The woman in the hooded cloak fled down the cavernous passage, a small bundle clutched in her arms. The shouts and armored footsteps of the soldiers reverberated with deafening echoes off the stone walls; there was precious little time left.
Looking behind her, she could see menacing shadows growing larger by the second, and then the harsh glare of torches and the glint of cold, deadly weapons. Pressing the cloth-bound bundle closer to her chest with one arm, she blindly stretched her other arm out into the darkness ahead, frantically searching for the hidden door leading to the portal.
At last her fingers closed around the perfect circle of a carved stone in the wall. She pushed the stone inward as hard as she could, and for one panicked second, heard nothing. Even the advancing guards seemed to fall silent as she waited breathlessly. Then, a small metallic click, and the silence was broken. She could hear the grind of stone on stone as the small door opened. A roar of sound rushed back to her ears as she returned her focus to the clanging of armor in the corridor behind her. The soldiers were close—a few more seconds and her neck would become intimately acquainted with the edge of a sword. She fell to her knees, pushed the tiny package through first, and then crawled in quickly.
Once inside, she immediately rose and pressed a corresponding round stone that closed the door just as torchlight flooded the secret passage. Without hesitation, she scooped up the bundle and ran down a long, narrow room toward a tall, gilded mirror. As she stepped fluidly through the glass, she remembered the first time she had crossed through a portal, the way the membrane between worlds had sucked at her skin, her clothes, her long hair. It wasn’t a painful sensation, but it had taken a great deal of effort to squeeze through, to free herself from the portal’s sticky embrace.
She’d had a lot of practice traversing worlds since then, and now she effortlessly stepped into a dimly lit, wood-paneled hall full of mirrors. A framed dome of glass dominated the ceiling, and as the full moon emerged from behind a cloud, silver shafts of moonlight illuminated the room, infinitely reflecting her image in the mirrors. She could see the silver glow of her pale blond hair when she pushed back her hood.
She was well aware she was beautiful, but she wasn’t interested in gazing upon her own reflection. Instead, wasting no time, she snatched a heavy candelabrum from the marble pillar nearest the gilded mirror she had passed through. She raised it above her head and threw it at the glass. Her reflection shattered into a thousand shards. The fragments rang out as they struck the polished wooden floor. Shielding herself and her bundle with her cloak, she turned and ran toward the door at the end of the room. A low rumble filled the hall and the building began to shake.
One by one, the other mirrors in the hall exploded in a storm of glass. Bursting through a set of carved wooden doors, the woman fled the quaking ruin of the mansion into an overgrown garden. She gasped at the cutting winter air as the wind whipped her cloak around her. She could smell the sea and she knew she was close. Her task would be finished soon.
From the shadows, the creature watched the old woman. She couldn’t see him—he was well hidden within the hedge of white oleanders lining the garden’s rock wall. He had taken care to camouflage his dark, feline silhouette among the inky shadows cast by the bushes’ leaves, far beyond the reach of the light from the buzzing electric fixture suspended over the back stoop. Performing the moonlit ritual that had been followed by her family for generations, the woman dripped honey into warm milk, stirring in the sweetness, releasing a pleasant aroma.
It was ironic, he thought grimly, that the woman thought of the ritual as superstition and didn’t believe in the existence of the creature mere steps from her door—she was simply honoring a tradition from her childhood. The ritual made her feel connected to family who had long since passed on. And the creature didn’t care what she believed, so long as he was paid tribute.
His long, prehensile tail twitched in anticipation, but he waited—he wasn’t invisible, and it was best to remain unseen. Had he revealed his true face, he could have made her an instant convert to believe in the old ways, but he didn’t want to drive her to madness just yet. Whatever she believed, the woman remained faithful to the deed. She reverently set the bowl on the steps and went back inside, pulling the door shut behind her.
While the creature waited for the porch light to be extinguished, a stray dog entered the yard. It was ragged and mangy, although with care, it would be a handsome animal. Narrowing its large, glowing red eyes, the creature watched as the starving canine, drawn by the sweet smell of the offering, dared to partake in his meal. Porch light or no porch light, this was not acceptable. Teeth barred, the creature crept forward, growling menacingly. Surprised by the creature’s presence, the dog yelped and ran, retreating with its tail between its legs.
The creature laughed, a low chuckle that was often mistaken for the purr of a cat. He lapped up the sweet milk, savoring the taste. There was plenty of time. He would hunt down the dog later. It would be good to feed on something with a pulse.
The knight stood outside the queen’s chambers, his fingers on his temples, trying to rub away the unrelenting pounding in his head. The headaches had become more frequent in recent months. He thought perhaps they had begun with the poisoning of the Solas Beir, the king. That was the day Cael realized he had underestimated Tynan Tierney.
It was no secret the murderous lord had coveted the throne, and a coup had long been feared. Cael was charged with the protection of the kingdom, and mistakes were not acceptable. Underestimating Tierney was the worst mistake of his military career. Cael could not dismiss the feeling that he had missed a critical clue, that the assassination of the Solas Beir could have been prevented. And tonight only served to confirm that. He should have known.
At least the Kruor um Beir had been captured after the assassination, before his armies had the chance to cripple the kingdom’s forces. Now the man who called himself King of Blood and Shadows was locked in the Wasteland, condemned to sit under a cobalt sky on fiery orange sand, with no hope of escape. There would be no respite—no rain, no nourishment, not even a sip of water to cool Tierney’s wicked tongue. Hewould be mercilessly compelled to count scarlet grains of sand over and over. Forever. But now—now Cael had the unpleasant task of telling the queen he had failed her. He knocked on her door and entered.
Queen Eulalia was crumpled against her child’s cradle, hunched and sobbing, allowing her black hair to cascade around her like a canopy of waves. Hearing the knight’s hesitant steps, she fell silent and still. She raised her head and turned to him, feeling hope in spite of her dread.
“My queen…” Cael began. He hesitated, absently running his hand through his dark hair. He was clenching his strong jaw, and his ruggedly handsome face looked strained.
The queen suspected this was partly due to finding her in such a vulnerable state. “Did you find him?” she asked, knowing the answer, but not wanting to hear it—the finality of it. Her baby was all she had left of Ardal, her fierce bear of a king. He was the only heir. He was her only child. Little Artan. Much too little for this.
“No, Your Majesty. We were moments too late. She crossed to the other world and destroyed the portal.”
And there it was—the other reason why Cael looked so stressed—he was the bearer of terrible news.
“No. This cannot be.” The queen shook her head. “I cannot believe Lucia would do this. She is my sister. She would not betray me—or her nephew.” She remembered the way Lucia had looked at Artan on the night of his birth, the way she held him as if he were her own. Lucia would never put her nephew in danger. She would die for the child.
“Eulalia…” Cael crossed the room to enfold the queen in his arms. “I am so sorry. But you must know that we have reason to believe she was involved from the beginning.”
Eulalia pulled away from his embrace. In other circumstances, his familiar touch would have been a comfort, but not tonight. She could not afford comfort, not when Artan was missing. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Lucia’s handmaiden came to me this evening,” Cael said. “She told me that Lucia would often vanish from her bed in the middle of the night, only to reappear before dawn, smiling, and was always pleasant to her servants. She never said anything because she thought your sister had a secret love and she did not wish to betray her mistress. But after Tierney was banished, Lucia’s demeanor changed. She became irritable and treated her servants cruelly. It was only tonight, when Lucia and the prince went missing, that the handmaiden realized the truth. The secret meetings were with Tierney.”
“Be careful, Cael,” Eulalia warned. “You accuse my sister of treason—on the word of her maid.”
“I do accuse her, Your Majesty, but with what I believe is just cause. There is more: we know the labyrinth fire was no accident. The flames were blue, which means someone used magic to start it. There are only a handful of people in this kingdom with that kind of power, and one of them is imprisoned in the Wasteland. But Lucia has magic, and I believe the fire was a diversion. Lucia took your son while our attention was on the blaze. The last person to see Lucia tonight was her handmaid. She saw her mistress enter this chamber, and then she was called away with the other servants to help put out the fire. That was right before you found Artan missing.”
“Lucia often enters my room to check on Artan,” Eulalia said. “She is a great help to me. The suggestion that she would do something so wicked is entirely offensive.”
“Then I must risk further offense with a more grievous accusation,” Cael said. “I believe that it was Lucia who poisoned the king.”
Eulalia gasped, feeling as though her heart had stopped. “I will not believe that,” she said, glaring at him. “I know Lucia was angry about my marriage, and I heard rumors she objected to Ardal’s policies, but Lucia would never murder anyone. Never. Please Cael, tell me you have not spent these last hours listening to idle gossip rather than searching for my son.”
Eulalia stared at him as he rubbed his forehead and temples. She could see how the events of this night had taken a physical toll on him. His was not an easy job, especially since the assassination. Cael had lost more than a king; Ardal had been his friend, too. Eulalia felt a pang of guilt about the power she held over him—not just because she was queen, but because Cael had meant something to her once, long ago, before Ardal chose her as his wife. She could tell that her words stung him. If anyone else spoke to Cael like that, he would have taken the tongue lashing without any show of emotion. He prided himself on never showing weakness. But he had always been vulnerable with her, and his love for her had only brought him pain.
“Eulalia,” Cael said, “my only concern this evening has been for your son. He may not be my child, but I love him too.”
“Do you?” Eulalia asked. “Do you love him?” Perhaps her anger at him was misdirected—perhaps he was right and the woman she should be angry with had vanished.
Cael pulled Eulalia into his arms. This time she allowed his embrace.
“Of course I do. He is yours. My love, please hear me—time grows short and we cannot spend it at odds with one another. Before today, I never would have accused your sister of such treachery. Lucia was a trusted advisor with full access to this castle—no one would have suspected her of siding with Tierney. But if she is guilty, I fear the worst for the prince.”
Eulalia looked into his dark brown eyes. “Then please, help me. We must find him.”
“Yes, but how? We know where she crossed, but she destroyed the portal. My troops cannot find a way through,” Cael insisted.
“There is another portal,” Eulalia replied.
“Then I will organize a hunting party—too much time has already passed. She must be captured as soon as possible and forced to hand over the child.”
“No,” Eulalia said. “I will go. Alone.” Cael opened his mouth to argue and she silenced him with a look. “Do not protest—she is my sister and she will listen to me. I cannot make an appeal for compassion if I am surrounded by soldiers.”
“And if she harms you? You know I could not bear that,” he said.
“I know, Cael. But I cannot live without my child.”
Excerpted from "Sign of the Throne: Book One in the Solas Beir Trilogy" by Melissa Eskue Ousley. Copyright © 0 by Melissa Eskue Ousley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.