Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

Gaius swept his gaze over the kingsliege, lingering on his injury. “Good goddess, boy. What happened to you?”

Kurtis glanced at his bandaged stump, his face reddening and his cheek twitching. “When I attempted to escort your son’s wife out of the palace yesterday, he attempted to stop me.”

“He cut off your hand.”

“He did,” Kurtis admitted. “And I feel it’s a crime that deserves punishment. After all, I only acted on your command.”

“I must sit.” Gaius gestured for one of his red-uniformed guards to bring him a chair, and he all but collapsed into it. Amara watched him with growing alarm. This was not a man who normally showed any kind of weakness at all. This was the result of a fall, he said?

If he was close to death for whatever reason, she needed him to tell her how to unlock the Kindred’s magic before it was too late.

“Yes,” Gaius continued, his voice barely more audible than a gasp. “Magnus has certainly made some questionable decisions recently.”

Amara tried again. “Gaius, I insist you see a medic.”

“And I insist that I’m fine. On to other, more interesting topics, I’ve brought you a gift.” He gesturing at one of his guards. “Enzo, bring in the girl.”

The guard left the hall and returned a few moments later with a pretty young woman with short, dark hair.

“This,” the king swept his gaze over the girl, “is Nerissa Florens.”

Amara raised a brow, managing to find a trace of humor in the unexpected introduction. “I’ve never received a girl as a gift before.”

“You need an attendant. Nerissa tended to Princess Cleiona and, I’ve heard, is greatly skilled at her job.”

Instead of feelings of peevishness provoked by being presented with a nobody, Amara found her interest piqued. “I assume this means you’re loyal to the princess.”

“On the contrary, your highness,” Nerissa replied, her voice strong. “I am loyal only to my king.”

Amara narrowed her gaze at the girl and took her in, top to bottom. Short hair wasn’t a common style, not in Kraeshia or Mytica. It spoke of someone who didn’t have time for vanity. Yet Nerissa was quite attractive. She had a graceful nose, widely set eyes, and a flush to her tanned cheeks. She stood proudly, far more proudly than any servant Amara had witnessed before.

Amara finally nodded. “Very well, Nerissa, I do find myself in need of a skilled attendant. However, if you say you’re loyal only to the king, I will need to ask him to transfer that loyalty to me now. Gaius?”

“Yes, of course,” the king replied without hesitation. “Nerissa, Amara is your only concern now. Watch over her and attend to her every need.”

Nerissa bowed her head. “Yes, your highness.”

Amara continued to assess the girl. She couldn’t be much older than her own nineteen years. “You don’t seem afraid of me.”

“Should I be, your highness?”

“The palace where you earned your living was taken by a foreign army, its prince and princess deposed. And here you stand before the conqueror. Yes, I think you should show some fear.”

“I learned a long time ago, your grace, that no matter what I might be feeling on the inside, I should show only strength on the outside. Apologies if that philosophy is not acceptable to you.”

Amara studied the girl a few moments longer, thinking that they had this much in common. “It’s fine, Nerissa. I look forward to learning more about your time with the princess.”

“Yes, your grace.”

“Good,” the king said. “Now that that’s taken care of, Lord Kurtis . . .”

“Yes, your majesty?” Kurtis straightened his back like a soldier coming to attention.

“While I’m gone, I’d like you to make the arrangements to relocate the empress to the Limerian palace. Your father’s villa may become a bit cramped, and of course it lacks the level of accommodation that my wife deserves. When I return, I will expect to find you there.”

Kurtis bowed. “I will do exactly as you say, your majesty.”

Amara watched the king with growing confusion. “Where are you going?”

Gaius grunted as he pushed himself out of the chair, struggling to his feet like a man twice his age. “I need to lead the search for my son.”

“On the contrary,” she said. “What you need is bed rest and time to heal from your fall.”

“Again,” he said tightly, “I find myself in disagreement with my new wife.”

She kept the smile on her face.

“May I speak to you? Privately?” Amara asked as sweetly as possible.

“Of course,” he said, nodding to a nearby guard, who quickly swung the door open and ushered everyone out. As the room cleared, Amara closed her eyes and took several deep breaths in an attempt to force herself to handle this conversation delicately.

“If you insist on going on this quest,” she said, “I think you should leave the air Kindred with me for safekeeping.”

Perhaps delicately was slightly beyond her particular skills.

But Gaius was unfazed. “I don’t think so,” he replied simply.

Amara’s gut tightened. “Why not?”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Oh, please. I admit I may not be completely myself at the moment, but I’m no fool.”

So it would seem. “You don’t trust me.”

“No, not at all, actually.”

Amara reined in her frustration. The king had no idea that she also possessed a piece of the Kindred and she had no intention of telling him. “I will earn your trust.”

“And I will earn yours. Someday.”

She closed the small distance between them and took his hands in hers, noticing his grimace of pain as she did so. “We can begin today. Share with me the secret of unlocking its magic. The answer is here, I know that. Here in Mytica.”

“That much I haven’t tried to hide.”

She had been thinking nonstop about this during their journey here across the Silver Sea. So much time to think, to worry, to plan. “I can only assume that your daughter is an integral part of this, just as she was integral to finding the crystals in the first place.”

His expression closed up. “Is that what you think?”

“Yes.” She would not fear this man and his reputation for violence when crossed. She was the only one to be feared in this room, in this kingdom, and one day in this entire world. “Perhaps it’s Lucia, not Magnus, that you seek on this ill-timed journey.”

“My daughter eloped with her tutor and could be anywhere.”

“I’m right, aren’t I?” A smile spread across her features. “Lucia is the key to everything. Her prophecy expands far broader than I already thought. Don’t look so grim, Gaius. I told you that you could trust me, and you can. I’ll prove it. We will find her together.”

“I do want to find her, but I assure you, she is not the missing piece of this puzzle you seek.”

She wouldn’t receive a confirmation from him about this. Not today, perhaps not ever. She forced herself to smile sweetly and nod. “Very well. I will be patient then and focus on moving to the palace while you’re gone.”

Gaius studied her closely, looking into her eyes so intensely that Amara couldn’t be sure if he was trying to memorize her face or read her thoughts. She held her breath as she waited for him to speak.

“I’ll return as soon as I can.” He drew her closer and kissed her cheek. She forced herself not to recoil from the oddly unmistakable scent of death upon him.

He held her gaze for a moment longer, then turned and left the room without another word.

She took a seat upon her throne, waiting until Carlos returned with the medic. Amara dismissed the woman and summoned Carlos before her.

The guard kneeled at her feet, his attention on the floor. “Your grace, I see now that I should have told you what Lord Kurtis did. I assure you that all is well, and I don’t believe there is any reason for you to worry.”

“Rise.” When he did as she commanded, she didn’t bother to smile. Smiles were exhausting when not genuine. “You will tell me everything from now on, no matter how seemingly unimportant. If such a transgression happens again . . .” The words I will have you flayed were ready on her lips, but she chose not to speak them aloud. “. . . I will be very angry.”

“Yes, your grace.” He blinked. “Was that all?”

“No.” With annoyance, she rubbed the lump on the back of her head, wondering how long it would take before it healed. “The king will be leaving soon to search for his son. I want you to send two or three of our best men after him.”

“To assist?”

“No.” This earned a genuine smile. “To catch my new husband in a lie.”




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