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A strange hymn the barga.., p.1
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       A Strange Hymn (The Bargainer Book 2), p.1

           Laura Thalassa
 
A Strange Hymn (The Bargainer Book 2)


  Astrid,

  For you, the universe

  “We are all like the bright moon, we still have our darker side.”

  —Kahlil Gibran

  Mighty Nyx came,

  Mighty Nyx sought,

  All that he could,

  Of his dark lot.

  In the deep night,

  His kingdom rose,

  Beware, great king,

  Of that which grows.

  Easy to conquer,

  Easy to crown,

  But even the strongest,

  Can be cut down.

  Raised in the shadows,

  Reared in the night,

  Your child will come,

  And ascend by might.

  And you, the slain,

  Shall wait and see,

  What other things,

  A soul can be.

  A body to curse,

  A body to blame,

  A body the earth,

  Will not yet claim.

  Beware the mortal,

  Beneath your sky,

  Crush the human,

  Who’ll see you die.

  Twice you’ll rise,

  Twice you’ll fall,

  Lest you can,

  Change it all.

  Or perish by day,

  Perish by dawn,

  The world believes,

  You’re already gone.

  So darken your heart,

  My shadow king,

  And let us see,

  What war will bring.

  —The Prophecy of Galleghar Nyx

  Chapter 1

  Wings.

  I have wings.

  The black iridescent feathers glint under the dim lights of Des’s royal chambers, now black, now green, now blue.

  Wings.

  I stand in front of one of Des’s gilded mirrors, both horrified and transfixed by the sight. Even folded up, the tops of my wings loom well above my head and the tips brush the back of my bare calves.

  Of course, wings aren’t the only thing different about me. After a particularly nasty skirmish with Karnon, the mad King of Fauna, I now have scaly forearms and claw-tipped fingers too.

  And those are just the changes you can see. There’s nothing—except maybe the wounded look in my eyes—that I have to show for all those parts of me that were altered in different, more fundamental ways.

  I’d spent the better part of a decade fighting the idea that I was a victim. I’d done a damn fine job of it too—if I do say so myself—before I came to the Otherworld. And then came Karnon. A small shiver courses through me even now as I remember.

  All those cleverly crafted layers of armor I wore were shucked away in a week of imprisonment, and I’m not quite sure how to deal with it.

  To be honest, I really don’t want to deal with it.

  But, as bad as I have it, the Master of Animals got it worse. Des vaporized the dude so completely that all that’s left of him is a bloodstain on the remains of his throne room.

  Apparently, one does not fuck with the Night King’s mate.

  Mate.

  That’s another thing I’ve acquired recently—a soulmate. I’m bound to Desmond Flynn, the Bargainer, one of the most wanted criminals on earth, and one of the most powerful fae here in the Otherworld.

  But even that—matehood—is more complicated than it appears.

  I still have so many questions about our bond, like the fact that I never knew I was a soulmate until a few weeks ago. Other supernaturals find this kind of thing out back when they’re teenagers and their magic Awakens.

  So why didn’t I?

  There’s also the fact that most soulmates can feel the bond that connects them to their mate like it’s a physical thing.

  I place a hand over my heart.

  I’ve felt no such thing.

  All I have is Des’s word that we are soulmates—that and the sweet ache in my bones that calls for him and only him.

  I drop my hand from my chest.

  Behind my reflection, stars glitter just beyond the arched windows of Des’s Otherworld suite. The hanging lanterns dangle unlit, and the sparkling light captured along the wall sconces have long since dimmed.

  I’m stuck here in the Kingdom of Night.

  I doubt there are all that many supernaturals that would complain about my situation—mated to a king, forced to live in a palace—but the simple, sobering truth is that a girl like me cannot waltz back onto Earth with giant wings protruding from her back.

  That sort of thing wouldn’t go over well.

  So I’m stuck here, far from my friends—okay, friend (but, in all fairness, Temper’s got the power and attitude of at least two people)—in a place where my ability to glamour, a.k.a. seduce, others with my voice is essentially useless. Fairies, as I’ve learned, cannot be glamoured; my magic is too incompatible with theirs.

  To be clear, that’s not a two-way street. They can still use their powers on me; the bracelet on my wrist is proof enough of that.

  My eyes return to my wings, my strange, unearthly wings.

  “You know, staring at them isn’t going to make them go away.”

  I jolt at the sound of Desmond’s silky voice.

  He leans against the wall in a shadowy corner of his dark bedroom, his expression irreverent, as usual. His white blond hair frames his face, and even now, even when I’m bashful and exposed and oddly ashamed of my own skin, my fingers ache to thread themselves through that soft hair of his and pull him close.

  He wears nothing but low-slung pants, his muscular torso and sleeve of tattoos on display. My heart quickens at the sight. The two of us stare at each other for a beat. He doesn’t make a move to come any closer, though I swear he wants to. I can all but see it in his silver eyes.

  “I didn’t mean to wake you,” I say quietly.

  “I don’t mind being woken,” he says, his eyes glittering. He doesn’t move from his spot.

  “How long have you been there?” I ask.

  He crosses his arms over his bare torso, cutting off my view of his pecs. “Better question: how long have you been there?”

  So typical for Des to answer a question with a question.

  I turn back to the mirror. “I can’t sleep.”

  I really can’t. It’s not the bed, and it’s definitely not the man who warms it. Every time I try to flip onto my stomach or my back, I inevitably roll over a wing and wake myself up.

  There’s also the little matter of the sun never rising in this place. The Kingdom of Night is perpetually cast in darkness as it draws the night across the sky. There will never be a time when the sun glances into this room, so I can never know when exactly to wake up.

  Des disappears from his spot against the wall. A split-second later he appears at my back.

  His lips brush the shell of my ear. “There are better ways to spend long, sleepless evenings,” Des says softly, one of his hands trailing down my arm.

  My siren stirs at his words, my skin taking on the faintest glow.

  His lips brush the side of my neck, and even that lightest of touches has my breath hitching.

  But then I catch sight of my reflection, and I see the wings. The glow leaves my skin in an instant.

  Des notices the moment my interest wanes, moving away from me like he was never there. And I hate that. I can feel the distance between us. I don’t want him to give me space, I want him to pull me closer, kiss me deeper, make me extinguish this new insecurity I have.

  “These wings …” I begin to explain, but then I stop.

  Des comes around to the front of me. “What about them?” he asks, blocking my view of the mirror.

  I lift my chin. “The
y’d get in the way.”

  He raises an eyebrow. “In the way of what?”

  As if he’s unaware of exactly what we’re dancing around.

  “Of playing chess,” I say sarcastically. “Of … intimacy.”

  Des stares at me for several seconds, then his mouth slowly curls into a smile. It’s a smile full of tricks and mischievous things.

  He steps in close, only a hair’s breadth between our faces. “Cherub, I assure you, your wings will not be an issue.” His gaze dips to my lips. “But perhaps your mind would be better put to ease with a demonstration?”

  At his suggestion, light flares beneath my skin, my siren immediately ready to go. Whatever my insecurities are, she doesn’t share them.

  I look over my shoulder, at my wings, and my worries come roaring back. “Aren’t they a major turnoff?”

  The moment the words leave my lips, I wish I could catch them and shove them back down my throat.

  The only thing I hate worse than feeling like a victim is airing my insecurities. Normally all that emotional armor I don hides them—sometimes so deep I forget they’re there—but after my ordeal with Karnon, that armor is lying in scattered pieces somewhere around my feet, and I haven’t yet had the time or the will to refashion a new set for myself. I’m horribly raw and painfully vulnerable.

  Des raises an eyebrow. At his back, his own wings, which I haven’t noticed until now, expand. The silver, leathery skin of them pulls taut as they extend to either side of him, blocking out most of the room.

  “You do realize almost all fae have wings?”

  I know they do. But I never have.

  I hold up a forearm. In the dim light, the golden scales that plate my arm from wrist to elbow shimmer like jewelry. On the tips of each of my fingers, my nails glint black. They’re not sharpened at the moment (thanks to meticulously filing them down), but the second my siren gets a little angry, they’ll grow back into curving points.

  “How about this?” I ask. “Do most fae have this?”

  He clasps my hand in his own. “It doesn’t matter one way or another. You are mine.” Des kisses the palm of my hand, and somehow he manages to make my insecurities feel small and petty.

  He doesn’t release my hand, and I stare at the scales.

  “Will they ever go away?” I ask.

  His grip tightens. “Do you want them to?”

  I should know that voice by now. I should hear the warning notes in it, the dangerous lilt to it. But I don’t, too consumed with my own self-pity.

  I meet his eyes. “Yes.”

  I get that I’m being a poor sport. Rather than making lemonade out of lemons, I’m pretty much cutting open those lemons and squeezing them into my eyes.

  My heart begins to speed up as he fingers one of the hundreds of beads that still circle my wrist, each one an IOU for a favor I cashed in long ago.

  His eyes flick to mine. “Truth or dare?”

  Des’s gaze twinkles as he plays with the bead on my wrist, waiting for my answer.

  Truth or dare?

  This is the little game he loves to make out of my repayment plan. To me it feels less like the game ten year old girls play at slumber parties and a whole lot more like Russian roulette with a fully loaded weapon.

  I stare the Bargainer down, his silver eyes both so foreign and so familiar.

  I don’t answer fast enough.

  He gives my wrist the lightest of squeezes. “Dare,” he says for me.

  The part of me that enjoys sex and violence quakes with excitement, wanting whatever Des offers. The rest of me is starting to think I should be scared shitless. This is the same man who’s known around these parts as the King of Chaos. Just because we’re mates doesn’t mean he’s going to go easy on me. He’s still the same wicked man I met eight years ago.

  Des smiles, the sight almost sinister. A moment later, a pile of leathers fall to the floor next to me. I stare down at them dumbly, not understanding what it is he dared me to.

  For all I know, I just got royally fucked over.

  Actually, I’m almost positive I got fucked over.

  “Suit up,” Des says, releasing my wrist. “It’s time to start your training.”

  Chapter 2

  How hard is it to fight a warrior king without the use of glamour?

  Really freaking hard.

  The bastard dared me to train with him. And if that sounds vague, that’s because he meant it to be.

  I don’t know what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, or how long I’ll be doing it for. All I know is that hours ago Des gave me leathers and a sword, and ever since then, he’s been systematically nicking those training leathers and swiping my sword out of my hand.

  Above us, little orbs of light—fairy lights—glitter from the trees arching over the royal courtyard that’s doubling as our training grounds. They hover over the gurgling fountain and dot the hedges that surround us. Beyond them, the stars shine like diamonds, brighter and denser than any I’ve seen on earth.

  “Lift your elbow,” Des says for the millionth time, snapping me back to attention. This is just one of his many instructions …

  “The strike must start from your shoulder. The arm is merely the follow through.”

  “Keep your center of gravity steady. Nothing but a deathblow should make you lose your balance.”

  “Fleet-footed, Callie. What you don’t have in girth you must make up for in speed.”

  “Your wings are an asset, not a liability. Don’t let them slow you down.”

  Des comes at me again, and if I wasn’t already intimidated by his experience, I would be by the predatory glint in his eye. That’s only a good look on him when he’s about to sully me. Otherwise, it’s plain terrifying.

  I weakly block one of his strikes then scramble back. The Bargainer follows, a slight grin on his lips—like this is actually enjoyable.

  Gah, training sucks balls.

  Big ones.

  “Why … why are we doing this again?” I gasp out.

  “You know why.” He rolls his wrist, swinging his sword around.

  Meanwhile, I’m over here, still panting like a dog. “That’s … not an answer.”

  “Your one weapon—your glamour—doesn’t work here in the Otherworld,” he says, continuing to advance. “No mate of mine will be defenseless.”

  Finally an answer, and damnit, it’s a good answer. I don’t want to be defenseless either. If only training wasn’t so bruising, both for my body and my ego.

  “How long … will this … task last?” I ask, panting as I shuffle away from him. It feels like it’s been days since we started.

  “You told me you wanted to be someone’s nightmare.” Des says. “I’ll stop training you once you feel you are.”

  Teach me again how to be someone’s nightmare. I remember the words I said only days ago. I hadn’t imagined they’d lead to this.

  … And then the rest of what he’s saying registers.

  “Wait.” I stop backing up. “You mean to tell me this task isn’t over when we stop today?”

  Des rushes me, his blade striking mine with the force of an anvil. For the hundredth time, my sword clatters to the ground.

  And once again, I get trounced.

  The edge of the Bargainer’s blade finds my throat a moment later. The two of us stare at each other from across it.

  “No, cherub,” he says. “This is just day one of the task.”

  Damn it all to hell.

  “I hate training.” The skin of my neck brushes the edge of Des’s sword as I speak.

  “If it were fun, more people would do it,” he responds.

  I raise my eyebrows. “Celibacy isn’t all that fun either, but perhaps it would do you some good,” I say tartly.

  His expression brightens with excitement. Only this crazy fairy would find the threat thrilling. “Is that—?”

  Someone behind me clears his throat. “Is now a bad time to introduce myself?”

  I jolt
at the new voice, and only Des’s quick movements prevent me from slicing my neck on his weapon. He drops his sword and reluctantly tears his eyes from mine.

  I swivel around, noticing the outline of a man a few feet away from us, his body cast mostly in shadows.

  Next to me, the Bargainer slides his sword into its scabbard. “You’re timing is apt as ever, Malaki.”

  The fairy steps out of the shadows.

  The first thing I notice is the man’s staggering frame. He and Des are nearly the same height, and like Des, he seems to be made entirely of muscle.

  Seriously, what do they feed these guys? I thought fairies were supposed to be lithe.

  The second thing I notice is the eyepatch covering his left eye. That’s just not something you see on earth. Peeking out from the edges of the eyepatch is a thin, deep scar that bisects his eyebrow and cuts into his cheek. His skin is a deep olive color, made all the more striking against his deep brown hair.

  “I thought I might be interrupting something—at least, until the lady mentioned celibacy.” The man, Malaki, laughs as he approaches, something that causes Des’s mouth to quirk. “How the mighty king is finally being brought to his knees.”

  Malaki’s gaze moves from Des to me, and I see his stride falter as his eyes flick over me.

  “No wonder you’ve been hiding her,” he says, stopping in front of us.

  I glance between the two men, not sure whether I should be offended or not. I’m suddenly, painfully aware of my wings. The training leathers I’m sweating through don’t help either.

  “He hasn’t been hiding me,” I say.

  Self-conscious or not, I haven’t come all this way to allow someone to make me feel bad about myself.

  But based on the way Malaki continues to stare at me—not like I’m a freak, but like I’m a fascinating oil painting—I realize that maybe I let my own insecurities get the better of me. Perhaps a man with an eye patch wouldn’t immediately think to degrade another’s appearance.

  Maybe his words were actually meant to be a compliment. How shocking.

  “Callie,” the Bargainer say, “this is Malaki, Lord of Dreams, my oldest friend.”

  Friend? My attention turns to Des, whose expression is guarded. How had I not realized that Des had friends? Everybody has friends. I’ve just never heard about his.

 
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