Firebrand Series, Book One
The clank of the cell door opening echoed like a thousand cannons exploding across the night sky.
Tariq lifted his head and gazed through the strands of hair covering his eyes, only to experience the rush of blood boiling in his veins when he saw the condescending face peering down at him through the bars.
“Sleep has not done you well, Tariq,” Zoraida mocked, the opulent blue silk of her gown swishing as she moved into his dingy cell. Behind her, three guards, armed to the hilt, remained outside the bars, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. “I fear your will to live hangs in the balance.”
His arms ached from being held above his head as he’d leaned against the stone wall and tried to sleep, and he was weak from lack of food, but he pushed to his bare feet, the chains cuffed to his wrists rattling against the bar embedded waist high in the cold stone at his back. With some unseen force of will, he contained the fury whipping through him at the sight of the sorceress who’d imprisoned him in this hellhole. But smiled to himself at the knowledge his misery would soon be over. And with it, her reign.
“The only life that hangs in the balance is yours, sayyeda. I’m willing to die for my cause. And when I do, yours goes with it.”
Her superior grin faded. Those emerald eyes, as dangerous as chipped glass, narrowed with a hatred he felt burn all the way to the depths of his soul. “You will continue to do my will. As you have for ages. That is the command of your sayyeda.”
“Fuck your command,” he growled. “I’m done being your slave.”
She moved closer, until the sweet, powdery scent of her assailed his nostrils. Close but not close enough for him to reach. Even with his powers bound in this dungeon, she knew better. “Such aggression and hostility from a fierce Marid warrior is not unexpected. But I wonder this. How long will your resolve last when the lives of all you love are on the line?”
“You hold no power over my tribe. My kingdom will persist. Your immortality dies with me.”
Her gaze traveled the length of his bare chest, hovered on the amulet against his throat, then dropped to the scrap of dirty cloth tied across his hips. She looked down his bare legs at the food he refused to eat, still sitting on the tray on the hard, stone floor at his feet, then back to his face. A malicious grin spread across her bloodred lips. “No, djinni. My immortality will continue to thrive. And you will continue to fuel it.” Without looking away, she called, “Guards?”
Shuffling echoed behind her. Tariq’s attention slid from her to the dark corridor outside his cell and the two men being dragged across the dungeon floor. Both wore nothing but scraps of cloth, like him, and both were bloodied and bruised as if they’d been beaten to within an inch of their lives. Long, dark hair fell across their faces, shielding their eyes, but on each, a fire opal—similar to the one he wore around his neck—reflected light into the dank room.
“Bring them closer so he gets a good look,” Zoraida said, still focused only on him.
Both men grunted as they were shoved face-first up against the bars. Then the guards grasped their hair and lifted their heads so Tariq could see his brothers’ bloody, dirt-streaked and swollen faces.
The fury born into his tribe from the beginning of time erupted inside him. He lurched forward, ready to tear Zoraida’s throat out with his bare hands, but the chains clanked again, stopping his momentum. “Release them, you bitch!”
Zoraida stepped so close he could see every tiny pore on her disgustingly perfect face. “You will not stop me, Tariq. And you will do as I command, or I will slit their throats and end their meager existences. The Kingdom of Gannah now rests in my hands, not yours. Continue down this road of so-called honor and everything you hold dear will fall to ruin.”
Blond hair fell over her bare shoulder, the soft curls brushing her milky cleavage as she lifted a finely manicured finger and ran it down the length of his cheek. She was beautiful—blindingly so. But her beauty was a farce. Underneath, she was aged and decrepit. As aged and decrepit as Tariq felt from the years of his imprisonment.
Her expression shifted from enraged to amused. “Of course, if you were to cooperate, I might be amenable to releasing…one.” She shot a look over her shoulder toward his brothers. “Even if he is now…stained.”
The need for revenge enflamed Tariq from the inside out, but he let his gaze drift past her to his brothers. Both were strong djinn warriors, princes of their kingdom, as was he, but they weren’t ruled by fate. They exercised free will. And as such were open to corruption, as he had been. If he—the eldest and strongest of the brotherhood—had fallen prey to the seductive sorceress, then he’d been a fool to think his brothers were safe.
Nasir’s chest rose and fell with his labored breaths, but in his eyes, Tariq saw determination. And the unspoken words: Do not break, brother. His gaze shifted to Ashur, who could barely keep his eyes open. He would not last through another beating by Zoraida’s guards.
Tariq ground his teeth and looked back toward the sorceress. And though it took every ounce of strength he had left, he forced the words past his teeth when he said, “What would you have me do, sayyeda?”
Nasir opened his mouth to protest, but the guard kneed him in the kidneys. Nasir groaned and slid to his knees.
“Eat,” Zoraida said, watching Nasir writhe on the ground as if it pleased her. “Regain your strength. And when you are called upon, service your mistress’s wishes in the manner in which she is accustomed.” She threw a victorious grin over her shoulder toward Tariq. “Without hesitation.”
Bile churned in Tariq’s stomach as he looked toward Nasir’s pain, unable to help or even avenge his brother. And every muscle in his body screamed No! to what Zoraida was offering. But if this were the only way to ensure his brothers did not die—for at least one to be free—for them he would agree. He would once again become the pleasure slave Zoraida had condemned him to be. And every soul she sent him into the human realm to corrupt would fuel her immortality that much longer.
But by all that was holy, he would never stop looking for a path to his own freedom. He would find it. And one day soon, he would see her blood stain the ground at his feet.
“As you will it, sayyeda,” he said through clenched teeth.
She stepped to the bars, ran her fingers down Ashur’s cheek, and harrumphed. To the guard holding him upright, she said, “See to it he does not die. At least not yet.” As she moved through the cell door, she added, “You will have your new assignment tomorrow, Tariq. And this time, use all within your power to make sure the woman is satisfied. My immortality and your brothers’ lives depend on it.”
Stop being so nervous. You’re just shopping.
Shopping. Yeah, that was it. Just an ordinary, everyday shopping trip.
The lie swirled easily in her mind, and though her subconscious screamed turn the hell around, something more primal urged her on. Running her sweaty hands down the front of her T-shirt, she steeled her nerves, then pushed the shop’s doors open.
The bell above jangled. Vintage clothing hung on the wall to her left. Racks of capes and corsets and short, flirty skirts filled the small central space. Hats decorated with feathery plumes hung on hooks all along the left, rows and rows of stiletto-style boots lined the floor, and ahead, a glass counter filled with antique jewelry finished off the cramped room.
She felt as if she’d stepped back in time. To when women were sex objects dressing to please their masters. Apprehension slid through her, and she was just about to turn around and leave when a woman pushed aside the curtained doorway behind the counter and said, “May I help you?”
Too late to bolt.
Mira forced a smile as her pulse picked up speed. She stepped toward the counter. “Yes. Um, maybe.” She glanced around the shop, making sure it was truly empty, then lowered her voice and added, “I’ve come to inquire about the Firebrand opal.”
The woman’s eyes hardened behind wire-rimmed glasses. She looked to be in her mid-forties, round in the face, plump through the hips, more motherly than madam. But her eyes…her silver eyes…were assessing. And knowing. And hinted of dark, seductive secrets.
Mira swallowed the lump in her throat. As the uncomfortable silence stretched out, she realized hightailing it out of this place really was the best idea after all. But before she could move her feet, the woman motioned with her hand and said, “Come.”
Curiosity got the best of her. It was her biggest flaw. She always needed to know how and why things worked, and when she’d heard about the Firebrand opal, she hadn’t been able to think of anything but the—supposed—magical stone. She knew that was the reason she was here now.
Part of the reason, at least. Or so she tried to convince herself.
Mira’s hands shook as she made her way around the counter and stepped through the curtained doorway. The back room was nothing special. An old box-style TV sat on a chipped table. A love seat covered by a blanket was pushed up against the far wall, and inventory boxes were scattered through the small space. When the woman pointed to the couch and barked, “Sit!” Mira did as she was instructed, not sure what to expect.
The woman opened a curio cabinet Mira hadn’t noticed, extracted a wooden box and brought it to the couch. She sat next to Mira and studied her with those weird, silver eyes once more, her hands resting on the top of the aged wood as if protecting an ancient treasure. “How did you hear of the Firebrand opal?”
“A…friend told me about its…unique…properties.”
“And what do you seek from the opal?”
Mira’s pulse beat like wildfire as she remembered what Claudette, the woman who was most definitely not a friend but who’d been seated next to her at the salon, had said about the opal.
Wicked pleasure, mind-numbing fantasies, your heart’s every secret, sinful desire come true.
Though Mira wouldn’t mind experiencing a few X-rated fantasies brought to life, it wasn’t what she wanted most. “I seek…a man.”
The woman’s brow lifted.
“Not just any man,” Mira corrected, feeling suddenly foolish as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “A specific one. Devin Sloan.” Her face heated. “I work with him at my architecture firm. He’s gorgeous.” Defeat rushed through her. “And he doesn’t see me as anything but a friend.”
“The opal does not have the power to make someone fall in love with you.”
Mira knew that. Claudette had said as much. Though Claudette hadn’t actually used the necklace, she claimed she knew someone who had. “I don’t want him to fall in love with me. I mean, I do. Eventually. But I wouldn’t want him to fall in love with me because of a wish. I want him to fall in love with me because he wants to.” Her cheeks literally burned. God, she felt foolish. “All I really want is for him to notice me. I want to…learn…how to gain his attention. And then how to keep that attention, once I’ve got it.”
Because that was the real issue here. She met lots of men, and she dated. She wasn’t locking herself away somewhere. But she’d yet to find one who was as interested in her as she was in him. Which was why none of her relationships ever seemed to get off the ground.
The woman’s eyes narrowed once more. “Are you a virgin?”
Mira couldn’t help but laugh. But it came out stilted and awkward, not confident as she’d hoped. “No. Definitely not.” She was thirty-two years old, for crying out loud. “I’m just not…” Okay, now she sounded pathetic. She drew a deep breath. “For whatever reason, I’ve yet to meet a man who is enraptured by me. And I’m thinking that’s got to be related to the way I react to them. Dating is one thing. Taking a relationship to another level and keeping a man’s interest for more than a couple of dates is something completely different. I guess I just want to learn to be more desirable.”
She thought of Devin. His sandy blond hair and devastating smile. He definitely didn’t see her as desirable, even though she’d had a crush on him forever. He saw her as any other girl in the office. And that chapped Mira’s ass more than anything.
The woman smoothed her hands over the box. Seemed to debate…something. Just when Mira was sure the woman was going to boot her out of the building, she said, “The opal’s power is not to be underestimated. It will burn through you, tempt you, and if you are not careful, it has the power to destroy you.”
Mira didn’t like the way that sounded. Claudette hadn’t said anything about being destroyed. She’d simply said the opal had the power to grant wishes.
The woman opened the box and extracted a silver chain before Mira could ask what she meant. A tear-shaped fire opal, alive with red and orange hues and edged in silver, hung from the bottom of the chain. Light from the opal seemed to glow throughout the room, sending shimmering ribbons of color across the walls.
Mira’s eyes widened. The woman held it out to her, and before Mira could stop herself, her fingers were brushing the stone, its warmth searing her skin.
“When you leave here, put this around your neck,” the woman told her. “Once you make your wish, do not try to remove it. You will not be able to until your wish is fulfilled. But heed my warning: Choosing to wear the Firebrand opal opens yourself to consequences you may not yet foresee. Be sure it is a risk you are willing to take.”
Mira held the opal in the palm of her hand, stared down at the red and orange colors dancing like fire as her entire arm warmed. Though the woman’s warning made her pause, the longer she stared at the opal, the less worried she grew.
She’d never seen anything so beautiful. Couldn’t seem to look away from the stone. An uncontrollable urge to keep it with her…always…consumed her. “Wh-what happens to it when my wish is fulfilled?”
“The opal will find its way into the hands of another. That is all you need to know.” The woman rose as if in a hurry. With the box tucked under one arm, she gestured toward the curtain. “Now go. And do not put the talisman on until you are far from my store. I’ll not have its magic unleashed here.”
In a fog, Mira found her feet. She was still having trouble looking away from the stone. When the woman pushed her toward the curtain and out into the store, though, Mira finally snapped out of her trance and tucked the opal into the pocket of her jacket. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing? That doesn’t seem right. This necklace has to be worth something.”
The woman’s silver eyes narrowed once more. “You will discover its price soon enough.”
Before Mira could ask what that meant, the woman disappeared through the curtains, and a chilling silence settled over the shop.