Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

“Yes. Just like that. You don’t believe it?” He leaned closer. “Look in my eyes and tell me if I’m lying about something as important as this. Your mother was cursed by a hateful witch and she died giving birth to you because of that curse.”

Cleo took a moment to study the king who spoke lies so easily. If he were anyone else, anyone at all, she would be concerned for his health. Even during their short, unpleasant conversation, his face had grown paler, his voice drier and raspier. His broad shoulders were now hunched over.

She celebrated his decline and would equally celebrate his death. If he expected anything else from her, he would be sorely disappointed.

But his eyes—clear, steady, cruel—held no deception that she could see.

“You can see the truth,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Elena could too, all too often, when it came to me. She knew me better than anyone else.”

“You don’t deserve to speak her name.”

“That’s quite an accusation, princess, especially considering it was you who murdered her.”

Cleo’s eyes began to sting as the weight of the guilt she’d always carried with her—that her life came at the price of her mother’s death—rose up in her chest and crushed her. “If what you say is true, the curse is what killed her.”

“It certainly helped. But it was you who stole Elena’s life. Your sister didn’t succeed, but you did.”

Each word felt like a blow. “Enough of this. I won’t stand here for another moment and let you insult me, intimidate me, and lie to me. Listen to me very clearly: If you so much as attempt to harm me or Magnus again, I promise I will kill you myself.”

With that, Cleo turned away and started toward the stairs, not caring if she had to wait another eternity for breakfast. She refused to be in the King of Blood’s poisonous presence for another moment.

“And you listen to me, princess.” Gaius’s voice followed her like a rancid odor. “This love you think you feel for my son? The day will come when you will have to choose between Magnus and power. And I know, without a doubt, that you will choose power.”





CHAPTER 6


    JONAS


   THE SILVER SEA



On the third day at sea, Jonas stood with Nic at the bow of the King of Blood’s ship, its black and red sails catching the wind that would return them to Mytica in four more days. Olivia, in hawk form, kept a watch upon him from above as she did for most of the day, her large golden wings stretched out as she soared.

He wished he could turn into a hawk so he could be that much quicker in his return. Life aboard a ship was not for him; the constant rocking motion beneath his feet was disorienting and made his stomach churn. Although, he had to admit, he was doing better than some. Felix hung over the railing to their right, his face an ugly shade of green.

“He wasn’t kidding about his seasickness,” Nic said.

“No, he certainly wasn’t,” Jonas replied.

“I feel bad for him.”

“He’ll survive.”

“Fearsome assassin, you said? Didn’t he hunt bounties for King Gaius?”

“That’s right. Former fearsome assassin for King Gaius. Currently fighting the good fight as he embarks on a long and arduous path to redemption. And also currently heaving his breakfast into the sea as an offering to any fish who may give assistance.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Felix managed as he clung to the railing at the edge of the ship.

Jonas tried to repress a grin, the first one he’d felt on his face in ages. “Yes, we know.”

“This isn’t funny,” Felix growled.

“I’m not laughing. Not out loud, anyway.”

Felix said something unintelligible but unmistakably unpleasant under his breath, then groaned. “Can someone please kill me and put me out of this misery?”

“I volunteer,” said Taran as he descended from the crow’s nest. He’d insisted on climbing up there, displacing a crew member, to keep a lookout for any Kraeshian vessels.

“Shut up,” Felix snarled. Then his face tensed, and he threw himself against the railing to be sick again.

Jonas grimaced. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Just . . . leave me . . . to die.”

“Fair enough.” He turned away from his sick friend to regard Taran as he picked up the sword he’d left at the bottom of the pole. “What are you up to now, might I ask?”

“I’m going to sharpen my sword.”

“It seems like you’ve been sharpening that blade since we set sail.”

Taran glanced at him. “And . . . ?”

“Must be the sharpest blade ever, ready to kill those who deserve it,” Nic said, sharing a knowing look with Taran. “Well done.”

Jonas sighed and took Nic by his bicep, directing him out of Taran’s earshot. “We need to talk.”

Nic slipped away from Jonas’s grip. “About what?”

“Your hate of Magnus is consuming you, and it’s becoming a problem.”

Nic scowled. “Really? How odd that you’d say that, since I haven’t mentioned that bucket of scum in days. Besides, since when did you become his majesty’s personal bodyguard?”

The thought was ludicrous. “I’m not. But the prince sent me to Kraeshia to kill his father. We’re in an alliance with him.”

“You might be in an alliance with that monster, but I’m not.” Nic’s cheeks flushed as he jabbed a finger in Taran’s direction. “Magnus killed his brother. Your so-called alliance has nothing to do with either me or him.”

Jonas had heard about the murder of Theon Ranus over the last few days and how the former Auranian guard had been involved with Cleo before Magnus had stabbed him through the back.

Yet another reason for Cleo to despise Magnus, he thought. He’d had no clue about any of this, but that Cleo had lost someone she cared about . . . just like Jonas had lost Lys . . . it only made him feel closer to her.

Taran had every right to seek vengeance on the prince, but it was nothing but a distraction from the larger problem of Amara and the king, of three magical crystal orbs imprisoning elemental gods, and of Jonas’s own need for vengeance against the fire Kindred for killing Lysandra.

“Fine,” Jonas said, absently scratching his chest. “You and Taran can do what you want when it comes to the prince. But I want no part of it.”

“Agreed.”

Jonas scanned the deck, seeing Taran and Felix and a few crew members, but one person was notably missing. “Where’s that other prince we need to worry about?”

Nic didn’t reply for a moment. “Likely in his quarters, being silent and meditating, or whatever it is prophesied phoenixes do to spend their time while at sea.”

With each day that passed, Jonas felt more and more sure that allowing Ashur passage aboard this ship had been a mistake. At best, he was simply the misguided brother of the power-mad empress who’d used and manipulated Felix nearly to death; at worst, he was completely insane and would get them all killed.

Jonas had never been much of an optimist.

“Do you believe the legend is true?” Jonas asked.

“I don’t know,” Nic said, exhaustion and sadness in his tone. “All I know for sure is that I watched him die, and now here he is, alive and aboard the very same ship we are.”

“Have you ever heard that legend before? Of somebody who’s returned from death to be the savior of the world?”

Nic shrugged. “When I was a kid, I remember reading a story that was very similar. But there are thousands of legends that aren’t true.”

“The Watchers are a legend that’s true,” Jonas pointed out.

“Yes, and it’s possible that this phoenix tale could be the same.” He noticed Jonas still scratching his chest. “Do you have a rash?”

Jonas grimaced. “No. I guess this long journey to Mytica is making me itchy with impatience.” He paused. “Listen, you know Prince Ashur better than any of us. Right?”

“Well, I’ve known him longer,” Nic allowed.

“I need to know more about his plans. If he sees you as a friend, he’ll trust you. You need to uncover the truth about why he’s not simply marching up to his evil sister and taking his rightful place as emperor.”

“I can tell you why. Because Amara would try to kill him again. Besides . . . I don’t think he wants to be interrupted when he’s meditating.”

Just the word meditating raised Jonas’s hackles. That was what Chief Basilius claimed to be doing when he believed himself to be a prophesied sorcerer who would save the world.

He’d been certain the chief’s belief had to do with Princess Lucia’s prophecy, but perhaps this phoenix legend had further reach into Paelsia.

“Talk to Ashur,” Jonas said. “Seek his guidance. Rekindle your friendship.”

“You mean you want me to spy on him for you.”

“Yes, exactly.”

Nic let out a long, shaky sigh.

Jonas frowned. “Unless there’s some reason why you’d rather keep avoiding him. Is there something I need to know?”

“No, no,” Nic said, perhaps a bit too quickly, Jonas thought. “I’ll go now, see what he’s up to. You can depend on me, Jonas. Whatever I have to do to ensure Cleo’s safety, I’ll do it.”

Jonas nodded. “Glad to hear it.”

He watched as Nic nodded and left, his steps tentative at first but growing more purposeful as he disappeared around a corner.

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