Authors: Claire Legrand
“I don’t know.” Camille’s mouth
thinned. “They come in the night. They come every seven days. They’re called Fidelia. That’s the word I’ve heard used. People whisper it like they used to speak of the Empire before the invasion.”
“What is it, then? A splinter faction of Red Crown?”
“I’ve only heard rumors.” A flicker of uncertainty moved across Camille’s face. “You’ll think it’s nonsense.”
“I won’t. Speak.”
say that Fidelia…” Camille dragged a hand through her short black hair. “They’re angel lovers, I’ve heard. They believe the Emperor and his generals are not men, but angels. They hunt to serve them, that they may be raised to glory once the world is conquered and the angels rule all.” She scoffed. “It’s daft, I know, but isn’t everything these days?”
Horror dropped cold down Eliana’s spine.
Could Remy actually be right?
Camille continued. “We didn’t realize for some time that people were disappearing. Rinthos is so crowded that someone can go missing for days before you even realize they’re gone. At first they only took one. Then a few. Then many. People started noticing. And yet it won’t stop.” Camille drew in a slight shaky breath. “Every seven days, girls are disappearing.
And women too. Grown, young, rich, poor. Mostly poor.” Her voice acquired a bitter edge. “No one misses them, you see.”
Eliana could keep quiet no longer. “My mother was taken, just like that. Back in Orline.”
Camille nodded grimly. “So I’ve heard. It’s been a week since the last taking. People have been whispering about it all morning, up above.”
Eliana thought quickly. “Is there
a pattern to the disappearances? A place from which more girls are taken than others?”
“Laenys vanished from below, on the fighting floor. A week ago now. We were coming back from the market, and we turned a corner. I felt something—a movement, a coldness—and turned around, and…”
“And she was gone?”
Camille looked away, fists curled at her sides and eyes bright. “I don’t understand
it. Why only girls? Where are they taking them?”
The same questions I asked myself weeks ago
, Eliana thought,
back in Orline.
“I don’t know,” Eliana said, fingers curling at her side around an invisible dagger.
She would carve the word across their foreheads, right into the bone. “But I’m going to find out. And I’m going to make them pay.”
Camille watched her from the shadows.
“If I help sneak you out past Simon, you’ll do it? Tonight is the seventh day. Night will fall, and by morning, more girls will be gone.”
“Then once night falls,” Eliana said with a loving caress of Arabeth’s hilt, “I’ll go hunting.”
“I fear no darkness
I fear no night
I ask the shadows
To aid my fight”
—The Shadow Rite
As first uttered by Saint Tameryn the Cunning, patron saint of Astavar and shadowcasters
Rielle stood in the middle of the Flats, the first horn blast of the shadow trial ringing in her ears.
Wooden stands, draped with the black and blue colors of the House of
Night, created a vast circle around where she stood alone in the whispering tall grass, cloaked and hooded.
Twelve platforms around the circle’s perimeter towered high above the ground. A shadowcaster stood solemn and dark on each one, faces masked and castings in hand.
The horn’s second call wailed across the Flats.
Rielle stepped free of her cloak, let it fall to the
The gathered crowd lost its collective mind. Their cheers exploded, and they rose as one to stamp their feet and shout her name. Rielle threw up her arms to acknowledge them, and their cries became a roar.
She had been worried that, given the current gossip, the reception might be different for this trial.
But on the contrary—the people of Âme de la Terre now seemed to adore
her even more.
She knelt in the direction of the House of Night, to say a quick prayer to Saint Tameryn, and could not hide her grin.
Ludivine had truly outdone herself with this costume. The gown’s snug black-velvet bodice was backless, scandalously low in front. The neckline dipped between her breasts and nearly reached her navel. Fine netting made of swirling ebony lace, so subtle it
looked even from up close like a veil of shadows rather than fabric, shimmered across her exposed skin and held the dress in place. Floating around her legs when she moved was a gorgeous skirt of countless black, midnight-blue, and silver layers—silk, chiffon, Astavari lace. Ludivine had painted tiny silver stars across Rielle’s cheeks and brow, rimmed her eyes with kohl.
She was night itself
reborn on the earth, a queen swathed in shadows.
And the best part was yet to come.
As one, the shadowcasters lifted their gloved hands to the sky, their castings in hand.
Rielle stood with her head bowed, arms flung out behind her like rigid wings. Her blood ran wild inside her.
This is what I was made for.
The thought arose as naturally as breathing. She flexed her fingers, felt
power gathering hot in her palms. No, not hot—
. Her power was not an intangible thing, a trick of the mind. It was the power of the world itself—and all that lived inside it.
And only I
, she thought,
can tell it what to do.
A stirring at the back of her mind. Familiar and delighted.
The horn blasted a third and final time.
The shadowcasters began.
Spirals of darkness shot hissing from their castings like snakes, then fanned out across the sky to form a dome of shadows. Darkness fell over the grass. Only a few scattered holes in the dome allowed in columns of sunlight, illuminating the Flats so the crowd could see.
Their jubilant cries turned to jeers.
Rielle felt courage rise swift and undaunted in her breast. In this place,
she was their hero and the shadowcasters the enemy.
With the dome in place above, the shadowcasters made their next move. They lowered their castings to point right at Rielle—and unleashed their monsters.
Rielle’s courage vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
The magic that lived in the veins of shadowcasters gave them the power to imbue darkness with physicality, with heft and a
cunning, voracious will. The shadows rushing at Rielle across the plain carved new roads in the ground. The shadows took the shapes of horned black leopards and winged wolves, bears with spiked spines and great hawks that breathed dark fire. With each running step, they sucked the air out of the Flats until Rielle was forced to stagger, gasping, to her knees.
A hawk reached her first, swooping
low over her head. Cold ruffled the ends of her hair, frosted her scalp. She sucked in gasp after greedy gasp, but the air was growing thin, brittle. The hawk latched to her neck, squeezing with hard, thin feathers that sliced lines into her skin. The spike-spined bear skidded to a stop at her feet. A massive scaled paw struck her across the face and knocked her to the ground.
And she did
Head reeling, she let them come.
, she thought frantically,
I hope this works.
The winged wolf pounced, baying, onto her chest. Once it touched her, the wolf morphed into a shapeless veil that wrapped around her head and mouth, until she had to claw at her own face in order to breathe. Her nails pierced her skin, drawing blood. Shreds of shadow fell away at her
touch, misshapen and muttering, before dissolving into the ground and re-forming into a buzzing flock of arrows. Cold fear slammed into her chest.
The metal trial.
Some shadowcaster’s joke, she supposed.
The falling shower of arrows pierced her like needles, scalp to ankle. They rose up, vibrating with angry intent, then fell on her again. And again. And again.
She squeezed her eyes shut,
dripping with sweat and rivulets of her own blood, and let the shadow-beasts swarm upon her, let them pinch and grasp and choke. A chittering black rat forced its way inside her mouth. She gagged on the freezing wriggle of its body, fought the urge to vomit when the rat dissolved and spread through her blood in a surge of cold.
Tears leaked out of her eyes. Her body vibrated with the need
But she stayed sprawled across the ground, inert and helpless. Distantly she heard the crowd yell for her, their cries growing hysterical with fear.
You have something planned
, Corien remarked, curious.
Can’t you tell?
she managed, though even her thoughts came ragged and breathless.
I could, yes. But I feel like being surprised.
You’ll see soon enough.
He beamed at her. She saw a flicker of a pale, handsome face before her closed eyelids.
You’re happy to see me.
She let out a small, tearful laugh.
I thought you’d left me for good.
Soft lips brushed against her brow; a hand cupped her face, guiding her up.
She turned her face to him, safe in the haven of her thoughts. The tearing shadows, the screaming crowd,
the plan she’d engineered—they all fell away. There was only Corien and her own body and the power writhing for release inside her.
His mouth brushed against hers, slow and chaste. His hand trailed the length of her spine, drawing her up from the cold ground.
, he said, his voice tight and hoarse.
Get up. Make him sorry.
Him. The Archon.
, she thought, smiling.
thought you wanted to be surprised.
I cannot resist you
, he replied.
Not you or your phenomenal mind.
Rielle’s eyes flew open. She drew as deep a breath as she could. Then she reached her hands across the muddy ground, cracked her eyes open to look at the columns of sunlight breaking through the dome above.
“With the dawn I rise,” she prayed. Then, curling her fingers into the dirt,
“With the day, I
In one brilliant instant, every ray of sun in sight dropped from the sky and raced across the ground like bolts of lightning to her fingers.
She gathered the light between her hands, ravenous for its burn, delighted at how it sizzled against her skin. Her eyes saw and did not see, glazed over with a hunger that made her chest hum with need. She blinked; the world
was gilded through with countless waves of shimmering gold.
Her breath caught in her throat.
She blinked again. The world darkened.
She pressed her palms together, then slammed them down against the earth.
A blinding blast rocketed out from where she knelt in the dirt, tearing through the shadowcasters’ monsters. The shadowcasters themselves toppled from their platforms.
The dome overhead vanished. Sizzling, black shreds of shadow cascaded to the ground.
When the darkness cleared, Rielle stood alone, her skin bloodied, her beautiful gown torn to shreds, but her back straight and her head held high.
A wave of shock tore through the crowd. The ground beneath Rielle’s feet vibrated from the sheer weight of their cries, their stamping feet,
their pounding fists.
And then, another roar, dwarfing the first:
Sun Queen! Sun Queen!
Ludivine’s tailors had spent hours sewing tiny mirrors into Rielle’s gown, into the layers of her skirt, along the ribbons tied in her hair and through the lace lying limp against her sweat-soaked skin.
And now, Rielle had not only summoned sunlight to destroy
her enemies and shatter the darkness.
She had drawn it up her body, trapped it glittering in her mirrors. Hundreds of shifting sunbursts lined her arms and legs and hair, shimmering between her breasts and along the ripped hems of her gown.
It was a look inspired by the armor of the Lightbringer himself.
And she was the Sun Queen: radiant and unstoppable.
She spun in a circle,
her torn skirts flying, and called every dead scrap of shadow to her. Her power slithered across the ground like seeking tongues. She spun her hands through the air, crafting a shape from the shadows as a sculptor would from his clay, then turned sharply on her heel and sent her creation flying straight at the Archon.
It was a dragon—half the height of the Archon’s tower in the High Temple.
Its sharp-tipped wings spanned one hundred feet. Inside its jaws wriggled a nest of black snakes. And its hide shimmered not with scales but with the wailing forms of all the conquered beasts the shadowcasters had sent flying at Rielle.
They served the dragon. And now the dragon served her.
Screams of terror and delight exploded from the crowd.
The shadowcasters staggered to their
feet, fumbling to find their castings, shouting for help.
The Archon rose to stand at the edge of his box, empty-handed and defenseless.
Rielle ripped her hands back through the air.
The dragon froze, its teeth snapping before the Archon’s face. Its heavy wings flapped with loud, low booms like distant drums.
Rielle cocked her head. Flicked her fingers.
The dragon opened its
jaws wide. Seven hooded snakes, shifting with each gust of wind, rose out of its mouth to taste the Archon’s papery skin with their tongues.
I could kill him
, thought Rielle.
Right now. I could do it.
, Corien agreed.
But will you?
The ground shifted. The dragon’s weight pulled at her fingertips. The earth underfoot and the air above and the light glossing her skin waited,
What would she ask of them?
Whatever the demand, they would obey.
Rielle shuddered. Pleasure spilled down her front in tingling waves, raising every fine hair on her body.
It waits for me.
Corien’s voice came urgent and hot at her ear.
Take it for your own. No one else can do this but you. Do you know what you could accomplish,
Rielle? The answers you could find, the worlds you could build—
Then, a flash of golden color, followed by green: Ludivine’s hair. Audric’s cloak. They were rushing down the set of stairs from the royal box. Rielle thought, in fact, that she heard them calling for her, even across the Flats and through the noise of the crowd.
She blinked, stepped back, lowered her arm. The dragon, waiting
Don’t listen to them
, Corien hissed.
They won’t be your friends for much longer. Don’t you see? They don’t understand, and they never will. Kill him.
Not like this
, she thought at last with a regretful pang—and a swell of relief.
She lowered her aching arm and clenched her fist. With a gust of cold wind and a low, tired groan, the dragon
Rielle sank to her knees, braced herself against the ground with shaking hands.
A vision flashed across her sight, watery and unclear:
Corien. Near. And angry.
He stalked toward her, yanked her body up roughly against his own.
Is this really what you want?
he murmured. She blinked, and he was gone, though she could still feel his tight grip. She blinked again;
he returned, his furious gaze on her lips.
They are what you want?
He jerked his head behind him, at the flood of figures rushing toward her across the Flats.
Corien made her look at him. He wound his fingers in her hair, pulled her head gently back so that her throat was bared. His lips ghosted across her skin.
They are nothing
, he told her, his voice rich and low.
And you are everything
What must I do to make you understand that?
For a moment, Rielle closed her eyes and gave herself up to his dream-grip, caught in the shifting soft place between the solid reality of the Flats and wherever in the world it was that Corien truly stood.
Then she turned her face away and closed her eyes.
Let go of me
, she whispered.
He did, at once. The vision faded, and all that
was left of him was an echo of his touch on her arms and a dark voice sneering in her mind:
I will not always be this patient, Rielle.