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Champion of Dusk & Dawn
Author: Megan Derr

 


Champion of DUSK & DAWN

 

 

Champions Book tWO

 

Megan Derr

 

 

Chapter One

 

Leonine had managed to make good time for most of the day, despite the weather doing everything in its power to thwart him, but by the time he reached his destination he was ready to fall over and sleep for a week. Nothing took the wind right out of you like doing even the simplest task in the freezing cold.

Why couldn't the assassins have waited until warm weather to do this? Surely that would have been easier on them as well? Then again, the sooner the world was rid of His Majesty, the better. His daughter hadn't even been officially coronated yet, and she was already leagues better.

The royal guards who'd initially been sent out to investigate the shots had come back with very little, unable to do more than flag the area they believed the shooter had used to fire the shots. It was a good distance away from the fairgrounds, meaning the killer was no trifle with a bow. Not the kind of person Leonine was enjoying hunting, but he would do his best. Hopefully he got the bastard before an arrow found his back.

From the shooting point, he'd followed what frustratingly little trail remained of a single horse riding quickly away. A large horse, used more often for farm work and the like, not one of the types used by knights and mercenaries.

It had taken him hours, and a lot of wrong turns and retracing his steps, before he finally came upon the faint remains of a campsite nearly two hours away, though a lot of that was simply the damned weather. That was a lot of traveling for such a quick, short job. Then again, he'd succeeded at murdering a king and getting away with it—so far.

Securing his horse nearby, but well out of the way of where he needed to search, Leonine slogged through the snow back to the small area that still showed signs of having been cleared to make a halfway decent camp. Whoever it was had even gone to the trouble of building a shelter from the snow, so they'd likely been here for a few days.

How had they known the duel had been moved forward, though? It had taken Leonine hours to get here from the cliff. There was no way someone could have learned of the changes all the way out here and then rushed to the cliff in time to take the shot.

But two or three people taking shifts… that would make sense. Three, likely. Kill teams were usually just a pair, but such a high profile target and the cold weather… twelve hours shifts would be nigh impossible, but three people on an eight hour rotation… One to watch the target, one to stand duty at camp, one to rest… possibly even a fourth, to relay information from town.

This wasn't just a crime of opportunity, someone who saw a chance in the tournament and went for it. This was an expensive, well-thought out and executed hit. His Majesty had always been intended to die during the frost fair. The challenge had changed some details, but that was all.

Interesting that the killers hadn't done it sooner. There'd been far better opportunities, countless cleaner shots, well before the duel. Why had they waited until then? Too many possibilities, impossible to narrow down at the moment.

He continued to scour the campsite, but they'd cleared it well. He couldn't even find bones left over from a meal. The remains of the fire had been thoroughly scattered, anything useful that might have been in it destroyed. Whoever the killers were, they knew their business. Increasingly, it seemed likely they were funded by wealth—nobility. Unfortunately, that didn’t much narrow down the options.

Leonine sighed and sat down on a fallen tree, likely something the killers had done as well, given it made a perfect seat, close to where the fire had been, off the cold ground…

He braced his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his folded hands, staring out over the campsite and the woods beyond. Nothing was exactly what he'd expected to find, but it was still frustrating. Something, anything at all, would give him a direction to work with when he reached Tesser City, which was his likeliest chance of finding information. If there was information to be found in the royal castle or city, the royal guards would have already found it.

Taking a deep breath, Leonine let it out slowly, watching the way his breath clouded around him. His lungs didn't love the cold air, but it was good for clearing the head. Sort of. Unfortunately, when he wasn't thinking about hunting killers, his stupid head took that as indication to turn back to his broken heart.

Everard, how big and warm and secure he was, friendly and congenial, how he seldom found fault with anyone. Odilia, soft and stern all at once, with the world's most beautiful smile. Together they were something else again, a small, loving family of two that took care of everyone who walked through their doors.

Leonine had spent his whole life alone, always at the fringes of everyone else's lives. Until Cimar had taken him in, accepted and mentored him, called him friend. It was all Leonine had ever wanted.

Or thought he'd wanted, until he'd caught the eye of a handsome, intriguing couple and been invited into their bed. Everyone knew they did that from time to time. Leonine had never thought he'd be one of the lucky few, though. He certainly never thought he'd be a delightful exception, the only person they invited more than once, the only one to become a regular presence, to stay the whole night through, one after another, until he’d lost count of them.

Fool that he was, he'd allowed himself to feel and want and wish for more. He'd even believed he'd gotten it when they'd said they'd come to the tournament to support Cimar, and by extension Leonine… He'd been so excited to invite them to his knighting, that soon he'd be a proper knight, standing on his own, with money enough…

For things that would no longer be. Because he was too much yet again.

Too much for his parents, who didn't need yet another child, let alone such a loud, active disruptive one who was ill-suited to farm life. Too much for the people who'd agreed to foster him, and instead dumped him at an orphanage before leaving with a pretty, tractable girl who better suited their lifestyle.

Too much for the orphanage, who didn't know what to do with him and his peculiar 'tricks' that were just early, untutored magic. Too much for all the potential parents that came by, who sought quiet, obedient children who'd be perfectly happy making shoes or working in a shop or making nails all day.

By the time he was eight and had run off to join the military because it seemed to be the only place that wouldn't throw him out, he'd learned that he was too much of everything, and therefore not enough of anything.

Even in the military, a lonely child who just wanted friends and a place to belong, all he seemed to do was drive people away. Too noisy. Too active. Too smart. Too brash. Too flirty. Never mind his magic, which everyone seemed afraid of. It had taken him years to realize it was because he had more of it than was typical, could do things that people only heard about in stories, read of in books.

Cimar had been the only one to take him exactly as he was, and not just that, but encourage him. Leonine had finally started to feel like he was enough after all, even if he didn't really have any other friends, nothing more than drinking buddies and the occasional acquaintance or passing stranger to share a bed with.

Then he'd been invited to join Everard and Odilia… and invited back, and then to come whenever he wanted, to stay the night. They'd been everything he'd never known he'd wanted. He'd felt, really and truly, like he'd found where he belonged. The people who thought he was exactly the right amount of all the right things.

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