A lost princess. A blood debt. A cloak of lies.
Within the Thiaran Empire, citizens put on jeweled masks and turn away from those who are taken. As long as one child is sacrificed each month to the Slinks and nobody interferes, their society will thrive.
But seventeen-year-old Grei's mind is alive with treason, and he plunges into the heart of a prophecy that will drive the Slinks back to their fiery dimension. All he must do is travel to the capital city and sacrifice one last innocent.
As Grei wrestles with the prophecy and battles those who would kill him, he hurtles toward his final decision: save the empire, or save his own soul.
"Loved this book - I devoured it in about three days. Fairmist is a magical world and the book does a great job bringing you in to its lore. Very much looking forward to sequels!"– Amazon Review
"Strap in for a deep dive into a beautiful yet dangerous world filled with complex relationships and a humanity driven to action by compromise and expediency at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves. All it takes is one who follows their heart and is steadfast in character to change and grow the world. Now I'm faced with the the prospect of waiting for book 2 ... Whisper Prince, where are you when we really need you!? Congratulations to Todd Fahnestock for a fantastic book. It takes a lot to get 5 stars from me, but this story earned them all and more."– Amazon Review
"I was completely blown away reading this book. I was immediately hooked within the first couple pages and I had a hard time putting the book down! The author paints such a beautiful picture of the scenes and characters and I got completely lost in this world. By far the best book that I've read in a long time. It's a must read!"– Amazon Review
THE SLINKS paced them at the edge of the tree line, their silhouettes and burning eyes visible. They stayed silent, distant, but they may as well have been sitting behind Darven, their teeth scraping his skin, reminding him: stay the course.
In the darkness below, the city of Moondow held its breath, street lamps flickering like orange jewels. It was peaceful, but Darven conjured a vision of the city in flames, slinks chewing flesh, mothers screaming. His mortality thumped in his neck. Beat. Beat. Beat.
He paused, and the five heavily armed Imperial Highblades pulled into tight formation behind him. The thick clouds pressed low, close enough to touch. Darven searched overhead for a hint of silver in the black, but there was nothing.
"It looks like Fairmist," he said softly.
"Yes sir," the captain of Darven's Highblades acknowledged without emotion. It was not his job to think about such things. It wasn't Darven's, either, but Darven's thoughts were heavy like the clouds above. It was an ill omen, Moondow looking like Fairmist. Fairmist was where the world had ended. Almost.
The other Highblades remained silent and at attention on their well-trained mounts. They would sit there all night without complaint, through rain or raging storm, whatever came, until Darven gave another command. They would cling to their duty until their hands were bones.
Never sever the line.
Darven knew what they were thinking. The Imperial Wand did not pause on ridges and stare at clouds. It was a break in routine, and every Highblade had been on edge about odd behavior since the emperor's champion, Jorun Magnus, had gone crazy and betrayed them all.
Darven nudged Snowfall with his heels and the giant cat started down. The malformed slinks stopped at the edge of the forest, as they always did. They never entered a city and only stayed long enough for Darven to see them, to remember what would happen if the empire didn't pay the Debt of the Blessed.
A fine rain began, as though the clouds had been waiting for Darven to move. He flipped his cowl up over his head and followed the packed path, which turned dark with tiny dots. Halfway down, the dirt became flagstones winding up to the wall of Moondow, which had been built to protect the city from outlaws or, if they should get this far south, Benascan raiders.
But it wasn't a raider who came to Moondow tonight. Darven would not slay their men or rape their women. He was here for one person only, chosen to pay the Debt. All others were safe as long as they did not interfere.
A local Highblade perched atop the wall and shouted down. "State your need!" A young man's voice.
Perhaps it was dark enough to make the sentry believe Snowfall was a horse, or for him to miss that there were six riders: the incomplete number, the unlucky number, seeking a seventh.
Darven reached up and flipped back his cowl. Even in the darkness and rain, the young man would see the long, snow-white hair. Darven remembered when his hair had lost its color, over those first few months after his promotion. It had something to do with the emperor's artifacts. The wand and the crystal. They marked him. All those who bore a wand had the white hair, and everyone in the empire knew it.
The young man's gaze flicked over the five Highblades and came to rest on Snowfall. The sentry's partner appeared next to him, staring down. "Open the gate!" the older man said roughly, shouldering the young sentry so hard their armor clattered. The young man scrambled to the winch, and the heavy doors groaned opened.
The second year of the Debt of the Blessed, Moondow had kept her doors shut, refusing to allow Darven inside. He and his escort had ridden back to Thiara without a word. The emperor returned two days later with a hundred Imperial Highblades and another of his artifacts. The gates of Moondow dissolved into sand and the hundred rode within. By sundown, the city's delegate and all of her local Highblades lay dead in the city square.
Tonight the gates opened and Darven's escort entered unchallenged. The two sentries stood back, watching. Darven found the emperor's crystal, tucked against his chest inside his tunic. It was warm, and he knew it would become almost too hot to touch when he neared his quarry.
The young sentry closed the gates behind them. The older sentry reluctantly approached Darven. He had a thick mustache and was fit for a local Highblade.
"Apologies for the delay, Lord Wand," the older sentry said, bowing.
"Your partner was doing his job," Darven said. When you possessed real power, there was no honor in flaunting it. Best to be quick. Best to be done. He shifted to the subject at hand. "You have lived here long, Highblade?"
"All my life," he said in a low voice.
"Salandra Gell," Darven said.
The man's head bowed further. He knew the girl.
"She's a sweet girl," the old sentry said, not making eye-contact. Captain Bayn stiffened in his saddle. Citizens of the empire did not question the Debt of the Blessed. They were not even to discuss it.
"Her sister already serves the emperor, a Ringblade," the older sentry continued making his case, as if he didn't know the consequences for standing in the way of the Debt, as if even the most convincing argument could make a difference.
"Then her family will understand," Darven replied, trying to give the sentry a chance to save himself.
Captain Bayn actually looked at Darven this time. The hard man's face was expressionless, his jaw muscles clenched. But he would do nothing until signaled.
"Of course they should," the old sentry replied in a scathing tone. "The Debt of the Blessed is our salvation." He spat.
Darven felt unbelievably weary, and he looked away, looked for the absent moon in the iron gray overcast. Rain pelted his face.
Once, his duty had been clear. Then Champion Magnus had gone berserk in the palace, killing his fellows until that bitch Selicia brought him down. His rampage had thrown everything into question. He was the emperor's champion, the Highblade after whom all other Highblades had modeled themselves. Bravery without thought. Uncanny strength. A peerless swords-man with absolute dedication to empire and emperor.
Had he known something they did not? Was the emperor wrong to enforce the Debt? Or had Magnus simply gone mad like they said?
The Debt of the Blessed was necessary; it was all that kept the slinks at bay. Magnus knew that. Everybody knew that. The Slink War had nearly consumed the empire. Hundreds had died in a matter of days. A single slink was ten times as strong as a person, ten times as fast; they were overwhelming. During the Slink War, they had swarmed, ripping heads from bodies, pulling arms out like weeds.
In the midst of that slaughter, only Champion Magnus had killed one. Just one. Thousands had fought the slinks, but all other weapons had bounced off like sticks. Magnus was the only one to bloody them back. He was what they had all aspired to be. And now he was the traitor, the Highblade who had severed the line.
Never sever the line.
Darven broke from his reverie. He had paused too long already. He turned back to Captain Bayn and reluctantly nodded.
Captain Bayn's horse leapt forward and his sword flashed out. The old sentry fell back, but Bayn cut halfway through the man's neck before he could shout. Blood splashed over the flagstones, and the sentry fell with a soft gurgle, dead before his head smacked the ground.
Captain Bayn cleaned his sword on the edge of his red cloak then sheathed it over his shoulder. His horse danced in a neat circle. Darven glanced at the younger sentry, who was pale and shaking, gaping at his dead partner. The boy was poised to flee, but he stood transfixed by the growing pool of blood mixing with the falling rain.
"Young man," Darven said. "Where might I find Salandra Gell?"
The sentry gaped, unable to take his gaze away.
Captain Bayn moved his horse into formation behind Darven, and that seemed to jolt the young sentry back to life.
His jaw worked. "There's a water wheel, in the river. For the mill," he stammered.
"I know it," Darven said.
"The Gells are the millers."
"Long live the empire," Darven said, laying his reins against Snowfall's neck. The great cat huffed as he turned. The young sentry slumped to his knees in the blood.
The river wheel was on the far side of Moondow, and they rode straight through the city. Lights went on one by one in the row of houses. Curtains were pulled aside. Citizens came into the street in their nightclothes, heedless of the rain, following the Imperial Wand and his procession. As the numbers grew, the tension built, but they kept their distance. Every citizen knew what would happen if they stood in the way.
They reached the mill with hundreds of Moondow's citizens behind them, whispers slithering between them, and Captain Bayn gestured. His Highblades spread out around the little mill.
Darven dismounted, went to the door and knocked loudly seven times. Imperial Wands always came at night. Daylight offered confidence, sights and sounds they knew. Night was uncertain, and people were more tractable when they were uncertain. That meant less need for the wand.
He waited for a time, then knocked again.
"Who is it?" a voice came from the other side of the door.
Darven drew the steel rod of his namesake. Even he didn't know everything the wand could do, only what he had asked it to do in the service of the emperor. He could feel it radiate power, and he kept it tight by his side. Families chosen by the Debt were unpredictable. On Darven's third Debt of the Blessed, he had received a knife in the ribs for his carelessness. That had never happened since.
"Imperial Wand," Darven said. "Open the door in the name of the emperor."
After a long moment of silence, the door opened.
A man about Darven's age stood in the doorway. He wore breeches and a long tunic. His bald head shone in the Highblades' torchlight. His wife, small and attractive, stood a few paces behind him. Her eyes were wide, and she covered her mouth with her hands. She began murmuring prayers into her fingers.
Behind them was his quarry, a slighter figure standing in the shadows, not as small as the mother nor as tall as the father.
"Salandra Gell?" Darven asked, though he did not need to ask. She was the one; the crystal burned as she stepped into the light. She wore a dun-colored nightdress and was barefoot. Her eyes, brown like her mother's, seemed inhumanly large. "You have been chosen," he continued. "You have been blessed. Because of you, the empire will endure."
Tears welled in those large eyes and streaked silently down her cheeks. She made no sound. No sobs or shudders. Every Debt had a detail Darven never forgot, and he knew that Salandra Gell's silent tears would stay with him for the rest of his life.
"It is the will of the Faia," the mother whispered, rocking forward and backward with her eyes closed. "We must accept."
The father's face was a tortured mask. Veins bulged in his neck, and his arms were rigid at his side.
Darven waited. It was almost always best to wait for them to come to him.
Behind him, one of Moondow's citizens yelled, "Give her up!" Murmurs of approval swept through the crowd.
"She is the Blessed!"
"Bring her out!"
The father's rigid body slumped, and he fell to his knees.
Salandra moved to her father and knelt next to him, took his arm.
"It must be someone," she said. "Better it is me." He just looked at her, as though he was desperately trying to memorize everything about her. Salandra turned, went to her mother. "I love you," the girl said softly, laying a light hand on her mother's shoulder, but the mother didn't stop rocking back and forth, didn't stop her litany of mumbled prayers.
"Bring her out!" The voices rose again from the crowd. They wanted the Debt paid. They wanted the Imperial Wand and his Highblades on their way. Once Salandra was taken, they could go back to their regular lives, safe again. At least for a time.
Both father and mother stared silently at their daughter as she moved toward Darven.
He took the girl's hand and led her out of the house, away from her parents. There was no point prolonging it. It didn't get easier. He took her to Snowfall, and the sea of people parted to create a wide path out of the city, waiting for them.
"I can make you sleep," Darven said to the girl. "If you would prefer."
"No," she said. Darven helped her mount the great cat, then pulled himself up behind her. His Highblades formed ranks, and they rode out of the city together.
The girl did not utter a single word the rest of that night or the entire first day of the ride to the slink caves. She rode in Darven's arms by day and was guarded by the Highblades at night. She never complained, never tried to escape.
In the morning, they mounted up and began the final leg of the journey that would end in her death. She was calm, almost as though she had already surrendered and her spirit floated alongside her body. She looked all around with a serenity that humbled Darven.
They were less than an hour from the slink caves when Salandra finally spoke.
"Princess Mialene was the first," she said. "The emperor's own daughter?"
"Yes," Darven said. "Seven years ago almost exactly. Barely a week after the war."
She seemed about to say something more, but hesitated.
"Go ahead," he said. "I will answer any question you ask."
She turned in the saddle, just a little. The rolling gait of Snowfall caused them both to bounce.
"Did she go willingly?" Salandra asked quietly. "Did she charge ahead like they say?"
That was the story the empire knew: Princess Mialene Doragon riding to the hidden slink caves on her own to pay the Debt of the Blessed for all Thiarans, her hair flying in the wind. To show them all what must be sacrificed if they were to survive.
But Darven had gone with the emperor and Champion Magnus to Princess Mialene's room that day. He remembered her frightened face when she opened the door. She had only uttered one word: Father?
That plea had contained every question an eleven-year-old girl could ask a father who was giving her up to death. She wilted when he would not look at her, and she cast about for someone else. Her gaze had found Champion Magnus, and she seemed to find strength there. She quieted and allowed them to take her to her horse.
The princess kept her gaze on Magnus the entire ride. When they reached the slinks' cave, she watched him with absolute faith, knowing he would save her. That was what champions were for.
Darven remembered the light in her blue eyes dying when he lifted her from the saddle and placed her on the slope. She had changed then. Docile mouse to wildcat. She screamed, leaping on Magnus as he mounted, clinging to his leg. He removed her silently, and they had all galloped away.
Magnus had never looked back, but Darven saw his tears.
Darven suddenly realized he had paused overlong in his reminiscence, and turned his attention back to Salandra. He should lie to her. He should tell her the official story, but he had promised he would answer her questions.
"She screamed for us to save her," Darven said.
"And her father let you take her?"
"He ordered it."
She hesitated, and her voice was a whisper he could barely hear. "Why do they lie about it?"
"Because we must all have the courage to live up to the legend," he said. "Because it is the most noble sacrifice anyone can make. You are saving all of our lives."
"My sister is..." she began, and her voice caught. She cleared her throat and continued. "Ree is brave like that. There was never anything she wouldn't face down. She's a Ringblade, you know."
"She would have ridden to the slinks' cave. I can do no less."
Then she whispered, "I don't want to die." It was not meant for him. It was a plea so soft it wrenched his heart. Perhaps she meant it for the Faia.
She went silent. They crested the rise, and a slope of broken shale led down to a hole in the ground. The slinks were in there. Hundreds of them. Thousands. He imagined them crawling over each other like roaches, longing to emerge and devour the world. Instead, they would only devour this one girl.
They stopped at the edge of the slope, and she turned in the saddle. He memorized the slope of her nose, her smooth cheeks. She looked down at the distant hole in the ground.
"What is your name?" she asked quietly.
"I am Darven," he said.
"Tell my sister..." She hesitated. "Just tell her I was brave."
He dismounted and helped her off Snowfall. She began walking down the loose shale, picking her way carefully.
Darven clenched his teeth. His five Highblades stayed on their horses behind him, unmoving, and he thanked the Faia that they could not see his weakness.
Darven served the empire. He had collected his scars with pride. "Never Sever the Line" was the Highblade creed. It meant standing shoulder to shoulder with your brethren against the empire's enemies. It meant obedience to the emperor. It meant protecting those who could not protect themselves. They were all strands in a great web, and one severed line could mean the destruction of all. Highblades held that web together.
He watched until Salandra reached the cave and started down into that dark abyss. He had composed himself by then. He mounted Snowfall and yanked on the reins. The big cat let out a huff and turned.
He did not wait for the screams. He and his Highblades rode out directly.
It was another two-day ride to reach his home. He had a small cottage in the duchy of Felesh, a wife and an eighteen-year-old son who was already a soldier in the Benascan wars. Lawdon would take his Highblade test when he returned at the end of the year.
Darven's escort left him in his yard and rode on to Thiara. He gave Snowfall his dinner and the drugs that kept him docile, and put him in the special stable that had been constructed for him.
Darven entered his house. Veenda was there, her lovely shape silhouetted against the afternoon light, her brown hair filled with more gray than he remembered. He had only been gone a week, but she seemed older every time he returned.
She always stood in the main room when he arrived, off to the side, letting him know she was there, but she never said anything. It was an agreement they had. They did not talk about the Debt of the Blessed.
They watched each other for a long, silent moment. In the early days, her eyes had been filled with love when he returned from his duty, and perhaps sorrow for him. But not anymore. Her gaze looked the same as the old sentry's from Moondow. Silent rebellion. His own wife despised him. The emperor had given his daughter to the slinks as the first Blessed, but the Imperial Wands gave nothing. They only took.
He nodded at her, feeling like he wanted to say something this time, but he found no words. He wanted to tell her about the bravery of Salandra Gell. No one else would remember her courage except him, and that was a sharp jewel that cut his heart, priceless and painful. The slinks have won, he thought. We yet live, but they have destroyed us after all. Was this what Magnus suddenly realized? Was this what drove him to madness and dishonor?
He turned, went into his equipment room and closed the door. He took off his cloak and hung it up, removed his belt and dropped it onto the little bench. He sat down and removed the crystal from his tunic, set it carefully on the desk next to a box of scrolls for writing reports to the emperor. The crystal was cool now. It wouldn't grow hot until he was called upon again. Again and again.
Darven bowed his head, trying to find that purpose that drove him forward, that dedication to empire and emperor, but there was only an empty hole where it had once been.
He took a scroll from the box, carefully unrolled it and dipped a quill into the inkpot. He kept his promise and wrote a short letter to Ringblade Ree: Salandra's last words, her last request.
He set two flat stones at the top and bottom of the scroll to keep it from rolling up, tossed fine sand upon it. He glanced at the belt on the bench next to him. It had two sheaths on it. One for his dagger and one for the wand.
He took the dagger from the sheath, touched the edge. He had sharpened it before he left. A Highblade always kept his weapons sharp. One of the first lessons.
Darven put the dagger expertly against his throat and slashed. It stung, and he felt his life's blood gush down his neck. A good cut. An honorable cut.
He shivered, and with the last of his strength, he put the dagger back on the bench over the wand. Blood dripped and smeared across the belt.
Never sever the line.