A strix standing in the clearing beyond.
The hawklike bird was similar to Grimley in that it was roughly the size of a horse, only with a much thicker, stronger body. The strix’s feathers were a vibrant amethyst-purple, and onyx tips lined its broad, powerful wings, each point as hard, sharp, and deadly as the arrow it resembled. The bird’s big, bright eyes were the same amethyst as its feathers, while its pointed beak and curved talons were a shiny black. A beautiful if dangerous creature.
Many strixes lived in the surrounding Spire Mountains, and the wild birds often zoomed over Blauberg, although they tended to fly high and fast to avoid the gargoyles, since the two species didn’t much care for each other. I didn’t see a saddle or any reins on this strix, but it didn’t seem like a wild bird. So where was its owner?
“See, Lyra?” a deep, masculine voice sounded, as if answering my silent question. “I told you the ride over the mountains wouldn’t be too bad.”
“Know-it-all,” the strix chirped in a high, singsong voice, although her tone was full of affection.
A man stepped around the side of the strix. He looked to be a year or two older than me, thirty or so. His longish hair was as black and glossy as the onyx points on the strix’s wings, while his eyes were a deep, dark amethyst. He had sharp, angular cheekbones, along with a straight nose, and his skin had the tanned look of someone who spent a fair amount of time outdoors.
He wore black leggings and boots, along with gloves and a long black riding coat. A black cloak topped his coat, and the layers of fabric outlined his tall, muscled body and gave him a commanding presence. A light gray tearstone sword and matching dagger dangled from his black leather belt, but I got the sense that the weapons weren’t nearly as dangerous as the man himself was.
He turned toward me, and I spotted a crest done in silver thread on his coat, right over his heart—a fancy cursive M surrounded by a ring of strix feathers.
Shock jolted through me. Topacia had been right. There was a Mortan in the city.
Prince Leonidas Luther Andor Morricone, the son of Queen Maeven Morricone, second in line for the Mortan throne.
My mortal enemy.
Out of all the Mortans who could have been in Blauberg, the idea that Prince Leonidas could be one of them had never even crossed my mind.
A Mortan prince on Andvarian soil. I couldn’t even imagine the last time that had happened. Probably not since my ancestor Queen Armina Andromeda Aster Ripley had founded our kingdom by raising an army of gargoyles and ripping our land away from the Morricones and their strixes. But the proof that it was happening now was right in front of my eyes.
Prince Leonidas cocked his head to the side, then whirled around, his hand dropping to his sword. I tensed, thinking that he had spotted me, or had at least felt my presence.
After all, he was a mind magier just like I was—and we had met before.
Memories crackled through my mind, the images so vivid and intense I was certain he would sense them. But instead of focusing on the area where I was hiding, Leonidas turned in the opposite direction.
Footsteps scuffed, along with some faint humming, and a girl skipped into the clearing, swinging a tin lunch box back and forth in one hand in time to her quick, cheery movements.
The girl, who was around seven or eight, looked up. Her humming abruptly cut off, and she skidded to a stop. The girl froze, her eyes fixed on the strix, which peered at her with a curious expression. At least, I hoped that it was curiosity, and not hunger.
I had been so shocked by the sight of the prince that I hadn’t sensed the girl approaching. I cursed my inattentiveness. The Mortan and the strix could both easily kill her.
Leonidas studied the girl, whose eyes slowly grew wider and wider, as though she were a fawn that had just realized it was in the presence of a greywolf. No one in Blauberg rode strixes except for the Mortans who visited the city, so she knew exactly what he was, if not his royal rank.
Several seconds ticked by, all marked by tense, silent contemplation on both sides.
Then Leonidas leaned down and plucked an ice violet out of a patch of them on the ground. He twirled the green stem back and forth in his gloved fingers and approached the girl.
I remained behind the tree, still clutching my dagger. If the flower was a trick, and he attacked the girl, then I would rush into the clearing and gut him.
Part of me longed to do that anyway, given all the horrible things that had happened between us as children, but I squashed the murderous urge—for now.
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