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Excerpt from PATH OF THE DARK

Ryana walked into the courtyard garden, entering the small space between beds of tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses. She inhaled their scent and slowed her step. Gleaming white walls rose up around them, and a fountain tinkled in the heart of the space: the statue of a water nymph standing beneath a waterfall. This was the prettiest of the palace’s many courtyard gardens and the one the queen favored.

Eldia wasn’t here this morning though.

Ryana shouldn’t really have been either—for these gardens were for the royal family’s enjoyment only—yet she wanted a few moments of solitude, before she returned to the House of Light and Darkness. The noon meal approached, and after that an afternoon in the Hall of Charms. An audience of folk from all over the kingdom awaited with problems to be remedied.

Letting out a gusting sigh, Ryana walked into the heart of the garden. After spending the morning in negotiations, she felt drained. She longed to take the rest of the day off. Ryana had spoken little during the morning; she was there mainly as an observer.

Ryana’s boots crunched on fine white gravel as she stopped before the fountain. She focused upon where the nubile nymph cavorted under a cascade.

To be that carefree.

“Interesting fountain … my mother has one similar in her pleasure garden.”

Ryana started. She whipped round, the fingers of her right hand automatically splaying as she prepared herself to gather the Dark.

Heart hammering, her gaze rested upon Elias of Anthor.

How had he managed to sneak up behind her? She should have heard his boots on the gravel.

Flustered, Ryana swallowed, hard. “Did you follow me?” Her voice sounded a little too high pitched.

“Aye,” he replied with a slow smile. “You walk like a soldier on parade, but I managed to keep up.”

Ryana frowned in an attempt to cover up her discomfort. “What do you want?”

He folded his arms across his broad chest, the enigmatic smile never slipping. However, she didn’t miss the appraising look in his eyes. She’d been keenly aware of Elias’s presence all morning during the council. He’d acknowledged her with a nod when she’d entered the chamber and had glanced over in her direction a few times during the meeting.

“We didn’t finish our conversation last night at the ball,” he said softly.

Ryana stiffened. She didn’t like the naked challenge she saw in his eyes. “Yes, we did,” she replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m leaving.”

She went to move past him, but he caught her arm, gently pulling her up short. The feel of his powerful grip, the heat of his hand even through the sleeve of her robe, made Ryana’s pulse quicken. Suppressing the urge to yank her arm away, she met his gaze.

Elias wasn’t smiling now. When his face was serious, the lines were harsher, reminding Ryana that he was a military commander—a man who’d slaughtered hundreds in the name of Anthor. The air of danger around him made her skin prickle.

“You did well this morning,” she said, cursing the slight edge to her voice. “You must be feeling smug right now?”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Why is that?”

“Nathan looked like he wanted to stab you through the heart the whole time … and yet he still negotiated with you.”

Elias huffed a laugh. “Just as well … we won’t get anywhere otherwise.”

Their gazes locked then. Ryana was standing so close to him that she could see the color of his eyes. From a distance they appeared dark brown, almost black. But this close she saw that the irises were flecked with different shades of brown: walnut, mahogany, and hazel.

Elias’s mouth curved. “So, you still suspect me of foul intent, Ryana?”

Shadows take him, she liked the way he said her name. The southern lilt in his voice made it sound exotic. Compressing her lips, Ryana forced herself to focus. “Aye … and I’m not the only one.”

He let go of her arm but didn’t step away. Likewise, Ryana didn’t move. Something held her in place. They were standing so near to each other she could feel the heat of his body enveloping her. She resisted the urge to lean in toward him.

It was an intimate spot here, in the heart of the garden, accompanied by the tinkle of rushing water. A meeting place for lovers.

“Will you be joining us this afternoon?” Elias asked finally.

Ryana shook her head. “I’m not on the king’s personal council … but Asher is.”

Elias pulled a face. “Your friend glared at me the whole way through this morning’s meeting. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for what happened in The Forest of the Fallen.”

“Aye … for good reason,” Ryana replied with a frown. “Is arrogance an Anthor trait or are the men in your family particularly blessed?”

Elias laughed, a low, pleasant sound. However, when his gaze met hers, it was serious. “You don’t have to like me, Ryana.” His tone was gentle, beguiling. “But believe it or not, we both want the same thing.”

“And what’s that?”

“Peace. I’d rather our kingdoms didn’t go to war.”

Ryana drew in a sharp breath and took a smart step back from him. Cool air rushed in between them, breaking the spell he’d cast over her. “We don’t want the same thing,” she said, her tone icy. “I, for one, would love to see Nathan take his army south and knock your father off the Swallow Throne.”

© Copyright, Jayne Castel 2019

, Book #3: Light and Darkness, is available on preorder! Release date, October 17, 2019.

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