SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
After he read the message, Gaius crushed the parchment in his fist and fell to his knees. His mind was jumbled with thoughts and memories. So many choices. So many losses.
So many regrets.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before the echoing sound of footsteps drew him from his painful reverie. The small hand of his two-year-old son, Magnus, pressed against his arm. His wife, Althea, stood at the far end of the room, blocking the light from the window in his chambers.
Gaius glanced, blurry-eyed, at Magnus. Instead of replying, he pulled the boy’s small body against him and tried to take comfort in his son’s embrace.
“What was in that message that’s upset you?” Althea asked crisply, staring down her nose at him.
His throat constricted, as if fighting to speak the truth of it. He finally pulled back from his son to glance up at her.
“She’s dead,” he said, his words as dry and brittle as fallen leaves.
He didn’t want to answer questions. He didn’t want to talk to his wife today, especially not about this.
“Papa?” Magnus said again, confused, and Gaius looked into his son’s bright eyes. “Why you so sad, Papa?”
He placed his hands on the toddler’s cheeks. “It’s all right,” he assured the boy. “All is well, my son.”
Althea’s jaw had tightened, and there was no kindness in her eyes. “Pull yourself together, Gaius, lest a servant happen to see you like this.”
And what if they did? he thought. Althea was always so concerned about outward appearances and the opinions of others, no matter who they might be. His appreciation for her attention to detail and royal decorum often outweighed his overall apathy for the woman, but today it only made him hate her.
“Take Magnus,” he said, rising to his feet and fixing the stoniest of looks upon his wife. “And send for my mother. I need to see her immediately.”
She frowned. “But, Gaius—”
“Now,” he snapped at her.
With an impatient sigh, Althea took Magnus by his tiny hand and led him out of the room.
Gaius began pacing his chamber, from the heavy oak door that had the Limerian credo of Strength, Faith, Wisdom carved deeply into its surface, to the windows overlooking the Silver Sea. He finally stopped, silently staring down at the cold waters that crashed into the icy cliffs far below the palace window.
It wasn’t very long before the door creaked open behind him and he turned to face his mother. The pained expression he wore drew her brows together. Fine lines fanned out around her dark gray eyes.
“My darling,” Selia Damora said. “What has happened?”
He held the crumpled letter out to her. She closed the distance between them to take it from him and quickly scanned the short message.
“I see,” she said grimly.
“Very well.” Using her fire magic, she set the letter aflame. He watched as the parchment fell in soft black ashes to the floor.
“How can I help?” she asked, her voice calm and soothing.
“You offered me something once . . . something powerful . . .” he said, clutching a handful of his shirt over his heart. “You said it could remove this cursed weakness from me once and for all. To help me forget . . . her.”
Her solemn eyes met his. “She died bearing a daughter to another man—a man she chose long after you parted ways. I’m surprised you can’t put all this far behind you.”
“Yet I can’t.” He wouldn’t beg. He wouldn’t shame himself that way before the strongest and most powerful woman he’d ever known. “Will you help me or won’t you? It’s a simple question, Mother.”
Selia’s lips thinned. “No, it’s not simple at all. All magic comes with a price, especially magic as dark as this.”
“I don’t care. Whatever the price, I’ll pay it. I want to be strong in the face of any challenge that lies before me. I want to be as strong as you’ve always believed I could be.”
His mother was silent for a moment. She turned her gaze toward the windows. “You’re absolutely certain about this?” she asked.
“Yes.” The word came out like the hiss of a snake.
She nodded, then left the room to fetch him what he asked—no, begged—for. When she returned, she held the same vial of potion she’d offered him years ago—potion, she said, that would make him strong in both body and mind. It would take away his weaknesses. It would sharpen his focus and help him attain everything he’d ever wanted.
Most importantly, this potion would also help him put his love for Elena Corso firmly where it belonged: in the past.
Gaius took the container that Selia held out to him and stared at the blue glass vial. For such a small object, it felt incredibly weighty in his hand.