PART 1:

Despair Comes in Many Forms

 

 

Prologue:

Preparing for the Raven Court

 

OUTSIDE THE small stone hut, rain poured down from the night sky. Moisture seeped between the cracks in the decaying daub that held the rough stones together. Narrow brown streams streaked the stones and pooled in the hovel’s dusty edges.

Anadona’s pain swelled with malicious spite, yet she refused to groan. She needed to tamp down her agony just a little while longer. She summoned up her elven strength and vowed to remain silent. When she reacted to the ripping pain, her young son’s expression always turned still and tight. Alasdaire’s fury at what had been done to him might be his undoing. His only hope was to overcome the rage burning inside his soul.

Anadona watched him struggle to create a fire using the sad pile of damp sticks he had gathered from the forest. At least they allowed him to harvest wood from the forest. As she watched, Alasdaire tried to coax the soggy wood from different angles, working carefully not to burn himself. He labored in his stubborn, determined manner. Her son’s natural pride refused to accept defeat. Poor lamb, born of a royal daughter who had unwisely thrown away her future and a pompous noble who had thrown them both away once he realized his son was marked. Her beautiful son, born a bastard, a half-breed mix of the two races, doomed to suffer rejection from both.

Anadona loved Alasdaire above all else in this cruel world.

Yet tonight she could no longer protect him from the merciless world. Tonight the pain sang her death song.

Tonight the ravens waited to judge her.

Anadona didn’t care. Her pure love for her son would save her.

Another pain assault ate away at her strength. Anadona tried not to cough up more blood. Her time grew short. She needed to act now. The simple motion of pushing up from her tangled web of old blankets hammered agony into her limbs. Anadona managed to say one word. “Son?”

Alasdaire tried to smile at her. Of late, his brittle smiles seemed doomed to failure. “I’m sorry, Mother. This wet wood thwarts me. I’ll see to your tea as soon as I can.”

Such a dutiful son—always concerned about her. Anadona knew she would not survive to drink her tea. The swelling pain claiming her body told her the ugly truth. “Do not worry about my tea, Son… please, come here.”

Alasdaire stared at her in the lone candle’s wavering glow. “Mother.”

He scrambled across the dirt floor to gently hold her close. Her boy knew her dire situation.

“I’ll make the monster pay for this. I will make him—”

“Son, no. Keep yourself safe.” Anadona needed to work quickly. “Now sit with me.” Her soul began departing from her failing internal palace. Her body shut down, inch by inch. Despite her pain, Anadona concentrated on conducting the most important magical act of her life. How fitting that her attempt came at her death. She grasped Alasdaire’s thin fingers and concentrated.

Their unusual connection made him gasp. His anxious violet gaze questioned her. “Mother? What is—”

“Shhh. Alasdaire, this is my last gift to you, my finest gift, because I love you. Use this power only when absolutely necessary. I’m sorry I can’t help you face life. You must be my brave, strong boy.”

Anadona willed her waning magic into her son’s proud, stubborn soul. She had always feared her magical power. She had used it to escape her domineering father, to escape her brother’s lust, and in turn, she swore the magic had betrayed her.

Alasdaire’s warm tears hit her ravaged face. Her heart tensed. Each word caused pain.

“I hope I have loved you enough to help you in the world.” Anadona wanted to tell him to be careful. Her awareness was dimming too quickly. “Son, do not succumb to the dark rage howling for revenge. Do not. If you do, you will be ruined. Only strong love can save you.”

To her sorrow, Alasdaire scowled with fury. The action distorted the deep purple canes trailing over his cheek. “Love? I only have your love. No one else will ever love a half-breed mongrel.”

Alasdaire had too much bitterness. Unfair. Alasdaire was too young to carry such a sick burden. “You are….” Despite her mighty effort, she coughed. A huge gout of blood flew free from her lips. The pain seized up her vocal cords. As Anadona died, she urged the last of her power into her son. She wanted to tell her precious Alasdaire she would always love him. She would never leave him. Before her pinpoint of awareness flared away, she experienced torment and triumph. She saw… she saw the unimaginable.

Anadona succumbed to the Raven Court’s eternal judgment.

She would tell them the truth. Anadona had loved her son above all else.

She only hoped her love would protect him from what life planned to do to him.

 

 

 

Chapter 1:

The End of the Journey

 

Linden

 

OUTSIDE MY carriage window, olive trees reached their age-twisted branches into the sky, imitating gnarled sentinels protecting the sun-washed landscape. Between them vast vineyards coated the hills. Their deep green rows stretched to the mountains. Secretive oak groves, sheltering elven shrines, hid in those mountains. I hoped to examine the ancient shrines again on this long-anticipated trip, despite my heritage’s hatred of the creators.

My obsession with unusual cultures remained secret, since my royal family specialized in destroying anything challenging the cruel Serpent Throne’s might. How could cultural loss invoke the Serpent Prince’s sympathy? If certain deranged nobles ever discovered my spiritual heresy, they might feel inclined to create an ugly confrontation. How dare the prince feel compassion toward other races?

How dare I, indeed.

What was wrong with me? I relaxed into my seat and shook my head. Acting damned introspective seemed silly. Instead, I decided to enjoy the bountiful landscape spreading outside the carriage window. The sight eased my long-lingering tension. My war-battered shoulders felt lighter, less constricted. Sad to think I hadn’t visited the invigorating Summerlands in over five years. What a surprise; war threw life off course. In my years protecting my country, Ardaul, I had experienced too much war and death, damn it—enough death, blood, and suffering to thrust a man into madness. I defended my country from those who despised what we stood for in this modern world.

At times, I despised what we represented, yet I kept my thoughts to myself. This Serpent Prince held too many personal secrets. When not battling the rebellious neighbors, I guided Ardaul in a less violent direction. The country’s transformation progressed—well, when not hindered by my insane brother.

I rubbed my face and frowned. Stop. A few days ago, I had fled court to forget my recent blood-splattered years, but dismissing such a gloomy time from my waking mind needed more concentration, more drinking, more everything pleasurable to wash away the darkness. Pleasure as medicine worked for me, which was why I took this well-deserved vacation. I needed to cease fretting and start frolicking. I choked on a snicker. Perhaps that could become my new personal motto.

No, not as long as Edward fouled Ardaul’s Serpent Throne.

The coach slowed. We passed through the manor’s imposing iron gates, the bars decorated with copper-and-brass grapes. I should have commed ahead. Too bad. A prince should be able to do as he pleased. Arriving four hours early would toss the household into majestic frenzy, but I did not want to arrive while my cousin’s guests swarmed the manor.

Cousin Keith enjoyed surrounding himself with gaiety. He didn’t mind if nobles dedicated to delight lingered at his manor for months. I suspected a few of them might have moved in for good.

According to the schedule commed to last night’s inn, Keith and his social crowd were enjoying an outing at Lord Lazio’s exotic pleasure garden. Good for them. I planned to arrive, eat, bathe, and embrace solitude. Solitude suited me most of all. My dear cousin understood my need for privacy. I even traveled without the usual fuss and fanfare, using a simple horse-drawn carriage instead of the loud, prone to farting, steam-driven royal carriage. My four bodyguards and five trusted armed guards deterred bandits and terrorists. I could have deployed the royal airship, but to me, the vessel screamed, “Target.”

Another snicker broke free. I might embrace a willing male during my self-imposed solitude. To me, two was a comfort, not a crowd.

Back at the palace, my personal staff enjoyed a well-earned vacation. Here, Keith’s servants would accommodate me. Aside from eating, sleeping, and the greatly desired frolicking, I doubted I would require his staff’s help. I knew how to dress myself and wipe my derrière. Wasn’t I a noble wonder?

Why did simpering royals need everything handed to them? No wonder my valet Gerald loved me. He entered my bedroom, woke me, and offered advice if he felt my vest did not match my jacket. I loved mixing patterns; years of wearing dull military uniforms inspired me to imitate a frivolous peacock.

Ahh, yes, the carriage navigated the last curve. I leaned forward. Massive Elidian Manor sprawled into view beyond the sweeping formal rose gardens and elaborate fountains. Three glittering five-story octagonal towers decorated the bulk. The front foyer bell tower, containing an amazing clock dripping with ponderous gears, stood before all. The clock was an ancient first-geared model, and, if it ever fell from its high perch, the massive weight would sink into the marble floor for many feet. If such a wicked event ever happened, I hoped no one stood below the tragic impact—well, at least no one I loved well.

I swore I felt my mother slap my head. Powers on High, why did I act damned morbid? I had arrived unscathed. I should rejoice in the news.

My favorite cousin appreciated his wonderful country home. He hated court. Keith monitored local politics for me. His watchful stance allowed me to imprison a few rebellious nobles who thought to support terrorist activities, while I battled first the Wolf Men during the gruesome Writhing Sea War, then dealt with Intainatar’s unexpected assault. Think again, fools.

Too often I felt like a waiting spider occupying an extremely large web. Fitting. Disturb a line, and snap! I supplied quick destruction via any technology at hand.

The carriage pulled to a jangling halt before the steps. Footmen scrambled from the front door and murmured hushed greetings at me. I stretched my legs before I walked up the stairs. My guards—Jasper, Colm, Laswell, and Jenkins—hastened forward to sweep my suite for any suspicious nastiness. My highly developed sense of caution demanded appeasement.

Keith’s butler Anders waited for me. The tall thin man embodied the textbook cliché of a well-mannered, efficient butler. I smiled as I remembered Keith’s joke about Anders. Keith swore that after Anders had emerged from the womb, the regal man had scolded his mother about the dreadful birthing mess. The stuffy infant had probably ordered the midwife to clean up the untidiness.

Anders walked forward. He bowed enough to act respectful toward me without seeming servile. He should teach butlering classes.

“My esteemed Prince Linden, how delightful to see you after all these years. We have missed your royal grace at the manor.”

“Thank you, Anders. I look forward to a lovely, relaxing holiday at this fair place.”

I followed him into the ornate foyer hall. Memories of standing here for the first time flooded my mind. The strong sun captured the upper clock tower’s swirling stained glass. Gleeful colors sprinkled across the stern gray stone walls until the black marble floor consumed their light. Dazzling. The bright spectacle already made me feel welcome.

I also treasured how my Aunt Masrie and Uncle Tybold had welcomed me. My mother’s sister understood how I needed escape from the palace and my wicked older brother. She had understood all too well.

Now her son welcomed me with equal love.

My trunks bobbed past along with my bags. I chuckled; it looked like my two travel trunks had sprouted legs. “Still running splendidly as always, eh, Anders?”

Raised voices echoing from the left interrupted Anders’s quiet reply. Scornful words violated the air.

“You annoying bore, I am ready, but he has arrived hours early! At least let me button my jacket.”

My, my, someone had a saucy attitude.

Anders’s scolding sniff punctuated the outburst. He thinned his lips before he twitched his right brow. He appeared ready to rip out a servant’s unruly soul.

“Excuse me, my Prince, there seems to be—”

A short young man dressed in a stylish black suit, not the normal dull rust livery, hastened from the left into the foyer. His abrupt arrival sent agitated waves through the foyer.

How odd. Why did I feel his agitation?

He rapidly buttoned his knee-length frock coat over his black silver-embroidered vest, adjusted his jacket, looked up, and froze, before he regained his composure and stared at the floor. He used his long black hair to curtain his face.

“A thousand pardons, Master Anders, erm, my esteemed Prince.” His melodic voice—ah, what an interesting accent—sounded breathless. “Forgive my shameful tardiness and unseemly behavior. Please forgive me. Please.”

The young man bowed lower until I feared for his balance. He straightened back up and took two more steps. He halted and bowed in a fresh dire tip. His short stature allowed his long hair to sweep the ebony marble floor. The two black hues swallowed each other.

Powers on High, his lively arrival rivaled an actor’s drama. My calming laugh fought against the unwelcome tension. “Please, young man, no need to fret. Cease the relentless bowing. Your constant up-and-down motion makes me dizzy.”

He needed to cease, since I wanted to see the fair face again to confirm my amazement.

The young man looked up. “Yes, my gracious Prince. My apologies.”

The words emerged from full lips set in a deep copper-hued, high-cheekboned face. Delicate violet swirls started at his right temple and meandered to his chin before winding around his neck. The languid swirls imitated wild Nerdean canyon rose canes—graceful, yet deadly. In the Southern Desert, the hunting canes hooked into their victims. The canes trapped their prey until the carnivorous blooms fed on the flesh. Since the roses sprang from old magic, they resisted all known modern pesticides.

There, today my knowledge of other races served me well. Before me stood a Southern Totandia elf of the ruling rank. The violet canes showed the elf’s startlingly high status. Up north, we seldom saw Totandians. Their ancient race now hid in the deep Nerdean canyonlands edging against the inhospitable South Inatoli Desert. They believed in nature’s rule and nothing else. Their attitude challenged modern thinking. In the past, my ruthless Serpent family had used lethal efficiency to ferret them out from the realm. Their subtle magics and strange, secret culture made the elves a target. After nearly destroying the race, now our country regarded them as handy slave fodder. Delicate in stature, they usually acted docile and nonviolent.

My scholarly heart regretted the destruction of such a mysterious race.

Still, the male’s features had a distinctly human cast, especially in the strong cheekbones and firm chin. As I recalled, pure elves had narrow faces and extremely pointed chins. No hint of the uniquely slanted Totandian eye structure met my examination, but his eyes displayed the unusual violet color befitting his noble rank. The robust coppery skin and one pointed ear tip peeking past his hair screamed elf, yet his long narrow nose appeared too pronounced for an elf’s. His compact muscular build also refuted his elven heritage.

Before me stood an exotic human-elven mixture, rare to see in this age.

Even more curious—something about the refined features sparked a hazy memory. How odd.

Another deep bow almost followed before the male conquered his instinct. He respectfully inclined his head. His wavy mane drifted around his face.

“I am Alasdaire, my esteemed Prince. During your visit here, my duty is to serve you to my full ability.”

To my surprise, Anders released a quiet but pointed huff. Coming from him, the sound counted as a cruel slap across the young man’s face.

“Yes, my Prince, since he knows you travel sans your normal staff, Lord Keith arranged for Alasdaire to be your personal slave.” Anders sniffed. “That is, if you will allow a lowly half-breed slave to serve you.”

Powers on High, I could have ice-skated on Anders’s last words. I disliked how Anders emphasized the slave aspect. I thought Keith had servants, not slaves. Hmm, a hidden story lurked here. I certainly wanted to give the unusual male a chance, especially since I understood what Alasdaire meant by serving me. Keith had remembered my fondness for fascinating young men.

“How lovely, yes, I heartily approve of my cousin’s special choice for me.” I sounded positive and upbeat—in fact, I sounded nauseatingly charming. Dreadful. “Anders, feel confident to leave me in Alasdaire’s company.”

I smiled at the watchful young half-breed. He quickly looked at the floor. Hmm, no mutual flirtation from a pleasure slave? Why?

“Very good, my Prince. If this particular slave annoys you, please let me know immediately. I shall correct the staffing error. Above all, I desire your complete satisfaction.”

Anders shot Alasdaire a deadly glare. I wondered why Anders despised this glorious male. Ah, sadly, the prejudice against elves ran strong in many men’s hearts. Such ill behavior from the normally stoic head butler bothered me.

Despite my annoyance, I nodded. “Thank you, Anders.”

Anders bowed and glared at Alasdaire one last time before he turned on his heel like a king departing from a council meeting. Even I never acted that regal. He paused to swivel back toward me.

“Ah, I almost forgot, my Prince. Master Adrian has comms from the palace for you.”

I managed not to sigh. “No surprise there, Anders. I’ll check in with Adrian later.”

Another stiff bow answered me. “Very good, my Prince.”

Around us, bustling footmen finished carrying my belongings up the grand staircase. I winced. Had I really brought along that much luggage? Gerald must have packed enough outfits to last for months. I would have been happy with one formal suit, casual clothing, and plenty of underwear.

I glanced back toward Alasdaire. He still frowned after Anders’s retreating back before he realized I watched his ire. He inclined his head with silent apology, then gazed up at me. In a flash, his expression turned blank as he banished his former passion.

“My Prince, it is time to create today’s schedule. Lord Keith and his guests currently attend Lord Lazio’s grand picnic. Do you want to join them?”

I held up my hand. “Please, absolutely not, Alasdaire. I wish to enjoy a light lunch along with a not so light drink, then a bath. Perhaps I’ll act slothful and indulge in a nap.”

I grinned with glee. Ahh, the thought of sprawling against a feather mattress thrilled my aching body. The last war had destroyed my stalwart constitution. Before this past week, a carriage ride had never defeated my body. My constant exhaustion bothered me. At least I knew no one had poisoned me—a personal ward spell guaranteed protection from common poisons.

My brother Edward had already tried to poison me.

He had regretted the attempt.

“Of course, my noble Prince. I shall arrange for your supreme comfort.”

Alasdaire signaled to four watching young pages. They stepped forward. He leaned down to issue orders. The boys bowed and scurried off in different directions.

Alasdaire turned back. He gracefully gestured forward.

“My Prince, I trust you enjoyed a pleasant journey from Rahalda? I understand the weather embraced calm, sunny conditions, unlike the recent unruly storms.”

“Pleasant enough, although it was a long journey. Five days of carriage travel taxed my old body.”

At least the young slave chatted with me. Normally everyone acted dumbstruck around this so-called mighty prince. Still, his words sounded mechanical and rehearsed, merely a pleasure slave’s trained interest. But I sensed his uniqueness. I wondered how many times Alasdaire had entertained Keith’s guests? Did he despise his pleasure-slave status? Hmm. Usually the pretty young men in such positions were well-treated, pampered pets, since they supplied the master or mistress discreet pleasure. Judging by how basely Anders treated him, this manor did not regard Alasdaire as special. How foolish of them. I certainly looked forward to enjoying this exotic creature’s company.

My self-pitying sigh made me sound in need of comfort. “I confess I feel battered as an old boot.”

“Now you may relax. You will be pleased to hear fresh weather graces us, Prince. The late-spring storms have passed on their way east. You will enjoy a lovely visit.” Alasdaire mounted the carved staircase.

Interesting. My new companion ignored my baiting words. He wasn’t prone to abject fawning. I appreciated the trait. I followed Alasdaire, taking the opportunity to admire his knee-high, pearl-button boots. The supple black leather sculpted his strong calves into delicious fullness.

We traveled down the long hall. Dreary portraits depicting dour deceased ancestors cluttered the walls. During my childhood visits, Keith and I had made up silly names for them. Lady Hortense Horseface, Duke Dreadful Drooler, and Sir Sticky Spankalot still scowled at me with painted menace. I scowled back at them.

We reached the far tower. Alasdaire halted and remembered not to bow. “Here is your usual suite, my Prince.”

“Yes, indeed, I remember this suite well.”

Jenkins saluted me. “All clear, Prince. Colm and I will take the first watch.”

“Fine, Jenkins. Locate chairs so you may guard in comfort. I don’t think anyone will try to ambush me here.”

A smile softened Jenkins’s sharp features. “One never knows, eh, Prince? But yes, thank you, chairs would be splendid.”

Alasdaire regarded the two powerful guards with surprise before his face assumed his professional demeanor. Yes, I allowed my guards to act casual toward me. I valued them too much to stand on ceremony. I knew each of them would die to protect me.

A glance into the dressing room beyond the large sitting room revealed opened, near-empty trunks. The efficient pages placed my apparel into drawers and closets. I nodded to two flushed pages, who bowed and quickly resumed their tasks, although the younger lad fumbled and dropped a shirt. How sad—everyone acted flustered when I entered a room. Quite tedious. Unlike my insane brother, I had never beheaded anyone for a simple, or even serious, mistake.

I was a reasonable Serpent Prince. No wonder my brother had tried to kill me.

I paused before the curved wall of windows and sighed. I stretched out my tense back muscles. Sprawling mountains tinted in dark grays and purples dominated the view beyond the large windows. “Too often I remember Summerlands as rolling hills, but Keith’s region has those remarkable Remnter Mountains. The vista is staggering, wild, and free.”

“Indeed it is, Prince. Just before dusk, the sunset illuminates this suite in rich colors—like you said, wild and free. If no one resides here and I am unoccupied, I slip in to experience the wonder. Sometimes I stare toward the west and wish I could see what dwells beyond the mountains.” Alasdaire hesitated. He frowned. “Forgive my foolish words, my Prince. It is impractical and ridiculous for a mere slave to imagine freedom.”

Really? Those revealing words made me arch my brows at the young man, but Alasdaire had already turned back to the bedroom to scold the pages over their clumsy clothes handling. Fine, let him pull rank. I took advantage of his absence and murmured my personal ward-reactivation spell. Ah, splendid. No one had ruined my spell signature. This ornate suite guaranteed me safe haven. I trusted Keith as a dear friend, but with so many guests milling around, better to feel secure. My insane brother had outlawed magic, but many people still deployed subtle little spells. I held no qualms about using added protection.

Alasdaire directed the arriving pages to set laden trays on the window-side table in the large sitting room. Bottles resting in ice buckets accompanied the trays. He twisted toward me to smile. His smile held no personality.

“Does this light meal look suitable, Prince?”

Alasdaire uncovered two silver trays supporting plates and bowls containing thickly sliced meats, cheeses, olives, herbed bread, three interesting vegetable salads, and a fruit bowl. Keith’s cook had even remembered to include a bowl containing black licorice bites. Over the years I’d become almost addicted to licorice’s flavor.

“The offering looks delicious and far from light. It appears Cook thinks I need a good meal.” I patted my middle and grinned.

Another perfunctory smile answered me. “My Prince, I offer you red or white wine from this land’s bountiful grapes.” Alasdaire paused. He cocked his head. “If I may be so bold, this year the estate’s white tastes truly charming.”

“Then, yes, Alasdaire, let me sample the white.”

I sank into the comfortable window-side chair. Once settled, I kicked off my short boots along with my black silk socks. Ahh, freeing my feet made me feel oddly carefree.

After he deftly yanked the cork free, Alasdaire poured a brimming measure and handed the cool crystal vessel to me. I sampled the wheat-hued liquid and smiled with satisfaction. Crisp, light, yet heady and potent. “Mmm, this wine tastes accomplished. The vintner definitely understood his grapes. Thank you, Alasdaire. It’s a fine recommendation.”

“Excellent, my Prince.” Alasdaire offered me another slight smile, but his violet stare never met mine. Instead, he arranged food on a plate, shook out my napkin, and displayed my silverware. “Do you need me to taste the food, my Prince?”

“There’s no need.” My personal ward spell told me nothing had tainted the food.

“Enjoy your meal, my Prince.”

Alasdaire’s smart little bow ended before his hair met the floor. He stepped back and stood by the table’s far end. The young man’s gaze focused on something outside the large window. He seemed to look at something distant and impossible past the mountains. Sunrays played over his noble cane twists and made them nearly iridescent.

It appeared my intriguing companion had switched off like an unwound automaton. Sad. I wanted him to react to me, not follow dreary protocol.