Updated: Feb 13
Esperance is my New Adult fantasy romance coming out November 18th! I've got the blurb and the first 3 chapters for you down below. Enjoy!
Twelve strangers. Six marriages. One year in Esperance.
Amryn has many reasons to hate the empire. Her latest is her forced marriage to General Carver Vincetti, better known as the Butcher. If he learns even one of her secrets, he will kill her. And Amryn has many secrets. Not only is she an empath with forbidden magic, she's also a newly recruited rebel intent on destroying the empire—starting at Esperance.
Carver knows the rebels have infiltrated the remote temple of Esperance. His job is to hunt them down before they can wreck the emperor’s new peace. Despite the demons that haunt him, Carver is intent on his mission—but he’s not prepared for Amryn. From her fiery red hair to her surprising wit, his new wife has captured his attention. The attraction that flares between them is undeniable. Now he just has to determine if she’s the enemy.
When the newly married couples become targets in a violent game, Esperance becomes more dangerous than anyone anticipated. Carver and Amryn are about to discover that no one is exactly who they appear to be—especially each other.
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Carver Vincetti. The name rang in Amryn’s ears as the tall double doors swung open, revealing a long aisle that stretched the length of the vaulted chapel. Bright tropical flowers and emerald fronds in large gold pots brought splashes of color to the otherwise dull, tan stone room. Wooden pews creaked as spectators craned their necks to look at her, though her eyes were drawn to the altar at the end of the aisle, and the dark-haired man who stood waiting for her. She had only learned his identity a moment before those doors opened, but Carver Vincetti was about to become her husband.
If he didn’t discover her secrets and kill her, she just might live long enough to see him die.
In the corner, a string quartet played the empirical anthem, the notes resonant and strong as they echoed against the stone columns that ringed the chapel.
She hated every note.
Sheathed in her wedding dress, beads of sweat gathered along her spine. Even this deep in the temple, surrounded by stone, the oppressive heat of the jungle was stifling. The style and weight of her gown was impractical in this climate, and the humidity had wreaked havoc on her hair. Her maids had made a valiant effort to tame the uncontrollable crimson waves, but they’d soon had no choice but to admit defeat. Instead of the Ferradin bridal tradition of loose hair, they’d twisted and pinned until her flaming locks were piled into an elaborate bun atop her head. In truth, it was a mercy; she wouldn’t have been able to stand feeling anything against her neck when it felt like her skin was melting. The fitted bodice was too tight across her chest, and the very air felt different as it entered her lungs. Nothing like the cool mountain air of home.
If she’d been getting married in Ferradin, she would have held wildflowers in varying shades of purple, blue, and white. The bouquet she held instead was filled with tropical flowers with sharp edges, in vibrant colors of pink, orange, and yellow. The foreign flowers trembled in her hands. She tightened her grip until her knuckles were as white as her dress.
She could not afford to show weakness.
Amryn lifted her chin. Despite the pounding of her heart and the twisting in her gut, she forced herself to step forward. The thinly carpeted floor was cold and hard beneath the thin soles of her elegant shoes, and her long gown dragged at her legs, but she kept moving.
Behind her, the chapel doors thudded softly closed. The sound was hauntingly final.
Too many emotions churned in the room for Amryn to decipher anything specific, but she felt a familiar pulse from her uncle Rix. He was the only face in the crowd she knew, and she picked him out easily. He sat about halfway down the aisle on the left side of the chapel. His green eyes were fixed on her, and though he was only in his late thirties, his brown hair had been rapidly replaced by gray when the emperor’s edict had arrived. He wore the expected empirical black, but a sash of blue, white, and gold plaid draped over one shoulder and across his chest. It was a little bit of Ferradin, and Amryn needed that reminder of home.
Her focus shifted to the front pew, where four couples sat side by side. That meant, after Amryn’s wedding, there would be only one more today.
Twelve strangers. Six marriages. One year in Esperance. That was the emperor’s decree, and none of them had any choice in it.
Amryn was halfway down the long aisle now, and she could no longer avoid studying her future husband.
Carver Vincetti stood at strict attention before the altar, his feet planted shoulder-width apart and his spine rigidly straight as he faced the room. He was younger than she’d expected, probably twenty-five or so—only a few years older than her twenty years. He looked as dark as his reputation, though, with black hair that fell over his brow and bronzed skin that hinted at his southern heritage. His nose was long and straight, his jaw angular and covered with dark stubble. That shadow of a beard seemed at odds with his military uniform, which was empirical black and immaculately tailored to fit his wide shoulders, long arms, and tapered waist. While he had no visible weapons, there was no doubt he was a capable killer. Even from this distance she could see the piercing blue of his eyes—the lightest of his features by far. And when those aquamarine eyes sharpened on her, raking her from head to toe and marking every detail, every hair on her body lifted.
Then their gazes locked, and there was no fighting her shiver. In the coldness of his eyes, she saw the Carver Vincetti that was whispered about throughout the empire. The emperor’s favorite general. The heir to the throne of Westmont. The man that many simply called the Butcher.
She refused to break this stare. Instinct screamed that doing so would be a critical mistake. So, even though her pulse skipped faster, she didn’t look away.
Carver’s expression didn’t alter, which made it impossible to guess his thoughts. And with so many people in the room, Amryn couldn’t get a read on his emotions.
If the man even had any.
Finally—and yet far too soon—she stood before him. He was taller than her by nearly a head, but she lifted her chin in order to keep his gaze.
He held out a hand, and under the watchful eyes of the high cleric and a chapel full of witnesses, she set her palm against his.
Carver’s long fingers curled around hers, his grip strong, yet surprisingly careful. As if he feared his larger hand could crush hers. His skin was rough with callouses, and he wore a silver ring with a simple band on his forefinger. He smelled of warm sandalwood with a hint of spice. Standing this close to him, she could see a pale scar that traced over his chin, nearly hidden by the black stubble that coated the lower half of his face.
Carver turned, pulling her with him to face the altar and the high cleric. The older man had a shaved head, as all clerics did, though his robes were more elaborate and colorful than the simple brown ones the low-ranking clerics wore. He gave them a small smile, and gestured for them to kneel at the altar.
The music faded as they knelt together on the narrow cushioned bench, their hands still joined. The high cleric began to recite the marriage prayer. It was filled with promises of love, care, trust, and fidelity, and Amryn let the meaningless words float over her.
Now that she was closer to Carver, she might be able to discern his emotions from all the other chaotic feelings in the room. She glanced sideways, relaxing slightly when she saw his attention riveted on the high cleric.
His jaw was set firmly, but not harshly. A soldier, accepting orders. As she studied his profile, it truly appeared that Carver felt nothing. So she reached out with her empathic sense, gently probing the space between them until, finally, she felt him.
Carver Vincetti was not emotionless. Seething just below the surface of his unwavering expression, she felt frustration, surprise, irritation, determination, impatience . . . and fear.
Shock rippled through her, and she must have made some sound or tightened her hold on his hand, because his blue eyes darted to hers. This time, she was prepared for the intensity of his stare. But she was not prepared for the slight twist of his lips.
The smile was small, but it altered his entire bearing. The remoteness, the cold intensity—it vanished in an instant, replaced with a half-smile so devastatingly handsome, there was an unwanted flutter in her stomach.
Unwilling to process that, she sternly reminded herself who he was. The enemy.
Though she hadn’t returned his smile, his grew into a smirk, and Amryn felt his sudden spike of amusement. He was mocking her somehow, though she hadn’t done or said anything.
She jerked her eyes away, pretending to focus on the high cleric. But the color in her cheeks grew as Carver continued to watch her.
It was time for the oaths.
“Do you, Amryn Lukis, swear before the Divinities that you will love, protect, and cherish Carver Vincetti until death, and revere him as your husband?”
Her stomach cramped, and her voice came out a little hoarse as she responded to the cleric. “I swear.”
Carver still eyed her profile, and his hand tightened around hers; an unconscious tic, she thought.
“And do you, Carver Vincetti, swear before the Divinities that you will love, protect, and cherish Amryn Lukis until death, and revere her as your wife?”
“I swear.” Carver’s voice was deep and smooth, and without hesitation.
The high cleric easily continued his practiced words. “Then before the All-seeing Divinities and these witnesses, you are now married. Please rise.”
They stood. Carver only released her hand long enough for them to turn to face the chapel, and then his fingers wrapped around hers once more.
Applause rang dully in the stone chapel, but the audience blurred as Amryn stared out at them. A tremble shook her legs, and her palms began to sweat as reality sank in.
She was married. And she was about to be trapped in this temple for a year—cut off from everything and everyone she had ever known.
Carver didn’t wait for the applause to die out. He tugged her away from the altar, and Amryn had no choice but to follow him. Her pulse thumped too loudly in her ears, and when they reached the first pew that held the other married couples, Carver withdrew his hand. She did not miss the way his fingers flexed—as if even the ghost of her touch bothered him.
They joined the other married couples on the first pew, and Amryn slid a fraction away so their shoulders wouldn’t accidentally brush. She wanted to bolt from the room, but instead she braced herself for the last marriage.
She was not prepared to see the man who took Carver’s place at the altar, though.
Prince Argent Vayne, heir to the Craethen Empire. She never would have imagined that he would take part in his grandfather’s scheme for peace. And she was clearly not alone.
Murmurs broke out as shock pulsed through the room, dominating all other emotions. Witnesses straightened sharply, and the whispering only died when the music started once more and the double doors swept open to reveal the final bride.
She was beautiful, with long black hair and rich brown skin. Her wedding gown was as long as Amryn’s, but her train stretched out far behind her. Her smile was shy as she met Prince Argent’s gaze across the chapel, and despite the sea of emotions that clouded everything, Amryn could feel the spark of the woman’s love and joy. And—surprisingly—Amryn felt it echoed in Argent as he grinned at his bride.
As the high cleric began the marriage ceremony for the empirical prince, dread rippled through Amryn. Had the Rising known he would be here? Did the rebels plan to assassinate the future emperor while he was stuck in Esperance with the rest of them?
She supposed in the end it didn’t matter.
The emperor had summoned them all to this temple in an effort to save the empire. Instead, Esperance would be its undoing.
Amryn was here to make sure of it.
Carver stood on the edge of the large banquet hall, studying the milling crowd as he sipped his wine. The emperor’s guest list had been minimal, for purposes of security. Each of the newlyweds had been allowed only one escort and a limited guard for the journey to the remote temple of Esperance, and the rest of the spectators were made up of nobles, politicians, and key church leaders from the capitol.
Carver wondered how many of them were enemies.
Positioned by the towering archways that led to an open balcony, Carver could hear the sounds of the jungle that surrounded the temple compound. The screeching calls of birds, the chattering of monkeys, the chirp and thrum of countless insects. Rolling hills, thick vegetation, and distant jagged mountain peaks were all he could see. Gnarled vines strangled the tan stone railing of the balcony, which spanned the length of the dining hall. Sticky heat clung to Carver’s skin, but he wasn’t exactly uncomfortable. He’d been in jungles before. He’d fought and bled in them.
He’d never thought to be married in one, though.
His father came to stand beside him. The wineglass he held looked ridiculously small in his large hand. Cregon Vincetti, the High General of Craethen, was tall and imposing, but Carver knew the lines around his blue eyes were from smiling with his family, and that his booming laugh was louder than any shouted commands. He didn’t have a single weapon on his belt; every entourage had been thoroughly searched when they’d entered Esperance. Only the guards were allowed to have weapons.
Cregon looked just as strange without his customary blades as Carver felt without his own.
“Your mother may never forgive the emperor for this,” his father said. His voice was pitched low, though they stood apart from the crowd and the buzz of other conversations would drown out his words before they had a chance of being overheard.
Carver still forced a smile, just in case anyone was watching. “She did offer to be my escort.”
Cregon leveled Carver a look. “I wasn’t about to send your mother here.”
“You were worried about her if a fight broke out?”
“No. I was worried she might start a fight.”
Carver huffed a short laugh. His mother’s skills with a blade were rivaled only by her temper, once flared.
She didn’t approve of Carver’s arranged marriage, or of being cut off from him for a year. But then, she hadn’t stopped hovering since he’d returned from Harvari—bloody, broken, and barely alive. His parents worried that the wounds that had nearly killed him ran deeper that his skin.
They were right, though Carver would never admit it aloud.
Cregon Vincetti took a swallow of wine and winced.
Carver’s mouth curved. “Westmont’s orchards have spoiled you.”
His father grunted as he eyed the red liquid. “Nothing tastes quite as good as home.”
Home. The word elicited all sorts of conflicted feelings, and the stiff collar of Carver’s uniform was suddenly too tight around his throat. Family, duty, honor, war—they were all entwined with home. As was the feeling of being trapped.
When the emperor had summoned him to the palace weeks ago, he’d assumed it was to send him back to Harvari. And despite everything, he was itching to do anything after convalescing at home for six months. Even return to war.
He just hadn’t anticipated this particular war.
His eyes sought his new bride, who stood on the far side of the banquet hall. As if she wanted to be as far away from him as possible.
Amryn Lukis—Vincetti now, he supposed—was a puzzle. She had been his wife—Saints, that was a terrifying word—for nearly an hour, yet they hadn’t actually spoken to each other. The moment the ceremonies ended, they’d all been ushered from the chapel and into this hall. Amryn had stepped away from Carver without a backward glance and moved to stand by her uncle.
She was beautiful. There was no denying that. Carver knew he would always remember the moment those chapel doors had opened and he’d first glimpsed her. The fire of her hair paired with her porcelain skin was a striking contrast, and the stark white of her dress only enhanced the stunning effect. Her sea green eyes were pale and depthless.
She was moderately tall, and though her build was slender, the clinging dress revealed distracting curves. It wasn’t until she stood before him that he noticed the light dusting of freckles scattered across her pert nose and curved cheekbones. Instead of marring her beauty, the markings enhanced it. They made her look real. Her round face was softened further by the crimson ringlets that brushed her cheeks.
Saints, that hair. Even now, standing with a room between them, those locks were distractingly vibrant. He wondered how long they fell when unpinned.
A stupid thing to wonder, considering circumstances.
As if she felt his attention, Amryn’s focus slid to him.
There was nothing pale or delicate in the way she looked at him. Her strange green eyes bored into him, firm and unafraid. Few dared meet his gaze like that. Not with his reputation. But she didn’t flinch away. She challenged him with that stare.
For the life of him, he didn’t know why that made his pulse thrum faster. Or why he could still feel her hand in his.
“She’s very beautiful,” his father commented lowly.
“She might be a traitor,” Carver said. It was a good reminder for them both.
“There is that.” The corner of his mouth suddenly lifted. “A red-haired girl from Ferradin. I should have taken the bet when Ford offered it to me.”
Carver rolled his eyes, but his mouth twitched, just as it had when the thought of his friend’s bet had crossed his mind at the altar. “You should never encourage Ford and his bets.”
“I didn’t. But I can’t speak for your brothers and sisters. Or your grandparents.”
Carver barely hid in a snort. His large family could be exasperating, but he would do anything for them. “I’m grateful my life can provide such entertainment for the family,” he said drolly.
“You’ve always been entertaining, Carve.” Cregon lifted his glass and took another sip of wine—and grimaced.
Carver chuckled while his father glanced around for a place to put the offending drink, but the servants were busy making final adjustments to the table settings. No one wanted to be the reason the wedding feast didn’t run smoothly. Not with the emperor reigning over it.
Cregon finally sighed in defeat and simply lowered his glass. “I’m not sure your pairing with Amryn Lukis was a good idea. Ferradin has many personal grievances against the empire—Westmont, specifically.”
Which was exactly why Carver had insisted the emperor match him with whoever the king of Ferradin chose to send. The kingdom’s troubled history with the empire made them a prime suspect for dissention.
They knew the Rising had planted rebels in Esperance; they just didn’t know who. Identifying their enemies was Carver’s first priority. Although, since his best friend had also insisted on coming to Esperance for a year, protecting Argent had also moved to the top of Carver’s list.
The prince stood with his new wife, Jayveh. They were grinning as they held hands and talked with the emperor. They were the only newly married couple still standing beside each other, and Carver couldn’t remember ever seeing Argent look so happy.
“If anyone needs your worry,” he said to his father, “it’s Argent.”
“He loves her,” Cregon said.
That was the problem; Argent wouldn’t see a threat in Jayveh. Meanwhile, Carver saw a threat in everything and everyone—especially her.
“I know you’ll keep an eye on him,” his father said. “Just make sure you guard your back as well.”
Carver tipped his head in acknowledgement, but his attention was once again drawn to Amryn. But instead of meeting her green-eyed gaze again, he intercepted a glare from her uncle.
Lord Rix Varden, chief advisor and best friend to King Torin Halvin of Ferradin. Definitely a man with grievances against the empire. The man’s face tightened as he studied Carver. There was a warning there, along with unmistakable disapproval.
Lifting his wineglass in a silent salute, Carver flashed the man a grin.
Rix’s thick eyebrows slammed down.
His father sighed. “You shouldn’t provoke him.”
Carver lifted one shoulder. “Maybe he’ll snap and betray himself as a rebel. That would make things easier.”
Cregon was silent for a short moment. Then, “I know how he feels.”
Surprised by his suddenly subdued tone, Carver shot his father a look.
The older man shook his head slowly. “It’s not easy, letting you come here. Watching you marry a stranger. A potentially dangerous stranger, at that.” He let out a slow sigh. “Your mother and I only ever wanted our children to marry for love. As we did.”
“Life rarely turns out how we wish.” Carver thought he’d kept his tone light, but he regretted saying anything as his father eyed him with cautious concern.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” his father asked.
Carver’s fingers tightened around the stem of his glass. “I’m fine.”
It looked like Cregon might press, but a call for everyone to begin taking their seats interrupted him. Carver seized the excuse, bidding a quick farewell to his father so he could escort Amryn to the head table, where the newlyweds were to sit with the emperor.
Crossing the floor with long, purposeful strides, he soon stood before Amryn and her uncle.
Rix’s look was withering, but Carver tried to ignore that. It was time to adopt his role: charm his wife into revealing her secrets. Failing that, he would have to resort to other means to determine her allegiance.
He hiked his lips into a wide smile and addressed Amryn directly for the first time. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t have an opportunity to meet before the ceremony. I’m Carver Vincetti.” He stuck out a hand, but Amryn didn’t take it—or the subtle invitation to join him in disparaging the emperor and his choice of keeping the arranged pairings secret until right before the ceremonies. It was probably a weak test of her allegiance to the empire anyway, but maybe it would pave the way for a future conversation in which she’d let her guard down.
For now, she simply gazed at him steadily with those unsettling, fathomless eyes. Finally, her pink lips moved. “I know who you are.”
Her voice was lower than he expected; certainly not as airy and insubstantial as her appearance. Standing this close to her again, he wondered if she presented herself this way on purpose. The elegant gown that washed out her already pale skin, the wide neck that revealed fragile collarbones—even the way her hair was piled on her head, leaving her neck bare. Was it all an effort to look slight and delicate, so her deadly strike could be all the more unexpected?
He let his offered hand fall, then flashed her a smile. “Well, you have me at a disadvantage. But I look forward to getting to know you, Amryn.”
The skin around her eyes tightened, and in no way did she return his smile.
So much for charm. Perhaps he was simply out of practice.
Amryn glanced at her uncle. “We should take our seats.”
Rix didn’t look at all inclined to leave her with Carver. But since everyone else in the room was winding their way toward their assigned tables, he didn’t have much of a choice.
His guarded eyes slid to Carver, and his jaw flexed as he clearly fought for words. Since the emperor had decreed that all escorts would depart before dark, this could be the only time Amryn’s uncle had with Carver.
Finally, the man spoke, and his voice was surprisingly rough. “Don’t hurt her.”
The unexpected order was edged with a plea, and Carver’s shoulders tightened. “I won’t.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie; Carver would never personally hurt a woman. But if Amryn was a traitor to the empire, he would do his duty.
Rix’s expression hardened, but he didn’t say anything else as he turned to Amryn and pressed a quick kiss to her temple. He whispered something indistinct, then—with a last look at Carver—he strode away.
Carver turned to escort Amryn, but she was already moving for the head table, which was raised on a dais and set perpendicular to the other three long tables in the hall. He followed after her, walking briskly enough that he easily caught up to her. He said nothing as they found their seats.
Carver was relieved to see that Rivard had been placed some distance away with his new bride. The emperor had asked if there would be any trouble between him and Rivard, and Carver had assured him there would be none.
As long as Rivard kept his distance, that might actually remain true.
Carver set down his wineglass and pulled back Amryn’s chair for her.
She visibly stiffened, but gathered her long skirt and sank onto the cushioned seat. Once she was settled at the table, he sat beside her.
The grating sound of chairs being pulled across the stone floor echoed across the banquet hall until everyone was seated.
The emperor stood at the end of the long head table, his bodyguards behind him as he faced the room.
Emperor Lorcan Vayne’s hair was thin and white, and his blue eyes were watery with age. He was seventy-six years old, and his frailties had begun to show. Looking at him, one might find it difficult to believe he had actually been the man to envision an empire, and then fight to make it happen. From his beginnings as a king of Craethen, he had risen to unite eleven other kingdoms, establishing unmitigated peace across the greater part of the continent. He was committed to keeping that peace alive—no matter the cost.
The emperor beamed as he lifted his age-spotted hands. “Welcome to Esperance!” His gaze skated over the couples seated at the table, his eyes shining. “This temple is a place of peace and light, and you are the bright future of our great empire. You—the Empire’s Chosen—will lead us into a new age of unmitigated peace. You have each been selected by the rulers of your individual kingdoms, and I am grateful for your willingness to embrace this unique task.” He straightened a little, and though he was still clearly speaking to the newlyweds, his voice projected throughout the room. “For one year, you will be sealed together on these temple grounds. Guards will secure the gates, and they will not admit anyone inside the compound, nor will they permit anyone to leave. There will be no messages sent or received.
“Sealing Esperance is for your safety. It is also for your growth. You will have uninterrupted time to strengthen your marriages as well as foster friendships with the other chosen. There will be no outside distractions, influences, or biases. You will learn to rely on each other, and trust each other. Through marriage, you will mend the rifts of previous generations. Working together, you will solidify the peace that was the inspiration for this empire. Because there is strength and peace in unity.”
The motto of the empire was echoed by the spectators seated at the other tables: “Strength and peace in unity!”
Emperor Lorcan’s face softened. “The empire began in the kingdom of Craethen, and has since spread to become the strongest power in the world. We united so no more senseless blood would be spilled between neighbors. So that our kingdoms could come together for peace, not war.” He looked to Argent, and then Jayveh, and his smile broadened. “My grandson, the future emperor of Craethen, and his beautiful wife, the future empress, will lead us into a new age. With their support, and the leadership of one of my best advisors, Chancellor Aaron Trevill, these newly wedded couples will form the first Craethen Council. Together, you will debate important decisions that face our empire, and you will help construct new laws that will shape our joined nations. Each kingdom in the empire will always have a voice on the council. By merging the high families of each kingdom, we have assured that your future children will bind all of us even more irrevocably together. Because of the efforts of the twelve of you, the Craethen Empire will live forever!”
Applause began somewhere—probably from the clerics in the room—and the witnesses and escorts soon joined in. Amryn clapped with the rest of them, though the motion was stilted.
Carver couldn’t really fault her for her rigidness, though. His own clapping rang false in his ears.
Then something else rang out: the snap and twang of a fired crossbow.
The sound was nearly drowned out by the crowd, but Carver would have known it anywhere.
His stomach dropped. “Get down!” he shouted, but it was too late.
A cry pierced the room and the emperor fell, a bolt buried high in his chest.
Carver’s shout jolted Amryn, but it was feeling the emperor’s agony that made her gasp.
The room exploded into chaos.
Guards shouted. Across the floor, men and women leapt up from their chairs and bolted toward the exits. The emperor’s bodyguards rushed to surround him, and screams echoed as more crossbows were fired.
Amryn was frozen. Her heart seized in her chest, the emperor’s pain lancing through her.
A bolt slammed into the arm of the newly married man seated next to her, and his gut-wrenching howl snapped her out of her frozen state. She shoved to her feet, but almost immediately Carver snagged her wrist. He hauled her down to the floor behind the table, the shivering black tablecloth a feeble shield from the rest of the room.
Her new husband’s jaw was tight as he crouched beside her. “Stay down,” he ordered tersely, “or you’re going to get yourself killed.”
Amryn’s stomach clenched. The fear in the room was a raging storm. The man who’d just been shot—she thought his name was Ivan—was stumbling to his feet, blood dripping from the bolt stuck in his arm. His face was set in a silent snarl and he grabbed up his dinner knife before darting out of view.
Still hunched beside her, Carver reached blindly onto the table, and when his hand came back down, he clutched a dinner knife as well. Palming the cutlery, he cursed under his breath. “Saints, I miss my blades,” he muttered. Then he looked at her, his blue eyes severe. “Stay here.”
He didn’t wait for a response, just vaulted onto the table. Dishes clattered as he leaped to the other side, charging in the direction the shots had come from.
Amryn’s fingers dug into the stone floor, a knot tightening her throat. Was this the Rising?
Immediately, she dismissed that possibility. Why would the rebels recruit her for a mission in Esperance, only to attack now?
The chaos in the room nearly robbed her of breath. She looked up and down the length of the table, noting that some of the couples had scattered, though a few of the newlyweds remained huddled beside the table. One of the brides made eye contact with Amryn—she thought she’d heard someone at the table call her Tam—and the woman’s shock and fear punched into Amryn with near physical force.
Amryn hadn’t known many empaths; after being hunted for years and executed by order of the church, most empaths were either dead, or too good at hiding to reveal their secret. But even without the ability to compare, Amryn was certain she felt things more intensely than most empaths. Sometimes, if she had warning, she could brace herself and better handle the emotions that slammed into her. But in a sudden and violent situation like this, the emotions were crippling.
Fear, grief, rage, bloodlust, horror, and pain. It was everywhere. Overwhelming. And when she felt the first death, she shuddered.
Feeling a life end was an indescribable horror. She’d experienced it before, and feeling it now brought her back to that long ago night. The helplessness she’d experienced. The fear. The grief.
She would not be that terrified little girl again.
Gritting her teeth, Amryn pinched her eyes closed. In her mind, she sat behind her cello. Her hand encircled the smooth wooden neck, and her fingers pressed against the taut strings as her bow dragged out deep, resonant notes. As always, the act of imagining the creation of a familiar song—willing it from memory—soothed the tension in her muscles. Created a buffer between her and the emotions that tried to flood her. It was a trick Rix had taught her. Something that her mother had done, when her empathic gifts had become too much to bear.
When Amryn opened her eyes, she could breathe. She could think. The emotions in the room were still frenzied, but she’d created a shield of sorts.
Still crouched by the table, Amryn twisted, searching for the nearest exit. Carver had told her to stay in place, but every instinct screamed to flee the room.
She trusted her instincts far more than she trusted him.
Across the dais on her left, she spotted an open doorway. There was no one between her and that escape, so she gathered her flowing skirt in one hand, but hesitation caught her before she ran. She glanced toward the surface of the table.
As an empath, fighting was nearly impossible. Even if she had time to brace herself, hurting someone would still cause her pain.
Pain, however, was survivable. Death wasn’t.
Keeping her head ducked behind the table, Amryn blindly searched for a knife. Her fingertips brushed the cool, rounded edge of a plate, then the crisp fold of a linen napkin. With a little fumbling, she finally grasped the thin blade she wanted.
The shouting in the room had reached a fevered pitch. She thought she heard Rix bellow her name, but her uncle was too far from the head table; she couldn’t wait for him, and it would be foolish to risk plunging into the seething crowd to reach him.
She tightened her grip on the knife and looked toward the doorway again. From the corner of her eye, she saw the other huddled bride—Tam—suddenly lurch to her feet. The woman was small and fast, but she only made it a few steps before she was tackled by a large man. He wore the garb of a servant, but he wielded a large dagger in one hand and grabbed a fistful of her brown hair with the other, jerking her head back to expose her throat.
Tam’s scream was swallowed in the other battle sounds, but Amryn felt her spike of pain. The brutal claws of her fear.
Amryn darted forward, the knife burning her palm as she stabbed the man’s back.
The blade didn’t penetrate as easily as she thought it would; the tip pierced his flesh, but he was already whipping around with a roar, and the dinner knife clattered to the floor.
The slash of his echoed pain nearly brought Amryn to her knees. She stumbled back a step, her pulse hammering.
The man glared at her, a silent snarl twisting his features.
Tam kicked the man’s cheek, knocking him back. The woman scrambled away from him, her white skirt spilling over the floor as she fought to gain her feet.
Amryn darted forward and grabbed Tam’s hand, jerking her up. “The door!” she gasped.
Tam was already running with her, but they’d only made it a few steps before Amryn’s skirt was snagged from behind. She barely managed to let go of Tam as she fell. Her knees slammed into the stone floor with jarring force, and then her chest hit, driving the rest of the air from her lungs. Her chin knocked off the stones, and her vision blurred.
Harsh fingers clamped down on Amryn’s ankle, and she was dragged backward.
Amryn couldn’t breathe as she was flung onto her back. The furious man straddled her, his knees digging into her hips.
Tam charged him, but one backhand sent her spinning to the ground.
Amryn was still dazed, but adrenaline rushed through her when the large man’s attention turned back to her, his dark eyes blazing. Rage, despair, desperation, pain—it all stabbed into her.
She thrashed beneath him, but the heavy skirt restricted her movements, and he pinned her easily. Once he had both of her hands manacled in one of his larger ones, he lifted his dagger, the tip aimed for her heart.
She didn’t have enough air to scream.
His body suddenly jerked. His hold on the knife clenched, but his body was already sagging. As he swayed, the knife slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor beside Amryn. His grip on her wrists loosened, and he slumped to the side.
Behind him stood Carver Vincetti. He held a bloody knife—not the table knife she’d last seen him with, but a dagger he must have taken from someone else. A scowl darkened his face as he stared down at her. “I told you to stay down.”
Amryn trembled. Her attacker was dying on the floor beside her. She could feel it. She kicked away from him, gasping for air as she scrambled backwards.
Carver’s eyes narrowed. He stepped forward, and Amryn cringed back.
He stilled at once, a furrow growing between his dark brows. “Are you all right?”
Her attacker expelled his last rattling breath, and the sudden loss of life—of all feeling—made Amryn double over.
She threw up on her new husband’s boots.
The fight was over. While guards called the room to order, Carver fetched a napkin so Amryn could wipe her mouth, and then he extended a hand to help her up.
He didn’t say anything about his boots. She hadn’t expected such courtesy, and for some reason it made her cheeks burn more than if he’d cursed her.
He studied her intensely, which only increased her blush. “Are you all right?” he asked again, his eyes boring into hers. “Did you hit your head?”
She swallowed hard, still tasting the acidic bile. “No.”
He eyed her chin.
She knew it must be red, because it was throbbing from hitting the floor. Her flush deepened. “I hit it a little,” she admitted. “But I’m fine.”
She wasn’t fine. Her stomach still churned, and all she wanted to do was escape this room and all the emotions in it.
Carver looked like he might press the issue of her injury, but his father arrived—as did Rix.
Her uncle grasped her arms, tugging her away from Carver. His eyes were frantic as he studied her. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m all right,” she assured him.
High General Cregon Vincetti frowned. “Are you sure?”
Saints, she could barely breathe, surrounded by three towering men. “I’m fine,” she insisted.
Rix’s brow grew lined. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“You can’t leave.”
Rix stiffened at Carver’s words. “She’s been attacked. She’s clearly distressed.”
Cregon Vincetti frowned, and in that chiseled expression she could see an echo of Carver. “He’s right,” the high general said. “The emperor was attacked. No one can leave the room.”
“Is the emperor still alive?” a new voice asked.
Amryn twisted, and Rix released her so they could all face one of the newly married couples. She recognized Tam at once, and she was relieved to see the woman standing, though dark bruising had already started on her cheek. Her husband was the one who had spoken.
Amryn hadn’t heard his name yet, though she guessed from his lightly toned complexion that he was from one of the central kingdoms. He looked to be Carver’s age, and he was nearly as tall, but he had a thinner build. His dark brown hair matched his eyes, and he had a prominent nose and high cheekbones. While he was handsome, Amryn immediately disliked the feel of him. It was hard to know exactly why, especially with such high emotion in the crowded room, but just the fact that he had a constricting hand clasped around Tam’s upper arm made Amryn stiffen.
“The emperor will be fine,” Carver’s father said. “The bolt hit near his shoulder, and his guards attended him immediately.”
The man’s shoulders fell a little as he released a sigh. “That’s fortunate.”
A sudden wave of loathing made Amryn shiver, and she glanced toward Carver. His gaze was fastened on Tam’s husband, and the remoteness on his face was as telling as any glare.
Carver hated this man.
Cregon Vincetti glanced at his son. “We should assist Argent.”
Amryn looked over her shoulder and saw that the empirical prince was issuing rapid orders to guards, as well as a physician who had been rushed in for the emperor.
Carver’s deep voice brought her attention back around as he addressed Rix. “Will you stay with her?”
Surprise filtered through her, and that was all her own.
Rix’s eyes narrowed. “Of course.”
Carver nodded once, then he strode toward Prince Argent.
The high general lingered, his gaze on Tam’s husband. “Rivard, why don’t you make sure all of the couples are all right?”
It was phrased as an invitation, but the air of order couldn’t be missed. Rivard dipped his pointed chin and released Tam.
None of them missed how she rubbed at her arm as he walked away.
Anger flared from Rix.
Cregon’s concern was just as potent. He made an effort to moderate his voice as he addressed Tam. “My dear, are you all right?”
Her eyes shined with moisture, but she nodded. “Just a little bruised.” Her brown eyes darted to Amryn. “You saved my life. Thank you.”
Before Amryn could respond, there was a piercing shout. “Kian!”
They all turned, and Amryn saw several guards had forced three men to kneel on the dais.
One of the brides darted forward. Fear, confusion, and grief hit Amryn as the bride was held back by a guard.
“Kian!” she gasped.
The man who knelt in the middle lifted his head. His features were too similar to the bride’s for coincidence. Based on their ages, Amryn guessed they were siblings. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were sharp. “Stay back, Cora.”
The young woman’s entire body shook as the guard held her back. “What have you done?” she cried.
Kian didn’t answer, and his expression didn’t alter. Not even when Prince Argent stepped forward and the entire room quieted.
The prince’s face was a stoic mask, but his eyes betrayed his rage. “You attempted to kill the emperor. You failed.”
“Esperance will fail!” The man beside Kian spit at Argent’s feet and was abruptly kicked by one of the guards.
Argent raised a hand, staying further violence. He opened his mouth to speak, but an older voice cut him off.
“The peace will not fail,” the emperor said, his voice wavering only a little. His skin was pale, nearly as white as his hair, and the haphazard bandage on his shoulder was bloodstained. His guards remained close, but the emperor walked of his own volition to stand beside his grandson and face the three surviving attackers. “There is strength and peace in unity,” the emperor intoned. “That is why Esperance will succeed, no matter what you or anyone else attempts to do to stop it.”
Kian’s chest rose and fell as he glared at the emperor. “Death to the conqueror and all who support him!”
The emperor’s eyes tightened. “There will be no peace with men like you.” He nodded to the guards, and a sword was raised.
Cora shrieked, and Amryn’s gut dropped as a blade was rammed through Kian’s back.
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