Aurrora St. James

Romance is just the beginning...

 
Received Honorable Mention for the 2015 Rone Awards!

A magical kingdom suffering under a vicious ruler desperately needs the king who vanished seven years ago.

 

A kingdom in need of its king...

For years, the people of Aquina have been crushed under the hand of King Lorcan. Gone are the times of peace and prosperity they appreciated under deposed king Varic Khalon, who vanished the night Lorcan took power. Most believe him dead. Only one man knows the truth.


A man in need of redemption...

Stripped of his magic and imprisoned, Varic never thought to see his kingdom again. But a twist of dark fate secures his freedom and he returns to the city he loves. Now calling himself Gavril, he finds himself with no home, no magic, no subjects, and no hope of reclaiming the throne, forced to survive any way he can. Until a chance encounter brings him face to face with the one person who may tip the scales in his favor.


A woman who  will unite the two...

Shyla de Aven has a single magical gift. She can sense magic in others. Not a very useful talent in a city where everyone has magical abilities. When a wounded stranger literally stumbles into her, he presents her with a mystery she feels compelled to solve. He claims to have no magic, yet she senses it locked far away. Determined to find the answer, Shyla helps Gavril. Only to discover they are far more connected than she realizes. And if the people of Aquina want their king returned, she will have to discover the key to unlocking his true power, all without losing her heart in the process.



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Gavril of Aquina
 
 

Chapter One

 

The Kingdom of Aquina, 1278

 

Heavy boots and painful death pounded the ground, growing closer. Varic Gavril Khalon ducked under a tattered yellow-and-red striped awning, leapt over a table piled with fruit, scattering oranges to the ground, and ran. The sweet scent of citrus filled the humid air, making his stomach growl, but he couldn’t stop. He darted through a side alley, out into the next row of stalls, then back again to the original row, leading the palace guards on a winding chase. If they caught him, they would take him to the dungeons where the secret he’d guarded for seven years would be discovered. Lorcan would finish what he’d started and the last of the Khalon line, the greatest ruling family of Aquina, would die out. As well as any flicker of hope he kept of helping his people.


Onlookers parted as he ran. Some stumbled out of the way, dropping their goods in his path. He dodged the debris, ducked low behind a large family having an animated discussion in the street, and darted into an unattended culinary stall. Pots of all sizes teetered in high stacks on the market table, blocking the soldiers’ view of his hiding spot.


He knelt in the dirt and held his breath, desperately trying to get his breathing under control. The proprietor of the stall didn’t seem to be about, giving him a moment of relief. As he waited, he caught his reflection in the silver polish of a pot. Sweat dripped down his brow, trailing through the dirt caking his skin. He looked down at his filthy, ripped tunic and breeches, despising what he’d become. But not willing to die for it. Varic, the king he’d been, was dead. Only Gavril, a broken man who worked on the streets to feed himself, remained.


Four burly men in dark green tunics bearing the garish gold seal of Lorcan, king of Aquina, thundered by his hiding place. At their head was Qadir, captain of the palace guard. The group paused just steps away. Qadir looked to his left and right, searching the crowd, then ran into the busiest part of the market. His men followed, dodging rolling oranges as they ran.


Gavril drew a shaky, pain-filled breath and held a hand to his ribs. After the space of a few heartbeats, he stood and moved quickly in the opposite direction. A shout rose behind him and he cast a glance over his shoulder to see the Guard back on his trail. He ran as fast as he could, fear of being caught driving him hard. He wasn’t the thief Qadir thought, but with the Captain, innocence didn’t seem to matter. If captured, Gavril would be taken to the dungeons. His secret would be discovered, and then Lorcan would finish the job he’d started seven years prior.


He turned a corner and tumbled into an old man carrying a load of fabric, falling to his knees. Pastel silks in pinks, blues, and greens fluttered around him. He shrugged them off and gained his feet. The seconds lost were sure to close the distance with the soldiers. Gavril could practically feel Qadir breathing down his neck.


Shouts of “He’s there!” and “This way!” rang out behind him.


Gavril turned another corner and ducked past a curtain into the dark interior of a shop. A feminine gasp sounded as he collided with a woman. They went down in a tangle of limbs. He rolled and landed with her sprawled across his chest as his head cracked against the floor.

Gavril gasped in a fragrant breath of peaches and cinnamon and blinked away the spinning room. Shards of pain radiated from the back of his skull to behind his eyes and down to his ribs. He groaned.


The woman’s breath came quick, blowing warm across his skin like a caress. She pushed herself up and helped him to his feet. Her hands were soft on his arm. For a moment, the unexpected warmth of her skin on his flesh startled him and a shiver of delight ran through his body at her silken touch. It had been entirely too long since a woman touched him.


Outside, the shouts of the guards grew louder and then passed right by the door he’d come through. The woman looked their direction, then back at him.


“Are they looking for you?” she asked.


Gavril nodded. Stars swam in his vision with the slight movement. He touched the back of his head, fingers skimming over a tender bump already forming. A deep, steady throb began behind his eyes and in his temples.


She stepped closer, brushing his hand aside. Her fingers gently stroked over the lump, then trailed down his chest to trace his bloodied ribs. “You’re injured.”


He didn’t move. Just stared at the woman and tried to gather his scattered wits.


She was lovely, with midnight hair falling over her shoulders in waves and the plumpest pink lips he’d ever seen. Her skin was fair, unusual for their warm climate, and looked so soft he ached to touch it. A simple blue dress clung to her amazing curves from shoulders to hips and then flared to her feet.


Something passed in her crystal-clear green eyes as she looked him up and down. Those lips pressed into a brief line. He cringed at the image he must make. Dirty, beat up, and shaggy. Not the kind of man who would draw the eye of a woman like her unless it was filled with scorn.


“Come with me.”


She took his arm and pulled him into the back room of the shop and to a small closet. “Stay here and do not speak until I come for you.”

Gavril opened his mouth to respond when she pulled a curtain across the closet doorway and blocked him in darkness. He listened to her footfalls as she left the room. Why had she hidden him? Why not point him to the door? Or hold him for the guards? Perhaps that was what she meant to do all along. Maybe she would lead the guards to him. Could he trust her not to?


Suddenly weary, Gavril sank to his knees. He didn’t know this woman. But in that last moment, he thought he’d seen compassion in her eyes. He sent up a silent prayer to the goddesses that he was not misguided and waited for Fate.


* * *


Shyla brushed the dirt and dust from her dress and hurried through her atelier. Sketches of clothing designs covered three of the walls. Rolls of cotton and wool, leather and muslin lay in folded stacks on every table. One day, she promised herself as she hurried to the front of the store. Soon she would have enough saved to expand her shop and sell her own designs.


She gathered up the scarves she’d dropped when her unexpected visitor plowed into her and moved to the counter to finish displaying the finely crafted silks. He was filthy, smelled awful, and his clothes were torn and grimy. But through that single touch, she felt his anxiety, his honor, and the distant sparkle of his magic. It confused her. She’d always felt magic in others, though that talent was considered small and useless by everyone, including herself. How much use could it be when all of the people of Aquina had at least a little magic?


Somehow, this man was different. His magic wasn’t small or limited like most Aquinians’. More like far away, though that didn’t make sense. She’d never felt its like.


The mystery of his magic, coupled with the panic in his blue eyes and the shouts of the guards, made her heart swell with sympathy for him. She’d seen what became of the poor at the hands of the men who were supposed to protect the people. Sometimes they were hunted or even bullied for nothing more than being unable to feed themselves.


Such was the state of the kingdom. Ever since King Varic died without an heir and his throne went to the highest member of the council, the people of Aquina had suffered. Year by year the people became thinner, the streets dirtier and more dangerous.


Shyla fingered a magenta silk scarf, her thoughts turning back to the man. He was striking, though she couldn’t specifically say why. His dark blond hair and wild beard were far overdue for a cut, and he bled freely from a scratch on his cheek and another that soaked through his shirt. He looked like he’d been on the streets for some time. It was a bit like looking at the future of all the people of Aquina if King Lorcan continued on his current path.


She wrapped the last scarf around the display pole as the bronze bells on the curtain across the front door rang and a small contingent of palace guards stepped into the darkened interior of her shop. She turned in surprise.


“Where is he? We know he came through here,” the man in the back said. He stood half a head taller than the rest of the men, with shoulder-length hair the deep brown of coffee and the forest green tunic of the palace guard. His eyes were dark as molten chocolate and a scar bisected his left eyebrow, making him look fierce.


Shyla opened her mouth to deny the presence of the man she’d helped, but he cut her words off.


“Do not think to lie, lest you find yourself in a similar position.”


She worked not to react to his threat, though his words made her angry. According to Dianthe, the guards were never so bold when King Varic still reigned. She lifted her hand, purposefully making it shake, and pointed to the door across the room leading out to the other street. “He... he went...”


The guard nodded to his men, wordlessly telling them to follow. To her dismay, he stayed behind and turned that savage gaze on her.

He smiled, eyes alight with interest. “You are very beautiful. What is your name?”


Shyla’s heart began to pound. She licked her lips and wondered how she could get him out of the shop without drawing further interest in herself. “Shyla de Aven,” she said.


“Qadir, captain of the palace guard. It is my duty to keep our people safe.” His gaze flicked over her form and lingered on her breasts. “One I take very seriously. I have not seen you before. Are you new to our kingdom?”


Shyla’s stomach churned at the way he looked at her. She brushed a lock of hair over her shoulder and thought best how to answer. Certainly not the truth. “I came with the trades and decided to stay. I find the kingdom beautiful.”


Qadir smiled and leaned against the counter, crowding her. “Not nearly so lovely as—”


“Captain, we’ve lost him,” a guard panted from the doorway.


He growled a curse, then gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry. I’ve spent too much time with my men. Perhaps another time, Shyla.” He dipped his head in a brief bow and disappeared out the door after his man.


Shyla put a hand over her pounding heart and drew a shaky breath. A shadow drew her attention back to the door Qadir had gone through and she caught a flash of green at the edge of the curtain. Had he turned back to watch her reaction after he’d left?


She waited another full minute to make sure they didn’t return before going to retrieve the fugitive she’d stashed in her back room. All had been quiet since she’d tucked him into the closet. There was no other way out of her small shop, so she knew he remained. Had he hit his head too hard when they collided? Was he unconscious on the floor? She parted the curtain to the closet to find him sitting on the ground, knees drawn up, head resting on his arms. His shaggy blond hair fell around his arms like a shield to block her view.


“They’re gone. You can come out now,” she said, relieved that he looked well.


His head snapped up and he stared at her.


When he didn’t move, she held her hand out to help him up.


He looked at her hand, then her face, and pushed himself to his feet.


She wrinkled her nose as he brushed by her. The man needed a bath. She eyed his attire. He also needed clean clothes, new shoes and undoubtedly a meal. She sighed. She couldn’t help the entire kingdom. Not when so many of them suffered under Lorcan. Still, she did what she could with discounts to the occasional citizen who didn’t earn much coin or a donated warm meal where needed.


Perhaps she could at least offer to clean the wound on his cheek and provide fresh clothes. She followed him out into the store area. “What is your name?” When he didn’t answer, she asked, “Why were they following you?”


His silence frustrated her. She planted her hands on her hips and blocked his exit. “I kept them from finding you. Can you not answer me?”


He scratched his whiskered jaw and closed his eyes. “Gavril.”


She paused at the first sound of his husky voice. It sounded familiar, though she couldn’t place it. Perhaps she’d heard him in the market somewhere. “Gavril. My name is Shyla. Why were they following you?”


He looked away and fidgeted a bit. Was he nervous?


“Gavril?”


His eyes flashed fierce when he finally faced her again. “I did not steal.”


“You didn’t steal?”


He shook his head.


“But they think you did? That is why the guards were after you?”


He nodded once.


Talkative he was not. “What did they think you stole?”


Just when she thought he wouldn’t answer, his stomach responded for him with a loud growl. His tan cheeks flushed under the dirt.

Shyla’s heart ached for him. Whatever his gift was, it wasn’t strong enough to help him feed himself. “Why is your magic suppressed?”


He frowned at her. Then he shook his head and skirted around her toward the exit. “I have no magic.”


Shyla blinked at him, confused. She ran to catch up with his longer strides and grasped his arm. “But I felt...”


He rounded on her so quickly she almost collided with him a second time. “You are mistaken,” he growled.


She shivered as his gruff voice rolled over her. Her heart suddenly pounded in her breast as she took in his clenched fists. Perhaps she’d misunderstood what her magic whispered about him. That he was different in some way. Now uncertain, she took a step back. Aquina was a dangerous kingdom and she faced a stranger alone. Suddenly it didn’t seem wise to have sent the guards away.


“Do you intend me harm, Gavril?”


The aqua blue of his eyes narrowed further. He looked affronted by her question, which didn’t bode well since she sensed she’d angered him by asking about his magic.


“No,” he bit out.


His gruff answer confirmed the honor she felt when she touched him. Still, she reached out once more to be certain. Her fingers trailed lightly over his elbow before he stepped away from her. Shame and uncertainty radiated from him with an underlying course of magic. Her inner knowing whispered of honor, not malice. She chewed her lower lip, knowing she should send him on his way. Under normal circumstances she would never consider what she was about to do. But in her heart, she knew this man wouldn’t harm her, especially as he professed to have no power. Gavril was special. Her magic said so.


Straightening her shoulders, she decided his wellbeing was worth the risk to her safety. Besides, though she rarely used her power, she trusted it. This man needed help. “Good. It is time to close the shop, and I need to stop by the butcher and produce vendor on my way home. Would you like to join me? I cook a good meal.” She turned to a shelf of men’s clothing and removed a couple of tunics and breeches, drawers and a pair of boots. She added a hat to cover his blond hair.


He licked his lips. “No. Thank you.”


Shyla frowned. The man was starving enough to be accused of stealing, but turned down food. “I don’t intend you harm either, Gavril.”

His lips twitched but he shook his head.


Stubborn man. “It would be better for you to remain hidden until the guards are drawn away to another assignment. They will continue to look for you tonight. I offer a warm meal and a bath. You are in need of both and I won’t allow you to refuse.” She could also puzzle out the mystery his magic presented in the process, and why a man like him would deny having any.


He huffed as if put upon.


Shyla scowled at him. Really, she’d never met a man so disinclined toward small comforts.


Before she could argue further, he grumbled, “I accept.”