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MAGNUS – LIMEROS
“All women are deceptive, dangerous creatures. Trust one, and you’ll regret it.”
The advice Magnus’s father once gave him echoed in his memory as he stood on the Ravencrest docks and watched the Kraeshian ship disappear into the darkness. The King of Blood had never fully trusted a woman. Not his queen, not his former mistress and advisor, not even an immortal who whispered secrets to him in his dreams. Magnus usually ignored most of what his ruthless father said, but now he knew who was the most dangerous and deceptive of all.
Amara Cortas had stolen the Kindred, an aquamarine orb which contained the essence of water magic, leaving blood and destruction in her wake.
The driving snow bit into his skin, helping to numb the pain of his broken arm. Dawn was still hours off and the night was frigid enough to steal his life if he was careless.
Still, he found it impossible to do anything but stare out at the black waters and the stolen treasure that was supposed to be his.
“Now what?” Cleo’s voice finally interrupted his dark thoughts.
For a moment, he’d forgotten that he wasn’t alone.
“Now what, princess?” he hissed, frozen clouds forming before his mouth with each word he spoke. “Well, I suppose we should enjoy the short time we have left before my father’s men arrive to execute us on sight.”
The penalty for treason was death, even for the heir to the throne. And he had, most certainly, committed treason when he helped the princess currently standing behind him escape execution.
Next it was Nic’s voice that sliced through the cold night. “I have a suggestion, your highness,” he said. “If you’re finished inspecting the water for clues, why don’t you jump in and swim after that murderous bitch’s ship?”
As usual, Cleo’s favorite minion spoke to Magnus with unvarnished contempt. “If I thought I could catch her, I would,” he replied with matching venom.
“We’ll get the water Kindred back,” Cleo said. “And Amara will pay for what she’s done.”
“I’m not sure I share your confidence,” Magnus said. Finally, he glanced at her over his shoulder: Princess Cleiona Bellos, her familiar beauty lit only by the moon and a few lanterns set along the docks.
He had yet to think of her as a Damora. She had once asked to keep her family name, as she was the last in her line, and he’d agreed. The king had chastised him for allowing her, a princess forced into an arranged marriage to help make the conquering royals more palatable to the conquered kingdom and hopefully stifle an immediate rebellion amongst the Auranian people, any liberties at all.
Despite the fur-lined cloak that she’d pulled over her head to shield her long golden hair from the snow, Cleo shivered. Her face was pale and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
She hadn’t complained about the cold, not once on their swift journey from the Temple of Valoria to the city. They’d barely exchanged a single word until now.
Then again, far too many words had been exchanged between them the previous night, before chaos had descended.
“Give me one good reason why you wouldn’t let Cronus kill me,” she’d demanded, when she’d finally cornered him, alone, at Lady Sophia’s villa.
And instead of continuing to ignore or deny what he’d done—slaying the guard who’d been given the king’s command to end the imprisoned princess’s life—he’d given her an answer, the words tearing painfully from his throat as if he had no control over them.
“You are the only light I can see anymore,” he’d whispered. “And, whatever the cost, I refuse to let that light be extinguished.”
Magnus knew he’d given Cleo far too much power over him in that moment. He felt that weakness now—compounded by everything that had happened the night before, beginning with the earth-shattering kiss that had followed his foolish confession of her growing importance to him.
Thankfully that kiss had been interrupted before he’d lost himself completely.
“Magnus? Are you all right?” Cleo touched his arm, but he stiffened and pulled away from her, as if he’d been burned. Confusion fought with concern in her blue-green eyes.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“But your arm—”
“I’m fine,” he repeated, more firmly.
She pressed her lips together, her gaze hardening. “Good.”
“We need a plan,” Nic snapped. “And we need one now before we freeze to death out here.”
His tone tore Magnus’s attention away from the princess and straight to the red-headed, freckle-faced boy who’d always seemed weak and useless…at least until tonight.
“You want a plan?” Magnus growled. “Here’s my plan. Take your precious princess and leave. Board a ship for Auranos. Hike down to Paelsia. I don’t care. I’ll tell my father you’re both dead. The only way you’ll remain alive and well is if you go into exile.”
Nic’s eyes flashed with surprise, as if this was the last thing he’d expected Magnus to say. “You mean it? We can go?”
“Yes, go.” It was the best decision for everyone. Cleo had become a dangerous distraction and Nic was at best an annoyance and, at worst, a threat. “That is an order.”
He looked up at Cleo, expecting to see relief in the princess’s eyes.
Instead, all he saw was outrage.
“An order, is it?” she hissed. “I’m sure it would make things much easier for you if we weren’t around, yes? Much easier to find your sorceress sister and get your hands on the remaining crystals.”
The reminder of Lucia, who had eloped to Limeros with Alexius, her Watcher tutor, was an unexpected blow. There had been blood on the floor when they’d arrived at the temple—and it could have very well been Lucia’s.
She has to be alive. He refused to think any other way. She was alive, and when he found her he was going to kill Alexius.
“Think whatever you like, princess,” he said, returning to the more immediate issue. Of course he wanted the Kindred for himself. Did she expect he’d want to share it with the girl who, since nearly the moment they met, has been waiting for any opportunity to reclaim her throne? The Kindred would give her the power to claim not just Auranos, but any other throne she wanted.
He needed that power in his hands—no one else’s—and then finally he would have absolute control over his life and his future with no one to fear and no one to answer to.
Not even whatever it was that had happened between them earlier could change that. They were two people on opposite sides who both wanted the same thing, but only one could succeed. He wouldn’t give up everything he’d ever wanted—not for anyone.
A flush of color had returned to the princess’s cheeks, and her eyes flashed with frustration. “I’m not going anywhere. You and I will go to the palace together. And we will search for Lucia together. And when your father comes for us, we will face his wrath together.”
He glared down at the angry princess. She stared back up at him, without intimidation. Her shoulders back, her chin up, she was a burning torch in the middle of the cold, endless night.
How he wished he was strong enough to hate her.
“Very well,” he said through clenched teeth. “But remember, this decision was yours alone.”
The carriage reached the Limerian palace grounds and passed through the guarded checkpoint shortly after the sun had risen. Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Silver Sea, the black castle was in stark contrast to its pristinely white surroundings. Its obsidian towers rose up into the morning sky like the claws of a dark and powerful god.
Many found this to be an intimidating sight, but to Magnus, it was home. An odd flutter of nostalgia rushed through him; memories of simpler times, of riding and swordsmanship classes with the sons of local nobles. Of roaming the grounds with Lucia at his side, a book always in her hands. Of the queen, venturing outside wrapped in furs to welcome important guests arriving for a banquet. Of his father returning with the fruits of a successful hunt, greeting his young son with a rare smile.
Everywhere he looked, there were ghosts of the past.
He exited the carriage and walked up the dozens of steps leading to the tall and heavy main doors, their ebony surface emblazoned with the Limerian cobra signet and the credo “Strength, Faith, Wisdom.” He could hear Cleo and Nic whisper conspiratorially to each other as they trailed behind him.
He’d given them ample chance to leave and face no consequences, and instead they had chosen to come here with him. They had only themselves to blame for whatever happened next.
Two guards stood before the entry doors, dressed in the stiff, red Limerian guard’s uniforms with heavy black cloaks to help block out the cold. Magnus knew he needed no introduction.The guards bowed in unison.
“Your highness!” exclaimed one, before casting a look of surprise at Cleo and Nic. “Highnesses,” he clarified. “Are you well?”
With an awkwardly held broken arm, a bruised and bloodied face, and an overall disheveled appearance, Magnus wasn’t surprised the guard had taken notice of this. “Well enough,” he said. “Open the doors.”
He didn’t need to explain to a lowly guard why he had unexpectedly arrived in such a state. This was his home, and he had every right to be there whenever he wished, especially after barely escaping death at the hands of Amara’s henchmen.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the looming possibility that a message demanding his arrest had been sent to the castle by raven. But when the guards opened the doors without any argument, he let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He took a moment to compose himself as he entered the grand foyer, sweeping his gaze around and settling on the spiral stairway chiseled into the stone walls, as if checking for flaws. “Who is in command here with Lord Gareth still in Auranos? I assume he hasn’t yet returned from his daughter’s wedding celebration.”
“Lord Gareth isn’t expected to return for several weeks. In his absence, Lord Kurtis was appointed grand kingsliege.”
Magnus found he did not have an immediate reply, and that perhaps he’d misheard the guard. “Lord Kurtis Cirillo has been appointed grand kingsliege?” he said after a moment.
“Yes, your highness.”
Kurtis Cirillo, Lord Gareth’s eldest son, was currently in charge of Limeros. This came as a great surprise, as Magnus had heard a rumor several months ago that Kurtis had drowned while traveling abroad.
He was disappointed to learn that that rumor had now been proven false.
“I met you during my last visit here,” Cleo said to the guard as she pushed back the hood of her cloak. “Enzo, isn’t it?”
“That’s right.” The guard eyed with distress her ripped cloak and the dried blood staining her blond hair. “Your highness, do you need me to summon the palace physician?”
She absently touched the small but angry wound on her forehead, given to her by one of Amara’s guards. “No, that’s not necessary. Thank you.” She smiled, brightening her features. “You’re very kind. I remember that from last time.”
Enzo’s face quickly turned as red as his uniform. “You make it very easy to be kind, your grace.”
Magnus fought the urge to roll his eyes. It seemed that the princess had captured another hapless fly in her web.
“Enzo,” he said, voice low and commanding. The guard’s gaze immediately snapped to his. “Have Lord Kurtis meet me in the throne room immediately.”
Another bow. “Yes, your highness.” He scurried away without another word.
“Come,” Magnus said to Cleo and Nic, then turned on his boot heels and followed the familiar route through the castle to his destination.
“Come,” Nic sneered. “He orders us about like we’re trained dogs.”
“I’m not sure the prince was ever taught the polite way to speak to people,” Cleo replied.
“And yet,” Magnus said, “you’re still following me, aren’t you?”
“For now. But you should remember that charm opens far more doors than harsh words do.”
“And a sharp ax will open every door.”
The entrance to the throne room was also stationed with several guards who bowed at the sight of Magnus. No ax was required as they pushed open the doors so quickly that he didn’t even have to slow down.
Once inside, he scanned the cavernous room. His father’s black throne of iron and leather sat at the top of a dais on one end, a long wooden table and chairs for council meetings at the other. The walls were draped in Limerian tapestries and banners, and several torches peppered the molding, bringing some light to the corners of the room where the sun shining through the large windows didn’t reach.
The throne room was host to many official gatherings. It was where the king would grant audience to Limerian citizens and their various requests for financial assistance or justice against wrongdoings. It was where he would sentence prisoners for their crimes and perform ceremonies during which both the worthy and unworthy were given official titles such as “Grand Kingsliege.”
From the corner of his eye, Magnus noticed that Cleo had moved closer to him.
“You’re already acquainted with Lord Kurtis,” Cleo said. “Aren’t you?”
Magnus kept his gaze fixed on the throne. “I am.”
“And you don’t like him.”
“I don’t like anyone, princess.”
They fell into silence as Magnus considered how best to handle the complicated mess his life had become. He felt backed into a corner; injured, weaponless, and far too vulnerable. His broken arm throbbed, but instead of ignoring the pain he focused on it, to help clear his mind of the constant buzz of confusion and chaos. It had been six years since he’d last seen Kurtis Cirillo, yet he remembered it as clearly as if it had been yesterday.
The sun had shone bright and warm that day, the snow had melted so much that ice lilies pushed up through the frosty ground. A rare summer butterfly, its golden wings speckled with blue and purple dots, came to rest on one of these flowers in the garden near the cliff’s edge. In Limeros, it’s said to be good luck to see a summer butterfly, for they only lived a single day.
Magnus reached toward it and, to his amazement, it climbed onto his right knuckle, tickling his skin. It was so beautiful up close that it almost seemed magical.
“Is that a butterfly?”
A shiver zipped down his spine at the sound of Kurtis’s cold voice. Kurtis was fourteen years of age to his twelve, and the king insisted that Magnus be friendly with him during Lord Gareth’s visits. It was difficult to be friendly with the horrible boy since being within ten paces of him made Magnus’s skin crawl.
“Yes,” Magnus replied reluctantly.
Kurtis came closer. He was a full head taller than Magnus. “You should kill it.”
Magnus frowned. “What?”
“Anything stupid enough to just sit there on your pale little hand deserves to die. Kill it.”
“You’re heir to the throne. You’re going to have to grow up some day, you know. You’re going to have to kill people and not cry about it afterward. Your father would crush that thing in a second. So would I. Don’t be so weak.”
Magnus already knew that Kurtis liked to hurt animals. During his last visit, Kurtis had butchered a stray cat and left its twitching remains in a corridor where he knew Lucia would happen upon them. She’d cried for days.
“I’m not weak!” Magnus said through gritted teeth.
Kurtis grinned. “Let’s put it to the test, then. Either you kill that thing right now, before it flies away, or I promise, the next time I’m here…” He leaned in close enough to whisper. “I’ll chop off your sister’s little finger.”
Magnus stared at him, horrified. “I’ll tell my father you said that. You’ll never be allowed here again.”
“Go ahead and tell him. I’ll just deny it. Who’ll believe you?” He laughed. “Now choose. That butterfly, or your sister’s finger. I’ll cut really slowly, and tell her you told me to do it.”
He wanted to call Kurtis’s bluff, but the memory of that cat forced his throat closed.
Magnus knew he had no choice. He clasped his left hand down on the right, feeling the tender collapse of the soft wings as he crushed the beautiful, peaceful creature.
Kurtis smirked. “Oh, Magnus. Don’t you know it’s bad luck to kill a summer butterfly?”
“Prince Magnus, you look as if you’ve just returned from a war.” Once again, Kirkus’s voice wrenched Magnus out of the horrible memory.
Quickly, Magnus composed himself, setting a pleasant enough look on his face as he turned around. Kurtis was still incredibly tall—even taller than Magnus by an inch or two. His reddish-brown hair, muddy-green eyes, and pointed features had always reminded Magnus of a weasel.
“Not a war, precisely. But the past several days have been challenging.”
“I can tell. Your arm—”
“I’ll have it tended to very soon, once I get a bit of business out of the way. I’m so pleased to see you’re well, Kurtis. I’d heard a horrible rumor that you weren’t.”
Kurtis smiled that familiar, greasy smile of his and waved his hand dismissively. “Ah, yes, the rumors of my death. I sent along that preposterous story as a hoax to a gullible friend, and he spread the word very quickly. But as you can see, I’m very much alive and well.” Kurtis’s curious gaze shifted to Cleo standing next to Magnus, and then Nic, who had remained near the door next to three guards.
Clearly, he awaited introductions.
Magnus chose to play along for now. “Princess Cleiona Bellos, this is Lord Kurtis Cirillo, Grand Kingsliege of Limeros.”
Cleo nodded as Kurtis took her hand and kissed it. “It’s an honor to meet you,” she said.
“The honor is mine,” answered Kurtis. “I’ve been told of your beauty, but you’ve far exceeded my greatest expectations.”
“You’re much too kind, given the way I must look this morning.”
“Not at all. You are luminous. But you must assure me you’re not in any pain.”
Her smile remained. “I’m not.”
“I’m very glad to hear that.”
Every muscle in Magnus’s body had grown tense at the sound of the “kingsliege’s” voice. “And this is Nicolo Cassian, who is the princess’s…” How best to explain the boy’s identity and presence here? “…attendant.”
Kurtis’s brows shot up. “A male attendant? How unusual.”
“Not in the south.” To Nic’s credit, he took the introduction in stride. “It’s fine, upstanding, manly work down there.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Magnus had had enough forced pleasantries. It was time to move this along.
“I suppose you wonder why my wife and I are here, in Limeros, and not with my father in Auranos,” Magnus said. “Or have you been alerted about our current situation?”
“I have not. This is an unexpected, but very welcome, surprise.”
Some of the tension in Magnus’s shoulders eased. “Then I’ll let you in on a closely guarded secret: We’re in Limeros to search for my sister, who has eloped with her tutor. We need to stop her from making this mistake…and any further ones.”
“Oh, my.” Kurtis clasped his hands behind his back. “Lucia has always been full of surprises, hasn’t she?”
You have no idea, Magnus thought. “She has indeed.”
Nodding, Kurtis ascended the stairs leading to the king’s throne and took a seat upon it. Magnus watched him with sheer disbelief, but decided to hold his tongue.
“I will make a dozen guards available to you for this important search,” Kurtis said. He then addressed one of the guards at the entrance. “Organize this immediately and return here.”
The guard bowed. “Yes, your grace.”
Magnus watched the guard leave. “They obey your orders with much ease.”
“They do. It’s all in their training. Limerian guards will take any official order and fulfill it to the letter at once.”
Magnus nodded. “My father wouldn’t have it any other way. Those who show any sign of defiance are…disciplined.” It was a rather light word for the punishments Magnus had seen inflicted on palace guards who didn’t give themselves over—body, mind, and soul—to their duties to the kingdom.
“As they should be,” said Kurtis. “Now, I will arrange accommodations for you, your beautiful wife, and her attendant.”
“Yes. I will take my regular chambers. The princess will need separate chambers befitting her position. And Nic can be given…” He eyed the boy, “…servants’ quarters. Perhaps one of the slightly larger rooms.”
“You’re too kind,” Nic said darkly.
“Separate chambers for husband and wife?” Kurtis said, frowning.
“That is what I said,” Magnus said, a moment before it occurred to him that this might seem a strange request for husband and wife.
“Magnus is kind enough to ask this on my behalf,” Cleo spoke up to ease Kurtis’s confusion. “It’s a long-standing tradition in my family to retain separate chambers for the first year of marriage, both for luck, and also to make our time spent together all the more…exciting and unpredictable.”
She blushed and cast her gaze downward, as if embarrassed by the admission. “It’s a silly tradition, I know.”
“Not at all,” Magnus said, impressed by the princess’s ready lie.
Kurtis nodded, seemingly satisfied by this explanation. “Very well. I’ll ensure that you’re given exactly what you require.”
“Good.” Magnus returned his attention to the “kingsliege.” “I also need to send some men to the Temple of Valoria immediately. There was a violent, isolated ice storm there last night that killed many. The victims should be buried by midday and the temple restored to its former glory as quickly as possible.”
According to Limerian religious customs, the bodies of the dead must be buried in earth sprinkled with water blessed by a priest within twelve hours of death.
He couldn’t help but glance then at Nic, whose expression had grown pained at the mention of the bodies at the temple. One of those bodies had been that of Prince Ashur—Amara’s brother. Nic and the prince had become close friends before his murder at his devious sister’s hands.
“An ice storm?” The Kurtis’s brow was now raised to its highest. “No wonder you all look so troubled. I’m very grateful to the goddess that you and your wife were spared. You must need rest after enduring such an experience.”
“Rest can wait.”
“Very well.” Kurtis gripped the arms of the throne. “How long do you anticipate we’ll have the honor of your presence before you return to Auranos?”
A dozen guards entered the throne room, momentarily stealing Magnus’s attention. No matter how duty-bound and driven to please Limerian guards were, twelve weren’t nearly enough to make up a search team for his sister.
“I don’t intend to return to Auranos,” Magnus said, turning back to Kurtis.
Kurtis cocked his head. “I don’t quite follow you.”
“This is my home, my palace, my kingdom. And in the absence of my father, that throne upon which you’ve seated yourself is rightfully mine.”
Kurtis stared at him for a moment before a smile split his lips. “I completely understand. However, the king himself appointed me to this throne for the time being. I have undertaken these duties gladly—and successfully—in his and my father’s absence. The council’s grown quite accustomed to following my lead.”
“Then they’ll have to get accustomed to following my lead now that I’m here.”
Kurtis’s smile slipped. He pressed back into the throne, but didn’t make a move to stand. “Magnus—”
“It’s Prince Magnus. Or your highness,” he corrected. Even from the bottom of the stairs, Magnus could see the flicker of anger behind Kurtis’s green eyes.
“My apologies, Prince Magnus, but without any prior notice from King Gaius, I will have to protest such a sudden change. Perhaps you should—”
“Guards,” Magnus said, without turning around. “I understand you’ve been taking Lord Kurtis’s orders in recent weeks, as very well you should have been. But I am your prince, the heir to my father’s throne, and now that I’m here you’re at my command alone.” His gaze was hard as he stared into the eyes he’d loathed since boyhood. “The grand kingsliege has insulted me with his protests. Remove him from my throne and cut his throat on my order.”
The hot outrage in Kurtis’s countenance quickly turned to cold fear as the guards approached, four of them moving swiftly up the stairs before he could make a single move. They wrenched him from the throne and dragged him down the stairs, where they forced him to his knees. Magnus took his place on top of the dais.
This cold, hard, unforgiving throne held many memories for Magnus, but he had never sat on it before today.
It was far more comfortable than he’d ever expected.
The troop of red-uniformed guards stood before him, all looking up at him without question or concern. Cleo clutched Nic’s arm, her face pale and her expression uncertain.
Kneeling before Magnus was Kurtis, his eyes wild, face sweaty, and the edge of a guard’s sword now at his throat.
“Your highness,” he sputtered. “Any trespass you feel I’ve made against you was not my intention.”
“That may be so.” Magnus leaned forward and considered him for a long moment. “Beg me to spare your life and perhaps I’ll only cut off your little finger.”
First confusion, then understanding, flickered in Kurtis’s eyes.
That’s right, Magnus thought. It’s different between us now, isn’t it?
“Please,” Kurtis hissed. “Please, your highness, spare my life. I beg you. Please, I’ll do anything to prove my worth and earn your forgiveness for having insulted you.”
A rush of sheer power flowed over and within Magnus. He smiled, a genuine one, at the sniveling weasel.
“Say ‘please’ one more time.” When there was no immediate reply, Magnus nodded at the guard, who pressed his sword even closer against Kurtis’s pale throat, drawing a thin trickle of blood.
“Pleasssse,” Kurtis managed.
Magnus flicked his hand and the guard removed and sheathed his blade. “See? Don’t you feel better now?”
Kurtis heaved and trembled. Perhaps, unlike Magnus, he’d never before been physically reprimanded for his missteps.
He bowed his head. “Thank you, your highness. I am at your service.”
“Happy to hear,” said Magnus. “Now, I need a message sent to my father immediately. I want him to know what I’m up to here in the north. Wouldn’t want him worrying about me.”
“Of course not, your highness.”
“Be a good grand kingsliege and fetch me some ink and parchment, would you?”
Kurtis’s expression darkened a shade, but he quickly composed himself. “Yes, your highness.”
Magnus noticed Cleo watching as Kurtis left the room, but she said nothing and neither did Nic. When her gaze returned to Magnus, he saw nothing but accusation in her eyes. Perhaps she didn’t agree with the way Magnus reduced that young man into a cowering peon for what may have seemed, to her, like a minor transgression.
Yes, princess, Magnus thought. I am the son of Gaius Damora, the King of Blood. And it’s time I started acting like it.