The Heir of Lilith, book one
Phantom chapter one continues below. If you haven’t yet read the prologue, click here!
Silas, Madrogas Castle
Burning hardwood logs crackled in the fireplace of Duke Andor’s study in the queen’s castle in Madrogas. The hearths were a relic of an earlier time, unnecessary within the castle’s more modern designs. More than one hundred years ago, firemancers and aquabearers had worked together to discover the heating and cooling of rooms though already existing pipes, making the burning of wood redundant. The queen’s ceramic tiles, turquoise and gold in the duke’s rooms, conducted heat in the cold months of the year. In the summer months, the windspeakers conducted the cool air that wafted in from the sea and channeled it through the castle corridors.
But in the mountains of Hillearst, the winter winds could not be cut with elemental magicks alone. Besides, Duke Andor was of the mind—and Silas agreed—that the efforts of their own mages were better spent ensuring the safety and prosperity of the mines. Each noble could see to their own comforts, and if they torched a few trees in the process, the pines would regrow.
Miners’ lives and livelihoods were not so easily reproduced.
Silas studied the duke’s profile as he waited for his liege to organize his thoughts. Duke Andor was a careful, patient man, often too willing, in Silas’s mind, to let matters find a resolution themselves instead of driving the outcome.
The queen’s servants paid careful attention to the duke’s comfort when he visited his sister in Sanctuary’s capital city. The firemancers paid special heed to the heating and cooling of the duke’s rooms so that they would not be overheated and the queen’s favorite brother might feel at ease.
Silas only wished that Duke Andor might show the same foresight and proclivity toward action in this hour of uncertainty. As the elder of the queen’s younger brothers, Duke Andor held a special position in his sister’s heart. They had been often together as children.
But their younger brother, Duke Heinrik, did not share the blessings of his sister’s esteem. What was worse, the young duke showed little awareness of the queen’s pride in herself and her position, as though her acquisition of the throne and the twenty years of hard-earned peace in the kingdom were less significant an achievement for one born a warlord’s daughter than if the queen had been born a princess and intended for the throne all along.
Heinrik and his retinue were three days late to the Gwyntide Harvest Festival, a celebration held throughout Sanctuary for the blessings of the harvest goddess, the bounties of their fields and industries. Five years ago, Duke Heinrik had dared his sister’s displeasure when he forsook the aid of her throne in favor of an alliance with the Gaian priestesses. Henrik’s lands, the Serra Valley, had always been the poorest of Sanctuary. The marshy fields were difficult to maintain, their fertile soil just as likely to yield an abundant crop as to wash out to sea.
Silas’s father, Xavier, had watched the alliance between Heinrik and the priestesses with great concern. He spent months at Duke Andor’s side, helping their lord to soothe his sister’s wounded pride so that they might avert a return to warfare and strife across the kingdom. It had taken months to achieve a tentative return to peace, longer still for Heinrik to regain a modicum of his sister’s trust. And now to throw all of that away. Henrik’s late arrival stank of rebellion, a rotten portent on the winds of war.
“What do you make of my brother’s late arrival, Lord Graveston?” Duke Andor placed his cup upon its saucer and leaned back from his desk, brow furrowed.
Silas chose his words carefully in turn. “It is certainly a sign of disrespect and disregard for Her Majesty.” He took a small sip from his own cup of tea. His duke was aware of this already. But he had not gained their lord’s trust through half-truths and sentiments. “I cannot help but sense that there is something more afoot, some hidden impetus behind their delay.”
Duke Andor’s steward nodded from behind his liege’s chair. Such negligence on behalf of the queen’s youngest brother was a growing storm-cloud indeed, but Silas had yet to determine why Duke Heinrik had delayed his arrival. Each rumored explanation was as ridiculous as the next.
The harvest festival celebration was meant to renew the promises of peace and prosperity in Sanctuary. The Orbaskier line had fought among themselves for centuries with intermittent periods of peace. The most recent had started twenty years ago when the queen united the land under her own rule, bequeathing significant holdings to her two brothers and a cousin. Trade and commerce had flourished during this time of stability, but tensions in the Autumn Palace were high—none of the nobles wished to see their lands returned to infighting, not when there were such severe stakes abroad. Not when the dark goddess still roamed unchecked.
The duke drummed his fingers against the tabletop as though their frenetic tapping might conjure an answer the three of them had yet to devise. He sighed and pushed himself up from his chair. “I doubt we’ll determine the truth here.”
Silas rose in turn and bowed. “I will keep a sharp eye, Your Grace.”
Duke Andor smiled as he inclined his head to Silas. “I’m counting on it.”
Heinrik’s delay stretched into the afternoon. Silas paced the palace halls, willing some new revelation or insight to appear with the falling of the sun.
And in the low light of the late-autumn afternoon, the griffon-riders answered his wish.
Trumpets sounded from the palace parapets. A troop of her majesty’s guard ran past Silas, their boots clomping in time together. Silas brushed his cloak to the side and stole after them. He flitted in and out of the shadows of the walled walk.
With his back against a tiled pillar, Silas inclined his ear to the guards’ conversation on the other side of the ornamental wall. The metal grille aided the windspeakers’ efforts at pulling air through the castle halls and offered those of a non-martial nature the illusion of safety from the griffons’ patrols. The fading orange light lit upon the fire-hued fur of the great winged beasts. Their handlers soothed the creatures, running their hands over their furred heads while their captain conferred with the head of the queen’s guard.
“Affirmative, sir.” The griffon captain bowed his head to his superior officer. “We spotted Heinrik’s retinue, a long line of carriages, on the outskirts of the city. They should be here before nightfall.”
“Thank you.” The guard turned from the griffon-rider to his lieutenant. “Inform her majesty’s guard at once.”
The man bowed from the waist and signaled for three others to follow. They ran down the hall, their shoulders square. Silas ducked deeper into the shadows of his column as they passed.
“And you saw no sign of an intended attack against the city? No more soldiers than usual?”
“No, sir,” the rider answered. “A greater number of courtesans, from the aerial view, but nothing more.”
The palace guard scowled at this. “They may be priestesses in disguise, but even so, an outright attack sounds unlikely.”
“My thoughts exactly, sir.” The rider grinned as his griffon squawked at the sky. The cry started as a rumble in its chest, followed by a low-throated eagle’s shriek. Neither the other guard nor Silas found the creature’s shout comforting. “There will be a great deal of rejoicing in the city at their arrival.”
“And let us hope that mood extends to the palace as well.”
Quite so, Silas thought. Quite so. He stole back down the hall before the guards returned to their posts. There was time enough for him to alert Andor’s steward and guards before finding his way down to the courtyard in the center of the palace. Heinrik and his nobles would parade through the main city streets and greet the queen and court before making their way to their rooms. If they hurried, all four courts would dine together that evening. A welcome change indeed.
As evening fell, Heinrik’s court tromped into the hall with all the pomp of honored guests rather than a suspicious band of courtiers who had raised the queen’s ire and the anxiety of the kingdom.
Silas positioned himself on the edges of the crowd, high enough on the steps that lined the courtyard to be able to observe the arrivals for himself and obtain a different vantage than Duke Andor who stood upon the central dais beside his sister, each surrounded by their private guards.
Duke Heinrik, his three consorts, and a pack of courtesans were the first in line. The courtesans divided themselves across two stark camps, though their verdant attire was remarkably similar. The guards had been right to assume a great many of the courtesans were also Gaian priestesses. The priestesses wore no gemstones, though several bore decorations befitting their vows to the titan of earth—a necklace made of twigs, bone bracelets bound together with leather ties. Heinrik kept only a few courtesans for the nobles of the Serra Valley unable to afford partners of their own. The priestesses outnumbered them three to one.
Silas’s stomach churned as he spied who Heinrik had assigned the honorable position of second-in-line behind his own house. His childhood enemy, Lord Felix Oxbrow, strode behind the duke and the first set of priestesses, head held high. His twin courtesans, Amira and Cecilia, glided behind him. They wore the gauzy green fabric of Heinrik’s court, the same as Heinrik’s courtesans and priestesses. A series of thin golden bands held the flowing triangles of sheer, layered material in place, though the courtesans’ easy, flowing movements set the fabric adrift on the wind, exposing even further the planes of their skin. It was not the fashion in Hillearst to leave so little to the imagination.
But it was the woman beside Felix that caught Silas’s attention. Oxbrow had added a third courtesan in the time since they’d seen one another. The woman had long, delicate fae ears and raven-black hair that fell to her waist. Her eyes glowed molten copper against the pale gold of her skin. And clasped against her throat was an exquisite emerald collar.
Emeralds had long been the most prized gems of Sanctuary—they were the dearest held gemstone of the Titan of Earth, Gaia, and the goddesses of the seasons, Gwyneth in particular—though it was not this that curled Silas’s upper lip against his will, exposing his sharp, negata fangs.
This necklace was one he had seen before.
It was one of five, bequeathed to families of import before his birth by the old queen as a symbol of loyalty, honor, and fealty. His grandmother had been the first to wear it, followed by his aunt.
Three years ago, at the last harvest festival, the necklace had disappeared at the same time his aunt had gone missing. One of his most trusted friends and only allies in the city, Madame Lucinda LeGrange, found his aunt drugged and abandoned in an alley. She did not know who she was or how she had arrived there. Before word reached the quick-tongued gossip writers of the city papers, Lucinda arranged his aunt’s swift return to Hillearst and the family estate of Stoneshire.
Even after weeks of tinctures crafted by himself and his father and magical remedies concocted by Alistriona, their family mage, his aunt could not return to her right mind.
Duke Andor had been greatly concerned about his aunt during this period. Whether his interest had been of a romantic nature or simply that of a close friend, Silas could never ascertain. His liege asked the family to release her into his care. The duke had an asylum in his city of Arden where she would be cared for and protected.
Her kidnappers had never been found, and there had been no trace of the family’s heirloom necklace. Until today.
Silas narrowed his eyes at the courtesan. If he could have caused the metal to burn against her skin or, better, to slip from her neck and choke Oxbrow for his effrontery, he could have. But such magicks had always been far outside the bounds of his control. Alchemical substances, on the other hand, were his specialty.
Given the right reagents, could he brew something that might sneak its way past whatever wards Oxbrow had placed on his courtesan? Silas chewed the inside of his lip. Would Felix have even had the foresight to take such a precaution? Undoubtedly, he had bid the courtesan to wear the necklace to provoke Silas. Its presence here, before the eyes of the queen, Duke Andor, and the court was an affront to Silas’s house, an insult to the Graveston honor, and a hair’s breadth from a confession of Oxbrow’s guilt in the attack against his aunt.
The fae looked neither to the right or the left as Oxbrow paraded her past the onlookers and paused before the queen and duke. Peering closer, Silas caught the golden gleam of bands and chains along the courtesan’s arms, one set around her elbows and one set around her wrist. Oxbrow held the end of the chain in one hand like a lead. The woman held her shoulders back, hands at her side as though she weren’t bound. But the set of her mouth, the burn behind her eyes told Silas rather more.
His enemy believed himself in full control of the woman at his side. Oxbrow’s inflated ego blinded him to the truth writ plain upon her striking features—she loathed her Suzerain.
Perfect. They had something in common already.
I hope you enjoyed this first chapter of Phantom, book one in the Heir of Lilith trilogy!
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