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The New Cover for Last Shot Revealed!

Happy New Year!  Today is the day! Last Shot at Justice has its new cover, and is now up for pre-order on Amazon. That's right, ALL th...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

EarWorms and Alarms

So, I wake up every morning to a song. I always hated the old alarm clocks that blared sirens and bells and whistles at me, so I bless the smart phone and the ability to load up a nice tune to sing me awake.

What do I have for my wake up song? Martin Sexton's "Over My Head". It is gentle, tuneful, and perhaps one of my most favorite songs, ever. Waking up to it just about guarantees I'll have it on my brain -- or in my ear -- for the rest of the day, and so far I'm okay with that.

But last week I was prescribed some medication that has a very specific window of time I have to take it in. It has to be taken between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., and then I can't eat for 30-60 minutes after taking it. Now, anyone who knows me knows that 4:00 a.m. is out of the question, unless I haven't been to bed, yet.

See, here's the way my day works. "Over My Head" starts playing at 8:00, and I lie in bed doing some social media work -- and yes, it IS work for me -- until about 8:45, which is when I have to get up and check and report the rain gauge. By the time I do that, enough time has passed that I can eat before I go to the gym. Then I do some gardening, more social media and research, and if I'm really "on", some writing before Hubby gets home, and then when he goes to bed, I really knuckle down with the writing.

But I know myself. If I don't have a special reminder while this pill-taking business is so new, I might forget. So I set another alarm. And this one may crack you up. It does me. I have it set for 8:05 a.m. -- so far I've remembered to take the pill when the first alarm goes off every day except one, but that one day the second alarm saved the day. I'm hopeless.

What is the second alarm, though? It wouldn't work to have the same song, would it? So I have Melissa Etheridge's "The Letting Go" for the second song. 

Problem is, this song is also a favorite, and an earworm that has potential to last all day. So what happens? I get the confused earworm that goes a little something like this:

"I came here to let you know, the letting go has taken place...this boy in a boat that I am, through the haze I can catch a glimpse of the damage that's been done. Isn't that what we wanted, all along? Freedom like a stone, and my pockets full of sand...I'm over my head!"

I don't mind it, so far. Soon I'll feel confident enough in taking the pill on the first alarm that I won't need to have the second, and these pleasant earworms are antidote against other songs that invade my ears during the day.

Does this ever happen to you? What is your best earworm? (Please don't tell me your worst!)


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of Escape from Witchwood Hollow by Jordan Elizabeth Mierek

So, still trying to process this.

I enjoyed the story - it felt very unique to me. The three storylines slowly converging over the course of the book, and culminating in an ending I did NOT see coming. 

I'm still trying to decide if I like the ending. It seemed a bit rushed, and came out of the blue. And then it's debatable whether its a happy ending or not. Depends on whose perspective you're looking from, I guess.

It is a good YA book, touching on some tough subjects like losing parents at a young age, and coping after tragedy. It's about persistence, keeping promises, and letting go. 

Structurally, the story is sound, and while it isn't perfect (what story is?) I was drawn into the pages and hooked into finishing it late into the night.

The thing that keeps it from being a 5 star read is that ending. No spoilers. You'll just have to read it and judge for yourself. It is worth the time.

I was gifted a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

ETA: Upon further reflection, I'd probably give this 3.5 stars because the story could have been so much more. The characters could have been better developed, and the storyline, too. A bit more depth to the witch's background, and what drives the other main characters. And I decided the ending left me unsatisfied. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A True Prince is up for Pre-Order on Amazon

A True Prince is up for Pre-Order on Amazon. Only 99¢!
I'm starting out with it in KDP Select, so folks can borrow it on Kindle Unlimited, too. Publication date is May 10th.

Here's the blurb:
Aslynn and Sebastian have been friends nearly since birth. A friendship cemented by a tragic common thread: Aslynn's mother died giving birth to her, and Sebastian had been found floating in a sea chest after a storm. Though a magic spell had protected him, there was no clue as to his identity or his origins. Aslynn's father, King Isaiah, took the boy in to be raised by his swordmaster, and the two motherless children shared a wet nurse, and a great deal of time over 15 years.

Now the forces of Change are moving, converging on the small island kingdom they call their home.

In a storm to rival the one that brought Sebastian ashore, a Stranger is shipwrecked, and rescued by Sebastian and Aslynn. In his gratitude, the traveling mystic offers to solve Sebastian's Mystery. In the course of his investigation the stranger uncovers clues, but events surrounding his arrival stir up more than just the past.

A True Prince is a YA Historical Fantasy. I've had test readers as young as 11 read and enjoy it, but adults also enjoy it, so it isn't confined to any age range.

If you want to read opening chapters, you can find them in my Goodreads writings (http://kcbooks.us/ChapATP) or on Wattpad (http://kcbooks.us/wpATP) or on my blog (http://kcbooks.us/1MspxrD)

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Chapter 8 - A True Prince (A Serialized YA Historical Fantasy)

Queen Tawnia knew whom they were going after. She should have expected Aslynn’s bond with her twin would be strong enough to sense the boy was in trouble.
“Guard!” she snapped.
If Aslynn sensed trouble, then her request had been acted on and it was too late to stop it.
The guard approached and saluted while the queen considered whether she should stop Aslynn.
But could the queen justify it if she brought Aslynn back under guard? It was an extreme action for what would appear to be a simple juvenile prank. And when Sebastian turned up missing, her actions would cast suspicion upon herself, while as it stood now, even if they found the boy, she had covered her tracks well enough; the trail would not lead back to her. As long as she remained calm.
“Your Majesty?” the guard asked when she did not speak.
“Never mind,” she snapped.
Sebastian was slow waking up, which—he was dimly aware—was not a good sign. He felt his body moving in a rocking motion, which also did not feel right. When he finally managed to open his eyes, he found himself in a dark room, and recognized the sound of water lapping against the hull of a ship.
He frowned, trying to remember something that would tell him why he was on a boat.
He received Meedo’s message just after feeding the horses and asked Master Jabari’s permission to go down to the docks. Then he went out into the fog, making his way carefully down to the harbor with Artemis, as ever, his faithful companion.
Sebastian had to stretch for memories of what happened next. Once he had managed to find the correct pier in the fog, a man had appeared in front of him, asking if he had a light for his pipe.
He sat up now, groaning at an ache in his head. When he reached to feel it, he was surprised to find shackles on his wrists.
Alarm bells began clamoring in his mind as he felt his head over. Indeed, there was a large lump just behind his ear.
Casting back into foggy memory, Sebastian recalled Artemis growling at something behind him as he spoke to the sailor. The last thing he remembered was turning, hand on knife, to see. Someone must have come up behind him and hit him on the head. With a sinking feeling, he realized the ship he was on was most likely a slaver. It seemed Mother Bette’s dire warnings of the dangers of going to port had come true.
His mind reeled, but his first thought was of Artemis: he hoped she was all right. The dog was being trained to fight, but without Sebastian directing her....
Escape was his second thought.
The shackles on his wrists were too tight to pull over his hands, though he spent several minutes pulling, straining, and tearing his skin. The shackles on his ankles proved just as binding. The chain securing them was rust free and strong, as was the ring and spike holding it to the wooden beam in the low ceiling.
Sebastian realized he wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
“Master Jabari!” Aslynn called as she and Adam burst into the courtyard.
The swordmaster looked up from the farrier’s work as they ran toward him.
“Princess, Lord Wingfield,” he said formally. “Aren’t you two supposed to be at lessons?”
She answered his question with one of her own. “Where’s Sebastian?”
“Down at port. He said he was to meet someone there.”
“He didn’t say, but I think he got a message. Come to think of it, he said he’d be back in time for lunch, but I didn’t see him.” Master Jabari frowned, his brown eyes showing concern. “Is something wrong?”
Aslynn nodded. “Worse than last time. I’m afraid, Master Jabari.”
Master Jabari did not hesitate. He turned on his heel and headed for the stables. “Come on,” he said. “You two are with me.”
Within minutes they were armed, mounted, and riding for the harbor, trusting the horses’ good sense to keep them on the road through the fog.
Once down among the docks—mostly deserted with the fog keeping the fleets in—they dismounted. Aslynn headed directly to the slots kept especially for visitors. It was not hard to pick Remini out from the two tallships moored beside her.
“Meedo!” she called, and felt Adam and Master Jabari come up to stand behind her.
The stranger appeared on deck, looking quite surprised to see her. “Princess,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“Have you seen Sebastian?”
“No, Your Highness. He was here yesterday, and left a note while I was gone, but I haven’t seen him since—”
“Did you not send him a summons this morning?”
“I did. But he never arrived.”
Master Jabari stepped forward. “Mind if we check your boat?” Aslynn had filled him in on the happenings leading up to the message, and Master Jabari had immediately become suspicious of the stranger’s motives, especially in light of recent events.
As Meedo looked him over, the boat began drifting closer to the dock. “You’ll be the swordmaster.” An easy assumption to make, given his height, ebony skin, and military bearing. “Believe me when I say I share your concern for the lad.” The boat rocked gently against the braided-rope dock bumpers. “Welcome aboard my Remini.”
“Wait here, Princess, Lord Wingfield,” Master Jabari said, giving Adam a look Aslynn assumed meant protect her.
Meedo gestured Master Jabari to precede him, and the two men disappeared below. Aslynn shivered in the fog; the sense of danger had not lessened. She shivered again, and Adam put an arm across her shoulders.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“This isn’t right,” she said. “He’s not here.” Until that moment, she hadn’t been entirely certain Meedo wasn’t involved in Sebastian’s disappearance. “But I definitely feel he is very near the sea.”
“Aslynn? How can you have these feelings? I mean, how can you know?”
“I don’t know how I know, I just know it was right in the past. Maybe because we shared the same wet nurse as babies. Maybe because we have been best friends since forever. Adam, I’m really frightened for him.”
Adam enclosed her in a full hug and she wrapped her arms around him, grateful for his presence. He was making this trial a lot easier to bear.
“We’ll find him, Princess,” he said softly into her ear. “We’ll find him.” With one last squeeze, he let her go before Master Jabari came back out and saw them behaving so inappropriately.
“As you can see, sir, there’s not much place to be hiding a mouse, much less a lad like Sebastian.”
Looking around, Jabari had to agree. Nevertheless, he poked his head into cupboards and under the bunks, just to be certain.
“How did you meet the children, anyway? The princess was not very forthcoming about it.”
“I was washed overboard in that big storm a few days back. The princess found me on the beach, while your lad, Sebastian, helped bring in my Remini.”
“Hmm,” Jabari said, suppressing a twinge of annoyance that Sebastian hadn’t told him.
“I owe them a blood debt, Master Jabari. I have already started trying to repay them.”
“Repay them how?”
“The princess told me the lad wants to know who his parents are.”
Even though he had been expecting the day would come, it still hurt to think he and Bette were not enough for the boy. “And you told them you can do this?”
“I have been known to figure a few things out now and again. It’s what I do, Master Jabari.”
“Be that as it may, this trail is fifteen years cold, Mr. Meedo. Do you really think you can pull it off? I mean, find the truth?”
“The time frame does present a challenge, but I’ve already found a clue.”
“Among the dead on that slaver was a young mother and her infant daughter.”
“So the girl’s father says before she died, she was approached by a woman who needed a wet nurse. The girl refused, but she disappeared that night, never to be seen until the wreck.”
“The girl described the woman to her father before she disappeared.”
Jabari eyed the stranger, unable to hide his respect for the man’s quick work. “You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“Well, it’s not much, but perhaps it is enough to get a fix when I take a reading on the lad, if we ever find him.”
When we find him. A reading?”
“For want of a better word. I can see things other people can’t, Master Jabari. Both with my mind’s eye and logic to tie the clues together.”
“Well I’ll be.... Just like the boy, a gift from the sea.”
“Indeed.” Meedo chuckled. “Unless of course you believe in coincidence.”
“Not I.” Jabari did not smile.
“Unfortunately, my gifts aren’t any that will help locate the lad while we stand here—”
“Master Jabari!” Adam called from without, his voice urgent.
The two men looked at each other for only a moment before dashing toward the companionway and deck.
Out on the pier, there was trouble. Adam, sword in hand, was fighting off three sailors armed with wicked knives, while Aslynn, her back to Adam, faced one sailor with only her jeweled knife to give the big man pause.
Jabari did not hesitate. He drew his own sword and leapt into the fray, concentrating on helping Adam, who was in greater need. Aslynn was taking great care with her foe and, despite his larger size, he thought she could keep him at a distance. The sailor couldn’t escape, blocked as he was on three sides by water and on the fourth by the brawl.
Meedo had no weapon—his had been lost in the storm and he’d not yet replaced it, but he had something that might work as well—or better. He ran back below decks.
Aslynn watched the sailor’s chest, letting her periphery catch his every move so she could counter. Only once did she glance up to the man’s eyes, seeing a glitter of something that would have terrified her had she taken time to think about it.
She was aware of Adam fighting behind her, and when Jabari entered the fight, she could have shouted in relief had she not been so busy.
The sailor lunged again, and Aslynn shifted the knife, slashing down hard on his forearm. He growled in pain as blood began dripping down his arm, but he did not back off.
Adam happily let Master Jabari take on two of the sailors. He pulled his concentration to the big and rough looking sailor to his left, who was enough of a challenge. He already had a good scratch from the long knife in his left hand.
Having the longer reach, Adam should have had the advantage, but this sailor was obviously well versed in fighting a swordsman with his blade. Then again, this sailor had not been taking lessons from the greatest swordmaster in all the Bonnie Isles.
In a bold move he pulled off with at least half as much luck as skill, he flicked his sword across the man’s wrist and flipped the knife out of the sailor’s grip. But as Adam drew back to make a final thrust, the sailor slipped inside his reach and bowled into him with his greater weight, knocking the two of them back into the princess, who just managed to leap out of the way. Adam’s sword clattered to the dock as they tumbled together.
Wrestling was familiar ground, and Adam was quick to be sure he didn’t allow his heavier opponent to pin him.
On his right, he heard a splash, and Master Jabari laughed.
“It’s the swordmaster!” one of the sailors cried. The man wrestling Adam kicked him off and jumped to his feet.
“What other 'Master Jabari' did you think he was calling, you sea dog?”
Adam retrieved his sword and scrambled to his feet, but the two remaining sailors disappeared into the fog, the sound of their footsteps quickly muffled, as was the splashing of the sailor Master Jabari had knocked off the dock.
They turned together to help the princess and found the final sailor frozen in a lunge while the princess walked around him, chin on her fist. Meedo jumped off Remini, stashing something in his pocket. Adam thought he saw the glint of a fine metal chain, and recalled bedtime stories his nanny told him about magicians who could cast binding spells using such a chain and Ley magic or arcane words.
“Hmm,” Aslynn said, turning to him. “Magic.” Then concern filled her voice. “Oh, Adam, you’re hurt!” She hurried to his side and pushed back his torn sleeve to reveal a long, narrow slash down his forearm.
“It’s just a scratch,” he said, but made no move to stop her examination.
“Maybe, but it’s bleeding.” She bent down, tore a strip of cloth from her petticoats, and began wrapping his arm. The pain of his wound had only just started to be felt when she finished her ministrations with quick a kiss, full on the lips. “That is for saving my life.”
Surprise and pleasure temporarily replaced the throbbing of the wound.
“He won’t stay like this for long,” Meedo said, unraveling the rope he’d brought. “I suggest we tie him securely.”
“What happened?” Master Jabari asked Adam as he and Meedo began tying the sailor up.
“We were waiting here for you when these men came out of the fog,” said Adam. “I assumed they were going to the tallships there, but I tried to stay between them and the princess, just to be safe. And then…I don’t know, it happened so fast. One of them made a remark about the princess, and before I knew it, he’d lunged at her. It was all I could do to keep the other three away until you got here.”
“You did well, Lord Wingfield,” said Jabari, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We haven’t yet started lessons on fighting against knives, yet you not only held off three, but managed to disarm one. Not bad at all. Though, I will broaden the scope of your lessons, in the event this should happen again.”
“Please Heaven it will not happen again,” Aslynn said firmly. “Explaining this to my father once will be bad enough. I don’t suppose you’d consider—”
“Princess, your father needs to know about this.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” She seemed to resign herself to the fact.
Meedo, who had been watching their captive all the while, spoke up. “Do you think it was a random attack, or were they after the princess because of who she is?”
Aslynn came to stand beside him. “Why would they attack anyone?”
“I could make a guess,” said Jabari, looking at Meedo.
“Slavers,” they said together. “He’s coming around,” Meedo added.
The captive groaned and his eyes rolled to the back of his head before coming to focus on Aslynn. “You little b—” he began, but Adam stepped forward, striking him hard across the mouth.
“Easy,” said Jabari, surprised by the youth’s protectiveness. It made him wonder about the kiss Aslynn had given him. “He won’t be able to talk with a broken jaw.”
“Well.” Adam looked ready to strike again regardless.
Jabari crossed his arms and gave the sailor a level look. “What were you and your friends up to this day?”
The sailor turned to Jabari and narrowed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Havin’ us a stroll, your lordship. Takin’ the airs.”
Within him, there was a kind of hatred Jabari hadn’t sensed in years. The people of Fair Haven and most of the Bonnie Isles had come to accept Jabari’s differences, but this man had the same attitude of those who had tricked him away from his family and brought him here in the first place.
“Indeed?” he said, working to contain his own dislike. “And your attack on the lady?”
“What lady? All I saw was this little siren workin’ her charms on the boy. I just wanted me a little, too.”
Jabari had to hold the boy back from striking the sailor again. “What ship do you sail with?”
“I’m between jobs now, thanks to you lot.”
The sailor didn’t answer.
“Meaning his ship will sail without him now,” supplied Meedo.
“In this fog?” asked Adam.
“How better to hide a slaver’s departure?” Meedo said. “I’d wager that’s where the lad is.”
“Yes!” said Aslynn. “It must be.”
“Where are they sailing from?” Jabari asked the sailor, who straightened his shoulders a little in his resolve not to answer. “Answer or I’ll have your hide for a saddle blanket!”
At the sailor’s continued silence, Meedo stepped up. “Remember how it felt, just moments ago?” he said softly into the man’s ear. “Remember? It hurt, didn’t it? I can do worse, you know.”
The man still did not answer, and Meedo grasped his chin, forcing him to look in his eyes. The sailor grudgingly spoke up. “Not half what the captain will do if I tell.”
Meedo smiled; the look enough to give even Master Jabari chills. “I wouldn’t be so sure.” Meedo’s eyes narrowed, and the sailor grunted, hunching forward. “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
The sailor only growled.
“You didn’t need him for further questioning, did you, Master Jabari? He’ll be quite useless before I’m through.”
Jabari realized what Meedo was doing, and though he detested the game, he played along. “If I thought he’d answer, I’d question him. But as it is, it would be a waste of time.”
More than half of the game involved convincing the man Meedo’s intentions would be the most awful fate he could suffer in order to make him think answering a few questions would not be so bad. And Meedo apparently had a trick or two to help convince him.
“I thought you would agree. I suggest you take the children away. This won’t be pretty.” The sailor grunted again, doubling over in pain.
“Wait!” he cried out. “We did take a boy this morning,” he said. “He’s on board already.”
“What ship?” snapped Meedo.
“The Star Trader,” the sailor gasped. “Please, Captain will kill me—”
“You’ll wish you were dead if you don’t tell us where she’s moored,” Meedo pressed. The man dropped awkwardly to his knees, gasping in pain.
“Lord Wingfield,” Jabari said, “take the princess up to the castle and ask the king to mobilize the guard. I’ll get the warship prepared. We’ll find her when she sets out. And we’ll be certain the captain knows who told us.”
“Mercy!” cried the sailor. “Please, I’ll tell you where, just stop!”

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review of Risking Ruin, by Mae Wood

I liked this book. It's a solid Goodreads 3.5 stars. 4 on Amazon.

I felt like I understood Marisa's job and her life, and she was very likeable. I really felt her attraction to Trip and their situation. I think they were deluding themselves about the thin line they were walking, but it was totally believable that they would try it, given their mutual attraction

I did think there was a missed opportunity of them actually being discovered by the one person who could really have hurt them, but then this would have been a totally different book. A book I might have been able to say I loved.

As it is, this had a little more fluff than I care for. But if you like more details on shoe and clothes designers, and foods, etc, you will probably enjoy this book very well.

Trip was adorable, and every girl's dream of a super rich, super fit, super sexy and devoted boyfriend. I also liked her parents, and Erica. I also felt like I knew Memphis like a native after the author's thorough descriptions.

It was a fun read. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review of Beast, by AJ Adams

I loved this book, but it fell just short of amazing. I'm at about 4.5 stars.

I loved this fantasy world of Prydain. (I cut my reading teeth on Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Which is neither here nor there, since this Prydain is nothing like Alexander's...I digress.) I loved it precisely because there isn't much to love about the situation in the 9 cities and the people in them. They're messed up. They're at war with each other. They judge each other, fail to listen to each other, and they're greedy jerks to each other. Especially to their women. It feels awfully in tune with current times.

Then we put all these folks into a mish-mash of cultures and watch what happens.

Wynne is a fascinating woman. She's an innocent, but she's seen the worst of people. She doesn't take any guff lying down (unless she's literally being sat upon) yet she doesn't sit idly by while others are in danger. She's a fighter, she's tough, and she's smart.

The author asked me to suspend my disbelief for this fantasy, and for the most part I could. The thing that I just can't seem to get around is Wynne's physical reaction to Rune. I don't like to give spoilers, so you'll just have to know that I have just enough doubt in that scenario, that this is where most of that lost half star comes into play.

Rune was tricky for me. As are many of this author's male main characters. It is hard to get around the fact that...well, if I said it here, it would be a spoiler. I'll just say (since it's in the description of the book) that the 'dubious' part of dubious consent is imho a big understatement. Consent is non-existent through most of the story. And it's pretty hard for me to forgive. He has his reasons, and I love a lot of the things about him. He's smart, gentle and levelheaded, but also a great warrior who is respected by his tribe. He's a forward-thinker, and uncompromising when it comes to his people's safety and survival. But there's that 'but', and it's a big one. That is where the rest of the lost half star comes from.

I thought the other characters were pretty well developed--as developed as they can be when seen through the narrow field of vision of a hostage. As Wynne relaxes more and begins to focus on more than just escape, the minor characters come to life, so the POV--while limited by her focus--is true to the circumstances.

The story was a steady build to a conclusion that was somewhat predictable, but still enjoyable, with a slight twist or two that kept it from being run-of-the-mill. I'll be curious to find out if there will be more stories set in Prydain. I will definitely read them.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Chapter 7 - A True Prince (A Serialized YA Historical Fantasy)

The sailor waited uncomfortably in the small pub within the castle walls, desperately wishing Captain Rastafel had sent someone else on this errand. He didn’t really expect to be recognized or found out, but just being so close to the castle guard made him nervous.
His seat in the corner booth farthest away from the door afforded him a view of the patrons coming in, yet he knew he could not easily be seen himself.
He didn’t know whom he was meeting—which wasn’t unusual—but he also didn’t know why, exactly. One of two reasons, he was sure.
This pub was much nicer than most the sailor visited, the patrons of a much higher social class. He was sure he stood out like a starfish in a mussel bed. Again, he wished he could leave. The ale in his mug was nearly gone. He lifted and drained it, wondering if he should order more.
Just then, someone settled into the booth across from him. Someone he hadn’t seen enter the pub, which meant they’d come in through the back.
The candle in the booth went out in the same moment, leaving the sailor looking at an indistinct shadow. He hadn’t seen anything more than a dark cape with a hood and a flash of pale skin.
“Good e’en, mate,” he said, leaving no doubt he was a sailor. Not that he thought this one doubted they were at the right table. Something about this one smacked of witchcraft. The sailor suppressed a shiver, and crossed his fingers under the table.
The figure across the table held out a sketch and the sailor took it. It was a boy, young, about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. A boy the sailor recognized. “I seen him at port just today.”
The figure did not acknowledge his comment or move in any way. “Make him disappear.” The voice was disguised, but the sailor could tell it was a woman, one who had a far better education than he. “Soon. Make certain he is never seen in the Bonnie Isles again.”
Then, the figure vanished and the candle came to life, revealing a bag on the table in front of him. He folded the sketch away quickly and lifted the bag to find it heavier than he expected. Whoever the boy was, this woman wanted him gone. Captain Rastafel would make a killing on this job.
Aslynn could not sleep.
The combination of no exercise—at least, nothing physically demanding—and the presence of a stranger in her bedchamber made it impossible to keep her eyes closed.
Every time Claudia shifted on her pallet or sighed in her sleep, Aslynn heard it. If the maid had snored or thrashed around like Sebastian, it would have been easier to accept. But Claudia wasn’t her friend, they weren’t in Sebastian’s loft, and sleep would not come.
If Claudia were not there, she could have gone to visit Sebastian, bypassing the guard at her door by using the secret passageway behind the tapestry.
But Aslynn did not dare reveal her knowledge of the passages. She would be throwing away a perfectly good secret if she were caught outside her room.
Instead, she rubbed at her sore shins and tried to believe that if she behaved, the whole ordeal would be over sooner.
Patience, she thought, is going to be a most difficult lesson to learn. Dealing with the discomfort she could handle.
The hoop skirt was proving to be the hardest trial. It appeared her posture was not the problem; it was her stride. Her back did not bother her even after having the board tied to it all afternoon. And she could keep from swinging her arms if she held her hands clasped in front of her. It was an acceptable concession to Tawnia, and it saved her upper arms from being pinched by the metal bands strapped tightly around them.
But the hoop skirt she could not seem to get around. Essentially a petticoat made of metal bands, it was meant to only accommodate tiny steps, but she always forgot. In taking a normal step, she would kick the hoop with her shin, stumble, and have to flail wildly to keep from falling. It would be comical if it didn’t hurt so much.
At least Tawnia didn’t have a problem with the way she spoke; Aslynn had emulated her father’s speech from an early age. However, subject matter would be another matter altogether. Ladies, she was certain, did not comment on horse races and the finer points of sticking a wild pig with a spear. To avoid a lecture on that, she vowed to speak only of the weather. Or perhaps the music when she began her dancing lessons.
For some reason, the thought of dancing with Adam sent a thrill down her spine. It had been happening every time she thought of him since their interrupted conversation the night before.
Not for the first time, she wondered what he had been about to say. She had wanted him to tell her she was special, that he cared what happened to her.
Maybe, she admitted, she had wanted him to tell her he was in love with her. She wanted that to be true. Childishly, she wanted him to spirit her away to Castle Greyloch to live happily ever after, but she knew running away from here would mean leaving her father in Tawnia’s clutches. That was a fate she could not bear to think about.
And how would she keep her promise to Sebastian if she left? Unless he left with her.... But any clues to his identity were here, somewhere, near Castle Fair Haven.
She thought again of the stranger, Meedo, and wondered if he was still alive, and if so, could he really solve Sebastian’s mystery?
If he could, the only thing left to do would be to stop Tawnia by somehow exposing how she was controlling the king without giving away the truth to the whole kingdom. If knowledge of the king being under a spell for at least the last fourteen years became known, it would not only undermine the people’s faith in their king, it would also be a tacit invitation for her father’s enemies to attack.
The more Aslynn thought about it, the more determined she became to expose Tawnia...somehow. Maybe she could benefit from her lessons in more ways than just becoming a lady. Maybe Tawnia would let slip something she could use against her.
At last, sleep overcame her as she plotted how she would expose the queen.
Katrona snuggled deep under her covers and tried to pretend she’d been there for hours instead of mere moments.
Just as she stilled herself, the bedchamber door opened and a figure appeared, silhouetted in the torchlight from the hallway. Her mother entered and shut the door, leaving the room lit in flickering firelight once more.
Katrona considered herself lucky to have gotten back in time. She had left the nursery earlier to escape Edward’s game of make believe, which always involved the same scenario. He was the king, dressed in a scrap of purple curtain, wearing a crown of painted wood, and Katrona was either his personal witch—a role she detested—or some other servile knave.
Tonight, instead of waiting for his pronouncement of her role, she vanished into the passageways, knowing he wouldn’t have the nerve to follow her alone—especially after getting lost for nearly an hour earlier that day.
Katrona had fled to the lower levels, where all but a few servants enjoyed an evening away from the ever-present call of duty.
Edward would have wanted to spy on the bedchambers, to see if he could witness any intimate goings on, but Katrona was far more interested in talk.
She spied on the kitchens, where they gathered to gossip. Aslynn’s lessons were on many lips today. Then she moved on to the common room, where servants gathered to do personal tasks like mending stockings or belts, sewing clothes for their children, or carving pipes.
This was the room where serious matters were discussed. This was where Katrona learned many things no one would even suspect a ten-year-old to have interest in, much less know.
Things like politics: who was plotting what against whom, who had half a chance of succeeding, and speculation on what the results of success would be.
This room was also where she heard the rumors about her mother’s "witchcraft", and her own—rumors that proved just how ignorant people could be.
They thought her mother sacrificed lambs to keep her youth. Anyone who had seen the queen performing her morning "ritual" could tell artfully applied cosmetics kept her mother looking young.
They thought her mother had the king under a spell kept fresh with the blood of virgins. Katrona could not swear against the spell, but she was sure there were no sacrificed virgins. Katrona had seen something once, in a secret chamber, that made her think the spell was real, but there had been no sign of blood sacrifice, only curious objects gathered in a pattern. The objects combined with a prickling sense of some energy, spoke of arcane activity. A lack of dust meant her mother—whom she had followed—went there often.
People thought her mother spoke to Satan for advice. Well, yes, her mother had a habit of talking to herself when she thought no one was around, but Katrona did not think she was addressing Satan.
They thought Katrona herself danced in the Sabbat to honor Satan, who some thought was her father. Katrona knew she had never danced naked in the forest clearing under the light of a full moon.
Her mother had never mentioned the devil in all her lessons. When Katrona came to her, frightened by the realization she could tell when people were lying, Tawnia had given her a cursory explanation of Ley, the ethereal power that stretched in bands around the world and could be tapped by those who could sense and manipulate it.
 A simple trick of summoning flame to a candlewick was the extent of physical magic she had been taught, only shown to her when Katrona had expressed doubt about the practicality of her so-called gift. Further lessons mainly promised revelations of some greater secret she would be taught "when she was old enough".
No devil worship, no subservience to a power other than that of her own mind tapping into the Ley and drawing forth the results she desired.
But after recent events, Katrona was tempted to wonder about her mother's activities.
Tonight, as Katrona made her way back through the secret passageways to the family wing, she had been startled to hear footsteps and see a light approaching.
Knowing if she panicked she could forget where she was and end up lost, Katrona turned and counted back until she found a small nook in which she could hide. Tucking herself into the tight spot, she stilled herself and carefully thought of nothing—a trick she had learned would help her keep still, preventing the passerby from noticing her.
It wasn’t until the figure passed and the light receded that Katrona processed what she had seen: her mother, dressed for outdoors, giving off an aura of recently activated Ley.
That her mother had been outside was enough of a wonder. That she was casting spells....
Now, in the fire lit chamber, Katrona feigned sleep as her mother crossed the room to stand at her bedside. She could feel her looking down, and wondered if she knew of her recent wandering.
But the queen only tucked the covers up under her chin and bent to place a doting kiss on her forehead. “Katrona,” she whispered. “My daughter, my heiress.”
And then she moved on to the little partitioned alcove where Edward slept, leaving Katrona to wonder what that meant.
Edward was to inherit the kingdom, so what was left for the king’s youngest daughter? Her mother’s gift for spell casting? A gift of sensitivity to the presence of Ley? To a ten-year-old, this felt like a curse more often than not. The gift was something her mother prized greatly, Katrona knew, though she wasn’t certain why.
Unless the gossip about her spell over the king was true, which would mean without magic, the king wouldn’t have taken her as his wife, and Tawnia would not be queen. Nor would she be the queen mother, who had produced the heir.
Except, Edward was not the true heir.
It was enough to make a girl’s head spin, but a thought struck her as she heard her mother whisper over Edward’s bed.
If she had used magic, what wouldn’t she do to stay queen?
Katrona shook her head, not believing her mother could actually do any harm. It was one thing to cast love spells, quite another to cause a hurt, or...make someone disappear.
The queen must have heard her movement, for she reappeared at Katrona’s side. “Is something wrong, my dove?” she asked, reaching out to stroke Katrona’s hair. “Can you not sleep?”
“I sense Ley magic, Momma,” she said, making her voice sound sleepy and confused. “Why?”
“Strange happenings are afoot, my darling,” the queen said. “I have cast spells to help protect you and Edward.”
Katrona sensed Truth in her mother’s words, though she also sensed a holding back—doubtless a desire to protect from whatever strange happenings she perceived. It only served to remind her the queen had a mother’s instinct to protect her own. And surely that instinct could not be a bad thing.
“I love you, Momma,” Katrona said.
“I love you too, darling. Off to sleep, now. Daylight will be here sooner than you think.”
The day dawned gray with fog, slicking the deck of the little boat with moisture and painting everything behind a curtain of white too thick to see more than a boat-length away.
Meedo stretched after climbing out of the cabin. Today was the day to send for Sebastian. He had the distinct feeling something crucial would happen before the sun went down.
He folded the summons he’d written, hopped down from Remini’s foredeck, and went in search of a messenger.
At the foot of the dock, a gaggle of boys waited for the chance to earn a copper or two.
Meedo called out to one and pressed two small coins in the boy’s hand, along with the note.
“Take this up to the castle and deliver it to Sebastian, the swordmaster’s boy. Can you do that for me?”
The boy fingered the coins and grinned. “Oh, aye!”
“Off with you, then.” Meedo turned to go back to his Remini. He did not see the figure of a man turn away hastily, melting back into the mist.
Aslynn and Adam approached each other: she curtsied, he bowed, and when the music began, he held out his hands for hers.
She took his left hand lightly and settled her left onto his shoulder, thrilling at the feel of his right hand on her hip. They stepped together into the opening movements of the dance.
The string quartet played a song Aslynn had been taught to recognize as a minuet, and Adam guided her expertly through the motions. She liked the feeling of his confidence flowing through his hands to her, making her forget the queen’s critical gaze on them both.
“You dance well, Lord Wingfield,” she told him. “The queen said she heard you were in need of polish.”
Adam only smiled. “I’d say anything to give you respite from your torture.”
She smiled in return. “My hero.”
They had been at dancing lessons for over an hour since lunch, and it was indeed a respite from the morning’s posture and walking torture. Adam had managed to pass along Sebastian’s message about Meedo, but they mostly held only idle chitchat, as the queen seemed very interested in everything they had to say to each other.
Aslynn was beginning to think that this part of being a lady, at least, would not be so bad. As long as she always had a partner like Adam: handsome, charming....
Aslynn gasped and stopped in her tracks, causing Adam to pull awkwardly to a stop to avoid treading on her toes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Sebastian,” she whispered, feeling blind panic rising in her. “He’s in danger!”
“What? How?”
“I don’t know. I just know!”
“What’s wrong?” Queen Tawnia demanded, gliding toward them. “Why have you stopped?”
Adam’s grip shifted to her shoulders as they stared at each other, his gaze not questioning, only waiting.
“Aslynn!” Tawnia said sharply. “What under heaven is wrong with you? You weren’t doing that poorly. Continue.”
But Aslynn did not move, and the quartet faltered to a stop.
“I have to go to him,” she whispered, desperately wishing the queen would just dismiss them.
“Him who?” Tawnia tapped her foot impatiently. “What ails you, milkmaid?”
Aslynn couldn’t look away from Adam, couldn’t decide what to do. Sebastian needed her—this she knew. The longer she stood there, the higher her level of panic rose.
Adam’s eyebrow twitched and he rolled his eyes toward the door, a not-so-subtle motion suggesting they make a run for the door.
She nodded and reached down, scandalously grabbing the hem of her skirts and petticoats, lifting the metal hoops above her knees. Adam grabbed her free hand and they turned, making a run for the door.
“Aslynn!” Tawnia shrieked. “Get back here!”

In the hall, they only hesitated long enough for Aslynn to shimmy out of the hoop skirt before racing toward the stables to find Sebastian.