“Because she didn’t think she could, and then along came you,” he said, bluntly. “She would never leave you.”
I scoffed. “She couldn’t take me with her?”
“You’d have been hunted.”
I was painfully aware of that. “A shorter life spent with someone I loved might have been preferable.”
“Your father would not have killed you.”
To that, I snorted, uncaring how unladylike it was. “He’d have done far worse than kill me. But you’re right. I’d be kept alive.” I was his only heir. “Dead everywhere it counted, but alive.”
Kash sat with that a minute, his eyes flicking to me a few times before he blew out a frustrated breath.
“Exactly,” I said, quiet as I absorbed the sight of the castle looming far off in the distance.
“You really tortured Nova?” His tone, the question, seemed impassive.
I didn’t much care if he cared. “I did.” I sniffed, lifting my chin. “I’ve yet to figure out what her game is, but I can assure you, she is not what she seems.”
Kash laughed, and I almost jerked at the dark, musical sound. “The same could be said of you.” He paused. “I’ve known her for most of her life. You could say she’s like a little sister to me.” Another pause as I felt his gaze upon my profile. “Are you not afraid of the repercussions for hurting someone we care about? For abusing the female Zad loves?”
His use of present tense didn’t slip by me.
If his aim was to upset me, it was working. My voice was too gentle for such vicious words. All the better to let him know I refused to be toyed with. “Darling faerie,” I purred, smiling his way. “Haven’t you heard?” His brows scrunched. “Monsters fear nothing. You’d do well to remember that.” At my urging, Wen took off over the hills, and my hair came loose, flying behind me as his hooves sent dust-shrouded wind sailing back at Kash.
He didn’t follow.
Between one village and the next, I tugged on the reins, my breathing harsh and my heartbeat erratic, booming in my ears.
I refused to cry.
I would never reduce myself to such a state over a male.
They were to be used. To be enjoyed. To be kept at a safe distance from the heart.
How many times would I need to remind myself of that before I finally fucking learned?
Sniffing, I closed my eyes, the iced breeze washing over my face as Wen trotted closer to home.
When I reopened them, I discovered we weren’t alone, and I prepared to run.
“Uh, uh, uh.” A gentleman with a wiry beard wearing camouflage green waggled his finger. “We have a message from your king.” I lifted my brows as his friends, a woman and a mixed male, stepped out from the gnarled cluster of brambles to join him.
“Well,” I snapped, impatient and wary. “Tell me this message so I can be on my way.”
The woman frowned, speaking low but still loud enough for me to hear. “What in the darkness is the queen doing out on her own?”
“Good question,” the man with the beard said, stroking it as he eyed me. “We were to pass this message on to one of your village messengers.” His head tilted as he no doubt took in my flushed cheeks, crumpled dress, and tangled hair. “You’ve saved us the trouble… but why?”
Of course, the messengers of the kingdoms loved their jobs; they not only did it for the coin it provided but for the gossip too.
“None of your business.” I turned Wen to leave.
Before I could skirt around them, the woman said, “The king said to tell you he has your witch.”
A ting sounded as I plucked my dagger from its sheath on my thigh.
The male and bearded man took a step back while the woman gulped, raising her hands. “Apparently, she’s fine, M-Majesty. Perfect health.”
“What does he want with her?” I asked through gritted teeth, alarm snaking through every nerve ending. My hand clenched around the hilt so hard, it would bruise.
“He wants a trade,” the male said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You for her.”
I wanted to scream. To bellow to the useless, nonexistent goddesses above.
I wanted to run from this stupid continent and never look back.
But I couldn’t.
The male watched me lift my dress and return my dagger to its home, his cheeks coloring when I raised my brows at him. “Send word that I’ll be there by sundown tomorrow.”
They all blinked, and I knew they were about to ask how. They’d soon find out.
“Run,” I said to Wen, flicking grass and dirt in our wake, galloping to the castle.
We reached it within the hour, and I left him at the stables with Olin, the young stable hand blinking profusely as I ran off through the gardens and scaled the steps to the mountain paths.
Breathing hard, I soon walked inside the caves and smiled when Vanamar grumbled at me.