Cover of Blood Gift (Blood Grace Book 7). Artwork shows Cassia about to kiss Lio's neck. In the background, moonflowers and roses climb up iron posts around an open window frame.

Blood GIFT

Blood Grace Book 7

available now

Can she claim her magic and her fangs?

Ancient magic is sleeping inside Cassia. Wielding it is her birthright, but her bloodright is to become an immortal Hesperine like Lio, her Grace. Until she masters her dormant magic, it’s too dangerous for him to transform her. To claim both her legacies, she must return to the land that holds the secrets of her power: the mortal kingdom where she was once powerless.

Lio is ready to protect her with diplomacy, spells, or even his fists. He knows he’ll need them against the lord who is still betrothed to her under human law. Most dangerous of all, the necromancer known as the Collector lies in wait, planning to use Cassia for his mysterious ends.

When the moment of Cassia’s transformation arrives, there will be no turning back. Can the Gift of eternal life from Lio’s blood save her from the necromancer, master of death?

Did you pre-order the ebook? Submit proof of purchase by June 30 to get the bonus content.

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Thalia

COMING SOON:

– Worldwide –

Amazon

Book Depository

– USA –

Bookshop.org

Barnes & Nobles

Books-A-Million

Powell’s

– Canada –

Indigo

– UK –

Blackwell’s

Foyles

Waterstones

WHSmith

– Australia –

Angus & Robertson

Booktopia

Dymocks

– Deutschland –

Hugendubel

Thalia

HOW TO GET YOUR PRE-ORDER GIFTS

  1. Pre-order the ebook, the physical book, or both.
  2. For ebook pre-orders, submit proof of purchase.
  3. All print pre-orders at the Moon Market are automatically recorded, no need to submit anything. 
  4. Your digital goodies will arrive via email after release day, and the physical prize will ship with your Moon Market Order.

EBOOK PRE-ORDERS GET:

Immersive Location Guide (PDF)
A mini ebook with lore and history information about locations featured in Blood Gift. Includes the characters’ notes about their research and adventures.

PHYSICAL PRE-ORDERS GET:

A 5.5 x 8.5″ standalone print of the map of Tenebra.

EVERYONE RECEIVES:

Met!

Goal 1: “Princess and Diplomat”
Cassia/Lio Bonus Scene, Spicy Version

Cassia and Lio face off with Imperial Princess Nyakou and her lover, Hesperine Ambassador Rakesh, in a board game with high political stakes. Includes Lio and Cassia’s private romantic moments after Princess Nyakou’s party.

Goal 2: “Wings in the Library”
Lio/Monsoon buddy scene
Havok may ensue when these enemies-to-besties visit the library together for some magic research.

Stretch Goal 1: Readers’ choice bonus scene – Vote in the poll here!
I’ll write a bonus scene about the characters of your choice!

In Progress…

Stretch Goal 2: Blood Grace Character Guide (PDF)
A mini ebook with characters profiles for the cast of Blood Gift, for you to refer to while reading.

Praise for Blood Union Part Two

“Beauty at its best… The story is jam-packed with action, craving, making friends, and finding the truth. I adore how Vela writes and this book is completely next level. It feels like the story has come out from my dreams by itself and kept me glued to it.” – @stories.buddy

“Mind! Blowing! I love when an author can throw me into an adventure without me noticing until I am at the end of the book and realized I finished it in one sitting.” – Author Evelyn Fae

“Wow. That was quite an adventure and what an ending. The revelations? HOLY CRAP.” – @darling.book.mage

“Absolutely loved this wild adventure of Lio and Cassia’s, as they battled (literally) through the desert in their quest to find [redacted]. This book was very much raw with emotions and speeches, and I loved that. I also really loved the new band of side characters! And the plot twists, omg!!” – @books_and_draws_eclectic

Preview

Preview

SPOILER WARNING: This preview contains MAJOR spoilers about previous books! Do not read unless you’ve finished Blood Union Part Two!

IT WAS TIME FOR Cassia to appear before the most powerful woman in the world and tell her no.

She drew a shaking breath of humid night air and stared down the path through the Empress’s cassia trees. Any moment now, she and Lio would receive their summons to appear before Her Imperial Majesty. This grove had witnessed so much history. It seemed a fated place for Cassia to change the future.

She ran her hand over her new medallion of office, comforted by the weight of the cool silver disk around her neck. Its blood magic emanated into her, faint but certain to her budding arcane senses.

She might still be human for the time being, but she was officially an ambassador for the Hesperines now, an advocate for her immortal family and friends, in service to the Queens of Orthros. I earned this, she reminded herself. I deserve it.

“And you wear it beautifully,” Lio said in answer to her thoughts, which he had surely heard with his mind magic. “No need to be nervous, my rose.”

As always, he understood. Her beloved Lio, all fangs and unconditional support. She ran her fingers down his fair face and dark, close-cut beard, her hand coming to rest on his medallion. It was a dream come true to be his partner not only in love, but also in their careers as diplomats.

But her heart pounded for all the wrong reasons. “I never imagined my first official appearance as an ambassador would be a private audience with the Empress herself.”

He rested his hands over hers, holding them to his chest. “You have already foiled the plots of the mightiest mages and all but dethroned the King of Tenebra. With such accomplishments to your name, where else would your career begin but in high places?”

“The Empress’s greatness far outshines those men.”

“You have also negotiated before the very brightest lights—our immortal Queens.”

“If I were to make a mistake before our Queens, their only reply would be forgiving smiles, the only consequence my own mortification. In an encounter with the Empress, not only is her dynasty’s sixteen-hundred-year-old alliance with Orthros at stake, but…” Cassia’s feet seemed fixed to the ground, unable to take another step. “The next few moments could alter the fate of the entire world. Because of my decision.”

Lio touched her shoulders and drew her closer. “Your choices always transform Tenebra and Orthros for the better. This will be no different.”

“Now my actions will also have consequences for the Empire, our ally. The homeland of so many of our family and friends. My sister’s adopted land, which kept Solia safe when she had to flee Tenebra. I could never forgive myself if I brought harm upon the Empire.”

“We do have a deep bond of gratitude with the Empress.” Lio ran his hands up and down Cassia’s arms. “All the more reason not to fear. We are about to appear before a just monarch who will hear our words with sympathetic ears.”

“You’re right.” The anxiety fizzing through Cassia at this moment was so different from the panic she had once battled when facing the tyrant king who had sired her. “I am equal to this.”

“You were made for it.” Lio’s dark blue gaze swept from her head to her toes.

Under such admiration, it was impossible not to feel emboldened. “And you, my love? Are you proud to have your first private appearance before Her Imperial Majesty?”

“It feels right because we’re together.”

Cassia traced the high collar of his black formal robe, feeling the braid of her hair hidden underneath. Her tie around him. The reminder that he was her Grace, bound to her for eternity by Hespera, the Goddess of Night. “No matter what the Empress may try to persuade me to do, you have nothing to fear from this audience. Nothing can separate us.”

He slid two fingers under her chin. When he opened his mouth to speak the simple words, his fangs were unsheathed. “I know.”

He was armored only in silk, wielding nothing sharper than an ambassador’s medallion. But Cassia knew he was the most dangerous person who would ever love her.

From her guest room in the Imperial Palace, they had been waging their campaign of research, strategy, and persuasion. It was meticulous. It was slow. And he was enjoying every minute of once again rearranging the world so that no one would ever take her from him.

“I’ve made my decision,” she said, “and I know it’s the right one. Not even the Empress has the power to change my future.”

But Cassia’s decision would change the Empire, Orthros, and Tenebra. She had command of her own destiny, as well as responsibility for the consequences.

Most difficult of all, she must help her sister understand her choice, after Solia had sacrificed everything for her.

“Her Imperial Majesty will see you now,” came a woman’s eerie, metallic voice.

They turned to see one of the Golden Shield nearby. These women gave their all to protect the Empress. Yet Cassia resented the golden armor concealing the warrior, especially her helmet, forged with the same face as every member of the elite guard. Cassia couldn’t tell if this was Solia or another of her comrades in the Empress’s service. Knight had leapt to attention, but if his canine senses could discern their familiar Soli under the armor, he gave no sign.

“Your liegehound may accompany you in Her Imperial Majesty’s presence.” The Golden Shield spoke with none of the affection Soli might have shown Knight.

“Thank you.” Cassia took Lio’s offered arm and the encouragement he sent into her thoughts. At her murmured command, Knight paraded beside them, and she was as glad for his reassuring presence as she was proud of his gait.

The Golden Shield escorted them under the showers of yellow blossoms toward the center of the fragrant orchard. Toward the tree where Cassia had reunited with Solia after fifteen years apart. The same tree an ancient Empress had planted with her sister, before bidding her farewell forever so she could live on as a Hesperine.

That would not be her and Solia’s fate, Cassia vowed. When she became immortal, she would not let it separate them. She must find a way for them to have the futures they wanted and each other.

On the bench beneath the ancient cassia tree sat a woman who was undoubtedly the Empress. A thrill traveled through Cassia from standing in the presence of a mortal woman who held so much power.

Her Imperial Majesty, the shining Eldest Sister, daughter of the Queen Mothers, anointed by the ancestors and pleasing to Zalele, Goddess of the Sun, wore her might as easily as her simple wrap dress of yellow cotton. Her deep brown skin was luminous with gold dust in the spell light, and her tight steel-and-black braids were woven around an ornate golden circlet.

Tasteful but glittering reminders that her lands stretched far and wide, her treasuries ran deep, and more people lived loyal to her than to any other monarch in the known world. She smiled at Cassia with full, beautiful lips, crows’ feet deepening at the corners of her eyes.

No one could ever come close to the place the Queens of Orthros held in Cassia’s heart. There was room for her to be enamored of the Empress, though.

This Empress sought to make Cassia a queen.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Cassia would have coveted such power. She would have emulated the Empress and relished teaching the lords of Tenebra a lesson with a gold-dusted, female hand.

But at this moment, Cassia’s greatest desire was to go home, hug Lio’s little sister Zoe, and water her house plants.

She almost laughed with relief as one of her greatest fears drained away. She was not tempted.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Lio said with great respect, “allow me to present Ambassador Cassia Komnena of the Diplomatic Service of the Queens of Orthros, my partner for eternity.”

His words sparkled through Cassia, little shards of joy, sharp and real and wondrous. She gave a deep bow befitting a Hesperine diplomat, and as she straightened, her medallion landed against her chest with a satisfying thump.

Knight lowered his bulk into a graceful down-stay, rewarding Cassia’s efforts to prepare him for this audience. The grooming she had given his masses of shaggy fur would not last long, but it was worth the benevolent smile he won from the Empress.

“Ambassador Cassia.” The Empress’s regal voice rested upon her like a strong and gracious hand. “How glad we are to see you safe and well after your capture by our enemies.”

Cassia found this to be the easy part, for expressing thanks was central to the Hesperine way of life—her way, now. “Your Imperial Majesty, for all you have done to rescue me from the Rezayal and for your generous hospitality since, you have my deepest gratitude and that of our bloodline. For your treatment of my sister during her years at your side, I have no words to thank you. I hope my deeds will soon speak clearly.”

“What joy it has brought us to reunite you and Princess Solia after so long. I am sure you are eager to see her again, but at present, she is enjoying some well-deserved hours of sleep while her sister-in-arms attends us.”

Calculations took shape in Cassia’s thoughts. The Empress had planned this audience for Solia’s off-duty hours and told Cassia as much. What did Her Imperial Majesty wish to say that was not for Solia’s ears? What did the Empress hope to hear from Cassia that she might be less likely to confess in front of her sister? Assuming what the Empress said was true, and Solia was not hidden in that armor.

Lio touched his medallion, one of their private signals during negotiations. That meant he was confident. He must agree with Cassia that the Empress was telling the truth.

“Thank you for granting my sister a reprieve, Your Imperial Majesty,” Cassia said.

The Empress made a generous gesture. “Are you well, Ambassador Cassia? We know how you suffered as the Rezayal’s prisoner. We will gladly have a chair brought for you, should you need to rest.”

Cassia bowed again, her head spinning at the suggestion that she might sit in the Empress’s presence. “You honor me, Your Imperial Majesty, but I have never felt better, thanks to the expert care of your personal physician.”

The Empress gave a nod, clearly pleased with Cassia’s manners. When Cassia had learned politics in the dung heap that was the kingdom of Tenebra, she had never imagined she would use those skills on the other side of the world in the Empire, for the sake of the Hesperines. All those years under the king’s tyranny now seemed like something solid in her hand that she could wield, rather than a dreadful specter haunting her.

Solia might not be present, but her words were on Cassia’s mind. I have made my power my own, and I wield it with pride. My legacy may be ill-gotten, but I have freed it from the king, as surely as I have freed myself.

It was time for Cassia to wield her power. “We come before you representing the Hesperines, your faithful allies, to propose a new course of action for the Empire and Orthros to undertake together for the benefit of all our people. I’m afraid this plan may not be what my sister has anticipated, but we assure you that our alternative gives no less consideration to the best interests of your Empire.”

The Empress considered Cassia. “Princess Solia tells me that you spent your life believing she was the rightful heir to the throne of Tenebra because she is King Lucis’s eldest daughter.”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“It must have come as a great surprise to you when she revealed that you are, in fact, the crown princess through your mother.”

“I confess, I never imagined that I am the only surviving descendant of the Mage King and the Changing Queen.”

“In our Empire, we inherit through our foremothers. We have listened with great interest to accounts of the ancient Changing Queen, who was the past matriarch of your clan. It is said she ruled with wisdom, long before the crown fell to warlords like the present king. It would please us to see Tenebra once more in the hands of such a queen.”

Lio addressed the Empress. “We appreciate what an unprecedented moment this is, when you are willing to bestow your concern upon Tenebra, although you have previously kept that land isolated from your people for the protection of your Empire.”

“We do not imagine that isolation will last forever,” the Empress replied. “If it is to end in our time, we will end it with our own axe rather than allow the spear to strike us.”

“There is no spear that can take you by surprise, Your Imperial Majesty,” said Lio.

The Empress’s gaze flicked between the two of them. “But perhaps a surprise is in store for us.”

Cassia, for all her acumen at reading every minute clue a courtier might betray, could not interpret the Empress’s expression. Lio had warned her that the Empress was a light mage who used her magic during audiences to illuminate or conceal. Everything she allowed others to see—or hid from them—was not only deliberate, but expertly crafted.

Cassia could not guess if the Empress would let the axe fall once she learned of their intentions.

Tension was a stone in Cassia’s belly as she spoke. “Your Imperial Majesty, I am honored that you would devote your resources to aiding me in seizing my birthright.” Take another breath, she reminded herself. “But my bloodright is to remain at Lio’s side as a Hesperine. I have already given my allegiance to the Queens of Orthros. I cannot break my oaths to them, to my immortal clan, or to Lio, whose life depends on my blood.”

The Empress flexed her fingers, her gold rings catching the spell light.

One more breath. “The next ruler of Tenebra will be the one who guides that kingdom’s first steps toward your Empire. But as the two sides of the world cleave together, there is much more at stake than one queen’s policies. There are threats no human is prepared to face. I can best safeguard your lands and people not as a mortal monarch, but as a Hesperine diplomat.”

Still the Empress said nothing.

Cassia must make her see. “My inheritance is more than a crown. I am also the heir to the Changing Queen’s rare magic, passed down through the women of my line. I must keep my ancestors’ power alive by awakening my own dormant magic. Once I understand my abilities, it will be safe for me to transform into a Hesperine. I vow to honor both my mortal and immortal matriarchs.”

The moment was upon her. She must say the words and let the consequences fall.

“With the utmost respect,” Cassia declared, “I can never take the throne of Tenebra.”

She had done it. Once more, she had refused that destiny, this time before the highest authority in the human world.

Lio rested a hand upon hers, his touch a reassurance and a claim. That hand held her in the Hesperine world, never to return to life as a mortal.

He spoke with pure confidence. “Orthros is sensitive to the fact that we have deprived Your Imperial Majesty of your preferred candidate for the Tenebran throne. As a result, the Hesperines are prepared to support your aims in every other way possible. Ambassador Cassia and I would be pleased to present Orthros’s plan for your consideration.”

The Empress was silent for a moment that seemed to last forever.

Had Cassia just made an enemy of Her Imperial Majesty?

She gave Cassia a faint smile. “You were in Orthros for months before you arrived in our Empire, and yet your sister did not know you had escaped Tenebra and found safety among the Hesperines.”

Cassia swallowed, her tongue dry. “She has told me that the Rezayal intercepted that information.”

“No,” the Empress said. “I did.”

Before Cassia could feel anger at the Empress for keeping her and Solia apart that much longer, the pieces fell into place. And she understood that the Empress had been her ally all along, in ways she had never imagined.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Cassia inquired, “may I ask if you were planning to conceal that information from my sister until after my Gifting?”

“Naturally. I wished to spare you any delays so you could secure your bloodright in peace. Alas, you met with an interruption in any case and remain mortal against your wishes.”

The moment Cassia gained her fangs, her sister’s plan to put her on the throne would be impossible. It was out of the question for any Hesperine to hold political power in Tenebra, where they were called heretics and monsters. If Solia had known how close Cassia had come to her Gifting, she would have done everything in her power to stop the transformation.

The Empress had not wanted that to happen.

Cassia could only conclude from this that she was not the Empress’s intended candidate for the throne, after all.

“It is not I whom you spent five years grooming for the throne,” Cassia said.

The Empress’s smile deepened. “Solia will be a queen after my own heart.”

Cassia felt one destiny lift off of her, even as she sensed another waiting to ambush Solia.

No. No, they could not let this happen.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Cassia said carefully, “I left Tenebra in the hands of Lord Flavian, a more honorable man than the present king. I have ensured he will take the throne in a matter of weeks by peaceful means.”

“Of course you would take such pains to care for your people in your absence. Not knowing that your sister lived, you would do the best you could for Tenebra under the circumstances.” The Empress waved a dismissive hand. “How fortunate that a poor substitute like Flavian will no longer be necessary, do you not agree?”

With those pleasant, implacable words, Her Imperial Majesty made her position clear on Cassia and Lio’s master plan for the future of Tenebra.

But Lio persevered. “As you are aware, Your Imperial Majesty, we Hesperines must uphold our new treaty with the nobles of Tenebra who visited Orthros during the recent Solstice Summit. These Allied Lords favor Flavian, one of their own, for the throne. The Hesperines are in a position to negotiate with him and ensure he deals fairly with the Empire. With him as king, we can prevent any danger to your people that might arise from ending isolation. Orthros can act as both your portal and your ward while the Empire establishes contact on your terms.”

“We appreciate that our Empire was never far from the Hesperines’ thoughts while Orthros faced the prospect of Flavian’s kingship. How glad we are that you will find yourselves in a much improved position under Solia’s reign. With a Hesperine’s sister ruling Tenebra, are not the possibilities marvelous?”

“A circumstance Orthros never dreamed of in our long history with Tenebra,” Lio said smoothly, but Cassia felt his tension, a silent protest.

“I am under the impression Solia has not imagined this outcome, either,” said Cassia.

“She is devoted to you,” the Empress replied. “She would never place herself above you, the sister she regards as her queen. But we know that your greatest desire is to be removed from the line of succession, and in this, we can assist you. We trust that we have Orthros’s full support in return.”

Cassia’s next argument died in her throat. If they told the Empress no again, it would be a refusal Her Imperial Majesty did not wish to hear.

Cassia had once more escaped becoming the Queen of Tenebra. But she had failed to realize how deeply her sister was in danger of meeting that fate.

“WHAT HAVE I DONE?” The words slipped from Cassia’s mouth as soon as she was alone with Lio.

He closed the doors of their guest room behind them, shutting out the Golden Shield on the terrace and all that had happened in the orchard beyond.

When he said nothing, she looked up. His reflective eyes caught the light, glowing at her like blue jewels. Moving with the grace only an immortal possessed, he spun her around and pressed her against the door.

He brought his mouth down on hers. His lips scathed her, his beard raking her skin as his tongue stroked rough and warm into her. His magic, his presence, hummed all around her and within her.

Her thoughts melted away. She wrapped her arms around his neck, sagging between his long, firm body and the wood carvings at her back.

Then he was lifting his head, and she was drawing a breath, blinking up at the sight of his sharp, extended fangs.

“This is what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve chosen us.”

She pulled his mouth back to hers. Her blood pounded with only one truth. My Grace. Mine.

For that moment, she let herself forget everything beyond the grip of his hand on her hip and the trail of heat his mouth made down her neck.

“Cassia.” His voice was velvet against her throat and in her mind. “You’ve chosen me. Over a throne. Not once, but twice. Do you have any idea what that does to me?”

She ran her hand through his hair, holding him closer to feel the tips of his fangs prick her. “Show me.”

“I will. Every night for the rest of eternity.” He placed a slow bite upon the surface of her skin, a foretaste.

She shivered, longing to stay here against this door for an hour with no concern in the world but satisfying their Craving.

Lio pulled his mouth away, although he held her there with his body for one moment more. “As long as we’re together, we can find a solution to everything else.”

“We have to. If the Empress sent Solia to Tenebra, it would be little better than exiling her from her friends and family in the Empire and Orthros. I just got her back. I cannot lose her again.”

“We won’t allow that to happen.” Lio stood back and drew Cassia further into their room. “I’m sorry the Empress took us by surprise tonight. I confess, I was so preoccupied with protecting you from her plans, I didn’t predict that she would try to pull your sister away from you.”

“Neither did I, but I should have.” Gripping Lio’s hand, Cassia slid her other one through Knight’s ruff. “Solia is the woman she has mentored, whose loyalty is proven. Of course the Empress would favor her for the throne over me, and there’s certainly nothing about Flavian that would impress her.”

“The Empress and Tenebra will simply have to make do with him.” Lio took a seat in one of the luxurious carved chairs, his hand lingering in Cassia’s.

But she began to pace. “How will we ever persuade the Empress of that?”

He let her go, his gaze tracking her as she moved. “Indeed. In this era, when isolation is ending, fate has offered her an unprecedented contender for her enemy’s throne.”

“And she has spent years perfecting her. A queen born of Tenebra but shaped by the Empire. Why would the Empress give up such an opportunity?”

“She never will.” Despite Lio’s grim words, his tone held anticipation.

“You’re right,” Cassia said, following his train of thought. “We cannot change the Empress’s mind. We will have to convince Solia.”

“Yes. An appeal to your sister’s heart will be more effective than negotiating with one of the greatest politicians of our time.”

Cassia tracked toward the windows and the glimpses of the orchard outside. “And yet, my sister has her heart set on me becoming queen. I hate how bitterly we argued when she told me I’m the heir. It was…not what I wished for our first conversation after fifteen years.”

“I know. But you have spent much happier hours with her since.”

“She still doesn’t understand that the world needs me as a diplomat, not a queen. That my mother’s magic is all that matters, not her right to the throne.”

Solia still did not understand Cassia and Lio’s bond.

Cassia paced back toward the bed where she had been convalescing. “We completely avoid these topics every time she comes to see me. That is hardly a solution.”

“I know.” Lio’s usually candid face was too neutral.

In that absence of expression, Cassia read the entire conflict between him and her sister.

What Solia had also avoided was visiting anytime Lio was awake. Cassia did not accept her sister’s excuses about being assigned night shifts, any more than she accepted Lio’s silence about her sister’s disapproval of him.

Cassia paused. That was when she realized Knight was not shadowing her, as he was wont to do when she paced. He had posted himself beside Lio’s chair, sitting there in stoic solidarity. If only humans had such keen instincts as dogs about who was a rightful member of the pack.

“Do you want to talk about what you and Solia said to each other that night?” Cassia asked, not for the first time.

Lio rested a hand on the liegehound, an immortal sitting easily with his natural predator. “When it comes to Solia, actions speak louder than words. You know I am determined to win her approval, but that cannot begin until her dream for your future ends. She must accept that you will, in fact, spend eternity in Orthros with me. I have an idea, a way we can demonstrate to her once and for all that you will never be queen.”

Once again, Cassia gave into her restless need to move, to think on her feet. “What do you have in mind?”

“A display the Empress will appreciate. It must take place before her entire court.”

“Making a show of removing me from the line of succession will keep us in her favor. But we must go into that encounter with a plan for how to remove Solia as well.”

“Yes, we must give her a compelling reason to resist the Empress’s plan.” Lio stretched his long legs out in front of him.

Cassia halted her furious strides, lest she trip over the very tall Hesperine in her path.

He gave a quiet laugh. “That is a beautiful scowl, my rose. Do not be cross with me. I know that sometimes, my Lady of Schemes needs to pace. Other times, you need to sit on my lap.”

“How can you be so cheerful when we’ve just learned that the Empress herself stands in the way of our plans?”

“Whenever we find ourselves facing a terrible threat, I will always offer my lap as a solution. Or any other part of me you might find helpful under the circumstances.”

Her hands unknotted.

“I also confess,” he added, his voice deep and soft, “very little could dim my spirits at the moment. You’ve made me too happy.”

This was what she had done tonight. Secured her Grace’s happiness. And her own. It made her feel more powerful than any monarch.

Powerful enough to solve anything, even this impossible situation.

She slid into Lio’s embrace, curling against his body. “Your lap is an excellent place for scheming.”

“But also a place to rest when you’ve been out of bed too long.”

“Ah, I see how it is. This was all a plot to get me off my feet.”

“I will compensate you with both cuddling and diplomatic insights.”

“I deem this a fair bargain, Sir Diplomat. What insights do you have on my sister? For I must confess, you are better suited to judge her character than I am at present. I am nothing close to objective.”

“Your sister is driven by duty and loyalty. It will be no easy task to motivate her to rebel. But she will, I am sure—for a more personal loyalty.” Lio gave Cassia a wicked half smile. “It worked on her sister.”

“Love.” Cassia wound her hand in the braided silk cords that held Lio’s medallion. “You think we are not the ones who should appeal to her heart.”

“That is Tendo’s case to make,” Lio said.

“Do you think he is willing,” Cassia asked, “even though Solia broke his heart five years ago?”

“I know he is,” Lio answered. “Are you certain she still loves him the way he loves her?”

“I am convinced that if they were Hesperines, she would be dying of Craving for him.”

“Then if forced to choose between him and the Empress, I think your sister will not be able to subdue her inner fire with discipline any longer.”

“But how will we arrange for them to meet in secret? He’s Prince Tendeso of the Sandira Kingdom, the most public figure he could be. Solia always makes a point to visit me when he’s tied up at a court event. She is forbidden to reveal her identity to anyone but you and me until discharged from service in the Golden Shield. Going against that decree would risk our alliance with the Empress.”

“That is our first challenge,” Lio said. “Convincing Solia to unmask herself to him in spite of the Empress’s command.”

“Can you extricate Tendo from a royal ceremony at a moment’s notice the next time Solia comes to see me?”

Lio gave her a wry smile. “I think he and I will both find that entertaining.”

“Then I will take it upon myself to persuade Solia.”

Lio nuzzled her nose. “We are fitting champions for them.”

Cassia sampled his lips, fighting the temptation to do more. “I’m so grateful for what we have. I want it for them, too. Is that too much to ask?”

“We have always been told our love is too much to ask. And yet, look where you are now.” He gathered her closer on his lap. “Using diplomacy to enable seemingly impossible love—while protecting the common good—has become our area of expertise.”

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