Before the Storm

Chapter One: The Mare

Only one man ever entered her room without knocking.

Alexis Khayne slipped a black ribbon into her book to mark her place, then looked at the man who stood in her doorway. She felt her blood cool as it slid into the muscles of her face, keeping her features expressionless.

“Stephen.” She did not stand up; the master of the castle had told her that such bowing and scraping was unnecessary between them. She hated him all the more for that.

“You’re called for,” Stephen Garnath said.

It was always the same words. Alex rose at once and went to her dressing table. She had already bathed but her face was unpainted, so she opened a pot of eye enhancer. Stephen pulled her wardrobe open and hooked the black sheer with a finger.

“Wear this.” He tossed it to her, and Alex caught it. The full-length gown was fragile black abstract over translucent sheer. Wearing either of the fabrics was tantamount to being naked, and together they were not much better. She laid it aside and slipped out of her dress.

“Take everything off.” Stephen watched her obey, but she was long since used to that, and she removed her underclothes with as little reaction as if he had commented on the weather. Naked, she stepped into the sheer.

It was difficult to fasten and lace tightly about the bodice. Years ago, Alex had asked if she could have a lady’s maid. Stephen had pointed out that she wasn’t a lady, which was true, but she also knew he didn’t want her making friends. She pinned up her hair and painted her face, outlining her eyes in black. When she was done, she looked like a portrait in earth tones, and only her eyes were out of place. The enhancer made their green paler, like ice.

She wondered why he had chosen the black sheer. It was a beautiful gown, but it didn’t make her seem beautiful. It sharpened her so she appeared intense and dark, with a cold feral look in her eyes. Instead of looking like the kind of woman a man wanted to ride, she looked like a panther hauled snarling out of the woods, then drugged and caged.

This will be an unusual night, she thought. I wonder who it is. Sir Thomas Vallew? No, he’s gone north on business. The Duke of Goldwood? Surely even Stephen wouldn’t offer me to a man married barely a week. Oliver Lant? I wish it was Oliver. And I wish he hadn’t said he liked me—didn’t he realize Stephen would never let me near him after that?

Of course he didn’t. There was nothing wrong with Oliver’s heart, but his mind didn’t work in three directions at once. She studied her face for one last time, noting that it was still as expressionless as when Stephen had first entered, and rose.

“Very nice,” Stephen cupped her breast and rolled his thumb over the nipple. Alex looked at him, waiting for an order. “Very nice. Let’s go, the baron’s ready.”

The baron?

Alex didn’t think that any of the barons of Dagre were close to the coronet city, Radiath, much less to Stephen Garnath, who dominated it. And what had this particular baron done to deserve the services of the most highly prized mare in the city? She pulled on a black cloak and followed Stephen out. When they stopped at the guest rooms, she risked a look at the man-at-arms who stood outside, but she didn’t recognize the lightning-bolt sigil on his leather armor. Bowing, he let them into a public room where apple boughs burned in a fireplace. When he knocked at a door, the baron emerged, another man following him.

Alex barely took in the baron’s nondescript face. The man behind him was far more unusual. She kept her features still with the ease of long practice, but she was startled at his appearance: a line of raised flesh ran along each side of his face, beginning just below the inner corner of the eye, dipping down in a curve and rising again to touch the top of each ear.

So he was from Iternum. No wonder Stephen wanted to please the baron. Even locked away, she had heard Stephen employed an Iternan sorcerer, so the baron had to be nearly as powerful. She fixed the beginning of a smile on her face as Stephen began the introductions, waiting to expand the smile.

“Robert,” he said, “may I press upon you a small gift that I hope you’ll enjoy? No doubt you recognize the Black Mare that Sir James Taeros praised at Goldwood’s wedding feast.”

“The description could fit none other,” the baron said. Alex met his stare and kept her expression seductive, even as she thought how ridiculous he looked with two lines of red dyed into his beard. That might be the latest fashion, but it called attention to the plainness of his appearance; it was like attaching a peacock’s feather to a hen’s behind.

Stephen turned to her, smiling. “My dear, may I present Lord Robert Demeresna, baron of Dawnever?”

The blood fell from Alex’s face and her features went slack; she pulled them back into order in the next moment, but she couldn’t stop the sudden thudding of her heart. Talk, damn it, talk, she thought.

“It is my pleasure, Lord Robert.” They call him the Bloody Baron. They say his fields are filled with scarecrows made from crucified men. Curtsey. She did so, her body following a practiced motion. They say he once impaled an opponent, driving an iron spike through the man’s pelvis. That had earned him his name, and he had lived up to it.

She wondered if the streaks of red in his beard were blood. No, certainly not; blood would have dried to a rusty brown shade difficult to distinguish from his hair. Get a grip on yourself. It will only be for a night, and then I can go back to my room and bathe. I can finish my book and try to forget.


She smiled, which felt like stretching a clay mask placed over her face. The baron did not. He looked from her to Stephen, and the suspicious gleam in his eyes never altered.

Stephen grinned, curling a lock of her hair around his finger. “I must admit, Robert, I’m going to miss her. She is very skillful, you know. But you deserve her, since loyalty such as yours is always rewarded. Perhaps she’s a poor gift, but I can’t promise gold or land until my accession. When that happens, my supporters will be richly rewarded, but until then, I can only give you what hospitality and service I possess.”

The smile didn’t fall off her face that time, it drained away. I can’t be hearing right. He can’t have just given me to the Bloody Baron.

The baron didn’t seem to believe it either. “Lord Garnath, are you giving me this woman?”

“Why, yes. I beg your pardon for not making myself clearer. Take her, Robert, as a token of my gratitude!” Stephen frowned, and concern crept into his voice. “I hope I haven’t offended you by such an offer? Your unmarried state and your…detachment, shall we say, from the Quorum Mandates led me to believe that you would not find her unpalatable.”

Please find me unpalatable. Alex had wanted to escape, but not like that, not to be taken like a parcel to the far edge of the land, not to be a bed-slave to the Bloody Baron. Stephen wouldn’t have killed me, I’m too valuable. But this is a man who orders adulterous wives to be whipped naked in the streets—what is he going to do to a whore?

Stephen continued smoothly. “Do tell me if I’m mistaken, Robert. Are you considering a formal union? Or have you embraced the Quorum’s ideals to the point where my standards are not yours, so to speak?”

“No, Lord Garnath,” Robert Demeresna said. “Of course you’re not mistaken. I was taken aback and my manners deserted me. If you were offered the east of Eden as a gift, I dare say even you might be somewhat tongue-tied.”

“Only for a moment,” Stephen said, which made the baron laugh. The Iternan wore a bored look, and Alex thought he might have seen such a scene played out many times before. Let me survive until we set out for his province. I’ll be outside the city then, and I’ll find a way to escape. Just let me live through this night.

“Well, I’m glad my gift is suitable.” Stephen released her hair. “You may keep her, and another filly will take her place in the stable.”

“Lord Garnath,” Alex began, struggling to keep her voice level and courteous, “may I return to my room to collect a few possessions that I would—”

“No.” Both Stephen and the baron spoke at once. Stephen, the first to recover, stared at the baron, who said, “Forgive me if I presumed too much, but I would like to furnish the woman with whatever she might need, to suit my own tastes.”

There was a pause, long enough for Alex to see that Stephen didn’t believe that answer either. “Of course,” he said. “And certainly, my sweet, Lord Robert is more than capable of providing you with anything you need. Don’t insult him by implying otherwise.”

Alex knew what the Bloody Baron did to people who insulted him. “My apologies, my lord.” She tried not to think of her few books, or the silver locket that had been her mother’s.

“No need for that.” Robert Demeresna inclined his head to Stephen, and his mouth stretched into a grin. “I thank you for such a valuable gift, Lord Garnath. Rest assured I’ll put it to good use.”

Alex’s stomach turned to a chunk of ice. She welcomed the feeling, knowing the coldness would spread over her body so that she wouldn’t feel anything he did to her.

Stephen chuckled. “Once you see that all your visits to Radiath are likely to yield fruit, Robert, perhaps you will do us the honor of a journey more often. This is the first time you’ve visited the city, isn’t it?”

The baron raised his brows. “There are many miles between Dawnever and the rest of Dagre. But you may always expect my support, Lord Garnath, even if I prefer country life to the coronet city.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” There was a slight undercurrent in Stephen’s tone, so subtle that if she had not known him intimately, Alex would have missed it. “And now I’ll leave you to be acquainted.”

The man-at-arms opened the door for Stephen, and Alex did not turn to watch him leave, despite wanting to run out after him. Take the first step, she thought. She was sweating under her cloak, and she hoped there would be no obvious stains as she began to slip it off.

Both the baron and his sorcerer tensed, staring at her; she froze in return, her hand on the clasp that held her cloak together at the throat. “My lord?” She kept her voice low so that it did not shake. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no.” The baron gestured at the man-at-arms. “Gavin, stand guard outside.”

Did he simply want privacy? No, the Iternan still remained, and Alex wondered if he was doing magic. She supposed bleakly that she would feel it soon enough if he was.

“Take your cloak off,” Robert Demeresna said. “Mayerd…help her with it.”

Alex unfastened the cloak and let it drop, wondering if the sorcerer would flip it through the air with magic. Instead, he was at her side as the velvet slipped off her shoulders, and he caught it before it hit the floor.

He moves too fast and too silently for a man of learning, was her last thought before the air struck her skin, chilling it. She let her mind go blank and her body doll-like, waiting for further instructions. The baron seemed to prefer it that way.

He cleared his throat. “Take it off.”

“Of course, my lord,” Alex said. The Iternan backed away, running his hands over her cloak, patting the velvet in a caressing way that would have disgusted her if she had been able to feel anything at that point. She unfastened the black sheer and let it puddle at her feet.

“Step out of it,” the baron said. “And your shoes.”

There was something strange about his terse orders, and the unfamiliarity penetrated even her gelid calm. She obeyed, watching as the Iternan dropped the cloak on the hearth and picked up her shoes. He examined them before he set them beside the cloak and gave his attention to the black sheer, shaking it out, turning it this way and that. He looks like he’s going to try it on for size, she thought and killed a spurt of half-hysterical laughter. She didn’t know which man would be worse when angered.

“It’s very skimpy,” Mayerd said finally.

“I beg my lord’s pardon.” What in the world did he expect the Black Mare to wear—armor? She looked at her bare feet, noticed the sheen of sweat that gleamed on her breasts, and wished she wasn’t standing so close to the fire.

The baron took a step closer and Alex glanced up, startled at his nearness. He was not very tall, but he was large, and her skin crawled as she noticed the width of his shoulders. This was a man strong enough to hurt her with his bare hands, and she supposed he would start soon. She concentrated on floating, allowing years of training to take over while her mind drifted.

“I see you wear no jewels.”

“No, my lord.” Valuables or money of her own would have been far too liberating.

“You don’t need them.” The baron’s tone was quieter. “Take your hair down.”

She raised her arms slowly, letting her breasts move with them, and kept her gaze fixed on the baron’s face as she did so. His body was tense, as if waiting to pounce, but his expression was not so much lustful as wary. She didn’t understand that, but what did it matter at this point? The pins fell and her hair cascaded down.

“Stand still,” the Iternan said from behind her. Alex braced herself for pain. Instead, she felt his hands in her hair, running through its length, moving upwards to rub lightly against her scalp and behind her ears. She wondered whether to purr with feigned desire or pretend she didn’t notice. Was this a trick, to see if she would respond to a servant’s touch or if she would keep herself for the baron? But the man touching her hair was no servant. Despite her familiarity with men, she had never submitted to an Iternan sorcerer, and the first threads of terror began to penetrate her shell.

After what seemed like an hour, Mayerd stopped and moved away. Alex focused on keeping her breathing steady, the slight inviting smile still nailed to her face. She was mildly surprised to see that neither of the men was aroused. Perhaps I should try to do something, take control of this—

“All right.” The baron jerked his chin at the fire. Before Alex could say or do anything, Mayerd bundled her clothes up in his arms and tossed them into the fireplace.

“What are you doing?” The words burst from her before she could stop herself, and she dropped to her knees beside the fireplace just as reflexively. It was already too late. Red spots appeared on the velvet, glowing like baleful eyes, growing larger as the cloth burned. The black abstract crisped and disappeared in smoke. Alex stared into the flames, realizing dimly that her body shook.

Maybe he burned them because I won’t need clothes any more. Maybe I’ll never leave this room either.

She clenched her teeth on a cry and drew in a long breath. When she rose, she felt the coolness seep back into her face, stilling her features, and she knew that now she looked merely amused at this new clothes-burning game. “I see you meant it, my lord, when you spoke of clothing me in your own tastes.”

Robert Demeresna looked at the fire and then at Mayerd before turning away. “Get her a drink of dragora.”

What was dragora? Alex wanted to reach for the wall to steady herself, but she locked her legs and watched as Mayerd filled a cup with a foaming green liquid that smelled of mulberries. He handed it to her, and when she forced her fingers to close around the cup, she felt a film of moisture on its earthenware surface.

“What is it?” she said.

“Something to make you sleep.” The baron did not meet her eyes.

To sleep forever, Alex thought. Her arm stayed frozen, the drink halfway to her mouth. Death would not be so bad, but this might not kill fast. It could be a poison that left her writhing in agony on the floor.

But would he murder Stephen’s gift to him, bare minutes after receiving it? Stephen might feel slighted at that. She looked down at the opaque surface of the liquid. Could it be an aphrodisiac? She was used to those, even with the internal damage they did, but if so, why had he said she would sleep? Were his tastes so perverted that the mares had to be drugged before he used them? She saw the minute shivers of the liquid and knew that her hand was trembling.

“Please drink it.” The baron still wouldn’t look at her.

I could refuse. And he could force it down my throat, or make his sorcerer do it.

She brought the cup to her mouth and took her first swallow; liquid ice penetrated her body and prickled her skin. If the drink had a taste, she never noticed. She drank again and again, careless of the hurt in her teeth or the tightness behind her temples. When she was done, Mayerd reached for the cup and she tossed it into the fireplace.

The flames leaped up, not green, but brilliantly white. Then they subsided, but in the moment of pure light, she saw the baron’s startled gaze fixed on her, and he looked as though he was seeing her for the first time.

Or maybe I’m just drunk. Or dying. I won’t cry. The thought startled her, because it was the first time in years that she had come close to tears. No, not before this man who wanted me afraid as well as naked and humiliated. Not at all.

The room began to rock slowly around her, and the lines of walls and floor lost definition. Alex closed her eyes, putting her feet apart to keep her balance.

“Come.” The baron’s voice was deep below the earth, muted and echoing. She felt his hand on her arm but she didn’t have the strength to do more than lean on him as he led her the few paces to a couch. Her body folded like a ribbon as she fell to the silk cushions, and the baron lifted her legs to the couch. A coffin, lined with silk. Then the world grew dark as if Robert Demeresna had closed the lid over her face.


Robert rested an arm along the edge of the mantelpiece and stared into the fire, listening to the flames chew and crack the wood. He felt drained, and yet he had never needed to be more alert. Finally he turned and approached the couch.

He started to speak, then realized he didn’t know the woman’s name. The Black Mare, the court called her, and he wondered if she even had a name. Well, it didn’t matter. He touched her jaw, turning her head lightly left and right, before he was sure she was unconscious.

“Give me a coverlet,” he said.

Mayerd handed him one and he dropped it over the woman’s naked body, tucking it around her. She was one of the most distracting sights he had ever seen, and he had to keep reminding himself who she was. At least now he could talk freely.

“What do you think?” He dropped into an armchair and gestured for Mayerd to do the same. Trained as the captain of his guard, Mayerd held the rigid discipline far too well.

Mayerd shrugged. “No weapons in the clothing, no wire loops in the hair. Of course, such measures may be too obvious for Lord Garnath.”

They had searched every inch of the rooms for listening-holes, but Robert still felt sweat trace his spine. “I should have known something like this would happen—and the night before we left too. Still, no use complaining about it. The question is, what do I do with her? If she is an assassin, I’ll have to keep her in shackles so she doesn’t lay hands on a weapon. If she isn’t, why would he give her to me?”

Mayerd rubbed one of his lateral lines. “You could give her to someone else, or release her.”

“And if she’s an assassin, she’ll follow us.” He thought of the four hundred miles to Dawnever, the long weeks of travel towards the east. The threat of ambush on the way didn’t bother him. He had picked men-at-arms he trusted, and he half expected Stephen Garnath to stage an attack along the East Road anyway. What made his fists clench was the thought of one determined person trailing him back to his estate, a woman who could charm her way into any man’s bed. And he didn’t want her causing any trouble for his people.

“As for giving her to someone else, do you know anyone whom I hate that much?” he said.

Mayerd rarely smiled, but his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Besides, that would be an insult to Lord Garnath, wouldn’t it? Who knows how he might take that?”

Robert sighed. “He didn’t give her to me in good faith, Mayerd, I know that much.”

“It isn’t in the man to make a genuine gift?”

“No. More to the point, if he did parcel out mares, I wouldn’t get the pride of his stable.”

“She might have fallen from favor,” Mayerd said. “You saw how he told her that she couldn’t even take anything with her.”

“Still, it doesn’t make sense.” Robert felt frustrated, because he had never been good at explaining why he felt certain things. He had known Mayerd long enough that it wasn’t necessary, but he tried anyway. “Garnath isn’t the kind of man to give a gift unless he thought he was getting something greater in value—and I’ve given him very little. Oh, I’ve made promises of support and troops from Dawnever, but promises are cheap. And Garnath made the whole thing sound very spur-of-the-moment, here you go, a last-minute present. Hell, even she looked shocked. But he never does anything without thinking it through.”

“I suppose it could have been a staged act between the two of them,” Mayerd said.

“Who knows?” Robert rubbed a thumb between his eyes. “I even wonder if she has some contagious disease and is in the early stages, before it shows.”

Mayerd leaned forward. “Sir,” he said quietly, “we could kill her.”

Robert had guessed that option would be mentioned soon enough. Well, better to hear it now, from Mayerd, than later, from someone less trusted. “Can you put a blade through a naked, senseless woman? Because I can’t.”

“It doesn’t have to be a blade.” Mayerd’s eyes and voice were flat, and he looked very Iternan, strange and withdrawn and dangerous. “If I had given her a little more of that—”

“No. Not for suspicion alone.”

“Why not?”

At times like that, Robert wondered if Mayerd was testing him, to see if he was worth serving, or if Mayerd was testing himself, straining against whatever bonds a long-deserted Iternum had forged. He lowered his voice and did not once take his stare away from Mayerd’s eyes as he spoke. “Because I’d be no better than the self-proclaimed Lord Garnath at that point. That kind of killing isn’t execution, it’s murder, and I won’t have it on my hands. Understood?”

“Of course.” Mayerd leaned back in his chair. The tension vanished, and once again he was the captain of the guard, steadfast and loyal. “So we take her with us tomorrow?”

Robert raked a hand through his hair and thought about all the things he had seen in Radiath, the city that was the core of Dagre. The city had withstood war and siege and magic, and from its eight towers, kings and the Quorum and the Governing Hand had summoned the people. Except that the kings were gone now, into the ashes of war and the dust of the past. The Quorum was reinforcing its walls, preparing for the storm that might break them. And the Governing Hand had been revealed for what it was, a front for Stephen Garnath to rise to power as single ruler of a great land. One by one the dukes and prelates and merchant princes of the Hand had gone, like fingers cut cleanly off, and now there was only Lord Garnath, who held Radiath.

In a castle as unbreakable as an iron cage and more dangerous, Robert thought of his own house, eight miles from the growing town of Madelayn. But other images rose like smoke to blot it out. He saw the map of Dagre in Stephen Garnath’s study, half of it shaded in the imperial red. He saw the crests of fallen provinces arrayed like trophies on the walls, and when he thought of the Demeresna emblem—the sign of the thunder’s bolt—being added to them, he felt he would kill Garnath first, whether that put him on the usurper’s level or not.

No, I won’t succeed in that, not here and not yet. So he would return to Dawnever, having done his duty and obeyed the near-royal summons, grateful to still be alive but unable to believe that any of his deceptions had worked. He was hopeless at lying. Even when stories of his cruelty had spread, he felt alone on a stage, watched by the world, the boards creaking noisily under his feet. It was only with a sword in his hands or a map spread out before him that he would feel at all secure.

And soon enough, that’s what I’ll have. He had laid the foundations of his rebellion, and in Dawnever, he would build what he could on them. Garnath would not let him be; the provinces of Dagre had been polarized long before, either hunting with the hounds or fleeing with the hare. Except that Robert didn’t intend to flee or hide for much longer.

Again he thought with longing of his home, but this time the image that blotted it out was that of a dark-haired woman, her eyes filled with the cold bitter fire of emeralds. He refused to look at her, even drugged and helpless. She was ill tidings of some sort, he just didn’t know what. Black Mare, did they say? No, this one was a black cat, sent to cross his path with blood on her feet. And even sitting before the fire, he felt chilled, as if a wind had crept biting over his skin.


Stephen Garnath climbed the stairs to the Spiral Tower and selected a door carved with a line that curved and bent so that its ends moved out in opposite directions. He rapped sharply.

The door swung open and Stephen entered, not bothering to greet Ohallox, the Iternan magician he employed. Ohallox studied him in the same cool silence. His eyes were the color of water that had flowed over rotting leaves. There was a disconcerting, glassy quality to them, and his manner, silent as a lizard, made people more uncomfortable in his presence. Naturally, Stephen enjoyed reversing that.

“There’s a setback.” He pulled a chair out. “Demeresna also has an Iternan at his side.”

Ohallox stared at him. “A Way practitioner?”

“How should I know?” Stephen tilted the chair back so that he could rest the sole of one boot on the edge of Ohallox’s desk. “Isn’t every Iternan, to some extent? Or if you mean someone who matches your talent, well, I can’t tell that either. You should be able to.”

Long hands touched the lateral lines that ridged each side of Ohallox’s face. “I feel nothing,” he said, frowning, “so he isn’t employing whichever aspect of the Way he controls.”

“At the moment,” Stephen pointed out. “He could do so tomorrow—the day after—any time. Will he see into her?”

Ohallox lowered his hands, but not quickly enough to hide their clenching. “Yes, if he has mastered the Inward Way and if he suspects her of hiding anything. You have to find out.”

Stephen shook his head. “Demeresna’s been secretive about this man, kept him inside the chambers all this time. I suppose he thought that since he was taking his leave of me in the morning, there was no more need for secrecy. But if he was hiding his own magician, I doubt he’d be obliging enough to explain the man’s training. Can’t you sense it?”

“I can, but if I send out a broad probe, he’ll feel it. The only kind of sensor he wouldn’t notice would be a narrowed one, perhaps disguised as a fleeting memory, and those are impossible unless you know the target well enough to create a disguise that will deceive them.”

“Let him feel it, then. It’s an open secret that you work for me.”

Ohallox’s pale eyes stared through him. “Iternans don’t like being touched by strangers. If he retaliates, I’ll have a battle on my hands. Either he walks the Outward Way, and my books will fly off the shelves while the furniture spontaneously combusts—or he takes the Inward Way, and it will be a mental duel for which I’m not prepared. The answer is no. Not yet.”

Stephen felt his eyes narrowing. No other sign of his anger showed, but he let the chair’s tilted legs drop back. “Better that than the plan failing, Magician.”

“It won’t fail,” Ohallox said sharply. “It cannot. He would have to be the Waymaster himself to undo the knots I’ve tied without springing the trap. She would kill him first.”

“Or try to.” Stephen considered. Perhaps he should make the mare act now. Yes, Robert Demeresna was still his guest and under his protection, but would he really lose so much? After all, he could have her executed after the murder; everyone would see that justice had been served. Demeresna didn’t have a powerful family who would raise an army to avenge his death, or even connections to the Quorum.

But the Iternan magician was the baron’s hidden card. Stephen felt his lips pull back from his teeth, because he couldn’t risk the Iternan finding out what had been done to the mare. Ohallox could make her attack them both, but the baron was no weakling and might hold her off long enough for the magician to act. No, she had to catch them both off-guard, and neither of them was in the least distracted in his castle.

He said as much to Ohallox, who nodded. “Besides,” he said, one finger tracing a lateral line in a rhythmic, soothing movement, “I touched her just now. She’s sleeping. Even if you wanted her to act, there would be nothing she could do.”

You do well to be wary, Baron, Stephen thought. But as my star rises, yours shall fall. There’s room for only one ruler here.

“Let’s see how much we can achieve,” he said. “If the elimination can be arranged so that it appears another potential problem committed it—or better yet, if she throws blood on a Quorumlord’s hands—that would be ideal. Keep listening, Ohallox. If the Iternan attempts to unravel what you’ve made, order her to strike. If not…there is potential in this.”

Ohallox steepled his fingers. “There’s a story in Iternum, about the great statue of a horse that was left for an enemy by a departing, seemingly defeated army. When the enemy took the gift past its gates, they learned their mistake; the horse was hollow, filled with soldiers.”

Stephen grinned, rising to leave. “Of course, there’s one great difference between that situation and mine.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m never even seemingly defeated.”

To know what happens next, check out Before the Storm. Happy reading!

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