Protect the Prince – Jennifer Estep

The day of the first assassination attempt started out like any other. With me girding myself for battle. I perched stiffly in a chair in front of a vanity table that took up the corner of my bedroom. The long, rectangular table was made of the blackest ebony and adorned with all sorts of drawers and cubbyholes, along with crystal knobs that glinted at me like mocking eyes. The morning sun slipped past the white lace curtains and highlighted the tabletop, which featured carvings of gladiators clutching swords, daggers, and shields. I looked down at the figures, which were embossed with bits of metal, along with tiny jewels. They too seemed to stare up at and mock me, as if they knew that I shouldn’t be here. I leaned forward and traced my fingers over the carvings, wincing as the metal tips of the weapons and the sharp facets of the jeweled eyes dug into my skin. I wondered how many other women had sat here and done this same thing. Dozens, if not more. I also wondered if they’d all been as uncomfortable as I was. Probably not. After all, this table and the other fine furnishings had been their birthright, passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. The women who’d come before hadn’t stumbled into this position by accident like I had. Someone cleared her throat, and I resumed my previous stiff perch.

Fingers fluttered around me, adjusting my sleeves, smoothing down my hair, and even slicking berry balm onto my lips. A minute later, the fingers retreated, and I raised my gaze to the domed mirror that rose up from the table like gladiator arenas did from the Svalin city landscape. More figures were carved into the wide band of wood that encased the mirror. Gargoyles with sapphire eyes and curved, silver horns that were pointed at the strixes, hawklike birds with feathers that glinted with a metallic, amethyst sheen. The creatures looked like they were about to leap out of the wood, take flight, and tear into one another, just like the gladiators on the tabletop did. A single pearl-white caladrius with dark blue tearstone eyes adorned the very top of the mirror, as though the tiny, owlish bird was peering down at all the other creatures below, including me. Someone cleared her throat again. I sighed and finally focused on my reflection. Black hair, gray-blue eyes, pale, tight face. I looked the same as always, except for one notable thing.

The crown on my head. My gaze locked onto the thin silver band, which was surprisingly plain, except for the small midnight-blue pieces of tearstone that jutted up from the center. The seven tearstone shards fitted together to form a crown, as if the silver band itself wasn’t enough indication of who and what I was now. But it wasn’t the only crown of shards I was wearing. I reached over with my left hand and touched the bracelet that circled my right wrist. It was made of curls of silver that had been twisted together to resemble sharp thorns, all of which wrapped around and protected the crown in the middle of the design. The crown embedded in the bracelet was also made of seven tearstone shards, but it contained one thing that the actual crown on my head did not. Magic. Like other jewels, tearstone could absorb, store, and reflect back magic, but it also had the unique property of offering protection from magic—deflecting it like a gladiator’s shield would stop a sword in an arena fight. Each midnight-blue shard in my bracelet contained a cold, hard power that was similar to my own magical immunity.

The cool touch of the jewelry comforted me, as did the magic flowing through it. I needed all the help I could get today. Someone cleared her throat for a third time, and I dropped my hand from my bracelet and focused on my reflection again. I slowly tilted my head to the side, and the silver crown swayed dangerously to the right. I straightened up and tilted my head to the other side, and it swayed in that direction. “I still feel like this stupid thing is going to fall off,” I muttered. “It will not fall off, my queen,” a low, soothing voice murmured. “We’ve put plenty of pins in your hair to make sure that doesn’t happen.” A woman moved forward and stood beside me. She was on the short side, and the top of her head wasn’t all that much higher than mine, even though I was seated.

She was about my age—twentyseven or so—and quite lovely, with blue eyes, rosy skin, and dark, honey-blond hair that was pulled back into a pretty fishtail braid that trailed over her shoulder. She had a thick, strong body, but her fingers were long and lean and freckled with small, white scars from all the pins and needles that had accidentally poked into her skin over the years. Lady Calandre had been Queen Cordelia’s personal thread master for the last few months of the queen’s life. And now, she was mine. As were her two teenage sisters, Camille and Cerana, who were hovering behind her. “Are you pleased with your appearance, my queen?” Calandre asked. I studied my blue tunic in the mirror. A crown of shards was stitched in silver thread over my heart, while still more silver thread scrolled across my neckline and flowed down my sleeves, as though I had wrapped myself in thorns. Standard black leggings and boots completed my outfit. “Of course.

Your work is exquisite, as always.” Calandre nodded, and pride gleamed in her eyes at the compliment. She adjusted the long bell sleeves of her blue gown, even though they were already perfectly draped in place. They too were trimmed with silver thread, in keeping with the colors of the Winter line of the Blair royal family. My colors now. “I still wish that you had let me make you something grander,” Calandre murmured. “I could have easily done it with my magic.” She was a master, which meant that her magic let her work with a specific object or element to create amazing things. In Calandre’s case, she had complete control over thread, fabric, and the like. My nose twitched.

I could smell her power on my tunic, a faint, vinegary odor that was the same as the dyes that she used to give her garments their glorious colors. Calandre had tried to get me to don a ball gown for today’s formal court session, since all the attending nobles would be decked out in their own finery, but I’d refused. I wasn’t the queen everyone had expected, and I certainly wasn’t the one they wanted, so draping myself in layers of silk and cascades of jewels seemed silly and pointless. Besides, you couldn’t fight very well in a ball gown. Although in that regard, it didn’t really matter what I wore, since every day at Seven Spire was a battle. “Forget the clothes,” another voice chimed in. “I still can’t believe that people sent you all this stuf .” I looked over at a tall woman with braided blond hair and beautiful bronze skin who was lounging on a blue velvet settee. She was wearing a forest-green tunic that brought out her golden amber eyes, along with the usual black leggings and boots. A large silver mace was lying next to her on the settee, with the spikes slowly stabbing the plump cushions to death.

Paloma waved her hand at the low table in front of her. “C’mon. How much stuff does one queen need?” Every inch of the table was covered with baskets, bowls, and platters brimming with everything from fresh produce to smelly cheeses to bottles of champagne. Other tables throughout the room boasted similar items, as did the writing desk, the nightstand beside the four-poster bed, and the top of the armoire. Not to mention the cloaks, gloves, and other garments piled up in the corners or the paintings, statues, and other knickknacks propped up against the walls. I’d gotten so many welcome gifts that I’d resorted to perching them on the windowsills, just so I would be able to walk through my chambers. Paloma grabbed a white card out of a basket on the table. “Who is Lady Diante, and why did she send you a basket of pears?” “Diante is an extremely wealthy noble who owns fruit orchards in one of the southern districts,” I said. “And it’s a Bellonan tradition to send the new queen a gift wishing her a long and prosperous reign.” Paloma snorted.

“Funny tradition, sending a gift to someone you’re plotting against.” Calandre’s lips puckered, and her two sisters gasped. Calandre was a Bellonan courtier who was traditional and polite to a fault. She didn’t much care for Paloma’s bluntness, but she didn’t say anything. She might be a master, but Paloma was a much stronger morph. Calandre stared at the morph mark on Paloma’s neck. All morphs had some sort of tattoo-like mark on their bodies that indicated what creature they could shift into. Paloma’s mark was a fearsome ogre face with amber eyes, a lock of blond hair, and plenty of sharp teeth. The ogre must have sensed Calandre’s disapproving gaze, because its blinking, liquid eyes shifted in her direction. The ogre looked at her a moment, then opened its mouth wide in a silent laugh.

Calandre’s lips puckered again, and she let out an indignant sniff, which made the ogre laugh even more. “Well, then, perhaps you should taste test the pears,” I sniped. “Just to make sure that Lady Diante isn’t trying to poison me.” “That’s an excellent idea,” Paloma drawled. “Especially since I know that mutt nose of yours would never be able to stand having poisoned fruit in here.” Calandre winced, and her two sisters gasped again at Paloma so casually calling me a mutt. The common, if somewhat condescending, term referred to those with relatively simple, straightforward powers like enhanced strength or speed, as well as people like me who seemed to have very little magic. But I didn’t mind. I had been called far worse things. Besides, Paloma was my best friend, and I found her honesty refreshing, especially after so many years of people smiling to my face, then spewing venom behind my back.

Paloma plucked a pear from the basket and sank her teeth into it. She grinned, as did the ogre on her neck. “See? Not poisoned.” I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t help grinning back at her. “Well, eat fast. Because now that I’m properly attired, it’s time for our first battle of the day.” * * * I thanked Calandre and her sisters for their services. The thread master curtsied to me, gave Paloma another disapproving sniff, and left. While Paloma ate another pear, I cinched a black leather belt around my waist, then hooked a sword and a dagger to it. A queen shouldn’t have to carry weapons, at least not inside her own palace, but then again, I was no ordinary queen.

And these were far from ordinary weapons. The sword and the dagger both gleamed a dull silver, and both of their hilts featured seven midnight-blue jewels that formed my crown-of-shards crest. But what made the weapons truly special was that they were made entirely of tearstone. The sword and the dagger were far lighter than normal blades, and they would also absorb and deflect magic, just like the blue tearstone shards in their hilts and in my bracelet would. A matching tearstone shield was propped up beside my bed, but I decided not to strap it to my forearm. Carrying a sword and a dagger was noteworthy enough, but taking the shield as well would make me seem weak, something that I could ill afford. I traced my fingers over the symbol in the sword’s hilt. Despite their dark blue hue, the tearstone shards glittered brightly. Over the past several months, the crown of shards had become my personal crest. At first, because it had kept showing up on objects that other people gave me, like my bracelet and weapons.

But now, everyone associated the symbol with me, whether I liked it or not. Part of me hated the crown of shards and everything it stood for. The crest was yet another reminder that I was a pretender who had attained the throne only through a series of unexpected and extraordinary events. More often than not, the crown of shards reminded me of all the swords—all the enemies—that wanted to cut me down. And perhaps worst of all, the symbol was traditionally associated with only the strongest Winter queens, something that was particularly troubling since I still had no idea what being a Winter queen really meant, especially when it came to my magic. But in a strange way, the symbol comforted me as well. Other Blairs, other Winter queens, had survived life at Seven Spire. Perhaps I could too. Time to find out. Paloma finished her second pear.

Then she got to her feet, grabbed her spiked mace, and hoisted it up onto her shoulder. The weapon made her look even more intimidating. “You ready for this?” I blew out a breath. “I suppose I have to be.” She shrugged. “It’s not too late. We could still sneak out of here, run off, and join a gladiator troupe.” I snorted. “Please. I wouldn’t get across the river before Serilda and Auster hunted me down and dragged me back.

” Paloma grinned, as did the ogre on her neck. “Well, then, you should give Serilda, Auster, and everyone else what they’ve been waiting for.” I snorted again. “The only thing they’ve been waiting for is to see who makes the first move against me. But you’re right. I might as well get on with it.” I touched my sword and dagger again, letting the feel of the weapons steady me, then walked over to the double doors. Just like on the vanity table, gladiators and other figures were carved into the wood. I stared at them a moment, then let out a long, tense breath, schooled my face into a blank, pleasant mask, and opened the doors. As soon as I stepped into the hallway, the two guards posted by the doors snapped to attention.

They were both wearing the standard uniform of a plain silver breastplate over a short-sleeved, dark blue tunic, and each one had a sword buckled to his belt. I smiled at them. “Alonzo, Bowen, you’re both looking well this morning.” The guards dipped their heads, but that was their only response. Several months ago, back when I’d just been Lady Everleigh, the guards would have talked, laughed, and joked with me. Now they stared at me with wariness in their eyes, wondering if I would do or say something to hurt them. I tried not to grimace at their watchful, distrustful silence and set off down the hallway. Paloma fell in step beside me, her mace still propped up on her shoulder. In addition to being my best friend, Paloma was also my personal guard, and the former gladiator took great pride in casually threatening anyone who came near me. The queen’s chambers were on the third floor, and we quickly wound our way downstairs to the first level.

Seven Spire palace was the heart of Svalin, the capital city of Bellona, and just about everything in the wide hallways and spacious common areas was a tribute to the kingdom’s gladiator history and tradition, from the tapestries that covered the dark gray granite walls, to the statues tucked away in various nooks, to the display cases bristling with swords, spears, daggers, and shields that famous queens and gladiators had used long ago. But the most obvious signs of Bellona’s past were the columns that adorned practically every room and hallway. Seven Spire had once been a mine, and the columns were the supports for the old tunnels where my Blair ancestors had dug fluorestone and more out of the mountain. Over the years, the columns had been transformed into works of art, and they too were covered with gladiators, weapons, gargoyles, strixes, and caladriuses, just like the furnishings in the queen’s chambers. But what made the columns truly impressive was that they were all made of tearstone, which could change color, going from bright, starry gray to dark, deep midnight-blue, and back again, depending on the sunlight and other factors. The tearstone’s shifting hues brought the gladiators and creatures to life, making it seem as though they were circling around the columns and constantly battling one another. I pulled my gaze away from the columns and focused on the people here. After all, they were the ones who could truly hurt me. Even though it was early on a Monday morning, people filled the hallways. Servants carrying trays of food and drinks.

Palace stewards heading to their posts to oversee their workers. Guards making sure that everything proceeded in an orderly fashion. Everyone went about their business as usual—until they saw me. Then eyes widened, mouths gaped, and heads bobbed. Some people even dropped down into low, formal bows and curtsies, only rising to their feet after I’d moved past them. I gritted my teeth and returned the acknowledgments with polite smiles and nods, but the bowing and scraping were nothing compared to the whispers. “Why isn’t she wearing a gown?” “Doesn’t she know how important today is?” “She won’t last another month.” The whispers started the second I walked by, and the hushed comments chased me from one hallway to the next, like a tidal wave that was surging up and about to crash down on me. If only. Drowning would be a far more merciful death than what I’d gotten myself into here.

From the rumors I’d heard, the servants and guards had started a pool, placing bets on how long my tenuous reign would last. I was wondering that myself. I’d been queen for only about three months, and I was already thoroughly sick of the politics, infighting, and backstabbing that were the palace’s equivalent of the gladiator fights that were so popular in Bellona. Even Paloma with her spiked mace and the glaring ogre face on her neck couldn’t quiet the chatter. I gritted my teeth again and hurried on, trying to ignore the whispers. Easier said than done. Paloma and I rounded a corner and stepped into a long hallway, which was empty, except for the usual guards stationed in the corners. I focused on the double doors that stretched from the floor all the way up to the ceiling at the far end. The doors were standing wide open, and I could see people moving around in the area beyond. The throne room.

Even though I had been here countless times before, my stomach dropped, and my heart squeezed tight, but I kept trudging forward, one slow step at a time. There was no turning back, and there was no running away. Not from this. A lean, muscled, forty-something man wearing a red jacket over a white ruffled shirt was standing by the windows off to one side of the doors. The sun streaming inside made his black hair and eyes seem as glossy as ink against his golden skin, and it also highlighted the morph mark on his neck—a dragon’s face made of ruby-red scales. The man was giving his full and undivided attention to a silver platter filled with bite-size fruit cakes perched on the windowsill. He studied the cakes carefully, as if he were making a most important decision, then selected a raspberry one, popped it into his mouth, and sighed with happiness. He must have spotted Paloma and me out of the corner of his eye because he glanced in our direction. He quickly popped another cake into his mouth while we walked over to him. “Ah, there you are, Evie,” he said.

“I was just enjoying some treats before the main event.” In addition to being a former queen’s guard and ringmaster, Cho Yamato also had a serious sweet tooth, as did his inner dragon, since its black eyes were still locked on the tray of cakes. “I’m glad to see that Theroux is making himself at home as the new kitchen steward,” I drawled. “And doing his best to ply you with desserts. Or did you steal those from some poor, unsuspecting servant?” Cho grinned at my teasing. “I stole them, of course. Theroux’s desserts aren’t nearly as good as yours, but some treats are better than no treats at all, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he downed a kiwi cake. Joking around with Cho loosened some of the tension in my chest. I might not like being queen, but at least I had friends like him and Paloma to help me with the dangerous undertaking. He finished his cake, then eyed me.

“Are you ready for this?” he asked in a more serious voice. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” He gave me a sympathetic look, as did the dragon on his neck. “Well, then, let’s start the show.” Cho dusted the crumbs off his fingers and smoothed down his red jacket. Then he strode over to the open space between the doors. “Announcing Her Royal Majesty, Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair!” Cho used his ringmaster’s voice to full effect, and the words boomed like thunder, drowning out the conversations in the throne room. He moved to the side, and everyone fell silent and peered at me. I gritted my teeth yet again, fixed a smile on my face, and stepped inside. The throne room was the largest one in Seven Spire.

The first floor was an empty, cavernous space, except for the massive tearstone columns that stretched up to support the ceiling high, high above. Shorter, thinner columns also rose up to support the second-floor balcony that wrapped around three sides of the room. More gladiators, weapons, and creatures were carved into the columns, and the ceiling was one enormous battle scene made of gleaming stone, metal, and jewels. In the center of the ceiling, Bryn Bellona Winter Blair, my ancestor, was about to bring her sword down on top of the Mortan king, whom she had defeated in combat so long ago in order to create her kingdom. My kingdom now.

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