Read Dark Prince's Desire Online

Authors: Jessa Slade

Dark Prince's Desire (4 page)

Yelena touched the delicate weave and shot him a sidelong glance. “It’s sticking to my hair.”

“They like you.”

Her expression was dubious, but she repeated his thanks to the shifting shadows above them. From the corner of her mouth, she asked him, “Were they...watching us?”

“I’m sure they closed their eyes. All eight eyes.”

She huffed out a laugh, and they faced each other across the ravaged bed. He wondered if he looked as wary as she did as her grin faded.

Abruptly, as if she’d come to some decision, she said, “I can’t change because I’m afraid.”

He paused in reaching for his gloves. When she did not continue, he tried to rekindle her smile. “Afraid of spiders?”

She rolled her eyes but some of the stiffness left her. “Of an Afghan warlord and his men. They came to the school where I taught, pistol-whipped me in front of the girls, and held us at gunpoint while they set fire to the classroom.”

Raze clenched the gloves in his fist until the fabric disintegrated. “You should have shifted and killed them.” He would have slain them had he been there.

“I wanted to,” she confessed. “My head was pounding, blood streaming everywhere, the girls screaming. In the confusion, I imagined my sisters were there. And I figured if ever there was a time and place for the legend of a vengeful tiger attack to serve a good purpose...”

When she hesitated again, he guessed, “But you didn’t summon the
verita luna.

“For the first time in my life, when it really mattered, I froze. An Amur tiger, born and raised in Siberia, and I froze.” She shook her head in disgust. “Every meeting of the council has forbidden revealing ourselves. I didn’t know what would happen to the girls, to see me change. And...and I wasn’t sure what I’d do to the men. I’ve never...”

“Never killed.” Raze looked down at his sword hand where the threads of spider silk drifted away like smoke. Had there been a time when he hadn’t killed, before he was the Ruiner? There must have been.

He just couldn’t quite remember it.

Those days had been burned by iron, when he had sent his own to die as often as he killed their enemy. Though her body had been bold, Yelena’s innocence made him feel every moment of those centuries that had scarred him into the being he’d become.

“Were any of your students hurt?” He wasn’t sure why he asked, except that it would matter to her. Outside the
phaedrealii
, days and nights—entire lifetimes—flew like mayflies, but he supposed mayflies might find their time in the sun more precious for such fleeting delicacy.

She shook her head once. “I distracted the warlord’s men, but they kept us in the burned-out building for almost a week.”

The way she wrapped her arms around herself, with one arm low at her belly, the other hand guarding her nape, made him think he knew exactly how she’d kept their attention off her girls: by keeping it on herself, all the while in her smaller, weaker form.

Rage rumbled in his chest. With a mere scattering of portal spores, he could step from his cavern to the sands where she’d lost touch with her tigress and remind every warlord how the first weapons had been made of stone.

As quickly as it surged, the fierce impulse to throw open the wards shook him. To undo all he’d done over centuries? For a tigress trapped in her own skin?

Still submerged in her memories, Yelena didn’t seem to notice his unease. “In the end, the situation worked out better than if I had forced it. The community shouted the attackers out of town. Not another drop of blood spilled—” she touched her head where the strands of the spiderlings’ crown twinkled “—and the village pledged to rebuild with new resources for girls.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “They didn’t need me at all after that. Just as well, since the concussion lingered, and once I realized the
verita luna
was out of my reach, I had to leave. I couldn’t risk becoming a problem worse than any warlord.”

She took a breath, deep enough to make the iridescent ammolite flare between her breasts. “I kept the beast chained.” Her gaze—dark amber now instead of gold, her tigress far away—shifted, avoiding his. “No wonder she left me.”

The broken words brought him around the foot of the bed to stand before her. He tipped her chin up, skin-to-skin, giving her the look he’d once given his warriors facing the onslaught of cold iron. He knew by sharing with him, she was risking herself just as those warriors had been willing to fight at his word, and her willingness roused a part of him he’d thought left behind on those sunlit battlefields. “Touching my magic wasn’t enough to inspire your change.” For some reason, the truth of that hurt more than the iron had. “You must find it for yourself.”

She lifted her chin higher, out of his grasp, though he wasn’t sure if defiance or resignation made her eyes glint. “Then you might as well let me go.”

His hand fell away. “I don’t think I can.”

This time her breath loosened on a frustrated curse. “Was the sex that good?”

He wasn’t skin-to-skin, so he didn’t have to answer. But he wanted to. “I told you already, the locks I put on the portals should have barred your entry. And I can’t just unlock them.” The geasa in his skin burned as if freshly carved. “From this side, the portals are essentially welded shut. We’d need to open a new path.”

And for that, he’d need spores. Which belonged only to the Queen.

For the first time since the Iron Wars, he wished he still had his sword.

* * *

Raze led Yelena back up the winding staircase. Whether he had the tiger
by
the tail or
on
his tail was equally unsettling, he decided. That truth at least was certain, even if everything else had only become more mystifying.

The corridor above had changed. Instead of the ornately angled hall, a gray ocean lapped at their feet, though the water did not spill down the stairs behind them. A churning mist obscured the expanse of what had been a large but bounded interior. Soundless flashes of scarlet, like lightning without the release of thunder, turned the clouds to open wounds.

“It’s just an illusion.” Sounding as if she wanted to convince herself, Yelena crouched to touch the seething waves. “A wet illusion.”

A scallop of her hem trailed into the water, and lines of crimson wicked up into the silky gold. She made a sound of dismay.

Raze knelt beside her to grab the edge of her gown, hiking it up to her knee as he wrung out the creeping red. The drips vanished back into the gray ocean like darting eels. “Illusions aren’t always a lie.”

He drew the hem back down to her ankle, lingering a moment with his palm on her bare foot. The water left a purple stain on her gown, a royal color. Face-to-face, he studied the golden ring around her amber irises, like a solar eclipse.

She didn’t blink. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

With her skin warm and wet against his, he answered truthfully. “I’m trying to remember the last time I saw the sun.”

“You could see it anytime you want. Just open a door for me.”

“It’s not that easy.”

She huffed out a breath. “I heard
phae
tried just a few months ago to attack the valley where I was staying. Seemed easy enough for you then.”

“I wasn’t part of that incursion.” He hadn’t even known about it until too late. Which told him more clearly than the cracks in the
phaedrealii
foundation that factions in the court seeking out were gaining strength and boldness. Once, the Queen had been cautious about such sorties. She hadn’t lived through the Iron Wars, but she—like the other Steel Born—had come of age in the aftermath. She’d appreciated the need for curbs and controls on the sometimes wayward
phae.

And she knew she’d been made Queen because none other would enforce the strict imperatives that safeguarded what remained of the
phaedrealii.

It seemed lately she had forgotten her role. She ignored and, worse, sometimes instigated raids into the sunlit realm. She’d become addicted to the pleasures of flesh and the lure of powerful passions. The same forces that had defeated the
phae
millennia ago.

The same force that had him kneeling here at the feet of a disbelieving tigress?

He stood, abruptly enough to make his head light. Or maybe that was just the tempting perfume of Yelena’s skin as she too rose with her distinctive powerful grace.

She faced him. “Why do you hide here?”

Though they weren’t touching now, he saw no reason to lie. “Because this is the only place left for the
phae.
To keep them safe, I must keep them secret.”

“While I think the werelings’ secrets should be revealed.” She stared across the water. “We can’t both be right.”

“Said the lady who is also a tiger.”

She sent a sidelong glance his way, her lips quirking. “Said the prince who is also a prisoner.”

That her wry amusement soothed him more than her sharp observation stung was proof how dangerous she was to him. If he would accept censure in return for her smile, what wouldn’t he do for her laugh? “Your mother warned you about the
phae.
Don’t you think she would rather the court stayed hidden?”

“My mother—my stepmother, actually—calls herself an old-fashioned Russian peasant. Even before she met my father and figured out he was a tiger wereling, she left milk for the
domovye
, our house spirits.”

“Don’t feed the
phae
,” he said. “It only encourages them to sneak out of the court.”

Yelena frowned across the water again, her hands on her hips. “If the wereling and
phae
revealed themselves together, we might have a real chance of changing human perceptions of the world.”

For a heartbeat, he wondered how the Iron Wars would have ended if she’d led the charge. From deep in the trenches, he’d despaired of the
phae
lack of direction. They’d had an arsenal of awe and terror at their disposal, but as the human stories of the surviving
phae
noted, they tended to be unpredictable, as well. As an army, they’d often controlled their weapons no better than they controlled themselves.

Yelena, on the other hand, had managed to cage her beast completely. Even the most impulsive
phae
would have been hard-pressed to stand against her.

Raze shook his head to banish the useless thought. The Iron Wars were long over, and the
phae
had lost. But he would not let them lose any more, not when so little remained.

“You weren’t there for the days when the sunlit realm was our playground and battleground,” he warned her softly, letting his tone carve the truth like the honed tip of his athame. “The
phae
were never simple companions.”

“And you think the werelings are? Or humans, for that matter?” Under the silent, bloody lightning, her gaze darkened past amber to bronze.

He knew that color well from the time before iron. That had been the last time he’d seen the sun, and his heart sped at the memory.

No, he was lying to himself again. It wasn’t an old memory that excited him. Her presence, the intensity of her spirit that shone even through her self-imposed cage, drew him as nothing had in centuries. She was kindred in ways even the other
phae
weren’t to him. She understood what it was to be trapped, and yet she fought on.

His heart raced, because he could have the sunlight again. Forever. With her.

All he had to do was never let her go.

Chapter Six

Yelena’s breath caught when the prince’s eyes turned from gray to silver, as if some shadow had lifted from him. But not just him; the moody clouds lurking above the waves had rolled back to reveal a pathway.

A boat came toward them between the walls of fog. At the scimitar-curved prow were chained six red-eyed swans and what looked like a pterodactyl, scaled and bat-winged. The swans’ feathers—faintly chiming, as if tipped with tiny bells—stirred the mists as they drew the boat closer. Luxe velvet draped over the carved bulwarks, strewn with heavy-headed roses, and petals swirled in the wake.

She scoffed under her breath, forcing the first whiff of the piercingly sweet floral scent out of her nose. “‘Would you like some candy, little girl?’”

Raze tucked his chin. “What?”

“It’s a floating fairy tale cliché.” Behind the boat, the rose petals withered as if in some invisible flame and disappeared beneath the waves. “I’m not getting in there.”

“What makes you think we have a choice? The water is rising.”

“How convenient.”

He frowned at her. “This is not my illusion.”

“Can’t you change it?”

His frown deepened, the shadow back in his gaze. “No.”

The clipped word worried her, almost as much as the shadows. He was strong, she’d felt that. If he couldn’t override this magic... She found herself reaching to touch his arm, needing to ground herself against his very real body.

“The Queen,” she guessed.

He jerked his head once in a nod. “She has the portal spores you need to get home.” His expression went blank, as if he hadn’t meant to speak. He stepped away from her, breaking the contact between them. “Come.”

His abrupt retreat made her flush. She’d never been a clingy woman. What was wrong with her? One short fall into madness and she was coming apart at the seams, all her weaknesses leaking out.

She followed him into the shallows toward the waiting boat, the swans floating in a white fan around the bow, the pterodactyl perched on the high prow. In the rough water, the swans’ reflections were black. The pterodactyl was smooth gold. She bunched her skirt around her thighs to stay dry. “I guess the Queen is the one I should be dealing with anyway.”

Raze shot her a stony glare. “You think you can deal?” He reached for her waist, clearly intending to lift her into the boat.

“I’ll do what I have to.” She evaded his grasp and grabbed hold of the gunwale to boost herself over the edge. The velvet slipped under her bare feet and he palmed her hip to steady her. His long fingers wrapped toward her rear, a grip as possessive as when they’d been in his bed.

The pterodactyl shrieked and bated the air, wafting the overwhelming scent of roses with a hint of absinthe.

Raze waved one hand irritably at the creature as he jumped into the boat. All seven beasts rose with a whoosh of wings and clash of chains. The boat jerked hard, forcing Yelena to sit or lose her balance again.

The velvet cushions engulfed her, and she found a bowl of fruit beside her, every piece lusciously ripe. She drew back her hand then darted a glance across to the bow where Raze had claimed the narrow bench.

The position gave him the advantage of height, which seemed to also give him leave to scowl at her.

She returned the look. “If I eat, will I be forced to stay?” She’d read her share of myths and fairy tales.

“No.” His new favorite word, apparently. “You’ll just want to.”

“You can’t keep me here....”

“I don’t have to when you’re doing such a fine job of it yourself.”

She sucked in a furious breath, pain seeping through her like the purple stain in her skirt. But before she could choke out a reply, the swans settled in the water, heads bowed. She snapped her mouth closed when a concentric ring of steps coming down to the water appeared through the fog. Impossible. If the other side of the oceanic room had been so close, she should have been able to see it from where she and Raze had stood, even with the clouds.

But this wasn’t her world. Nothing was as it seemed.

Including the
phae
prince who had stroked her to completion and now watched her with cold eyes.

The boat drifted sideways to bump the lowest step, and the pterodactyl landed on the prow again, its bat wings still spread as it waddled in an awkward circle to face the stern. It pecked at the short, dark curls of Raze’s hair and gave a distinctly disapproving squawk when he swatted at it again, rising to his feet.

At the top of the steps, the fog bank rolled back to reveal a somewhat Venetian palazzo with rows of dark, arched windows rising above the waves. Instead of plaster and brick, the facade was formed of butterflies, and the soft flutter of a million wings made the “building” shimmer with ineffable color in the diffused light, delicate and enchanting like the surface of a soap bubble.

Yelena swallowed hard. It was beautiful, no doubt, yet the empty black windows exuded a brooding menace. Someone—something?—watched from those eyeholes, and not happily.

Raze had stepped out of the boat and he held one hand back to her with an imperious twitch, which seemed appropriate—if arrogant—considering the royal setting. Still, under that intimidating watchfulness, her knees felt wobbly so she accepted his hand at her elbow. But she avoided touching his skin, bared by the sleeveless tunic, with her hand.

She took a step toward the palace—just to get away from him—but he tugged her to a halt.

“Wait.” He released her and descended to the lowest step above the water. The nearest swan drifted closer, its long neck curved submissively. He smoothed his hand down the perfect white feathers, his fingers looking darker and even more scarred in comparison.

A quick twist of his hand and a harsh snap made Yelena jerk in surprise. The chain tethering the swan to the boat slithered into the water.

The swan burst from the water in a spray of crimson droplets that arced unnaturally high, as if to foil the escape but unable to match the wild flight. Raze made short work of the chains on the other swans. Silent except for the faint chiming of bells echoing their wing beats, they fled.

When he returned to her side, Yelena pointed her chin at the remaining creature. “What about that one?”

The pterodactyl watched from the prow, scaly neck contorted to follow the shrinking white V, its bat wings trailing low behind it.

Raze kept walking. “Not every beast can be freed.”

The stark assessment chilled her. Did he mean the pterodactyl or her?

As if he heard her racing thoughts, he fixed her with a wintry gaze that made her shiver. “And I wasn’t thinking of either of you.”

She dropped her gaze, distracted by the thin curls of smoke rising from his clenched fists. She reached for his wrist and rotated his palm upright. “Show me,” she demanded.

She wasn’t sure if the skin-to-skin truth included obeying physical commands. From the long pause before he complied, she wasn’t sure if he was fighting the compulsion or debating with himself. When he finally opened his fingers, she sucked a harsh breath between her teeth. “The chains were iron.”

“It’s nothing.”

“If by nothing you mean what’s left of your skin.” The blisters and scorched skin almost reached around to the geas scars on the backs of his fingers. She tried to tug him toward the water. “We should wash these.”

He resisted; apparently skin-to-skin only went so far. “The pain is nothing. I’ve suffered worse. For that matter, the water too is nothing.”

He continued up the ring of stairs toward the palace, leaving her to follow. With each step, the water retreated behind them, the ocean rolling back to reveal a desert of black sand. The boat settled with a dry hiss, and the pterodactyl shifted its stance, hunching like a vulture as the prow listed sideways.

The illusion was becoming less inviting, Yelena thought, as her options for escape fell away. She set her gaze resolutely forward, which left her staring at Raze’s broad shoulders.

So if the illusions were failing, why did this scarred
phae
prince remain as enthralling to her as ever?

A squared doorway without doors loomed ahead of them, framing blackness. She tried to peer through the dark. Nothing.

She stepped up beside Raze. “Where do we knock?” She swallowed back the rest of her words when a figure appeared in the doorway.

Like something from a fairy tale, the woman was tall—straight and slender as a birch tree in her lustrous, moon-green gown. A peaked circlet at her brow emphasized delicately pointed ears peeking through the pale hair that fell straight to her belted hips. She stood poised with her hands clasped in front of her, her fingers a little too long to be human. She had an additional knuckle on each digit, Yelena realized, so what should have been a composed, regal gesture instead resembled a snarl of knotted vines.

Under her breath, Yelena ventured, “The Queen?”

“No,” Raze said. “A friend.”

A bad sign when a prince seemed to place his Queen in a circle other than friendly, but Yelena didn’t have time to consider how bad. The
phae
woman hastened down from the doorway to meet them at the threshold.

She untangled her hands to reach for Raze, although she did not make contact, her preternatural fingers hovering as if above an invisible shield. “
She
is in a mood.” Despite the warning in her words, her voice was as muted and melodious as the swans’ wing-song.

“Isn’t she always?”

“I know why, this time.” The woman’s gaze flicked toward Yelena, consternation making a tiny wrinkle on her forehead. “Such a roar,” she murmured. “So brash, so bright.”

Yelena lifted one eyebrow. While it was true tigers could be loud when they chose, she hadn’t said a word yet.

“Your aura,” Raze clarified. “EveStar is particularly sensitive.”

Particularly? Meaning all
phae
had some sensitivity? Yelena shifted and forced herself not to look at him. What did he get from her aura? As a wereling, she didn’t mind being naked, but being exposed—that was different.

His focus was still on the
phae
woman. “Yelena Morozova is...an accidental guest. The Queen needn’t be disturbed.”

“Too late.” EveStar’s musical voice fell flat. “You must send the tigress away. Now.”

Yelena didn’t bother wondering how the
phae
woman knew what she was. Maybe her aura was tiger-striped. “I’ll be on my way soon.” As soon as she found the bright force of the
verita luna
and big shining exit sign.

Never mind that a crazy part of her had started to yearn for something else—something shadowy, gray and scarred.

EveStar did not move from the doorway, and suddenly her willowy form seemed to take up more space, reminding Yelena the other woman wasn’t revealing her true self, either.

The phae’s fingers curled backward into an eerie, double-jointed fist, her pale eyes glittering. “My Prince, this wereling will destroy you.”

Yelena straightened, astonishment zinging down her spine. “Hey, now. That’s not—”

“She might,” Raze said. The she in question directed another “hey” at him, but he ignored her. “And yet this must be done. The Queen will want to see her with her own eyes.”

“Our Queen will want more than those pretty gold eyeballs strung on a chain.” Echoing EveStar’s aggrieved hiss, a gust of black sand kicked up from the erstwhile ocean bed to bite at their ankles. The pterodactyl gave a mournful cry.

Yelena held back a shudder, memories of other sands eroding her poise.

For another heartbeat, EveStar seemed to continue to expand, until the revelation of what existed beneath the illusion seemed inevitable. Yelena stiffened, prepared to take a hit—and this time to dole one out; there were no innocents here—but Raze grabbed her wrist.

The heat of his burned hand distracted her. Though he’d said otherwise, the grasp must have been painful, and yet the lock of his fingers said he would not let her go.

Unlike the rough touch of his scarred and now blistered skin, his words to EveStar were gentle. “Have I not always fought for our people and safeguarded the
phaedrealii?

“Protected us even from ourselves. Not what one would have expected from a
saturni
such as you, but this is true.” The other woman—or whatever she was—shrank back into her slight size, leaving a faint scent of something burned. “I remember this too is true; we scarcely survived the Iron Wars.” Her voice thinned and cracked, like rust coming off an old weapon. “We won’t survive again, Prince of Flutes. Not again...” She sidled away from the door, clearing the path.

Raze led the way, and Yelena followed. She cast a glance at EveStar as they passed, but the
phae
kept her face averted.

Yelena stepped up behind him. “What’s a
saturni?

“A breed of
phae
better known for singing and dancing and chasing nymphs than leading an army.” His mouth twisted. “Perhaps that’s why we lost.”

Though the bitterness in his voice should have warned her off, she couldn’t help but try to imagine what he’d been like. “And the flute? I suppose that got you a lot of nymph lovin’.”

He shot her a glance. “Do you know what the first flutes were made of?”

“Not iron,” she guessed.

“Bone. Dry, hollow, dead bones. That is what I am now: Prince of Bones.”

Well, his cheery attitude certainly wouldn’t have won him any nymph ass. And yet her brain still conjured up a vision of him without the scars, lips pursed coyly over a pan flute.... Except she’d jumped him without even the excuse of fairy piping. “Whatever EveStar said, I don’t want to destroy you, you know.”

“I’ll take some comfort in that,” he replied, dry as the sands outside.

She wanted to snark back, but then they crossed over the shadows under the lintel and into the palace of the
phae
Queen.

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