How could a fake engagement between royals go wrong? When one of them is secretly a dragon.
Princess Liane fights to eradicate the city’s criminal underbelly and has sworn never to marry. But her mother, the Empress, is desperate to see her settled. When Liane takes on a secret mission, she’s ready for the challenge, but her mother’s meddling keeps getting in the way. To distract her, Liane needs a fake fiancé…
Cursed to transform into a dragon during the full moon, Erich lives in fear of discovery and death at the hands of humans. Then an elf makes him an offer: steal the Empress’ enchanted blade for a cure. Now Erich has one month before his next transformation and his secret’s exposed. But to get close to the royal family, he’ll need a disguise…
Tangled up in secrets and lies, they agree to a pretend engagement. But as the lines between pretense and reality blur, and with their motives in conflict, can they escape their deception with their lives and hearts intact?
Read on for a Sneak Peak at Chapter One!
Erich gripped the pommel of his dagger, lengthening his stride as the Midnight Guards’ elongated shadows chased him. They didn’t move from their positions at the temple steps, but he felt their eyes following him just the same. A sliver of moon burned defiantly against a twilight sky. Few precious hours remained before curfew, and he couldn’t waste a second. If he didn’t make it back to the Wind Maiden by then, not only would they leave on the morning tide without him, taking all his geld and belongings, but they’d strand him in Artria for weeks, long past the next full moon. That was assuming the Midnight Guard didn’t discover him first.
Head down, he joined the crowds spilling out of overcrowded inns lining Temple Street, as they sought entertainment in cheap theaters and gambling houses the next district over. Market-type stalls popped up to line the street and take advantage of the influx of pilgrims swarming Artria. The scent of meat pies wafted on the air, commingling unpleasantly with the fetid stench of the city, and each brush of a stranger made his skin twitch. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to visit with the solstice looming, the city bursting at the seams, and him fresh off a long stint in a hermit’s cottage in the wilds of Soccicio. Erich had grown accustomed to the company of shamans and wisewomen and had forgotten what it was like to walk amongst the unwashed masses.
Despite his instinct to break from the pack, he let the crowd pull him along like the current of a river, flowing downhill, and as they did, barkers lured pilgrims into their brightly-painted establishments, thinning the crowds, drip by drip. The road curved, and those that remained kept their heads down and walked with purposeful strides; unlike the wide-eyed ambling pilgrims, they didn’t need someone to direct them where they were going.
The street was dirtier there; putrid puddles collected between cracked stone and buildings leaned against each other as if they’d collapse without their support. Erich consulted a street post at a four-way intersection, and its dangling faded sign indicated he’d arrived in the Velvet District. A rather sumptuous name for a seedy district of the city. The corner where he stood stank of boiled vomit, and a few feet away, a tree-sized man leaned against the greasy wall of a tavern picking his teeth with the tip of his pocketknife. Erich removed a piece of parchment from his pocket, squinting at ink-splotched letters, to check the name of the tavern where his contact waited: The Gilded Weasel.
He’d found the place, though it wasn’t what he’d imagined when the Soccicio sailor had told him about the Miracle Worker of Artria. A potential cure had been an irresistible temptation and lured him off the boat despite the risks. In the past, he’d scaled a mountain to find a healer with a gift for herbs, and crossed a desert seeking a man who still spoke the language of stars; what was a quick jaunt into the city to meet this supposed miracle worker? Maybe he’d be different than the rest, and they’d free him of this dragon corruption.
Plastered on the wall outside was a poster promising geld for information about the corrupted, and his hand twitched, wishing to grasp his dagger for comfort. A blow struck his shoulder, and spinning, Erich drew his blade from under his coat and pressed it against the neck of his assailant. The man paled to the color of milk, and his wide, dark eyes darted between the dagger and Erich.
“Please, I have nothing,” he stuttered, hands held up helplessly as the sleeves of his overlarge jacket slid down his thin wrists.
Judging by his moderate attire, a clerk or something similar and no threat to him. Sighing, Erich sheathed his dagger. The tree trunk man grasped his comically small pocketknife in his beefy fist and eyed Erich, as if looking for a fight.
This was why he hated the cities; in less than an hour, he was assaulting innocents.
“No harm. I overreacted. Guess, I’m jumpy since the war,” Erich said with a smile and a pat on his shoulder.
Both nodded their heads. Everyone on the continent could sympathize; war had scarred them all. It made for a convenient cover because no one asked questions, and though he might not have fought in any war, he’d fought his fair share of battles.
“Let me buy you a drink.” The clerk gestured toward the pub.
Tree man hadn’t let go of his pocketknife, and his beady eyes shifted from the poster then to Erich. Had Erich moved too quickly or in some way appeared inhuman? He was always careful to keep a tight rein on his reactions and movements as to not give away his unusual strength and senses. But mistakes happened, as the past had shown. Best to get what he came for and leave before he aroused any more suspicion.
With a forced smile, he slung an arm around the clerk’s shoulder, who buckled beneath the weight of him as Erich ushered him into the tavern. Inside, dark panels lined the walls, a familiar hazy, sweet-smelling cloud of smoke choked the air and obscured the faces of the patrons crowding the battered tables throughout the room. Beneath the stench of sweat, smoke, and cheap ale, something tugged at his senses, a thread of magic. A tingle raised the hairs on the back of his neck, faint and hardly noticeable to anyone who wasn’t trained to.
The clerk slid out from under his arm and found them seats at the bar. It, too, pulsed faintly with live magic. Running a finger against the lip of the bar, Erich discovered runes carved there that responded to his touch and sent a jolt up his arm. They were everywhere in the pub, hidden along ceiling beams and in decorative flourishes on archways. His ability to read runes was academic at best, meaning educated guesswork, but they seemed to be wards of protection. Who’d carved them here, in a city that outlawed magic? For the first time in a long time, he felt hopeful.
After The Corruption, the language and practice of rune spells had been lost. Sometimes, in small remote villages, he stumbled across them carved into a tree or rock, remnants of the past, more superstitious ritual than real magic, never flickering or giving any indication of power even when he actively tried to awaken them. They’d lost their power ages ago, and those villagers that remained wouldn’t say who’d created them, and no one remembered where they’d originated before that. Except perhaps the Church of Sol, who hoarded knowledge of the age before The Corruption, keeping those last fragments of magic for themselves.
“An ale for me and my comrade,” the clerk said, when the bartender came over.
Grasping two tankards in one hand, the bartender filled them both from a golden stream of ale pouring out of a dusty barrel before plopping them down onto the counter in front of them. Erich tossed a few Kupfer to the bartender, a small penance for drawing a dagger on the clerk, and the bartender caught them midair, revealing a black circle tattoo, encircled by half a dozen stars. A cold chill ran down his spine; now he understood the runes throughout the establishment.
Each star on his wrist represented a successful hunt. Dead corrupted. Men and women like him. Were there other dragon-corrupted among his trophies? The bartender caught his stare and brushed a hand against his wrist as he pulled down the sleeve of his shirt.
“I’m retired now,” he said, to answer his unasked question.
Bad enough he’d recognized it. The Church of Sol didn’t want civilians hunting corrupted; that was the Midnight Guards’ job. But desperate men and women risked it all to hunt and kill corrupted, harvesting valuable, horns, claws, and fangs to be sold on the black market. Retired hunters were rare, as most died in pursuit of their next bounty or were caught by the church and punished. Erich took a swig of the bitter ale and scanned the room, suddenly aware he might have stumbled into a trap. The bartender moved on, and most of the patrons were absorbed in their own glasses, but for one sandy blond-haired man standing by the door, arms crossed, and eyes narrowed. Erich sought the comfort of his pommel.
“You seem young to have fought in the war,” the clerk said.
“You’re one to talk. What are you, seventeen?” Erich replied without looking away from the man at the door. His eyes were following someone, but it was difficult to say who amongst the crowd.
“I’m older than I look,” he said.
Erich ignored him as he’d found who the blond was watching. A fiery redhead sauntered over toward him, and he tensed. Sometimes hunters worked together in a group: the bartender, the woman, and the man at the door could be attempting to entrap him. She squeezed between him and the man on his left, leaning against the bar. She flagged the bartender over, whose face lit up as he hurried over to take her order. While the bartender filled her drink, he studied her profile, full lips, pale skin, and smooth hands that didn’t fit her homespun. The lack of scars and callouses told him she wasn’t a sword for hire, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a hunter’s lure.
Her blue eyes slid toward him, and a smile curled her rouge lips.
“You gonna sit here all night staring into that tankard?” she asked.
Lure or not, he wasn’t going to take the bait. After chugging his drink, he slammed the empty tankard down onto the counter. It was possible he was being paranoid, but he hadn’t come this far to not at least try. Besides, at this moon phase, he wasn’t worth anything to a hunter, and he’d fought against worse odds and lived.
“All yours,” Erich said, sweeping an arm to his now-empty seat.
She flashed him a brilliant smile before taking it.
Without looking back, Erich walked to the back of the tavern, seeking the man the sailor had described. The tables here by the back door were mostly empty but for a man leaning back in his chair, alternating rolling a coin over his knuckles and tossing it in the air. Limp, greasy brown hair covered a ragged hole where an ear used to be. He’d found his guy. A quick glance over his shoulder, and he confirmed he wasn’t being watched.
According to the sailor, no one spoke to the miracle worker without speaking to their representative first. Erich snatched the man’s coin in midair. Glowering, the man rose from his seat, scarred hands splayed against the tabletop.
“The stars are bright tonight,” Erich recited the code.
“And the moon fades.” The man spat onto the floor and jerked his head toward a set of stairs leading up to a second floor.
Resting his palm against the hilt of his dagger, Erich followed him up the stairs, and the din of the tavern faded. At the top, a narrow landing greeted him, and his escort’s shadow stretched out over threadbare rugs as he marched down the hall. It ended at a single door that his escort opened and gestured for him to enter.
Inside, a man with half a pointer finger counted geld and silbern coins without looking up at Erich even as the door closed behind him. A man, a head taller than Erich, a cudgel strapped to his belt, stepped in front of it, blocking any potential exit. Not exactly the way he pictured a meeting with a miracle worker, but perhaps this was his representative. After all, if the Church of Sol knew what they were doing, they’d be arrested for breaking laws against unauthorized magic. Relaxing his posture, he reluctantly released his grip on his dagger.
“Evening gentlemen,” Erich said as he took a seat uninvited at the table.
The man swept away his coins into a pouch, then shoved it into a pocket inside his coat before finally glancing up at Erich.
“Did your mother raise you in a cow pen?” Half-finger asked.
“Never knew my mother.”
The man scoffed. “You’ve got some nerve, foreigner.”
He hadn’t thought his accent was that bad, but it’d been ages since he’d spoken Neolyrian.
“I hear you’re the man I need to talk to to find a healer.”
“If you want a healer, go to the temple.”
“The sort of healing I’m looking for the temple cannot provide.”
The thug’s gaze flicked to the guard, and a slow smile crept over his face. “I might have something; if you have the coin.”
Erich reached for his belt, and Half-finger’s eyes narrowed onto his dagger before he nodded at big man, who shuffled, presumably grasping his cudgel. Erich removed his sheathed weapon and set it on the table slowly, then raising his hands in a gesture of good faith, he waited on Half-finger’s signal before making another move.
“Any other weapons on you?” the thug asked.
Many. “That’s it. Can I show you what I’m offering?”
The thug nodded curtly.
“Is this enough?” Erich asked as he dumped out his purse of geld coins onto the table.
Half-finger’s eyes lit up as he reached for the geld, but Erich swatted his hand away. “First, let me see the Miracle Worker of Artria. If he’s not a fraud, then I’ll pay you this and more.”
The thug threw his head back and laughed. “Miracle Worker of Artria? That’s just a myth.”
“There’s no need to play games. I’ll pay you this and more. I’m good for it. Name your price.” He’d empty Father’s coffers if that’s what it took to be free of this curse.
Half-finger must have scented his desperation because the wicked curve of his mouth and the twinkle in his eye screamed greed.
“I’m the Miracle Worker of Artria; whatever ails you, I’ve got the remedy.” He pulled out a small bag from his waistband and dropped it onto the table.
Erich plucked it off the table and felt the pulse of magic inside, tugging at him and reaching out like a thousand tiny tentacles attempting to take hold. Inside, burnt sugar-scented golden powder shimmered, and Erich dropped it, letting it spill across the scarred table. Stardust. A potent, highly addictive drug that reduced pain along with a euphoric high. For some, one taste was enough to create a powerful enough craving that they were driven mad with want, and withdrawals caused greater and greater pain with each dose. It wasn’t a remedy, but a sickness.
Lurching forward, the thug scraped up golden granules with surprising reverence.
“Careful with the product. This is a rare commodity.” He glared at Erich.
“I think there’s been a mistake.” Erich rose, reaching for his dagger and bag of geld, but before he could, the thug stabbed it through, and coins spilled from the torn fabric.
“I don’t think you understand. You’re not leaving here without paying for what you’ve spilled.”
Blood pounded in his ears as he considered his options, and as there was no use reasoning with them, it left him with only one: fighting his way out. Fortunately for him, his dragon curse made him faster and stronger than most humans. Erich lunged for his dagger, had a hold of it, and turned as big man swung his cudgel at Erich’s head, barely missing by a mere hair’s length. Twisting around, he jabbed at big man as the cudgel came back down, striking him in the shoulder and knocking him back into Half-finger, who poked a knife into his lower back.
“No one gets away without paying,” he snarled.
Then the door burst open, and all eyes turned toward the redhead from the bar standing in the doorway.
“City Watch, no one move!” she said in a commanding voice.
Something told him he wasn’t leaving Artria with the morning tide after all.