There were a million places I could’ve found myself in when I finally opened my eyes.
The same red sex room I’d blacked out in. The towers, prepped and ready for torture. The dungeons. The gallows. Elysium. To name just a few.
I never once thought I’d wake peacefully in my room as if nothing had ever happened.
Sunlight streamed in through my big arched windows, warming my face. I sat up, glancing curiously about the space. The plum-colored silken sheets were tucked perfectly all around me, as if I hadn’t moved at all in my sleep. The sitting room was tidy; all evidence of the sweet treats I’d snacked on before the ball had been removed, and a fresh bouquet of flowers had been positioned on the glass table in their stead.
What the fuck was going on?
The last thing I remembered was fighting the Storm King—all of us falling, one by one. He’d taken us down with such sickening ease, making me absolutely certain there’d been magic involved somehow. I didn’t know if he’d been actively trying to kill us, or if he’d just been teaching us a lesson, but either way, the fact that we’d lived meant... Crissen had saved our lives. Again.
But had he survived? Or had we drained him dry in our attempt to cling to life? Would the bond even allow that? For some reason, I had a feeling it was an all-or-nothing sort of thing, and if one of us survived, then all of us did. Or at least, I hoped that was the case.
I pulled the white cotton nightgown out from my chest, realizing two things at once. One, someone had cleaned and redressed me. And two, the strange stab wound the Storm King had given me was completely gone.
Flinging my sheets from my body, I stood up and walked to my window, peering down at the massive fountain of the Greek gods below. It was strange how things could seem exactly the same but feel so irrevocably different.
The first time I saw that fountain, I’d been arriving at Blackwood Palace to meet the princes. The only thing I hated then was poverty; the only thing I feared was losing my pet sloth. I’d marveled at its magnificence and beauty.
Now, it just looked dull. The water spewing from the mouths, hands, and breasts of the gods seemed stagnant and slightly green. Now, I hated all sorts of things—especially the Storm King—but poverty was the farthest thing from my mind. Now, my greatest worry was losing anyone I ever loved at the hands of the wicked king.
He’d already taken so much....
A knock sounded at my door, and as I spun around, I saw a young servant girl standing in the open frame.
"Good morning, Your Highness. I’m here to prepare you for breakfast."
My brows furrowed in sarcastic surprise. Breakfast? The Storm King had damn near killed us, and now we were going to eat breakfast and chat about the weather as if nothing had happened? The man was fucking insane.
"How about you bring breakfast up to my room? And while you do that, I’ll prepare myself for the day ahead."
Hopefully that’d consist of a hot bath, then getting the fuck out of the citadel.
She smiled sympathetically. "Sorry, Your Highness. I have strict orders from His Majesty, the king. We have foreign dignitaries arriving today, and everyone is to look their best and be on their best behavior—especially you and the princes."
The princes. My heart filled with joy and excitement at just the mention of their titles. "Are they awake too?"
I had no idea how long we were asleep or how long it’d taken us to heal. I was under the impression that this was the very next day, but now that I thought about it, I couldn’t actually be sure. It might’ve been weeks for all I knew.
"Yes, Your Highness," she said, twisting her apron with willowy fingers. "They’re being prepared for breakfast as we speak."
Suddenly, there were voices in the hallway and the stomping of angry feet.
"I said, get out of my way," one of the voices demanded. Rob.
"We can dress ourselves, thank you very much," another voice said. Cal.
A moment later, four hulking bodies crammed into my doorway and poured into my room. Clad in nothing but soft bed pants, they were a breathtaking sight to behold. All that smooth skin and those delicious rippling muscles... I sighed contentedly, taking in deep lungsful of their delicious spicy scents, allowing their allure and familiarity to calm me like a high.
"Out," Rob ordered the servant girl standing wide-eyed and uncertain in my room. Not to be told twice, the poor girl quickly fled into the hallway once more. "And shut the door behind you."
It closed quickly, and Rob flipped the lock.
A moment later, I was hefted up into his burly, tattooed arms, his tongue plundering my mouth in the most delicious way. Our lips parted suddenly, and I had a single moment to breathe before Cal's lips came down on mine. His kiss was demanding, pouring out all his fear and worry and love. Then gentle hands ran up my spine and pulled me away. Ben's lips replaced Cal's, his hand restraining my chin, his tongue stroking mine in a way that made me dizzy with lust in an instant. When I came up for air, Dan turned me around and crushed me to his chest, his fingers raking up and down my sides as his tongue danced with mine.
Instead of being passed to another prince when our kiss was complete, Dan simply sat me down on wavering legs. That’s when I finally realized something was very wrong. There should have been five Storms crammed into my room, five Storms kissing me, not four. One of my beloved princes was missing.
My mouth went dry. "Where’s Ash?"
"That’s exactly what we were about to ask you," Cal replied, features grim. A lock of blond hair dipped down into his blue eyes. "I haven’t seen a little bird flitting around anywhere. Have you?"
I shook my head slowly, allowing the full weight of that statement to sink in. If Ash wasn’t around in bird form... then where the fuck was he?
Ben’s brows furrowed, and his brown eyes narrowed in thought. "How long have we been out?"
"I don't know. I just woke up," I admitted, and all the guys nodded their agreement. "Does anyone else find that a little... odd? That we all just happened to wake up at the exact same time?"
"Not at all," Ben said, pinching his bottom lip with a sun-kissed hand as he paced around my room. "I’d bet a mountain of jewels that the Storm King planned this. Drugged us somehow. Kept us unconscious until the exact moment he wanted us to wake."
Well, that wasn’t terrifying or anything. Who knew what sinister bullshit he could’ve been up to while we were comatose?
Rob marched to the door and unlocked it, flinging it open quickly to reveal the terrified faces of the servants waiting out in the hall. "How long have we been passed out?" he demanded.
Their eyes went wide, but one of the men stammered, "T-Two weeks, Your Highness."
"Oh, my gods," I whispered, covering my mouth. I stared at the servant guy. "What was King Zacharias up to while we were sleeping?"
He shook his head. "N-No idea, Your Highness. He was away on business. He only just returned this morning. That’s why he ordered us to... w-wake you."
"And how, exactly, did you do that?" Ben asked, more curious than accusatory.
The female servant held out her hand, revealing a tiny vial of clear liquid. "He told us to give you each three drops of this. He said you’d wake in less than fifteen minutes, and he was right; you awoke in less than three."
"May I?" Ben asked, holding out his hand.
The servant girl quickly relinquished the vial to Ben, then backed out into the hall once more.
The Sand Prince lifted the little bottle up into the sunlight, and my lips parted as I watched the liquid inside shimmer and sparkle in all the vibrant colors of the rainbow.
"Fascinating," Ben muttered, staring intently.
"Did the king tell you what this liquid was?" Dan asked, his sea green eyes locking onto the servant girl, who immediately blushed at his attention.
"No, Your Highness. He would never entrust us with information like that."
Sighing harshly, Rob shut the door in their faces once more and locked it tight. Then he leaned back into the wood, ran his hands through his ebony hair, and growled in frustration.
Dan turned back to us, nervously worrying his lip. "What are the odds that the king’s ‘away on business’ status had something to do with Ash?"
"Probably better than we’d ever care to imagine," Rob replied, sounding gentle instead of brash for once. He scratched at the dark stubble along his jaw and sighed.
Had the Storm King found Asher flitting around? Had he figured out who he was? Kidnapped him? Tortured him? Buried him alive? Or worse?
My thoughts were a graveyard of unholy possibilities.
"What if Ash was the business, because Ash was the egg," Ben surmised, "and the Storm King had no idea it was actually him?"
"No," Cal decided at once. "We made that fake and never once did anyone have possession of it except for me. There’s no way he could have shifted and replaced it somehow without me knowing."
"No way?" Ben asked curiously. "I assume you cleaned up for the ball. Did you take the bag with you into the shower?"
Cal’s lips thinned, and his eyes narrowed. "Are you accusing me of losing our brother?"
"Not accusing," Ben clarified, "just pointing out facts. He very well could have snuck into your room and done the deed while you were momentarily distracted. I wouldn’t put it past him."
Cal sighed and ran a hand through his golden blond hair. "I was only in the shower for a second."
"It’s all right, bro," Dan said, patting Cal on the shoulder. "If Ash really did take the place of the egg, then that shit’s on him and no one else."
A knock sounded faintly at the door. "Your Highnesses, please. We really must get you ready for breakfast now. The king will not be pleased if you’re late."
Rob’s lip curled, but he opened the door yet again. "Who exactly are we having breakfast with?"
"Just His Majesty this morning," one of the other servants spoke up. "But the foreign dignitaries will be arriving tonight for dinner. Now that Timberlune and Hydratica have declared war upon us, His Majesty is scouting for allies. Representatives from Eristan, Valinor, Rubio, and Werewood should all be arriving within a few hours."
"Gods fucking damn it," Rob grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Cal sighed. "It makes sense. Fortifying our defenses is probably exactly what I would do. But that means we're stuck playing his games once again. We need these allies as much as he does. If not, it’s our people who will pay the price. Our people who will be slaughtered in a senseless war."
Dan rolled his pale green eyes and scrubbed a frustrated hand across his face. "Well, here we go again, then. It’s like our childhood reincarnated. Take a beating, witness some torture, then act like it didn’t affect us in the slightest."
"Let’s just get through breakfast," I suggested, rubbing a hand up Dan’s smooth, bare arm. "We’ll take this one step at a time, until we can somehow get the upper hand."
All the guys agreed and retreated to their respective rooms to prepare for breakfast.
"I’m afraid we no longer have time for your bath, Your Highness," the servant girl apologized. "We’ll just have to make do with styling your hair, applying your makeup, and dressing you in a suitable gown."
Out of nowhere, tears welled in my eyes and the small smile dropped right off my face. Gemma used to be the one picking out my gowns. The one prepping me for another day of bullshit at the palace. Without her and her wise words of encouragement, how was I going to make it through the days to come? She was always the light in the midst of my darkness, my home away from home. Now that she was gone, where the hell did that leave me?
"Sorry, Your Highness," the servant apologized uncertainly. "I didn’t realize the bath meant so much to you. I suppose I can try to steal some time away from your hair in order to fit it in."
Gods, she’d read that situation all sorts of wrong.
I wiped my tears and shook my head. "No, we can skip the bath."
Hell, I used to skip baths for weeks back in Blackleaf because I didn't have time to get to the river when I was mining for jewels all day and half the night. And even if I did have the time, I almost never had the coin for soap.
The servant girl grabbed a brush and started tugging on my hair, blissfully unaware of my heart breaking right before her. Or maybe she just didn’t care? Either way, now that Gemma was on my mind, all the grief I’d suppressed that night had come rushing back.
I’d selfishly dragged her to the palace with me, but she had adjusted beautifully, making friends with the servants and learning everything she needed to in order to help keep me on track. She’d listened to my trivial complaints, and while she totally laughed at half of them, she still took the time to help me figure them out. She encouraged me to follow my heart and pursue all of the princes. And she suffered torture at the hand of the king, simply for being my friend.
At least the torment was over. Never again could he hurt her on behalf of my failure; if nothing else, I should be happy for that. I didn’t know if I believed Elysium was even real anymore, but if it was, I knew she’d be there. She was the best of the best, the most deserving soul there ever was for an eternity of peace and happiness.
"I love you, Gemma," I whispered, too quiet for even me to hear. "I will make him pay for what he did to you, I swear it."
I would kill the king... even if it was the last thing I ever did.
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