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“Lia? Wake up.”
The voice reached me deep in the dreamthink, where I slept wrapped in the verdant cloak of Calanthe’s maternal embrace. For a moment, I thought all was well, that my realm was at peace, safe and protected—and that I was, too. That my world was as it had always been, and my ladies had arrived to wake me for the morning rituals.
But no … that wasn’t true at all. Calanthe roiled with restless anger and furious hunger. All that blood, violently spilled in battle, saturating the waters and soaking into the very bedrock of my island kingdom, had woken Her. And that same ravenous rage filled me. Rage, pain, and death. So much death, including my own.
I screamed. The bloodcurdling shriek ripped itself from Calanthe’s bones to rise from my stomach and rake my throat with rending claws as it tore from me.
“Lia. Lia, no.” Con wrapped himself around me—a man, not an island—human, made of sinews, muscle, and hot skin, stilling my thrashing limbs with his overpowering strength. “It’s me. You’re home. You’re safe. It’s all right now.”
I nearly laughed at how wrong he was, but it came out as a moan. None of us was safe and nothing would be all right ever again.
“Lia, please wake up.”
“I’m awake,” I said, cutting off any further empty reassurances and opening my eyes.
Con held me on his lap, cradling me there. Beyond the wind-ripped awning that stretched overhead, full night had fallen, blackness severed by lightning-streaked skies. Rain poured, the wind howled, and waves rose white-tipped in the torchlight. Calanthe had tasted blood and wanted more. Her longing was mine, intertwined. The insatiable craving filled me. The orchid burned on my arm, drawing life from me, the spindly new fingers of my regenerating hand clicking as I flexed them. They itched and needed flesh.
I had lost my ring finger, and then my hand. Suffered torture. Then, drained of blood, I’d died …
No, I couldn’t think about that. I needed to feed. Or Calanthe did. It didn’t matter which—no other thought could withstand that ravening appetite.
“Lia?” Con sounded uncertain, shadows haunting his face from the last few, eternally long days. He’d come for me and saved me—and he’d never looked more beautiful to my eye. Longing for him filled me, and I wanted. Mine. I was famished for him. I’d died thinking of him and here he was, for the taking.
His eyes caught the golden light of the torches as he studied me, concern turning to wariness. A blast of windblown rain shattered over him, but he didn’t seem to notice. I laid my intact hand on Con’s cheek, his pitted skin rough over his snarled beard, and I trailed my nails over the water droplets on his skin. He flinched slightly. That’s right. My nails had all broken. Untended, they’d been reduced to brittle nothingness, all ragged, sharp edges.
Just like me. An orchid can’t live on its own. I needed … something. Whatever it was, I would have it.
“Kiss Me,” I commanded him.
Con might have hesitated, his keen instincts whispering of danger, but I wound my fingers in the hair that trailed over his shoulder, pulling him to me. He lowered his head, arms easily lifting me at the same time, brushing my lips with his. Sweet, hot, so tender. Alive.
I bit. Like a snake striking, I had his lower lip in my teeth, hot blood flowing into my throat. He jerked, but I had him, holding him tight as I drank his life-giving vigor.
Then, instead of fighting me off, he growled deep in his throat and moved into me. Tongue coaxing me to open to him, he kissed me, sending salt and heat into the damp chill that lay deathly still in the marrow of my bones, the heat a melting caress. Needing me in return, he kissed me like a man desperate for a deep breath of air only I could give. His arms powerful around me, he held me against the furnace of his body, kissing me as if our lives depended on it. Maybe they did. Because somewhere in there, sanity returned—and I remembered who I was.
Euthalia, queen of Calanthe. I was Euthalia, not Calanthe. A flesh-and-blood woman, not an island made of soil and sea.
“Enough, Lia,” Con murmured against my lips. His big, rough hand gripped my jaw, gently but insistently coaxing me away from my prize.
Reeling into humanity again, I unclamped my teeth and broke the kiss. Con pulled back enough to search my face. Blood ran from his lip—swelling rapidly—and smeared in his beard. Abruptly, astonishingly, he grinned at me. “They warned me you were a man-eater, but I never thought they meant it literally.”
“Bringing the dead back to life can be a tricky proposition,” Ambrose observed, leaning over Con’s broad shoulder to peer at me. The wizard’s sunny curls were plastered with rain around his face, making him look even younger than usual. That deceptive youth made for an odd contrast with his eyes, which held the wisdom—and sorrow—of centuries. The clinical interest in them reminded me of the four wizards who’d tortured me so cheerfully in their pursuit of knowledge, and a shudder of animal terror shook me. “I do hope that there won’t be a problem with—well, no sense worrying about it now.”
“Explain,” Con demanded.
Ambrose smiled wistfully. “We’ll see if such explanations become necessary—or useful. Suffice to say, Your Highness, that it will take time for Your spirit to recalibrate to being in flesh again.”
“Unfortunately, time is what we don’t have at the moment.” General Kara, dark and lean, stepped into my line of sight and bowed from the waist. “Your Highness, we need Your assistance.” He grimaced, looking away to something. “Rather urgently,” he added.
A startling lurch threw us to the side, another wave splattering us with chilly salt water, though Kara, a longtime sailor, absorbed the motion easily. That’s right: We were on a boat. The name came into my mind. The Last Resort. Percy’s yacht that they’d sailed to Yekpehr to rescue Sondra and me. Though I only recalled waking on a couch under this awning, to sunset skies and Calanthe’s flower-scented breezes.
Now waves tossed the ship about, a storm raging. I frowned in puzzlement. There shouldn’t be a storm this violent near Calanthe, should there? But we were near Calanthe’s shores; I knew that like I knew my hand moved at the end of my arm.
“We might be fucked.” Sondra strode into view, her smile nearly gleeful. “It’s total chaos out there. Your Highness—good to see You awake. And alive,” she added as an afterthought. Self-consciously, she ran a hand over her shorn head, the tufts of pale hair uneven, fine as puffs of cloud. I didn’t know how she’d come to lose her beautiful hair.
I couldn’t remember much at all, except the pain, and that dreadful, nauseating weakness as my blood and very life drained away. And dying. Remembering that nothingness, the sense of my self dissipating, had me spinning down and away, the clammy claws of death reaching for me …
“Stay with me, Lia.” Con’s hand still on my jaw, he turned my face toward his. “We need you to get us home.”
Home. To Calanthe. I should never have left.
“What’s going on?” I asked, my thoughts clearing as I levered myself up. I had a duty, a responsibility. There should not be a storm like this. Con helped steady and support me as I tried to see past the pitching deck that filled most of the scene, but couldn’t. “I need to stand.”
I pushed to my feet but my legs gave way like wilted flower stems, and I collapsed back against Con. How humiliating. I hated being weak in any way, and now I was nothing but that.
“Let me,” Con said, sweeping one arm under my knees and lifting me as if I weighed nothing. Probably I did, after all I’d been through. He tucked me against his chest—a comforting place to be—and braced against a pole that held up the awning sheltering us from the storm. I scanned the night-dark sea. Our torches made a pitifully small circle of flame in the swirl of wind, seawater, and sideways rain.
In the distance, Calanthe shone with drenched light, crowned by the glittering jewel of my palace high on the cliffs. The home I thought I’d never see again.
Copyright © 2021 by Jeffe Kennedy.