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I’d heard of ogres and seen pictures of them in textbooks, but I’d never actually met one in real life. I knew that the Omte occasionally gave birth to ogres and they had several of them living in their population. But it’s one thing to read about massive, hulking trolls and it’s another thing entirely to have one standing directly in front of you.

The ogre stood well over eight feet tall, and he had thick arms bulging with muscles like boulders. His whole body tilted to one side, with his right shoulder rising above his left shoulder, and his right hand was even bigger than his left. His head was massive, making room for a large mouth filled with uneven yellowed teeth. It all made his eyes seem disproportionately small, and he stared down at us with either rage or hunger—I couldn’t tell which.

“Why disturb my home?” the ogre demanded, his voice booming through everything.

“We mean you no harm.” Konstantin held up his hands toward him.

The ogre laughed at that, a terrible rumbling sound. “You no harm me! You can’t harm me!”

“That’s true,” Konstantin allowed, and I wished that we’d brought some kind of weapon with us. We were defenseless if this giant decided he wanted to grind our bones to make his bread. “We only wish to speak to your Queen.”

The alligator had begun to swim closer to us, but I’d hardly noticed it, since my attention had been focused on the ogre. It wasn’t until the ogre lunged, swinging his massive fist out, that I realized how close the alligator had gotten. The ogre punched it, and sent it flying backward into the swamp.

Konstantin and I both took a step back, and I started to think that coming here might have been a very bad idea.

Then the ogre turned back to us with his beady eyes narrowed. “What you know of Queen?”

“We’re Kanin,” Konstantin explained. “We’re allies.”

“Friends,” I supplied when the ogre appeared confused.

“Queen no tell me friends coming.” The ogre bent down so he could get a better look at us, and the stench from his breath was almost enough to make me gag. “Queen tell me when friends visit.”

“Well, it’s a bit of a surprise, actually.” Konstantin smiled, hoping to make light of things, but the ogre wasn’t having any of it.

“Queen tell me to squash visitors,” the ogre said. “Me think she want me to squash you.”

“The Queen wouldn’t want you to squash friends, though,” I said, hurrying to come up with a reason for us not to end up like the alligator.

The ogre straightened up again and glowered down at us. He seemed to consider my proposition, but before he could make a decision, we were interrupted by the sound of a fan propeller coming from behind him. A headlight bobbed on the water toward us, and within a minute, an airboat had pulled up beside the ogre.

A woman stood on it, one of her thick rubber boots resting on the front edge. She appeared to be in her late twenties, and with smooth skin, large dark eyes, and a totally symmetrical body. Her long chestnut hair was pulled back, and she wore a black tank top that revealed the thick muscles of her arms. She wasn’t much taller than me, but she could easily break me over her leg if she wanted to.

“What’s all the commotion about, Torun?” she asked the ogre, but her eyes were on Konstantin and me.

“Squash visitors!” Torun told her, motioning to us with his massive paw.

“We’re from the Kanin tribe,” Konstantin rushed to explain before she became sympathetic with the ogre’s position. “We’re only here to talk to your Queen. We think we may have information that she may find useful.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “You look familiar.” Then she tilted her head. “Didn’t the Kanin just send us WANTED posters with your face on it? You killed someone important, didn’t you?”

“That’s part of what we would like to speak to the Queen about,” I said, trying to remain unfazed.

She thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right.” She leaned down and held out her hand to me. Her grip was almost bone-crushingly strong, and she pulled me up onto the boat with ease.

“But me squash!” Torun yelled plaintively as she helped Konstantin onto the airboat.

“Not this time, Torun,” she said and turned the boat on. Torun splashed the water with his fists in a rage, and she steered us away from him, turning back.

There were no seats on the boat, so I held on to Konstantin to steady myself and hoped I didn’t go flying off into the swamp as she picked up speed.

“Who are you anyway?” she asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the large propeller.

“I’m Bryn Aven, and this is Konstantin Black.”

“I’m Bekk Vallin, one of the Queen’s guards,” she explained. “The Queen won’t give you amnesty, if that’s what you’re looking for. But I’ll take you to her anyway. She might be curious about what you have to say.”

“Thank you,” Konstantin said. “All we really want is an opportunity to speak with her.”

Bekk didn’t say any more as she drove us along, weaving through the trees. It was only a few minutes before we reached their palace anyway, and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

It was a square fortress, made of what appeared to be mud and stone, with thick layers of moss and vines growing over it. With the rest of the Omte living in tree houses, I’d assumed this to be higher off the ground, but it was nearly flush with the swamp, sitting on a small hill above it.