The Pyramid Waltz
By: Barbara Ann Wright | Other books by Barbara Ann Wright
Published By: Bold Strokes Books
Published: Sep 18, 2012
ISBN # 9781602827929
Published By: Bold Strokes Books
Published: Sep 18, 2012
ISBN # 9781602827929
Word Count: 102,565
Available in: Epub, Adobe Acrobat, Mobipocket (.prc)
DescriptionTo most, Princess Katya Nar Umbriel is a rogue and a layabout; she parties, she hunts and she breaks women’s hearts. But when the festival lights go down and the palace slumbers, Katya chases traitors to the crown and protects the kingdom’s greatest secret: the royal Umbriels are part Fiend. When Katya thwarts an attempt to expose the king’s monstrous side, she uncovers a plot to let the Fiends out to play.
Starbride has no interest in being a courtier. Ignoring her mother’s order to snare an influential spouse, she comes to court only to study law. But a flirtatious rake of a princess proves hard to resist, and Starbride is pulled into a world of secrets that leaves little room for honesty or love, a world neither woman may survive.
Reader Rating: Not rated (0 Ratings)
Sensuality Rating: Not rated
Excerpt:Chapter One: Katya
The afternoon air tasted of wood smoke, a sign of autumn Katya would have enjoyed if she hadn’t been hunting a traitor. She crouched among the ferns dotting the forest floor and took slow, deep breaths, the better to hear the slightest movement.
Birds chirped to her left, and she turned to the right where the sounds of the forest had gone quiet. She saw a flash of white, Pennynail’s Laughing Jack mask. Smeared as it was with dirt, a bit of brightness still shone through. The mask, with its ever-present grin, long nose, and rosy cheeks, seemed far too amused for the situation, as it did for every situation. He pointed to the eyeholes of his mask and shook his head. When Katya nodded, he moved back through the undergrowth as silently as any predator.
Katya took a slow step forward, her muscles threatening to cramp as she slinked. A twig snapped ahead of her, and she froze. Pennynail would never make such a noise, but it could be the other members of her team closing in. She tensed. Up ahead, a fern rustled, and she saw another flash of white, cloth this time. None of her team would be stupid enough to wear white clothing in the forest. Katya gripped her rapier. Soon, there’d be one less traitor to threaten her family.
The fern moved again, and Katya saw the traitor’s face. His eyes locked with hers, and then he was off. Katya sprang up and after him, drawing her rapier as she ran. She closed quickly, and the fleeing man spun and aimed his short sword at her ribs. Katya blocked. The traitor turned and fled, and it took Katya a moment to switch from dueling to running again.
An arrow whizzed past the fleeing man. It clipped his arm and drew a thin line of blood across his white sleeve. With a yelp, he veered to the side. Maia emerged from the bushes, her pale blond hair floating loose from its braid as she nocked another arrow. The traitor tried to turn a different direction, but a brown blur tackled him. The two forms wrestled, leaves and twigs flying from the forest floor, before they became the fleeing man face-down on the ground and Pennynail astride him. Pennynail held the traitor’s wrists together and put two gloved fingers to his forehead in salute.
Katya returned the gesture and took a few deep breaths. Now the hard work could begin. “I knew you’d be the one to nab him.”
Pennynail touched his heart and then his mask’s cheek as if he were blushing. The man beneath him squirmed.
“Bind him nice and tight,” Katya said. “Brutal and Crowe should catch up any moment.”
She kept her rapier at the traitor’s throat as Pennynail tied his wrists and ankles with a leather cord. Even bound and kneeling at her feet, the traitor snarled. “You can’t stop us.” His tongue darted out to lick a cut on his lip. “You have no idea how high up we go, how many of us there are.”
Katya slid her rapier home in its scabbard. “Educate me, Mr.…what was it you called yourself? The Shadow? That’s a fabulous name.”
He spat a wad of blood at her feet.
“Brother Brutal will be here soon. Would you rather talk to me or to a member of a strength chapterhouse?”
The Shadow swallowed and glared at her, hate burning in his eyes.
“They claim that they can read a man’s soul just by fighting him, that combat is the only path to enlightenment, that you can’t learn the universe without pain.” Katya leaned forward and fixed the man with her gaze. Weakness and fear shone in his shifting eyes and twitching muscles, but she didn’t pity him. Anyone who wanted to hurt her family didn’t deserve pity.
The sound of crunching leaves made the Shadow look to the side where red-robed Brother Brutal emerged from the trees like a bloody wall. “Ah, Brutal,” Katya said, “at last. Persuade our friend, if you please.”
The Shadow squirmed as Brutal put a hand the size of a dinner plate on top of his head. The huge monk’s fingers tightened, tilting the traitor’s head up. “If you wish a duel, I’ll give it, brother.” Brutal’s deep voice matched his massively muscled frame but contradicted the reddish cheeks of his baby face.
The Shadow’s neck muscles twitched as he tried to free himself. “Never…tell.”
Katya shrugged. “Well, it would be easier, but you don’t actually need to say a thing.”
Brutal moved to stand at his back. “Shame.”
“You’ll get the next one,” Katya said. “All we need now is Crowe.” She looked over her shoulder in time to see the Order of Vestra’s oldest member come huffing and puffing out of the trees to join them. “Are there any others? Or is our Shadow the last one?”
Crowe shook his head, leaned on his knees, and breathed hard. He straightened after a moment and ran a hand over his thinning white hair. “Give me a minute!” When his breathing slowed, he took a clear pyramid about the size of a child’s fist from the satchel at his side. “My sources indicated that this is the ringleader, and none of his toadies are about. We’d better hurry back to the city before we’re missed.”
“Do what you need to do. We’ll keep watch.”
“Hold him,” Crowe said. Brutal grasped the Shadow’s head again, and Crowe pressed the base of the pyramid to the Shadow’s forehead. The Shadow’s eyes rolled back and his mouth slackened at the touch of smooth crystal.
Katya couldn’t fight a grimace. He looked like a dead carp. “What do you see?”
“This cannot be rushed, no matter how many times you ask that it be.”
“You said it yourself; we’ve been gone too long. Hunting stags shouldn’t take all day.”
“Then you’ll have to make up an incredible story about the one that almost got away. This man’s mind is a jumble.”
“Not surprising,” Brutal said. “These people are smart. They’d teach their own how to resist a mind pyramid.”
Crowe moved his head back and forth as if searching for something. “Lucky for us, he’s not so good at it. I’m getting that one of his friends is influential, maybe nobility.”
Katya sucked in a breath. “I knew it, a traitor in the palace. That’s how his group has evaded us so long.”
“That’s all,” Crowe said. He took the pyramid away, and the Shadow went limp against Brutal’s legs. “He won’t be coming around for a long while. There was a lot to sift through, and most of it I couldn’t make heads or tails of. There was something about your father, Katya.”
“Wait, King Einrich couldn’t know who the conspirators are, right?” Maia seemed to realize what she said as soon as the words left her mouth. Blushing, she picked at her braid.
Crowe gave her a wry look. “Don’t you think he’d tell us, hmm?”
“Yeah,” Maia said. “You’re right. That was a silly thing to say.”
“Don’t worry, coz.” Katya clapped her on the shoulder. “We can’t be right all the time.”
“Wrong. You can just declare yourself right, Highness.”
“And don’t forget it.” Katya pointed a finger in mock warning. “Crowe, you and Pennynail know what to do.”
“Yes, one complimentary ride to the dungeons for our Shadow.” His smile didn’t diminish the dark circles under his eyes. “I wonder how many of the guards think it’s funny that an old pyradisté like me still goes out hunting villains.”
“Ah, but you’re the king’s pyradisté. Your duties are many and varied.”
“I notice you didn’t argue with the ‘old’ part.”
“I wouldn’t want to disappoint.”
Brutal heaved the Shadow’s unconscious body over one shoulder. “Lucky this one’s light. C’mon, it’s almost dinnertime.”
“Trust you to notice,” Katya said.
Brutal patted his large frame, but the muscled flesh didn’t wobble. “I’m a growing boy, growing outward, anyway.”
“I think your figure is very nice,” Maia said. When they all looked at her, she went scarlet to her ears and moved ahead to take the lead.
Crowe fell into step with Katya. “Ready to turn back into a numbskull?”
“Don’t remind me. It’s bad enough to do it. I don’t want to have to anticipate it, too.”
Ahead of them, Pennynail poked Maia in the arm before pointing off into the trees and sprinting out of sight, lost in the undergrowth.
“I’ll spot you,” Maia called.
“Need any help?” Katya asked.
“I can find him.”
“You shouldn’t encourage them,” Crowe whispered in Katya’s ear.
“Let them play.”
Crowe snorted. “And here I was thinking that the business of the Order deserved our complete attention.”
“I’ll be damned before I let my team stop having fun.”
“There he is.” Maia pointed into the trees and nocked an arrow. “I’ll just get close enough to scare him.” She took careful aim, oblivious as Pennynail loomed from the bushes behind her. He bounced his open palms off her shoulders, and she jumped with a cry, her arrow wobbling off into the brush. “Sneak!”
Pennynail covered the mouth of his mask as if stifling laughter and then swaggered ahead, his long red ponytail swaying from just above where the mask laced up the back of his head.
“You’ll get him next time,” Brutal said. Maia beamed at him before she ran to catch up with Pennynail. She tugged at one of the numerous buckles that secured his outfit and made his slender figure difficult to examine.
At the edge of the wood, the party turned toward the smoke of a campfire, this one carrying the odd scent of berries mixed with wood. They broke into the arranged clearing, and Averie stood beside a smoldering fire near their picket of horses. Her simple leather clothing was green and brown to match the forest, and the camouflage seemed to have aided her, as the stag hanging from a nearby tree could testify. “Seems we both got prizes today, Highness,” Averie said.
Katya peered at the downed animal and tsked. “One shot through the neck, nice and clean. I’m getting better and better.”
“Ready to trade one set of hunting gear for another?”
“I’d rather hunt traitors all day. Question is, are you ready to play the self-sacrificing, put-upon lady-in-waiting?”
Averie heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I never stopped.”
“Jewel of my heart!” Katya cried in mock longing. She fell to one knee. “What would I do without you?”
Averie pulled a change of clothes from her pack and tossed them over. “You’d go about naked, that’s what you’d do.”
Katya put on her best leer, but Averie laughed it off and helped her out of her black tabard and leather breastplate. Katya tucked her pyramid necklace next to her skin before she donned a leather-accented hunting shirt and buckled her rapier back on. She tucked a clean tabard into her belt, this one stiff with embroidery and bearing the hawk and rose of the Princess of Farraday. Averie smoothed her hair, forcing any stray strands into the loose bun at the base of her neck.
“There, much more regal,” Averie said.
Katya only muttered and mounted her horse.
“Your kill, Highness.” Brutal laid the stag behind Katya’s saddle. “The Shadow is similarly positioned on Crowe’s horse.”
Katya shifted away from the large dead animal. “Ugh. I’d rather have him.”
“We’ll meet you later for debriefing.” Crowe and Pennynail started down the road.
“Be careful not to be noticed!” Katya called after him.
He gave her a dark look over one shoulder. “Go and teach the wind to whistle while you’re giving out free advice.”
“You tease too much,” Averie said.
“It keeps him from descending into a sea of self-righteous grumpiness.”
“Or it hastens his descent.”
Katya shook her head, and they began the ride back to the city of Marienne, Farraday’s capital, past the fields and the homesteads, and along the main thoroughfare. Katya cast off her true self, becoming Princess Katyarianna Nar Umbriel once again, moderately fond of the people, inordinately fond of hunting and weapon-craft. She waved disinterestedly or imperiously at most of the gawkers and winked or leered at any young women. She thanked the spirits she didn’t have to play a pampered, simpering, garters-and-gowns princess. As a dark-haired peasant girl blew her a kiss, Katya also thanked her mother for deciding her persona should be a bit of a rake.
Katya caught the kiss and pressed it to her lips, but she didn’t stop. Cutting a swath through the women of Marienne had been fun for a while. No chance of children, just a trail of broken hearts. All her affairs had ended the same way, though; she could almost hear the entreaties in her head. “Princess, could you help me with… Could you convince your father to…? My brother has been trying to get into the Pyradisté Academy, and…” It went on and on. She’d trusted some of them, not with her sacred duty as leader of the Order of Vestra, but with her person, with her heart. Now, at nineteen, she simply played the part, a fact she reminded herself of as the peasant girl waved farewell.
The gate guards bowed as she rode into the sprawling palace proper, a series of long rectangles with the occasional turret or tower rising out of the jumble. Her party passed the statues of the ten spirits that lined the wide passage into the courtyard. Brutal saluted Best and Berth, twins of strength and courage, the patron spirits of his brotherhood. Katya saluted Matter and Marla, needing their sharp intellects and wisdom if she was going to find her family’s enemies.
Maia gave a half-hidden salute to Ellias and Elody, twins of love and beauty, as she passed. Katya hid a grin. The twin patrons of lovers couldn’t help Maia unless she learned how to speak to Brutal without blushing. If he’d been there, Pennynail would have made a great flourish to Jack and Jan, twins of skill and deftness. Katya made the gesture for him. All of them saluted Fah and Fay, spirits of luck, the twin statues perched precariously atop a stone egg.
They rode to the rear of the palace, to the royal stable, and Katya left Brutal, Averie, and Maia with the gear and the grooms. The princess couldn’t be seen tending her horse or her weapons or her kill. Getting out of brushing horses and handling dead animals were two perks she could deal with.
Still in her leather hunting gear, she passed through the halls of the palace to its interior and the winter apartments of the royal family. Pyramids set in the walls glittered as she passed, and she wondered for the hundredth time what they would do to an unauthorized visitor. She resisted the urge to touch her pyramid necklace as she always did when she thought of magic.
The guards at the entryway to her parents’ rooms saluted with a snap as Katya passed. She heard her father’s deep voice echoing down the hall and headed for the sitting room. Even after hearing him, she paused to knock at the door, recalling a time she’d slipped her nursemaid and seen her parents in a situation that was then confusing, but now unthinkably embarrassing.
“Come,” her father boomed.
King Einrich Nar Umbriel stood upon a wooden block while a tailor fussed with the robes that draped him. Katya’s father paid him no mind, leaving the fussing to Queen Catirin Van Umbriel, who supervised all aspects of the draping. Even while going about such mundane tasks, the two exuded an air of royalty that Katya strived to live up to. In her heart, though, they’d always be Ma and Da.
“Ah, Katya,” Da said. After a nod in her direction, he continued dictating to a clerk at his side who wrote hurriedly upon an untidy sheaf of papers.
“Too much velvet,” Ma said to the tailor. Though her mother only stood as high as the tailor’s shoulder, her bearing gave her a commanding presence.
The tailor cocked his head to and fro. “Purple is very regal.”
“There’s regal and then there’s looking like a window dressing.”
The tailor re-draped the velvet into a shorter, knee-length cape and folded it back from Da’s shoulders so that it wouldn’t meet in front, showing off the tacked-together fabric that would be a new suit for the Courtiers Ball.
Ma tapped her chin. “A credit to your art.” She smiled, and the tailor bowed nearly to the floor.
Katya ducked her head to cover a grin. One minute Ma was calling the tailor’s creation a window dressing, and the next she was calling it art, but the smile made the tailor forget about the former. She couldn’t stop politicking, even with tradesmen.
She turned to Katya with arched brows, a signal Katya knew of old. Anytime in front of witnesses was a perfect time for a “fight.” “Why do you even bother coming in here dressed like that, Katyarianna?”
Katya sagged against the woodwork and shrugged. She could do disapproving mother and disinterested daughter in her sleep. “I’ll dress up when there’s something worth dressing up for.”
“The Courtiers Ball is worth dressing up for. Your brother’s impending visit is worth dressing up for.”
“The ball’s not for another few nights. The visit not for half a month or so.”
“Still—” Ma started. Da cleared his throat and inclined his head to the clerk and tailor. The first was still writing, his tongue protruding from the side of his mouth. The latter was doing a poor job feigning ignorance. His eyes darted at them while he gathered up loose fabric. Da’s cough and look guaranteed the story would get out. “And then the king had to silence them!” the tailor would say. It was like living inside a complex ballet.
“That’ll do for now, Maxwell,” Ma said. The tailor picked up his kit and stowed everything in a rolling basket before he exited in a rush. Da finished what he was saying to the clerk and then excused the man, waiting until the clerk picked up all the papers and vanished out the doors.
As he stepped down from the block, Da kissed Ma on the cheek. “Thank you, my love, for saving me from looking like a window dressing.”
“The duties of a queen are many and varied.”
“And you.” Da gave Katya a squeeze. “You have made boredom into an art form.”
“I was just thinking that,” Katya said. Her mother squeezed her hand. For all their fake arguing, Ma really cared about her clothing, and Katya’s leather outfit was dusty. Katya knew she’d get a hug when she was clean.
Ma looked her up and down. “You’re all right?”
“Fit and hale.”
“Well, then.” Da sat on the tailor’s block. “Pull up a chair and let’s hear it.”
Katya pulled her stiff tabard out of her belt and over her head and laid it to the side. “We caught the Shadow, although he’s quite ordinary-looking for someone with such a nefarious name.”
“What did he tell you?”
“The usual, that there are more of his kind and that I have no idea how high his group has penetrated, but this time, I believe it.”
“The bastard has to have connections to have eluded you this long,” Da said.
“Language.” Ma stared off into space, and Katya knew what she was thinking. The second child of the monarchy had always headed the Order of Vestra, protecting the king, queen, and firstborn heir. If she fell in combat or had to assume her brother’s duties, the Order would go to Maia. That knowledge, that the Order would live on, never seemed to stop Ma’s worries.
“I’m fine,” Katya said quietly.
“Of course you are,” Ma said, but she didn’t seem convinced.
Da patted Katya’s knee, three quick smacks. “Yes, of course you are, my girl. Crowe is bringing the Shadow in?”
Ma made a face, her mouth turning down.
“I know you don’t approve of his fashion sense, Ma.”
“I don’t trust people who hide behind masks.”
Da lifted a hand. “Let’s not start that again. The girl has a right to choose her comrades.”
Ma shook her head but didn’t say anything else about it. “You’ll be at the Courtiers Ball.”
“Any idea what you’ll be wearing?”
“My usual.” As her mother frowned, Katya hurried on with, “Suitably embroidered and outstanding. I’m not a complete novice to this game, you know.”
Da prodded her arm. “Lady Hilda still chasing you?”
“Yes, and my excuses for putting her off are getting pretty feeble.”
“A good-looking woman.”
Ma gave him a harsh look. “And ten years too old for you, Katya, as well as being what they’d call well used.”
“Court gossip,” Da said.
Ma gave him a harder look, and Katya had to wonder how her father had lived this long. “Oh, she’s had lovers,” Katya said, “but that should add to her appeal. Beautiful, experienced, and willing.”
“And a backstabbing snake who only wants you for the influence it will give her,” Da said.
They both stared at him.
“What? I’m not a moron, you know.”
“I knew there was a reason you survived so long,” Katya said. “Everyone knows Hilda’s intentions. If I gave in, I would be acknowledging that it’s only a string of pretty lovers that I’m after. That would add to the persona I’ve created, but…” She shook her head.
“You can still have your integrity,” Ma said.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t a normal conversation for a nineteen-year-old girl to have with her parents?”
Da shrugged. “To a nineteen-year-old princess in charge of a secret order tasked to protect the monarchy with magic and brawn, a secret which she can only share with a trusted few, normal conversations are coveted and often unfulfilled dreams.”
“Speaking of,” Katya said, “I’d better go. I’ve got to get cleaned up, laze around the halls for a bit, and then put together a plan of action.”
“Do you think Crowe will learn more from this Shadow?” Da asked.
“He’s the best pyradisté we have,” Ma said. “If he can’t learn anything more…”
“Then we’ll have to do it the really old-fashioned way,” Katya said.
Da rubbed his hands together. “Ears to the ground, eh? And once you find a source of information, you pound him into jelly until he tells you what you want to know!”
Ma grimaced. “Really, Einrich.”
“Sometimes, I envy you, my girl, truly I do.”
Katya had no intention of pounding anyone into anything, but her father’s exuberance was catching. “I won’t let you down, Da.”
“’Course you won’t. If you can evade Lady Hilda’s poisonous tentacles, you can do anything. I have all the faith in the world.”