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Two Twisted Crowns: Part 1 – Chapter 2

Elm

The Prince rode faster than the other two Destriers. When he dismounted at the old brick house, Elm Rowan was struck by how still the world seemed when he was not on horseback. It unnerved him.

A mourning dove cooed. Elm took off his gloves, dipping his hand into his tunic pocket, the feel of velvet at the edges of his Scythe Card a familiar comfort.

He came to the front door, his gloves stretching at the knuckles as he wrapped his fingers in a fist. The door was aged, traces of lichen sheltering in the crags. The whole north side of the estate was covered in moss and ivy, as if the forest was dragging Hawthorn House deeper into its depths, vines thick as a man’s arm wrapping around the chimney, serpentine.

No one was inside the house. The warning had come days ago. Still, Elm pressed his ear to the door and listened.

Nothing. No muffled shouts of children, no ring of iron pots from the kitchen. Not even a dog barking. The house was still, as if kept that way by the tendrils of greenery reaching in from the mist.

The Destriers arrived behind him and dropped from their horses. “Sire?” Wicker said.

Elm opened his eyes and exhaled. He had no mind to command them. But Ravyn had made himself scarce, and Jespyr had remained at Stone to keep an eye on Emory, leaving Elm—petulant to his bones—to do the King’s bidding and look for Elspeth Spindle’s missing kin.

“It’s empty,” he muttered through his teeth. “Opal Hawthorn is no fool. She and her children would not have come back to this place.”

“Her husband seemed to think they’d be here,” the second Destrier—Gorse—muttered.

Elm twisted the brass handle and pulled Hawthorn House’s door open, the rusted hinges shrieking. “Tyrn Hawthorn would say anything to be free of the dungeon.”

“He’s got Cards,” Wicker said pointedly. “To hear him boast, you’d think old Tyrn had collected the Deck himself.”

“Then the least we can do is relieve him of his greatest treasures. Search the house.” Elm cast an eye over his shoulder to the sky. “Quickly. I’d like to outride those clouds.”

They took to the library first, emptying shelves, shaking old tomes until the house smelled of leather and dust. “I found a Prophet!” Gorse hollered through a row of mahogany shelves.

Elm drew his finger across the uneven mantel. The stones were cracked, but the mortar held firm—no hidden space to hide a Card. He stepped out of the library and started up the stairs. Oval niches held worn-down candles, every stone in the wall housing a shadow.

The first room off the stairwell was upturned, clothes and blankets and an odd sock strewn about. Two narrow beds, two wooden swords. The room of Elspeth’s young cousins, Elm guessed.

The next room was markedly more feminine. Elm lingered at the threshold, drawing cold air into his nose—the scents of wool and lavender. A quilt lay on the bed, the linens unwrinkled, neatly tucked. A small table with chipped green paint held a candle, and next to it, an oval looking-glass. Just below the looking-glass sat a fine-toothed comb.

Trapped in the wooden teeth were several strands of long black hair.

“There is nothing left of her here,” a voice called from behind Elm’s shoulder. “Whatever Elspeth took from this place, she carries with her.”

Elm jumped, his hand dropping to his belt. A ring of steel cut through the hallway and he pivoted, slicing his knife toward the voice.

He stopped the blade just before it grazed Ione Hawthorn’s throat.

She stood before him, clad in white like a bride. Long and flowing, her dress fell to the floor. Her yellow hair caught the hallway draft, and when she stared at Elm, her pink lips pursed, forming a question she did not speak.

Her gaze dropped to his knife. “Prince Renelm.”

His mind was racing, a rhythmic discord against the heaving of his chest. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“It’s my home. Why shouldn’t I be here?”

Elm clenched his jaw. He jerked the knife away, slipping it back into place on his belt. “Trees, Hawthorn, I might have killed you.”

Her voice held a fine point, like the tip of a needle. “I doubt that.”

Elm dug at his pocket for the familiar comfort of his Scythe. He had not used his red Card in four days—not since that night at Spindle House.

After the Destriers had been called and Hauth, broken and bloody, carried away, Ravyn had put Erik Spindle and Tyrn Hawthorn in chains. Jespyr had ridden to Hawthorn House to warn Elspeth’s aunt, Opal Hawthorn, that the Destriers were coming. And Elm—Elm had tapped his Scythe three times and compelled what remained of Elspeth’s family to flee. Her stepmother, Nerium, her half sisters, Nya and Dimia—

And her cousin, Ione Hawthorn. They had all vanished into the night, not a trace of them remaining.

Until now.

Ione stood in front of Elm, looking up at him with sharp hazel eyes. She reminded him of fresh parchment. Unblemished, full of promise. The Maiden Card did that—made its beholder look unbearably new. It struck Elm as odd that she would still carry the pink Card of beauty here, alone in Hawthorn House, so far from the scrutiny of Stone’s court.

He leaned closer, his shadow swallowing her whole. “It’s not safe for you to be here.”

Ione’s eyes widened. But before she could speak, footsteps sounded behind her.

Gorse stopped in his tracks at the top of the stairs, his gaze trained on Ione.

“If you’re looking for my father, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” she said, eyeing him with disinterest. “I’m alone. My family is elsewhere, without so much as a note.”

Gorse’s brow lowered. He turned to Elm. “Sire?”

More steps sounded on the stairwell. “Holy shit.” Wicker stopped just behind Gorse, his fingers sliding to the hilt of his sword.

Ione’s lips drew into a firm line. “I seem to be missing something. Why are you here?” Her gaze darkened. “Is Hauth with you?”

“The High Prince is at Stone, clinging to life,” Gorse snapped. “Attacked, by your cousin. All because your family didn’t have the stomach to burn her when they had the chance.”

Ione glanced at Wicker’s hand, which rested in a stranglehold over his hilt. “My cousin,” she whispered, drawing the words out. The needle in her voice returned. “What did Hauth do to her?”

“Nothing more than she deserved,” Gorse replied.

Ione’s expressions were few. But her eyes held a tell. Elm might have studied her face more, had Wicker not been gripping his sword. “Stay your hand, Destrier,” he said.

Gorse’s hand dropped to his own sword. “The King will want her right away.”

“Trees.” Elm reached into his pocket once more for the Scythe. When his fingers snagged velvet, he tapped it. “Ignore her,” he commanded the Destriers. “Keep looking for Cards.”

Their hands went slack on their hilts. Gorse and Wicker blinked and looked away, a glassy sheen over their eyes.

Elm jerked forward, his hand closing around Ione’s arm. “Not another word,” he warned. He wrenched her forward, pushing past the Destriers and hurrying down the stairs.

The sound of Ione’s bare feet slapping against stone floors echoed in the empty house. When they reached the parlor, she wrenched her arm free. “What’s going on?”

Elm’s throat caught, his voice rough. “Your cousin Elspeth—” No, not Elspeth anymore. He clenched his jaw. “She tore into Hauth at Spindle House. Broke his spine. He’s hardly alive. My father is out for blood. His inquest—” His eyes swept over Ione, a chill crawling over him. “I have to bring you to Stone.”

Ione did not flinch. She hardly even blinked. “So do it.”

“You don’t—” He took a steadying breath. “Clearly, you do not understand.”

“But I do, Prince. Had you not come and offered yourself as an escort, I would have found my own way to Stone.”

“I’m not your goddamn escort,” Elm bit back. “I’m arresting you.”

Ione turned to face him, but her expression remained unchanged—utterly blank. She should have been crying. Or screaming. It was what most people did when they faced an inquest. But she was just…calm. Eerily so.

Elm looked her up and down, an acrid taste in his mouth. “You’ve been using that Maiden Card too long, haven’t you? Where is it?”

“Why? Would you like to borrow it, Prince?” Ione studied Elm’s face. “It might help with those dark circles beneath your eyes.”

She didn’t wait for him to scrape together a reply. She opened the front door, the clamor of rainfall loud on Hawthorn House’s thatched roof. Elm’s exhale met the cold air, his patience for difficult weather—and difficult women—scant on the simplest of days.

“Forget the Maiden, then.” He pushed past her, her white dress stirring in his wake. “Do you at least have your charm?”

Ione pulled a gold chain out from the neckline of her dress. On it was her charm, a horse tooth, by the looks of it. A token to keep her mind and body safe in the mist. She glanced back at Hawthorn House. “What’s become of my family?”

“Your father’s at Stone, along with Erik Spindle. Your mother and brothers are gone—disappeared. Nerium and her daughters, too.” He looked away. “Your cousin is chained at the bottom of the dungeon.”

Ione stepped outside. She plucked a wet leaf from a hawthorn tree and ran it through her fingers. Droplets cascaded down the branch onto the tip of her nose and down the crease of her lips. When she said her cousin’s name, it came out a whisper—soft as a child’s secret. “Elspeth.”

She looked up at Elm. “She kept so many things hidden, even from me. I’d hear her footsteps in the hall at night, after we’d all gone to sleep. I listened to the songs she hummed. She spoke like she was carrying on a conversation, though she was so often alone. And her eyes,” she murmured. “Black. Then, in a flash, yellow as dragon’s gold.”

The lie slipped out of Elm before he could think. “I know nothing of that.”

“No?” Ione tucked her damp hair behind her ear. “I thought you might, seeing as you spent time with her at Castle Yew after Equinox. You, Jespyr, and of course, the Captain of Destriers.”

A thousand worries stabbed at Elm. The King knew Elspeth Spindle could see Providence Cards. He did not know that was precisely why Ravyn had recruited her. That Ravyn and Jespyr and Elm, the King’s chosen guard, had brought an infected woman into their company to steal Providence Cards. To unite the Deck. To lift the mist and heal the infection.

To save Ravyn’s brother Emory.

To commit treason.

Glass cut through his mind. The Scythe. He’d forgotten he was still compelling Gorse and Wicker. Elm reached into his tunic—tapped the velvet three times—and the pain ceased.

Ione watched his hand in his pocket.

Thunder rolled. Elm looked up at the sky and shivered. “It’s going to storm.” He led Ione to his horse. “It won’t be an easy ride.”

She said nothing. When Elm lifted her onto the horse, she pulled her dress over her knees and swung her leg astride. He climbed up behind her, his jaw flexing when she settled into the saddle, the curve of her backside pressing into him. Her hair smelled sweet.

He spurred his horse. Hawthorn House disappeared into the wood, its final resident taken from its threshold in a flurry of rainwater and mud.

Ione leaned against his chest, her eyes lost on the road. Elm glanced down at her, wondering if she understood the fate that awaited her at Stone. If she knew this was likely the last time she’d leave her family’s home and travel the forest road. If she’d look back.

She didn’t.


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