Chapter Two, Scene One
I wake to a gentle tapping against my cheek. It’s soft, persistent, and wholly unfamiliar. Groaning, I roll away from the sensation.
It follows me.
I’m still more asleep than awake, and my eyelids flutter. After a few moments, my eyes blur on something large—and so near, I cannot focus on it.
Screaming, I sit up, knocking the nightmare creature away. The massive white spider darts across the quilt, eight furry legs flying, eyes as red as blood…heading right for me. I leap out of bed, tossing the covers over it, hoping to trap it.
“RHYS!” I shriek, jumping atop a chair in my small room at the Rock Creek Inn. Morning light filters in through the shutters, but it’s early, and the room is dim.
I can just make out the bump in the quilt as the spider scurries back and forth in an attempt to escape my makeshift prison.
Moments later, the door flies open. It crashes against the wall as a shirtless knight rushes into the room. Rhys’s brown hair is tousled from sleep, and his trousers hang low—as if he hastily yanked them up and didn’t have time to tie them properly.
He carries a sword in one hand and his strange copper dagger in the other. There’s an excellent chance I’d swoon if I couldn’t feel the memory of furry arachnid footprints on my cheek.
“Spider.” I tremble as I point at the bed. “Under the quilt.”
The knight’s shoulders sag, and he rolls his neck, stretching it. “All that screaming for a spider?”
“That is not a normal spider,” I hiss. “It’s huge.”
Two more knights appear in the doorway—Braith, Rhys’s bear-like cousin, and Aeron, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man who is as beautiful as he is intimidating.
Braith leans against the doorframe and crosses his arms, laughing. “And here I thought a bandit broke into your room and was trying to snatch you away.”
I glare at him while I say to Rhys, “I threw the blanket over it. It’s trapped between the layers.”
Aeron doesn’t smile or joke, as usual. He merely watches as Rhys nonchalantly pulls back the cover.
I wait, holding my breath, my fingers clenched against the back of the chair. As soon as the knight reveals the wicked arachnid, he bites out a curse and leaps back.
Aeron swears, and Braith pushes from the doorway.
Feeling validated, I smirk from my sanctuary atop the chair.
“Albino Chasm tarantula,” Aeron says. “What’s it doing in Renove?”
“What’s a tarantula?” I demand.
“That thing.” Braith motions to the hairy spider. “Lucky for you, that one there is male.”
“Why is that lucky?”
“Either of you wearing boots?” Rhys asks, knocking the tarantula back to the middle of the bed with his sword.
I glance down, just now noticing his bare feet.
“Females are twice that size,” Braith answers me. “And three times as venomous.”
Aeron pulls off a boot and tosses it to Rhys. “You don’t think you can slay the wee beast with your blade, oh fearless captain?”
“You’ve been around Tryndon too long. I’d rather kill it quickly than try for bragging rights and risk losing it.” Rhys then prepares to sweep the tarantula onto the floor. “Amalia, stay up there.”
“Three times as venomous?” I ask Braith, still clinging to the back of the chair, wondering if I dare climb on top of the table. “Meaning this one is venomous as well?”
“Only mildly,” Aeron answers. “Males have a wicked bite, but they won’t kill you.”
“Watch yourselves,” Rhys says, and then he drags the tarantula to the floor with the edge of his sword.
But instead of falling over the side of the bed as planned, the spider leaps at Rhys just before it goes over the edge.
The knight makes a noise of surprise—a terrifying sound coming from a grown man—and I scream again.
The next few seconds are a blur.
Somehow in the chaos, Rhys manages to knock the tarantula to the floor. It races toward the doorway, retreating and seeking freedom.
“Don’t let it escape!” Rhys yells.
Braith flails, but Aeron manages to redirect the arachnid back into the room.
By this time, we’ve drawn a crowd. The rest of Rhys’s knights join us, along with a handful of other patrons staying at the small inn. The innkeeper crowds his way through, demanding to know what the commotion is about.
“What is that thing?” he gasps, just as another woman gets a peek at the tarantula and goes running down the hall like a tiraith is on her heels.
Rhys chases the spider across the room, quite a sight in his state of half-dress, carrying Aeron’s boot like a bludgeon. Thankfully, the tarantula darts into a corner.
I look away as Rhys smacks the boot against the wooden planks. The thud echoes through the room, along with a sticky crunch that has my stomach rolling.
And then…there is silence.
I dare to crack one eye open.
Rhys straightens. Solemnly, he announces, “It’s dead.”
The gathered crowd cheers as though Rhys just slew a dragon, and the innkeeper rushes in, apologizing. “I’ve never in my life seen such a spider. I am so very sorry—”
Rhys waves his hand, cutting him off. “It’s fine.”
Slowly, Rhys’s men usher the crowd away, including the extremely apologetic innkeeper. Then it’s just the six of us in the room—Rhys, Braith, Aeron, Cabe, Lewis, and me. We’re short two—Tryndon and Morgan. They remained in Saulette and are awaiting our return.
Less than a week ago, when my cousin came down with a sickness unknown on this side of the Chasm, we made a mad dash to the Calmon Forest, looking for a reclusive witch who is known to provide cures for the incurable. What we found was a fairy—the last of her people—and a tangle of information I’m still not sure how to process.
The biggest revelation, and the one that turned my upside-down world right-side-up once more, was that my brother was not killed by bandits as my family was led to believe, but abducted by Draegan’s royal family.
She didn’t bother to mention why, but Braeton is alive, and that is all I need to know right now.
Well, it’s not all I need to know. There’s something just as pressing—something that makes my skin crawl.
The fairy said that if I, a princess of Renove, do not fall in love and marry the crown-prince of Draegan—and sit by his side and rule his wretched kingdom—then our little, secluded world will tear itself apart. It is the only way to appease the magic and fix the mistake our great-grandfathers made when they begged the fae to create the magical rift between our kingdoms.
If I refuse, Renove and Draegan will both be overrun with darkness and fall into ruin. We will become nothing but a mystery to the rest of the known continents—merely two kingdoms that, one day a little over a hundred years ago, quite suddenly ceased to exist.
But how could I be expected to fall in love with a prince of Draegan after the heartbreak his family inflicted upon my parents and me? They stole my brother, tricked us into thinking he was dead. They’re a vile people, cold and cruel.
And besides all that, my heart is already taken with someone else.
I jerk my head toward Rhys. “What?”
“You can step down from the chair now.” The knight’s tone is solemn, but his dark green eyes betray his amusement.
I suddenly realize I’m standing here in nothing but my chemise. It’s long, and plenty decent, but it’s still a chemise.
Lewis offers me his hand, respectfully looking at the floor. In fact, all of Rhys’s knights turn their eyes away. The only one who does not is Rhys himself.
“Get ready to leave,” Rhys instructs his men. “I doubt Amalia will find any more rest today.”
They murmur acknowledgments and filter out. Aeron flashes Rhys a look that I cannot quite decipher, and then he closes the door behind him, giving us privacy.
Rhys shakes his head, giving in to an unexpected smile.
“I know,” I say with a sigh.
Since I left for the Requeamare, I have been a beacon for trouble. I became the bane of the knight’s existence the moment he took it upon himself to become my valiant protector.
“The magic is attracted to you,” he says. “There is no other explanation. Both good and bad, you call to it.”
“It seems it also led you to me, Rhys,” I answer with a smile. “So, which are you? Good or bad?”
A shadow crosses his face. “That has yet to be decided.”
Before I can respond, he starts for the door. “Get dressed,” he says briskly. “We’ll leave as soon as you are ready.”
Once I am alone, I let my head fall back and growl at the ceiling. Despite everything we went through in the forest last night, Rhys seems even more closed off than before.
What exactly did the fairy say when she took him aside? Somehow, someway, I’m going to find out.
I glance into the corner of the room, shivering when I think of the tarantula.
Thankfully, there’s no sign of it. One of Rhys’s men must have taken care of it while I was distracted.