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When the gods breathed life into us, they blessed us with an element. Pity they didn’t care to bless us with anything else.
Mira had hoped she might find happiness in the arms of the Ice Lord. She was wrong. Political forces have driven them apart and the consequences are devastating for the fated mates. Despite all the past hurt and misunderstandings her fever for the infuriating man has not been extinguished, no matter how much she wants it to be.
Zorren never feared the cold until he’d tasted Mira’s warmth and passion. Mira is his and he is determined to claim her and restore her to her rightful place beside him: on the throne, in his life and in his bed. Now if only the little firebrand would cease her fruitless attempts to drive him away.
With rumblings in the South and conspiracy in the Iceari Court, Mira and Zorren need to present a united front more than ever. Are they brave enough to seize their second chance? Can they rebuild their trust and allow their love to blossom. Or will it be strangled by resentment and stubborn pride?
Publisher’s Note: This fantasy romance contains elements of danger, suspense, mystery, adventure, and sensual scenes set in an apocalyptic world.
The dry, flattened grass acted as my pillow as I lay beneath the tree, the rolling fields golden and ripe with this year’s harvest. The sun kissed my relaxed muscles as the shade danced from a gentle breeze. A contented sigh escaped my lips. Home. Whole. My inner flame burning strongly within me and I savored the sensation of having it dance to my will, filling the once cold, empty spot. My musings were interrupted by warm lips grazing over my bare shoulder and I cracked my eyes open. Familiar blue ones gazed back, dancing with mischief. The kissing grew in pressure, locating the sensitive spot where my neck and shoulder met. Zorren nipped it with his blunt teeth before sucking hard. My breathing hitched and his lips started tracing the heated spots left by the dappled shade. Stretching my arms over my head, I smiled. “Hello, my love,”
I turned my face to him, Zorren kissed me gently and my lips parted in welcome. Wild energy thrummed through me. Hot and intoxicating, I didn’t question it I just reveled in this enchanting moment. My arms curled around his neck and I pulled him over me with a giggle. My soft curves cradling his hard planes. A hum of appreciation vibrating in his chest, Zorren raised his head, coming up on his arms to take his weight. Soft white eyes gazed down at me; his fingers nimbly tucked a stray curling lock behind my ear.
“How are you feeling?” I frowned, why would he ask that?
“I’m well.” I answered after a hesitation.
He kissed the corner of my mouth. “Good, you’ve been severely ill.”
My confusion deepened, but I was fine, I felt wonderful. A hand snuck under my soft flowing skirt and stroked the sensitive skin of the inside of my thigh. Make that more than wonderful. Despite the heat I shivered and wanting more of his touch parted my thighs in invitation. “I’ve been ill?” He paused, his teeth carefully raking over a taut nipple.
I gasped, my hips arching into his hardness as molten desire stabbed through my core. “But I’ll be gentle.” My lips curled, always so concerned he would hurt me. My hands threaded through his hair and gave a light tug so I could see his face.
“What if I don’t want gentle?”
Crawling up my body, he smoothed back my cloud of hair from my forehead. “You will have gentle even if it kills me.” He rumbled, getting a stubborn look on his face that I had come to know well.
I quirked a challenging brow. “Really?” My legs parted and I squeezed his flanks with my thighs and attempted to roll us, so I was on top. Zorren wasn’t having any of it and nipped the lobe of my ear in retaliation.
“Naughty, little mate.” His chuckle curled around me, teasing my senses and warmth bloomed in my belly. I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what I thought of ‘gentle’ when his thumb swiped my nubbin and my mind went blank. With a feather light pressure the pad of his thumb circled and teased and I grew wetter. When he slid a finger into my hungry sheath, my head rocked back and my eyes slid closed for a moment. Opening them again I found Zorren watching me with an intensity that made me giddy, his eyes flaring brighter than ever.
“What do you think of gentle now?” He teased, lazily pumping that finger in and out.
Struggling to focus on his words, I tried to talk, “I might have…” I broke off with a moan when he added a second finger at the exact same moment his lips closed over my breast. My breath became fast and uneven. “…underestimated its virtues.” My hands clutched his shoulders, smoothing over the powerful muscles of his back and sides. Digging my fingers into his skin I tried to urge him to go faster. But no matter what I said, he would grin at me and stick to the same tormenting pace. The first flutterings of my climax rippled through my body. “Please,” I whimpered, “I want you inside me.” It had been so long and I wanted to feel one with him again. To feel connected in the most elemental way.
“Are you sure?”
I reached up and kissed him hard, panting in his ear. “Yes. I want you. ”
“Then you will have me.” Zorren withdrew but not before giving one last light pinch of my nubbin.
My heart stopped and the building pressure became almost unbearable. I closed my eyes fighting against the promising climax and Zorren’s weight left me, bringing my breathing back to normal. The man was going to kill me.
When he did not return immediately, I pushed up on my elbows, opening my eyes.
Climbing to my feet, my skirt fell back down and I called louder “Zorren!” Dread tiptoed along my spine, where could he have gone? I twisted my head from left to right, hoping to catch sight of him. To no avail. Urgency clawed at me. Something bad was about to happen. Something very, very bad. “Zorren, where are you?” I turned in a frantic circle and noticed an eerie silence had enveloped the land, as if nature was holding its breath. A piece of white drifted from the sky. I gasped at the shock of cold that landed on my skin and melted. The breeze picked up, whipping my hair into my eyes. More snow fell, the cold stinging my eyes as the howling wind stole my breath. Trapped in the heart of the storm, nothing could penetrate the wall of swirling white. Each flake was painful on the skin and it felt like I was being stung by an entire army of insects. The frigid cold bit into my fingers and toes, my clothes becoming heavy and wet. Then, as sudden as it appeared it stopped. Shivering, my teeth knocked together and I pushed my damp mussed hair out of my eyes. What in sweet Khatri’s name was that? I glanced up and swallowed, the sky wasn’t clearing. Thick black clouds swirled ominously, bubbling like a writhing sea. An opening appeared and I held my breath. Jagged flames ripped through the clouds and smashed into the land. I staggered to stay upright as the ground rocked and pebbles jumped as if alive. Another beam shot through. Then another. And another, until the fire surrounded me. The fields blazed, plumes of thick black smoke darkened the sky and blocked out all light.
No! It was destroying everything. I reached into myself and stretched forth my hand, attempting to bend the fires to do my bidding. Nothing happened. The flames came closer, hissing and snapping like a feral beast as any trace of moisture disappeared in puffs of steam. I tried again but the fire would not answer my call to cease. I blinked in shock, it wouldn’t obey me. The unbearable heat crashed over me. I tried to call out but sucked in a mouth full of ash. Coughing and choking, I doubled over on to my hands and knees. Heat and pain blasted me from all sides and seared my lungs. The branches above me writhed as if sharing my pain; the leaves blackened and shriveled fluttering down on to my exposed skin. I curled in a ball, pushing my face into the dirt and tasted the bitter scorched earth in a vain attempt to protect it. I waited for the fire to feed upon me, the roaring flames getting closer. Sweat leaked from my skin. Closer. I couldn’t breathe or hear anything above the deafening roar of the flames. Closer. My muscles tensed, bracing myself for the ordeal to come. The kiss of heat blistered my skin and I screamed!
I bolted upright in the gloom of the room, my heart thumping against my ribs as the illusion of fear still gripped me tight. The urge to fight or flight riding me hard, only there was no one to fight and nothing to run from. I buried my head in my hands, pressing my palms into my eyes and breathed through my nose, it had been so real. Too real. Scooting up the bed until my back was against the headboard, I fumbled blindly for a lamp. Trembling fingers found one and slipping from the bed, I crossed the room to dip a taper into the dying fire and lit the lamp.
The light cascaded out in a pitiful circle that was inadequate to fully banish the darkness. I was in the act of propping it on the mantel when I noticed the dark scorch marks blemishing the stone fireplace. Strange, I bent closer and swiped my finger over it, smearing the ash. Someone must have overloaded the fire at one point. Shrugging, I rubbed my arms, hugging myself tight, the remembered terror digging its talons into me. “It’s just a dream,” I murmured to the empty room. “Just a dream.” I repeated stronger than before.
It didn't help. I didn't want to be alone; I wanted to be in Zorren’s strong arms. I wanted to soak up his strength while encouragements rumbled in my ear. But I burned those bridges and damned myself to this isolation. I eyed the bed but doubted I would be able to sleep again. Dragging a fur from the tangled covers, I curled into the wide window seat, my knees tucked up to my chin. Mesmerized by the large fluffy flakes swirling past the window. Winter was well and truly upon us, the capital hunkered down as it was battered by the ferocious storms. Leaving me at the tender mercies of my maudlin thoughts.
For one moment everything had been right in the world, Zorren and I were together and my inner flame burned bright. My vision wavered; I had felt my flame while I reveled in Zorren’s touch. I swear it had been there. I squeezed my eyes shut and rested my forehead on the cool pane of glass. It was that blighted hope that hurt the worst and was the hardest to bear. I couldn’t do anything about my inner flame. It was gone and I was slowly coming to accept the painful realization. But I could... reconcile with Zorren. My throat closed up. I wanted my mate but pride would not allow me to go to his rooms. Stubborn, stupid pride.
His behavior towards me had transformed. Zorren was considerate, my every need met before I even asked. He demonstrated the patience of a consummate hunter; he was somehow attentive but let me keep my own company. Never pressuring me for more than I was willing to give but remained near. Allowing the passage of time to batter against my defenses like waves upon a cliff face. Days turned to weeks and my rage burned lower. All the while, Zorren was unruffled, kind, and considerate of my needs. I wanted for nothing, except... his touch. The need for him was intensifying, gnawing away at me day by day as my anger slipped.
It was not the first time I’d dreamed of Zorren. I’d replayed our last night of intimacy over and over and he frequently featured in my dreams only for me to awaken wet and desperate. My nipples beaded tightly and aching as I sought the whisper of pleasure. However, whenever I brought myself to completion it was lackluster and unsatisfying. I kept my lonely vigil at the window until the sky lightened by a shade and the shadows’ grasping fingers began to recede. However, it was the muffled sounds of movement in the hallways as the castle came alive and the servants started their day that roused me. Drained of feeling, I began to dress, my eyes flickering back to the window. It was to be another day confined indoors.
“So this is where you are hiding,” I was far too happy to hear Zorren’s voice for my liking and tried to keep my face neutral.
“I am not hiding.” A guilty blush creeping up my cheeks and his presence pulled my gaze from watching the flurries outside. Without conscious thought the taut line of my spine softened, my body leaning towards him of its own accord. I pulled on my stiff-necked, Firelander pride to keep my feet firmly rooted on the spot. If our paths had crossed directly after my nightmare I don’t think anything could have stopped me from closing the distance between us and going to him. But in my heart I wasn’t ready to forgive him. Zorren’s lips tugged into an indulgent smile at my instant denial and said heart did a little stutter. Why was he in such a good humor?
“Then what are you doing?”
“Taking shelter from this horrendous weather,” I growled. The wind groaned and an icy draft blew from under the door. “How do you stand being trapped in this place for days on end?” I didn’t want to read another book and there was no instrument for me to practice. How did they stand it without being driven mad? I longed to be outside and feel the sun on my skin, craving the now foreign heat. Outside, the snow became thicker and heavier, mocking me even now, soon it would be a whiteout.
Sympathy lit his eyes. “Of course, I keep forgetting this is your first winter. It is usually a respite from Royal duties…”
“Well, good for you.” Sarcasm dripped from every word but he continued on, ignoring my barb.
“However, I suppose it does take some time to become accustomed to it.”
“Accustomed?” I laughed throwing my arms up in air. “I’m about to go insane!”
“I could make a few suggestions—”
I snorted and my eyes flicked down to just below his waist, muttering darkly, “I could imagine the sort of suggestions you would make.”
“I’m not going to lie, Mira, most mates remain in bed on days like this and find other ways to work off any reckless energy.” His words reignited the memory of the last time we had been together, my muscles deliciously trembling and exhausted, too tired to move. My tongue poked out and wet my lips. My body’s secret places heated at the memory that would certainly—No! What was I thinking? I was not a slave to my body. “I’ll pass.”
Zorren studied me for a moment, “Do you play stratis?”
My brows drew together, I did but not for a long time, my list of royal appointments did not leave much time for games. “Yes.” Reaching into a drawer he pulled out a large box that rattled as he moved.
“How about a game to pass the time?”
“I don’t think that is wise.” The thought of spending that much time in his company, in close confines, I didn’t know if I could fight his pull for that long.
“What do you have to lose?” My sanity? Oh, wait… too late. “Do I scare you that much?”
“Do you think I’m so easy to manipulate?” An obvious dodge if ever there was one. Giving in to my agitation, I crossed my legs and curse the man if his tactic wasn’t working, my hotheadedness made me quick to rise to the challenge.
“Is that it, Mira?” His blond hair fell half over his eyes and Zorren shook it back, the boyish gesture made him appear younger. “Are you afraid to be alone with me?”
I was being played, but if I left now, I’d be accused of running. If I stayed, I would be playing right into Zorren’s hands—if I didn’t think I could withstand him. If.
I flexed my claws. “I’m afraid of nothing, Ice Lord, please sit. I can spare you one game.” My words underscored with condescension, Zorren’s jaw clenched at the use of his title. Ah! The petty revenge was sweet. We began to set up the familiar board, the square divided line by line to form the shape of a pentacle, each tip of the star forming a separate territory. The aim of the game was to conquer all the territories while taking your opponent’s pieces and defending your standard at your base of origin. You could win two ways, claim all the territories or capture your opponent's standard. Wooden pieces split into two colors, polished to a shine with use. They carried different values depending on how they were allowed to move, indicated by their descending varying height. Our hands brushed. I jerked back into the chair, immediately breaking the contact. Zorren’s blue eyes gauged my reaction and his grin widened revealing white, even teeth, baring a striking resemblance to a hungry wolf that had just inched closer to its prey. I sucked in a breath, Khatri give me strength it was going to be a long game.
Two games later and I found we were evenly matched as we both took a game apiece.
“You are very good,” I conceded, frowning hard at the board, willing it to give up the secret as to how he had swooped in and claimed a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Zorren looked please with himself as he said, “My father taught me,” The warmth in his voice pulled me away from the board. It was the first time I had ever heard him mention his sire who, by all accounts, was a difficult man. “It was one of the few things we both enjoyed.” Of course, he would have been encouraged to enjoy it and praised when he did well. The game introduced children of the hierarchy to the thought patterns they would need as adults: long-term and short-term strategy, which pieces and territories to sacrifice, when to temper aggression with subtly, all in order to achieve an overall victory. Zorren stretched his arms over his head, my gaze fixed on the edge of his tunic riding up to provide me with a tantalizing flash of his flat stomach. Rising to his feet, Zorren pulled the bell and a servant miraculously appeared moments later. “Can you please bring us some wine and a food tray for two.”
“Certainly, my lord,”
At the mention of food, my stomach growled in agreement and Zorren winked as he settled back. Had that much time really passed? Out the window the sky was darkening. Preparing the board for the final match, I studied Zorren under my lashes. His face was relaxed, like a great burden had been lifted. The frown lines on his forehead had lessened and the stern line of his lips softened, teasing me to try and make them curl. This was my man. This was the mate that had convinced me to stay in Sevias against my better judgement.
I gave myself a stern shake. “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.
Zorren shrugged. “I asked if you cared to make this last one interesting?” Such an innocent question and yet, I sensed it carried a wealth of meaning. The wolf was back and I was set in his sights, the predator circling before deciding to leap.
I continued to set up the pieces, running my tongue across the edge of my teeth. “What did you have in mind?”
“For every piece or territory taken a question is asked, whoever loses the piece or territory has to answer the question completely and truthfully.”
That didn’t sound too bad, besides I didn’t have many secrets left. “Very well.”
“You start.” I resisted rolling my eyes and let the games begin. The play was rapid and tricky. Curiosity nipped at me, I wanted to see exactly what Zorren had in mind and purposely lost a minor piece early on.
“Oops,” I blinked, a picture of innocence. He chortled under his breath at my sense of humor, understanding exactly what I was doing. “What is your question?”
“Where did you learn to use a bow?” That I had not expected.
“At the palace, I practiced in secret until it was brought to my aunt’s attention.”
“Why in secret?”
“Isn’t that another question?” I quibbled pretending to examine the board.
“No, it’s an extension of the primary and therefore falls under the complete honesty clause.”
I heaved out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine, you’ve seen firsthand how effective the weapon is against us and as a result it is perceived as an assassin’s weapon. It is not seen as honorable to wield one and is looked down upon. A little rebellion on my part, I wanted to learn.” His strong lips twitched and there was laughter in his eyes. “What?”
“I’m struggling to imagine you being rebellious.”
I tilted my head to one side. “I may seem temperate compared to most of my people but hot blood still runs through my veins and I have a rebellious streak. I’m just very, very adept at hiding it.”
Zorren shot me a lazy smirk that said he couldn’t imagine me defying my aunt. I had done it more times than I could count; I was just very careful how I went about it. “I’ll consider myself warned.” Hmmph, my lips pinched together and I bided my time, moving my pieces across the board until I claimed my first territory. Since we were still sounding each other out, I started with an easy question.
“What does it feel like to have ice as your element?” I’d always been curious, did it feel the same? Zorren leaned back in his chair, considering his words with care.
“Cool, clean and cleansing,” he offered at last. “Think of a fast running mountain stream, the water so chilled but you feel alive, invigorated but instead it flows through you, the cold stealing your breath before becoming calm and soothing and snaps everything into sharp relief.”
I hung on every word, it sounded so different from the tumult of fire we tried to cage within us.
“So different from fire,” I murmured. Zorren cocked his head and I answered his unspoken question for free.
“It is like there is a half domesticated beast inside, when restless it claws at you wanting to be let out or in a perfect moment warms you in a tender embrace.” I bit my bottom lip the sharp pain keeping me grounded. “But it’s more than that, it is part of you. It is you. Your emotions, your strength feeds the flames and you have to be strong enough to bend it to your will.” Feeling the weight of his gaze I picked an imaginary speck of dirt off my skirt, waiting for Zorren to take his turn. My mouth thinned when he did, in a choice between claiming a territory or taking another piece. He didn’t fall for the temptation I left on the board, he claimed the territory and I met his gaze directly.
“How did you escape the assassination?”
“My companion and friend, Yusia.” I stared at the flames dancing in the grate as the painful memory thrust me back into the past, the ghostly fingers of long ago panic and fear wrapping about me tightly. “She found me before they did and we just made it to the secret passages.” My chest tightened. “I wouldn’t have made it if she hadn’t gone back to slow them down. I assumed they killed her but I don’t know her fate, there was nothing I could do except run. Within the tunnels, I stumbled across my cousin being escorted by the royal guard.”
He reached across the table and a warm sure hand engulfed mine. “I’m sorry.” I stared at that hand like it was my lifeline, absorbing the comforting touch that I had denied myself. In that brief intoxicating moment, madness gripped me and I had the urge to tell him everything. I pulled myself back from the brink, the words hovering on my tongue to tell him I lost my fire. Blinking rapidly, I withdrew my hand and studied the board. I might be able to force him into a retreat in order to defend his base of origin in half a dozen moves if, he did what I expected. When the opportunity presented itself I didn’t hesitate and asked the question that had been bothering me since my arrival.
“When we arrived in Sevias you changed and started freezing me out, why?” His mouth dropped into a frown and Zorren self-consciously rubbed the back of his neck. I smiled mockingly. “Hoping I wasn’t going to ask that?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “It is a long story,”
My gaze flickered to the window where the snow still flew past. “We are hardly going anywhere, soon.”
Zorren bit his cheek for a moment before beginning gruffly, “My parents were not a love match but the joining of two very powerful Iceari. My mother was the last of the prominent house of Eldrin whose daughters were often gifted with the ability to manipulate ice and, as such, highly sought after. It was not a happy marriage, though my father cared for her in his way. Once I was born, she took a lover and ran.” Zorren bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile and I winced. I couldn’t even imagine abandoning my child, the picture of a little girl with bright cornflower eyes and a riot of blonde curls popped into my mind. If I had to flee I would have taken my child with me and fought with everything I had to keep that child safe.
“The deal was fulfilled, she had provided an heir. My father became harder and more bitter, using every possible resource to hunt her down.” Zorren’s hands fisted. “He neglected the needs of Court and the people and it was through his neglect that we were almost invaded by the land of Phaa. It taught me to never let anyone have that power over me, that to rule I had to be reliant on no one. I became very good at doing my duty and letting nothing of import touch me.” He looked at me and I sucked in a breath. That unrelenting blue gaze blazed, raw and primal, it pierced my soul. “Until you.”
I wouldn’t feel sorry for him. It didn’t make any difference if he had his own demons I told myself furiously trying to drown out my inner voice that wanted to show compassion. I knew what it was like to be the odd one out. I couldn’t make it better but I could show him my own scars in return. Zorren forced the raw emotions behind a mask and smiled sadly. “It’s no excuse, but it is the truth.” I forced my mind back to the game; Zorren was not falling into my regular traps. Tapping my finger against the table I decided to play a different tactic. Becoming the aggressor, I would reduce his reach by whittling down the number of his pieces and see if that forced him into action. I took the first piece.
The next question I wanted to know, badly. “Would you have really kept me secluded from your court as your mistress while you made another your Consort?”
“No.” His answer was immediate, the shock on his face was real. I had caught Zorren off guard and his answer rang with truth. Perplexed, he leaned forward in his chair and he asked, “How do you know what was discussed by the council?”
I raised my brows, this could be my opening, make him do something rash. Settling my features into a fitting smirk I said, “If you want to find out then take another piece.” Zorren’s eyes narrowed. I faced off from him across the battlefield of the board and resisted the urge to stick my tongue out. I watched through my lashes to see if he would stumble into the trap. He took the bait, seizing the only possible piece he could. It was an unimportant loss on my part, but on the next turn he would lose one of significantly greater value. He didn’t say a thing just quirked a brow at me. Zorren wanted the answer badly.
“Fine,” I huffed. “I found a secret passage in my room and was exploring when I found a two-way mirror I heard and saw everything. The one person who defended me was Gunnar.” Zorren winced. “I could have happily kissed the man.”
He didn’t like that comment, not one bit. His hand gripped the arm of the chair hard before exhaling and making a visible effort to relax. “Mira,” Zorren started patiently and I folded my arms. This explanation better be good. “When I’m in that room I’m playing a political game, I can’t let them see what I’m thinking and although I was hesitant about making you queen I would never have mistreated you like they suggested.”
“I don’t believe you.” I flung the words at him before I could stop them.
“Have you never guarded your emotions when at the Fire Court?” he demanded bluntly.
I glared across the table at him as he raised his eyebrow knowingly. My fists clenched in the folds of my skirt. Yes, I had. I hid my emotions from everyone but a chosen few when in a formal position. I could misdirect and play with the best of them. “Then you know why I did it.” The truth stung.
“Yes, but I don't have to like it.” His answer made me view my own actions in a different light. Forcing me to ask myself what would have happened if I hadn’t run after our fight? It was becoming harder to concentrate on the game, my mind in tumult. Zorren had warned me again and again that the Western Wastes were not crossable without an experienced guide and in a rash decision I had decided I had known better. The unwelcomed realization dawned on me that I had played a part in the tragic events that led to the loss of my fire. But it had been easier to lay all my rage and pain on Zorren.
I was saved by the food arriving, and Zorren’s attention was temporarily diverted as he poured the wine. He had no idea that something momentous had just occurred and that the tight knot of anger curled in my stomach had eased by a degree. Marshalling my thoughts, I tried to concentrate on the game in front me, I could dissect the rest later but right now, I just had to focus on my next move. My situation was precarious, Zorren had seized more territories than me but I had more pieces. Still, if I wasn’t careful with the northwest point Zorren could creep through the backdoor and overrun my origin.
A goblet of wine was thrust under my nose. “Mira.” I accepted it and began nibbling at the plate that had been prepared. The warm rolls were slathered in butter and cheese and thinly sliced meat. The saltiness of the cheese complemented the sweetness of the wine. There was also a small tureen of hot broth to keep out the chill. Simple and delicious.
The silence stretched between us and I felt the inane need to fill it. “The wind has died down.”
“Yes, it is getting late and you will soon need to be abed.” He gestured to the board, “Shall we continue?”
Zorren went on the attack and took a prominent piece that was called a fortress and I aggressively countered by taking his. “Tell me how you survived your parents’ assassination.”
I mulled my thoughts for a moment, lost in the big black hole of my past. “I don’t know.” I offered at last.
“We promised full honesty and disclosure,” he reminded me.
My voice lashed out, “I honestly don’t remember. I remember the carriage coming into the estate. I remember my father’s body with dozens of arrows sticking out of it. I remember my mother screaming, telling me to run as she launched her own attack. I started to run and looked over my shoulder, she was falling to the floor, an arrow in her chest.” My jaw was clenched so hard it hurt. I forced my breathing to calm. “After that, nothing. I don’t know how I survived; I don’t know how I received the scar across my collarbone. I’ve always been that way.”
I cleared my throat, determined to change the subject. “My turn, why do you follow Barek so blindly?”
His scowl became even more fierce. “I don’t.”
I snorted in disbelief. “I’ll rephrase it if your delicate ego would prefer. Why does he have so much input over your decisions?”
“When my father was killed in battle, I was still a young man and not fully prepared for the weight of power. I relied heavily on his advice. He has served me faithfully. However, as I developed my own opinions we have been clashing heads more often. Then he started pushing me to produce an heir, while at the same time promoting his daughter. I am not totally blind to his machinations, though it seemed harmless enough and it was just easier to let the dust lie.”
Between the two of them, I never stood a chance. My head was spinning struggling to process the information it was receiving. Thrust into a position of power too early he had been forced to rely on someone and as the puppet no longer needed the puppet master the relationship had soured. A common tale through our history. While I was distracted he took another piece. Snap out of it, he was too good for me not to give him my best. “Why did you come north?”
I bit my lip. “I’ve already told you why.”
“Yes,” he huffed out impatiently. “Some nonsense about a sword but what was the tactical purpose of such an action? I’ve thought about it long and often and I’m struggling to see one.”
Khatri’s tits, why did he have to ask that? “My cousin was sent south under a heavy guard of all that remained loyal.” I sucked in a great breath and rubbed my arms. The rest of the words froze in my throat.
“That doesn’t tell me everything, Mira,” Zorren prodded gently, leaning forward watching me intently.
“I was a decoy all right!” I gritted out. “The idea was to split their forces, after all who needs the spare if you have the heir.” I bared my teeth in a mockery of a smile.
Zorren swore colorfully and erupted from his seat. “For the love of Havron, they sent you to die!
Deities help me; I think I’ve broken him. Again.
“I am sensible of the duty I have to my people, Zorren and I’m more than aware of my position within the royal hierarchy. My cousin is the Empress, just blossoming into her full power.” To speak the words out loud hurt less than I thought it would. “Power that I have never shown the capability of. Of the two of us, she is the more valuable and the one with the best chance to regain the throne.” I found myself shouting back at him, trying to justify my family's actions.
“How many men did they send with you?” he demanded, pacing furiously back and forth. I didn’t want to tell him and mumbled the answer. Zorren’s eyes narrowed dangerously, “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
I closed my eyes, braced for his reaction. “Two.”
“Two!” I cringed at the roar, pushing my shoulders into the padded back of the seat.
“Mira, nobility travel with more, Great Havron I could spank you for even attempting such foolhardiness.”
My eyes flared. “Don’t you dare.”
“Whose great tactical mind decided that piece of brilliance?” The derision in Zorren’s tone indicated he thought it was anything but brilliant.
Proudly, I raised my chin, reminding myself he hadn’t been there. “Thallenth, he has been in charge of our protection for as long as I remember; I trust his judgment and there were not enough with my cousin to give me any more men.” Zorren looked like he could have cheerfully wrung my neck and stuck his hands behind his back. I could just imagine him clasping his wrists to keep them there.
“Foolish in the extreme, tactically flawed and short-sighted,” he barked. “You never ever split your forces in that situation and if anything happened to your cousin they are out of direct descendants.”
Why was he being critical over what happened so long ago? It was done and now I was trapped in Sevias having had my inner flame snuffed out forever, but you didn’t see me complaining. “I don’t know what you are getting so upset about?”
Zorren sucked in a breath. “Mira, I am livid about the lack of regard for your safety and your ability to sell yourself short.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m willing to bet you didn’t even protest at this ludicrous plan, am I right?” I flushed and looked away, “Am. I. Right?
“Yes, you are right,” I growled pushing myself to my feet, the game laying forgotten between us. “I’d just seen my family and friends murdered, the city was burning, the air thick with smoke.” I choked on the ball wedged in my throat. “You could see it against the skyline forever, the screams cutting through the roar of the flames.” My voice trailed out and I was thrust back in the memory. “I will never forget that sound. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. They were all gone and I knew I wasn’t strong enough for our people to follow.”
“They were fools, Mira.” Zorren’s face softened. “Did your cousin walk among the people?”
“Did she tirelessly perform the duties that you effortlessly manage?”
I shook my head. “No, but…”
“Did she work hard to master her element or did it come easy?”
“Not so easy.”
“I’ve seen you do things that I didn’t know a Firelander could do.”
Zorren’s thumb traced over my cheekbone. “My Mira,” he breathed. “You are a rare treasure: unspoiled, giving and pure. They were fools not to see your worth and I almost joined them.”
The room had no ceiling or floor, spinning to hear the situation described through another's eyes. Could his words be true, had there been another option? My brain in a fog, I don’t remember the move I made or the next, turning the words over and over. The doubts he had erected wouldn’t be silence. Now that the memory had been dragged from the recesses of my mind, I was forced to review it with fresh eyes and Zorren was right. When dealing with limited warriors you would not split your forces, each man was vital and could mean the difference. I knew that but so did a warrior with Thallenth’s experience. I shook my head, I just couldn’t fathom it. We were all under a great deal of pressure that terrible night and it was human to err, at the time I hadn’t questioned the decision too occupied with wanting to put as much distance between me and those who wanted me dead.
My inattention had cost me and Zorren remained on the offensive, kept coming towards my origin. “Why do you no longer practice with your fire?”
My jaw went slack like I’d been punched and I’d never seen it coming. “Ask something else,” I demanded.
Zorren brows furrowed. “It is a simple question, Mira.”
“One I will not answer,” I snapped and with the tip of my finger, I flicked my standard toppling it. The game was over, I was done playing.
Zorren stared at me for a long time and I squirmed under his gaze, could he see my thoughts?
“Very well,” he said at length. “Let me escort you back to your room.” Nodding my thanks, I accepted his offered arm. “There is one more thing,” Zorren mentioned offhandedly and I put myself on guard
“There is to be a ball in just under a month’s time” His eyes shifted away. “You will need to attend.”
Pulling a face, I said, “I’d rather not.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I gathered as much, however, as the heiress to the Throne of Flames you will be expected to make an appearance if nothing else.”
I scrubbed a hand over my face. “Let me be certain that I am understanding you fully. You want me to attend a royal ball with the highest of Iceari society. Even if I agreed, I’m afraid my wardrobe is not up to the task.”
“I can organize a dressmaker to visit you immediately; I’ll spare no expense for it to be ready on time.” Zorren offered.
“That will be a trial in itself.” I said not looking forward to the hours of fitting that would be required. “Please make the arrangements and also engage someone who can teach me the dances.” Zorren’s eyebrows winged upwards. “What?
“I thought you would take more convincing.”
I shrugged, “If I claim my title, Zorren, then I have to own it and play the part. I will attend and then slip away at an appropriate point.”
He walked me to my door, but before I could enter he caught my hand and pulled me close.
“Thank you for the evening, my princess.” He looked painfully handsome. Slowly Zorren lowered his lips to my forehead in a chaste kiss. “Sleep well, Hellcat.” Disappointed, I watched him walk away even as my body screamed out for his touch.