ONCE UPON A TIME…
HUMANS WERE PATHETICALLY predictable. Always longing for more. Always desperate to get their way. Shamelessly grasping for what remained out of reach, even when it cost them dearly.
He despised them.
Alistair Teague rubbed his fingers absently over the smooth surface of his carved ivory pipe—an unwilling gift from the human who’d betrayed him—and raised his nose to sniff the air. A midnight breeze blew in from the nearby Chrysós Sea, sweeping through the leaves of the olive grove with a faint hiss and carrying with it the sharp scent of a human’s terrible desperation.
The magic in Teague’s blood responded, surging through his chest, cold and insistent, and he drew in another deep breath as he pocketed the unlit pipe and straightened his immaculately tailored dress coat.
The salty tang of the sea and the wild sweetness of the trees tugged at the part of him that missed living on the fae isle of Llorenyae, but the scent of a human ready to stake everything he had on a chance at gaining the deepest desire of his heart was the true intoxicant.
Teague had lived in exile among the humans in the kingdom of Súndraille for nearly two hundred years, and it never got old.
Their desires. Their greed.
Weaknesses that had kept his business thriving and his pockets full of coin but had failed to silence the fear that one day another human might get the best of him, and this time, instead of being exiled, he might be killed.
He shivered as he turned south toward the scent of the desperate human. The thought of losing the centuries he still had left to live—of sinking into the dark abyss of the unknown where he would no longer be the Wish Granter of legend—haunted him.
It was the gnawing terror of what came after he’d breathed his last that had given him an idea that was going to guarantee no human ever had power over him again.
He moved through the trees, his steps a whisper against the loamy soil, his magic drawn unerringly toward the human in need.
Toward the young man who was the key to Teague’s plan.
Passing by the boy’s sister, huddled asleep at the base of a tree, dirt smudging her tear-streaked face, he made his way to the edge of the grove where the land fell away and the sea hurled itself against the shore below. The boy stood facing the water, his hands fisted at his sides while he stared at the night sky as if hoping the answer to his troubles could be found among the stars.
Teague smiled, his magic unfurling from his chest to flood his veins. The boy’s fear was heavy in the air. His shoulders bowed beneath the weight of it. He was out of options, out of hiding places, and out of allies.
He was exactly where Teague wanted him to be.
“You won’t find answers in the stars, Prince Thaddeus,” Teague said.
The boy whirled, his dark eyes wild. “Who are you?”
“My name is Alistair Teague”—he leaned closer, his gaze locked on the boy’s—“but some call me the Wish Granter.”
“The Wish Granter?” The prince’s voice shook. “That’s a bedtime story to frighten children.”
“Oh, I do more than frighten children.” Teague smiled coldly as his magic begged for release. “I give people the deepest desires of their hearts. What do you want, dear boy?”
As if he didn’t already know that the bastard prince and his twin sister had been exiled from their father’s palace upon the birth of the queen’s son—her womb miraculously opened after seventeen years of barrenness thanks to the bargain she’d made with Teague. He’d tried to make an additional bargain—a seat as the king’s adviser in exchange for getting rid of the bastards so that the queen’s son had no competition for the throne—but she’d refused and sent her own hunters after the twins and their servant mother instead.
Maybe she’d suspected that Teague had no plans to remain a mere adviser to the throne. Maybe she’d wanted the satisfaction of killing her son’s rivals without magical help. Either way, Teague had been forced to change tactics. A simple word in the ear of one of the queen’s hunters had sent the man straight to the family’s hiding place with instructions to kill the mother and the sister and bring the prince to Teague for double what the queen was offering as reward. The man had succeeded only in killing the mother before the princess had taken him down with a hay rake, but it didn’t matter. The prince understood the terrible danger he and his sister were in. He knew more hunters would track them down. He knew they wouldn’t survive without help.
Help Teague was happy to offer.
For a price.
If the queen wouldn’t give him access to the throne, then he’d put Súndraille’s crown on one who would.
“If you really are the Wish Granter, then prove it.” The prince raised his chin in challenge, but hope flickered in his eyes.
Teague’s smile widened, and he clapped his hands. The sound reverberated through the ground like thunder. The crash of the waves against the cliff became a deafening roar as the water surged upward toward them. The prince shook as the enormous wave crested the cliff, curving toward the fragile human who trembled beneath it.
“Athrú,” Alistair said, and, as the water fell, it became showers of golden coins that spilled across the boy’s shoulders to pile around his feet. With another clap of his hands, Alistair sent the sea back to its rightful place and bent toward the prince. “Tell me your wish.”
The boy swallowed hard as the coins slid across his boots. “I can wish for anything?”
“I can’t bring back the dead, and I can’t force people to love you, but anything else is well within my powers.”
“Can you protect my sister and me from the queen?”
Teague’s eyes narrowed. Trust a human to think of something so small when the world was laid at his feet. He needed the prince to wish for more, or his plan was never going to work. “Is that really all you want?”
“That’s all that matters. We’ve lost our home. Our mother.” The prince’s voice caught, and he swallowed hard. “All we have left is each other. The queen’s hunters won’t stop chasing us until they kill us. I just want to keep my sister, Arianna, safe.”
The boy held Teague’s gaze, and Teague swore silently. The stupid prince was telling the truth, and that kind of wish wasn’t worth the price Teague needed him to pay. It wouldn’t put Teague anywhere near the throne, and it wouldn’t give him the power he needed to protect himself from the fickle betrayal of humans.
He had to get the prince to wish for more.
“Your sister would be safe if you were the ruler of Súndraille.” Teague kept his voice soft and compelling, but anger flared as the prince shook his head.
“My father is the rightful ruler of—”
“Your father betrayed you and sent you into exile.” Teague’s voice sharpened. “The queen won’t rest until your family is dead. And there’s only one way to change that. You have to take the throne.”
The boy recoiled. “I can’t do that. I just want my sister to be safe.”
Teague’s smile stretched wide and feral. “The hunters are closing in. It’s only a matter of time before she’s dead, just like your mother. I can keep her safe, but I will only do so if you make the right wish.”
The wish that would put Teague one heartbeat from the throne and set his plan into motion.
The prince considered Teague in silence, his eyes haunted. Finally, he said, “And if I don’t wish to be the king? If I wish for my sister’s safety instead?”
Teague’s smile winked out. “Then I will decline to grant your wish, and will leave you to the mercy of the queen’s hunters.” He leaned forward. “All you have to do is wish to be the king of Súndraille. No one would have power to hurt you or Princess Arianna again.”
No one but Teague.
“In the stories, wishes always come with a price.” The prince squared his shoulders as if braced for a blow.
“Everything comes with a price.” Teague stepped closer. “But I’m all that stands between your sister and death. Is there a price you wouldn’t pay for her life?”
The prince closed his eyes as if something pained him, and then said quietly, “No, there isn’t.”
Magic burned beneath Teague’s skin, as cold and absolute as the triumph that filled his chest. Removing a scroll of parchment from his inner pocket, he unfurled the wish contract and quickly pricked Thaddeus’s finger with the tip of his dagger. Pressing the boy’s bloody finger to the debtor’s signature line, he whispered, “Go ahead, dear boy. Make the wish.”
THREE WEEKS LATER
THIS CORSET WAS going to be the death of her.
Arianna Glavan, (suddenly official) princess of Súndraille, leaned against the long wooden table in the center of the busy palace kitchen and threw chunks of butter into her bowl of flour, remembering at the last second not to wipe her fingers on her fancy silk dress.
How any girl with her rib cage cinched in a vise was supposed to dance her feet off, much less eat from the buffet table, was a mystery Ari had no desire to solve. It was bad enough that she was going to have to stand in the receiving line with Thad and greet the nobility who, up until the royal family’s unexpected death three weeks ago, had treated her brother with thinly veiled contempt. To smile at them with bones cutting into her waist while her lungs labored to take a full breath was more than she could bear.
Especially when she planned to eat at least one of every item on the buffet table. Stars knew, it was the only thing she was looking forward to tonight.
Quickly cutting the butter into the flour with her fork until a pastry dough formed, Ari passed the bowl to one of the kitchen maids, who’d just finished whipping up a sauce to go with the basted lamb shanks, and turned to her best friend, Cleo. “Help me out of this.” She gestured vaguely toward her dress.
Cleo tugged at the blue scarf that held her curly dark hair out of her eyes and returned to pitting the bowl of dates in front of her. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Thad already knows I lied about you being sick last week for Lord Mitro’s banquet, and attending your brother’s coronation ball is far more important than that. You have to go. You’re supposed to be a real princess now.”
“I meant help me out of this corset.” Ari motioned her friend toward the enormous walk-in pantry that was nestled on the far side of the kitchen, opposite the hearth ovens whose heat flooded the room, leaving everyone who was working with flushed cheeks and glistening brows. “Please, Cleo. I’ll probably die if I have to dance while wearing this.”
“Fine. But if you get me in trouble again, you’d better buy me a year’s worth of art supplies.” With a quick glance to make sure Mama Eleni—head cook, undisputed boss of anyone who set foot inside the kitchens, and Cleo’s mother—was distracted by the crepes, Cleo wiped her fingers clean on her apron, ducked past a trio of maids carrying trays of thinly sliced apples baked into cinnamon-dusted florets, and followed Ari into the pantry.
When the door was firmly shut behind them, Ari swept her hair into a messy knot at the top of her head and turned her back to Cleo. “Unbutton me, but make it quick. Mama Eleni will have heart failure if she finds me undressing in her pantry.”
“She won’t have heart failure.” Cleo’s fingers flew down the row of tiny pearl buttons along the back of the dress, and golden silk, several shades lighter than Ari’s skin, sagged away from her bosom, revealing the bone-ribbed torture device her new lady’s maid had sworn Ari couldn’t do without. “Mama will make sure we have heart failure.”
Ari wiggled her shoulders, and the gown’s tiny scalloped sleeves edged down her arms. “You have to unbutton it further. The corset is tied at my waist.”
“Cleo? Ari? Where are those girls?” Mama Eleni’s voice cut through the air.
“No time to unbutton. Give me the scissors,” Cleo said as someone answered Mama Eleni. “If Mama finds us and gives me hearth-scrubbing duties again, you’re helping me. I don’t care if you’re supposed to act like a princess now.”
“Maybe as princess I can order Mama Eleni not to punish you.” Then at least there’d be a benefit for having traded her comfortable anonymity as the bastard daughter the king was happy to forget existed for the trappings of a royal life.
Ari reached for the scissors that hung from a ribbon beside the door and handed them to Cleo, who paused for a second. “This looks expensive. Are you sure you want me to—”
“I can’t breathe, my ribs feel like they’re touching my spine, and my stomach is being squished so tight, it’s leaking out over the top of this thing.” Ari turned to let Cleo see the situation.
“Stars help us, you look like you’re growing another set of breasts. Here.” She whirled Ari around and tugged hard on the laces holding the princess in place.
Ari choked. “Can’t. Breathe.”
“I can’t get any leverage. It’s laced too tight. How did Franci get you into this in the first place?” Cleo jerked the laces, and Ari began worrying that the raisin bread she’d eaten earlier was going to make a reappearance.
“There was…a lot…of pulling and…swearing.”
“I didn’t know Franci swore.” With a sharp snip, Cleo cut through the laces. Ari drew a deep breath as the corset loosened.
“She didn’t.” Ari tugged at the corset until she could pull it over her head. “I did.”
Cleo laughed. “You aren’t supposed to do that anymore, Ari. You’re a proper princess now.”
“Hardly.” Ari dropped the offending corset to the pantry floor, adjusted the straps of the regular undergarment she’d had the foresight to wear under it, and pulled her gown back into place. The silk was surprisingly comfortable now that she wasn’t fighting to breathe. She rubbed it between her fingers as Cleo quickly redid her buttons.
Ari wasn’t a proper princess. She was a girl who’d slept in the servants’ quarters with her mother, who’d been almost entirely ignored by her father, and who’d only been allowed to attend lessons with her brother when the king realized that Thad, his chosen heir despite the boy’s bastard status, was serious about refusing to perform to expectations unless his sister received an education too. She’d scrubbed floors, cooked feasts, bargained with merchants, translated ancient texts, and memorized the history of her kingdom—but nothing she’d done had prepared her to be acknowledged as Súndraille’s true princess and to have the eyes of the nobility watching her every move.
If the corset was any indication, she was going to be a disaster.
An ache blossomed in her chest, spreading through her veins with every heartbeat. Tears pricked her eyes, and she blinked rapidly.
“There.” Cleo turned Ari to face her, and her dark eyes filled with sympathy. “Don’t cry. You’ll ruin the mysterious golden-girl look you’ve achieved with this gown.”
Ari gave her a wobbly smile. “I’m the least mysterious girl anyone has ever met.”
Cleo smiled. “The nobility doesn’t know that. To them, you’re the princess the king kept mostly hidden from them all these years. And now you’re going out there in this gorgeous gown with your big brown eyes and your Ari attitude, and they’ll be enthralled.”
“I miss my old life.” Ari’s voice trembled, and a tear spilled down her cheek as she whispered, “I miss Mama.”
Cleo wrapped her in a tight hug. “I do too. She’d be so proud to see you like this. Now get out there before Thad starts looking for you and—”
The pantry door flew open, and Mama Eleni stood glaring at them with Thad peering over her shoulder. “What are you two doing in here?” she asked.
Ari aimed a swift kick at the corset and sent it sliding beneath the shelves of preserved cherries beside her. “Last-minute wardrobe consultation.”
“You have flour on your hands,” Thad said.
“That happens when you make pastry dough.” Ari quickly dusted her palms together and blinked the last of her tears away. Thad needed someone to stand with him tonight, and she was all he had left. It didn’t matter that she kept forgetting to behave like a real princess. It only mattered that when he faced his new subjects she was at his side.
“Princesses don’t make pastry dough,” Thad said, his dark eyes on hers.
Ari snorted. “This one does.”
“Princesses also don’t snort.” Thad’s voice was strained, but he didn’t sound angry. He hadn’t sounded angry since the night they’d fled from the bounty hunter who’d killed their mother and awakened to the news that the entire royal family had taken sick and died, leaving Thad, in the absence of any other blood relation to the king, with an uncontested claim to the throne. Instead, Thad sounded tense. Worried. And grieved in way that even Ari, with her shared heartbreak over their mother’s death, couldn’t seem to touch.
“I did not approve of her helping,” Mama Eleni declared as Ari straightened her shoulders and walked out of the pantry with Cleo at her heels.
“You specifically told me not to use so much butter,” Ari said.
“Lies! The king was very clear that you are only to do the things a true princess would do, and I would never disobey him. Even when I am understaffed, and he has yet to fill my requests for more help.” Mama Eleni reached out with her rough hands to tug Ari’s hair out of its knot and smooth it behind her ears. “Look at our princess in a gown. Ready to dance! Maybe you’ll find a nice young man tonight and be swept off your feet. Now, no kissing behind the ballroom pillars, and no—”
“Stop, Mama,” Cleo said as Thad tugged on his collar as if it were choking him, and the princess’s cheeks heated. This wasn’t a fairy tale. She was in more danger of losing her footing while dancing than of being swept away by a handsome nobleman’s kisses.
Ari’s stomach fluttered as Thad took her arm and turned toward the hallway that led to the ballroom. Casting a desperate look at Cleo, she asked, “You’ll be there?”
“Of course. I’ll be the girl with the tray of fizzy wine.” Lowering her voice, she cast a quick glance at Mama Eleni, who’d turned away to supervise the assembling of the fruit platters, and then gave Ari a reassuring smile. “If you need me to accidentally dump wine on anyone, just give me the signal. You’ll be fine. This will be over before you know it.”
“No dumping wine on anyone.” Thad pulled Ari out of the kitchen. “No sending signals of any kind.”
“Cleo was kidding.” Ari pushed her nervousness and her longing for her mother into a corner of her heart and tried to pretend she felt up to the task ahead as she matched Thad’s pace down the white stone hallway that connected the kitchen to the ballroom. Arched windows lined the passage, and long, sheer curtains fluttered in the sea breeze that swept in through the open windows and chased the lingering heat of the summer’s day out of the palace. Bells rang from the palace’s tower, sonorous and deep, announcing the beginning of the coronation ceremony.
The same bells had announced the royal family’s funeral three weeks earlier, and black bunting still fluttered from the tower in honor of their deaths.
“I know Cleo better than that,” Thad said. “She may be the accomplice instead of the instigator when it comes to the two of you, but dumping beverages on unsuspecting people is a habit of hers. Remember what happened when we were twelve?”
Ari snorted. “You deserved it.”
“Maybe I did.” He slowed his pace as the door to the ballroom came into view, spilling a cacophony of voices and music into the hallway. “Ari, I’m serious about you acting like a proper princess tonight. It’s important.”
“Why? You’re the king. You’re the one everyone is here to see.”
Thad glanced at the doorway and spoke rapidly. “We can’t hold a kingdom without alliances, both from within and without. Tonight there will be a host of potential allies in that room. Members of Súndraille’s Assembly, royalty and nobility from seven of the ten kingdoms—”
“Yes.” He gave her an exasperated look.
Ari brightened. “I’ll be in charge of courting a relationship with the Eldrians. Draconi make excellent allies.” And if she was really lucky, maybe she could convince one of the Eldrians to step outside and shift into a dragon for her. She’d always wanted to see a dragon in real life. Maybe the dragon would even give her a ride. Thank the stars she’d had Cleo cut her out of that corset. The night was starting to look interesting.
“I’m being serious, Ari.”
“So am I.”
He looked at the ceiling and drew a deep breath. “You have to be a proper princess. No snorting in scorn.”
“Even if someone richly deserves it. Understood.”
“You dance with everyone who asks.”
“Wait…everyone? Even if they’re old?”
“Yes. And you make polite conversation. No wayward opinions about how boring you think small talk is.”
“It’s not just boring, it’s entirely useless.” Ari twitched her skirt to the side as the first trio of maids from the kitchen, carrying trays of food for the buffet table, hurried past.
Thad lowered his voice. “It’s not useless. Think of it as an interview to see if you both understand how to be diplomatic.”
Ari sighed. “So to be clear, I’m not supposed to show my true opinion—”
“If your true opinion is something other than polite, diplomatic interest.”
“I can’t express myself with inarticulate noises—”
“Not under any circumstance.”
“I have to dance with everyone who asks, even if my feet hurt or I want to go eat some snacks in peace—”
“And that’s another thing. Don’t get caught stealing snacks.” He gave her a stern look.
Stars, not this again. “It was only the one time. Besides, technically you can’t steal something that is offered to you for free.”
“It was still difficult to explain to Lady Barlis why the newly acknowledged princess of Súndraille would stuff one of every appetizer in her handbag and try to smuggle them out of the ballroom.” Thad held her gaze. “Just be a proper princess tonight. Please. We need allies, and these people need to believe wholeheartedly that you are next in line for the throne in case…”
“In case you die? You’re seventeen, in perfect health, and nearly always surrounded by guards. Why are you talking like this?” Her voice was sharper than she’d intended, but his words had ignited a spark of fear she didn’t know how to extinguish. The loss of her mother was a dark pit of grief inside her. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing her brother too.
He cast a quick glance at the open doorway fifty paces to their left and leaned closer to her. “There are only two of us left, and it’s my job to make sure Súndraille stays safely in the hands of a competent leader. Someone the people will follow. When—if I’m not here to rule, then you have to be ready to take my place. That means you need powerful allies. And you don’t get powerful allies unless people view you as a real princess. A true heir to the throne.”
There was an edge of desperation in his voice, and she studied him for a moment. He’d lost weight in the three weeks since the rest of their family had died. She’d baked obsessively—it was the only thing that kept her grounded in the chaotic upheaval of her new life—but even Thad’s favorite dessert hadn’t tempted his appetite. His formal coat hung a little loose across his shoulders, and his high cheekbones were sharp slashes in a face that otherwise looked remarkably like her own—golden-brown skin, full lips, and the wide dark eyes they’d both inherited from their father.
Whatever burden of grief Ari was bearing, his was twice as heavy. The weight of the kingdom had fallen across his shoulders, and if he needed her to pretend she was comfortable acting like nobility, she could do it. They only had each other now.
Before that thought could worm its way into her heart and send another piercing ache through her veins, she forced herself to give him a little smile. “Fine. No scorning dumb ideas, no turning down dances with potential allies, no complaining about small talk, and no sneaking a Draconi into the garden for a little midnight dragon ride. You really know how to take the fun out of things.”
Thad laughed—a quick burst of merriment that seemed to surprise him as much as it did her. Tucking her arm in his, he said quietly, “Thank you. You and me against the world, right?”
She pressed her free hand against her fluttering stomach and took a deep breath. “Always.”