A KING SO COLD
Night enclosed us as I threw my head back and screamed.
Teeth scraped over my neck, and I felt Zadicus’s muscles seize, the air thrumming over my skin as his seed emptied inside me.
I hissed, shoving his face away before ridding my body of him and crawling off the bed.
A sinister chuckle followed my steps to the bathing chamber. “So touchy.”
“I’ve warned you not to do that.” The door shut over my words with a boom that thundered through the rock and mortar, a charged wind catching my hair and cooling my flushed face.
After cleaning up, I washed my hands, staring with empty iridescent eyes at the pale hue to my cheeks in the mirror. A swipe of my finger over my lips and the red turned pink.
I made a mental note to eat more. Gaunt wasn’t a look I favored, and my cheekbones were starting to resemble that of a corpse.
“Twenty-one summers old,” Zad said, lighting a pipe he kept in the top drawer of the nightstand. “Does that mean you’ll soon be through with the tantrums?”
I stalked naked to my dressing table and took a seat. “We all know you’re a bore, Zad. There’s no need to open your pretty mouth to inform us.”
A wry smile curled his sin-shaped lips. “Why not kill me then? You seem rather taken with murder of late.”
That was a question I’d asked myself a time or two before. However, Lord Zadicus had governed the east since before I was born, and he held too much power. If my father had taught me anything—and he taught me a lot—it was to squash a threat as soon as you’d assessed it.
Yet he’d never seemed bothered by Zadicus’s reign of the mystical east. Perhaps giving certain threats enough room to roam and flex their muscles was enough to placate them. For now.
Besides, the lord was incredibly skilled in the bedchamber.
“Tempting.” Snatching my brush, I met Zad’s stare in the mirror. “But I’m not done with you yet.”
His golden gaze refused to relinquish its hold, but he was no match for me. Smiling, I averted my eyes and continued brushing until the moon’s reflection could be found among my waist-length sable locks.
The scent of cloves permeated the shadowed chamber, lit by only two sconces in opposite corners of the room.
Zadicus was still staring, and I was growing tired. “You’re excused.”
“You know,” he said, unmoving from where he lay sprawled over the silver linen. His auburn hair grazed his pectorals, and the glimpse of his pearlescent canines drew away from the crook in his nose. “I don’t recall our deal pertaining to slavery.”
“And I don’t recall you protesting not even five minutes ago.”
“Sex does not make an alliance.”
I hummed, deep laughter escaping my shut lips as I stood and made my way back to the bed. “More foolish words have been spoken, but I’ve not heard such nonsense in quite some time.”
Zad’s gaze narrowed as clouds of smoke drifted past his lips. He watched me tuck myself beneath the smooth sheets and lay my head down. “Marriage, Audra.” His tone lost its playful edge, and out came the beast within. “The promise was your hand. A true merging for the sake of the kingdom.”
Ruthless, cunning, and as previously stated, powerful, Zadicus Allblood would make a fine king. He was a high royal by blood and worshiped among our people. Especially the women.
Fools. He hadn’t given anyone so much as a second glimpse since his wife died, not even me.
It took everything I had not to swallow, knowing he would hear it. “I have not broken that promise.”
“You have not fulfilled it either.”
We both knew he didn’t want me as his wife. He wanted the kingdom.
He wanted to ensure Allureldin didn’t fall prey to Merilda. Though his desires matched my own, I knew once the Sun Kingdom was squashed, or peace had settled once more, that he would have no qualms about wresting control of my home from me.
From my family.
The Sun Kingdom had almost succeeded once, and so I’d brokered a deal with the red-haired devil of the east. I’d needed his help.
With Zadicus’s presence in the kingdom, as well as his soldiers and loyal following, others were able to swallow their dislike for me and think a third time before betraying their queen.
It was that or forfeit the land the barbarians had invaded, and undoubtedly more if their disquiet grew, spreading further among my people, and formed a siege.
I’d lost too much. They would not take anything more from me.
I was queen of the Moon Kingdom, and blood would drown the entire continent before I allowed anyone to steal what was rightfully mine.
My fingers curled into my palms. I scented the copper staining the air as my nails created crescents in my skin. “I gave you my word. We will marry next—”
A rapid collection of knocks hit the chamber doors. “Majesty, there’s a problem.”
Zad kept quiet as I flicked a hand at the doors. One creaked open, and Mintale wasted no time hustling into the room.
A look at Zadicus had him pausing and bowing in quick succession. “Excuse me, Lord—”
“Out with it.”
With a shuffle of his feet, he straightened and nodded. “We’ve caught a band of rogues by the border. General Rind is already having them escorted to the dungeon.”
I kicked the sheets off, ignoring the wide eyes from Mintale, and headed for my dressing room. “Majesty?”
“Have them taken to the gallows.” A minute later, I was draped head to toe in red feathers. I donned a black cloak, not to ward off the chill—the cold was of little concern to me—but because the velvet texture looked rather striking against the puffed and pressed feathers of my gown.
One must always look their best, especially when one was about to drain the life from traitors.
Mintale was shifting on his feet when I re-entered the room.
Zad still hadn’t left. He was staring out one of the two windows in the large chamber. They granted a view of the city streets below and most of Allureldin.
His broad shoulders were taut, his cotton slacks hanging precariously from his trimmed waist. With a sigh, I tore my gaze away from his muscled form. “What, Mintale?”
“Well, it’s just that a trial would be more—”
“Trials are for those who might be innocent.” I grabbed my sword from its perch upon the mantel of the fireplace and clipped it on beneath the cloak, floating closer to Mintale. Using a long nail, I tipped his chin up and grinned when his throat dipped. My voice was soft but laced in warning. “Are you implying that those who choose to conspire against me, against our home, are innocent, Mintale?”
His head twitched to shake, but my nail, slowly piercing his skin, held it deathly still. “N-No, my queen.”
After staring into his beady black eyes, I made a deliberate sweep of his face, taking note of the growing white fluff that peppered his chin and his lower cheeks. I plucked my finger away and stalked to the door. “And what do we do with the guilty, Mintale?”
His words were stronger, and I knew he’d found some mettle now that my back was turned to him. “We bleed them dry, my queen.”
They swung in the breeze like clothing hanging from lines in the alleyways of the city streets.
Empty, soulless eyes were all that resembled who they once were.
Did they have families? Children? Spouses or linked ones? I cared not.
The winter running through my veins electrified with the need to exact more vengeance for what the cretins would have tried to take from me. For what more of their kind would try to take from me.
“Once upon a time,” I sang into the dawn-painted gloom, an unmovable fragment of storm before them, “we were a land of peace and great magic. Once upon a time, we would disguise our hate with cunning smiles and goblets filled with enough wine to numb the negativity. Once upon a time, we were allies instead of foes.” My boots crunched over the snow as I stepped closer. “Once upon a time, you endeavored to bring a kingdom to its knees out of spineless, toxic fear.”
I reached the human female hanging in the center and tilted my head to meet her lifeless gaze. “Once upon a time, you took everything I held dear and turned it to ash. But you failed to complete the task in its entirety. I live on, and now, every single one of you will drain and be forced to walk the in-between for your mistakes, forever lost.”
The wind screeched and howled, the bodies swaying like empty sacks of grain, slapping into one another.
Zadicus decided then to make his presence known. “You’ll knock them down if you don’t get a handle on yourself.”
“And why should I care if that happens?”
The sound of his footsteps neared, then his words washed over my ear, hot steam causing my flesh to pimple. “Because you cannot make an example of husks when they are not hanging in plain sight.”
I blinked, curling my fingers into my palms. The wind faded into that of a cool breeze. He was right, though we both knew I’d never admit it.
“Rage. Such an intoxicating thing,” Zad murmured, his voice all breath as his hand enclosed over mine. “It manifests in ways that cut all those around you while leaving you wholly unchanged.”
I removed my thawing hand from his heated one. “I have no need for your drivel, nor do I need change.”
“How does it feel, brewing inside you like a storm that refuses to be tamed?”
I turned on him, gazing up into his golden eyes. My lashes fluttered, and I murmured, “Pure euphoria, the likes of which I’ve never encountered before.”
He raised his thick brows. “That so?”
“Freedom.” Grinning, I tapped his chest. “I am free to be who I am, to feel how I feel, and to act upon it should I so desire. Now that, my sneaky lord, is intoxicating.”
He followed me back through the castle gates and courtyard. We walked silently, our steps slow.
Merchants and shop owners were stirring, the slumbering city coming to life with every step we took. It wouldn’t be long now. My lips twitched, and I let them rise with the struggling sun.
Then came the screams.
Zad’s eyes swung to me, but he wisely kept his thinned mouth shut.
Inside, the castle was aflutter with morning activity. I made my way to the dining room, opening the doors with a flick of my hand even though it remained curled around the other beneath my cloak.
Mintale bent low, and servants frantically fled, bowing swiftly without so much as a look at me along the way.
Mintale held out a chair at the head of the table. “A long night, your majesty?”
He got to work on fixing me a tea as I rearranged my layers of velvet and feathers, dampened from the creeping hours before dawn. “Long but fruitful. Send for General Rind.”
Mintale set the cup and saucer down, then started fussing with buttering toast.
“Now,” I snapped.
He dropped the toast and raced to the door, speaking in hushed tones with one of the guards who nodded, then disappeared from his post to deliver the message.
One couldn’t run a castle without professional games of whispers.
I finished buttering the toast myself, barely tasting it as I chewed.
General Rind entered a moment later, his jet black hair and blue eyes similar to my own. “Your majesty,” he said, bowing before taking his position at the other end of the table.
“Quit with the formalities, Uncle, and take a seat.”
Rind was one of my grandfather’s mistakes, a half breed who would forever serve the crown as a part of the guard.
Royals were created only when a royal procreated with another. Half breeds, often referred to as mixed, were created when a royal procreated with a human.
Should a mixed not born into nobility survive infancy, then they must be surrendered to the king or queen when they come of age to serve the crown.
Rind’s grin threatened to make me smile, but I kept the urge at bay while he poured himself a cup of tea and snatched a piece of toast. “They sway.”
I sipped my tea. “Indeed.”
“Do you intend to make it so with every enemy we capture?”
I set my cup down and met his gaze. “Is that a problem?”
“Absolutely not.” But his words didn’t ring true. He might have been my father’s half-brother, but he’d been closer to my mother. Though she had often been distant and distracted, she was not a monster like my father.
I drank my tea as Rind explained how they’d discovered the now deceased while scouting the outer village, west of the castle.
“They’d been camping out in hollowed trees southwest of the mountains.”
“Do you think they intended to travel all the way here? Or were they simply spies?”
“They did not say?” he asked.
I said nothing. Not because they didn’t say anything. They’d said plenty, pleading and crying like a pack of weak trouser-wetting idiots. I just hadn’t cared to ask.
“Niece,” Rind began. “Might I remind you that if you insist on taking my finds from me and my men to exact revenge yourself, then you need to at least allow us time with them first.”
“I’ll question them next time,” I said.
He sighed. “As you wish.”
The sun crested the spire windows, flicking arrows of blinding light across the stone table and the gray and red tapestry hanging from the rafters and stone walls.
I tried not to flinch and pushed my chair back to escape its warmth.
The doors crashed open, and Mintale rushed in behind Truin, our spellcaster.
Truin’s yellow hair, curled like a ram’s horns on either side of her head, bounced around her ears, and her eyes met mine with obvious delight. “Majesty,” she said, out of breath. “May I sit?”
I tapped my nails over the table, knowing I needed sleep, yet knowing I’d lay there for hours, staring at the towering granite ceiling. “If you must.”
She unfurled a map, spreading it over a plate of bacon.
I frowned at it. “What is that?”
I rolled my eyes. “I know that. What good is it to me?”
Truin bit her lips, unfazed by my temper, as per usual. About to talk, she glanced around, taking note of the guards and Mintale’s presence.
“Speak,” I said, out of patience.
Swallowing, she expelled a breath and nodded. “I found him.” She stabbed a finger at a black blob of land on the map. “Right here, in a tiny town called Crestinburg in The Edges.”
My heart kicked, then ceased beating. The drapes in the room began to flap, and the guards struggled to keep their stares fixed forward.
Closing my eyes, I drew in a deep inhale. I’d have to kill her. I’d known Truin since I was an infant, but I’d have to kill her all the same.
“Ainx,” I called.
Truin laughed. “Oh, shush. Do you think I’m here only to taunt you?”
Ainx, head of my personal guard, was by my side in an instant. I waved him off, and he took three steps back.
Through gritted teeth, I hissed, “I will have your tongue, at the very least, for uttering his whereabouts.”
Yanking the map from her grasp, I was about to rip it to pieces when she rushed out, “He’s to be married on the eve of the next full moon.” Her next words were soft with apprehension. “He’s to be married tonight.”
The map fell from my pinched fingertips, and the remains of my heart plummeted with it. “I beg your pardon?”
Truin nodded, then lowered her gaze. “Delon, from a neighboring coven, reported hearing of it in her sleep.” Her eyes met mine, a world of pity unable to be veiled. “I knew you wouldn’t want to know his whereabouts or what he was doing with his new life, but I knew you’d want to know should something dire arise, so a few of us have kept our subconscious on call.”
She was right.
Darkness be damned, she was right.
It took a minute to calm my erratic heart and steady my hands. The drapes slowly quit shaking and the cutlery on the table stopped rattling as heavy silence infiltrated the cavernous room.
A moment later, three taps sounded on the door, and Zadicus glided in. With his long hair tied at his nape and dressed in all gray save for the white tunic under his vest, he bowed, his cloak folded over his arm. “I will take my leave, your majesty.”
I could only nod, at a loss for words.
He was getting married. I needn’t have asked to whom. Right now, the matter of who was irrelevant, but it was clear she was insane.
And it was clear I should not care.
I knew the risk I’d taken and what it would cost my heart, but I’d done it anyway.
Yet it seemed as if some naïve part of me had foolishly hoped for his return. That one day, when all this darkness had passed, he would recover his memories, and we would find one another again.
He could never return. If he did, he’d die by my own decree.
He’d betrayed me in every abominable way, but that didn’t mean I’d sit on the throne I’d had every intention of sharing with him and just allow him to marry someone else.
I pushed my chair back, nodding at Truin, who was staring up at me with concern lining her milky brown eyes. “Shield your weakness, Truin. You can keep your tongue today.”
I stalked past Zadicus, but I should have known not paying him any mind would have him trailing me. “May I ask what it is you’re up to?”
“No, you may not.” I made haste for the stairs, racing around and around each curling row until I’d reached my chambers and pushed the doors open.
Zad’s presence was that of a curious cat as I changed into leather pants and a woolen thermal. The combination was hideous, but the need to blend in was paramount.
I donned my boots and cloak again, and tugged at the mustard brown chafing my stomach.
Hands gripped my upper arms, startling me from my rush. “This is about Raiden.”
How he’d realized, I didn’t care to know. “Remove your hands before I remove them from your body.”
He didn’t. If anything, his grip only tightened. “You cannot bring him back to this kingdom. He is a traitor, and our people would rather see him drained than to rule by your side.”
My teeth gnashed, and I hissed through them, “And I’d rather him drain than let him swear himself to someone else.”
Zad’s long brown lashes swept up, and his grip loosened. “He’s to marry someone.”
It wasn’t a question, so I said nothing else as I left him there and headed for the caves.
“We are a kingdom on the brink of war,” he called. “A queen cannot abandon her people in times such as these.”
“A queen can do whatever she damn well pleases.” The doors shut behind me with a gust of wind so strong, the handles broke so he couldn’t follow.