Whoa! It’s been a while. Here’s an update.

I bought a house, finished a book that is releasing in May, and another novel is on sale right now on Kindle!

I have been stalling on updating this blog because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move it to my official author website or continue updating this already-established blog. I originally started working on it more for class purposes, and so I waffled back and forth for an entire year on what to do with it, even though I started using some techniques I learned during my eight-month long internship with Cupid’s Pulse. I have also gone back to work at Maximus Federal and have gotten a position as a dual Customer Service Representative. I’m obviously keeping this blog. I’m going to make a commitment to update once or twice a week. I’m in my planner today, making a schedule. There might not always be updates either—it depends on what I have going on in both my creative and personal life.

So, what have I been up to?

I bought a house. I’ve been a homeowner for an entire year now. It’s strange but wonderful at the same time. And I really enjoy not paying rent. It has amped up my creative flow since I now have less stress.

I graduated October 1,2020 from Southern New Hampshire University with my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Professional Writing certificate. Then I panicked because I would no longer be getting student aid refunds and went back to the one place which has always been reliable for me: Maximus. I will continue working as a dual CSR until I can find something better. What’s important right now is that I have financial security until I can find something closer to my field. And $500 bonuses for being a dual don’t hurt, either. I’m still pinching myself over getting promoted this time in about four months of going back to the company.

My thesis, and consequently my seventh book, will release on May 3rd. You can preorder Crumbled Bliss now.

Crumbled Bliss Cover

Also, this month Head Over Hoof is on sale for $0.99. You can click here if you want to order a copy. Also, I’m working on a tentative version of Cynthia Lesiker’s side of the novel—and consequently the first woman in Aidan’s life before he met Bri. I’m laughing so hard at myself because I never plotted this novel when I first wrote either it or Head Over Heart.

Head Over Hoof Cover

I’m challenging myself to finish the first draft of the next book in this series by the end of March. I haven’t actively started working on it yet this morning since I still need to read parts of the books and decide which direct scenes I will rewrite in Cyn’s point of view, but it is entirely from her point of view, since she has a relationship with several men in the novel. Cyn has a slow burn toward her happily ever after—so much so that she is going to have two books.

Just know that I am excited about my upcoming projects, I am doing well, and I may have spoilers for you from Crumbled Bliss and Cyn’s book in the coming months.

Just a Small Heads Up

I’m excited about this term. Not only because MFA 604: Finding and Reaching an Audience is one final stepping stone before I take my thesis courses (I’m thinking I’ll graduate in September 2020–woohoo!), but because I will actually be learning more about building my author platform. 🙂 I already know the basics, and it has worked to a degree, but I would love for more people to read my work. Though I will say the relaunch of Cheap Guitars is doing amazing. Oh, speaking of which, here’s the cover and Amazon Link!

Cheap Guitars - Website Ed.

That being said, for this course, we are required to build a WordPress website. I will not be doing that. I will be using my already-established page–my instructor seemed fine with it. There’s a chance I might have to change a few things around so my blog fits my course needs/rubric (I’m not anywhere near ready to let go of that 3.9 GPA I’ve prided myself in for so long).

I’m also gearing up for NaNoWriMo, which starts on Friday (eek!). I’m excited about this project. It’s different from my usual New Adult Romances–it still has a college setting, but I’m playing with my vampires again. As in, the vampires that come after Daemon. Remember Xylorcia’s Gift, my short story? That universe. Except it’s a little different now, but not? I’ve had this story in my head for over twenty years (yes, I realize that puts me in middle school–I probably was in middle school when I first started developing these characters since that’s when I started truly writing). I figure with all of my adult knowledge, this story will finally come out–and I can’t wait for everyone to see the final project. In a couple years, probably. Because, as is the reason for this entire post, grad school.

I’ll be posting updates weekly for NaNo, so be on the lookout for that! Also, are you participating too? Let me know! You can add me as a NaNo buddy as Angelic_Demon.

Project Update

I thought I’d post a quick update on my projects for anyone who is wondering. I’m working on three books right now. It’s hectic, trust me. It’s weird not having my other books on sale right now while I wait for Kingston.

And man–I’ve realized just how much I have happening with all of my books in this project update!

The books I just signed a contract for with Kingston Publishing: Cheap Guitars has undergone edits and I believe the release date is 10/7. I’m still waiting for my other books to be edited. I think they’re moving the release date up for them as well but I’m just kind of waiting to hear right now.

Cheaper Sunglasses: I haven’t worked on it a few days but I’m trying to figure out a schedule for how I want to do my writing schedule so I can continue to juggle multiple projects while I still have to work on my thesis. I’ll talk about my thesis in a few minutes, but I’m still determined to finish this by the end of the month. The project is currently sitting at 3,522 words.

Cheap Promises: Lord, this thing is driving me nuts, but I think I finally figured out the plot. The project is currently sitting at 47,254 words but I worry a lot of that is going to have to change. It won’t quite take me back to scratch but there are a few chapters I need to completely rewrite to make it work with the new plot. I’m still plotting the ending but I should be able to start working on it after I finish the novella.

Heart Be Still: I’m so proud of this book. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place with it, though. I have met the 15,000-word requirement for my first Thesis course so I think I could technically get away without working on it until January and finish my other projects first, but I don’t think that’s very practical. I took the double-spacing out of it and I’m rewriting about 20 pages today so I can put all of it into the past tense. Then I’m putting the plot in the back of my writing planner so I can keep track of scenes I need to write and on certain days. That’s the trick to juggling multiple projects, by the way–a strict writing schedule. Everyone always calls me so prolific, and I honestly think that’s how I keep myself busy…but I also just kind of want to focus on this book for now.

Anyway, happy writing! If you’re a writer, what are you working on right now? If you’re a reader, do you want a synopsis of all my books? Let me know in the comments!

Down the Rabbit Hole

Welcome to my attempt this month to start posting regularly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday! We’ll see how it goes.

I have a blog writing itch that is hard to scratch since I left Cupid’s Pulse last month. And as much as I didn’t want to leave, it has been a blessing, because my boyfriend is encouraging me to write like CRAZY. If you want to see any of the articles I wrote, some might still publish for a while. You can find them on Cupid Pulse’s website. Just type in “Mara Miller” since my name is a tag for the website as one of their editorial interns. If you are a student and need a good internship for college credit, I highly recommend Cupid’s Pulse, and I’ll gladly pass on the information to apply. I think they’re covered for this semester with interns but they’re always looking.

I’ve recently turned into more of a plotter than a plantser (a pantser who plots a little). I need to write an 80,000 word novel for my thesis as an MFA student at Southern New Hampshire University.

But with signing on with Kingston Publishing and working on books outside of a book I can’t even think about publishing until I graduate around December of 2020, I still need to produce other novels for my series since I am dying to finish the Cheap Series. I also have a few secret projects I have been plotting but I’m not quite ready to announce yet even though I plan on diving into them after Cheaper Sunglasses and Cheap Promises are finished.

The crazy thing to me is how plotting the thesis has made it come out much easier than with any of the books I ever wrote in the Cheap series. Nevermind how seven chapters in, I decided the entire book needed to be written in the third person. One of the requirements for my thesis program is that we must have 15,000 words before we take the first thesis course and have already fulfilled that requirement. I’m looking at my writing planner right now. I’m wondering if my goal if hitting 20k before the glass begins is feasible because I want to get my novella and other novels out of the way before my course begins in a few months.

So, for one, if you’re a pantser like I was and you’re on a pretty serious deadline like I am, I suggest Take off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker. She broke down how to plot a book. You’ll get down the main key events in the novel, and this has actually helped me narrow down what a few of my plot holes were with Cheap Promises. I’m still working on it to a degree and Mae and Dan decided they needed another story before that novel so more things would make sense (and I could finally close up their story) so now I’m plotting that one completely half-assed, but I’m still outlining because if I don’t, I know I’ll write myself into a corner. Have you ever done that if you’re a pantser? You’ll start off super strong. You’ll know where the story is going…until you don’t and you hit a major writer’s block until the next New Shiny Idea draws your attention away from your current WIP.

I don’t have time for this anymore!

So, I’m mentioning everything I use to plot. I’m writing this in hopes that it will help someone else… and maybe to confirm to myself that I’m mostly just organized and I’m not a complete nut.

Neon colored index cards: I have neon green and neon pink for points of views I’m writing in a scene. Pink is obviously for my main female protagonist and green for my male. I use white to indicate which act my scenes need to go under or some other essential notes. With the school season currently, I got over 200 index cards from Walmart for decent prices. I’m set for a while.

Jami Gold’s Beat Sheets: Seriously. They’re amazing. You can find them here. I also like her scene list because I can check off everything I need in a scene.

Scrapple: Made by the people who created Scrivener, Scrapple is a brainstorming tool. It’s a great place for me to dump all of my ideas so I can get a big-picture vision of whatever I’m planning on writing, whether it be a stand-alone or a series. And the best part? I can import whatever I create into Scrivener so I have it right there to look at when I’m working.

Happy Planner: I LOVE Happy Planner’s Products. I have the Rong Rong productivity pages planner where I keep track of things like writing goals for the month, what I want to post in my blog, top priorities, and words counts. I also keep track of Instagram or Twitter challenges for the #amwriting community I want to participate in for the month. I have my Erin Condren that I use for everyday life stuff, but Happy Planner is great because I added pink expander discs to the planner and now I can keep any plotting notes I need in the back of it, as well as know exactly what projects I need to work on. It’s fabulous. I’m also planning on getting the social media expansion eventually so I can keep better track of Twitter and Instagram and figure out what I want to post during the month. Being organized like this helps me see how much time I actually have to write outside of life stuff (and it’s quite a bit now, which I love). I’m actually about to handwrite all of my thesis plot points and put them into this planner.

Speaking of planners: Why Planners Should be Crucial to Your Writing Process

An A, B, C format: It looks like this (I’m using a watered-down version of my thesis):

A. Joey moves home. His uncle guilts him into picking up a surprise for his aunt even though he doesn’t want to see Patience.

B. Patience goes to work. Her sister is causing trouble.

C. Something happens to Martha, Patience’s grandma, after Brenna gets into a fight with Joey.

I don’t want to go into what happens to Grandma Martha, but you get the general gist of how that kind of thing works. I didn’t like this aspect of plotting for the class. I would have much-rathered index cards or my beat sheets from Jami Gold, but it forced me to look at everything from flashbacks to when my romantic couple kisses for the first time. I struggled with this format during my Romance Writing II course, but my professor wouldn’t let me give up and made me stick to this story, and I will be forever grateful to her for it.

Do you have any plotting must haves? Let me know! I’m always trying to figure out ways to plot better. 

Big Changes Coming

I thought this day would never come.

I am no longer self-published.

I thought this day would never come.

I am no longer self-published. I signed a publishing contract on the 7th with Kingston Publishing. I’m beyond thrilled to work with them. I want to give a shout out to Stephanie Nicole and B.M. Griffin–I might not have taken this big leap without your encouragement.

They have picked up all of my romance novels: Head Over Hoof, Head Over Heart, Cheap Lies, Cheap Guitars, Cheap Sunglasses, Cheap Tricks and I will be submitting Cheap Promises to them when it is finished. Expect the newly covered and freshly edited versions of books, of which I have poured my heart and soul into the past six years (whoa, time flies!) in January.

The goal is to finish Cheap Promises and work on my thesis as a break before I dive into a seven-book series sometime next year. Before that, I may be working on a rom-com trilogy. If you aren’t a member of Mara’s Marsbars on Facebook, please feel free to join. I may add a few short stories in there later. 🙂

Why Planners Should be Crucial to Your Writing Process

Want to manage your time better as a writer? Follow this writing advice for tips with using a paper planner!

My internship course, MFA 607, is coming to a close soon and I’ve been on a huge YouTube binge. Erin Condren just released her 2019-2020 line of planners, my personal favorite planner brand. I can’t help but die over the Kaleidoscope pattern every time I see it. I’m taking a glance over of what’s in my cart right now, and good god, when did I get so excited about planners that I have decided I need one for business planning and personal planning? This has eaten into some writing time, but I don’t mind it a bit. I’m buying two planners for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020.

I didn’t use to be a “planner girl”.

I remember when I started writing in middle school and they would try to force us to use a planner to keep up with all of our assignments in school. I hated it. I would write the bare minimum for my teachers to accept it. I would toss it in my locker and refused to look at it for the rest of the week. I remember getting frustrated with the planner because it was too small, and my pen ink ghosted on the paper. Pen ghosting is the worst. It not only messes with my dyslexia and confuses me if it’s bad enough, but it also looks horrible on the page. As someone who likes to handwrite her chapters occasionally, that has always been a problem. I didn’t even bother in high school. I played a little with a planner in college, but it still didn’t serve much of a purpose.

YouTube is to blame for my obsession with finding something that could keep me organized as an independent romance author when I found a video from JaaackJack (I love her make up reviews and her dog, Zoey!) about her back to school giveaway a couple of years ago. I don’t think I could juggle as much as I do–writing, growing my author network on social media, school, or my internship–without my Lifeplanner and Monthly Deluxe Planners. And if I still don’t have you convinced, I’ve come up with a list of reasons why you should use a paper planner:

Before you read this list: You don’t need to buy something from Erin Condren in order to help yourself organize as a writer (although you can go here if you want $10 off one of those pretty new planners–or notebooks–and I’ll get $10 to feed my addiction). Plum Paper Planner is completely customizable (I’m eyeing their notebooks because you can add an extra 100 pages) or Happy Planner (a disc-bound system that is completely customizable).

1. It will help you write faster: I know this is a strange concept. How in the world can a paper planner help you write faster? It helps me to see how fast I’m writing at the end of the week when I have jotted down my word counts for the day. It also helps me keep track of the scenes I’ve written for the day, so I know what to tackle the next.

2. Time management: I could write a freaking book on time management. I have an hourly Lifeplanner I’ve been using since January. Trust me, when you look at your planner and see how much time you have to write, going down the rabbit hole of researching the Jacobite family line on YouTube because you’ve been on a Reign and Outlander binge will seem less worthy of your time than working on your novel, you’ll thank me.

3. Word tracker: Obviously, you can count how much you wrote at the end of the day and which scenes you worked on. I find this important especially because I have been bouncing around while I’m working on my thesis. This is the one novel I have not written in chronological order and it’s been throwing me for a loop. It also helps me feel better to see how much progress I have made on my work every day. I’m checking my Lifeplanner right now, and my biggest writing day was last month on April 11th when I hit 5,000 words.

4. Plan ahead: How many novels do you want to write in a year if you’re planning to go the Indie route? Two? Three? Six? It helps to know what days you won’t be able to write in advance, so you won’t set yourself up for disappointment later. My goal is two this year: My thesis and Cheap Promises. I’m in a graduate program, no way will I manage more than that right now. Being realistic with yourself and your writing progress will stop a nasty block later!

5. Budget Ads: Again, if you’re self-publishing, you’ll want to have space where you can figure out your budget when it comes to releasing your books. A lot of planners have a dashboard or notes page at the beginning of the month that are perfect for this (or if you use the Happy Planner or another planner that has a binder or disc system, you can add an extra page yourself).

6. Author Platform: I’ve been tracking my Twitter follower count since last year, and man, has it grown. I’m so thankful to the great #WritingCommunity who have been supportive since I found them a couple years ago. I find that it’s important to track social media so you can see how large your platform is when you start to think it might not grow at all. Networking with other writers is a great way to not only get support when you do publish your book, but to find the next great read or group of friends that you may not have come across before by isolating yourself from the world (shout out to K.N., M.R., Gloria, Paula, Jayne, Jenn, Dan, Lonormi, Mason, and Anne!).

Have I convinced you to get a planner yet?

I’m notoriously evil amongst my writing tribe for showing them all of the pretty paper and pen things. Let me know if you’re a planner user!

The End of an Era: Should My Thesis be the Start of a New Series?

I keep telling everyone that Cheap Promises is the last book in my first series. I need to move on. Focusing on my thesis, Heart Be Still, must take precedence over letting characters who I love and know well sway me into another book because the ideas will not stop coming, no matter how many times I try to ignore them. I worry that by continuing the Cheap series, and only the Cheap series, I’m stunting my growth as a writer.

Since the Cheap series was my first, I worry a second will be riddled with errors. But to be honest…if I add more books after I finish my thesis, it will be the fourth series I’ve officially started writing (and I must finish this book because I’ll have wasted a lot of money if I don’t receive my Master of Fine Arts degree from Southern New Hampshire University…and I won’t have a chance in hell of teaching creative writing classes in a university).

That paralyzing, teeth-grinding fear of worrying I’m a not good enough writer if I can’t get away from my first book’s characters is what propelled me to add another story to my Over series. It is ultimately also why I have not written Cyn’s story yet.

I’ve found that one of your strongest tools as a self-published author is a series. A standalone has its own merits—it’s a full story that allows you to wrap up all plot points with little question of what has happened to the characters, especially if it’s a love story and they have gotten their Happily Ever After and you want to query agents. The problem with a standalone is that you might not get buy-throughs from readers. I know this for a fact as a reader myself—I am DYING to finish Jasinda Wilder’s Badd Brothers series but decided to be a responsible-ish adult and pay three months ahead of rent instead. Buy-through in a series keep readers coming back for more. They become as invested in your characters as you did when you created them.

So, am I going to write a standalone with my series or turn it into a standalone novel? Honestly, I think it’s slowly turning into a series. I’m not promising it will because I also might query agents and try to get it traditionally published (GASP). I also have a four-book mini-series that I’m planning to write in alongside my thesis after I publish Cheap Promises because I want to produce work while I’m still working on my degree. I figure if I finish the first book—the thesis—and then start the next right after then I might have a decent start to a longer series like the Cheap series.

And say what? Am I’m working on a four-book mini-series? Maybe. As well as a longer seven-book series that I’ve been plotting in Scrivener.

That’s another benefit of pre-planning a series—you have everything you need to write the books fast. I’m going to try writing all four of them before I ever release the first one so I can see how my sales do when I finish them. Honestly, I think I’m a series-writing girl. Everyone jokes with me that Cheap Promises really ISN’T my last book in that series. I have a title and a storyline for Amy that I’m not sure about writing yet. I have at least four titles to books that I don’t plan on publishing.

With that being said, my books are all on sale this weekend from May 11th-May 12th. You can purchase them on Amazon here. Every single one is .99 cents! It’s a good chance to catch up on the Cheap series before Cheap Promises releases. 

Xylorica’s Gift

This is a short story I wrote a few months ago. I originally had parts of it written for another creative writing class but I lost it, so this is completely new. This is a glimpse into some of my writing outside of my usual New Adult comfort zone, so enjoy!

Small sidenote: There may be some typos I need to fix. This is a rough draft and might go into a novel.

Xylorcia’s Gift

THE STENCH OF LIVESTOCK AND UNWASHED MEN became fouler the last hour of travel. Prince Artenance had a day left before reaching the village of Pryka with his caravan. His stallion, Shadow, had seen the Fairy River and launched a rebellion amongst the sheep, goats, and cows by nearly throwing Artenance for a traitorous sip of cool water.

“Are you considering pushing through the night, Art?” Said his second, Evander Heron.

Artenance crumpled the letter Evander had stolen from the King’s messenger crow. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“We should heed the Elder’s warnings about traveling in these parts.”

“Evander, the only reason your grandmother’s lunatic ramblings made it into this letter” — Artenance squeezed his hand over the offending document — “is because our families go back six generations.”

Artenance flung the letter as far down the Fairy River as possible. The letter from King Damon DeNanne of the Bilran Empire and his father had little to report in the way of good news. He wrote the letter to gloat. Artenance had no use for it. Hot and sweaty, Artenance wiped his brow, then bent low to fill his leather pouch full of fresh water.

“The King is taking your men, Artenance—good men. We can stop him if we go back.”

Artenance let Evander speak as he drank deeply from his pouch. He cared nothing that his friend said, instead of focusing on the coolness of the water against his throat to quell his temper.

Prince Artenance Daemon DeNanne—heir to the throne of Bilran. 

Artenance loathed his title.

“It’s wiser—”

Artenance slammed his pouch down on a rock. “I fail to see how any choice I make can be considered wise. I am a Prince that commands thousands, yet I can’t keep the woman I love safe from my father. Adara and her family are in trouble and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“And what got you into this situation—no, got us into this situation? You demanded my sister, Ciya’s, hand in marriage over Adara’s like a rash fool!”

Artenance gritted his teeth. He debated what angered him more—Evander’s truth or his amusement over the proposal to his sister.

Artenance was prepared to fight on the front lines of a senseless war—for both Adara and Callahadrice—risking death for betraying his father because he loved the Princess. King Daemon had insulted Queen Keaira of the island three summers before at a court gathering, so she insulted the King gravely by rejecting Artenance’s proposal to her daughter that same week. Artenance intended to end his father’s political vendetta by offering to take Ciya Heron’s hand in marriage two weeks ago. Ciya was a dear friend to Artenance like her brother and a well-bred Lady of high standing. Ciya ruined all chances for herself and their countries when she kicked Artenance in the groin and fled the castle.

Artenance wasn’t sure where she fled. Home to the Heron estate, he supposed. His father’s backhand to his cheek had left a faint bruise and Artenance forgot all concerns he might have had about Ciya when he was ordered to take a caravan to collect taxes from the villagers. Traveling on horseback hadn’t yet done much in the way of allowing his groin to heal.

Only marriage or death would end the war.

Even if Ciya had accepted the proposal, King Daemon would have sent Artenance on the damned quest to collect taxes. Artenance should have never opened his mouth—not to propose to either woman and especially not to claim his love for Princess Adara Kain.

Evander cleared his threat. “You look like you could use a drink. Perhaps that will end this frightening silence.”

Artenance snapped back into himself and nodded to his Second. Scooping water into his hands, Artenance splashed it onto his face. Resting for the night would be best, he decided. His caravan was hunting a meal and getting ready for the night on a hill. It was useless to make them pack everything just to travel at night when it was most dangerous.

Evander walked over to Buttercup, Ciya’s horse. The irony that he stole his sister’s mare to track down his caravan did not escape Artenance. That he took Buttercup after he illegally intercepted the King’s messenger crow made it funnier.

“Shut your gob,” said Evander, reaching into his saddlebag.

“I said nothing,” Artenance snorted.

Evander pulled something from the saddlebag and tossed it to him. Shadow took a playful nip at the mare before Artenance tugged on his reins. Unscrewing the flask’s cap, he breathed in the aroma of the ale before he took a swig. Honey and hops caressed his tongue, and Artenance savored the familiarity of the drink before he swallowed it.

“Is this your mother’s ale?” Artenance asked.

“My sister takes care of us even when she is furious.” Evander took a seat next to Artenance, who offered the flask to his friend. Evander took a drink then passed it back. “I find it a shame she’ll only ever be your assailant and friend. You would make an excellent brother.”

Artenance smacked the giggling fool on the head then passed the flask back to him.

“Make all the jokes you like. It doesn’t change anything now. It’s impossible. It’s a miracle Lord Yatah has given us privacy this long.”

“Lord Yatah can eat cow dung. I’m more worried about the King sentencing me to death for abandoning my post as commander on his ship.”

Artenance snorted and gulped more ale. “Don’t worry about my father. I’ll handle him. And as amusing as it would be to see Yatah eat cow dung; Father is determined to end the war. Adara and her family will submit to the empire or face death.”

“Has exhaustion from the two suns made you mad, Art?” Evander released an angry snort before standing. “Callahadrice is done for—is that what you think? How could you? Do you know other people—your people—cheered for the rape of Adara’s sister? For the murder of her young brother—”

“Stop.”

“I’ll petition your mother to reclaim you as Princess Artenette since Lord Yatah has an iron grip on your balls!”

Artenance clenched his right fist and turned to swing at Evander, but his second moved too fast. Water sloshed against his ankles and soaked his trousers. Evander didn’t wait for the horse to calm before he mounted and splashed out of the river.

“Evander, I have no choice!”

Evander pulled hard on Buttercup’s reins and turned her around to face Artenance.

“Twenty-seven hundred men, Artenance! AT least five-hundred men are crossing the Costovan Sea, ready for us to claim our allegiance to Callahadrice!”

“Stop this foolishness,” Artenance demanded. “What if someone—”

“Oh, like Yatah?” Evander clenched his jaw. “To hell with these taxes and this caravan! I’m talking about something real—something that threatens the woman you love! Instead, you worry what thieves think of you! It’s time you start thinking like a king rather than a tyrant’s lapdog!”

Blood rushed to Artenance’s ears and every muscle in his arms tensed as his anger rose. “That’s not fair!” Artenance said, pointing at Evander.

“Neither is your father’s invasion of an entire country because a headstrong Queen refuses to be intimidated by his politics!”

Evander took off before Artenance could get in another word.

He kicked rocks and allowed his anger to wash over him. Evander was his friend and his Second, but he didn’t understand the situation. He could never understand the situation because he wasn’t a prince of the empire under which a tyrannical king ruled. Evander was careless, and strong-willed, and didn’t need to allow himself to be tied to Bilran and it’s politics if he had such a problem with it.

ARTENANCE SPENT THE REST OF THE avoiding questions from Lord Yatah and the other men in his caravan regarding Evander’s whereabouts. They had been ready to pack up camp when he came back. Evander refused to speak to Artenance yet he spoke to correct an offending soldier when the man suggested the possibility of taking advantage of a willing lass in Pryka.

Women in Bilran had no rights, and to bed, an unwed woman would be her banishment or death. Artenance bit his tongue when Lord Yatah stepped in to defend the soldier’s right to have a conversation about whatever he wished to speak of, even though Evander outranked man except for the Prince in the caravan.

Traveling with a chamber pot-kissing knave and unskilled brutes were King Daemon’s way of teaching Artenance the true politics of the empire. That he was not to ever suggest an alternative to ending a war again unless it was to the King’s explicit approval unless Artenance was king himself. Only then would Artenance have true say in any heavy political situation.

Evander was right, Artenance thought. They could slip away easily enough at night to raise enough men to take an army to Callahadrice to stop his father. Artenance only wondered if Lord Yatah would allow the men traveling in the caravan to hurt innocents. He already didn’t respect ARtenance as Prince. The men acted like rogue pirates if given the opportunity.

No, Art decided. For now, he would continue to travel with his caravan.

Artenance realized he had never traveled so far in this part of his father’s empire. Pryka was smaller than the other villages they had visited. Not in size; in population. This puzzled art and Lord Yatah, as he claimed Pryka had not had a villager miss a payment of taxes in well over five years.

Art had no patience to inquire as to why. With Evander’s words echoing in his mind, he was compelled to forgive the blonde in front of him with a young boy attached to her dirty sits. Tears ran down her face when she thrust her cow’s lead rope toward his clenched fists.

“Forgive me, Lord Prince. Me husband passed away some time ago. Havin’ a wee one on the way has been hard on me an’ me boy. He’s not yet strong enough to work me farm. There’s only me, me milking cow, and me boy. I offer me cow as payment.”

Lord Yatah opened his mouth to speak but Artenance made a sharp war with his hand to silence him. Taking notice of the young widow’s protruding stomach, Artenance wondered if her small family would survive the winter without their cow. The weather had promised to be harsher, as it was only the middle of fall and Artenance had needed to wear his thicker clothes as he and his caravan traveled the countryside village to village. The young boy stared up at him with wide, curious eyes before he ducked under his mother’s skirts in fear.

“Well, are ye takin’, her not? She’s a good cow. I’ve not got anything for ye that’ll do in the heifer’s place.”

Her level of panic rose the longer Artenance allowed her to ramble.

He cleared his throat. “No, I—”

Lord Yatah stepped forward to take the cow’s lead. He leaned in close enough for Artenance to feel Yatah’s breath against his ear. Evander glare at them both from his seat in the back of the wagon—of course, he wouldn’t agree, Artenance thought. Evander was on a mission to drive him to insanity through silence and harsh judgment.

“Shall we take the child, Prince? If the cow does not please you,” said Lord Yatah.

The woman gasped and picks up her boy from underneath her skirts. She muttered a prayer under her breath then turned to wipe the mud off her child’s face.

Artenance narrowed his eyes before he yanked the cow’s lead out of Lord Yatah’s hands.

“Evander?” Artenance called.

Evander took the cow with nothing to say, even though the hateful gaze he gave Artenance said everything. The cow swished her tail as she followed Evander and the boy whimpered in his mother’s arms. Artenance turned toward the frightened mother, trying his best to smile at her, hoping she would relax. Fear amongst the people in the land may have been his father’s tactic, but Artenance had never cared for it.

“The empire of Bilran thanks you for your payment. Blessings on you and your boy.” Artenance offered his hand for the villager to kiss it. The woman bounced her boy up higher and took it to kiss his rings.

She sighed. “Oh, I could kiss ye on ye mouth, Highness.” She bowed low even with her very pregnant belly and a clinging child. Lord Yatah reached over to help her stand by gripping her elbow. She gave him a small curtsy. “Thank ye, milord.”

Lord Yatah tipped his hat. “My pleasure, madam.”

She turned to leave, but Yatah called out, “oh, but one moment, miss…”

Evander and Artenance glanced at each other. If Yatah claimed the cow wasn’t sufficient enough, Artenance would run him through with his sword. He had watched him do it twice before in other villages—twice too many—and he had meddled enough in the prince’s affairs with the caravan. If Artenance killed him, he could go to Callahadrice, damn his father and his empire.

“Yes, milord?”

“Do you know the family that lives on the hill at the edge of the village? They have not come to pay their respects to His Highness.”

Artenance narrowed his eyes as he watched Yatah, but he took his hand off the hilt of his blade. It was unlikely that the man gave a damn about anyone paying respects to him. If he could cause trouble, he would, and Evander’s words about working for a tyrant once again reminded Artenance of why he needed to consider abandoning the caravan to leave for Callahadrice. He almost didn’t want to admit it, but it was like these people were beyond his help. His father had hired men to terrorize villagers, and even if Artenance had not gotten in trouble for proposing to Ciya, taxes still needed to be collected. Yatah and his men would have still terrorized whoever they piqued their interest. It was not uncommon for a dozen or so slaves to be taken during tax season.

“Oh,” the villager said. “Them are the smithy an’ ‘is family…They’re an odd sort.”

“Yes, but are they aware they must pay taxes?”

Evander rolled his neck after he finished securing the cow to the wagon. He had at least deigned to listen to Artenance about Yatah’s behavior before they had their argument at the Fairy River. He didn’t seem to enjoy the tone Yatah had taken with the widow. For the brief moment they made eye contact, Artenance shook his head and crossed his arms. He hoped that would signify enough to Evander—they didn’t need to cause trouble in the middle of a village, as much as they itched to do so.

The widow nodded. “Aye, I’m no’ so sure why they havena come with they taxes.”

Artenance pursed his lips. He didn’t have to wonder if the family wouldn’t have a way to make their payment—most villagers crowded in the square to get it over with quickly out of fear.

“Evander, come with me! We’re going to the smithy’s home,” Artenance demanded.

Evander opened his mouth, to tell him where to put his order, Artenance was certain, but he didn’t wait for him. Artenance heard two sets of footsteps behind him and turned to make sure Evander was following. He was, as was Yatah, after he yelled a command to the men to keep collecting payments and not to stray far from their loot.

 Pryka had almost no trees although it was surrounded by forest. The two suns bared down on Artenance’s skin yet a chill ran up his leg. Pools of sweat ran down his neck as they trekked up the hill.

“It smells like death,” Lord Yatah sneered. “Perhaps they are dead. We should not waste the time.”

Artenance turned toward Evander, who feigned shock.

“Afraid of a little stale goat’s blood, Yatah?” Evander said, passing Artenance.

They passed a goat that had been slaughtered. It still hung to a post with its neck slit open, legs twisted around the pole with a rope. A bowl lay underneath the dead goat’s neck to collect its blood. Artenance ducked his head against his forearm and covered his nose in an attempt to drown out the smell.

“We have no time for foolishness,” Artenance said through his sleeve, his voice muffled. “I want this finished. They must be draining the animal to prepare it for a meal.”

Lord Yatah pulled a cloth from his trousers to cover his nose. “I think that animal is beyond consumption.”

Evander turned to wink at them, a bit of mirth in his eyes when he moved forward to knock on the door.

“The Prince of Bilran demands your presence!” Evander said.

Yatah bellowed, “Fool! You do not barge on doorsteps like that!”

Evander took a step back with a fake bow. “Sorry, milord, forgive me for thinking that is how we conduct business. If you can stand the stench of goat’s blood, perhaps you can coax a frightened family from their home.”

“Enough,” Artenance demanded, even though it was the most Evander had spoken since their fight.

The door cracked open an inch.

“Sorry, Highness,” said a man. Artenance motioned for Evander to step to the side. “We’ve got nothing for you. Me wife an’ me boy died last full moon.”

Artenance tightened his jaw and his teeth ached in protest. His patience was wearing thin with the villagers. Yatah’s eyes widened in delight. Evander cleared his throat, ever cautious.

“Nonsense,” Evander said. “Surely you have more goats.”

“The Goddess Xylorcia is a vengeful one, my Lords.” Behind the smithy, a slip of a girl gasped at the mention of the goddess King Daemon had long since banished. “I sacrificed me last goat. Yeh’d be wise to stop traveling at night. I know ye are.”

Yatah moved forward and forced himself through the door before Artenance could stop him. The smithy stumbled back on a limp leg and clutched his cane, but he still fell backward to the floor. The girl—Artenance assumed she must be the smithy’s daughter—rushed to him to help him up.

“What is this? A mockery of the royal family? You are the smithy. You are the wealthiest man amongst citizens in Pryka.”

“No more, Lord,” said the girl.

Yatah started to draw the sword from his side, but Artenance grabbed his wrist. “No.” Then he turned toward the man. “Perhaps we can take something else as payment? I am willing to show sympathy since you have just had a loss in the family.”

“That’s because he—”

The smithy slapped the girl. “Quiet!”

She ducked her head and covered her face with her hands. She muttered something Artenance couldn’t decipher. The smithy shoved her forward.

“Take her,” he said.

“Papa!”

“Do as I say, Airlea! A warning if I may, Prince. The goddess is on a warpath, angry we have forgotten her. Best ye keep out of the shadows and in the light of the twin suns lest ye gain her interest.”

Yatah sneered. “Pay no mind to an ancient heathen’s beliefs.” He spat at the smithy. “If you hadn’t wasted a good animal’s life, we wouldn’t be taking your daughter.”

Yatah had gone ahead of them. Neither man paid mind to the girl as they talked. She tried to keep pace with them, but Artenance huffed every time they had to slow down because she lost her footing.

“I’ll be glad to leave,” Artenance said to Evander on the way back to the village center.  “You may be as angry with me as you wish, but I’m finished here. Perhaps I should kill Yatah and be done with it.”

Evander nodded and cleared his throat. “There may be no need for that. We can leave and no one has to die…but I feel we should stay with your caravan longer. Goat sacrifices and warnings of dead goddesses—you may not believe my grandmother’s old ramblings, but I do, Art. We should be careful.”

Artenance frowned, considering his friend’s words. He may have given him trouble for his heathen roots on various occasions, especially since his mother’s side was from Callahadrice. But no matter which way Artenance looked at it, the Elder Woman’s knowledge of the world on matters of the supernatural went beyond his understanding. Their families had not been interconnected for generations without reason. In fact, the Elder had claimed many times that her gifts were heightened when a pagan priestess married her son.

“Yes… Ready the men to leave. We won’t overstay our welcome.”

They continued to speak, deciding on when they needed to leave in hushed voices. The girl trembled yet remained quiet the rest of the walk. She only tripped once, and Evander apologized for walking quickly.

Yatah paid them no mind. Artenance debated killing him again. Something in the back of his mind whispered to do it, yet he forced the thought back. Killing Yatah now would get him nowhere. He was one of the closest men to his father—perhaps Artenance needed to question him about what he knew about the attack his father had been planning for Callahadrice.

Yet, Artenance wanted Yatah’s blood.

The girl kept her head down and cried, silent, while they led her to the wagon. She was the first human they had to take for payment as taxes. Evander demanded someone to fetch him a rope, and a villager offered one before moving forward to pay his taxes to Artenance. He paid no attention to the man, instead transfixed with the girl’s face while Evander murmured a soft apology while he tied her wrists. She had the lightest skin Artenance had ever seen, unlike Princess Adara’s sun-kissed flesh. Pale lines of blue danced along the girl’s neckline, trapping his eyes, and made Artenance wonder what might happen if he were to kiss her there.

Evander cleared his throat.

“Prince?”

Artenance shook his head to loosen his mind from his fascination with the girl. He offered her his hand to help her in the back of the wagon and ignored his initial craving for her. He loved Adara, and while the girl was a rare beauty, she was now a slave for his empire. Her soft black hair grazed his hand while he placed his own underneath her armpits and lifted her up. He couldn’t help but think of Adara’s honey hair when it happened. The princess had some of the lightest hair Artenance had ever seen, and it had been one of the reasons he fell in love with her.

It happened so fast, Artenance only reacted.

“Airlea—wait—“

“Peter—don’t!”

A teenage lad with an ax moved toward Artenance, arm raised high, with the intention of striking. Evander forced Airlea back and climbed into the wagon after her. Yatah and Artenance pinned the lad to the ground with their swords.

“Peter, is it?” Yatah asked, digging his heel into the boy’s back, his blade pressed against the hand that held the ax.

Artenance caught Evander’s wince yet kept his blade on the boy’s neck. Airelea’s sobs pierced the air. She begged and pleaded with them to let him go, but that seemed to excite Yatah. The boy gasped, sobbed, and tried to free his hand from Yatah’s blade. That only made Yatah dig the blade deep enough to draw little streams of blood from the lad’s wrist.

“Shut up the girl,” Artenance demanded.

“Now, let’s not be hasty, Prince,” Yatah said.

“Don’t you hurt him!” Airlea shrieked.

“Oh, but attacking the Prince is punishable—”

“You’ve stopped him,” Evander said. The boy stilled under their blades and continued to sob against the dirt. Artenance ignored the girls’ fight against Evander although he heard it. “Have a bit of understanding, Yatah. Is this boy a friend, miss?”

“H-he’s to be my husband…”

“I see,” Yatah said.

“Kill me, Bilran scum,” the boy gasped, “and the Goddess will reign—”

“Oh, well, why did you have to do that?”

Artenance clenched his jaw and looked at the wagon. Evander saw it coming before it happened, and covered Airlea’s eyes. The boy screamed in pain when Yatah struck, severing his foot from the ankle with the same ax he threatened Artenance with moments ago.

“Enough, Yatah,” Artenance demanded. He drew his blade from the injured boy’s neck. It sliced his flesh and blood speed from the wound. He gripped the hilt tight, but didn’t allow himself to show remorse. “We came here to collect taxes, not to hurt people.”

“Oh, but your Highness, surely you wouldn’t want me to inform the King his Prince disagrees with his laws. In fact, I believe our punishment of the lad isn’t complete. Death, wasn’t it, for threatening a royal family member?” Yatah gave the gasping boy a look of pity. “Shall I let you do the honors, or shall we torture him further?”

“Art, listen to me,” Evander said, “damn your father’s laws!”

Yatah chuckled. “Careful, Evander, for you do not want to commit treason further.”

“Shut your gob,” Artenance said. He glanced at two other men. “Grab the boy. Let’s get this over with.”

“No!” Airlea and a woman who must have been the boy’s mother screamed.

The men stepped forward and forced the boy to his knees. Artenance paced in front of him, asking himself if he needed to do it. The boy had suffered the loss of a limb, but Yatah was right. He threatened Artenance, a Prince, and death was the only option.

The boy pleaded, he told Artenance that he was sorry, and begged for his life. He ranted something about loving Airlea, and begged anyone who would listen to have mercy. He promised to work in the castle if he survived his wound.

Artenance swung his blade in his hand for a better grip and ignored the sweat that built in his palm.

He had no time for doubts. His sword sliced through the lad’s neck. Ugly, stunned sobs from villagers made every muscle in his body tense.

“Death, as promised,” Yatah said, turning to the sobbing villagers. “Shall we move on, Prince?”

Artenance wiped the blood from his blade. “We should move before nightfall,” he said. “Men, get ready.”

Airlea’s sobs slowed to a giggle, then a bone-chilling cackle once they left the village.

No one in the caravan except for Artenance seemed to notice.

DUSK SETTLED OVER THE CARAVAN OUTSIDE of Pryka.

The girl kept quiet while Artenance ordered his men to make camp. She refused to leave the wagon even when Yatah tried forcing her from it. Evander stepped in to make him leave her alone more than once, and Artenance grew tired of Yatah’s obvious contempt for his authority. King Daemon had given him too much power, and Artenance wanted to end it.

Artenance sat next to Evander a few feet away from the fire. Guarded by the secluded area, they finally had the privacy they had not been given for an entire day. Yatah had been sent with two men to fetch dinner and Airlea hadn’t budged from her spot in the wagon.

“Are you still angry with me?” Artenance asked, offering Evander a bit of bread a villager from Donik had given them. It had started to stale yet it would still hold them over until the men caught something for a meal.

His friend remained quiet, glancing in Airlea’s direction. She hugged her knees to her chest and had not touched the flask of water they left for her at the edge of the wagon. Not a sound had come from her since her unnerving cackle after Artenance killed the Peter boy.

Artenance would never forget his name, nor the women’s cries as he pierced the lad’s neck with his blade. He had grown restless of his father’s brutish laws, yet Artenance had killed men before—vile men, those who wanted to see the end of his family’s empire. Those that wanted to hurt his mother and kill him when he was a lad himself. Long ago, Artenance had promised himself he would never hurt an innocent man.

Artenance swallowed the air that stuck in the back of his throat at the thought.

“About the boy…” Evander said.

“No,” Artenance said. “We will not speak of it.”

Evander nodded and took a bite of his own bread. He must have wanted to say something else to Artenance, but at least he respected his wishes. “Do you regret not leaving with me to go to Callahadrice?”

“I regret many things. I think we should leave this caravan and sail for the island.”

“We would have to return to Bilran and gather our other men.”

“You read the letter. Father expects they’ll cross the Costovan Sea in a week. Three days, if they are taking the new ships…”

“They are.”

Artenance threw his leftover bread to the ground with a curse under his breath. “Then we haven’t the time.”

“There are two problems I see with your plan,” Evander said.

Artenance frowned. “What?”

“Airlea will be at the mercy of these pigs if we don’t bring her.”

“Then, we’ll bring her. She’ll be safer in Callahadrice…In a land where women have more authority than men.”

“I don’t see that going well, Art. We should leave her in Bilran before we set sail. Maybe one of the men’s families will take her in.”

“You can’t be serious? It would be reckless to leave her helpless when we haven’t the time to travel back to the city—with a family she doesn’t know. Who’s to say they won’t sell her to the nearest market rather than take on another mouth to feed?”

“I am serious,” Evander said.

“We aren’t leaving her in Bilran. Have you spoken to any of the men in the caravan?”

“Fools, the lot of them. You won’t find one man who will be sympathetic to our cause. If you do, I’ll bend low and offer myself to the dead goddesses.”

“Don’t let Yatah hear you speak that way.”

Evander snorted. “I still wonder if I should have you reclaimed as Princess Artenette. You speak of leaving the caravan, yet you still kiss Yatah’s ass.”

They spoke for a few more moments. During their conversation, Airelea’s interest in them didn’t pass unnoticed. It was the first time she sat up in hours. She stared at Artenance yet he did not pause to interrupt his plans with Evander.

ARTENANCE WAS STARTLED FROM SLEEP.

His sat up, his feet hot. The fire pit the men had started was now larger. Confused, Artenance stumbled into the clearing of what had been covered in forest mere hours ago. The fire blazed into the sky, and around it, a woman danced with her hands high in the sky.

He froze.

It was the girl.

But she no longer seemed scared, or timid. She completely shed her clothing and now danced around the fire, naked. Her ebony hair swayed near her hips in a breeze that hilled Artenance’s ears. He stumbled back and tripped over a log. Landing hard, Artenance broke the fall with his wrist. Pain shot up his arm and he cried out.

She swung around with a grin on her face.

Artenance gasped in shock.

Her face was covered in blood. The fire had not grown because of more firewood, but by the bodies of the men in Artenance’s men in his caravan. Lord Yatah laid at Airlea’s feet, his throat and chest split open as flames licked his flesh.

“Finally, you wake.”

She didn’t sound like the scared girl she had been hours ago, but a confident, cold, otherworldly being…

Goddess-like.

Artenance’s jaw slackened and he gaped at her.

She cocked her head to the side, then laughed. “Oh, please, do not let my appearance startle you, Prince. I have been trapped in the bones and rags of this mortal for years now. I finally had the opportunity to show my real self and took it.” She reached out with her right hand, folded it into a fist, and then pulled it over her heart.

If the creature even had a heart, that is, Artenance thought to himself. He suddenly wished they had taken better heed of the warnings of the Elder Woman and the smithy. The way the people in Pryka had had such a difficult time paying taxes—why hadn’t it occurred to him that there might be something greater going on than misfortune or a hard growing year?

The boy—Peter—before Artenance killed him.

He had tried to warn them as well.

“Who are you?”

She certainly wasn’t Airlea. Artenance had noticed something strange about the girl as soon as she cackled after Peter’s death, and after no one else seemed to notice that she had acted so oddly. While they traveled, she had been scared and unsure one moment, and far too curious the next. Thoughts of Yatah’s death heightened when he stayed near her. Artenance thought that perhaps his mind had been playing tricks on him. He was tired from the day and needed rest—until her eyes stayed on him the entire time he spoke to Evander about going to Callahadrice.

“Did you not hear?” A giggle. “’Tis not wise to travel at night, some of the villagers preach. Even your friend’s grandmother warned against it…but I shall let you in on a secret.” The demon licked the blood from her fingers. Every inch of her was soaked in blood, even bits of strands from her hair clung to her body. “It’s not safe to travel here at all!”

She threw her head back and cackled.

Artenance backed away. A demon, his mind screamed. She must be a demon! An ancient, foul being who supped on the blood of men. He had heard of the kind before. They had nearly destroyed all of the Fae, Dwarves, and Elves eons ago. Their kind was why his father had outlawed the worship of the goddesses Xylorcia, Herona, and Adradia.

“Why so quiet?” She asked in a mocking tone. “Your mind…I find it fascinating. You think my name. You feel fear. You plot the death of your father yet feel sorrow for his terrible decisions as ruler—and ah, yes. You seek to be with the one you love.” More cackling that made his stomach churn. “Why, you even thought me more enticing than your Princess!”

“What do you want, demon?”

She stood straighter, insulted.

“Let us not pretend that you do not know I am the Goddess Xylorcia.”

Goddess worship had been outlawed, but that didn’t mean Artenance hadn’t heard of them. Adara once told him of the goddesses before her mother rejected his proposal and forced her to leave court early.

Xylorcia was the Goddess of Blood and Winter, and all things unpleasant. The Fae had written about their fear of her. A lad had lost his life because he tried to warn the caravan of her presence in the mortal lands. She was the scorned Goddess of the Netherworld, and she plagued the priestesses of Callahadrice for decades before they prayed hard enough to Herona, Goddess of the Hearth, for Xylorcia’s banishment from the island.

She sighed dramatically and rolled her hands, and spoke, “Yes, yes. I was banished from the Netherworld. I sup on the blood of mortals and make the summer moths ago away. Has your mythology been so corrupted by your father that you cannot remember everything? I was not banished from Callahadrice. I prefer these lands. Pryka lies on the mouth of the Netherworld. I have been trying to get back in, but cannot, because your father has outlawed worship. Getting home is impossible.”

“Then why don’t you leave, demon?”

Another unnerving giggle. “How have you not realized you fell over your friend?”

“What—?” Artenance looked down, and scrambled back. He swallowed the building scream in the back of his throat. Evander laid on the ground. He sucked in short, shallow breathes, his neck torn from the tip of his ear to the end of his shoulder. Artenance looked at the goddess in horror. “What have you done?!”

“I have decided to give you a choice…” Xylorcia paced in front of Artenance, hands behind her back. She arched her back provocatively. “You can let your friend die or let me give you the power to save your Princess.”

Artenance leaped to his feet. She spoke of madness. There was no way to save his friend. Evander was as good as dead, just like the rest of the men who had been in his caravan.

“You can go back to the hole you crawled from,” he spat.

Xylorcia rolled her eyes. “Typical man. A woman offers you a gift and you reject her—oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Isn’t it the other way around? You offer a woman your hand and she laughs in your face!”

Artenance reached for his sword. He would not listen to the siren’s wail any longer. He would cut her down, and then drag her head back to—

“You cannot kill a Goddess, Artenance. It would be foolish to try. Yet, I must give you credit where it is due. I find your bloodlust delightful.

“I want you gone!”

“Very well. I shall leave. And then your friend will die and your lover will be forced to clean your kitchens after your father wipes her island from the planet.”

That made Artenance pause—the mention of Adara. The girl he loved but had not seen in three years. He had been willing to abandon his country mere hours ago but had let his doubts cloud his judgment. He should have listened to Evander and taken off with him the night he delivered the letter from King Daemon, announcing the decision to cross the sea to attack Callahadrice.

“If you had gone you would have been dead,” Xylorcia said.

“Get out of my head, demon!”

“You must realize I am not a demon, but a Goddess—a Being that is willing to give you what you need, if only you deign to lower your pride long enough to ask.” She brushed past Artenance. He gulped then jumped back. How did she move so fast? She knelt next to Evander, sticking her finger into his wound. He gasped in pain, his breaths weak. “I would decide to take the offer of my Gift,” Xylorcia advised. Your friend does not have much longer…Your punishment in the Netherworld for letting Peter die is a ghastly fate.”

Artenance threw his hands over his ears. Maybe if he blocked out the sound of her voice, he would be able to think.

Time is of the essence, Lord Prince.

“Get out of my head!”

He felt her in front of him, her hands ice-cold where her palm met his skin. It was a vast difference from when Artenance had helped Airlea into the wagon. His heart pounded in his ears.

“Save your friend…your lover…or let them both die terrible deaths?”

Artenance ripped his hands from his ears and screamed, “Then cease your taunting and do it!” Wet tears slid down his face. “If I can save Evander and Adara, do it!”

The demon Goddess halted in her spiteful jeering. She grinned wider, her two sharp canines prominent as she stepped even closer than before. The edge of her breasts grazed his bicep.

“Do you mean it? Will you let me help you? To Gift you…with powers, you cannot imagine? The power to take a life… to control and bend nations to your will? To save the lives of those you love?”

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The Goddess smelt like death.

“Yes.”

“May I have your wrist?”

Artenance wanted to tell her, no, but her eyes captivated him. They were as blue as the Costovan Sea. He offered his hand to her without a word.

“Artenance, don’t ever pass on my Gift.”

Pain wracked his entire arm as she sank her teeth into the flesh over his jugular.

HIS HEAD POUNDED LIKE A THOUSAND horses stampeded over it. His mouth was dry, and his skin burned if as if it had been placed inside of a fire pit.

The two suns bared down on him. Hissing, he scrambled underneath a tree that provided shelter from the burning rays of light. Dried blood clung to his wrist and mouth. Confused, Artenance searched his memory for what happened the night before.

“You made a deal with the Goddess…you damn fool.”

Artenance felt a thirst like he had never felt before, yet he stood on steady legs. Evander stood hunched underneath the protection of a large palm tree from the rays of the suns, fine except for caked blood on his neck.

“What happened?”

Evander inched forward to place his hands underneath the light. His skin fizzled and cracked. Wincing, he removed it from the light. “The Goddess of Blood and Winter gave you her Gift. I knew we should have listened to the Elder… Don’t you remember?”

Artenance shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Turn around, Art. Where are we?”

Something roiled in his veins at the sight of a thousand ships on the shoreline. But it was not the Costovan shores of Bilran. The Priestess towers loomed on the far left of the land, where both men had a perfect view of what was happening.

“We’re on the island.”

“We’ll wait until nightfall,” Evander said. “Then perhaps we can reason with your foolish father. I’m famished.”

“No, we will reason with no one.”

Artenance was hungry for the blood of traitors.