Rebel, Pawn, KingТекст
Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising seventeen books; of the #1 bestselling series THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, comprising twelve books; of the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising three books; of the epic fantasy series KINGS AND SORCERERS, comprising six books; and of the new epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY. Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations are available in over 25 languages.
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“If you thought that there was no reason left for living after the end of THE SORCERER’S RING series, you were wrong. In RISE OF THE DRAGONS Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of trolls and dragons, of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page… Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”– Books and Movie ReviewsRoberto Mattos
“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as THE INHERITANCE CYCLE by Christopher Paolini… Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.”— The Wanderer, A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)
“A spirited fantasy that weaves elements of mystery and intrigue into its story line. A Quest of Heroes is all about the making of courage and about realizing a life purpose that leads to growth, maturity, and excellence…For those seeking meaty fantasy adventures, the protagonists, devices, and action provide a vigorous set of encounters that focus well on Thor's evolution from a dreamy child to a young adult facing impossible odds for survival…Only the beginning of what promises to be an epic young adult series.”– Midwest Book Review (D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer)
“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”— Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos
“In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer's Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin "Thor" McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king… Rice's writing is solid and the premise intriguing.”– Publishers Weekly
Books by Morgan Rice
THE WAY OF STEEL
ONLY THE WORTHY (Book #1)
OF CROWNS AND GLORY
SLAVE, WARRIOR, QUEEN (Book #1)
ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS (Book #2)
KNIGHT, HEIR, PRINCE (Book #3)
REBEL, PAWN, KING (Book #4)
SOLDIER, BROTHER, SORCERER (Book #5)
KINGS AND SORCERERS
RISE OF THE DRAGONS (Book #1)
RISE OF THE VALIANT (Book #2)
THE WEIGHT OF HONOR (Book #3)
A FORGE OF VALOR (Book #4)
A REALM OF SHADOWS (Book #5)
NIGHT OF THE BOLD (Book #6)
THE SORCERER’S RING
A QUEST OF HEROES (Book #1)
A MARCH OF KINGS (Book #2)
A FATE OF DRAGONS (Book #3)
A CRY OF HONOR (Book #4)
A VOW OF GLORY (Book #5)
A CHARGE OF VALOR (Book #6)
A RITE OF SWORDS (Book #7)
A GRANT OF ARMS (Book #8)
A SKY OF SPELLS (Book #9)
A SEA OF SHIELDS (Book #10)
A REIGN OF STEEL (Book #11)
A LAND OF FIRE (Book #12)
A RULE OF QUEENS (Book #13)
AN OATH OF BROTHERS (Book #14)
A DREAM OF MORTALS (Book #15)
A JOUST OF KNIGHTS (Book #16)
THE GIFT OF BATTLE (Book #17)
THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY
ARENA ONE: SLAVERSUNNERS (Book #1)
ARENA TWO (Book #2)
ARENA THREE (Book #3)
BEFORE DAWN (Book #1)
THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS
TURNED (Book #1)
LOVED (Book #2)
BETRAYED (Book #3)
DESTINED (Book #4)
DESIRED (Book #5)
BETROTHED (Book #6)
VOWED (Book #7)
FOUND (Book #8)
RESURRECTED (Book #9)
CRAVED (Book #10)
FATED (Book #11)
OBSESSED (Book #12)
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Copyright © 2016 by Morgan Rice. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Jacket image Copyright Ivan Bliznetsov, used under license from istock.com.
Thanos felt a pit in his stomach as the ship rocked its way across the sea, each passing current taking him farther and farther from home. There had been no land in sight for days now. He stood at the prow of the boat, looking out at the water, waiting for the moment when he would finally spy something. Only the thought of what might lie ahead, who might lie ahead, kept him from ordering the captain to turn the ship around.
She was out there somewhere, and he would find her.
“You sure about this?” the captain asked, coming up beside him. “No one I know wants to take a trip to the Isle of Prisoners.”
What could Thanos say to that? That he didn’t know? That he felt a bit like the boat, pushed forward by its oars even as the wind tried to push it back?
The need to find Ceres, though, surpassed everything else. It drove Thanos, filling him with excitement at the prospect of finding her. He’d been so sure that she was gone, that he would never see her again. When he’d heard that she might be alive, the relief had flooded him, had made him feel as though he might collapse.
Yet he could not deny that thoughts of Stephania were there too, making him glance back, and even, for a flash, think about going back. She was his wife, after all, and he’d abandoned her. She was carrying his child, and he’d walked away. He’d left her there on the docks. What kind of man did that?
“She tried to kill me,” Thanos reminded himself.
“What’s that?” the captain asked, and Thanos realized he’d said it aloud.
“Nothing,” Thanos said. He sighed. “The truth is that I don’t know. I’m looking for someone, and the Isle of Prisoners is the only place she might have gone.”
He knew Ceres’s ship had sunk on the way to the island. If she’d survived, then it made sense that she might have made it there, didn’t it? That explained why Thanos hadn’t seen anything of her since, too. If she’d been able to get back to him, Thanos had to believe that she would have.
“Seems an awfully big risk to take for not knowing,” the captain said.
“She’s worth it,” Thanos assured him.
“She must be something special to be better than Lady Stephania,” the smuggler said with a leer that made Thanos want to punch him.
“That’s my wife you’re talking about,” Thanos said, and even he recognized the obvious problem with that. He couldn’t defend her when he was the one who had left her behind, and when she’d been the one to order his death. She probably deserved everything anyone said about her.
Now, if only he could convince himself of that. If only his thoughts of Ceres didn’t continue to be punctuated by thoughts of Stephania, as she’d been with him at the castle feasts, as she’d been in quiet moments, as she’d looked on the morning after their wedding night…
“Are you sure you can get me onto the Isle of Prisoners safely?” Thanos asked. He’d never been there, but the whole island was meant to be a well-guarded fortress of a place, inescapable for those who were brought there.
“Oh, that’s easy enough,” the captain assured him. “We go by there sometimes. The guards sell some of the prisoners they’ve broken as slaves. String them up on poles on the shore for us to see as we get close.”
Thanos had long since decided that he hated this man. He hid it, though, because right then the smuggler was the only chance he had to get to the island and find Ceres.
“I don’t exactly want to run into the guards,” he pointed out.
The other man shrugged. “That’s easy enough. We get close, drop you in a small boat, and keep going like it’s a normal visit. Then we’ll wait off the coast for you. Not long, mind you. Wait too long, and they might think we’re doing something suspicious.”
Thanos had no doubt that the smuggler would abandon him given any threat to his ship. Only the prospect of profit had brought him this far. A man like this wouldn’t understand love. For him, it was probably something you hired on the docks by the hour. But he’d gotten Thanos this far. That was what mattered.
“You realize that even if you find this woman on the Isle of Prisoners,” the captain said, “she might not be the way you remember.”
“Ceres will always be Ceres,” Thanos insisted.
He heard the other man snort. “Easy enough to say, but you don’t know the things they do there. Some of the ones they sell us as slaves, there’s barely enough of them left to do anything for themselves unless we tell them.”
“And I’m sure you’re happy to,” Thanos snapped back.
“Don’t like me much, do you?” the captain asked.
Thanos ignored the question, staring out to sea. They both knew the answer, and right then, he had better things to think about. He had to find a way to locate Ceres, whatever that —
“Is that land?” he asked, pointing.
It was no more than a dot on the horizon at first, but even like that, it looked bleak, surrounded by clouds and with roiling waves. As it grew closer, Thanos could feel a sense of brooding dread growing in him.
The island rose up in a series of gray granite spikes like the teeth of some great beast. A bastion sat on the topmost point of the island, a lighthouse above it burning constantly, as if to warn away all who might come there. Thanos could see trees on one side of the island, but most of it seemed to be bare.
As they came closer still, he could see windows that seemed to be carved straight into the rock of the island, as if the whole place had been hollowed out to make the prison bigger. He saw shale beaches too, with bleached white bones sticking out against them. Thanos heard shrieks, and he paled at the realization that he couldn’t tell if they were sea birds or people.
Thanos slid his small boat up the shale of the beach, wincing with disgust at the sight of manacles set there below the tide line. His imagination told him immediately what they were for: torturing or executing prisoners using the incoming waves. A set of abandoned bones on the shore told their own story.
The captain of the smuggling boat turned to him and smiled.
“Welcome to the Isle of Prisoners.”
To Stephania, the world felt bleak without Thanos there. It felt cold, despite the warmth of the sun. Empty, despite the bustle of people around the castle. She stared out over the city, and she could have happily burned it all down, because none of it meant anything. All she could do was sit by the windows of her rooms, feeling as though someone had ripped out her heart.
Maybe someone still would. She’d risked everything for Thanos, after all. What was the precise penalty for assisting a traitor? Stephania knew the answer to that, because it was the same as everything else in the Empire: whatever the king decided. She had little doubt that he would want her death for this.
One of her handmaids offered her a soothing herbal tonic. Stephania ignored it, even when the girl set it down on a small stone table beside her.
“My lady,” the girl said. “Some of the others… they’re wondering… shouldn’t we be making preparations to leave the city?”
“To leave the city,” Stephania said. She could hear how flat and stupid her own voice sounded.
“It’s just… aren’t we in danger? With everything that’s happened, and all you had us do… to help Thanos.”
“Thanos!” The name shocked her out of her stupor for a moment, and anger followed in its wake. Stephania picked up the herbal concoction. “Don’t you dare mention his name, you stupid girl! Get out. Get out!”
Stephania threw the cup with its steaming brew. Her handmaid ducked, which was irritating in itself, but the sound of the cup shattering more than made up for it. Brown liquid spilled down the wall. Stephania ignored it.
“No one is to disturb me!” she yelled after the girl. “Or I’ll have your skin for it.”
Stephania needed to be alone with her thoughts, even if they were such dark thoughts that a part of her wanted to throw herself from the balcony of the rooms just to end it all. Thanos was gone. All she’d done, all she’d worked for, and Thanos was gone. She’d never believed in love before him; she’d been convinced it was a weakness that only opened you up to pain, but with him it had seemed worth the risk. Now, it turned out that she’d been right. Love only made it easier for the world to hurt you.
Stephania heard the sound of the door opening, and she whirled again, looking for something else to throw.
“I said I wasn’t to be disturbed!” she snapped, before she saw who it was.
“That’s hardly very grateful,” Lucious said as he walked in, “when I had you escorted back here so carefully to ensure your safety.”
Lucious was dressed like some storybook prince, in white velvet worked with gold designs and gemstones. He had his dagger at his belt, but he’d removed his golden armor and his sword. Even his hair looked freshly cleaned, free of any taint of the city. He looked, to Stephania, more like a man ready to sing songs beneath her window than one organizing the defense of the city.
“Escorted,” Stephania said with a tight smile. “That’s one word for it.”
“I ensured you traveled safely through the war-torn streets of our city,” Lucious said, “my men seeing that you didn’t fall prey to rebels, or find yourself kidnapped by that murderous husband of yours. Did you know he’d escaped?”
Stephania frowned. What game was Lucious playing?
“Of course I know,” Stephania snapped back. She stood, because she didn’t like Lucious looming over her. “I was there.”
She saw Lucious raise an eyebrow in mock surprise. “Why, Stephania, are you admitting to some role in your husband’s escape? Because none of the evidence points that way.”
Stephania looked at him levelly. “What did you do?”
“I did nothing,” Lucious said, obviously enjoying this far too much. “In fact, I’ve been arduously seeking out the truth of the matter. Most arduously.”
Which, for Lucious, meant torturing people. Stephania had no objection to cruelty, but she certainly didn’t take the pleasure in it that he did.
She sighed. “Stop playing games, Lucious. What have you done?”
Lucious shrugged. “I’ve seen to it that things work out the way I want,” he said. “When I speak to my father, I will tell him that Thanos killed a number of guards on the way out, while another admitted to assisting because of rebel sympathies. Sadly, he did not survive to tell his story again. A weak heart.”
Lucious clearly made sure that no one who had seen Stephania there survived. Even Stephania felt disgust at the callousness of it, although there was another part of her already working out what it meant for her in the context of everything else.
“Sadly, it seems that one of your handmaids was caught up in the plot,” Lucious said. “Thanos seduced her, it seems.”
Anger flashed through Stephania then. “They are my handmaidens!”
It wasn’t just the thought of women who’d served her so loyally being hurt, though that was bad enough. It was the thought that Lucious would dare to harm someone who was so obviously hers. It wasn’t just the thought of one of one of those who served her being harmed, it was the insult of it!
“And that was the point,” Lucious said. “Too many people had seen her about your errands. And when I offered the girl her life in exchange for everything she knew, she was most helpful.”
Stephania looked away. “Why do all this, Lucious? You could have left me to go with Thanos.”
“Thanos didn’t deserve you,” Lucious said. “He certainly didn’t deserve to be happy.”
“And why did you cover up my role in it?” Stephania asked. “You could have stood back and watched me executed.”
“I did think about it,” Lucious admitted. “Or at least, I thought about asking the king for you when we told him. But there was too much of a chance of him simply executing you out of hand, and we couldn’t have that.”
Only Lucious would speak about something like that so openly, or thought that Stephania was just something he could ask his father for like some precious bauble. Just the thought of it made Stephania’s skin crawl.
“But then it occurred to me,” Lucious said, “that I am enjoying the game between us far too much to do something like that. It isn’t the way I want you, anyway. I want you to be my equal, my partner. Truly mine.”
Stephania stepped over to the balcony, as much for fresh air as anything. This close, Lucious’s scent was of expensive rose water and perfumes obviously designed to disguise the blood beneath from the rest of his day’s exertions.
“What are you saying?” Stephania asked, although she already had a good idea of some of what Lucious would want from her. She’d made it her business to find out everything there was to know about the others at court, including Lucious’s appetites.
Although maybe she hadn’t done such a good job of it. She hadn’t realized that Lucious had been worming his way into her network of informants and spies. She hadn’t learned about the things Thanos was doing either, until it had been too late.
She couldn’t compare the two though. Lucious was utterly without morals or stopping points, actively seeking out new ways to hurt others. Thanos was strong and principled, loving and protective.
But he’d been the one to leave her. He’d abandoned her, knowing what might happen afterwards.
Lucious reached out for her hand, taking it in a grip that was gentler than anything he normally managed. Even so, Stephania had to fight the urge to cringe as he lifted her hand to his lips, kissing the inside of her wrist, right where the pulse throbbed.
“Lucious,” Stephania said, pulling her hand away. “I’m a married woman.”
“I’ve rarely found that to be a barrier,” Lucious pointed out. “And let’s be honest, Stephania, I doubt you have either.”
Stephania’s anger flared up again then. “You know nothing about me.”
“I know everything about you,” Lucious said. “And the more I see, the more I know that you and I are perfect for one another.”
Stephania walked away, but Lucious followed. Of course he did. He wasn’t a man who had ever been denied.
“Think about it, Stephania,” Lucious said. “I thought you were nothing but empty headed, but then I learned about the spider’s web you’ve woven in Delos. You know what I felt then?”
“Anger that you’d been made a fool of?” Stephania suggested.
“Careful,” Lucious said. “You wouldn’t want me angry with you. No, I felt admiration. Before, I thought you might be good to bed for a night or two. Afterwards, I thought you might be someone who truly understood how the world works.”
Oh, Stephania understood, better than someone like Lucious could ever know. He had his position to protect him from whatever the world threw at him. Stephania had only her cleverness.
“And you decided we would be the perfect match,” Stephania said. “Tell me then, what did you plan to do about my marriage to Thanos?”
“These things can be put aside,” Lucious said, as if it were as simple as snapping his fingers. “After what he’s done, I would have thought you’d be happy to be free of that attachment.”
There would be an advantage to having the priests do it, because otherwise Stephania risked being tarnished with Thanos’s crimes. She would always be the woman married to the traitor, even if Lucious had ensured that no one would ever be able to tie her to the crimes.
“Or, if you don’t want that,” Lucious said, “I’m sure it won’t take much to ensure his demise. After all, you so nearly managed it before. Regardless of where he’s gone, another assassin could be arranged. You could mourn for a… suitable period. I’m sure black would suit you. You look so lovely in everything else.”
There was something about Lucious’s look that made Stephania uncomfortable, as though he were trying to guess what she would look like without wearing anything at all. She looked him straight in the eyes, trying to keep her tone businesslike.
“And then what?” she demanded.
“And then you marry a more suitable prince,” Lucious said. “Think of all we could do together, with the things you know, and the things I can do. We could rule the Empire together, and the rebellion would never even touch us. You have to admit, we would make a lovely couple.”
Stephania laughed then. She couldn’t help herself. “No, Lucious. We wouldn’t, because I don’t feel a thing for you beyond contempt. You’re a thug, and worse, you’re the reason I’ve lost everything. Why would I ever consider marrying you?”
She watched Lucious’s face turn hard.
“I could make you,” Lucious pointed out. “I could make you do whatever I want. Do you think I couldn’t still let your part in Thanos’s escape be known? Maybe I kept that handmaid of yours, for insurance.”
“Trying to force me into marriage?” Stephania said. What kind of man would do that?
Lucious spread his hands. “You’re not so unlike me, Stephania. You play the game. You wouldn’t want some fool coming to you with flowers and jewels. Besides, you’d learn to love me. Whether you wanted to or not.”
He reached out for her again, and Stephania put her hand on his chest. “Touch me, and you won’t leave this room alive.”
“Do you want me to reveal your part in helping Thanos escape?” he asked.
“You forget your own part,” Stephania said. “After all, you knew all about it. How would the king react if I told him that?”
She expected anger from Lucious then, maybe even violence. Instead, she saw him smile.
“I knew you were perfect for me,” he said. “Even in your position, you find a way to fight back, and beautifully. Together, there will be nothing we can’t do. It will take you time to realize that though, I know that. You’ve been through a lot.”
He sounded exactly the way a concerned suitor should, which only made Stephania trust him less.
“Take the time to think about everything I’ve said,” Lucious said. “Think about everything a marriage to me could offer you. Certainly compared to being the woman who was married to a traitor. You might not love me yet, but people like us don’t make decisions based on that kind of foolishness. We make them because we are superior, and we recognize those like us when we see them.”
Stephania was nothing like Lucious, but she knew better than to say it. She just wanted him to go.
“In the meantime,” Lucious said when she didn’t answer, “I have a gift for you. That handmaiden of yours thought you might need it. She told me all kinds of things about you when she was begging for her life.”
He drew a vial from his belt pouch, setting it down on the small table by the window.
“She told me about the reason you had to run from the blood moon festival,” Lucious said. “About your pregnancy. Clearly, I could never bring up Thanos’s child. Drink this, and there will be no issue. In any sense.”
Stephania wanted to fling the vial at him. She picked it up to do just that, but he was already out the door.
She went to throw it anyway, but stopped herself, sitting back down at the window and staring at it.
It was clear, the sunlight shining through it in a way that made it seem far more innocent than it was. Drink this, and she would be free to marry Lucious, which was a horrible thought. Yet it would put her in one of the most powerful positions in the Empire. Drink this, and the last remnant of Thanos would be gone.
Stephania sat there, not knowing what to do, and slowly, the tears started to roll down her cheeks.
Maybe she would drink it after all.
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