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RETURN OF THE PATROL
By the seventh day of constant agony, I wished I hadn't already killed the dwarf who cast this locking curse on me. I wanted the opportunity to kill him again. Slower this time.
Sitting up in bed, I gave my calves a testing flex, and pain shot through them. Holy Queen. I clenched the sheets until the ache subsided, then loosened my hold. They still bloody hurt. But smiling through the pain meant I could escape the bed I'd been chained to for the past week.
Unfortunately, Ulfia had been my recovery nurse long enough to see through the facade. She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her ample bosom, towering over me. "You don't think I know when you're faking it?" she chided.
"And you know I can handle it. I've had a week for the healing process. That's more than enough time."
Ulfia scowled but didn't argue my point. I'd been through much worse than a locking curse before, and keeping me in bed a day longer wasn't going to make a difference. I needed to get up, to move, to practice, to get out of this blasted bed and be useful.
"I will be the one to say whether you are healed or not, princess."
As Ulfia attempted to guide me back onto the pillows, I placed my hands over hers and pushed them off my shoulders.
"I'm in perfect condition, I swear. I could run laps with the recruits until dusk."
"Oh very good, princess, wheeze yourself to death, that'll help us win the war." Ulfia bent over my legs, her soft gray curls falling in curtains over her round face, and started massaging my right calf to find any lasting remnants of the locking curse.
I stared at a spot on the wall, where mineral deposits in the stones had created an interesting pattern that resembled fairy wings, and gritted my teeth while Ulfia probed mercilessly into my muscles. I'd just shifted to watching the dust motes float about lazily in the sunlight when she hit one particular spot that made me hiss out a swear through my teeth.
I truly hated dwarves. And their sneaky curses.
Ulfia looked up, raising an eyebrow, giving me her signature I-told-you-so look. If it were up to her, no Royal would ever see battle again after so much as a bruise.
"The patrol will be at the castle any moment," I said. "I need a report from Kellian before I hit the training fields." It was bad enough I had to miss out on patrol with my partner because the healing Kiss was taking over a week to do its job, but this particular patrol was critical to new intelligence on the enemy. After the eastern kingdom of Raed had reported a horde of goblins casting new curses, the Council sent out an emergency patrol to gather any information about how they could be defeated.
Ulfia gave my calf a small swat. A needling sensation pricked my skin, and I flexed involuntarily, forcing a violent shudder through me. "You'll do no training today," she said. "Did you not hear a word I said, Ivy Myriana? You. Are. Not. Healed. Yet." She tapped my foot with every word.
I opened my mouth to protest again, when a familiar-looking page burst through the door as if he had a witch on his heels.
"Princess Ivy! Your Kiss is needed — the patrol — at the palace gates!"
I stood at once, which was a mistake, because I wobbled and almost fell on Ulfia. Luckily she was a strong old bird and caught me easily by the waist, clucking her tongue in disapproval.
Although she had a tight hold on me, I tried to free myself. "I'm on my way."
"On your way, my fanny," Ulfia snapped. "Come here, boy." She gestured for him to take her place. "The princess is still getting over a locking curse. Be sure you walk with her."
Under Ulfia's glare, the page scurried over to me and tentatively took my waist as I leaned on his shoulder. His face went from white to a ferocious red.
Blue sunlight streamed through stained glass as we made our way down the corridor to the servants' halls, where we'd emerge close to the gates, avoiding the Hall of Ancestors, the grand staircase, and the one-hundred- pound double doors.
I glanced at the page's face again, noting the freckles across his cheeks, not unlike my own, and his name came to me. I'd heard my own page, Bromley, use this boy's name before. "Desren, did they say anything to you? Who needs my Kiss?"
The boy flushed deeper, probably shocked I knew his name. He pushed open the servants' door and helped me through. "I'm afraid I don't know many details, princess. Only that the curse is a bad one. Princess Tulia's Kiss did not work."
At this, I stumbled, and Desren had to tighten his grip to keep me from going down. "What? But Tulia is a pure-blood Royal."
His jaw tightened, but he said nothing.
So. I was their last hope. Tulia may be pure, but she wasn't a direct descendant like me.
Nerves rose in me like a thousand bubbles pressing against the cork of a spirit bottle after shaking. Oh Heavenly Queen, had they been taken by the same curse we'd gone to investigate? Just how powerful was it?
We emerged into the bright sunlight reflecting off the white-and-caramel- colored stones decorating the pathway to the intricately woven iron gates. Beyond those gates, the beautiful Crown City of Myria sprawled out for miles, with shops, homes, and steeples, creating a rolling expanse of stone and thatched roofs — some structures as old as the castle, some as new as the dwarf attack from last week.
The sky was a brilliant blue, with a few wispy clouds slowly moving from east to west, following the wind's journey. The only thing that marred such beauty was a swirl of dark specks in the distance. For a moment, I considered them to be nothing more than a flock of crows chased off by some farmer, but the specks fluttered about, hovering, rather than scattering away in fear.
"Desren, what does that look like to you?" I pointed to the dark specks.
"You mean the crows, princess?"
"No, they're not —" I stopped, swallowing. They were sparrow harpies — birdlike blood scavengers the size of fairies, with dark, leathery wings. Living shadows. They were never seen in the daylight or without some kind of monster horde to follow and feast on the trail of bodies.
"Milady — the patrol." Desren tugged me gently forward, heading for the gates.
I tore my eyes away from the sparrow harpies, making a mental note to mention them to a Master Mage later. Their strange behavior should be investigated.
Just past the gates, the patrol was coming up the slight slope of the castle road. Even from here I could make out the blood and slime that coated my comrades' battle armor. As they approached, scratches and bruises came into view. Their exhausted faces and weary eyes evidence of their journey through the night back to Myria. Back home.
My gaze jumped from prince to princess, searching for my partner's face. Ridding myself of Desren's shoulder, I limped toward them as they passed through the gates.
Tulia and Minnow, pure-blood princesses in the Myrian Royal Legion, saw me and dismounted from their horses. Their partners, Edric and Roland, followed suit.
"Ivy," Tulia started, reaching for my arm, but her fingertips only brushed my sleeve as I pushed into the patrol's scattered, battle-weary ranks. Struggling past the tired horses, road dust caught in my throat and the iron scent of blood stung my nose. My stiff legs screamed at me to slow down. Claws seemed to tear at my muscles, but at this point I wasn't sure if it was the remains of the locking curse or the cold, painful fear of the horrid truth.
I couldn't see him.
No, not another one.
Not another prince. Not another partner.
At last I found Kellian's steed. But his rider was not astride. Instead, the brown stallion pulled a cart carrying a body lying across fresh hay and covered with a dark gray cloak. A legionnaire cloak. Kellian's cloak.
Suppressing a moan, my weak legs gave out, and just before the cobbled road came up to meet me, Roland's arms wrapped around my waist and hauled me up.
After my initial shock, a little relief inched into my shoulders. Kellian was alive, at least. Cursed, yes, but alive. Even if it might take him months to recover, I could still save him. I would not move on to my sixth partner in four years.
"If you're not healed yet," Roland began, his five-day stubble brushing my ear, "you shouldn't try the Kiss."
I understood Roland's warning but would not heed it. I'd performed dozens of Kisses while drained and exhausted, and not one had been weaker for it. The magic within my Kiss was impossibly strong, despite the traces of some stupid curse.
My hand tightened around his arm. His leather guards were coated in dirt. "I'm healed enough." I gently pushed his arm away and faced the immobile figure on the cart. With a quick prayer, I pulled the cloak from Kellian's face. His brown hair was caked with dried blood, but his face had been cleaned — probably by Tulia or Minnow — showcasing his high cheekbones and sun-kissed skin. He was only two years younger than me, but lying there, seemingly asleep, he had the look of a child. At just fifteen, he was the purest prince in Myria, the only one with enough Royal Magic to match my own.
"How did it happen?" I asked, straightening and waving my hand over his face. Cold radiated from his skin. Definitely a curse of extreme magnitude.
"We were ambushed by the horde of goblins. It was just like the scouts from Raed had said — they came at us with magic we'd never seen before." Minnow's voice, usually so light, much like her soft, petite appearance, was low and trembling. "We barely had time to administer battle Kisses to any of the princes."
"Is that why —"
"No," Minnow said quickly. "I gave one to both Kellian and Roland. Your prince was protected, although ... my magic is not as strong as yours."
Because I knew I'd have to miss patrol thanks to the Kiss's healing time for the locking curse, I'd asked Minnow to stay by my partner. If I couldn't be there, a pure-blood princess was the best the Legion could offer. Minnow was strong and capable, but if I'd been there, if Kellian had used my Kiss instead, he'd be exhausted now, but awake. Not only because Kisses by one's ordained partner were stronger by the Holy Queen's blessing, but because my Kisses were the best. But due to our dwindling numbers, every able Royal was needed on patrol, regardless of having their partner with them. As King Randalph had reminded me when I'd requested Kellian be removed from patrol while I was out, there were other princesses perfectly able to bestow a Kiss — and any Royal's Kiss was better than no Kiss.
Not this time, King Randalph.
"So ..." I glanced at Minnow and Roland. "It was this new curse? What was it like?"
"I can show you." Minnow held out two fingers and extended them toward my forehead.
I almost backed away. I didn't want Minnow's memories to become my own and join the rest of my nightmares in which my partners fell with lifeless eyes and blood trickling from their lips. But I had to see this mysterious new curse. I had to find out what my Kiss was up against.
I nodded and closed my eyes. Minnow touched her fingers to my forehead and whispered the words of shared memories. "Don'na illye min'na."
My mind fogged, and a forest shimmered into existence, shapes and blurs all hazy in the edges of Minnow's memories. But the thing she meant for me to see was mind-numbingly clear: Kellian, his body glowing with the cobalt flames of battle magic, engaged in a fight with a goblin. Kellian swung his sword, slashing the goblin's face and tearing through its eye, leaving a crude, bloody gash. With a shriek and garbled words, the goblin began to cast a curse. Just as he let the curse fly — vibrant emerald lightning crackling through the goblin's long spindly fingers — Kellian stabbed the goblin in the chest. The goblin dissolved into smoke, the ground alight with green flames. Its curse clung to Kellian's sword and crawled over the metal, reaching the hilt. The green lightning danced over his hands and up his arms, then took over his entire body, shaking him like a puppet. The blue battle magic that had encased Kellian flickered and died as he crashed to the ground.
I reeled back from Minnow's fingertips. Such power ... a curse that existed even after a monster's death? I leaned over my prince, feeling the cold roll off him in waves. Time was running out.
I was his only hope. The blood of the great Queen Myriana was his only hope. Blood that ran through my veins. My only hope. I will not lose another partner to the Forces of Darkness. I cannot endure that shame again. That pain ...
I bent closer, my lips hovering over his.
I'll save you, my friend.
With a quick prayer to my ancestor, the living goddess, the first Queen — O Holy Queen, lend me your strength — I prepared the strongest spell words in my arsenal for this revival Kiss.
The words reverberated in my mind as I pressed my lips to his. Even in his comatose state, the Royal magic within Kellian surged forward and reacted with my own. Like flint striking steel, the two sparks created a flame that fed into the spell words. Magic drained out of me, into Kellian, and I nearly collapsed. Lightheaded, I held myself up on the cart long enough to watch silver dust wash over Kellian ... then disappear like mist after a hard rain.
I stared in disbelief at Kellian's unmoving body, barely hearing the shocked whispers behind me.
My Kiss had failed.
IGNORING THE PAIN
I crumpled, my back sliding down the wall of the cart and my tunic snagging on splinters. Almost as soon as my legs touched the cobbled stone road, Roland had me back up.
His hands gripped my arms tight enough to pull me from my shock. "I'm fine," I said quickly, refusing to meet his gaze. "My legs are still a little stiff, that's all." I cleared my throat. "I need someone to give me a full report on the patrol and this new curse. And then — "
With callused fingers, Roland tilted my chin upward, forcing me to look into his dark eyes and equally dark face. "Go rest, Ivy. We'll take care of him."
Take care of him. As in, bring him to the Curse Ward to sleep away his days until his body aged and turned to dust.
Turning away from Roland, I searched Kellian's face, neck, and arms for the slightest twitch to show my Kiss was working. Finally, my gaze landed on the back of his hand. The Mark of Myriana — my mark — an ornate crest of holly and ivy curled together in a crown, wrapped around the back of his hand and traveled up his wrist to the base of his palm. The mark appeared burned and smoky — no longer sharp, clear lines as it had once been.
Kellian's mark resided on the back of my own hand. The crest of the Royal House of Elhein was a mountain lion's claw with two swords crossed. It now looked faded and worn, too.
I grabbed his hand, covering the mark, and squeezed it. No response. "Please wake up, Kellian," I murmured.
"What?" Roland asked.
I released Kellian's hand. "Like I said, I'll need a full report on this new dark magic." Remembering Minnow's memories with the mysterious green lightning, my frantic mind jumped from one thought to the next. If I had been there, would I have been able to administer a Kiss to Kellian that could've defeated this curse? Minnow was not his partner, she didn't bear his mark like I did, and therefore could not give him counter-curse Kisses — only simple ones like battle magic Kisses or healing Kisses. Was that it, then? Was I just too late, or was this curse simply too powerful even for the great Myriana's magic? The thought made my gut twist.
"And you'll get that report," Minnow said, reaching for my hands with her usual gentleness, "but not until after you rest."
I almost didn't let her touch me, didn't want anyone to try to console me when I needed no consolation — only an explanation.
But seeing my battle-weary and exhausted comrades, I knew now was not the time. Here they were, worrying about me, when they were the ones who needed sleep.
So I let Minnow take my arm. The image of Kellian's body shaking with green lightning played over and over in my head as we trailed behind the patrol into the Hall of Ancestors. The sound of everyone's reverberating footsteps and muted chatter snapped me out of my trance.
Excerpted from "Kiss of the Royal"
Copyright © 2018 Lindsey Duga.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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