First_chosen_cover_final

Before M. Todd Gallowglas was born, his parents upset a faerie queen, and so she cursed their first-born son to become a burden upon them. Embodying the totality of this curse, Todd became a storyteller and fantasy author. This seems to have backfired on the faerie queen, as Todd's family keeps telling him they are proud of him, and more than that, the writing and storytelling seems to be working out for him, so that he's not really that much of a burden after all.

Todd lives with his wife, children, more pets than they need, and enough imaginary friends to provide playmates for several kindergarten classes.

He is currently corrupting his children with a rich education of geek culture. Still, as busy as he is, Todd manages to squeeze in time for some old-school table top gaming and airsoft battles on the weekends (because it's not as messy as paintball).

Shiny!

First Chosen by M. Todd Gallowglas

On her twenty-first birthday, while faced with her moment of greatest need, Julianna frees an ancient god of vengeance, Grandfather Shadow, from his thousand-year prison. To show his gratitude for his freedom, Grandfather Shadow names Julianna his high priest and commands her to unite his scattered followers and lead his people to greatness once again.

Unfortunately, it has become illegal for Julianna's people to worship any of the ancient greater gods, a crime punishable by execution and the destruction of her soul. While avoiding followers of the God of Death and Inquisitors of the Kingdom of the Sun, Julianna must come to terms with her new place in the world, because when a god of vengeance gives you a command, "No" is not a viable choice.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Todd Gallowglas is a character himself, and he has made himself quite well known as a storyteller and performer at Renaissance Faires as well as writers conferences. You should see him wrap the audience around his little finger, get them engrossed in his story, like a real medieval performer in a traveling fair. He's also a really nice guy. – Kevin J. Anderson

 

REVIEWS

  • "Tears of Rage is a fantastical gritty series about faith, dedication, fear, and perseverance. A tale for the times we are in, with realistic characters forced to face their own flaws that are just as dangerous as their enemies. Read it."

    – Damon Stone, Fantasy Flight Games
  • "M. Todd Gallowglas has written a compelling tale in 'First Chosen (Tears of Rage)'. The world in which he sets the tale is a vivid, complex world; one in which theology and politics are so intertwined that it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins."

    – Best in Fantasy Blog
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

On the morning of her twenty-first birthday, the traditional day of Komati adulthood, Julianna sat at breakfast barely containing her rage. Just as with her fourteenth and seventh birthdays, the gods threatened to destroy the joy this day should bring as well—unless, of course, Julianna defied the gods. She had struggled with that choice for the last week, finally, the night before thinking, why shouldn't she defy the gods? It was her life, her memories of a day she would carry until she died.

Julianna leaned forward, clutched both hands to her stomach, and made a gagging sound. At the other end of the table, Aunt Maerie nibbled on carefully cut bits of pastries while Uncle Alyxandros sipped at his tea and read a letter. Breakfast had been a simple affair, consisting of porridge, fruits, and tea in order, as Aunt Maerie said, to save room for all the food at the introduction supper when Julianna would officially meet Duke Martyn Collaen, a boorish oaf of a man who had expressed interest in a political marriage between Julianna and himself.

"What better way to enter into the adult world," Aunt Maerie had said, "than to accept the hand of one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Koma."

The thought of being courted by Duke Martyn, a man nearly twice Julianna's twenty-one years, made her stomach churn. She gripped the table with her right hand, and groaned, "Gods and goddesses."

Aunt Maerie's fork stopped halfway between the plate and her mouth. She set the fork down without so much as a clink on the plate and folded her hands together. Her lips formed a thin line as her face tightened so that Julianna could see every one of the worry lines in the old woman's face—lines that Aunt Maerie claimed came from watching over Julianna. Uncle Alyxandros looked up from his letter. His gaze met Julianna's, and she thought she saw the left corner of his mouth creep up a bit. As always, his deep brown eyes gave no hint or insight as to his mood or thoughts.

"Julianna." Aunt Maerie stared straight ahead and her lips barely moved. She spoke in the same, almost singsong tone she used when her undersized dogs wouldn't perform their tricks properly for guests. "I won't tolerate that language at—"

"Maerie," Uncle Alyxandros said.

"Alyx, do not attempt to defend her—"

Uncle Alyxandros cleared his throat, cutting off Aunt Maerie's protests. She opened her mouth, but he waved his letter toward Julianna. The instant she had Aunt Maerie's attention, Julianna took her hand from the table and covered her mouth.

"Permission to be excused?" Julianna said between quick breaths. "Please?"

The crow's feet at Aunt Maerie's eyes softened and her lips relaxed. "By all means, dear."

A brief twinge of guilt twisted into a knot a few inches behind Julianna's naval. Aunt Maerie had spent a considerable amount of time arranging this dinner with Duke Martyn. Many other high ranking nobles from other prominent Komati families would also be there—on the chance that Duke Martyn did not take a fancy to Julianna. Then Julianna recalled a party not even two months ago. Duke Martyn's hand seemed unable to resist pinching the breasts and bottom of every girl, and even a few of the boys, who served him that night.

"Thank you." The words came out in a quick whisper as Julianna bolted from the table.

In her haste, Julianna knocked her chair over. The crash startled one of the new servant girls, who dropped a tea set. Shards of white porcelain and hot tea sloshed across the floor as the girl danced away from the shattered tea pot and cups. Julianna gave neither the accident nor the gaping-mouthed servant any attention as she fled the room. Her maid followed behind her.

Just as Julianna had planned, one of the downstairs maids waited right outside the door. Just like the girl who had dropped the tea pot, this maid had only recently come to the estate in the past few months. Aunt Maerie hadn't had time to burn their faces into her memory yet, which made them perfect for helping Julianna avoid Martyn Collaen. The maid stood with a bowl of watery gruel that also contained just a bit of bile from inside a lamb's stomach.

"Are you sure, my lady?" the girl asked.

"Do it," Julianna said. The illusion of sickness had to be perfect.

The maid dumped the noxious mixture on Julianna's sitting dress and the floor in front of her. As the mixture soaked into the fabric, the girl turned and fled.

Julianna made vomiting noises. She had spent many parties, balls, and dinners listening to men expelling their excess liquor. Sometimes, she'd even sought out opportunities to listen to this activity in order to imitate those noises. One never knew when one might need to invent an excuse not to attend an outing or an appointment.

Just as Julianna reached the height of her performance, Aunt Maerie came out of the sitting room.

"Oh, you poor dear," Aunt Maerie said.

Julianna turned, and said, "Aunt Maerie," in her weakest voice, gesturing at the mess all over the front of her dress.

Aunt Maerie brought her hand up to cover her nose. She looked about, up and down the hall. "You! Girl!"

The maid who had helped Julianna hadn't quite gotten around the far corner. She squeaked as she stopped and turned around.

Aunt Maerie waved at the mess on the floor. "Run to the kitchens, get some hot water, and clean this up."

The girl curtsied and hurried off. Julianna took a breath, not realizing she'd been holding it.

"Oh, Julianna," Aunt Maerie said, taking in the sight of Julianna. "Your favorite dress."

It wasn't Julianna's favorite. She hated the vile thing, though she had worn it more frequently than any other in the past month. Aunt Maerie had urged Julianna to add variety to her wardrobe, claiming that the dress did nothing to enhance Julianna's complexion or her beautiful eyes. Julianna had countered by reminding Aunt Maerie that no one besides her, Uncle Alyxandros, and the servants ever saw Julianna in the dress, so it didn't matter how unflattering it was.

Julianna made several gagging noises as if she were going to vomit again, and then started off toward her room. After five paces, she clutched at her stomach and leaned on the wall. She wanted to hear any words her aunt and her maid might exchange.

"After her, Colette," Aunt Maerie said. "Your mistress needs you."

"Shall she be needing me to bring her breakfast?" Colette asked.

Don't overdo it, Julianna thought, though she could see the image of Colette's slightly faraway look as the maid spoke with Countess Maerie Vivaen. Colette was a more practiced deceiver than most of the high-ranking lords and ladies that frequented court. Most servants were. It was a requirement of their position.

"Can't you see she's ill," Aunt Maerie asked. "She needs washing and a bed, not food. See that she gets them."

Colette dropped into a curtsy. "Yes, Excellency."

Julianna thanked all the lesser gods and goddesses at once. Half of her ruses and deceptions would never have succeeded if Colette did not play the part of the simpleminded maid so well.

A moment later, Julianna felt Colette's soft but firm grip on her arm. Together, they headed toward Julianna's suite, stopping every ten to fifteen paces for Julianna to feign another attack of her unsettled stomach.

Once they rounded the first corner, their pace quickened. They hurried past servants who were packing the multitude of paintings, tapestries, and stone busts that populated the walls and corners of her aunt and uncle's summer home.

Summerrain, a small estate of forty-nine rooms, had been in Aunt Maerie's family for over a dozen generations. It hearkened back to a time when barbaric men still tried to unseat each other from horseback using lances and other weapons without the least bit of finesse. Aunt Maerie had done her best to disguise the inner antiquity of the estate by having the floors carpeted and the walls covered by as much art as she could, and one of the servants' houses had been converted into an artist's house. Throughout the late spring and summer, Aunt Maerie forced Julianna to sit for a painter or a sculptor at least once a week. Aunt Maerie seemed to believe that Summerrain's halls could only be brightened by cramming them with as many renditions of Julianna and Uncle Alyxandros as possible.

When Julianna reached her rooms, she attempted to wriggle her way out of the sitting dress. Normally, this would not have been a challenging task, but she had an appointment, and every moment from her departure from the breakfast table to leaving the estate had been painstakingly planned. In the practice sessions at taking this dress off in a hurry, Julianna had forgotten to account for the vile concoction that soiled it. Her schedule only included time to quickly wash her body, but not her hair.

"Mistress," Colette said. "You're taking too long."

"I know that," Julianna snapped.

Ceasing her wrestling match with the dress, Julianna went over to the bride's chest at the foot of her bed. It had belonged to her mother, and unlike many of the bride's chests young ladies used these days, this one was made to come apart. Each side, the top, and both bottoms—it possessed a false bottom about seven inches above the true bottom—were made of forty-nine interlocking pieces of carved ivory.

Young ladies used these chests to store anything they felt they might need or want for their wedding. When a man wished to marry a girl, he would ask her to gift him with her bride's chest. She was honor bound to grant him that gift. However, she was not required to give him the chest intact. If a lady disassembled the chest before giving it to a man, he had seven days to reconstruct it. If he succeeded, she was honor bound to marry him. If the man truly repulsed the girl, she could always keep one piece from each surface so that finishing the chest became impossible.

Julianna opened the chest, but so as not to soil any of the contents, she said, "Colette, get the knife."

A knife lay hidden deep in the chest, just above the secret compartment.

Colette thrust her hands into the chest, drew out the knife, and handed it to Julianna. From tip to pommel, the weapon was just a hair longer than Julianna's forearm. For the most part, it was a nondescript weapon. The hilt was a dark brown wood that nearly matched the dark brown of the leather sheath. The blade had a blood groove the length of Julianna's middle finger on one side. Aside from that, and the reddish tint of the blade, the weapon's only distinctive feature was a single word etched into the blade opposite the blood groove.

Kostota.

Julianna didn't know what the word meant, but every time she looked at it, she felt that she should know. She'd once shown it to Uncle Alyxandros, and he had quietly suggested that she might want to keep the knife hidden away, or better yet, dispose of it entirely. Julianna could not do that. It was one of two things she'd received from her mother. The other was her eyes. Her deep, piercing gray eyes were extremely rare in girls born of Komati blood, and they were nearly nonexistent in girls from other lands. It was the first of Julianna's features that most men complimented, and in doing so, they earned the first coin of Julianna's contempt. Complimenting her eyes was far too easy.

The knife sliced through the material of the dress, and in a moment, Julianna was free without any damage done to her hair. She tossed the dress into the chamber pot.

"Burn that horrid thing," she told Colette.

"Of course, Julianna," Colette replied. Then she pinched her nose with one hand as she balanced a tray holding a bowl of water, soap, and a washing cloth in the other. "But I know how much you loved it. I'll fetch the seamstress to commission a new one that is exactly the same."

Colette had perfected her imitation of Aunt Maerie's nasal tone.

"Oh, but Aunty," Julianna said in a tone of exaggerated innocence. "I couldn't possibly wear a counterfeit of the original, no matter how perfect. It just wouldn't do."

They both laughed and then composed themselves. They had only a minute or two before Aunt Maerie came to check on Julianna. Julianna slid the knife back into its sheath as Colette began to untie the strings of Julianna's morning corset. The door opened sooner than expected. Julianna dropped her knife, kicked it under her bed, and hurried to the window.

As planned, a pool of the same concoction that Colette had spilled over Julianna's dress lay just outside the window. From the acidic smell wafting up from that mess, it hadn't been but a few moments since one of the other conspiring servants had spilled it there. The stable boy must have been waiting for the sound of their voices. Julianna couldn't suppress a small smile.

"Oh, you poor thing." Aunt Maerie said still spoke in that condescending tone.

Julianna's smile faded, and she clenched and unclenched her fists several times to keep from turning around and strangling her aunt.

"Duke Martyn will be so disappointed."

Julianna turned around. "I can go." She kept one hand on her stomach and the other near her mouth. "Give me a few moments to recover."

"And allow you to embarrass me, your uncle, and yourself by rushing from the feast table, or worse, vomiting all over the high table at the main course?"

Julianna noticed where Aunt Maerie had placed herself in that list. Whenever she spoke of more than one person, Aunt Maerie always listed them in order of their importance. Oddly enough, Aunt Maerie nearly always named herself first.

"You will stay," Aunt Maerie continued. "Your Uncle and I will still attend and make our apologies to His Grace, Duke Martyn Collaen, Lord of Storm's Landing and Autumnwind. Did I mention that he has a seat on the Komati's advisory council to Governor Salvatore?"

"Yes, Aunt." Only about forty-nine times.

"And, did you also …"

Julianna stopped listening to Aunt Maerie's praise of Duke Martyn. She waved Colette to get the water and soap.

Gods and goddesses, Julianna thought. Please let her leave.

Instead of leaving, Aunt Maerie sat on the edge of Julianna's bed, and her foot came down on Julianna's knife. The weapon clattered against the stone floor.

"What's that?" Aunt Maerie asked and leaned forward.

Julianna stared at Colette. If Aunt Maerie found the knife, Julianna might not only lose today's activities; she might well lose the knife.

"Night below us," Julianna groaned and went to the window.

"Julianna!" Aunt Maerie cried. She would forgive only so much profanity, even considering Julianna's illness.

With her back shielding her, Julianna shoved her finger into her throat. She gagged, but nothing else happened. With Aunt Maerie this close, Julianna couldn't trust her imitations. She needed to truly vomit. She wiggled her finger around, tickling her throat until her sides tightened and the porridge she had eaten spilled onto window sill and the ground outside. Julianna had never expected to go to this much trouble for a man.

"With all due respect, Your Excellency," Colette said in a demure tone. "I must ask you to leave so that I may attend my mistress."

Aunt Maerie sputtered. Julianna stayed leaning out the window, envisioning Colette gently leading the Countess of Summerrain to the door. The door closed.

Julianna stood up. Colette turned over a small sandglass that counted two minutes. As the sand poured from the top of the glass into the bottom, Julianna shifted from foot to foot. It would be so much easier to just jump forward a few minutes, but she might need the power to help her get out of Summerrain unnoticed. While she bounced up and down next to the window, watching the sand move in agonizing slowness, Colette turned down the blankets on the bed in case Aunt Maerie returned to check on them. That rarely occurred, but it had happened often enough to warrant caution.

At last, the final sands slid into the bottom of the glass. Julianna crossed the space between her and the glass in two long strides. She tipped the glass over and spread her arms. She and Colette had practiced changing from one outfit to the other twice a day for the last fortnight. By the time the top of the glass was empty again, Julianna was in her favorite burgundy velvet and black silk riding dress. Every time she looked at it, Julianna thanked the gods that Uncle Alyxandros could deny her nothing. All she had to do was tilt her head down, hunch her shoulders up, and give him a faint half-smile. It had worked ever since she'd recovered from her sickness when she was fourteen.

Once the dress was on, Julianna turned the sandglass a third and final time. Colette attacked Julianna's hair with brush, comb and hairpins—long, needle-like things that many men called "maiden's defenders." Julianna's dark hair was so long and thick that she needed between four and six, depending on the style of the braid. That morning, just to ensure the intricate braid remained intact throughout the day, Colette used seven. By the time the glass had emptied again, two curling ringlets fell across each of Julianna's ears, framing her face perfectly; the rest of her hair had been woven into a dozen braids that were pulled back into a bun and cascaded down her back.

Dressed and groomed, all Julianna had to do now was navigate the halls of Summerrain and get to the stables without being discovered by her aunt and uncle. Normally, this might be a challenge, but Julianna had arranged the work schedules so that all the servants who loved her more than they did the Count or Countess were on duty at this time. They were prepared to delay Uncle Alyxandros or Aunt Maerie with any number of questions or minor emergencies that could not wait.

Julianna opened the door. Uncle Alyx leaned on the wall opposite her room, reading his letter. He glanced up through his spectacles. Julianna shut the door, grabbed Colette, and shifted backward in time a few moments.

"Wet cloth," Julianna said as she jumped into the bed and pulled the blankets up to her chin.

Colette gathered a bowl and cloth from the table, wet the cloth, and spread it over Julianna's head to hide her hair.

A moment later, a knock sounded on Julianna's door.

"Come in." Julianna tried her best to sound fatigued.

Uncle Alyxandros came in, still wearing his spectacles. He looked around the room, scanning, and finally fixed his attention on Julianna. He walked over to her bed and yanked the covers off her. He stared at her over the rims of his spectacles. Colette shrank to the other side of the room.

"Not exactly what I would consider clothes for recovering from an illness," Uncle Alyxandros said at last. He pulled the cloth off her head, looked at her hair, and shook his head. "It seems as though you have an appointment."

Julianna sat up. Uncle Alyxandros offered his hand and helped her out of the bed.

"Please Uncle," she said. "Don't make me go. This is my last chance to have a real seven-birthday. My friends have planned a picnic."

He fixed her with his most disapproving stare, the one where his cheeks tensed so much it made it look like his lips were pursing to kiss something. "You know your aunt will be furious when she finds out."

To counter the disapproving stare, Julianna hunched up her shoulders, and gave him her best smile. "She doesn't have to find out."

Uncle Alyxandros shook his head. "Your aunt may be flighty and obtuse at times, but she is not stupid. She will find out, and she will suspect I've had some hand in this. We'll both suffer for it greatly."

"Please, Uncle Alyxandros."

"Will there be any young gentlemen at this picnic?"

Julianna chewed the inside of her right cheek. "Yes."

"Anyone I know?"

Julianna ground her right toe into the carpet. "Khellan Dubhan and perhaps a few of his friends."

"Baron Khellan Dubhan?"

Julianna nodded. Even the mention of Khellan's name caused her ears to warm and her stomach to churn a bit.

Uncle Alyxandros crossed his arms, sucked in a deep breath, and let it out in a long sigh.

"Well, it is apparent that I cannot keep you from being rash and impulsive, but I know Viscount Dubhan and his son. Fortunately, they are both rational, level-headed men. You may go."

Julianna threw her arms around Uncle Alyxandros and kissed him on the forehead and both cheeks. He sighed and rolled his eyes. She'd done that ever since she was thirteen and taller than he, and he'd always pretended that he didn't like it but she knew differently. Uncle Alyxandros did not allow anyone do something to him that he didn't like.

Julianna gestured for Colette to follow, and they fled the room, heading toward the stables.

"If your aunt asks," Uncle Alyxandros called after them, "I will deny knowing anything about this."

"I'm a grown woman," Julianna cried back. "She can't treat me like a child anymore."

Her uncle's laughter trailed after the two young ladies. Julianna knew better. Aunt Maerie treated everyone like a child, everyone but important people at court who outranked her in the Order of Precedence. Well, now that Duchess Julianna Taraen was an adult in her own right, she outranked Countess Maerie Vivaen. Once Julianna returned from her outing, she would have a conversation with Countess Vivaen on who was and was not worthy to marry a certain duchess of House Kolmonen.

With the exception of Uncle Alyxandros's surprise visit, the plan to get from Julianna's rooms to the stables worked perfectly, just as they had planned it. Julianna waved her hand in frustration at the servants who curtsied and bowed to her as she and Colette rushed by. Normally, Julianna wouldn't have dismissed this show of respect in such a flippant manner, but Uncle Alyxandros had disrupted her timetable by several minutes. While she could have gotten them back, Julianna didn't want to risk tiring herself out before even getting to the picnic. So they hurried; not quite at a jog, but close to it.

When she and Colette reached the stables, Julianna stopped short.

"What are you doing?" Julianna demanded.

The serving boy and two of the stable hands were passing around a bottle of fine Aernacht whiskey. It had been Julianna's gift to the boy for his assistance.

At the sound of her voice, all three snapped to the perfect attentive stance any who served the nobility learned to master early in their careers of service. The servant boy tried his best to hide the bottle behind his back. Unfortunately, they had already consumed enough whiskey that maintaining that rigid posture proved impossible. Each of them swayed slightly side to side, and none of them could meet her gaze, trying to find something, anything, to look at besides Julianna.

"Do you think that just because the nobles of this house are away you can spit in the face of your duty?"

"No, my lady," the three of them said together.

"Excuse me?"

Julianna walked to stand a single pace from them. Gods and goddesses, she needed to get on her horse and get on the road, but she could not let this pass. The three of them stiffened even more.

"No, Your Grace."

"Better."

Julianna fixed her attention on the young man she'd given the bottle as a gift. He glanced up at her for a moment, but looked away almost immediately. She imagined what it must be like for him, with her eyes, the ones noble men were so quick to compliment, focused on him. His feet shuffled for just a moment, and then he caught himself and stiffened. They remained like that, a pace away from each other, Julianna looking down at him, him looking down at his feet. Moments ticked away.

At last he said, "Forgive me, Your Grace. I will not spoil your generosity ever again."

"Accepted," Julianna replied and moved away from him. "To your duties. You can get as drunk as you want when your time is your own."

The boy bowed deeply, all trace of drunkenness gone from his movements.

Julianna turned to the two stable hands. "Our horses had better be prepared."

"Yes, Your Grace," they said in unison, and started for the stable doors. "They are just outside, Your Grace."

"Stop," Julianna said.

The stable hands froze mid-step. They faced Julianna and resumed the attentive servant stance.

"You are drunk. You will not handle my horse while you are drunk. See the stable master. Tell him I relieve you of your duty for today and to double your post tomorrow; your time is not your own until the day after that."

They bowed, saying "Yes, Your Grace. Thank you, Your Grace," before shuffling off toward the stairs that led to the stable master's apartment.

Once they reached the top and knocked on the door, Julianna allowed a satisfied smile to break the cool mask of her displeasure. She couldn't remain angry with them. Not today, not when Khellan was waiting to meet her and her friends to give her a true Birthday-By-Seventh celebration.

The two horses waited outside, tacked and saddled, just as the stable hands had said. As they came into sight of the horses, Colette handed Julianna a green apple. Julianna's horse, Vendyr, liked all apples, but he liked sweet green ones the best. It was the only kind he would eat completely, without spilling some chewed-up mulch onto the giver's palm.

"Vendyr," Julianna said, and smiled when her horse's ears, one black and one white, perked up.

All the horses ridden by nobles at the Summerrain estate were of the Saifreni breed from Heidenmarch, a protectorate on the southern coast of the Kingdom of the Sun, pure black with lush manes and tails. Well, at least all the horses ridden and seen by Countess Maerie Vivaen and her guests. The working breeds were in another stable entirely. Julianna's gelding was the only exception, and how the countess hated that blemish on her perfect collection. Vendyr was a rare-blood of Saifreni and Nibara, a breed from the Lands of Endless Summer across the southern sea. This mixed breeding gave him a white star on his forehead, one white ear, white socks above his hooves, and white patches on his neck and rump. This breeding also gave him strength, speed, and almost tireless endurance, thus his name: Vendyr was the name of an ancient Komati hero who had outrun the Goddess of Wind, the only mortal to have ever done so.

Now, even though his ears perked and he did the slightest dance of curiosity, Vendyr did not turn to face Julianna. She'd taken too long. Vendyr hated waiting once he was tacked and saddled. She let out a sigh and rolled her eyes at everything that had thrown off her carefully planned schedule.

While her plans did not depend on Vendyr being good this morning, he certainly could make the day harder to enjoy. Normally, Julianna would not placate him. She would just endure whatever nasty little games he decided to play with her in revenge for whatever little thing she had done to slight him. But right now, she didn't have time to struggle for dominance, and she suspected he knew it. The only question was whether he would behave for the rest of the day if she placated him now or spend the rest of the day testing her.

Just short of stomping her feet, Julianna walked right up to Vendyr's face. She offered him the apple with one hand and scratched behind his ear with the other. Vendyr whickered as he sniffed the fruit. He took one tentative nibble. Less than a heartbeat later, his lips pulled the fruit from her palm. As he chewed, Vendyr shifted his hindquarters, offering his flank to Julianna so she could mount.

Colette tried to cover her soft giggle behind her hand.

Julianna leaned to her left to see her maid sitting on her horse, Onyx, a pure black Saifreni. Well, Onyx wasn't exactly Colette's horse. A simple lady's maid could not possibly afford a horse in the first place, much less the upkeep. However, pretenses and appearances must be maintained at all times, so when they went riding, Colette got to ride Julianna's other horse, Onyx. In reality, Colette and Onyx had just as strong a relationship as Julianna and Vendyr.

"Really?" Julianna asked. "You find humor in this?"

Without bothering to hide her smile, Colette replied, "Of course not, Your Grace. A lady's maid is well aware of her station and knows to keep her personal emotions reigned in at all times."

"Bah."

Julianna turned back to Vendyr. She hadn't fallen for this trick in a handful of years, but that didn't stop him from continuing to play the game: I'll just look like I'm a happy horse, and I'll let my mistress try to mount me, and when she's halfway up, I'll move. Won't that be funny, to see her in her pretty dress sprawled in the dust.

"Look, you," Julianna said, stroking Vendyr under his chin; it was his favorite spot. His lips quivered ever so slightly. "Today is not the day for this. Please, will you be good?"

Julianna knew that Vendyr couldn't understand her words, at least not most of them, but she knew he understood the tone of her voice. And after seven years, they had formed a strong bond, almost as strong as the bond Julianna had with Colette. The only trouble was that Vendyr did not recognize the Order of Precedence, nor did he respect Julianna's title in any way. No horse did, no matter how much the nobility wished it otherwise. Julianna's familiarity with Vendyr served to remind her that, in many ways, the Order of Precedence was an illusionary construct.

As she had hoped, the tone of her words seemed to soothe Vendyr. He lowered his head and licked his lips, a sign of submission.

"Thank you," Julianna said, rubbing her hands gently over his face.

A few moments later, she sat in her saddle, waiting to see if Vendyr was going to test her in some other way. He turned his head slightly to the left, looked at her, then lowered his head and licked his lips again. Good. Finally, something was going right this morning.

"Ready?" Julianna asked Colette.

"I was on my horse and ready minutes ago," Colette replied. Then with a wry smile, she added, "Your Grace."

Julianna blinked at her maid three times, sighed, and blinked three more times. Without any further response, Julianna kicked her heels gently into Vendyr's flanks and he started off down the long drive that led to the road outside of the Summerrain Estate. By the time she reached the road, Colette was riding next to her. They each urged their horses into a canter in order to make up for lost time. Her friends would wait. After all, it was Julianna's day, but she didn't need to keep them waiting overly long.

As she left behind the hard task of escaping Summerrain and the last few moments of Aunt Maerie's dominance over her life, Julianna drew in a deep breath. She loved the dusty scent the drying leaves gave the autumn air. Now, barring intervention from some divine or infernal power, this was going to be the greatest day of Julianna's life.