Authors: Isabo Kelly
For my hero and our two heroes-in-training. Because my life is so much fun with you all in it.
Althir of Glengowyn stared at Samuel Brightarrow for a long moment after hearing his proposition. The man had aged over the last two years, the ongoing war with the Sorcerers taking its toll on the once large and vibrant human. Samuel and his wife Iona, members of the Sinnale council, were the reason Althir found himself here, a prisoner of the Sinnale.
The reason he wasn’t forever dead.
“This might be your only chance at redemption, Althir,” Samuel said in his deep, even voice.
Althir snorted. “Redemption.” He shouldn’t need redemption now. He should have had everything he ever wanted, and instead he spent his days wasting away in this comfortably maddening cage in the basement of the Sinnale council’s meeting hall.
“Ulric has spoken with the king and queen. They’ve agreed to allow you back to Glengowyn if you complete this task.”
“And why would I want to go back?” Althir paced away from the man. “Labeled a traitor by my fellow elves for all time? There’s nothing there for me.”
“Then you’d be free to go wherever you please. Another elven city, perhaps. But you wouldn’t be a prisoner any longer.”
He didn’t bother to answer. His bespelled cage wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to him. And what would he do with freedom? No other elven community would welcome him once they learned of his history.
He glanced out the high window at the sliver of blue sky above the hard lines of brick making up the neighboring building that blocked most of his view. Ah, but he did miss the forest. He’d had enough of this bloody besieged city, the place where his entire life had been ruined.
“Speaking of Ulric,” he said to change the subject, and because he couldn’t quite help himself. “How is my brother, anyway? Never does come to visit. I imagine he’s too busy fucking your daughter. Though, I can hardly blame him. She is infinitely fuckable.”
He stared at Samuel as he said this last, watching his reaction.
Samuel stared back. His pale skin darkened and his eyes narrowed. Althir smirked.
Rather than the explosion of anger he’d been expecting, though, Samuel calmly said, “You’re trying to send me away in a fury. You want me to refuse you this chance. Why?”
Althir curled his lip in a snarl. He’d never hated another being more in his entire life than he hated Samuel in that moment. For being too wise and seeing too much.
He stalked as far away from the man as he could get, keeping his focus on the sliver of blue sky.
“You’re mad to trust me with this,” he stated flatly, his back to Samuel. “Why would you do that?”
“You know their Citadel. You know where to find what we need.”
True. He did. They only knew the List of Names was there—that it existed at all—because of him.
But the mission was suicide. Since he was no longer under the
, the forever death curse that robbed elves of all future lives, ending their existence permanently, death didn’t frighten him. He was just infuriated that he found himself in this bloody position. Suicide or a cage for the foreseeable future? What kinds of choices were those?
Although, if he succeeded, he’d be responsible for ending this war once and for all.
Would that change anything? Would that give him back what he’d lost?
“You’ll trust me to return if I do succeed?” He was actually quite curious about the answer. He’d been providing the Sinnale with good information for months now, information that had helped turned the war in their favor and put the Sorcerers on the defensive. But the fighting dragged on. Humans continued to die. They wanted the fighting done, he knew. Would that desire override their continued wariness of him?
“You should know better than that, Althir,” Samuel said. “Someone will be going with you. Someone who will ensure you return.”
“A Sinnale volunteer.”
He laughed, a sharp, bitter sound. “A volunteer? Suicidal, are they?”
Samuel was silent, and Althir didn’t push the subject. The “volunteer” hardly mattered anyway. He didn’t care who they were or why they’d go on this impossible quest into the section of the city under the Sorcerers’ control.
When the silence had stretched for long moments and Althir still didn’t turn to face Samuel, Samuel finally said, “You have until tomorrow to consider our offer. I’ll return at midday for your answer.”
“There’s no need,” he said, his voice harsh and echoing in the quiet room.
“You’re refusing? You won’t accept this chance?”
“Oh, I’ll go. Suicide or not. I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
Very quietly, Samuel said, “You’ve always had a choice, Althir. It was those choices that got you here.”
Althir didn’t acknowledge the comment with so much as a twitch of his shoulders. He continued to stare out the window until well after he’d heard the cage door open and close behind Samuel. He stared out his little window until the light faded and the blue sky turned a purple bruised smudge against the hard, sharp city bricks.
Mina watched the elf for a long time from her position at the opposite side of the huge basement. His cage, a literal cage of bars mixed with minerals and magic to keep an elf contained, was furnished with a comfortable bed, a desk, a small bookshelf fully stocked with what the Sinnale had to offer, a washbasin and stand, and another table where he could eat. The trunk at the foot of his bed was full of clean clothes. And the nearest stone walls were hung with thick, colorful tapestries to keep out some of the cold.
She resented all that luxury for a prisoner, a traitor. Yes, he was giving them information to help in the war now. But that didn’t forgive the fact that he’d turned traitor to Glengowyn and Sinnale by joining forces with the Sorcerers all those many months ago. She knew the only reason he’d turned himself over to her people was to save his sorry hide from the Sinnale assassins.
She had no sympathy for him, despite how beautiful he looked in the pale gaslight leaking in through the high window that had been his sole focus for most of the afternoon.
In fact, his beauty only made her angrier. How could someone so cruel, so wicked, look so stunning and enticing? It shouldn’t have been possible. She shouldn’t notice the solid strength of his shoulders, or the firm lines of a body that filled his trousers so nicely. She should be able to see beyond the masculine planes of his face and the stunning contrast of his angled gray eyes against his long, dark hair.
His brother was allowed to be gorgeous. Ulric was actively working with the Sinnale and the human council to help them win the war and rid their city of the invading Sorcerers. She admired Ulric, and a small part of her envied Layla Brightarrow her mate. But Althir was nothing like his brother.
Her fascination with the elf wasn’t purely for his looks, though, and she consoled herself with that. She was preoccupied with him for other reasons, reasons that had more to do with revenge and anger than desire. Emotions she would now have to control if she wanted to see their mission successfully completed.
An end to this horrible war, which had robbed her of so much, was worth putting her personal hatred aside. She wouldn’t attempt to kill Althir. She would go with him into enemy territory, as she’d sworn to do, and ensure he returned to her people with the List of Names. Once that was done, however, the elf could rot in the worst torments of the sacred hells for all she cared.
He finally turned away from the window, and she caught sight of his profile in the weak light. Her breath hitched. Reminding her once again that the face of a god could hide the soul of a demon.
“You might as well come out of the shadows,” he said, staring at her hiding spot.
She knew he couldn’t see her. Still, he seemed to look directly into her eyes as he spoke.
“Who are you and why are you here?” he asked, seeming only half interested in the response.
She straightened her shoulders and approached the cage, coming into the weak light filtering through the windows. Before answering, she took the time to turn up some of the small lamps that provided light in the basement. Having this conversation in the dark felt too intimate, and she was in no mood to be vulnerable for the traitor.
When she was comfortable with the bright lighting, she faced Althir. “I’m Mina,” she said, answering his first question because it was the easiest.
“What’s your family name, Mina?” His mouth remained a flat line, his eyes revealing very little real interest in her.
“I no longer have any family to be named. Thanks to the war.”
Thanks to you and the Sorcerers
He nodded and sprawled in the chair next to his desk. “Of course you don’t. I wouldn’t let it bother you much. Family is highly overrated.”
She curled her lip, unable to keep the reaction to herself. In her mind, she cursed him into the next world and beyond. Outwardly, she remained silent, not wishing to give him any more reaction than she already had.
He stared at her for a long moment, the disinterest in his gaze sharpening to something more alert. “So what do you want, Mina of No Family?”
She waited for him to react. He didn’t. She realized this probably wasn’t the first time one of her people had said that to him.
With a shrug, she seated herself on a “visitors” chair outside his cell. “What I intend to do, however, is just the opposite.”
That finally earned her a raised brow. “Am I to assume you’re the ‘volunteer’ accompanying me into Sorcerer territory?”
She dipped her head in a single brief nod.
“And what makes you think you’ll fare any better than the rest of your family?”
“You’re prepared to die?”
For the first time, he seemed genuinely interested in her response. His head tilted to one side as he studied her, catching the light along his jaw and cheek, highlighting the beautiful masculinity of his face. Mina glanced away, irritated that she couldn’t hold his gaze without noticing him as a man.
“I’d rather live,” she said into the taut silence. “But I have nothing to lose.”
“There’s always something to lose,” he murmured.
He spoke so quietly she wasn’t sure he meant for her to hear him, and that drew her gaze back to him. “There are worse things than death,” she said.
He snorted, an almost-laugh. “Yes. Yes, there are.”
She held his gaze this time, not flinching under the bitterness of his comment. She had more than enough of her own to counter his. What did he have to be bitter over, anyway? That he’d sought power and failed? That he’d aligned himself with the wrong side in a war? She had no sympathy for him or his bitterness.
“You do realize going on this mission will mean facing some of those things that are worse than death?” he said.
Another short nod. “For you as well. Maybe worse for you. The Sorcerers must hate you now as much as we Sinnale do.”
He chuckled, though there was no humor in it. “I imagine they do. And yes, if they capture me, I’m in for much worse than a simple death. But they won’t spare you, Mina of No Family. Don’t pretend they will. You’ve too much emotion, too much anger and hatred. If I can see it, they will. That kind of emotion, combined with your terror, will feed their blood magic better than simple fear ever could.”
“I have no intention of being taken alive by the Sorcerers. We succeed or die.”
“You might not have a choice.”
It was her turn to consider him more closely when she said, “There’s always a choice.”
To her surprise, he turned away from her, his mouth turning down in a very faint frown. So. She’d hit a delicate spot. She put the information away for later use.
“You’re not as scrawny as most of the Sinnale women have become,” he stated in a blunt change of subject. “You still have meat on your bones. Very nice tits. Makes you more fuckable than the rest of the women here. I imagine the men spend a great deal of effort trying to get into your pants.”
This was the kind of behavior she’d expected from him. “They warned me you were charming.”