1 Nourishing vipers

"NOOOO! Let me go! Don't touch me! DAMMIT! LET ME GO!", yelled a teenage girl, as three men in guard uniforms pulled her into a salon with gold-framed pictures all over the walls and two massive red couches in the middle. In one of them sat a tall man, sipping a glass of red wine and humming in a low tune, as if he was oblivious to the shouts behind his back.

At the exact moment when the girl discovered the man, she stopped struggling and her mouth and violet eyes both went wide. If one of the guards had not held her upright, she might have fallen down. All her strength left her and her knees wobbled.

"No.", she whispered. "Cousin? Why would you still want to see me?" Do you want to kill me as well, she thought fearfully.

The man didn't react at all, just swirling the wine in his glass and humming the tune to its end. He had murky brown eyes and thick brown hair with slightly curly tips. If not for being in this big salon and wearing a suit, he may not have looked like anyone special. But it was this unassuming man who sent shivers down Katherine's spine. She would have thought he'd look different, now that she knew his crimes, and yet, he did not.

When the man finished his tune and took another sip, she was shaking so hard that the guards had trouble holding her up, especially when her cousin looked at her with a seemingly harmless smile. "Kitty. Come here. Sit." He patted the couch beside him and waved the guards away, who immediately let go of her and left the room.

On her own, she swayed before finding her balance again, the shivers subsiding as determination set in her eyes. Right, why should she be afraid of him? Did she have anything left to lose? Merely a hollow body, everything else was gone. Besides, he had never laid a hand on her. Just on everything she loved.

Just yesterday, her parents had been executed for betraying the land they served for their whole life, and all the people in it. For murdering the King's daughter. Even if she knew they didn't do it, she couldn't do anything to stop it. And the culprit of it all was this man in front of her. Her very own cousin.

A week ago she'd decided that she didn't want to keep his secrets anymore. She was going to tell her parents and the whole world what he'd done, and this was the outcome. He'd made it look like all his deeds had been committed by her parents and they'd gone down like a millstone had been tied to their necks. Now nobody would believe her anymore if she told them that he was the one who'd arranged the murder of Princess Bellatrix. They wouldn't even go looking for the cabin in the forest where he hid the bunch of kids she wanted to save. The kids now had nobody to heal their wounds anymore. Most likely he had killed them all. She didn't ask, for she was too afraid he would say 'yes' without as much as batting an eyelid. Being betrayed by one's most trusted friend hurt terribly.

Seeing that she didn't have a choice as she was too weak compared to him, she slowly walked over to his side. Sat down. Waited for whatever he had in mind for her.

"You know, I should thank you, Kitty.", he said leisurely. "Without your warning I might have forgotten how troublesome parents could get. I hope, you aren't sad that I've solved this problem. I even got promoted: I am the new Duke of Sleipnir. Sound's fancy, doesn't it?"

Sitting beside him, Katherine was grinding her teeth. Duke of Sleipnir was the title of her father. It should have been given to her uncle after his death, but he was laying in the sickbed and babbling nonsense for four years already, poisoned by his own son. Or at least that was, what she suspected now. She'd put the clues together after knowing his real face. "Ethan, what do you want from me?"

Did he just call her to make fun of her? To tell her, it was her own fault? Yes, she shouldn't have shown her disgust, should have just complied and later told the public. But she hoped for him to change, to go back to being her nice big brother, her protector. Maybe he had always been rotten inside. Even when they were kids he liked to hurt people, to make them bleed. Everyone but her. He was as sweet to her as he was bad to all others, always treating her like someone precious. She could not deny that it had felt good. Like she was some kind of princess.

That was reason enough for her to help him time and time again to cover up the mess he made and use her special healing magic so that there wasn't a trace of injury to be found. With time his deeds got crueler and crueler until she couldn't understand him anymore. She wanted him to stop, but he didn't, and on the day that he bought the kids to the cabin, he told her that he would kill them if she let anything slip. At first, she didn't believe him, tried to argue. To no avail. Instead it gave him the time to switch every evidence around, so it would point at her poor parents.

The moment her parents were executed, she saw how he smiled. That was when she really started to fear him. He was a psychopath, one of the mindful kind, because even as a kid he had known that she was the only one who could disguise what he had done. He even let her promise to not tell anyone about her ability to heal. Not even her parents. So nobody would find out.

How stupid she had been. A dump society puppet, knowing nothing about the real world. Because he was five years older and treating her like a gem she had looked up to him. Not anymore. Now she knew what a monster he was.

"What do I want..." He smiled and it was the same smile as always, not an inch out of place. She hated it. A shame, there was no way to do anything to him. His body was as powerful as his magic and his mind was even more frightening. As the one who knew him best, she still felt like she knew nothing about what he could do. "Say, what would you think of marrying me?"

All color drained from her face. "Ma-marry?"

This is REALLY scary. He killed my parents and now he wants to – but he never showed any sign of liking me this way, she thought. This monster as my husband? Never ever! Her gaze turned hot with rage, trying to burn him inside-out. Silently, her trembling hands balled into fists. She searched for words to voice her repulsion, yet he was faster.

"As I thought. Now, it's decided then. You will marry the Earl of Hymirhall. With what you think about me, I would be an idiot to let you stay by my side. But even more of an idiot to bring you anywhere where you could hinder my plans. So, Hymirhall it is. Most likely I can reap some benefits from this."

"Hy-Hymirhall?! That's in the Iceland!" Shock painted her features, overwriting the rage.

He didn't even flinch. "So what? What did you think I would kill the princess for? Pure fun?"

"No! But they are the enemy!" The enemy of their whole nation, to be precise. They were in a cold war for generations already.

"Not my enemy. In fact, they have come quite handy for some of my plans, especially the Earl of Hymirhall. I need him. Besides, he is quite young and handsome himself. I wouldn't gift my only sane relative to just anyone. Kitty, you know I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. I still need your skills."

And that is the real reason, Katherine thought cynically. I should have expected his marriage proposal earlier. With that, he could always have me in the palm of his hand. But why then didn't he make it real? As the only officially 'sane' man in the family he could have decided it for her without any interception. Why? Just why? It hurt, because it looked like he really considered her feelings. Which he would never do. All he had done up till now was for his own good. She wouldn't fall for it anymore.

"Of course. And what do you need my skills for in Hymirhall?", she asked, her tone cold. She would do all she could to work against his plans. Or even better: get out of his sight and flee. She wouldn't do a thing of what he wanted anymore.

He looked a bit surprised that she had figured it out. Then he smiled. It should have been warm and comforting, but it just made her shudder with disgust. "That, you will see when you are there, little cousin. The Earl will be very grateful to have someone like you. He won't ever let you run away. Have a good night of sleep, Kitty. The carriage will be waiting tomorrow morning."

He wanted to kiss her forehead like he always did, but she shoved him away and ran out of the room, his laughter in her ear making her want to cry. Nonetheless she halted before long. Her small back facing him with balled fists she inquired: "What about the kids?" She didn't have the courage to ask up until now, but she needed to know for sure before he sent her away. Needed to extinguish all hope or it would just hurt even more later on.

His voice was nonchalant. "What about them? I said they will be dead if you speak. So they are."

Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. Eight kids, none older than twelve. She was the one who killed them, even if it was by trying to save them. She was responsible. Nobody else knew about them, since they were just thieves and orphans. He had held them as experimental subjects for his magic. Dead. All dead. Maybe she would be the only one who remembered their names...

Swaying two steps to the side she tumbled to the floor just out of his sight and cried without as much as making a sound. She didn't want him to hear, didn't want this monster to realize how much he could hurt her even now. Her closest friend had become her mortal enemy. He was the nightmare that haunted her and still he seemed so much like that little boy, who bought her candy and hugged her to sleep in stormy nights.

A while later, one of his guards helped her to her feet and back to her room. She knew they wouldn't reveal her breakdown, because of the simple fact that they couldn't speak at all. First thing Ethan did to his guards was cutting their tongues out. Whoever didn't try to leave after that, Ethan deemed desperate enough that they would do all he asked of them. Of course, that didn't mean he trusted them. How could it? Obviously, he never knew trust at all.

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