WARNING! ROYAL SPY SPOILER ALERT!
If you haven't finished Royal Spy (Fate of Eyrinthia 2), you won't want to read this.
You have been warned :)
Now, enjoy this sneak peek that includes the first THREE chapters of Royal Captive (Fate of Eyrinthia 3)!
Chapter 1 Bennick
“Be still,” Wilf barked. Agony engulfed Bennick. He sucked in air, his fists digging into the ground, his body on fire. The blade had pierced his back and ripped through his body, coming out somewhere on his lower left side. The pain was excruciating, but that wasn’t what mattered. “Go,” he gasped. “Go after her.” Wilf ignored him. His fearsome expression was marked by old pox scars and deep lines, his jaw locked in a frown as he tore Bennick’s bloody shirt, exposing the injury. His hard mouth became harder, his eyes going flat. Bennick didn’t have to see the wound to know the stabbing was fatal. His eyes pinched closed for a moment, sweat beading on his forehead. Everything inside him was screaming, but he forced words through his constricted throat. “Wilf, go. Please.” Wilf didn’t respond, only leaned close. “It’s clean,” he grunted. “The smell, and the color of the blood. Perhaps nothing vital was hit. Hold still.” Bennick clenched his jaw as Wilf pressed a hand to his abdomen. His other hand slid beneath Bennick’s back to find the entrance wound. He squeezed, attempting to staunch the blood flow with his bare hands. Bennick snarled through gritted teeth, his fingers clawing the ground to keep from tearing at Wilf’s crushing grip. “Dirk!” Wilf boomed. “We need a fire. Now!” Sweat and blood drenched Bennick’s shivering body. He knew his skin was flushed, and the shaking grew worse with every fractured breath. “Wilf,” he croaked. “Stop. I’m already—dead.” Wilf’s eyes didn’t lift from his bloody hands, still pressed against Bennick’s wounds. “You certainly talk a lot for a dead man.” “Please,” Bennick rasped. “Go. Clare . . .” “She’d never forgive me if I left you now,” Wilf snapped. The pressure of his hands increased. “You’re going to be fine.” Time was difficult to judge through the fog of pain. Suddenly, Dirk knelt beside him, a few other guards huddled around them. When Dirk passed a heated dagger to Wilf, dread and panic punched through Bennick’s chest. The guards leaned in, holding him down, giving him nowhere to retreat as Wilf pressed the red-hot blade against his skin. A shattering scream tore through his throat. His head kicked back. His limbs jerked. Fingers tightened their bruising hold on his wrists and shoulders, keeping him pinned to the ground. He still thrashed against them, an involuntary response, his lungs nearly bursting with his anguished cries. The blistering heat was unlike anything he had ever felt. Wilf was sealing the wound—the logical part of him knew that. They were giving him his best chance. But this was excruciating torture. The smell of burning flesh—his flesh—charred the air as the blade seared his skin. His stomach rolled—clenched—heaved. Someone turned his head to the side so he wouldn’t choke on his vomit. “This won’t work,” Dirk said, his voice low and tight. Wilf’s words were encased in steel. “It will.” The sizzle of scalding skin finally stopped, but the burning was relentless, even after the knife was lifted. “Turn him over,” Wilf ordered. As they did, Bennick felt his awareness slipping. Darkness blotted out his sight, coming to claim him. A blessing, considering what Wilf was about to do again. As his cheek pressed into the dirt, Bennick struggled to gasp out his last request. “Save—her.” “I will,” Wilf vowed, his voice rough. “Just as soon as I’m done saving you.” The fiery dagger touched his skin again, and Bennick was gone. His last thought—the last image in his head—was of Clare.
Chapter 2 Wilf
Bennick’s screams rang in Wilf’s ears, even after unconsciousness had cut them off. A darting look assured him that his captain was still breathing, his chest lifting and falling, his pulse thrumming in his neck. The scent of charred flesh made Wilf’s stomach lurch, and he swallowed down a wave of bile. He did not allow his hands to shake as he continued to press the heated blade to Bennick’s flesh. “Searing the wounds won’t help if something vital was hit,” Dirk said, his voice low and tense. He was terrified, too. Wilf gritted his teeth. “He’ll be fine.” He had to be. Dirk didn’t argue. He released his hold on Bennick, as it was no longer necessary to restrain him. He pushed to his feet, twisting to look around them. Wilf knew what he would see. The carriage, sitting empty on the road, door ajar. Bodies of men and horses strewn over the ground. Arrows stuck in the trees, the carriage—and in the bodies that littered the area. Remnants of an ambush that had taken them all by surprise. Even now, the moans and sobs of the still-dying threaded the air. “Cardon got away with Serene,” Dirk said, his voice too level. Wilf had served with the man for years—he knew when Dirk was trying to reassure himself. “Imara’s guards got her away as well. They’ll all return to Serai Nadir’s home to regroup.” “Good.” It was a relief that both princesses were safe, but Clare was in the hands of bloodthirsty Mortisians who thought she was the princess. They hadn’t killed her outright, and Wilf had to believe that was a good sign. They needed her alive. But for how long? And what would happen if they discovered she wasn’t the princess? “Where is Venn?” Wilf stiffened at Dirk’s sudden question. “I lost sight of him in the fight.” The older bodyguard was already striding away, searching the bodies on the ground. Wilf’s heart hammered in his chest. Fates, he couldn’t lose anyone else . . . Dirk wandered several paces before he froze. He muttered a curse and fell to his knees as he rolled a body over. “Venn? Venn!” There was an answering groan, which loosened the knot in Wilf’s throat. He set aside the still-hot dagger and forced himself to focus on Bennick. He’d stopped the bleeding, but that was only part of his captain’s battle. Bennick needed a physician. Now. “Vera,” Venn slurred, pain riding his voice hard. Dirk shook his head, the silver hairs among his otherwise dark head catching in the sunlight. “I don’t know where she is.” “Gone,” Venn said, the word ending on a groan as he struggled to rise. “They took her.” Instead of forcing him back down, Dirk grabbed the young man’s arm and helped him sit—a good sign that Venn wasn’t too badly injured. A growl vibrated through Wilf’s chest. “They took Clare, too.” Venn’s head swiveled toward him, blood tracking down the right side of his face from a blow to his temple. The young man’s eyes dipped, and his dark skin visibly paled. “Bennick?” “He’s alive.” Determination lived in Wilf’s voice. Dirk’s gaze swept the surrounding area. “Ser Zephan is dead. He escaped his guards, but not the arrows of the attackers.” Wilf didn’t have the capacity to feel anything about the Mortisian’s death. Ser Zephan had tried to kill Serene more than once, and he had only been their prisoner so they could take him to Serjah Desfan to be tried for his treason. The irony that Zephan had been killed by other Mortisians, however, did not escape Wilf’s notice. Venn’s shoulders tensed. “The Rose?” “We have him,” a new voice rang out, and Wilf felt a flash of relief to see a couple of soldiers dragging the infamous assassin—hands still bound—between them. The guard spoke again, his voice rigid. “He was attempting to get away.” The Rose lifted one shoulder. “You can’t blame me for trying.” His eyes fell on Bennick and his head tipped to the side, brown locks falling over his forehead. “Is he dead?” He didn’t sound concerned, or even excited—merely curious. “No.” Wilf pushed to his feet. He ignored the fact that, as senior bodyguard, Dirk was technically in charge. “I’m going after them. Dirk, take Bennick and Venn to Serai Nadir’s estate.” Venn’s head jerked up. “No. I’m going after Vera and Clare.” “You’re injured,” Wilf argued. The young bodyguard shoved to his feet, only swaying a little. His bloody face was set in stone. “I’m the best tracker here. I’m going with you.” Fates blast it . . . “Fine,” Wilf bit out. “But if you fall over, I’m not picking you up. And we move now. If we hurry, we can find them before dark.” “It’s charming you think so,” the Rose drawled. Wilf shot him a glare. “Dirk, take him with you.” “I would be far more useful with you,” the Rose countered. “Those were mercenaries. And not just any mercenaries, but Salim’s men. They’re far more clever than you think.” He nodded to the treeline. “They’ll ride in a large group for a while, but then they’ll split off in the forest, taking a few riders in every direction. You’ll have dozens of trails to follow, and only one will lead to Clare. What are the chances you’ll pick the right one?” “How do you know this Salim?” Venn demanded. “I’ve hired him before. He’s cunning, greedy, and sadistic. Since he thinks he’s abducted a princess, he’s going to want to deal with her personally.” The corner of the Rose’s mouth lifted. “And I happen to know exactly which path through the forest he favors, so I can help you bypass the false trails. I could lead you right to him—to her.” A growl rumbled in Wilf’s chest. “What do you want in return?” “My freedom. The moment I lead you to Clare, you let me walk away.” “No,” Wilf said. “The only freedom I’ll ever give you is the kind found in death.” The Rose shrugged. “Fine. But by the time you manage to find the right trail, you’ll be lucky to find Clare’s corpse.” Bennick groaned behind him. A quick look assured Wilf that he was still unconscious, but even unaware of the world, deep lines cut into his face, clearly showing his pain. They were wasting time. Dirk cleared his throat. “Clare was on my horse. That will make her easier to track.” All royal horses were marked, which made their hoof prints distinct. “Salim will check for that,” the Rose said. “He’ll put her on another horse and use the marked one to deliberately steer you away.” Wilf ignored the assassin. “Venn, gather any soldier able to walk.” The young man stalked away, every line of his body showing absolute focus on his mission. Dirk frowned. “There were a great many of them, Wilf. You need more men.” “There’s no time.” The nearest place to get Devendran reinforcements was in Stills, and that small town wouldn’t have many soldiers. The nearest military outpost was even further. They would have to do this on their own. Wilf dragged a hand over his stiff jaw. “Help me get him into the carriage.” Dirk and Wilf lifted Bennick as gently as possible, using infinite care as they set him on the carriage floor; it would be the most stable place for him on the journey back to Serai Nadir’s estate. Bennick flinched, but didn’t wake. “I’ve saved men like this before,” Wilf said quickly to Dirk. “It’s a battlefield technique. A fever may follow, and if there’s any sign of bloating or discoloration, the physician may need to reopen the wounds—” “I know.” Dirk laid a hand on Wilf’s shoulder, his grip firm. “I’ll look after him. You focus on saving Clare and Vera.” His dark eyebrows pulled together. “Do you want to take the Rose with you?” “No,” he said, his voice firm. “I don’t need him.” He turned on his heel and strode away, not bothering to glance at the assassin he knew watched him. He had done all he could to save Bennick. Now it was time to save Clare. I’m coming, my little defender. He would destroy anyone who harmed her.
Chapter 3 Serene
Serene stood in Tamar Nadir’s colorful drawing room, facing the large window that viewed the sunny courtyard. She would be able to see the others the moment they arrived.
They would arrive.
She kept repeating the words, a mantra that barely managed to ground her. Scenes of the chaotic ambush flashed through her memory, and her fingernails dug into her palms. Residual adrenaline still spiked through her hours later, making her heart stutter and pound in her chest. Standing in such a highly decorated room with towering bookshelves, overstuffed chairs, and brightly painted walls done in blue and gold, all made the attack on the road seem even more violent. The fists at her sides hadn’t loosened.
Where were they?
The door behind her opened and Cardon entered. She could tell it was him without looking.
She had always been able to tell.
“Serai Nadir thought you might like some tea,” he said, his smooth voice filling the room.
Serene snorted, not turning away from the window. “I don’t think that will help.”
A tray clattered lightly as it was set on the low table behind her, near the long settee. The smell of tea drifted to her. It was a familiar blend; Serai Nadir must keep some Devendran teas on hand. When china rattled, Serene twisted around.
Cardon stood over the tray, arranging cups on saucers. His large hands should not be able to handle the delicate items so deftly, but every motion was perfectly controlled.
Everything about him was familiar to her. He was thirty years old, and his brown hair was silvering in a few select places. He was taller than her, though not by much. He had broad shoulders and strong arms—byproducts of years spent on a training field. The thin scar on his right cheek didn’t detract from his features, but somehow enhanced them. Though she couldn’t see them right now, she could easily imagine the intensity in his brown eyes. He dedicated himself completely to every task—even something as simple as pouring tea.
She got a little lost watching him.
When he finished, she straightened sharply. He crossed the bright yellow rug with two filled cups and stopped directly in front of her. The scent of him—leather and spice—triggered a flutter low in her stomach, and her heart skipped at his nearness.
She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I don’t want tea.”
The corner of his mouth lifted slightly, his eyes knowing. “You always want tea.”
The strong fragrance drifted up, carried on the steam that billowed in twisting, curling tendrils. Ghosting—there, then gone.
She could feel the weight of Cardon’s stare as he waited.
Fates blast it . . .
She reached for the cup and he eased it into her hands. His callused fingertips grazed her fingers, making her breath hitch.
Her voice came out a little too heavy as she said, “I do not always want tea, Sir Brinhurst.”
He raised a brow. “I know I’ve irritated you when you start calling me that.”
“It is your name.”
“I rather hate it.”
His lips twitched.
She cleared her throat. “Is Imara still with Hanna?” Her cousin’s maid had been shot during their retreat.
“Yes,” Cardon said. “The physician Serai Nadir sent for is with her.”
“Good.” Serene blew lightly on her scalding drink as she turned back toward the window. “They should have made it back by now.”
From her periphery, she caught the long scar on Cardon’s cheek jump as his jaw clenched. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon.” The unspoken anxiety that threaded through his words perfectly matched her own. His next words surprised her. “We could return to Iden.”
Serene exhaled shortly. “My father would love that.”
“Your safety is more important than anything. Even the king’s treaty.”
“That edges on treason.”
The skin around Cardon’s eyes tightened. “It’s my job to protect you. There is no treason in that.”
But there was, in a way. Because Serene had been a traitor since she was sixteen years old. She hid the truth from her father by exaggerating a role of petulance and harmless rebellion, knowing he became too frustrated with her to ever look closer. He had never suspected that she was the leader of a rebellion, because all she complained about were dress-fittings and irritable nobles. He never knew that marrying Desfan was a part of her plan, because she complained so strenuously about the betrothal. He didn’t know that she would not rest until she’d destroyed him and her younger brother, Grandeur.
King Newlan was a terrible monarch who took advantage of his people and ruled with fear and threats. He had also murdered his wife—a crime he had never been held accountable for. Grandeur had known about the slow poisoning of the queen, and he had done nothing. That made him just as much to blame, in Serene’s eyes.
Neither of them deserved the throne, and she would take it from them by any means necessary. Even if that meant marrying a stranger. She needed strong allies if she was going to overthrow her father and brother. It was why she couldn’t go back to Iden, no matter how dangerous things became.
“I should thank you,” Serene said suddenly.
“For the tea?” Cardon asked mildly.
She rolled her eyes. “No.” Although she had to admit, just holding the warm cup and smelling the comforting fragrance helped her breathe easier. He knew her too well. “You saved my life yet again. How many times is that?”
He gave her a sidelong look. “It’s not as though I keep track.”
“You sound a little smug.”
“Perhaps I’m simply glad you’re alive.”
“I suppose your employment does depend on my survival.”
His gaze trailed the side of her face. “There are other reasons, Princess.” Her heart clenched in her chest. “You’re right, though,” he continued. “It would end my career. Not even a half-rate merchant would hire me after learning I failed to protect my last charge.”
She arched a brow, and ordered her heart to stop pounding. “I hate to think my death would cause such troubles for you. You might have to take up another occupation altogether.”
Cardon huffed, bringing his cup to his lips. He took a lingering sip, his throat flexing as he swallowed. “I think, Princess,” he finally said, his voice deeper than before. “If I failed to preserve your life, I would become a drunk.”
The image of Cardon hunched over a mug, mourning her death, perhaps being broken by it—
She refused to do this. See things that weren’t there. Read too deeply into every word and look. Imposing feelings on him that he had already denied—emphatically.
She steeled her spine. “You would miss me, then?” she said, almost blithely.
His knuckles whitened around his cup. His lips parted, but the door was pushed open, ending the moment.
Imara swept in, tendrils of black hair falling loose from her bun, exhaustion etched on her round face.
Serene faced her cousin, her cheeks feeling too warm. “How is Hanna?”
“She’ll be fine, thank the fates.” Imara rubbed her temple. “The arrow pierced the fleshy part of her arm, so there won’t be any lasting damage. Have the others returned?”
Her cousin dropped into a cushioned chair, her shoulders falling. “There were so many of them. What if . . .?”
The unspoken question was one Serene could not bear to think.
A muted thundering spun them all toward the window, where a dozen mounted soldiers surrounded the royal carriage as it rolled into the courtyard.
“Thank the fates,” Serene breathed.
Cardon was already moving for the door, setting his teacup on the tray as he passed. Serene was right behind him, Imara striding alongside her.
They exited the manor’s front door and rushed down the stone steps where the carriage jerked to a stop.
The small door swung open and Dirk climbed out, looking horribly grim. His face was as familiar as any in Serene’s life; he had been her bodyguard since her birth. And he had only ever looked so grave once before.
When he had brought the news that her mother had died.
Serene’s stomach instinctively dropped. When Dirk shifted and she glimpsed Bennick lying on the carriage floor, a hand flew to her mouth.
“Is he dead?” Imara asked, trembling beside her.
“No.” Dirk’s throat flexed as he swallowed. “But he needs immediate assistance. He was stabbed.”
Cardon rushed forward and Imara murmured about getting the physician as she darted back inside the manor.
“Wilf seared the wounds,” Dirk told Cardon as the two of them carefully lifted Bennick out. “He hasn’t awoken, and he’s feverish. He may not survive.”
“He will,” Cardon said firmly.
Serene’s heart clenched. She looked around, noticing for the first time that Clare wasn’t in the yard. Or Vera. She froze. “Where are Clare and Vera?”
“They’re not dead,” Dirk said quickly. “They were taken by the mercenaries who attacked us. Venn and Wilf took six men and are tracking them now into the forest.”
“They won’t find them,” sang out a horribly cheerful voice.
Serene faced the Rose—Zilas, as she preferred to call him. Using his real name stole some of his threat and mystery, and she was sure it would irritate him as well. He was still shackled, a guard on each arm pulling him toward the manor.
Strange, how seeing an enemy could help her focus. Her superior mask slipped into place and she regarded him with an edge of haughtiness. “You seem quite sure of that, Zilas.”
The assassin smiled, his eyes dancing. As if he knew why she had used his name, and he found it amusing. “Oh, I’m dead certain of it, Princess.”
Serene dismissed him by turning on her heel and following Cardon and Dirk inside. Bennick was carried between them. The blood on his uniform alone had her fighting a gag, but as they climbed the stairs, the folds of his shirt fell aside and she saw the wound. It was low on the left side of his abdomen, the skin terribly burned and blistered. Serene swallowed quickly to keep acidic bile from rising up her throat.
Bennick was pale, his skin slick with sweat. Even his breathing was pained.
They reached the first available room and Serene dodged around them to open the door. As they lowered him onto the bed, Bennick’s agonized groan scraped her ears, clawing at her heart.
Then Cardon swore. “He was run through?”
Dirk straightened stiffly. “Yes.”
A tremble shook through Serene. With an injury like that, it was a fates-blasted miracle Bennick was still breathing.
The physician ran in, Imara right behind him. The Mortisian man was older, but his eyes were clear and sharp as he took in his newest patient. “The two soldiers can stay,” he said. “I’ll need you to hold him down if he wakes. The rest of you—out.”
Serene’s feet were stuck to the floor. It was Imara’s hand slipping around hers, tugging her toward the door, that finally made her move.
They remained in the corridor just outside, listening to the indistinct murmur of voices. Time passed. Servants ducked in and out, bringing water, towels, and other supplies. Horrible, gut-wrenching screams pierced through the closed door, and Serene had to tell herself it was a good sign—it meant Bennick was still alive.
Serene paced the hall, chewing the edge of her thumbnail, aware of Imara’s sharp eyes on her. They hadn’t spoken much, just waited together with bated breath for news.
Finally, the door eased open and Dirk ducked out. He looked exhausted, but his eyes found Serene easily enough. “He’s sleeping now,” he said, pulling the door closed until it clicked shut. “Cardon and the physician will remain with him.”
“Will he survive?” Serene asked.
“The physician has done what he can, but the fever is a concern.” Dirk gripped the back of his neck, his expression grim. “Time will tell.”
Bennick had to live. And Clare and Vera had to be found.
Serene could not bear any other alternative.
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