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Griffin takes the bundle from me, kissing my temple. “Clever, Cat. Always improvising.”

“Improvise and survive!” I chant.

He chuckles. “That doesn’t rhyme.”

“Yes, it does.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does.”

Griffin hits me with his hard stare. “You’re arguing again.”

“That’s because I’m right.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Who’s arguing now?”

“Cat…”

I smile innocently. It’s hard not to laugh. “Yes, Your Growliness?”

He growls.

I tap my chin, thinking up a rhyme he’s sure to like. “There once was a Sintan warlord, who overcame an incredible horde. Even so, he’d be easy to mock, except he has this really huge co—”

Griffin plants his hand over my mouth, his eyes narrowing.

“What? It rhymes,” I say, my voice muffled beneath his fingers.

“So do spank and thank.”

I bite his hand, he smacks my bottom, and I shriek as he flops me over his shoulder along with my makeshift bag. With me gripping his waist and laughing, Griffin strides back to the castle, his head held high like the triumphant conqueror he is.

CHAPTER 5

JOCASTA LOOKS AROUND THE ROOM, HER BLUE EYES narrowed and her lips pursed. “You need a new bed.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Last night, Griffin and I slept on the thick sheepskin rug in front of the unlit hearth—if sleeping is what you can call what we did for most of the night.

Griffin’s sister snorts. “I wish I could take a sword and beat the stuffing out of something when I’m upset.”

“You can. Here.” I hand her my sword. It’s short, about the length of a man’s arm. The hilt fits my grip perfectly, and the rounded guard is engraved with a decorative pattern of intertwining laurel leaves. I’m thinking about naming it. Swords need names. “I recommend the bed, but I’m not particularly attached to that table over there.”

Jocasta glances at the upturned table with its irreparably cracked central board. Her dark hair reflects the morning sunbeams streaming through the open window as she approaches what’s left of the bed and then gives the ruined mattress a good whack. Her whole body jars from the impact. She hauls the sword up again and then thumps it back down harder. This time, the blade sticks in the splintered bed frame. By the time she wrestles it out of the wood, she’s panting and half her curls have slipped from their pins.

She shoves her almost blue-black hair out of her face. “That was annoying.”

I shrug. “Sometimes that happens in bone.”

Revulsion crosses her face, but instead of setting down the sword, she strikes the bed again like she has something to prove. She keeps going, avoiding what’s left of the frame. Stuffing erupts from the torn-up mattress, and feathers catch in her hair, giving her a savage appearance. With her bright sapphire eyes, flushed face, and a sword in her hand, she looks like a force to be reckoned with.

Since Griffin turned all our chairs into firewood, I stand there, watching, with my arms crossed. “What are you upset about?” I ask.

Jocasta takes a few deep breaths and then props the sword against the wall. “I’m not upset, exactly. I’m restless. The north wall is nearly fixed, and the children don’t especially need my limited expertise in construction to finish the job. The pages have all settled into their roles in the castle. I don’t have any groundbreaking ideas for improvements to the realm. The new healing centers and schools are Egeria’s projects, and she doesn’t need or really even want my help, although I keep offering.” She brushes goose down from the front of her dress, her mouth thinning.

“You’re bored.” I get that. If I weren’t so in love, which is completely new to me, I’d probably be bored, too. As it is, I’m tired of being confined to the castle grounds. I’m used to living mostly out in the open and traveling with the circus. Sometimes, these walls feel like they’re closing in on me.

Jocasta sighs. “Piers is busy recruiting new soldiers, and that’s not exactly my domain anyway. Carver has responsibilities that Griffin trusts him with. You have Beta Team. Father reads or sleeps most of the day. Mother concocts herbal sludge that I can already recite the recipes for forward and backward and use to heal most of the usual ailments. Kaia has her tutor—who’s an old goat, by the way—but besides a few adjustments to court life, I’ve already had my schooling and don’t need to sit in on lessons.” She eyes my sword like she wants to start bashing things again. “I have nothing to do.”

“Life is different for you now. As a younger sibling in a royal house, you have no real role. And even less freedom.”

She chews on her lower lip, looking annoyed. “I used to be able to go places by myself. Ride a horse. Talk to people. Help them because they knew me and came to me and respected me. Now I’m stuck behind these walls where no one really needs me.”


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