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Author's Note (VERY IMPORTANT): This is the FOURTH book in a series. Do not read unless you have read the following: The Scepter of Light, Between Light and Shadows, and Dark Guardian/The Princess of Light. If you have read the other books, I hope you'll be excited as I was to explore the stories of Amy (and, of course, Nick) and Rakyr. Still needs some editing—I'd like to have a little more story and a little less of the romance. Let me know if you have any suggestions. Enjoy!

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Prologue 1

Amelia Grace Lewellyn stood in the main entryway of her home, the very building in which she'd been born twenty-four years ago, with a lingering feeling of dread deep down in her gut. She had forgotten this feeling over the years. Or maybe not forgotten, just learned to live without it. In the southern country of Shayark, where she had spent the past five years of her life, there was never any reason to feel apprehension. Her aunt's family was very lax now that the civil war in their country was finally over and the debris had, at last, settled.

Amy had always dreamed of one day going to live with her famous Aunt Mika, whose love for a Shayarkan shadowtouch had changed the way the world viewed interracial relationships. The dreadful civil war between the royal Thorikell family and the vile Viljarmas had prevented such a trip for the first nineteen years of Amy's life. Even though the Viljarmas were technically defeated in her fifteenth year, for the years that followed, the straggling remains of the accursed family attempted to start a few minor insurgencies. Until peace had reigned for a full year, Amy's parents refused to allow her to travel to Shayark.

Finally, four years after the civil war ended, Amy found herself in a coach traveling from the north of Feirtala to the south of Shayark. A much finer way to make the trip than the manner in which she'd first attempted it nine years ago. Traveling on foot by oneself was a sure way to get into trouble. Trouble met Amy in the form of a group of bandits who decided from the lace on her garments and the regality of her manner that she would make a grand ransom. Thankfully, she was saved by a ragtag group of sailors from across the Endless Ocean. Jak, a young woman who dressed like a boy, had become an instant comrade, as she reminded Amy so much of the stories she'd been told about her adventurous Aunt Mika. The captain, Daric, had remained a good deal aloof, though Amy had learned over the years that his attitude was largely due to incidents from his past that had set him against all of womankind. His marriage to Jak had changed all of that, and he was much kinder now.

And then there was Nicholas. The awkward young first mate who was the first to rush in to save her, and then immediately afterwards tried to pretend like she no longer existed. He was the one great puzzle in her life. Sometimes he would seem so friendly—usually when no one else was around—and then only moments later, deliver a brilliant setdown that would have crushed the emotions of any normal girl of fifteen to shreds. But Amy had never been a normal girl. No, having been raised in the presence of her grandfather, no man could ever possibly hope to intimidate Amy.

Her grandfather, King Senach Arnoldaf Lewellyn, was the reason Amy was quite literally quaking in her boots that very moment. First of all, she feared what he would say upon viewing her altered appearance. It had been five years since they last saw one another. Amy had kept in regular contact with her family—her parents were devastated that their eldest daughter was voluntarily staying away for so long—but letters were not quite the same as face-to-face conversation, especially when the granddaughter of Feirtala's aging king arrived for the conversation wearing a highly controversial wardrobe. She could already hear the snickers of the nobles and statesmen lingering about the hall. None of the guards dared laugh, but she could see that their normally stoic expressions were strained.

One would think the people of Feirtala would be used to such clothes, as Amy's Aunt Mika had introduced a similar version of the outfit to Feirtalan society over three decades ago. Her brief stay at the castle had apparently not left a deep impression on those who now wandered the halls, however, for they could not seem to stop staring at Amy. She wore pants, though not quite the same as a man might wear. The trousers worn by gentleman fit snugly around the hips and loosely around the legs, falling over their boots but not quite reaching the floor. The trousers Amy's aunt had designed were loose and baggy so that, until more closely inspected, they looked much like a flowing skirt.

Amy's trousers were neither. They were made of a stretchy material that clung to her curves and tucked neatly into her knee-high boots. She found the tightness of the pants increased her agility greatly—which was a necessary requirement for the occupation she'd taken up shortly after going to live with her aunt. The pants had begun simply, though her cousin Cristi had insisted upon embroidering vines and flowers up the sides of the legs to make them more feminine. This pair was lined with pretty blue flowers to match the ones Cristi had stitched onto her pale blue shirt. It fit more loosely than the pants, but she'd left the top two buttons unbuttoned out of a force of habit. She always felt like she was being strangled otherwise. Normally she would unbutton the cuffs as well and roll the sleeves up to her elbows, but she'd managed to keep from doing so that morning for her grandfather's benefit.

Still, it was doubtful he would be pleased with what he saw.

Amy was not worried about her parents' reaction. She had already explained the mechanics of her clothes and why she'd chosen them to her mother and father. While her mother made a few disapproving remarks, her father was vastly amused with her creativity and said on more than one occasion that he could not wait to view her in all of her manly splendor. Not that Amy could ever look manly in her clothes. Though she was a late bloomer, since the age of sixteen not even an oversized robe could conceal the curve of her hips or her more than ample bosom. All of her life she had prayed for the figure of a woman, but by the time she'd finally gotten one, she wanted to give it back. Curves were a nuisance, especially when working in close quarters with men every day.

The murmurs of disapproval in the hallway silenced, and for a moment Amy's heart missed a beat as she waited for one of the royal servants to appear and announce that his majesty King Senach was ready to speak with his granddaughter. Then she saw movement in the hall to the left, and only a moment later, the men and women scattered about the main entryway were bowing and prostrating themselves like buffoons. It was humorous how one minute they were sneering at her, and the very next they were giving homage to her parents.

Prince Callum traveled across the length of the entryway to where his daughter stood with long, easy strides. What he lacked in grace he made up for in enthusiasm as he enveloped his daughter in a big bear hug.

"I barely recognized you!" he exclaimed. "If not for your clothes and the remarkable resemblance to how you described them to me, I might not have!"

"Oh, papa, I'm not so different," Amy argued, though even she could not deny how much she had changed in the past five years.

"My baby's a little woman," he murmured, his voice choked with tears.

"You'd best let me hug her now before you make a fool of yourself in front of your statesmen," a stern voice said from somewhere over her father's shoulder. Looking sheepish, Callum stepped aside and swiped at the tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. Behind him stood Amy's mother, a vision of beauty even in her fifties. Amy stepped easily into her embrace, welcoming the motherly love she had imbibed only vicariously through her aunt for so long now.

"I missed you so much," Tessica choked, and despite her remonstrations to her husband, she promptly burst into tears.

The servant chose that moment to appear and announce that the king was ready to see his granddaughter. Tessica stepped back, not even bothering to try and stop the flow of her tears as her husband settled an arm on her shoulders and they both looked proudly upon their daughter.

"Has he changed any in the past five years?" Amy asked them both hopefully.

In unison, they shook their heads.

Amy took a deep breath. "Wish me luck, then," she said, plastering a smile on her face.

"You'll need it," she heard her father grumble, though his remark was cut off abruptly by a grunt of pain, most likely caused by a discreet elbow to the midsection, her mother's favorite way of warning her husband that he should hold his tongue.

Amy glanced back just once before following the servant through the double doors of the throne room. Her mother smiled and waved, her father winked as he held his side with one hand. Taking a deep breath to steady her frazzled nerves, Amy stepped into the throne room.

Usually the great room was abuzz with nobles and important advisors to the king, but on this day it looked as though the room had been cleared of all inhabitants but a handful of servants and the king himself. Senach sat stiffly on his throne, every line and wrinkle evident even from the great distance that separated him from his granddaughter. To Amy, he looked ancient. In Feirtala and Shayark alike, people often spoke in hushed whispers of when the old king would finally die. Most royals had the common decency to do so before their memories started to fail them. Sixty was typically a good age to pass on. Amy's grandfather was nearing eighty and, despite stooped shoulders and an appalling lack of teeth, still managed to rule his kingdom with an iron fist on sheer reputation. He had always been feared for his legendary temper. Age had changed nothing in regards to that.

The closer Amy walked to her grandfather, the surlier he appeared. Upon her initial entrance, he'd looked merely grumpy. Now he looked downright furious.

"Five years from home and you come back dressed like a lad! What am I to think of my own daughter when she sends her niece home looking like a boy?" he demanded, his eyes glinting like daggers.

"You should think that you love her in spite of her tendency to allow her willful niece to act, and dress, as she likes," Amy found herself replying.

This was the one reason she feared her grandfather more than probably anyone else in Feirtala. In spite of his temper, in spite of his fearsomeness, Amy could not quite seem to ever hold her tongue around him. She'd received more furious lectures than any of her siblings combined thanks to her blabbering mouth. It was bad enough she didn't act like a proper lady no matter how much silk and lace they put on her, but to have a granddaughter who wouldn't shut up, even when a mentally challenged person would be smart enough to keep her mouth shut, was absolutely appalling. When Amy was a child, her siblings used to call her a horsemouth, as they claimed her words would often just gallop away. Over the years, she'd learned to control her babbling…a little bit. Obviously not good enough.

Her grandfather's face was purple. Not a good sign.

"I should think my granddaughter would learn how to be respectful now that she's finally a woman!" Senach roared. "You haven't even bowed to me yet!"

"You're my grandfather. Wouldn't you prefer a hug over a bow?"

"Damn straight I would!"

With a hint of a smile tugging at her lips, Amy skipped up to the throne and threw her arms around her grandfather's neck.

The nervousness melted away as she realized she was not going to receive the blistering setdown she'd been expecting. If her grandfather was truly upset about her appearance, he would have ordered her to change. She could tell by the slight quiver in his old arms, however, that he was more concerned with the fact that she was finally home than anything else.

"Now. Tell your grandfather about the last five years of your life."

With a smile, Amy relaxed against the king's chest, balanced on his gnarled old leg as she'd often sat as a child, and began to tell him of her adventures in Shayark. She started with the difficulties of adjusting to a culture that slept in the daytime and worked at night. She told him about the swift and strong friendship she had developed with her cousin Cristi, an avid reader and professed daydreamer. Being more of a realist, and preferring spoken words to written, the two were quite opposites. But in spite of their differences, they had got on well enough to be calling one another sisters before Amy's first year in Shayark was out.

She told him about everything she had learned from her Aunt Mika. He seemed particularly interested in those stories, as he had a great fondness for his wayward daughter. He laughed when Amy recounted the many knife-throwing lessons she had endured and how terrible it was when her cousin Will would interrupt with his usual surliness and proclaim that they were both 'doing it all wrong.' He would show them the correct way, scold them when they did not repeat his procedures exactly, and inevitably have to be dragged forcefully away by his wife before the two women turned their knives upon him as a target.

She told him about learning the Shayarkan language, about studying the culture across the ocean with Will's wife, Alys. But her favorite topic, and the one she saved for last, concerned her business.

Her grandfather already knew most of what Amy was recounting to him, but like his granddaughter, Senach much preferred the spoken word to the written. She could see his eyes glazing over as he pictured in his mind the stories she told him. When she started speaking of her business, she watched those startling green eyes sharpen, as if she had suddenly reached a very important subject.

It had all started as a hobby, really. Because of the grand stories Nicholas had recounted to her about his experiences as a seaman, Amy had decided to start studying ships. While she waited for the rubble of the civil war to be cleared in Shayark, she read about ships. Her older brother Tomas sometimes took her to the fishing town of Gebrie, located just a few miles from shore, so she could inspect real live ships and learn about their mechanics. When she started living in Shayark, she had the opportunity to broaden her horizons with the study of Daric's magnificent ship, The Stormin' Harlot. He often traveled with Jak across the ocean to visit Alys, who was a dear friend of Jak's.

Nicholas was no longer the first mate, as he'd been gifted with a ship of his own shortly after the captain's marriage. For that Amy was grateful, as she had no desire to face the cad again. Ever. And without the possibility of running into him, she was able to relax on board the ship amidst Daric's boisterous crew of boys and girls. Jak and Daric had a habit of picking up stray children as crewmembers, and they were always a colorful lot.

Finally, Amy had decided to build a ship of her own. It was nowhere near the size of The Stormin' Harlot. In fact, it only needed two people to man it, though one could do very well until it was time to sleep. She had taken Daric's idea of a wheel affixed to the back of the ship one step further by turning the wheel sideways and placing it completely underwater. Instead of steam, Amy had concocted her own 'fuel' of sorts by combining the sickly black liquid used to grease wheels on carriages with a large portion of what her cousin Rakyr called 'devil's fire.' It was a form of alcohol strong enough to burn the whiskers off a man with one whiff. Years of experimentation had brought Amy to that particular combination, and she discovered that not only was it great fuel, but it lasted quite a long time as well. She had traveled from the southern tip of Shayark to northern Feirtala in three days on one tank of fuel for her return trip home.

While in Shayark, however, she'd used her ship for more practical purposes than a pleasure cruise on the way home. She started a courier business, utilizing the connecting waterways throughout Shayark to deliver important packages and messages for her Aunt and Uncle. Most ships could not travel on rivers or streams, as they were too large. Amy's ship could skim across almost any waterway without scraping bottom. Her only major setback was the bogs where long weeds jutted up from the ground and tangled around her motorfan, as she'd taken to calling it.

Her grandfather listened raptly until Amy had concluded with a dizzying figure of all she had earned in tips alone from her complimentary service. She could tell the king was impressed. She already knew her parents were impressed. Her aunt and uncle and their family were impressed.

That was enough, she told herself. It was enough that they were impressed with all she had accomplished. And yet, sometimes she wondered if there hadn't been a greater reason for her drive to succeed in building a superior ship and a thriving business. Sometimes she wondered…

Amy shook the thought from her mind as she noticed that the expression in her grandfather's eyes had turned from admiring to saddened.

"Is something wrong, grandpapa?" she asked quietly, wondering at how old he looked just then.

Senach sighed deeply. "I am sure that you know of how ill your uncle has been lately," he began.

Amy nodded, feeling a bubble of deep grief welling up within her. Her Uncle Kell, though a quiet man, had become very dear to her over the years. His heart was filled with so much kindness, it was strange to think it could have grown weak over the years. Surely a heart with such capacity to love could only grow stronger! Unfortunately, not one month ago, her uncle's heart had started to pain him until he could no longer do the things he used to do. Even managing the affairs of his country had become so tiresome that his wife and eldest son often had to pick up his slack. His condition was hard on his family, but it was worst for his wife, who often looked at him with such despair that Amy wondered if she would be able to continue living when her husband passed on. According to the doctors, he did not have much time left. In fact, one month ago they had assured the Thorikells that their head of family would not make it two months. It was part of the reason Amy had finally decided to return home, feeling that he should spend his remaining time alone with his closest family without her around to distract everybody.

"I only wish there was something I could do," Amy murmured, looking down at her twiddling thumbs, for there was nothing any of them could do. All of the doctors had said so.

"I received a message just this morning. Shortly before I got word of your imminent arrival," Senach continued, practically ignoring her sympathetic comment. "I have been thinking all day of what should be done about the news in the message."

Amy frowned. "Who was the message from?" she wondered, worried he might mention Baron Albren, a despicable old man whom her grandfather had often threatened to marry her to when she was being particularly disobedient. As far she knew, the man should be dead by now. But if her grandfather looked this troubled…

"What is it?" Amy prodded when he did not answer right away.

He looked up at her sadly. "I have only just gotten you back. I fear my own time may be short, but I have always done everything in my power to make my family happy. No matter how difficult the situation, I have always offered my full support. And I feel that I have reached a conclusion that will be satisfactory to all parties involved."

"Grandpapa…"

"Don't interrupt me, girl," he snapped, and then he sighed deeply. "The message was from your cousin, Cristi. She had a vision the day after you left. In her mind, she saw a medicine that could cure her father. A plant located somewhere in the jungles of the land across the ocean. With how limited Kell's time is…" He paused. "I think you understand how necessary expediency is, and as that sea captain is not visiting, I can think of only one person with a ship worthy of transporting someone quickly across the Endless Ocean."

Amy nodded in understanding. "You want me to loan my ship to Will?" she guessed, as it was not uncommon for Will and Alys to travel to Galatea to visit Alys's family. She automatically assumed he would be the one to undertake the mission of saving his father.

Senach shook his head. "I want you to escort your cousin across the Endless Ocean."

She frowned. "But Will knows how to operate the ship himself. Why does he need me?"

"Will isn't going."

"They're sending Cristi?"

Again her grandfather shook her head.

"Surely you don't mean Rakyr…" Her voice trailed off when she realized that was exactly what her grandfather meant. Though her eldest cousin had traveled across the Endless Ocean some time ago with his younger brother, he hadn't made the journey since then. With his father's illness, it seemed even more improbable that he should want to leave, even on a mission that might save his father's life. He was needed in Shayark to help his mother rule.

"Will did volunteer," Senach allowed, "but Rakyr has insisted on going. Though the letter was not long enough for an explanation—it arrived via carrier pigeon, you know—I think I understand why this is so important to him. Your cousin Rakyr, you see, has the ability to heal. He saved his father's life once when he was still in the womb, as I am sure you know. I think it must devastate him to know that his powers are ineffective against his father's illness."

"I see," Amy murmured. "But is it truly necessary for me to escort him? As you said, I have only now returned home, and I truly have no desire to cross the Endless Ocean, and what if my ship can't even make it that far? What if it stalls in the middle of the ocean and we are stranded there until we starve to death and then Uncle Kell dies anyway? Wouldn't that simply be a waste of lives?"

Senach waited patiently for the babbling to end before he continued. "As I mentioned earlier, I believe my solution will be the best result for all of those involved. Rakyr will go in search of the plant. One of the Galatea royal lot has been appointed to escort him into the jungle. You may await his return at that captain's home port."

Amy shuddered. "Isn't there another port closer to the jungle I can stay at?"

"No."

"You're doing this to me on purpose, aren't you?" she pouted, knowing full well what her grandfather's scheme was. She should never have mentioned Nicholas's name in his presence. She should have known the conniving old man would misinterpret her hatred for the bumbling first mate as something completely different and completely wrong. Amy didn't give a fig about Nicholas as anything other than a dark spot in her life, and she would much prefer to never set eyes on him again. And now her grandfather was purposefully setting it up to where she would be bound to run into him. Shrieven was, after all, not only Daric and Jak's home port, but Nicholas's as well.

"Think of it as killing two birds with one stone," Senach suggested.

Amy's expression hardened. "I am not a bird, grandfather, and it would take a lot more than a stone to bring me down. If this is how it must be, then this is how it must be. I would be honored to escort my cousin across the Endless Ocean so that I may assist in saving the life of my uncle. If I must stay in Shrieven as a part of the deal, then so be it. But I can assure you, nothing will come of this matchmaking plan you have hatched. I have no desire to become involved with Nicholas, and I highly doubt he even remembers me."

Her grandfather's eyes widened with feigned innocence. "Did I ever mention a plan to matchmake? I merely thought it would be good publicity for your business if you could set a new record in crossing the Endless Ocean. Surely you didn't think…"

"Spare me," Amy grumbled as she rose to her feet. "Well, at least I haven't unpacked yet. Goodbye grandfather. It was good seeing you again."

She bowed stiffly to the old man, whose eyes were suddenly dancing with amusement as she turned on her heel and started to walk away from him.

"Oh, Amelia!" he called out when her hand was resting on the knob of the door leading out the side of the throne room.

"Yes grandfather?" she replied through clenched teeth.

"Baron Albren's nephew and heir is looking for a wife. If, by chance, you come home unmarried…"

His answer was the loud crack of the door slamming shut behind his furious granddaughter.