Authors: Claire Legrand
the girl said, breathless.
Simon stormed over. “Good, you’ve met.” He took the girl by the arm and moved toward the door. “This way.”
Eliana sheathed Arabeth and followed them.
“My name is Navi,” the girl said, smiling back at Eliana as Simon hurried her out of the room.
But Eliana did not reply, for when she glanced back at the open windows of the bathing room, she saw a figure
drop down from the roof to land on the terrace outside.
Tall and thin, with creamy, pale skin and fair hair tied back in one long braid, dressed all in black save for a bloodred dress cloak that swept the ground:
“Of Aryava’s prophecy, there are many interpretations. Some dismiss his dying words as the nonsense ramblings of a great angelic mind gone to ruin. But all scholars do agree on this: despite the war dividing their people, the blood of both humans and angels that stained their hands, the angel Aryava loved Saint Katell the sunspinner—and that love saved us all.”
on the Prophecy of Aryava”
As translated by Grand Magister Isabeau Bazinet of the Holdfast
Transcribed on October 6, Year 12 of the Second Age
After two hours, the king declared a recess, and Rielle’s guards escorted her into one of the hall’s antechambers.
She sank into the first chair she saw, so tired she felt ill. The councils had attacked her with questions—what it felt like to manipulate
so many elements at once, and all with the same body. If singing the wind felt different than controlling fire or shaking the earth, or was it all the same to her?
What sort of lessons had Tal given her over the years?
Oh, he had tried to kill her, on occasion, to test her restraint?
How had he done that, and how many times?
How had she fought the instinctive desire to save herself?
What a marvelous testament to her control. And where, they asked, had that control been, out on the racecourse?
They had let her sit for at least some of the questioning, but she still felt as exhausted as if she had ridden the entire Chase all over again. Twice.
Just as her eyes started drifting shut, the doors flew open, and Audric entered the room.
“Leave us,” he told the guards.
The guards did not move. There was a beat of silence in which everything hung suspended.
“I think if Lady Rielle wanted to kill me,” Audric snapped, “she would have done it years ago. Leave us.”
The guards left at once.
Rielle was now entirely awake. She stood, her heart thundering. Where to even begin with him?
“Audric,” she said, her voice coming out frayed, “I’m sorry I didn’t
“I understand why you didn’t. God, Rielle, I… Please, don’t apologize. Are you all right?”
She let out a soft huff of laughter. “Not entirely.”
Audric came to her, cradled her hands in his. His thumb brushed against her wrist like a kiss. “I cannot forgive them for doing this to you.”
Every gentle press of his fingers made Rielle’s stomach twist. “Father and Tal?”
“They should be ashamed of their cowardice.”
“Well, I’m sure Tal is, anyway.”
“They thought they were doing what was best.”
Audric frowned. “For the kingdom.”
“And for you?”
She hesitated. How many times had she asked this question of her father, only to be shamed into silence? “My happiness is unimportant compared to the safety of those around me.”
“Unimportant!” Audric released her, dragging a hand through his dark curls. “That’s what they’ve been telling you all these years.”
Suddenly the air around them felt charged; Rielle’s fingers prickled from the nearness of magic. The air bloomed with heat. Rielle caught the slightly singed scent of sunspinner magic—a blazing noon sky, a hot summer’s day. Audric’s eyes snapped to hers before
he turned away, his shoulders high and tense. He moved to the window, placed his palm against the sun-warmed glass.
When he looked back to her, his face was not quite so furious, and the air had calmed.
“Your happiness is important, Rielle,” he said softly. “And I’m sorry I didn’t see what was happening this entire time, right before my eyes. If I’d known, I would never have let them…”
He trailed off, his jaw clenched. She wanted so badly to touch him.
“I know,” she told him instead.
“You were marvelous out there, during the race. I’ve never seen that kind of power. Rielle, it was beautiful.”
She could not help but flush with pleasure, despite everything. “They were going to kill you. I couldn’t let that happen.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And I cannot take care
“You can, and you did. But—” She fell silent, swallowing her voice.
But if you had died, I couldn’t have borne it.
If you had died, I don’t know what would have happened next. What I would have done to avenge you.
Audric cleared his throat. He seemed to choose his words carefully. “When I saw you riding toward me, I didn’t know that the blood was from your horse. I
thought it was yours. You were covered in it, and I thought…” He walked toward her, his gaze lingering on her face, and then looked away.
His presence was like a touch hovering just above her skin. Rielle wanted desperately to lean into it. Bask in it. Claim it.
“You could say thank you,” she finally managed to say. “At the very least.”
“If you promise you won’t terrify me like that
again. Or at least give me warning so I can prepare myself.”
“Of course,” she agreed, “if you warn me the next time you plan on getting yourself attacked by assassins.”
He grinned at her. “We did fight well together. I wouldn’t mind doing it again.” Then his expression softened. “Thank you, Rielle.”
She hoped he could not read her face. “What happens now?”
“That’s what I’ve come
to tell you,” Audric began, and then the door opened, admitting Ludivine and the guards.
“Did you tell her?” she asked, looking troubled.
“What is it?” Rielle said. “What have they decided?”
“They’re requesting you come back inside at once, Lady Rielle,” said one of the guards.
“Tell my uncle the king that she will attend him momentarily,” Ludivine said, her sweet smile not reaching
her eyes. “And if he protests, then you may tell him to bite his tongue or else his niece will hate him for the rest of his days.”
The guard flushed and bowed his head, then retreated into the hall.
“Many in the councils are afraid,” Ludivine told Rielle quickly, “and the king is under tremendous pressure to act before rumors start spiraling out of control and spark a panic. Before…” She
paused. “Before anything else happens.”
Before I lose control again
, Rielle thought grimly.
“He would not have agreed to this unless he had no other choice,” Ludivine continued.
Rielle’s stomach dropped. “Agreed to what?”
“Seven trials,” Ludivine explained. “One for each element.”
“Tests of your power,” Audric added, “engineered by the Magisterial Council. To ensure you can
control your abilities.” He looked away, his mouth twisting bitterly.
Ludivine placed a gentle hand on his arm. “They will not only be testing your control. They will also be testing your loyalty. You must not waver in this, Rielle. One hint of defiance, one glimmer of treachery—”
“What is it, exactly, that they think I’m going to do?” Rielle burst out, an edge of incredulous laughter
in her voice. “Defect to Borsvall? Turn around in the middle of a trial and murder the king where he stands?”
“We don’t know what the Blood Queen will do, when she arrives,” Ludivine continued gently. “One with the power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it. One of blood. One of light.”
“I’m already tired of hearing that damned prophecy,” Rielle muttered, and was gratified
to see Audric’s tiny smile.
“The point is,” Ludivine pressed on, “that the councils believe you to be one of the Queens. And if they can ensure that you are loyal, that you want only to protect Celdaria, and not destroy it—”
Rielle threw up her hands. “But why in God’s name would I ever want to?”
“Then this will signify to them,” Ludivine said, talking over her, “that whatever the
prophecy says, you have made a choice. To protect and not harm. To serve and not betray.”
“And if I choose not to participate in these trials?” Rielle asked, once she had found her voice again.
“Then,” said Ludivine quietly, “they will have no choice but to consider you a threat.”
Rielle stepped back. A cold, sick feeling wound its way through her. “They will kill me.”
long as I draw breath,” Audric said, his fists clenched.
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” the first guard muttered, uneasily entering the room, “but I delivered Lady Ludivine’s message to the king, and he requests—”
The look Audric threw him was murder. “I know very well what the king requests.” When he at last turned back to Rielle, his gaze was steady. “I won’t allow anyone to harm you.
You’ll conquer these trials, and once you’ve convinced everyone—”
“Then I will serve the crown,” Rielle finished for him. Everyone knew the Sun Queen, if she ever arrived, would serve at the pleasure of Celdaria’s rulers. She would lead the kingdom’s armies into battle. Using her power, she would protect the country, protect the Gate.
Protect the king.
“Then you will serve the crown,”
Someday, he meant, she would serve
—and his queen. She looked to Ludivine and then away.
“My lord,” urged the guard from the door.
“I’m ready,” Rielle said, before Audric could threaten the man further, and led the way back into the hall.
She stood once again before the dais as the councils shifted and settled above her. Her mind danced around the question:
am I feeling right now? I have just been threatened with death.
She recognized she should probably be more upset, but it was all such a wild shift from what her life had been only two days before that she simply felt numb.
I will be tested
, she thought.
It will…probably hurt.
Then, slowly trying out the idea:
I will show them what I can do.
She considered it. To be sought after
instead of hidden away, to protect her country instead of living in fear that she was capable of nothing but hurting people, to be loved instead of hated…
Tears stung her eyes.
I will be loved.
She found her father, surrounded by guards, standing expressionlessly beneath the statue of Saint Grimvald—a metalmaster, just as he was. She wondered what he was thinking. All his and Tal’s
careful work, brought to ruin. And now the future—hers and theirs—lay in her hands alone.
She made herself stand tall.
They will love me. All of them will.
Rielle listened as King Bastien repeated what Ludivine and Audric had told her: seven trials, one for each of the seven elements, to be designed by the Magisterial Council and administered to her over the next seven weeks.
If, by the end of that time, she had proven her abilities and her control to a satisfactory degree—if she had throughout the trials consistently demonstrated loyalty and devotion to the crown, and neither defiance nor volatility—then she would be deemed the Sun Queen, the most holy symbol of the Church and the prophesied protector of the crown, and would be accorded all due privileges and tributes.
“Then, Lady Rielle,” said the king, his voice heavy, “I will have no choice but to order your execution.”
Rielle allowed the hall’s silence to grow. Lord Dervin Sauvillier watched her, his eyes keen. Across the gallery from him, the Archon sat, sedate, with his hands folded in his lap.
“I do not decree this lightly,” added the king. “I have known you all your life, and your
father has served me for twice that long. But I cannot allow that to affect my duty to protect my people. We must be certain you are not the danger we have feared for a thousand years.”
, said the voice, returning with a swift jolt of anger,
please tell me you won’t let them trap you like this.
But she had already stepped forward to speak. She felt as bright and sure as the sun.
The Magisterial Council believed it to be a choice, Ludivine had said—to protect and not harm. To serve and not betray.
It was a choice, and she had made hers.
She would be a symbol of light and not of death.
“I understand your fear, my king,” said Rielle, “and I will happily endure these trials to prove my worth and my strength to you, my people, and my country.” She made herself
look around the room. No one would be able to accuse her of cowardice. She found Audric and Ludivine, drew strength from the sight of their faces. “I am not afraid to test my power.”
Whispers moved through the assembled councils. Rielle lifted her chin to stare up at the king.
I will show you what I can do.
I will show you who I truly am.
“Then, Lady Rielle,” said the king at last,
his expression torn, “let the trials begin.”
“You will hear things about the Emperor’s assassins, things designed to terrify you. That their loyalty to him gives them extraordinary strength. That, like him, they cannot be killed. But I tell you, the butchers of Invictus are as flesh and blood as you are. It is a battle of beliefs. Can your faith outlast theirs?”
The Word of the Prophet
“You don’t look surprised
to see me,” said Rahzavel. He approached through the bathing room with a dancer’s grace. “So you’re a fool, but you’re not stupid.”
Every instinct screamed at Eliana to run out of the maidensfold after Simon and Navi, but to where? And then what? Rahzavel would chase her to the ends of the earth. He and Invictus and the Emperor himself would view her defection as a personal insult.
had time for two fleeting hopes—that Simon and Navi would get out of the palace safely. And that Simon would find a spark of mercy in his heart and protect Remy and Harkan.
Then Rahzavel attacked.
He was fast, through the bathing room and upon her before she had the chance to strategize. He raised his sword, and with that pale face smiling coldly at her, everything Eliana knew abandoned
her in an instant.
She turned and ran.
Rahzavel chased her through the scented labyrinth of the maidensfold. He caught up with her, let his sword fly. Eliana swung the adatrox sword, its heavy hilt slick with blood, and parried. Rahzavel advanced; Eliana barely blocked each of his cuts.
Their blades caught. Eliana stepped back and quickly turned her sword, dislodging him. She swiped
wildly at his torso, but he was too quick. He advanced again. Eliana stumbled back, found a carving of a scantily clad woman on a tabletop, threw it at him, and ran.
She heard the carving hit the floor. Rahzavel’s quick footsteps followed her through a series of narrow carpeted rooms.
Her strikes became desperate; Rahzavel was too fast, too meticulous. She gasped for breath; he hardly
seemed to break a sweat. She ducked his sword, the blade hissing past her neck. She flung aside the adatrox sword, used her free hand to grab whatever she could find—vases, goblets, gilded plates—and fling them back at him.
He laughed at her, dodging it all.
They emerged once more into the bathing room, the tile slick from water and blood.
A lone girl huddled in the corner, whimpering.
Rahzavel’s smile unfolded. “You’re frightening the whores, Eliana.”
She thrust at his belly with Arabeth; he blocked her easily.
They circled each other, Eliana blinking back sweat. Her hair had fallen loose from its knot.
“You should never have turned,” said Rahzavel, every syllable pristine. “You could have been one of the Emperor’s favored. Your family would have wanted for nothing.”
Then, without warning, someone shoved Eliana from behind. She lost her footing on the slick tile, and Rahzavel used his sword to knock Arabeth away.
He lobbed a hard backhand across her face. She fell, her head knocking against a low table.
Dazed, she saw movement and color—one of Lord Arkelion’s concubines, scurrying away. The girl had pushed her.
“It seems the bonds of sisterhood
do not extend to traitors.” Rahzavel’s voice floated above her. He straddled her hips, his face inches from her own—clean-shaven jaw, straight nose, gray eyes flat and distant.
She felt a sharp pain below her throat and glanced down, too dazed to fight.
He was cutting her.
A new panic seized her, shocking her awake. She needed to get away from him,
, before he saw the truth.
“Many would kill their dearest loved ones,” Rahzavel murmured, “for the chance to serve the Emperor as we do in Invictus. And yet you have thrown in your lot with the Prophet’s lapdog?”
Another cut, a shallow
between her collarbones.
She twisted in his grip. He cut into the soft flesh of her upper arm.
God, no, he’ll see—
“I suppose I shall have to find the Emperor a more grateful
recruit,” he mused softly, “and keep you for myself.”
He swirled one long finger in her fresh blood and dragged it down her arm to her elbow.
He glanced down—and froze.
Eliana followed his gaze. The world slowed and stilled.
Together they watched the cut on her arm close.
An instant later, the skin was as good as new.
Rahzavel’s gaze shot back to hers, and for the first
time since she had known him, she saw a spark of something other than bloodlust in his eyes.
Eliana could hardly breathe. Her blood raced hot beneath her skin.
“What are you?” Rahzavel whispered.
A sudden movement, just beyond Rahzavel’s shoulder. A tall, dark shape; a shift in the air.
Eliana flashed Rahzavel a smile. “I am your doom.”
leapt up, turned, and met Simon’s sword with his own.
Eliana rolled away, retrieved Arabeth, and pushed herself to her feet, ready to jump in after Simon and help, but the sight of them stopped her in her tracks.
Rahzavel and Simon whirled, stabbed, struck, their blades cutting the air. They swerved and ducked and parried and thrust. Whoever the Prophet was, he had obviously made sure
Simon was well trained enough to fight even the Emperor’s own assassins.
She followed them into the expansive sitting room at the rear of the maidensfold, unsure how to help. Her vision had cleared, but Simon and Rahzavel were moving so quickly it seemed to her simply elegant chaos—daggers and swords, crimson and silver, the blood on the floor and the bloodred wings of Rahzavel’s cloak.
Their fight took them onto the terrace surrounding the maidensfold. Eliana hurried after them, the warm coastal breeze washing over her. Below, one of the river’s tributaries crawled slowly to the sea.
Rahzavel’s blade caught Simon’s, pinning him against the stone railing. They were locked together, Simon’s eyes full of cold fury, Rahzavel’s empty and deadly. Simon’s knees were buckling.
Eliana saw her opportunity, dove for Rahzavel’s back with her dagger. He whirled at the last moment, knocked both her weapon and then Simon’s out of their hands. Eliana grabbed a porcelain urn from a nearby table, brought it crashing down on Rahzavel’s shoulders. He barely stumbled, but it was enough.
Simon kicked Rahzavel’s elbow, and the assassin dropped his sword. Then Simon shoved him across
the terrace railing.
Kicking and clawing, Rahzavel jabbed Simon in the throat, but Simon held on, gasping for air. Eliana hurried to his side, helped him push.
Rahzavel tumbled over the railing and fell into the blackness below.
Eliana gazed over the edge, trying to see if he hit the river, but the night was too dark. She wiped blood from her face, breathing hard.
her, coughing from Rahzavel’s last blow to the throat. He spat over the railing, his lip curled with disgust.
“Do you think the fall was enough to kill him?” the girl—Navi—asked, joining them at the railing.
Then the bells of the watch towers along the palace walls began to ring.
Navi hissed a curse. “Razia. She disappeared shortly after you arrived. She must have reported you.”
Eliana’s eyes met Simon’s. “Follow me. We’ll have to do this the hard way.”
She led him and Navi back through the palace, down a different network of narrow servants’ passages. They met three adatrox coming up from the ballrooms. Navi flattened herself against the curving stone wall while Eliana and Simon punched and stabbed their way free.
They dashed inside a suite of rooms in the palace’s
east wing, where party guests occupying the bedrooms shouted in protest, then raced out onto another wide terrace, this one lit with rose-glass lamps and fragrant from heaps of flowers. Below, Lord Arkelion’s gardens were a sea of light and color.
Eliana led the way, jumping off the terrace into a row of shrubs. She landed hard, branches cracking beneath her, and rolled to her feet. She heard
Simon and Navi land behind her, heard Navi’s soft cry of pain.
Partygoers leapt back, alarmed. Someone screamed.
Eliana whirled, searching. A squadron of adatrox burst out of the Morning Ballroom, swords in hand. Two held rifles. They crouched on the steps, aimed, prepared to fire.
Two shots rang out; Eliana ducked. A nearby stone urn shattered. A group of dancers in silks and bangles
Eliana led Simon and Navi through the gardens, knocking past the stunned guests, trying to ignore the sounds of the pursuing adatrox. She could not think of Rahzavel, of how lucky it was that he would have no chance to tell anyone about the impossible thing he had seen.
She would think only of Harkan, of her mother, of Remy.
Remy, I’m coming. Don’t be afraid.
More adatrox waited for them at the gardens’ perimeter, where a guarded tunnel led into the outer yards. Simon barreled into the adatrox, cut down two. Eliana saw a revolver flash and shoved Simon out of the way just as a shot rang out, then spun around and sliced open the shooter’s throat.
They made it into the outer yards, then through the Lord’s Gate and into the city itself. The Old Quarter
was in a panic, citizens scrambling to return to their homes. Limp naming day garlands scattered the uneven cobbled streets. Fireworks exploded overhead in a shower of red.
Eliana looked back to see the palace looming some distance away—and a dozen adatrox in close pursuit.
Finally, they emerged from the Old Quarter and barreled through the bedlam of the common markets on the city’s edge,
where vendors and shoppers, having planned for a night of revelry, now scrambled for safety.
Eliana looked ahead to the east bridge. Signal fires flared to life in the towers flanking the water. Soon every soldier in the city would know exactly where they were.
They hurried past the towering Admiral’s statue, where Harkan stood waiting. He lit a bombardier and hurled it past them toward
the approaching adatrox. An explosion, screams of shock and pain—then a ringing silence.
The market grounds lay in ruins. The bombardier had bought them a moment or two.
A small weight slammed into Eliana, throwing its arms around her.
She kissed the top of his head. “It’s all right. I’ve got you. I’m here.”
Harkan stood behind him, looking past Eliana. More adatrox were
coming, pouring down from the city’s upper levels. He threw back his hood, loaded the revolver Simon had given him.
“El, take him and go,” he told her.
Eliana stared at him, Remy in hand. “You’re coming with us.”
“Simon can’t spare more grenades. I can hold them off.”
“Are you mad? You can’t shoot worth a damn.” She grabbed Harkan’s arm. “And there are too many of them. They’ll
Simon yanked Remy from her grip, roared, “Eliana, now!” and hurried across the bridge, sheltering Navi and Remy against his body. The two halves of the bridge, lowered to bring in supplies for the fete, had begun to raise. Remy looked back frantically for Eliana, but arrow fire from the city’s inner wall rained down upon them, and soon he was lost to the night.
Harkan’s hand. “Come
But he stood firm, pulled her in to his body for a clumsy, hard kiss.
“I’ve always loved you,” he whispered against her mouth.
“You tell me this now?” She wanted to smack him. A sob burst out as shaky laughter. “You idiot—”
A nearby explosion nearly threw them off their feet. The adatrox had detonated one of their own bombardiers. Behind Eliana, the bridge
shifted and groaned.
“I can handle this.” Harkan shoved her toward the bridge. “Go!”
She stared at him for a helpless, frozen moment, drinking up the sight of him—the dark fall of his hair, the beautiful square line of his jaw. Her throat filled up with all the things she had never said, and all the things she had.
None of it was enough.
She turned and fled across the bridge, not
looking back even as she heard Harkan open fire. He cried out, and her chest seized around her heart. She ran blindly across the shaking bridge, jumped across the gap at the top, and stumbled down the other side. She joined Simon as he fought through the tower guards, Navi and Remy close behind them.
With each step she took, each swipe of her blades, grief struck her. Tears and smoke left
her half blind.
First her mother, now Harkan. Her best friend. Her light on dark days.
She had left him. She had
She listened for his gunfire and heard only chaos. The adatrox archers on the city wall shouted commands to one another. Simon hissed at her to move faster. He grabbed a bombardier from a fallen adatrox, triggered it, threw it back at the guard tower.
threw them off their feet. Eliana’s chin hit the ground. A shock of pain jolted her skull. But they had destroyed the tower, collapsed the bridge. It would give them a few minutes. She pushed herself up.
Past the bridge, they hurried into one of the scattershot encampments that had formed outside the city—refugees fleeing the dangerous countryside, hoping for a chance to get in the city. The
camps were pandemonium. People bolted away from the city walls, trampling the slow and sick. Bleating animals ran crazed from their pens.
Still holding Remy close by the arm, Simon tossed Navi his adatrox cloak. She caught it and drew the hood up over her face. Two soldiers in threadbare cloaks found them with a pair of saddled horses. Others raced past them toward the city wall. Red Crown
rebels, Eliana assumed, all ready to die to protect them.
, she thought.
Their deaths will buy us time.
“Take the boy,” Simon ordered. Navi nodded, her face hidden. One of the rebels gave her a leg up, and then helped Remy before running toward the wall with the others. The last rebel turned to face Simon, her battered face lit with some inner fire.
She put a fist to her heart
and then to the air—the Red Crown salute.