War makes strange bedfellows.
I, Gaius Domitus, one-eyed rebel dragon king of the Provinces, know that better than most, since I have to fight off half my ungrateful family on a regular basis to keep law and order here in my lands. But I never expected to have to consort with a barbarian human woman.
Kachka is beautiful, if you like them fierce—and of course I do. But she keeps complaining about how spoiled and decadent I am, and how a feared Daughter of the Steppes has no time for foolish dragons. I think she likes my eye patch, though. It is quite dashing. With death always at our tails, we take our passion like we take our allies. As they say, love the barbarian you’re with…
The Mad Queen of Garbhán Isle’s scream of rage echoed out over the silent valley, sending birds from trees and small animals deeper into their burrows.
Her rage was a horrifying wonder to behold because it was always so raw. So unmistakably vicious. Truly, there was nothing more terrifying than to see that rage directed at an individual or full army. But, at the moment, there was no individual or army for the queen to direct her rage at. They were long gone.
Thankfully, the queen did not redirect her anger toward those closest to her. That was why they all willingly fought by her side. Because as mad as the queen might be, she was never wantonly cruel.
One of the few beings willing to try to reason with the queen when she was in a rage moved her mare closer. The female wasn’t human, although she was currently in her exquisite human form. No. She was a She-dragon. Her long white hair draped over the entire backside of her horse, her sharp blue eyes aware of everything around her. Yet if you didn’t know the truth about her, you wouldn’t guess that under that slim bit of human flesh rested a large white dragon that could render a man in pieces with one swipe of her claw.
“Annwyl?” she called out. “Annwyl?” she tried again.
But the queen couldn’t hear her or anyone. She was too busy beating the trunk of a tree with one of her swords. It wasn’t helping, though. The action wasn’t wearing her out. If anything, it was just making her more pissed off.
The She-dragon glanced back at the squad of soldiers. She seemed embarrassed. Her pale cheeks turning red. But they were the Queen’s Personal Guard. They understood Annwyl the Bloody better than anyone. They saw her in battle. They saw her in quiet times. They saw her at her worst and best. The only one who knew her better than her personal guard? Her mate, the black dragon, Fearghus the Destroyer.
“Annwyl, this isn’t helping.”
The queen slammed her blade into the ground and rested her hands on her hips, her head down, her breath coming out in hard pants.
“I know that,” the queen finally barked at the white Shedragon. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“I think they were looking for something,” their general announced as he walked away from the remains of the temple.
General Brastias was a hero of many wars and in charge of Annwyl’s armies. He could, like many generals before him, send men out to do this sort of thing while enjoying the comfort and safety of Garbhán Isle, the seat of power of the Southlands. But his continuing loyalty to Annwyl and the She-dragon, Morfyd the White, was so very strong that he still rode with them on missions like this.
Morfyd—one of the Dragon Queen’s offspring, so actually a princess—looked down at her mate, her hand brushing her horse’s neck to soothe its tension. “Looking for what?” she asked Brastias.
“I have no idea, but the interior has been torn apart.”
“Perhaps they were just leaving a message.”
“No.” Annwyl shook her head. “They want something.”
“Annwyl, they’ve been destroying temples for months now. Let’s not make this into some kind of crazy conspiracy when they’re simply trying to damage your reputation among your people.”
“It’s more than that. I know it is.” Annwyl yanked her blade out of the ground and slammed it back into the empty sheath she had strapped to her back. “None of this is working,” she complained, stomping toward her battle horse, Bloodletting. “They’re always ahead of us because we have no idea what they plan to do next.”
“So what do you suggest? We already have spies—”
Annwyl grunted. Not because she was mounting that vicious stallion of hers, but because she didn’t want to hear anything else from anyone.
“I don’t want to hear about Dagmar’s and Keita’s legions of spies. This isn’t about politics, Morfyd. This isn’t about propaganda. This is something else.”
She looked over the remains of the burned temple, greengrey eyes glaring out from under thick light brown hair. “I’m tired of this, Morfyd.”
“I’m tired of this.”
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
Another grunt as Annwyl turned her horse around. “Give them proper death rites,” she ordered, motioning to the temple priests, who’d been tortured before they’d been killed. The cult that did this torture and murder called it “purifying.” It was reserved for those who refused to join them in their devotion to the god called The Eyeless One, Chramnesind. “Then burn the bodies.”
“What are you going to—?”
But Annwyl and her horse had already charged off. Brastias nodded at a few of the men, those who’d ridden longest with Annwyl and were already well-acquainted with her bouts of rage, silently ordering them to follow their queen. Not to keep her safe . . . but to protect anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path. Especially since the queen didn’t look or act like a royal. In this state, it was easy for her to misinterpret a small argument between farmers as some kind of rebel attack.
“What if she’s right?” Brastias asked his mate while the rest of the men dismounted and went to work. “What if this isn’t about simply making her look bad?”
The She-dragon shrugged deceptively slim shoulders.
“Then the gods help us all if they find whatever they’re looking for before we do.”
Originally from Long Island, New York Times bestselling author G.A. Aiken has resigned herself to West Coast living, which involves healthy food, mostly sunny days, and lots of guys not wearing shirts when they really should be. Writing as Shelly Laurenston, she is also the creator of the wickedly funny Pride series for Brava. For more info about G.A. Aiken’s dangerously and arrogantly sexy dragons, go to www.gaaiken.com.