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Breathe In (Threats of Sky and Sea Book 6)
 

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Breathe In (Threats of Sky and Sea Book 6)


  Contents

  Breathe In

  Epigraph

  Winter of my Fifteenth Year

  Winter of my Sixteenth Year

  Winter of my Seventeenth Year

  Winter of my Eighteenth Year

  Winter of my Nineteenth Year

  Winter of my Twentieth Year

  Winter of my Twenty-First Year

  Winter of my Twenty-Second Year

  Winter of my Twenty-Third Year

  The End

  More in the Threats of Sky and Sea series

  Dear Reader

  About the Author

  Breathe In

  A Threats of Sky and Sea prequel short

  By Jennifer Ellision

  “I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am.”

  -Sylvia Plath

  The Winter of my Fifteenth Year

  First Encounters

  Truly, carriages are a miserable way to travel in the winter.

  My teeth chatter as I sit beneath a pile of furs. “I f-f-fail to see why the king and queen make this trek to their winter p-p-palace every year when they have a perfectly adequate one in the capital, where it’s warm.” And which requires far less travel for our family. “Or, b-better still, why they don’t simply host a summer ball.”

  A soft laugh comes from my elder sister. “Perhaps if you gain Prince Langdon’s favor, they’ll be inclined to grant your request, Corrine,” Nanette teases.

  I kick her feet and pull a face at her as one of our carriage’s wheels thunks hard over a rock. The winter ball may be my introduction to court, and my mother may hope for an advantageous match made while we're in attendance there, but I don’t entertain any fool dreams of becoming Egria’s next queen.

  No, my fool dreams are of a different sort.

  I haven’t even told Nanette about them. This is her third season without a betrothal, and she’d laugh in my face if I told her that I imagine meeting a handsome young noble this winter—interrupting, of course, to remind me that the prince is plenty handsome by her estimation. She'd peal with laughter if I said that I picture flirting and dancing with the young man all night. That when the ball’s revelry ended, he’d call upon us at home. We’d exchange bashful glances over dinner. Mother would supervise our walks in the garden.

  Father would discuss my dowry with him, but the amount of money and jewels we have to offer wouldn’t matter. Not to him. We’d marry in the spring.

  I grin, pulling the furs up to my neck and allowing this thought to warm me from the inside out. The imagined respite from the chill lasts only a heartbeat, but thankfully, our carriage slows to a stop, the sounds of booted horseshoes through the snow ceasing.

  We've finally arrived.

  The carriage door opens, a footman places steps below the exit, and he stands aside.

  Nanette nudges me. “Go on, then.”

  I frown at her in consternation. Why must I be the first to leave the sanctuary of my furs? Nevertheless, I obey her. Father and Mother made it perfectly clear that if our carriage arrived first, I was to heed Nanette’s instructions. Bracing myself for the cold, I toss the furs aside and step into the chilled air.

  And instead of my breath accelerating in the frigid wind, I lose all power to breathe completely. The sight of the winter palace knocks me back a step and my hand goes to the door to keep me on my feet.

  So. This is why our monarchs spend the winters here.

  We’d had a chef once back home. The man hadn’t lasted long in our employ. The face Mother had made when sampling his leek soup told me he’d be lucky to last a week. His poultry was cooked dry. His stews, too salty.

  But it’s his desserts I’m thinking of now as I stare at the castle in front of me.

  The chef’s soufflés, pies, and cakes had almost made it worth suffering through the horrific entrees to keep him on. On his final evening with us, desperate to keep the position, he had sacrificed most of the sugar and flour we had on hand to construct a cake. And oh, what a cake it was. Light and airy. Sweet. As delicately frosted as freshly fallen snow.

  The winter palace looks like that perfect cake.

  “Breathe in there, my lady.” An amused voice breaks me from my contemplations of the dessert-like turrets, like spirals of cream reaching far into the sky.

  Air flows into me with a whoosh as I inhale, wild eyes seeking the man who spoke. Nanette giggles quietly behind me.

  “I—” I am wordless, mouth hanging open. A young man with jet black hair and brown eyes looks quite entertained as he loops his thumbs through his sword belt and waits for me to speak.

  Nanette nudges me forward and I descend the tiny staircase, with the footman’s gentlemanly assistance.

  “Hello, Lord Ardin!” She calls a cheery greeting from behind me.

  Lord? Oh, Makers, I’ve managed to make a fool of myself in front of an eligible noble. And the ball has yet to even begin.

  “Lady… Nanette, I seem to recall?” Lord Ardin bows low at the waist to each of us in turn as we stand before the carriage, feet sinking into the cold snow. “Forgive me, I am truly terrible with names.”

  “You do yourself a disservice, sir.” She extends a hand—he dashes a perfunctory kiss upon her knuckles—and bats her eyes as though afraid if they are open too long a bug will fly into them. Sweet Makers, is this what Nanette looks like while flirting? I watch for a moment, fascinated, before I nudge her, hoping to remind her of my existence. She snaps to attention. “I am indeed Lady Nanette.” She indicates me. “My sister. Lady Corrine.”

  I bob a curtsy and follow Nanette’s lead, receiving an identical, chaste kiss brushed across the back of my hand for my trouble. “A pleasure, your lordship.”

  He steps back, nodding toward the castle. “Your first time at the winter palace, I take it?”

  “Yes. It's astounding,” I say, not bothering to disguise the awe in my tone.

  He rocks back on his heels, nodding. “The cold?”

  “No, your lordship. The palace itself.”

  “Ah.” He cranes his neck around to look it. “Less of an eyesore than the capital palace, that’s for certain. And it does paint a pretty picture against the blue sky, doesn’t it?”

  It does more than that, but Nanette gives me a quelling look, having heard too many of my diatribes to Father on the subject of construction as art; as a statement.

  Our castle on the march is a relic of days gone by. Crumbling. The Marquis and Marchioness are meant to be a border defense. To inspire thoughts of strength. Or a little intimidation, at the very least.

  That is not what I see when I look at our castle. I see an ancient, tired building; decidedly not a force to be reckoned with. But Father clings too stubbornly to the past, either failing or refusing to understand. I only want to restore it to what it could be, not erase history. I wish to revive history. Resuscitate the glory of our name.

  Whoever designed the Egrian winter palace would understand, I think.

  I do not know what sort of brick they used—that it should manage to remain so pristine among all of the elements it’s subjected to, whether those elements have been wielded by weather or by an Adept’s hand. But however they did it, the material was a cunning choice.

  It looks like part of the snowy landscape. Strong, but vulnerable at once. A return to nature. A reminder that mankind and the world can coexist, without having to rule over each other.

  The Makers and their first Elementals would have approved.

  I hold all of this back with a delicate bite down onto my lip. “Yes, my lord.

  Perhaps my restraint—my true desire to say more—is
not only obvious, but noted, for his lips quirk up. “I do hope that you enjoy your stay.”

  The Winter of my Sixteenth Year

  First Dances

  Mother frets into my ear, gripping my upper arm fearfully. “Who is that Nanette is speaking with?”

  I smooth my skirt down, flicking a glance in her direction. Truly, I don’t understand why Mother is so afraid that Nanette will make a poor match. Perhaps she hasn’t caught a nobleman’s fancy just yet, but even a wealthy gentleman would do. She hardly needs lands. And Nanette has much to offer, after all— she’ll inherit the march and the title of Marchioness. Her husband will be a Marquis, and any children they have will be a part of the nobility.

  Mother would do well to concern herself with my prospects, instead.

  Though, no— I revoke that wish instantly, not wanting to release it into the universe. I’m happy to be free of Mother’s attentions in this way.

  I take a sip of the sherry I’ve been granted and tuck my other hand into the crook of my elbow. “I’m not certain. One of the royal advisors? A Tutor? A baron?” The guesses are pure speculation.

  My arm is jostled and sherry spills from my glass, amber liquid pouring over my gown.

  Oh, Makers damn it all.

  I’d picked a pale pink for the fabric of my second winter ball gown, and there’s truly no way to disguise the stain on such a light color. Mother mews in distress as I hold the skirt away from my body, hoping at the very least to salvage some of the other layers before it soaks through.

  “My most fervent apologies, madam.”

  I recognize the voice, though I can’t place it at first. My head snaps up. Twinkling brown eyes smile back at me—eyes that I remember from the year before, a backdrop to my dumbstruck awe over the winter palace.

  He favors me with a ducked head and a sheepish grin. “Lovely to see you again, Lady Corrine.”

  “Oh! Lord Ardin!”

  His smile wilts at the ends. “I’m afraid it’s Duke Ardin, now.”

  Ah. My eyes dash across his fingers and I don’t find a ring. He’s so young to be a duke already. He can’t be more than three years my senior. There are only a few ways to gain a title: marriage (ruled out), bequeathal (unlikely), or... inheritance. And the boon of an inheritance is not without its cost.

  “My deepest regrets for the loss of your…?”

  “Mother,” he supplies, offering mine a tight smile. “Thank you. It was nearly a year ago now.”

  Just after last year’s ball, then. We’re silent for a moment in the wake of this sobering thought, and I’m not sure how to break the quiet. Thankfully, he does that for me.

  “Here—this is meant to be a merry occasion and now I’ve committed two social faux pas. Perhaps I can make up for each.” He plucks my glass from my hand and places it on a nearby table. “Would you favor me with a dance?”

  “Of—”

  “Of course she will!” Mother prods me, very obviously mouthing ‘Go’ at me. I can all but see the wheels turning in her mind. A duke would be an amazing catch. Especially for a second daughter.

  Thank you for your assistance, Mother. Although, I did have my acceptance under control on my own.

  I accept Duke Ardin’s proffered hand and he leads me to the floor where the musicians strike up a lively cavorr. Thank the Makers. I hadn't relished the idea of a formal dance where I’d be held close and be forced to press my sopping dress all over the lovely velvet he’s wearing. A cavorr, on the other hand, is a merry, fast-paced thing. With my skirts whirling and twirling about, it’s unlikely anyone will notice the spill.

  When we finish, I’m red-faced and laughing, my thick, blonde hair coming loose from the elaborate braids it had been wound into before dinner.

  Duke Ardin whoops with laughter as well, and pushes a strand of black hair from his eyes. “You do that quite well,” he compliments me.

  “The cavorr is my favorite,” I confide. “Though I have the benefit that you do not of voluminous skirts. If I make misstep, it’s extraordinarily well-disguised. Gentlemen such as yourself are not so lucky.”

  He places a friendly hand on my wrist and my eyes fly to his. “It's only fair that you misstep, since thus far this evening, every error has been mine.”

  My pulse flutters against his hand at the words—and his touch—and both of our arms fall to our sides as we stare at each other.

  “No errors have been noted on my part, sir,” I say softly. His eyes warm on mine. The good humor, mischief, and intelligence in his eyes make him more handsome—not that he’d been difficult to look at beforehand, but he's not the sort that turns heads.

  Except... for now. For now, my head is most decidedly turned.

  He clears his throat, eyes still sparkling. “Whether you notice them or not—”

  “Ardie!” A man with dark red hair and smooth gray eyes slings an arm around Duke Ardin’s shoulders.

  Ardin’s mouth twists into a wry grin. “Uncanny timing, Your Highness. I had intended to introduce the two of you later this evening in order to apologize for my constant blunders with Lady Corrine tonight.”

  “You didn’t—” I start to protest his state of 'constant blundering' before a jolt of recognition hits me. He’d said Highness.

  I’d only seen Prince Langdon once—and from afar—at last year’s ball, so I hadn’t placed this friend of Ardin’s instantly. This smiling young noble, his arm flung familiarly over Ardin’s back, is the heir to the Egrian throne.

  Sweet Makers, I’m speaking with a duke and a prince right now. Mother must be having kittens watching me.

  “Lady Corrine, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Langdon? Your Highness... Lady Corrine.” He winks at me conspiratorially. “Lady Corrine is a great admirer of your family’s winter palace, Highness.”

  And he’d remembered that. From a brief introduction over a year ago. I feel my cheeks reddening.

  I curtsy low—very low. I’m not certain my decorum lessons ever bothered to cover precisely how low one should bow to a prince and if they had, I’ve forgotten them entirely. Perhaps I'd dismissed it as something that would never, ever happen to me. But here we are. Knees bent and skirts held aside, I stare at the floor, waiting to be told to rise. I've deemed that the safest route available to me.

  “Corrine…” Ardin’s voice is soft. Hesitant— a blanch in his tone as if regretting that I’ve felt the need to bow before them.

  “I like her, Ardie,” the prince says, the smile curling through his voice. “You may rise, Lady Corrine.”

  I flick my eyes from the most powerful men I’ve ever spoken with to see Mother excitedly clutching Nanette’s arm. Nanette mouths ‘What?’ to me and I return my attention to the duke… and the prince.

  By the Makers, 'what?' indeed.

  The Winter of my Seventeenth Year

  Second Dances

  I stand against the wall—drinking water this year. Perhaps I’d enjoyed Duke Ardin’s attentions too much to be able to consider his brush with my sherry last year a mistake, but the way my dressmaker had wailed, one would think there had been a death in her family.

  I’d been foolish to think it, but I had hoped he may keep in touch somehow. Those hopes had been buoyed by a book he’d sent shortly after last year’s ball, titled Forgotten Strongholds, along with a note about how he thought I’d enjoy it, given my interest in buildings.

  There had been a post-script—as well as a sketch.

  This is a proposed addition to the castle on Secan lands. I’d welcome your thoughts.

  And he’d received them. I’d immediately sequestered myself in the west wing’s library to pen him a lengthy letter back, gushing over the straightforward design, but cautioning him against the use of too many gargoyles to serve as waterspouts.

  I should hate for your home to ever be thought of a garish, I’d written—my weak attempt to joke, or perhaps even to flirt. No better than Nanette’s horrible eye-batting in bygone years.

  Maybe I
’d stepped too far from propriety’s guidelines with Duke Ardin. Offended him. For no other messages arrived.

  No matter. I banish the thought, trying not to dwell on it. Duke Ardin is only one man and there are plenty of eligible bachelors in Egria.

  Still, he had had nice eyes.

  This year, Mother is far too busy beaming over Nanette’s upcoming nuptials to bother with me. The baron Nanette spent the entirety of last year’s speaking with had come by the march often, utterly besotted with my sister. It hadn’t taken but three visits before he requested an audience with Mother and Father and asked for Nanette’s hand.

  I take another drink.

  “Lady Corrine?”

  I choke on my sip. Like an element summoned by an Adept, Ardin appears before me just after thoughts of him ran through my mind. His eyes dance. “I do hope that I haven’t managed to cause a stain two years running,” he says.

  I hold my glass up. “Water this year.”

  He laughs, surprised. “A wise choice. I don’t suppose I could tear you from its hydration for a dance?”

  I’m surprised myself. That he’s bothered to notice me. That I’m not ignored. That he wants to dance with me again.

  And then I remind myself that dancing means nothing. Why shouldn’t he want to dance with me? I’m good at it, I’m not poor to look at, and my father has a good reputation. He should be so lucky.

  The self-encouragement nearly works as I accept his request and he leads me out onto the dance floor.

  This dance is decidedly not the cavorr we’d shared last year. My arm skims Ardin’s as we walk slowly around each other. He draws me into his chest.

  “I tried to call upon you at the march,” he breathes in my ear.

  I jerk up, looking at him in shock before another partner whisks me away for a twirl. When I’m returned to Ardin, I feel breathless. “I didn’t know. Father never said.”

 
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