Aelynn, the Mystic Isle, 1789
“Don’t touch me!” Lissandra Olympus commanded. Moonlit locks scraped back from her fair face, she stood tall and regal against the tropical forest. The expression she bestowed on Murdoch LeDroit resembled one Eve may have conferred on the serpent in her garden.
As usual, Murdoch looked like a pirate. Barefoot, he dwarfed Lissandra’s willowy height. Only recently back from his long journey into the world beyond Aelynn, he still wore the billowing shirtsleeves of the Other World that emphasized his muscular shoulders. He sported neither neckcloth nor waistcoat, so the ocean breeze was free to plaster the thin linen against his wide chest and reveal much of his sun-bronzed throat.
His dark-lashed, sea-smoke eyes narrowed with seductive intent. The amused twist of his sculpted lips promised delectably sinful delights — while cheekbones honed to a lethal knife’s edge caused women to swoon and men to scowl in wariness.
Most women to swoon. Not Lissandra, the Oracle’s Daughter.
The air crackled between them. Murdoch knew she curled her slender fingers into fists to prevent them from pushing the swath of common peat-dark hair from his face as she had done countless times in the past. He curled his own fingers around his sword hilt to prevent them from straying to her creamy cheek.
“My princess grew up while I was gone,” he said, recognizing that the desire simmering between them had only increased with years of separation.
Adolescence had shown them how pleasurably the hot wind beneath her cool reserve could feed the flames of mutual lust. Learning the painful lessons of their unequal positions had halted their youthful experimentation. The difference in their ages had made him careful.
“I’ve grown into a woman who knows her own worth,” she retorted.
He admired the way his princess held her ground. He had not yet earned the right to touch her — but he would.
“I see the years have not reduced your ability to resist temptation, Lis, although life would be much simpler if you would accept my wisdom and let your inhibitions go.” His mouth quirked as he recalled the uninhibited child he’d once known.
At his half smile, she retreated, increasing the gulf between them, depriving him of the fragile floral scent that belonged only to her.
She wore her ethereally lovely silver-blond hair stacked high and caught up in a coronet of island pearls. A tropical breeze molded her white cotton sarong to her curves and long legs. The twilight shadows hid her eyes, but he’d seen the liquid blue of longing in them after he’d sailed his ship into port. Their desire was a tangible thing, but, until tonight, he’d not been in a position to act upon it.
Tonight, he meant to change their relationship.
“I’m the only man who can touch you, Lis,” he reminded her. His gaze dropped to her lush lips. He’d spent these last years recalling every instance of their sweetness. “Your sharp tongue is no match for my rapier wit. My fire melts your frost. I’ve watched you weep when you’ve Seen a child’s impending death, and I know your suffering when you See that a man’s destiny lies beyond Aelynn. You are not your unfeeling mother, no matter how hard you try.”
“Then I must keep trying, mustn’t I?” she answered coolly. “Your destiny remains as black as your heart. I will not doom Aelynn for your ambition.”
It was an old argument, a verbal sword that had held him at bay since adolescence. They were adults now. The argument had lost its usefulness.
“It is not ambition that makes me See that our world is limited and a new leader must change it. If I don’t act now, you will become as narrow-minded as our Oracle.” His voice softened. “You’re better than your mother, Lissy.”
Without waiting for her defensive retort, Murdoch walked away. He didn’t want to take his frustration out on the woman who least deserved it, a woman as trapped by circumstances as he was. Tonight, by all the gods, that would change.
Purpose pulsed beneath his skin as his instinct for Finding led him to the man he needed to confront — Luther Olympus, Lis’s father and the only father Murdoch had ever known. His own father had died before his birth.
Murdoch’s lack of powerful parentage had created a barrier between him and Lissandra so immense that it would take a wizard of great genius to surmount it. He intended to be that genius.
Luther stood on a rocky outcropping overlooking the black sand of Aelynn’s port where Murdoch’s crew prepared a feast to celebrate the success of their sailing venture. Normally, Lis’s mother, their Oracle, would have blessed his ship’s safe return, but Dylys Olympus had conveniently found duties on the other side of the island.
Lis’s mother knew what Murdoch was going to ask, and she did not approve.
He respected the Oracle for her experience and knowledge, but though she had raised him, Dylys could never be his mother. He had a mother, one he’d been forced to abandon so he might learn from the mighty Olympians. But tonight…
He was a free man, and he would have the prize promised by the gods.
The Council Leader acknowledged his approach with a nod. “I hear you have already purchased land from Waylan’s father.”
“Waylan isn’t interested in land, and his father has no other offspring. You know why I have purchased it, don’t you?”
Years of responsibility had etched lines upon Luther’s face. He did not smile as he nodded. “I fear you expect more than you can command. It would be far better if you waited for my son, Ian, to choose a wife who can lead the Council. You and Lissandra are too young for the responsibility that comes with authority.”
“You and Dylys have decades in the future to teach us. And it may come to pass that Ian is chosen by the gods, so you worry overmuch. I have worked hard to earn Lis’s hand. I own property now. I can join the Council. The only obstacle that remains is you. She will not go against your wishes.”
Luther looked out over the waves lapping against the shore. “The only obstacle is you,” he said gently. “Your skills lie in war, not peace. This is a peaceful island. Instead of seeking compromise, you demand your own way, and your anger scorches the ground you walk.”
“It is the anger of frustration. You know I would harm no one here. Would you have us wait until we are old and gray? There would be no chance of children to lead us into our future then.” Murdoch clenched his fingers into fists, and despite the turmoil ever simmering beneath his skin, he forced himself to remain outwardly composed.
“It is for the sake of those children that I go against my instincts.” Luther studied the crowd gathering around the bonfire. “Take your seat on the Council, prove you can act responsibly, and I will allow you to court Lissandra.”
Shocked at such an easy surrender, Murdoch staggered backward, nearly falling from his precarious perch on the rocks. Then, as joy washed over him, he pumped his fists into the air, safely dispersing the electricity of his angry frustration into the atmosphere.
Worried glances turned their way. It was not unusual to see Murdoch and Luther arguing, or to see lightning sizzle in their vicinity. Aelynn’s inhabitants had learned the wisdom of staying a safe distance from the habitual explosion.
“I would hug you, but it would be most unseemly.” Murdoch held back his laugh of relief as Luther regarded him with the dry fondness of approval.
“You have not yet won her,” Luther warned. “Casting your lightning to the sky is a wise ploy, but it is still not proper control. You must practice restraining your powers when in the grip of strong emotion.”
“Practice, I can do! Thank you, sir. I must oversee the celebrations. You will speak to my crew?”
“As always,” Luther agreed.
In afterthought, Murdoch realized asking Luther to speak was his first mistake.
Purchasing fireworks in anticipation of his victory was his second.
Underestimating Luther was his third, but not his most fatal one.
His arrogance in believing he had learned to control his tempestuous gifts was Murdoch’s undoing.
Later that evening, he focused all his joy on Luther’s promise. Knowing Lis was watching nearby, Murdoch located the fireworks behind the speaking platform and concentrated. He could channel his fire better if he had his sword in hand, but swords were weapons of war, and he must act in peace. Giddy delight probably wasn’t the best conduit for channeling energy, but it was less erratic than fury, and Lis adored the colorful jewels of light he brought back from his travels. He would gift her with fireworks nightly, if she would let him.
Perhaps Luther would grant his public blessing to their courtship tonight, along with his formal acknowledgment of the success of the voyage. In expectation of defeating his competition for Lis’s hand, Murdoch stood with his bare legs apart, arms crossed, waiting for the right moment to express his elation.
He hardly heard the greetings and congratulations for a safe journey. At Luther’s words “I would like to announce… ,” Murdoch’s spirits rose, and he concentrated on the celebratory Roman candles stored behind the platform.
With his extra perceptions, he studied the winds and verified that the fireworks would be safe among the rocks, away from the crowd. Even if he accidentally shot off three at a time, he’d harm no one. He raised his hand to focus on his target.
“…that I have accepted Trystan the Guardian’s desire to court my daughter.…”
Red-hot anger burst behind Murdoch’s eyes. Even if Luther meant this as a test, Murdoch couldn’t dampen his shock, rage, and disappointment fast enough. The fiery lightning that was his greatest gift shot from his hand as surely as cannonballs ignited by gunpowder.
The entire box of fireworks erupted in one brilliant blast of red and blue. Colored fire burst across the midnight sky, setting their world ablaze.
Unholy shrieks of terror almost drowned out the rapid percussion of exploding skyrockets. The platform on which Luther stood above the rocks tilted, cracked, then collapsed. Luther was already crumpling to the ground, a hand over his heart.
Frozen, Murdoch could only watch the horrified expression bloom on Lissandra’s face as her father landed in a bundle of fine clothes on the sand. Unable to move, Murdoch continued to watch as Healers ran to the Council Leader’s aid.
Even before Lis shoved through the crowd to kneel beside her father, Murdoch knew what she would find. Luther was dead. Appalled at the atrocity he’d unintentionally committed, Murdoch couldn’t even pray that Lis would understand.
And when she looked up with condemnation darkening her eyes, he deserved the words she flung at him.
“Damn you into eternity, Murdoch LeDroit,” she cried in heartbroken ferocity. “If you don’t leave my sight now, I will kill you myself!”
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