Authors: Claire Legrand
To Rielle’s right, a man with a metal guard over his teeth yanked on a spiked glove and knocked another racer off his mount with the thrust of one meaty arm. The other racers trampled him, cutting off his screams,
and his horse left the course with its reins trailing.
Rielle drove Maliya forward, looking around wildly. An arbiter should have disqualified the man for that. But in the storm of dust, she couldn’t pick out the arbiters’ colors. It was as though they had vanished.
She crossed the Flats, guiding Maliya through a throng of shoving elbows and flying whips, racers shouting at their mounts
to move and yelling threats in a dozen languages. When she reached the foothills of Mount Taléa, she slowed her pace and directed Maliya up the steeper forested climb. She saw a flash of familiar color through the trees ahead. Black and gold. Odo’s colors.
She lowered herself against Maliya’s neck, urged her mare up the foothills, and emerged out of the trees into the first mountain
pass. A broad stretch of grass shivered in the wind before her. Walls of rock towered on either side.
Rielle’s heart lifted. She murmured the Kirvayan words Odo had told her the mare would respond to: “Ride the wind, falcon of my blood, wings of my heart!”
Maliya shot forward.
The wind whipped past them, ripping tears from Rielle’s eyes. She caught up to Audric and crowed with triumph.
He glanced her way, his scarf falling loose. He grinned at her, and her heart leapt. Despite the danger of the race, she couldn’t help but wish they could stay out here—away from court, away from everyone else—forever.
Seconds later, Audric veered away, taking the shortest path around the mountain. His Celdarian mare was bred for such steep, rocky trails.
But Maliya was built for speed.
Rielle pushed her on across the pass, and Maliya obeyed. The wind howled in Rielle’s ears. She could hardly hear herself breathe. The shapes of the other riders, fanning out across the pass, were blurs of color. They were catching up to her.
She turned Maliya right, onto a narrow cliffside trail. Not her first choice, but it would give her better time. She told herself not to look and yet
couldn’t help it, peering over the edge into the chasm below. She broke out in sick chills; her vision tilted. One wrong shift of her weight, one misstep from her horse, and she’d fly to her death.
Behind her came a clatter of hooves and rock. When the cliff trail widened, sloping down into the wooded foothills, she looked back.
One racer zipped by her, and then three more, so close she
could smell their sweat. Behind them, a racer rammed his horse into the side of another, knocking both horse and rider off the cliff Rielle had just traveled. The fallen horse let out a terrible scream, then fell silent.
Rielle turned away, heart pounding, eyes stinging from the dust clogging the air. She exited the woods near the trail to the second pass that would bring her around Mount
Taléa and back toward the city.
There, she found arbiters at last: seven of them, some distance ahead of her. They had thrown off their masks, letting their blond, braided hair fly free. They were letting out shrill war cries that Rielle recognized at once from one of Audric’s interminable lectures about Borsvall.
They were closing in on the rider nearest them—a man in black and gold,
his cap and scarf fallen free, the wind ripping through his dark curls.
The world distilled to this single, terrible moment. Dread knocked the wind from Rielle’s lungs.
The arbiters, whoever they were, were no soldiers of her father’s. They were from Borsvall.
And they were surrounding Audric with their swords raised to kill.
“But when the Empire forces came to Orline, the capital of Ventera, they were struck blind by a brilliant light. It was the Sun Queen, glittering and vengeful. She led the charge with King Maximilian at her side, and everyone she touched felt their long-forgotten magic awaken. They were sunspinners once more, firebrands and earthshakers. And the river that morning ran red
with Empire blood.”
The Sun Queen’s Triumph (Being an Alternative History of the Kingdom of Ventera)
As written in the journal of Remy Ferracora
June 14, Year 1018 of the Third Age
After the executions, Eliana saw Harkan home to his tiny apartment on the top floor of the building next to her own.
As she turned to go, he said softly, “El?”
She hesitated. If she stayed, they would
share his bed, as they often did. His touch would be absolution—his strong, brown arms, the tender way he held her after and stroked her hair. For a little while, she would forget who she was and what she had done.
But then, Harkan would want to talk. He would look into her eyes and search for the girl she had once been.
The thought exhausted her.
“Please, El,” Harkan said, his voice
strained. “I need you.”
He could hardly look at her. Was he embarrassed that he didn’t want to be alone? Or ashamed to crave the touch of a monster?
Unbidden, a memory surfaced: the boy’s defiant, tear-streaked face, just before the executioner’s sword fell.
Eliana’s stomach clenched. She squeezed Harkan’s hand. “All right, but I just want to sleep.”
His voice came gently: “Me
They climbed through the terrace window and into his room—plain and small, strewn with rumpled clothes. The rest of his family’s apartment remained silent and shuttered. Since his mother and older brothers had died at the wall the day the Empire invaded ten years earlier, Harkan had not touched any of their things or sat in furniture they had sat in or used his mother’s pots and pans.
The apartment was a tomb, and Eliana dared not enter it for fear of breathing ghosts into her body.
But Harkan’s bedroom was a familiar, untidy place. Over the years, Eliana had spent as many nights there as she had in her own.
She climbed into his bed, waiting. He pulled the drapes nearly shut, leaving the window open behind them. He lit the four squat candles he kept on a side table—one
for each member of his lost family. When he had pulled off his shirt and boots, he climbed in beside her and drew her down into the warm nest of his arms.
“Thank you,” he murmured against her cheek.
She smiled, wriggling closer. “I always sleep better when I’m with you.”
He laughed softly. Then the room filled with silence. He worried the ends of her braid between his fingers. “Someday,
we’ll have enough money to leave this place.”
Eliana closed her eyes. It was the beginning of Harkan’s favorite story, one he had told her countless times. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she couldn’t stand listening to it, not today. That this story had been a comfort when they were young and didn’t know any better but was simply cruel and pointless now.
So she waited until she
could speak instead of yelling at him, and asked, as she always did, “Where will we go?”
“North across the Narrow Sea, to Astavar.”
Astavar. Eliana used to dream about what it would look like—white-capped mountains, lush green valleys, a world of ice and snow and night skies filled with twisting strands of colored light.
Now it was simply a place on a map. Ventera’s northern neighbor
and the last free country left in the world.
“No one gets in or out of Astavar,” Eliana countered, falling into the rhythm of their practiced back-and-forth.
“We’ll find a smuggler,” Harkan continued. “A good one. We’ll pay whatever we need to pay.”
“Astavar will fall one of these days. Everyone falls to the Empire. Look what happened to us.”
“Perhaps. But in the meantime, we could
have a few years of peace. You, me, your mother, Remy.” He squeezed her hand. “A proper family.”
Just like the one Eliana had destroyed mere hours ago. Suddenly she found it difficult to swallow. Suddenly her eyes felt hot and full.
This was what came of trying to be a good friend.
“I don’t know that I could ever be proper,” she teased. It sounded unconvincing even to her.
“Think of it, El.” Harkan’s thumb smoothed circles against the crook of her arm. “The sea isn’t large. We could be in Astavar in an hour, maybe two. We could find a small place, maybe by a lake. I could farm. Remy could bake. Your mother could continue with her mending. And you—”
“And me?” Eliana sat up. She couldn’t play this game any longer. “If we could get past the Empire troops at
our border, and if we could find a smuggler who wouldn’t betray us to the Empire, and if we could convince the Astavaris to let us cross their border…if we managed to do all that, with money we don’t have, what would I do, then, in this fantasy of yours?”
Harkan ignored the harsh edge to her voice. He kissed her wrist. “Anything. You can hunt game. I’ll teach you how to grow tomatoes. You
can wear a straw hat.” He pressed his lips to her shoulder. “I suppose you don’t have to wear a hat. Although I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been daydreaming about it for so long that my heart might break if you didn’t.”
“It won’t work,” she said at last.
“The hat?” Harkan’s gaze was soft. “On the contrary, I think it would flatter you nicely.”
In that moment, she hated him almost as
much as she hated herself.
She moved out of his arms, drew her tunic over her head, and gently pinned his wrists to his pillow.
“There’s no place for a girl like me in your dream world, love,” she explained with a coy smile. “All I know how to do is kill, remember?”
“And this,” Harkan said, his eyes dark and his voice low.
“And this,” she agreed and then kissed him deeply enough
that he had nothing else to say.
• • •
That evening, she returned home at dusk to prepare dinner.
“Darling Mother!” She dropped a kiss on her mother’s cheek.
“What happened today?” asked Rozen Ferracora. She sat at the table, parts from her latest tinkering job scattered across the worn wood. Nuts and bolts. Nails and knives. “I heard about the boy—and Quill.”
“Oh, did you?”
Eliana shrugged, started chopping carrots. She felt her mother’s eyes upon her and chopped faster. “Well. What do you expect? Another banner day in the glorious kingdom of Ventera.”
Later, Remy came in and sat at the table, watching Eliana lay out their dinner—a loaf of fresh bread, vegetable stew, a block of hard cheese—all of it high quality, freshly bought in the Garden Quarter.
had never been more aware of their lovely little home, their stock of food, the relative safety of their neighborhood.
All of it bought with the blood on her hands.
She filled her mother’s bowl and set it before her with a flourish.
Remy broke the silence, his voice shaking. His blue eyes were brilliant with unshed tears. “You’re a coward.”
Eliana had expected that. Still, the
vitriol in his voice was a gut punch. She almost dropped her plate.
Rozen hissed at him, “Stop it, Remy.”
“I heard a child was executed today, and that rebel, Quill. The one who smuggles people out of the city.”
Eliana’s throat tightened painfully. She had never seen such an expression on Remy’s face. Like he didn’t recognize her—and didn’t want to.
With relish, she bit off a chunk
of bread. “All true!”
“You did that,” he whispered.
“You killed them.”
She swallowed, knocked back a gulp of water, wiped her mouth. “As I’ve said before, my
keeps us warm and fed and alive. So, dearest brother, unless you’d prefer to starve…”
Remy shoved his plate away. “I hate you.”
Rozen sat rigid in her chair. “You don’t. Don’t say that.”
“Let him hate me.” Eliana glanced at Remy and then quickly away. He was looking right at the soft hole in her middle, the hollow place she let no one but him see. It ached from the bruise of his words. “If it helps him sleep at night, he can hate me until the end of his days.”
Remy’s eyes flicked to her neck, where the chain of her necklace was visible. His expression darkened.
King Audric the Lightbringer around your neck, but you don’t deserve to.” His gaze traveled back to her face. “He’d be ashamed of you if the Blood Queen hadn’t killed him. He’d be ashamed of anyone who helps the Empire.”
“If the Blood Queen hadn’t killed him,” Eliana said evenly, “then it wouldn’t matter, would it? Maybe the Empire would never have risen. Maybe we’d all be living in a world
full of magic and flying horses and beautiful castles built by the saints themselves.”
She clasped her hands, regarded him with exaggerated patience. “But Queen Rielle did kill him. And so here we are. And I wear his image around my neck to remind myself that we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where good kings die and those foolish enough to hope for something better are killed
where they stand.”
She ignored them both after that and devoured her stew in silence.
• • •
Her mother found her later that night, when Eliana was cleaning her blades in her room.
“Eliana,” said Rozen, panting slightly, “you should rest.” Even with her prosthetic leg, it took her some effort to get upstairs unassisted. She leaned hard on her cane.
“Mother, what are you doing?”
Eliana rose, helped her to sit. Her daggers and smoke grenades lay across the floor, a tapestry of death. “You should be the one resting.”
Rozen stared at the floor for a long moment. Then her face crumpled, and she turned into Eliana’s shoulder.
“I hate seeing you like this,” she whispered. “I’m sorry for this. I’m sorry I taught you… I’m sorry for everything.”
Eliana held on to her,
stroking her messy knot of dark hair. She listened to Rozen whisper too many apologies to count.
“Sorry about what?” Eliana said at last. “That Grandfather taught you how to kill? That you taught me?”
Rozen cupped Eliana’s cheek in one weathered hand, searched her face with wet eyes that reminded Eliana of Remy’s—inquisitive, tireless. “You’d tell me if you needed a rest? We can ask Lord
Arkelion for time—”
“Time for what? To bake cookies and paint the walls a fresh color?” Eliana smiled, squeezed her mother’s hand. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Rozen’s mouth thinned. “Eliana, don’t play coy with me. I can see right through that smile of yours. I
you that smile.”
“Then don’t apologize for teaching me how to keep us alive, all right? I’m fine.”
Eliana rose, stretched, then helped Rozen to her own bed. She made her a cup of tea, kissed her cheek, helped unstrap her leg for the night—a finely crafted, wooden apparatus that had cost Eliana the wages from two jobs.
Two executions. Two slaughtered souls.
When Eliana returned to her room, she found Remy waiting for her, hugging his knees to his chest.
She crawled into bed beside
him, struggling to breathe through a sudden tightness in her chest. Grief crashed upon her in waves. Dry-eyed, she let them pull her under.
Remy said quietly, “I don’t hate you,” and allowed her to hold on to him. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on only him—the twin scents of flour on his clothes and ink on his hands. The sound of his voice singing her “A Song for the Golden King.”
It had been Eliana’s favorite lullaby as a child—a lament for Audric the Lightbringer.
Remy’s small hands stroked her hair. She could crush him if she wanted to. And yet, given the chance, her bony bird of a brother would face off against the Emperor. Even if it killed him.
And I have a warrior’s strength
, she thought,
but the heart of a coward.
A cruel joke. The world was full of
“I can’t bear it,” she whispered, her voice muffled against Remy’s shirt.
“Can’t bear what?” Remy asked quietly.
“You know what.”
He said nothing. He was going to make her say it.
She sighed. “Killing people. Hunting people. Being good at it.”
“You like being good at it,” he pointed out.
She didn’t argue. “It’s getting worse out there. And I still have no answers.”
“The missing women?”
“Who’s taking them? And where? And
?” Her fingers curled around his wrists. She imagined pulling him down into the safe, dark world under her bed and never letting him leave.
“You’re afraid we might be next,” he said.
“I’m afraid we could be. Anyone could be.”
“You’re right.” Remy lay down beside her, his eyes close and bright. “But all that matters right
now is that you’re here, and so am I.”
Eliana held his hands to her heart and let him sing her into a fitful sleep.
• • •
The next job arrived several days later on Eliana’s doorstep.
Packaged in a brown paper parcel, it was marked with the address of the city’s most expensive tailor.
Eliana took the package and gave the messenger three silver coins. The pale-skinned man wore
the plain brown tunic of an apprentice, and at first glance looked as ordinary as anyone. But Eliana knew at once that this man was no tailor’s apprentice.
She thanked him with a silent nod and returned to her bedroom. From her window, she watched him walk down the street, crowded with Garden Quarter shoppers.
He walked almost perfectly. But Eliana had learned to watch for a certain stiffness
in the way adatrox moved—every so often, a tiny, unnatural tic accompanying shifts in direction. A slight dimness in the eyes, delayed movements of the mouth, the brow. The subtler parts of the face that told you what the person inside was thinking.
It was as though the Empire’s soldiers moved not by their own will, but by someone else’s.
She hoped she never found out why the adatrox could
seem normal one moment—laughing, talking, yawning—and then, without warning, fall perfectly quiet and still. Statue still. A shadow falling over the face, clouding the eyes. It could last an instant or for hours.