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The Endless War by Danielle L. Jensen

The Endless War

by Danielle L. Jensen

Published by CLA/Audible Original

Book 4 in the Bridge Kingdom Series

Newly crowned as king, Keris has watched powerless as his forbidden relationship with Zarrah is revealed.

But when Zarrah is imprisoned by the Empress, Keris knows there is only one way to save her: to ally with the kingdom he nearly destroyed.

Imprisoned on the dreaded Devil’s Island, Zarrah faces two choices: prove her loyalty to the Empress who condemned her or die a traitor. Yet as she struggles to survive among violent prisoners, Zarrah uncovers a third path: a rebellion to overthrow tyranny entwined with a destiny she must fight to claim.

While the Empress plots a war with devastating consequences, Keris and Zarrah must find their way back to each other. Yet their greatest adversary is the fiery passion between them. Unless they overcome the bitterness of betrayal, their love will not be the bringer of peace but rather the fuel that turns the Endless War into an inferno.



Violence, Death (war), Cannibalism (not by MC's)


If you have read my other reviews on Danielle Jensen's Bridge Kingdom series, then you know how I much I love this series.

After the cliffhanger in The Inadequate Heir, I couldn't wait for Endless War.

And because Bridge Kingdom is an Audible Original, Danielle is not allowed to publish it in print for six months after Audible release.

Which, fair.

At least it gets to print.

So despite my dislike of audible books ... I tried it. I got halfway through the book before I had to stop.

Not because I wasn't loving the story. I was totally loving the book.

I just couldn't concentrate on it. Some with ADHD can only listen to audible books. I need to see the words to truly absorb the book.

So because I felt like I wasn't getting to truly appreciate the book, I decided to hold off till release in print.

But before I go to my thoughts on the story, I did have some ... thoughts on the audible book.

Specifically ... the male voice actor.

What the hell was audible thinking?

I guess its a matter of opinion when it comes to voice acting, but Keris is in his twenties. The voice actor's voice sounds much older and gruffer than I even imagined Keris's voice.

And the actor mimicking female characters? No. No no no no no no no.

Could he make Lara sound any more bratty and condescending? He wasn't getting the tone right at all.


On to the story.

It was great! I was thoroughly invested and entertained.

Did I love it as much as The Inadequate Heir? No, but not because I wasn't just as good.

It's just different. While there is action, it's more political than the all out war we had in The Traitor Queen. It was satisfying, but not as satisfying as Lara killing her father and facing the sharks.

And ultimately, it ends pretty much how I predicted it would from the information we get in the first few chapters.

Which is fine.

But it just doesn't live up to Lara and Aren's conclusion in The Traitor Queen in terms of romance or excitement, which bums me out, because The Inadequate Heir was all of that and so much tension.

That being said, I didn't not like it.

I loved it!

It had a happy ending when it seemed to be impossible for there to be one.

But what I really appreciated besides Keris and Zarrah's story was the side arcs and characters. The little things that showed that sometimes good people are forced to do bad things as a matter of survival or for the greater good. The growth in Lara when she tells Aren the truth, when she feels its best not to. The broken bond between a brother and sister being healed. The friendships that are formed between warring kingdoms. I loved it all.

And by the sounds of it, the next book is going to be a wild ride, in which I'm very excited about.

But I will still wait for the book in print.

I just can't process audible books.

And how would I ever keep track of my favorite quotes!

Zarrah: "Innocents would have died by the thousands, and for what?”

Bermin: “Honor and vengeance,”

he answered without hesitation.

Zarrah: “No.”

Zarrah shook her head wildly, knowing she was running out of time.

Zarrah: “Hubris and greed. We keep fighting, not for the good of Valcotta, but to appease the Empress’s ego.

Keris: “What do you mean we can’t set sail?”

Dax: “There’s a typhoon.”

Dax pointed out the windows of the office.

Dax: “If you look hard, you can see it.”

Keris was perfectly aware of the black skies over the harbor, the gutters of Vencia’s streets full of water rushing down to the Tempest Seas.

Keris: “It’s just a squall.”

The captain of his guard strolled to the door to the balcony and unlatched it, turning the handle. The door immediately wrenched out of his hand, slamming against the wall with enough force that Keris was shocked the thick glass didn’t crack. Wind roared into the room, sending papers flying off the desk even as an explosion of thunder caused the whole tower to shudder.

Dax: “You’re right, Your Grace,”

Dax shouted.

Dax: “Just a squall. I’ll tell the captain to grow some balls and ready his ship.”

A fresh flood of rage surged through his veins, and in a violent motion, he hurled the glass against the wall. It exploded, amber liquid dripping down the golden paint.

Dax: “You’re really embracing your rise in status, Your Grace. Not just wearing the crown but truly emoting it.”

Keris: “Fuck off. Didn’t I fire you?”

Dax: “Possibly.”

Dax picked up the decanter and two glasses, carrying them to the desk.

Dax: “You talk a lot, and truth be told, I don’t listen to half of what you say.”

Keris: “Isn’t there a rule against drinking while you’re on duty?”

Keris asked, his tone flat because he didn’t have a particularly valid explanation for his plan to go to Ithicana beyond the truth. And the truth wasn’t something he had any intention of revealing.

Dax: “Could be.”

Dax scratched his unshaven chin.

Dax: “But given you drink while on duty, I figured it was more of a guideline.”

Keris: “What do you think she wants from me?”

Around a mouthful of cookie, Sara answered,

Sara: “To get in your bed.”

He jerked, nearly sending his drink crashing to the floor.

Keris: “What did you just say?”

Taking a large sip of milk, Sara said,

Sara: “I’m not entirely certain why, but all the aunties used to say Lestara wanted to get in your bed. I assumed you had a particularly comfortable mattress.”

Keris: “If I explain my plans, will you keep them secret for me?”

Sara: “Of course,”

she said without hesitation. Yet though she’d kept many of his secrets in the past, Keris’s throat still constricted. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to speak, his voice still low.

Keris: “I’m going to Ithicana to ask Aren and Lara to help me rescue Zarrah from prison.”

His sister’s eyes brightened with delight.

Sara: “Will you marry her?”

If only that were in the cards.

Keris: “I will march armies to save her, and that’s all you need to know.

Zarrah: “Read something to me,”

Zarrah murmured, her breath warm against his chest.

Zarrah: “Something about somewhere else.”

Keris blinked against the glow of the sun shining in the window of the stateroom, watching the endlessly rolling waves.

Keris: “Do you want to be somewhere else?”

Her body shook with silent laughter, and she lifted her head to meet his gaze, her dark-lashed eyes capturing his soul.

Zarrah: “No, but last time I let you choose, I was subjected to an hour on the history of coin making. I’d thought your voice could make anything interesting, but you proved me wrong.”

Keris: “My voice?”

He lifted an eyebrow.

Keris: “I hadn’t realized it was so intriguing.”

She rolled her eyes.

Zarrah: “Please. You know precisely the effect it has.”

Taking a deep breath, she lowered her voice in mimicry of him and said,

Zarrah: “The first known coins were made from electrum, a combination of silver and gold, with trace amounts of other metals.”

Keris: “Hmm.”

He furrowed his brow at her.

Keris: “I understand what you mean. When you say it that way, it’s far more fascinating.”

For his kingdom, agreeing to wed her, or someone like her, would be the right thing to do. A strategic choice that any good king would make.

But he wasn’t a good king, and never would be.

They broke out of the trees, and Zarrah’s stomach flipped as she stopped next to a cliff edge. Beneath, the seawater raged in its swirling cycle around the island, but it was to the far side of the murderous channel that her eyes went. About every hundred feet was a stone guard post, a pair of sharp-eyed soldiers minding each of them, bows in hand.

Daria: “Morning, cunts!”

Daria shouted across the gap, lifting her hands to flip her middle fingers at the closest guard posts.

Daria: “Care to take your best shot?”

Zarrah shifted uneasily because there was nothing to stop either guard from shooting them, no cover to take. And given that the gap between cliff tops was only about thirty feet, it was an easy shot. But the men only gave Daria sour glares, as though this were an old and tired exchange.

Zarrah: “They don’t ever shoot?”

Daria: “Oh, they do.”

Daria cut left and walked along the edge of the rocky cliff with no regard for the deadly plunge at her right. Casting a vicious grin at Zarrah, she added,

Daria: “But it gives us something to shoot back, and we’ve got archers here with better aim.

Daria: “Day and night. Night and day. Rain or snow or sun, they watch.”

Lifting her hands, she screamed

Daria: “Pig fuckers”

at the next guard post.

Keris froze as the blade angled, pressing hard enough that blood trickled down his throat but not hard enough to kill.

Keris: “It’s been a long time since I’ve had so many women in my room. Hopefully this encounter will prove more fruitful than the last.”

She chuckled softly.

Sarhina: “A foolish hope, Your Grace. I’ve no taste for incest.”

Keris: “If you wanted to talk, you could have made an appointment. You and the rest of our sisters are in no danger from me.”

Sarhina: “What makes you think I wish to talk, Keris?”

Keris: “Well, there are a limited number of reasons for an individual to sneak into my bedchamber in the middle of the night. We’ve clearly ruled out an assignation, and given that I’m still breathing, assassination, which leaves only conversation.”

She snorted.

Sarhina: “I already dislike you.”

Sarhina: “What’s wrong with you? You have the capacity to heal Maridrina. To reform it in a better and brighter way, then release it to thrive under a better form of rule. Why would you run from the opportunity?”

He wasn’t running from anything. It was only that, above all things, he desired to run toward a woman, and a life, that required him to abandon everything else.

Keris: “I’m somewhat lazy, I’m afraid. Ideas over execution, if you get my meaning.”

Sarhina snorted.

Sarhina: “I think you’re full of shit.”

She’s the clever one of the lot, Coralyn had told him while they were planning the escape. That she wasn’t the one chosen to go to Ithicana was undoubtedly by design. Backbone of steel, will not be pushed into anything, and she keeps all your half sisters in line despite them all having Veliant personalities. Tongue like an alehouse bar wench, but I suppose you’d like that about her.

Sarhina: "Why would you trust your assassin half sister with such power when I could just as easily take your crown?”

Keris: “Everyone wants to take my crown, Sarhina. The difference is that while they all want to replace me on the throne, you want to replace the throne itself.”

Keris: “What is she going to say? That I refused to make her queen above the rest? Either way, she’s your problem for the time being.”

Sarhina: “Along with all the others you’ve dumped in my lap. You owe me, Keris.”

He struggled not to smile.

Keris: “I don’t owe you anything. You can’t wait for me to leave so that you can get to enacting your own personal agenda for the kingdom.”

Sarhina: “True.”

She smirked.

Sarhina: “So quit pissing around and get gone.”

Keris: “Aren isn’t going to throw rocks at me,”

Keris answered, taking in the swaths of new growth on the slopes of the volcano, the jungle slowly erasing the damage inflicted during the siege.

Dax: “Only because he’d rather strangle you with his bare hands?”

Dax asked with a laugh. Keris glared at him, then said,

Keris: “He’s a king, not a wild animal.”

Though, if he were being honest, killing men with his bare hands was likely something Aren did with regularity.

Dax: “He doesn’t like you, does he?”

Keris: “Not particularly.”

Dax: “What did you do to him?”

Bad things. Unforgiveable things.

Keris: “I told him he was an idiot.”

Dax: “We should bring more men,”

Dax advised, but Keris only shook his head as he climbed in.

Keris: “The only reason I’m bringing you is that I’m too lazy to row. So get to it.”

Dax rolled his eyes skyward as the boat lowered to the waves.

Dax: “You were insufferable as a prince. Becoming king has only made you worse.”

Jor: “I’d ask if you’re Keris Veliant, but given you look like Lara with a cock strapped onto her, it seems an unnecessary use of words.”

Keris huffed out an amused breath.

Keris: “Don’t forget the balls.”

Jor: “Nah.”

The man spat into the water.

Jor: “Lass has the biggest balls I’ve ever seen, whereas you…”

Jor: “Well, now.”

The Ithicanian’s eyes brightened with interest.

Jor: “The wolf finally bares his teeth. Aren said you aren’t the sheep you pretend to be, but I have to admit, I didn’t believe him. You’re too pretty.”

He flipped a lock of Keris’s hair back with a flick of one finger, seemingly unconcerned as Keris’s blade dug into his flesh.

Jor: “Should’ve learned my lesson with your sister.”

Keris: “How fitting that it will be a knife to the back, Lara. It seems old habits die hard.”

Lara: “Must be in the blood. For your knife found Ithicana’s spine with unerring precision.”

Aren: “There are reasons for and against helping you. Reasons that a good king would think long and hard about.”

Aren exhaled a long breath.

Aren: “But what it comes down to is that Petra Anaphora once tried to blackmail me into killing my wife, and I think it’s long past time she paid for the offense.”

Relief flooded Keris’s veins, nearly driving him to his knees.

Keris: “What makes you a shitty king also makes you a good man.”

The King of Ithicana lifted one shoulder in a shrug, gesturing for Keris to follow him up the path.

Aren: “I’m not a good man, Keris. And if you insult Lara again, you’ll find out just how bad I can be.”

Amelie: “Either you’ve a pair of stones the size of boulders or you’re touched in the head, coming into Ithicana like this, boy.”

Keris regarded the stout old woman standing in the foyer of the palace like she owned it, hearing Aren exhale a long sigh.

Aren: “Keris, this is my grandmother, Amelie.”

He inclined his head to the Ithicanian matriarch. She wrinkled her nose as though smelling something bad and reached up to tug at the bloodied collar of his shirt, eyes flicking to her grandson.

Amelie: “Your wife’s work, I take it? Blades first and her brain second, as always.”

Aren tensed with visible annoyance, but all he said was,

Aren: “Stitch him up, please. We’ve business to discuss.”

She snorted.

Amelie: “Business, you say. I say another king making a mess of things over a woman.”

A servant with a tray approached, and Aren snagged both glasses off it and shoved one into Keris’s hands.

Aren: “You might prefer to bleed to death over listening to her acid tongue. The choice is yours.”

Keris: “My father was supposed to die during Aren’s rescue. When that didn’t happen, someone needed to take the fall. Should’ve been me, but Coralyn beat me to it and confessed to having orchestrated the whole affair. My father intended to allow Serin to ply his trade on her for more details, but Coralyn was never one to let him have his way. Drank two bottles of his finest and then silenced herself.”

Amelie: “And they say Maridrina has no queens.”

Reviled. Worshipped. Or forgotten. A rush of pity filled him that Lara, after all she’d done, was faced with a lifetime of such treatment, and on its heels came anger.

Keris: “You don’t deserve her.”

He started to rise, wanting no more part of this conversation, stitches be damned, but quick as a viper, the cursed old woman caught him by the hair and jerked. As his ass smacked back down on the bench, she said,

Amelie: “Aren shares your views. He wanted to abdicate and take her away, but Lara refused. For better or worse, she has chosen this life, so keep your smart mouth to yourself and let me finish. Ithicana will suffer Maridrina’s wrath the same whether you die from a festered wound or from Aren tossing you to the sharks.”

Keris: “My point stands,”

he said between his teeth as she jabbed the needle into his flesh.

Amelie: “And…”

He silenced the threat rising to his tongue because it was an empty one.

Keris: “And while I enjoy hairpulling in certain circumstances, you have my assurance that those circumstances are not forthcoming.”

Amelie cackled and slapped a hand against her thigh.

Amelie: “Must be in the blood. Your grandfather loved having his hair pulled when—”

Keris: “There are some things I don’t need to know.”

Though he’d been aware that this woman had once infiltrated the harem as one of his grandfather’s wives, Keris still hadn’t been ready for such a visceral reminder.

Amelie: “If it helps, when I was your age, I looked exactly like Ahnna but with bigger tits.”

She chuckled, fastening a bandage around him.

Amelie: “Smelly old bastard was putty in my hands.”

It did not help.

Keris: “On that delightful note, thank you for your assistance.”

Keris: “He’s not the one I need. You are.”

The muscles in Lara’s jaw bunched, but before she could answer, a deep voice said,

Aren: “You made a promise, Lara.”

Keris cursed, turning to find Aren leaning against the doorway, the big man too stealthy by far.

Aren: “Besides, you do need me because you will need a ship and a crew.”

Lara: “You can provide those things and remain in Ithicana. This isn’t a good time for you to leave. Everything is too…fragile.”

Aren: “Together or not at all.”

Aren crossed his arms.

Aren: “You promised.”

Keris: “I didn’t bring you here so that you could spill all my secrets after a glass of whiskey.”

Dax: “Four.”

Dax belched.

Dax: “And I ain’t told any of your secrets, Your Grace. Everyone in Vencia knows defenestration is your method of choice.”

Keris ground his teeth.

Keris: “That’s a big word for you.”

Dax laughed.

Dax: “All these hours around your learned self must be wearing off on me. Won’t be long ’til I start bleeding blue and pissing gold like a Veliant princeling.”

Ahnna: “Last I drank with a Veliant, I was drugged. So stay away from my glass.”

Yet another barb directed at Lara, and though his sister’s face was unmoved, Keris could tell the barb had dug deep. Could tell such comments were endless and relentless, and he rounded on the Princess, fixing her with a smile that was all teeth.

Keris: “Remind me why you’re here again, Your Highness? Aren’t you supposed to be in Harendell, embroidering the cuffs of William’s shirts?”

Ahnna’s lips thinned and whitened, but then she inclined her head.

Ahnna: “I am, Your Grace. Unfortunately, you’ve enticed my brother to go on another adventure, which means I must remain in Ithicana because someone needs to run the fucking kingdom.

Her gaze shot to Aren, who had taken the seat next to Lara and was pouring himself a drink.

Ahnna: “That is the plan, isn’t it?”

Aren: “That a problem?”

Ahnna: “Harendell—”

Aren: “Has said nothing,”

Aren interrupted.

Aren: “No letters, no emissaries, nothing, which suggests to me that Edward is content to wait until we are ready to send you north.”

Keris: “How shocking.”

Keris took a mouthful of wine, knowing he was being a prick and not caring.

Keris: “I would’ve thought that William would be clamoring to get his hands on his oh-so-charming bride.”

Ahnna flinched and looked away.

Lara: “Leave her alone,”

Lara snapped, only for Ithicana’s princess to round on her.

Ahnna: “I neither need nor want you to fight my battles for me, Lara.”

A flicker of hurt passed through his sister’s eyes. Lara’s willingness to keep taking this abuse was like oil on the fires of his anger as Keris locked eyes with Ahnna.

Keris: “Then why don’t you attack me with your words rather than punching down at one who won’t fight back?”

Ahnna: “She’s the queen.”

Ahnna rose to her feet.

Ahnna: “How is that down?”

Keris: “A queen who stands alone. Because you goddamned people seem to conveniently forget that if not for her, my father would have redecorated this lovely little palace of yours in red!”

Ahnna: “He would never have had the opportunity to attack Eranahl without her!”

Keris: “He would never have realized it was an opportunity without me!”

Keris twisted to point at Aren.

Keris: “And I would never have known that pulling out this city’s gate was the route in if not for the fact that your king blurted it out in front of everyone!”

Not giving Aren a chance to respond, Keris rounded back on Ahnna.

Keris: “There is endless blame to be cast, Princess, but direct it where it is due, not at the easiest mark. And keep in mind that the man who instigated it all, the one who wanted your miserable bridge and your snake-infested kingdom with its shitty weather, is dead. So quit sniveling over the past and set your eye to the future.”

Aren: “I think you need to get more sleep, Keris. You seem a touch more testy than usual.”

Keris: “Fuck you, Aren,”

Keris: “I have no right to plan Zarrah’s future. Only the intent to give her a chance at one.”

Or die trying.

Aren: “Then why bring up her right to the crown?”

Lara: “Because he’s playing a long game.”

Lara poured a glass of wine, sniffed the contents, and then wrinkled her nose, setting it aside.

Lara: “He wants her on the Valcottan throne. Firstly, because he thinks she deserves it, and secondly, because it’s the only chance for this war to end in our lifetimes. The only way the Valcottans will support Zarrah’s claim is if we reveal the information about Aryana. Except this is Zarrah. Her honor will demand vengeance, and her first thought will be to put a knife in Petra’s heart, not politics. Her last thought will be to listen to reason from the man who betrayed her trust and destroyed her chance to redeem her honor with Ithicana.”

Lara picked up the bottle nearest to Keris and sniffed it, frowning.

Lara: “All this wine is off. How are you drinking it?”

She waved a hand at him before he had a chance to answer.

Lara: “Never mind. Aren, Keris wants you to temper Zarrah’s instinct to race to Pyrinat to try to kill her aunt and then for you to back her bid for the crown, politically and militarily. Have I missed anything, Keris?”

Aren: “The wine is fine,”

he answered, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Aren: “There’s something wrong with your nose.”

Lara: “It smells like wet dog, but suit yourself.”

She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and gave her husband a measured glare.

Lara: “The worst part isn’t that he’s trying to manipulate you, but that you are considering doing exactly what he wants.”

Aren: “I said nothing, committed to nothing. And this wine is from one of the finest wineries in Amarid. It cost a bloody fortune.”

Keris: “And you brought it out of the cellar just for me?”

Keris examined the bottle, which was indeed an excellent vintage.

Keris: “I’m touched.”

Aren: “I brought it out for me.”

Keris: “Of course you did, Your Grace. Nothing like a bit of wine to calm your nerves over hosting a king with a bigger palace than yours.”

Aren’s eyes bulged.

Aren: “You think I care… Why would you think… Piss off, Keris.”

Aren: “I want it ready by morning. You handpick the crew, and keep in mind that we need to pass as Cardiffians, so a bit of sun-deprived skin wouldn’t be remiss.”

The old Ithicanian rose.

Jor: “We’ll just have His Grace here patrolling the deck. His lily-white ass should do the trick.”

Lara: “I don’t suppose there is any chance of convincing you to leave this in our hands? After all, if something happens to you, Ithicana will be blamed.”

Keris: “Will you do whatever it takes to save her, including sacrificing your own life?”

Lara: “No.”

Keris: “Then you have your answer.”

Aren: “Get some sleep, Keris. If your mood stays this bad, Lara is likely to murder you within a day of setting sail.”

Keris snorted softly.

Keris: “She wouldn’t be the first to try.”

Keris: “It’s fine. Just check your sheets for snakes before you get in.”

Dax blanched.

Dax: “What do I do if I find one?”

Keris: “Scream? I’m sure the boy will come help you. Eventually.”

Dax: “Awful kingdom. Between the rain and the people and the snakes, you’d have to be mad to choose to live here.”

Zarrah: “Fair enough, but there were other reasons.”

Daria: “Do tell. I hope they will be as compelling as the first.”

Zarrah snorted at Daria’s sarcasm, but the question dug into her soul.

Zarrah: “He…he loved me in a way that caused a great deal of harm to others. Was so fixated with the need to protect me that he couldn’t let me be me when being me put my life at risk. He treated me like his queen.”

Daria: “But you want to be Empress.”

Zarrah: “Yes.”

Zarrah twitched, realizing how close she was to a very damaging truth, so she laughed and added,

Zarrah: “Metaphorically.”

Daria: “We are all poets here.”

Daria grinned, then she leaned forward.

Daria: “But a more important question…”

Zarrah tensed, afraid of what the woman might ask.

Daria: “Did he have a big cock?”

A laugh tore from her lips, and Zarrah snatched up a handful of dirt and chucked it across the fire at Daria.

Zarrah: “That’s an important question?”

Daria: “A big cock can make up for a small man.”

Several of the other women in camp shouted their agreement. Picking up a piece of wood, Zarrah added it to the fire. For all his failings, Keris was a force to be reckoned with.

Zarrah: “Nothing about him was small.”

Daria: “Hmm.”

Daria gave an approving nod, and then her expression turned more serious.

Daria: “Some women desire a man who will burn the world to be with her. Some desire a man who will save the world at the cost of her. Which sort of man he is may be beyond your control, but you can choose which woman you wish to be.”

Keris: “I won’t order you to stay, but I am asking you.”

Dax: “Who will watch out for your sorry ass?”

Keris: “Lara will.”

His guard burst into laughter.

Dax: “That would be the sister who cut you open yesterday?”

Keris: “That’s how Veliant siblings show their love. I’ll be fine.”

Dax made a face.

Dax: “So I have to choose between Sarhina and the snakes?”

Keris: “Correct.”

Dax: “Snakes it is. Sarhina terrifies me.”

Dax: “You mean for me to spy?”

Keris shook his head.

Keris: "We have no real understanding of Ithicana or its people. How they think or function. This is a unique opportunity to rectify that limitation, and if we use it to our advantage, so much the better.”

Dax stared at him. Spreading his arms wide, Keris said,

Keris: “Make friends. It’s what you do.”

Dax: “Yeah, you should try it sometime.”

Keris: “Kings don’t have friends.”

Keris walked backward to the door.

Keris: “But if we did, you’d be one of mine.”

Keris: “Where are they?”

Both men started, one blurting out,

Man: “Her Grace said that this task would be easier without you.”

Keris: “She can kiss my ass,”

he snapped, and shoved past them.

Wind slammed against him, the water beneath him deadly, but he kept his eyes fixed on the vessel. And landed with a thud in the boat. Falling to his knees, he gripped the sides as it bucked and plunged, water spraying him in the face. Then he turned his head to find Aren grinning.

Aren: “I told you he’d make it, Lara,”

Aren shouted at his wife over the roar of the surf.

Aren: “You owe me three pieces of gold!”

Keris: “You like to watch, don’t you?”

Keris’s lips had abandoned the inside of her thigh, his eyes on the mirror. Zarrah’s cheeks burned hot. Watching felt forbidden, like something only a harlot in a cathouse would enjoy, not a general, not a woman of the highest birth.

Zarrah: “I don’t.”

Keris’s mouth turned up in a devilish smile.

Keris: “Liar.”

Keris: “Beautiful.”

He nipped at her throat.

Keris: “I can’t blame you for wanting to admire yourself.”

Zarrah: “I don’t.”

She glared at the floor, knowing her whole body was burning hot. Knowing that with the way she was pressed against him, he’d feel it.

Zarrah: “You’re being ridiculous, Keris.”

His body shook with silent laughter.

Keris: “Perhaps.”

Zarrah: “Go back to what you were doing between my legs,”

she told him, counting the patterns woven into the carpet to keep her gaze from drifting.

Zarrah: “Then order food. I’m hungry.”

Keris: “So demanding,”

he murmured, trailing a finger down her throat, between her breasts, over her navel. Stopping just above her sex.

Keris: “Look, and I’ll do anything you want, for however long you want.”

Zarrah: “All for a look?”

She scoffed.

Zarrah: “You’re a terrible negotiator, Your Highness.”

He kissed her shoulder, breath leaving lines of fire in its wake.

Keris: “We both know that’s not true, General.”

Keris: “I want you to see what I see,”

he said into her ear, sending shivers through her body.

Keris: “I want you to worship at your own shrine so that you know what it’s like to be on my knees before you.”

Zarrah: “Words won’t win you this battle,”

she breathed, tilting her head back to rest it against his shoulder.

Zarrah: “I want you in me.”

Keris: “Then look.”

His voice was velvet as he closed an arm around her body, hand beneath her breast as he pulled her tight against him.

Keris: “One look.”

To Keris, Jor handed a moth-eaten coat and a ridiculous fur hat with charms made of rodent skulls dangling from it.

Keris: “I am not putting this on my head,”

Keris said, holding the hat out with distaste.

Keris: “It stinks.”

Jor: “It’s either that or you stay below. You’re the most recognizable to the Valcottans, and they are watching for you.”

Keris: “It’s hot. No one in their right mind would wear a fur hat—it will draw more attention than me wearing a fucking crown.”

Lara was quiet, fussing with the buckle on her sword belt. Then she said,

Lara: “Even if you free her, Zarrah may not be grateful. Aren certainly wasn’t. His anger at seeing me came close to hindering our escape more than once.”

Keris: “I don’t expect gratitude. I…”

Keris scrubbed a hand over his hair.

Keris: “I…I just don’t want her to be punished for making the mistake of choosing me.”

Silence stretched between them, and he could feel his sister’s scrutiny. Then she said,

Lara: “It wasn’t a mistake.”

Surprise froze his tongue, and Keris lifted his head to meet her gaze, waiting for the axe to fall. Because Lara disliked him and there wasn’t a chance that—

Lara: “You are an irritating, egotistical prick.”

Her breath caught.

Lara: “But the only flaw in Zarrah’s choice in you was that all the world was against it. They never gave you a chance.”

Keris: “I’m not really the ideal messenger for this information, but when a man and a woman—”

Lara: “I know how babies are made, Keris!”

He shrugged.

Keris: “Just checking. There was the possibility that all your training was dedicated to learning how to poke holes into a man and not learning what happens when a man pokes you in—”

Lara: “If you say it, I’ll stab you in the face.”

Keris: “You’re the queen. Which means the vast majority of your subjects don’t see you as a person. What you think, how you feel, how you suffer? They don’t give a shit. All they care about is how the choices you make affect their lives. Putting yourself through hell will change nothing for Lara the queen and destroy everything for Lara the woman.”

Lara: “It’s not your problem. Though I’d ask you to keep this development to yourself. Aren needs to be focused on finding a way to get you out once you’re in, not on my…condition.”

Deception had been her downfall, yet it remained burned into his sister’s soul. She’d been raised on it, learned to live and breathe it, and though she had to know that it did her no favors, Keris could still see Lara clinging to it like an old friend.

Keris: “Except it’s not just you anymore, is it?”

Lara’s gaze sharpened.

Lara: “Pregnant or not, I’m the one who will figure out a way to extricate you and Zarrah.”

He did need her. But that didn’t mean he was willing to be used as a tool for her self-destruction. So Keris said,

Keris: “I’m not going to say a damn thing to anyone, but perhaps remind yourself of the outcome of the last time you kept secrets from Aren.”

The blow struck like a knife, and Lara flinched.

Lara: “You’re an asshole.”

Jor: “You look awfully tickled, given the circumstances. Why are you grinning like a madman?”

Aren looked down at Lara, who smiled and nodded, and then the King of Ithicana blurted out,

Aren: “Lara’s pregnant. There’s going to be another Kertell for you to watch over, you old bastard.”

Jor gaped at them, then flung his arms around the pair of them, pounding Aren on the back.

Jor: “Let’s hope the little bugger inherits their mother’s brains, because I won’t survive another idiot like you!”

Keris: “If things go badly for me, help Sarhina take the throne. She’ll be twice the ruler of any of our idiot brothers.”

Lara: “Does she want to be queen?”

Keris: “Not in the slightest. Which is exactly why she’ll do a good job of it.”

Lara: “We’ll do what we can for her, within reason. I won’t promise more than that.”

Lara told you that she won’t risk her life for Zarrah, but in the moment, she’ll change her mind. And she can’t keep dodging death forever. So please use this journey south to ask yourself just how much you’re really willing to lose, Aren’s voice said inside his head, and Keris reached out to grip her shoulders.

Keris: “I’m not willing to lose you again, sister. Don’t do anything you shouldn’t.”

Aren: “I’m fucking freezing. We need to find a way to warm up.”

Keris: “If you wanted someone to cuddle, you should’ve brought your wife. You aren’t my type.”

Aren huffed out a breath.

Aren: “It’s amazing you’ve lived this long, given the shit that spews from your mouth.”

Daria: “Flay is always alone, but never alone, if you get my meaning.”

Keris: “I don’t.”

With complete disregard for his weapon, she came closer.

Daria: “Flay collects identities, so to speak. What you saw were the many faces of Flay, but he’s only one man. If you can call him a man at all.”

Aren: “Fuck me. Someone needs to kill that thing.”

Daria: “Many have tried. But apparently, it’s hard to kill a demon.

Daria: “So, what did you do to end up in this shithole?”

Aren: “Bar fight in Pyrinat,”

Aren lied without hesitation.

Aren: “Got a bit out of hand, which would have been forgivable if not for the fact one of the men left on the floor was some relative of the Empress.”

Daria snorted.

Daria: “Fair enough. And you?”

She looked at Keris, then chuckled.

Daria: “What crime did you commit? Breaking wind in a library?”

Aren guffawed and Keris glared at him, but the other man only smirked and said,

Aren: “He pushes those who piss him off out of towers.”

Daria: “Must be a politician, then. Though we don’t see many Maridrinian politicos in Valcotta, and most are executed and fed to the dogs, not sent here.”

Keris: “Lucky me,”

Daria: “If you are alive, there is hope. Can’t say the same if you’re being pushed out a dog’s arsehole.”

Keris: “Poetic.”

Daria shot him a smile, teeth white in the torchlight.

Daria: “I figured you for a man who appreciates a bit of poetry."

Keris: “Lara asked me if there was a limit to what I’d sacrifice, and this is it. She’s the limit. I won’t allow my sister to die for the chance of me living—not if my capture will ensure every last one of you gets out alive.”

Aren: “This isn’t a battle. It’s a fucking sacrifice, and Lara’s going to castrate me when she discovers I agreed to it.”

Keris: “You’ll be fine. She’ll understand. Though it warms my heart to hear you believe my sister values my life over your balls.”

Daria: “You two bicker like lovers.”

Daria: “Do you love her?”

Keris: “Yes.”

She made a noise that he couldn’t interpret, and, curiosity rising, Keris said,

Keris: “Why? What did she say about me?”

What he wanted to ask was whether Zarrah hated him. Whether she’d forgiven him. Whether she still loved him as he loved her.

Daria: “That you have a big cock.”

His jaw dropped, and Daria took advantage, shoving the gag in and tying it around his head so that all he could do was stand there and stare at her.

Keris: “Character flaw, I’m afraid.”

Keris smiled.

Keris: “I’ve been told time and again that my excessively high opinion of myself will be my downfall, but I never learn.”

Daria: “How is he worth risking the chance for you to liberate all of Valcotta from tyranny? He’s given us a chance at peace—don’t throw it away!”

Zarrah: “Peace is a dance. It only works when both nations dance to the same music, and without Keris, Maridrina will keep dancing to the drums of war. He needs to live!”

Aren: “You claim to fight in Zarrah’s name as the rightful Empress of Valcotta, but she has called you to arms, and you turn your backs?”

He scoffed.

Aren: “Seems to me you fight only for yourselves, and in Ithicana, we have a word for that. It isn’t honor.”

Rightful Empress?

Then Aren’s eyes fixed on hers.

Aren: “To rule is to lead, Imperial Majesty. Don’t let your first and last act be to lead them to certain death.”

Bermin: “You will be only the first to fall to my blade, Veliant. Soon all of Maridrina will bleed.”

Motion on the cliff caught his eye, and Keris smiled because, of course, she hadn’t listened. He’d been an idiot to believe that she would.

Keris: “If that was your goal, you shouldn’t have killed Kian and his men.”

Bermin: “And why is that?”

Bermin asked, resting his sword blade against Keris’s neck. A wild laugh escaped Keris’s lips as screams filtered down from the cliff tops, but it was a clarion voice from behind him that answered.

Zarrah: “Because they might have fought for you, cousin. Whereas now, you must fight me alone.”

Zarrah: “I want to bring peace to Valcotta, and you are integral to that.”

Keris: “You say that as though I weren’t with you when that dream was conceived. As though we weren’t once allies in trying to make it reality.”

Keris: “There is no one but you. How could there be when you hold my heart?”

Zarrah: “Not minutes ago, you apologized for your actions at Southwatch, yet I can tell you’re conspiring to do the exact same thing again,”

she said, keeping a careful distance from Keris.

Zarrah: “Give me your word that you won’t interfere.”

Keris: “No.”

Keris’s shadow shook its head.

Keris: “I’ll not put myself in the position of having to make a foolish decision just to honor my word. We’ll try your plan, but as you have said many times yourself, not even the best-laid strategies go smoothly.”

He turned back down the path, and once he was out of sight, Daria whistled.

Daria: “You told no lies, Zarrah. He’ll risk everything and everyone but you. It’s admirable. And damnable.”

Zarrah: “It’s fucking infuriating.”

She looked to Aren.

Zarrah: “Don’t let him interfere.”

He didn’t answer.

Lara: “You have shit for brains, Keris! Why not just throw yourself overboard so I’m spared the trouble of stitching up your idiot self.”

Lara: “This idiot decided to jump in front of the arrow.”

Keris: “Child should meet her father,”

Keris said between his teeth, swaying sideways as the ship tilted, the sails catching the wind.

Keris: “If only to better appreciate that her brilliance came from her mother’s side.”

Lara is pregnant, Zarrah thought. They’d risked more than she’d realized to help her.

Aren: “You’re an asshole, Keris,”

Zarrah: “Close your eyes.”

Keris: “I’d rather your face be the last thing I see.”

Lara made a noise of disgust.

Lara: “I should let you bite off your tongue and spare the world your nonsense.”

Aren was silent, the only noise the pounding of surf against the ship’s hull.

Aren: “There are moments in life where one stands at a crossroads, and each path leads to a future so wildly different from the other that it seems impossible they stemmed from the same place. Most of the time, the ripples of those choices touch only a few. But sometimes a choice is made, and the ripples are not ripples at all but rather tsunamis that tear across the world, altering everything in their path.”

He was quiet again, then said,

Aren: “I know where I stand now, but I can also see where I would have stood if Keris hadn’t chosen you, and for my part, I’m glad he did.”

She should be glad they’d reconciled, glad Keris had earned Aren’s forgiveness, but that wasn’t the feeling that rose in her chest.

Zarrah: “And just what is it that Keris wants me to do?”

she asked bitterly.

Zarrah: “Tell me so that I might play my part in his plans to perfection.”

Aren took a deep breath, then said,

Aren: “You are standing at a crossroads now, Zarrah. If what you want is for me to take you back to Pyrinat so that you can attempt to kill Petra, I will. But even if you succeed, I think the only future it will change is your own. Whereas if you walk the path to claim the Valcottan crown”

—he rose to his feet—

Aren: “I think you have the power to change the world.”

Zarrah: “I know I haven’t earned a response yet, but if this…strategy comes to fruition and I take on my aunt for the crown, will I have Ithicana’s support?”

Aren was silent for a long moment, his hand moving absently up and down Lara’s back as he thought.

Aren: “It’s not my support you need.”

Keris shifted, muttering something unintelligible, and her eyes snapped to him. But he fell still again.

Aren: “Earn the crown. Then we’ll talk. But for now, get some sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll sail for Arakis.”

Keris muttered again, but this time what he said was clear.

Keris: “Fight, Valcotta.”

Zarrah: “It would be an honor to name the rulers of Ithicana as friends. Thank you.”

Aren laughed.

Aren: “Oh, I don’t speak for Lara. But I do wish you the best of luck in delivering this particular apology to her ears.”

Then he turned and walked away.

Zarrah: “Shit,”

Lara: “That will cost you. What they did is morally reprehensible, and to be seen as supporting them may turn others against you. Politically, it’s not a good move.”

Zarrah: “What would you do?”

Lara: “I’m not known for well-thought decisions,”

Lara said, chuckling,

Lara: “so I’m not sure I’m the one to ask.

Lara: “I see why he loves you. You are everything each other is not, perfect foils, and I fear what he will become without you.”

She squeezed Zarrah’s hand, then let go and rose.

Lara: “And you without him.”

It took a fair bit of self-control not to scream as she shoved cushions behind his back.

Keris: “Your nursemaid skills leave something to be desired, sister.”

Lara snorted.

Lara: “You’re lucky you’re not a ripening corpse.”

Keris: “Take care of yourself, Lara.”

He caught hold of her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze.

Keris: “You are the queen Ithicana needs, little sister, and in time, it will become the kingdom you deserve.”

Her eyes flooded, though no tears escaped.

Lara: “You’re an idiot.”

Then she flung her arms around his middle, squeezing him hard before twisting away.

Keris: “I love you, Zarrah. You say that I don’t know what love is, and maybe that’s true. Maybe there is some part of me missing or broken that ensures I don’t feel things like a better man would, but I know the way I feel about you consumes me. That it gives me breath even as it steals the air from my lungs. Makes my heart beat even as it cuts it from my chest. What word I give it matters little. What matters is that even after my bones are dust and my name lost to history and history lost to time, I will feel this way for you.”

Zarrah: “Do you even know where you are going?”

He took a mouthful of wine, then said,

Keris: “All paths lead to a road.”

Zarrah: “That’s not even the slightest bit true.”

Eyeing the sky, Zarrah took a branch in the path leading off to the right.

Zarrah: “Did you even think this through? Rebel territory or not, this is still Valcotta, and you look like…like…you.”

Keris: “Your eloquence is inspiring. I look forward to the speeches you give from the throne.”

Zarrah: “I didn’t know you were squeamish,”

she said, and he noticed a slight tremor in her voice.

Keris: “I’m not.”

He fought the urge to pull away from her.

Keris: “But I’m spectacularly vain.”

Miri: “I could use a pretty face like yours, if you’re ever in search of work. We would have you trained, and you’d fetch a fortune.”

Zarrah’s face burned, but Keris said,

Keris: “It’s always nice to have options.”

Keris: “If it doesn’t work,”

Keris said, a loose strand of his hair brushing her thigh,

Keris: “you get out that window. I’ll hold them off.”

Zarrah: “We are allies. That means we stand together. And if it comes to it, we die together. Now make this convincing.”

Threading her fingers through his hair, she pulled him against her right as the door exploded inward. Zarrah screamed with outrage as two soldiers strode inside.

Zarrah: “What is the meaning of this?”

Soldier: “A would-be assassin attacked General Welran. A Maridrinian. We are searching the quarter for him.”

Zarrah: “Well, he’s not in here. Get out!”

Soldier: “We need to search the room.”

Zarrah: “Then be quick about it. And you”

—her fingers tightened in Keris’s hair—

Zarrah: “finish what you started. I didn’t pay a fortune for your tongue to watch you gape at soldiers.”

In a surge of motion, Zarrah leaned across the small space, her hands pressed to either side of him. Cheek brushing his as she whispered into his ear,

Zarrah: “How can I be the empress Valcotta needs when all I want is to do is fall to my knees and suck the King of Maridrina’s cock?”

Keris: “Petra knows we are stronger united, so it is in her interest to turn you against me even as she turns you against yourself. But ask yourself this: If I manipulated you and used you as part of my scheme to further myself, why am I here now? If all I cared about was gaining the crown, why did I leave it in my half sister’s hands to race south to risk my life freeing you from prison? Why am I with you in Arakis, searching for the rebels, if all I care about is a plush life in a palace surrounded by women? Because to be very clear, if that was what I wanted, I could have it in a heartbeat.”

His eyes searched hers.

Keris: “Deep down, you must know that what she claims doesn’t make sense.”

Zarrah: “Is there a future for us? Is there a path forward I’m not seeing that allows everything we’re fighting for to coexist with us spending our nights in each other’s arms?”

The word yes tried to push its way from his lips, but he swallowed it down.

Keris: “No.”

Zarrah: “Then why do we keep trying?”

Her lip quivered, and he watched her bite down on it, warring with emotions.

Zarrah: “Why do we inflict such suffering upon ourselves? Why do we come together, knowing that the wound will inevitably be torn open again?”

He didn’t want to answer these questions. Wanted to close his mouth over hers to silence them, because to answer would be to impose logic on matters of the heart. Instead he cleared his throat, voice hoarse as he said,

Keris: “For my part, it is the absence from you that cuts deepest, the wound growing crueler with every hour, day, week that I cannot see your face or hear your voice. The hope that our separation will end, even briefly, allows me to endure the pain, but if I were to lose that hope, I think the wound would fester until it consumed me entirely.”

Zarrah: “A future where all that we desire comes to pass, crowns on our heads and peace between our nations. A world where our union would be accepted. Yet even then, I could not see my way through, as to rule, we must reside in our nations’ hearts. You in Vencia. Me in Pyrinat. For you know as well as I do that the moment we turn our backs, darker minds will try to secure power. You risk as much even now by being here.”

She was not wrong. There was no doubt in his mind that his brothers were plotting how to be rid of him, and those next in line would all be quick to fan the fires of war.

Zarrah: “And what if we had children. How—”

Keris: “Stop.”

He squeezed his eyes shut.

Keris: “Please stop.”

Zarrah fell silent, the only sound the endless beat of the drum and the faint cries of patrons in the throes of thoughtless pleasure.

Zarrah: “I don’t know what is worse. To stop now and endure the pain of what might have been or to keep going, knowing that there will come a moment when I lose it all.”

She winked at Keris.

Daria: “All painted up like a whore. It’s a fitting look for you, Your Grace.”

Ever nonplussed, Keris only lifted the trousers to inspect them.

Keris: “How’s your stomach handling the change in diet, Captain?”

Zarrah tensed as Daria’s jaw tightened, but the other woman only bent to examine Keris’s injury.

Daria: “The Devil must have had his fill of your conversation while you were on the island, for when offered your soul, I see he spat it back out again.”

Keris: “No accounting for taste,”

Keris answered, then turned away to pull on the clothes Daria had brought.

Keris: “Feel free to abandon titles,”

Keris said, finally turning back around.

Keris: “Given you’ve seen me in the nude, I feel we’re on first-name basis.”

Daria gave him a dark grin.

Daria: “You might regret that.”

Keris: “Undoubtedly.”

Saam: “I knew it was you. Soon as I heard that some straw-haired pale-arsed Maridrinian scrapped with Welran, I said, ‘Friends, that is Maridrina’s king and none other. The man has balls of solid rock and the nine lives of a cat.’”

Keris huffed out an amused breath.

Keris: “I think only a handful of those lives are left. Good to see you alive, Saam.”

Saam: “Daria thought you were done for, but I said, nah, an arrow won’t be enough.”

Daria: “God spare me, enough already,”

Arjun: “You’re a Veliant, Your Grace. For all your recent actions suggest that you are a different man than your father, that does not mean I’m fool enough to bring you into my camp without first getting your measure.”

Keris: “Without your empress present?”

The older man tilted his head.

Arjun: “Why? Do you wish to hide behind her?”

Keris: “On the contrary. I don’t wish to do anything behind her back.”

Zarrah: “Step away from him. All of you. Then put your weapons on the ground.”

Arjun: “You were supposed to keep her at the camp,”

the commander barked at the mounted soldiers galloping up behind her. Rather than allowing them to answer, she said,

Zarrah: “You cannot have it both ways, calling me Empress but then undermining my authority. You may have wished for a mindless figurehead, but that is not what you’ll get with me.”

Zarrah: “I thought I needed to stand alone to liberate Valcotta,”

she said, her throat dry from talking but her heart strong in a way it hadn’t been in so long.

Zarrah: “Except peace wasn’t a dream I conceived alone, and if I attempt to achieve it alone, I will fail.

Daria: “I joined this alliance back on Devil’s Island. I stand by it now, just as I stand by the rightful Empress of Valcotta!”

Saam: “As do I. “The King of Maridrina has got the biggest balls of any man I’ve met, and I’ll gladly fight alongside him.”

Keris: “To the True Empress,”

Keris murmured, taking a sip from the glass Saam had pushed into his hand, only to nearly gag on the sweetness.

Keris: “Is this syrup?”

Saam laughed.

Saam: “Fortified wine, Your Grace. Will put hair on your chest, and soon you’ll look like me!”

The rebel lifted his shirt, revealing a chest that boasted a full carpet of dark hair.

Keris: “You put me to shame, my friend,”

Daria appeared in front of him.

Daria: “People are going to think you strange if you insist on lurking in the shadows, Keris.”

Keris: “I’m not lurking. Saam is teaching me the rules of handball, as well as sharing strategies for improving the quality of my chest hair.”

She blinked, then shook her head.

Daria: “That does not help your cause. Come dance!”

A laugh tore from his lips at the idea of it, and he said,

Keris: “Daria, you would have more luck convincing me to fly than you will trying to get me to dance. Dancing is for—”

Daria: “Women?”

He’d been about to say “the entertainment,” but both were accurate.

Keris: “Maridrinian men do not dance. I don’t even know how.”

Daria: “Valcottan men do. And it is known that if a man is a poor dancer, he is also likely to be a poor lover.”

Saam: “Ha ha!”

Saam shouted, then punched his fist into Keris’s side.

Saam: “A well-landed blow. It’s true, though.”

The other man writhed his way in among the other dancers, distinctly off rhythm, and Keris turned to Daria.

Keris: “My condolences.”

She shrugged.

Daria: “He compensates with enthusiasm.”

Zarrah: “What are you doing?”

she demanded, edging out onto the outcropping, which was slick with snow.

Zarrah: “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

Keris: “For most of my life, the heights were my escape. Trees and rooftops and the undersides of bridges were the only places I could relax, but now, even that is lost to me.”

He lifted the bottle and took a mouthful.

Keris: “Now, whenever I look out over an edge, all I hear is the sound of bodies hitting the ground.”

Another mouthful.

Keris: “I used to think that I would never fall, and now some strange part of me wonders what it is like. Wonders what would go through my mind in those few seconds of weightlessness before everything went dark.”

A quiver ran through her, and Zarrah moved closer, reaching for him.

Zarrah: “Keris, please come back from the edge.”

Keris: “Regret, I suppose. For things that I have done. For things that I have not done.”

Why was he saying these things?

Zarrah: “Keris…”

Keris: “I cannot change the past, but the future is yet in my hands.

Zarrah: “I choose you. I want to live every moment with you that I can, no matter that I know circumstance will wrench us apart, because I know we’ll fight our way back to each other’s arms again.”

This was the kiss she remembered. The kiss she’d been craving every second they’d been apart. The kiss she’d needed like breath since she’d been back in his presence. No hesitation. No holding back.

Instead, Keris claimed her.

Though in truth, she’d never stopped being his.

Zarrah: “I love you more than life, Keris Veliant.”

His breath was hot against her throat, voice ragged as he said,

Keris: “You’re mine.”

Zarrah: “Yours,”

she gasped, the cold buttons on his coat brushing against her nipples and making her back arch. Each thrust bringing her closer to the edge of climax.

Keris: “Forever.”

He bit her throat, and the slice of pain tipped her over, pleasure shattering her body and creating stars in the midnight sky.

Keris: “Say it.”

His voice filled her ears as she rocked her hips against him, tears rolling down her cheeks because nothing in her life had felt this good.

Keris: “Say it, Zarrah. Say that you are mine forever, no matter where we are.”

Zarrah: “Yours,”

she sobbed, wrenching her wrists from his grip and wrapping her arms around him.

Zarrah: “Yours forever. This life and the next, I am yours.”

Keris: “I love you. No matter what happens, no matter where we both must go, please remember that my heart is yours.”

Zarrah: “Why is it always this way?”

Her voice was shaking, as though she were close to tears.

Keris: “Star-crossed,”

he answered softly, feeling a tear drip down his cheek.

Zarrah knew him in a way no one else ever had, ever would, and part of him would never cease to be amazed that she loved him in spite of it.

Keris: “This is my fault. You pushed me to walk away, to leave the past in the past and set our hearts and minds to defeating our enemy. But I wouldn’t let you go. Couldn’t let you go, and used words and actions and sentiment to convince you we could have it all because I believed I had the power to remake the world in a way where all was possible. I was wrong, and Maridrina has paid the price of my hubris tenfold.”

Her hands fisted.

Zarrah: “You act as though I was a passive player in all this, but that’s bullshit. If I didn’t want you to be here, you wouldn’t be. But the truth is that you merely put words to desires that burned in my heart.”

Keris: “Then we are both fools,”

he answered, his mouth tasting of bitterness, anger, and guilt. Zarrah flinched, then whispered,

Zarrah: “I don’t believe that.”

God help him, he wished she was right. But Vencia was half a continent away, and he swore he could taste the ash of its destruction. And their dream was the fuel Petra had used to set it aflame. Dropping the reins, he cupped her face, using his thumbs to wipe away her tears. And though each word rent his heart, he said,

Keris: “Some dreams are never meant to be a reality.”

Captain: “Condolences, Your Grace. May you find honor in vengeance against the Usurper.”

Keris: “She’ll bleed,”

Keris answered, stepping into the water. But it wasn’t until he was on the beach that he added,

Keris: “Though not by my hand.”

Keris: “Just how,”

Keris asked softly,

Keris: “did the King of Cardiff, who is on the far side of the Tempest Seas, know of Petra’s plans to sack Vencia?”

Sarhina: “As one who looks every gift horse in the mouth, I have wondered the very same thing,”

Lestara: “Lies! Desperate lies! While you were gone, I watched over Vencia. I am the Savior of the People.”

Keris: “Tell that to the dead,”

he said, and when she refused to look at the corpses, he caught her by the hair and forced her to her knees.

Keris: “Look at them. Look at the people who died because their lives were worth less than your desire to be queen.”

Lestara: “What’s wrong with you? Seize him! Kill him! All of this is his fault!”

One of the women watching picked up a handful of mud and chucked it at Lestara.

Woman: “Shut your gob. He might have shit in Petra’s porridge, but it’s clear enough that you were the one who opened our back door for her to fling her own mud.”

Keris: “You.”

He pointed at the woman who’d spoken.

Keris: “You claim that Maridrinians have long wanted this war to end. Have wanted the fighting to cease. Have wanted peace, but my family wouldn’t allow it. That it continues only because of Veliant pride. Do others share that belief?”

Nods and shouts of agreement rolled across the crowd, a rising tide of vitriol against his warmongering family.

Keris: “What if I told you that Valcottans feel the same way?”

The crowd fell silent.

Keris: “Like you, they wish for the end of the war, but under Petra’s rule, they are forced to fight. Forced to send their young people to join the Imperial Army’s ranks, many of them never seen alive again. And while she wears Valcotta’s crown, Petra will never allow the war to end. It is her pride, her identity, her legacy, and to seek peace is beyond comprehension to her. Valcotta is at the mercy of a tyrant, but so is Maridrina. If Petra will not allow her empire to stop warring against us, we are forced to fight back, forced to send the youth to the border to fight and fight and fight. And no matter how much I might wish to do otherwise, I’ll be forced into the role of my father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, for like you, I will have no other choice!”

His mouth was dry, throat hoarse, but it was worth it, because he could see that the women were listening.

Keris: “Maridrina did not liberate itself from my father. Ithicana fought that battle for us. Their queen, my sister, defeated him, and in doing so, offered me the opportunity to change this kingdom for the better. And my greatest error has been underestimating the villainy of those like Petra who see the Endless War as a way to maintain their power, even if it means standing on the backs of countless dead. She will not be defeated with passivity, will only grow stronger if our complacency leaves her free to destroy those who rally against her. So I ask you, will you stand not just with me, but with Valcottans, and lift arms to bring Petra Anaphora’s tyranny to an end? Will you fight for peace?”

Woman: “You’ll let us fight?”

the woman at the front of the crowd asked.

Woman: “You’ll allow women to defend our families?”

Keris: “You have always fought. Always defended them. It would be an honor to have you in my ranks as we cross the border to put an end to this war for good.”

Keris: “Death seems a paltry punishment for what you’ve done, Lestara, for I don’t think you fear it. I think you fear irrelevance. I think you fear powerlessness. I think you fear failing to secure the destiny that a witch whispered in your ear as a child. And there is one place I can think of where you will face all three of your fears day after day after day.”

All the color drained from Lestara’s face.

Keris: “The Harendellians revile your people, Lestara, but none more than Queen Alexandra herself. So I think I’ll ask a favor of my friends in the north and request they take you into their care, where you will be fed and clothed like a lady but looked upon as one does shit discovered on the sole of one’s shoe.”

Lestara: “No!”

Lestara dropped to her knees, tears flooding down her cheeks.

Lestara: “Please, Keris. Just kill me. I’d rather die than go there!”

Keris: “Which is why it is the perfect punishment.”

Keris: “Let us to war. And by God, let’s make it the last war fought in our lifetime!”

Aren: “What is your plan? It’s one thing to sway civilians with promises of a brighter future, quite another to convince hardened soldiers to fight on behalf of those they’ve spent their lives fighting against.”

A fact of which Keris was painfully aware.

Keris: “I’ll give a speech, I’m sure.”

Aren: “Saying what?”

He’d written countless attempts on the journey south to Nerastis, every word of which he’d tossed in the trash.

Keris: “Something that will be transcribed into the history books, no doubt.”

Keris: “I drew a line in the sand many years ago,”

he said, more to himself than to Dax.

Keris: “Refused to cross it no matter how much pain it caused me because I believed my defiance meant something. And perhaps it did, though the one who cared is now dead. So by remaining on this side of the line, who am I defying? What victories can I hope to win?”

Dax shifted restlessly, then shrugged.

Dax: “I’m not the one to ask.”

Keris barely heard the answer as he knelt to touch the crest embossed on the breastplate. He wished she were here. Wished that it were Zarrah he posed these questions to, but she was somewhere south of here and in dire need of his aid. So Keris answered the question himself.

Keris: “None. For the dark truth of the world is that peace must be paid for in blood.”

Aren: “Nice outfit.”

Keris: “Kiss my ass.”

Keris: “Dax, if it comes to it, you must swear that you watched me sign and seal this with my own hand, understood?”

His bodyguard leaned forward to read the alteration to Maridrinian law that was old as time.

Dax: “Bloody hell, you do like to kick the hornet’s nest.”

Then he huffed out a breath.

Dax: “You won’t need a witness. Everyone will know you’re behind this.”

Sarhina: “Because it’s stupidity,”

Sarhina snarled, sprinkling sand over the wet ink to dry it while blowing on the wax.

Sarhina: “And it will be the death of me.”

She carefully packaged the document.

Sarhina: “Excuse me, Your Grace, I need to leave before I succumb to my burning desire to remove your heart.”

Keris: “Well, if it isn’t Petra’s inamorato in the flesh. I was so dreadfully sorry to hear of the fate of your progeny, though in fairness, Bermin was a few stones short of a load, so it’s no one’s loss. Shame Petra’s past her prime, else you might have tried again. That was my father’s strategy.”

Keris: "Peace is not a product of complacency, Captain. It is won by those who look at the past and the present and say, we can do better.”

Arjun: “This was always a leap of faith, Zarrah,”

her father said softly.

Arjun: “But we must now face reality. Retreat, so that we might fight another day.”

A leap of faith. The tent faded away, and Zarrah saw herself standing on the dam outside of Nerastis, facing the gap in the spillway, Keris on the far side. Death rushing between them. She’d made that leap, and countless more since, and she refused to turn back now.

Arjun: “I’m going with you.”

Zarrah: “No, you are not,”

she retorted, more startled than anything.

Zarrah: “Not only do I need you to lead the rebels free of this, but coming with me would be suicide. You, she won’t hesitate to kill.”

Arjun: “I chose the rebellion over you twice. I won’t do so a third time.”

Zarrah’s eyes burned.

Zarrah: “And if I order you?”

Arjun: “You will have to have me tied up and put on a horse. Even then, it would only be a matter of time until I came after you, daughter.”

Zarrah: “You either believe I am empress or you don’t, Father. What you say now will demonstrate how much faith you have in me as a ruler.”

Her father huffed out an aggrieved breath.

Arjun: “You are like your mother. Just like her.”

Zarrah didn’t answer, only waited.

Arjun: “I have faith in you,”

he finally said, closing the distance between them and pulling her into a tight embrace.

Arjun: “And I love you dearly, daughter. Know that.”

Zarrah: “You rode into that villa believing we would both be dead, but what a shock to discover that I still lived. You couldn’t very well kill me with your soldiers watching, but in truth, I don’t think that’s what stayed your hand. I think it was the way I looked at you when you rode through the gates, like there was no one in the world but you. And you realized that you could make me yours. Could raise me in your image, fighting your battles and defending your honor, worshiping you like a goddess and therefore blind to your every flaw. That you could make me the perfect heir, for not only was it my birthright, but when the day came for me to ascend, it would be as though a second coming of you sat upon the throne. I was your fucking immortality!”

The Usurper flinched, and Zarrah bared her teeth.

Zarrah: “But then I met Keris. You knew something was drawing me away from your way of thinking, and you tried to fight it. Forbade me to have anything to do with it. But it was too late. My mind had been unleashed from your control. You knew it, which was why you didn’t attempt to rescue me, likely thinking Silas would kill me the moment I walked through the gates of his palace. But Silas Veliant was a game master as well, Auntie, and I see why he kept me alive. Not because he was afraid of provoking your ire, but because he knew that you were pissing yourself that he’d tell me the truth.”

Petra: “You think they’ll believe you, girl?”

Zarrah: “Some of them will. And they will be the ember that slowly flares into the inferno that will destroy you.

Petra: “I was raised to rule. Eldest and strongest, yet in his final days of his life, my father turned against me and named your mother his heir. Said that she was the empress Valcotta needed—balm to the fucking wound, he called her. But I saw the truth. Saw that she’d make us weak, and I refused to let that happen. I should have killed her then, but I loved her too much, and it seemed she was content. Then I discovered she conspired against me, and I could not allow that to stand. I had fought too hard to make Valcotta strong to allow her to tear it apart. She gave me no choice. Just as you now have given me no choice. It’s over, Zarrah.”

Zarrah: “No,”

Zarrah answered, staring out over the sea of shocked and angry faces of the Imperial Army, each one of them having heard every word of the conversation, just as the stadium builders had intended.

Zarrah: “It has only just begun.”

Keris: “No need to shout, Petra,”

Keris answered.

Keris: “These are the whispering courts of Meritt, perfectly designed so that the game masters’ voices can be heard by every player and every spectator, even if they speak no louder than a confession. A genius construction, though I understand you outlawed handball some years ago for being an unworthy pursuit. A good friend of mine never forgave you for it.”

Keris: "There is a mistaken belief that the marriage knives Maridrinian women wear are kept dull because they are weak and incapable of wielding them. That is a fallacy. The women of Maridrina are the bastion that protects the heart of the kingdom, and while they may not be the first weapon you meet, they will be the last, for their knives sharpen to the keenest edge. You attacked the heart, and I’m afraid to say that as a result, there was not enough left of Welran for me to return him to you.”

Keris: “My aunt Coralyn, who was the cleverest woman to ever live, taught me that the secret to victory was not having the sharpest blade or the strongest arm or even the keenest mind, but rather to know one’s opponent. Anyone who knows Zarrah Anaphora understands that she’d have fallen on her own weapon before pitting Valcottan against Valcottan, yet you came here looking for exactly that fight. Likely because you knew it was one you could win, whereas a war of truths was one you were destined to lose.”

Zarrah: “This is for my mother. For Yrina. For Valcotta.”

She heard Keris grunt behind her, then the scream of the soldier as he was tossed off the edge of the cliff.

Zarrah: “But most of all, it’s for me.”

Zarrah: “They’re coming with a rope. Just hold on a little longer.”

Keris: “I can’t,”

he gasped.

Keris: “You have to let me go, Zarrah. It’s over for me, but you need to live. Promise me that you’ll live.”

Zarrah: “Do you think I haven’t tried to let you go?”

she shouted at him.

Zarrah: “Over and over, I’ve tried, but I might as well let go of my heart. I cannot live without you, Keris. I will not!”

But he was slipping.

Keris: “I love you,”

he said, eyes locked on hers.

Keris: “Close your eyes. Don’t watch.”

Zarrah: “You came for me.”

A tear rolled down her cheek, stinging the scratches.

Zarrah: “I knew you would. Even when they said you were dead, my heart wouldn’t let go.”

Keris lifted a hand, cupping it around the side of her face that wasn’t shredded, his eyes locked on hers.

Keris: “Every life I have, I will gladly spend on you.”

Jor leveled a finger at Keris, shouting,

Jor: “You’re just like your sister, you mad fool!”

Keris: “Arjun,”

Keris interrupted.

Keris: “Zarrah has heard your counsel, and I know she respects it. But do not think that gives you the right to tell her what she must do.”

Arjun: “Of course you’d support this madness. If she walks away from Valcotta, you can have her to yourself. Make her queen of Maridrina, as all know you desire to do.”

Keris silently met her father’s gaze, and a shiver ran over Zarrah’s skin as she realized that at some point in this long journey, he’d become a king. Not by law, but in spirit, and he was a force to be reckoned with.

Keris: “Zarrah is an empress. Not a queen.”

He looked the part of the blood-soaked commander who’d led an army to victory, but that was not how she wanted to see him. The man she loved carried a book, not a sword. Had fingers stained with ink, not blood. Used words to accomplish his ends, not violence. This was part of him, she knew, but she hoped, prayed, it was one their victory would allow him to set aside.

Zarrah watched the stars as he spoke, telling her the story of their love, giving her a thousand little details that she hadn’t known, even as she did the same, their accounts painting a picture so vivid, it was as though they were experiencing it all again. Every heartbreak and sorrow. Every victory and pleasure. Everything revealed, so that it was no longer his memories and hers, but a singular one that they shared. One that, every time they looked up at the sky, they’d see written in the stars.

Keris: “Do what you need to do to live with yourself, Zarrah.”

She needed him, and it was past time she stopped believing otherwise. Past time she stopped believing that she needed to stand alone to be strong. But Valcotta desperately needed her. Zarrah’s voice cracked as she said,

Zarrah: “I’m sorry.”

The corner of his mouth turned up, and he bent his head, lips near her ear.

Keris: “This is who you are, Valcotta, and I love you for it.”

Keris: “My last act as king was to change the laws of succession so that the eldest Maridrinian child, regardless of gender, would sit on the throne. Now, allow me to formally announce that I am abdicating the throne of Maridrina. Rule of the kingdom will pass to the next eldest child of Silas Veliant, Princess Sarhina.”

Sarhina: “For which I’m never forgiving you,”

the woman in question muttered, but Zarrah barely heard.

Zarrah: “I don’t understand. Why have you done this?”

It was as though the whole world fell away as he approached, taking her hands.

Keris: “A ruler must put their kingdom first. That is the cost of the title, to ever and always put the nation and its people before all else, before even those he loves.”

His voice caught, and he swallowed before adding,

Keris: “I find that an impossible task, for nothing in this world or the next comes before you in my heart.”

Keris: “Maridrina and Ithicana are bound by marriage,”

he said, dropping to his knees before her.

Keris: “And soon to be bound by common blood with an heir. I…I would offer you the same union between Maridrina and Valcotta. If you’ll have me.”

This is a dream, she thought. It has to be.

Yet as she stared down into the azure eyes that possessed her soul, Zarrah knew that it was real. That against every odd, they would be together in a way that honored their nations, and themselves.

Zarrah: “I will have you.”

She dropped to her knees, kissing his lips.

Zarrah: “From now until the end of days, I will have you.”

Keris: “Well, what do you think?”

Keris leaned back, admiring the white stone construction, the masons working on the final decorative touches.

Dax: “It’s smaller than Ithicana’s bridge,”

Dax answered, and Keris turned to glare at him, only to discover his friend was grinning.

Dax: “It’s a fine bridge, Your Highness. I look forward to walking back and forth over it many times.”

Dax: “I need to get back to the palace. Her Grace holds to a schedule, and we are to be on a ship back to Vencia in an hour. If I make Sarhina late, I’ll be subjected to her verbal flagellation.”

Keris: “That’s a big word, Dax. You’re spending too much time with politicians.”

Husband. Hearing her say it sent a flood of desire rushing through his veins, and he lifted her into his arms.

Keris: “Tell anyone asking for her time that she will be busy for the next few hours,”

he called over his shoulder at Daria. Daria smirked and shouted,

Daria: “A few hours? You’re a man after my own heart, Your Highness.”

Zarrah: “Things went well with Sarhina? Because I heard a rumor that you two fight like alley cats, and that she claims you have forsaken your Maridrinian heritage with your Valcottan favoritism.”

Keris: “She’s not wrong."


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