Sofie could finally see.
After three centuries of agonizing and pleading, of empty promises and seemingly unconnected schemes that had driven her to the brink of madness …
The moment she dragged her kneeling, naked form from the cobblestones of the sanctum, stood to greet the Fate of Fire, and saw the anticipation in his harsh features, Sofie knew something monumental had shifted in their favor.
“She has done it? She has released the nymphs?” Hysteria clung to each syllable.
Malachi strolled around the stone casket holding the two corpses, his corporeal form as magnificent as it was terrifying. “The process has begun.” His deep voice rumbled; the corners of his mouth twitched with delight as he reached down to graze a finger across Romeria’s perfectly preserved cheek. “Whether she realizes it or not.”
Sofie pressed her hands against her stomach to contain her excitement. “How much longer?” How much longer before she would feel Elijah’s arms wrapped around her shoulders again?
“Soon, my love. Very soon.” Malachi lifted his gaze to her. “Until then, I have a task for you.”
Apeal of shrill laughter within the castle competes with our footsteps, earning Jarek’s scowl.
I peer up at the formidable legionary who towers over me, his sculpted body wrapped in leather, his sable-brown hair freshly shaved along the sides and braided at his crown in three thick cords gathered at his nape. “Come on, you can’t dislike children.”
“Can’t I?” His eyebrow arches, amusement painted across his angular but handsome face. “Let me show you what happens when the blood lust hits them for the first time, and we will see how cute you think those feral little monsters are then.”
I grimace, recalling Zander’s menacing description of the Islorian immortals when they’re learning to feed. “Mortal children,” I amend.
“They’re slightly less feral. Equally irritating.” His gaze surveys our limited surroundings, as if expecting a threat to materialize from the walls at any second. “And they don’t belong here,” he adds quietly.
Another squeal of childish laughter ricochets, the echo eerie within this hollow kingdom that thrums with ancient magic.
“Do any of us?” I opened the mountain wall three days ago, and since then, we have scoured every corner of Ulysede, finding signs of a thriving city—food stores, clothing, floral blooms decorating windowsills—but no life beyond livestock, songbirds, and the odd stray cat. Elisaf found an armory full of gleaming metal—enough to outfit a small army—each breastplate emblazoned with Ulysede’s two-crescent-moon emblem, as well as a treasury vault filled with gold coins stamped with the same, but no one to wear the armor or collect payment.
It’s as if Ulysede was built and then frozen in time, waiting for us. To what purpose, though, we still don’t know.
It’s an unoccupied city bordered by sheer, unscalable mountain walls on all sides, but only a fool would believe we’re within the mountain, and an even bigger fool would think we’re still in Islor. When that ancient wall of nymph scripture known as Stonekeep parted and we stepped through those main gates, we were stepping beyond our realm. The fact that two moons hang in the sky every night confirms it.
I study the painted ceiling that lines this hallway—an illustration of a teeming market with people selling wares, surrounded by horses and wagons and soldiers with Ulysede’s crest on their breast plates. The white sandstone castle with royal blue spires and soaring parapets is full of these lively murals, with no hints about who these people are, or from what time.
Are they depictions of the past?
Or perhaps a hopeful future?
I suppose I belong here, seeing as it was my blood—an inexplicable combination of Princess Romeria, heir to the throne of Ybaris and daughter to Aoife, the god of Water, and Romy Watts from New York City, unwitting key caster masquerading as a human thief—that unlocked
the secret of Ulysede. A crown of thorns on a prickly throne was waiting for my head.
The question remains, now what?
Jarek and I step into the grand hall as a little girl—one of Norcaster’s humans rescued from their keepers’ cages—darts past, chased by Eden in what appears to be a game of tag.
“I caught you!” Eden declares, encircling the child in a hug, earning another shrill scream of glee.
The corner of Jarek’s mouth twitches, and I doubt it’s on account of the child. My lady maid is the only one who seems capable of dulling his razor-sharp edges.
Upon seeing us, Eden releases the girl and bows. “Your Highness!” Her innocent blue gaze rakes over the black breeches and tunic I dug out from the expansive and stocked closet, and her forehead furrows. “Was the gown I laid out not to your liking?”
“She can’t train in skirts,” Jarek answers before I have a chance to respond.
I roll my eyes. He’s been relentless in his demand that we spend time each day in the castle’s sparring court. Of all the things I still need to learn, throwing a dagger doesn’t seem vital, but I am improving. The blade no longer bounces off its target. “It’s a beautiful dress.” The closets of the queen’s chambers are full of them, and they all fit as if custom-made with me in mind. “But”—I gesture at my outfit—“this is way easier for moving around, in general.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Eden bites her lip, her focus flitting to Jarek. Where their interest in one another has landed, I can’t say. The only time he leaves my side now is when I’m behind my bedroom doors with Zander, and even then, Elisaf has seen him roaming the halls late into the night.
The little girl has tucked herself into Eden’s skirts, her attention shifting from me to Jarek. I remember her, peeking out from the gaps in the wagon outside of Kamstead—the tiny village with air that reeked of burning flesh. Where before she wore tattered clothes and smears of soot, now she’s freshly washed and donning a sunny yellow pinafore.
I wonder which of us scares her more—the warrior with countless blades strapped to his leather-clad form, or the Ybarisan princess turned Ulysede queen with poison in her blood and untold magic coursing through her limbs?
I offer her a gentle smile. “What’s your name?”
“Betsy, Your Highness.” She attempts a curtsy and loses her balance, stumbling a step. It could be her age—she can’t be more than five—or that she’s had little practice in formalities, coming from the north where the idea of bowing to royalty is shunned. Either way, Corrin would
“Do you like it here so far?”
Her head bobs in fervent agreement, but then she falters before throwing a pointed finger upward. “Is that really a nymph?”
I follow her aim to the stone statue in the center of the great hall, the creature at least ten feet tall, clothed in spiked armor, as if ready for battle. Its jagged wings appear designed as much to spear opponents as for flight, the claws on its hands primed to gouge enemy flesh. When I first laid eyes on it, I mistook it for a daaknar. “We think so.” There are countless versions of these winged creatures throughout Ulysede—from fearsome gargoyles to dainty, humanlike figures and a myriad of forms in between. I assumed the latter were the true ones, the nymphs who speak to me through their childlike laughter that only I can hear, but Gesine warned me to not assume anything. The seers have seen this terrifying version hovering over us just as readily, and so far, their visions have not steered us wrong.
Betsy tips her head back to study the menacing creature. “How could something so dreadful make a city so beautiful?”
Eden hushes her, stealing a guarded glance upward as if the stone can hear the harsh judgment.
Maybe it can.
While stepping through those gates has brought a sense of safety and hope, I can’t shake the spine-tingling sense that we’re not alone and that this place is not all that it seems.
I take a deep breath to calm the dash in my heartbeat that comes every time I acknowledge that looming worry and smile to hide my apprehension. “I don’t know, but I’m glad they did.” It’s the haven we so desperately need, as Zander decides the right next move to save Islor, and I embrace these newfound key caster abilities.
Footfalls sound, drawing our attention up the grand staircase where Elisaf trots lithely. No one would guess that my night guard was torn apart by a beast only a week ago, moments from closing his eyes and never reopening them. He stalls on the landing when he sees us, a slight head dip in greeting, and I know Zander must have sent for me.
“Is there anything else you require at the moment, Your Highness?” Eden asks.
“I’m good, thanks.” It doesn’t matter how many times I push her to drop formalities,
she slips into them as readily as a person breathes.
“In that case, I heard Mirren found ingredients for bread pudding.”
Betsy’s face lights up with the prospect of a sweet treat.
“Your Highness.” Eden curtsies, her eyes flittering to Jarek’s briefly to add, “Commander,” before she ushers the little girl toward the hall that leads to the castle kitchen.
Jarek’s gaze trails her for a few beats before snapping back to focus.
“So … ‘Commander,’ huh?” I tease with a sultry lilt as we continue through the massive, empty space, heading for the stairs. Does Jarek have the same desire for Eden now that he no longer needs her blood? At least, not within these walls, where the two-thousand-year-old curse that created “Malachi’s demons” has vanished. None of the Islorian immortals have felt so much as a twinge of that undeniable craving since crossing through the portcullis. It’s a reality that has noticeably lifted Zander’s mood.
“That is the title you granted me, is it not?” Jarek responds dryly, not the least bit fazed.
“It is.” And only after Zander’s urging that a queen needs to surround herself with trusted advisors. I couldn’t think of a better warrior at my right hand than the lethal one who has proven his loyalties to Islor outweigh the prejudices he holds toward Ybaris and Mordain. “But why am I picturing some weird commander-and-servant role-playing thing between you two now?”
“Because you’re a pervert,” he throws back.
I mock gasp. “Is that how you talk to your queen?”
“Because you’re a pervert, Your Highness.”
I snort at his lack of deference, but I appreciate it all the same. Jarek and I have had our share of differences—the surly warrior has openly loathed, distrusted, and wished me dead on many occasions, and I’ve returned the favor in kind—but ever since the battle against the saplings and that monstrous grif, there is a current of respect and unspoken trust between us. It’s just buried beneath a thick layer of arrogance and attitude.
It’s not the only unspoken thing between us. I hinted at my truth one quiet night in a field, before the saplings crept in like shadows, merth cord dangling. Once Jarek knew it had to do with the fates, he shut me down, not wanting to hear the rest. Since arriving in Ulysede, he has stood by my side as Gesine gave me caster lessons, but he has never asked for an explanation, and I have never offered one.
I’ve certainly never admitted what I am.
“Did he tell you to drag me out of bed if I wasn’t already up?” I call out as we ascend the steps.
Elisaf’s deep brown eyes crinkle with his smile. “His Highness waits in the war room for you. He insisted the queen be present to discuss pressing issues.”
The queen. Will it ever not feel like he’s talking about someone else?
“Like what? Your lordship?” It’s been a running joke between us ever since Elisaf intercepted one of Atticus’s letters that declared gold, land, and title to the person who captured the traitorous Ybarisan princess and delivered her to Cirilea. “Have you found any land in my vast realm that appeals to you?”
“In fact, I have, Your Highness. There is a quarter across the river that seems primed for agriculture. It has a few acres of cultivated land, and a pen with pigs and hens. Fearghal has taken to feeding them.”
“Sounds like you want to be a farmer.” The nymphs really did think of everything.
“Maybe he will be better at handling swine than he is a sword.” Jarek’s boots scrape against the marble as we climb. The warrior can move as quietly as a cat when he wants to.
“And yet it was you who was bested by a sapling,” Elisaf answers nonchalantly.
“Five saplings, wielding raw merth,” Jarek snaps, his hand absently rubbing his chest where I found the dagger embedded. It took all of Gesine’s healing power to keep him alive.
And if I allow this verbal sparring contest to go on, it’s liable to come to blows. “What pressing matters does Zander need to talk about?” He abandoned me in our bed hours ago, leaving with nothing more than a kiss against my forehead and a gentle goading not to sleep too long—that we have much work and not enough time.
Elisaf’s expression shifts, all traces of humor gone. “Decisions that cannot wait, I’m afraid. About what comes next.”
“So … the usual,” I mutter as we march up the stairs.
We discovered Ulysede’s war room on our second day, high in a tower overlooking the river and the city beyond. It’s a refreshing contrast to Zander’s war room in Cirilea—a round, windowless space on the ground floor of the castle. Here, daylight streams into the airy, sparsely furnished room through an expanse of windows. In one corner is a simple wooden desk with stationery and a wax kit bearing the two-crescent-moon emblem.
The focal point, though, is the slab of stone in the center, a current map stretched across its surface, the lands of Islor and Ybaris bisected by the great rift. Another inexplicable thing that raises questions in a city that has been sealed for tens of thousands of years.
“… reached Kamstead by now, which means they’ll know we kept going north. That is, if they’re not still scouring the villages around Norcaster.”
My heart skips at the sight of Zander leaning over the table, his gauntlets cast aside to display cut forearms as his arms bracket the map. It’s a common sight—his handsome face is rigid with the weight of Islor’s problems, his golden-brown hair pushed back off his face, likely from a frustrated shove of his hand.
Even dressed in the leathers of a warrior, he looks regal.
And he’s mine.
Had someone told the jewel thief from New York City that a red-haired sorceress would send her to an alternate world to inhabit a treacherous princess’s body and chase a stone at the behest of the God of Fire, the girl would have laughed in their face and called them delusional.
And yet, here she is now, in love with a king who abandoned his throne and kingdom to save her life.
Zander has always felt larger than life to me, from the first moment we met on that riverbank outside Cirilea’s gates, he in his suit of armor, his dagger primed to spear through my heart. In the days and weeks and months since, he has played every role in my life here, from executioner to captor to reluctant accomplice, unlikely ally, and suspicious lover.
But now he holds my heart, and he’s my reason to keep accepting every new challenge this deadly world throws at me.
Zander breaks from studying the terrain to watch me stroll in. “I do not understand how you sleep so much.” There’s a hint of scolding in his tone.
I saunter over. “Someone kept me up late into the night.”
“Someone kept me up, and yet I’ve already walked half of Ulysede.” A glimmer of humor peeks through his steely mask as he slides his hand into mine for a moment of contact before releasing it. I’ve grown used to the two sides of Zander—the passionate man who will take his time admiring every inch of my flesh with his mouth, and the unyielding ruler with curt words and a brooding nature. Behind the privacy of our doors is the only time I’m treated to his affectionate side, but I don’t mind. It’s intoxicating, facing this stony version during the day and then watching him break for me each night.
In front of others, though, he is an exiled ruler solely focused on how to regain his throne and save Islor.
Both tasks seem impossible.
And now that the Legion feels satisfied there isn’t a deadly threat lurking within these walls—not an imminent one, anyway—Zander has been spending all his time in here, pacing over his next move.
“You were talking about Telor and his army?” I eye the map and the path from our location in the Venhorn Mountains, south toward Norcaster.
“There is still no sign of his approach, or of the Ybarisans, but our scouts are only able to cover so much ground before they’re forced to turn around to avoid nightfall.”
Or more specifically, to avoid the saplings who emerge at sundown to hunt and are armed with paralyzing raw merth, a silver cord that Princess Ybaris gifted them in a deal we don’t understand. It’s already cost us two legionaries captured in Norcaster and additional lives lost during the attack on our journey here.
“Nothing from that sapling you’ve been … questioning?”
Abarrane stands on the opposite side of the table, her ripe-wheat-colored hair freshly plaited, a dozen blades strapped to her lithe warrior’s frame. She wears her usual grim expression. “Nothing yet, but he will yield.” Zander’s Legion commander has been outside Ulysede’s gates every night since we arrived, torturing the prisoner in a bid to find Iago and Drakon’s location.
Yield or die. She isn’t known for tame methods of persuasion. That he’s still alive—and remaining quiet—is shocking.
“If he has not given up their location by now, I am not hopeful,” Zander says, as if reading my mind.
“Then I will take a handful of legionaries and search.”
“We cannot hunt aimlessly through these mountains looking for two legionaries who may already be dead,” Jarek says, joining the conversation.
Abarrane’s eyes flash at her former second-in-command. “Then we draw them out.”
“And if you draw out a hundred of them? Without those merth cords, I would say that is an even match, but with them?” He shakes his head. “You will find Drakon and Iago, when you are lying next to them, being fed upon.”
“Then what do you suggest? Abandoning your brethren to those … those …” Her face twists with rage, the thin scar that runs from her forehead to her ear crinkling.
“We’re not suggesting that.” Zander shoots a warning glance at Jarek. For as coldhearted as Abarrane can be, she is fiercely protective of her warriors, especially those she trained as children. “But we have more pressing matters than rescuing two legionaries. Hudem is coming, and between this poison that circulates and Atticus’s edict to execute humans without trial, Islor will soon tear itself apart.”
“I hazard it already
has,” Elisaf says somberly.
“All the more reason for me to leave now.”
“And do what?” My panic swells. It’s not a surprise that Zander plans on abandoning the safety of Ulysede’s gates to return to Islor, where a king’s army hunts for him and the blood curse he despises so vehemently reclaims him. He’s been talking about it since the moment we arrived. But it seems reckless, and I don’t know how to make him see it.
“I must sway Telor to our cause. The western lords follow his lead. Even Rengard will abandon his neutrality if Telor stands with me.” His voice bleeds with conviction.
“How many men does Telor have with him? A thousand, Rengard said?”
“Give or take.”
“You have fifteen warriors, Elisaf, and me at your side.” And I barely have a grasp on my affinities. I’m learning, and quickly, but right now, I would be more a liability that an asset.
“Eleven warriors and not you,” Jarek corrects, his jaw setting with willfulness. When I appointed him my commander, one of his requirements was that he claim Zorya, Horik, and Loth for his little Legion unit to protect against any threats within Ulysede.
Zander and Abarrane agreed.
As for me staying in Ulysede? I never agreed to that, but now is not the time to argue with the stubborn oaf. “You can’t go out there against a thousand soldiers, Zander. That’s suicide.”
He smirks. “You might recall, I am not defenseless.”
“No, you’re not. Especially if you plan on killing them all at first sight.” He only needed a single, small flame to raze an apple orchard with his powerful elven connection to Malachi’s fire.
“That is not my plan,” he admits. “But the longer we sit here waiting, the more time we give Atticus to learn where we are and send more soldiers to hem us in.”
“I’m sure Atticus already has an idea of where we are.” Vaguely, at least. But he would never expect a new kingdom within his own realm. I wish I could be a fly on the wall when he receives that news. “Okay, so then you want to talk with Telor first? Do you remember what happened the last time you talked with a lord? In the Greasy Yak in Norcaster? Let me remind you. You could have died, and he only had, what, twelve soldiers with him?”
Zander grits his teeth. “I won’t make that mistake twice.”
“No, but you could make another one. Telor has a thousand soldiers. Plus, there are
the saplings to worry about.”
“And anything else that crawls out from the shadows,” Elisaf adds, smoothing a hand over his leathers. Beneath, his thigh is as strong as ever, but it wears countless silver teeth marks where the grif shredded it.
Zander pinches the bridge of his nose. We’ve had this conversation more than once, and it never ends in agreement. “Then what do you suggest, Romeria? That I continue to hide here within these pristine white walls?” He waves around us. “What kind of king is that?”
One who won’t die. I bite back those words because they’re selfish and they won’t bend his will. “Can we wait a few more days to give the Ybarisans a chance to reach us? We know they travel through Kamstead regularly. They’ll get the message we left. They’ll come.”
Abarrane sneers. “And you’re so convinced they’ll swear loyalty to you?”
“As far as they know, I’m still Princess Romeria of Ybaris, and they have sworn to her mother, and so her by default, right?” I force as much conviction as I can muster. I have no idea if they’ve figured out I’m a traitor to Queen Neilina’s plans.
“And when they realize you are not the same princess?” Zander asks.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Just a few more days. You said so yourself—you need Telor to listen, and two hundred Ybarisans with their affinities would make him think twice before attacking.”
“If the Ybarisans don’t kill us first,” Jarek says.
I spear him with a glare. Not helpful.
Zander folds his arms over his chest, his thoughts churning behind a menacing expression. “We are in a precarious position. We do not know what Queen Neilina has heard or gleaned, other than to assume she knows we are now aware of the poison’s source. We do not know what command those Ybarisans may have received from her as they march toward us, for we know there is communication between them.”
“And if the Ybarisans attack?” Abarrane asks.
“I would hope Ulysede’s gates provide us ample protection. But if the Ybarisans attack—if anyone attacks—we will have no choice but to respond with fervor.”
“It would be a show of good faith to Telor if we slaughtered these Ybarisans ahead
of his army’s arrival.” Jarek’s grin is wicked.
“You make it sound so easy.” Zander’s gaze is on the map again, on the realm he lost to his traitorous brother. “I do not want to find ourselves in a battle with the Ybarisans or Telor. We need allies, not enemies. We need every one of those men marching upon Cirilea with us.”
“So we have a thousand soldiers with Telor, two hundred Ybarisans coming, possibly to attack us, and we’re in a fortifiable city. Sounds like a fantastic time for you to head out there.” I can’t help my sarcastic tone.
His molars grind. “We will give the Ybarisans one more day.”
I sigh with relief. One day at a time is all I can ask for.
“In the meantime, perhaps I can help you loosen that sapling’s lips tonight.” He nods toward Abarrane.
She smiles. “I welcome your aid.”
I shudder at the thought of what Zander’s methods of persuasion might be. I’ve seen him use fire before, in the bowels of Cirilea’s castle, trying to pull information from Prince Tyree. At least they’ve kept the interrogations outside of our walls, so no one within Ulysede has to hear the sapling’s screams.
“Enough about this. What has the witch discovered?” Abarrane demands, changing the subject abruptly.
I shrug. “A lot of books on things she’s never seen in Mordain’s archives. I’m going to see her after we’re done here.”
Unsatisfied with my answer, she pivots to Jarek, arching an eyebrow.
“She seems to be searching for something specific. She will not leave the library.” Jarek’s first order as Ulysede’s commander was assigning Zorya to watch over Gesine’s every move. The official line is that it’s for her safety in this mysterious city, but I know Jarek. He doesn’t trust her.
“Searching for what, exactly?” Zander’s hard gaze is piercing.
He snorts. “You think she has explained herself?”
“She will need to explain herself if we are to believe where her true allegiances lie.” Jarek isn’t the only one who doesn’t trust Gesine. Zander hasn’t hidden his worry that Gesine will forever be loyal first to Mordain, the island of casters who hold no love for Islor and would execute me in a heartbeat if they knew I existed. It seems Zander’s suspicion has only grown since Ulysede’s gates opened.
“Can we please remember how invaluable Gesine has been?” I remind them all, anger flaring in my voice. “We escaped Cirilea because of her. We found this place because of her, and the blood curse is gone here. Some of us are alive because of her, and for no other reason.” That, I aim at Jarek. “She’s helped us and healed us all along the way while being threatened by all of you.” And she has become a friend to me in a sea of enemies.
“But does she help for our benefit or hers?” Zander presses. “Do not assume a priestess driven by prophecy does these things out of the goodness of her heart.”
“Maybe not.” I’m no fool. “But you guys keep acting like she’s some villain, conspiring against us.”
Zander inhales deeply.
“I swear to all that is holy, if you use that condescending tone to tell me how I don’t know Mordain,” I push out through gritted teeth. This is another argument we’ve had too many times, with no relenting on either side.
My unspoken threat stalls his tongue on whatever he was about to say. “Whatever she is searching for is not more important than training you on how to wield your affinities. Do you see anyone else in all of Islor who can do that?” He throws his hands toward the map. “The future is where her focus should be, not sifting through ancient books about the past.”
“You’re right. So if we’re done here …” I spin and march out, hoping my annoyance leaves a heady trail.
Jarek is a split second from stepping on my heels. “We are right to distrust her.”
“Oh yeah? By the way, how’s that scar on your chest? You know, from the dagger that basically killed you?” I throw back.
His lips purse. “Our paths will only align as long as they lead in the same direction as hers. She is Mordain.”
“That’s where she’s from, not who she is.”
“Keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better.” His smile is grim. “You’ll soon learn there is no difference when it comes to their kind.”
I remember thinking that the library in Cirilea was vast when I first stepped inside, with its four stories and iron spiral staircases. But Ulysede’s library is in a realm of its own, sinking three stories within the castle, each one stretching beyond my line of sight. The rows of polished wooden shelves are endless and filled with books, most in the same language that marks the throne and the sanctum altar. The air smells of paper and ink and wood, but not musty, as one might expect of an ancient library. Densely filtered light peeks in from beyond stained glass windows high above, offering little in the way of illumination. Flaming lanterns compensate, igniting on their own—or by some unseen hand—as they sense a visitor’s approach.
We discovered the castle’s library shortly after arriving, and Gesine hasn’t stepped foot outside of it unless forced to since, parking herself at a desk with an oil lamp and an ever-changing stack of books.
Zorya greets us within moments of entering. “What did I do to deserve such a punishment, Commander?”
Jarek smirks. “I could swear you said you loved books and casters.”
“Then you need your ears cleaned.” She scowls at Gesine, hunched over a desk, seemingly oblivious to our arrival. “The witch orders me around all day long. ‘Find a book with this word, Zorya,’ ‘Look for a section with that symbol, Zorya,’” she parrots in a mocking tone. “And when I find them, do I get a thank-you?”
That the lethal warrior is even fetching books is surprising. It only confirms Jarek’s claims that Gesine isn’t aimlessly absorbing information. She’s hunting for something specific, and she hasn’t taken a break from it in days, except to give me a few quick lessons with my affinities.
“Where’s Pan?” I look around for that impish face. “He’s supposed to be helping you.”
“He left. I have no idea where or why.” Zorya rolls her one good eye—the other is hiding behind a leather patch, mutilated by a merth blade during the escape from Cirilea. “Probably off playing king again.”
Not likely. The last time Jarek caught Pan sitting in my throne with the crown on his head, yelling commands to imaginary subjects, he promised to make a new seat cushion out of his skin. I’m pretty sure the mortal peed his pants.
Pan likely abandoned his task in the library because Zorya threatened to cut out his tongue for talking too much, and he knows she’s not kidding.
“What is Gesine looking for?”
“How would I know? That would require her to speak to me. She hardly leaves this dark place. She has barely eaten. She has not bathed.” She sniffs with displeasure. “Last night, I found her passed out on a book, drooling. I had to peel her face off the page.” Zorya shakes her head. “I much prefer the version we traveled with. This version? She is different, and I do not care for it.”
An edge of unease slips into my thoughts with her words. “Different how?”
Zorya shrugs. “Distracted and snippy. She speaks to herself. Mumbles, mostly. It’s incoherent.”
My panic swells as a new fear erupts. What if …
I abandon Jarek to Zorya and her foul mood and rush over to where the elemental caster sits, my apprehension growing with each step. “Find anything interesting?”
“Gesine?” My voice is sharper than I intend, buoyed by anxiety.
Her head snaps up. “Oh, Romeria, I apologize. I was so focused.” Her eyes are lined with heavy bags, her black hair unbrushed, her dress rumpled. I’m not used to this disheveled version. It’s a far cry from the serene caster I met in Cirilea’s apothecary.
But her emerald-green gaze regards me with familiar shrewdness, and I allow myself a small utter of thanks before nodding to the book she was so enthralled by. “Anything interesting?”
“Yes, I think so. Well, interesting to me, anyway. I am not as adept at translating this language as some of Mordain’s more astute scribes. The style of speaking is archaic, and it’s taking me forever, but I think these books were written by scribes who existed before the age of casters.” She reaches for one on top of a stack. “They describe these beings called mystics, which sound much like casters in that they were born with elemental affinities of varying power. They were not born to mortals, though. They were capable of breeding, and their affinities were passed down through each generation. Amazing, isn’t it?” Her eyes light up with genuine delight.
“What happened to them?”
“I have not yet come across anything that explains their disappearance from this world. I’m sure it’s somewhere in there.” She waves a wayward hand toward the shelves. “Mordain has no knowledge of that time, save for those volumes found in Skatrana and the seers’ visions. The fact that the nymphs protected this knowledge within Ulysede feels important.”
“Is this why Zorya had to peel you off pages last night? Because you’re so desperate to know about these mystics?”
“I’m desperate to know about all of it. There is so much to learn here.” Gesine sinks back in her chair, a grave expression pinching her features. “So much to learn that could be valuable to our cause and, I fear, so little time left for me.”
I don’t have to ask where her mind has wandered because it’s the same worry that had me rushing over here. A clock ticks over Gesine’s head, the one that ticks over every elemental, counting down to deliver a fate they cannot escape, that of the change from powerful caster to frail seer. I would have succumbed to it too—unwittingly—had I remained Romy Watts in New York City, and not inhabited this elven immortal form.
The inevitable outcome is still fresh in both our minds. We lost Ianca a little over
a week ago, a withered version of herself, bundled in animal pelts and grasping at visions, her grip on reality faded.
When it will happen for Gesine, we can’t be sure, but it’s said the change comes between their third and fourth decade, and the stronger the elemental, the sooner.
Gesine is thirty-six and a powerful wielder of three affinities.
It could happen in four years, or four months, or four weeks.
It could happen tomorrow.
I hesitate. “Have you … felt anything?” Wendeline once told me some elementals sense the beginning tugs on their sanity, while others may go to sleep lucid, only to wake up lost.
“Besides overwhelmed and unequipped?” She smiles weakly. “Perhaps this heavy worry plaguing me is sleep deprivation.”
“Zorya says you were drooling.”
Gesine groans, smoothing her palms over her face. “I’ve heard about that several times already. I suppose I was exhausted. I don’t recall her carrying me to my room.”
Only for Gesine to rush back here.
For what, though? I sense what Jarek and Zorya sense—that Gesine is looking for something specific. But if she hasn’t openly shared it, she must have her reasons.
“I’ve been building those wards like you taught me. I think I’ve got it.” Mainly on doors, using my affinity to Vin’nyla, the Fate of Air, to weave an impenetrable wall, stronger protection than any lock can provide. It took some practice. Four wooden doors lay in splinters from where Jarek kicked through before I finally mastered it. The last one, he crumpled in pain, confirming my ward was as hard as stone against his shoulder.
“You are picking things up quickly. And you don’t need your ring anymore.” She taps my bare finger where Princess Romeria’s engagement ring used to sit, a powerful ornament made from token gold from Aoife and a dull white stone, origins unknown, but rumored to be that of the nymphs.
“It served its purpose. I no longer have to mask anything.” My caster magic is a welcome buzz deep inside me, rather than the paralyzing noise it once was. And I’ve resigned myself to seeing Princess Romeria’s face when I look into the mirror, rather than the one I grew up knowing. “What should we work on next?”
“Building a flame wall, perhaps?”
My eyes narrow. “You already taught me that, remember?” Though I did it myself the first time, based on need.
She blinks. “You’re right, I did.” Her gaze drifts toward the endless collection of books. “I’m so tired.”
“Then you should take a break. There’s nothing that important in here, right?” I try to keep the suspicion from my voice. She gets it from everyone else, she doesn’t need it from me too.
“I’m afraid there might be,” she says vaguely. “But it is too much for me to search on my own.”
“Zorya and Pan have been helping, haven’t they?”
“Yes, but it’s still not enough.” She shakes her head. “No, I need experts. Dozens of them.” She hesitates, as if building up courage to say her next words. “There are those who could use their affinities to better direct their search.”
“And where do you find those people, besides Mordain?”
She bites her bottom lip, and I know without her answer, that is exactly what she’s aiming for. Zander warned me Gesine would make this request, and when she does, it is to be a resounding no. After how badly Wendeline betrayed him, I can’t fault him for not welcoming more casters with open arms.
I can almost see the gears working in Gesine’s mind, searching for a way to convince me.
“That would mean telling them about Ulysede and how we opened the gate, which would mean explaining what I am.” A key caster. My very existence is an offense to them, punishable by death, as has been the case for two thousand years.
“I share your worries,” she begins slowly. “But I do not mean the entire guild—”
“Can you really control that, though?”
“The scribes have managed to thus far, with knowledge of Ianca’s summoning. For years.”
“That you know of. You haven’t been in contact with them in how long? Since before you escaped Argon? That was months ago. Everything has changed. So much is out in the open now.”
She bites her lip. “I trust the Master Scribe to involve only those who are necessary.”
“Well, I don’t.” And Zander won’t entertain this conversation. “The last thing we need is for Queen Neilina to find out I’m not her daughter and to tell those two hundred Ybarisans who are on their way here.” Hopefully. “She’ll order them to kill me. They can’t know I’m not Princess Romeria. We need them for when Telor’s army shows up. And what happens if your Master Scribe decides prophecy isn't
worth allowing a key caster to roam loose, let alone play the role of queen of Ulysede?” Play being the operative word. My voice escalates with my words as wariness swells.
“Prophecy has already foretold of the nymphs walking the earth again in the age of casters, and that means a key caster must survive culling. They are aware, even if they are not yet aware.”
“That doesn’t mean they’ll sit back and allow it. You said so yourself, not everyone in Mordain values prophecy.” I shake my head. “I’m sorry, Gesine, but it’s too risky. Protecting this secret is what has kept me alive for this long.” Even Zander would have killed me had he found out in those early days.
Her brow pinches with discomfort. “I suppose I should tell you, then, that it is too late. The wheels are already in motion.”
My stomach clenches. “What do you mean, it’s too late? What wheels?”
“The scribes will have heard the truth about you by now.”
“How? Who told them?” My panicked voice echoes through the cavernous library.
She peers up at me with unremorseful eyes. “I did.”
“Master Scribe, look what I can do!” Paityn holds up her index finger to reveal a tiny flame dancing at its tip, her giddiness radiating.
“Good for you. Show me again when it’s three times the size. And practice in a clearing outside so you don’t burn down the entire guild.” I force a smile as I pass my pupil in the hall, but I don’t slow, the scroll gripped tightly within my grasp. I should hide this letter I received—Fates, I should burn it—before someone discovers it in my possession, but Allegra will need it. Besides, if I know Allegra at all, she’ll demand to see Gesine’s words before she believes them.
I can hardly believe them.
A key caster from another realm in Islor, by Malachi’s scheming? In my almost eight decades of life, I have never heard of such a thing. The archives did not hint of it, and I would know. I’ve spent my life immersed within the recollections of seers and scribes alike, their considerable knowledge at my fingertips.
Yet here we are, and I must now decide how to proceed.
I wish I had no need to involve Allegra. The guild’s Second is too young and ambitious, her seamless skill with wearing various masks unsettling. She could rival Queen Neilina with all her cunning, and sometimes I fear I will find myself caught in a web of her making. It’s no secret that Allegra pines to one day climb to the role of Guild Prime. The lengths to which she’ll go to get there, though … those worries keep me staring at my ceiling into the late hours.
But of all the guild leaders within Mordain, Allegra is the only one who values the role of the scribes. The others mostly disregard us, both for our mediocre connections to our affinity and for the importance we place on our seers. We are the castaways, the ones with too little power to be of any real use beyond collecting knowledge and training the youngest casters on beginner skills.
Besides, I have no other option than to involve Allegra anymore. I lack the affinity needed to send a return letter to Gesine, and no one among the scribes is strong enough to ensure it reaches its recipient. We must keep these lines of communication open if we hope to gain more vital information about this key caster and what she means for the fate of all.
I cross the parapet toward the guild tower. Beyond is an expanse of rock and blue waters and, in the very far distance, across the channel, the jewels of Argon’s castle sparkle in the sunlight. To the north of Nyos, the Isle of Mordain is a breathtaking view of mountains and lush green forests. As a child, I relished the days my teachers would allow us time within the meadows, collecting plants and fungi for the horticulturists and chemists.
Over the decades, I’ve held on to that small joy, taking my young pupils out in nature to test their budding skills before they move on to greater lessons. But the rough terrain has become treacherous for these old bones of mine as of late. I’ve been forced to abandon the outings to those fresher and more suited, relegating myself to the dank, dark tunnels where the scribes toil away thanklessly.
The city of Nyos itself is vast, a sight to behold, with the towering guild at the center perched high above, its pinnacles a bold statement for both casters and children waiting to find their spark. The guild is the first thing anyone sees as they sail across the waters from Ybaris, a magnificent monument designed by the skilled stone casters, artists by trade. But it is the city below that most returning to Mordain long for—the thriving streets of shops and cafés and cottage-like dwellings, of like-minded people living in a world that has committed them to servitude of the queen and her subjects.
Subjects who readily outcast them the moment they are born and tested and found to be something other than simple mortals.
The general council is already in session when I reach the heavy wooden doors. The two guards at the door eye me with unyielding gazes, their hands gripping the pommels of their swords. I’ve always found it needless to station sentries outside a chamber of skilled casters, the room already warded against a multitude of evils. Almost as silly as dressing these elite warriors in head-to-toe armor and equipping them with blades when their affinities are their most deadly weapons. ...