Authors: Claire Legrand
Before blackness took her, she heard another voice—male and lovely and soft as shadow.
I think it’s time I said hello
, said the voice. It felt something like a kiss, and it came from both far away and very near.
Then she knew nothing.
“The Venteran capital, Orline, is a well-situated port city on the southeastern coast. Despite the sweltering heat and the occasional stench from the swamplands on the western border, I am forced to admit it boasts a certain unique beauty—a luxurious city of stone terraces, hidden courtyards, and hanging moss, hugged by a broad, brown river that begins two thousand miles
north in the Venteran highlands.”
—Initial report of Lord Arkelion to His Holy Majesty, the Emperor of the Undying, upon successful seizure of Orline
February 13, Year 1010 of the Third Age
On the first night of the full moon, Eliana did not sleep. She donned her new mask, painted her lips crimson, and flung her favorite cloak about her shoulders—a little theatricality never hurt anyone—and
disappeared into the night.
She took to the rooftops, to the hop shops that reeked of lachryma, to the red rooms owned by friendly madams. She spent a night drifting through the Barrens.
She watched, and she listened.
She sought out her usual informants—frightened rebels willing to betray Red Crown or useful opportunists who would play double agent for coin.
She asked questions
and demanded answers. She threatened and coaxed.
Mostly, she threatened.
But she found nothing of the Wolf. Not a glimpse, not a whisper.
• • •
On the second night of the full moon, Eliana came home with a fist-size knot in her stomach and a dozen frantic questions in her mind.
Did the Wolf know she was tracking him? Was that why everything had gone quiet?
Was this some sort of test?
Was she failing?
She sat on the terrace outside her room and watched the sunrise bleed the world red. Part of her longed to cross the gap between rooftops, sneak into Harkan’s room, wake him up with her mouth, and let him love her into oblivion.
But instead she sat still as a gargoyle, hood up and gloves on, and waited—and wondered.
If she didn’t find the Wolf, what would Rahzavel do?
And if she was hunting the Wolf, was he in turn hunting her?
• • •
On the last night of the full moon, Eliana came home with panic humming beneath her skin to find that someone had broken into her house.
When working, Eliana preferred to enter and exit the house via the tiny stone terrace outside her third-floor window. That way,
the front entrance on the road remained undisturbed.
Tonight, though, her window was open. A thin strip of wood marked where the paint had been scraped off; someone had forced open the lock. There was a crack in the pane of glass.
As she stood frozen, she caught a scent on the air, just as she had the night of Quill’s capture—that same unbalanced sensation that had left her feeling thrown
out of alignment with the world around her. A sour pressure sat heavy against her tongue and shoulders.
Someone was here.
were here, those masked girl-snatchers from the docks. She knew it with a gut certainty. The only times she had ever felt such a sensation were that night and this one.
Which mean that now her mother…
They only take women
, Eliana told herself,
her heart kicking frantically.
They only take girls.
Sweat beaded along her hairline. She could get Harkan to help her, but by then it might be too late.
She dropped down to the second-floor terrace outside her mother’s room. The flowers of Rozen’s rooftop garden perfumed the air and turned Eliana’s stomach.
She found the window unlocked, which was odd. Her mother always locked the
window before bed. She eased open the pane and slipped inside…and stopped.
Her mother was gone.
The room reeked with the trail of whatever phantom
the abductors carried with them. The sheets had been pulled half off the mattress. A shattered teacup lay in pieces on the floor.
And her mother’s prosthetic leg stood propped in the corner.
Terror rooted Eliana to the spot.
You’re afraid we might be next
, Remy had said the night of Quill’s execution.
Not her mother. It wasn’t possible.
Whoever was behind the abductions did not take women from the Garden Quarter. They were protected in this neighborhood.
But if the abductions were part of something bigger than Lord Arkelion’s whims, maybe beyond his control altogether—
Footsteps sounded from
the third floor. Her own room. Nearly silent but not quite. Their house was old; the floors creaked.
, she thought,
please stay asleep. Please still be safe in your bed.
She unsheathed her dagger, slipped out the door to her mother’s bedroom. She crept past Remy’s closed door and up the stairs to the third-floor landing.
Pressed flat against the wall beside her bedroom door, she
waited. The door opened, and a tall figure stepped out into the shadows. Paused. Moved toward the stairs.
In the moonlight spilling out from her bedroom, she saw his mask of mesh and metal.
Fear punched through her.
Supposedly, he never showed his face, choosing to always wear a mask. But a madam Eliana knew swore she had once seen the Wolf take it off. He
was scarred, she said, as if from the rake of claws.
She said he had eyes like winter—icy cold and pitiless.
, Eliana thought.
We’ll be well matched.
She ran at him, kicked him hard in the small of his back. She expected him to fall down the stairs.
He did not.
He turned, caught her leg, flung her to the landing floor. With her free leg, she kicked his shin, twisted
free, and jumped to her feet. He let his gloved fist fly; she ducked, and he hit the wall instead.
That slowed him a bit. She kicked the back of his knee. His leg buckled, but he was fast. He turned and shoved her, hard. She lost her footing and fell down the stairs to the second-floor landing.
The Wolf followed, seized her upper arms, and pushed her over the banister.
She fell two
floors to the foyer, landing hard on her back. Her head cracked against the tiled floor, and for a fleeting moment she saw stars. But then she gritted her teeth and jumped to her feet.
The Wolf had hurried down after her, still poised to strike. He’d known that such a fall wouldn’t seriously hurt her—or even kill her—as it might have someone else.
Fresh terror fluttered at the back of
her throat. Her skin suddenly felt ill-fitting over her unbreakable bones.
He’d been following her, then. He’d seen her work. Or he had at least heard the rumors of the invincible Dread of Orline and believed them—no matter how ridiculous they seemed. Either way, he was here. He’d caught her out.
Interesting. And worrying.
She dodged his punch at the base of the stairs, whirled and
kicked. He grabbed her cloak and yanked her back against him. She elbowed him in the gut, heard him grunt. Pulled Arabeth from her hip, turned, aimed for his heart—
But he was too quick; her dagger hit nothing but air. She staggered, thrown off-balance. He shoved her back against the wall beside the kitchen door. Her head hit brick, and the room dipped and swayed around her.
her wrist and twisted, forcing her to drop Arabeth. He kicked the blade down the hallway, shoved his arm against her neck, pinned her. She grabbed Whistler from her thigh and swiped at him. Not a fatal cut, but he still cursed and released her.
She ripped Tempest from her boot and looked up, ready to strike—
The Wolf held a revolver, its muzzle pointed at her face.
“Drop the knives.” His voice was low, refined, and cut like ice. “Against the wall. Slowly.”
“That’s cheating,” she fumed. “You brought a gun.” But she obeyed, backing away from him until her shoulders brushed the wooden boards of the wall.
The Wolf followed, his body towering over her. He ripped Nox and Tuora from her belt and pressed Tuora’s blade against her throat, then
dropped his gun and kicked it away.
She stared at the blank metal face looming over her, searching for eyes beyond the mesh and finding none.
“Take off your mask,” he ordered.
She did, then fixed him with the hardest smile she could muster.
“Dread,” he murmured, his breath caressing her cheek, “is only a feeling, easily squashed. But wolves, my dear, have teeth.”
“Beware, beware the Sauvillier smile—
A beautiful moon on a night most vile
It’ll cut you to your bones, it’ll fog the sharpest eyes
So says a man from the river who never tells lies”
—Celdarian traveling song
Rielle surged upright, yanked out of fire-edged dreams into a world of sudden panic.
“Audric,” she croaked. The word scraped her raw throat.
He had to be near. If he had died,
if he had died—
“Hush.” Cool hands brought a cup of water to her lips, helped her drink. “He’s alive and well.”
Rielle blinked, and Ludivine’s face came into focus. She wore her long, golden hair in loose waves. Her pale blue eyes were bright, the only chink in an armor of serenity. With her hair down, her face clean and scrubbed, she could have passed
for a girl much younger than nineteen. Nevertheless, she was a high lord’s daughter, a lady of the House Sauvillier, the cousin and betrothed of the crown prince, and Celdaria’s future queen. And even in her dressing gown, she looked every inch the part.
“There you are,” she said, smiling. “For two days you’ve been fading in and out. We’ve only managed to feed you bites, sips of water.” Ludivine’s
pale brow furrowed. She gathered Rielle’s hands in her own. “You terrified me, darling.”
“Tell me what happened,” Rielle said, trying to sit up.
Ludivine hesitated. “You should rest.”
But then Rielle remembered how Maliya had collapsed and felt suddenly, violently sick. Ludivine held back the unruly dark mass of her hair and rubbed between her shoulders as she emptied her stomach onto
One of Ludivine’s maids scurried over to clean the mess, then glanced fearfully up at Rielle. The maid finished cleaning and fled to the sitting room with as much haste as decorum allowed.
Rielle watched her leave. Once she and Ludivine were once again alone, Rielle said, “Tell me.”
“The assassins are dead,” Ludivine said softly. “Fifteen of the racers are dead. We are…uncertain
how each of them died, but we are blaming their deaths on the assassins and the circumstances of the race itself.”
Rielle couldn’t meet Ludivine’s eyes. She could hardly stand feeling the reality of her own body’s existence. Fifteen racers dead.
Her blood hummed with the memory of it—the crashing boulders and flaming earth, the fallen racers and their horses’ screams.
clenched her fists, shut her eyes, counted her breaths. “Lu, I’m sorry.”
“Everyone else is safe,” Ludivine continued. “Tal and his acolytes managed to control the fire before it could spread to the race boxes and the farmlands.”
Rielle couldn’t even remember how it had started. The entire affair, since seeing the assassins surround Audric, was nothing but a fog
Shame gripped her like a hot fist. “I see. I shall have to thank them personally.”
“At the very least,” Ludivine said, but her voice was gentle. “Your horse…”
Rielle made a small, choked sound. She could still feel the poor animal’s flesh blistering at her touch. The assassins had deserved their deaths, but not Maliya, and not the fifteen racers.
She closed her eyes.
“Odo will be furious.”
“He is simply glad you’re alive.”
Ludivine laid her hand over Rielle’s. “Audric is fine.”
“He’s not hurt?”
“Truly, Rielle. He’s perfectly fine. I should send for him soon. He’s been rather impatient to speak with you.”
Rielle heard the prim note in her friend’s voice. Sometimes she could have sworn Ludivine knew every in and out of her
true feelings. “Not yet.”
If I see him, I will say something unforgivable. I will say too much.
“There’s a lot to explain, and I—”
“Yes, indeed there is. I didn’t know you were an earthshaker, Rielle. And a firebrand as well?”
Rielle stiffened at the deceptive sweetness in Ludivine’s voice. It was a tone rarely used on her. “I am neither of those things.”
“You’re certainly something.
The capital is in an uproar. Bodies, we can explain away. But altered mountainsides, scorched and shattered earth? Many people have questions.”
“And the king wants answers.”
“Well, he will have to torture them out of me.”
“That isn’t funny.”
to me.” Ludivine rose to pace across the room. When she turned back, her face was flushed, her eyes
bright. “How could you have kept this from me? We trust each other. I would never have let anything happen to you.”
“It was not your truth to know,” Rielle said tightly.
“And what truth is that? What happened out there? What are you?”
That was a blow. Rielle’s voice unraveled. “I wish I knew.”
“The prophecy says…” Ludivine paused, gathering herself. “‘They will carry the power
of the Seven.’ The two Queens are foretold to be able to control all the elements, not just one.”
Rielle let out a harsh, tired laugh. “Are you really explaining the prophecy to me?”
“People will think you are one of them.”
“I’m well aware of that, Lu.”
“Rumors are already circulating. The city—”
“Is terrified?” Rielle rubbed shaky hands across her face. “They’re not alone.”
“I thought we had no secrets between us.”
“I can make it go away. I just…need more time.”
“Make it go away? What, as though this power you have is a bad mood? Those are your father’s words.”
Rielle closed her eyes. “Father. God help me.”
“He is with the king now.”
Rielle quailed at that, but she forced up her chin. “I won’t let them kill me.”
Ludivine’s expression softened.
“They can try, and I’m sure they will. But I won’t let them.” She stood, her head throbbing.
Ludivine gently caught Rielle’s wrist, then cradled Rielle’s face in her hands. Rielle let her eyes fall closed. Ludivine’s scent—lavender oil and clean skin—enveloped her in memory: Morning walks in the gardens, their arms linked. Childhood nights curled up between Ludivine and Audric
by the wide hearth in his rooms.
“I won’t let them hurt you either,” Ludivine repeated, her voice firm and clear. “Never. Do you hear me?”
Rielle tried for lightness. “Oh, and what will you do? Sweet Lady Ludivine would not hurt even a fly, I’ve been told.”
Ludivine smiled. She opened her mouth to speak, but Rielle stopped her. The moment of calm had brought forth a memory.
spoke to me,” she said abruptly.
Ludivine frowned, blinking. “What?”
“Before. I saw the fire, and I couldn’t stand up. Audric caught me, and…then I heard someone speak to me.”
“You mean, Audric spoke to you?”
“No. Someone else. It was…” Rielle paused, trying to recall the exact feeling, and her skin thrilled as though someone had drawn a feather across her belly. “It came from
Ludivine arched an eyebrow. “Audric’s healer did say you might have a slight fever.”
“No, Lu, I’m telling you—”
Someone pounded on the outer door of Ludivine’s apartment, prompting the maid from before to hurry in a moment later, her eyes wide. She glanced over her shoulder. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but you have a visitor…”
Ludivine kept Rielle’s hand in hers.
“Lady Rielle is not ready to receive visitors just yet.”
“Apologies, my lady, I tried to tell them—”
“It’s the king,” Rielle said. “Isn’t it?”
The maid would not meet her eyes. “We were ordered to send word as soon as you’d awoken, my lady.”
“His Majesty has many questions, Rielle,” came a voice she knew well.
Lord Commander Armand Dardenne strode in from the sitting room,
pushing open the door to Ludivine’s bedroom without bothering to knock. He was steel and iron, every inch of him impeccable. He regarded his daughter with all the warmth of a statue.
She started forward. “Is Tal—?”
“Grand Magister Belounnon has already been questioned by the councils,” he continued, “as have I. You’re next. Make yourself presentable.”
Without another word, Ludivine
and her maids helped Rielle behind the dressing screen and into a muted dress of dusky blue and ivory, with a high collar and ribboned sleeves. It was pretty enough to charm, demure enough not to offend.
“Should I be angry that you sent your maids to root through my wardrobe without my permission?” Rielle murmured with half a laugh.
“I couldn’t care less if you’re angry or not,” Ludivine
said, straightening Rielle’s skirts. “All these years of my guidance, and I still don’t trust you to pick the appropriate gown for any occasion.”
“Some would say my fashion sense is unique and forward-thinking.”
“Yes, and such a sense is not one to parade about during a royal questioning.” Ludivine raised an eyebrow at one of her maids. “I need the jeweled combs on the table there.”
Once Ludivine had pinned back her long, dark hair, Rielle checked her reflection in the mirror. She looked small and strange, the softness of her dress in stark contrast to the red scratches on her face, the shadows under her sharp green eyes.
“If you’re finished,” came her father’s voice.
Rielle closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, but before she could move, Ludivine drew her into a
warm embrace and kissed her on the cheek.
“Remember,” Ludivine whispered, “if anyone wants to hurt you, they’ll have to go through me. And Audric. And Tal. And many, many others. The king will not act rashly. Trust him. Trust us.”
Rielle held Ludivine to her for another moment, then stepped out from the dressing screen. Her father offered her his arm; reluctantly, she took it.
she began, “before we go down—”
He ignored her. “Everyone in this castle is starving for gossip at the moment. Do not speak of anything important while they bring us downstairs.”
“They?” she asked, but once they stepped into the sitting room, she understood.
Twenty soldiers of the royal guard waited for them, lining the path out of Ludivine’s apartment with their swords drawn.
Rielle faltered only for a moment as the guards escorted them out into the windowed hallway, where morning sunlight bathed the polished stone in gold.
She lifted her chin, set her jaw. Audric was still alive. She did not regret what she had done.
, came the voice, pleased.
You should regret nothing. It was past time.
She was feverish. She was exhausted, hearing things.
Who are you?
There was no answer.
The silence unnerved her, and though it was childish, she couldn’t help but say quietly to her father, “I am not afraid.”
“My daughter,” he replied, something new and haggard in his voice, “you should be.”