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Two Twisted Crowns: Part 2 – Chapter 18


Elm watched the party ride away, Ravyn’s note crumpling in his hand. I’ll see you soon.

He pushed his hair out of his eyes and turned, keeping the gap between himself and his father wide. “Was this your doing?”

The King’s gaze was fixed on the road ahead, his cloak billowing in the chill autumn air. “You’re my son. You belong here.”

“You never cared where I was or what I did before.”

“I had little reason to until now.” The King shot him a sidelong glance. “I’m told you sent the guards away from Ione Hawthorn’s door last night. And that you spoke with her.”

Elm clenched his jaw.

The King’s timbre resembled the bark of one of his hounds. “Her family are vile, treasonous vultures.”

“What Tyrn said at the inquest was true enough,” Elm said, weighing his words. “Kill her, and people will talk. They’ll find out about Hauth. And about who you put him in bed with for a Nightmare Card. Perhaps your court will take a harder look at you, Father. They’ll see, for a man so wholly condemning of the infection, that you sure keep interesting company. Orithe Willow. Ravyn. Infected.”

Displeasure deepened the lines in the King’s face. “What,” he said, wine on his bitter breath, “would you have me do?”

It began to rain. Elm winced against it, shrouding his voice in disinterest. “Keep Ione Hawthorn close. She can give your excuses for Hauth’s absence. A symbol that all is as it ever was. For now.”

In the distance, thunder rolled. The King’s hand was ungloved, swollen and calloused, brutalized with age and years of swordplay. With it, he took the crown from his head. Examined it. “It rattles me to the bone, seeing your brother,” he said in a low voice. “Even with his Black Horse and Scythe, he broke so easily—” He winced against the wind. “Life is fragile. The line of kings, fragile.”

Elm had never spoken to his father speak like this, just the two of them, trading quiet words—not ever. It made his skin crawl. “Is that why Ravyn goes and I must remain? A pretense of strength?”

“Use your brain,” the King snapped. “We may pretend at it, but nothing is as it was. Even should Hauth wake and face the kingdom once more, his spine is in tatters. He will never sire an heir—the Physicians are certain.” He took Elm by the shoulder, his fingers prodding into weary, aching muscle. “I have Blunder to think of. Five hundred years of rule to think of.”

Elm stared into his father’s eyes, the words burning in his throat. “And so you reach deep into your pile of shit and pull the second Prince back into the light.”

The King’s grip tightened. “The throne of Blunder is Rowan. It is under our namesake tree that the Deck will be united. The mist will be lifted, the infection cured. When I die, I will be buried with my father and grandfather and their grandfathers in the rowan grove.” His gaze dropped to the crown in his other hand. “And you, Renelm, will be the one to take my place.”

Elm jerked out of his father’s grasp. His body was screaming—denying. Bile churned, escaping up his throat into his mouth. “I don’t want your throne. Hauth may yet—he may—”

“No. He will not.” The King placed the crown back onto his head. He looked weathered, the wind and rain washing all pretense from him. He was just a drunk old man, grieving.

And somehow, that made it so much worse. Anger, Elm had come to expect. His father had always been a man of wrath and an abrupt, exacting temper. But this resignation—Elm did not know it. Could not stomach it.

He pulled away from the King.

“Where are you going?”

“To see Jespyr.”

“She left with Emory this morning for Castle Yew.”

Ravyn, Jespyr, now Emory, gone. Elm bit the inside of his cheek and kept going, hail pelting him as he crossed back into the bailey.

“I’ll expect you at court tonight,” his father called into the wind.

“I won’t be there.”

“You will, Renelm. You’ll resign as Destrier. And you and Ione Hawthorn will pretend all is as it ever was, until I am ready to announce your succession. And her execution.”

Elm slept the day away. He might have rolled over onto his stomach and slept through the night as well, but the echoing clamor of dinner in the great hall swept up the stairs. He woke with a start, heart pounding, sweat on his brow and chest, certain there was something he must do—something he’d forgotten.

Hawthorn. He ripped the blankets off. Ravyn and Jespyr and Emory might be gone, but Elm was far from aimless. He’d no desire to twiddle his thumbs and wait for his father to christen him heir—he had a promise to keep. A Maiden Card to find.

He stripped and scrubbed himself clean with cold water, wondering with a shiver what would happen if the King sought to kill Ione Hawthorn before they found her Maiden Card. Would she die? Or would the Maiden’s magic heal her, even from a fatal blow?

His stomach knotted at the thought.

He left his chamber in a fresh black tunic and hurried down the corridor, gnashing his teeth against the raucous sound of court wafting through the castle. He knew what he would find in the great hall. Men, slipping Providence Cards between their fingers, talking too loudly of magic and money and Card trade. Mothers, ready to thrust their daughters onto his arm. His own father, grunting into his goblet, surveying his court, as if everything he held in his pitiless green eyes was owed to him.

“You look like you’re about to hurl yourself down those stairs, Prince,” a voice called from behind.

Elm’s hand crashed into his pocket. He tapped velvet only twice before his brain caught up with his fingers. “Spirit and trees, Hawthorn, you have to stop doing that.”

Ione stood half in shadow, half in light. “Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “I’d thought you’d heard me.”

Her hair was fastened in a tight knot at the nape of her neck, and someone had given her a new dress. It was dark, grayish-blue, the color of deep, icy water. It hugged her poorly, marring the shape of her curved body. The fabric bunched at her neck, secured by a gray ribbon just below her jaw, collar-like.

Two figures emerged out of shadow behind Ione. They weren’t the same sentries from her chamber door last night. They stood too tall—too broad—to be castle guards. And, unlike the castle guards, when they beheld Elm, they didn’t cower.

Destriers. Allyn Moss and, to Elm’s bottomless chagrin, Royce Linden.

“Gents,” Elm said, offering them a mocking bow.

They lowered their heads in reply. Moss’s eyes dropped. Linden’s didn’t.

“They’ve moved you to the royal wing, I see,” Elm said to Ione. His gaze returned to the Destriers. “And you are—”

“Miss Hawthorn’s guards,” Linden replied.

“Not anymore. I’ll see to that.”

The Destriers exchanged a glance, and Linden’s voice hardened. “The King wants a keen eye kept on her, lest she try to escape.”

“I have two eyes, and they’re keen enough.” Elm pulled his Scythe out of his pocket, a quiet threat. “You’re dismissed, Destriers. Enjoy your evening.”

Moss hurried down the hall. Linden’s pace was slower. He muttered something that sounded like bloody git as he passed, his eyes narrow as they darted between Elm and Ione.

Ione watched him go. Her face conveyed little, but Elm searched it anyway. When she caught him looking, he fixed his mouth with a lazy smile and offered her his arm. “I should warn you, I’m a horrid dinner companion.”

Ione’s hand pressed into his sleeve. The smell of her hair—floral, sweet—filled his nose. “That makes us a pair.”

They walked in silence to the grand stairwell. The steward opened his mouth to announce them, but was quieted by a flick of Elm’s wrist. Still, heads turned in their wake. Conversations went quiet as Elm and Ione—whom they all still assumed to be the future Queen—strode down the stairs. There were smiles, bows. Elm returned none of them.

Neither did Ione.

Elm peered down at her dark, shapeless dress. “Insulted the tailor, have we?”

“The tailor?”

“Your attire.” His gaze swept down her body. “It’s…it’s a bit…”

Ione’s voice went flat. “Please, continue. I live and breathe to hear your opinion of my gown, Prince Renelm.”

“If you could even call it that.” Elm plucked at the ribbon along her neck, his finger grazing the underside of her jaw. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

“All my dresses are back at Hawthorn House. Your father sent this one to my room.”

“With his two dimmest Destriers in tow, I see.”

Ahead, music swelled in the great hall, the climax of a jig. “Then your ploy during the inquest was a success.”

“To a point.” Elm leaned down, his voice in her ear. “My father wishes to keep everything under his thumb. Including you.” He grimaced. “And, more effectively, me. We’re to pretend nothing happened—speak nothing of your cousin or uncle or father—and certainly nothing of Hauth.”

Ione raised her brows. “What excuse am I to give for my betrothed’s absence?”

“Hauth is ill, but recovering.”

The great hall was loud, the King’s court well into their cups. Some remained seated while others gathered in groups, swaying to the music. Voices clamored against stone walls. Cheeks flushed and clothes shifted from dancing, the hall rife with forfeit sobriety.

The King’s table was lifted on a dais similar to the one in the throne room. From it, green eyes watched. When Elm faced them, he noted the demand, expectancy, and annoyance stamped across his father’s face. He knew what the King wanted. On his right side, in the seat that had only ever been Hauth’s, there was a vacancy. An empty chair.

The High Prince’s chair.

Elm pinned Ione’s hand against his arm. There was no way in hell he was going up there alone.

She scowled down at his hand. “What are you—”

“One last stipulation, Hawthorn,” he said through tight lips. He shot his father a void smile, pulling Ione with him to the dais. “If you want free rein of the castle, I am to be your chaperone.”

Her exhale was a hiss. When they stood before the King, chins tilting in stiff reverence, Ione’s eyes were so cold Elm felt a pinch of guilt for dragging her up there.

The King’s displeasure was poorly masked. Still, he offered a curt nod, eyes flickering to his court, aware of the eyes upon him. His gaze returned to Ione, bleary yet narrow, lingering a moment too long over her body—her poorly fitting dress. The corner of his lip twitched.

In that moment, he looked all the world like Hauth.

Elm slammed his hand into his pocket. Only this time, the Scythe’s velvet edge did nothing to soothe him. But three taps—three taps and he could make his father roll his eyes so far back into his head he’d stop seeing straight. His finger twitched against the red Card’s velvet edge, the idea headier than any wine.

Ione merely held the King’s gaze, the frost in her eyes shifting to disinterest. She yawned.

“Sit,” the King barked at them.

The only empty chair was Hauth’s. On its right sat Aldys Beech, the King’s treasurer, along with his wife and son.

Elm didn’t bother to glance at them. “Shove over.”

Beech’s eyes, already too large for his head, bulged. “But, sire, the King has gifted us these seats—”

“I don’t give a flying f—”

“What Prince Renelm means,” Ione said, her voice easy, “is that, while he merely warms Prince Hauth’s seat, that seat,” she said, gesturing to the chair under Beech’s narrow bottom, “belongs to me, your future Queen.” She threw her gaze over her shoulder at Elm. “Unless you’d like to see me take my seat atop the Prince’s lap.”

Beech’s eyes widened further—as did his wife’s and son’s. They brooked no further argument. Fleeing either her beauty or wrath, the Beech family not only vacated Ione’s seat, but the dais altogether.

There was no getting comfortable. Elm half expected spikes to shoot out of Hauth’s chair and impale him, the wood sensing his master’s absence, conscious that the spare had taken his place.

What Ione had said about sitting in his lap hadn’t helped him settle.

Elm ate quickly, waiting for his father to be distracted so that he and Ione might slip away from the wretched dais and continue their search for her Maiden Card.

But his father’s focus was never long spent. King Rowan spoke to courtiers in grunts and nods, his gaze forward—but Elm was certain he was watching him. He was like a schoolmaster, waiting for his least-favorite pupil to step out of line.

When the gong chimed ten times, Elm let out a groan. “What a waste of time.”

“You’re in a mood,” Ione said into her goblet, her heart-shaped mouth stained red along the inside of her lips.

“I’m always in a mood.”

“A family trait, perhaps.”

That set his teeth on edge. “You’re not half as funny as you think you are, Hawthorn.”

She took another drink. “I wouldn’t know where to start, making a Rowan laugh.”

Elm pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m being an ass.” He flung a hand toward the great hall. “It comes easy, in this place.”

“So your terrible mood has nothing to do with the party that left the castle this morning? The one with Elspeth and Ravyn Yew?”

Elm lifted his head from his hands, his eyes slow to focus. He ran his thumb along the rim of his goblet. “Who told you that?”

“The Destrier with marks on his face—Linden.” She touched the high collar of her dress. “I think he thought it might hurt me, knowing my cousin was free of the castle and I wasn’t.”

“Did it?”

“It might have, once. I might have cried for the loneliness of it all.” Her voice frosted over. “But I don’t cry anymore.”

The pinch of guilt Elm had felt for dragging her up to the dais wrenched. He looked out over the great hall. Still too early to dance, most of court was still seated at the long table, their goblets ever full, tended by servants who expertly wove through the hall. Those who stood came in a slow line to the dais, offering words of praise to his father and his council or asking after Hauth.

They should have been looking for Ione’s Maiden Card, not wasting the evening on pageantry.

Once, he’d thought it necessary. He’d told Elspeth Spindle as much on Market Day. It’s pageantry that keeps us looking like everyone else.

Elm drained his goblet, then reached for Ione’s, using the opportunity to speak into her ear. “I have another idea how we might find your Card.” His breath stirred a loose strand of hair that framed her face. “But you may not care for it.”

“I don’t care for anything anymore, Prince. That’s entirely the problem.”

It was loud in the great hall. No one would find it strange that Elm might speak so near her ear. What was strange was Ione’s quick intake of breath when he’d leaned close. The brush of pink in her cheeks. The gooseflesh along the nape of her neck.

Elm noted them all. It seemed, despite her many protestations, Ione Hawthorn could feel some things.

He hadn’t heard the shuffling of feet. Shadows danced in Elm’s periphery. He was still looking at Ione’s neck when a feminine voice from below the dais said, “Good evening, Prince Renelm.”

Elm pulled back—dragged his eyes forward. Wayland Pine, with his wife and their three daughters, stood before the King, the eldest slightly ahead of the rest. It was she who had spoken.

Elm couldn’t for the life of him remember her name.

Like the Pines, the King was waiting for Elm to respond, wearing a glower that conveyed just how little effort it would take to reach over and throttle his son in front of them.


Elm winked at his father, fixing his face with his custom brand of petulant, courtly charm. “The Pine family. How delightful.” He turned to Wayland. “I was sorry to hear about your Iron Gate Card.” His bruised hand flexed beneath the table. “Nasty things, highwaymen.”

Wayland Pine, the poor bastard, looked close to tears at the mention of the Providence Card Ravyn had rid him of several weeks ago. “Thank you, my Prince.” He bowed, his hand on his eldest daughter’s back, pushing her slightly forward. “You remember Farrah, my eldest.”

Elm hardly did. “Of course. Are you long at Stone, Miss Pine?”

Farrah’s eyes flickered to the King. “For a week, Your Grace. For the feasts.”

“For which we are most grateful to be invited,” Wayland chimed, another bow.

The King raised a hand, acceptance and dismissal in a single gesture.

The Pines shuffled back, Farrah bidding Elm a backward glance. “What feasts?” he said to his father, watching the Pines disappear into the crowd.

The King leaned back in his chair. “Beginning tomorrow night, there will be six feasts. On the sixth, you will choose a wife.”

It came quickly, Elm’s rage. Like flames licking through a grate, he felt heat all over him. He tried to swallow it, but the pain of it was already there. His palms hurt. His eyes burned. His molars pressed so hard into each other they felt fused. For an instant, he considered flipping the table over.

If the King felt his rage, he made no note of it. “Your time under Ravyn’s wing has ended. I should have married you off years ago.”

With that, the King severed the discussion. He stood from his seat, everyone on the dais besides Elm and Ione standing in reverence as they watched the King and the two Destriers that shadowed him quit the great hall.

Elm felt reckless. He opened his mouth to call after his father, to unleash some of the venom pooling on his tongue, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

“You have the look of someone who’s about to break something,” Ione said in an even voice.

He wanted to. Elm didn’t know what, but he vowed something would shatter.

Ione’s grip on his arm tightened. So tight that when she stood, she pulled Elm with her. “Come, Prince. Let’s get drunk.”


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