Eager to learn how to control her powers, Kate and Ros venture into the kingdom of his family. There they stumble upon a mystery lurking in the dark waters of the realm.
However, trouble waylays them on their journey to the capital as they find themselves part of a hunting party after a notorious Pactus. Their friend Brother Collins is grievously, and magically, injured in the fray, and only through the help of Ros' princely brother do they manage to make it out in one piece. Mostly.
Their travels take them across the country where they find themselves as guests to the court's seer, an old woman who once predicted that Ros would kill the very brother who now travels with them. She warns them to be wary of their travels ahead and sets them off with their friend healed but still carrying the curse.
At the capital they part ways with the elder prince and go in search of answers to their many questions. They discover that they're not the only ones asking questions, and in their investigation they uproot a deadly plot against the city. Together Kate and Ros must stop them, all the while fighting against friend, foe, and fate.
"I expected it to look a little different."
Fate and a creaky wagon found us on a winding dirt road. We were surrounded on both sides by a thick forest of tan-colored reeds. Their bases grew from a marshy land and their stalks stretched up to eight feet tall, and the plants grew so close together that a fly would have trouble crawling between them.
The comment had come from me. I folded my arms over the top of the side of the wagon and beheld the scenery of endless reeds that stretched far off into the distance.
Ros sat beside me in the back of the wagon with Brother Collins in the box, reins in hand. A sorry old nag pulled us down the road, occasionally stopping to chew some grass on the side of the mud pit that was the path, Brother Collins' scoldings be damned.
Ros smiled down at me. "What did you expect?"
I shrugged. "I expected to be able to see something. Not just this." I waved my hand at the thick mess of reeds. "
I can't see anything through this."
Ros chuckled. "The Matted Marshes are a sight to behold if that's the only sight you want to see."
Brother Collins turned his head to one side to catch our attention. "There are the mazes."
I lifted my head. "What kind of mazes?"
"A mere children's fancy in the marshes," Ros explained as he pointed to our left. "Every year a large maze is created by the reed rustlers, those who cut the reeds for use in textiles and the like, and the children in the city are invited to try their hand at reaching the center. Few rarely do, but those who reach the middle point are rewarded with a small bag of chocolates and a plaque on the walls of the Twig Tavern."
A sly smile slipped onto my lips. "A certain young prince didn't happen to have partaken in one of those maze crazes, did he?"
Ros folded his arms over his chest and shrugged. "Who can say? Perhaps he did sneak out of the palace one night and join in the company."
I waved my hand at the mess. "So how far does this Matted Marshes go?"
"Several hundred acres, but we'll be out of it within the hour."
True to his word, the tall reeds shrank and then vanished, opening the view to rolling hills and upraised plateaus with flat areas of thick forest. I glimpsed waterfalls falling from the plateaus and streams merged and separated to create a myriad of waterways that meandered through the thick greenery. Everything was green, and purple, and blue, and dozens of other colors, created by a tapestry of flowers. There were tulips and petunias and climbing vines with blossoms. The air smelled sweet like honey and the ground was a soft lush carpet of grass that begged me to walk on it.
We had driven into paradise.
The view would have been even better had the sun not been low in the sky. Another half hour and all would be dark.
"Wow," I breathed out. Even in my astonishment I couldn't help but notice Ros' bemused face turned toward me. I frowned. "What? It's a really pretty place."
He swept his eyes over the area and a bittersweet smile slipped onto his lips. "It is, isn't it?"
My heart fell. "Been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Very long." I slapped him on the arm. Ros flinched and rubbed the bruised spot. "What was that for?"
"For being a terrible tour guide," I scolded him as I pointed at the majesty that surrounded us. "You haven't even told me where we are."
A crooked smile appeared on his lips and he lifted his shining eyes to the greenery. "This is the Eternal Valley. It's climate makes it as you see, a paradise on earth."
I lifted an eyebrow. "So nobody lives here?"
He chuckled. "Plenty of people live here, but they prefer to keep their houses hidden. Like there." He pointed at a small grove to our left. A side road led off the main route and meandered its way into the trees. "There's a small village there. Our young friend Callie could have shown us around."
My ears perked up. "Then let's go see it!"
Brother Collins smiled back at me. "But we are here for you to learn to control your powers."
I sat up on my legs and crossed my arms over my chest. "That means we're here for me, and ‘me' says that I want to see everything there is in this place. Besides, it's not like we don't have time on our hands-hey!"
The wagon turned sharply onto the side road and I lost my balance. I yelped as I fell sideways, but Ros caught me in his arms. His eyes danced with teasing bemusement. "You were saying?"
He righted me and I snorted. "I was saying I was being a blowhard, but I really do want to see this beautiful country."
Ros leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. "Then you'll see all you like."
I looked out in the direction of the main road and squinted my eyes. "It must be huge. I can't even see any sign of a city." I paused and furrowed my brow before I looked at my relaxed companion. "Your kingdom does have a city, doesn't it?"
He nodded. "One that rivals even Mavros, and with a castle of greater stature and less gloom."
"Does it have a name like the Caligo one?" I asked him as I plopped my butt back down in the bottom of the wagon.
A slightly proud look appeared on his face. "The Ultima Arcis."
I lifted an eyebrow. "That's quite a name. What does it mean?"
"The Final Citadel. It's the last refuge for the people of the city if anyone were to invade it. The oldest part of the city lies on the plateau that rises above the plains around it. Rocky fortifications surround all the sides except for a single road that winds around the hill up to the top."
I snorted. "That reminds of Caligo."
He shrugged. "A good idea is worth repeating. The rest, however, is very original. The citadel is capable of holding all of the people in the city, even at its current population, and a spring is located underneath that grants fresh water to the occupants."
I scooted a little bit closer to him. "So what's the castle look like?"
He grinned and shook his head. "I won't spoil the surprise for you."
My face drooped, and so did the shadows as the woods stretched out in front of us. We rolled into the forest, and the trees and bushes crowded in close on the single-lane road. The climate, too, had changed as a stifling air of mold and dirt invaded my nostrils. The pair of odors were drenched only by the smell of something much more powerful. I lifted my nose and took in a deep whiff, but still my brow was furrowed.
"What's that scent?" I asked my more knowledgeable companions.
Brother Collins turned his head to one side to catch my eye. "Magic, miss. The forest is so old it has grown its own magic."
My eyes widened a little. "They can do that?"
Ros nodded. "This one has, and the people of the forest have made a business out of using the magic granted to them
I snorted. "So they haven't tried bottling it? It smells strong enough to eat with a fork."
"There have been attempts," he confirmed as he draped his arms over the side of the wagon and swept his eyes over the area. "Once bottled, however, the magic is disconnected from its source and withers to nothing. Only the people themselves may carry it off, and only after a few generations of living in here."
"And Callie's family has been here a long time?" I mused.
"They've been here since the magic formed into something the people could use," he confirmed as he stretched out his hand.
Ros snatched a rose-like flower from a bush and held it in his open palm. The flower stretched out its petals and a small woman popped her head out. Her translucent wings beat fast and furious behind her, and she shot into the air and disappeared into the woods.
I gaped at the fleeing fairy before I returned my awe-induced gaze at the smiling Ros. "Is the forest full of that?"
He nodded. "And more, and that's why you need to stick to the paths and the road, otherwise something far worse than a fairy might find you."
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "Like what?"
His eyes twinkled. "Like a pixie."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Are they even dangerous?"
"Only if you tickle their wings," he mused as he sat up and stretched his neck to take in the view above the wagon box. "But here we are."
The road opened to a main street, and a small town of clapboard buildings was revealed to us. The hamlet sported several blocks of houses, and the main route was lined on both sides by businesses. Their false fronts and large windows advertised every kind of medicine to every type of disease known to man, and a few I didn't recognize.
The streets were lit by lamps topped by glass balls, and inside the balls glowed bright sticks that cast their white light on the many people who walked the boardwalks. Men, women, and children gawked at the window dressings with their vials full of rainbow-colored potions and their fine dresses that sparkled in the dim light. The locals stood out in their puffy colorful attire and pointed hats. Even some of the men sported the witchy head attire.
The sun finished its journey and disappeared beneath the horizon, not that one could see that through the thicket of trees that huddled against the backs of the farthest buildings. The strange lamps grew brighter against the encroaching shadows, and more than one person stopped to admire their soft glow.
I sat up and squinted at one of the lamps as we passed by. "Are those really sticks in there?"
"Sticks of the glowing tree," Ros confirmed as he joined me on my wall of the wagon. "Similar to the tempting tree, but bright and slightly fluffy."
I snorted. "Yeah, that sounds exactly like it."
Brother Collins rolled us through town and stopped the wagon in front of one of the few two-story buildings. A sign hung over the street which showed an upright broom and a few words burned underneath it.
Our driver lay the reins in his lap and turned to us with a smile. "Welcome to the Prancing Broom."
I lifted my eyes to take in the full view of the wrap-around porch and second-floor balcony. Thick rounded columns held up the balcony, and tall, narrow windows looked in to curtained rooms. The front door lay open and a bright light invited us to join in the soft murmur of voices that floated out.
Ros stood up and turned to face me with the inn at his back. He stretched out his arms and grinned at me. "Welcome to the hamlet of Blackmore. You won't find a more friendly town then this in all the kingdom."
"What the hell are you doing here?"