The Fiery Crown
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WILL THEIR LOVE STAND THE TEST OF TIME
Queen Euthalia has reigned over her island kingdom of Calanthe with determination, grace, and her magical, undying orchid ring. After she defied an empire to wed Conrí, the former Crown Prince of Oriel—a man of disgraced origins with vengeance in his heart—Lia expected the wizard's prophecy to come true: Claim the hand that wears the ring and the empire falls. But Lia's dangerous bid to save her realm doesn't lead to immediate victory. Instead, destiny hurls her and Conrí towards a future neither could predict . . .
OR TEAR THEIR WHOLE WORLD APART?
Con has never healed after the death of his family and destruction of his kingdom—he's been carefully plotting his revenge against his greatest enemy, Emperor Anure, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. When Lia's spies gather intelligence suggesting that Anure is planning an attack against Calanthe, Con faces an agonizing choice: Can he sacrifice Lia and all she holds dear to destroy the empire? Or does his true loyalty exist in the arms of his beguiling, passionate wife—'til death do they part?
Release date: May 26, 2020
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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The Fiery Crown
“Good morning, Conrí! I must congratulate myself—how did I know I’d find you here?”
I glanced at the wizard, not revealing that he’d surprised me and not bothering to return the empty pleasantries. I hadn’t asked him to find me. In fact, I’d come to the portrait gallery to be alone—not easy in the crowded and convivial court of Calanthe. “I don’t know, Ambrose. Probably one of the many dark arts you practice.”
Ambrose, cheerfully undaunted, shook his head with a smile. He’d decorated his light-brown curls with a garland of flowers in the Calanthean style, and he wore a deep-blue robe lavishly embroidered with glittering silver moons floating in a field of stars in pinprick jewels of every color imaginable. Even his familiar, Merle, a very large raven, sported a silver chain about his neck studded with small jewels that winked even in the dim light from the glass-paned, narrow slits of windows. The raven, perched on the enormous emerald stone topping the wizard’s staff, cocked his head at me and opened his beak in a croak that could be interpreted as a laugh.
“Ah, Conrí, I wouldn’t waste my prodigious magical talents on locating you when simple logic tells me you’d be lurking here in the shadows while Her Highness holds formal court.”
“Shouldn’t you be lurking in your tower, muttering spells over boiling cauldrons?”
Ambrose laughed. “You really know nothing at all of how wizardry and magic work.”
I only grunted, returning my gaze to studying the portrait above me. It was too much to hope that Ambrose would go away, but maybe if I ignored him he’d get bored of poking at me and spit out whatever he wanted to say and then get gone.
But no, he stepped up beside me, keeping his counsel for the moment, and gazed up also. The ornately framed portrait of Oriel’s last, doomed ruling family dominated this section of wall. That wasn’t just me, either. Anyone would be drawn to the portrait for its size and artistic execution, attracting the eye even among the many paintings that had been crowded into the gallery. The long arcade held hundreds, maybe thousands of drawings, etchings, and paintings. They hung shoulder-to-shoulder, like warriors out of history marching in frozen formation, relics of kingdoms scattered to ash.
Lia—and her father before her—had collected these works of art, smuggled out of the many forgotten empires and kingdoms, saving them from the self-styled Emperor Anure’s destruction and greed, bringing them to the island kingdom of Calanthe, to hang quietly in the shadows. It made sense, on one level, to keep the paintings in the dark, preserving them from the tropical sunlight, but a morbid part of me couldn’t help comparing the place to a tomb.
Of course, a tomb was the right location for interring this portrait among the others, along with the dead people it portrayed. My father, as broad-chested and vital as he’d been in my boyhood, stood behind my seated mother, both wearing the crowns of Oriel. He had one big hand braced on the back of her chair, the other on my shoulder. Or rather, on the boy prince of Oriel, a child who’d effectively died along with the rest of his family. That kid grinned with cocky confidence and the innocent joy of a stranger. Nothing at all like the man who looked back at me from Calanthe’s thousands of shining and unflinching mirrors.
I’d visited the painting enough times now that I could make myself look at my mother’s face, her light-brown eyes holding laughter and warmth. The painter had been the best for several kingdoms around—and she’d exactly captured my mother’s keen intelligence, her lips curved in a smile as if she might burst out laughing at any moment. My sister and I had inherited her black hair and tawny eyes, not our father’s bold blond, blue-eyed looks.
My sister … I hadn’t yet been able to make myself look at her face.
I tried. I visited the portrait several times a day as a kind of penance, and to test my will. It was the least I could do, when I’d survived and they’d all been consigned to unmarked graves, my mother and sister moldering when they should’ve been cleanly burnt to ash. My sister stood between my father and mother, so I should be able to slide my gaze over a few inches from my mother’s face … but my will collapsed, the sick grief grabbing me, and I had to look away, taking a deep breath.
“There’s no bringing back the dead,” Ambrose said philosophically, though with a note of compassion in his voice. “Not those who’ve been dead a long time, anyway. It almost never works out well. I could tell you about—”
“Did I ask?” I retorted.
“I just thought I should mention,” he replied reproachfully, more of his usual bite to it. “Since you seem to have such a high opinion of my wizardry. In case your brooding and obsessive study of this painting led your thoughts in that direction.”
I set my teeth, resisting the urge to grind them. “I’m not brooding or obsessive. This is a good place to think. Normally no one bothers me here.” If I had to kick my heels in this oppressively cheerful paradise, growing softer with each wasted moment, I could at least contemplate next steps, anticipate Anure’s strategy to take his own revenge on Calanthe and her queen. “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”
“You could attend court, as consort to Her Highness,” Ambrose pointed out blandly, and I suppressed a growl of frustration. At least my throat hurt less, since Healer Jeaneth had been treating me—one positive of having time on my hands. My voice still sounded like a choked dog most of the time, however.
“Court.” I snarled the word. “I don’t get how Lia can waste time on diplomacy and posturing when she promised to discuss defense.”
“She does have a realm to govern.”
“She won’t if Anure arrives to destroy it while she drags her feet. The woman is uncommonly stubborn.”
“A perfect match for you.” Ambrose narrowed his eyes at my clenched fists. “Isn’t she gathering intelligence from her spies?”
I didn’t answer that. That’s what we waited on, theoretically, but I knew there were things Lia was avoiding telling me. I also suspected that she hoped it would all just go away. Both of us knew that Calanthe couldn’t withstand a full-out, devastating attack. When nothing happened immediately after our wedding, it seemed that Lia began to hope that nothing ever would.
I knew better. The painting helped remind me of all the dead waiting to be avenged—and what happened to those who fell before Anure’s might.
Unfortunately, I was at a loss to find a way out of our current predicament.
If Anure was smart—and the Imperial Tyrant might be greedy, arrogant, ruthless, and devoid of redeeming human qualities, but he wasn’t stupid—he’d simply surround the island with battleships loaded with explosive vurgsten and bombard Calanthe until nothing remained. He wouldn’t care about salvaging anything; he never had. Even with the ships I’d captured and Calanthe’s fleets of pleasure skiffs and fishing boats, we didn’t have anywhere close to the numbers to effectively surround and defeat Anure’s navy. Besides, our own supplies of vurgsten had to be vanishingly small compared with what the emperor would have stockpiled over nearly two decades at his citadel at Yekpehr.
We had to deploy our few strengths with strategic care, and being trapped on an island while the Imperial Toad scoured us off it with superior force wouldn’t allow for that. Not only wasn’t I closer to destroying Anure and taking my final revenge, I’d put myself and my forces in an even more tenuous position than before. I’d followed Ambrose’s prophecy, and taken the tower at Keiost.
Take the Tower of the Sun,
Claim the hand that wears the Abiding Ring,
And the empire falls.
Claiming the hand that wears the Abiding Ring? I only wish it had been as simple as conquering an impregnable ancient city. Instead I’d had to find a way to convince Queen Euthalia of Calanthe to marry me. Against all probability, I’d succeeded. We were duly wed, though saying I’d claimed anything about Lia would be a stretch, and I sure didn’t see the empire falling anytime soon. The reverse seemed far more likely.
Doing nothing while my enemy mustered a crushing attack was driving me out of my mind.
“Lia’s spies can maybe tell her how much vurgsten Anure has, yes,” I finally replied to the wizard’s expectant silence. “She might find out exactly how many ships and troops he can send against us, how well fortified his citadel is, and we’ll know nothing more than we do now. We’ll be no closer to defeating Anure. I thought claiming the hand with the Abiding Ring would lead to the empire’s fall.” I leveled an accusing glare on him.
“You claimed Her Highness’s hand in marriage all right, but the wooing doesn’t stop there,” Ambrose replied with mild reproof. “You can’t order about a queen like you can your soldiers.”
“Don’t I know it,” I muttered. Since Ambrose had destroyed what little peace I’d found, I turned and strode down the long gallery. The wizard glided alongside me, making no sound though my bootsteps echoed on the polished marble of Lia’s pretty palace. Ambrose could move silently as a cat when he wished, which was how he’d managed to sneak up on me. No one else could. I’d learned early on in the mines of Vurgmun to duck the ready lash of the guards, a habit that had stuck—and served me well in the years of battle since.
I’d have liked to say I’d gotten used to Ambrose’s strange skills, but even I didn’t delude myself that much.
We emerged from the shadowed portrait gallery, a place thick with ghosts and the stale smells of hundreds of destroyed kingdoms, and into the bright, flower-scented sunlight of the main hall. Lia’s palace didn’t have much in the way of walls. With the eternal summer of Calanthe’s tropical weather, they didn’t need them. Open arcades of carved pillars framed the lush gardens, pools, and lawns surrounding the palace, with the gleaming turquoise sea beyond. Flowers bloomed constantly from lawns, flower beds, shrubs, and towering trees, with vines coiling over all of it. Butterflies of hues I hadn’t known existed lifted in clouds, then drifted on the breeze, and everywhere birds sang, all sweetly, of course. I hadn’t figured out yet if Lia had an army of gardeners to tend it all or if it just … did that on its own.
I’d made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t ask. Not that Lia would laugh at my question—not out loud, anyway—but I didn’t like to remind Her Highness of what an ignorant lout she’d married.
A stream burbled its way through the palace from a lagoon on one side to a pond on the other, meandering through in a trough cut into the marble floors and inlaid with little tiles in all shades of blue and green. Arching bridges crossed it in places, more for show than anything, because all but the most mincing courtier could easily leap across the narrow channel. I might not have much in the way of fine manners, but even I knew it would be rude to actually jump over the thing, however, and I didn’t much feel like changing my path to cross over the nearest dainty bridge. So I turned and followed the stream outside.
Ambrose, of course, tagged along as if we were out for a companionable stroll.
“What do you want, Ambrose?” I finally asked, capitulating to the inevitable.
“Me? Oh, what a question.” He let his staff thunk on the path of crushed stone, leaning on it as we walked, Merle rising and falling with the movement, like the carved masthead of a ship on stormy seas. “I want different things now than when I was an apprentice wizard,” he continued conversationally. “Those ideas change over time, have you noticed? The expectations of youthful idealism give way to more mature dreams and goals. Not in a bad way. It’s just that what we thought we wanted comes from not really knowing what we could have. Once I learned more about what the world offered me, I discovered I wanted entirely different things. And you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or how I’d gone from leading armies, with every conquest increasing the momentum of my vengeance, to strolling through a garden, having a conversation like the pretty lads and ladies we passed. Most of the courtiers were in court, naturally, kissing Lia’s gorgeously garbed ass and passing their fancily folded notes, but the other denizens of the palace seemed to spend most of their time looking decorative in the gardens. In my black garb—granted, finer than what I’d arrived on Calanthe wearing—and carrying my weapons, I felt like a scarred monster by comparison. Given the askance looks the courtiers gave me before they deflected into other directions, they thought so, too.
“I’m talking about changing expectations,” Ambrose replied, lifting his face to the sun and smiling like that one painting of a saint back in the gallery. “You, for example, can expect very different things from your life now that you’re king of Calanthe and no longer the Slave King.”
“The consort of the queen of Calanthe,” I corrected, hating the testy edge to my voice, already so rough compared with the wizard’s fluid tones. “Not the same thing. I’m not king of anything, never have been.”
Ambrose waved that off as irrelevant. “My point is, it’s time for you to stop moping about in the shadows. You can’t afford to do nothing. Time to take action, my boy!”
I stopped next to a tiered fountain of roses, glaring at it while I mastered the urge to throttle the wizard. The roses at the top were bright white, then they got pinker lower down. The blooms progressed through all shades of pink and red, until the bottom ones that were as dark as the blood that pours out when you strike a man in the liver.
Tiny purple bees buzzed around them, making a hypnotic sound that somehow seemed part of the heavily sweet scent of the blossoms. I kept an eye on the bees to make sure they planned to stay occupied with the flowers rather than attacking us. “What action do you want me to take?” I asked, sounding more or less calm. “Lia refuses to convene her Defense Council and you agreed with her, saying we should wait to see how Anure responded when he received news of the wedding.”
Ambrose sighed heavily, then settled himself on a stone bench that circled the flower fountain, heedless of the bees that investigated the garland in his hair, though Merle snapped at one curiously. “That’s what I’m telling you, Conrí,” the wizard said with exaggerated patience. “We did have to wait. Now we don’t. Must I forever explain these things?”
I wrapped my fingers into my palms, making them into fists so I’d be less likely to forget that I needed Ambrose and accidentally strangle him. Also, he was Lia’s court wizard now, and she’d be put out with me if I killed him.
Ours wasn’t a marriage of affection. Exactly the opposite, in fact, as we’d started out trying to kill each other before we ever met face-to-face. But the ritual had been done properly, tying us together for the rest of our lives, like it or not. Aside from the sexual consummation, where we seemed to get along just fine, we mostly seemed to piss each other off. Like two bulls in a small pen, one of Lia’s pet scholars, Brenda, had called us. Not a bad comparison, if unflattering. I wouldn’t mind having horns to wave at Ambrose in menace.
“What changed?” I asked. My voice growled with frustration when the wizard got that sly look of his and raised a chastising finger as he opened his mouth. “And don’t say everything changes all the time.”
Ambrose closed his mouth again and raised his brows. “Well, everything does change. Change is the one dependable element of the world,” he pointed out, almost primly, then hastily added as he caught the look on my face, “but I’ll address the question I believe you meant to ask, which is why now is the time and not yesterday, or even earlier today. That’s a complicated answer, because there are many factors you won’t understand, even if I had time to explain them all.”
“Patience, Conrí. What I’m saying is that Queen Euthalia has received a message from Anure.”
“It took you this long to tell me that?” I snapped, incredulous. My blood surged hot, but not with anger and frustration as usual. Excitement and bold purpose filled me. Enough of delays and arguing in circles. At last I could embark on the final phase of my mission to destroy Anure, everything he’d built, and everything he cared about. If the Imperial Toad was capable of caring about anything at all.
And the empire falls.
“What did the message say?”
“Oh, I don’t know exactly. But the currents of possibility and probability have shifted. It’s fascinating to see.”
I bit back my impatience. “How have they shifted—have you seen how we can counter Anure’s certain attack?”
A chorus of music blasted from the direction of the palace proper, along with cheers and shouts. I knew that fanfare well enough, as it always heralded the approach of the queen. Her people behaved as if her every appearance was a cause for joyous celebration. Ambrose stood, using the staff to pull himself up, a delighted smile on his face. “Aha! Here comes Queen Euthalia. She’ll be able to tell you what the message says. Then you’ll see.”
“Something you could have told me long since.”
“If you’d bothered to attend court, you’d have known already,” he shot back, dropping all hint of playfulness, his words short and full of disapproval.
I didn’t reply, setting my teeth together with a satisfying bite instead. Lia’s court drove me out of my mind with their fancy dress and pretty posturing. I’d gone to court with Lia that first day, thinking that we’d get actual work done. We did have a war to plan, right? But no—she’d expected me to dress up and then sit there while fancily dressed idiots simpered and offered fake compliments, begging for favors in the guise of offering congratulations on our marriage.
When I lost all patience and suggested—politely, I thought—that we call the Defense Council into session, all hell had broken loose. How was I supposed to know Lia’s Sawehl-cursed Defense Council was a secret? With everyone in an uproar, Lia had adjourned court and accused me of sabotaging her authority and precipitating panic. I’d had to point out that the threat of incipient attack by an overwhelming force should upset people. The argument went downhill from there.
We’d more or less gotten back on friendly, if formal, terms since. But I also hadn’t gone back to court. And she still hadn’t convened the Defense Council.
The music and cheering grew closer, so I stayed where I was. No doubt the purple bees had told Lia where to find me—or however her elemental magic worked. I only knew a few things about her for sure. One was that Lia was as much flower as flesh. She kept her head shaved because if she didn’t, her hair grew out like vines. So she told me—I hadn’t seen that part, though I’d seen the plantlike patterns on her skin, surprisingly erotic.
She possessed magic, too, but I didn’t know how much, or what she could do. Lia had a lifelong habit of concealing her nature, so she didn’t discuss the specifics easily, certainly not in public. And when we were alone … well, we didn’t talk much.
She came around the bend of the garden path, preceded by two spritely children tossing flower petals in the air to flutter down and decorate the rocks before her. Smooth, colorful stones already gleamed throughout the rougher white gravel, so the petals seemed especially redundant. But the Calantheans never saw anything they didn’t try to make even prettier.
Lia led a phalanx of attendants, five ladies-in-waiting instead of her former six—she also refused to discuss replacing Tertulyn, who’d suspiciously disappeared on our wedding day and had yet to be found—along with Lord Dearsley and a few others of her various advisers. Two of my own people, Sondra and Kara, accompanied the entourage, gazes alert for trouble. They were dressed for court, too, though more severely than the extravagant Calanthe styles, so they also stood out as invaders among the blossoms.
I hadn’t seen Lia since I’d vacated the bed we shared, leaving her to dress for the day. A weird Calanthean ritual dictated that the “Morning Glory,” a young virgin, should assist the queen from her bed. Apparently Lia’s father, old King Gul, had also divested the glories of their innocence. When Lia had arched a brow and asked if I’d like to take up that tradition, my answer had been an easy and immediate no.
So, since our marriage, Lia had changed the years-old routine by having Lady Ibolya assist in getting me gone before Lady Calla brought the Glory in and pretended to wake the queen all over again.
After that, the Glory helped Lia’s ladies complete the extended ritual of dressing her for the day, something I was fine with escaping. I preferred my wife—uncanny still to even think those words—without the adornments of her rank. I knew most noble ladies used their clothing and makeup as a kind of armor in their battles with the world, but Lia elevated dressing to a full-scale war. A lot of the costume and makeup served to disguise her nature. She had to shave her head, so she wore elegant wigs to hide that fact. The elaborate gowns and thick paste covered everything else.
One useful aspect of her complicated attire: Though she rarely revealed much emotion otherwise, her choice of dress absolutely announced her mood. Today she was lethal.
She wore a stiff-boned corset, which pushed up her breasts to distracting levels and narrowed her waist to a wisp I could span with my hands. The underpart of the gown exactly matched her skin tone, with an overlay of sheer material with angular black lines of gleaming black beads in spiky patterns. The skirt sleeked over her hips then flowed long and full behind her, a ruff of black at the bottom that scattered the petals as she walked. Even though there was a lot of it, the gown overall gave the impression that she was mostly naked, wearing only thin black lines of tiny beads. In fact, the more I squinted at it, the better I could see that some of the skirt was sheer, giving glimpses of her long, slim legs, made even longer-looking by the sparkling high heels on her feet.
She’d forgone her usual high collar, leaving her shoulders bare, the covering of her breasts more thickly beaded than the rest, though they hardly needed to be any more emphasized. Another ruff of lace coyly feathered over her cleavage. Even though I knew she’d have her exposed skin covered with thick makeup, the sight of her exquisite bosom tantalized me with memories of how she tasted. Gleaming black silk sheaths covered her arms from wrists to shoulders, her fingers tipped with sharp-looking nails, white with gleaming black at the ends, as if she’d dipped them in ink.
On her left hand, the orchid ring—the Abiding Ring I’d supposedly claimed along with her hand in marriage, for all the good it did me—bloomed in splendor, ruffled petals somehow sexual and magical.
The wig she’d donned to match the outfit was also ebony black—possibly the same one she’d worn for our wedding ball—but elaborately styled so that a long curl draped over one shoulder, the rest forming a coiling nest for the glittering crown of Calanthe. Lia’s makeup was all in stark black and white also. Even her lips had been painted glossy black, diamonds glittering at the corners of her mouth, at the two top points, and with a larger one centered in the full lower lip. The crown of jewels in the blues and greens of Calanthe’s gentle seas was the only point of color, besides the orchid on her hand.
Well, and the blue-gray of her eyes, a color that should have been misty but came across as crystal-shard-sharp as the beads on her gown when she assessed me from beneath diamond-tipped black lashes. Lia moved with swaying grace toward me, apparently unhurried, her expression as coolly composed as always. But I didn’t miss the tension simmering in her.
She paused a decorous distance before me, and I restrained the urge to bow. Yet another reason I’d hated court—or being with her in formal settings—was that I didn’t know the rules for how to behave. When it was just us, man and woman, me and Lia, preferably naked, I knew how to handle her. With Her Highness Queen Euthalia …
“Good morning, Conrí,” she said, her smoothly cultured voice sweet as flowers. “I trust you’re enjoying My gardens? It’s a lovely day for it.”
I barely managed not to wince, or apologize—especially not for refusing to waste time in court when it would only lead to another argument between us. Instead I gave in to the urge to acknowledge her beauty by taking her hand, the one without the orchid ring, bending over it and pressing a kiss to her fingers. As always, she smelled of flowers or the inside of a leaf, as if her petal-soft skin emanated the scent naturally. She curled those nails, sharp as thorns, against my palm in subtle warning. I straightened and gave her a long, cautious look.
“Good morning, wife,” I replied, not above needling her in return. Her eyes narrowed in smoky ire. “I understand there’s news from our illustrious imperial overlord?”
That narrow gaze flicked to Ambrose and back to me. “Indeed, Conrí,” she replied with decorous boredom. “His Imperial Majesty Emperor Anure has sent Me a letter.” She lifted her free hand, flicking the black-tipped nails with languid demand, the orchid ring’s petals billowing with the movement, and her lady Ibolya set an envelope in the cage of them. The light-gray paper had been folded in intricate lines, then embossed in darker gray with an image of Anure’s citadel at Yekpehr, the rocks jagged and menacing.
She spun the envelope to extend it to me, as Sondra might flick one of her blades. Lia’s expression remained opaque, eyes guileless. “While I hate to interrupt your idyll in the garden, perhaps I could trouble you with your attention to this.”
Oh yeah, Lia was pissed as hell. I could only hope it wasn’t all aimed at me.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffe Kennedy.Excerpt from The Promised Queen copyright © 2020 by Jeffe Kennedy.
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