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  • L.L. Stephens


Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Enjoy this nice chonky section from an early chapter, in which Esseran prince Stefan and his friends face the consequences of an attack they made on Dorilian, a foreign prince whose importance to their kingdom they failed to take into account.


“I didn’t know you were going to kick him! Hells!”

Stefan flinched as Cullen Brodheson grabbed his shoulders and spun him against the garden wall. The boys had split up after fleeing the weapon room, but Cullen had known Stefan’s mind well enough to have followed him. “Stefan.” But his friend ignored the warning look sent his way. “He’s bleeding bad!”

“He’ll live!” Stefan snarled. Shaking Cullen off, he vaulted over the garden wall and ran toward the mosaic of shallow pools that pebbled the lawn. The water reflected the sky, bright blue. “He’s Highborn. They heal. I can break every bone in his body, and it won’t fucking matter!”

“But it still hurts, Stefan.”

“I hope the hell it does hurt! I want him to feel it. Maybe he’ll think about something except being so high and mighty next time he wants to start calling me names.” Stefan walked into the nearest pool, his boots splashing. Bright red ribbons of blood curled into the water.

“This is bad, Stefan.” Cullen couldn’t stop glancing over his shoulder.

Only now did Stefan duck his head and sigh. “He deserved it.” Even so, he didn’t think he would ever forget the look in Dorilian Sordaneon’s bloodied eyes.

He wouldn’t admit it to Cullen, but he wished he hadn’t kicked the other boy so hard. And he wished there were more trees in this garden, more cover. Permephedon was such an overly arranged and civilized place. Nowhere to run or hide. And even if they did hide, Marenthro’s damned Undying Guard always knew where to find them.

Stefan marked the Rill rising above the glassy towers. The god-machine’s enormous structures thrust high into the sky, rings and spokes, arrays of arches and angles in motion. Scythe-like shapes sliced through the air, unfolding and elongating to receive arriving charyses or send outgoing ones on their way. No one—not even the Epoptes who ordered the thing—fully understood how it worked.

A series of resonant thrums reached his ears, and Stefan felt the same pang of wonder he always did when the Rill’s white limbs unfurled to capture a wide streak of light. Before his eyes, a needle-shaped sliver several times more massive than any sailing ship materialized out of the very air to glide soundlessly into the city. He looked at Cullen and noticed his friend also watched the sight, his expression sick.

Rill blood, it was said, flowed in Dorilian Sordaneon’s veins.

Guards wearing the singular headgear and saffron garments of Permephedon’s High Citadel approached along an elevated, grass-carpeted walkway leading from the Scholar’s Quad. In the distance behind them, another contingent of men emerged from a wooded park between two of the nearer glass towers, dragging two more struggling Kheld youths with them.

“Looks like they got us,” Stefan said. Together he and Cullen walked toward the soldiers, their feet pressing tufts of pale green grass between twilight-colored stones.


“You attacked one of the Highborn! A Sordaneon! What in Sharga’s ring of hell were you thinking?”

Stefan was not accustomed to seeing his uncle in a rage. Jonthan Stauberg-Randolph had always been the most easygoing of his relations, a pleasant man whose scholarly ways reminded many of his royal father, the king, but without the soldiering part.

“You didn’t hear what that bastard said!”

“Nothing he could have said justifies what you did. The Malyrdeons are involved now, trying to find a way to satisfy the Sordaneons and save your life.”

Stefan looked up. “My life?”

“Yours. And your friends’.”

“He wasn’t hurt that badly—”

“You drew blood, didn’t you?” Jonthan met his nephew’s defiant gaze. “Did you stop to look at him? Did you ask if he was hurt?”

“No, but—” Stefan couldn’t deal with this. This wasn’t what he’d been trying to do.

“I don’t know myself how badly he’s hurt. From what I’ve heard, he’s going to live, which means he’s going to heal, which means you’ve made one hell of an enemy. And not just for yourself—for all of us.”

“He was my enemy already. He was yours! He never spoke a word to me, but it was against our family. He called me a bastard—he called you one! He calls Grandfather a barbarian, a usurper—”


“—my mother a Kheld outlaw’s whore—”

The water hit him full in the face. Stefan gaped at Jonthan, who stood over him holding an empty glass. “Words, Stefan,” his uncle said, every word measured. “Just words. And you’ve ensured that next time it will be more than that. I don’t care what Dorilian says about us. He’s never known us! You are the first of our family he has ever met, and all you did was harden whatever animosity he brought to Essera with him.” Jonthan set the glass down on a nearby table, the thunk loud enough to punctuate his continued desire for silence. “He might have called you a barbarian bastard, Stefan, but it was you who proved yourself to be one. And it was you who struck a blow against a person who has the King’s promise of protection.”

Stefan sank back against the wooden slats of the chair. A clerk’s chair in a clerk’s tiny room. More and more, it felt like a prison cell. As he cooled down, he remembered Marc Frederick’s words about Dorilian and the importance of easing the strained relationship between their families. This goes beyond me and you, his grandfather had told Stefan as they had walked the garden path at home. It goes to the very heart of trust and honor. Remember that he is Highborn and bound to his grandfather’s promises. I want you to remember that you are bound to mine.

“He only used that protection to attack me. He pushed and he pushed until I pushed back!”

“I know that,” Jonthan said. He sighed and leaned against one of the room’s several document cabinets. “So do the Malyrdeons. So does he. That may be the only thing that does save your life. It doesn’t hurt, believe me, that the king is your grandfather.”

But it did hurt. It hurt because more was expected, because Stefan was bound by promises Marc Frederick had made to safeguard an enemy’s life. A Highborn life. All because of the stupid Rill and a bunch of old myths. “It’s not fair,” Stefan protested. The extent of his transgression set in, at long last. It was easier to deny the difference between his station and that of the youth he had attacked when he was angry. “Dorilian can just say anything he wants, do anything he wants—”

“Stop it, Stefan. Don’t even try to justify your actions. There was nothing fair about what you did. You knew Dorilian would be alone and unarmed. You went with friends, and you went with a purpose.” Jonthan looked upon his nephew with contempt. “And what of your friends? You enlisted them in a deed that may cost them their lives, a deed that proves to the world Khelds are violent, vicious, and not to be trusted! They are your people, Stefan. They look to you. Is this the kind of leadership you are going to provide them—should you live to rule them?”

“No, of course not! It’s just that—” Why was this so hard to explain? Because he didn’t understand it himself? Because he was frustrated at his inability to handle a situation with which his grandfather and family had entrusted him? “Grandfather warned me. He said it might be hard to be around Dorilian, that he had bad feelings toward our family. But Jonthan, it’s not like he stopped at me. Cullen, Neddig, and Reard—all of us with Kheld blood—had to put up with his filth. We’re not damn Staubauns, you know. We don’t believe the Leur folk created the world from their own bodies or that the Highborn are gods. We don’t have to put up with it.”

Nothing he said mattered. His uncle’s hazel eyes, eyes that had never looked harshly on him before, did so now. Jonthan’s words fell like heavy stones between them. “You forget that you are a Kheld only in blood, Stefan—politically, you are Marc Frederick’s grandson and by his grace a prince of this realm. He is the one to whom you must answer for this—he and he alone.”

“I shouldn’t have done it. Is that what you want me to say?”

“I want you to realize that what you did today was a coward’s deed unbefitting of our family. You don’t even grasp how badly you have damaged yourself or us. Someday, Stefan, you are going to want to look Dorilian Sordaneon in the eye—maybe you will even need to—and you won’t be able to do it because of this day.”

Oh, yes, I will. Stefan fumed, resenting that his uncle dared to tell him what he should feel. I’ll look him in the eye, and I’ll tell him to go to hell. But he couldn’t tell Jonthan that.

Jonthan walked to one of the room’s two imposing desks, where he sorted through drawers until he had retrieved paper, a fine pen and ink bottle, and a jar of sealant sand. He laid these on the table in front of his nephew. “You will extend apologies, Stefan. One to Dorilian. One to the Malyrdeons for having assaulted their kinsman. One to your grandfather for having blackened his honor. Start drafting at once—and choose your words well. Your life and those of your three friends depend on them.”

Want to read more? The second book in the series, THE KHELD KING, is coming soon...

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