Authors: Claire Legrand
Unlike her father.
So Rielle bowed her head and swallowed her anger. After all, what she was about to do might turn Tal against her forever. She could allow him this small victory.
“Blaze not with fury or abandon,”
she repeated, closing her eyes. She imagined setting aside every scrap of emotion, every sound, every thought, until her mind was a vast field of darkness—except for the tiny spot of light that was the flame in her hands.
Then she allowed the darkness to seep across the flame as well and was left alone in the cool, still void of her mind.
The room calmed.
Tal’s hand fell away.
Rielle listened as he returned his shield to its stand. The prayer had scraped her clean, and in the wake of her anger she felt…nothing. A hollow heart and an empty head.
When she opened her eyes, they were dry and tired. She wondered bitterly what it would be like to live without a constant refrain of prayers in her thoughts, warning her against her own feelings.
The temple bells chimed
eleven times; Rielle’s pulse jumped. Any moment now, she would hear Ludivine’s signal.
She turned toward the window. No more prayers, no more reading. Every muscle in her body surged with energy. She wanted to
“I’d rather be dead than live as my father’s prisoner,” she said at last, unable to resist that last petulant stab.
“Dead like your mother?”
Rielle froze. When she
faced Tal, he did not look away. She had not expected that cruelty. From her father, yes, but never from Tal.
The memory of long-ago flames blazed across her vision.
“Did Father instruct you to bring that up if I got out of hand?” she asked, keeping her voice flat and cool. “What with the Chase and all.”
“Yes,” Tal answered, unflinching.
“Well, I’m happy to tell you I’ve only killed
the one time. You needn’t worry yourself.”
After a moment, Tal turned to straighten the books on his desk. “This is as much for your safety as it is for everyone else’s. If the king discovered we’d been hiding the truth of your power all these years…You know what could happen. Especially to your father. And yet he does it because he loves you more than you’ll ever understand.”
sharply. “That isn’t reason enough to treat me like this. I’ll never forgive him for it. Someday, I’ll stop forgiving you too.”
“I know,” Tal said, and at the sadness in his voice, Rielle nearly took pity on him.
But then a great crash sounded from downstairs, and an unmistakable cry of alarm.
Tal gave Rielle that familiar look he so often had—when she had,
at seven, overflowed their pool at the Baths; when he had found her, at fifteen, the first time she snuck out to Odo’s tavern. That look of
What did I do to deserve such trials?
Rielle gazed innocently back at him.
“Stay here,” he ordered. “I mean it, Rielle. I appreciate your frustration—truly, I do—but this is about more than the injustice of you feeling bored.”
Rielle returned to
the window seat, hoping her expression appeared suitably abashed.
“I love you, Tal,” she said, and the truth of that was enough to make her hate herself a little.
“I know,” he replied. Then he threw on his magisterial robe and swept out the door.
“Magister, it’s Lady Ludivine,” came a panicked voice from the hallway—one of Tal’s young acolytes. “She’d only just arrived in the chapel,
my lord, when she turned pale and collapsed. I don’t know what happened!”
“Summon my healer,” Tal instructed, “and send a message to the queen. She’ll be in her box at the starting line. Tell her that her niece has taken ill and will not be joining her there.”
Once they had gone, Rielle smiled and yanked on her boots.
Not a chance.
She hurried through the sitting
room outside Tal’s office and into the temple’s red-veined marble hallways, where embroidered flourishes of shimmering flames lined the plush carpets. The temple entryway, its parquet floor polished to a sheen of gold, was a flurry of activity as worshippers, acolytes, and servants hurried across to the peaked chapel doors.
“It’s Lady Ludivine,” a young acolyte whispered to her companion as
Rielle passed. “Apparently she’s taken ill.”
Rielle grinned, imagining everyone fussing over poor Ludivine, tragically lovely and faint on the temple floor. Ludivine would enjoy the attention—and the reminder that she had the entire capital held like a puppet on its master’s strings.
Even so, Rielle would owe her a tremendous favor after this.
Whatever it was, it would be more than
Ludivine’s horse stood next to her own just outside the temple, held by a young stable hand who seemed on the verge of panic. He recognized Rielle and sagged with relief.
“Pardon me, Lady Rielle, but is Lady Ludivine all right?” he asked.
“Haven’t the faintest,” Rielle replied, swinging up into the saddle. Then she snapped the reins, and her mare bolted down the main road
that led from the Pyre into the heart of the city, hooves clattering against the cobblestones. A tumbled array of apartments and temple buildings rose around them—gray stone walls engraved with scenes of the capital city’s creation, rounded roofs of burnished copper, slender columns wrapped in flowering ivy, white fountains crowned with likenesses of the seven saints in prayer. So many visitors had
come from all over the world to Âme de la Terre for the Chase that the cool spring air now pressed thick and close. The city smelled of sweat and spices, hot horse and hot coin.
As Rielle tore down the road, the crowd parted in alarm on either side of her, shouting angry curses until they realized who she was and fell silent. She guided her mare through the twisting streets and made for the
main city gates, her body pulled tight with nerves.
But she would not give in to her power today.
She would compete in the Boon Chase, as any citizen was free to do, and prove to her father that she could control herself, even when her life was in danger and the eyes of the entire city were upon her.
She would prove to him, and to Tal, that she deserved to live a normal life.
“Eliana says that on the day the Empire took our city, you couldn’t breathe without choking on the taste of blood. She said I should be glad I was only a baby, but I wish I could remember it. Maybe then I would be stronger. I would be a warrior. Like her.”
—Journal of Remy Ferracora, citizen of Orline
February 3, Year 1018 of the Third Age
1,020 YEARS LATER
was on the hunt when she heard the first scream.
Screams weren’t so unusual in the city of Orline, especially in the Barrens, where slums sprawled across the river docks in a dark plain of misery.
This one, though, was high, piercing—a young girl’s scream—and fell silent so abruptly Eliana thought she might have been imagining things.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered to Harkan, who
stood beside her with his back against the wall.
Harkan tensed. “Hear what?”
“That scream. A girl.”
“I heard no scream.”
Eliana glanced at the nearby darkened window, adjusted her new velvet mask, admired the lean lines of her body. “Well, we all know your hearing’s shit.”
“My hearing is not shit,” Harkan muttered.
“It’s not as good as mine.”
“We can’t all be as marvelous
as the Dread of Orline.”
Eliana sighed. “Sad, but true.”
“I think even I, with my shit ears, would hear a scream. Maybe you imagined it.”
But Eliana didn’t think so.
In the city of Orline, girls and women had been disappearing of late—not shipped off to an Empire work camp nor taken to the Lord of Orline’s palace to be trained in the maidensfold. Those things left behind gossip,
trails of evidence.
These recent girls were simply being taken. One moment they were there; the next they were gone.
At first, Eliana hadn’t let herself care. No one in her neighborhood had been taken, and she didn’t think the Empire would start abducting its own favored citizens. Her family was safe. It therefore wasn’t her problem.
But the more girls disappeared, the more stories
she heard of vanished women, the harder it became for her to ignore the situation. So many sisters gone, and so many mothers—snatched from their loved ones, taken as they slept. Not criminals, not Red Crown rebels.
And then there were the rumors that persisted in some circles, despite their absurdity, of a hole in the sky on the other side of the world. Possibly in Celdaria. Possibly in the
Sunderlands. Every rumor told a different tale. Some thought everything was connected—the hole in the sky, the vanished girls.
Eliana was not one of them. Hole in the sky? More like fear run amok. People were becoming hysterical enough to look to archaic legends for comfort and truth.
Eliana refused to join them.
Then she heard it again: a second scream. Closer.
A sour feeling
drifted through her body, raking violent chills across her skin. The world tilted, froze, then righted itself. The sweet odor of the white gemma tree flowers overhead turned rancid.
Beside her, Harkan shifted. “Are you all right?”
“Don’t you feel that?”
? What’s going on with you tonight?”
“I feel…” The edges of her vision shimmered like a heat mirage. “I don’t know what
I feel. Like an adatrox is nearby, but worse.”
At the mention of the Empire soldiers, Harkan tensed. “I don’t see any adatrox. Are you sure?”
A third scream—more desperate this time and quickly stifled.
“Whoever it is,” Eliana muttered, her voice tight and angry, “they’re close.”
“Arabeth’s next meal.” Eliana flashed Harkan a grin, then unsheathed Arabeth—the long,
jagged-bladed dagger she kept at her hip. “Time to play.”
With one last peek at her reflection, she darted out from the shadows and into the cramped, grime-slicked alleyways of lower Orline. Harkan called after her; she ignored him. If he wanted to stop her, he could try, but she’d have him flat on his back in two seconds.
She smirked. The last time she’d pinned him like that, it had been
to his bed.
She honestly couldn’t decide which context she preferred.
All the same, she didn’t want to start a fight just yet. Not when she had a girl-snatcher to hunt.
She entered the Barrens, slipping between patched tents and sagging wooden shacks dotted with dying fires. Beyond the Barrens crawled the wide Bruvian river, its banks clogged with piles of festering white moss.
Her first time in these slums, aged ten, she had nearly gagged from the smell. That had earned her a hard glare from her mother.
Now, eight years later, the stench hardly registered.
She scanned the night: A beggar picking the pockets of an unconscious drunkard. A gaunt young man, coifed and powdered, coaxing a woman through a painted door.
Another scream. Fainter. They were heading
for the river.
The feeling crawling up her spine magnified. It felt—she knew no other way to describe it—as though it had a
She placed her hands on her knees, squeezed her eyes shut. Spots of color danced behind her eyelids. On the battered wooden support beam beside her, someone had scrawled a childish drawing of a masked woman in black, leaping through the air with a knife in each
Despite the ill feeling blotting her vision, Eliana couldn’t help but grin.
“El, for the love of the saints, what are you doing?” Harkan came up beside her, put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Me? Hurt?” She swallowed hard against the sick feeling tightening her throat. “Dearest Harkan.” She gestured grandly at the drawing of herself. “How could you think
such a thing of the Dread of Orline?”
She sprinted away and jumped off the top level of the docks onto another level about one hundred feet below. The impact jolted her with only a slight pain. She was up and running again in an instant. Such a fall would break Harkan’s legs; he’d have to take the long way down.
If Remy were there, he would tell her not to be so obvious.
started to notice,” he had told her just the other day. “I hear talk at the bakery.”
Eliana, stretching on the floor of her bedroom, had asked innocently, “What kind of talk?”
“When a girl falls three stories and then jumps right back to her feet in the middle of the Garden Square, people tend to notice. Especially when she’s wearing a cape.”
Eliana had smiled at the thought of their
gaping, awestruck faces. “And what if I want them to notice?”
Remy had been quiet for a long moment. Then: “Do you
Invictus to come and take you away from me?”
That had silenced her. She’d looked up at her little brother’s pale, pinched face and felt her stomach turn over.
“I’m sorry,” she’d told him quietly. “I’m such an ass.”
“I don’t care if you’re an ass,” he’d replied.
“Just don’t be a show-off.”
He was right, she knew. The problem was, she
showing off. If she was going to be a freak with a miraculous body that no fall could kill, then she might as well have fun with it.
If she was busy having fun, then she didn’t have time to wonder why her body could do what it did.
And what that meant.
Running through the docks, she followed the trail
of wrongness in the air like tracking the scent of prey. The docks’ lowest level was quiet, the summer air still and damp. She ran around one corner and then another—and stopped. The scent, the
, roiled at the edge of this rickety pier. She forced her way forward, even though her churning stomach and every roaring ounce of her blood screamed at her to stay away.
Two figures—masked and
wearing dark traveling clothes—waited in a long, sleek boat at the pier’s edge. Their tall, blunt builds suggested they were men. A third figure carried a small girl with golden-brown skin like Harkan’s. The girl struggled, a gag stuffed in her mouth, her wrists and ankles bound.
Red Crown? Unlikely. What would the rebels want with stolen children? And if Red Crown were involved in the abductions,
Eliana would have heard whispers from the underground by now.
They could be bounty hunters like herself, but why would the Undying Empire pay for what it could simply take? And working in a group?
One of the figures in the boat held out its arms for the girl. Lumps crowded the boat’s floor—other women, other girls, bound and unconscious.
Eliana’s anger ignited.
She pulled long, thin Whistler from her left boot.
“Going somewhere, gentlemen?” she called and ran at them.
The figure on the dock turned just as Eliana reached him. She whirled, caught him with her boot under his chin. He fell, choking.
One of the figures from the boat jumped onto the dock. She swiped him across the throat with Arabeth, pushed him into the water after his comrade.
She spun around, triumphant, beckoned at the abductor still waiting in the boat.
“Come on, love,” she crooned. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
Once, she had flinched at killing. Her first had been six years ago, at the age of twelve. Rozen Ferracora, Eliana’s mother, had brought her along on a job—the last Rozen had taken before her injury—and someone had ratted them out. The rebels
had known they were coming. It had been an ambush.
Rozen had felled two of them, and Eliana had hidden in the shadows. That had always been her mother’s instruction:
I’ll keep you from killing as long as I can, sweet girl. For now, watch. Learn. Practice. What my father taught me, I will teach you.
Then one of the rebels had pinned Rozen to the ground, and Eliana had known nothing but
She flew at the rebel woman, thrust her little blade deep into the woman’s back. Then she stood, staring, as the woman gasped away her life in a pool of blood.
Rozen had taken Eliana’s hand, hurried her away. Back home in their kitchen, her brother, Remy—then only five—had stared wide-eyed as Eliana’s shock gave way to panic. Hands red with blood, she had sobbed herself hoarse in
her mother’s arms.
Luckily, the killing had grown much easier.
Two masked figures darted forward out of the shadows, small bundles in their arms. More girls? They tossed the bundles to their last remaining comrade in the boat, then spun to meet her. She ducked one blow, then another, then took a hard one to the stomach and a sharp hook to the jaw.
She stumbled, shook it off. The pain
vanished as quickly as it had come. She whirled and stabbed another of the brutes. He toppled into the filthy water.
Then a wave of nausea slammed into her, mean as a boot to the gut. She dropped to her knees, gasping for air. A weight settled on her shoulders, fogged her vision, pressed her down hard against the river-slicked dock.
Five seconds. Ten. Then the pressure vanished. The air
no longer felt misaligned around her body; her skin no longer crawled. She raised her head, forced open her eyes. The boat was gliding away.
Wild with anger, head still spinning, Eliana staggered to her feet. A strong arm came around her middle, pulling her backward just as she prepared to dive.
“Get off me,” she said tightly, “or I’ll get nasty.” She elbowed Harkan in his ribs.
swore, but didn’t let go. “El, have you lost your mind? This isn’t the job.”
“They took her.” She stomped on his instep, twisted out of his grip, ran back to the dock’s edge.
He followed and caught her arm, spun her around to face him. “It doesn’t matter. This isn’t the job.”
Her grin emerged hard as glass. “When has restraining me ever worked out in your favor? Oh, wait.” She sidled
closer, softened her smile. “I can think of a time or two—”
“Stop it, El. What have you always told me?” His dark eyes found hers, locked on. “If it isn’t the job, it isn’t our problem.”
Her smile faded. She yanked her arm away from him. “They keep taking us. Why? And who are they? Why only the girls? And what was that…that
? I’ve never felt anything like that before.”
dubious. “Maybe you need to sleep.”
She hesitated, despair creeping slowly in. “You felt nothing at all?”
She glared at him, ignoring the unsettled feeling in her gut. “Well, even so, that girl was no rebel. She was a child. Why would they bother taking her?”
“Whatever the reason, it’s not our problem,” Harkan repeated. He took a long, slow breath, perhaps convincing
himself. “Not tonight. We have work to do.”
Eliana stared out at the river for a long time. She imagined carving a face into a slab of flawless stone—no sweat, no scars. Only a hard smile that would come when called, and eyes like knives at night. By the time she had finished, her anger had faded and the unfeeling face was her own.
She turned to Harkan, brought out the cheeky little grin
he despised. “Shall we, then? Those bastards worked up my appetite.”
• • •
The Red Crown rebel smuggler known as Quill snuck both people and information out of Orline. He was good at it too—one of the best.
It had taken weeks for Eliana and Harkan to track him down.
Now, they crouched on a roof overlooking a tiny courtyard in the Old Quarter, where Quill was supposed to meet a
group of rebel sympathizers trying to flee the city. The courtyard reeked sweetly from the roses lining the walls.
Beside her, Harkan shifted, alert.
Eliana watched dark shapes enter the courtyard and crowd together in the corner below a climbing rosebush. Waiting.
Not long after, a hooded figure entered from the opposite corner and approached them. Eliana curled her fingers around
her dagger, her blood racing.
The clouds shifted; moonlight washed the yard clean.
Eliana’s heart stuttered and sank.
Quill. It had to be him. There was the faint limp in his gait, from a wound sustained during the invasion.
And there, waiting for him, were a woman and three small children.
Harkan swore under his breath. He pointed at the children, signed with his hand. He
and Eliana had engineered a silent code years ago, when she first started hunting alone after Rozen’s injury. He had insisted she not go by herself, and so he had learned to hunt and track, to kill, to turn on their own people and serve the Empire instead—all for her.