The Lost Throne: First Chapter Reveal
The Lost Throne (The Kingdom Within Series #2)
Months have passed since Meredith’s arrival to Alder. No longer the girl she once was, her thirst for vengeance grows. With the help of her betrothed, Meredith will bring herself closer to the retribution she covets. But vengeance comes at a high price, and she will have to decide just how far she is willing to go to get what she wants.
Lost in a kingdom oppressed by Theros’ rule, Connor is determined to recover his memories. But Sunder is a treacherous place, where the line between ally and foe becomes blurred, and Connor will be thrust into its web, forced to make a stand for those who saved his life.
I thrust my sword through the wintry air until it makes contact with its target’s chest.
With the crook of my elbow, I wipe the resurging dampness off my brow. “Sorry,” I say.
Lief seizes the opportunity to smack my shoulder with a blow of his own. The wooden sword thwacks against the dozens of crisscrossing crystal beads wrapped around the sleeve of my dress.
“Hey!” My breath turns to fog as I shove his sword away with my own.
“’Tis death to drop your guard, My Lady.”
“A sword to the chest is also death.”
I see a flash of dimples and white teeth. “Not if you’re wearing armor, it isn’t.”
“Then I suggest you wear some next time.”
Training with the protective burden of metal would be a ridiculous endeavor, wooden swords and all. Besides, there is only so much armor I can tack onto a dress. As it is, I find it hard enough to train with the mess of skirts getting in the way of my legs.
It was Ethan who—at my request—had taken on the task of improving my non-existent skills on how to wield a weapon. But as a prince of a mighty kingdom, his spare time is a luxury he can’t always bestow. Not one to wait around, I set out to train on my own with what little I had learned from the sparse lessons he had given me. It was either that or wallow in unbearable memories. I was a pathetic spectacle, but the bashing and whacking allowed me to channel my anger and numb the solid rock of pain lodged in my chest. It was on one of those lone training days when Lief, the questionably young member of the guard whom I had met at the military outpost on my way to Alder City, watched me pummel a hay-stuffed sack as though my wooden sword were a mallet and felt obliged to offer his help. I was a bit leery of a fourteen-year-old’s tutelage at first, but he soon robbed me of my prejudice. What he lacks in strength and size he makes up for with keen wits and quick feet.
“Are we done for the day?”
Now that he asks, I’m suddenly aware of the discomfort in my arms. I consider putting up the swords, but one glance at the sun tells me it’s too early. If I go back inside the castle now, it’s likely I will end up at some social gathering. The last time, I was ushered to watch a game of cards by ladies who only pretended to be interested in the action while they gossiped about marriage prospects and some feast. And every now and then, I would catch curious glances in my direction, accompanied by the subtle movement of whispering mouths. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I can take a good guess. Rumors of my unladylike activities are apparently great conversation starters. Lorette, my new lady-in-waiting, likes to remind me of this every day, it feels like, as though it will convince me to change my ways and become a proper lady. But even so, my reception at court in Alder has been more pleasant than it ever was in all my years back home. People here regard me with an air of neutrality, neither unkind or unfriendly.
“Let’s train a while longer,” I say.
Obliging as always, Lief drops his casual stance and readies his sword.
And I charge, thinking of the one thing that spurs me to train harder. The reason why I get up every morning.
Just the thought of him makes my blood boil.
He found us, that night in the forest. He was there to kill me—to finish what he’d started at the summer ball. Connor and Holt had protected me from him and his men, and he killed them for it.
Ethan wanted revenge as much as I did. He would have led Alder’s great army to Theros’ doorstep, but lacking his father’s consent, he had to resort to his own devices. I wanted nothing more than to hunt down Elijah, to chase him like he chased me and make him pay. But this, too, the king denied us—he couldn’t justify the risk to his only heir. So Ethan had to send mercenaries to find him and bring him to us. And all these months, we’ve been waiting.
Lief’s sword thumps against mine in mid-air. Deadlocked, we fight for dominance.
“You are too easy to find,” calls an approaching voice.
Ethan strides briskly from under the archways of the stone walkway that confines the small, deserted courtyard. His boots follow the tear in the blanket of snow that partially reveals a dirt path. The prince carries himself like a king, tall and proud, and the black coat that drapes over his shoulders, amply lined with gray fur, accentuates the effect. He seems unhurried and relaxed, but I know better than to think he’s come just to visit.
Lief greets Ethan with a respectful bow. I would respond in kind if Ethan hadn’t asked me otherwise. He wants us to get to know one another as equals, unburdened by the prejudice of titles and society.
He smiles like it’s an apology. “My father is requesting an audience in his private office.”
I feel my forehead crease. “With me?”
“With both of us.”
I follow Ethan through the drafty corridors, relishing the momentary flares of warmth from the torches and candelabras that light our path. The flames crackle and flicker with a subtle breeze that wafts through the narrow window slits, casting dancing shadows on our faces. I steal a fleeting look at Ethan; his golden-brown hair is deceivingly blond under the burning glow.
“Do you know why he sent for us?” I ask. Ethan meets with his father on a daily basis, but this is a first for me.
He gives a slight shake of his head. “I imagine it’s something to do with…” He pauses, unsure of his words.
His hesitation mirrors my own feelings on the matter.
Five months should be sufficient time for two people to get to know one another, but that has not been the case with Ethan and me. Just as with training, leisure activities allowing us to spend time alone together have been seldom and infrequent. I see him every day at supper, but those evening hours are shared with the king and queen and the rest of the court, all of them vying to converse with him while I indulge in the comfort of wine. It doesn’t help that I try to avoid him whenever the opportunity arises. A side of me dreads getting to know him—dreads opening up and finding there’s nothing left for me to give.
We do have one thing in common though: we are both miserable and pent up with anger. But we’ve both had time to reign in our troubled states of mind.
The memory of him clobbering his feelings away with a sword is still keenly present in my thoughts. It was my first week in the castle, and I was roaming the grounds like a floundering ghost. It was the noise that drew me to him. I was curious to find the source of the unrelenting whacking and grunting, grateful for the distraction.
Bending a corner, I spied Ethan. He struck mindlessly at a log hanging from a rope. It swung and twirled with every hit. His expression was wreathed in a mix of rage and grief that resonated with my own wretchedness. As I watched him, all I could think was how much I wanted to be the one with the sword.
I watched until he tired, out of breath and defeated. Then he simply dropped his sword and walked away. When he was gone, I reached for it. The intricate workmanship on its golden pommel and hilt was impressive. It was too bad the blade was ruined, bent and dulled at its edges. I traced the slash marks on the wood, which was still swaying slightly, and wanted desperately to add my own. I wanted to inflict pain upon it, hoping that would ease mine. But my feeble, untrained arms struggled with the sword and only managed a few nicks. I eventually gave up and threw the sword, leaving it to the sloppy patterns of frustration on the damp dirt beneath my feet. If I’d had any doubts about training before, they were certainly gone after that.
The Ethan who smiles at me now seems like a completely different person from the broken prince I saw that day. His chestnut, doe-eyed glance lingers on me with a glint of curiosity. Soulful. That’s what I think when I look at those eyes—the eyes of someone who listens.
“Does it make you unhappy?” he asks.
“No,” I answer truthfully. The thought of marrying him had made me unhappy for all of my life. Now it makes no difference to me whether I marry him or not. It’s clear the idea makes the both of us uncomfortable, and I find that oddly reassuring, as if, somehow, I am not alone in this. Probably guessing my thoughts, Ethan offers an encouraging, lopsided grin.
“Any news of your men?”
His grin fades as he breaks my stare. “No,” he says, sighing through his nose.
I swallow my own disappointment.
We walk into the king’s private office to the sound of a weighty and… familiar voice. The discussion yields abruptly to our entry. The king and one other figure enclose around the large slab of wood that must have once been a magnificent tree. Its splendor has been reduced to a hefty table, where a detailed map of the Eastern Continent is on display. A half-full decanter of ruby-red glass and intricate metalwork is conveniently arranged close at hand, waiting for more of its inebriating contents to be served.
My gaze then falls on the guest.
I feel my eyes widen as I go still, my feet grounded to the floor by invisible chains. In the back of my head, I hear the voice of the king… but he sounds far away and irrelevant, and all I can do is stare. The sight of Connor’s aunt yanks at the stitches of my wounds.
Jessamine’s weathered face crinkles with joy when she sees me.
King Perceval addresses Ethan and me. “Mistress Grieves is here to bring us news of the Borderlands,” he says, and his stare falls on me. “Given your past involvement, I thought you might want to hear what she’s come to report.” I blink as an odd feeling expands in my chest. This is the most consideration I’ve ever received from a king, let alone a father.
Perceval inclines his head to Jessamine. “You may begin.”
Jessamine tells us of a large group who came to the Broderlands. “They pulled dozens of loaded carts and wagons, and seemed to have… delivered them to the Borderlords.”
The king’s eyes narrow with suspicion. “A shipment? Do you have any knowledge of the contents?”
“We didn’t know at first. But then they began to build, and we made our own conclusions.” As she says this, Jessamine shoots a wary look my way, conveying her concern in the silent exchange between us.
If a third party is meddling with the Borderlords, it can only mean bad news. Until recently, the Borderlords had been allowed free reign of the Borderlands, profiting from the fees they collected from the farmers in exchange for protection from thieves and pillagers. But during my brief stay there last summer, we learned the Borderlords had grown greedy, extorting farmers with higher fees they could not afford to pay without jeopardizing their harvests. When I informed Ethan of the situation, a troop of soldiers was swiftly dispatched to set things back in order. I can only imagine the Borderlords were not pleased.
The king leans forward on the table. “Build, you say?”
“I believe it is some sort of fortress,” Jessamine says with a nod.
Perceval taps a finger on the map. I can’t see from where I stand, but I gather it’s directed at the land in question. “Can you elaborate on the origin of the shipper?” he asks.
Jessamine shakes her head absently, her gaze far away. “Their garments were plain, common enough for any traveler.”
The king shares an ominous look with Ethan before pushing himself away from the table in contemplation. Carried into his own thoughts, he seems to forget about the rest of us for a moment, leaving us in expectant silence.
My eyes stray to Jessamine, who turns at the weight of my stare. She questions me with a small smile, her eyes wondering.
I feel my lips part as they inhale a clipped breath.
She doesn’t know.
I assumed she’d been told months ago, when the king’s men were sent to deal with the Borderlords. But here she is, completely ignorant of it. That’s why she’s here, I realize. He didn’t return like he said he would.
And now she’s come looking for him.
At the prompting of Ethan’s cleared throat, Perceval finds his voice again.
“I thank you for the information, Mistress Grieves. We’ll send another troop to look into it immediately.”
With a nod of dismissal, Jessamine steps over to me. Her hands are quick to clasp mine as she looks at me in earnest.
The warm gesture stings like salt to a wound.
My fingers tighten on Jessamine’s hands and I manage a weak smile. The fated question, however, does not come from her.
The demanding voice comes from a shadowed corner. I spot the redheaded girl, her arms crossed, leaning against a wall of shelved books.
Unlike Jessamine, her manner is direct and businesslike; she’s withholding her more amiable side for the one person she is here to see. Before, the affections of Connor’s childhood friend would have undoubtedly sparked feelings of jealousy, but all I sense within me now is pity.
“H—He…” I begin, but the knot in my throat chokes me to silence. I look up helplessly at Jessamine, whose eager smile is beginning to fade.
“I believe there is no right way to put this,” Ethan speaks for me, sensing my struggle. But he, too, struggles to get the words out. He pauses, looking ill at ease. “Connor is no longer with us,” he finally says, then waits another moment to let his words sink in.
Jessamine releases her hold, staring off into space, the trace of her warmth in my palms growing cold within seconds.
The king, who was listening from across the table, adds, “Connor gave his life honorably to ensure the safe arrival of Princess Meredith.”
Jessamine is so still I start to wonder if she even heard anything. If it wasn’t for the slight quiver of her lip, I might have believed that.
“I’m so sorry,” I blurt out through the tightness in my throat.
In a flash, Krea barrels down on me and…
Hits me. Her knuckles flash before my eyes as they connect with my jaw. I feel my head jerk sideways with the force of the blow, my teeth clamping hard against my tongue. The warm, metallic taste of blood fills my mouth.
Ethan rushes to my side, gripping my shoulders to steady me.
“Madam, contain yourself,” he tells Krea.
I clutch a hand at the throbbing in my jaw. “It’s all right, Ethan.”
The king’s voice rings low. “Your ways may not be as ours, but take heed, girl, for I will not tolerate violence in my court.”
Krea ignores them. She glowers at me with a feverish loathing of gritted teeth and welled-up tears.
Knuckles white at her sides, Jessamine asks, “Why was I not informed?”
Perceval bows his head regretfully. “For that, I owe you an apology, madam. I was under the impression my commander had delivered the news.”
“If you need a moment—” Ethan tries to comfort her, but she cuts him off.
“No.” She draws a sharp breath and straightens, eying Ethan with the same determination I saw in her the night she refused to give up on her farm after the Borderlords burned her harvest to the ground.
“Take me to his grave.”
Ethan does a good job of hiding his anger, but the twitch in his jaw gives him away. “It’s empty… the one who killed him burned his body, along with the bodies of others. We had no way of identifying his remains,” he explains.
Jessamine squeezes her eyes shut. When she opens them again, they are glassy and cold. “We must go now.” She motions at Krea with a look over her shoulder.
“Then we bid you a safe journey, madam. My condolences on your loss. Connor was a beloved member of my court, and we mourn his absence.”
Jessamine nods at the king. I watch her, feeling the pain hidden beneath her composed face.
She pulls me into a tight embrace, her arms strong and firm around me. My closely guarded heart thumps against the fragile barricade I fought so hard to build, and it takes everything in me to keep myself together.
“He did what he had to do,” she whispers in my ear. Her words are candid, and yet they only serve to bring me pain. I know it isn’t my fault, but I am still responsible, however indirectly. I need only look at the gleam of accusation in Krea’s eyes to affirm it.
“Maker’s blessing,” Jessamine says when she pulls away.
I gather my breath before I dare speak.
“Maker’s blessing… Jessamine, I…” I’m not sure if I mean to console her or myself, but the words become a tangled mess in my throat. In the end, I speak the only phrase my tongue is willing to enunciate. “Be careful.”
I watch them go, my chest tingling with dread. Something is brewing in the Borderlands. If Connor were here, he would be deeply troubled for his aunt’s safety, just as he was on his last days… and I can’t help but feel the same way.