Welcome to the first chapter of my weekly serial novel! For news and the latest chapters, head over to The Weekly Serial Page.
I hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: This has not been edited and may contain typos. Formatting may be off after being pasted into my blog. The final version which I am compiling into a book may have slight alterations.
I stood back to admire my half of the dorm room. My drawers were full, my bunk was made, and my desk was organized.
“Home sweet home,” I said.
The sun was just starting to set. My first sunset away from home. Leaning my elbows against the windowsill, I watched as the campus started to turn pink. Carrying my things up to the fourth floor had been a pain, but at least it gave me a decent view. My bedroom back home was much higher up. A hill stretched out away from the dorm, sloping down gently into a parking lot. Beyond the parking lot was a forest and beyond that, just barely visible, the mountains. And on the other side of the mountains lay my home; the city I had rarely left.
I lowered my gaze to watch a lone human hiking from his car up to the dorm. The parking lot had been buzzing with cars, students, and parents earlier today, but aside from him, it was just full of parked cars and growing shadows.
Wait no, he wasn’t the only person there.
There were two men, loitering under a lamppost.
I practically shoved my nose against the glass, straining for a good look at them.
They weren’t loitering. Oh no. They were watching.
They were watching me.
I pulled out my cell phone and punched in my mother’s number. No answer. I tried the land-line. Same thing. My little brother was glued to his phone, so I tried him.
“Gee, not even a hello for-”
“Where is mom?” I growled.
Larkin yelled for our mother, without bothering to cover his phone. I pulled mine away from my ear with a wince and replaced it in time to hear a shuffling and a muffled “It’s Lani, she sounds pissed.”
“Honey?” came my mother’s voice.
“You promised!” I snarled.
“You promised. No guards.”
“I know. I didn’t send any.”
I glared out the window at the parking lot. “Then why are there two royal guards standing in front of my dorm?”
A pause. “You must be mista-”
“One of them is Shea.” I leaned closer to the window, trying to make out the faces. “And I’m pretty sure the other is Robinson.”
My mother sighed. “I didn’t think you’d recognize them…”
“I’ve only been stuck in the palace my entire life. I know every guard. Send them away.”
“They aren’t bothering anyone, Leilania.”
“They’re bothering me.” I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the same argument once again. “I just want a chance to experience a normal life for a little while before I ascend. I’m pretty sure queens don’t take time off from ruling to go to college. I want to see the world and pretend for a few years that I’m nothing special. Just an average girl. No palaces, no crowns, and no royal guards.”
“But you aren’t an average girl,” my mother said. “You’re the crown princess of Glenhela. What if somebody recognizes you?”
I knew, honestly, that she wasn’t wrong. And it made arguing that much harder. It probably wasn’t the best idea for the future queen to leave the safety of the palace, not to mention the barrier, and go running around with humans without any guards. But, it was my only chance. I could count the number of times I’d been allowed to go beyond the barrier around the city on one hand. I needed to get away for a while and college seemed like the perfect chance.
Besides, it wasn’t that dangerous. I could handle any human threats on my own. I hooked a finger on the chain around my neck and pulled it up out of my shirt until the ancient lion claw hanging from it slipped free from the fabric. The chain glinted in the fading sunlight and the claw twisted slowly in the air. I looked up at my reflection in the window.
“I don’t recognize myself, Mom.” Not with my hair chemically straightened and dyed so brown it was almost black. I tucked the claw back into my shirt, fingers brushing against the tiny patch of fur over my heart. It was the same golden-blonde my hair should have been and the only outward sign I wasn’t human. “And so what if somebody does? No Glenhelian would want to hurt me.”
It was true. I doubted there were very many shifters outside of our kingdom that even knew what I looked like. And since everyone in Glenhela had sworn submission to my parents, hurting me would never cross their minds.
“You’re an Alpha.”
“I’m an underage Alpha, Mom. Nobody is going to even know.”
“What about someone who opposes the marriage?”
“The secret marriage?”
She snarled into the phone in irritation. “You know that not everyone on the Omega Council agrees with it. And the ones who are opposed are the ones who are most likely to talk about it!”
“I’m not the one getting married, Mom,” I reminded her. “Plus, they don’t know what I look like either.”
“But what if someone from Caernen –” she started.
“Assassinates the future sister-in-law of their princess?” I cut in. “Because of a wedding in six years they don’t know about yet?”
“What if they want your claw?”
I lifted my claw out again and clutched it in my palm. The ancient tip was still sharp enough I could feel it pressing painfully against my skin. It was one of only nine surviving lion claws from the first King of Glenhela; one of the original members of the first Omega Council. Any shifter with one of these nine claws could control the magical stone that protected our kingdom. Any shifter, that is, who was also an Alpha Lion.
“Again, Mom, any lion who knows what I look like is probably from Glenhela. They’re not going to come after my claw in some crazy attempt to overthrow our family. Plus, you’d know the moment they cross the barrier with it. And any lion from a different kingdom would probably try to take a claw from their royal family. Not ours. And I’m not of age yet. Taking my claw is pointless while someone else is ruling the kingdom.” Before she could say more I added, “We’ve had this argument again and again, Mom. I dyed my hair like we agreed, I went to the school you chose, and I’ll call you every night at nine.”
She sighed and I knew I had won. Of course, I had already won several times before. I wouldn’t be at the school if I hadn’t. “You know I just worry. With the stones failing…”
“Look at it this way, if the stones fail while I’m away at school, I’ll be the safest member of the family.”
She laughed weakly. “I love you, Leilania. I miss you already.”
“Same here, Mom. I love you too.”
I hung up and slipped the phone into my pocket. As I watched, Shea pulled out his cell phone and answered it. A moment later, he said something to Robinson. They both looked up toward my dorm room. Shea grinned and tilted his head, just slightly, into a bow. I had been exaggerating, I didn’t know every palace guard. But, I did know Shea. He was one of the younger ones who – respectfully – treated me more like a friend than his future queen. I smiled and waved, unsure of whether or not they could actually see me. The pair turned and walked away. I watched until they got into a car and pulled out of the parking lot.
I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother sent replacements. As long as I didn’t know they were there, I supposed it wouldn’t bother me as much.
As much as I hated to admit it, she was probably right. Coming here was reckless and just a bit stupid. I was needlessly putting myself in danger. It would probably have been easier if I just opened up and told my mother the truth about why I wanted to get away so badly. I hadn’t. I wouldn’t. It was still complicated, even to me. I was a mess of emotions and – one reason I did want to go to school – I needed a big change to get my mind off of things and reset myself.
On my twenty-fourth birthday I would gain the ability to control the golden stone that shielded Glenhela from danger. At the same time, the magic that bound the loyalty of the people of Glenhela to my parents would divide between the three of us. Shifters, particularly Alphas, needed a ruling Alpha to keep the peace. When the bond divided, it would weaken and could lead to fighting, rioting, even attempts to overthrow our family. The only solution would be to perform a submission ceremony that would transfer full loyalty and power to me. It had always been a bit daunting, knowing the exact, inevitable day I would ascend the throne. But now…
The magical golden stones that protected every shifter kingdom were failing. Nobody knew where they had come from. Dragons made them, they say. Assuming dragons ever really existed. It didn’t matter. The stones were failing and no one knew how to fix them or make new ones.
Some claimed their stones had visible cracks. Others said the golden glow was fading. Still more ruling families said they had even noticed a weakening in the barrier; weather was getting fouler, humans were straying closer, it was even getting harder to sense all of the shifters within the barrier.
The stones did more than just protect us. They allowed the Alpha who controlled them to dominate other Alphas. Thanks to the stones, we could live in huge, peaceful packs filled with Alphas. Everyone was afraid that if the stones grew too weak, that power would fade. We’d be left with a pack full of rival, feuding Alphas and everything – the kingdom itself – would fall apart.
Would they continue to fail gradually? Or would each stone just suddenly crack one day and lead to a sudden, massive civil war within each kingdom?
The state of our stones was a carefully guarded secret among the royal families, certain trusted court members, and the Omega Council.
That alone made the prospect of becoming queen downright terrifying. How long would I rule before the stones failed? A day? A year? Ten? After my reign was over?
I wasn’t sure how to express it to my mother, she’d probably tell me not to worry, but that was part of why I wanted to go to college. My life had been planned out ahead of my from the moment I was born. Every detail, down to the minute, was laid out before me. Classes all day on reading, writing, history, and politics, and being a good queen, and everything in between. Everything except what to do when the barrier fell. I had learned how to rule a peaceful kingdom, protected by a powerful stone. Not how to cope when the stone failed and I was left with chaos. I thought, maybe, getting away would prepare me somehow. I could learn how to fend for myself and think outside of the box. Even learn what life outside of the barrier was like. And… maybe forget for a few years what waited for me in Glenhela.
Of course, it didn’t end there.
The Omega Council was going crazy trying to figure out how to save the stones. They had come up with desperate, last ditch hope: a wedding. I guess they were trying everything. Different types of shifters rarely married. It happened in smaller packs, usually those outside of the kingdoms. The stones only let us control Alphas of the same species. Our kingdom was nearly all lions. There were scattered Betas of other species, but if any of them gave birth to an Alpha, that child would be forced to leave before they turned twenty-four.
So, a wedding between kingdoms was absolutely unheard of. And that was exactly what the council was hoping. They chose at random from neighboring kingdoms with eligible heirs. The lucky winners were Glenhela and Caernen. Since Caernen’s only royal heir was a girl, they picked my brother for her mate.
A lion and a she-wolf. It made me laugh just thinking about it.
Princess Danica would become Queen of Caernen, with my brother by her side. And then I would be forbidden from having children. When I died the loyalty of my pack would pass to my brother or his children. And, assuming the stones lasted that long, there would be a child who would be able to control one of the stones and both kingdoms. In theory anyway. I guess the Omega Council was hoping that suddenly doubling the size of a pack would give the stones some sort of power boost.
The wedding was the other reason I wanted to go to college. Was I running away? Maybe, sort of. Even though it was six years off, not a day went by when someone didn’t bring it up. Always followed by sympathy for my brother. Poor Larkin. What a burden. How scary. How brave. What a challenge.
It wasn’t that I didn’t agree. I did feel bad for my brother. It was a burden and a challenge, not to mention daunting. All those things and more. But, it seemed like people forgot that it would be my burden too. I’d be the queen of a potentially doomed kingdom. Danica and I would do more co-ruling and collaborating than she and Larkin would. We’d have to figure out how to guide our kingdoms toward a union, while my brother was more like a figurehead.
And oh yeah, no children for me. I didn’t want them yet, but the option would have been nice.
Nobody, ever, stopped and told me I was brave or expressed sympathy about my upcoming challenges. Poor Larkin, bravely marrying a she-wolf from Caernen to unite the kingdoms. What about poor Lani having to figure out how to get close enough to another Alpha to decide how to move the kingdoms forward? How scary for Larkin to go live in Caernen. Never how scary for Lani to take control of a kingdom with a failing stone and announce to the masses that she was going to ally with Caernen by marrying off her brother. Let’s teach Larkin everything we know about Caernen, but never even glance at Lani and ask if she wants to know too.
I was scared, forgotten, and nobody seemed to realize it. I supposed I could have said something. But, everything people said to Larkin was true. I had always been the optimistic one. Larkin was always my shadow. He was younger, shyer, and scared too. He needed the attention and the confidence. I felt like I could get by without it. It sucked. It was hard. But, I felt like Larkin needed it more than I did.
Going to school was letting me get away from that. If they weren’t going to be teaching me how to deal with Danica or the failing stones, then my tutors had nothing left to teach. Striking out alone was what I needed now. Both to grow and to get a chance to relax, for once.
When college was over, I was going to be months away from becoming Queen. It always seemed so far away, I always felt so ready. And now… it seemed like the closer the day came, the more unprepared I felt.
The doorknob rattled. My roommate – my human roommate – was unlocking it. I quickly tucked my claw back safely under my shirt and leaned casually against the windowsill.