READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Disenchanted (Disenchanted, #1), by Brianna Sugalski
Once upon a time, centuries ago, the flames of a decades-long war engulfed the wildwood throughout the Kingdom of Brittany, displacing the beasts who lurked within. With no other choice, those fanged and clawed creatures fled to the scant remaining patches of forest. The largest was known as Brocéliande, already home to the elusive Fair Folk and within unsettling proximity to the human populace.
Seething, the faeries retreated into the eastern half of Brocéliande—La Basse Forêt. Slaves to the arcane law of Karma, they wait in the dark for any chance at retribution, ready to strike down any mortal or abomination in their path.
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Disenchanted (Disenchanted, #1), by Brianna Sugalski
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
FORÊT DE BROCÉLIANDE, 1532
Laurent Beaulieu knew the trees here were accustomed to keeping secrets. He was well aware that even if the rendezvous did not go unnoticed, he had little to fret about. Had a human or creature seen, he’d easily finish them off; lately he preferred to keep violence at a minimum, but he’d do anything necessary to keep others from knowing he had agreed to a conference on human terms. Fortunately, even the most dauntless mortals typically avoided the woods after dusk.
Still, he couldn’t quite shake the apprehension presaging him.
The fog of early twilight had rolled in, nestling among the dense foliage. Laurent pivoted, easily spotting the thin figure slinking toward him. He’d heard and smelled her first—the confidence of a tromping footfall, the dancing aromas of chamomile and roses. It was at her written request that he’d agreed to converge under the cover of dusk, unbeknownst to the sleepy kingdom beyond.
The unlikely pair met at the edge of a hillside glade overlooking a coniferous expanse of green—the sprawling High Forest, the western half of Brocéliande. Behind them, beyond the moors, a blood-red sun spilled duly into the Celtic Sea.
Laurent ran his tongue smoothly over his teeth, careful to keep his distance as the woman began to speak. She’d made no waste of time; his face fell as he listened to her ludicrous proposal, shifting in the shadows to avoid even the faintest rays of dwindling sunset. When she was finished, he could only stare.
“Well?” The woman glowered at him with tight-lipped fury.
“What are you asking me to do?” Thick vulcan brows knitted together above his deep-set eyes. His attempted whisper did little to mute the disbelief fraying his voice. He’d simply misheard her the first time.
He had to have.
“Don’t play stupid with me, Darkling,” she said, eyeing him in disdain. “You heard me.”
A twig crunched suddenly beneath Laurent’s footfall, and he startled.
“My goodness, relax,” she chuckled. “As promised, I’ve come alone.”
Her reassurance only hastened the painful adrenaline pulsing through his dead veins, like carp swimming upstream. As the crisp forest air exited and refilled his lungs in rising panic, he knew she was telling the truth. There was no one around for leagues, no guards concealed in the brush—nobody to come to her rescue, had things gone awry.
To what avail?
In the letter requesting Laurent’s company, Vivien Le Tallec had never revealed what it was she needed to discuss—only that their meeting was urgent. Laurent didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this, and it certainly wasn’t her. It was a stout, angry human woman he’d had in mind; the one standing before him was statuesque and terrifyingly unafraid. Her too-prominent nose made her resemble an irate swan.
Still, he wasn’t accustomed to feeling so ill-at-ease around humans, and this bothered him deeply. She was duchess after all—privilege-toting wife of the esteemed duke. Her prominence was probably why she dared come alone, the result of typical mortal foolishness Laurent knew well and plain. Social status accounted for nothing in the woods; he was still twice as strong as ten of her husband’s soldiers, and thrice as quick as their steeds. Still, Laurent couldn’t shake the vague feeling that something was… off.
And beneath platinum blonde locks, her neck—her neck, he couldn’t help but notice upon further inspection—was slender and elegant as the rest of her. Laurent absently licked his lips and ignored his growling belly.
Vivien sauntered towards him, daintily lifting the hem of her scarlet lace gown and shrinking the space between them to an arm’s length. Her teardrop earrings glimmered in the evening haze, their crystals casting rainbow freckles onto her plunging neckline.
Laurent forced himself to blink twice. “Madame Le Tallec,” he replied warily.
Her eyes narrowed into slits as she leaned in, voice barely above a whisper. “All I am asking, is that you do what you do best. It shouldn’t be difficult, given the likes of you.”
Laurent shut his eyes to focus on the trickle of the nearby stream as he processed the sheer absurdity of her request. First of all, her sudden proximity was dangerously overwhelming. And second, it was true what everyone said—like her bellicose husband, the woman was mad.
“Don’t be daft! If I have to spell it out for you, by all means.” Her shrill cry shattered his thoughts, and a moment later she lunged forward to grip his cowhide vest. She jostled him, ice-blue eyes bulging.
“Kill the princess. Drown her in the river, make it look like an accident. Lord knows you’re good at covering your tracks, and I will make sure you’re never caught. You have my word, Darkling. I don’t care how you make it happen, but make. Her. Disappear.”
Gently as possible, Laurent pried the woman’s fingers from his clothing. It was obvious she was unaware just with whom she was dealing. Fists clenched, he took a long step back. “I can’t do that.”
Vivien’s cold glare broke—but not for long. “Then get one of your kind who can,” she offered, smoothing her expression.
His jaw tightened. It was one thing for a Breton noble to ask a Darkling to kill a low-class harlot; though rare, it did happen from time to time, usually after a wayside mistress was discovered. He had many associates willing to do so for whatever meager fee was thrown their way—money meant sustenance for the starving ones, after all. Not to mention the others in his coven who would immediately jump at the opportunity. But it was ludicrous for anyone, even the duchess, to expect him to execute the future monarch. The coronation ceremony was less than a week away, for God’s sake.
“The royal family holds the duke and yourself in the absolute highest regard.” He shook his head slowly. “Also, isn’t your son quite friendly with the girl?” Laurent never cared to keep up with affairs of the mortal kingdom, but his own position within the forest hierarchy required some general awareness. He at least knew that if the Le Tallec boy married into the royal family, the Darklings would have problems much bigger than starvation.
“That is none of your business,” Vivien said curtly.
“We’ve finally managed to decrease our attacks on the surrounding towns, almost halt them altogether…” He trailed off. “Why would you want us to regress? Why could you possibly want—”
Vivien sighed, her breath billowing into the cold like smoke from a disheartened dragon.
“Just so we’re clear here, I don’t owe you any explanation. But if it helps… it’s this simple. Her ascension to the throne would prove disastrous for our kingdom, and especially damaging to her parents’ reputation.”
“Fine. You think she’s unfit to rule. So, execution is the solution?” Laurent scoffed. “That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think? And quite frankly, I don’t see how any of this is my problem.”
Ignoring him, Vivien continued. “I am a patriot as much as anyone else. We can’t have a successor with her… abnormality taking the throne. We won’t.”
Laurent blinked. There it was.
Of course. How could he have missed it?
It was no secret; a decade ago, word had spread fast as fire among the trees, quicker still. The Trécesson girl was the first known person within the entire kingdom, able to communicate with the Darklings of Brocéliande. The kingdom of Brittany considered his kind—and anyone else who wasn’t human—more revolting than infectious plague victims. Of course, this had caused an uproar, but the kingdom’s dissatisfaction was something he’d assumed everyone had grown used to. He never expected anyone—certainly not the duchess—to wish death upon the poor girl.
He shivered and refocused on Vivien whose impatience faded into something like nostalgia. She too seemed lost in thought as she stared distantly at the dimming horizon. The orb continued its final descent below the stratocumulus plane, projecting rosy pinks that melted into violet twilight.
His vision had sharpened considerably with dark encroaching. A distance off to their right he could now make out the brick towers barely peeking out from the canopy. A sprawling fortress built for keeping monsters out, the Château de Trécesson sat at the southwestern corner of the High Forest.
“Vivien.” Laurent placed his next words decidedly. “Another ruler isn’t in my interest at this time.”
She spun away from the sunset, face twisted. “Excuse me?”
He ran his palms down the front of his vest, smoothing out the places where it had bunched under her grip. “The Brocéliande communities continue to struggle. When desperate creatures dare venture to the castle to cordially appeal to the king, their guards either lock them up in the dungeon or shoot them full of arrows. I know, because many of my own have taken an arrow to the knee.”
“What are you proposing then?”
Laurent paced, ancient gravel crunching under his feet. He pulled a wooden flask from his pant pocket and took a quick swig, wiping his ruddy mouth with his sleeve before continuing.
“Ogre plundering and korrigan infestations in Paimpont have been down to nearly nothing lately. I’ve taught the coven to remain inconspicuous while feeding in the boroughs. The last town raid I authorized was half a century ago, and while that was a terrible mistake on my part, we’ve learned from it. I take complete responsibility, Vivien. We don’t kill anymore, and any life lost at the hands of a vampire is against our order,” he said through clenched teeth. “Shapeshifters have been advised to stop their thievery, and the Fair Folk—well, they’ll do what they please, but at least they keep to themselves. That’s been a substantial improvement for all of us.”
He attempted to keep the animosity from his voice, but couldn’t quite manage. “Darklings don’t deserve to be punished any more than they’ve already been. If it’s up to me, we’ll refrain from doing anything that would further ruin our standing. The princess can speak to those of our kind who cannot communicate with humans. One day, she may decide to lift her father’s law. So, I’m not proposing anything, Vivien, because I refuse to harm her.”
It seemed the duchess hadn’t expected that response from him, either. Vivien’s brief scowl morphed into a grin before fading into nonchalance. Her eyes gleamed bright. “You know, for a vampire, you’re very level-headed.”
“I’ve been around a long time.”
A moment of silence passed before she spoke again. “You are right.”
Her blonde hair swung mesmerizingly as she paced away. She glanced back at him, the shoulder of her dress slipping slightly to expose the smoothest porcelain skin. “But think. How will she fare when the entire kingdom fears her? You’ve heard of the recent town riots, I’m sure. Paimpont is a mess. They’re protesting her reign.”
Laurent shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He’d heard indeed. The other day, townsfolk had apparently pelted the town crier with rotten apricots. “Yes, but what does that matter? That throne is rightfully hers. She’ll become queen, whether they like it or not.”
“You forget the things that humans are capable of, when fear is a strong factor. But, what if the princess is assisted with her situation? She hasn’t faced her people in years, and they say such horrible things of her. Her little… gift of tongues is the bane of her parents’ existence. Think of how grateful they would be, if someone helped rid their daughter of her problem.”
Laurent could barely follow the twists and turns of their conversation. First, Vivien wanted him to kill the princess. Now, the plan was to help her? “How could we possibly do that?”
“Not we, my dear, but she,” she replied, spinning to face him head on. “There is a witch who resides at the far end of Paimpont, just south of the pond. Her name is Ophelia; I’m sure you’ve heard of her—the only one willing to do both human and Darkling bidding so she can afford her drinking habit. She’s quite powerful and, to my knowledge, is one of the only witches accustomed to interacting with the townsfolk on a regular basis. She should be more than capable of crafting some spell or elixir to cure the princess.”
Laurent could only stare. If he wasn’t mistaken, Ophelia was a transplant. She certainly wasn’t descended from any of the original witches who’d settled alongside humans in Paimpont. Still, word of her arrival years ago had spread like wildfire; Ophelia quickly made a name for herself as the town enchantress, unique in the fact that she made a living by bartering simple spells and charms in exchange for goods.
In that way, magic was useful in a pinch, good for removing coffee—or blood—from garments, or keeping insects off one’s crops. But Laurent had never heard of the kind of magic capable of purging an entire language from a person’s linguistic arsenal. Such a spell or potion would surely require the very type of dark ingredients and magic prohibited by kingdom law. Ophelia could be executed on the spot, were she discovered practicing it.
The irony of it all promptly shattered his disbelief. Laurent covered a dubious smirk with his palm. “You humans only allow witches to reside among you because their powers are beneficial from time to time. Either that, or you’re afraid of what mischief they might get into if you didn’t keep an eye on them.”
“Irrelevant.” Vivien waved dismissively. “Drastic situations call for drastic measures. I have no real qualms with the magicfolk. They don’t have fur, or oozing warts, or fangs…” She suppressed a grimace before continuing. “The princess turns twenty years old in five days’ time, on the day of her ceremony. She has everything in the world she could want, except her public's affection. Ridding her of that useless ability would only be a boon to her.”
She was partially right, and he hated admitting it. But deep down, Laurent didn’t consider the princess’s unusual power useless at all. In the years following the discovery of her Darkling Tongue, Laurent secretly relished the idea of a monarch who would possibly be open to forging a mutually beneficial relationship with Brocéliande.