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Heart on Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #3)
Author: Amanda Bouchet


CHAPTER 1


   “Do you see what I see?”

   What normal person doesn’t look up at that? Not that I’m entirely normal, but at least Griffin’s question snaps me from unpleasant thoughts of giant metallic birds, Cyclopes, fire, and blood.

   “I see…Piers?” And there’s another person riding alongside Griffin’s brother on a large gray horse. Nondescript traveling clothes flap on a tall, lean frame. There’s an odd, lumpy hat. I frown. “Kaia?”

   “Then I’m not hallucinating.” My husband does not sound happy, and seeing as he thinks everyone he loves should be protected by his own army and safe behind thick walls, finding his baby sister on the road to Tarva City disguised as a boy must come as an Olympian shock.

   With a muttered oath, Griffin urges Brown Horse into a gallop. Squeezing his sides, I direct Panotii to follow, my newly healed ribs aching in mild protest at the increase in speed. Another day of rest would have done them good. Not heaving up my pregnant guts after breakfast every morning for the last few days might have helped, too.

   We reach Piers and Kaia and rein in, four sets of hooves kicking up clumps of half-dried mud in the road. Kaia doesn’t bother to dismount but launches herself directly into Griffin’s arms, landing mostly across his lap. He grunts and grabs her, keeping her from slipping to the ground.

   “What are you doing here?” he practically growls. “This is no place for you.”

   She clings to him, crawling up his chest until his chin knocks her hat askew. A long ribbon of dark hair tumbles loose. Kaia gulps down a breath, but then her face crumples, and she lets out a huge sob.

   My heart goes into painful overdrive. Did something happen at home?

   “What’s wrong? Is everyone all right?” Griffin echoes my worries, anxiety sharpening his words. A deep crease forms between his eyebrows as he takes in his brother’s grim face.

   Piers looks haggard. And angry?

   “Is everyone all right?” Kaia repeats, her voice rising shrilly before breaking on a hiccup. Almost violently, she knocks her hat all the way off, getting it out of her face. “I thought you were going to die. Over and over. All of you.” She twists her fingers in the front of Griffin’s tunic, holding on tight. “Blood. Fire.” She turns and spears me with a bloodshot gaze. “Spiders.”

   My stomach hollows so fast it leaves a gaping hole in my middle. She was at the Games? Fifteen-year-old, sheltered, innocent Kaia was at the Agon Games? How in the name of Zeus and his pet Pegasus did that happen?

   “But then you didn’t. Die, I mean. You just kept going, no matter what. But Carver, I thought he did. He looked so…dead.” Sniffling, she wipes the back of her wrist under her nose. Her hand shakes. “And then the news spread that you’d taken over Tarva, but we couldn’t get to you. Your new guards didn’t know us and wouldn’t let us in. They wouldn’t let us in!”

   Kaia balls up her fist and thumps it hard against Griffin’s chest. She hits him again, pouring her fear and frustration into her punch rather than into a new rush of tears—tears she seems to be only barely holding back.

   I shift uncomfortably in my saddle. We did this to her. And it was my idea to compete in the Games to gain access to the previous Tarvan royals. Because of me, nearly everyone Kaia loves was almost massacred on more than one occasion. Worse, she obviously witnessed the most recent ones.

   His jaw flexing, Griffin looks up from his sister’s tearstained face. His somber gaze flicks to Piers. “Did you ask the guards to bring us a message?”

   Piers nods, keeping his eyes trained solely on Griffin, as if I’m too unsavory to look at. “But so did about a hundred other people every hour, using all sorts of incentives. Saying they were family. Offering bribes.” He makes no effort to disguise the bitterness in his voice. “Everyone wants a look at the glorious winners of the Agon Games—and the new Tarvan Alpha couple.”

   I glance at Griffin. He catches my quick look and frowns. The reason we’re out alone, and in our dingiest old traveling gear, is because disguising ourselves and slipping away was the only way past the crowd chanting “Elpis” at our new front gate. The meaning behind the name we gave our team in the Agon Games has been spreading, reminding Thalyrians of the ancient and mostly forgotten spirit and personification of Hope: Elpis. And now, the indomitable idea of hope in a world full of ills appears to be contagious. It’s expanding far and wide.

   If people were so ready for change in Thalyria, it’s hard to believe they waited for me to come along to do it. Or, more accurately, for Griffin to push me into doing something about it. No expectations at all seem to have turned into too much expectation overnight, and now all that growing excitement is camped out on our doorstep and serving as a loud and constant reminder that I have a lot to figure out—and soon.

   At any rate, we went out the back.

   Piers finally looks at me, his expression going from hard to harder. As if reading my mind, he says, “Elpis. How fitting.”

   So why the irony? I narrow my eyes on the one member of Griffin’s family—my family—that I just can’t seem to like. “You’re the only one with something against hope.”

   “I’m the only one with something against leading my family and friends into bloodbaths!” Piers snaps.

   “We’re not dead!” I snap back.

   “Where’s Cassandra?”

   The blood drains from my face so fast it leaves my head numb and my hearing dull.

   Piers’s eyes turn as chilling as winter frost. “They told me she went to fight alongside you in the Games, but then I saw Jocasta, my sister, in that terror pit of an arena instead.”

   I open my mouth to respond, although I don’t know what to say. Still, it’s my responsibility, just like Cassandra was. But before I can form the awkward words scraping at my tongue, Griffin steps in, his voice even and strong.

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