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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Veiled by Desire, by Candace Robinson


Veiled by Desire, by Candace Robinson—out TOMORROW!!

In Laith, when the moons are high, Tavarra is allowed to walk the land as a human for one day, losing her seahorse-like tail. But should she remain out of the water, a curse will overtake her, turning her into a beast with sharp fangs and long claws. A beast that, on some nights, takes the shape of a rampaging, uncontrollable monster.

Rhona, along with her village, are under a sinister leader’s control. Their leader has taken Rhona from the boy she loves, stripped away her abilities and, under the threat of killing everyone she loves, forces her on a dangerous task to retrieve a dark prism that will increase his already massive powers. When Tavarra and Rhona cross paths, they discover they need each other. Rhona knows how to help the cursed sea creature, while Tavarra knows where to find the dark prism. They embark on a mission that could help them break Tavarra’s spell and save Rhona’s family and village. But with an untamable beast inside Tavarra, nothing is certain...

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CHAPTER ONE

TAVARRA

SEVEN YEARS AGO

As Tavarra tried to leave the gravitational pull of the

powerful ocean waves, each one crashed and pounded

against her strong body. She swished through the

murky sea, her tail flicking at the rough current as the liquid

attempted to haul her back into its clutches.

Tonight was a chance for her to escape the haunting depths

she so desperately dreamed of leaving behind. Tavarra pushed

her head out of the sea’s liquid claws, finally finding herself

near the sandy shore. She took a deep breath through her

mouth, no longer needing the gills etched on each side of her

neck.

Holding steady, she stared through the last rays of the

waning day, searching for him. But the young man wasn’t

anywhere in her line of sight yet. Keeping on top of the liquid

swells, her gaze fixed on the caramel-colored sand. As her arms repeatedly cut through the vigorous surge, a hint of desperation filled her—she couldn’t get swallowed back up. At last, her body struck the grainy granules, swept in blackness.

She sighed in relief.

With no time to spare, Tavarra dragged her exhausted

body by her forearms across the sand. Each tiny grain rubbed against the delicate skin between her fingers and nails. She

came to a halt and rolled herself to a sitting position, letting

the edge of a cool wave caress the end of her tangerine tail.

Bony plates fused together with a fleshy covering lined the

tail’s body, and the tip came to a curled point.

A heavy breath forced its way out and tugged harshly at her

lungs. “Goodbye,” she whispered, half to herself and half to the

ocean cage that, for seventeen years, had never been a true

home. “Please let this happen.” Tavarra’s heart pounded

rapidly, and had it beaten any harder, her sternum would have

cracked.

Bringing her sandy hands to her waist, she glided them

down her moistened tawny skin until they met the vivid

exoskeleton. The silver of the twin moons shone down in

answer, as if telling her it would work. It must work.

Tavarra had recently heard a tale of when the twin moons

would rise, there would be a way for her sea dweller kind to

truly walk the land of Laith. She desired it with everything in

her. If this worked, she would never return to the watery home

—her underwater grave.

Slowly, she slid her thumb beneath the soft plates of her

tail. To her surprise, the tail pushed away from her skin, as if it

were never a part of her at all. She thought there would be

pain, but there wasn’t, only a filmy residue left behind.

Tavarra’s lips pulled up on each side, and she let out a

rumbling, giddy laugh to the moons, to the ocean, and to

herself. Tugging the tail a little more, she shimmied out from

the exoskeleton and found smooth bare legs underneath—as

she had hoped. The story had been right. If only she knew

sooner that legs rested beneath the tail—then she could have

been doing this every time the moons were at their fullest. A

continuation of delighted laughter echoed from her as it

bounced off the waves and into the darkened forest.

She kicked these new-found creations, releasing the legs in

their entirety from the confined appendage. To her it felt

natural, more than surreal.

“Tavarra?”

The deep male voice caused her to whirl around and fall to

the sand, catching her upper body with her forearms.

Darkness surrounded them as the night grew to its peak,

but he would always be visible to her eyes—whether he was

carrying a lantern or not. Brice—one of the main reasons she

wanted to stay. Satiny, black curls fell against the pale skin of his

shoulders. His features became clearer as he approached—that soft, pouty mouth she had kissed time upon time, and the delicate nose which came to a sharp point. A blue tunic accented his broad shoulders, and with each shift of his body, the muscles flexed beneath it as he drew closer. She could never return now—not when he was there, real, breathing, waiting for her.

“Yes. It’s me, Brice.” Tavarra pulled her new legs to her

chest. As his boots scuffed through the sand, she didn’t tear

her gaze away from him. The ocean sounded with musical

whispers, its way of luring her back. Instead, she focused on

the crushing of his shuffling steps.

Brice knelt directly beside Tavarra, shining his lantern

toward her tail on the sand before he examined her new limbs.

His mouth agape, his green eyes opened even wider. “I don’t

understand,” he stuttered and stared at her face with both

longing and confusion written across his own.

Lifting her hand, she ran it across his cheek, and the rough

stubble scratched her palm. “I told you I had to show you

something.” Tavarra smiled. She had wanted to tell him earlier

that morning but decided that a surprise later would be better.

She had loved Brice since the day she first laid eyes on him.

There had been sea dweller females and males she’d been cozy with, but no one ever held her interest—until Brice. Each

morning, she had swum to the same shore to let her body lay

in the sand while the waves continuously beat against her tail.

One sunrise, when she thought she’d been alone—he had

stumbled upon her. For the past year, they had shared kisses,

secret touches, and endless dreams together. It wasn’t just all

kisses, though—he had told her stories, and she confided in

him all her fears and hopes.

Brice studied Tavarra’s stiff legs for a moment, then

returned his focus to her face. “Is this temporary?”

From the story a water sprite had told her, it was only meant for one day. But she would make it permanent, regard-

less of what the tale said. The story could be wrong. A fish

could never be with a bird, just as she could not live another

day with only meeting Brice for stolen moments.

They had wasted enough time. Tavarra pulled Brice’s fore-

head to hers and stared into those bright green eyes that gazed

at her, glinting with something forbidden and exciting. He ran

his hands through the wet tangerine hair that brushed her

hips, and she molded her lips to his.

Brice slid his palms up her naked body, enfolding a hand

around her breast. He tugged his tunic over his head and

pulled her into his lap. It was not the first time she felt his

sizzling touch on her naked skin, as they had pressed their

upper bodies together time and time again. But this... This was

infinitely better, and not just because she could feel the part of

him that wanted to be against the new piece of her.

She tore her mouth away from his, long enough to make

him as bare as she was. Without any pause, she let herself

press down on him, and a moan of pleasure escaped them

both. They had waited and waited, and there could be discus-

sions tomorrow, but tonight she wanted him in the ways she

never could have had him before.

In the morning, Tavarra awoke to an empty blue tunic and

her tail, both lying beside her. Brice had whispered he

would return that evening, but she hadn’t understood why she

couldn’t come with him. She slipped on the tunic to cover

herself and waited for his return.

The day bled into night as the dark pink sky faded to

blackened whispers. Tavarra was hungry, tired, and desperate

to find Brice.

He still did not come.

“Sister?” a familiar female voice called from behind her.

Nezarra.

What is she doing here?

“Go home!” Tavarra snapped. She loved her sister more

than anything. Perhaps not anything, since, to her, staying

ashore was more important.

“No.” Her sister appeared determined, a hard frown on her

face.

Tavarra’s jaw fell open when she fastened her gaze on her

sister, walking to her and carrying a tail. Nezarra’s emerald hair

fell to her waist, and her skin practically radiated. Above them,

the night sky had flecks of blue-diamond sheen highlighted by

the moons. Her sister was moving on two legs, same as Tavarra

now could.

Nezarra wore a pair of brown trousers and a white tunic,

her feet just as bare as Tavarra’s. Her sister must have been

keeping secrets back in the hidden depths of the sea.

“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” Tavarra seethed,

realizing that her sister had always known something she

hadn’t.

“Yes, but only because I can handle it,” Nezarra said softly.

“I can come here and return back to our home without

yearning to stay and destroying myself.”

“Destroying myself?” Tavarra’s body heated with rage. She

didn’t understand why Nezarra had never told her about this.

Her sister knew how much she had wanted to live off the

shore.

Sighing, Nezarra swept her emerald hair over her shoulder.

“There’s a curse if you stay out of the water too long.”

“I can’t go back. I have Brice.” Tavarra hit the sand—

maybe her sister was lying.

Nezarra ceased moving, her eyes shifting to the side. “No,

Sister, you don’t.” Her gaze locked on Tavarra, a hint of sadness

in her dark eyes. “I know what you told me about him, and

that’s why I’ve been coming to the land, learning about him.

He isn’t yours. There are others.” She paused and took a deep

breath. “He has a wife...and a baby at home.”

Everything inside of Tavarra stiffened, and the blood

flowing through her veins halted. “You’re lying. You’re only

envious.” With each word that passed her lips, Tavarra’s heart-beat thundered in her chest, choking her, stifling her. It

couldn’t be... He wouldn’t have! But Nezarra’s conviction seeped through her relaxed body language, even as she stepped closer to her sister.

“No, Sister, I love you.” She gently lifted Tavarra’s chin,

meeting her gaze. “Now let’s go home.”

“Then prove it to me.” Tavarra ripped her chin from

Nezarra’s hand and took a step back. “Show me Brice’s wife.”

She believed her sister wouldn’t because it was all a lie, a

deceitful untruth Nezarra had concocted in hopes of sending

Tavarra home to wither away in unhappiness.

“Are you sure?”

Tavarra slowly nodded.

“Then follow me.” Her tone was somber.

After picking up her tail, in case it wound up missing,

Tavarra followed her sister away from the beach and the

murmurs of the ocean. They trampled through the darkened

forest to the new sound of fluttering wings and animals' chirp-

ing. Brice’s tunic brushed against Tavarra’s thigh, and a harsh

pain needled her feet from stepping on sharp rocks and twigs.

Dark shadows moved within the forest. Her nighttime

vision was better than most, so she could see where she was

going.

Nezarra latched onto Tavarra’s shoulder as they silently

trudged through the trees the remainder of the way. Tavarra

did not remove her sister’s hand because a nervousness had

started growing in her, despite her conviction of Brice’s

innocence.

Eventually, the trees parted, and they came to a village

filled with small wooden shelters.

“This is where Brice lives?” Tavarra asked, watching smoke

pump out of several tiny chimneys.

“It is.” Nezarra avoided looking at her sister. Stepping

forward, Nezarra pulled Tavarra in the direction of a logged

shelter with a window lit by a golden flame.

Once at the glass, Tavarra hesitated to peer inside. What if

my sister is right? What if she isn’t lying? Brice said he loved me when we were together last night. Love is...love conquers everything.

Shaking away her senseless thoughts, she pressed her fore-

head to the cool glass and peered through. Inside was a

rectangular room with a lit fireplace, flames licking up the side,

creating smoke that rose out of the chimney.

Two people sat cuddled in front of the fireplace—one, a

woman with chestnut hair pulled into a bun, the other, a man,

with his arms draped around her. Brice.

Tavarra’s body deflated, collapsing in on itself. Her eyes

angled to a small wooden cradle beside the two lovers, where a small infant cloaked in a cream-colored nightgown quietly

slept.

Nezarra reached out to comfort Tavarra, but she ripped

her arm out of her sister’s grasp, leaving Nezarra standing

there as Tavarra stumbled into the secure blanket of the forest. She held back the tears and let the bitterness eat away at any sadness, willing it dormant and hidden away. Humans are liars, and I should have known.

The rustle of Nezarra’s steps echoed behind her, and she

quickly caught up. Tavarra could tell her sister was used to

running on those legs. “I didn’t want to show you that. I

wanted you to forget about him and move on.”

Tavarra spun around and tapped at her sister’s chest. “If

you had told me this to begin with, I wouldn’t have let my

heart become so enamored with him. This is all your fault!”

Nezarra sighed in defeat. “I know.”

Tavarra’s shoulders slumped. “It isn’t your fault. It’s his. He

should have told me.” She pointed at her own chest. “I

shouldn’t have fed into his lies.”

But he was good at te!ing them.

“Are you ready to go home now?”

The truth was, she wasn’t. She wanted to stay there where

she felt unchained. But maybe she could go home for a little

while and return again as Nezarra had. “We can come back

together? Another time?”

“Of course.” Her sister smiled.

“Can we stay one more night?” Tavarra wanted to feel the

sand between her toes once more while taking in the fresh air

before she had to breathe in water.

“I don’t know.” Nezarra hesitated. “What about the curse?

It is believed that you can’t be out of the water for too long.”

“I’ve only been out of the ocean for a day, not a year. And

what does this curse say anyway?”

“The curse states for more than one day.” Nezarra rubbed

her bicep, biting her lip. “I don’t know more than that.”

“Well, I’ll get back in before it reaches two days—it will

still be one day.” The water sprite hadn’t mentioned anything

to her about a curse, only that she had to come back after a

day. Nezarra could be right, but she could also be wrong.

Nezarra paused for a few moments and then softly said,

“All right.”

After they reached the shoreline, Tavarra sat down in the

sand, sliding her tail off her shoulder and resting it beside her.

“You will be all right, Sister.” Nezarra set down her tail and

wrapped an arm around Tavarra’s shoulder, drawing her closer.

She wouldn’t cry that night—or any other night—for Brice.

“I have you and now know that you’re the most important

person in my life. I’m sorry I did not realize it before.” But the

sea is not your home, a voice whispered at the back of her mind.

She ignored it.

Nezarra smiled, letting a single tear streak down her cheek.

“You’re not the only one who has ever been in love. I have had

my heart broken, too...”

Tavarra reached out and wiped her sister’s tear away. “Tell

me the story?”

“How about tomorrow night, when we’re back home?”

As much as Tavarra wanted to hear this story, she could tell

it was still too raw for her sister. Setting aside everything she

had felt from the night before, Tavarra interlaced her fingers

with Nezarra’s, same as they did when they were little. The

sisters laid back on the sand and stared up at the twin moons,

talking in soft whispers before finally drifting to sleep.

The night that started out as beautiful dreams of walking

across all of Laith turned into nightmares about Brice. A knife

stabbing her in the heart caused Tavarra to rip open her

eyelids, reaching for her chest. She was still whole, away now

from a torturous dreamworld she never wished to visit again.

Tavarra was in Laith, with her sister. And even if she wasn’t

ready, she was going home.

With a yawn, she lifted her hand to brush the emerald hair

away from Nezarra’s forehead to wake her. Tavarra’s sister’s

eyes were open wide, staring endlessly at the cloudless blood

sky. Her hand stilled and she blinked several times, waiting for

her sister to do the same. She shut her eyes tightly for a

moment before reopening them, knowing once she did, her

sister would be fine.

But Nezarra was still lifeless, without the smallest amount

of life present.

Her gaze floated down to her sister’s chest, and Tavarra

released a high-pitch scream that could shatter all of Laith.

Red liquid saturated Nezarra’s entire body. Her sister’s tunic

had been ripped to shreds, stomach torn open, organs scat-

tered and half eaten, displayed for all to see. There was blood

everywhere.

Frantically, Tavarra stood and backed away with shaky

limbs, darting her gaze side to side, searching for any sign of

help or danger. There was nothing. Her heart pounded and

pounded uncontrollably. Then she peered down at her hands

and let out another terrified scream that hurt her own ears.

Claws. Tavarra’s fingernails were now sharpened claws

soaked in dried blood and bits of brown skin. Nezarra’s skin.

Tavarra looked down at herself, and to her horror, patches of

tangerine fur lined the back of her legs, the side of her arms,

and down the center of her shoulder blades to the middle of

her spine. The shirt she wore—Brice’s shirt—was now ripped

and torn.

She swept her tongue against her teeth and tasted it—

blood against newly sharpened teeth. It was her. She had done

it. She had killed her sister. There could be only one way back

home, and she reached for it, only to find that her tail was now

a pile of tangerine ashes.

“This is the curse, isn’t it? It does exist,” Tavarra whispered.

To roam forever on the land as a beast and never return to the

sea—locked inside her new cage. She screamed and screamed,

causing birds’ wings to flap and reverberate through the trees

as they flew to get away from the shrieks—from her.

CHAPTER TWO

RHONA

TEN YEARS AGO

Each and every day, nine-year-old Rhona woke before

the others in her small village. She knew she’d have

to come back after a few hours of the suns’ morning

lights had passed. There would have to be time left for

swordplay.

Although Rhona liked her sword and daggers, she loved to

dance more than anything: dancing in the rain, under the heat

of the suns, and under the luminescent silver light of the

moons. It was a forbidden game she liked to play alone—one

that her leader, Belen, didn’t allow. Belen was someone she

wished she didn’t fear.

Today, Rhona wanted an adventure of her own. She

planned to secretly venture out farther than allowed, and a

broad smile crossed her angelic face at the thought. Mama

always said Rhona looked like an angel with her tight blonde

curls and bright blue eyes, but there were no angels in Laith.

Only fairies. Maybe there had been hundreds of years ago,

back when the humans were on Earth, but she didn’t know

those answers. They were only stories passed down over the

years.

With quick feet, she darted around each cone-shaped tent

—some were bright in color, while others had no paint at all,

only the barest of bones. Thankfully, Belen lived secluded in

the back of the village, so she didn’t have to scurry past his

home. A hand clamped down on her shoulder right as she

passed the very last cone-shaped tent. Her small body jumped

at the touch.

Rats, I’ve been caught, she thought.

As Rhona slowly turned around, she plastered on an

expression to make her appear as if she’d only been lost. “Oh,

thank goodness, you found me. I didn’t know where I was

going.” She came face to face with her best friend, Perin. He

was a year older than her and already more than a head taller.

“It’s only you.” Rhona let out a heavy sigh in relief. Mama

would’ve been angry if she knew where Rhona planned to

truly go.

“You’re not lost, Rhona, you haven’t made it out of the

village. Yet. Where are you going?” Perin asked, frowning. He

was always frowning. She wondered if he had any other facial

expressions. Even when they were having fun together, he was

always frowning. But he was her best friend anyway, and she’d

decided a long time ago that she quite liked his frown.

“I’m going to go pick wildflowers in the north field for

Mama,” she lied, knowing Perin hated picking flowers. He’d

rather be practicing with his wooden sword, preparing for the

real one he’d soon be receiving. He spent most of his time

tinkering with objects, building things that never came out

quite the way he wanted them to. And she’d nod her head and

pretend it was the greatest thing in the world so he wouldn’t

get upset. Because there would always be that look of frustra-

tion on his face when he didn’t get something right.

“Mmm. I suppose I’ll see you at sword practice then.” He

didn’t move right away, hesitating and eyeing her with suspi-

cion. Even though he was only a year older than her, he some-

times acted more grown up than the adults did.

Smiling, she gave his back a small shove. He sucked in a

deep breath and hurried to place his hand on the spot she’d

touched. She rushed forward, her gaze scanning him. “Did I

hurt you?”

“No, I fell yesterday.” He pulled away from her before she

could roll up his shirt. “I’ll see you later.” She watched his back

until he turned and vanished behind a tent. After he disap-

peared, Rhona counted to sixty to make sure he stayed gone.

Without a sound, even the tiniest of breaths, she adjusted the

daggers at her hip and yanked up the white hood of her cloak

to cover her wild blonde curls, then darted in the direction of

the river.

The pink sky looked more scarlet, signaling it might rain

later that day. As she ran past tall pine trees, she leaped over

their brassy-hued needles shed across the ground. The wind

blew against her hood, but she held it tightly around her face.

After running for a while, the foliage changed, opening to

pear trees sprinkled in with others that she couldn’t name.

Stopping only for a moment, she reached up and plucked a

light-green fruit. Her ear perked up when she heard the sound

of rushing water.

The river.

Something else floated through the air. Something that

sounded almost majestic, magical—a melody.

Closing her eyes, Rhona pulled back the hood and let the

music sink further into her ears. She wanted to get nearer.

Clutching the pear, she crept as quietly as she could to get a

closer look.

Gingerly, she pushed a large leaf that was bigger than her

head out of the way. The new view gave her access to the

sparkling river, flowing at a rapid speed, carrying leaves and

other objects to their destination. Then her eyes fell to some-

thing seated at the edge where liquid met earth. No, not some-

thing—someone. A boy.

The young boy faced away from her, his obsidian hair cut

short, and he wore an acorn-colored tunic with matching

breeches. His feet were bare and...filthy. Black dirt covered

them. Rhona crinkled her nose while peering around a wide

tree. Thick vines wrapped around its belly, making it easy to

hold onto and spy.

Her heart thudded in her chest when music drifted closer

and closer. Every inch of her ached to dance to it. She couldn’t

see what he was holding, but whatever kind of flute he blew

into, the instrument made the most miraculous sound.

Rhona decided to be brave, because if she got into trouble

for being out here, so would he. When she edged forward, he

was so consumed by his instrument that he still didn’t turn

around. She pressed a firm hand onto the boy’s shoulder.

“Hello.”

The boy whirled around so quickly—his olive skin changed

to various shades of greens and darker browns to blend in with

the surroundings, until she couldn’t see him.

“Troll,” she whispered and shakily stepped backward, trip-

ping over a small rock. Her body tumbled to the ground and

she dropped the pear.

As she scurried to her feet, she frantically thought of skin,

muscle, and bones melting, then liquid moving. On command,

her body disintegrated into a puddle of water, swishing

between the dirt and grass. We! hidden, she thought.

The boy stared down at her, his skin slowly turning back to

olive. “I’m not a troll. I’m human, like you.” His tone was

harsh. “Have you ever seen a troll before? If you were going to

use a proper term for blending in, you might as well have

called me a chameleon.”

Too frightened to move, Rhona kept quiet. He wouldn’t

have been able to hear her thoughts anyway, only if she spoke.

When humans came to Laith hundreds of years ago, it was

said that they had gained abilities to adjust to their new world

as soon as they crossed over from a dying Earth. Some were

said to have had strength, fire, wings, but no one she’d heard of

had hers. As time passed, and those humans had children of

their own, the abilities had started to die out. It was as if the

world of Laith knew the humans no longer needed abilities as

they learned more about the land.

“I can still see you,” the boy pointed out as if he was a

know-it-all. “The suns are making the liquid specks shine.”

She still didn’t move.

“If this is hide and seek, then I’ve already found you.” He

knelt to one knee and craned his neck above her. “So, your

turn.”

Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Or maybe he was. She could now

see he wasn’t a troll, but he was from another village. Belen

always said outside villagers were to be dreaded. There was

only one good outsider, and that had been Rhona’s papa,

murdered by his own villagers. She’d never gotten to meet him

since he’d died before she was born.

Lengthening her liquid puddle, she wasn’t afraid any longer.

Her daggers were still at her hip if she needed to take down

this boy. He shifted forward and a tingle spread through her.

“Take a step away then!” she shouted. “You’re on my leg!”

“Oh! Sorry!” The boy hopped back and almost fell.

Rhona thought of being stitched back together and liquid

becoming skin. In a matter of seconds she rose from the

ground, and the clear water took shape. She was back to

herself.

“You’re not from around here.” The boy narrowed his eyes.

“Neither are you.”

“I come here every day.”

“That doesn’t mean you live here.” She didn’t know what

village he was from, nor did she care to find out either. He was

already starting to annoy her.

Rhona’s eyes fell to the instrument in his hand that

appeared to be multiple flutes twined together.

“It’s a pan flute.” He smiled, holding it up, beaming with

pride. “Wanna try it?”

For a moment she thought about reaching for the instrument, until she remembered his mouth had been near it. She

curled her lip in disgust. “No.”

“You just blow in it.” With a deep inhale, he pushed out a

few breaths into the open holes—a lovely sound poured out.

“See?”

Before she could nod, he held it out to her, his golden-

brown eyes meeting hers. She stared at the pan flute then back at the boy. Maybe he wasn’t so bad, even though his feet were

filthier up close. Yet other villagers could have hidden tricks.

Without a word, she reached forward and yanked the flute

away. She took deep breaths and blew into the open piece a bit too hard, warm spittle sprinkling out from her lips.

“Gross! Not like that.” The boy grabbed the pan flute from

her grasp as she tried one more time. A withering blow came

from her lips, and Rhona jerked her head back, cheeks red

when she noticed the flute was no longer in her grasp.

The boy wiped the tip of the flutes with his tunic. “Why

did you call me a troll?”

“I don’t know. Don’t trolls morph?” She’d never seen one,

but when his skin had changed to different colors before he

vanished—he had seemed like he could be one.

“So wouldn’t that make you a troll, too?”

“No...” She folded her arms across her chest. “But you are

from another village. My papa was the only good outsider to

ever walk the land.”

The boy let out a high-pitched chuckle and turned around,

playing his flute again.

All the blood within her began to boil, her anger blistering.

Rhona snatched the instrument from his hand and took off.

Staring up at a broad, sky-scraping tree, she climbed as quickly

as she could up the trunk, then craned her neck down at the

little brat.

“Hey, give that back.” Two hands were propped on the

boy’s hips as he gazed up at her. His voice wasn’t angry, as if it was all only a game to him.

“Why don’t you make me?” Rhona pulled the pan flute

closer to her chest.

“I can come up there, too! You’re not the only person in

the world who can climb a tree!”

“Then do it!” she taunted.

And he did, but she was ready. Right when he got to the

branch she was perched on, she leaped off. She would have

been fine if it wasn’t for the sharp branch that struck her leg

on the landing. When she looked down, warm blood bloomed

profusely to the surface of her leg, and tears were already

falling down her cheeks. A small moan and a grunt came from

her as she tried to hold the sounds back. She was used to pain.

The boy jumped down next to her with a loud thump, his

dirty hands already lifting her leg and examining it intently. “I

can run home and get some thread to mend it.”

Rhona pushed his hands from her leg. “No, it will heal.” As

if at her command, the wound closed, but crimson still coated

her skin.

“Fancy trick you got there.” He smiled, and it grew wider

with amazement.

“Yeah.” But there were a lot of times where it wasn’t fancy,

because of Belen. She shook those images away.

“Come here.” Grabbing her by the wrist, the boy dragged

her to the river and tugged off her boot. He rolled up her

trousers a little past the knee and held her leg near the water.

Dipping his hand into the river, he splashed the cool drops

against her skin and rinsed the blood away. She watched in

surprise. For such a young boy, he seemed rather focused.

Maybe he had younger siblings at home.

“Good as new,” he said and stood.

“You aren’t so bad, I guess—unless you’re hiding the

trickery.”

“That’s for you to find out, isn’t it?” The boy arched a brow

and she rolled down her pant leg.

The pan flute was still clutched in her hand, and Rhona

thought she should give it back since he had performed a good

deed. Even though she could have done it herself. “Here.”

The boy, who was still nameless, shook his head. “No, you

keep it. I have more at home.”

Was he really offering her a gift? She stared down at the

flute in wonder, excited to have one of her own. “By the way,

what’s your name?” she asked.

“Quilan.” He paused. “But you can call me Quil. And you

are?”

“Rhona, and you can call me Rhona.” She found herself

smiling.

“Or maybe Rho?”

“Maybe.” No one had ever called her anything besides

Rhona before.

“I was actually going to search for a four-leaf clover after

I finished playing the flute. Wanna come?” Up ahead, he

pointed at a wide field covered in bright green clover

patches.

She stared up at the suns and still had a little time before

needing to return home. “Okay, but I have to leave soon.”

Rhona ended up staying longer than she probably should

have. In the end, they had no luck in finding a four-leaf clover.

But there were copious amounts of ones with three leaves and

even a couple of fives.

“How about we do this again tomorrow?” she asked,

surprising herself.

“Same time?”

“Yeah.” Rhona nodded and pressed a hand to her pack.

“Have you ever heard the story Peter Pan?”

“No.”

“I’ll bring it tomorrow!” With a quick wave, she ran

through the forest all the way back home.

As she came upon the ornate painted tents, the clanking of

swords filled the air. Class had already begun.

She found Perin seated on a wooden bench, watching two

girls swing their swords. His eyes met hers, accompanied by a frown on his face.

“You’re a little late,” he said, his gaze shifting to his father,

Belen, who stood with his back turned toward them. Belen

had the same shade of brown hair as Perin, only his father

wore his in a long, low ponytail while Perin kept his short.

Before she could move her lips, Belen turned around, his

blue eyes locking on hers. “Where have you been?” he

demanded, striding toward her and Perin. His features were

always sharp and fierce. Sometimes he would pretend to treat

her kindly by giving her sweets, but other times he wasn’t so

caring. She tried to keep her body from trembling with fear as

he approached.

“She was picking wildflowers in the field for me,” Perin

answered.

Belen’s head whipped toward his son. “Did I ask you?”

“No, sir.” Perin held his stare.

Belen looked back at Rhona. “Don’t be late again. After-

ward, you need to come by my office.”

“We’re doing something after,” Perin chimed in.

Belen’s gaze became icy as he leveled Perin’s gaze. “You’ll

come, too, then.” He turned around from his son and walked

back to the two older girls who were challenging one another.

Perin stared down at her hands with his lips pressed into a

thin line. “Yeah, so where are the flowers?”

Rhona peered at her empty hands and had to quickly come

up with another lie. The only new thing she had from the

forest was the pan flute, and she couldn’t show him that.

“I ended up leaving a large bundle by the tree for anyone to

take to someone as a present.”

“But I thought you wanted them for your mother?” Suspi-

cion laced his tone.

“She has plenty. Maybe I should have really brought them

for you instead.” She smiled.

He didn’t smile back as he handed her a wooden sword.

“Nah, let’s get to the field.” Rhona had never beaten him at

swords, not once.

As she looked at Perin’s profile, she knew he didn’t believe

her. He had known all along she lied to him, but he had

defended her to his father anyway. She would have done the

same.


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