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Court of Ice and Ash: Chapter 14

Rogue Princess

   

I turned from the peace of the pale moon to find Ari standing in my doorway. His hands clasped, and two guards at his back. When he stepped into my small shanty, the guards remained outside and closed the door on us.

I didn’t reply and faced the moon again.

“I don’t blame you. Those types of conversations are never pleasant.”

“Forgive me, Majesty, but I’m quite tired tonight.”

Ari came to my side, a cautious smile on his lips. He’d allowed a bit of dark scruff to coat his chin. Gold rings pierced his ears, and more kohl lined his eyes. Someone had braided his hair on the sides and pulled it half up. He looked regal and handsome, and I wanted to scream.

“Elise, I would not put you on trial as a traitor.”

“Why say it then?”

“Because I needed him to understand the gravity of our plight.”

I shook my head. “I know being a ruler and leader is never simple. It is not one way or another. There are wretched choices the leaders of this land have made, brutal ones even. But I will not be a piece in the game.”

Ari’s eyes soaked up the moonlight. He nodded. “I did not mean the first threat, but the second . . . it is not such a bad idea. In fact, it’s a rather good one.”

“What?” My brow furrowed. “The part about me being your queen?”

“Why not? I’m fond of you, and you tolerate me.”

“Hardly.”

He chuckled and leaned over the windowsill. “More importantly you are Timoran royalty and have favor with people from both sides. I came here to tell you it is my intention, after I am officially coronated, to ask you to be my queen.”

“Why wait? You could force me now.”

“Elise, I have no need to force lovers.” He titled his head. “And I have not been coronated yet because I wish to earn the throne. You know Etta chooses its rulers. I have . . . I have been unable to bring life back like I did when I touched the moonvane all those weeks ago. I want to be certain I am the king this land needs.”

I held a bit of sympathy for Ari. He wore a look of distress. It wasn’t power he sought, but he truly believed the coincidence of the moonvane blooming under his hand had come from his fury. He took the responsibility as a duty, not aspiration.

I could only pray he would receive the opportunity to hear the truth. That the Night Prince returned. That Valen Ferus restored life. And he was simply a stubborn mule at the moment who refused to take up the same duty.

“Ari . . .” My thoughts jumped in my head. “You don’t want me as your queen.”

“I do.”

“You do not love me.”

“It’s no secret this is a strategic match, but over time emotions strengthen, affection grows. We both care for this land, for fairness, for all people. We would do well together.”

I turned from the window, so he would meet my eye. “Ari, I would challenge you on nearly everything. I’d drive you mad. It is not my nature to remain silent.”

“I never liked silence.”

I snickered and rested a hand against his chest. He was young and ambitious. He was sincere in what he was asking. I could see it in his eyes. “My purpose as a second Kvinna was to produce an advantageous match in Mellanstrad. When I escaped it, I promised myself if I were to ever take vows, it would be done for love. Not rank. Not strategy.”

Ari looked down and covered my hand with his. “It’s a wonderous thought, Elise. But I don’t think your quick refusal is because you do not yet love me, more that your heart was given to another already.”

A flush teased my skin. I eased away and returned to the moon. I didn’t want to talk of this. It was a confession I’d avoided; one I’d feared since Valen Ferus was taken into Ruskig.

Ari ran his fingers through the ends of my hair. A touch so gentle it was hardly there. “You keep secrets from us about Legion Grey and what truly happened between you two. You know why he is the Blood Wraith. Why he despises Ravenspire but will not stand with us.”

“Please don’t ask me. I cannot tell you.”

“I won’t ask. I hope in time you’ll simply tell me on your volition because you trust me.” Ari took a step back. “I’ll leave you now. But you should know, Elise, I will ask you to be my queen. I hope you’ll give it thought. I understand you gave your heart away before, but I am not certain it will be possible for him to return the gesture. Even if he wanted to. I would not turn from you. I would never silence you.”

I hugged my middle. Blood pounded in my ears.

“Well, I’ve said enough,” he said when I remained silent. “Sleep well, Elise.”

Only once he was gone, did I let a tear fall.


Dawn brought cool mists. Ribbons of damp curled around the trees and shanties when I emerged from my own shack. Frosts weren’t far off, and it would be trying to keep people in Ruskig fed if we did not work on storing food.

I draped my shoulders in a fox fur stole and took a woven basket into the shadows of the trees. Ruskig was surrounded by hedgerow, wood, and walls of brambles and moonvane. Its own world.

The grass turned vibrant green with morning dew, and midnight purple at dusk. Green and yellow moss speckled black trees. Creeks and streams were clear blue with white stones on the bed. Deer grazed. Ravens watched in the treetops. Blue, magenta, and glossy black flowers blew in a breeze in a nearby meadow.

Ruskig held magic. This is what the land could be. What it should be.

I kneeled next to a sprawling cloudberry bush. The golden berries were plump and in need of plucking. By the time the sun chased away the mists, half the basket was filled with cloudberries, rowanberries, herbs, and spices.

I reached for a shrub with strange purple fruit. In all my dull lessons from tutors, I couldn’t recall an image or name.

“I wouldn’t touch those if I were you.” I jumped back, startled. She laughed at my surprise. The prisoner who followed Valen. The woman opened her mouth, leaned toward the bush, and breathed deeply. “Yes. Toxic, to be sure.”

My brow furrowed. “How do you know? What did you do?”

“I can taste the poison in them.”

“But you did not eat them.”

“Observant.”

I scoffed. “I hear you are an Alver. I’ve only recently become acquainted with the term. My old steward called himself an Alver.”

“Yes, so I’ve been told. Alvers classify themselves into Kinds. Each Kind has a different sort of magic that utilizes some part of the body and mind. Me, I am called a Profetik, so my senses are heightened. Usually someone like me would see impossible distances, or in pitch night. Or hear better than a wolf. Some even see visions, or warnings. I taste. And those—” she pointed to the berries, “are very much poisonous.”

I recoiled from the bush. “I’ll take your word for it.”

The woman gave me a small nod and turned to a plain shrub with leaves as large as my head. “These, though, help with a cough. There is a scent released when crushed down that soothes.”

I grinned and plucked several of the leaves. “Your magic is a useful trick to have.”

“A coveted one. Profetiks are used across the kingdoms.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. It was unfair to be used for her gifts, but kings and the powerful had been placing themselves above common folk for centuries. This woman was taken and used the same as Calista had been for her twists of fate.

I propped the basket on my hip and watched the woman cup water from the stream and drink. She was lovely. Exotic in a way. Her skin was soft brown, and she kept her black hair in intricate braids.

“I’m Elise.”

“I know.” She wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “I’m Junius. You may call me Junie.”

“Where are you from?”

“A slum called Skítkast. In the East.”

“Oh, my steward, Bevan, said he planned to sail to Skítkast. To live among a smuggling ring for Alvers.”

A shadow passed over Junie’s face. “Then he goes to Niklas. He will be well watched over.”

Her chin quivered. She turned away and began washing dirt from beneath her fingernails. I hesitated, but after a moment I kneeled beside her.

“I didn’t mean to upset you. Who is Niklas?”

Junie’s cheek twitched. She swatted at a tear on her cheek. “My husband.”

I didn’t know the woman, still my hand went to her shoulder. “How long have you been parted?”

“Nearly a turn,” she said, scrubbing her fingers with more vigor. “We were together the day it happened, simply buying supplies, and I was snatched while he haggled with a merchant. Right off the street, the instant his back was turned. The sea is vast, there are numerous kingdoms, and regions. If I had not been freed, I am certain he would never find me.”

“But now?”

She met my eye. “Now, I have new friends who will help me find him again. In the meantime, I will serve here.”

“The Blood Wraith,” I whisper.

“The king. It will be a fine connection to have in the future.”

“Ari is the one keeping you—”

She snickered, bringing me to a quiet. “Come now, we both know I’m not speaking of Ari.”

My mouth parted. “All gods, he told you?”

“His guild felt we ought to know whom we served. He has my loyalty, and in turn he has promised to help me return home.”

“I am grateful you’re loyal, but I fear serving . . . L-Legion . . . will put you in a fight that is not your own.”

She offered a bemused look. “Why do you not call him his true name?”

“I can’t. Not around you, at least,” I said in a huff. “The fool has fury locking my bleeding tongue. I can’t speak of anything.”

Junie laughed and stood, helping me to my feet. “Now it makes sense. After discovering all you risked to free him, I didn’t understand why you kept what you know a secret.”

“I’m not sure I would speak his name even if I could. Clearly, he does not want the role of king, and he has been trapped for so long—why punish him by forcing him to take such a mantle as the crown when he does not want it?”

Junie stayed with me as I gathered the basket. Together we began the walk back into the township.

“Tell me,” I said on the edge of the wood. “Are toxins all you can taste? Or is everything heightened?”

She glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her voice. “There is another tricky talent I have. I’ve not told anyone yet, but I sense you are good and only wish to help Valen.”

I lifted a brow. “I don’t want anything to harm him.”

Junie grinned. “I taste lies.”

Lies? Impossible.”

She snickered. “Not exactly. Mesmer is magic of the body, unlike your earth magic. When folk lie, there is a reaction in their bodies. A rush of blood, perhaps. A quickened pulse. Sweat. I taste the difference.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Yes. Another reason kings seek me out. Bastards. As if I would tell them if they had a traitor in their midst. I’d pray they were assassinated.”

My grip tightened around the basket. “Is that your plan with Legion?”

She beamed. “And that, Elise, is why I told you. You are perhaps the most loyal to him. No, I have not told him my talent, not because I don’t trust him or am plotting against him. It’s more I’m accustomed to keeping it a secret, but I’ve been using it subtly. So far folk here seem quite loyal to Ari and his plans. Will you tell anyone?”

“I suppose you’d know if I lie?”

“Oh, I will.”

“I feel I should tell Legion.”

She grinned again. “I will tell him. Understand the reasons, though, why I do not tell everyone.”

“I won’t give you up. I can’t deny it will be useful. Very useful.”

Junie bobbed her head in a kind of agreement and helped me take the other side of the basket.

“I think he should take his throne,” she said after a moment. “Truth be told, I think he will realize it himself. I’ve seen the grimiest of folk amongst my guild. But I’ve also seen what happens when honorable folk realize their fate. He will find his reason to take his place. And as I said, a king shall be a delightful friend to have.”

She stole a cloudberry from the basket, and popped it onto her tongue, grinning.

“There you are, foreign lovely.” The bulky prisoner sat on a cask with the other man, Tor, and Halvar.

Junie rolled her eyes. “Casper, I have told you my name.”

“But foreign lovely is more mysterious.”

Tor caught my eye, held it for a breath, then walked away. My heart sunk deep in my chest. Halvar grinned and patted the empty space on the cask.

I obliged and sat beside him.

“You are troubled, Kvinna. Tell me what I must do to brighten your spirits.”

I nudged his shoulder with my own. “I’m afraid you are the only one who seems to want me around lately.”

Halvar looked in the direction Tor had gone. “You ought to know by now he was born with an abhorrent temperament. No fun at all.”

“And you are his opposite.”

“I take that as the highest of compliments.” Halvar wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “In truth, don’t mistake him, Elise. He is not angry at you. How can he be? You freed us. It is worry you see from him. Worry of what could happen, what likely will happen, and how we are not in control here. Tor cannot stand being out of control.”

I patted Halvar’s knee. “I swear to you, I will continue to fight for your freedom from the bindings.”

“Hells, we’ll never be free of them,” Halvar said. “Not if my liege does not stop fighting with everyone in this bleeding camp.”

I stood. “Where is he now?”

Fighting.” Halvar pointed toward the stable. “I believe it has only just begun if you’d like to stop it. Unless you’d like to watch. They are rather entertaining.”

Irritation burned in my blood. Valen’s anger was going to be the death of me. These were his people.

I pinched my lips into a tight line and stomped toward the small stable.

The nearer I came the clearer came the shouting.

“Tell me and I’ll consider it.”

“Give them to me.” Valen’s voice was low and dark.

“How did you hide that you were Night Folk? What is the harm in telling me?”

I groaned. This is what we’d become. Bickering children.

With my shoulder I shoved open the door. Mattis leaned against one of the carts, a smug expression on his face. Valen stood five paces away. He’d pulled his hair back and was dressed in a black tunic. For a moment I was drawn back to the nights he’d been assigned as my guard before the coup at Ravenspire.

When he’d kissed and touched me in the old schoolhouse.

How things had changed.

I caught sight at the reason behind Valen’s frustration. Mattis had one of the black axes in his hand. The way he kept flipping it in his grip and inspecting it like a treasure, I had few doubts Mattis was doing it to irritate Valen intentionally.

“I liked you better as a carpenter. You’re rather annoying and I’m in no mood.”

“Well, I liked you better before I learned you were a liar and a thief and a killer.” Mattis laughed softly. “What will you do Blood Wraith? You are bound, you have no weapon, and if you touch me, Elise will be the one harmed.”

Valen’s fists clenched. “It will not always be this way, and I don’t forget those who offend me.”

Mattis dragged a finger down the back edge of the axe. “These are incredible. Such craftsmanship. A true battle axe. I think I might take it. Give it some use for good instead of needless bloodshed.”

Valen took a harsh step toward the carpenter.

“Enough,” I shouted.

They both turned. Mattis’s face flushed pink and Valen smirked—like he once did as Legion Grey. Always composed, always scheming.

“Elise,” he said. “There is nothing wrong here, but I feel I should tell you if your friend the carpenter suddenly goes missing, I had nothing to do with it.”

“You are not going make him disappear.” I frowned and went to Mattis, taking the axe from his hand. “You—stop it.”

“He can’t use them anyway. It’d be a pity letting them go to waste.”

“They are not to be touched,” Valen said.

I held out an arm, blocking him from hitting Mattis.

“Mattis, I’m sorry you feel betrayed,” I said. “But turn your anger to Castle Ravenspire. They have harmed us all; they have given Legion reasons to hide who he is. They were the ones who tortured you, not Legion, not Siv.”

“It is not that he betrayed me—he came to harm you.”

“I would not have harmed her,” Valen insisted. “You know nothing.”

“He doesn’t, does he?” I gave the Night Prince a pointed look until he turned away. Shaking my head, I faced my friend. “Can it be enough to know that he saved me, I saved him, and we trust each other even if you do not understand it?”

Mattis stared at the straw on the ground, jaw tight. “It is enough that I believe he will not slit your throat. But I don’t trust him, and I believe he should be bound indefinitely. He’s dangerous, I see it in his eyes. Like he can’t wait to kill again.”

With that, Mattis turned and left out a different door.

Silence surrounded us. My heart ached; it raced. I glanced at Valen. He didn’t look at me. Instead, he leaned one shoulder against a post, staring at two cross-eyed goats.

“He’s not wrong,” he said, voice soft.

“About?”

“The bloodlust. It remains.”

I pressed a hand against my stomach as it flipped upside down. “You’re still cursed?”

“No,” he said, glancing at me. “I no longer change, but it’s as if the call to slaughter is still there. Pulling me to do unspeakable things.”

I had wanted to touch him for so long. Not as I did when he fevered, not with anger, but in a moment where it was us, calm and alone.

I placed my hand on his arm. He didn’t pull away.

Valen turned into me. We’d become so close. His fingertips touched my cheek, cautiously, as if he fought against the urge to pull back. When he gave in and cupped one side of my face, I leaned against the warmth of his hand, the rough calluses on his skin.

He opened his mouth, then closed it again, reconsidering what he was going to say. The Night Prince pressed a gentle kiss to my forehead. “I cannot lead here as you want, Elise. Not when darkness still lives inside me.”

“You are not darkness, Valen.”

He was slipping away again. Too soon his hands left my skin. “I’ll leave you now.”

“How surprising. You’ve done nothing but avoid me.”

His dark eyes drew me in, like a starless night. “And that is for the best.”

My barely healed heart shattered. Valen refused to see himself as worthy of anything but blood and death.

He once told me his heart beat for me. Mine did the same for him.

As I watched him leave the stables, watched him put distance between us, I broke for wanting him.

I would do all I could to get the Night Prince to see he could be more. He could rise as the man Etta needed, but I would not keep wounding my heart for a man who would not take it for his own.


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