Anjen was brooding on the walls when gentle hands drew her coat more tightly around her; Anjen nearly fell off the wall. Of course it was Robben, a warm presence at her elbow. “Mistress Anjen?”
The sword bumped against her leg every time she moved. She couldn’t understand how Summer put up with it, it was a huge clumsy thing. “Yes?”
“You’re not afraid.” He made it a question at first, then forced a smile. “Burned God, of course you’re not. What would ever scare you?”
She couldn’t understand him sometimes. Did she look like she had ice instead of blood, like she was some inhuman thing that felt no fear, like she was the bloody Winter Queen?
She reached into the warmth trapped inside her coat and pulled out her bottle. Robben made a disapproving face. She ignored him and drank deep; the liquid coursed hot and fierce down her throat, lighting a trail of fire down into her belly. There. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
Of course he wanted her to be the Winter Queen. That was what he needed from her: coldness in the face of danger. She couldn’t allow him to see her hands shaking on the bottle. Probably shouldn’t let him see her drinking at all.
She aimed the bottle at him. “You know why we could never, ever be together?”
Robben flinched. A dark part of her liked that.
“Because you’re weak.” Anjen spaced each word out deliberately. “You jump at every shadow, and you thin everyone must be scared like you.” She drank again. It gave her such a rush, like she could bring anyone down. “But you know who isn’t and has never been scared?” She leaned in until the sword hilt dug painfully into her hip, holding his eyes. “Me. I’m the goddamn Winter Queen. I kill everyone who crosses me, I invade countries, I come back from the dead. So don’t you think that you can taint me with your fear, that you can crack this mask, because it’s not a fucking mask. It’s real. I’m real. And I’m not afraid.”
Robben looked painfully small.
“I’m going to win this.” Anjen made it a promise. “It won’t be pretty. But I will. Not. Lose. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Robben said in a tiny voice. “Your Majesty.”
That had a sweet sound to it. Like she was something greater and more terrible than just a woman getting old. “Get back to your post.”