Behind the Cover

I’ve never been one for following rote advice or rules. Like Laith, one of the narrators of Mage and Source, “Emily does what Emily wants,” and in the case of my Tales of Blood & Light covers, Emily wanted to make them herself, so she did, against the advice of just about everybody, everywhere.

That said, I’ve learned a lot by going the independent route (as usual), and I certainly beefed up my Photoshop skills, which were a bit rusty after a stint many years ago as a photo doctor in a psych lab in college. (Side note: back then I was editing images of Breyer horses and yearbook pictures for a study on prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, in case you were curious.)

I always enjoy learning by doing, and working on my own covers has allowed me to do that.

While my favorite cover thus far is Sterling’s–all the pieces just fit together so well to get a striking image–there is a big “darling” in the Mage and Source cover that I wanted to share because I love it so much.

Here’s the Mage and Source cover:

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Take special note of the interesting background colors and textures, the iridescent greens, blues, and violets. Those colors came from an image of a very specific thing. Can you guess what?

In the series thus far, each cover’s dominant color has represented the aetherlight color of the narrator. In Mage and Source, I have two narrators, and thus I needed to represent two colors on the cover, neither completely overpowering the other.

I am a relentless hunter of interesting public domain images, and I finally found one that I thought would serve as a good background image for Laith and Elena’s colors. It was this one:

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from the USGA Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s Flickr stream. Government science images make my nerdy heart happy.

This is an image of a bee’s wing. Specifically, it is the wing of a female Xylocopa carpenter bee from Thailand. It was so cool I had to use it on my cover!

The rest of the images were sourced from more mundane stock photograph sites. The bird of paradise flower image in the center represents a fictional night queen bloom.

You’ll have to read the book to see how the night queen bloom and the bee’s wings relate to the story!

You can pre-order Mage and Source here.

Add it on Goodreads here.

 

Seven Questions: Margaret Locke

I’m happy to welcome Margaret Locke to my blog for her third round of Seven Questions. Her latest book is The Demon Duke, a Regency romance with an unusual hero.

As a teen, Margaret pledged to write romances when she was older. Once an adult, however, she figured she ought to be doing grownup things, not penning stories. Thank goodness turning forty cured her of that silly notion.

Now happily ensconced again in the clutches of her first crush (romance novels!), Margaret is never happier than when sharing her passion for a grand Happy Ever After. Because love matters.

Margaret lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with her fantastic husband, two fabulous kids, and three fat cats. You can usually find her in front of some sort of screen (electronic or window); she’s come to terms with the fact she’s not an outdoors person.

 Read on to learn more!

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1-Margaret, this is your fourth book. Wow! How has your book-writing process changed between Book 1 and Book 4?

I’d like to think I’ve gotten better. Each book has actually proven a quite difference experience:

A Man of Character I plotted out and wrote and re-wrote for four years before publishing it.

A Matter of Time I drafted as a NaNoWriMo project (my first!) in the middle of working on A Man of Character, but I took a year after the first book’s publication to tinker with the second.

I’d written a draft during my second NaNo of what I thought would be book three in the series (what evolved into The Demon Duke), only to realize a different story needed to come first. So, for the first time, I wrote, edited, re-edited, re-edited, and finished a novel, A Scandalous Matter, in six months. I don’t think that’s something I care to repeat – at least not while I still have kids at home!

For The Demon Duke, as I said, I had a draft, but I took more time to hone it, and ended up changing a fair amount, as my skills in writing (or at least my knowledge of better practices) had increased.

Now I find myself back at the drawing board, no complete drafts in my pocket – but I think I have a better sense now of what works and doesn’t work. Though they take time, character sketches, timelines, spreadsheets listing names and characteristics, and loose outlines work much better for me than winging it.

 

2-Which phase of the book process do you enjoy most and why?

 Definitely writing the initial draft. Everything feels new and fun, and I’m convinced I’m hilarious and this book is awesome and everything is perfect.

Until I re-read it. Until my editor reads it and sends me back revisions. The editing phase is not my favorite (read: nails on a chalkboard / chocolate-deprivation level dislike), BUT I’m learning to look forward to the final edits, as I’ve seen the story morph from “best EVER!” through “this totally sucks, who am I kidding?” to “maybe it’s not so bad after all.”

And getting the print copy in the mail is one of the best feelings there is, hands-down. It all feels real then.

 

3-Novels are a tough form, time-consuming and sometimes underappreciated in the world. What keeps you motivated?

Guilt and fear. What, that’s not a good answer? Okay, the characters bugging me in my head, the readers asking for more stories, the pleasure of that first draft – and guilt and fear.

Guilt, because if I’m not working on a book, I’m often wasting vast amounts of time on things like Facebook and Two Dots (okay, yeah, I admit – I do that even when I am working on a book!).

Fear, because what would I do if I didn’t do this? As someone with almost a PhD (I did everything but finish the dissertation) in medieval history from twenty years ago, what marketable skills do I have now?

But also love.

Because love matters. Love stories matter. And I truly do love writing them. Yes, it’s hard work. I still have a lot to learn, still have great ways in which to improve. But when my own eyes well up, my own giggles escape, my own heart aches at a scene I’ve written? When readers tell me they love my books? When I realize I get to do something I love as my job? That’s what truly keeps me going.

That, and chocolate.

 

4-Do your book ideas arrive in your head in a particular way? As images, as opening scenes or sentences, as characters, as conflicts? Tell us a little about idea generation, brainstorming, and how you come up with a story? Once you have an idea, what are the next steps?

 It varies. For A Man of Character, it was the opening question, What would you do if you discovered the men you were dating were fictional characters you’d created long ago?, that launched the whole thing. From that question, I mused on what kind of men someone would fantasize about at different points in their life, etc., and sketched out a story.

I think characters come to mind first, and then I imagine what might befall them, or who might suit them best. For example, Amara, the heroine from A Scandalous Matter, evolved as a reaction of sorts against my first two heroines. Both Cat from A Man of Character and Eliza from A Matter of Time were rather circumspect in their sexual attitudes and behaviors. I decided I needed a female character more driven by physical pleasure, and along came Amara.

For The Demon Duke, I knew what his affliction would be, and I knew who his physical inspiration was (Ian Somerhalder of Vampire Diaries fame). From there, I brainstormed on how his struggles might shape his life—and his reaction to love.

I’ve sketched story ideas out in great detail and I’ve done a more pantser approach where I make up everything as I go along. I’ve learned I do best when I let ideas percolate in my head and then eventually write them all down and plot things out. I do tend to have different ideas about different books pop into my head at any given time, though. I guess those characters don’t always care that I’d like to proceed in clear, linear fashion, thank you very much!

 

5-You have been recruited as an experimental space traveller. You are allowed to bring only what you can carry in a small backpack. What do you pack?

 May I bring along Hermione’s Bag of Holding? In which I could stuff, you know, a T.A.R.D.I.S.? No? Well, then, I suppose I’d want a camera with a massive amount of storage, water, pain meds, chocolate, a Kindle, battery chargers, a pen, paper, and a cat.

 

6-It turns out that your experimental space ship has malfunctioned, and instead of traveling through space, you’re traveling through time. What era/year will be your desired destination? And why?

I knew you were going to do that to me! I certainly would like to visit Regency England, to see if it was anything at all like the society we read about in novels (both Austen and modern romances), but tops on my list would be ancient Rome. I’d really love to see it in its heyday. I’d also want to visit Charlemagne’s court, and that of Otto the Great, and go back to learn who built Stonehenge and why, and zip off to Renaissance Italy, and maybe colonial America.

But I think I’d want to be like Scrooge – just popping in and out, invisible. Because a) I wouldn’t want to mess up history, and b) I’m really fond of air conditioning, and I’d eventually run out of chocolate.

 

7-Tell us a bit about your next book (or books)?

 Next up is The Legendary Duke, the second in my Put Up Your Dukes Regency series, based loosely on the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s been years – since grad school days – that I’ve studied Arthurian lore, so I’m really looking forward to that, especially since the third book in the series, The Once and Future Duke, also has Arthurian connections, as you might have guessed from the title.

Oh, and somewhere in there, I want to write book four in the Magic of Love series. Because Sophie Mattersley needs her story told.

Thanks so much for hosting me, Emily!

Learn more about Margaret on her website: http://margaretlocke.com

Get The Demon Duke now on Amazon or at other outlets:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

iBooks

Kobo

The-Demon-Duke-Kindle

Behind every good man is a great secret.

Banished to Yorkshire as a boy for faults his father failed to beat out of him, Damon Blackbourne has no use for English society and had vowed never to return to his family’s estate at Thorne Hill, much less London. However, when his father and brother die in a freak carriage accident, it falls on Damon to take up the mantle of the Malford dukedom, and to introduce his sisters to London Society–his worst nightmare come to life.

He never planned on Lady Grace Mattersley. The beautiful debutante stirs him body and soul with her deep chocolate eyes and hesitant smiles. Until she stumbles across his dark secret.

Bookish Grace much prefers solitude and reading to social just-about-anything. Her family may be pressuring her to take on the London Season to find herself a husband, but she has other ideas. Such as writing a novel of her own. But she has no idea how to deal with the Duke of Malford.

Will she betray him to the world? Or will she be his saving Grace?

Deleted Scene : More Hinge Backstory

This little snippet was originally in The Gantean, a piece of information about the magic of the Gantean Hinge. Ultimately, I found a way to “show” rather than “tell” this information, but, like a lot of writing about magic systems, I had to write out the theory of it before I could even attempt to integrate it more naturally into the story.

Leila was the narrator telling this info, though it could have been the Cedna, too:

“Because of this Hinge, all other magic was possible, for in its opening, the Ancestors had made the Layers permeable, so that we could walk from one to the next. The Gantean People were the Guardians of this Hinge, and it was our sacred duty to protect it, to keep it hidden, safe, and open. Not just for ourselves, but for the whole world, for all the nations who used magic. The Hinge, high on the ice plateaus of Gante, was the source of all magic.

Every Gantean knew about the Hinge. Such knowledge made us Iksraqtaq. It was a secret funneled into us, never spoken, but lived and felt and inhaled from our very first breath. If we were a stern and somber people, it was because of this great responsibility we guarded. We kept the Hinge open by feeding it the dead, their flesh and spirit and blood, to appease its endless hunger.”

Goals : March : 2017

February seemed to pass too quickly! Even so, it is a great relief to have the days growing longer and to see the sun a little in the morning and the evening.

Though I worked and worked, I didn’t quite manage all my goals this past month, due in part to work and to transportation difficulties caused by landslides. Both of these sucked up some of my writing mornings. I had to let my last two goals go by the wayside entirely just to make any progress on my first two.

February goals:

  1. FINISH ToB&L Book 6 revision. CHECK, although the end is still one big snarl.
  2. REVISE Mage & Source based on new reader feedback. HALF-CHECK. I worked and worked on this and got about two-thirds through. I ended up doing more rewriting than expected.
  3. START musical magic co-write. NOPE
  4. READ through newly revised River Running and send to beta readers. NOPE

March Goals:

I’ll be keeping it simple in March as last month I obviously planned for more than I could manage.

  1. FINISH  Mage & Source  revision.
  2. START musical magic co-write.
  3. READ through newly revised River Running and send to beta readers.

 

 

 

Seven Questions: Mark A. King

I am very happy to welcome Mark A. King to my blog for a round of seven questions, featuring his debut novel Metropolitan Dreams. Mark is one of the founders of FlashDogs, a global community of talented flash fiction writers. His flash fiction stories have been published in a number of anthologies and magazines. Mark was born and raised in London, works in Cambridge, and lives in Norfolk, England.

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1-Pitch your book in three sentences or less.

M.A.K.: In the aftermath of a violent crime we follow the connected stories of an injured nightclub bouncer, an ageing crime-lord, a conflicted police hacker, a traumatised Tube-driver and a vulnerable twelve-year-old girl as they fight for survival, purpose and redemption in the fractured city of London. Along the journey we discover lost rivers, abandoned underground stations, mysterious forces and angels (perhaps).

2-Is your book indie-published or traditionally published? Tell us a little about that journey.

M.A.K.: Indie published. Having monitored the progress (and success) of many FlashDogs on their various publishing adventures, it became clear to me that traditional publishing can be a long, hard and often frustrating experience. Self publishing offers choice, power, flexibility and responsiveness in terms of being able to get the book in front of readers. Some misguided voices that say self publishing has lesser quality, but a fair number of the finest books I have read over the last few years have come from indie authors and traditional publishing is no guarantee that you will like a book anyway, as everyone has their own reading preferences. Indeed, the indie path can often offer a wider variety of material to the reader. Neither is better, it’s just that indie suited me at this time.
The kind and talented host of this blog helped me almost every step of the way, from story transformation through to last minute logo creation. Should you be able to find someone as marvellous, I highly recommend you seek their magic as a priority early in the process.

3-What are your favorite genres/books to read, and do you think this affects your writing? How?

M.A.K.: I enjoy speculative fiction, which covers genres as diverse as science fiction, horror, fantasy, magical realism and new weird. I find myself always looking firstly to ground my stories in the lives of my characters and the journey they on on, but I’m fascinated by the worlds that science, faith and spirituality hint at, which are just beyond our current understanding. So I always try to find an undercurrent of otherworldlyness in my stories (not a real word, but it probably should be).

4-What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

M.A.K.: I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like ‘Write the way you want to write. Try not to be someone else as there is only one you.’
I’m starting to learn that it’s important to tell the stories I want to tell in the way that I want to tell them. It might sound obvious, but it’s not, well not for me anyway, I’m fairly conformist in my real life, my writing in many ways is an outlet for something more creative.
However, I realise that this approach is likely to mean that I have less success in terms of potential sales.
It would almost certainly be easier to create a firm genre fiction, following the paths of proven formulas, but that wouldn’t seem like success to me. I’ve waited all my life to write a novel. Success, I think, is creating something different and unique, being true to the stories in my imagination and in my heart, and all I can hope for is that readers will appreciate something slightly different and connect with it in some way.

5-How do you fit your writing into a busy life?

M.A.K.: It is incredibly hard. Like many writers, I have a full time job. I have a reasonable amount of responsibility in my job and when I come home there are numerous demands on my time and energy. I juggle a number of social media accounts (my personal one, my writer one/s and the FlashDogs one)–I wouldn’t make a good spy, as this is too many identities for me already. I tend to squeeze stolen minutes and hours between other tasks, or use my work breaks wisely. My favourite writing experience was when I had to drop my daughter at a horse riding experience which was in in a neighbouring county. Too far away to come back home, so I looked at the map and realised that Rendlesham Forest was nearby, so I took my laptop and wrote some of Metropolitan Dreams from the middle of the forest where UFO sightings have been reported (the UK’s very own Roswell incident, only with more witnesses and recorded evidence from military personnel).
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It was a magical place to write from, it wasn’t just the history, but being outside surrounded by the energy of the forest was inspiring in itself. So, while finding time is sometimes hard, it does also lead to wonderful opportunities.

6-How and when did you first know you were a writer?

M.A.K.: I find it odd to think of myself as a writer and I have a cheeky small-boy grin when someone suggests that I might be one. For most of us, writing is unlikely to pay the bills, so for me, it is only ever a secondary role to; being a father, husband, good employee/manager, community contributor etc.

7-What’s your secret superpower?

M.A.K.: What is it now? Or what would I like it to be? If now, then people say that I am generally very calm under pressure. But if I had to choose a real superpower, it would be teleportation. I’d click my fingers and return to the warm sands of Shark Bay on Heron Island which sits atop the Great Barrier Reef. I’d click my fingers again to visit family or friends I don’t see often enough. Click to visit the many friends I have not yet met in different parts of the world.

Many thanks to Mark for answering seven questions!

You can learn more about Mark and his writing at his blog: https://makingfiction.com/
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Making_Fiction
Get Metropolitan Dreams: https://goo.gl/EsXA3I

Deleted/Reworked Scene: Sterling Prologue

My friend and reader Christine requested a deleted scene from Sterling, Tales of Blood and Light 3, and so this next one is for her. Book Three had fewer purely deleted scenes and many more “reworked” ones, so this scene may have familiar bits, for those of you who have read Sterling. This was the Prologue I had in the first draft, which was reworked and rewritten and massaged into the shorter and less wordy Prologue I used in the final version.

Sterling, of course, is the narrator, albeit a bit younger than she ended up in the final prologue:

“Every girl has a fairy tale,” my sister Stesichore said. We sat on the sun porch off the fourth floor of our Shankar house, as grand a dwelling as any in Lethemia. “Why, there’s a fairy tale for any situation and any appearance. There’s Cinder and Ashe for a housemaid, and Rose Red for a girl whose mother has died. Clever girls have The Peasant’s Wise Daughter, and beauties can have their pick from Fair Ruslana or Pretty Poppy.”

Stesi’s musing came about because she’d found me out on the deck reading a book of such stories, and she’d asked me if I liked them. I’d told her honestly that they were silly and unrealistic, and she’d begged to differ. Now she had to prove herself, which I knew could be a tedious game. I sighed and put the book aside. Stesi, impossible to ignore, demanded attention. She couldn’t endure being alone; only through the eyes of others could she make sense of the world and herself. I was fourteen; she was twenty-two, but I was the sister with more sense. Not that anyone would ever recognize that.

I acceded to her overtaking my quiet afternoon. “So what would your tale be, Stesi?”

The Princess in the Tower, of course.”

I wrinkled my brow, trying to determine why “of course” tagged this sentence. I couldn’t reason it out. “Why that one? I would have thought Fair Ruslana more to your liking.” Fair Ruslana told the tale of a beautiful, fair-haired princess enchanted into a long sleep, only to be broken by the kiss of her true love, a prince.

Stesi patted at her hair, upswept into a fabulous arrangement that likely took several hours for her handmaiden to create. “Well, first of all, I have beautiful hair. Everyone says so.”

That was true enough. Stesi’s hair was long and heavy, the color of honey. She’d been chagrined when the pale blonde of her youth had changed to the darker hue. She’d begged for a year to be allowed to dye it, but my mother had said that “Only courtesans and loose women alter their appearance with artificial aids.” So Stesi, in typical fashion, had begun to believe that honey-gold hair was far more desirable than the pale locks I had never outgrown.

“And The Princess in the Tower is all about an unattainable woman. That’s me. I have rejected all my suitors thus far, and I shall wait until the best one offers for me.”

“Oh? And who will that be?” I couldn’t help asking, though I knew encouraging Stesi in this way could be foolish.

“Prince Costas, of course. I am going to marry him and become Queen of Lethemia.”

This plan, far-fetched as it sounded, was not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, my parents were likely angling for the match. But there had been no word yet that Costas Galatien, a full three years younger than Stesi, intended to hold a Marriage Brokering anytime soon.

“So what’s my fairy tale?” I asked, knowing this question would shatter Stesi’s argument to pieces. There were no fairy tales for a girl like me.

The Ugly Duchess,” Stesi said without hesitation. Her selection of that tale for me came as no surprise, but her choice showed how little Stesi knew. The Ugly Duchess told the story of a fair-skinned girl born into a dark-skinned world. She grew up her whole life being called ugly, until her father married her off to a duke from a distant land. When she arrived in her new home, she discovered that there were other fair-skinned people, and the people of the fair-skinned world considered her beautiful beyond compare. Like most fairy tales, the message intended to be uplifting: that beauty could be in the eye of the beholder—but the message was wrong. I should know. I had the kind of ugliness that could not be remedied by a change in perspective. I’d been born with a wine-stain birthmark sprawling across the right side of my face and trailing down my neck. My mark would not be considered lovely anywhere in the world.

I had been an outsider my whole life, looking in at other people’s stories from a distance. Stesi’s story dominated my childhood. Her beauty and her importance as the heir to House Ricknagel eclipsed everything else in Mama and Papa’s eyes.

But that afternoon after Stesi flounced away from the sun porch to do something “more interesting than reading fusty tales,” I began to see that I had a story too, though it bore no resemblance to Stesi’s bejeweled fairy tale.

This was the first circle of my story, the truth on which the world agreed: Sterling Ricknagel was nobody, the ugly, shameful daughter of a great house. Any story is never only one story, one circle. Concentric circles lie beneath; even the tightest story has other tales creeping below, silent loops waiting for only a slight weakening in the first story to break free.

No one would remember me in the history books. The passage of my life would be forgotten, and I couldn’t help but think it would be a mercy if it were. I would make no mark upon the world.

I slammed the book of fairy tales closed.

Deleted Scene: Miki becomes a Dragonnaire

Here’s my first deleted scene. This one takes place in the series timeline right at the end of The Gantean, after Leila has left Costas and her son, Tiriq, to go after Laith and the Cedna. As you will see it is told from Miki, her Gantean brother’s, point of view. Leila left Miki on the ship with to take care of Tiriq while she was away, but there was some lingering animosity between Miki and Leila’s husband, Costas Galatien. This little scene was part of a prologue I had originally written for Mikien’s book (Book 7), but the big timeline changes I made in the overall series arc made that particular prologue unworkable, as I felt the jumping around in time was too confusing. It also turned out that Miki becoming a Dragonnaire was less central to his story than I had originally imagined, so using this scene didn’t have the story-relevant impact I needed for the opening of a book. Below is just a snippet from the entire scene.

Scene: 

Costas sat down on the bed with Tiriq in his lap, ashen. I shifted awkwardly, wishing I could leave, but the ship was small, and I had no where to go.

“I’ll have to call off my men,” he muttered. “I’ve sent them ashore to search for Leila.”

“They’ll never find her. Leila can blend.” It was a uniquely Shringar talent, that easy adaptation, melding into every circumstance like a drop of water into the ocean.

Costas pulled himself together. “Very well. I will allow her to perform this duty. I practically gave it to her myself. But if she isn’t back in a fortnight, I’m going after her.”

I lifted my brows, suppressing a skeptical snort. “To Gante?” Costas had all the usual trappings of a southerner—the rich, thin clothing he wore would kill him in a second in Gante’s harsh climate, not to mention his thin skin and a preference for weapons and magic rather than raw resourcefulness.

“That’s where she’s gone?”

“Undoubtedly,” I said. “But give her at least a moon. I expect she’ll be back to you by then. In the meantime, don’t you have a city to retake?” All through our sea journey from the harbor of Engashta, where Leila and I had gone to find Tiriq and Costas after they were captured by Xander Ricknagel, Costas had been planning how to retake the High City from Ricknagel’s remaining army. Galantia and Province Ricknagel were the only places in the country still held by those loyal to the man who had usurped Costas’s throne.

Costas stared at me for a long moment. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “How old are you, anyway?”

“Fourteen winters,” I said sullenly. As a Gantean—a small one at that—among sayantaq, I was usually mistaken for a child.

“Leila says you are her brother, but I see little resemblance between the two of you. You look fully Gantean, as she does not.”

“Ganteans do not reckon relationship by blood,” I said shortly. “But I call Leila a sister, and I call Tiriq a brother. I always will.”

Costas gazed down at Tiriq in his arms. “You feel for them both like family, though no blood connects you?”

“This is the Gantean way. Our island is a hard place. We look after one another. We are connected by the land itself.” We were connected by blood, too, but in a different way from how he would understand. All Gantean blood fed the Hinge.

“Interesting.” Costas set Tiriq back down on the bed and began to pace. “Allian told me you killed my mage Oruscani.”

I retracted toward the cabin door. I had feared there might be repercussions for killing the mage once Costas pulled himself together and regained his power. I still had the ulio I’d picked up from Leila, the Gantean ritual blade, stuffed in my back pocket. I scrambled for it and crouched. Once again I wished I’d had some kind of training in the martial arts. I’d seen Costas’s Dragonnaires practicing their moves, and they had looked useful. Costas had easily snapped the blade from my hand earlier, and he had all the training the wealth of the world could buy.

All I had were instincts honed by a lifetime of dangers.

Costas stared down at the ulio that I held in front of me. “Now why would you go and do that?” he wondered aloud. “You’re not stupid, boy. You don’t want to fight me.”

“Allian Kercheve put me in binds for killing the mage. He said there would be consequences.”

Costas laughed again. “You’ve been exonerated. Allian was actually quite impressed with you. He said you were fast. Coming from him, that means something. He was the fastest fighter I had.” Regret tinged his voice. Kercheve had died fighting Xander Ricknagel as we’d rescued Costas from his upscale prison in the Duke of Engahsta’s home.

Costas’s eyes never left the ulio. He moved like summer lightning, springing towards me, then darting to the left, and finally snapping his hand down on my arm.

I didn’t drop the blade; I went with the force of his blow, crouching lower until one shin rested on the cabin floor. I spun on my toes on my standing leg to avoid his next blow and skittered away from him.

“Good instincts,” Costas said. Again he moved, this time in a frontal attack, both hands whizzing through motions too fast to track. With the wall at my back, I had few options. I ducked and somersaulted, coming to my feet behind him. Now he was pinned by the wall.

“Ingenius,” Costas said. “But you’re still outmatched.”

I cast a quick glance at Tiriq on the bed.

“Don’t you dare,” Costas said, his face hardening. “If you touch my son, I’ll murder you with my bare hands.”

“I’d never hurt him,” I hissed. “He’s my brother.”

A satisfied look crossed Costas’s face. He struck anyway, launching into a dizzying array of strikes, punches, and kicks, too fast to track. His foot connected precisely with my wrist and the ulio went flying. Before I knew what had happened, he had me on my belly with two fingers digging into the back of my neck like iron pins, his knee in my back.

“This grip,” he said, “is a secret known only to me and my Dragonnaires. I can push so hard I can knock you unconscious, just from the pressure. It cuts off the blood supply to the brain, you see. If I hold it long enough, I’ll kill you.”

I writhed but he held on.

“Listen to me, Mikien. I’m giving you only two choices. One, I keep squeezing. I can do this for as long as it takes. Two, you agree to pledge your loyalty to me, become one of my Dragonnaires, and have your oath bound by a mage. My men have gone ashore and they will be bringing at least one mage back to the ship when they return.”

“What does that mean, bound by a mage?” I rasped. I could hardly breathe, what with the force of his knee into my ribs.

“It means you will swear your life to me, as all my Dragonnaires do, blood and breath. A magemark will be put upon your arm, written in my own blood. This makes you physically incapable of harming anyone who carries my blood. And you will serve me. We will put these good instincts to better use.”

“I’m Gantean,” I spat. “I will not kneel to a southern king.”

Costas Galatien’s laugh had begun to grate on my nerves. “You’re already kneeling, boy. One way or another. Come now, pick life. I like you too much to have you go to waste. And I fear Leila would never forgive me if I killed you.”

“Will you train me to fight?” I asked.

That grating laugh again. “I most certainly will.”

“Yes, then,” I said as my vision began to blur. “I’ll do it. I’ll take the pledge.”