty.”

Admina bit her lip for a moment. “Do you really think that will work?”

“I wouldn’t suggest it otherwise. And like I told you, you have options. Don’t let anyone force you into anything you don’t want, and if you run into problems, I’ll do my best to help you.”

“I can never repay you-“

Evony cut her off with a raised hand. “We’re friends. Friends don’t owe each other anything. Now, if I’m to meet with the emperor today, it would be best that I change. While this is what I would wear at home, I gather it’s not appropriate here.”

Admina looked at her, then down at the short chiton she still wore and blushed, like she’d just now realized what Evony was wearing. She supposed that it would appear to a mainlander like she’d just appeared in her nightclothes, despite what she felt personally.

With a quick promise to meet up in a few minutes for breakfast, Evony shut the door to her room behind Admina and let out a sigh. Speaking with the emperor would be interesting, especially since their last meeting. She wasn’t sure if she was glad or not about the opportunity. The emperor…well, he wasn’t what she’d expected.

And standing in front of the door wasn’t helping her get dressed, so Evony turned away from it and her thoughts, focusing instead of what she could do. Which was put on another of the long chitons and yellow overdresses she was already tired of.

Evony stood in the shade of a large oak and watched Admina approach with the emperor. Her friend’s eyes were on the ground, much as they had been when she’d left with him, but she seemed to have a touch of colour in her cheeks which was better than how pale she’d been before. It looked like it hadn’t gone poorly, which was good.

As they both reached the garden, Evony stepped towards them. “Thank you, Rector Admina,” she heard the emperor say.

Admina gave the full formal bow and murmured, “Thank you, your imperial majesty,” before hurrying towards Evony.

She smiled at her and whispered, “How did it go?”

Her friend offered her a shaky smile in return. “Better than I had thought it would. Thank you.”

Before Evony had a chance to reply, Admina scampered off. Evony watched her go before she turned to look at the emperor. His tawny hair and steady blue gaze hadn’t changed from the last time she’d seen him. She closed the short distance between them and bowed with her arms crossed over her chest. “Adnuhom,” she said.

He inclined his head in her direction. “Princeps Evony,” he said. “Shall we?”

She shrugged. “You’re in charge.”

A wrinkle appeared briefly in brow before he nodded again. He started walking back the way he’d just come, heading towards the next garden. Evony kept pace beside him, looking around a bit. She hadn’t been to these gardens before. She liked the bright yellow flowers that were mixed with the red ones, thinking they looked much better than the pale pinks, blues, and whites she’d seen in gardens near the building that housed them.

“How have you found the palace?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

“Well enough. It’s much hotter and drier than Silvinsula here, so that is an adjustment. As is the type of clothing most women here seem to wear.”

“Is there such a difference in clothing?”

“We Amazzi typically wear short chitons, not these long ones, Adnuhom. And then you add in overdresses. I’m surprised at so many layers in a place that is already warm.”

The emperor frowned slightly. “You always call me Adnuhom. Is it necessary?”

“No. I’d thought using your title was more appropriate, but if you don’t care for it, that’s fine then, Galen.”

He stopped and jerked his head to stare at her for a several heartbeats. She raised her eyebrows, wondering what his issue was. But he started walking again a few punctums later, so Evony guessed it hadn’t been anything major. They continued in silence for long enough that she began to wonder what the point of her walking with him was. He certainly wasn’t learning anything about her this way.

“You said previously that you were loyal to me and would obey me?” Galen said abruptly

“Yes. All Amazzi are loyal to you. Is there something you need me to do?”

He nodded. “I would like you to act as my eyes and ears within this competition and report anything you find unusual.”

Evony frowned, tapping her fingers against her thigh. “Why? If you’re looking for further insight into each of the candidates, I’m not certain I’d be the best person for that. I’m not sure what would be usual or not among mainlanders. I can give you some general information about each, but little that you wouldn’t be able to discover on your own.”

Galen stopped and Evony followed suit. They were in the middle of a small garden that ran beside the wall, near the corner opposite from the building Evony currently lived in. A few flowering trees were scattered about, while the centrepiece of the garden was stone bench that was flanked on either side by large flower bushes that seemed to be a favourite for butterflies given how many Evony saw. No one else was in sight, something Evony noticed when she followed Galen’s stare.

He turned those exotic blue eyes on her, holding her gaze for several seconds before studying her face. She wasn’t sure what it was he was looking for, but he seemed to come to some kind of answer. “This competition is the pretext I used to bring someone from each of my provinces into the palace.”

“What do you mean?”

“It has come to my attention that there are people preparing to move against me. We have only caught a few hints, but those we have discovered are…worrisome. To verify the loyalty of each of my provinces I had them each send me one of their daughters as a bride candidate. It had also occurred to me that I might find a suitable woman to give me heirs at the same time, but my focus is on the threat. I know the Amazzi care little for politics and prefer to be left alone on Silvinsula except for when we require their aid, so I am certain of your loyalty. I cannot be certain of anyone else’s. As you are also a trained warrior, and an excellent archer from what I have heard, you would be best suited to help me gather information.”

Evony scratched the back of her neck, thinking fast. On the one hand, she owed this man her loyalty and she should protect him. On the other, she knew nothing of his court or the people in it. In all honesty, the only person she knew much about was Admina. “You are aware Amazzi don’t typically have much trade in intrigue? I’m not certain how much use I will be, but I will certainly do all I can.”

“I can ask nothing less,” he said, with a tiny quirk of his lips that seemed to be the closest thing to a smile to cross his face. Evony often wondered why nothing seemed to please this man. “I will of course reward your efforts. Do you wish to be empress?”

She snorted. “No. I came because you requested a daughter of our clan. Once I’m released from this competition, I will complete my secondary mission and return home.”

The wrinkle reappeared in his forehead. “What is your secondary mission?”

As he was the Adnuhom, Evony saw no reason not to tell him. “To find a man who is suitable to act as stud to me. I would like to find a lifemate like my mother did, but I’m not certain I’ll be able to. But it is my duty and honour to bring children into our clan. Since I was already to come to the mainland, it was decided that I should do this as well and save myself a trip later.”

Galen stared at her, his lips parted slightly. He blinked slowly a few times before his gaze narrowed. He ran his stare over all of her before meeting her eyes again. “That…That may work well for both of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“We both seek the same thing: Heirs. You would like a daughter, and I would need a son to succeed me. If I cannot find a suitable woman to become empress and you cannot find a man to suit yourself, we could pair up until we both had our heir. I imagine I would be considered suitable.”

It was Evony’s turn to stare for a moment. She could hardly argue with him, not when he was the Adnuhom. Legend said that one of the ancestresses of her clan had become the lifemate of one of the Fuscienne men which had forged the alliance that persisted today. Which made Galen practically Amazzi. He seemed healthy, strong, and intelligent. She imagined any children of his would be the same. It was certainly an interesting offer, but she wasn’t without concerns. “How can you be sure we’re compatible physically?” she asked, thinking back to the stories some of her aunts and cousins had told her. “It would be difficult to produce multiple children if we aren’t.”

“There is a simple method to test that,” he said, taking a step towards her.

“What is that?” Evony asked, leaning forward. No one had told her you could test for that! If she could learn this test, it could make it easier to find a suitable man, and maybe even a lifemate!

“Like this,” he said, before reaching out and pulling her towards him. One arm snaked its way around her waist so that her body was pressed into his, while his other hand cradled the back of her head. His warm, soft lips were against hers in a moment. Evony opened her mouth to say this wasn’t a test and was rewarded by the entrance of his tongue.

Evony tried to pull away a little at that and made a little noise of protest that quickly died away. Because was Galen was doing with his tongue and lips made her flush all over. His lips opened and closed slightly around her lips, while his tongue explored her mouth like it belonged there. He was even so bold as to flick her tongue with his.

The new sensations brought a familiar tightness to her breasts and lower. He had to feel the way her nipples stood up, given the way her chest was pressed into his. She knew her face was flushed, her skin feeling hot, the familiar tug of need making her shift her weight. It was so much stronger than she’d ever felt it before. Her body wanted this and more.

Without thinking about it first, Evony began to reciprocate. She did her best to match his lips movements, pressing herself even more closely against him, one arm going around his neck, the other wrapped into the folds of his tunic. This seemed to encourage Galen and he pushed himself forward, forcing Evony to back up until she was against the wall.

With the full force of his hard body against her, Evony found herself enveloped his Galen’s scent, a clean, faintly spicy smell that made the space between her legs get even tighter. His lips continued their delicious assault on hers and Evony fought back as best she could. From the way Galen shifted against her, Evony thought she was doing well, until he moved away.

As he pulled away and the comparatively cooler air hit where his body had been, a little whine came from the back of Evony’s throat. She didn’t want to stop. Not so soon at least. Her chest heaved, and Evony realized she was warm all over and slightly out of breath, like she’d been running.

Galen was breathing harder as well, but he seemed to be handling it better if the way he was focused on straightening his tunic was any indication. Once he was finished, he looked at her. “I believe we are very compatible.”

It took a few moments for Evony’s brain to catch up, her body still complaining about the sudden stop to the activities it had liked. Then she nodded and tried to fan her cheeks to cool them a bit. “I guess so. I hadn’t thought a test like that existed,” she said, voice cracking a little.

“It is best not to use it unless you are relatively certain of the outcome. Misuse could be…disastrous.”

Evony could imagine. She’d been warned enough growing up about the different types of people on the mainland and the different cultures. Many she imagined would find such as act forbidden or reserved only for lifemates. People always did forbid the most pleasurable things.

“Shall we?” he asked, jerking his chin towards the next garden over.

She nodded again, brain still trying to reconcile everything so she wasn’t about to try speaking again. She wasn’t sure what she’d say. Still, Evony thought that if Galen knew that kind of technique just for kissing, laying with him would be well worth it, and not just for her duty.

Chapter 8: Factions

Evony crossed through the main entrance to her building, her eyes sweeping around so that she could see everyone and everything. With the exception of a few handfuls of servants and one or two aides hurrying by, the main area was quiet as it most often was. Her feet didn’t need her direction to bring her to the smaller hall where she and the other candidates were housed.

The rest of the walk with Galen had gone well, with his asking her more about Amazzi and she about the palace. If she were to help him, then she needed all the information she could get. As for the offer of fathering children for both of them…Evony still need some time to consider it. There would be far more repercussions than if she lay with a man who wouldn’t know that he’d been stud for her.

Evony had barely made it into the hall when Admina rushed towards her. Following with more decorum and only a little less haste were Venita and her followers. She repressed a sigh and just stopped, waiting for them to catch up with her without saying anything. She offered a slight smile to Admina when the other girl came up beside her, but otherwise kept her face as blank as she could as the other girls arrayed themselves before her.

Venita was clearly their leader, which often surprised Evony when she saw Primus Paran of Regem. She was also one of the first families and seemed well enough from the few interactions that Evony had had with her. She really didn’t understand why she’d attached herself to Venita of all people, especially since she seemed to know almost everyone there. At least, Evony had seen her speaking to almost every girl still the competition and several who had left.

The other two members made more sense. Rector Cerys of Eirian was from a silver province, and as the Argentia family was the first and premier family of silver, Evony wasn’t surprised to find her following Venita. Regulus Akasma of Deniz held herself with great pride and seemed to consider anyone below the rank of Magna to be beneath her.

They stood in a line in front of Evony, the others just slightly back from their leader, the light brown haired girl in silver.

“Where have you been?” Venita demanded.

Evony raised her eyebrows. “That’s hardly your concern, now is it?”

The brunette narrowed her eyes and took a step closer. “It is if you were with his imperial majesty beyond the assigned time.”

Evony snorted. “No, it wouldn’t be. Whatever happens between me and Galen is of concern only to me and Galen.”

Venita paled then glared. “Who gave you leave to call his imperial majesty by his given name? A barbarian might not know that-“

She cut her off, tired with the conversation and more than tired of Venita. “It was Galen who told me to call him that in place of Adnuhom. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have better things to do with my time than listen to your venom.”

Without waiting for a response, Evony swung around the girls with the still silent Admina trailing just behind her. Venita was too well schooled to sputter, but the way she opened her mouth and closed it did make her look like a hooked fish. “Halt!” she called after Evony.

She ignored her, continuing towards her room. She passed Chana of Yarkona who nodded at her. Evony nodded back, noting the girls who flanked the Primus in green. Neah and Fiorella she knew from the group challenge, and the last girl was in green as well, Magna Lapis of Tale.

Looking around the hall and seeing Asahi standing with the candidate from Alani, Evony realized that she didn’t see Magna Sheshan or Rector Vashti of Azar. A quick glance at their doors showed that their names had been taken off. Which brought them down to half the number of candidates they’d started with. And as Evony could now see, four factions.

Venita’s and Chana’s were the most obvious as well as the largest. Her and Admina and Asahi and Praetor Mahina of Alani were the two outlying factions who acted more as outsiders. Though knowing Chana and Venita both, Evony knew if she was asked, she would back the girl from Yarkona. She imagined Asahi and Mahina would do the same, but really couldn’t be sure. She filed away the information to tell Galen later. She supposed the information of who stood with who might be useful to him. Knowing who your enemy’s allies were was useful no matter the battlefield. Not that she really knew who the enemy was, but she imagined the Adnuhom would have more information than she would.

Once in the safety of her room, Evony shut the door behind Admina, ignoring the way Venita was coming towards the room. If she attempted to force her way in, which Evony doubted, she’d soon regret the act. With a sigh, Evony dropped down cross-legged onto the ground, gesturing towards the bed for Admina.

Her friend sat gingerly, face regaining its normal colour. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I tried to warn you before-“

Evony cut her off with a headshake. “You couldn’t have stopped her. And don’t worry. I can handle Venita. She’s not the first bit of nightshade I’ve come across.”

At the look of confusion on Admina’s face, she smiled. “Pretty to look at, but in reality poisonous. We Amazzi might have a different culture, but people are people no matter where you go.”

That startled a giggle out of Admina. “I like that word.”

“I thought you might,” she replied, with a smile. “Now, tell me how your walk with Galen went.”

Her friend flushed a little and looked down at her lap. “It went well enough. I was able to speak to him. I…I did say that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be empress. He said I was very honest and I told him that you had said it would be best. He said he appreciated it. He isn’t quite as frightening as I thought he would be.”

Evony nodded. “The rumours paint him as something like a monster. I won’t forget that he is the man that conquered the world, but the more I see and learn of him, the more I wonder what drove him to it. Someone like him must have had a reason.”

“Are you interested in him?”

“He is the Adnuhom, the man who rules us. Of course I have an interest in him.” Evony ignored the faint tingle her body gave her as a reminder of why else she found him interesting. The kiss had been…well, if anyone had told her that sticking someone else’s tongue in your mouth would feel good, she’d have said they were crazy. But now she could hardly deny her reaction. She wondered what other things mainlanders knew about…

Realizing that Admina was staring at her and that she’d been silent for just a little too long, Evony smiled. “Since we have the rest of the day free, why don’t we see if we can borrow some horses and go for a short ride? Something to get us out of here.”

“That sounds good,” Admina replied softly, smiling.

Evony returned the expression and stood. It would be good to get the exercise and hopefully it would help her think through what she was going to do. Because it seemed like every day she spent in the palace ended up more complicated with more layers and things she had to worry about. Evony missed not just her home, but the relative simplicity of the Amazzi way of life.

Chapter 9: Legate

Yanking the last of her arrows out of the target, Evony walked back to the firing line, just behind the last of the soldiers. Her muscles were just a trifle tired and her back and neck were slick with sweat that was just now cooling. It had been nice to get a full workout in.

She stopped once she was level with the archers, watching the one nearest her intently. She could see the way he moved his hands all over as he tried to get the perfect shot and shook her head. Evony moved over and lightly tapped him on the shoulder, startling him so that he almost shot his arrow into the sky.

“Whoa!” she said, holding her hands up. “Watch where you aim.”

He flushed. “My apologies, brightness.”

“Here,” she said. “You’re focusing too much on the target.”

The soldier frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Focus on your stance. If your stance is good, the shot will be good. Aiming will just follow naturally. You’ll be focused on where your body is, meaning you won’t be moving around as much which in turn will help your arrow fly truer. It may take a little time to get used to, but it will help.”

He looked a little skeptical but seemed to go along with it. Evony could see a few of the nearby soldiers staring at them for a moment before turning their attention back to the targets. More than a few seemed to be resettling themselves, shifting their holds on their bows and readjusting the position of their feet. She nodded her approval before turning back to the man she was focused on.

His spine was rigid, his whole posture screaming discipline. It also didn’t look natural or comfortable. “Try a more open stance,” she told him. “And while you need to focus on your body’s position, don’t tighten yourself up too much. You know what happens to a bowstring that’s too tight, right?”

He blinked for a moment then offered half a smile. She grinned back and watched him shift again. This time he looked more natural, his whole body more relaxed. She could see him start to chase the target around for a moment, but stopped before she had a chance to say anything.

His first shot hit only the edge of the target and he turned to look at her. She smiled encouragingly and waved her hands towards the target. He resettled himself and shot again. This arrow was closer, as was the next. By the time he’d emptied his quiver, his shots were all in the three innermost rings.

“It will take more time for it to be natural and for you to be consistent, but continue like you have and you’ll do well,” she told him after his last arrow thunked into the ring one out from the centre.

“Thank you,” he replied, grinning now. His fellows were giving them sidelong looks, a few sidling closer to hear what they were saying.

Evony swallowed a chuckle. She’d make a point of giving advice to someone else next time, now that she seemed to have been accepted at morning practice. Even their officer had asked her to give a demonstration first thing when they arrived.

However, now that she was finally cooler, Evony wanted to get clean. She waved her goodbye, receiving more than a few raised arms in response before she left the training fields. She hurried towards the women’s baths, more than ready to wash away the sweat her workout had caused.

Evony had barely moved away from the doorway to the baths when she was finally done when she was stopped by a man stepping into her path. His greying brown hair over his wide grin was starting to become familiar to her. She offered him a closed fist over her heart. “Legate,” she said.

He chuckled. “Must we be so formal, Evony, daughter of Zarina?”

She shrugged, eyeing him. He seemed more relaxed today, though he was dressed the same as he always was. She wondered if he slept with his cuirass on the way she always had at least two of her knives handy. She couldn’t imagine he slept with a sword, though she couldn’t imagine the armour would be comfortable either.

Realizing he was speaking, she refocused on him. “-wondered what you thought of our emperor?”

Evony kept her face as blank as she could while inwardly she frowned. Why was he asking her, when he lived in the palace? She did her best to keep her feelings from her face, not realizing that a wrinkle had formed in between her brows, and said, “He is younger than I thought.”

That made him laugh. “He is young, isn’t he?” When she only nodded, he grinned. “Galen sent me to fetch you. He says he has something he needs to talk to you about.”

She studied the man in front of her as she considered her options. While she could refuse, she doubted anyone as high up as a legate would do something like try to lead her off in public to do something to her. And doubly so for her. She even still had her bow and quiver in addition to the knives she regularly wore, which were all the more obvious in the short chiton she was wearing.

Evony also had to admit that so far this man seemed to only want to help her. He’d gotten her into the palace and had backed her skill at the training fields. Really, he’d given her no reason not to trust him so far. “Where is he?”

The legate flashed another smile at her. “In his rooms. He’s having breakfast and I made sure he had extra brought for you, since we’re pulling you away from your meal. And from what I’ve heard, you more than earned yours today. You’re leaving quite the impression on our archers.”

Evony fell into step beside him. “I was in charge of training my brother before I came here. I don’t mind giving others advice. If they’re receptive to it.”

“That is always the issue,” he said, nodding for a moment, the lines on his face momentarily deeper as he stared ahead. Then it was all smoothed away like it had never been there and he turned back towards her. “How are you finding the competition?”

She wondered at what lay behind that brief expression even as she replied, “As it is, I imagine.”

That startled a laugh out of him. “I can hardly argue with that! How do you like the palace so far?”

“It’s quite different from home. There are a lot more people here, in such a small area. There is less wilderness here as well. Sometimes I find myself wishing for more trees,” she said as she shaded her eyes from the bright light pouring from a sun that was just above the horizon. She blinked a bit, not sure if the prickling of her eyes was due to the sunlight or to the brief pang of homesickness she felt. It hit her every once in a while, but she did her best to push it back down. There was nothing to be done and she had her duty, so until she completed it, there was no point thinking about going home.

They passed through an archway that led to a small courtyard filled with plants in shallow stone dishes that were arrayed in lines around the paved ground. The legate took the arched doorway on the right, leading them into the palace’s main building. “You should head out past the training fields,” he said. “There’s a small wooded area that’s kept up for people to ride through. I think you’d enjoy it there.”

Evony looked back at him, surprised. She hadn’t realized there was such an area. Obviously her earlier explorations hadn’t been as in depth as they should have been! She smiled her thanks at the legate. “I’ll take a look when I have time. Admina might like it as well.”

He grinned back before turning them rapidly down two halls until they were heading down a very narrow hall. They could walk comfortably side by side, but a third person would have had all three touching shoulders. At the end of the hall, the space expanded out around three arched doorways, each guarded by a set of soldiers. Evony inwardly approved of the defensive opportunities the hall offered as she followed the legate through the open door on the left.

The first thing that struck Evony was the contrast. Floored in gold-veined black marble with columns of matching stone that circled around the opening in the ceiling that lit up a single burbling fountain, the room was at the same time brighter and darker than everywhere else she’d been in the palace. The walls were painted with scenes of fantastical forests, mist wreathed mountains, and azure seas, all with creatures out of legend woven throughout. It was beautiful, if distracting.

Across the fountain from them was a wide table made of white marble that was covered in piles of papers on the far end, while matching chairs encircled it, most softened with plush cushions. Sitting at the end that was clear save for platters of food, was Galen.

He frowned slightly as he watch them both approach. “That took far longer than I had thought it would.”

The legate crossed his arms over his chest. “The palace isn’t small, which you should know.”

Galen nodded, turning his attention to Evony, who gave him the full bow of her people. The sound of a throat being cleared caused them both to look back to the older man. He had his eyebrows raised, his gaze locked onto the emperor.

He coughed slightly. “Thank you, Balint. I appreciate your help in this.”

The legate chuckled. “And there’s the manners I beat into you. I’ll be next door looking over this year’s reports on new recruits if you need me,” he said, waving at both of them before he sauntered back out the way he’d come.

Evony shook her head at his departure and turned her attention back to Galen. His eyes met hers and he stared at her for a few seconds before he gestured towards the chair beside him. Evony didn’t need a second invitation. She sat down carefully, readjusting the way her quiver hung and leaning her bow up against the table before she focused on the emperor.

“What do you know of the feud between the Flanna and Vernell families?”

Already used to the way Galen seemed to just launch into conversations without preamble, Evony frowned slightly. “I wasn’t aware there was a feud. It does explain why those two never went near each other. Then again, I just assumed that was because they were in different factions.”


“They weren’t as obvious when there were more of us, but there are four at the moment, but only two of them really matter. One seems to be me and Admina, while the other outsiders are Asahi of Aoi and Mahina of Alani. I wouldn’t really call us factions, except that none of us belong to the other two.

The main factions are Venita of Argentia’s and Chana of Yarkona’s. Venita’s includes the girls from Regem, Eirian and Deniz while Chana’s is Tale, Dimon, and Gavino. Beyond knowing who’s in each, I can’t tell you too much about either. Though of the two, I much prefer Chana.”

“Hmmm…” Galen leaned back in his chair, drumming his fingers against the arm for several moments. “That has a sense to it and does not at the same time. Is there a candidate you would recommend to me over the others?”

“Not Venita,” Evony said immediately, then wished she’d kept that thought private.

“Why not?”

She sighed and did her best to put words to her feelings. “Venita wants to be empress for the sake of being empress. She’s…An empress should think of what she can do for her people. Venita only thinks of what people can do for her, from what I’ve seen.”

“Then who would you recommend?”

As much as Evony wanted to say only one name, she knew she had to be honest and fair. “It would depend on what type of empress you’re looking for. If you want an empress to be your partner, to take over for you when you need her to, someone who has ambition herself, then I would say Chana. She’s capable, clever, and well-liked.

If you’re looking for someone to be completely loyal, who will be a respite, who will be the balm to soothe people after you’ve had to be harsh, then I would say Admina. She is your opposite and would serve as a good counterpoint.”

“Interesting…You have a unique perspective and your thoughts have merit. I will have to consider them once we have ferreted out the conspirators. Once we have burned them out root and branch, I can resume a more leisurely look for an empress,” Galen said, eyes and voice going hard as he talked about his enemies.

Evony frowned. “Maybe you should push your people less.”

He looked at her, a faint crease appearing on his forehead. “I do not understand.”

“We Amazzi know that a cornered creature is at its most dangerous. All the rumours I heard about you before I arrived painted you as a man of overwhelming force who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy all his enemies, no matter the cost. If this is how you’re seen, and you keep pushing people, you’re only going to create more enemies. Even if you succeed this time, it will only be a matter of time before another group sprouts up.”

Galen stared then ran his gaze over her, studying her like she was suddenly a different person. “At times, you have unexpected depths.”

Evony snorted. “That’s true of everyone if you pay attention.”

“Not in my experience.”

“Then you’re not looking closely enough.”

He frowned at her. “You are never what I expect.”

“Then don’t expect anything.”

“And if I wish to?”

“Then you may end up disappointed.”

That got his mouth half-quirked up. Evony wondered if he was actually capable of smiling let alone laughing. She’d pay money to see Galen laughing so hard he cried, the way her brother did sometimes.

“Have you come to a decision on my proposal?”

That brought Evony back to what was in front of her. She eyed Galen for a moment, before she nodded. “I would like to accept as it seems good for both of us. But I do have a condition of my own.”


“I want you to keep Admina in this competition as long as I am,” Evony said. “Even if you don’t consider her for empress, I still don’t want her to be forced home. I get the impression she doesn’t get along well with her family.”

“That is true. Her brother…he has ideas.”

Evony waited for Galen to elaborate, but he said nothing further, so she shrugged. “Is it a pact then?”

His blue eyes steady on her, Galen, the man who conquered the world, nodded. “It is a pact.”

Chapter 10: Unexpected

It was just after lunch when Rakin made his appearance in the candidate’s hall. Evony and Admina were heading out, Evony determined to find the wooded part of the palace complex that Balint had mentioned, when they saw him come down the hall and both stopped. Flanked by two guards and holding the same wooden box from the third task, the emperor’s aide had his usual neutral expression on. It made Evony long to kick him to see if that would force the mask off. She didn’t get the mainlander habit of trying to hide your feelings. At least, she assumed it was a mainlander thing. She supposed it could just be a palace thing…

Evony refocused her attention on Rakin as the rest of the girls hurried forward to see what their next task was. Eyeing the box, Evony hoped it wasn’t another group challenge. She thought if she was with Venita in a group, she’d end up punching her. That girl didn’t seem likely to get better any time soon.

“Greetings and congratulations on making it this far in the competition, ladies,” Rakin said, giving them all a half bow. “For your next challenge, you will each be drawing a piece of paper from this box that will give you a task that you are to complete. It will also give you the location of your task. Each person’s task will be different. Now, if you would all be so kind as to draw a paper?”

Evony held back as half the girls surged forward. She didn’t see much point in hurrying to pull out a task she wouldn’t know what was until she opened it. As the first few girls took a look at their papers, there were more than a few shocked and confused faces. “How am I expected to do this?” Venita demanded when she looked at hers, glaring at Rakin.

He ignored her, focusing on moving around to the girls who hadn’t pushed forward, ensuring everyone had a paper. Evony watched Paran of Regem’s eyes narrowed as she looked over her paper, while Chana only sighed when she read hers. Not a single person looked pleased with their tasks making Evony more than a little curious.

Unsurprisingly, Admina and Evony were the last that Rakin stopped at. Admina selected first, reading her paper with a pale face that quickly relaxed. Evony was about to ask what she’d gotten when Rakin cleared his throat offering her the box. Hiding a wince, Evony reached in and drew out the last slip of paper.

In a bold, black script, her task was unmistakable: Muck out a stall: Stables.

Evony raised her eyebrows and looked up. She found Rakin’s eyes on her and met his gaze steadily. He gave her a nod before he turned and left the hall, his guards following close behind. Wondering what that had been about, Evony turned back to Admina. “What’s your task?”

Her friend offered half a smile. “I’m to sew a shirt in the laundry. I was afraid it would be something much worse. I have always enjoyed embroidery so it should be fine.”

Smiling back, Evony relaxed herself. As long as Admina was comfortable with her task, she thought she’d be fine. Sewing was easy enough if you had the patience for it, and doubly so with embroidery experience. “Then we’ll meet back here once our tasks are finished?”

Admina smiled. “Good luck.”

“Luck to you as well,” Evony replied, leading the way out of their hall. Once they were outside, they split up, Admina heading towards the building that lay behind the palace’s main one, and Evony heading towards the stables.

She wasn’t displeased with her task, not if it gave her the opportunity to look over some more of the horses that were here. The palace had some very nice horseflesh and she itched to try the paces of some of the more powerful mounts. But when she rode with Admina, she kept herself to something that would content itself with staying near the milder tempered horses that her friend preferred.

It didn’t take Evony long to reach the building that smelled strongly of hay, barley, leather, horse manure, wood and sweat. Walking out of the sunny grounds, the shade the stables offered was a delicious contrast. Evony sighed happily, the scent reminding her strongly of home.

She glanced around and spotted and older man in a rough, undyed linen chiton dropping a scoopful of barley into one stall’s food trough, much the evident delight of its occupant who immediately started eating it. Evony approached the stranger, stopping when she was just behind him. “Excuse me,” she said politely. “I was wondering if you could direct me towards the stall I’m supposed to muck out?”

The man, his white hair cut close to his scalp, turned and looked at her. He ran his eyes up and down, his gaze lingering on her knives, before he bowed his head. “That I can, brightness. Are you experienced with horses, brightness?”

Evony smiled. “Very. And please, my people aren’t much for titles. My name is Evony.”

He nodded slowly. “My name is Stodd. If you’ll follow me?”

She fell into step behind him as he took her just down the long hallway that was lined with stalls on either side. Stodd stopped in front of one of the empty ones, jerking his chin towards the dungfork and small handcart. “Is there anything else you’ll be needing, brightness?”

Evony eyed the stall, seeing how deep the woodchips that filled it were, and looked back at Stodd. “Where are your woodchips? And is there anywhere particular you would like me to dump the manure when I’ve pulled it out?”

That got her a nod of approval. “Both are out back,” he said, gesturing towards the far end of the hall. “If you can’t find them, let me know.”

“Thank you,” she replied, already turning back to her job. She glanced down at her clothes, frowned for a moment, then sighed. Evony pulled off her overdress, leaving it hanging over the front of the stall she was to clean. She grabbed the bottom of her long chiton and pulled it up higher, tying each side around a leg, so that they wouldn’t drag through the chips and droppings. Only then did she grab the dungfork and walk into the empty stall.

A few experimental prods with the fork were all it took to find the worst spot. Evony slid her tool under, scooping up the clump of pee and tossed it into her handcart. It took less than ten minutes for Evony to find every trace of refuse the occupant had left. She tossed the dungfork into her handcart and trundled the whole thing down to the far end of the stable. She passed stall after stall, more than a few with horse heads sticking out, watching her pass.

When she finally came to the far end, she understood why Stodd had been so vague with directions. With the open doors at the back covered with a wooden roof that was open on three sides, you could hardly miss the pile of woodchips that was sheltered beneath it. Farther out, under the blue sky, was the impressive pile of manure and second of used woodchips. It took her no time at all to dump her loads and half fill her cart with wood shavings.

Bringing the whole load back to the stall, Evony tossed the clean woodchips into the stall and used her fork to even everything out. Once that was done, she stepped back into the stable’s hall and looked around. The two stalls beside the one she just finished were empty, and when she stepped into one, the unmistakable aroma of horse leavings greeted her. Shrugging, Evony grabbed the dungfork and made short work of both of them.

Stodd returned as she was dumping the clean wood shavings into the last stall. He let out a low whistle as he watched her even everything out. “You look like you’ve done this before.”

Evony grinned at him over her shoulder. “I’ve been taking care of my mare for as long as I’ve had her. That’s the rule in our clan. If you can’t take care of your mount, you don’t get to have one.”

“Well, if you ever find yourself in need of a job, I hope you’ll think of me.”

That made her laugh as she came out of the stall. “I’ve seen you work with the horses here and could say the same to you. You would be honoured and respected among my people for your knowledge.”

“Are you trying to hire me away?” he asked, eyes glinting.

Evony shook her head. “No, only giving respect where it’s due.”

He chuckled at that. “You aren’t what I thought you’d be. I’m guessing from your weapons that you’re that wild Amazzi girl everyone is talking about. You have more than a few admirers among the soldiers.”

She laughed. “I’m surprised they’re not cursing me for telling them they’re shooting wrong. But yes, I’m Amazzi. Evony of clan Aureline.”

“Are there many of your clans?”

“A dozen or so. We’re pretty scattered across Silvinsula, though we do come together once a year to meet, exchange news, and trade.”

“Excuse me if this is rude, but is it true Amazzi kill all their boy children?”

Evony choked. “Is that what people think?” she asked, eyes wide. “I can assure you, it’s not true! My brother will be thirteen this year and my cousin six. Those are all the male children we have in our clan. They’re much rarer than females for some reason, but we certainly don’t kill them!”

Stodd shrugged. “I’d been thinking it was just one of those crazy rumours. People like to talk.”

“That they do.”

Footsteps entering the stable drew both their gazes. Blinking in the sudden gloom as he stepped out of the sun, Galen’s mane was unmistakable even at a distance. A distant blur of grey and white moved behind him before disappearing, making Evony wonder what it was briefly before she refocused her attention on the newcomer.

“Good afternoon, Galen,” Evony called, giving a bit of a bow before she walked towards him.

Stodd hurried past her, giving the deepest of bows. “Your imperial majesty, what can I do for you?”

Galen’s attention moved from Evony to the hostler. “I had thought I would ride this afternoon. I would like my horse prepared.”

“Of course, right away, your majesty,” Stodd said with another bow before he jogged towards the second largest stall in the building.

Evony turned away from watching the hostler leave to find Galen studying her. She raised her eyebrows. “I know you can’t be surprised to find one of us here, not when it’s your competition.”

“We had thought whoever drew this task would remove themselves from the competition immediately.”

She thought about it for a moment, specifically picturing Venita being assigned this, and snorted. “I suppose there are more than a few who would have. Doesn’t bother me any. I’ve been around horses since before I could walk.”

“You have many surprising talents,” he said, after a moment of quiet.

“I’m Amazzi. You’re just not used to us. You should come visit Silvinsula some time. You’d find that I’m not out of the ordinary there.”

“I am not so certain that that would be the case.”

The sound of approaching hooves had them both looking as Stodd brought a beautiful black stallion towards them. Evony couldn’t help the little gasp of delight that escaped her lips. A large horse without a trace of any colour but black, he had wonderful lines that made her think he could run for days without tiring. Without thinking, she moved forward and made the little noises that always soothed her mare.

Stodd hissed and Galen held up his hands as she stopped just to the side of the stallion. The horse watched her and when she took an extra step towards him, didn’t try to back away. With that, Evony cautiously reached out and patted him on the shoulder before stepping back again.

He lowered his head a bit to follow her movements and then blew in her direction. Grinning, Evony moved close enough so she could blow out into the vicinity of his nostrils. She watched them flare for a moment before he shook himself all over and turned to look towards Stodd.

The hostler shook his head before he moved to tie the stallion up so he could saddle him. “That alone tells me you know horses, brightness.”

Evony shrugged and looked at Galen who was staring at her. He too shook his head. “Kalendae does not take to many people.”

“Horses are like people. You just need to know how to talk to them and stay on their good side.”

Galen said nothing for a moment, watching as Stodd saddled his mount. He finally turned to Evony and said, “Would you accompany me on my ride?”

She shook her head. “I have to finish my task first.”

Stodd heard and laughed, making Kalendae flick his ears back to catch the sound. “Forgive me, brightness, but your task was just to muck out the one stall. You’ve done three. You’re more than done.”

Evony smiled faintly. “Alright then.”

Galen only nodded.

“I think you’d do well with Sollucem. She’s Kalendae’s sister,” he said, patting the stallion as he finished tightening the last strap. “You’re experienced and she rarely gets enough exercise. As long as you think you can handle her?”

She grinned at that. “I’ve ridden unbroken horses before. I’m sure I can handle her.”

Stodd returned the expression before hurrying off to a different stall. “You are remarkably capable and confident in that fact,” Galen remarked.

“You’re no different from what I’ve seen,” she replied.

He frowned slightly. “No, I suppose I am not.”

Chapter 11: Riding

Evony leaned forward and patted Sollucem’s shoulder, revelling in how wonderful the mare’s dun hair felt, something that bespoke regular brushing and proper care. Her black mane and tail contrasted with the pale yellow of her coat and with lines similar to her brother’s, she was gorgeous. As much as she loved her mare at home, Evony had to admit that given the chance, she’d take Sollucem in a heartbeat.

Straightening, she met Galen’s gaze from where he sat just a bit higher on Kalendae. “Are you prepared?”

“Lead the way,” she said. It was his ride and she was tagging along, not to mention he would know the best places to ride, so Evony was quite happy to follow him. She already had half-formed plans to take the mare out in the following days, especially given that Stodd had said she didn’t get enough exercise. Maybe she could even work it into her morning practice…

Evony shook herself and refocused her attention on where they were riding. They were just coming up to the training fields, all but the archery range in use. Evony recognized more than a few faces and waved, smiling. A few half-raised hands in answer, but most of them just stared at her.

She hid a frown, wondering what their issue was. Unless it was just something like a rumour saying Amazzi couldn’t ride or something. Which would be simply ridiculous, given her people all learned to ride, especially those who were true warriors.

“You are familiar with my soldiers?” Galen asked, focus on her.

Nodding, she turned to meet his eyes. “I see them in the morning when I’m practicing. I’ve been helping some, mostly with the archers.”

“I see. Have you any further thoughts on ways to improve their training and effectiveness?”

Evony thought it over for a moment. “I’m not sure. We Amazzi are smaller in number, so our tactics rely heavily on speed, surprise, and not remaining in one place. From what I’ve seen, most of your soldiers are learning shield formations that are the opposite. I could really only offer some thoughts on your archers and lighter cavalry.”

His lips quirked upwards. “I had thought you would have an opinion on all matter martial.”

She snorted. “No. I know better than to talk about things I don’t understand fully, especially something as important as the training of your soldiers. And your legate Balint seems more than capable.”

“He is at that.”

They rode in silence, passing the last of the fields and heading towards the trees that Evony had thought just hid the wall from view. But as they got closer, she realized they were far deeper than she’d thought, though not nearly so large or surrounded by undergrowth as the forests of her home.

Galen led them to the beaten trail that snaked its way into the trees. Evony couldn’t help but smile as they entered the gentle green light and relative coolness that lay under the trees. It made her feel like she wasn’t that far from home after all.

The chirping and twittering of birds mixed with the drone of cicadas and the rustling of leaves due to wind and small creatures. Evony glanced around, taking in the mix of trees, recognizing oak, yew, larch, chestnut, and elm. Some were clearly very old, but for the most part, they looked to be no thicker than she could reach both arms around, or at most, half again that size. Certainly there were only a handful that see and Admina could have both but their arms around and just touch each other, and only one or two that she’d seen so far that were larger than that. From her perspective, it was a young forest, and not really deserving of the title. It really was just a bit of woods.

They were nearly to the wall when Evony finally saw what she guess was their destination. Round and made of a dark green-grey stone that helped it blend into the trees surrounding it, the building was only a story high, with a small decorative tower rising from its centre. A few steps, lined with columns of a more polished version of the stone, led up to the entrance. Even from a distance, she could see the large metal gate that covered the door.

“What is that place?” she asked.

Galen followed her gaze and a faint grimace crossed his face. “It is the mausoleum of the Fuscienne family.”

Evony frowned slightly, only having a sketchy idea of what that was. Her people just cremated bodies and scattered the ashes. She’d heard that some mainlanders set up elaborate shrines to the dead, but this was the first time she’d seen one. “Why is there a gate?” She couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to steal the ashes of a dead person!

“I do not like people entering without permission.”

She glanced at him, noting the tight mask that was over his features, and considered the possibilities. “Is it for your father?”

“No. My sister,” he replied, voice even though a trifle clipped. But looking at his mask-like face Evony could tell she shouldn’t ask him anything further on that matter. She thought that if her eyes were filled with lightning when she was angry, then his burned. They burned with all the intensity of the blue flames she knew and more, seeming ready to scorch everything they looked upon. She could see how Galen had earned a reputation for being overwhelming and a tyrant with eyes like those. It made her wonder what kind of person his sister had been and why her death brought out emotions in the rock-like Galen.

He said nothing else for a few moments, riding just a bit past the green building to a small area empty of trees, but still under the leafy canopy. He reined up and dismounted and Evony followed suit. Her gaze went to the small square rock that was set into the middle of the clear space.

Holding onto Sollucem’s reins, she approached, moving so she stood beside Galen and Kalendae. As she got closer she realized that the stone had been inscribed, and when she stopped, she recognized the language of her people. With wide eyes she turned to look at Galen. “Where did this come from?”

“It has always been here. Are you able to read it?”

Evony nodded, already squatting so she could see the faded letters better. It was an older form of her people’s tongue, but she could still understand the words. She cleared her throat and read.

“To my children, their children, and whoever else may read this, I am Callida, daughter of Alcina, granddaughter of Neziah, of clan Aureline. I would let it be known, contrary to rumours, that I have chosen Zorian of clan Fuscienne as my lifemate as he has chosen me. I have borne his children and will be by his side until death claims us both, but I would have our descendants know that while I chose this man over my clan, not once have I regretted that choice. You should all live freely and strong as all Amazzi do.”

Straightening, Evony just shook her head. She had heard the stories, that her people had allied with the Fuscienne’s because one of her clan had chosen their king as lifemate, but to find proof was beyond what she had expected. She knew the names of Alcina and Neziah and could recite them with the rest of her lineage, back over twenty generations, though her ancestress after Alcina was Veradis.

She wondered about Callida and how she’d done it. Left her clan, left the Amazzi way to live among the mainlanders in this country of what felt like eternal sun. To never return to the green lit forests of home. She’d written she hadn’t regretted it, but Evony wasn’t so sure. Then again, she had been with her lifemate, so maybe that had made the loss less.

Evony looked at Galen who was staring at the stone. She wondered if he’d known what it had said then wondered if anyone in the palace except her could read Amazzi. She wasn’t aware of anyone using it off Silvinsula, so she supposed it was unlikely he’d known what had been inscribed there.

He raised his head and met her gaze. “Thank you. I had long wondered what had been written in this stone.”

She smiled. “Thank you for showing it to me. I’d heard our legends about one of our clan joining with yours, but I never really thought I would find anything to do with that. It has been nearly fifteen generations since then.”

Galen nodded then a faint wrinkle appeared in between his brows. “What does lifemate mean?”

Evony blinked for a moment. She hadn’t realized the term wasn’t common knowledge. “It is the person you decide to spend the rest of your life with. I suppose it is mostly an Amazzi term, since we differentiate between those we use to father our children and those we take as lifemates. It’s a rare enough occurrence since you only have one lifemate in your life, if at all. Having seen my parents, I always hoped to find a real lifemate for myself.”

“Your father must be an accomplished warrior.”

She stared at him then laughed. “My father is nothing of the sort! He’s a scholar who came to study Amazzi and our ways and ended up attracting my mother. My middle sister, Obelia, takes most after him, while my eldest sister, Balera takes most after our mother. I take after both, which is why it is likely I will take over as clan head when the time comes. If not me, then my brother. Unless one of our cousins shows a better aptitude of course.”

“I must admit that I find your ways strange,” Galen said, shaking his head.

Evony chuckled. “That makes two of us.”

It might have been a trick of the light that filtered unevenly through the trees, but Evony thought she saw a real smile, small though it was, on Galen’s face before he turned away. She preened a little, grinning. If she could just make him laugh, he’d seem more like a person rather than the statue come to life she often wondered if he was.

Putting the wooden comb back where she’d gotten it from, Evony gave Sollucem one last pat before taking the mare back to her stall. Galen was already gone, having turned Kalendae over to Stodd’s care, not having time to brush his mount down after their ride. Not that Evony blamed him. She imagined running the empire was exhausting and time-consuming.

But she personally preferred brushing her horse down. It was a thank-you in a way, and a good way to bond. Which would be more important if Sollucem were Evony’s permanent mount, but even as a temporary one, it couldn’t hurt.

Evony dusted her hands off, offered a quick wave and called goodbye to Stodd and headed out of the stables. She blinked a little in the sunlight as her eyes adjusted so she missed the figure approaching until it was almost on top of her. It was the soft voice saying, “Princeps Evony?” that drew her attention.

She looked down the short distance to meet the other girl’s gaze. As the only girl left wearing purple and being from one of the original families, Evony had no difficulty recognizing Paran of Regem. She offered a friendly nod, not entirely sure of the girl. “Primus Paran,” she replied.

Paran smiled, revealing dimples below her hazel eyes, a colour Evony only just now noticed. “I am happy you know my name.”

“I’m trying to learn everyone’s. Do you need help with something?”

“No, I had just thought I would speak to you first. Cerys saw you leaving here with the emperor and….well there are some people it did not sit well with so I had thought I would warn you.”

Her eyes narrowed a trifle. “That’s very kind of you. But I thought you were friends with Venita. I don’t think she’d like the idea of you warning me much.”

Paran coughed and looked down, one foot drawing small circles in the grass. “Venita is…Well, our families have been friends of old, so we have long spent time with one another. I have found some of her views to be…extreme and not to my liking. However, our long association and close familial ties makes it difficult to separate. I hope you understand I mean no harm to you and only wish you the best.”

Evony nodded, still studying the other girl. Paran was looking at her again, the other girl’s gaze steady, her body angled forward, every inch of her screaming earnest desire. Evony rubbed an arm that was just being assaulted by gooseflesh and weighed her options and the other girl’s words.

“I hope you will forgive my boldness, but I must say I admire your strength and courage,” Paran said, smiling again. “I think it long overdue for our people to have a strong empress.”

She snorted. “I doubt that will be me. I only came because I was summoned and once this competition is finished, I’ll return to Silvinsula.”

“You do not wish to become empress?”

“No. It seems like a hard, demanding job, and not one I’m well suited for.”

“Would it not be a great honour to your people for you to be empress?”

Evony chuckled. “That’s not how Amazzi honour works, but thank you for your concern. Besides, there are plenty of candidates who would do a better job than I ever could here.”

“You seem so close to the emperor…”

Evony sighed. “That’s because I’m Amazzi and Galen knows there’s nothing I want from him and I have no other agenda. Our loyalty is to the Adnuhom of the Fuscienne family, not the empire.”

“Oh! I had not known that. You are so different even from the rest of us from the original families. I wish we had been able to get to know each other earlier. You seem so friendly and are not in the least shy or withdrawing.”

“No, I’m not. And you, do you want to become empress?”

Paran blushed and looked down, her foot drawing circles again. “I have long looked forward to becoming a bride,” she said, before her foot stilled and she said far more quietly, “Being empress is something I have dreamed of since I was a child.”

Evony nodded, though she really didn’t understand. That didn’t seem like much of a dream to her, but she was in no position to judge what others wanted from their lives. She still wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted from her own. “That’s nice,” she said finally. She really didn’t know what else she should say. Did one congratulate people for long held dreams on the mainland?

“Then-then do you think there is a chance I could become empress?” Paran asked, stepping closer and looking up at her with wide eyes and pink lips that were parted ever so slightly.

She shrugged, a little worried that Paran was about to collapse or something. She looked like she was about to start panting. Maybe the competition was a bit too much excitement for her. She seemed like more of the delicate sort. She made a mental note to keep a closer eye on the girl to make sure she didn’t collapse or worse. “Sure. You have the same chance as any of the others here. And who knows what Galen will decide?”

Paran smiled, the expression lasting for several seconds on her face before she said, “You are most fair.”

“I wouldn’t say-“


They both turned to look in the direction the voice had come and Evony winced slightly. Her eyes bright with a brow that was a mass of furrows, Venita looked anything but happy. She strode towards them, fists clenched at her sides, gaze locked onto Evony. “By what right do you think you may play up to his imperial majesty?”

Evony raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms over her chest. “I hardly think that’s any of your concern.”

“You think some jumped up barbarian like yourself is suitable as empress? Do you really think a-a she-wolf, a lupa, like you would be of any use to someone as high as his imperial majesty except as a temporary diversion?”

“It’s still none of your concern. As I’ve said before, what happens between me and Galen is between me and Galen.”

“You dare use his imperial majesty’s given name?” Venita snapped, eyes bright under her contracted brows.

“You just called me a lupa and are asking me that?” Evony snorted and shook her head. “As always, my limit for nonsense has been reached and I’m going to head back to my room now.”

Evony only managed a few steps away when she felt a hand closing around one of her arms. Reflexes took over and she broke the grip by turning away with her arm held tight to her body. She continued the movement until she was facing her assailant, body automatically positioning itself into a defense stance.

She only relaxed when she realized it was Venita rubbing her hand. The other girl glared up at her, two spots of colour slowly reddening into existence in her cheeks. “You harlot,” she hissed, eyes gone diamond hard. “This, this is what is wrong with the empire!”

Evony took a step back, but it wasn’t far enough to escape the tirade that poured from the other girl’s lips. “Barbarians pretending to be nobles, playing at being men and making a mockery of traditional values! Everything you do brings further shame to yourself and everyone who is forced to endure your presence!

A bride candidate? You are nothing more than a creature dragged out of the wilderness and forced into clothing and civilized company. You know nothing, nothing about being noble, about acting with decorum, about being a proper lady!

When I become empress I can assure you, your kind will not be allowed to leave the island-cage you call home! I will ensure that the values of propriety, modesty, and respect are brought back to the fore. No more of this intermingling with those below you or allowing mumblecrusts, low-born tramps, and other people who are not better than they ought to be roam as they like! Everyone should know their place and stay in it!”

Venita’s chest heaved, panting as the last sentences were shouted. Evony gave her a moment, letting the quiet stretch before she propped her hands up on her hips. “You have your values and I have mine,” she said quietly, though no less forcefully. “I won’t force my people’s ways on you and I would ask you to do the same. Not that I expect you will do so.”

Before the girl in silver could respond, Evony turned and left. She’d really had enough of Venita and her attitude. She really didn’t understand why the other girl couldn’t just accept the fact that they were different and just agree to disagree. She seemed to take it all so…personally. Sighing, Evony shoved those thoughts from her mind. They really weren’t worth worrying about, not when she couldn’t change anything.

Chapter 12: Callisa

Evony yanked the last of her arrows out of the archery target and headed towards the fence with a wave to the men who still practiced. She got salutes, waves and a few shouted goodbyes before the soldiers turned their attention back to their practice. She was pleased to see that several of them were already shooting from further back, though no one even came close to the distance she shot from. Then again, most of them hadn’t been shooting a bow from the time they could draw one.

Applause greeted her approach to the fence. Evony eyed the man, noting Balint’s usual smile as he watched her walk towards him. She didn’t change direction since it was obvious he was waiting for her. “Does Galen need me for something?” she asked.

He chuckled as she came to a stop in front of him, on the other side of the fence. “No, he’s buried under a mountain of reports at the moment. Since they didn’t have to do with martial matters, I thought I’d come see how my men were doing. And, as I hoped, get a chance to see another of your demonstrations. You are head and shoulders above most of my men in marksmanship. If I had a hundred of you…Well, there are a number of battles that would have gone a lot better.”

That brought a frown to her lips. “There are easily several hundred trained warriors of comparable skill to me on Silvinsula. We could have been called on at any time. We are always ready to serve the Adnuhom.”

“Ah,” Balint said, drawing the sound out as he scratched the back of his head. “That’s a bit complicated. Amazzi serve the head of the Fuscienne family and have always been completely loyal. Because of that, they only try to call upon them in the greatest need, or when troops of unquestionable loyalty are needed. Galen didn’t see the need to disturb your people when he had plenty of his own troops and wasn’t concerned about his own safety. Though he really should have been-“

Evony’s frown deepened at the way the legate just cut himself off. Rather than pry into something he didn’t want to speak of at the moment, though she thought she might try to get it out of him or Galen later, she decided to solve one of the other mysteries that had been eating at her curiosity since the day before.

Rather than speak to him over the wooden barrier, Evony vaulted over the fence so she could stand beside him. She looked up at Balint, who smiled down at her with an expression she was coming to realize was just a different mask than the one Galen wore. “Who was Galen’s sister and how did she die?”

Balint winced. “That…I am tremendously glad you chose to ask that of me rather than Galen.”

Evony met his eyes steadily. “I could tell by his reaction to the mausolea in the trees how that would have gone. But it seemed important so I thought I should ask you.”

The legate sighed and deep lines appeared around his mouth. They were smoothed out before Evony had a chance to do more than blink. Balint studied her for several moments before he ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll tell you, but not here. It’s not…it’s not a story for everyone.”

She nodded and followed as he led her towards the edge of the trees, not stopping until they were well away from the training fields, barracks, and anyone who could possibly hear them. Balint leaned against the trunk of one tree and Evony did the same across from him, glad he’d chosen to stop them in some shade given the sweat that was only now drying on her back and neck.

“To understand what happened with Callisa, you first need to know the landscape of the palace at the time of Galen’s birth and how he was raised,” he said. When Evony nodded, Balint continued. “Callisa, Nobilitatus Callisa of Fuscienne if you want her title, was Galen’s half-sister. She was the daughter of his father’s, Manaen’s, first concubine. When Charisse first came to the palace, Manaen was completely smitten. If she’d been a noble, he’d have married her on the spot. As it was, he made her his Amator, and if he’d had his way, would have taken no other. But she died bringing Callisa into the world.

Heartbroken over her death, Manaen still made sure that Callisa was educated as he had been, even if she couldn’t hold any title other than Nobilitatus. When he finally gave into the demands of his advisors and took a wife, he made sure that she was someone who wouldn’t make difficulty for Callisa. But when Metea died in childbirth as well, Manaen swore off lovers. He blamed himself for both their deaths.”

Evony frowned slightly as she listened. This was all new to her, but she had to wonder how Balint knew all this. He couldn’t have been a legate for all that time, not unless he was far older than he looked. How was he privy to the previous emperor’s guilt? Still, she continued to listen.

“With Metea dead, Galen had no mother and Manaen was caught up with running the empire. It was Callisa who took him on, though she was only a child of ten at the time, watching over him and doing her best to raise him. As someone who was part of palace life but had no official position, Callisa knew everything about everyone. She’d also seen court life from inside while not being a part which gave her great insight into how it all worked. She made sure that Galen learned that as he grew, teaching him everything she knew about people, how to read them, and how to work with them towards the goal he wanted of them.

Manaen of course, taught Galen about ruling. He often brought him along to meetings and rulings so that even as a child, he could see what was needed to rule the empire and keep it peaceful. It gave Galen the foundation he needed to keep the empire running.

It was me who took on training him into a warrior, making sure that Galen could stand before his soldiers and make them proud, make them feel like what he asked them to do was something he could do beside them. Soldiers hate to follow a man who can’t even protect himself and I made sure that Galen could do more than that.”

“Who are you?” Evony asked, unable to keep the thought from her lips any longer. The more he spoke, the more she realized Balint wasn’t just a legate.

He blinked, then smiled crookedly. “I guess you wouldn’t know, being from so far away. My old title was Nobilitatus Balint of Fuscienne. I’m Galen’s uncle from the wrong side of the blankets. My older brother was Manaen, his father. It’s why I always kept an eye on Callisa. She was in the same position I’d been in, until I threw myself into learning to fight. A soldier earns his own rank and I wanted something that was wholly mine, not given to me by my father or brother.”

Evony’s shoulders relaxed. “That explains much. I’d been wondering, since you’re the only person I’ve noticed who calls him Galen, beside me. Most people call him his imperial majesty, which must get wearing. I couldn’t imagine not having people call me by name.”

Balint chuckled. “He’s used to it. Well, now he is. He wasn’t at first,” he said, face sobering. “When Manaen died of a sudden attack of his brain, Galen was only sixteen and was forced to take over the whole empire. But from everything he’d been taught, he did well. In fact, he did better than anyone had thought he would so early, which caused a lot of upset. Many people had plans for him, as he was young and they’d thought he wouldn’t be able to stand on his own for at least a few years. There were some who were even hoping to use him as a figurehead, a puppet that they could control.

That’s what we think brought it about. Galen wouldn’t allow himself to be manipulated, wouldn’t budge, and held firm in the things he believed in. He was always far more intelligent and mature than his years and he used that to keep the empire firmly under his control, leaving no openings for those with ambitions beyond what they should have. So, to be free of him, they sent assassins.

If I-If I had been there, things may have gone differently. But I was pulled into a meeting with Primus Rekem of Regem, Rector Eleazar of Porifirio and Primus Marcellin of Argentia about the planned army expansions. As it was, Galen and Callisa were on a walk through the gardens after lunch as they did every day when the assassins struck. Callisa saw them first somehow, and managed to get between Galen and the arrow. Had it been an ordinary arrow, she’d have lived since it only struck her in the shoulder. But these assassins used poison and once she was hit, it was already too late.”

Evony winced. She couldn’t even imagine it. If someone attacked her sisters, if they killed one of them…She’d go to the ends of the earth to see them dead and to make sure the message of what happened when someone attacked her family spread.

“Galen…Calissa was the centre of his world, the person he loved best. When she died, he lost a large part of himself. This is just a guess on my part, but rather than dealing with the reality of it, rather than processing what he was feeling, Galen instead focused all of his pain on anger and revenge.

He found out who hired the assassins and went after them. He kept going on up the chain of hiring, until he found the masterminds. The first two he took out without too much difficulty. The others fled. He took the armies after them, destroying anyone who tried to stop him and absorbing every country that sheltered them, knowing or not. By the time the last of them was dead, Galen had conquered the world.”

Evony nodded slowly. Everything made a lot more sense. Galen hadn’t struck her as someone who’d invade somewhere without reason, so this explanation made all the pieces fit. She had to admit, for someone who was only a small part Amazzi, his reaction to his sister’s death had been very much in her people’s tradition. Though her people were a lot more direct and reacted on the individual level rather than with armies. She supposed by that point of view, he may have taken things a little far. Not that she blamed. How could she, when she’d do exactly the same in his position?

Still, if he hadn’t yet dealt with his feelings, it would explain why he seemed so statue-like. He must have walled himself off for so long that he didn’t know how to feel much of anything anymore besides anger. Or at least, that’s what she thought.

She met Balint’s gaze steadily. “Thank you for telling me,” she said, feeling like she understood Galen a bit better now. “I can see why he wouldn’t want to talk about his and I wouldn’t want to make him. I can’t even imagine the pain he must have felt.”

Balint’s smile was sad. “None of us really can. But Galen needs to find more people to trust besides myself and Rakin if he’s to keep the empire together. He’s too distant with everyone and it’s how we’re in the situation we’re in now. If we could just find out who is plotting…”

“I already told Galen that I would do all I could, and that hasn’t changed. My loyalty is to the Adnuhom and I will do everything I can to keep him safe.”

This time Balint grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that. I may need your help with some things in the future.”

Evony gave him the full Amazzi bow. “Call upon me as you will. I will continue gathering what information I can and hopefully we can put this matter to bed sooner rather than later.”

Balint bowed his head towards her, his eyes dark for a moment as he looked out at the training fields without seeming to see them. “The sooner the better,” was all he said, making Evony wonder what he knew that she didn’t.

Chapter 13: Advice

Evony smoothed out the clean clothes she’d finally had a chance to change in to before heading back into the hall. The news that Rector Cerys of Eirian, Magna Lapis of Tale, and Praetor Mahina of Alani had been eliminated had been a bit of a surprise to her when she’d gotten back. She hadn’t thought so many would have been eliminated at once, especially since they were now down to nine. Evony wondered if Galen was eliminating those he knew were loyal or if he was playing some more complicated game. He certainly seemed like the type.

Admina fell into step beside Evony as she exited her room, hovering close by. Evony saw the reason immediately and headed towards where Rakin was already surrounded by the other candidates. His eyes paused on her for a moment before he addressed the crowd. “Thank you ladies for your wonderful efforts so far in the competition. I am here to give you your next challenge.”

Venita, Fiorella and Akasma all leaned forward while Chana, Asahi, and Paran kept politely interested expressions on their faces. Neah nodded and beside her, Admina was fidgeting with her dress. Evony only folded her arms as she waited, wondering what nonsense she was going to be involved in now. She decided she had to tell Galen to pick better challenges. She couldn’t imagine what mucking out a stall had to do with being empress unless he believed the ability to deal with large amount of manure was somehow a useful skill.

“This will be another group challenge. We have assigned three of you to each group and I will have one person from each selected a name from this box,” Rakin said, shaking the box that Evony was beginning to dislike the sight of. “The teams are as follows: Primus Venita, Primus Paran, and Regulus Akasma as the first group. Primus Chana, Regulus Neah, and Praetor Fiorella in the second. Lastly it is Princeps Evony, Magna Asahi, and Rector Admina. If one of you from each will please join me?”

Evony glanced at Admina who shook her head. She turned to look at Asahi who was drifting towards them. When the girl in blue reached them, she bowed deeply. “It is my humble honour to be included with your nobilities.”

She awkwardly bowed back, Admina following suit with more grace. “The honour is ours,” she replied, wondering if it really was an honour to with her. She sure didn’t think so, and she didn’t think Admina thought that way either.

Retreating footsteps drew her attention to where the other groups were leaving, each trailing a different man. Their leaders appeared to be court officials of some sort, from their long chitons and black sashes. The only men who wore short chitons were warriors it seemed. At least on the palace grounds.

Rakin stopped in front of them and Evony hid a wince. “My apologies,” she said, offering him a half bow. “Should we draw now?”

He looked down at her for a long moment, before he said, “No. I know what is written on the last paper. If you will accompany me?”

Admina ducked her head, Asahi bowed, and Evony just shrugged. Rakin’s lips thinned for a heartbeat before he turned and led them out of the hall. He didn’t slow when they reached the main part of the building, but took them right outside. They went down one of the walkways amid air that was getting heavier and heavier as clouds continued to gather in the sky. The way it smelled, Evony bet they’d have rain that afternoon or, at latest, that evening. Which would be a welcome relief from the intense heat that had come with the increase in humidity.

Sweat beaded up along Evony’s back and she repressed a sigh. She knew she’d be visiting the baths again tonight if this kept up. They passed by a couple strolling through a garden filled with blue and purple flowers before Rakin took them inside the palace’s main building. As he turned them down that hall and through this room, Evony felt a certain familiarity with the path. When he turned them down and she could see the narrow hall that she’d walked down only a few days before, she knew where she was.

Rakin didn’t take them towards Galen’s rooms, but rather to one of the rooms on their current end of the hall. The room was a basic square, with one large window at the far end. It was mostly filled with a large table that was encircled with chairs all made of the same wood that looked like oak to Evony’s eyes. They were all polished, if not especially ornate.

“If you would please make yourselves comfortable,” Rakin said, inkling his head towards the chairs as he took one himself.

Evony and Admina sat down immediately, Asahi following suit seconds later. Once they were all settled, Rakin spoke. “This task is a simple one. I will give your group a scenario and you will give me advice on how best to resolve it. Is that understood by all?”

All three nodded and he continued. “We have several new aides assisting us in our work. One of them took the time to reorganize our entire document system, labelling everything and ensuring everything was placed in the proper place. The issue we have is that two of our aides are claiming responsibility for the work and we cannot tell which one is lying. What would you do in this situation?”

Evony frowned, wondering what she would do. The worst she’d ever had to do was find out who’d been stealing the last of the honey cakes, her brother, and punish him so he didn’t do it again. She thought she could still make him jump by yelling for him to run laps.

Smoothing a smile off her face as she remembered her brother’s expression on the last bout of them, she lightly drummed her fingers on the table. “I think I’d talk to both of them first, see if I couldn’t find out that way. If that didn’t work, I’d try asking the people who know them best, because one of them has to be more likely to do this kind of thing than the other.”

Rakin’s eyes narrowed as she finished talking and slowly nodded. “Those are possibilities. And you two?” he asked, gaze going to the others.

Fidgeting with the hands she had in her lap and with her eyes locked onto the table, Admina whispered, “I would ask them to find something complicated. Whoever organized the documents will know where everything is and will be able to find it faster”

Evony smiled at that. Admina’s idea would work way better than hers and she thought was likely the best option. Rakin offered her friend a curt nod before he turned his attention to Asahi. The last girl had her eyes downcast even as she kept a perfect posture. She said nothing for nearly a minute. “I would speak to everyone,” she said, voice even quieter than Admina’s. “I would ask their opinion and what they would suggest. I would find a consensus before I made a suggestion.”

Rakin frowned slightly but nodded. “Thank you for your opinions,” he said. “I will consider them most carefully. Now, if you will allow me to, I will escort you back to your rooms.”

They all stood while Evony hid a faint grimace. Why he’d brought them all the way to another building when he could have done this in their eating hall was beyond her. Still, she wasn’t about to argue if it meant they got inside before the rain started. She really didn’t feel like walking around in a long chiton that was soaked with water, not to mention she knew the material’s propensity for becoming a great deal less modest when wet and didn’t want that much of her on display.

It didn’t take them long to retrace their footsteps, but as the other girls hurried back into their hall, Rakin gave Evony a look. She frowned slightly but held back, watching him watch her. He waited until the other two were well out of earshot before he reached into his robes and pulled out a small sealed paper. “His majesty insisted I give this to you,” he said, voice and face emotionless and yet still managing to radiate disapproval. “I hope this will not give you inappropriate ideas.”

Evony took the paper, glancing over the black wax that had a stylized eagle and sun pressed into it, before she met Rakin’s gaze. “I don’t know what ideas you think are inappropriate, but I serve the Adnuhom with loyalty and honour as do all Amazzi. I would hope you would trust my honour and that of my people even if you do not know or like me personally.”

He blinked, frowned for a moment, then sighed almost silently. “I am not certain if you will be good or bad for his majesty and must rely on hope, something I dislike doing.”

“Well, if you have concerns about me, please bring them to me so I can address them. I will do my best to answer honestly and fully as I’m able.”

That got her a frosty smile. “Balint has said you are not one for anything but direct words. I see he is most correct. I will take your suggestion under advisement,” he said. He offered her a small bow and then turned and walked back the way he’d come.

Evony watched him go for a moment, shaking her head. He seemed loyal but he also seemed to be a stickler for rules, ceremonies, and the proper order of things. Evony had never put much stock in any of that, so she guessed she shouldn’t be surprised that Rakin didn’t care for her much. Still, if he was as loyal to Galen as her people were, she could hardly fault him.

The thought of the emperor brought her attention back to the paper. She carefully broke the seal and unfolded that paper.

We may have caught the tail of the dog we are chasing, but he may be hungering for lemons.


Evony raised her eyebrows and reread the short note. She wondered whose tail it was that Galen had caught, and what that would mean for the plot against him. The next time she saw him, she knew she’d have to ask him, and only hoped he’d be more straightforward in person than he was in his notes.

She crumpled up the paper, planning on soaking it in water to make it illegible before throwing it away. If Galen was writing in code, then he really couldn’t be sure who to trust, which in turn meant she should take every precaution she could. With that in mind she headed straight back to the relative safety of her room.

Chapter 14: An Attempt

Standing up, Evony dusted off her hands and the bottom of her dress before she took one last look around her new room. With its elaborate frescoes depicting underwater scenes and another raised bed, it was nicer than the previous one. And most importantly, unlike her last room, this one had a window with heavy curtains that were currently drawn back. She’d already looked out to see that the view was that of a small garden complete with fountain. This room was also far bigger, boasting not only the bed and elegantly carved armoire, but also a desk, chair, small divan and wash basin. It was definitely the nicest bedroom Evony had ever stayed in.

Not that she was surprised, given they were being housed in the imperial wing of the palace.

While Evony hadn’t been sad to see Akasma leave, she thought she was going to miss Asahi and Fiorella. Being down to six already, she hoped Galen had a better grasp on what was happening and who was moving against him. Because she still didn’t have a clue.

With nothing better to do, Evony headed out. Their new hall was smaller with all six rooms lining it being the extent of it. Evony glanced towards the right door marked with red, but knew that Admina was taking a nap. She eyed the purple door on the other side of her, but really wasn’t so desperate for company that she wanted to speak to Paran. That girl often felt unnaturally sweet to Evony and was the type of person she had the most difficulty with.

She glanced across the hall and then shook her head. While Chana and Neah were kind, Evony really didn’t feel like having anyone around when she was essentially going to be finishing her scouting of their new home. They’d likely only think her behaviour odd. Venita wasn’t even a consideration. She’d rather run laps around the palace until she collapsed than be forced to endure another of her rants.

Mind made up, Evony entered the larger hall that connected theirs to the rest of the imperial wing of the palace. She took a left and headed out through the first archway she came across. She emerged into a narrow walkway that seemed to run right by the garden her room overlooked. She walked through the columns until she felt the sun kiss her skin momentarily, before a fluffy white cloud meandered in front of it. With the heat of the day, the brief disappearance of the sun was a relief.

The sound of approaching footsteps drew Evony’s attention away from the fountain at the centre of the garden. Shading her eyes, she recognized the approaching figure and smiled. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you so soon.”

Galen frowned as he came to a stop just across from her, still on the walkway. “Is my presence an issue?”

She laughed as she walked back towards him. “No, I just thought you wouldn’t be here until we had another challenge or something.”

“The next challenge will not come swiftly,” he replied. “There are things I would like to research first. In that respect, I would like to speak to you.”

“Go ahead,” Evony said.

He tilted his head in the direction he’d come and began walking. Evony followed close behind. Seeing she was keeping pace with him, Galen said, “What do you know of Rector Solana of Porfirio?”

Evony frowned, trying to remember which of the girls that way. “Porfirio? What colour province is she from?”


“Purple…Ah! She’s the one who looked like she was about to cry when she was eliminated. Beyond that, I can’t tell you much. I don’t think I even spoke to her. Why?”

Galen said nothing until they were by an aide of some sort who hurried past them with an armful of papers. “From what we have discovered and those we have talked to, those of Porfirio have spoken heavily against me. More than merely spoken it seems. One of their most trusted servants has been seen in areas that are less than savoury, which has given rise to several questions. Questions I would very much like the answers to.”

She nodded as they turned down another walkway, gardens and courtyards to either side of them. “Do you have someone who can swim those waters and tell you what they’re up to?”

He gave her a sidelong look. “We have certain…people we can use situations like these. My reluctance is in risking the loyal in something that may be solved through simpler methods, and if we were to make use of those who are less loyal, I would not be able to trust their information.”

Evony raised her eyebrows. “You’re pretty sure there’s a plot against you and you’re hesitating? Do you not take your own safety seriously?” She wanted to shake him, unable to believe he was willing to gamble with his life like this. She might gamble with her safety, but that would be in the heat of battle, not when dealing with plots and who knew what else.

“It is not hesitation. It is a calculated risk.”

“It’s a stupid risk. If people are looking to hire mercenaries or worse, you’d better send people you can trust to look into it, or you might not be around for long.”

He shook his head as he led the way down another walkway, this one leading back towards the main palace building. “You do not hesitate to speak what you believe, do you?”

Evony snorted. “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”

His lips quirked up and he stopped to look her over. “I am trying to decide if your blunt honesty is refreshing or insulting.”

She couldn’t resist the grin. “Can’t it be both?”

Galen smiled at that, the expression lightening his whole face and making him look much younger, like he really was only in his twenties. She laughed. “So you do smile! I was beginning to think you’d never learned how.”

The expression disappeared as soon as she spoke and he frowned at her, a little crease appearing between his brows. “Don’t stop!” she told him, smiling and pointing at her mouth. “See? It’s easy.”

He shook his head. Approaching footsteps drew both their attention towards the far side of the walkway. Galen glanced over the man in servant’s garb before turning his attention back on Evony. She studied the man who had his eyes on the ground, but kept glancing up towards them. She frowned and took a few steps towards him, ignoring Galen’s quizzical look.

As he got closer, the man gave them both a deep bow, arms at his side in the western coastal tradition. Watching him look up again, Evony realized his gaze kept going to Galen. The hair on her arms prickled as goosebumps rolled down and her stomach gave a tiny lurch. She shifted over so she was directly in front of Galen as he closed the distance between them.

“Excuse me,” he said, trying to push past her.

She grabbed his arm, feeling deep down that something was off about him. Evony felt the muscles in his arm tense and leapt back just as the knife he held in his free hand slashed out towards her. She twisted his arm and kicked up at his armpit, knowing how sensitive the nerves there were.

The blow was solid and the man went white, a choked off scream emerging from his mouth. Evony didn’t give him a chance to recover, but used her kicking foot to pivot as it went back to the ground so she could smash her other against the man’s face. His head bounced off the stone of the walkway and he went still.

Evony straightened slowly, hands on her knives, ready to make sure of him if he tried anything further. Someone grabbing her shoulders had her spinning and tensing, ready to lash out. But it was Galen’s face that greeted her. Eyes wide, his face paler than she’d ever seen it and with his lips pulled firmly down and new lines across his forehead. “Were you hit?” he demanded.


“Were you hit?” he shouted.

She shook her head. “He didn’t even touch me.”

The hands Galen had one her shoulder slid down to her elbows as he bowed his head for a second, his tawny hair hiding his face from view. His grip on her elbows tightened momentarily before he straightened, gaze hard as he looked at her. “That was dangerous,” he said, as running footsteps announced the arrival of guards, drawn no doubt by the sound of the man’s scream.

Evony’s eyes narrowed. “I’m Amazzi. That is exactly the kind of thing I’m trained to handle.”


Galen was cut off by the first guard stopping in front of them, bowing deeply. “Your imperial majesty, what-“

The emperor held a finger up to Evony before he turned and eyed the soldier. “That man is an assassin,” he said, jerking his head towards the still unmoving body. “He has made an attempt on mine and Princeps Evony’s life. I want him questioned and imprisoned. If he requires medical attention to see that he lives, give it to him. If not, allow him to suffer.”

“Your majesty,” the man said, bowing again, as did the other guards.

Galen nodded, then jerked his head towards the building, staring at Evony. She followed, keeping a close eye on both Galen and everyone they passed. If there was one assassin in the palace, there could be others, many others.

But the rest of their short walk to Galen’s rooms was done in tense silence and safety. Evony only relaxed her vigilance when they reached the guards on Galen’s door, knowing each one had been hand-picked by Balint and put through extra training before being allowed into the rotation.

Once the door was closed behind them, he turned to stare at her, eyes ablaze. “You are entirely too reckless. That kind of foolish move could get you killed,” he snapped.

Evony crossed her arms over her chest. “I told you, I’m a trained Amazzi warrior. The day I can’t take out a single armed man, one armed only with a knife at that, will be the day they spread my ashes. I have been training practically since I could walk. And may I point out that you’re the one who wanders around without guards despite being the emperor and you knowing there’s a plot against you!”

He grimaced then glared and took a step closer to her. “This is not about me.”

“It is if there are assassins after you.”

“I am no callow youth, untrained in the art of combat!”

“And neither am I,” she retorted, tossing her head.

He slammed his palms down on either side of her, effectively pinning her against the wall as he leaned forward so there were only inches between them. “If you had seen death as I have, you would not be so cavalier about this.”

She didn’t even flinch. “If you had seen death as I have, you wouldn’t dare say that.”

“You-” he said, voice trembling with emotion, eyes bright as they met hers.

Evony really didn’t know who moved first, all she knew was that one second they were glaring at each other, the next, they had their lips pressed against one another’s.

Galen pressed himself harder against her, almost crushing her between him and the stone. Evony barely noticed, too busy wrapping her arms around his neck so she could kiss him harder. He was doing that delightful thing with his tongue again, exploring her mouth as their lips continued to move against each other.

She wound one hand into his hair, surprised at how much softer it was than it looked, before being distracted by the leg he thrust between hers. The hard muscle of his thigh pressed against where the tingling tug of desire was building and made her wish that she was wearing one of her shorter chitons. It would be so much easier to get out of.

One of his arms wrapped itself around her waist and she found her body being pressed against the harder form of Galen. She could feel her nipples tighten into tiny hard buds, which she knew he had to feel against his chest, just as she could feel the part of him that was tightening against her.

His free hand cupped the back of her head as he pressed his lips even harder against her, like he was trying to meld them together through their mouths. Evony shifted her weight slightly, the need she felt just starting to reach uncomfortable levels. She couldn’t remember ever needing release this badly before. And if this was what Galen could do to her with mostly just his mouth, Evony was more than willing to see what he could do with the rest of him.

The sound of the door opening made both of them jerk their heads away from one another. The movement drew the attention of Balint who stared at them for a moment. Then he smiled, “Sorry, I’ll let myself out, so you two continue.”

Galen drew away and Evony dropped her arms away from him, feeling her cheeks heat up. While they hadn’t been doing anything wrong, being seen…she dropped her gaze to the ground for a moment before glancing at Galen.

He was looking past Balint, a touch of colour to his cheeks that hadn’t been there before. As she watched, he ran a hand through his hair then coughed. His stare went to hers and she looked down again for a second before meeting his eyes steadily, even though she was sure her cheeks gave everyone a good idea of the state of her. “I should go,” she said.

Galen nodded. “I will speak with you later.”

As she hurried by Balint, Evony caught the unmistakable wink he gave her before the door closed behind her.

Chapter 15: Moonlit Meeting

Evony shifted over to her side, eyes going to the tiny patch of silver light that had escaped through her room’s curtains. She stared at it for a moment before rolling back onto her back and staring at the ceiling. She willed herself to sleep but was in too much of a jumble to be able to do anything of the sort.

She sighed heavily and sat up. If she couldn’t sleep, she might as well do her best to sort through everything so she could. With a faint groan, she hopped off her bed, put her sandals on, and headed straight out the door, not even bothering to tie her unruly mane back.

Rather than risk waking the other girls up by pacing their tiny hall, Evony headed outside. The air was blessedly cool as she reached the first walkway and headed for the garden she hadn’t yet had a chance to look over, except from the window of her room. With clear skies and the light of the moon, she had no trouble reaching it.

It was hard to identify the plants in the moonlight, but Evony though they were mostly flowers. She walked a short circuit of the garden before settling on the lip of the fountain and staring up at the full moon. She closed her eyes and just let the light wash over her, as if it could illuminate the answers she needed.

Evony couldn’t deny her growing attraction to Galen, especially not after that afternoon. Just thinking about it brought the beginning tingles of desire to her, which she did her best to ignore for the moment. She knew Galen was first class stock, smart, strong, and steady, even if she thought he could stand to relax a lot more. Any children they had would do well she felt and she knew laying with him would be a pleasure rather than merely a duty.

But the more she got to know him, the more she thought that their arrangement would only make Galen worse. He needed someone by his side, someone who could temper him, who could hold their own against him, and who could help bring back some happiness to his life. And while she hated to admit it, Admina wasn’t capable of filling that role. None of the girls she thought would be able to do it, though Chana came closest. Galen really needed someone who was there for him and not for the empire.

He needed a proper lifemate, not an empress.

Evony sighed and wished Galen wasn’t the Adnuhom. It would make everything so much simpler. She thought he’d like Silvinsula, that the quieter, less demanding lifestyle would suit him better than the nest of vipers that had embedded themselves into court. If you couldn’t even trust those people around you, how were you supposed to ever really feel safe or happy?

The sound of footsteps broke through her thoughts. Evony’s head swivelled in the direction they’d come and watched as a tall figure came walked into the garden. When he walked into the pool of moonlight that filled the centre part, she recognized him by more than just the length of his hair. “Galen?” she called softly, hoping not to wake Admina or Paran whose windows both faced the gardens as well.

She saw him jerk before turning to stare at her for several moments. He slowly approached her, shoulders tense until he was level with her. “Evony,” he said, arms loosening at his sides. “Whatever are you doing out this late?”

Evony shrugged as she looked up at him. “I couldn’t sleep. How about you?”

“I have a similar problem,” he replied. Neither said anything for a moment. Finally Galen cleared his throat. “May I join you?”

She smiled at that. “It’s your fountain.”

Evony thought she saw one of those upwardly quirked lip half-smiles he gave her before Galen settled himself beside her on the stone lip of the fountain. He was so close that Evony could feel the heat of his body fill the shallow space between them, his hand only a few digitus from hers. “What brings you this way?” she asked after the silence had grown between them again.

Galen glanced at her for a moment before he turned his face towards the moon. “I could not find sleep, so I thought a walk might tire me enough that it would be easier to find later.”

She nodded, then frowned. “Should you really be out alone after the assassination attempt?”

He snorted slightly. “This is beyond my usual routine, and in the darkness, who could tell me from any other?”

Evony’s frown deepened momentarily, but she didn’t press him. She supposed he needed time alone sometimes too. And at least he was here with her now, should anyone have followed him. She’d just make sure she walked him back to his rooms in case anyone was lying in wait for him.

Not wanting to bring up heavy subjects when Galen was obviously trying to relax, Evony pointed up at the stars that could be seen overhead. “I heard that there are different names for the stars here on the mainland. What do you call that one?”

Galen looked up then frowned. “Which?”

Evony scooted closer so that her hips just touched his and held her arm up again. This time she traced the curves of the constellation, her head tilted back so she could see it. “That one. We call it Mother’s Bow, for it is said to be the bow of the first Amazzi warrior, placed in the sky so that all of us would remember and honour her.”

He followed her finger with his. “Ah. That is the Huntress’s Bow. It is said that the mighty huntress who owned it was beautiful and strong, and drew the gaze of the god of the hunt. He took her as a wife and in bringing her back to his realm in the sky, she dropped her bow where it remains to this day.”

She turned to look at him. “I hadn’t heard that story.”

Galen turned as well, their faces ending up only a few short digitus from one another. For a heartbeat, neither of them moved. Evony opened her mouth to say something, even she wasn’t sure what, but Galen moved quicker.

His hand went to the back of her neck and pulled her the short distance it took for their lips to meet. Like they’d never been interrupted that afternoon, Evony felt her whole body flush and the space between her legs go damp and tingly with the desire that was rising in her veins. When Galen’s tongue slipped into her mouth, this time she retaliated with her own.

From the way he pressed her more firmly towards him, his other arm moving to snag her waist and draw her even closer to him, Evony thought she hadn’t done too badly for her first attempt at it. One hand gripping the edge of the fountain to keep her balance, Evony used the other to grab a fistful of his shirt so she could pull his lips as tight against hers as she could get them. She had no intention of letting him stop what he was doing any time soon.

Her whole body was tightening, the growing pulse of need making her squeeze her legs together even as her nipples became as stone. With her pulse loud in her ears and her body alive with every sensation, from the feel of Galen’s stubble against her cheeks to the heat of his fingers through the thin material of her chiton, Evony felt like her whole body was alight.

Galen must have felt similarly, because he let out a little guttural sound from deep in his throat before he dropped the hand at her neck. Before she knew what was happening, he’d lifted her up from beside him and dropped her right into his lap.

Her legs to either side of him like she was mounting a horse, her hands now gripping the lip for balance, Evony couldn’t figure out why he’d thought this was a better position. His lips reclaimed hers and a moment later, she found out why she’d been moved. His one hand might have gone back to cradling her neck, but the other had moved down towards her breasts. He cupped one of them and gave it a gentle squeeze, the heat of his palm making her own temperature feel like it was spiking again.

Then he used a thumb to lightly graze one hardened nub.

Evony couldn’t help the tiny noise that escaped around Galen’s tongue as that bolt of feeling shot straight towards her nether regions. Seemingly encouraged, he began to rub first one nipple, then the other, each movement adding to the sum of desire that was reaching the point of discomfort.

When he broke away from kissing her, the sudden coolness was almost an assault on her. Opening eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed, Evony looked at him, but could only see the top of his head. More cool air greeted her body as he pulled apart the front of her chiton. About to ask what he was doing, she felt the liquid warmth of his mouth close around one of her nipples.

She cried out softly as his lips, tongue and teeth did wonderful things to her, even as his thumb and forefinger made certain that her other nipple wasn’t lonely. He switched targets after a moment and Evony was almost overwhelmed. She shifted her weight, desperately wanting to touch herself, to start relieving the overwhelming fire he’d lit inside of her.

Galen had other ideas there too. Evony didn’t notice the disappearance of his hand’s attention until she felt it brushing aside the few hanging folds of her bunched up chiton. One finger slid down and brushed up against the curls of her ditch. She didn’t even get a chance to react before it slid down the length of her divide, drawing a cry from her as her hands tightened their hold on the fountain.

His clever fingers joined the first and she found herself barely able to hang on as they moved against her, causing sensation to arc through her. The centre of her practically trembled every time one of his fingers even brushed against it. The pulsating waves of pleasure slowly grew within her, rising like a fierce and quick tide.

Then Galen moved his hand and one of his fingers, eased by the slickness of her desire, slipped inside of her. The whole new feeling had her crying out again. And when he moved his finger inside of her, she found her whole back arching, only her hands keeping her from falling.

When he added a flick of his thumb against her pleasure point, Evony knew she was lost. It took less than a minute of that exquisite torture to have the whole sea’s worth of pleasure that had been building to cascade down on her, sending ripples through her body that tightened down onto Galen’s finger as she felt like her centre exploded outwards.

He held her through her cry and shivers until her head dropped down onto his shoulder, body gone temporarily weak with spent desire. She let the cool air run over still feverish body for a moment as she collected herself. She straightened and faced Galen as his arms slid down so that they lay loosely about her waist, a glint to her gaze.

Removing one hand from the lip of the fountain, she reached down and pressed it gently against the raised part of his tunic that she could see even through the mottled shadows that lay between them. She felt him tense and a slight smile came to her face as she contemplated her next move.

Figuring they couldn’t be so very different, she ran her hand up it from the base to the very tip, where she lightly flicked the end as she’d done to herself a number of times. He jerked and cried out, but that was his undoing.

With his arms around her and not braced against the fountain, Galen pitched backwards, his legs rising up and sending Evony falling in the opposite direction. Her backside hit the hard stone that surrounded the fountain while Galen landed with a splash into the fountain.

Evony scrambled to her feet, leaning over to make sure he was alright. She was greeted by the sight of Galen propped up by his elbows, his legs over the edge of the fountain, while his waist and half his chest were submerged in the water. His hair dripped water, more being added to it as drops fell from the upper level of the fountain onto his head. She took one look at him and started laughing.

He stared at her as she wrapped her arms around her sides, fighting for air as the mirth continue to bubble up inside her. Slowly a smile spread across his face, and as tears began to slide down her face, she heard the sound of him chuckling.

That surprised her enough that she was able to quickly calm herself and grin at him as she offered him a hand. “There’s one of my goals achieved,” she said as she helped haul him out of the fountain.

“What do you mean?” he asked as he straightened.

The puddle that swiftly formed under him as he continued to drip had Evony’s lips twitching around laughter as she replied, “Well, you almost never smile, so I really wondered what you sounded like when you laughed.”

“That does not seem like much of a goal,” he said, forehead crinkling.

She giggled a little at that. “Well, with you, I wasn’t sure I was going to reach it.”

Seeing her expression, Galen’s face slowly smoothed out into a smile. He stepped closed to her, but the sound of his wet clothes flapping against him drew his gaze. He sighed. “I had best return to my rooms.”

Evony sighed, a little regretful that they couldn’t continue. “You don’t want to get sick.”

Galen leaned forward and kissed her on lips briefly before he smiled again. “Until next time.”

She flushed a little at that but nodded. He turned and hurried back the way he’d come, leaving a faint trail of water in his wake. Evony shook her head, watching him until he was out of sight. Only then did she turn towards her own rooms.

A yellow flicker of light drew her attention and she frowned, turning towards her window, but it was gone. She studied the area, but guessed it must have been a firefly, or a shooting star. A yawn caught her and Evony realized that she was suddenly very tired. If she didn’t want her morning practice to be worse than it was already going to be, she needed to get to bed as soon as she could.

With that in mind, she strode towards the walkway and the route back to the candidates’ hall.

Chapter 16: Distractions

Evony watched her arrow strike the upper part of the circle that was placed over her target’s heart and cursed inwardly. That was the fifth shot she’d muddled, and the way things had gone, it wouldn’t be her last. She took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to calm herself, focusing back on her body and its stance.

But the thought of her body brought back the memories of the night before and the torrid dreams that had followed. She could feel her pulse speed up and her body tighten up, desire starting up its familiar beat between her legs. Rather than being sated from their contact last night, her whole body seemed determined to have more and was making that fact clear to her.

Her breath hitched as she released the arrow and this one thudded into place just to the side of the right eye mark of her target. Evony glowered at her miss and stalked towards the target to retrieve her arrows.

“Are you alright, Evony brightness?” asked one of the soldiers, Bovrik Evony thought his name was.

She nodded, feeling her cheeks heat up a bit as she came to stop in front of her target. “I’m just a little tired today.”

“Never seen you miss so much before. Did you not sleep at all last night? You’ve got some shadows under your eyes,” his friend Coridan added.

Evony reached up to touch her under eye, then dropped her hands and began yanking out the arrows instead. “I didn’t get much sleep to begin with and I had some dreams that…” She trailed off, not about to discuss her dreams with anyone.

“Ah, I’ve had that problem before,” Bovrik said. “Nightmares always strike at the worst time.”

“You’d have fewer nightmares if you laid off that mead of yours,” Coridan retorted. “Anything that sweet is liable to rot your mind as well as your stomach.”

“You’re just mad that you can’t hold your liquor, you-” Bovrik broke off with a guilty look at Evony.

She chuckled. There really wasn’t much he could say that would offend her. “Don’t mind me. If you heard the way my aunts speak, you wouldn’t hesitate.”

“It’s not right, brightness,” Coridon said. “You’re still a noble, much as you act like the rest of us.”

Evony snorted. “I’m Amazzi. We don’t go in for that sort of thing. We’re warriors first, everything else second.”

The men shrugged and she repressed a sigh and headed back to her shooting position. There was no point arguing. The soldiers were odd in what they considered appropriate for her and what they didn’t. Spitting, swearing at their weapons and clumsy hands, and hitting each other was fine. Using sexual language, not calling her brightness, and being rude to her were all against their made up rules. Not that the latter had happened often. The first she’d dealt with herself. The second…she wasn’t sure what the others had said to him, but he hadn’t turned up to another practice.

Evony shook herself, trying to get rid of all the distracting thoughts and feelings. This was her practice time. She needed to keep in top condition, especially if more assassins showed up. Inhaling and exhaling slowly a few times, Evony focused everything on her stance and what she was doing now, rather than what had happened.

Her first two shots hit well, but her third hit perfectly and she allowed herself a smile as she pulled another arrow out of her quiver. The next three flew as her third had and she finally felt a bit better about her practice. As she paused briefly before nocking her seventh, she glanced over and realized that everyone else around her had frozen, all facing the same direction.

Evony followed their gaze and finally noticed Galen, leaning against the fence, face turned in her direction.

She flushed but held up a hand in acknowledgement, before hurrying over to yank out her arrows. Only then did she jog over to Galen. She had no idea what he wanted and wasn’t about to waste arrows or block an entire target because of it.

“Morning,” she said when she reached him, noting with approval the two guards who hovered a few passus away.

He inclined his head. “Good morning.”

Evony struggled to meet his stare for a second, her body reminding her of what he’d done to her. She forced herself to look him in the eyes, telling herself she was being silly. She and him were still the same people they’d been before so there was no reason she should be acting differently. “I’m surprised you’re up this early.”

Galen frowned slightly before his face smoothed back out. “I am always awake at this time though most often I am busy with work. I admit I was curious to see your morning practices. Balint has described them and your prowess to me in great detail, though he was correct that the reality is quite different. You are very skilled, probably the best I have seen with a bow.”

That made her whole face pink. “Thank you,” she said, gaze dropping to the ground for a moment as she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “But I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed with me if you were to see the best of the Amazzi. I am among the best in our clan, but by no means the most skilled. And there are those in other clans even better than Aunt Cahira.”

That got her the upwards quirked lip smile she was getting used to. “I will have to visit Silvinsula some time to verify this. I have always heard of the Amazzi strength of arms, but I feel witnessing it in person will be a different experience entirely.”

She smiled back. “We would be honoured to have you visit. I think you’d like Silvinsula. Though you would be made much of, both for being Adnuhom and because we almost never seen men outside of our clans.”

A faint air of a smirk came across his lips. “I do not believe that would be much of a hardship.”

Evony chuckled. “You obviously don’t know Amazzi well.”

“I know you. Better than most,” he added with a sidelong look that made her blush.

“I’m only one person. Imagine a whole clan with the same upbringing but different personalities. All of us women except my father, brother, and one cousin.”

His lips pulled down slightly. “I had heard that Amazzi were almost all women. Is there a reason to it?”

Evony shrugged. “We just run heavily to girls, no idea why. It’s rare for a boy to be born, so my brother and cousin get fussed over a lot. Sometimes they like, sometimes they don’t. Marnin mostly likes it, and when he doesn’t, he just hides.”

“And the girls take this as a challenge and search for him?”

She chuckled. “You think like us Amazzi. That’s exactly what they do. But Marnin’s too good at hiding and he knows how they all think. They almost never catch him. Last time they only found him because he sneezed.”

That got a real smile out of Galen, even though it only lasted for an instant. A light breeze whipped up and blew over them, raising goosebumps on Evony’s arms as the sweat on her back began to cool. She glanced back up at Galen, whose forehead wrinkled slightly for a second. “I apologize, but I have reports that I cannot leave any longer.”

Evony smiled back. “I need to hit the baths myself. I’ll see you later,” she said.

He nodded. “Yes, you will,” he replied, before turning around and heading back towards the main building, his guards trailing behind him. She watched him go, admiring his form for a moment before hurrying towards the baths herself. She’d promised Admina she’d go for a walk with her if there weren’t any challenges today, and from the way Galen had acted, she doubted there were.

Evony fell into pace beside Admina, glad for the wind that still rushed across the palace, keeping the day from being oppressively hot, despite the brilliant sun overhead. Neither of them said anything until they were well away from their wing and on one of the walkways that led towards the central gardens. “I wonder what our next challenge will be,” Admina said, focus on the pink and red flowers that filled a stone pot at the centre of the courtyard to their left.

“I don’t know, but I imagine it will be something completely different from everything else,” Evony replied. She bet Galen would be coming up with something clever, unexpected and revealing in ways that neither she nor any of the other candidates would guess.

She shifted to the side, just behind Admina as they passed a group of men in deep blue tunics and breastplates. Evony eyed them for a moment, thinking the one in the middle might have interested Balera, if she’d have even bothered to give him a second look. He might even have been able to keep up with her for a whole week before she exhausted him. She certainly exhausted almost everyone in the family with her endless energy.

Admina kept her eyes down until they were well past the men. They continued on until they were reached a walkway that ended into the colonnade that ran the front of the building that faced the training fields. Evony led the way down, waving at the two guards standing by the arched door into the building proper, recognizing them from the morning hand to hand drill she’d helped with the day before. They offered her half salutes and smiles before they returned to their statue-like on duty faces.

“You know a lot of soldiers,” Admina said, having watched the whole thing.

Evony nodded. “I train with them in the mornings, and since they rotate their training sessions, I’ve ended up meeting a lot of them. Most of them are pretty nice. You could always come with me, if you wanted. I could give you some basic lessons.”

Her friend shook her head. “No, thank you. I…I don’t like the idea of fighting. I don’t want to hurt other people.”

“Fair enough,” she replied, though she personally thought it was stupid not to at least be able to defend yourself. But it was Admina’s choice how to live her life and she wasn’t about to interfere.

They turned around the corner of the building, finding another walkway that split two gardens to either side of it, buildings butting up against both of them. The heavy scent of lavender from one side mixed with the heady scent of jasmine from the other. It was like walking into a cloud of perfume, but with none of the stickiness Evony usually associated with the liquid her sister, mother and aunts used on rare occasions.

Admina inhaled deeply, smiling. “I wish we could grow flowers like these at home.”

“You can’t?”

Her friend shook her head sadly. “Our province is too high and cold for a lot of the plants here. We do have a lot of really pretty ones, like bellflowers, asters, and orchids. I have a whole garden of gentians too. I really like the yellow ones.”

Evony smiled. “We have fewer flowers on Silvinsula too. A lot of bluebells, anemone, globeflowers, pinks, and tulips. Balera has a whole garden set up so there’s always something blooming. I don’t know how she does it,” she said, shaking her head. “I kill every flower I try to grow. The only one that didn’t die was the one I forgot about. Thing’s still alive, as if to mock me and my black thumb.”

Admina giggled. “I thought you were good at everything.”

She choked. “If you ever meet my family, don’t ever say that around them. They’ll laugh so hard they’ll make themselves sick and then tell you every story of me making mistakes they can think of. And there are far more than I really like to think about.”

“They sound fun.”

“They’re something alright,” Evony muttered darkly. She frowned as she noticed another group of soldiers, this a quartet, all in green tunics. She watched them head away from them, towards the corner of a building she could just see through the gardens and walkway.

She waited until they were out of sight before she looked at Admina. “What’s with all the soldiers?”

“What soldiers?”

“I’ve seen two groups of soldiers in provincial colours in the last little while, and that’s more than I typically see in a day. The palace soldiers all wear black tunics.”

“Ah. It must be closer to the mid-summer festival than I thought.”

“What’s that?”

Admina stared at her for a moment. “Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know,” she said. Seeing Evony’s look, she ducked her head and explained. “Every mid-summer there’s a great festival here. Every province sends their best warriors to compete against each other and the emperor’s champions. It’s a form of dominance the provinces play against each other and a form of getting position for the warriors and the provinces they represent.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad,” Evony replied, thinking it might be fun to test herself against some of the empire’s best. She didn’t much care for the dominance. What use did any Amazzi have for power in a court she was likely to be the only one to visit unless they were called upon by Galen?

“My brother’s always angry around this time of year. He’s always concerned with our warriors not being strong enough to bring him honour. I think a lot of our men are better than he thinks but…” Her eyes dropped to the ground and she didn’t say anything for several moments. Then she looked up at Evony. “Will your family be coming?”

“No. I didn’t even know about this festival until you told me about it. But I wonder how hard it would be to get into the archery competition.”

“I don’t know, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of women competing before. Which I guess means your family never participates. I should have known that.”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Evony said, while inwardly she frowned. She’d have to ask Galen about it, but if they were barring women from competing, he was about to get a piece of her mind. Then again, it might just be a tradition that hadn’t been corrected or that no women ever wanted to participate. She hadn’t seen any other female warriors since she’d arrived after all.

She realized that that was the first time she’d thought of Galen and not blushed. She was finally getting back to normal, acting like her usual self. And that, she felt, was the way it should be. Nothing had changed.

Even if she did know what certain parts of his body felt like now…

Ignoring the sudden reminder her body sent her about how much it liked Galen, Evony focused instead on Admina. It was silliness to be thinking of Galen all day. Absolute silliness. But she did hope he’d stop by during the afternoon or evening. Or better yet, come by for another moonlit…chat.

Chapter 17: Hit

Like he’d been listening to her thoughts, Evony found Galen waiting in the garden that her room faced. Two guards stood a few passus away from him, alert to everything. In front of him was Venita, leaning eagerly in towards him as she spoke while Paran held a little ways back, eyes on both of them until she caught sight of Evony and Admina. Her shift in position drew Galen’s attention and he followed her gaze to spot them approach.

Evony slowed her steps as she came up to him, ignoring the blazing glare Venita turned on her. “Galen,” she said while beside her Admina bowed and whispered, “Your imperial majesty.”

“Princeps Evony, Rector Admina,” he said, bowing his heads towards both of them, before his focus went to Evony. “I had wondered if I might borrow you for a time.”

She shrugged. “Sure, I’m not doing anything.”

“Perhaps I could be of use, your majesty,” Venita said, gliding up so she stood beside Evony though with almost a full passus of space between them.

Galen’s brow wrinkled faintly. “I am not sure you would have the necessary knowledge for this,” he replied. “I was interested in Evony’s perspective on our troop placements for the mid-summer festival. I have discussed with matter with Balint but we both had the thought that a third perspective might prove useful. Do you have military experience, Primus Venita?”

The other girl’s smile froze to death on her face, spots of colour appearing high on her cheeks. She bowed low, her voice barely kept even as she said, “I am afraid not, your majesty. My education covered how to be a proper lady, not…fighting.”

He glanced at her for a second, blue eyes studying her form before he nodded. “Then I must express gratitude for the offer, but unfortunately, I require the knowledge of a warrior,” he said before jerking his head towards the opposite wing of the building, gaze back on Evony. “If you will accompany me?”

“Sure,” she said, pausing long enough to smile at Admina. “I’ll see you later.”

Her friend ducked her head in acknowledgement before hurrying towards the entrance to their wing. Evony didn’t blame her. She wouldn’t want to be left with Venita in the garden when the girl looked about ready to scream. Evony could feel the silver girl’s glare on her back as she followed Galen towards the path that led to his rooms, the two guards falling into step behind them, leaving enough space that they wouldn’t be able to overhear anything said quietly.

She waited until they were out of sight of the other girls before she looked at Galen. “Admina told me about the mid-summer festival. Are women allowed to compete?”

Galen blinked before one side of his mouth twitched upwards. “I should have been aware that you would be interested. There are no rules against women competing, though traditionally it has always been men.”

“Then I could enter the archery competition? I assume there is one.”

“There is, but you would only be able to enter if this bride competition is complete. It could be seen as an attempt at self-promotion were you to be allowed to compete in front of everyone when the other candidates do not possess the skills to even challenge you. In all honesty, I have received enough complaints about this whole process that I do not wish to add to that sum if it is not necessary.”

She nodded as she felt a twinge in her chest, her eyes prickling slightly. With everything else that had been happening, Evony had forgotten that her time at the palace was limited. Eventually she’d have to return to Silvinsula, with child, and Galen would stay. He would need to choose a proper empress for himself, which she wasn’t.

Evony blinked as the prickling got stronger. She missed her home, missed the trees, the green light, the laughter and noise her whole family made, and the friendly faces that made up her clan. But going back would be just as painful as staying because she’d have to leave Galen behind.

If she did go home, she’d just end up looking for some excuse to come back, some reason that she had to see Galen. One hand fisted as she fought to keep her emotions from gaining control of her and from showing on her face. From the half-smiles he showed her to the rarer real ones, from the way he looked ready to take on everyone when he was reminded of his sister to the surprise that sometimes showed when she did things, every display of emotion made her feel special, that she got to see parts of him that he didn’t show easily. Galen’s cleverness, his strength, his honour, and the crumbling of the wall she felt he’d put up between himself and the world had her completely ensnared. There was no other choice. Galen was the only person she could ever accept as lifemate.

She dug her fingernails into her hand, focusing on the pain as a way to fight back the rush of her own feelings. She kept her face as blank as she could, glad that Galen was usually quiet, and that her silence seemed to have gone unnoticed so far.

Galen needed an empress, and Evony knew she wasn’t it. She didn’t want the job, didn’t want to spend her life surrounded by people looking for something from her and to be responsible for the lives of everyone in the empire. The weight of it could crush her. And that was all assuming Galen would choose her, that he would want her beyond the agreement they’d already made.

The thought of losing Galen, of having him choose another felt like someone had stabbed her in the stomach and was twisting, churning up her insides and sending shooting pains out from the central wound to strike every digitus of her.

She shook herself, thrusting all of it away for now. This wasn’t the time or place for this. When she had a moment, when she could be by herself and sort through everything, then she’d get herself figured out. For now, she needed to help Galen, and that was something that would remain true no matter what she decided.

Evony breathed deeply, trying to use her exhalations to get rid of all her conflicting thoughts. Galen chose that moment to speak. “I see you were not exaggerating when you spoke of Primus Venita.”

The words took a second to penetrate, and she focused desperately on them, willing everything else down to her toes if it wouldn’t disappear. She nodded slowly, not immediately trusting her voice to work properly. “She’s…interesting.”

“So I gathered. She is most determined.”

Evony nodded again as they rounded the corner that turned into one of the walkways that crisscrossed the whole complex. She glanced towards the empty space that was formed by the square of two building walls, their walkway, and the one that crossed it up ahead. It was a stone paved courtyard, the edges lined with stone troughs overflowing he flowers. The sun overhead had the whole centre filled with light, the straight lines of the shadows only interrupted in the by a single hump at an angle to them, the scent of hot stone stronger than the smell of flowers.

Hairs on her arms rose and Evony stopped, grabbing Galen’s arm to stop him from going past her. He turned to look at her, frowning, while every nerve told her something was wrong. She didn’t argue with her instincts but twisted so she was in front of Galen and his back was towards one of the columns.

She had barely completed the movement when pain ripped through her left arm. Evony cried out even as she pulled out one of the throwing knives she kept hidden on herself and spun in the direction the arrows had come from. The angle of the attack told her all she needed to know, and looked up. Her assailant was easy to see, crouched on top of the other walkway, struggling to his feet, one hand going for another arrow.

Evony didn’t let him get that far, hurling her knife straight at him and drawing another. She needn’t have bothered as her first sliced through the air to nick the side of the man’s neck. He clapped a hand to the wound and lost his balance, falling off the walkway to the unforgiving ground below.

Galen’s guards raced past her, heading straight towards the man, swords drawn. Evony barely had a chance to lower her right arm when she felt hands on her. Before she could react, her feet left the ground, making her yelp.

She found herself looking up at Galen, who had one arm around her chest, the other under her knees. “I-” she began.

“Shut up! I am taking you to see the medicus,” he snapped, already running.

“It’s just a scratch.”

“The arrow could have been poisoned!”

Evony shook her head. “I’ve been trained to know my body. I’d know if it was poisoned.”

“I do not care!” He shouted, glaring ahead of him, a muscle in one cheek jumping. “You cannot be sure of anything and I will not have you dismiss your own safety for even a second. Now stay quiet until you have been seen to!”

She flinched, never having heard him raise his voice like this before. His whole body was tense around her, and she decided it was better to just go along with it rather than argue. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know why he was so concerned about poison.

Evony watched Medicus Tebah bandage her arm. The chief medicus had confirmed what she’d already known: the arrow hadn’t been poisoned. When Galen had heard, he’d only dropped his head for several moments before straightening into the position he held now, his arms folded over his chest, hovering over Evony’s right shoulder.

“The wound is shallow, but you should still avoid using your left arm as much as you can for the next day or two. Change the bandages at least once a day, after you bathe. If the wound reopens or it becomes inflamed, please come see me,” Tebah said as he finished tying the bandage off.

She nodded, the instructions being much the same as the time she’d gashed her leg slipping off some rocks. “Thank you,” she said, gathering up the overdress they’d taken off to treat her wound. “I’ll do my best to be careful.”

Galen said nothing, only offered a curt bow of his head to Tebah as Evony rose. He moved so he was close enough that he could put a hand into the small of her back and propel her forward with it. Evony let him, waiting until they were out of the medicus wing and heading back to the main building before she said anything. “See?” she said, offering Galen a smile. “It was just a scratch.”

His jaw tightened as he looked at her. “It was this time, but next it could very well be worse.”

Evony sighed. “That’s a risk I’ll have to take.”

“No, it is not.”

She looked up into his glare and made a face. “I’m an Amazzi warrior. When you’re a warrior, you accept that there are times you’re going to get hurt. It’s part of the job.”

“A warrior’s job is not to get between assassins and their targets.”

“Really, then what are your guards’ jobs then when they follow you around?”

He glowered. “That is different.”

“No, it’s not. I’m Amazzi and beyond all else, I have a duty to keep you safe. You are the Adnuhom.”

A muscle by his eye twitched. “And you are a bride candidate here, not a soldier.”

Now she was glaring. “Before I am a princeps, before being of clan Aureline, I am Amazzi. And Amazzi are warriors!”

“I do not care! I forbid you from putting yourself in danger like this again.”

“I will break even orders from you if it’s to keep you alive,” she snapped back. Both their paces increased into harsh marches, the steps reflecting the emotions rising in both of them.

“You would defy your emperor?”

“I would defy the Adnuhom. I don’t care about other titles. I won’t have you hurt when I can stop it. I won’t!”

They finally reached the narrow hallway that led to Galen’s room and they both stalked down it, glaring at each other, ignoring the looks they were getting from the guards on the doors. “You have no idea how dangerous the palace can be! You blunder about like a bull in a potter’s shop, covering yourself in scratches and not having the sense to stop and pay attention to where you are stepping.”

“What did you say?” she cried, following right on his heels as he ripped open the door to his rooms, kicking it shut behind them. “You’re the one who doesn’t have any sense. I may have gotten hit in the arm, but if I hadn’t moved, you’d have taken an arrow to the chest! You could have died!”

“So could have you!” he shouted. He shot one arm out and grabbed her right arm in a grip so tight that it was painful. Before she could react he pulled her close and dropped his forehead onto her shoulder, his free hand going to her left hip.

Evony could feel the tremor running through the arm that still held her bicep. She sighed, the anger draining out of her. “Galen,” she said, reaching up with her left arm and ignoring the twinge of pain when she moved it. She gently stroked the back of his head, able to feel the heat of his breath against her. “The world is full of danger. There’s always the chance that someone could be hit by lightning, slip and hit their head, or even choke to death. If everyone were to avoid everything that could kill them, they wouldn’t really be living, would they?”

He went still for a few heartbeats then slowly raised his head so he could look at her, the grip on her arm slackening so it no longer hurt. She barely noticed when her overdress dropped from numb fingers. Evony smiled and moved her hand so she could cup his cheek. “I’m glad you want to keep me safe, but you have to understand I want to keep you safe as well. And sometimes that means being in danger. But you know that I’m well trained, and that I’ll do everything to minimize that risk, so please don’t worry. I have every intention of living to be a cantankerous old woman.”

Galen studied her eyes intently for several seconds before he reached up to gently brush a stray curl away from her face. She blushed and looked away, her body choosing that moment to remind her of what exactly those fingers could do. He tilted her chin back up so she was looking at him again.

The kiss he pressed onto her lips wasn’t really unexpected, but it still brought further blood rushing to her cheeks. Not that Evony paid much attention to it, not when the rest of her body was coming alive with desire. She moved closer so she could press her body against his. Evony then moved her uninjured arm so she could grab the back of his neck and pull his lips even tighter against hers.

He responded by sliding an arm around her waist and helping meld their bodies together. He opened his mouth and this time it was she who slipped her tongue in first. It was quickly met by his, and it didn’t take long for them to fall into a rhythm that had both their hearts pounding harder.

In less than a minute, Galen let out a little half grunt-half moan and broke off their kiss. Evony didn’t have a chance to protest before he had picked her up again. She stared up at him as he carried her from the main room through one of the arched doorways. Evony only had a second to look around at the painted wilderness scenes before she was dropped onto the largest bed she’d ever seen.

She wasn’t left there alone for long. Galen jumped up beside her, straddling her with his elbows braced against the white cotton sheets, his face only a few digitus from hers. He stared at her again for a few moments before he returned his lips to hers. Their combined body heat filled the narrow space between them making Evony feel enveloped in Galen’s warmth even though it was only his lips touching her.

But his lips were soon joined by his too clever fingers. He dropped down to one elbow beside her, legs pressed close to hers as his free hand slid its way up from her hip to her chest. The second his hand moved her nipples began to tighten so that by the time his palm reached her breast, they were like carved beads, hard and eagerly anticipating his touch.

He didn’t disappoint. He gently grazed one with his thumb before flicking the hard nub with his index. The feeling through the fabric of her chiton sent pleasure jolts racing through her, all seeming to hit her pleasure point in a way that had her shifting her legs as desire began to rise inside of her.

Galen continued his assault for a few more seconds before he pulled open the front of her chiton so he could touch her bare flesh. The feeling intensified as he touched her naked nipple and Evony couldn’t help the little noise of pleasure that escaped around both their lips. Seeming to take it as encouragement, Galen gently flicked her nipple a few times before softly rolling it between his thumb and forefinger.

That felt even better and she twitched, her hand going to the back of his neck to press him more tightly against her, not wanting him to stop. He pulled away from her lips while his fingers kept up their attentions. She glared at him, which only made him smile. She found out why when his head drifted lower and his lips went to the nipple he’d been paying so much attention to.

She couldn’t help the soft cry as his warm mouth and clever tongue started their own delicious attack on her. His hand went to her other breast and began the slow buildup he’d done to the other. Evony’s lower half was slick and tingling, every piece of her longing for more, wanting him to take things even further.

Evony didn’t even notice the disappearance of his one hand until she felt him pulling away the lower folds of her chiton. The sudden introduction of cool air made her gasp. Then she gasped again as Galen simultaneously switched nipples and ran a finger the length of her ditch. She jerked as his finger brushed against her pleasure point, the feelings too intense to handle all at once.

Galen’s finger swirled up and down her wet folds, causing her to squirm as he avoided the area she both wanted him to touch and didn’t. He broke away from his assault on her breasts and smiled slightly at her movements before he slid one finger inside of her. Evony let out a little moan.

He returned his lips to hers as he moved his finger in and out of her a few times. Then he pushed it as deep as it would go and held it there for a second. Evony thought that this wasn’t nearly so good as when he moved it until he flexed his finger inside of her. Her cry was only partially blocked by Galen’s tongue.

She could feel the waves of desire within her, rising higher and higher as his first finger was joined by his thumb which circled her pleasure point, grazing it every so often. Every time he did so her whole body would twitch and a half-cry would come from the back of her throat. What he was doing to her was torture of the highest, and best order, and if he’d ask her to do it, she’d have done almost anything to not have him stop.

But stop he did. Evony’s half closed eyes snapped open, a little growl rising in her throat, her body begging for release, for him to go back to what he’d been doing. Galen sat up on his knees then reach down and fully pulled open the folds of her chiton, yanking them away so she was lying on top of them. She frowned but then noticed the straining fabric of his tunic.

Evony propped herself up onto her elbows and grinned. Bolder this time, she reached straight out to run her finger along its length as she’d done before, glad there were no fountains for him to fall in again. Not that that would stop her with the way her body throbbed with unspent desire.

It was Galen’s turn to twitch. Encouraged, ran three fingers up to the very tip, swirling them around the top, feeling the heat of his appendage even through the material of his tunic. Running her whole hand down towards the base again, Evony was stopped by the hand that Galen closed around her wrist.

“Enough,” he said, his voice rough, eyes bright as he looked at her. Galen released her before ripping off his tunic and throwing it off the bed. His leather shorts, something Evony had only ever worn in winter, followed suit.

Evony couldn’t help but stare at what she was presented with. She’d had a rough idea of the length of him from her previous investigation, but it was quite another to face his member. Pinker than the rest of him, his phallus rose out of the dark curls at strict attention, the tip already glistening with moisture.

She licked her lips, a little unsure about the whole of it fitting inside of her. She’d been warned to relax, that if she was well prepared it wouldn’t hurt, but it was hard to think it wouldn’t when she was expected to get something like that inside of her.

Galen helped with the decision, grabbing her by the hips and pulling her closer. The heat of him and the gentle spice of his musk made her body remind her of how empty it was, of how much she needed release. She just hoped he was as good at fulling lying with another as he’d been with all the rest.

Evony shifted so she was more open to him, and Galen took over the rest. He moved so that his hard rod pressed against the wet opening to her, gently pressing forward. The movement of it against her brought her desire back full force to her mind, and she moved her hips up a bit, trying to make it easier for him.

He kept up the steady push until slowly the head of his member made its way past entrance and the rest of him followed more swiftly than Evony had thought it would. He froze once he was inside of her as she winced slightly at the bit of pain and odd sensation it created. She had never felt so full there before. It was like the shape of him was being imbedded inside of her.

“Evony,” he grunted, sweat beading up along his forehead.

Realizing that if she was full of desire, then he had to be just as bad, she nodded, hoping he’d understand that she was okay. She needn’t have worried. As soon as he had her permission, Galen was moving himself out of her and then bringing himself rushing back in.

She gasped, sensation arcing through her. Her pleasure point pulsed while her inside were rubbed in a way she’d never experienced before. This…this was better than what he’d been doing with his fingers, better than anything she’d been able to do herself. This was absolutely divine.

His rapid movements had him grazing her pleasure point which only made her twitch, squirming and bucking her hips as he continued to fill her with his own desire. Her hands clung to his back, the only part of him that seemed stable as his continued attack sent her to new dizzying heights of pleasure and need.

Evony dug her fingers into his back, the pain in her left arm completely ignored, as she felt something rising in her, stronger than any wave of desire she’d felt previously. Galen grabbed one leg and pulled it up, his arm hooked underneath her knee so that it was held up. This new position caused him to go even deeper, hitting the end of her ditch and making her gasp. She couldn’t tell if it was pain or pleasure she was feeling from it, but it was pushing her desire closer to completion, so she didn’t care.

Galen’s speed increased and Evony suddenly found herself released from her desire. It exploded through her, making her back arch and she cried out, digging her fingers deeper into Galen before releasing him as every inch of her seemed to tighten. She was like a bow that had her string pulled back and back and then finally released, her whole body still vibrating with the delicious movement that had run through her.

She wasn’t alone in her fulfilled need as Galen thrust only a few more times inside of her before he cried out and collapsed on top of her, the weight of him comforting. She could feel the twitching of his phallus inside of her as he finished. She shifted slightly and he released her leg, allowing her to slide it back down even as she reached out to stroke his hair.

Her chest was still heaving and she could hear him panting beside her. Laying with a man was more tiring than she’d thought it would be, but it was also much better. Her whole body was practically purring, satisfied and happy with what they’d just done. Evony had to smile as she continued to run her hand down Galen’s head. If she could freeze time and stay in this moment forever, she would.

Chapter 18: Orders

Evony woke slowly, her whole body feeling heavy. She opened her eyes and found herself looking at rumpled white sheets. That made her smile as she remembered what they’d done the night before. For what felt like the first time ever, Evony was completely satisfied, every bit of her body still content. For now at least. Because if she had her way, that wouldn’t be the last time they did that.

She sat up slowly, glancing around the room. Through the window she could see that the sky was the lightening blue that told her dawn wasn’t too far off. It also provided her enough light to see that Galen wasn’t in bed anymore. When she’d woken in the middle of the night he’d still been there, but she supposed he could have been called out on some business. Though she was surprised she hadn’t woken up for that.

Moving was peculiar, all of her working fine, but she could still feel the phantom sensation of Galen inside of her, like her body had molded itself to fit him and no other. Not that she’d have been terribly bothered by that, she thought as she gently slid off the bed. She’d already come to the conclusion she’d accept no other.

Humming to herself, Evony found her chiton crumpled in a corner. It was wrinkled, but better than wandering around in the nude. She hurriedly tied it back on and collected her fallen weapons. She hadn’t even remembered them falling out last night, but then again, she’d been more than a little distracted.

Evony danced over to the door, feeling light and like she was all aglow. She didn’t need to worry about the future, she didn’t care about what would happen at the end of the competition, because right now, she had Galen. And that made everything wonderful.

Peeking out into the main room of Galen’s suite, she didn’t see anyone immediately. She walked all the way in, and easily spotted Galen. He was sitting at the large desk that was in one corner, writings something under the light of a glass and metal lamp. Her target acquired, Evony headed straight for him.

Galen glanced up at the sound of her footsteps then looked back at the paper his stylus still moved across. “You are awake,” he said.

She smiled. “I didn’t think I’d sleep that long. I hope I didn’t keep you from any work you needed to do.”

He shook his head before he reached down and grabbed something. He tossed it to her, and she caught the yellow material. It took her a second to recognize her overdress. “Thanks,” she said, draping it over one arm. It was nearly as wrinkled as her chiton.

Galen nodded, eyes still on his papers. Feeling a bit like she was distracting him, Evony asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

He sighed. “No. I have received a report that this latest assassin was hired by someone or someones within the Porfirio family. I have people investigating to see where the trails lead to. So far it appears that there is a possibility that they were no acting alone, that they have further allies who may be involved in this plot with them.”

Evony winced. To know that at least one of the noble families was trying to kill him, with the possibility of more… She couldn’t imagine what Galen was feeling at the moment. She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder and offered as encouraging smile as she could muster. “You know I’m always here if you need help with anything.”

Galen gently brushed off her hand and stood. “No, you will not be.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“The palace is no longer safe. That is clear with not one, but two assassins making their way inside and within striking range. As I can no longer guarantee your safety, I am sending you home.”

Evony stared at him for a long moment before she grimaced. “That’s not funny.”

“It is not meant to be. I have written the orders to have a ship prepared to sail for Silvinsula come tomorrow morning. You will get on that ship.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, jaw tightening as she looked at him, her good mood evaporated at the slow heating up of her emotions. “Like I told you yesterday, I’m Amazzi, a warrior. I am not one of these young ladies who has never fought, who has never hurt themselves. This is what I’ve been trained for.”

He held her gaze steadily. “You have been trained for warfare as the Amazzi fight, not for the intrigue and assassination that happens here. You are out of your depth and will be in too much danger. You are returning home.”

“No, I’m not,” she snapped, anger sparking up. After everything yesterday, after she thought she’d finally gotten through to him, gotten past his walls and made him understand that she cared for him, he was pulling this? After she’d finally realized that he was the only man she could ever be with?

“Yes, you are. I have decided.”

“I don’t care what you’ve decided! I’m not some child you can send home because she scraped her knee. I’m a woman grown and an Amazzi warrior! If you think I’ll run and hide, that I’ll leave you here while there’s still danger, then you’re a complete idiot!” she shouted, her hands balled into fists.

Galen’s expression didn’t even flicker. “Protest as you like, you will return home.”

“No, I won’t!”

He held her eyes with his for a second, ignoring the lightning that crackled there. His next words had the storm within her hitting new levels of ferocity. “I am ordering you to return home.”

Evony choked, hands going slack for a moment. He hadn’t just… She took a step towards him, hands clenched so hard her knuckles were white, her eyes practically glowing with the anger that was sweeping through her. “You bastard!” she cried. “You would use my loyalty, the honour of my people against me?”

“Yes, I would. You will not obey me any other way, so an order it is.”

She threw back her head and let out her clan’s war cry, not caring if the whole palace heard. Her arms trembled. She’d never wanted to hit someone so much before, couldn’t believe what he was doing. He was making her choose between her duty, her people, her honour, and the love she had for him.

“The ship is in the harbour. I will have you escorted there tomorrow morning and you will get on it. That is an order. You will go home.”

Evony glared at him while part of her wanted to sob at the thought of leaving. “You can’t do this! If it’s not safe for me, it’s definitely not safe for you! Do you really expect me to leave you in danger and go home by myself?”

Galen’s blue eyes didn’t move. “Yes, that is what I expect. You are Amazzi and as you have said, I am the Adnuhom. You must obey my orders.”

Her stare alight with anger, she stepped forward so the distance between them was only a few digitus. “I’ll show you that you need me here, that it’s not safe for you without me!” she hissed before spinning on her heel and stalking out of his rooms. If she only had a day to prove to him how stupid he was being, then she needed to get started immediately.

Evony exhaled silently, ears straining to catch the sound of approaching footsteps. Her back pressed against the column, she was glad that the small courtyard she faced was still empty as her target continued on down the walkway. She inhaled slowly and as evenly as she could. She only had one shot at this before they’d be looking for her, so she had to do it right.

The footsteps were just behind her column now. Evony pushed the stray emotions away, not willing to risk the distraction of anger or pain. She tensed her body, every digitus of her ready to move. Four more footsteps, then three, then two, then-

She spun and dashed out of her hiding place, rushing straight between the two pairs of guards that walked in front of and behind Galen. The ones in behind went for their weapons, but she was too fast. Evony slapped a palm against a wide-eyed Galen’s chest and stopped straight in front of him. “If I were an assassin, you’d be dead.”

“Brightness,” she heard one of the guards whisper, but she ignored him. Her concern was with the man who blinked a few times as he stared at her.

Galen eventually shook his head, face as a statue. “You are still getting on the ship.”

Evony glared at him. “I just proved that you’re not safe, that you need me and you’re still sending me away!”

“I have survived assassination attempts before.”

“You were only okay for the last two because I was there!”

He eyed her for a moment before he looked at the guard who had spoken. “Kindly escort Princeps Evony back to her room.”

One hand fisted as Evony’s jaw clenched and her eyes prickled. So she was Princeps Evony, was she? “Don’t bother, your imperial majesty,” she snapped, turning his title into an insult. “I wouldn’t want you to be any more unprotected than you already are.”

Before he could respond, she ran off. Evony kept running, doing her best to outrun the thoughts and emotions that were slowly rising inside of her, eating way at her control. She reached her room, grabbed her bow and quiver, and ignoring the exclamation from Venita, took off running again.

She didn’t stop again until she reached the training fields. No one was using the archery field, which suited her just fine. She strung her bow and reached for the first arrow, shooting it almost as soon as her finger brushed it. She shot as fast as she could until her quiver was empty, her target a mess of arrows instead of her usual neat cluster.

Evony stalked over and yanked the arrows out before heading back to her spot. This time she at least settled into a proper stance before she began shooting. She didn’t know what had gotten into Galen, but if she had her way, she’d beat it out of him! He was sending her away, her, who’d stopped not one, but two assassination attempts against him. He was surrounded by vipers hiding themselves among his nobles and he was going to send the only person he could trust among them home? Did he wish for death?

She came to her last arrow and had to go rip them out of the target again before she could shoot more. Why couldn’t he see what kind of danger he was in? Why couldn’t Galen see that he needed her? He’d as much as admitted it when he first asked for her help! At least one of his nobles was trying to kill him, maybe more. If she was gone, if she wasn’t there to watch his back, how long would he last? He thought his guards were enough, but they weren’t. She knew they weren’t.

Evony went back to the target and retrieved her arrows, arms beginning to burn a little from the constant shooting and her lack of warm-up. She ignored them, needing to move as she worked through her thoughts. But they weren’t leading her anywhere she wanted to go. If she left, he’d only have Balint and Rakin to trust, and while Balint was formidable, he couldn’t protect him at all times. He hadn’t been trained to anticipate attacks the way she had. She might not have the direct experience Galen seemed to think she needed, but Evony knew how to sense an imminent threat, had spent years enduring surprise attacks as part of her warrior training. She was obviously better than his guards and yet she was the one being sent away.

Going to pull out her arrows, Evony bit her lip. If she left and went home, how long would it be before word reached them of his death? How could she live with herself if Galen died?

Tears pricked her eyes more strongly than ever at the thought of losing him forever. She yanked out the last of her arrows and jammed it into her quiver before she ran for the trees, wetness welling up in her eyes. Evony blinked rapidly, trying to halt the tide, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle.

Surrounded by greenery like her home, the pressure became too much and the dam burst. Evony slowed her run as her vision went wavy, tears streaming down her face. She pressed her forehead against the nearest tree trunk to hide her face as drops continued to fall. This wasn’t how this was supposed to happen. She was supposed to have competed, been eliminated, then found herself a lifemate. She wasn’t supposed to have fallen in love with the Adnuhom, she wasn’t supposed to have to deal with plots, she wasn’t supposed to be ordered home. This wasn’t the life she wanted, the one she’d planned for. But it was the life she was stuck with now.

Evony let her tears flow, little sobs escaping her every so often as she thought about something happening to Galen. She was still so angry with him, afraid for him, and desperate to keep him safe. But how could she? He had ordered her to leave! She couldn’t disobey him, but she couldn’t leave him either.

Her thoughts a whirl, her emotions still rushing through her, Evony fought her tears down. She had indulged herself enough. Crying wasn’t going to fix everything, as much as she wanted to just collapse and sob until she passed out. She swiped at her face with the back of her hand and did her best scrub off the worst of the damage.

She took off at a fast clip, not running, but not really walking either. Evony headed deeper into the trees, not wanting anyone to see her yet. She had her pride and she wasn’t about to explain to anyone why she’d been crying.

The quiet under the trees, only interrupted by birdsong and the rustling of creatures through the leaves helped Evony get the rest of her emotions back under control. She’d been trained to do just that under a canopy not so different from this one, the green light and almost familiar scents and sounds helping ground her. By the time she had herself in a state where she could think clearly and without tears, Evony found herself on one of the riding paths that seemed to snake this way and that through the woods.

Evony followed the trail, having at least some sort of direction feeling more reassuring than wandering aimlessly through the trees. Of course, when she caught sight of the green building through the leaves, she wished she’d chosen differently. Still, she thought as she got closer and closer to the mausoleum, at least she knew how to get back to her room from where she was.

Avoiding the green building and its reminder of death, and the death of Fusciennes at that, Evony headed instead for the Amazzi monument. Just seeing the familiar script of home helped calm her further. Even if it didn’t really help her current situation. With a sigh, Evony began to walk around and around the monument. She always thought better when she moved her body, something she attributed to her mother’s training and not often in a good way.

No matter how many times she went through her options, Evony always came back to the divide she was stuck with. Either she stayed, throwing away her honour and that of her people, and kept Galen safe, or she obeyed his orders as duty demanded and likely left him to die. Both choices would only end in pain for her, and likely suffering for her people. She couldn’t see any way out of it either. Galen had ordered her home.

Round and round she continued, eyes on the stone monument at the centre of her orbit. She had to obey, didn’t want to obey, was trapped. Her steps hurried as her emotions rose again. She had to go home, had to get on the ship. If only her home wasn’t-

Evony stopped dead as a thought occurred to her. She stared at the Amazzi words as inspiration struck. She grinned as her plan fell into place in her mind. Galen thought he’d won this game, but she was about to show him who he was up against. Practically laughing with relief, Evony turned and raced back towards her rooms. If this was to work, she needed to pack, and to be safe, she had a letter to write.

Chapter 19: Going Home

Shifting her pack so it sat more comfortably on her back, Evony found herself dressed almost identically to how she had been when she’d arrived. All the competition chitons and overdresses she left neatly folded in her room, while she wore one of her short chitons and her cloak. She left the hood down as she walked out of the hall where the other girls still stayed.

This early in the day, none of them were out, which Evony thought was better for everyone. She didn’t need to see Admina’s tears or Venita’s smirk. She sighed as she reached the walkway and the two men waiting for her there.

Evony didn’t recognize either of the soldiers, not that she expected to. She was sure Galen would have picked people who didn’t know her, just to prevent her trying to bring them over to her side, or whatever else he thought she’d do to get out of getting on the boat. Obviously he didn’t know Amazzi that well. He’d ordered her to get on the ship, and she’d get on it.

The two soldiers fell into step behind her, one to either side. Evony barely paid them any attention, heading straight for the palace gate. She half expected to see Galen on her way out of the imperial wing of the palace but didn’t see anyone except a few servants. That was probably for the best, she decided, not sure she’d be able to keep it together if she saw him.

Down one walkway they went, then turned down another. Evony didn’t pay much attention to what she passed, more concerned with what was coming. The walk to the ship was her last chance to change her mind, her last chance to do what she probably should do, what either of her sisters would have done.

What she couldn’t.

Evony shook the distracting thoughts away and offered a smile to the soldiers they passed on the gates. The men, both of whom she recognized, stiffened and offered her salutes as she walked past. She wondered if they’d been told where she was going.

Out in the city proper, Evony still felt that the place was too big, too full of people, even when it was barely dawn. Carts, chariots, carriages, oxen, horses, donkeys, and people all filled the streets, the smell of dust, dung, sweat, and smoke all overwhelming the fresh morning air. Evony was glad she hadn’t had to spend much time outside the palace. She really didn’t know how people could stand the smell and the noise.

Dodging her way in and out of the thin crowds that made up the traffic this early, Evony headed straight towards the harbour, the only other place she’d been in the city. She was glad it was a relatively short journey, the harbour only a mille from the palace complex. Even going against most of the traffic, it didn’t take them more than half an hora to reach the docks.

Evony inhaled gratefully when they finally rounded the corner and were greeted with the sight of several of the ships and far more importantly, a refreshing sea breeze. It blew away all the other smells and made Evony smile slightly.

Walking down the wooden expanse of the main dock, Evony eyed the ships, a slight frown appearing on her face. She supposed she should have asked which ship she was supposed to get on. Then again, Galen had to have told the guards, or how could he be sure she got on the right one? About to turn and ask, Evony caught sight of something familiar.

She didn’t know much about ships, but Evony thought that the vessel in a berth three up from them was the same on she’d come up on. As she got closer, she recognized the green paint and wide eyes painted to either side of the bow. She was sure of it. This was the boat that had brought her from Silvinsula. That would definitely make things easier for her.

Evony walked straight up to the ship, only stopping in front of the gangway. She turned to look at her two guards and smiled. “I’m here and about to get on. You can head back now.”

The one with the beard bowed. “Our apologies, brightness, but his majesty was clear that we aren’t to leave until you are on the ship.”

She sighed. “Fine then,” she said, before turning and heading up the wooden plank. She didn’t stop until she was standing on the ship’s deck. She gave the two men a little wave so that they could tell she was actually on the ship. They gave her full bows and then turned to head back towards the palace.

Evony snorted and wished them luck. She had more important things to do. While sailors moved all around her, tying ropes, moving boxes, and all sorts of things she didn’t really understand, she went in search of the captain. He was easy to find and the same man from her last voyage.

Taller than most men she’d seen and stocky, the captain’s bellow could be heard anywhere on the ship. Currently, he appeared to be yelling at his cook. “What do you mean you could only get three barrels of salted meat?”

While she hated to interrupt, Evony didn’t have a lot of time if she was to pull this off properly. She stepped up so she was beside the grovelling cook and smiled at the man in charge of the ship. “Captain Lubin,” she said when he turned towards her. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“Ah, Evony of Clan Aureline,” he said, smiling. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen you before now. I was under the impression you weren’t too happy to be coming in the first place.”

She grinned. “Things change. On that note, I need you to do something for me.”


Evony hid a darker side to her smile as she dug the sealed letter she carried inside her chiton out. “I need you to deliver this to my family. You need to get it into the hands of someone from clan Aureline, I don’t care who, but it can’t go to anyone else, do you understand?”

Lubin’s smile slowly faded. “Why don’t you just-“

She shook her head. “I’m not coming with you. There are things I need to finish here, important things. I know you’ve been ordered to take me back to Silvinsula, but trust me, what’s in that letter is just as important as bringing me back. I just can’t afford to go.”

“Princeps Evony-“

Evony didn’t let him finish. “Just promise me you’ll get the letter into the hands of someone from my clan.”

Lubin stared at her and she held his gaze steadily. Finally he sighed. “Can’t say I like it, but I suppose I do owe you for your help with those pirates on our way in. I was told to take you home, that it was the emperor’s orders for us to sail to Silvinsula, but as you’re a Princeps, I’ll just say you ordered me. We sail as soon as we finish our preparation, so you won’t be able to change your mind. We were just waiting for you.”

She grinned. “Sounds like you’re set then.”

He nodded, then frowned. “You sure about what you’re doing? Where will you be going?”

Evony laughed. “I’m going home,” she said, before she flew back the way she’d come.

Without having to wait for the soldiers to make sure they saw her get on the ship, Evony was able to run through the crowds, darting in and around people like a swallow after insects. It took her half the time to get back to the palace that it had taken her to get to the harbour. She hadn’t seen her guards, but there were enough people that she could easily have missed them.

She didn’t slow until she reached the palace gates. She stopped in front of the soldiers there, her cloak swirling around her as she grinned at them. “I’m back,” she said.

They stared at her for a moment before one smile and the other saluted her. They let her in without question and she hurried past them, with a wave and a promise to see them later. With a smile set to split her face, Evony kept running, just barely keeping laughter from bubbling up out of her. She had found her solution, she had obeyed the orders of the Adnuhom and could still stay in the palace. Could still keep Galen safe.

Ignoring the stares of some of the people she raced past, Evony continue her loping run towards the imperial wing, ignoring the sweat that was beginning to form from her cloak and the sun that was now fully above the horizon. Nothing was keeping her from what she most wanted to do.

When she reached the narrow hall that led to Galen’s room, Evony slowed to a fast walk, not wanting to spook the guards on his door into thinking she was assassin number three. She flashed her grin at the soldiers, who waved her through without challenge. She didn’t say anything, but she was definitely going to have a talk to them about that. She should have at least had to prove who she was, even if they recognized her. Who knew what kind of disguises an assassin had access to?

Once in the main room, Evony glanced around, finally spotting Galen near the window, lying on a divan with a book over his face. She frowned slightly, but slid her pack off, dropping it as quietly to the floor as she could. Only then did she pad over to him.

She couldn’t help the grin that slowly spread back across her face as she stopped over him and reach over to yank the book off his face. “I told you, I am not to be dis-” he stopped, his mouth open when he opened his eyes and saw her standing over him.

He choked, spluttered, and struggled to sit up. “W-what are you doing here?”

Evony grinned. “I came to see you.”

Galen jumped to his feet. “I ordered you to get on the ship and go home!”

“Yes, you did. I got on the ship like you ordered. You forgot to order me to stay on it, so I got right back off again. And as for going home, I am home.”

“No, you are not!”

“Actually, yes I am. I made a decision yesterday. My home is where you are,” she said, smiling softly as she looked at him. His tawny hair was a mess, his blue eyes blazed as they looked at her, his cheeks rough with stubble, dark circles just showing underneath them. Even so, he looked good to her. “I love you, Galen of clan Fuscienne, and I won’t be moved in that. You are what I have chosen, and if you try to get rid of me, I’ll make it as hard as I can and I’ll come back as soon as I can. I’m Amazzi and we’re very stubborn.”

He glowered at her for several moments while she only grinned back. Finally he sighed and sat back down onto his divan. “I do not know why I bother,” he said, head bowed, hands loosely clasped together in front of him. “You never do what I expect and are always turning everything upside down on me.”

She sat down beside him, reaching out to put one hand on top of his. He looked at her and she smiled. “That’s my line. Now, can I come back or do I need to do something really crazy?”

That got her a real smile. “I cannot win against you. You can stay. It is not as if I have another ship I could send you back on. You must promise that you will be careful though.”

“Only if you promise me the same.”

“I promise,” Galen said.

“Then I promise too,” Evony replied, unable to stop another grin from stretching out. This was how it should be. They both sat in silence for several moments before an idea brought a faint smile to her face.

Feeling bolder now that everything was in the open, Evony leaned towards Galen and kissed him. He froze for a second before he kissed her back. She shifted closer, preparing to straddle his lap as she had before, she hadn’t forgotten how clever he was with his fingers, when the sound of the door interrupted them.

Balint took several steps in, eyes on a sheaf of papers before he looked up and noticed them. He blinked then grinned. “I swear, I’m not trying to make a habit of this,” he said. “And normally I’d tell you to continue, but there are things that must be dealt with. Though I have to ask, is Galen done being stupid?”

Evony chuckled as she stood, her cheeks a little pink at being caught again, though really, there wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. “Yes, he seems like he’s done, but we’ll have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t try something again.”

Galen glowered at both of them. “Remind me why I keep you two around?”

“Because you need actual human interaction and you’re not good at trusting new people,” Balint replied, smacking his nephew in the chest with the papers he held. “I have the reports from our men in the city and the latest recruit numbers.”

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair before turning to Evony. “My apologies, but this is pressing. Once it is finished…” Galen trailed off as Balint beamed at the two of them. He coughed, glaring at his uncle, before he continued. “All of your things have been left in your room if you wish to return to where the other candidates are. I can send an escort with you-“

Evony cut him off with a shake of her head. “I’ve had enough of being escorted by soldiers for today,” she told him, with a smile. “And I know the way back. I’ll just get myself settled back in. I’ll see you later?”

Galen nodded. “Take care.”

“Glad you’re back,” said Balint.

Evony smiled at both of them. “If you need anything from me, just let me know,” she said, before snagging her pack and heading out. She waved at the guards as she passed, deciding to lecture them later or have Balint do it, as they were under his command.

Humming to herself, Evony strolled back towards her room, glad that Galen hadn’t moved everything out as soon as she was gone as she’d half-expected him to do. It certainly made her life easier. If she was really lucky, none of the girls would have even noticed she was gone, and she could slip back in without any fuss.

As if to mock her thoughts, when Evony reached the hall she found all the girls assembled there, with Venita standing in front of the others, speaking. As she got closer, she could hear her words. “…those barbarians are only of use in battle and the fact that we were forced to endure the presence of something closer to an animal was likely part of the competition, a test to our mental fortitude. She was never a real consideration for his imperial majesty, merely a formality that had to be observed.”

Evony came to a stop a passus away from Venita, her eyebrows up. The other girls noticed her first as the silver girl’s back was to her. Admina, whose eyes were red-rimmed, was the first to move, laughing and running towards her. Evony smiled at her friend. “I wasn’t gone that long,” she said.

Venita turned slowly around, mouth open, eyes wide, while the other girls had much milder reactions. Chana gave her a little nod, but the other two only smiled politely. Evony returned Chana’s nod before turning her attention back to Admina, who was speaking now.

“We were told that you’d been called home, that you had to leave,” her friend said, gaze on the ground, voice quiet. “I thought you weren’t coming back.”

Evony laughed. “Things changed and I can stay now, so don’t worry.”

“What kind of cockroach are you?” Venita shouted.

She turned to look at the other girl and sighed. “Do you always have to be so loud?”

“Why are you back? His imperial majesty cannot have possibly allowed this, you are not even a true noble!”

“Since I just came from speaking with Galen, yes, he is allowing this. And really, why do you care? You’ve been obsessed with what I’m doing, with whether I’m here or not from the beginning. I’m not hurting you, so what’s the problem?”

Venita’s glare ruined her pretty face. “Your existence is the problem! You are a living example of the breakdown of proper morals, of how our society is slipping from what it should be, how it is becoming something corrupt, improper, and just disastrous!”

Evony repressed another sigh. Obviously reason wasn’t going to work, which left her with her usual plan: Avoidance. She looked at Admina and said, “Would you like to go for a walk?”

Her friend eagerly bobbed her head, while Venita stepped towards them. “Do not dare ignore me! I am Primus Venita of Argentia, I am a member of the first families, and you will respect me!”

She couldn’t resist the smile and words. “I’m of clan Aureline. Not only are we also one of the first families, we are the first family. We’ve been allies of the Fusciennes since what they held was barely considered a kingdom.”

While Venita stopped, sputtering, Evony hurried to her room, dropped her pack inside, then rejoined Admina. They headed out as Venita screeched her anger behind them. Chuckling, Evony broke into a light jog, while Admina hurried her pace to match hers. She knew Venita saw herself as too much of a lady to ever dare run in public, so once they were out of her range, they were safe from her poisonous rants.

“I see she’s taking it well,” Evony said, once they were out of the hall and in the nearest garden, one filled with flowering bushes.

Admina stared at her for a second before giggling. “She was so happy you were gone, saying how she got his imperial majesty to finally come to his senses, and saying she was the real reason you’d been sent home.”

She snorted. “Hardly, though I’m not surprised. Though I am shocked she’d still at it. I thought ignoring her would get her to stop. I wish I knew what her problem was.”

“Her problem is she’s not a nice person and she’s obsessed with being empress. So are Paran and Neah, but they’re quiet about it. Chana wants to be empress too, but it’s not the focus of everything she does the way it is with the others.”

Evony studied Admina for a second, the insight a bit of a surprise. She knew Admina saw a lot, since most people ignored her as only being a Rector, but she really hadn’t realized how observant she was. She wondered what else she’d missed. “I hadn’t noticed, but I guess I really don’t talk to the others much. What else have you noticed?”

Admina pinked but smiled. “Venita considers you a threat to everything she believes in, which is why she hates you. Chana respects you, even if she doesn’t understand you. Paran thinks she’s above everyone, even Venita. Neah follows Chana for protection, but think she’d make a better empress. Most of the soldiers who see you pass salute you, even if you can’t see them. Every time his imperial majesty visits us, his eyes are on you most of the time, another reason Venita hates you. Oh, and Rakin favours Chana, dislikes Venita, and doesn’t like you much either.”

She shook her head. “I didn’t notice even half of that. I knew about Rakin not being overly fond of me, but not the rest. You’re really good at seeing things, aren’t you?”

Her friend ducked her head, cheeks stained even darker now. “I had to learn to keep ahead of my b-…it was useful at home. And here at court, I had thought it would be a good idea to know as much as I could about everyone to keep myself safe.”

“It’s a very useful skill. I’ll have to get you to teach me how to notice that much when we have time.”

“I’d be glad to!”

Evony smiled at Admina, who was grinning. They walked in comfortable silence for several moments. Evony eyed the two male servants who were weeding one of the garden beds, admiring their muscular physique. She really needed to start making a list of men she could send back to Silvinsula for a time, to see if any of them tempted any of her family.

Red movement drew her gaze and she saw a handful of men in crimson tunics and breastplates march across their path, looking like they were headed towards the practice fields. It seemed every day there were more and more soldiers in provincial colours around the palace.

Admina evidently noticed them as well, as she said, “Only a few more days until the mid-summer festival. I wonder if we’ll be expected to attend.”

Evony shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you. I wish I could compete. Then again, there’s always next year I suppose.”

“You think you’ll come visit next year? I would like that.”

She chuckled. “Something like that.”

Chapter 20: Pushing

Evony finished tying her hair back, wishing it didn’t take so long to dry. At least it was summer, in winter it had a tendency to freeze if she didn’t stay in front of the fire for far longer than was really comfortable. It was getting long enough that she thought she should probably cut it soon, even if that did make it frizz worse.

Tugging her chiton so it lay straighter, she double-checked the placement of all her weapons before she walked out of the bathhouse. She stopped almost as soon as she was outside, eyes on the soldier in black who was waiting there. He saluted her before handing her a piece of sealed paper. “Thank you,” she said, not familiar with the man.

“It is my duty, brightness,” he said, saluting her again before he hurried off.

Evony broke the seal, thinking it looked half familiar. Inside was the shortest note she’d ever received. My rooms. G

She shook her head but folded up the paper and headed towards Galen’s suite. She supposed he must be busy, given he hadn’t come by to see her or even summoned her at all the day before. She hoped nothing too serious had happened, that he wasn’t calling her to try and convince her to go home again. Because she thought she might actually punch him this time if he tried.

Following a path that was very familiar to her feet now, Evony nodded at the few soldiers and small handful of servants she knew now. The soldiers almost all returned her nod with a wave or salute, while only about half of the servants did. The others hid their eyes. Which was something Evony understood was a sign of respect, but always felt too much like a sign of fear for her to be comfortable with. Not when she had no intention of scaring the people who were avoiding her gaze.

Finally reaching the relative privacy of the hall to Galen’s rooms, Evony finally relaxed a bit. Since the second assassination attempt, she’d been deliberately keeping herself on her highest alert, only relaxing out of that state when in her room, Admina’s, or Galen’s. And even then, she wasn’t fully relaxing. And she wouldn’t until she was sure all the threats to Galen had been properly neutralized.

The guards on Galen’s door just waved her through again, making her frown. She really did need to mention that to Balint. Even if she was the only woman in the palace who wore a short chiton in public and was openly armed. That thought gave her pause. How many women were carrying hidden weapons? That might be an avenue an assassin might exploit. She made a mental note to tell both Galen and Balint about it, to make sure the proper safeguards were put into place. After all, she couldn’t be the only woman on the mainland capable of fighting and killing.

Evony walked into Galen’s room, not terribly surprised when she saw him sitting at his desk, stacks of papers beside him. He appeared to be signing and sealing one stack, and reading the pages from another, almost simultaneously. She watched him for a second, admiring both his ability to multi-task and the view she had of his back and the muscles that shifted there every time he moved. He was a fine male specimen. And she thought that was something most people would agree with, but then again, she was prejudiced.

Galen’s blue eyes only found her when she was halfway across the room, his head snapping up at the sound of her soft footfalls. His face smoothed out when he saw her and he offered her one of his upward lip quirks. “You are much faster than I anticipated.”

“Well, your messenger was waiting for me outside the baths. He was hard to miss since most men with any kind of sense don’t hang around the front of the women’s baths, at least not obviously. And I don’t think you make it a point of hiring fools to guard you and the palace. What are you working on?”

“Reports,” he said. “The endless stream of paperwork that seems to be necessary to run the empire. I envy my younger self. I miss having the luxury of leaving things half done.”

Evony folded her arms on his shoulder and looked down at the papers. “Can’t you get some assistants to handle some of this for you?”

“This is what my aides have sent me. There is only so much I can trust them with. Not all of them are as loyal as I wish.”

“Then you need to find some more loyal people to help you, because this is a mountain. How do you get anything else done?”

“I am used to it, I suppose.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Get yourself unused to it and find some good help! You’ll go crazy if this is all you’re doing.”

“Balint has mentioned something similar, as has Rakin, in his own way. I suppose if three voices are saying the same thing, I had best listen.”

“You should. Especially if all three of us are agreeing. Did you need my help with any of this?” she asked, waving a hand at the stack of papers.

“No,” Galen said, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips, before he sobered. “I wanted to speak to you about the current state of our investigation.”

Evony straightened, mood going as serious as his. The plot against him and assassination attempts were nothing she was going to take lightly. Galen stood as well and led her to the divan they’d been on just the day before. Only when they were sitting beside each other did he continue. “We have several members of the Porifirio family answering our inquiries while the rest are under house arrest,” he said, eyes lightening with emotion. “We have been hammering at them, squeezing everything we can out of them. So far we have verified that they hired both assassins, that they had intended to have me killed and replace me with a ruler who would be more inclined to let the noble families do as they like without interference. They are currently regretting that decision now.”

Evony reached out to grab Galen’s hand, not liking the way the glint to his eyes as he spoke. He looked so alone, like it was him against everyone else. She wondered if he even knew how to ask for help…

He looked at her for a second, then squeezed her hand gently. “With them as an example, none of the other families will dare even think about moving against me. I intend to make certain of that.”

She met his gaze steadily and shook her head. “I understand wanting to strike back at those who attack you, at wanting to burn out the rot root and branch, but I think you’re pushing too hard. If you keep pressing, keep cornering people, they’ll feel like they have no options left. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous. Make sure you’re not completely without mercy.”

Galen held her stare for several heartbeats before he sighed. “Too many see mercy as weakness.”

“And untempered strength is seen by too many as unfair abuse.”

He frowned. “You will not agree with me?”

“Not if I think you’re wrong.”

“If you were anyone else, I might be offended.”

“If you get offended by people disagreeing with you, you’ll never get anything done. Different viewpoints help spot weaknesses that you can’t see and find solutions you wouldn’t have thought of.”

“You are not very comforting.”

“Neither is the world as it really is.”

He grimaced for a moment. “Enough of this,” he said. “I can think of a better use of our time.”

Evony was about to ask what he thought was better when his arms went around her waist. And undignified squeak escaped her lips as he picked her up and deposited her in his lap. While she didn’t find straddling him unpleasant in the least, she would have appreciated some warning. But then Galen was kissing her and she didn’t care anymore.

What it was about him that made her desire burn, she had no idea, but it was kicked into full blaze the second their lips touch. Already she could feel the rising tingle of her need as she pressed herself closer to him, her arms going around his neck.

His tongue wrestled hers for dominance as their lips danced, every movement seeming to stoke the fire within her, her lips seemingly affected by the same tingles as her ditch. Evony was happy to keep this up for hours, but Galen obviously had other plans. He drew away for just long enough to pull open the front of her chiton.

He dove straight in with his mouth, without even teasing her nipples with his fingers first. The first touch of his tongue to her flesh had a soft cry escape her lips, the soft skin hardening into a bud in moments under the attention of his mouth and tongue. He swirled her nipple around, gently pressing his teeth into it in a way that made her gasp.

One of Galen’s hands pressed into the small of her back, his palm hot through the thin material of her chiton as he slid her as close to him as he could get her, his mouth continuing its delightful attentions. So focused on what he was doing to her, Evony didn’t notice what his free hand was doing until she heard the dull clunk of something metal hitting the floor. She jerked to look, catching a glimpse of her knives before Galen grabbed her head and recaptured her lips with his.

Moments later, Evony’s chiton went the way of her weapons and she found herself nude, straddling Galen. Not to be outdone, she slipped out of his embrace enough that she could tug at his tunic. He looked at her, eyes heavy with desire. “I refuse to be the only one naked,” she said as she struggled with his belt.

That got her a slow smile and he stood, quickly divesting himself of his belt, sword, and tunic before sweeping her up and striding towards his room. He threw her onto his bed before jumping up beside her. She chuckled as he grabbed her hips and pulled her close to him, smiling up at him and waiting for his lips to come back to hers.

Except that’s not where they went. She jerked slightly when she felt his breath against the curls that surrounded where her legs met, her eyes going wide. Galen’s hands held her in place and he held her gaze as he slowly lowered his mouth to press his lips against the very top of her ditch.

The feeling made her shiver in the most delightful way, her pleasure point throbbing with desire. He kissed her lower then opened his mouth, adding his clever tongue to the mix. The second it touched the slick wetness of her slit, she was lost. Evony grabbed fistfuls of the sheets beneath her as she cried out, the feeling overwhelming. If Galen’s hands hadn’t held her in place, she’d have escaped the feeling too intense every time his tongue flicked at her pleasure point.

The tingling, pulsing waves of her need raged upwards swiftly, like a river under flood not the more gradual spring melt she was used to. She felt overwhelmed, like she was losing herself to the pleasure, like there was nothing solid left to hold onto. She was near the edge, about to be swept over when Galen stopped.

She glared until she noticed the stiff banner of his own need. An idea struck her, given how similar they’d been so far. Before he could react, she sat up, wrapped one hand around his phallus and licked the tip.

He froze, shuddering slightly, while she swirled her tongue inside her mouth. He tasted salty, not that she minded. She had always preferred savoury to sweet. With a smile, she leaned forward and tried running her tongue along the length of him. The sound he made was all the encouragement she needed to continue her experiment.

Evony gently folded her lips around the tip of his length, letting her tongue run circles around it, feeling him tense with every movement. About to try to go lower, Galen’s hands softly pushed her away. She looked up, wondering what she’d done wrong.

But the heavy-lidded expression and the way he grabbed her hips firmly and pulled her towards him told her the answer to that.

With the combination of the moisture of her ditch and what she’d done to his shaft, Galen slid inside of her far more easily this time, thrusting the full length of himself inside of her like he couldn’t wait any longer. She knew she couldn’t, letting out a happy cry as she felt him inside of her.

Using the hands he still had one his hips to help, Galen moved in and out of her much harder and faster than last time, something she found she preferred. The way he managed to get all the way inside of her, so he felt like he was hitting he back of her made her cry out every time she felt it. His hard phallus filled her and made every spot inside come alive.

Every thrust drove her pleasure point against him, rubbing it in ways that made her squirm even as she tried to move her body in time with his movements. It was hard at that angle and with all the wondrous, tingling, delightful sensations he was drawing out from her, hard to concentrate on anything outside of that.

As his movements grew faster and both their breaths came heavier, Evony found herself trembling as the waves of her need went past the usual high water mark. She could barely think, her desire hitting new levels of heat as he slammed himself inside of her harder and harder. And then, before she knew it, she was over that edge and caught in the middle of a waterfall of spent desire and need, pleasure making her cry out and her back arch.

Galen only managed a few more movements after she clamped down on him before he cried out himself, the length of him twitching inside of her as he expelled the milky liquid of his own pleasure. He collapsed on top of her, sweat beaded up on his back and forehead.

Evony gently stroked his hair as she waited for her chest to stop heaving and her heart to slow again. She enjoyed the weight of him on top of her, felt closest to him in this moment when they were both sated and touching each other, skin to skin. She slid her free hand around his shoulders so she could hug him to her. When he pulled away enough that he could look at her face, she smiled up at him. She leaned forward to peck him on the lips before she said, “I love you.”

He smiled and kissed her back and for now, that was enough.

Chapter 21: Preparing

Evony slid her feet just a bit farther apart, knife in one hand, eyes on her opponents. All four were armed with swords, dressed in identical black tunics, none of them looking particularly happy to be facing her. Not that she cared. She needed to stay in top condition at the least, and improve her ability to fight multiple attackers a once if she could. And the soldiers could use the practice.

She nodded at them and then tensed, alert to every movement. They all hesitated for a moment before they spread out, trying to surround her on all sides. She smiled slightly at the tactic, thinking they weren’t half bad already. Not that it was going to stop her from winning. They hadn’t had tactics, strategy and military history beaten into them by their parents.

Evony went from standing still to rushing across the distance between her and the one farthest away from the others to her left. He saw her coming towards him and blanched, but still raised his blunted practice sword in front of himself. She continued towards him until she was nearly there, only breaking away to his side at the last second.

He turned to follow her as his fellows hurried to reach him, but Evony went low and got under his guard. She pressed one hand against the arm that held his sword, pushing it away, and used her other to tap his chest with her the hilt of her dull knife before jumping back and out of range. “Disabled or dead,” she called as she backed away from the other three.

Her opponent grimaced, but nodded and removed himself from the field they were in, joining the small crowd that had gathered to watch. He received more than a few backslaps and conciliatory remarks, not that Evony noticed. She still had three more men to take out.

In response to her last attack, they moved closer together so she couldn’t pull the same move twice. Evony nearly snorted as she saw how close they were standing to one another. Still, it worked in her advantage.

She ran towards the, zigzagging her way forward so they were all shifting to keep their weapons between her and them. Only when she was sure that was their primary focus did she suddenly race to one side, like she was going to go around behind them. They all turned at the same time.

Watching them hit each other with their swords had her chuckling inside her head as she darted back the other way. Distracted by his sword hitting his ally while the other two had somehow managed to get their arms tangled briefly, the one on the right wasn’t able to move fast enough to intercept Evony. She tapped his neck gently with the flat of her knife and said, “Dead.”

He sighed and lowered his weapon. Evony was already moving around, trying to get behind the other two. They were just now turning. One was faster than his friend and moved forward, turning his back to his friend’s. It was a good idea, but he had made two mistakes. One, he’d left too much space, obviously compensating for what had just happened. And two, he hadn’t noted that his ally wasn’t as focused back on her as he should be.

Evony dodged to the left, keeping out of the reach of the one facing her and was able to slip into the space between the two of them. There it was easy to do a double tap on both necks, before either of them could stop her. “Dead, and done,” she said, lowering her dagger.

The soldiers’ swords drooped and they both sighed. She smiled, only now realizing that she was breathing hard, sweat sliding down her back and forehead. It hadn’t been a long match, but she’d had to keep running hard the whole time to keep from being hit by anyone. She thought she would need to start improving her stamina even more. This was one of the few times she’d executed these tactics alone and it was obvious she couldn’t keep it up for long without help or more training.

“You need to work together more,” she told them. “You need to be aware not only about what you’re doing, but also what the people around you are doing. That’s how you avoid getting tangled, or leaving each other open. I know you can work together well. I’ve seen you and your shield drills. You just need to apply that to your sword work as well.”

The one with black hair shook his head. “I get what you’re saying, brightness, but keeping an eye on you is hard! You’re fast and kept going right where we didn’t expect you.”

Evony nodded. “That’s what I’m trained to do. I did my best to take advantage of any weaknesses of yours I could see, and use any opening I could. Amazzi use a lot of hit and run tactics. We’re not the type to stand and fight unless we have superior numbers, and that’s rare. We make up for that where we can with speed, tactics, and training.”

“Remind me to never try invading Silvinsula,” joked the one with the most startling shade of green eyes Evony had ever seen.

“Glad you’re on our side,” said the last one, his brown eyes serious.

She smiled. “And I’m glad you lot let me abuse you. I need the practice as much as you do. I’m used to fighting in a unit with the other members of my clan. Amazzi rarely fight alone.”

“Makes me glad Amazzi don’t fight in the festival,” said the first one again. “None of the rest of us would stand a chance. And as much as I like you and am glad you’re back, brightness, I wouldn’t want to face you in the coliseum.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. I’ve been told that as long as I’m a bride candidate I’m not allowed to enter. But there’s always next year. I have half a mind to enter any archery competitions then.”

The one with green eyes groaned. “I’d better win this year then or I’ll have to switch what I’m entering next.”

“Are you all entering?”

“Those who have proved themselves are. Everyone dreams of participating,” said the first again. “People who win in the coliseum get recognition, fame, and better positions. Many nobles hire their personal guards from people who compete, and those who win always have choice of the best paying positions. The emperor has been known to promote those who do especially well as well.”

Evony nodded. It made sense and it also gave her an idea. If this was where the best warriors were, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have several members from each clan attend when looking for a stud. She imagined those who were looking for more strength in their children would find the coliseum the best place to find a suitable man for it. She didn’t know where to send those looking for intelligence, but thought maybe Galen would know. It wasn’t as if most Amazzi could be as lucky as her mother and have the men come to them. “I’ll look forward to watching you all compete. And if anyone would like extra practice, I’m more than happy to help,” she said with a wolfish smile.

Her opponents winced and she chuckled. Looking past them to the crowd that was starting to dissipate, a bright spot of colour in the midst of the black drew her attention. Paran watched her, her purple overdress obvious, two guards in the same shade standing just behind her. About to wave, Evony saw her turn and leave, the men falling into step behind her.

She supposed with the competition fast approaching, Paran’s family must be here as well. She’d heard some people considered personal guards a sign of status. Evony was still getting used to the mainlander mindset. Because any Amazzi would consider needing guards to be a sign of weakness, of not being able to defend oneself properly. Still, here, even the strong like Galen needed guards. People here were a lot less direct about their problems and it seemed like the relationships within the palace were a mess of tangled threads that Evony doubted she’d ever be able to read properly.

But maybe Admina might be able to help. Evony resolved to talk to her friend about what she knew about the alliances within the palace. Or at least how to get an idea of it, since it was clear she was far more observant than Evony. With that in mind, Evony turned to finish up her morning practice.

Settling herself down under the shade of one tree in one of the gardens that was a ways away from most of the main buildings, Evony rubbed the back of her neck. She hadn’t seen Galen for two days now, and while she thought he was most likely busy with work, she still worried. She decided it was worry, because just wanting to see him because she hadn’t for a day or two was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

But if she didn’t see him by lunch, she was going to stop by his rooms to see if he was alright.

She shook away the distracting thoughts about Galen and smiled at Admina. Her friend sat beside her, legs folded gracefully to the side, embroidery hoop resting on her lap, her needle already in hand. She smiled back. “Thank you for coming with me.”

Evony chuckled. “No need for thanks. I’m always glad to get outside. I’m still not used to having all that stone between me and outside. We mostly use wood for our buildings, but then again, when you live amid forests, what else would you use?”

“I would like to see Silvinsula one day.”

“You’re welcome to come any time. We’d love to have you. I think you’d really like it,” she replied, grinning. “Though I should warn you, we don’t get many visitors, so you would be the centre of attention for a while. My clan…well they’re very friendly but they can be kind of loud.”

Admina smiled softly. “They sound wonderful.”

Evony wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t go that far. Everyone gets into everyone else’s affairs, we all live so close together that we know everything about each other, and at times, it feels like there’s no escaping the rest of the clan. I still have a secret fortress in the woods where I go when I need some time alone. I built it as a child and have only been adding to it since then.”

“It still sounds lovely to me,” her friend said before turning her eyes towards her embroidery.

Rather than argue, Evony followed suit, pulling out one of her smaller knives and turning her attention back to the spoon she’d started carving near the start of the competition. She thought it was a waste to leave it unfinished, so when Admina had asked if it would be alright for them to sit outside so she could work on her embroider rather than walk, Evony had agreed immediately.

They sat in silence for a while, both focused on their respective crafts. It was Admina who broke the silence. “Do you have a favourite spot on Silvinsula?”

Evony had to think about it. “I guess one of my favourites would be the meadow pond. As you can imagine, it’s a meadow in the forest that has a pond in it. But in spring the whole place is filled with purple, blue and white flowers. And during summer the pond is one of the best places to go swimming, the water’s always warm but never hot. In autumn, there are always mushrooms, nuts and sometimes beets. And it’s beautiful when the leaves change, especially when the sun shines through the leaves. Even in winter it’s pretty, though very stark, when the ice and snow encrust the trees so they shimmer like crystals. I went out there in a full moon one winter and the light made the snow look purple while the ice shimmered silver. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

“I wish I could see that.”

“If you come to visit, I’ll show you. There are a lot of other beautiful spots too. There are cliffs that overlook the sea, huge trees that have the whole area under them in green twilight all day, and meadows that are like rainbows in spring.”

Admina shook her head, smiling. “The more you talk, the more I want to go,” she said. “Speaking of rainbows, do you have a favourite colour?”

Evony blinked. “My favourite colour?” Her friend nodded, blushing. That made her chuckle. “I suppose you wouldn’t know since we’re all stuck wearing the colour of our provinces. But for me, it’s hard to decide between green and red. Green reminds me of home and I find relaxing, but red I find more fun. How about you?”

“I like pink and orange,” she replied, cheeks still coloured.

“I should introduce you to my sister Obelia then. Orange is her favourite colour, the brighter, the better. It’s almost as bad as her poetry obsession.”

“You’re close with your sisters?”

Evony shrugged. “I guess. They nearly made themselves sick, they were laughing so hard when they found out that coming here was my prize for winning the archery competition. Then they tried to scare me. Which I can’t blame them, because if it had been one of them, I’d have done the same thing. Still, as much as I hated it at first, I’m glad I came,” she replied, smiling as she thought of Galen. He wasn’t anything like what she’d expected, that was for sure. But she was glad that she’d had the chance to meet him. She couldn’t really imagine what her life would have been like if she’d hadn’t now, even though that had been her plan.

“I’m glad you came too.”

She had to smile at Admina for that. “I’m glad I got to meet you too.”

“What will you do after the competition?”

Evony frowned. She intended to stay by Galen, but she really didn’t know what he planned, what he would want to do and want her to do. She didn’t intend to go back it Silvinsula, but if he chose another, she couldn’t imagine how she could stay. Still, so far that didn’t seem likely so there was no point in worrying over it. She sighed “I don’t know. That will depend on a lot of things.”

Seeing the look on Admina’s face, she smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, you’re one of the first people I’ll let know once I know what I’m doing. I won’t leave without telling you, alright?”

Admina’s answering expression was bright. “Thank you.”

“Any time,” she replied. In the shade, warm, and sitting in comfortable silence while her hands worked, Evony had to admit that this was just the kind of quiet break she needed. For just this time she let herself forget about plots, assassins, and the vipers hiding in the palace.

Chapter 22: Broken Slumber

Evony’s eyes snapped open and she rolled out of her bed, knife in one hand, the other reaching for her unstrung bow before she fully registered why she was awake. There was no one in her room or even outside it, but her window and the night breeze brought her the sounds of distant shouting. And this wasn’t the sound of people in revelry. No, Evony knew the sound of battle when she heard it.

It took her no time at all to fully arm herself, string her bow, and tie her quiver and its belt around her waist. Only then did she leave her room. As much as she wanted to run straight to Galen’s room, to reassure herself that he was fine, she had a duty to the other girls first. Especially since none of them could fight.

She wasn’t much surprised to see Chana already out of her room, looking around, her eyes wide. Admina joined them a moment later, hair dishevelled, her face pale even in the faint light. Neah was the last to emerge, bursting out of her room like she thought the soldiers were in there. Evony waited a moment, then frowned. “Wait here,” she told the others before checking the room beside hers and the one across from it. Both were empty.

Gaze narrowed she went back to the others who were all but huddled together. “Where are Venita and Paran?” she asked.

They all looked at her, shaking their heads. Evony hissed but left it. She couldn’t go running around looking for them, not when she didn’t know the situation. Regardless, if there was fighting going on inside the palace, she knew what she had to do. But first she needed to handle the girls.

She swept the three of them with her stare, projecting confidence and authority. She didn’t have time for questions or arguments. “Are your families loyal to the emperor?” she asked, one hand ready to go for her knife if any of them tried something crazy like attacking her.

The girls stared for a moment. Chana shook herself free of paralysis first and nodded. “My family is.”

“Then you need to go find them, get them to gather their warriors and help defend the emperor and the palace.”

Chana glanced at the door and bit her lip. “Out there?”

Evony glowered. “Are you a Primus or aren’t you? Your duty is clear. I’m not asking you to fight, only to go to your family. You will be safe there with them, won’t you?”

“I…” she trailed off before straightening and holding her head up high. “I am Primus Chana of Yarkona and I will do my duty to the emperor and empire.”

“Good,” she said nodding, before she turned her eyes to Neah. “Is your family loyal?”

She swallowed, but bowed her head. “I swear on the honour of the Dimon family that we will fight for the emperor.”

Evony smiled coldly. “Excellent.” Her gaze went to Admina, who was staring at the ground. “And your family?”

Her friend flinched. “My brother…he will wait to see who is likely to emerge the victor and then…”

She sighed. “There is nothing you can do about that,” she replied. “Stay with me for now then. You two, good luck and I hope to see you when this is over.”

Neah and Chana bowed, the latter looking calmer. “We will do our duty.”

“Stay safe,” she told them. “And do your best to stay away from soldiers you don’t know. We don’t know for sure who is loyal and who isn’t.”

They both looked at each other, clearly ill at ease, but gave her half bows before they hurried out. Evony turned to Admina then and said, “We’re heading to Galen’s room. Stay close.”

Her friend nodded, face still unnaturally pale. Evony didn’t have time to worry about how she was holding up and took off in a loping run. If things were as bad as she suspected, if this was a full on attempted coup, then she had to focus on protecting Galen.

Admina followed behind her, running, though slow enough that Evony reduced her speed slightly. The halls and walkways of the palace were dark, the moon only the tiniest sliver of silver in the sky, the stars providing most of the illumination. Evony could hear other running footsteps, but none approaching them so she ignored them. She saw shadowy figures in the distance, but again, as they weren’t coming towards them, she put them out of her mind. Until she was with Galen, she couldn’t waste her energy worrying about things that didn’t pertain to reaching him.

Evony didn’t slow again until they reached the narrow hall that was the chokepoint to Galen’s rooms. With a panting Admina following close behind her, Evony strode down it, stopping at the end so that she could be seen in the light of the lanterns that were always burning outside Galen’s door. “Princeps Evony of Aureline and Rector Admina of Miletum,” she told the soldiers who held their unsheathed weapons in front of them.

“Go ahead,” said one, shifting away from the door just enough that they could squeeze past.

“Thank you,” she said, heading straight in with Admina a shadow behind her.

The lights in Galen’s room were on, the man himself standing near the middle of the room, listening to a young soldier speak. Evony headed straight towards him, only listening with a half an ear what the stranger was saying as she moved to stand beside Galen. He offered her a sidelong look and slight nod, his attention on what the soldier was saying. “…hit the barracks from all sides. Men on night duty saw them, so they could barricade themselves inside, but no one can get out. I only got away because I was out using the jakes. I came straight here, but I don’t know-“

“Leave that to me,” said Balint, having come in just behind Evony and Admina almost silently.

Galen frowned at him. “What do you intend to do?”

“I’ll round up those soldiers I can and try to break through the attack on the barracks. If we can get our men out, we should be able to roll over these upstarts,” he said before turning to look at Evony. “Can I leave Galen’s safety in your hands?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“That’s what I thought, but it’s important to ask.”

Galen looked from one of them to the other. “I am not certain this is a good idea.”

“If this is people trying to take over, you’re going to be their number one target. And everyone is familiar with our tactics, since everyone here fights the same. Except Evony here,” Balint said. “Amazzi tactics are ideal for this kind of situation. I’ll leave you the door guards as well.”

“Thank you. We’ll find somewhere out of the way and defensible. Normally I would have us be a moving target, but with so much unknown and not knowing who we can trust fully, I think that might end poorly.”

“Good idea.”

“I have no choice in this matter, do I?” Galen asked.

“No,” they chorused.

He sighed. “Then I have to accept.”

“Good boy. Listen to Evony and stay out of trouble.”

Galen looked at Balint, face a stoic mask. “Remember, you are not allowed to die.”

His uncle laughed. “Same goes for you. I’ll see you when this is all over,” he replied, before jerking his head at the young soldier and heading right back out the door with the younger man right behind him.

Once the door closed, Evony turned to look at Galen. “Are you ready?”

He nodded, face gone full statue as she was beginning to realize was his way of shutting down emotions he didn’t want to deal with. Normally that would have bothered her, but in this situation it was exactly what they needed. She inhaled deeply, feeling the weight of responsibility not only for her life but also Admina’s, the soldiers’ and Galen’s. And by extension, everyone loyal to Galen. It pressed down on her like a hand on top of her head and shoulders, but she did her best to not show it. She’d been trained to lead, and lead she would. For her sake and Galen’s.

“Before we leave we need to do something about the three of us,” Evony said, mind racing through all the issues, dangers, and things they could potentially face. “Your guards outside will be fine, since all soldiers dress the same. But we’re all too easily identifiable.”

The other two looked down at themselves then at her. “What do you suggest?” Galen asked.

“If you have a simple helmet somewhere or can find one, you can blend in well enough with the soldiers once your hair is covered and your face is at least partly hidden,” Evony said. “I’ll take one of your sheets and rearrange it like a longer chiton or overdress over my clothes. For Admina, I’ll need to borrow something with colour to create a stola or scarf for her.”

“I have a helmet, and I have a cloak that we could us for Admina,” Galen said, already heading towards his room. “I will go get them.”

Evony followed. “I’ll grab the sheet then.”

Once they were in his room and out of Admina’s sight, Evony stopped Galen long enough to grab a fistful of his tunic. She dragged his head down and kissed him hard. “Don’t you dare die on me,” she told him before she let go.

He stared at her for a moment before saying, “I share a similar sentiment.”

She flashed him half a smile before grabbing the sheet off his bed and heading back out to Admina. “Tell me if this looks right,” she said as she wound the material around her body, leaving it loose enough that she could get at her weapons, but enough that they were at least partially hidden.

Her friend studied her for a moment then shook her head. “May I?”

“Any help is appreciated. We don’t have the luxury of being wrong.”

Admina bit her lip but nodded. She grabbed some of the loose folds and rearranged them, tucking some into other places and tying others. When she stepped back, the whole affair looked more like the draping she often saw on statues rather than the rush job Evony’s had looked like. “Thanks.”

The other girl ducked her head as Galen came back into the room, helmet tucked under his arm, cloak in his free hand. “Here,” he said, tossing it to Evony.

She caught it. “Your turn,” she told Admina.

“I can do it myself. I’ve worn a stola before,” she said.

“Alright, I’ll leave it to your expertise,” Evony replied before she looked at Galen. “Is there anything here that are absolute symbols of the emperor? Anything that shouldn’t fall into the hands of anyone in charge of this insanity?”

Galen frowned. “I had not thought of that. The imperial seal and the Fuscienne family signet ring…I had best bring them with us.”

“That was my thinking.”

He hurried over to his desk, grabbing a large metal seal and slipping on a ring. He hesitated for a moment then grabbed a small carved box, inlaid with stone. She gave him a questioning look with a glance at the box. Galen’s lip thinned. “It is…my sister gave it to me and I…”

Evony’s eyes widened and she nodded. “Here,” she said. “Let’s wrap it in something to keep it from getting scratched and I can keep it in my quiver. If you’re comfortable with me holding it?”

Galen offered her the tiniest ghost of a smile. “I should think I would trust you with something like this if I am trusting you with my life.”

In the end, Evony ended up cutting a scrap of cloth off one of the curtains to wrap the small box in, carefully slipping it to the bottom of her quiver. She prayed the tips didn’t cut through and damage it. She didn’t know how she could face Galen if that happened. Still, that would mean they were alive, so there were worse things that could happen.

By then Admina was ready and Galen had his helmet securely fastened and his sword strapped to his side. “Alright,” she said, double checking her own weapons . “Let’s go. This is the first place anyone will look for you, especially given the narrow hall. The sooner we’re away from here, the better it is. Do you know of anywhere that would be defensible where most people wouldn’t think to look for you?”

Galen thought about it for a second, his brow wrinkling before he nodded slowly. “There is one place that might suit us. It is a storage area among the servants’ areas. I often hid there as a child when I did not want to attend my lessons. Only Balint and Callisa were ever able to find me there.”

“Then let’s aim for there,” Evony said, already opening the door.

The three of them stepped out, with the guards stiffening. “We’re moving somewhere else, somewhere that no one will find us hopefully. For the duration, I need you two to follow my orders, and you’re to treat Galen as your comrade so no one realizes who he is. Can you do this?”

They saluted. “We’ll follow your lead, brightness.”

“Good. Then stay with us. Galen, which way is it?”

“Head towards the original hall you were housed in at the start of the competition,” he said, pointing.

“Alright,” she replied, striding forward into the darkened hall.

Already the sound of shouting was closer, and worse, Evony could tell it was coming from more than one direction. That didn’t bode well for them. If the rebels were hitting more than one place, it would mean they could be attacked from multiple directions, and that help would have a lot harder time finding them. She hoped that Balint could find enough men to break out the barracks and run through their enemies like a sword through straw.

Evony kept them all at a light jog, fast enough that they were moving, slow enough that Admina wouldn’t get exhausted. Only when they were out of the wing of the building that held Galen’s rooms did Evony feel like they weren’t about to be ambushed around every corner. It was still eerie, hurrying through the dark halls, not seeing anyone, only hearing things from a distance. It was almost like they had died and were echoes, wandering around the halls of the living, unable to interact with anyone or anything, trapped for all eternity…

She shook the morbid thoughts away. She needed to think about what to do, not focus solely on the worst case scenarios. Movement had her head snapping to one side, but only saw the terrified face of what appeared to be one of the servants before the woman disappeared back the other way. Evony didn’t blame her. Without knowing which soldiers were which, it would be far safer to avoid all of them.

They kept moving in silence as Evony kept her eyes scanning for anything that could possibly be a threat. She heard the footsteps before they rounded a corner and saw two soldiers coming straight towards them. Her gaze widened and her whole body tensed as they all skittered to a stop.

“Hey! Who are you?” said the man in purple, coming towards them. Noticing three soldiers, his hand went to the hilt of his sword. “What families do you belong to? Which side are they fighting on?”

“Oh thank the gods!” Evony cried, hurrying towards him, one eye on his companion in red, her hands already reaching for her weapons. “We heard the awful fighting and have been looking for somewhere safe, and with only my guards we didn’t think-“

She stopped talking as she reached the first man. She slashed out with one knife across his throat, ignoring the red spray that came from the deep wound. He gurgled, hand reaching for the wound. Evony was already rushing the short distance that separated her from the man in red. He fumbled for his sword, but she was already there.

Evony lunged forward and slammed one knife up and between his ribs. Her strike was as smooth as if she was still training on the death point dummy. The blade pierced his heart before he could even cry out. Evony yanked her knife out and stepped away, letting the body hit the floor. The first man was already there, blood still pooling out from his neck.

Leaning down, Evony wiped her dagger off on the bottom of the closest one’s tunic before straightening. Glancing down at herself she sighed. Already she was flecked with blood. So much for her disguise. She thought she’d leave it for now and see if she could pretend it was wine or some such.

She turned back to look at the other four who were all staring at her. “We need to keep moving,” she said. “If they’re checking on which family people belong to, there’s a possibility they’re looking for hostages as well as us. That means they’ll be stopping everyone.”

“W-what if they were on our side?” asked one of the soldiers, staring at the bodies.

“Then they would have asked if we were loyal to the emperor or if we were the rebels. No one on our side would care which family you belong to,” Evony replied. “And we can’t take the risk of anyone waking up or being found and telling others where we are, so I had to kill them. If this bothers you, you had better toughen up or you won’t survive what is undoubtedly coming. This is war, even if it is on a smaller scale than you’re used to. It’s not a war we started, but it’s one we need to finish, and unfortunately, we can’t afford to give quarter. Do you understand?”

He swallowed but nodded. “Yes, brightness Evony.”

“Good. Now let’s move before someone finds us here with these bodies,” she said, stepping past them.

Admina moved up so she was beside Evony, face paler than before and just a bit green. “This is only going to get worse, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Evony replied, wishing she could reassure her but knowing the truth would be better. “I can find somewhere you can hide if you would prefer. Or you could head towards where your brother is. You should be safe there, whatever happens.”

She shook her head, eyes hardening a bit though no colour returned to her face. “No. I am loyal to the emperor and the empire. I will stay with you and do my best to help.”

Evony smiled though she really wished her friend had gone to her family. She wasn’t sure any of them would survive this, and putting Admina in danger, who didn’t know how to fight…But it was her choice, and Eovny couldn’t deny the girl’s bravery or loyalty. And as a noble, her duty was clear. Evony repressed a sigh. As much as she wanted to believe otherwise, she didn’t think they were all going to get out of this unscathed.

Chapter 23: Honour

They only made it down a few more hallways before they were stopped again. This time it was a group of four soldiers who had clearly set themselves up to stop anyone passing by. Evony slowed to a stop in front of them, noting the unsheathed swords, defensive postures and steady gazes of the men.

“Stop!” said one of the men, ignoring the fact she was already doing that. The two who had been watching the other direction of the hall turned to face them, all four men standing ready. Four against four wouldn’t be too bad, Evony thought, but she also didn’t want to risk Galen or Admina getting hurt.

“We’re just looking for somewhere safe,” she said, trying to pitch her voice higher and letting it waver, like she was frightened. “We don’t want to fight you-“

She was cut off by the first man stepping forward. Evony tensed, hands ready to draw her knives. “Brightness Evony?” he asked, eyes wide.

She jerked her head and looked at him, studying the face that was only partly visible due to his helmet. She recognized the face from her morning practice and as she looked at the others, she realized she knew them too. “It’s you,” she said, dropping her scared act and feeling relief run through her. “I thought you were more rebel soldiers.”

“No, brightness Evony. We’ve been trying to catch some of them, to try and figure out what’s going on. We were on guard duty down by the wine stores and heard the shouting so…”

Evony nodded. “The barracks is under attack at the moment, and we could use your help, so you should come with us for the time being. Are you okay with that?”

The four looked at each other before saluting. “If we’re with you, brightness Evony, I think we’ll be exactly where we need to be.”

“Good. Fall in with us then,” she said, already looking up the hall to where they needed to go. She glanced back at Galen and jerked her head in the direction of where the hallway ended up ahead and split to each side.

“Right,” he told her, pitching his voice lower so as not to be recognized.

“Thanks,” she said, before heading back out and settling into the light jog they were all getting used to. The new soldiers fell in to either side of them, leaving their original guards at the back and Admina safe in the centre with Galen just in front of her and behind Evony.

Down that hallway they went until it joined up with a walkway. Outside of the buildings themselves, the sound of the battle around the barracks was louder, more shouts and screams ripping through the night air. The soldiers kept turning towards the distant sounds, training making it difficult for them to ignore the obvious trouble.

Evony had no such problem. If Galen was taken out, everything they were working, all the fighting to save the empire would be meaningless. He had no heirs and it would just end as the rebels wanted it. Though Evony suspected it would be civil war rather than whatever smooth transition she thought they must be imagining.

As they approached where the walkways crossed another, Evony’s sharp ears picked up the sound of many feet all marching, creating a stamping beat that echoed towards them. She hissed, knowing from the sound that they were far too outnumbered to deal with them and she wasn’t about to gamble on them being friendly. “This way,” she whispered, leading their group off the walkway and into the nearby garden. She hurried everyone over to a narrow archway that led inside the nearest building.

The room they were in was a narrow entranceway that held a few benches among its painted walls, something that Evony guessed was typically used to rest out of the sun while still having a view of the gardens from the windows. Another arched doorway led out to a smaller hall. Evony waved everyone to either side of the doorway and away from the windows, while she crouched at the garden door, eyes on the walkway they’d just abandoned.

It took what felt like an hora, but was probably less than a tenth of it for the soldiers to come into view. They marched in an orderly square, armed with shields and swords, their heads swivelling as they moved. The colours that Evony could see under the lantern their leader held were a mix bag. Grey, purple, red, blue, and even green tunics were in evidence. She didn’t see any orange or white, and knew she wouldn’t see yellow, but it seemed like more than a few different provinces had joined the rebellion.

Evony snarled silently at the traitors. How these provinces could forget their duty as nobles, how they could rise up against Galen was something she couldn’t and didn’t want to understand. All she need to know was that they’d forsaken their honour and she wouldn’t feel bad about killing any of them.

She waited until the group was well away and she couldn’t hear any of their footsteps before she stood up properly and waved everyone to follow her back out. As much as she would have liked to stay in the building, Evony knew they’d have an easier time of hiding and running if they kept outside as long as they could.

They barely made it around another building before they spotted two more soldiers standing at the centre of where two walkways met up ahead in the distance. They were able to hurry off to the side, but it was obvious from the way they stood that they’d been stationed there. Evony eyed the two, clear to see as they had hung a lit lantern off one column. One of the men wore grey while the other purple and both were keeping their eyes moving.

Of course if they’d really wanted to be effective they would have done without the lantern and let their eyes adjust. Evony thought it stupid to do, but if the men were trying to identify soldiers, it would make some sort of sense to keep it. Only the palace soldiers would be in black.

She sighed. That left them with no real choice in the matter. She turned to look at the others. “I’ll go ahead and take care of them,” she whispered. “With the light they’ll be able to tell which side you’re on easily and will likely attack or call for help. A lone woman shouldn’t raise suspicion.”

The soldiers all nodded while Admina bit her lip and Galen shook his head. “It is not safe.”

“Nothing about this situation is safe, but it’s our best option at the moment.”

“I do not like it.”

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t care,” she replied before straightening and getting back up on the walkway.

She ignored Galen hissing her name and hurried towards the distant circle of light. Evony did her best to counterfeit the awkward run of a woman not used to it and to arrange her face into something that resembled fear, which was hard when most of what she was feeling at the moment was anger and anger at the stupidity of the whole rebellion.

Evony deliberately stumbled into the light, as the two soldiers who had already been alerted by her footsteps, moved towards her. She faked being out of breath and panted, looking up at them both with her eyes forced wide. “Please,” she whispered. “Help me! Everything has gone to madness out there, soldiers are attacking one another and I-I…”

She hugged herself and shook her shoulders, like she was sobbing silently, but really going for her knives as the men closed in on her. “What family do you belong to, brightness?” asked the one in grey, reaching out to grab her shoulder.

That was all Evony needed. She slapped his arm away and slammed the other into his chest. Her strike was deep, but she missed his heart but got a lung which was evident by the way he began to wheeze. She ignored him for the moment, whirling on the other man who shouted something unintelligible. He swung at her, but she jumped to the side and lunged in to slash his throat.

He went down and she turned back to the first, who clutched his chest and was gurgling now. She pulled his head to the side and struck his throat to put him out of his misery. The sound he made was clear evidence that his lung was filling with blood and it was only a matter of time before he died anyway.

Shouts from ahead had Evony’s head snapping up. Her eyes widened as she saw the six men hurrying towards her, weapons drawn. She grabbed her bow and nocked her first arrow, sighting on the nearest men and letting it fly before grabbing another. Her first shot took the man in the neck, while her second only glanced off the next’s helmet. She shot one last time, this arrow hitting the man in the shoulder making him cry out and stumble back, before she put her bow away and grabbed her knives again.

She could hear the others running towards her but knew they weren’t going to reach her before her opponents did. Evony settled herself into a defensive stance, her two longest daggers in each hand. Another shout had her jaw tightening. The four coming towards her she could probably handle, more than that… For the first time, she considered running.

But it was already too late and the first man came swinging a sword at her. She jumped back from the slash, and darted to one side, getting around his shield so she could stab him in the side. The man cried out and tried to turn himself so he could bash her with his shield, but Evony had already moved.

She danced away from the next nearest man’s blow and lashed out at the eyes of a third. He fell back with a cry just as the reinforcements arrived. Hearing a scream not coming from a blow of hers, Evony glanced over and saw that the second group to approach all wore black. She smiled faintly and leapt away from another blow.

Then there were no more as the nearly dozen men in black made short work of the four soldiers in a rainbow assortment of colours. “Brightness Evony,” said their leader. “Are you alright?”

She nodded. “Thanks to you and your men.”

“You were doing pretty well without us,” called one of the others.

Their leader glared at them. “Brightness Evony, do you know what is happening? All we know is that we returned from our night manoeuvers to this chaos.”

Slowing footsteps announced the arrival of the rest of Evony’s group. “This is an attempted coup,” she told the newcomers as Galen came to stand behind her. “Will you help us?”

“We’re glad to help, but what is it you need us for?”

Evony shook her head. “I’ll explain once we’re settled in. Will you follow me for now?”

The man hesitated then studied Evony’s steady gaze. He nodded. “Yes. You of all nobles wouldn’t lead us astray.”

She offered a small smile at that. “Good. Then fall in with the rest.”

Only then did she look at Galen who was still finishing his visual inspection of her. “Is there a back way where we’re heading?”

He shook his head. “This is the back way.”

She sighed. “Of course it is. Well, let’s keep moving then.”

Evony took the time to blow out the lantern to make the scene of carnage less obvious, before she again took the lead. They hurried away from the crossroads, heading towards the palace wall that loomed over the buildings. They headed straight towards it, making Evony wonder if the storeroom Galen was taking them to wasn’t underneath it or something. Though to her that seemed like it would be putting a giant, unnecessary weak spot in the palace’s defenses.

They were heading towards the last crossroads before the walkways just ran parallel to the wall, when Evony spotted light approaching from the left and from straight ahead. She choked and was about to drag them off the path when Galen grabbed her wrist from behind. She looked at him, but he said nothing, only towed her after him as he led the way off the walkway and into the garden to their right.

He had them running down the path that cut diagonally across it, and in moments, they were through the archway that led into the building that bordered it on one side. Everyone else followed behind them, everyone silent, as Evony wasn’t the only one who had spotted the light of approaching soldiers.

Evony said nothing as Galen took them down one narrow hall, then another. She was glad he was leading now, because she was already confused with all the turns he was taking them down. It didn’t help that all the hallways looked the same, every one made of the plain stone of the building, the floors of the same. That alone told her that this building was intended for the servants.

Galen eventually took them down a narrow hallways that had two doorways off it. He headed to the farther one and waved Evony in. Looking inside she noticed wooden crates and what appeared to be broken and worn furniture piled up in the corners. It was obvious this was not somewhere people came often and she could see why it was somewhere a young Galen would have hidden when he didn’t want to be found.

The narrow hallways and doorway were good, though she’d have preferred an actual door to act as part of a blockade. But there wasn’t anything she could do about that at the moment. Evony nodded as everyone joined them inside. “Alright, this is where we’ll be holding out,” she said. “Hopefully we’re not found here.”

The leader of the last group frowned. “Shouldn’t we be out there, fighting?”

Evony shook her head and looked at Galen. He got his cue and stepped forward, removing his helmet. “Unfortunately, I must ask for your assistance in this. Legate Balint has taken charge of freeing the barracks. We deemed it necessary to add your swords to ours once we saw the number of rebels moving about, most of whom are obviously looking for either me or hostages.”

The man choked and bowed deeply, his men following suit. “Your imperial majesty,” he said. “Of course we…We didn’t realize…your safety is obviously of highest priority.”

“And that’s why I wanted to wait until we were here so you treated him as you do each other and he’d be less obvious,” Evony said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Our swords are always yours,” the man said, bowing to both of them.

“Then get yourselves ready in case we’re attacked,” she replied. “We’ll figure out a proper configuration in a moment, once we take stock of what we have.”

“Evony,” Admina said, coming up to her, face set.

She turned to her friend, hiding a wince. She’d half-forgotten she was with them. “Are you alright?”

Admina nodded. “I’m of no use to you here,” she said, voice even, though her eyes were wider than normal. “I can’t fight. But there are more people, more soldiers than we thought. You said so. You need more help.”

Evony did wince now. “Yes, but there’s not much we can-“

She was actually cut off by Admina. “You can’t, but I can. You’ve already proved that most of the soldiers will ignore a lone woman. I can go find more help for you and bring them here.”

“No,” Evony said immediately. “It’s too dangerous.”

Admina stood straighter, her gaze steady, eyes narrowed. “I am Rector Admina of Miletum. I have my honour as you have yours, and I want to live by my honour rather than hide away here, unable to do anything.”

About to argue with her, Evony stopped when Galen laid a hand on her shoulder. She turned to stare at him but his attention was on Admina. “I appreciate your bravery and honour, Rector Admina,” he said. “If you are willing to go, we will not stop you.”

Evony choked, but Galen squeezed her shoulder and gave her a look. Admina didn’t wait for her to say anything else, bowing to both of them before hurrying away. Evony jerked herself out from under Galen’s hand and glared at him. “Do you have any idea of what you’ve done?”

“She is in as much danger in here as she is out there. In fact, she has a better chance out there as she will have more places to hide. Rector Admina has her pride too.”

Her hands balled into fists, Evony didn’t want to admit he was right, not when it was Admina in danger. If anything happened to her, she didn’t think she’d be able to live with herself. Even if it was Admina’s choice.

But there was nothing she could do now. Instead, she turned towards the men and said, “Alright, let’s set up some defenses and get someone to act as scout up ahead.” She would focus on getting everything right, on doing what she could rather than on what she couldn’t. Evony could only pray that she saw Admina at the end of this and that her friend made it through alright.

Chapter 24: Incentive

Evony finished briefing the men on what she wanted them to do, the first line of five already having their shields at their feet, ready to create a shield wall as soon as the enemy approached. The second line of five stood ready behind them, shields in a similar position, prepared to take the place of anyone who fell. The remaining three, who had no shields, stood to the sides, makeshift spears made out of four of Evony’s knives and some wooden flagpoles they’d found in the back. While not the Amazzi way of fighting, this was the style the men were familiar with and had been trained in.

She had just stepped back when she heard running footsteps approaching them. The men all moved quickly, getting shields up and swords out before the runner came into view. “Stand down,” she called when she recognized the man they’d left as scout.

He shook his head as he grabbed his own rough spear. “Don’t stand down! A big group is on their way! They were all marching straight this way, like they knew we were in this area.”

Evony frowned, but repeated, “Stand down.” When the men looked at her, she said, “This may be a long battle. You need to conserve your energy as much as you can. Your shields are heavy. Leave them down until you hear or see people coming. You’ve already shown how quickly you can get them up.”

She stepped back and checked on the worn and stained stone bench she’d had dragged to the middle of the room. Then she recounted her arrows, wishing again that she had more. Even with the addition of a quiver that one of the men had been carrying, she still had only about two dozen. She was going to have to make every shot count and even then…

Evony turned away from the men who were tense and moved over to stand beside Galen. He looked down at her, a frown pulling his lips sharply downwards. He cleared his throat, making her look at him. “I apologize for getting you involved in this,” he said. “If it were not for me-“

She cut him off with a smile. “I’m here willingly. It was my choice.” She reached up and pulled his face down so she could kiss him, not caring who saw. When he stared at her, she smiled again. “If I’m going to die, I’d rather die with the taste of you one my lips. And at least if we’re going to die, I get to die with you, fighting side by side.”

Galen held her gaze for a long moment before he reached out and yanked her into a kiss that was far deeper than the one she’d just given him, a kiss that had light tingles running through her, despite the danger. He released her and pressed his forehead against hers, his arms still around her. “I love you, Evony of clan Aureline,” he said quietly, blue eyes practically burning into hers. “If we survive this, I intend to keep you by my side no matter what.”

Evony’s face split into a wide grin before she pecked him on the lips again. “That is definitely an incentive to fight like a demon so we both survive,” she told him before letting him go.

Because as much as she’d have liked to stay there, to take comfort in Galen’s presence, to revel in the joy that he loved her too, she needed to do everything she could to ensure they both survived this. Then she could be happy. Until then though, she had a job to do.

She hopped up on the stone bench and pulled out her bow, grabbing an arrow out while she was at it. Evony didn’t bother nocking it yet, not when she didn’t have a target. Instead, she listened intently, her eyes closed so she could concentrate on her hearing, waiting for the inevitable sound of approaching footsteps.

Evony didn’t have long to wait. The sound of tramping feet echoed down the hall, the sound slowly growing in volume. The men moved swiftly, assembling the shield wall and ensuring each shield was overlapped so it was nearly impossible to get anything by them. The spearmen to the sides shifted their grips on their weapons, while the second line of shields stood ready.

But they weren’t the only ones well versed in shield walls. As their enemies came into view, Evony hissed at the sight of the same formation from their front line. Except their men were six across and seemingly the same number deep, with more crowding around at the back. They were outnumbered almost four to one.

One man stepped up just beside their shield wall, his helmet bearing a large crest. “We wish no unnecessary bloodshed,” he told them, gaze on the soldiers. “If you surrender Emperor Galen of Fuscienne and Princeps Evony of Aureline, we will let you leave, unharmed and with no trouble. If you do not…Well, we have an ample force to take you out.”

Evony’s eyebrows rose. She’d expected them to want Galen, but wasn’t too sure why they wanted her. Unless they were worried about an eventual retaliation from her people. Which was a something they should be worried about.

“We are loyal soldiers of his imperial majesty,” snapped Erryl, the leader of the main group of men.

“Then we have no choice but to attack,” said the man with the crested helmet. He stepped back before raising his hand and then dropping it.

Evony’s men braced themselves just before the front shield line ran into them. They held, but she could see them pushing back, the muscles in their legs straining. She took careful aim from her position, able to see over the heads of her people and pick her targets. She had to wait several moments before one of the men in the enemy shield line put his head far enough up that he exposed his neck.

Her arrow flew across the distance before he could notice his mistake and then it was too late. He went down with a gurgling cry, the arrow protruding out as his shield slipped from his fingers to clatter against the ground. One of her spearmen took advantage of the brief opening to stab at the men to the side before they shifted over to close the gap.

His move was rewarded by a red bloom against the grey of his tunic. Evony didn’t pay attention, eyes constantly looking for a new target. As the shield wall filled in the front gap, she saw her chance and was able to shoot at one of the second rank, catching an unsuspecting man in the eye. His scream ripped through the grunts, bashing, and general noise of the battle.

“It’s the Aureline woman. Someone shoot her!”

Evony heard the order and watched as one archer hurried behind the others to take aim at her. But she’d spent her life practicing against other archers and was far faster. Her shot sliced through the bow string to lodge itself in the man’s chest. He reeled back from the bow, hands going to the arrow to tug ineffectively at it before he dropped.

She waited, but no other archers took his place. A harsh grin crossed her face for a fleeting moment before she went back to looking for targets. In an archery battle here on the mainland, it would take a rare man indeed to beat her.

The next shot to present itself was one of the shield line shifting over to try and put side pressure on her men, but in the process, he left his side open. Evony showed him the folly of that when she sent an arrow into the side of his neck. He fell back, not dead, but injured enough that she didn’t think he would be re-entering the battle any time soon.

Reaching for another arrow, Evony risked a glance at her people. They were straining, but holding. But she didn’t know how long that would last. She wished she had more arrows, more people, more time to prepare. This was the hand she’d been dealt, and it was the hand she was going to have to play. And more than anyone else, she wanted to win.

Her breath coming in pants, Evony stabbed out at an exposed throat. Her blow was shallow and she did no more than nick the man’s neck. He immediately pulled himself back behind his shield and she was stuck waiting for her next target.

She risked a quick glance back, hiding a wince as she again saw where they were. They only had two men with shields, one of who was Galen, in reserve left, four of their people already down, their wounds roughly bound with strips of the sheet Evony had been wearing. One was already dead, the thrust he had taken to his neck having been deep enough that he bled out in minutes.

Evony was out of arrows, almost out of men, and still their enemies continued their assault. They’d done well, taking out nearly half their attackers, taking out two of them for every one of them that was there. But it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t going to be enough. Evony cursed her decision to dig in and defend rather than continue moving. She should have taken them to the trees, hidden them in the forest as only Amazzi could and had them pick off any small groups that ventured in.

But there was nothing she could do about that now. The die had been cast and she had to go with that roll.

Her men were breathing heavily, sweat dripping off them as they continued to fight, to hold off the enemy. The sound of the battle was heavy in her ears, constantly reminding her that she’d made the wrong choice and now she only had two left. And with the situation as it was, Evony knew she really only had one, if there was to be even a chance of Galen getting out alive.

She waved up her man on shield reserve and traded off with him so she could speak to Galen. He looked at her, face gone to stone again, only the blaze of his eyes showing that he was aware of how bad their situation was. “This is it,” she told him, voice even despite the crushing knowledge that she’d failed him and failed everyone here. “We can’t win like this and to be honest, we’re most likely all going to die.”

He made a half-noise of protest, but couldn’t really deny what was as obvious to them as it was to their attackers.

“Still, if we die, we’ll die with honour, fighting to the end as true warriors. But if we have any hope of getting out of this, we’re going to have to try break through them and run. If we rush them, we will have to leave our wounded and there’s no guarantee any of us will make it.”

Galen reached out and grabbed her hand, squeezing it for a second before releasing her. “You know we will all follow your decision in this.”

Evony nodded, even as her stomach twisted. She’d thought she was ready for command, ready to lead people and be responsible for them. Knowing she had brought this down upon everyone was showing her she wasn’t. There were so many things she should have done, things that could have saved them, things that could have at least gotten Galen through this.

“Put your helmet back on,” she told him. If they were going to try to break through, any advantage she could give Galen, any confusion she could cause among the enemy would buy them that much more of a chance for this to work.

She moved back up their shield wall to tell the men of the plan as quietly as she could so their attackers didn’t get wind of it. They needed the element of surprise on this one or it would never work.

Evony inhaled deeply, trying to find the words to tell the men that they were almost certainly all going to die when she heard something that had her head snapping up. Her eyes widened and her heartbeat thudded even louder in her ears. She knew that sound, knew it so well she couldn’t mistake it for anything else.

The sound brought laughter bubbling up inside of her and she let it out, relief washing over her to the point of giddiness. She fought that down, not able to relax just yet, not with the enemy still hammering at them. “It looks like we won’t die today after all,” she said, grinning while Galen stared at her, the others too focused on the battle to look at her.

She stepped back to avoid distracting her men any more than she was going to before she threw her head back and let out her clan’s warcry. Only then did she take her place back at the side with a spear, ready to wait for what she knew was coming.

Stabbing out at an exposed thigh, Evony felt the heartbeats passing by. Each one that passed brought more doubt to her. What if she hadn’t heard it? What if the knowledge that she’d killed them all had broken her, had brought on hallucinations from a mind unable to cope? What if they were really all going to die?

Then screams erupted from behind their shield wall.

Evony couldn’t see what happened, but the sight of an arrow sprouting out of one of the enemy’s shield bearers gave her a pretty good idea. Her men stared, their shield lowering as their eyes widened. “Hold firm,” she told them, already taking advantage of their enemies’ distraction to lash out with her makeshift spear.

Her men stiffened and turned their attention back to keeping the shield wall strong as Evony and the spearmen struck out at their attackers. Their enemies were stuck, half turning towards what was coming down the hall, the other half trying to keep their attacks off themselves.

And they weren’t succeeding. Bolstered by the obvious distraction and sudden turn in their favour, Evony’s men redoubled their efforts. Her shield wall bashed out at those who weren’t paying attention, while she and the spearmen slashed out at every target that presented itself, drawing more than one scarlet burst of blood.

Pinned in from both two sides, it was a matter of minutes before their attackers were either dead of throwing down arms. And only a handful made it to the latter. As much as she wanted to rush out, Evony waited until the men they’d been fighting had been backed to the end of the hall before she had her men break the shield wall enough that she could get out.

Only then did she run out to greet their rescuers, grinning.

Chapter 25: Splitting

“Well, you’ve certainly been put through the mill,” said the woman in the lead, just lowering her bow as others hurried past to bind those who had surrendered. Her brown eyes crinkled up in the corners and her curly dark hair shot with grey was tied back in simple horsetail, the woman wore a short chiton that was a match for the one Evony was wearing.

She held out her arms and Evony ran straight into them, hugging her tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered, letting herself have the brief luxury of leaning on her mother’s strength before straightening.

Her mother grinned wolfishly. “You sent a letter telling us the Adnuhom was in danger and that the nobles couldn’t be trusted. Of course we came. It’s not every day we get the opportunity to fight in a battle of this size.”

“Evony! Evony! Guess what?”

She turned to smile at her brother, who was bouncing on his feet, bow held in both hands. “What?”

“I’m a blooded warrior now!” Marnin told her, grinning.

“Good job,” she told him, reaching out to ruffle his hair.

“This place is a maze,” Balera said, looking around. “We’ve been running around since we ported trying to find you. Also that captain of yours isn’t too pleased with us at the moment.”

“Most captains don’t like docking at night, and doubly so for people who all but hijacked their ship,” Obelia retorted.

Evony smiled and hugged both of her sisters briefly before grinning at the assembled warriors of her clan, most of who were related to her. There were more than a few that she didn’t recognize, making Evony guess that her family had gotten some of the other clans nearby to send warriors. Which was all to the good. They needed all the help they could get.

Footsteps behind her had Evony turning as Galen came up to stand beside her. He didn’t even have a chance to open his mouth before her sisters and mother closed in on them, their eyes appraising. “Who is this?” her mother asked.

She could feel her cheeks heat up a bit, but Evony said, “This is Galen, my chosen lifemate. Galen, this is my mother Zarina, my sisters Obelia and Balera, and my brother Marnin.”

They didn’t give him a chance to say anything, circling him like vultures over a kill.

“I like the eyes,” said Balera, leaning in close to Galen’s face. He stared back, trying to lean away and not be rude at the same time.

“Decent muscles,” Obelia murmured.

Her mother smiled. “Your father will be pleased.”

The three women exchanged a glance and then smiled at Evony. “We approve,” Zarina said.

Evony offered a half a smile before she focused back on the task at hand. As happy as she was to see her family, and as much as she wanted to properly introduce them to Galen, they had far more important things to do. “This isn’t over,” she told them. “We still have work to do.”

The easy smiles disappeared and the women in front of her went from being her family back to being warriors. “Tell us what you need,” her mother said. “Marnin, give her your quiver and the spare arrows you have on you. She’ll need them more than you will.”

Her brother pouted, but complied. Evony turned to Galen while he was doing that and said, “I know you have to go. You need to show everyone who’s loyal that you’re alright. You need to rally them to finish this. We’ll send half our warriors with you.”

Galen frowned at her. “Where will you go?”

“To finish this. Someone needs to cut the head off the snake. Or at least see it, instead of spending all of our time chasing its tail.”

Marnin came up then, handing over his quiver stuffed with arrows. Evony smiled her thanks then held his eyes with hers. “I need you to go with Galen,” she told him. “I want you to stay with him, to protect him for me since I have a different task. Can you do that for me?”

His chest swelled and her brother nodded eagerly. “I will fight with honour!”

She nodded back then looked at Galen. His expression made it clear he wanted to protest. She sighed and stepped close to him so she could speak quietly. “I don’t want Marnin in the worst of the fighting. He’s still a child, as much as he thinks of himself as a warrior. But he’ll also be helpful. He’s a tactical genius, the best in the clan. He’ll know how to use my people most effectively, and if you explain the tactics of your soldiers, should be able to help you with yours. He’s young but well trained.”

Galen frowned but only sighed. She flashed a brief smile at him before turning to her mother. “We need two groups. One to accompany Galen to rally the loyal nobles and break out the barracks if they haven’t already gotten out. The other group needs to come with me so that we can head out to take care of those who started this.”

Zarina nodded sharply and then turned to the assembled Amazzi, shouting orders and getting the group to split. Evony turned away from her, her gaze going to Balera. “Will you take a small group and guard our wounded or find a way to take them to the medicus wing? I don’t want to leave them here alone.”

Her sister wrinkled her nose. “As long as at least one of them is awake and can tell us where to go, we’ll get them to the medicus. It’s one of the first places we wanted to secure after finding you.”

“I thought as much, but just wanted to be sure,” she replied before turning back to Galen. He was watching her, expression impossible to read. “What?”

“I had not thought you knew who was orchestrating this coup.”

Evony snorted and pointed to the leader of the group that had been attacking them. Or rather, his corpse. Under the light of the lanterns he and his men had brought, the colour of his tunic was unmistakable, even underneath the blood. “I won’t pretend I’m not surprised,” she said through gritted teeth, eyes ablaze at the thought that she could have done this. “But I have noticed what colour has been dominant among those who have attacked us. And I know you wouldn’t have eliminated anyone whose family you had any kind of suspicion about arranging this whole rebellion.”

“I should know by now that you have unexpected depths,” Galen replied.

“So I’m not an uncultured barbarian then?”

That got a tiny upwards quirk of his lips. “I only thought that at the beginning.”

She smiled before she leaned in to kiss him quickly. “I love you. Don’t die.”

“I return the same feeling to you.”

The clearing of Zarina’s throat drew their attention away from each other. “We’re ready.”

Evony nodded. “Then let’s finish this.”

With her mother and younger sister behind her, Evony led the way towards the building that held the visiting nobles. She was glad she remembered where it was from when she’d first arrived at the palace. She hoped they’d find everyone they needed there, but had her doubts. But at the least there should be one or two. None of the women here fought, so she could be guaranteed of finding her there.

“Where are we going?” Obelia asked, after a glance behind them at their half of the Amazzi warriors.

“Nobles’ quarters,” she replied. “It’s where the people who started this nonsense will be. At least some of them.”

Zarina grinned harshly. “Just show us where the traitors are.”

“That’s what I intend to do,” Evony said as they continued their loping run through the halls. She ignored the faint weakness she could feel in her arms, her muscles tired from all the abuse she’d put them through in defending the storeroom. She had work to do, work that was more important than anything else she’d ever done before, work that would affect Galen’s safety. She couldn’t afford to give in to her body.

The darkened halls and walkways were only lit intermittently with lanterns that had been left by groups of the enemy, a few areas showing signs of battle. One still had two men, but they ran at the sight of their group. Neither made it all the way out of the light’s circle before arrows cut them down, the archers barely slowing in their run as they shot.

They turned down a hall and headed out through the arch, into the cooler air of the night. The whole group crossed through one garden, getting up onto the nearest walkway then turning right before continuing on. The barely visible moon was much lower in the western sky than Evony remembered it being earlier, making her wonder how long they’d been inside, how long she’d been fighting.

Their soft shod feet were near silent on the stone of the floor even with their numbers, their lack of armour keeping them quiet. Which is how no one noticed them until they rounded one corner of the building to follow the colonnade around it.

Evony stopped short as she saw the shadows of two figures. She blinked and watched as they moved into the light, the long-haired figure struck out at the larger one with a rod of some type. The man in the purple tunic dropped with a thud to lay unmoving on the ground. The girl shivered, moving what appeared to be a firepoker closer to herself. She slowly straightened, and as the hair fell away from her face, Evony recognized her.

“Admina?” she said, staring at the shorter girl, not sure she was seeing things right.

Her friend whirled to stare, the poker hanging loosely from one hand before it finally fell with a clatter. Admina didn’t notice as she’d launched herself across the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around Evony and clung to her, shivering.

Evony awkwardly patted her, wondering just what had happened to her to have her this freaked out. Then again, she had just seen her hit someone with a firepoker, and that wasn’t something she’d ever thought she’d seen. Of course, she hadn’t ever expected to see Admina take out anyone. “Are you alright? What happened?”


The shout drew Evony’s gaze to the handful of men who were fast approaching. They stopped and froze as they saw the forest of arrows pointed at them. One of them, a man in red, cleared his throat after a few moments. “Rector Admina?” he called softly.

Admina stiffened slightly before pulling away from Evony. She discretely wiped her face, smoothed out her dress and only then turned to face the men. “It’s quite alright,” she said, voice even, though Evony could see how one hand was clenched around a fistful of her skirt. “She’s on our side.”

Knowing better than to step on her friend’s pride, Evony nodded. “We’re on our way to deal with the people who started this.”

At the word we, Admina glanced around. Her eyes widened as she took in the assembled women before she flushed. “I’m sorry I didn’t find more help,” she whispered, focus on the ground. “I did all I could.”

Evony smiled and patted her shoulder. “You did well.”

The men didn’t notice the exchange, too busy staring at the Amazzi. One of the other men, this one in black, stepped forward. “We would like to aid you, brightness.”

Evony hesitated after a glance at Admina. While she would welcome the men, she didn’t want to take protection away from her friend. They had already seen more roving groups of rebels and she had no idea how many more were still out there. Her sister solved her conundrum by stepping forward after an intense study of the girl. “Why don’t I take your friend and any of her men who want to accompany us to rejoin the others? You said your Galen was rallying nobles, and if she’s a Rector, she definitely counts.”

She smiled gratefully at Obelia before she turned to Admina. “Will you accompany Obelia to Galen? He needs all the support he can get when we don’t know how many of the other nobles are loyal. He’s in the Pleasure Hall, or should be.”

Admina looked into Evony’s eyes, then down, then glanced at Obelia. She bit her lip but nodded. “I am not the true Rector, but my brother won’t show himself until he’s sure he can join the winning side, so I guess I’m all we have to represent Miletum” she said quietly, before turning to the men. “Men of Miletum, will you accompany me?”

The two men in red bowed. “Always, Rector.”

“Be careful,” Evony told Admina.

Her friend bowed her head, grabbing her hand so she could squeeze it with both of hers. “You need to be careful too,” she said, meeting Evony’s gaze with her slightly watery one. “If anything were to happen to you…You need to be safe.”

“I’ll do what I can,” she replied with a slight smile, thinking that Admina was saying similar things to Galen. “Trust Obelia. She’ll make sure you get through alright.”

“Better than you would,” her sister quipped, shifting her bow to her other hand so she could lay the nearer hand on Admina’s shoulder. “Nice to meet you, friend of Evony’s. I hope you know where we’re going, because this place confuses me.”

Admina ducked her head and nodded. “I know the way.”

“Then we’ll take out leave,” Obelia said, as the two soldiers in red came to stand to either side of Admina. “Don’t die, and don’t be too much of a show off.”

“Funny, coming from you,” Evony retorted, before stepping further into the hall. The men in black fell behind her, while her mother came to stand beside her. She looked back at Obelia and Admina and offered a last smile and raised hand, before she started off at a walk.

Once her group was past her sister and friend, she slowly sped them back up to their usual loping run. As much as Evony wanted to see to Admina’s safety herself, she couldn’t. But she knew Obelia would do well by her. After all, they had the same training.

But worry still gnawed at her. Evony knew it would until she finished this, until the palace was safe again. Until she killed the people responsible for this whole mess.

Chapter 26: Colour of a Traitor

Evony and her group met no others as they continued their way to the building just across from the imperial wing. They heard a number of retreating footsteps, but without light to see who they were, none of them risked the shot. The last thing they wanted to do was kill an ally, especially when they had so few.

They only slowed as they approached the nobles’ quarters, Evony not wanting to spook their targets so they ran. Not that she was even sure there would be more than one there, but she had to believe there were at least some waiting. Otherwise they’d have a long night of hide and seek ahead of them. She held up her hand for silence, not that anyone was talking. She led the way quietly towards the building, pausing often to listen, but not hearing anything until they were at the archway that went inside.

Like they weren’t aware how stupid they were being, Evony could see several soldiers in a mix of silver and purple uniforms milling around one doorway, the lanterns inside all lit so they were clearly visible. Their footsteps were loud in the relative quiet of the night, only the distant sound of shouting interrupting what would have been a peaceful night. While Evony had been taught never to be upset over an enemy being stupid, she couldn’t believe it. Not only had they basically telegraphed where the people they were guarding were, they’d made it possible for her and her people to size them up from outside without being seen.

Evony counted the men a few times, but as she was only able to see part of the hallway, she couldn’t be certain of her count. She thought there were around a dozen men there, but then she also wouldn’t be surprised if there were more within easy call, just in case of this kind of attack. Not that this was going to stop her or her people.

She waved her people forward, setting them up in two groups, one to each side. She gave everyone the time they needed to get themselves set up, everyone with a bow nocking an arrow and taking careful aim. “Release,” Evony whispered, following her own command. Light twangs sprouted up around her along with the faintest whooshing as the arrows sped almost silently towards their targets.

Screams cut through the quiet as the arrows found their marks.

Half the men dropped, arrows protruding from multiple spots as the others hurried forward, swords drawn. Three more fell under the second volley before they figured out enough to back out of view of the archway. Evony led the charge forward, one long knife drawn, her soldiers right behind her.

She ignored the sound of her mother ordering half their people to prepare another flight of arrows, her focus on the first man she reached. He got his sword up between them, but she was too fast. She darted to the side and ducked under his blow. She grabbed the arm that held his sword and shoved it up as she stabbed him in the side. He cried out, and she twisted so she could finish him with a slash across the throat.

Evony didn’t watch him drop, turning instead to watch her men finish the last three off. She nodded before she wiped her knife off on the bottom of her chiton and sheathing it. She grabbed an arrow and held it loosely to her bowstring before she met the eyes of one of the men. She jerked her head towards the door that their enemies had been guarding. He nodded and approached cautiously from the side as more of Evony’s people came up to stand around her, arrows nocked and pointed straight at the door.

He glanced at Evony once he was in position and waited for her signal to open the door and shove it open. Everyone tensed until they saw what was inside. Evony dropped her arrow back into her quiver and straightened before striding straight into the room, her people following close behind.

The room was beautiful, painted in scenes of summer revelry, the furniture all done in shades of blue and green, everything flowing together in a show of elegance and expense. Standing near the middle of the room, dressed as immaculately as they were most days though not in their competition clothing, were Venita and Paran. The two of them stared wide-eyed at the armed women who poured into the room, half still pointing arrows at them.

Evony clenched one fist at the sight of the traitor, but first she needed to separate them, to keep a hostage situation from forming. She glared and said, “Venita, get away from her.”

The girl stiffened, eyes rapidly narrowing into a glare of her own. “Who do you think you are, to order me about as if I were-“

“I said get away from her right now!” she snapped, her voice as hard as her stare.

Venita flinched but didn’t move until Evony raised her bow in her direction. Only then did the other girl jump back and stumble a few steps away from Paran. Evony strode forward, stopping when she could keep her gaze on both of them, standing in front of the empty space that now lay between them.

“How could you?” she hissed, finally letting all the anger over everything that had happened well up. Her eyes glittered dangerously as she turned all the fear, worry, and pain into anger as well, letting it bolster her and keep her steady on what she knew she had to do. “How could you, someone from one of the first families, how could you betray the Fusciennes, the emperor so completely? Do honour and the vows of your ancestors mean nothing?”

Venita choked, but Evony hardly noticed. Her stare was locked onto Paran. The other girl stared at her with wide eyes, her lower lip trembling as tears slowly filled her eyes. “I do not know what-“

Evony cut her off. “I know it was the Regems,” she said, voice dark and deadly. “There are far too many purple uniforms out there, more people than the Porfirios could possibly have, and then here you are, hiding away like you knew the attack was coming, unlike the rest of us.”

Tears slid down her cheeks. “Why would you think we could ever do that? Do you not trust me?”

She shook her head with a growl as she took a step towards Paran. The other girl took a step back and screamed. The sound didn’t make any of them flinch, but the sound of running footsteps did.

Evony turned just in time to see a man with the same brown hair as Paran lunge towards her, a knife that appeared wet in one hand slashing towards her.

Evony twisted out of the way of the blow then reached out to grab the man’s outstretched arm. She turned around his back, drawing one knife with her free hand in the same movement. He tried to jerk his arm free, but Evony was already reaching over his shoulder with her armed hand. Before he could do more than jerk his head back, she cut diagonally upward, starting from the base of his throat.

Blood spurted out as she let the body fall. The man collapsed onto the ground, his knife skittering across the floor as a pool of red quickly grew beneath his head. Evony didn’t pay the corpse much attention, her gaze back on Paran.

The girl went pale, eyes wide as she stared at the man’s body, her mouth working but no sound coming out for several moments. Her face lost all hint of false innocence as it was quickly consumed by her emotions. They switched from one to another too quickly to be read easily, but her trembling body spoke volumes of the storm raging inside of her. Paran screamed, her hands balling into fists. She took a step towards Evony, eyes bright and hard as they looked her over. “You savage scortum! You filthy, low-born raptor! Why must you always interfere?”

“Because I am loyal to the Fusciennes and to Galen,” she replied quietly, her glare a match for Paran’s.

“You and your people are nothing more than half-feral bitches masquerading as nobles! Your loyalty is nothing more than you protecting the hand that feeds you. And what do you know of the empire, of the Fusciennes? Do you know who I am?

I am Primus Paran of Regem, daughter of Primus Rekem of Regem, granddaughter of Imperia Darielle of Fuscienne! My grandmother was the eldest born, and had she been a man, I would have been an Imperia! I am just as royal as the emperor but have more intelligence, finesse and morality! A man who would tolerate your kind at court, who would conquer the world just because his low-born half-sister was killed, who would go so far as to lie with a mixed-breed mongrel like yourself is someone who does not deserve to be emperor!”

“And someone who would violate their vows, someone who would take the empire by force, does?”

Paran snarled, taking another step towards Evony. “I am of royal blood, something a creature who cannot even identify her father would know nothing about! The empire is mine by right of my birth, I am the true-born of Fuscienne and Regem, of the most royal and most noble bloodlines, someone who stands above all others. If the emperor had been smart, had he seen that I was obviously born to rule, none of this would have happened. Instead he chose you.”

Evony was done listening to the vitriol dripping from Paran’s mouth. “It’s over. Galen is safe and my people are reclaiming the palace. You and the rest of the rebels have lost. After today, there won’t be a noble family named Regem. Only a bunch of traitors.”

The girl dropped to her hands and knees. She rose a moment later, knife held in both hands in front of her, eyes moving all over the place, her skin pale and her jaw tight. “You think I will roll over and submit to a bitch like you?”

She didn’t get a chance to answer, instead forced to jump away from Paran’s wild swipe even though it didn’t come close to her. Something about Paran’s smile had her on edge. Her caution was rewarded with Paran’s next words. “This is coated with the most powerful poison our agents could find,” she said, holding the shimmering knife up. “One cut and you will die.”

Evony set herself, ready to stop her as Paran shifted towards her. Then she rushed. But not towards Evony. Her eyes widened as she watched Paran turn and race towards Venita, who was still standing there frozen, mouth open.

“No!” she cried, cursing herself, breaking into a run that she knew was too slow. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stop Paran before she reached Venita.

The air around her whooshed. Evony slowed as she watched arrows from both directions behind her thud into Paran, turning the girl into a hedgehog-like creature. The forces of the blows caused her body to press even farther forward when combined with her running before it collapsed.

Venita screamed once at the sight of the girl’s body touching her foot before her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell as well. Evony paid her little attention other than hoping she hadn’t broken anything when she hit the ground. She walked over to Paran, where a whispering moan escaped her lips. She could already tell from the angle and depth of the arrows that the girl had to have had her lungs pierced as well as her neck.

Evony snorted and walked past, not bothering to give her the finishing blow, not after everything that her and her family had done. She knelt and check to make sure that Venita was still breathing. She sighed when she found that the Argentia girl was still alive. That was one less complication.

She turned to look at her family. “Thanks,” she said.

Her mother lowered her bow. “We’d have dropped her before but you were in the way. You should know better than to block a shot.”

Evony shrugged. “I thought she could be reasoned with,” she said before jerking her chin towards Venita. “Can someone pick her up? We’re going to need to bring her with us.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Zarina replied.

She nodded her thanks before she headed towards the door the man had come from. The room, which was clearly a bedroom from the furniture at the back, had also been turned into some kind of study. A large desk had been brought in, the surface of it covered in papers.

Reading the top-most ones, Evony glowered. One had a list of members of various noble families along with how they could be bribed, threatened, or blackmailed. The next one she could see was about Galen, including a list of his supposed crimes. Warmongering, immorality, and interfering with noble rights were just some of the ones she could see.

Evony wasn’t sure what else was in the pile, but she thought Galen would find the whole lot of them interesting. She swept the papers together, forming a small stack which she rolled and stuffed into her quiver around her arrows. The list of specific nobles and how to influence them alone would help him determine who was loyal and who wasn’t.

She walked back out to find her family had arranged for one of the soldiers to carry Venita. Her mother looked up at her re-emergence and tilted her head in the direction of the door she’d come out of. “Find what you need?”

“More than I thought,” she replied. “We need to head back to Galen. We’ll leave the bodies. If he wants to confirm their deaths, he can send his own people. For now he needs to know they are dead and that we don’t know where the rest of the Regems are. If needed, we can hunt them down after I tell him what we’ve found.”

Zarina’s smile had a razor edge to it. “We can always start now.”

Evony shook her head. “Not until we know what the situation is and where Galen needs us. There has been a lot of bloodshed, a lot of death, and more might just make it worse. Still, this needs to be finished.”

Her mother shrugged. “Lead the way. You know this place best.”

She nodded. For better or for worse, the palace had become her home.

Chapter 27: Ending

Evony slowed as she and her people reached the Pleasure Hall. Entering the room, the lines between the two groups was practically drawn on the stone floor. Galen stood with her brother, Rakin, Admina, her sister Obelia, the rest of the Amazzi and large group of his soldiers. Opposite an empty space, the other side were soldiers in purple, silver, red, blue, and green along with several people in the richer clothing of nobles.

She strode forward, leading her people over to Galen’s side, every one of the Amazzi doing so with arrows to their bows pointed on the rebels, not giving them any kind of opening. Evony was the only who didn’t, her attention on Galen. He’d managed to acquire a scratch on his chin as well as a gash on one arm since she’d seen him last. She narrowed her eyes over that, but said nothing as her people joined those who were already there.

“…we are the victims!” called one of the men in blue, surrounded by his own soldiers.

“We will restore the empire to proper morals and proper behaviours!” shouted a man with a purple sash around his robes, his greying brown hair telling Evony who this was.

A scream ripped through the others’ words. Evony turned to see the woman surrounded by soldiers in silver point towards her people, her hand shaking. “Venita!”

The man beside slipped an arm around her as he glared at them. “What have you done to our daughter? Or was it you?” he demanded, turning his gaze on the man with the purple sash. “You swore if we went along with your plot you would leave our daughter unharmed!”

Evony glanced back at the soldier who still held the unconscious girl and snorted. “She passed out is all,” she told them. “She’ll be fine when she wakes up. Might have bumped her head when she fell though.”

The man held her stare for several heartbeats before he looked around at his soldiers. “Men of Argentia,” he cried. “We return to his imperial majesty!”

Evony and her people stiffened as a large group of men in silver hurried over to join their side. The Amazzi closed ranks around Galen, only allowing the newcomers around the outskirts of their group. Evony eyed them for a moment, then decided to leave it. If they wanted to attack them, they’d soon find out what a stupid idea that was. And she didn’t think Venita’s parents would risk her safety to do something so stupid.

She slipped through her clan, not stopping until she reached Galen. He watched her approach of the corner of his eye, turning his head so he could see her better while still facing the rebels. “You are safe. Did you finish things?”

“Not as completely as I would have liked. The only Regems we found were Paran and a man with the same hair-“

“Primus Zobah, her brother, no doubt.”

Evony continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And Venita. She passed out when Paran tried to attack her and ended up dead. Zobah or whoever died first when he tried to attacked me. Be careful. They were using a poisoned knife and I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have more than the single knife’s worth of it.”

Galen’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t say anything. “Oh, and I found these. I thought they might be useful,” Evony said, pulling out the sheaf of papers she’d picked up, handing them to Galen.

Rakin reached around and took them first, eyebrows going up as he looked over the first page. Evony would have been annoyed, but the sword at Rakin’s side and the bandage she could see around one leg told her that he’d fought for Galen. Not to mention he’d be able to make more sense of the papers than she could.

He stopped and handed one sheet over to Galen. “List of those they believed loyal to who,” he said, quietly, gaze on the people across from them. Several of who were still calling things over.

Evony paid them no mind until she heard, “Barbarian bitch of Aureline.” She turned to look and found the man in the purple sash glaring at her. “How have you come to find the Argentia girl? She was with my daughter and son.”

She stared coldly back. “I would say they fought with honour, but they did nothing of the sort, relying on hostages, poison, and false words. They’re dead.”

He blanched and took an involuntary step back. Evony opened her mouth but Galen’s hand on her arm stopped her. He straightened, surveying the people in front of him. “Primus Rekem of Regem,” he said, voice pitched to carry throughout the hall. “You and your conspirators in this rebellion have failed. I live, my people are freeing the rest of my soldiers from the barracks you blockaded, and you and those who have betrayed me are now known to me. Surrender.”

“You think I will surrender to you, boy?” Rekem snapped, hand dropping to his waist and pulling out a long knife. “I would rather die than live in a world where a degenerate such as you ruled!”

Evony blinked, having flashbacks to Paran’s last rant. Obviously she was just another branch of this poisonous tree. She eyed the man, taking in the way he held himself, and put an arrow to her bow, just to be on the safe side.

“You are outnumbered,” Galen replied.

One of the men, a man wearing a blue caftan over top of white trousers, glanced around briefly. “Warriors of Deniz,” he called. “Lay down your arms.”

“Yes, your excellency,” came the ragged reply.

The sound of metal hitting the stone ground was the sweetest music Evony had ever heard. “You fool!” shouted Rekem. “How dare you cow to a child!”

“Vernell,” said a man who wore a green toga over his robes. “Throw down your weapons.”

Rekem turned to glare at the other man as more swords hit the ground. More joined them, making him swivel his head to the other side to see men in red dropping their weapons without any prompting from their Ductor. Evony couldn’t help the harsh smile that spread across her face as she watched Rekem’s allies surrender one by one.

He turned burning eyes on Galen. “You may have won this, but you will never hold the empire,” he hissed. “You are a tyrant, no better than the barbarians who surround you.”

“At least us barbarians know how to be loyal,” Zarina called back. “That’s something you mainlanders apparently need lessons in.”

Rekem’s glare never left Galen. “I will not give you the satisfaction of executing me,” he said. He held his knife in front of him, lowering it so it was to one side of where his breastbone would be. Then he rapidly spun the blade to face him and plunged it straight into his chest.

He dropped as blood spread rapidly out, dyeing the white of his robes red. The collapse of his body had the remaining soldiers, many of them in purple, throwing down their weapons. Most of them knelt as well, heads bowed so low they brushed the floor, all of them facing Galen. He looked them over, his face expressionless.

“What are you going to do with them?” Evony asked quietly, putting her arrow away. With the Regems dealt with, she didn’t think the rebellion would have much force behind it. Part of her wished Rekem had been captured so he could face the breadth of his crimes before being executed, though she admitted his suicide simplified things.

“I have not yet decided on a punishment. They will all be arrested and placed under supervision by my people.”

Evony frowned. She didn’t like the coldness in his voice. “This would be a good time to show mercy, unless you want another rebellion in a few years. If you rule through fear and harsh punishments only, you’ll back even more people into a corner that they feel they can’t escape from except by attacking you.”

He looked over at her. “And what would you suggest?”

She shrugged. “Everyone here’s pretty much guilty. Though Venita was genuinely shocked that the Regems were rebelling, at least that’s how it looked to me. And if she was being used as a hostage for her parents, there may be more people who were forced into fighting. You’ll need to check that out and not punish those people too harshly. As for the others… Well if you execute the lot of them you’ll have a lot of empty provinces without anyone to look after them.”

“I can reward my own people with them.”

“Some, but they won’t be experienced in running them and there’ll likely be problem. Exile those who participated to their lands, where they aren’t allowed to ever leave. It’ll be hard for them to be part of a rebellion if they can’t meet anyone. And you could also put someone else in charge of their lands, maybe a younger child who wasn’t involved or something like that. Maybe leave some of your soldiers to keep an eye on things for the first little while too?”

He frowned. “I do not have sufficient forces for that. Imprisoning them on their own lands has promise, but only for some. Others… There will no longer be a noble family by the name of Regem at the very least.”

Evony snorted. “If you need help hunting them down, my clan will be glad to help. Except for children or any other innocents. We don’t attack non-combatants.”

“I can agree with that. Amazzi honour is what I wish my other provinces strove for. You alone have shown me that.”

She couldn’t help a faint blush and a smile at that. “We still have a lot of cleaning up ahead.”

Galen nodded, reaching out to take her hand. “This will be only the beginning. The palace will take time to recover, for my people to calm down and for things to become peaceful. You are not allowed to leave my side until such a time, and then only for a short while. I find I dislike not knowing where you are.”

“And I feel the same. I told you before, you are my choice, where you are is my home. That won’t change.” She leaned over and kissed him briefly on the lips. With everything that lay ahead of them, she didn’t want to risk more for the moment. Besides, she had the rest of their lives together to do as she wished.

With that thought in mind, Evony grinned.


Evony followed her brother down the dim hallway that was out of the seating area of the colosseum. The thick stone of the colosseum kept that area cool, even in the heat of midsummer. Evony was glad for the temperature as she ran beside her brother who had found her on her way back from speaking to their mother. “What’s the problem?” she asked Marnin. She hoped someone from the clan hadn’t challenged someone for insulting them or something.

“Admina needs help,” he said. “I was waiting with her because Obelia wanted to find a fan vendor since it’s so hot and there were a bunch of soldiers and a man I don’t know and I didn’t know what to do so I came to get you and-“

Evony cut him off. When Marnin got worked up he was useless. “Calm down. How many men,” she asked, speeding up.

“Six soldiers. If there had only been one or two I would have taken care of it, but there were so many and I-“

“You did the right thing, coming to get me,” she told him, echoing voices reaching them as they followed the round side of the colosseum.

The scene that greeted her eyes had Evony stalking across the remaining distance. Admina struggled against the hold a man wearing a red toga had on her wrist, six men in red uniforms behind him. As she got closer, she could hear what he was saying.

“…do what I say! I am the Rector of Miletum. I do not want you consorting with these Amazzi barbarians any longer. You failed in the competition for the emperor, so it’s far past time for you to return home. I have arranged a match for you with the son of Rector Gormain.”

“I refuse!” Admina replied, still trying to escape the man’s grip. “He is nearly twice my age.”

“You would dare speak back to me? This is what comes of hanging out with barbarians like-“

Evony cut him off. “Barbarians like me?” she asked, coming to a stop, arms folded over her chest. She’d left her bow at the palace, not expecting to need it at the colosseum for the midsummer festival, a choice she was beginning to regret. “Release Admina.”

Her friend turned at the sound of her voice and smiled with relief. “Evony, thank you! I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

The man eyed her, offering her a half bow. “Princeps Evony,” he said, grudgingly. Having moved into Galen’s rooms already, the whole palace was aware of their relationship which had people who had done their best to ignore her before now bowing to her. Even if they hated it. “What happens between my sister and I is a matter of Miletum.”

Running footsteps and the echoing sound of their clan’s warcry announced the arrival of Evony’s sister. Knives in each hand, Obelia glared at Admina’s brother. “Let her go before I force you to,” she hissed.

“Obelia,” Admina whispered, eyes wide. “Please don’t kill him.”

Evony sighed as the soldiers all stiffened, hands going to their swords. “Enough,” she said. “Rector Miletum, release Admina or she really will attack you.”

He flinched and Admina jerked away, running over so she stood beside Obelia. Evony’s sister sheathed one knife so she could gently touch Admina’s face before grabbing her hand. “You alright?”

Admina nodded, smiling at her. “It’s nothing.”

While the two of them all but cooed at each other, Evony stepped up and cleared her throat. “As you can see Admina has been chosen to join the Amazzi. Gal-The emperor has given this his blessing, so any matches brought forth can be seen as flouting his will. I can promise you that your sister is in good hands with my clan.”

“You-” Admina’s brother began, stepping towards her.

Evony tossed her head, one hand on her hip, the other drawing a knife. “If you interfere, you’ll find yourself facing our whole clan. I suggest you accept this graciously and move along. Otherwise…well, you’ve never seen an angry Amazzi before, have you?”

He glared, hands clenched into fists. “Do whatever you like then,” he snapped. “You will ruin yourself for any chance of a proper place in court after this!”

Admina met her brother’s gaze steadily. “I don’t care. I’m becoming an Amazzi.”

He growled and turned, storming away from him, his men following a moment later. Evony made a mental note to keep an eye on him and Miletum. He could become a problem if they weren’t careful. She turned and smiled at Admina and Obelia. “You should head back or you’ll miss the next match.”

Her sister grinned. “And you need to head back to your lifemate.”

Evony rolled her eyes. “Like you can say anything.”

“Thank you,” Admina said, still holding Obelia’s hand.

“You’re my friend and soon to be a member of my clan. No thanks necessary.”

“Are you going to be like kissing Galen and stuff?” Marnin asked, nose wrinkled in disgust. “Because I want to see the imperial box but I don’t want to see that.”

“None of your business.”

“Which means she is,” Obelia quipped, grinning.

“Get out of here,” Evony told her sister with a mock glare before she grinned. “And what I do with my man is my business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head back to him.”

“Gross,” she heard Marnin say before she was out of earshot. She chuckled. Her brother hadn’t yet gotten to the stage where he found girls interesting yet. Then again, when he had to hide from them on a daily basis, she couldn’t exactly blame him.

Evony hurried her steps, climbing the stairs two at a time as she headed back up to the seating area. The imperial box was easy to spot with its awning attached to the four columns around it, the white marble gleaming even in the shade. She was glad the two soldiers acting as guards were still there. Galen had a bad habit of dismissing his men when he thought he could get away with it, and none of them would disobey a direct order. But she was working on that.

Reaching the box, Evony reclaimed her seat, shaking her head as she watched the two men far below exchange blows. Their blunted swords met with a clang, but the one with his back to them was too slow. She thought he’d lose.

“I can tell you that the one facing us is going to win,” she said to Galen, who watched her join him. “I imagine the rest of my clan is deciding whether he meets their criteria right now.”

With a cloth overhang, Galen’s face was kept from the harsh light of the sun. Evony had to admit that the marble was delightfully cool, even with the cushions that lay between them and the hard stone. “I imagine your clan members are enjoying themselves. I was surprised they did not want noble seats.”

Evony snorted. “They like being able to hide their faces from the men they’ll be approaching later. Though they are kind of hard to ignore.” She nodded at the section of women who had been off and on catcalling some of the men, yelling out advice to the warriors, and overall, being the loudest group in the colosseum. “And I can promise you, more than one of them is going to want to compete next year. Though I’m first in line for that.”

Galen’s lips quirked upwards. “For an empress, you are not terribly lady-like.”

She looked at him, eyebrows up. “I don’t remember agreeing to be empress.”

That made him frown. “I had thought we had established our relationship.”

“We did. But just because you’re emperor doesn’t mean I need to be empress. I would need to change quite a bit to do a proper job of it. Maybe in a few years, when I know more about the palace and all the nobles, I’ll consider it. For now I’m just happy being with you.”

Galen shook his head. “Any other lady of court would jump at the chance.”

“You can go get another lady of court if you like then, but be aware I don’t share. And I will hurt you if it comes to it.”

That got a real smile out of him. “I must confess I feel similarly. Though I have little competition on that front, thankfully. Many men are intimidated by you. I cannot fathom why,” he said with a sidelong look at her.

Evony shrugged as her lips twitched. “I can’t either. People on the mainland are just strange.”

Galen leaned over. “But you find us endlessly fascinating. Or at least, you find me so.”

She shook her head, still not used to Galen actually exhibiting a sense of humour. She blamed her brother and him showing Galen the most inappropriate use for an inflated sheep’s bladder. She still had to regularly check chairs when Marnin was around, though getting to see Galen laugh that hard had almost been worth the embarrassment when she’d sat on it. She’d still get revenge on Marnin later. “Fascinating isn’t the word I’d use. Trying, maybe. Or stubborn. Or even foolish.”

“You are most disrespectful,” he said, smiling.

“Would you have me any other way?”

“No, I wouldn’t.” Galen caught her chin with one hand and pulled her into a long kiss.

Evony returned the kiss, already looking forward to the end of the day when they could go back to their rooms and…sleep. As much as this life of hers wasn’t at all what she’d thought she wanted, as much as it wasn’t anything like what she’d planned, Evony didn’t think she’d change any of it. After all, how could she be happier than this?

The End

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  1. This is not the style of book I normally read but it held my attention from the first page. Very detailed and so different from my ordinary life that I hated to stop reading for bed and work, and came back as quick I could. I finished this in two days. A wonderful book. I’m so glad I took a chance to read something completely out of my normal genre’s of reading.

  2. This plot had so much potential, that went unused. It was a fast easy read that was okay, but wasn’t very realistic. The fighting was hard to picture and things happened too quickly.