A TALE FROM THE SIX KINGDOMS
Gryphon’s Gate Publishing, November, 2013
The Amber Orb’s magical bond is unbreakable and the only escape is death.
And Thea needs to be free of her bond. Her partner, Brand, is a Knight Blade too handsome for his own good and rumored to have murdered his previous partner. He’s the last person she wants to spend the rest of her life with, but Thea is a Knight Key of the Amber Order—even if she’s never manifested any magical abilities—and has sworn an oath of obedience.
With no time to deal with her new partnership and her attraction to Brand—surely a side-effect of the bond—they are thrust on their first mission: travel to the mysterious Crystal City with its strange, reclusive people and determine why the High King’s ambassador has gone silent. But dangerous magic lies within the city’s shimmering walls, magic that threatens to destroy everyone… if her bond with Brand doesn’t destroy her first.
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Thea wiped her sweaty palms down the sides of her robe and resisted the urge to glance at the people packing the great hall. The selection ritual was just something she had to get through. That was all. It didn’t mean anything. It never meant anything. All she had to do was get through this, through all the stares and looks of pity, and then life could go back to normal for another year.
Thankfully after this one, the Knight Masters would stop making her attend, and she’d be secure in her position as Assistant Librarian to the Order. She’d been required to take the ritual for three years now, every winter and summer solstice, and every time, she walked away grateful she hadn’t been forced into a bonded partnership forged by the magic of the Amber Orb.
The others could have the honor. She didn’t want it—despite that it was a more glamorous position. But the ritual was part of the oath she’d taken when the Amber Orb selected her to become a Knight of the Order.
And so here she was, standing with her fellow Keys, praying she wouldn’t hear the call and be chosen by a Blade.
Her gaze slid over the room, at the muted frescos painted on the walls and arched ceiling depicting Amber Knights in action. The art poured around the six great pillars standing, like the unbonded Blades and Keys, in two rows down the hall. Families, friends, knights, and novices all stood in attendance to bear witness, while the High Priestess stood at the front by the altar, before a replica of the Amber Orb on an intricate marble-and-gold pedestal, chanting to the gods.
The Knight Masters of the Order, however, were absent, which was unusual. It could only mean something important was happening in the High King’s domain that required their immediate attention. She was sure, once the ceremony was over, she’d hear all the gossip.
The girl beside Thea shifted from one foot to the other, drawing Thea’s attention. The girl practically glowed with anticipation and hung on every word the High Priestess chanted. A few years ago that had been Thea. Newly knighted and just past her sixteenth natal day. Young and foolish with no idea of what lay ahead.
Of course Thea still wasn’t that much older herself and probably had less experience with what lay beyond the Order’s walls than anyone, but she’d read about it. Maybe the girl had a strong Talent, some powerful magical gift that would keep her safe once she left the temple. Or maybe she’d have a reliable Blade, one with exceptional martial prowess.
As if hearing her thoughts, a Blade a few feet away cleared his throat. There were twice as many Blades as Keys this year—which was usually the case—and all but three of the Blades were men. They stood rigid in full dress armor with one hand holding their helms while the other rested on the hilt of their swords. Their expressions were just as devout as the girl’s beside her.
All except Brand of Milengard.
Thea shuddered at the thought of being bonded to him. Not that either of them had a choice. Whatever partnered a Key and a Blade was beyond the understanding of even the Knight Master Key. Some said it was the ancient magic within the Amber Orb. Others said it was fate.
Whatever it was, Thea prayed it wouldn’t throw her lot in with Blade Brand. She’d bet a year’s stipend the girl beside her hoped to hear the call with him. Probably every girl in the Key line did. It didn’t matter that he’d play the games of courtship with anyone and everyone. That just made him more exciting, more of a challenge. It also didn’t seem to matter that those not enamored with him thought he’d killed his previous Key.
If Thea had her guess, it was likely a rumor. The Order would have expelled him if it were true. Still, she couldn’t believe he’d been reinstated to active duty so soon after his partner’s death, forcing him onto some other moon-eyed Key. It hadn’t even been a year since he’d returned home with the corpse of his partner slung over the saddle of his charger.
Besides, he wasn’t so beautiful. Striking-blue eyes, bronze hair, strong jaw. There was more to beauty than just looks.
Her gaze trailed over his tabard to his narrow waist. It was difficult to tell what lay beneath all that cloth and metal, but the physical demands on a Blade had likely sculpted him to a fine specimen.
Heat seeped up her neck and across her cheeks.
She dragged her attention to his face. She didn’t know why. She should have looked at the High Priestess, at a different Blade, at the Key beside her. Anywhere but into his eyes.
Those bottomless eyes captured her, pulled her in. She was drowning in a writhing, burning sea. A flame fluttered in her chest—tiny, licking at her heart—and warmth spread through her with each pulse.
He raised a sculpted eyebrow and a sardonic smile pulled at his lips. Her stomach roiled and she fought the heat within her. He thought she was attracted to him, that she was fawning after him like those insipid girls.
How dare he think she was his next conquest. She wasn’t. Wouldn’t be. Never going to happen. And yet that fire around her heart kept growing. Her legs wobbled and she fought to keep standing.
When would the ceremony be over? Surely she could last that long.
No, she would last that long.
Despite that she didn’t have a Talent, the Amber Orb had picked her to be a Key for the Order. This was where she was supposed to be, and she wasn’t weak like everyone thought.
She dragged her gaze back to Brand’s and met him head-on. No weakling here. She forced one eyebrow up to match his. The smile pulling at his lips grew.
The High Priestess said the Proclamation of the Call and tension rippled through the room. Or was that something she sensed from Brand? The girl beside her trembled with anticipation. The poor fool had no idea what she was getting into. Maybe she’d be lucky like Thea and never hear the Call.
Brand’s expression hardened and he blinked, breaking eye contact and releasing Thea from his spell. The pressure within her evaporated, and she focused on the first Blade approaching the row of Keys. As the most experienced uncalled Key, Thea stood first in line. For the first few ceremonies, she’d seen it as a place of shame, but while everyone else still did, she didn’t care anymore. Being called meant things would change, and she didn’t want life to change. She liked it just the way it was.
The first Blade—she couldn’t remember his name and had stopped learning them after the third ceremony of not being called—stepped before her. She held out her hand and he took it.
“If magic entwine, Key of the Order be called as mine.”
“If magic entwine, Blade of the Order be called as mine.” She gazed into his eyes.
The moment when a Blade and Key were partnered was beyond description. Every Blade and Key experienced it differently, but she’d been assured that when it happened she would know.
The Blade pursed his lips and nodded, relief flashing across his face before he schooled it into a mask of calm.
She bit the inside of her cheek. As much as she didn’t want to be called, it still stung that they didn’t want her either. Although really, who wanted to be partnered with a Key who didn’t even have a single Talent?
The Blade moved to the girl beside her and the next Blade stepped up to Thea. Same words, same nonevent, same relief. Same with the next and the next. Someone down the row gasped—she couldn’t tell if it was a Blade or a Key—and a newly made partnership stepped out of the line and then another and another.
Poor fools. Poor, poor fools. Didn’t they know how dangerous it was outside the temple walls?
The girl beside her mumbled the ritual, and a slow tear traced a line down her cheek. “Oh, yes,” she whispered.
The Blade before her—a woman with a man’s shoulder-length haircut—offered a soft smile. She had eyes for no one else. There was no one else. In the future, there could be lovers and spouses—those might even come and go—but the partnership made at this moment would last for life. It was deeper than love and wrapped in the bonds of duty and magic.
Thea held out her hand, not paying attention to the Blade in front of her, still mesmerized by the new partnership beside her and the awe in each woman’s eyes. For a moment—no more than a heartbeat—she wanted to experience the sensation, to know what it would feel like to meet her chosen partner. But that wasn’t really what she wanted and wasn’t what she’d ever get.
She barely heard the Blade before her mumble the ritual.
“If magic entwine, Blade of the Order be mine.” She turned to look into the man’s eyes—blue, blue eyes—and was drowning again in a blue fire. It was Brand of Milengard.
Her heart skipped a beat and her breath hitched in her throat. He was intoxicating. No wonder women swooned over him. Her knees grew watery. She was certain she’d forgotten to breathe.
He opened his perfect, kissable lips, but no words came out.
A flame around her heart erupted into an inferno. Her knees buckled and she fell to the floor. She couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t cool the fire within her. Tears welled in her eyes at her inability to control herself. They would think she was weak. Unwanted and weak.
Brand pressed a hand on the floor by hers.
She didn’t dare look up at him. She’d lose her mind if she did. She’d already lost her mind, reacting like some weak-willed girl who’d never seen a handsome face before.
But that wasn’t what had happened. It was so much more terrible than that.
She’d been bonded.
Ice replaced the fire. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t. She had no Talents. She wasn’t appropriate for a partnership. Organizing books was what she was good at.
But she couldn’t deny it. She was bonded.
Brand’s hand lifted from the floor and brushed her chin, urging her to look up. Lightning sparked along her skin where he touched her.
She refused to face him. If she didn’t meet his gaze, he could move on, choose another. But that wasn’t how it worked. The ancient magics didn’t work like that. Once chosen, the bond could only be broken by death.
“Thea.” His soft voice sent shivers over her, and she glanced up.
The heat of the bond simmered in his eyes, but beneath it lay disappointment. He wasn’t happy to have her.
Her throat tightened. Well, she wasn’t happy to have him. She sucked in a steadying breath and stood. “Blade Brand.”
“Key Thea.” His voice was suddenly chilled. Whatever warmth had been there before was gone. He still held out a hand to help her up. She stared at it, at his wide palm and the calluses from weapons training. She yearned for him to finish the motion and touch her, to brush her skin with his fingers. But that was just lust fueled by his handsome face and the initiation of their bond.
His gaze followed hers, and he jerked his hand back. “I’m sure you have well-wishers.” He turned on his heel and marched across the vast room.
She shuddered, but whether from anticipation or something else, she wasn’t sure. It was ridiculous that the Amber Orb could have thought she’d make a competent Key, let alone a bonded one. And why, in the name of all that was good, did it have to be Brand of Milengard?
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