Copyright © 2013 by Morgan Rhodes
Death cast a long shadow across the barren miles of Paelsia. The news of Chief Basilius’s murder spread swiftly, and villages throughout the land fell into a deep mourning. They grieved a great man—a sorcerer who could touch magic and whom many in this land with no official religion thought of as a living god.
“What will we do without him?” was a constant cry in the days and weeks that followed. “We are lost!”
“Honestly,” Lysandra grumbled to her older brother, Gregor, as they snuck out of their family’s cottage at twilight. “He never showed any true magic. It was all just talk! It’s like they forget he taxed us all to death. The chief was a liar and a thief who lived high and mighty at his compound, sucking back wine and food while the rest of us starved!”
“Hush,” Gregor warned, but he was laughing. “You speak your mind far too much, “I can handle trouble.” Lysandra aimed her arrow at the target on a tree twenty paces away and let go. She hit the very center. Pride warmed her on this cool evening and she glanced at her brother for his reaction.
“Nice shot.” His grin widened and he nudged her aside to take his turn. “However, this will be nicer.”
Easily, he split her arrow in two. She couldn’t help but be impressed. They’d been practicing like this for months in secret. She’d had to beg her brother to share his knowledge of archery, but he finally relented. It was unusual for a girl to be taught how to use weapons. Most believed girls were meant to cook and clean and look after the men.
Which was ridiculous. Especially since Lysandra was a natural at this.
“Do you think they’ll be back?” she asked Gregor quietly, scanning the small village nearby, the thatched roofs, the mud and stone exteriors. Smoke wafted from the chimneys of many of the small homes.
His jaw tensed. “I don’t know.”
A week ago, important-looking representatives of the conqueror, King Gaius, visited their village, asking for volunteers to go east and begin work on a road the king wanted quickly built, one that would snake not only through Paelsia, but through the neighboring lands of Auranos and Limeros as well.
Gregor and their father had been chosen to greet the men, and the pair had stood up to the bright smiles and smooth words without allowing themselves to be intimidated or swayed. The village had declined the offer.
The King of Blood thought he now ruled them. But he was sorely mistaken. They might be poor, but they were proud. No one
had the right to tell them what to do.
King Gaius’s men had left without argument.
“Idiot Basilius,” Lysandra mumbled. “He may have trusted the king, but we’re smart enough not to. Basilius deserved to be skewered. It was only a matter of time. Makes me sick to my stomach that he’d be such a fool.” Her next arrow flew off course. She needed to work harder on her concentration. “Tell me more about the rebels who plan to stand up against the king.”
“Why do you want to know? Do you want to be the one of the few girls to join their ranks?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Come, little Lys.” Gregor laughed and grabbed her wrist. “There have to be a few rabbits we can find to practice your aim on next. Why waste arrows on trees and breath on silly words? Don’t worry about the rebels. If anyone will soon be joining them in their fight against the king, it’ll be me.”
“Not silly,” she mumbled.
But he did have a point—at least when it came to their target practice. The trees were scarce here anyway. Most of the area was brown and dry with a few small greener areas in which her mother and other women tended vegetable gardens that, each year, yielded fewer and fewer vegetables, but many tears. Her mother had not stopped crying since she’d heard of Basilius’s death.
It wrenched Lysandra’s heart to see her mother so upset, so inconsolable, but she tried to reason with her. “I believe we make our own destinies, every last one of us,” she’d told her mother last night. “Who leads us makes no difference.”
This was met with a sad, weary look of patience. “You’re so naive, daughter. I pray it won’t lead you astray.”
And now her mother prayed to the dead chief about her rule-breaking daughter. This wasn’t unexpected. Lysandra had always caused her mother grief by not being an acceptable daughter who did acceptable things. Lysandra was accustomed to not fitting in with her friends, who couldn’t understand her fascination with making arrows until she got blisters on her fingers or staying outside until her nose burned so red it practically glowed in the dark.
Gregor put his arm out to halt Lysandra’s steps.
“What?” she asked.
They were less than a mile from the village. Before them was a small clearing, barren of any vegetation at all. It was surrounded by dry bushes and leafless trees. An old woman, one Lysandra recognized as Talia, the eldest in their village, stood in the middle of the clearing. The carcass of a red fox lay in front of her. The woman had drained the blood from the animal into a wooden cup. With this blood, she drew symbols on the parched, cracked earth with the tip of her finger.
Lysandra had never seen anything like it in her life. “What’s Talia doing? What’s she drawing?”
“Four symbols,” Gregor said, his voice hushed. “Do you know what they are?”
“The symbols are of the elements: fire, air, water, and earth.” He pointed to each in turn, a triangle, a spiral, two stacked wavy lines, and a circle within a circle. His throat worked as he swallowed hard. “I had no idea. Our village elder . . . she’s a witch. An Oldling.”
“Wait. You’re saying that old, simple-minded Talia’s a . . . witch?”
She waited for him to start grinning and tell her he was just joking. But he was serious—deadly serious.
Gregor’s brows drew together. “I had my suspicions, but this is the proof. She’s kept her secret well over all the years. You know what can happen to witches.”
In the neighboring kingdom of Limeros they were burned. Hanged. Beheaded. Witches were considered evil, even here in Paelsia. Bad luck. A curse upon this land making it wither away and die. In Limeros, many believed that such witches were what had cursed that land to turn to ice.
Lysandra remembered Talia’s unusual reaction when she’d learned the chief had been murdered by King Gaius. She’d nodded once, grimly, brushed off her dusty skirts, and said four words:
“And so it begins.”
Everyone thought the old woman was mad so they paid no attention to her ramblings, but for some reason those words had resonated with Lysandra and sent a chill down her spine.
“So what begins?” She’d caught the old woman’s arm. “What do you mean?”
Talia had turned her pale, watery eyes on Lysandra. “The end, my dear girl. The end begins.”
It took a moment for Lysandra to speak again to Gregor, her heart pounding loud in her ears. “What do you mean by Old-ling?”
“It’s one who worships the elements. It’s an old religion— older than anything except elementia itself. And by the looks of this,” he nodded toward the clearing, “Talia is working blood magic tonight.”
A shiver went down Lysandra’s spine. Blood magic.
She’d heard of such things before, but had never seen any proof until now. Gregor had always been more of a believer than she in that which was unseen and rarely spoken about—magic, witches, legends. Lysandra barely listened to the storytellers, interested more in tangible facts that whimsical tales. Now, she wished she’d paid more attention
“For what purpose?” she asked.
Just then, Talia’s eyes shot directly at the two of them, hawklike, picking them out in the dying light of dusk.
“It’s too late,” she said loud enough for them to hear her. “I can’t summon enough magic to protect us, only to see the shadows of what is to come. I’m powerless to stop them.”
“Talia!” Lysandra’s voice was uncertain as she called out to the woman. “What are you doing? Come away from there, it’s not right.”
“You must do something for me, Lysandra Barbas.”
Lysandra glanced at Gregor, puzzled, before looking back at Talia. “What do you want me to do?”
Talia held her blood covered hands out to either side of her, her eyes growing wider and wider as if she saw something horrifying all around her. Something truly evil. “Run!”
At that moment, a huge flaming arrow arched through the air and hit Talia directly in the center of her chest. She staggered backward and fell to the ground, her clothes catching fire quicker than Lysandra could comprehend.
Lysandra gripped Gregor’s arm. “She’s dead!”
He craned his head urgently to look back in the direction the arrow had come from, then yanked Lysandra to the side to avoid another arrow aimed directly at them that instead sliced into a tree trunk. “I was afraid of this.”
“Afraid of what?” Lysandra spotted a figure fifty paces away, armed with a crossbow. “He killed her! Gregor—he killed her! Who is he?”
The figure had spotted then and had begun to give chase. Gregor swore loudly and took hold of her wrist. “Come on, we need to hurry!”
She didn’t argue. Clutching each other’s hands, they ran back to the village as fast as they could.
It was on fire.
Chaos had swiftly descended upon the village. Horrified screams of fear and pain pierced the air—screams of the dying. Scores of men in red uniforms astride horses galloped through the streets, holding torches that they used ruthlessly to set each cottage ablaze. Townspeople ran from their burning homes, trying to escape a fiery death. The sharp swords in other guards’ hands fell upon many, slicing through flesh and bone.
“Gregor!” Lysandra cried as they came to a wrenching halt, hidden from the soldiers behind a stone cottage. “King Gaius—this is his doing! He’s killing everyone!”
“We told him no. He didn’t like that answer.” He turned and took her by her arms, staring fiercely into her eyes. “Lysandra. Little sister. You need to go. You need to run far away from here.”
The fire heated the air, turning dusk to nightmarish daylight all around her. “What are you talking about? I can’t go!”
“I need to find our mother!” She shoved away from Gregor and raced through the village, dodging any obstacle in her path. She staggered to a halt outside of her cottage, now engulfed in flame.
Her mother’s body lay halfway across the threshold. Her father’s body was only ten paces away, lying in a pool of blood.
Before she could fully register the horror, Gregor caught up.
He grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder, running beyond the village limits before dropping her clumsily to the ground. He tossed her bow and a handful of arrows at her.
“They’re dead,” she whispered. Her heart felt like a stone that had dropped into her stomach.
“I was watching and listening as I ran. The king’s guards are gathering any survivors up and they will make them work the road.” His voice broke. “I must go back to help the others. Go— find the rebels. Do what you can to stop this from happening anywhere else, Lys. Do you understand me?”
She shook her head, her eyes burning from the smoke and from hateful tears. “No, I won’t leave you! You’re all I have left!”
Gregor took her chin sharply in his hand. “Follow me,” he growled, “and I’ll put an arrow through your heart myself to save you from whatever fate now lies before our friends and neighbors.”
It was the last he said before he turned and ran back to the village.
And all she could do was watch him go.
When the King of Blood wanted to make a point, he made it as sharp as possible.
It was midday. With bone-chilling thuds, the executioner’s ax fell upon the necks of three accused rebels, severing their heads from their bodies. The blood dripped through the stocks and spread across the smooth stone ground before a swelling crowd a thousand deep. And all Jonas could do was watch in horror as the heads were then mounted upon tall spikes in the palace square for all to see.
Three boys who’d barely reached manhood, now dead for being menaces and troublemakers. The severed heads stared at the crowd with blank eyes and slack expressions. Crimson blood trickled down the wooden spikes while the bodies were taken away to be burned.
The king who had quickly and brutally conquered this land did not give second chances—especially not to anyone who publicly opposed him. Rebellion would be dealt with swiftly and remorselessly—and publicly.
With each deadly fall of the blade, a growing uneasiness slithered through the masses like a heavy mist they could no longer ignore. Auranos had once been free and prosperous and at peace— but now someone with a taste for blood was seated upon the throne.
The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder in the large square. Close by, Jonas could see young nobles, well dressed with tense jaws and wary expressions. Two fat, drunk men clinking their wine-filled goblets together as if toasting to a day filled with possibility. An old, gray-haired woman with a deeply lined face and a fine silk dress, her gaze darting around suspiciously. All were clambering for the best spot to see the king when he entered onto the marble balcony high above. The air was scented with smoke from both chimneys and cigarillos and with the aromas of baking bread, roasting meat, and the fragrant oils and cloyingly floral perfumes liberally used by many in lieu of bathing regularly. And the noise—a cacophony of voices, both conspiratorial whispers and deep-throated shouts—made it impossible to think clearly.
The Auranian palace glittered before them like a massive golden crown, its spires rising high up into the cloudless blue sky. It was set in the direct center of the City of Gold, a walled city two miles wide and deep. The walls themselves were heavily veined in gold, which caught the sunlight and reflected it like a pile of gold coins in the center of acres of green. Inside, cobbled roads led to villas, businesses, taverns, and shops. Only the privileged and important were able to make this city their home. But today, the gates had opened to all who wished to hear the king’s speech.
“This place is impressive.” Brion’s voice was hard to hear above the incessant chatter of the throng.
“You think?” Jonas shifted his grim attention from the impaled heads. His friend’s dark blue eyes were fixed upon the glittering palace as if it were something he could steal and sell for profit.
“I could get used to living here. A roof over my head—golden tiles at my pampered feet. All the food and drink I can swallow. Sign me up.” He looked up at the executed rebels and grimaced. “You know, providing I keep my head attached.”
The rebels who’d been executed today had been Auranian and not a part of Jonas and Brion’s group—a gathering of young, like-minded boys who wished to rise up against King Gaius in the name of Paelsia. For three weeks now, ever since the siege upon the castle, they’d made their home in the thick of the forest that separated Auranos from their much poorer homeland. The Wildlands, as this forest was called, had a fearsome reputation of being filled with dangerous criminals and wild beasts. Some superstitious fools also believed dark and evil demons and spirits also found home in the shadows of the thick, tall trees that blocked out all but a sliver of daylight.
Jonas could deal with criminals and beasts. And he, unlike the overwhelming majority of his countrymen, thought such legends were created only to incite fear and paranoia.
When news reached him of the executions scheduled for today, Jonas had wanted to see them for himself. He’d been certain they would strengthen his resolve, his certainty, to do anything, risk anything, to see the stolen kingdoms slip like sand from the hands of the tyrant who now ruled them.
Instead, they had filled him with dread. Each boy’s face turned into that of his dead brother Tomas’s as the ax fell and their blood flowed.
Three boys with their lives and futures spread before them—now silenced forever for speaking differently than what was permitted.
Such deaths would be considered by most to be destiny. To be fate. Paelsians, especially, believed that their futures were set and that they had to accept what they were given—be it good or bad. It only served to create a kingdom of victims afraid to stand up against opposition. A kingdom easily taken by someone happy to steal what no one would fight to keep.
No one, it would seem, except for Jonas. He didn’t believe in fate or destiny or magical answers. Destiny was not set. And if he had enough help from those who might be willing to fight at his side, he knew he could change the future.
The crowd hushed for the briefest of moments before the swelling murmur rose again. King Gaius had emerged onto the balcony—a tall and handsome man with piercing, dark eyes that scanned the crowd as if memorizing each and every face.
The sudden need to hide gripped Jonas, as if he might be picked out from the multitude, but he forced himself to remain calm. While he had once met the king face-to-face, he would not be discovered here today. His gray cloak hid his identity well enough; it was a similar cloak to the one worn by half the men here, including Brion.
Next upon the balcony strode Magnus, crown prince to King Gaius’s throne. Magnus was a near mirror image of his father, but younger, of course, and with a scar that sliced across his cheek, visible even from a distance.
Jonas had briefly crossed paths with the Limerian prince on the battlefield; he did not forget that Magnus had stopped a blade from finding his heart. But now they were no longer fighting for the same side. They were enemies.
The regal-looking Queen Althea joined her son to the left of the king, her dark hair streaked with silver. It was the first time Jonas had seen the woman, but he knew who she was. She cast a haughty gaze down at the crowd.
Brion grabbed hold of Jonas’s arm and Jonas glanced at his friend with mild amusement. “Did you want to hold hands? I don’t think that’s—”
“Just remain calm,” Brion told him, not cracking a smile. “If you lose your head you might, uh, lose your head. Got it?”
The next moment Jonas understood why. Lord Aron Lagaris and Princess Cleiona Bellos, the youngest daughter of the former king, joined the others on the balcony. The crowd cheered at the sight of them.
Princess Cleo’s long, pale, golden hair caught the sunlight. Once, Jonas had hated that hair and had fantasies of ripping it out by its roots. To him, it had symbolized the richness of Auranos, only an arm’s reach away from the desperate poverty of Paelsia.
Now he knew nothing had ever been as simple as he’d thought.
“She’s their prisoner,” Jonas breathed.
“Doesn’t look like a prisoner to me,” Brion said. “But, sure, if you say so.”
“The Damoras killed her father, stole her throne. She hates them—how can she not?”
“And now she’s standing dutifully next to her betrothed.”
Her betrothed. Jonas’s gaze slid to Aron and narrowed.
His brother’s murderer now stood above them all in a place of honor next to his future bride and the conquering king.
“You all right?” Brion asked warily.
Jonas couldn’t answer. He was busy envisioning himself scaling the wall, jumping onto the balcony, and tearing Aron apart with his bare hands. He’d once imagined many different methods to exact death on this preening waste of life, but he’d thought he’d set aside his desire for vengeance in favor of the loftier goals of a rebel.
He’d been wrong.
“I want him dead,” Jonas gritted out.
“I know.” Brion had been there when Jonas grieved for Tomas, when he’d raged about getting his revenge. “And you will see that day. But it’s not going to be today.”
Slowly, very slowly, Jonas reined in his mindless rage. His muscles relaxed and Brion finally loosened his hold on him.
“Better?” Brion asked.
Jonas hadn’t torn his gaze from the hateful, arrogant-looking boy on the balcony. “I won’t be better until I can watch him bleed.”
“It’s a goal,” Brion allowed. “A worthy one. But like I said, it won’t be today. Calm down.”
Jonas let out a breath. “Issuing orders now, are we?”
“As second in command of our little band of merry rebels, if my captain suddenly goes crazy, I’ll take over. It kind of comes with the job.”
“Good to know you’re taking this seriously.”
“First time for everything.”
On the balcony, Aron drew closer to Cleo, reaching down to take her hand in his. She turned her beautiful face to look up at him, but no smile touched her lips.
“She could do better than that jackass,” Jonas mumbled.
The crowd had grown even more massive in minutes, and the sweltering heat of the day beat down on them. Sweat dripped down Jonas’s brow and he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his cloak.
Finally, King Gaius stepped forward and raised his hand. Silence fell.
“It is my great honor,” the king said, his voice strong enough to carry easily over the crowd, “to stand here before you not only as the king of Limeros, but now of Paelsia and Auranos as well. There was once a time when the three kingdoms of Mytica were united as one—strong, prosperous, and at peace. And now, at long last, we shall have that again.”
Those in the crowd mumbled quietly to each other, the majority of faces set with lines of distrust, of fear, despite the king’s smooth words. The King of Blood’s reputation preceded him. From whispered conversations in the crowd before and after the executions, Jonas heard many say that their opinions could be swayed today to believe the king was a friend or a foe. Many doubted that the dead rebels had been right in whatever anarchy they’d attempted; that perhaps such rebels only made conditions worse for everyone by angering the king.
Such ignorance—such readiness to take the easy path, to bow before their conqueror by believing whatever words left his mouth. It sickened Jonas to his very core.
But even he had to admit the king was a master speechmaker, every word seemingly coated in gold, giving hope to the hopeless.
“I have chosen to live here with my family in this beautiful palace for a time, at least until the transition is complete. While it is much different from our beloved home in Limeros, we want to get to know you all much better, and we feel that it is our welcome duty to help guide all our citizens into this new era.”
“Also helps that Limeros is frozen over like a witch’s heart,” Brion sneered, despite some surrounding murmurs of approval from others. “He makes it sound like a hardship to live somewhere that’s not crusted with snow and ice.”
“Today I have an important announcement to make that will benefit one and all,” the king said. “On my command, construction has already begun on a great road that will unite our three lands as one.”
Jonas frowned. A road?
“The Imperial Road will commence at the Temple of Cleiona a few hours’ ride from this very city, cutting through the Wildlands to enter Paelsia, where it will travel east into the Forbidden Mountains, and then north across the border to Limeros, to end at the Temple of Valoria. Several teams are already in place, working night and day to ensure the road is completed as quickly as possible.”
“Into the Forbidden Mountains?” Jonas whispered. “What good is a road that leads where no one wants to go?”
What was the king up to?
A flash of gold in the sky caught his attention and he looked up to see two hawks circling high above the crowd.
Even the Watchers are interested.
Such ridiculous thoughts he’d hold onto rather than share with Brion. The stories of immortals who entered the mortal realm in the form of hawks were just that: stories told to children before bedtime. His own mother told him such tales.
The king’s lips stretched back from his teeth in a smile that would look warm and genuine to all who did not know the darkness behind it. “I hope you are as pleased as I am about this road. I know it’s been a difficult time for everyone and I take no pleasure in the blood spilled in the process.”
There was a swelling of displeased and uneasy murmurs in the crowd, but not nearly as many as there should have been.
It’s working, Jonas thought. He’s fooling those who wish to be fooled.
“Yeah, right,” Brion said. “He loved it. He would have bathed in all that blood if he’d had half a chance.”
Jonas couldn’t agree more.
King Gaius continued, “As you all can see here today, your Princess Cleiona is very well. She was not exiled or imprisoned as the daughter of my enemy. Why would she be? After all the pain and grief she’s bravely endured, I have welcomed her into my new home with open arms.”
He made it sound as if he’d given her a choice, but Jonas didn’t believe it.
“My next announcement today concerns your princess.” King Gaius stretched out his hand. “Come here, my dear.”
Cleo cast a wary glance at Aron before turning toward the king. She hesitated only briefly before crossing the balcony to stand at the king’s side. Her face was unreadable, her lips tight but her head held high. A sapphire necklace sparkled at her throat and jewels also dotted her hair to match her dark blue gown. Her skin glowed radiantly under the sunshine. Excited murmurs now rose through the crowd about the daughter of their former king.
“Princess Cleiona has suffered great personal loss and heartbreak. She is truly one of the bravest girls I’ve ever met and I see why those in Auranos love her as much as they do.” The king’s voice and expression both seemed to hold affection as he gazed at the princess. “It is well known to all that she is betrothed to Lord Aron Lagaris, a fine young man who defended the princess in Paelsia against a savage boy who meant her great harm.”
Brion grabbed Jonas’s arm again and dug in tightly with his fingertips. Jonas hadn’t realized he’d taken a step forward, his fists
clenched at his sides, prompted by the lies about his brother.
“Stay calm,” Brion growled.
The king drew Cleo even closer to his side. “This is how Lord Aron proved his worth to the late King Corvin and was given the princess’s hand and the promise of a wedding I know Auranians have been greatly anticipating.”
A smile played at Aron’s lips and a look of triumph lit his eyes.
It suddenly dawned on Jonas what this was leading to. The king was about to announce Aron and Cleo’s wedding date.
King Gaius nodded in the boy’s direction. “There is no question in my mind that Lord Aron would make a fine match for the princess.”
Jonas silently seethed that this bastard got to preen and glow in the light of his wrongdoings—to be rewarded for them. Jonas’s hatred was a palpable thing, an ugly monster that threatened to renew his obsession with vengeance and blind him to everything else.
The king continued, “Yesterday I came to an important decision . . .”
The crowd went completely silent, leaning forward collectively in anticipation of what he would say next. Jonas couldn’t look away from Lord Aron and his bright and cheerfully vile expression.
“I hereby end the betrothal between Lord Aron and Princess Cleiona,” King Gaius said.
A gasp went through the crowd and Aron’s gleeful expression froze.
“Princess Cleiona represents golden Auranos in all ways,” the king said. “She is the daughter of you all and I know she is in your hearts. I see this as an opportunity to unite Mytica even more than it already is. Therefore, today I am pleased to announce the betrothal and upcoming marriage forty days from today between my son, Prince Magnus Lukas Damora, and Auranos’s beloved Princess Cleiona Aurora Bellos.”
King Gaius took Cleo’s hand and Magnus’s hand and joined them. “Immediately following the wedding, there will be a wedding tour—Magnus and Cleiona will travel across Mytica as a symbol of unity and the bright future we all share together.”
There was a moment of silence before the majority of the crowd began to cheer with approval—some nervously, some with full appreciation of such a proposed union and tour.
“Huh,” Brion said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all.”
Jonas stared up at the balcony for several stunned moments. “I’ve heard enough. We need to get out of here. Now.”
“Lead the way.”
Jonas turned from his view of blank-faced Cleo and began threading his way through the madness. It was the news of the Imperial Road he was most concerned with—what did it mean? What were the king’s true intentions? The fate of a princess now engaged to her mortal enemy should be the very least of his concerns.
Still, Cleo’s new betrothal bothered him deeply.
Today I am pleased to announce the betrothal and upcoming marriage between my son, Prince Magnus Lukas Damora, and Auranos’s beloved Princess Cleiona Aurora Bellos.”
Cleo’s breath left her in a rush.
The world blurred before her eyes and there was a ringing in her ears. She felt a tug as the king pulled her closer, and the next moment something warm and dry grasped her hand. She looked up to see Magnus next to her, his face as impassive and unreadable as always. His black hair hung low over his forehead, framing his dark brown eyes as he focused on the crowd—a crowd that cheered and yelled as if this stomach-churning horror was wonderful news.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Magnus dropped her hand and turned toward his mother, who had taken hold of his arm.
Aron grabbed her wrist and drew her back into the castle past the others on the balcony. His breath, as always, smelled like wine
and acrid cigarillo smoke.
“What just happened out there?” he hissed.
“I—I’m not sure.”
Aron’s face was as red as a beet. “Did you know this would happen? That he planned to break our engagement?”
“No, of course not! I had no idea until . . . until—” Oh goddess, what just happened? It couldn’t be true!
“He can’t change what is meant to be.” Aron was so livid he was literally spitting. “We’re supposed to be together, no one else! It was decided!”
“Of course we are,” she managed to say, much more demurely than she felt. She had no deep affection for handsome but vapid Lord Aron, but she would rather spend a thousand years in his constant company than an hour alone with Magnus.
The dark prince had killed the first boy she’d ever loved— stabbed him through the back with a sword while he’d been trying to protect her. The memory of Theon’s death made a fresh swell of grief rise within her, hot and thick enough to choke on.
Imprisoned for weeks at the palace after her capture, Cleo had experienced the very depths of despair and grief—for Theon, for her father, for her sister, Emilia. All ripped away from her. Such sorrow had carved a cold, bottomless hole in her chest that could never be filled. She could lose herself in such darkness if she wasn’t careful.
“I can fix this.” The scent of wine on Aron’s breath was even greater than normal today. His gaze moved toward the king as he exited the balcony. “Your majesty, it’s imperative that I speak with you immediately!”
The king wore a bright smile on his face to match the golden, ruby-encrusted crown Cleo’s fingers itched to tear from his head.
That crown and everything it represented belonged to her father.
It belonged to her.
“Of course I’d be happy to speak with you on any matter, Lord Aron.”
“In private, your majesty.”
King Gaius raised an eyebrow, dark humor lighting his face as he gazed at the sputtering young lord before him. “If you insist.”
The two departed without delay, leaving Cleo standing there alone, supporting herself against the cool, smooth wall as she tried to gather her breath and her thoughts—both racing.
Magnus was next to leave the balcony. He glanced at her, his face like stone. “Seems that my father had a little surprise in store for us today, didn’t he?”
The prince was both coldly handsome, like his snake of a father, and imposingly tall. Cleo had seen many girls look at him in the last three weeks, their eyes sparkling with interest. The only thing that marred his good looks was a vicious scar on his right cheek, an arc that went from the top of his ear to the corner of his mouth.
The taste of bile rose in her throat at the sight of him. “Don’t try to make me believe you knew nothing about this.”
“I’m not trying to make you believe anything, princess. Frankly, I don’t particularly care what you believe about me or anyone else.”
“It won’t happen.” Her voice was quiet but strong. “I will never marry you.”
He lifted a shoulder in a lazy shrug. “Explain that to my father.”
“I’m explaining it to you.”
“My father makes the decisions and he likes them followed without argument. You’re more than welcome to fight him on this.”
Her outrage had quickly dissipated and she was left only with disbelief. “This has to be a dream. No, not a dream. A nightmare—a horrible nightmare.”
Magnus’s lips thinned. “For us both, princess. Make no mistake about that.”
Queen Althea approached and clasped Cleo’s hands. Hers were dry and warm, just like her son’s. It seemed as if she were attempting a smile, but the expression looked as false on her finely lined face as feathers on a goat.
“My dear, it’s my honor to welcome you into our family. One day I’m sure you’ll make an extraordinary queen.”
Cleo bit her tongue nearly hard enough to draw blood in order to keep from blurting out that she already was queen. Only the King of Blood stood in the way of her rightful title.
“We will have a great deal to do to plan a wedding befitting my son,” the queen continued, as if she hadn’t noticed Cleo’s lack of reply. “And we’ll need to do it quickly given the swiftness of the wedding date. I have heard of an exemplary dressmaker in Hawk’s Brow who will be perfect to create your gown. We’ll make a trip there soon. It will be good for the people to see their beloved golden princess walking among them once again. It will raise spirits throughout the entire kingdom.”
Cleo couldn’t find enough words to speak, so she didn’t even try. She nodded and looked down, eyes lowered to conceal her rage. Through her lashes she saw Queen Althea glance at Magnus, as if delivering some sort of message through her pale blue eyes, before she nodded at them both and moved away down the hall.
“My mother knows a great deal about fashion and beauty,” Magnus said flippantly. “It’s her passion, one she always wished my sister shared.”
His sister—Princess Lucia. For three weeks now the Limerian princess lay comatose after being injured in the explosion that tore open the entrance to the palace and allowed King Gaius and his army their violent victory.
Cleo had noticed that the mention of his ailing sister was the only thing that ever seemed to bring a flicker of emotion to Magnus’s steely gaze. Many healers had come to see Lucia, some of the greatest and most accomplished in the land. No one could determine what was wrong with her or find any wound she’d sustained to explain her condition.
Cleo had suggested that her own dear friend, her sister’s former lady-in-waiting, Mira Cassian, be assigned as Lucia’s attendant in hopes that the king would find Mira too useful to demote to scullery maid. Thankfully, it had worked. Mira told Cleo the princess would rise up from her slumber as if in a trance, enough to consume food specially blended smooth to ensure her ongoing survival, but she was never truly conscious. It was a true mystery what had befallen the princess of Limeros.
“Let me make this very clear, Prince Magnus,” Cleo said evenly, fighting to keep the tremor from her voice. “I will never be forced to marry someone I hate. And I hate you.”
He regarded her for a moment, as if she was something he could easily crush beneath the sole of his boot if he chose to. “Be very careful how you speak to me, Princess Cleiona.”
She raised her chin. “Or what will you do? Will you run a sword through me when I turn my back on you as you did with Theon, you spineless coward?”
In an instant, he grabbed hold of her arm tight enough to make her shriek and pushed her up against the stone wall. Anger flashed through his gaze, and something unexpected—something like pain.
“Never, ever call me a coward again if you value your life, princess. Fair warning.”
His current fiery expression was so different from his usual look of ice that it confused her. Was he furious or wounded by her words? Could he be both?
“Release me,” she hissed.
His eyes—cold, like black diamonds, soulless, evil—pinned her for another moment before he let go of her so abruptly that she slumped down against the wall.
A guard wearing the all-too-familiar red Limerian uniform approached. “Prince Magnus, your father summons both you and the princess to his throne room immediately.”
Magnus finally tore his gaze from hers to cast a dark look toward the guard. “Very well.”
Cleo’s stomach tied itself into knots. Could Aron have been successful in his argument against this new betrothal?
In the throne room, King Gaius had draped himself upon her father’s golden chair. Sprawled on the floor at his feet were two of his horrible dogs—large, slobbering wolfhounds that growled whenever she came even a step too close. They always seemed more like demons from the darklands to Cleo than dogs.
A sudden memory from her childhood flashed before her eyes—her father seated upon this very throne, his arms stretched out to her when she’d successfully slipped away from her strict nursemaid to run directly toward him and crawl up on his lap.
She prayed that her eyes didn’t reveal how very much she wanted to avenge her father’s death. On the surface, she was just a girl not yet out of her teens, small in stature and slight in figure, born and bred into a spoiled life of excess and luxury. At first glance, no one would ever perceive her as a threat.
But she knew that she was. Her heart now beat for one reason, the only thing that helped staunch the flow of incapacitating grief.
Cleo knew she continued to live and breathe because King Gaius saw value in keeping the Auranian princess alive and well. She was required to represent what remained of the royal Bellos family line in all matters when it came to the king’s agenda and his power over the Auranian people. She was a sparrow in a gilded cage, taken out to show others how pretty and how well-behaved she was when needed.
So she would be pretty and well-behaved. For now.
But not forever.
“My dear girl,” the king said as she and Magnus approached. “You grow lovelier with each day that passes. It’s quite remarkable.”
And you grow more hateful and disgusting.
“Thank you, your majesty,” she said as sweetly as she could. The king was a snake in the skin of a man and she would never underestimate the strength of his bite.
“Were you pleased by my surprise announcement today?” he asked.
She fought to keep her controlled expression from slipping. “I’m very grateful that you’ve allowed me such an honorable place in your kingdom.”
His smile stretched, but it was one that never met his dark brown eyes—the exact same shade as Magnus’s. “And you, my son.
I’m sure you were caught unawares as well. It was a last-minute decision, to tell you the truth. I thought it would please the people, and I was right. It did.”
“As always,” Magnus replied, “I defer to your judgment.”
The sound of the prince’s voice, low and even and so much like his father’s, set Cleo’s nerves on edge more than they already were.
“Lord Aron wanted to speak with me in private,” the king said.
Private? A half dozen guards stood around the edges of the room, with two on the outer side of the archway leading into the throne room. Next to the king on a smaller throne sat Queen Althea, her gaze straight forward, her lips set into a measured expression that betrayed no emotion at all. She might as well have been sleeping with her eyes wide open.
Aron stood to the right, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Yes,” he spoke up, his tone arrogant, “I explained to the king that this is an unacceptable change. That the people were looking very much forward to our wedding. Mother has already taken great strides in planning our ceremony. I wanted to talk to the king and have him reconsider his decision today. There are plenty of beautiful, titled girls in Auranos that would be much better suited to Prince Magnus.”
King Gaius cocked his head, regarding Aron with barely restrained amusement, as if he were a trained monkey. “Quite. And how do you feel about this abrupt change, Princess Cleiona?”
Her mouth had gone dry after hearing Aron’s little rant, which sounded like a child stomping his foot when his toys were taken from him at bedtime. Aron was so accustomed to getting his way that it had completely disrupted his common sense. However, she couldn’t completely blame him for trying to salvage what little power he had in the palace. But if he were smart—and she already knew brains were never Aron’s greatest asset—he would see that Cleo no longer wielded any power here, had no influence apart from being a figurehead meant to keep the Auranian people in line and gain their trust.
She forced a smile. “Of course, I certainly bow to whatever decision the wise king makes on my behalf.” The falseness of the words twisted in her throat. “It’s just . . . Aron might have some weight to his argument. The kingdom was rather smitten by the thought of us together after Aron’s very . . . well, fierce protection of me that day in the Paelsian market.”
She inwardly shuddered at the memory of Tomas Agallon’s murder, an act that had nothing to do with protection and more to do with Aron overreacting to a personal insult.
“I assure you, I did consider this.” The king’s stolen crown caught the torchlight and glinted. “Lord Aron is wholly embraced by the Auranian people, without question. It’s one of the reasons I’ve just informed him of my decision to bestow the title of kingsliege upon him.”
Aron bowed deeply. “And I am very pleased by this honor, your majesty.”
“Kingsliege,” Magnus mused from beside her, loud enough for only Cleo to hear. “Such a lofty title for one who’s never even been in battle. How deeply pathetic.”
King Gaius studied Cleo closely. “Do you wish to remain engaged to Lord Aron?”
She wanted to answer immediately and in the affirmative— Aron, despite his shortcomings, was a more palatable prospect than Magnus—but found herself pausing to think it through. She wasn’t simple-minded enough to believe such “wishes” would be granted. After announcing the wedding date to the citizens outside, there was absolutely no chance the king would renege on his proclamation. All agreeing with Aron would do was make her look like a fool—an ungrateful and disrespectful fool.
Cleo lowered her head and studied the dogs by the king’s feet as if too shy to meet his gaze directly. “Your majesty, I wish only to please you.”
He gave her a shallow nod, as if it was the correct response. “Then I appreciate your allowing me to make this choice on your behalf.”
Aron let out a grunt of disgust. “Oh, come on, Cleo!”
She gave him a wary look, silently cautioning him to be careful what he said. “Aron, you must see that the king knows what is right.”
“But we were meant to be together,” he whined.
“You will find another bride, Aron. But I’m afraid it can’t be me.”
Anger lit his gaze and he spun to face Prince Magnus. “It’s very important for a bride to be pure on her wedding night. Is this not so?”
Cleo’s cheeks began to flame. “Aron!”
He gestured wildly at her. “Cleo already gave her chastity to me. We’ve shared flesh. She is not pure!”
A deadly silence fell.
Cleo grappled to hold onto her self control, but felt it slipping from her grasp. Here it was, her horrible secret kept hidden from the world—tossed out like a landed fish, flopping and slimy for all to see.
Foggy memories of a party, too much wine, a spoiled princess who enjoyed forgetting herself and having fun—and then Aron, a handsome and popular lord all her friends desired, who wanted to be with her more than anyone else. Once she sobered, she realized it was a horrific mistake to sacrifice her virginity to such a vain and shallow boy.
To be viewed now as a fallen princess in a land that valued purity as a bride’s most important virtue could be her ultimate downfall. She would lose what little power she had left in the palace.
Only one choice could help her salvage this situation.
“Oh, Aron,” she said as dryly as she could manage. “I almost feel sorry for you that you must lie to such extremes today. Can’t you simply accept defeat gracefully?”
His eyes widened so much that she could see the whites all around his irises. “Lie? It’s not a lie! You wanted me as I wanted you! You must admit that this is the truth and be grateful that I even still want you!”
King Gaius leaned back in the throne and regarded them, his fingers templed. “Seems that we have a disagreement here. The truth is very important to me, the most important thing of all. Lies are intolerable. Princess, are you saying that this boy would lie about something so important?”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. She gazed at the king, clear-eyed. “He lies.”
“Cleo!” Aron sputtered, outraged.
“Then,” the king said, “I have no choice but to believe you.” He flicked a glance at Magnus. “Tell me, my son, what do we usually do in Limeros with those who would lie to a king?”
Magnus’s face was unreadable as always, his arms crossed over his chest. “The penalty for lying is to have one’s tongue cut out.”
The king nodded, then gestured toward the guards.
Two guards stepped forward and took hold of Aron’s arms tightly. He gasped, his face wild with fear.
“Your majesty, you can’t do this! I’m not lying! I would never lie to you—I obey your command in all ways. You are my king now! Please, you must believe me!”
The king said nothing, but nodded at another guard who approached, drawing a dagger from the sheath at his waist.
Aron was forced to his knees. A fourth guard took hold of his jaw, grabbed a handful of his hair, and wrenched open Aron’s mouth. The guard used a metal clamp to pull his tongue out from between his lips and Aron let out a strangled cry of horror.
Cleo watched all of this unfold in cold shock.
She hated Aron. She hated that she’d allowed herself to share flesh with him—taking solace only in the fact that she’d been too drunk to remember much about the act itself. She hated that he’d killed Tomas Agallon without a moment’s remorse. She hated that her father had betrothed her to him. She hated that Aron was so thoughtless that he didn’t understand why any of this was so vile to her.
He deserved to be punished in so many ways. He did.
But not for this.
He’d told the king the truth.
However . . . to admit she was the one who’d lied . . .
Oh, Goddess Cleiona. . . Cleo hardly ever prayed to her namesake, the Auranian deity, but she’d certainly make an exception today. Please, please help me.
She could let this happen without protest. It could be her secret until the day she died. No one would ever believe Aron after this punishment.
Her fists were clenched so tight her fingernails bit painfully into her palms as she watched the dagger move toward Aron’s mouth. He let out a terror-filled screech.
“Stop!” Cleo shouted, the word escaping her before she even realized it. She trembled from head to foot, her heart pounding so hard that it rocked her entire frame. “Don’t do this! Please, don’t! He didn’t lie. He—he was telling the truth! We were together one single time. I did give my chastity to him knowingly and without reservation!”
The guard holding the dagger froze, the edge of the blade pressed to Aron’s pink, squirming tongue.
“Well, now,” King Gaius said softly, but Cleo had never heard more menace in anyone’s voice. “That certainly changes things, doesn’t it?”