The Offering Page 1

PART ONE

prologue

Unflinching, the executioner stood on the bloodstained floor facing the prison cells as he wielded an axe with a razor-sharp blade.

“What’s the matter, darling? You’re not having second thoughts, are you?” a woman’s voice crooned amidst the barbaric scene— the cavernous surroundings, with bars and cells, and echoing all around them the desperate pleas of prisoners begging for their lives.

Niko straightened, shifting his gaze away from the executioner. He tried to shake off any last-minute qualms the beautiful but treacherous queen might be able to sense coming from him. Her gossamer green gown was inappropriate for the occasion, as if she’d dressed for a ball rather than a slaughter. But that was typical, he’d come to learn. She was as frivolous as she was deadly.

“Of course not. How could I possibly have any doubts? If we don’t do this, we’ll never be able to convince Queen Charlaina that we’re to be taken seriously.” He matched her expression, wicked smile for wicked smile, hoping she felt half the anticipation he did beating through his veins.

The sound of shackles and the rumble of an approaching scuffle made it clear that Xander was nearing them. Niko was a fool if he expected Xander to go down without a fight.

A part of Niko wanted to skulk back into the shadows. To hide where Xander wouldn’t be able to see him, so Xander wouldn’t know that it was he who’d betrayed him.

After all, Charlie had sent the two of them to make peace with the Astonian queen. To find a way to come to agreeable terms with Queen Elena so that no one—on either side of the border—would come to harm.

Yet here he was, making his own bargains. Ones that would keep him safe forever. Ones that would, hopefully, bring him and Sabara back together again.

Even if it meant sacrificing those around him. “Niko.” Xander spat his name when he saw him standing at Elena’s side. Her hand was draped possessively over his. “You . . . you traitor,” he snarled, curling his lip. “And you.” He turned his silver eyes on Elena then. “How could you let this . . . this coward convince you of anything? Are you so weak of will? Don’t you see he’s only using you?”

Niko stiffened, wondering just how much Xander knew about him. About his history—and how far back he and Sabara, the old Ludanian queen, really went. About how long he’d been alive.

But Xander continued as he thrashed against his chains and the guards on either side of him. “I trusted you. You said if my revolutionaries joined forces with you to overthrow Sabara, Ludania would have peace with Astonia. Have you no conscience?” he shrieked at the queen he’d come all this way to negotiate with. “I thought we were friends.”

Her grip tightened, and with it her resolve. She drew Niko along with her, forcing him out of the shadows, until they were standing face-to-face with Xander, watching him resist, like an animal caged. The guards shoved him to his knees and forced him to kneel before her. “I suppose that was your first mistake, then,” she answered in a voice so devoid of emotion, it made Niko shudder inwardly. “Because I most certainly do not have friends.” She gave a signal to the man in the executioner’s mask—a black leather covering that exposed only his mouth and his unsympathetic eyes.

The two guards dragged Xander toward a small, round opening in the stone floor, a hole through which blood could easily drain away to the sewers. They, along with two others who’d appeared, pinned him to the ground while he continued to writhe and scream. They waited until he was too weary to fight any longer, until he had no other option but to accept this fate he’d been handed.

Then the executioner raised his blade.

Niko would have closed his eyes, if those of Elena hadn’t been observing him as keenly as they were watching the scene unfolding before her. Unlike Niko, she had no interest in turning away. She seemed to relish the moment.

When the axe fell and the sharp crack of metal struck stone beneath, Niko felt the slightest jerk from beside him. But when he turned his gaze on her, he saw that she was frowning at the hem of her gown rather than at the grisly view at her feet. “Will you look at that,” she said, and clucked, craning her neck to get a better look, and ignoring everything else going on around her. “He got blood on my new dress.”

She shook her head and turned her attention back to Niko. A smile replaced the frown. Her look spoke nothing of the horrors they’d witnessed or the defiling of her gown. Her entire demeanor shifted into something else as her hand slid from his wrist and moved up his arm to his chest, her fingertips finding their way along the ridges of his still tensed muscles. “Come, love. Let’s go back to bed,” she purred. “I need to get this mess off me. Besides, I have other things I’d like to show you.”

He obeyed numbly, allowing the queen of Astonia to pull him along, back through the corridors and along the cobbled stones until they reached her opulent—if somewhat overdone—bedroom, where she dragged him back into her bed. He wondered if he’d ever be able to purge from his memory the image of what he’d just witnessed.

Or forget the sound of Xander’s screams.

I

My lips stretched into a tight smile as I made my way to the front of the congregation of stone-faced officials who’d gathered in the crowded meeting room. Everyone stood when I entered, and I tried my best to appear calm, but my heart was racing as I looked out at all the intense expressions watching me, judging me.

At any other time I might’ve explained my reaction away as nerves, but not today. Today I had something to prove.

Next