READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Other Side of Magic by Ester Manzini




In a world inspired by 16th century Italy, magic is a common occurrence. Everyone in the realms of Epidalio and Zafiria is gifted with it at birth, but with every spell cast, their power wanes.


Gaiane Asares is the result of an accurate selection by her mother, the queen of Zafiria. She’s infinitely powerful; a weapon of mass destruction kept segregated in a tower and used against her will to conquer Epidalio.


Meanwhile, in Epidalio, Leo was born with no magic at all, a rarity. She lost her home and family when Zafiria attacked, and her resentment toward the invaders still burns.


Gaiane manages to escape her gilded cage, and the two girls cross paths. But when war threatens the land again, their loyalty will be put to the test. Will they manage to overcome their differences in the name of freedom?


Get carried away into the sparkling world of Italy in THE OTHER SIDE OF MAGIC by Ester Manzini—out next Tuesday, April sixth. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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CHAPTER ONE


"You can do it."


Her mother’s voice fluttered against the shell of her ear.


“You were trained for this. You were born for this. I believe in you.” The hands clutching her fingers shook just a little. Exaltation, of course. Not fear.


Gaiane squeezed her eyes shut. Staring at her mother’s face, so ageless and confident, made her doubts feel twice as big and silly.


Mother knew best. Mother knew what to do, and if she said she was ready, Gaiane needed to be. She nodded once, and the cold metal of the collar around her neck bounced against her collarbones.


A precaution. A constant companion in the ten short years of her life. Peeking from under her lashes, Gaiane caught the faintest glimmer from the ornament. Smooth and plain, a perfect ring of polished iron keeping her magic subdued. So different from the silver and gold of her mother’s crown or her father’s brooch—a queen and her consort.


She couldn’t take it off


She hated it. Even if it was for her own good.


Her quarters, at the top of the highest tower in Zafiria's royal palace, were crowded. The whole Council shuffled at the edge of Gaiane’s attention. From the ridge of the arched ceiling, where a large chandelier glimmering with golden light globes, the two sloping sides descended in a blaze of lapis lazuli blue sky and silver stars. The immaculate walls, inter‐ rupted here and there by slender columns hosting more magical lights, were covered in bookshelves, and the spring sun shone through the great windows, glittering in gold on the bars.


“I’m going to open the seal, my little dove. And after that, I only need you to trust me. Will you, Gaiane?”


She could. She needed to—wanted to, because it was one thing to heed Queen Cibele Asares’ command, but having her mother caress her hands and call her by her name filled the ever gaping void in Gaiane’s heart. Gaiane would do anything to please her mother, in those rare moments she had to spare.


Gaiane took a deep breath and tried to focus on her hands, gently held in her mother’s grip. Golden rings sparkled on her fingers, white and silver silks embroidered in a motif of stars and butterflies on her wrists.


She shifted into place, the soft blue carpet tickling her bare feet.


She forced herself to swallow her dread and straighten her back, she then raised her head.


The queen was staring at her. No, her mother, with her ivory skin and shiny black hair, with her bluebell eyes and the freckles on her nose. Gaiane could see herself in those refined features, less so in the black ring flashing under her hairline. Under the black paint, it was fading. Gaiane’s was still as black as when she was born. It was never going to change.


“Will you, my daughter?” her mother asked again, and this time Gaiane looked her in the eye.


“Yes,” she said. Behind the queen, the whole council was standing at a respectful distance.


Her father was there, his graying hair and the dimple on his cheek when his lips curled in a smirk. The members of the Council held their breath at Gaiane’s consent, and the sound made her little birds uncomfortable. Chirping and fluttering around in their gilded cage, the soft little creatures mirrored Gaiane’s nervousness.


The queen dropped her hands and got to her feet, towering above Gaiane with a triumphant smile.


“Come, then.” A slow flick of her chin, and she moved to the large window between the bookcases behind her.


Gaiane hesitated. Her eyes went to the only person in the room not wearing silks and jewels.


“Your majesty, she’s still very young. You’re asking a lot of her.” Alcmena’s voice rose high and clear, with no trace of fear. Gaiane envied her strength, even if such insolence was unseemly in a servant.


“Thank you for your concern. The House of Asares greatly appreciates your loyalty,” the queen said, her face unchanged but for a spark of steel in her eyes. Gaiane shivered in the cold implications of her mother’s words, but Alcmena stood still. Her grey hair was neatly combed back in a high bun, and her aquiline nose scrunched lightly as she bowed.


“And I know your daughter, your majesty. She’s of course skilled enough for the task, but the effects on her young mind…”


“Are we really wasting our time listening to a tutor? The siege is at a crucial point, and we need to strike now.” Her father took a step forward, and for a terrible second Gaiane feared he wanted to shove Alcmena back. Diocle, though, was a smarter man than that: he simply ignored the old lady and stared at his queen with no trace of subjection. “We need Gaiane to be ready. And I know she is.”


In the look they exchanged, Gaiane could see a world of unsaid truths, all just beyond her grasp. But before she could wonder about her parents’ behavior, the queen shook her long braids.


“I must agree with Lord Diocle. It’s not the time for doubts, and your presence here endangers the princess’ efforts, Alcmena. Please, escort her out of the tower,” she said, and from behind the elegant crowd two guards stepped forward.


Gaiane held her breath. Panic was clawing its way up her throat again, and her vision blurred with tears when she saw Alcmena sigh in acceptance.


Before turning her back to the room, the woman looked at her. Her eyes sparkled, and thin lines appeared at the corner of her mouth as she smiled.


“You can do it, my darling princess. Breathe, focus, and count to ten. You’re a good child,” she said in a whisper, and Gaiane sniffed. Despite her fear, her doubts relented. Alcmena knew her: she’d taught Gaiane to read and to sing, to feel the energy run under her skin and to entwine it with the world’s weave whenever the collar was removed. She was a friend, and she believed in her.


I need to prove to you that your teachings were not in vain.


A wink turned into a nervous look at the guards closing in around her, and Alcmena left.


The door closed with a small thud, and a nervous wave rippled the audience.


“You grace, we need to hurry. According to our plan the troops are already…”


“I know, Alcibiades. I didn’t ask for your report,” the queen snapped. The old counselor pressed his lips in a tight line and his nostrils flared. Gaiane almost felt sorry for him, but then her mother turned to her once more. “Gaiane, it’s time you fulfill your destiny.”


And now, without her mentor to anchor her to reality, all Gaiane had left was the burning desire to please her mother. With a lump in her chest and tears still prickling in her eyes, she followed her mother’s gesture and reached the window. The shutters were open, and the golden bars were warm against her skin when she touched them.


Her hands looked so small on the dark stones of the windowsill, pale and frail like the white finches tweeting in their cage. A deep breath, a silent iteration of the religious formulas to the Mother Goddess and the Spirits of the Ancients, and she looked at the vast landscape unfolding hundreds of feet under her prison. Her head spun at the sight of endless green fields and dark woods, faded mountains in the East and silver stream of a river - the Arrowhead Creek, tributary to the Itia river, running south to its estuary in the…


Gaiane shook her head and banned the relief of academic distractions. She filled her lungs with the crisp spring air as her mother’s fingertips descended on her collar.


She tried not to look. Not to hope—it was just for the time being, just for this enterprise she was called to. A moment of freedom in her own cage.


In the distance, the villages of Epidalio were miniatures no bigger than her toys. A sawmill here, a cluster of houses of white plaster and dark wooden beams there. The line dividing the land from her own Zafiria was clear in her mind, but not in the real world. The border was less than fifteen miles from the palace, an invisible barrier between the woods.


She couldn’t see the queen’s soldiers. Their marks on the countryside, though, were everywhere: smoke was rising from a burned down barn, a scatter of black in the middle of the forest.


The troops were already laying siege to Nikaia, the capital of Epidalio, and people were suffering for it. It was her duty to put an end to this war. “Everything I’ve done, everything you’ve been through, has been leading up to this,” her mother whispered to her ear. “Your birth. Your sacrifices. Your studies.”


Gaiane let tears roll down her cheeks as the queen’s fingers worked their way around her collar. A part of her was drawn to the movement, to the subtle patterns of power unlocking the seals to her magic, mysterious beyond her understanding. She was an instrument her mother was playing, and the melody was too arcane for her to remember.


She couldn’t look away from the fires punctuating the land. “Gaiane, my child, this is going to be different from your usual exercises. You’ll be the source of all our troops’ spells, and I want you to pour yourself entirely in this task.” A click rang through Gaiane’s bones, and the iron collar weighted differently around her neck. “You can turn Zafiria into an empire, ruled by those who rightfully deserve it. By virtue of our power. Of our sacrifices.”


“Your majesty, I daresay we’re wasting precious time with all these encouragements.” Diocle's words rumbled across the room, and the Council murmured in outrage. The queen glared at him, but quickly returned to Gaiane.


“Guide them. Spur them. And today they’ll call you conqueror, and not just princess.”


Emotion swelled in her belly. Gaiane tried to steady her voice, but when the collar fell in her mother’s palms, a tiny sob bubbled from her lips.


She turned her face to look at the queen.


It was silly, but Gaiane needed to ask.


“Will… it be back? After?” A quick glance at the collar, the urge to rub her throat barely controlled.


Queen Cibele smiled, and her blue gaze shifted from Gaiane’s face to something behind her.


“We’ll see. The better your performance, the higher the chances to leave your tower for good.”


And it was true. It had to be true, because Gaiane trusted her mother, and a queen would never lie. Not to her daughter.


Free from her collar and free from her prison. It was the last incentive Gaiane needed.


She looked at the world spreading around her tower. Some‐ where, beyond the screen of smoke, men and women were fighting. Dying. She could stop this and bring peace. Her heart drummed against her ribcage. Light and delicate like the fluttering of her birds’ little wings.


She closed her eyes. The ring on her forehead burned like the sun, sending waves of energy through her nerves. Even in the darkness she could see it--lines of light under her colorless skin, bursting from her heart and melting with the golden glow covering the whole world.


It only awaited her command. Everyone’s souls sparkled like pinpricks of sunshine, everywhere. Some were dimmer, some brighter, none as blinding as her own. A pattern of crossing lines and flashes of light covered everything. People and elements, and she was one with them.


Gaiane searched for the soldiers. Here they were, fiery profiles against the walls of a faraway city. Nikaia, she knew it, with its thick towers and sturdy battlements. She gritted her teeth as her own men died one by one. Their arrows weren’t precise enough, their armors too frail. More people died when‐ ever a Zafirian soldier found its mark. A red mist of fog shrouded the distant battle.


Her power throbbed and pawed for release. Shaking in her bones and thumping in her skull, magic begged her to breathe and let it all out.


Not yet. When I’m told so, not yet.


Her nails chipped against the windowsill.


“Gaiane. Go.”


Queen Cibele's command broke the dam.


Gaiane sunk her fingertips in the cold stones and bared her teeth.


She was not built for restraint. Her power would never fade or diminish. For the first time, she could just let it go. She poured it all in that single, desperate outburst. To end a war, her mother had said.


To conquer a kingdom.


Magic flowed through her, beyond her. Down the tower and over the fields, through the trees and across the rivers. She pulled at the strings holding the world together, and her power reached the soldiers. It blended with theirs, and she felt their surprise as if it were her own.


Steel was invulnerable now. Arrowheads pierced stone and flesh and never missed. A simple spell from the knight guiding the charge turned to a devastating outburst that tore a gate from its hinges.


The blue tide of Gaiane’s spell washed over the land and made everything shine and cast deep lights.


Too clear. Too vivid.


In the time of a quickened beat of her heart, it all came back to her. She wasn’t just lending her energy to the troops—she was living the battle with them. With every single soldier, and hundred, thousands of details cluttered her head. A gasp, and Gaiane staggered back. Blood pooling on the streets, painting the grey stones of a wall. The chorus of cries from the wounded, the dying, the survivors. Pain—so much pain she couldn’t breathe, broken bones, severed limbs, a little child face down in the mud, his head dented. The horses rolling their eyes at the sky, shattered legs, and froth at their mouth.


Death. It invaded her mind—a nameless horror draining her wits, sucking out her power.


Colors dulled, shadows deepened, and Gaiane swayed.


Her eyes shot open, and her voice rose to a wail. To a scream, beastly and high-pitched. It scorched her throat and crushed her lungs.


Darkness swallowed the battle, the fields and woods, the golden bars at her window. Her mother’s face, concerned and triumphant.


She screamed, and darkness reclaimed her.

***

It was the pocketknife’s fault. Little more than a child’s toy, with a dull blade barely good for whittling soft pine wood. Da didn’t want her to handle anything bigger, and she had to beg Ma to let her keep that one knife. It was small enough for her hands, at least.


Leo squinted and adjusted herself on the thick ash branch, letting one leg dangle and her bare heel bounce against the bark. With the tip of her tongue between her teeth, she studied the chunk of durmast she’d stolen from the carpenter’s pile of scratches. He wouldn’t miss it anyway, and she needed to practice.


Maybe it depended on the wood instead? Old Barlin had tried to explain to her that for a little girl it was better to start with something softer, keeping the hardest kinds of carving wood for another time. Leo scoffed at the thought. First, she was ten, not a little girl. She was taller than most of the kids her age, too. And second, how was she supposed to learn if all they allowed her were toys and condescension?


She snorted and shook her head. The two tight braids running from the top of her head to the base of her neck tickled her.


She stuck the tip of her knife under a particularly stubborn knot and twisted it, dropping shavings in her lap. Too hard indeed, and with a subpar tool, too.


If only Da weren’t that anxious…


A bee buzzed near her ear, and Leo swatted it away with her blade. This place was good, but the bugs were a nuisance. Though this tree was tall enough to scare most of her friends out of the idea of climbing it, and no adult would ever think a ten-year-old would dare to go that high.


It was quiet, and nobody would come looking for her.


“Here I can do something worth learning,” she grumbled to herself. Her mood soured instantly, and she stabbed the wood with such hostility the blade slipped and almost hit her skin.


The thought of school made her angry.


No, not angry. Sad? Not exactly. But whenever she sat with her seventeen classmates in the dim lit room, with that sourfaced, boring Galeno writing endless streams of twitching symbols on the blackboard, an invisible weight crushed her chest. Each year, that traveling teacher pestered the village with his presence, and each year Leo hated him a little more. He called her lazy and sloppy, glared at her and frowned whenever she improvised a new reason for her missing homework. After her last ‘the billy goat ate it’, she was running out of ideas. And the goat hadn’t even liked her papers, either.


It wasn’t her fault if the lessons made her terribly nervous. “You’re distracting your classmates!” Galeno used to say whenever some other kid blamed a failed spell on her.


Even in the warm spring sun, shielded by the leaves that extended like a green, lacy canopy above her, she shivered. The yearly lessons she had to attend were what nightmares were made of: the boredom of learning through Galeno’s flat voice, geography and the basics of religion—the Mother who made fields, cattle and people fertile; the spirits of the ancestors that apparently were still checking on the living—were nothing compared to the books Leo couldn’t read, riddled with magic secrets and spells woven in every blot of ink.


As if that wasn’t enough, all kids old enough to walk were already proficient in magic, showing off the black ring on their brows. Hers was still smooth and evenly brown. What other people were born with, a talent as natural as breathing, still slipped her grasp. Leo couldn’t tell why; and the grown-ups insistence on waiting, because of course magic would come to her, too, only made her feel more wrong.


The knot was sturdier than expected. She wiped her sweaty cheeks with her forearm and stared into the distance. Colorful banners already adorned Elertha’s Mill square, and a pole wrapped in red and white ribbons emerged from the treetops.


Soon, the Spring Festival would turn the plain simplicity of the Mill into its festive version. Which, in Leo’s opinion, was equally as boring, only in a fancy outfit. She couldn’t think of many ways to make the cluster of clean roads, white plaster and dark wooden beams houses, and even the pretentious shape of the slightly taller building for assemblies interesting. The flowers at the balconies and swallows nesting under the mill’s roof were nice, but only added to the hopelessly rural look of the place.


And at least the swallows got to leave…


The chatter for the upcoming Festival covered the murmur of the river. And sure enough it covered the footsteps under her tree, because when a sharp voice called her name, Leo almost rolled down the branch in surprise.


“Leo! Spirits’ sake, I’ve been looking for you all morning!”


Leo rolled her eyes and stuck her knife in the branch, crossing her arms over her chest.


Of course her mother would come to look for her. Because of course Galeno had sent word of her skipping class.


“Come down immediately!”


“Ma, it’s not…”


“I’m not joking, Leo. I have no time to waste, so you better bring your sorry hide here this very moment.”


“But I…”


“The whole village is paying for master Galeno's lessons, and you avoiding him is both a waste of money and a shame! Honestly, why are you like this? I thought you’d learned how to behave after last year…”


The stern tone surprised her a little. Ma wasn’t the strict one, and being scolded like that meant something was off.


In the past three years, Leo had done her best to avoid Galeno, and most of the time Ma had found a way to excuse her. Magic was necessary, and children were supposed to learn how to master it and get to work with their families as soon as possible. Those who showed an inclination or desire to delve into magic any further could attend some of the colleges in Epidalio’s larger cities, even in the capital Nikaia, if they were particularly gifted; everyone else was expected to put their powers to use in the fields or their families’ businesses.


Leo was hard-working enough, but in the wrong way.


With a sigh, she picked her knife up and placed it at her belt.


“Fine,” she grumbled. Going down was easier but way more terrifying, and she tried not to look down as she perched herself on one branch, and then another, lower and lower still.


Eventually, when she was still six feet up the trunk, she jumped down and landed with a grunt among the grass.


When she looked up, Ma was glaring at her. Alright, something was really off.


Her mother was pretty. She had always been, with flawless brown skin and deep hazel eyes. And she always wore the colorful red and orange dyed dress Da made for her. But now, with her fists on her sides and her lips pressed in a tight line, she looked this close to a scolding.


Leo brushed her pants. Both her knees were scabby, and there was a wasp bite on her ankle, right below where her pants were rolled up to her calves. “Listen, Ma, I’m sorry, alright?”


“No, it’s not alright! I had hoped you’d take education more seriously this year, and I’m done covering you up with your father!


“But I…”


“We’re going home. Now,” she snapped, taking Leo’s shoulder and pulling her along.


“Hey! What’s up, Mom? You never…”


“Hurry!”


“No! First you tell me what’s happening!”


Ma glanced around and bowed to look Leo in the eye.


“It’s dangerous to be out there, and I want you home at once. Do you have any idea of how worried I was when I didn’t find you at school?”


Leo opened her mouth and blinked.


“Dangerous? Here? Come on, it’s festival day, there’ll be some more people around, but it’s never been anything but boring!”


“Leo! Don’t argue with me and go home!”


“I’m not a baby anymore, stop treating me like one!” She wiggled herself free from her mother’s grip and staggered back.


“Then stop behaving like one! Please, Leo, it’s not a joke!”


Leo turned her back on her and marched away down the path. Sure, go home, Ma had said. And suffer Da doing that face, the one that didn’t look angry or anything, just very worried about his messy little girl. Disappointed even, maybe.


She couldn’t hear Ma insisting with her lecture. Her face was on fire and her head buzzed with outrage.


What a pathetic excuse. Danger at the Mill? The most exciting thing that had ever happened was that time Tobias had fished a pike so big it had dragged him into the river and bit off a piece of his finger. The village was too small to even deserve the title of town, and its only perk was being close enough to the main road going to Nikaia. They didn’t have visitors often, but they weren’t exactly out of the way either.


She stomped on the dirt path, leaving her mother behind. When she took a side road and turned at the corner of old Clio’s house, at the borders of the village, she snatched a pale lavender twig and twisted it in her hands.


“Leo?” she heard from behind her, and promptly ignored it. She really, really didn’t want to get home and find a second serving of this nonsense.


“Leo!” her mother called again, and Leo rolled her eyes. “If you expect me to stop here, I…”


“Run!” Leo stumbled on her feet and turned around. No, that was not what she’d expected.


A low rumble vibrated under her feet; small pebbles and sand jumped on the ground, and every hair on her body stood up in sudden fear. She took a step back when the rumbling grew louder.


“Mom?” she called, still looking at the ground.


A horse neighed, and the sound sent shivers down her spine. She shook her head and ran her way back.


She emerged from the shadow of Clio’s house, and the world crumbled under her.


A living wall of soldiers came barreling down the road. She saw pale banners, steel armor, white and silver plumes on the helmets.


She saw her mother turning toward her. The orange shawl slid from her shoulder, and her eyes big.


Terror, shock, confusion.


The horses didn’t slow down.


Didn’t stop. Leo’s mother crumpled and disappeared under the hooves without a sound. The knights stomped over her and galloped on.


They didn’t even hear Leo cry.

***

“The… The king is dead.” The sentinel was fifteen at most, although it was hard to tell his age, battered and bruised as he was. Evandro left his post by the throne and knelt in front of the kid, helping him stand up. Blood stained his gloves as he grabbed his face. Easier than looking at Eliodoro's eyes, burning in a pale face.


“What?” He could barely recognize his own voice, strained and dry as it was after hours--days?--of fighting and mourning.


The boy slumped against him, leaving a trail of blood on the steel of Evandro's armor.


Not a knight. Not even a soldier—they’d ran out of trained troops to guard the walls, and what few remained were all stationed in the palace. Ready to die in a desperate last stand.


Evandro dropped his sword and tried to keep the kid’s head upright, looking into his eyes.


“Where?” Eliodoro spoke, low, his tone trembling. Evandro closed his eyes as his heart cracked some more.


“They’ve… taken the bridge. The king… tried to hold...” A red bubble popped at the corner of the sentinel’s mouth, and his dark eyes rolled back into his skull. He slipped from Evandro's grip and stood motionless on the blue and golden tiles of the floor.


Dead. One more.


Evandro couldn’t stand up. He lost his grip on time and real‐ ity, his eyes traveling over the features of the corpse.


I didn’t even know his name.


People screamed in the courtyards. A blaze of white-blue light flashed through the shattered glass of the windows. The voices shut at once, and only more distant wails remained to testify the slaughter happening in the palace.


“Evandro!”


To that call, the First Knight couldn’t but obey. He shuddered, grabbed his sword, and bolted to his feet, turning to face the tall figure standing in front of the throne.


Eliodoro Laskaris, the Evening Star, heir to the throne of Epidalio, son of king Stelio.


Now a king himself.


“Long live the king,” Evandro muttered to himself. The room around him was a mess of broken furniture to shield doors and windows; the green and golden tapestries on the walls, the Laskaris banners hanging from the ceiling, everything was torn to pieces, useless rags that still showed the coat of arms of the royal family. The Laskaris star, stained in blood and dirt. Burned. A macabre mocking of glory.


A guard loaded his rifle, and the smell of black powder prickled Evandro's nose. He sniffed and touched his forehead with his fist. “I pledge my honor to…”


“Oh, shut it, it’s not time for formalities!” Eliodoro snapped. Tears glimmered in his eyes, and his face looked younger than ever in the shock of the tragedy. “This is not how I imagined my crowning…” A bang came from the window, a second one, and the stone frame crumbled under an enemy shot.


Evandro blinked. Eliodoro's skin glistened with sweat and blood was smeared on his cheek. His hazel eyes were reddened, spirited.


“You know what I need you to do.” Eliodoro's command shot through him and erased everything. The battlefield, their losses, the stench of blood and death all around them.


Evandro wrapped his fingers around the grip, and the leather of his glove squeaked.


“Your highness—your majesty,” Evandro corrected himself with a shiver, “no. I beg you, don’t ask me to…”


I know!” Eliodoro jumped down the steps from the throne and marched to Evandro. He faced him, his jaw set in a stubborn line. The rest of his guard, seasoned fighters now watching helpless as their beloved Epidalio fell under the invader, glanced at them from their guard posts.


“Then don’t ask me!” Evandro shoved him back. Any other time he would’ve cursed his own name for such a show of public insubordination, and even more for forsaking his best friend in his time of need like this. Right now, he could barely control his voice. “I can’t leave you, I…”


Words failed him when the prince’s hands cupped his face. Battle-worn, calloused, familiar. Not the hands of a nobleman. The hands of a king.


All that time yearning for your touch, and now that you’re looking at me like that, I can’t say yes.


“Please,” Eliodoro said under his breath. “For our friendship. For the oath you swore. For what you feel about...” The young king hesitated, and Evandro glared at him, his face on fire.


“You’re using that against me. To… to force me to…”


“I am!” Eliodoro yelled, tears streaming down his dirty cheekbones. “I am, and I won’t ask for your forgiveness. But my father’s dead, the palace is destroyed, and our land is lost. It will forever be so, unless you leave me now.”


“I beg you,” Evandro growled, unashamed of his trembling lower lip, of this weakness he fed whoever of his guard was left. “Don’t ask me to leave you to die. Let me die with my honor--at your side, as a knight!”


A decade of words left unsaid choked him.


“Ligeia is alive, and our children with her. They’re Epidalio’s last hope, and you must take them out of here.”


“And abandon you! If our land is really defeated…”


The press of Eliodoro's lips on his brow burned like a mark.


“There’s still magic in you. I can see it,” the king said, his mouth against the faded ring on Evandro's forehead. He pressed their brows together, shaking his head. “Enough to take my wife from this nightmare and to the canals. To safety.”


“Your majesty, I…” Evandro sighed. Your majesty. My lord. My love. “Eliodoro. It’s too much.”


“It’s the last thing you can do for me. For us.”


Us.


Eliodoro never missed his mark, and that last word broke the remains of Evandro's determination.


There was no us, he thought bitterly, and hated himself for it. He still owed Eliodoro his loyalty and his unselfish friendship.


Against all etiquette and appropriateness, Evandro lifted his free hand and grabbed Eliodoro's wrist. He turned in his palm, leaning in that last caress.


Gunshots rang from the lower gate. A loud crackling, the shriek of someone on the battlements—magic barriers! We can’t hit them!


“You’ve been the best companion I could’ve asked for, Evan‐ dro. I wish I could’ve made you as happy as you deserved.” Eliodoro took a step back, and Evandro was cold and alone. Behind the veil of tears, Eliodoro was smiling, a flash of white teeth and his black hair sticking to his cheeks.


“As you command, my king,” Evandro dragged from his chest, laying the words at the feet of the man he’d loved for his whole life. In vain.


“The southern staircase! They’re breaching in!” Yelled a woman by the window, crouching to load her rifle.


“Go!” Eliodoro growled. “Go, with my blessing and my gratitude.”


Evandro stumbled back toward the door. What had been the throne room was unreal. No more carpets and nobles in bright colored robes, no dogs sleeping by the vast fireplace or giddy young ladies gossiping in the corners. Furniture was piled by every entrance, benches bolted across the doors. Dead men and women lay scattered around.


It looked like a tomb already.


“Now!”


Evandro took a shivering breath that jumped to the small door behind the throne. Little more than a secret passage, a narrow corridor so low he had to crouch to get in.


Eliodoro shouted orders to his guards and Evandro caught one last glimpse of his tall frame, the red cape twirling with every movement, the flame dancing in his raven hair.


Then the Asares’ troops flooded the throne room, and someone closed the secret passage behind Evandro.


Done. And there was nothing he could do but obey.


In the darkness, his face burned, and his blade caught in the walls, raising a splash of sparks.


He ran, breathless, his eyes filled with tears he couldn’t shed. For a lost future, a lost home.


Through the hidden paths inside the castle, Evandro fled from the fight. Ahead of him, a woman was screaming in a different kind of agony.


Maybe it was already too late, he thought. But this didn’t free him from his vow.


“Go, with my blessing and my gratitude.”


Eliodoro's last words rang hollow.


One arm outstretched, Evandro slammed his hand on the door. The frenzied voices behind it shut at once, but above the rumbling of his heart he could still hear ragged breaths and bitten off curses.


He kicked the door open, and out of sheer instinct he ducked behind the jamb. The bullet struck the wall in front of him, crumbling the bricks in a cascade of dust and red fragments.


“I’m Evandro!” he shrieked before a second gunshot missed his shoulder by inches. “Don’t shoot me!”


“Sweet Mother of the Fields! Come in, come in!”


The explosions subsided and a gloved hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him forward. Before he could take a step, Evandro found himself hauled inside. The door slammed shut behind him, and in the dim light of a single lantern he squinted and took a panting breath. The air smelled like blood and sweat.


“What… are you doing… here?”


Ligeia sat up on the bed, her black skin glistening and her tight braids loose on her shoulders. She bared her teeth and threw her head back, grabbing handfuls of sheets, growling.


“He… he sent me. To take you away,” he managed to stutter. It was too late indeed, and he’d abandoned Eliodoro for a hopeless waste of lives.


“Eliodoro? He lives then!” There was a glimmer of desperate expectation in that second female voice. Evandro couldn’t look away from the princess, her swollen belly rippling and hardening under her torn robes. “Evandro! Tell me that my son is still alive!”


Queen Althea. A widow, and soon a childless mother. Evandro closed his eyes as a third figure slithered from the door and by the bed—Ligeia’s personal doctor, a frail man with a sparse blond ponytail.


The queen’s voice lowered to a plea. Evandro shook his head as her small hands clutched his arm and pulled him forward. Her eyes, as golden as her son’s, were rimmed in red, her deli‐ cate features smeared in soot and blood.


“Tell me that he lives. Tell me that not everything is lost… Please, Evandro, I need you to…”


Ligeia let out a low snarl and arched her back. The doctor, whose name he couldn’t recall, tried to take her hand and support her, but the princess swatted him away.


“He’s not going to make it,” she hissed, and Evandro hung his head.


“He sent me to… escort you out. But I fear you are not in shape for…”


“Shut up.” Ligeia closed her eyes and tensed in a new contraction.


Queen Althea sniffed and dropped her hands. Evandro wanted her to scream, to cry for her lost family, but the lady was a statue of bones and steel. No time to mourn.


“His orders, Dawn Star. What are your prince’s—your king’s orders?”


Evandro could’ve cried. Somebody needed to, in such a dire situation. But all he managed was a flat whisper.


“I’m to leave him. He’ll hold the inner gate, and I’ll escort you out. Somehow. From there…”


“Shut up!” Ligeia screamed. “My lady, you should not… fret like this, the baby…”


“The baby will have to wait. Evandro, help me to my feet. If that’s my king’s command, I expect us all to comply.”


And despite her harsh breathing, her skin going pale around her lips; despite the soaked underskirt and the clash of battle all around them, Ligeia slipped from the bed.


“But the castle’s taken, how are we going to…”


Althea bared her teeth and shut the doctor’s sensible objection with a glare.


“We know a way.”


“My lady, he’s right. I can’t take you out, there’s soldiers everywhere, and…"


“Are you even listening? There’s a way out, and—nngh!” Ligeia clenched her swollen belly and doubled over.


“Help her,” queen Althea snapped. She picked the pistols she’d dropped and tucked them in her jeweled belt. “If we make it to the tunnels, we can leave the palace. Hopefully the battle will stay in Nikaia and we’ll make it to the countryside.”


Tunnels? What tunnels? Evandro wanted to express his confusion, but there was no time for questions.


Even death and life had to wait.


Ligeia took a deep breath. It broke halfway through, but she let out no sound, only squeezed her eyes shut for a second before raising her arms.


A faithful knight. And a good friend.


Evandro sheathed his sword and banned his past and future from his mind. Now he needed to act, and quickly.


He pulled Ligeia up and lifted her in his arms, ignoring the doctor’s warnings. She was heavy and couldn’t stay still, but she looped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. The ring on her forehead was barely visible—how much power had she used to survive this long during the siege?


“The inner courtyard?” the queen asked, stuffing a bundle of clean clothes in a leather sack and slinging it across her shoulders.


“Gone,” Evandro said. He adjusted Ligeia against his torso and looked above her head. “We can only go through the service pathway.”


“But it’s so…narrow and dark! And unsuited for a queen and her heirs, and if I may, her conditions are…”


The doctor’s words turned to a whine when Evandro glared at him.


“It’s our only chance,” the queen said, and she took her daughter-in-law’s hand. Her white gloves were stained in gunpowder. “We’re leaving. Now.”


Eliodoro's brilliant plan didn’t include a new queen in labor, a trembling old man and a woman hardened beyond the point of tears. But it was a plan nonetheless, and Evandro didn’t have anything left to lose.


Lowering Ligeia in the trapdoor required a measure of balance and strength, and only the princess’ stern determina‐ tion not to be a burden made it possible. Still, when they scut‐ tled down the steep staircase, Evandro cursed his bad luck. Dying on the battlements would’ve been so much easier…


But here they were, one slippery step at a time, Ligeia muffling her grunts against Evandro's shoulder and her fingers digging into the nape of his neck. The doctor held the lantern, its dim light bouncing with every jolt of the poor man’s shoulders.


Queen Althea closed the scrawny parade.


“It’s one of the family’s dearest secrets,” she panted under her breath. “There’s a system of tunnels under the palace, leading out of town.”


Evandro blinked in the darkness. A jealously guarded secret indeed, for even he, the First Knight, Eliodoro's best friend since childhood, had never known anything.


Over the sound of their steps the battle raged on. One muffled boom, and the very walls of the staircase shook. A rain‐ fall of dust settled on their shoulders, and Ligeia sighed in the crook of her sleeve.


“Hold on, my lady,” he surprised himself saying. No matter what, this girl struggling in his arms had been his friend, and she too had lost the love of her life. He owed her this. “We’re almost there.”


“There, sure. If I don’t die in childbirth or under the ruins, then we’ll get there.”


“Hush, girl! We’ll have time for snark later, if we make it,” Althea hissed.


Evandro bit his tongue in an untimely outburst of hysterical laughter he could hardly suppress.


This is madness. I’m escorting the soon-to-be heir to a stolen throne to a tunnel that may or may not lead us all to a rat’s death, and I can’t even properly comfort them…


Minutes notched up in a chain of fear and despair, punctuated by Ligeia’s spasms and muttered curses. She kept her legs tightly crossed, but Evandro could still feel something warm drip down his side.


“Are we there yet?” the doctor squealed, and immediately gasped. He turned around with a crooked smile on his gaunt face, pointing at the archway at the bottom of the stairs. The walls glimmered with dampness, and a cold gust of air made his lamp flicker.


The flames of his lantern splintered on the dark surface of the walls, and Evandro closed his eyes in a wordless prayer.


“Move on, kid! Let me pass, you need someone who knows their way around the undercity.”


Queen Althea pushed Evandro away and stormed down the stairs in a flash of dark silks. The doctor scurried in her trail, shooting Ligeia worried looks but in the end he followed the queen.


“Evandro…”


Ligeia’s voice was soft. How scared had she been? How hard was she trying to be brave? Evandro looked down at her. If she lived--if he succeeded--then Eliodoro's name wasn’t lost. Hope wasn’t lost.


“He loved you,” he said, brushing his fingertips to Ligeia’s cheek. “And you made him so happy…”


And when you got engaged, I hated you for it... I should ask your forgiveness.


“We were happy, all three of us. When we were kids and there were no crowns and titles and… and wars,” she said, almost a sob. “We could’ve been something different, if only…”


“We’re past the time for ifs. You…”


“You loved him, too. And I’m sorry if you two…”


Whatever other revelation she had in score, it vanished under a loud bang somewhere above their heads.


“This way!” a voice called from upstairs, and in a matter of seconds the rumbling of feet vibrated down the staircase.


Evandro and Ligeia shared one last look. Her black eyes were wide with fear, a drop of sweat rolled down her cheekbone.


“No. Not like this,” Evandro snarled. He leapt forward, stop‐ ping short of slipping on the damp cobblestones. “You deserve to live, and I’ll make sure they don’t get you.”


“Here! Quickly!” the queen called from the shadow. Her voice echoed in the depths of the network under Nikaia.


The doctor stuck his arms out and gestured to Ligeia, and Evandro looked up the stairs. Torches were flashing on the walls.


“Hurry, Dawn Star!” the man urged him, and Evandro nodded. Hasty, almost brutal, he unceremoniously dropped Ligeia in the man’s arms, but she barely complained. With a loud groan she leaned heavily against the doctor’s shoulder, and Althea was there ready to help her.


Death had to wait. Life. Farewells, too.


Evandro turned his back to the party before they could acknowledge him. Footsteps. Clattering of steel. Curses and commands.


The Asares’ men were there.


He unsheathed his sword and closed his eyes for a second, focusing on the burning ring at his hairline. Not much power left, but enough.


It had to be.


Uneven steps sounded behind him in the dark. What was left of the royal family staggered away into the shadows.


Evandro couldn’t say goodbye. A stream of soldiers appeared under the archway.


“He’s the First Knight!” the first in line yelled, checking Evandro's shiny armor and flaming red hair. “Take him!”


“Not likely,” he grunted. The soldier who’d screamed for him charged on, a sword in one hand, a glowing sphere of fire in the other. It quickly swelled to a fireball ready to explode, but Evandro stopped the spell before it could burst in his face. His blade painted a silver arch in the narrow hall, and the enemy’s grin exploded in a splatter of crimson. The fireball dimmed and faded away as the man collapsed back on the stairs. His comrades charged on.


Five—six of them, Evandro counted. They needed to die, or the secret of the tunnels would leak. Ligeia would die, and her child with her. He snarled and swiftly moved his feet to a guarding stance. Before the soldiers could come, though, a torch blazed up the stairs.


Blades, he could parry. Spells, he could block. Firearms were beyond his abilities.


A gunshot boomed so near Evandro squinted and turned his head away. And the next thing he knew, a warm trickle of blood was running down his side. The hole between his pauldron and chestplate burned, his arm tingled.


One step closer to death.


Evandro's heart fluttered. Three men were running toward him, and more were bolding down the stairs.


Give them all you’ve got, Dawn Star. One last fight.


He lowered his sword and called for the magic inside him. It shone in the depths of his being, throbbing for release.


The shadow on Evandro's forehead burned as the remains of his power flashed through his veins. A beastly roar erupted from his throat, and half a dozen soldiers hesitated in their charge.


It was enough. Not much, but enough—if shaking the foun‐ dations of the palace and making it collapse above his head was what he needed to make sure Ligeia was safe, then so be it. It was a good end to a life.


Evandro let go of the tensed string inside him. His magic, so carefully preserved for this moment, unleashed and seeped through the stones of the hallway. Plaster crumbled, rocks cracked and fell on the soldiers’ heads. On his own head.


The floor rumbled and he laughed. A furious, ugly sound.


The soldiers screamed. Somebody even shot again, but Evandro barely felt the bullet gnaw at his thigh. He stood there, sword in hand, the world collapsing around him.


Around them.


The narrow hall cracked open under his feet. The moment the archway crushed the troops, his foothold gave way.


He didn’t care anymore.


He laughed as dust filled his mouth, his skin sizzling with magic as he sunk under the chaos of ruins and debris.


He fell to death, and he welcomed it.



CHAPTER TWO


Eight years later.


The pitter-patter of dozens of feet was getting on her nerves. The presence of the white-clad guards all around her was suffocating. But a queen couldn’t give in to needs and wild desires.


Of those, Cibele Asares had many. Shuffling down the dark corridor, all polished marble and golden candelabra, she clenched her fists to stop them from shaking. Or, even better, from lashing at the man at her side, pouring her frustration and anger on him in a blaze of fire.


Passing in front of a flickering candle, her temper unleashed some of her power, and the flame burned brighter for a second.


Diocle brushed his hand on her elbow in a discreet warning.


Show some restraint, he seemed to say. Cibele couldn’t bear the sight of him, but his words rang through her bones nonetheless.




He was supposed to be there, of course. The captain of her personal guard. Her consort.


Gaiane’s father.


At least, she thought with bitter irony as they came in sight of the door at the end of the hallway, he wasn’t smirking as per usual. The situation was critical enough to strip him of his insufferable sarcasm.


By the door—a sturdy slab of iron, usually bolted by more than mere locks—the Council murmured with confusion. As they approached, Cibele squinted at the light streaming through the crack under the door.


Sweat chilled down her spine. She stopped short of pulling at her hair and slapping Alcibiade's withered face. The old councilor was pale, the sagging skin of his cheeks mottled in red.


Cibele raised her fist to stop the guards in her trail; only Diocle took the liberty to follow her.


“You… your majesty, I’m appalled. The tower was sealed, the glyphs on the door were untouched when we hurried to check. No guard noticed anything, we found no trace of break-in or…”


“Silence,” she hissed. It took all her determination to keep her stride slow and steady. She couldn’t just run to the door and slam it open to reveal the unbelievable, horrible truth behind it.


Earlier that morning Gaiane had been there, polite and smiling, her wonderful daughter. Worth every sacrifice made and drop of blood spilled.


The room was at arm’s reach, now.


She stood motionless, clenching her jaws. Magic rumbled through her, as strong as ever. How much power was left in her? She dared not leave room for doubts now.


Diocle took a deep breath and acted on her behalf. He marched among the counsellors, dispersing them like a flock of hens, and splayed his hand on the door.


Cibele was grateful for his presence of mind, and hated him some more for it. Her calves ached from the long climb up the endless steps to her daughter’s quarters, but the tension gripping at her throat and back was different.


Terror. Denial. Unbelief making the world grey and distant, a distorted version of her reality.


Diocle pushed the door open, and Cibele held her breath.


Two guards stood at the center of the circular room, and a third figure was slumped at their feet.


The queen ignored them all.


Gaiane’s apartment was unchanged. All her books, thou‐ sands of them, were neatly stacked on the shelves running all over the walls. The canopies of her bed hanging loose from the posts, the silver velvet shining in the afternoon sun. A carved stool by the window, the chandelier with its countless shining crystals dangling from the ceiling.


Cibele closed her eyes to banish a wave of sickness. No, it wasn’t unchanged, and the small details telling a whole different story were marked behind her eyelids.



“Alcmena. Why?” All the queen could muster was a trembling whisper. She wanted to slap herself for such a show of weakness, but what was left of her scheming skills was buried under the terror of a grieving mother.


She forced her breath to a steady rhythm until she felt her voice wouldn’t tremble that much. She stood upright and stared at Alcmena. There were bruises on her face, and her left eye was swelling already.


Cibele searched for a hint of fear on the woman’s features, of the same terrified respect her guards and counsellors were showing.


She found none, and Alcmena chuckled through her broken teeth.


Her mind is broken, too. Of course, she must be terrified, shocked. She’ll beg for my forgiveness as soon as she comes back to herself.


Before the words were fully formed in her brain, Cibele knew she was wrong. And by the Spirits, she hated being wrong.


Alcmena’s black gaze was bright behind the tears, her smile crooked but sharp.


“Eight years. It took her eight years. Gaiane is stronger and smarter than all of us. Than you. She did it, and I’m so proud of her.”


The world warped.


Cibele didn’t even recoil with rage when Diocle took her arm to steady her. All she could see was Alcmena and the scale of the plan she’d carried out behind her back. Conspiring with her innocent, loyal daughter. To take her away.


“You knew. You knew it all along.” All the authority was gone from her voice, and she was a queen no more. Just a woman past her youth and the peak of her power. Bereft of her dearest treasure.


Alcmena sat on her haunches and threw her head back with muffled laughter. Her twig-like arms, abandoned in her lap, trembled with every jolt of her shoulders. The thin silver circles at her wrists jingled.


“I’ve seen her struggle to solve the riddle. Each time you let her free to exercise, she studied your movements. She practiced. And eventually she undid it.”


“Undid it?”


One of the guards swallowed loudly and took a step to the side. Behind him, a tangle of metal plates sparkled in the summer sun. A collar, tailored to adapt to a growing girl’s neck. The remains of the spell that bound it, blocking its wearer’s powers, was fading in the warm air.


“She’s free, Cibele. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” Alcmena’s voice dropped to a growl. Cibele didn’t even react to the outrage of the missing proper title.


The collar was in pieces. Gaiane couldn’t have opened it, it made no sense—it was designed to react to the queen’s touch alone, and not to that of a girl, no matter if the power she wielded was infinite and unlimited, designed never to run dry. She walked to the shattered collar as if in a dream and knelt to collect it. It was heavy in her palms. Unresponsive.


“No, it can’t be,” she mumbled, shaking her head. Her hair was sticking to the nape of her neck, damp with sweat. A swarm of hypothesis crowded her head, but it was easy to ignore them when her fury rose and filled her to the brim.


“Leave. All of you,” she heard Diocle say from a great distance.


The last of her self-control broke when the door closed and banned the voices of the Council, the nervous shifting of the guards. She closed her fist around the broken collar, its edges sinking into her skin, and turned to stare at Alcmena.


The wretched hag was still chuckling.


“It was your doing,” she hissed. The room was darker, dimmed by the enormity of her anger. “You! You did all of this!”


“No. Gaiane is infinitely more powerful than you could ever imagine, she…”


Cibele threw the collar away. It smashed against the library, and she grabbed the old woman by the pale lapels of her grey tunic.


“How did you do that? You filthy traitor, you liar!”


She was screaming, her voice an undignified shriek, too high pitched for her role. She twisted the silk of Alcmena’s tunic in her fingers, closing it around the woman’s throat until a red ring appeared on her skin. Until that despicable grin turned into a choked spasm.


“Your highness, please…”


Diocle's words bounced against her ears. It was easy to ignore them. She half lifted Alcmena from the floor and pushed her closer.


“I’ll see you hanged and quartered! I trusted you! And for all these years you…”


“Cibele! Stop it!”


Diocle grabbed her and pulled her back. His hands hurt, too harsh on her arms, a touch she wanted to erase from her skin. But he was stronger, and she was beyond the point of using her magic to throw him against the wall.


There was no deference in the way he shook her and forced her to let go of Alcmena. As the old woman crumpled on the carpet in a coughing pile, Cibele found herself in the tight circle of Diocle's arms. She buried her face in his chest and let out a long, throat-wrenching cry. He held her until her ragged panting calmed down, and then some more.


She was still shaking when she pulled free from his grasp. The black pigment on her forehead had left a clear circle on the silk of his uniform, and his arms were still on her shoulders.


“Let me go and don’t touch me,” she deadpanned. To her relief, he complied.


She couldn’t stand to look at Alcmena, so she took some time to adjust the crown on her brow and smooth her hair.


Not quite herself yet, but enough to stand up and summon her coldest tones, she eventually turned around once more to stare at the traitor. She clenched her hands in front of her, under the long sleeves of her gown.


“Alcmena, you were Princess Gaiane’s tutor, in charge not only of her education but of her safety, too.” Better. Almost good. “I hereby accuse you of high treason. For your insubordination, I hand you over to lord Diocle.” The man shuffled behind her, and Cibele continued. “He will interrogate you in the ways he’ll see fit, and I expect you’ll give a full confession about my daughter’s fate and whereabouts. After that, you’ll be allowed to die.”



Silence filled the room. Alcmena wasn’t laughing anymore, but wasn’t shaking with the expected amount of dread either.


Cibele pressed her lips together and turned to Diocle, finding he was looking at her with intention.


Are you sure? He seemed to ask, but the queen was more than sure.


“Don’t come back to me without answers,” or else you’ll be the next to walk to the gallows. She gestured him to the door with her chin, and with a sigh Diocle bowed.


“As you command, my lady.”


It was done. Cibele looked out of the window, to the blue sliver of sky above her kingdom – Zafiria and Epidalio, all united under her rule. Her doing, her choice. The result of Gaiane’s power and a long strategy.


Soon she was alone. Diocle was gone, and Alcmena’s ragged breaths with him.


She could cry, now. She knew she needed to, but a deadly exhaustion was weighing down her limbs.


It was wrong. The broken collar, the blood, the empty bird cage, the silence. She’d built her throne on the certainty that Gaiane was obedient and safely locked in the most impregnable tower ever conceived.


And now Gaiane was nowhere to be found. In a jolt of tragic hope, she peeked down the window, but she saw no bodies on the grass below.


Of course, Gaiane was not that foolish. She would never jump out of the window, falling to her death. She was out there. Somewhere, alive. They needed to find her.

***

Hours later, Cibele was sitting in her room. A luxurious place, as one would’ve expected for a queen, with portraits of the Asares family glaring at her from their frames and a profusion of silks and cushions and jewels in every corner. Mirrors covered the walls, making the room seem bigger than it actually was.


She’d never hated them so much. It was nearly impossible to miss her own reflection and the farce it represented.


The pink light of the sunset danced on the crystal chandelier and the silver decorations embracing the tall, elegant windows. Everything glimmered, from the precious embroidery in the soft carpets to the countless butterflies on the wallpaper.


Cibele sat in a brocade chair, wrapped in a pale shawl and cradling her hands in her lap.


Empty. Her palace, despite the distant echo of people talking, of armors clattering, felt empty.


Her heart, now that her daughter was gone, and the safety of her rule with her, twice as much.


The door opened with a creak, snagging her from her bleary reverie. She turned sharply to the noise, and outrage filled the void in her chest.


“I didn’t send for…”


Diocle, of course. Who else would’ve dared to enter their queen’s quarters unannounced, without so much as a knock?


She snarled and bore his stare. She was wearing no makeup, the ring on her brow was pale and interrupted after years of consuming her power; very few people had seen her like that. No crown either as it was abandoned on her dressing table.


Diocle walked to her and pushed a padded footstool in front of her. He sat down, his chin on his fists, and tilted his head to the side.


In the stretching shadows, she remembered why she’d chosen him. An accurate selection of different candidates, picked for the abundance of their power, had ended in an exhausting stream of miscarriages, failures and discreet exiles. Only Diocle, that snarky bastard with more magic than decency, had lived up to her expectations.


Two years after he’d signed his contract, Cibele had Gaiane in her arms. A beautiful, perfect baby with her eyes and freckles, her father’s dimples, and an unlimited magic potential. Her power would never wear out like that of any other mage. She had been designed as a weapon, but when Cibele held her for the first time, Gaiane became simply her child.


“So?” she asked, emerging from her past.


Diocle cocked an eyebrow. In his forties, he was handsome enough to raise some whispers. ‘The queen is lucky to have him at her side and in her bed,’ the court said. Cibele couldn’t quite confirm, because she avoided his attentions with strict care, with some rare exceptions when she was bored. She couldn’t stand him, but he was a necessary evil.


“So what?”


“After almost twenty years one would expect you learned some manners, Diocle. Like how to properly introduce yourself to your queen’s presence.”


“I have more pressing matters to attend, my dear. And don’t look at me like that, you know that I’m not here to enjoy your company.”


On this at least we agree.


She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.


“How did your interrogation go?” She looked at his hands and quickly averted her gaze. There was still blood under his fingernails.


“Smooth as silk. You don’t keep me around just for my good looks, do you?”


“If you trying to make me slap you, then you’re doing an excellent job.”


Diocle sighed and smiled.


“If only… but you know I’m good at making people talk, and Alcmena is no exception. But let’s start with addressing the real problem, here.”


“Oh, you mean the fact that our daughter, who could burn a castle to the ground with a bat of her lashes, is missing?”


“That, too. It’s the second princess we lost in the past eight years, it’s not a good record.”


Cibele frowned, and then it struck her.


“Ligeia Laskaris? Sweet Mother of the Crops, she’s dead. It’s quite common when your whole castle collapses on your head, you know?”


Diocle shrugged.


“If you say so. I’m pretty fond of corpses—they tend to stay dead and prove they’re gone for good. Anyway, if you…”


“Diocle, if you came here to waste my time then I fear you caught me in a very bad spot. Tell me what information you got from Alcmena and leave me!”


With a smirk that made his dimples even deeper, Diocle ran his fingers through his greying hair.


“As you wish, then. Apparently, Gaiane had been planning this whole mess for years. Since the Spring Slaughter, if…”


“Don’t call it that. I won’t tolerate to hear the most significant moment of the Asares’ history turned into a peasant saying.”


“Still, that’s how the people of Epidalio call it. And with good reason—no, fine, I won’t insist. Eight years in the making, then, and it was all Gaiane’s thinking.”


Cibele jumped to her feet.


“What? She could never do it on her own!”


“Except she could. Apparently, and I’m inclined to believe Alcmena wouldn’t lie when her own wits were at stake. Gaiane’s been studying your gestures every time you took the collar from her. She learned the steps and replicated them.”


“Impossible. Only I could…”


“She has your blood, Cibele. Your soul. And she’s a woman now, so her power is ripe and too much to be contained by a trinket.”


Her knees gave way, and Cibele sat back in the chair, bouncing on the pillow.


“No, there’s more. It can’t be that easy, I…”


“It is. Gaiane has grown too powerful for your--our cage, and… well, if I’m to be entirely honest, I think Alcmena saw through her better than we could.” He got up and started to pace around the room. “Gaiane was shocked after the Spring Slaughter. She had nightmares, woke up crying and said that she never meant to kill anyone. Alcmena was the one to dry her tears and listen to her confessions.”


“Preposterous! Gaiane knew she was meant for greatness, I made sure her education took care of it!”


Diocle picked up Cibele's crown and rolled it around his fingers.


“That you did. Still, she was a child when you unleashed her upon Epidalio, but old enough to remember.” He dropped the crown with a jingling sound. “She’s wanted to escape since then.”


Cibele took her head in her hands.


“There must be more. That damned old woman must have told you something else, it can’t be!”


“Oh, she did. Alcmena loves Gaiane, and…”


The queen jerked her head up, shooting Diocle a fiery stare.


I love my daughter! Nobody loves her as much as I do! I wanted her; I sacrificed my own happiness to have her, to keep her safe, to make her the greatest…”


“...weapon that ever existed. Don’t lie to yourself, darling: Alcmena loved her like a mother. You cherished Gaiane like an insurance on your lands.” He popped open a perfume bottle and sniffed its content, then put the crystal cork back in place. “I could say the same for me, I’m not accusing you.”


Tears swelled in her throat, and she breathed hard through her nose to fight them back.


“But Gaiane loved us—loved me, and…”


“Sure, sure. Anyway, Alcmena found out about Gaiane’s will to escape early on, but never mentioned it because she didn’t want her to be punished. She watched as Gaiane learned her way around breaking the spell. She is very proud of our girl.”


The turn of phrase sent a shiver down Cibele's spine. Slowly, grabbing the armrests so hard her knuckles protruded white under her skin, she rose and stared at Diocle.


The embers of her rage were still burning, and it took very little to ignite them again.


“What did you say? She is very proud? I thought you…”


“Oh, that. Right. I ignored your order and spared her. She’s in the dungeons right now.”


“I told you I wanted her dead!”


“I’m well aware, dear. But we need that woman alive, for now. Soon we’ll find Gaiane, I swear to you, and we could use a lever to eradicate any further fantasy of freedom.”


“What if Alcmena manages to escape?” She knew the objection was pointless the moment she made it. Diocle narrowed his eyes and gave her the coldest of smiles.


“She won’t, I made sure of it. You can trust me on this.”


Pictures of broken bones and dripping blood flashed in Cibele's mind. She allowed herself to look at him in earnest, and not with her usual contempt. The mark on his forehead was darker than hers, and around him she could still sense the remaining tingle of magic.


Diocle's fingers brushed her cheek, and she wasn’t quick enough to pull away.


“We’ll bring her back, I promise,” he whispered. “If word of her disappearance should spread to the country, our peace would shatter…”


“Peace, you say? No. If we want to find her, we need to prepare for war.”


It was tempting to lean into his hand and let him comfort her. Just once, when nobody was looking.


But Diocle dropped his hand, and his voice returned to the good old practical tone.


“Keeping the secret is pointless. Let’s work with fear instead. We need to send patrols through all of Zafiria and Epidalio. Up to the borders of Saistos and the glaciers of the north. And we won’t stop until we have the answers we need.”


“Whatever it takes,” she said to herself. Diocle heard her, though, and he nodded.


“Whatever it takes.”


She didn’t seize her throne by kindness or diplomacy. It was time to be ruthless again. Not for power: for love.

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