In Frostblood Ruby defeated the tyrannous Frost King, but fire and ice are still at war. To find the knowledge she needs, she must travel to the homeland she’s never seen. A homeland where friend and enemy wear the same face. Ruby must figure out who she can trust – and unleash a fire powerful enough to do battle with darkness…
Below you can return to the Frostblood court in chapter one of Fireblood. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait 7th Septrember for the rest!
I circled the Frostblood warrior, my boots kicking up dust from the drought-dry earth. One little mistake, one little lapse in focus, would mean defeat.
His left fist twitched before his right came out with a cyclone of frost. But I knew all his favorite tricks, his feints and false moves. I twisted to the right, throwing a plume of fire from my palms.
My vision clouded. A sudden memory took me: my hands, red with fire, stretched toward the icy throne of Fors—the timeless symbol of Frostblood rule—its wicked, gleaming shards mocking my paltry fire. I couldn’t melt it. I couldn’t defeat the curse inside it.
But then another’s frost joined my fire, not extinguishing but creating a blinding blue flame that poured toward the throne, softening its edges, dulling the sharp points, making the ice weep in defeat. I could hear King Rasmus’s delighted laugh as the Minax broke free from the throne’s dying heart, as the shadow creature crept against my skin, seeking entry, promising the joy of a thousand sunbursts and the absence of pain or weakness ever, ever again.
I snapped back to the present, stumbling as an icy blast hit me in the chest. I rolled and regained my feet, but my sight remained foggy, the memory far too real. The skin near my ear where the Minax had marked me burned, and I cried out.
Hands cupped my shoulders. I had an urge to knock them away and run.
Arcus’s voice murmured, deep and even, designed to soothe but sharpened by a hint of distress. “Slow your breathing. It will pass.”
It’s not real it’s not real it’s not real.
My heart pummeled my ribs. My throat thickened. “I can’t breathe.”
Arcus’s hand moved to my sternum, pressing gently, his long fingers splayed against my neck. “Slow and steady. Everything is fine. I’m here. You’re safe.”
Gradually, the soft words and touch made their way past the fear. I blinked until the royal gardens came into focus and I smelled the perfume of roses and summersweet. Tapered yews stood sentinel around the wide clearing, and beyond that, taller leafy sycamore and birch trees bowed over the evergreens like gentlemen over the hands of ladies. The heat of the late-summer sunrise calmed me, along with the occasional rustle of leaves brushed by the hand of Cirrus, the west wind.
I turned my head and was ensnared by icy-blue eyes under a brow drawn tight in concern. Arcus’s skin had lost some color. I reached up and slid an unsteady palm along his cold cheek, smiling when he didn’t flinch as my fingertips touched his scars.
“Your episodes are growing more frequent,” he said.
I shrugged, the movement jostling his hand, which still rested over my collarbone, the heel of his palm against the upper curve of my breast. We both seemed to realize it at the same time. A flush scorched my cheeks. His lids fell, hiding his eyes as he moved the hand to my upper arm.
There were unspoken boundaries we hadn’t crossed yet, though I hadn’t decided if that was due to Arcus’s self-control or the fact that our moments alone were brief and often interrupted.
“Have you found out anything more about the curse?” he asked.
“Not yet.” Brother Thistle and I had spent many hours in the castle library combing through books on the Minax—the haunting, shadowy creature that Eurus, god of the east wind, had trapped in the frost throne. Eurus’s curse corrupted any ruler that held the throne, inciting war and tyranny, which fed the curse further. The more violence and death, the stronger it grew.
The Minax had found an easy target in Arcus’s younger brother, Rasmus, a young man who was too fearful and too angry to fight it. Under the influence of its silky promises and opium-like alleviation of pain and fear, King Rasmus had sent his soldiers to hunt and kill Firebloods, and most of my kind had been murdered in raids. The strongest were brought to the capital city, Forsia, where they’d died in the king’s arena. As far as I knew, I was the only Fireblood in the kingdom who’d survived, and with help from Brother Thistle and Arcus, I’d melted the throne. We’d assumed the curse would be destroyed as well.
We’d been wrong.
Now Brother Thistle and I were trying to find a way to stop my visions and stop the creature itself.
I absently rubbed the carelessly stitched line on my little finger. It itched when I was upset, a reminder of my time in the Frostblood arena, what I’d had to do to help Arcus take his rightful place as king. But with the Minax still out there, inhabiting other bodies and biding its time, I wondered if destroying the throne had done more harm than good.
Arcus watched me for a minute, then took my hand and drew me through a barely perceptible opening between evergreens and onto a winding path. “I want to show you something. Close your eyes.”
I let him lead me over what felt like flagstones and spongy pine needles until the path changed to gravel that crunched under our boots.
“All right. You can open them.”
He kept hold of my fingers as I opened my eyes to see plants, flowers, shrubs, and small trees surrounding us. “Everything is white,” I breathed, moving toward a planter bursting with alabaster-stemmed flowers, petals aglow with reflected sunlight. I reached out and my finger felt biting cold. “They’re made of ice!”
Arcus came up behind me, his chest lightly touching my back. His hand brushed mine as he cupped the flower I’d touched. “Do you like them?”
Petals like white wood shavings rose above gently curling stems, and shrubs flaunted leaves in the most delicately crocheted lace. Tall, feathery fronds drowsed over tightly woven packs of icy rosebuds, like parents watching over a bed full of sleeping children. Miniature trees with translucent trunks etched in a frosty wood-grain pattern sported flat, veined leaves and peach-shaped globes. Ice crystals hung like frozen tears from every branch and stem. The twisting, ethereal shapes clinked together in the morning breeze.
“It’s lovely.” I turned to Arcus. Some fierce but gentle emotion sparkled in his eyes.
“I hoped you’d like it,” he said softly. “Though it’s not the most logical gift for a Fireblood.”
Vulnerability hovered in his expression, and the reason for it hit me. “You made all this?” I examined the garden with awe. There were layers and layers of swaying flowers, carefully rendered shrubs, and elegant trees, all surrounded by a curving, four-foot-high ice wall. “By yourself?”
He nodded, lips twisting in a slight grimace. “It frustrates Lord Ustathius to no end to find me here instead of in the council chambers. I told him this helps me think.”
“And does it?”
“Yes. It helps me think of you.”
His tenderness softened the last of the tension from my body. His arms came around me and mine curved around his back, our lips touching with careful pressure, as if we were made of the same gauzy frost as the ice petals and could crack if we pressed too hard.
My Fireblood skin gradually warmed his, and the shocking cold of his lips gentled mine into cool softness. The kiss was smooth, seeking. His freshly shaven jaw was like silk, lightly scented with his soap, with hints of his own unique scent that I found more heady and pleasing than a handful of fragrant wildflowers.
Moments were lost in feeling, the tinkle of ice making strange music all around us. Arcus’s hand came to my cheek, his other arm pressing me closer, his mouth demanding more. He tasted of the mint tea he drank every morning, and his hair was thick and satiny under my fingers. My control unwound like a spool of fabric rolling across the floor. Heat flared, and drops of water rained from the trees onto our cheeks. He smiled against my lips, his fingers brushing droplets from my brow and nose.
I pulled away just far enough to meet his eyes. “I’d have been happy with a single flower.”
“A single flower would melt in an hour or two,” he said, his voice huskier than usual.
I quirked a brow teasingly. “You think it would last a whole hour in my hands?”
His teeth flashed before he stole another quick kiss, his arms tightening around my waist. “I know you need to escape the palace sometimes, and I wanted you to remember that frost is not just harsh and unforgiving. It can be delicate and welcoming. It can bend. It can learn the shape of things and melt and freeze again in a different form.”
Warmth filled my chest at his caring perception. He was right that I often wanted to escape the Frostblood Court. The courtiers stared and sneered and talked about me openly whenever their new king wasn’t present, questioning his judgment in letting a “wild Fireblood” peasant live in the castle. I feared I was becoming a liability in his struggle to unite the new additions to the court who had supported Arcus in the rebellion with the entrenched members of the court who had been close to King Rasmus. Their new king not only tolerating but showing favor to—possibly even courting—a Fireblood was apparently one step too far.
But Arcus’s words reminded me that he wasn’t his court, that he would adapt when I needed him to, that he accepted me as I was, even if no one else did. It touched me more than I could say. I wished I could find the words to tell him, but lately that seemed impossible.
Feeling came easily. Putting those feelings into words was increasingly difficult.
As Arcus watched my face, he grinned at whatever he saw there, his masculine beauty kick-starting my heart. His smiles turned his face from austere to radiant. My hands wound around his neck, my fingers diving into the hair at his nape. He pulled me snugly against him and his lips brushed my cheek, then moved down to find the pulse point at the side of my neck.
A loud cough broke the silence. I pulled back, but Arcus’s lips followed me, staying glued to the column of my neck, breaking away only when I pushed against his chest. He branded my cheek with a final kiss and turned leisurely, his arms still locked around my waist.
“Lord Ustathius, you have the most unfortunate timing of anyone I’ve ever met. Whatever you wish to discuss, I’m sure it can wait.”
He started to turn back to me, but the sour-faced advisor coughed again, somehow injecting the sound with both apology and censure. “I’m afraid it can’t, Your Majesty. There’s an urgent matter.”
Arcus gave a frustrated sigh, his eyes hooding. “How many urgent matters can there be?”
“A great many,” said Lord Ustathius, his gray eyes as serious as a thunderhead, ample warning that he was about to launch into one of his familiar lectures. “When you are simultaneously bringing armies home, establishing diplomatic talks with neighboring countries, and trying to win the hearts of your people, there will be no end to the demands on your person. Commitment. Sacrifice. Selflessness. These are all required if your ambitious plans are to have—”
“Any reasonable hope of success,” Arcus completed. “Yes, my lord advisor, you have drilled that concept so thoroughly into my head that I hear the words in my sleep. However, I must have a breath of air now and then or I will go mad. Surely you don’t begrudge me exercise.”
“Is that what you call it, Your Majesty?”
My cheeks grew hotter.
Arcus squeezed my hands comfortingly. “What is the crisis this time?”
“A messenger from Safra has arrived and he insists on taking a reply from your hand only. Also, I have called an emergency meeting of the council to discuss caring for the wounded who are returning from the wars. The flood of refugees arriving in Forsia is increasing daily, and we need to address their needs for healing and shelter.”
Every word seemed to add a weight to Arcus’s shoulders. He sighed heavily as he looked back at me.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
I shook my head. “You’re needed. I’m lucky to see you at all.”
His mouth tightened, puckering the scar on his top lip. “I wish it weren’t so difficult. Meet me here at dawn again tomorrow?”
“Only if you can manage it.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” He looked at me carefully. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
“Of course. No more visions.”
He returned my smile, but tension had gathered in his eyes. With a final squeeze of my hand, he turned and strode toward the castle. Lord Ustathius started to follow him, then stopped and turned back to me.
“What is it?” I asked. I still felt vulnerable, unguarded—both from the vivid memory of the Minax escaping from the throne and from Arcus’s kisses. I took a calming breath, hoping to find some control over my heat, which had risen, as it always did, with strong emotions.
Despite his distrust of me, Lord Ustathius’s tone was steady. “You do him no favors by taking his attention from his duties as king.”
“I don’t force him to spend time with me.”
“But you encourage it. Perhaps you should think about what he is trying to achieve. It would be better for him, and for the kingdom, if you weren’t here to complicate matters.”
His candor silenced me for a moment before I found my voice. “You think I should leave? For the good of Tempesia?”
“And for the good of the king. He has a new life now and his attachment to you wins him no esteem with the court.”
It was as if he’d seen the vulnerable place in my heart and he’d aimed an arrow right for it. “I’m well aware of the court’s lack of esteem.”
Lord Ustathius’s expression softened into something like sympathy, which somehow felt more deadly than his censure. “Let him look to the future. Let him choose what is best for him as he grows into the king he is meant to be.”
“And by ‘choosing what’s best,’ I suppose you mean your daughter?”
He lifted his chin slightly. “You cannot fail to see Lady Marella’s virtues and accomplishments. Any man would be fortunate to have her hand in marriage, particularly a king who needs strong allies in the court.”
I looked down, struggling against the jealousy that tightened my chest. The worst part was that I knew he was right. Marella was a Frostblood noblewoman—poised, intelligent, charming—a perfect helpmate who would smooth Arcus’s path as king in countless ways. I was a Fireblood peasant from nowhere, with a heart full of flames and the distrust of the entire Tempesian population. I couldn’t be more ill matched to the Frost King if I’d been created as his opposite by a mischievous god.
“I don’t say this to hurt you,” Lord Ustathius continued. “But I know you must see it, too. It does no good to deny the truth.”
“The truth,” I countered, “is that I don’t make my decisions based on what the court wants. I’ll stay here as long as King Arkanus wants me to.” I lifted my chin and forced myself to hold his cold, burning gaze.
“Then best of luck to you, Miss Otrera,” he said finally, his tone conveying clearly that he viewed me as a foolish child. “I fear you are climbing much higher than you were meant to. Like Pragera, who tried to climb Mount Tempus to reach the home of the gods and was doomed to plummet eternally as punishment for his hubris.”
“In the Fireblood version,” I said, “Cirrus takes pity on him and gives him wings as he falls.”
“Then let us hope your version is the correct one. You are closer to the edge than you think.”
“Another court dinner, my lady?” Doreena asked as she fastened the buttons at the back of my gown—a fussy, high-waisted affair made of ochre silk.
“Imagine my excitement,” I grumbled, trying not to fidget. “Arcus seems to think that rubbing me in the court’s noses will endear me to them. In the same way, I suppose, that stepping in horse droppings increases one’s appreciation of horses.”
Doreena laughed in her quiet way. “Such sarcasm. Have you been taking lessons from Lady Marella?”
“You know that’s the one thing she doesn’t need to teach me.”
She continued to smile. “Well, you are neither a horse nor its…” She cleared her throat to avoid the rest, which just showed that Doreena was more refined than I’d ever be. “And you are quite endearing, my lady. Before you protest, you are a lady, because the king says you are. You wear fine dresses and have a beautiful room. Accept your place, else the court will never accept you.”
As if it were that easy. However, she had a point about the room. Red brocade curtains fell in thick folds, creating a snug cocoon around the four-poster bed. An arched mullioned window, complete with a window seat, faced a garden bursting with flowers and topiaries. An overstuffed wingback chair nestled between a fireplace and a mahogany bookshelf crammed with books. Arcus had chosen the room, placing me in the wing used by the royal family. I sensed he was trying his best to make me as comfortable as possible in a place he knew felt very far from home.
Wherever “home” was. Even if people had returned to my village now that the raids against Firebloods had ended, it wouldn’t be the same without Mother there.
Grief stabbed me, a twisting knife in the dead center of my chest. Mother had died trying to protect me from the Frost King’s soldiers, from the captain who’d blithely killed her and burned our village. If she were here, no doubt she’d tell me to try to fit in, to make allowances for people’s prejudices, to hide the heat that makes them all so uncomfortable. But that’s exactly what I’d been trying to do for weeks.
I tugged at the frothy lace that dripped at my wrists, hiding my pain with petty complaints. “Could you please tell the seamstress I don’t need so much lace at my collar and cuffs? Marella’s gowns are always sleekly tailored, but this woman seems determined to make me look barely old enough to cut my own meat.”
Doreena’s gaze swept over the dress. “You look very pretty, my lady. Perhaps you’re nervous.”
I stifled the urge to argue. Now that she was my lady’s maid, I was glad Doreena felt freer to tell me what she thought. And she was right. I was nervous.
“I hate facing all those snobby nobles. They stare at me like I’m about to burst into flames at any second. Last night Lady Blanding looked me in the eye as she spilled wine on my dress! I could have happily set her hair on fire.”
Doreena came to stand in front of me, regarding me seriously with her owlish brown eyes. She still had the look of a woodland creature, ready to startle and bolt at any sudden movement. However, she’d been the first person to show me kindness here, and considering Rasmus had been king at the time, that had taken courage.
“You must not lose your temper,” she advised, not for the first time. “That’s when you fail to control your gift. And that’s exactly what they want—to prove that Firebloods are dangerous and that you’re unsuitable for court. They want the king to see you as they do: a threat.”
To some degree, I understood their hostility. After centuries of wars, broken treaties, and retaliation, Frostbloods and Firebloods had learned to regard each other with bone-deep distrust. I looked at my hands, small and sun-browned and innocuous-looking, but with the ability to wipe out a battalion of soldiers if I wanted. No wonder the court feared me. Sometimes I feared myself.
I met Doreena’s pleading gaze. “It’s hard to grin and pretend I don’t notice their insults.”
“You don’t have to grin. Just don’t light them on fire.”
I grunted noncommittally. “I make no promises.”
On the way to the dining hall, a draft from the open door of the former throne room chilled my arms into gooseflesh. I’d avoided this room in the weeks since I’d melted the throne, but tonight I was drawn to the stark emptiness, the eerie peacefulness of dust motes tracing lazy curlicues in the twilight. At sunrise, the mosaic floor tiles would flash with vivid color, but now it all looked washed in gray. Stale and abandoned.
Arcus no longer used this as the throne room—it held the echo of too many horrible memories. Instead, he’d placed a simple ice throne, square cut and modest, in a receiving room on the ground floor.
My soft-soled slippers made no sound as I approached the spot where the massive frost throne had sat for centuries.
According to myth—or history, if you believed the stories were true—the ice throne had been the handiwork of Fors, the god of the north wind. Not satisfied with merely creating Frostbloods, he’d also given them an enormous throne of ice to strengthen the powers of their monarchs. A particularly useful gift considering the regularity of the wars against Firebloods.
Not to be outdone by Fors, his twin sister, Sud, goddess of the south wind, had created a throne of lava to enhance the powers of her precious Fireblood rulers.
When their brother Eurus, god of the east wind, had tried and failed to create his own race of people, he’d ended up instead with voracious shadow creatures that killed Frostbloods and Firebloods indiscriminately. So the wise and peace-loving Cirrus, goddess of the west wind, had finally plunged into the fray, sweeping the thousands of shadowy Minax underground to a place called the Obscurum, sealing it behind a Gate of Light that no mortal could breach. Then the siblings’ mother, Neb, had decreed that none of her children could interfere in the mortal world any longer, which meant the Gate should stay closed forever.
Eurus was tricky, though. He’d saved two of his favorite Minax from exile, hiding one in the Frostblood throne and the other in the Fireblood throne. The Minax, with their ability to possess people, provoked the kings and queens into increased enmity and hatred, causing war and mayhem and the deaths of many more Firebloods and Frostbloods.
After centuries of bolstering Frostblood rule, the throne of Fors was gone. All that was left from where it had once sat was a discolored area of tile, round and shiny black, a stain that could never be scrubbed away. Much like the scar near my left ear, which the Minax had given me in this very room after it escaped from the melted throne.
My fingers moved to stroke the heart-shaped mark.
As soon as I touched it, I was plunged into another vision, dark and deep.
I stand in a cavernous room with black stone pillars straining up into looming darkness. I move over the floor, not walking but gliding like a ragged exhalation, as if I’m made of air. By tiny degrees, the outline of a heavy black shape sharpens into an unkempt, asymmetrical rectangle chiseled out of night.
It’s a throne—wide enough to fit ten men, yet only one small figure sits on it, feet dangling high above the floor. Greenish light reflects off the figure’s onyx crown, which is gnarled and pointed, like twisted antlers interlocking and curving up almost a foot in height. The figure’s head is bent a little, as if the crown is too heavy for the delicate stem of its neck. Closed lids open to reveal yellow eyes pinning me where I hover several feet away. I sweep downward in a misty approximation of a bow, then straighten.
“Come closer,” the figure says, the voice soft and female.
I long to obey, to slide underneath her skin to feel her power.
“You have the stone?” she asks.
I hand it to her. As she takes the stone, fire glows around it, lighting the room. A triumphant smile breaks over her face, and the sight spills something like happiness into my soul.
“You’ve done well,” she said. “You will be rewarded.”
She beckons. Joy lights my mind.
As I seep into her fingers, I gaze at her face, where strands of inky hair cling to her cheeks and chin.
Suddenly, I was back in the throne room, struggling to draw my next breath. Pain bit into my palms. I opened my fists. My fingernails had scored angry red crescents into my skin.
I scrubbed my hands against my face, trying to rub away the horror of recognition.
When I’d moved toward the queen with the twisted black crown, the face she’d worn was my own.