Chapter One

There was most likely a correct and tactful answer to give when faced with an emperor offering you a crown, but Sophie Mackenzie couldn’t, at that particular moment, think of one.

“Your Imperial Highness, you cannot expect me to answer that,” she blurted, knowing, even as the words tumbled from her mouth, that it was precisely the wrong thing to say.

The implacable expression on the face of Aristides Delmar de Lucien, Emperor of Illvya, indicated that he very much did expect her to answer the question. What’s more, that he expected her to say “yes”. Possibly while groveling in gratitude.

She wanted to flee, not grovel.

Fleeing wasn’t an option. Groveling, she couldn’t stomach. She focused instead on trying not to show the horror she felt show on her face as she watched Aristides to see what he might say next.

Perhaps to him, his offer wasn’t so outrageous. After all, he was an emperor. Descended from a family of conquerors and overseeing an empire that stretched across a continent. It was entirely possible that he’d grown blasé about changing the course of a life with a simple word.

But no matter how powerful the emperor was, there was one key difference here. The Anglion crown he dangled in front of Sophie was hardly his to offer.

And it definitely wasn’t Sophie’s to take.

No. Anglion had a queen—the queen Sophie had served as lady-in-waiting—and to suggest any course of action that would deny that the throne belonged by right to Eloisa was the very definition of madness. Madness Sophie had no desire to take any part in.

The silence in the throne room stretched thin and thoughts of fleeing once again flashed through her head like lights glinting on a broken mirror. But the guards—not to mention the Imperial mages present—would stop her before she’d taken more than a few steps if she tried to run.

Besides, she and her husband, Cameron, needed Aristides’ continued friendship. They’d survived another assassination attempt tonight. The emperor had made it clear he wouldn’t brook another such attempt. But if he withdrew that protection, then they would be fair game for anyone who viewed her as dangerous to try again to kill her.

So far, it had only been Anglions who had threatened her, she had no doubt that some of those assembled in this throne room disliked her as much as whoever it was orchestrating the Anglion attacks did. Some of them would probably be far happier if she was now down in one of the emperor’s dungeons like Sevan Allowood.

Sevan, who had tried to kill her, who’d called her a traitor. She still didn’t entirely want to believe that she had become a person that others wished dead but it was true.

So no, she couldn’t afford to offend the emperor.

Instead she had to stand there and try to behave as though Aristides had said something perfectly reasonable while she frantically tried to think of to avoid giving the response he clearly expected. Acid gnawed at her stomach, making it difficult to think.

The emperor’s face changed from implacable to displeased but he didn’t speak. The weight of his gaze was as heavy as the silence that had descended over the room and Sophie had the odd sensation that she and Aristides were the only ones present who were actually breathing.

Certainly the sound of her breath and the rise and fall of air through her lungs were nearly the only things convincing her she wasn’t actually dreaming this whole disastrous audience.

“What I mean, Your Imperial Highness,” she said, aiming for a tone that was polite but firm. The way that Domina Skey or Queen Eloisa or even Madame Simsa would deliver the words. None of them were women who uttered the word “no” with anything other than complete certainty that those listening would respect their wishes. “Is that I do not want the crown of Anglion.” She’d never had any desire for power. She had spent most of her life so far down the line of succession—thirty-second in fact—that there had been no reason to ever contemplate such a possibility. Now that she stood dangerously high in the ranks of Illvyan heirs, she still didn’t want it.

Aristides shifted his weight, straightening on his throne. “Lady Sophia, we do not always get what we wish in life.”

A ridiculous statement from a man who did get nearly everything he wanted. Should Aristides decide that a change of rule in Anglion would best benefit Illvya and the empire then he clearly expected that she would be happy to comply.

She doubted many people had ever won a battle of wills with Aristides but in this situation, she had no alternative but to try. For one thing, declaring a desire for the Anglion throne could only increase the number of people who might wish her dead. She’d survived an assassination attempt in Anglion and another here in Illvya. Not to mention being left with no choice but to bond with a sanctii—a creature she had been raised to believe was a bloodthirsty demon—to protect herself.

She’d been lucky to survive thus far. Why, in the name of the goddess, Aristides thought she would want to paint an even bigger target on her back was beyond her.

She wanted nothing more than to be left in peace. To find a way to build a life with Cameron that didn’t involve such things as assassins and political plotting. Yes, she would like to return to Anglion if she could do such a thing safely but she had begun to accept that going home might never be possible. Exile was preferably to possible death.

“Forgive my bluntness, Eleivé,” she murmured. “You took me by surprise.” If he took offense to her refusal, Aristides might well become the most immediate threat to her wellbeing.

“Does that mean you agree?” Aristides asked.

“It means, that I need time to consider. Surely you can grant me that? There is no urgency in this matter, is there?” Granted, the messages sent from Queen Eloisa had been less than friendly and the Anglion delegation who had carried them here had included Sevan but that didn’t equate to an immediate need for the emperor to act. At least, she fervently hoped not.

The emperor didn’t answer immediately. Her heart pounded, the beats filling each passing second in greater and greater numbers.

[Come?] The voice in her head was rough and deep and, for a moment, Sophie wasn’t sure what she was hearing. But the faint chill that ran through her in the wake of the word made her realize it was Elarus. The only thing she could think of right now that might make this situation worse was the appearance of an overly protective sanctii.

[No!] She hoped Elarus would hear her. The bond she forged with Elarus was brand new, and formed in haste, and Sophie really had no idea about how to use the knowledge of water magic the sanctii had gifted her with. It was still mostly a swirling mass of knowledge in her mind that she couldn’t make head nor tail of. She had no idea at all if she could control Elarus. Who was another reason that Aristides’ proposal was nonsensical.

In Anglion, the familiaris sanctii were feared and reviled as demons, the water magic required to bond with them strictly taboo. Anglion accepting a water mage for their queen was less likely than Sophie suddenly sprouting wings and flying back to the island nation that was her home. And Cameron’s. She glanced sidelong at her husband, standing rock still, barely breathing; so fierce was the strength of his attention on the emperor.

Years as a blood mage and a member of the Red Guard—the Anglion monarch’s personal guard—had honed his instinct to protect. To fight when needed. But he couldn’t fight now. She squeezed his arm and waited for the emperor to speak. Around her, the members of Aristide’s court who had witnessed his offer and the attack that came before it waited also, staying silent though Aristides had proposed an action that was tantamount to war.

Amongst the imperial mages standing to one side of Aristides’ sunburst throne stood Imogene du Laq, the Duquesse of San Pierre. She didn’t look in the slightest bit tense, though her expression was solemn. Then again, she was a soldier, of a kind. An Imperial Mage. Perhaps she would welcome the opportunity for a war. Perhaps they all would. Or perhaps they thought that they could take a country as small as Anglion easily enough. Though not without some degree of death and destruction. Which would mostly rain down on Anglion heads.

Aristides cleared his throat, breaking the chill-inducing path of Sophie’s thoughts and returning her attention to him.

“I grant, Lady Scardale, that it has been a trying day. And yes, the need is not yet at the point where action is unavoidable.”

She tightened her grip on Cameron’s arm as the sudden relief sweeping through her threatened, for a moment, to buckle her knees.

A reprieve. Though there was no way to tell how long it might last. Sevan was currently being interrogated by whomever it was that Aristides used to drag information out of his prisoners.

Whatever Sevan had to reveal would have an impact on the emperor’s plans. Was it wrong to hope he would say nothing?

Or at least stay silent long enough to let her decide how best to approach resisting the emperor’s plans should he decided to pursue them.

She tilted her head forward and let those treacherous knees carry her down into a curtsy. Cameron waited until she was safely upright again before he offered a bow.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he said. “As you say, this day has been both trying and long. I would like to take my wife back to the Academe. After all, we both have classes to attend in the morning.”

The quirk to Aristides’ mouth made it clear that he was well aware that this was Cameron making a strategic withdrawal from the field of battle. But, for once, it seemed that the emperor was willing to leave the discussion unresolved. He inclined his head. “Of course, Lord Scardale. There will be many opportunities to continue this conversation in the coming days and weeks.”

Sophie managed not to wince at this pronouncement. Leave now, worry about the future later. She’d reached her limit for dealing with politics just now. The thought of returning to the relative safety of the Academe, crawling into bed, and pulling the covers firmly over her head was more appealing than almost anything else she could imagine right now.

So she added a second curtsy to Cameron’s murmured, “thank you, your Imperial Majesty,” and tried to keep her pace to sedate rather than frantic as they left the throne room.

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