Mikel had two rooms. The front room held a small bench; the other, where he was now, had a bed with a full mammoth skin on it. There was no furniture in the two cells next to him, and mammoth skin was rare and expensive, fit for a prince. It bothered him whenever he thought of it.
Trzl’s footsteps came around the corner, and then her face was there—sharp, vivid features accented by heavy eye paint and a new combination of braids that pulled the hair up and away. Severe, if ever she was.
“Avoiding my presence?” Her mouth twitched. The light at her back made her shadow against the wall rather foreboding.
Mikel shook his head, but he hadn’t a decent reply.
“I am not as frightful as all that, am I?”
“The last time I saw you, Colstadt was taken to another building for questioning. It’s been a month, and he hasn’t returned.” He looked up at her through hair that fell into his eyes. “Tell me, are you frightful?”
Trzl took three steps toward him. He leaned back until his head hit the wall above his bed, and she stopped moving. “I only kept him near you because you were worried about him. Once his wound was healed, it was indulgent to spoil you with his company. You should understand the pressure I am under.”
Mikel bit the inside of his mouth, his eyes down.
“No need to be sullen, Mikel. I didn’t hurt him.”
“I’ll believe that when I see him.”
Trzl tossed her head and sat down on his bed. “Your food is here. I’m sorry, but you can’t have a knife today.”
“Why should anything change today?” He smiled slightly, but she made no explanation. “Is it pheasant again?”
She slid her hand across the mammoth fur, and her fingers grazed his elbow. He winced. Trzl was the only person who’d touched him since they came here four months ago. As much as he pretended to hate her company, he looked forward to it as he would a strong cup of arabica. Only she never thought to bring him one.
He stood abruptly, slid out from under her arm.
Her gaze followed him until he had left the room, then she took a few steps and leaned against the doorway. “Do I make you nervous?”
Mikel shrugged, took the food from the guard without lingering, and walked back to the wall. He perched on the bench with one leg sprawled in front and the other half-bent beside him. “I do find myself wondering what you’re doing here.”
“I came to bring a new prisoner and thought I’d see how you were getting on.” Mikel set his plate of food down. “You should have brought ale if you wanted to reminisce.”
She walked to him, picked up his leg, and moved it out of her way so that she could sit next to him. “My apologies. I did forget the ale.”
There was a quirk to her mouth, as if she knew a secret that made her laugh. Whatever it was, she certainly should not share it. They were, after all, deep in the belly of the Fourth City—a modern atrocity on the ancient soil of Serengard. He’d been brought here with a mask over his eyes, guarded by twelve men, and kept under sporadic watch.
Trzl was the granddaughter of one of the most powerful men in the world, second only to the Emperor; Mikel was the son of the dead king she’d helped overthrow. They were supposed to be enemies.
“Did you give Colstadt pheasant today as well?”
Trzl let out her breath in a huff. “Must you speak of him? I’m tired of hearing his name.”
“Then free him. He presents no danger to you. Keep Pier if you must.”
“I cannot free political prisoners unless they give me something that warrants it, and nothing Colstadt has told me has meant enough to tempt the Emperor.”
Mikel knew she was playing him. Colstadt wouldn’t tell her anything at all.
“Oh, come now,” she said. “You cannot induce me to move him back here. I won’t have you consorting with my imprisoned Drei, Orion, not since I’ve begun questioning. The three of you might prop up each other’s lies.”
She leaned a shoulder against his, and he didn’t move away. Her eyes were dreamy, and while that was better than distant, he was never sure what to do with her in this state. She twirled a finger around a strand of hair and looked at him with a slight pout.
“You haven’t touched your bread,” she scolded him.
Mikel stared at the wall. “I’ll eat it later.”
“The mice may claim it if you leave it unguarded.”
He lifted the bread between two fingers. “If I return this to you, will you give a double ration to my knights?”
She let out a half-laugh. “Mikel, they are not your knights anymore. They are my prisoners, the same as you are. I give them favors, and someone may begin to think I am in love with one of them.” She laughed, but he didn’t think it was funny. “Mikel, you… You should eat the bread. I swear they are looked after.”
“I saw fresh bruises on Pier.”
“I never meant for you to pass him in the hall.” Her brow furrowed. “But I am sure the Drei can handle pain far better than you.”
“But I am the one who has been chained in cages before.”
“For true?” Her jaw went slack, and her eyes grew suspicious. “You must tell.”
After the Border Wars, Mikel Orion flees Serengard and seeks haven in the Desert of Aldad. Although he and his sister, Kierstaz, must become slaves in order to set foot inside its borders, the hot sands hold a bitter kind of peace—one he hopes to keep. But he risks destroying their newfound stability when he becomes entangled with an Aldadi girl. Aura has tragic secrets of her own, but she gives Mikel a purpose beyond his birthright, and when he leaves the Desert he carries scars that run deeper than skin.
Twelve years later, trouble brews in Serengard that threatens to pull in the Aldadi and the Drei alike. Trapped in a dungeon as the prize prisoner of Trzl—an orchestrator of the rebellion that killed his parents—Mikel is out of maneuvers. Even while Kierstaz gathers a force to attempt his rescue, Trzl transforms more and more into the hypnotic ruler she claims to loathe…and Mikel becomes convinced that peace has never been within his reach at all.
Rachel O’Laughlin grew up writing adventure stories on an archaic laptop that only ran one program, couldn’t connect to the Internet, and died every few days—which provided a nice excuse to use a typewriter in the middle of an epic murder scene. After high school, she pushed novels to the backburner for immersion in the arts, tours with her band, and a hands-on education in sustainable living. At last, she admitted to herself that she missed her first love and returned to fiction full time. She lives in New England with her husband and two kids, listens to The Fray, and drinks too many lattes. Rise of Orion is the third book in her epic fantasy series, Serengard.