Authors: Mary Weber
And everything is dark.
HE SKY OVERHEAD BARKS LOUD.
Fingers grab the collar at my throat and yank me forward while others grip my wrists and in three seconds bind them before feeling down the outside of my dress skirt.
I wrench forward and kick out, but my foot connects with only air as the hold on my neck tightens and forces me still. They're searching for weapons, not pleasure.
When the hands reach my ankles, the owner grunts. He's found my knives. The groping fingers confiscate them, and the hand at my throat yanks me forward to walk up the sloping deck. I feel out the grooves in the metal boards beneath my leather boots to help me shuffle the unreasonable number of paces before my toes bump into the plank.
The hand tugs again and I step up onto the woodâand it's all I can do to blindly focus on my footing while the blasted guard leads me by my dress down from the ship. Like a heifer for auction.
It sparks sickly recollections of being led to auction five, ten, fifteen times from the age of six until my final selling two months ago in the autumn of my seventeenth year. Except the hoods I wore then were used to hide my waist-length, stark-white Elemental hair, not to hinder me from seeing where I was headed.
I always knew where I was headed.
I let the sky crack another angry growl. I'm tempted to be done with this and light up wherever we are with a burst of energy, but Eogan's caution moments ago rings in my ears.
“Do not react.”
I purse my lipsâonly to have my feet stumble when I reach the plank's base. My boots barely stop me from tripping onto what feels like slick stone slabs beneath them.
The fingers at my neck stiffen and snag the edge of the hood over my face. Rather than yank it off though, they wrap into it and tighten until the cloth is clamped and sticking to the blood on my nose. Every inhale pulls the material into my mouth, and I jerk backward and twist my hands behind me. But again I touch nothing. Just like I can't hear anything other than the hurried tramp tramp tramping of boots and stifled voices speaking to each other.
Slow down, Nym. Inhale through the cloth.
“This one claims . . . of Bron . . .”
“Take these . . . rest . . .”
“The girl's with me and . . .
with me. So are . . . two boys,” Eogan's muffled voice says from somewhere on my left. “Touch them . . . I'll rip . . .”
“She'll want them . . .”
I whip my head this way and that, but the cloak mutes any clarity.
What are they saying?
A soft hand pushes me forward again, to move faster, until I'm bumping against stairs now.
We climb through the cold and wind.
Suddenly someone's shoving me through a door into a room or corridor where the air is much warmer. And the smell . . .
Even through the bloody hooded material, the smell is that of a dead body left on ice too long.
Footsteps on tile.
My arm is grabbed and I'm jerked to a halt.
Harried breath and odd accents.
clip clip clipping
as boots move away before the hood is yanked off, and my eyes are blinking because the light in here is blinding.
It's as if every surface is a mirror reflecting the glow.
I squint for a moment until my eyes adjustâit's not mirrors but glass the light is bouncing off of. The walls and room edges are cut in such a way as to give the impression that we are standing inside a giant jewel. And draped from every glass beam and surface above us are tapestries of orange, red, gold, and purple. They drip from the ceiling like rainbowed teardrops. The room is exquisite and delicate, and I swear if anyone steps too hard or speaks too loud, the whole place will crack and shatter around us.
Including the people who are standing before us like majestically silent statues. They look just like chess pieces.
I raise a brow. Rasha never mentioned this gaudy side of her people.
I glare at them and their white robes and try to ignore their stares and the awareness that my chest is slightly exposed through my torn dress. If they notice, they don't reactâthey just stand watching, at least forty of them, some with blank faces, while others have eyes that are flickering a red glow almost as bright as the candles on the giant stands. It makes patterns on the white-and-opaque-checkered floor.
Oh . . .
on a chessboard.
I peer closer at the squares. Some of the people are actually standing on them in a pattern. I glance up and around, from one to another, and absorb their blank eyes. Their oddly shiny faces and glossy bodies. The chiseled way they're standing.
They're real. But they're not.
They're people who were once alive but are now encased in glass, their faces permanently stilled in unfocused attention.
My stomach turns. No wonder it smells like death in here . . .
“Checkmate,” a woman's voice rings out.
PEER THROUGH THE ASSORTMENT OF GLASS AND
real bodies to a woman seated in front of an enormous fireplace, whose red eyes are glowing so bright they're illuminating her face like a sunburst. She's reading our intentions, just like Rasha does. The woman nods at a group of Luminescents who must've been the ones playing against her, and they promptly begin clearing the glass-encased dead people off the checkered floor. I shudder.
Rasha's mum. Has to be.
Her deep skin tone and rich, earthen, auburn hair match Rasha's, as does her wispy garment style. Only her body is different. Where Rasha has curves, this woman used to, but they've rounded out to blend together. Something about her body looks matronly and kind, unlike her icy expression.
My stomach goes from nauseated to wanting to vomit all over her pretty glass floor.
“Well, if this isn't cozy.” Eogan eyes the woman. And despite the fact he's keeping his shoulders straight and his head lifted proud, I note the foreign weakness in his tone.
I frown and, beyond him, Kenan tips his almost-shaved black head of hair as if to let me know he's sensed Eogan's weariness too.
A shuffling draws our attention behind us, and before we can
speak further, Lord Myles and Lady Isobel are escorted to stand on the far side of Kenan in front of a host of live, purple-clothed Cashlin guards who reassemble themselves to block us in. As if we could run anywhere.
“Bleeding hulls, the oaf still livesss.” Myles leans forward and flashes his silver tooth.
You're welcome, sweetheart
, he mouths and tilts his head toward Eogan.
Apparently he was still knocked out when Eogan went to speak with him and Isobel on the airship.
“Perhaps we can trade Lord Myles for whatever they're asking,” I mutter.
Eogan's lips twitch and Kenan actually chuckles, even as both their gazes stay on the man across the room in front of us, dressed in brown leggings and a tunic and wearing a prickly robe that looks to be made from actual dead fir needles. He's leaning to address the queen.
“Well, this should go fabulous,” Lady Isobel murmurs.
The dead-fir-robed man moves behind the woman and pushes against her chair, which I only now realize is on wheels. Then the whole thing is moving and I'm watching in fascination. I've never seen such a thing, but know of many who would envy one.
He moves her a good few paces toward us until she nods. “That's enough.”
“Queen Laiha.” Eogan drops to one knee, and Kenan and Myles follow suit, so I slip down too. But I keep my gaze fixed on the woman.
“King Eogan,” she says, and it's uncanny how much like Rasha her voice sounds. “You have come from the war in Tulla.”
Eogan nods and she twitches her chin for us to rise. I sneak a peek at Lady Isobel, who's not moved from her stanceâneither to bow nor to acknowledge anyone in this room other than the queen, at whom she's glaring.
I'm grateful she no longer has her Mortisfaire ability of turning hearts to physical stone. Something tells me there are not enough guards in this room if Isobel decided Queen Laiha would be the first to go.
“We've rushed here to warn you not only that Draewulf has your daughter,” Eogan says, “but if he's not already on his way, he will be shortly.”
The flash in the queen's crimson gaze would be imperceptible if her face didn't pale from its rich brown to a light ash, like Rasha's when she gets upset. “So I've seen.” Her eyes burn red and her tone is cold. “And yet you left her with him.”
“I beg forgiveness, Your Majesty, but the circumstances necessitated we do so. If there had been another choice, we would have taken it. Unfortunately, I have not exactly been myself of late.”
She snorts, as if she knows exactly what he's been recently, and for an instant I swear he flinches. “And now you have come to try and what? Protect me? Forgive me if I do not see the need for it. I am perfectly capable of caring for my people myself.” She swipes her gaze over all of us. “You've wasted your time.”
I bite back a dry laugh. Coming from a woman who, thus far, has not moved any of her limbs aside from her neck and head, I can't help but admire her spunk. Even if she's an idiot.
Her gaze snaps to mine. “You think I'm a fool? That I need your help because I do not understand the danger heading this direction? I assure you I have known of Draewulf's continued existence for some time now. That is partly why I sent my child down to Faelen, as I'm sure Rasha told you.”
“If that's so, then I wonder how you don't understand the danger your daughter is in.”
“Draewulf will not harm her while I am still alive.”
“True. But if you perish without him shifting into you, he'll
consume her instead. Which, as King Eogan said, is why we've come. To prevent both those events from happening.”
Her eyes blaze like the furnace behind her. “I thank you for flying this way to bring your warning; however, I fear you may just as well have hurried the attack. Because I assure you, from where I sit, I see a king whose broken body has barely survived housing a shape-shifter for the past two weeks and whose kingdom is currently under siege by the very army following him to my door. And you”âshe keeps her gaze steady on meâ“have just survived consuming a power that nearly destroyed all of Tulla.”
She flicks a glance at Lord Myles, who's looking more put out about the state of his clothing than anything to do with the queen at the moment. He keeps lifting his cravat and sniffing it. Then smoothing a pale, long-fingered hand over his black hair.
“A power that has now been absorbed by this one.” She's staring disgustedly at him.
I peer from her to Myles's thin, handsome face, and back. Something in her expression says she's not just repulsed by his consumption of the power.
She's seeing him as the half-bred product of a Luminescent mother's affair with his royal Faelen father.
She knows what he is.
Just like Rasha knew.
My heart moves toward him. For the queen's disdain. For the visions I've seen of his childhood that said such reactions were the cloak he's been smothered by all his life.
I turn back to Her Majesty.
If Queen Laiha could see all this just since we've been in this room with her, what else could she know? I glance at
Lady Isobel and catch the hint of discomfort in her glare. I swallow. Isobel must see itâhow much better the queen is at perceiving intentions and plans than even Rasha. What could Her Highness get out of Draewulf's daughter if given a few minutes?
I'm tempted to ask.
“Your Highness, we are not here to argue those facts,” Eogan says firmly. “Nor are we in any position to defend what we have recently done and been through. We are, however, concerned not only for you and your people's safety but also for that of the entire five kingdoms within the Hidden Lands. As you know, we haven't
Draewulf to your door. He would be coming with or without us. Our hope in coming is that we might persuade you to join usâto come to Faelen where we can shield you and mount a defense.”
She actually lets out a laugh. “Not led him to my door? You've brought his daughter here as collateral!” Her eyes slash to Lady Isobel. “You think he won't come for her? With her you will draw him to us, and what would he find? The group of usâthe final components he needs to consumeâall together in one place. We might as well do Draewulf's work for him. As I said, no thank you, I'll stand with my people.”
“Even though the protection we can offer is more than what you have here?”
“Protection? You mean your small band of Bron soldiers and a weakly king?”
The Elemental in my blood bristles. Overhead the hint of a rumble snaps and fills the outside air. “Are you saying we're too weak to stop Draewulf?”
Queen Laiha clamps her mouth shut.
After a moment her gaze drifts to the checkered crystalline floor at our feet. As if she's looking at it but seeing something else.
Like the old woman neighbor of owner number seven who would rattle bones in a bag and stare into a milk stone in an attempt to see the future.
“Will we stop Draewulf?” I growl. Does she know? Can she already see?
“That I will not answer. Much depends on choices made.”
“Pardon my bluntness, Highness,” Eogan interrupts. “But doesn't that include
choice? Join us! Defend the Hidden Lands with usânot just your own people.”
Her tone cuts the air. “Young man, I've lived a very long time. And the one thing I know is that the best protection is not to run to another's war, but to defend my borders and people as is my responsibility. And they in turn will defend me. Now”âshe nods to the guards standing nearbyâ“lock them up. Except for him.” She tips her chin to Eogan. “The Bron king will come with me to my chambers.”