A Goodreads "YA Best Book of the Month"
An Amazon "Best Book of the Month: Science Fiction & Fantasy"
Zera is a Heartless—the immortal, ageless soldier of a witch. Bound to the witch Nightsinger, Zera longs for freedom from the woods they hide in. With her heart in a jar under Nightsinger's control, she serves the witch unquestioningly…until Nightsinger asks Zera for a prince's heart in exchange for her own.
But if Zera's discovered infiltrating the court, Nightsinger will destroy her heart, rather than see her tortured by the witch-hating nobles.
Crown Prince Lucien d'Malvane hates the royal court as much as it loves him—every tutor too afraid to correct him and every girl jockeying for a place at his handsome side. No one can challenge him—until the arrival of Lady Zera. She's inelegant, smart-mouthed, carefree, and out for his blood. The prince's honor has him quickly aiming for her throat.
Now it’s a game of cat and mouse between a girl with nothing to lose and a boy who has it all.
Winner takes the loser's heart.
The Bring Me Their Hearts series is best enjoyed in order.
Book #1 Bring Me Their Hearts
Book #2 Find Me Their Bones
Book #3 Send Me Their Souls
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The Starving Wolf and the Black Rose
KING SREF OF CAVANOS WATCHES me with the deadened eyes of a raven circling a corpse — patient, waiting to devour me the second I let my guard down. I briefly debate telling him humans don't taste all that good, until I remember normal girls don't eat people. Or fake their way into royal courts.
Normal, I think to myself. Completely and utterly normal. Bat your eyelashes. Laugh like you've got nothing in your head. Old God's teeth, what in the flaming afterlife do normal girls do again?
The other girls would know. There are three of us, three girls in cake-pink dresses, kneeling before King Sref's throne. We wear veils to hide our faces. I'd ask them, but we're currently busy drowning in expensive lace and the silent stares of every gilded noble in the room. Well, the other two girls are. I'm doing more of a laughing internally at the way they carefully tilt their gorgeous heads and purse their pouts thing. Look More Attractive Than the Girl Next to You is the name of the game their mothers have been teaching them from birth.
Mine taught me how to die, and not much else.
"You are all as lovely as rose blooms," the king says finally. His face is weathered with a handsome age. Dignity carves lines around his steel-colored eyes. The smile in them doesn't reach those eyes, though, a sure sign it's only half sincere. He is old, he is powerful, and he is bored — the most dangerous combination I can think of.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," the two girls echo, and I quickly mimic them. I've nicknamed them in my head — Charm and Grace. Charm and Grace don't dare look at anything but the marble floor, while my eyes dart about, thirsty for the rich silks of the nobles' clothes and the gold serpents carved into the majestic stone columns. Three years stuck in the woods serving a witch makes your eyes hungry for anything that isn't a tree or deer droppings. I can't raise my head for fear I'll be singled out, but I can look just high enough to see the feet of Queen Kolissa and her son. Crown Prince Lucien d'Malvane, Archduke of Tollmount-Kilstead, Fireborn, the Black Eagle — he has a dozen names, all of them eye-roll worthy. If there's one thing I've learned from my single day at the royal court, it's that the more names someone has, the less he actually does.
I haven't seen more than the prince's booted toes, and I already know he's useless.
And soon, if I have my way, he'll be heartless.
"I welcome you, the newest additions to our illustrious court," King Sref says. His voice booms, but out of decorum, not of passion.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Charm and Grace say, and I echo. I'm starting to get the hang of this — thank everyone a lot and look pretty. Infiltrating the palace might not be so hard after all.
Queen Kolissa's saccharine voice rings out after the king's. "I hope you will bring honor to your families and uphold the ideals of this great nation," she says.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," we respond.
I hear the queen murmur something. A deep voice softly says something back, and then her voice gets an inch louder — but still so quiet only the three of us, kneeling at the foot of the throne, can hear it.
"Say something, please, Lucien."
"That would be pointless, Mother, and I tend to avoid doing pointless things."
"You know I hate this outdated ceremony. Look at them — they're here only for their families. No girl in her right mind would subject herself to this humiliating display." The prince's voice is laced with dark venom, and I flinch. It's nothing like his father's carefully emotionless tone or his mother's sickly sweet one. Unlike the rest of these restrained nobles, his emotions burn hot just beneath the surface. He hasn't learned how to hide them completely, not yet.
"It's a tradition," the queen insists. "Now say something to them, or so help me —"
The screech of a chair across marble resounds, and the prince demands of us: "Rise."
The two girls, graceful as swans, lift their skirts and stand. I bite back a swear as I do the same and nearly trip over my ornate shoes. Note to past self: four days of training isn't nearly enough time to teach someone to walk in a pair of ribboned death traps. How Charm and Grace do it so effortlessly is beyond me, but the blushes on their faces aren't.
I look up to the prince now standing on the top step before us. Even without the advantage of elevation, I can see he's tall — a warrior's height, his silver-vested torso lean and his velvet-caped shoulders broad. A year? No, he's maybe two years or so older than my ageless teenage form of sixteen; the corded muscles tell me that much. Why they call him the Black Eagle is obvious now: his hair is blacker than a raven's, windswept about his face and long in the back, kept in a single braid that traces his spine. His face is his father's in its prime: a proud, hawkish nose, cheekbones so high and dignified they border arrogance. His skin is his father's, too, sun-kissed oakwood, and yet his eyes are his mother's — piercing dark iron sharpened to a fine, angry blade point. He is all pride and sable darkness, and every part of me hates it — hates the fact that someone who's to inherit so much power and wealth is striking as well. I want him hunched and covered in warts. I want him weak-chinned and watery-eyed. But the world is unfair, always. I learned that the day my parents were killed.
The day I was made into a monster.
The girls beside me all but salivate, and I do my best to look bored. On my way here I saw much better-looking boys. Dozens. Hundreds. All right, fine — there was only the one, and he was a painter's model in the streets of the artists' district, but none of that matters, because the way Prince Lucien sneers his next question wipes every ounce of attraction from my mind.
"A lady isn't merely a decoration," he says, words rumbling like thunder. "She is the mother of our future, the teacher of our progeny. A lady must have a brain between her ears, as must we all. For what is beauty without purpose? Nothing more than a vase of flowers, to wither and be thrown away."
Books written by the smartest polymaths have told me the planet is round, that it rotates about the sun, and that there are magnetic poles to our east and west at the coldest parts, and I believe them, yet in no way can I believe there's someone who exists who's this arrogant.
The nobles titter among themselves, but it quickly dies down when King Sref holds up a hand. "These are the Spring Brides, my prince," the king says patiently. "They're of noble lineage. They've studied and practiced much to be here. They deserve more respect than this."
Someone's getting scolded, I think with a singsong tone. Prince Lucien throws his sharp gaze to the king.
"Of course, Your Majesty." His disdain at calling his father "Your Majesty" is obvious. Consider yourself lucky, Prince, I think. That you have a father at all in this cruel world.
"But" — the prince turns to the noble audience — "all too often do we equate nobleness of blood for soundness of mind and goodness of judgment."
His eyes sweep the room, and this time, the nobles are dead silent. The shuffling of feet and cough-clearing of throats is deafeningly uncomfortable. I haven't been here long, but I recognize his stance. It's the same one young forest wolves take with their elders; he's challenging the nobles, and by the looks of the king's white knuckles and the queen's terrified face, I'd guess it's a dangerous game he's playing.
"Let us welcome the Spring Brides as the kings of the Old God did." The prince sweeps his hands out. "With a question of character."
The nobles murmur, perturbed. The silver half circles with three spokes through them dripping from every building in the city weren't exactly subtle; the New God, Kavar, rules here in Vetris. The Sunless War was fought for Kavar thirty years ago, and the Old God's followers were slaughtered and driven out of Vetris. His statues were torn down, his temples demolished. Now, carrying on an Old God tradition is a death sentence. The king knows this — and covers for his son quickly.
"The kings of the Old God were misguided, but they built the foundation upon which this country thrives. The roads, the walls, the dams — all of them were built by the Old Kings. To erase them from existence would be a crime to history, to truth. Let us have one last Old tradition here, today, and shed such outdated formalities with grace."
It's a good save. You don't have to be a noble to see that. Prince Lucien looks miffed at his father's attempts to assuage the nobles, but he hides it and turns back to the three of us.
"Answer this question to the best of your abilities as you raise your veils. What is the king's worth?"
There's a long moment of quiet. I can practically hear the brain-cogs of the girls churning madly beside me. The nobles murmur to one another, laughing and giggling and raising eyebrows in our direction. The king is immeasurable in his worth. To say anything less would be madness. A swamp-thick layer of scorn and amusement makes the air reek and my skin crawl.
Finally, Charm lifts her veil and clears her throat to speak.
"The king is worth ... a million — no! A trillion gold coins. No — seven trillion!" The nobles' laughter gets louder. Charm blushes beet-red. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. My father never taught me numbers. Just sewing and things."
King Sref smiles good-naturedly. "It's quite all right. That was a lovely answer."
The prince says nothing, face unimpressed, and points to Grace. She curtsies and lifts her veil.
"The king's worth cannot be measured," she says clearly. "It is as high as the highest peak of the Tollmount-Kilstead Mountains, as wide as the Endless Bog in the south. His worth is deeper than the darkest depths of the Twisted Ocean."
This time, the nobles don't laugh. Someone starts a quiet applause, and it spreads.
"A very eloquent answer," the king says. The girl looks pleased with herself, curtsying again and glancing hopefully at Prince Lucien. His grimace only deepens.
"You, the ungainly one." The prince finally points to me. "What say you?"
His insult stings, but for only a moment. Of course I'm ungainly compared to him. Anyone would be. I'm sure the only one he doesn't think ungainly is the mirror in his room.
I hold his gaze, though it burns like sunfire on my skin. His distaste for me, for the girls beside me, for every noble in this room, is palpable. He expects nothing from me, from anyone — I can see that in the way his eyes prematurely cloud with disdain the moment I open my mouth.
He expects nothing new. I must be everything new.
I lift my veil slowly as I say, "The king's worth is exactly one potato."
There's a silence, and then a shock wave ripples through the room, carrying gasps and frenzied whispers with it. The celeon guards grip their halberds and narrow their catlike eyes, their tails swishing madly. Any one of them could rip me in half as easily as paper, though it wouldn't kill me. It'd just betray me as a Heartless — a witch's servant — to the entire noble court, which is considerably worse than having your insides spilled on the marble. Witches are Old God worshippers and fought against humans in the Sunless War. We are the enemy.
I'm the enemy, wearing the mask of a noble girl who's just said something very insulting about her king in the foolish hopes of catching the prince's attention.
The queen clutches her handkerchief to her chest, clearly offended at my words. The king raises one eyebrow. The prince, on the other hand, smiles. It's so slow and luxurious I barely see it form, and then all at once his face is practically gleeful. He's handsome, I think to myself — handsome enough when he isn't being a hateful dog turd. He tames his expression and clears his throat.
"Are you going to elaborate, or should I have you thrown in the dungeons for slandering the king right here and now?"
The celeon advance, and my unheart quivers. The prince is enjoying the idea of throwing me in the dungeon a little too much for my taste. I raise my chin, carefully keeping my shoulders wide and my face passive. Strong. I will make an impression here, or I will die for my loose tongue. It's that simple.
Except it isn't that simple.
Because I can't die.
Because unlike the girls next to me, I'm not here to impress the king and win a royal's hand in marriage or a court position for my father.
I'm here for Prince Lucien's heart.
Literally, not figuratively. Although figuratively would be easier, wouldn't it? Making boys fall in love is easy, from what little I remember of my human life before — all it takes are compliments and batting eyelashes and a low-cut dress or five and they're clay putty in your hands. But I'm here for the organ beating in his chest, and it will be mine, by gambit or by force. In order to get that close, I must earn his trust. The prince expects idiots and sycophants. I must give him the opposite. I must be brilliance itself, a diamond dagger between the flesh of his stagnant noble life.
"To the common people of this country," I press on, "one potato can mean the difference between starving in winter and making it through to spring. A single potato means life. A single potato is a saving grace. To the king's people living in his villages, in his kingdom, nothing is more precious than one potato."
The murmur that goes around the room is hushed, confusion written on the nobles' faces. They have no idea, I'm sure, of what it's like to starve. But it's all I've ever known.
I lock eyes with the prince once more. His face, too, is confused, but in a different way from the crowd's. He looks at me like he's never seen a person before, as if I'm some odd specimen kept in a cool cellar for later study by a polymath. The boredom in his gaze is gone, replaced with a strange, stiff sort of shock. I should look away, act modest or shy, but I don't. I make my eyes sing the determined words my mouth can't say.
I am no flower to be ravaged at your whim, angry wolf — I am your hunter, bow cocked and ready. I am a Heartless, one of the creatures your people fled from in terror thirty years ago.
I let the smallest, hungriest smirk of mine loose on him.
If you were smart, you'd start running, too.
The queen smiles, squeezing the king's arm, and the king laughs. Nothing about it is bland or subdued; it leaks with the hoarse edges of unbridled amusement. For the briefest moment as he smiles at me, he looks ten years younger.
"What is your name, clever little Bride?"
My mind says, Zera, no last name, daughter of a merchant couple whose faces I'm starting to forget: Orphan, Thief, Lover of bad novels and good cake, and indentured servant of the witch Nightsinger, who sent me here to rip your son's heart from his chest.
I dip into a wobbly curtsy instead and spill my lie with a smile. "Zera Y'shennria, Your Majesty; niece of Quin Y'shennria, Lady of the House of Y'shennria and Ravenshaunt. Thank you for having me here today."
Thank you, and I'm sorry.
As sorry as a monster can be.
* * *
Five days earlier
I've been stabbed.
This is, unfortunately, nothing new to me.
"Kavar's teeth." I swear the New God's name, twisting my arm behind me and fingering the dagger's handle. "This was my favorite dress."
One moment I'm walking on the forest road back home, and the next I'm skewered like a village pig. I make a mental note to mark this night in my nonexistent diary as the best one ever.
The willowy figure that stabbed me stands in front of me, a dark, hooded cloak obscuring his face and body. I have no idea who he is — but he moved too fast to be human, and he's too tall to be one of the pale Beneather race that lives underground. The swishing blue tail tipped with fur is a dead giveaway — definitely a celeon assassin, a member of a catlike race that thinks quick and strikes quicker.
"Are you just going to stand there?" I pant, my fingers meeting the slick river of blood running down the laces of my bodice. "If you want to kill me, I'd prefer you make it quicker than this."
"You aren't dead," the celeon growls — their voices always sound sleek yet rough, like a banner of silk dragged across gravel. His eyes glint golden from the darkness of his hood.
"A master of observation and a master of stabbing young girls walking alone at night!" I force a pained smile. "It's an honor. I'd bow, but the knife you so graciously gifted me is making that a tad difficult."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bring Me Their Hearts"
Copyright © 2018 Sara Wolf.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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