Smolder (Crown of Fae #3) - Sharon Ashwood


“Servant Leena, you know the punishment.”

The guard stood in Leena’s path like a wall of steel and leather. Behind him was the door to the sandstone banquet hall, where she should have arrived twenty minutes ago. Evening approached, and the pillars of the porch cast long shadows on the dusty ground. The day’s heat had been blistering, but now a soothing breeze stirred the white shawl that protected her face and arms from the sun.

Leena had been born in the mountain wilderness, far from Eldaban’s sweltering streets. Now she was here, with little money and less status. Tardiness meant a beating.

Anxiety spiked, but she bowed her head in silent apology. All she wanted was to report for duty with no one the wiser that she was a little late.

“Lord Dorth expects better,” the guard said.

A rude retort slid through Leena’s mind, but she kept it to herself. Instead, she made another humble bow. “Delay could not be avoided.”

“Were you at the temple?” he asked.

“I was.” Leena straightened. She was tall and slim with an athlete’s lean muscles, and well able to meet his gaze without looking up.

She knew Guardsman Remmik and his wife. Like so many of Eldaban’s citizens, they had come to the Temple of the Flame in Eldaban when fever ran amok last spring.

The Kelthian fae—Leena’s people—survived through their healing skills. When she was young, her tribe had arrived in the city’s crowded slums to escape the war. They were seen as little more than barbarians—red-haired, pale-skinned shepherds, illiterate and ill-suited to Eldaban’s desert sun. And, in truth, they were hot-tempered and destitute, but they’d brought along their medical talents.

Remmik studied Leena for several moments, a battle between rules and mercy plain on his broad face. Leena had trained as a fire dancer and a maker of medicines. She’d been the one who’d given his wife a healing potion. Sadly, serving as a priestess of the temple didn’t bring in coin—and she was late for work.

Leena struggled not to squirm. The guardsman’s tired eyes were a match with the creases in his face. They all looked haunted these days. Everyone had lost the war, just in different ways.

Finally, Remmik stepped aside. “Go on and be quick about it.”

“Blessings, Guardsman.” She slipped past him, turning right to dart through the smaller entry only the servants used.

It was stifling inside the hall, the air thick with the scent of food and warm bodies. Leena pushed through the crowd of servers and kitchen boys. Some were human, while others were the solid, dark-eyed earth fae common in Eldaban. A few were slender Kelthians in their brightly colored tunics.

Leena’s destination was a small antechamber beside the main dining area, where she would wait until called on to provide entertainment. Lord Dorth had little use for the temple healers, but he paid good wages for their dancers—and Leena was the best. Judging by the crush of people, the fat lord of Eldaban had spared no expense tonight. There had to be an important guest.

She hurried down the corridor, with its high ceilings and marble floors. Her sandals clip-clopped as she ran, but the sound was lost in the hubbub of voices. The guests were just arriving. She still had time to get to her place, but only if she moved fast. There would be hell to pay if the Master of Revels noticed her absence.

Two burly fae passed with enormous platters, the golden dishes barely visible beneath heaps of food. The scent of herbed lamb and fresh bread made Leena’s stomach cramp. She hadn’t eaten since dawn, and there would be no time now. Swallowing the saliva flooding her mouth, she hurried on.

Her luck held. She skidded to a halt outside the door she wanted, smoothed her hair, and drifted in as if nothing were amiss. The room was full of performers, all faces she knew. There were musicians and jugglers, fire-eaters and acrobats. She slid onto a bench beside her friend, Elodie. Like Leena, she was a red-haired fire fae of the southern mountains. Unlike Leena, she was compact and generously rounded, her tight copper curls spilling over her bare shoulders.

“Where were you?” Elodie demanded, giving her a quick, one-armed hug. “You’re lucky the guests were delayed.”

“There were wounded.” Leena sucked in a deep breath, doing her best to stop panting from the run. “There was a skirmish outside the city walls.”

“Were the wounded from Eldaban, or were they true defenders of Faery?” Elodie asked bitterly.

It was an old argument. The enemy of