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Authors: Claire Legrand

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No
, came his message.
Abort.

She knew what he meant. The children weren’t part of this job. Quill was one thing, but the
idea of handing innocent children over to the Lord of Orline… It wouldn’t sit well with Harkan.

Honestly, it didn’t with Eliana either.

But three rebels waited at the courtyard’s shadowed entrance: Quill’s escort and protectors. There was no time, and it was too big a risk to spare the family. She and Harkan had to move quickly.

She shook her head.
Take them
, she signed back.

Harkan drew a too-loud breath; she heard the furious sadness in it.

Below, Quill’s head whipped toward them.

Eliana jumped off the roof, landed lightly, rolled to her feet. Thought, briefly, how it was a terrible shame that she couldn’t sit back and watch herself fight. Surely it looked as good as it felt.

Quill drew a dagger; the mother fell to her knees, begging for mercy. Quill pushed
his hood back. Middle-aged, ruddy-faced, and intelligent in the eyes, he had a serenity to him that said,
I fear not death, but surrender.

Four seconds later, Eliana had kicked his bad leg out from under him, relieved him of his knife, struck the back of his head with the hilt. He did not rise again.

She heard Harkan land behind her, followed by rapid footsteps as the other rebels rushed
into the courtyard. Together she and Harkan had them down in moments. She whirled and flung her dagger. It hit the wooden courtyard door, trapping the eldest child in place by his cloak.

The others froze and burst into tears.

Their mother lay glassy-eyed on the ground in a bed of rotting petals. One of the rebel’s daggers protruded from her heart.

Eliana yanked it free—another blade
for her arsenal. She wondered why the rebels had killed the woman. To protect themselves?

Or to grant her mercy they knew she would not otherwise receive.

“Fetch the guard,” Eliana ordered, searching the mother for valuables. She found nothing except for a small idol of the Emperor, crafted from mud and sticks, no doubt kept on her person in case an adatrox patrol stopped her for a search.
The idol’s beady black eyes glittered in the moonlight. She tossed it aside. The children’s sobs grew louder. “I’ll stay with them.”

Harkan paused, that sad, tired look on his face that made her hackles rise because she knew he hoped it would change her, one of these days. Make her better. Make her
good
again.

She lifted an eyebrow.
Sorry, Harkan. Good girls don’t live long.

Then he
left.

The eldest child watched Eliana, arms around his siblings. Some impulse stirring deep inside her urged her to let them go, just this once. It wouldn’t hurt anything. They were children; they were nothing.

But children couldn’t keep their mouths shut. And if anyone ever found out that the Dread of Orline, Lord Arkelion’s pet huntress, had let traitors run free…

“We were afraid
the bad men would take her too,” the boy said simply. “That’s why we wanted to leave.”

The bad men.
A tiny chill skipped up Eliana’s neck. The masked men from the docks?

But the boy said no more than that. He did not even try to run.

Smart boy
, Eliana thought.

He knew he would not get far.

• • •

The next afternoon, Eliana stood on a balcony overlooking the gallows.

Lord Arkelion lounged at the east end of the square, the high back of his throne carved to resemble wings.

Eliana, watching him, folded her arms across her chest. Shifted her weight to one hip. Tried to ignore the figure standing in a red-and-black Invictus uniform beside His Lordship’s throne.

From this height, Eliana couldn’t tell who it was, but it didn’t matter. The mere sight of that
familiar silhouette was enough to turn her stomach.

Invictus: a company of assassins that traveled the world and carried out the Emperor’s bidding. The most dangerous jobs, the bloodiest jobs.

It was only a matter of time before they recruited her. She imagined it daily, just to see if the idea would ever stop terrifying her.

So far, it hadn’t.

Probably Rahzavel would be the one
to come for her. Eliana had seen him at a handful of His Lordship’s parties over the years. Each time, he had requested a dance with her. Each time, his flat gray gaze had dared her to refuse him.

Oh, how she’d wished she could have.

“An invincible bounty hunter,” he had crooned in her ear during their last dance together the previous summer. “How curious.” He had threaded his cold fingers
through hers. “You’ll make a fine addition to our family someday.”

When Rahzavel came for her, he probably wouldn’t even let her say goodbye to her loved ones before escorting her overseas to Celdaria, the heart of the Undying Empire—and to the Emperor himself.

Welcome, Eliana Ferracora
, the Emperor said in her most awful dreams, his smile not reaching his black eyes.
I’ve heard so much
about you.

And that would be the end of life as she now knew it. She would become one of the elite—a soldier of Invictus.

She would become, like Rahzavel, a new breed of monster.

Today, however, was not that day.

So Eliana watched, tapping her fingers against her arm, wishing His Lordship would get it over with. She was hungry and tired, and Harkan was beside himself with shame.
And the longer they stood there, the more desperately he would expect something from her that she couldn’t give him:

Regret.

The Empire guard marched Quill and the eldest child up to the gallows. It been constructed in the ruins of the temple of Saint Marzana, the revered firebrand of the Old World—the world before the Blood Queen Rielle had died. Before the rise of the Empire.

Empire
soldiers had almost entirely demolished the temple when they seized Orline. Once, the temple had been a grand array of domed halls, classrooms and sanctuaries open to the river breeze, and courtyards draped in blossoming vines. Now, only a few crumbling pillars remained. Saint Marzana’s statue, standing guard at the temple entrance, had been destroyed. A likeness of the Emperor now loomed there
instead—his features masked, his body cloaked. Gold, black, and crimson banners flanked his head.

The plaza beneath him was crowded but quiet. The citizens of Orline were used to executions, but Quill was popular in certain circles, and not even His Lordship often slaughtered children.

When Eliana and Harkan had presented the captive children to him, Lord Arkelion had smiled kindly, inspected
the younger ones’ teeth, and sent them off with one of his mistresses. The children had reached back for their brother, wailing all the way down the throne room until someone had, blessedly, shut the doors.

But the eldest child had not cried. And he was not crying today, not even as he watched the executioner raise his sword.

“The Empire will burn!” shouted Quill, his hair plastered to
his scalp with sweat.

The sword fell; Quill’s head rolled. An uneasy wave of sound swept through the crowd.

Only then, his face splattered with fresh blood, did the boy start to cry.

“El,” Harkan choked out. He took Eliana’s hand in his sweaty one, rubbed his thumb along her palm. His voice came out frayed. He had not slept.

She had slept like the dead. Sleep was important. One
could not hunt without a good night’s sleep.

“We don’t have to watch,” she told him as patiently as she could manage. “We can go.”

He released her hand. “You can go if you want. I have to watch.”

There it was again—that same exhausted tone, like a sad-eyed hound resigned to its next beating.

To keep from snapping at him, Eliana fiddled with the battered gold pendant under her cloak.
She wore it on a chain around her neck every day and knew the scratched, worn lines of it by heart: The arch of the horse’s neck. The intricate details of its wings. The figure riding astride it, sword raised, face blackened from time: Audric the Lightbringer. One of the dead Old World kings her brother obsessed over for reasons Eliana couldn’t fathom. Her parents told her they had found the
trinket on the street when Eliana was still a baby and given it to her to calm her crying one sleepless night. She had worn it for as long as she could remember, though not out of love for the Lightbringer. She cared nothing for dead kings.

No, she wore it because, some days, she felt like the familiar weight of the necklace at her throat was the only thing that kept her from flying apart.

“I’ll stay,” she told Harkan lightly. Too lightly? Probably. “I’ve got the time.”

He didn’t even scold her. The executioner lifted his sword. At the last moment, the child raised his hand in a salute—a fist at his heart and then held up in the air. The sign of allegiance to the rebellion, to Red Crown. His arm shook, but he stared at the sun with unblinking eyes.

He began reciting the
Sun Queen’s prayer: “May the Queen’s light guide me—”

The sword fell.

Eliana’s tears surprised her. She blinked them away before they could fall. Harkan covered his mouth with one hand.

“God help us,” he whispered. “El, what are we doing?”

She grasped his hand, made him face her.

“Surviving,” she told him. “And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She swallowed—and swallowed again.
Her jaw ached. Pretending boredom was hard work, but so was war. And if she fell to pieces, Harkan would crumble even faster.

The Lord of Orline raised one hand.

The citizens packed into the plaza below chanted the words that constantly circled through Eliana’s mind like carrion birds:

“Glory to the Empire. Glory to the Empire. Glory to the Empire.”

3

Rielle

“After the breaking of the Sunderlands, the Seven returned to the mainland, and still they could not rest. Their people had been at war for decades, and they craved a safe place to call home. So the saints began in Katell’s homeland and used their power to carve out of the alpine mountains a paradise. Sheltered by high peaks, verdant with forests and farmlands, this haven
was named Âme de la Terre and became the capital of Celdaria. They built the queen’s city in the foothills of the highest mountain and surrounded it with a crystal lake that seemed carved out of the clearest sky.”


A Concise History of the Second Age, Volume I: The Aftermath of the Angelic Wars
by Daniel Riveret and Jeannette d’Archambeau of the First Guild of Scholars

The starting line
was chaos.

Some riders competed in the name of the Church temples. Those from the Pyre, Tal’s temple, wore scarlet and gold. Black and deep blue for the House of Night, the temple of shadowcasters and Tal’s sister, Sloane. Umber and light green for the Holdfast, the earthshaker temple.

The great Celdarian houses had also sent representatives. Rielle passed riders in lilac and sage for
House Riveret, russet and steel for House Sauvillier. Riders had even traveled from the distant kingdoms of Ventera and Astavar, which lay across the Great Ocean.

Many riders, like Rielle, had been hired by merchants eager for the winning purse—though none of them were as wealthy as her sponsor, Odo Laroche.

And none of the other riders had had the privilege of training with the king’s
finest horsemasters since they were old enough to sit in a saddle.

Grinning, Rielle guided her mare beneath the maze of stilted spectator boxes. Her ears rang from the noise—gamblers shouting their bets, children racing through the crowd and shrieking with delight. Smoke from market vendors selling roasted pork sandwiches and blackened fowl skewers stung her eyes.

She finally reached the
tent set aside for Odo’s riders. The gown she wore was a favorite—forest green to match her eyes, iridescent vines sewn at the hem, a swooping neckline that showed off her collarbones—but the midday sun made her itch to rip it off. Leaving her horse with the paid swords guarding the door, she slipped inside to change.

And froze.

Audric was already there, clad in only his riding trousers
and boots. His fine emerald tunic and embroidered jacket hung neatly from the back of a chair. In his hands, he held a plain linen riding shirt.

He grinned at her. “Took you long enough,” he said and threw her a shirt of her own.

She caught it, barely. “The crowds are larger than I had anticipated,” she said, though her throat was suddenly dry, and it astonished her that she could manage
a word.

It had been a long time since she had seen her kingdom’s prince so unclothed.

Growing up together, it would have meant nothing. She had spent hours playing with him and Ludivine in the gardens behind the castle. They had swum together in the lake surrounding the city, worshipped together at the Baths.

But that had been before.

Before Audric and Ludivine’s betrothal, an
arrangement that bound the houses of Courverie and Sauvillier even closer together. Before Audric had transformed from her shy, gangly, awkward friend into Prince Audric the Lightbringer, the most powerful sunspinner in centuries.

Before Rielle had realized she loved Audric. And that he would never be hers.

She drank in the sight of him—the lean muscles of his arms, his broad chest, his
narrow waist. He was not as dark as his father, not as pale as his mother, the queen. Dark-brown curls, damp from the heat, loosely framed his face. Dappled sunlight fell through the tent’s netting and painted his skin radiant.

When he looked up at her, she flushed at the warmth of his gaze. “Lu’s all right?” he asked.

“And enjoying the attention, I’m sure. And your mother?”

“I told
her I’d take care of Lu, and that she should relax and enjoy the race.” He shook his head ruefully. “She thinks I’m a dutiful son—”

“And instead you’re sneaking off to risk life and limb.” Rielle threw him a sly smile. “Your lie was a kindness. She’d be frantic if she knew where you really were.”

Audric laughed. “Mother could use a fright now and then. Otherwise she gets bored, and when
she gets bored, she starts to meddle, and when she meddles, she starts pestering me and Lu.”

About when we will be wed.
The unsaid words lingered, and Rielle could no longer look at him.

She stepped behind the dressing screen Odo had provided, undid her gown, stepped out of it. Clothed in only her shift, she reached for the trousers Audric tossed over to her.

“If I didn’t know better,”
she said, keeping her voice light, “I’d say you’re sounding rather rebellious. And here I thought you weren’t one for breaking rules.”

He laughed again. “You bring it out of me.”

This was, she began to realize, a terrible idea. She should have asked Odo for a separate tent. Undressing five feet away from Audric was the sort of delicious madness for which she could never have prepared herself.

God help her, she could hear the fabric of his riding tunic sliding against his torso. She could almost
feel
it, as if he were there beside her, drawing her gown up over her head, freeing her of the last remaining barrier between them.

As she tried to wriggle into her own black tunic, cursing herself and her unhelpfully vivid imagination, she got her arm stuck through the heavy embroidered
collar.

“Rielle?” came Audric’s voice. “Hurry, they’ve started announcing the racers.”

Damn, damn, damn.
Rielle twisted and squirmed, tugging at her shirt.

On the other side of the screen, the tent flap opened. “The race is starting, and it seems my two riders are nowhere to be found,” came Odo’s smooth baritone, with only a touch of irritation. “May I remind you that I’m wagering
quite a bit of coin on both of you, as well as my own head, should either of you be stupid enough to be discovered? Or worse, break your necks?”

“We’ll be right there,” Rielle called. “Have I ever given you reason to doubt me?”

“On numerous occasions, in fact,” Odo replied. There was a pause. “Shall I enumerate them for you?”

“One moment, please, Odo,” Audric said, laughter in his
voice.

The tent flap closed.

“Can I come around?” Audric called.

“Yes, but…oh, hang on.” With a violent twist, Rielle managed to free herself. She jerked down the tunic, fumbling with the gold ribbons at the neckline. “Yes, all right, I’m decent.”

Audric rounded the screen, her leather riding jacket and cap in hand. “Could it be that we’re about to sneak into this life-threatening
race, and
you’re
the flustered one?”

“Never mind that you tried to get out of doing this a dozen times.” Rielle yanked her cap from his hand. “Never mind that you haven’t broken a rule in your life before now.”

“But what an inaugural defiance it is, don’t you agree?” He moved closer to help her fasten the tunic’s clasp between her shoulders. His fingers grazed the nape of her neck. “I
mean, I could have begun my rebellious streak with something simple. Being late to morning court, skipping my prayers, bedding a servant girl—”

She burst out laughing. It sounded shriller than she would have liked. “You? Bed a servant girl? You don’t know the first thing about courting a woman.”

“So you think.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Am I that hopeless a case to you?”

“To start,
you’d have to put down your books every now and then.”

“Lady Rielle,” came his teasing voice, “are you offering to educate me in the art of seducing a woman?”

A terrible silence fell. Rielle felt Audric tense behind her. A blush crept up her cheeks. Why had she let herself get drawn into this, of all conversations? She knew nothing about courting anyone.

Her father had made sure of
that.

Once, at thirteen, Rielle had come home after watching fifteen-year-old Audric practice his swordwork in the barracks yard, feeling on edge and ready to burst out of her skin.

Her father and his lieutenants had run Audric through many drills that day. Magister Guillory sat nearby, offering advice whenever she saw fit. As Grand Magister of the House of Light, the ferocious old woman
had overseen Audric’s sunspinner studies for years. She and Rielle’s father had helped Audric focus the sometimes overwhelming call of his power into the physical, reliable work of fighting with a sword.

Rielle had watched many of Audric’s practices, but that particular one had been different. She had not been able to get him out of her head afterward—how he’d moved in the afternoon light,
every motion steady and sure, brow furrowed in concentration as his sword scattered flares of sunlight across his skin. She had brought her father his customary drink after dinner that night and been so rattled that she dropped the cup.

Her father had raised an eyebrow. “You’re not yourself tonight.”

She had said nothing, unsure of how to answer him.

“I noticed you in the yard today,”
he observed mildly. “You’ve been coming around often of late.”

Rielle crouched to sweep up the mess, her hair hiding her hot face.

Then her father had pulled her to her feet, hard enough to hurt her wrist.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he had told her, “and I forbid it. You might lose control one day and hurt him. He has a rare gift, do you understand? The most power anyone has had
in half an age. It’s important for the realm to see that he is master of it, not the other way around. The last thing Audric needs is someone like you hovering about.”

Rielle’s eyes had filled with tears. “Someone like me?”

Her father had released her, impassive. “A murderer.”

Lord Commander Dardenne had not allowed his daughter to attend Audric’s practices after that.

Now, at
eighteen, Rielle had not kissed a soul, nor come close to it. Certainly she had imagined it, and often. She knew she was beautiful—if not in the conventional sense, then in the way that at least made people look, and look hard.
Striking
was the word Ludivine often used. Or
arresting
.

Her father had only once commented on her looks: “You have the face of a liar. I can see all the machinations
of the world in your eyes.”

Nevertheless, Rielle cultivated this beauty however she could, dressing in the most outlandish fashions she could get away with—bold and just shy of revealing, crafted from exotic fabrics that Ludivine secretly ordered for her and that made her stand out at court like a peacock among pigeons. Every time she had dared to show herself in such a garment, she had sensed
hungry gazes upon her and felt her own secret hunger rear up inside her belly, hot and eager.

But even then, her father’s words hung about her neck like a yoke of thorns, and she tamped down every voracious instinct she possessed.

Besides, she didn’t want just anyone, not enough to take the risk.

So she kept herself apart, her frustrations manifesting in slick and frantic dreams, sometimes
of Audric, sometimes of Ludivine or Tal—mostly of Audric. After those nights, when Dream Audric had drawn her into his bed, she would wake to find the mirrors in her room cracked, once-extinguished candles freshly lit and sputtering.

Her father was not wrong; there was a danger to her, an unpredictability. She would not bring that to someone else’s bed.

Especially not someone who had been
promised to her friend.

Rielle made the mistake of looking at Audric over her shoulder, and his dark gaze locked onto hers for a brief moment before they both looked away.

“We should go,” she said. She grabbed her jacket from his hands, twisted her hair up into her riding cap, and went outside to mount her horse. She wrapped her cap’s veil about her neck and face, tucked the end of it
into her collar. When Audric joined her, wearing his own protective coverings, they did not speak, and she was glad.

This race would not be kind to her if she remained distracted.

• • •

Together, they followed the other riders to the starting line.

Audric rode one of Odo’s horses, a chestnut Celdarian mare from the southern riverlands. Rielle’s own mount, another from Odo’s stables,
was smaller—a gray Kirvayan mare named Maliya who held her banner tail high.

Rielle took her place at the starting line, five slots to the left and two behind Audric. The herald, high overhead, announced each racer through a small round amplifier engineered at the Forge.

When Rielle heard her own false name announced, she waved to the crowd, to generous applause. Though her and Audric’s
assumed identities meant nothing to these people, the name of their sponsor—the wealthy merchant Odo Laroche, who owned half the city’s businesses—carried tremendous weight.

High overhead, King Bastien took his place before the amplifier to begin the opening remarks.

“To celebrate another year of peace in our kingdom,” the king’s voice boomed, “and in hopes for a bountiful harvest—and
a joyous festival—and to give thanks to God who has blessed Celdaria with such gifts, I welcome all of you to this year’s Boon Chase!”

King Bastien returned to his seat, and the drummers began. The lines of racers shifted; the air crackled against Rielle’s skin.

The race heralds blew on their horns once. Twice.

Rielle curled her gloved fingers around Maliya’s reins, every inch of her
body thrumming.

The final racers took their place—twelve masked arbiters in the royal colors of plum, emerald, and gold. They would run the course and watch for foul play.

The drumbeats accelerated, matching Rielle’s pounding heart.

The heralds blew their horns a third time.

With a deafening roar from the crowd, the racers plunged forward onto the Flats, the wide stretch of grasslands
outside the city gates.

The Chase had begun.

• • •

The first few minutes were a blinding frenzy of sound and color. The hooves of five dozen horses kicked up clouds of dust.

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