The Blood Curse (Spell Weaver Book 3) by Annette Marie

  Miysis shrugged. “Difficult and demanding. Sometimes easy. Sometimes boring. This is a boring period.”

  “Interesting that you’d choose the Underworld stranger as your entertainment while bored,” Lyre observed dryly.

  The prince smirked. “Aldrendahar is on the outskirts of our territory. It’s dull and backward and plebian. The highest-ranking daemons are minor nobles and city officials who constantly fawn over me, and I can only spend so much time with my soldiers before they get uncomfortable.”

  “So I’m the lucky recipient of your company?”

  “You don’t seem predisposed to fawning.”

  “Not at all.”

  “Did you never encounter any daemons of power in the Underworld? Have you ever met Samael Hades?”

  Another one of those sneaky questions designed to catch Lyre in a lie. Miysis seemed so laidback and trusting that it was easy to forget he was also a royal practiced in maneuvering—and manipulating—other daemons. Lyre’s mouth quirked down. Was he underestimating the prince?

  “Samael Hades inspires cowering more than fawning,” he evaded smoothly. “As does the Head of Chrysalis.”

  “What’s he like?”

  “Formidable. I don’t know him well.” That, at least, wasn’t a lie. Lyre knew more about his father as the Head of Chrysalis than as a person. “What’s the Ra queen like?”

  “Formidable is a good word. ‘Ruthless’ also comes to mind.”

  That wasn’t encouraging. If the Ra queen was a ruthless ruler, once she stepped in to take over from Miysis on the Irida issue, the chances of avoiding an outright conflict would dwindle significantly.

  Rising from the sofa, Lyre brought his arms over his head, arching his back into the stretch. As he relaxed again, he caught Miysis’s gaze flicking back up to his face. Oh? Had the prince been examining the body artists’ work—or checking out his body beneath the art?

  “I’d like to stretch my legs. How about I entertain you, sans fawning, while you take me somewhere besides this room?”

  Miysis pursed his lips. “I’m not opposed, but I’d rather not showcase your presence.”

  “If you wanted to keep me a secret, you probably shouldn’t have exposed me to a pair of gossipy women.”

  “Those two are my personal body artists. They won’t gossip to anyone.” Miysis pushed off the wall. “If you cover your face with the hood, I think—”

  A sharp rap on the door interrupted him. Miysis flicked a glance at Lyre, and once he had pulled his hood up, the prince called a welcome. The door swung open and a griffin in red livery similar to a soldier’s uniform but without the armor swept inside, his face shining with perspiration. Two guards from the hall followed him.

  He dropped to one knee in front of Miysis. “Your Highness, an urgent message.”


  “Twenty miles north, an entourage of nymphs approaches the city, bearing the flag of truce.”

  Lyre sucked in a breath, nervous but relieved. Finally. It had taken Rouvin long enough to get his ass in gear and do something. Hopefully, this meant the king had received Clio’s news.

  Miysis waved the messenger to his feet. “Excellent. Go straight to Captain Bakari and have him send a troop to escort them the rest of the way. As well, have the captain prepare a formal escort for me. I will meet the nymphs at the north gate.”

  The griffin saluted and rushed out again, the pair of guards returning to their posts in the hallway.

  When the door closed behind them, Miysis glanced at Lyre. “Well? What do you say to a trip through the city instead? I wouldn’t mind having you around for your insight on the nymphs.”

  Lyre’s mouth curved up. “Can’t promise I’ll be useful, but if it means getting outside for a bit, I’ll take it.”

  And he wasn’t going to complain about the chance to hear firsthand what message King Rouvin had sent.

  The bazaar was more crowded than it had seemed from Lyre’s elevated suite—or perhaps the people of the city were flocking to intercept the prince’s escort.

  Following a cluster of officials, Lyre ambled between a pair of soldiers—Miysis’s personal guards, assigned to keep anyone from getting close enough to recognize him as an incubus. Miysis walked near the front of the procession. He may not have intended to start a parade, but that’s what it had turned into.

  First in line were the six soldiers clearing a path. Miysis came next, walking alone and flanked not by soldiers but a pair of opinaris. Rushi, the white one, and a tan one prowled alongside him, their heads and chests protected by glimmering golden armor.

  Another six soldiers followed, then the babbling cluster of city officials. Lyre trailed after them, and even outside the group, he could see why the daemons annoyed Miysis. They would not shut up.

  The procession ended with a troop of soldiers behind Lyre. He was the only one in the entire entourage that lacked wings, but with his face covered, he could pass for a griffin in glamour. An extra tan griffin.

  His skin tone wasn’t anywhere near the darkest in the market though. Griffins made up the majority of the population, but Aldrendahar was clearly a trade city. Castes Lyre had never seen or heard of paused to watch the parade march by.

  A male with skin a few shades darker than Lyre’s with pointed horns, large animal ears and a thick tail that ended in sharp-looking spines. A female with mocha skin and curved antlers decorated with gold hoops, smoking a long pipe. A trio of younger males with golden skin, jet-black hair, tall jackal ears, and furred tails, shirtless under the blazing suns. A pair of unidentifiable daemons dressed head to toe in draping white fabric, faces covered with sheer silk, and snowy white wings tucked against their backs.

  Almost all bustle drew to a halt as the armed escort crossed the bazaar, but the wildlife had no respect for royal comings and goings. Birds swooped across the rooftops, and a gang of strange reptiles—fox-shaped bodies covered in snakeskin with a lizard’s head—lurked in the shadows. An oversized rodent with huge ears and a giant squirrel tail snatched a piece of fruit from a stall while no one was watching.

  Lyre didn’t get nearly as much time to study the market as he would have liked before they’d moved past it. They swept through wide streets of sand-dusted flagstone, the surrounding buildings draped in plants. The palm trees offered fleeting shade but the air shimmered from the rising heat. When they passed a canal of clear water, he had to swallow against his dry thirst.

  They now approached the outermost wall—a barrier significantly more robust than the wall around the citadel grounds. The massive gates rose thirty feet at the highest point of the arch, and the wall was even higher and topped with an open parapet where winged soldiers stood at attention.

  An empty plaza waited in front of the open gates, and the soldiers spread out in formation as Miysis moved to the center. There he stopped, flanked by opinaris, a troop of soldiers arranged across the flagstones behind him.

  The griffin officials moved into the shadows of a building and Lyre followed, both eager for shade and unwilling to stand alone where he’d draw too much attention, but before he could make it out of the sunlight, Miysis gestured. Two officials hurriedly took up a spot on the prince’s righthand side.

  “You should stand with them,” one of Lyre’s guards murmured.

  Obediently, Lyre moved to join the two older officials, standing a long pace back so he wasn’t part of the greeting assembly.

  Squinting against the suns, he peered through the gates. The endless dunes stretched toward the shadow of distant mountains, and a few miles out, a cloud of dust revealed the approaching party.

  The suns hammered down as they waited in silence. The opinaris swished their tails, the only sign of their impatience. Lyre desperately wished for one of the colorful, handheld sunshades he’d seen daemons in the bazaar carrying, but Miysis didn’t seem to notice the heat as he stared northward.

  The minutes ticked by and the back of Lyre’s neck prickled. Keeping the movement casu
al, he glanced around.

  Miysis’s escort through the city had been modest, but the prince wasn’t taking chances. More soldiers had quietly filed in and now lined the plaza. The guards patrolling the parapet had doubled, and more warriors lurked on nearby rooftops. Apparently, Miysis wasn’t as trusting as he’d led Lyre to believe. If this went badly, the Iridian entourage wouldn’t leave alive.

  The approaching party drew close enough that shapes appeared in the dust. First came the griffin escort—soldiers mounted on opinaris. Then came the nymphs, riding mounts of their own—heavy-bodied antelope-like creatures with tan- and black-patterned coats, flowing ebony manes, and a single horn arching up from their foreheads.

  The opinari-mounted griffins swept over the wall and landed on nearby rooftops. Unescorted, the nymphs slowed their mounts to a loping trot. The thud of hooves on packed sand turned to a loud clatter as they passed through the gate and transitioned onto the flagstones. Of the seven nymphs, six wore green uniforms Lyre recognized from the palace guards in Irida, partly covered by lightweight cloaks and scarves to protect against the sand.

  The seventh nymph wore something completely different, but it too was a familiar outfit.

  They rode into the middle of the plaza and stopped. The lead nymph swung down, white fabric swirling, and handed the antelope’s reins to a nymph soldier before walking forward.

  The elaborate regalia fluttered with each step—white skirts with under layers of blue and green revealed by the long slit in the front. A wide band of green fabric wrapped around a slim waist, belted with a bejeweled chain. A short cloak had been added as protection from the suns, but beneath it was a high-collared shirt and draping sleeves bound in place around the nymph’s upper arms.

  A deep hood completed the costume, and a featureless white mask covered the upper half of the nymph’s face. A jeweled tiara was fitted on the top, and long ribbons hung off the back, fluttering like streamers in the breeze.

  Lyre had seen that clothing before, but even if he hadn’t, he would have known. The way she held her arms, the sway of her hips, the stubborn lift to her familiar chin, the way those luscious lips were pressed nervously together—the messenger from Irida was Clio.

  She walked unflinchingly toward Miysis, her face fixed on him and never turning toward Lyre or the officials. As she halted in front of the prince, Lyre became even more rigidly aware of the gathered soldiers and the watchful opinaris so close to her. Suddenly, he didn’t trust a word Miysis had ever uttered.

  Clio dropped into a smooth, deep curtsy, and the prince nodded in acknowledgment. She murmured something, then slipped her hand into her fabric belt. Withdrawing a sealed letter, she extended it toward Miysis.

  As the Ra prince took the paper and broke the seal, Lyre mentally prepared himself. Depending on what that letter said, either Clio would be safe—or Lyre would die with her under the scorching Overworld suns.

  Chapter Eleven

  By the time the griffin city shimmered into view through the heat waves, Clio was ready to trade her soul for a drink of water. Her whole body felt like one giant bruise as she bounced in her saddle, jarred by the tachy’s rolling gait. The gentle herbivores lived mainly in the foothills but they were almost as comfortable in the desert.

  She, however, couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. Riding was only slightly less demanding than walking and she wasn’t sure how much more she could tolerate. Her backside was on the verge of disintegration.

  Relief swept through her at the sight of Aldrendahar on the horizon. It had been a long, trying two days. They’d set out the previous morning, traversing the full span of Irida to reach the southern border by nightfall. After only a few hours of rest, they’d headed through the foothills and into the desert before the first sun had even breached the horizon.

  Once full daylight hit, travel had become an exercise in torture, but finally, the end was in sight. Or, at least, a break. King Rouvin had explained that, depending on what officials were or were not in the city, she might have to travel onward until she could present his message to someone of a high enough rank.

  Dark spots hovering above the horizon took the shapes of flying opinaris. Her stomach turned over as light glinted off the beasts’ plate armor, and soon she could make out their riders—equally armored griffins.

  The captain in charge of her nymph escort called for a halt on the crest of a dune. Her tachy puffed for air, his sides heaving.

  Six opinaris swept in and circled above her group. One peeled out of the formation and plunged down to land in a puff of sand. Her tachy jerked his head anxiously, his dark horn gleaming. She laid a calming hand on his neck, grateful for the stifling mask that hid her expression.

  The opinari snapped its beak, wings flared. The soldier swung off and she forced herself to lift her chin as he approached. For years, she’d thought of griffins as her ultimate enemies. They were still dangerous, but her job now was to prevent them from becoming real enemies.

  “You carry the flag of truce,” the soldier declared, referring to the white flag with a black circle in its center held by one of her men. “Are you bound for Aldrendahar?”

  “Yes,” she replied, surprised to hear her voice was steady. “I bear an urgent message from King Rouvin of Irida.”

  “We will escort you to the city.”

  She nodded and the soldier returned to his mount. The opinari surged into the air again, and the troop glided ahead, leading the way. She nudged her tachy into motion.

  The last few miles took forever but despite the endless hours of travel, she didn’t feel ready to meet with important griffin officials. At least only minor nobles likely called the small outskirt city home.

  For most of the journey, her thoughts had clung obsessively to an entirely different topic: Lyre. Where he was. What he was doing. Whether he was safe. Whether he was thinking of her as much as she was thinking of him. Pointless worries, considering she had no idea when she would see him again. Who knew how far she would have to travel? If she was lucky, the griffins would take her through a ley line instead of forcing her to continue across the desert.

  The city walls loomed higher, spires rising behind them. The largest building, its thick tower topped with a round roof, sat in what had to be the city’s center. The colossal gates were open, and two immense statues stood on either side of the entrance—twin opinaris carved from stone, their front limbs stretched out and paws touching to form an arch over the gateway. She swallowed, trying to work moisture into her mouth.

  The suns glinted off a multitude of shiny surfaces just within the gate, but between the bright light and her vision-obscuring mask, she couldn’t make out any details. The opinari escort swept over the wall and disappeared.

  Alone with her guards, she straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. This was it.

  Griffin soldiers lined the parapet, watching as she urged her tachy beneath the statues. The creature loped forward and the sudden clack of his hooves on stone after so long on soft sand startled her. As they came into an open plaza, a tall spire blocked the suns and in the sudden cessation of their glare, she finally saw what waited for her.

  Her heart hit her rib cage like a sledgehammer.

  A griffin, flanked by two opinaris, stood in the center of the plaza, with a few officials off to one side. Those were the minor functionaries she’d expected. The one in the center, however …

  He was no minor noble.

  Her gaze slid over him as she pulled her tachy to a stop. Long blond hair, braided. Half his torso bared, his sculpted abs painted with designs in the style of griffin nobles. Wings folded against his back, and a tail ending in a fan of feathers rested on the flagstones behind him.

  She swung out of her saddle and handed the reins away, scarcely taking her eyes off the griffin. Who was he? Could he be a Ra? The family was large; along with the queen and her children, dozens of relatives both close and distant bore the Ra name.

  Turquoise accents under his eyes
drew her gaze to his yellow-green irises. With bold cheekbones, a strong jaw, full mouth, and those gleaming eyes, he was very handsome—young, though. Only a few years older than her.

  Why did he seem familiar? She felt like she’d met him before but when had she gotten a good look at a griffin’s face out of glamour? The only daemon she could think of was—

  Her lungs seized with the realization.

  She stopped in front of him, seconds left to decide how to react. Was he really the griffin from the embassy? She’d thought that daemon was a bodyguard to the princess. Yet, here he was, standing in noblemen dress. No one was introducing him, which meant they expected her to know who he was.

  Gulping back her nerves, she dropped into a deep curtsy and hoped she hadn’t guessed wrong. “Your Highness.”

  He nodded in acknowledgment but didn’t speak, his eyes cool and unreadable. Since no one scoffed and corrected her, she must have gotten his title right.

  “I bear a message from King Rouvin Nereid of Irida, to be delivered directly to the hands of Ra. May I present it to you?”

  He dipped his chin in another nod, his stony silence unnerving. The weight of the mask hiding her expression was comforting. Slipping a hand into her fabric belt, she removed Rouvin’s letter from the hidden pocket and offered it to the griffin.

  He broke the royal seal and flipped it open. She didn’t move—no one moved—as his eyes slid across the page.

  Her skin prickled, a strange sort of restlessness shivering along her nerves. Despite her determination to stay focused on the Ra royal, her gaze darted away. It skittered across two nearby officials and jerked to a stop on the third one, standing a little farther back, his face shadowed by a deep hood.

  For no reason she could determine, her stomach somersaulted with butterflies.

  The Ra royal folded the letter again and she wrenched her attention back to him. He tucked it into an invisible pocket in his flowing pants.

  “My lady, you must be tired from your journey,” he said. “I would be happy to host you in the citadel while I consider King Rouvin’s missive.”

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