Authors: Claire Legrand
Whatever the Empire did to its legions of soldiers, she hoped it had not been done to her father, wherever he was. If he was still alive.
She placed the parcel on her bed and
paused for a moment, readying herself.
She often heard of potential jobs when visiting Remy at the bakery or while attending one of His Lordship’s parties with Harkan. She would allow some favored son or daughter of the Empire to kiss her in a curtained corner, whisper secrets to her. Then, later, she and Harkan would fall together into bed until they no longer felt so unclean.
jobs came as messages, especially for Eliana.
These, she did not share with Harkan.
They often arrived folded between powdered fritters wrapped in thin paper, to remind Eliana of Remy—and how close he had been to this note and its messenger with the blank-slate eyes. She would read those orders with shaking hands.
Today, the job came tucked beneath folds of silk—a wine-colored whisper
of a dress with long slits up each leg, shimmering as though it had been dipped in diamonds. The back was entirely bare, save for three thin, beaded strands. It was a flattering color for her, and the measurements seemed right. It would drape nicely over her body.
She swallowed past the sick knot in her chest. Lord Arkelion paid too close attention to her—and had for some time now. Eliana
unfolded the message and read the encoded instructions three times over:
The Wolf rides on the full moon.
I want him alive.
Glory to the Empire.
Long live His Holy Majesty the Undying Emperor.
She stared at the exquisite penmanship.
Though the message bore Lord Arkelion’s seal, the writing was not his.
It was Rahzavel’s.
This writing, then, was a message within
a message: Rahzavel was on his way to Orline. He was after the Wolf, and he wanted Eliana’s help.
She didn’t blame him.
Unlike Quill, the Wolf was not some Red Crown lackey. He was the right hand of the Prophet, lieutenant to the mysterious leader of Red Crown himself. The Wolf had evaded the Empire for years, and now he was here in her city.
Eliana’s eyes found the figure written
across the bottom of the note in that same meticulous hand:
Her heart raced.
A payment of 20,000 in Empire gold?
Money like that was a small fortune—and, coming from Rahzavel, the invitation Eliana had long feared:
Deliver the Wolf. Take our money.
Serve the Emperor.
She had never told Harkan how she had, over the past two years, accepted
even more jobs than he knew and saved as much as she could.
She had never told him just how deeply she had come to long for his fantasy of living in some quiet corner of Astavar with goats and fresh bread and tomato plants.
Instead she had saved and killed and hunted and saved. And now, with 20,000 gold in addition to her savings…
She heard the bell ring downstairs. Remy was home;
his laughter lit up their house. How miraculous, that he could still laugh so easily.
Eliana threw the note into the fire and watched Rahzavel’s words burn. Once the note was ashes, she glanced out her window at the darkening sky. It was the first night of the full moon.
If Invictus wanted her, they could have her—but they would never touch her family.
She would deliver the Wolf as
She would accept her reward and ensure that Remy, Harkan, and her mother could safely leave the country.
And she would begin the hunt that very night.
“Fleet-footed fire, blaze not with fury or abandon
Burn steady and true, burn clean and burn bright”
—The Fire Rite
As first uttered by Saint Marzana the Brilliant, patron saint of Kirvaya and firebrands
Rielle saw the seven false arbiters converging on Audric, their swords gleaming. Borsvall men.
Other racers veered out of the way as they continued through
the pass, eyes fixed on the course and the coin waiting at the end.
Audric looked over his shoulder, the enemy soldiers forming a
behind him. One carried a sword that drew long spirals of blackness from the air—a shadowcaster, flinging darkness ahead of him and clouding Audric in fog.
Rielle saw these things, and she saw none of them.
There was only Audric. Never mind the betrothal,
never mind Ludivine, and damn the entire royal court to the Deep.
He was hers, and these men wanted to kill him.
A knife-sharp rage crested within her.
She snapped Maliya’s reins and let out a sharp cry. The mare took her racing after them.
There was no way even Audric could defeat them all, not unarmed—and Rielle knew he was unarmed today. When she had suggested
he keep at least his secondary, less powerful castings hidden somewhere on his person, he had protested.
Weapons are against the rules, Rielle. Even my daggers. You know that.
If he had Illumenor, his sword, there would be no question. But Audric could not bring down sunlight without his castings. Not even the saints had been able to do that.
No one could, Rielle knew, but her.
an instant, years of lessons teaching her to stifle every instinct she possessed fell away. A locked door wedged shut in her heart flew open.
She flung out her hand as though she could stop the assassins with her fury alone. A blast of heat flooded her body. Her fingertips were ten points of fire.
Flames erupted on either side of her, shooting toward the pass in twin blazing paths.
The world shook. A hot hiss rent the air in two. She ducked flying clods of earth. Maliya lurched beneath her, let out a shrill cry. Rielle barely managed to keep her seat.
She heard a shout of panic and looked back the way she had come. The blackened land behind her looked as if it had been raked open by monstrous claws. Other racers were bringing their horses up short, steering them away
from the shredded ground.
Beneath Rielle, Maliya’s glistening sides heaved. She was pushing her horse too hard. They should not be running so quickly.
But Rielle refused to stop.
There, in front of them—the Borsvall assassins. They were entering the pass and tearing back through the mountains to the city, trying to intercept Audric before he could reach it. Enormous boulders rolled
down the mountains on either side of the pass and crashed into one another, sending dirt and rocks flying. The other racers tried to dodge the debris; only some succeeded. Several bodies fell and did not rise again.
Rielle considered stopping to help the nearest one, but then saw an assassin’s spear flash, flinging sticky knots of fire at Audric. A firebrand. The flames clung to Audric’s cloak
and boots. He ducked a streak of fire arcing over his head and turned his horse right. The air around him shimmered and popped. His sunspinner power, itching to erupt?
Rielle kicked Maliya hard. Faster,
If anything happened to him, if he died before she could tell him—
The ground burst open on either side of her. Fresh flames spewed from the earth she’d ripped open, blasting
her face with heat. Rocks went flying; one slammed into the shoulder of another racer as he struggled to get out of her way, and he fell.
Guilt spiked through her, but then Maliya shrieked, disoriented. Something was wrong. Her gait was uneven.
Rielle slipped, nearly tumbling off. She yanked herself back up, hard, and inhaled a mouthful of smoke.
Maliya made another terrible sound.
She was wheezing; Rielle’s legs were burning. Everything was too hot.
Up ahead, Audric had made it to the pass.
Rielle pushed Maliya harder, and they followed him in. The air was full of smoke, flames, the roar of falling rock. The dizzy euphoria of power sweeping through Rielle’s body was so overwhelming she could hardly stay in the saddle, hardly think, hardly
very near, was burning.
Beyond the assassins, a flash of color, a man’s cry: Audric, just out of his attackers’ reach, urging his horse faster. But the Borsvall men were almost upon him.
Rielle licked her lips, tasted sweat.
She had not brought any weapons. Why hadn’t she brought any
The Borsvall rider nearest her turned in his saddle and cried out in horror. He thrust
his ax into the air, yanked it back. Rielle’s horse surged forward beneath her, let out a sharp cry, and stumbled. The man was a metalmaster; his power flew out from his body through his casting and jerked Maliya’s bit left, right, and left again. A sour metallic tang in the air made Rielle want to gag. She reached down into the air and threw everything she felt at him.
Heat ripped through
her, belly to fingers. A knot of sizzling white flew at the Borsvall rider and enveloped him in gold. For a moment he seized, outlined in light. Then he was writhing on the ground, his ax dissolving into ash beside him.
Rielle flew past him. She gagged at the smell of him, at the sight of the charred mess that had once been a body.
Just like her mother.
They had been at home that day,
surrounded by candles. An evening prayer, a simple argument—and an explosion.
Rielle glanced down at her hands. Her riding gloves were singed through; streaks of blood slicked her palms. She turned one hand to the left, to the right. A white-gold shimmer winked just under her skin, then faded.
Wouldn’t Magister Guillory be proud of her? A true sunspinner, one who could bring
down the sun with her bare hands.
She laughed, a torn sound. What was happening to her? Her body was a bonfire, spreading out and out, and she couldn’t stop it.
She dropped the reins, instinct screaming at her to reach for a weapon, and though she found only empty air, her palms crackled with heat. Blind and desperate, she threw her hands at the Borsvall attackers. An invisible force flung
them to the ground. Their horses ran free, crazed with fear.
Rielle looked around, dazed. The quaking world behind her, fanning out along Maliya’s path, was a spiderweb of fissures. Her mind felt similarly ruptured, like her power had knocked loose all her edges.
Where was Audric? She searched wildly through the smoke and dust.
“Rielle!” A familiar voice.
Audric, on foot. She must
have knocked him off his horse as well, and now he was limping. She kicked Maliya into action. Audric stepped back from her approach. Something terrible fell across his face.
What did he see?
A thick black arrow zipped past her.
Rielle yanked Maliya around, turning her so hard she could feel the cut of the bit in her own mouth. She bore down on the man who had shot at her. He faced
her, reaching for another arrow.
He nocked it. He took aim not at her, but at Audric.
Rielle cried out for Audric to move, urged Maliya forward to get between him and the archer.
Maliya took a few faltering steps, and then something beneath Rielle gave way. She looked down. Her horse was a raw, pulpy mess—drenched with blood, patches of her gray coat charred black and smoking.
The horror of it struck Rielle in the gut. She dropped the reins and leaned back in her saddle. She had to get away from this terrible thing beneath her. Where had it come from?
Maliya’s hindquarters sagged and buckled; Rielle fell hard on her side. She crawled, frantic, clawing at the dirt to get out of the way.
Another arrow from the Borsvall assassin—but not aimed at Rielle, nor at Audric.
The arrow pierced Maliya between the eyes; her screams fell silent. The wreck of her lay there, steaming.
Rielle huddled on the ground, the scent of Maliya’s burned flesh thick in her nose. A distant part of her mind still searched for Audric, but when she tried to rise to her feet, her body wouldn’t cooperate. Heaving, she pushed herself up and retched. She was covered in dirt and blood—her
own and Maliya’s.
The clang of metal against metal crashed through the air. Swords.
Frantic, Rielle searched through her dimming vision for a weapon of her own, something one of the Borsvall men had dropped. Even a rock would do.
Oh, God help her, her poor horse.
What had she done?
She wiped her bleeding palms on her shirt. The earth still vibrated, as though an
army ten thousand strong was marching on the capital.
“Stop it,” she whispered, for she knew it was all her doing—the horse, the falling rocks, the rifts in the earth.
She had lost control, after everything Tal and her father had tried to teach her. She’d only wanted to show them she could be trusted, that she deserved a life outside the temple and her own lonely rooms.
And now her
father would hate her even more deeply than he already did.
Everyone on the course had seen.
She slammed her hands into the ground, heedless of pain. “Stop it!”
A roar, a swift burst of wind. Suddenly everything was hot.
She heard the distant sounds of screams from the race grounds. Someone was speaking over the amplifier.
She looked up.
Her crawling had
brought her to the highest point of the pass. In front of her lay a downward slope, then the Flats. The finish line, spectator boxes clustered around it. The capital—the roofs of the seven temples and of Baingarde, the king’s castle, gleaming in the sun.
Twin trails of fire stretched from her hands down toward the city like long, hungry tongues.
Rielle staggered to her feet, exhaustion
rocking her. Audric shouted in warning. Rielle turned to see one of the remaining Borsvall men approaching, his sword raised, fire crackling along the blade. His eyes were wide and white, his face drawn. This assassin, this firebrand with his flaming sword, was afraid of
She dropped again and rolled; his sword whistled through the air where she had been standing. Fire singed her hair.
Smoke stung her nostrils.
Audric leapt in front of her, a glowing dagger in each hand.
Rielle felt faint with relief. He’d snuck in weapons after all.
Audric’s face was hard with rage. When the assassin’s fiery sword crashed into his sunlit daggers, the blow hurt Rielle’s teeth. Sparks flew. Flames spit near Audric’s face as the firebrand’s sword bore down on him. But he did not waver.
He stood strong before Rielle, the daggers throwing sunlight across the ground. He roared and lunged at the assassin, dislodging his sword. Twin orbs of sunlight burst from his crossed daggers and knocked the assassin to the ground. The assassin pushed himself back to his feet, his face and arms burned, and raced at Audric with a desperate, guttural cry.
Rielle’s head rang with each clash
of their blades; she clamped her hands around her skull. She had to hold herself together. If she couldn’t stop her fire, the city would burn.
Audric met each of the other man’s strikes with his own. His daggers sang; the air shuddered with heat. He wove back and forth, evading a killing thrust. Spun around, hurled a shield of light from his daggers, ran the blinded man through in the gut.
The assassin fell, his sword abruptly snuffed out. Another assassin approached. Audric whirled, caught the second man’s blade between his own. This one was a windsinger, the wind gusting and howling around him. It spiraled off his sword like an army of storms and nearly knocked Audric off his feet.
Their swords flashed, but even Audric had his limits. This second assassin was a boar of a man.
If only Audric had Illumenor—
“Run, Rielle!” Audric shouted, curls plastered to his brow. He shoved his attacker, ducked a wild thrust of the man’s sword.
Rielle looked around, saw a glint of metal in the dirt: a fallen dagger, its hilt engraved with the crest of the Borsvall royal family—a dragon flying over a mountain.
Gathering her last strength, Rielle grabbed the dagger and lurched
to her feet. Her legs nearly buckled; her vision dimmed. She pushed past the pain careening through her body and leapt, and the blade found its way home in the Borsvall man’s throat.
Rielle watched the man drop, felt his summoned wind disappear as he drew his last breath. The world was a faint buzz around her.
She watched the wildfire race down the slope toward the city, igniting every
blade of grass it touched.
, she thought.
Please, stop it. Don’t hurt them.
She reached for the fire with what remained of her ravaged control, tried to pull the inferno back to her, but darkness flooded her vision.
Maybe she hadn’t caused the fire after all. Maybe this was a terrible dream. She would wake on the morning of the race. Ludivine would help her sneak away from Tal’s office.
They had it all planned out.
She would win the race, and Audric would sweep her into his arms, laughing. He would congratulate her, beaming with pride, and then leave her to dine privately with Ludivine, and a part of Rielle would die, as it always did when she was reminded of the simple, terrible truth of their engagement.
Rielle caught a scent on the wind—singed hair, scorched horseflesh.
It had been no dream.
How could she have done this?
had she done this?
Her father was right. Tal was right. She should spend the rest of her life in a quiet room, dulled with poison. She could not be trusted.
She fell to her knees, her head spinning, and strong arms caught her. She felt a hand in her hair and lips hot against her forehead.
“Rielle,” Audric cried. “Rielle,
God, you’re hurt. Stay with me. Look at me, please.”