Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
At sunrise yesterday, my thoughts were a tangled mess of remorse and regret, made no better by the fact that my mother believed my letter.
At sunrise today, I wake with new purpose. I will find a way out of this castle. I will not be used as a pawn against my mother and my sister. I will not be used against my people.
These thoughts still poke at me. The prince is not using me against Syhl Shallow. He is using me to protect his people from my own.
Again, I shove those thoughts away.
Clothes were brought yesterday, as promised, but I had no interest in touching them. I was less interested in the dinner meal, some kind of seasoned shellfish that turned my stomach when I tasted it. Surely some kind of pointed commentary about the prince’s access to a saltwater harbor, when my mother has none.
The gold and red ribbon that threads the sleeves of the clothing left on a chair seems
Regardless, I’d rather wear his colors than Sorra’s blood. I strip off the stained robes and pull on soft calfskin leggings and a green chemise. These clothes are more formfitting than the robes were, and I feel very aware of the slope of my hips and the curves of my breasts. Nolla Verin would likely fawn over such clothes, while I feel self-conscious. I am glad the guards remain outside.
The room is lavishly appointed, with velvet blankets on the bed and silver-tipped furniture throughout. I’m too high up to jump from the window. Guards wait outside my door, and I have no doubt they’ll replace this room with a prison cell if I give them cause. If I’m going to escape, I’ll need to find another way.
I have time on my side, and little else.
Trellises line the outside castle walls, thick with blooming roses, but none are close enough to reach, and I doubt they would bear my weight anyway. No knives were delivered with the food, though I doubt I could overpower two armed guards on my own. Even the hearth is cold, lacking a flame in the summer heat. I can’t set the room ablaze in the hope of escaping in the resulting melee.
I frown, studying the hearth. Similar to the rooms of the Crystal Palace in Syhl Shallow, the fireplace is stationed along the wall between two rooms in order to share a chimney. In the Crystal Palace, a metal barrier exists to afford privacy between rooms, but it can be removed for efficiency, if necessary. When Nolla Verin and I were children, we would sneak into rooms this way to spy on people we thought were so very important.
I wonder if the same thing exists here. I sit on the marble hearth and lean in, feeling along the blackened wall at the back.
It feels like brick. I sigh.
Then my fingers find an edge in the middle. I explore further. A small gap exists around the brick along the exterior of the fireplace.
More sure now, I hook my fingers around the brick edge at the center of the barrier and pull.
It doesn’t move.
Of course it doesn’t. It’s a brick wall. I sigh
The door of my room clicks, and I dive out of the fireplace, balling my sooty hands into the robes I abandoned. I scrub at them hurriedly.
I expect Rhen to be returning to provoke me about my mother, but to my surprise, Princess Harper steps through the doorway. Even more surprising, she is no longer wearing the jewel-adorned gown from the day we first visited, but instead wears breeches and a chemise similar to mine. A female guard with waist-length dark braids stands behind her.
My expression must be filled with the rage I was saving for her beloved, because the princess frowns. “I should have asked if you were receiving visitors.”
“Why?” I finish wiping at my hands and toss the robes onto a chair by the hearth. “Have you not heard? I am a prisoner.”
Her expression turns abashed. “I have heard.” She pauses. “I’m sorry.”
? This is so unexpected that I go still. My voice finds an edge. “Then you must not be aware of the injuries my people have visited on the subjects of your prince.”
“I am.” She presses a hand to her abdomen. “I’m still sorry.”
After the prince’s cold, steely gaze, it’s a shock to see what looks like genuine concern in her expression. It steals some of my fury.
“You must think me a great fool,” I say.
“Well, I do.” I sink onto the marble ledge in front of the fireplace and give a humorless laugh. “I thought I could forge an alliance of peace, and instead, I am to be used as a pawn against my mother.”
“I don’t think you’re a fool at all. I think it’s …” She hesitates. “Admirable.”
“If only you were my captor instead of your prince, then.”
Her expression is so sorrowful. She begins to take a step toward me, but her guard murmurs, “My lady,” in a tone of warning, and the princess stops.
I can tell from that tone and that response that they are close.
Unbidden, I think of Sorra moving to protect me. Emotion swells in my throat, warm and sudden. I swallow past it, and I look away, my jaw clenched.
Princess Harper’s eyes swim with empathy. “I know you’re angry. You don’t—you don’t have to talk to me.”
I say nothing.
“I just want you to know that …” She trails off, and her eyes narrow slightly. “You have a black mark on your cheek.”
. I resist the urge to swipe it off. “A mark of mourning,” I lie. “For my guard who was slaughtered.”
Harper visibly flinches. “Again, I’m sorry—”
“You apologize a great deal for a princess.” I take a step forward, and her guard moves closer to her, but Harper doesn’t shift at all.
“I don’t want to be your enemy,” Harper says quietly.
I don’t want to be hers. Despite our relative positions, I believe she has a core of kindness that I admire. In another lifetime, we
could possibly be friends. I keep my eyes cold. “Your prince has guaranteed we can be nothing else.”
A sigh escapes her lips. “I know.”
We stand in silence, regarding each other. After the longest moment, she looks away. “If you change your mind, have one of the guards send for me.” She pauses. “I know what it’s like to be alone here.”
I nod. I will never send for her, and I think she knows it.
She backs away, then slips through the door as quietly as she came.
I go back to the hearth and drive my fingertips into the sooty line in the brick. I pull with every ounce of my strength, bracing my feet against the opposing wall of the fireplace. Nothing moves. Sweat has begun to collect under the chemise. I swear under my breath.
I try again.
Finally, eventually, after what feels like an
, the brick wall shifts.
One inch, but it moved.
I roll the muscles of my shoulders to loosen them. I need more than an inch, but a small success makes me long for a bigger one.
Then I hear the bells ringing out in the courtyard, and my heart explodes with hope. I know it is unlikely, but I rush to the window to look for Mother.
Instead, I see guards coming through the trees, along with an unfamiliar wagon, bearing the gold and red of Rhen’s colors.
I sigh and go back to the hearth.
When Rhen’s father was king, one of the final trials to be admitted to the Royal Guard was a match between a guardsman and a prisoner from the dungeon. The prisoner was given a full set of armor and weapons. The guardsman was shackled, hand and foot. No armor, no weapons. If the prisoner won, he won his freedom. If the guardsman won, he was allowed to swear his life into service for the Crown.
We drew cards to match with our prisoners, and my opponent was a massive soldier named Vail. He’d been sentenced to death for stealing from the army’s coffers, but rumors said he’d been caught violating bodies of the dead. He was scarred and vicious and practically twice my size when I was seventeen.
The matches took place before the royal family. Before that day, I’d only caught glimpses of them from afar: the king and his distant queen, Prince Rhen and his sisters.
A guardsman before me had fallen. The king looked disappointed.
Prince Rhen looked bored.
They rang a bell and led Vail into the arena.
I’d watched the earlier matches. Most of the other guards would retreat first, to wait for an opening. With Vail, I knew I’d never get one. He came after me with his sword, and I whipped my shackle chains around the weapon, holding fast. When he tried to pull free, I leapt for his throat and crushed his windpipe. He dropped like a rock.
The match was over in less than ten seconds. The bell had not even finished ringing.
The prince no longer looked bored.
“You’re lucky he didn’t take your hands off,” the guard commander called from the sidelines. “Going for the blade barehanded like that.”
“It was not luck,” I called back.
I swore an oath the very next day. An oath that lasted an eternity.
An oath I have never regretted, until this very moment.
When the wagon stops in the cobblestone courtyard of Ironrose Castle, the guards all but drag me out. I want to dig my fingernails into the splintered floorboards. I want to run. I want to hide.
Dustan rode ahead, likely to spread word of my capture, because the courtyard is packed with people. My eyes take in everything, and it’s almost too much to endure. Guards line the castle walls, but I recognize few of them. Rhen stands at the center, absolutely still. Harper stands at his side, clutching his hand. Her knuckles are white. I cannot lift my gaze to meet theirs. My vision has tunneled down to the stones at their feet, growing closer with each passing second.
The courtyard is more silent than I’ve ever known it, as if even
the horses feel the weight of this moment. I have done nothing wrong, but guilt and shame curl like fire in my belly anyway.
Not like this
, I think.
Not like this.
But of course it could only be like this. I made sure of that three months ago.
My feet slide to a stop.
A fist cracks me between the shoulders, hard enough that I stumble forward and fall to my knees. Pain ricochets through my leg, and I bite back a cry.
“You are in front of the crown prince and his lady,” says one of the guards. “You will kneel.”
I must speak. I don’t want to speak.
My voice is barely a rasp of sound. “Forgive me, my lord.”
The guard punches me between the shoulder blades again, and this time I have to catch myself on my hands.
“You will address the prince as Your Highness,” he barks.
“Forgive me,” I say again. “Your Highness.”
The waiting silence takes my words and swallows them up. Rhen has said nothing. Harper has said nothing. I very much wish I had the power to blink myself out of Emberfall, because I would accept any other fate that did not involve me in chains at the feet of the people I was once sworn to protect.
“Look at me,” Rhen finally says.
If the words were spoken in anger or given like an order, I might have obeyed. But his voice is quiet, undercut with betrayal.
I cannot look at him. I feel as though I
A hand grips my hair, and I realize one of the guardsmen is going to force my gaze up.
Rhen says, “No.”
The hand at the back of my head lets go.
“Look at me,” he says again, and this time it’s an order.
I raise my head and look at him.
Prince Rhen is the same and different all at once. The uncertainty and self-doubt from the later stages of the curse are gone, replaced with fierce determination. This is a man who endured the enchantress’s torture, season after season, to spare me. A man who gave up his life to save the people of Emberfall. This is the man who will be king.
His eyes, always keen, search mine, seeking answers.
“Are you sworn to another?” he asks me, and his voice is low and dangerous.
The question takes me by surprise—and at once I realize he thinks I have been gone because I was sworn to Lilith. “No, my—Your Highness.”
“You have given your oath to no one?”
“To no one but you.”
His mouth forms a line. “I released you from your oath.”
“Then I ask that you allow me my freedom.”
Rhen’s eyes don’t leave mine. He’s trying to figure me out.
I could solve all this inquiry.
I am the heir. I am the man you seek.
And the ironic,
I left to spare you all this trouble.
Harper steps forward and drops to a knee before me. Her eyes are wide and dark and sorrowful. “Grey,” she whispers. “Grey, please. You’re … You’re
. All this time, we thought … we thought you were dead.”
I wish I could erase the pain from her eyes—but it’s lodged as deeply as the betrayal in Rhen’s.
“A princess should not kneel before a prisoner,” I say softly.
The words are an echo of so many I said when I was a guardsman, and I expect it to remind her of her place, to force her to her feet.
Instead, she puts a hand against my cheek, and that is almost my undoing. I close my eyes and turn my face away.
“Grey,” she whispers. “Please. Help me understand. Why did you leave?”
“Commander,” Rhen says sharply.
I snap my eyes to his—only to remember that I am no longer a guardsman.
The prince’s expression has evened out, but he did not miss the movement. I can read no emotion on his face now.
That’s never a good sign.
“Take him to a room,” he says. “Clean him up, dress his wounds, and leave him unharmed. Have the kitchens send him a meal.”
“Yes, my lord.” Dustan grabs hold of my arm.
I flinch but do not look up.
Rhen’s eyes are cold. “Make sure he can’t escape.”
I had no interest in the goings on in the courtyard until I heard a shout.
I had no idea what was going on until Princess Harper dropped to a knee and called the man Grey.
So this is the man everyone seeks. Not dead after all.
He’s much younger than I expected, for a man who was commander of the prince’s Royal Guard. Clanna Sun is Mother’s chief adviser, and she was not elevated to that station until she reached her fifties. This man appears hardly older than I am, though he’s rough and worn and injured, blood staining a bandage wrapped tightly around his thigh. His eyes are despondent, his posture defeated.
What did the guardsman say?
We found him in Rillisk, my lord. He was going by another name. Once I realized who he was, he attempted to flee.
Why would he hide? Why would he run? If he knows the
identity of the heir, as the enchantress claimed, why would he not reveal it to his prince? If he once held such a lofty position, he must have proven his loyalty.
And if he
loyal, if he keeps such a secret for nefarious reasons, I’d expect to see some defiance in his gaze. Some grim determination. Instead, he kneels at the prince’s feet as if he would offer his life in service this very moment. His expression is full of deep remorse. He looks conflicted. He looks …
They drag him away, into the castle, and I am left to wonder.
I go back to pulling at the brick barrier. I can now move it three inches in either direction. The track is old and rusty, but the more I work at it, the more success I have.
While I work, I think.
I have seen that look in Mother’s guards, men and women who would lay down their lives if she requested it. It is curious to find it in a man who keeps such a secret. By virtue of that expression, I would expect him to be
to share the identity of the missing heir, especially if it’s an individual who shares an affinity for magic.
The brick wall gives another inch. I drag a forearm across my sweaty forehead, likely leaving another line of soot.
What would Grey know that the prince wouldn’t? Why flee? Who could he be protecting? It could not be a child. According to custom here in Emberfall, the heir must be older than Prince Rhen.
A friend? What kind of friend would inspire such devotion in a matter of months? Surely this Grey must know his life is forfeit if he keeps a secret from his prince. What friend could be worth that? What friend would
A sibling? I could see myself keeping a secret to protect Nolla
Verin, even at the risk of my life. But of course that’s ridiculous, because if Grey had a brother, then that man could only be—
My hands go still on the brick.
Suddenly I understand the conflict in Grey’s expression. I understand why he would run. I understand why he would hide.
being loyal. He
protecting the prince. There’s no defiance because he
willing to lay down his life in favor of Prince Rhen.
What did Mother say?
According to the enchantress, Grey is the only man who knows the true identity of the heir.
We all thought that meant the enchantress had revealed this knowledge to Grey—and I’m sure Prince Rhen did too.
We were wrong.
Grey knows because
is the heir.