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       Reign, p.17

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  He looked so confused that she couldn’t help but laugh at him, which irritated him. He backed away from her.

  “Yes, everyone dresses like me where I come from.”

  “And where is that exactly? Because no one really seems to know.”

  “Very far away.”

  “Yes, I gather that.”

  “It doesn’t matter, because where I come from doesn’t concern you,” she snapped, a bit more harshly than she intended.

  Teague’s blue eyes darkened with righteous fury. “How can your origins not concern me, when there may be a chance you will rule beside me?”

  She let out a snort, which he didn’t find funny in the least. “That’s not going to happen,” she sighed.

  “You think not?” He moved forward to sit on the edge of her bed and look at her. “You are one of the oddest girls I’ve ever met. Your dress is funny, the way you talk—even your attitude towards me, your prince.”

  “You’re not my prince.” Mina said, instantly wishing the words back.

  “You see what I mean? You’re odd—”

  “I’m not odd. I’m normal.”

  “—and you’re intriguing. You’ve been sent here along with the others, in the hopes of being chosen to be my wife, yet you scoff at the idea.”

  Scoff at the idea? Mina was scoffing at herself. She had Teague this close to her—in her room even—and she had put the knife in a drawer across the room.

  “Why are you here?” he asked.

  “Isn’t it obvious?”

  “No, it’s not. No one’s heard of you. You make the crystal bowl sing—no one has ever done that. You can’t control your powers, and you act like you don’t want to be here. Have I done something to offend you?”

  “Not in this lifetime,” she mumbled.

  “See? There you go again.”

  Mina couldn’t help but laugh in the glow of the candlelight; it was so easy to believe she was sitting having a teasing conversation with Jared. And she knew exactly what buttons to push. They seemed to work on Teague as well.

  He froze at her laughter, swallowing slowly. He continued to observe her intently.

  “What? Do I have something in my teeth?” She grinned widely, displaying her pearly whites for his inspection.

  He leaned over and gently grabbed her chin, pretending to inspect them. “No, I don’t see anything.”

  She busted out laughing at the seriousness with which he took her retort. He sat back and cocked his head to the side.

  “What?”

  “I’m just surprised at you. Your laughter is genuine. You’re not hiding behind fake smiles and phony compliments or memorized answers. You really don’t seem to care about impressing me, do you?”

  This time Mina swallowed nervously. Was she being too casual? Was she going to be sent home because she’d hurt his feelings or teased him?

  And why did that possibility bother her so much?

  She thought again about why she was here, and how many members of her family would die if she didn’t fix what was going to happen. Being here laughing with her enemy wasn’t going to solve her problems. Instead, it was making everything more complicated.

  “No, I guess I don’t see the point of pretending and putting on airs. I’m not ashamed of who I am. At one point, yes, I was embarrassed about who I was, and the clothes that I wore, and where I lived. But I learned that those things weren’t important. What’s most important to me is family and being proud of the person I am. I’m not going to pretend I’m someone I’m not.”

  Teague studied her intently and leaned forward. She stiffened as he moved closer, bringing his lips within inches of her ear. “That’s good. Because I despise liars and imposters.” His voice dripped with hidden meaning.

  Did he know? Did he suspect? “And I hate princes that are selfish and power hungry,” Mina shot back.

  His eyes flashed with anger, and she heard his quick intake of breath. “I can handle the truth, but I’m none of those.”

  “Are you sure?” she asked, gently testing the waters. “Have you never been of two minds about something? Have you never felt a hunger for something that’s not yours?” She watched him carefully for his response.

  He turned his head, showing off his handsome profile. “Careful, you’re tempting me to do something radical. And tempting me is very, very dangerous. For both you and me,” he warned.

  She shivered. It was so hard to read him. She didn’t need to think much more because he elaborated for her.

  “I’m very tempted to steal a kiss.” He stood up and moved across the room from her, placing himself at a safe distance.

  “What?” Mina asked, caught off guard. Those were not the words she expected to hear from him.

  “Get some rest.” He closed himself off again. “Tomorrow morning, you will face another test, and as much as I enjoy your wit and brutal honesty, I don’t expect you to pass it. I was truly coming to say goodbye.”

  “That is just stupid,” Mina hissed. “Not to mention rude. Have you made the rounds to all of the girls and said goodbye to them?” she said. “Or just me?”

  He was by her bed again in a flash, leaning in over her, his hands pressed into the mattress on either side of her hips. “I don’t need to say salutations to anyone ever. You disappeared in the woods on me, making me look like a fool when I went back to look for you. You should feel honored that I’ve even come to speak to you a second time.”

  “Honored? I’m seriously ticked off. What you should have done was never set foot in here.”

  He blinked at her, his head tilted as he tried to process what she had just said. “Ticked off?” He started to laugh. “One day, I will have to travel to your lands, so that I may learn to understand the way you speak.”

  “Over my dead body.” Mina grumbled. Seriously, she was at the end of her rope.

  Teague laughed even harder and shook his head. “I have to say that I will miss you and your brazen way of speaking.” He moved toward the shadows and she heard his parting words. “Unless you can defeat an ogre?”

  Chapter 24

  Sleep hadn’t come easy, and Mina was awakened by a knock on the door. Her mind immediately rushed back to Teague’s challenge. Slay an Ogre? He had to be joking, right? The Fates couldn’t possibly make the girls fight for their lives. That was a lot to ask of someone who wasn’t guaranteed a throne.

  Maybe Teague was just being a jerk and trying to throw her.

  A small brownie opened her door and came in carrying a stack of clothes which she placed on Mina’s bed. Her skin was darker than Mei’s, and her eyes were golden amber in color. But oh, she made Mina miss the wisdom of her brownie-friend.

  “Please put these on and meet up with the other girls in the main hall.” Her voice was soft and unassuming, and she left as quietly as she came.

  Mina lifted the slippers and saw a long sleeved dress of deep blue with no frills, ruffles, or lace. She wondered once again if she was the only one to be given clothes. Were the others going through their trunks and trunks of gowns and wearing their prettiest pieces?

  Feeling a sense of unease, she discarded the silk slippers and put on her own glass ones. The diamonds hadn’t moved since she last checked and tears filled her eyes. What if the shoes were truly, absolutely broken? Would she be stuck here forever? She furiously wiped the tears away and stood up to see herself in the mirror. Her eyes had worry rings and her nose looked a little red from crying. Picking up a comb from the table, she quickly brushed out her hair, letting the curls from last night wave around her shoulders. She looked wild and free, but she felt anything but. Mina held her breath and puffed out her cheeks, making a face at herself in the mirror. At least the color of the dress complemented her skin tones and made her eyes stand out. She needed to pull herself together. “You can do this, Mina. You’re a Grimm. You can handle this. Everyone is counting on you to be smart and figure this out.”

  After her mini pep talk, she opened her door and h
eaded to the main hall. Sure enough, the other eight girls were already there, minus Ferah, Fushia and Silene. They all happened to be wearing similar slim dresses in varying colors. Of course, the others had done their hair up in in extravagant coifs, ringlets, and braids. Ever, again keeping to herself at the edge of the crowd, looked stunning in a long black dress.

  Annalora’s face was still swollen, but her makeup decently covered most of the discolored bruise. As soon as she saw Mina enter the hall, she turned her back. Which was fine with Mina. Just seeing Annalora’s face put a bounce in Mina’s step as she made her way to stand next to Dinah. The tension in the room was at an all-time high as the girls feigned small talk while they watched the doors. A few laughs tittered to unnatural pitches as the girls’ nerves ran amok.

  “What do you think the test will be today?” Mina asked Dinah absently.

  Dinah yawned and rubbed her back. “I’m not sure, but I hope we’re done soon. There was a lump in my mattress, and I could barely sleep last night. I think I’m bruised.”

  “Maybe there was a pea under your mattress,” Mina said, amused.

  “Oh don’t be silly, Elle. Why would there be food under a mattress in the royal palace? It had to have been a rock.”

  “Why would a rock be under the mattress? In fact, I’d think it was more likely for food to be under the mattress than a rock.”

  “Fine—pea, rock, or elephant. It was awful. You wouldn’t want to switch rooms tonight, would you?”

  “If I make it past the next round, I would do anything to help.” Mina agreed easily, knowing she probably wouldn’t be here after the next test. “So, have the betrothal tests always been this grueling?”

  Dinah raised an eyebrow at Mina. “Do you really not know?”

  Mina shook her head. “I’ve lived a very sheltered life.”

  She wasn’t sure if the nymph bought her excuse, but the tall girl explained. “Well, depending on whether the heir is male or female, the choosing ceremony varies. If it’s a female then the princes of lesser kingdoms and first-born sons are tested on wit, honesty, and bravery. In the past they’ve been sent on quests to fight a dragon, steal a golden fleece, or travel to the ends of the known world. But the princess test is always kept a secret. I’m not altogether sure why, but it is always conducted within the palace. Usually the youngest and prettiest daughters—and other princesses—are the candidates. There was a rumor that Queen Maeve was selected because she spun straw into gold.”

  That didn’t sound so bad, but it still seemed out of Mina’s expertise. Teague’s warning came back to her. “You don’t think they’d make us do anything dangerous, do you?”

  Dinah shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows? But I’m not expecting it to be as easy as yesterday.” Her words only confirmed Mina’s fears. “By the way, I’m glad you brought Annalora down a peg. I’d just be careful around her. She’s got it out for you.”

  She turned to face the door when King Lucian entered alone.

  “Greetings, princesses and ladies. Day two of our quests will commence shortly. One at a time, you will proceed through the double doors into the library. On the other side is your test.”

  Dinah let out a sigh of relief and Mina had to agree. A test in a library didn’t sound too bad. Did that mean Teague lied to her?

  King Lucian wiped his brow and pointed to Tawny to enter first. Tawny smiled and stepped away from Annalora to head through the doors.

  They closed behind her, and then the girls waited. Each one of them strained to hear, trying to gather a clue as to what was transpiring on the other side.

  There were a few seconds of utter silence.

  And then the terrified screams began.

  “You can’t be serious.” Annalora turned to confront the king. “Is she being tortured? I didn’t come all this way to be killed.”

  Most of the girls looked equally confused, while Ever remained thoughtful. Dinah seemed tense but steady. Neither of them appeared to know what was going on the other side of the door.

  Estellya spoke up, “Maybe that’s not Tawny’s voice. Maybe that’s part of the test, to distinguish her real cry from fake?”

  Mina was confident enough to answer. “No, I’m pretty sure those screams are not part of the test.”

  Sephora turned on her. “How do you know?”

  Well, she sure wasn’t going to explain to the others that Teague had snuck into her room to warn her. “I just have a gut feeling.”

  More screams followed. Sephora covered her ears and tried to call the king’s bluff. “I think this is our test. Her screams are fake.”

  King Lucian shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry to tell you, you’re incorrect. Those screams are very re—”

  A deep roar echoed in the next room, the sound resonating through the floor. Mina felt it through the soles of her shoes. King Lucian winced at the sound.

  “What kind of test is this? This doesn’t seem proper,” Annalora shrieked again.

  “One that is fully appropriate, I assure you.”

  The sounds coming from the other room died down, and Mina could just see the barest shimmer of light passing under the door. Then it went dark.

  King Lucian waited as the servant from yesterday reappeared and whispered the results to him. He looked disappointed.

  “Ah, it seems we are ready. Who will go next?” He cast his golden gaze around at the girls, waiting for a volunteer. It appeared they wouldn’t know the results of the previous contenders until they’d either failed or passed the test themselves.

  Dinah stepped forward and gave each of the girls a nervous glance before entering the library.

  Mina couldn’t lie. She didn’t want to compete against Dinah, but she still wanted her new friend to succeed. It was the same with Ever. She truly cared about what was happening to these girls, and she didn’t want any of them hurt. But then there was Annalora. She couldn’t care less what happened to the bully.

  Dinah’s test dragged on even longer than Tawny’s. But she also didn’t hear any of the terrifying roars. It was close to twenty minutes before King Lucian signaled for the next girl to enter the library. Like he’d done with Tawny’s results, he didn’t give any indication what happened to Dinah.

  Ever jumped at the chance to go next. Mina’s respect for her grew with each contest. The girl really wanted to win Teague.

  This time they heard angry roars coming from the library loud and clear. In fact, Mina could’ve sworn she heard two overlapping. It might have been just her nerves. But maybe it wasn’t.

  The petite Perrin went in next, leaving five girls. Perrin barely stood over four feet, with white blonde hair and doll-like features. But it was those doll eyes that made everyone avoid her. There was something about her that was a bit creepy—like right-out-of-a-horror-movie creepy.

  Then it was down to five: Mina, Annalora, Sephora, Estellya and Shaya. When it was time for someone to approach the doors, Mina felt a hand shove the center of her back, pushing her toward King Lucian.

  “So eager to meet your fate?” he teased.

  “I already have, your Majesty.” Mina nodded in his direction.

  He laughed. “Excellent! Brave and quick-witted. “Hopefully your wit will help you in your next task. Enter.”

  Her feet were on autopilot as she walked through the doors into the library. First, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Bookshelves lined every wall and formed long rows down the back of the room. There was a reading nook by a window with a cushioned bench. A few dark mahogany tables with stacks of books were placed throughout, and lit candelabras adorned each table.

  The room looked relatively peaceful. There was no evidence of any of the girls having been here. No sign of the originator of the beast-like roar. Maybe it truly was just a trick. She wouldn’t put it past the Fates to tease them with something awful, and instead give them a simple-but-easy-to-overlook quest.

  She walked past a large window that was drawn shut. Looking around, she notic
ed most of the windows’ thick curtains were drawn closed. Actually, only one window was visible, casting a path of light down the middle of the room. Maybe it was done on purpose to protect and preserve the books?

  Specks of dust swirled in the light and she was momentarily distracted by a book and quill laying on the table closest to her. It seemed that the story was left unfinished. The author had unique penmanship, and the ink still looked wet.

  I know what is expected of me, but the pressure is more than I can bear alone.

  And yet I know that to rule is to be alone...forever.

  The pages on the book began to flip as cold breeze blew over her skin. Somewhere, a door had opened in the half-darkened library. She was no longer by herself. She looked up in alarm, but couldn’t make out the large shape lumbering toward her until it passed into the beam of light.

  It was just as Teague had warned—an ogre. Its gray bald head and bulbous nose came into view as it leaned down, swinging a meaty hand toward her. Without thinking, she jumped back just in time. The ogre’s gigantic fist crashed into the table, inches from the book. She should have run when she had the chance, but instead she leaned forward and grabbed the book from beside the ogre’s hand and rolled under the table.

  He roared and smashed his fist into the tabletop again, cracking it.

  Desperate, Mina looked around the room considering her options.

  She muffled a cry as the ogre slammed the table once more, and dust rained down on her. She was so scared, the edges of the book’s cover dug into her fingers. Her grip had only become stronger with her terror. The ogre’s feet were inches from her, and she tried to use Fae magic to protect herself by pushing him away or knocking him over. But her limited knowledge of how it worked made it useless.

 
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