TITLE: ORIA’S GAMBIT
AUTHOR: Jeffe Kennedy
PUB DATE: 2016
A Play For Power
Princess Oria has one chance to keep her word and stop her brother’s reign of terror: She must become queen. All she has to do is marry first. And marry Lonen, the barbarian king who defeated her city bare weeks ago, who can never join her in a marriage of minds, who can never even touch her—no matter how badly she wants him to.
A Fragile Bond
To rule is to suffer, but Lonen never thought his marriage would become a torment. Still, he’s a resourceful man. He can play the brute conqueror for Oria’s faceless officials and bide his time with his wife. And as he coaxes secrets from Oria, he may yet change their fate…
An Impossible Demand
With deception layering on deception, Lonen and Oria must claim the throne and brazen out the doubters. Failure means death— for them and their people.
But success might mean an alliance powerful beyond imagining...
The golem’s glassy claws flashed, arcing through the rosy light of the moon, and sliced open his throat. Blood poured down his naked body, steaming in the chill desert air. Out it flowed, sweeping around him like the bore tides of Bára. So much of it pooled around him that he began to drown in it. He strained to lift his battle axe, to cut the golem down with cold iron, but found a flower in his hands instead.
A white lily, luminescent and fragile, somehow escaping the blood that drained his life away.
The golem struck again and he shouted at it, no sound escaping. Because he had no throat left. Because he was dead.
How could he still be standing?
The golem’s claws dripped crimson and its black maw yawned, glistening with glasslike fangs. It wouldn’t ever die, forever coming after the Destrye until every last one of his people were dead, unless he managed to cut it down. Out of its mouth, sickly green fire blew, a lethal wind of flame that burned the crops and aqueducts. Not a golem then, but one of the Trom. Skin over bones, a humanoid spider, it grinned, lips red as the claws, hand reaching to turn him into skin without bones, nothing but pulped flesh. No, they were fingernails, enameled and jeweled. Natly’s elegant hands slicing across his throat again, lips curving in a lascivious smile. With that third swipe, his head tumbled to the ground, and as she reached for his cock with those scarlet daggers of her nails, he finally managed to shout his anguish and fury.
Lonen jerked in the hot water, the nightmare shredding around him with the spray of droplets. The servant boy gave him a wide-eyed look. Bero. The Báran lad had attended him his last time at baths, too. He was in Bára, again, cleaning up after the journey. No Trom or golems here.
Except in his tortured brain.
“Did you need something, Your Highness? You called out, but I didn’t understand the words.” Bero carried a stack of the much lighter colorful clothes that men of Bára wore. Silk, Oria had called the fabric, another thing apparently made by insects. Despite its disturbing origins, and like the addictive and tangy sweet honey she’d also introduced him to, the cloth had an exotic loveliness, more refined than anything produced in his homeland.
Like the sorceress herself, both unsettling and compelling.
“No, I’m fine.” He cupped his hands and splashed water on his face. Sloppy of him, to have fallen asleep in the city of his enemy—and then failing to awaken at Bero’s footfalls as he approached. Too comfortable in the soothing waters. Too many months of short sleep. Ion would have slapped him upside the head hard enough to have his brain ringing for the carelessness. But his brother was dead and gone these many weeks, reduced to boneless pulp at the simple touch of the Trom’s evil hand.
“Would you care for wine or food now, King Lonen?” Bero asked in the trade tongue, setting out the soaps and oils. “Princess Oria said you’re to have anything you ask for.”
Luxurious baths, booze, and fine food—an excellent strategy to lull him into meekly doing the sorceress’s bidding. The nightmare had served as a timely reminder of his purpose here—to save his people from destruction, not to indulge in Oria’s gifts or seductive presence. He might have agreed to her startling proposal of marriage, but he’d proceed on his terms, not hers. For the sake of the Destrye and his sanity both.
“What are the chances of a decent steak?” He meant it as a joke, though the boy wouldn’t know that. The Bárans didn’t eat meat as a rule and, though the Destrye did, the grave losses to their livestock and wild game meant Lonen hadn’t had anything worth calling a steak since before Battles of Bára.
“Princess Oria said to tell you she sent some of the hunters to find meat for you, Your Highness. It might take a few hours, however. Until then the best she can offer is some meat kept to feed the animals, and our usual fare.”
Him and livestock—both pets of the Bárans. But his stomach growled, cramping with hollow pain, so he told Bero to bring whatever, enjoying the quiet when the boy went to fetch it. It seemed like years, not weeks, since he’d last visited the baths. That evening he’d washed himself clean of the ashes of too many dead before negotiating the peace treaty with Oria. Short-lived as that peace had been.
Then, as now, the elegant beauty of the underground chambers both enchanted and intimidated him. Built of carved gold and rose stone like the rest of Bára, the baths were pools of still water, several of them at varying temperatures, going from shallow to deeper than a man could stand. Elaborately carved pillars and arches supported the shadowy ceiling, the subtle light of the sconces not quite enough to illuminate it or the far corners of the room.
For a man who’d learned to jump at shadows, he found it surprisingly lulling. As evidenced by his falling asleep deeply enough to dream, though the nightmares were nothing new. The cursed things plagued him most nights. Odd to see Natly in this one, though, rather than Oria stalking him. A facet perhaps of his dramatically changed reality—exchanging one fiancée for the other. It appeared that by agreeing to marry Oria, he’d now have Natly haunting his sleep.
At least no one else had heard him cry out. He had the place to himself on this occasion. Probably the Bárans didn’t bathe in the middle of the day. The baths simply remained filled, awaiting their convenience.
A shocking waste of water.
Bero returned, setting down a platter of food and a jug of wine, along with a tray of shining instruments. “Would you like me to shave you before you eat, or after, Your Highness?”
Reflexively, Lonen clapped a hand over his beard. He had no doubt he looked scruffy from his travels, and in comparison to the Báran men who were all clean shaven that he’d seen, but...
“Is that another of Princess Oria’s edicts?” He asked, not bothering to disguise the sarcasm.
Bero ducked his head, clearly chagrined. “I apologize, Your Highness. Please forgive me. I did not mean to offend. When I serve the prince and folcwitas at their baths, they—”
Lonen held up a hand to stop the increasingly penitential torrent of explanation from the already nervous boy. “No apologies. I am short-tempered.” He rinsed himself one last time, then rose from the water.
“Your Highness, I did not mean to abbreviate your bath.” Bero sounded even more contrite.
“You didn’t. I’m clean and I don’t need to lie about, indulging myself.” Especially not while his people could be dying by the Trom’s dragon-breath while he luxuriated in deep water and napped. Oria had said she’d stop the incursions, but she’d also promised him that very thing before this. He had no reason to trust her—and plenty of evidence otherwise. Better to be ready to fight whatever battle presented itself next.
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.
Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review was nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose was nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of and the third book, The Talon of the Hawk, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2015. Two more books will follow in this world, beginning with The Pages of the Mind May 2016. A fifth series, the erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, started with Going Under, and was followed by Under His Touch and Under Contract.
She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.