On the world of Terra Set, where the night is twice as long as the day and the moon more powerful than the sun, live the Star Mages. Essential to supporting the crops that feed the masses, they are protected men, revered, yet still mistrusted.
An ancient myth tells of a female mage born at the Silver Minute. She holds a magic that, shared with a mate, will be unequaled. Riena is that mage.
A ruthless king will stop at nothing to force Riena to take his son as mate. Her life and freedom depend on one challenge—hide as a man.
Brenna Lyons wears many hats, sometimes all on the same day: former president of EPIC, author of more than 95 published works, office administrator, columnist, special needs teacher, wife, mother...and member in good standing of more than 60 writing advocacy groups. In her first nine years published in novel-length, she's won 3 EPIC e-Book Awards (out of 15 finalists) and finaled for 3 PEARLS (including one Honorable Mention, second to NY Times Bestseller Angela Knight), 2 CAPAS, and a Dream Realm Award. She's also taken Spinetingler's Book of the Year for 2007. Brenna writes milieu-heavy dark fiction, mainly science fiction, fantasy and horror, straight genre, romance and erotic crosses, poetry, articles, and essays. She teaches everything from marketing to choosing an indie publisher, and she's been called "one of the most deviant erotic minds in publishing today" by Fallen Angels. Find out more about Brenna at Youtube
Brenna loves talking to readers and can be reached via her site at www.brennalyons.comAwards for Mundania/Phaze Books...
Finalist PEARL 2003 (Schente Night)
Finalist Dream Realm Award 2003 (Last Chance for Love)
Finalist CAPA 2004 (Written in the Stars)
Honorable Mention PEARL 2004 (Night Warriors)
Finalist PEARL 2004 (Konig Cursebreakers)
Finalist EPPIE 2004 (Fion's Daughter)
Finalist EPPIE 2006 (Rites of Mating)
Finalist EPPIE 2006 (All I Want for Christmas)
Runner-Up Love Romance's Cafe and More Best SF/F Book of the year 2008 (Last Chance for Love)
Finalist EPPIE 2008 (Phaze in Verse)
Finalist EPPIE 2009 (Coming Together: Under Fire)
Winner EPIC's eBook Awards 2010 (Time Currents)
Joyfully Reviewed's Best Books of 2010 (Written in the Stars)
Finalist EPIC's eBook Awards 2010 (Matchmaker's Misery)
Finalist EPIC's eBook Awards 2011 (The Master's Lover)
Finalist EPIC's eBook Awards 2011 (Bride Ball)
In Written in The Stars, I talk about how Riena is conceived, in general terms, but the image of the widow and widower taking solace in each other has always haunted me. It’s time that Ellien was given a voice.
Ellien paused, the platter of hot food balanced on her arm.
The Great Mage Andren sat cross-legged in the field, his red robes opened to his waist, staring at the moon with a near-heartbreaking look on his beautiful face. He was of the typical slight build, his face and chest smooth and hairless. Like all Mages, he had dark eyes, pale skin and dark hair that hung loose around his shoulders. Andren’s was heavily streaked with gray, though she couldn’t guess if it was due to his age—impossible to surmise, given his appearance as a Mage—or the great strain he found himself under.
“What do you want, woman?” his companion barked.
She jumped, nearly overturning the tray in surprise. He moved quietly for so massive a man, as quietly as she imagined Andren’s usual royal bodyguard would move.
He advanced, forcing her back another step. “I asked you a question, farmer’s daughter.”
“F-food,” she stammered. “My father bid me bring Great Mage Andren his meal, as was agreed. You can collect the rest on the morrow...at your leisure.”
“And, does your father bid you bring other comforts, as well?” He scowled, making his meaning and his disapproval clear in a single look.
Her face heated. “Nay! My father would never—”
“Would he not?” he taunted.
Even had she been willing to consider such a thing, her father would never have suggested it to her. Telan doted on her and always had; he would never have suggested something that would cause her unease.
“Does a father often push widows in mourning sashes at an unwilling mourning Mage?” she countered hotly.
A knot rose in her throat at the thought of Regald, and she blinked back tears. She would not give this oaf the satisfaction of seeing how the very thought of what he accused could wound her. To him, she was a farmer’s daughter, a scheming vixen in search of a Mage’s seed.
“Let her through, Elden.”
Ellien snapped her gaze to the Great Mage then bowed her head reverently.
“Bring the tray,” he continued.
The companion backed off a pace, and Ellien rounded him, lowering the tray to the ground within Andren’s reach. She started to rise.
“Stay a while,” he requested, waving his companion away.
“I would not presume to impose myself upon your grief,” Ellien whispered in response.
“I should...” He sighed. “I should like to speak with another who suffers.”
She nodded, settling to the ground. “If it pleases you.”
Andren shook his head, his jaw tightening. “I fear nothing pleases me now.”
“Were you... Apologies, Great One. It was an impertinent question and one I have no right to pose.”
“Soulbound?” He looked back to the moon. “Yes. We were.”
Ellien considered her response carefully. Offering her sympathies that he’d soulbound would offend him. A Star Mage’s happiest memories were those of his soulbound years and the act of meeting the Grand Rebirth of Mother Moon to bind. Yet, losing the other half of your soul was excruciating, something unable to be borne for long. “I understand,” she whispered.
He stared at her, his expression unreadable.
“I do not,” she conceded. “How could I?” Losing Regald didn’t mean she’d follow him to death, though she’d mused it might be easier than the pain of his loss more than once in the last ten moon cycles.
A touch of a smile softened his face. “Then you are wiser than most, with their empty words and false smiles.”
“That is nearly the worst of it,” she agreed. It almost seemed a happier thing for Andren to travel, isolated this way, than to face the likes of it.
“Yes. It is.”
There was a moment of silence between them, though not an uncomfortable one. Andren took a slice of roast from the tray and chewed on it.
The movement uncovered more of his chest to the strength of the moon’s radiance at a simple night of rebirth. Ellien wondered at that. She’d met lesser Star Mages before. Unless they were channeling their magic into the plants and soil, they typically covered most of their skin to a strong moon such as this. The alternative, she’d been told, was very uncomfortable.
Andren met her eyes, and she looked away. It wouldn’t do to appear rude.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Of?” he prodded after a moment of awaiting more.
“Bentin. My husband was Regald of Bentin.”
“The Bentin are fine farmers,” he noted simply.
“Yes. He was.” Regald had also been a doting husband and a fine father, but Ellien didn’t want to hear reminders of it from someone who couldn’t know it...or even someone who could. She’d heard too much of it, empty words, meaningless platitudes.
Another silence fell, and Andren partook of fruit and ale.
“Suson was my mate.” He said it simply, without embellishment or show of emotion.
Ellien nodded, at a loss to comment. She had no clue what family the woman might have hailed from. Even had she, the affairs of noble families had never been of interest to her. And, it was unlikely that Andren wanted to hear compliments. If she didn’t, it only stood to reason that he would feel similarly about the subject.
“She has been gone more than a season.”
“So long?” Ellien managed in shock. How could he survive so long with his soul ripped in two?
Andren nodded, setting down his cup of ale. “And yours?” His inquiry was polite, but she sensed that he sought something in it.
“Ten moon cycles and four nights.”
He panned his eyes from her face to the white sash of mourning at her waist. “Yet, your father has not shaken you from grief? He is a rare man to allow you so long in your pain.”
Ellien managed a strained smile. “I think he means to keep me close in his waning years, and I know he sees my son as an asset he would have for his land and not another’s.”
“You have a son.”
“Rosher,” she supplied. “He is eleven years.”
“Have you any others?”
“No. The Mother never blessed us again.” She studied his wistful smile. “And you?” she asked bluntly. “Did The Mother bless you and your Suson?”
“Repeatedly. I have two sons and two daughters. All are grown or nearly so.”
What could she say to that? It was wonderful and yet tragic. The only blessing was that he’d seen them grow. The need to laugh warred with the tears stinging her eyes, and her face felt pulled into one expression after another.
“You do understand.” His voice held a note of relief. “I have long prayed for someone who would.”
Ellien swallowed a lump in her throat. “If it gives you ease, I thank The Mother that I can.”
“Even though it is your pain that allows it?”
“Is it better to feel pain alone or shared? Your prayers indicate that you agree shared is better.”
“You are very wise, Ellien of Bentin.”
“If I am, I have simply learned life’s lessons well.”
“Thus grows most wisdom.”
“Yes. Most probably. Such a pity that it seems the only way.” She looked to the moon, marveling at the beauty and power of The Mother.
“What are you thinking, Ellien?”
She met his eyes, her gaze trailing to his bare chest from there. “How is it that you can soak up Mother Moon’s radiance this way, when She is so strong? Is it because you are a Great Mage?” Ellien blushed, abruptly aware that she sounded like a curious child or the uneducated farmer’s daughter she undeniably was.
He chuckled. “Even I am not that strong. Even Evard is not.”
She winced at the near-sacrilege of saying such a thing about the king but held her tongue. No doubt, Andren knew King Evard well; they were cousins of a sort, after all.
“I am channeling the magic slowly into your father’s lands.”
“But, why... This—this is a tremendous strain, and...”
“And? The strain is not so much. It gives me purpose for the time The Mother grants me here. Why should I not do it?”
“There was no payment,” she protested.
“I have no need of money.”
“Yes. I suppose that is true. You did request much less for your service than even a Mason Mage would have.” Considering the fact that he was on a mourning pilgrimage, that wasn’t surprising. “But, it is too much gift to—”
“Consider your company as equal trade. It means more to me than the outlay of power.”
Ellien looked to the moon again, her emotions rioting at the thought that anyone would think a bit of conversation as precious as what several bags of gold would not typically buy. “Then I thank you. This will mean a lot to my father and brother.”
“What would mean a lot to you, Ellien?”
She sighed. “Nothing you can give, I fear, just as nothing I can give would bring you true joy.”
“There are always memories,” he continued, heedless of her dismissal. “There are always shades of what once made us happy.”
Ellien considered that. “Some nights, happy memories are all that make life worth another day.”
Andren moved to her side. “Indeed, they do. Tell me your most precious memory, Ellien. I have coin enough to make it again.”
Her cheeks darkened. “It is not a matter that gold can make, though I thank you for your concern.”
He turned her face toward him; her skin tingled in the glow of his magic.
“Tell me,” he requested.
It sounded as if his very existence into the moonset depended on an answer, and so she gave him one. “Regald set aside a portion of his land for me. He... It was ridiculous, something no farmer would do. His father was livid.”
“Tell me.” His eyes pleaded with her to continue.
“He planted a bed of flowers for me, seasonals so there would always be color and sweet smells for me, even if I had to brush away the early snows to find them.”
Andren smiled. “That is all?”
Her cheeks burned fiercely in the memory of how Regald used those flowers to bring her pleasure.
“I see,” he whispered.
Ellien didn’t doubt that he did. And, he no doubt also sees why he can never make the memory for me again. Her heart ached in the loss of the promise, though she’d always known it was impossible.
The scent of flowers teased her first. Soft petals appeared around her without sprouting and growing first. The numb realization that he was transforming the winter crops around them to a field of flowers shook her when it settled fully in her mind.
Andren was incredibly powerful. Few Mages could transform the essence of one plant to that of another, let alone countless others as a field of flowers demanded of him.
They thickened, strengthened, their scent intensifying. The net of their roots spread, and new blooms appeared between the rows, creating a solid mat of silken blooms. Ellien gasped as they shifted her, lifting her from the dirt, the work of a hundred hands and more making light the task. And still, they grew.
Andren’s eyes reflected a hunger, a want that Ellien thought she’d never see in a man’s eyes again. Without a thought, she touched his chest, pushing his robes from his shoulders.
His mouth covered hers, the kiss of a man who needs desperately. She didn’t deny him. How could she, when they could offer each other such comfort?
It is a fleeting thing, the joining of bodies for but a night.
Ellien didn’t delude herself that it could be more than that. Andren had been soulbound to Suson. His heart and soul belonged to another, but his body and battered mind demanded what ease she could provide.
There were no questions between them, no rationalization of what they were doing. Andren untied her mourning sash and pushed up at her dress, following her down onto the thick quilt of fragrant flowers.
Her dress retreated further, and his body pressed to hers, smooth skin brushing her flesh. His hands left her for a moment then returned, waking her to the pleasures she’d all but forgotten existed between a man and woman.
The head of his cock pressed to her seam, and she rose to meet him.
“Andren, please,” she begged.
He was inside her in one fierce thrust. She cried out at the sensation of his magic massaging her inner muscles, sensitizing her to his touch. It was a wonderful gift, and she wanted more.
Ellien wrapped her arms and legs around him, urging him on toward climax, meeting his thrusts. He groaned as climax took her, following moments later. His heat buffeted the magic-soaked walls of her sheath, making her weak in continuing waves of release. Sparks of his magic surrounded her and filled her.
It was unlike anything she’d experienced with Regald. That fact alone expunged the slight sense of guilt at taking Andren in his place in such a way.
In the aftermath, the flowers’ scent seemed to intensify, a heady fragrance that made her head swim.
Andren traced the line of her lower lip with his sensitive fingertips. “You give me such ease,” he whispered.
“I regret only that it cannot last,” she countered. “Just as these flowers cannot.”
His brow furrowed. “Why should they not?”
“My father is a practical man, a rational man with an eye to his accounts. He will reclaim this ground, just as Regald’s father reclaimed that which my husband planted and tended for me.” That simply, her sadness returned.
A look of determination settled on his fine features. “He will never reclaim this land.”
“Andren?” She winced then reasoned that they’d known such intimacy as to make familiar address expected.
Still, what could he be thinking? Telan of Gerin would never sell this land to the Great Mage as a gift to her, at any price, not even to see Ellien happy.
“Give me ease once more, Ellien. Give me ease, and I will weave a magic your father will never break. Not with a hundred rebirths and a thousand Star Mages will he undo it.”
The concept stunned her to silence.
“Will you give me ease once more?”
She nodded shakily. “I will, Andren. I will give you ease.” And ease us both in the bargain.
* * *
Ellien looked at the setting moon, laughing aloud, tears misting her eyes. The scent of her flowers washed over her, even from a distance, and she said a silent thanks to Andren yet again. She added one to The Mother hurriedly, not wanting to insult the kind benefactress so.
True to Andren’s vow, the magic could not be undone. The flowers endured all, rising renewed at every moonrise, despite her father’s attempts to reclaim the land. In the end, after more than a moon cycle of trying to destroy them, Telan had grudgingly conceded that the increased production of the other fields more than made up for the loss of the one.
She picked up her mourning sash, biting back a new peel of mirth. How could she wear such a thing, when all was so very right in her world? When there was such joy in her heart?
Determined, she marched to the kitchen with it in her hand. It was time for a change. “Long past time.”
Belin didn’t look up when she entered the room. Her younger brother by three years was busy building up the fire as she would have done more than an hour earlier on any normal morning. This was not a normal morning. Even their father must have felt something of the difference and as such had ordered Belin not to wake her to her chores.
“You slept late,” Belin noted, his voice cold and clipped.
“I did.” She answered in kind.
“I sent Rosher to his chores.”
“My thanks for it.” He’d no doubt done it without allowing her son food in punishment, but she would right that soon enough.
Telan looked up from his accounts, assessing her. “Are you well, Ellien? You look pale, and it is unlike you to miss the start of day.”
“Quite well, Father.” She was. Despite her discomfort, she felt she could fly to Mother Moon.
Ellien didn’t hesitate. She reached around Belin’s shoulder and threw her mourning sash into the red-orange flames of the new fire, watching them lick up its length and burn white-hot for a long moment.
Belin turned abruptly, his look calculating. She could nearly follow his thoughts through the expense of hiring a woman to do her work if she left them again, weighed against the loathsome-to-him option of marrying and bringing a wife home to do what they would otherwise have to hire out for.
Her father’s voice broke the moment between them...and added to the tension in the room at the same time. “You have decided to take another husband?” he inquired.
“I have not. I believe I will never do that,” she assured him, smiling in her unbridled joy.
“Then what?” He watched her warily.
Ellien’s smile spread in spite of the near threat of violence in the air around her. “I carry a child.”
Belin muttered a series of curses.
Telan took to his feet, his jaw tight in fury. “What man fathered it?”
“You need not fear a claim on your land, Father. Great Mage Andren is the sire.”
His anger melted into shock then to a look of calculation that rivaled Belin’s. His thoughts were no harder to gauge. The prospect of a young Star Mage, in service to Telan and his lands until the age of adulthood, was quite the prize, especially when it was the child of one as powerful as Andren. Such a thing was beyond comprehension, impossible to lay a price to. And the fact that she meant not to marry again indicated that the child would be Telan’s to order.
Her father’s expression settled on one she’d seen often, the pride he’d always had for her. “Well met, Ellien.”
She darkened at the inference that she’d planned this, as Andren’s companion had once accused she would, as many farmer’s daughters conspired to win heirs of Star Mages. Ellien straightened, raising her chin in challenge. “Believe what you will of me.”
Telan crossed the room, taking Ellien’s hands in his own and guiding her to the table. “Belin, fetch milk and bread. No doubt, your sister’s pallor may be attributed to the complaints of the Great Mage’s son.”
Belin grumbled complaints, but he complied, plunking the mug of milk down before her so that it sloshed over onto her sleeve. She didn’t need to hear his words to guess that her brother envisioned himself a slave sold into the service of a young Mage already.
“Now,” Telan continued. “All due care will be taken with this child, of course.”
“Of course,” Belin mimicked. “I suppose the boy and I will be drawing water and lifting—”
Ellien jumped, her heart pounding. Their father rarely raised his voice. In truth, he rarely had to; no one tested him needlessly.
Telan handed Ellien a slab of bread left from the evening meal, patting her hand to calm her. “The flowers?” he hinted.
She cleared her throat, looking away from Belin’s scowl. “A gift to me. Our child was conceived amidst them.”
He chuckled then laughed outright, long and hard. “I see. You must choose a proper name for one of House An...for the Great Mage’s son...Andle or Angen.”
“Anden.” Ellien pressed a hand to her womb. She’d thought hard on the matter in the half moon cycle she’d waited for positive signs that her body was not simply off cycle. “Or Riena, for a girl.” She’d always loved the name; she had intended to name her daughter Riena, had The Mother blessed her and Regald with one.
Belin snorted rudely. “You would produce a female, just to spite me,” he accused.
Telan sighed. “If The Mother chooses to bless Ellien with a female, it is Her wish to do so. She will still be the daughter of a Great Mage and more likely to produce young Mages when she takes a husband.”
Ellien let them plot. It mattered not what they thought about her child. Andren had given her the greatest gift imaginable—not her flowers but hope and purpose as she hadn’t felt since Regald’s passing. He’d given her ease that would last past the moment, though she was incapable of doing the same for him.
Juno 16th, 4005
Riena skipped through the crops under the disappearing crescent of the moon, finding the flower circle where she’d been born effortlessly, even in the dim light of almost total night. She wasn’t allowed to come here. Her grandfather would be furious that she had, but Riena didn’t believe in silly superstitions, and tonight would be a Grand Rebirth of Mother Moon. When she’d been five, Riena hadn’t understood why a Grand Rebirth was so significant to her. Now she was ten, and she knew the truth of who she was.
She’d heard some of the women in the village talking, hidden herself behind a basket of early fruits to hear it all. They didn’t believe her grandfather’s warnings that the circle was a sign of evil any more than Riena did. The women whispered about the magic of the circle, love magic.
The women from the village came to the circle quarterly, on the nights of rebirth, seeking the mother’s blessing of a child with men they convinced to the flower circle with them. Her grandfather had chased many amorous couples from the circle, but tonight he would not venture near. On the night of the Grand Rebirth, not even her grandfather dared pass the borders of Ellien’s ring of flowers.
The circle had been a near-barren spot far on the outreaches of her grandfather’s land three seasons before Riena’s birth. Then Great Mage Andren passed through on his pilgrimage. On the night of the moon’s rebirth, Andren brought strength to the land in exchange for three days at her grandfather’s table and a week’s worth of food upon leaving, much less than a Mage of his station would normally charge for such a service. Unknown to Grandfather at the time, Andren also enjoyed the comforts of Ellien’s body and created a lush flower garden of their passion in that once-barren place.
When Ellien’s time came, she took it as a sign that the moon would rebirth grand and went to her flowers to deliver Riena alone. The women whispered that Riena had been born in the Silver Minute, though surely no one could know that for certain.
They said her grandfather made a pyre of the circle to take her mother’s cold body, but the flowers wouldn’t burn. He tried cutting the flowers, poisoning them, and even plowing them under, but Ellien’s flowers always appeared untouched at next moonrise.
Riena sobered at what else the women said. They said her grandfather would have thrown Riena to the pyre were it not for Rosher’s pleas and Grandfather’s fear of the Great Mage’s magic protecting what was his. Her grandfather had sent for the Mage, anxious to be rid of Riena, but Andren’s eldest son, the new Great Mage Andrel of house An, responded that his father was dead and refused responsibility for “a bastard that Andren likely hadn’t sired.”
Legally, Riena was her grandfather’s responsibility, but more than that, he feared the magic that might protect her and had no wish to test its strength.
Riena’s life had been comfortable but empty. She wasn’t beaten or deprived of food and clothing, but the only love she knew was Rosher’s. Ellien’s son with her first mate acted as both mother and father to Riena despite being only eleven years her senior.
Her grandfather and uncle preferred to ignore Riena’s presence unless pressed by Rosher for money necessary to her upkeep. The villagers watched her warily, though Riena had no idea why they mistrusted her. Even the women didn’t divulge that.
She stilled in her wandering through the flowers, looking to the moon with a smile. Mother Moon was fully dark, an occurrence that never lasted long on Terra Set, where the nights were twice again as long as the days year-round and the light of the night sky almost as nourishing as the watery sunlight for supporting the food they ate—moreso if one considered the power of the Star Mages. Soon, the moon would rebirth as she did every three months, and the Silver Minute that only occurred at high summer every five years would be upon the world.
Riena lay back in the thick grass, careful not to crush too many of the flowers, in case the stories of their restorative powers were false. The first sliver of the moon reappeared, and Riena shouted her wish to the black sky that matched her Mage’s hair. “Mother Moon! Grant me knowledge of my parents. I would know myself better by it.” She laughed in joy as silver light raced over the countryside, brighter than the gray daylight of high summer, a season’s worth of energy for the struggling crops in a few precious moments.
The wave reached her, and Riena’s breath caught in surprise. The light was warm, and it seemed to trace her skin like a thousand fingertips. This was the power the Mages felt. She was certain that it was, but why could she feel it? Was this what she would know of her father? If so, it was precious.
“Riena.” Rosher’s voice was pleading but edged in annoyance. “If you do not return to your bed, Grandfather will assign you extra duties in punishment.”
She didn’t answer—couldn’t answer in her state of rapture at the sensations of the Silver Minute.
“Riena,” he warned, probably believing her hiding from him.
The warmth became a burning, the comfort of fingers akin to the touch of a cauter brand. Riena shook her head, unable to break her connection with the growing moon. Panic set in.
“Riena, answer me.”
She would have given anything to answer Rosher. Riena opened her mouth to answer him, but her lungs refused to work. The pain intensified until she felt she’d incinerate. Surely, Mother Moon didn’t mean for her to feel Ellien’s pyre.
But, feel it she did. Riena bowed up, venting a scream of pain and terror mixed, forcing the sound past lips that trembled and a throat that felt like iron in the blast of the forge. The fire blazed bright around her, searing her eyes with its heat.
The Silver Minute passed. She collapsed to the grass, gasping for breath as the fire sped away from her skin, lighting the fields then disappearing into the black depths of the night. Riena wept. She should have known better than to ask the Goddess for such a frivolous wish.
“By the Mother,” Rosher exclaimed. He was suddenly with her, smoothing Riena’s hair and wiping tears from cheeks that felt raw. “Riena, speak to me. Are you well?”
Riena met his eyes, shivering in the sudden chill surrounding her. “I burned,” she gasped.
He nodded, scooping Riena to his chest. “All will be well,” he vowed.
All of her senses were overly sensitized. The moonlight seemed too bright. Rosher’s touch was painful. The smell of flowers pressed in on her. Even the sound of her grandfather’s shouting seemed too loud. Then sleep claimed her.
* * *
Rosher winced at his grandfather’s look of fury. He’d known Riena’s show of power would bring the old man’s displeasure. He only hoped he could convince Telan not to punish Riena for what she was.
“Leave,” Telan demanded. “Take that demon with you and leave.”
“Grandfather,” he reasoned.
“She’s ruined us,” he thundered. “Look at what she’s done.”
Rosher scanned his eyes over the fields of flowers, fields that had been bursting with grain until the Silver Minute claimed Riena as its own. The fields would have to be uprooted and re-soiled before crops were planted again. Their food and earnings for the year were largely forfeit. Only the orchards, animals, and the coin they’d amassed over years of successful farming stood to supplement the dried food stores until next year.
He nodded. “But, Riena is a Star Mage, Grandfather. The Master Mage in Verin can teach her. Until her twentieth year, you can trade Riena’s services for whatever you wish, and our own crops will know no equal but the king’s own in all of Voria. Is that not beyond price for a single year of lean times?”
“Trade what? Who wants fields of worthless flowers?” Telan scowled at Riena, as if she had a choice in what mayhem she loosed when tested this way.
“She is untrained. No young Mage is perfect.”
Telan met Rosher’s eyes. “Hear me well. I have tolerated this demon thus far only for the fine work you have offered for her keep, but I can ignore this foul omen no longer. I want you off of my land while Belin and I try to salvage what we can.”
Rosher looked to his uncle in distaste. Telan hated Riena for taking away his precious Ellien, but this move wasn’t Telan’s alone. The old man feared Great Mage Andren’s spirit watching over his child from the stars too much to do this without Belin’s urging.
“Should I take her to the Master Mage and return with Riena in the spring to right this?” That would relieve Telan of their keep for more than half a year while promising great rewards at their return. The Master in Verin would surely take them in that long.
“I care not where you take her as long as you leave this night and never return.”
Rosher shook his head, stunned near into silence by that statement. “How will we survive?”
“That is your difficulty. If you will not abandon the Great Mage’s spawn to whatever fate he makes for her, you will share her fate.”
He looked to Riena, his stomach churning at the thought of leaving her to the winds of chance. “Nay,” he whispered. “We will take what is ours and leave.”
“Your clothing and nothing more.”
“It is five days walk to the Master at Verin,” Rosher protested.
“Mayhap her empty belly will still her hand.”
Rosher bit back a curse at that and strode inside, collecting their clothing and boots into their cloaks under Belin’s watchful eye. His eyes passed over sheets he could use as bandages for Riena. Rosher forced down his longing. No doubt, he would sacrifice one of his own work tunics by morning to heal her.
He left, a sour taste in his mouth at what was stolen from them. Rosher could feel his uncle’s glare on his back deep into the field of flowers.
Octen 24th, 4005
Riena looked up at the palace gates, her empty stomach rolling, scowling at Rosher’s attempts to clean the road dust from her nose. “What if they turn us away?” she asked.
Winter was little more than a month off. Already, the nights were bitterly cold, and Riena huddled beneath Rosher’s cloak with him to survive the night.
They’d made it this far by day-laboring for farms to fill their bellies, though the sunlight made her eyes water and her body weary. The season was ending, and no farm would hire on a permanent servant at this time of year. If the King refused them, as the Master Mage at Verin had, they were lost.
“They cannot,” Rosher assured her, though his eyes were haunted in the shadow of his failure with the Master Mage. “If we beg an audience, they must hear us out.”
Riena nodded stiffly. But, will they believe us and help? They are not required to do that.
She looked to the approaching guard. It was a tall woman of about Rosher’s height. Like all royal bodyguards, she was female—fast, strong, silent, and deadly protectors to the Mages who led them.
“What is your business?” the guard demanded.
Rosher sank to his knees, lowering his face in a sign of servitude. “We beg an audience, mi’lady.”
Riena stood straight and tall, as Rosher told her she should. She was a Star Mage and should kneel only to a Mage her better.
The guard’s eyes bored into her. “This ragged child knows not her place,” she sneered.
“I know my place,” Riena snapped. “I am a Star Mage in search of training.”
The woman laughed. “You jest. There has not been a female Mage in more than a millennium.”
Rosher took Riena’s hand, mindful of her scars as always, stilling the protest gathering steam in her breast. “My sister is a Star Mage. I have seen her magic. Please, mi’lady. We must see His Majesty.”
The guard nodded. “I warn you. If this is a trick, His Majesty will not be kind to you or your young charge.” She opened the gate and waved them through, closing it carefully behind them.
The gardens were expansive, full of flowers Riena recognized—and many she didn’t. Rosher hissed a warning when she reached for a blue flower she’d never seen before. Riena pulled her hand back, darkening at the reminder. These were not her flowers to handle, no matter how much she missed her circle.
“The girl will stay here, until she is called for,” the guard instructed.
“But how can His Majesty—” Rosher began.
“In due time. For now, he would see you alone.” She glanced at Riena. “You may touch the flowers. The Trainee Mages will repair any damage you do.” She led Rosher away, before Riena could protest her assumption that there would be damage to repair.
The moon was peeking over the palace walls, the nearly full moon that sent tendrils of power coursing through her veins, though only Riena’s face and hands were exposed to its rays. Riena touched the blue flower, inviting it to grow and smiling as its petals turned to her hand in thanks. So lost was she in her play that she didn’t hear the boy approaching.
* * *
Karris scowled at the girl. What was this filthy urchin doing in the royal gardens? From the dull hair that spoke of a week without soap and her threadbare cloak, he surmised she was the daughter of a widow here to beg winter employ from his father.
Every year, they came in droves, expecting his father to save them all. If that was their purpose, they’d wasted their trip. His father had taken on all he could two weeks earlier.
She didn’t note his presence. The girl appeared deep in thought, her fingers stroking absently at the petals of the Blue Lady before her.
“Do not touch that flower,” he snapped.
She jumped, looking to him then to the Blue Lady. “The guard said—”
“I care not what the guard said.” The guard does not have to fix the damage. Master Caiben will make me repair it, and Blue Ladies are difficult to heal. That guard no doubt revels in the chance to make me do something I loathe, as all the guards seem to. “Leave the gardens.” Better the chance that she will not cause me more practice this night.
Her cheeks darkened past the already deep hue of the typical night-sleeper. “I was ordered to stay here.”
Karris bristled at that. His annoyance grew, as she stared into his face without any show of humility. “Who are you?”
“My name is Riena,” she offered simply.
“Of what family?”
She hesitated. “I have only my brother, but his name is not mine to claim, since different men sired us.”
Her hand returned to the Blue Lady, as if the texture soothed her. Blue Ladies were known for their delicate petals, delicate enough to tickle a Star Mage’s tender hands, and so his father surrounded himself with them as many affluent Mages did.
“What of your mother?” he pressed her.
“Dead at my birth. Since both her family and my father’s have forsaken me, I can claim no family.”
Her shaking fingers bruised and creased the petals she touched. Karris cringed at that. It would take quite a bit of power to repair damage so deep. He pushed her away from the flower, grumbling a curse as the petals tore.
“I told you not to touch it,” he complained, envisioning the lesson Master Caiben would serve him for this, the hour or more of meticulous release into the flower, until it showed no sign of abuse.
Riena stiffened. “Had you not pushed me,” she shouted.
He rounded on her. “Does being of no family cause this insufferable rude attitude, or is it your normal state of being?”
“Does being of a noble family cause yours?” she countered hotly.
Karris gaped at her. “Did no one ever teach you the proper address for your betters?”
Her eyes widened, searching over his clothing for any sign of his station and finding none, save the blue trim of the royal family. Her eyes passed over it without sign of recognition.
His father felt it beneath the “Vorian Heir” to wear the mark of his current rank, since all knew what color he would eventually wear, and so Karris wore no robes or sashes of Apprentice Purple that the girl might see.
“You are young to be a sealed Star Mage,” she noted. “Have you completed your training?”
“Nay.” He tried to keep the edge out of his voice at that. Mother help me! Please, not another fool who believes only a sealed Mage is worthy of respect. “But that—”
She sighed in relief. “Then you are not my better,” she decided.
“Of course, I am,” he exploded, cursing his lack of control over this situation. “Though I have not been tested at the Silver Minute—”
Riena threw back her head and laughed.
Karris glared at her. Black rage built within him. She was laughing at him. How dare she laugh at him! The blasted moon fed the force of his anger.
He smiled at the idea taking shape in his mind. Riena would learn her place. She would learn the power of a Star Mage, whether it be an Apprentice like himself or the king he would one day be.
Her laughter choked off on a startled cry, as the thorn pierced her thumb, driving nearly through to the bone before Karris called a halt. Riena jerked her hand away from the bush, shooting him a look of surprise.
Karris shrugged, biting back a laugh of his own. “One should not taunt a Star Mage,” he instructed her. “One never knows what his response may be to it.”
Riena nodded, her eyes promising retribution she dared not seek. “Mayhap that is a lesson you need to learn better,” she whispered.
He jerked, as something surrounded his wrist, grinding his teeth against a scream of pain as the thorns bit deep. The stalk continued to grow, wrapping strands around his arm, points turned inward in mute warning.
Karris reined in his fear, soaking up the moon’s radiance. The stalk halted at his command then loosened. He met Riena’s eyes as he ordered the plant to retreat. Her smug smile disappeared, and fear took its place. She looked to the stalk, no longer under her control, and bolted for the palace.
He nodded, pulling his bloodied hand free of her trap. “Run,” he growled, “but you will not escape me.”
* * *
Rosher knelt, while King Etan stood beneath the moon, stripped to the waist and tending his fields with practiced ease.
The king sighed and turned to him. “And what boon do you seek?” he asked, as if weary of hearing petitions, though moonrise marked the beginning of a Mage’s work. “If you have come seeking a place in service—”
“Nay, Majesty. I seek only training for my sister—and perhaps award of a bit of our dead mother’s land that we might live.”
“Training?” He looked to the guard who’d showed Rosher in. “What training does she seek, Reesa? As a bodyguard?”
Reesa bowed her head. “They say the child is a Star Mage,” she offered in a voice that spoke her doubts.
Rosher winced at that. “She is a Mage. If you but test her— I beg only a proving. The Master at Verin would not—”
“Enough,” King Etan ordered. He pulled a tunic over his lean body, brushing his dark hair away from whiskerless cheeks. He looked every bit the powerful Star Mage he was, fragile in form but housing a power that made burly men shake in fear. “Has it come to this again?” he cursed.
“Pardon?” Rosher asked.
“I take it the girl was born on the night of the Grand Rebirth?”
Rosher nodded. “Ten years ago.”
“At the Silver Minute?” he prodded.
“None can say.”
The king looked back at him in surprise, his eyes narrowing. “Really?”
“Our mother died bringing Riena forth. She was dead, when we found them.”
“What makes you believe your sister is a Star Mage then? If not the ancient stories about the girl born in the Silver Minute?”
“I have seen her magic. On the night of the Grand Rebirth past—”
“Impossible,” the king snapped. “An untrained Mage cannot possibly survive such a channeling. It is a trick of some sort. Another Mage—”
“It was not,” Rosher insisted. “You were not there to hear her screams, to see the sweat on her brow, to see the change move from her over the entire field.”
“It cannot be.”
“It injured her,” he pleaded. “I tended the marks.”
The king stilled, looking to the window, suppressing what appeared to be a shiver. “Describe them. These marks... What did they look like?”
“Burns on her hands, feet, and face. On all of her exposed flesh. It looked as if she stepped into a plume of steam. Her hands blistered the next morn.”
He rubbed a hand over his smooth chin and looked to Reesa. “Her looks?” he asked quietly.
She scowled. “The child has the look of a Mage, but many children do. When a Star Mage finds solace in a local wench—”
“Her father was a Great Mage,” Rosher offered. “Mayhap, Riena’s magic can be attributed to—”
“Which one?” the king interrupted him. “Which Great Mage sired her?”
“Great Mage Andren.”
Reesa stepped toward him, her face twisted in fury. “Liar,” she growled.
King Etan placed a hand on her arm to still her. “You should collect your sister and be on your way, before I give Reesa leave to kill you both.” His voice was as cold as his eyes.
Rosher’s head spun. “You would cast out a young Mage to die in the coming winter?” If the king refused them, there was no hope of survival. “You would refuse her a proving?”
“You have been proven false,” Reesa shouted.
“I told no falsehoods,” he protested, sick at losing their last chance in so senseless a way.
“My father would never have forsaken my mother’s memory that way.”
“My father. When my mother died, he went on a pilgrimage to seek the Mother’s rest. Half a year later, Andren was dead. He would not have lain with—” She took a deep breath, as if restraining herself from qualifying the wanton she believed Ellien to be.
“Mayhap he was weary and in need of a woman’s hands. Mayhap he felt a kinship in that my mother was less than a year as a widow when Andren passed through. But never doubt that Ellien knew no other man to have sired Riena.”
Reesa reached for her weapon. “You go too far.”
“Then kill us now and quickly,” he challenged. “It would save us the trouble of starving to death or freezing slowly.” Rosher’s heart pounded in terror at the thought that she might take him at his rash words and lay the blade in her hand to Riena’s throat as she no doubt wished to.
For a hand of heartbeats, Reesa stared at him, seemingly shocked to silence by his demand for death.
Then Riena bolted through the open doorway, falling to her knees into his outstretched arms. She shook, looking to the doorway in undisguised fear.
“What is it?” Rosher asked, forgetting for a moment that Reesa intended to end his concern with the slice of her blade.
“A young Mage,” she panted, wiping blood from her injured thumb on the skirt of her gown.
Rosher said a silent prayer that there was a second young Star Mage in the palace—that she’d not crossed the prince and sealed their fates. He shook his head at the sight of the young man in the tunic that matched the king’s down to the star blue trim that signified the Royal house at the neckline. The sight of the blood streaming off the prince’s hand made Rosher weary. There was no question that King Etan would give Reesa leave to kill them now—or worse.
“There you are,” the prince growled at her. “You will learn not to attack me.”
“You attacked me first,” Riena countered. “I have little training, but I know a Mage is not permitted to use his power against another unprovoked.”
“I was provoked. You taunted me.”
“Karris,” the king barked. “You used your magic in anger?”
The prince darkened, flicking a look that promised a painful death at Riena. “She laughed at me,” he grumbled.
King Etan crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes traveling to his son’s blood-soaked hand. “A Star Mage who is ready for his seal, as you claim to be so vehemently, would be able to ignore something as petty as a taunt. I trust the girl pushed you into a thorn bush in response?”
Rosher flicked a look at Reesa. He wasn’t certain the king’s sympathy for Riena would save them. The look on the guard’s face seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t.
“Nay,” Prince Karris stormed. “Nay, Father! The little beast used a Mage’s powers against me. Dueling is—”
Etan motioned abruptly for silence.
Rosher breathed a sigh of relief at that. King Etan had heard it from his son’s lips. Whether they believed who sired Riena or not, they knew he hadn’t lied about her magic.
The king rubbed his smooth chin again, ranging his eyes over Riena. He ambled to them, grasping her hand and turning it palm up. Riena sank into Rosher’s chest, barely breathing as King Etan examined the faint scars her blisters left. He rubbed his fingers over them, releasing her abruptly as Riena pulled her hand back in response. She shook, burying her sensitive hands in Rosher’s tunic with a half-swallowed sob.
Rosher soothed her, keeping his eyes cast down so as not to show his disdain for the king that would do something he knew would hurt her. Riena was a child, and this maddening sensitivity was new to her. To play on it was cruel beyond words.
“The moon reaches its zenith in two hours,” King Etan informed them. “Karris, have a healer tend to your wrist. Reesa, see to a room and food for our guests.”
Rosher met his eyes in surprise.
The king nodded then looked to Riena, his face searching hers as if some answer lay hidden in her dark eyes. “Rest well, young Mage. At the moon’s zenith, you will have your proving.” He left the room with a last look at Rosher that spoke of the price of failure.
* * *
”Riena, the time has come.”
Rosher’s hand shook her shoulder, dragging her from the depths of sleep. Riena opened her eyes, taking in his haggard appearance. Rosher hadn’t slept. He couldn’t sleep for sheer nervous energy, she knew. Riena only slept because she’d expended so much energy in attacking Prince Karris.
She placed a hand on his cheek, careful not to brush over his stiff whiskers. “I will not fail you,” she promised.
His smile was strained. “I know.”
Riena drank the tea Rosher offered and hurried to wash her face, but the king still seemed angry at her arrival.
He looked to the moon. “You are tardy,” he informed her.
“My apologies,” she answered, bowing her head. “I fell asleep.”
The king raised an eyebrow at that. “You sleep the night?”
Karris snorted in half-suppressed laughter.
“We have had to day-labor to survive the trip,” Rosher explained. “Though it is difficult for her, Riena has had no opportunity to sleep as befits a Star Mage.”
She grimaced at that. Hoods to hide her skin from the rays of the sun had become essential to life.
“I see,” he answered cryptically. “Very well. The plant you damaged, young Mage.”
Riena shot a look at Karris that she hoped conveyed her loathing of him. The prince’s smile grew, and he motioned to the broken flower with his bandaged hand.
She looked back to the flower, feeling her face heat in embarrassment. She hated admitting her failings in front of Karris, but there was no choice.
“I have never attempted a healing,” she managed.
The king smiled and drew her hands to the flower, carefully avoiding her scars this time. “Encourage the damaged pieces to grow,” he instructed. His hands remained, cradling hers.
Riena looked to him fearfully.
“The flower,” he reminded her.
She nodded, trying to concentrate on the flow of energy through her body, but the feeling of King Etan’s hands unnerved her. Riena began to fear she might fail—until she caught sight of Karris’s face.
His silent laughter mocked her. He wanted her to fail. It was a victory she would deny him with the last breath of her body.
Riena closed her eyes, remembering the feel of the petals between her fingers. The power flowed from her, and the king’s gasp of surprise stirred her hair. She ignored it, urging the flower to grow and be strong.
A tremendous cracking sound intruded on her thoughts, and Riena opened her eyes, watching the bush exploding in growth in mounting dismay. “Nay,” she pleaded, trying to pull her hands back.
The king held them in place, his hands clamped tight around her wrists. “Concentrate,” he ordered.
She continued with a sob. No matter how she tried to bend the magic to make the flowers heal, the bush grew larger. It finally blocked the moon’s light, casting shadows over her. The power rushing through her diminished to a trickle.
Riena sank to her knees, tears streaming down her face. “Please,” she begged. “I can do better. I swear I can.”
“Better?” the king asked.
“The task was to heal,” she whispered. She’d failed. Riena had caused growth instead. Would King Etan turn them away?
He knelt to the ground next to her, holding a flower plucked from the bush. “Look at it,” he invited her.
Riena wiped her tears on the cuff of her gown and took the blue flower from him. She stared at it without comprehension then looked to him, hoping he would explain his point.
“This was your flower, young Mage.” His long, slim fingers stroked her cheek. “Your healing was flawless, but you lack control in stopping the flow of energy. Training will solve that.”
She nodded, her mind numb in exhaustion.
“This land you want?” he prodded her, tracing the line of her brow and nose.
The soothing motion made thinking more difficult. “My flowers. I want my flowers.”
The king looked to the bush in confusion, perhaps wondering if she was asking for the precious plant to be given to her.
Riena shook her head. “My flowers.”
“The flowers Great Mage Andren created for our mother,” Rosher explained quietly. “Riena was conceived there and born there. She faced the Silver Minute there. It is her special place.”
He nodded in understanding. “When you faced the Silver Minute, did you make the flowers grow?” he asked.
She glanced at Rosher, grimacing at his look of pain. “Nay,” she breathed. “I—destroyed the harvest.”
The king’s smile disappeared. His face lost what little color it had naturally. “Destroy? A Star Mage’s magic cannot destroy.”
“A man can live on grain. He cannot feed on flowers, like the sweet birds do.”
Rosher’s hand closed on her shoulder. “Riena is untrained, Majesty. She did not intend to turn the crops into a field of her flowers.”
“She transformed them?” he asked, his tone urgent, as if such a thing were of paramount importance. “She did not simply cause the flowers to overgrow the grain and choke it out?”
Riena nodded miserably.
King Etan stood and helped Riena to her feet. “Come. There is much to discuss.”
“There is?” Rosher asked, steadying Riena as he guided her toward the palace.
“There is indeed. I would like Master Jerin to instruct her first. I trust him to teach Riena the proper control for a magic so strong. Control will be very important to you, young Apprentice.”
Riena gasped at that. She had expected to be called a Trainee, but mayhap her premature seal prevented him from naming her at a beginner’s level. Were she not so confused by the speed of things, she might have asked him that question, along with a hundred others pouring through her still-muddled mind.
“In the meantime,” he continued, as if she hadn’t made a sound, “I will correct your misstep with the crops.”
Rosher laughed, a nervous, high-pitched sound that announced his giddy disbelief. “My thanks. Grandfather will appreciate that.”
“The family Karris tells me has abandoned her?” King Etan asked pointedly.
“They will have land, but not the land I will restore. That land is for yourself and Riena.”
“You give us too much,” Rosher noted, his eyes wild.
Riena shivered at the reaction their family would have to being thrown from their land for her. “Grandfather will—”
“After tonight, your grandfather will dare not harm you,” the king informed her.
“Because I am a Star Mage?” she asked in confusion. There were laws about harming a Mage, but the laws could only do so much.
King Etan turned to them, his smile the widest Riena had seen from him yet. His eyes glittered in the moonlight. “Nay, Apprentice Riena. Because I claim a King’s Right.”
Rosher’s hands tightened on her shoulders. Riena watched as his face went a sickly gray shade. Though she wasn’t familiar with the term, Riena felt chilled by her brother’s response to it.
“Father,” Karris protested. “You cannot do this.”
“I can and I have.” The king shot his son a look of warning. “You will comply with my wishes, Karris.”
“But, she is—”
“A female of my realm of extraordinary power, Karris. She will take her place, and you will accept that.”
Etan made a noise of warning, his face hard in decision.
Karris broke off, sending a look that promised pain and suffering at Riena before he stormed to the palace without a backward glance. From somewhere in the distance, the sound of breaking glass jangled along Riena’s nerves. Then all was silent.
“I do not understand,” she managed shakily.
The king laughed heartily. “It means you are legally my child,” he explained.
“Your daughter?” she asked, warmed by the idea of being a princess—or mayhap by the idea that King Etan wanted her to be his daughter.
“Not yet. When you reach your twentieth year, you will take my heir as mate.”
Riena’s stomach wrestled with the tea Rosher gave her to drink before her test. She looked to the palace in understanding. “Karris?” she squeaked. It was no wonder that he was furious with her.
Rosher scooped her up, as Riena’s balance deserted her, following the oblivious King Etan into his home. Her head spun lightly, as His Majesty ordered her life for years to come.