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Nightvision will be available for purchase on Nov. 19th.
Dante crept through the brush. The scars on his hip and thigh stretched taut as he stalked the wounded animal. He couldn’t see it yet, but he smelled the blood, heard the pained wheezing.
Swollen clouds carried the weight of impending rain. He ignored the threatening summer storm and slinked closer to the creature. A bit of rain wasn’t going to hurt him any. Mysti might, but rain wouldn’t. Mysti’s wrath wasn’t to be scorned; it was expected and familiar, the cost of escaping his entourage.
He’d suffer it when he got home. Right now, he needed to focus on the hunt.
There it was: a white blob huddled in the ferns. Dante crept closer—one paw in front of the other, pressing silently on the cool moss.
Whiffs of old terror wafted around the creature like a lingering memory. Not because of him. This was not his doing; he’d only just sensed it. The Heart’s Pulse had shown him the creature’s magic as it showed him everything on his land. Such was his birthright.
He'd delayed his return home to put it out of its misery.
The animal was alone, vulnerable. Its innate magic guttered like a dying flame. It was weak, dying a slow, drawn-out death. It would be a swift end. Its magic would return to the Mother to be remade.
Powerful muscles bunched and coiled beneath his fur, and Dante leapt. The creature fell back with a startled shriek as Dante caged it between his legs. He swooped in for the kill but hesitated, fangs poised over a feathered throat.
A white owl.
Confusion stayed his attack. White owls did not nest in Ookamimori. They lived in the forests of Hanehishou with the Owlderah shifters, just as the majority of the wild wolves settled here. Like was drawn to like. So why was it here?
Saliva dripped from Dante’s teeth and splattered onto dirty, bloodstained feathers. The owl shrieked. Its golden eyes widened in alarm, and talons raked futilely at the thick fur on Dante’s belly. The will to live had ignited some fight in the owl.
Despite the weak flickering, the owl’s magic was too strong to be a mere animal’s, though not strong enough to be an elemental’s. Elementals didn’t bleed either. Not in the natural sense.
That left only one option. A sick dread settled in his stomach. He really wanted to be wrong.
Magic blurred the owl’s body.
Oh, Mother bless it! A shifter. Dante sprang away. He’d attacked another shifter.
Dante stayed back and watched warily as magic coalesced into a new form.
Who would emerge from the transformation?
Mother bless, his council would give him hell for this. Him, a prince, attacking a shifter from another family was going to get him a duel at Communion if the shifter demanded one.
What was a wounded Owlderah doing this deep in Ookamimori's wild forest? They were well away from the trade roads. Relations between his family and the Owlderah were cordial, in that there was little to no contact with them. They were content to be quiet neighbors. The merchant guilds did business together happily enough. As far as he was aware anyway, but that didn’t explain who was in front of him now. Or why. There was nothing out here; it was wild. Only his range wolves passed through on their patrol circuits.
The owl’s human form settled as the brilliant glow of magic withdrew inward to quiescence. A petite woman scrambled into a guarded crouch, nursing her arm. Blood oozed from a gash tearing her flesh from shoulder to elbow. Dried blood stained her nightshirt. The wound looked painfully inflamed. How had she gotten all the way out here with a serious injury like that?
Dante kept a cautious distance. She was injured and on the small side, but that did not mean she didn’t pose a threat. Mysti routinely kicked his ass, after all. And just because he couldn’t see a knife, didn’t mean she didn’t carry one.
Thunder rumbled a warning of the looming storm.
Matted silver hair, matching her feathers, fell over her dirt-smudged face. She glared at him. “Go away, Wolf. I refuse to become your meal.” She gasped in pain as she tried, and failed, to stand.
He should help her, but, he didn’t know what was going on. He’d already attacked her once. If she knew who he was, it could start a feud between their families. He should’ve stayed home.
Retreating a few paces, Dante gave her some breathing space. He could leave and pretend this incident never happened; however, she was alone and injured. Ookamimori was a couple hours away at a steady lope, and the Owlderah lands lay several days in the opposite direction. Where was she trying to go?
Dante lurked in the shadows to see what the woman would do.
She grabbed an oak sapling to pull herself up. The unsteady movement dragged the loose nightshirt off her shoulder and exposed the hollow of her collarbone. The elaborate crest tattooed on her pale skin told Dante far more than he wanted to know. His stomach plummeted.
Oh, bless it all. He was screwed.
This tiny woman was not just an Owlderah shifter, not just one of the hundreds of common people—she was a royal. The ink staining her skin marked her as the Crown Princess of Owlderah.
A princess. In his forest. Wounded and alone of all things. Where the hell were her chevaliers?
Dante melted deeper into the forest under her fierce stare. He lurked in the shadows to watch. After a minute, her clenched fists relaxed, and she slumped.
The princess certainly didn’t look like she was on a diplomatic mission. She was dressed for bed: barefoot, wearing only a nightshirt. She carried no traveling supplies of any sort. She was too far from Hanehishou for a casual flight.
The Heart’s pulse thrummed with knowledge beneath his paws as Ookamimori told him that there was no one else in range—no entourage, no chevaliers. No decent bodyguard allowed their charge to roam alone, his own notwithstanding. He had a habit of escaping and left them little choice, a habit he regretted today. So many other things he could’ve done. Should’ve done.
For now, following her seemed wisest. She didn’t know he was a shifter. He’d like to keep it that way.
Dante stayed low as she looked around. Apparently, she decided he was gone, and she set off toward the roaring river not too far away. Slinking through the brush, he tracked her. Occasionally, she seemed to hear him and stared at his position pointedly.
When she reached the river, the petite woman turned downstream toward the city.
The river rushed with a flooded fury that threatened the top of its banks. The silver-haired girl stopped and braced a hand on a slender birch as she swayed. Her breath came in wheezing gasps. Thunder boomed, shaking the air. The dark clouds finally dropped their horrific burden, and they were both drenched within seconds. Even his thick, double-layers of fur could not protect him against a downpour such as this. He was soaked. The princess’s poorly-chosen clothes offered no protection, and the thin cloth plastered transparently against her skin. Dante flushed. Propriety made him look away.
A yelp pulled his attention back to her. She’d fallen to her hands and knees. Fresh blood seeped from her wound and trickled down her elbow to her wrist. She knelt perilously close to the riverbank’s muddy edge.
The urge to help her was overwhelming. He paced in the cover of the brush. If he went to her now, he’d startle, possibly causing her to fall into the river.
She got up, but numerous summer rains had weakened the mossy banks, and the rain-drenched earth gave way. She screamed and tumbled into the frothing waters. Almost instantly, the foaming river dragged her ten feet, then twenty more, downstream. In mere seconds, she was lost to the river.
Dante raced down the riverbank. The princess surfaced and grabbed a tree fallen across the river. He cursed as the heavy rain weighed him down and blurred his vision. Mud sucked at his paws as he ran. She scrabbled at the tree. There was no way he would reach her in time. He ran past her, aiming further downstream.
The current dragged her underwater, beneath the tree and away. He lunged into the shallows, scrambling to find purchase on the mucky bottom and braced as the princess rushed toward him. Frigid mountain water numbed his paws and stole the breath from his lungs. The river pulled her into the center of the raging waters. He was going to miss.
Dante plunged deeper. His fangs snapped empty air. Another frantic lunge and he caught her thin nightshirt with his teeth. With a painful jerk of his jaws, the river dragged him with her. He dug his paws into the riverbed, slowing the inexorable pull. If he slipped, he wouldn’t be able to touch the bottom, and they would both be lost. She looped an arm around his neck, and her fingers fisted his fur with adrenaline-born strength. She found some footing and added her meager strength to the effort of fighting the river.
It wasn’t enough. The water’s buoyancy lifted his paws from the riverbed.
The deep, churning waters pulled them into merciless depths. Dante flailed against the current, but his strength was no match against the river. If he took dyre form, he could reach the bottom and fight the torrent; however, he’d lose the princess. Her tenacious grip around his neck would fail if he shifted. Dante clenched his fangs tighter into her shirt with fierce resolve and prayed the fabric would hold.
They tumbled together in a mass of tangled limbs. Snorting water from his nose as he broke the surface, Dante tried to find the nearest riverbank. To survive, they needed to reach the shore before the river drowned them and beached their corpses. Even the sky was trying to drown them. The downpour of rain blurred the distance to shore. He couldn’t see which direction to swim in.
His nostrils flooded as they bobbed downstream. Her hold on his fur yanked painfully with every abrupt change in direction. The river swallowed them, submerged them, and jerked them around until Dante’s teeth ached. His lungs screamed for air. A certainty set into his soul; they were going to drown. The river cared nothing for royal bloodlines. It was a pure flowing force.
The princess lost her grip in his fur. Abruptly, the fabric of her shirt snapped tight. Her full weight fell into his teeth, and Dante felt the thin fabric shred against his gums. Threads stretched and snapped. The river swirled them around and around in dizzying circles. Her nightshirt tore. The woman was gone, lost in the current.
His lungs burned.
Which way was up? He couldn’t tell anymore.
Dante shifted forms to lose the waterlogged weight of his fur. Bobbing to the surface, he choked as gritty water spilled into his mouth. He flailed. Went under. Fought back up.
A strange face parted the churning waters in front of him. Liquid, transparent features grinned at him, with glass-like needles for teeth. An undine, a water elemental. Lithe, inhuman fingers rose out of the raging water and waggled in greeting. Dante knew of them. Keer’s endless fount of knowledge spouted in his ear made sure of that, but he’d never seen one. It was nice to meet one before he died; however, he could think of better things to do before he died if he had another minute to think about it.
The undine whirled him through the water in a parody of dancing.
Dante slammed into something hard. A boulder? A tree? He didn’t know, but it hurt. Hard-won air exploded from his lungs, and water replaced it. He gagged for air, but there was none to be had. Water flowed out of his lungs and back in as his body forcefully tried to survive. He was not an aquatic shifter, he could not grow gills. Every automatic gasp only killed him faster. His lungs hitched in rhythm, fell still.
Shadows tunneled the edges of his vision as he sank. The river dragged him ever down. He didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. Dante let the water encompass him and he drifted. He could feel the magic draining out of him. Soon, his soul would rejoin the Mother’s lifeforce until he was reborn.
A chill pressed against his back. Something wrapped around his chest and lifted him to the river’s surface. Dante floated, held in place against the current by the undine. He stared up at the gray sky. He felt… untethered as though there was nothing anchoring him to his body.
Lightning flashed with violent forks. Was it still raining? Water poured over his face, but he couldn’t tell if it was rain or river water. His lungs no longer moved in his chest. The lack of breath should hurt. It didn’t. His sight turned monochrome, colors fading away like his lifeforce.
Fluid fingers hovered over his face and undulated hypnotically. Water rose unnaturally in his throat, as if he had swallowed a thread and the undine was pulling it out in one long strand. His body no longer had the care to gag or the strength to cough.
Liquid eyes peered into his face, blocking his view of the stormy sky.
A cold fist pounded his chest. Dante gasped and coughed. Breathed. Air burned gloriously into his lungs. The cold arms held him steady as he lay in the river. Darkness receded from his vision.
The river’s torrent tugged at his arms and legs, but he didn’t budge. The undine held him still. The water parted around them without dragging at him.
Dante raised his head and saw that he was floating in the middle of the river. Three figures bobbed toward him, against the flow of the current. One of them was the princess. Two more of the elementals towed her limp body upstream.
As the three drew near, his water elemental moved, ferrying him across the river. It cut through the water as though it were mist. The undine let go of him as they reached the calmer shallows.
Dante assumed his dyre form, the hybrid shape, a merge of human and wolf, gave him the height and strength to stand in the river. Silt squished between his clawed toes. The other undines brought the woman to him. Vaguely female-shaped, the elementals rose out of the water, up to their translucent hips, and presented the princess for him to carry. He cradled her to his chest.
The undines watched until they seemed sure he had her secure. Then, they melted, dissipating back into the water as if they’d never formed.
Bleary, golden eyes peered up at him with fatigued confusion. “Who?”
Dante winced. Now was so not the time. He avoided her question with one of his own. “Think you can hang onto my back while I climb?” Even with his dyre form’s height, the riverbank loomed over his head: high, mucky, and steep. He prayed to the Mother he had what it took to climb it. Elementals were fickle creatures and could not be counted upon to save them twice.
Her lips were blue as she nodded. Dante helped her climb on his back. She clung to him like a child riding piggyback, her heels hooked over his thighs.
Dreading his task, Dante whimpered. Mother bless, he should have stayed home today.
He climbed. Slimy cold mud squelched beneath his feet as he began his ascent. Dante sank his fingers into the riverbank for a handhold. Rain beat down on them, warm compared to the river. Teeth chattered in his ear as the woman shivered.
Halfway up, he started to slide. The mud refused to hold their combined weight. Making a fist, Dante punched into the muck. His arm sank in up to the elbow. Anchored, he clung to the earth. After a second’s pause to slow his racing pulse and regain his balance, Dante climbed again.
It was slow going. They gained only inches with each precarious step. Almost at the top, he started to fall backward, pulled off-balance by the woman’s weight. He scrambled for a new hold. Moss crumbled in his fingers, but they stopped falling. It took a moment for him to figure out why.
Dante looked around. Reaching over both their heads, the princess clung to a jutting tree root. Despite her size and injuries, she was strong. She held the limb steadily while he dug his claws into the bank for purchase and pulled them up.
His muscles burned with exertion as he climbed over the top of the bank. They crawled away from the edge. Dante collapsed in a tangled heap of limbs with the woman.
It was still raining. Thunder rumbled through the storm clouds, a slow growl that vibrated the very air.
The fight with the river had seemed to take an eternity; however, in reality, it had been just a few long minutes.
Slowly, his numbed mind registered that they had to find shelter. His teeth chattered as he tried to muster the strength to move. He reached out to the Heart with a mental touch, and the answering pulse showed him of a nearby cave system. Dante crawled out from under the woman’s limp weight. He was going to have to carry her. There was no way the princess could walk any farther even if he roused her. Not that his condition was much better. Hyperthermia was nothing to scoff at, even in the dead of summer.
Rain plastered his hair to his face. Dante scooped up the woman. Staggering even with her slight weight. Dimly, he noticed that she wasn’t shivering, even though her skin was cool to the touch. He knew this was bad, but he couldn’t think why. Violent shivers rocked through him, and his steps wobbled as though he were a child learning to walk. The only clear thought was the need to reach the caves and get warm and, even better, dry.
Every branch was determined to trip him. After a senseless and dreary trudge, Dante looked up only when the rain stopped falling on his head. A stony roof covered them. The caves. Ookamimori had guided his feet to shelter. Dante sagged to the dry stone, ignoring the debris of branches and old leaves that crunched under his knees. He had neither the energy nor a flint to light a fire.
The princess lay limp and utterly pale in his lap. Her heartbeat thumped softly in his ears. The bleeding on her arm had stopped for now. It was an ugly wound, deep and ragged. Dante scanned her for other injuries. She was barefoot. The tender flesh of her feet bled from several punctures and slices. Yanking strips of fabric from his shirt, he wrapped her feet carefully. A small protection, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
He was tired. It was hard to focus. Warmth. They needed warmth. Fire was not an option. Lying down, Dante curled around her. Body heat, it was all he had to offer.
He woke up shivering. The cave floor was hard and unsympathetic against his bruises. He felt as though he’d been pummeled by rocks. Oh, wait, he had. One, anyway. Unless it had been a tree. He didn’t know; he’d only felt the bruises form.
The dim gray light of dawn brightened the cave mouth. The storm had blown over in the night, and the forest was hushed and sleepy. Water dripped from the leaves with soft plops as the earliest of birds greeted the morning.
Dante groaned. He ached everywhere. Pulled muscles screamed over the bruises as he stretched.
Then his thoughts cleared, and he remembered why he hurt. The river. The princess.
She lay curled in a tight ball. She hadn’t woken yet. Concerned, Dante examined her. The princess wasn’t as pale as snow anymore, quite the opposite actually. He frowned and pressed the back of his hand to a rosy cheek. Hot. Too hot. She burned with a tremendous fever. She needed a healer.
The princess didn’t even stir at his touch. He’d have to carry her.
It was going to be a long walk.
The journey was harder than he’d imagined. Small as she may be, tiny even, she was a deadweight that grew heavier with every stride. To his chagrin, Dante found that he had to rest often. He was fit and in decent condition—he had to be to survive his training¬—but Ookamimori was not as close when using only two legs. Four covered the distance with an ease that his rarely-used dyre form could not. It was slow going weaving through the brush and dodging branches that were normally too high to bother him. The added inches of his dyre form threw off his normal grace.
He didn’t dare summon his chevaliers. They’d panic. The whole city would take immediate notice of them racing to his rescue, and he had no way to explain the princess or how he’d met her with violence. Never mind what they might’ve been doing alone in a cave together. The nobles would have absolute fits over that. A foisted marriage was not on his agenda. No, better to keep her presence quiet until he knew what she was doing half-naked and alone in the middle of his forest. Sneaking her in was his best option—for him and her.
Once in the city of Ookamimori, Dante skulked down dark alleys and through the brushy edges of the parks to avoid as much of the population as conceivable. He stopped and leaned against the wall of a grimy alley. The midday heat was suffocating, and he couldn’t catch his breath. His arms had long since gone numb. He couldn’t put the princess down if he wanted to; his muscles had seized like rusted iron.
Nothing for it. He had to keep going.
With a groan, Dante stumbled deeper into the narrow alley. He still had the city to cross.
The solid thud of landing feet roused him from a daze. He blinked blearily at the shadowed figure that had dropped out of the air in front of him. His pricked ears alerted him to the rustle of someone else behind him. Really? Right now? He couldn’t even see straight. Even the thought of a confrontation sapped the last dregs of energy from his soul.
The figure in front of him spoke, “Well, don’t you look like you’ve been having fun? Why didn’t you invite us to play? We could have made it funner.” A lithe, dark-haired man crossed his arms and settled against the alley’s wall effectively blocking the way.
Dante sagged against the opposite wall with a huff of relief. “Derrick, why would I want you tagging along? You always get into trouble.”
“Idiot.” Dante lurched as another voice breathed right in his ear. “And what, pray tell, do you think you’re in, if not trouble?” Derrick’s younger twin, Raiven, peered at the princess from beneath his familiar hood. Without bothering to ask, he lifted her from Dante’s arms.
Derrick caught Dante as he nearly fell over, suddenly off-balance and floaty feeling without the deadweight of the princess.
“Um, a situation in need of aid?” Dante joked, attempting to hide his utter exhaustion. It didn’t work; the thieves knew him too well. After all, they had practically grown up together. Dante blurred back to human form, forsaking the dyre’s too-heavy strength. Derrick kept a steady hand on Dante’s shoulder.
“Trouble, indeed,” Raiven said. “Your chevaliers have been scouring the city for you—again. That sharp-tongued one, Mysti, is about ready to commit murder. We’ve been trying to find you and give you the heads-up, but she was obviously right to worry this time.”
Dante didn’t normally disappear overnight, or if he did, it was right alongside these two. Then, at least they knew exactly what kind of trouble he was getting into.
“Right, thanks for that,” Dante said. The brick wall made a nice pillow. Maybe he could just sleep here for a while?
“Who’s the lady? Are you holding out on us?” Derrick asked. “And why do you look like you died and turned into a shade?”
Dante snickered. “Nice imagery, Derrick. I am not that bad off. I found her in the forest while I was hunting. She’s an Owlderah royal.”
“What!” Derrick yelped and dramatically flapped his hands in the air while Raiven inhaled sharply, the equivalent of a shriek from the normally stoic wolf. The thieves peered at the princess with renewed interest.
“I don’t know what she was doing out there. She fell into the river— hasn’t woken since we got out.” His lungs seized in a fit of coughing. Curling around his stomach, Dante coughed until his throat ached, and phlegm filled his mouth.
Derrick pounded a fist on his back. “Hey, breathe already.”
It helped. Coughing up one last glob, Dante straightened and wiped his face with a shaking hand. “I’m fine, but she’s got a nasty wound and a fever. We have to get her to the palace so the healers can look at her.”
He sagged into Derrick’s support as they moved to leave the alleyway, too tired to tweak the ebon ponytail hanging down his friend’s back. These men may be two of the best thieves in the city—in fact, they were both second-in-command of the thieves’ guild—but they were his pack brothers too. He trusted the twins with his life and the welfare of Ookamimori, and with the secrecy of this stray princess. If his chevaliers ever found out about his connections with the thieves and the fact that he was a trained thief, Mysti would murder him, prince or not.
The petite princess looked tinier now that he wasn’t carrying her. A frizzed braid spilled over Raiven’s arm as her head slumped into the hollow of his shoulder. “She’s kinda light, isn’t she? I mean, she’s skinny and needs to eat a few extra meals, but Leigha isn’t any bigger and she weighs a lot more.”
Derrick and Dante winced. "Don’t let Leigha hear you say that,” Dante said.
“Maybe it’s because she’s a bird. They are lightweight, right? Hollow bones and all that?” Derrick asked. “Hold up a second. We can’t walk the open streets with her looking like a beaten streetwalker. A patrol will be summoned before we get two blocks.”
Derrick pushed Dante off his shoulder, leaving him to sway into the wall. Pulling off his cloak, Derrick draped it around the princess. It covered the bloodstained nightshirt and the ugly wound. He tucked in the edges so the woven fabric wouldn’t slip and expose her. “She’s a total mess.” He pulled a rag out of his pocket and glanced at Dante. “So are you, by the way. At least we can play you off as drunk if we’re stopped,” Derrick said, wiping grime and fever sweat from the princess’s flushed cheeks. “This girl’s been through something.”
Looking down at himself, Dante could only agree. He was filthy, his shirt was shredded, and mud-caked strings of hair hung in his face like dreadlocks.
“That’s better. At least she doesn’t look like we’ve mugged her now.” Pulling Dante’s arm back over his shoulder, Derrick led the way onto the busy streets.
They garnered only a few concerned glances and a warm, matronly smile from a Grand’Mere, who cuddled two sleeping cubs in the crooks of her arms. “Heat a bit much for all of us today, eh?” she asked as they passed.
“Hmhm,” Raven murmured noncommittally.
Dante mustered a polite nod of respect. The wrinkles around her eyes spoke of warm smiles. He bet she made the best sweet cakes. Lucky pups.
It was a good thing that mismatched eye colors, like his, weren’t uncommon or he’d be caught. Imagine, the prince caught running around the streets of Ookamimori looking like he’d been in a fight and lost. Oh, the horrors. His noble council would keel over and die of mortification. Hmm, that was a thought. Maybe he should stage something and knock off a few of the worst annoyances via heart attack. Dante smiled blearily at his daydreams as Derrick dragged him down the street.
Unimpeded by a patrol, they reached the castle grounds quickly. Dante planted his feet before they reached the main gates. “We should go the back way. I’m not waltzing up to the front door like this. I’d have called my chevaliers if I wanted to make a spectacle. The fewer people who know, the better.” Dante waved a hand at the forbidding hedge walls.
“Ah, no, tell me you don’t want to go through there!” Derrick whined even as he turned around. They followed the hedge to a side entrance.
“I can’t walk through the front gates with an injured princess carried by two thieves, now can I,” Dante croaked. His throat hurt, and he was desperately thirsty. “It’s not like I’m going to get lost. I know the way.”
He tugged on the wrought iron gate. The hedge clung to it with leafy tendrils, reluctant to relinquish its guard. He hadn’t used this entrance in a while.
In the massive garden maze, there were no locks on the gates. The labyrinth of shrubbery was legend. Everyone knew that to traverse beyond the first row of hedges was to be swallowed by the maze and get lost to the untamed garden. Only the royals knew its paths. Ookamimori guided their feet always.
“Yes, you do; however, I do not. How are we supposed to get back out, huh?” Despite his protests, Derrick added his strength to Dante’s and they pulled the gate free of the branches.
Dante talked to ensure he stayed awake. “Please, you’re better than that. The Thief Lord’s best afraid of a little maze? Surely, you can find some way off the castle grounds without getting caught.” Gathering his waning reserves of energy, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Something inside of Dante relaxed as he entered the maze. This was his safe place. He was home. The Heart pulsed beneath his feet in welcome.
Raiven snorted. “Little, he says.” He boosted the princess higher onto his shoulder as he stepped through the deep hedge.
Derrick took up the derision. “Little? Ha! Your maze hogs over half of the castle grounds.”
Dante focused on the familiar banter to distract from the pressure building in his head. He shrugged and wobbled with careless movement. “The maze is little,” he insisted. “If it went all the way around the castle, then you could call it big.” A violent sneeze exploded, nearly sending him to the ground with the force of it.
Derrick scruffed the back of his shirt. “Hey. No passing out. You’re the only one who knows where we are inside this Mother blessed giant bush.”
Dante nodded. His head felt like it was going to wobble off his shoulders. “I’m trying.”
Ever-present shadows kept the grass cool and damp enough to squeak underfoot. He led them through the twisting, twining rows of bushes. It was not a neat maze. His mother had liked it that way, or so he'd been told.
“Keer should be in the library. If we get there, he can help me while you two take your sticky fingers away from my castle. I just had to sneak back a half a drawer worth of silverware stamped with the Canidea crest. My crest.” He cast a narrow look over his shoulder and was met with unrepentant grins. “I found the silverware in the basement at the guild. Did you know that a prince gets some strange looks when he’s caught fiddling with silverware? I think they thought I was trying to set the dining tables or something.” Dante blathered on, trying to stay awake and semi-coherent. It was getting harder; he was so tired. “The poor serving girl practically fainted before trying to chase me away.”
The maze didn’t normally take this long to traverse, or so it seemed, at least it was cooler in the shade. A chill crawled up his spine. Maybe too cool. He couldn't decide if he was hot or cold.
Relief and the promise of an approaching pillow spurred him on when a gap in the hedge opened up—the exit. Almost home.
“I will take her from here,” Dante said.
The lawn between him and the library steps looked vast and blisteringly hot. Heat waves lifted from the steaming grass, or was that his vision wavering? He wasn't sure.
Raiven transferred the woman into Dante’s hold, lifting her dangling arm onto her chest so it didn’t flop around, and he gave it a gentle pat. He fixed concerned amber eyes on Dante. “You look like a puddle of sewage. Take a bath and get some sleep.”
Rolling his eyes, Dante stepped out of the cool, protective embrace of the hedges into abrasive heat. “Your overwhelming concern is touching. Really, I have never felt so loved. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time we spar. Now, shoo, before a guard comes along.”
“Let her keep the cloak,” Derrick quipped over his shoulder as he followed his twin out of sight around a corner.
Dante trusted them to be fine and not cause trouble today of all days, even though they reveled in it.
He was reaching his limits, though. If the twins hadn't found him, he probably would've passed out on the streets. He waddled across the wide lawn, his legs bowing with exhaustion. The weathered statues guarding the marble steps seemed to mock him with stone-cold eyes as he stared at the last test of his strength.
“Keer, if you aren’t here today of all days, I am rescinding your book privileges,” Dante muttered. Laboriously, he climbed the sunbaked steps and nudged one of the massive doors, grateful for the ease it swung on its oiled hinges. He made a mental note to give the caretaker a bonus.
Compared to outside, the library was dim. All he could see were silhouettes of the bookshelves. Keer’s usual table was beneath the window. Despite heaps of books, his retainer was not there.
“Keer!” he barked.
Mother, please, let him be here.
“Dante?” a muffled voice deep within the ranks of shelves asked.
Dante’s foot caught on the edge of the rug. He stumbled, almost dropping the princess as he tried to keep on his feet. “Keer, I need your help.”
“Yes, you certainly do. You do know that Mysti is on a rampage, right?” Keer’s head popped out from around the shelves. Green eyes widened as he sighted Dante. “Sire! Are you alright? What happened? Who is that?” Questions flooded out of Keer faster than Dante could answer.
Dante wavered as his eyesight blurred and grayed around the edges. “I’ll answer your questions in a minute, but could you take her first?”
“Oh, right, of course. I am coming,” Keer said, and he hurried across the room. He took the woman and laid her on a divan. Dante wondered why he hadn’t thought of doing that.
“She needs a healer.” Dante said as he stood in the center of the room, lost. He'd made it here, now what? Oh, right. That bit was important. “Keer, she’s an Owlderah royal.”
Keer’s head snapped around so fast Dante rubbed his own neck in sympathy. “Truly?”
"She has the tattoo." Like he would make something like that up. "I’m going to sit down.”
Keer hadn't heard him. He was too busy staring at the princess, his mouth gaping. He was going to catch a fly if he wasn't careful.
Dante leaned against a pillar and let his knees buckle. The smooth marble supported him as he slid down. Exhaustion pulled at his eyelids. A nap right here on the floor sounded good. At this point, he'd accept the cave again if it meant he could sleep.
Hands patted his face. “What's wrong?” Keer knelt in front of him. His thumbs pried Dante’s eyelids open. “Are you hurt?” A worried crease furrowed Keer’s brow.
Keer didn't have time to block the spray, and he turned slightly green. "Gross, Dante. Really?” He scrubbed his snot-splattered face with a sleeve.
“Sorry. I think I have caught a cold along with a princess.”
Keer lifted him off the floor proving a strength belied by his slim form. “You can’t sleep here.”
“Why not? It’s better than the cave,” Dante whined. The space in his skull behind his nose throbbed, and he sniffed wetly trying to relieve the building pressure.
“You slept in a cave?”
“Mm-hmm much better than the river’s bed, don’t you think?”
Keer lowered him onto another divan. His lips were pressed white. “Rest here while I call the healers. I think the princess isn't the only one with a fever.” Concern strained his voice.
Dante wondered if he was missing something important, but he couldn't focus. The divan was a welcome cushion to his aching muscles. He curled up, trying to get warm.
“Hush, sire, everything will be fine. I’ll handle it.”
“Thanks, Keer.” Dante allowed sleep to claim him, knowing Keer could, and would, handle everything with skillful aplomb.