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Blade’s Destiny / Ishtar’s Legacy Book 3

Blade’s Destiny / Ishtar’s Legacy Book 3

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A queen and a male courtesan must find their destiny together.

Decadence and depravity have long been hallmarks of the Gryphon Court and when a young king dares to bring change, his life is cut short by an assassin’s blade.

Tirigan, on the run from a life not of his choosing, makes a desperate bid for his future by seeking out the young king who is said to abhor slavery of any kind. But Tirigan is too late and quickly finds himself captured once more.

Asharru is still grieving her older brother’s death when the crown is thrust upon her. Intelligent and cunning, she knows none in her new court can be trusted. One of them is the mastermind behind her beloved brother’s assassination.

She needs help and there is only one place left for her to seek it.

The flesh markets of Nineveh.

There she plans to acquire a small group of humans and gryphons, free them, restore their dignity, and offer them positions as servants, royal guards, and spies.

She is soon drawn to one man in particular. To her horror and hope, she recognizes him as one of Ishtar’s sacred Blades, a warrior born to protect the royal line.

Tirigan has no love for gryphons, but they must put aside their differences and bond as Blade and Queen if they hope to save their kingdom.

A steamy fantasy romance loosely based on Sumerian mythology.

Synopsis

Decadence and depravity have long been hallmarks of the Gryphon Court and when a young king dares to bring change, his life is cut short by an assassin’s blade.

Tirigan, on the run from a life not of his choosing, makes a desperate bid for his future by seeking out the young king who is said to abhor slavery of any kind. But Tirigan is too late and quickly finds himself captured once more.

Asharru is still grieving her older brother’s death when the crown is thrust upon her. Intelligent and cunning, she knows none in her new court can be trusted. One of them is the mastermind behind her beloved brother’s assassination.

She needs help and there is only one place left for her to seek it.

The flesh markets of Nineveh.

There she plans to acquire a small group of humans and gryphons, free them, restore their dignity, and offer them positions as servants, royal guards, and spies.

She is soon drawn to one man in particular. To her horror and hope, she recognizes him as one of Ishtar’s sacred Blades, a warrior born to protect the royal line.

Tirigan has no love for gryphons, but they must put aside their differences and bond as Blade and Queen if they hope to save their kingdom.

A steamy fantasy romance loosely based on Sumerian mythology.

First Chapter

Asharru shoved the pile of reports, lists, and messages across the table. Slamming her hands against the cold stone, she pushed back the padded bench and stood.

Then with a bitter twist of her lips, she frowned down at her responsibility, mentally acknowledging that Kadashman would have sorted and responded to these in the time it took her to craft two letters.

But her brother wasn’t here.

He never would be a part of her life again.

An assassin had made sure of that.

Now his absence left a massive void in her life she didn’t know how to fill.

The familiar tears tried to overflow her eyes, and her throat wanted to tighten with grief once more. But she’d promised herself she’d take up her brother’s legacy and do her best by it and the Kingdom of New Sumer.

No one else could. She was the last of the royal line of gryphons.

She circled around the table and strode across her outer chamber, where Kadashman had, until two moon cycles ago, seen to his kingdom’s running in the rare moments of privacy, as she narrowed her blurry gaze on her target.

The door leading out onto the balcony stood just a short distance away, promising the illusion of freedom for a few brief moments. She’d take that though. It was all she had, prisoner of the palace that she’d now become.

Outside the air was fresh. The breeze from the distant ocean carried a briny hint even this far into the island’s interior. Sighing, some of the tension and grief abating, she leaned a hip against the waist-high stone wall circling the balcony’s perimeter.

She gazed, unseeing, at the great city-state of Nineveh spreading out below her. This day, its beauty and allure failed to touch her, like every day since her brother’s assassination.

Still, she was determined that she’d see its beauty again one day after she’d found his murderer.

In the days after Kadashman’s death, she’d thrown herself into her work, feverishly hunting for her brother’s killer. When the trail had gone cold. Trail? What trail?
The assassin had left no clues behind.

She’d only then come to understand if she wanted to catch the person or persons behind her brother’s murder, she’d first have to learn everything there was to discover about the nobles of New Sumer and unearth which family or faction thought to gain the most by having an untrained queen on the throne.

Well, she might be untrained in ruling a kingdom, but she was trained as a priestess of Ishtar. And High Priestess Diimeritia was astute at reading people and understanding their motives. Asharru had absorbed more than a little of that ability from her mentor.

That gift might just prevent her from becoming a puppet queen for some ambitious noble or even her own council.
What remained of the council, that is.

The first councilor had died of natural causes two seasons before Kadashman’s assassination. At the time, that first death had stirred no suspicion. Then a second councilor had been killed in the same attack that took her sibling.

The guards on duty had claimed to hear a disturbance outside in the gardens, and some of them had gone to investigate. The remaining number had stayed at their posts. When the first of the guards had returned, it was to find King Kadashman bleeding out on the floor, a hand clasped to his own slit throat, his councilor already dead beside him.

Not one guard had heard anything.

Only the highest trained and most skilled assassin could have managed such a feat, Asharru had been told.
At least that’s what she was supposed to believe.

She didn’t.

There was another way, one that would require a bit of gold and a great betrayal. Asharru looked down into the gardens, her gaze seeking out the guards on duty, wondering which ones had been paid off.

Guardswoman Kuri had done her best to find the most trustworthy of the city guards to act as Asharru’s personal guard, but as much as she trusted the other woman—and she did, Kuri had been in love with Kadashman—there was no way to test the other guards’ loyalty.

Not for the first time Asharru speculated on how ‘natural’ the first councilor’s death had really been. Sure, at five hundred and fifty-nine, Councilor Namkuzu had been ancient, even by gryphon standards.

But if that death had been an assassination and her brother had learned the truth, would he still be alive?
That doubt would nag at Asharru’s conscience for many moons yet.

Soft steps approached from behind. Usually, her fingers would already be reaching for the long dagger that had become Asharru’s constant companion. This time she didn’t bother, didn’t even turn toward the sound, already knowing by the slight unevenness of the gait who it was.
Guardswoman Kuri.

One of only three people in all of Nineveh whom Asharru still trusted.

Though the uneven gait was a new addition.

The woman had been injured in a training bout earlier in the day and refused to leave Asharru’s side, even to rest.
Asharru could have issued a royal decree that the woman take a day to rest, but she wouldn’t do that to her, knowing the fear, grief, and guilt the woman hid well.

No, Asharru wouldn’t force the woman back to her own quarters where she’d fret and pace until her next guard rotation.

Kuri had lost as much as Asharru had in that blood-drenched night two moon cycles ago. She just couldn’t show it.

“Crown Princess, I have news.” New grief echoed in Kuri’s voice.

The guard wasn’t prone to showing her emotions. Thus, whatever news Kuri carried with her wasn’t the pleasant kind.

Asharru’s attention sharpened; a calm, cold mask falling into place, hiding her emotions as she turned toward Kuri.
“Speak, my friend.”

The guard hesitated for a moment, then continued. “I regret to inform you that High Priestess Diimeritia has died, my lady.”

The world went quiet. The breeze no longer blew. The seabirds were silent. There was no thunder of gryphon wings in the air. Nineveh faded as Asharru absorbed Kuri’s words.

Diimeritia dead.

Her childhood friend, mother figure, trusted confidant, and mentor. Gone.

Asharru quietly breathed for a few moments.

Finally, she asked, “How?”

“She’d gone for her afternoon rest and never woke again. There was no sign of foul play.” Kuri swallowed hard and then added. “She looked peaceful.”

“That is…thank you for being the one to bring this to me.”
Asharru knew time would one day take even Diimeritia from her.

But why now?

Dark suspicion filled her heart. It was too much.
She would learn the truth, but for now, all that she knew was that Diimeritia was gone, another loved one stolen from her.

Diimeritia had been so proud. First of what Kadashman had tried to do for New Sumer, and later, equally proud Asharru was fighting to carry out her brother’s greatest plan for the kingdom—to abolish slavery and bring an end to the tyranny of the noble houses.

A great vessel to fill, but with Diimeritia’s wise counsel, Asharru had high hopes that once she became queen and consolidated her power, she’d move forward with Kadashman’s legacy.

His dream, that one part of him she was determined to keep alive, was the only reason she got out of bed each morning and attended to her duties.

But without Diimeritia’s wise counsel?

Asharru would have to dwell on that problem later. “Who found her?”

“A servant, my lady.”

Asharru nodded and then squared her shoulders. “Send a runner to inform the other councilors what has happened. We must see to the funeral arrangements.”
“At once, my lady.”

“And her apprentice, Gekura, I would like to speak to the girl and reassure her I will continue her training myself. She will have a great role to fill in the coming days and is likely feeling overwhelmed.” After all, had Kadashman not been killed, it would have been Asharru assuming the title of High Priestess, and even after training all her life for that role, she still felt overwhelmed, not to mention, grief-stricken.

Asharru could only guess at what the poor, fourteen-summers-old girl with only two moon cycles of tutelage under Diimeritia, must be feeling.

“The girl…was not there.” Kuri’s eyes widened, and her nostrils flared slightly. It was the only tell that betrayed her concern. “The girl might be visiting with her family. I will have a runner sent to find the girl.”

“Yes, do that,” Asharru said slowly. Then in a lower voice. “Though, Gekura is usually in Diimeritia’s outer chambers rewriting messages and council reports this time of the afternoon. I find it doubtful the girl would be away this one time.”

Kuri nodded sharply in acknowledgment of what she was implying.

“I will rouse the city guards to find her whereabouts.”
Asharru nodded and then followed Kuri back into the outer chambers and on out into the hall, where they picked up another two dozen guards. Kuri wasn’t taking any chances it seemed.

“Your brother?” Asharru asked.

Kuri glanced back at her. “With Diimeritia.”

She didn’t need to say he didn’t trust that the death was as natural as it appeared. If she knew Hunzuu at all, which she did since he was her brother’s oldest friend and the four of them had grown up together, he would be looking for anything out of place.

When they arrived, more guards lined the hall outside Diimeritia’s chambers, and two held open the door for her.

Waving over one of the other guards, she instructed him to inform her when the three councilors arrived. Asharru wanted to greet them herself to see if she could read something besides surprise in their expression, or the lack of surprise.

The guard nodded sharply, bowed, and then retreated from the chamber to carry out her orders.

“A wise call, my lady. We need to discuss a few things in private first.”

Kuri’s acknowledgment came as a relief. It wasn’t just Asharru finding Diimeritia’s sudden death suspicious.
Hunzuu called from a room deeper in the Priestess’s suite. They followed his voice and found him in a workroom standing over a table stacked with parchment, ink, and even a few ancient clay tablets from the archives.

“Crown Princess.” He bowed when she entered. “I’ve found something you should see.”

He indicated the table with its assortment of parchments and reports. She scanned it but didn’t see anything unusual. The stacks were tidy, as they always were. Asharru envied Gekura her neat hand at cuneiform and her organizational skills.

Asharru’s own work area looked more like a troop of monkeys had ransacked her workroom, which wasn’t all that different from when Kadashman had presided over his domain.

But Gekura was much tidier by nature.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Exactly, my Lady,” Hunzuu said.

“The ink is now capped and sealed, but there are several fresh drops splattered across the desk, but there is no quill with a wet end. One is missing. Nor is there any parchment with wet ink to explain the few drops on the wood.”

He dabbed at one small splotch and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger, his fingertips turning black.

“I am certain Gekura was sitting here working as she normally does this time of day. But something or someone distracted her from her work. Which is strange since, on the surface of things, it looks like Diimeritia died peacefully in her sleep. I see no sign of a struggle. It’s doubtful the priestess’s death would have drawn Gekura’s attention.” He paused and motioned them over to another tiny smear of ink on one carpet.

Then he continued further into the chambers until they came to the ground level balcony. The doors were closed but not locked from the inside.

Asharru’s breath caught. After Kadashman’s death, Diimeritia didn’t trust anyone and had started to lock all her doors.

“I think Gekura was working on a report, heard a noise as the assassin entered through the unlocked balcony doors—perhaps left open by a bribed servant or guard. She might have heard this,” Hunzuu demonstrated the soft squeak of the hinges as he opened the door slowly, “came to investigate, and laid eyes on our assassin. Poor girl wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Asharru didn’t doubt his words, because her gryphon instincts were warning of some danger.

“Might Gekura not have discovered the high priestess and panicked?” It was too painful to call her by name. None of it was real yet. Asharru hadn’t even been in the bedchamber to see the body.

Though, the excuse of a panicking youth sounded weak even to her own ears.

Gekura was a fairly unflappable girl of fourteen summers. If she’d found her mentor dead, she would have come to Asharru immediately. She didn’t like to think of the third possibility. “What if Gekura was in on this?”

“If Gekura were behind it, she wouldn’t have started scribing a report only to stop part way through and destroy the parchment. And because of that.” Hunzuu pointed to a quill half hidden under a chair. “I think Gekura was in the workroom, heard something, came to investigate with the quill still clasped in her hand, hence the few splatters of fresh ink I found, and then was killed when she saw the assassin. I think the quill fluttered to the floor unnoticed when the assassin went back to the workroom.

There he took the parchment she was working on, sealed the ink, tidied the remaining quills to make it look like she wasn’t here. He might even now be disposing of Gekura’s body somewhere with the hope we’d just assume Diimeritia’s death was natural.”

Asharru compressed her lips but couldn’t find fault with the scenario he’d constructed.

“We’ll search for the girl. There is no blood here. It’s possible she was just hit over the head and then removed through the balcony and is hidden somewhere out in the gardens.” Hunzuu explained. “I have guards searching the grounds as we speak.”

“Wise.”

Hunzuu nodded. “I looked over Diimeritia in some detail but didn’t see any wounds. Though there was a tiny smear of white powder at the corner of her lips. Perhaps residue from something she ingested, or more likely, the assassin administered poison in the form of a fine powder deposited in the mouth. Or perhaps something she breathed in.”

Asharru nodded, swallowing hard, unable to form words. Holding tight to her blank, expressionless mask, Asharru didn’t let a hint of the pain his words caused show on her face. He was telling her what she needed to be told.

Hunzuu’s expression softened, and he placed a brotherly hand on her shoulder. “Diimeritia was a heavy sleeper. It’s doubtful she felt anything.”

She nodded sharply again. “Keep me apprised of what you discover.”

“Of course, my Lady.” He bowed. When he straightened, all softness was gone from his face. “I have scoured these chambers. If you wish to say your goodbyes to Diimeritia alone, it is safe to do so. Kuri and I will remain out here and guard the doors.”

“Thank you.” She turned and started slowly toward Diimeritia’s bedchamber then paused and looked over her shoulder at the siblings. “Thank you for being my friends in this terrible time.”

Hunzuu brought his fist to his heart. “I once promised Kadashman that I’d help protect his sister from the court vultures. His death has only made me hold to the promise even tighter. While I draw breath, no harm will come to you.”

Kuri stepped forward and inclined her head. “I lack my brother’s silver tongue but know I’ll happily gut anyone who means harm to one of the royal line. But since you’re also my friend, I’ll even gut a few who ‘might’ mean you harm just to be sure.”

A sad little smile touched Asharru’s lips at their words of loyalty and love. “Thank you both. I am in your debt.”
With that, she turned her focus back upon her original destination.

Diimeritia’s bedchamber was as tidy as Gekura’s workroom had been. Both women had shared that trait. Slowly, Asharru made her way to the large, curtain-shrouded bed. When she arrived, she sat carefully as if not wanting to disturb the elder’s sleep. Though that was a foolish thought.

Diimeritia was even now safely in the Underworld or making her way there.

Reaching out, Asharru took Diimeritia’s hand. It was still slightly warmer than the air, but chilled enough that no one would mistake it for living flesh. Tears that had been pooling in her eyes finally overflowed.

“Oh, my beloved mentor. I would have had you live out the fullness of your days. I would have had you crown me Queen of the Gryphons in three months’ time. I would have had you there for the first time I had cubs so you could call down Ishtar’s great blessing upon the future of New Sumer.”

Though the idea of a mate was just a vague, unrealized dream, one she hadn’t put much thought into when she was in training to become one of Ishtar’s priestesses. And now she didn’t have time for a mate or even to search out worthy candidates. Now, though, she was in sore need of a mate to secure the future of the gryphon kingdom.

The knowledge that she was the last of her line, and all gryphon magic throughout New Sumer would die with her if she didn’t carry on the line, was just one more burden to carry.

She looked down at Diimeritia and gave the hand another pat. “You would know what to do. You’d say something wise like ‘let Ishtar guide my hand’ and that I should not worry. But I must confess to doubting our great goddess. Perhaps I’ve displeased her in some way, or she has other kingdoms to oversee.”

After all, New Sumer wasn’t the only kingdom in all the world. Outside the vast protective dome that sheltered the ten island city-states, another, unknown and far more dangerous world existed.

But Diimeritia could no longer reassure her or grant her wise counsel. After patting the age-spotted hand one final time, Asharru folded it across the old woman’s chest.
“I will miss you so very much, my beloved mentor.” Blinking back tears, she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the old woman’s forehead. “Goodbye. And if you are still near enough to hear me, please tell Kadashman I love him and will do all in my power to protect his kingdom.”

She paused and then whispered. “I will protect his beloved Kuri as well. Goodbye.”

Straightening, she wiped away the tears and smoothed her hair, making herself presentable for the councilors who might even now be waiting out in the hall. She wouldn’t let them see her emotions or anything they might see as a weakness.

Because she didn’t know who she could trust on the council.

Then the answer came to her.

‘I can’t trust anyone on the council. I can’t trust anyone’s council at all.’

Only Kuri and Hunzuu could be trusted not to serve other masters.

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