Splendor and Spark
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO THE PALACE of new prevast was built for pleasure: four courtyards, an expansive garden with a hedge maze, two ballrooms, a swimming pool, and more than three hundred windows. It once hosted the royal family, a hundred servants, and a revolving guest list for three months out of every twelve. It was a summer home away from the bustle of the capital. An escape.
Now it’s a prison.
A dozen servants, entire halls of empty rooms, shelves to the ceiling with no books or trinkets to fill them, peeling paint and saltwater decay on the wood and metal fixtures.
And a bastard prince who resents every inch of his opulent captivity.
It’s suffocating, the way silence and anger ooze through the hallways and fill the ornate cornices of the plastered ceilings. The way they turn every meal into an abrasive symphony of silverware
against porcelain, the grating click of teeth against crystal, and the low rumbling interruption of a cleared throat. At least back in the Brim, you could hear music in the dark when you couldn’t sleep; you heard some proof that life existed, at least for somebody else.
In the palace all I hear is the ghostly whisper of the sea crashing against the rocks at the mouth of the harbor, haunting and full of loneliness.
Which is why almost every night, I escape to the roof, where I can see the stars and New Prevast and be reassured that someone somewhere is still breathing. Tonight my company is the flickering lights that come from the taverns crowded along the span of the Bridge of Ander, which connects the palace grounds to the city proper across the harbor.
In daylight the wilting buildings are shuttered up tight, while waterbirds sun themselves on the pilings below. At night vice opens its doors for a booming business, and the bridge is flooded with thieves and beggars and drunks. Any waterbirds still roosting become target practice for bottles that shatter against the rocks below. Pieces of colored glass eventually wash up on the black sand beach with the tide, worn smooth by the water. Terrible for holding magic or casting spells, but beautiful for collecting and lining the narrow windowsill of my bedroom on the second floor.
I hug my knees to my chest, balancing my chin on top, staring until my vision blurs and New Prevast loses its shape, becoming a generic smear of light and dark. The chill of the wind masks the briny scent of the sea, and for an instant I could be anywhere: the shallows of the Brim, the open fields of Avinea, the abandoned wagon of a traveling magician trying to save the world.
But then the window shutters open behind me and I hear the sigh that anchors me here.
“Locke,” Captain Chadwick says, frustration warring with relief. I wonder how long he’s been looking for me, or if I’ve become predictable. “You promised.”
My fingers dig into the soft folds of my skirt. “I lied.”
Another sigh, and I know the expression that accompanies it, the disappointment. A sliver of guilt worms through the chill, and I close my eyes. Poor Chadwick. As the captain of the Guard, his talents far exceed the role of unwilling babysitter, and yet, as the captain of the Guard, he follows orders from his prince.
“His majesty explicitly forbade you from the roof,” Chadwick says, reciting the memorized spiel. “The tiles are slick—”
“And the courtyard is unforgiving of bodies and bones,” I finish sourly, because it still hurts that his majesty told Chadwick to tell me, as if I were a servant unworthy of direct address. I open my eyes, biting the inside of my cheek, numb fingers circling the spell around my wrist.
I am a servant, I tell myself as I stare across the placid harbor, and his majesty hasn’t spoken to me in weeks.
A third sigh, softer than those before it. “Faris, please,” Chadwick says. “Not tonight.”
Tears sting my eyes at the unexpected familiarity, and I fight them back with a savage fury. Not tonight, I repeat, but it’s an impossible request. Tonight of all nights, promises have been broken.
Pulling himself out the window, Chadwick edges closer and sinks down beside me, adjusting the hilt of his sword out of the way. He’s dressed in the ceremonial black and silver of Avinea: tunic,
vest, and coat; too many layers for practicality but just enough for formality. He looks nice with his sandy hair pulled back and his beard trimmed to a mere shadow across his chin. He looks solid.
“The ceremony is over,” he says softly. “It’s done.”
“And I survived,” I say.
“As expected.” He shifts his weight and cradles his hands between his knees. Glancing over, he says, “You did the right thing, Locke.”
“Come on, Captain,” I whisper with a forced, wavering smile, fighting around the dull ache in my chest. “Grant me a moment of self-pity.”
He gives me a withering look, and I turn away, toward the glittering sea. I know what he’s thinking and I know that he’s right: I’ve had three weeks to wallow in my decision, three weeks to acclimate myself to its conclusion. When I walked away from the Prince of Avinea, I truly believed my feelings for him would fade, that our brief relationship had been nothing more than two lonely people clinging to each other in a moment of panic. He needed to focus on saving his kingdom; I needed to focus on saving my sister.
But for a moment we had needed each other.
I told Chadwick nothing of what had happened that morning in the monastery cellar when North offered me his heart and I refused it, yet Chadwick knows every detail anyway. There can be no secrets between a prince and his captain, and Chadwick knows everything that has happened from the moment I met North to the moment I turned my back on him.
I don’t regret my decision. I can’t afford to. But it still hurts sometimes, like a scab I keep picking off before it can heal.
Especially tonight, when I know Bryn—North’s wife, I force
myself to acknowledge—is being escorted to his bedroom in the eastern wing of the palace, where they will be supervised by members of the council. North’s infected blood and Bryn’s amplification ability prevent them from physically consummating the marriage, but sharing a bed and binding themselves through blood magic will suffice to prove the point until a true heir can be produced. Proclamations are already written, waiting to be sent to the few remaining strongholds left untouched by the Burn, and even beyond, to the nearest countries and potential allies scattered across the Havascent Sea. The Prince of Avinea has taken a bride and now has the means of finding Merlock, his missing father. Please send money and, if possible, men. While they won’t arrive in time to help find Merlock, they’ll be needed to clean up the mess he’s made.
After twenty years of dying, Avinea is ready to live again.
I savor the way my envy burns through my blood at the thought of Bryn in North’s bed, fueled by the traces of dead magic that still linger in my veins from an infection that nearly killed me. Allowing my vices such free reign is a dangerous, intoxicating game, and the court magician, Sofreya, will have my head for it when she sees I’ve been testing the limits of her protection spells again. Nestled in the crooks of my arms, the spells keep the infection pinned in place, away from my heart. But magic only runs skin deep; if I really wanted to succumb to my vices, the poison could easily be coaxed past the spells.
“So that’s it, then,” I say, and the ache in my chest sharpens, cutting the last threads of impossible hope I had buried inside me.
Chadwick squints toward the city. “Wife is only a title. No
different from prince or captain or king.” Looking at me, he says, “Respect the office, Locke. But don’t assign it any more sentimentality than it warrants.”
I bite back a snort of derision. It’s more than a title; it’s a guarantee that Bryn will always have power over North. Over me. And power to keep us apart.
“At least now we can leave,” I say, my voice thick. Now that the wedding is official, Perrote, Bryn’s father, will make good his promise to deliver clean magic to the palace, and North will be free to search the Burn for his father. Killing him is the only way North can inherit control of his dying country and its magic—thereby stopping the Burn at last.
I shake my head, petulant as a child, and Chadwick takes my chin in hand, forcing my face toward his. I avoid his eyes, staring instead at the thick scar on his chin, where the facial hair doesn’t grow. He earned it years ago, he told me, playing swords with North when they were both boys being raised at the Saint Ergoet’s Monastery. It was the first—and only, Chadwick was always quick to add—time North got the better of him in a fight.
“She’s going to destroy him,” I say, daring him to contradict me.
“No.” Chadwick shakes his head, lips flat. “You and I will never let that happen. But if I have to defend him alone, I will do it.”
“You will be left behind if your only interest is in being a liability. Do you understand me? You have had two weeks’ worth of training at best, when you actually put in the effort. You’re not exactly an asset to the expedition.”
I scowl more deeply. The magic spell my mother branded on my skin ten years ago is our best hope of finding Merlock. It acts as a compass through the Burn—and is the only thing our competition lacks. Without it, Chadwick would be wandering like a blind man, risking the lives of all who follow him, including his prince.
“North needs this spell,” I say, with a hint of triumph at what that really means: He needs me.
“Prince Corbin will not risk Avinea for you again,” he says, emphasizing North’s real name with his teeth clenched. He loosens his hold on my chin, features softening as he grips my shoulders instead. Only twenty, Chadwick looks older these days, tired and spread thin. “He wanted you because you were strong,” he says. “So be strong.”
For a moment I resent him, but beneath it I recognize my indulgence for what it is: punishment, no different from the fights I used to stage at the Stone and Fern Tavern, when I would bloody a stranger’s face for the chance to feel control over something bigger than myself. Wallowing in regret accomplishes nothing but wanting. Tears are not tolerated in the training barracks, and I can’t afford them now. Iron, I tell myself. You are stronger than this.
“At least Cadence will be here tomorrow,” I say. Finally. Perrote took her away from me two weeks ago without any chance of good-bye—without any chance of hello, really—when he returned to Brindaigel to fortify his holdings and to calm his people, who had only recently discovered that the world still existed beyond their hidden borders. Cadence was his fail-safe, a hostage to ensure North upheld his agreement to marry Bryn, to recognize Brindaigel as a sovereign state, and to grant Perrote
a position on his council. Now, with his elder son, Rowan, left in charge of Brindaigel, Perrote is shepherding the entire Dossel family—Cadence in tow—back to the palace to celebrate Bryn’s miraculous ascension from the daughter of a thief to the crowned Princess of Avinea.
They plan to stay for several weeks, ensuring Bryn settles herself as a permanent fixture in the palace and the shifting political landscape. And to establish themselves as well, I suspect: The parts of Avinea untouched by the Burn have been an open market of available landholdings and abandoned estates, ripe for the picking by those with the weaponry—or delusions of power—to defend their claims. The anarchy of the last twenty years will finally end; once Merlock is found and North is crowned king, North will finally have the time and the power to seize control of his fragmented kingdom and rebuild it to its former glory. No doubt the Dossels will all expect a piece.
Chadwick squeezes my shoulder. “Find comfort in your sister.”
The comfort is small; my frustration is greater. Cadence arrives tomorrow, and I leave two days later. What kind of reunion is that? After months of being enchanted by Perrote’s magic, Cadence woke up to find her whole world gone. She needs her sister, someone familiar to keep her steady on her feet. Instead she’ll be abandoned all over again.
And yet I know I cannot stay behind, not even for her. Especially not for her. Going into the Burn with this spell is the only way I can help save this kingdom and ensure a future where she and I will never be separated again.
Chadwick watches me as I suck in a deep breath and then release
it slowly. My fingers curl against the smooth stone tiles of the roof at my hip. At least with Cadence’s return, North will fade from my thoughts the way he should have weeks ago.
“Don’t let anyone see you out here, or it’ll be my head,” Chadwick says, turning back for the window and the warmer air inside.
I hide a small smile; ignoring my behavior is his awkward attempt at sympathy. “Of course.”
“Locke.” He pauses, features backlit into shadow. “You made the right choice.”
Then why does it hurt, I want to ask, but I already know the answer.
Without another word Chadwick ducks through the window and disappears, but I linger, embracing the cold burn of the tiles through my skirt and the comforting sight of the breathing city across the water.
“I survived,” I repeat softly. And now the real battle begins.