A haunted inn. A magical violin. An intriguing innkeeper. Get ready for a smoldering romance you’ll want to devour in one sitting.
“I want it back!” Unable to restrain my shimmering rage, I smashed my fist into the stone table.
My knuckles cracked, sending a sprout of crimson gushing down my fingers. The burst of pain that shot up my arm made me feel alive, as though I had some control over my fate. Although, losing my temper in front of the sorceress was futile; she was all-powerful, and I was delicious prey for her insidious games.
Crossing her bare legs, she tapped her clawlike nails on the white bone of her throne and stared at me with somber black eyes. “Ezra,” she scolded, lips pursed, her manner beguiling. “Anger does not become you. Besides, you’ll have it back once you’ve completed my terms.”
The problem with getting angry with the sorceress was that it didn’t bother her at all. She waved her hand as if I was a mere nuisance instead of a knight who’d fallen out of favor. Except our relationship went much deeper than that. I’d broken a sacred vow, and she was well within her rights to punish me for eternity.
Grinding my teeth, I took a deep breath to keep from exploding again. The scents of incense and myrrh stung my nostrils. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked, yet each time I return, you change the requirements—”
Her cruel, disdainful laugh cut me off midsentence, making a muscle in my cheek spasm. I hated interruptions, and she knew it. Another wave of resentment surged, but instead of punching stone, I clenched my fists so hard my nails dug into the skin of my palm. My gaze shifted past her bare legs to the pyramid of skulls surrounding the throne. Why didn’t she take my head and add it to her collection? I suspected we’d both be happier.
“You have a lesson to learn, Ezra,” the sorceress cooed in her superior tone. “Everything isn’t about you, nor have the terms changed. You simply perceive them differently. If you bring me enough magic to bind the King of Hearts, I will discharge you from my services. Only then, and not a moment before, will I return it to you. Now go, play your violin and summon a foul servant for me.”
“How do I know you will keep your word this time?”
“Because you are the one who has failed before, not I.”
The sorceress stood, her sheer white gown rippling like water over her body as she bent to lift a skull, tapping it in warning. “You have twelve cycles of the moon to complete your mission, because I’m tired of waiting. If you delay, I will take another one of your loyalists and destroy them.”
She dropped the skull, which landed with a sickening crack that echoed through the cavern. “You may lose your temper, dear Ezra, but I am the sorceress because I perceive the hearts and minds of people. I know what they crave and how to manipulate them until they swear utter fealty. I should have cast you away a long time ago. Anyone else might have, but I see one final use for you. You aren’t as far gone as my other knights who sinned and fell from grace. But you’ll never dwell under the protection of my name again. The faster you do this, the sooner we’ll never see each other thereafter.”
The swimming madness in her soulless eyes was the only thing that kept me from protesting even though fury clogged my throat, threatening to choke me. But she was right. I’d sealed my fate the moment I’d broken my vow. Freedom was within reach once I completed this last task. Although, part of me feared she’d lock me up or kill me once I was no longer useful to her. Evidently banishment was not enough. I promised myself if, by some miracle, I gained a second chance, I’d never use magic again, for I had opened the door to demons and paid dearly for it.
“You’ll give it back,” I demanded hoarsely, “the moment I send that foul beast through the portal to you.”
“The very moment,” she purred, placing her foot on a skull. “Now go, Sorcerer of Portals, and do your worst. I will accept nothing less.”
Turning from that somber chamber, a cave of conquered bone, I strode with purpose to the portal. The vortex of light, deep purple and soulless black, flickered, encouraging me to slip through and return to the realm of mortals. It did not matter what I wanted when I’d broken my vow to the sorceress and she’d caught me.
Punishment was severe, and anyone else would have been grateful to still draw breath, but the reminder of what I’d done was mentally agonizing. Even though she’d banished me from her realm, she kept me tethered to her, like a child suckling on its mother’s milk. To tighten the metaphorical noose around my neck, she’d taken something precious from me, and I desperately needed it back.
The portal flashed, a million silvery stars reflecting the heavens. I moved through it, ignoring the intense cold until I stumbled out of the depths of starlight into the pale glimmer of dawn. Leaning against the rough wall of the cave, I gasped for breath, waiting for my energy to return. The wounds on my knuckles healed themselves, the skin knitting together as if I’d never broken it. I scowled, for it only served as a remnant of her court, a reminder of what she could do to me, even beyond the portal.
The thunder of the cascading waterfall pulled me out of my morose thoughts. Straightening my blue waistcoat, I walked across the dew-damp ground. It would take less than an hour to return to the inn I now called home, but after my audience with the sorceress, my mind wouldn’t calm itself enough to sleep.
I hoped the stagecoach to the city would be ready, for I needed a diversion to take my mind off the endless days I served, hoping for freedom. Upon my return, I’d focus on summoning the monster the sorceress demanded. But if it escaped, if I could not control it with my song, I would damn myself and the Dawn to the grave.