Carved Amidst the Shadows by M.T. Fontaine
Series: Brands of Taelgir
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Dark Political Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: August 30, 2022
Publisher: Flecha Escrita Edicionas (Self Published)
When the gods shaped the continent into five kingdoms to be ruled by their progeny, they did not account for the greed of men. When they created the Order from their god-blessed followers to mediate between realms, they neglected to plan against the hoarding of power. War between the royalists and the godly was inevitable.
Five centuries later, the borders between kingdoms are impenetrable. No branded-born Marked can cross them without burning to ash, except the Order’s Stewards. But a damaging new war has been prophesied, one that haunts the Order, one that will come to pass if Carved traitors roam free and brandless-born Flawed are left alive.
It starts with one girl that survives the impossible. Kaianne, the Carved. It takes shape through one prince with ambition. Andreiyes, the Marked. It hinges on one grieving man who is ready to give up hope. Rau, the Steward. Three people bound by fate – whether they like it or not.
Author Bio & Information
M.T. grew up as that kid whose thoughts always raced faster than what her mouth could spout out. That kid who woke up in the middle of the night to write down ideas and left notes behind for friends and family to find.
She quickly discovered spun stories expressed her emotions far better than the spoken word. The rest was a matter of time, patience, and many deletions.
Mari-Tris lives under Spain’s gorgeous sun and warm weather, gorging on tapas and tea. Lots and lots of tea.
236th Stretch of Gain
Alpha Cycle of the 947th Stretch
Millau Estate – Isyldill
The promise contract landed on the mahogany table with a thump, but Ladyling Ynnea Kaianne made no move to touch it. It was sickeningly thick and something Ynnea wanted no part in, but she was only twelve and that meant she was still under her noble father’s thumb. If Papa had listened to her, it never would have been written, but that was far too much to hope for.
A servant uncorked a bottle of ink and placed a quill in her hand. She bit her lip and rolled the stress off her shoulders just a touch, nothing unseemly. She wouldn’t want to be called improper and berated for the fragility of her gender’s constitution now, would she? Certainly not with Papa, or Lord Pascual of House Bryant, or her future intended, or Princeling Andreiyes in attendance. They all stared as though she were an animal to cage. She dipped the quill and skimmed over the calligraphed words. The ink’s bitter scent on the ten crisp pages prickled her nose.
A child half her age could accomplish this task. Initial each page and sign the last to ensure her compliance and bind her and her family’s fate on her eighteenth name-day to the Lordling Willik, heir of House Bryant. It gave her five stretches and five moon cycles of freedom to do as she pleased before they forced her to run a household and pop out children like Mama. Oh, so much to look forward to – vomiting, bloating, something growing inside bumping up the skin at odd angles, and the pain. As if to mock her, her mother wailed and whimpered, courtesy of a contraction from her latest pregnancy. The cry echoed from the other side of the manor, and Kaianne winced.
Why couldn’t boys be the ones to carry children and help the wetnurses with their chores? Sword training looked like more fun. Other than wearing pretty gowns, being a girl was dull. Sit straight and sew, or read or play an instrument, or dance or fan yourself. The only fun to be had nearby was walking through the markets in Millian – the town attached to their estate – or climbing trees in the Weldolf woods at the estate’s edge.
No one reacted to Mama’s cries as they echoed through the conference hall. Lord Pascual of House Bryant, northern commander of Isyldill’s kingsmen, cleared his throat. His Highness Prince Andreiyes, court witness to the signing, leaned sideways in his chair and stifled a yawn, chin resting on his fist. Even Papa’s stern facade only cracked for a grainfall before reverting to marble.
Sweat clammed Kaianne’s palm, the quill slipping between her fingers. Normally, the floor to ceiling tapestries that lined the walls brought warmth and comfort, but at that moment they were threatening to wrap and smother her. Her chest tightened in the stuffy stillness.
She pleaded silently across the room for Papa to reconsider, but Lord Thibault of House Lyssandre remained impassive. One blink was all he gave, a silent order to sign. Her two older brothers beside him offered her no further comfort, permanently the faithful sons, and she didn’t even try to enlist Prince Andreiyes’ help. He tended to be in sync with her brother, Grayson – the two of them thick as thieves. Always with the insults and horseplay, too often at her expense.
Beside her, Willik shifted in his chair. At nearly sixteen, three stretches her senior, perhaps he was just as uncomfortable as she was. Gods knew they could not stand each other. That little hope had her glancing up. He forced a smile below the odd orange fuzz growing beneath his nose and on his chin. Oh little lords, would she really be forced to kiss that one day?
She cringed with a shiver and stared down at the contract outlining her life sentence. A forever with Willik, the pompous dunce who complained of the slightest bit of dirt on his boots. The one who could never be bothered to be seen with her because she was a girl and younger than he. Whose red hair made her wish she could strike flint to it. She gulped. She needed to get out of there, immediately.
Kaianne set down her quill and stood, her chair screeching along the tile. “Pardon me my Lords, your Highness. I need but a moment.” Just to escape to the privy for a short while to form a real plan of escape.
“Sit. Down,” Papa ordered, his baritone voice promising discipline. His dark eyes were fiery with challenge. “Everyone out. My daughter and I need a moment.”
For a moment’s hesitation, the air was so still not even a butterfly could have flown on it. Then, her eldest brother Deacon cleared his throat, inclined his head to Papa, and left, trailing her brother Grayson behind him and escorting out House Bryant’s members.Kaianne gave Deacon one last pleading look before he slipped into the hallway. The princeling remained, a grin tugging at the corner of his dark face. He waved to Papa to proceed once the doors to the room shut.
“Your Highness.” Papa’s tone was measured behind gritted teeth. “I require a few sandfalls with my child.”
Andreiyes’ eyes snapped to meet Papa’s, and for a moment the playfulness in his amber eyes that Kaianne hated vanished.
“If you consider her a child, Lord Thibault, then she has no place signing that contract today.”
Kaianne gaped at him. She was unpleasantly well acquainted with his jesting nature. The pranks he and her brother played on her were a plague on her life. Being an arrogant arse did not help his cause, either. This serious, supportive side of him was shocking and suspicious. She narrowed her eyes at the boy who was fourth-in-line to the throne of Isyldill.
In all Isyldill, Royal House Lenierz were the closest descendants of the gods – Aethel and Gaia – who had terraformed the land to provide for their people and led them to a prosperous future. Following in their footsteps should be more than enough motivation for a prince, but not Andreiyes. Just past celebrating his fifteenth stretch, the princeling still preferred to frolic and jeer. This was the most dutiful she had ever seen him.
“I may be young, Lord Lyssandre, but I am far from foolish. King Triunn has demanded I bear witness to the signing of this contract and all of its dealings. That includes these conversations.” Andreiyes sat upright and entwined his fingers on the table. “Hard be it for me to disappoint my grandfather, and I am certain you do not wish to offend or counter his requests. So, as much as I would rather be anywhere but here…as you were. Proceed.”
Kaianne shuddered. He oozed haughtiness like pus from a boil ever since his voice had stopped fluctuating from broken high pitches to a deeper timber than his spindly frame suggested. No one would ever doubt him to be royal born, even if they were blind to his tanned skin tonethat was at least five shades darker than hers. Supposedly the god couple had skin black as night, the color carried down in their descendants yet diluted after hundreds of stretches of couplings with light skinned nobles and commonfolk. Not that her own family skin shade was pearl white. Her family’s nobility and prestige was tied not only to their wealth and loyalty to the crown but also to their caramel skin. In some distant past, one or more of her ancestors had likely been royal. Unlike the Bryants who were so white they competed with snow.
Papa inclined his head. “As you wish.”
Kaianne bit her cheek, eyes bouncing between the princeling’s focused gaze and Lord Lyssandre, before choosing to ignore the princeling. It wasn’t him she had to convince. She took a deep breath. “Papa, I’m begging you. Willik and I – ”
“Are to be married. That is the end of it.”
“But Papa, you cannot…I don’t want a husband.”
“Enough, Ynnea.” His tone was clipped. She hated the use of her first name. Its pronunciation was stern, detached, and lacked warmth. “We discussed this. There is nothing further for you to negotiate.”
The prince bent forward. She squirmed with unease, staring into her father’s brown eyes, begging him to reconsider. Eyes narrowed, Lord Lyssandre slapped his palm against the table.
“Remember your place, girl. My affection for you will only go so far. If you go against your word again, I’ll have you locked in your chambers and married in a fortnight. Is that clear?”
Kaianne’s breath skipped. She nodded.
“Good.” Lord Lyssandre circled the table and patted her shoulder before placing a chaste kiss on her temple. “Make me proud and sign. You need this. We need this.”
She stared at his empty seat as he left the chamber, the door clicking shut whilst her mother wailed once more. Her chest tightened. The idea of being pregnant and pushing out a babe, it made her shiver. Never, never would it happen to her. That was a vow. With a shaky hand, she picked up the quill.
“Well,” the prince broke her unease. “I certainly did not expect such excitement. Especially not from you.”
She shot him a glare. His jesting smile was not in the least bit comforting. “Just because you know Grayson does not mean you know me, your Highness.”
“Careful, Ynnea. I am not your equal.”
“As if you and my brother would ever let me forget it.” If only he was the sole cause of her ire. She would certainly love to sear holes through that smug face of his and chip away at the straight edges of his jawline and brows that were becoming more prominent every stretch.
“Little else puts you in your place.” The contempt in his voice was as clear as her father’s. “This bargain with the Lord, what do you gain?”
“What do you care?”
“What can I say? My curiosity is never sated.” He reclined in his chair, the wood creaking from the shift.
Kaianne exhaled and scanned the papers once more. “Five and half stretches. To do as I wish if I accept willingly.”
“And if you did not?”
Burning tears fogged up the words on the parchment. She willed them away. “Papa would see me set on the streets without a penny to my name until I accept a quick wedding.”
“Well, every woman needs a man. And you are just a girl.”
And he was just a boy. She scoffed. That kind of response was exactly why she had nicknamed him Yierd like turd, because that was what his attitude reminded her of: an enormous steaming pile of manure that required a good shoveling.
“That’s something only boys like you think to fluff your own feathers. I’d be thrilled to never marry.”
His chortle grated her ears. “I almost pity House Bryant. Almost.”
The nincompoop winked at her. Kaianne grinded her teeth. Let him mock her. She planned to show all of them her worth. She had the following five stretches and five cycles. That made exactly sixty-five Maiesta moon cycles to disgust Willik and Lord Bryant into abandoning this dumb contract. In total one thousand nine-hundred fifty days to change her fate. There was time – an infinite number of sand grains in timekeepers left to fall. She tapped the quill on the ink bottle’s bottom. The quill scratched the parchment as she signed her name on each page. Ladyling Ynnea Kaianne Lyssandre.
While her mother suffered from child pains, Kaianne was the lady of the house. Duty required her to accompany their guests to the estate’s courtyard to see them off. As if signing her life away were not enough.
The men ambled from the conference hall to the foyer surrounding the grand marble staircase. Papa, Deacon – her eldest brother –, and Lord Bryant’s voices rumbled through tiresome political conversations while Yierd and her brother Grayson regressed to their crude assessments regarding the ladies of court. Her younger brothers Eryk and Adelmo followed behind them like eager hounds. Willik, unfortunately, found it appropriate to wait for her, elbow out for her to hold, lips curled up in a sneer.
She glared into his bland brown eyes and their golden rim around the iris – the same color everyone in Isyldill was born with except for the royals – expecting a deprecating or vain remark now that his father was out of hearing. Nothing about him made her giggle like some of her acquaintances at court might.
His too pale skin flushed with freckles was a reminder that the Bryants were of a newer line of nobles, dubbed only a century before because their coffers were overfilled with gold migs. The royals adored their excessive sycophantic behavior enough to name Lord Pascual and his father before him the Northern Commander. Her family was selling her to the Bryants to further their own wealth and military prowess, nothing else. That twisted her insides. She was no better than kindling for the fire on a cold night.
“Do me a favor, Ynnea, try growing some tits.”
She scoffed at the insult. Did he forget she was only twelve? “You dare address your future wife in such a way?”
“My wife should know her place.”
“Wow. How much more of a cur can you be?”
“At least I have the decency to feign interest.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Such a hardship.” She waved him forward, desperate to send him and his distasteful slurs on their way and escape the glaring eyes from the portraits hanging along the hall. “Willik, let’s be honest. I don’t like you. You don’t like me, and I will never be your wife. Pretending otherwise is foolish.”
His lips twitched into a snarl. “You are a lamb, Ynnea. Always have been, always will be. And I look forward to your slaughter.”
Kaianne pulled away and hurried ahead of him, unwilling to deal with him any further. The butler opened the double doors that led to the front courtyard and its greenery. Only then did her tension slacken.
Whiffs of thyme, rosemary and tarragon permeated the air from the vegetable gardens on the edge of the manor’s east wing. The heat from the last twelve cycle stretch was only starting to abate, but the breeze caressed her skin beneath the lace of her half-sleeves. It forced a few strands of Kaianne’s ash brown hair out of her braided bun. They blew backwards, begging to be as carefree and unrestrained as the wind. She rolled her shoulders and drew back her head. The sky was clearing, clouds bustling by, an ivory waxing gibbous and one sandy sphere hanging on opposite sides of the sea of sunny blue – Taelgir’s two moons.
Twenty paces away, along the pebbled passage through the manicured garden hedges, lawn and ponds, their guests’ horses awaited with a groom attending to each. Soon, this charade would be over.
“Until we meet again.” Willik grabbed her palm. Had she not felt Papa’s and Lord Pascual’s gazes on them, she’d have torn her hand out of his grasp before he slobbered it with a long kiss.
With a shiver, she ripped her hand away and wiped his saliva on the back of her dress. “You forget, lordling,” she hissed through her teeth. “I have no plans to see you for as long as the gods permit.”
He chortled with a shake of his head before descending the marble steps and approaching his horse. Good riddance.
“Lord Pascual,” she curtsied before the blond noble – Willik’s red hair came from his mother’s side. “Your company, as always, is a pleasure. We do hope to see you again soon.”
“As is yours. I expect to return shortly to celebrate the birth of your sibling. It will be a joyous occasion.” His smile reached from ear to ear. Despite her dislike of Willik, Pascual of House Bryant had a genuine charm to his tone and demeanor that always put her at ease. How he got along so well with her brooding father was beyond her. “The day you become a Bryant and we join our two houses permanently will be all the more.”
“You’re too kind.” Kaianne forced a smile.
“You are, as always, welcome at the Zesco Manor. Her Ladyship and I would be thrilled to see more of our future daughter.” Instead of a kiss to her wrist, Lord Bryant pecked her cheek and offered a warm smile.
“Please send her Ladyship my best.”
As Lord Pascual took his leave from Papa, Kaianne hugged her arms with unease. Pascual held the warmth her father lacked. That attention from a father figure was delightful, almost worth envying Willik for.
The two men locked right forearms, their marks facing in and touching, before pulling each other close for a back-patting embrace before parading down the path to the horses. Absentmindedly, Kaianne traced her own mark – the black outline of a griffin’s eagle head in profile, black feathers brushed back, a steely golden eye the exact same color of Isyldill’s royal family’s, and a menacing pointed beak.
Everyone in Isyldill was born with the same one except for the Flawed. They had none whatsoever, and those few were always exterminated as quickly as possible. Dangerous abominations, they were. They threatened the realm and the Order of Stewards’ stability with treachery. Something about them causing dissonance and disarray, all predicted by the gods. Both Papa and Mama had explained it, though Kaianne’s attention had wavered within the first few boring sentences of political reasoning and the mention of the traitorous Carved.