Ceremonial or battle uniform? The two options lie next to each other on the back of the velvet and wood chair. Dalir chose the black torso plate of his battle armor. As he buckled it in place, the sun shining through the large window taking up most of the wall blinded him for a moment. In the distance, a flag waved from the highest turret of the beige stone castle. He had two more weeks before he began his life in hell. Until then, he still served as commander and protector of Alandia, not merely a prince and an advisor to the king.
Dalir’s temples pounded. His father wanted to know the date he planned to step down from command. He was a warrior, not a politician. He wasn’t built for endless days sitting on his ass listening to Baco. The head of the supreme council’s long-winded speeches grated on his nerves. He also wasn’t looking forward to refereeing arguments between pro-human and antihuman council members as they picked apart every detail of the law. A recent vote to renew the treaty with the antihuman coalition leaders had remained stalled for months. The majority of the council seemed more concerned with appearing soft than solidifying a lasting peace.
A wave of energy vibrated in the front room of his home nestled in the mountains. The flames in the stone fireplace popped and flickered.
Ronan, his second-in-command and closest friend appeared. Similar to Dalir’s, his black fitted torso plate bore the dings and cuts acquired on the battlefield. He raised his brow. “Why aren’t you in uniform? You’re supposed to attend the queen’s breakfast this morning.”
“I am in uniform.” Dalir snagged a dagger from the cherrywood side table. “Are you here to bust my balls about protocol or do you need me for something?”
Ronan grinned. “Just wanted to brief you before you went to the castle. One of our patrols spotted retributionists hunting game. They’re moving away from us, but we’re keeping an eye on them.”
“Where are they headed?”
Dalir propped his foot on the seat of a chair. He slid the dagger into the sheath that rested between the dark pants forming to his leg and his high-calf boot. “The only thing in that direction is the temple.” Holy ground, and home of the guardian oracles.
Ronan’s wry chuckle boomed in the open space. “Perhaps they’re stopping to pray. They’ll need to if they want to find game in that area.”
“Or they’re up to something.” Hardline ancients resisted change in everything from buildings to food to clothing, as well as the laws granting equality to humankind. Most of them remained secluded in the hills. Retributionists chose bloodshed, refusing to accept defeat after losing a fifty-year civil war. The lifespans of the ancients, hundreds of years or more, didn’t help with ushering in modern ideas, but Alandia would move forward with or without them. Best to make sure the retributionists stayed out of the city. His father didn’t need trouble on peace treaty signing day. “I’m going to investigate.”
“I’ll cover it. I just wanted you to know in case Baco said something. I didn’t want him to catch you off guard.” As Ronan crossed his arms, he widened his stance. His heavy boots thudded on the onyx tiles. “Besides, you’re expected at the signing ceremony. No one, including you, can afford to stay on the king’s shit list. You’ve already kept him waiting too long for your decision.”
“I still have two more weeks before I have to give him an official answer of when I’m stepping down. Who knows? It may take that long for me to track the retributionists.” Hunting them down was a great excuse to avoid the so-called festivities celebrating the treaty. If only he could avoid showing up, but the needs of Alandia outranked his wants. Dalir strapped two curved swords to his back. His dark hair, secured by a winding leather cord, rested between his shoulder blades. “I’ll return in time for the ceremony this evening. In the meantime, let’s not take chances. Double the guards on my father and the leaders. And find Kell. Tell him he needs to take my place at the queen’s breakfast and the supreme council’s luncheon.”
“Your brother’s been scarce ever since your father named you as his successor last month.” Ronan’s blue-eyed gaze met Dalir’s. “I found out this morning that his captains have been covering for him. They’ve been running the training barracks during his absence.”
Typical. Dalir jerked the straps tighter across his chest. After years of shitting on responsibility, did Kell really think his father would consider him fit to be king? If anyone had the right to be pissed off, he did, not Kell. His brother’s antics cost him his commander’s spot and gained him a fiancée through an arranged engagement. “I’ll look for him. Don’t tell my father about any of this. He’s got enough to worry about. If he asks, tell him Kell’s busy getting ready for tonight and that I went to the temple.”
A knowing smile lifted concern from Ronan’s expression. “You’re safe then. Love will pass as a worthy excuse for your absence.”
Love? He and Taliana’s impending marriage served a political function. Humans and ancients alike respected the oracles who remained neutral in the war. Bringing an oracle into the family symbolized the crown’s commitment to working with all sides equally to sustain peace. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Ronan frowned. “Are you sure you don’t want to take a few warriors with you?”
“No. I’ll meet up with the warriors on patrol.” Dalir clapped him on the shoulder. Reliable, fierce, loyal, Ronan was more of a brother than Kell. He’d fill the shoes of commander well. “I’m sure we can handle them.”
Dalir quick phased. Radiant. Peaceful. Leaping into the stream of time and seeing seconds, hours, years unfolding ahead always left him in awe. He never took it for granted that he possessed the ability to travel through it, mentally or physically, at will. Or the rare talents bestowed to the royal family to gain physical strength from the energy, as well as, the gift of deciphering the thoughts of others.
A groomsman led out Dalir’s saddled horse.
Dalir took the reins. He stroked Shield Breaker. “Ready to go for a ride, boy?”
The horse blew hard and butted his shoulder.
Dalir mounted Shield Breaker, and the sleek, muscled horse pranced impatiently as if he sensed his desire to leave. Merging his mind with the horse’s, Dalir issued a silent command.
Named for his bravery in the face of danger, Shield Breaker flew into a fierce gallop.
Adrenaline surged through Dalir. He could have phased all the way to his destination, but he needed a moment. The well-honed balance of control and freedom that came with riding his horse never failed to clear his mind. As they neared the base of the mountain, he slowed Shield Breaker.
A wife. With time, he might get used to the idea. Taliana seemed tense about their imminent union as well, but he didn’t know for sure. She kept her thoughts hidden from him. The trust of revealing her feelings and opinions to him would come once they were married. They just needed to get used to each other. Lately, he’d looked forward to seeing her more often. Her laugh and inherent gentleness soothed him. She’d even convinced him to tell her some of the stories he’d made up as a boy. She’d called them poetic of all things and had used one of them as lyrics for a song.
With little prompting from Dalir, Shield Breaker climbed a well-traveled path and trotted into a wide valley separating the mountains. Dalir searched the time stream. He honed in on the retributionist hunting party.
Small game. Mainly rabbits here.
What did they expect? Deer and elk grazed in the east.
The retributionists climbed further up the mountain. Not much longer. We’ll stop soon. It’s almost time for—
Like a door had slammed, Dalir lost the thread. Only oracles and members of the royal house had the ability to guard thoughts. Why would someone at the temple shield the retributionists? Dalir left his horse tied in the shade of foliage. He phased to the courtyard in the center of the diamond-shaped sanctuary, swords drawn.
The scents of lush grass, orchids, and the fragrant buds of fruit trees permeated the air. Silence replaced the resonant songs and chanting that usually echoed from the pillared, limestone walkways. Even the wildlife in the surrounding forest remained still.
The hairs stood on Dalir’s arms. He eased farther into the courtyard.
A shimmering figure stumbled through one of the arches. A wound at Jalan’s side saturated her long, pale tunic with blood. “Leave. Now.” As the guardian of the oracle’s waved him off, her ebony hair streamed in the wind.
Dalir ran to her side and caught her as she sagged to the ground. “Who did this? Where is everyone?”
Pain lined Jalan’s deeply tanned face. “I’ve sent the oracles to another dimension, but Taliana…” She gripped his hand. A thousand years of wisdom shone in her violet eyes. “Heed my words, warrior. It’s done. What destiny has set into motion can’t be changed. It is fate.”
“I’m not leaving until you tell me what happened. Where’s Taliana?” Kell’s energy signature rippled over him. Dalir surged into a quick phase. The boundaries of time and space melded into a blur. Seconds later, he landed on solid ground at the rear of the temple.
Sunlight reflected off Kell’s blond hair and gold breastplate. His brother fisted Taliana’s auburn braid.
Dalir’s heart rate ticked up.
“Don’t come any closer.” Kell yanked Taliana back against him as he shuffled nearer the cliff.
She paled and clutched at Kell’s forearm. The sleeve of her long, flowing, blue tunic fluttered around a yellow jewel hanging around her neck, and the blade his brother held at her throat. The dagger, a gift from their father, matched the one in Dalir’s boot. The only difference was the hilt of Kell’s knife had an inlay of the sun instead of an infinity symbol.
“Kell, what are you doing?”
“Something I should have done a long time ago. I’ve joined forces with the retributionists.”
“Why? You have nothing in common with them.”
“Of course I do. Since the retributionists and I both had things stolen from us, we’ve made a trade. I’ll deliver everything they wish once they help me get what I want.”
Dalir risked taking a step forward. “What do you want?”
His brother yanked Taliana back against him.
She cried out.
Kell’s tight expression grew harder with a cruel smile. “Her and the throne.”
“She has nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, yes she does.” Kell snuggled her cheek. “Taliana’s the prize that father gave you. A nice, dutiful virgin bride. She’ll satisfy my needs well.”
He’d heard rumors about his brother’s needs. Heat and nausea roiled in Dalir’s gut. Kell would never touch Taliana. “I’m warning you. Let her go.” Dalir telegraphed a thought to Taliana, willing it to give her strength. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
The blue light of the oracles dimmed in Taliana’s gaze. Her expression saddened as she stared at Dalir. She smiled as if she’d come to another conclusion.
Prickles spread over him as he replayed Jalan’s claim. “What destiny has set into motion can’t be changed.”
This wasn’t destiny. Kell had snapped. Dalir shot out a wave of energy, testing his brother’s limits. His power clashed with Kell’s in a shower of light.
Kell raised his brow. Triumph gleamed in his blue, brown gaze. “Face it, brother. Your glory days are over. After I have you whipped in front of the castle for all of the warriors to see, I’ll assign you a job. Shoveling the stables or shining my boots, either way you’ll spend the rest of your life cleaning up shit and surviving on the crumbs I give you.”
Dalir’s hand twitched with reined in energy. He could go for a direct strike, but the risk of hitting Taliana was too great. Somehow, he had to get her out of the way.
Phase energy swelled through the ridge.
A squad of elite warriors landed behind Dalir.
Ronan appeared at his side. “The hunting party was a distraction. Retributionists attacked the city, but they didn’t succeed. Your father and the leaders are safe. Everything is secure.”
Dalir took one slow step forward, then another. “Did you hear that, Kell? It’s over. Let her go.”
“Or what?” His brother tightened his hold on Taliana.
Since childhood, Kell had used the same challenge every time he didn’t get his way. Kell always took things too far, but this wasn’t a game. “I’ll kill you.”
Taliana’s eyes widened. “Dalir, you can’t.”
Kell barked out a laugh so harsh she flinched. “Taliana’s right. You’d never disgrace yourself by breaking the law and spilling royal blood.”
But he wouldn’t let him hurt her. “It’s over. Release Taliana and I’ll let you escape.”
“And then what am I supposed to do? Become a hunted fugitive? Hide in the forest with the pathetic retributionists? I’m not doing that.”
Clueless not pathetic described the retributionists for believing in Kell. Self-preservation was his brother’s middle name. If Kell had succeeded in overthrowing their father, he would have betrayed the retributionists.
More warriors appeared.
“You’re running out of options. Be smart.” Dalir gathered all of his phase energy. He balled it inside of him, prepared to fling it out. He’d only get one chance to take down his brother and save Taliana. “End it now, and you’ll have a chance at leniency. I’ll recommend house arrest in the castle instead of prison.”
“Mercy. That doesn’t sound like you. Prepping for your new advisor’s position already?” Kell’s gaze darted to the warriors, and then he zeroed in on Dalir. “What makes you think I want your help? You know what. Fuck you. Fuck father and being king.” With a feral grin, he pressed the tip of the blade to Taliana’s throat. A drop of blood emerged. “Making you suffer is a much better reward.”
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