There were a million ways to die in the Kingdom of Blackwood.
Plague. Starvation. Violence. Natural disasters. To name just a few.
I never imagined I’d die of fucking stupidity.
Standing at the edge of the woods, an ominous wind ruffled the tattered hem of my dress. A storm was looming on the horizon. The telling breeze would soon turn into a howling gale, rain would pour in buckets from the clouds, and thunder and lightning would flash brightly and boom deafeningly.
No one in their right mind would risk going out in a Blackwood storm. They say the violence in the sky was a product of Zeus and his descendants. They say the entirety of Blackwood was once ruled by the original six Olympian gods and that residual power still flowed through the veins of a few unlucky people.
Unlucky, because they also say that if you’re found to be with power, King Zacharias Storm would either kill you on sight or claim you as a slave.
But I’d never once laid eyes on a person with powers, nor the Storm King, nor the castle of Blackwood. If it weren’t for the brutal taxes we were forced to pay, I might believe the whole thing was a fairy tale. As it stood, I feared death just a little more than I feared poverty. After all, I’d been poor all my life and had somehow managed to survive. Pretty sure I couldn’t survive death.
And neither could Speedy, my pet sloth. At least, not on his own.
I loved him dearly, but he was a suicidal maniac. Every time I turned around, he was in one precarious situation or another. I didn’t know how many times I’d saved him from inevitable death, but it was almost never enough. I mean, he was a sloth for fuck’s sake. If there were a million ways for me to die, then there were a hundred-million ways he could die.
I was about 99 percent sure he’d wandered into the forest. Probably, he’d gone in for a snack and had gotten lost. Either way, I couldn’t leave him alone in there—especially during a sky storm.
So, there I was, about to die of stupidity because of a sloth.
With a growl and a string of curse words, I hiked up my dress and marched into the forest.
"Speedy!" I called out, over and over until my voice was harsh and the winds were harsher. Until raindrops tore like knives from the sky, slashing branches straight from the trees. Until I came to my damn senses and realized I needed to get the hell back home. Reluctantly, I turned to leave, but just as I did, a soft bleating sound came to my ears.
I spun around and charged even further into the forest. It wasn’t the farthest I'd gone into the wood, but it was farther than I ever intended to trek during a sky storm.
"Speedy!" I shouted again, then listened as closely as I could above the wind and thunder and the crashing of tree limbs. The bleating grew a bit louder. So, at least I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Honestly, I was surprised he'd made it this far. He was usually slow as shit; hence the purpose and irony of his adorable little name. I'd found him at a rough time in my life—just after my boyfriend had left me—which was why the moniker hadn't been more creative. He never did come to move any faster, though. He was either lazy as hell, or naturally destined to be another creature's prey. I had a bad feeling it was a mixture of both, which was why I tried to keep such a keen eye on him.
Of course, I couldn't always be watching, like when I was stuck in the mines chipping away jewel after jewel from the cold, hard stone. Gods, I hated jewels.
Speedy always seemed to choose moments like those to disappear into the woodwork. Little bastard.
"Speedy Ravenel, get your sloth ass over here right now!"
The bleating grew even louder. That's when I finally saw him, swaying in the wind, long limbs and claws desperately clinging to a tree branch, his cute, mask-like face turned upside down in a fearful frown.
My heart dropped. He was clearly scared to death—I could practically feel his fear. I knew I needed to get to him as soon as possible. To calm him and protect him.
Carelessly, I scrambled through the undergrowth, but out of freaking nowhere, a gruff-looking man crashed down the side of the hill beside me. He landed with a thud, just off to the side of my feet, and didn’t move. There was blood caked in his grizzly beard and soaked through his dirty tunic. With arrows jutting haphazardly from his back, he looked to be on the verge of death or, perhaps, dead already.
Momentarily stunned, I glanced uneasily between the stranger and my beloved pet. Should I run? Should I help the poor guy? Was he even helpable? And where the hell had he come from?
But then the man sucked in a ragged breath and grabbed my ankle, frightening the ever-loving shit out of me. His mouth opened, and he uttered three little words that would likely haunt me for the rest of my life...
"Kill the king."
Then his grip slackened, and he died at my feet.
As he lay there, a faint gold glow illuminated around his lifeless form. It grew brighter by the second, glittering like a hundred topaz jewels. The radiance soon gathered into a rippling orb of energy, almost like wisps from his very soul were collecting just above his chest. Then, before I could do anything more than gasp, it shot straight into me, piercing right through my heart.
I tensed and fell to the soggy, leaf-littered ground.
And everything went black.
I awoke to the sight of a damned arrow in my face.
It was early morning, and the rain seemed to have stopped, but I was cold and wet, and the sky was mostly gray and dreary. The stranger from the night before still lay dead on the ground next to me, but a handful of guards on black stallions now surrounded us both, as well as a few guards on foot.
What in Hades was going on here? My senses soared up to high-alert, and my heartbeat whooshed loudly in my ears. I’d never seen royal guards before—least of all in Blackleaf—but if the purple and silver crest on their chest plates was anything to go by, then that’s exactly what these men were.
The nearest guard kept the arrow trained at my throat as the door of a carriage opened and closed at the top of the hill. My gaze lifted toward the sound, and through the disheveled leaves on the bank, I saw a long streak of exposed dirt. Probably where the late stranger had fallen from last night. Were these guards chasing him?
A man approached the peak of the hill, wearing a jeweled crown on his graying head. He looked around and casually removed a pair of black leather gloves from his wide, bejeweled hands. He wasn’t tall in stature, but there was most definitely an air about him that screamed of importance and poise.
Oh, dear gods, it's the motherfucking king of Blackwood.
"Well, well, well," he muttered with amusement as he carefully descended the hill. "What have we here?"
"The Fire prisoner, Your Majesty," one of the guards answered, as he kicked the corpse in the ribs. "And a young girl."
"Woman," I corrected, before I could help myself.
Mother always warned me to hold my tongue, but Mother wasn't there to help me now, was she? I wasn't some pimple-ridden preteen. I was a strong, able-bodied woman who'd been working the mines since I’d turned eighteen, six years ago. I was used to having to remind men of my worth; I just wasn't used to any of those men being royalty.
The king assessed me like a viper might a mouse. "So you are. And how old are you, woman?"
The guard whipped me in the cheek with the arrowhead. It stung enough for tears to well in my eyes. "You will address your king as Your Majesty."
My cheeks reddened with soreness and embarrassment. "Twenty-four, Your Majesty."
The Storm King smirked, blue eyes twinkling. "Close to my sons' age. They're twenty-eight."
Yes, all four of them, I recalled with an eye roll. He’d had a different son with every wife, so I’d heard. Or nearly. I thought he was actually up to six harem ladies by that point, not four.
The Storm Princes each ruled a different quadrant of Blackwood, and it was said all four had powers.
Calvin Blackwood—the ruler of the northern quadrant, where I lived—was supposedly the Sky Prince, with the power to manipulate the sky and anything in it, including the storms that so often racked our quadrant.
Thanks a lot, dickhead.
The Blackwood brothers were apparently the only magical beings in the kingdom who were allowed to be free and alive. No slavery or death for a prince.
Not like that poor guy.
I glanced at the dead man buried face-first in the leaves. I didn’t even know his name, and I doubted the king did either.
The king nodded to his guards, and they quickly scooped up the body next to me and carried it up to the carriage. He nodded again, and two more of the guards callously helped me up.
"What's your name, peasant?" the king asked.
I pursed my lips and fought off a glare. "Alexis. Alexis Ravenel... Your Highness."
He grinned coldly, and crow’s feet appeared at the corner of his eyes and lips. Then he tossed a single gold coin at me. "For your trouble, Alexis."
It fell to the ground at my feet and was immediately covered with leaves.
The Storm King turned to walk away, as did his plethora of guards, but the guard with the bloody arrow stayed put by my side. He asked, "Should we test her, Your Majesty?"
The king chuckled and pulled his leather gloves back on. "There hasn't been a woman with the power of the gods in a millennium." Then he placed a hand on his hip and shrugged. "But she was found right next to the body. I’ll humor you."
Suddenly, the guard's hand was at my throat, suffocating me. Not a single hiss of air squeezed through my windpipe into my lungs, and I started to panic. Against my better judgement, I punched at the guard's arm and kicked at his legs, but he stood hard and unmoving, much like the decrepit, vine-covered statues of the long-forgotten gods I sometimes saw in the woods.
I glared at the king, furiously wondering why he'd allow something like this to happen. I hadn't done anything wrong. I'd merely woken up in a forest next to a criminal; that didn't mean I was associated with the bastard!
I quickly grew lightheaded, and black dots winked in and out of focus on the outskirts of my vision. I'd never passed out before, but I could tell it was about to happen.
And after that... I’d die of stupidity.
Goodbye, Speedy, you helpless little asshole. If it weren't for you, I'd still be miserably hacking away at the walls of the jewel caves right now.
Maybe he'd done me a favor by wandering off....
But just before complete and total blackness claimed me, a rush of energy poured through my veins, covering my skin in a golden glow. It was a foreign thing, like a last-minute surge of adrenaline, one last chance to fight for my life. For some fucked-up reason, I took that chance—clung to it like my life depended on it—and the golden glow quickly sparked into a burst of flames.
The guard shouted and immediately withdrew his hand. I dropped like a stone to the sodden ground, choking and gasping and scrambling to figure out what the hell had happened.
The guard's arm was on fire up to his elbow. He waved it around frantically until the king rolled his eyes and shoved the flaming man into the soggy leaves on the ground next to me. Then His Majesty bent down and studied me as I sucked in giant mouthfuls of air.
"A woman with gods-given powers..." he muttered to himself as the wheels spun wildly behind his blue eyes. "Princess Alexis has a ring to it, doesn't it?"
"Excuse me?" I spluttered, and instantly caught a backhand from the guard to my face.
Son of a bitch!
Sharp pain stung my cheek and mouth as the iron tinge of blood washed across my tongue.
The guard had risen from his knees, one hand still smoking from the recently smothered fire, the other on the hilt of his sword. "You will address your king as—"
"Your Majesty," I bit out, realizing my mistake far too late.
Seriously, was this asshole only kept around to remind poor peasants how to properly address the king? A tear trickled down my cheek, and I angrily swiped it away. I hated feeling weak.
A slow grin spread across the king’s lined face. "Imagine how strong the Blackwood dynasty will become with a descendant of the gods on each side of the family tree."
"Your Majesty," I said, struggling to contain my temper and make sense of the situation. "I'm a jewel miner, not a princess. I have no idea what happened a moment ago, but I can assure you, I do not have magical powers.”
Or at least, I never used to.
“And that guy," I pointed to where his body lay previously, "I've never seen him before in my life. This is all just a huge misunderstanding."
"No, it's not," the king said with that unyielding smirk. "It's a blessing from the gods, a sign that the Storms are as deserving as ever to rule Blackwood."
"But, I'm not a Storm, so..." I glanced at the guard who'd already drawn his hand back to strike me, and I quickly added, "Your Majesty."
The king stood and scanned the trees, taking in a deep, refreshing breath of air. "Ah, but you will be, Miss Ravenel. Just as soon as you marry one of my sons."
I almost choked on my tongue.
“Marry one of your sons, Your Majesty?”
The idea was preposterous. Not only would I despise having an entitled brat for a husband, but a prince would absolutely abhor having a poor girl from the jewel mines as a wife. A toad, that’s what I’d be to them. They were snakes, and snakes ate toads—and not in the good way I’d read about in my plethora of romance novels. No, this eating would end in my death. I’d probably categorize it as a natural disaster, rather than stupidity, though, considering it was completely outside my control.
The king sighed contentedly, as if he were tickled pink to have this plan come together so smoothly. “Yes, marriage. A bond of holy matrimony. Do you have parents, by chance? Someone we can share the joyous news with?”
“Of course, I do, Your Majesty. A mother. But she’s probably already at the mines.”
“No father?” he asked curiously.
I shook my head. “He died when I was young, Your Majesty.”
“What’s your mother’s name?”
“Katelynn, Your Majesty. Katelynn Ravenel.”
The king made some sort of a hand signal, and one of his guards stormed off in the direction of his carriage.
He smiled, though it never quite touched his eyes, making the blue orbs appear icy cold. “I’ll be back to collect you in exactly two weeks. I need time to call my sons back to court, and they need time to travel. Tell your mother she’ll be joining you.”
I couldn’t help it, a little tension eased within me at his words. If my mom was coming along, I wouldn’t feel nearly as scared or alone. Perhaps this gods-awful arrangement would at least be... tolerable.
“You may also bring a single handmaiden along to serve you. If you have no one, then you’ll simply be assigned one at the palace. Pack nothing. Everything you need will be provided for you.”
The guard returned then, carrying a scroll, which he passed to the king.
“Ah, yes,” His Majesty muttered to himself as he read. “The Ravenel family line. Father, Dimitri—deceased; mother, Katelynn—alive, obviously. Aunts, uncles, cousins still alive... good.”
He glanced at me over the top of the scroll.
“Do not even think of running away, Miss Ravenel, or your entire family will pay for your transgression. Even—” He glanced back down at the scroll. “—little Lilah, your youngest cousin. Blackleaf Village will be burned to the ground. Do I make myself clear?”
Fear like I’d never felt filled my gut. What kind of man would kill a one-year-old baby? It terrified me to contemplate the kind of monster he might be, but I didn’t doubt for a second that he was telling the truth.
I nodded quickly. “Crystal clear, Your Majesty.”
He rolled the scroll back up and handed it to the guard, while I glanced over my shoulder and found Speedy hanging from a branch near my head. He must’ve traveled half the night to get this close to me. Probably right after I got knocked out.
He bleated loudly, and I could only assume he was telling the king to go fuck himself.
It was what I would have done... you know, if he wasn’t the king.
The guard passed him another scroll, which he quickly skimmed over, signed at the bottom, and thrust into my grasp.
“This is your royal summons. Make sure your mother sees this. Remember: two weeks.”
He turned to leave but paused.
“Oh, and, Alexis? Make sure you take a bath before we return. It’ll make the journey to the citadel a bit more tolerable for everyone else.”
Heat crept up the back of my neck, burning across my cheeks.
Oh, so not only was I poor, but I was also smelly? Well, you know what, asshole? Maybe if you didn’t tax us so hard, I’d have money for luxuries such as soap! Or rose-petal perfume! Or maybe I’d have enough money left over that I didn’t have to work all the damn time, and then I could actually spare a few minutes to properly bathe on the daily! Fucking dickbag...
I glanced down, touching the coarse material of my dress with calloused fingers. I was pretty sure it was supposed to be blue, but after years of exposure to dirt and grime in the jewel mines, it had permanently turned a dirty brown.
I hated being underprivileged, being treated like less of a person because I couldn’t afford the prettiest dresses. No one even cared that I was attractive and physically fit, that I was funny and easy to get along with. They only cared that I was poor. Just another toad to devour.
My thoughts drifted back to Adam, the boy who’d once held my heart in his hands. He didn’t judge me for my lack of coins and jewels. He didn’t treat me like the filth on my dress or the dirt caked under my nails. He loved me for me, the girl I was on the inside.
But he was gone, as he had been for years.
The sting that used to twinge my chest at the thought of him had long ago muted. Still, it was times like these that I missed him most. I didn’t even know if he was dead or alive. All I knew was that I could never hope to be with him again. Especially now that I was all but engaged to a prince.
Without a second glance, the king climbed back up the hill with his guards following close behind. The carriage door opened, then shut, and with the crack of a whip, they were gone.
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