Nine dead. On the final night of the Candidacy the new Council of Magic was brought into its official reign by the blood of a king of Jerar, a young Pythian princess, four high-ranking Crown advisors, two prominent noblemen, and one poisoning attempt on the crown prince—now new king of Jerar—himself.
Never in the history of Jerar had so many important lives been stolen away in the course of an hour.
The five rebels were all found and executed. The three Caltothian servants that had come with their Lord Tyrus? They never made it out. Commander Audric’s men and the newly promoted Mage Mira ensured every single one of the traitors were put to death before the night had ended.
I doubted they had expected to live. In a room filled with so many of the Crown and King’s Regiments? With so many high-ranking mages and the world’s most powerful black robe? Their mission had only been to kill.
The Crown’s progress carried King Lucius’s corpse back to the capital in Devon. Duke Cassius took his niece’s body back to Pythus by ship with the rest of the court from his own country. The Borea Isles followed the same.
We left so hastily I only got the barest glimpse of my parents and Alex and Ella before I left. Derrick was already riding off with the rest of his regiment friends for the keep. I saw Ian and Jacob alongside him, and a part of me wished I were returning too. Derrick hadn’t forgiven me for what happened to our brother, and more than ever I wanted to make amends.
I spent the whole of our five days south quietly mourning Wrendolyn’s loss. Quietly, because the new king had lost a wife, and both he and his brother a father. All in one night. Despite everything they had experienced at the hand of Lucius’s reign, he was their father—and that in itself was its own kind of misery.
The speech Blayne gave at his father’s funeral was a call for war.
“Gone is the benevolence my father gave to our neighbor in the north. For too long I have watched our great country suffer in the guise of peace. No more. King Horrace sent his chief ambassador to slaughter my father in cold blood… He took the life of an innocent young beauty, my wife—” Blayne’s voice cracked and through the mage’s amplification casting he swallowed. “—Whose flower had barely begun to bloom—” The young king ran a fist across his eyes. “And several great house lords in the attack. Horrace has been paying off our men to weaken our kingdom and turn them against the Crown...”
Blayne climbed the towering steps of his father’s pyre; they led up to the sky. The red folds of his father’s cloak flapped heavily in the wind.
“Jerar will no longer be victim to Caltothian greed. We will fight back.”
The hoards of low and highborn alike shouted their consent, a roar that shattered the sky, as the new king of Jerar lowered his torch.
Flames erupted in a tempest of red. Against the bright summer sun it seared. Red like blood. Red like rage. Red like revenge.
“I PROMISE YOU THIS.” Blayne’s voice boomed down from above. “JERAR WILL NOT BE A VICTIM. PYTHUS AND THE BOREA ISLES WILL HONOR OUR NEW ALLIANCE, AND WE WILL GO TO WAR. IT IS TIME TO MAKE A STAND.”
The streets of Devon were a rumble of cries. The hammer of footfalls and bellows for change. I screamed right along with them. I screamed until my lungs grew hoarse. I screamed for Wren and for Eve and for Caine and every one of our own. All the lives the enemy had taken. All the senseless violence.
It was so much easier to choose anger over pain, and so I screamed.
I didn’t notice the boy with the garnet eyes walk away.
“But where did he go?”
Henry shrugged and I ground my teeth, frustrated. How could the prince’s own personal guard let him out of the city unaccompanied? So soon after the attack?
“Your one job is to guard him!”
The man folded his arms, undaunted. “All apologies, my lady, but when the Black Mage orders you not to follow, you don’t follow.”
“It doesn’t matter what he—”
Paige cut me off with a hand to my wrist. “He doesn’t know, Ryiah, let him be.”
“I know, I just…” I trailed off, my arms falling limp at my sides. “He shouldn’t be out there, Paige.” I wasn’t really worried about Caltothians or rebels. They had never bothered to come after Darren during the attack, even when he was weak. After his display during the Candidacy he would be the last one anyone wanted to face. Not unless they had an army at their backs. “I’m worried.”
Darren had been so busy playing his role as the new Black Mage to his brother he hadn’t let himself feel. He had shut out that storm of emotions and been the man the others expected. The way he had dealt with everything in his life.
But tonight. Tonight, he had cracked. Whatever he had been feeling after his father’s death, it had led him to leave. And now he was gone and he shouldn’t be alone.
Not like this.
I started to sprint toward the stables where the regiment had boarded up our horses for the ceremony.
“Ryiah!” Paige chased after me. “Not you too! You don’t even know where—”
I turned around sharply to stop her, panting. “No. You stay. Just this once, Paige. Let me do this on my own. Please.”
Her brown eyes narrowed to mine. She sighed loudly, muttering a curse when she saw my face. “Fine. Two hours. You have two hours to find him.”
“A minute longer and I will send out a search party. Henry and I would have done it regardless. The two of you might be the best mages in the realm, but you aren’t invincible.”
I started forward. “Thank—”
“Time started five seconds ago.” She raised a brow. “I suggest you get going.”
I tore out of the stable at a gallop. I took the empty backstreets to the plains just outside the capital; I knew Darren would have done the same.
As soon as I made it out of the city I came to a stop. Every direction the King’s Road took was overflowing. Passersby and caravans on every branch of the path. Everyone who had come to pay respect to their new king, or to peddle their wares during the height of an opportunity. The air was thick with incense and chatter.
I veered off the main trail to the north. It was a different route from the one that wove around the mountain range to Montfort, and I could see recent hoof prints marring the grass headed east. It led to a dead end—the very back of the palace was actually situated over a cliff that ran along for a couple of miles in either direction, but I knew it would be the one he would take.
For thirty minutes I rode in silence. The last rays of the sun cut a somewhat abandoned path across heavy forest foliage. Bright flashes of gold mixed in with green, something beautiful and remote. The air was sweeter here, too.
I could hear the steady trickle of a stream as I drew closer to the clearing. When I finally cut across to the granite edge, I found him standing there, with Wolf at his feet, overlooking the ledge. A stream was snaking down its end; the soft hush of water against rock much further below.
The sky was teeming with stars.
The sound of hoof beats alerted him of my approach.
The non-heir—or perhaps that title didn’t fit anymore—spun around, tottering. It was then I noticed the flask in his hand.
I dismounted, tying up my mare next to his own, and started forward. “Darren—”
He held out a hand to stop me, and I noticed he was shaking, violently. “I don’t want you to see me like this, Ryiah.” He slurred the words as he spoke. “Go home.”
I stopped walking but made no move to turn around. My voice was gentle. “It’s okay to be sad. He was your father.”
The prince threw back his head and laughed. Like it was the funniest thing in the world. But the movement shifted his balance.
Darren started to slip—
My hand shot out without a moment’s thought.
A blast of wind was all that saved Darren from the rocky abyss below. He collapsed onto jagged granite as I struggled to breathe, wind rattling my lungs. A part of me was furious it could have even happened. The other part terrified he might have let it.
And then I ran forward to drag him away from the ledge. There were cuts marring his hands but he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t care at all. As I heaved one arm over my shoulder he was still laughing, madly. “Can you really call a man like him ‘father?’”
I didn’t know how to reply. So I kept silent and just kept moving him toward a boulder he could lean against a couple more feet toward the clearing, away from the drop. He was in no position to stand.
“All these years…” His words were faded. “All this time I hated him. When I… So many times I wondered what it would be like…” His head fell forward as I helped him sit. “I envied you, you know. I saw your parents that day… At the first-year trials… You looked so… happy.”
A part of me crumbled. The little boy saving his brother, wishing for a different life.
“I never loved him… I tried but what—what he did to us...” Pain lanced Darren’s voice. “Blayne was never strong. Not like me… Maybe that was why...”
“The moment Blayne collapsed… I knew. I knew I should have gone to him… I was the Black Mage.” His eyes met mine and suddenly I knew. “It was my job to protect him… But I chose my brother.”
“You didn’t know—”
“I suspected.” Bitterness flowed through his words. “And I didn’t do a thing… Could have had you watch Blayne… But—but I thought maybe it was better… So I didn’t do anything.” His whole body was shuddering. “I didn’t speak a word.”
I leaned against the granite so that my shoulders lined up with his. A slight puff of dirt settled as I shifted in my seat.
“If you were smart…” Darren drew in a sharp breath. “You’d run away and never look back.” He exhaled. “I’m poison, Ryiah.” The last words tore at my lungs. “Just like my father.”
I clutched his bloodied fingers in my own, but he pulled away even as I spoke. “You are nothing like him!”
“Aren’t I?” His laugh was low. “He wasn’t always a bad man. He was never kind… but he wasn’t always cruel. The servants… They say he changed after my mother died.” Darren met my eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if that was who my father was always destined to be, and my mother just saved him from himself…” Garnet turned to black. “Or his love for her made him become it.”
My heart slammed against my ribs.
His voice was so quiet. “I’m afraid of what my love for you will make me.”
“Darren…” Now it was my turn to crack. “I—” I didn’t know what to say. My palms were trembling, and I pressed them against the sand and rocks to hide their tremor.
“Sometimes I wish I was never a prince…” His eyes clouded. “And I wonder what it would be like… if I were just a boy, and you just a girl—without all of this.”
I let my fingers slide to his. “It would have made everything a lot easier.”
For a while there was just silence. The heavy patter of his heart next to mine, the rise and fall of his chest. The quiet in and out of our breath.
Then he shut his eyes. “We should be them, someday.”
“We will.” My grip tightened on his hand. Whatever he thought, he wasn’t poison.
Darren wasn’t darkness, and I wasn’t his light.
The non-heir had proven time and time again he was more than his father’s son. More than an arrogant non-heir who thought only of himself. And now I wanted to show Darren what he looked like to me.
I needed to show him he was fire. My fire. Something filled with light. Something good. Someone just like me but wrapped up so tightly in his own barrier of darkness it could burn. Unless you knew how to unravel him.
And so I kissed him. Tugging his face to mine, I held his face in the palm of my hands and kissed his mouth. Just once. Pressing my lips to his I shut my eyes and channeled my one single promise.
I will never give up on you.
A spark seemed to light me up from the inside. Like tinder, my body shot to flames. And his returned. We were two coals burning in the dark.
When I pulled back his eyes were stars.
“Promise me, Ryiah, when this war is over, we leave this all behind. Promise we will be them.”
The weeks following King Lucius’s funeral brought with them a wave of change. Some good, some bad… well, they were primarily bad.
The entire castle was in mourning. It was a three-month duration in which we were required to dress in somber colors and postpone the Crown’s weekly entertainment for the nobility at court. To honor our late king in longstanding tradition. Unfortunately, it also meant our wedding was postponed.
“Which is just as well because we don’t have Emperor Liang’s backing until we get King Joren to stop dragging his feet,” Blayne had been quick to point out. “Until he acknowledges our claim, we have no reason to forsake tradition and expedite a wedding.”
One of the other things to go from bad to worse. The Pythian king was now stating that he had received correspondence from King Horrace that stated his ambassador was acting without orders. His call “For Caltoth” could have been a “ploy” from Jerar to extract sympathies for a call to war. The letter even went so far as to say the attackers were executed before a panel of unbiased parties could question them. In other words, the Caltothians were blaming Jerar.
What surprised me most was that King Joren was even listening to their claims. After all, his own brother had watched his daughter get murdered before his very eyes.
How a king could just put aside the loss of his daughter and ignore the facts was beyond suspicious. A king so willing to listen to the man who had had his daughter slaughtered for show? There had to be more. Even to a girl like me with no knowledge of this sort of thing. Something else was afoot, I just didn’t know what.
Were the Pythians working with the Caltothians? But then why go through all the false efforts to negotiate? Why marry a daughter when she could have been sent to marry the other king’s son in the first place? Why pick the losing side?
Were they working with the rebels? But that wouldn’t make sense either. Caltoth was the one who had been raiding and attacking our border for years. And if they had wanted to rule Jerar our treaty should have been enough—they hadn’t needed to work up from the bottom rung of the rebels to seize control.
Or was King Joren so shrewd that he could sit upon his throne and deliberate? That he would ignore the facts and pick apart meaningless details to postpone promised aid after our call to war. To claim he sought the truth when he really just sought an escape.
Blayne sent two ambassadors to Pythus to plead our case. They would remain in his court as a constant reminder until he honored the New Alliance. An envoy traveled back and forth by ship, a new letter with updates on our progress every month to give us hope. Sooner or later Jerar would receive its promised aid. Our king refused to consider the alternative.
That wasn’t the only change to pass.
Mage Mira was promoted to lead mage in the King’s Regiment. Much to my chagrin she was my direct commander. I had only just come into my new role, and thanks to the Montfort attack she refused to send me even outside the palace gates. My new service was limited to guarding the Council of Magic’s official chamber.
Four of the seven days each week, I spent dawn until dusk securing its entrance, growing more restless with each passing hour. The longer I spent watching Darren and the other two Colored Robes, Karina for Restoration and Yves for Alchemy, come and go for their meetings with Blayne and his new circle of advisors, the more I grew to resent my role, and in some ways myself.
He was better. It was the first sentence that came to mind when I woke. And it was the last before I went to bed. I hated myself for even thinking it, but every time I grew restless, every time Mira barked at me to stop my complaints, it was there.
If I were just a boy, and you were just a girl… If that were true I wouldn’t be trapped in the palace. I wouldn’t be “too valuable to send out on missions,” as Mira had sneered. I wouldn’t be serving as a sentry; I would be out doing things. Making a difference. Blayne had promised me as soon as we went to war I would be able to take on a more active duty, and he had made an effort to include me in his war council meetings on my days off… but it wasn’t enough.
In all fairness, the whole of Jerar had grown silent as a front. Rebel attacks had ceased in the south; no more raids to the north. There wasn’t action to be had, anywhere. Every pair of eyes was trained on Caltoth as we waited for good news from King Joren of Pythus.
A rampant hate was spreading across the countryside like the plague. Our king had been cut down in cold blood. Just a year before our stronghold, attacked. The Caltothians were ruthless, relentless in their pursuit of our land.
Any reluctance to war had disappeared under the latest attack.
Darren was at its head. Following his father’s funeral, the prince had channeled his grief into rage. Rage that boiled over into his work. I hardly ever saw him outside the Council doors. Every waking moment was spent at his brother’s side. Daring the rebels of Jerar to try an attempt again, daring Caltoth to send its army now. His mother and father had been murdered, his brother barely left to live. The Black Mage of Jerar was ready to lead us to war, and I was ready to serve.
Our enemies had to pay. Those heartless, faceless others who had stolen so much. It was a fire consuming the dark. Fanning us with its flames. Searing a brand right across our hearts.
Perhaps that was why I didn’t notice when one walked right through the palace doors.