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  • The Invisible Ring(Black Jewels,Book 4) by Anne Bishop
  • Prologue

    Lord Krelis, the new Master of the Guard, tried not to fidget as he watched Dorothea SaDiablo slowly pace the length of her private audience room. If she’d been any other woman, he might have openly admired her slender body, might have wondered if the black hair gracefully coiled around her head felt as silky as it looked, might have dared to run a hand over the brown skin that wasn’t covered by her long red dress. He might have enjoyed the way the dress swished in counter rhythm to her swaying hips. He might have wondered if the way she caressed her chin with that large white feather was a subtle invitation for other kinds of caresses.

    But Dorothea SaDiablo was a Black Widow, a member of the Hourglass, the most dangerous and feared covens in the Realm of Terreille. Black Widows specialized in poisons and journeys of the mind, in shadows and illusions, in dreamscapes that could ensnare a man and leave him locked in an endless nightmare.

    She was also the Red-Jeweled High Priestess of Hayll. Since there were noQueensin theHayllianTerritorywho could match the psychic strength that Jewel signified, and since no weaker Queen who wanted to stay whole and healthy challenged her authority, Dorothea ruled as she pleased—which was something no male in Hayll dared to forget.

    “Have you seen your predecessor lately?” Dorothea purred as she swished past him. Her coquettish smile didn’t match the vicious pleasure in her gold eyes.

    “Yes, Priestess,” Krelis replied, trying to keep his voice neutral. When he and a troop of men had gone into the slums of Draega, Hayll’s capital, to round up some of the dregs for expendable labor, he had seen his former commander stumbling out of a filthy alleyway.

    The former Master of the Guard was now a maimed, tortured mockery of the man he’d been. Worse, his inner web, that intimate core of Self that made the Blood who and what they were, had been shattered so that he could no longer wear the Jewels, could do no more than basic Craft, if even that. The keen tactical mind that had protected Dorothea for so many decades had been split open like a melon and scraped clean. But not completely. If the haunted eyes in the scarred face were any indication, enough thought had been left for him to remember what he had been. And who had done this to him.

    Dorothea swished past Krelis again. Sweat beaded his forehead as he blanked his mind and prayed to the Darkness that she wouldn’t sense anything that would make her want to open his inner barriers and sample his thoughts.

    “I gave your predecessor an important task, and he failed me.” Stopping in front of him, Dorothea smiled as she brushed the feather against his cheek. “Now he belongs to the Brotherhood of the Quill.”

    Krelis shuddered. Mother Night! To be shaved of all the organs that made a man a man. To need one of those large quills to ...

    “Areyou going to fail me?” Dorothea purred, leaning close to him.

    “No, Priestess,” Krelis stammered. “Tell me what you wish of me, and I’ll do it.”

    “A wise man.” She tickled his lips with the feather before turning away. “You know of the Gray Lady?”

    Had he failed already? Oh, he’d heard vague whispers a few months ago, but he’d still been aThird Circleguard at the time—and commanders weren’t in the habit of telling their men more than was necessary. Feeling sick, he swallowed hard, and managed to whisper, “No, Priestess.”

    Dorothea flashed a malicious, amused look at him before resuming her leisurely pacing. “She’s a dangerous enemy, a Gray-Jeweled Queen who rules the Territory called Dena Nehele on the other side of theTamanaraMountains. She’s been a thorn in my side since she set up her court forty years ago, and she continues to fight my attempts to bring the Realm of Terreille under the beneficent guidance of Hayll.”

    Krelis said hesitantly, “Since she’s not from one of the long-lived races, surely she must be old by now.”

    “But still strong,” Dorothea snapped. “As long as she continues to live, Dena Nehele will be able to resist being drawn into Hayll’s shadow, and the Territories bordering it will be strengthened by that resistance. Even if she died tomorrow, it would still take at least one of their generations to eliminate her influence.”

    “You intend to declare war on this Gray Lady?”

    Dorothea’s gold eyes turned hard yellow. “Hayll does not lower itself to such barbarities as war. What would be the point of acquiring a Territory that had been savaged by the kind of war the Blood fight?” She tapped the feather against her chin. “There are subtler ways of making a Territory ripe for the plucking. But that doesn’t concern you.”

    Krelis stared at the floor. “No, Priestess.”

    “Your task is to eliminate the Gray Lady.”

    He didn’t think before he blurted out, “How?”

    She looked disgusted. Was she regretting savaging the old Master and losing that tactical mind? Then her expression changed.

    “Poor boy,” she murmured, gently stroking his cheek. “I’ve been cruel to you, haven’t I? No, darling”—she pressed her fingers against his lips—“you needn’t deny it. There’s no reason why you would know that bitch’s habits.” She stepped back and sighed. “Grizelle is too well protected in her own Territory for you to reach her there. However, over the past few years, she’s come out of her lair twice each year for the slave auctions at Raej.”

    “Slave auctions.” Krelis’s gold eyes lit up.

    Dorothea shook her head. “Raej is considered neutral ground. If a Queen were killed there for any reason, others might hesitate to visit, and then how would everyone sell the toys they’re ready to discard and buy new ones?”

    “A slave could be replaced with a loyal servant and then—”

    “She doesn’t buy anyone from Hayll, and there are no loyal servants outside of our own people. Sometimes not even within our own people.”

    Krelis leashed his frustration. This was the first important task she’d given him since he became Master of the Guard a few months ago. He wouldn’t fail. He wouldn’t. “Then what should I do, Priestess?”

    Dorothea stopped pacing. “Lord Krelis, you’re the Master of the Guard. How you accomplish this is entirely up to you.” Her expression softened. “However, if you wish me to, I’ll use my particular Craft to assist you in whatever way I can.”