C H A P T E R 1 : R O Y A L W E L C O M E
The painted roofs of Genevieve, with their blue for brotherhood and white for virtue, had never looked…well, quite so worn-down and decrepit, but neither had they looked so friendly.
From a hill six leagues to the west – the hill had a name, but she couldn't be bothered to remember it – Alorica Durnham looked down on the coastal city, gazing over its walls and toward the towering stone cube at the city's heart. Most called the building Idaleon Keep. She called it home, and most there called her Princess.
Hers was not the only sigh of relief. Ahead of her, astride the same white horse he'd graciously shared, Sir Roland Balfour looked over his shoulder, smiling wearily through the blond beard he'd grown along the way. The many wounds he'd sustained to see her this far, all of them mercifully light, had faded into scars across his bare back and well-muscled chest. His shining steel armor, the finest in the kingdom, lay far behind them on the edge of a distant chasm, abandoned in their hasty retreat.
She'd taken a slash across the leg herself, and a blaze across the arm; both were still bandaged, one in her cream-colored sleeve, the other with half of a torn trouser leg. Though Roland had done his best to treat the wounds with a salve of the flower he called Hestia's Snowflake, they both still racked her with pain at every jolt in the road. She found the pain comforting, in a way; after what she'd been through, everything she felt below her neck was a reminder that her head was still attached.
They had been a party of three when last they had ridden through Genevieve's gates: herself, Sir Roland, and the old huntsman and new-made knight Sir Khan. It had been he who had first brought her out of the wilderness, he who had protected her time and again when her former captors sought to reclaim her. And her father had repaid him with a fool's errand.
Of course, she'd joined that same errand herself, and against her father's wishes at that. She'd had her reasons, of course. Those who had first taken her – a cult of sorts, as best she could tell, known by the name of the Night Sky – had also taken Prince Jarden of Larric.
Being Princess of Gelland, and scarcely allowed outside her room most days, she had never laid eyes on the rival kingdom's Prince before, but there they'd been, in the Night Sky's mountain fortress, trading introductions across rows of iron bars.
As she'd learned, they had more in common than royal blood. The two were of an age, near sixteen when they'd first met. He had a shyness about him, the kind of uncertainty that came with a life under constant watch and guard. She knew that life well enough, and she'd told him so. He'd smiled then, through the straight black hair that covered one blue eye and scythed down past his nose. All those months in the cell, she reflected, and he'd never quite grown a beard.
He'd laughed at her jokes, few as they were, and she'd done the same for him. And they'd traded stories. Most of his were of his mother, Queen Mirion, and the burden of her crown, heavy as it was worthless in Larric's court. Never having known her own mother, Alorica answered with tales of her father King Samuel, and of his constant vigilance over her, his warnings of spies and assassins just out of sight. He'd been right, after a fashion; the one walk he'd finally let her take alone in the royal garden had been all her abductors had needed. She'd never even seen them. Not until she'd first awoken in the cell, and come face to…face with their master.
The Crowning Star, he called himself—but before she'd learned that name, she'd come to call him the Man of Many Voices. Beneath his hooded robes of red and white, a mask of constant shadow hid his face. When he spoke, a chorus would join in, concealing his true voice behind their song.
He'd trained her. Trained them both in the use of their particular talents. As it happened, she and Jarden shared a knack for…well, magic. She didn't care for it, not at first; as a child, every toy that flew across the room untouched, every curtain her maids had to extinguish after one of her tantrums, all of it reminded her that she wasn't quite human, and never would be. That her mother had flown from the Faewoods on gossamer wings, given those wings up to marry her father, and then lived just long enough to bear him a child before passing away from a common cold.
Jarden, on the other hand, had come from strictly human stock. And he was better at magic than she, the one who was born from it. His skill came not from his bloodline, but from books and constant lessons, lessons the finest tutors in Larric had drilled into him since before he'd learned to walk. That was hardly standard for Larrican royalty, she knew, and she'd asked him why they'd done so. He'd answered with a laugh: "To keep up with you."
She'd had no teacher, of course. The very concept of faecraft was blasphemy, or so said the Ministry of Chandel, upon whose favor Gelland's crown depended. Her father had not yet been King when he and her mother had wed, and his father had managed to convince Chandel to "forgive a youthful dalliance." But no self-respecting minister would have allowed another faerie passage into the royal capital, let alone access to tutor the Kingdom's sole heir. The few lessons she'd taught herself had all been entirely by accident, and never pleasant.
It had been the Star, of all people, who had given her a sense of focus, allowed her to touch the power inside her when she needed it. Sometimes. The power, he had explained, came from her blood in more ways than one. It wasn't just her lineage. It was her passion, the heat of each pulse in her heart. It was the drive that sent each heartbeat radiating through her body, that bade her draw each breath. For the air and the blood gave her more than life. They gave her fire.
And she'd learned to use that fire, to call it forth from deep inside and turn it loose on command – on request, at least, when fortune favored her. Within weeks, the Star had her lighting candles. By the second month, she was melting them outright.
Jarden, of course, was the faster learner – so much so that they'd kept him in special manacles, locking down his talent between lessons. He hated those manacles more than the Star himself, she remembered; always banging them together, prying at them with every tool he could improvise, even when they shocked him for trying too hard.
Many times, he called his jailers craven, invited them to take off just one and try their luck against an unarmed boy, but none of them were fool enough for that. Only the Star himself dared to unshackle the Prince, and only for minutes at a time.
But on that night in Springrise, those few minutes had been enough.
The Star's men had taken them both from their cells, led them across the fortress to what had once been the throne room of an ancient king. Jarden, still shackled, had opened the door for her. "After you, Highness."
"My lord is most gracious," she'd told him with a smile, then stepped inside.
The room was as dark as its master's face. Ancient banners hung over the tall windows on either side of the throne, admitting only a few fading red sunbeams with each tiny wave in the breeze. She marked the outline of the Star in the old king's seat, his hood tilting just slightly at her approach. Behind her, Jarden followed her inside. Behind him, the door closed itself.
"I trust the two of you have rested well?" sang the ever-shifting chorus. "Prepare yourselves. You've much to learn tonight."
The candelabras on either side of the room ignited one after another, bathing the room in a flickering orange glow. The Star rested his hands on the arms of the throne and stood. "Approach, my Prince. Extend your hands to me."
Jarden did as he was told, holding both bound hands in front of him. The Star circled gently with two fingers, and the manacles snapped off and fell. Alorica thought she heard him whisper something. To her? If not to her, then to whom?
"And you, my Lady, would you please—"
A great burst of light shattered the darkness for one blinding moment, erupting from Jarden's freed hands and flashing across the room. Alorica saw the Crowning Star stagger back, throwing one red-gloved hand in front of his face with a snarl.
Alorica, half-blind from the flash herself, had scarcely begun to understand when Jarden had opened the door five steps behind them – somehow – and shoved her through it. "Come on!" he shouted, then turned and fired off another spell, a shouted curse in a language she'd never understand. Another flash filled the room, more intense than the first – but also, she saw, less effective. The Crowning Star, prepared this time, marched straight through the burst of light with his arms spread wide, summoning up a curse of his own.
Ahead, in the hallway, two guardsmen came at them with spears. Jarden stretched out his hand, shouted again, lifted both of them up above his head without touching either one, and flung them toward the oncoming Star. Sparing not a moment to watch the collision, the Prince took Alorica by the hand. leading her upwards and on.
She scarcely remembered the flight across the fortress; here a rush of guardsmen, tumbling down from another of Jarden's hexes; there a shouted command or a torrent of steel-clad footsteps. Finally, she and Jarden emerged into the courtyard. For the first time in – how long had it been? – the full measure of the starlit sky unfurled above her. Ahead of her, there stood the fort’s outer wall, with all its many guardsmen.
And then, before she could take another step, she was flying.
They both were, she in Jarden’s hand, sailing upwards and over the wall as if launched from a catapult. Her eyes darted every which-way, from the shouting men behind them to the chasm below and the trees beyond that chasm ahead of them.
The Prince squeezed her hand. She turned her head to look up at his bright blue eyes, gleaming past his wind-wild hair. In that instant, his smile calmed the winds, muffled the shouts, kindled the glow in her heart.
They were free.
Jarden looked away long enough to stretch his free hand toward the onrushing ground, ten strides past the edge of the chasm, and shout another foreign command. The air beneath them became an invisible cushion, catching them with a sudden whoosh and lowering them down to their feet. She saw Jarden catch his breath. She didn't think she ever would.
Behind them, a long stone bridge stretched back across the canyon, toward the closed iron gate of the fortress wall. Alorica, unconscious as she'd been when she’d first arrived, wondered how quickly they could open that gate. She decided she’d rather not know.
Together with her prince, she bolted for the trees, ducking beneath their welcoming arms as she ran for their shelter and safety. For hours, they fled over rocks and brambles. Jarden kept one stride ahead, always knowing just when to call over his shoulder and keep her moving. Moving toward him.
But as the hours rolled by and her bones grew weary, the sight of his face brought her something else, something uneasy. Each time he turned, his cheeks were one shade paler, with flecks of sickly red creeping into his eyes. He's exhausted, that's all, she told herself, and left it at that – until she saw his veins. Dark they were, like serpents coiled up and down his neck, and they grew darker still with each labored stride. She stretched out her hand, ready to call for a moment's rest, when she saw the same darkness reaching up her own arm. Both of them.
She stopped running and stumbled to one knee. Jarden skidded to a halt and turned toward her, saw her condition, and then seemed to notice his own for the first time. He ran a finger over the veins in his palm, studying them calmly, then looked up with his bloodshot eyes. "I suppose that answers that."
Alorica caught her breath long enough to ask, "What?"
"We're cursed," said Jarden, turning to one side and leaning his arm against a tree. "Well, poisoned and cursed. They weren’t bluffing."
With a start, Alorica put her hand to her throat. "Can you…"
"Can I what?” he asked with his crooked smile. “Wish it away? Even if there are words for that, and even if I knew them…” He rubbed his unshackled wrists and shook his head. “That little leap of faith took a bit of a toll, if you follow me.”
Alorica coughed. Too loud, she thought. They’ll hear. “Then what do we do?”
“Well,” he said, half to himself, “we either keep running—”
A roaring howl finished his sentence.
The very rage of an enormous beast shook the air from afar, filled her ears, made the trees around them shudder as if in terror. Alorica gripped the nearest branch and cast her eyes all about, hoping not to see what had to be coming. She didn’t see it, not yet, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there, wasn’t just behind this tree or that tree, ready to pounce—and who was to say there was only one?
She expected Jarden to turn and lead her on. Instead, he drew himself straight and looked her in the eye. “Alorica…”
She caught her breath and met his gaze. “What?”
“One of us has to make it.”
She shook her head. “We can still run.”
“No. It’s too close.” And it was. She could already hear the branches snapping as it charged, whatever it was, not two hundred strides behind them in the night-black woods. “It’s got our scent. It must have.”
“Jarden, you can’t—”
“I have to,” he said, and snapped his fingers with a muttered curse. Blue sparks crackled over his fingertips, ready to fly.
She heard its growls now, snarling as it bounded forth. She thought she saw its eyes in the dark, golden crescents above its slavering jaws.
“Go,” he said, facing the onrushing beast without looking back. “Tell your father. Go!”
He was right. God in Heaven blight it, he was right. She turned her back to the creature, eyes still on her prince. She wanted to reach out, kiss him on the cheek, but his taut expression kept her back. Instead, she whispered, “I’ll come back for you—”
“Don’t,” he commanded, as regally as any worthy king. “Now run!”
With that, he hurled a thunderbolt into the dark. As it struck, she threw herself into a headlong dash, fleeing her savior’s last stand. The last words she heard him shout, over the roar of the now-blazing brush, were, “What’s the matter? It’s just a little fire!”
Somehow, she’d stayed afoot through the rest of the night. And the next morning. And all through the day until sunset. At last, starving, exhausted, and sick, she’d come to the edge of a waterfall. There they’d found her, all of them – not only the massive wolf-men called Ferali, but the Star’s human soldiers, and the Star himself alongside them.
He had almost convinced her not to jump off the cliff.
By fortune’s whim or God’s design, she’d survived the fall. A huntsman, old Khan Eilon, had found her unconscious in a creek, had carried her to safety. With the help of a wayward priest turned small-town surgeon, a boy by the name of Cylas, Khan had seen her healed at a mountain hermitage. From there, he’d walked her home – all the way home – to her father, the King.
Who had promptly sent Khan straight back out to accompany Sir Roland and rescue Jarden, a task she’d sworn to herself. Naturally, she’d followed them both, joined the search over Roland’s objections, and travelled with them back into the great forest, all the while nursing hope that her prince might still live.
Despite that hope, she’d secretly expected to find him dead, if anyone found him at all. Each night of the journey, she’d done her best to steel herself for that – but nothing had prepared her for the truth.
Her prince had gone mad.
Retaken in the fight to save her, dragged back to the dungeons, crushed and remolded in ways she couldn’t imagine, he lingered and waited for her. At last, she, Khan, and Roland had stormed the fortress to find him there behind bars, still with that same crooked smile.
She’d finally given him that kiss.
And then he’d sprung the trap, calling down a legion of the Star’s henchmen, using his words of power to wrack Khan’s body with agony. She’d asked him why. He answered, “If you’d stayed, you’d understand.”
She’d put up a fight, channeling her passion into power, but the Star himself had intervened, deflecting her strikes like so many unkind words. He’d forced her to sleep with a wave of his hand, and in that sleep, Jarden had “stolen the magic from her heart.”
He’d said it would return in time. It had yet to.
She’d awoken to find Jarden standing over her, begging her to surrender her will before being forced to surrender her head. She’d chosen neither, and in the resulting melee, she’d held him at improvised knifepoint long enough to learn that Khan had been taken “somewhere in Larric.”
Meanwhile, her Knight Protector Roland had escaped from his cell, come upon the Night Sky’s store of – she could never remember the word – explosives, and demolished the fortress, escaping with a wounded Princess, an exhausted but loyal horse, and neither of his two famed swords.
Now, weeks later, there they were, finally looking down on home again.
A half dozen knights, comrades of Roland, rode forth from the city’s main gate, veering off the dirt road and cutting through the grass to approach them.
“Sir Jarvis,” Roland said, recognizing the lead knight’s blue heraldry and heavy frame, and waved a friendly greeting.
Jarvis did not return the greeting, but closed the distance between them, called a halt, and lifted his visor, revealing his thick black beard.
“Sir Roland Balfour,” said the knight, “Princess Alorica Durnham. In the name of His Majesty…”
Alorica bowed her head in advance to accept the welcome.
“...we arrest you.”