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The Savage and the Swan

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The king of wolves was more beast than man, more tyrant than king, and so much more than he seemed.
Raised to avenge his murdered parents, he’d been trained and conditioned until nothing but violence and hatred lined the walls of his dead heart.

For nearly four years, I’d done all I could to help my kingdom as we faced the wolf king’s unconquerable evil—hardly anything at all.
As the only heir to the Gracewood line, I’d been relegated to menial tasks that would keep me and my secrets safe.

A chance to do more than fret behind our castle walls arrived when I breached them after overhearing my parents’ plans for my future. Fleeing, I unknowingly raced into a fate we’d all desperately hoped to avoid.

By the time I saw him coming, it was far too late. For my family. For my kingdom.
For my heart.
Before I could staunch the bleeding, the king had me under his giant paw, and one wrong move after another caused those razor-sharp claws to sink deeper and deeper beneath my bruised skin.

I might have been trapped, naïve, and furious, but I still had a kingdom to save—and a plan.
Yet when we collided, the bloodshed, the fear, his atrocities... all of it dissolved like stardust upon the night sea.

The stars had mapped out our destiny, but it didn’t matter what they or my heart wanted.
I refused to see the enigmatic male, the heartless lost boy with a soul beneath the flesh of a monster.
The savage king who’d destroyed everything I loved would fall—even if my heart fell with him.

Inspired by Hades and Persephone, Rumpelstiltskin, and The Swan Princess, The Savage and the Swan is not connected to any other Ella Fields novel. It’s a full-length standalone romantic fantasy containing mature content.

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The Savage and the Swan

Copyright © 2021 by Ella Fields

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, resold or distributed in any form, or by any electronic or mechanical means, without permission in writing from the author, except for brief quotations within a review.

This book is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Editor: Jenny Sims, Editing4Indies

Formatting: Stacey Blake, Champagne Book Design

Cover design: Sarah Hansen, Okay Creations







































For those who love with a ferocity that reinstalls faith and burns through armor.

My hand fell away from the door I’d been about to open to bid my parents good night.

“The human prince?” my mother cried. “To hand her to him, to them, is not only a betrayal to our daughter but it is an insult to everything we’ve built while suffering their presence in these lands.”

“You think me unaware of that?” my father boomed. Frozen, I waited, withering on the spot as his voice softened. “We have no other choice, Nikaya. It’s this or await the map of the stars to unfold, and we both know what he will do to her, to any of us, should he be given the opportunity.”

My mother gave no response, and I could picture her serene face mottled with concern, ruby cheeks twisting with her worrisome thoughts.

“They will take her, this I know, and although she might not care for the prince, nor he for her, she will be safe.”

“Safe?” My mother half laughed; . “They may fear us and do our bidding, but make no mistake, Althon, they mock us all the same,” she seethed, her voice uncharacteristically cold. “They will be anything but pleasant to her.”

Water welled in my eyes, my hand shaking as I lifted it to open the door. My father’s next words stopped me. “Better for her to be uncomfortable than to be tortured or to meet her end before she can produce an heir like Joon. This grants protection and therefore time for Opal to ensure the Gracewood line continues.”

I turned away at that and raced downstairs to the empty kitchens below, my nightgown fluttering behind me, catching the gathering wind as I exploded through the door and into the rear gardens. Uncollected fruit and leaves splattered and crunched, but I didn’t stop.

The sky deepened with darkness as I forced my feet to carry me faster through the ankle-deep grass. As I tried to outrace my thundering heart.

The swish of the blades, the lavender fields, the stars overhead, and the spray of dirt beneath my bare feet were the only witnesses to my escape.

I ran for the shelter of the pitch-black woods—to the path through them I’d memorized by heart as a child long before the attacks and bloodshed began—and I didn’t stop until I’d reached the mouth of the low-lying cave.

There, I crawled through, rising to my full height as the tunnel grew deeper while yawning slowly down toward the cliffside of the ravine. The dead tree, hollowed out and nearly as wide as the castle towers, blocked the exit. I walked through it, desperate to escape the damp dirt and feel the breeze and starlight upon my wet cheeks once more.

A branch, gnarled and blanketed in moss, tucked against the inner belly of the tree, awaited my soiled feet. Up they climbed until my head breached the hole, and I could grip the knots on either side of it to haul myself up to sit aside the opening.

For precious moments, I just breathed, the bark warm and rough against my legs, my feet dangling high over the water that trailed beneath the tree. It danced its way between the two lands, turning the numerous bends as it gradually headed out to sea.

The moon’s reflection wrinkled and warped, the stars winking within the ripples and gurgling bubbles. This tree hadn’t always been here, though it’d been here far longer than I had. Long ago, two gigantic bridges kept Nodoya and its mystical kingdoms of Sinshell and Vordane joined—its people united.

They said we were once a whole. Though something told me that wasn’t precisely true, else there would never have been such a divide. A crack was all we needed to create a chasm. And a chasm would only grow and deepen over time.

Staring down into the ravine widened from war and hatred, the rotted remains of wood and stone from decimated ships and a long-ago bridge, I cursed and brushed my hand beneath my nose, willing my eyes to dry. I’d known since I was a youngling that I’d be forced to marry and likely before I was ready, but I had never dared to think it would turn out like this.

That most suitors would be dead—and the only one who remained was human.

It wasn’t that I hated the idea of marrying a human. Quite the opposite. Prince Bron was handsome. He carried himself with an air of nonchalance that struggled to veil his arrogance. He was lean and tall with deep brown hair struck through with streaks of gold from his many days spent outdoors hunting and training in the sun. The few times I’d seen him, he was wearing a smile that never failed to make the heart stall a beat.

I’d spent countless hours afterward trying to capture the way that smile touched his dark eyes on my pad of parchment, never quite satisfied I’d gotten it right. He’d seldom even looked my way. Though when he had, his lips had lowered and flattened, eyes assessing.

To him, I was nothing but a faerie—just another creature who could not be hunted.

If history was anything to go by, many of us did stupid things out of fear, so I wouldn’t allow myself to fall into wishful thinking. To believe that, should we wed, he would be happy about it.

And although I thought him handsome and charismatic, my mother was right. I would live in perpetual discomfort at best and in fear for my life or injury at worst.

“And here I’d thought I had this rotted-out corpse of a tree all to myself.”

Startled, I scrambled back over the last remaining crossing that linked the lands of Nodoya and nearly fell, my nails scoring into the bark. Never, not once, had I encountered another soul in my hiding place.

The hooded figure slipped a broadsword inside a sheath at his back and crept closer along the rocky cliffside with alarming agility.

I should’ve moved. I should’ve demanded he go back the way he came. Though something whispered that either would be futile.

He was not of gold blood, nor was he human. His scent of smoke and cedar washed over me, into me, raising every tiny hair on my body. “You cannot be here.”

“Says whom?” he asked with a tilt of his head that exposed pieces of white-blond hair. His voice was lemon and chocolate—decadent and bitter, rich and low.

“Says me,” I declared, thankful my words did not shake.

“Ah.” He then dropped with eye-widening speed and accuracy onto the fallen tree, the hole—my only exit—between us. “And who might you be?”

I was too stiff to be offended, every part of me locked and preparing to flee. “You know very well who I am.”

Removing the hood of his cloak, he slowly lifted his eyes to mine. “We are a realm divided, Princess, so do not expect us all to recognize you.” My heart raced, my mind skipping over avenues of escape. All the while, his dawn blue eyes tracked over my face. “I’ve no interest in hurting you.”

I blinked. “You’re crimson. I can scent it…” My eyes slid over his tunic and cloak, both a midnight black fringed with red. “As well as see it, so if you don’t mind—”

“Why are your eyes wet?” Gazing at my cheeks, he murmured, “You’ve been crying, oh sunshiny one.” I made to slip back inside the hole, but his next words halted me. “I wouldn’t do that just yet if I were you.”

He’d barely finished speaking when footsteps, howling hounds, and snarling shifters carried over the breeze, the water below. “You’re on patrol.”

“They’ll move along soon.”

Confusion twisted my features. He watched with an amused glint in his eyes.

“You’re a guard,” I said, eyeing the hilts of the two blades visible over his shoulders. “A warrior. Why not alert them to my presence?” Stupid words to say, but if he were going to hand me over to the blood king, the king of wolves, he’d have made his move by now.

“Call me curious,” he said in a tone that sounded more bored than intrigued. “It has been a while since I’ve seen a gold one up close, a daughter of the sun, and royalty at that.”

A collection of growls grew nearer, followed by laughter as his murderous friends called to one another.

The male next to me wasn’t just any male. He was a crimson—blood Fae—which meant I couldn’t trust a word he said. It was because of them that our people were now divided. Violent, bloodthirsty, and corrupt—mayhem was a song in their veins, and it’d made enemies of Nodoya’s royal factions long before my two and twenty years.

One kingdom was life—creation and peace. The other death—power and violence.

We of the sun had fought and lost many battles against the crimson’s invading armies these past several years, and though it had been relatively quiet for a couple of moons, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe they wouldn’t attack again.

No one was certain of what they hoped to gain besides death and destruction and—due to the demise of the blood Fae’s previous king and queen—revenge. The decimation of the harbingers of light—my family and my people.

The ravine below made it harder for them to surprise us, but it never stopped them. Our ranks grew thin, and they knew we could no longer patrol and protect as we once did.

They’d been the ones to destroy the First and Old Bridge, but they continuously brought their own contraptions for those who couldn’t make the leap or fly across.

A loaded minute passed with my breath growing hotter. Then another. The patrol began to move on.

“Shouldn’t you be going with them?”

The guard shrugged. “They won’t come looking for me if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Many things currently worried me—his presence, so heavy the air seemed to slow into an oil that slathered my pebbled skin, being the biggest concern.

As if he could sense that, his plush lips curved slightly. “You didn’t answer my question.” Noting my frown, he said, “You were crying. Why?”

That last word was clipped, a command more than a question, and I would’ve balked at his audacity if I didn’t know better. We were alone, and though I could hold my own to a certain degree, he was a trained killer wearing weapons.

The only weapon I carried laid inside me. For the most part, it was as useless as many of the gifts bestowed upon the light carriers. Healing, mending, growing, creation—we were but wisps compared to the dark’s descendants. Their abilities were vast, and I knew only some. I’d only heard tales of their might.

Tales that made me wonder how we’d survived all this time and what in the stars had ever possessed my grandfather to go up against the late rulers of the blood kingdom—to war with Vordane.

The male stared down at the water, so very still. I wasn’t sure why I answered, but the words left my mouth before I could think much of them. “I hear I am to marry.”

If it were possible, the stranger seemed to still even more, his entire frame, large and imposing, shunning the starlight that attempted to reach his blond hair. Clearing his throat, he kept his attention fixed on the traveling water below. “That is what princesses do, do they not?” His tone was colder, frosted. “So it seems pointless to whine about it.”

If I hadn’t been offended before, I was now.

I released a rough laugh as I curled my legs up over the tree to leave. My feet hit the inside of the trunk when I heard him say, “Wait.”

I didn’t. I’d been a fool to even spend time in his company. Guard, foot soldier, beast warrior—whatever he might be—it didn’t take away from the fact that he was the enemy, and I should consider myself lucky that I still breathed.

A yelp tore from me when he appeared before me. I stepped back, my heart galloping. “What…?”

“There’s another hole,” he said by way of explanation. Before I could look up to see where it was, he took my hand, calluses rubbing over my skin as he pulled me through the fallen tree’s innards and back inside the cave.

“Release me,” I snapped, tugging my hand free.

He didn’t apologize for his poor decorum. He merely smirked as he turned to walk backward, half shielded in shadow. “The human prince, I presume?”

It took me a moment to realize what he meant, and I felt my stomach ice. “That’s really none of your—”

“Makes sense,” he murmured. “Your lot are growing that desperate.” He stopped, and I almost walked right into him. “Tell me, sunshine, do you know how to fight?”

Incredulous, I gaped at the overconfidence of this male. “Sunshine?”

His smile tilted higher into one cheek, revealing a dimple and darkening his commanding eyes. “Answer the question.”

“Answer mine.”

“That wasn’t a question.”

I half rolled my eyes. “I believe it was, and you know it was.”

He blew out a petulant sigh. “Are you always this difficult? And stupid?” My eyes widened, but before I could retaliate, he raised a large hand, waving flippantly at me. “Did you not hear me say daughter of the sun?”

My cheeks flushed, the burn creeping down my neck. I was grateful he couldn’t see.

His rough chuckle said otherwise, but I was too distracted by the sound to care. It slid over my skin to seep inside it, slipping underneath to warm my blood. Tearing myself away from the feeling, I lifted my shoulders and chin. “I’m sure you’re aware that you’re insulting royalty.”

“Insulting?” he purred, unsheathing a sword from his back in one swift movement. “Why, you’re lucky that’s all I’m doing, Princess.” He hissed the title, his blade absorbing the precious little light from behind us.

Fear clouded, weighing every limb as I stepped back. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Pursing his lips, the crimson looked from his blade, which hung limp at his side, to me. I didn’t let that fool me into thinking he couldn’t strike before I could protest.

I was as hard to kill as he was, but all he needed to do was slide that sword into my skull. If it contained iron, then my heart, or he could carve the organ from my chest and reduce it to dust.

None of it sounded very appealing to me.

“If you hadn’t so rudely interrupted me, then you’d know I do not intend to kill you…” The way he made those soft words linger suggested he would not harm me right now. “Insults, sunshiny one, are going to be the least of your concerns if you are indeed to marry the human prince.”

He spoke true, so I said nothing, trying to gauge if I could move past him and somehow outrun him. I was royalty, and though my powers were not as great as those who hailed from Vordane, I was faster than most—especially a lowly guard who’d taken it upon himself to go rogue for the evening.

As though he could guess at my thoughts, his eyes flashed. A dare. A male who wanted to chase. Since some of the blood Fae and all of those in the king’s military were shifters, that did not surprise me. Though I’d heard enough horrific tales of what his ilk did to females they chased down to reconsider.

Careful, a whispering voice seemed to croon. Careful now.

He tossed his sword to his other hand, eyes never leaving me. “Where’s your weapon?”

“I’ll have you know—”

He raised a brow.

I bristled, loathing to admit, “I… I don’t carry one.”

Thick golden brows furrowed. “You truly wish for me to believe you’d leave the safety of your nest to tempt the shadows beyond without being prepared?”

I swallowed, unable to look at him, and shifted on my bare feet.

He drank me in then. I could feel it, his cool gaze chilling my blood as he no doubt studied my soiled gown and feet, and pieced the puzzle together. “You fled in a rush.”

“I did.”

“Fool,” he spat as though I were a child in need of scolding.

I had no idea who this mongrel was, but he’d lingered long enough for me to detect and confirm the scent of a wolf. I was about to call him as such when he threw his sword at me. “But you do know how to fight, don’t you, sunshine?”

I caught it, the leather pommel warm from his touch. “Of course, I do.”

He unsheathed his other sword, this one shorter. His gaze cooled a fraction, lips lifting once more. “For your miserable life?”

“You’re disgustingly rude.”

“But am I wrong?”

I scowled. “My life is not…” I stopped and drew in a lungful of breath, not wanting to go there. My life was anything but miserable, but I wasn’t about to admit to him that it wasn’t anywhere close to what I’d hoped it would one day be. That would be selfish given the many people, villages, and towns we’d lost. Though I hadn’t created a dream firm enough to seek even before the attacks had begun, I had hoped for something. Something more. “Yes.”

His sword twirled in the air before he caught it with a flourish that ended with his booted feet braced apart. “Show me.”

“I do not need to show you anything—” Air sliced from my throat as his blade lunged for my hand, and I dived out of the way, tripping over the long skirt of my nightgown. Wincing, I blinked up at the dirt, rock, and tree-root-packed ceiling of the cave. “I’ll have your head—argh,” I screamed and rolled, strands of my long golden hair embedded in the dirt beneath the stranger’s sword.

Breathing hard, I gaped at its owner, who glared down at me with his arms crossed. “I see. You wish to die.”

“I do not,” I spat, hurrying to my feet.

Stepping forward, he drew uncomfortably close, close enough for me to see tiny flecks of black within his deep blue eyes and the vast length of his golden lashes that framed them. “They will have their way with you. Mark my words, Princess, and then you will be discarded.” Every word was pushed from between perfect white teeth, the canines on either side sharper than any I’d seen before, and my neck cricked back farther as he loomed over me. “Treaty or no, the human kingdom tolerates our lot at best, and would rather see you burn than married to their precious bratty prince.”

Lifting the hacked strands of my hair, he watched them regrow in his palm, but I didn’t remove my eyes from him. From the rigid, harsh cut of his square jaw peppered with days’ old stubble. His nose, strong and straight, twitched as his nostrils flared and he stepped back.

As if I could finally breathe again, I swallowed gulping lungfuls of damp, earthen air.

I’d never been that close to a blood Fae before—I’d never even spent time in the same proximity as one. The closest I’d come was hearing their bellowing howls and cries from our dungeon if they’d been captured spying or sneaking too close to the castle.

Even before the attacks had begun, there had been nothing but silence since the first war. Nothing but a deep, brewing tension for years and years as the two lands became separated by more than growing water.

And so I’d never known, hadn’t even heard that being as close as this stranger and I had just been, could extinguish breath and rational thought.

“He’ll take you,” he murmured now. “Of that, I am sure, but for what purpose? He’ll never mate with you, never be allowed to keep you, so”—he turned—“I guess we wait and see.”

Flustered and shaken, I ignored the warning lurking beneath his last words. “I need to go,” I said, trembling as I spied the sword I’d dropped. “They’ll soon come looking for me.”

“Do you always do as you’re told?” A caressing taunt but he didn’t stop at one. “Do you always coast along the waves of this rotten life, hoping for better instead of taking action?”

Rage unfurled from somewhere deep inside me, unexpected but not alarming enough to halt my tongue. “Stop it. You have no idea what you’re even saying.”

“Oh, but I do,” he said, brushing his thumb beneath his plump lower lip. “And I fight with everything I am, everything I am not, for all that I am.” His gaze grew lupine, both bright and dark, as it slid over me. “Are you a tool or a weapon, sunshine?” My mouth dried, and he barked, “Become a weapon no one can wield. Pick up the sword.”

Tears welled but not from fear. No, they came from someplace I’d rather not visit, but thankfully, I did not have to. I allowed it enough freedom to bend down and rip at my nightgown, the material now sitting just above my knees as I rose with the sword.

The crimson guard didn’t look at my legs. He didn’t take his attention from my face as I braced my feet apart, inhaled deeply through my nose, and nodded.

I danced around his first strike, and when he turned, our swords met with a resounding clash, my shoulder barking from his strength.

Sweeping back, I advanced when he did and ducked beneath his arm. He laughed and then struck with so much force, I had to jump, and our blades met in the air, the downswing of mine saving my hand.

“Better,” he said, standing back.

I swiped sweat from my brow, knowing he’d been holding back—not knowing why but appreciating it all the same.

In circles and leaps, we parried, blood trickling from my arm and leg. The cuts weren’t deep, I could tell, but they were enough to fuel the fire this stranger had stoked to life.

And with noises leaving me that I hadn’t known myself capable of, I lunged over and over.

He met me blow for blow, and I knew I would never best him, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t about that, and I refused to let it stop me from trying and failing and trying again.

“The moon leaves,” he said when we separated once more, his face free of perspiration while mine dripped. “And so must you.”

In clumps and heaves, my breath left me, lifting and lowering my chest, and finally, the crimson dared a glimpse at my body. His lips slackened, and he seemed to shake himself free of whatever thoughts had taken his mind.

He turned and headed back inside the hollowed tree.

“Your sword,” I called out.

“Keep it,” he returned without looking back. “We will meet again.” And then he was nothing but shadow eaten by darkness.

I was halfway home, the sun smearing the dark mountains beyond the castle in the distance, when I realized I hadn’t gotten his name.

“Opal,” my mother called up the stairs of my tower the following morning. “Stars above, what is wrong with you?” she asked, opening the door to my chambers. “It’s almost noon.”

Groaning, I gathered the blankets higher over my body, certain the cuts and nicks I’d garnered overnight had healed but not wanting to risk her seeing in case they hadn’t. “I had trouble sleeping.”

Not a lie. When I’d gotten home after I’d hidden the crimson guard’s sword beneath an old carriage wheel in the fields beyond the castle grounds, I’d stared at the whorl bedecked ceiling in a trance, half wondering if I’d dreamed of meeting him.

Until I remembered what I’d overheard beforehand and the reason I’d fled to my rarely visited safe place of solitude. I wasn’t sure of much these days, but I was sure it was no longer safe, and that I would likely return regardless.

Mother pulled the thick lace drapes apart, the breeze sailing in to bid us hello. She smiled, always pleased by this, but that smile fell when she laid eyes on me. “You’re filthy.”

Shit. Perhaps that guard was right, and I was nothing but stupid. For I hadn’t even thought to check my reflection in the mirror above my dressing table before falling into bed. “I forgot to bathe yesterday,” I murmured.

After staring at me for moments I feared would unthread the truth, Sinshell’s queen tutted, muttering to herself as she sang out the door for Linka to come draw me a bath. Returning, her features, though only finely lined considering she was nearing two hundred years of age, creased deeply. “Hurry. Your father and I await you for lunch.”

My stomach hollowed. Both fear and hunger. “I need to tend to the south gardens.”

“You need to do no such thing,” she scolded with warmth. “Make haste, the food wastes.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes at her overused words and threw off the bedding when she’d left.

Linka arrived as I was undressing, a pixie who held mild elemental abilities, and got straight to work on filling the deep tub in the adjoining chamber. A gasp pulled my spine taut, and I turned before the dressing table to find her fingers, so pale they were a soft pink, flutter to her mouth. “Opal, what in the stars happened to you?”

Shifting slightly, I spied what she saw in the mirror above the perfume I’d crafted and bottled myself, various combs, my tiara, rouge, the half-read books, and inwardly cringed. “Oh.” I thought quickly, hoping it was enough. “I had a late training session yesterday.”

“Your father is not usually so…” Linka tried and failed to find the right words, and she was right.

“He was in a mood, I guess,” I mumbled, then sped past her into the bathing room.

Caramel and vanilla wafted from the warm depths of the tub, and I climbed in. Feeling stiffer than I’d thought I’d be, I was thankful for the salted ginger Linka had tossed in to aid in faster healing.

“I thought your father was busy meeting with his generals yesterday afternoon.”

Stars shun me. I knew that lilt to her deep voice, the spark in her vivid cerulean eyes. She’d sniffed out my lie, something I too often forgot pixies were adept at doing, and now she wouldn’t quit.

I could trust her. We’d known one another since I was a youngling of seven years and she was growing into her womanhood and entering service to the Gracewood castle. But if it came down to it, I was painfully aware that trust would only extend so far if she feared I was in danger.

“I ran into a soldier in the fields beyond the castle,” I murmured, tugging the washcloth from her outstretched hand and dunking it into the water.

“Your fallen tree, you mean. The remaining crossover.” Her brow was raised when I looked up, annoyed I’d told her of the crossover in my excitement after finding it some years ago in my youth. “Now is not the time for riddles, Opal. You’ve bruises on your hips and elbows, scratches that have yet to heal, too.”

I hadn’t realized the crimson male’s sword had hit me so hard and frowned into the cloth as I scrubbed my face. Not his sword, I remembered, but the times I’d fallen while dodging it.

“Fine,” I huffed, scrubbing my arms. “I expressed my concern over not having enough practice of late, and he decided to humor me.”

“Who is this soldier? Elhn?” She meant my father’s favored captain, who’d often trained me when he was unavailable while growing through my maturing years. It just so happened that Father was too often unavailable.

That was until I’d had a slight tantrum one afternoon and had almost done something unforgivable. Elhn had thought me unwell, but Father had known otherwise. And nowadays, he said my skills were enough that I could wait until he was free.

The crimson wolf would most certainly disagree.

I might not know as much as I wished I did, but I did know one thing. Father had agreed to train me himself because he’d do whatever it took to keep my secrets hidden. It would do no good for word of my gifts to spread, evoke fear, and place a target upon my back, nor would they help save this dying realm.

“No,” I said in a tone curt enough to suggest I would say no more.

Sighing, Linka mercifully let it go, her next words carrying a different type of wariness. “Look, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I don’t want you blindsided…”

“I know,” I said, dunking the cloth. “About Prince Bron.”

Linka quit fussing with the shelves behind me that housed oils, salts, combs, and cloths, coming away with a large one of the latter for me to dry myself with. “You know they wish to see you two marry.”

“I overheard them discussing it, yes,” I said and finished cleaning myself.

Silence trickled with the water as I wrung the cloth and hung it over the rim of the tub before stepping out. Linka wrapped me, tucking the edges of the cloth under my arm as she met my eyes, hers reaching my chin. “I think I now understand why you trained when you’ve no need to.”

Indeed, it had been some winters since I’d last taken up a sword with my father. He could say he had more pressing matters to tend to with Vordane’s forces stealing into our kingdom in small groups to assassinate nobility and high-ranking officials, and the continuous ambushes upon the Royal Cove. Though the latter dwelled in Errin, the human kingdom, we all needed use of it for trade due to the narrow entrances and cliffs surrounding the rest of the northeastern lands of Nodoya.

A weakness of which the blood king was aware.

“A game,” my father had concluded a few months ago in a meeting with his war council. “He plays with us. We are the mice, and he is the feral cat, weakening us while he readies himself for a killing blow.”

I’d listened outside the doors, my heart in my throat and the roses I’d plucked from the gardens to melt and bottle crushed in my trembling hand.

Helpless. As their sole heir, my brother dying before I was born alongside my grandparents in the battle of falling bridges, I wasn’t locked away, but I was given little freedom to help in this seemingly endless war.

And that guard last night, the enemy who could and perhaps should have slaughtered me, had given me a stale reminder of that.

I could be a weapon. I could help. Instead, they wished for me to be a tool.

“It’s for your own protection,” my father ground out from the head of the table as he chewed his venison, his fingers curling into a fist over the giant slab of wood. “Not only that but you will carry on our bloodline. With their protection, you can make haste in ensuring that happens. Send the babe across the seas to the other realms, I care not. But mark my words, Opal.” His voice lowered. “He will come for us, and it’s time we’re more proactive instead of denying this fact. It is clear now that we cannot defeat him. No one can. When he says it’s our time…” He spread his hands, not bothering to finish a sentence that didn’t need completing.

The crimson guard had said the same.

Mark my words.

A babe. Across the sea. Every emotionless word out of his mouth pushed my panic higher, my fork nearly bending in my hand. “I cannot mate with a human.”

“Of course, you won’t,” my mother said from beside me. “Should they agree to the betrothal, Elhn will accompany you to Castle Errin as your personal guard. He will see to that duty himself.”


Dizziness swamped me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want this or that I wasn’t ready for any of it. I couldn’t so much as fathom a time when I would be. They knew that. My parents were well aware of the fact that I was younger than many of our kind would deem appropriate to create another life.

But that was my role, my duty, and I carried no delusions. My existence, my father’s detachment, my mother’s stern worry, my inability to create a life outside of this castle—my purpose was clear to everyone. Most of all me.

I was loved, and I knew that, but I was alone. A princess but a replacement for a much-loved prince. A way to carry our family name forward into an uncertain future. Nothing more.

A tool.

I didn’t dare look over at Elhn, who I knew was standing in the doorway, hands behind his back, heavy gaze upon me. Older than my mother by at least a decade, he was handsome if not a bit cold, but he was also mated. To ask this of him… “And what if they don’t agree?”

My mother gave my father a look that said she’d asked that very same question. “They will,” my father said, then nothing else as he finished his wine.

The dark unspooled slowly as though time did not wish for me to leave the safety of our moonstone fortress and race through the kitchens and fields in search of the hidden sword.

Regardless, two nights later, I waited until the occupants of the castle were slumbering, and that was exactly what I did.

He was already there, and I wasn’t sure why I was both relieved and jittery at seeing his shadowed form seated upon the last link between our lands.

His voice was crisp and toneless as though saying something at all annoyed him. “I came last eve, but you never did.”

My palm nearly slipped as I hauled myself through the hole to take a seat on the other side of it, just as we’d done the other night. “Doesn’t your king need you?” The question might have been more dry than I’d intended, but surely, he had to know what a monster his ruler was if he hadn’t yet sought to take me to him or harm me.

Acknowledging that perhaps not all crimson creatures were heartless killers who wanted us dead wasn’t something I was comfortable with doing just yet, but I’d often wondered if that were indeed the case.

If perhaps there were some—just enough to turn the tide of this war.

The guard said nothing. When I settled over the moss-blanketed wood, my furred boots dangling mere feet from his own, which were pointed, knee-high, and black leather, I looked over to find him grinning down at a small dagger in his hands. “He is likely too busy with one of his many lovers to care about my whereabouts.” Plunging the dagger into the tree, tearing a hole in the skirt of my nightgown, he said, “I trust you can use one?”

“I can,” I said, though I hadn’t as much training with one as I’d had with a sword. Staring down at the dark hilt, etched and crusted with worn rubies, I shook my head. “Why did you come back?”

“Honest answer?”

“Always,” I said, tired of being kept in the dark until it was too late.

“You intrigue me, sunshine. Just a little.” He made to rise and jump down through the hole but paused and lowered when I looked behind him to the muddy wall of the cliff. “What is it?”

“How’d you get here?”

“A secret,” he said, and I knew he was smiling by the darker cadence of his voice before I allowed myself to look at him. “Tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.”

Unsure why when I was only staring into his glittering blue eyes, I felt my cheeks heat. “Keep that secret, but tell me your name.”

His head tilted, the action entirely too lupine, and purred, “We’re nowhere near getting to know one another in that sense.” Jumping down through the hole, he continued, knowing I’d hear. “Fear not, I’ll let you know when it’s almost time so you can shout it to the stars.”

My cheeks burned hotter, and I was thankful he could not see. “Shameless,” I muttered, plucking the dagger free and following him down through the tree and into the cave.

His eyes widened when I stripped out of my nightgown and tossed it to the dirt near the entrance of the tree. I held my lips between my teeth, glancing down at my leather training pants and long thermal. “I thought it best to wear more appropriate clothing.”

The crimson male blinked, clearing his throat as he turned away and muttered something under his breath I didn’t catch over the sound of another dagger being unsheathed from his boot. “You returned my sword.”

“Of course.” I twisted the dagger in my hand, studying the fine art in the leather hilt that wound between the rubies. Vines, maybe, or they’d once been before aging beneath his iron-clad grip from overuse…

The dagger fell to the dirt.

The crimson watched me with raised brows. “Butter on your fingers, Princess?”

“H-how many of my people have you killed with… with that?”

The words were too soft for such ugliness. “More than you can dream. Now pick it up.”

I didn’t, couldn’t. I stared at it, remembering the screams I’d heard from miles away, the vicious roars, the pounding of horse hooves carrying my father and his soldiers to their aid, but too late.

Too late, the village decimated, flames giving ash to the night sky…

“Opal,” the enemy barked, snapping me from my trance. He was before me, so close yet I hadn’t seen him move. I’d been too lost to the nightmare, just one of many that he and his people had given to us. “Pick up your weapon.”

I had to leave. Clarity swept in far too late. I had no reason to linger in this place that once belonged only to me with this intruder. With an enemy who wouldn’t hesitate to capture or kill me if ordered to.

Shit. Of course. That could be exactly what he was waiting for… an opportune time to catch me unawares and maybe even steal me for his king to use as bait against my parents.

“Opal,” the crimson said when I walked around him, heading for the small mouth of the cave that’d brought me to him.

This odd male was wrong. I wasn’t just stupid. I was an idiot star-bent on ignoring the obvious—we were all headed straight for certain doom. My father had been right to make his plans, as ludicrous and unfair as they seemed. With our people being plucked off, village by village, city by city, and our land butchered beneath their dying bodies, it was no longer a matter of if the king would come for us but when.

About to break into a run, I nearly tripped over a boulder when he said, “Fang.”

Stilling, I slowly turned back to find him standing there, cloaked in night in the center of the passageway, tucked away from the moonlight’s reach.

“My name. They call me Fang.”

A peace offering.

A plea to stay. I should have ignored it, but I knew even without knowing anything of this Fang at all that such a seemingly normal thing was rare for him.

“Fang,” I repeated, tasting it, unsure what to make of it. “You…” My stomach heaved, the chicken dumpling stew we’d eaten for dinner roiling and rising as I drifted back toward him. My voice rasped, choking on the question. “You’ve murdered us, Fang, and for what?”

“Because we can,” he said as simply as the rising of the sun and retrieved the blade he’d handed me. Waiting until I’d drawn closer, until I’d entered the wider opening we’d found this strange truce in, he took my hand and pulled me to him. His scent followed as he pressed the hilt into my palm, his fingers cool against mine but nowhere near as cold as his gaze. “And we won’t stop, we won’t falter, we won’t tire. So fucking stab me.”

It was as if he’d known precisely what to say to make that bone-deep fear morph into a blistering rage.

I struck, almost falling flat on my face as he lunged to the side, laughing. “Hone that anger, make it yours, not mine.” He lurched forward, and I gasped, my blade taking the sudden impact of his right before my chest. Breathing through his nostrils, he grinned, then turned us. His front at my back, strong arms caged me, threatening and warm at the same time. “Reel it in, sunshine,” he said, throaty and low as I struggled to no avail. “That fiery rage is a mighty powerful weapon, but only if you reel it in, use it, and do not allow it the chance to use you.”

My breathing steadied all the while my heart skipped too many beats. That scent, cedar and smoke, clouded my mind.

The hand swallowing mine, calloused and huge, readjusted my grip on the dagger. “Close combat,” he murmured as if wanting to explain why his body had molded to my back, “on the ground, cornered, unwanted confrontation, whatever it may be, you cannot hesitate.” His breath washed over my ear and cheek, stirring the fine hairs from my braid. “You stab instantly.” Spinning me, he drew my hand toward my chest, dangerously close to my breast, and pushed toward my armpit. “If they’re armored, find the gaps and use them.”

Nodding, I followed his movements when his hand fell away, and then we started again.

With each lunge, every thrust, and the dance of my feet, Prince Bron, my father’s plans, the distant howls and the trill of night birds, the fact that my enemy was teaching me how to survive people just like him—all of it flowed to the dark edges of my mind. There was only this strange male named Fang, his grunted half-laughs, the odd curse, the sharp agility that constantly caught me off guard, the harsh tempo of my heartbeat, and the sweat that misted my entire body.

When the baying of creatures, wolves and otherwise, across the ravine only grew in volume, I faltered, narrowly dodging his blade as it skimmed the arm of my thermal, wool fluttering to the dirt.

With a smirk curving into his cheek, feverish eyes a wild blue, and his blond hair standing in every direction, Fang swept into a deep bow, then took his leave.

He didn’t say goodbye. He left with the moon and never looked back.

Dawn gathered light and bathed the dark with smoky gold.

Fires raged in the east across the river, destroying one of the last northern towns before the woods that bordered the cliffs.

On horseback and on foot, the survivors, few as they were, arrived with their meager belongings and children in tow. Saddlebags and baskets swayed over the ash-dusted beasts, plumes of heavy breath blowing before them in great huffs.

Faces, blackened with soot, shining with sweat and tears, stared blankly at me as they passed, herded behind the city walls.

I wasn’t permitted to head to where many would need my help. There are others, Mother would say, enough that you do not need to endanger yourself.

Helpless, all I could do was stand there and await the worst of the injured to arrive. Then I could be of assistance. Then I could feel useful. Then some of this sorrow that carved away at flesh and bone would find another outlet—another purpose.

Once they’d all been shown to the city hall, where they’d stay with other families who had yet to find new housing or leave the city in search of wide-open forests, farms, and fields, I stared at the morning sky as the rising sun gathered what remained of their burning homes and swallowed it within its golden fist.

I gathered more feverfew and golden root in the fields beyond the castle, the sun now a sinking ember behind the looming pines that guarded the darkening woods.

Many people had arrived and then perished, and many were healing but forever scarred.

Setting my wares inside the basket, I lowered to the wildflower-strewn earth, gazing toward those woods with a question I’d asked myself but wouldn’t dare say aloud. Not for fear of reprimand but for fear of the answer.

Without even asking, I knew nothing would make him stop. The blood king and his vengeance-sworn armies would pillage and plunder, and it seemed they wouldn’t tire until every last creature of Sinshell was dead.

What it must be like to live with a hatred so deep, so untouchable, so incurable… I didn’t want to know.

I would never pity him, of that I was sure. Not when wagons were still ambling over the horizon outside the city, carting the dead to their final resting places by the cliffs.

Staring over my shoulder, I watched them in the distance. The castle at their backs seemed to watch on, its luminous stone dull with dismay.

When I looked back to the forest before me, I found a pair of staring eyes.

The fawn wobbled as it dared to breach the canopy of greenery, large eyes blinking, absorbing, and finally settling upon my face. With an excited waggle of its backside, it bounded over the grass and promptly fell on its fresh legs.

A watery laugh shocked me, and sniffling, I rose to my feet, heading over to help her rise.

Before I could reach the bumbling babe, an arrow whizzed by, and the deer slumped into the grass.

Whirling, I glared at Deandra. “She was just a baby.”

The soldier loped past me, the thick dark braids that kept her hair from her face bouncing against crusted armor. Bending, she retrieved her arrow. Blood still covered her brown cheeks and forehead from the battle across the river. If you could call it a battle. Few of the blood king’s regiment had remained when our soldiers arrived, their task in terror and murder already achieved.

Deandra shot me a grin. “A delicacy, Princess.”

Horror gripped me so swift, I had to look away when she tossed the deer around her plated shoulders.

She laughed. “We ought to get you involved in the real action and create a hardened barrier for that soft heart of yours.”

I had no words for that. There was only that nagging guilt, and it clamored and clawed with the reminder that I wasn’t doing enough. None of us would ever be able to do enough. “What are you doing out here?”

Deandra waded back through the thick grass, and I collected my basket, following as she said, “I was told to find you. We have a guest.”

The prince had arrived on his own.

His parents, Prince Bron had said, were not well pleased by the idea of a marriage between our two kingdoms, but upon receiving my father’s letter, he’d found himself curious.

Curious enough to have a large chunk of his army escort him here before having them disperse throughout our city and the fields and woods beyond, it would seem.

Rattled by nerves but resolved after the day’s bloodshed to do whatever necessary, I’d hidden in the antechamber of the great hall to listen to their stilted greetings and small talk until my mother sang my name, summoning me.

I’d expected disdain, disinterest at the very least. I hadn’t expected the prince to have grown more handsome than the last time I’d seen him three years ago. His rich brown hair curled around his hairline, whispered over a sharp chin, his eyes aglow beneath thick brows.

Full lips parted, those soil-dark eyes flicking over me once, then again with a slowness that seemed deliberate. He inclined his head. “Princess, how lovely you have grown.”

I’d matured years ago, but I didn’t bother reminding him of that. He’d been too busy tending to his female companions to notice a faerie princess within his midst.

Now, walking alongside him in the gardens, listening to him regale me with tales of their tense journey here and the delightful bakers in Tulane who’d offered him the most scrumptious scones he’d ever tasted, I half wondered if he was even aware that we’d met before.

“You’d best not eat them in future.” I finally formed words, though they were quiet. “Or anything else from strangers in Sinshell.”

His feet, clad in gleaming brown boots that matched his eyes, slowed as we rounded the fourth circle of greenery and color. The shrubbery climbed higher here, the castle courtyard at our backs and only the rooms in the towers visible.

“I’d thought food spells and faerie poisons to be nothing but grotesque bedtime stories.”

I contained a snort of laughter. “There is nothing grotesque about it,” I said, stopping before a cluster of roses and brushing my fingers over a small bud. “Your scones back in Errin will now taste of soot is all.”

“Right,” he clipped. “And what of other meals?” He shifted, the warmth of him nearing my arm. “Surely, I can eat something without worry of it ruining me for all else.”

The way he’d said those words, uttered the last few with a lower, deeper cadence, drew my eyes his way. “We will likely feed you a meal you cannot find in your kingdom.”

“Indeed,” Bron rumbled in a way that pulled at my brows. His gaze drifted from my face to my hand, my fingers cupping and encouraging the unfurling rose. His lips parted, then closed as he swallowed. “God, you truly are a faerie princess.”

I raised a brow, making to leave when he grasped my hand. His touch was gentle and warm as he pulled me close. He was tall for a human, but Fae, especially nobility, were taller than most any humans, so our noses were nearly perfectly aligned when his fingers rose, awaiting my permission.

Curious, I lifted my lips into an agreeing smile. They broke open with a ragged breath when his fingers shifted my hair behind my ear. Gentle and almost reverent, they traced the arch, the near point that, if not for anything else, made it so plainly obvious we were different.

“Soft,” he whispered, as if to himself, while furrowing his brows. “You wear no jewels in your ears.”

“I used to but too often forgot, and we heal fast.” My voice was breathy, and I swallowed when his finger slipped over the small lobe to trail down my neck, nearing the fine silk strap of my heavy apricot gown. “Bron,” I said, more of a warning, but for whom, I didn’t know as my stomach filled with tickling moths.

Seeming to catch himself, he removed his touch, smiling as though he’d been caught stealing a treat and he wasn’t sorry. “You are beautiful.”

“As are you,” I said, to which he released a shocked laugh. “What are you doing here, Prince?”

A brow rose, and he took one step back, tiny gold flecks in his eyes exploding under the sun. “Your father wrote us, as you already know.”

“You cannot mean to marry me.” Unable to meet his burning gaze, I fastened my eyes on his velvet bronze tunic and cloak. “We both know that.”

He was silent for long moments, lashes dipping as he turned on one foot and peered around the garden. We weren’t alone, but I didn’t bother telling him. Turning back, he pursed his lips, studying me, and a rip sounded when he dared to take a step closer.

It was quiet enough that I didn’t think he’d even heard it, but with my hearing, I did, and I used the distraction to prolong whatever excuse he’d been about to give me. “Your cloak,” I said, forlorn and lowering, reaching for the hem. Gazing at my roses, I hissed, “I apologize. They’re usually much better behaved.”

“The flowers?” he asked, puzzled.

I hummed, rubbing my fingers over and along the broken velvet and stitching. The tear was too ragged, stubborn. It didn’t work. With a sigh, I rose and suggested, “Leave it with me, and I’ll mend it after dinner.”

Bron removed the cloak and gathered the heavy material, but before he could place it in my outstretched hands, he leaned forward, his lips brushing my cheek. “Kind and beautiful.”

I watched him leave, my cheeks warm, one more so than the other, the wind kicking leaves around his fast steps. He’d left to avoid answering me, and I was too distracted by the softness of his full mouth upon my skin to care.

Over dinner, news arrived that some of the prince’s men had been attacked in the Spring Forest.

Up until that point, it’d been a quiet, tense affair. My father studiously ignored my mother’s warning looks whenever he’d spoken of a marriage contract, not needing to hint at the reasons but doing so all the same.

I’d sat and stared at my full plate of roasted bear and spiced turnips, pushing some of the meat into the puddle of white cream upon its side.

The prince hadn’t eaten either, though he did drink the wine.

Fool, I’d thought, being that I’d warned him of the food, and he’d not thought it would extend to drink as well. Our wines were crafted the same way most wines were, but with a faerie’s hand. The passion for their task and their lifeblood seeped into each batch.

Already, Bron’s cheeks were ruddy, his eyes struggling to focus on my father. Laughter fell from his lips over nothing as my mother kindly suggested, “Dear prince, perhaps you shouldn’t drink—”

That was when the two soldiers had arrived, Bron’s and my father’s highest in command, their expressions mirroring grave concern. “Your majesty,” Elhn said with a swift bow. “We’ve just received word of bodies strung up in the trees of the Spring Forest, limbs torn apart, blood in the river…” He trailed off when my mother lifted a hand and glanced at me. “Apologies.”

Grateful I hadn’t eaten, I offered a tiny smile, my chest squeezing tight.

“My men?” the prince cried, the merriment fading from his face like an incoming storm clouding the sun. Standing, he wobbled on his feet, blinking harshly. “Good grief, what did you make me drink?”

My mother’s lips pinched between her teeth. No one had made him drink anything. He’d poured the wine before any of us were even aware of what he was doing.

“Survivors?” my father asked, his thick fingers sailing around the rim of his goblet, unseeing eyes upon the table.

“No reports of any.”

My father rose from his seat, the flora-shrouded snakes encircling the back of his gold and silver chair appearing watchful. “Let us talk outside.”

Bron’s general offered a hand when the prince tripped over nothing, then took it back when he was reprimanded.

It didn’t matter that the Spring Forest lined a lot of the coastline, stretching from Gracewood and through to Errin. They were here. Yet again, they’d crossed over.

Enough of them to wipe out a portion of the prince’s army.

After pacing my rooms for what felt like hours, I retrieved the prince’s cloak and perched upon the window seat that overlooked the gardens below to follow through on my promise.

Invisible thread flowed from beneath my fingertips, and I willed it to match the same shade of golden brown as the cloak. The scent of the prince, sea salt and something sweet like burnt sugar, rolled off the weathered velvet.

His lips, full and soft and warm and unexpectedly rubbing over my skin, the specks of gold in his brown eyes… Those fluttering moths died, replaced by molten heat when a different set of eyes and lips entered my mind.

When I imagined it’d been Fang’s cruel yet sensuous mouth to grace my skin, and his fingers so delicate at the arch of my ear.

Opening my eyes, unsure when I’d closed them, I folded the mended cloak in my lap and leaned my head against the glass window. I wondered what Fang was doing, what his beastly king might have him do on a daily basis, and if he’d been amongst the murderers in the village town and Spring Forest.

Two attacks. Both brutal and swift and close together.

A thud on the door interrupted my fear-spiked thoughts, followed by another. I climbed down and sped across the room, knowing the scent on the other side did not belong to my parents nor any of our staff.

“Good evening,” the prince said, fine lines deepening around his eyes and his hair finger-worn. “I do hope it’s not too late, but I’ve come for my cloak.”

“You’re leaving?”

He nodded, his gaze never quite meeting mine. “Yes, it was foolish to come in times such as these.” A wan smile wriggled his lips. “My mother always chides me for being too curious for my own good. An adventurous spirit.”

I could empathize, so I smiled and handed his cloak to him. “I’ve repaired it.”

The prince nodded once more, unfolding the cloak to look for where the tear had been while I leaned against the wood and studied him beneath the glow of the flames in the sconces on either side of the door. His low lashes shadowed his cheeks, mouth pressing into a thin line. “It probably isn’t wise, as I’m sure my father has told you, to be leaving—”

The prince’s eyes jumped from the mended tear to mine, wide and dark. “Gold.”

“Excuse me?”

He tapped a nail upon the tear, and we both heard the tiny clink before he shook the cloak at me, blinking fast. “The stitching, your stitching, it’s…” He gulped. “It’s gold.”


I could feel my face drain as I snatched the cloak and fumbled for what I’d done.

But there it was. Each perfect stitch was thick, woven gold.

Shit. I swallowed down the shock, the shame, the scared little youngling I’d once been that tried to resurface. “It would seem I chose the wrong color,” I muttered, hoping he’d buy the excuse.

Scowl deepening, he fastened his eyes upon the cloak, evidently unsure.

“Excuse me while I see if I can have this undone.” I could undo it myself, but I raced past him and down the stairs in search of my mother in the tower opposite mine.

Down the shadowed hall and up the stairs I flew, the heavy skirt of my tulle gown catching on the stones, causing me to stub my bare toes. Opening the door, I found their chambers empty and backed into the small entryway, my heart a lump of un-beating fear in my chest.

My father caught me as I descended and rounded the last of the stairs, eyes bright as they drank me in and sensed what I couldn’t say. Gazing behind him, he then tugged me to a nearby cleaning chamber, tucked away from the meager light.

“Look at me, honey bee. Watch.” I did, as I always had, while he made his eyes change from a deep green to gold and then to brown. Such antics had me in fits of giggles as a youngling, and as I’d grown, they had helped temper the storm inside me. The wild that awaited and sometimes insisted on release. His presence alone—the time he’d spend with me regardless of the reason—was usually enough to distract me.

It wouldn’t work now. We both knew it, and after minutes of feeling my breathing quake, breaking over my lips, he released me and stepped back. “Go. Run.”

So I dropped the cloak, and I did.

It wasn’t safe to be leaving the castle right now. I knew that, and so did he. But I had to. The alternative, according to him and my mother, was far worse.

Racing out of the kitchen’s exit once more, I then checked for soldiers on patrol and waited until their torches faded before taking off through the vegetable garden and into the fields beyond.


The look of awestruck horror on the prince’s face. The consequence of releasing such a secret into our world… I ran faster, harder, my blood pressing at every vein, each muscle tightening and bending.

It had first happened when I was young. I’d been mending my mother’s favorite plum gown, the silken one she’d said had been my brother’s favorite, and with images of her serene smile, the portraits of them together, it had just… happened.

I’d been excited, so sure she’d be pleased by what I’d somehow managed to do, but she and my father had looked at one another with fear-bright eyes and had then warned me to never speak of it.

To never do so again.

For years, I hadn’t been permitted to mend a thing until one day, I’d done so against their wishes—proving to them that indeed it wouldn’t happen again.

They hadn’t seemed to believe me, but once satisfied that no sign of gold was amongst the thread, they’d nodded and said to confine any mending I did to my quarters.

It was in our blood, a part of our souls, to heal and build and repair and create and amplify growth. We could seldom keep it contained to nature. It was a song in our hearts, and when that song demanded freedom, it was painful to ignore its call. Just as it grew painful now to ignore the pounding rhythm inside me that begged to be set free.

I ignored it—I had to as I rushed through the forest, bounding over the familiar path and around each well-known boulder and snare.

I knew before I ducked under the small opening and crawled to my feet inside the cave that he wasn’t here.

Still, I climbed through the tree to sit atop it, and there, I saw what had the townsfolk boarding up their shops and homes.


Starlight twinkled over the water’s dark surface, highlighting the darker strands marring it that wove along it like slithering snakes in search of a never-ending feast.

He wasn’t here. He wouldn’t be coming.

And instead of thinking about every horrific reason, I allowed the current inside me to pull me down.

And inside that darkness, I let go.

Mother was waiting in my rooms when I returned with the rising sun, her voice solemn. “Do you know what you have done?”

I shook out my hair and dragged my fingers through it, the glimmering blue that hung from the twisting wooden posts of my bed shielding my mother’s expression.

“Of course, she knows,” my father said from behind me, and I stumbled back into my bedchamber, taking in the weary lines of his face. “She’s sealed our fates.”

Though his words struck through me like a dull blade, there was no anger to his tone, only soft resignation. Eyeing his armor and the sword at his side, I asked, “Where are you going?”

“The prince and his men await us outside the city. We’re to escort them back to Errin.”

“You can’t,” I said, panic scratching at my voice. “It’s not safe.”

“Nowhere is safe,” he grumbled, then forced a smile into place when my face fell. Collecting me close, he murmured against my hair, “Look at me, honey bee.” Inhaling his scent, the blueberries I knew he kept tucked in a pouch upon his weapon holster, I met his tired green eyes. “Be brave.”

My mother followed him out, leaving stifling worry in her wake. It clouded the room, my mind, and I was thankful when Linka entered to take me away from it. “Come, now. It’s just a quick journey south.”

I nodded, my arm in hers. From the balcony of my parents’ rooms, Linka and I watched as my father, atop his midnight stallion, took flight with his soldiers and disappeared beyond the gathering dust.

Dusk rolled over the hillside, dragging day into deep pinks and oranges to gift to the growing night.

This time, he was there, and upon seeing the sword resting against the rocky wall of the cave, I paused, picked it up, and then I waited.

“Sunshine,” he said with feigned cheer as if I was anything but a heavy rain cloud. His boots hit the tree with a mighty thump that shook the dirt above my head, his steps lazy yet quick as he approached the mouth of the cave. “We need not train if you—”

As soon as he entered, I leaped at him, and without enough warning to remove his weapon, he ducked just in time to avoid losing precious strands of that creamy blond hair. “Opal.”

I ignored him, ignored the sound of my name on his lips that made it sound more than the simple thing it was. “Fight.”

After staring at me for unbending, fracturing moments, his blue gaze darkened. Finally, he unsheathed his sword. “Did someone piss you off?”

I didn’t want to talk. Doing so would only lead to more anguish, more anger, as his people continuously slaughtered my own as well as humans, and he didn’t care. He didn’t care that their hatred, their malice, their greed, and their cruelty had pulled my family apart and would soon have us begging at the feet of mortals for refuge.

Refuge they now wouldn’t give because of me, because in their eyes, all of us were monsters, abominations not to be trusted.

No, this crimson male didn’t care at all.

I struck again, and our swords met in the air, moonlight flaying off the blades as they slid and then clashed between us. “Opal,” Fang said once more, but I didn’t take my eyes off his blade as I stepped back. “Fuck, what’s gotten into you?”

I couldn’t talk to him. I shouldn’t have even been associating with him. No matter how innocent it seemed.

“Sunshine?” A question containing a softness that could be mistaken for concern.

I couldn’t kill him. Even if I could, I wasn’t ready to kill anyone, and we both knew it.

So I dropped the sword, and this time, I was the one to leave without looking back.

Guards were stationed on every corner outside the castle gates, many giving me disapproving glances as I moved through the bustling market quarter of the city toward the square.

I deserved their disapproval, most certainly, but not for any reason they knew.

They clearly thought it absurd that my mother would allow me to venture into the city streets, swallowed up by carriages and wagons ambling behind horses over the cobblestone and the vendor carts squatting before each alleyway.

But my mother, who’d been confined to her rooms since my father had left, didn’t know.

“We have enough seedlings to last through the winter, my princess,” Linka said beside me, her hands wrung tight around her empty shopping basket. “Herbs, too. Whatever else you might need, we can fetch for you.”

I wasn’t here for any of those things, and she soon discovered that as we crossed the square and headed straight for a dark alley. We walked to its end, the creek whispering through gnarled bushes on the other side unable to mask the scent of aged wine and roses.

I refrained from wrinkling my nose as we stood before the black-painted door pressed between a stone arch. The rock exterior was darker here, more of a creamy brown, some stones struck through with black rot and drooping, leafy vines. A stark comparison to the moonstone white and overflowing trellises throughout the rest of the city.

The door knocker was shaped into the head of a serpent, a sun rising in the copper plaque behind it. Our royal crest. Although she was an entity larger than any royal framework, she’d served Sinshell for hundreds of years. Though the curious would wonder whom it was that truly gained from her line of work.

I wrapped my hand through the metal, felt the rumored tingle right down to my fingertips, and then released it to thunk against the door.

“Princess,” Linka hissed, belatedly realizing where we stood—whose door we stood before. “I forbid you to—”

“Wait here,” I said and moved inside when the hinges creaked and the door opened on its own. Guilt punched at my stomach, but I’d needed an escort for the sentinels at the gates to so much as consider allowing me a brief absence from the castle, and though she’d protested, it had to be Linka.

I couldn’t chance bringing anyone else.

The door closed soundlessly behind me, candlelight flickering and climbing from the half dozen giant candles perched upon the book-lined walls. I took three steps forward to stand on a shaggy patch of emerald carpet.

Wreathed in a fading patch of sunlight that cut through the red glass window to her left, the ruby-eyed female crossed her legs in the generous throne-styled chair behind her oversized desk.

“Bright one,” the serpent sorceress crooned, the two glowing white snakes upon her shoulders stirring. “I’ve been waiting some time for you.”

She’s sealed our fates.

“Really?” Swallowing over the knot in my throat, I lifted the hood of my gray cloak from my head and tucked my hands within its folds to hide their trembling. “Then I am sorry to have kept you waiting.”

The sorceress hummed as though she didn’t believe me. A plate of cherries sat before her, the snakes curled beneath her voluminous waves of burgundy hair growing still. “You’re too late.”

I blinked, then frowned. “You said you’ve been waiting.”

“Indeed, I was, but you kept me waiting too long.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” she purred and stabbed a cherry with a toothpick. “Someone paid me a visit before you, and now I no longer hold the cards to your fate.”

“How?” I asked, all the while something nudged at my muddied mind, piecing my confusion into something that shot an arrow of fear into my heart.

“You know how, little Princess. The creature who visited me?” Chewing the cherry, she grinned, the blood-ripe fruit staining her serpentine smile. “Well, your fates are intertwined.”

Rocks pelted my stomach, roughening each slow breath.

Knowing I’d get nothing else from her, I inclined my head and made to leave when the locks clicked into place over the door. “Payment.”

“But I did not have my fate told,” I needlessly said, my fingers curling into my palms. Of course, she’d try to take something from me. No one stepped foot inside her den without leaving something of themselves behind.

“But you did. It may just take you longer to understand what the stars have planned for you.”

My eyes widened, then shut, and I was thankful my back was turned so she couldn’t see. “I’ll send you any coin you desire.”

“You know it is not coin I desire, my bright flame. Ten drops should suffice.” I whirled to face her, my chest hollowing when she tapped the large black goblet upon her golden desk, then pushed the small knife toward me. “Ready when you are.”

Tempted to close my eyes, I dug the point into the palm of my hand, ignoring the sting as I made a fist. The sorceress’s gaze was not upon the blood falling drop by drop into the goblet but on my face.

Her head tilted when I caught her eyes, and her lips curved briefly, too brief to be considered a smile, her ruby eyes darkening a shade. “You look just like her.”

Taken aback, I asked, “Who? My mother?”

The sorceress snatched the goblet, and I was glad, for I’d lost count of how many drops I’d given it. “Do give her my warmest regards.” She rose and twisted away from her desk, the heads of her snakes lifting.

Not wanting to see what she had planned for my blood, I hurried out of her hovel.

“What in the stars has gotten into you?” Linka waited to whisper at me until we’d crossed back through the square, her once pink face now white. “You do realize who that was.”

“Of course, I do.” I lifted my hand, the cut already healing, for emphasis.

Stunned, Linka waited until we’d breached the waning crowds lining the street outside the shoe store. They were holding a sale—likely worried their creations would be spoiled should war creep closer to our doors and wanting to gather whatever coin they could. “Well, what did she say, then?”


“Nothing?” she almost squeaked. “You do not visit the sorceress and leave with nothing.”

Sighing, I blew some loose tendrils of hair from my face and righted the hood of my cloak. Even with it on, some still recognized me, but by the time they did, I was wading past them, too fast to chase down and greet or bow to. “She couldn’t tell me my fate,” I acquiesced. “She’s already handed it to someone else.”

Linka’s arm tightened around mine as we climbed the small, steep hill to the castle gates, its moonstone rising high above the city and farms beyond. Another sun to blind us all. “Who would come looking for your fate?”

“I don’t know, but probably no one,” I said, having already wondered the same thing myself. A nod to the guards, and they let us in. “Whoever it was merely came looking for their own.”

Leaving her inside the foyer to tend to the rest of her duties, I wandered to the library on the second floor, hoping the crackling of the fire and the treasure trove of books with their worn lettered spines would calm the rising wave within me.

I should’ve known it wouldn’t. Placing the ancient history text upon the marble table, I gazed at the silver gilded portrait of my father and mother with Joon, my late brother. Their lips were slightly curved, but all three sets of eyes were smiling.

Another portrait, sans Joon and instead with a tiny me, sat upon the opposite wall.

As I looked at the paintings, at our similar gold eyes and hair, I tried to ignore the empty gazes—the lack of smiling eyes other than my own—and counted back the hours since my father had left.

The hollowing inside me yawned wider.

Soon. He’d return soon. The journey to Errin was a two-day ride unless he’d chosen to travel through the human lands and deliver the prince and what remained of his entourage straight to the king and queen’s door.

A thud came from upstairs, followed by the rare sound of my mother shouting at someone. Whispers sounded from down the hall, murmured concerns and demands between the staff.

My eyes fell closed, the room suddenly too hot, too sweltering and small.

“Not now,” I groaned between clenched teeth.

It didn’t listen. I didn’t listen.

I didn’t run. Determined to beat the instinct this time, I walked, and when I reached the northernmost woods, I realized too late that I couldn’t give in to it if I wanted to.

It was still daylight, for one, and this place, the damp soil under my hands as I arrived at the cave, was no longer a safe place to allow myself such an indulgence.

Resolved to wait it out, to think over the sorceress’s carefully crafted words until they could no longer scare me, I stayed until nightfall. Inside, against the wall, the earth warm at my back, I watched my hands and arms shake, my feet fade and reappear, and willed my blood to cool.

The moon took a shape I couldn’t see in the sky. He wasn’t here, wasn’t coming, and after hours of shivering while boiling inside, I knew I had to let go. That it was probably safe to.

About to, I opened my eyes at the sound of a soft crunch at the other end of the cave. “What is wrong with you.” Not a question but an order for answers.

“Nothing,” I said too quickly and jumped to my feet, hoping they’d hold me.

They did, mercifully, and staring at him as he approached, I felt every boiling blood vessel begin to cool as I drew in Fang’s features. The moonlight behind his head wouldn’t touch him, but it shone splashes of silver upon those angular cheekbones, their high rise toward those ice-sharp eyes stealing my breath.

“There’s nothing I hate worse than people wasting my time.” I would’ve scoffed if I’d had enough energy. “Tell me why you’re shaking like a leaf in a storm.”

Meeting those eyes, I immediately looked away, knowing I’d have to tell him something or leave. I had a feeling he wouldn’t let me do that this time. “The prince visited.”

Silence reigned, with the exception of the trickling water outside of our secret passageway.

“You could say it didn’t go well,” I murmured, hoping that would be enough to placate his need for an explanation.

A low hum left him before he said, “You are betrothed?”

I half laughed at that, sinking back against the wall as my limbs slowly returned to me. “I highly doubt it.”

More silence. “You’re disappointed then,” he surmised, his head tilting in that predatory way as he studied me with bright eyes.

“Something like that.” I ripped my lace gown with the small dagger I’d started wearing strapped to my thigh, his gaze a blistering brand upon my bare legs. “Did you bring your swords?”

In answer, he unsheathed both from his back. “You’ve taken to carrying a weapon.”

“Dire times,” I muttered, too thankful for the return of myself to remember I was yet again in a place I shouldn’t be with a crimson asshole from across the ravine.

His voice lilted as he said, “So I’ve heard.”

Annoyance arrived, thick and oily. I pushed the dagger back into its holster at my thigh, then snatched his short sword, the emerald in the hilt dark and shadowed. “Did you have something to do with that? The Spring Forest. The river town and villages.”

“You know better than to ask questions you won’t like the answers to,” he murmured low, his other sword twirling in his hand. His eyes stayed fastened on me, ice-bright yet oh-so void.

“Very well,” I said with an airiness I most certainly did not feel and did as he’d said, honing that fury into every limb, the clenching of my fingers around the worn hilt as I braced myself.

A wicked smirk deepened the blue of his eyes. “Shall we dance, sunshine?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

We moved at the same time, blades clashing and our smiles mirrored. My arm shook with the effort to keep his strikes at bay, my teeth gritting.

“You’re sloppy this eve,” he said, sounding bored when I feigned right, then lunged forward, his sword catching mine before his chest, the steel halving his grin when our stomachs touched.

Bouncing back, my breaths coming too fast, I panted, “I’m fine,” and gripped the sword in both hands, ready for his downward arc.

I was on my back before I’d even realized he’d easily outmaneuvered me, the back of my head in his large hand, the blade poised at my throat. “Dead,” he whispered from above me, every hard part of him aligned with the softest parts of me.

As though he had just realized this, he blinked, brows lowering over cobalt eyes. “You’re huge.” It was all I could think to say, the words leaving me before I’d thought about how he might receive them.

Those eyes widened, then narrowed with his rising lips. His teeth, stars, they were perfect, blinding in the dark, even his longer, sharper canines. “I suppose that is a compliment.” His smile loosened. “Though what would you know about such matters?”

My fingers sifted through the dirt at my sides, readying to throw it into his eyes if need be and then shove him off me, when the sword fell beside me, and he rose. Only slightly, though. His hair sprinkled down over his forehead. His large arms caged me to the ground.

I’d never felt small. I’d never worried over such things.

Until now.

Until I felt an energy, primal and bloodthirsty, leaking from his enormous frame in a way that both shortened my breath and sent embarrassment spiraling toward my face.

When I failed to say anything at all, knowing he could likely feel the heat rising from my flaming cheeks, he then asked in a softer voice, “Did he kiss you?”

It took a moment for me to remember the prince, and even though I didn’t deign to give Fang an answer—it was none of his business—he got one, his eyes probing mine, then every inch of my face. “Where?”

Swallowing, I rasped, “Get off.”

Another infuriating smirk. “You don’t want me to. You’re just saying that to save face.”

My teeth gritted, anger forcing me to admit, “He kissed my cheek.”

His head lowered without warning, the tip of his nose trailing each cheek until he’d scented what he was looking for even though I’d bathed numerous times since, and he inhaled deep. Then with my hands darting to the back of his head, fingers curling into his shockingly soft hair to pull him away, he licked me.

“Did you just—?”

“Quiet,” he said, a curt, gruff bark, and the arms beside my head lowering as he did so once more.

My toes curled. Something feathered its way from my chest to my stomach, tickling profusely. And then, as soft as rose petals warmed by the sun, his lips dragged in a caressing brush over the skin, over every inch of my cheek, a rumbling noise climbing his throat that made my fingers curl gently into his thick hair.

More. I needed more.

As though he could sense that, his mouth ghosted down toward my lips with torturous slowness.

Our eyes met and held for moments that stole the beat of my heart. His had grown dark. The pupil expanded, black spreading into a now deeper, oceanic blue. A shiver assaulted me, and then his lashes lowered, and so did his mouth.

That feathered sensation melted into liquid fire.

Tentative at first, his lips pressed gently into mine, finding where they’d fit—finding that they fit perfectly. Another low rumble left him with my shaken breath, my mouth parting slightly, enough for his lips to slide over mine, my fingers clenched in his hair. “I’ve never done this,” he rasped, then scowled down at me as though his admission was somehow my fault—that him laying over me and kissing me was also somehow my fault.

That scowl, the annoyance that narrowed his eyes, told me that what he’d said was true. His kiss, though nothing short of breathtaking, the hesitation and slow evolvement, did too.

Everything in me stilled. That this young, ruthless god hadn’t been kissed by a thousand females, or stars, even males, robbed me of speech.

His lips rolled between his teeth as he watched me. Then he shifted, and my hands decided to keep his head held within their desperate grip. “Me either,” I finally whispered.

His nostrils flared with his eyes, delight birthing a smile I hadn’t yet seen on him before. A smile that spoke of unbridled joy or perhaps even relief. “Thank the fucking stars,” he said, his voice so rough, and then he stole my breath once again.

Any trace of uncertainty was gone. He kissed me as though he’d been tasked with the most important job in the universe, his lips holding mine in a firm promise for heart-thrashing moments before parting them for his velvet tongue to skim inside my mouth.

I moaned, uncaring of the strange sound as his hardness met my soft. One of his hands slid slowly down my side, tracing and marking every curve, to hook my leg behind his back.

A low growl coated my tongue, and I swallowed it greedily as well as his following curse. He ground his length into my body through our clothing as our tongues stroked, teeth nipping at one another’s lips.

Copper filled my mouth, but I didn’t care. I was lost inside this dark, magnetic space where nothing but this rainbow of sensation existed. The heat of him, his breath—always even and now breaking across my lips with every digging thrust of his hips.

My eyes opened to find his were too, and I felt myself falling upon rapid winds while lying upon the hard earthen floor as he sucked my lip into his mouth, teeth scraping. The slight tang of blood returned, and he shot up to his knees as though I’d taken the sword that laid beside me and struck him with it.

My heart raced, too fast for me to control my thoughts, let alone words, as Fang stared at me. Lips parted and tinged red, his chest heaved while he glared as if I’d grown another head.

Then without a word, he stumbled to his forgotten swords and dragged them with him to the opening of the cave. To the tree that would take him back across the gully.

“Wait,” I managed to breathe out, pushing up to my elbows. “Fang.”

His steps faltered, but he said nothing, did nothing save for disappearing into the night.

The silence in his absence screamed and eradicated the precious air remaining in my lungs.

On unsteady feet, I rose from the ground, shaking dirt from my hair and willing the wet away from my eyes.

I’d kissed him. He’d kissed me.

It wasn’t just forbidden. Unless it could be proven that relations already existed before the second war, it was now treason to consort with the crimson.

That wasn’t what terrified me, though. No, what terrified me the most was this residual feeling of emptiness, as though he’d taken something from me that I couldn’t describe, couldn’t make sense of, and I wasn’t sure it was smart to attempt to.

Something I feared I could not get back.

At the entrance to the cave, I knelt and crawled out of the low-lying hole and stilled when I spied something in the grass to the right. Walking over, I kicked at it with my slipper.

Peppered nuts spilled from the pouch, and I didn’t need to bring them closer to my nose to recognize the foreign scent lingering on the canvas. Such a snack wasn’t permitted here.

Because it was eaten there.

The world shrank and tilted, the haze Fang had left me in clearing rapidly.

Stars. He’d…

Gazing back at the cave, I inhaled deep, then followed the trail, the strange scents, the signs I’d missed earlier while solely focused on trying to gather and control myself—and then all over again in a brand new way courtesy of Fang.

A howl came from deep in the woods, and then I was running, running and knowing I wouldn’t make it, knowing they were miles and miles away, and that if I had any chance, I’d need to change.

And so with a flash, my heart twisting, then pausing inside my chest, I did.

My blood roared and vibrated, my vision darkening and my senses illuminating in a rush that used to make me vomit for hours when I’d change back. Clumsy from panic and the disuse of this form, I almost flew headfirst into a tree before my wings spread and tilted, and I swerved around and through its branches.

Higher, higher, and higher, I climbed, cresting the treetops of the woods, leaving them behind within precious minutes. The moon rose behind the castle in the distance to my left, but I continued south and followed the dense line of trees and foliage that skirted the ravine.

The soft orange light cast from the city beyond the castle gates lit the corner of my eye; the villages between the city walls and the woods beneath me dark and slumbering. That wasn’t the case for others as I flew closer toward the mainland, Errin, the human’s kingdom, tucked beneath the stars in the ever-stretching distance. Some villages, farms, tiny towns, and the old mine were nothing but husks, a darkness that might never see the light again.

Faster, I had to move faster.

I’d flown countless times as a youngling before I’d learned to control it, to conceal what my parents deemed a curse rather than a gift, but never this fast. The wind barreled into me, attempting to steer me north—back home—when I needed to keep going south, so cold as it ruffled every one of my downy feathers.

Unable to help it, I looked to the right, toward the ravine over the edge of the forest, the cliff’s jagged edges and the trees on the other side visible even at night. Vordane spread beyond those trees. A lush, tree-populated entity of hidden gloom. Sprinkles of light glittered like faraway stars from its heart—the city across the river from the palace that watched over all at Vordane’s northernmost corner.

Shadow Keep.

It had been years since I’d glimpsed it from the skies. I’d never visited. We’d never dare. To do so was as good as welcoming an untimely death.

The thought withered when the wind delivered screaming that tugged my gaze southeast. Banking, I surged, and it wasn’t long before I saw it.

Flames, carnage, murder…

All the blood.

No sign of the prince and his soldiers. They had crossed the border, then, and were possibly already home. Which left only my father and his small troop, who’d been making the journey home.

Steel clashed against steel. Beasts dived on limbs. Blood sprayed like bursts of rain falling from the sky and puddled just the same.

My heart burned in my chest, ash flooding my mouth.

I was too late.

It was too late, yet I circled back to keep out of view and dropped beneath the trees, swooping through a vacant barn beyond them and out through to the broken fencing. The grass might as well have been concrete beneath my feet, I landed so hard, but I didn’t shift.

A large shadow against a rotted-out stump, barbed wire curling in the wind behind me, I could do nothing but stand there and stare.

So many. Stars, there were so fucking many. Wolves of differing shape and color, some with wings, most double the size of any human man, snarled and lunged and ripped—

Too many of them to have crossed a makeshift bridge thrown across the ravine or river in the dead of night.

I stumbled back on my webbed feet.



My fault.

A wolf, larger than any I’d ever seen before, crashed through the air and into the middle of the clearing, his maw stretching open with a roar so ferocious it shook my feathers and every blood-soaked blade of grass.

Cream furred wings, blackened with blood and gore, fanned and then tucked into either side of the horned beast’s torso as it prowled through the throng.

The blood king.

The fighting didn’t cease—but it wasn’t fighting. My father’s soldiers, Fae who’d been trained since their bodies had matured, fell like insects swatted beneath giant paws.

It was a massacre.

Move. I had to move, but to join the battle would guarantee my death, and the repercussions of that would spread far and wide.

I was the last living heir. An heir to provide my family with another.

But my father, bellowing with fury as he fended off three attackers, took a hit to his side. His white-gold hair was coated in blood, his face nearly unrecognizable… I couldn’t just leave him.

I couldn’t leave any of them.

If I shifted back, I’d hopefully still find that dagger strapped to my thigh, though I knew it’d do little good with beasts that quadrupled the size of my shifted form.

The largest beast—the king—advanced through the fallen, crushing them beneath his giant paws as though they were already soil that belonged to the land and nothing else.

My father, fending off attacker after attacker, weakening more by the moment, didn’t see it coming.

I screamed, the sound little more than a honking call to the wild birds who’d long scattered—useless and pointless.

But he heard.

My father looked my way with wide eyes, no longer soaked with rage but with bright fear. Fear for me. His eyes darted to the trees, indicating, pleading for me to go.

I should’ve listened, but he couldn’t expect I’d be able to move an inch as the wolf rose onto his hind legs and wrenched my father off the ground by his neck.

Then shifted as his paw struck, claws and fur punching deep within my father’s chest.

The beast, now a male in a familiar black cloak, lowered to the dirt with my father’s neck still in his fist, his other inside his chest, twisting, pulling, as my father released a silent scream and turned his eyes skyward.


My stomach dropped, and my vision blackened as my father’s lifeless form fell to the dirt, his glimmering heart in the crimson guard’s—in the blood king’s—hand.

Cheers and howls sliced through the clearing, through my airless chest, as the king, Fang, lifted my father’s heart to his mouth and tore into it with his teeth.

Teeth that, just hours ago, had scraped over my lips.

My father’s lifeblood cascaded over his and down his chin as he raised the dead organ toward the night sky, his kin’s approval thunderous, vile, and deafening.

The few remaining soldiers couldn’t be helped. I knew that.

So when my father’s heart fell to the grass beside his dead body, I retreated, shrank back into the night in search of the forgiving light of day to end this twisted nightmare.

He’d lied.

All along, I hadn’t been meeting with some rogue guard from the enemy’s kingdom. I hadn’t spilled precious words into Fang’s ears. Stars, his name wasn’t even Fang.

The monster of Vordane had multiple names.

The blood king. The king of wolves. King Dade.

And I was a fucking fool.

Before I could reach the barn or the husk of a farmhouse, I felt it, the warmth of eyes at my back. Twisting my neck, I found the king standing at the fence I’d just left—in the very place I’d watched him murder my father, his face stained with his blood, cloak billowing, and those blue eyes swirling with nothing I wanted to read into.

He didn’t know. There was no way he could possibly know it was me.

All he saw was a large black swan.

And so I turned back and flew for the cover of the woods, hoping they’d shield me, that my wings would carry me the entire way home when my soul felt so heavy.

If he’d known it was me, I had no doubt that he would’ve easily given chase, yet I flew alone.

Days passed like seeds slowly fed to the dirt.

My father’s body was eventually retrieved and given to the soil behind the castle, a giant seed beneath the cherry blossom tree next to my brother. Flowers, white and luminous, had sprouted all around the tree’s base, spreading toward our feet like tiny wishing stars.

My mother wept beside me, though no tears left her eyes.

I knew that type of heartache had to be worse than any other—the type that hurt with an intensity that stole your tears and refused to allow the grief to leave your body. For if it did, there’d be nothing left. Nothing.

To lose someone you love, a mate no less…

And it was my fault.

I hadn’t told her. I wasn’t sure I ever could. That I’d been tricked and so stupid. That I’d spent time with the enemy, never knowing, never thinking he was so much more than that.

He was our ruination.

Look at me, honey bee.

I wouldn’t let myself shed tears. Not for the same reason as my mother, but because I wouldn’t dare mourn him when I did not deserve to.

Our military had been whittled down to scraps, fear spiking through the castle halls as though winter had visited early.

No one remained to rally or strategize how to reinforce our borders and collect more people to train, be they farmers and traders or otherwise. There was only a silence so suffocating, I wondered if it would kill us before King Dade thought to finish us all off.

Elhn had been severely wounded, leaving my father’s two generals scrambling to gather some composure in a city and kingdom inundated with peril. The captain and two other soldiers were all that remained of my father’s destroyed unit.

“Princess.” My mother’s servant and closest friend, Edwan, bowed when I reached the stairs leading to her chambers.

I’d been avoiding her. An easy feat when she refused to leave her rooms, and now, I was trying to work up the courage to go check on her.

His sun-kissed face was pale and drawn, cheeks sunken, arched ears a harsh contrast against his bald head. In his trembling hands was a tray with broth and bread, and I gestured for it. “She still won’t eat?”

“I’m afraid not, my princess,” he murmured, lips whitened with worry. “It’s been four days.”

My eyes shuttered. “Has she drank anything?”

He inclined his head. “Some but not enough, and mostly wine.”

We were a species who’d live for thousands of years, but that did not mean we couldn’t fall prey to starvation like humans. It would take our bodies considerably longer to perish, but perish they would over time if not treated well.

“Thank you, Edwan. I’ll do my best.”

Gratitude wet his violet eyes, and he bowed once more before rounding the corner.

Up the stairs, the door creaked open with a thought, and I walked inside the dark, stale room. My mother’s scent, lemon rose, was fading with her health, leaving the bitter taste of sodden leaves in its wake.

Rounding the half-made bed, where she lay perched against the pillows while gazing at the swaying drapes concealing the windows and balcony, I set the tray upon her nightstand. “Mother, make haste, the food wastes.”

With a harsh swallow, she shifted a little. “I’m not hungry.”

“I know,” I said as I climbed over her legs to lay in my father’s spot, his scent of lime and leather pungent on the pillow. My heart throbbed, guilt roughening my voice. “Me either, so perhaps we can starve together?”

And there she was, Nikaya, queen of Sinshell, her glare harsher than the sun. “You will do no such thing.”

“You know I will if you do not eat.” Clasping her cool hand, I squeezed it. “You must.” Her long lashes fluttered, throat bobbing as I begged, “I cannot lose you too.”

Gazing back at me with gold eyes so similar to my own, I feared she could tell, could read the guilt in my eyes and in my voice.

If she did, she didn’t let on and gave my hand a weak squeeze in return. “Honey bee,” she whispered, a broken nickname for the daughter who’d broken her heart. “One day, you will understand what it is to feel your soul leave your chest, to fight against your heart’s instinct to follow.” Licking her dry lips, she added, barely a sound, “One day, you will know what it is to find and lose your true mate.” Reaching up, she smoothed her cool fingers down my cheek. “I would almost rather death for you, honey bee.”

Unsure what to say, only that I wanted to keep her here, present and talking, I said, “I worry such a thing will likely occur before finding a mate is even a thought in my mind.”

She smiled then, wistful and wretched. “You do not find a mate,” she stated, color to her voice now. It was dark but color all the same. “The stars bring them to you.”

I’d been told endless times before of how she and my father had come to find one another. At fifty years of age, it was past time she separated from her lover and grew up, her father had said, so a marriage was arranged with one of my grandfather’s chosen suitors.

Two nights before her wedding, as townsfolk and villagers from all across Sinshell arrived, she met my father, a farmer’s son who lived outside the woods by the border between Errin and Sinshell. A warrior not by choice but because he and his family had needed to protect their livelihoods of land and livestock. His mother had insisted he attend the wedding, for it was unheard of to miss such an event.

My mother, who’d of course been in love with another and not romantically fond of her betrothed although they were friends, had snuck out of the castle for a pint in the city. Hiding in a dim corner of the tavern, she’d watched faeries of all ilk drink, dance, gamble, and throw darts, lost to sorrow.

He’d sensed her before he’d walked in, he’d said. Unaccustomed to sitting idle, he’d decided to explore the city as night fell. Curious, he’d entered the tavern, drawn to her as a moth was to flame. Within hours, the wedding was canceled, and my father’s family was already making plans to move their farm closer to the heart of Sinshell.

You cannot fight a mating bond and win, he’d told me. And so with a frustration born from wasted coin and our people’s time, my grandfather had welcomed my father but ordered him to clean up the mess he’d caused.

He’d done so gladly and had replaced Elhn to wed my mother instead.

A fairy tale written and spoken of with great awe in the human kingdom.

But, as their many stories suggested, not all fairy tales ended happily.

“A mate you won’t find, not in this realm.” A cough followed her grim words, and I frowned. “The prince wrote us.” She entwined a lock of my hair in her fingers. Staring at it, she said with little care, “He requests for you to stay with him for protection while they consider marrying you into their family.”

“What?” I almost shouted.

Marriage. I hadn’t thought I’d still be expected to… I’d thought I’d ruined any chances of such an alliance when I’d spun gold into the prince’s cloak, and he’d fled home.

Mother didn’t startle, just smiled sadly and sighed. “Oh, the games we’ve been forced to play.”

“Mother, I cannot—”

“You leave the day after tomorrow with the rising sun.” As she scooped my hair behind my ear, her touch began to warm. “You will have their protection, and we need you safe. That is what matters right now.”

I closed my eyes, wanting to protest, wanting to yell at her to get up and help me fix all of this. But she was, and she had, and the prince was our only way out.

She knew that.

“I don’t know how to do this,” I said, swallowing thickly. “But I will, though the blood king…”

“He will return, so no one knows you are leaving. Just you.” Sharp eyes met mine, a command in them. “And me.”

I was to take myself. I was to shift and fly.

Nodding, I took her hand. “I will do this for you, but you must eat.” Her eyes rolled. “Mother,” I said, softer now. “If I have nothing to live for, what’s to stop me from flying across the sea instead?”

I awaited reprimand, a reminder of my duty. Neither arrived.

After long moments of staring at me with a vacancy to her gaze I’d never seen before, she brought my hand to her lips. “You should, honey bee. You should flee and never return.”

We both knew I wouldn’t, so she sat up while I fed her broth-dipped pieces of bread.

The Polinphe Mountains rose alongside me, silent watchers of my lone journey east.

Their peaks stretched toward the clouds, blocking the perilous cliffs beyond them above the Night Sea.

The only way for ships to venture to our war-ruined half of Nodoya was via the Royal Cove, which was too often ambushed by waiting crimson bandits sent by their king.

I’ve never done this.

Hard to believe, and undoubtedly a lie, that the beast of the west, the king of wolves, had never dared to kiss another before. Rumor stated he was thirty-four years, had been brandishing a sword and upheaval for more than twenty-five, and could tear someone in half with his claws alone.

The tyrannical king had likely taken hundreds of lovers to his bed.

I squashed the intruding thought of it, the unexpected and unwelcome fury that accompanied it, and any imaginings of those too-soft lips on my own.

He would pay. One way or another, he had to—even if I died trying.

For I surely would.

Keeping to the trees, the foothills, and the quiet trail of farmland only broken by the Salt Creek and the nest of greenery surrounding it, I pushed thoughts of vengeance and guilt aside.

Mother had mercifully risen from her bed and left her chambers yesterday. I wasn’t sure if it was for my comfort or because the kingdom needed her. I was merely thankful that she had. Now, crossing the border, the woods that stretched for miles and miles from the mountains at my left toward the ravine turned river to the right, I needed to fabricate an excuse to feed the human royals.

To explain my lonely arrival.

Perhaps, merely the fact that I was Fae would be enough to mollify them, though I knew most, especially the king and queen, knew better than to accept that.

I’d yet to discover if I contained such a gift, but there were those of us who could warp from place to place. Typically, they were either gold and crimson nobility—and powerful ones at that. As if the beasts needed more of an upper hand.

I was beginning to truly empathize with my grandfather, who had led the charge in ridding Nodoya of King Dade’s parents. The threat they’d likely posed to our continent was now abundantly obvious for all to see.

A threat that had now unraveled with their son into a deadly promise.

Drying fields and sandy dunes that rippled toward the Royal Cove soon replaced the lush and rolling green as it faded behind me. Castle Errin sat in the southeast corner of Nodoya, stone and wood and mortar that shone in bronze and browns beneath the peaking sun. The city of Errin sprawled and climbed between it and the Royal Cove, a vast array of cream and color, buildings shaped from sandstone and brick squashed together with little thought for clear thoroughfare.

A kingdom easy to hide within.

I tucked that thought away, keeping it in the safe space of my mind beside the darker things I couldn’t and didn’t have time to release. Later. Perhaps years from now, there’d be time to give to those aching thoughts that matched the changed tempo of my heartbeat. A time when we could afford to reflect and vow to do better.

I couldn’t see such a time for that existing. All I could see, even with the sand-crusted beauty below me, the waves rolling against the cliffsides and into the bay, was gore and blood and endings.

Village roads, little more than packed dust skirted by shrubbery and cacti, crawled to the glittering city, and I veered left away from them, toward the castle hidden beyond a giant stone wall.

A few guards looked up, most looked away, and I waited until there were no eyes on me at all before quietly drifting down to the fountains in a sprawling courtyard. A swan, black and peering around with slow arcs of its neck, was all anyone would see if they happened to spy me standing upon the stone ledge, water misting my feathers.

Looking up, I met the marble eyes of a statue, one of the gods the humans bowed to, his manhood exposed and a spear in hand.

“A black swan,” said someone from behind. “Look, Georgette, do you see?”


“Oh, my,” said who I guessed was Georgette. “I do believe it’s been years since I’ve seen a swan at all, let alone a black one.”

“An evil omen, do you think?” asked her companion.

At that, I couldn’t help but swing my head their way, causing both women, carrying baskets of bread and fruit, to squeak. They then hurried away from the fountain and into the adjoining city street.

An omen. I would’ve scoffed. Instead, I made sure I was alone before shifting and shaking out my stiff and tingling limbs. Well, given my parents’ fear of my curse, only time would tell if they were all correct, and I hadn’t the time to care.

Stepping out from behind the giant statue spilling water from his mouth into the algae-infested depths below, I crossed to the shade of some nearby maple trees while righting the emerald and oli