- Published: 28 September 2021
- ISBN: 9781760897536
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 448
- RRP: $24.99
The Gilded Cage (The Prison Healer Book 2)
They had to keep running.
The night was dark, the cold so bitter that it pierced straight throughto their bones, but still, they couldn’t stop. Not when death itself chasedtheir heels.
“Mama, where are we —”
“Quiet, sweetheart,” the woman hushed her daughter, looking overher shoulder for any sign of pursuit.
“But what about Papa?” the little boy whispered. “What about —”
“Shhh,” the woman cut him off, gripping his hand tighter and hastening his steps.
Neither the little boy nor his older sister uttered another word, both sensing their mother’s urgency, both seeing the silent tears that slid down her face, shining in the moonlight.
On they ran, none speaking of who they had left behind and everythingthey had lost that night.
The woman couldn’t bear to close her eyes lest she recall the image of her family’s cottage in flames, her husband and youngest daughter being dragged away by the Royal Guard, her youngest son —
A sob left her mouth before she could stifle it.
Her son was dead.
He was dead.
The woman clamped down on her tongue to halt another sob, grateful that her two eldest children had heeded her command to stay hidden when she’d crept back to investigate, sparing them from the sight that would forever haunt her nightmares.
A sword piercing his small chest.
Her husband begging for help.
Her daughter screaming, trying to reach him, desperate to save him.But it was too late.
“Mama, you’re hurting me.
”Her son’s quiet whimper had her easing her grip and whispering anapology. It was all she could manage, too choked by what she was feeling to offer anything more.
Hours passed as they followed the twisting Aldon River, never slowing, always looking back to see if they were being followed. There was no sign of the guards, but the woman didn’t risk stopping until they were deep in the foothills of the Armine Mountains, far from any civilization. A safe house, she had been told. A place where she might find sanctuary, should the worst ever fall upon her and her loved ones.
When the invitation had come from a cloaked stranger in the marketplace, she’d laughed as if it were a joke, claiming to have no idea whyher family would ever be in such danger. They were but humble servants of the people, she’d said, her husband the village healer, she herself adevoted wife and mother.
How they had tracked her down, she had no idea. For years she hadremained in hiding, after a lifetime of denying whose blood ran in her veins.
Some called it the blood of traitors.
Others, the blood of kings.
Or — in her case — queens.
The woman had done everything she could to ignore the rumors of the growing rebel group searching for descendants of their long-lost monarch. She’d taken a new name and become a new person, wanting nothing more than a quiet life with her beloved family.
Tonight, half of that family had been ripped from her.
Something vital within her had shattered as she’d watched, helpless to do anything.
She never wanted to feel that helpless again.
She would never allow herself to feel that helpless again.
And so, as she and her two remaining children approached the safehouse — a thatched cottage hidden deep in the snow-dusted woods —the woman made a decision.
Three short raps of her numb fist against the wooden door was allit took before it opened, the cloaked figure from the marketplace illuminated by the luminium beacons shining from within, along with a smallgroup of others reclining by the fireplace and peering curiously in her direction.
“This is a surprise,” the cloaked man said, his hood pulled back enough to reveal his weathered features as he took in the woman and hertwo shivering children.
The woman raised her emerald eyes to his, gripping her son and daughter tighter as she said, “We’re here to join you.”
Those in the room beyond froze like statues, but the man merely angled his head and repeated, “Join us?”
“I know who you are and what you’re after,” she stated baldly. “You won’t succeed without me.”
The man arched an eyebrow as everyone behind him seemed tohold their collective breaths. “And what would you want in return?”
The woman recalled everything she had suffered through that night, still hearing the screams, still seeing the blood, and whispered one word: “Vengeance.”
A slow smile stretched across the man’s face before he sank into adeep bow. “Then please come in, Tilda Corentine,” he said, as those inthe room stood and bowed in turn. “Your rebels have long been waitingfor you.”
Swallowing back her doubt, the woman and what remained of her family stepped over the threshold. No longer would she be called Tilda Meridan, no longer would she or her children deny their bloodline.
The blood of traitors.
And the blood of queens.
Tilda planned to be both — to betray a lifetime of convictions to claim what was rightfully hers.
Nothing would change what had happened that night. But Tilda Corentine would be damned if she didn’t spend the rest of her life making those who were responsible pay.
One way or another, no matter what it cost, she would have her revenge.
T E N Y E A R S L A T E R
The man was dead.
Kiva Meridan — known to a select few as Kiva Corentine — stared down at the body, noting his sunken cheeks and ashen skin. Given his state of bloating, he’d likely passed into the everworld three or four days ago. Long enough for the scent of death to emanate from him, even if he was yet to show physical signs of decomposition.
“Middle-aged male, average height and build, pulled out of the Serin River early this morning,” Healer Maddis said, her crisp voice enunciating every word perfectly. “Who can speculate as to the cause of death?”
Kiva kept her mouth shut, fully aware that she’d been granted entrance into the sterile examination room as an observer only.
“No one?” Healer Maddis prompted her students, all of whom were crowded around the body resting on a metal slab in the center of the small space. “Novice Waldon?”
A young man wearing large spectacles blinked owlishly and answered,“Uh, he drowned?”
“Marvelous deductive reasoning,” Maddis said dryly, before turning to the student beside him. “Novice Quinn?”
The young woman hunched in on herself, her voice barely a whisper as she said, “Maybe a heart attack? Or — Or a stroke?”
Healer Maddis tapped a fingernail against her lips. “Perhaps. Anyone else?”
Kiva shifted on her feet, catching the healer’s attention.
“What about our visitor?” Maddis asked, drawing all eyes to Kiva.“Miss Meridan, isn’t it?”
Seeing the open, inviting challenge in the elderly healer’s gaze, Kiva shook off her trepidation and stepped closer to the corpse, picking up hislimp hand to reveal the smudges beneath his nails.
“This discoloration indicates he was suffering from an immune disorder, most likely syphinus or cretamot,” Kiva said, having diagnosed similar cases in the past. “If left untreated, both can lead to the rapid swelling of blood vessels.” She glanced toward the two novices who had been called upon. “Waldon and Quinn are both right — he most likely had a heart attack or a stroke, caused by his underlying medical condition, then fell into the river to drown.” She released the man’s hand. “But only a full examination will be able to say for sure.”
An approving smile stretched across the Matron Healer’s dark, wrinkled face. “Well spotted.” She then launched into a lecture about common immune disorders, but Kiva was only half listening, still marveling over where she stood.
Silverthorn Academy — the most renowned healing academy in allof Evalon. Some would argue in all of Wenderall.
When Kiva was a child, her father had spoken often about Silverthorn. Having grown up in the city of Fellarion, he’d used any excuse to visit Vallenia and sneak into the academy’s classes. His greatest regret was that he’d never relocated to study on campus full-time, instead accepting an apprenticeship from a master healer nearer to his home — an honored position, but one that paled in comparison to being a Silverthorn student.
Faran had made it his life’s purpose to help people, something Kiva had inherited to the point that, even when she’d been locked away in anightmare, she’d still used everything he’d taught her to make the lives of others better.
A shadowy feeling overtook Kiva as she thought of the long years that were now behind her. A decade of her life spent behind thick limestone walls and impenetrable iron gates.
It was a death sentence for most, but Kiva had survived.
And now she was here, standing at the heart of her father’s dream, when she should have been somewhere else.
There was no excuse for her actions today. But when the opportunity to visit Silverthorn had presented itself, she hadn’t been able to say no, even knowing that her own desires should have been at the bottom ofher priorities.
It had been six weeks since Kiva had escaped Zalindov. Six weekssince she’d discovered that the crown prince had helped keep her alivethrough the deadly Trial by Ordeal, a set of four elemental challenges she’d undertaken in order to save the life of the Rebel Queen, Tilda Corentine.
Her efforts had been in vain, with a violent prison riot ending Tilda’s life. But even in death, her purpose remained, inherited by Kiva and her two older siblings. Together, the three of them would seek vengeance for what had been stolen generations ago; together, they would reclaim Evalon’s throne for the Corentine bloodline.
The problem was, Kiva had no idea how to find her brother and sister. The only hint she had was a coded note she’d received before leaving Zalindov, containing a single word: Oakhollow.
The village was barely half an hour’s ride away from Vallenia, but Kiva hadn’t had a spare moment to explore since arriving in the city two days ago, having spent the previous weeks holed up in the Tanestra Mountains waiting for the spring thaws. The first chance she’d had to sneak away was today. But instead of using the opportunity to seek outher long-lost siblings, she was indulging in her own dreams.
Tilda Corentine would have been livid.
Faran Meridan would have been delighted.
Kiva chose to side with her father, deciding that her mother’s mission could wait another day.
Guilt had simmered within her when she’d made her choice that morning, but a knot of anxiety had also eased in her stomach. She had no reason to be nervous about a reunion with her siblings, and yet . . .ten years was a long time. Kiva wasn’t the same carefree child anymore, and she could only assume the same must be true for them. Too much had happened — to them all.
And then there was what the three of them intended to do . . .
The sound of chiming bells interrupted her thoughts, the noise making her jump, a lingering effect of the years she’d spent listening for the smallest of sounds that could herald her death. But she was no longer in Zalindov, the peaceful chimes merely echoing through the walls of the sterile examination room to signal the end of class.
The students, all clad in pristine white robes, scrambled to finish writing their lesson notes as Healer Maddis dismissed them.
“And remember,” she called as they started toward the door, “for those heading to the festival this weekend, there will be no mercy come Monday should you partake of excessive libations. Consider yourselves warned.”
There was a twinkle in her gray eyes as she uttered her half-hearted threat, with some of the braver students grinning in response as they headed out the door, Kiva following in their footsteps.
“Miss Meridan, a word?”
Kiva halted at the threshold of the small examination room. “Yes, Matron Healer?” she asked, using the honorific owed to the woman, not only because of her age and experience, but because she was the head of Silverthorn Academy.
“Few people would have noted the discolored nailbeds as quickly as you did,” Maddis said, covering the deceased man with a sheet. “And even fewer without proper training.” She looked up, their eyes meeting.“You impressed me.”
Kiva squirmed and mumbled, “Thank you.”
“Faran Meridan once impressed me, too.”
Kiva stopped squirming in an instant.
Healer Maddis’s wrinkles deepened as she smiled. “I knew whose daughter you were the moment you walked through the door.”
Unsure whether she should flee or wait to see what the healer said next, the choice was taken from Kiva when Maddis asked, “How is your father? Still saving the world, one patient at a time?”
A million responses came to Kiva’s mind, but she settled on simply saying, “He died. Nine years ago.”
Maddis’s face fell. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Kiva only nodded, seeing no reason to reveal how he had died. Or where.
The Matron Healer cleared her throat. “Your father was my best student — ignoring the fact that he wasn’t a Silverthorn student at all. Young Faran Meridan was always sneaking into my classes, acting like an innocent novice.” Maddis huffed with amusement. “He showed enough promise that I never reported him to the Matron Healer at thetime, knowing he’d be banned from the grounds. Someone with such natural, intuitive talent deserved the chance to hone his skills. I believed that then.” She paused. “And I believe it now.”
The look Maddis sent Kiva caused her breath to catch.
“Faran’s death is devastating, but I’m thrilled to learn his passion was passed on,” the healer said. “Should you wish it, you would be welcome to study here at Silverthorn. No sneaking in necessary.”
Kiva’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. Studying at Silverthorn would be a dream come true. The things she would learn . . . Tears welled in her eyes at the very thought.
And they welled even more because she knew she couldn’t accept.
Mother is dead.
I’m on my way to Vallenia.
It’s time to reclaim our kingdom.
Kiva had written those words to her brother and sister upon leaving Zalindov, and she had to see them through, denying her own ambitions in order to put her family first.
“Think on it,” Healer Maddis said, when Kiva remained quiet.“Take however long you need. The offer will remain open.”
Blinking back more tears, Kiva prepared to utter a polite refusal. But when she finally spoke, what she said was, “I’ll consider it.”
Despite her words, Kiva knew Silverthorn wasn’t in her future. As soon as Maddis learned where she’d practiced her skills for the last decade, the invitation would be withdrawn. All Kiva had to do was raiseher sleeve and uncover the Z scar on her hand.
But she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sabotage herself with such finality. Instead, she uttered a quiet farewell and stepped out of the examination room into the sterile hallway beyond.
Mind reeling, Kiva paid little attention as she walked down the long corridor, passing white-robed healers and students, along with a mixture of plain-clothed visitors and patients. She’d already had a tour of the campus earlier that day, learning that there were three large infirmaries— one for psychological trauma and healing, one for long-termpatient care and rehabilitation, and this one, which was for diagnosing and treating physical ailments specific to illnesses and injuries. There were also a handful of smaller buildings dotted across the campus, like the apothecaries’ workshop, the quarantine block, the morgue, and the healer residences. Only the main infirmaries were accessible to the public, all connected by outdoor pathways with arched stone sides offering views of the gardens at the center of the grounds. The Silverthorn Sanctuary, as those gardens were known — a place where patients and healerscould retreat and relax, enjoying the tranquility of the bubbling brookand aromatic wildflowers all from atop a hill that overlooked the city, straight down to where the meandering Serin River met the Tetran Sea.
It was to the sanctuary that Kiva headed once she left the largest of the infirmaries, walking along the stone path a short way before stepping off it, her sandals sinking into the lush grass, the late afternoon sunshine warming the chill from her bones. She kept moving aimlessly until she reached a small footbridge affording safe passage over the trickling stream, pausing to lean on the wooden railing in an attempt to gatherher thoughts.
“Uh-oh, you’re wearing your serious face.”
Kiva stilled at the familiar voice, ignoring how it made her feel — all that it made her feel. She braced herself and turned to see the approaching figure just as he came close enough to stop beside her.
Jaren Vallentis — or Prince Deverick, as most of the world knew him.Her fellow escaped inmate, her traveling companion, her once-friend — and once-potentially-more-than-that — and her family’s sworn enemy.
Her sworn enemy.
“This is my normal face,” Kiva said, struggling not to stare. His deep blue shirt with gold embroidery along the collar looked far too good on him, as did his tailored black jacket and pants. It took a supreme effort of will for her to cast her gaze away.
“Yes, and it’s much too serious,” Jaren agreed, reaching out to tuck a strand of dark, wind swept hair behind her ear.
Kiva’s stomach gave a traitorous leap, and she frowned inwardly at herself. Casual affection from Jaren wasn’t uncommon. Even when they’d been in Zalindov together, he’d been overly friendly toward her. Since they’d escaped, Kiva had sought to keep him at arm’s length, buther will was beginning to crumble. It was if he’d been born for the sole purpose of tempting her, of distracting her from her task.
And that was unacceptable.“Did you have a good day?” he asked, his unique blue-gold eyes capturing hers.
Kiva smoothed her outfit — a simple green dress paired with a thin white cardigan — and weighed her response. Jaren was the reason she was even at Silverthorn; he’d called in a favor, resulting in her being awakened at dawn and bustled out of the River Palace for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a day at the best healing academy in the kingdom.
There were so many reasons for Kiva to hate the crown prince, but she couldn’t summon the burning resentment that should have consumed her. She blamed Jaren for that. From the moment they’d met, he’d been caring and thoughtful and wholly devoted to her. Even when she’d learned that he’d lied about who he really was, she still hadn’t been able to turn her back and leave him to die of his injuries down in thetunnels beneath Zalindov. She’d tried — desperately — to harden her heart toward him in the weeks they’d spent at his family’s palace in the Tanestra Mountains, and then during their long days of travel to Vallenia, but it was useless. He was just too gods-damned likeable. It made everything Kiva planned to do to him and his family that much more difficult. Not that she’d ever admit as much — even to herself.
“It was . . .” she started, unsure how to answer. Her day had been amazing, incredible, everything she’d ever hoped for. But knowing what she did about her future, and how she would have to turn down Maddis’s offer, all she said was, “Interesting.”
Jaren’s golden eyebrows inched upward. “A glowing commendation.”
Kiva ignored his sarcasm and asked, “What’re you doing here?”
There was no one near where they stood leaning against the footbridge, but she still peered nervously at those spaced further out in the sanctuary, and the spattering of people walking along the arched stone pathways between the infirmaries.
“I came to pick you up,” Jaren said with a merry wink. “First day ofschool, and all that.”
Kiva shook her head at him. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Ouch,” Jaren said, pressing a hand to his heart. “That hurts. Right here.”
“If someone recognizes you —”
Jaren had the audacity to chuckle. “People in Vallenia are used tous wandering freely among them. We only wear masks during special events, so we’re easily recognizable the rest of the time. Don’t worry — we’re not as much of a novelty as you’d think.”
“I doubt Naari would agree with you,” Kiva argued, looking past him. “Where is she?”
Since leaving Zalindov — and in the time they’d been there together— it was rare to see Jaren without his most loyal Royal Guard, his Golden Shield. That Naari Arell was absent now meant one of two things: either she was giving them space and watching from a distance, or —
“Would you be impressed if I said I managed to give her the slip?”
The self-satisfied grin Jaren wore had Kiva tilting her head to theside, a smirk playing at her lips as she replied, “I’d be impressed if you managed to survive her wrath afterward.”
Jaren’s grin fled, a wince taking its place. “Yes. Well.” He straightened his shoulders and rallied. “That’s a problem for later.”
“I’ll say something nice at your funeral,” Kiva promised.
Jaren huffed out a laugh. “You’re too kind.” He then grabbed herhand and started leading her back toward the arched pathway. “Come on, we have to get moving if we don’t want to miss it.”
Kiva tried to free herself from his grip, but his fingers only tightened around hers, so she gave in, staunchly ignoring how nice it felt, and sought to keep up with his long strides. “Miss what?”
“Sunset,” Jaren answered.
When he said no more, Kiva dryly observed, “This may come as a shock, but there’ll be another one tomorrow.”
Jaren gave her gentle tug. “Smart ass.” The amused look he shot her warmed her insides — and that she ignored, too.
She was ignoring a lot these days, when it came to Jaren.
“The annual River Festival kicks off at sunset today,” he said. “It lasts all weekend, but the first night is always the best, so we want to make sure we have a good view.”
“You’ll see,” Jaren said mysteriously.
Kiva made a quick decision. She would allow herself one more night — a night to experience the River Festival and enjoy being in Jaren’s company, knowing that their days together were numbered.
One night, and then she would set out for Oakhollow, where she would finally follow through with what she’d determined upon leaving Zalindov.
No matter how she might feel, no matter how the crown prince had wormed his way into her heart, it was time for the Vallentis family to fall.
Looking down at the boy strapped to the metal table before her, Kiva Meridan leaned in close and whispered, “Take a deep breath.”
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall.
The sun set at six minutes to four. Kay lay stretched out on the floor, reading the very small print on the back of the newspaper.