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Royal Rebel - Read Chapter 2

I thought we needed to see chapter 2 as well . . . Enjoy!


If you missed chapter 1, you can read it here: https://www.heatherfrost.com/post/royal-rebel-read-chapter-1



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Chapter 2

Grayson


Grayson took slow, measured breaths through his nose. The right side of his face was an inferno, but as long as he didn’t move abruptly or stretch the burn, it was only a throbbing agony. He’d been talking too much, which had pulled at the wound. Kissing Mia probably hadn’t helped, but he had no regrets on that score. After being separated for so long, he’d needed her in his arms. Needed to feel her mouth against his so he could finally breathe.


His newest scar would be impressive. He knew that, even if he hadn’t been able to study the damage yet. He wanted to. He wanted to know if it looked as terrible as it felt. But he didn’t want Mia to see him looking, so he avoided the mirror by the wash basin while he got ready to meet his father and brothers in the courtyard. Whenever Henri summoned them all together, bad things followed. At least Mia wouldn’t be left in the castle with any of them. Especially Tyrell.


Grayson picked through his old weapons, grimacing at his options. His best weapons had been taken when he’d been thrown into that cell downstairs. He didn’t know if or when he’d get his sword back, or his favorite daggers. While their loss was the least of his worries right now, he still missed them. His weapons were a part of him, and he hated being without their familiar weight.


Buried among his old weapons, he spotted a worn pair of black leather gloves. The sight made him pause.


When Imara had packed his things in Duvan, she hadn’t grabbed his gloves. He’d gotten used to not wearing them, but in this moment, knowing he had to be the Black Hand one last time . . .


He lifted the gloves and tugged them on, then belted on some knives. When he stood, Mia handed him a clean shirt. Grayson murmured his thanks as he carefully shrugged out of his bloodstained one. He could feel Mia’s eyes on him, her worry like a physical vice around his lungs. Seeing his scarred body probably wasn’t helping.


I can protect you. That’s what he wanted to say. He wanted to reassure her that he was strong enough to keep her safe. He was stronger than Tyrell.


He didn’t say a word, because there was a knock on the door.


Mia moved to answer it, but Grayson caught her arm. “Let me.”


“It’s probably Fletcher or Rena,” Mia said quietly.


“It might not be.” Grayson tugged the clean shirt over his head, careful not to let the fabric brush the right side of his face. He pulled the hem down as he strode to the door.


Three people stood on the other side of it. Grayson noticed Tyrell first, since his brother was the biggest threat. But since he hung back, Grayson took in the others.


Fletcher stood in front, the old guard’s eyes rounded as he took in Grayson. “Fates,” the man breathed. “You really are back.”


An unfamiliar woman hovered beside Fletcher. Grayson assumed it was his wife, Rena. She had graying hair, and light wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She was pale as she stared at his jaw, her lips parted in shock.


Grayson’s grip tightened on the door’s handle. He spoke directly to Fletcher. “Keep Mia safe while I’m gone.”


“Of course.” There was pity in the man’s eyes as he stared at Grayson, along with a hundred unspoken questions.


Grayson twisted to Mia, who’d come to stand beside him. He brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I’ll return as soon as I can,” he whispered.


Her eyes battled worry, but it was clearly not for herself. “Please be careful.” She darted a look at Tyrell. “Will you watch out for him?”


Grayson clenched his teeth.


Tyrell’s eyes were as dark as ever, but he tipped his head in answer to Mia’s question, his attention not leaving Grayson.


They were two predators, circling each other. Waiting for the other to make a fatal mistake. Searching for an opening. Salivating for blood. Fates, they’d been here before. So many times. But never quite like this—not with quite so much to lose.


Not with Mia standing between them.


“We should go,” Tyrell said. “Father won’t want to be kept waiting.”


Grayson bent, ignoring the ripple of fire across his jaw as he brushed a kiss against Mia’s surprised lips.


From the corner of his eye he saw Tyrell twist away.


The predatory beast in Grayson growled in satisfaction.


When he drew back, Mia’s lips were pursed, her expression troubled. “You don’t need to torture him,” she murmured.


Those admonishing words shredded something inside him. He hated that Mia had seen his pettiness. More than that, he hated himself for deliberately using Mia to hurt Tyrell.


He also hated that her words—spoken with a pang of hurt—meant she did care about Tyrell.


His gut clenched. “I love you.” Fates, the words shouldn’t sound so desperate.


Mia gazed up at him, and he didn’t think he imagined the edge of censure there. “I love you, too,” she said softly.


Thoroughly chastised, he swore to himself he would never use Mia like that again. It didn’t matter if it hurt Tyrell—not when it hurt Mia, too.


He stepped into the hall, ignoring the stares of the Fletchers. They made his skin itch. He strode after Tyrell, who must have been measuring his steps carefully, because Grayson caught up with him at the top of the stairs.


As Grayson made to pass him, Tyrell said, “Don’t. We need to talk.”


“We really don’t.”


Tyrell matched Grayson’s pace, keeping them even as their boots clipped down the stone steps. “This concerns Mia’s safety.”


His spine stiffened. “Is that a threat?”


Tyrell gritted out a curse. “I’m not the one endangering her.”


Grayson spun to face his brother. Tyrell tensed, but didn’t strike, so Grayson also checked himself. His fists opened and closed at his sides, and they stood glaring at each other on the otherwise abandoned staircase. “I’m not a threat to Mia,” Grayson finally growled.


“Aren’t you?” Tyrell’s words were as sharp as the knives they both carried. “You’re clearly not sane. You’ve held a blade to Father’s throat twice now, and you’re bristling with so much rage, I’m not convinced you won’t attack Father when you see him.”


Mia was the only thing holding him back on that score. If he didn’t need to get her safely away from his family and back to Desfan, he would have killed Henri already.


“You’ve fallen out of his favor,” Tyrell continued. “We all know it. He blames you for Liam’s death, whether it was your fault or not. If you so much as twitch in a way he doesn’t like, he will punish Mia.”


“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know,” Grayson said, his voice pitched low. “I’ve lived with that sword hanging over me for years.”


The skin around Tyrell’s eyes tightened—probably at the reminder that Mia had been in Grayson’s life far longer than she’d been in his. “She doesn’t know who you really are, but I do. And I’m telling you, if you put her life at risk, I will kill you. That way, Father won’t have any reason to punish her.”


Grayson edged out a bladed smile. “You would like that, wouldn’t you?”


“She’d be better off without you.”


“You think she’d be better off with you?”


Tyrell glared. “At least I wouldn’t let her suffer. I’m not stupid enough to rebel against Father.”


“You’re his slave.”


“I’m his soldier. And because I serve him well, Mia has thrived. She got out of that cell because of me. She’s been happy. Safe. She hasn’t been a prisoner. I gave her that, Grayson. What have you given her? Years in a windowless cell. Fear and panic. Caretakers who hurt her—tried to kill her.”


Grayson’s body was wound with so much tension, he couldn’t breathe. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”


“You might have convinced Mia that you’re something other than the Black Hand, but you and I both know you’re not. And as long as you can’t control your anger and your impulses, she’s in danger. Don’t do anything that could cause her harm, or I will end you. That is your warning, and the only one I’ll give.”


Grayson teeth ached, he was grinding them so hard. “Are you done?”


“No. Because as much as I hate you, I think you care for Mia. It might be in your twisted way, but you do care.”


He could barely hide his snort. The irony of Tyrell speaking those words to him . . .


Tyrell ignored him. “I’m giving you a chance to prove it. Distance yourself from Mia. Let Father see that distance. Let her be under my protection, at least until Father’s anger with you has passed.”


“Your plan is utter rot. He knows I would never turn away from Mia.”


“So you won’t consider trying? Not even for her sake?”


“No.”


Tyrell’s dark brows slammed down. “She doesn’t belong to you.”


That was a kick to the gut, because it was true. Not in the possessive way Tyrell meant it—Grayson knew he’d never owned Mia; if anything, she’d owned him—but the reality that he wouldn’t be in her life once he got her back to Mortise hit him hard.


He’d known his fate before he’d left Duvan. Desfan had done nothing to hide it. Once Grayson returned Mia to the palace, he would be arrested for his crimes against Mortise, Devendra, and Zennor. It didn’t matter that he’d ultimately betrayed Liam, or that he’d been coerced in the first place by Liam’s threat to kill Mia. In the end, that hawk-sent message had called for Mia’s abduction, rather than her death. Grayson still wasn’t sure why his brother had lied to him about that. Threatening to kill her was more compelling, of course. And if Liam knew who Mia was, it made sense he wouldn’t want to kill her; he would have wanted to use her.


Regardless, Grayson knew he would stand trial beside his brother, and he had no illusions as to how that would end. He would be executed for his crimes—at the very least, imprisoned for the rest of his life.


He couldn’t think about this now. Getting Mia home safely was all that mattered. And part of that meant keeping Tyrell away from her.


He stared at his brother, his voice pitched low. “She doesn’t belong to you, either.”


The air between them pulled taut. The stairway was still empty of anyone else. They were alone—completely. Injured as he was, Grayson honestly didn’t know if he’d win if Tyrell chose to pull a knife.


But he would certainly try.


Tyrell’s jaw worked, then he folded his arms across his chest. “Mia has claimed us both. Neither of us have to like it, but we do need to accept it. That means I won’t kill you—unless I have to.”


Grayson didn’t verbalize the same promise, even though he knew he would honor it. For Mia. “Are we done?”


Tyrell’s mouth curled derisively. “I don’t know what she sees in you.”


Grayson’s eyes grew slitted. “Fates only know how you managed to manipulate her into forgetting the fact that you beat her. But I assure you, I will never forget.”


A ghost rose in Tyrell’s eyes. “Neither will I.”


He bristled, though he wouldn’t have been able to verbalize why; Tyrell’s guilt just felt wrong.


Grayson turned on his heel and continued down the stairs. Each step reverberated pain across his face, and he knew riding a horse was going to be excruciating.


Tyrell followed, and when they reached the bottom of the stairs he said under his breath, “I’m sorry.”


Surprise—and wariness—pierced him. “For what?”


Tyrell’s gaze dipped to Grayson’s cheek. “For a lot of things.”


The unexpected words stole every thought from his head. He had no response.


He watched Tyrell’s expression harden, determination etched in every line of his face. “For her sake, I won’t fight you. But let me make this clear—I am fighting for her.”


***


Tyrell’s words continued to ring in Grayson’s ears as they entered the courtyard. It was autumn in Ryden, and the morning air was crisp. Snow capped the steep mountains to the north, and while the pines remained green, the other trees that dotted the lower hills and castle yard were turning vibrant shades of red, orange, and gold. Some had already browned, and he knew death was coming for the other leaves as well. The sun blazed in a blue sky with hardly any clouds, but the heat didn’t quite make it to earth. Despite the chill in the air, Grayson knew his shiver came from the men standing in the courtyard.


Henri stood near his bodyguards, his saddled horse waiting behind him. Grayson’s father was a handsome man, with rich brown hair and a confident stance. The strong planes of his face were unbroken by scars, and he wore an emerald green tunic that looked very much like a soldier’s uniform. He also wore his golden crown, decorated with emeralds and rubies. For all the excess that Queen Iris eschewed, she had never said anything about that heavily jeweled crown.


Peter’s tunic was similar to their father’s, though the dark green fabric strained over his shoulders. He’d been training while Grayson was gone. He also wore a gold crown, thinner and less decorated than Henri’s. It marked him as the heir to the Rydenic throne. He was already mounted on his horse, and he flicked an impatient hand at the servant who had just handed him the reins. The signet ring on his forefinger caught in the meager sunlight—twisted snakes with ruby eyes. Grayson was very familiar with the bruising weight of it.


Beside Peter, also astride his horse, was Carter. The second oldest Kaelin prince had thick dark hair that brushed his shoulders, and his long, thin face made him look rather like a weasel. He was not as physically strong or as intimidating as the rest of them, but he had a knack for poisons that made him indisputably dangerous. He caught sight of Tyrell and Grayson first, and he murmured something to Peter.


Peter twisted to look at them, and Grayson didn’t miss the play of emotions across his oldest brother’s face. The quiet speculation as his eyes slipped between Tyrell and Grayson—arriving together, which was unusual. The hint of satisfaction as he studied the burn on Grayson’s face. The twitch of his lip that betrayed his annoyance with Grayson. That look promised retribution.

Grayson had not accomplished the mission Peter had set for him in Mortise. He’d wanted Grayson to abduct Princess Imara and bring her to Ryden so Peter could marry her and force an alliance with Zennor.


I was never going to bring her to you, Grayson thought as he stalked down the castle steps. Not even before he’d met the princess, who had unexpectedly befriended him. His list of allies in Eyrinthia were few, but he knew Imara Buhari was one.


Peter’s eyebrows drew together, as if he could read Grayson’s defiance.


When Henri turned toward him, Grayson forced his face to go blank. Because out of all the nonsense Tyrell had spewed in that stairway, one thing was true: he couldn’t afford to show any rebellion to Henri, or Mia would suffer. So he became nothing. Nothing except the Black Hand. A beaten dog who returned to his master’s harsh hand again and again, no matter how painful the abuse. One day, Grayson would bite back.


But not today.


Henri’s mouth curved into a slow smile as he regarded Grayson’s newest scarring. “Mount up,” he ordered.


Grayson’s horse was waiting with a stable hand. The boy looked terrified to be so close to the Black Hand’s horse—let alone the Black Hand himself—but he only flinched a little when Grayson took the reins from him.


Mounting the horse proved to be less painful than expected, the practiced motion hardly stretching his cheek at all. But the wound still throbbed, and the chill air sliced against the open wound. Grayson only breathed a little sharper, not letting any other sound escape his clamped lips.


His horse tensed beneath him, as if sensing his pain. Grayson brushed his fingertips over the animal’s neck, and the horse settled.


The hairs on the back of his neck lifted. Feeling eyes on him, Grayson straightened slowly, his head turning carefully until he spotted his mother standing on one of the second floor balconies that overlooked the courtyard. With one hand on the stone railing, Iris peered down at him, a slight smile tipping her lips. Her gray eyes were unreadable at this distance, but a chill raced down Grayson’s spine.


She thought he’d killed Liam. She thought her control over Grayson was complete. She had no idea he’d betrayed her—that Liam still lived, locked in a Mortisian cell. He’d lied about Liam’s death for several reasons. A strong one had been so he could use his mother as an ally.


Now, pinned by her stare, he wasn’t sure he wanted anything from the Poison Queen.


“It’s time for each of you to learn your role in the great war,” Henri said, drawing Grayson’s attention. The king of Ryden was seated on his own horse, his fist wrapped around the reins as he surveyed his sons. “We ride to Northland Barracks.”


Just the name of the military outpost threaded unease through Grayson. It was primarily a place to house an army close to Lenzen, where soldiers could also receive further training. Everyone who served in the king’s military spent time stationed there, including each of Henri’s sons.


The camp was brutal. Rations were strictly limited to teach moderation. Soldiers were sent into the mountains to live for a week with nothing but their sword to teach them resourcefulness and endurance. Impossible games of war were played to remind them that not everyone survived battle. Excuses were found to punish them so they would learn the futility of defying authority.


Grayson had spent varying amounts of time at the camp over the years. When he was fifteen, Henri had decided he’d learned enough, and he was no longer required to go. He hadn’t stepped foot in Northland Barracks since.


Henri and his guards led the way to the gate. Peter followed next, leaving the other brothers to nudge their horses into line. Grayson took up the rear, dread curling low in his stomach. His unease increased with every mile they travelled north. A biting wind funneled down from one of Lenzen’s many canyons, but that wasn’t what chilled him.


Whatever waited for them at Northland Barracks, it wouldn’t be good.


Two hours of riding later, this was confirmed. In fact, it was so much worse than he’d feared.


As they rode into the valley that held Northland Barracks, Grayson’s blood ran cold.


Thousands of uniformed men ran drills and milled about camp. The drills weren’t new; men had been training here long before Grayson’s birth. But the ranks had easily tripled since he’d last been here, and that was just the men.


Then there were the boys.


Sectioned off from the rest of the army was a camp for the youngest soldiers Grayson had ever seen. Some of the boys looked to be as young as eight years old—perhaps even younger. They wore emerald as well, but their uniforms weren’t fitted. Why bother to do that, when it was clear their sole purpose was to fill out the ranks, surprise the enemy, and then die on some battlefield of Henri’s choosing? It was clear from their gaunt cheeks that Henri barely deemed them worthy of the food it took to keep them alive.


Grayson’s gut rolled. There were at least a thousand boys down there—probably more.


Commanders shouted orders, and soldiers of all ages came to attention, most looking fates-blasted terrified.


The Kaelins rode into the heart of Northland Barracks, passing tents, training grounds, cooking sites, and finally wooden outbuildings that housed the higher ranking officers and meeting rooms. When they finally stopped and dismounted, Grayson eyed the men and boys that filled the camp.


Fates, those boys. They were bloody and haunted, with swords that were too big for them. They stared at the Kaelins like they were seeing their own deaths.


They probably were.


When Grayson looked at his father, it was just in time to see Henri grin.

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Royal Rebel releases on April 21st

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And don't forget to claim your pre-order gift: an EXCLUSIVE short story!


THE PRINCESS AND THE NEW BODYGUARD


Serene knows things have been strained between her parents since the civil war ended. She hopes a trip to Lambern Lake will bring her family back together. What she doesn’t expect is to grow closer to her new bodyguard, Cardon.


Serene is about to learn that one day can irrevocably change the course of a life.




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