Bitter. Broken. Brutal.
Molded since childhood to be the perfect weapon, Gavriel d’Alana (also known as Death’s Shadow) has devoted himself to serving Thalia Talfayen. The life of a Noxblade is lethal and lonely, and since the princess has no need of him, he secretly believes there’s no reason for him to live—and he should seek a glorious death—but that’s before he tangles with a tiger woman who unleashes his darkest desires.
Tough. Tenacious. Trustworthy.
Magda Versai has a reputation for being unattainable—no deep attachments, only discreet amusements. If she has her way, the pride will never learn of her private heartbreak, as she accepted her curse years ago. Now, she focuses on work, which is why she’s acting as Raff’s bodyguard while secretly hunting for Slay. The search leads Mags to team up with a Noxblade so belligerent that she can’t resisting baiting him.
She’s the steel, he’s the flint, and the sparks they strike together might kindle a fire that could warm them for a lifetime, if they don’t kill each other first…
This Noxblade was begging for somebody to kick his ass and Magda Versai was just the woman for the job.
She’d come to Daruvar—a grim, ancient Eldritch fortress—to guard Raff’s back, and this asshole had the nerve to attack on her watch? Not fucking likely. They’d thought they were being subtle by taking the argument to a dark hallway, but everyone knew they didn’t get along. She heard Raff say, “Use your words, Gavriel.”
The assassin released Raff, spitting an Eldritch swear. Mags understood enough of the language to know that he’d just insulted Raff and his mother. She lingered in the shadows, ready to step in if it became necessary. Dammit, she’d nearly found out something about Slay, too, the whole reason she was here, and now this bastard was wasting her time. He’d pay for that.
Gavriel snarled, “I warn you, wolf. The princess is not for you. Leave this place before something worse happens.”
Mags leapt on the Noxblade, seizing his wrist and wrenching his arm up toward his shoulder blade. She put her lips to his ear. “I’m something worse. And Raff is under my protection.”
For good measure, she twisted harder, digging her strong fingers into Gavriel’s wrist bones. He felt fragile in her hold, though she had no doubt he’d enjoy sticking a blade in her, should she show weakness or mercy. Possibly he considered them to be two sides of the same coin.
Raff cleared his throat. “Let him go. We’ll use our words too, Mags.”
“You brought me as your bodyguard.” She pressed harder until Gavriel made a pained, angry sound. It would be so easy to break his bones.
Though she was physically stronger than the wolf lord, Mags didn’t resist when Raff pulled her hand away and the Noxblade scrambled away from them like they had a contagious disease. She could smell the hatred on him, sharp and acrid. The assassin was breathing hard, unaccustomed to being overcome so easily, and she smiled, enjoying his discomfort.
Gavriel didn’t meet her gaze. Of course he didn’t. Fucking coward.
Instead, he growled at Raff, “How dare you bring your mistress here!”
She made a fist, taking a step forward. Is that what you see when you look at me? I thought assassins had to be observant. “I belong to only myself.”
Though Raff set a hand on her shoulder, she grabbed Gavriel’s arm again, so tempted to stomp some humility into this insulting war-hole. It was a pejorative term, all credit to Beren. Damn, I miss that old bear. Because the wolf was exerting full strength, Mags humored him and pretended to let him haul her back.
“Leave us,” Raff said. “He won’t hurt me. He respects the princess far too much to violate her oath of hospitality.”
She had her private doubts, but Gavriel spoke first, his tone strained. “That…is true. Come with me. Now.”
The other two headed for the stairs that led to the ramparts. She pretended to move off and followed in complete silence, a lightness of foot that surprised those who judged her by size and strength.
She caught up in time to hear Raff say, “Go ahead, speak your warning. If I hurt her, you will poison me, so I die in slowest agony, and then you’ll carve out my heart and offer it to crows and so on.”
“None of that makes any sense,” Gavriel snapped. “Slow poison makes it more likely that you’ll be caught, an antidote administered. And if you died of poison, why would I feed your heart to innocent birds?”
To her annoyance, Mags agreed with all those points. Raff was laughing, probably not in danger. “You take things far too literally. Didn’t you bring me here to threaten me?”
“Much as I would like to, there are more important matters at hand.”
“Then, by all means, continue convincing me not to wed Princess Thalia.”
“You take nothing seriously and you seem to care only for your own pleasure. You are no fit match for her, and you will only add to her burden in time.”
At this point, Mags could have moved off, but she was curious enough to stick around. They didn’t know she was listening, ready to pounce if Gavriel made a move, and it might give her some insight as to how the Noxblade thought. That might come in handy later. Opponents rarely expected her to be clever, only fierce; therefore, it was deliciously satisfying when they realized she was both.
Raff snapped, “What the hell are you even saying, man?”
Only Animari ears could have detected Gavriel’s sigh from this distance. “Haven’t you considered at all what a disastrous mésalliance this would be? When she’s still bright and beautiful, she’ll be chained to you, though you’ll be a doddering, toothless old hound by then.”
Mags had considered that aspect, but she figured they could dissolve the marriage at any point before then. Things weren’t normal anymore and there was no reason to pretend the old rules applied. Hell, she never could’ve imagined leaving Ash Valley to hunt down Slay, who might’ve turned traitor. When she requested leave, there was one critical fact she hadn’t mentioned to Dom.
If Slay had turned on them, she’d put him down. Hers was a three-fold task: Find Slay. Determine whether he was a captive or a conspirator. Take appropriate action. The former Ash Valley second knew too much about cat security for Mags to leave him in the wind, and she had mixed feelings about the mission. She loved the asshole like a brother, so if he’d gone bad? It’d be like losing a limb to take him out.
Raff sounded like he was losing patience. “Unless she asked you to speak for her, shut the hell up. It’s embarrassing to see you froth jealousy that masquerades as concern for your lady.”
“I’ll say one thing more, then.” Gavriel paused, maybe thinking about how to phrase what came next. “She may look cold and strong, but she has been alone for most of her life, fighting harder than anyone can imagine. Please, by all the gods you hold sacred, be gentle with her.”
Surprise flickered through her at the tenderness of the request. The sincere intensity, from a seemingly merciless assassin, sent a pang through her, not envy, exactly, but wistfulness for what would never be. Mags had long since accepted that the price of her own emotions was too high and she would never again ask anyone else to bear the cost.
She heard Raff say, “I will,” and concluded the conversation was over. Lingering might get her caught, so she padded away down the stairs. Though Gavriel doubtless thought he was being silent, she caught the faint hint of his movement behind her, but his own skin gave him up even more, traces of cloves, cinnamon, and copper. Before he could return the favor of pouncing from behind, she whirled on him and slammed him against the wall, one hand on his throat.
“It’s unwise to startle me,” she said.
This time, however, he managed to get his blades up, nudging them against her abdomen. “It’s equally unwise to antagonize me. I’m in no mood to be patient.”
“On three, then.” Mags didn’t explain, but from the terse way he lifted his chin, he understood. She counted out the numbers and they both dropped their hands. Taking a step back, she added, “What’s your damage?”
“I just didn’t want you to think you got away with it. The wolf lord may not have known or cared that you were prying into our private conversation, but whatever you’re trying to do, I will stop you, if it harms the Eldritch or my queen.”
The fervent declaration startled a laugh out of her, which prompted a ferocious scowl from Gavriel. “What?” he demanded.
“My mission is no secret, shadow warrior. I’m here to keep Raff safe, but I’m also tracking Slay from Ash Valley, and what I found leads here. Old Lord Talfayen’s people took him or…” Well, she didn’t need to spell it out. “I’ll find our lost jaguar, one way or another.”
Gavriel stared, unable to believe she’d divulge her purpose so readily, but he read no signs of deceit or subterfuge in her expression. “Is this a trick?”
“You’ve got issues,” she said, shaking her head.
Magda Versai was a dangerous woman; of that, he had no doubt. She stood a few centimeters taller than him, weighed more in pure muscle, and she had combat skills the like of which he’d rarely seen in the field. Even his stealth might not be enough to defeat her, unless he used a fast-acting, powerful poison.
“There’s no reason for me to conceal my purpose. You’re loyal to Thalia, so you don’t know shit about where Slay might be. And if I share who I’m looking for, maybe you won’t get in my way out of spite.” She tilted her head. “You might even be useful, if you could put aside all that pointless rancor.”
The ‘pointless rancor’ she referenced so easily spiked in a burst of white-hot rage, so powerful that for a moment he couldn’t even speak. He hated these Animari so much, not for the racial purity reasons Lord Talfayen had touted, but from bitter, personal loss. Gavriel clenched a fist, tucked it behind his thigh to hide the reaction.
“You speak so easily about that which you know nothing,” he snapped.
“I know everything. Your brother died at the retreat, after fighting Dom and Pru, and you’ve hated us ever since. But look, did you ever think maybe you’re hating us this hard so you don’t have to process your own guilt?
“You were there. You failed to save your brother, you didn’t manage to carry out your mission of warning Dom, and you ran to save your own ass. Clean your own house before you burn ours down. And once you do that, think about the part your own fucking queen played in that mess. I know you adore her, and you think she’s perfect, but she gave the orders, right? It wasn’t Dom, or me, so suck it up and stop blaming other people for your loss.”
At first, the pain was blinding, and it made him sick to his stomach because she was cool and relentless, but as the words dropped into him like stones in a still pond, he couldn’t refute her statements. Though it galled him to the bone, he couldn’t admit she was right, so he said nothing at all.
She seemed to take that as an invitation to continue, hammering away at him as if he were a sword she must temper. “And Zan, yeah, I heard about him too. I heard everything from Korin. I know you were close, but that’s not our fault either, Gavriel. I’m sorry you lost a friend, but I heard that he chose to protect Alastor to his last breath. You didn’t even order him to do that. He volunteered. It’s tough as hell. I get it. But you shouldn’t let your pain make you hate the world.”
“You know nothing about my pain,” he finally bit out.
He wasn’t used to anyone coming at him like this, candid and fearless. Everyone in Princess Thalia’s lands was terrified of him. They called him Death’s Shadow because she whispered her orders and he fulfilled them, quiet as a ghost, leaving no trace. Before, when the Noxblade guild was strong, he hadn’t minded so much, but now, most of his sword mates were dead, perished in the Battle of Hallowell or even before. He had no friends or family left, only Princess Thalia, and she—
She did not love him. He would never be more than a blade in her hands.
“Maybe not, but I know mine. And I’m positive of one thing.”
“What is that?” he asked before he could stop the question.
In this light, Gavriel could scarcely make out the Animari woman’s features, but his own must be well illuminated for her. He hated being on the wrong side of the power imbalance.
“It doesn’t help to blame other people… or even yourself. Terrible things happen, and you have to ride them out. When you’re hurting so bad you feel like you could die, stay busy. Work until that feeling fades. Since you’ve lived longer than me, you should know that well enough. Time eases all things.”
Gavriel noticed that she didn’t say ‘cures’ or ‘heals’ and that was the reason he didn’t eviscerate her with a few sharp words. It seemed that Magda Versai did know something about sorrow. “I didn’t request your counsel,” he muttered.
“It was a free consultation. Are you going to help me find Slay or not?”
“You didn’t think I was comforting you out of the goodness of my heart, did you?” She laughed softly, husky and low, and he…didn’t hate the sound. In fact, it was almost pleasurable to his ragged nerves, even knowing he’d caused her amusement.
“Clarify,” he said.
“I could use a hand getting these Eldritch to open up. They’re too damned nervous to talk to me. Since you need to stay occupied, help me out.”
Gavriel startled himself by chuckling, a rusty noise born of long disuse. “You think I’ll put the people at ease?”
“Shit. Probably not. You’re the would-be queen’s enforcer, so you might scare them even more.”
“It’s unlikely that anyone in Daruvar knows anything about Lord Talfayen’s loyalists,” he said. “You’ve most likely wasted your time coming here.”
“Well, I needed to be in Eldritch lands regardless. Maybe I can beat something out of one of the enemy patrols who are running recon in Thalia’s territory.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“For them,” she said, smiling.
He surprised himself by acceding to her request. “While I can’t assist with questioning the staff, I can hunt with you. We share a common goal in wanting to extract intelligence from the queen’s enemies.”
“You’ll patrol with me, help me take out the opposition, and then assist with interrogation afterward? That could be interesting.”
“It doesn’t need to be that. Only mutually useful.” Privately Gavriel admitted that the additional work would provide a welcome distraction from the damned marital alliance that Raff Pineda had to come to pursue.
“Then…I accept your offer. When can we get started?” she asked.
He considered. “Tomorrow, we have some official entertainments planned. After that, I’ll be free, or relatively so. Princess Thalia has been distracted of late and has not issued any particular orders since I returned from Hallowell.”
She told you to rest.
Relaxation wouldn’t drive the demons out of his head, a pity the princess didn’t realize that as well as Magda Versai. The tiger woman seemed to grasp that if he retired and closed his eyes, he would see nothing but nightmare scenarios. Guilt would play his brother’s death, again and again, and Gavriel would writhe all night on a pyre of failing to prevent the loss, or worse, his flight to save himself. He had never shared that quiet truth—that he despised himself for surviving—yet she knew.
As if she was reading his mind, she said, “Get some sleep before then, or I’ll have to save your ass in the field.”
Gavriel drew himself up. “Don’t cross the line. My cooperation in this matter doesn’t give you the right to make personal remarks.”
For the third time, she laughed at him, and his jaw clenched. “I can say whatever the hell I want. You can ignore me or shut me up. Which will it be?”
Desperate desire for violence flared. Nobody spoke to him this way. He wouldn’t permit it from this Animari, either.
“Are you challenging me?” he asked softly.
“Could be fun. Fighting’s better than going back to my room, which I’m sharing with a couple of cranky wolf women. Is there somewhere we can go a round or two?”
She didn’t seem to take this seriously, her mistake. Gavriel smiled. “Certainly. The soldiers have a training space past the barracks. It’s cold and damp, but it should suffice for our purposes. I’ll give you the choice of weapons.”
“You can use whatever you want,” she answered. “I won’t need one.”
Gavriel gritted his teeth at Magda’s impenetrable confidence and stepped around her, choosing the corridor that led deeper beneath the fortress. “We shall see.”