Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

Hands fisted, Magnus stepped forward, but the guard responded by raising the blade to the prince’s throat. A gasp of fear caught in Cleo’s throat.

“Do you even know my name, your highness?” the guard sneered. “The empress does. She knows everyone’s name.”

“Amara Cortas clearly has an amazing ability to retain useless facts.” Magnus glowered at him. “So, what? You mean to march us up to her? Expect her to accept this generous gift with open arms and an appointment for you to captain of the guard? Don’t be a fool.”

“I’m no fool. Not anymore. Now come with me. Resist, and you will die.”

The guard then grunted as the tip of a sword appeared through his chest. He lost his balance and dropped to the ground in a heap.

Standing behind him was the other guard, wiping his comrade’s blood from his sword with a handkerchief. He glared down at the fallen guard with disgust.

“Pathetic weakling. I had to listen to his blabberings, his plans. I disagreed with each and every one. Please excuse his disloyalty, your highness.”

While so relieved her legs nearly gave out from beneath her, Cleo exchanged a concerned glance with Magnus.

“What is your name?” Magnus asked the dark-haired guard.

“Milo Iagaris, your highness.”

“You have my deepest gratitude for intervening. I take it we can depend on your loyalty?”

Milo nodded. “To the very end.”

Cleo let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. “Thank you, Milo,” she said, casting a hateful look down at the dead guard lying by her feet. “Now, let’s leave this traitor far behind us.”

? ? ?

Cleo used her green cloak to shield the shocking red of her dress and the brightness of her hair during the journey to the village.

After hours of travel via several modes of transport, including walking, wagon, and horseback, she, Magnus, and Milo arrived at their destination, exhausted. As luck would have it, the innkeeper’s wife was a seamstress from whom Cleo was able to acquire some simple new garments. Then, true to his word, Magnus escorted Cleo to her separate, private room.

Too exhausted to discuss the matter of the curse any further than they already had, Cleo shut and locked the door, collapsed onto the hard bed, and fell asleep immediately.

The morning sunlight woke her rudely, and as soon as her eyes were open she shielded them to block out the glare. Moments later, the seamstress knocked and brought in a basin of warm water to wash up with. Cleo was grateful for the chance to finally clean off the dirt that had accumulated on her skin during her travels. After she washed, she slipped into her new plain cotton dress and spent the next several minutes working hard to pick the tangles out of her hair with a silver comb left next to the basin.

As she finished up, she eyed her reflection, halfway expecting to see someone completely different. It felt as if so much had changed in a matter of mere days. But there in the mirror was simply the same Cleo she always saw. Golden hair, blue-green eyes that had lost only a bit of the weariness that started creeping into them only a year ago, and freshly seventeen years old.

She turned from the mirror with a sigh and reached for the chair over which she’d slung the cloak she’d stolen from a Kraeshian guard during her escape from Amara’s borrowed villa. She inspected it in the bright light, looking for tears, but was pleased to find it intact.

As of today, her only possessions were a borrowed gown, a stolen cloak, and an obsidian orb.

And, of course, her memories.

Before she had a chance to consider everything that she’d lost over the last year, she was interrupted by a very loud grumble in the pit of her stomach.

When was the last time she’d eaten? She honestly couldn’t remember.

Cleo left her room and peered down the hallway, briefly wondering which room belonged to Magnus. She drew the hood of her cloak close to her face, just in case someone was about at this early hour who might recognize her, then descended the creaky wooden staircase down to the inn to search for breakfast.

The first person she came upon in the empty dining room was tall, with broad shoulders and dark hair. He wore a black cloak and, with his back to her, gazed out of the front windows toward the village center.

Magnus.

She quickly drew toward him and placed her hand on his arm.

Instead of Magnus, King Gaius turned to face her. Cleo yanked her hand back as if it had been scorched. She took an immediate step back from him, then managed to tamp down her initial shock and rein in her composure.

“Good morning, princess,” he said. His face was as pale as yesterday, still bruised and cut, with dark circles beneath his eyes.

Speak, she commanded herself. Say something, so he doesn’t think you’re terrified of him.

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Has the wildcat lost her tongue?”

Damn, but he looked so much like Magnus in the shadows of the inn. The very thought made her stomach roil with disgust.

“Not nearly,” she said evenly as she drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “But she’d advise you to keep your distance if you want to keep yours.”

“An empty threat,” he said drily. “How predictable.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my room.”

“You certainly could.” He moved to take a seat at the nearest table, which was soon to be occupied by hungry patrons, and sat down heavily, groaning as if the movement caused him pain. “Or perhaps this is a good time for us to talk.”

“There’s no time that’s good for that.”

The king leaned back in his chair and regarded her silently for a moment. “It was Emilia who was blessed with her mother’s particular beauty. But you . . . you certainly inherited her fire.”

Hearing this snake mention her mother again turned her stomach. “You never did answer my question from before. How do you know my mother? Why was it her name on your lips in your dying moments?”

His lips thinned in a grimace. “It was a mistake, speaking her name.”

“You’re still avoiding the question.”

“I believe this may be the longest conversation you and I have ever had, princess.”

“Tell me the truth,” she snapped. “Or is that even possible for you?”

“Ah, curiosity. It is a dangerous beast that will lead you down dark alleyways to an uncertain fate.” He scanned her face, his expression pinched. “Elena and I were friends once.”

Cleo laughed at that, surprising herself at the sharp sound of it. “Friends?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t believe you have any friends, let alone that my mother was one of them.”

“It was a different time, back before I was a king or she was a queen. Sometimes it feels like a million years ago.”

“I don’t believe you were friends with my mother.”

“It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. It was over and done with a very long time ago.”

Cleo turned away from him, disgusted that he could even attempt to make such a claim. Her mother would never have chosen to spend time with someone as vile as Gaius Damora.

“Now I get to ask a question, princess,” he said, standing up and putting himself in between Cleo and the staircase.

She turned slowly to give him the haughtiest look possible. “What?”

“What do you want with my son?” he said, enunciating each word.

She stared at him. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Are you planning to continue to use Magnus for your own gain? If so, then bravo to you. You’ve done an exceedingly fine job turning him against me. His many weaknesses have long been a disappointment to me, but this—” He shook his head. “Do you have any true idea what he’s given up for you?”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

Gaius scoffed. “I know that not that long ago my son aspired to be a leader, willing to do what it took to one day meet his great potential. I’m not blind. I saw how quickly his head was turned by your beauty. But beauty is fleeting, and power is forever. This sacrifice, the choices he’s made lately surrounding the subject of you . . . I don’t understand his reasoning. Not really.”

“Then perhaps you are blind.”

“He doesn’t see everything that’s at stake. He only sees what’s happening in the moment, before his eyes. But you do, don’t you? You know how you want your life to be ten, twenty, fifty years from now. You’ve never given up on your desire to reclaim your throne. I admit that I underestimated your drive, which was a grave mistake.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to reclaim what’s rightfully mine?”

“Be careful, princess,” he said.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve told me to do just that. This time, I can’t tell if you mean it as a warning or a threat.”

“It’s a warning.”

“Just like the warning about the curse that my mother passed to me?”

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