It was precisely the last thing she wanted to do.
For a second, Sophie Kendall rebelled, lingering where she was, hands pressed into the pale gray skirts of her dress, no doubt wrinkling the silk. She had a sudden wild urge to bolt through the half-open glass doors and flee. But then her good sense, or at least her sense of resignation, returned, and she forced herself to turn away and smile apologetically at her tutor.
“But they’re playing so well.” She looked back over her shoulder at the two teams of young men playing round-ball on the Indigo Lawn outside the doors, envy biting. Oh, to be so free. Here in the palace she wouldn’t be able to join in the game. Proper young ladies, let alone ladies-in-waiting, didn’t play round-ball at court. But she could, at least, sit and watch. Or she could if she ever had the luxury of nothing to do.
Just an hour or two to herself in the sunshine. Was that too much to ask for?
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a spare hour or two alone. And right now she couldn’t imagine when she might next do so.
Captain Turner’s bushy white eyebrows drew together, but his expression was kind. “Milady, your twenty-first birthday is in two days. There will be plenty of time for frivolity then. But now you need to learn this.” He gestured to the large leather book on the table in front of him. “Your Ais-Seann is not a trivial matter. Do I need to remind you that you’re—”
“Thirty-second in line to the throne, about to come into my birthright if I have one,” Sophie said. “I know the speech, Captain. It’s just . . .” I want to be more than Lady Sophia Kendall, valuable broodmare. But proper young ladies didn’t say such things out loud. At times, being a proper young lady was enough to make her want to scream.
“It’s such a nice day,” she continued, trying not to sound too impatient. Sunlight streamed through the windows, making the lesson room seem dull in comparison. The breeze coming through the outer doors was just strong enough to carry the scent of grass and the early-blooming blossoms and possibility into the room. It made her skin itch. It made her want to tell the royal family and the court and everyone else weighing her down with expectation to go to hell. Made her want to run far, far away.
But the captain’s face showed no sympathy for the restlessness she’d been feeling all day, and she doubted he’d show any actual sympathy if she tried a grander rebellion like leaving the room. Most likely he’d just send a squad of the guard after her to carry her back.
The king, the crown princess, and several hundred years of Anglese tradition wanted her prepared for her Ais-Seann, so she would be prepared for her Ais-Seann. Her Age of Beginning. Beginning of adulthood. Beginning, possibly, of magic. Beginning of many things she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to begin.
If indeed she proved to have any magic, her power would be dedicated to the goddess with all the proper rites and her person married off promptly to whichever nobleman the king thought best. A royal witch was a prize for the men of the court, and the stronger she was, the higher ranked and more influential the noble to whom she would be wed would be. Not that any of the available high lords of the court struck her as men she was longing to spend her life with. Most of them were fifteen or twenty years older than her, for a start.
If she turned out not to have any power, she’d be married off less promptly to some more obscure lordling and might at least get to leave Kingswell and the relentless mores and rules of the court.
The lesser of two evils, just. Maybe. She wasn’t entirely sure. Her hands began twining in her skirts again, and she forced them to relax.
There was nothing to be done to protest her fate or escape from it. She didn’t have any control over whether she was going to manifest magic, and she’d been schooled from birth to take her place in the court and the society of Anglion. She just wasn’t entirely sure why, when she’d known since she was old enough to understand what would happen when she turned twenty-one, it was becoming harder and harder to meekly accept with each passing hour. Perhaps it was just nerves.
Perhaps everything would be perfectly fine if she just kept putting one foot in front of the other and did as she was asked to do. So, like a proper young lady, she smoothed her skirts where her hands had gripped them and sat back down next to the captain.
“I know this seems tedious, child,” he said. “But you need to know how to control your magic if it comes in. Royal witches are strong, and we can’t predict how your gift will behave when it manifests.”
“You can’t predict that it will manifest at all,” Sophie said, trying not to let irritation shade her words.
“Given your bloodlines, there is a high probability that you will have power, Lady Sophia.”
“Much good that will do me,” Sophie muttered. One hand strayed to the silver-gray pearl hanging from the slender chain at her throat. Salt protect me. Lady give me light. Her thumb rubbed the surface of the pearl again, the smoothness a comfort, though she still missed the uneven texture of the strand of five natural pearls she’d worn for as long as she could remember. But they were a creamy white, and as long as the princess was in half mourning, her ladies couldn’t wear white. The gray had been a gift from the princess herself. Its color alone made it expensive, more than Sophie’s family could afford. It was not as darkly beautiful as the rope of black pearls Princess Eloisa herself wore. But then again, Eloisa’s pearls could have bought Sophie’s family estates many times over.
A true symbol of her family’s wealth. And Eloisa’s power. Both mundane and magical.
The princess was the strongest royal witch yet living. Magic hadn’t ruined her life.
But Sophie was not the crown princess. Magic would bring a woman of her rank only unwelcome attention and an even more narrowly prescribed life: Performing the seasonal rituals. Keeping the water sources blessed. Tending to her husband’s lands or the court’s as demanded. Earth witchery was hardly exciting. Useful, in a prosaic sort of way, being able to coax crops and animals into fruitfulness and supposedly anchor the prosperity of the court and the country. But hardly exciting.
Once royal witches had been able to do more, to call the weather and do other things only hinted at in the history books. But it had been long years since any royal witch of Anglion had been able to do such things. Eloisa was the strongest living royal witch, and she was gifted with wards and healing and, so it was said, foretelling, but she couldn’t, as far as Sophie knew, move so much as a puff of air.
She’d asked her mother once, long ago, why royal witches no longer did such things. Her mother, possessed of only a little power herself, had said that no one knew. Her father, overhearing, had muttered something about inbreeding but then laughed when her mother had told him not to be an idiot.
Privately, since coming to court, Sophie had decided that maybe they just never got the chance to try to do anything exciting. Royal witches were carefully hemmed in with rules and protocol so that their powers served the Crown as the Crown wished to be served. And after that, they served the goddess and her church. It didn’t leave much time for trying to tame lightning. And with the pampered court life, there was really no need to try for more.
She tried to imagine the look on Captain Turner’s face if she asked him what she would need to do to call lightning. He would probably have apoplexy. And then possibly march her straight to the temple for a lecture on the proper uses of earth magic. She sighed, finger and thumb rubbing the pearl again. It was disappointing to think that actually doing earth magic, or the variety she would be allowed—if she was even able—would be even less exciting than learning the theory.
The captain cleared his throat, drawing her attention back to him. “Maybe magic will be of more use to you than you realize.”
“It’s not as though I’ll be allowed to do anything useful with it. Witches don’t fight battles or anything.”
He lifted the book they had been studying. “You’ve been talking to the crown princess again. Earth magic keeps Anglion prosperous. Feeds our people. Fighting battles isn’t everything, milady.”
“I believe your fellow soldiers in the Red Guard would disagree with you, Captain. And it’s difficult to avoid talking to Princess Eloisa when I’m one of her la-dies.” The princess, widowed just over a year, had certain views about marriage and the role that women should play in the court. Views that were not exactly conventional. She had, so far, avoided being wed again. Sophie wondered just how long past her mourning time Eloisa would continue to get away with that. Her father doted on her, but he also wasn’t a man to waste a prize in his possession. Not one that could be traded for strength and loyalty. Or he hadn’t been before his recent illness. He was recovering from the sickness that had gripped him most of the winter and spring, but there were whispers in the court that he was weakened for life.
Captain Turner laughed beside her, a friendly deep, rumbly laugh, at odds with his stern weather-carved face. “Maybe so. Still, you won’t need to fight battles, milady. No one crosses a royal witch. No one sensible, at least.”
That made her smile, unwilling as she was. She picked up her notebook and tried to remember the last thing the captain had said about grounding to a ley line. She knew the theory off by heart. After all, she had been schooled in the history and tenets of earth magic and the lore of the goddess since she was fifteen. Captain Turner was charged with ensuring that those lessons were retained. She thought it strange that a Red Guard battle mage was the chosen instructor for potential royal witches, but that was what the temple had decreed. She also had regular sessions with temple priors, but they always stuck to the lore of the goddess and wouldn’t discuss earth magic. She’d even had one nerve-racking session with the icily formidable Domina Skey, who was in charge of the King- swell temple and therefore also in charge of all of Anglion when it came to matters of the goddess. But Sophie hadn’t learned anything new from her. Anything she hadn’t learned by now, well, it seemed that it was just about too late.
Of course, amongst that learning was a large hole about the actual rites undertaken by a royal witch—that information being deemed unsuitable for those without power to know of—which seemed entirely unfair. But that was another improper thought for young ladies. Until her power manifested, all she was allowed to know was the foundational theories of magic developed by the temple. The ones that underpinned all three branches of power. And there was nothing she could do about that, either. “All right, Captain. We have another hour. The princess asked me to attend her at midday.”
Just after eleven in the morning, Lieutenant Cameron Mackenzie reported for duty.
“You’re late, Lieutenant,” the duty captain grumbled. “The princess rang for you five minutes ago.”
Cameron shrugged. “Sorry,” he said, not meaning it. Wallace—the captain—was an officious toady. One who’d avoided any sort of real danger in his time in the guard. A silk soldier. Cameron might be guilty of many things, but not that. “Business with my father.”
It didn’t matter how many times Cameron pointed out that Eloisa was still in half mourning, and at any rate, was exceedingly unlikely to be given permission to marry someone as lowly as a third son who held only a minor courtesy title and a few acres of northern Scarp land buried far in the high reaches of Carnarvan. Let alone bring up that it was more than improper for a bodyguard to be involved with his charge. His father was ambitious. In fact, Lord Inglewood practically defined the word.
“Your father should not keep you from the Princess Royal,” Wallace said with a ick of his hand toward the roster on the desk before him. But he sounded slightly mollified. Or, rather, reluctant to anger the Erl of Ingle- wood. Cameron wondered what the captain would think if he knew the duke had been, as usual, berating his son about why he hadn’t managed to make the princess fall in love with him.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to inconvenience Her Highness,” Cameron said, knowing full well that was exactly what His Grace had wanted.
In his father’s convoluted mind, Eloisa would pine for Cameron if deprived of his company. Cameron himself was clear on the fact that Eloisa didn’t pine for anyone—except poor dead Iain, perhaps. But the erl was convinced he could become father-in-law to the first in line to the throne if only Cameron would properly apply himself.
“Just be punctual next time,” Wallace said. “Now, you should go.” He made a note—probably recording Cameron’s lateness—in the ledger, the black letters curving with perfect precision, and waved Cameron away.
Cameron saluted and headed down the corridor. The door guards let him into the suite, and he found Eloisa in her morning room. Alone. He stopped short at that. She was usually surrounded by a gaggle of ladies-in-waiting. He hadn’t been alone with her for close to three weeks.
He bowed, the obeisance instinctive despite their solitude. “Good morning, Your Highness.” He straightened and scanned the room quickly.
The room seemed larger without the usual crowd. Eloisa wore a deep green dress—not strictly a half-mourning color, but who would quibble with the Princess Royal? With her witch-red hair caught casually behind her head rather than piled up in the elaborate curls currently favored at court, she dominated the room like a flame against the pale yellow of the walls and furnishings. Cameron told himself not to jump to conclusions about what the absence of her ladies might mean and stayed where he was.
Eloisa tapped her fingernails against the arm of her daintily curved chair and arched an eyebrow at him. “Good morning? It’s practically midday,” she said in a mock-annoyed voice.
Cameron hid a smile. So she was in a mood, was she? Obviously his duties today would include charming a royal witch into a better temper. He pulled his watch from its pocket on the inside of his uniform jacket. “Merely a little after eleven, Highness. Midday is still a ways off. Where are your attendants? You shouldn’t be left alone.”
“Why not?” she asked, with another tap of one long nail against the light-colored wood. “I have such a big, strong bodyguard to protect me.”
“I only just arrived,” he pointed out. He crossed his arms, mock stern as he looked at her. So close, the scent of her, smoke and spice and night-heavy roses, bloomed around him like an invitation. A dangerous invitation. He’d never quite worked out if Eloisa’s scent was per- fume or magic or one of the incenses earth witches used, but regardless of its source, it was delicious. Designed to make men fall at her feet or howl at the moon.
“There are guards outside,” she countered in a bored tone.
“There should’ve been your night man,” Cameron said, suddenly truly serious. “Why isn’t he here?”
“I let him go early,” she said, flicking at the black lace edging the neckline of her dress. The movement drew attention to her cleavage, which he was sure was intentional. The witch was toying with him.
“It was that Smythe-Stuart idiot,” she said with another flick. It was clear that Smythe-Stuart had been lucky to escape being hexed.
“Lieutenant Smythe-Stuart is very capable,” Cameron felt compelled to say. It was the truth. No man made it into the ranks of the Red Guard, let alone the royal bodyguards, without being an elite soldier. Pity they didn’t also test for personality.
“He’s a bore,” Eloisa retorted. “And I don’t want to talk about him.” She curled a lock of her hair around her finger. The deep red of it against her pale skin was a pointed reminder he was dealing with a royal witch. One who was, perhaps, feeling a little fey today. He could feel his own magic—minor as it was—curling within him. Eloisa always could rouse him.
“Where, might I inquire, are your ladies?” Cameron asked, hoping to steer the conversation back to safer waters.
“Off planning the celebrations,” Eloisa said with a smile.
“Ah, Lady Sophia. The one you all have such high hopes for.” Sophia Kendall was the last royal female—though in her case the royal claim was quite removed—of her birth year to turn twenty-one. And after her, there was a five-year gap until the next oldest girl with royal blood. Her upcoming Ais-Seann was the subject of much court speculation and anticipation.
Neither of the two other girls who had come into their majority this year had manifested the gift, and both of them had been unceremoniously married off to minor lordlings and had yet to reappear at court. Cameron wouldn’t like to be in Lady Sophia’s shoes at all. Her fate was to be a pawn either way. All that was to be determined was just how big a prize she would gain for her family. Or the king, really. Cameron had met Lady Kendall’s father, Barron Leeheld, and he had struck Cam as a decent man who had little interest in court intrigues. He had spoken somewhat wistfully of his estate and the upcoming grape harvest, not of whom best to marry his only daughter to.
“Yes,” Eloisa said. “I think she at least deserves some fun before you men usurp her life.”
“If she manifests, she’ll have some more training be- fore she’s handed over to whoever the lucky man is, won’t she?”
“And if she doesn’t, she’ll be married before the turn of the year,” Eloisa snapped. “And I’ll get some new country bumpkin who doesn’t know a hairpin from a hatpin to attend me.”
Ah, so that was what was bothering her witchness. She didn’t want to lose a friend. “You think she won’t?”
Eloisa shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You’re sure about that?” Eloisa’s gift ran strongly to psychic abilities, but she tended to keep her premonitions close to her chest when she thought it best to do so. It drove her father, the king, wild.
“Yes. I haven’t seen anything about Sophie.”
Well, that was good. Then he replayed the sentence in his head. Perhaps not. “Does that mean you’ve seen something else?”
She shook her head but didn’t look at him, instead toying with the midnight-colored pearls circling her wrist. “Nothing important.”
“Highness . . .”
Silk rustled as she came out of her chair and crossed to him. The wild smoky rose scent filled his nose, making his pulse speed a little.
“All I see,” she said with a wicked smile, “is a man who is wasting a perfectly good opportunity.” She tilted her head back and looked up at him. “What’s the matter, Cameron? Out whoring last night, were you?”
She pressed her hand against his chest, and he struggled to keep his train of thought. “You know I don’t . . .”
Her hand trailed lower. “Saving yourself for me? That’s sweet.” Fingers slid beneath the waistband of his breeches, and his cock rose to meet her. “Why don’t you show me?”
“Witch.” He picked her up and carried her into her bedroom. The princess might not want to marry a minor lord, he thought as she started unbuttoning his jacket, but she surely didn’t mind fucking one.