“How?” Thomas stared at her. She was… and yet she couldn’t be. Princess Ileana had thrown herself from her balcony into the river below. He’d seen it with his own eyes.
Instead of answering, she lifted a thin bladed knife. She moved toward his neck, and for a heartbeat he thought she was going to slice open his throat. Instead, she cut the rope around his neck.
His head dropped forward, and he sucked in air. His position still prevented him from drawing a full breath, but he was no longer limited to the painful, shallow gasps. He wasn’t sure how long he hung there, limp, just breathing, before she caught his hair and viciously yanked his head up and back again.
Around her wrist was coiled a golden serpent. It raised its head, flicking its tongue at him. It hissed, revealing glistening fangs. “You belong to me.” Her voice was soft, with a curious echo to it. “Body and soul.”
“Kill me and get it over with.” He stared back at her.
Her smile was vicious. “Oh no.” She gave a small shake of her head. “It won’t be that easy for you.”
The serpent reared its head back and struck, its fangs piercing the skin of his throat. Fire seemed to flow through his veins as he felt it coil around his neck. He screamed as darkness closed over him.
Beneath the dressing, the abraded skin had healed over. There was no trace of scaring, no sign that the ropes had ever torn at him. Ileana lifted his arm, pressing her fingers to his elbow joint as she moved it through his range of motion.
“Why heal him?” Vula perched on the foot of the bed, watching.
“He is a warrior.” She smiled. “I want to see the look on his face when he realizes that for all his strength, all his skill, he is completely at my mercy.” Her eyes narrowed. “He killed my brother.” The child she had once been had thought of Nacio as the most powerful being in the land. With his sword between her and danger, she need fear nothing. No monster, no dragon, no demon from the dark could get to her as long as her brother was there.
Nacio had given this man the sword that had been used to kill him. A gift, for his little sister’s betrothed. She frowned, then up at Vula again. “Did you recover his gear?”
The goblin nodded. “Put it there.” She pointed.
She rose, and walked to the items tossed haphazardly into the corner. His armor was unadorned, but well made. The cloak was a thing of beauty, embroidered in gold with his family crest. And there, beneath it, the sword. She picked it up, and ran her fingers along the hilt. She’d gone with Nacio to the smith, listened to them discuss the design. The pommel was a lion’s head, roaring. She’d selected the stones that had been inlaid for the eyes. His family. The grip was patterned, with the guard ending in a serpent’s head. Her family. She pulled the scabbard away. The blade itself was ancient, older than the kingdom itself. It was of Sidhe craft, all but indestructible. At least two wars had been fought over such blades.
Something about the scabbard caught her eye. Halfway down it was tied a piece of green fabric. Ileana frowned, then touched it, spreading it beneath her fingers. A lion had been embroidered upon it in fine golden thread. The work itself was amateurish, with a few missed stitches, and the lion itself had an extra toe on one paw. A favor. Her favor, sent to him to carry in his first tournament. Why…?
Ileana set it aside, then walked back over to the bed. What had become of the sword her brother had wielded? “He should wake soon.”
“Should just eat him.” Vula shook her head.
“There are questions he must answer.” She shook her head.
“Eat him slow.” Vula smiled, showing a mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth. “Start at feet. He young. Lean meat still tender.”
“Vula…” Ileana petted the goblin. “Not every problem can be solved by eating someone.”
“Then you not eat right someone.” Vula smirked.
Ileana looked down at the unconscious man on the bed. When her father had introduced her to him, she’d thought he looked like something out of a dream. A handsome, charming prince, with slightly curly brown hair and eyes like the summer sky. He’d kissed her hand, danced with her, played his part perfectly. She’d been half in love with him before the ball had ended. On one knee, before the court, he’d made the formal offer of marriage and she’d been breathless when making the formal acceptance. He’d kissed her then, for the first time. A chaste, sweet thing. “I was fourteen and stupid.”
“What say?” Vula’s head came up.
“I was thinking of the betrothal ceremony. When his father bought him my hand with offers of an alliance.” Had he known then, as he’d courted her so beautifully? “A youngest child for a youngest child. It seemed…” She sighed.
“Trap no good, if see it.” Vula nodded at the man on the bed. “Pretty bait.”
“He was seventeen. The wedding couldn’t be for another two years, and he was his brother’s squire so it was decided I would stay in Summerhall. We wrote each other.” She smiled bitterly. “I’d sigh over each of his letters. A foolish, dreamy thing.” She’d fallen in love with the man she’d imagined behind those letters. “I wonder which of his servants he had write them. Oh, how they must have laughed at my…”
“Eat him.” Vula pointed at one of his feet. “Start with big toe. No cut it off first. Just nibble away. Fun time, see how many toes can eat before they beg.” Vula’s sharp teeth showed again. “One man I get to knee.” She shrugged, and gave the man an appraising look. “This one, I think ankle.”
“Perhaps after I’m through with him.” She settled back into a chair, and waited for him to wake.
There was a strange sensation at this throat, but his body no longer hurt. For just a heartbeat, he was back in his bed, waking from a nightmare. Then he made the mistake of opening his eyes. The roof above him was made of tree branches, woven together and growing with leaves and flowers. It would have been beautiful, if it hadn’t meant… Thomas turned his head and saw her sitting there, cold green eyes watching him. “You’re dead.” He swallowed, and felt pressure against his throat. “I saw you die.”
“You saw me leap.” Ileana’s lips curled up in a catlike smile.
He’d run when he’d seen her there, on the balcony, praying he could reach her before she… Thomas looked away, then recoiled when he caught sight of the thing sitting on the end of the bed. It was the size of a child, lumpy and misshapen, with mottled green skin and a mouth nearly as wide as its head. It smiled at him, showing rows of jagged teeth. His hand went for where he normally kept his sword, and he realized belatedly that he was laying there completely nude. He sought something to cover himself with, but there was nothing at hand. He drew his knees up to give himself some level of modesty. The thing on the end of the bed laughed. “It turn red without cooking.”
A hand touched where there was pressure against his throat, and he felt cold metal beneath his fingers. Slowly, he turned back toward Ileana. She was still watching him, the catlike smile on her face. Ileana. He started shaking his head. “No. You can’t be Ileana. She…”
“You asked me once if the stories were true.” She leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees. “If my family had Sidhe blood. Do you remember, Thomas?”
“I…” They’d been in her family’s garden. She’d laughed, a warm silvery sound. Then she’d lifted her hand, extended a finger, and a songbird had landed. She’d brought it close enough for him to touch before it had flown away again. “You said yes, that…” He swallowed.
“We are children of the sun and moon, the ancient wild in our blood.” She straightened. “Cousins of the stones, the trees, the waters…” She smiled. “And the wind.” She spread her hands. “I called to them, and they came.” Ileana showed a hint of teeth. “And they are angry.”
He felt sick. “You didn’t have to leap, Ileana. The men at your door were to protect you.”
“Protect me?” She blinked at him.
“They were mine. Protecting my wife from…” He trailed off as she stood, glaring at him. Her father had been a traitor, working against the king. His uncle. His father had been ordered to deal with the matter, but he’d convinced his father that she was innocent, that his Ileana couldn’t possibly have…
“Protecting me from what? It was your family attacking. Your family that…” She folded her arms. “Murdered mine. What was it your father said? ‘Keep the breeder safe, we still need her?’” She shook her head.
“My father…” He shook his head. “No, he…” Thomas frowned. “You must have…”
“I know what he said.” She tossed her thick black braid over her shoulder. “Of course, they’d still need me. You hadn’t got an heir on me yet, so you couldn’t claim my family’s lands.” She smirked. “Perhaps he should have waited to slaughter everyone I loved until after you’d managed that, husband.”
His blood was cold. “That’s not…”
“Just tell me…” Her eyes met his. “Your brother took his turn with my sister. Did you?”
“I never laid a hand on your sister.” Nicolas had broken Ardal’s jaw when he’d come upon the scene, though they’d been too late to save the woman. He’d put the men on Ileana’s door to keep her safe from Ardal more than anything else. He’d wanted to take her from there entirely, but his father had refused, pointing out they’d never manage to take that castle unless they started while they were already inside. If it hadn’t been for Ardal…
Silence answered him, and then she finally nodded. “Of course.” She shook her head. “You were too busy killing my brother.”
Thomas flinched. He’d genuinely liked Nacio, hated having to defend himself against a man he’d considered a friend. “Ileana.”
“Be quiet.” She sat back down.
“Ile…” The thing around his throat suddenly tightened, cutting off his air. He clawed at it, trying to get it loose, and saw her watching him as he choked. There was cruel satisfaction on her face.
She released the spell when she saw his struggles weakening. He collapsed, drawing air into his lungs with gasping breaths. Then she folded his arms and waited until he looked at her. “You are going to have to learn to do as you are told.”
“What did you do?” He touched the collar around his neck. It was gold, a serpent biting its own tail. And only her will could remove it from him.
“You are mine, husband. Body and soul.” Ileana leaned back in the chair. “In exchange for the lives of your sweet little nieces.”
Thomas traced his fingers around the collar. Then he closed his eyes before nodding and reopening them. “You healed me. Clearly, I serve some purpose to you.” He looked up at her again. “And what is my fate to be, wife?”
“You will provide me with an heir to your family lands. A legitimate one.” She shrugged. “We are, after all, wed. Once that is done, and our lands are safely under his rule…” She gestured at Vula. “I may let her eat you.” Vula grinned widely.
“I am the youngest son, in case you have forgotten.” He shook his head. “Even if I was willing to get you with child, it would be —”
“Your family slaughtered mine.” Slowly, she stood. “And they will pay in blood.”
“No.” He glared. “No I won’t —”
Once again, she willed power through the collar. He grabbed at his throat, choking. She released him after only a few seconds, and he collapsed once more. “You are mine. Body, and soul.” He rose to his hands and knees. She altered the spell, and willed power again. His body went completely still, as if frozen in place. She walked toward him, catching his hair and yanking his head back. His eyes went to her face. “I am a daughter of the Sidhe, and you gave yourself to me, my husband. Consider yourself lucky if I do not make you slit your brother’s throats personally.” She released him, then stepped back and released him the rest of the way.
He slowly returned to a sitting position, and his hand went to the collar once more. Silence reigned for some time before he looked up at her again. “It was not as you believe.””
“You killed Nacio. Ardal lead the rape of Calista, murdering her. Your father and his men killed my parents. Killed our soldiers and servants, everyone I had known my entire life.” She narrowed her eyes. “Where, precisely, am I mistaken?”
Silence answered her again. Then he shook his head. “I’ll not help you.”
“You say that…” Ileana smiled. “As though you are being given a choice. I called to the old powers with the strength of my blood. I am a daughter of the Sidhe, and you…” She shook her head. “Are a slave. Mine, body and soul. You will find, husband, that you no longer possess the ability to disobey my orders.” She focused power. “Stand.”
His face showed his surprise as his body obeyed the command. “Ileana…”
“Kneel.” She smiled when he dropped to his knees, then walked toward him. “Prostrate.” His head nearly touched the ground. She stopped in front of him, and placed her foot before him. “Kiss my foot, husband.” His body obeyed, even as she could feel his mind fighting against the order. Like a mouse struggling in the coils of a serpent. She stepped back, then released him again.
The chill vanished from the collar around his neck, and he could move freely once more. Slowly, Thomas sat up. He tried to make himself rise, to launch himself at her and beat her head against the ground before she could react. His body simply wouldn’t obey the command. He had six brothers. Only Nicolas and Ardal had been there when… Nicolas had taken no part in the fighting save for against Ardal himself. And yet it was Nicolas’s children she’d tried to steal. And Nicolas was not his only brother with a family. “You have your vengeance, Ileana. I killed your brother. I killed Nacio.”
A strange expression crossed her face, and was replaced again with that calm, cold anger. “Behind you is a bathing chamber. Wash. Supper will be served in an hour. You will need food to keep up your strength.”
Her words reminded him that it had been a few days since he’d last eaten. She must have given him water while healing him. “Ileana…”
“I gave you instructions.” She arched an eyebrow.
“I…” Thomas swallowed. He rose, and started to walk toward where his gear had been thrown in a haphazard pile. She stepped into his path, and he stopped. “I need my clothes.”
She smirked, and her eyes trailed over his body before returning to his face. “No. You don’t.”