ONCE UPON A TIME . . .
NOTHING HAD BEEN right in the castle since her mother’s death. Her father’s smile had disappeared, and a brittle imposter had taken its place. Her younger brother had begun screaming in the dead of night, trapped in nightmares he couldn’t remember upon waking. And the faint tingle of magic in the princess’s palms that her mother had laughingly told her would one day make flowers bloom and birds sing had become a fierce burn of power that stung her veins and shook the ground if the princess wasn’t careful.
She’d been desperate for a change—for some way to return the castle to the happy place it used to be. So when the king of Morcant began pressuring her father to marry another Morcantian of the king’s choice in order to keep the alliance between Morcant and Ravenspire strong, and her father announced that he was marrying the princess’s aunt Irina, a woman who’d never set foot in Ravenspire until her sister was buried, the princess began to hope.
At first, it seemed the princess’s wish had been granted. Irina charmed the young prince into calling her mama, and his nightmares all but disappeared. She coaxed smiles out of the king, and his hollow cheeks grew round again as she tempted his appetite with lavish feasts nearly every night. And she took the princess under her wing, sharing the secrets of the magic that ran through their blood.
It was almost like having a mother again. Almost like being happy.
But it was all a lie.
Understanding dawned slowly, like prickles of pain in a limb gone numb. The princess began noticing things that shouldn’t be. Apples in a bowl that gleamed beneath the candlelight but spilled rot once the skin was punctured. Apples her father, her brother, and the castle staff ate nightly until every bit of them had disappeared.
Apples Irina said were for those without magic in their blood.
As the king and his staff became glassy-eyed puppets, dependent upon Irina for their every thought, the dungeons filled with those who refused to give Irina what she wanted. Ambassadors from other kingdoms left in anger at the king’s refusal to speak to them unless he first asked Irina what to say. And whispers of magic threaded throughout the castle, a web of deceit it seemed only the princess could detect.
Scared that she was losing her father, the princess decided to find a way to break Irina’s control over the castle and everyone in it.
The princess chose her moment carefully. The warmth of day still lingered outside, but the air in the castle’s entrance hall was cool and comfortable, and the family often spent their evenings watching through massive windowpanes as the stars came to life. The princess’s father sat beside Irina, dull and vague, while they watched the prince play with the pet snake the queen had given him for his seventh birthday. Members of the royal guard stood watch nearby, their eyes focused on the queen they somehow adored more than life itself.
The faint aroma of apples filled the air, and the lingering stain of rot smeared the teeth of those who smiled at Irina.
The princess’s bare hands trembled as she wrapped them around Irina’s arm, and fear left a bitter taste in her mouth. Her magic burned down her veins and pooled in her palms, and she felt the heart of the queen—vicious, determined, and strong—surge against her hands.
Her heart pounding, her legs trembling, the princess said the incantor that would change everything.
“Nakh`rashk. Find the threads of Irina’s magic and scatter them to the four winds.”
The queen jerked her arm free, but it was too late. Power leaped from the princess’s palms, slammed into the queen, and then shot to the gleaming marble floor where it exploded into a thousand tendrils of brilliant light. The light snaked over the floor, touching the palace guard, the prince, and the king before streaking throughout the castle to tear into pieces the fabric of lies Irina had built her new life upon.
The king, his eyes clear, his memory of the last six months restored, shouted for Irina to be put to death for treason. The palace guard, released of their bespelled adoration, rushed to do his bidding. And Irina, one hand reaching to punish the princess who had betrayed her and one reaching to bespell the king again, hesitated for a split second between the two.
In a heartbeat, the palace guard were upon her. The king pushed the prince and princess behind him. Swords flashed. Screams rose.
And then Irina began to laugh.
The princess shivered deep within as the guards closest to the queen fell back, clutching their faces while their skin peeled away from their bones and their blood bubbled like soup left too long on the fire.
“Take your brother and run!” the king shouted as he put the prince’s hand in hers. “Protect him.”
The princess snatched her brother’s hand and pulled him toward a small doorway that led to the servants’ hall.
Irina scooped up the prince’s pet snake and with a whisper turned him into an enormous black viper. The snake slithered across the bloodstained marble and sank his fangs into the king.
“No!” The princess turned back for her father, but Irina raised her arms above her head and slammed her palms into the wall behind her.
Instantly, the stone shuddered and twisted. The princess screamed as the floor buckled, heaving upward and throwing her against a pillar that was quickly disintegrating into dust. All around her, the walls were crumbling, the floor was cracking, and the snake was attacking anyone still left alive.
The princess locked eyes with the queen, a lake of blood and horror between them, and Irina smiled as the wall behind the princess exploded outward to crush the girl into dust.
Chunks of stone crashed around the princess, leaving her a small circle of space full of acrid dust. She was trapped, the debris above her creaking and sliding as the floor shuddered. She was going to die, and there would be no one left to protect her brother from the monster who’d taken Ravenspire’s throne.
A large dark hand reached through a space in the debris, wrapped around the princess’s wrist, and pulled her through the narrow opening between the pile of rubble and the servants’ hall. Gabril, the head of her father’s palace guard, crouched before her, his brown eyes steady on hers, his voice calm.
“Can you run?” he asked as he scooped the prince onto his shoulders.
The princess didn’t want to run. She wanted to see her father. She wanted to stay in her home.
She wanted to fight.
But though the queen had said that the princess was the daughter she’d never had, Irina had kept the knowledge of how to use magic as a weapon for herself alone.