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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review of Chasing Tomorrow, by SJ McCoy

On Goodreads, I changed my star rating from four (Which would be more like 4.75) to five to four again, and ended up changing it back before I finished. The only thing holding me back from the full five *Amazing* there was that I had a little trouble (when I stopped to think about it) believing these characters I adore from the other books were eighteen here. That's a *very* small quibble.

For the rest of it, I read all but the first couple chapters in one sitting, and was pretty much riveted to the book. Finally learning what happened between Ben and Charlotte was heartbreaking.

The author deals with a tragic and authentic event with just the right amount of weight: not so heavy-handed that the reader breaks, but by no means so lightly that it doesn't have substance. (I don't want to spoil anything, so I'm being incredibly vague, I know.)

As I said, I didn't quite think of the cast as being eighteen, but it was nice to catch glimpses of the original crew all as they prepare to embark on adulthood, personalities we know and love intact.

I did have a moment while "with" Ben when I deflated for his sake, realizing where things were headed, and I was not sure if he would or even should recover. I was never so glad to be wrong, although what did happen was still...heartbreaking. I'm using that word a lot, but that's the tone of the book.

Chasing Tomorrow is a must read if you are a fan of Summer Lake, but it is not a standalone. You don't want to miss the other books, which set up why this book is so important. SJ McCoy just keeps getting better. This book is well written and clean, and while it is short, it is a most excellent way to spend a couple hours. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review of Hell, Texas, by Tim Miller

So, the first thing to know about this review is that this is the very first horror novel I've ever read. I was told it was a pretty rough place to start, so I was expecting to be grossed out. Now, yes, the things that happened in Hell, Texas were disturbing and horrific, but I wasn't especially shocked or even upset. Maybe I'm damaged, or I was able to shut off the "plugin" necessary to bring it home, but I thought the descriptions were too clinical to get me emotionally invested in the characters. And I have to be emotionally invested for the horror of a situation to really hit me. Not that I really wanted to be invested in these characters, given what happens to them.

That being said, I thought the story was well constructed. There were twists and unexpected outcomes for predictable escape attempts. There were just enough incidences where hope for survival unfolded and yet the ultimate outcome of the story was not what I expected. The backstory as to how the town came about was interesting, and the main characters were sympathetic enough that I was rooting for their survival. I was pleased when certain of the baddies "got theirs" toward the end.

Other than the clinical nature of the writing, which I think stems from more telling than showing, the writing was strong. A few narrative tense issues, and the consistent misuse of the form of "lie", but no errors distracting enough to make me want to throw the book in frustration, just shake my head a few times.

In summary, I liked this story - more than I expected to, honestly - but I can't say I "really liked it" so it gets a solid 3 stars on Goodreads, and 4 on Amazon. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review of Ting Tang Tony, by Kat DeSalle & Kristin Leigh Jones

I liked Emily, she seemed very down to earth and real, and I liked her honesty. I liked Tony, his generosity and loyalty to his friends. The writing was pretty solid for most of the book. It started off on a good track, but...I thought it would be funnier.

Not so much gushing about how great Emily was -- and don't get me wrong, I could see why he liked her -- and how tiny she was. Not so much fretting about how tiny his d!ck was. The way he was carrying on, I was imagining it was the size of a peanut or something. I was expecting a lot more hilarity, and I just kind of got bored about 3/4 of the way through. Wasn't at all sure I would finish, just out of a lack of interest. I couldn't get worked up about whether they would end up together or not.

Slight spoiler, here: I had to wonder why he didn't tell her sooner. I mean, he flies her out, they spend a great day together, all while he knows he's going to take her to an event filled with his former coworkers...and he only thinks to expect trouble when they are at the gate? Just strikes me as dumb. 

One other quibble I had was he was supposed to be so smart with his money, but he was renting a Lamborghini and this fantastic condo, bailing out his friends and footing the bill for lawyers... He was throwing his money around like a showoff, not someone who is managing their money in advance of a long retirement.

Probably about 3 stars. It was okay.

Review of King, by T.M. Frazier

I'm not sure what I think about this book.

I pretty much loved Doe. She's a fighter. She says what's on her mind. She's truthful, and she's trying to make decisions that will protect the woman she no longer knows herself to be. I do question her reaction to King. I find it hard to believe she would get turned on in the circumstances she was in.

I did not like King, for the most part. He was a dick for most of the book, with occasional bursts of sweetness that almost seemed to come out of the blue. It almost works with him falling in love with Doe and feeling the need for change after coming out of prison, but I don't think we spent enough time in his head to really know why he changes back and forth like he does. It's kind of like he's two characters--one when we are in his head, and a different one, the dick, when we are in Doe's head. I do get it that some people put on a good front, but I don't know, something was just off for me, a little undeveloped, maybe? Regardless, he was a complex guy, but I just didn't like him. Doesn't mean I didn't like the story.

Preppy was loveable in the way a twelve year old hyperactive boy is adorable, but he also kinda creeped me out, at least in the beginning. I was a little shocked by the arc of his storyline. Again, no spoilers, but after all the fuss in Frazierland about him, I was very surprised.

I did like Bear. He was sweet, loyal, and sexy-cool. I'm interested in reading his story.

I know I am pissed that I didn't realize this was a two part story. It's my own fault for not reading the full blurb. I was invited to Frazierland by a friend and was impressed by the Fandom and bought the book based on the buzz. But there is a helluva cliffhanger and what it is, I didn't buy. It was out of the blue and seemed contrived to me, it didn't add up. I don't like to give spoilers so I won't say what I didn't buy. Maybe it will be all right in the sequel, but as of the ending here, I can only shake my head.

I'd probably really give this 4 stars. I liked it, it drew me in, but I didn't quite love it. I will probably read Tyrant, to find out what the full story is with Doe, and see if King can redeem himself. I will likely read Lawless to get Bear's story.

Oh, and this book could use a good editing. It started out pretty strong, but as the story went on, I got distracted on more than one occasion by wrong word choices and other errors.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Chapter 6 - A True Prince (A Serialized YA Historical Fantasy)

Behind the wall, Edward sighed heavily. This was not what he had expected at all. Aslynn was to have gotten a lecture, or maybe a beating, not this classroom learning about posture. It would have been fun if Aslynn had resisted, but she was going along with it.
He shifted position and his foot kicked the wooden frame of the secret door. He cursed and shut the peephole cover, which snapped closed more loudly than he intended. Panicked, he listened for a moment, hoping the two in the room hadn’t noticed.
“What was that?” the queen asked sharply.
“A rat, in the wall.” Aslynn’s voice was calm. Edward suspected she knew who had made the noise, but he was glad for her silence. It would not do to be caught here, now.
“Come on,” Edward whispered, turning around only to find Katrona gone. In haste, he picked up the candle lantern and hurried back to the playroom.        
Sebastian straightened from cleaning stalls when he heard the king call his name. He pushed the apple cart out of the way and stepped out into the aisle, brushing loose straw and dust from his trousers and sleeves. “I’m here, Majesty.”
“Ah, Sebastian,” King Isaiah said, approaching him.
Sebastian noted he was dressed to ride, and set aside his pitchfork. “Nomad is still turned out, sire. I’ll go catch him for you.”
“In a moment, my boy.” Artemis bounded up and nuzzled her great head under the king’s hand, begging shamelessly for attention. The king laughed and obliged her. “How is Artemis’ training coming?”
“Artemis, sit,” Sebastian ordered. The mastiff dropped obediently to her haunches, though she still wiggled like she was ready to go in ten directions at once. “Most of her mistakes are from youthful excess, sire, but she has the makings of a fine war dog. At least that’s what Master Jabari says.”
“She’s improved greatly since last I saw you work with her. There could be a future for you in training my dogs.”
“Thank you, Majesty. I’d like that.”
The king reached out and ruffled the boy’s short hair. “By the way, I do remember that yesterday makes it fifteen years since I found you in the sea.”
“Yes, sire.”
“I want you to know I have not once regretted that day. It would please me if you accepted this.” The king slipped his hunting knife and its sheath from his belt.
“Oh, Majesty,” Sebastian said, reverently taking the gift. “Thank you. I will wear it with honor.”
King Isaiah smiled. “Come, let’s find that horse of mine.” As they turned together and headed for the pasture, the king dropped his arm across Sebastian’s shoulders.
As a lowly stable boy, Sebastian knew he should feel uncomfortable at such a gesture coming from a king, but he never did. King Isaiah had always taken an interest in him, and the king was generous with his praise and attention.
But Isaiah cleared his throat awkwardly, now. “I meant to ask you.... Aslynn was upset last night—by something I’ve asked her to do, I’m afraid. I take it she stayed with you?”
“Yes, sire,” Sebastian answered, not surprised the king knew where his daughter had gone.
“Good, good. I know she is happiest staying under Master Jabari’s roof, with you. I wish she was happier in the family wing, but…well, she and my lady do not get along well. With these lessons, I’m hoping they will come to know each other a little and arrive at some kind of truce.”
“I’m sure that it will work out, Majesty,” Sebastian said, not believing his own words for a moment.
“Yes, I imagine so, but I worry about what will happen before it works out,” the king said with a rueful laugh.
“That was some storm the other night,” Meedo said, pulling a stool up next to the old salt who sat at the bar, nursing a pint of stout ale. He had been watching the man all afternoon and he seemed to be a sailor with a story to tell. A story he felt could have some relevance to the lad’s mystery. “Are there many such storms in these parts?”
“They don’t call this Fair Haven Port for naught, mister.” The sailor didn’t even look at him, and Meedo knew he would have to play this one carefully to get his story.
“But not all are as bad as this last storm, are they?”
“Oh, no. Most are worst. Storm season is just rolling in.” The old man did glance over this time. “If you be a sailing man,” his tone suggested heavy doubt, “you’d best head south for quieter waters. The Bonnie Isles in fall are no place for a land frog like yerself.”
“I’ll take your advice, then, Captain. As soon as I have finished my business here. Tell me, if this last storm was not the worst, what was the worst that you recall?”
The old man was silent for a moment, and Meedo feared he’d taken the wrong approach. Then the old salt sighed.
“That would be the Great Storm of '13. Fifteen years ago it’s been, almost to the day. Ain’t a man in these parts don’t remember that night. Wind like the Devil’s breath, and rain enough to drive a ship beneath the waves with its fury. And the sea—oh, lad, the sea was possessed of Satan. She wrought destruction upon everything she touched that night, and in her fit she touched many.”
The old man’s head sagged between his shoulders. “In that one fell night, I lost both my daughter and my granddaughter.”
That the old man still grieved for his daughter touched Meedo, but that she and her child were lost on the same night Sebastian was found struck Meedo as more than coincidence. He waved the barman over to refill the sailor’s cup. “How did it happen?”
“T’were the storm that killed her, but my bonnie lass had been taken months before. We didn’t know where, but we knew why. My daughter told me of a woman who wanted to hire her to nurse a child, but my Sabine did not feel right about the woman and told her no. She told me this, and how she suffered great guilt over this woman’s poor child. That very night, she and her daughter disappeared. The next time we saw her, she was floated ashore on the tide, her wee daughter still locked in her arms. Ah, it pains me still.”
“Did she tell you about this woman? Who she was, or what she looked like?” Perhaps this was Sebastian’s mother.
“Not enough to track her down—believe me, when my Sabine vanished, I tried. My crew and I turned this port upside-down to no avail. And then we found her, washed ashore after that cursed slave frigate was eaten whole by the Devil’s Jaw.”
“The woman was not on the slaver?”
“No, though drowning would have been a just fate for her.”
“Captain,” Meedo said, “what if...? Did you never wonder what became of the child your daughter was asked to nurse?”
“A ruse only, to get my Sabine away.”
“And the babe the king found after the storm?”
“I told you, my granddaughter died—”
“No, a boy child was found alive by the king, to be raised by the swordmaster.”
“Sebastian?” The captain turned to Meedo with laughing scorn. “What tales has that boy been spinning?”
“I had it from a reliable source,” Meedo insisted. “Sebastian was found after the same storm that took...that you speak of.”
“Stranger,” the captain said, his voice a mixture of pain and despair. “That could well be true. I crawled into a bottle the day I buried my two bonnie lasses. I’d already buried my wife, and a blessing too, or she’d have died of a broken heart at this. I swear I stayed drunk for nigh on a year.” He paused, eyeing Meedo. “Most folks don’t bring the subject up.”
“It’s not many folks who get washed over the Devil’s Jaw to be rescued by Sebastian and the Princess herself,” Meedo said dryly. “I owe the lad a favor, and he wants to know who his parents are.”
“If that woman bore him, he’s twice blessed to be rid of her.”
“That may be, but if she didn’t bear him, she’s the only link we have to his parents. If she were the lad’s mother, why would she be after a nurse?”
“Who knows? She’s accursed?” the captain said bitterly.
“Perhaps, but then why did they all turn up on the slaver? Listen, Captain, please tell me what your daughter told you about her.”
The old man sighed and closed his eyes. “It’s many years and drunken nights away, but I still remember. Sabine said she was dark. Hair like raven’s wings, charcoal skin, eyes with no color, only black. She wore a cloak made of white wolf fur.”
“Is that all?”
“Sabine said she was hard to look at. Her darkness was inside, as well. Soulless, that’s what Sabine said.”
Meedo sighed. “I suppose it is too much to hope for a name.” The captain shook his head sadly, and Meedo clasped his shoulder. “Perhaps it is enough. Thank you, Captain. Barkeep.” He placed a gold coin on the counter. “Keep him in ale as long as that lasts.”
“But, that’s a week’s worth, even for him,” the barkeep protested.
“Then feed him once or twice as well. Gentlemen....”
Meedo walked into the street and took a deep breath of the sea air. He had a little more information now. What he needed was to get the lad and take his measure.
Then, perhaps, he would learn more.
Aslynn was reading the book she was supposed to be balancing on her head when Queen Tawnia came back into the room. She had left hours earlier with the admonition that Aslynn wasn’t to let the book fall until she came back.
Aslynn had lasted all of twenty minutes—and that long only because she really was trying.
Refusing to jump guiltily to her feet, she rose slowly and placed the book atop her head.
Tawnia gestured for a servant to enter and place a bundle on the desk, then positioned her hands on her hips and glared at Aslynn. “Well, milkmaid, I can see you have been diligent in your practice.”
“It’s boring,” Aslynn said. “I assure you I could balance this on my head all day. Look, I can even walk around the room without dropping it.” She proceeded to float around the room, taking broad, smooth steps and swinging her arms as if in time to music. The book did not fall.
“You look like a clown. Perhaps the milkmaid has aspirations of becoming the court jester?”
Aslynn stopped abruptly and the book slipped from her head, falling to the floor with a thump when she did not try to catch it.
Tawnia smiled. “I have something for you. Claudia....” She gestured to the maid, who held out one of the items from the bundle. “I had these made for you. You will wear them.”
Aslynn stared in disbelief at the torture device being offered to her: a petticoat made with wire hoops. It brought to mind a portable iron maiden.
“I won’t...,” she began.
“If you want to move forward, you will. Wear them, or we will sit here, you and I, with a book on your head, day after day, until you do. The choice is yours.”
“Move forward to what?” Aslynn asked, her imagination running wild. What could be next? Hobbles? A neck brace?
“Well, at supper tonight, you could learn how to eat like a lady, instead of a milk maid.”
Aslynn’s stomach growled audibly, reminding her she hadn’t eaten all day.
“And then tomorrow, if you manage to walk across the room like a princess, we may begin dancing lessons.”
That should be enjoyable, Aslynn thought, though she was sure the queen would take most of the fun out of it.
“I have recruited young Lord Wingfield to be your partner. I understand he could use some polish, too.”
“But this?” Aslynn couldn’t help asking, trying not to shrink away from the servant.
The queen sighed. “It is in everyone’s best interest that you learn quickly, Aslynn. This will help.”
“If I survive,” she muttered.
“Speak up, milkmaid,” the queen admonished. “Or better yet, don’t speak at all. A man likes better the woman who knows how to be seen and not heard.”
Aslynn nearly bit her tongue off to resist commenting that the queen did not follow that bit of advice.
Queen Tawnia frowned, as if reading her thoughts from her expression, and Aslynn smiled prettily—an earlier lesson—and kept her peace.
“This garment,” Tawnia said, pointing to the item in the servant’s hands, “will restrict your steps to a demure pace. This,” she held up another garment, a blouse with more metal devices, “will restrict your arms from swinging. And this...,” she pointed to a final item, “will keep your back straight. Claudia will assist you in putting them on. Every day.”
Tawnia watched as Aslynn, assisted by Claudia, struggled into the posture modifying garments. They really were drastic measures, but given the girl’s age, they would be necessary for success.
And success was necessary for the plan forming in Tawnia’s mind. There was a duke on the other side of the island, an older widower. He was harmless enough to meet the king’s approval, and it would get the brat out of her hair. With the girl trained, the problem would be half-solved.
As to her other problem, she had an idea of what to do with the boy, too. All she needed was the right person to contact, and this time if a storm came up, the queen would be certain he went down with the ship.
The docks were humming with activity—sailors and fishermen coming in after a day at sea, or getting ready to set sail on the evening tide—and it wasn’t hard to find directions to the little white sailboat with the broken mast.
“Hello, the boat!” Sebastian called as he approached. The boat only rocked on the waves. Meedo was not there to answer the hail. “Permission to board, Remini?” he asked, not feeling foolish in the slightest. As if in response to his request, the boat drifted closer to the dock, and he hopped nimbly onto the deck.
He didn’t know what he was expecting, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. Remini had no secret message to impart to him.
Stepping down into the cabin, Sebastian found it had been cleaned and was now tidy as Mother Bette’s kitchen. He spotted the chart table, and Meedo’s grease pen and wax notepaper.
A note would have to do.
“Sir,” he wrote, his hand clean and precise. “If you need anything, send for me at the castle stables. I’m glad you are safe.” He signed his name and carefully stowed the pencil back in its nook so it would not be lost in weather.
Then, realizing he was effectively standing in a man’s bedchamber without his permission, he hurried back on deck, glad to see Remini had not drifted away from the dock.
With a pat on the boat’s rail for goodbye and thanks, Sebastian jumped down and headed home, hoping he wouldn’t be late for supper.
As he made his way through the busy streets of the port and up the broad cliff side avenue to the castle, he wondered how Aslynn was faring on her first day at becoming a lady. He almost wished he could have seen it.
If he knew his friend at all, he thought he could imagine the fireworks between the two royals. And if by some chance Aslynn had managed to behave, he had no doubt she’d be in a foul mood this evening.
Perhaps it was just as well that they hadn’t been able to arrange how they were going to meet. He was one of few who could put up with the princess when she was in a bother, but it didn’t mean he really liked to.
Adam was standing in the barracks doorway when Sebastian came through the main gate of the keep proper, and the young heir waved him over.
On his way across the small courtyard, Sebastian spotted his foster brother, Jared, lounging outside the other building—the one for single guardsmen.
Mother Bette and Master Jabari’s nineteen-year-old son Jared was Aslynn’s cousin through his mother, and his looks were a fascinating blend of his father’s dark hair and skin—though not as dark as his father—and his mother’s green eyes. Wiry muscles stood out from his short-sleeved tunic as he worked a whetstone across the blade of his sword. He had a little more bulk than his father, and there was no mistaking the power contained in Jared’s compact frame. With the training he’d had all his life, he was destined for a high rank among the guards.
They exchanged friendly nods before Sebastian returned his attention to Adam. “Good evening, my lord,” he called out, just because he liked making his friend blush.
“Sebastian, come inside.” Adam was agitated, and didn’t rise to the bait this time.
This barracks building—built to house married soldiers in less peaceful times—was empty now except for Adam’s things, and the huge room echoed with their footsteps.
“Ugh. Don’t know how you stand sleeping in here,” Sebastian said.
“Not as cozy as your loft, I agree. Now you know why I spend so much time up there.”
“And all this time I thought it was my ghost stories.”
“Hmm, those too. 'Bastian, I have a problem.”
“I thought so. Speak up, old man.” Adam was two years his senior, and it always amused Sebastian when Adam brought a problem to him. But then, Adam’s problems usually involved Aslynn.
He was not disappointed in that notion.
“The queen wants me to partner Aslynn in dancing lessons.”
“So dance with her.” Sebastian knew what the problem was; he just enjoyed torturing his friend.
“You think I can’t dance—I can. But...to have her in my arms. And after last night....”
Sebastian frowned. “What happened last night?” He had been so tired when he got back...what had he missed?
“Nothing happened last night. Only, I almost told her, 'Bastian.”
“Told her what?”
“How I feel. It was on the tip of my tongue, and she was listening. Then you came back and the momentum was gone. What if I just blurt it out, in front of the queen?”
“Just be yourself and dance with her, if you really can dance. You’ll be charming. Trust that.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not in love with her.”
Sebastian laughed. “Well, my love struck fool, did you happen to think of a way to meet with her?”
“Only for dance lessons. The queen is being quite strict. I understand there’s to be a guard outside her door tonight, and a maid of the queen’s choosing sharing the chamber. I can pass along a message if you like.”
“Well, if you find a moment when the queen can’t hear you, tell her Meedo is safe, but he wasn’t aboard to talk to. That’s really the only news. Tell her to watch her toes.” Sebastian grinned.
My toes, you mean.”

Chapter 5 - A True Prince (A Serialized YA Historical Fantasy)

Tawnia lowered the spyglass and backed into the darkened corner of the courtyard as Sebastian crossed over to the stables. She had not been able to hear the conversation in the loft, but she had seen enough, using all her skill to enhance the shadows seen through the glass.
This coming and going through windows and the presence of the Wingfield heir were problematic, but what demanded her complete attention was the fact that Isaiah was right: Aslynn and the boy shared the love of siblings—it was in every motion, every touch they shared. And she had seen in the boy what she hadn’t noticed before: traces of magic—white Ley—blurred her Sight when she searched for Truth in him.
“Why did I never notice?” she asked herself. “How could I have been so blind?”
She realized she had hardly laid eyes on the boy since he was brought to the castle. As a stable servant, he was not allowed in the inner rooms of the keep, and she rarely left them. Oh, she had seen him from the window from time to time—enough that she knew his figure from a distance—but the thought that he might be other than he seemed had never entered her mind.
Now she was quite certain the inconceivable had happened. The king’s firstborn boy-child had never left the kingdom. If the truth of his heritage and the circumstances leading up to his current situation ever came out, not only would her son cease to be the heir apparent, but her life would most likely be forfeit. Even if he wasn’t the true heir, she had to get rid of the boy, just to be certain.
“How?” she wondered aloud. “How did this happen?”
Someone had taken great pains to cast a spell strong enough to disguise the boy—a spell that had lasted fifteen years. The sheer complexity of the accomplishment was more than even her understanding of the workings of magic could grasp. Ley, by its nature, was impartial—neither good nor bad. The energy, effort, and maintenance required to bend it to one task for so long would require advanced skill.... It gave her pause.
For the first time since she became Queen of the Bonnie Isles, Tawnia felt afraid.
Silently, Sebastian made his way to the stable door and pulled. It glided open without sound thanks to the lubrication he’d given the hinges before dinner. True to her training, Artemis was a silent shadow beside him as they passed through the door.
Inside, horses whickered greetings to him. He wished he could get one of them past the guard at the gate, but a horse was not why he’d come to the stable.
He opened his horse’s stall, pushed the beast to the side, and felt under the straw for the trap door’s handle. It gave when he tugged, and lifted to reveal a hole, gaping in the darkness. He swallowed hard before dropping inside, landing on hard-packed dirt only dimly seen from above—dark, enclosed spaces were not on his list of favorite places. On his left, just where they’d left them, he found flint, a striker, two candles, and a lantern.
After they had discovered and explored the tunnel all those summers ago, it had been Aslynn’s idea to leave the items in case they ever needed to use the passage. He hadn’t ever really expected to use it in earnest.
Striking the flint, he sparked a flame to one candle and mounted it in the lantern before pocketing the other. After urging Artemis inside, he closed the hatch.
Dark and damp from the recent rain, the stone passageway made him think of what it must have been like in that sea chest. He was glad he didn’t remember it, though when he was in places like this, he knew something in his soul remembered.
Artemis whined—a soft, short sound—and Sebastian realized the animal was picking up his fear. “It’s all right, Artemis,” he said, petting her under the chin. “I’m just being an idiot. Let’s get this over with.”
He hurried along the tunnel, wanting to get through as quickly as possible. He had a long way to go to make the beach by high tide.
As he neared the end of the passage, the air felt fresher, sweeter, and smelled of the sea. Not long after that he saw branches and leaves in the lantern light: the bush shielding the tunnel’s exit. Sebastian breathed a sigh of relief, and Artemis happily bounded out through the leaves.
He carefully doused the candle lantern and set it aside, along with the spare, flint, and striker, then pushed his way past the branches into the open night.
The moon was low, but it still gave off enough light for him to see, so Sebastian headed for the sea cliffs at a ground-eating lope. Even at that pace, it took an hour to reach Lookout Cliffs. Once there, he checked his landmarks—the stone formations hard to make out in the waning moonlight—and began making his way north along the coast, careful to stay well back from the edge of the drop off.
Recognizing the jutting point of land warning sailors of the Devil’s Jaw at last, he searched the expanse of beach below him for any sign of the stranger’s boat. All was dark; no lanterns shone in the darkness and the moonlight only reflected on waves washing at high tide levels. He saw nothing of the whitewashed hull of the boat, Remini.
It appeared he had missed high tide and Meedo had gotten the boat afloat without him.
“Well, saves me a trip down the cliff trail,” he said aloud. “I’ll check at the port in the morning.” In a way, he was relieved. It had been a long day.
With one last look at the beach and crashing waves, he whistled for Artemis and started the long trek back to the castle.
“I meant to ask,” Aslynn said, her voice breaking the heavy silence. She hadn’t spoken a word since Sebastian left, and Adam had begun to wonder if her anger extended to him, as well.
Master Jabari had checked on them and gone quite a while ago, but he had stayed awake, lying on his side, watching her shadowy form, wondering how he could comfort her.
“About what?”
“How your ride went.”
“Oh, that. Well, I completed the course, but Master Jabari said I didn’t ride aggressively enough.”
“Meaning you didn’t fall off?”
Adam decided she wasn’t mocking him. “Only once.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she said softly.
“I had the horse on the wrong lead approaching a barrier. He balked and slipped just enough in the mud, and down I went.”
Aslynn chuckled. “I fall off at least twice every time. Usually on the water jumps. For some reason, I just can’t co-ordinate them right, so I end up taking a swim.”
“That I’d have to see to believe,” he said with his own chuckle.
She was silent, and he realized that after today, her opportunities to ride would be few and far between.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right,” she whispered. “It’s something I’m going to have to get used to. When you think about it, I’ve been very lucky to have had so many years of freedom.”
“That’s your stepmother talking.”
“No, that’s reality.” She sat up, her face outlined in the faint light coming through the window. “Not many men have need of a woman who can ride and hunt but knows nothing about managing a household.”
Adam wanted to go to her, to hold her, but he made himself lie still, watching her.
“I have avoided thinking about marriage for too long, but I don’t see any way around it, short of running away. It’s coming whether I want it or not. So, I will learn from her, if only for the means to leave here one day. I only hope I learn enough to please a good man.”
“Some men marry for love,” he heard himself say, before he could bite his tongue.
She sighed. “I’m afraid love will have very little to do with it. My father will not marry me off to a cruel man, at least not knowingly, but I am the daughter of a king. I doubt the men who will ask for my hand will have much interest in love. Alliance, dowry, favor, yes. But love? There’s not much hope.”
Adam did sit up this time. She seemed so lost, so lonely. He reached out to touch her cheek gently, and she turned toward him, her face in shadow.
His heart pounded in his chest so loudly he thought she surely must hear it.
A sound at the window interrupted him, and the moment was past, lost to him with Sebastian’s return.
Aslynn did not turn immediately when she heard the sound at the window, wishing Sebastian had better timing. Adam, whose friendship seemed so different to her than Sebastian’s, had been about to confess something. Maybe something she desperately wanted to hear.
But she could not bring the moment back. Adam’s fingers, with one last gentle touch, fell away from her face, and he turned to watch Sebastian climb through the window.
She turned, too. Sebastian had removed his shirt and his hair was wet. “Is it raining again?”
“What?” he asked, hauling himself up and nearly collapsing before the window.
“You’re all wet. Is it raining again?”
“No. I stopped at the trough to wash up. It’s a long way to the cliffs and back on foot.” Heaving a sigh, he stretched out. “Ah, I’m done for.”
“To the cliffs and back?” Aslynn repeated. “You didn’t come back from the port?”
“He was gone when I got there.”
“All these questions. The tide was in, the boat was gone. I saw no sign of wreckage, though it was hard to tell in the dark. I wager Remini got him back out and Meedo is sitting in the Queen’s Arms, having himself a stout ale.”
“Sitting where?” Adam asked, confused.
“It’s a pub down on Water Street,” Aslynn supplied, hoping Adam wouldn’t ask how she knew that.
“I’ll go down to port tomorrow and make sure....” Sebastian was slumping lower and lower down the window frame, and his words ended in a mumble. He’d fallen asleep on the spot.
“Poor 'Bastian,” Aslynn whispered. “Help me get his boots off and him into bed.”
“Then I must go, Princess,” he said. “Morning will be here all too soon, and dawn had better find me in the barracks.”
Aslynn could not help feeling disappointed by Adam’s retreat, but she did not let it color her response. “I wish the sun would not rise on tomorrow, but I am glad I will be seeing you again so soon.”
“Let me look!” Edward demanded.
“Shh,” Katrona hissed. “Mother will hear you. Besides, nothing’s happening yet.”
“But it was my idea....”
Katrona only needed to look at him in the thin candlelight. Her brother shivered and subsided in his protests immediately. She smiled—the small, secret smile she had learned would throw people off—and turned back to the peephole.
Edward only wanted to see Aslynn get in trouble, but Katrona wanted to watch her mother.
The queen was pacing the room, looking far more agitated than a mere lesson should warrant. Perhaps this attack of nerves had more to do with whatever precipitated her visit to their suite yesterday and the questions about Sebastian. Not for the first time, Katrona wondered what, exactly, the queen had figured out about Sebastian. Something had given her cause to arrive, breathlessly demanding to know about Aslynn’s relationship with the boy. Katrona felt horrible about not telling her mother the Truth, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to speak. Now, if Mother figured it out for herself, she might also suspect her own flesh had betrayed her by lying. That sin weighed heavily on Katrona’s heart.
Katrona did not know why Aslynn’s twin was unknown. She did not know why she herself had never told anyone about it, except that the spell of disguise cast on Sebastian was of white magic strong enough to last all these years with no one the wiser. So strong, in fact, Katrona had little doubt that it had taken the life of the one who cast it.
Such a casting was nothing to disrupt lightly; for all she knew, Sebastian’s life—her own brother’s life—had been in danger, and that danger might return should his identity be discovered.
And if that were so, Katrona wanted to know from whom and why.
Watching the queen now, Katrona began to suspect there might be more to her mother’s apparent attack of nerves than just Aslynn’s lessons.
“How can it be?” Tawnia asked the air for the tenth time. “What could have gone wrong? Who saved him?”
With all the guilt it revealed, that was the question Katrona had dreaded hearing.
“Oh, Mother,” Katrona whispered, her heart sinking. “What have you done?”
“What?” Edward whispered loudly.
Sometimes she felt one hundred years older than her brother.
A knock sounded on the door and Queen Tawnia composed herself before opening it, gesturing grandly for Aslynn to enter.
Aslynn stepped into the room with her head high and shoulders back, trying, it seemed, to look regal, but succeeding only in looking ready for battle.
Katrona smiled. Her sister was always ready for a fight when dealing with the queen. It was an attitude Katrona had always admired, but it would not serve Aslynn today.
With a sigh, Katrona stepped back and let Edward crowd in, audibly purring with delight at what he expected to see. Her brother was too intent on petty things. He would make a terrible king, unless he grew out of it before King Isaiah died.
In a moment of clarity, she added together her mother’s desire to see her son on the throne and whatever dark thread linked her mother to Sebastian’s secret. The sum wasn’t pretty. Sebastian was Aslynn’s twin. He was the true heir, and if that were known, Edward would not inherit. Katrona knew Queen Tawnia’s greatest purpose in life was to see Edward on the throne.
“What a tangled web,” she whispered. She was now stuck with deciding on a course of action. Should she tell what she knew, and if so, to whom? Or should she just wait and see what would come of it? It was no small thing to accuse the queen of kidnapping and dealing with slavers. Even harder to accuse her own mother. There was much to be considered, much to be learned, before she took any action. She had a gut feeling she would have to choose sides in the wake of the events unfolding.
She left her brother with the candle and made her way back to the family wing in the dark. It would unnerve Edward to consider how she managed without light, but it was a simple trick, really. She had long ago memorized all the passageways. Now she counted her steps and doorways, trailing her fingers along the stone walls until she reached the one she knew would be the playroom. Feeling for the peephole, she checked the room before lifting the catch. After she was sure all was clear, that Miss Claire still snored in her chair by the window, she slipped through the door, closing it silently behind her.
Aslynn wanted to turn and face the queen as she walked around her, giving her a critical once over, but she held still. Today it was Tawnia’s show, and she would try her best to be "good".
The queen began her lesson.
“You walk like a boy, my dear. Your posture is much too aggressive. This is where we will have to begin. Good posture is the cornerstone of grace. Without it, you may as well be a milk maid.” Tawnia grabbed Aslynn by the chin and pulled it down. “You hold your head like you’re ready to spit. Keep your chin level, and don’t tilt your head. Your shoulder position is good, though you needn’t thrust them back quite so far. Your stance is too broad, put your feet together.”
Aslynn took all these directions and modified her posture. It seemed ludicrous, but she held back her comments, reminding herself it really would help...somehow.
“All right. That will do for starters. Now, walk to the chair.”
Aslynn took a step but stopped when she heard Tawnia’s heavy sigh. “What?”
Tawnia grabbed her chin again, pulling it level, and this time Aslynn couldn’t help but pull away. Tawnia grabbed it again and forced Aslynn to look her in the eye. “Your good posture disappeared as soon as you moved. Assume it again.”
Concentrating, Aslynn put her shoulders back, but not too far, put her feet together, and leveled her chin. “All right,” she said, trying to behave. “Where did I go wrong?”
Tawnia smiled primly. “Too long of a step. To walk gracefully, you must think of the act of moving rather than the objective. Flow smoothly from step to step. Your body should not shake with the force of your step, your head should not bob up and down, and your arms should not swing so wildly. You are—or will be—a lady, Aslynn. A princess. Keep that in mind as you walk.” She paused a moment. “Wait.”

The queen strode to the bookshelf and pulled down a heavy tome. “This will do nicely.” Standing on tiptoe, she set the book on top of Aslynn’s head—not gently—and balanced it there. “Do not let the book fall, Aslynn.”