Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
He says it so simply. It’s a level of trust I envy.
“Who were you sworn to?” he says.
My eyes fall closed. Without warning, my thoughts conjure Ironrose Castle, the miles of marble hallways, the arching painted ceilings. I remember the training arena, the armory, the stables—so clearly that I could find my way around blindfolded, even now.
Do you regret your oath?
Rhen once asked me.
I did not. I do not. Not even now.
Tycho is still waiting for an answer. I shake my head. “No one of consequence.”
“I’d keep your secret too, Hawk.” Tycho’s voice is soft.
His intentions are good, and he may mean those words now, but he’d take my secret, turn me in, and buy his freedom.
“No secrets,” I say lazily. I roll over, facing away from him. “Just nothing interesting to share.”
He sighs, but I let my breathing go slow and even, so he thinks I have fallen asleep. Eventually, his own matches, accented by a tiny snore at the end of each breath.
Our conversation guarantees I won’t fall asleep anytime soon.
When Rhen released me from my oath, he told me to begin a new life on the other side—in Washington, DC, Harper’s home. My visits to her city were limited to one hour each season, so I am not ignorant of her world, but I could not imagine making my way in a place so very different from Emberfall. The customs, the clothing, the currency—I have seen it, but I do not know if I could mimic it.
The blood of a magesmith.
If I have magic in my blood, I have no idea how to access it. I stare up at the rafters and remember
how easily Lilith’s magic used to transport me through the veil into Washington, DC. I close my eyes and remember the feeling of it. For an instant, the air around me seems heavier, and I hold my breath, wondering if I’ve done it.
My eyes flick open. The stable rafters hang above me. Tycho breathes softly across the loft.
I pick at the threading along the edge of my mattress, pulling slowly until the seam begins to come apart. I do this carefully so I can pull the threads back together later. I ease my hand into the opening, digging through the straw until I feel the heavy weight of silver.
It’s a bracelet—or it was, until I traded a day’s worth of hard labor for a blacksmith to get it off my arm. Now I have a scar on my wrist and a crude three-quarter circlet of silver. When I was trapped in the curse with Rhen, Lilith bound it to my arm with magic to allow me to cross the veil to the other side.
I have no idea if it still works. It’s the only magic I’ve ever been able to work, and it’s not mine, it’s Lilith’s. The bracelet is enchanted with
I close my fingers around the loop of silver and close my eyes. Almost against my will, my brain imagines a wall—then just as quickly imagines me passing through it.
The scents of the barn and the loft disappear, and the air is suddenly cool. The quiet sound of movement from the horses has been replaced with a low hum, and I open my eyes. White walls, long, tubular lights overhead, though they’re dim. Towers and towers of books stretch on forever, surrounding me. More books than I have ever seen, even in the royal library at Ironrose. This place is
nothing like the castle, however. Aside from the books, everything about this room is smooth and sleek and almost unnaturally white.
I’m not in Rillisk. I’m not in Emberfall at all. I’m in Washington, DC. Or possibly miles away, wherever Rillisk would correlate in Harper’s world.
The bracelet still works.
For a moment, I sit and inhale the cool air, such a relief after the weighted humidity in Emberfall. I have no idea where I am, but it’s quiet and I’m safe. Rhen can’t reach me here. Likely
can reach me here. It’s tempting to stay.
But where would I go? What would I do? No one on this side needs a swordsman—nor a stable hand, from what I’ve seen. The girls I used to kidnap for Rhen rarely had skills with weaponry or horses, and while I’m certain they had skills of their own that would be useful in this place, they are not skills I share.
Something metal rattles, followed by a squeak, and I scramble to my feet. I wish for a weapon, but the only thing clenched in my hand is the silver bracelet.
An older woman pushes some kind of cart around a corner. Her hair is long and gray and tied into a braid that hangs over one shoulder. She startles when she sees me, but her expression quickly smooths out. She gives me a kind smile. “I know the library is twenty-four hours, but students aren’t allowed to sleep here.”
I take a breath. “Forgive me.”
Her eyes skip down my form, taking in my clothes from Rillisk, which are nothing like the clothes from this side. When she gets to my bare feet, her lips turn downward. “Do you have somewhere else to sleep?”
I wonder what she would do if I said no. I wonder where I
would go—or where she would send me. She appears kind. I wonder if I
find refuge here.
A man appears around the corner, younger and heavier than the woman, and he frowns when he sees me. He looks as startled as she was, but his eyes are more coolly assessing. He speaks low, under his breath, but I hear him anyway. “Homeless?” he whispers. “Should I call the cops?”
She gives a tiny nod, but then she takes a step closer to me. “Are you hungry? We can get you something to eat.”
My ears are stuck on his question.
. Enforcers on this side. I’ve run into them before. They mean nothing good to someone like me.
I can find no refuge here. Not now. Not like this.
I close my eyes. Imagine the wall. Pass through.
Silent darkness, quick and sudden, presses against my eyelids. I’m safe. I’m back. I take a long breath and open my eyes.
Tycho is standing right in front of me.
The bracelet slips from my fingers and clatters to the wood floor.
He’s wide-eyed and breathing like he’s being chased. “You vanished.” His eyes flick to my bed, six feet away now, then back to my face. “Then reappeared just there.”
I say nothing. I can’t deny it.
His eyes search mine in the darkness. “Is it you they’re looking for?”
“You’ll seal your fate with that question.”
Tycho swallows. “Hawk. Is it you?”
Tension has joined us in the loft, a silent judge, trapping me in place. “Yes.”
“What would they do if they found you?”
The words come out like a threat, and he flinches. It should summon sympathy in me, but it doesn’t. I’ve learned how to lock away emotion and do what is necessary. Too well.
Tycho takes a deep breath, and he must steel his nerve, because he straightens and looks at me. He’s braver than he thinks. “Tell me what they’d do.”
“I do not know for sure, but it likely would not end well for me.”
“They’d kill you?”
His voice has grown quiet. “Did you do something very bad?”
“The answer to that is long and complicated.” I consider his expression. “But no. Not in the way you mean. I am not hunted for what I’ve
, but for who I
He studies me. I study him. I could break his neck in the space between breaths. I could drop his body from the loft so it would look like he fell from the ladder in the night. No one would question it. Tycho is a shadow. Likely no one would mourn.
The thought hits me like an arrow, piercing and true. I rub my hands over my face. I would mourn. I don’t want to hurt him. He trusts me. Possibly
His hand touches my forearm, and I jerk my hands down.
“I’ll keep your secret,” Tycho says, his voice as low and earnest as it was before this all unraveled.
“Even though you could buy your freedom?”
He looks startled, then hurt. “I’m not buying my freedom with your
It’s my turn to flinch. I very nearly did exactly that to him. I take a steadying breath, then reach out to ruffle his hair and give him a good-natured shove. “I’m honored to have your trust, Tycho.”
He blushes so deeply that I can see it in the near darkness. “Well, I’m honored to have yours, Hawk.”
The tension between us has evaporated so smoothly that it’s almost as if I imagined it. I remember what it was like to trust someone. I remember what it was like to have a
. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until it was so freely offered.
“Grey,” I say softly. “Not Hawk.”
His eyes widen, but he smiles. “Grey.”
“It will put you in danger to keep my secret.” My voice is grave. “If I’m caught and they find out you knew.”
“Then don’t get caught.”
That makes me smile. “Go back to bed,” I say. “The horses will be calling for their breakfast before sunrise.”
He climbs back onto his bed, and I climb into mine, and silence falls between us again. It’s easier this time. My heart no longer races along, looking to evade an unseen threat.
“Jodi said you eat like a nobleman,” Tycho says. “Were you? Before?”
“No.” It’s such a relief to tell
that I very much want to pour the whole story at his feet, just to share the burden. “I was a swordsman. In the Royal Guard.”
“Oh.” The weight of this knowledge forces him back into silence for a while, but then he rolls over to face me. “Wait.”
I freeze, wondering if this will change things. “Yes?”
“Then you’ve been holding back. When we use the practice blades.”
“Yes. I have.”
“So you could teach me more?” he says.
He sounds so eager that I laugh. I likely could have bargained his silence for lessons in swordplay.
“Could you?” he presses. “If we practice in secret?”
“Yes,” I say, smiling. “Yes, indeed.”
Days pass. By the time we draw close to the prince’s castle, I am travel-worn and weary. I still share a carriage with my sister, because the alternative is to share a carriage with my mother. Nolla Verin might not understand my despondency, but she won’t lecture me about the duties of a ruler. She knows why I’m upset—likely
knows why I’m upset—but she makes no apology for what happened with the trapper and the girl.
I don’t expect one. I don’t
one. I know why she made the choice she did. I know our mother is proud of the choice she made.
I should be proud as well. I’m not. My thoughts are haunted by the memory of the girl cowering beneath her father.
And the tear-streaked cheeks of the girl hiding in the woods.
I have made no mention of her to anyone. Not even to Parrish. His manner seems unchanged, to the point where I started to believe that I imagined the whole thing. But that night I saw him exchange
a quiet word with Sorra, and for a brief moment, her eyes shifted to me and then away.
I do not know what that means.
Nolla Verin pokes me with her embroidery needle, and I jump.
“I need you at your best, Sister,” she says.
I keep my eyes on the veiled window of the carriage. “You don’t need me at all. I can wait with the horses.”
She sighs and rolls her eyes.
“Mother should have left me at home,” I continue. After what I’ve seen, I would have preferred it. Despite the sting of our mother’s choice, there’s a touch of freedom to no longer worrying about becoming queen. The weather is cooler on the other side of the mountain, and I could have spent these days lounging in bed with a book. I could have gone for a ride along the lakeside instead of being faced with death and destruction.
These thoughts feel selfish suddenly. Cowardly. The girl and her father still would have died. I just wouldn’t have known about it.
“Please, Lia Mara.”
A new note hangs in my sister’s voice, and it draws my attention. For all her cavalier comments, a bit of uncertainty hides in the depths of her eyes.
“You are nervous,” I say.
She shrugs a bit and glances down at the square of fabric in her lap. Over the course of our journey, embroidered flowers and jewels of every color have filled the fabric to form a circle. “He is still our enemy.” She pauses. “He already has a woman he loves.”
“Nolla Verin.” I study her. My sister is sharp-featured and beautiful, but it is her carefree confidence that turns heads everywhere she goes. “Are you afraid of being
.” She stabs her needle through the fabric. “I am afraid of our proposal being rejected. Mother will be forced to send our armies through the mountain pass to raze cities and take control of this land.”
I stare at her, mouth nearly agape. It is the first time she has ever expressed dismay at military action. A small burst of hope flares in my chest.
She looks at me. “You are so surprised. Did you not think I would fear failing in front of Mother?”
I close my mouth. I should have known better. Nolla Verin does not concern herself with the loss of lives. She is concerned about disappointing
I need to remove the sour look from my face before she sees it. “I have the utmost faith in you, Sister.”
Outside the carriage, the sound of bells peals out, loud and repetitive. Nolla Verin sits upright, stashing her embroidery in the compartment under her seat. I wonder if it is to be a gift for the prince. The thought does nothing to remove the bitter taste from my mouth.
“We have been spotted,” she says in a rush. “Mother says the bells all mean something. They sound bright, don’t they? Maybe this is a good omen.”
They don’t sound bright to me. They sound like a death knell. Maybe they mean the prince’s archers will set our carriage on fire.
“A good omen indeed,” I say, forcing a smile on my face.
The carriage jerks and shifts as the horses draw us onto new terrain. Cobblestones, from the feel of it. Nerves flutter in my belly despite myself. An hour ago, our guards hung our green-and-black
banners and pennants from the carriages, adorning the horses with the trappings we’d kept hidden while traveling through Emberfall.
I want so badly to lean out the window to see the castle, but I would never hear the end of it. If Nolla Verin can sit across from me so prim and patient, I can do the same.
When the carriage rattles to a stop, we sit and wait. One of Mother’s guards announces us and requests an audience with the prince. One of his guards announces that we must wait for the prince to decide whether he will invite us into the castle.
That will not go over well with Mother.
Indeed, I am not surprised when I hear her voice announcing that we will not wait, and if the so-called Crown Prince of Emberfall will not meet with us, she will happily return to Syhl Shallow to bring down a force of reckoning upon his people.
A male voice says, “Karis Luran. Surely you can grant me the time to cross the halls of Ironrose before declaring war.”
This must be Prince Rhen. No one else would speak with such authority. He has a nice voice, a tone backed with iron but warm enough to invite conversation. I wonder what he looks like.
Across from me, Nolla Verin’s face has gone carefully neutral. Not bored, but not interested either. She sits back along her bench to wait.
Almost immediately, the carriage door is drawn open by Sorra. She moves with fluid precision, every movement reflecting the training and unity among our guards. Sunlight fills the carriage in a burst, blinding us for a moment.
As oldest daughter, I am to step from the carriage first. At one time I thought it a position of honor, but over the last few days I have begun to wonder if Mother was always setting the stage for the main event: my sister.
Today, I don’t mind. I am the first to see the castle built from cream-colored bricks, stretching high into the sky, gold and red pennants flying in the slight summer breeze. I am the first to see the wide marble steps leading up to the castle door, and the two dozen guards flanking our carriages. Each carries a sword and a dagger, gold and silver shining in the sunlight. Each breastplate sports a stamped crest of a lion and a rose over the heart.
I am the first to see the prince, tall and blond, as striking as my sister in his own way. His eyes give away nothing. He wears a dark-blue jacket that buckles across his chest, along with high boots. He, too, wears a sword at his hip, which takes me by surprise. Mother never wears a weapon. She says it would tell our people she does not trust them.
Beside the prince stands a pretty young woman with cream-colored skin and dark, curly hair, wearing a red gown that sweeps along the cobblestones as they approach our carriages. She walks with a limp, which makes me wonder if the hand placed against the prince’s elbow is for support or to show they are together. Unlike the prince, her face reveals everything: wide, concerned eyes, mouth tight with worry.
Our presence here unnerves her.
She and I are alike in that.
Mother’s voice rings out. “My elder daughter, Lia Mara.”
The prince offers me a nod, which I return, and then I step to the side so Nolla Verin can emerge from the carriage.
Every eye is on my sister, but I’ve seen that show a thousand times, so I watch the prince. I want to see if his eyes flicker with interest.
Either he is too practiced or too indifferent, because there is
none. He watches my sister step out of the carriage with the same attention he might give a passing curiosity.
“My younger daughter, Nolla Verin,” says Mother. “Heir to the throne of Syhl Shallow.”
The prince offers her a nod, too, but the princess beside him glances from Nolla Verin to me.
“Your younger daughter is heir?” she says.
Mother purses her lips. She does not like being questioned. “In Syhl Shallow, an heir is not determined by birth order.” She looks at Rhen. “Would that your country’s laws allowed for the same, and you would not be facing conflict, boy.”
“I have no conflict,” he says.
Mother laughs. “As always, you hide your secrets well, young prince, but I can see the weakness in the lies you weave for your people.”
“My people are at peace. If you have come to sow discord, I insist that you leave at once.”
“I have heard rumors that cities have begun to reject your right to rule.” Mother glances at the princess. “Rumor also says the King of Emberfall has perished in Disi, is that correct?”
“That is correct,” says Prince Rhen. “Have you traveled all this way to offer your condolences?”
“No. It was the work of assassins, I understand.” Mother’s voice is full of skepticism.
“Our people did our best to protect King Broderick,” says the princess. Her voice does not carry the same authority as Prince Rhen’s. Close, but not the same. Anyone else might not notice a difference, but I have been raised among royalty, and eighteen years at court has taught me the difference between people who are born to royalty and those who merely hope to imitate it.
“Your people.” Mother looks at her, and her tone confirms that she has noticed the same thing. “Is that so,
“That is so.” Her voice gains a backing of steel. Prince Rhen’s fingers press over her hand on his elbow, almost as if to hold her back.
“And what of your coronation, boy?” says my mother. “Is there a celebration planned?”
The prince hesitates.
is telling. I hold my breath.
“What of your ascension to the throne?” my mother continues. “What of your people, who demand the true heir?”
“There is no other heir,” says Prince Rhen, his voice clipped. “No claim has been made. No man has appeared. I am the crown prince, and I stand ready to take the throne and lead my people.”
“I have heard you offer a bounty for a man possessing the blood of a magesmith. Is that somehow related?”
His jaw tightens. “Magic wreaked havoc in my country for years, as you know. I will not allow harm to come to my people again.”
“Then we have similar goals. I believe I can provide a measure of security for your people.”
The prince’s expression is dark. “Explain.”
She holds out a hand, and Nolla Verin steps forward. “I have come to propose peace between our peoples. I have come to offer my daughter’s hand to you.”
Prince Rhen’s expression doesn’t change, but at his side, Princess Harper looks like she swallowed a live fish.
“You attempted to destroy my country and you failed,” says Prince Rhen. “I will not now ally Emberfall with Syhl Shallow.”
“You stopped my army with magic and trickery,” my mother
says. “Now you have no monstrous creature waiting to do your bidding. You have people who are growing increasingly divided. You have
aside from my offer to protect your subjects.”
He sets his jaw. “I
will not ally
with Syhl Shallow.”
“I am offering my daughter, my
to rule side by side with you. Surely even you must know how rare an offer that is from my people. You will not even entertain a meeting with me?”
“I have no interest in what you can offer.” His hand tightens on Harper’s, and I wonder if she is now holding
back. “I have no interest in an alliance with your country. I can grant you safe passage back to the mountain pass, so you can return to rule Syhl Shallow and I will continue to rule Emberfall.”
Nolla Verin steps forward, her black hair gleaming in the sunlight. The green and black stripes on her robes are shot through with silver stitching that glints with each movement. “I heard you were a just and fair ruler,” she says. “Yet you will not offer your people the consideration of an alliance with my own?”
The prince looks down at her from where he stands on the marble steps. “I have seen the destruction wrought by your people,
The word is a barb meant to equate with my mother so rudely calling him
, but my sister reacts as if he slapped her. Each word out of her mouth carries an edge. “I am to rule Syhl Shallow, and if you will not entertain an alliance, you would do well to consider respect for my position.”
I wish I could catch her hand and squeeze it tightly, the way Harper seems to keep the prince’s temper in check. This is not a man who will respond well to haughty threats.
Indeed, his eyes turn flinty. “Forgive me if I do not bear much respect for those who would slaughter my people.”
I think of that trapper and his daughter again, and I have to swallow the lump of emotion that forms in my throat.
My sister raises her chin. “We are here to
the needless slaughter of your people.”
“We are at an impasse,” says Prince Rhen. “For I do not trust you.”
“What if we were to offer you information on Emberfall’s missing heir?” says Nolla Verin.
Prince Rhen goes very still. Every ear in the courtyard seems to lean in. Even his own guards are curious.
“Where is your guard commander?” says my mother.
“Commander Dustan is traveling with Jacob, brother to Princess Harper and heir to the throne of Disi, along with his talented healer, Noah of Alexandria.” He pauses, and his voice tightens. “They are visiting my cities to see if they can provide assistance to the people injured by
“No,” says my mother. “Where is Commander Grey? The man who stood with you during my last visit.”
“Commander Grey is dead. He died in the final battle with the enchantress.”
At his side, Princess Harper flinches.
My mother doesn’t miss it. “When we last met, I told you of your father’s first marriage. I told you how it was consummated in Syhl Shallow. I told you that a halfling child was born. Do you remember?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “I told you of the tithe your father paid to keep this secret. If you think your people cannot see through your efforts to find a magesmith—to find your
—then either you are a great fool or you think each of your subjects is.”