Queen of any other faction? Sure, why not!

Another male rose to speak, another knight. Melanthe didn’t like the looks of him. He was waxy-skinned with light hair and eyes. He had one of the beefier builds among the males. Where the other Vrekeners struck her as still-waters-run-deep types, this guy seemed smarmy—like some of the Sorceri courtiers she’d known.

“My liege, four factions of the Lore have declared war on us. If we count the Sorceri’s age-old declaration, that brings the total to five.”

Just weeks ago, Lanthe would’ve been heartened by this development. Now she was part of the us.

Even when Thronos was faced with this news, his shoulders remained squared. And she wanted to kiss him for it. “Tell me, Cadmus.”

“The rage demons, the House of Witches, the Dacians, and not unexpectedly the Deathly Ones.” Though conveying distressing news, Cadmus sounded almost thrilled.

Did war turn him on?

Thronos’s eyes narrowed. “What do we know about these enemies?”

“Not as much as we’d like, my liege,” Jasen answered. Lanthe supposed that Vrekener wasn’t too bad. Compared to Cadmus, Jasen struck her as a levelheaded font of reason. “The Dacians live in a secreted realm, but they have very recently begun opening up communications with outside factions. Their newly crowned king is Lothaire, the Enemy of Old.”

Thronos turned to her. “You know him.”

“I do. If we can deliver a missive to him, I will try to establish a dialogue.”

Thronos told her, “We have a station on the ground, with messengers awaiting.”

“Good. I don’t know why he would declare war. It seems random.”

Jasen answered, “The new king of the Deathly Ones is a Dacian royal. We believe Lothaire is backing his relative.”

“I expected the rage demons to declare war,” Thronos said. Because of me. “Now it becomes clear why the Deathly Ones and the Dacians have. But what of the House of Witches? Are they not in the Vertas alliance? The House has always maintained an uneasy truce with the Vrekeners, no matter how closely their faction is related to the Sorceri.”

Historically, witches and Sorceri hadn’t been chummy. Unlike Lanthe and Carrow.

Cadmus shrugged. “We don’t know why they call us enemy.”

Lanthe did. She’d bet Carrow had survived the island and was still trying to get Lanthe’s back. I knew I liked that witch.

Cadmus said, “It’s my recommendation that we strike back against the vampire who stole into our kingdom, sending Vrekener might to crush the Deathly Ones. If the Dacians want a war, we can give them a reckoning.”

Thronos intoned, “You’re quick to want war for a kingdom in flux.”

Cadmus’s lips thinned. “King Aristo was given no death rites—because the vampire made a gift of your brother’s head to the princess in that sick demon tournament,” he said, again seeming to relish delivering the gruesome news.

Lanthe squeezed Thronos’s hand. He had to be freaking inside, but he appeared undaunted.

Turning to Cadmus, she said, “You want to crush the Deathly Ones? Those demons garner strength with each kill they make. In other words, they get more powerful as a war drags on. Plus, their kingdom is specifically warded against Vrekeners. As for the Dacians, they’re fairly much supervampires, with unearthly might and cunning. Lothaire alone is millennia old.” And immortals grew stronger with age.

“The Sorceri seek to war with us,” Cadmus said, addressing Thronos as if Lanthe hadn’t even spoken. “Yet now we have one of them as queen? How can we be sure where her loyalties lie?”

Oh, it’s on. “My loyalties lie with Thronos,” Lanthe declared. “I’ll do everything within my power to protect him and his interests.” —By the way, Cadmus is an asshole.—

Blue light began to swirl around her just as Thronos snapped, “Your queen has spoken, and you will not doubt her.”

Cadmus choked out a breath. “That’s not residual sorcery flowing from her. You left her empowered?” Others looked stunned by this as well. “When I’ve felt her very sorcery compelling me against my will?”

What was this tool talking about? —When has he felt my sorcery?—

—He was with me in Louisiana when we ambushed you last year. Jasen as well.—

Cadmus pounded his fist on the table. “She must be disempowered to walk freely in our realm. It’s the law!”

In an eerily calm voice, Thronos said, “Obviously I just changed that law, General Cadmus. Get up to speed.”

When Cadmus looked like he was about to go off, Jasen hastily said, “We have burdened our regents with much unwelcome news.” He turned to them. “Your new apartments in the Hall have been readied.”

Thronos hesitated, so she said: —Cadmus will get what’s coming to him. But for right now, Thronos, our army of two needs to regroup off the battlefield.—

With a kingly air, he stood. “I’ve much to think about. We’ll reconvene later.”

As she and Thronos walked from the assembly room, again hand in hand, the knights lined the aisle, lifting their wings above it like an arc of swords. Even Cadmus.

She might enjoy Thronos’s wings; didn’t mean she could tolerate anyone else’s.

She held her breath until she’d gotten out from under those jagged flares and glinting talons. . . .

The adjoining royal residence was built on a higher protrusion of rock, a wide stairwell leading to it. Inside, there were more roofless rooms and they were larger, but the space was still fairly bare.

As Thronos showed her around, his thoughts obviously preoccupied, she removed her gauntlets, settling in. Home sweet home.

He escorted her to a balcony, stopping just short of it. “From this height, you can see all the way to the edge of the island. I don’t want you to be afraid.”

“I’m not scared when you’re around.” At the risk of sounding mushy . . . sustaining a fear of heights was difficult when she knew he would always catch her.

He led her to the railing, then draped a protective arm around her shoulders.

In the distance, the blindingly blue sky was dotted with other islands, each with its own city. Below them, a thunderstorm hovered, lightning flashing.

The sight was remarkable, but she and Thronos had work to do. She turned to survey his face. “I was proud of you in there.”

“For what reason could you possibly be proud?” He led her back inside, heading for a sitting area.

“Though you were repeatedly kicked in the ballbag, you didn’t look like it.”

“Perception is important. When Omort’s rule crumbled, it was because no one believed in him any longer. His powers were still intact, godlike even, but he lost his followers through his behavior, his lack of leadership. I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but . . . these Vrekeners need a strong king right now. They need you.”

He let out a breath. “I never wanted to be king.”

“I always dreamed of being a Vrekener queen.”

He raised a brow at that. “And what about now—can I look as though I’ve been repeatedly kicked in the ballbag?”

He sank into a chair, rubbing his swollen leg. Then her upstanding Vrekener muttered, “Fuck.”

She pulled up a chair beside him, leaning in. “We’re going to get through this.”

“You were right all along. Things are not as I’d imagined them. I had this idea of black and white, and now I’m immersed in gray.”

“I regret that you lost your sibling”—best she could muster—“but you’ll make a great king.”

“I can’t believe Aristo is gone. I know he did evil things—he hurt you—yet I’m still conflicted. Just when I add one member to my family, I lose another.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Was he the one who did those things to Queen Bettina?”

“She told me that she thought the group acted with impunity, as if they were outside of the normal Vrekener command. Who besides Aristo would dare such a thing?”

“You believe him capable of such an act?”

“If you’d seen him as my sister and I have . . .”

Thronos shut his eyes. “Did Cadmus speak the truth about my brother’s ultimate fate?”

She hesitated, then said, “It’s likely. The Deathly Ones are a warrior breed. If the vampire was trying to impress them, that would be just the way. Plus, he was probably venting some serious rage. The vampire’s young Bride was . . . savaged.”

Thronos opened his eyes. “How did Aristo become like that? Your brother was destined to become evil, but mine seems to have rushed headlong toward it.”

She had no answer for him. He didn’t seem to expect one.

He motioned for her to come to him; she gladly went into his arms, sitting on his lap. “I’m the last of my line, Melanthe.”

“After last night, there’s a chance—slim to none, but still a chance—that you aren’t.” Lanthe’s overwrought biological clock gave a sigh of hope.

Thronos stared at her with eyes gone silver. Kind of like he loved her. Then he said, “How am I to fix all that my brother’s broken?”

“We’ve got this. My sister is very good friends with Bettina. We can extend an offer of peace to the Deathly Ones. You might have to apologize on behalf of your brother.”

“Normally, it wouldn’t be easy to get her to the table. She kind of became a shut-in after her attack. If you even utter the word Vrekener, she runs away, sobbing and stuff.”

“But there’s an upside. Bettina’s not only a gold fanatic like me, she’s a goldsmith. She would do just about anything for this.” Lanthe held up the silisk medallion. “So we’ll offer it as a present to celebrate peace between our factions. Depending on how much sway she has over her new king, this could be a lock.”

“You told me earlier that the necklace is your favorite. You’d give up your most treasured gold for the Vrekeners? For this kingdom?”

She made a scoffing sound. “Not in a million years. But I’d give it up for you. Because that’s what we do—we save each other’s asses.” She let that sink in. “So by neutralizing the Deathly Ones, we’ll be taking care of the Dacians as well. As for the House of Witches, I think that’s all Carrow. The good news is that she survived the island. The bad news is that the last she saw of us wasn’t . . . ideal.” When Thronos had been dragging Lanthe down a tunnel as she’d spat and cussed.

“Look, you can make that up to me by biting your tongue when you first meet my sister. For now, we can’t worry about anything other than getting this kingdom out of the crosshairs. I’ll write to Carrow and explain to her that I’m with you voluntarily. Same with the rage demons. The only reason Rydstrom declared war is that he doesn’t know I’m in Skye Hall of my own volition.” She frowned. “Did I really just say that?”

“So you’re to be my ambassador queen?” Thronos curled his finger under her chin. “I don’t want you to have to fight my battles.”

She leveled her gaze on his. “We are partners. We’ll be co-ruling this joint, and we’ll play to our strengths. I’m pretty good at stuff like this. Nïx said that I was to shine in this realm. So just let the sorceress do like she do.”

He exhaled a long breath. “Then I’m heartened. And grateful for my co-ruler.”

“But there’s one faction that I can’t guarantee. My own. If Morgana drained the powers from the vault, she will have kept the choice ones. She was already a force in the Lore before, so I can only imagine how dangerous she’s become.”

In the past, Morgana had been impossible to reason with. Her ego was so colossal, it outstripped even Sabine’s. And now that Morgana’s adversary Dorada had risen, who knew how the queen would react about anything?

“I can extend an olive branch,” Lanthe said, “letting her know that Skye Hall is under new management, and that fifty percent of the royals here are Sorceri. But I make no promises. She’s about as predictable as Emberine. Thronos, she could strike down everyone here with a snap of her fingers.”

“If the vampire breached these wards, what’s to stop him from teaching Morgana how to do the same? We already know the two were working together to some degree since he gave her the fire scythe. Morgana won’t stop until the vampire tells her everything.”

“Will she be so bent on reaching us?”

“I don’t mean to heap bad news upon bad news, but Bettina is her ward. One of the few people in existence that Morgana cares about. Now that Bettina’s married a Dacian royal vampire, I don’t see how your brother could have targeted a worse victim.” Aristo had screwed up, well, royally.

“What about your presence here? Will that not influence your queen?”

“I’m sure she thinks I’ve been abducted and brainwashed. Even if I convinced her I’m here by choice, I’m only one among her many subjects. She and Sabine have a bond of sorts, but Morgana wouldn’t forgo any of her plans for Sabine—and definitely not for me.”