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It is the duty of the lifesworn to devote their lives to protecting, serving, and guiding those to whom they're sworn. The best of them serve one master for their entire lives. Though Omar has only ever wanted to be listed amongst those greats, he instead loses his first master to illness, his second to age, and is rejected by subsequent potentials.

When a foreign woman, Lady Astira, arrives unexpectedly in Morentia in the dead of night, she brings dire news: her betrothed, Lord Symaia, has been kidnapped. Without him and the soldiers who follow him, Princess Shanna will be missing a significant part of her army in the coming war against her stepfather.

Symaia is also an old friend of Omar's, and so he is assigned the task of finding, rescuing, and protecting Symaia. If Omar fails in his mission, lives and kingdoms will be lost. If he succeeds, he must watch as the man he's always loved marries the woman he's quickly falling in love with.

Looking for You

Lifesworn 3

By Megan Derr

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.

Edited by Faith and Siobhan Crosslin

Cover designed by Natasha Snow

This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.

First Edition May 2018

Copyright © 2018 by Megan Derr

Printed in the United States of America

Lifesworn Book THREE

Megan Derr

Chapter One

Omar stared at the ceiling, wanting to either scream or cry in frustration. He was tired of being tired. Just once he would like to go to bed and fall asleep, instead of settling down only to suddenly be wide awake when only moments before he'd been yawning hard enough to water his eyes.

Heaving a sigh, he threw back the blankets and rolled out of bed, rising smoothly to his feet and padding silently over to his chests of clothes. Pulling on practice clothes, he took up his quarterstaff and sword and left the frustrating confines of his room.

The air was frigid, the world blanketed in that eerie silence that only existed in the dark hours of the morning when everything slept. He shivered and rubbed away the crawling sensation on the back of his neck. Normally that was a warning that something was amiss, but in the depths of the royal palace, when all was silent, and the bells had only recently struck the third hour of the morning, what could possibly be wrong?

Well, plenty, but it was unlikely to be anything that would set his bloodgiver senses alight.

Trouble would come to him or not. Until then, he would practice, and perhaps that would exhaust him enough to sleep. All the other hours of practice hadn't seemed to work, but he had little else in the way of options.

When he reached the training yard, he set his sword on a bench, took a drink of water from the nearby fountain, and then moved to the center of the yard and set to work. He was trained to use myriad weapons, and sword was the most practical, but Omar had always favored the quarterstaff. It was just one more thing that set him apart from other bloodgivers, who so often carried swords and daggers that were gifts, heirlooms, or marks of honor in some other way.

Omar had never been given any such gift. He wasn't even of good enough standing to have been a bloodgiver; they were most often the sons of nobles, or other such wealthy and powerful persons. But his acumen as a soldier had been too good to overlook, especially combined with other areas of remarkable ability. His mother had cried upon hearing the news and had to be pried away from hugging him by his stepfather.

He'd been so proud of himself—until he'd been given to a sickly recluse who regarded him with the same interest he regarded the furniture. Omar hadn't hated him. He hadn't known the man well enough to feel much of anything. His second sworn had been moderately better; he at least had appreciated and respected Omar, the honor of having a bloodgiver. But old age had finally taken him, and Omar once again had been adrift. Rare for a bloodgiver to ever change sworns, even rarer for it to happen twice. Though neither death had been his fault, still he was looked at askance.

He'd had hopes when Lord Tishasanti had approached him, even if he personally thought Tishasanti would benefit the world best by getting himself lost in the sands.

But that hadn't worked out either, and honestly Omar couldn't be upset about it, given he'd just been an attempt to tear two people apart.

He spun sharply, thrusting the quarterstaff forward into the gut of an imaginary opponent, then bringing it around and sharply down to drop the man on the ground. Pivoting smoothly, he went on to block and incapacitate the next opponent.

He'd just paused to catch his breath when the unexpected clatter of hurried footsteps broke the silence. Wiping his brow, Omar turned toward the door as two guards and an unfamiliar, white-skinned woman draped in costly wool and fur stepped through.

One of the guards started to greet him, but his words were drowned out by a shriek from the woman. She clapped her hands over her mouth, but immediately dropped them as she pushed past the guards and rushed toward him. "You! It's you!"

"Me?" Omar asked, and dropped his quarterstaff just before she threw herself into his arms and clung to him like a drowning person to a log.

She sobbed in the hollow of his throat, and Omar held her tightly, staring helplessly at the guards who looked even more baffled then him. "Who is she?" he asked, motioning for them to come closer.

"Pardon, Master Omar," one of them said. "She arrived just now claiming to be a close friend of Princess Shanna and insisting she had an urgent matter to relate. We said we could not disturb the royal family unless she had proof of such, and eventually she mentioned you, claiming you are a close friend of her husband."

"What?" Omar shook his head when they started to repeat everything.

Drawing back, sniffling, the woman looked up at him with the prettiest brown eyes Omar had ever seen, framed by long lashes and the faintest freckles. "I could not remembering the word for…" she frowned, huffed. "My husband will be."

Omar smiled. "Betrothed. Where are you from, my lady?

"Currently, Cormiana."

"Then let us speak a language with which you are comfortable," Omar said in Cormian. "Who is this betrothed you claim is my close friend?"

"Thank you," the woman said, and slumped slightly in relief. "I'm sorry, I've been unbearably rude and confusing. It's only I'm so tired, and I've heard so much about you, but when I saw you looking exactly like the painting—it was like seeing hope for the first time in months."

Rawness scraped at Omar's throat, his eyes stinging, to hear such unexpected praise from a woman he'd never seen before. Like seeing hope. No one had ever spoken to him so. Swallowing, he lifted a hand and gently brushed back a strand of ember-red hair. "It is my honor to be of service, my lady."

She smiled hesitantly. "My name is Astira Kardnal, I am assistant to the Remnien ambassador in Cormiana, and was a childhood friend of Crown Princess Shanna before her stepfather more or less banished me. I am currently engaged to Lord Symaia, the Duke—"

"Of Valcour," Omar finished softly, feeling as though someone had slammed a quarterstaff into his stomach and then cracked his head with it. He hadn't heard that name since he was nineteen, when Symaia had chosen to return to Cormiana and officially become his father's heir, leaving behind the land of his mother. Leaving behind his best friend, though Symaia had been heartbroken about that. Not as heartbroken as Omar, but it was hardly Symaia's fault that Omar had been in love with him but never found a way to say as much.

"You do remember him," Astira said, fresh tears falling down her cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. "I need your help. He's been kidnapped because he's been secretly helping Shanna, we both have. I don't know where he is or if he's even still alive, and Mercen's allies are rallying to ensure Shanna has no chance—"

"Slow down," Omar said, gently grabbed her arms, rubbing her skin with his thumbs. Under ordinary circumstances he might have smiled at how much that calmed her, and pulled her closer to rub her back and neck. She was so obviously tactile; it was refreshing, since Omar inhabited a place in the world where he seldom touched anyone save in violence. "I am afraid that I only sort of understand what you are telling me—but I understand enough to know that we should wake Their Majesties and Their Highnesses. Come." He took her hand in one of his and turned to the guards. "Wake the King, Queen, Prince Kallaar and Princess Shanna at once. Tell them Lady Astira has come with important news regarding King Mercen and the war."

"Yes, Master Omar," the guards chorused, snapping salutes before turning sharply and running from the room.

"Come, we'll wait for them in the lesser throne room, that is where we're likeliest to be summoned."

They walked in silence, and Omar could not resist a few surreptitious glances at her. Astira was beautiful, with that long, fiery hair and eyes the color of dark caramel, the very kind Omar's mother had made for him at the turning of the year and the annual sabbatical to the temple a month's journey from their home.

She was tall, nearly a full hand's length taller than him, so slender her bones were like sharp edges at her wrists and cheekbones, and her skin so pale he could trace her veins with his fingers. The idea of doing so with his mouth instead flitted through his mind, and Omar squashed the thought like a mosquito.

"So how did a man like Symaia convince a person of such obviously quality and beauty to marry a beast like him?" Omar asked, and winked when she looked at him.

As he'd hoped, Astira laughed—only a little, and with more than a little exhaustion in it, but a laugh all the same. "He spilled wine on my dress. It was the loveliest pale green silk with a pink bodice and underskirt. I embroidered gold flowers around the hem; it took me months. I wanted to kill him. Instead, somehow, I agreed to meet him the next day for a walk in the park."

Old jealousy and longing tried to stir, but Omar squashed that too. He'd seen many a man and woman coax Symaia into gardens and parks, where they were soon surrendering kisses. All he'd wanted back then was to invite Symaia himself. He'd even tried a few times himself, but Symaia had been stupidly oblivious and Omar too shy and inexperienced—and too lacking in confidence, living in a world to which he'd never been meant to belong.

All for the best, in the end, as Symaia was meant for that world—and obviously had flourished in it if he was betrothed to such a brave and beautiful woman. "He was always very good at getting out of trouble."

"Probably because it's an important skill to develop when one's natural tendency is to get into trouble," Astira replied with a bright, unaffected laugh.

The levity faded, however, as they turned down a hall and a figure at the far end caused Astira to burst into tears again before she ran the length of the hall and threw herself into Princess Shanna's arms.

Omar bowed as Prince Kallaar drew close. "Your Highness."

"Thank you, Master Omar, for your assistance. You're free to go now, I'm sure you'd like to resume your rest for a few more hours."

For a moment, Omar was offended at being so rudely and inappropriately dismissed—then realized he was a fool. Astira was not his sworn, no matter how protective he felt or how natural it had been to have her on his arm—and in his arms—seeking his strength and comfort.

Even if she did require a bloodgiver, he was not the one they would choose.

"Yes, Your Highness." He hesitated, but finally bowed again and departed.

He had nearly reached his bedchamber when he recalled his weapons. Heaving a sigh, Omar trudged back to the training yard and retrieved them.

At least by the time he finally reached his room and stayed there, he felt like he might actually sleep.

First, however, he needed a bath. Stripping off his clothes, Omar pulled on a bathing robe and headed down the hall to the enormous bathing rooms that serviced this wing of the palace. He washed and shaved, rinsed off, and slipped into the hot, steaming water with a soft sigh.

His eyes slid shut, and he tried to let his mind rest, but over and over again his thoughts returned to Astira—and a thousand questions about Symaia, the most pressing of them: was he all right? Had the kidnappers already killed him, or did they actually need to keep him alive?

Mercy of the heavens, Omar hoped it was the latter, though that was seldom the case in a kidnapping. Still, if the reason behind it was more complicated than money, there was hope.

Too anxious to relax now, Omar climbed out of the bath and shrugged back into his robe before returning to his room. Discarding the robe, he slid into bed, pulled up the blankets, and gradually fell asleep.

He was jolted awake by someone pounding on his door. He croaked out a bid to enter, then cleared his throat and tried again.

A palace servant stepped inside and gave him a brief bow. "Master Omar, Their Majesties request your immediate presence at breakfast in their private dining room."

"Of course. I'll be there at once."

The servant departed, and Omar threw himself out of bed and into the first clothes he could find that were suitable for an audience with the king and queen.

Why why why did they want to see him? It must have to do with Astira, but how? Perhaps they wanted to know what she had said to him, though they were in for a disappointment if they thought he had anything of interest to relate.

Maybe he would get to see her again, however briefly. He would have liked a chance to bid her farewell and see for himself that she was being properly cared for.

Did they want him to protect her, after all?

Omar forced that thought ruthlessly out of mind. If he latched onto it, he'd get his hopes up, and it would hurt all the more when he predictably proved to be wrong.

When he reached the royal family's private dining room, he was admitted by a stern-faced man who announced him in a bland voice. Omar bowed low and remained so until the king bid him rise. His eyes skimmed helplessly over the room, landing ever so briefly on Astira, who smiled at him.

His heart sank at the sight of the tall, somber figure standing behind her: a bloodgiver Omar knew in passing, though he could not recall the man's name. He'd been a couple of years ahead of Omar in training, and long assigned by the time Omar had finished. What had happened to his previous assignment that he was free to protect Astira?

"Master Omar, thank you again for your assistance in this matter. We're told that you are familiar with Lord Symaia."

Omar bowed his head slightly. "Yes, Your Majesty. He and I were friends back when I was still in bloodgiver training. His mother was born here, but his father is nobility in Cormiana and he chose to live there some years ago."

"Did you keep in touch?"

"At first, but distance and time…" Omar lifted one shoulder. It had hurt, when the letters had stopped coming, and then he'd been assigned someone to protect… and sometimes it was best to let something go, especially when that something had never been his to begin with.

His eyes flicked again to Astira before turning to the king and queen. "Pardon, Your Majesties, but I do not see what help I can provide, though of course it's always an honor to serve you."

The queen smiled briefly. "You have better manners than most of the nobles who are supposed to excel at them, but I would expect nothing less of a bloodgiver. What we need of you, Master Omar, is information. We are preparing for war, and Lord Symaia's participation is vital to our success. Without him, we do not have his armies. Your duty is to infiltrate Cormiana, find Symaia, and get him to safety at all costs. I know it's a bit unusual to have to go rescue your sworn before you can begin protecting him, but we think you will be up to the challenge."

Omar's jaw didn't hit the floor, but it was a near thing. "Of course, Your Majesties. I'm honored to be trusted with such a duty, when I know there are bloodgivers more suited."

"But Lord Symaia will know you—trust you."

"Of course," Omar murmured. There was also the fact he was expendable. Some would argue all bloodgivers were, by nature, expendable, but that wasn't really true. A good bloodgiver died of old age right alongside the person they'd protected their entire life. "I'll pack and depart at once. Do I have any information to start with?" He turned to Astira, and asked in Cormian, "Is there anything you can tell me, so I have a starting point?"

"I should be going with you," Astira said. "I know I look helpless, but I am plenty competent, and I know things none of the rest of you do. I could save valuable time."

"Politics are not my specialty, but even I know that you are too valuable to risk that way," Omar replied, and smiled faintly. "Your giver of blood alone speaks volumes about your importance. If I were your betrothed, I would be happier in my imprisonment knowing you were safe."

Astira huffed, but only said, "He was kidnapped on his way to a meeting in the village. When he never arrived, the man he was to meet sent a note asking where he was. We found his horse dead a short distance off the road, all his belongings destroyed—some possibly missing, I'm not sure what he had on him that day. Where he was taken, I do not know. Our best trackers could find no sign of where they fled. That's all I know."

Omar shook his head. "Who was he meeting?"

"A local swordsmith responsible for supplying a portion of the weapons used by Symaia's army. Nothing unusual, it was unrelated to…" She waved her hand. "All this. I wish I knew more! I should be going with you."

"You should stay safe, so that when I find him, I will be able to tell him you are safe. You've done enough—more than. It takes great bravery and fortitude to do as you did, traveling here alone knowing your life must be as in danger as Symaia's."

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