The Offering

The Offering

Page 8

Once we were in Eden’s small, no-frills room, Angelina laid her hands on her royal guard, and the energy in the air changed immediately . . . from the gut-wrenching anguish that had caused bile to rise in the back of my throat, to an apprehensive sort of acceptance. A sense that this was the way things were now. There was no going back.

Whatever had happened to Xander was already done. Eden, who’d been thrashing beneath the hands of the three large men who had accompanied us to her chamber, stilled on her bed, which seemed more like a cot with a cushion too thin to be deemed a true mattress, and I couldn’t help wonder why, in a palace filled with such sumptuous furnishings, Eden would choose to deny herself such a simple creature comfort as a decent bed. For a moment I thought Angelina had somehow damaged the woman rather than calmed her. Eden seemed comatose, she was so motionless. But then I realized I could still sense her, could still see her eyes, watching Angelina . . . and only Angelina now.

The two of them seemed to have their own language.

One I wasn’t privy to.

I suppressed the jealousy that twisted in my gut at seeing the two of them like that, wishing Angelina would look at me like that. Wishing she would look at me at all. For now, I supposed it was enough that Eden had settled down.

I watched Eden then, studying her hair that had once been spiky and blue but was now glossy and black and had grown just long enough so that it skimmed the sharp bone of her chin when she marched—which was what she did rather than walk, wherever she went.

Now that same hair was plastered, like an oily second skin, to her scalp, still damp with sweat. Her skin, normally pale—not luminous like mine but opaque like polished ivory, chiseled and unbreakable—appeared ashen. Bloodless.

Her awareness became tangible. I could sense her reluctant acknowledgment that what she’d seen was real, and that she couldn’t remain in that state of anguish indefinitely.

Angelina had told her so. With her eyes . . . and her touch.

There’s nothing more for me to do here, I told myself, and Sabara concurred silently. The fact that I understood her wordless support worried me. We were too close, too enmeshed with each other.

We were two queens trapped in the same body, a complicated situation. One I wished I could remedy.

And I heard her response. Me too, she thought. More than you can possibly know.

I went back to the main hall, relieved that it was deserted now. Zafir had gone with Max and Claude to round up the two messengers from Astonia who had run off when Eden had executed their companion.

“Stay here,” I told the young guard who’d been charged with shadowing me in Zafir’s absence. He frowned at being left near the door, but since the room was empty, and easily discernible from where he stood, he allowed me go inside. I knew exactly what I was after, the box from Queen Elena.

It was still there, right where I’d dropped it.

Xander’s hand had been removed, but the flowers’ petals were still strewn like purple confections all around the marble floor. Their fragrance masked their bitter purpose—to conceal their gruesome offering.

I approached the box warily, apprehension turning my blood to ice. I couldn’t imagine the kind of woman, queen or no, who could do something so reprehensible. When I knelt down, I let my fingers trace the outside edge of the cardboard, assuring myself it was only paper. Merely the means for delivery.

Convinced the box was harmless, I set it on my lap and peered inside, still considering Elena’s motivations.

Why Xander? Why now?

To what end had she sent his hand?

Did she expect me to retaliate? Was I to declare war and risk the lives of millions over the loss of one?

I couldn’t say I wouldn’t. Xander meant enough to me that I might. But I couldn’t make the decision that easily.

I blew away several of the withered flowers that were still inside the box, spilling them onto the floor, where the rest were spread. Only then did I see that one was lodged in the bottom edge. Lodged between one wall and the floor of the container.

A floor that looked to be . . . detachable.

I plucked the blossom free, examining the box. I ran my finger along the inside of it, slipping my fingernail barely into the bottom edge.

It moved. Shifted just enough that I was able to get the rest of my finger beneath it.

I glanced around, searching to see if anyone else had seen what I’d done. It was only me and the guard watching from the door, and he was oblivious to my discovery.

Turning back to my task, I shimmied and wiggled the false bottom until I’d managed to free it from the box. Beneath it a flash of red caught my eye.

Red, the color of Queen Elena’s flag.

I knew exactly what I was looking at.

A message, sealed with red wax.

My throat tightened as I reached for it. Like the box, the letter was made only from paper, but my reaction was visceral.

Even Queen Elena knows you don’t need great technology to deliver a powerful message, Sabara jeered.

I ignored her barbs, concentrating on the letter instead. Its red wax seal, stamped with the unmistakable crest of Astonia, was unbroken. I thought about reading the message later in the privacy of my own bedchamber, but curiosity got the best of me.

Sliding my finger beneath the edge of the envelope, I felt the seal break, and my pulse quickened.

I read the missive quickly, and then closed it again. “Is she okay?” Max’s voice found me, and my hand shot down to my side. I tucked the letter into my hip pocket before he could see it.

“What? Wh-who?” I stammered, jumping to my feet as the box tumbled to the floor. My heart pounded painfully in my chest.

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