Firebrand Series, Book 3
Claire Sampson looked out over the early morning sunrise on the eastern shore of Oahu and lifted the mug of coffee to her lips. Waves rolled gently against the white sand just yards in front of her, and a gentle breeze blew through the palms above as she sipped the steaming brew. But her attention wasn’t focused on the serene view; it was locked on the boat, probably a mile off shore, its sails flying as it drifted slowly through the water, cutting a course for more exotic lands. Tahiti, Fiji, maybe even Australia.
Is that where her bottle was headed? Was she wasting time on this Hawaiian island?
Pushing her glasses back up her nose, she turned away from the boat, then headed back inside the bungalow she’d rented while on sabbatical. Officially, the University of Florida thought she was taking time off to research local Hawaiian folklore and its role in the history of the islands, but that was just her cover. The truth was an obsession she couldn’t let go, even when her mind told her this kind of search would bring her nothing but trouble.
Ignoring the warning going off in her brain, she set her mug on the old scarred table and slid into the chair. After opening the lid of her laptop, she pulled up the tidal map at Kaneohe Bay and compared it to the currents and tides she’d been tracking yesterday via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. That bottle Mira had thrown into the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest nearly six months ago had to turn up somewhere soon.
She bit her lip, flipped screens to check another chart. Her money was on the Hawaiian Islands. She knew there was a slim chance that bottle could have gotten sucked up in the Alaska Current and right now might be part of some frozen Arctic ice floe, but something in her gut told her it was going to show up here.
It had to…
Her phone rang, and without looking, she reached for the cordless from the counter to the right. “This is Claire.”
“Claire? I’m so glad I found you.”
Claire’s entire body tensed when she recognized the female voice. “Sura?”
“Yeah, it’s me. I don’t have a lot of time. They know what you’re up to.”
Slowly, Claire pushed out of her chair. Though she’d known this moment was coming, the shock of it still caused her pulse to beat faster. “What did you tell them?”
Sura was the only friend Claire had left from her previous life, and from time to time she checked up on Claire—mostly because she pitied Claire. But they hadn’t spoken in months, and even Sura didn’t totally know what Claire had planned.
“Nothing. I didn’t tell them anything. But it was only a matter of time before they figured it out on their own.”
Claire’s shoulders dropped, and her heart plummeted like a stone weight into her stomach as well, a reaction that stole her breath because it was both new and unexpected. If this was what heartbreak felt like, she couldn’t imagine how humans—those who felt the full range of emotions—dealt with it.
She’d been stupid to think the Guild wouldn’t catch on, not after the way they’d banished her to the human world, but she’d hoped she’d have time to find that bottle before they did.
No such luck now.
“I’m sure they’re already plotting my next punishment,” Claire said with more sarcasm than she intended. “Though I can’t imagine what could be worse than this. How long do I have?”
“I don’t know. But Ridwan is speaking with the others now, and they will be coming for you.”
Ridwan. Great. That could mean today, tomorrow, or a month from now. The High Seven didn’t view time the same way humans did.
Sura hesitated, then in a low voice asked, “Claire? You feel, don’t you? For months I’ve been wondering what’s happening to me but was afraid to ask. Others sense a change too. Some of us…some of us have discussed it. It’s happening to all within the Guild except for the High Seven. We all…feel.”
The depression slowly slinking over Claire disappeared in a burst of excitement. Was it possible what was happening to her was also happening to others?
“How? Tell me, Sura. I need to know. When did it start?”
“Right before the equinox.”
Before the equinox… Claire’s excitement rose another notch.
“Sadness, joy, anger,” Sura went on, “I feel all of these. I don’t know how to describe it except to say its—”
Sura sighed. “Yes. So freeing. How have we existed all this time without emotion? Why would they take that from us?”
Claire turned to look out over the gentle waves again as a twinge of animosity seeped into her chest. She’d served the Guild for hundreds of years, but one question, one curiosity had gotten her banished. How many others had been banished for this same reason? How many were now feeling something—anything—for the first time?
“Because controlling our emotions binds our free will,” Claire said. “We’re not supposed to have free willd. We’re made of light, not fire or clay. If we have free will like humans and djinn, we might choose not to serve.”
“Yes, but for those who choose to stay, emotions would only strengthen their service. Certainly Allah—”
“This was not Allah’s command.” Claire had done a lot of research since being banished. And she knew the High Seven were behind this. Knew it in her heart, even if that was a place she’d just come to trust. “Things are not always what they seem. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’m going to find the other opals.”
“That’s part of the reason I called.”
“To warn me. I know. I appreciate—”
“No,” Sura answered, this time in a whisper. “To tell you that your bottle has washed ashore in the Marshall Islands.”
“What?” Claire’s eyes grew wide, and anxiety pushed in from every side. “How do you know? Who found it? They haven’t opened it yet, have they? If they do—”
“Relax. No one’s found it. Yet. It hasn’t been opened. And the High Seven don’t know it’s washed up yet either.”
“We’re celestial, remember? We have multiple resources at our fingertips. We just have to know the right questions to ask.”
Claire heard the smile in her friend’s voice, and it relaxed her shoulders, if only for a moment. “You’re celestial, Sura. I’m” —What was the name those romance novels she’d read to try to understand human emotions called it?— “a fallen angel, remember?”
“I hate that term, angel. It implies wings and halos. Which we definitely don’t have. And you’ll not be fallen for long. Especially not if you find the opals before the High Seven find you. You won’t have to fear their wrath anymore. They won’t be able to touch you.”
Power was a tempting thing. For a moment, Claire let herself consider what she could do with the power of the firebrand opals. Thousands of years ago, Ridwan, guardian of the Seven Heavens, bound the celestial emotions in seven firebrand opals, then scattered them in the djinn realm, where her kind were forbidden to cross. They held power, the kind of power that infused djinn and granted them long lifespans. And Ridwan had scattered them there, partly to test and tempt the djinn, and partly to keep the opals safe. But Claire didn’t want power. She just wanted to live. Really live. And above all else, she wanted to have choice, something that had been taken from her long before she’d even been created.
“There’s no guarantee I’ll succeed,” Claire said.” To find the other opals, I have to cross over to the djinn realm.”
“Which you can do, now that you’ve been stripped of your powers,” Sura answered. “Find the shard in the Marshall Islands and summon a djinni to cross over to corrupt your soul. That was your plan, wasn’t it? Turn the tides on the pleasure slave? Seduce him into taking you to their realm? We both know your celestial powers won’t be bound there. You’ll be able to find the other opals and destroy them. From there… Well, from there what you do with that kind of power is all up to you. Your choice.”
Claire’s heart raced all over again, followed by a wave of nausea. She’d never been nervous before, but now she was. Now all she could wonder was…could she seduce? Would a pleasure slave know what she was? And what if she failed? If what Sura said was true, this wasn’t just about her anymore. If she didn’t act, the High Seven would find a way to bind what little emotion others in her order had grown used to.
She frowned, because it was easier than stressing about something she feared she’d never be able to do. “You’re too perceptive.”
“We are not the unintelligent creatures the High Seven think us to be.”
“True. But if you’ve guessed my plan, they have already too.”
“So stop stalling. Find that bottle and get on with that seduction. And do it soon. You’re the only one who can.”
“No pressure there.”
Sura laughed. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll even enjoy it.”
Claire’s mind drifted to the books she’d read for research and the fantasies they had sparked—ones she’d never even considered before. She didn’t doubt she would enjoy it. Djinn were, after all, wickedly tempting and highly erotic creatures. The question was whether she was strong enough to use that eroticism to accomplish her goal or if she’d fall prey to it.
Because, as with all free will, when a soul walked on the dark side, there was always a chance it might not come back.
* * *
“That’s good. Touch me just like that, djinni. My, but you have learned a lot, haven’t you?”
Ashur lifted his mouth from the breast he was laving and looked up at Nuha, laid out on the bed, her eyes tightly closed, her fists gripping the silk sheets beneath her as he slid his fingers through her wetness.
“I’m an eager student,” he answered, dipping inside her heat and pressing his thumb against her clit for added sensation as he searched for that special spot. The one he’d learned could make a female not only come but beg for more. “Especially when it involves one of Zoraida’s most accomplished teachers.”
Firelight flickered over Nuha’s naked body. She groaned, grasped the sheets tighter, and thrust her hips up to meet his downward stroke. The scent of her arousal filled the air. Perspiration dotted her skin. She was beautiful, just as all of Zoraida’s followers were—dark hair, coffee-colored skin, flawless curves designed to entice and allure—but he’d never felt anything for her other than duty.
Then again, it wasn’t his job to feel. It was his job to seduce. And it was her job to teach him just how to do that so when Zoraida returned from wherever she’d gone these last few months, he could do her will to the fullest of his ability.
Nuha’s entire body tensed, and she tightened around his fingers. Her slim body quaked with the power of her release, telling him he’d passed this lesson.
In the aftermath of her orgasm, Ashur petted her gently, bringing her down as he’d been taught. His cock was rock-hard, the blood pulsing hot in his ears, but he knew he’d find no release today. This lesson had been about pleasuring a female without taking anything for himself. As a pleasure slave, it was important he could seduce without scaring his mark. The humans he’d eventually be sent to seduce would be wary at first. Trust came before sex. And getting a female to trust often meant denying the release he desperately craved himself.
Not that Zoraida’s instructors didn’t bring him pleasure. They had to so he could learn to control his desire. But there was no passion. No emotion. It was clinical at best. And part of Ashur couldn’t wait to finally be sent into the human realm on an assignment. To do what he’d been taught with a female who truly wanted him. Maybe even to feel something other than anger again.
A smile spread across Nuha’s face as she blinked several times and looked up at the ceiling in the lavish bedroom suite. “You are nothing like your brother, that’s for sure. Tariq was the worst student I ever had.”
Ashur clenched his jaw at the mention of his eldest brother’s name, and resentment slid through his veins. Tariq had always been the selfish one. Even their father, the king, had said Tariq did what he wanted, when he wanted. As heir to the throne, it was his prerogative. But that selfishness had backfired, and eventually it had led to his being imprisoned by Zoraida when he should have been sitting on the throne of Gannah. If it hadn’t been for Tariq, Nasir and Ashur never would have searched for him. They never would have been trapped here as well. Nasir would still be alive.
Anger brewed hot in his gut as Nuha rose and dressed. After all that they’d sacrificed for him, where was Tariq? Free. Living in the human world, as if he were one of the lower-life beings, never bothering to wonder what was happening back in the djinn realm. Never bothering to care what had happened to his brothers.
A fact Ashur never forgot.
“A great many rewards come to those who please the mistress,” Nuha said as she slipped the purple velvet robe over her shoulder. “Zoraida will be very happy with your progress when she returns.”
The red haze slowly cleared from Ashur’s vision and a sense of purpose pulsed through him. Pleasing Zoraida was the only thing he cared about anymore. None from his father’s kingdom had searched for him after he’d disappeared. No one had tried to save Nasir from the Pits of Jahannam, where he’d died. Zoraida, on the other hand, took care of those who lived up to her expectations. He saw it every day in the faces of those around him. It was the rebels she punished. Those like Tariq, who were selfish and defiant and refused to give in to her will. And in their stupidity, they missed out on the most important things. In her service, there was no pain. Only riches, power, and more pleasure than any djinni could hope to find.
He rose from the side of the bed where he’d been kneeling and watched Nuha tie the robe at her waist, her dark hair falling down her back like a river of black silk. His desire was still strong, but more than anything, he just wanted Zoraida to show the fuck up so he could get on with that pleasuring. And forget, once and for all, a life he’d never go back to.
A knock sounded at the door, and Nuha said, “Enter.”
The door pushed open, and a guard stepped into the room, his armor clinking as he moved. But it was his expression that caught Ashur’s attention. Pale face. Wide eyes. A Holy Allah look that said something big had happened. “Lady Nuha. I was sent to fetch you. She’s back. The mistress has returned.”
Nuha’s head came up, and her own eyes went wide. “Where? When? Have you seen her?”
“Just now, my lady. Downstairs. In the great hall. She’s back, and she wants you and the pleasure slave. Right away.”
Nasir’s pulse picked up speed as Nuha quickly stepped into her slippers. At his throat, the fire opal he wore grew warm.
“Come, slave,” Nuha said, moving for the door. “And hurry.”
Ashur followed Nuha out into the hall. Candles from sconces on the walls lit the corridor. His bare feet passed over stone as they moved. Zoraida’s compound was hidden in the mountains of the djinn realm—where, Ashur wasn’t entirely sure, but it was always cold here. Memories of his time in the dungeons flashed in his mind as they descended steps toward the main level, and his nerves shot up at the prospect of seeing Zoraida again. The last time they’d been face-to-face, she’d been ordering his torture, all in an attempt to get Tariq to do her will. Would she send Ashur back to the dungeons, or would she see what he’d become since her absence?
Smooth marble caressed the soles of his feet as they reached the main level. Ahead, double doors were parted to reveal an eerie orange light.
“This way,” Nuha said. “Quickly. We mustn’t keep her waiting.”
His pulse pounded as they reached the doors. The guard pushed them wide, then stood back to let them enter. Across the room, a fire roared in the enormous stone fireplace, and a female dressed in a black gown with pale blonde hair falling down her back paced in front of its warmth.
She turned when she heard them, and her icy gaze landed on Ashur. “He’s not bound.”
No hey, how ya doing? No I’m glad to be home. Ashur swallowed hard, unsure of what to expect.
“No, sayyeda,” Nuha answered, folding her hands in front of her in respect. “The djinni has learned much in your absence. I think you will be most pleasantly surprised. He’s my best pupil.”
“Bring him to me.”
Nuha stepped aside and held out her hand, indicating he should move forward, but before Ashur could, he caught the look in her eyes. The one that said, don’t fuck this up.
His heart beat faster. Hesitantly, he moved forward. When he was a foot from Zoraida, he stopped and drew in a breath that smelled like…roses.
She was tall—almost as tall as he—but it was her beauty that grabbed his attention with the strength of a vise. Milk-white skin, flawless features, lips made for tasting and a body that looked as if it had been created solely for sin. Even with circles under her eyes, indicating the length of her journey, she was beautiful. His gaze landed on her abundant cleavage in the dark gown, and the desire he’d been denied reignited in his veins.
Zoraida’s blue eyes searched his features, then ran down the length of his bare chest and finally held on the cotton pants tied low at his hips. Without a word, she circled him, and Ashur’s pulse skipped while she inspected him from every angle. When she was finally facing him again, she reached out and cupped his groin. “You’re hard, djinni.”
The shock of her touch made him draw a breath. He wasn’t fully hard, but he could be. He wanted to be. “Yes, sayyeda.”
“Your brother was never hard for me.”
No, Tariq was never anything anyone wanted him to be. “Yes, sayyeda.”
Zoraida’s eyes narrowed as she studied his face, but her hand didn’t move. He sensed this was a test, and he wanted to pass. Needed to. He willed himself to grow harder but as the seconds ticked by nothing happened. If she’d just move her hand…
As quickly as she’d grasped him, Zoraida let go. Looking over his shoulder toward Nuha, she said, “What is his level of training?”
“Level four, sayyeda. He’s been an exemplary pupil. A very fast learner. Eager to please.”
“Eager to please,” Zoraida muttered, looking back at him. “And what of his…defiance?”
“There is none.”
“I find that hard to believe, considering the lengths his brother went to defy me.” Her expression hardened. “It is because of him I was trapped these last few months.”
Ashur swallowed hard. Fucking Tariq…
“He has not shown even the slightest resemblance to your last pleasure slave, sayyeda,” Nuha said. “In fact, his work ethic has been so strong, he’s moved ahead of all the others currently in training.”
“Ahead of all the rest?” Zoraida asked, still not looking away from Ashur’s eyes. “Tell me, slave, do you not seek to destroy me, as your brothers did?”
It was the question he’d known would come. Ashur’s pulse skyrocketed.
“Answer me,” Zoraida snapped.
He thought of Nasir. Dead in the pits. And Tariq living life as a human without a fucking care. And finally, of his kingdom, which didn’t give a flying rat’s ass about him. The last remaining prince of Gannah.
Anger brewed hot, but he tamped it down, knowing control would be his savior. He’d learned that here the last few months. Thrived on it. “I am not my brothers.”
Zoraida’s gaze raked his features. She was trying to decide if he was telling the truth or lying. His pulse pounded hard. If she sent him back to the dungeons…
“That remains to be seen,” she finally answered. “Tell me, slave. What is your purpose?”
“To serve you, sayyeda. That is my only desire.”
Her gaze dropped to the fire opal resting at the base of his throat. “And if I asked you to kill your brother in the human realm to prove your loyalty… What would you say to that?”
Kill Tariq? No, he couldn’t. He…
Behind him, Nuha coughed. And a visual of the image he’d been shown months ago flashed in his mind. Of Nasir dying in the pits. And of Tariq, smiling and laughing in the human realm with the woman he’d betrayed them for.
He clenched his hands into fists, and the fury born into his tribe from the beginning of time flared hot and bright. “My brother deserves to die. If my sayyeda commanded it, I would do her will. Gladly.”
Surprise rushed over Zoraida’s face, and she looked over his shoulder toward Nuha. “No brotherly love for Tariq?”
Ashur ground his teeth. “None. I want Tariq to suffer.”
A smile spread across Zoraida’s face, one that made her even more beautiful. “I want Tariq to suffer for what he did to me too. But first, I have a more important task for you.”
More important than revenge? Ashur’s brow dropped low, but he knew better than to ask.
Zoraida stepped back, and for the first time, he noticed how her fragility. As if the journey had robbed her of sleep. The circles under her eyes seemed darker now, her shoulders not as proud. As he studied her, he wondered what she’d meant when she’d said she’d been trapped.
“Before we deal with Tariq,” she said, “I need a soul.”
Excitement burst beneath Ashur’s ribs, overriding his need for revenge. That meant he was finally going to be sent to the human realm to corrupt a soul, which would fuel Zoraida’s immortality and make her stronger.
“As you wish, sayyeda,” he said. “I am here only to do your will.”
“We shall see,” she muttered. “Though you say you want revenge, I fear the blood of your tribe is still strong.”
Panic set in. “No, sayyeda. I—”
“So we’re going to consider this your test, djinni,” she went on. “Shortly, you will be called upon by a human female. Pleasure her in each and every way she requests. And corrupt her soul for my glory. When you are done, if you’ve succeeded with no complications, you will have that revenge we both so eagerly seek. If you fail…” Her expression hardened, and those eyes that had seemed bright and oh-so alluring before turned to hard, icy chips of glass. “I will send you to the Pits of Jahannam, just like Nasir. And you will know pain like you’ve never imagined. Are we clear?”
Pain versus pleasure? That wasn’t even a question. He bowed. “Yes, sayyeda. Your wish is my command.”