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       The Prince's Rogue (Golden Guard Trilogy Book 2), p.1

           Elise Kova
 
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The Prince's Rogue (Golden Guard Trilogy Book 2)


  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters and events in this book are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Gatekeeper Press

  3971 Hoover Rd. Suite 77

  Columbus, OH 43123-2839

  www.GatekeeperPress.com

  Copyright © 2017 by Elise Kova

  All rights reserved. Neither this book, nor any parts within it may be sold or reproduced in any form without permission.

  Content Editing: Jamie Kramer

  Line Editing: Rebecca Faith Heyman

  Proofreading: Dani Werner

  Cover Art: Merilliza Chan

  ISBN (hardcover): 9781619846142

  ISBN (paperback): 9781619846159

  eISBN: 9781619846166

  Printed in the United States of America

  for Jamie

  Baldair’s “one true love”

  Contents

  1. Baldair

  2. Raylynn

  3. Baldair

  4. Baldair

  5. Raylynn

  6. Baldair

  7. Baldair

  8. Raylynn

  9. Baldair

  10. Raylynn

  11. Baldair

  12. Raylynn

  13. Baldair

  14. Raylynn

  15. Baldair

  16. Raylynn

  17. Raylynn

  18. Baldair

  19. Raylynn

  20. Baldair

  21. Raylynn

  22. Baldair

  23. Baldair

  24. Baldair

  25. Raylynn

  26. Baldair

  27. Raylynn

  28. Raylynn

  29. Baldair

  30. Raylynn

  31. Raylynn

  32. Baldair

  About The Author

  1. Baldair

  The very air was alive in the center of the world.

  Patterns struck in bold colors were illuminated by hovering flames. Dancing shadows brought them to life, moving to the sound of steel on steel, the hymn of battle. The scent of ale filled his nose, and the cries of men and women, high and low, filled his ears.

  Prince Baldair Solaris leaned against the side of the dueling ring, elbows on the waist-height wall, fingers at risk of being nicked clean off by a stray blade. From his vantage, he could see every bead of sweat on the duelists’ faces, the red edges of the glancing blows. His eyes caught the vibration of steel as one blade sheered off another with a ringing shinnng.

  “I do not know if this is a good place for us to be…” the man at his left said with the utmost uncertainty.

  Baldair chuckled. “Afraid your mother will find out?” Erion fancied himself some great political manipulator, but he was as easy to read as anyone Baldair had ever met.

  “I can come here if I please,” the young lord insisted.

  “Then relax!” Baldair grabbed the man’s shoulder, giving it a shake as if to work out the tension that strung between his blades like a clothing line. “Really, you’re the only one here not enjoying himself.”

  It was true. Every other spectator was invested in the matters happening in the ring. Baldair turned his attention back to the two duelists with a smile.

  “It’s rare enough I get to come out West. Don’t spoil my fun.”

  “I do nothing but encourage you.” Erion sighed and leaned against the railing of the ring. His fingers curled toward the inside edge, away from the two duelists and their dancing blades.

  “You do not.” Another stole the words right from Baldair’s mouth. Baldair’s second Western friend waited on his other side, ale in hand. “Your rations, m’lord,” he said with a mock bow.

  “Ah thank you, good sir!” Baldair accepted the flagon with all the airs he could muster. “I do think this was just what I needed to enjoy this duel properly.”

  “Not much to enjoy,” Erion mumbled, eyes in the ring.

  Baldair shifted his attention to trace his friend’s stare. He certainly wasn’t wrong. The West was known for its fighters, skilled in magic and blade, so Baldair had expected a much better showing. The ring was generous sometimes to both swordsman and gambler; other times, it was brutal.

  One swordsman had the upper hand. Both fought with old-world curved blades and short daggers, and slashed with snarls and ferocity. But their swings were too wide and their stances far too open. Neither would last an hour against even a lowly initiate in the palace guard.

  Baldair raised the flagon to his lips, savoring the smooth taste of the ale, crisp against the desert heat that still lingered into the early part of the night. It wouldn’t fade until the last of the sepia wash in the night sky had vanished.

  “Why not go back to my estate? I am certain the servants have prepared something befitting your arrival,” Erion tried.

  “And I’m certain it’ll wait.” Baldair patted Erion on the back. He could worry far too much about convention.

  “I heard rumors of a murderer whose victims are always nobles, striking in the next town over from the Crossroads. Might be unwise to be out anyway,” Erion attempted, as though the idea could scare Baldair.

  “Baldair, I think I see a damsel in distress,” Jax mumbled over his own flagon.

  “Where?” Baldair stood, scanning the other side of the ring.

  “Right next to you.” Jax grinned at Erion.

  “Fine,” Erion huffed, “we can stay the whole night for all I care.”

  A cheer erupted around them. Baldair turned back to the ring to see the larger man hovering over the smaller in the ring. The edge of his sword was pressed between the man’s eyes.

  “Ah, I missed it!” Baldair groaned.

  “Was a good fell, my prince,” a woman from beside them praised.

  Baldair appraised her quickly. She was lithe, a slip of a thing—not someone who would startle him with their wiles. “Expected, however.”

  She nodded. “Tuman was the favorite for this match.”

  “How is the betting shaping?” Coin was weighing down his pocket. It’d be a shame if he had to ride all the way back to Erion’s with it clanging about.

  “Next match is another one-sided ticket,” the woman reported, shifting and standing up on her tip-toes to peer over the heads of the masses gathered around a chalk board currently being re-marked with new names and odds. “A local champion and a no-name newcomer.”

  On cue, a tall, broad-shouldered man—not unlike Baldair’s own physique, the prince appraised with appreciation—vaulted over the wall, accepting his blade from another man behind him. A flash of gold on the opposite side of the ring caught his attention. Baldair turned... and the world faded away.

  In a black-haired sea, she was like a lighthouse, flashing brilliance into what had been his relatively quiet evening of distraction. Powerful thighs eased her fall from hoisting herself over the wall. A wide belt looped around her waist multiple times, barely able to contain the strength carved into the woman’s trunk. It accentuated her generous chest, made all the more lovely by the frame of her perfectly straight golden tresses.

  She was a child of West and South, not unlike Erion, but their features were nearly reversed. Erion inherited his skin from his mother, a fair shade not unlike Baldair’s that complimented his bright blue eyes and offset his dark hair. This woman, however, had the chestnut hue of the West, sun-kissed from birth. Her hair was the straight texture of a Westerner’s,
but the color of gold. All combined and set against her light eyes, she seemed to glow as though she were the Mother herself in all her radiance.

  “How many bugs do you think he will catch before he shuts his mouth?”

  “I think he already has three.” Erion’s jest echoed back to Baldair.

  “Who is that divine creature?” Baldair had no shame for his admiration. Any warm-blooded man, or woman, should have been able to recognize the utter perfection gracing the ring with her booted feet.

  As if she couldn’t be made any more perfect, the blond duelist drew a wide-edged straight sword. Not quite large enough to be called a broadsword, but certainly more substantial than a rapier. Judging from the ease with which she found her hold on it, and the blade’s proportions to her arms and legs, it was no doubt individually crafted specially for her.

  “Is that the favorite?” Baldair asked the woman he had been speaking with earlier.

  “Who, her?” The Westerner was suddenly less warm to him.

  Baldair flashed her a bright smile. He didn’t know why it worked, but it always did—had all his life. Smile at people, and they usually gave him what he wanted. If they still refused, he never pushed. “Yes, the only other lass in here that can hold a candle to your radiance.”

  The woman was skeptical but flattered enough to give him his answer. “No, she’s the newcomer.”

  “What’s her name?” Baldair glanced at the betting board, but there was only an ‘R’ written on one side, nothing more.

  “Who knows.” The woman shrugged, looking back to the arena. “This will be over quickly. I’d bet she’d rather not have the shame attached to her name.”

  Baldair assessed the two fighters again as they each began to move toward their starting stances. The man had easily two stones and a head on her. But she seemed unbothered. A tiny smile played on the woman’s lips, as though she knew some grand secret, but the only way to tell it was through her sword.

  The prince pulled out a fist full of coin from the depths of his trouser pocket, holding it over his head like a trophy.

  “All of it on the lady!” he shouted from the base of his gut. He was never not heard when he wanted to be.

  The room stilled a moment when he made his announcement.

  “M-my prince, she’s an underdog—I don’t think that’s a wise bet,” the woman behind him whispered.

  Baldair kept his eyes on the mysterious woman in the ring, who now gave him her full attention. She had driven her swordpoint into the barren earth at her feet, palms lazily draped over the hilt. She was smiling now—that same arrogant, knowing smile.

  He smiled back—that same crafted, disarming smile that so easily charmed countless others.

  And the woman began to laugh, pulling her eyes away from him as if he wasn’t magnetic at all.

  He had never been so easily shrugged away. He had never seen a woman so effortlessly disregard his charms. The night was beginning to get interesting.

  “That will be… Thirty-three gold pieces, my prince.” The betmaster spoke from his right, where he had been tallying Baldair’s fist-full of money. “Are you sure you want this all on her…?”

  “I don’t think I’d rather bet on anyone else tonight.” It really wasn’t fair to let him bet. He could see when the sword loved someone, and when the sword didn’t. It was like watching birds fall from a nest. Some plummeted to the earth, some struggled and found the air, but some took to the skies as though they’d never known solid ground. That was how this woman had walked into the ring—as though she owned it.

  “Very well, my prince.” The money monger couldn’t hide his smile. He thought he was about to make a very fat paycheck from a foolish royal.

  Baldair glanced at the betting board. The odds were currently at twelve to one. The poor man—he was going to find quite the opposite shortly.

  “I have every confidence in Lady R.” Nothing was going to take his eyes from the dueling ring again. Not his flagon, not his friends, not the cheers and jeers of the crowd.

  More than the curves of her body, he wanted to watch the shift of her grip, the tension in her legs, the cock of her head. Baldair wanted to see if he was right in how much the sword loved this woman. For, if he was, there was no doubt in his mind that he would not be marching to war without such a person at his side.

  2. Raylynn

  The Crossroads were a cacophony of chaos to her ears.

  Gambling parlors, bars, music clubs, late night markets, and revelries that never stopped all combined into an auditory mess that filled the air until the very sky seemed to blur. Even the sun was afraid of it, as the last light of the day rushed away faster—she would swear—than it did amid the dunes and sand of the deep Waste.

  Raylynn ran her sharpening stone over the edge of her sword again, again, and again. The blade made a dull whisper at first that brightened into a sing-song-like sharpness as she continued. She focused on her blade, on the duet of stone and steel. Raylynn closed her eyes, her fingertips safe with the confidence of years of practice. If she cut herself after all this time with something as simple as sword sharpening, she deserved to bleed.

  Even if it was not the sword she should be holding, even if the blade was a forged substitute for the weapon her mother had wielded, it would not hurt her. It was far quieter than the sword her mother had taught her with, but it still sang in its own way, and, like any blade, she merely had to listen to it and give it what it needed. So long as she did that, it would always treat her well.

  “You’re up.” The two words crashed in upon her meditation with the grace of a war axe.

  Raylynn peered through her eyelashes at the brutish man who had disturbed her. The Crossroads lacked silence, it lacked order, and it lacked grace. But there was one thing it didn’t lack: gold.

  There was nowhere in the world that was richer, save the Imperial Capital. But most of the wealth there was safely tucked away in the coffers of ancient vaults fattened by conquest. It was under the power of a singular man, and, even if Raylynn made the tiresome journey to the frigid South, that man was not about to bet on any of her duels.

  So the Crossroads it was.

  Raylynn followed behind the brute who had been sent to fetch her from her rooftop perch. Above it all, her ears were able to pick out the first winds of the night, the shifting of time, the sand that settled and swirled in the dry air. But, in the thick of it, her hearing changed its focus.

  She heard the thrumming of a new beat, a pulse invisible to most who never took the time to listen for it. It was a sound Raylynn had spent most of her life deciphering—the mood of a room, the atmosphere that surrounded moments where she could just as easily leave triumphant as she could lie in a pool of her own blood, slain.

  In theory.

  In theory, she could be slain. Raylynn quickly picked up on the tone of the space, the word “underdog” and her opponent’s name drifting to her more times than she could count. No one was betting on her. It was the best-case scenario. Her odds of winning were low, which meant her payout would be high when she walked triumphant from the ring.

  Raylynn had put all her remaining gold on herself. Because what good fighter didn’t bet on themselves? Those who didn’t weigh their gold against their own swords were un-trustable cheats.

  The crowds parted for her, clearing her path toward the partition that separated the masses from the arena. With a hop, she was in that same ring and, in that moment, it felt like the center of the world. Everything hinged on her and her skill. There was nothing beyond her, nothing more than her and the blade she held.

  Her opponent was a hulking figure of a man. She’d fought his type more times than she could count: the sort who thought himself called to combat by the gods themselves because he was gifted with the natural ability to put on muscle.

  Well the sword was her job. Muscle didn’t matter. W
hat mattered was how one applied it. And in that way, she could already tell that this fellow would be clumsy. His blade already told her it held no love for him.

  “All of it on the lady!” a voice broke her concentration.

  Raylynn looked for the speaker, her eyes falling on the short-cropped, wavy hair of a large Southern man. She curled her lips into a grin the moment she saw the gold in his hand, the blazing sun pendant cast in gold around his neck. She’d heard the youngest prince had stopped in town before his march to the warfront in the North, but she never actually thought she’d be so lucky to find his coin bolstering the coffers of her duel.

  He caught her eyes, and his lips pulled into a smug smile that seemed to almost hiss in dissonance against the movements of the rest of his body. It was the look of a man still trying to be a boy, one who’d found a mode of attack that worked for him and used it ad nauseam.

  Raylynn burst out laughing. She had no time for boys—unless it was to use her wiles on them. But that was not the case, this time. She was here to work; if the prince wanted to throw his money behind her, then let him. In a twisted way, she was owed a bit of Imperial gold—for her mother’s death in the service of the late Empress, if nothing else.

  “I have every confidence in Lady R,” the prince insisted against the fools who were trying to dissuade him from betting on her.

  That fact caught her attention. Behind the goofy smile and arrogant ease of him was a knowing that filled his eyes. The blade on his hip clinked happily against its scabbard.

  What made him radiate such confidence in her? Could he hear the song of the sword as she could? Did he see past her underdog facade and carefully crafted appearances?

  “Don’t lose my gold. It’s all my allowance.” He winked at her.

  Raylynn was back to laughing. Laughing at his royal arrogance. Laughing at the known joke that existed between them for the fact that they were both so clearly creatures of the blade and could each see it. Laughing at the fact that of the few people in the wide world the sword chose, it would choose him.

  “If I win, split your earnings with me?” She gave him a wink back. The coy play had just the right effect.

 
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