Crown of Darkness by Bec McMaster

If I chose her, then Thiago would be executed.

Thiago agreed to her demands. How could he not? He believed in my love and told me that he’d thought a little patience would be worth it in order to avoid war and still have me.

Only, when the time came for my mother to return me, she revealed a malicious little twist in the game.

She’d cursed me to forget him.

For thirteen years he’s spent every winter winning my heart all over again, and I can barely remember any of it.

To save Thiago’s life and break the curse my mother laid upon me, I made a bargain with one of the Old Ones who walked this world before the fae arrived. The Mother of Night fractured the curse that stole my memories, but in return, she insisted that I bring her the Crown of Shadows within the year.

If I fail, then my firstborn child will belong to her.

Unless there is no child.

It’s the promise I made with Thiago. Until the Mother of Night overturns her own bargain, we can’t risk making a baby together. I’ve been timing everything and drinking bitter nettle tea until I want to gag, and Thiago managed to locate some sheathes, but….

I can’t stop seeing her smile the moment we made that deal.

They say she can only see the hearts and souls of those before her—not the future—but her smile chilled me to the bone, and I don’t think I’ve been able to warm myself ever since.

“No child, no bargain,” I say softly, looking into the mirror of the bath chambers.

Behind me, Thiago leans one broad shoulder against the doorway, his dark green eyes locked on me intently and his arms crossed over his chest. Every inch of him is carved muscle and olive skin. Tattoos darken his chest and they shift and swirl, little eyes blinking from within monstrous wolfish faces as though they’re watching me. One of them trails down the hard-packed muscle of his abdomen, luring my gaze. Thiago must have stopped to haul a thin pair of loose gray trousers from the floor, because it vanishes behind the linen.

But there’s evidence I’m not the only one whose gaze lingers.

He’ll hold me and kiss me and chase the bad dreams away if I let him, but in this moment, it’s not comfort I seek. I want action. We’ve been trying to trace any hint of rumor about where the Crown of Shadows was last seen, and so far we’ve found nothing. Three months. Three months of nothing, with only nine months until I must produce the crown.

How prophetic.

“What was it this time? A maze? A set of cliffs?”

“Old Mother Hibbert took the child,” I say, turning the faucets on and splashing water over my face. The shock of it steals through the numbness. “A princess left it in the woods for her to find.” I can’t help giving a bitter smile. “The baby had your eyes.”

Thiago stills. Every inch of him is leonine with grace, but there’s a coiled violence within him. “My eyes?”

His voice warns me.

“Yes. Why?”

“Maybe it wasn’t just a dream,” he murmurs, stroking his hand across his knuckles. “Some fae can pick the thoughts from others. And while my wards are impenetrable, you’re the one person I might lower my defenses against.”

His words slowly penetrate as I turn the faucet off. “You mean, I’m picking up on your thoughts?”

“Or memories.”

“You were left on an altar in the forest?”

I remember the day he told me of how Old Mother Hibbert takes all those lost and abandoned babies and raises them in Unseelie.

Thiago crosses the room toward me, wrapping his arms around me from behind. He presses a kiss to the back of my neck. “Yes.”

“You wouldn’t remember it.” He was just a baby, and no matter how strong his magic is, there would have been nothing to hold onto.

I can’t be seeing his memories.

His dark lashes obscure his eyes as I turn in his arms. “It was the first nightmare I ever had. A recurring one. One of the other children told me that my mother had cast me to the forest for the wolves to eat, and that’s what I dreamed of for months. I would cry and wriggle, but I could never escape. I was too little. Helpless. And then the wolves come.”

I rub his knuckles, trying to chase away the shadows in his eyes. “He sounds charming.”

“We weren’t all friends.” His voice roughens. “Old Mother Hibbert takes all that she finds. Not all of them are babies. The older ones are the ones that struggle with it the most, because they can remember their fae parents leading them out to the forest and tethering them to the altars. I don’t blame him for being angry. He made my early years miserable, but I can’t even remember his name now.”