The Heretic Royal Excerpt
Gruffyn wasn’t sure if the royal’s command was supposed to be a punishment or not, but he could definitely think of worse things to do than protect one of Queen Keeley’s younger siblings. He found most of them quite entertaining. Especially the very young one that ran around with her own forge hammer. It was supposed to be for blacksmithing, but Gruff could already tell the child was using it to prepare for battle. Just like her queen sister.
Thankfully, Princess Ainsley was just as entertaining. She lived in trees. She was damn brilliant with a bow. She was friends with an angry nun and a grinning war monk. Most entertaining, though, was her brilliant knack for irritating her older sisters.
She was even more skillful at that than she was with a bow and arrow . . . and she was a master archer.
“Stay here,” Brother Gemma ordered Princess Ainsley before she turned to face the war monk elders.
“Apologies, Brothers. So much going on. And I know you have questions and concerns. But before we discuss any of that in detail, let’s take a moment to thank our gods for their help this dark day.”
The war monks nodded in agreement. Each of them drew a sword or spear and dropped to one or both knees, the pointed end of their weapons in the ground. Heads bowed, they began to pray. Some silently, some much louder. Even Princess Ainsley’s war monk friend kneeled in prayer, and the nun folded her hands and bowed her head.
Gruff patiently waited for them to finish but was surprised when he heard the princess ask, “What exactly are you all praying for?”
It was her monk sister who replied through gritted teeth, clearly annoyed at the interruption, “We are thanking our gods for their protection at this time.”
Staring down at all the bowed heads, Princess Ainsley noted, “But they didn’t do a fucking thing.”
Ainsley heard a grunt and glanced over her shoulder at Gruffyn the centaur. A very large male with black hair, bright blue eyes, and a large black tattoo that went from where his neck met his shoulder blade straight down his entire arm. He quickly looked away when the monks kneeling like pathetic beggars glared at her. But he wasn’t fast enough for her to miss seeing his smirk. It was the first time that Ainsley had seen anything that even resembled a smile on his face.
“Our gods,” her sister growled, forcing Ainsley to focus on Gemma’s still kneeling form, “protected us from the evil of those dragons and the insanity of that foreign queen.”
“No, they didn’t,” Ainsley replied. “Actually . . . I think the dragons are the only reason Queen Annwyl didn’t decimate you and your monk friends. Your gods had nothing to do with it.”
“The power of our gods influenced your precious dragons,” another monk said.
“Don’t the dragons have their own gods?” Ainsley asked with true confusion. She could never follow the logic of these religious groups with all their rules and sacrifices. “Why would human gods influence them at all?”
Gemma stood up and faced her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m wondering why my powerful sister is on her knees praying when we have dragons and a crazed queen wandering around our family home. Shouldn’t you be doing something? Even if it’s the wrong thing. Something?”
One of the older war monks, a man with battle scars where half his face should have been, got to his feet and pointed a damning finger.
“Heretic!” he shouted.
Ainsley stared at the monk for a moment before asking, “What’s a heretic again? You people keep calling me that, but I have no idea what a heretic is. So I don’t know whether I should punch you in the face or thank you.”
“Brothers in Command,” Gemma said to the fanatics now bristling with rage instead of fear, “let us retire to our chosen place for further discussion. All troops will return to their duties. I will be with you in a few minutes.”
The war monk elders disbanded; the only two remaining were Gemma and Sheva. Hilda also stayed, but she didn’t report to the war monks anyway, so this was not surprising. Still, Sheva, as a novitiate, took a risk standing by Ainsley’s side.
Then again, Sheva was probably just bored and didn’t want to miss the fight that Ainsley was positive would happen at any second.
Once the elders were gone, Gemma turned to Ainsley and, as she’d been doing since Ainsley bit her face during a fight over toys, the evil bitch punched Ainsley in the tit.
“Owwww!” Ainsley screeched, covering her chest with her hands. “What was that for?”
“Why do you say shit like that?” Gemma demanded, pacing in front of Ainsley. “I am doing my best to control different sects of war monks who don’t necessarily get along. And you insist on questioning our gods!”
“I’m not questioning your gods,” Ainsley corrected. “I’m questioning you. You’re dropping to your knees like a—”
“Don’t you dare,” Gemma warned, stopping in her tracks. “And stop questioning everyone’s beliefs and religious practices. What people do to worship their gods is their own concern as long as no one else is harmed.”
“Don’t war monks burn witches?”
From the corner of her eye, Ainsley saw Sheva drop her head into her hands, but she ignored it.
“Is that how you worship your gods?” Ainsley questioned. “By burning women you deem undesirable?”
“Ainsley,” her sister snarled in warning.
“I may question, Gemma, but your people burn.”
“Do not discuss things you don’t understand, little sister. The religious sects that have come here are looking for safety, and Keeley has offered it to them. But they shouldn’t have to endure your constant questions and rudeness about how they live and why they choose to believe.”
“I don’t care about anyone’s religious beliefs. I just have no use for fanatics. Owwwww! Stop punching me in the tits!”
Gruff cringed a bit when the monk punched her sister in the chest again, surprised Princess Ainsley didn’t punch her sister back.
“Now that we understand each other—” the monk said.
“We do?” the princess asked.
“I want you to—”
“I don’t report to you, Gemma. I’m not one of your cult members.”
Gruff cringed again when the monk grabbed her younger sister by the hair and twisted the dark mane around her fist, pulling the archer down until her head was by her sister’s waist.
“For as long as I breathe, Ainsley Smythe, you report to me,” the monk informed her sister with absolutely no mercy. “Now, while I deal with my monk brothers, and our queen sister deals with that crazed cunt, you will clean up the courtyard and grounds so the guards can take their places and the vendors can start setting up their stalls. Understand?”
“You want me to clean up shit?”
“You’ve mucked out stalls and pens, what’s the difference?”
The monk shoved her sister away, her hand still gripping some strands from the royal’s head, Gruff noticed.
“The difference,” the younger sister replied, rubbing the back of her wounded scalp, “is where the shit came from. Horses and pigs are one thing, but humans—”
“Do it or I’ll tell our mother that you shook in fear at the sight of the dragons and that there is no way you’ll ever be ready to pick up a sword.”
“You don’t think I’ll ever be ready to pick up a sword anyway, so what does that matter?”
“Because Mum is actually the one who can stop you from doing a gods-damn thing in this life. Would you really enjoy being sent to Aunt Rachel’s for training?”
Gruff had no idea who Aunt Rachel was, but the closed-mouth smile the monk flashed seemed more like a threat than anything else.
“Make sure she takes care of all this,” the monk ordered Gruff and his tribe while pointing to a particularly large pile of human remains as she walked away.
“Picking up human shit and brains,” the novitiate monk snickered. “Look at you, moving up in the world.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Why, why, why, do you insist on upsetting your sister so?” the future nun asked in confusion. “It’s like you want the war monk to cut off your head. They do that, you know? Cut off the heads of family and former friends they deem . . .” She gave a small shrug.
“Heretical,” the monk filled in. “And all those elder monks called you a heretic. It’s usually the first thing they say before they start the burning.”
“They?” the nun asked. “Aren’t you one of them?”
“Right.” The monk blinked several times. “Yes. We. It’s usually the first thing that we say before we start the burning.”
“I don’t understand,” the nun continued. “How in the world did you find yourself joining a monastery? Had all the other monks been killed off or something and they were desperate to fill their ranks?”
The monk smirked. “We’re not having this discussion again.”
“But you never give me a straight answer.”
“Isn’t it enough that I . . . you know . . . pray?”
“So you had no calling?” the nun bluntly asked. “No god whispered your name in the night or showed you a path?”
“The god that calls to me, Sister, is steel. And my path is death.” The monk smiled. “To be quite honest, I’ve never been happier.”
The princess looked back and forth between the two women before she announced, “And my sister yells at me every time I use the term ‘fanatic.ʼ”