Home > The Princess Knight (The Scarred Earth Saga #2)(11)

The Princess Knight (The Scarred Earth Saga #2)(11)
Author: G.A. Aiken

Clearing her throat, Keeley suggested, “Perhaps once you get good with the bow.”

“I am good with the bow.”

“No. Seriously good with the bow. Not just Da telling you you’re good with the bow.”

Without taking a step away from Keeley and Gemma, Ainsley brought her bow off her shoulder, pulled an arrow from her quiver, aimed out the window near the table her sisters sat at, and let the arrow fly.

Keeley snorted. “What the fuck is that supposed to—”

“Thanks, luv!” their father called from outside.

“Welcome, Da!” Ainsley called back without moving . . . or blinking. That’s when Keeley realized her sister never raised her voice. She rarely showed anger. Or happiness. Or anything. Unlike the rest of the Smythe children, she didn’t really react to much.

Gemma pushed her chair back and went to the window. She leaned out and when she came back in, her eyes were wide.

“She hit a falcon.”

“I actually nicked his wing,” Ainsley explained. “Da wants a falcon. Now he has one once he helps this bird to heal.”

Again, Keeley cleared her throat. “That’s just—”

“Luck? You think that was luck? Fine.”

With an arrow already nocked, she aimed it at a spot in the room and unleashed it. It went through a small hole in the wall.

The intense cursing coming from inside the wall shocked them all and Keeley jumped up and went to the spot with her hammer. She hit the stone a few times until she and Gemma could remove chunks of it with their hands, revealing one of the dwarven stonemasons.

Coughing from the rock dust while trying to pull the arrow from his leg, he forced a smile at the queen.

“Your Majesty.”

“That one has been spying on you for a month,” Ainsley pointed out. “Although they’ve all been spying on you a bit, Keeley. They like watching you. You and your hammer.”

Keeley reacted automatically. “Ewwwww.”

“My queen,” a servant said as he entered the room, stopping when he saw the partially destroyed wall and the wounded stonemason dwarf. “Uhhh.”

“What is it, Carl?”

“Uh, Lady Laila asks that you come to the main hall. The riders you sent out the other day have returned.”

Grateful to have something else—anything else—to deal with at this moment, Keeley and Gemma rushed for the door, causing the servant to practically fall to the ground in an attempt to get out of their way. Keeley caught him and put him back on his feet before she caught up to Gemma. They strode down the passages together until they reached the main hall. But they both stopped short when they saw their mother and father sitting at the dining table; Caid, Quinn, and Laila stood next to the table along with three of the riders. It wasn’t the missing riders that concerned them. It was everyone’s expression.

“What?” Keeley asked. “What’s wrong?”

Laila motioned to the riders and they each dropped a large burlap bag to the ground.

“What’s that?” Gemma asked.

“What’s left.”

“What’s left of what?”

“The monks. The priests.”

Keeley took a step back but Gemma’s body jerked forward. “What? What?”

“These are skulls,” Laila stated, pointing at one bag. “These are some bones,” she said, gesturing to another. “And these are just some bits. Some ash.”

“No. That’s not possi—No.”

“Are any left?” Keeley asked, horrified by what she was being told.

“The witches survived,” Quinn said. “The reason the rider who went to them isn’t here is because he had to go to the healers in the village.”

Gemma let out a long sigh. “What did the witches do to him?”

Quinn fought hard not to smile. “They gave him a tail.”

“A what?”

“A rat tail. It moves on its own and everything.”

Keeley’s lip curled. “Ew! What is wrong with everyone?”

“Apparently those witches were not friendly.”

“That poor man!”

Unconcerned about the man and his rat tail, it seemed, Gemma cut in, “What are the witches doing now?”

“Going underground,” Laila stated. “Literally, I believe. Traveling through tunnels and moving to safer territory.”

“And all the artifacts of the monks and priests . . . ?”

“Gone. Most of the walls of the churches and temples were not even left standing. They were destroyed down to the last stone.”

“There’s no doubt then. These religious orders are being specifically targeted.”

“Just as you said, Gemma. This isn’t about gold or silver. This is about power.”

“No, it isn’t just about power,” a soft voice said from behind them and they turned to see the pacifist monk coming from the passage that led to the kitchens. “This is also about desecration.”

“But why?” Keeley’s mother asked. “Why would anyone do that?”

“To destroy our beliefs and the beliefs of the populace,” he said, walking toward them. “To make room for another. Someone else’s chosen god.”

“What’s one more god?” Keeley asked. “There’s room for as many gods as we could possibly want.”

“Not for a god that wants to rule all.”

Keeley began to pace. She knew the monk was right. A power-hungry man was dangerous enough. But a power-hungry god . . . that was a nightmare. Put the two together? She had to do something, and she had to do it now.

“We need to send out battle units immediately. Any sect or order that wants our protection will have it. They can stay here. Now, Brother—” It suddenly occurred to her she didn’t know the monk’s name.

Shocked that she was actually looking to him for something, he said, “Emmanuel.”

“Brother Emmanuel. As a pacifist monk, you can be the man in the middle, so to speak. When these groups come in, I will need your help keeping those who aren’t friends away from each other. Those who are able to get along can room together. You can also work with my uncle to arrange for sleeping quarters. Do you mind doing that?”

It was the first smile they’d seen from the man since the day they’d all met him. “That would bring great joy to my life, Your Highness. To help you with this.”

“Or you could call me Keeley. Since we’ll be working together a lot. Anyway, just do your best.” She motioned to several nearby soldiers. “Get my generals.”

She faced Gemma. “Beatrix?”

Gemma thought deep on that, but it was their father who actually answered for them, shocking them all. Because he hadn’t spoken of the wayward Smythe in some time.

“The only way this is Beatrix is if there’s some deal involved.”

And they knew he was right. Of course, then the question became. . . what deal?

CHAPTER 4

“Do you know what I find disappointing?”

Agathon, the Follower of Her Word, lifted his head from the work before him. He thought his expression was flat. He’d always thought he’d taught himself to have no expression at all. But maybe he had lost that skill after two years with Queen Beatrix. Or maybe she could see right through him as no other royal ever had before. She did seem to have that skill.

“I don’t mean you,” she said after a long sigh. “So you can stop looking so panicked. It’s everyone else. Everyone else disappoints me.”

“How is that, my lady?” he bravely asked. Bravely because he rarely questioned anyone. But the queen seemed to appreciate his questions. Or maybe she was just lonely and desperate for someone to show interest in her words.

Then again . . . he didn’t think she was capable of being lonely. She seemed to have no real desire or need for another soul.

“Because,” she replied while staring out the window, “all they need to do is play their roles and yet they do not cooperate. Forcing me to do things I find rather distasteful . . . but necessary.”

He was surprised. He didn’t think she found anything distasteful. Except clutter. She didn’t like clutter.

Agathon opened his mouth to ask more questions but the study door slammed open and the king stormed in.

Dropping his head low, Agathon started toward the door, keeping his back to the walls and slinking along, desperate to leave as quickly as he could manage, but Beatrix stopped him with two words.

“No. Stay.” Slowly the queen turned and looked at her husband of two years. It was, perhaps, the strangest relationship Agathon had ever seen and he’d been the Keeper of His Word for the Old King himself. A man with many wives and concubines and offspring. Most dead since the day of his final breath.

King Marius, the Wielder of Hate, towered over his tiny wife, his face full of rage. It was rumored that their first night together had been a nightmare for the queen but Agathon truly doubted that story. He wasn’t even sure the queen had ever had carnal knowledge of any man or woman. The queen seemed to have no interest. And although that had never stopped the Old King or any of his sons before, King Marius seemed . . . wary of his bride. Not that Agathon blamed the man. Agathon greatly doubted the king would risk the cock he so greatly loved just so he could say he’d thrust it between his wife’s thighs.

Of course, wary was the safest stance for anyone when dealing with Queen Beatrix.

“Yes, my king?” she replied with no hint of emotion. No fear. No panic. No interest. No anything. Nothing more than . . . politeness?

“What have you done?” he demanded. “What have you done?”

The bellow would have any other member of the kingdom running for their life. Not that it would do any good. When the king bellowed like that, his blade always followed, tearing through a gut or lopping off a head.

But with Beatrix, the king simply bellowed and waited, his hands balled into tight, angry fists.

   
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