Authors: Claire Legrand
King Bastien did not look happy, but he nodded.
“The saints’ teachings do indeed tell us that, my lady,” said Audric, looking straight at her as if they were the only two in the room, “and they also tell us that power is not something elementals should deny or ignore. Even when that power is
dangerous, and perhaps even especially then. I of all people know the truth of that.”
Rielle said nothing, though she felt weightless with relief. With those words, Audric had shown her that he understood. He forgave her. The steady belief shining in his eyes warmed her down to her toes.
“With all respect, Your Majesty,” Lord Sauvillier said, and now he simply sounded exasperated, “we
cannot possibly compare this woman and her careless destruction of her surroundings with your son, who has consistently demonstrated unimpeachable discipline and has not once let his power get the better of him.”
A swift rage crested in Rielle. “Perhaps the challenge facing me is greater, as it seems I am more powerful than our prince.”
The silence that followed was so complete it felt
alive. Lord Sauvillier recoiled in disgust, his mouth thin and angry. The king might have been carved from stone, like one of the watching saints.
Rielle waited, heart thundering. She wanted to look to Audric but resisted.
Finally, King Bastien spoke. “Lady Rielle, you are familiar with the prophecy, as spoken by the angel Aryava and translated by Queen Katell.”
Of course she was.
“I am, Your Majesty,” Rielle answered.
“The Gate will fall,” the king recited. “The angels will return and bring ruin to the world. You will know this time by the rise of two human Queens—one of blood, and one of light. One with the power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it. Two Queens will rise. They will carry the power of the Seven. They will carry your
fate in their hands. Two Queens will rise.”
The king paused. In the wake of the prophecy’s words, the hall felt chilled.
“The most popular interpretation being, of course,” King Bastien continued, “that the coming of the two Queens will portend the fall of the Gate and the angels’ vengeance. And that those two Queens will be able to control not only one element, but all of them.”
Yes, of course, and everyone knew that too. Not that most people gave much thought to the different interpretations in modern times—if they gave the prophecy any thought at all.
Rielle was one of the exceptions. Often, she had found herself reading the prophecy’s words over and over, running her fingers across the scripted letters in Tal’s books.
A Queen made of blood and a Queen made of
light. The Blood Queen and the Sun Queen they had come to be called over the centuries.
And now, after so many years, they hardly felt real. The Gate stood strong in the Sunderlands, far in the northern sea, guarded and quiet, with the angels locked safely away on the other side. Queens from a prophecy might as well have been characters in a tale. Children chose sides, assembled play armies,
staged wars in the streets.
The bad queen against the good queen. Blood warring with light.
Am I one of them?
Rielle had wondered, though she had never found the courage to ask Tal or her father outright.
“You see, Lady Rielle,” said the king, “my charge is not to decide whether what you have done is a crime and whether—or how—you should be punished. It is that you seem
to be neither firebrand nor sunspinner nor earthshaker, but all of those things, and more, which is unprecedented. You performed magic more powerful than there has been in half an age, even after spending thirteen years being taught to suppress your abilities in the hope that they would disappear. And you did so without the aid of a casting, which is something not even the saints could manage
at the height of their glory.
“My sacred duty,” said the king, his face grave, “is to determine what, exactly, you are. I must decide if you are one of these Queens—and if so, which one.”
Rielle heard the unsaid words plainly:
And what that will mean for
She clenched her fists in her skirts and curtsied before the king, the shadow of Saint Katell falling like a sword across her
“When darkest is the night
When lost is the fight
When blood is all in sight
Look to the rising dawn”
—Venteran folk song
Whenever Eliana dressed for one of Lord Arkelion’s parties, she thought about her father.
Ioseph Ferracora had spent most of her childhood fighting on the eastern front as the Empire wore down the last of Ventera’s resistance.
“Every night he’s gone, we’ll leave lights in the windows for him,” her mother had decided. In those golden days before the invasion, before Remy, the distant war had felt no more real to Eliana than a ghost story.
“But what will the lights do?” Eliana asked.
“They belong to the Sun Queen,” Rozen explained, “and will help bring your father safely back to us.”
So every night before
bed, Eliana had lit the candle in her window and whispered the Sun Queen’s prayer: “May the Queen’s light guide him home.”
As she grew older, she came to dread her father’s visits, for they became shorter, and they would always end. But she never stopped looking forward to the summer solstice, when Ioseph would return for the annual festival—and most importantly, for the Sun Queen pageant.
Before the Fall, before the Blood Queen Rielle died and left everything in ruins, the world was full of magic. So said the stories, and as a child, Eliana had believed in them with all her heart. They said people of the Old World used shields and swords to summon wind and fire. They worshipped mighty saints who had banished the race of angels into oblivion, and they believed that a queen would
someday save the world from evil. She was called the Sun Queen, for she would bring light into darkness.
Even long after the age of the Old World had ended, and it was understood that angels and magic did not exist, had never existed—that the legends of the Old World were simply that—many people still visited temples to pray to the saints, and the myth of the Sun Queen remained.
summer, Ioseph Ferracora returned home to his daughter, bringing with him some new ornament for her costume—a gilded hairpiece from Rinthos, a white mink pelt smuggled in from Astavar.
Together, Eliana and her parents would join the parades crowding the city. Children with gold-dusted cheeks climbed up the crumbling statues of Saint Katell the sunspinner to leave garlands of gemma flowers
around her neck. Musicians beat their drums and plucked their harps. White-robed storytellers performed tales of the Sun Queen’s long-awaited coming.
The parade ended at the high turn of the river, in the easternmost hills, where the statue of Audric the Lightbringer stood. He sat on his winged horse, sword in hand and somber eyes fixed on the eastern horizon. It was Eliana’s favorite statue
in the city, for the doomed king’s face looked both brave and tired. Looking at him made her heart twist with pity.
“I’m sorry, Lightbringer,” she whispered to him, that last year. She kissed his weathered stone boot, clutched her necklace bearing his ruined likeness in the other. As always, she searched for his face in the necklace’s layers of wear, but while the winged horse was clear, the
person riding it had been buried beneath the darkness of time, no matter how diligently Eliana tried to clean it.
“Watch the horizon,” Rozen had whispered to her daughter, an infant Remy asleep in her arms. “Do you see her? Do you see the Sun Queen?”
“Will she come this year, Papa?” seven-year-old Eliana had asked, elated even after the long night.
“Keep looking, sweet girl,” Ioseph
had answered, his arms trembling around her. “Keep watching for the light.”
He had left again for war the next day, and he had never returned.
• • •
Ten years later, Eliana sat before the mirror in her bedroom as Remy finished twisting her wavy brown hair into a low knot. Her cheeks—not so pale as Remy’s, closer to the warm olive tones of her mother—shimmered with silver powder. Dark
kohl rimmed her eyes; diamonds glinted in each ear.
She finished applying a rich red dye to her lips and smiled at her reflection.
“I look good,” she declared.
Remy rolled his eyes. “You always look good.”
“Yes, but tonight it’s really something, isn’t it?”
“I’m just going to keep rolling my eyes until you stop talking.”
She grinned at him in the mirror. “So. Tell me once
Remy sulked on her bed. “I’m supposed to stay with Harkan, no matter what, and do exactly as he tells me, no matter what, and not even think of asking you again about what you’ll be doing tonight. No matter what.”
Eliana stood, the wine-colored gown Lord Arkelion sent her falling in sparkling folds about her legs. “And if something happens to Harkan?”
“I wait for you at the
east bridge, by the Admiral’s statue.”
“But nothing will happen to Harkan,” said the man himself, entering from the hallway. He wore tall brown boots, dark trousers, a long coat that hugged his trim torso, and a hooded cloak. He set down a small bag of supplies and ruffled Remy’s hair. “Harkan’s altogether too impressive for that.”
Normally Remy would have rolled his eyes and told Harkan
that the only impressive thing he could do was belch like a drunk old grandfather.
But Remy sat silent and pale, his lips chapped from biting them. Since their mother’s disappearance, he had not let anyone see him cry, had even bravely tried to match Eliana’s jokes, but she knew better.
If something went wrong, if anything happened to him or Harkan because of the deal she had made with
She tucked her necklace into her dress, the pendant rough against her skin, and smoothed her features into a glittering mask.
“Remy,” Harkan said, “why don’t you go collect your things?”
“I’m not stupid,” Remy muttered. “Just tell me to leave so you can talk.”
“Fine. Leave so we can talk.”
When Remy had gone, Harkan took Eliana’s hand.
“Tell me you’re not making
a terrible mistake, trusting this man,” he said quietly.
A thrill of nervousness rippled through her at the grave expression on his face. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Good. Because then I’d know you were lying.”
Despite herself, she smiled, and when Harkan finally grinned back at her, she cupped his face in her hands and brought him down gently for a kiss. With his hands warm
against her bare back, Eliana could almost believe this was just another night—going to a party with Harkan, dancing and flirting and coming home with a job.
“We will find her, El.” Harkan kissed her temple and let her go, his eyes soft on her face. “But first—”
“First,” she said, trying on a smile, “I have a party to attend.”
• • •
In the Evening Ballroom of Lord Arkelion’s palace,
only a handful of small candles dotted the room, and the shivering floor spun with dancers. Large windows opened into the night, letting in the river breeze.
Eliana pretended to sip her wine and scanned the room, counting the motionless figures around the perimeter—adatrox. Twenty of them.
Her mouth thinned. On a normal night, upward of five hundred adatrox patrolled the enormous palace
and its sprawling grounds. But tonight there would be close to a thousand.
She continued counting. Thirty. Thirty-five. Mostly men, a few women. Dark and pale. Black cloaks and gray surcoats and blank-eyed stares that could turn murderous in an instant.
An idol to the Emperor towered in a corner of the ballroom. Eliana, glaring at it, sent a quick prayer to Saint Tameryn of the Old World,
the legendary shadowcaster and the patron saint of Astavar. The Empire could raze their temples to the ground and tear down their statues, but they could not police the prayers inside her head.
Hide me, Tameryn
, she prayed,
lady of swiftness and illicit deeds.
If, that is, you ever actually existed.
Chiming tones floated in from the city’s central plaza—the clock tower, striking midnight.
Eliana waited five minutes before drifting across the ballroom, smiling and making excuses whenever someone asked her for a dance. She made her way through the maze of candlelit sitting rooms surrounding the ballroom, keeping one eye on the adatrox patrolling the hallways. Then she slipped into a narrow servants’ passage and followed the winding stone stairs to the palace’s lower levels—the
infirmary, the servants’ quarters, the kitchens.
Any servants she passed knew her well enough to look the other way.
As she rounded the corner into a hallway stacked with crates of vegetables and sacks of flour, a tingle of nerves climbed up her spine.
If this was all some elaborate trap of Simon’s, if he betrayed her at the last minute and abandoned Remy and Harkan to certain death…well.
She wouldn’t be beaten without taking him down with her.
She paused, listened to the bustle of the kitchens to make sure no one was approaching, then opened a heavy, locked door that led to a small stone supply yard.
Simon slipped inside, wearing the adatrox uniform Eliana had stolen for him. In the fitted surcoat, with the winged shield of the Empire emblazoned on his chest, he could
have passed for one of the silent soldiers—except for that sharp light in his eyes and the way he moved. Sinuous and graceful, with none of the adatrox’s stiffness.
“At last,” he said dryly. “I was beginning to worry.”
“I find that unlikely.” She shut the door and swept past him, noticing with savage delight how his eyes trailed down her body. That could be useful later. “Let’s move.”
She led him through the cramped servants’ passages up to the third floor, where they emerged into the palace proper. The deep-piled carpets muffled their steps. Music drifted through windows open to the vast gardens below.
In the north wing, the walls turned red, the moldings ornate. Gas lamps burned in jeweled casings; the air smelled of perfume. They turned a corner into a portrait gallery
of black-eyed generals. At one end of the corridor hung a painting of the Emperor himself.
Eliana’s heart pounded. She had never been in the north wing before. She couldn’t shake the childish fear that the Emperor’s painted black eyes were following her every step.
“Well,” she said, “we’re here. Now it’s your turn.”
Simon slipped past her. “Watch and learn, little Dread.”
me ‘little’ again and I’ll punch you.”
A smile twitched at his mouth. “You know just how to entice me.”
“Have you forgotten? My punches hurt.”
“Forgotten? In fact, I relish the memory.”
She scowled, but then they reached a set of wooden doors marked by an engraving of a naked woman, her cascading waves of hair masking her face, and Eliana froze.
“The maidensfold?” She shot
a look at Simon. Female concubines lived in this tower, their male counterparts in the south wing. “Why?”
“There’s a girl inside,” Simon explained, taking hold of Eliana’s arm. “Cover me while I retrieve her. Try not to get hurt. I won’t have you slowing me down.”
Eliana bristled. As though he stood a chance of navigating back down through the castle without her.
“Follow my lead,”
said Simon, knocking on the door.
Eliana nodded, ready to grab Arabeth from the slit in her skirt.
The doors opened, revealing two adatrox. Men. One pale, one dark.
Their brows furrowed to see Simon. He shoved Eliana into the foyer. She kept her eyes obediently on the floor, her heart pounding.
“What’s this?” asked one of the adatrox.
“Special delivery,” Simon answered smoothly,
before pulling his sword from his belt and gutting both of them. They dropped to the floor. Simon kicked the door shut behind him.
A girl passing by the foyer, clad in gauzy silks, ran off shouting warnings.
More adatrox rounded the corner. Simon ran at them, Eliana right on his heels. He took out one of the adatrox with a swift punch and a swipe of his blade.
Eliana leapt at the other.
The adatrox lunged at her, sword in hand. She sidestepped his thrust, stabbed him in the throat. He thudded to the floor, choking. Then his clouded gaze fell on her face—and darkened. Sharpened.
A sick feeling swept over her. She staggered, unbalanced. She felt…
As if the shadows around her cloaked secret eyes that had come awake to stare.
The adatrox went still, his gaze blank and
unseeing as he bled out on the floor. Whatever darkness had touched his eyes, it was now gone. Or maybe had never been there at all?
She turned and raced after Simon, following the sound of metal on metal down a wide hallway lined with embroidered drapes. She found him in a softly lit bathing room that smelled of jasmine and roses. Three adatrox surrounded him.
She took care of one by
opening his throat, then evaded the fists of another before sweeping his feet out from under him and kicking him in the head with the heel of her beaded sandal. A girl fled past her and the bleeding adatrox, then out the door, clutching a shawl to her chest and leaving a trail of red footprints behind her.
Across the room, Simon struggled with another adatrox. A group of girls was backed into
the far corner, trapped with her and Simon between them and escape. One of them let out a sharp sob.
Eliana scanned the frightened face of each girl. Which was the one Simon needed to retrieve? And why? What use was a concubine to the second-highest ranking member of Red Crown?
Eliana felt the adatrox in the doorway behind her before she saw him, barely turned in time to dodge his sword.
She slipped in a pool of water on the floor and went down hard, banging her knee.
Before Eliana could regain her balance, the adatrox swung his sword in her direction once more—only to stumble back as a string of sapphires and diamonds landed around his neck. The person behind him pulled on the necklace, hard, and the adatrox dropped his sword to claw at his throat, gagging.
up his sword and ran it through his heart. He collapsed.
She looked up and met the gaze of a girl holding the necklace, at the end of which dangled an enormous opal. The girl’s skin was a warm brown, her hair black, her eyes a pale hazel. Though she wore nothing but a blood-spattered sheer blue slip and dark-gold maidensmarks on her wrists, she had the bearing of a queen.