In appearance, Arken is a kind guardian to Serafina who has protected her from the perils of the Darzian jungle and, more importantly, taught her how to overcome them herself.
But Arken staunchly refuses to let Serafina leave the boundaries of the jungle, and will tell her nothing of his former life, nor of Serafina’s own origins.
Learn the full truth of Arken’s past in the free novella, “Grand Traitor.”
from “Grand Traitor”
She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t.
Nadia stood in the hallway, trembling so fiercely she feared for the health of her baby. Elborn mothers rarely miscarried or suffered complications during childbirth. It was one of the many reasons people suspected they carried the blood of Demetral. But Nadia still worried that the fears and burdens she suffered might have some negative impact on her little Serafina. She could not remember the last time she felt so physically unstable. Her hands sweated uncontrollably. Her body felt weak from lack of food. And yet her one bite of breakfast continued to churn in her stomach.
Two rows of Darzian soldiers shared the hallway with the queen, prepared to give their lives to protect her. She wore a crown on her head, ensuring her that everyone on this vast and powerful continent must obey her command. And yet she felt as vulnerable as a small child alone in the wild. Any moment, Arken Jeridar would come strolling down this hallway. She had chosen this part of the castle for that very purpose, so she might intercept him. But the thought of seeing him again—of staring into those fierce golden eyes, full of anger and maybe even hatred—terrified her beyond belief.
“I, uh… I’m not feeling well,” she said aloud, even though the soldiers were trained not to speak to her. Some of them exchanged puzzled glances, as if wondering whether to respond. “I’m going back to my room!” she declared. Then she started to turn around.
But it was already too late. For at that very moment, Arken appeared at the end of the hallway.
He froze at the same time that she did. He stared at her across the stones of the hall, through the bright beams of sunlight from the windows, and she wondered how she looked to him. There she stood, fat and pregnant, her ridiculously large dress spreading out from her swollen midriff, a look of shock on her face. Crowned, bejeweled, and surrounded by soldiers, she still managed to feel pathetic and sickly.
Meanwhile, Arken looked as radiant as ever. He had traded his silk robes for leather riding boots, simple trousers, and a loose-fitting shirt that showed the softly-sculpted lines of his chest. He had pulled his yellow hair behind him, tied with a silk ribbon, though a few soft strands still fell to accentuate the squareness of his jaws and the sharp length of his nose.
He recovered before she did. He resumed walking, and his steps did not waver as he swept his long legs down the hallway. He stopped just a few feet away from her and feigned a graceful bow. Somehow, this theatrical submission felt equal to the most flagrant insult he might have thrown upon her.
At long last, she closed her gaping mouth and tried to recover her breath. But despite how many times she had rehearsed this moment while waiting for him to appear, she could not find the words to say.
He looked up at her, revealing a tiny smirk on his mouth, and found his voice before she did. “Most beautiful and gracious queen. Forgive me for interrupting you on my way through this hallway.”
He might as well have slapped her across the face. And perhaps that was for the best, for at last, she felt her senses returning to her. “Arken,” she said. “I came here to speak with you.”
He straightened from his ridiculous bow, but continued to wear that smile on his face—a smile that, despite its charm, she knew to be fake. Whatever warmth it provided, the coldness in his eyes overwhelmed it tenfold. “Oh really? Why would the great Queen Nadia ever trouble herself with the likes of a man like me?”
He poised the question as a mockery. But she sensed a sincere curiosity behind his words, as well. “Arken, I…” She glanced around at the soldiers. “Leave us.”
The soldiers hesitated. They could not disobey. But they could not abandon her, either. They did not know what to do.
“Wait for me… over there,” she snapped, pointing to the end of the hallway.
With a great shuffle of armor and weaponry, the soldiers obeyed her. Arken watched them go with an amused expression.
“Arken, when you left here so suddenly, on that day… you never gave me a chance to explain myself.”
“What must you explain? You chose to marry another man. Quite… ‘suddenly.'” The fake smirk, the feigned amusement, vanished completely. His lips curled with a snarl. “Whatever you would say to me, I don’t wish to hear it.”
“But you must. I…” Her palms were sweating again. She rubbed them against the fabric of her dress, to no avail. “I did what I thought what was best for the kingdom. I wanted to marry you. But to do that would have been selfish, especially when I realized the repercussions. If I had abandoned the throne without warning, the castle would have fallen into chaos. Relationships between the Houses were so heated, I feared a civil war.”
“I see. Marrying me would have been selfish?” He snorted, a sound that reverberated from one end of the hall to the other. “Gods forbid you do something selfish! I don’t suppose choosing the crown over love is selfish at all? Nor the assumption that you must sit on the throne or the kingdom will fall to ruin? Naturally, you did what you had to—for the kingdom.”
“You know that it’s true, Arken! Our actions could have had dire consequences.”
“But that’s not the full truth, now is it?” His eyes narrowed on her, and she felt as if they pierced her to the core. “If you really worried so much about the consequences, you would have spoken to the Royal Duma about marrying me long before your scheduled wedding with Lord Gerald.” He stepped closer to her, his gaze crushing her as surely as a boot upon her throat. “If we had proceeded more carefully, we might have gained everyone’s approval. So if you cared so much about that, why didn’t you try? Why did you not announce our intentions sooner?”
Nadia opened her mouth, but no words came out. She realized that for better or worse, Arken sensed the truth. He knew that she had loved him. But despite her love for him, she had never believed he could rule as Grand Prince without causing trouble. She worried that he would always want more power—that his inheritance as a Jeridar would get the best of him. And that even if married to the monarch, his power would fail to satisfy the greed in his bloodstream.
“You misjudged me,” he hissed, his breath blowing the red curls from her face. “You thought I cared only about the crown. You were wrong. But not nearly so wrong as I was about you.”
He pulled back, just a little, but she still felt as if he had smashed her to powder against the floor of the hallway. She felt tiny and small, unable to argue, helpless against his accusations.
“May I pass now, my queen?” His voice dripped with derision. “Or must you explain yourself further?”
“I…” She took another deep, shuddering breath. She stared into the floor, finding that her courage increased the longer she avoided his gaze. “I think that you should not go on this ride with Vivian,” she said at last. “I think that if you obtain the key—more specifically, if your family obtains the key—then the consequences will be dire.”
“That’s not really my concern, is it?” She glimpsed a shrug of his broad shoulders. “Such concerns are for the people with crowns. So why should I worry?”
“Arken. I am begging you…”
“Beg all you’d like, Nadia.” This time, a true hint of joy rang upon his voice, and it chilled her to the bone. “But the more you beg, the more you will assure me of my purpose. For I wish you to understand what it feels like to want only one thing in this world—to want it with every fiber of your being—only to have it denied you.”
And then, without waiting for permission, he swept past her.
For a moment, the soldiers grabbed their weapons. Even from afar, they sensed the queen’s distress. But she shook her head, and they let Arken pass.
She had found the strength to deny him, once. But perhaps that strength had broken, just as surely as his devotion.
Read more in the free novella, “Grand Traitor.”