Set in the ever-popular Blood and Ash world but taking place many years before the events in that series, Jennifer L. Armentrout kicks of a new fantastical series next week that will undoubtedly keep us counting down the days to each new instalment.
Putting her own twist on the myth of Hades and Persephone, she gives us the story of Seraphena Mierel, a young woman whose future was decided for her before birth. Sera must leave everything behind and offer herself to the Primal of Death, Nyktos, as his Consort. But Sera has also been trained her whole life as an assassin with a single mission—make Nyktos fall in love with her, and then kill him. Until the Primal of Death’s unexpected words and deeds chase away the darkness gathering inside her, and his seductive touch ignites a passion she’s was never supposed feel for him.
With another epic, slow-burning romance full of jaw-dropping twists and suspense, featuring a compelling, mysterious hero and a brand new ‘stabby’ heroine who has no problem going toe to toe with him, Armentrout keeps building on her Blood and Ash world, and you can read the Prologue right here.
“You will not disappoint us today, Sera.” The words came from somewhere in the shadows of the chamber. “You will not disappoint Lasania.”
“No.” I clasped my hands together to stop their ceaseless trembling as I breathed in deeply. I held that breath and stared at my reflection in the mirror propped against the wall. I had no reason to be nervous. I exhaled slowly. “I will not disappoint you.”
I took another deep, measured breath, barely recognizing the person who stared back at me. Even in the dim, flickering light from the numerous candelabras placed throughout the small chamber, I could see that my skin was so pink, I almost couldn’t see the freckles smattering my cheeks and the bridge of my nose. Some would call the blush a glow, but the green of my eyes was too bright, too feverish.
Because my heart still pounded, I held my breath again, just like Sir Holland had taught me to do when it felt as if I couldn’t breathe—couldn’t control what was happening around me or to me. Breathe in, slow and steady. Hold until you feel your heart slow. Breathe out. Hold.
It didn’t work like it normally did.
My hair had been brushed until my scalp started to burn. It still tingled. The pale blonde hair was half swept up and pinned in place so the mass of curls fell down my back. The skin of my throat and shoulders was also flushed, and I figured that was from the scented bath I had been made to soak in for hours earlier. Maybe that was why I found breathing so difficult. The water had been so heavily perfumed with oils that I feared I now smelled as if I’d been drowned in jasmine and sweet anise.
Holding perfectly still, I inhaled deeply and slowly. I’d been groomed to within an inch of my life after the bath. Hair plucked and waxed from all manner of places, and only the balm rubbed over my legs, arms, and seemingly everywhere in between had soothed the sting. I held my breath once more, resisting the urge to lower my gaze beyond my face. I already knew what I would see, and that was, well, nearly everything.
The gown—if it could be called such—had been constructed of a sheer chiffon and little else. The sleeves, which were nothing more than a few scant inches, rested on my upper arms, and the thin, ivory cloth had been draped and wrapped loosely over my body, the length left to pool on the floor. I hated the dress, the bath, and the grooming that had come after that, even though I understood the purpose.
I was to entice, seduce.
A rustling of skirts drew near, and I exhaled slowly. My mother’s face appeared in the mirror. We looked nothing alike. I resembled my father. I knew this because I’d stared at the one remaining painting of him enough times to know that he too had freckles, and his jaw was just as stubborn as mine. I also had his eyes—not just the color but also the same tilt at the outer corners. That painting, hidden away in my mother’s private chambers, was how I knew what my father had looked like.
My mother’s dark brown eyes met mine briefly in the mirror, and then she walked around me, the crown of golden leaves upon her head shining in the candlelight. She studied me, searching for a stray hair out of place or where one didn’t belong, for a flaw or sign that I wasn’t the expertly crafted bride.
The price that had been promised two hundred years before I was born.
My throat dried even more, but I didn’t dare ask for water. A rosy paint had been applied to my lips, giving them a dewy finish. If I messed them up, my mother would not be pleased.
I scanned her face as she adjusted the sleeves of the gown. The fine lines at the corners of her eyes appeared deeper than the day before. Tension whitened the skin around her lips. Like always, her features were impossible to read, and I wasn’t sure what I searched for. Sadness? Relief? Love? The sound of tiny golden chains clinking together caused my heart to kick even harder against my ribs.
I caught a glimpse of the white veil someone handed to her, and it made me think of the white wolf I’d seen by the lake all those years ago when I’d been collecting rocks for whatever bizarre reason I couldn’t remember now. Based on the magnificent size, I’d imagined that he’d been one of the rare kiyou wolves that sometimes roamed the Dark Elms surrounding the grounds of Wayfair Castle. I’d locked eyes with the creature, terrified that it would rip me apart. But all it had done before loping off was look at the pile of rocks in my arms as if I were some sort of idiot child.
My mother placed the Veil of the Chosen over my head. The flimsy material floated around my shoulders and then settled so that only my lips and jaw were visible, the length flowing down my back. I could barely see through the wispy material as the thin chains were placed atop my head to hold it in place. This veil wasn’t nearly as thick as the one I wore whenever I was around anyone but my immediate family and Sir Holland, nor did it cover the entirety of my face.
“You may not be Chosen, but you were born into this realm, shrouded in the veil of the Primals. A Maiden as the Fates promised. And you shall leave this realm touched by life and death,” my old nursemaid Odetta had once said.
But, once again, I looked like the Chosen—those third sons and daughters born in a shroud, destined to serve the Primal of Life in his Court. I spent my entire life hidden behind this veil, and even though I had been born in a shroud and treated like most Chosen in many ways, I was also the Maiden. What they were destined to become after Ascension was the highest honor that could be bestowed upon a mortal in any kingdom. Celebrations would be held throughout the lands in preparation for the night of their Rite, where they would Ascend and enter the realm of Iliseeum to serve the Primals and the gods. What I was destined for was the most closely guarded secret in all of Lasania. There were no celebrations and feasts. Tonight, on my seventeenth birthday, I would become the Primal of Death’s Consort.
My throat tightened. Why was I so apprehensive? I was ready for this. I was ready to fulfill the deal. I was ready to carry out what I had been born to do. I had to be.
Part of me wondered if the Chosen were nervous on the night of their Rite. They had to be. Who wouldn’t be anxious in the presence of a lesser god, let alone a Primal—beings so powerful, they had become fundamental to the very fabric of our existence? Or maybe they were simply thrilled to finally fulfill their destiny. I’d seen them smiling and laughing during the Rite, only the lower halves of their faces visible, clearly eager to begin a new chapter of life.
I was not smiling or laughing.
Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold.
Mother leaned in. “You’re ready, Princess Seraphena.”
Seraphena. It was so rare that I heard my full name spoken, and never had I heard it said with the official title. It was like a switch had been thrown. In an instant, the thundering of my heart stopped, and the pressure on my chest lessened. My hands steadied. “I am.”
Through the veil, I saw Queen Calliphe smile, or at least her lips went through the motions. I’d never seen her really smile at me, not like she did with my stepsiblings or her husband. But even though she had carried me for nine months and brought me into this world, I had never been hers. I had never been the people’s Princess.
I’d always belonged to the Primal of Death.
She gave me one more look, brushed back a curl that had found its way over my shoulder, and then swept from the room without saying another word. The door clicked shut behind her, and every sense I had honed over the years heightened.
The silence of the chamber lasted only a few heartbeats. “Little sister,” came the voice. “You’re as still as one of the statues of the gods in the garden.”
Sister? My lip curled in barely contained disgust. He was no brother of mine, not by blood nor bond, even though he was the son of the man my mother had married soon after my father’s death. He didn’t carry a drop of the Mierel bloodline, but because the people of Lasania didn’t know of my birth, he had become the heir. Soon, he would be King, and I was sure the people of Lasania would face a different crisis even after I fulfilled the deal.
But because of his claim to the throne, he was one of the few who knew the truth about King Roderick—the first King of the Mierel bloodline and my ancestor—whose desperate choice to save his people had not only sealed my fate but had also damned future generations of the very kingdom he sought to protect.
“You must be nervous.” Tavius was closer. “I know Princess Kayleigh is. She frets about our wedding night.”
My fingers unlatched from my sides. I eyed him quietly.
“I promised her I’d be gentle.” Tavius drifted into my line of sight. With light brown hair and blue eyes, Tavius was considered handsome by many, and I’d bet the Princess of Irelone had thought the same upon meeting him, believing that no other girl could be as lucky as her. I doubted she felt the same now. I watched Tavius circle me like one of the large, silver hawks I’d often spotted above the trees of the Dark Elms.
“I doubt you’d get the same reassurances from him.” Even through the veil, I saw the smirk. I felt his stare. “You know what they say about him—about why he’s never been painted nor had his features carved into stone.” He lowered his voice, packing it full of false empathy. “They say he’s monstrous, that his skin is covered in the same scales as the beasts that guard him. That he has fangs for teeth. You must be terrified of what you must do.”
I wasn’t sure if the Primal of Death was covered in scales or not, but all of them—gods and Primals—had sharp, elongated canines. Fangs sharp enough to pierce flesh.
“Do you think a blood kiss will give you great pleasure like some claim?” he taunted. “Or will it bring terrible pain as he sinks those teeth into your untouched skin?” His voice thickened. “Probably the latter.”
I loathed him more than I did this gown.
He moved again, prowling around me and tapping one finger against his chin. My skin crawled, but I remained still. “But then again, you’ve been trained to carry this through to the end, haven’t you? To become his weakness, make him fall in love, and then end him.” He stopped in front of me once more. “I know about the time spent under the tutelage of the Mistresses of the Jade. So, maybe you’re not nervous,” he continued. “Maybe you can’t wait to serve—” He lifted a hand toward me.
I caught his wrist, digging my fingers into the tendons there. His entire body jerked, and he cursed. “Touch me, and I will break every bone in your hand,” I warned. “And then I will make sure the Princess has no reason to fear her wedding night or any night she is doomed to spend at your side.”
Tension built in Tavius’s arm, and he glared down at me. “You’re so incredibly lucky,” he snarled. “You have no idea.”
“No, Tavius.” I shoved him back, a reminder that my training hadn’t only consisted of time spent with the Mistresses. He stumbled but caught himself before he hit the mirror. “It is you who is lucky.”
His nostrils flared. Rubbing the inside of his wrist, he said nothing as I stood there, motionless once more. I spoke the truth. I could snap his neck before he even had a chance to raise a hand against me. Because of my destiny, I was better trained than most of the Royal Guards that protected him. Still, he was arrogant and spoiled enough to try something.
I kind of hoped he would.
Tavius took a step forward, and I started to smile—
A knock on the door stopped him from following through with whatever incredibly foolish thought had entered his mind. He lowered his hands, barking out, “What?”
The nervous voice of my mother’s trusted Lady came through the door. “The Priests expect his arrival to be soon.”
Tavius’s smile was a mockery as he brushed past me. I turned around. “Time for you to make yourself useful for once,” he said.
He opened the door, slowly making his exit, knowing that I wouldn’t respond in front of Lady Kala. Everything and anything I did in front of the woman would be reported back to my mother. And she, for some godsforsaken reason, cared for Tavius as if he were worthy of such an emotion. I waited until he’d disappeared down one of the many dark, winding halls of the Shadow Temple, located just outside the capital’s Garden District at the foot of the Cliffs of Sorrow. The halls were just as numerous as the tunnels underneath, connecting to all the Temples in Carsodonia—the capital—to Wayfair Castle.
I thought of the mortal Sotoria, whom the steep bluffs had been named after. Legend claimed that she been picking flowers along the cliffs and fell to her death after being frightened by a god.
Perhaps now wasn’t the most opportune time to think about her.
Lifting the diaphanous skirts of my gown, I turned and padded barefoot across the cold floor.
Lady Kala was very much a blur in the hall, but I could tell that she hastily turned her head from me. “Come,” she said, beginning to walk before stopping. “Can you see in that veil?”
“A bit,” I admitted.
She reached back, curling her arm through mine. The unexpected contact caused me to flinch, and I was suddenly grateful for the veil. Like any of the Chosen, my flesh should not encounter another’s unless related to my preparations. It spoke volumes that Lady Kala had touched me.
She led me through the twisting, endless halls of nothing but doors and numerous blazing candle sconces. I had just begun to wonder if she was lost when the hazy outline of two silent figures draped in black appeared by a set of doors.
They’d taken their oath of silence to all new heights, having stitched their lips closed. I always wondered how they ate or drank. Based on their wraithlike, sunken frames under the black robes, whatever method they used wasn’t exactly working out that well for them.
I suppressed a shudder as each of the Priests opened a door to reveal a large, circular chamber aglow with hundreds of candles. A third Shadow Priest seemingly appeared out of thin air, taking Lady Kala’s place. The bony fingers didn’t touch my skin but pressed into the center of my back. The contact still bothered me, made me want to pull away, but I knew better than to step away from the coldness of his fingers seeping through the thin layer of cloth. Forcing myself to breathe, I stared at the etchings carved into the otherwise smooth stone. A circle with a line through it. The symbol filled each stone tile. Having never seen it before, I wasn’t sure what it meant. My gaze lifted to the wide dais before me. The Priest guided me down the aisle, and some of the pressure returned to my chest. I didn’t look at the empty pews. If I had truly been Chosen, those benches would be full of the highest-ranking nobility, the streets outside alive with cheers. The silence of the room chilled my skin.
There’d only ever been one throne before, constructed from the same stone as the Temple. Shadowstone was the color of the deepest hour of night, a marvelous material that could be polished until it reflected any source of light and whetted into a blade sharp enough to pierce flesh and bone. The throne was the glossy sort, absorbing the glow of the candlelight until the stone appeared as if it were full of dark fire. The back of the seat had been carved into the shape of a crescent moon.
The exact shape of the birthmark I bore just above my left shoulder blade. The telltale sign that even before I was born, my life had never been mine.
Tonight, there were two thrones.
As they led me to the dais and helped me up the steps, I really wished I had asked for that glass of water. Guided to the second throne, they sat me there and then left me alone.
Resting my hands on the arms of the throne, I scanned the pews below. Not a single soul from Lasania was in attendance. None even knew that their lives and their children’s lives all hinged on tonight and what I needed to do. If they ever discovered that Roderick Mierel—the one the histories of Lasania called the Golden King—hadn’t spent day and night in the fields with his people, digging and scraping away land ruined by war until they revealed clean, fertile soil… That he hadn’t sown the land alongside his subjects; his blood, sweat, and tears building the kingdom… If they learned that the songs and poems written about him had been based on a fable, what was left of the Mierel Dynasty would surely collapse.
Someone closed the doors, and my gaze stretched to the back of the chamber, where I could make out the shadowy forms of my mother and Tavius in the candlelight. A third figure stood beside them. King Ernald. My stepsister, Princess Ezmeria—Ezra—stood beside her father and brother, and I didn’t need to see her expression to know that she hated every aspect of this deal. Sir Holland wasn’t here. I would’ve liked to have said goodbye to him, even though I didn’t expect him to be here. His presence would raise too many questions among the Shadow Priests.
Would reveal too much.
That I wasn’t the beacon of Royal purity, but rather the wolf dressed as the sacrificial lamb.
I wouldn’t just fulfill the deal that King Roderick had struck. I would end it before it destroyed my kingdom.
Determination filled my chest with warmth as it did whenever I used my gift. This was my destiny. My purpose. What I would do was bigger than me. It was for Lasania.
So, I sat there, ankles crossed demurely beneath the gown, hands relaxed on the arms of the throne as I waited.
And waited some more.
Seconds ticked into minutes. I didn’t know how many passed, but tiny balls of unease formed in my belly. He’d been summoned to his Temple. Shouldn’t…shouldn’t he be here?
My palms dampened as the knots grew, stretching into my chest. The pressure increased. What if he didn’t show?
Why wouldn’t he?
This was his deal.
When King Roderick had grown desperate enough to do anything to salvage his lands ruined by war and save those who were starving after already suffering so much loss, I imagined he’d expected a lesser god to answer his summons—which was far more common for those bold enough to do such a thing. But what had answered the Golden King was a Primal.
And when he’d granted King Roderick’s request, this was the price the Primal of Death had requested: the firstborn daughter of the Mierel bloodline as his Consort.
The Primal had to come.
What if he didn’t? My heart pounded as my fingers curled against the chilled stone of the throne.
Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold.
If he didn’t arrive, all would be lost. Everything he’d granted King Roderick would continue to come undone. If he didn’t come for me, and I failed to fulfill this, I would doom the kingdom to a slow death at the hands of the Rot. It had started upon my birth, first with just a small patch of land in an orchard. Unripe apples had fallen from trees that had begun to lose their leaves. The ground below had turned gray, and the grass, along with the roots of the apple trees, had died. Then the Rot had spread, slowly taking out the entire orchard. In the time that passed, it had devastated several more farms. No crop could be seeded in the soil and survive once tainted by the Rot.
And it wasn’t only affecting the land. It had changed the weather, making the summers hotter and drier, the winters colder and more unpredictable.
The people of Lasania had no idea that the Rot was a clock, counting down. It was an expiration date on the deal the Golden King had made, one that had started with my birth. There was a good chance the Golden King hadn’t realized the bargain would expire no matter what. That was knowledge gained in the decades after the deal had been struck. If I failed, the kingdom would—
It started as a low rumble, like the distant sound of wagons and carriages rolling over the cobblestone streets of Carsodonia. But the sound grew until I felt it in the throne I sat upon—and in my bones.
The rumbling ceased, and the candles—all of them—went out, plunging the chamber into darkness. An earthy-scented breeze stirred the edges of the veil around my face and the hem of my gown.
In a wave, flames sparked from the candles, surging toward the pitched ceiling. My gaze fixed on the center aisle, where the very air itself had split open, spitting crackling white light.
A mist seeped out from the tear, licking across the stone floor and seeping toward the pews. Tiny bumps erupted all over my skin in response. Some called the mist Primal magic. It was eather. The potent essence that not only had created the mortal realm and Iliseeum but also what coursed through the blood of a god, giving even the lesser, unknown ones unthinkable power.
I blinked. That was all I did. I blinked, and the space in front of the dais that had been empty no longer was. A male stood there, garbed in a hooded cloak and surrounded by pulsing, churning tendrils of deep shadows laced with luminous streaks of silver. I didn’t allow myself to think of what Tavius had said about him. I couldn’t. Instead, I tried to see through the wispy mass of smoky shadows. All I could tell was that he was unbelievably tall. Even from where I sat, I knew he would tower over me—and I wasn’t short by any means, nearly the same height as Tavius. But he was a Primal, and in the stories written about them in the histories, they were sometimes referred to as giants among mortals.
He appeared broad of shoulder—or at least that was what I thought the deeper, thick mass of darkness was that took the shape of…wings. His hooded head tilted back.
I forgot those breathing exercises in an instant. I couldn’t see his face, but I felt the intensity of his stare. His gaze pierced straight through me, and for a brief, panicked moment, I feared that he knew I hadn’t spent seventeen years preparing to become his Consort. That my tutelage went beyond that. And that the meekness, the submissiveness I’d been taught, was nothing more than another veil I wore.
For a moment, my heart stopped as I sat on the throne meant for the Consort of the Shadowlands, one of the Courts within Iliseeum. Looking up at the Primal of Death, I felt real terror for the first time in my life.
Primals couldn’t read mortals’ thoughts. In the back of my mind, where some bit of intelligence still existed, I knew this. There was no reason for him to suspect that I was anything other than I appeared to be. Even if he’d watched me grow over the years, or if spies had been sent to Lasania, my identity, my heritage and bloodline, had been kept hidden. No one even knew there was a Princess of Mierel blood. Everything I did had been carried out in highly planned secrecy—from training with Sir Holland to the time spent with the Mistresses of the Jade.
There was no way he could know that in the two hundred years it had taken for me to be born, the knowledge of how to kill a Primal had been obtained.
They had one fatal weakness that made them vulnerable enough to be killed, and that was love.
Make him fall in love, become his weakness, and end him.
That was my destiny.
Gaining control of my hammering heart, I pulled from the hours spent with my mother, learning what would be expected of me as his Consort. How to move, speak, and act in his presence. How to become whatever he desired. I was ready for this—whether or not he was covered head to toe in the scales of the winged beasts that guarded the Primals.
My fingers relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I allowed my lips to curl into a smile—a shy, innocent one. I stood in the glow of the candlelight on feet I couldn’t feel. I clasped my hands loosely across my midsection so nothing would be hidden from him, just as my mother had instructed. I started to lower to my knees as one would upon greeting a Primal.
The stir of air was the only warning I got that the Primal had moved.
Shock silenced the gasp of surprise before it reached my lips. He was suddenly in front of me. No more than a handful of inches remained between us. Swirling light rippled the air around me. He felt cold, like the winters to the north and east. Like each winter here in Lasania slowly became with each passing year.
I wasn’t sure I even breathed as I looked up into the void where his face should be. The Primal of Death shifted closer, and one of the shadow tendrils brushed across the bare skin of my arm. I gasped at the icy feel. He lowered his head, and every muscle in my body seized. I wasn’t sure if it was his presence or the innate instinct we all had that warned us not to run. Not to make any sudden movements in the presence of a predator.
“You,” he said, his voice smoke and shadow and full of everything that awaited after someone took their very last breath. “I have no need of a Consort.”
My entire body jerked, and I whispered, “What?”
The Primal pulled back, the shadows retracting around him. He shook his head. What did he mean?
I stepped forward. “What—?” I said again.
The wind whipped from behind me this time, pitching the chamber into darkness as the candles whooshed out. The rumbling was weaker than before, but I didn’t dare move, having no idea where he was. I wasn’t sure where the edge of the dais even was. The earthy scent disappeared, and the flames slowly returned to the candles, sparking weakly to life…
He no longer stood before me.
Faint wisps of eather wafted up from the now-sealed opening in the floor.
He was gone.
The Primal of Death had left. He hadn’t taken me, and in a deep, hidden part of me, relief blossomed and then crumbled. He hadn’t fulfilled the deal.
“What…what happened?” My mother’s voice reached me, and I looked up to see that she was before me. “What happened?”
“I…I don’t know.” Panic sank its claws into me as I turned to my mother, wrapping my arms around myself. “I don’t understand.”
Her eyes were wide and mirrored the storm brewing inside me as she whispered, “Did he speak to you?”
“He said…” I tried to swallow, but my throat tightened. The corners of my vision turned white. No amount of breathing exercises would help the alarm that took root. “I don’t understand. I did everything—”
The burning sting of my mother’s slap came as a shock. I hadn’t expected it—hadn’t even prepared myself for her to do something like that. Hand trembling, I pressed it against my cheek, standing there stunned and incapable of processing what had happened—what was happening.
Her dark eyes were even wider now, her skin a ghastly pale shade. “What did you do?” She pulled her hand back to her chest. “What did you do, Sera?”
I’d done nothing. Only what I’d been taught. But I couldn’t tell her that. I couldn’t tell her anything. Words failed me as something shattered inside me, shriveling up.
“You,” my mother said. While her voice was not smoke or shadow, it was just as final. Her eyes glistened. “You’ve failed us. And now, everything—everything—is lost.”