“Jennifer L. Armentrout has absolutely blown me away.”-- Larissa Ione, New York Times bestselling author
#1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout returns with book one of the all-new, compelling Flesh and Fire series—set in the beloved Blood and Ash world.
Born shrouded in the veil of the Primals, a Maiden as the Fates promised, Seraphena Mierel’s future has never been hers. Chosen before birth to uphold the desperate deal her ancestor struck to save his people, Sera must leave behind her life and offer herself to the Primal of Death as his Consort.
However, Sera’s real destiny is the most closely guarded secret in all of Lasania—she’s not the well protected Maiden but an assassin with one mission—one target. Make the Primal of Death fall in love, become his weakness, and then…end him. If she fails, she dooms her kingdom to a slow demise at the hands of the Rot.
Sera has always known what she is. Chosen. Consort. Assassin. Weapon. A specter never fully formed yet drenched in blood. A monster. Until him. Until the Primal of Death’s unexpected words and deeds chase away the darkness gathering inside her. And his seductive touch ignites a passion she’s never allowed herself to feel and cannot feel for him. But Sera has never had a choice. Either way, her life is forfeit—it always has been, as she has been forever touched by Life and Death.
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She reached back, curling her arm through mine. The unexpected contact caused me to flinch, and I was suddenly grateful for the veil. Like any of the Chosen, my flesh should not encounter another’s unless related to my preparations. It spoke volumes that Lady Kala had touched me.
She led me through the twisting, endless halls of nothing but doors and numerous blazing candle sconces. I had just begun to wonder if she was lost when the hazy outline of two silent figures draped in black appeared by a set of doors.
They’d taken their oath of silence to all new heights, having stitched their lips closed. I always wondered how they ate or drank. Based on their wraithlike, sunken frames under the black robes, whatever method they used wasn’t exactly working out that well for them.
I suppressed a shudder as each of the Priests opened a door to reveal a large, circular chamber aglow with hundreds of candles. A third Shadow Priest seemingly appeared out of thin air, taking Lady Kala’s place. The bony fingers didn’t touch my skin but pressed into the center of my back. The contact still bothered me, made me want to pull away, but I knew better than to step away from the coldness of his fingers seeping through the thin layer of cloth. Forcing myself to breathe, I stared at the etchings carved into the otherwise smooth stone. A circle with a line through it. The symbol filled each stone tile. Having never seen it before, I wasn’t sure what it meant. My gaze lifted to the wide dais before me. The Priest guided me down the aisle, and some of the pressure returned to my chest. I didn’t look at the empty pews. If I had truly been Chosen, those benches would be full of the highest-ranking nobility, the streets outside alive with cheers. The silence of the room chilled my skin.
There’d only ever been one throne before, constructed from the same stone as the Temple. Shadowstone was the color of the deepest hour of night, a marvelous material that could be polished until it reflected any source of light and whetted into a blade sharp enough to pierce flesh and bone. The throne was the glossy sort, absorbing the glow of the candlelight until the stone appeared as if it were full of dark fire. The back of the seat had been carved into the shape of a crescent moon.
The exact shape of the birthmark I bore just above my left shoulder blade. The telltale sign that even before I was born, my life had never been mine.
Tonight, there were two thrones.
As they led me to the dais and helped me up the steps, I really wished I had asked for that glass of water. Guided to the second throne, they sat me there and then left me alone. Resting my hands on the arms of the throne, I scanned the pews below. Not a single soul from Lasania was in attendance. None even knew that their lives and their children’s lives all hinged on tonight and what I needed to do. If they ever discovered that Roderick Mierel—the one the histories of Lasania called the Golden King—hadn’t spent day and night in the fields with his people, digging and scraping away land ruined by war until they revealed clean, fertile soil… That he hadn’t sown the land alongside his subjects; his blood, sweat, and tears building the kingdom… If they learned that the songs and poems written about him had been based on a fable, what was left of the Mierel Dynasty would surely collapse.
Someone closed the doors, and my gaze stretched to the back of the chamber, where I could make out the shadowy forms of my mother and Tavius in the candlelight. A third figure stood beside them. King Ernald. My stepsister, Princess Ezmeria—Ezra—stood beside her father and brother, and I didn’t need to see her expression to know that she hated every aspect of this deal. Sir Holland wasn’t here. I would’ve liked to have said goodbye to him, even though I didn’t expect him to be here. His presence would raise too many questions among the Shadow Priests.
Would reveal too much.
That I wasn’t the beacon of Royal purity, but rather the wolf dressed as the sacrificial lamb. I wouldn’t just fulfill the deal that King Roderick had struck. I would end it before it destroyed my kingdom.
Determination filled my chest with warmth as it did whenever I used my gift. This was my destiny. My purpose. What I would do was bigger than me. It was for Lasania.
So, I sat there, ankles crossed demurely beneath the gown, hands relaxed on the arms of the throne as I waited.
And waited some more.
Seconds ticked into minutes. I didn’t know how many passed, but tiny balls of unease formed in my belly. He’d been summoned to his Temple. Shouldn’t…shouldn’t he be here? My palms dampened as the knots grew, stretching into my chest. The pressure increased. What if he didn’t show?
Why wouldn’t he?
This was his deal.
When King Roderick had grown desperate enough to do anything to salvage his lands ruined by war and save those who were starving after already suffering so much loss, I imagined he’d expected a lesser god to answer his summons—which was far more common for those bold enough to do such a thing. But what had answered the Golden King was a Primal.
And when he’d granted King Roderick’s request, this was the price the Primal of Death had requested: the firstborn daughter of the Mierel bloodline as his Consort.
The Primal had to come.
What if he didn’t? My heart pounded as my fingers curled against the chilled stone of the throne.
Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold.
If he didn’t arrive, all would be lost. Everything he’d granted King Roderick would continue to come undone. If he didn’t come for me, and I failed to fulfill this, I would doom the kingdom to a slow death at the hands of the Rot. It had started upon my birth, first with just a small patch of land in an orchard. Unripe apples had fallen from trees that had begun to lose their leaves. The ground below had turned gray, and the grass, along with the roots of the apple trees, had died. Then the Rot had spread, slowly taking out the entire orchard. In the time that passed, it had devastated several more farms. No crop could be seeded in the soil and survive once tainted by the Rot.
And it wasn’t only affecting the land. It had changed the weather, making the summers hotter and drier, the winters colder and more unpredictable.
The people of Lasania had no idea that the Rot was a clock, counting down. It was an expiration date on the deal the Golden King had made, one that had started with my birth. There was a good chance the Golden King hadn’t realized the bargain would expire no matter what. That was knowledge gained in the decades after the deal had been struck. If I failed, the kingdom would—
It started as a low rumble, like the distant sound of wagons and carriages rolling over the cobblestone streets of Carsodonia. But the sound grew until I felt it in the throne I sat upon—and in my bones.
The rumbling ceased, and the candles—all of them—went out, plunging the chamber into darkness. An earthy-scented breeze stirred the edges of the veil around my face and the hem of my gown.
In a wave, flames sparked from the candles, surging toward the pitched ceiling. My gaze fixed on the center aisle, where the very air itself had split open, spitting crackling white light. A mist seeped out from the tear, licking across the stone floor and seeping toward the pews. Tiny bumps erupted all over my skin in response. Some called the mist Primal magic. It was eather. The potent essence that not only had created the mortal realm and Iliseeum but also what coursed through the blood of a god, giving even the lesser, unknown ones unthinkable power.
I blinked. That was all I did. I blinked, and the space in front of the dais that had been empty no longer was. A male stood there, garbed in a hooded cloak and surrounded by pulsing, churning tendrils of deep shadows laced with luminous streaks of silver. I didn’t allow myself to think of what Tavius had said about him. I couldn’t. Instead, I tried to see through the wispy mass of smoky shadows. All I could tell was that he was unbelievably tall. Even from where I sat, I knew he would tower over me—and I wasn’t short by any means, nearly the same height as Tavius. But he was a Primal, and in the stories written about them in the histories, they were sometimes referred to as giants among mortals.
He appeared broad of shoulder—or at least that was what I thought the deeper, thick mass of darkness was that took the shape of…wings. His hooded head tilted back. I forgot those breathing exercises in an instant. I couldn’t see his face, but I felt the intensity of his stare. His gaze pierced straight through me, and for a brief, panicked moment, I feared that he knew I hadn’t spent seventeen years preparing to become his Consort. That my tutelage went beyond that. And that the meekness, the submissiveness I’d been taught, was nothing more than another veil I wore.
For a moment, my heart stopped as I sat on the throne meant for the Consort of the Shadowlands, one of the Courts within Iliseeum. Looking up at the Primal of Death, I felt real terror for the first time in my life.
Primals couldn’t read mortals’ thoughts. In the back of my mind, where some bit of intelligence still existed, I knew this. There was no reason for him to suspect that I was anything other than I appeared to be. Even if he’d watched me grow over the years, or if spies had been sent to Lasania, my identity, my heritage and bloodline, had been kept hidden. No one even knew there was a Princess of Mierel blood. Everything I did had been carried out in highly planned secrecy—from training with Sir Holland to the time spent with the Mistresses of the Jade.
There was no way he could know that in the two hundred years it had taken for me to be born, the knowledge of how to kill a Primal had been obtained.
They had one fatal weakness that made them vulnerable enough to be killed, and that was love.
Make him fall in love, become his weakness, and end him.
That was my destiny.
Gaining control of my hammering heart, I pulled from the hours spent with my mother, learning what would be expected of me as his Consort. How to move, speak, and act in his presence. How to become whatever he desired. I was ready for this—whether or not he was covered head to toe in the scales of the winged beasts that guarded the Primals.
My fingers relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I allowed my lips to curl into a smile—a shy, innocent one. I stood in the glow of the candlelight on feet I couldn’t feel. I clasped my hands loosely across my midsection so nothing would be hidden from him, just as my mother had instructed. I started to lower to my knees as one would upon greeting a Primal.
The stir of air was the only warning I got that the Primal had moved.
Shock silenced the gasp of surprise before it reached my lips. He was suddenly in front of me. No more than a handful of inches remained between us. Swirling light rippled the air around me. He felt cold, like the winters to the north and east. Like each winter here in Lasania slowly became with each passing year.
I wasn’t sure I even breathed as I looked up into the void where his face should be. The Primal of Death shifted closer, and one of the shadow tendrils brushed across the bare skin of my arm. I gasped at the icy feel. He lowered his head, and every muscle in my body seized. I wasn’t sure if it was his presence or the innate instinct we all had that warned us not to run. Not to make any sudden movements in the presence of a predator.
“You,” he said, his voice smoke and shadow and full of everything that awaited after someone took their very last breath. “I have no need of a Consort.”
My entire body jerked, and I whispered, “What?”
The Primal pulled back, the shadows retracting around him. He shook his head. What did he mean?
I stepped forward. “What—?” I said again.
The wind whipped from behind me this time, pitching the chamber into darkness as the candles whooshed out. The rumbling was weaker than before, but I didn’t dare move, having no idea where he was. I wasn’t sure where the edge of the dais even was. The earthy scent disappeared, and the flames slowly returned to the candles, sparking weakly to life…
He no longer stood before me.
Faint wisps of eather wafted up from the now-sealed opening in the floor. He was gone.
The Primal of Death had left. He hadn’t taken me, and in a deep, hidden part of me, relief blossomed and then crumbled. He hadn’t fulfilled the deal.
“What…what happened?” My mother’s voice reached me, and I looked up to see that she was before me. “What happened?”
“I…I don’t know.” Panic sank its claws into me as I turned to my mother, wrapping my arms around myself. “I don’t understand.”
Her eyes were wide and mirrored the storm brewing inside me as she whispered, “Did he speak to you?”
“He said…” I tried to swallow, but my throat tightened. The corners of my vision turned white. No amount of breathing exercises would help the alarm that took root. “I don’t understand. I did everything—”
The burning sting of my mother’s slap came as a shock. I hadn’t expected it—hadn’t even prepared myself for her to do something like that. Hand trembling, I pressed it against my cheek, standing there stunned and incapable of processing what had happened—what was happening.
Her dark eyes were even wider now, her skin a ghastly pale shade. “What did you do?” She pulled her hand back to her chest. “What did you do, Sera?”
I’d done nothing. Only what I’d been taught. But I couldn’t tell her that. I couldn’t tell her anything. Words failed me as something shattered inside me, shriveling up. “You,” my mother said. While her voice was not smoke or shadow, it was just as final. Her eyes glistened. “You’ve failed us. And now, everything—everything—is lost.”