Blackbird Crowned (The Witch King's Crown #3) - Keri Arthur

Chapter One

A soft but insistent beeping dragged me from the depths of sleep. I rolled onto my side and hugged my pillow over my ears, doing my best to ignore the noise.

It took several minutes and half a dozen more beeps for the realization to hit: it was my phone.

I swore and groped for it on the bedside table, then cracked an eye open. Multiple messages, sender unknown. I turned down the sound and then shoved the thing under the pillow. It was three in the goddamn morning and it had been a very long day. The last thing I needed was random texts at this hour.

The phone started vibrating instead.

I swore again, grabbed it, and hit the messages button. Twenty of them had come in the last five minutes, and all had the exact same wording—you need to get out of the apartment. Now.

My pulse skipped several beats and then galloped on. While it was possible these texts were misdirected, I wasn’t about to ignore them. Not after all the shit that had gone down lately.

I pushed into a sitting position, then sent back, who is this?

There was no immediate response, and the stirring unease grew stronger. My gaze rose from the brightness of the screen to the deep shadows crowding the room. Nothing stirred, and the two knives that lay unsheathed on the spare pillow were inert. Those knives—which had been handed down to the firstborn female in the De Montfort line of witches from time immemorial—were a gift from the goddess Vivienne and born of magic as much as steel. While traditionally they held the power of life and death, they were now reacting to the presence of demons and dark elves, whether they were full or half blood.

That the knives currently weren’t glowing didn’t ease the tension slithering through me.

I scanned the darkness again. I was sleeping in my brother’s room because mine still had a great gaping hole in the roof thanks to the demon-spawned witchling who’d tried to bring the entire building down on top of me. Max wouldn’t object, as he was never likely to come back here.

My brother—my twin—was a traitor.

He was working with Darkside—the dark reflection of Earth that existed on a different plane, a place where demons, dark elves, and multiple other nasties lived—to bring down the current royal family in order to claim the throne and reinstall witch rule.

Just how far he’d go—and whether he was truly willing to sacrifice me in order to achieve his dream—was a question that had yet to be answered. I might be his blood price—a payment extracted by dark elves for services rendered—but, as yet, that payment had not been called in.

I wanted to believe that it wouldn’t be. That Max would, in the end, value me more than his dreams of domination.

The saner part of my soul—the part that ran on practicality rather than emotion—said it was a vague hope, at best.

Tears stung my eyes. I scraped a hand across them, then glanced at the screen as it beeped again.

Who the hell do you think?

A smile tugged at my lips. I could almost hear the annoyance running through Max’s reply. Then why are you texting from an unknown number?

So I can’t be traced. By you or by others.

Meaning he suspected we were aware of his duplicity. But did he know about Winter? I had a sudden suspicion no one had as yet told him about his lover’s death—or that I was the one responsible for it. I had no doubt his responses would be a whole lot more emotional if he was aware.

Others being Darkside?

Again, there were several beats before his reply came in. Yes.

Why would you be worried about them tracing you when you’re working with them, brother?

Mo—our grandmother, though in truth she was centuries older than that—might have wanted to string him along on the chance we could grab him and then force information out of him, but the fact he was texting from an unknown number suggested that was an unlikely hope.

Not now that he’d claimed the sword in the stone, at any rate. That sword had for centuries chosen countless witch kings before the last of them had handed human royalty both the crown and the means of stifling any magical assault. Max might not be aware the sword he held wasn’t the true king’s sword, but it was nevertheless a powerful symbol to all those who believed witch rule needed to be restored, no matter what the price