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About the author:
RJ Price lives in Canada where she works and writes full time. When not doing either of those things she attempts to navigate social media and resists the urge to return to writing. She has published novels in the fantasy genre and insists she is also a science fiction author, but has been too caught up in her Seat of Magic series to actually complete a science fiction novel for publishing.
Here is a short sample from the book:
She sat in the tall-backed chair and tried to look clueless as the steward of the court peered at the reports before him. His reading glasses were perched on the end of his nose, threatening to fall as his head moved just slightly. The man was not cruel, though his bluntness appeared to be a callous indifference to the suffering of others. Some at court used words like ‘snide’ and ‘cold’ when describing the steward, but one simply had to pay closer attention to see the man.
He was concerned for the welfare of those put under his charge, the young women sent for finishing at court before they returned home to be mated. He showed special concern for those who got themselves into predicaments not of their own making. While her predicament was not her fault the steward would have a very difficult time believing such a tale, if she had been honest about her education upon arrival.
Her father had said coin would come to buy her way, pay for fashion, and allow her to court the other ladies in order to create alliances. Not for herself or her future mate, but for her father. He had said letters of credit would also come, in order to give the appearance that their piece of land was worth what others thought, to draw in a possible mate of her choosing. Barring that, upon her eighteenth birthday she would return to her father’s household and be mated off to one of the younger sons of his allies in order to strengthen ties.
The reason she had this option was because she could make herself appear utterly uneducated and her father was fooled. He believed there was absolutely nothing remarkable about his eldest child, as did everyone at court. If anyone knew the truth of her abilities, her options would be very limited. Her life would be decided by the strongest, fastest, or best trained, man present at the time, and would have nothing to do with what she actually wanted from life.
“To put this another way, Lady Aren,” the steward said even though she had understood him the first time, “you have nothing to your name but the clothing on your back.”
Her father refused to answer letters, missives, or the actual messenger that had been sent. Aren was not the first young woman to be abandoned at court, and she certainly would not be the last, but those facts made it no easier as she finally allowed herself to tremble in front of the steward. Partly from fear of the unknown, partly from having not eaten in several days.
She was hungry and feeling far too warm. Her ailment added to the image of her being an innocent, harmless young woman. While it was her policy to avoid the men at court as much as possible, to remain as invisible as she could, this meeting with the steward was unavoidable.
“But, whatever shall I do?” she asked him, giving him the largest eyes she could.
Thankfully the steward’s own daughters were not yet of an age to pull such a trick on him. He could not tell the real thing from a well-played act.
“Until you turn eighteen you are a ward of the court, that gives you six months to see to either your finances or a mate,” the steward said.
“Men have never shown any interest in me.”
She kept herself clothed, neck to ankle to wrist, and made certain not to stand out of the crowd. The dress she wore was an older fashion, one she had made herself for just that purpose. She made it from one of her grandmother’s gowns, from a time when the fashion was large skirts and puffy sleeves, providing more than enough fabric for a more conservative look.
“I said a mate. I don’t know what laws your father enforces, but the court is perfectly happy with same couples.”
“Surely not those of rank,” Aren responded. This was view of many of the ladies she spoke with. It also allowed her to stop the interest of the steward by assuming a belief that had no place at court.
“Of all peoples at court,” the steward said, hastily tucking away the reports as Aren wondered if perhaps asking about ranks had given her away. “Lady Em believes love is love. As long as both are consenting adults, who has the right to say otherwise? Truth be told, Lady Aren, your father has not even sent the coin for you to make your way home. You will need to earn that ticket like any other. The servant quarters are always looking for new members—most especially, I am told, the kitchens. The kitchen master was just here complaining of the lack of good workers and strong backs. Have you either?”
Each time the word ‘rank’ came up in conversation Aren questioned whether others were looking too closely. The less interest the court took in her, the more likely she could live out her life how she chose, and not as dictated by another person.
Ranks had many names. Warrior, healer, trainer, queen, some ranks were only whispered about in the darkness. She couldn’t help being born differently than others. Commoners, those born without rank, believed the ranks should act certain ways and take on certain duties.
“I train as the master commands all ladies be trained,” Aren said. “My back is quite well and strong.”
“Lord Av is very insistent on that point,” the steward said, suddenly irritated. “Ensure he has no reason to come searching for you. Wards must obey his will. If you take up work with the servants to earn your way, report this to Lord Av, so he may know where you are and the possible reasons for your being late. Work is the only reason you may be late or absent from training. Working as a servant, but ward to the throne, your rooms would be held. You would not be charged room and board. You still have the title of lady, after all.”
Aren made a sound in response, but said nothing more as she stood. Either the steward detected her deception or something else had caused his mood to sour so quickly. Other ladies might cry when labour was suggested, but it was nothing new to Aren.
Her father’s lands were old, and had been growing in wealth, but when he inherited from his great-uncle the wealth had quickly disappeared. Aren’s mother had some experience with controlling a small village, having been the eldest daughter of a village lord, but that hadn’t helped.
A vineyard required a different set of skills than a coastal village, the people were made of a different sort. Her family had learned the cost of labour and Aren had taken her turn alongside her siblings and first cousins in the vineyard and warehouses of the estate while issues with the servants were sorted out.
Standing caused her to tremble, her head felt light, and darkness speckled her vision. Aren set a hand on the back of the chair to steady herself, waiting for the feeling to pass. She had awakened several days previous feeling unlike herself. Using that as an excuse she skipped training. Added to that, the fact that she was certain she would be thrown from court, and Aren hadn’t attended training since.
Illness, or was the master correct and missing training was bad for her health?
“If you’ll excuse me, I have some errands to run,” she said to the steward.
Leaving the steward’s study, Aren made her way to her rooms and grudgingly changed into training clothing. With no servant to speak of she had to lay out her own clothing and store her court dress in such a way that no harm would come to it. Once changed, Aren tidied the room, drawing the covers up on the bed, straightening out the papers on her writing desk, and pulling in the wood that was left outside the door for her hearth. Only when she was satisfied that her rooms were clean did she leave for the training grounds.
The palace had front and back grounds. The front was covered with lush gardens, while the back had been kept for training. Hardy grass that grew naturally in the area clung stubbornly to the corners of the yard and around the few houses and buildings there were. Dirt, packed by the feet of many, covered the rest of the area. Aren marched past the guards, training by the gatehouse, and to the master’s house.
A small log cabin, two rooms at most, sat in the corner of the palace yard, shaded on either side by the only trees growing behind the palace. The cabin was the only building on palace grounds to have a front and back yard, as it was angled at the corner, providing a triangle of privacy for the master. The front yard was the same as the rest of the palace grounds, packed dirt, and was occupied by six training partners and one lone lady standing to the side, looking more out of place than the others.
Lord Av, the current master, stood in his front yard barking orders at the ladies who sweat and grunted as they swung sticks clumsily. His light brown hair was dishevelled from training earlier in the morning with the palace guard. Lord Av’s grey eyes were flickering across the sparring partners.
Aren had never met one of Lord Av’s rank before attending court. She was surprised to find others bowed to him as they did the queen. It was the responsibility of the master to assure the safety of all those on palace grounds. Lord Av took it a step further and demanded that all on palace grounds be able to defend themselves. All were to be trained to fight in case the palace guard were otherwise occupied, or in the event a lady was cornered by a man who would not take ‘no’ for an answer.
The master had made certain there were sticks available throughout the palace, allowing servants and ladies, to draw on them in times of need. Lord Av had been very insistent that everyone receive proper training with the sticks, in order to protect themselves and others. Even though the palace had not been attacked in over a century, even though the throne would protect women and children, the gates could be closed and a siege would last months before supplies ran out.
The ladies training in the yard were the ones who protested when Av told them they would be training alongside their servants, and expected to work just as hard as those under them. Aren had simply been standing near the group and was dumped along with them into Lord Av’s yard, under his command.
Perhaps she had been dragged in to make an even number for the pairs. Aren would have been more than willing to take part in training because it was what ladies did when they attended court. She had even been willing to get up early with the group Lord Av originally assigned her to, in order to train. Anything to stay out of his sight. Instead, Aren ended up square before the master, the second most dangerous place for her to be.
The most dangerous place being the throne room, of course, where the court attended and the queen ruled.
“Lady,” Av snarled at Aren as she approached him, “so good of you to join us. Have you finally decided you are not better than the rest?”
Aren had been at court two months and Lord Av had yet to learn her name. He had, however, noticed she had missed several days. Aren kept her eyes on the ground, to hide the annoyance she felt. A man like him was exactly the type of man she wanted to avoid. If Lord Av noticed her, took note of her existence, he would stop at nothing to claim her and control her. In order to keep herself free, she had to avoid the master.
He was also the type of man whose eye the other ladies wanted to catch. The ladies of the court nattered constantly about Av’s charm, when he wasn’t training them, and good looks. They wanted Lord Av to pay attention to them, yet the more they tried, the less interested he became.
With her father abandoning her at court Aren had the ability to make her life what she wanted it to be. There was no need to return to her father’s lands; obviously he had no plans for her future, no mate arranged for her return home. Aren was free. She would not allow someone like Lord Av get in the way of her future, no matter how attractive the man.
The realization that freedom was within her grasp made Aren’s heart swell and gave her the courage to speak.
“I was feeling unwell,” she lied.
“You do look pale,” Lord Av said, his tone changing just slightly. “Pick up a stick and work with Lady Earlen there. She’s new. She won’t be able to drive you too hard.”
Aren gave him a wobbly bow and moved to select a stick.