Juste Montpetit’s horse was a sleek bay gelding with an arched neck and he danced to the side as Juste tried to mount. The bay’s nostrils flared and his eyes rolled back in his head. Juste whispered something to the horse that sounded more like hissing than actual words and the creature stilled, but I wasn’t fooled. Just like me, it was only still because it must be still. Only quiet because it was that or die. Terror was not the same as calm – though both might make you motionless.
Juste flung himself in the saddle and sent a piercing glance my way. I couldn’t help but avoid his blue eyes. They were far too much like Osprey’s – bright and penetrating as if they could read my thoughts.
Instead, I fixed my gaze on the new crown he’d had made for himself. It was still moving. What magic was required to make a crown of asps that seemed to always be reweaving itself? Had they carved it directly from the Forbidding and then shaped it? I did not know, but as I thought those things, three snake heads on the crown turned, looked at me, and extended themselves as far as they could in my direction. I flinched away. Only Juste would make himself a crown as creepy as he was.
“Prepare to ride, Empress,” Juste said, with a cruel twist to his smile. “We ride to the heart of it all. We ride to claim all of what is ours now.”
“Isn’t it enough to rule the Winged Empire?” I asked him, my voice rough with all the emotions I didn’t dare let myself feel. My brothers’ and sisters’ deaths were still too raw. My terror for my little nieces and nephews too recent. I didn’t dare let myself sink into those overwhelming waves. Didn’t dare wonder if Osprey would be able to keep them safe. I didn’t dare let my hands shake as much as they wanted to. “Why do you feel the need to conquer this, too?”
His bay danced over to me, and Juste reined it close until he could reach me. I tried to lean back, away from his touch, but he was too fast. His hand snaked out and grabbed my chin, yanking me forward and staring deeply into my eyes with his over-large blue irises.
“It’s always been this, Empress,” he said in a way that made me think of snakes hissing. All the heads of the black snakes that made his crown reached for me and I could have sworn one tickled the hair just above my forehead. “The Winged Empire was never the ultimate goal. I was always born to rule – to speak the fate of a man and see it come to pass. To lay out a plan and see a city fall or watch a rebellion crumble. And I’m good at it. I’ve taken what is mine. I’ve laid hold of my birthright.
“But that is only the beginning. I was born to rule everything. At the heart of that tangled mass – the Heart of the Forbidding – is the Seat of the Adder. And I will sit on that seat and all that is under the sway of that dark magic will be mine – and with it, I shall grasp and grasp until nothing in all the world is outside my reach. I shall take their sons and daughters. I shall run my hands through their piles of rubies and wrap myself in their silks. Their seas shall taste of the salt of the tears I bring, and their mountains will weep with their blood. All things will be mine – every pair of wings will fly to my bidding, every scale of the snake shall touch ground that is mine. And even you – you treacherous queen – even you will delight in kneeling before me for I shall make it the only thing you have left.”
His kiss, when it came, tasted of acid and I made sure to bite him again and turn the taste to blood.
He hissed, drawing back and his snarl showed his blood-smeared teeth. “You think you will keep me from you with all your biting. It’s like you don’t even realize it’s what I want.”
He shoved me as he released me so that I rocked in the saddle, spitting blood from my mouth and trying as hard as I could to keep the horror from my face. Each time he seized more for himself, his cruelty grew in proportion. How many more lives should he be allowed to ruin? How many more homes and cities?
I reached for my short sword and a hand slammed onto mine, pinning it against the hilt.
The Claw beside me clicked her tongue. “Nothing more than teeth for you today, Empress. I’ve been assigned your guard. I will never leave your side so that you never leave his. I will never let harm befall you – so that you can’t harm him.”
I put all my fury into the look I shot at her, spitting the last of the blood in my mouth so that it stained the pretty white embroidery on the sleeve of her uniform.
“What is your name?”
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