Ash and his men rode out of the edge of the forest and took in the silhouette of Levian Castle against the rising sun.
He sighed and urged his horse forward, wanting to get this visit over with. His men followed his lead in silence.
His pack was the only one that interacted with the humans.
The vast territory of the Kodia Pack was the border between the humans and the werewolves. The other packs lived far beyond the mountains, which the humans couldn’t navigate.
As sort of a liaison between the two worlds, he made this yearly trip on behalf of all the packs, trading with the humans items they couldn’t produce themselves.
It was difficult living among the humans for so long, riding horses instead of running free, but it was crucial for his pack and the others that these meetings take place.
He hated these yearly tours and especially Pershing. Pershing had taken over his kingdom by betrayal and force eighteen years ago, and his people despised him.
He had given up a comfortable life as a wealthy lord of Levia, draining his coffers and straining the loyalty of his followers in his foolish bid for power.
Ash knew the victory had cost him greatly. His status was severely weakened despite his new title as king, and he had lost so many men in the battle he could barely keep his new kingdom functioning.
But with no surviving heirs to the throne, there was little to go on to argue his claim. Pershing had known that, of course, when he attacked the castle.
The lack of an heir after a decade of marriage was, in fact, his excuse for the mutiny. As a distant cousin of the late queen, he had a claim, albeit a weak one.
A weak claim for a weak ruler.
Though Levia had not been an especially powerful kingdom to begin with—these human lands were riddled with kings everywhere you looked—it had been profitable and well run.
In the years since Pershing had taken over, it had fallen into near ruin, and it was always a dismal affair to visit.
Ash knew that they did not have the resources to accommodate his men and that the common people would suffer for it, so he planned to arrive just as morning broke and keep his business affairs as brief as possible.
Hopefully, they could get away before the end of the day; he did not have much to discuss with Pershing.
The fact that they shared a border made a visit necessary to keep up relations, but that was all this visit was about for Ash.
They had brought their own provisions for the midday meal, and he hoped to excuse away any offer of a banquet if one was forthcoming.
As he rode closer to the castle, he suddenly stopped, a curious scent catching his attention. He held up his hand, and the men behind him stopped without question.
“Luca?” he called over his shoulder. The closest warrior rode forward, stopping beside Ash. Luca was his beta and a good friend; they had known each other since they were children.
“Does Pershing have a daughter we didn’t know about?” Ash asked carefully.
Confused, Luca stumbled over his answer, a frown creasing the lines of his dark skin. “Uh no, Alpha…at least, I mean, as far as I know.”
Ash inhaled deeply, the wind blowing toward him from the direction of the castle.
His eyes seemed to know right where to look, and he spotted the outline of a figure on the tallest tower at the back of the castle, looking out toward them, the wind ruffling the fabric of her clothes.
His eyes suddenly went dark, and he turned to Luca with a low growl of possessiveness.
Luca looked at him in surprise and turned to the castle, smelling the air as well. “She does have the scent of royal blood…”
Ash looked back at the girl, his eyes still swirling with black. As a werewolf, his eyesight was better than a human’s, but he could barely make out her features due to the brightness of the sun at her back.
She seemed of average height, but he would surely tower over her, being larger than a normal human male.
Her dark hair was pulled back in a simple braid, and she was wearing what appeared to be worn pants and a loose apron over a long-sleeved shirt.
He inhaled deeply again. She smelled of smoke and dirt and animals. But there it was underneath it all—the scent of royal blood.
And something else. Something intoxicating.
His eyes went to hers, and suddenly he felt it. From the way he saw her stiffen, perhaps she did as well. Luca gasped beside him, recognizing what was happening.
“Mate,” Ash growled.
She rushed into the kitchen at a run, skidding to a stop beside Anne at the oven, breathing hard from the stairs of the tower.
By the way the women were all chatting and laughing, enjoying the usual slowness of the morning when most of the residents were still sleeping, Keyara knew the news of the Kodians’ impending visit had not yet reached the castle.
It was no wonder; the guards were short-staffed and had been for years. Keyara hadn’t seen a single one on the wall this morning.
It was a mystery how Pershing was able to hold on to his kingdom in this state, but she knew they weren’t a terribly desirable or important kingdom.
Though they were a small kingdom compared to the rest of the realm, Levia had once boasted vast and productive farms that had supported their kingdom well under the rule of her parents.
The crops they had farmed had given them trading power, and they enjoyed a good relationship with the other kingdoms.
But in the years since her parents’ deaths, the villagers had slowly moved away seeking better prospects, feeling little loyalty to their new ruler, and the lack of workers had made the farms difficult to support.
Soon they would barely bring in enough to feed themselves, much less hope to trade.
“Key!” exclaimed Anne. “What has gotten into you?!”
“King Ash,” she said breathlessly. “He’s here. I saw him from the tower.”
Jenna gasped. “Already?! Why didn’t he send a messenger ahead?”
“I don’t know, Jen,” she replied, finally catching her breath. “But it was him, I’m sure of it. I saw his flag.”
“All right,” said Anne nervously. “Let’s think. What can we possibly serve them? The provisions were arranged for next week. We’re down to scraps here. How many were with him?” she asked Key.
“About a dozen men, it looked like,” she replied.
Anne let out an exasperated breath. It was a lot of extra mouths to feed with the state of their kitchen.
“I can go pick the blackberries from our secret spot by the cabin, and we can make a nice tart,” said Jenna helpfully.
“I’ll have to tell Pershing where I got the blackberries,” sighed Anne sadly.
Key knew that meant the end to their secret stash, which had served them well over the years on the nights they returned home with empty bellies.
“I guess that can’t be avoided,” continued Anne. “All right, go, Jenna. Pick as many as you can.”
Jenna grabbed a couple of baskets and rushed out of the kitchen as Anne turned to the other girls hovering nearby, awaiting instructions.
“Marjorie, tell your brother to check his hunting snares. Bess, go to the root cellar and bring up whatever is still worth eating down there.
“I know the carrots are close to turning, but hopefully some are still in good enough shape.
“Daphne, go let the captain of the guard know King Ash is approaching, so he can announce the arrival. The fool is probably still sleeping after all the ale I served him last night.”
The girls all nodded and rushed out to do her bidding.
“Oh, I hope there are rabbits in the snares. I can at least make a stew. I know we have plenty of good potatoes left. Hardly fit for a visiting king, but what can I do,” muttered Anne.
“I can’t pull food out of thin air. Pershing will just have to understand.”
Anne was starting to panic, Key could tell. She hardly ever referred to Pershing as anything other than His Lord while inside the castle walls, for fear he might overhear.
“Ma, what can I do?” asked Key, wanting to help.
Anne’s head snapped up; caught up in her plans, she had clearly forgotten Key was even there.
“You have to get out of here, like you always do!” Anne exclaimed sharply. “It’s too late to send you to the village on a supply run excuse but get back to the cabin. You can help Jenna pick the berries. Then stay there!”
Keyara thought back to that feeling that had overtaken her on the tower as she had looked out at the approaching king. She shivered in recollection.
As much as she wanted to listen to Anne, a larger part of her needed to see King Ash for herself.
“Is that really necessary?” she asked slowly, uncertain how Anne would interpret her reluctance to stick to the plan.
“I know this visit will take a lot of work, and Helen is still gone visiting her mother. I can help you prepare everything.”
Anne just looked at her, a suspicious glint in her eyes. Key continued, flustered. Anne could always read her like a book.
“I mean, it’s been so long. I’m eighteen now, and he never even met my…the old king and queen.” She quickly corrected herself, even though just the two of them were left in the kitchen.
Careful, always be careful.
“But his men—”
“He picked all new guards when he became king,” Keyara interrupted. “Men his age he trained with.”
Key was studious about keeping up to date on matters of the realm. She listened through doors as much as possible and read everything she could get her hands on.
It was important to her as the rightful heir, even though she might never be able to take her place as ruler, and she was proud of the knowledge she had managed to attain over the years about the different kingdoms.
“Please, Ma,” she finally said weakly. “I never get to be here for the important things.”
Anne sighed in defeat. Key knew she needed the help too much to refuse.
“You may be right. There will be much to do. And now that you’re an adult, your absences will start to draw attention. I doubt you’ll be able to stay a kitchen maid for long, now that you are of age.”
“But no need for you to draw attention to yourself,” Anne said sternly, pointing at Keyara while she bit back a smile.
“Go back to the cabin and help pick berries, at least for the formal arrival. When business matters are underway, you can come back and help, but stay out of sight as much as possible.”
Keyara nodded, kissing Anne’s cheek happily. It was as much as she could hope for. She took off her apron and headed out the back door of the kitchen, relishing the bit of freedom she had been given for once.
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