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Blade’s Honor / Ishtar’s Legacy Book 2

Blade’s Honor / Ishtar’s Legacy Book 2

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A gryphon prince. A warrior maiden. And an impossible love.

Rescued from her grandfather’s dungeon by the King of the Gryphons, Enkara only wishes to repay that great debt by serving as one of the elite Shadow Guards tasked with protecting the royal line.

Unfortunately, the gods have other plans, for she was born with the mark of a goddess running down her spine and her destiny is far greater than that of a simple guard. She is one of the Goddess Ishtar’s Avenging Blades, born into the world when danger stalks the royal line.

While that brings far more attention than she ever wished, she is still happy to serve Crown Prince Kuwari, for he is also her closest friend, and their bond is unlike any other Blade and Prince before them.

But Ishtar isn’t the only goddess with a desire to claim Enkara as her Blade and Kuwari as her King.

Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, is jealous of her younger sister, Ishtar, and will do all in her power to snatch them away, even if she must destroy the gryphon kingdom to do it.

Synopsis

Rescued from her grandfather’s dungeon by the King of the Gryphons, Enkara only wishes to repay that great debt by serving as one of the elite Shadow Guards tasked with protecting the royal line.

Unfortunately, the gods have other plans, for she was born with the mark of a goddess running down her spine and her destiny is far greater than that of a simple guard. She is one of the Goddess Ishtar’s Avenging Blades, born into the world when danger stalks the royal line.

While that brings far more attention than she ever wished, she is still happy to serve Crown Prince Kuwari, for he is also her closest friend, and their bond is unlike any other Blade and Prince before them.

But Ishtar isn’t the only goddess with a desire to claim Enkara as her Blade and Kuwari as her King.

Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, is jealous of her younger sister, Ishtar, and will do all in her power to snatch them away, even if she must destroy the gryphon kingdom to do it.

First Chapter

Dawn was still a far-off thought, and Enkara would have been sleeping if the softest of footsteps in the sand outside her tent hadn’t stirred her to wakefulness moments before.

Sleep hadn’t entirely retreated, and she already had a blade in her hand. Instinct and close to four years of her mentor’s most brutal training had turned her into a light sleeper.

It wouldn’t be the first time either Burrukan, or one of the other instructors, had come upon her in the dead of night to test her readiness to take up her duty to protect those of the royal line.

Burrukan claimed she needed to be ready to defeat assassins at any time, even half asleep. Enkara silently freed herself from the thin blanket covering her body but kept the blade itself hidden under her pillow so the assailant wouldn’t see a betraying glint in some stray moonbeam.

Not that this assailant was an actual assassin, or one of her Shadow instructors either, for that matter. No, now that she was awake, she knew this assailant. Since an early age, Ishtar, Mother Goddess of the Gryphons and Queen of Heaven, had blessed Enkara with the gift of sensing the whereabouts of all the blood-members of the royal line. Presently, there was a gryphon of royal blood trying to sneak into her tent unseen.

She only knew one gryphon of royal blood foolish enough to sneak away from his bodyguards for a night flight to the training island of New Assur.

Enkara fought to keep her mind calm as if still deeply asleep.

The rebellious idiot. He was practically begging to get himself assassinated. Well, last time, she’d warned him if he tried such a stunt again, she’d give him a sound thrashing for his trouble. That time, he’d only laughed, saying she’d never followed through with any of her threats in the years he’d known her.

And he was correct. In the four years she’d been on the island of New Assur to complete her training to become Ishtar’s Avenging Blade, he’d found ways to escape his guards no less than ten times to come visit her. Not once had she followed through on her threats when he sought her out.

Outside her tent, the footsteps had stopped. A moment later the fabric rustled as he untied the closures. She kept her eyes closed and remained still as he ducked inside the tent. More soft footsteps told her he was moving closer. When he was within striking distance, she sprang into motion, leaping from the bed and was upon him before he could react.

She twisted in the air, swiping at his lower legs with her own. While he was off balance, she planted her hands on his shoulders and rode him to the ground. She was careful that his head didn’t collide with anything on the way down. After all, she only wished to hurt his pride, not his person.

His body slammed into the rugs covering her tent’s floor, and his breath escaped him in a huff of surprise. While he was still stunned, she locked her left hand around his right wrist and forced his arm above his head. Her other hand pressed the edge of her blade to his neck. She was ready to pull it away if he moved so much as a hair’s breadth.

Accidentally killing the heir to the throne and her only childhood friend wasn’t on today’s list of activities.
She lowered her head until she was nearly nose to nose with the gryphon prince. “Kuwari, if you’d been an assassin, you’d be dead right now.”

The open tent flap allowed just enough starlight into the interior to see the flash of his white teeth as he grinned up at her. “It’s good I’m not an assassin, then, isn’t it?”
Prince Kuwari didn’t sound the least bit perturbed or mortified by his swift defeat. Hmmm. That was never good. Neither was the second flash of teeth.

“Kuwari, what are you doing here?” She tried for stern and mature, like the tone she’d heard High Priestess Kammani use on the council members when a session got out of hand.

“I missed you,” he said, his voice soft and unguarded.

Her frown vanished. The four years of separation required for her training on New Assur hadn’t been easy for her either. She and Kuwari had been inseparable from the day they first met in person until Burrukan had spirited her away for the final phase of her training on the remote island of New Assur where all the king’s elite Shadows guards were trained.

The distance had also limited their ability to communicate through their unique mental link, forcing them to use images and emotions more than actual words like they’d done when Kuwari was still a cub.

He’d just turned sixteen when she’d been packed off to New Assur. Kuwari had taken their separation hard. But the previous four years had changed them both. During that time Kuwari had grown into a man and would soon be a fully trained governing prince, but he would always be her dearest friend.

But that didn’t mean she’d go easier on him. “You are an idiot. Burrukan’s going to tan your princely ass for this.”
Kuwari shrugged, the small shift of his body under hers drove her earlier thoughts right out of her head. “Oh, by the Goddess—!”

“I see you’ve missed me, too,” Kuwari said and shifted underneath her again. He couldn’t move much, not with her body straddling his and her weight pinning him to the ground, but it didn’t stop him from speaking. “Should I assume our Great Goddess Ishtar has finally awakened your full power? And that she wants us to perform the Sacred Marriage as our first official act?”

Enkara had only worn a light-weight shift to bed, and by the feel of Kuwari’s muscular thighs trapped between her knees, he was wearing even less than her. With a curse, she rolled to her feet. She maintained her grip on Kuwari’s wrist and hauled him up as well. When he was on his feet, she dropped his hand like it burned and turned her back on him.

“Why are you running around New Assur naked? If Burrukan catches you, he’ll use your pale backside as a target before he tans your ass.” Not that Enkara knew if Kuwari’s backside was paler than the rest of his delicious olive-brown skin. After he’d grown to manhood, she’d done her best to avoid noticing Kuwari wasn’t still the boy she’d grown up with. Of course, every time he’d seen her awkwardness, he’d go out of his way to make it impossible not to notice him more. Like now.

“Circumstances didn’t give me time to pack a satchel before I made my escape. Besides, I fly faster without the weight of supplies.”

Kuwari’s laugh sounded far too intimate in the confines of her small tent. She scowled at him in the darkness, knowing he could probably see better in the gloom than she could. A full-blooded gryphon had a few tactical advantages over a half-blood with human heritage.
Her scowl deepened. Some days she highly doubted her gryphon heritage and wondered if her mother had strayed and if some unknown human man was actually her father.

By the goddess, she was twenty-four summers old and couldn’t even shapeshift yet!

Enkara jerked the blanket off her bed and tossed it in Kuwari’s general direction.

She was rewarded by his huff of surprise. Huh. He hadn’t seen that coming. Good. A smile tugged at her lips as she made her way to a small, backless chair and grabbed the candle and striker she’d left there.

Once the candle was burning, she set it on the stool and then turned to face the younger prince. Her fists naturally planted themselves on her hips. “Naked is one thing. Weaponless is another matter altogether. Have you no care what your death would do to your parents?”

And to me?

“There was no danger,” Kuwari said as he fussed with the blanket, folding it in half and then tying it at one hip all without glancing up at her.

“No danger?! There is always danger.”

“Not this time.” Kuwari finished securing his impromptu robe and then looked up, opened his arms wide, and waited for her to answer his silent summons.

Even while Enkara aimed a dark scowl at him, she stepped forward and into his embrace. Her own arms wrapped around him in a fierce hug—though she was still angry at him. One squeeze didn’t offset that. But feeling his warmth, hearing his mighty heart and seeing his vibrant smile went a long way to soothing the sharp-edged fear that cut at her insides when she thought of the danger he put himself in just to visit her.

“You worry too much—”

She smacked him on the shoulder. “I wonder why that is?”

Kuwari had the decency to look abashed. “I knew no danger would touch me tonight.”

Ah. He’d seen this visit in one of his visions. “Then you also should have expected the floor and the knife.”

A sheepish look crossed his face as a pinkish hue darkened his cheeks. Her brow arched up in surprise. She couldn’t ever recall him blushing. Not even the time when an overeager daughter of the nobility caught him at his bath.

But her words caused him to blush? Why?

Ah…oh! He had seen what would occur. He could have outmaneuvered her had he wanted. Apparently, he hadn’t wanted to change that outcome.

She’d thought she had put this particular issue to rest two years ago on one of Kuwari’s other unauthorized visits. Just what she could do to dissuade him without hurting his feelings was unclear.

And, if he decided to turn the full force of his charm upon her, she doubted she would fare better than any other woman would. Kuwari shared his father’s looks. But he also shared his generous soul. Looks she could withstand easily enough. Bravery, kindness, and intelligence added to the mix was something else far deadlier.

Love was a seductive call, a distraction she couldn’t afford. And distractions were too easily exploited by assassins.

Even though she was his Blade—a Goddess-ordained guardian of the royal line—Enkara believed Kuwari’s parents would prefer if he took a mate from one of the ruling houses to help stabilize his future kingdom.

Certainly, the council would expect that. The king had kept his council ignorant of Enkara’s true identity for her own protection until she was fully trained, and the Goddess had claimed her and awakened her full power.

As for herself, she’d never forgotten that she was born of a disgraced house plagued with traitors. And as much as she’d loved her mother, that long-dead human woman had been a servant, not a noble lady. Only half gryphon, not able to shapeshift, and born of a traitorous line.
In no way was she a good candidate for Kuwari’s future mate.

But how to persuade him that she wasn’t a candidate for courtship without crushing what she loved most about him? Kuwari saved her from having to come up with an immediate solution to that problem by starting to pace in the narrow confines of her tent.

The restlessness was another trait he’d inherited from his father. A smile tugged at her lips as she remembered a sixteen-year-old Kuwari pacing and fretting like this four years ago when Burrukan had said Enkara would need to go to New Assur to finish her training as tradition dictated.

He’d survived the four years without her at his side; he’d survive having her reject any future advances on his part. She’d just have to be strong and reject Kuwari’s overtures.

Might as well get it over with. “Not that I haven’t missed you, but you can’t keep doing this. It’s not appropriate.”
“I don’t care about appropriate. I’m trying to avoid an unwanted future,” Kuwari said as he turned. Grinning at her, he took two long paces and sat on her sleeping pallet as if it was the finest of furniture.

“That tells me absolutely nothing.”

He shrugged, drawing her gaze to the flex and bunch of his broad, muscular shoulders.

Stop that, she scolded herself.

“I saw a vision of someone slipping something in my goblet during a feast. I decided since the nearest feast is my name day celebration in twelve days, it would be best to come collect my Blade and have her at my side.”

A shiver of horror slithered down Enkara’s spine. Before she’d thoroughly thought out a plan of action, she’d snatched up her sword and was belting the harness around her waist. “Why hasn’t Burrukan come to retrieve me? I only agreed to come and train on New Assur as long as you were safe. At the first sign of trouble, Burrukan was to come immediately and deliver me back to Nineveh.”

After a long pause, Kuwari cleared his throat and glanced down at his hands. “It’s not that kind of danger.”

“What do you mean? If you saw an assassin…” She unsheathed one of her daggers.

Kuwari chuckled. “My Blade might want to dress before she goes charging off to slay my enemies. Besides, it wasn’t an assassin I saw in the jumbled-up flashes of fragmented visions. There’s not going to be an attempt on my life. More like an attempt at the throne by way of becoming my mate.”

Enkara’s hand froze on her harness’s buckle. “Are you saying someone is going to try to use the sacred fertility rite elixir to force a mating?”

While she was half human and wasn’t yet sure if she would possess some of the other advantages and disadvantages that came with being a full-blooded gryphon, Kuwari was pure stock. If someone managed to drug him, there was a chance that he’d be forced to take a mate out of necessity rather than love. The council might not give him a choice. His survival was linked to the survival of all the gryphons. Whatever female was chosen to be matched to the drugged prince would become his mate and future queen.

Kuwari shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the gryphon kingdom that such a thing has been tried.”

“By the gods! I’ll hunt down and kill the ones behind this newest threat before they can get close enough to catch your scent. I’ll make them regret even thinking of subverting your will. I’ll—”

“You know it is never as easy as that. When it comes to the council and the ruling body of New Sumer, you never truly know friend from ambitious noble. And my vision only showed a hand pouring a liquid from a vial into my cup.”

“Male or female?”

“Female. So that only leaves half the population of New Sumer.” Kuwari sighed. “For once I wish the gods would just come out and clearly state what they want us to do.”
Enkara grunted her agreement. Mortals, both human and gryphons, offered up too much entertainment for the gods to make things easy.

“Even if the gods showed me a clear vision of whoever is behind this attempt, there will always be someone else scheming to merge their bloodline to that of the royal line for the power and privilege.”

She flopped down on the bed next to him as she realized what he said was true. She’d seen it firsthand more than once, hadn’t she? Since Kuwari’s first flush of manhood, nobles had been instructing their daughters on how best to catch the young prince’s eye. Some had fewer scruples than others.

Kuwari wouldn’t be safe until he finally fell in love and took a mate. That unknown woman would become his future queen and co-ruler, aiding with the governing of New Sumer.

“There is only one way to completely safeguard against future attempts of this nature.” He glanced sidelong at her and then down at his hand where it rested on his thigh. Slowly he lifted his hand and slid it along the sleeping pallet until his fingers closed over hers.
Enkara didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t even breathe, although she knew she should say something. Or do something. Stand up. Walk away. Something.

He gave her fingers a squeeze. Nothing else. Enkara drew a deep breath. “Kuwari, you should know if you’re—”

“One day, far in the future when the throne comes to me, I would very much like for you to rule by my side.”

“You’re too young to know where your heart will lead. There’s plenty of time—”

“Actually, there isn’t as much time as one might think if my visions are accurate.” Kuwari’s tone softened.

“Besides, I’m a gryphon. I know my heart already.”

“Yes. Yes. But nothing is set in stone.” Enkara stared at the slight flutter of the drab brown tent wall in front of her. If she didn’t weaken toward Kuwari and grant him what he was asking, he’d be free to find true love and a more appropriate mate elsewhere. As for others trying to force his hand, she would see to it that no one was ever given the opportunity to trap the prince.

Not even herself.

Their bond forged out of shared childhood horrors transcended the ordinary bonds of love and friendship.

She could and would love him completely—as his Blade, not his mate.

“You still have time to find a suitable mate to rule at your side. There’s no rush. You’re still only nineteen.”

Kuwari laughed. “In twelve days, I’ll turn twenty and become Crown Prince over all the city-states and receive my first true responsibilities. With that comes many demands from the Council. One of the first things they’ll expect is some hint at my choice of a mate and future queen.”

At the nervous thrill in his voice, Enkara glanced sidelong at him again. “The Council may have sharp teeth, but they can’t force you into doing something you don’t want.”

“Oh, my innocent Blade,” Kuwari said as he reached out to cup her cheek. “The council members always find ways to twist a situation to their liking.”

“Still, they can’t force a mate on you unless they try unscrupulous methods and if they do, they’ll find themselves, and their ambitions, delivered swiftly to the underworld.”

“A Blade’s point of view is always so refreshing. Mother Iltani is the same way.” Kuwari turned one of his most beguiling smiles upon her.

His look made her heart skip a beat. She steeled herself for what she sensed was coming next. She could withstand almost any opponent. But Kuwari’s charm could slay a female of any age.

“Truth be told, I’d much rather savor a long, slow courtship and win your love, but I am not sure if I’ll be given the time.” Kuwari’s hand dropped from her cheek to rest on her leg, just above the knee. “If you would agree to a year of courtship, it would do much to put my mind at ease and dissuade many of the nobles with eyes on the throne. And soon all will know you are Ishtar’s Blade—my Blade.”

His voice dropped at the last, coming out in a seductive purr as he gave her leg a caress. He leaned closer, closing the distance between them.

“Kuwari, no.” Enkara planted a hand on his shoulder and blocked him from reaching his destination.

He froze, a chagrined look crossing his face. She hadn’t missed the flash of pain that had proceeded it, either.

“I’m sorry Kuwari. I would never willingly cause you pain, but I know my duty, and it also includes protecting you from yourself.” She covered his hand with hers, their fingers interlacing for a moment before she pushed his hand off her thigh and anchored it to the pallet between them so he wouldn’t attempt a second touch. “That you might feel infatuated is only natural. It will fade in time.”

She could still feel the phantom heat on her leg from where his palm had rested only a moment ago.

“Ah. The hard way it is, then.” Wry humor touched his words and that now familiar determined look was back in his eye. “The goddess rewards those with the greatest patience.”

Enkara didn’t know what he was planning, but she had a few ideas, none of them good for her peace of mind.

Kuwari’s chuckle filled the small tent’s interior. “Besides, if I guessed the day and timing of my vision correctly, Burrukan and my guards would only have interrupted at the best part.”

He’d seen something between them? Heat rushed up her cheeks at his surprising words. As much as she really shouldn’t want to know more about this vision—

“Kuwari,” she growled, putting a fierce note in her voice.

“You’re jesting just to see if you can get a rise out of me, aren’t you?”

The prince shrugged, attempting to look all innocent and blameless. Right. That was another trait he shared with his father. Those two could dupe even the most skeptical of councilors with that look.

She snorted. “I thought we didn’t lie to each other?”
Kuwari grinned. “I’m not. But not all my visions come to pass. This one was weaker than most, just a distant and blurry possibility. I could share the details of this particular vision if that would help…”

“No! Thank you, my Prince, but no.”

“Ah. Very well then, but don’t complain later that I didn’t share.” He had the nerve to grin again. “But you should probably get dressed and gather your weapons.

Burrukan and my bodyguards will be along shortly. You should be ready to leave. Once I tell Burrukan about the earlier vision, the one with someone slipping something into my drink, he’ll agree that you should return to Nineveh with me.”

“Of course, I’ll come. I just wish Ishtar would awaken my mark.” She rubbed at the back of her neck, feeling the slightly rough skin of her tattoo-like birthmark. The sooner she had control of her full powers, the better.

“Ishtar will wake your power soon, and we will perform the first of the blooding ceremonies within a moon’s cycle.” He flashed her a grin. “If Burrukan complains about your training, he can finish that on Nineveh.”
Enkara nodded sharply. Her duty was to protect the prince, and she couldn’t do that on New Assur.

She left Kuwari sitting on her sleeping pallet and gathered her linen shirt, leather vest and leggings. On the training island of New Assur, she wasn’t required to dress in the knee-length robes that fully trained Shadows wore, nor did she have to wear the ceremonial skirt of veils that Ishtar preferred her Blades adorn themselves in—not yet at least.

She’d worry about that later. For now, she was more concerned with being presentable when her likely-to-be-livid mentor showed up with twenty equally perturbed Shadows hunting for their errant prince.

“You realize Burrukan is going to drag your royal ass down to the training fields over this stunt, right?” Enkara said as she pulled on her undergarments and leather pants. “Then he’s going to bring me into the ring to reinforce his lesson.”

“Won’t be the first time. Besides, it will be worth it to have you in Nineveh again. These last three and a half years have been…lonely. Our mental link, letters, and a few visits aren’t the same as crossing swords with you in a sand ring or sitting in front of a fire, sipping wine and discussing the newest political intrigues.”

“Hmmm. The joys of court life. I’ve missed you, your parents, and younger sisters and brothers, and even many of the Shadows, but the council members and the rest of the nobility? Not in the least. But I have missed spending time with you just talking.” Enkara turned her back on the prince and pulled her sleeping shift over her head and tossed it into a corner, then grabbed up the band of fabric she used to bind her breasts during training sessions.

She was just tucking the knot and loose ends between her cleavage when Kuwari cleared his throat. When she glanced over her shoulder, he was holding out her linen shirt and leather vest. The prince’s gaze was locked on to a portion of tent wall above her head, but there was an impish slant to his lips that hadn’t been there before.
Shaking her head, she pulled on the shirt and then the vest, still lacing it as she met Kuwari’s gaze. “Thank you for coming and notifying me of this new danger to you.”

With that she turned and ducked out of her small tent, leaving behind a flustered Kuwari, naked but for her blanket wrapped around his waist. She knew many of the noble ladies of the court would kill to be in her place. Yet nothing had happened. Nothing could ever happen. Not unless the gods claimed her and Kuwari during the spring fertility rite.

Though Ishtar and the harvest god, Tammuz, didn’t bless every monarch and Blade with such a distinction.

Sometimes Blades were merely there for protection and as a military leader in times of war. In other, more peaceful times, Blades were born to help a monarch govern the vast city-states.

Since Ishtar and Tammuz had King Ditanu and Queen Iltani to perform the Sacred Marriage during the spring rites, Enkara doubted they’d need her and Kuwari. If she was to go by the chaotic fragments of the future Kuwari saw in his visions and shared with her, she thought it much more likely she was his war leader. That role suited her much better.

Though, after Ditanu and Iltani put down the coup planned by the traitorous governor of Kalhu and liberated Enkara and the other prisoners more than sixteen years ago, things had been quiet, and Kuwari might not need her as a war leader for many, many years to come, if they were lucky. Unfortunately, his visions usually offered little or no context of when they’d occur, much to the prince’s displeasure.

That left helping with governance. Which, if Enkara was truthful with herself, terrified her. Since she’d spent the first nine years of her life confined in a dungeon, Kuwari’s education and social skills far outstripped hers.

Even after being freed, the long days of training with Burrukan to prepare her to become a Blade hadn’t left enough time for studying statecraft. She knew she hadn’t mastered all the skills needed to aid in running a kingdom.

The thought of daily interactions with nobles or, goddess forbid, the council, set her heart pounding. Nine years in a cell had damaged her in ways she wasn’t sure if she’d ever overcome, but she desperately needed to hide any hint of weakness from the blood-thirsty courtiers.

Even the lowest born noble lady would have a level of education Enkara lacked. At first, she’d consoled herself with the knowledge that once she was a fully trained Blade, she’d have time then to master the predator-filled waters of New Sumer’s court. But after three and a half years of training, she felt no more confident with her social skills than when she’d first come to New Assur.
And if the gods happened to choose her and Kuwari for the Sacred Marriage?

She knew her duty, but the thought of one day becoming Kuwari’s Queen gave her night-terrors. It had nothing to do with Kuwari, and everything to do with his title and the scrutiny that would come with it.

Secretly, if Kuwari wasn’t the heir, she might have allowed him to court her and then in a few years when he’d matured enough to be sure of his own heart and mind, and she’d mastered her own fears and inadequacies, she wouldn’t be averse to becoming his mate.

But that was a foolish dream. Kuwari was the Crown Prince, and she was very ill-suited to be a queen. A war leader though, that she was born for. Battle tactics, troop placement, Burrukan had drilled every bit of his knowledge into her.

Overhead the moon still rode high in the sky and dawn wasn’t yet even a thought upon the eastern horizon, but she spotted ten darker shapes against the midnight blue of the sky. As they winged their way closer to the island of New Assur, Enkara instinctively reached out with her gift. It confirmed these newcomers were no threat. She’d already guessed as much but would never risk Kuwari’s safety on a guess.

The identity of those about to arrive on New Assur confirmed, Enkara looked over her shoulder to see Kuwari emerging from her tent.

“That would be Regent Burrukan come to spank your royal ass.”

Kuwari snorted with humor and came to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. “Burrukan is never boring at least.”

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