Ciardis Weathervane returned to the imperial court of Sandrin to unite her foes. But her efforts hit a stumbling block. The imperial kind. She never thought that before rallying an empire, she’d have to fight the emperor himself.
An imposter sits the throne and the court she turned to for help is in turmoil. Ciardis hasn’t survived assassination attempts, torture and really bad luck to be taken down by her own ruler. So she devises a plan. But first she needs to get Sebastian and Thanar to agree. Each seems to love her in their own way. But neither is listening to her. Pushing them to put aside their differences, in an effort to ward off catastrophe, might be harder than displacing an emperor who would do anything to keep his throne.
Butting heads at court isn’t Ciardis’s only problem. With the princess heir’s threat looming she is forced to travel to the mythical city of Kifar, where it is up to her small group to stop the destruction of the entire city while heading a rebellion that could foment a revolution. It wouldn’t be the first revolution that Algardis has ever known. But with Ciardis Weathervane at its head–it would certainly be the last.
This fifth novel continues the story of Ciardis Weathervane from Sworn To Secrecy.
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Ciardis Weathervane lowered her glaive slightly as she watched the reaction of Sebastian to Jason SaAlgardis’s claims. Emotions played across the prince heir’s face. Shock. Wariness. Anger. Eventually coldness settled over his features like a mask. She could still read Sebastian like an open book, even when others saw nothing but the careful persona he intended them to see. She knew the prince had trained himself to hide his feelings as well as his intentions while at court. He had to. From the time he was a toddler until just about a year ago, most of the imperial court had thought him worthless at best. That had actually not been so bad. Those individuals overlooked him as an inconvenience.
For other courtiers, he had been more than a hindrance, he had been a threat to their very livelihoods. As a consequence, a few had ganged together to kill him off and let another take his place as the heir to throne. Ciardis knew Sebastian hadn’t considered those men friends. But he hadn’t really known them, either. They were just four courtiers out of the thousands that flocked to his father’s court every year.
It was a scary thought. To think that someone you didn’t know, that you bore no grudge, would still attack and kill you because they felt they had been wronged. So now Sebastian kept his face unreadable. Masked emotions meant Sebastian was less likely to open himself up to a threat or be wounded by courtiers skilled in the art of internecine political warfare.
But Ciardis had come to know the prince heir. She could say without arrogance that she was aware of Sebastian’s thoughts and emotions in a more perceptive way than anyone else. After all, they were bonded. Unless he blocked her, his mind was an open book. But she didn’t need to read his mind to know what he was thinking. She knew how to read his facial expressions and where to search in his features to discern what he was truly feeling. Like now, as she glanced over at him out of the corner of her eyes. It was in the still lines that marked his pale brow, the crease at the corner of his green eyes that hinted at strain and the thin purse of his flushed lips that said unease. Beneath all of that was the almost hidden look of uncertainty. Not the uncertainty of facing an unknown opponent. But the uncertainty that was guilt. She wanted to take a step forward. To grip his hand. To ask what he would have to feel guilty for. But she wasn’t about to let her sentimental nature put them into a compromising position. There was a stranger with them and she would act accordingly. Never again would she give an individual the benefit of the doubt and consider them weak like she had poor, sniveling Thomas. That spectacled and flushing boy had turned out to be one of their greatest threats in disguise, a devious mind-controlling satyr.
She kept her full gaze warily trained on the gray-haired older man in front of them. He didn’t look weak at all and had already demonstrated a strong skill in martial arts.
They had been on the rooftop a good few minutes now. None of the three had yet to relinquish their weapons. They simply stood. Staring each other down with the thick silence of uncertainty weighing over all of them. She wondered if they could trust Jason. She was sure Jason wondered the same. She had to admit, though, if this man were going to kill them, he would have done it by now. The night sky was lightening overhead with the telltale signs of a dawn about to break through. The darkness was giving way to a sky streaked with the wispy light-blue color of a robin’s egg. It wasn’t day yet. But it soon would be. The Duchess of Carne was long gone. Ciardis just hoped Vana and Thanar were well. Hell, at this moment, she’d take alive. They could be bleeding from a dozen different places as long as they were still standing.
She hadn’t heard from or seen them since she and Sebastian had raced into the secret tunnel in pursuit of the Duchess of Carne. The noblewoman had fled after it became clear that it was she who had orchestrated the attacks against Ciardis and her friends. Furthermore, it had been revealed that the duchess had orchestrated those attacks on a whim. Persuading her now-deceased husband that they posed a threat to his wife—supposedly bedridden with ill heath from being forced to go on trial before all of her compatriots. Now Ciardis stood on a cold rooftop with just Sebastian and a strange man. They had come in pursuit of the fleeing duchess and found him instead. Now Ciardis would give anything to have Thanar and Vana by her side.
Vana had the unique gift of being able to see the truth in others—without the aid of a narcotic like the truth serum. It was a natural gift that Ciardis suspected was part of her powers as a mage of the unknown. It fit with her title of Cloudbreaker, as well. That innate ability hadn’t stopped her from using a vial of the truth serum on Ciardis, alongside a woman Ciardis hoped was long dead, Lady Arabella—Truthsayer for the emperor. That particular incident had occurred shortly after Ciardis was mistakenly transported to the northern war campaign. After her disappearance, the emperor had ordered her sought out for questioning in regards to her ties to the dead murderer known as the Shadowwalker—a human mage who had deceived and murdered hundreds of kith in the Ameles Forest for his own petty retribution. Ciardis had forgiven Vana for participating in the torturous session under the emperor’s orders. Sort of. It was more that Ciardis now understood why Vana had done it—to protect the empire. To protect its people from another mass murderer. But Ciardis had more trouble forgiving and forgetting that Vana had also been set to the task of hunting down her mother, Lillian Weathervane, and executing her in cold blood. The whole time she had thought Vana had taken a personal interest in her by overseeing her initiation ceremony at the companions’ guild, traveling by her side to the Ameles Forest and even working to discover the empire’s secrets in the north, it had been a ruse. The mage and companion had really been spying on Ciardis for information about the more famous Weathervane—her mother. The woman who was alleged to have died years ago and only within the last three weeks had Ciardis come to learn was still alive and had been in hiding in plain sight as Lady Serena.
The only reason Ciardis and Lady Vana were still on good terms was the fact that Ciardis’s mother still lived. Vana had had the chance to follow through with her orders and execute her mother, but she had stayed her hand and escorted Lillian to Sandrin, where she stood trial. Ciardis had hoped that the trial would free her mother from the threat of death. Instead the outcome had forced her into bondage by the emperor’s decree.
All in all, a fate not that different than her son, Caemon Weathervane, had endured after being plucked from his foster family and put to work by the emperor’s mages in payment for his mother’s crimes. At least Lillian wouldn’t be worked to death like a mule. Instead she would live imprisoned in the emperor’s dungeon for the next twenty years. All because the evidence gathered was insufficient to either clear Lillian Weathervane’s name or conclusively prove that she had performed the crime committed—the heinous act of murdering Empress Teresa Athanos Algardis, the first wife of Sebastian’s father.
Ciardis’s mind turned back to her contemplation of Vana. In many ways, the woman had been the linchpin in the Emperor’s decision to imprison her mother instead of executing her. Vana had saved Lillian’s life. Vana had stood before the court and defended Lillian’s actions against the Duke of Carne’s accusations. She had also kept a secret from the emperor’s ears. A secret that threatened to envelope them all in an imperial scandal that Ciardis was still hoping to quietly avoid.
Perhaps the fake emperor will have an attack of conscious and tell us where the real emperor is, she thought with a touch of sarcasm. Right, and pigs will fly tomorrow.
This unfortunate scandal seemed to be tied not only to the princess heir but also the murder of the former empress. In Ciardis’s opinion, history should stay in the past. It was causing way too much trouble by being reborn. This was the present and she really didn’t want to have to not only take on the true murderer of the Empress of Algardis but also the seated emperor, as well.
What’s more, Lady Vana stayed, Ciardis thought cautiously. She didn’t have to. When the emperor questioned her on the stand, she told her tale and could have left. Instead she kept our secret. The secret of the hidden vessel in a warehouse not five miles from here. And she came to confront the Duchess of Carne when she had no obligation to.
In Ciardis’s mind, that at least put Vana on equal footing with the deception that had originally forced her into Ciardis’s life. Nevertheless, they were going to have a long talk when this was over.
Ciardis almost laughed aloud at that thought. Because she honestly couldn’t decide when what was over. When they got off this rooftop? When the Duchess of Carne was dead? When the false emperor was taken into custody? When they had her mother back? There were so many, many choices. And so many obstacles. It was a never-ending battle.
As she turned to look at Jason SaAlgardis calmly, she wondered, Is this another one? A friend who will become an enemy? Or an enemy who will become a friend?
It never occurred to her to question whether or not he would be nothing to her. He could have been a mere flicker of candlelight in a room blazing with light. But she highly doubted it. As she had come to know her worse enemies and greatest allies, she learned that they came into her life at the oddest junctures. They always managed to have more of an impact than she thought possible. The people she encountered would always be something—friend, foe, vessel, or dependent. She had yet to categorize this one, though.
Thinking back on Vana, Ciardis knew she’d know what to do with this mysterious bastard son of the Algardis line. Thanar would as well. The daemoni prince wouldn’t hesitate to question the old man in front of them. By fair or foul means, Thanar would get his answer. If he didn’t Thanar could and would leave Jason a broken, brittle mess huddled on the ground after he poured through the man’s mind, unlocking its secrets and forcing him to obey his every will.
Ciardis, for her part, refused to admit that she wanted to see Vana and Thanar for more than their skills in torture and witness tampering. She knew instinctually that she considered them allies. No, more than that—they were friends. Manipulative bastards of friends, but friends all the same. She was in short supply of those, especially ones who had the power to protect themselves while she fought battles against creatures she had only heard about in legends.
The clear gray eyes of the man in front of her turned from the prince heir. Jason SaAlgardis’s gaze turned to her. She saw him assessing her. She wondered if he found her wanting. But she realized soon enough that she didn’t care. It wasn’t what she could do for him that mattered. It was what he could do for her.
A shiver of cold went down her spine as she remembered one of the first things that Stephanie, the companion with the unique skill of transferring personal talents from one to the other, had said to her, “Nothing is free… What can you give me in return?”
This week Stephanie had given her life to save Ciardis’s own. Narrowing her eyes, Ciardis wondered what she could possibly give to make up for the loss of the woman’s life. What could Jason SaAlgardis want from them in exchange for his help in winning back the throne?
The knot in her stomach tightened in unease.
We really need to find Thanar and Vana, preferably before I have an ulcer.
She refused to believe that it was worry that knotted in her gut. It couldn’t be. It had to be practicality. They had useful talents. She wanted to put them to use. End of story.
I am not worried about an assassin and a mass murderer, she grouched in her head. I’m just not.
You keep thinking that, was the prince heir’s dry commentary in her mind. Even when they managed to find themselves stuck on a rooftop and facing a man with a claim that could, probably would, have everyone involved executed for treason, she felt the worry in her mind ease. Because Sebastian was by her side. Sometimes she felt that she could do without his irreverent wit but in this case it was saving her from her own constant sense of impending doom. At least one of them should feel optimistic and it might as well be him. Because come hell or high water, it would be Sebastian leading the charge against the man who he claimed was his uncle, the imperial family member who was supposed to be long-dead but they had recently found out was in fact still very much aliverince Maradian Athanos Algardis.
Sometimes you have to laugh at yourself, Ciardis, Sebastian spoke to her softly. If you don’t you’ll go insane.
How can I laugh at myself when everything is going so very, very wrong? Everything I do only seems to backfire. We can’t escape it.
Beside her the prince heir was silent. Then he opened up his mind. Not just to his thoughts but to his emotions.
When you disappeared from the battlefield near the Ameles Forest, do you know what I felt?
Ciardis was trying to read his emotions at the moment. It was hard. He wasn’t feeling one clear thing. Anger, despair, hope, passion, and even wry humor were like an intermixed ball in his thoughts.
No, she finally admitted.
Horror, he said. Horror because I thought you were gone forever. I didn’t love you then. I didn’t even like you that much.
Her eyes widened but she didn’t protest. She would have three months ago. But she’d learned something along the way: Sebastian had a tendency of unintentionally insulting a person before he got to the point.
Or perhaps not so unintentionally, she thought. I’ve never seen a single person with such a gift for it before.
To Sebastian she asked reluctantly, Then why horror?
Because, Sebastian said quietly, even then I could tell you were going to be a change this court hasn’t seen in dozens of years. I didn’t know if it would be good or bad just based on our history with the Land Wight, but I had hope. Hope that it would be good. Hope that was extinguished the moment you disappeared. And then—
And then…? she prodded.
And then determination filled that gap. Determination to find you. Alive or dead. I found you because of that. So whatever we’re going through now, I have hope. Because we’re both alive. Besides I have humor. Because it can’t possibly be that much worse than the realization that we’re going to have to face down a god, can it?
Reluctantly a smile cracked her face. No, no it can’t.
That’s my girl.
I’m a woman, you snot-nosed brat.
That’s Prince Heir Snot-Nosed Brat to you.
Ciardis sometimes felt that Sebastian knew her better than herself. This was one of those times. This was also one of the few times that she didn’t want to snap at him for invading her thoughts. He liked to disconnect their mind link on a whim. Particularly when it most suited him. When he was mad at her, it didn’t suit him to speak to her. That didn’t sit well with her. A relationship was give and take, but communication was essential at all times.
It wasn’t that she was upset with him. How could she be after that pep talk? Well that, and the fact that they had just declared their love. She just didn’t like a fickle relationship. When she declared her love she meant it. She loved Sebastian Athanos Algardis. Despite being unsure of what she could do to face down the coming of a god or how they were going to persuade the man in front of them that leading a rebellion against their emperor was bad, she was sure of this one thing. Love. It was a funny thing. It made her feel determined, passionate, and optimistic in a world that was rapidly descending into a daemoni-controlled hell.
So understand when Ciardis knew she was fed up with imperial games, she was truly fed up. She wanted to take some time with Sebastian. Maybe even arrest a duchess. Yes, that would be fun. But she wasn’t crazy. Taking on a god and her emperor at the same time wouldn’t be fun. It would be suicidal.
Ciardis sighed and breathed out slowly as she recalled the conversation which had started this whole mess.
The man had told them, “We intend to put the rightful emperor on the throne.” It wasn’t often that you heard someone outright declare their intentions to overthrow an emperor. Much less someone who said so directly to the future emperor’s face.
So about the man in front of us, she said as she turned her head to look over at him.
Sebastian’s face was empty with mirror-like eyes and stiffness.
I’ll handle him, he responded.
By? she demanded.
By not admitting my father has been replaced by his bloodthirsty brother right away. Let’s see what he really knows.
Retrieving his sword, the prince heir said, “What makes you think I know what you’re talking about?”
Jason lifted a stiff eyebrow of salt and pepper hair as he lowered his own sword. Gruffly he said, “The night is waning. This be no time for games.”
“Games?” Ciardis cackled. She startled even herself at the viciousness held in that one word. But that didn’t stop her.
Distantly she heard Sebastian say, Wait a second, let me—
But she didn’t stop. She was tired, sore, and heartsick over friends and family. Taking this man down a notch would make her feel a lot better for a few minutes.
“You want to talk about games?” she hissed as she kept her glaive at a wary stance. “We came to the imperial court to warn everyone. Nobles, merchants, mages, and militia alike. There is a god coming. A god of death and destruction that wants nothing more than to erase our society and make Algardis a mere note in history.”
Jason held up a cautious hand. “Regardless of your assumptions—”
“They’re not assumptions, they’re facts,” Ciardis interrupted. “If the denizens of this entire city weren’t so enamored with staring up their own asses to figure out how they can be the most devious and insipid beings in the land at any point in time, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Well— Sebastian said in her head.
What? she groused.
Technically, if you hadn’t helped Thanar and his cohort bring down the shielding on the Sanctuary we wouldn’t be in this mess.
She felt some mild regret and annoyance. Mostly annoyance, because he was right. But they were facing an unknown threat. The least he could do was support her.
Don’t start with me, she snapped back. You’re either on my side or you’re not.
I’m on it.
Jason SaAlgardis and Sebastian Algardis exchanged almost identical male glances. Glances that said the female that stood between them had gone insane and neither was going to say a word about it.
Carefully she said to Jason, “I’ve been back to court less than a week. In that time I’ve been threatened, blackmailed, beaten up, and had my mother imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. On top of that, I’ve been instructed to fight a god who can’t be killed and tried to unravel the swirl of plots within the capital without being dragged down myself. Therefore, there’s no way in hell I trust you. I don’t know who you are or how you found us, but you need to leave.”
The older man in front of them sheathed his sword. “What if I told you there was a way to amass your army while ensuring the true ruler would assume the throne to control it?”
“As long as you don’t mean me, then keep talking,” said Sebastian.
Ciardis stared at him. “I’m listening.”
Jason gruffly said, “Let’s get off this roof first.”
Thoughts flew through her head. Her primary concern was something she didn’t want to voice aloud.
Instead she sent a quick thought to Sebastian. What about Thanar and Vana? We can’t leave them here.
We won’t. We need them at our backs, Sebastian thought back.
She cracked a slight smile. For once this week, they were immediately in accordance.
Privately she thought to herself, This relationship thing might not be so bad. He’s already agreeing with me.
The man in front of them cleared his throat. She and Sebastian hadn’t been looking at each other but she guessed they both had that far-off look pasted on their faces that said they weren’t focusing on him either.
“While you two make up your minds,” said Jason, “I’ll find us a way out.”
Ciardis lifted a curious eyebrow.
The older man half-turned away as he said, “You didn’t think you’d get out of here the same way you came in, did you? Those blasts were physical and magical. Triggered to shut down the inner tunnels all throughout the villa. You’re lucky you were already in one. Otherwise you’d be stuck where you were until the villa guards came for you.”
“I don’t know if I’d call that lucky,” Sebastian said darkly. “You nearly killed us.”
Jason shrugged. “It did its job. It will slow down Carne’s forces since its how they move from place to place in the interior walls. But this won’t stop the forces arrayed along the outer wall. Which is why we need to move. They’re probably on their way to target whatever auras of strangers are still left alive in the building.”
“Fantastic,” muttered Ciardis as she watched him walk away.
As soon as he was out of ear shot she whispered, “I don’t think he knows about Vana and Thanar. What if they’re trapped inside?”
Sebastian turned to her, his gaze dark. “We better hope they’re not.”
She frowned. “We need to do more than hope.”
“Any suggestions? We’d have to loop back around the entire villa to get to the chambers from here with the entrance we came through sealed.”
“I’ll think of something,” she said.
Her voice turned contemplative as she turned back to eye their lone rooftop companion. “Do you trust him?”
Ciardis watched the older man walk to the edge of the parapet and throw a rope ladder over the side.
“Why not?” Sebastian asked.
She narrowed her eyes. “I can’t put a finger on it. There’s just something…wrong.”
She turned to him in surprise. Sebastian’s face was tense. She’d never seen him so troubled. No, that wasn’t it. His mouth was twisted into a stiff line, like he’d bitten into a bitter lemon and didn’t like the taste. “You know something, don’t you?”
“Jason SaAlgardis isn’t who he seems to be.”
“What do you mean?”
Sebastian turned to her, his hand clenched tightly on the pommel of his sword. “He’s not a blood relative of the Algardis imperial family—bastard or otherwise.”
Shocked, she asked, “You’re sure?”
“Then how did he know the emperor is an imposter?”
“That’s what we need to find out.”