The crowns dog, p.1
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       The Crown's Dog, p.1

           Elise Kova
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The Crown's Dog


  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 Silver Wing Press

  Copyright © 2016 by Elise Kova

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

  Cover Artwork by Merilliza Chan

  Content Editing by Jamie Kramer

  Line Editing by Rebecca Faith Heyman

  Proofreading by Dani Werner

  ISBN (paperback): 9781619845916

  ISBN (hardcover): 9781619845909

  eISBN: 9781619845640

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016958557

  Printed in the United States of America

  for those who take care of their own

  CONTENTS

  1. Jax

  2. Erion

  3. Erion

  4. Jax

  5. Jax

  6. Jax

  7. Erion

  8. Jax

  9. Erion

  10. Jax

  11. Jax

  12. Erion

  13. Jax

  14. Jax

  15. Erion

  16. Jax

  17. Erion

  18. Erion

  19. Jax

  20. Erion

  21. Erion

  22. Jax

  23. Erion

  24. Erion

  25. Jax

  26. Jax

  27. Erion

  28. Jax

  29. Erion

  1. JAX

  IT WAS GOING to be the end of him if he was caught.

  Jax had done this seven—no, eight times now? And he had either been caught or turned in for all but one. This was going to be different, he assured himself.

  The dainty fingers fitted nicely in his palm grew slick in a thin layer of sweat thanks to Jax’s nerves. He positioned the woman in an alcove, a shadow among shadows in the dim hour just before dawn.

  “Stay here,” he ordered. “Wouldn’t want any unworthy eyes to lay themselves on your beauty.” His wide grin sent her to tittering, and Jax placed a finger over her still-swollen lips. “Hush now, or you may attract unwanted attention.”

  Her lips curled into a smile, and she gave a small nod. The young woman was pretty: button nose, full head of Southern flaxen hair. But that was all she was to Jax. Another girl, another morning, another job cleaning up after the assassin of maidens he happened to work for.

  “Good,” he whispered, leaning close. His grin transformed into that of an animal baring its teeth. “Because, if we’re caught, I’m sure your parents will have a word or two to say on the matter.”

  Her perfectly arched eyebrows knitted. “You wouldn’t.”

  “I wouldn’t, but people talk, lovely, especially castle folk.” Jax had never been in a more gossip-hungry place than the Imperial Palace. The men and women of the court were like the mythical vampire, and rumor was blood. The second they smelled it, they struck.

  Really, Prince Baldair needed to consider plucking low-hanging fruit like a chamber maid or guard trainee, instead of some Lord’s little flower. But those would be far too easy for the “Heartbreaker Prince”—as he was becoming known.

  Jax investigated the intersecting hall.

  He’d only been here once before, when he’d first found the secret ladder that ultimately led here. And, just like then, there weren’t any signs of life. The tapestries were threadbare and gray with dust. The sculptures were clothed in cobwebs.

  The Solaris Empire was young, a mere thirty-five years old. But the Solaris Kingdom of Lyndum stretched back into antiquity. The Southern palace of that old lineage had become both Jax’s home and his prison three years ago, following his conscription to the crown for his murderous crimes. It was an ancient building, the depths of which were unknown to many and thusly deemed unsafe and off-limits.

  “Well, it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone around here.” He motioned for her to join him.

  The woman ran her finger along one of the windowsills, striking a long line in the thick dust. “Doesn’t look like there’s been anyone around here for some time.” Her nose scrunched, and she sneezed suddenly.

  “All the better for you.” He led her farther along the path, setting a brisk pace.

  The shifting phases of the Father were depicted in statues along the hall. From an elderly wretch, weakened by the full moon when chaos was at its strongest, with wrinkles so heavy they could pull flesh from bone off his gaunt face, to the very image of godliness when the moon had entirely vanished from the sky—the god eternal in triumph.

  Jax gripped the jagged spear the sculpted man held in his hand, twisting. It gave with a metallic click, and the wall to the left sighed as the latch disengaged. The young woman at his side gasped softly.

  “Another hidden passage?”

  “There are more than you know weaving between these halls.” More than most could ever know, he’d bet. Jax pushed open the door with the stone facade the rest of the way. “Come now, fair lady. Wouldn’t want your father discovering you out of bed when dawn comes.”

  Jax held up a hand and placed it at shoulder height, pinching his index finger and thumb together. When he pulled them apart, a mote of flame appeared, hovering mid-air right where he placed it. It cast the rough-hewn tunnel in an orange haze, offering just enough light to keep them from slipping on the uneven slope of the floor.

  He brought his eyes back to the woman. She stood frozen, staring at him as though he had somehow just pulled out a sword to brandish against her. Jax shifted his weight, bracing himself against the reaction he knew was coming.

  “Y-you’re a sorcerer,” she stammered.

  “I am.” He grinned. “And you’re the youngest daughter of Lord Coven. And this is a shirt.” He tugged on his clothes before pointing to the wall. “And this is rock.”

  “Don’t play games!” Her voice had gone shrill. “Why would Baldair allow a sorcerer to escort me?”

  “Because I am his most loyal dog.” Jax chuckled. “Now come.” He reached for her hand again.

  The second his fingertips brushed against her skin, she yanked her hand away, cradling it as though he had burned it with his fire. “Don’t touch me, monster.”

  He instantly jerked his hand back, the words echoing in his ears. Her look was ten times more scalding than his fire could ever be. It was a look Jax had become more and more familiar with since moving to the South, and it had only been made worse by the War of the Crystal Caverns.

  “Very well, I won’t touch you.” He shrugged. “But stay close, or you may get lost down here.”

  “What makes you think I’m going down there with you?” She backed toward the door.

  “Because by the time you work your way back to a proper exit of the palace, it will be late in the morning, and you will take your walk of shame for all to see.” The woman’s blue eyes flicked from him to the hall they’d come from. Jax took a step away. No matter how annoying, hurtful, and so distinctly Southern her prejudices were, he would not be threatening to a woman. Not intentionally so.

  No matter what I’ll let the world think.

  “Or you can—” he gasped mockingly, “take the help of a sorcerer and get out of here privately and in short order.”

  She stood in limbo. An internal conflict was splayed across her face. But logic had a rare victory over prejudice, and she took a step into the waiting darkness with him.

  Jax walked tall, swaying shoulders, long strides. She followed as if enclosed in a stiff and silent shroud, a complete change from the earlier giddy maiden fleeing from her scandalou
s affair with a prince. Jax ran a hand through his long black hair, pulling it from his face. It was better this way; everything was better

  when people didn’t think to involve themselves too closely with him.

  There was only one deviation to the path, a narrow passage in the wall that wound further and further down past the edge of Jax’s knowing. He had only discovered this series of passages recently, and by accident. There hadn’t been time yet for spelunking down inside the mountain of the capital city just to see what might be there. He’d likely never get the chance.

  His life existed for one purpose now: serving the crown. All else was secondary to that. Little else even existed for him.

  “Where do we go from here?” she whispered nervously. “Is it a dead end? Sorcerer—”

  “Merely another door.” Jax rolled his eyes as he reached for the groove cut into the wood panels that covered the abrupt end of the rock tunnels. He gave a good heave, pulling it to the side just wide enough for them to slip through.

  Continuing his pretense as a gentleman, Jax motioned for her to go first.

  The lady eyed him cautiously but held her head high and proceeded to squeeze herself through the opening. It took a little twist at the end, but she soon shimmied into the dim room beyond and let out a sharp gasp.

  “What is it?” Jax pushed himself through the opening, magic under his fingertips, ready to ward off any unexpected threat.

  But there was no one else there. It was the same room he had happened across before. Early dawn coated the room in a ghostly flame as it lit the thick layer of dust within. Out of habit, Jax gave the mostly empty bookshelf a push, butting it back up against the wall and concealing their entry once more.

  The lady looked with a sort of morbid fascination at a tapestry hanging on one wall, the clumsy knit barely clinging to the wooden rod it was stitched upon. It wasn’t anything particularly special. The main palace had dozens more tapestries three times as fine. The object of her fascination was nothing more than a black background with a sort of jagged blue trident atop.

  “What is this?” she demanded with an accusatory jab toward the tapestry.

  “I was wondering if you could tell me.” He folded his arms over his chest, discharging the mote of flame that had been following him.

  “Don’t play games with me, sorcerer.” She stared at where his flame had once been, its dismissal no doubt the only thing that brought her attention to his face.

  “Can’t keep your eyes off me?” Jax grinned, selling the claim. She was likely still blinking away the blue ghost of the flame.

  She made a very un-ladylike noise of disgust and turned back to the small tapestry—really, not much more than a pennon. The look of animosity fell from her face again, replaced with that same look of forbidden intrigue.

  “What is it?” Jax asked, allowing genuine curiosity to bleed through his carefully crafted image.

  “You really don’t know?”

  “Clearly.”

  She searched his face, but there was no lie for her to find. Jax genuinely couldn’t make heads or tails of the woman’s strange demeanor.

  “It’s her mark.”

  “Her?”

  “The pirate queen,” the lady’s voice had dropped to a complete whisper.

  “Pirate queen…?” Jax stretched back through his memory. When he was growing up, there were always tales of pirates in the Western port city of Norin. In the fifteen years he’d spent there, surely, he’d heard something… Recognition struck. “Adela Lagmir?”

  “Don’t say her name!” she hissed. “If you do, you will invoke the curse.”

  “Afraid of a ghost?” Jax held up his fingers and wove them through the air.

  “I would expect a sorcerer of all creatures to take her curse more seriously.” Sorcerers did not even merit being called “human” Jax noted. “Let her trident strike you down for even speaking her name.”

  She’s serious, Jax realized. He’d heard the stories of Adela Lagmir and her terror on the high seas since childhood. But the only thing her name was invoked for on the docks of Norin was laughing off ill luck. A sailcloth tore? Adela. Fish rotted too quickly? Adela. He had never heard her name

  associated with the kind of horror the woman before him clearly felt.

  Southerners are so superstitious. Still, he was curious, and it pushed aside all his better thinking. “Why do you think her name is a curse?”

  Jax regretted asking instantly. He was straying from his mission, his goal, his order. He shouldn’t care about pirate curses or symbols. Baldair had given him clear instruction, yet he was deviating.

  You exist only to serve, a voice that was the familiar embodiment of all his guilt and self-loathing chided him from the back of his mind.

  Before Jax could stop her from explaining, fate intervened. The door on the opposite end of the room opened suddenly, revealing a second pair.

  The towering form of a man, willowy like a tree, with hair and eyes as dark as the clothes he wore, escorted a bronze-skinned woman. The conspiratorial smiles on their faces quickly vanished as they saw what Jax suspected was their hiding place, already taken.

  “Ah, my prince, you’re about early this morning.” He sighed, pulling his hair at the nape of his neck, resting his head back. He already knew this was about to end badly.

  “Wh-what in the Mother’s name are you doing here?”

  “P-prince?” The word caught in the young woman’s throat as she looked between Jax and the man standing in the door. “Prince Aldrik?”

  Realization shattered her confusion as the expression cracked and fell from her face. There were only two princes in the Empire, and she had slept with the younger the night before. That left only one simple deduction—the man standing before them was the Crown Prince and infamous Fire Lord.

  Jax could almost smell the unique aroma of fear that the revelation evoked in the woman standing next to him. It was a response he had witnessed multiple times, its own blend of dark fascination and twisted concern, made worse by Aldrik’s steady withdrawal from society and mannerisms that grew sharper by the day following the end of the War of the Crystal Caverns.

  “Jax,” Aldrik’s voice rumbled ominously, like thunder in the distance. “You have one minute to tell me why you are here, and the explanation best be quite good and not involve Baldair.”

  He had nothing to say, as the crown prince would not find his explanation “quite good,” and it certainly involved Baldair. Jax picked at his nails, waiting for the minute to pass, or for the prince to combust into flame.

  Both were equally likely.

  2. ERION

  ERION WIPED SWEAT off his brow. The chill of the morning training grounds had withered against the sunlight, and now the still-icy gusts that swept down the mountainside from the glaciers at its peak were almost welcome.

  Almost.

  “Quitting already, Lord Erion?” Major Zeriam, the leader of this morning’s drills, called from where he was helping a younger guard member.

  “Of course not.” Erion stood a little straighter. Zeriam was the Emperor’s right hand for the acquisition of the East. He was the Head Major, the highest general, for the War of the West. Most recently, he had been pivotal in ending the War of the Crystal Caverns four years ago.

  There would be many in the West who would frown on Erion seeking approval from such a man. They would see Zeriam’s value diminished by the fact that he had helped slay the last King of Mhashan. But such people weren’t present. They kept their emphasis on pride and history, and remained stagnant in the West.

  Erion had been raised better. He knew the value of having allies in all places. Kingdoms rose and fell; it was all about aligning with the victor.

  It wasn’t personal. Politics never was. And the world was one big political game.

  “Here for less than a week, and you’re working as if you have days left.” Zeriam strolled over to where Erion had been assaulting a wooden post with his sword.
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  “When I have the ability to study under someone as skilled as you, Major, no time should be wasted.” Erion spoke with precision and ease. Social dances were effortless for him.

  “There’s the flattery I missed all winter.” Zeriam chuckled. “Our young prince should have invited you earlier. His own training could use it, as I haven’t seen him on the grounds with any regularity since you left.”

  Erion allowed himself a small smile of triumph. He had endeared himself to the major last summer after promising to ensure the prince spent five days straight training. It was a feat that required bribery, but its completion cemented the perception of Erion’s ability to manage the renegade prince—a very valuable claim that few could make.

  The expression slipped off his face. It was triumph from maneuvering a man for political gain whom Erion considered a friend. His mother had assured him all winter that it had been the right choice, but it still sat uneasy in Erion’s chest.

  “What is it?” The major had taken note of Erion’s expression.

  “Oh, just thinking of Baldair inviting me out over winter.” Erion chuckled, recovering quickly. “There are few things I would enjoy less than these drafty halls when the snows are high.”

  “You and your thin Western blood.”

  “I could say the same for you, Major, merely the reverse.” He tested the waters of his familiarity with the major, probing gently to see how far he had expanded the limits of their relationship.

  The major scoffed but didn’t seem put out. “I have been in the West for years at a time. I know its heat well.”

  “I’m not hearing you say you enjoyed it,” Erion jested with ease. If the major was trying to unsettle him with a mere mention of his conquest over Erion’s home country, he was about to be disappointed. “However, we can perhaps reminisce another time, as I’m only at about fifty repetitions of my hundred.”

  “You’ll have two hundred by the time Baldair shows his face.” Major Zerian continued past him with a nod of approval, marking the conversation as finished. One could always tell who held the most power in an interaction by who had the ability to start and end it. “You may surpass him as a swordsman yet.”

 
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