Prologue

      Ten men stood amidst rubble that once was a bridge. Their red robes whipped in the wind and their boots soaked up river water as they gazed over the still-smoking ruins. One man knelt in the Jespa, clutching a fallen comrade who’d been battered and broken in the blast just moments ago.

      “I’m sorry, brother,” he said. He looked toward the crumbled rock and twisted steel of the bridge. If he’d run just a little faster, killed his enemies a heartbeat quicker… He closed his eyes, said a prayer, and let the body go. The river gathered it up and carried it away, and he watched until the red robes were swept out of sight. Only then did he stand.

      “This war is lost,” he said. “Polco Bridge is destroyed, the fences on the western bank are complete, and the sovereign is nestled in his mansion far from our reach.” He shook his head. “Our losses are too many, and our victories too few.” He waded back toward the shore and looked at his men, at the defeat heavy on their faces. “That doesn’t mean we stop fighting. Now that the city’s been divided, our blades are needed more than ever. The west may wall us off like animals, but I won’t lay down my sword, not while the east starves and dies of sickness.”

      He hoisted himself up onto the remains of a stone pillar and gazed down at his comrades. “We formed this brotherhood on a vow to keep Trista united. Lady Fate wasn’t with us this time, so I’ll make a new vow.” He drew his sword and raised it high in the air. “I vow to watch over Trista’s eastern streets, be a champion for those our sovereign has forsaken, and await my chance to reunite our great city! Who will join me?”

      His men cast weary glances at one another, but slowly, one by one, they drew their weapons.

      “I won’t bend to the will of a tyrant! I won’t abandon our people! Not while I still have blood to give! What say you?”

      The men raised their weapons and roared as one.

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      Ten men in red robes received The Mark: two interwoven letter Ms branded on their left cheek, a vow of brotherhood they could never erase.

      “We are The Men of the Mark,” they chanted in unison, and their eyes burned with new conviction. “And we still have blood to give!”

Chapter 1

      2nd and 30 of Autumn, Jesparia’s 7th and 20 year of Rovik

      A century after Trista’s demarcation

      Shaila stood on the western bank of the Jespa river, searching the water for a sign of the maiden she was to meet here. She took down her hood and breathed deep the sweet scent of renistrila blossoms on the breeze. Clear, moonlit nights like this always reminded her of the night she herself swam the Jespa, the night she dove in from the eastern shore and emerged dripping and exhausted on this very spot. It was supposed to be the start of her new life…

      “Shaila, my dear!”

      As if summoned from her memories, or perhaps her nightmares, the very man who plucked her from the river seven years ago stepped from the shadows.

      “I came to see if the river would spit a beauty tonight,” he said. “Instead, I find the most beautiful gift the Jespa ever gave me standing right where I first met her!”

      “What are you doing here, Krig?” Shaila asked. “This is my night to collect.”

      “Yes, I know. Rumor has it you’ve been very generous with your collections. You’ve handed over some remarkably handsome girls to several establishments throughout the city. A few of my biggest rivals in fact,” he added with a pout. “How about throwing me a morsel instead?”

      “For you, Krig? Never.”

      “My dear, you wound me,” Krig said, touching a hand over his heart with a wicked grin. “I’d hoped our history might—”

      “Our history?” Shaila huffed and turned her back on him. “I’d let these girls drown before giving them to you.”

      His boots crunched on the stones as he came closer.

      “I hear you’re now the mistress of our very own Archdynast Rovik. You’re welcome.”

      “Why should I thank you, of all people?”

      “You stepped from the river as a terrified and naïve girl, Shaila, and I made you a woman. I set free the vixen who would one day bed a sovereign. I’m proud of you, my river reni.” He was close now, too close, and he plucked a lock of her long, honey hair off her shoulder, twirling it in his fingers. “Why not show me what tricks you use to entertain Rovik, for old times’ sake?”

      Shaila stiffened, ready to strike—

      “Help!” came a cry on the wind.

      Shaila dashed to the edge of the water. The head of a young girl bobbed with the swells halfway across the river. A heartbeat later, it disappeared and didn’t resurface.

      Shaila yanked open her robes and kicked off her boots. She ran down the bank, following the flow of the river several yards before diving in headfirst. With skill and grace, she cut through the water downstream from where the girl went under, guided by nothing but moonlight and instinct. She was relieved when a pair of flailing arms collided with her own. Shaila wrapped an arm around the young girl’s waist and swam toward the surface, praying for the strength to escape the Jespa’s grasp with every stroke. When their heads broke the water, the girl began to sob.

      “I have you,” Shaila yelled, then she swallowed a mouthful of river water that nearly made her choke. “Kick your legs!”

      They inched back toward the shore as the river swept them further downstream. The old Polco pier was coming up fast and beyond that, the currents grew fierce. If they were carried past the pier, their chances dwindled with every passing stone. The last wooden beam of the pier would pass by just out of her reach, so Shaila made a choice: she tore the weeping girl’s arms from around her and, with a mighty shove, pushed the maiden directly into the path of the upcoming beam.

      “Grab it!” Shaila screamed over the roar of the water, and the youth came to her senses in time to wrap her arms around the post. Shaila’s nails barely brushed the wood as the river carried her onwards. “Jump the beams!”

      Shaila passed the pier, and the Jespa raged as it picked up speed. A current from underneath yanked her down hard, and she spun under the water, losing all sense of Earth and sky. Her arms and legs kicked, her heart prayed, and by some miracle, cool air rushed into her lungs as her face broke the surface. She caught a glimpse of the shore and put the last of her strength into reaching it before the river could suck her under again. Her arms and legs burned when her feet finally touched the rocky riverbed.

      Shaila gasped and spit water as she crawled up onto the pebbled embankment. With a shaking hand, she snatched a fistful of the stones and clutched them to her lips.

      “Thank you,” she whispered. “Remlar, protector of seas and lord of rivers, I thank you with all my heart and soul—”

      A scream pierced the night.

      Shaila peered upriver where Krig held the maiden by the arms and was wrestling her up the embankment.

      “Let me go!” the girl cried as she struggled for freedom.

      Shaila staggered to her feet and ran, tripping twice in her exhaustion. Krig nearly had the girl up to the cobbled street when Shaila wrapped an arm around his neck from behind. Krig lost his footing in the stones and slid down the embankment. Shaila twisted, throwing him off balance, and they both fell, tumbling clear to the water’s edge. Shaila got to her feet first, and she seized Krig’s hand, bent his arm around her own, and yanked until his elbow threatened to pop.

      “Stop! Stop!” Krig hollered.

      Shaila kept the pressure on his arm as she leaned near his ear. “If I ever see you near the river after dark again, the Jespa and I will see to it no one ever finds your worthless corpse!”

      “Our sovereign will hear about this!”

      “You think my lover’s loyalties would lie with you, a slave-trading piece of filth, over the woman who shares his bed and body? You’re done forcing yourself on helpless girls.” She let him go. “Get out of here, Krig! I hope I never see your repulsive face again.”

      He gathered himself from the rocks, spit at Shaila’s feet, then stalked away, muttering to himself. When he was gone, Shaila sighed and sat in the stones, closing her eyes as she caught her breath at last. Her threat was an empty one, but she prayed Krig couldn’t tell the difference. If he indeed sent word to Rovik…

      “Thank you!” the maiden said as she took to her knees at Shaila’s side. “I owe you my life.”

      Shaila glared at the youth. “Who in Vedia taught you to swim?”

      “N—no one,” the girl replied, wide-eyed at Shaila’s anger. “This was my first time.”

      Shaila swore as she climbed to her feet. “You should pray your thanks to the gods for showing you more care than the fools who threw you to the Jespa tonight.”

      “This was my choice!” the girl insisted as she rose and brushed the stones from her sodden pants. “My father, he’s old now, and my brothers… my brothers are starving… I’m a burden to them.” The girl began to weep again.

      Shaila sighed. “All right, there’s no need for that.” She put an arm around the youth’s shoulders. “Remlar took pity on us both. You’re safe now.”

      “Who was that man?”

      “A leech who just happens to own the biggest whorehouse in Trista.”

      “It seems I owe you twice then.”

      Shaila studied the girl for the first time. Her black hair fell in tight ringlet curls to her shoulders. Her face was fair with a dusting of freckles across her cheeks and nose. She was young. Too young. Her looks were handsome enough by the east’s standards, sure, but most upperclassmen in the west would give her no more than a passing glance.

      “What’s your name, child?” Shaila asked as she started back up the shoreline toward her robes and boots.

      “Detarii, ma’am.”

      “How old are you?”

      “Sixteen.”

      “Did anyone tell you what would be expected of you here? Where you’d be employed?”

      Detarii shook her head. “They just said someone would meet me on the western bank and put me where I’m needed.”

      “Where you’re needed,” Shaila said with a humorless laugh. “They don’t even tell you girls the truth anymore, do they?”

      “What truth?”

      Shaila found her boots and sat to pull them on. “Why do you think only the prettiest maidens get to swim the river, girl? You can’t be this naïve.”

      “Because the west only wants the handsome ones.”

      Shaila cocked a brow.

      Detarii’s shoulders sagged. “A cathouse? Is that truly all there is for me here?”

      “That’s the fate of most who swim the Jespa, but there’s another option.” Shaila turned away from the hopeful look on the maiden’s face as she pulled on her robes. “I can offer you a position in Archdynast Rovik’s house. The pay is paltry—you’d earn more at the whorehouse—but you’d live and serve in our sovereign’s mansion as a maid or a cook instead.”

      “I’d like that very much,” Detarii said. “I can cook and clean anything. I helped look after my father and brothers when my mother died. Thank you ever so much…”

      “Shaila.”

      “Thank you, Shaila.”

      Detarii looped her arm around her savior’s, and Shaila nodded, swallowing back a wave of guilt as strong as the Jespa’s currents as she ushered the girl away up the embankment.

      “Welcome to your new life.”

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      Across the river, in a second-story window of a long-abandoned warehouse, a man robed and masked in red watched the scene on the far bank through his spyglass. His eyes followed Shaila’s every move until she was swallowed by the darkness of the western streets, then he too slipped away, silently, like a ghost in the night.

*************************

      When Shaila and Detarii stepped into the mansion, the younger woman stared up in awe at the grand ceiling, the winding central staircase, and stained-glass windows. The door to the servants’ hall burst open, and Alonso, Rovik’s head of staff, marched across the foyer in clipped, even strides with his hands clasped behind his back, his chin held high, and his coattails whipping.

      “Shaila,” he barked as if to an errant child, “who is this and why are you dripping horrible river water all over the clean tile?”

      “This is Detarii, our new member of staff.”

      Alonso gave the girl a scrutinizing look, then he leaned near Shaila’s ear. “What do you expect me to do with this?” he asked. “Rovik told you only to bring back beauties.”

      “She’s the fairest I’ve seen in weeks.”

      Detarii beamed at Shaila’s praise.

      “How old is she?”

      “Nineteen,” Shaila answered before Detarii could do so first.

      Detarii’s eyes flicked to Shaila in uncertainty, and Alonso groaned as he rolled his eyes.

      “Just take her, Alonso,” Shaila said. “She’s already here.”

      Alonso sighed. “You’ll be the death of us all, Shaila. I should never have gotten mixed up in your antics.” He motioned to Detarii. “Well, come along then, girl. There’s much you need to learn.”

      Detarii gave Shaila one last grateful smile over her shoulder, but before Alonso could usher her away, a call came from the staircase.

      “Is this a new addition?”

      Marcel, Rovik’s head of security and personal bodyguard, descended the stairs, his club swinging back and forth on his belt with every step. His crisp brown uniform was pressed to perfection, and his short black hair was slicked straight back out of his face with so much grease it looked permanently wet. He never smiled.

      Alonso stopped and reluctantly turned Detarii for Marcel’s inspection.

      Marcel seized the girl’s chin and turned it one way then the other. He studied her face then her figure with a look of cold indifference. He looked at Shaila with a disapproving scowl before releasing Detarii and dismissing her with a wave. Alonso quickly steered the girl away.

      “I know the game you play, woman,” Marcel spat.

      “I play no games at all,” Shaila replied.

      “You’ve brought back nothing but scraps from the river this whole season. How curious it is that the day our sovereign first took you to bed, the Jespa stopped spitting handsome-faced girls. Filling this estate with castaways will not preserve your position in this house.”

      “No? Perhaps you could teach me your tricks then.”

      Marcel’s lip twitched. “I suggest you start doing your job properly from now on.” He leaned toward her. “Or would you rather end up in The Cellar? You know how our sovereign likes to deal with those who disappoint him.” Shaila’s icy stare never faltered under the threat, and Marcel snorted in disappointment. “He wants to see you. Immediately. Go clean yourself up and report to his quarters.”

      “Whatever sir desires,” Shaila said sweetly. She swept her dripping hair forward over her shoulder and wrung it out in her hands. A stream of icy water splashed onto Marcel’s shoes, and he jumped back with a hiss as it soaked through clear to his socks. Shaila smiled as she sauntered away up the stairs…