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Excerpt

The Fiercest Joy
Five Rabbits, Inc. (February 09, 2017)
ISBN-10: 0998470228 ISBN-13: 9780998470221

As befitting my outlander status at the school, I lived by myself in one of Iverson’s isolated towers, which suited me beautifully.

As clusters of the other students retired to their own luxurious wing, I walked just behind them, and then past them, to the lonely stairwell that wound upward to my room. Oil lamps burning in alcoves lit all the main passageways—the island had no electricity—but if I wished for illumination, I had to carry my own candle up the stairs. Conveniently, I was handed one by Almeda, the chatelaine, as I was leaving the great hall after the banquet.

“I thought we were allowed only two candles per month,” I said, surprised. I’d left both of mine in my room. These upper-class girls weren’t above pinching any little extras they could find.

“Aye, that’s still the rule. But oil’s become dear. Since this wretched war began, a great many things have become dear, I’m sorry to say! We’ll not be lighting your way to the tower. Doesn’t make sense for just one lass.”

I didn’t point out that they’d never actually lit the stairs. I was used to traveling them in the dark.

“Very generous of you,” I said, accepting the candle.

Almeda gave a nod. She was plump and gruff, but not unkind. “Well. No one wants you breaking your head, do they?”

I imagined quite a few people would be happy if I broke my head (Mittie at the very least, scowling at me with her tomato-soup face), but again, I said nothing.

It was three flights up to my door. The air took on its particular chill as I climbed; the castle was always cold but the towers especially so. The pewter holder for the candle soon ringed my finger in ice.

But the flame I carried was golden and flickering. It offered the illusion of warmth, spreading light that danced along the pits and lines of the limestone walls before vanishing into the shadows that lingered soft above my head.

I kept my pace measured. I kept the candle close. I touched my hand to the knob of my door and turned it without hurry, because I already knew what I’d find inside my little round room.

Who, rather.

He waited for me upon my bed. To be fair, there wasn’t anywhere else to sit; my chamber contained a bed, a bureau, and an armoire. That was it. That was all that would fit, frankly, but he looked right at home on the bed, relaxed and smiling. He’d gathered a few of my quilts around him, because the room was quite as chilly as the stairwell, and beneath the quilts he would be wearing no clothes.

Here was Lord Armand Louis, second son of a duke:

Brown-haired, very deep brown and glossy. Always slightly ruffled and too long for fashion.

Blue-eyed, intensely blue. Cobalt oceans, infinite nights, surrounded by thick jet lashes. Girls of a certain ilk were known to swoon over those lashes.

Ivory skin as pale as mine.

Arrogance in the cut of his jaw, the curve of his lips.

Strength in the cords of his neck, his shoulders. All the rest of him.

Beauty, sharp-edged and dangerous.

Magic beneath and above all that. Magic like mine, invisible power that hummed through him and changed him and blessed him, even though Armand certainly needed no further blessings in his life.

About a year older than I, he had come into his Gifts later than I had. Yet it seemed to me that his were already more obvious. Whenever I’d seen him lately, I couldn’t believe I was the only one to notice how he shimmered now. How he shone like nothing else alive, like the blade of a sword freshly whetted to draw blood, to slice through tangled destinies and claim forbidden crowns.

Armand was rich, handsome, and irrevocably focused on me. Always me.

He had no idea that just over a month ago, I’d promised the stars my mortal life in exchange for sparing his.

I had no intention of telling him. I had the uneasy feeling that drákon love was far darker and deeper than anything human, and this dragon loved me. What I felt for him was less crystalline, but I did know, with my entire being, that I couldn’t bear to break him. So I would never tell.

Someday, I supposed, I’d just . . . be taken. And then I’d never have to see him break.

I was a coward, because I was glad about that.

“What a lot of sour little prigs,” he said genially. “Blimey, who knew?”

“Shhh.” I closed my door. “It’s very quiet up here. Voices carry.”

“No one’s around, waif.”

He would hear them as well as I. He would sense them as well as I. Heartbeats. Respiration. Sweat.

I placed the candle upon my bureau. The small looking glass behind it caught the flame, cast it back at me in doubled gold.

I tried for a severe tone. “You shouldn’t be here. I’ll get tossed out.”

“Do you think they’ll catch me in your bed?”

“They’d bloody well better not.”

He cocked his head. “What have we to hide? Haven’t you taken me as your lover?”

I couldn’t help it; I started to laugh, so I pressed my fingers over my mouth to hold it in. “That was so . . . Did you see their faces?”

“I did.”

I let my smile break through. “That was worth every bit of it.”

Armand slanted back against my pillows. “I don’t know what they were going on about. You look rather smashing in that uniform.”

“If only I could breathe.”

“Breathing,” he said, with a wicked smile of his own, “can be entirely overrated. Aren’t you cold over there, all by yourself? I’ve warmed the blankets quite nicely, you know.”

“I meant it, Mandy. You shouldn’t have come. I’m a schoolgirl again, a ruddy respectable one.”

“Really?” he asked, still genial. “Then why did you leave your window open, schoolgirl, if you didn’t want me to come?”

Despite what I’d told everyone, and despite his own wishes (and what a good many people had already assumed), Armand was not my lover. Not entirely. But ever since last August, we had been sleeping beside each other nearly every night. It wasn’t as scandalous as it sounded—all right, it was, but at least there had been no silly sneaking about the darkened halls of Tranquility in our robes, skulking from room to room in the middle of the night like characters in a very bad farce.

When you could Turn to smoke, you needed neither robes nor darkness to pass by unnoticed. All you needed was a sliver of space—a crack beneath a door, an empty keyhole, an open window—and you could find yourself wherever you wished.

I liked sleeping beside him. He was lean and comfortable and scented of spice and clouds and woods. And although I’d never admit it out loud, I rested better when he was near.

I worked at the buttons on my boots until I could kick them off, unfastened the top of my skirt, then climbed into bed. I was wrapped instantly in quilts and arms.

“You can’t stay,” I whispered, closing my eyes.

“No, I know.” He turned his face to mine. His lips brushed my forehead.

That was all he did, and I knew that was all he would ask of me tonight. Even with the unpredictable heat of drákon in his blood, Armand Louis was a gentleman. So it had to be me who inched closer, who tilted her chin in invitation and waited, waited, until he shifted to find my lips.

I sighed a little against him, my breath warming his skin. His hand lifted, his palm skimming my shirtwaist, up my corset to my shoulder. His fingers curved firm around my arm.

Whenever Jesse and I had kissed, I’d felt bliss. There’s no better word for it, just bliss. It had been bright and shattering. But when I kissed Armand, it was different. I never felt blissful, exactly. I felt ravenous. Like I’d never get enough; I’d always want more and more. And it was getting harder and harder to stop at mere kisses.

If the end of my life was a precipice approaching, I teetered at its brink. I would not go over it without taking more from him, I knew.

So I was selfish and a coward.

But I wouldn’t take more tonight, because even though his lips were velvet, and even though his body was strong and familiar, and even though his fragrance filled me and intoxicated me—better than wine or champagne or gin—tonight was not our night. Somewhere inside me, in a deep and still place, I knew that.

I thought perhaps that he did, as well.

He gave a ragged exhalation and eased away. He stroked my shoulder, restless strokes, as our pulses calmed and the shadow-thick night began to reclaim us.

Beyond the bed and him, the air held the tang of autumn. The Channel surf struck echoes against the shore. A breeze slipped in past the window, a soundless breath pushed from the sea to the candle, and the flame guttered out.

“Well done with that taper,” I said sleepily, after a moment.

“Thank you,” Armand replied, very soft. “But I was aiming for her head.”

***

I dreamed of a song. It was a small song at first, barely a skip of sound against the low steady rush of my heartbeat over Armand’s. But it was persistent, a tinkling, pretty thing with a hint of urgency about it, a scale of melody that grew louder and then quieter and then louder. It rose and fell like the waves that scored the coast, up and down, up and down, on and on . . .

I opened my eyes. The song remained, sliding through the dark.

Armand took a heavier breath, lifting half of me with him.

“I hear it, too,” he said.

I sat up. I pushed a few sticky strands of hair from my cheeks and looked toward my room’s lone window.

The song was coming from somewhere beyond it.

It wasn’t a star-song. Even from the bed, I could see the dense gray fog that concealed the sky. The stars would be singing above that, of course, but if I wanted to hear them I’d have to fly up to them.

It wasn’t a stone-song, either. It was too tiny and chiming for that.

It was from something metal. Something made of gold.

The castle, needless to say, had many objects of gold within it. Most of the students had cases and cases of fine jewelry because on the weekends, out of uniform, they were allowed to show it all off. Even our professors sported modest rings or bangles or earbobs. I had become accustomed to those sorts of songs, which nearly always sounded lethargic or downright aloof.

I myself owned a golden brooch and a golden cuff, but the cuff was on my wrist, and the brooch still tucked in the bureau.

This song was new. And although it had no words, it felt like it . . . knew me.

Was trying to summon me.

I padded to the window. It was tall and composed of diamond-shaped panes and typically opened only just enough for me to stick my head through. I placed my hands on the glass and pushed, and the hinges squeaked and gave a whit more.

Were it not for the fog, I would have seen my usual view of the lawn that smoothed the land before the castle, plus a few of the eerie animal-shaped hedges that seemed poised to wander about. A portion of the rose gardens. The beginnings of the woods. I would have also seen the bridge that connected the island to the mainland, a spindly wooden toothpick nearly a mile long, Iverson’s sole link to the rest of the world.

But there was fog tonight, damp and thick and salty. So that was all that I saw.

The song sparkled through it, beckoning.

I glanced back at Armand. He was watching me, his mouth turned down. He gave a short, quick shake of his head.

I smiled and shook my head back at him. Then I Turned to smoke, letting my too-small clothes and the cuff and my hairpins and everything that was not me fall to the floor. I flowed out the window and went to answer that summons.