Home > Soul of Cinder (Heart of Thorns #3)

Soul of Cinder (Heart of Thorns #3)
Author: Bree Barton


Act I


Once upon a time, in a castle carved of stone, a boy plotted murder.

 

 

Chapter 1


Every Scrap


QUIN WANTED TO HURT him.

From the moment he saw the man standing precariously on the horse’s back—his forehead sheened with sweat, wrists bound, a dirty rope noosed around his neck and tied to the tree branch above—Quin yearned to send the horse bolting. To hear the wet, clean snap of bone.

“Is someone there?” the prisoner asked, his voice a dusty croak. Quin wondered how long he’d been strung up. The mare seemed content to stay in one place, flicking her tail against the white flies.

“Please,” the man said. “If you’re there, please help me.”

Quin stayed silent, hidden behind a copse of swyn trees. His fingers ticked with restless energy. He still marveled at it, the twitchy heat in his hands.

Magic.

He no longer had the two stones: the red fojuen wren and the black wheel with seven spokes Angelyne had wielded beneath the Snow Queen’s palace. Death is the final axis, she’d said. It tilts your tidy elements askew. As the walls crumbled down around him, he’d almost lost far more than that. Somehow he had managed to stagger out of the palace, only to be buried moments later in an avalanche. Face crushed against hard-packed snow, arms pinned to his sides, the surrounding whiteness so complete it turned to black. He couldn’t breathe.

Seconds before losing consciousness, he’d felt his hands warming. All around him the ice lit with a smoky red glow. The snow began to shift, softening to slush.

Only when he had stumbled onto his knees, gasping, did he see the scarlet flames flickering between his palms. He had burned his way out.

The prisoner’s boot started to slip on the horse’s back. He caught himself just before falling.

“I don’t know who you are,” the man whimpered, “but I’ll give you everything I own. I swear by the four gods . . . the Four Great Goddesses . . . whoever you believe in.”

Whomever, Quin thought.

The question of belief was really a question of power. And power, it seemed, boiled down to magic. The real question he’d been asking himself since crawling out of the snow was this: Had the two stones given him magic? Or had it been lurking inside him all along? A quiet, growing power, even during his most vulnerable moments?

Perhaps it existed because of those moments. Since escaping the snow kingdom, he’d spent long hours recounting his litany of losses—including the first. The memory came in brutal slashes. The shifting shadows of the crypt. The coldness in his father’s eyes. His music teacher’s screams as Quin stood by, doing nothing.

When he thought of the horrors of that night, his palms ached with hungry heat.

No Dujia had bothered to give him magic lessons. Why would they? They assumed he was powerless. Everyone had assumed that, his whole life: First his father, shaming and abusing him for who he was. Then Mia Rose, dragging him on an adventure he’d never asked to go on. Then Pilar d’Aqila, who had launched the arrow that nearly killed him—and the arrow that did kill his sister, Karri.

Of course, Angelyne Rose had rendered him more powerless than anyone. She had controlled him for months, hurt and abused him, burrowing into his head and heart so successfully that even after she’d stopped enthralling him, he did her bidding so mechanically she no longer had to ask.

If magic was born of a power imbalance—one person being stripped of agency in body, mind, and spirit—it was only a matter of time before he bloomed.

As Quin had risen from the avalanche that should have been his grave, he’d seen a boat sailing out of the harbor. He had only been able to make out three shapes, but he’d had no doubt to whom they belonged. Angelyne. Pilar.

Mia.

In that moment, he realized the truth. They had never loved him. Not a single one of them. The Twisted Sisters had chosen each other, and always would. Quin’s thoughts darkened as he watched them sail toward Pembuk, the glass kingdom to the west. They had betrayed him and left him for dead, thinking him too weak to survive. He wanted to burn them for it. He wanted to burn anyone—everyone—who had ever thought him weak.

And now, finally, he could.

“I beg you,” pleaded the prisoner, jolting Quin from his thoughts. “I beg you to have mercy.”

Mercy. In the old language, the word meant “reward.”

Through the prickly swyn branches, Quin scrutinized the man’s gaunt, pale face. Brown stubble cut a sharp contrast against his sallow cheeks. Strong chin. Bloodshot blue eyes.

Quin knew the face well. They were, after all, cousins.

He thought of another copse of trees, where he had discovered Tristan on top of Karri, attempting rape. It felt like a dozen years ago, and yesterday. Half feral with rage, Quin had barreled into his cousin to save his sister—perhaps the one true courageous act of his life.

Now he tapped his fingertips together, watching the thin red flame begin to flicker.. His aim had gotten quite good. Since leaving Luumia he had killed three creatures with a spike of fire straight to the throat. With the rabbit he’d felt a pang of guilt. With the ermine the pang had been smaller. Smaller still with the cwningen. Quin had cured the meat himself.

His cousin would be his biggest game yet. Not that Quin had any plans to eat him. Tristan’s death was its own reward.

Quin stepped into the clearing.

“Hello, Cousin,” he said.

Tristan’s face brightened for only a moment before twisting into fear.

“Qu-Quin,” he stammered, clearly wishing his would-be rescuer were someone—anyone—else.

The mare nickered, whisking the flies with her tail. She was growing restless.

“Please,” Tristan whispered. “If she runs, it won’t even break my neck. I’ll strangle.”

Quin had always had a way with animals. He could calm them easily with a gentle touch, a soft word.

He gave neither.

“Say something, won’t you?” Tristan begged.

Quin thought of all the things he could say. A passionate monologue regarding the depravity of his cousin’s soul, delivered to a captive audience hanging (literally!) on his every word. Quin had a gift for the pretending arts. As a boy he’d written, directed, and performed whole plays. Occasionally one or two of the cooks would make the trek from the castle kitchens to see the production, but more often than not, he was his own audience, alone on the stage.

What good had words done him? They had no power. They reeked of frailty, a lonely player hiding behind a soliloquy. Empty gestures spoken to an empty room.

“Goodbye, Cousin,” he said, and lifted his hands.

He could aim for the chest, cut a blade of fire into Tristan’s heart and kill him instantly. But Quin didn’t want instant. He wanted his cousin’s feet to slip. He wanted to watch the life gasp and gurgle out of him, this rapist to whom he was bound by blood.

The flame leapt from Quin’s hands. The scarlet arrow singed his palms as it shot toward Tristan’s ankles.

But at the last second, the fire arced upward, corkscrewing a ribbon of red sparks—and searing through the taut rope binding his cousin’s neck to the tree.

Tristan fell, landing sideways on the horse. He cried out in pain. Quin charged forward, but it was too late: the horse galloped into the forest, Tristan clinging desperately to her flanks.

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