They were unfailingly loyal.
If a guard’s gaze strayed to another woman, the queen would blind him and then banish the man to live among humans.
But if the guard was fool enough to touch another woman, the queen would cut off his fingers and string them as a necklace he’d have to wear while chained and forced to watch her have sex with another guard.
No threat here for you, young man. Kizira had known the best of men, and no one could walk in Vladimir Quinn’s shoes.
She bit the inside of her cheek at that slip.
Quinn was not part of her make-believe world. She couldn’t risk Flaevynn finding out what had happened between him and Kizira thirteen years ago.
To keep that secret safe, Kizira had to concentrate. Taking a few breaths, she slipped deeper into her imaginary world. She sharpened her focus and repeated silently that she cared only for protecting the Medb coven empire. Her greatest wish was to see Cathbad the Druid’s curse upon the Beladors come to fruition, for Kizira to hand her queen Treoir Island, the seat of Belador power.
That would be the curse uttered by the first Cathbad, who had lived two thousand years ago, not the current Cathbad sitting in the TÅµr Medb dungeon.
Flaevynn argued that it was not a curse upon the Beladors but a curse upon Medb queens and, granted, she had a valid point. As a result of the power behind the curse, each Medb queen lived only six hundred and sixty-six years.
Not a day more or less.
Flaevynn had railed endlessly about not knowing if Treoir would be captured during her life or the next Medb queen’s rule. The tightly guarded specifics of the curse had been passed down only from one Cathbad the Druid to another. Flaevynn’s anger had turned volcanic a year ago when the current Cathbad had once again refused to share what he’d known.
She’d imprisoned him until he’d agree to reveal all.
She wanted Treoir now, but the dangerous game she’d launched over the past few months to speed up a timeline set thousands of years ago tampered with fate.
Kizira would ruthlessly support Flaevynn’s drive to take Treoir and gain immortality for one simple reason— Kizira planned to take the Belador island and castle for herself. Gaining immortality, the Belador power, and all the Medb power before Flaevynn could do so was Kizira’s only hope for sliding out from beneath Flaevynn’s thumb and protecting those she loved … even the one who was her sworn enemy.
Two steps from the entrance to Flaevynn’s chamber, Kizira silently ordered the doors to open and passed through as they swung wide.
What a welcome relief to find the queen’s chamber free of nak*d men chained to her throne like rutting dogs waiting for her to demand service.
Queen Flaevynn stood to the side of the room with arms raised, chanting softly as she faced a towering wall of precious stones that formed a dazzling backdrop for the water cascading down. From diamonds to emeralds to rubies and not a stone smaller than Kizira’s fist. Light from a hundred tapered candles surrounding the room glanced off the sharp cuts and angles to send a kaleidoscope of color across Flaevynn’s pale skin, waist-length black hair and sheer iridescent gown.
Few women in this otherworld realm equaled her beauty, especially when the queen put to death any female who might.
When the chanting ceased, Kizira took a breath and prepared to face Flaevynn’s wrath for her failure, but the doors burst open.
Gruin, the ranking elder, barreled into the room, knee-length white hair flowing behind him, his grizzled face mottled with anger. “What’s this I hear of the myst being released?”
Flaevynn spun around on a bed of air. Purple eyes sparked with bright orange flames. “Take care with your tone, elder.” Shifting her gaze to Kizira, she demanded, “Why are you dressed like a common wench?”
Kizira didn’t see where her black jeans and deep blue silk shirt were wench clothes, but she shrugged and answered, “I find it easier to move undetected through the human world when I wear their attire, Your Highness. I’m willing to dress however is necessary to serve you best.”
Gruin strode past where Kizira had paused two steps inside the chamber. He cast her a dark look, fingering her as the one who had actually released the sentient fog in the human world.
Like I have a choice when Flaevynn compels me, old man?
Dismissing Kizira with a jut of his bony chin, Gruin pulled up short in front of the queen’s throne. His abrupt stop sent the hem of his cherry-red robe whipping around his skinny ankles. “Is it true or not?”
Flaevynn now lounged on the onyx and gold chair carved in the shape of a dragon. Her eyes gleamed with a predator’s confidence and her voice dropped low with threat. “You know the answer to that or you would not be here. As you can see, my enforcer waits to give her report. State your business and be quick, elder.”
His mouth pinched tight as a raisin. “This realm exists to shield us while we fulfill our duties according to the timeline set forth. The hostility myst was not to be used this soon. You endanger all of us by rushing ahead without knowing the entire prophecy.”
“It’s a curse, not a prophecy,” Flaevynn snarled at him. “I will not sit quietly as my death approaches and condemn yet another queen to my fate.”
Kizira doubted any altruistic intentions on Flaevynn’s part about future queens.
Undeterred by Flaevynn’s caustic bite, Gruin argued, “I am your advisor—”
Flaevynn cut him off with, “I don’t recall asking for your advice, old man.” She pointed a long black fingernail sprinkled with diamonds at him.
He backed up a step, then froze as if his feet wouldn’t move. “I’m an elder … protected by Cathb—”
Flaevynn swirled her finger in a tiny circle.
Kizira had never heard of an elder being killed, as the punishment for harming one was severe, but with Cathbad in the dungeon there was no one else powerful enough to intimidate Flaevynn.
Gruin’s lips yanked open. He started gagging as his tongue slid out, stretching until the pink flesh narrowed to the thickness of a pencil. A strangled cry squealed from his throat when his tongue began looping into a knot. From nowhere, a thin metal spike appeared and drove down through his tongue between the knot and his mouth.
Blood from the wound ran down his chin, spiking the air with a coppery scent.
He fell to his knees, fingers gouging his throat. Tears streamed down his wrinkled cheeks. A pitiful sound streaked past his constant gagging. His face turned deep red before he fell forward on the marble floor and stopped moving … or breathing.
Kizira felt Flaevynn’s eyes on her, observing … judging. The queen punished weakness. Any aid Kizira might offer would only make this worse for the elder as well as herself.
Tapping into the role she’d created so long ago for survival, Kizira smiled at Flaevynn when she remarked, “I hadn’t considered the spike. Effective and brutal. Nicely done.”
Flaevynn appeared satisfied, almost smiling. She glanced down at the inert form, made a sound of disgust and snapped her fingers.
The elder jerked, then started gasping and coughing. He struggled to his knees, breathing hard through his open mouth now that his tongue had been released. Blood coated his thin lips.
Flaevynn told him, “I allow you to breathe again so that you can take my warning back to the other elders. Do not interfere where you are not needed or invited.” She looked from him to the entrance, where two guards built like ancient Spartans stood. They each hooked one of the elder’s arms and walked out carrying him between them.
Flaevynn moved her hand to the right of her throne and held it there until a young man with black hair and a perfect body appeared. He wore leather chaps and a silver choker. The punishment collar consisted of spiked links that would stab the man’s neck when anyone yanked on the braided silver rope dangling from the choker.
The queen gave the rope a light tug, and the collar pricked bloody spots on the young man’s skin.
He didn’t so much as flinch, and, like a well-trained animal, he turned his body to face her throne.
Flaevynn believed that a constant supply of young men in her bed would keep her beautiful and desirable, but she had no control over aging … or the last day of her predestined life.
Not without conquering Treoir Island first.
“You’ve returned sooner than I expected,” Flaevynn said, releasing the leash. She ran her hand down her mantoy’s sculpted abs. “Since you didn’t take time to change into a proper robe to meet with me I can only assume you rushed here with good news. How many Alterants are left to retrieve?”
Kizira stepped forward until she stood upon a white tiger rug with her booted feet apart and hands clasped behind her back. She couldn’t put this off any longer. “We still have to locate and capture all five Alterants.”
Fury burned through the queen’s gaze. “What happened, Kizira? You said the bounty hunters we gave the spell to could bring in the female Belador Alterant.”
No, I said the ambush was a gamble I didn’t recommend and the men weren’t qualified. But someone had to be blamed for the failure. “They lost her.”
“Lost? As in misplaced an Alterant? How does one do that?”
Kizira held her calm. Flaevynn’s anger could cower an army of guards, and she would only grind someone harder if they showed any vulnerability. Feeling the expected mental nudge from her suspicious queen, Kizira filled her mind with distress over having disappointed her sovereign.
Revolting, but effective, because the intrusion disappeared.
Kizira gave up a commiserative sigh, explaining, “Our hunters almost had the female Alterant overpowered, but the VIPER liaison Sen teleported her away. We had the best bounty hunters available, but nothing like Dakkar’s. We would have used his if he hadn’t turned down the contract.”
“Offer him more.”
“I tried. He refuses to even discuss it.”
Flaevynn slapped her hand against the arm of her throne. “What kind of bounty hunting operation does he run to refuse us?”
“He will not jeopardize his standing with VIPER.”
The queen hissed. “VIPER is only as powerful as those who support it. When Brina of Treoir falls, so go the Beladors, their power and the backbone of VIPER. Then we’ll see who rules this world. None of this would be my problem if you’d brought me the Ngak Stone.”
Another risky project Kizira had warned against. “The Ngak Stone is known to direct its own destiny and to be highly unpredictable. If you had taken possession, the stone could have turned on you and perhaps … killed you.”
The only reason Kizira actually regretted losing the stone.
Kizira refused to pay attention to what the queen was doing to her manservant. She turned her gaze to the gleaming yellow eyes of the dragon’s head that hovered above Flaevynn as if daring anything to touch her. “If there is nothing else, Your Highness, I shall leave you alone.”
“You’re not dismissed yet,” Flaevynn spat at her. “How do you plan to capture the Alterants? I gave you permission to release the fog that would force them to change into beast forms. What more do you need?”
Permission? She’d ordered Kizira to release the fog, an ancient myst with sentient quality that turned anything it touched hostile. But contradicting the queen might end with worse than having her tongue tied and staked.
Kizira said, “The fog is only making the Rías shift.” Rías changed into beast forms similar to the way Alterants shifted, but Rías lacked the Belador blood that carried powerful abilities. Using the fog now was a mistake. One of the few specifics Cathbad had shared about the curse was warning them to wait until five specific Alterants were located before releasing a fog to intentionally force Rías to start shifting in advance of attacking Treoir.
Kizira reminded Flaevynn, “According to Cathbad’s curse, we should wait—”
“Shut up!” The room shook and the water at the base of the waterfall boiled with Flaevynn’s rage.
An invisible force struck Kizira behind her knees, buckling her legs. She dropped to the floor, clamping her teeth hard to keep from cursing Flaevynn over the pain scorching her thighs.
One day …
Holding on to her temper with a tight grip, Kizira swallowed a snarl and concentrated on humility. Sweat sheened over her skin in seconds. This was more like the Flaevynn she knew and the reaction she’d expected, which was why Kizira had worn pants and a shirt instead of a bulky robe.
She squared her shoulders and straightened up.
The queen pointed a finger at Kizira. Her black nail lengthened two inches as she spoke. “I told you we do not have to wait any longer. The time has come to end this stupid curse. All you need to concern yourself with is locating the five Belador Alterants.”
Kizira lowered her head, more to keep from exposing how she gritted her teeth. “I understand, Your Highness. I did not mean to challenge you.”
“Have you conjured the fog in all the cities we discussed?”