I returned to the palace and my days were written in red.
I saw Derrick’s face around every corner; every young man in the crimson soldier’s tunic was his ghost. Every stain against the cold marble was a pool of his scarlet blood.
I looked into Darren’s eyes. Dark garnet was the color of my soul, and the Shadow God was counting down my days.
I was a filthy traitor. To the boy I loved because every word from my mouth was a lie. To my little brother who had died because I was too much a coward to speak the truth. To my twin because I had to be the one to break his heart, and then send him on his way. To my parents, because I was supposed to look out for my little brother, and I had failed. To my best friend whose husband was now joining the wrong cause, all because I had told the truth when a lie would have been warranted instead.
I was a traitor to everyone I loved. And I had only myself to blame.
I wasn’t sure how a person like me could sleep. The shadows that consumed my thoughts, I should have been writhing in terror each night. But the pain was helping. It kept me from the grief. It kept me from breaking one final time; it kept me strong.
I went about my duties in a haze.
A couple more weeks passed, and they assumed I was in mourning. It was understood the sister of a traitor might be experiencing a bit of despair. But I wasn’t depressed; I wasn’t crying myself to sleep… I was numb.
The flames of the castle’s sconces danced for me as I passed. They taunted and beckoned, telling me they knew all my lies. That they knew my heart was really black.
I should have turned in the rebels. If not for Derrick, then Alex now. I should have gone to Blayne. I should have confessed everything and begged for Alex’s amnesty and condemned myself to the cells. I should have saved the lives of thousands by turning my brother and the rebels in.
But I was a coward. Too afraid of what it would mean if the king decided my second brother was an even greater traitor than the first. Too afraid to take another brother’s life. Too afraid of his blood on my hands, so I sacrificed the others.
I was bound for the pit of darkness in the Shadow God’s realm. It was only a matter of time.
When the king announced that King Joren had agreed to our terms, that he would fulfill his end of the New Alliance, I felt not a moment of relief. The crowds rose up in Devon’s square, but my eyes were glued to the rafters.
Darren had finally convinced Blayne to take down Derrick and the other rebels’ bodies. They’d been burned the previous night. Then. Then I had felt something.
“Pythus has promised us forty warships. They set sail in two months.” Blayne’s words echoed across the crowd and everywhere, screams and cheers, frenzied cries of justice. The clamor of fools. Didn’t they know they were calling for blood?
“Our Caltothian enemies will feel what it is to suffer. They will feel Jerar’s wrath.” The king’s eyes sparkled as he raised his fist in the air, his Black Mage at his side. “As your king, I promised you peace. And peace you shall have. Emperor Liang has renewed his treaty as well. A fortnight from today, my dearest brother will be marrying his betrothed. The two most formidable warrior mages our kingdom has ever seen, prince and princess of our realm. The Crown has never been more powerful.”
Darren’s eyes fell to mine, and I looked away. I didn’t wait for his face to fall. A tempest of emotions were threatening to burst. I needed to keep them inside.
When the proclamations were done I was first to exit the square.
He found me. Three knocks at the door in which I feigned silence. I wanted him to go away. I wanted to be alone, but Paige let him in anyway.
I heard her turn the key in its lock, an odd gravelly sound that scratched at my ears.
My room was a den of shadow. I didn’t want any light. And he didn’t try.
Darren pulled up beside me on the bed.
“I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said.
I didn’t speak. I was too afraid if I did the words would fall away. Too afraid in the darkness I would confess my sins, and I couldn’t speak a word. I couldn’t stand the blood.
“You haven’t spoken a word to me since it happened.” I could hear his pain. It hurt me worse. “When Eve and Caine… when my father died…” He swallowed. “It was never like this. Derrick was your brother, and you loved him. He was the youngest, the one you were sworn to protect…” Darren shifted on the bed. “I know you, Ryiah. You are blaming yourself. It’s what I would have done.”
Silence was my only response.
“You think you could have stopped it, but you can’t stop a person from their mistakes. When you returned to Demsh’aa, they blamed you, didn’t they?” Silence. “Alex always hated me. I’m sure he made me the villain… But we did nothing wrong.”
Yes. I did. I made myself blink away the tears.
“We never talked after…” Darren’s voice fell to a whisper. “I would have let him go, Ryiah. I know it would have been a mistake. Gods, after all the rebels have done…” He was quiet for a minute, and then he made himself continue. “I swear to you, Ryiah, if I had known Mira was there, I would have stopped her. For you.” His voice broke. “No one should ever have to watch their brother die.”
My whole face was wet, and my hands were trembling in my lap. I shoved them under the cover and held my breath, waiting for him to leave.
“I wish I could take it all away.” Darren’s hand pressed against my wrist as he stood to go.
There was the shift of shadows, and then he was walking toward the door.
“Stay,” I whispered.
The outline of his shoulders froze, and I heard the soft pad of his boots. They grew louder until he was at the edge of my bed.
I was curled up to my knees, sitting against the frame. The tears were drowning me. I didn’t want to be alone.
Darren’s arms wrapped around my waist, and he pulled me against him, my back pressing against his front.
He held me.
The rise and fall of his chest carried me to sleep. His chin resting on my shoulder. Pine and cloves enveloping me whole.
Darren’s whisper was the last thing I heard.
“I love you, Ryiah.”
Over the next two weeks it got easier to breathe. In. And out. With Darren’s arms around me as I slept. He came to my room each night, each morning a pressed flower next to my head. Without fail.
The prince was going to cure me of everything Derrick had taken that night. Everything Alex had stolen the day he joined the rebel cause.
All Darren ever did was hold me. But that act alone was...everything.
It was a drop of sunlight in a prison of ice. It warmed the part of me I was afraid I’d lost. It took the fear, the doubt, the terror, and it pushed it all away.
And that morning I awoke. My ladies-in-waiting came to the door, and I smiled. It was small, barely a tug of the lips. But it was real.
I could be happy.
And today I am marrying my best friend. Because that’s what Darren was. After all these years. Ella was one—she had held my hand and carried me through the trial year and our apprenticeship—But this last year had been Darren. The two of us had held each other through the darkest part of our lives, and never once let go.
Madame Pollina and Celine and Gemma helped me bathe. Soft-scented rose water and oils that made my skin glisten. They brushed my hair, pinning just a couple strands behind my head with sparkly pins. The rest remained down, loose waves framing my face.
The powders they applied were bare and set to highlight my narrow cheeks, the softest gloss to my mouth, the lightest shadows to darken the corners of my eyes.
Then they brought out my gown. A cream yellow, light ruffles running diagonally down its silken skirts, a fitted bodice of gold and orange beads. Nothing like I had ever imagined, and everything that I had never known I wanted. With its matching satin slippers it was fit for a princess.
The loveliest thing I would ever wear.
I stood on a small raised stand as they helped me into the dress in front of a gilded mirror studded with pearls.
They laced the bodice, and I held my breath, my arms free from the weight of traditional sleeves.
It was then I read his letter: “This dress reminds me of the midwinter solstice, our second year in the apprenticeship. Your arms were bare and Priscilla told you it made you look common…I remember your friend asked me what I thought, and I remember your face when I didn’t reply. Ryiah, I want you to know that you looked beautiful. So beautiful, that I couldn’t stop staring even if I tried. And then I asked you to dance—and even though I knew it would only bring the both of us heartache—it was the best night of my life. And now I want you to wear a dress just like it, today, as you become my wife.”
“Don’t cry!” Celine snatched the card out of my hand before I could read it again. “We just finished with your face.”
“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered. But I wasn’t. Not after reading Darren’s letter.
I started to smile and then grimaced as the extra inhale stabbed at my ribs. The dress was tighter than anything I’d ever worn.
My eyes were a bit blurry, and ever mindful of Celine’s warning I lifted a cautious finger to swipe away the water that had started to form at the rims.
I blinked twice, and then regarded myself in the mirror.
And that’s when I saw it.
What I had been missing all along. What I had failed to see until the moment that yellow silk caught the light.
“Might I have a couple minutes,” I rasped, “alone?”
“My lady, you don’t have much time before the ceremony!”
“Please?” I was gulping up air, my fingers trembling as I pressed them together in hopes no one would notice.
Madame Pollina sighed and then motioned for my ladies to go, trailing after them to the door. She ducked her head in one last time. “Ten minutes, my lady!”
I waited until their mindless chatter trailed off down the corridor.
I took one last look at my dress. My yellow silk dress.
Then I shut my eyes and let the memory come flooding back:
A scared girl, no more than six, tugging at a yellow silk ribbon at the end of her curly black braid.
A man who looked nothing like his daughter, dragging her along to meet with a crown prince in the stands of the Candidacy.
The black-haired Caltothian ambassador looking on, no longer indifferent, cold fury written across his face, fists clenched at his sides, eyes locked on the same pair as me.
And then Blayne’s voice: “Come now, Father, everyone knows the noblemen take a lover or two during their travels. Even their wives. Why, it’s a common enough saying: the longer at sea, the more lovers she keeps.”
The woman we kidnapped. During the apprenticeship. In Dastan’s Cove.
Lady Sybil was awaiting her husband’s return.
I left the dais to press my palms against the side of the wall. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not like this.
But now that the gates had been thrown open, the memories wouldn’t stop: Three years ago the lady had had a three-year-old daughter. With black curls.
The mother adjusting the pale silk ribbon on the waist of her daughter’s dress.
Little Tamora. Who looked just like that girl in the stands. The same blue eyes, the same age, the same fondness for silk. The black hair of the mother. The curls that mirrored Lord Tyrus. The blue eyes that matched both.
The cold fury on his face…
He couldn’t have been Baron Cyr. The other dignitaries would have recognized…
Was Lord Tyrus the lover?
Was Tamora his daughter?
Cold steel cut at my chest, and my whole body seized: Had Blayne known?
But how? How would he—
And then I remembered.
The Caltothian traitor. Flint. A sentry who had served among Lady Sybil’s men. The man who had mapped out the terrain for Dastan Cove. A common soldier who knew the in’s and out’s of Baron Cyr’s castle. A husband who was away at sea for many months at a time.
Master Byron’s words returned: “Lucky for you Commander Chen has recently received orders from the Crown itself.”
“Just think,” Alex had said, “a month at sea on a secret mission. Imagine all the stories you’ll be able to tell us when you return, Ry”
And finally, Mira’s threat as she informed us that our mission was, “never, ever to be discussed with anyone unless you have permission from the king himself.”
The Crown had ordered a kidnapping. But on whose orders? King Lucius?
“I asked my father that year we returned to the palace,” Darren had replied. “He told me he couldn’t recall.”
What if the reason the king couldn’t recall was because the orders were never his?
Blayne and Darren had hated their father. But Blayne…Blayne had suffered much longer at his hand.
The crown prince just gave me a sardonic smile. “It takes much more to impress when you are his heir. Darren wasn’t always around. In any case I’m better for it now.”
Had Blayne planned all of this? Had he been planning this for years?
Crown orders for a secret mission nobody knew about. Kidnapping the lover and child of the head Caltothian ambassador?
Blackmailing Lord Tyrus with his child’s life. Had the girl been brought to the Candidacy, within the lord’s sight as a reminder? A promise to keep her alive, in exchange for his crime? Murdering a king in front of a room of soldiers and knights and the world’s greatest mages. The man had never expected escape.
“For Caltoth!” It had been a cry to remind the audience it was an attack. To show the other country’s ambassadors the ultimate breach of a treaty.
No one would be able to tie Lord Tyrus to Baron Cyr’s missing wife and child. No one would have known she had a lover.
No one but a traitorous sentry, one who had managed to explore every inch of Baron Cyr’s castle unnoticed. One who had perhaps seen Lord Tyrus visit Lady Sybil while her baron husband was away.
Perhaps Flint had been one of the traitors hired by King Lucius to stage the attacks on the Jerar-Caltothian border.
Maybe Commander Nyx and King Horrace had never lied. Maybe Derrick was telling the truth.
And maybe Blayne, tired of being in his tyrant father’s shadow, had decided to bribe his father’s man to learn Caltothian secrets. Something to use to his advantage. Because perhaps his father had told him about all of the staged attacks. After all, Blayne had been groomed as King Lucius’s successor for years. Why wouldn’t the king share his secret with his heir?
And perhaps Blayne had needed a mage to help accomplish his mission. Not a commander, not the current Black Mage, but the jealous sister, Mage Mira. The one who would love more than anything a position of power. Something to distance herself from her prestigious brother. Something to rise.
She stepped in like a hero to kill the king’s murderer. It had been so easy. So convenient. It had earned her a place as King’s Regiment lead mage. Blayne’s right hand in castle affairs.
Blackmailing Lord Tyrus with his lover and child would have accomplished two goals with one act:
First: Kill the father. The man who had tormented him for years. The king who had taken a sweet boy, and made him a monster.
“You see the boys as the men they are now,” Benny had said. “They were much different back then.”
Second: Convince the other countries that Caltoth had broken the Great Compromise in one indisputable act. Kill off a Pythian heir, an added blow to the shrewd King Joren who was so reluctant to pick a side?
Blayne had been poisoned, of course. But what if it had been a farce? What if one of the healers had already had an antidote on hand?
It took a mage precious minutes to identify a strange poison’s symptoms, and even longer to cast the correct balance of magic mixed with the herbs and powders on hand. I had seen the Restoration mages struggle during their Candidacy trials just to concoct the correct casting for their prisoner’s ailment in time. And those took close to an hour.
The crown prince had been healed within twenty minutes.
I slipped to the floor.
This past year. Everything Blayne had done to win my trust. I hadn’t ever trusted him, not completely.
But I had let down my guard after he had shown me a bit of his past. Isn’t the best bit of truth always woven in with a lie? Blayne had never lied about the cruelty of his father. But he had used it to garner my pity.
But why hadn’t he tried to kill me, too? Why didn’t he just get rid of the girl he hated and force his brother to marry Priscilla instead?
The crown prince had hated me from the moment we met. The second he saw the way Darren looked at me that second year at the ascension fest—
And then I paused. Darren. That was it.
“My dear,” Benny said. “Darren is the only person that boy has ever cared for, besides himself.”
Blayne hadn’t been able to do it. Not after he saw how hard Darren had worked to trick his father into accepting me as his betrothed. An infatuation he could ignore. But love? As much as Blayne had hated me, he loved Darren more. The younger brother who continuously fought his father to protect him from the blows.
Blayne had probably felt indebted to Darren. And so he had made me a part of his plans. He had changed his game, he had shown me vulnerability, sympathy in his father’s cruel acts to win me to his side.
It was all to further his ploy. Like Blayne had said: “The two most formidable warrior mages our kingdom has ever seen... The Crown has never been more powerful.”
He had been building his indisputable reign. All along.
My head pressed against the chamber wall. I kept my eyes clenched shut as the wave of nausea hit, breathing heavily through my nose.
I slammed my fist to my mouth. Teeth scraped against skin as the scream ripped me apart. It clawed up from my chest. It was so long and so hard I had to slap my other hand over to muffle the cry. Blood coated my tongue. I was choking on hot metal that was melting my lungs.
The screams rippled across my skin, one after the other, until all will left my limbs, my hands and arms went limp against the cold marble floor.
I let him die. I let him die, and I could have helped him escape. I was the second best Combat mage in the realm. I could have taken on a whole legion of guards. Why hadn’t I done something?
That first night, after he was caught. I could have done something. I would have been caught, of course, and tossed in a cell to rot. But Darren would have convinced Blayne to spare my life.
And I could have let my brother live.
But instead I had called my own brother a traitor. I had blamed him for not telling me everything about the rebels’ orders. And why would he? He’d known the Crown was tainted. He had suspected the wrong brother, but he had been close.
Why didn’t I listen? The answer had been staring me in the face the entire time.
Blayne was evil. What he had tried to do to Ella, the way he had treated me when he thought I was just a distraction…
I had known all along. I had known, and then I had looked the other way. Because the black wolf had dressed up like a white lamb. And the fool that I was, I had seen the wolf become the lamb and never bothered to wonder whether the one was still the other. Because a person couldn’t ever be good and evil at once.
Little girl, don’t you know? The world is made up of shades of grey.
I was one of the few people who had served on that mission to Caltoth, and I was the only one who had seen Tamora at the stands in Montfort. I had even seen the way the Caltothian ambassador looked at her and the prince. No one else could have added up those two clues but me.
I had condemned my little brother to death. My family was right to hate me. I hated me.
The pain I had suffered after his death: the agony, the torment, the rage, and self-flagellation. The guilt.
It was nothing compared to this moment now.
But it was also different. Because this time I couldn’t be a victim. I couldn’t be the little girl who shut out the world. I couldn’t break apart any longer. I had to do something. And I knew exactly what I had to do.
I had to keep Darren and Marius from finding out the rebels’ identity. Blayne had given them orders to investigate, and it would be my mission to sabotage.
I had to find the proof the rebels were looking for. Anything I could use to prevent a war.
I had to gather as much information as I could. My position in the Crown granted me access to things that would raise questions were it anyone else. I had proven my loyalty time and time again—even Blayne had agreed with Darren. I was not a rebel; I was not a threat. But I was now.
I had to convince the Pythian ambassador not to honor the alliance with Jerar. He had seen me try to save his niece, he had respected my negotiations—he would have to convince King Joren.
And then. Then I had to find a way to stop the king of Jerar.
My fist closed around the dagger. The casting had appeared at a moment’s notice.
I could kill him now. Darren wouldn’t be able to stop me. He wouldn’t be on his guard. He wouldn’t be able to save his brother…
A rage was boiling in the pit of my stomach and spewing to the surface, deadly tendrils of anger piercing at my ribs. My fist clenched the blade so tightly that blood had started to slip down my wrist. Small splatters of red against the skirts of my dress.
It would be so easy. I could do it now.
But I couldn’t. For the same reason Blayne couldn’t kill me.
Darren didn’t know about any of this. He didn’t know what his brother had done. He didn’t know what Blayne was capable of. He didn’t know his brother had set fire to the world. Just so he could watch it burn.
All he knew was he loved him. That he had watched his older brother suffer blow after blow, and that he had been the one to save him. King Lucius had raised Darren as Blayne’s right hand.
As twisted as the king might have been, he had been wise beyond his years. The best way to preserve the throne was to encourage unswerving loyalty in the other, and what better way to unite two brothers than through terror and hate? Like his eldest, Lucius had planned their relationship all along.
Preserving his son’s reign.
And perhaps, perhaps Lucius had even seen it coming. From a tyrant, another tyrant had been born.
That day I had begged and pleaded for my brother, hoping beyond hope Blayne wasn’t his father.
Blayne was crueler.
I should have been hoping it was his father, and not Blayne, staring back.
The ladies-in-waiting returned for finishing touches before the ceremony began. Pollina was aghast to see the fresh stains on my skirts and my fist.
I told them I fell. That the bones of the corset had been too tight. After all, they had found me on the floor. The tears in my eyes? Just from losing my breath.
I was nothing more than an anxious girl before she married the boy of her dreams.
Even though inside I was nothing but screams.
You will lose him.
As soon as the thought entered my mind, I knew it was true.
I couldn’t tell him. Even if Darren believed me, he would insist on confronting his brother. And his brother was king. Blayne would have me beheaded at a moment’s notice. I might stand a chance against a small collective of mages, but an army?
And what proof did I have? Nothing. I had no papers, no witness, nothing but a memory of a little girl with a slip of yellow ribbon in her hair.
Darren had never seen that little girl in the stands. He’d only seen the ambassador.
Everything else was a miles-long conclusion that would sound like the ranting of a madwoman determined to clear her brother’s name.
And Blayne was his brother. Darren wouldn’t be able to keep a secret or turn against him. Even when I had believed Derrick capable of putting thousands of future lives at risk, I had still let him escape. I had still chosen him.
And Darren would choose Blayne.
I would lose Darren. By keeping these secrets, by turning a traitor, by ultimately betraying the Crown… I would lose. But sometimes the sacrifice is worth the cost.
My cost would be Darren.
I would keep him safe. From the rebels. From Blayne. From myself—except for my lies. And when this was all over. When we had his brother in chains and the country was safe from his family’s tyrannous plague.
Then I would fall to my hands and knees. And I would beg his forgiveness.
And maybe, someday, we could be that boy and girl he talked about. And we would leave this all behind.
I entered the ceremonial chamber, and the sun’s rays caught on my dress.
The glow of butter-yellow against scarlet-red locks and steel-gray eyes.
Down the row I walked, head held high as I strode across to the priest.
My eyes were locked on the tapestry behind him. It depicted a king in a gilded chair, a crown atop his head and a hematite pendant at his throat. With a man in ceremonial black robes at his right. His Black Mage.
The king and his right hand. Blayne and Darren.
My slippers glided along the soft carpet lining the walk, and it was only as I reached the end that I let myself look to my left.
Darren stood there. His face a wash of emotion. Ink-black, jaw-length locks and garnet eyes—everything I had ever loved. In his robe. Just like the tapestry.
He held a hand out as I climbed to the top of the dais.
The priest garbled on, almost incoherent in his speech. And then he stopped. He dipped his thumb into a bowl of crimson wine and pressed once along my forehead, and then once along the prince’s.
He issued a prayer.
And my eyes slid to the king waiting below, a cruel smile painting his mouth, his soul stained red with the blood of hundreds. Every life lost in the name of the Crown.
I wasn’t sure how I had missed it before. It was the same smile I had seen countless times over the last year, only this time I could see it for what it was.
Evil. Corruption. Greed.
“Do you, Prince Darren, First Prince to Jerar and Black Mage to the Crown, take the Lady Mage Ryiah of Demsh’aa, as your wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward and keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
“I do.” Darren’s voice rang out across the hall. His whisper after was enough to bring me back, and break me. “Always.”
“And do you, Lady Mage Ryiah of Demsh’aa, take Prince Darren, First Prince to Jerar and Black Mage to the Crown, as your wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward and keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”
My hands were trembling as I made myself look left and into the eyes of the boy I would betray.