“Some say the Queen was frightened in her last moments. But I like to think that she was angry.”
—The Word of the Prophet
The queen stopped screaming just after midnight.
Simon had been hiding in her closet, fingers jammed into his ears to block out the noise. For hours, he had crouched there, knees drawn to chest, head bowed.
Now, there was silence. Simon held his breath and measured the seconds, like counting after a lightning strike until the thunder rolls: Is the storm fading, or is it coming closer?
One. Two. Three.
He reached twenty and dared to lower his hands.
A baby cried out into the silence. Simon grinned and scrambled to his feet, a wave of relief crashing through him.
The queen’s child was born—finally. Now he and his father could flee this city and never look back.
Simon pushed past the queen’s gowns and stumbled out into her bedroom.
“Father?” he asked, breathless.
Garver Randell, Simon’s father, turned to face him, his eyes weary but his smile broad. And behind him lay Queen Rielle, her wild, dark hair plastered to her pale skin, her bedsheets and white nightgown stained red. She held a fussing bundle in her arms.
Simon crept closer to the bed in wonder, even as the sight of the queen made angry heat bloom in his chest. His kingdom’s new princess was a small thing—scrunched red face, skin slightly darker than her mother’s, wide brown eyes, a mop of wet black hair.
The baby looked very much like her late father.
Rielle stared at the child, then gazed up at Simon’s father in bewilderment.
“I thought I would kill her,” said the queen. She laughed, wiping her face with shaking fingers. “I dreamed I would. And yet here she is after all.” She fumbled to adjust the baby in her arms. She didn’t seem to be very good at holding babies.
It was strange to see the queen like this—small in her nest of pillows, looking hardly more than a girl though she was twenty years old. This queen who had allied with the angels and helped them kill thousands of humans.
This queen who had murdered her husband.
“Audric would have loved her,” Rielle whispered, her face crumpling.
Simon’s small fists clenched at his sides. How dare she talk about King Audric when she was the one who had killed him?
He had learned only a few things about the night the capital fell. King Audric had fought Queen Rielle on the broad veranda attached to the castle’s fourth floor. The king’s sword had blazed with the light of the sun, his diamond- and mirror-studded armor shining brighter than the stars.
But not even King Audric the Lightbringer, the most powerful sunspinner in centuries, had been strong enough to defeat Queen Rielle.
The queen had carved a sword out of the air, a blinding weapon forged from the empirium itself. Rielle and Audric had fought blade to blade, but the fight had been brief.
And when Rielle plunged her glowing hand into Audric’s chest to tear out his heart, there had been nothing but bloodlust in her eyes as she watched her husband fall to ashes at her feet.
Simon wasn’t a violent child, but all the same, he thought that if he looked at the queen for one more second, he might strike her.
So he uttered the Sun Queen’s prayer in Audric’s honor—May the Queen’s light guide him home—and turned to his father instead.
Simon rushed to his side. “Father? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Garver clutched his head, his body jerking. “He knows, God help us, he knows,” he moaned, and when he looked up, it was with eyes gone gray and cloudy.
Simon’s heart sank to his feet. He knew those eyes, and what they meant.
An angel had found its way inside his father’s mind at last.
“Father, listen to me! I’m right here!” Simon grabbed his father’s arm. “Let’s go. We can leave now! Please, hurry!”
Simon heard the queen behind him, singing softly to herself: “This is how you hold your child. This is how you murder your husband.” Her laughter was thick with tears.
Simon’s growing dread turned his body to stone.
Corien knew—that his father was a marque, and Simon was too. Neither angel nor human, but with the blood of both inside them.
Suddenly, the markings hidden on Simon’s back beneath his tunic felt like flares that would alert everyone in the conquered city to where he was hiding. For years, he and his father had lived secretly in Celdaria’s capital, concealing their marked backs and their forbidden magic. They had been healers, honest and hard-working, sought out by commoners and temple magisters and even the royal family.
And now…now, Corien knew.
Simon shoved his father toward the door. “Father, move, please!”
Garver choked out, “Get away from me! He’ll find you!” He seized Simon by the collar and shoved him away.
Simon’s head smacked against the queen’s four-poster bed, and he slumped to the floor, dazed. He watched his father turn, laugh a little, clutch his head. He watched him mutter angry, foreign words in a voice that was half his and half Coriens and then run, limping, to the terrace window.
Then, with a strangled cry, Garver Randell threw himself off the queen’s tower.
Simon lurched up, grabbed the bed-curtains for support, stumbled forward, and fell. Head throbbing, fighting back the urge to be sick, he crawled across the floor to the terrace. At the railing, the mountain wind slapping his cheeks, he couldn’t bear to look down. He pressed his face against the cool stone, wrapped his arms around two posts. Someone or something was making an awful choking noise.
He realized, then, that the awful noise was coming from him.
He jumped to his feet, rounding on Queen Rielle.
“You did this,” he cried. “You killed us all! You’re a monster! You’re evil!”
He tried to say more: She had betrayed everyone in the kingdom of Celdaria, everyone in the world. She was supposed to be the Sun Queen, their savior and protector. And yet she had become the Blood Queen. The Kingsbane. The Lady of Death.
But Simon’s tears blocked his voice. The wind whipping down along the mountainsides carved shivers from his skin. His small body heaved; he could hardly breathe.
He folded his arms tightly around himself, squeezing his eyes shut as the world tilted. He could not stop seeing the image of his father running out onto the terrace and flinging himself over the railing.
“Father,” he whispered, “come back, please.”
The queen settled gingerly on the settee across from him, her baby still in her arms. Her feet were bare and bloody, her nightgown soaked through with sweat.
“You’re right, you know,” said Rielle. “I did do this.”
“I think,” Rielle continued slowly, “that he will kill her.”
Simon sniffed, wiped his mouth. His teeth chattered; he could not stop crying. “What do you mean?”
Rielle turned to look at him, her lips chapped and cracked. Once, Simon remembered, he had thought the queen beautiful.
Simon bit out, “He should kill you instead.”
Rielle laughed at that—and kept laughing hysterically. Simon could only stare at her in rage and horror until she brought her child to her face, nuzzled her cheek against its own. The baby cooed and sighed.
“This is how,” Rielle whispered, “you hold your child.” She made a soft, sad noise. “Audric would have loved her.”
Then the queen’s face contorted, and she cried out in pain. She clutched her baby to her stomach and doubled over, gasping.
The stone shuddered beneath Simon’s feet. The walls of the queen’s rooms shifted in and out, like they were breathing along with her.
Rielle’s skin glowed, changing, and for a terrible moment, Simon thought he could see through her flesh to the blood and bone beneath—and to the light beneath even that. She was outlined in shimmering flecks of gold, a luminous creature of sparks and embers.
Then the light faded, and Rielle was dim and human once more.
Simon’s blood roared with fear. “What was that?”
“It won’t be long now.” Rielle turned her glittering gaze up to him, and Simon recoiled. The skin around her eyes was dark and thin. “I can’t hold myself together for much longer.”
“Do you mean…you’re dying?”
“I’ve tried so hard for so long,” Rielle muttered, and then she screamed once more, went rigid. Blazing bolts of light shot out from her fingers and streaked into the night, arcing over the dark city. The light left behind charred streaks, jagged across the terrace floor.
Rielle looked up, her face slick with sweat. Light moved in shimmering waves beneath her skin. Simon could not look away; she was at once the loveliest and most terrifying thing he had ever seen.
“Are you…hurting?” Simon asked.
Rielle laughed, a surprised little gasp. “I’m always hurting.”
“Good,” Simon replied, but not without a twinge of shame in his chest. She was a monster, yes, but a barefoot, exhausted monster with a child held tenderly in her arms.
The queen, his father had always told him whenever Simon stewed in his hatred, was once just a girl. Remember that. Remember her.
Then Rielle went very still.
“Oh, God,” she whispered. “He’s coming.”
Simon backed away, alarm ringing in his ears. “Corien?”
Rielle used the wall to pull herself up, her shifting face tight with pain. “I cannot allow him to find you. Garver hid you well, but if he realizes you’re here now and what you are…”
Simon touched his back, as if that could hide the markings there. “You…you know about us?”
Rielle’s face flickered with something Simon couldn’t read. “A friend told me. Just in case…well. In case I needed to know.”
“I don’t understand—”
And with that, Rielle pressed her daughter into Simon’s arms and hurried back into her rooms.
Simon stared down at the baby. Her dark, serious eyes locked onto his face as if he were the most interesting thing in the world. Despite his aching head and the horrible hollow pain in his gut, Simon allowed her a small smile.
“Hello,” he said and touched her cheek. “I’m Simon.”
“Here, take this.” Rielle reappeared, holding in her hand a necklace—a flat, gold pendant with a winged horse in flight carved onto its surface. On the horse sat a woman with streaming dark hair and a sword raised victoriously. Rays of sunlight fanned out behind her.
It was an image that had taken over Celdaria during the last two years, since the Church had declared Rielle to be the foretold Sun Queen.
How they had all loved her, once.
As the queen tucked the necklace into her baby’s blanket, Simon watched her quietly. “Are you sorry for what you did?”
“Would it make you feel better if I was?”
Simon had no answer.
The queen kissed her daughter’s brow. “He won’t have you,” she whispered. “Not you, my precious one.”
Then she turned to Simon and, before he could protest, brushed aside his ash-blond hair and pressed a kiss to his forehead. His skin smarted where her lips had touched; tears gathered behind his eyes. He felt like he stood on the edge of a swaying cliff, like a terrible thing was about to happen and he could do nothing to stop it.
“Go to Borsvall,” Rielle told him. “Find King Ilmaire and Commander Ingrid. Show them this necklace. They’ll hide you.”
The doors to Rielle’s outer rooms slammed open.
“Rielle?” Corien roared.
Rielle cupped Simon’s cheek and met his eyes. “Whatever happens, don’t let him see you.”
As she turned to go, Simon grabbed Rielle’s hand. Without her, he would be alone with this child, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to hide his face in Rielle’s arms. Monster or no, she was now a parent, and that was a thing he craved more than anything.
“Please don’t go,” he whispered.
She gave him a tight smile. “You’re strong, Simon. I know you can do this.”
Then she hurried back inside and met Corien in the middle of her bedroom.
“Where is it?” came Corien’s voice, low and dangerous.
Simon shifted slightly, peeking through a small sliver between the terrace curtains. His heart jumped in fear to see the leader of the angels—a beautiful man, pale and chiseled, hair gleaming black, lips full and cruel.
“She,” Rielle corrected him. “I have a daughter.”
Corien’s gaze was deadly still. “And where is she?”
“I’ve sent her far away. With someone so powerful you’ll never find her.”
Simon’s heart lifted. Was someone coming to help them?
“You can try and find the truth,” said Rielle, “but you’ll soon discover you’re no longer welcome inside me.”
With a snarl, Corien struck her hard across the mouth. Rielle stumbled, her lip bloodied, and Simon’s gaze found hers. Her flaming-gold eyes were hard, triumphant. There was a strength on her tired face that he’d never seen before.
You’re strong, Simon. You can do this.
And suddenly Simon understood: no one was coming to help them.
He was the powerful someone.
And it was up to him alone to save the princess.
He would have to use his magic—his half-blood marque magic, the traveling magic that had doomed nearly all of his kind—to send them both hundreds of miles away, to Borsvall and to safety.
Rielle turned back to Corien.
“You shouldn’t get so angry,” she told him. “You make mistakes when you’re angry. If you hadn’t been so blinded with it, you’d have stayed with me, grabbed her the moment she was born, and slit her throat right then and there.”
Corien smiled coldly at her. “You might have killed me for that.”
The queen shrugged. “Perhaps I’ll kill you now anyway.”
Simon turned away, his chest tight with fear. How could he possibly do this? He was only eight years old. He had read his traveling books over and over, of course, but he still didn’t understand everything inside them. And from what his father had taught him about the old days, before the marques were hunted down by both humans and angels, most of their kind didn’t attempt traveling until adulthood.
You can do this, Simon, came a voice. A woman’s voice—but not the queen’s. Familiar, but…
He whirled, searching the darkness, and found no one.
You must do it, said the voice. You and the child, Simon, are the only ones who can save us. Quickly, now. Before he discovers you. Your father hid you well, but I can’t protect you any longer.
A thick, fleshy sound came from inside the queen’s bedroom. Glass crashed to the floor. The queen cried out, and Corien muttered something hateful.
The castle groaned. The wall against which Simon hid rumbled like something deep underground was awakening. A hot burst of air erupted from inside the bedroom, shattering the windows. Simon ducked low over the baby. She squirmed against his chest with a muted, angry cry.
“Hush, please,” Simon whispered. The air vibrated around him; the terrace rocked beneath his feet. Sweat rolled down his back. A thrumming bright light from within the bedroom swelled, growing ever more brilliant.
He closed his eyes, tried to forget the strange woman’s voice and concentrate. He searched his mind for the words in his forbidden books, now abandoned beneath the floorboards of his father’s shop:
The empirium lies within every living thing, and every living thing is of the empirium.
Its power connects not only flesh to bone, root to earth, stars to sky, but also road to road, city to city.
Moment to moment.
Only marques, Simon knew, had this mighty gift. The gift of traveling. The ability to cross vast distances in an instant and walk through time as easily as others walk down the road.
Simon had often fantasized about what it would be like to travel back to the time before the Gate was made—before the old wars, when angels still walked the earth and dragons darkened the skies.
But he couldn’t think about time, not just then. Time was a dangerous, slippery thing. He must think only about distance: Celdaria to Borsvall.
“No, Rielle!” Corien was screaming. “No! Don’t do this!”
Simon looked back inside to see Queen Rielle on her knees with her face turned to the sky, struggling to stay upright as a brilliant shell of light swelled around her. Corien pounded on the light, burning his fists, but he couldn’t touch her. He clawed and shouted, cursed at her, pleaded with her.
But all his screams were no use. Rielle’s body was unfurling in long streams of light, her skin flaking away like ash on the wind.
Simon turned away and whispered to the princess, “Don’t worry, I won’t let go. I’ve got you.”
He closed his eyes, bit his lip, ignored the desperate shouts of Corien and the queen’s blinding light. He directed his mind northeast, toward Borsvall. As his books had instructed, he guided his breath along every line of his body, every sinew, every bone.
His eyes snapped open.
Twisting strands of light, thin and smoky, floated through the air before him.
Heart racing, Simon held the princess close with one arm and reached out with the other. He listened to his blood, for it knew the way just as it knew to step, to swallow, to breathe. He felt through the night for the correct threads of here and there. Somewhere before him lay a road, hidden to his eyes but known, unquestionably, by the power that thrummed in his veins, and if he could just find the right thread, tug it free, lay it out before his feet like a winding carpet—
A single thread, brighter than the others, danced at his fingertips.
Simon hardly dared to reach for it. If he moved too slowly or too quickly, if his mind wandered, the thread could slip away from him.
Behind him, the queen screamed at Corien, her voice thick with fury: “I am no longer yours!”
There was no time for doubt. Simon reached for the brightest thread, cautiously guided it around his fingers like a lock of shining hair.
Take a moment, his books had said, to get to know your thread. The more familiar you are with it, the more likely it is to take you where you want to go.
As Simon stared at the thread hovering in his hand, others brightened and drifted closer, pulled by the force of his concentration.
Though they scorched the tender skin of his palms, he gathered up the threads in his hands, guiding them through the chill night air. Soon he had maneuvered the threads into a quivering ring, and past the ring stretched a passage into darkness.
The first thread, the brightest, crept to Simon’s chest and clung there like a briar, tugging him gently forward.
Simon felt silly about it but thought to the thread nevertheless, Hello.
The pressure of its touch lightened.
Simon saw faint shapes through the shifting, sharpening passage: A winding path of black stone, a tall, narrow gate. Ice-capped mountains. Soldiers pointing in awe, shouting in the harsh Borsvallic tongue.
Every muscle in Simon’s young body snapped rigid. With each breath, the world dimmed. And yet laughter bubbled up inside him even so. He could not imagine ever being happier. It was not easy, this power, but it was right, and it was his.
Corien’s frantic screams were hoarse with anguish.
Simon swallowed hard, fear crowding him like a swarm of insects.
A great, sudden stillness swallowed away all sound—the infant’s cries, the humming threads. The world fell silent.
Simon looked back just as a column of light shot up from the queen’s bedroom and into the night, turning the sky white as the dawn. Simon hid his face, bowing his head over the infant in his arms. His traveling hand shook as he worked. An instant later, the silence erupted into a shattering boom that shook the mountains and nearly knocked Simon off his feet.
The castle pitched beneath him. The air popped with the smell of fire. One of the mountains surrounding the capital collapsed, followed by another—and another.
Hold on to her, said the woman’s voice once more, high and clear in his mind. Don’t ever let her go.
The threads were slipping in the grip of Simon’s thoughts. He felt stretched between where his feet stood and where the thread at his chest tugged.
Go, Simon! the woman’s voice cried. Now!
The last things Simon knew came at him slowly:
A bright wall of fire rushing at him from all sides, crackling like a thousand storms. The air shifting around him as he stepped through the threads’ passage, like cold water sliding over his skin. The princess screaming in his arms.
The sight of the Borsvall mountains fading.
The thread attached to his heart changing. Twisting.
Breaking, with a snap like thunder.
A force slamming into him, snatching him forward by his bones.
The baby being ripped from his arms, no matter how hard he tried to hold on to her.
A piece of fabric, ripping in his hands.
And then, nothing.
“Lord Commander Dardenne came to me in the middle of the night, his daughter in his arms. They smelled of fire; their clothes were singed. He could hardly speak. I had never seen the man afraid before. He thrust Rielle into my arms and said, ‘Help us. Help her. Don’t let them take her from me.’”
—Testimony of Grand Magister Taliesin Belounnon, on Lady Rielle Dardenne’s involvement in the Boon Chase massacre
April 29, Year 998 of the Second Age
April 29, Year 998 of the Second Age
TWO YEARS EARLIER
Rielle Dardenne hurried into Tal’s office and dropped the sparrow’s message onto his desk.
“Princess Runa is dead,” she announced.
She wouldn’t describe her mood as excited exactly, but her own kingdom, Celdaria, and their northeastern neighbor, Borsvall, had lived in a state of tension for so many decades that it was hardly noteworthy when, say, a Celdarian merchant ship sank off Borsvall’s coast or patrols came to blows near the border.
But a murdered Borsvall princess? That was news. And Rielle wanted to dissect every piece of it.
Tal let out a sigh, set down his pen, and dragged his ink-smudged hands through his messy blond hair. The polished golden flame pinned to his lapel winked in the sunlight.
“Perhaps,” Tal suggested, turning a look on Rielle that was not quite disapproval and not quite amusement, “you should consider looking less thrilled about a princess’s murder?”
She slid into the chair across from him. “I’m not happy about it or anything. I’m simply intrigued.” Rielle pulled the slip of paper back across the desk and read over the inked words once more. “So you do think it was assassination? Audric thinks so.”
“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid today, Rielle.”
She smiled sweetly at him. “When have I ever done anything stupid?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “The city guard is on high alert. I want you here, safe in the temple, in case anything happens.” He took the message from her, scanning its contents. “How did you get this, anyway? No, wait. I know. Audric gave it to you.”
Rielle stiffened. “Audric keeps me informed. He’s a good friend. Where’s the harm in that?”
Tal didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to.
“If you have something to say to me,” she snapped, color climbing up her cheeks, “then just say it. Or else let’s begin our lesson.”
Tal watched her a moment longer, then turned to pick up four enormous books sitting on the shelf behind him.
“Here,” he said, ignoring the mutinous expression on her face. “I’ve marked some passages for you to read. Today will be devoted to quiet study. And I’ll test you later, so don’t even think about skimming.”
Rielle narrowed her eyes at the book on the top of the stack. “A Concise History of the Second Age, Volume I: The Aftermath of the Angelic Wars.” She made a face. “This hardly looks concise.”
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said, returning to the papers on his desk.
Rielle’s favorite place in Tal’s office was the window seat overlooking the main temple courtyard. It was piled high with scarlet cushions lined in gold piping, and when she sat there, dangling her legs out into the sun, she could almost forget that there was an enormous world beyond the temple and her city—a world she would never see.
She settled by the window, kicked off her boots, hiked up her heavy lace-trimmed skirts, and rested her bare feet on the sill. The spring sunlight washed her legs in warmth, and soon she was thinking of how Audric blossomed on bright, sun-filled days like this one. How his skin seemed to glow and crackle, begging to be touched.
Tal cleared his throat, breaking her focus.
Tal knew her far too well.
She cracked open A Concise History, took one look at the tiny, faded text, and imagined tossing the book out the window and into the temple courtyard, where citizens were filing in for morning prayers—to pray that the riders they had wagered upon in today’s race would win, no doubt. Every temple in the capital would be full of such eager souls, not just there in the Pyre—Tal’s temple, where citizens worshipped Saint Marzana the firebrand—but in the House of Light and the House of Night as well and the Baths and the Firmament, the Forge and the Holdfast. Whispered prayers in all seven temples, to all seven saints and their elements.
Wasted prayers, thought Rielle with a slight, sharp thrill. The other racers will look like children on ponies compared to me.
She flipped through a few pages, biting the inside of her lip until she felt calm enough to speak. “I’ve heard many in the Borsvall court are blaming Celdaria for Runa’s death. We wouldn’t do such a thing, would we?”
Tal’s pen scratched across his paper. “Certainly not.”
“But it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, does it? If King Hallvard’s councils convince him that we killed his daughter, he will declare war at last.”
Tal dropped his pen with a huff of annoyance. “I’m not going to get any work done today, am I?”
Rielle swallowed her grin. If only you knew how true that is, dearest Tal.
“I’m sorry if I have questions about the political climate of our country,” she said. “Does that fall under the category of things we’re not allowed to discuss, lest my poor vulnerable brain shatter from the stress?”
A smile twitched at the corner of Tal’s mouth. “Borsvall might declare war, yes.”
“You don’t seem concerned about this possibility.”
“I find it unlikely. We’ve been on the edge of war with Borsvall for decades, and yet it has never happened. And it will never happen, because the Borsvall people may be warmongers, but King Hallvard is neither healthy nor stupid. We would flatten his army. He can’t afford a war with anyone, much less with Celdaria.”
“Audric said…” Rielle hesitated. A twist of unease slipped down her throat. “Audric said he thinks Princess Runa’s death, and the slave rebellion in Kirvaya, means it’s time. That the Queens are coming.”
Silence fell over the room like a shroud.
“Audric has always been fascinated with the prophecy,” Tal said, his voice deceptively calm. “He’s been looking for signs of the Queens’ coming for years.”
“He sounds rather convinced this time.”
“A slave rebellion and a dead princess are hardly enough to—”
“But I heard Grand Magister Duval talking about how there have been storms across the ocean in Meridian,” she pressed on, searching his face. “Even as far as Ventera and Astavar. Strange storms, out of season.”
Tal blinked. Ah, thought Rielle. You didn’t know that, did you?
“Storms do occur out of season from time to time,” Tal said. “The empirium works in mysterious ways.”
Rielle curled her fingers in her skirts, taking comfort in the fact that soon she would be in her riding trousers and boots, her collar open to the breeze.
She would be on the starting line.
“The report I read,” she continued, “said that a dust storm in southern Meridian had shut down the entire port of Morsia for days.”
“Audric needs to stop showing you every report that comes across his desk.”
“Audric didn’t show me anything. I found this one myself.”
Tal raised an eyebrow. “You mean you snuck into his office when he wasn’t there and went through his papers.”
Rielle’s cheeks grew hot. “I was looking for a book I’d left behind.”
“Indeed. And what would Audric say if he knew you’d been in his office without his permission?”
“He wouldn’t care. I’m free to come and go as I please.”
Tal closed his eyes. “Lady Rielle, you can’t just visit the crown prince’s private rooms day and night as though it’s nothing. You’re not children anymore. And you are not his fiancée.”
Rielle lost her breath for an instant. “I’m well aware of that.”
Tal waved a hand and rose from his chair, effectively ending all talk of the prophecy and its Queens.
“The city is crowded today—and unpredictable,” he said, walking across the room to pour himself another cup of tea. “Word is spreading about Princess Runa’s death. In such a climate, the empirium can behave in similarly unpredictable ways. Perhaps we should begin a round of prayers to steady our minds. Amid the chaos of the world, the burning flame serves as an anchor, binding us in peace to the empirium and to God.”
He sighed, took a sip of his tea. “I am old. And grumpy, thanks to you.”
“Thirty-two is hardly old, especially to already be Grand Magister of the Pyre.” She paused. She would need to proceed carefully. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were appointed as the next Archon. Surely, with someone as talented as you beside me, I could safely watch the Chase from your box—”
“Don’t try to flatter me, Lady Rielle.” His eyes sparked at her. There was the Tal she liked—the ferocious firebrand, not the pious teacher. “It isn’t safe for you out there right now, not to mention dangerous for everyone else if something set you off and you lost control.”
Rielle slammed shut A Concise History and rose from the window seat. “Damn you, Tal.”
“I’m not a child. Do you really think I don’t know better by now?” Her voice turned mocking. “‘Rielle, let’s say a prayer together to calm you.’ ‘Rielle, let’s sing a song about Saint Katell the Magnificent to take your mind off things.’ ‘No, Rielle, you can’t go to the masque. You might forget yourself. You might have fun, God forbid.’ If Father had his way, I’d stay locked up for the rest of my life with my nose buried in a book or on my knees in prayer, whipping myself every time I had a stray angry thought. Is that the kind of life you would like for me too?”
Tal watched her, unmoved. “If it meant you were safe and that others were safe as well? Yes, I would.”
“Kept under lock and key like some criminal.” A familiar, frustrated feeling rose within her; she pushed it back down with a vengeance. She would not lose control, not today of all days.
“Do you know,” she said, her voice falsely bright, “that when it storms, Father takes me down to the servants’ quarters and gives me dumbwort? It puts me to sleep, and he locks me up and leaves me there.”
After a pause, Tal answered, “Yes.”
“I used to fight him. He would hold me down and slap me, pinch my nose shut until I couldn’t breathe and had to open my mouth. Then he would shove the vial between my lips and make me drink, and I would spit it up, but he would keep forcing me to drink, whispering to me everything I’d ever done wrong, and right in the middle of yelling how much I hated him, I would fall asleep. And when I would wake up, the storm would be over.”
A longer pause. “Yes,” Tal answered softly. “I know.”
“He thinks storms are too provocative for me. They give me ideas, he says.”
Tal cleared his throat. “That was my fault.”
“But the medicine, that was his suggestion.”
She gave him a withering look. “And did you try to talk him out of it?”
He did not answer, and the patience on his face left her seething.
“I don’t fight him anymore,” she said. “I hear a crack of thunder and go below without him even asking me to. How pathetic I’ve become.”
“Rielle…” Tal sighed, shook his head. “Everything I could say to you, I’ve said before.”
She approached him, letting the loneliness she typically hid from him—from everyone—soften her face. Come, good Magister Belounnon. Pity your sweet Rielle. He broke first, looking away from her. Something like sorrow shifted across his face, and his jaw tightened.
“He’d let me sleep through life if he could,” she said.
“He loves you, Rielle. He worries for you.”
Heat snapped at Rielle’s fingertips, growing along with her anger. With a stubborn stab of fury, she let it come. She knew she shouldn’t, that an outburst would only make it more difficult to sneak away, but suddenly she could not bring herself to care.
He loves you, Rielle.
A father who loved his daughter would not make her his prisoner.
She seized one of the candles from Tal’s desk and watched with grim satisfaction as the wick burst into a spitting, unruly flame. As she stared at it, she imagined her fury as a flooding river, steadily spilling over its banks and feeding the flame in her hands.
The flame grew—the size of a pen, a dagger, a sword. Then every candle followed suit, a forest of fiery blades.
Tal rose from his desk and picked up the handsome polished shield from its stand in the corner of the room. Every elemental who had ever lived—every waterworker and windsinger, every shadowcaster and every firebrand like Tal—had to use a casting, a physical object uniquely forged by their own hands, to access their power. Their singular power, the one element they could control.
But not Rielle.
She needed no casting, and fire was not the only element that obeyed her.
All of them did.
Tal stood behind her, one hand holding his shield, the other hand resting gently on her own. As a child, back when she had still thought she loved Tal, such touches had thrilled her.
Now she seriously considered punching him.
“In the name of Saint Marzana the Brilliant,” Tal murmured, “we offer this prayer to the flames, that the empirium might hear our plea and grant us strength: Fleet-footed fire, blaze not with fury or abandon. Burn steady and true, burn clean and burn bright.”
Rielle bit down on harsh words. How she hated praying. Every familiar word felt like a new bar being added to the cage her father and Tal had crafted for her.
The room began to shake—the inkwell on Tal’s desk, the panes of glass in the open window, Tal’s half-finished cup of tea.
“Rielle?” Tal prompted, shifting his shield. In his body behind her, she felt a rising hot tension as he prepared to douse her fire with his own power. Despite her best efforts, the concern in his voice caused her a twinge of remorse. He meant well, she knew. He wanted, desperately, for her to be happy.
Unlike her father.
So Rielle bowed her head and swallowed her anger. After all, what she was about to do might turn Tal against her forever. She could allow him this small victory.
“Blaze not with fury or abandon,” she repeated, closing her eyes. She imagined setting aside every scrap of emotion, every sound, every thought, until her mind was a vast field of darkness—except for the tiny spot of light that was the flame in her hands.
Then she allowed the darkness to seep across the flame as well and was left alone in the cool, still void of her mind.
The room calmed.
Tal’s hand fell away.
Rielle listened as he returned his shield to its stand. The prayer had scraped her clean, and in the wake of her anger she felt…nothing. A hollow heart and an empty head.
When she opened her eyes, they were dry and tired. She wondered bitterly what it would be like to live without a constant refrain of prayers in her thoughts, warning her against her own feelings.
The temple bells chimed eleven times; Rielle’s pulse jumped. Any moment now, she would hear Ludivine’s signal.
She turned toward the window. No more prayers, no more reading. Every muscle in her body surged with energy. She wanted to ride.
“I’d rather be dead than live as my father’s prisoner,” she said at last, unable to resist that last petulant stab.
“Dead like your mother?”
Rielle froze. When she faced Tal, he did not look away. She had not expected that cruelty. From her father, yes, but never from Tal.
The memory of long-ago flames blazed across her vision.
“Did Father instruct you to bring that up if I got out of hand?” she asked, keeping her voice flat and cool. “What with the Chase and all.”
“Yes,” Tal answered, unflinching.
After a moment, Tal turned to straighten the books on his desk. “This is as much for your safety as it is for everyone else’s. If the king discovered we’d been hiding the truth of your power all these years…You know what could happen. Especially to your father. And yet he does it because he loves you more than you’ll ever understand.”
Rielle laughed sharply. “That isn’t reason enough to treat me like this. I’ll never forgive him for it. Someday, I’ll stop forgiving you too.”
“I know,” Tal said, and at the sadness in his voice, Rielle nearly took pity on him.
But then a great crash sounded from downstairs, and an unmistakable cry of alarm.
Tal gave Rielle that familiar look he so often had—when she had, at seven, overflowed their pool at the Baths; when he had found her, at fifteen, the first time she snuck out to Odo’s tavern. That look of What did I do to deserve such trials?
Rielle gazed innocently back at him.
“Stay here,” he ordered. “I mean it, Rielle. I appreciate your frustration—truly, I do—but this is about more than the injustice of you feeling bored.”
“I love you, Tal,” she said, and the truth of that was enough to make her hate herself a little.
“I know,” he replied. Then he threw on his magisterial robe and swept out the door.
“Magister, it’s Lady Ludivine,” came a panicked voice from the hallway—one of Tal’s young acolytes. “She’d only just arrived in the chapel, my lord, when she turned pale and collapsed. I don’t know what happened!”
“Summon my healer,” Tal instructed, “and send a message to the queen. She’ll be in her box at the starting line. Tell her that her niece has taken ill and will not be joining her there.”
Once they had gone, Rielle smiled and yanked on her boots.
Not a chance.
She hurried through the sitting room outside Tal’s office and into the temple’s red-veined marble hallways, where embroidered flourishes of shimmering flames lined the plush carpets. The temple entryway, its parquet floor polished to a sheen of gold, was a flurry of activity as worshippers, acolytes, and servants hurried across to the peaked chapel doors.
“It’s Lady Ludivine,” a young acolyte whispered to her companion as Rielle passed. “Apparently she’s taken ill.”
Rielle grinned, imagining everyone fussing over poor Ludivine, tragically lovely and faint on the temple floor. Ludivine would enjoy the attention—and the reminder that she had the entire capital held like a puppet on its master’s strings.
Even so, Rielle would owe her a tremendous favor after this.
Ludivine’s horse stood next to her own just outside the temple, held by a young stable hand who seemed on the verge of panic. He recognized Rielle and sagged with relief.
“Pardon me, Lady Rielle, but is Lady Ludivine all right?” he asked.
“Haven’t the faintest,” Rielle replied, swinging up into the saddle. Then she snapped the reins, and her mare bolted down the main road that led from the Pyre into the heart of the city, hooves clattering against the cobblestones. A tumbled array of apartments and temple buildings rose around them—gray stone walls engraved with scenes of the capital city’s creation, rounded roofs of burnished copper, slender columns wrapped in flowering ivy, white fountains crowned with likenesses of the seven saints in prayer. So many visitors had come from all over the world to Âme de la Terre for the Chase that the cool spring air now pressed thick and close. The city smelled of sweat and spices, hot horse and hot coin.
As Rielle tore down the road, the crowd parted in alarm on either side of her, shouting angry curses until they realized who she was and fell silent. She guided her mare through the twisting streets and made for the main city gates, her body pulled tight with nerves.
But she would not give in to her power today.
She would compete in the Boon Chase, as any citizen was free to do, and prove to her father that she could control herself, even when her life was in danger and the eyes of the entire city were upon her.
She would prove to him, and to Tal, that she deserved to live a normal life.