The Monstrosities are Coming
Listen. Do you heed their words?
Do you obey, as I did?
An obedient daughter, I plotted my life through the lavish balls at a spiteful court, always with a rigid spine, straitlaced austerity, and a courteous mask. Laced up in a corset embedded with iron rods that reinforced the backbone—no weaklings allowed—I sipped rich wine that sweetened the lips with fermented berries, and I supped on moist cakes that sugared my embittered discontent.
While perfumes of lilac and jasmine and a thousand other blooms jammed my lungs and dizzied my mind, I bowed to the First Magnate and dutifully danced with his dispassionate sons. My caustic tongue bristled with scorn while I traded calumnies amongst my friends, then gorged on meat dripping with juices that afterward weighed in my belly like lead.
I nurtured my obedience until it turned into a changeling at my breast, a maddened creature sharp of tooth and dark of eye. My rancor, once a mask, began to fuse with my bone and sinew. I became as virulent as the pinch-faced woman who’d birthed me: a vinegar-soured purse of lips, a curdling of gimlet eye, my uplifted nose astride my contempt.
My fate began to close around me like a circle of foes. A marriage was arranged—with some vilely unsightly man, someone distantly related to the magnate of the Second Demesne—and I began to suffocate from the cast-iron mold they shut me inside. I did not fit; it constricted my freedom too much. I could not breathe. Can you understand?
At night, in my plush bed, I lay sick at heart and bloated with the day’s cruelties, and I envisioned my fate spanning the decades before me. I would pucker up like a sour mouth painted as dark as blood, and I wanted out.
Do you finally grasp?
Here, upon a bloody parchment, I tender you my confession, patched together from torn-off bits of agony purled away from my soul. Look between the droplets of heartache in the blurred ink, and the stains of blood raked out by my nails, and find my love—a wounded boy.
On a near-soundless night, when you could hear the beating of a heart, he discovered the trail of sorrow that led to me, a froth of a girl in white lace, curled up in a nook of shadow beneath an engraved iron bell.
Where else, after all, should I have fled my fate but to the chapel of our Absent God?
But no one can find solace in a god who left humankind to fend for itself centuries before.
When I splayed myself, imploring, before the altar, only candles flickered in the naves. Naught but discomfort seeped from the aged stone. And the unheard entreaties of the thousands who had knelt here in vain before me besieged my hope only with unanswered echoes.
Denied succor, I rose to abandon our Absent God as He had abandoned me.
But then, the melody of bells sang my soul to stillness.
Riveted, in the ringing of the bells, I swore I heard… a promise.
In the hushed resonance of their finale, I glided up the stairs like one whose heart had been tied up by a string that pulled taut.
Beneath the bell whose chimes had struck that chord within me, I released my grief—in a torrent, I wept like one hurt… and looked up like one found.
For there in the belfry appeared a boy scarcely older than I, garbed in a long white robe, his face so pretty I thought, strangely, that his lips must taste like cherries, and his hair shone like the finest silver cutlery.
And if the boy lost his breath when he saw me, I gained it.
For the first time in an existence bound by strictures and corsets, my lungs expanded, full and astonished, because the breath felt like a laugh. Or the prelude to one.
And I had never laughed in my life.
The boy became my breathless escape—ironic because his smiles enabled me to finally breathe, only for his very proximity to take that breath away again.
Although he had no voice, he spoke through luminous smiles, through a sheepish duck of his head, through a blush or the ruffle of his hand through his hair.
We were always sneaking—into shadowed naves, forgotten corners, or the chapel’s cramped library where the priest left us raisin-nut cakes and steaming cider among scattered parchment—but mostly, we sneaked into happiness. At day, at dusk, and once, in the night-hushed belfry, he knelt upon my flowing gown that pooled around us like froth.
He brought our pulses a mere hairsbreadth apart.
Then our lips were no longer apart at all. For a single moment, everything else in my life was rendered insignificant.
But I had hatched from the poisonous court, and that vipers’ nest never sets its victims free.
That cursed day!
I skipped from the chapel—and ran straight into the magnate’s eldest son.
We bounced backward, both hurling apologies, and then stopped, recognizing one another.
I was a flushed young noblewoman, prettily in love. He was the handsome future king, enigmatic and mussed.
To everyone in the treacherous court, we could be the perfect match.
To the future king and I, both born and bred in that ruthless cradle of schemes, we could be the perfect match.
And although both our hearts had tangled in poorer places—his with a penniless girl, mine with a mute foundling—and pierced us with hidden briars in the secret forests of our love, those matches were unacceptable for marriage.
He and I, we understood. We could appease the court by joining with each another.
When he offered for my hand, I snatched at the chance to rid myself of my former betrothed, that vile Unsightly.
And truth be told, part of me reveled that, by marrying the magnate’s eldest son, I would one day be Queen. I would bear the next royal septuplets.
But I had to tell the boy. I tried to explain the rules of my world, that I would become the mother of the future rulers, and how the entire court now expected this of me. If I reneged, my family would be exiled for the dishonor. I would be ruined. I had given my word to our future king, and a promise spoken in court was not one revoked.
The boy and I could still be lovers—in secret, of course, in snatched bits of time.
But the boy didn’t understand. He couldn’t comprehend the workings of humans who didn’t esteem the heart.
And I didn’t understand the workings of the heart at all.
The magnate’s son and I married in the boy’s chapel.
I was resplendent in a gown of scarlet. People threw flower petals upon our upturned faces. The open windows let in a fresh breeze that whisked the overpowering floral perfumes to the vaulted ceiling, leaving only a faint scent of flowers.
Tamed doves swooped overhead, their feathers floating down as we knelt amid blossoms and smiles, with the sweet taste in our mouths from the ceremonial wine we drank.
I strained my ears for the bells my love would ring. Bated for his song, I waited for the moment I could escape my husband and promise the boy that I loved him most.
But his heartache spread its wings in the belfry.
They found him folded, lifeless, beneath the bell where my gown had once frothed around our kisses.
They groomed me for hubris. Prepared me for spite and envy. They instilled in me the importance of never crumbling before the court, for a Queen must never show weakness.
And I have not.
Only a few have glimpsed through the cracks of the steel mask I present to the world. Only a few have seen through the fissures down to the madness that boils and stews in my core.
I dare you to stroke the iron curve of my spine. Its spikes will disfigure your courage.
Only I feel the blood seep through the thousands of holes in the sieve of my heart.
It can hold nothing anymore. My blood is only good for bruising. It no longer brings life, heat—no wild pulse. No more and never again.
All the lessons beaten into me—the thousands of hours of comportment, repartee, vilification—worthless.
Nothing prepares you for heartbreak.
Nothing prepares you for the atrophying of a heart.
Those who say, “Rally and love again!”—how dare you strive to strike a spark in the heart that I have shut?
You have no concept of the changeling ghoul I’ve rocked to sleep in my fading heartbeat. The lullabies I’ve sung to bloodied hands.
How often I have hummed desolation into my drowsy dreams.
Let me tell you of the pleasure of my king and I.
Anything our bodies wrought together was mechanical and empty, a shudder of flesh and tissue without any heart. A rapid pulse without passion.
My song had silenced with the boy, and after our first consummation, the future king stumbled from our bed and retched out the window while I lay limp and willed my soul to leave.
Any time he held me was an apology. He stroked my hair in a game of pretend that I pretended to believe. Every kiss to my brow, every halfhearted smile, every feeble touch that faded too quick was an apology for not wanting to be with me, because we had to make this work, for the Demesnes needed the next seven rulers.
Eventually, we settled.
He could make love to me without retching. I could shut off my mind and cry out in the feeble pleasure of our coupling. We sat calmly on our thrones every day.
But we wore our guilt like cloaks of ravaged wishes.
And a series of stillborn years made me the disappointment of an entire kingdom. No septuplets were born alive. Only a single girl child survived the devastated ruins of my hateful womb.
The daughter I hate.
And my king’s lover still lived. His visits to my bed dwindled while his visits outside the castle increased.
I followed him once to a dingy shack in the poor quarter, where a statuesque woman laughed wryly when he propped his foot into her cracked door.
Oh, she made a display of protesting when he swept inside, telling him he was wed now and must sire the septuplets, but he was already kissing her, and she got no farther than those husky breaths.
Was it fair that he still had his love and I had lost mine?
But I was Queen, and gold coins cascade effortlessly from the fingertips of a woman scorned.
Straight into the purses of brutes.
They ensured that my king’s lover suffered at the end.
As he had destroyed me, so I destroyed him.
Is that not fair?
The daughter he got on me, though, has not proven as easily slain. Her existence is a thorn that pricks me with the reminder every day that I’ve failed to bear the next seven rulers.
And my King no longer visits my chambers at all.
Our kingdom grows restless, but it is futile, for if I don’t bear the rulers, no one will.
They taught me that a Queen never crumbles, never caves, not even with the entire world set against her. Not even when her own heart has turned its face away—and when it taunts her with dreams where I never skip out of that chapel. Instead, I stay with my bell boy and he wraps me up in his shabby coat.
But those dreams are lies, for the warmth escapes through the coat’s myriad holes, and although I press nearer and nearer, he disperses into a phantom formed only of regret.
All that could have warmed me decayed long ago.
Now, from the most magnificent castle in the known world, I stare out upon the pox of stars that scar the sky.
Listen. Do you hear the call of madness? Its flicker of forked tongue whispers of intent, of power. It cries for me to hear.
And I heed.
I am sick of them all. I did everything right. I did all I was supposed to do. I married as they bade, and what have I to show?
I am beaten, spurned, unloved, used up.
But they forged in me a steel heart, an iron spine, and an indomitable will.
I thank them for it now, for that courage kept me unafraid when I conspired with our ancient foe. Behind the shutters of night, I have made a pact to doom all who dwell in the Seven Demesnes.
The city walls that were erected to keep the monsters at bay will not ward them off forever. Monstrosities honed of barbarity and vigor are coming.
Prowling shadows with bladed claws around the corner. A razor-toothed smile above a slumbering girl.
Creatures steeped in nightmare will stake their victory in the night.
Nothing can save our kingdom now.
Definitely not a daughter born in my loveless bed.
The Princess Born with Foes
Half-dead but still squalling, the infant princess slid slick and bloody from the womb of her first enemy only to land in the thrall of her second.
Far above, in a black-painted tower room, in the very castle where the babe was born, a wizard clamped her soul with his magic and readied to peel her essence from her bones.
But a healer gripped her fast.
Thirteen years old, Iminique Demascus defied the unseen mage, with more ferocity than skill—untrained, untried, tiny even for her age—and fended him off.
But he proved too strong, more experienced, and he slipped his silken web around her own throat, as well.
Writhing inside him, she found his heart.
And she did what healers do best.
The surviving babe had no name until she was six months old. The king, her father, finally named her Seriah only after a chance encounter in the corridor with Iminique, the girl healer who’d saved her life.
Politely—Iminique never strayed from courtesy—she begged the First Magnate to name the child. And the king, after having barely glanced at the babe since her birth, looked at the ferociously pumping arms expressing the babe’s exuberance… and he smiled, disarmed.
Perhaps that moment prompted him to look upon his daughter as the only worthy consequence of his marriage.
By the time princess Seriah was four, she could name her foes.
Her mother, the Queen, reviled her for surviving when all Seriah’s brothers perished and no septuplets survived birth.
All the inhabitants of the seven demesnes loathed her for the same—all of them, even her nursemaid, who had nearly starved her by secretly depriving her of milk.
And Iminique whispered to Seriah of the mysterious shadow-hungry, the enemy of all humankind, foes who inhabited the Shadowlands far to the south, where the skies crackled with lightning and no orchards or fruit or grass grew.
No one had encountered the creatures for centuries, and some doubted they existed, but Iminique knew.
Despite everything set against the princess, though, young Seriah brimmed with confidence. Her father the king, after all, looked upon her fondly. Iminique could heal her from any poison, knife, or sword-thrust. And Thorn, the warrior-assassin, bristled with weaponry ready to wield in Seriah’s defense. And, of course, Quentyn, the wizard, protected Seriah because Iminique did.
But they did not expect a foe in the form of a boy in the palace garden, and Seriah, being reviled even by servants—and nearly slain, of course, by the nursemaid—had no fussy maid tagging along on her dress-tails as a normal princess would.
She was alone when she imperiously commanded the fateful rose bush—after all, what else but plants would listen to her when she wasn’t even five years old?—and ordered it to build a tall tower to peep all the way into the shadowlands.
“The shadow-hungry don’t exist!” came a sneery voice behind her.
There, up the gravel path, strutted seven-year-old Boy Nuisance Hurano with his three flunkies picking their noses behind him.
He poked her in the chest. “Only stupid little girls like you are scared of a feyrie tale. And you think anyone’s ever going to obey you?”
“I’ll make them!”
“How? You’re just a weak, stupid—” He didn’t stop until he’d goaded her too far, and pushed her too much, and suddenly they were embroiled in a fight.
They tumbled across the plants in a vicious brawl, and she fought him in a surge of terror mingled with rage.
He was too big, though, too strong, and she was only four summers old, three years younger than him, and pain burst in small explosions all over her body.
She wound up curled on the ground, arms covering her head while he kicked and kicked and she sobbed inwardly for it to end.
It did, finally, when she could barely breathe without spikes shooting up her side.
He limped up and spat on the ground beside her. “You will never rule us, you sniveling baby.”
After he stalked away, she lay there trying to choke down sobs in the weeds. She didn’t want to cry. Only babies cried. But it hurt and hurt and hurt.
A shadow fell over her, and Quentyn crouched down, wearing a dark purple tunic that made her think, ridiculously, of plums.
Brusquely, he sat her upright, dusted her off, and chided her for her tears—though he didn’t wipe them away. Disliking children, he touched her as little as possible.
“I hate them,” she whispered, though it hurt her jaw to talk.
“Do you?” Smiling in his beatific way, he bent in close, his straight golden hair gleaming as gold as hers, and whispered, surprisingly: “I hate them, too.”
In his clipped, business-like way, he taught her her first lesson: “Every ruler before you was born with allies, Seriah, their reigns assured. But you have been born only with foes. You have to be stronger than they and not let them defeat you this way again.”
How could she not, though? They were bigger, stronger, and meaner, the stupids.
Quentyn gave no answer. He returned her to Imi and Thorn, who were waiting in the antechamber of her bedroom for her to join them for the midday meal.
Shamed and grass-stained and limping, Seriah slunk into the chamber, where pale, sterile sunlight that leaked through the windowpanes and pooled on the cream-hued furniture.
Imi knelt by her side in an instant, a yellow dress with embroidered blue flowers swishing around her legs. She smoothed her fingers over Seriah’s bruised, split skin, and warm, soothing pleasure permeated Seriah’s flesh and bones as Imi’s healing touch wove everything back to wholeness.
Imi fixed all her wounds until Seriah could stand on her foot, breathe in deep, and bite her lip without stinging prickles all over.
At Iminique’s questioning look at Quentyn, he explained: “Her subjects proved less than amenable to her playing ruler.”
Seriah leveled him a mighty glare, at which he smiled, unperturbed.
Imi’s mouth twisted, her cool palm on Seriah’s cheek. “You can’t force yourself on them, Seri.”
“She’s going to have to one day.” Thorn stalked over—she always stalked, a warrior-assassin to her core, just like she always wore leather and a fitted tunic like she did now. She curled her hand around Seriah’s shoulder. “I’ve been actually thinking she should learn how to defend herself. I can train her, teach her swordplay, how to fight unarmed, with knives, how to spy. She’ll need all those skills and more if she’s to rule this hornets’ nest.”
Seriah’s little heart leapt. If she could fight like Thorn, Hurano and his stupids wouldn’t stand a chance.
Six years passed, and she proved an apt pupil, a boisterous one.
But her most hateful foe yet lurked in the shadows.
He showed himself the evening Thorn left on her own. It was only supposed to be for a few moments, and ten-year-old Seriah had taken to bashing her mighty wooden sword against the courtyard’s hapless wall.
She yelped—Ow! The stone wasn’t as yielding as her hands.
But she recovered and leveled her weapon again. “On yer guard, ye stone dullard!”
“You’re certainly brave against poor, defenseless walls,” drawled a boy’s voice behind her. “But how will you fare against someone who won’t coddle you?”
Seriah whipped around, sword raised in challenge.
Fifteen-year-old Evander stood with arms akimbo, his black hair swallowing all light while the dusk’s crimson sky tinged his skin with an artificial flush.
He was always watching her with a nasty sneer and even nastier eyes. It gave her gooseflesh every time he did.
To bolster her courage, she hid behind belligerence. “What do you want?”
“For you to fight me.”
Shock lowered her sword. “I… you’re bigger than me.”
A smirk curved his lips. “All your enemies will be bigger than you.”
“I’m too young. I’m not fully trained yet.”
“‘I’m too young’,” he mimicked in a high falsetto. “‘I’m not fully trained yet’. You think your enemies are going to wait until you’re fully trained to attack?” His slashing sword sent her wooden one clattering across the cobblestones.
Seriah skittered backward and smacked into the stone wall.
His unpleasantly-smiling figure stalked toward her. “They’re going to attack when you least expect it. When you’re—” he gripped her neck and pinned her to the wall, “—not paying attention.”
Panic clouded her thoughts, then rebellion erupted. She rammed her fist into his gut and jabbed her foot into his shin. His breath whooshed out and his hold loosened.
Seriah dove for her sword and swept upright again while shambling backward. She eyed him with the wariness of someone eyeing a rabid dog.
He grinned. “Nice, Princess. You might actually survive long enough to defeat those weaklings you consider equals. You’ll never defeat me, though.” Tossing his sword from palm to palm, he started circling her in slow, broad revolutions that Seriah matched.
She was being hunted. She wanted Thorn to return or one of the wall guardsmen to come cuff Evander on the ears.
But dusk had rendered the courtyard a shadowy gray world bereft of life. Only an empty wagon stood near the well, where a gently swaying bucket creaked.
“Come attack me, Princess,” Evander jeered.
Seriah’s grip on her wooden hilt tightened. “It’s not fair. You have a metal sword and I only have a wooden one.”
“You still don’t get it, do you.” He shook his head, mocking her in a way that made her want to wipe it off his face. “Life isn’t fair.” He lunged.
Seriah dodged and parried, but his blade sank into her wooden weapon and yanked it toward him. Pitching forward, she nearly tripped, but grappled hold of her hilt with both hands and sprinted past him to jerk it away. He attacked before she recovered and she lurched sideways.
He’d nearly gutted her!
Her gaze darted about for escape. Desperately, she parried another thrust, her training honing her survival instinct.
But this time, his sword sank too deep and he wrenched the weapon from her grip. She stumbled and fell, her kneecaps hitting the cobbles, her curls tumbling into her eyes.
Evander’s hand in her hair caught her before she sprawled out flat, and he yanked her upright.
Bent backward, her knees painful on the stone, she looked straight into his hate-filled eyes. Above him stretched the castle towers against the ruby sky. His upraised sword reflected her bloodless face.
The fight was over, her defeat its end.
She could have screamed, but she refused to let him hear. Tears gathered in her eyes, but she refused to let them spill.
Holding his pitiless gaze, she merely spat: “I yield the fight. Take my life as your right.”
Somehow, the words seemed to bewilder him. His haze of rage faded and, slowly, he lowered his sword. Then he untangled his hand roughly from her hair and stepped back. “Your life is not forfeit today, Princess, but it is already mine. I’m going to use you to bring your father to his knees.”
Seriah bared her teeth, feeling wild and uncontrolled. “You’ll never defeat him.”
Evander shrugged. “Keep telling yourself that. But one day, I’m going to do to you what he did to Nellie—”
“Who is Nellie?” Seriah growled.
But Evander talked right over her. “And I’m going to do to you what his guards did to her. That’ll prove your words as futile as the man that sired you.” He picked up her sword and hurled it at her knees. “You’ll need a better weapon than that one if you want to survive.”
Then he strolled away, as if he hadn’t just shaken the very foundations of her world.
She flung her wooden sword into a gutter and fled to Iminique. She spewed vitriol: she wanted Evander exiled, slain, gone.
But violence was not Iminique’s way.
While cradling the miserably shuddering ball of princess in her gentle embrace, the healer murmured, “A good ruler doesn’t kill his enemies, Seriah. He makes allies of them.”
Thorn, pacing the airy bedchamber, snorted and stopped by them on the canopied bed. “Quick way to die. Where did you get that nugget of wisdom from?”
“Baldemor the Second, if you must know.” Imi kept soothingly stroking disconsolate Seriah’s hair. “Seri, killing enemies only makes more enemies. Think on it. Let’s take Thorn’s logic that killing enemies is best. Evander is only your enemy because he sees your father as responsible for this Nellie’s end. Now imagine you kill Evander. Who will rise up to be your enemy in order to avenge him? And if you kill that new enemy, another will replace them, too, and the cycle will never end. But if you make Evander your ally, then you won’t have any new enemies to contend with because there will be no need for anyone to avenge him. Do you understand the logic of that?”
Grudgingly, she did, though she wasn’t sure she liked it.
“So you see.” Iminique twined one of Seriah’s white-blond curls around her fingers. “You should always try to make allies of your enemies before they come at you with a weapon. Fight only as a last resort. Find a peaceful resolution, and your allies will increase.”
And Seriah needed all the allies she could get.
She snuggled into Imi even tighter, secretly happy because she hadn’t really wanted Evander killed. He was just a boy, after all, but neither did she want any more enemies coming after her because she hurt him.
But Thorn, crouched in the corner, shook her head. “It’s the wrong thing to teach her.”
Iminique frowned a little, but said nothing, only tenderly caressed Seriah’s cheek and wiped away drying streaks of tears. “Now I’m thinking that the maids will be snoring in the chairs again, waiting for their dirty princess to come for her bath.”
Seriah should have figured Hurano the bully would target him.
She was still ten when she found them in the stables.
Thirteen-year-old Hurano and his three stupids had cornered Evander in one of the stalls.
He was climbing to his feet, unsteady, blood trickling down his temple, and wiping another rivulet dripping from the corner of his lip. Though taller and two years older, he was outnumbered and weaponless—and Hurano was drawing his sword.
“What is this?” Seriah sauntered inside, swinging her sword in casual circles like Thorn did.
Hurano whipped his heavy-lidded gaze toward her, his stupids gaping at his flank.
Halting a man-length away, Seriah pointed her blade at Evander. “He’s unarmed.”
Hurano laughed. “He doesn’t have to be armed to be dangerous.”
Seriah could believe it. Hurano was a nuisance, but Evander was a cold-blooded enemy. With that in mind, she firmed her stance, decided on whose side she would take. “You should have more honor than to attack a weaponless man.”
“He should have more honor than to exist. Look, Princess, what do you want?”
“Leave him alone.”
“Oh, Princess Save-the-Peasants!” Hurano sneered, then dismissed her with a spin of his shoulder. “Go away.”
“No.” This time, she aimed her glorified dagger at Hurano.
He stilled, and his voice went quiet. “Are you challenging me? Over a commoner? Does your baby brain know nothing?”
She’d enraged him, she belatedly grasped, and something snapped in his eyes, changed in his posture, and—
Seriah flung her dagger.
It thudded into the wall beside Evander who, in one smooth motion, dodged Hurano’s sword-thrust, wrenched her dagger from the wall, and drove Hurano into his friends. He disarmed all four while they bounced off one another shouting and cursing, then herded them into the stall in the ensuing chaos. He shut the door, latched it, left their weapons where they’d fallen, and stalked toward Seriah.
She tensed, but he only handed her her sword and took her elbow. Ignoring her protests, he hustled her out of the stables, across the dimming courtyard, into the weapons room, and pushed her down on the tarp covering older wooden practice weapons.
“Why?” he growled while he paced in front of her, the candle on the opposite wall casting his shadow over her as he did. “Why did you help me?”
Seriah rubbed her wrist. “Maybe I don’t like the sight of blood.”
“Liar. You should have walked away. You left yourself weaponless, if you didn’t notice. That was stupid. I could have killed them and then killed you.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“That’s not the point.” He stepped toward her, gusting out a frustrated breath. “Why did you help me?”
She shrugged. “Maybe if I help you, you’ll help me one day.”
His scowly eyebrows winged up. “You think I’m indebted to you because you came to my assistance when I didn’t request it?”
“You honor your debts, don’t you?”
“Not ones I didn’t agree to. And you have a frighteningly over-idealistic view of people.”
Seriah jutted out her chin. “And you have a frighteningly over-cynical one. Why don’t you just leave and be bleak elsewhere?”
He opened his mouth and then shut it and started laughing. “I can’t believe I’m arguing with a girl who renders herself weaponless to save an enemy.”
“Maybe I don’t see you as my enemy.” Seriah scuffed her feet on the stone floor.
“But you see them as your enemy?”
“Hurano’s a pesky insect. One good slap would deal with him. I’d rather have you as an ally than them.”
For an instant, his lips flickered in a smile before it vanished under impassivity. “I will never be your ally, Seriah.”
“Then why did you return my sword?”
“Because it’s yours.” He stalked to the door and glanced back. “Are you coming?”
“I’ll walk you to the castle…in case any insects are still lurking around. Even they can get in a good bite before you slap them.”
Seriah made a face. “If you’re my enemy, why should you care if they hurt me? You said you don’t owe me anything.”
“Maybe I have a sense of honor, after all.”
“What if they catch you again?”
Seriah joined him and they walked side by side across the courtyard. At the castle’s large carven doors, she swept him a curtsey, ever polite, as Imi had taught her. “Thank you for your escort.”
He slanted her an odd look. “I should be thanking you. That was a good throw.”
Seriah grinned. “It was, wasn’t it?”
But before the doors even shut behind her, his hostility was capering with knives across her shoulders again.
The next time, Hurano chose to bully her, in broad daylight, at the practice grounds, while she waited her turn on the wagon, her legs dangling off.
He approached sleepy-eyed but wound tight with anger, the ruffled collar beneath his claret-colored waistcoat making him seem an indignant lapdog. “You ruined our sport, Princess, siding with a commoner.”
Seriah forbore comment, breezily holding her attention on the head guard Ullen circling an opponent.
Hurano shoved her knee, knocking her sideways.
Seriah’s elbow smacked the wood beside her hip. Stonily, she pushed upright.
“Do you have a problem, nobly-man?” Evander strolled around the side of the wagon and put himself between them.
Hurano flushed. “Yes. You.”
“Then attack me, nobly-man, not her.”
“Don’t call me that!”
Evander’s mouth flickered, wicked and taunting. “Is it not what you are? You behave nobly and you’re a man, are you not?”
Seriah stifled a snigger. Hurano’s fingers twitched. A few guardsmen in the shadow of the stables nearby eyed them nervously.
Evander tapped a finger against his lips. “Oh, wait. You don’t behave nobly, do you. You like to torment underlings and insult your princess. Or does that make you not a man?”
Hurano’s hand flew to his sword, but then he glanced around.
The guardsmen had gone silent and watching, and Ullen was extracting himself from combat.
Hurano licked his lips.
Evander lowered his tone. “I don’t want to fight you, nobly-man. I have no intention of paying the price for spilling your blood. That’s why I left you last time without a scratch.”
Redness splotched Hurano’s cheeks. “You’re a coward, you mean.”
“No,” Seriah interjected, “he just has enough brain not to be baited.”
A snort that sounded suspiciously like a laugh came from Evander’s vicinity, but when Seriah glanced his way, any expression had retreated behind apathy.
“What’s going on here?” Ullen stopped before them, sheathing his sword, and Seriah rather thought his strained, sun-leathered features betrayed he would rather step between feral weirs than come between a princess, an ambassador’s son, and a youth who at fifteen already topped most men in height.
Hurano pointed at Evander. “He insulted me. I demand he be removed from the castle grounds and forbidden to step foot here again.”
“And I,” Seriah spoke up without thinking, “as Princess Seriah, only child of Declan III, one-hundred thirty-seventh magnate of the Seven Demesnes, overturn that order and give him free range of the castle grounds.”
Ullen’s gaze swiveled between them, a hunted look in his eyes, and the guards behind him shifted antsily in the same indecision.
Seriah was reviled, but she also trained with them, and Thorn could slit their throats in their sleep if they dismissed her princess.
Looking as though he were consigning himself to the blue hell, Ullen inclined his head. “It will be as you will, Princess.”
For a moment, the words threw Seriah off-kilter. She’d not truly expected Ullen to respect her wishes rather than Hurano’s.
The noble-boy’s eyes glazed over, too, his jaw dropped slightly, but tension flowed from the shoulders of their audience, who gradually resumed their former activities. Two more guards lined up to fight. Ullen made a hasty escape. And Hurano clacked his mouth shut, fury pouring off him as he and his gaping cronies slunk off elsewhere.
Only Evander remained, his narrowed eyes watching her.
An anxious knot formed in her middle, her mind vaguely aware of what she’d just done, and she focused on two guardsmen battling with axes while her palms sweated and dust from the cobblestones blew into her eyes.
Evander bent in close, and every bit of her skin prickled in terror.
His voice pitched so no one could hear. “Giving me free access to your realm was stupid, Princess. To the world, I may show the face of your ally, but I owe you nothing, least of all your life.”
But he hadn’t taken it yet, and Seriah refused to flinch.
Instead, she looked straight into his iron mask of enmity, and she swore to rip that mask away again and again, to ruthlessly use whatever twisted honor he’d shown thus far, by standing staunchly by his side when others stood against him, and making him take off his hostile mask to return her favor every time she did.
Over and over and over.
Until he no longer bothered to don that hostile mask.
And she had. They saved one another time and again.
But whatever grief had driven him to utter that terrible vow would not retract its claws from his heart, no matter how she tried to pry them out, and no matter how warped with feeling he became toward her.
When she was sixteen… [to be continued in the book!]