It was her favorite place—had been even before Scarlet had lived there. She always felt at home with the animals, who knew nothing of mind control and manipulation. They didn’t care if she was beautiful or if she was the queen’s stepdaughter or if she was going mad. She could not remember ever having an episode of madness inside these walls, surrounded by her friends. Here, she was calmer. Here, she could pretend that she was in control of her own senses.
She tucked an unruly curl behind her ear and moved away from the door. She passed the chilled home of the arctic fox, who was curled atop a birch log, hiding his face behind a bristled tail. The next cage held a mother snow leopard and her litter of three prancing cubs. On the opposite side of the mossy path was a sleeping white owl. It peeped its huge eyes open as Winter passed.
She spotted Ryu’s enclosure ahead, but he must have been sleeping in his den, as the wolf was nowhere to be seen. Then there was Scarlet, the one creature in the menagerie that was not made up of all-white fur or feathers, and she wore the distinction with defiance in her red hair and the hooded sweatshirt she never took off despite the humidity. She was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest, staring at the flowering moss outside her cage.
She startled as Winter came closer.
“Hello, friend.” Winter knelt in front of Scarlet’s cage.
“Hello, crazy,” said Scarlet. It sounded like an endearment. “How are the castle walls today?”
Winter hummed thoughtfully. She’d been so distracted she’d hardly been paying attention to the walls. “Not as bloody as usual,” she determined.
“That’s something.” Scarlet pulled her curls to one side. Her hair was dark with grease and grime, extinguishing the fiery redness that had once reminded Winter of a comet’s tail. She’d also lost too much weight since her captivity. Winter felt a pang of guilt. She should have brought a snack.
Scarlet’s gaze raked over Winter with a tinge of suspicion, taking in the fluttery dress that sparkled a bit more than usual. “You look…” She paused. “Never mind. What’s the occasion?”
Winter knotted her hands together. “Jacin asked me to meet him here.”
Scarlet nodded, unsurprised. “Yeah, he came by a bit ago.” She tilted her chin toward the path. “He went that way.”
Winter stood again, knees shaking. Why was she nervous? This was Jacin, who had seen her covered in mud and scratches when they were children, who had bandaged her wounds when she got a scrape, who had held her when the visions were closing in, his whispers dragging her back to reality.
But something had been different when he asked her to meet him here.
For once, he seemed anxious.
She spent half the night wondering what it could mean, and her imagination always pulled her back to one possibility, one glittering hope.
He was going to tell her that he loved her. He didn’t want to pretend anymore, despite the politics, despite her stepmother. He couldn’t go another day without kissing her.
“Thank you,” she murmured to Scarlet. Adjusting her skirt, she headed down the path.
She paused. Scarlet was clutching the bar nearest her face. “Be careful.”
Winter cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“I know you like him. I know you trust him. But just … be careful.”
Winter smiled. Poor, untrusting Scarlet. “If you insist,” she said, turning away.
She spotted him as soon as she’d rounded the corner of Ryu’s enclosure. Jacin was standing on a bridge that overlooked the menagerie’s central pond and burbling waterfalls. A family of six swans was clustered beneath him as he tossed bread crumbs from his pockets.
He was wearing his uniform, ready to start his shift as her personal guard. His hair was so pale in the menagerie’s hazy light that for a sinking moment Winter imagined he was one of Levana’s animals—one of her pets.
She brushed the thought away as Jacin looked up. His expression was dark and her giddiness faded. So this was not a romantic meeting after all. Of course it wasn’t. It never was.
This disappointment did not, however, chase away the fantasy of how badly she wanted him to press her against these caged walls and kiss her until she could think of nothing else.
She cleared her throat and came to stand beside him. “This is quite clandestine,” she said, nudging him with her shoulder as he emptied the bread from his pockets.
Jacin hesitated, before nudging her back. “The menagerie is open to the public, Highness.”
“Yes, and the doors will be locking in five minutes. No one’s here.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “You’re right. I suppose it is clandestine.”
A new whisper of hope stirred between her ears. Maybe. Maybe …
“Walk with me,” Jacin said, ducking off the bridge.
She followed him around the pond. His attention was glued to the ground, one hand brushing against the handle of his knife. Ever the guard.
“Was there something…?”
“Yeah,” he whispered, as if pulling himself from deep thoughts, “there’s a thing or two.”
He massaged his brow. Winter couldn’t recall the last time he’d looked so unsure of himself. “In fact, there are a whole lot of things I’d like to say to you.”
Her heart ricocheted. Struggling through the topsy-turvy thoughts in her head, all she managed to say was a baffled “oh?”
Jacin’s eyes flickered to her, but didn’t linger, darting instead down the path. They crossed another ivory-carved bridge. Most of the swans had gone their separate ways, but one was floating after them still, dipping its head into the water. On the other side of the path were albino hares that watched them pass with red eyes and twitching noses.
“Ever since we were kids, all I ever wanted was to protect you.”
Her lips tingled. She wished he would stop walking so she could see his face. But he didn’t stop, guiding her past rocky outcroppings and drooping, heavy-headed flowers.
“Knowing you were there at the trial, all I could think was, I have to survive this. I’m not going to make her sit there and watch me die.”
“But I was stupid to think I could protect you forever. Not from her.”
His tone turned harsh. Winter’s emotions were shredded from the constant flipping of this conversation.
“Jacin, what is this about?”
He took in a shaky breath. They’d come full circle and she could see that Ryu was awake now, prowling behind his bars.
Jacin stopped walking, and Winter tore her gaze from the wolf. She was pinned beneath Jacin’s ice-blue stare. She gulped.
“She wants to kill you, Princess.”
Winter shivered, first with the intensity of his words, and second with their meaning. She supposed such a declaration should have shocked her, but ever since Levana had given her these scars, she had been expecting this.
Her disappointment over Jacin not bringing her here to confess his love was more potent than the knowledge her stepmother wanted her dead.
“What have I done?”
He shook his head, the deep sadness returning. “Nothing that you could help. The people love you so much. Levana’s just realized how much. She thinks you could be a threat to her crown.”
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