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

  Occasionally grabbing more fruit from the platter, he resumed flipping through the books he’d pulled off the nearby shelves. He couldn’t read the language but instead perused illustrations of foreign landscapes and drawings of pottery, fascinated by the glimpses into another culture.

  Eventually, he rolled off the daybed, stretched lazily, then walked past the sunken bath toward the room’s farthest end. The wall, if it could be called a wall, featured arched windows that started at the floor and rose to the ceiling, a thick stone railing all that separated the suite from the open air.

  Lyre propped his elbows on the top rail and leaned out, letting the hot sunlight warm his face.

  Beyond the railing was a straight drop of at least five stories, and below that stretched the city. Orange stone buildings, some short with flat roofs, some tall with rounded peaks, were tumbled together with little rhyme or reason. A high wall enclosed everything, and shining water filled a wide canal that cut through the city’s center.

  Unfamiliar palm trees interspersed the buildings and clusters of rich plant life bloomed in every nook and cranny, but green wasn’t the only color that graced the city. Red fabrics, shining gold embellishments, bright paint accenting carved decorations on the buildings—there were bright hues everywhere.

  Daemons moved about the city with lazy purpose, dressed in layers of flowing garments. From his lofty perch, Lyre observed a nearby bazaar, the wooden stalls shaded by vibrant fabric roofs, hundreds of daemons—some winged griffins, some not—wandering among the merchants. A flock of birds that resembled pheasants, their dark plumage marked with turquoise patterns, fluttered across the rooftops, waiting for scraps to steal.

  Beyond the encircling wall, however, all colors besides burnt orange disappeared. Sand stretched in endless dunes as far as the eye could see, not a single landmark to interrupt the horizon.

  When the heat grew unbearable, Lyre retreated into the shade and grabbed the heavy drapes, pulling them partway across the windows to keep the room cool. He stopped on the patterned tiles that edged the tub, watching flower petals float on the water.

  Relaxing was all well and good, but he was growing restless. How long would he be stuck here, comfortable but imprisoned? With nothing else to do, he returned to the daybed and drifted into a restless sleep, but his nap was cut short when a ping of magic went off in his head. Someone had triggered the hidden ward he’d put on the door.

  He was on his feet, still blinking groggily, when the door swung open. He expected guards delivering his evening meal, but it wasn’t a soldier who walked into the suite.

  If the guy had looked like this last time, Lyre would never have mistaken him for anything but royalty.

  Miysis Ra, eldest prince and first general of the royal guard. His waist-length hair, rich golden-yellow, hung over his shoulder in a thick braid woven through with fine chains and chips of topaz. Similar jewelry looped around his neck, just over his top garment—a piece of clothing Lyre had no name for. It was like a hooded cloak that fell only to elbow-length, woven of fine silk and weighted with heavy tassels on either side to hold it down.

  It was bizarre, but on a griffin, the design made perfect sense. The garment covered his shoulders and upper arms but didn’t interfere with the golden-brown wings tucked against his back. A tail swished idly behind him, ending in a fan of matching feathers.

  The cut of the top left the prince’s lower torso bare. His musculature was impressive enough, but in the style of this place, an extra splash of color had been added: turquoise designs were painted over his abs and around his forearms.

  Lyre realized he was gawking and pulled himself together. Lucky for him, Miysis probably hadn’t noticed—he was too busy giving Lyre an equally thorough once-over.

  Lyre suspected he looked just as exotic and fascinating to the prince. And it probably helped that Lyre wore a very similar—though less bejeweled—version of Miysis’s outfit. The cloak-ish top garment didn’t make much sense on him, but he liked the pants—loose, flowing layers that kept him wonderfully cool, bound in place with a wide tie wound several times around his hips.

  Miysis completed his appraisal and a slow smile pulled at his lips. His jewel-bright eyes, their color somewhere between yellow and green, were accented with a turquoise line traced beneath each lower lid.

  “The clothes suit you,” he observed, the melodic richness of his voice taking Lyre by surprise all over again.

  “Everything suits me,” he replied with a sharp smile.

  “I must apologize for keeping you waiting so long. I imagine you’d like to stretch your legs.”

  He had no idea what to think when Miysis walked right out of the room again, waving at Lyre to join him. Half expecting an ambush, he cautiously followed the prince out. Four guards with halberds and gold-accented armor stood twenty paces away. Miysis waited alone in the hall, weaponless and apparently unconcerned that Lyre might attack him.

  Lyre scanned the tile floors, carved pillars, and gold wall sconces holding light-spelled crystals, searching the corridor for danger.

  “This isn’t a trap,” Miysis murmured, starting forward at an unhurried pace. “If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead.”

  Unable to disagree with that, Lyre fell into step beside the prince. “After two days of confinement, I might be a little paranoid.”

  “Again, I apologize. Between my injuries, our urgent preparations, and the side effects of that … spell, this was the earliest I could meet with you.”

  Lyre kept his expression neutral, wondering if he could pinpoint the change in his accommodations to when the prince had first woken from his healing. Lyre’s initial imprisonment hadn’t been nearly as comfortable as the luxury suite, which he’d only enjoyed for the past day.

  “Preparations?” he questioned, not liking the sound of that.

  Miysis paused near the end of the hall. “Would you mind pulling up your hood? I’d rather not advertise your presence. It could prompt awkward questions.”

  Bemused, Lyre drew his hood over his head. With the guards trailing behind them, Miysis led Lyre into a maze of wide corridors.

  “Let me be clear,” he went on in a low voice. “You are not a prisoner. If you want to leave, I’ll take you to a ley line. First, however, I need to understand what happened at the embassy two nights ago.”

  Lyre studied Miysis out of the corner of his eye. Interesting. If Bastian, the other prince he’d dealt with recently, had promised him freedom upon request, Lyre wouldn’t have believed a word of it. But his gut said Miysis was being honest.

  Of course, just because his instincts believed Miysis’s sincerity didn’t mean Lyre would be a trusting fool.

  They entered an open plaza bordered by twin staircases that folded down into an even larger foyer with a gold fountain in the center. Two twenty-foot statues towered on either side—winged women in flowing robes—and busy griffins crisscrossed the space.

  “Glad to hear it,” Lyre replied as they headed down the stairs, “but I’m not sure I can answer your questions about the embassy.”

  Miysis’s mouth quirked down, his bright eyes flicking over Lyre as though reassessing him. “I need to know whatever you know. You’re involved somehow.”

  “How do you know I wasn’t a random passerby who stopped to help out of the goodness of my heart?”

  “Then surely the gods have blessed me that a daemon with lethal combat skills and rarely seen weaving ability would come randomly to my aid.”

  Lyre didn’t bother to hide his sigh. So, the prince had gotten a good look at his wards before losing consciousness in the panic room. That complicated things. Spell weavers were uncommon, exceptionally skilled ones were rarer, and master weavers were a thing of legend. But the chances were infinitesimally slim that an Overworld daemon, even the prince of a powerful caste, would know anything about Chrysalis or the Hades bounty on an incubus.

  “Blessed by the gods,” he repeated, casually steering the conversation off
topic. “Do griffins have gods?”

  “You want to discuss theology?” Miysis replied in amusement. As they crossed the foyer, daemons stopped to bow but the prince didn’t acknowledge them. “We respect the powers of nature, but we don’t worship them the way some castes worship their gods.”

  “That’s a relief.”

  Miysis slanted a look at Lyre. “Do incubi worship gods?”

  He gave the prince his most seductive smile and purred, “We worship pleasure in all its forms.”

  Miysis blinked, surprised—but not repulsed like most men on the receiving end of that tone. “I thought incubi preferred women.”

  “Preferring one thing doesn’t mean eschewing the other.”

  “Is that so?”

  “Otherwise, who knows what carnal desires might go undiscovered … and unsatisfied?”

  Miysis stopped, turning to Lyre with one blond eyebrow arched. “Are you seducing me?”

  “Do you feel seduced?” Lyre mirrored the prince’s arch look. “I’m always looking to tick something off my bucket list. ‘Illicit royal lover’ opportunities are few and far between.”

  Miysis stared at him, then shook his head. “I have no idea if you’re being serious.”

  “I get that a lot.”

  Snorting in a very unprincelike fashion, Miysis swept into motion again and Lyre followed, smirking smugly. Good to know that he could keep even an aristocratic prince off-balance.

  Ahead, huge double doors were open to a set of wide steps that descended to the city. Sunlight blasted Lyre the moment they walked outside, the heat powerful even late in the afternoon.

  With guards in tow, Miysis cut diagonally across the stairs, heading for an arched doorway into another wing of the grounds. He had fallen into a thoughtful silence, so Lyre said nothing as they wound through covered pathways. With each cluster of armored griffin soldiers they passed, Lyre’s nerves wound tighter, but Miysis merely nodded in response to their salutes.

  They eventually came to one of the towers that graced the city skyline. Soldiers guarded the doors but they stepped aside before Miysis reached them. Inside, the building was plainer than anything Lyre had seen yet, but solid, clean, and impeccably cared for.

  “I hope you don’t mind,” Miysis said as they started up a curving staircase. “I haven’t had a chance to get out here in days.”

  “What is this place?” he asked as they passed a few wooden doors.

  “The stable.”

  Lyre glanced around but decided not to ask how horses were supposed to climb all these stairs.

  At the very top, Miysis pushed the last door open. The scents of fresh straw and musky fur wafted out. The prince strode inside, but Lyre stopped dead.

  The top level was indeed a stable, but the creatures it housed had no need for stairs.

  Six open stalls, carpeted in a thick layer of straw, formed a half circle around the center of the tower. On the other side, three huge arched openings revealed a dizzying view of the city and desert beyond.

  Lounging in the stalls were six stunning beasts—lion-like bodies, elegant eagle heads, pointed ears like a cat’s, long tails, and huge wings. Their heads and chests were covered in feathers that transitioned to smooth fur, and more plumage sprouted at their hocks and just above their giant paws. They ranged from snowy white to buttery tan to deep brown, with thick white and black bands on their feathers.

  At Miysis’s appearance, the six creatures stirred. The white one rose languidly and stretched, then prowled over to him and clicked its terrifying beak. The beast’s head was level with the daemon’s and it had to be four or five times his weight, but the prince showed no fear as he ran both hands affectionately over the creature’s feathers before scratching under its chin. The beast closed its eyes contentedly.

  The other five wandered over to receive a greeting. Once Miysis had given them all a head rub and murmured soft words, they drifted back to their cells as nonchalantly as they’d come over. Only the white one remained, waiting for another round of head scratches.

  Miysis glanced over his shoulder. “Would you like to meet him?”

  “What is it?” Lyre asked. It looked like the human-mythology version of a griffin, but since Miysis’s caste was the real griffin form, he didn’t know what to call the creature.

  “He’s an opinari.” The prince rubbed behind one feathered ear. “Rushi here doesn’t mind strangers. Come closer.”

  Lyre didn’t move. “What about the others?”

  “They won’t attack unless I command them.”

  That wasn’t particularly comforting. Reluctantly, Lyre ventured into the room, keeping a watchful eye on the opinaris. The other five were settling down to continue their naps, while Rushi stood patiently in the center.

  Miysis waved Lyre closer, and when he took too long, the griffin grabbed his elbow and dragged him in front of the beast’s hooked beak. It was even larger up close.

  “Rushi, this is an incubus from the Underworld.”

  Rushi canted his head, then extended his beak toward Lyre, huffing a breath as he took in Lyre’s scent. Jaw clenched, he held his ground.

  “I’d tell you his name,” Miysis continued, speaking to the opinari, “but I don’t know it.”

  “Subtle,” Lyre observed.

  Miysis smirked.

  Lyre hesitated, then gave a mental shrug. “Lyre.”

  “Welcome to Aldrendahar, Lyre.”

  “Wait, what? This is Aldrendahar?” He craned his neck to look out the archways and across the city. From this direction, he could see the distant mountains on the horizon. That meant Irida wasn’t that far—though reaching the nymph kingdom would still require a trek across the sweltering desert.

  “Sounds like you’re familiar with the city.”

  “I’ve heard of it,” he admitted, not adding that he’d seen it from a distance. “This isn’t where I came through the ley line with the little princess, is it?”

  “No, that was a different location. Once I was up again, I traveled here immediately and had you brought along so I could speak with you as soon as I had time.” Miysis smiled briefly. “My sister wanted to come—she’s fascinated by you, unsurprisingly—but I sent her home instead.”

  Ah, so the relocation from that other ley line to here would explain why Lyre had been bound, blindfolded, and spelled unconscious early yesterday. After that, he’d woken in the luxury suite.

  “What was the big rush to come here?” he asked.

  “Aldrendahar is our closest stronghold to Irida.”

  Lyre sucked in a silent breath. Miysis looked at him for a long moment, then crossed to a cupboard stacked with leather gear and other tools. He returned with a grooming brush and ran it over Rushi’s furred haunch. Lyre backed up a few steps, breathing easier once he was clear of that beak.

  “I didn’t come up here just to tend to my opinaris,” Miysis murmured as he worked. “Unlike at the citadel, there are no ears to overhear us.”

  That detail hadn’t escaped Lyre’s notice either.

  “I’ll tell you what I know of the embassy attack. I know a power like I’ve never seen before was unleashed against us, and it caused all magic in the building to disappear—everything from wards and locks to weapons to our own magic reserves. Many griffins passed out from shock and weakness.” His hand paused in mid-motion, his grip on the brush tightening. “I know over fifty griffins were slaughtered while helpless or unconscious.”

  Damn. Bastian and his men hadn’t held back.

  “I know they were targeting my sister. They may have targeted me too, if they’d recognized me.” Miysis resumed brushing with smooth, steady strokes. The opinari closed its eyes again. “I know I fought chimeras and nymphs, and that survivors reported seeing chimeras and nymphs as well, including one that the others called ‘prince.’”

  Lyre cringed.

  “That’s everything I know.” Miysis patted Rushi’s wing and the beast unfurled it, holding it out of the way. The
prince began brushing Rushi’s side. “And the only conclusion I can make is that Crown Prince Bastian Nereid of Irida arranged an unprovoked attack on a Ra embassy, killed dozens, and attempted to abduct or assassinate our youngest princess. We are in Aldrendahar so I can prepare my forces to either defend against the next attack or invade Irida.”

  Silently swearing, Lyre wished he’d had the opportunity to beat some sense into that idiot nymph prince. “What do you plan to do?”

  “At this point, I’m waiting, though not for much longer.” Miysis faced Lyre, one hand resting on the opinari’s shoulder. “The Iridian king hasn’t issued a declaration of war or any other communication. My spies in Irida have reported signs of mobilization among the nymph forces, but their movements suggest defense, not offense.”

  Lyre blinked. Huh. So, there were Ra spies in Irida. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised.

  “But the main reason I haven’t acted yet is a mysterious incubus with even more mysterious skills saved me and my sister, and he was accompanied by a female nymph.”

  Miysis abruptly tossed the grooming brush to Lyre. He caught it automatically, then the griffin pulled him to the opinari’s side.

  “Brush him,” Miysis ordered as he returned to the supply cupboard.

  Lyre looked blankly at the brush. Rushi turned his head and clicked his beak expectantly, so Lyre hesitantly placed the brush against the creature. Miysis returned with a fancy comb, took up a spot beside Lyre, and began working on Rushi’s feathered neck.

  “I need to know what the hell is going on, Lyre,” he said quietly. “I need to know before my people are drawn into war.”

  Lyre stroked the brush across the opinari’s silky fur. The Nereid prince was desperate to incite a conflict so he could prove his strength, but despite having already been attacked, the Ra prince was desperately hoping to avoid war. Bastian of Irida could stand to learn a lot from Miysis of Ra.

  “You’ve been more open and honest than I would have expected,” Lyre said. “Are you always this forthcoming with strangers?”

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