THE REBEL’S PRIZE
Hunting traitors is easier than facing the man she never meant to love…
In the wake of treachery and broken bonds, Chloe de Roche has fled Illvya and a marriage that was never supposed to be real, to hunt the rebel mages trying to topple the empire. Bringing them to justice is the only way to clear her name and salvage something of the life she’s been fighting for. But leaving Lucien behind might be even harder than finding the truth about the treachery buried in the heart of the empire…
Faced with Chloe’s desertion, magic that undermines his ability to know the truth, and a threat to the emperor he is sworn to serve, Lucien de Roche is reeling. But even though his hopes that Chloe might grow to love him have been shattered, he can’t turn his back on his wife. Bound by vows and honor, he has no choice but to follow her, even if she might break his heart…
Defeating those who seek to tear their world apart will not only take all their powers but an admission that they are stronger together than apart. But are they willing to risk their lives—and their hearts—to save an empire?
The Rebel’s Prize is the third and final book in the Daughter of Ravens series, a romantic historical fantasy series from set in the same world as the Four Arts series. This series has old friends turned enemies (and then enemies to lovers), a heroine looking for a second chance, a smitten hero, political intrigue, royal witches, inconvenient marriages, sexy times and more. Enjoy!
When you run from your life for the second time, you expect things to go more smoothly than the first. But apparently that wasn’t the case.
Chloe de Roche pulled the hood of her cloak farther over her head and eyed the inn across the street. Everything will be fine.
The knots in her stomach thought otherwise. Ten days of travel across Illvya, Kharenia, and now Miseneia had dented her convictions. The one thing that had gone right so far was that no one from Lumia had caught up with her. But her freedom had come at a cost. Ten days of traveling covertly, sleeping little, and looking over her shoulder for Imperial soldiers was exhausting. As was being set up as the scapegoat in a conspiracy against the emperor. And exhaustion would lead to mistakes.
If it hadn’t been for the protection of Octarus, her sanctii, she might not have made it this far. She definitely wouldn’t make it all the way to Partha traveling alone. Which was why she was watching an inn and steeling her nerves.
“He’s definitely inside, right?” she muttered under her breath.
Octarus’s voice in her head sounded more certain than she felt. The man she’d been seeking since she first left Illvya, hoping for his help to get her across the empire as fast as possible, had proven an elusive quarry.
She’d made her way to Orlee di Mer, where she’d first met Samuel Jensen, the ship’s captain who had smuggled her to Anglion ten years ago. But when she’d gone in search of him in the calle on the edge of town he used as the base of his operations—or had when she’d last needed him—she’d discovered, after handing out quite a bit of gold, that he was on a run up to Jinkara in Miseneia.
It had cost her still more gold to find out when he was supposed to reach his destination. It was only because she’d been able to use portals for a few sections of the journey that she had managed to arrive a day ahead of him.
Earlier she had kept watch, gritty-eyed and longing for sleep, from behind a grimy window in a nameless dockside kafia as his ship, the Salt Sprite, had come into port not long after dawn. And then waited long hours drinking their bitter coffee as his cargo—what appeared to be legitimate trade goods—had been offloaded.
Finally, Samuel himself had stalked down the gangway and headed off into the depths of Jinkara’s port district. The sight of him had made her smile for the first time in days. Not just from the relief that she was in the right place but also from seeing him after so many years. After all, he had saved her life in more than one way.
Octarus followed Samuel while she retreated to the cheap inn where she’d secured a room. Near sunset, the sanctii returned to report that Samuel and several of his crew had taken rooms at the Emperor’s Pride—an ironic name for a distinctly seedy-looking inn—and appeared to be settling in for an evening of drinking.
The Emperor’s Pride was on the opposite side of the docks to the inn she’d holed up in, closer to the edge of the respectable parts of the town. Samuel was doing well for himself, it seemed.
Which hopefully boded well for her.
She waited nearly two hours before heading out, trying to judge enough time for Samuel to at least eat and relax without allowing things to get too…unruly. She wasn’t in any real danger with Octarus lurking invisible near her, but she didn’t want to have to call for his help if she could possibly avoid it.
As a woman alone, her hair dyed a dreary dark brown to hide the colors of her magic, she didn’t draw much attention. But a woman with a sanctii was notable, particularly the farther away from Illvya she got. Water mages strong enough to bond a sanctii usually became Imperial mages. For those to whom a life of service didn’t appeal, finding employment was no issue. Which meant they most often lived in the empire’s larger cities.
In a town the size of Jinkara, which thrived only due to its harbor, Octarus would stand out. And his gray face, with the paler strips of skin around his eyes, was distinctive. The last thing she needed was reports of a woman and a sanctii who fit his description getting back to Lumia and giving those who were probably looking for her a lead.
[All right,] she said in her mind to Octarus. [Stay close, but don’t do anything unless I ask you to.]
She tugged at the hood of her cloak one more time, making sure it would stay in place. It was warmer in Miseneia than Illvya, but the harbor breezes were cool enough at night that her cotton cloak wasn’t unusual. Satisfied the hood wasn’t going to fall back, she crossed the street and pushed open the door of the inn before she could change her mind.
Inside, the babble of voices was loud and the air warm. Lanterns hung from the ceilings, giving enough light to have a clear view of the room and, she assumed, of her. But her entrance didn’t draw much attention other than a few assessing looks from the men and women already eating and drinking at the tables. Her nerves eased back an inch. At least this wasn’t the kind of inn where the only women to set foot inside were those who earned their living there.
A quick scan yielded no sight of Samuel’s dark hair. But there was a second room beyond the first, so she made her way across the floor, ignoring the rumble in her stomach as the scent of the food being served rose around her. Miseneian cuisine was spicier than Illvyan but delicious. Jinkara’s harbors meant fresh fish featured more often than other meat, served with rice or long, thick noodles and vegetables.
But she’d been too nervous to eat much all day as she’d waited for Samuel to disembark. Her hasty breakfast of two honey pastries and a pot of minted tea had only been supplemented by some herbed flatbread she’d bought on her way back to her inn. She ignored the rumbling. She would eat once she’d found Samuel and discovered whether he could—or would—help her.
The second room was less crowded, the tables farther apart, the lanterns dimmer. She hesitated at the threshold as her eyes adjusted. Heads started to turn in her direction, and she made herself step inside, not wanting to draw any more attention than necessary. It was harder to look around discreetly, but—thank the goddess—a familiar booming laugh rolled across the room before it became obvious that she was searching for someone.
She followed the sound, trying not to smile. Samuel was seated with several other men at a table in the farthest back corner, under a soot-encrusted lantern whose light was dim to the point of being nearly useless. She suspected it was left that way deliberately. Dark corners would be useful in dockside inns, and it didn’t really surprise her to find Samuel lurking in one. If he conducted the shadier side of his business here, he would want as little scrutiny as possible.
The nerves came back with a vengeance, replacing hunger pangs with anxiety as she approached his table.
“Excuse me, are you Captain Jensen?” Better not to act as though she knew him until she knew who he was with.
Samuel’s eyes widened briefly as she pulled back her hood, and he put his tankard of beer down with a startled thump that suggested she was the last person he’d been expecting to see. But he quickly schooled his face back to a determinedly unconcerned expression she recognized from the first time she’d gone looking for him more than ten years ago.
“Who’s asking?” He tilted his head slightly as he studied her, the expression in his dark eyes giving nothing away. He looked so familiar that she lost all sense of where she was, and it took a moment to remember.
She straightened her shoulders. “I was told you might be able to provide me with some information on transporting some goods.”
He raised an eyebrow and glanced quickly at the other men at the table. “Is that so? Well, Madame, if it’s business you want to discuss, then perhaps you’d better follow me to my…office.”
Chloe forced herself not to check her hand when he called her “Madame.” The band of rubies Lucien had given her on their wedding day hung from a chain around her neck, well hidden by her clothes. It was worth far too much for the kind of woman she was pretending to be to own and would be a tempting target for thieves. Plus another key to her identity. So, to a casual observer, her marital status was anyone’s guess. And it was more polite to call a woman on her own “madame” than “mamsille.” Mamsille, in certain environments—like cheap dockside inns—might indicate a certain presumption of…availability.
Not that she really had much idea whether she was still married. She’d left Lucien behind and had no idea if she would be able to fix things between them should she get the chance. Or what that might mean if she did. She did know the absence of both the bond they’d shared and the man himself nagged at her like a missing limb.
Don’t think about Lucien.
She had to deal with Samuel. Find Deandra. Without that, the state of her marriage would be something of a moot point because she likely wouldn’t return to Lumia.
“Very well,” she agreed.
Samuel slid out from behind the table and put his hand on her elbow. “This way.” He hustled her across the room and out a side door before she had a chance to say much more. Then it was up a rickety-looking flight of wooden stairs and down a hallway.
“Where—” she started to ask, but he shook his head.
“Not until we’re inside.”
They reached a door at the end of the hallway, and he produced a brass key from his jacket pocket. After one last glance around the clearly deserted hall, he unlocked the door and then tugged her through it before locking it firmly behind them.
He leaned against it, arms folded. “All right,” he said. “Care to explain exactly what in the salt-cursed depths of hell you’re doing here, love?”
She took a breath, scanning the room carefully. A simple wooden desk, two equally plain chairs on either side of it. A fireplace, already lit, with a small rug pocked with scorch marks in front of it. A lantern hung above the desk, and two more bracketed the fireplace. Not much else, barring some loose sheets of paper, an ink bottle, and blotter on the table. The shutters were closed, so she couldn’t get her bearings as to where exactly in the building they were. Perhaps it was, as he’d said, the room where he did business. So business she would do.
She squared her shoulders. “Looking for you.”
His brown eyes narrowed. “That part I understand. The part I don’t understand is why. Last I heard, you had departed…er, the place I saw you last. I assumed you’d be happily back home with your family where you belong.”
It was her turn to narrow her eyes. “You were keeping track of me?” If so, how much did he know? Had he heard about her marriage?
“I keep track of the news from Anglion. Queen Sophia has made that particular line of my work dry up. Though it does make the legitimate side easier. But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re interested in. Not when you’re supposed to be safely home in Lumia, not roaming through a dockside inn in Jinkara looking for me. So let me ask again, love. Why are you here?”
“I’m traveling up to Partha. I need to do so incognito. I can’t go by sea. I thought perhaps you might have more connections than just your ship and could help me find passage in a caravan traveling that way.”
His expression turned steely. “I remember you having a cast-iron stomach, so I can only think of one good reason why a water mage doesn’t want to travel by water.” He glanced over her shoulder. “Am I to take it that if I upset you, I might find myself addressing an angry sanctii?”
She stared at him a moment. There was more silver in his hair and beard now, and the lines beside his eyes, testament of his years of wind and weather at sea, were deeper than she remembered. But he was still handsome. Still the man who’d helped her get over some of the worst of her grief in Anglion. Still, she hoped, a friend. And still too clever for his own good. One didn’t survive as long as he did smuggling people and other goods around the empire without being clever. She could lie to him, but if he found her out, he might refuse to help her.
“That’s fast work. You can only have been home a few months.”
“Nearly five,” she said. “And I had time to make up for.”
“Just as well that you’re not asking to go back to Anglion, then. A sanctii would make that difficult.”
“I’m aware,” she said dryly. “Are you going to stand guard at the door the entire time, or can we sit down while we talk like civilized people?”
“I’m not that civilized, love,” he said. But he stepped away from the door. “Your sanctii can guard the door as well as I can.” He reached into his pocket again and pulled out an old gold coin on a chain. “And this will make sure no one can hear us.”
“A scriptii?” She leaned closer, fascinated despite herself. “With an aural ward?”
He nodded and moved past her to the table, placing the scriptii on the wooden surface. A faint chime rang through the air. Presumably that meant it was active. He’d told her once that he had a small talent for illusion, though she’d never seen him use it. She imagined it had come in handy in his line of work.
But better not to think too much on illusioners. That would only make her think of the one she’d left behind in Lumia.
Samuel took one of the chairs and drew it back. “Have a seat.”
She settled herself, loosening the buttons that held her cloak closed. “As I said, I’m looking to travel to Partha.”
He made a circling motion with one finger. “I’m going to need you to go a little further back in the story to start with. Because I doubt you’ve been struck by a sudden urge to take in the Parthan vineyards or any of its other sights.”
He knew her too well for a man who hadn’t seen her for many years. “I’m trying to find someone. I have reason to believe they may be heading for Partha.”
“That explains the destination. Not so much the incognito part.”
“This person may not want to be found.”
“Sounds like you.” He blew out a breath. “Let’s cut to the chase, love. If you’re here, looking for me, then something has gone wrong in Lumia.”
She shrugged noncommittally.
“Does it have something to do with what happened at the palace?”
“The palace?” she squeaked. She’d avoided seeking out the news from Illvya. For the first week because she was too worried that anyone in possession of a newssheet might just recognize her. After that, as she’d moved farther away from Illvya, because she didn’t want to stand out by seeking out an Illvyan newssheet specifically. But she’d checked the local noticeboards in the towns she’d passed through. There had been no announcement of Aristides dying.
Which was something of a relief. The mail moved slowly, but when there was news as vital to the people as the death of their emperor, the Imperial mages made sure it reached every end of the empire with speed. Perhaps she’d been in time and Imogene and Lucien had quelled the plot against Aristides.
“You don’t know?”
“I’ve been chasing a—um, moving fast. I haven’t had much time to catch up on the news. Did something happen to the emperor?”
“Someone tried to make something happen. The news is they failed. I guess time will tell whether that’s the truth. But it happened nearly two weeks ago. Just about long enough for you to make your way here, in fact.” He leaned back in the chair, folding his arms. “I’m not an idiot, love. Never have been.”
She sighed. “Fine. Yes, something happened at the palace. The person I want to find may have had something to do with that.”
“And the reason it’s you rather than the Imperial army chasing after them is…?”
“It’s in my best interests to do so.” She lifted her chin. “And it’s in your best interests for me to not tell you any more than that.”
“Does that mean you think the Imperial army is also looking for them? Or you?”
“You’re not an idiot, so don’t ask questions that may just cause you trouble. I said I needed to be incognito. Make of that what you will. Now, I have gold. I need a merchant caravan or something like it that’s traveling to Partha. Is that something you can arrange for me, or do I need to look elsewhere?”
He scowled, shaking his head. “I can do it. It’ll take a day or two for me to find out who’s around and where they’re headed. Partha is not the most common destination from Miseneia, though there are some caravans that travel that far.”
If anyone should know the trade routes of any given place in the empire, it was him. “Good. I can wait. But not for too long.”
He studied her a moment. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
“I’m sure. It’s something I have to do.”
“Very well.” His expression suggested he thought she was being foolish. Based on what?
She resisted the urge to look away. He knew about the palace. How much more did he know? He hadn’t said anything about her marriage, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard the news.
The weight of Lucien’s ring on the chain around her neck was suddenly heavy. How closely was Samuel still watching the news and gossip from Lumia?
As he’d said, he was not an idiot. Indeed, he was a smuggler who’d run a dangerous line of work successfully for many years. You didn’t survive so long in that game by being ill-informed. She knew that previously he’d followed the happenings of the Illvyan court, given that it was often those who fell afoul of politics who might need his services to leave the empire. But Illvya and Anglion were no longer staunch enemies. People could move freely between the two countries, so perhaps refugees weren’t part of his business anymore. If he’d turned legitimate businessman—and the cargo he carried into port suggested he had—maybe he had no need to follow the court gossip and may not have heard the news that she had married again. To another aristo. Or maybe old habits died hard.
“I hope your family were glad to see you when you came home. They must have missed you.” His expression softened slightly.
She nodded, suppressing a guilty wince. They wouldn’t be so happy now that she’d fled again. She was bringing up all the old trauma she’d caused in the past just when they thought they had her safely home. It had been a cruel thing to do, but she figured it was better for them to have an alive daughter whom they didn’t see than a grave to visit.
“They were well,” she said. “And glad to see me, as you say. I’m looking forward to being home with them again once my travels are done.”
“You’re an easy woman to miss, love. I know I did.” He flashed her a smile.
She lifted an eyebrow. It hadn’t been so long that she couldn’t spot him being deliberately charming. “That was your choice. And a long time ago.”
“Doesn’t mean a man can’t have regrets. Especially when you stand here looking as beautiful as the day I left you. Except perhaps for the choice of hair dye?” He grinned suddenly, the smile full of his not inconsiderable charm. “I like the red and black better.”
So did she. “I’m trying to avoid attention.”
“Difficult for a woman like you,” he retorted, grin widening.
Was it a test? To see if she would flirt back? Did he truly regret breaking off the…arrangement they’d shared in her early years in Anglion? Well, if he did, she did not. And she was married now.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve found other company to console you,” she said gently. “And we were talking of caravans, not old memories.”
He smiled ruefully. “No second chances?”
“You will always have a place in my affections for what you did for me. And my friendship. But what’s past is past.”
“You always were a wise woman.” He straightened. “The caravan master might want to speak to you first. Most of them don’t take many passengers. They’ll prefer those who have some skills to contribute to the journey.”
She shrugged. “That seems reasonable. And I have skills to offer.” She knew enough about healing to be useful on a journey, and she wasn’t afraid of hard work. And she was sure she’d be able to convince a caravan master to give her a chance. After all, she’d faced down the emperor of Illvya and the king of Andalyssia, not to mention the queen of Anglion. If she couldn’t convince a Miseneian caravan master that she could be helpful on a journey, then she deserved to be kicked out of the diplomatic corps should she ever return to it.
“They may also want a deposit to secure your place.”
She nodded. “That’s not a problem. Though I didn’t bring much coin with me tonight.”
“I can make the payment for you, and you can pay me.”
“That is kind of you, thank you. You always were a good man, Samuel.” She didn’t know if that was a sensible thing to say, but after all, once upon a time during those early months in Anglion when she hadn’t been sure that she might survive the grief and homesickness, Samuel had been the one who’d come to check on her and the one who she’d finally let into her bed. He hadn’t stayed there long, not wanting, he’d said, to cause her trouble. Though she imagined that that worked both ways and he had plenty of women willing to share his nights. One in every port—wasn’t that what they said about sailors?
Though if that was the life he chose to lead, who was she to argue? It wasn’t as though she had been chaste her entire life, and she’d currently abandoned her husband. Some members of the court would consider that a graver offense than a discreet affair. But she didn’t want to give him the wrong idea, so she pushed back the chair and stood.
He did, too, shaking his head as he scooped up the scriptii from the table. “No I wasn’t. But I’m a respectable man of business now. More’s the pity. Young Sophia making up with Aristides has taken half the fun out of life.”
“Oh, I’m sure you still find some mischief. You can’t tell me you don’t still hide part of your cargoes from the tax collectors.”
He barked a laugh. “Now that would be telling, love. But, speaking of business, I have more of it to attend to tonight. We need to get on. Where are you staying?”
She considered a moment. Should she trust him? The hard truth was she didn’t have another good option without Lucien’s magic, so perhaps it didn’t matter whether she could or not.
“Chloe, love, if you think I can’t find out where the pretty Illvyan woman who’s new in town is staying in less than an hour, you’re insulting my intelligence again.”
“The Copper Fish,” she said with a sigh.
His mouth quirked, the dimple in his tanned cheek popping into view. Just as well she was married. He may have grown older, but he was still handsome.
“Good. Let me see you back there, and then I’ll be in touch in a few days.”
“You don’t need to walk me home, Samuel. I have a sanctii.”
“I’m sure you do, love, and you can tell me more about that one day. But if you’re trying not to catch anyone’s eye, then it’ll be easier if you have a man escorting you through this part of town. Your sanctii committing violence on some poor sailor who asks you how much for a tumble would be remarked on.”
She snorted and swept a hand down over her shabby gray dress. “I doubt anyone wants to tumble this.”
Samuel raised an eyebrow. “You may have dyed your hair a hideous color, love, but there’s no hiding your face. You’ve always been beautiful. And most of the ladies working the docks are not. At least not after a few years. You’d be marked as fresh meat before you’d taken twenty steps. Especially now that the sun has gone down. Unless you can do something to hide that lovely face of yours, you’ll take my arm, keep your head down, and let me walk you home.”
Chloe hid her wince. If she could have disguised her face, she would have, but she’d severed her bond with Lucien and given up her access to his skills as an illusioner in the process. She’d never had much talent in that direction, and she definitely couldn’t pull off one of the complex facial illusions that were part of the reason she was headed to Partha. If Lucien was with her, he could have done it easily enough. Of course, if Lucien was with her, she wouldn’t need Samuel in the first place.
“Fine,” she managed as she mentally cursed Deandra and her ash-burned fellow conspirators. “You can walk me home.”
Marriage in trouble
Denying all the feels
When the past just won’t let go
Treason, marriage in trouble, execution (off screen), imprisonment, death of spouse (historic), death of parent (historic)
I must confess that this book was written to either Out of The Woods by Taylor Swift on repeat or brain.fm focus music. The muse wants what it wants.
Series: Daughter of Ravens (book 3)
Next book in series: This is the final book
Publisher: emscott enterprises
Publication date: 17 October 2023
ISBN ebook: 9780645556728
ISBN paperback: 9780645556773