Selling off the slaves she had known all her life was the hardest thing Luciena Mariner had ever had to do. Watching them being loaded into the wagon from Venira’s Slave Emporium, chained and forlorn, was the most heartbreaking scene she had ever witnessed in her meagre seventeen years.
Some of the slaves had been with her family since before Luciena was born. Young Mankel, the kitchen boy, was born in this house. He had never known another home. Her voice quivering with emotion, she turned away from the boy’s distraught sobs and instead tried to explain for the hundredth time since her mother had died how much better they would fare in Master Venira’s exclusive showroom than if she’d simply sold them on the open market.
Her words were little comfort. The slaves weren’t fools. They all knew the chances of finding a household as good as the one they were leaving were remote.
What choice did I have? Luciena asked herself bitterly, as she climbed the stairs once the wagon had left. The heavy purse she carried made her feel worse, not better, even though it would go some way to reducing her debts. The big house echoed with loneliness, the blank spaces on the walls where paintings had once hung glaring at her like blank, accusing faces. On the first-floor landing, the pedestal where her father’s marble bust had always taken pride of place stood empty now. It had been one of the first things to go, sold to help pay the huge debts her mother’s death had revealed.
Luciena made her way along the tiled hall towards the small study where her mother had spent so much of her final days, trying to conceal the seriousness of their desperate position from her daughter. Her slippers hissed softly against floors that had been covered with expensive rugs. Luciena had sold them to pay the livery bill. The upkeep on the coach-and-four hadn’t been paid for months. She’d sold the coach and the four matched greys without much emotion, but parting with her horse, Wind Hunter, had almost gutted her.
And I’m not out of the woods, even yet, she thought as she pushed open the door to her mother’s study. To maintain their lifestyle, her mother had mortgaged the house, her jewellery, even the furniture and the slaves. Luciena would be lucky if she could keep the clothes on her back by the time the debts were paid. She stopped in the doorway, looked at the pile of paper on the small table, and felt tears welling in her eyes, yet again. It didn’t seem to matter how much she sold, how much she sacrificed—that damn pile never seemed to get any smaller.
She turned to find Aleesha standing behind her with a tray bearing a tall glass of something gold and sticky and several slices of flatbread and cheese. A year or two older than her mistress, Aleesha was the only slave Luciena had not been able to bring herself to part with. The young woman was more than just a slave. She was Luciena’s best friend.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
“I can’t afford to eat,” she sighed, holding the door open to allow the slave through with the tray.
Aleesha walked past her mistress and placed the tray on the side table by the window before turning to face Luciena, hands on her ample hips. “I’ll hear none of that, my girl. I know this is difficult, but we’ll find a way to survive it.”
Luciena smiled wanly at the slave’s determined enthusiasm. “How, Aleesha? I’m running out of things to sell faster than I’m running out of creditors.”
“Is there nothing left of your father’s money?” the slave asked, obviously puzzled by how easily their fortune had evaporated.
Luciena knew how she felt; she had trouble believing there was nothing left, too. “Mother wouldn’t have mortgaged the house to that leech, Ameel Parkesh, if there was any money left.”
“But she always claimed your father had made generous provision for you,” Aleesha insisted. “When he married the princess . . .”
Luciena’s expression darkened at the mention of her father’s only marriage, very late in life, to the High Prince’s sister. “That was a marriage of convenience, Aleesha, and the only one who seemed to do well out of it was Princess Marla.”
Aleesha shook her head, even now refusing to believe someone so powerful had robbed Luciena of her inheritance. “Your mother believed Princess Marla would take care of you, lass. I know that’s what your father promised.”
“Then more fool my mother and father.” Luciena walked across the room to the table and dropped the proceeds of the slave sale onto the desk. The purse landed with a dull thud. “Her Royal bloody Highness refuses to even acknowledge I exist. She married my father, extorted his fortune and his shipping business out of him with false promises of a grand future for his only child and then drove him to an early grave, leaving his bastard daughter and her court’esa mother to fend for themselves.” She stared down at the pile of debts still left to pay. “That’s why we’re in such a mess, you know. Mother kept waiting for a summons from the palace. She had us living like lords, waiting for an invitation that was never going to come.”
“Perhaps the princess doesn’t know—”
“Princess Marla knows everything that happens in Greenharbour,” Luciena scoffed, turning to look out the window. The street outside was deserted now. It was the hottest part of the day, and although it wasn’t officially summer yet, the heat was enough to drive people indoors until the sun passed its zenith.
“I’m sure your poor mother only did what she thought was best,” Aleesha insisted, obviously disturbed Luciena was speaking ill of the dead.
“I know,” Luciena sighed, leaning her head against the warm glass. “But what’s it got us besides a pile of debts I can’t jump over? Or repay?”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
Luciena shook her head, looking over at the letter that lay on the top of the pile on the desk. It was that letter, more than any other, that burned a hole in her gut. “There’s a difference between owing money and owing a debt, Aleesha. I can live with owing money, but to be unable to help my father’s only brother . . . that hurts more than anything else I’ve had to deal with lately.”
The slave glanced at the desk, and the letter from Fardohnya to which Luciena was referring, and shook her head. “You can’t be expected to take on the woes of every poor sailor in the world, Luciena.”
“The poor sailor you refer to is my uncle.”
“The uncle who fought with your father with every breath he took and never spared him a kind word in twenty years,” Aleesha reminded her mistress unsympathetically. “I don’t care what your father promised him, Warak Mariner had his chance to be a partner in your father’s business and threw it all away for some Fardohnyan fisherman’s daughter. If he’s in trouble now, it’s not your fault. Or your responsibility to make it better.”
“But the boy he wants me to help is my cousin.”
“Second cousin,” Aleesha corrected. “And he’s a Fardohnyan.”
“But he’s still family.”
Aleesha sighed heavily and placed her hands on her hips, frowning at her mistress. “Your uncle fought with your father, Luciena, before you were born and pretty much every day after. When he ran off with that woman, your father warned him he’d never have anything else to do with the Mariner family. He ran off with her anyway. That was his choice and, to be honest, I always secretly admired the man for throwing away so much for love. But now I’m starting to wonder about him, because here he is, with your poor mother barely cold in the ground—and when you can least afford it—suddenly in need of your help.”
“I’m sure the two events are unrelated.”
“Really? Convenient, don’t you think, that this urgent need for money to send his grandson to Greenharbour coincides with your mother’s death?”
“My uncle claims his grandson has some sort of magical talent; that he needs to be apprenticed to the Sorcerers’ Collective.”
“And I’m the demon child,” her slave scoffed.
“You think he’s lying?”
“I think any man who writes to a niece he’s never met the day after her mother dies in the mistaken belief she’s inherited her father’s fortune, asking for money to save a cousin she doesn’t even know exists, is suspect.”
“Then what do you suggest I do?”
“Eat,” the slave ordered firmly. She took Luciena’s hand and led her to the table before making her sit with a firm push. Aleesha shoved the pile of bills aside, along with the letter from Fardohnya and the full purse from the slave sale, and placed the cheese and the flatbread on the desk in front of her. “And forget about your uncle.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Aleesha. But not as easy to do. Do you know what they do to sorcerers in Fardohnya?”
“All sorts of terrible things, I’m sure. But I don’t care, and neither should you. This Cory—”
“Rory,” Luciena corrected. “The boy’s name is Rory.”
“Whatever.” The slave shrugged. “The point is, he’s not your problem and you shouldn’t try to make him one. Now eat something. I’m sure everything will look better on a full stomach.”
Luciena did as the slave demanded. It was easier than arguing with her. She brushed her dark hair back behind her ears and picked up a slice of the stale flatbread. It tasted like parchment.
“Why?” Luciena asked through a mouthful of bread.
“Why do things always look better on a full stomach?”
“People think better when they’re not hungry.”
“Do they? I wonder what magical properties are contained in bread and cheese that opens one’s mind to giant leaps of intuitive thinking.”
Aleesha stared at her for a moment and then frowned. “Just eat,” she said after a moment of puzzled silence.
“I’m sorry, Aleesha. I don’t mean to tease you. Do you have any idea about how I can buy us out of this mess, help my cousin and still manage to keep a roof over our heads?”
“You could marry.”
Luciena laughed at the very notion. “Marry who, for Kalianah’s sake? I’m baseborn, Aleesha. My father was a commoner, for all he was a wealthy man. And my mother was a court’esa. I have no dowry. Any money I might have inherited from my father is either spent or in the hands of the Wolfblades. No rich man would have me, and it sort of defeats the purpose to marry a poor man.”
“Perhaps you could get a job?”
“I suppose. I’ve an education rivalling a Warlord’s heir,” she agreed. “Of course, I can’t imagine who would hire me, or what they’d hire me for. All the jobs I’m qualified for are the kind they reserve for sons and heirs. And even if I found a job tomorrow, it would be too late to help Rory. Do you think I should try to get an audience with the High Arrion? Maybe she could speak to the Fardohnyans?”
“And tell them what?”
“I don’t know,” Luciena replied uncertainly. “But surely, if the High Arrion intervened on his behalf . . .”
“Then she’d be signing the child’s death warrant, I suspect. Advertising your magical talent by having the High Arrion of the Sorcerers’ Collective in Hythria asking after you isn’t a terribly bright idea in Fardohnya.”
“See! You think he’s in danger, too,” she accused.
Aleesha shook her head. “Even if I did, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got as much chance of getting in to see someone like Lady Alija as I have of marrying the High Prince. And even if you could get in to see her, there’s no guarantee she’d be willing to help you. You’re not the sort of person she usually associates with.”
“Couldn’t you try to be a little optimistic, Aleesha? Just this once?”
“I’ll embrace optimism, my lady, as soon as you start embracing reality,” the slave suggested tartly. “Eat the crusts, too. We’ve not the money to waste these days that you can afford to throw anything away.”
“What’s embracing reality supposed to mean?” Luciena demanded, munching determinedly through a mouthful of tasteless bread.
“I mean,” Aleesha scolded, “you need to get over these strange notions you have about your relatives, my lady. Or the lack of them. You’re the only child of a nameless slave and a man who cut himself off from the rest of his family. All the wishing in the world isn’t going to alter that. There’s no big family waiting to embrace you, Luciena, and you’ve got to stop hoping there’s one out there somewhere, looking for you.”
“Face the truth, lass. There’s no point trying to find a way to help some boy you’ve never laid eyes on in the hope it’ll give you what you’re looking for. You need to deal with our problems, not the problems of some cousin you hadn’t heard of until a few days ago. For that matter, if Warak Mariner kept his promise to never mention your father’s name again, your cousin probably doesn’t even know you exist.”
Luciena sighed, wondering if her childish secret dreams really were interfering with her judgment. Aleesha was making a frightening amount of sense. “I suppose the timing is a little suspicious.”
“Damn right, it is.”
“It just doesn’t feel right to do nothing.” She swallowed the last of the bread, her mouth dry. “Is that cider?” she added, indicating the glass on the tray.
“Aye,” Aleesha said, walking to the side table to pick up the glass. “It’s the last of the barrels your mother bought before . . .”
Luciena looked up as Aleesha’s voice trailed off. She was staring out of the window. “Aleesha?”
The slave didn’t move.
“Aleesha! What’s the matter?”
“Are you expecting visitors?” she asked, her eyes fixed on the street below.
“No.” Luciena leaned back in her chair and sighed wearily. “More debt collectors, I suppose?”
“Not unless you owe someone at the palace money,” the slave replied.
“What?” All thoughts of her long-lost uncle and her Fardohnyan cousin forgotten, Luciena jumped to her feet and hurried to the window, pushing Aleesha aside to see who was out there.
To her astonishment, there were three horsemen dismounting in the cobbled street in front of her house. They wore the gold and white livery of the Wolfblade House. Palace Guards. Or, to be more precise, the High Prince’s personal guards. Luciena was dumbfounded.
“Maybe that summons is going to come after all,” Aleesha suggested, glancing at her mistress.
“I seriously doubt that,” Luciena replied. “More likely they’ve been sent here to warn me.”
Luciena’s expression hardened. “To keep my head down. I imagine the last thing Princess Marla wants is the world reminded she has a stepdaughter born of a court’esa living not three blocks from her townhouse.”
“Look on the bright side,” Aleesha suggested. “That makes her family.”
Luciena smiled sourly. “The irony’s not lost on me, Aleesha.”
There was a pounding on the door as the officer in charge of the small detail announced their arrival with his gauntleted fist.
“Shall I open the door?”
Luciena thought about saying no. She wanted to. She wished she had the courage. But in the end she knew that even if she denied these men entry, it just meant that more of them would be back later. Three Palace Guardsmen she could probably handle.
“Let them in, Aleesha,” she ordered.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “I’m sure.”
The officer in charge of the palace detail left his two companions in the hall and saluted smartly as he stopped before Luciena, who was standing near the fountain that trickled cheerily into the near-empty pond at its base. It had been full of exotic fish once. Luciena had sold them not long after the horses to pay the butcher. Now just a few lonely goldfish swam in lazy circles around the pool.
The officer was young. Very young. Luciena judged him barely older than she was. Yet he wore the insignia of a lieutenant of the Palace Guard, a rank of no small responsibility. He was dark-haired, and quite tall with a not-unpleasant face; probably the son of some wealthy nobleman who’d bought him a commission in the Palace Guard to keep him out of trouble.
“You are Luciena Mariner?” he asked, looking around the reception hall on the ground floor with open curiosity.
Luciena had ordered Aleesha to bring her guest here. It was an imposing room with its Harshini-inspired fountain and its high-domed ceiling painted with a mural dedicated to the Goddess of Love, her mother’s favourite Primal God. Because of the murals, the reception hall didn’t look quite as empty as the rest of the house. The young man wasn’t fooled, however; she could see him taking a mental inventory of what must be missing from the room.
“I am,” Luciena replied with as much poise as she could muster.
“I have an invitation for you, Miss Mariner.”
“Her Royal Highness, the Princess Marla,” the young man replied. “She requests that I pass on her sincere condolences for the loss of your mother, and asks if you would join her for lunch tomorrow, at her home, so she may discuss your future with you.”
Luciena had to bite her tongue to prevent herself screaming at the sheer gall of the invitation. “Shall I arrive at the front door?” she asked with icy dignity. “Or would it be more appropriate if I sneaked in through the slaves’ entrance at the back?”
The officer seemed rather startled by her reply. “I beg your pardon?”
“Her Royal Highness has not seen fit to so much as acknowledge my existence until now, Lieutenant,” she told him. “I can only assume her shame at my baseborn status is the reason she ignored the vow she made to my father when they wed. I believe I can therefore confidently make the further assumption that the only reason she has chosen to acknowledge my existence now is because of the potential embarrassment I pose to her.”
Luciena expected the officer to be offended by her words, but inexplicably he smiled. “Maybe that’s something you should take up with Princess Marla, Miss Mariner.”
“And maybe I choose not to,” she replied stiffly. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Lieutenant Taranger, you may return to the palace and inform Her Royal Highness, the Princess Marla, that I am otherwise engaged.”
“You’re refusing her invitation?”
“You’re very quick, aren’t you?”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some time to think about this?”
“Thank you, but no.”
“Very well,” he said, as if he wasn’t really surprised by her refusal. “I shall inform her highness of your reply.”
Without waiting for her to answer, the young man saluted sharply and turned on his heel, his highly polished boots echoing through the hall as he crossed the tiled floor. Luciena held her breath, half expecting him to turn around, half expecting him to order the house torched for the insult to the High Prince’s sister, but the young officer did nothing but order his men to fall in behind and left the house without another word.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Fallon