“I KNOW YOU LOVE UNİCORNS, Rowan, but please stop staring at mine. You’re making him nervous.” I do not love unicorns, as my aunt Jannah knows. Jerks. All of them. I’m not staring at Courtois. I’m staring him down. Unfortunately, she’s wrong about the third part, too. I can’t make him nervous, no matter how hard I try. We’re in the castle courtyard, the high stone walls stealing the morning sun. Around us, the royal hunters prepare for their mission. A mission I should be joining. My twin brother, Rhydd, is and I belong at his side, keeping him safe. As I scowl at Courtois, Rhydd’s hand thumps on my shoulder. “Give it up, Ro.
” “That beast stepped on my foot,” I say. “On purpose.” “Yep, I’m sure he did. He is a unicorn.” I move away from Courtois only to stumble over my aunt’s warg, Malric. The giant wolf lifts his head, upper lip curling to reveal canines as long as my hand. The last person who tried to pet him lost two fingers. Even I know better. I quickstep out of his reach. “Making friends with all the monsters this morning, aren’t you?” Rhydd teases.
As I grumble, he leans in to whisper, “I know you’re upset. You’re worried about me going on the gryphon hunt.” “I’m not wor—” “You’re worried, and this is how you show it. By grumbling and scowling and staring down unicorns.” “It’s not fair.” “I know,” he says. My scowl deepens, and I want to kick the dirt and growl and stomp. That would be childish, though, and I am not a child. I’m twelve. I’m a princess.
One day, I’ll be queen. I don’t want to be queen. I’ll be horrible at it. Rhydd should get the throne. Even now, as scared as he is, he’s trying to calm me. That’s what a real leader does. “Rhydd?” Jannah calls. “Saddle up.” As Jannah climbs onto Courtois, her sheathed sword swings by her side. I look at that sword, a gleaming ebony-wood fuller with a razor-sharp obsidian edge.
I imagine it in my hands, and a lump rises in my throat. This is who I want to be. This is who I should be. Not the queen, but the royal monster hunter. Everyone knows it. I hear the whispers, how my thoughtful brother should sit on the ivory throne, how his headstrong twin sister should wield the ebony sword. We are Clan Dacre, the greatest hunters in the land, and we united the clans with one promise: We will keep the monsters away. The oldest royal child always takes the ivory throne, and the next gets the ebony sword. What if they’re twins and one is a mere two minutes older? What if they’re better suited for the opposite jobs? If they’d happily switch places? Too bad. This is how we do things.
I glance at Jannah again. She nods, her face impassive. Any other time, she’d be over here, teasing me and teaching me and telling me to saddle up, too. This hunt is different. Today, my aunt and my brother go to kill a gryphon, the one monster we can’t just drive back to the mountains. Once gryphons find our fat cattle and sheep, they’re like starving travelers stumbling on a midwinter feast. They aren’t leaving. Ever. The last gryphon slaughtered a dozen people before my aunt slew it. It also killed my father.
When I think of that, my fists ball up and my eyes fill with hot, angry tears. I want to run to my aunt and hug her and tell her I’m scared for her, beg her not to go. I want to grab my brother’s leg and pull him off his horse and take his place, like I used to when we were little. I want to shout at my mother that this isn’t fair, that if it’s too dangerous for me, why is Rhydd going? I’m a better hunter. Let me go along to protect him. My scowl swings to my mother. She stands at the gate, wearing a simple brown dress only a shade lighter than her skin. Her honey-brown curls are drawn up in a twist, secured with an ebony pin shaped like a sword. That pin reminds everyone that she’s also a trained monster hunter, which means she knows exactly how dangerous this mission is. When Mom glances at me, I look away.
I should go to her. That’s what Rhydd would do. He’d know she’s thinking of our father, and he’d go over and tell her he understands she has no choice here. But I am not my brother. The iron gates swing open. Beyond the courtyard, people line the streets to see the hunters pass. My aunt leads the procession on Courtois. The unicorn is what the children have come to see. He’s as tall and sturdy as a draft horse, with a gleaming jet-black coat. His horn is iridescent, glittering pink and blue and silver in the morning sun.
He’s a wondrous sight, but I’d take a light-footed mountain mare any day. Or, better yet, a pegasus. As the hunting party rides out, the children race to shower Courtois with rose petals. The older girls keep up with my brother, trying to get the young prince’s attention. That almost makes me smile. But then I see the empty road behind them, littered with petals, and I remember the same scene from five years ago, when my father rode out to face a gryphon. I turn away, my stomach knotting, and I notice a girl by the gate. About my age, she carries a basket of flowers. Her dress is coarse muslin, her sandals rough leather. Dirt smears one cheek.
Her light brown hair blows in the wind, without even a band to keep it tamed. I see her, and shame washes through me. I’m feeling sorry for myself because I’m going to be queen. How much would this girl give to change places with me? “A rose, your highness?” she says, seeing me watching her. I start toward her. My mother’s maid hurries to press coins into my palm. I give them to the girl, and she hands me the whole basket. When her hair blows into her eyes, she shoves it back, nose wrinkling in annoyance. I take out my hair clip. “This will help.
” As I pass it over, her eyes glitter, blue as the clip’s sapphires. She curtsies, awkwardly, as if she’s never done it before. Then she thanks me and takes off running along the cobbled road. “That was very kind,” my mother says as she walks up behind me. I shrug. “I have others.” “That was your favorite.” I shrug again as I walk toward the castle. “If you need me,” I say, “I’ll be in the rear courtyard.” Mom opens her mouth to protest.
She doesn’t want me to be alone today. Being alone means I could sneak off after Rhydd. “I’m taking my sword lessons,” I say. “And then archery.” She nods. “Excellent.” “Though I don’t know why I bother,” I call back. “Since I’ll never be allowed to fight actual monsters.” Her sigh floats after me as I leave. Now I just need to keep busy until sundown .
and then I can go after my brother. AS ANGRY AS I am with my mother for sending Rhydd, I know she didn’t have a choice. I’ve read about kingdoms where the king’s or queen’s word is law. Tamarel is different. We used to be a nation of warring clans. When we weren’t fighting each other, we were fighting the monsters that came from the mountains to the west. My ancestors—Clan Dacre—had a special talent for monster hunting, so we made a pact with the others. If we rid them of the monsters, the clans would unite under us. We did it, and we continue doing it, so we are the royal family. Except it wasn’t just my great-great-grandfather and his sister who cleared out the monsters.
The entire clan helped. So while he got the ivory throne—and she took the ebony sword—the others understandably wanted their share of power. They get it through the royal council. The council’s four members—all from Clan Dacre—votes on major decisions. When news came that a gryphon had been sighted, one council member—my mother’s cousin Heward—wanted Rhydd to join the hunt. Heward’s children are next in line to the throne, he’ll jump on any chance to get rid of us, he’ll take it. If either Rhydd or I die before we inherit our roles, they pass to the next pair of siblings. When Heward insisted on Rhydd joining the hunt, the council had to vote. In the event of a tie, my mother would cast the deciding ballot. She didn’t get that chance.
Heward convinced two of the other members to back him, so Rhydd had to join the hunt. Mom might be acting calm, as if sending Rhydd is her idea, but I know she’s furious. I know she’s plotting her revenge. And I know Jannah will keep Rhydd out of battle. I don’t care. I still want to be there for him. And I will be. I spend the day keeping busy, so no one will suspect a thing. Between lessons, though, I gather what I’ll need for my trip. I’m heading to the kitchen when a hulking figure steps from a side passage.
I don’t even jump. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing this shadow on a wall. Then Rhydd and I would run, screaming in delight, and wait for Berinon to scoop us up and swing us around, one under each arm. Berinon is the captain of the guard. Growing up, he’d been my father’s bodyguard and best friend, and a friend of my mother’s, too, when she’d been a princess. Since Dad died, Berinon has kind of . I won’t say he’s taken over as our father—he’d never try to replace Dad—but he’s edged into that empty space, accepting at least a sliver of it. Berinon is the tallest man I know, and his shoulders are twice as wide as mine. His skin is as dark as Jannah’s sword, and he has amber eyes and a wild mop of long sable hair never quite contained by its braid. Growing up, I heard my parents calling him “Ber” and thought his nickname was Bear.
That’s what he looked like to me—a huge, shaggy cave bear. Today he swings out of that side passage and blocks my path. “No, little one,” he says. I pull myself up to my full height. He chuckles. “Even when you’re grown, I’ll be able to call you that. Now turn around, and we’ll go riding before teatime.” “I’m hungry, and I want a snack.” “Tell me what you’d like, and I’ll get it for you.” I glower up at him.
He only crosses his arms and lifts an eyebrow. “You want to sneak off and protect Rhydd,” he says. “I understand. I’d even agree, if not for one thing: You are too much like your father, Rowan.” I glare. “You mean I’m no match for a gryphon. You think I don’t have the hunter’s gift. I do. Dad wasn’t Clan Dacre. I am.
” “Yes, but it wasn’t lack of natural talent that killed your father.” He settles against a windowsill. “You’ve heard how I met him?” “I know the song.” “Well, there’s more to the story. Your father had been fostering with Heward’s family, but like a certain princess, your father wasn’t fond of the high-born life, and he’d sneak into the village. Once, when he was nine, he found boys taunting a younger child. He rushed to help, though the boys were years older.” “You heard the fight,” I say. “You were apprenticed to the blacksmith, and my father confronted the boys right outside the smithy.” “Yes.
Now, in the song, others tried to join the fight, and I held them off while your father defeated the three bullies. Which is . ” He shifts on the sill. “That’s not quite what happened. I found your father fighting like a cornered warg. He was a better warrior than any of those boys. Better than all three combined, though? No. I had to help him, or he might have been killed. In reward, I was made your father’s bodyguard.” Berinon leans forward.
“Your father was an incredible warrior. That’s why he asked your mother’s to let hin remain a monster hunter even after became the royal consort. He was the bravest and kindest man I ever knew. But he could never look at a fight and realize he had no chance of winning. He rushed in when he should have hung back, as he did with that gryphon, too. You have his skill, and his bravery, and his heart. You also have his recklessness. Jannah will protect your brother.” He stands. “Now, are we riding, or are you going to stomp off in a temper?” I scowl.
“Riding then?” he says. “Excellent. Let’s go.” LATER THAT DAY, I take tea with my mother and two visiting dignitaries, which pleases Mom enough that she doesn’t insist I join the boring state dinner that follows. I tell the serving maid I’ll take my meal in my room. Then I wolf down my fish and shove the bread and fruit into my travel pack, along with some dried meat. My blade hangs sheathed at my side. It’s a short sword, with an ebony-wood hilt and a silver blade. Only two people in the kingdom can carry an ebony-and-silver sword; Rhydd has the matching one. We got them for our twelfth birthday, replacing our dull steel training weapons.
I keep mine razor-sharp and gleaming bright, mostly because I like the excuse to take it out and run my fingers over the etchings and feel the weight of the sword in my hand and dream of one made of ebony and obsidian. I have a dagger, too, but I store that in my pack. I also carry rope, a needle and a bottle of sedative. Those are used to relocate beasts that can’t be driven off easily. Finally, I pack my quill pens and my field journal. I’m very proud of my journal—it’s full of notes and observations and sketches of every monster I’ve ever encountered. The book is nearly as beautiful as my sword, handcrafted paper with a soft leather cover dyed dark burgundy. On the first page there’s an inscription: To my favorite monster, May you find a way to fill each and every one of these pages. May you travel to the ends of our world and see every monster ever discovered and discover a few more besides. May you draw them all, and may you record every fact that excites that wonderful brain of yours.
And may you never be too old to stop running to your father and sharing all of it with him. Love, Dad I read the inscription, blink back tears and tell myself that he’s watching from the other side, and he’s there every time I add a new page or a new fact or a new sketch. I tuck the journal into its protective case and put it into my bag. After I’ve packed everything and double-checked it all, I fashion a figure in my bed—clothing bunched up under the covers, with a brown fur wrap for my hair. Once Rhydd and I turned twelve, our mother forbade anyone from entering our bedchambers between dusk and dawn. As young adults, we were entitled to our privacy. The most anyone will do tonight is peek in with a candle, and the bed figure will pass for me. Before I go, I leave my mother a note for morning. I’ve gone to protect Rhydd. I will NOT fight the gryphon myself.
I’m only going to watch over Rhydd and make sure he doesn’t fight either. I’ll bring him home safe. I promise. Escaping the castle isn’t easy. With the state dinner, staff and guards are everywhere. I know which halls are least used, though, and I’ve chosen a path with hidey-holes that I can duck into when I hear footsteps. I’m racing along one of those, my boots in hand, when I hear voices raised in argument. It’s one of the guards and a maid. Apparently, she caught him flirting with the maid of a visiting lady. She’s upset, and he’s trying to tell her it meant nothing, and I’m stuck in a window alcove, wishing they’d just kiss and make up.
I have a castle to escape. Then the guard and maid do make up. And they do kiss. They don’t stop kissing. I don’t watch them, of course. That’s gross. But I can tell they’re kissing by the noises, which are also gross. They kiss and whisper, and whisper and kiss. I peek out, in case they’re busy enough that I can sneak past them, but the corridor is too narrow for that. I creep the other way.
I’ll have to take a different route. I can— Footsteps sound. Heavy ones that I recognize. Berinon. He’s heading straight for me. I look around. There’s no place to go, no place to hide. I’m in a shallow window alcove, and the nearest room is too far away. Maybe he’ll turn into that room. It leads to a storage closet, so he’s probably heading there to get something for my mother.
“Digory!” Berinon’s voice echoes down the hallway. I hear the maid squeak . because Digory is the guard she’s kissing. “Yes, sir!” Digory calls. “Coming, sir!” I look from side to side. Digory is down the hall to my right . and Berinon is to my left. The clomp of their boots tells me they’re both on the move. Both headed this way. In a few heartbeats, one of them will be here.
Even if I flee, Berinon will see my travel pack. He’ll know exactly what I’m doing and order the guards to block my way. I need to get rid of my pack. I wheel to toss it out the window . and instead I find myself going out the window. Which isn’t what I meant to do at all. I don’t even really realize I’m climbing out until I’m hanging by my fingertips from the sill. The footfalls stop.