The Sapphire Flute

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The Sapphire Flute by Karen E. Hoover The Wolfchild Saga Book 1 THE SAPPHIRE FLUTE by Karen E. Hoover Book 1 of TheWolfchild Saga Copyright © 2011 Karen E. Hoover Cover Art © 2011 Deirdre Eden Coppel All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction, and the views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author. Likewise, certain characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or locales, is entirely coincidental. ISBN 9784463607005 The Sapphire Flute / Karen E. Hoover 2nd Edition June 2011 First American edition March 2010 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS It's hard to know exactly who to thank when the first words of this story were written over seventeen years ago. For all those who helped in the early years, you know who you are and I thank you— for the feedback, the late night brainstorming sessions, and the encouragement when everything felt like drivel. This book would not have become what it was without those beginnings, and for that, I thank you. There are a few people in particular who deserve some individual thanks, though, and this is the place to do it. First, Darla Isackson, for telling me that the only way I wouldn't get published was if I quit writing, and who encouraged, pushed, and pulled me forward at times to keep me moving ahead. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for believing I could do it. Second, my dear friend Shari Bird, who spent many a morning walking with me pounding out the details of my stories and believed in when I forgot to believe in myself. She's got to be the best butt-kicker in this world. Thank you, Shari, for your love and encouragement, and for loving my stories almost as much as I do. For Tristi Pinkston, editor and friend extraordinaire, who saw the potential in me and helped me on my journey to publication long before she became my official editor, and for Candace Salima, who always encouraged me, and when Valor Publishing Group opened its doors, invited me in, she gave my book a home for a time. I'd also like to add thanks to BJ Rowley and and Muriel Sluyter for all their hard work on the book, and Deirdre Eden Coppel for the AMAZING cover. For all the friends and critique groups who've seen the rounds of this story, I thank you. I'd be nowhere without my family, and wish to thank them for the patience, tolerance, and encouragement, despite simple dinners of fruit, toast, and cheese, and the many, many days and nights I've spent up the canyons writing, or buried in the basement. Gary, thank you for encouraging me to follow my dreams and helping make it real. Austin and Robert, thanks for being the amazing kids you are and for understanding this crazy need I have to throw words on a page. And most especially, I'd like to thank my Heavenly Father—for without His gifts and guidance, I would be nothing. The Sapphire Flute PROLOGUE Jarin smoothed the final rope of stone decorating the altar. The orange magic of Bendanatu flowed through him in a circle of energy that allowed him to mold the cold stone with his hands. There was no dust to blow away, no chisel marks to scar the perfection of the glossy black surface. The heat of his hand alone sculpted the pictures and polished them as smooth as onyx until they reflected the candlelight by which he worked. He sat back on his heels and inspected his creation. The flat panels on the top and sides depicted the seven Guardians of Rasann creating the world, each holding a keystone that rooted magic to the land. C’Tan had been adamant that the altar remain untainted by color, leaving only the dark of the onyx she brought him. If he’d had his way, the altar would burst with color, from the sapphire of Klii’kunn’s flute to the deep amethyst of Hwalan’s handheld eye. Jarin sighed with a small ache of regret, but still he was pleased. The interwoven vines running along the upper edge had turned out particularly well, roping in and out in endless knots that were the best he’d ever done, but then, there was reason for that. This was not just any commission he’d taken. This was for his sister, C’Tan—or Celena Tan, as she’d been called as a child. He rubbed his hand over the top one last time, his fingers catching slightly on the raised image of S’Kotos holding a heartshaped gem. Why C’Tan had wanted The Destroyer on the 1 Karen E. Hoover altar’s top, he didn’t understand. She’d given him some kind of convoluted explanation, but it had made no sense. Jarin shook his head and stood. He separated the fine chains hanging about his neck and placed a finger on the stone that hung at his throat. It warmed at his touch, suddenly alive and listening, prepared to transmit every word he spoke into his sister’s waiting ear. No matter how often he used the stone, it always amazed him that he could speak to C’Tan as if she stood before him, whether she was in the kitchen or riding her dragons in a neighboring county. He could hardly wait to share his news. The altar was done Nearly a year of work, and it was complete. The spell activated instantly, catching C’Tan mid-sentence as she spoke. “. . . don’t want any excuses. The master requires the child’s soul in order to negate the prophecy.” Jarin froze in shock, holding himself completely still as he listened to the unfolding conversation, expecting any moment for C’Tan to laugh at the joke she was playing at his expense. “Yes, I have a rather full understanding of that, Mistress,” Kardon, C’Tan’s servant, said, “but I am not sure you are aware that she is not the only child of the prophecy. The keystones must each be held by a balanced one in order for Him to be sealed. She will be drawn to the stones, so why not use her to find them? Why waste this resource when it is so close?” His voice gave Jarin the chills, as it always did. It was as cold as a midwinter freeze and just as dead. “She is only one link in the chain.” “Yes, but she is a link within our grasp here and now, and the Master wants her sealed. Besides, have you forgotten she is the link to them all? She is The Chosen One The Binder Distasteful as it may be, she must be soulbound to that stone.” Her voice was different than Jarin remembered, full of bitter anger and razor scorn. “I have no qualms binding the babe to the stone, Mistress. I only question your motives in following S’Kotos’ directions.” There was a slap that made Jarin wince. 2 The Sapphire Flute “Never question my loyalty to the Master,” she said, her voice low and menacing. “Now go and collect Shandae before I decide to offer you on that altar.” Jarin’s heart froze again at his daughter’s name, the cogs finally turning into place. Shandae, his little baby girl, was the child of prophecy? She would bind The Destroyer? Of course he knew the legends. He’d grown up hearing them, playing the parts as a child, but he’d never really believed them—until now. Jarin yanked the chain from his neck, sickened with panic and fear, and flung the stone at the altar. Instead of bouncing off the slick surface, it stuck to the image of The Destroyer as if it were made of tar instead of stone. Chills raced up the back of his neck, and he did the only thing he could. He ran. By the time he reached the main hall, he’d shifted into the form he inherited from his father. Hair sprouted across his body, his nose lengthened, his back curved, and in an instant Jarin had gone from man to wolf, his clothes merging with the snow-white fur. Only the pendant his father had given him years before still thumped against his breastbone. Its magic never had allowed him to hide it with his clothes. Once across the drawbridge, his paws dug at the soggy earth, kicking up clods that spattered his hindquarters, littering the grass behind him as he raced toward home. If he’d been in man form, he would have been cursing, shaking his head at his blindness and stupidity, but he wasn’t. Tonight he was wolf, snarling through the grass, praying he was not too late to save his child from the betrayal of C’Tan. His own sister was willing to steal the life of his child. His hackles rose at the thought. He wasn’t even three hills from the castle when he knew time had run out. The riders were being sent. Jarin’s sharpened wolf senses could hear C’Tan scream at her guard. “After him Bring him back alive, or I’ll have your hearts” The horses tore across the drawbridge, hooves tharumping, chain mail clinking as they raced away from the castle. 3 Karen E. Hoover Fool he thought. He should have taken the stone with him— that would have given him more time to escape. But what was done was done. Time was the one thing he needed, and he’d thrown it away with the communication stone. Obviously C’Tan had found it already. Jarin glanced over his shoulder at the loud “hyah” echoing across the hills. They were nearing the top of the first hill now. The captain of his sister’s guard whipped his horse down the other side. Jarin guessed he had a five, maybe ten-minute lead on the guard. It wasn’t enough He howled, putting on a burst of speed that took him up a grassy slope, past the ghostly forest of whispering aspen, through the flower-filled meadow, and up a final hill. His muscles bunched as he labored up the steep slope, breath coming hard until at last he reached the crest and paused. For only a moment he took in the glowing magelight Brina had left burning and allowed himself to feel the ache of loss. His sister was gone, to be replaced by an enemy who only looked like her. What had happened? Jarin shook it off before he loped down the hill, a low growl coming unbidden to his throat. It wasn’t the first time his sister had hurt him, but he’d never expected her betrayal. The light of home pulled him on, guiding him as a lighthouse for a storm-tossed ship—warm, yellow, and safe. But tonight the light was a beacon for his pursuers as well as for him, and he did not want the evil ones to be guided so easily. With a single whisper of thought, the light went out, and Jarin sat panting in the darkness, his haunches chilling on the damp ground as he took time to change into human form once more. He couldn’t surprise Brina with that bit of himself—not tonight. He’d never quite known how to tell her about his other form, and now he chafed at the delay. His body shifted, like clay molded by an unseen hand. The hunched wolf stretched and straightened until he stood erect, with only a few pops to settle his spine. The thick hair withdrew to a single mop of black, and Jarin shrugged his clothing back into place. He stepped through the thick wooden door, shutting it firmly behind him, then placed a hand on each side of the doorframe. The 4 The Sapphire Flute stones he had embedded in the wood months before began to hum under his touch, and in seconds he had activated the protection spell. The air shimmered around him, and the magic settled into the wood with a whoosh. That would hold C’Tan’s guards for a bit, maybe long enough to save his family. “Brina, I need you” he called to his wife, racing to their bedroom at the back of the house. Pulling out bags from the trunk at the foot of their bed, he stuffed them with whatever clothing lay nearby. “What are you doing home? I thought you were going to be helping your sister late tonight. I’ve got dinner on the stove if you’re hungry,” she answered, stepping from the kitchen and wiping her hands on her apron. Jarin wasted neither words nor time. “We’ve got to go, Brina. Get Shandae and meet me at the stables.” “Whatever for? Jarin, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?” “C’Tan . . .” he choked. He dropped his head, but forced himself to hold his composure. “C’Tan has betrayed us. We must leave.” “C’Tan? Betray us? But she’s your sister” He stopped what he was doing long enough to meet his wife’s eyes. “My sister no longer,” he said, gritting his teeth. “We’ve got to leave.” Brina hesitated only a second longer, then left the room, returning quickly with little Shandae. Jarin took her in his arms and glanced at the sleeping one-yearold, so peaceful in sleep and spirited when awake, so much like the both of them in the best ways. He brushed a lock of dark hair away from the child’s face. He laid the babe gently on the bed and pulled the emotion inside. Not now. He couldn’t deal with it now. “Grab whatever food you can.” “All right, Jarin, but why? What’s going on?” Brina ran to the kitchen and frantically stuffed a satchel, fruit hitting the floor in her frenzy. Jarin watched her through the open doorway for only a moment before he returned to his packing. “C’Tan has turned to S’Kotos, and she wants Shandae,” Jarin said over his shoulder. 5 Karen E. Hoover He glanced across the room at her silence and watched as her eyes turned from the warmth of mid-day to an icy winter gale. She nodded sharply to her husband as if afraid to speak. And then time ran out. The sound of horses thundered down the hill, slipping and squealing in the wet grass, the guards cursing as they tumbled. “Leave, Brina” Jarin said, gathering up the bags and the sleeping child. “What do you mean, leave? You’re coming with us” “I’ll be right behind you,” he tried to reassure her, but his heart felt the lie. “I’m going to send the horses up to the hilltop. Anything else you need, take it now,” he said, tying off one of the bags and laying it at Brina’s feet. He took his small family into his arms and began to pull the power to him that would save them, but he suddenly realized there was one thing he had left to do. He slipped his pendant from beneath his shirt, the final gift his father had given him. It would no longer do Jarin any good, but it might save the life of his child. Jarin whispered to the carved silver wolf as he tied the necklace around his daughter’s neck. Fear made his hands shake, desperation made his eyes tear, but the chant never faltered. “Keep her safe. Hide her from the magic eye,” he begged of the amulet. The enemy was at the door. He could feel C’Tan breaking through his spells one by one. It was almost too late, but he would save his family, no matter the cost to himself. Shandae must live. He brushed away the baby’s hair and placed his palm gently on the side of Brina’s face. She blinked rapidly for a moment, then set her jaw. He wrapped his arms tightly around them both and let the breath of power roar to life, a cyclone of magic circling tightly around his family. “I love you,” he whispered. Then he let go. “No” Brina screamed, reaching for him, but it was too late. Her hand passed through his arm as her body was instantly transported to the hill overlooking their home. 6 The Sapphire Flute His attention immediately switched to the horses corralled on the far side of the valley. “Monster, Bluebell. Go to the woods and wait for Brina. Keep her safe.” The horses sent a questioning thought but immediately agreed, and Jarin felt them race toward the fence and soar over in a single leap. Within seconds, his thoughts were back with his wife. “Go home to your sister, Brina. Kalandra surely has forgiven you by now, but if you cannot do the same for her, go to Ezeker in Karsholm. At the very least, seek out the Bendanatu. What family I’ve got, you can find through them. Be safe, love. Now go,” he whispered through the line that still connected them. He sent a final swell of love before letting go, her angry, pleading cries cut off like a knife. He only hoped he’d have the chance to make it right. Cold spread from toe to top and he shivered, trying to shake away the winter of body and soul that settled over him. Death awaited him tonight. He could feel the icy breath of the specter watching from the darkness. Deep in his bones, a voice whispered that his time had come. Jarin gathered more of the breath of power. He pulled it to himself until he nearly glowed with it—enough to burn himself out if not released soon. It was no different than an archer putting arrow to string, or a swordsman going into fighting stance. He was prepared to use magic to defend himself and only hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. He had one chance to do this and do it right, and could only pray it would work. The barrage on his shields reached a crescendo, and he knew he could hold them no longer. Rather than damage himself fighting a lost cause, he pulled all the power of his shields into himself, closed his eyes, and waited. There was a moment of breathless silence, and then the door exploded inward in a shower of splinters. Jarin didn’t even duck. He knew who would be on the other side when the dust settled. C’Tan. Jarin didn’t say a word. He watched as the air cleared and his sister stepped through the doorway, her red satin robes glittering in the magelight that still bounded about the room from the broken 7 Karen E. Hoover protection spell, her pale yellow hair standing up with the static of it. She paid it no mind. Instead her eyes sought his immediately, the rage in them as visible as the magelight. “We seem to have a problem,” she said, her voice full of ice. “Not of my causing. Why don’t you come in, and we can discuss it.” “I think not.” She smiled, though it never reached her eyes. “You have something that belongs to me.” “She was never yours to take, Celena.” Jarin leaned against the wall, arms across his chest, trying to hide with casual arrogance the fearful power he’d pulled to himself, waiting for the right moment to be released. “Don’t call me that,” she snarled. “Give me the child.” “No.” The time was close now. The suppressed power burned. Jarin hugged himself tighter to keep from shaking as C’Tan left her guard at the doorway, pushed past him, and tore through the house. She howled in frustration and rage, moving from room to room and finally circling back to him. Her hands glowed with a blue flame that engulfed them, but did not burn. “Where are they?” she hissed from between clenched teeth. “Gone, Celena Tan. You will not have my child.” His eyes flashed fire. C’Tan began to laugh. “You’re a fool, Jarin. I’ve got S’Kotos and all his agents at my beck and call. You might be able to fool me for a time, but you can never escape The Destroyer. S’Kotos wants the child every bit as much as I do, though for different reasons. We’ll find her. It’s a shame you won’t be around to see it." “What happened to you?” His voice shook with anger and the power that burned within, but at least the fear was gone. C’Tan stopped laughing, and Jarin saw a flash—small as it was—as some humanity returned to her eyes, haunted and pained. That was the girl he’d known, the child he’d loved—but the ice returned and she shrugged. 8 The Sapphire Flute “Life happened. Enough said. I don’t want to do this, Jarin. Give me the child and you can live. You can always have more children. You must give me this child.” That was too much. Even with all he’d heard from her, he could not take the callous dismissal of his only daughter any longer. Jarin let the power surface and simmer just below his skin. “I’ll not let you use my child for evil. You’re insane.” “Don’t call me that” she screeched. Her eyes narrowed in anger, and the blue flame around her hands burst once again to life. She drew back her arm as if to throw the ball of fire, but paused. Her eyes focused on the cyclone of sparkling energy in which he’d immersed himself. She cursed and hurled the flame at him as she raced for the doorway, but it was too late. Jarin relaxed his hold on the power, and it roared to life like a tornado, twisting outward quickly. Stones littered the yard as the walls bowed, the beams high above sagging with the sudden loss. Chaos reigned as his home began toppling about him. Jarin’s ears ached with the blast, but he was not done. He reached out one hand and a great rope of flame shot toward his sister, lassoing and holding her in place as the house collapsed around them. The flames never touched Jarin—he was used to his gift. There was nothing that could hurt him here. Relief flooded through him as C’Tan tried to run for the door. She wasn’t going anywhere. The lasso tightened around her as she struggled, her hair and clothing catching fire as she fought and screamed in his grip. There was a great crack directly above. Jarin looked up to see the squared wood he’d cut and formed with his own hands, the largest piece of the house, fall directly toward him. He lunged out of the way, throwing himself to the left, but the wood ricocheted off another fallen beam and followed him. On his knees, there was nothing more Jarin could do. The wood caught him across the chest, and he had but a moment of regret before he was pinned by the tree- sized beam. It crushed the breath from his lungs. What small margin of control he had over the whirlwind was lost. He’d burned himself out, and now C’Tan’s flames were going to finish the job. 9 Karen E. Hoover The fire burst around him, and Jarin was able to turn his head just enough to see that he was not the only one caught in the conflagration. C’Tan lay pinned beneath a pile of rubble, half in and half out of the doorway. Her hair was burned almost completely away, her skin a reddened mass of flesh. Perhaps the blast was enough after all, enough to destroy the enemy he’d once called sister. Jarin choked with the heat and smoke as darkness glazed his vision. At that moment he knew. Death had come to claim him. Brina screamed when the house crumbled. She stepped out of the treeline and looked down the hill at the ruins of her home, then sank to the earth. She clutched Shandae as sobs racked her body. Ash and smoke carried up to her, and she choked with the smell of blackened earth and burning flesh, but still she did not leave. She watched as C’Tan’s guard pulled her from the burning rubble and raced her back to the castle. She watched as even the stone burned and melted in the heat. At the top of the hill, she fell to her knees and wept as her entire life went up in smoke. The horses snorted and stamped. Shandae awoke once or twice, but went back to sleep quickly with her mother’s constant rocking. Brina was unsure if she rocked to comfort herself or the sleeping child. Jarin was gone. The link that had always grounded her—the bond between them—had snapped the instant Jarin had been taken by death. She’d felt a flash of crushing weight, the sear of flame, an ache of relief and regret as he’d slipped from this life into the next. As the black of night turned to the misty gray of morning, Brina picked her way down the slope to inspect the ashes of her home, unable to leave until she saw proof that Jarin was truly dead. She knew she was going against Jarin’s dying wish, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to know. 10 The Sapphire Flute She got as close as she could, but the heat of the charred remains and the baking stones would not let her get close enough to know for sure. There was no way Jarin could have survived the blaze, but she couldn’t give up hope, despite the severance of their bond. She couldn’t live without him. Jarin had saved her from her murderous father, had taken her from Kalandra’s scorn and Tomas’s disbelieving taunts. They’d never believed the horror she’d witnessed. Only Jarin had given her a way out of her past, a place to forget. Brina screamed at the sky. “Why?” She fell to her knees, pleading with the heavens for an answer. “Why?” she whispered as the tears fell unchecked. As she knelt before the ruins of her home, staring into the embers of the fire that had destroyed her life, she remembered Jarin’s final words, one line in particular standing out: “Go to Ezeker in Karsholm . . .” Brina couldn’t go to her sister, as Jarin had suggested. She couldn’t afford to take the chance that her father would find her there. And she knew nothing of the Bendanatu and had no desire to start now. No, the safest place was with few people, a place where no one knew her so she could forget her old life and start anew. She and Shandae had to hide, from her family as well as C’Tan. She had to be dead to all of them. C’Tan knew how to find her otherwise. And so she took a new name, one she’d avoided for most of her life, for it was full of ache and loss. It belonged to her battered and dead mother and her long-gone sister who had died at her father’s hand; a name that reflected their pain and the agony of betrayal and was now etched in her very soul. What other name could there be, now that deadness pierced her heart and soul? “Marda,” she whispered. But what of the child? What name would reflect her loss, yet keep her anonymous to C’Tan? 11 Karen E. Hoover Brina, now Marda, stared into the glowing coals for an answer. They blinked and wavered back at her, and she suddenly knew. A bitter smile crept across her face as she stared at her baby, so much like her father, and brushed away a lock of dark hair as he’d done not so long ago. “Ember,” she called the sleeping child. “Ember Shandae. For the glowing coals our lives have become.” Marda nodded once and dashed away the tears that had plagued her the night long. She could afford them no more. She turned her back on the stone and coals. Straightening her shoulders, she left her home and heart behind. 12 The Sapphire Flute CHAPTER ONE Kayla cradled her flute in the crook of her arm and curtsied to the politely clapping nobles. Her stomach jumped as she waited for her final and favorite song to begin. She glanced upward, gauging the morning light. She wanted to finish her performance just as the sun crested over the outdoor theater. The applause died quickly, and still she waited for the expectant stillness to come over the room before she nodded to the orchestra behind her. She had more to accomplish with this final song than just entertainment for nobility or a welcome to the king. Oh yes, there was much more at stake. The strings whispered a soft tremolo, the short strokes vibrating with sharp intensity that would carry her through the visions she needed to play. She lost herself in the sound as it began to build, the lower strings entering, the brass adding its muted blow, and Kayla closed her eyes to better see the picture within her mind, the image of home searing her eyelids in vivid detail. And then she began to play. Soft, so soft it seemed only a breath of sound, the flute came alive with her kiss. The instrument became her voice, expressing the poetry she felt in her soul, passing on the memories she held there. Her audience lived her thoughts without ever realizing what she had done, never knowing the doors she had opened between them. Even she didn’t know how she did it, but this once she took a chance on their ignorance and dared to try. She had to. It was the only way she could complete the path she’d set for herself ten years before. The sight of a hawk greeting the morning sun spun out with her breath, carrying the crowd on a journey with her above the towers of Darthmoor to weave amongst the snapping piñons, past the strong 13 Karen E. Hoover walls of her home. As she played, the quiet room drew her more deeply into the music until the audience faded away. The music was a place all its own. The hawk called again through her flute, and the strength of Darthmoor answered in the brass. Back and forth, the call, the answer, until the hawk flew away and the horn and drum sang a song of pride and strength that came from the very stone of the keep itself. The song was simple, easily played, the images familiar to all in attendance. There was neither man nor woman there who had not stood on Darthmoor’s walls, witnessing the rising and setting of the sun, the majesty of the mountains that guarded them, so the pictures were no surprise to the audience, causing no suspicion as she tampered with their thoughts. Her heart raced, and she could not help the light sweat that broke out on her brow, but her hands held calm and unwavering as she pulled the assembly into the height of her dream. Selfish. She knew she was being selfish in this performance, too focused on impressing the right people to play it with passion, but she had grown so tired of the insults, the dismissals as if she were below the people of Darthmoor, unworthy of even their glance. Now she held more than their glance. Much more. She had their adulation. She could see it in their eyes, in the way they held themselves so perfectly still, bound by her power. They were lost in her music, unknowingly caught in her spell, and she only prayed it would be enough to free her family from society’s chains. Not selfish, she told herself. This is for Lady Kalandra. I do this for Mother, she whispered in her mind. Hardening her heart, she poured herself into the final phrases of music. The image of sun setting and moon rising came, and all of Darthmoor lay still in the silence of night. Her final note faded away to nothing. It was done. All that remained was to see the reaction. Kayla lowered her head, still holding the flute to her lips, reluctant to let the moment pass when she was so at one with the music. There was not a stir—not a rustle, not a single breath as the audience sat transfixed for several long seconds—and then the room 14 The Sapphire Flute seemed to breathe a collective sigh before it erupted around her. She’d done it There was no way they could keep her family exiled after that performance. People surged to their feet and clapped madly, whistling and howling their praise. Even King Rojan beamed as he stood and applauded. Kayla took a deep breath, the tension leaving her shoulders. She actually let a smile creep through for a moment as she curtsied time and again. The audience quieted as the curtains descended, the conversational buzz already beginning, but she ignored it. There was nothing more that could be done, and she felt confident her plan had succeeded. Kayla gathered her rosewood case from the back of the stage and fell to cleaning and taking apart her instrument, smiling to the first violinist and mouthing a thank-you for his good work. He beamed back at her and bowed. She latched the case and wound her way down the stairs to mingle with the crowd she had just finished entertaining. Before stepping into the grand hall, Kayla checked her hair to be sure her ears were covered. It wouldn’t do to remind them of her half-evahn heritage when she’d just gained their approval. The Duke and Duchess Domanta waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. Kayla was disappointed their son Brant was not with them. He’d promised he would come. “Congratulations, Kayla. That was an amazing performance,” the duke said, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “I have never heard Darthmoor’s Honor played with quite such fervency. Not since Rajanya himself played it. Masterful.” “Why, thank you, sir.“ Kayla looked at him from beneath her eyelashes, bowing over his hand. “Praise for such a humble player is vastly appreciated.“ The duke laughed. “Despite growing into quite an attractive young lady, you have not changed one bit from the little sprite who used to hide in my stables and steal away my son.” “Hush, sir” Kayla mockingly reprimanded the man she loved and earnestly hoped someday to call Father. “You’ll ruin the reputation I am working so hard to gain, and how then could I earn your favor?” 15 Karen E. Hoover He roared a great belly laugh that rang across the room, then patted her cheek and met her fiery eyes with twinkles of his own. “You needn’t worry of me ruining your well-earned reputation, my dear. Right now you could talk the king into presenting you a duchy of your own.” Her heart raced. The duke was hitting a little too close to home. He gave her shoulders a squeeze and spoke low, compassion and laughter lacing his voice. “I’m not sure how the nobles will accept a titled outsider, especially one of mixed parentage. Darthmoor will never be the same again, that’s for sure, but personally? I think it would be great fun.” He gave her shoulder another squeeze and released her, smiling. “It’s about time the pompous wake up and let go of their prejudice toward the evahn, don’t you think—even if it is only in letting a half-evahn into their elite circle.” Kayla’s smile froze. The duke was much wiser than he appeared and had come right to the heart of the matter. She let it go because she knew he meant well, though she never appreciated mention of her half-human status. A genuine smile crept across her face. This man reminded her once more of why she loved his son so very much. Brant and his father were two of a kind. “Why don’t you come by and see Brant later,” the duke continued, winking. “I’m sure he’ll want to congratulate you himself. He was very unhappy about having to miss your performance today, but that’s the way of it when you run an estate. Sometimes things cannot wait.” Kayla’s heart quickened a bit. Brant had been behind her completely since the day they had decided on a plan to restore her family honor. She laughed to remember it now. They’d only been seven and ready to take on the world, and now ten years later their dreams just might be ready to appear. “I’ll be there, sir. You can count on it.” “Good. I’ll let Brant know to expect you.” Brant’s mother then spoke, and Kayla groaned inwardly. “I wasn’t sure what to make of you at first, young Kayla, but you have done your family proud. Your performance was marvelous. All my 16 The Sapphire Flute boys were absolutely enraptured when you began Darthmoor’s Honor.” A gangly young man with foppish hair and rouged cheeks walked up behind the duchess and took her arm at the elbow. “Oh, have you met Matios? His sonnets are simply divine. I’m sure the two of you have much in common.” The boy drew himself up proudly, and Kayla fought the urge to roll her eyes. It seemed there was a new “artistic genius” in residence at Dragonmeer each month, all of whom the duchess insisted on calling her “boys.” Sometimes it was a musician, at other times an artist or poet, but so far as Kayla could tell, none of them had a single ounce of talent. “I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” Kayla answered, taking his limp hand in her own. He kissed her knuckles, a sloppy kiss that left her wanting to wipe her hand on the back of her dress. But that would be the quickest way to offend the duchess, and she had only just gained some slight measure of favor from Brant’s mother. She’d always longed for the woman’s approval, but the evahn prejudice was too well-rooted in the heart of her society. Kayla had learned long ago it was a hopeless battle. Until society changed, the woman would never like her. “Kayla Lady Kayla” a young girl called from the middle of an approaching swarm. Saved from having to find something unobjectionable to say, Kayla excused herself from the duchess’s snare and turned to face the gaggle of girls that surrounded her. “Oh, you were sensational, lady. I wish I could play like that,” the leader cooed. Kayla had to fight a smile with the girl’s fawning. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. “I’m so glad you liked it,” Kayla said, bowing her head in acceptance. It was only polite, despite the girl’s age. “How’d you learn to play like that?” “Lots of long hours and hard work, I’m afraid. And a good teacher never hurts.” Kayla gave her staple answer, though it was not entirely true in her case. Besides, what she spoke was truth . . . it just wasn’t her truth. 17

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