The paths up to the mountains were empty. She could be out of the country by daybreak if she hurried.
“You should just go. Don’t even look back.”
She turned away from the window next to the doors and saw the Shinalilt armsman. Kaim.
“You,” she said.
He was wearing a forest-green longcoat and a silver sash in the same style as the other men at the ball, only adapted for the wings on his back. Like the other men he also had a sword at his hip. She glanced down the hall to see if her guard was within sight. No. She must have lost her somehow. She looked back to Kaim.
He took a few steps closer then leaned against the wall across from her.
She relaxed. He didn’t look like he was going to attack.
“Didn’t Prince Tavarin send you to guard the borders?” she asked.
He looked out the window on his side, then back.
“I volunteered. My unit is just here for training.”
What was he after?
“You’re very impressive in the air.”
So she’d already worked with his unit at least once without knowing it.
“Is it frustrating missing all the time?”
Ember looked at his face. He had a polite expression but his eyes were cold.
“You’d rather I not?”
“No. Of course not. I just imagine you might miss not being able to set us humans on fire whenever you feel like it. It’s sort of a thing with your kind.”
Ember stood up straighter.
“We usually only burn rebels.”
“So you have. Burned us.”
Ember winced, remembering several instances. Kaim smiled.
“What for? Not paying taxes? Not worshipping Nk’drak’sil? Not volunteering daughters and sons to be slaughtered on the altars? Or eaten?”
What was his goal? What did he want from her?
Ember turned away and looked out the window again.
“We didn’t run the altars like the empire. Animal sacrifices, mostly. My mother wasn’t a very strict follower of the elder gods.”
“But you have eaten our flesh. Your family kept that tradition yearly.”
“Did it taste good? Did we taste good?”
Ember snarled and shot a glare at him.
“What’s it to you, human? Are you wondering if you look like food to me?”
He met her gaze for a long moment, then turned away, stretched out one of his wings against the wall behind him and studied the feathers.
“I don’t care if you think I’m food. But I do wonder if my little cousin Nanli ever looks like a snack to you when she’s playing in front of your fangs.”
Ember pictured Nanli playing in front of her on the clifftops. So small, so unaware. Like a little rabbit.
“Tell me you don’t ever wonder what she would taste like.”
Ember’s stomach twisted. The man snapped his wing back in.
“Of course you do. When you’re like that she’s just prey to you, isn’t she? We’re all just prey. Tell me you don’t ever think about aiming lower during those mock battles. Tell me you don’t ever want to take over.”
Ember was shaking, and not sure why. Why was he doing this?
She stared at him, but he continued to ignore her, now looking out the window again.
“I’ve read the histories, Princess Rehksskarri. Garagrans always turn on humans eventually. Something about ruling people being your only way to escape dying. Isn’t that right? Or was it that you have to cause a certain amount of death and destruction every year or your god takes away your power?”
“Trying to take over your country would be suicide.”
“Exactly.” He met her gaze again, and now his eyes were hot. Blazing. “That’s why you should leave. One of you will never be happy here, ruled by humans, trying to live like humans. Doesn’t it rankle every time one of our Generals tells you what to do? Every time you get the urge to squash someone for demanding something of you and remember that you can’t? That we can kill you?”
Ember retreated from that gaze until her back was against the wall next to the door.
“What are you so afraid of?” she asked. “Do you think I’ll go crazy all of a sudden?”
“Maybe. Maybe I do think you’ll go crazy. While you’re surrounded by my family, in the heart of my country. Or maybe I think you’ll pick your time with care, and betray us to your own kind when they come. Or, maybe, I just don’t want to see something that worships pure evil living here.”
“I do not…”
“Tell me you haven’t drunk the blood and made the oaths? You can’t. Your mother may not have cared much for the priests, but she was very proud of her heritage, and the line of Rehksskarri has always been sworn directly to Nk’drak’sil, the Giver of Power. It’s a tradition in your family, isn’t it?”
“How do you know that?!”
She stared at him. She had read the file the Tavarins had on her, and it didn’t go nearly that deep on her heritage.
“You’d be amazed at some of the information my ancestors have gathered over the millennia. I just had more interest than the person who wrote the file on Tenkreille. But that’s beside the point. You don’t belong here in this place of peace. The people here love each other, and teach their children to love each other. The only thing you love is yourself, just like your god teaches, Princess ‘Path of Destruction’. It’s what you’re sworn to, and born to, and one of your kind will sooner die than give that up.”
He pushed off wall and took two steps toward her.
“I say again: You should just go. You won’t find anything here but death of one kind or another.”
He turned away and strode up the hall, back into the castle.
She watched him until he was gone, then looked back out the window.
He was right. Draksl, he was right. If she stayed here she was going to die, just as surely as if she was caught by the Empire beyond the mountains.
At least beyond the mountains there was a chance she might get away. And if she died, it would be as what she was.
She thought of Antan, forgiveness in his eyes as he turned to ash on her breath and blew away.
Kaim was right. She didn’t belong in this place of peace, with these people who loved her. She was a monster, and always would be.
She opened the door and ran into the night.