A Heart of Ice (Araneae Nation)

 

 

 

 

A HEART OF ICE

 

 

Hailey Edwards

 

Araneae Nation
, 0.5

 

Reine knows marriage isn’t about love. It’s about making the best bargain you can with what you have and then living with the consequences. Wedding vows are alliances given voice, and I do is on the tip of her tongue.

 

Ennis is a man on a mission to woo the future Araneidae maven, whether she wants him or not. Her clan is wealthy, prosperous and in dire need of the one thing his people have to offer—protection. But one look at her and all thought of his obligations vanish. He’ll court Reine, but he wants the feisty heiress all to himself.

 

Forced to entertain offers from her bevy of suitors, Reine is torn between duty to her people and loyalty to herself. Ennis is the man she wants, but is he the future paladin her fragile clan needs? She can choose to lead with her head or, for once, she can follow her heart.

 

Author’s Note

 

 

Dear Readers,

 

This short story prequel was a joy to write. After living for so long in the Araneae Nation world as it exists for Lourdes and Rhys and Vaughn, it was nice to glimpse their parents as young adults. Times have changed, but the struggle to find love, acceptance, and happiness remains the same.

 

I hope you enjoy visiting with Ennis, Reine, and Isolde as much as I did.

 

Best,

 

Hailey Edwards

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter One

 

Upon entering my bedroom, I spotted my dearest friend leaning out the window with a blowpipe in her hand. Her grin was wider than her cheeks and as sharp as the edge of Father’s sword. Her cackles rang hearty and loud. Curses rose from below, and she answered each merrily and with a shaken fist.

I slammed the door and leaned against it.

Isolde flung the blowpipe and whirled to face me with a slender sword drawn.

My eyebrow arched.

“Don’t give me that look.” She sheathed her blade. “The darts aren’t venom-laced.”

“Thank the gods for small mercies.” I snorted. “
Mother will have cross words with you. Again.”

“Your
mother loves me.” She patted her wild nest of hair. “Besides, I’m not afraid of her.”

That she wasn’t proved something I had long suspected. Isolde had no sense.

But who was I to judge when I was the fool who gifted her with the blowpipe in the first place?

“Speaking of your
mother—” she narrowed her eyes, “—why did she summon you so early?”

I crossed my arms to keep from punching something. “
She says I must marry.”

“What?” Her eyes bulged. “
She can’t have meant it.”

I recited her argument by rote.

You are eighteen. I could have forced you to wed two years ago. Now you are all grown up, and our circumstances have changed. You must
…” I sighed, “…
marry
.”

Her hand
wrapped around her sword’s hilt. “I won’t let her force you.”

I grasped her wrist so she couldn’t draw her weapon.
“Where did you get that sticker anyway?”

“It’s not a sticker, it’s a real sword.” She huffed. “If you must know, I won it in a card game.”

My eyes narrowed. “Who were you playing?”

She shrugged. “A few guards.”

“Isolde,” I groaned. “If Mother catches you carousing with them, she’ll send you home.”

The color leached from her cheeks. “I look forward to these three months the most every year.”

“As do I.”

Every summer Isolde’s parents let her visit. We
had met in the summer market when I was eight and she was ten. Her parents brought her to Erania to sell, not realizing such practices were illegal in our city. I had been the one who found Isolde, and I had been the one to run to Mother on her behalf.

In the chaos that followed, Isolde’s parents were arrested. Her mother had bitten a finger off one of our guards. Rather than see
Isolde sent away, I begged Mother to let her remain as my companion for the duration of her parents’ incarceration. From that bleak day to this, we were as close as sisters.

“We can’t explain away the sword.” I grabbed her arm. “Come on. We must return it.”

Her eyes rounded. “You’re going to venture down to the guards’ quarters?”

“I don’t see what choice I have.” I yanked her into the hall. “
Stop dragging your feet. It’s almost time for my lessons, and the last thing I need is for Mother to catch me in the nest out of season.”

My
clan, the Araneidae, had built this city of black marble above our true home, an underground nest with expansive tunnels and lush appointments able to keep us cozy during bitter winter months. During the brief summer, our people occupied the aboveground city to host trading days and parties.

Only guards on
rotation and invalids were permitted to remain below out of season.

I was neither.

Isolde sniffed. “Can’t have her heir messing around with the riffraff, now can she?”

My mother was the Araneidae clan’s maven,
a title and a responsibility I would inherit one day.

“It’s not a matter of class.” As Isolde well knew. “It’s a matter of impropriety.”

She caved and walked beside me. “You can’t just marry the first male who comes along.”

“Oh?” I had no plans to, but I was curious as to her reasoning. “Why not?”

“Males are like chocolates.” She licked her fingers. “They’re meant to be sampled.”

Laughter
stopped up my throat. “You can’t say such things.”

“I say them, and I mean them.” She
bumped her shoulder into mine. “Don’t be such a prude.”

“You’re right.” I never expected those words to cross my lips. “If I must
marry one of Mother’s choices for me, perhaps I should take a lover. I ought to have that much choice, don’t you think?”

“I, um, well…”

“No. For once, we are in complete agreement.” I don’t know why the idea never crossed my mind before. “I will take my first lover.” I slid my gaze her way. “Are any of the guards handsome?”

Her expression turned pained. “You’ve lived here all your life and never noticed?”

“If we rode through a forest with hundreds of trees but were told we could only seek shelter beneath five of the sturdiest in the woods, would you spare a glance for the others as you passed them?” I let her ponder that. “Or would you keep your gaze focused ahead on the trees you were allowed to use?”

“You’re comparing cones to needles.” She waved her hand. “
There’s more to it.”

Ah, yes. Isolde and her elusive
more
. “What else is there?”

“The burn in your gut when a handsome male smiles at you, or the way your lips tingle before a male kisses you.” She made
smacking noises. “You don’t waltz into a room and pick a male, check his teeth and his papers then decide if he’s worthy. You feel it. Your nipples get as hard as stones—”

I covered my ears. “Enough.”

“You’re right.” She yanked on my arms. “It’s really the males who get hard—
Oof.

I elbowed her again
, harder. “You’re ruining the appeal for me.”

“If you take a lover, it
won’t be all roses and sweet wine.” She chortled. “You realize that?”

“I am very well aware of how sex works, thank you.”

“It’s a messy, sticky business,” she warned me. “You have to get naked and then he pulls out—”


Isolde
.” My face was burning so hot I should have breathed fire.

She patted my cheeks and grinned. “What are friends for?”

“I hope you’re pleased.” I fanned my face. “You’ve just sent me to my future husband a virgin.”

“Aww.” She looped her arm through mine. “
There’s more to sex than your mother told you.”

The rest of the way
down to the west end, she took great delight in educating me.

 

 

Ahead of us loomed the dark tunnel leading to the guards’ quarters. If I squinted, I could just see a male
standing in the center with his hand on his sword. He was Theridiidae. All our guards were. That meant he was highly venomous and the prick of his teeth could kill me without a dose of antivenin.

I kept that in mind as I approached him, taking care to stop
a careful distance away.

The older male inclined his head.
“What brings you here, lady?”

“My friend won this off
a guard.” I nudged Isolde until she held up her prize. “Would you be so kind as to locate him for us? I would like to see his property returned to him personally.”

If I left Isolde to do it, gods only knew what she might come back carrying.

“I can’t leave my post.” He narrowed his eyes on the blade. “I will see it to its rightful owner.”


Ha.” Isolde whipped it out of his reach. “We don’t know you or that you’ll keep your word.”

The guard drew himself up taller. “Are you insulting my honor?”

She glared up at him. “Whether you have any honor is the question.”

“Forgive my friend.” I clamped a hand over Isolde’s arm. “She means no disrespect.”

His scowl slid onto me. “No doubt you believe that, miss.”

“If you can’t leave your post, then let me escort her to the common room. We won’t enter any of the guards’ quarters or private spaces. We won’t disturb them more than necessary.” I
smiled at him. “I trust your clansmen to protect my honor as Mother trusts your clan with the welfare of our nest.”

That made hi
s chest swell with pride. “They’re good males. They won’t trouble you.”

Isolde swaggered up to him. “Not if they know what’s good for—”

I slapped my hand over her mouth and dragged her stumbling. “We’ll leave you to your work.”

Vicious brat that she was, Isolde bit my middle finger once the guard was out of sight.

“What did you do that for?” She spit. “He was being an arse.”

“You were being obnoxious.” I thumped her on the head. “You
could have gotten us killed.”

“You’re the maven’s only daughter.” Her eyes sparkled. “Your father would cut him to bits.”

Sudden pain lanced my heart. “He is not a topic for discussion.”

“Fine.” She
danced ahead of me. “If he were my father, I would discuss him all the time.”


Huh.” I shot her a sour look. “You mean like you do now?”

“He’s a famous swordsman.” Her voice lowered. “I heard he eats the hearts of his enemies.”

I wrinkled my nose. “He isn’t Mimetidae.”

“Can you imagine if he was?” She twirled, sword in hand. “Then he would be a cannibal.”

“You are insane.” I ducked when I got too close to her. “Put that away before you cut yourself.”

“You are the opposite of fun.” She lowered her weapon. “How is it we’re even friends?”

I rolled my eyes. “We are friends because you need a keeper.”

She
elbowed me in the side. “I do not.”


What would you do without me?” I jabbed her back. “Besides run wild and gamble?”

“Bah.” She darted aside. “Everyone needs to run wild once in a while.”

I lunged for her. “What about gambling?”

“No.” She
spun out of my grasp. “Only fools gamble when the outcome is unknown.”

Her meaning dawned on me. “You cheat?”

“No. Not exactly.” She bit her lip. “Well, yes.”

“Well
, that explains it then,” a graveled voice boomed down the tunnel.

We froze at the sound.

Isolde ran to my side and drew the sword, aiming it at the shadow approaching us.

“State your business,” she barked.

“I heard two silly girls giggling in the hall and came to escort them back to their playroom.”

Heat ignited in my cheeks.
“We came to return this sword to its rightful owner.”

“That would be me.” He sounded amused. “As I’m sure your friend will attest to.”

“That’s him all right,” Isolde groused. “Here. Have your sticker.”

I shut my eyes when she
flung it at him.

“Gods’ web,” he cursed.
“It’s not a sticker, it’s a fencing sword.”

He sounded…not
skewered…so I peeked out at him.

The guard wore his hair
cropped so close I was unsure of its color. The minimal style was harsh by Araneidae standards, but it suited his rugged features. His nose was sharp, his chin square, and his cheeks were too high. He was not the most attractive male I had ever seen, but his eyes reminded me of the rich chocolates Isolde had so brashly suggested we taste. There was a hint of wildness in them.

He caught me staring and returned my frank assessment.
“You’re the maven’s daughter.”

“Her name is Reine,” Isolde
growled. “She is more than a placeholder for a title.”

“Excuse me, Reine.” He bowed at the waist. “I should have said, ‘You are the loveliest female I have had the pleasure of insulting since my arrival, and you bear a stark resemblance to the maven.’”

“Then I might have said, ‘Thank you. The maven is indeed my mother, and my name is Reine.’”

“Then I might have returned—”
He laughed. “I mean to say, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

Isolde tapped a finger against her lips. “You’re new to Erania, then?”

He nodded. “Just arrived.”

“Huh.” She cut her eyes at me. “Then Reine should give you a tour.”

“Isolde,” I gritted from between clenched teeth.

“It’s quite all right.” He raked his thumbnail
across the deep grooves etched in the rapier’s hilt. “I’m sure Uncle will show me around the city in time. He keeps very busy, but he must eventually.”

I
couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?”

“It depends.” His lips
twitched. “Is it working?”

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