Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

Carlos was the captain of the Kraeshian guard, a man with bronzed skin and black hair, his shoulders impossibly broad. He had more than enough muscles to fully fill out his dark green Kraeshian uniform, its golden clasps, which attached the black cape, glittering in the candlelight.

Lord Kurtis Cirillo was younger, thinner, more sallow in appearance, with dark hair and olive green eyes. While Amara would prefer a larger castle to spend her current days, this villa was the finest home for miles around, and it belonged to Kurtis’s father, Lord Gareth.

“Rise,” she commanded, and they obeyed.

Both men waited for her response to the updated news of yesterday’s siege and capture of the Limerian palace.

As Amara composed her thoughts, she winced from the large and rather painful lump on the back of her head she’d acquired last night. The sack of icicles that she held to the injury had started to melt.

“Of the dozen casualties,” she finally said, “was there anyone of importance?” For this, she turned to Kurtis, who would know nobles from lessers much better than her guard.

“No, your grace,” Kurtis replied quickly. “Mostly Limerian soldiers and guards, a few servants. Only those who attempted to stand against you.”

“Good.” Twelve wasn’t an unacceptable number to perish considering how many people had allegedly been at the palace to witness Princess Cleiona’s speech at the time of the siege. From Carlos’s report, three thousand citizens from nearby villages had made the journey to hear that hateful girl spread more of her lies.

She scanned the red and black banners lining the stone walls bearing the Cirillo family crest: three snakes entwined. For a kingdom of ice and snow that supported very little wildlife that Amara had noticed, Limerians did seem to value images of serpents.

“Your grace . . .” Kurtis’s reedy voice chirped.

“Yes, Lord Kurtis?”

The young man’s face was pained, his mouth set in a grimace that had become familiar to her in her short time in Mytica. She wondered whether this was a permanent look for the kingsliege or whether it was due to the unfortunate injury he sustained just before she met him. There were fresh bandages on the bloody stump at his wrist where his right hand used to be. “I hesitate to broach a subject that Carlos believes we mustn’t bother you with.”

“Oh?” She glanced with surprise at her guard, who looked at Kurtis with naked hatred in his steely gaze. “What is it?”

“I’ve heard concerning talk amongst your soldiers about your reign—”

“My lord,” Carlos bit out, “if there is a problem with the men I command, I will come to the empress myself. This matter does not need the opinion of a Limerian.”

Kurtis scoffed, as if insulted by Carlos’s bluntness. “Does the empress not deserve to know that her own soldiers speak of abandoning their posts rather than be ruled by”—he hesitated, but only for a moment—“a woman?”

Amara willed herself to be calm as she handed the melting ice to a nearby maid. “Carlos, is this true?”

The guard looked ready to spit molten glass. “It is, your grace.”

“Yet you don’t feel this is a concern?”

“Talk is talk. None have taken any action as yet to leave this mission to return to Kraeshia. And if they do, they will be severely punished.”

She studied the man’s face, a man who had been loyal to her father not so very long ago. “How do you feel about having me as the first female ruler of Kraeshia? Will you continue to take my orders without wishing to abandon your post?”

He straightened those massive shoulders. “I am loyal to Kraeshia, your grace, therefore I am loyal to whoever is on the throne. I assure you, I have control over my men.”

“Yes, but the question is, do I?” It was the reason she hadn’t celebrated her victory of becoming empress quite yet. Her control felt delicate, like ice newly formed over a lake. There was no way to know for certain if it would shatter the moment it was met with pressure.

All the more reason why she needed the magic released from her water Kindred. The small aquamarine orb hidden in the pocket of one of her gowns in the wardrobe was useless to her now. She had to figure out how to unleash the powerful magic inside.

“Your grace,” Kurtis said, and she couldn’t help but notice that his expression had lightened some since delivering the news Carlos had wanted concealed from her. “I have also heard them speak of Prince Ashur’s eventual return from his travels.”

“Oh? And what of it?” Pain flared from her head wound, radiating in waves. She would like to lie down for the day, to rest and heal, but an empress couldn’t afford to indulge in even the slightest bit of weakness.

“As your older brother, they feel that he will reign as emperor. They believe that your position is a temporary one only. And they feel, once news of your family’s deaths reach him wherever he currently is, that he will return without hesitation.”

Amara took a deep breath and counted, slowly, to ten in her head.

Then she counted to twenty before pushing a small smile on her face.

“Is this also true?” she asked Carlos as sweetly as she could.

The guard’s face seemingly had turned to stone. “It is, your grace.”

“Truthfully, I hope they’re right,” she said. “Ashur certainly is the first in line to the throne before me, so of course I will relinquish my title the moment he appears. We can mourn our lost family together.”

“Your grace,” Carlos said, bowing deeply, his brows drawn together. “Your grief is shared by us all. Your father, your brothers, they were all great men.”

“Indeed they were.”

But even great men could be felled by poison.

Amara had been trying very hard not to feel like a venomous scorpion who lured unsuspecting victims into her lair. She knew she wasn’t the villain in the story of her life. She was the heroine. A queen. An empress.

But without the respect of the soldiers she needed to expand her kingdom, she had nothing. Carlos might not believe a few dissenting whispers were important, but soon they could become the voice of a full rebellion.

For now, despite her title, she had to tread carefully until she had the magic she required to hold on to her newfound power.

One day very soon, Amara Cortas would not answer to any man, not ever again. They would answer to her.

And if they were counting on her brother’s return to chase the girl from the throne she had taken with strength and sacrifice, then they would be sorely disappointed.

After all, one of those sacrifices had been Ashur himself.

“I am grateful that you chose to tell me this,” she addressed Kurtis again. “And if my brother does arrive, please know that I will welcome him with open arms.” When Kurtis bowed, she shifted her disappointed gaze to the guard who would keep the talk of treason a secret from her. “Carlos, what is the status on the search for Princess Cleiona?”

“A dozen men, including the king, are still out searching for her, your grace.”

Less than a year ago, before she was taken in by the conquering royal family and married to Magnus, Cleo had been a spoiled princess who had lived a pampered Auranian life. Amara knew what a demanding and difficult girl she really was, despite the sunny and golden demeanor she might have presented socially.

Last night, Amara had made the mistake of underestimating Cleo and offering her her friendship. She’d quickly come to regret it.

The princess’s drive for survival nearly equaled her own.

“Make it two dozen guards,” she instructed Carlos. “She couldn’t have gotten far.”

Carlos bowed. “At your command, your highness.”

“Actually, I’m sure the princess has frozen and is now three feet under the fallen snow.” King Gaius’s voice stole Amara’s attention from her guard. She looked up to see that the man had entered the hall and was slowly moving toward her, flanked by two of his guards.

Kurtis and Carlos immediately bowed before the king.

Amara swept her gaze over Gaius and her eyes widened with shock. His face was bruised, all banged up with cuts and scratches. There was a sickly grayish pallor to his complexion. His neck was smeared with blood, which was caked in the creases of his hands and underneath his fingernails.

“Carlos, fetch a medic immediately!” she commanded as she rose from her throne to meet the king halfway across the large room.

“No,” Gaius said, raising his hand. “That won’t be necessary.”

Only last night when he’d left to search for the princess, he’d been a handsome man with dark hair and deep, if often cruel, dark brown eyes, tall and strong, but now he looked as if he had crawled up out of his own grave.

Amara gave Carlos a nod to do what she asked anyway, and the guard immediately left the hall. “What happened to you?” she asked, injecting concern rather than simply shock into her tone.

The king rubbed his shoulder, his face a mask of pain. “I took a rather nasty fall while searching for the princess.” His expression tightened. “But I’m fine.”

A lie if ever she’d heard one.

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