Black Heart Page 20

I dropped Litarian’s hand and curled my fists. “Don’t even think about it. You’ll never get a chance to lay a finger on me,” I warned.

“Do not threaten the king unless you wish to meet an immediate death,” Sakarian barked.

Batarian stopped a few feet from me, his hands frozen, fingers curled into claws. He made a visible effort to calm himself, drawing air noisily through his flared nostrils.

“Just what in the name of all the gods that are and ever will be do you think you are doing?” Batarian said through gritted teeth. “And I thought I said she was to be brought here bound and under guard.”

“Litarian permitted her to come before you in this fashion,” Sakarian said snidely.

“It seemed wise to prevent further loss of life,” Litarian said, ignoring Sakarian’s tone.

“Did you threaten my men? After I showed you hospitality?” Batarian said.

“Hospitality?” I snorted. “Is that what you call it? Leaving me on that platform, ignored, exposed to the elements? Keeping my wings bound and forcing me to stay here when I have told you repeatedly I mean you no harm, that I only wish to leave? I’ve killed your enemies for you, for crying out loud. You would have lost that battle were it not for me.”

“We have lost the battle anyway,” Batarian said grimly. “You have no idea of the damage you have done.”

“Then why don’t you tell me,” I said. “I’d expected a little more gratitude, frankly.”

Batarian seemed to crumple suddenly. The anger that held him upright dissipated, leaving behind a bone-deep weariness. He looked much older than he had a moment before, the weight of his cares hanging heavy upon him.

This is a true king, I thought. He obviously cared more for his people than for himself. That definitely made him a rarity in my book. Every other monarch I’d met thus far had been concerned only with their own whims, their own comforts.

“I do not know how to make you understand,” Batarian said.

“Try me,” I said.

5

“START WITH THOSE CREATURES,” I SAID. “WHAT ARE they, and where do they come from?”

“They are known among us as the Cimice. I do not know what they call themselves. As for where they came from, we do not know. Our people have lived in this place for thousands of years, in harmony with our surroundings, since Lucifer left this place and our borders were closed . . .”

Batarian trailed off, like he was lost in memory, and Litarian took up the story.

“Then, one day about a year ago, the creatures appeared in the forest. We kept our distance from them, as we did not know how they had arrived here, and if they were friend or foe.”

“Could they have arrived by boat, from across the ocean?” I asked.

The three of them stared at me blankly.

“You know, from the continent on the other side of the big water?” I said, gesturing to indicate a large body.

“There is no such thing,” Sakarian said derisively. “Ours is the only land on this world.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I saw it with my magic when I was trying to find a way out of this place. There’s another land far across the ocean. If the Cimice suddenly appeared one day, they could have come from there.”

Batarian appeared stunned at this news, Litarian thoughtful, Sakarian disbelieving.

“We had assumed the borders were broken somehow,” Litarian said. “Especially after you arrived.”

“Yes,” Batarian said, frowning. “But if they come from this other place, that puts a different face on things.”

“It does not change the simple truth that she does not belong here,” Sakarian said. “Nor does it change the fact that she has done more harm than good by her actions.”

“But you still haven’t told me why,” I said, looking at them expectantly.

“Yes,” Litarian said when it became apparent that the king would not continue the narrative. Their leader appeared lost in thought. “As I was saying, when the Cimice first appeared, we avoided them and they avoided us. There did not seem to be many of them, and we were content to live in peace.”

“We did not realize they were such prolific breeders. If we had, we would have killed them on sight,” Sakarian said bitterly.

“What happened?” I asked.

Litarian continued. “The Cimice established a colony in the mountains on the other side of the forest. Our scouts told us that there were only about twenty or thirty of the creatures. After a month, there were a hundred. Within three months, three or four times that. Now there are thousands of them, a massive teeming horde, spilling forth from the mountain like an infection.”

Litarian’s description reminded me very strongly of the way I’d seen the vampires that had invaded Chicago. They, too, seemed like an infection, a disease that had spread so quickly there was no hope of stopping it. But I had stopped it. Maybe I could help the fae with their problem, too, and then they would see that I could be trusted. Then I could be given what I wanted most—my freedom.

“So you were all living in peace, even if there were a lot of these Cimice,” I prompted. “What changed?”

“Perhaps the Cimice realized they were too many for their resources and decided not to share the forest with us any longer. Perhaps they had intended to destroy us all along, but were simply waiting for superiority of numbers. In any event, it started as a series of small raids in which the Cimice would attack our hunters in the forest.”

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