A Crown of Starlight by Linsey Hall
I stared at the wall of my cell, following the patterns of the massive stones for the hundredth time. I’d been moved from the prison at High Court Palace two days ago and hadn’t seen anyone since.
There’d been no word from Eve and Meria, who had been locked up along with me, but I hoped my friends were free.
I thunked my head against the wall, ignoring the books piled around me. The cell at the Court of Starlight and Darkness was far nicer than the one at High Court Palace. Fine furniture and piles of books had greeted me when I’d been shoved in by the silent guards.
A sign of guilt on King Lore’s part?
I hadn’t even seen him since I’d been imprisoned.
A knock sounded on the reinforced door, followed by his voice. “Sia?”
I twitched. Had he heard me thinking about him?
You’re a bastard, and I hate you.
There. If he was reading my mind, he’d get the only message I wanted to send him. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter.
Except…there was one thing I wanted to know.
“Have you released my friends?” I asked through the door.
A key sounded in the lock, and the door swung open. His scent proceeded him—the cool aroma of a winter forest, so lovely that I wanted to draw it into my lungs in great gulps.
I wouldn’t acknowledge anything good about him. As far as I was concerned, he was gum on the bottom of my shoe.
But he sure didn’t look like gum.
He walked in with the grace of a deadly predator. The power that vibrated around him made it very clear that he could do all the damage he wanted.
He already had.
My prison surroundings were evidence of that.
But he was so damned handsome, with his divine bone structure and ice blue eyes. His silver hair made him look like an otherworldly god, which he basically was.
But I definitely didn’t look at his lips. I couldn’t afford to remember the feeling of them on my skin.
“Well?” I asked. “Have you released Eve and Meria?”
“That’s the first thing you ask me?”
“Of course it is.” I hated the way his presence made my heart race. It felt like a ghostly fist pumped the organ inside my chest, and I couldn’t slow it down no matter how hard I tried. “They were wrongly imprisoned alongside me. So yes, they’re my priority. Have you released them?”
He leaned against the door, studying me with cool eyes. Yet, I swore I could see a hint of heat behind his gaze.
I glared at him, hoping he could read the disdain in mine.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “They could be in league with you.”
“In league for what? Getting screwed over? Because yes, they were.”
“You blew up the two most important places at High Court Palace. Because of you, the ancient seat of fae power is gone, along with the entire contents of the greenhouse. Do you deny that?”
Shit. I couldn’t. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
He laughed. “Not on purpose? How does a person call on that much magical energy, but not on purpose?”
Panic skittered under my skin. “Exactly like I said. I had no control over what happened. One minute, I was being drawn outside by a force I couldn’t control, and the next, all this magic was rushing through me.” The memory made me shudder. “But then it rushed back out of me. And boom.”
That was the kicker. When the magic left me, it had caused an enormous explosion. I’d had no control over it.
“That’s a very convenient excuse.”
“Convenient?” A short, crazed laugh escaped me. “Nothing about this is convenient.”
I’d married him to fulfill a prophecy that would allow me to defeat the witch with the deathly magic. By doing so, I was supposed to save lives, a lot of lives.
Instead, the clouds that had foretold the arrival of the witch had rushed into me and given me a crazy horrible power.
I was the witch with the deathly magic.
“Can you deny what you are?” he asked.
Honestly? “No.” And I hated that. “But it isn’t what you think. I was as clueless as you until the moment it all happened. I had no idea what I was. And it doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t have that magic. Vusario took it.”
He frowned. “What?”
“If you’d bothered to come see me before this, I could have told you that your damned seer snuck into my cell at High Court Palace and stole my magic.” I shuddered. It had been horrible, his touch and the feeling of him sucking my magic from me. I didn’t know what power I had left—if any—
because I hadn’t seen the stars since it had happened. I felt a bit woozy, though. “I tried to tell the guards, but they wouldn’t listen.”
“Why should they believe you over our seer?” He frowned. “Why should I?”
“Because I’m telling the truth!” I wanted to scream. “Is he still here? Because he said he wants to destroy you. That was the message I was supposed to pass along.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You’re telling me. He orchestrated it all, though.”
“So, you deny causing the explosions at High Court Palace?”
The frustration ground together in my stomach like rocks on a riverbed. “I already said I can’t. But I didn’t mean to do it. And afterward, in the High Court Prison, Vusario came in and took the magic right out of me.”
“How do I trust you?” He dragged a hand through his silver hair. It was one of his most beautiful features—ethereal in the way of the fae, and yet, the perfect complement to his powerful bone structure. “You asked me to trust you before, and it led to one of the biggest tragedies High Court Palace has ever seen. And our court is responsible. The other courts wanted you to remain there, you know.”
Cold chilled me.
Lore was scary, but I’d still seen goodness in him. And he wanted me. That had to count for something. If he’d left me at High Court Palace, it wouldn’t have gone well for me.
“They would hold a trial and find you guilty,” he said. “And then they would execute you.”
I swallowed hard, my skin chilling. That was worse than I’d expected. “But you won’t let them, right?”
“I—” His jaw tightened. “The decision isn’t mine.”
My stomach dropped, and I drew in a shuddery breath. Anger seethed inside me, and it took everything I had not to get up and punch him. He was ten times stronger and faster than me, so it was pointless.
“I stayed here to help you. At the loss of my life back in Seattle, I might remind you.” It wasn’t much of a loss, since I hadn’t had any real friends. But he didn’t need to know that. “And for my trouble, I end up in prison.”
His jaw tightened. “I have to protect my people.”
“Yeah, and I’m fated to save you all, according to the Truth Teller.”
“We don’t fully understand the prophecy.”
“And that’s enough for you to alienate me like this? Not to mention, if you’re so unwilling to trust me, how the hell do you trust Vusario? He’s a threat to you.”
“You’re the threat.”
“Then why visit me?” That was the question that was driving me crazy. Did he want me as much as I wanted him?
Did he care?
Because as much as I hated it, hated what he’d done, I cared about him. He’d locked me up, and that had been a shit thing to do, but I could see how tortured he was. He’d spent hundreds of years putting his people first.
I could respect that.
Except, it had also landed me in this cell. And that pissed me off. I’d thought we’d come farther than this.
“Well?” I demanded. “Why do you visit me?”
He dragged his hand through his hair once more, a tortured light glinting in his eyes. “Because I can’t help myself.”
As soon as the words left my lips, I spun on my heel and stalked out.
Because I can’t help myself.
It was true. Where she was concerned, I’d lost all control. It was everything I’d feared.
She’d asked if I’d let the High Court have her.
No way in hell.
I risked my position and the power of my court, but I was incapable of letting anything bad happen to her. I’d never be able to hand her over to their judgement.
But that meant a war could come to our doorstep if we didn’t figure out what was happening.
Which led me to Vusario.
Was she telling the truth?
Could I trust her?
Could I trust my own judgement? She clouded my mind to the point that I didn’t know if I could make sound decisions.
Worse, even if I could make sound decisions and maintain a level head around her, I didn’t
deserve her. Not after my failings. My fundamental flaw made me unworthy of her. In the past, I’d become so distracted by the pleasures of the flesh that I’d failed as king.
If what she said was true, and she was innocent, then Sia deserved more than me.
What a mess.
I climbed the stairs to the ground level, leaving the custom-built prison I’d created for her. It had taken great magic to build it so quickly, but we couldn’t put her in the tower. Last time I’d done that, she’d escaped.
And this was the second time I’d imprisoned her.
What if I was wrong?
The idea turned my stomach.
There was only one way to find out.
I reached the ground level and exited to a sunny day. It was irritatingly bright and beautiful. The sun shone on the brilliant green grass that covered the hillside, sloping down to the forest and sea. I was in such a foul mood that it felt like the weather should reflect it. Heavy clouds and rain and lightning.
I strode past the guards, heading down the hillside to the forest that contained Vusario’s home. He lived in the woods near the castle, though I rarely visited. When I needed him, he came to me.
However, it would be better if I caught him unawares. There was no evidence to support Sia’s accusations, except that she no longer bore the signature of the deathly magic. Last time I’d seen her, in the High Court Palace dungeon, she had reeked of the dark magic. At the time, there’d been no question that she was the one who had caused all the damage.
But this time, the signature had been gone.
It was possible for powerful supernaturals to hide their signatures, though. And Sia was powerful.
A faint breeze blew through the trees as I strode toward Vusario’s home. Wolf joined me, slinking from the bushes to trot alongside me.
I ran a hand across his head, and he bumped against my thigh in an affectionate gesture.
“Doing all right?” I asked the creature.
He huffed low, and I took that to be a yes.
Until Sia, he’d been the only one I could touch without causing pain. I’d appreciated him for that, and for his undemanding companionship.
A bitter laugh escaped me.
What a dark way to live. He was a good dog, but at the end of the day, he was a dog. Not a mate.
Not a partner.
I’d had the briefest taste of what it might be like with Sia, and I wanted more.
That was the problem. My desire was a weakness. It distracted me from my duty to my people,
and I couldn’t tolerate that.
So I wouldn’t.
I reached the clearing where Vusario’s house stood. It was a grand structure, as far as fae homes were concerned, and the guards that he’d posted outside were a testament to his ego. There was little need for them within the kingdom, but he always had them at his side.
I’d always thought it was vanity, but perhaps not. Perhaps there was a reason for the guards. Were they loyal to him or me? They wore the uniform of my court, but they guarded his back, day and night.
As I neared the two men who stood by the door, I studied them. They kept their gazes on the forest in the distance, searching for threats. They were good soldiers, attentive and alert, ready for anything.
I stopped in front of them and said, “You are relieved of duty.”
They nodded immediately and departed.
No hesitation. Loyal to me.
I knocked on the door out of courtesy but didn’t wait for a response before I entered. Wolf followed me in, his paws silent on the ground.
Vusario rose from a chair by the fire, a book in his hand. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, as always, and his sapphire robes spotless. He’d always been very particular about his appearance, and that was no different today. I searched his face for any inkling of betrayal but found none.
I scented the air, searching for the magical signature, any indication that he’d stolen Sia’s magic.
Unfortunately, I found nothing. That didn’t mean it wasn’t there, however.
“My lord.” Vusario inclined his head. “What can I do for you?”
Wariness pricked. There was something slightly off about this situation. If he really had taken Sia’s magic, why had he come back here? Did he have something planned?
“Why did you insist we go to the palace for the wedding?” I asked.
“Because it would make your union more powerful to be married by the High Court.” He frowned, confusion flickering in his eyes. “I had no idea your bride would turn out to be the witch with the deathly magic, though. Is that why you’re here?”
“There are some unanswered questions.”
His eyes flashed. “I’ve served you loyally for years. You must believe me.”
“But I don’t. You told me that we should go to High Court Palace because we would catch the witch with the deathly magic. You knew I couldn’t resist that. But if the witch was Sia, there was no need to go. She was here all along.”
“I didn’t realize who she was,” he blustered, stepping back. “I only repeated the vision to you, as I always do.”
But there was no fear in his eyes—not the usual reaction of those I put on the spot.
I shook my head, trusting Sia. I felt it in my gut—she was right about this. “No. You had allies
there. Allies that you needed to take her magic. You couldn’t have brought your mercenaries here, so you arranged for them to meet you.”
It was all falling into place. I should have talked to her sooner. It had been my own damned fear of falling for her that had kept me away.
Yet more evidence of my weakness. More evidence that I didn’t deserve her.
“Why the hell did you do it?” I approached him, angry with myself and with him.
His face twisted into a mask of rage, and all pretense faded away. The air changed, and he hissed,
“Vengeance. I did it for vengeance.”
He raised a hand, and the scent of dark magic welled on the air.
It was what I’d smelled on her last time. He truly had taken it. I’d believed her, but this was irrefutable proof.
I charged toward him, bracing myself for a blow. Wolf raced alongside me. Vusario threw a blast of dark magic toward me. I dodged the black cloud, narrowly avoiding a direct hit. But it plowed into my arm, sending pain shooting through me.
I staggered, nearly going to my knees before righting myself and reaching for him.
Vusario shook his head, a cunning glint in his eyes. “Not today, your Highness.”
Wolf lunged for him, but Vusario disappeared in a haze of dark smoke before the beast could sink teeth into flesh.
The room fell silent.
I’d almost had him.
Frustration surged. I’d been only feet away when he’d hit me.
Wolf trotted over to me, worry in his dark eyes. I looked down at my arm, my stomach twisting at the sight of the blackened flesh. It was the color of charcoal, and I could no longer feel it.
I drew in a shuddery breath and looked around Vusario’s home. The wall behind me had been blackened by the overflow of magic, but the rest was intact.
Anger coiled within me. He’d been betraying me all along. Were there secrets here to be uncovered? Perhaps.
We’d come back to search it later.
For now, I needed to get to the healer.
I walked from the house, my steps slower than usual. My stomach turned as I looked down at my arm once more.
Was the magic spreading?
I passed no one as I walked through the forest, but the birds quieted as I passed.
Not a good sign. Nor was the feeling of weakness pervading my muscles.
Whatever he’d hit me with, it was deadly.
|August 29, 2022
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