Smolder

Crown of Fae Book 3

Book Cover: Smolder
Part of the Crown of Fae series:

A prince. A prisoner. The last embers of hope.

Leena is a fae and a fire dancer, as wild as her mountain home. But war with the Shades has crushed her tribe, and she is forced to use her powers for her captors’ entertainment. She obeys to protect her family, until the Shades enslave her young brother in a nightmarish spell.

Rich, arrogant, and devastatingly handsome, Morran is feared as an ally of the Shades. Known as the Phoenix Prince, he is a prisoner of a different kind, cursed to forget his bloodline’s legacy of magic. His familiar is the firebird, but it has been stolen—along with his memories, his power, and his sanity.

If Leena can heal the prince, she has a chance to rescue her brother—but it’s been centuries since Morran was cursed. Can she find the key to warming his heart again? And once the Phoenix Prince is free, who says she’ll be able to tame him?

 

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Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
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Chapter One

“Servant Leena, you know the punishment.”

The guard stood in Leena’s path like a wall of steel and leather. Behind him was the door to the sandstone banquet hall, where she should have arrived twenty minutes ago. Evening approached, and the pillars of the porch cast long shadows on the dusty ground. The day’s heat had been blistering, but now a soothing breeze stirred the white shawl that protected her face and arms from the sun.

Leena had been born in the mountain wilderness, far from Eldaban’s sweltering streets. Now she was here, with little money and less status. Tardiness meant a beating.

Anxiety spiked, but she bowed her head in silent apology. All she wanted was to report for duty with no one the wiser that she was a little late.

“Lord Dorth expects better,” the guard said.

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A rude retort slid through Leena’s mind, but she kept it to herself. Instead, she made another humble bow. “Delay could not be avoided.”

“Were you at the temple?” he asked.

“I was.” Leena straightened. She was tall and slim with an athlete’s lean muscles, and well able to meet his gaze without looking up.

She knew Guardsman Remmik and his wife. Like so many of Eldaban’s citizens, they had come to the Temple of the Flame in Eldaban when fever ran amok last spring.

The Kelthian fae—Leena’s people—survived through their healing skills. When she was young, her tribe had arrived in the city’s crowded slums to escape the war. They were seen as little more than barbarians—red-haired, pale-skinned shepherds, illiterate and ill-suited to Eldaban’s desert sun. And, in truth, they were hot-tempered and destitute, but they’d brought along their medical talents.

Remmik studied Leena for several moments, a battle between rules and mercy plain on his broad face. Leena had trained as a fire dancer and a maker of medicines. She’d been the one who’d given his wife a healing potion. Sadly, serving as a priestess of the temple didn’t bring in coin—and she was late for work.

Leena struggled not to squirm. The guardsman’s tired eyes were a match with the creases in his face. They all looked haunted these days. Everyone had lost the war, just in different ways.

Finally, Remmik stepped aside. “Go on and be quick about it.”

“Blessings, Guardsman.” She slipped past him, turning right to dart through the smaller entry only the servants used.

It was stifling inside the hall, the air thick with the scent of food and warm bodies. Leena pushed through the crowd of servers and kitchen boys. Some were human, while others were the solid, dark-eyed earth fae common in Eldaban. A few were slender Kelthians in their brightly colored tunics.

Leena’s destination was a small antechamber beside the main dining area, where she would wait until called on to provide entertainment. Lord Dorth had little use for the temple healers, but he paid good wages for their dancers—and Leena was the best. Judging by the crush of people, the fat lord of Eldaban had spared no expense tonight. There had to be an important guest.

She hurried down the corridor, with its high ceilings and marble floors. Her sandals clip-clopped as she ran, but the sound was lost in the hubbub of voices. The guests were just arriving. She still had time to get to her place, but only if she moved fast. There would be hell to pay if the Master of Revels noticed her absence.

Two burly fae passed with enormous platters, the golden dishes barely visible beneath heaps of food. The scent of herbed lamb and fresh bread made Leena’s stomach cramp. She hadn’t eaten since dawn, and there would be no time now. Swallowing the saliva flooding her mouth, she hurried on.

Her luck held. She skidded to a halt outside the door she wanted, smoothed her hair, and drifted in as if nothing were amiss. The room was full of performers, all faces she knew. There were musicians and jugglers, fire-eaters and acrobats. She slid onto a bench beside her friend, Elodie. Like Leena, she was a red-haired fire fae of the southern mountains. Unlike Leena, she was compact and generously rounded, her tight copper curls spilling over her bare shoulders.

“Where were you?” Elodie demanded, giving her a quick, one-armed hug. “You’re lucky the guests were delayed.”

“There were wounded.” Leena sucked in a deep breath, doing her best to stop panting from the run. “There was a skirmish outside the city walls.”

“Were the wounded from Eldaban, or were they true defenders of Faery?” Elodie asked bitterly.

It was an old argument. The enemy of all the fae—the one true enemy—were the Shades. The turncoat Lord Dorth of Eldaban had sided with the invaders, betraying the Kelthian tribe as well as the rest of the fae resistance. To be fair, it was the only reason his city still stood.

“I can’t blame the townsfolk,” Leena said. “They didn’t choose this fight.”

“They could have refused.”

“And we could have left Eldaban the moment Dorth swore to serve the Shades, but we’ve been glad to have shelter. Healing is how we pay our debt.”

Elodie opened her mouth to protest, but a black cat leaped onto the bench between them.

“Kifi,” Elodie squeaked, clearly startled.

“I know who the general is bringing to dinner,” the cat said in a small, childlike voice.

“Who?” Leena asked. “And what are you doing wandering the streets?”

“Temple cats are allowed to roam,” Kifi replied loftily, settling her sleek form between the two women.

“You are a temple cat in training.” Elodie’s tone was severe. “You don’t have permission to wander the streets.”

Ignoring the comment, Kifi curled her tail about her paws. “Do you want my news or not?”

“Who is Lord Dorth entertaining?” Leena asked, mostly to end the argument.

“General Juradoc, of course.”

He was the leader of the Shade army that occupied the lands around Eldaban. The name made Leena shudder.

“He has someone with him by the name of Morran.” The cat blinked golden eyes. “That one walks like a man with a storm cloud as his crown.”

“What does that mean?” Leena asked. Temple cats could be frustratingly vague, as if that were their job. “And who is he?”

Kifi’s answer was cut short by a loud, throbbing fanfare. The trumpeters had signaled the start of the banquet. Instinctively, Leena sat straighter, her pulse quickening at the sound. Pounding drums followed as the host and his guests paraded in. From where she sat, Leena could see the hall through the partially open door. She glimpsed Lord Dorth, his tunic stiff with gems and golden braid.

The Master of Revels circulated throughout the room, giving the performers their instructions. Tovas was squat and warty, as much goblin as fae.

“Be ready,” he said in a stage whisper, giving Leena and Elodie a wink. “The high and mighty are in a mood. We’ve got to be perfect tonight. Elodie, my sweet?”

Elodie hopped to her feet. She began checking the performers' costumes, ensuring laces were tied and buckles properly secure. There would be no mishaps on her watch.

The acrobats and jugglers were the first entertainment, meant to welcome the nobles filling the hall. They erupted from the room with a shout, balls flying as they somersaulted through the air. Leena’s feet twitched, aching to follow, but her turn would come. When she and Elodie took the floor, they would be the climax, the jewels of the feast, giving onlookers a glimpse of the sacred Flame. Nothing could follow that act.

Kifi crawled into her lap, her slight form surprisingly heavy. “There were portents about this evening. Dire events. I heard it at the temple.”

“Such as?”

“I’m not sure.” Kifi yawned, showing sharp fangs. “I was chasing a spider at the time.”

“You’re a terrible temple cat.”

“I am a perfect cat.”

“And therein lies the problem.”

Leena rose, Kifi draped in her arms, and stood closer to the door where she could see all the guests without being seen herself. The banquet tables formed a vast square along the edges of the cavernous room. The high table, where the dignitaries sat, occupied a raised dais at the front. Behind that were double doors to a marble balcony overlooking Eldaban’s main square.

Leena had a good view of the elaborate table settings and damasked silk cloth. Scarlet hangings draped the walls, the jeweled embroidery glittering with rubies. Servants hurried from the kitchens, adding food to the already-groaning tables. It seemed enough to feed the entire city twice over. Leena’s stomach growled again, earning her a sharp look from Tovas.

In the center of the room, the acrobats leaped and twirled for the guests. There were humans and fae, lords and merchants. Some of the fae were small and winged, while others sported horns or limbs covered in supple vines. One thing, however, was constant. Despite their fine clothes and practiced smiles, everybody looked nervous.

The figures at the high table had their heads together, conversing among themselves. These were the nobles Leena had to please. Kifi stretched to get a better view as well, her whiskers tickling Leena’s cheek.

“There is Lord Dorth. He’s scowling as if he’s eaten bad fish,” the cat said. “And there is Morran.”

“Huh,” Leena replied, at a loss for words.

He was taking his seat, somehow managing to occupy more than his allotted space at the table. Fae did not age, but, even so, she could tell Morran was just entering his prime. The language of his body was there for her dancer’s eye to read—the dominating, impatient quality of his movements, every gesture quick and certain. He had the bearing of a commander, not a follower.

And such good looks were rare, even among the fae. His hair was pure black, thick and curling as it fell across his brow. While his skin was a warm golden brown, his eyes were the deepest chocolate. Yet, Leena’s instant attraction was short-lived. There was no kindness in the set of his mouth or those heavy-lidded eyes. Despite the perfection of his features, Morran’s expression was deadly cold.

Foreboding slithered down her back, as if the man were fated to do her harm. Leena glanced at the window at the back of the chamber, where it overlooked the street. An irrational part of her wished she could fit through the tiny opening. She’d hurried to arrive tonight, yet now she yearned to be far away.

Morran had arrived with a contingent of guards in black-and-gold tabards. They were traitors, fae from across the land who had sworn allegiance to General Juradoc. They scattered through the room, standing back as the guests settled at the tables.

A handful of Shades commanded those guards. They wore black robes over their black armor, the hoods pulled forward to hide their faces. A few carried long, crooked staffs tipped with elaborate carvings. Warriors and sorcerers—both deadly. Shade magic left everything it touched lifeless ash.

And General Juradoc was the deadliest of the Shades who had invaded the south of Faery. Robed and hooded in inky black, he stood to one side of the high table, across the room from where Leena watched. He made no move to join Morran or Lord Dorth, though a throne-like chair sat between them. As far as Leena knew, Shades didn’t eat or drink.

At the sight of the enemy, Kifi gave a soft hiss.

“Hush,” Leena whispered.

The cat’s ears flattened. “The general smells like a butcher’s pail left in the sun.”

As if Juradoc had heard them, the Shade’s hooded face turned Leena’s way. There were plenty of rumors about what lurked beneath the Shades' robes—the enemy was an army of rotting corpses, skeletons, or nothing at all. Twin pricks of violet light glimmered in place of Juradoc’s eyes. The gaze snagged on Leena, holding hers for one heartbeat, then two.

He shouldn’t have been able to see her, not from where she stood beyond his line of sight. And yet, Juradoc’s presence seemed mere inches away. Intimately close. Terrifying.

Leena’s muscles drew tight. Kifi mewed a complaint and jumped to the ground, then leaped to the windowsill.

“Go,” Leena whispered. “Go back to the temple.”

“Flame guide you.” With a flick of her ears, the cat was gone.

A wise creature, Leena thought, drawing breath as Juradoc’s gaze released her at last. She stepped back, colliding with Elodie. Her friend braced Leena’s shoulders, giving her support.

“Easy,” Elodie said in a low voice. “We are just dancers, here to entertain. We are safely beneath the general’s notice.”

Leena wasn’t so sure. The sensation of that stare lingered like a slug’s sticky trail.

The acrobats had finished, and the hall fell quiet. Lord Dorth rose, his round face shining with the heat. He drew breath, clearly preparing for a speech.

Juradoc flicked a gloved hand. A flash of green light seared Leena’s eyes, followed by a clap of thunder loud enough to rattle the dishes on the tables. Someone shouted in alarm. Another person shushed them.

Elodie gripped Leena’s arm. “What’s going on?”

Juradoc strode to the middle of the room, black robes swirling in his wake. The startled acrobats sank into a deep bow. Juradoc dismissed them with a gesture, and they all but sprinted from the room. Leena envied them the chance of escape.

“Enough with these paltry entertainments,” Juradoc said, his voice harsh as he turned toward Lord Dorth. He spoke the fae language well, but with an odd accent. “You insult us with such frivolity.”

The words fell like barbs, chasing any pleasure from the room. Juradoc circled the space, his steps unhurried. “We allowed Eldaban to live, unlike the Ravaged Lands to the south. Nothing survives there now.”

Elodie’s indrawn breath filled the silence. The smoking ruins of the south had once been their home.

Juradoc kept pacing. The banquet guests were motionless, their expressions appalled. Morran picked up his goblet, sipping the wine slowly. He sat back in his chair with an air of boredom, giving an approving nod to the vintage.

“My captains and I were generous,” Juradoc continued, a snarl creeping into this tone. “We stayed our hand because Eldaban bought our mercy. You swore the ancient power you shelter within your walls would be ours for the taking. And yet, tonight, you try to amuse us with clowns.”

“Blame the Master of Revels,” Dorth stuttered, his small eyes wide. “He insists on leading up to the highlights, building anticipation.”

Leena winced, suddenly worried for Tovas.

Building anticipation?” Juradoc’s tone dripped with incredulity. He stopped, robes eddying around him. “Are we peasants at a fair?”

Blood draining from his cheeks, Lord Dorth sat without uttering another word. Leena almost pitied him.

“Do not think for a moment that we can be handled or impressed by trifles.” The Shade came to a stop before the high table, raising a hand to point at his host. “Do not presume upon my goodwill.”

Juradoc jumped onto the dais with a surprising lightness, then reached across the overflowing table to snatch the goblet from Morran’s hand. The Shade turned to the crowd, the heavy metal cup held aloft. Jewels winked along its golden rim.

Then, a pulse of green fire covered it—so quick, it was gone in a blink. But then the heavy gold powdered to black ash, sifting through Juradoc’s gloved fingers like sand.

Shade magic consumed all while leaving nothing behind.

Leena’s throat closed as memories of her home’s devastation crowded in. Entire villages and fields had turned to dust. The Shades had stripped the life from the mountains, leaving nowhere to live. Nothing but barren rubble.

Eldaban didn’t stand a chance. The banquet hall was still as a tomb.

“I grow bored with your cringing,” Juradoc sneered. He jumped off the dais as lightly as a temple cat. “Summon the fire dancers.”

Lord Dorth made a frantic gesture. In response, Tovas spun to face Leena and Elodie. “Get out there, now.”

Leena froze, struck by a horrible certainty. Juradoc had spied her tonight, and he knew what she could do. He’d seen the Flame inside her.

What Shades saw, they took. Terror threatened to turn her knees to jelly.

“Hurry.” Elodie pulled Leena’s shawl away, tossing it aside.

Mouth dry, Leena kicked off her sandals. She needed nothing special to perform. Her straight, coppery hair fell to her hips, and her simple blue dress was all the costume she owned.

“There’s no need for panic.” Elodie’s tone was firm. “This is what we do.”

She was right. The Flame was the soul of the fire fae, and it was as pure and unrelenting as the sun. It wasn’t so flimsy that one enemy, not even a Shade, could steal or sully it. They were priestesses, and the spirit burned hot and proud inside them. Leena would personally show the enemy she was unbowed.

By the time they were ready, Juradoc had retreated to a place by the wall, giving them the floor.

There was no music to accompany their entrance. Elodie went first—a spark of energy unleashed. Her white dress hung to her knees, leaving her tanned legs bare. She spun, curls flying, coming to rest only when she reached the far end of the room. Then Leena leaped forward, her motions long and liquid. She and Elodie were excellent foils, playing off each other like instruments in a duet.

Yet, when she turned to face the high table and bow in reverence, she faltered. Until now, she’d seen Morran only in profile. From this angle, she could see his face clearly. Her first impression was the same as before—an unbidden wave of attraction. His cheekbones were high, his dark brows slightly slanted. The overall impression was of strength and intelligence. A dark blue tunic stretched across his broad chest, embroidered in gold and silver thread with a firebird surmounted by a crown.

Shock momentarily numbed Leena into stillness. There was only one man who could wear that sigil—the Phoenix Prince, Lord of Tymeera. He was the mightiest of the fire fae and a warrior without equal. He had beaten the Shades back for years, protecting the south with magic and sword until his sudden disappearance.

Without him, Kelthia had lost everything—and here he was at Juradoc’s side. He’d betrayed them all. The knowledge was like a fist to her belly, robbing her of breath.

When Morran’s gaze met hers, his eyes were as dead as stone.

 

 

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