I swallowed, diverting my attention to the strong column of his thick throat. It wasn’t that I didn’t want children. We were a species obsessed with the idea of reproducing. Only one out of two royal babes made it through their infant years due to our bloodline being too much for their tiny bodies and hearts. It wasn’t something we mourned for long, being that we cannot allow the weak into our lineage. When an infant survived long enough to see their second birthday, we celebrated. Only the strongest survived, which ensured we kept our lineage as powerful, pure, and prosperous as possible.
Those amongst a mixed bloodline had their own issues, such as the struggle to carry a babe to term and stillbirth. However, if their newborns survived birth, they had a much greater chance of surviving beyond that than us royals, due to less inherited magic.
“At the risk of being too presumptuous, I’m going to guess you’re not exactly the nurturing type.”
My eyes snapped to Raiden’s. “Presumptuous is right.” Though he was right. I wasn’t nurturing, and should the day come, I feared I wouldn’t be nurturing enough. The last thing this land needed was another tyrant steering the ship. I wouldn’t admit that to him, though. “You know too little about me to assume.”
He didn’t argue with that. “Tell me, Princess, do you really believe our parents’ plan to unite our two kingdoms is going to put our people at ease?”
There’d been talk of rebellion, of riots and spies in different parts of the land. They were the reason I was here, lying face to face with a precarious future I never saw coming. “My father has always been this way.” I rolled to my back. “I don’t know why they’re making a fuss about it now.”
His voice quietened. “Because this past decade he’s grown worse. He’s… unstable. Old.”
No one was more aware of that than I. Still, I scoffed. “Age is but a number.” I hated my father—loathed him with a vehemence unlike any other—yet no amount of hate could ever kill love entirely, no matter how small. “And do you really believe this alliance will quell the people’s concerns?”
A dripping sound ventured into the room from deep within the cellars. “It’s a start,” he said before standing up. “What really happened to your mother?”
Shocked, I didn’t answer for the longest time, and perhaps that was answer enough.
He held his hand out, and I eyed it a moment before sliding mine inside his, relishing the feel and trying to tame the loud echo of my heart.
I rose from the sacks of grain in a swift move that had my hands flying to his chest. I left them there, feeling the hot concrete pound of his own heart beneath my fingertips. “He killed her.” The memory struck me, cleaved me open enough for Raiden to see it within my eyes as he lifted my chin. Leaving my tent to find her, chasing her screams, watching and screaming for her, and then being dragged away by my father… “But it matters not anymore.”
His brows gathered, his thumb a steady, gentle pulse rubbing over my chin. “You were ten summers old. She’d been dancing and drinking at Inkerbine and left the bonfire with a group of males…” Inkerbine was notorious for its partner swapping, inhibition ridding wild ways. It was a celebration of our land, our existence, peace, and it took place every year after a double full moon.
I detested it.
My voice was ice. “She was raped and tortured in the woods by countless men, dead for days before anyone found her.”
“That’s what happened to her?” Raiden’s eyes showed no pity, only vivid curiosity.
I nodded, knowing I’d said too much, and went to leave. “I said nothing. I will deny everything. And then I will feed you your own testicles should I hear that you ran away with this knowledge.”
He grabbed me around the waist, and then I was being pressed into the wall. “Princess, everyone already knows.”
At that, I smiled. “No, they only think they do. Rumors are but false ribbons of truth braided into patterns to suit the weaver.”
He looked at the ground a moment. “I’ve upset you.”
“You couldn’t upset me if you tried.” I fluttered my lashes at him. “Now, excuse—”
His rough exhale and the wild dancing within his eyes were all the warning I had before his lips were on mine, and my hands were over my head, attached to the wall by his as he pried my mouth open and set my entire world aflame.
His tongue didn’t enter, but his breath did, scorching and heating my throat while he rubbed his bottom lip between my lips. I’d never been kissed like that before. I never knew such tenderness could feel so vicious, as though it might just casually stroll in and lay something vital inside you to waste.