The second day my brother refused, Mira set to work on his inquisition. It was supposed to be the Black Mage who interrogated prisoners of high treason, but Darren had petitioned Blayne for a reprieve.
A part of me longed to have him do it. Mira was bloodless and cold; it was hard for me to separate her from the enemy. My brother may have committed the crime, but I was in no state to consider reason. I had to be dragged away from the dungeon doors—and even then his screams still echoed in my head. They never went away.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I refused to drink. Darren was on his knees pleading with me just to breathe, and all I could do was stare at the wall. I needed a way to save my brother, and even if I were to reach out to the rebels, they were too far away. I had no way of knowing if he had a contact in the city, and Derrick refused to give me the answer for fear I would try and trade the life of another for his.
He wouldn’t have been wrong.
I had fallen to madness by the morning of the third day. Mira’s methods had left my brother in a state so terrible that Darren had to drag me from the dungeon cells, kicking and screaming and threatening to kill the woman who had done it.
They tried to put me in my chamber with Paige to stand guard, but I broke down the castle door with my magic. When she tried to stop me, I cast a sword and held it to her throat, shaking as I begged her to take me to the king.
She could have stopped me, but something in her expression cracked and she sheathed her blade and let me by.
I fell to my knees on the cold marble tile. By now they were purple and bloodied—fresh wounds reopening so new stains mixed with old—so many times had I dropped and scrapped and begged for my brother’s reprieve.
“I’m truly sorry, Ryiah.” Blayne looked down at me from his throne, and his expression was full of regret. “I can’t let his crimes go unpunished. Not unless Derrick can give us the answers we need.”
“P-please.” Darren was holding me as I cried, tears flooding the floor with pieces of my heart mixed up in between. “I’ll do anything.”
“You have until dawn tomorrow.” Blayne looked away. “Too many lives are at stake. I want to spare him, Ryiah, I do. You have shown nothing but loyalty to our Crown…” His voice grew sharp. “But your brother put everyone in this kingdom at risk. Crown law dictates a traitor die after the first night, and I have given him three. More than my father would have ever done.”
A part of me was shattering out on that floor. Darren and Paige helped me back to the dungeons where I fell apart, screams and sobs as I begged my little brother who lay dying to talk.
Eventually, I was taken away. Where I was put back in my chamber with Darren sitting outside the door, his back to the panel as he spoke quietly to me inside.
As the hours drew to a close, his voice grew hoarse. “I’m sorry, Ryiah.” Then I heard the soft pad of his boots as he retreated to his own.
I tossed and turned but I was never asleep. A thousand ideas crossed my mind as I fought reason for heart, and heart for reason. Every minute I considered bursting through that door to confess. I told myself I would tell Blayne everything and he would spare my brother.
But then Derrick’s words came rushing back:
“Would you give up your life in the palace?”
“Would you give up your prince?”
I would love Darren from afar, in my cell, until the day I died. I could give up his love for me for my brother’s life. It would kill me to do it, but it wasn’t even a question.
“Would you willingly sacrifice Ian? And Ray? And all those lives in the north?”
To sentence hundreds of people to death…
“And you and I, we are one and the same.”
He knew I couldn’t do it. Derrick knew. I could give up everything for myself, but I couldn’t give up the others.
So many times the idea of breaking him out had come to mind. It was as often as my breath… But even if I somehow found a way to do it, all I could think about was the Caltothian king and my brother’s lists. A part of me knew if he escaped King Horrace and the rebels would have everything they needed to start a war.
Hundreds, thousands of lives would be lost.
So much more than just my brother.
I couldn’t do it.
Three hours past the midnight hour alarm tolls rocked the palace walls.
I shoved past the blankets with a start. Every part of me knew what this was. I didn’t bother to think or change or even breathe.
I knew what to do.
I could hear Darren through the thin walls of our rooms utter a muffled curse, and then the loud thump as he left his bed to go put on boots.
The rebels were here.
I didn’t bother to change out of my shift or copy the prince. I had only seconds before Darren would reach the hall, and I had to get there first.
I had to get to Derrick first.
I took off at a run. Slip-sliding with my feet against the icy marble I tore past the corner—no guards in sight. I could hear the panicked shouts heading toward the palace barracks.
We were under attack.
As I got closer, I found two sets of guards crumbled and bleeding from their heads.
I was going to stop my brother, and it had to be me.
When I reached the end of the corridor I found Jacob half-carrying my brother out of his cell, one of the dead guard’s keys dangling from a chain at his hip.
The Ferren’s Keep solider regarded me with a sneer. “Come to stop us,” he challenged. “I always told Derrick you were never to be trusted.”
My hand shook as I held it out in front of my chest.
“You are his sister, but you chose the Crown.” The boy took another step, and my brother’s head lolled against his friend’s chest. My heart skipped a beat as Derrick sucked in a raggedy breath.
“If you don’t let us go, you sentence him to die.” Jacob was only a couple steps away. His eyes were glittering with malice and hate. “Is that what you want, swine?”
“N-no!” I stuttered the words as my hand shook violently.
“He loves you, you know.” Jacob’s words lashed out like a knife. “He kept telling Nyx she was wrong. He pled for the others to tell you every night you were out there practicing your blasted magic for the Candidacy.”
You’ve got to stop them, Ryiah. Do it. Do it now before he talks you out of it—
“Kill him.” Jacob shoved Derrick forward so that he was directly in front of my trembling hand. My brother’s face was streaked in blood and swelling with cuts. His body was nothing but red, and he was struggling just to breathe.
Derrick’s blue eyes met mine and I saw defeat.
“At least then it will be at the hand of his sister,” Jacob said. “Instead of an executioner.”
I knew I had to do it. All those lives. The war. I had to.
But my hand stilled. I couldn’t.
I slumped to the wall, letting the two rebels pass. Jacob’s knowing smile caused a burning rage to sweep up deep inside, but to see my brother… my brother was all I could think about.
A shout and then a thundering boom.
Jacob and my brother were sent flying against the dungeon door. There was a loud, splintering crack of wood.
I heard the sound as running steps drew closer, and I forced myself up. I made no move to form a casting as I stood in front of my brother and his friend.
“STOP!” Darren’s voice shot out. “ANY FURTHER AND I CAST TO KILL!”
The prince reached the end of the hall and recognition flared in his eyes. “Ryiah?”
“Darren…” My voice broke. “Please.”
He stood frozen in place.
“Please don’t let my brother die.”
The prince’s gaze never left my face.
He stepped to the side.
Jacob finished pulling Derrick to his feet, and then they were off. Twin sets of footfall racing down the hall.
Darren never made a move to stop them. He just stood facing me, his chest rising and falling with my own.
He chose me.
The words filled me, warmed me, made me whole. I couldn’t speak, but it didn’t matter. Darren reached out his hand and I took it.
And then a flash of white lit up the hall.
I started to run, cutting across the corner to find Mage Mira standing above two crumbled bodies, twin burn marks protruding from their chests. Directly at the heart.
Lightning still crackled just below her nails.
“You missed something,” she said.
And then I started to scream.
“She tried to stop them and she hesitated—you can’t blame her for not killing her own brother!”
“She would have let them escape, Blayne!” the woman screeched. “She’s no different than a rebel herself!”
“If that had been Marius—”
“And he were a rebel?” The woman sneered at the young man. “I would have put a blade through him myself!”
“Blayne!” The young man was pleading. “If it were you I never could have done it—”
“Because your king would never be so foolish!” The woman snorted. “And you were with her—”
“I was trying to stop her! Ryiah’s magic is just as good as my own, and she caught me off-guard. We were at a standstill when the boys escaped—”
“For all we know you were helping!”
“ENOUGH!” The third party roared. “I’m trying to think.”
“It’s Ryiah, Blayne! You know her. She fought to save Wren and father during the attack! She lost her brother today. She made a mistake, but she would never be one of them. Please, don’t hold this against her!”
Silence, then: “We will not hold Ryiah responsible for last night’s actions. The distraction the rebels caused in the gardens was done without her help. Her rooms were already searched—”
“Silence, brother. They came up empty. All the guards report no unusual activity, and her past actions demonstrate nothing but loyalty to the Crown. Her knight reports that the young woman has never been approached, and her family is loyal to the Crown.” He paused. “That said, I believe the Caltothians are recruiting at least some of their rebels from the border. The boy and his friend were both serving in the Ferren’s Keep Regiment. Since it appears Commander Nyx was not aware of her men I would like you, Darren, to send your top men to investigate. Marius had no luck locating the rebels but I trust you will be more thorough.”
“And Mira, write to your brother in Langli. Tell him I want him to return to his investigations in the south. He might not be the Black Mage any longer, but I need all our best men on the job.”
“Yes, your majesty…”
One day screaming and dying in bed. One day of rejecting the truth, burning it, tearing it right out of my lungs, and feeding it to the shadows that chased me as I slept.
Tears were stinging my eyes and a burning hate was strangling my lungs.
For one day, I allowed myself to shatter.
I wanted to lose. I wanted to let the darkness take me right there. But I couldn’t. And so I took the potions the healers offered me. I listened when the boy begged me to eat. I smiled when all I wanted to do was scream.
And then I begged to leave the very next morning. It didn’t matter that I was on the verge of losing myself to grief, it didn’t matter that I was breaking, that I could barely go a second without my heart screaming his name.
I still had to tell them.
And it couldn’t come as a letter. It couldn’t wait.
Even if I was never ready. I couldn’t give in to grief. Not until then.
But I needed to do it alone.
He understood. And so did his brother.
The five days’ ride to Demsh’aa was the hardest of my life. I rode on with four guards at my back and Paige at my front. Since the rebels had attacked the Crown not once but twice in the last couple of months I was far too valuable to have just one guard in travel.
Let them try.
Now, I had two Combat mages, two knights, and my head knight, Paige, to protect me from the dangers of my brother’s betrayal.
But they did nothing. They could not save me from myself. They could not spare me from the crippling shame that was eating me out from the inside. They could not hide the truth.
Derrick was dead.
It made no difference that he was a rebel, a traitor to the Crown.
Whenever I thought of him a cold fury slammed at my lungs. My hands balled to fists as I choked on a silent scream.
How could he? How could he betray us? How could he get caught?
How could he make me be the one to go home and tell them? Their youngest was dead. Derrick. The one with the dimples. The easiest smile. The one who made us all laugh.
I stifled a sob with a sharp, hitching breath and stared angrily out at King’s Road. I had the barest of two hours before I reached my parents. Darren had sent two envoys—one to my mother and father, the other to Alex and Ella in Montfort—telling them to expect me at my parents’ homestead in exactly one week. The journey for Alex and Ella would take a bit longer to reach.
Just enough time for me to tell my parents on my own.
I pulled at the leather cord at my neck. My skin there was rubbed raw. The copper ring glinted out in the sun. The “R” stared back at me, reminding me of everything I had lost.
A ring for each twin. A boy and a girl who couldn’t be more different. And then came Derrick, the feisty little boy with blond curls, three years younger but outspoken and always brandishing a stick in hand. He had stolen my heart the second he was born, and he had continued to steal it with every breath… until the end.
I had given him the ring meant for me. Told him that each of my favorite brothers had a part.
And now I had one.
The more the grief welled up inside, the way my parents looked as I told them when I arrived home that night. One thing was clear: the Caltothians had to pay. King Horrace had tricked Commander Nyx and her men, and my brother had died because of it.
I would not turn in the rebels. I had thought of it countless times in the day following his death, but I couldn’t. A part of me was ripped apart at the thought. Derrick had died for their cause. If I betrayed them now it would mean my brother had died in vain.
So I stayed silent. And I watched my parents fall. Dishes clattering, muffled cries, and puddles of tears. Angry, disbelieving shouts followed by stark betrayal and then grief.
I joined them. And another part of me shattered. I knew by the time Alex arrived there would be almost nothing left to break.
How many times can a person shatter?
At least one more.
Paige and the rest of the guards from the King’s Regiment remained outside. She was able to grant me that much when my twin and his new wife walked through my parents’ door.
“Ryiah,” Alex looked around the room, confused. His brow furrowed when he saw my parents in the corner clutching hands, their faces turned away. “What is it? Why were we summoned here?”
Ella caught my expression before Alex understood. “No.” Her arms went around her husband just as he noticed the cord on my neck. I had never taken it off.
“Derrick?” My twin rasped. “Where is he?”
I opened my mouth, but the words couldn’t come out. Tears started to swell at my eyes.
“Derrick!” Alex’s voice turned raw. “WHERE IS HE, RYIAH?” He broke free of Ella’s grip and crossed the room, shaking me while I struggled to breathe.
I can’t tell him. But you must. I can’t.
“Ryiah!” My brother was screaming in my face. “WHERE IS DERRICK?”
My father’s sob was all he needed to hear.
“NO!” Alex stumbled back; his eyes were streaming tears. “NO!”
“He’s dead, Alex.” My mother made herself reach out and catch my brother’s arm. “Derrick is dead.” Her voice caught, and my father’s hand shot out to her shoulder.
“What happened?” was Ella’s whisper.
“WHY DID YOU KNOW FIRST?” My brother’s eyes never left my face. “RYIAH, WHY ARE YOU THE ONE TO TELL?”
“Derrick was a rebel.” My whole body was trembling. All of the darkness—it was coming back. And it was threatening to take hold. “A-Alex, he tried to steal information to help them—”
“—He g-got caught—”
“NO!” Tears were streaking down his face.
“Alex, I t-tried to have him confess. I t-tried—” I bit down on my lip to keep from sobbing. “—But h-he wouldn’t l-listen.”
My brother sank to the floor, and Ella fell down beside him.
“The rebels…T-they broke him out.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Darren and I l-let him go but h-he still got c-caught by one of the g-guards—”
My brother was up in an instant. And then it was me being slammed against the wall, my back and shoulders flaring up in agony as he pounced on me, his voice a low snarl.
“Why was he a rebel, Ryiah?”
“Alex,” I whimpered.
My twin shoved me harder and my parents cried out in horror. “There’s something you aren’t telling us, Ryiah!” he whisper-shouted. “You wouldn’t look this guilty—”
“Alex!” Ella staggered to her feet. “Let her go!”
“Not until she tells us what she’s hiding!” My brother’s eyes stayed locked on my face.
“NO.” My brother cut me off. “Stop lying! This is me. I know every expression you make, Ry. I know you like I know myself—and right now I know you are hiding something.” He dropped his shoulders, letting his forehead press against mine, whispering. “What are you hiding, Ryiah?”
My gaze fell to the doorway where the guards were still waiting. So far they would have just assumed our conversation was that of an angry brother in denial. They had heard the same from my parents that first night I arrived.
But the one thing I hadn’t counted on was my twin who knew me like the back of his hand.
I grabbed his arm and spoke softly. “You need to lower your voice.” My gaze darted to my family and Ella as I pulled them to the furthest corner of our house.
“I k-know who the rebels are.”
Ella slapped a hand over my brother’s mouth. ”Alex!”
“You know?” My mother’s gaze searched my own. “Why didn’t you—”
“It’s dangerous.” My voice was pained. “Darren fought his brother just to grant me a reprieve. If Blayne suspected I-I knew anything…” I trailed off for a moment, and then forced myself to continue. “They are looking for traitors, a-and after Derrick I d-didn’t want them thinking any of you were one of them. T-that you know something you shouldn’t.”
“Why did Derrick join the rebels?” My father was shaking. “What did he tell you? Why was he at the palace and not the keep?”
“What I tell you now.” My voice was barely a whisper. I made myself stand strong. “It can’t ever leave this house. None of you can ever breathe a word of it to anyone, ever. Not even to each other.” I didn’t want to tell them, but how could I not? They deserved to know why their child was dead. Alex deserved to know why his little brother would never come home.
And so I told them. I told them everything.
My parents and Ella were horrified, but Alex…
I shouldn’t have told him.
“How do you know Derrick wasn’t telling the truth?” my twin whispered furiously. “Did you see what King Lucius did to those prisoners? To me?” His voice quivered. “To Ella? Did you forget what the king allowed Blayne to do to her? What Darren did to you during the course of the apprenticeship? No—” He caught my protests before I could speak. “What Darren did was wrong, Ry. No man leads a woman on while he is betrothed to another! He lied to you, humiliated you in front of the court, he lied to you every gods’ blasted day for two years before he was finally man enough to do something about it—”
“I told you why Darren did that!” My voice rose. “Don’t you dare—”
“That whole family is evil!” My twin was struggling not to shout. “Maybe Derrick was right. Maybe the brothers did know what their father was doing the whole time. Maybe your precious prince decided to murder his cruel father and his brother in one night, only he missed. Maybe this has been his plan all along. You said yourself you believed what the rebels said about King Lucius was correct. How do you know they aren’t telling the truth about the attack in Montfort?” Alex’s breath was coming out faster and faster, his chest rising and falling as his face grew red. “What if it wasn’t them or King Horrace? You let our brother die for nothing!” Hot tears were streaming down his face and he shoved Ella’s hand away when she tried to reach his wrist.
My brother grabbed his saddlebag and threw it over one shoulder; his eyes twin daggers as he regarded me with hate. “The Crown has done too much to the people I love—”
“Alex, no!” My father’s face was full of terror, and my mother raised her voice. “Alex, don’t you even—”
“My little brother was murdered. And I didn’t even get to see his funeral because our new king has his body hanging from a pike in the capital square.” His tone could have cut glass. “If asked to choose between a tyrant and a misguided group of people trying to make a change, I choose the latter. The rebels had the right idea all along.”
“Alex!” Ella was shaking, trying to stop him from leaving. “Please, Ryiah didn’t tell you this so—”
“I’m sorry, Ella.” My brother’s shoulders fell as he looked across to his wife. “You don’t have to come with me.”
“Alex—” I reached out and he jerked back, eyes flashing.
“Go ahead and turn me in!” he snapped. “You already let one brother die, what’s another!”
My best friend and parents were screaming and sobbing as my twin stormed out the door. A second later a cloud of dust was trailing in his wake.
I could barely breathe. Why had I told him? My misguided guilt had turned my second brother against me, and now my own betrothed was going to be hunting my own while his brother called on a war.
There was a flurry of movement, and I realized Ella was running toward the door.
“I’m sorry, Ryiah.” Her voice was hoarse. “I’ll try and stop him.”
And then she was gone. A second horse’s bray and then a second misting of dirt hitting the air.
Then it was just me and my parents.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
“First Derrick…” My father could barely speak. “And now Alex…”
My mom just stared at me, and the way her nails dug into her palms I knew she was fighting not to speak her thoughts aloud. But her eyes were sad, and my mother was never sad. She was strong.
And now my parents were breaking.
I heard what my father didn’t say, what my mom fought to swallow. Ryiah, how could you?
I didn’t have a reply. There was nothing I could say to repent the pain I had brought them both.