Queen Samantha the first of Korthlundia held her newborn daughter and heir in her arms and whispered, “Brianna, I’m your momma. Your momma loves you.” But to call what she felt “love” was wholly inadequate. She’d felt love before, but this intense desire to hold, nurture, and protect her daughter? This she couldn’t even name. Tears streamed down her cheeks, as she counted Brianna’s fingers and toes. Her skin was lighter than her father’s, more of a chestnut than Robbie’s walnut, but her eyes’ brilliant green matched his. There was only the lightest of fuzz on her head, but Samantha thought it would be auburn like her own.

 “She’s perfect,” she sighed.

Baroness Glynnis, a plump middle-aged woman, beamed down at the baby. The baroness had been her mother’s best friend. “Fenella would be so proud of you. Now, her granddaughter can show the power of women as well.” The baroness’s words warmed Samantha’s heart as she thought of the mother she’d never known.

Oriana, her hair braided into the hundreds of small braids favored by the Korthian priestesshood, stood next to the queen. The fourteen-year-old girl had been a novice and was one of the few true healers in the joined kingdoms. She touched Brianna’s arm. “I thought her magic was strong when she was still in the womb, but when I touch her now, it almost bursts inside of me. I still can’t tell what form her magic will take, but it will be very, very powerful.”

Scratching at the narrow nose that betrayed his half-Saloynan heritage, Father Leigh collapsed in a chair. Like Oriana, he was a healer and had helped in the birth. They were two of the only true healers in the joined kingdoms. “Even from this distance, the happiness of it pulses inside me.”

At that moment, colors erupted around the baby—a wild, dancing mixture that included all colors of the rainbow and lit up the queen’s heart with joy and excitement. Samantha was an aurora, gifted by the goddess to see the colorful auras that surround every human being and reveal their character. An aura was always accompanied by feelings or sensations that sometimes helped the queen understand the meaning of the colors she saw. All she could tell from her daughter’s aura was that it made her happy.

Samantha first began seeing auras when she began to bleed in the ways of a woman, but their appearance had been random and sporadic. The texts promised that once she’d born a child, she’d be able to call forth auras at will. She didn’t yet know if that were true, but she’d never seen an aura quite like her daughter’s. She gasped. “I can see her aura! It is brilliant and sparkling. She will bring back her father. You’ll see.” This was the one hope she’d clung to since Robbie had been so badly injured destroying the Soul Stone.

The two healers looked away. They had told her this was a vain hope, that the love of her life was no longer truly alive despite the fact that he breathed and his heart beat. Even Glynnis looked uncomfortable. But Brianna would show them all. She’d bring her father back to himself, and Samantha decided she wouldn’t wait another moment to hear her name on Robbie’s lips again.

She called Brianna’s nurse forward and handed the baby to her. Then she swung her legs over the side of her bed. Oriana touched her arm. “Your Majesty, it’s too early to get up. You must rest and recover.”

Feeling weak, Samantha put her hand on Oriana’s shoulder to rise. “I’m taking Brianna to her father. Don’t try to stop me.”

Oriana opened her mouth to object, but Father Leigh held up a hand. “It’s only a short distance to the king’s quarters, and Her Majesty needs to see for herself before she’ll believe us.”

Oriana backed away, and Glynnis took her arm. “If you’re going to insist, let me help you.”

Samantha accepted the baroness’s support in making the trip to Robbie’s quarters. The nurse followed, carrying the most precious treasure in the world. Her guards surrounded them. When she reached Robbie’s quarters, his guards bowed to her.

With a small squeeze of her arm, the baroness wished her well as the guards stood aside for her and the nurse carrying Brianna. When she entered her husband’s reception room, his personal servant Drem bowed. “Your Majesty.”

The love of her life sat on a sofa, staring at a blank spot on the wall. She carefully lowered herself next to him. As the heir to the throne, the one thing Samantha had thought she would never have in her marriage was love, but Robbie had filled her heart and soul with it. In moments, she knew, he would do so again.

She touched Robbie’s shoulder gently. “Robbie, my love, I know you’re in there. Please, look at me.”

He continued to stare at nothing. Ronan, the gray-stripped cat that had followed Robbie all the way from his father’s farm, sat in Robbie’s lap, but Robbie didn’t pet it. The cat was just one of the many things Robbie seemed not to notice these days.

“Robbie, I’ve brought our daughter. Look at her.”  Robbie didn’t even blink. Ignoring the horrible burn scars on his hand, she took it in hers. “You’re a father now. I’ve brought her to meet you.”

She reached for her daughter, and the nurse relinquished her. She gently pushed Ronan aside so she could place Brianna on Robbie’s lap. The cat hissed as it jumped to the floor. After laying Brianna down, she placed Robbie’s hand on their daughter’s sweet head. Samantha almost cried at the contrast between Robbie’s dark, rock-like skin and Brianna’s smooth perfection. “Here she is. You feel her, don’t you? You are the most powerful healer Korthlundia has seen in centuries. You felt her presence when she was nothing but a speck within me. You have to feel her now!”

Robbie continued to stare at nothing. Samantha put her hand on his chest and felt the steady thump of his heart. “You have to come back from wherever you are. The Holy Mother wouldn’t take you from me! Not after everything we’ve been through!”

When he failed to make any response, she brushed the curly black hair back from his forehead. The right side of his face still held the exotic beauty that had drawn her to him that long-ago day at the horse fair. With trembling hand, she touched his chin and turned his face toward her. Even though she’d seen the damage many times, she let out a low moan. His hair grew only on the right side of his head. The left was bare, and the skin looked like boiling lava had pushed its way through his scalp and solidified. The damage flowed down the left side of his face and neck, then disappeared under his collar, concealed by his clothing. Gently, she touched the left side of his head where his ear should have been. The skin felt more like rubber than flesh, and an ornate eye patch hide his empty eye socket. She shuddered as she again imagined the agony he must have felt when the Soul Stone exploded. Her heart breaking, she whispered, “Holy Sulis, Robbie, was it the pain that drove you out of yourself?”

She turned the damaged side of his face away from her and placed his other hand on their daughter as well. “Sulis, Mother of us all,” she said in a voice loud enough to ensure the goddess heard her Beyond the Far Mountain, “he destroyed the Ancient Evil that was sucking the life out of your land and your people. It isn’t fair that his bravery should cost him his soul. Bring him back! You owe that to him! You owe that to me!”

But, as before, the goddess refused to acknowledge her demands, and her husband’s eye remained blank.  “No!” she shouted. “You are a father! You will know your daughter! You will know me!”

Brianna began to cry, but Robbie made no response. She put a soothing hand on Brianna, and again the baby’s aura burst forth. Before Brianna’s, Robbie’s had been the most colorful, alive aura she’d ever seen. The brilliant bronze, silver, and gold dancing around him had drawn her to him at the horse fair. Fearing what she would find, she hesitated trying to call it forth.

She chided herself. It will be there. It has to be. She concentrated, but nothing happened. Not even a slight hint of color appeared.

No! No! Everyone has an aura. I must be doing it wrong. She looked at Robbie’s servant and nearly wailed as the smallest exertion of her will caused colors bloom around Drem, a blue so bland it nearly put her to sleep. He was loyal, but dull. She turned to Brianna’s nurse. When the nurse erupted with bright purple and copper, a thick slime seemed to flow over Samantha and she found herself unconsciously rubbing her fingers together as if she were caressing coins. Holy Sulis, how did I ever allow this woman near my daughter! The greedy wench could be bought. “Wait outside,” she ordered the woman. She would see the woman tossed from the palace, but first she had to find Robbie.

When the nurse was gone, Samantha whirled back to her husband and tried again. But no matter how strongly she willed it, nothing happened. Nothing? If he has no aura, Leigh and Oriana must be right. He’s gone. He’s truly gone. How can the goddess be this cruel? With tears streaming down her face, she was forced to face the ultimate betrayal. Robbie had given everything for Sulis, and Sulis had taken him from himself. The goddess had allowed the love of her life to die.

Now she was truly alone. She was only twenty years old. She was queen of a kingdom on the edge of chaos, and she was alone.

It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t right! But if the goddess thought Samantha would crumble, Sulis was about to find out how wrong she was. She resolved that, except for Brianna, she would never let love touch her again. She’d take her love and pour it into her people instead. Samantha might be alone, but she’d show them all the queen Solar raised her to be. And damn to the seven hells anyone who challenged her, even if the challenger were Sulis herself!

* * *

Still, raging at the goddess, Samantha sat in Brianna’s nursery with the baby at her breast. As her daughter sucked from her, she felt such happiness and love it was difficult to maintain her anger. She smoothed the tiny bits of hair on her otherwise bald head. “Holy Sulis, Brianna, you’re all I have left. But I’ll be the best mother to you the joined kingdoms has ever seen. I love you, sweetheart. Momma loves you.”

Brianna let go, and Samantha brought the baby to her shoulder and patted her back. Brianna burped and fell asleep on her shoulder. This chance to feed her daughter was a precious gift, but she couldn’t keep it up. A queen’s schedule didn’t allow her to be available at all the hours a newborn needed. She had Blaine, her personal secretary, organizing a search for a new wet nurse to replace the one she’d dismissed.

There was a knock on the door, and Ardra, her maid, entered. Ardra had served her for years and was closer to a friend than a servant. She was accompanied by a woman barely out of her teens who looked so much like her that they had to be related. The younger woman was dressed in rags and looked weak and sickly. Her guards and Brianna’s entered with the women.

Ardra and her relative curtsied to her. “Your Majesty, may I introduce my sister Cece?” Cece’s eyes darted around the room, as if she were looking for a place to hide. The poor woman was terrified as well as ill.

Samantha bit back her annoyance that Ardra would bring a sick person into the presence of her vulnerable newborn. “Ardra, I’d love to meet your sister, but perhaps you should have Calum see to her. She doesn’t look well.” Calum was the royal physician.

Ardra put her arm around her sister. “Cece’s not sick, Your Majesty. I wouldn’t have brought her to see the little princess if she were. She’s just weak since she gave birth two days ago. Her poor baby was too small and only lived for half a day. She still has her milk, though, and I know you’re looking for a wet nurse for the little one.”

Samantha hugged Brianna closer, at the sudden fear that Sulis might try to take her daughter as well. She’d travel Beyond the Far Mountain herself and demand her daughter back if the goddess dared do that. Her heart went out to the bereaved woman. With a slight exercise of will, Cece’s aura immediately burst around her, and Samantha felt almost as if she were a child again, cuddling on the king’s lap, his comforting arm wrapped around her. Cece would give Brianna the same love and care she’d have given her own child, the love Solar had given her. “Would you like to nurse my daughter?” she asked.

Cece’s eyes snapped to the baby and then down to the floor. “Your Majesty, I’d love to have a baby to care for.” The way Cece had glanced at Brianna told her how much the young woman’s heart was hurting. “But I know I’m not worthy of the honor. Ardra insisted on bringing me to you, but I’m sure Your Majesty will want someone better than a whore to feed the crown princess.” Tears ran down Cece’s cheeks. She wiped at them, but she couldn’t stop them.

Ardra made a noise of disgust and put an arm around her sister. “Don’t talk that way about yourself. Your Majesty, my sister isn’t a whore. She wasn’t married to her baby’s father—the cad left her as soon as he got her pregnant. But he’s the only man she’s been with. Our parents threw her out when she couldn’t hide the pregnancy any longer. She came to Murtaghan looking for me, hoping I would help her. But she gave birth before she worked up the courage to send a note to me at the palace, and then her baby died. I’ve never asked you for anything, Your Majesty, and I haven’t the right to ask for this, but please, Your Majesty. Cece will take right good care of the little one, if you let her. She’s a good girl, Your Majesty.”

As her maid’s eyes pleaded with her, Samantha thought of all Ardra had done for her over the years. When Duke Argblutal had attempted to force Samantha into marriage, Ardra had taken her place in order to give Samantha time to escape the palace. She did so fully expecting the duke to kill her for the deception.

To calm the young woman’s nervousness, Samantha smiled at Cece. “I owe your sister a great debt. I’d be happy to have you care for my daughter.” She turned to Ardra. “I’ve just fed Brianna, so it will be a little while before she needs to eat again. Get your sister a bath and something to eat. See that she’s supplied with decent clothing and anything else she needs to get herself settled. The nurse’s room is just off the nursery.”

While Ardra burst into a smile, Cece fell to her knees. “Your Majesty, thank you, thank you. I promise I’ll care for the little princess as if she were my own.”

Samantha had no doubt she would.

* * *

Blaine, the queen’s secretary, hurried toward the king’s room. He hoped against hope that he might have some good news to bring the queen along with the endless list of duties she needed to attend to.

When he entered the king’s room, Drem was reading aloud to the king. Blaine focused his attention on the servant, trying not to see the ruined shell of the king. The servant stopped reading and stood, but didn’t bow his head. The omission was a clear statement of Drem’s belief that he was Blaine’s equal. While Drem was merely a body servant, he thought serving the king gave him special status. Blaine didn’t have the time or the desire to play silly games. He had a queen to serve and a kingdom to help her run. Despite his panic when the queen named him to this position, he hadn’t let her down yet, and he didn’t plan to fail her now. “How is the king this morning? Did he eat his breakfast?”

“He ate as he always does. Once I get him started with the spoon, he will continue eating until nothing is left on the plate. I was reading to him to help with his digestion.”

“And does the king seem to enjoy your reading to him?”

Drem stiffened. “Are you questioning the way I perform my duties?”

Blaine rolled his eyes. Servants could be pricklier about status than nobles. “I was no more questioning your performance than I was questioning the clouds about how much rain they’ve been providing, so to speak. I am on my way to the queen, and I hoped to have something to report to Her Majesty.”

Drem’s shoulders relaxed, and a compassion Blaine had never witnessed before stole over the servant’s face. “It was heartbreaking to see the king fail to respond to the baby princess.” He glanced at the king, then he looked back at Blaine. “No, the king doesn’t react to my reading or to anything else. I think the healers are right. He isn’t truly alive any more.”

Blaine put his hand over his heart, as if the queen’s loss were his own. The goddess could certainly be cruel at times.

* * *

When Blaine arrived at the queen’s rooms, she was dressed and eating breakfast. It’s only been two days since she gave birth! Holy Sulis, she’s a quite a queen! She even managed to give him a tired smile when he bowed to her. He’d fallen in love with that smile when he was only five years old and the queen three. He never imagined he’d get a chance to speak with her, let alone serve her as he did now.

“Good morning, Blaine. Have a seat and tell me what you have for me today.” She gestured him into a chair where a mug of bhat was waiting for him. The hot drink made from roasted bhat beans and sweet cream had been the king’s favorite. Even in her grief, the queen never forgot her courtesies.

Blaine took a sip before he turned to his list. “Considering Your Majesty has just given birth, I have canceled today’s court session.” The queen tapped a finger on the arm of her chair, and Blaine knew what she was thinking. “No one is heartless enough to blame Your Majesty for taking a single week off after the birth of a baby. Even among the lower classes, most women do lie in for at least three weeks. If anyone has a petition that can’t wait a week, they can bring it to your chancellor.”

The queen hesitated a second longer, then nodded. “You’re right as usual. A single week to recover my strength isn’t unreasonable.”

Surprised that he hadn’t had to argue more, Blaine opened his mouth to protest that it was more than reasonable, but since he’d won the point, he went back to his list.  “The delegation you sent to Korth has returned. Baroness Eithne accompanied it back from Korth and has requested an audience.” Although Blaine had been careful not to mention the Soul Stone, a mixture of grief and rage sparked in the queen’s eyes. The passes into Korth had remained clogged with snow far longer than usual this spring, but as soon as they’d cleared, the queen had sent a delegation to assess the needs of her people in wake of the damage caused by the Soul Stone.

The queen straightened. “I will, of course, grant such a request.”

“I knew Your Majesty would feel that way and have informed the baroness that you will see her within half an hour.” Blaine looked at his list. “After the baroness, Lord Duer has a report for you.” Blaine glanced at the queen. Lord Duer was the queen’s spymaster and not a very competent one at that. He was supposed to be ferreting out the hiding place of Father Faolan, leader of the so-called True Church of Sulis, which taught that any mixture of blood was anathema to the goddess. He’d dared to call the crown princess an abomination when she was still in the womb. The queen had rightly condemned him to death for treason, but his followers had attacked at his execution. They’d tried to force Her Majesty to drink a potion that would have driven the spark of the baby’s life from her. They’d failed in this, but their attack had allowed the high priest to escape. He was still at large somewhere.

The queen was touchy about Duer’s continued inability to find the rogue priest. Blaine could almost see the queen thinking that Darhour would have found the priest by now. Darhour had been the queen’s chief bodyguard and former spymaster, but for reasons Blaine could never understand, he’d deserted the queen after slaughtering Duke Argblutal, the first man who’d threatened the queen’s throne. The desertion was even more inexplicable given that the man was also the queen’s true father. The queen took his desertion hard, but this morning she did nothing more than nod her acknowledgment. Holy Sulis, she was a woman!

But that brought him to the last item on his list. Anticipating resistance, he let his words out in a rush. “Your Majesty may recall that King Solar threw a great celebration at your birth. The people have endured loss along with Your Majesty, and they need a celebration of the birth of your heir as badly as a duck needs water, so to speak. It would also help cement the people’s support behind you in the wake of the True Church of Sulis’s opposition to your reign. Litha is just a month away. The summer solstice would be an excellent time for such a celebration, with the longest day of the year being linked to the brightness of the princess’s healthy birth and the anticipation of Your Majesty’s long reign.”

The queen’s lip quivered, but to Blaine’s surprise, her only question was, “Can you put everything together in such a short time?”

Once such a task would have sent Blaine into a hysterical panic, but he’d helped the queen plan several such celebrations. “It might not be as easy getting wet in a rainstorm, so to speak, but I can, Your Majesty.”

“See that it is done. Father Hafghan should be asked to bless the princess when she is presented to the people.” Hafghan was the high priest of the Lundian church, at least the portion of church that hadn’t split off to form the True Church of Sulis. He was loyal to the crown and had proven useful in the past.

Blaine nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

“Brianna is a precious gift. Make sure the celebration reflects this.” An expression of maternal tenderness lit the queen’s face and nearly brought tears to Blaine’s eyes. The king’s tragedy hadn’t completely crushed the queen’s softer emotions. Her eyes cleared, and she gave a little laugh. “You’ve already been planning it for months now, haven’t you?”

Blaine nodded. “I hope Your Majesty doesn’t find me presumptuous, but I knew such a celebration would be needed, and I didn’t want to bother you in your grief over the king’s injuries.”

Rather than seeming angry, the queen’s eyes filled with tenderness, and she reached across the table and squeezed his arm. “Thank you, Blaine. No queen could ever ask for a better secretary. I don’t know how I could manage without you.”

With a familiarity that Blaine would never have presumed earlier, he put his other hand over the queen’s and gave their culture’s most sacred oath. “Your Majesty, this I swear by the Goddess and on my mother’s grave, as long as there is breath in my body, you will never have to manage without me.”

Neither of them moved for a few moments, but then they simultaneously broke apart as if embarrassed by the breach of protocol. “Should I show the baroness in, Your Majesty? She will surely be waiting for now.”

The queen nodded. “Please do.”

* * *

 Accompanied by Samantha’s guards, a rather plainly dressed middle aged woman entered. Her hair was pulled back in a bun that didn’t flatter her. The baroness bowed, and when she straightened, the queen noted how tall she was. Samantha would barely come to her chest. While Samantha was particularly short for a Korthlundian woman, Eithne was taller than most men, and in her late thirties, she looked fit enough to take most of them on in a fight. She was also one of the few women in the joined kingdoms who ruled a barony in her own right rather than through her husband. In addition, since Count Kayne had been executed two years ago, she’d been managing his estates for his nephew’s sake. She’d spent little time at court, and Samantha didn’t know her well. The Soul Stone had resided in the heart of Kayne’s lands, and hers abutted them. Extending into Korth in all directions, the Stone had sucked all life from the land. Not even insect survived. Samantha was uncertain if the Dead Lands encroaching upon Eithne’s lands, but they would have at least come close.

Samantha offered her a seat and refreshment. When the older woman was comfortably settled with a glass of wine, Samantha addressed her. “Baroness, I’m happy that you chose to accompany my delegation on its return to Murtaghan. I will, of course, hear their report, but perhaps you can give me more personal advice on the needs of the people affected by the Ancient Evil.”

The baroness’s shoulders relaxed, as if a vast burden had just been removed. “Your Majesty, I have prayed long and hard to the goddess for relief. Bad doesn’t begin to cover the state of the people, Your Majesty. As the Dead Lands caused by the Soul Stone spread, refu gees fled from Leighaltys into Cailleachail. I fed them through the winter as best as I could, but my larder runs low.  I don’t have enough stock left to feed both my people and the refugees until a harvest is possible. Worse, the long winter lingering in the mountains kept me from seeking help from the crown before the time for Spring planting. I had seed only to sow half of my fields and little enough to give to the refugees to return and plant their own farms. It is now too late in the season to sow more grain, and this year’s harvest will be small.

“And it’s not just grain. Most of these poor farmers lost all of their livestock to the Soul Stone’s curse. Most of my own flocks and herds were needed to feed everybody through the winter. Without the crown’s assistance, starvation will be widespread in the coming winter.”

Samantha’s insides jolted at the word “starvation.” While poverty had never been entirely absent from the joined kingdoms, under her father no one had ever starved, and no one would now. “Milady, this I will not allow. Please provide my secretary a list of your people’s needs. We will not send you back into Korth empty handed.”

The baroness beamed at her. “Your Majesty, Sulis has blessed this people in providing you to be your father’s heir.”

As the baroness left, Samantha wondered if the goddess had forgotten the people as thoroughly as she seemed to have forgotten her. Solar had always placed the needs of the people over the accumulation of royal wealth, so it was unlikely that the crown had enough resources to meet Korth’s need. Worse, she didn’t know if she could count on the royal council to support her. Many of the nobles lacked Solar’s generosity of spirit. She heard again her father’s words: “The needs of the people are always a ruler’s first responsibility, and she must always find a way to get the noble class to act on this whether they like it or not. Often, they won’t. No matter how much or how little people have, they always seem to want more.” Her father had always been able to play the various nobles off against each other to ensure that the common people prospered. She realized she had to do the same. Holy Sulis, bless that she could.

But before she could think of strategies to deal with the Royal Council, Blaine announced Lord Duer.

After Duer was seated with a glass of wine, he cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything to report concerning Father Faolan’s whereabouts. His fanatics have hidden him well.” Several months earlier the Lundian church had split into two factions. Robbie had convinced the high priest, Father Hafghan, the high priest, that having mixed blood was necessary for magical ability. This conflicted with long standing church doctrine on the importance of maintaining blood purity. This didn’t sit well with many of the clergy, and Father Faolan had challenged Hafghan’s right to the high priesthood. When Faolan lost the challenge, he split with the church, taking not quite half of the clergy with him. Faolan called his faction The True Church of Sulis and lay claim to many of the temples and shrines in the city.

Duer sipped more wine before continuing. “I have other disturbing news concerning the ‘True Church.’ Count Ultan has been seen entering the Shrine of the True Believer on at least two occasions.” Samantha’s nostrils flared at the thought of a member of the Royal Council consorting with the church that tried to kill her daughter. “Gael followed him there yesterday afternoon. The count was escorted into the back to speak with Father Eadoin.” Eadoin was Father Faolan’s chief assistant. He’d taken control of the heretical congregation, at least publicly. “I’m afraid I haven’t been able to learn what they discussed, but the count has always been something of a zealot himself.”

“Have him watched more closely,” Samantha commanded. No pure-blood zealot would touch her baby. She’d used her ability to choose guards whose loyalty was absolute.

“I will, Your Majesty.”

“There is one additional thing, Your Majesty. A select group of worshipers have been having Sulis’s star tattooed on the back of their right hand. I have yet to figure out the tattoo’s significance.”

Samantha gripped the arms of her chair more tightly, but gave no other sign of her impatience. Is there anything of importance Lord Duer does know?

* * *

When Iachus reported for duty, Captain Garrett informed him and his partner Bary that a new wet nurse had been found for the princess. “She’s the sister of Her Majesty’s maid, Ardra, and Her Majesty trusts her. Still, it wouldn’t hurt us to be a bit cautious until we’re sure of her.”

“Yes, sir,” Iachus said, and patted his sword hilt. The True Church of Sulis had tried to destroy the princess while still in the womb. It seemed unlikely that Her Majesty’s maid’s sister would be a spy from the heretical church, but he’d make sure no one touched the princess on his watch. He was still ecstatic that he’d been chosen for the crown princess’s personal guard. He had no idea how he’d earned the honor. He was good with his sword, but there were some better who hadn’t been chosen. And he couldn’t have been chosen out of personal regard. Before being picked for the princess’s guard, he’d hardly exchanged more than a dozen words with Her Majesty. Being the oldest of nine children, he was fond of little ones, but the queen surely didn’t know that.

In fact, the queen’s method of choosing the members of the princess’s guard had been odd. She’d summoned them to the training arena, but she hadn’t had them demonstrate their skills or asked them any questions. Holding the baby princess at her shoulder, she’d simply walked down the line and looked at each of them closely. Iachus couldn’t imagine what she was looking for, but Garrett was the first one she found it on, and she’d asked him to be the captain of the princess’s guard. Since Iachus was among those chosen, he couldn’t fault her method.

What he hadn’t anticipated was that, if no one attacked, guarding didn’t actually give one much to do. He couldn’t stop thinking that a person he’d never met was alone with his charge. “I’m going to check on the princess,” he told Bary.

“The Captain came out of there just before you showed up.”

Iachus ignored him and went in. A petite young woman sat in a rocker with the princess at her breast, and, Holy Sulis, were they admirable breasts. He’d never believed in love at first sight, but one glance at the princess’s nurse, and he was certain he was in love. She looked a lot like Ardra, with her pale blond hair and milky white skin, but there was a vulnerability in her eyes that roused the protector in him. She was so small she’d fit perfectly beneath his arm, and Iachus instantly wanted to spend the rest of his life holding her there and keeping her safe.

Turning a deep red, she made a small noise and scrambled to drape a blanket over herself and the princess.

Iachus turned his eyes away. “Sorry, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Iachus, one of Her Highness’s personal guards.”

“N-nice to me you. I’m Cece,” she said in a voice so timid he could barely hear her. Her eyes flashed to his sword, and she fiddled with the blanket to make sure she was fully covered. “I’m feeding the baby.” It was clear that she wanted him out of the room.

“Ah, yes, we can get to know each other later.”

“I’d like that,” she said in a manner that told him she wished him to fall through the floor and into the depths of the seven hells.

What a way to make a first impression! He damned himself as he returned to his post outside the nursery.