The Uncharted Realms, book 2
Synopsis: The Twelve Kingdoms rest uneasy under their new High Queen, reeling from civil war and unchecked magics. Few remember that other powers once tested their borders—until a troop of foreign warriors emerges with a challenge . . .
Jepp has been the heart of the queen’s elite guard, her Hawks, since long before war split her homeland. But the ease and grace that come to her naturally in fighting leathers disappears when battles turn to politics. When a scouting party arrives from far-away Dasnaria, bearing veiled threats and subtle bluffs, Jepp is happy to let her queen puzzle them out while she samples the pleasures of their prince’s bed.
But the cultural norms allow that a Dasnarian woman may be wife or bed-slave, never her own leader—and Jepp’s light use of Prince Kral has sparked a diplomatic crisis. Banished from court, she soon becomes the only envoy to Kral’s strange and dangerous country, with little to rely on but her wits, her knives—and the smolder of anger and attraction that burns between her and him . . .
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The dragons loomed in silent menace against the rosy dawn. They’d given me a serious chill the first time the Hákyrling sailed between their fearsome snarling mouths. This time their daunting size and gleaming black coils seemed to mock me.
Running away, little warrior?
No—just abandoning the field of battle, deserting the woman entrusted to my protection by the High Queen, and flinging myself headfirst into a mission completely beyond my skills. Nothing to write home about. If anyone at home had cared. Ha!—and if I could write very well. Stupid saying, anyway.
As Glorianna’s sun tipped over the ocean’s horizon, the rays caught the sharp edges of the dragons’ scales, glinting as on the finest blade’s edge. Carved from the island rock and built up from there so they reared ten times the height of the Hákyrling’s mast, they looked about to spring to annihilating life. Great bat wings lay folded against the back of one, half-mantled on the other, massive snakelike tails winding down the rockfall to dangle in the seawater. Impossible creatures, I’d thought—until I’d seen one flying through the air.
The guardians delivered an obvious warning that I’d nevertheless neglected to heed. Now Dafne, my friend and the person I had been supposed to protect, lay prisoner in the clutches of the dragon king. I gripped the polished rail of the ship, keeping myself from looking back. Bryn never look back. More than a superstition, less than a magic spell, I’d heard that caution all my young life, told me first by my mother, and echoed by my grandmother, aunts, great-aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, and teachers.
Bryn never look back.
I wouldn’t shame their legacy by doing so now. Much as it pained me. Had I been gifted with Zynda’s shape-shifting magic, I might not have been able to hold out. How she kept from leaping into the water and swimming back to Dafne’s side, I didn’t know. Maybe that was why she’d gone below, an unusual move for her, as much as she thrived on being outdoors. Likely the worry wormed in her gut also, wondering what Dafne might suffer even at that very moment. Alone among a foreign people, likely married to a tyrant—a mark of the muddle we’d made of it that we weren’t entirely sure of even that much—and barely able to speak the language. Walking away in the dark before dawn had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
And I’d done plenty of hard things.
Where I came from, you did hard or you gave up and died. Easy decision. Usually.
We passed beneath the silently roaring dragon guardians, and my gut lurched. No, the ship did, leaping to the wind outside the protected harbor, wine-dark sails billowing with a series of booms as the Dasnarian sailors scrambled to adjust them. Within moments, the island, and any hope of reneging on my decision to shirk one duty in favor of another, fell behind me.
“She’ll be all right—don’t fret yourself so much.”
Oh joy. Kral. Just the megalomaniac to make my morning perfect. “Is that an order, General Kral of Dasnaria and Imperial Prince of the Royal House of Konyngrr? Ooh—or perhaps you’re relating a vision from Danu herself!”
He growled in his throat and leaned his forearms on the rail next to me, bracing against the pitch of his ship as we crossed into the choppier open sea, away from the lee of the island. “In Dasnaria we do not heed your three goddesses. Perhaps the women do, to succor hearth and home, but such weakness would not be fitting for a warrior of our people, much less one of the royal line.”
I rolled my eyes, ostentatiously so he wouldn’t miss it, turning so I stood hipshot, daring him to take a good long look at what he’d never again lay a finger on. “Danu is the goddess of clear-eyed wisdom, the bright blade, unflinching justice, and self-discipline. I can see your point—not manly virtues at all.”
He turned his head, blue eyes glittering. Not like the sea, but like the deep ice of Branli near the Northern Wastes, where cliffs of it rose so thick, the white darkened to blue. Chill and ruthless as any of my blades. “If you were a man, I’d challenge you for such words.”
“Challenge me anyway. I could use a minute or so of exercise. Though I might not need even that long to take you down.”
“My honor does not permit me to challenge a woman. Now, if you care to attack first…,” he trailed off invitingly, jaw hard behind the short golden beard he’d grown on the journey.
I ground my teeth. “You know full well my pledge to the High Queen prevents me from doing so.”
“A woman making a vow to another woman.” He shook his head, assuming an expression of innocent wonder. “You’re all so adorable.”
My grasp of Dasnarian still lagged miserably behind fluent, but I thought I had the meaning there. Even if not, his condescending tone expressed plenty. My fingers itched to pull the twin daggers from the sheaths at my hips. How fine it would be, to see the bright blood springing red against his golden tanned skin, shocked surprise burbling into that cold gaze as he clutched his throat, collapsing at my feet. Unable to even beg for the mercy I’d never offer.
“What?” Kral’s brows drew together in suspicion.
I raked his long body with a deliberately salacious stare and grinned. “Just enjoying a little fantasy.”
That got him. Petty revenge, perhaps, and a smidge compared to how I’d love to make him suffer for his many sins. Lust flared in his hard-lined face and he clamped his lips down on it. A pity, as that mouth had provided me with considerable pleasure that one ill-advised night we’d spent together. As had those big hands with their fierce strength. Hung like a stallion, with the stamina of a man half his age and, oh, Danu, the devastating and meticulous patience to use it all to drive a woman crazy.
Goddesses take me, I was getting all hot and bothered thinking about it. Thanks to Lunkhead and his tyrannical edict that none of his men touch me, I already suffered from longer privation than I had since I figured out someone else’s hand felt even better than my own.
He iced it over fast, covering it with neutral arrogance. “Learn to squelch your fantasies. I will not have you again, rekjabrel.”
“I didn’t offer. You will never be so lucky. Oh, and it wasn’t that kind of fantasy.”
“No.” I yawned deliberately, which turned into a real jaw cracker. Nothing like missing two nights of sleep. Zynda and I had taken turns guarding Dafne while she slept, but I’d never quite managed more than a light snooze. Odd, as I’d long ago mastered the soldier’s art of taking restorative sleep instantly at the opportunities afforded by circumstance. It might have been because I’d never before had sole responsibility for another’s life—and at the charge of my captain, now High Queen. Who I’d already failed by fucking up with this very man. You pissed off a prince of the Dasnarian throne, general of their armies, with whom we just created a very new and even more tenuous peace? Dafne’s incredulous voice still echoed in my head. How was I supposed to know Kral expected some kind of fidelity? After one encounter. Well, six or seven—I’d lost count somewhere in the early dawn hours—but only one night. One of the best I’d ever had. Unfortunate, given his obstinate irascibility.
“No,” I repeated. “I don’t want to hurt your fragile manly feelings, but really the fucking was quite forgettable. I thought maybe you’d improve with practice, but alas.” I shrugged for the inevitability of it all. My Dasnarian might be far from fluent, but I knew most of the sex words, and it had proved to be a language excellent for delivering insults.
Kral straightened, folding his arms as he faced me, muscled legs impressively absorbing the ship’s movement. I’d like to be able to do the same and not hang on to the rail, but pitching overboard would be an even bigger blow to my pride.
“I seem to recall otherwise.” His turn to look me over with hot eyes, taunting me. “Once I had you on your back, you squirmed like a kottyr, purring and helplessly happy to have her belly rubbed just so.”
The image shouldn’t have made me as hot as it did. My susceptibility was no doubt due to his thrice-damned enforced celibacy. Well, and my unreasonable attraction to him. Gathering up all that too easily aroused lust, I funneled it into a prayer. Danu, accept my sacrifice for you. If the goddess talked to me—which, ha! Goddesses didn’t really do that kind of thing—She would be snorting in disgust. Her priestesses offered Her their celibacy as a sign of devotion, dedicating their bodies to being instruments of war and justice, channeling sexual energy into devotion to a cause, not to the softer, hedonistic delights. I was pretty sure being hard up didn’t exactly count as a sacrifice.
Thing was, Kral had rubbed me exactly the right way, and I’d more than purred. I was never helpless, however—an important lesson the Dasnarian had yet to learn. “I seem to recall,” I echoed him, pursing my lips as if in thought, “that you had me on more than my back. You had me any number of ways—on my stomach, on all fours, on your back… Tell me, lover, which was your favorite?”
We hadn’t closed any distance, but it felt like we had, the heat thickening the cool morning air. Oh, yeah, that got to him. He didn’t shift to adjust his arousal, but he wanted to. I let my eyes linger there and smirked. Then blew him a little kiss.
“Witch,” he said, with narrowed, hard eyes. The same word his brother Harlan had used to name the late unlamented Illyria, priestess of a foul Dasnarian religion, Deyrr. An evil worker of magic indeed. Low blow comparing me to the resurrector of corpses.
“Resorting to that?” I snickered. “Though, from what I’ve heard of your Dasnarian women, what I did to you must have felt magical all right.”
“You know nothing of our women and yet you defame them with your sly insults. You will make an ill ambassador indeed. I will be hard-pressed to keep you from getting yourself killed.”
“Aw, so sweet. I didn’t know you cared. Oh, wait! You don’t. You made a promise to your brother. Tell me—does Harlan know you manipulated events to draw Dafne out of Ordnung in order to deliver her to King Nakoa KauPo?”
The accusation caught him unawares, guilt mixing with surprise before he covered it. My keen-edged question had flashed through his guard before he saw it coming, and I had my answer, thrice-curse it.
I shook my head, tsking sadly. “You pretend to make amends with a brother you wronged and lie through your teeth. Does your Dasnarian honor come with laundry service? I’m afraid yours is a bit soiled.”
Kral’s jaw bulged, and the fingers holding one forearm dug in, clearly longing to draw on me. Oh, I wished he would. Danu take him for what he’d done to Dafne. This wasn’t at all how an ambassador should think—or behave—but I’d been field promoted and likely wouldn’t survive to face Her Majesty’s censure regardless. Or, if I did manage to get through this and she cut me loose, I’d just go elsewhere. I’d re-created myself before and could do it again. Everyone needed good scouts.
The Tala shape-shifters might lump me in with the unchanging mossbacks, but I’d never stayed anywhere long. Not since I’d left home.
“I did not forswear myself to my brother,” Kral replied, his voice measured against the rage boiling behind the icy blue. “I promised to watch over the scribe in the Dasnarian court. If she is not at court, there is nothing I can do.”
My own anger burned at his perfidy. “You promised that, knowing all along that you would deliver her into a forced marriage with Nakoa. You have a large mouth that you can lie out of both sides at the same time. And to a brother you already wronged at least once. You shave the boundaries of your honor pretty thin.”
“What do you know of what passed between Harlan and me?” Kral flung out the question as a challenge, but he wanted to know the answer. Too bad. I wouldn’t give up my advantage by owning up that I had no idea. Dafne hadn’t known either. If Harlan had confessed the truth to High Queen Ursula, she’d kept his secrets well.
“Enough to know you’ve betrayed him yet again by failing to protect Dafne as you swore to do.”
“I neither betrayed him nor failed to protect your queen’s ambassador.” He held out a hand, ticking off the points. “I did not know King Nakoa KauPo’s intentions, only that he handed me a drawing of a woman and asked to meet her. I do not believe her to be in danger, as he clearly regards her as a much-treasured wife. Any woman should be grateful for such fortune. Harlan’s judgment may be questionable, anchoring himself in servitude to a foreign queen as he has, but any true son of Dasnaria would recognize the truth of this. Finally, the expressed goal of his mistress and your queen was to send an ambassador to the Dasnarian court. You might be a pitifully inadequate substitute who will no doubt immediately shame your Twelve Kingdoms, but the mission arguably continues intact as described in the treaty.”
I fumed, wanting to argue seven different points at once. Failing that, I curled my lip in my best sneer. “You are an ass.”
He nearly lost it, fingers twisting and body quaking as he almost lunged for my throat. I had my blades out and ready to strike before he viciously yanked himself back. “Because you are no proper female, I could justify taking you down for that, but I won’t.”
“Afraid if you bend that honor any further, it will break? Understandable, as you’ve stretched your vows thin enough to be flimsy threads in the wind.”
“What is it you want with these taunts, Jepp? I could break you in half without trying.”
“You’d have to get past my blades first.”
He unfolded his arms, fisting hands on his hips instead. Once under sail, he’d shed the black armor that made him and his men look half again as big, but still he towered over me by a head. “I already did,” he said softly.
“You won’t ever again.”
“I wouldn’t lower myself. As you pointed out, the rewards were hardly worth the sweat. I’ll now point out that you didn’t answer my question.”
“I want two things,” I spat at him, sheathing my knives. Might as well lay it out now. “I agreed to leave Dafne behind because me taking her place as ambassador is more important in the grand scheme than her personal happiness. She made the sacrifice and I won’t diminish it by gainsaying her.”
“And because you had no choice in the matter.”
That rankled. I still thought we could have broken her out somehow. Nakoa’s open-air palace had no physical security. Even with her unable to walk, we could have maybe… Eh, no help for it now. Dafne had made the decision—including handing me responsibility for the secret part of her mission—and she outranked me. “Therefore,” I continued as if Kral hadn’t made his petty point of clarification, “I’m calling on you to uphold your promise to your brother and aid me in navigating the Dasnarian court.”
He set his mouth mulishly. “That regarded the scribe, not you.”
“Oh, I think you bent that vow plenty already to accommodate covering me also. Don’t forget—we’re not in Dasnaria yet. You’ve yet to be allowed to cross out of Her Majesty’s realm. Queen Andromeda will meet us at the barrier wall, and if I tell her what’s transpired, she may not choose to let you pass. You need me if you want to get home. Also, if I send a message back to Harlan, detailing what you’ve done—how do you suppose he will interpret your rearrangement of the rules?”
“My little brother has long been estranged from me. What would it matter to me if he renewed his snit?”
Logical, and yet… I thought it did matter to him. Just as it mattered greatly to him to get his ship and men back to Dasnaria. Nothing like spending a skin-slicked night learning a man intimately to give a woman insight into his psyche. One reason sex made an excellent venue for spying and extracting all sorts of information. Kral was an indisputable, unmitigated ass, but family mattered to him. Whatever had happened, it had affected them both profoundly. He and Harlan had mended fences over a bottle of mjed, a Dasnarian liquor Harlan had saved during his travels for just such a special occasion—once the treaty had been signed. Several of the other Hawks and I had matched them shot for shot, the mjed deliciously light, belying the sucker punch that rivaled that of Branlian whiskey. Which may have led to the aforementioned ill-advised sexual encounter.
The scent and flavor of it certainly twined in my memory with the taste of Kral’s skin and the heated thrust of his body. No thinking about that. I needed to focus on carrying forward with Dafne’s quest. Like it or not, I’d need Kral’s help.
“I think it would matter to you. More, I think it would matter to him. Shall we find out?” My dare whipped out like the whisk of a blade against his resolve. Oh, yeah, he flinched ever so slightly.
“I will help you act as ambassador,” he conceded. “As I had already planned to do. Not because of your weak threats, but because it would shame me to have you blundering about offending one and all. Thus my first piece of advice—learn to dress and move as befits a lady. Your mannish ways will only offend.”
“You didn’t find me so mannish at Ordnung.”
He ground his teeth, the click of his jaw audible. Not healthy at all. “Sampling the exotic fare travel brings is not the same as stomaching unpleasant foreign tastes in one’s own home. You asked for my assistance; that’s where we begin. No one at the Dasnarian court will speak to you garbed as you are and behaving as you do.”
“Do you think putting me in a gown will make me less dangerous? I could gut you before you knew I’d drawn a blade.”
Kral narrowed his eyes. “I am not young Blagor. You would not take first blood so easily.”
“Heard about that, huh?” Ursula, back then not the High Queen, but heir and captain of the Hawks, had chosen me to demonstrate to Harlan and his Dasnarian mercenaries, the Vervaldr, just what a well-trained woman with a pair of delicate blades could do. Surprising them had been most satisfying.
“An exaggerated tale, I’m certain.”
“I’m happy to demonstrate anytime, General Killjoy, no matter what I’m wearing.”
“Ah. I’m glad you agree, then, that wearing a proper garment will not be a problem for you.”
Danu save me, I couldn’t back down from that. Besides, I would need every advantage I could muster. “Fine. Once we arrive in Dasnaria, I will obtain some of the local clothing.”
“Best to practice before then.”
“I didn’t exactly pack a lot of ball gowns.” My job had been bodyguard, not prancer-about-in-pretty-outfits woman.
“There are some traditional Dasnarian costumes appropriate for females aboard. I will arrange for them to be sent to your cabin.”
On a shipful of men? I probably didn’t want to know. Kral read it on my face, however, enjoying my discomfort. “Occasionally our rekjabrel accompany their men on shorter journeys. And we bring gifts back to them and our wives. The wise man keeps his woman in pretty things, as her happiness may not guarantee his, but her unhappiness will surely create his misery.”
“You’re just chock-full of advice today, aren’t you?” I almost preferred his studied refusal to acknowledge my existence.
A strange expression crossed his face, as if he’d also only just realized he’d reversed his recent behavior. “As you will be ambassador whether either of us enjoys the prospect, then yes—it occurred to me that I’d best take you in hand to ensure I am not censured for bringing a disgrace into His Imperial Majesty’s court.”
Sweet talker. I sent a prayer to Danu for patience. And wisdom. Maybe a double helping of both. This prayer felt far more sincere. Look at all this celibacy I’ve offered, Danu—my idea or not, I’m doing it. A little assistance in return wouldn’t go amiss.
I managed to swallow my pride at the “take you in hand” remark. What would Dafne say? “I am… grateful for your advice and assistance, General Kral.”
He grinned, not at all nicely. Couldn’t even be gracious in victory.
“What was the other favor you craved of me?”
Excuse me? I bit back the seventeen different retorts that sprang to tongue at that one. I almost regretted that I’d announced I wanted two things, but oh, well. Hurt nothing but my pride to ask. “Lift your edict on no one having sex with me.”
Ridiculous that I had to ask, but I was getting thriced-desperate. Neither Dafne nor Zynda had been persuadable on the topic; the couple of days on Nahanau had been entirely in crisis mode with no time for dallying. Now I’d be trapped with Kral and his men for Danu knew how long, and not a one would go against his order that I was hands-off. Goddesses knew I’d tried.
Kral smiled with only half his mouth, a definite smirk. “Feeling the burn, kottyr?”
My turn to clench my teeth together. “As I’m sure you must be also.”
Instead of delivering a scathing remark, he inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Though it seems to me you scratched your itch more recently than I have mine.”
No dallying with the pretty island girls, then? Interesting. “By hardly a day,” I pointed out. Which was the wrong thing to say. Kral had taken it quite badly that I’d fucked Brandur hours after leaving the general’s well-used bed. I wasn’t even sure why I had. Kral had left me thoroughly sated. Brandur and I had never been exclusive, but Brandur had invited me in a persuasive way and… Okay, maybe I’d felt the need to scrub the lingering and overpowering feel of Kral from my body. No lover, man or woman, had ever stayed on my mind like that, for most of the next cursed day. Danu’s tits—who knew the man would be possessive of a woman he’d just met?
“Are you asking for an apology?” I asked, sounding reasonably neutral.
His gaze sharpened. “Are you offering?”
“No, I’m determining the terms of this particular treaty.”
“An apology for offending my honor and betraying my trust would go a long way, yes. Along with the acknowledgment that you agreed to be mine and will not stray again. At that point, I might be able to be persuaded to assist with that itch of yours. If you ask nicely.” He grinned, a definite challenge.
“Not going to happen. I never agreed to be yours, you misogynistic tool.” I added that last insult in Common Tongue, as—no big shocker there—Dasnarian didn’t seem to have a word for the concept, though they might as well have invented the practice.
His smile vanished, face going as icy as those Branlian glaciers. “You did agree, when you accepted the invitation to my bed.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation. “Sex! I accepted the offer of sex, not lifetime servitude.”
“I offered you the protection of my body, a guarantee of food and shelter. Those are the terms.”
“Of course,” he replied, frowning a bit. At least he might be processing some of his mistake there.
“Look, Kral.” I made an effort to sound reasonable. “I realize you think the Dasnarian Empire is the center of the universe, but there are other cultures, other ways of doing things. I protect my own body, work for my own food and shelter. In my world, an offer of sex is just that. We had a good night. We parted ways after. Now we have to work together. Can we call a truce already?”
“Certainly.” He smiled again. One that failed to reassure me. “But my orders stand.”
I cursed him, a vicious one from old Bryn, which only made him look more pleased.
“I’m responsible for my men and for your welfare as ambassador. The Tala sorceress, too. I would be remiss if I allowed any trouble to ensue.” He looked me up and down. “But if you wish to renegotiate the terms of our truce, you know what to do.”
He sauntered off, whistling, much too pleased with himself.