Jane and her friends travel to the Feronia Empire in search of answers, but on arriving she discovers more questions than she ever knew to ask.
Their journey takes them to the hinterlands of the capital where the buildup of arms that had been hinted at in the faraway village of Fossa makes itself known in many ways, not least of which is the horrors of captives. The empire has started to makes it move on the neighboring unaligned territories, and the freedom of the citizens is the first casualty. While they strive to balance rescuing the people with keeping a low enough profile to infiltrate the capital city, Jane stumbles into a mystery, one that revolves around her grandmother.
One of the leaders of the soldiers knows Bee from long ago, and he holds a revelation that will rock Jane’s world and shatter the illusion her grandmother has tried to hard to keep. In the ensuing chaos the empire reaches out its shadowy hands toward them, and their group finds themselves in a race against an entire empire to save not only themselves, but the future of all the Feronians.
Trying to escape destiny is like trying to get the last pickle out of the jar. The pickle is going to be so squeezed and prodded that it isn’t worth eating.
By the way, that was the weirdest fortune cookie fortune I had ever read, but I was about to find out how true it was as we rattled our way down the winding dirt road. My grandparents sat opposite Caius and I in the back of Signor Abano’s sturdy carriage. His sorry nag of a donager trudged along, catching the occasional blade of grass among many that were scattered about the side of the road.
We had left the forested valleys of the Fossa region and now found ourselves among a paradise of lush wild grass with the occasional patches of white-barked trees. Rolling hills stretched out in front of us, blocking our view beyond a mile ahead of us.READ MORE
Bee clutched on to my grandfather’s hand and kept her eyes focused completely on the road ahead of us. Every now and again a few whispered words left her parted lips. “Almost there. . .”
“Did you visit the capital city a lot when you used to live here?” I spoke up.
Bee smiled without looking at me. “I grew up there and only ventured out when your grandfather found me.”
Sage chuckled. “You found me, my dear. Your bird crashed into me in the market.”
Bee nodded. She still hadn’t taken her eyes of the road. “Oh, yes. How silly of me to forget. You walked into its path.”
My grandfather wrinkled his nose. “That isn’t quite-”
“There,” Caius spoke up as he straightened and towered half a head taller than even my grandfather. His gaze, too, lay on the road ahead of us. “We can start to see the castle now.”
I stood and craned my neck to catch my first glimpse of the capital city of the Feronia Empire. At first I saw nothing but the green rolling hills and the sky dotted with white clouds, but then I noticed one of those clouds didn’t move. The round ball was attached to a spire, and that glistening cone was attached to a tower that stood tall and proud over the landscape.
The rest of the castle came into view, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of those fairy tale citadels where the goodly people lived in happiness until a shadow fell over their lives. The keep of the emperor was a glittering mass of white marble marked by five towers, with the tallest being in the middle and the other four at the points. Its sheer walls rose up some hundred feet above the city scape and were topped by wide battlements. The whole place must have taken up ten city blocks, and from its bailey poured forth several dozen plumes of black smoke.
The castle stood in the center of a metropolis that stretched out for five miles around its base. The city was surrounded on all sides by an ancient fortification of plain gray stones that were piled fifty feet high atop one another, and also had battlements with towers placed at intervals. The metropolis had been constructed on a flat plain with mountains at its back and a wide river that ran in front of its battlements that faced us. I could see three huge gates with massive wooden doors evenly placed along the wall which allowed a steady stream of visitors and commerce.
Bee stood as I did, but there was no awe in her face. She clutched her hands against her chest and pursed her lips. “I don’t remember so much smoke coming from the bailey.”
Sage frowned. “Neither do I.”
Caius flashed them a mischievous smile. “Then we should go have a look and see what the emperor is up to.”
Bee’s face fell and she bowed her head. Sage stretched his arm over her shoulder and gave her a soft smile. “Everything will be fine, especially after we have had a bite to eat at the next town.”
The distance between the castle and where we were wasn’t empty. Three roads led to the city, and on each of them lay a small town with quaint two-floor houses. Their whitewashed stucco walls showed a cleanliness that was reflected in their swept streets and the many long flower boxes that hung below their windows.
We rolled into the street of the town ahead of us and I noticed a sign atop one of the bars that read ‘Brier Run Pub.’ What I also noticed was the subdued atmosphere. People and carts passed us by, but many of the pedestrians kept their heads down.
I swept my eyes over the nearly deserted streets. “Does anyone else notice something strange?”
There was a cloud on Sage’s brow as he nodded. “Something has frightened them enough that they keep to their homes.”
Caius lifted his nose to the air and frowned. “I smell blood.”
I gave the air a sniff and frowned. “I don’t.”
He tapped the side of his nose. “Dragon senses.”
The street down which we rolled opened, and before us stretched an elegant town square. Stalls lined the opposite side in neat rows, and the buildings had storefronts that showed off their wares. There was everything from tailor’s mannequins to woven baskets. What was missing was a crowd of people to appreciate and buy the wares.
Sage leaned forward and tapped Abano on the shoulder. “We should stop here.”
Abano pulled on the reins and the cart stopped. We climbed out, and Sage stepped up to the box and smiled sadly up at our driver. “This is where we part, old friend.”
Signor Abano frowned and pointed a finger at the castle in the distance. “But there is much road between here and there! Surely you want me to take you that far!”
Sage shook his head. “The road ahead is too dangerous. We will not involve you in our troubles any further.”
Those words sounded so strange spoken in the middle of such a serene square. More people had ventured to this focal point of commerce, and a soft murmur of voices rose up to lighten the otherwise tense atmosphere of the town.
I couldn’t help but notice a small vendor tucked a few yards into a wide alley. The proprietor was a young girl of five who had a simple table in front of her along with a couple of glasses and a pitcher. Her tiny fingers fidgeted over the handle of the pitcher as she watched the adults stroll past the mouth of the alley.
I smiled as I strolled over to her little shop. “Hello there. What are you selling?”
She nodded at the pitcher. “Some spry juice.”
My face drooped a little at the unfamiliar name, but I fished in my pocket for some coins which I set on the table. “I’ll take the whole pitcher.”
All the gold in the empire’s vault couldn’t have given me more pleasure than the bright smile on her face. “Thank you so much!” She pushed the pitcher toward me along with a cup.
I laughed and poured myself a drink. “No, thank you. The road’s been long and I could use a drink.” I took a sip of the concoction and was relieved to find it had a sweet fruity flavor. It wasn’t lemonade, but it wasn’t bad, either. Kind of like an apple mixed with a strawberry.
“Hold it right there.”
I nearly choked on the drink in my mouth before I managed to swallow. The voice had come from behind me, and I turned to find myself facing a man of about thirty-five who stood at the mouth of the alley. His hair was short brown and his eyes were of the same color, but of a deep, open brilliance that I couldn’t help but be reminded of autumn. He wore the uniform like the soldiers at Fossa , though more elaborate. The front was adorned with an ornate crest of a double-headed eagle with its faces pointed in different directions.
He looked downcast when he studied my features, but he rallied himself and strode toward me with a curious look on his face. “Who are you?”
I sheepishly smiled at him. “Just a tourist out for a stroll.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Tourist?”
Damn it. I still spoke like a world foreigner. “Um, just enjoying what’s to be seen around here.”
The shocked voice came from behind him, and I looked in that direction to see my grandmother standing in the mouth of the alley with her own mouth agape.
The man whipped around to face her and his eyes widened. “Beatrice!”COLLAPSE