Gambit (C.L. Denault)

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In Earth’s battle-ridden future, humans have evolved. Those with extraordinary skills rise to power and fame. Those without live in poverty.

Sixteen-year-old Willow Kent believed she was normal. But when a genetically-advanced military officer shows up in her village and questions her identity, long-buried secrets begin to emerge. With remarkable skills and a shocking genetic code the Core and its enemies will do anything to obtain, Willow suddenly finds the freedom she craves slipping through her fingers. Greed, corruption, and genetic tampering threaten every aspect of her existence as she’s thrust, unwilling, into the sophisticated culture of the elite Core city. To ensure peace, she must leave the past behind, marry a man she’s never met, and submit to the authority of a relentless officer with a hidden agenda of his own.

Her life has become a dangerous game. How much will she sacrifice in order to win?

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ISBN: 9781942111061 Category: Tag:

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Read The First Chapter

Fair Maiden

The jewel-encrusted dagger hidden beneath my skirt slipped out of place, driving its steel tip into my flesh. Wincing, I stopped mid-stride to shift my weight as warm blood trickled down my thigh. The scabbard wasn’t designed to carry the blade against bare skin, and every time its leather bands loosened, I risked carving a hole in my leg.

The men at the bar shouted and swore, restless for ale, but I couldn’t adjust the blade without lifting my skirt. A flash of leg would cause as much uproar as the jewels, so I limped toward the taps and slipped between the oak barrels for privacy. With practiced fingers, I retied the bands and dropped my skirt, ready to face a crowd that was already noticing my absence.

Sure enough, as soon as I reappeared, an empty tankard flew at my head. The scoundrel who’d launched it was too drunk for accuracy, and I had no problem dodging, but it didn’t improve my mood. Any more of that nonsense, and I’d be having a drink myself.

My scalding glare sent the man staggering off his bar stool and into the crowd. The stool filled immediately, taken by a surly-faced miner with a swollen lip and blood oozing into his beard. I eyed him warily as he pushed a gold jingle across the bar.

“Ale,” he slurred, his village brogue thick and muddled. “Now.”

I pressed my lips together. He’d consumed three tankards in the last hour, a sign that he might become a problem. Pocketing the jingle, I poured him a lukewarm drink. He gulped it, throat bobbing, and slammed the vessel down in front of me.

“Another!” His jingle hit the bar and rolled. “Be quick about it, lass!”

Frowning, I stopped the runaway jingle with my palm. I’d seen this a hundred times with injured miners who guzzled ale after ale to numb their pain. Four tankards usually did the trick. A fifth was against tavern policy. Bracing myself for the backlash, I opened my mouth to refuse.

But before I could say anything, the miner’s bloodshot eyes glazed over and crossed. He croaked out a rude belch and toppled off his stool. The customer sitting beside him shot me a grin. “Need some help?”

I flashed the jingle at him. “Free ale to the man who lends a hand.”

“Deal,” he said, hopping off his stool.

He dragged the miner away and returned for his drink. I was pouring him a tankard when the glint of steel caught my eye. A shaggy-haired patron had pulled back his vest, showing off a blade he’d snuck inside. I signaled my dad, who was busy patrolling the crowd. He saw my nod, approached the armed patron, and escorted him outside. No weapons were allowed in the Fair Maiden tonight—except for my own, of course.

Grateful for my dagger, I gave it a discreet pat. Not everyone in the tavern was dangerous, so I rarely had to use it. But I’d learned to be careful. Out here, sharp objects were a girl’s best defense against a man with too much alcohol driving his senses.

“How you holding up, Willow?” Hash, our cook, passed me a wooden bowl of hot, salted snacks through the serving window.

“About to drop, Hashie.” I popped a couple of snacks into my mouth and poured the rest into baskets sitting at intervals along the bar. Drawn by the enticing aroma, men grappled for greedy handfuls, emptying the baskets in seconds. I returned the bowl to Hash and waited for another. On a night like this, snacks would disappear as fast as I dumped them in.

Men were filing in like ants. Women and children, too. Patrons from all walks of life had started arriving early. I glanced around and smiled. A mixed crowd like this didn’t often mingle in one place, especially with ale involved.

But tonight was different. The tavern hummed with excitement as customers gossiped and jockeyed for seats. I saw it every six months, folks hunching around tables or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, putting differences aside to wait for our messenger. As long as the ale kept flowing, they’d be buzzing about news from the Core instead of squabbling like children.

“Hurry it up, will you, love?” An elderly man hammered his shriveled fist against the bar. I seized the last clean tankard, filled it to the brim, and plunked the foamy brew down in front of him.

He tossed a jingle at me and grinned. Half his teeth were missing. My stomach rolled, but I pasted on a smile. Missing teeth would be the least of my problems if someone didn’t bring more tankards. Villagers were a touchy lot, and one lost temper could send fists flying all over the tavern.

Dad appeared with an armload just in time. I helped him stack the fresh tankards, but I couldn’t stand another second of pouring ale. “Can’t I work the exchange table? Please, Dad. I’m exhausted.”

The abundant volume of gold changing hands had set him in high spirits, and he took pity on me. “Go ahead, love. I’ll get someone to work the taps.” He rubbed my aching shoulders and sent me off. Relieved, I went to take my younger sister’s place at the mahogany table our family used for swapping goods.

“My shift, China.” I shoved her shoulder gently with my hip.

“Not now!” she hissed, keeping her seat.

All too familiar with the symphonic range of her hissing, I knew at once why she didn’t want to leave. She’d taken a fancy to the young man sitting across the table. I’d never seen him before, which wasn’t unusual during a messenger gathering. He’d likely popped in for news and a drink while on his way to a neighboring village.

But I could tell by the leer on his face that he intended to take full advantage of my sister’s infatuation. Perched on a rickety stool, he’d leaned forward, draping his upper body close to hers. When he saw me looking, his grin widened. My hand itched to slap him. If he thought I’d be easy prey, too, he was in for a shock.

Jaw clenched, I grabbed beneath China’s arms and lifted. “Up you go, lass.”

The movement caught her off guard, and she fussed like a chicken as I hauled her out of the exchanger’s seat. It wasn’t easy. I was taller, but she outweighed me by more than she cared to admit. She struggled for a moment before recovering her dignity.

“You’re such a pain!” she whispered furiously, flipping her strawberry-blonde braid over her shoulder.

“You’ll thank me later. Go on, now. Give Hash a hand with snacks.”

“Och!” She left in a huff, her freckled nose held high in grudge position.

Sighing irritably, I gathered my skirts and settled into the exchanger’s seat, reassured by the warm, familiar press of leather against my thigh. The dagger, a gift from the hooded man, evened the odds between me and the rascal eyeing me brazenly across the table.

I leaned back in my seat, ready to haggle. “What do you have for exchange, sir?”

The young man flashed me a wolfish grin, revealing a full set of teeth. He also had long, thick hair and wore clothing without rips or stains—evidence of an uncomplicated life. I pegged him as a merchant, the type of patron we didn’t see often in McKaireth. The bulk of our business came from local miners who worked all day and drank their wages each night.

“Sir?” I repeated, a little louder.

He toyed with a strand of his hair, an obvious bid for attention. I couldn’t help admiring its length, though. No wonder my sister had been so enamored. Seldom did a man with long hair and good teeth pass through the tavern door, unless he was from the Core. But we hadn’t seen a Core official in years.

“SIR?” I finally yelled, tired of his silent ogling. Tracing the outline of my dagger with one finger, I imagined thrusting its double-pointed blade into one of his eyes. “Do you have something for exchange?”

“Oh, right.” He blinked, as if I’d interrupted his train of thought. “Look here. I got me some of the ripest, most delicious apples you ever laid your peepers on, miss.” He dropped a tattered basket onto the table for my inspection.

I leaned forward, eager. Healthy fruit was hard to find in the villages. Sometimes we got lucky with peddlers, but not often. For fresh apples, I’d give him all the jingles he wanted. I might even forgive his lecherous gaze.

But the basket held nothing except the bruised, wrinkled remains of once-fresh fruit. Disappointment welled. “Those are far beyond ripe. Hardly worth bringing in here.”

He looked insulted. “Well, it’s all I got.”

That was a lie. He was a merchant and had plenty more, but he’d intended to woo China into an unfair exchange. Annoyed, I plucked a shriveled apple from the basket and looked it over. It wouldn’t be good for eating outright, but Mum might salvage some of it for a pie. My mouth watered. I hadn’t tasted apple pie in months.

“Two jingles,” I offered, replacing the apple.

“Two?” he fumed. “Are you daft? Those are worth at least five!”

“I know lame fruit when I see it, sir.”

“They’re not lame! You’ll give me five.” Anger sharpened his voice, drawing Dad’s attention from across the room.

“You’ll get two,” I said firmly, sliding a couple of jingles toward him. “And no more.”

“Why, you little tart—” He jumped up, his cheeks flushed and his hand raised high. I instinctively reached for my dagger, ready to stop him. But before he could strike me, Gerhold Kent was staring him in the face.

“Stand down.” The words were quiet, but delivered with unmistakable force.

“The miss here is trying to cheat me!” the man spluttered.

“Is she?” Dad’s voice was smooth and dangerous. “In case you hadn’t noticed, that miss is my daughter. She’s been working the exchange table since she was nine, and I’ve yet to see her make an unfair trade. Now, I told you to stand down. Unless, of course, you wish to have a chat with my bluster.”

The man paled. His presentable clothing did nothing to hide his small stature. Our bluster, Grindel, would have no trouble kicking him out. Reputable taverns needed beefy men for crowd control, and Grindel was the biggest brute in McKaireth.

“No, s-sir,” stammered the merchant. “Two jingles is a f-fair price for them apples.” He grabbed the two circles of scuffed gold lying on the table.

Dad glowered at him. “Then you’d best be finding your seat.”

The man skittered away like an outhouse rat, and Dad turned to me with a look of concern. “You all right, darlin’?”

“I am now, thanks to you,” I replied, with my most adoring expression.

His barreled chest swelled with pride. He was a thickset man, brawny and tough from years of hard work. He ran the Fair Maiden alongside my mum, Patchie, a blonde smidgen of a woman with a solid head for business. What he couldn’t intimidate, she outsmarted, and they’d managed to carve out a decent life for us. Or what passed for decent in the Outlying Lands.

Dad eyed the tavern door. “More coming, love. Folks are thirsty for ale and eager for news. We’ll be raking in a fortune.” He rubbed his meaty hands together. “Keep a sharp eye.”

“I will, Dad. But I’m losing strength. I could use something to wake me up. Would you consider parting with a bit of black gold tonight?”

“Aye, my love.” A deep laugh resonated in his chest. “I guess a shot wouldn’t hurt my lucky charm none, would it?”

“Really? You’ll fix me some?” Clapping my hands together, I tried to squeal the same way China did when she got excited. “Thank you!”

He smiled, looking pleased. “Be right back.”

I gave myself a mental pat on the back as he left. My response had been perfect. He now viewed himself a hero of sorts, saving me from the young man I could easily have fended off without him.

But he needed that feeling, same as the tavern regulars needed their foamy tankards of home-brewed ale each night. Not only did it ward off the soulless chill of routine village life, it also gave them value. A reason to exist. My dad found value in rescuing me, and I’d gotten very good at pretending to need his protection.

“Well, look who we have here.” A teasing male voice drifted my way, scattering my thoughts and provoking an instant blush. “Catch you in your head again, lass?”

“Och!” My hot cheeks made me defensive. “Don’t startle me like that, Tem.”

“Didn’t mean to.” Smiling, he sat and clasped his hands on the table. “But you have to admit, Will, you’re an easy target with those deep thoughts of yours.”

“At least I’m thinking,” I retorted. “You here to chase skirts?”

His brown eyes twinkled. “Came for the news, same as everyone else. Has the messenger arrived?”

I shook my head. “We’ve seen naught of him. But the chain’s a rough journey. More miles than I could handle. You’d never catch me biking it.”

“Oh, you’d rather ride?” His cheeky grin brought back the humiliating memory of my last experience on horseback. “I know how good you are with horses.”

“That’s not funny!” I swung the back of my hand at his chest. Laughing, he caught it and linked our fingers together. Temsik Storm was a terrible tease, but he was my best friend. We’d been inseparable since the day he’d thrashed a roughneck bullying me in the schoolyard. “Are you having a drink tonight?”

His eyebrows shot up. “And risk another lecture from my dad on the consequences of irresponsible behavior? I think not.”

“Then scoot!” I waved him off. “You’re holding up the queue.”

“What?” He glanced at the line of irritated customers behind him. “Oh, sorry.” He brushed my nose with the tip of his finger. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Tem rose and swaggered off. I watched him flag down a barmaid and cajole her into sneaking him half a sandwich. He was all flattery and charm. Before the night was over, she’d likely be offering him more than a bit of free grub. Amused, I beckoned the next customer to sit and trade. While I was inspecting the twist of woolen yarn she’d brought, Dad showed up.

“Here you are, lass.” He handed me a steaming, child-sized tankard. Black gold! I swirled the liquid around, inhaled its decadent aroma, and sighed with pure pleasure.

“Dad, you’re a saint.” I squeezed his calloused hand.

“Enjoy it, love. And make your old dad proud this evening, you hear me?” He planted a delicate kiss on my forehead, the one man in the room brave enough to dare such a thing, and went back to work.

I didn’t wait for the drink to cool. The first sip burnt my tongue and blazed a scorching trail down my throat. But its sweetness was irresistible. I felt rich just holding it in my hands. Only the elite could afford to drink black gold, and here I was having a taste.

Now, if our messenger would just arrive! I couldn’t imagine what was keeping Knox. The suspense tested my patience, and Dad’s as well. He kept sneaking glances at the grandfather clock standing sentinel behind me. Each time it chimed, he peeked out the tavern door, squinting his eyes against the setting sun.

The exchange table kept me distracted. In between sips of black gold, I traded jingles for every item imaginable. Potatoes, thread, nails, and coarse bolts of cloth crossed my table. One young girl even brought in a weaned kitten. Moved to compassion, I offered her more than the scrawny ball of fluff was worth. It curled up in my lap, warming me until the last coin was gone.

“Mum!” I snapped my fingers as she hurried by with a tray of brimming tankards. She dropped them off, returning with the tray tucked beneath her arm and her braid, the color of high-summer honey, swinging behind her. Like China, she was curvy. The modest dress she wore couldn’t quite conceal her bountiful figure.

“Aye, dearie?” she asked in her dainty, lilting brogue. Her gaze was fastened on the queue stretching clear out the door and into the street. Soon, the size of the crowd outside would rival the one within.

“We’re out of jingles, Mum. I need another bag.”

Her rosy mouth puckered into a smile. “Back in a jiffy.”

She gathered some of the goods I’d collected and took them to the kitchen, where Hash was preparing hot sandwiches and soups. Through the serving window, he offered one of the barmaids another bowl of snacks to pass around. A trick of the trade, of course. The salt made customers thirsty for more of our ginger-colored brew, and most were too busy flirting with the barmaid to notice the deception.

“Here, love.” Mum came back with a velvet pouch. It hit the table with a comforting clink. “What’s this you have?”

She’d caught me taking a sip of black gold. Though no longer piping hot, it was still delicious. I swished it around my mouth before swallowing. Her light green eyes were disapproving as I licked the brown froth from my lips.

“You’re one spoiled young lass—” she began to scold, but was interrupted when Grindel poked his head through the tavern doorway.

“Mrs. Kent, ma’am!”

Mum hurried to the door and peered out. In spite of my curiosity, I dared not rise and leave the gold or goods unattended. She spoke in hushed tones with the bluster, and they pointed to something in the distance. Tem passed by and saw me craning my neck for a better view.

“What is it, Will?”

“The messenger, I think.” I tried not to fidget and disturb the snoozing kitten. “I mustn’t leave the table. Will you go and find out what they’re looking at?”

He headed for the door, and he wasn’t the only one. Mum’s animated conversation with Grindel had caught the crowd’s attention. Their anxious voices rose to a clamor.

“Is it the messenger?” asked a bear of a man.

“It must be!” someone answered.

“How far off is he?”

“Och! Someone have a look and tell us what’s happening!”

I’d sent Tem off in the nick of time. A throng of squawking villagers rushed toward the entrance, blocking my view. Tem jostled his way back, knees and elbows cutting through the crowd, a look of astonishment plastered across his face. As he dropped to one knee beside my table, a strong premonition washed over me. Something was coming, and it wasn’t Knox.

“The messenger?” I asked.

“No,” he breathed, raking agitated fingers through his chestnut hair.

“Then what?”

“An officer on horseback. From the Core.”

The blood drained from my face. “What?”

“With four Ritters in accompaniment. Six steeds total.”

My stomach clenched in fear. Ritters were genetic abominations, killing machines assigned to guard high-ranking military officials. No one would mess with them, not even the burliest of the grubby miners. They could slice a man to pieces in a matter of seconds.

“Wait, did you say six steeds?”

Tem nodded.

“But that means . . .” My voice trailed off.

We both knew what it meant. Five riders with six horses. When they left, every saddle would be occupied. Someone in McKaireth was destined to be taken.

About The Author

C.L. Denault is a speculative fiction writer who loves dreaming up tales of adventure and intrigue. A former systems analyst, she gave up her nerdy code-writing skills to care for her family (including a son with special needs), and currently lives among the vast stretches of cornfields in Illinois.

Writing stories and posting on The INFJ Café are her biggest passions, along with drinking coffee and watching sci-fi. When she’s not hanging out with her husband and kids, she can usually be found at a library or tucked away in the shadowy corner of a hip coffeehouse. She’s also been glimpsed sneaking into her garage, late at night, to work on her time machine.

Her debut novel, Gambit, is the first in a Young Adult dystopian series.

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