On the world of Terra Set, where the night is twice as long as the day and the moon more powerful than the sun, live the Star Mages. Essential to supporting the crops that feed the masses, they are protected men, revered, yet still mistrusted.
An ancient myth tells of a female mage born at the Silver Minute. She holds a magic that, shared with a mate, will be unequaled. Riena is that mage.
A ruthless king will stop at nothing to force Riena to take his son as mate. Her life and freedom depend on one challenge--hide as a man.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a re-release title.
Riena looked up at the palace gates, her empty stomach rolling, scowling at Rosher's attempts to clean the road dust from her nose. "What if they turn us away?" she asked.
Winter was little more than a month off. Already, the nights were bitterly cold, and Riena huddled beneath Rosher's cloak with him to survive the night.
They'd made it this far by day-laboring for farms to fill their bellies, though the sunlight made her eyes water and her body weary. The season was ending, and no farm would hire on a permanent servant at this time of year. If the King refused them, as the Master Mage at Verin had, they were lost.
"They cannot," Rosher assured her, though his eyes were haunted in the shadow of his failure with the Master Mage. "If we beg an audience, they must hear us out."
Riena nodded stiffly. But will they believe us and help? They are not required to do that.
She looked to the approaching guard. It was a tall woman of about Rosher's height. Like all royal bodyguards, she was female--fast, strong, silent, and deadly protectors to the Mages who led them.
"What is your business?" the guard demanded.
Rosher sank to his knees, lowering his face in a sign of servitude. "We beg an audience, mi'lady."
Riena stood straight and tall, as Rosher told her she should. She was a Star Mage and should kneel only to a Mage her better.
The guard's gaze bored into her. "This ragged child knows not her place." She sneered.
"I know my place," Riena snapped. "I am a Star Mage in search of training."
The woman laughed. "You jest. There has not been a female Mage in more than a millennium."
Rosher took Riena's hand, mindful of her scars as always, stilling the protest gathering steam in her breast. "My sister is a Star Mage. I have seen her magic. Please, mi'lady. We must see His Majesty."
The guard nodded. "I warn you. If this is a trick, His Majesty will not be kind to you or your young charge." She opened the gate and waved them through, closing it carefully behind them.
The gardens were expansive, full of flowers Riena recognized--and many she didn't. Rosher hissed a warning when she reached for a blue flower she'd never seen before. Riena pulled her hand back, darkening at the reminder. These were not her flowers to handle, no matter how much she missed her circle.
"The girl will stay here until she is called for," the guard instructed.
"But how can His Majesty--" Rosher began.
"In due time. For now, he would see you alone." She glanced at Riena. "You may touch the flowers. The Trainee Mages will repair any damage you do." She led Rosher away before Riena could protest her assumption that there would be damage to repair.
The moon was peeking over the palace walls, the nearly full moon that sent tendrils of power coursing through her veins, though only Riena's face and hands were exposed to its rays. Riena touched the blue flower, inviting it to grow and smiling as its petals turned to her hand in thanks. So lost was she in her play that she didn't hear the boy approaching.
* * * *
Karris scowled at the girl. What was this filthy urchin doing in the royal gardens? From the dull hair that spoke of a week without soap and her threadbare cloak, he surmised she was the daughter of a widow here to beg winter employ from his father.
Every year, they came in droves, expecting his father to save them all. If that was their purpose, they'd wasted their trip. His father had taken on all he could two weeks earlier.
She didn't note his presence. The girl appeared deep in thought, her fingers stroking absently at the petals of the Blue Lady before her.
"Do not touch that flower," he snapped.
She jumped, looking to him, then to the Blue Lady. "The guard said--"
"I care not what the guard said." The guard does not have to fix the damage. Master Caiben will make me repair it, and Blue Ladies are difficult to heal. That guard no doubt revels in the chance to make me do something I loathe, as all the guards seem to. "Leave the gardens." Better the chance that she will not cause me more practice this night.
Her cheeks darkened past the already deep hue of the typical night-sleeper. "I was ordered to stay here."
Karris bristled at that. His annoyance grew as she stared into his face without any show of humility. "Who are you?"
"My name is Riena," she offered simply.
"Of what family?"
She hesitated. "I have only my brother, but his name is not mine to claim, since different men sired us."
Her hand returned to the Blue Lady, as if the texture soothed her. Blue Ladies were known for their delicate petals, delicate enough to tickle a Star Mage's tender hands, and so his father surrounded himself with them as many affluent Mages did.
"What of your mother?" he pressed her.
"Dead at my birth. Since both her family and my father's have forsaken me, I can claim no family."
Her shaking fingers bruised and creased the petals she touched. Karris cringed at that. It would take quite a bit of power to repair damage so deep. He pushed her away from the flower, grumbling a curse as the petals tore.
"I told you not to touch it," he complained, envisioning the lesson Master Caiben would serve him for this, the hour or more of meticulous release into the flower, until it showed no sign of abuse.
Riena stiffened. "Had you not pushed me," she shouted.
He rounded on her before she could finish her accusation. "Does being of no family cause this insufferable rude attitude, or is it your normal state of being?"
"Does being of a noble family cause yours?" she countered hotly.
Karris gaped at her. "Did no one ever teach you the proper address for your betters?"
Her eyes widened, searching over his clothing for any sign of his station and finding none, save the blue trim of the royal family. Her gaze passed over it without sign of recognition.
His father felt it beneath the "Vorian Heir" to wear the mark of his current rank, since all knew what color he would eventually wear, and so Karris wore no robes or sashes of Apprentice Purple that the girl might see.
"You are young to be a sealed Star Mage," she noted. "Have you completed your training yet?"
"Nay." He tried to keep the edge out of his voice at that. Mother help me! Please, not another fool who believes only a sealed Mage is worthy of respect. "But that--"
She sighed in relief. "Then you are not my better," she decided.
"Of course, I am," he exploded, cursing his lack of control over this situation. "Though I have not been tested at the Silver Minute--"
Riena threw back her head and laughed.
Karris glared at her. Black rage built within him. She was laughing at him. How dare she laugh at him! The blasted moon fed the force of his anger.
He smiled at the idea taking shape in his mind. Riena would learn her place. She would learn the power of a Star Mage, whether it be an Apprentice like himself or the king he would one day be.
Her laughter choked off on a startled cry as the thorn pierced her thumb, driving nearly through to the bone before Karris called a halt. Riena jerked her hand away from the bush, shooting him a look of surprise.
Karris shrugged, biting back a laugh of his own. "One should not taunt a Star Mage," he instructed her. "One never knows what his response may be to it."
Riena nodded, her eyes promising retribution she dared not seek. "Mayhap that is a lesson you need to learn better," she whispered.
He jerked as something surrounded his wrist, grinding his teeth against a scream of pain as the thorns bit deep. The stalk continued to grow, wrapping strands around his arm, points turned inward in mute warning.
Karris reined in his fear, soaking up the moon's radiance. The stalk halted at his command, then loosened. He met Riena's gaze as he ordered the plant to retreat. Her smug smile disappeared, and fear took its place. She looked to the stalk, no longer under her control, and bolted for the palace.
He nodded, pulling his bloodied hand free of her trap. "Run," he growled, "but you will not escape me."