Heart of Thorns – Bree Barton

ON THE EVE OF her wedding to the prince, Mia Rose ought to have been sitting at her cherrywood dresser, primping her auburn curls and lacing her whalebone corset. She should have been fussing with the train of her gown, a piece of oyster silk that unfurled behind her like a snow-kissed boulevard. Mia was doing none of those things. She paced her bridal chambers with a pouch of boar’s blood gripped between her fingers. For weeks she’d done meticulous research, filching various cuts of meat from the castle kitchens—duck, goose, venison—but the boar emerged victorious. The blood would dry like human blood: a dark crusted brown. She had purloined one of her sister’s gowns so she could shred it alongside her wedding dress, leaving them both behind in bloodied ribbons. The plan was simple. She would stage the scene in the tunnels beneath the castle, with only one logical conclusion to be drawn: Mia, the prince’s intended bride, had been brutally attacked, abducted, and most likely killed, along with her younger sister, Angelyne. The poor little Rose girls, taken before their time. While the king’s guards scoured the castle grounds for the vile murderer, Mia would lead Angie to freedom. It was admittedly not her finest plan. The problem was, it was her only plan. And there was one additional, fairly significant hitch: She hadn’t told her sister. “Mi? Are you nearly ready?” Angelyne swept into Mia’s chambers, her satin slippers gliding over the floor.

“I came to see if you needed . ” She stopped short. “Why are you wearing a rope?” Mia had fed a thick rope through her trouser loops for their descent into the castle’s subterranean bowels. She opened her mouth to explain, but no words came out. The beginning of a headache was scratching at her temples. Angie frowned. “You do know the final feast is about to begin.” “I am aware.” “And you are gownless and gloveless.” “True.

” “And your hair looks like a poodle died on your head.” “I’ve always enjoyed the company of poodles.” “Is that blood?” Angelyne snatched the leather pouch out of Mia’s hands, sniffed, and grimaced. “I don’t care what you were about to do; I’ll tell you what you’re doing now.” She gestured toward the cherry dresser, nudging a stack of books and a stubby wax candle aside. “Sit. I’m going to pin your hair.” Mia flumped into the chair, irritated. The headache was clawing at her skull. Why was she unable to tell her sister about the plan? It wasn’t as if the stakes weren’t treacherously high: one month ago, their father, Griffin, had promised the king a bride for his son.

At seventeen, Mia was the obvious choice. But fifteen-year-old Angie was a close second. Mia had tried desperately to dissuade her father. Girls in the river kingdom were rarely given a say in the men they married, yet Mia had naively assumed she would be different. Under her father’s tutelage, she had trained as a Huntress for the past three years. Surely he wouldn’t pawn her off to the highest bidder. But no matter how much she pleaded, he never wavered. He had condemned her to a lifelong prison sentence, annihilating all chance of love or happiness. Her own father, who knew better than anyone the power of love. Fortunately Mia had no intention of wedding and bedding Prince Quin.

She had work to do. A sister to save . and a murderous Gwyrach to find. “Angie? I need to—” “Sit still? You’re absolutely right.” Angelyne rummaged through her basket of hairpins and alarmingly sharp objects. It was Mia’s fault she was in the castle at all. When the queen had tried to furnish Mia with a lady-in-waiting to help with gowns, gems, and skin greases, the whole idea made her nervous (what was the lady waiting for?). So she had requested that Angie stay in Kaer Killian, the royal castle, during the engagement. Most days she regretted it. The drafty castle had only exacerbated her sister’s many mysterious illnesses.

The Kaer was an ancient citadel, carved from a mountain of ice and frozen rock. It was miserably cold. Not to mention Angie had been attracting the attention of the young duke, which was troubling. Ange was lithe and slender, with a pale heart-shaped face, rose-petal lips, and wavy hair the color of summer strawberries ripening on the vine. “Mia Rose,” Angie muttered, “Princess of Chaos, Destroyer of Nice Things.” Ange let out a short, sharp cough before swiftly regaining her composure. She yanked a bone comb through Mia’s tangles hard enough to make her gasp. “Angelyne Rose, Mistress of Pain, Wielder of Torture Tools.” Mia massaged her temples. “My head was killing me before you started this torment.

I don’t know why I’m suddenly getting these atrocious headaches.” Angie paused. “Where does it hurt, exactly?” “Here.” She pointed to the back of her skull. “The occiput. And here.” She dug her fingertips into the bridge of her nose. “The sphenoid bone. It’s like my whole cerebrum is on fire.” “Human words, please.

Not all of us speak anatomy.” “Even my mandible is throbbing.” Mia massaged her jaw. “You mean you have a toothache.” “Teeth. All of them.” “How can all your teeth ache at once?” Her sister smothered another cough. “Here. I have just the thing.” Angie fished a dented tin of peppermint salve out of her basket.

When she tried to twist off the lid, she fumbled. They both stared at her gloved hands. The lamb slinkskin was a soft, pale pink. “It’s all right,” Mia said. “You can take them off. I won’t tell Father.” Slowly, carefully, Angie pinched the lambskin at her pinkie, then her ring finger, then her pointer. She inched the glove off her hand and laid it neatly on the dresser. Her complexion was smooth and peachy, so different from Mia’s ivory skin and copper freckles. “Just think,” Ange said quietly.

“After tomorrow, you’ll never have to wear them again.” How easy it was to forget. With the exception of the royal family, all girls were required to wear gloves as a precautionary measure. Any woman might be Gwyrach; hence every woman was a threat. The Gwyrach were women who, through the simple act of touch, could manipulate flesh, bone, breath, and blood. Not women, Mia reminded herself. Demons. They were half god, half human—the wrath and power of a god mixed with the petty jealousies and grudges of human beings. The Gwyrach could fracture bones and freeze breath. They could starve limbs of oxygen, enthrall a heart with false desire, and make blood boil and skin crawl.

They could even stop a heart. How effortless, this act of murder: a palm pressed to a chest, and a life snuffed out forever. Mia had seen proof. A Gwyrach had destroyed their lives—and Mia was going to find her. Heart for a heart, life for a life. But first, she and Angelyne had to escape. In the mirror, she saw a shadow flicker over her sister’s face. Then it was gone. Angie rubbed the peppermint salve into Mia’s jaw and quickly slid the glove back over her hand. Her wrists were so thin they made Mia’s chest ache.

Birdlike. There was a reason their mother had called Angie her little swan. Before she knew what was happening, her sister was lifting Mia’s linen tunic up over her head and fitting the whalebone corset around her rib cage. “Four hells, Angie!” “What? You look like a princess!” She stared admiringly at Mia’s reflection. “Will there be candlelight in the prince’s chambers? Because it does wonders for your bone structure. Your clavicle throws the most beautiful shadows. ” “I doubt it’s my clavicle he’ll be looking at,” Mia said darkly. Between the whalebone corset pushing up and the gown’s neckline plunging down, she had never seen so much of her own flesh. “You have Mother’s figure.” Angie sighed.

“What I wouldn’t give to have a porcelain swell of breast.” Mia caught her sister’s eye in the polished glass, and despite everything—or maybe because of it —they both burst into laughter. It was always like this: they could be bickering one moment and shrieking in unabashed delight the next. “You’ve been reading your dreadful novels again, I see.” “You have so little faith in fate. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fall in love! To be swept up in something bigger than yourself—to find a handsome partner in the dance of destiny.” “Like Mother and Father.” Angie touched the moonstone pendant at her throat. It had belonged to their mother. “Yes,” she said, her voice feathery soft.

“Like that.” They were wasting precious time. It was now or never. “I need you to listen, Ange. What I’m about to tell you is important.” “Oh?” Her sister seized a long hairpin and plunged it into the smoldering candle, then took a strand of Mia’s dark-red hair and coiled it around the warm, waxy pin. When she let go, it snaked into a perfect corkscrew. In the torchlight Mia couldn’t help but think her curls gleamed the color of wet blood. “Angelyne.” Her voice was deadly quiet.

“We are getting out of here. You and I. I have everything arranged, so you don’t have to do anything but trust me.” Angie set the pin slowly on the dresser. Her blue eyes flashed in the mirror. “I know what you’ve been plotting, Mi. I’ve seen you with your maps, packing your secret satchels. I know you’re running away. And I’m not coming.” Mia was stunned.

“I—I’m not leaving you behind.” “Maybe I want to be left behind. Have you considered that? Maybe this life you’re so determined to hate—living in a castle, married to a prince—isn’t such a bad life.” “To be trapped forever in this frozen tomb?” She reached up and pressed a palm to her sister’s forehead. “Are you febrile? The fever is stealing your sense.” Angie shrugged her off. “I’m the one who’s being sensible! You treat me like a victim. Poor sick little Angie, always in need of someone to save her. But I don’t need saving. Go.

Flee the castle. Run off to have your adventures.” “My adventures? You speak as if I’m going on holiday. You know I have to find her, Angie. If Father won’t, I will. Heart for a heart, life for a life.” “Yes, well. You Hunters all think you’re exacting justice when really you’re just adding weight to one side of the scale. More bodies. More loss.

” The conversation was twisting too quickly for Mia to grab hold of. “Why would you choose a loveless marriage? What about the ‘dance of destiny’? Think of the way Mother looked at Father . ” “I try not to think of her,” Angie snapped. “Though you seem intent on reminding me.” “Is that really what you want? To be bound by sacred vow to a boy who doesn’t love you? All so you can twirl around the castle in a pretty gown?” “You don’t get to tell me what I want!” All the blood drained from Angelyne’s face. She staggered forward, clutching the bedpost, her slim body racked by coughs. Instantly Mia was by her side. “The dizzy spells again?” “They come out of nowhere. Everything is fine and then the world goes white.” “Maybe you should lie down.

” “Maybe I should.” Mia helped ease her onto the canopy bed, plumping the vermilion silk pillows under her head. She watched her sister’s chest rise and fall, a delicate paper lantern. Guilt roiled in her belly. Mia didn’t feel so well herself. An inexplicable heat poured over her, as scorching as if she’d leaned over a fire, orange flames licking her freckled flesh. She felt the sweat gathering damply beneath her arms, pooling in the scoop of her lower back. Reason number six hundred and twelve she wouldn’t make a very good princess: princesses did not have sweat stains blooming on their fine silken gowns. Angie’s smile was sad. “Look at me.

Not even strong enough to have a proper fight. I really am a heroine from one of my novels.” She reached for Mia’s hand, her skin sweltering. “Go, Mi. If you want to run, run. I’ll only slow you down.” Mia’s heart plummeted. Her sister couldn’t go more than five minutes without succumbing to one of her unexplained ailments—fevers, coughing fits, dizzy spells, monstrous headaches. Sometimes Ange stumbled forward, her feet gone suddenly limp, her toes numb. Mia had searched all her books on physiology, exhausted every tome on maladies and infections.

She always came up short. To escape, they would need to slip stealthily through an endless maze of tunnels, flee the castle, make it through the village undetected, commandeer a boat, and sail the Natha River east to Fojo Karação. Fojo was where her mother had first fallen in love—and where she had made enemies. The journey would take days. Weeks. Angie would never make it. In her heart of hearts, Mia had always known. The truth seeped into her with sickening certitude. She would never find the murderous Gwyrach. She would never leave the castle.

She would marry the prince. Mia tried valiantly to mask her despair. If she couldn’t save her sister, at least she could make her smile. “You’re stuck with me, I’m afraid. Even if you’d rather have a handsome boy to admire the swell of your porcelain bosom.” She heard footsteps in the castle corridor. Two harsh knocks echoed through her chambers. “Lady Mia?” It was the prince, his voice icy. “I’ve some news.” Chapter 2 Instruments of War PRINCE QUIN STOOD AT the threshold, arms crossed.

He bore a striking resemblance to her favorite human-anatomy sketch: his body long and lean, his face perfectly symmetrical. Not that she’d noticed. “You can call me Mia. I’ve told you a thousand times, no ‘lady’ required.” “Until you are my princess, you will remain my lady,” he said in his oddly formal way. He stared at her bare arms and flinched. “My apologies, Your Grace.” The last thing she needed was the prince to report her. “I was performing my ablutions,” she lied. She seized the velvety gray gloves off her dresser and slid them over her hands.

While most girls in the river kingdom wore coarse bullock and deer hide, Mia and Angelyne enjoyed gloves of lamb slinkskin, soft and buttery. There were perks to being the daughters of an assassin. Especially when that assassin led the Circle of the Hunt, the king’s dedicated tribe of Gwyrach Hunters. Quin cleared his throat. “I’ve come to tell you the final feast has been postponed.” “Oh? To what do we owe this tragic turn of events?” “Something about a burnt duck. We will reconvene in one hour.” Mia wondered why Quin hadn’t sent one of his myriad servants to impart this news. The Kaer was swarming with them, all young, all female. Was there something else he wanted? They stood angled toward one another in the doorway, studiously avoiding eye contact.

He fidgeted with a gold button on the sleeve of his smart green jacket. Quin was wearing the colors of Clan Killian: seasick emerald and scintillating gold. He cleared his throat again. “I trust you won’t be late?” “Of course not.” “Unlike last night.” “Last night was an anomaly.” “And the night before.” So that’s what he wanted: to mock her. She glared at his glittering green eyes, framed by high chiseled cheekbones and a light smattering of freckles across sandy skin. His gold mane of hair curled over his ears in a perpetual state of touslement.

Yes, Quin was beautiful. He was also cold and arrogant and completely unknowable. More than anything, Mia wanted to know and be known. He was right about her being late to dinner; she’d spent the last few evenings mapping the tunnels, preparing for her and Angelyne’s escape. Had she actually fooled herself into thinking she could evade her fate? She looked at Quin with new and heavy understanding: this would be her husband. Her lifelong mate. Mia had logged very little time with him—too little to know what kind of boy he was—but she knew exactly what kind of man King Ronan was. Clan Killian had ruled Glas Ddir for centuries, glutted on power and the abuses of it. It seemed only natural the prince would take after his father. Fear sank its teeth into her stomach and she swayed on her feet.

“Are you—” Quin reached out to steady her, then quickly withdrew his hand from her gloved arm. “You’re not going to faint, are you?” She exhaled. “I’ve never fainted in my life. I’m not that kind of girl.” What she didn’t say was that his touch had pierced the slinkskin like a dagger. Was it always this unpleasant to be touched by a boy? She didn’t have much personal experience. While other girls were sneaking into empty market stalls to shyly touch their lips to someone else’s, Mia was throwing blades into tree stumps and studying the number of bones it was possible to break in a Gwyrach’s neck. Quin gestured toward the bed, where Angelyne’s tiny feet peeked out from under the canopy. “Is that your sister?” “She’s resting.” “Make sure you wake her within the hour, or she’ll be late, too.

” “Why the sudden interest in punctuality, Your Grace?” He shifted his weight. “My father demands it.” A chill snowflaked under Mia’s skin, as if someone were sliding an ice cube along the nape of her neck. The inside of her neck. She did not care for King Ronan. Didn’t care for the way he spoke to his servant girls or looked at her sister. Nor did she care for the pleasure he took in torturing the Gwyrach who’d been captured and brought back to Glas Ddir. She had seen his Hall of Hands. Mia straightened. “We’ll be in the Gallery in one hour.

Worry not.” Was it her imagination, or did an inch of tension melt from his shoulders? “Good. My father will be pleased. My mother is already furious at the cooks for ruining the duck —I’d rather not give her one more reason to whine.” Mia felt the gut punch she always felt when people spoke of their mothers, especially with such obvious disdain. She wanted to grab Quin by the shoulders and shake some sense into his cerebral cortex. Remind him how lucky he was. “The Hunters are here as well,” he said. “They will join us at the final feast, to ensure we are protected. But you are not to speak to them.

” Anger flared in her chest. She had every right to speak to the Hunters if it pleased her. She had, after all, been training with the Circle for the past three years, poised to take the sacred oath on her eighteenth birthday and pledge her life to tracking and eliminating Gwyrach. The clean logic of the Hunters’ Creed appealed to her: Heart for a heart, life for a life. Though she had never killed a Gwyrach—her father had strictly forbidden it—Mia knew she would not hesitate when it was time. And then her father had summarily dismissed her from the Circle and announced her wedding plans. “I will take it under advisement, Your Grace.” She studied him. When Mia first arrived at the castle, she’d nursed a wild hypothesis that, underneath his ice-cold exterior, Quin might actually have a red beating heart. She searched his green eyes for it—a spark of joy, a terrible secret, a tiny fissure in his veneer.

Something. Anything. But if this were a mask, it was permanently frozen to his face, the secrets frozen with it. The prince lingered in the doorway. What was he still doing there? “Your buckles,” Quin said. “My buckles?” He nodded toward the decorative buckles on her boots. “They’re very shiny.” “Thank you?” The silence was excruciating. They each cast about for something to say. “Your buckles are shiny, too,” she blurted.

“Thanks much.” If this were the sort of conversation that would fuel the next fifty years of marriage, she was tempted to take the buckles and stab herself. “I’ve got to—” “I should be—”

.

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