The Queen's Price

The Queen's Price

March 2023
Hardcover, ebook, and audio book

Cover design:
Adam Auerbach

available as audio bookavailable as ebook



Copyright © 2023 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.
(Suggested reading age: 15 years and older.)

Chapter 1

SaDiablo Hall

Daemonar Yaslana spread his dark membranous wings to their full span before letting them settle into a relaxed position—or as relaxed as he could manage, all things considered. Then he blew out a breath and raised a hand to knock on his uncle's study door.

The school that wasn't officially a school had been in operation at SaDiablo Hall for a month. The instructors were still adjusting to teaching a very select group of thirty-six students as well as adjusting to being under the scrutiny of the Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, who was not only their employer but also the patriarch of the SaDiablo family—the wealthiest and most powerful family in the entire Realm of Kaeleer. The students were still adjusting to living in a massive gray stone building that, with all its wings and interior courtyards, could be mistaken for a small enclosed village, as well as dealing with that same Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince as an administrator and benefactor who was benign—most of the time—but could swing to cold, lethal rage in a heartbeat if provoked . . . and was their instructor in Craft and Protocol.

All that adjusting meant someone had to act as leader or liaison or some other nonsense word that basically meant being the one who explained things to the adults when stuff happened. And who better to do the explaining than the Warlord Prince who wore a Green Birthright Jewel and was the nephew of that Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince?

He never looked forward to explaining stuff. If his sister hadn't been involved in this mess, he might have refused, but he couldn't let Titian fly into a potential storm on her own. Cherish and protect. Those commitments were bred into the bone of Warlord Princes, so he had to get some answers without getting Titian into trouble.

Daemonar gave the door a quick knock before he stepped into the room, leaving himself partially shielded by the door. He didn't need the protection, not from his uncle—at least, not right now—but it made him feel less . . . exposed.

The man behind the large blackwood desk looked up from the papers he'd been reading and smiled a welcome.

Daemon Sadi was still a breathtakingly beautiful man with a well-toned body, golden-brown skin, and thick black hair that was now silvered at the temples. That he was also the most lethal man in the Realm was something people often forgot when they looked at his face and felt the seductive pull of his potent sexual heat.

Having seen all the sides of Sadi's temper, Daemonar never forgot the man's lethal nature, but it was something he could dismiss—most of the time.

Giving Daemon what he hoped looked like an easy smile, he said, "Hypothetical question."

Did he detect a hint of panic in his uncle's gold eyes?

Daemon capped his pen and said in that deep, cultured voice that always held a sensual edge, "All right."

"If someone tried a bit of Craft inside the Hall instead of going outside because it's cold and rainy today, and the spell went a wee bit wrong and punched a hole in a wall, how much trouble would that person be in? Hypothetically."

He watched Daemon swallow. Started counting the seconds before getting a reply. Not so different from counting between seeing lightning and hearing thunder to determine the distance of a storm.

"How big is this hypothetical hole?" Daemon finally asked.

"More decorative window than door," Daemonar replied.

"No risk of any part of the Hall collapsing because of this hole?"

"Not at all. Easily repaired." He hoped.

"Well then. If no one was injured and there is no structural damage that might cause future injuries, I think the person or persons involved in the spell that went a wee bit wrong could make their own arrangements to have the repairs done without requiring me to get involved. Hypothetically."

"That's what I thought."

"However." Daemon uncapped his pen and made a mark on the paper in front of him.

Hell's fire, here it comes, Daemonar thought.

"I would expect to find a copy of this bit of Craft on my desk when I return to the study after the midday meal so that I can review it and use it as part of the next Craft lesson since it had gone a wee bit wrong."

Daemon looked up and gave Daemonar a smile that made the boy's knees turn weak.

"That's a sensible idea," Daemonar said.

"I'm delighted you think so." The words were purred, and that, in itself, was a warning.

Daemonar closed the study door, smiled at Beale, the Red-Jeweled Warlord who was the Hall's butler, and Holt, the Opal-Jeweled Warlord who was Daemon's secretary, and strode across the great hall, heading for the staircase in the informal receiving room. Once out of sight, he bounded up the stairs and ran to the part of the Hall where the other youngsters waited.

Seven of the twenty-two girls who were now living at the Hall had been involved in whatever had gone awry. The rest of the girls and the fourteen boys who also lived at the Hall had come running at the sound of something going boom. Everyone had looked at the remains of the table that had held the items used for that spell, then looked at the hole in the wall—and then the other thirty-five youngsters had looked at him.

When he walked back into the room, they stared at him, their expressions all some variation of "Oh, shit, how much trouble are we in?"

Granted, they had good reason to be concerned. It was the first time any of them had blown up a piece of Uncle Daemon's home.

"Well?" Titian asked, catching her lower lip between her teeth. "Are we in trouble?"

"What did Prince Sadi say?" Zoey asked.

"We'll all chip in to pay for the repairs and get them done quietly." He was pretty sure there wouldn't be anything quiet about sawing and hammering and whatever else was needed, but this was a remote part of the Hall, so the noise shouldn't be too obvious. "Zoey, write out what you and the other girls were trying to do, what you used in the spell, and the steps you took before things went . . ."

"Out the wall?" Titian suggested.

"Yeah. That. Don't leave anything out. I'll slip it on Prince Sadi's desk when he's away from his study."

Everyone sucked in a breath. It was Jhett, one of the young Black Widows, who finally said, "Why tell him what we used for the spell?"

"Because that was his price for allowing us to take care of this ourselves," Daemonar replied.


When Beale and Holt walked into his study, Daemon kept his eyes on the paper and continued to write random words—as if this conversation was casual enough not to require his full attention.

"There is a hole in a wall?" he asked mildly.

"There is, Prince," Beale replied.

"A big hole?"

A hesitation. "Big enough to require repairs, but small enough that it shouldn't require reconstruction of the entire wall."

"I see." Daemon noticed his mind had given up on the challenge of forming words and he was simply writing the same three letters over and over. "No one is at risk from falling debris?"

"I checked," Holt said. When Daemon looked up, he shrugged. "One of the Scelties told Mikal there was a boom. Since Mikal was working with me today, we went to take a look. Discreetly."

"But you didn't think to inform me?" Daemon asked, his voice still mild.

Another shrug. "Daemonar was heading toward the study as Mikal and I headed toward the room, so I didn't think it was my place to report the incident—unless Daemonar failed to tell you."

Unfortunately, that made sense—or as much sense as anything currently made in the Hall.

"It's raining," Beale said. "And it's cold out."

Daemon capped his pen, abandoning the attempt to look unconcerned. "Yes, it is."

"I believe the young Ladies would have tried this bit of Craft outdoors if it hadn't been raining."

"That it is cold and rainy has been pointed out to me." He had to give the youngsters a chance to figure things out for themselves and work together to correct mistakes, just like they would have to do in the future when they were part of a Queen's court. Wouldn't his father have done that when Saetan had had the job of teaching and protecting Witch's coven and the boyos? "Along with correcting whatever Craft had gone wrong, I think a review of creating shields would be in order for this week's lessons, don't you?"

"Absolutely," Holt said.

"It would be prudent," Beale agreed. "Experience indicates this will not be a singular event."

Daemon sighed. "Very well." He waited, but Beale and Holt didn't leave. "Something else?"

Beale looked at Holt. Holt looked at Beale.

"It's time," Beale said. "Will you show him, or shall I?"

Holt hesitated, then said, "I'll show him."

Daemon studied the two men. "Show me what?"

His study was in the shape of a reversed L, the short end holding floor-to-ceiling bookcases behind his large blackwood desk. The sides of that part of the study were covered in dark red curtains. Behind one set of curtains was a door that opened into a storage room. Large shelves—some open, some with doors—started above Daemon's head and went to the ceiling. Beneath the shelves were two rows of wooden filing cabinets that held the paperwork and records for the family's various estates and business interests.

Holt walked into the storage room. Daemon pushed away from his desk and followed his secretary to the last filing cabinet on the left-hand side. Holt called in a gold key and unlocked the cabinet. Then he handed Daemon the key.

"Beale has one key. I've held the other," Holt said. "Per our instructions."

"Instructions from . . . ?" He knew. He just wanted someone to say it.

"Your father. About a year before he went to the final death, he gave us the keys and told us to make the contents of this cabinet available to you when it would be helpful."

"And that's now?"

"Prince, you have a hole in a wall, so it's time."

Hell's fire.

He'd been aware of this locked cabinet for centuries, but he'd never tried to find out what it held. Saetan had written Private on the label that had been slipped into the brass holder on the cabinet's top drawer. These locked drawers had been his father's business—and apparently, that business was now his.

Holt opened the top drawer, scanned the neatly labeled files, pulled one out, and handed it to Daemon.

He opened the file, read what amounted to a report, read it again—and looked at Holt. "I'll double your wages this month if you can look me in the eyes and tell me this is fiction."

Holt said nothing.

"I'll triple your wages."

Holt looked regretful but said nothing.

Mother Night. "Tell me what you remember."

"Their intentions were good," Holt began. "Well, their intentions were always good, but this time it started because a child in the village was playing with some friends and through some foolishness put his arms through the glass in a window. Serious injuries, lots of bleeding, panicked adults, hysterical friends—and the possibility that the boy would lose the use of both arms. Halaway's Healer requested assistance, which is how Jaenelle, Karla, and Gabrielle got involved."

"The healing was successful?" Daemon asked. Not that he had any doubt it would have been. Besides being Queens and Black Widows, those three witches had been the most powerful and talented Healers of their generation—and were still considered to have no equals.

"Yes. The child recovered completely and suffered no loss of movement or strength in his arms. He had one scar on each arm to show to his friends, but those faded after a year. However, the concern about a window breaking and someone being badly hurt had the coven working on the idea of adding some Craft to window glass so that it would break into pieces with no sharp edges, like glass worn down by sand and the sea."

"That explains the notation here about a visit to Lady Perzha and the beaches around Little Weeble," Daemon murmured.

"There's probably another file about that visit," Holt muttered. Then he continued. "Once the coven thought they had a working spell, they had to test it. So Jaenelle and Karla purchased a couple of pieces of window glass that they inserted into freestanding frames so that they could do the test in one of the Hall's outside courtyards."

"And it worked."

"Pretty much. The glass broke into small, smooth-edged pieces just the way they wanted it to. But the High Lord pointed out that glass that obligingly broke in a way that wouldn't cause a would-be thief any harm and also didn't have the sound of glass shattering was a potential invitation for mischief." Holt breathed in, breathed out. "So the girls added another bit of Craft for the second test. When the glass broke that time, it started shouting, 'Intruder! Intruder! I'm hit! I'm hit! I'm hit!'"

Daemon reminded himself that breathing wasn't optional.

"Well, if the warning wasn't loud enough to be heard, it wouldn't be any good, would it?" Holt continued. "But the sound in the test window had been punched up with Jaenelle's Birthright Black and Karla's Birthright Green, so . . ."

"Everyone in the Hall heard it, didn't they?"

"In the Hall and in Halaway. Caused quite a commotion, especially because some of the windows in the rooms surrounding that particular courtyard in the Hall must have absorbed some of the spell, so when that booming sound rattled the frames, the affected windows began to yip in higher voices, 'I'm hit! I'm hit! I'm hit!'" Holt blew out a breath. "Since those higher voices sounded like young Scelties, that got all the kindred excited, and they were racing around the Hall looking for the intruders."

Daemon leaned against one of the other filing cabinets and closed his eyes. Nothing to do with me, he thought. Nothing, nothing, nothing. "And . . . ?"

"After Jaenelle and Karla managed to quiet all the windows and the Scelties, and the High Lord sent his apologies to Lady Sylvia for the unplanned excitement, he firmly suggested that that particular bit of Craft be retired." Holt offered a weak smile. "A few months later, a Warlord and his brothers, who were builders by trade, showed up at the Hall. They'd heard a story about this bit of Craft and thought it would be a fine addition to a school they were building and offered to buy the proprietary rights to the spell if the Ladies could show them how to do it—without the verbal alarm. So the High Lord negotiated with the Warlords for exclusive rights to the spell for . . . I don't remember how many years . . . for a modest annual fee."

Daemon eyed the files in the open drawer, then looked at the other drawers in that cabinet. "That's what is in those drawers? Reports of unusual Craft the coven performed when they lived at the Hall?" May the Darkness have mercy on me if that's what I'll have to deal with.

"Records of one sort or another," Holt replied. "Beale and I were told that the top drawer held the most . . . memorable."

As Daemon replaced that file and brushed a finger over others, a red folder appeared, sealed with black wax and labeled with Saetan's elaborate script. He pinched the top of the folder with his thumb and forefinger—and vanished it before he closed the drawer and locked the cabinet.

"Is there a reason for this story?" Daemon asked, turning to face his secretary.

"No matter what Zoey, Titian, and the rest of those youngsters throw at you, you don't have to deal with the power Jaenelle and the coven brought to the table when they were the equivalent age and learning Craft," Holt said. "That should be some comfort."


Late that night, Daemon called in the red folder with the black wax seal and studied the words written in the Old Tongue.

"For my sons," he whispered, brushing a finger against the words.

When he pressed his thumb to the wax, the seal broke in a jagged pattern that seemed designed to act like a lock.

Daemon pulled out two dozen sheets of paper. His father's writing.

He skimmed through the pages, not sure what he was seeing at first. Then he poured a large brandy and sipped it while he read all the pages again—especially the ones that held penciled notations added at the bottoms of the pages.

One page in particular caught his attention because the completion of the spell it contained was still pending, even after all these years.

Laughing softly, Daemon said, "Oh, you wicked bastard."

Tucking the papers back into the folder for safekeeping, he swallowed the brandy, vanished the folder—and went hunting for a special window.


Chapter 2

Regretting the impulse to invite Saetien SaDiablo to dinner in order to give the girl a break from some hard truths about the sanctuary where Jillian worked and Saetien resided, Jillian continued to cut up the vegetables for the salad. The beef and mushrooms were heating in their gravy; the egg noodles were almost cooked. When the food was on the table, this whining would end—one way or another.

"So, you've been telling the instructors at the sanctuary that the reason you fell in with Delora was because you felt neglected, that you never had enough of your father's time and attention, that you didn't learn things like Protocol that would have helped you." Jillian added a light dressing to the salad and mixed it. When she set the bowl on the table, she looked Saetien in the eyes. "That is so much crap, I'm surprised you're not choking on it. And just so you know? The instructors don't believe a word of it."

She turned away to drain the noodles and put them in a serving dish while Saetien sputtered. She ladled the beef and mushroom mixture over the noodles, then set the dish on the table. Bread from the bakery and freshly churned butter from the SaDiablo estate on the other side of the village completed the meal.

"If I'd been a Queen . . . ," Saetien began.

"You would have been thumped so hard for being a bitch, you'd have to walk backwards to see where you're going," Jillian said sharply. "Tell me this, oh poor, neglected child—and remember I'm part of this family. Who taught you how to ride a horse? Who taught you how to swim? Who taught you the simple country dances so that you could participate at harvest parties in Dhemlan and in Scelt? Who taught you to air walk? Who taught you to read before you went to school and read you bedtime stories? Who taught you—or tried to teach you—basic Craft and Protocol? Who wouldn't let you fudge the rules and be a brat? Who took you riding when you were in Amdarh, and took you to the theater and to art exhibits? Who was that, hmm?"

Saetien stared at the table, one tear rolling down her cheek.

"Your father. You received more time and attention than most children who come from aristo families, but you probably heard someone whisper that you must have been neglected and that's why you became Delora's pet, and you seized on that as the excuse for ignoring what you knew to be right because that puts the blame on someone else and you're just a victim."

"He never—"

"Went with you to the country houses and the parties there?" Jillian nodded. "He couldn't. With his sexual heat being as potent as it is, if he showed up at one of those parties, every female past puberty would have been on him like starving cats that had found a bowl of cream, and if he couldn't get away from them fast enough, his temper would have slipped the leash and your happy little party would have turned into blood-soaked ground and corpses who would have had the unpleasant experience of meeting him again when they made the transition to demon-dead and learned why you shouldn't piss off the High Lord of Hell."

Jillian filled small bowls with the salad before dishing out beef and noodles for both of them.

"If I'd been a Queen—"

"Your education wouldn't have been any different. Well, as I understand it, you would have been required to learn more and would have been required to practice your lessons in Protocol every time you were in public—which, come to think of it, your father did insist on except during playtime with your friends. And that's no different than any other child after the Birthright Ceremony. The real training begins after that ceremony, and the rules become a lot stricter."

"If I'd known about that war and Dorothea—"

"What?" Jillian snapped, losing patience. "Kaeleer's history, which includes that war, is supposed to be taught in the schools. If the school in Halaway is neglecting that part of the children's education, Prince Sadi should be informed."

"He didn't tell me he'd been . . ." Saetien grabbed a piece of bread and scooped up enough butter to generously cover three slices. "And she didn't tell me that she'd been . . ."

"Maybe Daemon and Surreal thought you weren't mature enough to understand their pasts, and they were waiting until you were older," Jillian countered. "Or maybe because so much of the family's history circles around a Queen you don't want to know about, you always dragged Titian away when Daemon, Lucivar, Marian, and Surreal told stories about their lives before they came to Kaeleer. No one forced you to come back and listen, because the adults figured you weren't ready to listen. And those stories were told in steps, depending on the age of the listeners. How many times have you heard Lucivar say, 'You're not old enough to hear that story. Someday, but not now'? Plenty of times."

"My father should have stopped the party!"

"As I understand it, he intended to return all of you to the school in Amdarh when he had to leave to investigate a reported attack, but you whined about being allowed to stay and have the party. And when Beale, who stood in your father's stead and is strong enough and ruthless enough to turf out the intruders, told those boys to leave because they were not supposed to be there, you undermined his authority and set up half of the girls at the party to be attacked, including your cousin and a young Queen. So if you're feeling sorry about what this has cost you and want to point the finger and say 'It's your fault'? Well, it is your fault, Saetien. Your father carries some of the blame, and he knows it. Lucivar would have hauled all of you into the Coach and taken you back to the school, regardless of what you wanted, instead of hoping you had a glimmer of honor left."

Jillian set her fork down, too churned up to eat. But she'd had a few weeks to think about this and realized something that felt like truth. "In a way, I understand why you did it. You were born into the SaDiablo family, but you don't really belong to that family because Saetan and his sons have been committed to serving and protecting the Black-Jeweled Queen of Ebon Askavi from the moment Saetan made a promise to stay connected to the living for as long as it took for her to appear in the Realms. You think a promise that held for over fifty thousand years is going to fade away now?" She shook her head. "And it's all there in the Hall—the history, the promise, the choice to serve. Some people fit into the family, and it has nothing to do with being related by blood. They feel the connection, feel the echo of a promise in the very marrow of their bones. Daemonar feels it. Marian. Lucivar. Mikal and Beron. So do I. So did all the Territory Queens who served in the Dark Court. But my sister, Nurian, doesn't fit into what would have been the First Circle or even the Second Circle. Because of connections, she is welcome and included in gatherings when she wants to be, but she remains distant enough that she doesn't have to face the raw power in the family on a daily basis, not alone. She wouldn't be able to cope with the Black in a cold rage. And that's all right. Not everyone can."

"You didn't mention . . ." Saetien hesitated. "Surreal."

"I think Surreal is like Nurian, needing enough distance from what drove—and still drives—Lucivar and Daemon. It just took her some years to remember that." Now Jillian hesitated, then decided to say the rest. "You love your father—I know you do—but you're never going to be comfortable being around him, never going to be able to accept him when he's anything but the courteous and controlled Warlord Prince of Dhemlan. There was a time when you might have. I don't know. But that's not the case anymore. And maybe something in you recognized that you couldn't survive a tight connection to the SaDiablo family. So you did something that broke the bonds, that set you on the outside and has allowed you to get away from your father—and get away from the memories of the Queen who still rules the family. I think if you'd told Daemon that you were having trouble living at the Hall and had been honest about why you were struggling, he might have found another way for you to be independent."

Jillian reached across the table and patted Saetien's hand. "You're not the first who needed to leave in order to survive. I doubt you'll be the last. Just stop pretending that you weren't the one who made the choice, even if you didn't understand the truth of it at the time."


Saetien sat on the side of her bed, willing the tears not to fall. She didn't know who she was anymore, didn't know what she wanted except to be free of this burden of blame.

"I made a mistake," she said quietly. "I wanted something so much, I didn't listen to anyone who tried to tell me I was wrong about Delora, about the other girls. About the boys who were close to those girls."

Shelby, the Warlord Sceltie puppy who was her special friend, sat at her feet watching her closely. *But we are learning now, and we will listen to our teachers. Then we will know when humans tell us to do a wrong thing.* He paused. *And we will bite them.*

The puppy sounded a bit too pleased with that idea. "I don't think biting would be acceptable."

*Sometimes we need to bite.* He sounded so sure of that.

Maybe she should talk to the adult Scelties who lived at the sanctuary to find out if—or when—biting was considered an acceptable response to some human behavior.

When her bedroom door opened, Saetien wished she'd locked it after returning from Jillian's house. Most of the girls locked their doors before trying to sleep, which wasn't surprising. This place housed girls who had been raped in order to break their power. Many of them struggled with an aversion to being in a bed for any reason, and sleep was precious when it came at all—and it was a rare night when everyone wasn't awakened by a girl screaming herself out of a nightmare.

Teresa walked in. She had been a natural Black Widow before a male had . . . done what he'd done. She was still a Black Widow, but her power was broken now, leaving her with nothing but basic Craft. And her mind had shattered under the attack, leaving her walking the paths of the Twisted Kingdom, her thoughts and memories fragmented.

So much like Tersa, Saetien's paternal grandmother. But Tersa had chosen madness in order to regain some of the Hourglass's Craft, and she was strange in ways that had always made Saetien uneasy. Most days Tersa seemed absentminded, dithery, unable to alter even the simplest routine without becoming flustered. On other days, when the clarity of madness filled her gold eyes, she was . . . terrifying.

Not something Saetien could say out loud about her father's mother. Daemon Sadi loved Tersa and respected her skills as a Black Widow. So did Lucivar Yaslana. In fact, no one else in the family felt uncomfortable around Tersa, which was another way in which Saetien had felt like an outsider among her own kin.

Teresa sat next to Saetien and held out a sheet of paper. "This is you."

The drawing looked like the top of a box with rounded corners. The design was made up of strong lines and curves, bold but not hard. Two-thirds of the design resonated with something inside her, appealed to her in ways she couldn't put into words. But the right-hand side turned into a mash of chaotic lines—bloated dissonance that spilled over the edge of the box, filaments reaching and reaching as if to ensnare the unwary.

"This is how you see me?" Saetien asked, still feeling raw from the things Jillian had said.

"Yes." No condemnation in Teresa's voice. Nothing unusual in the voice as she pointed to the strong lines and curves. "This is who you were." Her finger moved over the chaotic lines. "This is who you are. You don't fit in the SaDiablo box anymore. You did once, but not anymore. You need to find a new box."

A new box. A new family was what Teresa meant. "Where am I supposed to find it?"

Teresa pointed to the paper. "She can tell you. She tastes of sadness—and truth."

Saetien looked at the name under the chaotic lines. "Who is she?"

Teresa blinked. "Who?"

"This girl. Is she here at the sanctuary?" Doubtful, unless the girl had just come in.

"What girl?" Teresa looked down. "The puppy!" She slid off the bed and sat on the floor. "Hello, puppy!"

Shelby gave the girl kisses and received pats and hugs before Teresa got up and wandered off, hopefully to her own room.

Saetien sat for a long time, staring at the drawing. Staring at a name.

"This is who you were. This is who you are. . . . She can tell you. She tastes of sadness—and truth."

"That's all well and good," Saetien told Shelby. "But who is Wilhelmina Benedict?"


CrowbonesCrowbones, in paperback February 2023