At the sound of the commander’s voice, Quarter’s head whips over, and my eyes snap open in surprise.
Commander Rip is standing there, flanked by two of his soldiers. The three of them are menacing and dark, like obscure shadows spreading their darkness. Even with the helmet obscuring his face, I can tell that the commander is seething.
“Move away from the favored. Now.”
No room for argument, no politeness in the commander’s tone. He doesn’t even have to raise his voice to sound frightening.
Quarter straightens up at the command. “She’s lying about something, and I’ll be finishing this discussion before you take her.”
To be honest, I’m too shocked at Quarter’s courage to be nervous for myself. But beside me, I hear Rissa whimper, like she’s afraid we’re about to be caught up in a deadly fight, and maybe we are, because the three pirates behind Quarter grasp the hilts of their swords nervously.
But the soldiers behind Commander Rip don’t move an inch. The commander himself also doesn’t grip his gnarled hilt. He doesn’t take a step forward. He doesn’t even argue.
No, the commander laughs.
The sound pours out of his helmet and pools in the air between us, making the pirates go tense. It’s the sound of a warning. It’s the laugh of a madman, one set on the promise of blood.
A threatening aura as thick as tar pulses off him, making my skin bead with an unnatural chill. The spikes on the commander’s arms gleam black like a chasm’s throat ready to swallow Quarter whole, and I nearly feel sick with fear.
This is the monster that King Ravinger unleashes on Orea. This is the male terror that the legends and gossip and tales are derived from. No wonder no one wants to meet him on a battlefield.
Beside me, Quarter blanches behind his mask, his eyes widening like prey who vastly underestimated the predator.
“Fine, take her,” Quarter blurts, his voice gruff, caught between fear and a feeble attempt to sound confident. “I can’t trust the words from a whore’s mouth, anyway.”
“Good choice.” The commander’s voice is like a sinister purr.
Quarter grinds his teeth, irked with the patronizing tone, but he turns and stalks off, retreating into the captain’s rooms like a dog with his tail between his legs. Smart man. The other three pirates shoot glares at the soldiers before they also turn and follow behind him.
I stare at the commander, barely able to breathe. Too affected by his palpable menace to be relieved that I’m escaping Quarter’s questions.
“Let’s go.” The commander speaks the order quietly but firmly.
He turns and walks off, while the two soldiers with him wait for Rissa and me. We peel ourselves away from our frozen spots near the captain’s quarters and begin to walk, my steps lagging slightly.
As we walk across the deck, the gazes of the Red Raids follow us, their masks like sneers. But Fourth’s soldiers don’t pay them any mind, don’t even seem to care as they escort Rissa and me toward the ramp, a light dusting of snow covering the gangplank.
I let my eyes scan the faceless red masks of the pirates one last time, my gaze catching on the pole where they’d strung up Sail. I have the biggest urge to spit at their feet, but I hold it in.
I face forward as the commander begins to walk down the ramp, his boots making prints over the wood as he descends. Rissa and I follow quietly behind him, the other two soldiers at our backs.
But exhaustion is rebelling through my body, threatening to take over. My weary, stumbled steps don’t go well together with the steep incline of the gangplank, especially when it’s slippery.
I try to focus each step, going slow and careful, but even so, my legs are shaking, my energy sapped. So I’m not even surprised when my boot hits a patch of ice and I go tripping forward, unable to catch myself.
I nearly knock into Rissa, but I manage to jerk my body to the left before I run into her. Of course, that only makes me toss myself right over the side of the ramp, and I go flying off.
Luckily, I’m near the bottom, at least. Bright side.
On my short fall toward the ground, my arms and loose ribbons thrust in front of me in an attempt to catch myself, and I brace myself for the impact.
I land hard, my hands and knees bursting with pain as I hit the thick snow. Wet cold immediately soaks into my skirt and gloves. My ribbons nearly collapse beneath my weight, the hardened contours pulsing with a sharp ache, but at least I didn’t land flat on my face.
For a moment, my dizziness and exhaustion is so great that I worry I’m not going to be able to pick myself back up, that I’m just going to collapse in the snow. But I can’t let that happen. I’m entirely too exposed and vulnerable here, beneath the veil of a clouded morning.
I startle when the crack of a whip shatters the air, followed by the thunderous sound of countless fire claws growling.
Behind me, the ships of the snow pirates begin to slowly drag away, wooden hulls scraping against waves of ice, my prostrate body so close to them that the ground trembles beneath me.
But beyond the ships that are inching away, gaining momentum by their fiery beasts, I see a sea of white landscape that’s clogged with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Fourth Kingdom’s soldiers.
Like craggy rocks littered throughout the once pristine landscape, they’re everywhere. With these numbers, it becomes blatantly obvious why the pirates didn’t dare fight the commander. With this might at his back, they would be slaughtered.
My stomach churns inside me as my eyes scan the sight of them, but I’m unable to even comprehend their numbers. This isn’t just a reconnaissance mission. This isn’t the commander traveling to Midas with a small group of soldiers to deliver a royal message.
No, this is the might of King Ravinger’s army, come to wage war.
I escaped the Red Raids only to be caught by the enemy marching toward my king. I fell into the commander’s hand like a shiny bargaining chip.
My dread churns so thick in my stomach that I worry I’m going to be sick. When a pair of black boots appears in my line of vision where I’m still braced awkwardly on the ground, all I can do is blink, my body frozen there in the snow.
This is bad. Very, very bad.
The commander’s voice grates down my back as sharp as his spikes. “Well, this is very…interesting.”
My throat bobs with a dry swallow, and then my eyes lift up where the commander stands looming over me. Behind him, the army begins to move, though I don’t watch them. I’m too focused on him. Because his helmet is off, tucked under his arm, and I can see his face for the very first time.
He has no horns. No glowing, murderous eyes. Not even a terrifying scar is ripped down his cheek.
No, all of those things were just nightmarish gossip, the imagining of something demonic. Orea is probably in too much denial to face the truth, too separated from our land’s long-ago history, too afraid to think that we have full-blooded fae in our midst. They use King Rot’s power as the excuse, they believe falsehoods, spread misinformation, or discard it all as rumors.
But Commander Rip isn’t a demon, and he hasn’t been twisted by Ravinger’s magic. He’s a presence all his own, and I can’t help but stare at him, taking in every detail.
His irises are black. As black as midnight shrouding the world, starless, moonless, no differentiating between iris and pupil. Thick, arched black eyebrows are set above those desolate eyes, making his expression fierce and grim.
Above the hairline of each eyebrow is a line of tiny, very short spikes. The same black as the spikes on his back and arms, though these ones don’t curve, look slightly more blunted at the tips, and are only about a centimeter tall.
His nose is strong and straight, his teeth are bright white, showing a hint of slightly sharp and elongated canines. Along his temples and curving down his cheekbones, he has a subtle dusting of gray, nearly iridescent scales, like the scales of the lizards that live in the Ash Dunes.
He has thick black hair, a rough black beard over pale skin, and a strong square jaw—a jaw that leads up to subtly pointed ears. And all of this on a body standing six and a half feet tall, thick with muscles and an aura ripe with menace.
He’s terrifying. He’s ethereal. He’s so very, very fae.
The rest of Orea might have forgotten what true fae look and feel like, might like to pretend that all we have left of the fae is what little magic that still passes down in bloodlines, but the commander’s presence disproves that.
Orea feels betrayed by the fae, but fear is the predominant emotion. It’s why only those with magic are allowed to rule. It’s why Queen Malina had to give up control of her throne and marry Midas for his magical power. Because if the fae ever do come back to finish what they started, we need rulers who can protect their kingdoms.
I wonder if King Ravinger knows exactly what kind of beast he has on his leash. I wonder if he can feel the commander’s power brimming beneath the surface, sense his suffocating atmosphere.
I’m vulnerable here at his feet, with the commander’s eyes locked on my weak ribbons that are still trying to help hold me up. His unwanted attention makes my heart gallop.
With a mental push, I’m somehow able to collect the shattered pieces of my strength and force myself to my feet. As soon as I stand, my loose ribbons hang limp and dull behind me in the snow, no strength left to even wrap themselves around me.
The commander’s head cocks in an animalistic way as he regards me with a slow drag of his eyes from bottom to top, making the sheen of the barely-there scales over his cheekbones ripple in the gray dawn.
When his gaze finally lifts to my face, my wary gold eyes get caught by his intense black ones.
The pirate ships pull further away, the army continues to move, but the commander and I continue to stand there, watching each other.
From this close, I can see flakes of snow getting caught on his thick black lashes. I can see the polished gleam of the spikes over his brow. I wouldn’t call him handsome, he’s far too wicked looking for that, but the savage grace of him is as magnificent as it is utterly alarming.
Even though I’m freezing, my palms begin to sweat inside my gloves, my pulse pounding so hard I expect it to knock pinprick holes through my veins. The wind picks up, ruffling the brown feathers along my stolen coat, making it look as if my whole body is trembling.
Strong. His presence is so damn strong and full of death, like even his aura knows how destructive he is.
Finally, he speaks again. “So, this is King Midas’s pet.” He glances down at the feathers on my sleeves, the gold ribbons bereft in the snow, and his black eyes flash with interest as they lift again to my face. “I have to admit, I didn’t expect to find a goldfinch.”
I’m not sure why hearing him call me a pet bothers me, but I find my hands fisting the fabric of my skirts.
“I know what you are,” I say with a sharp tone, my accusation escaping with a puff of hazy air between us.
A slow smirk spreads over his mouth, a menacing curl of his lips that makes my heart stumble. He takes a single step forward, a simple move that somehow sucks all the air out of the world.
He leans in, his aura pushing at me, testing, feeling, overwhelming. And despite the frigid air of the Barrens, despite the deafening noises of the scraping ships and the marching army, his voice presses hot and resonant against my ear as he speaks. “Funny, I was about to say the same thing to you.”