As he strives to restore his kingdom to its former glory, the witch’s
prophecies come true in ways Armander never imagined. The years of abuse under the old king have taken their toll on his people—even more so on Armander. His barely contained rage, unleashed at the slightest provocation, has earned him a name whispered behind his back: The Beast.
When Armander learns a neighboring king has plotted his assassination, he demands the king’s daughter as reparation. Immediately captivated by the beautiful princess, Armander discovers it is he, in fact, who has become the hostage.
As his love for her grows increasingly apparent to those around him, Armander little realizes Princess E’laiahna has powerful enemies within the palace, men who will stop at nothing to keep her from becoming
Queen. Yet only one enemy can drive her away forever—The Beast.
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EXCERPT -- Chapter One
The kingdom of Nekrosia had once been wealthy beyond imagining. Even those who lived well beyond its borders—kings and peasants alike—knew of the splendor of its royal palace. Many came to see for themselves, and none left disappointed. They returned home with stories of the Nekrosian dynasty’s extravagance, of its wealth and power.
That was the intent, of course, behind the extravagance—to impress the world with their power—and so the audience chamber in particular had been built on a grand scale. Several houses entire could have fit inside. Or, more like, a small village. Those entering the chamber for the first time were invariably overcome with awe. Even a king might feel small here. Insignificant.
From his seat on the throne, Armander looked across the gleaming expanse of marble flooring. The stone was a white so pure it dazzled the eye. A narrow strip of carpet dyed a black as dark as Nekros’s heart marked a path from the entrance straight to the ebon wood throne.
Armander pondered the dark path that had led him to the throne. Now, it seemed, the journey forward was about to become darker still.
His chief counselor stood at the foot of the dais, patiently awaiting a response. They were alone in the great chamber, save for the double posting of guards at every entrance. Armander glared down at Ranir. The counselor was the bearer of bad news, not its cause. Yet however much Armander reasoned thus with himself, he needed a target for his anger.
“I murdered one king to gain my throne. Must I now kill another to preserve it?”
Ranir shook his head slowly.
Armander understood his counselor expressed sympathy, not disagreement. Yes, he was saying, though a regrettable necessity, killing L’aiahn was exactly what must be done.
The man’s cool equanimity in the face of disaster could be maddening at times.
Armander absently fingered the hilt of his dagger, tracing the familiar design of inlaid jewels. The habit usually had a calming effect. Not today. Not with this turn of events.
Ranir finally spoke. “The men we captured confessed. Every one of them named King L’aiahn as the instigator of this treacherous plot.”
“But why?” In one swift move, Armander drew his dagger and stabbed its tip into the arm of his throne. “Why would L’aiahn make the journey here on the pretense of suing for peace? He could have more safely sent one of his henchmen to assassinate me.”
“We cannot know until we speak with him.”
“Lies!” Armander pulled the dagger free. “Lies!” he repeated, stabbing the throne again to emphasize his words. “He will speak naught but lies.”
Ranir winced when the dagger’s blade bit into the ornate carving. Perversely, Armander stabbed at it again.
“That may be,” Ranir said with exaggerated calm. His mouth twitched downward in a barely discernible frown.
Armander paused to sheathe his dagger, making a deliberate show of the act. He met Ranir’s gaze and graced him with a crooked smile. “I do believe you care more for the damage to this throne than the danger to my person.”
Ranir ignored the taunt. “There may yet be a way to turn L’aiahn’s perfidy to our advantage.”
“Oh? Pray tell me, Counselor.”
A smile transformed Ranir’s stern features. “Ransom.”
Armander knew that smile. Rather than denoting mirth or pleasure, it was a mark of triumph. The expression reminded him of Nekros’s malevolent grin, enough so that he had to suppress a shudder.
“Ransom?” Armander echoed. He laughed, flicking the back of his hand in the air as if swatting away an annoying insect. “Of course we’ll demand a ransom. E’lu-mene’s throne rests on the gold buried beneath its mountains. A goodly amount of that fortune shall find its way to my treasury if L’aiahn’s subjects have any wish to see their king again.”
“From all reports, L’aiahn is beloved by his people. His nobles will no doubt pay a generous sum for his return.” Ranir paused, though he obviously had more to say.
“Tell me, Counselor, what else you have in mind.”
Ranir smiled again, looking even more pleased with himself than before. “My spies have informed me L’aiahn possesses a treasure he would gladly empty his coffers to protect.”
Armander leaned forward, in no mood for guessing games. “Well?”
Ranir met Armander’s glare with equanimity, pausing a heartbeat longer before he answered. “His daughter.”
Armander stared back at the counselor, slowly absorbing the weight of his words. Such two seemingly simple words, yet so ripe with possibility, like heavy, low-hanging fruit.
His for the picking.
“What do you know of her?”
“She is of marriageable age, yet L’aiahn refuses to allow her suitors.”
Armander made a wry face. “In that case, she must be monstrously ugly.”
“Perhaps.” Ranir shrugged, as if the possibility was of little import. “E'lu-mene’s odd custom of veiling their royal daughters does nothing to dispel the suspicion.”
Armander laughed. “Are their women such ugly curs they must be hid from view?”
“I believe the custom began several generations ago, prompted by an altogether different consideration.”
Ranir had adopted the detached tone of voice that always made Armander feel he was being lectured by a tutor. “A custom about which you are going to enlighten me, no doubt.”
“As you wish.” Pointedly ignoring Armander’s sarcasm, Ranir tilted his head in an abbreviated bow before continuing with his explanation. “The wealth of E’lu-mene’s royal family has always been a lure for opportunists. Their children—especially the daughters—proved easy prey. The kings grew tired of having them stolen for ransom, and so kept their children closely guarded within the castle walls. To this day, they surround their daughters with other girls of comparable age, all of whom are kept strictly veiled.”
Armander nodded, understanding now. “A thief would find it considerably more difficult to carry away an entire cartload of young women. Not to mention the problem of discovering which of them to trade in ransom.”
“Then I will meet with the same difficulty, will I not?”
Ranir cast him a look of wounded pride, as if Armander’s question insulted his competence. “I have bribed a serving maid in L’aiahn’s household. She has provided us with a detailed description of the princess.”
“How do you know this maid to be reliable?”
Ranir smiled again, to an even more chilling effect than before. “I am holding the girl’s parents here.”
Armander nodded his approval. He did not always like Ranir’s methods, but they were effective. “And what does she say of L’aiahn’s daughter?”
“That she is sheltered. Pampered. And doted upon by the King and Queen.”
Ranir toyed with him now. Armander touched the hilt of his dagger to steady himself. “By the dark gods! What does she look like?”
“Forgive me, my lord.” Ranir apologized, flicking a glance at Armander’s dagger as if judging the probability that he might actually use it. “One must take into account the serving maid’s limited experience outside the castle walls,” he began cautiously.
“The girl claims that her mistress . . . ” Ranir paused. A dark emotion scudded across his face, vanishing almost as soon as it appeared. “She claims her mistress to be more beautiful than any woman in L’aiahn’s realm. More beautiful, if it can be believed, than her aunt, the one who—”
“I know, I know,” Armander interrupted. “The one who spurned Nekros. The one they blame for turning him toward the dark arts as solace. I have never laid eyes on this treacherous harlot, nor do I wish to. What I would like is a description of the princess.”
The same troubled look as before darkened Ranir’s features. Armander knew his counselor’s moods as well as he knew any man’s, yet he could not fathom what so disturbed him.
Obediently, Ranir continued. “She is tall, generously proportioned—” He hesitated. “If you take my meaning, Sire.”
Armander nodded, and allowed himself a salacious smile. Oh yes, he knew only too well Ranir’s meaning. “Continue.”
“Skin like burnished ivory, golden hair touched with the red glow of flame, gray-blue eyes the color of a clear winter’s sky.”
“Enough.” Armander lifted a hand to put an end to Ranir’s litany. He wished to leave room to exercise his imagination concerning the princess—in private, where he did not have to hide his arousal.
Armander got to his feet, feeling the need to move about. He descended the dais and headed for the open archway that led outside onto the balcony. Ranir followed at a discreet distance. When they reached the balustrade, Armander braced himself against it with both hands and fixed an unfocused gaze on the assembly ground below. Ranir stood in silence beside him, wise enough to allow his king time with his thoughts. Several minutes passed before Armander gave his orders.
“Have the entire king’s guard gather below in full combat dress. I will return when they are assembled.” Armander turned to face Ranir. “You and I, my friend, will have our chance to question L’aiahn. Then we shall decide what recompense to require of him.”
“Yes, Sire.” Ranir bowed, and immediately departed to do as he was bid.
“Or,” Armander added under his breath as he watched his counselor leave, “what to require of his daughter.”
About the Author
|Sondra Allan Carr|
All her books are romances, with the obligatory Happily Ever After, although she does admit to tormenting her characters just a little before they've earned their happy ending.
You can go to Sondra’s website at http://sondraallancarr.com to sign up for email notification of new books, sales, and giveaways.