I am Princess Meredith, heir to a throne of faerie. My day job, once upon a time, was as a private detective in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, princess has now become a full-time occupation.
My aunt, Queen Andais, will have it no other way. And so I am virtually a prisoner in faerie–trapped here with some of the realm’s most beautiful men to serve as my bodyguards . . . and my lovers. For I am compelled to conceive a child: an heir to succeed me on the throne. Yet after months of amazing sex with my consorts, there is still no baby. And no baby means no throne. The only certainty is death at the hands of my cousin Cel, or his followers, if I fail to conceive.
Now Mistral, Queen Andais’s new captain of the guard, has come to my bed–defying her and risking her terrible wrath in doing so. But even she will hesitate to punish him in jealous rage, because our joining has reawakened old magic, mystical power so ancient that no one stands against it and survives. Not even my strongest and most favored: my Darkness and my Killing Frost. Not even Mistral himself, my Storm Lord. But because Mistral has helped to bring this magic forth, he may live another day.
If I can reclaim control of the fey power that once was, there may be hope for me and my reign in faerie. I might yet quell the dark schemes and subterfuges surrounding me. Though shadows of obsession and conspiracy gather, I may survive.
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Laurell K. Hamilton is the New York Times bestselling author of the Meredith Gentry novels: A Kiss of Shadows, A Caress of Twilight, Seduced by Moonlight, A Stroke of Midnight, as well as twelve acclaimed Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, novels. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Visit the author’s website at www.laurellkhamilton.org.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I dreamt of warm flesh and cookies. The sex I understood, but the cookies . . . Why cookies? Why not cake, or meat? But that’s what my subconscious chose as I dreamt. We were eating in the tiny kitchen of my Los Angeles apartment—an apartment I didn’t live in anymore, outside of dreams. The we were me, Princess Meredith—the only faerie royal ever born on American soil—and my royal guards, over a dozen of them.
They moved me around with skin the color of darkest night, whitest snow, the pale of newborn leaves, the brown of leaves that have gone down to die on the forest floor, a rainbow of men moving nude around the kitchen.
The real apartment kitchen would have barely held three of us, but in the dream everyone walked through that narrow space between sink and stove and cabinets as if there were all the room in the world.
We were having cookies because we’d just had sex and it was hungry work, or something like that. The men moved around me graceful and perfectly nude. Several of the men were ones I’d never seen nude. They moved with skin the color of summer sunshine, the transparent white of crystals, colors I had no name for, for the colors did not exist outside of faerie. It should have been a good dream, but it wasn’t. I knew something was wrong, that feeling of unease that you get in dreams when you know that the happy sights are just a disguise, an illusion to hide the ugliness to come.
The plate of cookies was so innocent, so ordinary, but it bothered me. I tried to pay attention to the men, touching their bodies, holding them, but each of them in turn would pick up a cookie and take a bite, as if I weren’t there.
Galen with his pale, pale green skin and greener eyes bit into a cookie, and something squirted out the side. Something thick and dark. The dark liquid dripped down the edge of his kissable mouth and fell onto the white countertop. That single drop splattered and spread and was red, so red, so fresh. The cookies were bleeding.
I slapped it from Galen’s hand. I picked up the tray to keep the men from eating any more. The tray was full of blood. It dripped down the edges, poured over my hands. I dropped the tray, which shattered, and the men bent as if they would eat from the floor and the broken glass. I pushed them back, screaming, “No!”
Doyle looked up at me with his black eyes and said, “But it is all we have had to eat for so long.”
The dream changed, as dreams will. I stood in an open field with a ring of distant trees encircling it. Beyond the trees, hills rode up into the paleness of a moonlit winter’s night. Snow lay like a smooth blanket across the ground. I was standing ankle-deep in snow. I was wearing a loose sweeping gown as white as the snow. My arms were bare to the cold night. I should have been freezing, but I wasn’t. Dream, just a dream.
Then I noticed something in the center of the clearing. It was an animal, a small white animal, and I thought, That’s why I didn’t see it, for it was white, whiter than the snow. Whiter than my gown, than my skin, so white that it seemed to glow.
The animal raised its head, sniffing the air. It was a small pig, but its snout was longer, and its legs taller, than those of any pig I’d ever seen. Though it stood in the middle of the snowy field, there were no hoofprints in that smooth snow, no way for the piglet to have walked to the center of the field. As if the animal had simply appeared there.
I glanced at the circle of trees, for only a moment, and when I looked again at the piglet, it was bigger. A hundred pounds heavier, and taller than my knees. I didn’t look away again, but the pig just got bigger. I couldn’t see it happening, it was like trying to watch a flower bloom, but it was growing bigger. As tall at the shoulder as my waist, long and broad, and furry. I’d never seen a pig so fuzzy before, as if it had a thick winter coat. It looked positively pettable, that pelt. It raised that strangely long-snouted face toward me, and I saw tusks curving from its mouth, small tusks. The moment I saw them, gleaming ivory in the snow light, another whisper of unease washed through me.
I should leave this place, I thought. I turned to walk out through that ring of trees. A ring of trees that now looked entirely too even, too well planned, to be accidental.
A woman stood behind me, so close that when the wind blew through the dead trees her hooded cloak brushed against the hem of my gown. I formed my lips to say, Who? but never finished the word. She held out a hand that was wrinkled and colored with age, but it was a small, slender hand, still lovely, still full of a quiet strength. Not full of the remnants of youthful strength, but full of the strength that comes only with age. A strength born of knowledge accumulated, wisdom pondered over many a long winter’s night. Here was someone who held the knowledge of a lifetime—no, several lifetimes.
The crone, the hag, has been vilified as ugly and weak. But that is not what the true crone aspect of the Goddess is, and it was not what I saw. She smiled at me, and that smile held all the warmth you would ever need. It was a smile that held a thousand fireside chats, a hundred dozen questions asked and answered, endless lifetimes of knowledge collected and remembered. There was nothing she would not know, if only I could think of the questions to ask.
I took her hand, and the skin was so soft, soft the way a baby’s is. It was wrinkled, but smooth is not always best, and there is beauty in age that youth knows not.
I held the crone’s hand and felt safe, completely and utterly safe, as if nothing could ever disturb this sense of quiet peace. She smiled at me, the rest of her face lost in the shadow of her hood. She drew her hand out of mine, and I tried to hold on, but she shook her head and said, though her lips did not move, “You have work to do.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, and my breath steamed in the cold night, though hers had not.
“Give them other food to eat.”
I frowned. “I don’t understand . . .”
“Turn around,” she said, and this time her lips did move, but still her breath did not color the night. It was as if she spoke but did not breathe, or as if her breath were as cold as the winter night. I tried to remember if her hand had been warm or cold, but could not. All I remembered was the sense of peace and rightness. “Turn around,” she said again, and this time I did.
A white bull stood in the center of the clearing—at least that’s what it looked like at first glance. Its shoulder stood as tall as the top of my head. It must have been more than nine feet long. Its shoulders were a huge broad spread of muscle humped behind its lowered head. The head raised, revealing a snout framed by long, pointed tusks. This was no bull, but a huge boar—the thing that had begun as a little pig. Tusks like ivory blades gleamed as it looked at me.
I glanced back, but knew the crone was gone. I was alone in the winter night. Well, not as alone as I wanted to be. I looked back and found the monstrous boar still standing there, still staring at me. The snow was cold under my bare feet now. My arms ran with goose bumps, and I wasn’t sure if I shivered from cold, or fear.
I recognized the thick white hair on the boar now. It still looked so soft. But its tail stuck straight out from its body, and it raised that long snout skyward. Its breath smoked in the air as it sniffed. That was bad. That meant it was real—or real enough to hurt me, anyway.
I stood as still as I could. I don’t think I moved at all, but suddenly it charged. Snow plumed underneath its hooves as it came for me.
It was like watching some great machine barreling down. Too big to be real, too huge to be possible. I had no weapon. I turned and ran.
I heard the boar behind me. Its hooves sliced the frozen ground. It let out a sound that was almost a scream. I glanced back; I couldn’t help it. The gown tangled under my feet, and I went down. I rolled in the snow, fighting to come to my feet, but the gown tangled around my legs. I couldn’t get free of it. Couldn’t stand. Couldn’t run.
The boar was almost on top of me. Its breath steamed in clouds. Snow spilled around its legs, bits of frozen black earth sliced up in all that white. I had one of those interminable moments where you have all the time in the world to watch death come for you. White boar, white snow, white tusks, all aglow in the moonlight, except for the rich black earth that marred the whiteness with dark scars. The boar gave that horrible screaming squeal again.
Its thick winter coat looked so soft. It was going to look soft while it gored me to death and trampled me into the snow.
I reached behind me, feeling for a tree branch, anything to pull myself up out of the snow. Something brushed my hand, and I grabbed it. Thorns cut into my hand. Thorn-covered vines filled the space between the trees. I used the vines to drag myself to my feet. The thorns were biting into my hands, my arms, but they were all I could grasp. The boar was so close, I could smell its scent, sharp and acrid on the cold air. I would not die lying in the snow.
The thorns bled me, spattered the white gown with blood, the snow covered in minute crimson drops. The vines moved under my hands like something more alive than a plant. I felt the boar’s breath like heat on the back of my body, and the thorny vines opened like a door. The world seemed to spin, and when I could see again, be sure of where I was again, I was standing on the other side of the thorns. The white boar hit the vines hard and fast, as if it expected to tear its way through. For a moment I thought it would do just that; then it was in the thorns, slowing. It stopped ru...
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