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

  “I am his father and his king. Who else can I blame?” He folded his hands together and rested his chin on them. “As a child, his mother and I marveled at his quick mind—how he could trick sweets from the maids or preferential treatment from his tutors. It seemed harmless.”

  He closed his eyes as though blocking out the memories. “I’m not sure anyone but my wiliest advisors recognized his manipulations for what they were. His mother certainly didn’t.”

  “I didn’t either,” Clio whispered. “I never suspected he wasn’t being sincere. Kassia knew, though. And Lyre too.”

  “I encouraged Bastian to rely on honest communication instead of deception, but …” His jaw clenched. “Never did I imagine he would construct such an elaborate and destructive deceit as the one he inflicted on you.”

  “I was just a pawn.” She looked down at her lap. “All those little jobs spying on Ra agents were just to train me for the important one—stealing from Chrysalis.”

  As the last of the suns’ glow faded, the shadows deepened. Clio straightened her skirt, the fabric torn and stained from recent battles. She shook off the ghostly feeling of Eryx’s blade on her throat and the sound of Bastian’s cold, unfamiliar voice.

  “What now?” she asked.

  His lined face tight and weariness dimming his eyes, Rouvin steepled his fingers—a gesture Bastian favored as well. “I don’t know.”

  Her stomach turned over.

  He glanced at her, a sad smile on his lips. “A king should never admit such a thing, but this … this is beyond anything I could have anticipated.” He exhaled, the rise and fall of his chest slow and methodical. “Clio, please locate a royal advisor and instruct him to gather the council for an emergency meeting.”

  She started to rise but hesitated, wishing she knew what to say. Instead of getting up, she slid closer and touched the back of his hand.

  “Father,” she whispered, her voice cracking on the unfamiliar address—a name she had never called him before. “This isn’t your fault. What Bastian did isn’t your fault.”

  He placed his other hand atop hers, clasping her fingers between his warm palms. “Perhaps not, but it is my responsibility.”

  “There isn’t much I can do, but I want to help if I can.”

  “You have a kind soul, Clio. Perhaps if Bastian had grown up with you at his side, things would be different.” He withdrew his touch. “Please alert the council. I need … time to think.”

  Nodding, she crossed to the arched doorway that led back into the palace. Four guards stood at attention, out of earshot but close enough to jump to their king’s defense. She glanced back to where Rouvin sat on the bench, staring sightlessly at the fountain.

  Bastian had inflicted a terrible wound on her heart with his lies, his threats, his attempts on her life. But that was nothing compared to the damage he had callously dealt his father, and that more than anything underscored the prince’s true cruelty.

  That he could hurt the bastard sister he’d never cared about was one thing. That he could shatter his father’s heart with such a deep betrayal was a whole different evil. Was his vendetta against Ra worth tearing his family apart and putting all of Irida at risk?

  Clio sat cross-legged in the cool grass, her face tilted toward the stars. A refreshing night breeze washed over her, but her mind was far from the palace where she was waiting for the council meeting to conclude.

  Where was Lyre? Was he looking at Earth’s stars? Were the night skies in the two realms the same, just viewed from different parts of space’s vast expanse?

  More likely, he had already reunited with Ash and the two were busy tracking down Bastian and his men. If Bastian was on Earth, Ash would eventually locate him. She just hoped that didn’t happen while she was gone, because she knew what the draconian assassin planned to do if he caught the prince.

  Fireflies and glowing bell moths fluttered from flower to flower, filling the garden with enchanting spots of luminescence. Lyre hadn’t seen the palace gardens at night and she wished she could show him.

  She watched the dancing insects, unable to shake Lyre from her thoughts. Fretting about where he was, if he was safe, what he was doing. Aching to see him again. No matter how many times she told herself it was ridiculous to think about him constantly, it made no difference.

  We belong together. How she’d wanted to say those words, but she had no idea how he felt. He cared about her, of that much she was certain, but he was an incubus. Incubi never fell in love. Everyone who’d ever heard or told a story about the caste said the same thing.

  She plucked a blade of grass and methodically shredded it. She hadn’t learned about aphrodesia until after meeting Lyre, but she’d heard all sorts of stories about incubi’s bedroom prowess and influence over women. Was she just another foolish girl who thought she could tame an incubus?

  Quiet footsteps broke into her thoughts. Two nymph guards, each with a sword sheathed at her side, walked into the garden with their charge between them.

  Hands clasped together, the young princess of Irida stood in a white dress made of lightweight fabric, the edges decorated with delicate lace and sparkling diamond chips. Her long blond hair was loosely braided, and she had the same pale blue eyes as her father and brother. In the two years since Clio had seen Petrina, the girl had grown from a child to an adolescent with glimmers of the woman she would eventually become.

  As her guards retreated to the garden’s edge, Petrina stood with stiff shoulders, her hands folded regally in front of her but her fingers twisted together so tightly it looked painful.

  “Petrina?” Clio asked softly.

  Tears filled the girl’s eyes. Prying her hands apart, she padded across the grass, dropped down, and leaned against Clio’s side.

  Clio drew in a silent breath. What did Petrina know? Had Rouvin talked to her or had she overheard something? The girl leaned against Clio, sniffling quietly. Even as a young child, she’d never been the type to ask for help or comfort outright, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t in need of it.

  Closing her eyes before her own tears escaped, Clio wrapped her arm around Petrina’s narrow shoulders. Her thoughts tumbled through the three years she had spent in the palace, with countless afternoons and evenings spent with the princess, playing silly games, digging in the gardens, and practicing curtsies—even at six years old, Petrina had been an etiquette pro. Those carefree days seemed like a dream now.

  She held the princess close, grieving silently for what her half-sister had lost. Life for the Nereid family would never return to the way it had been. Whether Bastian gave up his plans and returned peacefully, or he continued his campaign of lies and violence to incite a war, he would never again walk the palace halls as the revered crown prince.

  What was he thinking? How could he have sacrificed all he had for this insane, prideful scheme?

  A nymph in the green livery of a royal messenger squeezed past Petrina’s guards and entered the garden. He bowed deeply to the princess, then offered Clio a respectful nod.

  “Lady Clio, His Majesty has summoned you.”

  Clio gave Petrina a comforting squeeze, then rose to her feet. The princess, hugging her legs, watched Clio leave.

  The messenger led her through the stone and marble halls and into a tall spire. They climbed endless circular stairs, the walls embellished with a tile mosaic of curling vines that climbed with them, until they reached a landing where four royal guards waited outside a heavy wooden door.

  A guard pulled the handle, swinging the door open as she approached. Inside, a spelled crystal in the center of a heavy wooden table illuminated the circular room. Seated around it were the twelve members of the royal council, and at the head of the table, the king looked up at her entrance.

  “Clio.” He waved her in as the guard shut the door. “Please sit.”

  He gestured at the empty seat beside him—the only unoccupied chair in the room. The silence pressed in on her. The elder nymphs of the counci
l watched with judgments in their eyes—though whether favorable or hostile, she had no idea.

  As she stopped beside the empty chair, positioned by the king’s left hand, she realized whose seat it was. Bastian’s seat. Her chest constricted, and with stiff movements, she lowered herself into the chair.

  “Thank you for coming, Clio.” The king adjusted the stack of papers in front of him. “I just received an initial report from the investigative team on Earth, confirming there was an attack on the Ra embassy, as well as the presence of nymph and chimera magic.”

  She nodded, unsurprised Rouvin would verify her story before deciding on a plan of action.

  “The situation is grave,” an advisor said. “Ra could declare war.”

  “Would they risk the trade agreement that easily?” another asked doubtfully.

  “The agreement is already at risk. We have not completed negotiations.”

  “If we knew what Prince Bastian is planning, we would have a better idea how to act. He is no fool. His plans must involve—”

  “He is no fool?” Rouvin repeated, his voice as bitterly cold as the north winds that blew down from the mountains in winter. “He has endangered our kingdom for no more than reckless arrogance. The safety of our people must always supersede pride.”

  “The trade agreement puts us in a subordinate position to Ra, financially and politically,” a younger advisor murmured. “Ending it and asserting our independence would benefit Irida in the long run.”

  “The trade agreement isn’t what puts us in a subordinate position,” the oldest nymph corrected firmly. “It’s the simple fact that we are a tiny kingdom with a small population and an insignificant military.”

  “But without it, we could sell our exports at higher prices. Increasing our wealth would—”

  “Would make us an even more appealing target for any who wish to encroach on our borders—not just Ra.”

  “The trade agreement is mutually beneficial,” Rouvin proclaimed with finality. “As it has for centuries, it serves our kingdom by ensuring our most powerful neighbor imports the majority of our expensive gems and metals at fair prices—not the highest prices, but fair ones. And it ensures no other kingdom views us as a weak or isolated target.”

  He looked around the table, his pale eyes stern. “What my son has failed to grasp is that our subordinate relationship with one powerful territory protects us from many territories. It is not ideal, but it is our best reality.” When none of the advisors argued, Rouvin slid his stack of papers to Clio. “These were uncovered in a concealed compartment in Bastian’s library.”

  She hesitantly flipped through the complex notes, all pertaining to Ra territory—populations, military assessments, trade routes, economy, even their climate. At the bottom of the pile were several large, folded sheets that she opened to reveal detailed maps of three Ra cities and a human city. On the Brinford map, the Ra embassy was marked in red. The warehouse where Bastian had set up his base before the attack was also marked.

  She looked at the other maps. Ilvanad, Aldrendahar, and Shalla’isa. The three Ra cities closest to Irida.

  “From these, we can assume Bastian intends to expand his targets to the Ra territory in the Overworld,” Rouvin said. “Once he attacks on Ra soil, Irida will be doomed. Regardless of this ultimate weapon Bastian has acquired from Chrysalis, Ra will crush us.”

  “I don’t understand why Bastian would do this,” Clio mumbled. “How does he not realize that Irida can’t defeat Ra?”

  The elderly advisor cleared his throat. “I do not think Prince Bastian intends to allow a war. I believe his intention is to commit a series of atrocities against Ra, then force them to sign a peace treaty to prevent further loss of life. It is a gamble most would never consider. Regardless of how effective—or abhorrent—his attacks may be, the Ra matriarch could refuse to treat with him.”

  “She may not have a choice.” A nymph tapped two fingers on the tabletop. “If he unleashes this clock weaving on a city, he could slaughter every resident with only a small force. Never has a magic existed that can eradicate all defenses in one unstoppable sweep.”

  “If it’s too close to a ley line, it could eradicate all magic across the realm,” Clio cut in, not liking the hint of awe in the daemon’s tone. “It must be destroyed.”

  “Our most urgent priority is Ra,” Rouvin said. “If Bastian attacks again before we make contact, it will be too late to reverse the damage.”

  “Make contact?” Clio repeated.

  “I must meet with the Ra royals.” Sudden anguish tightened his features before he composed himself. “And before them, I will disown Bastian Nereid as my son, my heir, and a citizen of Irida. I will depose him as crown prince and brand him a traitor.”

  Painful silence rang through the room.

  “Further,” Rouvin continued, his voice empty of emotion, “I will decree to all of Irida that Bastian has committed crimes against the kingdom and the crown. He is wanted for treason, along with all those who have aided him. We have already begun an investigation into missing soldiers.”

  “Ra will demand Prince Bastian’s execution,” an advisor said, sitting rigidly in his seat.

  “What of succession?” Another nymph pressed both hands to the tabletop. “Petrina is …”

  He trailed off under Rouvin’s icy stare.

  “My daughter is what?” the king asked quietly.

  “Her education hasn’t been tailored to this role,” the advisor answered hastily. “She has no experience and … perhaps not a firm enough temperament to rule?”

  “She will be eligible to take the throne by her twenty-first year. She has plenty of time to learn.” Rouvin’s expression hardened. “She is now the heir apparent and she will rule as Irida’s queen.”

  Clio pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling sick. Irida’s fate was irrevocably changed, and she had played a role in its titanic shift.

  “Clio,” Rouvin said, turning to her. “I cannot ride into Ra without sending word ahead, and it must be quick—before Ra can organize a response to the embassy attack.”

  She nodded, unsure why he was explaining this to her.

  His pale eyes, lined with hidden grief, met hers. “Will you ride to Aldrendahar as my emissary?”

  The floor tilted precariously under her chair. “M-me?”

  “It must be you. I cannot trust anyone else. Aside from this council, you are the only nymph in the palace who knows what Bastian has done.”

  She stared at him, speechless.

  “And lastly, you alone witnessed Bastian’s attack and heard his declarations of intent. Only you can share this firsthand truth directly with Ra.” He exhaled. “It will be dangerous. You will have to cross the desert to Aldrendahar first, then travel onward, wherever they direct you. They may turn you away or try to kill you.”

  She swallowed back a bitter laugh. Neither crossing the desert nor defending against violent griffins would be a first for her.

  Rouvin pressed his lips together. When he spoke again, his voice was soft, almost inaudible. “I do not want to lose my daughter as I have lost my son, but I must give you this task regardless. There is no other option.”

  Strange pain washed through her at his words, and she couldn’t look at the twelve other nymphs at the table. The royal council knew she was Rouvin’s bastard child but the secret had never been acknowledged, even in private.

  “I will go,” she answered. “I will take your message to Ra.” Lyre’s face flashed through her mind, but she pushed thoughts of him aside. This was just as important as joining Lyre to search for Bastian on Earth. But how long would this extend their separation?

  Aldrendahar. In her mind’s eye, she could see the distant towers surrounded by a high wall, nestled amid endless sand dunes. She had glimpsed the city while crossing the desert with the jinn Sabir.

  A sad smile pulled at Rouvin’s lips. “Thank you, Clio. Thank you.”

  She looked up at her father, frowning. “W
hat did you mean when you said only I could speak the … firsthand truth about Bastian?”

  Rouvin leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “Are you not familiar with the griffins’ unique caste ability? It is deceptively simple and harmless, but it may be the most powerful ability of all.”

  Eyes wide with alarm, she shook her head.

  “They are truth-seers,” he told her. “And to lie to a griffin is to invite death.”

  Chapter Nine

  As far as prison cells went, this one wasn’t so bad. Lyre really couldn’t complain.

  He stretched his arms over his head and arched his back, then slumped into the silk cushions. Beside the daybed, a round table held a platter of fruit and a pitcher of water that had been full of ice when it had arrived, the outside covered in condensation.

  Lips pursed, he considered his accommodations. The spacious suite boasted a comfortable sitting area with the daybed where he currently lounged, a table with two chairs, and a bookshelf and desk on one wall. On the other side of the room, heavy drapes hid a ridiculously comfortable bed. Everything was exceptionally fine—rich fabric, intricate tile work, expensive ceramics, and potted plants.

  In the room’s center, a sunken pool was filled with scented water. At first, he’d been baffled by the bathtub in the middle of a sitting room, but when the afternoon heat had surpassed “baking oven” intensity, he’d figured it out.

  It was a luxury suite intended for a rich businessman or an important diplomat. Lyre would have happily enjoyed this impromptu vacation if not for the fact he wasn’t allowed outside the room.

  He grabbed a handful of grape-like red fruits and popped them into his mouth, savoring the sweet juices. Who was he kidding? He was a prisoner in a foreign realm, his only two allies were unaware he was missing, and his fate depended on the whim of a prince he’d exchanged all of ten words with … but he was still enjoying himself.

  He flopped back on the pillows again. Why not enjoy it? No one was trying to kill him, so it was a big step up from last week. And this was a hell of a lot more luxurious than his house back in Asphodel.

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