Good. We do not have much time to bring this all about. I feel the Wrayth moving in that cursed Bond we share. They are planning something—probably with Derodak—and it will ill suit this world. You must be quick about this task.
The Fensena dipped his head—for once choosing the safer path of not arguing. I will travel swifter than thought, there and back.
Both geistlords stood still for a moment looking up at the stars, judging the turning of the world. The Rossin thought to himself that they were the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Nothing in the Otherside compared to the gleaming ice blue jewels in the night sky. However, in a constant battle for preeminence, he had never had much chance to look up.
The Fensena tilted back his head and let out a wild, screeching yelp. It was not as magnificent as his own roar, but the Rossin understood what it was: a mark on the world. It was a promise that he was going nowhere.
Hold on to the pelt. The coyote’s eyes gleamed in the moonlight. I will bring you news of the rest that is required.
It is my own pelt! Do you think I would lose it? The Rossin growled softly.
The coyote performed his little routine of making a bow, and then loped off into the underbrush. Alone, the Rossin hunkered down on the rock once more, the pelt still lying at his feet. For once the urge to take blood did not touch the geistlord, and he feared what that might mean. The Otherside was closer than it had ever been since the Break. He recalled the joy he’d felt that last time the two worlds intersected, but he’d been on a different side then.
He’d come to appreciate the joys of this realm, and he would not give them up. For now, he would watch the stars, and muse on what might lie ahead.
The morning sun woke Raed with a start. He was naked, lying on a rock, looking up as clouds skidded across the sky. He shuddered with the chill and, wrapping his arms around himself, sat up. Unfortunately, he had a lot of experience waking in such situations, and now, as in every other time, he felt terrible. The blinding pain behind his eyes and the deep aches in muscle and bone were a particularly favored gift of the Rossin. Reflexively he checked himself over, and was surprised and delighted that he was not covered in blood. It felt damn good to have a mouth that didn’t taste like iron and guilt.
As Raed stood up, however, his heart slammed into his throat; not two feet from him lay a bundle. The Young Pretender frowned and cautiously padded over to it.
“Curious,” he whispered, even as a deep shudder ran through him. This rock was definitely cold and exposed. He was used to waking up aching and miserable, but the Rossin had never left him a gift.
Carefully, he leaned down and examined it before opening it. It was a large piece of fur, wrapped in red string. After he had checked from all angles, he took a chance, unraveled the fur and spread it on the rock.
It was a thing of great beauty. The sunlight gleamed on the tips of the strange silver fur, and Raed leaned forward to run his hands through it. It had to do with the Rossin, of that he was sure. Despite that, the Young Pretender scooped it up and wrapped it around his shoulders. Instantly warmth enveloped him. He wanted to throw it away because he was sure that there was more to this gift than it appeared. Yet, it was protecting him. The Young Pretender was caught in the middle. The pelt was seducing him, a deep part of his being understood that but could not fight it.
Still Raed turned back toward the citadel, and began walking, clutching the warmth and softness of the pelt to himself. Hopefully somewhere along the way he would find his clothes.
That search however was going to be nothing compared to having to explain to Sorcha where he had been. She was bound to have felt the Rossin appear, and was certain to have questions. Those he feared facing, because at this stage he really didn’t have any answers.
In the wake of the attack, there was no time to even take a breath. Zofiya stood in the doorway watching Sorcha and Merrick talking quietly to each other while the smell of death was ventilated from the room. Something had just happened, something that shook them to the core, but she found herself hesitant to interrupt.
While she helped clear the debris out of the Great Hall, stepping over pools of scarlet blood, a lay Brother appeared at her elbow. He was tall, thin and pale faced, but his hand was not trembling as he passed a roll of paper to her. “Imperial Highness,” he said, and she managed not to flinch at the use of her title, “you asked if we could find any news of your brother’s activities to the north. We have been able to secure this.”
Zofiya’s hand clenched on the scrap, but she managed to remain calm. “Where is this information from? Can we trust it?”
“Indeed yes! It is from a lay Brother who escaped a Priory to the north of Vermillion.” The young Brother dropped his eyes. “Like many others he managed to get out with a weirstone and has been sending in what reports he can.”
“Thank you,” she managed, while her eyes darted over the short message. It felt like ice water flooded through her veins. What she read there made up her mind immediately—she had to get out of the citadel.
Without a word to anyone, she spun on her heel and made her way back to the room she shared with Merrick.
In the city of Vermillion, she’d slept on a bed carved like a boat and had whatever material possessions she had wanted. In the citadel, they had a narrow camp bed with a thin blanket to cover them both.
Shutting the door behind her, Zofiya leaned on it for just a moment. “I am the Grand Duchess of Arkaym,” she whispered to remind herself, before snatching up her rucksack and starting to throw the few items she had into it.
Merrick had saved her, and it had been a relief to give herself over to that fact for a time: to be a follower rather than a leader. However, the appearance of geists tonight had merely underscored what she had already known. Her brother was part of this, and she had to do something about it. Now, she must leave and not think about how doing so would hurt.
“Zofiya?” Merrick had slipped in the door behind her without her noticing. He was capable of great silence when required—certainly, he would have made an excellent spy or assassin.
She looked up at him and into those brown eyes that were the most reassuring she had ever seen in any human. In them, for a few months at least, she had been able to rest and recover. Yes indeed, it had been a dream, but now it was time to wake up.
When she could no longer take Merrick’s puzzled look, Zofiya thrust the piece of paper with the dire news on it into his hand. She didn’t wait for him to finish taking it in.
“I have to go,” Zofiya said, turning her back on him and rolling up the final few clothes. “I am who I am, and I can’t pretend I am just some camp follower any longer. I need to speak to my brother immediately. You know I am the only one he might listen to.”
She heard him let out a long sigh, presumably after reading what she had. When he spoke, his voice was laced with sadness. “You know that I have never thought of you as a camp follower. You are the Grand Duchess of Arkaym.” His hand rested on her shoulder. “You are also not responsible for what your brother does.”
Zofiya had been born a royal, taught that human connection—even to her own family—was a danger; however, at that moment she wanted to turn around and take his hand in hers. Her whole being told her to bury her head against his shoulder and stay there. She’d never had anything so good that she feared losing it so badly; lovers had come and gone for her.
She paused, took a breath, and pushed her dark hair off her face. “I didn’t mean responsible—at least not to him. My duty is to the people of Arkaym. It is for them I must try and talk sense into Kal.”
Merrick walked around her, so that she had to meet his eyes once more. Normal lovers she suspected would have begged her to stay, covered her with hollow promises of eternal love, and thrown themselves against her will. Not Merrick. He saw too much for any of that.
“I realize that,” he whispered, folding his hands into the sleeves of his robe. “I understand it too, but I hope you don’t think his destruction has anything to do with you?” The candlelight flickered over his face, now forever marked by the runes of his calling. The change in his appearance had been startling at first, but Zofiya had become used to it. It rather suited him she thought—and she would miss it.
Zofiya reached out and cupped her hand against the strong line of his cheek. Even though he saw so much, she couldn’t leave without having actually spoken what was inside her. “I have been happy here with you, Merrick. Even with all the running, the awful food and dreary conditions, I have been more content than anywhere else in my life.”
The corners of his mouth turned up, as he spoke, “And yet you are still going to use that weirstone that Aachon found here, aren’t you?”
Despite the sad moment, the Grand Duchess laughed. “I should have realized you would know immediately.” She sat down on the bed they had shared and looked up at him. “Why didn’t you say anything about it before?”
Merrick shrugged and took a spot next to her. “I thought it would make you feel better to have it with you.”
Zofiya reached into the rucksack and pulled out the swirling blue stone. It was not a large weirstone—not enough to power an airship—but it was enough to contact one. It was also how she had already reached out to several officers in the Imperial Guard whom she trusted implicitly.
Looking down into the weirstone, she commented, “For a person so committed to the old Imperial family, Aachon has been quite helpful. He’s taught me the basics of using it for communication.”
Merrick shrugged. “I think the death of Raed’s sister made him see how little his friend wants the throne. It’s been quite a change for him.”
Both of them started as the sound of footsteps raced past in the hallway outside. Merrick got that distant look in his eyes, for just an instant, before returning to their conversation; nothing beyond their room apparently required his attention. The Deacon wrapped his hands around hers. “What will you do?”
Zofiya lurched to her feet and shrugged the rucksack onto her back. “The Summer Hawk and her captain are loyal to me, and we are not far from their usual route. I will send the message as soon as I am clear of the citadel.”
“And where will you go then?” The troubled look on his usually calm face pleased her. He did care.
She shot a look at him over her shoulder as she took up her own traveling cloak. “I will return to Vermillion. It is the capital, the place where everything begins and ends. I will find out the true lay of the land and hopefully be able to save my brother and the Empire.”
“I guessed as much, but I’ve discovered people find it a little off-putting if I lay out the facts before they’ve given voice to them. Besides . . . it’s impolite to presume.”
Zofiya felt a sharp clench in her belly, but managed not to rush to his side. “I like that you are not trying to keep me here.”
“I wish I could.” Merrick glanced down at his hands.
“But neither of us are normal people with normal responsibilities.” Zofiya shifted from one foot to another. Now it had come to the moment, she found herself reluctant to leave. The citadel was the most unwelcoming place she’d ever lived in: full of chill drafts, echoing chambers and the remains of furniture. By all rights she should have been racing out of it. Yet, Zofiya knew that once she left, it could be a long time—if ever—before she saw Merrick again.
“I can read you,” he said, clasping her around the waist from behind, and pulling her in tight, “but I cannot see what you will find in Vermillion.”
Zofiya turned in his arms. “Do not—”
He stopped her words with a finger placed over her lips. Once he would have earned a broken arm for such daring. “The city will be full of powerless Deacons, lost, bewildered, but they will still have the potential.” He cupped her face in his hands and rubbed his thumb over the curve of her lips. “Deacon Petav has been recording the works of the Patternmaker, and been learning the art of applying them to the skin. You must take him with you!”
The idea of that particular Deacon journeying with her was not very appealing; as far as she was concerned he was as dry as a stick that had been left out too long on a summer day. However, she understood what her lover was getting at. If she could resurrect at least some of the Deacons at the capital, then they could help bring the citizens of Vermillion some protection from the geists.
Zofiya nodded slowly. “If you think he is up to the task, then yes that would be very useful.”
Merrick chuckled. “Deacon Petav has proven himself very useful to me, but he would also welcome the chance to get out from under Sorcha’s gaze I think.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Zofiya replied with a twitch of her lips. Petav had been Sorcha’s husband once, as well as her partner. They had come to a working understanding, but things were still a little tense when they were both in the room—you didn’t need to be a Sensitive to feel that.
Merrick drew in a long breath. “Then there is another favor I must ask of you, Zofiya.”
She loved how her real name sounded on his lips. She so seldom heard anything but titles and platitudes from people. “Of course,” she whispered, holding herself as steady and far away from him as she could manage.
“When you reach Vermillion, can you please try to find out what has happened to my mother and brother? Aachon tried and failed to find them in the chaos after the destruction of the Mother Abbey.” His brow furrowed, and seeing his pain only made her love him more. “They have been on my mind ever since.”
“I will do all I can,” Zofiya said, pressing her lips together. She knew full well that he had lain awake many nights struggling with guilt over leaving them behind, so she just hoped that she could send good news back to him, rather than the other darker possibility that could be the reality. How much of a chance for survival could a mother and small child in a Vermillion lost to chaos have? Her skin prickled at the thought.
The world outside of the citadel was tearing itself apart. Her brother and the Arch Abbot of the Native Order had condemned it to be so. Once she and Merrick plunged back into all that, death was a real possibility—tonight’s events had reminded them all rather forcefully of that.
Zofiya rushed forward on the wings of that realization. The Deacon and the Grand Duchess clasped each other tight and kissed with the kind of desperation she had never known. It was a terrible thing to care for people, she thought angrily, and now her love for her brother and her love for Merrick were totally at odds. However, it wasn’t love for Kal that was taking her from the Deacon. It was her pledge as Grand Duchess.