- The Darkest Craving
“People that belong to me. I can do whatever I choose with them.”
His eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “Did you come down here hoping to buy my love? To taunt me with what I lost, and promise to give it back if only I’ll acknowledge you?”
She laughed without humor, and he blinked in confusion. “The time for that passed long ago. And no, I didn’t come down here to taunt you.”
“Whatever your reason, it was a mistake.” He raced to the bars and reached through, wrapping his fingers around her neck. She could have avoided contact—but she hadn’t wanted to.
As he squeezed, she curled her ungloved hands around his wrist and drew from him. Strength. The abilities he possessed.
He tried to sever the connection, but the suction was simply too powerful.
When finally she released him, his knees collapsed and he toppled to the floor.
“Thanks for that,” she said. Her muscles buzzed with energy. Her blood crackled. “It’s why I came. You see, I’m not going to survive the morning, and I’m hoping your abilities will die with me, leaving you as helpless as the people you’ve hurt.”
As he roared a denial, she moved on to the next hall of cells and came to the queen’s personal quarters. The female was just as dirty as the king, but she turned her back on Josephina, as if she still couldn’t bear to speak with her.
“I’m proof of his infidelity. You hate me. I get it.”
Silence. Not even the rasp of breath.
“I was an innocent party in all of this,” Josephina added, determined to say her piece. “I was a child. I was lonely and scared, and desperately wanted someone to love me. My mother was a woman trapped by circumstance. No one in this realm said no to the king, and you know that. She didn’t want a married man, but rather than help her escape his notice, you shunned her.”
Annnd, still nothing.
In a secret place in her heart, she had wanted an apology. An acknowledgment. She would never get it, though, and wouldn’t spend another second hoping for it, wasting this precious energy.
Sighing, she moved on to Synda’s cell. The girl had heard her and was waiting for her, fingers twined around the bars.
“Let me out,” the princess begged. “Please.”
Josephina opened her mouth to pour out every hurt this girl had caused, to voice every wrong she’d had to endure, but she stopped herself. Synda would listen, but she wouldn’t hear. She would nod, but she wouldn’t truly understand. She would tell Josephina everything she longed to be told, Josephina would free her, and Synda would forget what she’d promised. Unlike Kane, the girl had never fought the evil inside her.
“I’ll let Kane decide what to do with you.” She reached through the bars and cupped her sister’s cheeks. “You need help. I don’t know who you are without the demon, and maybe you don’t, either, but it is possible to fight the demon’s whims.”
Tears cascaded from the corners of Synda’s eyes. “I know. I just don’t know how to do that.”
“Talk to Kane. He may not like you at first, but if you’re honest with him, if you’re sincere about wanting help, he’ll come around. Goodbye, Synda.” With that, Josephina released her and walked to her brother’s cell.
He was sitting in the corner, close to the bars, and facing her. His knees were drawn up, and his head propped against the wall.
“You look well,” he said.
She ignored the compliment, saying, “You aren’t going to beg me to free you?”
“Why should I? For the first time, I’m not looking over my shoulder, expecting death.”
“Oh, please.” He’d had the pampered, privileged life she’d always envied.
“It’s true, Josephina. Every day I expected death to come for me.”
“I don’t see why...unless you treated other girls the way you treated me. You should have been my friend.”
He shrugged. “I wanted to be more. I still do.”
“You’re my brother.”
She frowned. “Of course you are.”
He laughed bitterly. “You think you were the only child born out of wedlock? You think the king was the only one to have affairs in the years of his marriage? He let me know in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t his child, I was the queen’s, but that he was keeping me because he needed an heir.”
She...actually believed him, little facts sitting up in her mind. He looked nothing like Tiberius and never had. The king had always been distant with him. Had always chosen Synda over him. Why had she never suspected?
Shock rattled her knees. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Had anyone found out, I would have been killed.” Another bitter laugh. “Actually, if any of his women had ever had a boy, I would have been killed. I lived day by day. I knew you understood that, and thought it bonded us.”
It would have. If she’d known. “I would have kept your secret, if only you’d been my friend. I needed your support, not your lust.”
He traced a symbol on the floor. “Does your...husband treat you well?”
“And you like him?”
“I love him.”
Sadness darkened his features. “If you ever want him killed, come see me. I’ll take care of it for you.”
She stood there for a moment, thinking about what could have been between them. Not romance. Never that, even without the blood tie. But companionship. Affection. Support. “Tell Kane what you told me. I’m not sure he’ll show you mercy. You forced your attentions on me, after all, but he might let you live. A part of me likes the thought of you finally finding peace.”
He smiled sadly. “I never would have forced you, you know. I just wanted the chance to prove how good we could be, despite what you believed about us.”
Maybe it was naive of her, but she believed that, too. “Goodbye, Leopold.”
He shouted as she walked away, his voice dripping with concern—that sounded like a permanent goodbye, Josephina—but she kept going.
Back in her bedroom, she found Kane sleeping soundly on the bed. She reached out and removed the ring from his finger, the key to his future, then smoothed her hands over his brow, the need to touch him too strong to ignore. He leaned into her, his lips curling at the corners.
Goodbye, my love.
As if he’d heard the heart-wrenching cry inside her, he cracked open his eyelids. “Tink. Get back in bed, sweetheart. Let me hold you.”
“Sleep, darling,” she said.
To ensure he stayed down, she used the same move he’d used on her, squeezing his carotid until he returned to his dreams.
Then, she wrapped her fingers around his wrist, closed her eyes and drew the darkness out of him and into her, just like she’d done that night in the forest. Before, the demon had entered her with a vengeance. This time, he was too weak to scream obscenities. He was merely a heavy weight inside her, a presence in the back of her mind.
She released Kane the moment she knew the demon was with her, not wanting to take his strength, too.
His features smoothed out, and he smiled again, so peaceful her chest ached. He must have sensed, on some level, that he was now alone.
No question, she’d made the right decision.
“I love you,” she said, and kissed his temple. “Never forget.”
KANE AWOKE AS sunlight poured through the open curtains. He sat up with a jolt.
He jumped out of bed, then cringed, hoping his abruptness hadn’t woken Tink. But she wasn’t in the bed, he realized. He quickly dressed and left the room. She was probably in the breakfast nook.
It was better this way, he thought. He’d already said goodbye the only way he could. If he were to see her now, he might change his mind. He might break down and cry. If he told her the truth—and she would insist on the truth, and he would give it because he was unable to deny her anything—she would try and stop him. He might let her. Anything for more time with her.
To avoid the guards and servants, he used the secret passageway to get to the garden, and why was his torso burning? He stopped long enough to look under his clothes, and blinked. The butterfly tattoo had faded significantly. Because the demon was dying?
In the warmth and light of the new day, he felt strangely calm and burden free, considering he was about to die. He felt...lighter.
When he turned the corner, he saw Malcolm and Tink standing several yards away. Shock stopped him in his tracks.
“—the ring, just like you wanted,” Tink said, placing something in the warrior’s hand.
Malcolm looked down at her. “As thrilled as I am to have it, my deal was with Kane.”
“And now it’s with me. I absorbed the demon and now carry him in my body.”
The Sent One frowned. “You don’t look as if you carry the demon.”
“That’s because he’s too weak to cause any trouble.”
The conversation confused Kane. He fingered the ring on his—bare skin, he realized. The ring was gone.
Dread slithered through him.
“Without the demon, Kane is going to die, anyway,” Malcolm said. “Why should I help you achieve the same fate?”
“He’s going to... No! I won’t believe that.”
“Nevertheless, it’s true.”
“But...but....” She went still, as if she couldn’t even bare to breathe. “He never experienced the life he dreamed of...a life free of Disaster. He should know how it feels to be at peace before he dies, and I can give him that chance, even if only for a little while.”
“And you’re willing to give your life for that chance? Take a moment. Think about this. Once it’s done, it cannot be undone.”
“I have thought about it. I want to do it here, now.”
Malcolm nodded. “Very well. My bargain is now with you.” He held out his hand and a sword of fire appeared.