Afternoon all and very many aplogies that I am late with this; however, I was sorting out some plot kinks and I'd rather it be late than rubbish.
Huge thanks to the utter angels who reviewed last time round. Thank you SarahE7191, Bex Drake (Thanks for catching the typo; it's corrected now. I think I will have a lot of fun - and a bit of a challenge - in getting Pip / Roald's relationship right. I already have several scenes of it written. Thanks!), GinaStar, DramoSkye, The Shang Kudarung, Suzizzle, Cap'n Stella, Lady Mage, kaypgirl, Shang Leopard, Queen of Slayers, dares to dream, Dreamwings, crouchingbunny, Eruanna Eire, Falshing Light, Lady Sapphirea, Wishiwasaneagle and last but in no way least, black parade 3 (Thank you - and updated, as requested!)
I adore hearing what you think; criticism is very much welcome and improves the story massively! Next update by 22/05/08.
I hope you enjoy reading.
A Lady's Shield Part Fourteen
In the dark, so much can be concealed. Shadows are swallowed, what little light remains clutched like a lifebelt.
Justinian knew all the tricks of darkness. He knew that in its deepest folds, worlds met and meshed. Shadows bled into shadows, and a man who knew the secrets of the black places, the deep places, could walk from one world to another on the edge of light if he had the daring and the knowledge.
It pleased him, to find some use for the filthy magic he so despised. If he could not use it himself, he knew how to trap and tame it, to render it harmless. He twisted it into a weapon, a shield, a key.
Under the flames, magic was conquered. Without their tongue a mage could utter no spells; without hands, make no gestures. They were merely vast reservoirs of power; weak, quivering things that had value beyond gold, rubies, diamonds.
After all, what higher price than life itself?
And so he held them out, his offerings, laid them in the shadows where one world eased into another, and waited for something to answer his call.
From worlds unknown, they came, guests at a banquet of the highest and rarest order. In the shadows they were only pieces; monstrous twisting horns, a long clawed hand, a bleeding smile full of teeth and grime. They spoke guttural languages of hunger and need, human words clumsy in their throats, voices like mountains crumbling and fires devouring all. Others would have feared. Justinian opened his arms to them, and let them into the world.
He fed them on maimed and helpless mages, fed them with power until they were glutted, lazy, his.
And in return, they offered the one thing he craved above all...
The room was small and warding spells crossed it like iron bars. Yet despite its compact size, swathes of space surrounded the man leaning against a wall. At the other end, a crowd of people faced him.
At the centre of that crowd sat King Jonathan on a heavy chair that had been brought in. The Queen stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders. Both faces were grim, regal, and striking.
If the menace in the air bothered Davir sin Porphyros, he didn't show it.
"I hope you have a very good explanation as to why you let loose that creature," the king said in a soft voice that Numair had long ago learned to recognise as Jonathan at his most dangerous. People tended to forget that this was a man who had fought tooth and nail for his throne and his country, that he was as ruthless as he was determined.
"I have an explanation, sire," the Carthaki answered. "Whether it will suffice is another matter."
"Spare me your flippancy," Jonathan said sharply. "In case you've forgotten, you are responsible for my daughter's injuries – injuries you are supposed to protect her from!"
"She was in disguise," Davir snapped. "In case you've forgotten, there were half a dozen girls flitting around in that disgusting attire. If Tortall's king cannot control his own child, I fail to see why I am expected to succeed – or why I shouldn't tell my Emperor that he's getting damaged goods!"
The collective intake of breath made the silence after more uncomfortable. Numair was very glad that Jonathan had forbidden all but his most trusted advisors to enter the room. Even so…
"Watch your words, Kyrios Davir," Jonathan said in a voice sheathed by ice. "You are a guest in my country, nothing more."
Perhaps the Carthaki realised he had gone too far. He straightened, and something close to respect flickered over his proud face. He swept a low, humble bow, and there was no mockery at all in his face as he said, "And I have abused your hospitality. I can only offer you my deepest apologies, and hope that my explanation will be sufficient to keep you from throwing me into a dungeon."
Jonathan gave a small nod, but his stance was rigid as a judge. "Go on."
"In Carthak, we set much store in prophecy. It has always been so. Ozorne claimed the throne on the back of one such foretelling; and the mere rumour of another telling of his downfall was enough to make life in the court very…interesting. The Sight has always been a strong skill among our people, and we have used it to our advantage."
Davir's mouth twisted into a humourless smile.
"And," he continued softly, "those of us who cannot afford soothsayers have had it used against us too. There was a time when you could be convicted for a crime you were going to commit. Treason-to-be was one of Ozorne's whims, and strangely enough, the accused were almost always those who dared criticise him."
"I have heard these tales," Jonathan said guardedly. "We could never find any truth in them."
He gave a languid shrug. "Why would you? Speaking up against it was often construed as treason-to-be as well. But I digress. My point is that prophecy is a way of life for us in Carthak. Emperor Kaddar is no different, except that he would rather hear truth than pleasant lies. Some months ago, our seers began to get – disturbing flashes of the future. War. Brutality. Dark magic. Death."
"It's my understanding that prophecy is not an exact art," the queen murmured. She arched a thin black eyebrow. "There are many futures, as many as there are stars."
"Yes and no," Davir answered. "There are many futures, but some are more likely than others. And if one becomes more likely – if it becomes close to certain – then it dominates all visions. So it was with this one. War is on its way. That much is certain. The outcome is not."
"What does this have to do with you freeing a monster?" the king said. "Hardly an olive branch."
Davir grimaced. "I had no idea that would happen. I was instructed to take a nail from the Chamber."
"You need to win this war," Davir said bluntly. "If Tortall loses, this land will be a nightmare place, burned, peopled with slaves and monsters. And it will spread to Carthak, to Tusaine and Maren and Scanra until the whole world is black and dead and we are nothing but animals howling for mercy."
Numair could not hide how shaken he felt. There was absolute conviction in the Carthaki's words.
"Our seers have been working night and day to discover some escape. Something is trying to stop them. Four have died. Another went mad and tried to claw off her own face. But before the madness took her, she sent me here, and told me that I needed a nail from the Chamber. It would hold the key to winning the war if I could find a seer strong enough to use it. I…I did as she said."
"I see," Jonathan said. No forgiveness softened his words.
Davir's confidence waned; his face was vulnerable, fearful suddenly, and Numair felt a shaft of pity for this young man who had travelled so far clutching so little hope. "If I had known what would happen, I would have been more careful. I came as an ally."
"And you are extremely lucky that I believe you," replied Jonathan. His knuckles were white on the arms of the chair. "So you took a nail. And did you find your answer?"
"I found…an answer," Davir said hesitantly.
Jonathan motioned. "Go on."
He licked his lips. His voice was soft, rhythmic, as if he had memorised every cadence of the seer's words. "She must rise from the ashes, rise and burn again, or all is lost. Wake the phoenix-"
A cry cut him off; Numair was knocked aside as Iceblood shouldered past him, his face aghast, desperate.
"Wake her?" he snarled, and those who didn't know his identity stared at this wild-eyed, gaunt man in astonishment. "Wake her? Do you think she's sleeping in some fairytale tower? She is dead, you stupid boy, she is dead and gone and untouchable as the gods-damned stars!"
"If you cannot be calm, be courteous," Jonathan snapped, half-rising from his chair, and the mage spun to stare at him, king who was and king who might have been, the two locked in a silent struggle for authority.
"It is lies," Iceblood said in a voice that shook with anger. But Numair saw the redness of his eyes, the shine there. He pitied the mage then, remembering too clearly those times when he had thought Daine lost. That terror was still too raw. "Nothing but lies."
"Then you should have no trouble hearing them," Jonathan said curtly.
Iceblood's face froze; it was a death mask, caught on the cusp of a grief so deep Numair could barely begin to comprehend it, on the great divide between control and savagery. Slowly, he turned back to stare at Davir.
"Carry on, Kyrios," Jonathan said.
"She...she must rise from the ashes, rise and burn again, or all is lost. Wake the phoenix, call her back down the fiery path and make the old bargain, or we are all lost."
Davir's words seemed to hang on the air like mist, bringing with them chill and portent.
"She is dead," Iceblood said fiercely.
Numair didn't want to have all that rage focused on him, but he had no choice. "Are you sure?"
Those orange eyes might have belonged to an animal if not for the intelligence in them. "I held her body in my arms for days. And when I could bring myself to believe she was gone, I burned her under the moon and hoped she would return." He gave a rough laugh. "I too hoped she would rise from the ashes and burn again. She did not."
"I assume we are talking about the Shang Phoenix," Jonathan said coolly.
Iceblood's glare was response enough.
"Are we sure it is her we must wake?"
Numair, who had been privy to Raoul's arrival and the news he brought, grimaced. "It is unlikely to be anyone else. Skirmishers come and speak of Justinian. The hound that killed the Phoenix is free. Iceblood walks among us." He ignored the gasps that elicited. "Who else could it be?"
Jonathan gave a small nod. "Then it seems she can wake, and we must discover how."
Iceblood was pale, disbelieving. "It can't be..." he whispered. "I held her..."
And then you burned the world for love of her, for lack of her, Numair thought. You destroyed half a world for nothing if she is truly able to return.
What fools we are for love. What ignorant and reckless fools.
And now we must be foolish once more, and draw her back from the dead to save us if we can. If she can. Or all is lost, and I see in his face just what that would mean, I see destruction before me, and a heart as broken as the world he abandoned.
Kalasin didn't look at the woman healing her. The golden dress was in shreds around her legs, her modesty saved by the scratchy cloak someone had thrown over her. Her face ached horribly, but then so did her entire body. Every beat of her heart was like fingers pushing at her wounds.
The only saving grace was that her parents and Roald were in some kind of meeting with and their advisors her ghastly bodyguard. She had the feeling there would be a whole spate of lectures to come.
And she was trying very, very hard not to think about what had happened. Not to feel again the scrape of its teeth. Every time she inhaled, she thought she caught a waft of its stench, meaty, rotting, animal.
"You'll be fine, princess," the woman said shortly. She dusted off her hands. "The ache will fade by morning."
"Thank you," Kalasin muttered.
She felt stupid and exposed. The guards had kept away most of the curious, but she knew at least a couple of people had glimpsed her. And she had seen the disapproval in the eyes of some of the guards, men who had watched her grown up, sworn their lives to her family, and so to her.
It was with ducked head and silent escort that she limped back to her rooms, carefully avoiding the bustling corridors of the ball.
She nearly groaned at the too-familiar sound of Ryan Talver. Only her swollen cheek stopped her.
"What happened to you?" demanded the street rat, gawping.
She stared at him, too glum even to put on a front of arrogance. "A monster happened," she mumbled.
Keladry of Mindelan was with him. That was almost more galling than anything else; a too-sharp reminder of what Kalasin had wanted to be – that girl there, looking so natural in her livery, with hands toughened by weapons, with muscles and an air of quiet competency.
And here she was, a failure.
"A monster, in the palace?" Keladry said, hazel eyes alarmed. "There was some kind of commotion-"
She swallowed a lump in her throat. Her pride, no doubt. "That was it. That was me."
"Are ye all right?" Ryan said with unexpected gentleness. "Your face…"
"Just bruises. The healer did a good job."
"What could get into the palace?"
"I don't know. I didn't really see it." She felt tired beyond belief. She wanted to lock herself in her room and pretend it hadn't happened. "It looked so human. And then it...it bit me."
"An' did it tear off all your clothes at the same time?" Ryan asked.
She felt a flush rise. "No."
He actually looked embarrassed. "Oh. Sorry. We should...uh, we should leave ye to recover."
Leave me to the gossip, she thought wearily. Leave me to whatever someone else decides is appropriate. Same as always.
Andrea didn't know where she was going. She walked aimlessly through the palace, swerving away from the bright lights and babble of the ball, from the couple-infested niches of the gardens. Even the library wasn't right; all that knowledge, all those fine books and the intricate wood panelling reminded her how out of place she felt.
She was used to loneliness. After the flux killed her parents, there had been no one to rely on but herself. And she was used to fear too, because loneliness and fear were twins of a sort, like two sides of a blade.
And she was used to being small, insignificant, a piece of the background.
The problem was that she was neither anymore. Everyone seemed to know who she was. Nobles stopped to talk to her. Great mages asked her to heal and watched her with academic curiosity; and no matter how kind and patient Master Salmalin was, he was still Numair Salmalin, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.
It was as if she had been invisible before, as if only her gift elevated her into their world.
And while all that was flattering, she was also frightened. They said her Gift was extraordinarily strong; that she had the potential to be a healer of the highest order, but she had seen the alarm in their eyes when they spoke of her connection to Ryan. Combined, their magic was immense, unpredictable – and, she had once heard Numair murmur softly to Harailt Ali, uncontrollable.
She remembered how it felt to have all that power streaming through her, wild and ferocious, how it felt as if she could reach out and remould the world as she wanted.
And Andrea was very afraid that one day, she just might.
Ryan never seemed to be bothered. He wielded magic casually, clumsily, laughing off accidents and successes alike. If he ever feared his Gift, it didn't show. Insouciant, glib, he offered gods and men equal cheek and equal respect.
But Andrea wondered what a god could want with her, why she had been given magic in such vast and intoxicating quantities. She wondered if she was just an unknowing pawn in a greater game.
And she feared that she was. One day the elation she felt each time she used her Gift would tip over into insanity until she was little more than a rabid beast; and she would find that her purpose was to be destroyed, to be a lesson in the limits of man's power.
The gods are cruel. She had learned it early.
That was why she walked aimlessly, trying to find a path away from her destiny, her magic and ultimately herself.
So it was she came to the training grounds and an extraordinary sight.
The woman moved slowly and gracefully, her hands sweeping through the air. In the moonlight, her skin was bronze and gleaming, her hair a silver blade that curved around her as she spun, dipped, stretched. Her eyes were closed; her lips moving as if in prayer or recitation.
She looked soft, ethereal and not quite real.
Andrea only stood watching her, entranced; then the woman's eyes opened, and brief outrage crossed her face before she drew herself up, cold.
"Didn't you see enough earlier?" she said coolly.
Andrea stared back blankly. "What?"
The woman took her in with a single scornful glance. "Just like all the thrill-seekers. You want to see a Shang."
The woman's eyes seemed two black pools, unreadable. "Or perhaps you don't."
"I came for a walk," Andrea offered, aware that it sounded a little, well, stupid. "I wanted some air. I didn't mean to stare. You just looked so…"
"So?" the woman said, the word like a knife.
"Beautiful," Andrea said timidly.
She could have sworn surprise flashed over the woman's face, but then it was still as stone again. "It's nothing to do with beauty. What use is that?"
Andrea didn't dare to comment on the woman's severe face, which had a feral, bladed kind of beauty to it.
"The war dances of Carthak train the mind and the body. You must learn to control your thoughts so that every move is perfect," the woman said. "You must be empty, so that nothing can surprise or distract you."
It sounded...peaceful. Like everything that her life here was not. She was a little afraid of the woman, but she swallowed it back and said, "Could you teach me?"
Dark mouth pursed, she gave Andrea a sceptical look. Silence lingered until it was uncomfortable, another weapon in the woman's arsenal.
Andrea stayed still, hands clasped, trying not to squirm under the intense scrutiny.
The woman gave a sudden, fierce smile. "I suppose I could teach if you abandon these silly ideas of beauty. I need something to do while I heal."
Only when she held up her arm did Andrea see the white bandages on it.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Excitement," the woman said curtly. She arched her brows. "So, little protégé, do you want to tell me your name? Or shall we just skip straight to the fun?"
"Yvenia. The Shang Stormwing." Her eyes glittered. "Still sure you want to learn?"
"Why wouldn't I?" she said, confused.
Yvenia only laughed, a heartless sound that clattered on the air. "Because they named me well." She strode over; her fingers pinched Andrea's chin in a painful grip. "I was made to show man the horrors of death," she said softly. "That is what I will teach you. That is all you will find in the stillness. You won't thank me. But you might live a little longer because of me."
Shaken, Andrea only stared back. She didn't understand; she didn't want to. But she was very afraid that the Stormwing would make her.
There in the gloom, she began to learn the Carthaki war dances. The Stormwing was an exacting teacher; she showed a move once and expected a perfect repetition. Faults were rewarded with sharp slaps and sharper words. Andrea was positioned, stretched, insulted as she sought to find stillness in the languid, precise moves of the dance, as she swayed and arched.
She was gold and silver under the moon, and beside her the Stormwing seemed a shadow, the two opposite, youth and experience, hope and despair, beauty and brutality.
She knew nothing of monsters or war. Nor could she know what a prize she would be, how brightly she would shine in a dark world. She did not see how the moon-cut shadows drifted towards her, reaching, stretching like fingers as the king of shadows reached out from his throne, hungry as ever...
But she was not the only prize.
Kalasin shut the door on her servants and locked it firmly with key and spells. She ignored their calls, ignored the trouble she would inevitably be in when they fetched a mage to unlock it tomorrow. Doubtless they were gossiping about her already.
The shreds of the dress went into the fire; she tore a comb through her hair, grimacing at the knots. Her cheek throbbed, and she felt exhausted.
She pulled on the kind of worn, comfortable clothes that would have startled those who knew glamorous Princess Kalasin, fluttering, vapid, selfish. She wanted to lie down and sleep for a hundred years, like the girl in the fairytale who had surely left all her problems behind in a century of slumber.
Weary, she went to snuff out the candles. She reached for the first-
It went out. She was left staring at a wisp of smoke, fingers still waiting to pinch it out.
She glanced behind her. The window was shut. Maybe the draught had come from the fireplace.
Bemused, she went to the next one.
It went out again. Kalasin stared – then heard a great gasp, like a giant's breath, and whirled around to see the fire reduced to ash and smoke.
Only five candles remained, fragile warmth against the sudden chill that swept her.
One by one, they went out until the last shone like a tiny sword. All else was stark shadow, and she found herself hurrying into the ring of orange light as if it could protect her. Frightened now, she drew a quick warding over the candle, so that nothing could extinguish it.
"Who's there?" she whispered.
His voice was smooth and low. "A friend."
She peered into the shadows. "I don't know you."
"Ah, but I know you. Lonely little Kalasin, wanting to be more than a pretty face and not allowed." Sympathy was warm, gentle on his words. "It's a beautiful cage they keep you in, made of gold and promises, but you and I know it's a cage all the same."
"Who are you?"
"A man who found a better world," he said, and suddenly she saw a shape form from the gloom. He moved forward until he was just beyond the light, cast in gold, all soft edges. "A man who would set you free."
His hair was blond, messy, curling at the nape of his neck. His eyes threw back the candlelight so she could not see their colour, and his mouth was curved in a sleepy smile. He seemed an angel, gleaming in the shadows, so pale he might never have seen sunlight. And he was holding something behind his back. Kalasin tensed. A knife. A sword. He could be an assassin.
"My name is Justinian," he said. It sounded vaguely familiar. A minor lord, perhaps, but not one she had ever seen at court. "And I came to bring you an answer."
"An answer?" she said, baffled.
"To your riddle," he said softly.
For a moment, she couldn't think what he meant. Then it dawned on her. The riddle she and Roald had set – that was what this was about. He was another of her admirers, if one with more gumption than most. Getting into her rooms was a bold move. An idiotic move – she would hear him out, then she would throw him out and no matter how good-looking he was, he would learn not to disturb her.
"Go on then," she said wearily.
"Wingless I fly and mindless I seek
I sometimes am true but never can lie
I once had a heart though it never beat
And where I am legion, men often die."
He paused. And then he drew out his hand, and in it was an arrow.
"As true as I am," he said solemnly.
He was right. She stared at him, astonished. The riddle was five hundred years old; it had been set by some old king who'd taunted prisoners with it but none of them had been able to answer it. Mostly, of course, because he'd had them shot with the answer for every wrong guess.
"You're well-read," she conceded.
"And right," he said.
"Then you owe me a kiss, Princess Kalasin," he said, his voice teasing.
Her fear subsided. An admirer, she could handle. And a kiss – well, she'd given away a dozen for nothing, what was one more?
"Come and get it," she said coyly.
His smile flashed, brilliant. "Come and give it."
She wanted him to go away so she could sleep. Kalasin stepped towards him – and he moved back, further into the shadows. She crossed the threshold of the candlelight, not noticing that she was walking into darkness.
There he caught her, held her, and his hands were so hot she nearly gasped at his touch. When he kissed her, it was all teeth and heat and ferocity. She reeled back, breathless, startled.
"Do you know how I knew the answer?" he whispered, pressed to her.
"You read the right book."
"Wrong," he said, and ran a finger over her cheek.
Suddenly a breeze blasted across her back, she smelt hot metal and something spicy exotic. They were moving – she could hear the wind rushing by, but that was impossible surely!
"That was my riddle once, and I offered life itself in exchange for the right word. So I think that I want more than a kiss from you."
Fear was pumping through her blood again – she turned in his arms, and saw that her room was gone, that the candle was a faint flicker that seemed to be moving further and further away...
"Who are you?" she gasped.
His laughter was low, rolling and full of delight. "I am the king of shadows, and I have waited five hundred years to take back my kingdom."
His hands were hard on her arms, burning so she wrenched against his grip to no avail. He was immovable as iron.
"What do you want from me?"
"Your hand in marriage," he said. "You, my dear, are my claim to the throne."
"I won't marry you!"
In the distance, the last smudge of golden light blinked out. Heat hit her, and she heard sounds – hooting, screeching, terrible inhuman noises that seemed all around her. She gazed into the dark, eyes wide and fearful, realising that Justinian was all her protection in this world.
Lights flared – dim red torches that threw flickering streaks of light. She felt shock at what it revealed – malformed creatures, hideous things that changed shape from second to second. Their eyes fixed on her; one licked its lips with a forked tongue and made a throaty noise that turned her stomach.
They were stood within a circle of stones that stretched up as far as the eye could see. Lingering between them, the creatures waited. Beyond them, the landscape was charred and blistered, the ground parting only to spout flames and vapour. The sky boiled with vast purpled clouds; there was no sun, only the light thrown by the torches and the flames.
"Won't you?" Justinian said mildly. "Do you really think you have a choice?"
He caressed her neck, playing with her hair.
"You don't," he said gently. "You're mine, or you're theirs. So tell me, princess, you gave away your freedom with a kiss. Will you give away your life with a word? Will you marry me? Yes...or no?"
She stared at the things prowling around her, breathing alien air, all alone in a world of shadows except for him. The brave thing would be to die, to be noble and right. But the fear overruled everything, the sight of those teeth of what they might do to her before she died.
"Yes," she said, and hated herself.
"Good girl," he said, and dropped a burning kiss on the back of her neck. "My little queen."
In the shadows, Kalasin wept.
It was stretching into the early hours of the morning when they left the chamber and Numair was fighting to hold back the yawns creaking in his jaw. The discussion had gone in circles to little avail. Scholars were already hurrying to the archives to try and find any mention of Davir's fiery path or Justinian. Outriders had gone to warn of the impending invasion, taking with them Raoul's instructions for fighting the monsters of Justinian's army.
As for him, he would snatch a few hour sleep then meet with other mages to discuss how they might keep the hound from escaping. He felt battle-weary already even though it had barely begun.
Justinian. It seemed impossible he might have survived, but others had in similar circumstances. Ozorne, for one. Men of ambition sought immortality as flies clustered around a midden.
He nearly tripped over something and looked down, startled to see a leg.
"Sir!" Keladry of Mindelan snapped to attention from where she had been leaning against the wall. "We've been waiting for you."
The leg had belonged to Ryan, who raised his head of his knees to reveal bleary eyes. "Are they done?" he mumbled.
"For now," Numair said and gave his protégé a hand up, grimacing at the boy's lightness. Even weeks of palace food hadn't put enough weight on him, though that wasn't for lack of trying. "Is it urgent?"
"Well..." Ryan said.
"Yes," Keladry said firmly. "When the gods talk, you should listen, Ryan."
Ryan was definitely looking shifty. "The Goddess, aye. She...sort'a set me a task."
Just what they needed. Numair fervently hoped it wasn't likely to send his charge careening off on some sort of wild adventure. Now was not the time. "And that task is..."
"There's this hound," Ryan said mournfully. "It's asleep under the palace-"
Numair held up a finger. "It was asleep. No longer."
Ryan's mouth opened, closed, opened again with a panicky, "But it can't escape! I have to stop it..."
"It is stopped." At his astonished expression, Numair did have to smile. "You aren't the only mage in the palace, Ryan. And in many ways, you are among the least accomplished. We managed to subdue it for now."
"It will rise again," Numair said quietly, feeling his smile vanish. "I am told it devours magic as we might meat. Few spells can hold it for long. We may yet need you."
After all, if sheer force was the way to bind the creature, he could think of few mages stronger. Unfortunately, he could also think of few mages less experienced or more volatile. While the Goddess clearly thought Ryan ready, Numair was not so sure.
"Ye think I should stay near it?" Ryan asked.
"I think that would be wise. There are some spells you should learn too...in fact, we might as well make a start as soon as possible."
He considered it. Ryan's magic was geared to battle, but Andrea was a healer. Apart, she could be no use, and he would not risk combining their powers unless it came to the worst. "No. Unless you make a mess of it – which I won't allow you to – we won't need a healer. Dawn is not far off. Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be difficult."
The street-rat flashed him a cheeky grin. "So what else is new?"
He certainly had not lost his energy. Numair felt a little cheered as he watched Ryan go, the spring still in his step. All was not lost.
They had Iceblood, who knew Justinian through and through, who had warred with him for years. They had a prophecy bringing hope. And now, it seemed, even the gods were taking an interest.
A yawn escaped him. And completing the set, he had a warm bed and a certain lovely woman waiting for him. If the distant future was bleak, the next few hours at least held promise of some peace.
Pip went to bed with her thoughts buzzing round her head. The palace guard had shooed away everyone from the gardens and after news went around that Princess Kalasin had been attacked by some kind of monster, the ball dissolved into speculation and gossip. Fed up by it, she had given up.
She woke with the feeling that something had changed. And then she remembered and her stomach gave a little flip. Roald. The rose garden. Kisses.
She dressed with an air of unreality, as if she might step outside her room and find nothing had happened. Princes didn't yearn for girls like her; that was a spun-sugar fairytale for someone else.
She went down to breakfast early, as she always did, so she could eat with her friends. All of them looked distinctly worse for wear. Neal was clearly nursing an extravagant hangover from his haggard face, and Merric's greenish pallor was a lovely complement to his freckles. Despite it, all of them were chattering away.
"Pip!" Neal waved her over with a frail gesture. "I assume you've heard."
"Beauty and the beast?" she said dryly.
"The very same," he acknowledged. "Everyone's wondering how it got into the palace. And no one's seen the princess today."
"That's because she's embarrassed," a new voice said tartly, and Roald sat down opposite her. He looked as tired as the rest of them. "Kally behaved like an idiot."
"It probably wasn't the cleverest thing she's ever done," conceded Seaver, looking a little dreamy at the memory, "but it was...beautiful."
"Exquisite," Faleron agreed around a mouthful of fruit. "And no one knew."
"No one except the big clawed monster," Roald pointed out. His eyes grazed hers then, and that glance was so impersonal that Pip was suddenly convinced it had all been a mad dream. "Which was a large part of the problem. Father is furious. He was all for packing her off to Carthak tomorrow, except he's afraid of what she might do over there."
"I think if she repeated that stunt, my Emperor might enjoy it."
They all looked up to see Davir holding a tray, expression hesitant. He gave Pip a wary smile. "Lady ha Minch. Thank you for your company last night. I was wondering if you might be glad of mine this morning."
Since when was he so courteous? He must have been royally rollicked last night to be this subdued.
"Always," she said and elbowed Neal until he squeezed up to leave space. All the boys were looking cautious, as if they thought Davir might start arm-wrestling at the table. "As long as your scary lady friend doesn't join us."
He raised an eyebrow, looking more himself. "I assume you mean Eve."
"Wasn't that the Shang Stormwing?" Neal said. "I've heard some gruesome stories about her."
"Probably all true." Davir grimaced. "Mercy is not one of her virtues."
"I thought the Shang...crusaded for justice," Merric said. "That's what the Horse always says. Isn't mercy part of that?"
"Mercy for who? The victim? Or the villain? Eve would tell you that criminals deserve only as much mercy as they gave others. And she would tell you that above their screams, and not feel a qualm."
Pip couldn't help but feel cold at such callousness. That wasn't what she had dreamed of, that wasn't what she wanted to be.
"And I owe you an apology," Davir added, staring straight at Roald, who looked startled.
"I came to protect your sister. I failed."
Roald cracked a rueful smile. "No one can protect Kally from herself. I don't blame you. And I doubt my father will...eventually. If you stop antagonising him."
A deep flush stained Davir's cheeks. "Tact isn't one of my virtues."
The tension broken, the rest of the meal passed in companionable chat. Davir was invariably interrogated by the boys, who all wanted to learn Carthaki knife-dancing, and who had copious amounts of curiosity about his country. She joined their conversation as if all was normal, as if nothing had passed between her and the prince.
She couldn't hep but wonder if he had changed his mind – if it had been the brief allure of a masquerade. On the way out, she went to drop her plates by the kitchen, and swore as someone nudged her and they went crashing to the floor.
Irritated, she bent to pick them up – and a hand caught her wrist.
She glanced up into familiar blue eyes, no longer impersonal. No, not impersonal at all, but heated and intimate.
"Meet me later," Roald said in a low voice. "I have something to show you."
"That's what they all say," she murmured back, and saw his answering grin as he helped her clear up the mess, no one any the wiser. "Where?"
"The library. The taxation room. No one ever goes there."
"I'll look for you in the big pile of dust," she said dryly, and he was gone. Her heart was beating strangely quick; she couldn't be one of those stupid girls who mooned over men. She didn't have time to be. This was just for fun, just for a little while.
It didn't mean a thing.
Her lesson didn't start well. It didn't continue well. And when she flew back into the wall with a resounding thump and her mask clattered to the floor, Pip concluded that it hadn't ended well either.
"What is wrong with you today?" demanded the Wildcat crisply. "Gods, girl, your punches are softer than Hakuin's heart!"
"I agree," the Horse said grimly. "About your punches, at any rate."
The Wildcat gave a little snort. She slapped a glove against her thigh, watching Pip with sudden shrewdness. "Something is distracting you. Whatever it is, you need to deal with it. You can't afford to be slow."
"Sorry," she said glumly. "I just can't clear my head."
"Oh? What's bothering you."
It's more about who's going to be bothering me in a very interesting way, she thought, but floundered for a lie that would pass muster. "It's...the ball last night. The monster. I couldn't fight something like that."
The pair exchanged glances. "There are some things you can't fight," Hakuin explained. "And part of being Shang is recognising that. We're the best, but we aren't invincible. Leave magic things to mages."
"And clear your head," the Wildcat added, but there was sympathy in her voice. "Let's try again."
The flurry of blows, kicks, twists and throws didn't go any better. As she landed onto her back with an almighty thud, Pip felt absolutely deflated.
"Well," the Wildcat said, appearing over her, hands on hips, "you obviously didn't manage to clear your head. I think we're done for today."
Her obvious disappointment was the worst thing. Pip felt that she'd let her down.
"Eda…" There was a thoughtful note in the Horse's voice. Pip knew from previous experience it meant trouble. "Perhaps Pip needs a little help. From someone who doesn't allow anything to distract her."
Dislike made Eda Bell's expression briefly savage. "Not the Stormwing. You know I can't stand that girl. She makes a mockery of everything we stand for."
"She's one of the best," Hakuin said quietly. "Yes, and the worst, I know. But nothing ever breaks her focus."
The Wildcat sighed. "Very well. But you can ask for her help."
Hakuin's mouth twitched. "You just hate the fact she calls you 'old lady'."
"It's more the fact she means it," the Wildcat said shortly. "Pip, learn focus from the Stormwing if she agrees to teach you. Don't learn anything else."
Despite herself, Pip couldn't help but be fascinated by the idea of training with that fierce, cold woman she had seen last night. "Not even knife-dancing?"
"Especially not knife-dancing. If you need to play with blades, get that Carthaki friend of yours to show you. If you make a mistake, he won't stab you and call it a sharp lesson."
"She did that?"
Both Shang were silent. Then Hakuin said, "That and worse. She doesn't know how to lose. And you may think that makes her strong or good, but it makes her cruel too."
"Now go on with you," the Wildcat added briskly. "And be better tomorrow. An old lady like me shouldn't be able to bounce you off the walls, but I will if you don't show me some mettle!"
She felt like saluting. Instead, she limped away.
Out in the halls, there was a hubbub. Guards were everywhere – rooms were being searched she realised, frowning mages were walking the corridors muttering spells.
She got back to her own room to find more armoured men in it, searching it as if there might be treasure hidden there. She joined the other girls in the hall, confused.
"What's going on?"
One of them leaned over, eyes wide and excited. "Haven't you heard? She's gone!"
"It's the Princess," another said. "She's missing. And there was a message left in her room – written all over the looking glass in ash. Isn't that creepy?"
"What did it say?" she asked, alarmed. Roald...did he know? What must he be thinking? Was it something to do with the monster last night?
The girl dropped her voice, face solemn. "She belongs to the shadows. And there's a name – Marcia heard it from a guard who heard it from a mage who heard the King himself utter it!" She took a deep breath. "Justinian."
And suddenly Pip knew where she had heard that name – she remembered the Wildcat saying there's no Justinian to steal the throne.
Wrong, she thought, her heart so full of fear it seemed a lump of ice.
She belongs to the shadows. And maybe we all will too.
Thank you for reading! I would love hearing what you thought.