I cannot believe we’re only one week away from the release of Mother of Darkness (and only two weeks out from Daughter of Nightmares!). These last few weeks have been crazy, but I could not be more excited to introduce you guys to Astryae and the Renegade Guardians series.
The prequel novella is on sale on Amazon for only $0.99 until May 3. Curious?
Here’s a peek inside!
A Fated Encounter
I kept my body close to the brick walls of the buildings as I stalked through the empty streets. A crescent moon peeked through the line of trees to my right, the sky alight with stars. A soft cerise glow over the city bathed the streets. Ice crunched beneath my boots with each step. A fresh layer of snow dusted the ground, the world around me so silent I feared the sound of my breathing might wake the dead.
I had one chance to pull this off. If the guards caught me, I’d rot away in a cell or lose my hands to the Sword of Retribution. And if the wrong Fey found me I’d end up dinner.
The capacious walled town of Starbright slept around me. The snow-covered mountains painted a picturesque background for the clusters of darkened buildings and homes. No gas lamps lit the streets. The natural light illuminating the cozy town rendered the devices futile. Four domed golden towers occupied each corner of the town, all surrounded by massive gates and walls. It always amused me that in Starbright the most expensive and grand buildings were restricted to the smallest populations.
What secrets did the Chosen Clans hide within their walls? And how much could I sell them for if I acquired them?
My stomach growled and twisted with discomfort. I rested a hand on my sunken belly and whispered, “Soon.” Thin vapor trailed from my lips like smoke. I rubbed my hands together and licked my chapped lips. It didn’t matter how long the job took. I refused to fall asleep in the elements with an empty stomach as I had the last three nights.
My mind vibrated with thoughts I had no power to slow or control. A tiny voice in the rear of my mind pleaded for me to turn around and return to the warehouse before anyone noticed me. What if someone spotted me and alerted the guards? If things went south, no one would care enough to bail me out. Honor and loyalty were hardly prized traits amongst thieves.
I stuck to the shadows, the embrace of darkness my best chance at avoiding detection. Not that anyone would recognize me if we crossed paths. The loose and soiled linen shirt disguised the feminine parts of my physique. I’d pinned my hair to my head and tucked it beneath a tall black hat. A more sensible or hardened criminal would have chopped their locks off long ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut away the last reminder of my charmed childhood.
Anxiety gripped my throat as I neared the city’s center. Empty brick and brownstone buildings surrounded me on either front, their interiors as dark as my thoughts. A glass display on the front of a shop window caught my attention. A headless wax mannequin stood on the other side of the glass draped in an elegant gown worth more than I’d stolen in two years. The sequins of the top shimmered beneath the moonlight. The floor-length skirt appeared wide enough to house two women, the entire ensemble more costume than formal wear. My nose wrinkled as I pictured father forcing me into the dress to court suitors.
I cracked my neck and pulled myself away from the glass. There’d be other times to criticize how the wealthy threw away their money after I’d finished the job. Unless I found a way to loot it, a fancy dress wouldn’t put food in the bellies of the boys back at the warehouse.
Footsteps crunched against the snow behind me. The hairs on the rear of my neck stood. I held my breath and increased my pace. My heart pounded as I strode out of the shadows and broke into a sprint. I’d been in Starbright long enough to know what happened to easy targets.
“Damien. Damien, stop.”
It took a moment to realize the gruff voice meant me. I paused and shoved my hands in the pockets of my trousers.
I tried to hide the bitter edge to my voice. “Did the lads send you to help?”
Ragan appeared beside me, his chubby face red and slick with sweat. A frayed rope secured his trousers to his waist. Snow seeped through the sides of the small holes in his well-worn boots. “Couldn’t let you have all the fun, right?”
No matter how many times I assured the others I worked best alone, it wasn’t in their nature to complete hits without backup. They refused to send me, or anyone, into a job without at least two sets of hands.
“Go back to the warehouse. I can handle this one on my own.”
“Right, I’m sure,” Ragan said, his voice breathy. I’d never asked Ragan where he grew up, but the twang lacing his speech made me suspect Mulgrave or one of the smaller villages near the coast. “But Cowen said if he catches you on another solo job, he’ll toss you out.”
I scoffed but didn’t argue. The more protest I gave, the more Ragan would whine to the others when we returned. An owl hooted somewhere above us as we tramped towards the target. I glared up at the naked branches and bit back the impulse to hurl a rock towards the sound. Ragan’s stubby legs slowed my pace, but I directed my annoyance elsewhere. “Cowen won’t get rid of me. He needs me.”
“He needs to keep a low profile and avoid the guards more,” Ragan protested. “And we can’t afford for your antics to bring us all down—”
I held up a hand. “Who in the gang scores the most loot?”
Ragan pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s not the point—”
“It’s entirely the point. There’s a reason I’ve yet to be caught. I know what I’m doing. And if the rest of you lazy twats want to continue to eat, you won’t stand in my way.”
Ragan shook his head as we walked in silence, his lips pressed together in a thin line. I could almost hear the wheels in his head turning as he considered abandoning me. As hungry as Ragan might have been, it was no secret he hated taking orders from a younger man.
Not that he’d listen any better if he discovered the truth. The boys would ignore my seniority and years of experience the moment they learned I’d been born female. Every word from my lips would be dismissed as the typical hysterics of a woman, unintelligible nonsense to be humored but not trusted. As little as they respected a smaller boy without facial hair, none would tolerate a girl in their ranks.
My heart fluttered when the target came into view. So close. If I pulled this off, we would be okay for at least a few weeks. “Damn, do you see the size of this house?”
The property appeared as old as Astryae itself. A rusted iron fence circled around the towering stone and timber structure. An old marble fountain covered in cobwebs and foliage sat empty in the center of the property. Stained glass covered the windows, the stone of the building weathered and aged.
Ragan whistled under his breath. “This is the place? Not what I expected.”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I smirked.
“Who lives here?”
“Someone with money to burn. The exterior is in shit shape, but everything I spotted inside sparkles like the King’s riches.”
Ragan eyed the building with suspicion. “Why is there no clan flag?”
“Who cares? It must belong to someone not under their protection. Help me pop a window open before the guards come by on patrol.”
“Are you sure no one’s in there?”
“I told you, it’s empty.” My chest puffed. As one of the greener boys in our ragtag group of misfits, the truth would have made Ragan soil himself. The last thing I wanted to admit was how little I knew of the manor or its inhabitants. “The front door hasn’t opened in days. The owners must be out of town for the festivities in Wyvenmere.”
I had no evidence to back up my claims, but it seemed a logical enough conclusion. Half of the wealthy households in Starbright sat empty when the holidays came around. The King’s Court held the most elaborate parades and parties in Astryae. By carriage, Wyvenmere was a few day’s ride away. If my assumptions were correct, Ragan and I had plenty of time to clean out the house.
Ragan’s eyes flickered between the manor and the street. “What if they aren’t?”
Out of answers, I pushed the gate open with a loud creak. Ragan’s jaw dropped as I strolled onto the property, my hands in my pockets.
“Do these wealthy bastards often leave town without locking up?” he asked.
“It’s not unheard of,” I shrugged. “The Fey community around Starbright offer no leniency to criminals. Most men aren’t bold enough to break into a man’s home and rob it.”
“And you don’t think that’s something we should consider more?” Ragan followed me up to the concrete steps.
Cold sweat soaked my shirt to my back.
In. Out. Done. As we circled around to the back of the manor, I comforted myself by taking a mental inventory of everything we had to do once inside. I refused to allow myself to dwell on the pressure of how badly we needed the score. Or the potential humiliation of my greatest failure. The more I normalized the job, the easier it would be to complete.
Pop the window. Climb in next to the back door. Let Ragan in. Upper floor. Sweep the bedrooms first. Check under the beds and wardrobes for hidden stashes. Clean out jewelry boxes. Bathrooms last. Then, downstairs to snatch any silver from the dining room. Grab everything small enough to fit in our pockets. Half an hour at most. Replace the screen. No one will suspect a thing.
Ragan’s eyebrows rose to his forehead as he glared up into the darkened windows. “The guards might walk by any second. What if the Master of the manor left his servants behind?”
“Shut up and help me.”
Ragan and I pushed up against the glass with our shoulders. Even with our full combined weight, the window didn’t budge. A growl of frustration escaped my lips. We tried three other windows, but all of them remained frozen shut.
A throaty bark cut through the night somewhere behind us. Damn it. The guards were close. The longer we stood around outside, the more we risked being seen. I reached down and dug through the snow until my fingers clenched around a rock the size of my palm.
“What are you doing?” Ragan hissed through his teeth when he caught sight of the stone. “Damien, this is madness! Let’s get out of here.”
“Move fast.” A brisk breeze nipped at my face. I said a silent prayer he wouldn’t press the issue, then added, “We can’t stand around out here and wait to get caught.”
“But what if someone hears?”
“We’ll have time. Let’s use it well.”
Ragan didn’t appear convinced, but I didn’t care. I didn’t have time to placate his feelings or hold his hand and walk him through the job.
I hurled the rock at the glass with as much force as I could muster. Ragan cringed as the window cracked like a spider web around the center of impact.
“Shit, Damien!” he cried as he gestured towards the glass. “Everyone in town heard you, and the window’s not open.”
“Give me your sweater.”
“What?” Ragan’s face paled as he blinked. “But it’s freezing—”
“You’ll get it back when I’m finished. Give me the damn shirt.” I held out an impatient hand.
Ragan hesitated but reached for the bottom of his frayed sweater. He grumbled something about using my own tools to complete my psychotic schemes as he tugged the fabric over his head, his voice muffled. He slapped the sweater into my hands, his eyes narrow as he clenched his jaw to hide the chattering of his teeth.
I wrapped the cloth around my hand until a thick layer of fabric stood between my bare knuckles and the window. Ragan hissed at me to stop right as my fist slammed against the glass. Pain shot through my wrist up my arm as drops of blood dripped onto the ivory blanket beneath my feet. I clenched my teeth and punched the window once, twice, three times, until the glass finally shattered and broke away beneath my fist.
“You’re gonna get us both killed.” Ragan’s lips twisted into a scowl.
“Save the doom-and-gloom for when the job is over, and our bellies are full.”
I knocked away the bigger pieces of glass and tossed Ragan his sweater. I ducked my head and climbed through the window, careful to avoid the razor-sharp shards left around the edges of the frame. The moment both of my feet touched the ground inside of the house, a dark chuckle filled the room.
“Well, aren’t you a bold girl?” a husky voice asked.
My body tensed as my head whipped around in search of the speaker. The surrounding kitchen appeared unoccupied. The work table sat vacant, no company aside from my shadow in the kitchen. Where was the bastard hiding? And how had he guessed my greatest secret without revealing his face?
“To break into a man‘s home is one thing. But to do so while he’s present? I can’t decide if you’re mad or stupid.”
I glanced towards the window behind me, but the ground outside was empty. Ragan had already disappeared into the nighttime; Code of Valor be damned. The guys would learn all about my misfortune before I made it back. If I made it back.
“What have you come for, girl?”
I sucked in a breath and jutted my chin. “Stop calling me girl.”
“Then give me a name, girl.” He hissed the last word to spite me. A hint of a smile lingered in his tone.
It seemed unwise to press my luck too far. I licked my lips and mumbled, “Damien.”
“Is that what you call yourself to blend in better on the streets? How clever.”
I pushed my back against the wall as a shadowy figure appeared in the kitchen’s doorway. The bulk of his frame blocked most of the doorway, his face obscured in the house’s darkness. My lungs constricted as a cold sweat coated my hands.
“Who are you?”
“I assumed you would have known before breaking into my home. Besides, I believe the better question remains: who are you?”
“I’ve told you already.” I tried to drop my voice the way I did around my comrades, but fear kept my pitch high and feminine. “My name is Damien.”
“I don’t like to be lied to.” The man’s voice deepened as he stepped closer. “What is your given name?”
How did he know? None of the boys back at the warehouse had ever noticed anything amiss. No one in society had made the connection between the riffraff boy in front of them and the missing heiress of the Trevil estate in Faircrow. How did this stranger see through my disguise without effort?
Before I had time to respond, the man’s lips curled into a sinister smirk. “Very well. We’ll stick with your chosen name if it makes you more comfortable. What are you doing in my house, Damien?” The man asked, condemnation dripping from his voice as he said my alias.
I froze as I struggled to formulate a response. My hands were cold and clammy. Knots twisted my stomach. What excuse could I offer for smashing his window open with my bare hands? And how would he respond if I told him the truth?
I took my chances. “Hunting for food. I’ve kept an eye on the house for a few days, and no one came or went. I assumed the owners must have left town for the holiday festivals.”
The stranger cocked his head. “Intriguing. Had you shown your research more diligence, matters might have worked out.”
“Are you going to call the guards?”
“No. Aside from the broken window, you’ve done no real harm. I see no reason to summon the King’s men.”
“What will you do?” I asked, unwilling to consider I might escape without punishment. “What do you want?”
“All questions you should have asked before breaking into my manor.” He gave a small tsk. “Go home. I’ll locate you when the occasion comes to settle your debt.”
“Go, before I change my mind.”
A million questions swirled through my skull, but nothing good would come from tempting fate. I whirled on my heels and sprinted towards the door I’d planned to open for Ragan. My hands trembled as I tore the door free and flew into the coverage of nighttime.