Crown of Darkness by Bec McMaster



“No! No, it’s not a trap.” The princess takes a step forward, then hesitates when the blade swings back her way.

“I can smell the stink of your power, girl. Why does a child with royal blood lie on this altar?”

“Because those in power will kill it if they know it survived the birth.” She bites her lip. “It was never meant to be born alive. It was… a curse of fate. Please. Please take the baby. They’ll kill it otherwise.”

Old Mother Hibbert’s nostrils flare, the tip of her knife slowly lowering. “You ask a great boon of me, Daughter of Maia. I can sense the twist of prophecy all around the child. This will only end in bloodshed and tears.”

“I will come for it in twenty years,” she promises. “I will bear the burden of its fate. I promise once. Twice. Thrice.” The shiver of winds whisper through the woods as Blessed Maia hears her oath. “Just give the baby time to grow and prosper, far away from these lands. Just let it have a chance. I will do anything to protect it. Anything.”

The hag looks down, though her brow softens as she looks upon that little face. “There are Shadows on its soul. It bears the taint of the Unseelie and worse, far worse.” Then she looks up. “Twenty years,” she says coldly. “I will protect this child and return it to you in twenty years. And you will owe me a boon of my choice.”

“I will owe you a boon,” she whispers, though she knows she risks everything in promising the Unseelie creature her soul—without limits.

But some prices are worth the cost.

“Then away with you. Before you are followed or found.” Old Mother Hibbert tucks the baby to her chest and turns to the sleigh.

Bright green eyes blink open as the baby stares over her shoulder, and the princess swallows. Hard.

Something flutters to the ground as Old Mother Hibbert leaps onto the sleigh and sets the baby among her furs. Grabbing the braided leather, she sneers at the princess before she slaps the reindeer’s rump with the reins.

And then the hag is gone, and the baby along with her in a jingle of bells and soft sobs.

And as the princess rushes to see what Old Mother Hibbert dropped, she can’t stop the tears streaming down her face.

It’s a little bootie.

And she can still feel the baby’s warmth as she curls the tiny knitted sock to her chest.





Chapter One





Iskvien





I wake with a gasp, still reaching for the child.

The image of it vanishes like the remnants of a tattered dream, my hand closing over nothing. My heart feels like it’s going to thunder through my ribs.

Sheets sigh, and then Thiago rolls toward me, sleep sloughing off him the second he catches a glimpse of my face. “What’s wrong, Vi?”

I swear I can feel that knitted bootie in my hand, though I’ve never seen that forest before. Nor that altar. “Nothing.”

“I thought we were done with secrets?” Thiago teases lightly, though there’s an intensity to his eyes I can’t hide from. He kneels over me, then slowly reaches down to brush my cheeks. They’re wet, and we both know it, but I turn my face away.

“I’m fine. It was just a dream.”

I’ve been having them for weeks, though they’re always different.

“The baby?” he asks.

Collapsing back on the sheets, I scrape my shaking palms over my face. I can never see its face, but it always looks like him in my mind’s eye. “It’s probably a reminder.” The words taste sour in my mouth. “Probably a gift from the Mother of Night, urging me to find the Crown of Shadows.”

Darkness hoods Thiago’s eyes. “That bitch is not having our child.”

I’ll wear the cost of the bargain I made with her, no matter what I do. Tossing the sheets aside, I drag my robe on and cross to the bathing chamber. “I know.”

We’ve both discussed this ad nauseum in the last three months, as we recovered from my mother’s attempted execution.

Thirteen years ago, I fell in love with my enemy. My mother, the Queen of Asturia, couldn’t bear to see me happily in his arms, and so she struck a deal with him. To avoid war between our kingdoms, he could have me for three months and then he must return me. Each year I would spend the winter by his side, and the rest of the year at my mother’s court.

If, at the end of thirteen years, I chose him forever, then Mother would be forced to relinquish all hold over me—and surrender all claim upon the disputed border lands that lie between our kingdoms.