The Queen’s Bargain – Anne Bishop

Facing the freestanding mirror in her bedroom, Jillian used Craft to secure the pendant that held her Purple Dusk Jewel to her green tunic so that it wouldn’t swing when she moved or flew. Then she spread her dark, membranous wings to their full length before closing them in a relaxed position. Was she plain? Was she pretty? Until that brief touch of Tamnar’s lips against hers, Jillian hadn’t considered the question at all, let alone wondered whether such a thing was important. She was Eyrien, one of the long-lived races, and she was strong. That had been important to her for a very long time. Now being strong didn’t give her the same satisfaction, and she wasn’t sure why. She turned to the side and studied her shape in the mirror. Her breasts had been developing for the past few years, and she had noticeable breasts now and had to wear undergarments that kept the bounce to a minimum, especially when she was training with Eyrien weapons. But . Did this tunic make her look fat? Was it the wrong color green for someone who had brown skin and gold eyes? Nurian had said that shade of green was a good color on her, but her elder sister, who was an excellent Healer, wasn’t necessarily the best judge of clothing. There had been too many years before they had come to live in Ebon Rih when any clothing that covered the body and wasn’t worn to rags was good, regardless of color or style. Then again, there weren’t that many styles that suited a winged race. Combing out her long, straight black hair, Jillian swiftly worked the hair into a multistranded braid that began high on the back of her head and ended at the base of her neck, leaving the rest of the hair to flow down her back in a loose tail.

After securing the braided hair with a decorative clasp, she studied herself in the mirror again and wondered whether a man would find the hairstyle attractive. Since there was a man spending time in their home again, maybe she didn’t want to look attractive. Not that Lord Rothvar had said or done anything inappropriate, but Prince Falonar had seemed like a good man until he became Nurian’s lover. It wasn’t long after that the Eyriens who were loyal to Prince Yaslana found out Falonar wasn’t a good man at all. She needed to stop fretting. She didn’t have time for it, not if she wanted to do a morning warm-up with her sparring stick before flying over to the Yaslana eyrie and helping Marian with some of the early chores before escorting Yaslana’s two elder children to the Eyrien school. She crept out of her bedroom, listening for any sound that would tell her whether Rothvar was still in her sister’s bedroom. Once she passed Nurian’s door, she fled to the kitchen and started the coffee for Nurian and the . guest. There were a vegetable casserole and some muffins left over from yesterday. Enough for two people. A glance at the kitchen clock told her there wasn’t time to cook anything else.

Looks like I’m skipping breakfast. “You’re up early.” Jillian gasped and almost dropped the casserole dish. Seeing only Nurian standing in the kitchen archway, she offered a wobbly smile. “The day starts early in Prince Yaslana’s household.” She put the casserole in the oven. “There’s plenty here, and there are some muffins. Coffee will be ready in a few minutes. Yours always tastes like rubbish, so I—” “Rothvar didn’t stay over.” Nurian studied her.

“He’s not here, Jillian.” But his psychic scent and physical scent still lingered in their home, reminding her that he’d been spending enough time there for wood and stone to absorb his presence. Jillian rubbed sweaty hands on her tunic. “I have to get going. Don’t forget to take the casserole out of the oven once it’s warmed up.” “Jillian . ” “I have to go.” Sadness filled Nurian’s eyes, but she sounded brisk when she said, “I made more tonic for Marian. Can you take it to her?” “Of course.” Jillian walked over to the archway, then hesitated.

“She had the baby months ago. Shouldn’t she be well by now?” “It was a hard birthing.” Nurian sounded like each word could start a fatal avalanche. “Sometimes it takes an Eyrien woman a long time to recover.” And some never recover. That was the thing no one said and everyone who lived in and around the valley feared—that Marian Yaslana, wife of the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih, would be one of those women robbed of vitality by childbirth and would fade away, despite Nurian’s best efforts to heal her. “Do you know what’s wrong?” Jillian asked. Nurian shook her head. “I’ll get the tonic.” She went to her workroom and returned a minute later, handing the shielded bottle to Jillian.

Using Craft, Jillian vanished the bottle, then hugged her sister. “It will be all right.” “Will it?” Were they talking about Marian’s health or Rothvar’s presence in Nurian’s—and Jillian’s—life? “Don’t forget to take the casserole out of the oven,” Jillian said again as she stepped back. Nurian’s focus and attention when it came to the precise timing required to make tonics and healing brews didn’t extend to the kitchen. Stepping out of their eyrie, Jillian studied the Eyrien men who were already flying over the valley. Was one of them Rothvar? Was he watching her? Or was he at the communal eyrie, sparring to keep his fighting skills sharp? She would do a brief warm-up when she reached Yaslana’s home. There should be enough time for that. She spread her wings and launched herself skyward. As she flew, she wished she’d put on the belted cape that Eyriens used in colder weather. Autumn mornings were crisp, but today the air held a sharp reminder that winter would be there soon.

Landing on the flagstone courtyard in front of the eyrie, she walked up to the front door and put her left hand on a stone inset next to the door. Eyries were built from the stone of the mountains or were built into the mountains themselves, but this stone didn’t come from this particular mountain and had a specific purpose. The Yaslana eyrie was shielded inside and out—inside so that frisky children couldn’t scamper off before their parents were awake, and outside so that no one who wasn’t keyed into the spells placed in that stone could enter when the doors were locked and the shields were up. There had been enemies. They were gone now, destroyed years ago, but Lucivar Yaslana didn’t take chances with his family’s safety. Jillian set her hand on the stone and waited until she felt the shields part around the door. She opened the door and slipped inside. Moments later, the shields were back in place. Using Craft, she called in the bottle of tonic and left it on the kitchen counter where Marian would see it. Since no one seemed to be up yet—was she really that early?—she left the kitchen, crossed the large front room that held nothing but a coat-tree near the door, and opened the glass doors that led to the yard where the children played.

Fortunately the shields that protected the eyrie extended around the yard, so she wouldn’t be stuck out there if she finished her warm-up before the household woke up. She called in her sparring stick. It wasn’t as thick or as long as the sticks used by the adult males, which meant the wood might snap in a real fight against one of them, but it fit her hands. She went through the slow, precise movements, warming up muscles in her arms, shoulders, back, and legs. Her body had been going through changes for years, but lately she felt like a stranger in her own skin, and she didn’t know— A finger ran down her back between her wings, right where Prince Falonar had . She spun around and struck out, her stick hitting another already in position to counter her attack. Mother Night! Had she been so lost in thought that she hadn’t heard him approach? Lucivar Yaslana gave her a long look before taking a step back. “Let’s talk.” She didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to be told she was being selfish and unreasonable because she wasn’t comfortable with Rothvar staying overnight. She didn’t want to be told she was spoiling Nurian’s first relationship in decades because of the memory of a man who had been gone for just as many decades.

She knew that already, but she couldn’t explain why it wasn’t easy to accept Lord Rothvar into their lives. Daemonar and Titian, Yaslana’s two elder children, rushed out of the eyrie, their own sparring sticks in hand, and headed toward them. “You two stay near the house and go through the sparring warm-up.” Yaslana’s mild tone didn’t make the words any less a command. “But, Papa . ,” Daemonar began. The expression on his father’s face silenced him. “Yes, sir.” He looked at Jillian with concern and asked on a psychic communication thread, ٭Are you in ٭?trouble ٭No.٭ At least, she didn’t think so.

“Let’s talk,” Yaslana said again, tipping his head to indicate the far end of the yard, where a mountain stream filled a small pool before spilling over and continuing its journey to the valley below. She led the way with him a step behind her. She stiffened and jerked to a stop when his hand closed over her tail of hair, turning it into a tether. He leaned over her shoulder. She tightened her wings. “Listen to me, witchling,” he said softly. “Are you listening?” “Yes, sir.” “If Rothvar ever raises a hand to you in anger, if he ever does anything that isn’t appropriate, I will skin him alive.” His words thrilled her—and scared her. Lucivar Yaslana didn’t say anything he didn’t mean.

“But he’s your second-in-command,” she protested. Rothvar, wearing the Green Jewel, was the most powerful Eyrien Warlord and the second most powerful Eyrien male living in Ebon Rih. “Doesn’t matter.” Jillian’s heart pounded. Prince Falonar had been Yaslana’s second-in-command before he tried to take control of the valley and become the ruling Warlord Prince. When his followers were defeated, he was sent away to a Rihlander Queen’s court and disappeared shortly after that. “I’m thinking that Rothvar spending time with your sister, spending time in your home, has stirred up memories that are causing you some trouble,” Yaslana said. “Lord Rothvar hasn’t done anything wrong,” she whispered. “He’s not Prince Falonar.” “Your head knows the difference, but your skin and your back remember the strapping Falonar gave you, and your heart remembers the pain.

It’s going to take time for you to trust Rothvar because things turned sour for you after Falonar became Nurian’s lover and thought he had the right to control you. There’s nothing wrong with you feeling cautious. I just want you to know that if Rothvar hurts you in any way, he’ll deal with me.” Yaslana released her hair and stepped back. “Of course, if you think that gives you leave to act like a bitchy brat in order to make him miserable, you should also know I won’t hesitate to put you over my knee and whack some sense into your ass.” He meant it. All of it. “I don’t think that’s where sense is stored,” she said, trying for a lighter tone. “You’d be surprised how much sense can be acquired when it hurts to sit down,” he replied dryly. Then he gave her a lazy, arrogant smile that had her nerves humming.

“Let’s review the rules.” She would have rolled her eyes if it had been anyone else saying that, but he was the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih and he wore Ebon-gray Jewels, which made him the most powerful male in the Territory of Askavi—and the second most powerful male in the entire Realm of Kaeleer. No one rolled their eyes at him. “I know the rules,” she said. “Then you won’t have any trouble repeating them.” His smile had an edge now, warning her that he would ignore all his duties and they would stand out there all day if that was what it took for her to answer him. She sighed. “Look equals tell. Touch equals tell. Permission before action.

” That last rule made her very uneasy, because she’d broken it—but just a little. And not intentionally. Not really. If she said anything now, after the fact, Tamnar would get into trouble, and he didn’t deserve Yaslana’s anger. Not for something that had barely broken the rule. She eyed him and wondered if he already knew about the barely broken rule. “Something else you want to tell me?” Yaslana asked. “No, sir,” she said quickly. Too quickly? He studied her until she wanted to squirm, then said, “If someone tries to hurt you, what are you going to do?” He’d asked that same question decades ago when he found out Falonar had strapped her, so she gave him the same answer. “Kick him in the balls.

” Yaslana huffed out a breath that might have been a laugh. “Before that.” She pretended to ponder the question. “Put a defensive shield around myself and holler for you?” “That is correct. And then, witchling, you fight with everything in you until I can get to you. You understand me?” “Yes, sir.” Yaslana looked toward the eyrie. “Did you get any breakfast?” “No, sir.” “Then go eat.” He lifted his chin to indicate Daemonar and Titian, who were heading into the eyrie.

“You can do some sparring after school.” Jillian turned toward the eyrie, then hesitated. “I brought another bottle of tonic for Lady Marian.” “It’s appreciated.” She took a step away from him and felt something wash over her—a heat that made her nipples tighten, that made her feel warm and tingly between her legs. That heat was almost a scent in the air. Sheer intoxication, like catnip for human females. She knew what it was—not because she’d felt it before, but because Nurian had told her about it when she had wondered why some women acted . odd . when Yaslana and Marian attended a play or some other public event.

“Jillian?” Yaslana sounded puzzled and—maybe?—wary. She gave him a distracted smile and bolted for the eyrie. Sexual heat. It was part of a Warlord Prince’s nature, something he could keep leashed to some degree, but it was always there, a lure designed to attract females, because Warlord Princes were dangerous, volatile, extremely aggressive men who were born to stand on killing fields. A Queen’s living weapon. A man like that was feared, but a man like that also needed a way to keep a woman with him in order to sire children and continue his bloodline. Nurian said Warlord Princes usually kept the heat leashed as much as possible when they weren’t with their chosen lovers, but it still pumped out of them, washing over everyone, producing a kind of scent that made women feel womanly—and desirable. But that leashed heat was no more an invitation to sex or an indication of carnal interest than the scent of moon’s blood was an invitation to attack a woman during the days when she was vulnerable and couldn’t use the reservoir of power in her Jewels to defend herself. When she reached the eyrie, Jillian looked back. Yaslana was going through the movements of the warm-up—and he looked wonderful.

He looked like a man. She blinked, felt her face burn with shame for thinking such a thing. He was Yaslana, the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih. She worked for his wife. And until today, she had never thought such a thing about him. Until today, when she felt the sexual heat for the first time. He wasn’t any different than he’d been yesterday. She was the one who had changed. Warlord Princes didn’t pick up the scent of moon’s blood until they reached a level of maturity during adolescence, so it stood to reason that a level of physical maturity was also required before a girl—a woman—reacted to a Warlord Prince’s sexual heat. Woman.

Jillian smiled. Swelling breasts and moon’s blood were signposts that a girl was becoming a woman. She had a feeling that today she had just reached another significant signpost. Then she was in the kitchen and in the middle of the noise and chaos that made up mornings in the Yaslana household and didn’t give the man another thought for the rest of the day. * * * Lucivar went through the warm-up a second time, increasing the speed of the moves. Normally he’d be in the kitchen helping Marian feed the children and get them ready for school. But he’d seen something in Jillian a few minutes ago that kept him outside. The girl had been running tame in his house ever since Nurian signed a service contract with him decades ago and came to Ebon Rih, claiming her younger sister, Jillian, as her dependent. He’d been busy getting the Eyrien adults settled and couldn’t say exactly when Jillian became Marian’s “helper” in looking after Daemonar. His boy had been a toddler then—an ever-moving bundle of arrogance and energy—and having Jillian around to keep hold of the little beast had allowed Marian to get some of her own work done.

Didn’t take long for him to stop seeing the girl as someone else’s dependent. Sure, she’d gone home most nights, but she was in his home so much she became his to protect—an honorary daughter in the same way his father had been an honorary uncle to most of the Territory Queens in Kaeleer. Now he wondered if that was going to be a problem. The potency of sexual heat was linked to the power that flowed in the veins and made the Blood who and what they were. The darker a Warlord Prince’s power, the more potent the heat. It made a kind of sense for preserving the darker bloodlines and keeping a woman in thrall long enough to make a baby and carry through all the years after until paternal rights to that child were formally granted. But it could be damned inconvenient the rest of the time, since a man let the heat slip the leash in order to seduce a lover and give her a very good ride, but even leashed, it could create too much unwanted interest from other women. Unlike his brother, Daemon, who could seduce anyone and everyone just by walking through a room, he hadn’t had to deal with much unwanted interest for one very simple reason: he had a reputation for being violent and vicious in bed—a reputation he had earned when he’d been a slave in so many courts in Terreille. The stories of how he’d savaged the Queens who had tried to use him had found their way to Kaeleer with the people who had emigrated to the Shadow Realm. Because of that, he was feared more than other Warlord Princes.

Women might enjoy the feel of the heat as he passed by, but they were also grateful that he had a wife and wouldn’t look in their direction. Jillian wasn’t afraid of him, and that could be a problem. He hoped she would be able to accept the sexual heat as something that had always been there but was only now being noticed, and shrug it off the same way all the Queens who had been part of Jaenelle Angelline’s coven had shrugged it off. If the girl couldn’t ignore it, he’d have to bar her from his home to keep her from making a lethal mistake. He watched Jillian, Daemonar, and Titian fly toward the eyrie where Lord Endar taught the Eyrien children. Vanishing the sparring stick, Lucivar crossed the yard and went inside. Marian—his wife, friend, and partner, and the love of his life—smiled when he walked into the kitchen. She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him. “You missed breakfast. And you missed the chaos.

” “Did you notice how much quieter it was last week when Daemonar was visiting his uncle?” Lucivar asked. “Oh, I think everyone in Riada noticed how much quieter it was,” Marian replied. “But he is your son, after all.” “You had something to do with him being here,” Lucivar protested. “Not that part of him. That all came from you.” Hard to argue the truth of it. His son was growing into a formidable—meaning a pain-in-the-ass— Warlord Prince whose Birthright Green Jewel almost matched Rothvar’s Green Jewel of rank in strength. “I saved you a plate of food,” Marian said. Then she frowned.

“Lucivar?” She insisted she was fine, but she hadn’t regained her strength or energy since baby Andulvar’s birth. He knew she wasn’t happy about his lack of enthusiasm for sex and had started wondering if he no longer found her attractive, which was so far from the truth it was laughable. He wanted her desperately some nights, but even when he was gentle and careful, their lovemaking seemed to devour her strength. He’d insisted that she go to the Healer who served the Queen of Amdarh, Dhemlan’s capital city. Lady Zhara’s Healer couldn’t find a cause for the slower-than-normal recovery from the birthing. Like Nurian, Zhara’s Healer tacitly agreed that something wasn’t right, but neither of them could find anything wrong. And Marian insisted she was getting better, so there wasn’t much he could do—and the only person whose opinion could have made a difference had died years ago. Still, with Marian feeling sensitive about their restrained lovemaking, he needed to tell her about Jillian. “Jillian felt the sexual heat when we were outside talking.” The words felt like splinters of glass ripping up his throat.

Marian set the plate of food on the table and gave him a puzzled look. “She’s growing up, Lucivar. It was going to happen sooner or later.” She paused. “Is that why she was here so early?” Lucivar shook his head. “That was because of Rothvar. His being in Nurian’s bed has stirred up memories of Falonar.”

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