Main King’s Cage
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“Somewhere in the distance, somewhere in my bones, thunder rolls.”
If Red Queen was a game of charade and Glass Sword was a game changer, then King's Cage is a reincarnation of the two, manipulation and war and survival and politics woven into its essence, but on a whole other level. No longer a hide and seek playground, but a chessboard where powerful masterminds control kings and queens and princes and princesses and many, many pawns to fight for the ultimate trophy -- the throne of Norta. Organized chaos that was delicious to watch unfold.
28 March 2021 (13:23)
EPIGRAPH Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams. —HRC MAP CONTENTS Epigraph Map One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Fourteen Fifteen Sixteen Seventeen Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Twenty-One Twenty-Two Twenty-Three Twenty-Four Twenty-Five Twenty-Six Twenty-Seven Twenty-Eight Twenty-Nine Epilogue Acknowledgments Back Ads About the Author Books by Victoria Aveyard Credits Copyright About the Publisher ONE Mare I rise to my feet when he lets me. The chain jerks me up, pulling on the thorned collar at my throat. Its points dig in, not enough to draw blood—not yet. But I’m already bleeding from the wrists. Slow wounds, worn from days of unconscious captivity in rough, ripping manacles. The color stains my white sleeves dark crimson and bright scarlet, fading from old blood to new in a testament to my ordeal. To show Maven’s court how much I’ve suffered already. He stands over me, his expression unreadable. The tips of his father’s crown make him seem taller, as if the iron is growing out of his skull. It gleams, each point a curling flame of black metal shot with bronze and silver. I focus on the bitterly familiar thing so I don’t have to look into Maven’s eyes. He draws me in anyway, tugging on another chain I can’t see. Only feel. One white hand circles my wounded wrist, somehow gentle. In spite of myself, my eyes snap to his face, unable to stay away. His smile is anything but kind. Slim and sharp as a razor, biting at me with every tooth. And his eyes are worst of all. Her eyes, Elara’s eyes. Once I thought them cold, made of living ice. Now I know better. The hottest fires burn blue, and his eyes are no exception. The shadow of the flame. He is certainly ablaze, but darkness eats at his edges. Bruise-like splotches of black and blue surround eyes bloodshot with silver veins. He has not slept. He’s thinner; than I remember, leaner, crueler. His hair, black as a void, has reached his ears, curling at the ends, and his cheeks are still smooth. Sometimes I forget how young he is. How young we both are. Beneath my shift dress, the M brand on my collarbone stings. Maven turns quickly, my chain tight in his fist, forcing me to move with him. A moon circling a planet. “Bear witness to this prisoner, this victory,” he says, squaring his shoulders to the vast audience before us. Three hundred Silvers at least, nobles and civilians, guards and officers. I’m painfully aware of the Sentinels on the edge of my vision, their fiery robes a constant reminder of my quickly shrinking cage. My Arven guards are never out of sight either, their white uniforms blinding, their silencing ability suffocating. I might choke on the pressure of their presence. The king’s voice echoes across the opulent stretches of Caesar’s Square, reverberating through a crowd that responds in kind. There must be microphones and speakers somewhere, to carry the king’s bitter words throughout the city, and no doubt the rest of the kingdom. “Here is the leader of the Scarlet Guard, Mare Barrow.” In spite of my predicament, I almost snort. Leader. His mother’s death has not stemmed his lies. “A murderer, a terrorist, a great enemy to our kingdom. And now she kneels before us, bare to her blood.” The chain jerks again, sending me scuttling forward, arms outstretched to catch my balance. I react dully, eyes downcast. So much pageantry. Anger and shame curl through me as I realize the amount of damage this simple act will do to the Scarlet Guard. Reds across Norta will watch me dance on Maven’s strings and think us weak, defeated, unworthy of their attention, effort, or hope. Nothing could be further from the truth. But there isn’t anything I can do, not now, not here, standing on the knife edge of Maven’s mercy. I wonder about Corvium, the military city we saw burning on our way to the Choke. There was rioting after my broadcast message. Was it the first gasp of revolution—or the last? I have no way of knowing. And I doubt anyone will bother to bring me a newspaper. Cal warned me against the threat of civil war a long time ago, before his father died, before he was left with nothing but a tempestuous lightning girl. Rebellion on both sides, he said. But standing here, leashed before Maven’s court and his Silver kingdom, I see no division. Even though I showed them, told them of Maven’s prison, of their loved ones taken away, of their trust betrayed by a king and his mother—I am still the enemy here. It makes me want to scream, but I know better. Maven’s voice will always be louder than mine. Are Mom and Dad watching? The thought of it brings a fresh wave of sorrow, and I bite hard against my lip to keep more tears at bay. I know there are video cameras nearby, focused on my face. Even if I can’t feel them anymore, I know. Maven would not miss the opportunity to immortalize my downfall. Are they about to see me die? The collar tells me no. Why bother with this spectacle if he’s just going to kill me? Another might feel relieved, but my insides turn cold with fear. He will not kill me. Not Maven. I feel it in his touch. His long, pale fingers still cling to my wrist, while his other hand still holds my leash. Even now, when I am painfully his, he won’t let go. I would prefer death to this cage, to the twisted obsession of a mad boy king. I remember his notes, each one ending with the same strange lament. Until we meet again. He continues speaking, but his voice dulls in my head, the whine of a hornet coming too close, making every nerve stand on edge. I look over my shoulder. My eyes drift through the crowd of courtiers behind us. All of them stand proud and vile in their mourning black. Lord Volo of House Samos and his son, Ptolemus, are splendid in polished, ebony armor with scaled silver sashes from hip to shoulder. At the sight of the latter, I see scarlet, raging red. I fight the urge to lunge and rip the skin from Ptolemus’s face. To stab him through his heart the way he did my brother Shade. The desire shows, and he has the spine to smirk at me. If not for the collar and the silent guards restricting everything I am, I would turn his bones to smoking glass. Somehow his sister, an enemy of so many months ago, isn’t looking at me. Evangeline, her gown spiked with black crystal, is ever the glittering star of such a violent constellation. I suppose she’ll be queen soon, having suffered her betrothal to Maven long enough. Her gaze is on the king’s back, dark eyes fixed with burning focus on the nape of his neck. A breeze picks up, stirring her glossy curtain of silver hair, blowing it back from her shoulders, but she doesn’t blink. Only after a long moment does she seem to notice me staring. And even then, her eyes barely flick to mine. They are empty of feeling. I am no longer worthy of her attention. “Mare Barrow is a prisoner of the crown, and she will face the crown and council’s judgment. Her many crimes must be answered for.” With what? I wonder. The crowd roars in response, cheering his decree. They are Silvers, but “common,” not of noble descent. While they revel in Maven’s words, his court does not react. In fact, some of them turn gray, angry, stone-faced. None more so than House Merandus, their mourning garb slashed with the dark blue of the dead queen’s wretched colors. While Evangeline did not notice me, they fix on my face with startling intensity. Eyes of burning blue from every direction. I expect to hear their whispers in my head, a dozen voices burrowing like worms through a rotten apple. Instead, there is only silence. Perhaps the Arven officers flanking me are not just jailers, but protectors as well, smothering my ability as well as the abilities of anyone who would use them against me. Maven’s orders, I assume. No one else may hurt me here. No one but him. But everything hurts already. It hurts to stand, hurts to move, hurts to think. From the jet crash, from the sounder, from the crushing weight of the silencing guards. And those are only physical wounds. Bruises. Fractures. Pains that will heal if given the time. The same cannot be said of the rest. My brother is dead. I am a prisoner. And I don’t know what really happened to my friends however many days ago when I struck this devil’s bargain. Cal, Kilorn, Cameron, my brothers Bree and Tramy. We left them behind in the clearing, but they were wounded, immobilized, vulnerable. Maven could have sent any number of assassins back to finish what he started. I traded myself for them all, and I don’t even know if it worked. Maven would tell me if I asked him. I can see it in his face. His eyes dart to mine after every vile sentence, punctuating every lie performed for his adoring subjects. To make sure I’m watching, paying attention, looking at him. Like the child he is. I will not beg him. Not here. Not like this. I have pride enough for that. “My mother and father died fighting these animals,” he rails on. “They gave their lives to keep this kingdom whole, to keep you safe.” Defeated as I am, I can’t help but glare at Maven, meeting his fire with a hiss of my own. We both remember his father’s death. His murder. Queen Elara whispered her way into Cal’s brain, turning the king’s beloved heir into a deadly weapon. Maven and I watched as Cal was forced to become his father’s killer, cutting off the king’s head and any chance Cal had of ruling. I have seen many horrible things since then, and still the memory haunts me. I don’t remember much of what happened to the queen outside the walls of Corros Prison. The state of her body afterward was testament enough to what unbridled lightning can do to human flesh. I know I killed her without question, without remorse, without regret. My ravaging storm fed by Shade’s sudden death. The last clear image I have of the Corros battle is of him falling, his heart pierced by Ptolemus’s needle of cold, unforgiving steel. Somehow Ptolemus escaped my blind rage, but the queen did not. At least the Colonel and I made sure the world knew what happened to her, displaying her corpse during our broadcast. I wish Maven had some of her ability, so he could look into my head and see exactly what kind of ending I gave his mother. I want him to feel the pain of loss as terribly as I do. His eyes are on me as he finishes his memorized speech, one hand outstretched to better display the chain binding me to him. Everything he does is methodical, performed for an image. “I pledge myself to do the same, to end the Scarlet Guard and the monsters like Mare Barrow, or die in the attempt.” Die, then, I want to scream. The roar of the crowd drowns out my thoughts. Hundreds cheer on their king and his tyranny. I cried on the walk across the bridge, in the face of so many blaming me for their loved ones’ deaths. I can still feel the tears drying on my cheeks. Now I want to weep again, not in sadness, but anger. How can they believe this? How can they stomach these lies? Like a doll, I am turned from the sight. With the last of my strength, I crane my neck over one shoulder, hunting for the cameras, the eyes of the world. See me, I beg. See how he lies. My jaw tightens, my eyes narrow, painting what I pray is a picture of resilience, rebellion, and rage. I am the lightning girl. I am a storm. It feels like a lie. The lightning girl is dead. But it is the last thing I can do for the cause, and for the people I love still out there. They will not see me stumble in this final moment. No, I will stand. And though I have no idea how, I have to keep fighting, even here in the belly of the beast. Another tug forces me to spin around to face the court. Cold Silvers stare back, their skin undertoned by blue and black and purple and gray, leached of life, with veins of steel and diamond rather than blood. They focus not on me, but on Maven himself. In them I find my answer. In them I see hunger. For a split second, I pity the boy king alone on his throne. Then, deep down, I feel the teasing breath of hope. Oh, Maven. What a mess you’re in. I can only wonder who will strike first. The Scarlet Guard—or the lords and ladies ready to slit Maven’s throat and take everything his mother died for. He hands my leash over to one of the Arvens as soon as we flee the Whitefire steps, retreating into the yawning entrance hall of the palace. Strange. He was so fixated on getting me back, on putting me into his cage, but he tosses my chains away without so much as a glance. Coward, I tell myself. He can’t bring himself to look at me when it isn’t for spectacle. “Did you keep your promise?” I demand, breathless. My voice sounds raspy from days of disuse. “Are you a man of your word?” He doesn’t answer. The rest of the court falls in behind us. Their lines and rows are well practiced, based on the complicated intricacies of status and rank. Only I am out of place, the first one to follow the king, walking a few steps behind where a queen should be. I could not be further from the title. I glance at the larger of my jailers, hoping to see something besides blind loyalty in him. He wears a white uniform, thick, bulletproof, zipped tight up his throat. Gloves, gleaming. Not silk, but plastic—rubber. I flinch at the sight. Despite their silencing ability, the Arvens won’t take any chances with me. Even if I manage to slip a spark past their continuous onslaught, the gloves will protect their hands and allow them to keep me collared, chained, caged. The big Arven doesn’t meet my gaze, his eyes focused ahead while his lips purse in concentration. The other is just the same, flanking me in perfect step with his brother or cousin. Their naked scalps gleam, and I’m reminded of Lucas Samos. My kind guard, my friend, who was executed because I existed, and because I used him. I was lucky then, that Cal gave me such a decent Silver to keep me prisoner. And, I realize, I am lucky now. Indifferent guards will be easier for me to kill. Because they must die. Somehow. Some way. If I am to escape, if I want to reclaim my lightning, they are the first obstacles. The rest are easy to guess. Maven’s Sentinels, the other guards and officers posted throughout the palace, and of course Maven himself. I’m not leaving this place unless I leave behind his corpse—or mine. I think about killing him. Wrapping my chain around his neck and squeezing the life from his body. It helps me ignore the fact that every step takes me deeper into the palace, over white marble, past gilded, soaring walls, beneath a dozen chandeliers with crystal lights carved of flame. As beautiful and cold as I remember. A prison of golden locks and diamond bars. At least I won’t have to face its most violent and dangerous warden. The old queen is dead. Still, I shiver at the thought of her. Elara Merandus. Her shadow ghosts through my head. Once she tore through my memories. Now she’s one of them. An armored figure cuts through my glare, sidling around my guards to plant himself between the king and me. He keeps pace with us, a dogged guardian even though he doesn’t wear the robes or mask of a Sentinel. I suppose he knows I’m thinking about strangling Maven. I bite my lip, bracing myself for the sharp sting of a whisper’s assault. But no, he is not of House Merandus. His armor is obsidian dark, his hair silver, his skin moon white. And his eyes, when he looks over his shoulder at me—his eyes are empty and black. Ptolemus. I lunge teeth first, not knowing what I’m doing, not caring. So long as I leave my mark. I wonder if Silver blood tastes different from Red. I never find out. My collar snaps backward, pulling me so violently my spine arches and I crash to the floor. A bit harder and I would’ve broken my neck. The crack of marble on skull makes the world spin, but not enough to keep me down. I scramble, my sight narrowing to Ptolemus’s armored legs, now turning to face me. Again I lurch for them, and again the collar pulls me back. “Enough of this,” Maven hisses. He stands over me, halting to watch my poor attempts to repay Ptolemus. The rest of the procession has stopped too, many crowding forward to see the twisted Red rat fight in vain. The collar seems to tighten, and I gulp against it, reaching for my throat. Maven keeps his eyes on the metal as it shrinks. “Evangeline, I said enough.” Despite the pain, I turn to see her at my back, one fist clenched at her side. Like him, she stares at my collar. It pulses as it moves. It must match her heartbeat. “Let me loose her,” she says, and I wonder if I misheard. “Let me loose her right here. Dismiss her guards, and I’ll kill her, lightning and all.” I snarl back at her, every inch the beast they think I am. “Try it,” I tell her, wishing with all my heart that Maven would agree. Even with my wounds, my days of silence, and my years of inferiority to the magnetron girl, I want what she offers. I beat her before. I can do it again. It is a chance, at least. A better chance than I could ever hope for. Maven’s eyes snap from my collar to his betrothed, his face falling into a tight, searing scowl. I see so much of his mother in him. “Are you questioning the orders of your king, Lady Evangeline?” Her teeth flash between lips painted purple. Her shroud of courtly manner threatens to fall away, but before she can say something truly damning, her father shifts just so, his arm brushing her own. His message is clear: Obey. “No,” she growls, meaning yes. Her neck bends, inclining her head. “Your Majesty.” The collar releases, widening back to size around my neck. It might even be looser than before. Small blessing that Evangeline is not so meticulous as she strives to appear. “Mare Barrow is a prisoner of the crown, and the crown will do with her as it sees fit,” Maven says, his voice carrying past his volatile bride. His eyes sweep through the rest of the court, making his intentions clear. “Death is too good for her.” A low murmur ripples through the nobles. I hear tones of opposition, but even more agreement. Strange. I thought all of them would want me executed in the worst way, strung up to feed vultures and bleed away whatever ground the Scarlet Guard has gained. But I suppose they want worse fates for me. Worse fates. That’s what Jon said before. When he saw what my future held, where my path led. He knew this was coming. Knew, and told the king. Bought a place at Maven’s side with my brother’s life and my freedom. I find Jon standing in the crowd, given a wide berth by the others. His eyes are red, livid; his hair prematurely gray and tied into a neat tail. Another newblood pet for Maven Calore, but this one wears no chains that I can see. Because he helped Maven stop our mission to save a legion of children before it could even begin. Told Maven our paths and our future. Gift-wrapped me for the boy king. Betrayed us all. Jon is already staring at me, of course. I don’t expect an apology for what he did, and do not receive one. “What about interrogation?” A voice I do not recognize sounds to my left. Still, I know his face. Samson Merandus. An arena fighter, a savage whisper, a cousin to the dead queen. He shoulders his way toward me, and I can’t help but flinch. In another life I saw him make his arena opponent stab himself to death. Kilorn sat by my side and watched, cheering, enjoying the last hours of his freedom. Then his master died, and our entire world shifted. Our paths changed. And now I sprawl across flawless marble, cold and bleeding, less than a dog at the feet of a king. “Is she too good for interrogation, Your Majesty?” Samson continues, pointing one white hand in my direction. He catches me beneath the chin, forcing me to look up. I fight the urge to bite him. I don’t need to give Evangeline another excuse to choke me. “Think of what she’s seen. What she knows. She’s their leader—and the key to unraveling her wretched kind.” He’s wrong, but still my heartbeat thrums in my chest. I know enough to be of great damage. Tuck flashes before my eyes, as well as the Colonel and the twins from Montfort. The infiltration of the legions. The cities. The Whistles across the country, now ferrying refugees to safety. Precious secrets carefully kept, and soon to be revealed. How many will my knowledge put in danger? How many will die when they crack me open? And that’s just military intelligence. Worse still are the dark parts of my own mind. The corners where I keep my worst demons. Maven is one of them. The prince I remembered and loved and wished were real. Then there’s Cal. What I’ve done to keep him, what I’ve ignored, and what lies I tell myself about his allegiances. My shame and my mistakes eat away, gnawing on my roots. I can’t let Samson—or Maven—see such things inside me. Please, I want to beg. My lips do not move. As much as I hate Maven, as much as I want to see him suffer, I know he’s the best chance I have. But pleading for mercy before his strongest allies and worst enemies will only weaken an already-weak king. So I keep quiet, trying to ignore Samson’s grip on my jaw, focusing only on Maven’s face. His eyes find mine for the longest and shortest of moments. “You have your orders,” he says brusquely, nodding to my guards. Their grip is firm but not bruising as they lift me to my feet, using hands and chains to guide me out of the crowd. I leave them all behind. Evangeline, Ptolemus, Samson, and Maven. He turns on his heel, heading in the opposite direction, toward the only thing he has left to keep him warm. A throne of frozen flames. TWO Mare I am never alone. The jailers do not leave. Always two, always watching, always keeping what I am silent and suppressed. They don’t need anything more than a locked door to make me a prisoner. Not that I can even get close to the door without being manhandled back to the center of my bedchamber. They’re stronger than I am, and forever vigilant. My only escape from their eyes is the small bathroom, a chamber of white tile and golden fixings, with a forbidding line of Silent Stone along the floor. There are enough of the pearly gray slabs to make my head pound and my throat constrict. I have to be quick in there, and make use of every strangling second. The sensation reminds me of Cameron and her ability. She can kill someone with the strength of her silence. As much as I hate my guards’ constant vigil, I will not risk suffocating on a bathroom floor for a few extra minutes of peace. Funny, I used to think my greatest fear was being left alone. Now I am anything but, and I’ve never been more terrified. I have not felt my lightning in four days. Five. Six. Seventeen. Thirty-one. I notch each day in the baseboard next to the bed, using a fork to dig the passing time. It feels good to leave my mark, to inflict my own small injury on the prison of Whitefire Palace. The Arvens don’t mind. They ignore me for the most part, focused only on total and absolute silence. They keep to their places by the door, seated like statues with living eyes. This is not the same room I slept in the last time I was at Whitefire. Obviously it wouldn’t be proper to house a royal prisoner in the same place as a royal bride. But I’m not in a cell either. My cage is comfortable and well furnished, with a plush bed, a bookshelf stocked with boring tomes, a few chairs, a table to eat at, even fine curtains, all in neutral shades of gray, brown, and white. Leached of color, as the Arvens leach power from me. I slowly get used to sleeping alone, but nightmares plague me without Cal to keep them away. Without someone who cares for me. Every time I wake up, I touch the earrings dotting my ear, naming each stone. Bree, Tramy, Shade, Kilorn. Brothers in blood and bond. Three living, one a ghost. I wish I had an earring to match the one I gave Gisa, so I could have a piece of her too. I dream of her sometimes. Nothing concrete, but flashes of her face, her hair red and dark as spilled blood. Her words haunt me like nothing else. One day people are going to come and take everything you have. She was right. There are no mirrors, not even in the bathroom. But I know what this place is doing to me. Despite the hearty meals and the lack of exercise, my face feels thinner. My bones cut beneath skin, sharper than ever as I waste. There isn’t much more to do than sleep or read one of the volumes on Nortan tax code, but still, exhaustion set in days ago. Bruises blossom from every touch. And the collar feels hot even though I spend my days cold, shivering. It could be a fever. I could be dying. Not that I have anyone to tell. I barely even speak through the days. The door opens for food and water, for the change in my jailers, and nothing more. I never see a Red maid or servant, though they must exist. Instead, the Arvens retrieve meals, linens, and clothes deposited outside, bringing them in for me to use. They clean up as well, grimacing as they perform such a lowly task. I suppose letting a Red in my room is too dangerous. The thought makes me smile. So the Scarlet Guard is still a threat, enough to warrant such rigid protocol that even servants aren’t allowed near me. But then, it seems no one else is either. No one comes to gawk or gloat over the lightning girl. Not even Maven. The Arvens do not talk to me. They don’t tell me their names. So I give them some of my own. Kitten, the older woman smaller than me, with a tiny face and keen, sharp eyes. Egg, his head round, white, and bald like the rest of his guardian kin. Trio has three lines tattooed down his neck, like the dragging of perfect claws. And green-eyed Clover, a girl near my age, unwavering in her duties. She is the only one who dares look me in the eye. When I first realized Maven wanted me back, I expected pain, or darkness, or both. Most of all I expected to see him and endure my torment under his blazing eyes. But I receive nothing. Not since the day I arrived and was forced to kneel. He told me then he would put my body on display. But no executioners have come. Neither have the whispers, men like Samson Merandus and the dead queen, to pry my head open and unspool my thoughts. If this is my punishment, it is a boring one. Maven has no imagination. There are still the voices in my head, and so many, too many memories. They cut with a blade’s edge. I try to dull the pain with even duller books, but the words swim before my eyes, letters rearranging until all I see are the names of the people I left behind. The living and the dead. And always, everywhere, Shade. Ptolemus might have killed my brother, but I was the one to put Shade in his path. Because I was selfish, thinking myself some kind of savior. Because, once again, I put my trust in someone I shouldn’t have and traded lives as a gambler does playing cards. But you liberated a prison. You freed so many people—and you saved Julian. A weak thought, an even weaker consolation. I know now what the cost of Corros Prison was. And every day I come to terms with the fact that, if given the choice, I would not pay it again. Not for Julian, not for a hundred living newbloods. I wouldn’t save any of them with Shade’s life. And it was all the same in the end. Maven had asked me to return for months, begging with every bloodstained note. He had hoped to buy me with corpses, with the bodies of the dead. But I’d thought there was no trade I would make, not even for a thousand innocent lives. Now I wish I’d done as he asked long ago. Before he thought to come for the ones I truly care for, knowing I would save them. Knowing that Cal, Kilorn, my family—they were the only bargain I was willing to make. For their lives, I gave everything. I guess he knows better than to torture me. Even with the sounder, a machine made to use my lightning against me, to split me apart, nerve by nerve. My agony is useless to him. His mother taught him well. My only comfort is knowing that the young king is without his vicious puppeteer. While I am kept here, watched day and night, he is alone at the head of a kingdom, without Elara Merandus to guide his hand and protect his back. It’s been a month since I’ve tasted fresh air, and almost as long since I saw anything but the inside of my room and the narrow view my single window affords. The window looks out over a courtyard garden, well past dead at the end of autumn. Its grove of trees is twisted by greenwarden hands. In leaf, they must look marvelous: a verdant crown of blossoms with spiraling, impossible branches. But bare, the gnarled oaks, elms, and beeches curl into talons; their dry, dead fingers scraping against one another like bones. The courtyard is abandoned, forgotten. Just like me. No, I growl to myself. The others will come for me. I dare to hope. My stomach lurches every time the door opens. For a moment, I expect to see Cal or Kilorn or Farley, perhaps Nanny wearing another person’s face. The Colonel, even. Now I would weep to see his scarlet eye. But no one comes for me. No one is coming for me. It’s cruel to give hope where none should be. And Maven knows it. As the sun sets on the thirty-first day, I understand what he means to do. He wants me to rot. To fade. To be forgotten. Outside in the courtyard of bones, early snow drifts in flurries born of an iron-gray sky. The glass is cold to the touch, but it refuses to freeze. So will I. The snow outside is perfect in the morning light, a crust of white gilding barer trees. It’ll melt by afternoon. By my count, it’s December 11. A cold, gray, dead time in the echo between autumn and winter. The true snows won’t set in until next month. Back home we used to jump off the porch into snowdrifts, even after Bree broke his leg when he landed on a buried pile of firewood. Cost Gisa a month’s wages to get him fixed up, and I had to steal most of the supplies our so-called doctor needed. That was the winter before Bree was conscripted, the last time our entire family was together. The last time. Forever. We’ll never be whole again. Mom and Dad are with the Guard. Gisa and my living brothers too. They’re safe. They’re safe. They’re safe. I repeat the words as I do every morning. They are a comfort, even if they might not be true. Slowly, I push away my plate of breakfast. The now-familiar spread of sugary oatmeal, fruit, and toast holds no comfort for me. “Finished,” I say out of habit, knowing no one will reply. Kitten is already at my side, sneering at the half-eaten food. She picks up the plate as one would a bug, holding it at arm’s length to carry it to the door. I raise my eyes quickly, hoping for a single glimpse of the antechamber outside my room. Like always, it’s empty, and my heart sinks. She drops the plate on the floor with a clatter, maybe breaking it, but that’s not her concern. Some servant will clean it up. The door shuts behind her, and Kitten returns to her seat. Trio occupies the other chair, his arms crossed, eyes unblinking as he stares at my torso. I can feel his ability and hers. They feel like a blanket wrapped too tight, keeping my lightning pinned and hidden, far away in a place where I cannot even begin to go. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I hate it. I hate it. I. Hate. It. Smash. I throw my water glass against the opposite wall, letting it splatter and splinter against horrible gray paint. Neither of my guards flinches. I do this a lot. And it helps. For a minute. Maybe. I follow the usual schedule, the one I’ve developed over the last month of captivity. Wake up. Immediately regret it. Receive breakfast. Lose appetite. Have food taken away. Immediately regret it. Throw water. Immediately regret it. Strip bed linens. Maybe rip up the sheets, sometimes while shouting. Immediately regret it. Attempt to read a book. Stare out window. Stare out window. Stare out window. Receive lunch. Repeat. I’m a very busy girl. Or I guess I should say woman. Eighteen is the arbitrary divide between child and adult. And I turned eighteen weeks ago. November 17. Not that anyone knew or noticed. I doubt the Arvens care that their charge is another year older. Only one person in this prison palace would. And he did not visit, to my relief. It’s the single blessing to my captivity. While I am held here, surrounded by the worst people I’ll ever know, I don’t have to suffer his presence. Until today. The utter silence around me shatters, not with an explosion, but with a click. The familiar turn of the door lock. Off schedule, without warrant. My head snaps to the sound, as do the Arvens’, their concentration breaking in surprise. Adrenaline bleeds into my veins, driven by my suddenly thrumming heart. In the split second, I dare to hope again. I dream of who could be on the other side of the door. My brothers. Farley. Kilorn. Cal. I want it to be Cal. I want his fire to consume this place and all these people whole. But the man standing on the other side is no one I recognize. Only his clothes are familiar—black uniform, silver detailing. A Security officer, nameless and unimportant. He steps into my prison, holding the door open with his back. More of his like gather outside the doorway, darkening the antechamber with their presence. The Arvens jump to their feet, just as surprised as I am. “What are you doing?” Trio sneers. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard his voice. Kitten does as she is trained to do, stepping between me and the officer. Another burst of silence knocks into me, fed by her fear and confusion. It crashes like a wave, eating at the little bits of strength I still have left. I stay rooted in my chair, loath to fall down in front of other people. The Security officer says nothing, staring at the floor. Waiting. She enters in reply, in a gown made of needles. Her silver hair has been combed and braided with gems in the fashion of the crown she hungers to wear. I shudder at the sight of her, perfect and cold and sharp, a queen in bearing if not yet title. Because she’s still not a queen. I can tell. “Evangeline,” I murmur, trying to hide the tremors in my voice, both from fear and disuse. Her black eyes pass over me with all the tenderness of a cracking whip. Head to toe and back again, noting every imperfection, every weakness. I know there are many. Finally her gaze lands on my collar, taking in the pointed metal edges. Her lip curls in disgust, and also hunger. How easy it would be for her to squeeze, to drive the points of the collar into my throat and bleed me bone-dry. “Lady Samos, you are not permitted to be here,” Kitten says, still standing between us. I’m surprised by her boldness. Evangeline’s eyes flicker to my guard, her sneer spreading. “You think I would disobey the king, my betrothed?” She forces a cold laugh. “I am here on his orders. He commands the presence of the prisoner at court. Now.” Each word stings. A month of imprisonment suddenly seems far too short. Part of me wants to grab on to the table and force Evangeline to drag me out of my cage. But even isolation has not broken my pride. Not yet. Not ever, I remind myself. So I stand on weak limbs, joints aching, hands quivering. A month ago I attacked Evangeline’s brother with little more than my teeth. I try to summon as much of that fire as I can, if only to stand up straight. Kitten keeps her ground, unmoving. Her head tips to Trio, locking eyes with her cousin. “We had no word. This is not protocol.” Again Evangeline laughs, showing white, gleaming teeth. Her smile is beautiful and violent as a blade. “Are you refusing me, Guard Arven?” As she speaks, her hands wander to her dress, running perfect white skin through the forest of needles. Bits of it stick to her like a magnet, and she comes away with a handful of spikes. She palms the clinging slivers of metal, patient, waiting, one eyebrow raised. The Arvens know better than to extend their crushing silence to a Samos daughter, let alone the future queen. The pair of them exchange wordless glances, clearly coming down on either side of Evangeline’s question. Trio furrows his brow, glaring, and finally Kitten sighs aloud. She steps away. She backs down. “A choice I’ll not forget,” Evangeline murmurs. I feel exposed before her, alone in front of her piercing eyes despite the other guards and officers looking on. Evangeline knows me, knows what I am, what I can do. I almost killed her in the Bowl of Bones, but she ran, afraid of me and my lightning. She is certainly not afraid now. Deliberate, I take a step forward. Toward her. Toward the blissful emptiness that surrounds her, allowing her ability. Another step. Into the free air, into electricity. Will I feel it immediately? Will it come rushing back? It must. It has to. But her sneer bleeds into a smile. She matches my pace, moving back, and I almost snarl. “Not so fast, Barrow.” It’s the first time she’s ever said my real name. She snaps her fingers, pointing at Kitten. “Bring her along.” They drag me like they did the first day I arrived, chained at the collar, my leash tightly grasped in Kitten’s fist. Her silence and Trio’s continue, beating like a drum in my skull. The long walk through Whitefire feels like sprinting miles, though we move at an easy pace. As before, I am not blindfolded. They don’t bother to try to confuse me. I recognize more and more as we get closer to our destination, cutting down passages and galleries I explored freely a lifetime ago. Back then I didn’t feel the need to sort them. Now I do my best to map the palace in my head. I’ll certainly need to know its layout if I ever plan to get out of here alive. My bedchamber faces east, and it is on the fifth floor; that much I know from counting windows. I remember Whitefire is shaped like interlocking squares, with each wing surrounding a courtyard like the one my room looks out on. The view out the tall, arched windows changes with every new passageway. A courtyard garden, Caesar’s Square, the long stretches of the training yard where Cal drilled with his soldiers, the distant walls and the rebuilt Bridge of Archeon beyond. Thankfully we never pass through the residences where I found Julian’s journal, where I watched Cal rage and Maven quietly scheme. I’m surprised by how many memories the rest of the palace holds, despite my short time here. We pass a block of windows on a landing, looking west across the barracks to the Capital River and the other half of the city beyond it. The Bowl of Bones nestles among the buildings, its hulking form too familiar. I know this view. I stood in front of these windows with Cal. I lied to him, knowing an attack would come that night. But I didn’t know what it would do to either of us. Cal whispered then that he wished things were different. I share the lament. Cameras must follow our progress, though I can no longer feel them. Evangeline says nothing as we descend to the main floor of the palace with her officers in tow, a flocking troop of blackbirds around a metal swan. Music echoes from somewhere. It pulses like a swollen and heavy heart. I’ve never heard such music before, not even at the ball I attended or during Cal’s dancing lessons. It has a life of its own, something dark and twisting and oddly inviting. Ahead of me, Evangeline’s shoulders stiffen at the sound. The court level is oddly empty, with only a few guards posted along the passages. Guards, not Sentinels, who will be with Maven. Evangeline doesn’t turn right, as I expect, to enter the throne room through the grand, arching doors. Instead, she surges forward, all of us in tow, pushing into another room I know all too well. The council chamber. A perfect circle of marble and polished, gleaming wood. Seats ring the walls, and the seal of Norta, the Burning Crown, dominates the ornate floor. Red and black and royal silver, with points of bursting flame. I almost stumble at the sight of it, and I have to shut my eyes. Kitten will pull me through the room, I have no doubt of that. I’ll gladly let her drag me if it means I don’t have to see any more of this place. Walsh died here, I remember. Her face flashes behind my eyelids. She was hunted down like a rabbit. And it was wolves that caught her—Evangeline, Ptolemus, Cal. They captured her in the tunnels beneath Archeon, following her orders from the Scarlet Guard. They found her, dragged her here, and presented her to Queen Elara for interrogation. It never got that far. Because Walsh killed herself. She swallowed a murderous pill in front of us all, to protect the secrets of the Scarlet Guard. To protect me. When the music triples in volume, I open my eyes again. The council chamber is gone, but the sight before me is somehow worse. THREE Mare Music dances on the air, undercut with the sweet and sickening bite of alcohol as it permeates every inch of the magnificent throne room. We step out onto a landing elevated a few feet above the chamber floor, allowing a grand view of the raucous party—and a few moments before anyone realizes we’re here. My eyes dart back and forth, on edge, on defense, searching every face and every shadow for opportunity, or danger. Silk and gemstones and beautiful armor wink beneath the light of a dozen chandeliers, creating a human constellation that surges and twists on the marble floor. After a month of imprisonment, the sight is an assault on my senses, but I gulp it in, a girl starved. So many colors, so many voices, so many familiar lords and ladies. For now they take no notice of me. Their eyes do not follow. Their focus is on one another, their cups of wine and multicolored liquor, the harried rhythm, the fragrant smoke curling through the air. This must be a celebration, a wild one, but for what, I have no idea. Naturally, my mind flies. Have they won another victory? Against Cal, against the Scarlet Guard? Or are they still cheering my capture? One look at Evangeline is answer enough. I’ve never seen her scowl this way, not even at me. Her catlike sneer turns ugly, angry, full of rage like I can’t imagine. Her eyes darken, shifting over the display. They are black like a void, swallowing up the sight of her people in a state of ultimate bliss. Or, I realize, ignorance. At someone’s command, a flurry of Red servants push off the far wall and move through the chamber in practiced formation. They carry trays of crystal goblets with liquid like ruby, gold, and diamond starlight. By the time they reach the opposite side of the crowd, their trays are empty and are quickly refilled. Another pass, and the trays empty again. How some of the Silvers are still standing, I have no idea. They continue in their revelry, talking or dancing with hands clawed around their glasses. A few puff on intricate pipes, blowing oddly colored smoke into the air. It doesn’t smell like tobacco, which many of the elders in the Stilts jealously hoard. I watch sparks in their pipes with envy, each one a pinprick of light. Worse is the sight of the servants, the Reds. They make me ache. What I would give to take their place. To be only a servant instead of a prisoner. Stupid, I scold myself. They are imprisoned same as you. Just like all of your kind. Trapped beneath a Silver boot, though some have more room to breathe. Because of him. Evangeline descends from the landing, and the Arvens force me to follow. The stairs lead us directly to the dais, another elevated platform high enough to denote its ultimate importance. And of course a dozen Sentinels stand upon it, masked and armed, terrifying in every inch. I expect the thrones I remember. Diamondglass flames for the king’s seat, sapphire and polished white gold for the queen’s. Instead, Maven sits upon the same kind of throne I saw him rise from a month ago, when he held me chained in front of the world. No gems, no precious metals. Just slabs of gray stone swirled with something shiny, flat-edged, and brutally absent of insignia. It looks cold to the touch and uncomfortable, not to mention terribly heavy. It dwarfs him, making him seem younger and smaller than ever. To look powerful is to be powerful. A lesson I learned from Elara, though somehow Maven didn’t. He seems the boy he is, sharply pale against his black uniform, the only color on him the bloodred lining of his cape, a silver riot of medals, and the shivering blue of his eyes. King Maven of House Calore meets my gaze the moment he knows I’m here. The instant hangs, suspended on a thread of time. A canyon of distractions yawns between us, filled with so much noise and graceful chaos, but the room might as well be empty. I wonder if he notices the difference in me. The sickness, the pain, the torture my quiet prison has put me through. He must. His eyes slide over my pronounced cheekbones to my collar, down to the white shift they dress me in. I’m not bleeding this time, but I wish I were. To show everyone what I am, what I’ve always been. Red. Wounded. But alive. As I did before the court, before Evangeline a few minutes ago, I straighten my spine, and stare with all the strength and accusation I have to give. I take him in, looking for the cracks only I can see. Shadowed eyes, twitching hands, posture so rigid his spine might shatter. You are a murderer, Maven Calore, a coward, a weakness. It works. He tears his eyes away from me and springs to his feet, both hands still gripping the arms of his throne. His rage falls like the blow from a hammer. “Explain yourself, Guard Arven!” he erupts at my closest jailer. Trio jumps in his boots. The outburst stops the music, the dancing, and the drinking in the span of a heartbeat. “S-Sir—” Trio sputters, and one of his gloved hands grips my arm. It bleeds silence, enough to make my heartbeat slow. He tries to find an explanation that doesn’t place blame on himself, or the future queen, but comes up short. My chain trembles in Kitten’s hand, but her grip is still tight. Only Evangeline is unaffected by the king’s wrath. She expected this response. He didn’t order her to bring me. There was no summons at all. Maven is not a fool. He waves a hand at Trio, ending his mumbling with a single motion. “Your feeble attempt is answer enough,” he says. “What do you have to say for yourself, Evangeline?” In the crowd, her father stands tall, watching with wide, stern eyes. Another might call him afraid, but I don’t think Volo Samos has the power to feel emotion. He simply strokes his pointed silver beard, his expression unreadable. Ptolemus is not so gifted at hiding his thoughts. He stands on the dais with the Sentinels, the only one without fiery robes or a mask. Though his body is still, his eyes dart between the king and his sister, and one fist clenches slowly. Good. Fear for her as I feared for my brother. Watch her suffer as I watched him die. Because what else can Maven do now? Evangeline has deliberately disobeyed his orders, leaping past the allowances their betrothal allows. If I know anything, I know that to cross the king is to be punished. And to do it here, in front of the entire court? He might just execute her on the spot. If Evangeline thinks she’s risking death, she doesn’t show it. Her voice never cracks or wavers. “You ordered the terrorist to be imprisoned, shut away like a useless bottle of wine, and after a month of council deliberation, there has been no agreement on what is to be done with her. Her crimes are many, worthy of a dozen deaths, a thousand lifetimes in our worst jails. She killed or maimed hundreds of your subjects since she was discovered, your own parents included, and still she rests in a comfortable bedchamber, eating, breathing—alive without the punishment she deserves.” Maven is his mother’s son, and his court facade is nearly perfect. Evangeline’s words don’t seem to bother him in the slightest. “The punishment she deserves,” he repeats. Then he looks to the room, one corner of his chin raised. “So you brought her here. Really, are my parties that bad?” A thrum of laughter, both genuine and forced, ripples through the rapt crowd. Most of them are drunk, but there are enough clear heads to know what’s going on. What Evangeline has done. Evangeline pulls a courtly smile that looks so painful I expect her lips to start bleeding at the corners. “I know you are grieving for your mother, Your Majesty,” she says without a hint of sympathy. “As we all are. But your father would not act this way. The time for tears is over.” Those last are not her words, but the words of Tiberias the Sixth. Maven’s father, Maven’s ghost. His mask threatens to slip for a moment, and his eyes flash with equal parts dread and anger. I remember those words as well as he does. Spoken before a crowd just like this, in the wake of the Scarlet Guard’s execution of political targets. Targets chosen by Maven, fed to him by his mother. We did their dirty work, while they added to the body count with an atrocious attack of their own. They used me, used the Guard to eliminate some of their enemies and demonize others in one fell swoop. They destroyed more, killed more than any of us ever wanted. I can still smell the blood and smoke. I can still hear a mother weeping over her dead children. I can still hear the words framing the rebellion for it all. “Strength, power, death,” Maven murmurs, his teeth clicking. The words scared me then, and they terrify me now. “What do you suggest, my lady? A beheading? A firing squad? Do we take her apart, piece by piece?” My heart gallops in my chest. Would Maven allow such a thing? I don’t know. I don’t know what he would do. I have to remind myself, I don’t even know him. The boy I thought him to be was an illusion. But the notes, brutally left, but full of pleas for me to return? The month of quiet, gentle captivity? Perhaps those were false too, another trick to ensnare me. Another kind of torture. “We do as the law requires. As your father would have done.” The way she says father, using the word as brutally as she would any knife, is confirmation enough. Like so many people in this room, she knows Tiberias the Sixth did not end the way the stories say. Still, Maven grips his throne, white-knuckling the gray slabs. He glances at the court, feeling their eyes upon him, before sneering back at Evangeline. “Not only are you not a member of my council, but you did not know my father well enough to know his mind. I am a king as he was, and I understand the things that must be done for victory. Our laws are sacred, but we are fighting two wars now.” Two wars. Adrenaline pulses through me so quickly I think my lightning has returned. No, not lightning. Hope. I bite my lip to keep from grinning. Weeks into my captivity the Scarlet Guard continues, and thrives. Not only are they still fighting, but Maven admits it openly. They are impossible to hide or dismiss now. Despite the need to know more, I keep my mouth shut. Maven burns a stare through Evangeline. “No enemy prisoner, especially not one as valuable as Mare Barrow, should be wasted on common execution.” “You waste her still!” Evangeline argues, firing back so quickly I know she must have practiced for this argument. She takes a few more steps forward, closing the distance between herself and Maven. It all seems a show, an act, something played out on the platform for the court to witness. But for whose benefit? “She sits collecting dust, doing nothing, giving us nothing, while Corvium burns!” Another jewel of information to keep close. More, Evangeline. Give me more. I saw the fortress city, the heart of the Nortan military, erupt in riots with my own eyes a month ago. It’s still happening. Mention of Corvium sobers the crowd. Maven does not miss it, and he fights to keep his calm. “The council is days away from a decision, my lady,” he says through gritted teeth. “Forgive my boldness, Your Majesty. I know you wish to honor your council as best you can, even the weakest parts of it. Even the cowards who cannot do what must be done.” Another step closer, and her voice softens to a purr. “But you are the king. The decision is yours.” Masterful, I realize. Evangeline is just as adept at manipulation as any other. In a few words, she’s not only saved Maven from appearing weak, but also forced him to follow her will to maintain an image of strength. In spite of myself, I draw in a harried breath. Will he do as she bids? Or will he refuse, throwing fuel on the fire of insurrection already blazing through the High Houses? Maven is no fool. He understands what Evangeline is doing, and he keeps his focus on her. They hold each other’s gaze, communicating with forced smiles and sharp eyes. “Queenstrial certainly did bring forth the most talented daughter,” he says, taking her hand. Both of them look disgusted by the action. His head snaps to the crowd, looking to a lean man in dark blue. “Cousin! Your petition of interrogation is granted.” Samson Merandus snaps to attention and emerges from the crowd, clear-eyed. He bows, almost grinning. Blue robes billow, dark as smoke. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” “No.” The word wrenches itself from me. “No, Maven!” Samson moves quickly, ascending the platform with controlled fury. He closes the distance between us in a few determined strides, until his eyes are the only thing in my world. Blue eyes, Elara’s eyes, Maven’s eyes. “Maven!” I gasp again, begging even though it will do nothing. Begging even though it burns my pride to think I’m asking him for anything. But what else is there to do? Samson is a whisper. He’ll destroy me from the inside out, search everything I am, everything I know. How many people will die because of what I’ve seen? “Maven, please! Don’t let him do this!” I’m not strong enough to break Kitten’s grasp on my chain, or even struggle much when Trio seizes my shoulders. Both of them hold me in place with ease. My eyes flash from Samson to Maven. One hand on his throne, one hand in Evangeline’s. I miss you, his notes said. He is unreadable, but at least he’s looking. Good. If he won’t save me from this nightmare, I want him to see it happen. “Maven,” I whisper one last time, trying to sound like myself. Not the lightning girl, not Mareena the lost princess, but Mare. The girl he watched through the bars of a cell and pledged to save. But that girl isn’t enough. He drops his eyes. He looks away. I am alone. Samson takes my throat in his hand, squeezing above the metal collar, forcing me to look into his wretched, familiar eyes. Blue as ice, and just as unforgiving. “You were wrong to kill Elara,” he says, not bothering to temper his words. “She was a surgeon with minds.” He leans in, hungry, a starving man about to devour a meal. “I am a butcher.” When the sounder device leveled me, I wallowed in agony for three long days. A storm of radio waves turned my own electricity against me. It resounded in my skin, rattling between my nerves like bolts in a jar. It left scars. Jagged lines of white flesh down my neck and spine, ugly things that I’m still not used to. They twinge and tug at odd angles, making benign movements painful. Even my smiles are tainted, smaller in the wake of what was done to me. Now I would beg for it if I could. The screeching click of a sounder as it peels me apart would be a heaven, a bliss, a mercy. I would rather be broken in bone and muscle, shattered down to teeth and fingernails, obliterated in every inch, than suffer another second of Samson’s whispers. I can feel him. His mind. Filling up my corners like a corruption or a rot or a cancer. He scrapes inside my head with sharp skin and even sharper intentions. Any part of me not taken by his poison writhes in pain. He enjoys doing this to me. This is his revenge, after all. For what I did to Elara, his blood and his queen. She was the first memory he tore from me. My lack of remorse incensed him, and I regret it now. I wish I could’ve forced some sympathy, but the image of her death was too frightening for much more than shock. I remember it now. He forces me to. In an instant of blinding pain, sucking me backward through my memories, I find myself back in the moment I killed her. My ability draws lightning out of the sky in ragged lines of purple-white. One strikes her head-on, cascading into her eyes and mouth, down her neck and arms, from fingers to toes and back again. The sweat on her skin boils to steam, her flesh chars until it smokes, and the buttons on her jacket turn red hot, burning through cloth and skin. She jerks, tearing at herself, trying to be rid of my electric rage. Her fingertips rip clean, exposing bone, while the muscles of her beautiful face go slack, drooping from the relentless pull of jumping currents. Ash-white hair burns black and smolders, disintegrating. And the smell. The sound. She screams until her vocal cords pull apart. Samson makes sure the scene passes slowly, his ability manipulating the forgotten memory until every second brands itself into my conscience. A butcher indeed. His rage sends me spinning with nothing to cling to, caught in a storm I cannot control. All I can do is pray not to see what Samson is searching for. I try to keep Shade’s name from my thoughts. But the walls I put up are little more than paper. Samson rips through them gleefully. I feel each one being torn away, another part of me mangled. He knows what I’m trying to keep from him, to never live through again. He chases through my thoughts, faster than my brain, outrunning every weak attempt to stop him. I try to scream or beg, but no sound comes from my mouth or mind. He holds everything in the palm of his hand. “Too easy.” His voice echoes in me, around me. Like Elara’s ending, Shade’s death is captured in perfect, painful detail. I must relive every awful second in my own body, unable to do anything but watch, trapped inside myself. Radiation tangs the air. Corros Prison is on the edge of the Wash, close to the nuclear wasteland forming our southern border. Cold mist shrouds morning against a gray dawn. For a moment, all is still, suspended in balance. I stare out, unmoving, frozen midstep. The prison yawns at my back, still shuddering with the riot we began. Prisoners and pursuers bleed from its gates. Following us to freedom, or something like it. Cal is already gone, his familiar form a hundred yards away. I made Shade jump him first, to protect one of our only pilots, and our only manner of escape. Kilorn is still with me, frozen as I am, his rifle tucked against his shoulder. He aims behind us, at Queen Elara, her guards, and Ptolemus Samos. A bullet explodes from the muzzle, born of sparks and gunpowder. It, too, hangs in midair, waiting for Samson to release his grip on my mind. Overhead, the sky swirls, heavy with electricity. My own power. The feel of it would make me cry if I could. The memory begins to move, slowly at first. Ptolemus forges himself a long, gleaming needle in addition to the many weapons already at hand. The perfect edge glitters with Red and Silver blood, each droplet a gemstone warbling through the air. Despite her ability, Ara Iral is not fast enough to dodge its lethal arc. It slices through her neck in one lingering second. She falls a few feet away from me, sluggishly, as if through water. Ptolemus means to kill me in the same motion, using the momentum of his blow to turn the needle on my heart. Instead, he finds my brother in the way. Shade jumps back to us, to teleport me to safety. His body materializes from thin air: first his chest and head, then his extremities paint into existence. Hands outstretched, eyes focused, his attention only on me. He doesn’t see the needle. He doesn’t know he’s about to die. It was not Ptolemus’s intent to kill Shade, but he doesn’t mind doing it. Another enemy dead makes no difference to him. Just another obstacle in his war, another body with no name and no face. How many times have I done the same thing? He probably doesn’t even know who Shade is. Was. I know what comes next, but no matter how hard I try, Samson won’t let me shut my eyes. The needle pierces my brother with clean grace, through muscle and organ, blood and heart. Something in me erupts and the sky responds. As my brother falls, so does my rage. But I never feel the bittersweet release of it. The lightning never strikes the earth, killing Elara and scattering her guards as it should. Samson never allows me that small mercy. Instead, he pulls the scene backward. Again it plays. Again my brother dies. Again. Again. Each time he forces me to see something else. A mistake. A misstep. A choice I could’ve made to save him. Small decisions. Step here, turn there, run a bit faster. It is torture of the worst kind. Look what you did. Look what you did. Look what you did. His voice ripples, all around me. Other memories splinter through Shade’s death, visions bleeding into one another. Each plays on a different fear or weakness. There’s the tiny corpse I found in Templyn, a Red baby murdered by Maven’s newblood hunters at Maven’s command. In another instant, Farley’s fist connects with my face. She screams horrible things, blaming me for Shade’s death while her own anguish threatens to consume her. Steaming tears run down Cal’s cheeks as a sword trembles in his hand, the blade edged against his father’s neck. Shade’s meager grave on Tuck, alone beneath the autumn sky. The Silver officers I electrocuted in Corros, in Harbor Bay, men and women who were only following orders. They had no choice. No choice. I remember all the death. All the heartache. The look on my sister’s face when an officer broke her hand. Kilorn’s bleeding knuckles when he found out he was going to be conscripted. My brothers taken to war. My father returning from the front half a man in mind and body, exiling himself to a rickety wheelchair—and a life apart from us. My mother’s sad eyes when she told me she was proud of me. A lie. A lie now. And finally the sick ache, the hollow truth that dogged every moment of my old life—that I was ultimately doomed. I still am. Samson sweeps through it all with abandon. He pulls me through useless memories, drawn up only to subject me to more pain. Shadows jump through the thoughts. Moving images behind every painful moment. Samson spools through them, too fast for me to truly grasp. But I gather enough. The Colonel’s face, his scarlet eye, his lips forming words I can’t hear. But surely Samson can. This is what he’s looking for. Intelligence. Secrets he can use to crush the rebellion. I feel like an egg with a cracked shell, slowly seeping my innards. He pulls whatever he wants from me. I don’t even have the ability to feel ashamed at what else he finds. Nights spent curled against Cal. Forcing Cameron to join our cause. Stolen moments rereading Maven’s sickening notes. Memories of who I thought the forgotten prince was. My cowardice. My nightmares. My mistakes. Every selfish step I took that led me here. Look what you did. Look what you did. Look what you did. Maven will know it all soon enough. This was always what he wanted. The words, scrawled in his looping hand, burn through my thoughts. I miss you. Until we meet again. FOUR Cameron I still can’t believe we survived. I dream about it sometimes. Watching them drag Mare away, her body held tightly between a pair of gigantic strongarms. They were gloved against her lightning, not that she tried to use it after she made her bargain. Her life for ours. I didn’t expect King Maven to follow through. Not with his exiled brother on the line. But he kept his deal. He wanted her more than the rest. Still, I wake up from the usual nightmares, afraid he and his hunters have returned to kill us. The snores from the rest of my bunk room chase the thoughts away. They told me the new headquarters was a bleeding ruin, but I expected something more like Tuck. A once-abandoned facility, isolated but functional, rebuilt in secret with all the amenities a burgeoning rebellion might need. I hated Tuck on sight. The block barracks and guard-like soldiers, even if they were Red, reminded me too much of Corros Prison. I saw the island as another jail. Another cell I was being forced into, this time by Mare Barrow instead of a Silver officer. But at least on Tuck I had the sky above me. A clean breeze in my lungs. Compared to Corros, compared to New Town, compared to this, Tuck was a reprieve. Now I shiver with the rest in the concrete tunnels of Irabelle, a Scarlet Guard stronghold on the outskirts of the Lakelander city of Trial. The walls feel frozen to the touch, and icicles dangle from rooms without a heat source. A few of the Guard officers have taken to following Cal around, if only to take advantage of his radiating warmth. I do the opposite, avoiding his lumbering presence as best I can. I have no use for the Silver prince, who looks at me with nothing but accusation. As if I could have saved her. My barely trained ability was nowhere near enough. And you weren’t enough either, Your Bleeding Highness, I want to snap at him every time we cross paths. His flame was no match for the king and his hunters. Besides, Mare offered the trade and made her choice. If he’s angry at anyone, it should be her. The lightning girl did it to save us, and for that I am always thankful. Even if she was a self-centered hypocrite, she doesn’t deserve what’s happening to her. The Colonel gave the order to evacuate Tuck the moment we were able to radio back to him. He knew any interrogation of Mare Barrow would lead directly to the island. Farley was able to get everyone to safety, either in boats or the massive cargo jet stolen from the prison. We were forced to travel overland ourselves, hightailing from the crash site to rendezvous with the Colonel across the border. I say forced because, once again, I was told what to do and where to go. We had been flying to the Choke in an attempt to rescue a legion of child soldiers. My brother was one of them. But our mission had to be abandoned. For now, they told me every time I got enough courage to refuse another step away from the war front. The memory makes my cheeks burn. I should’ve kept going. They wouldn’t have stopped me. Couldn’t have stopped me. But I was afraid. So close to the trench line, I realized what it meant to march alone. I would have died in vain. Still, I can’t shake the shame of that choice. I walked away and left my brother yet again. It took weeks for everyone to reunite. Farley and her officers arrived last of all. I think her father, the Colonel, spent every day she was gone pacing the frigid halls of our new base. At the very least, Barrow’s making her imprisonment useful. The distraction of such a prisoner, not to mention the boiling mess of Corvium, has stalled any troop movements around the Choke. My brother is safe. Well, as safe as a fifteen-year-old can possibly be with a gun and a uniform. Safer than Mare certainly is. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen King Maven’s address. Cal took over a corner of the control room to play it again and again once we arrived. The first time we saw it, I don’t think any of us dared to breathe. We all feared the worst. We thought we were about to watch Mare lose her head. Her brothers were beside themselves, fighting tears, and Kilorn couldn’t even look, hiding his face in his hands. When Maven declared execution was too good for her, I think Bree actually fainted in relief. But Cal looked on in deafening silence, his brows knit together in focus. Deep down he knew, like we all did, that something much worse than death waited for Mare Barrow. She knelt before a Silver king and stood still while he put a collar around her throat. Said nothing, did nothing. Let him call her a terrorist and murderer before the eyes of our entire nation. Part of me wishes she’d snapped, but I know she couldn’t put a toe out of line. She just glared at everyone around her, eyes sweeping back and forth between the Silvers crowding her platform. They all wanted to get close to her. Hunters around a trophy kill. In spite of the crown, Maven didn’t look so kingly. Tired, maybe sick, definitely angry. Probably because the girl next to him had just murdered his mother. He tugged at Mare’s collar, forced her to walk inside. She managed one last look over her shoulder, eyes wide and searching. But another tug turned her around for good, and we haven’t seen her face since. She’s been there, and I’ve been here, rotting, freezing, spending my days rewiring equipment older than I am. All of it a bleeding waste. I steal one last minute in my bunk to think about my brother, where he might be, what he’s doing. Morrey. My twin in nothing but appearance. He was a soft boy in the hard alleys of New Town, constantly sick from the factory smoke. I don’t want to imagine what military training has done to him. Depending on who you ask, techie workers were either too valuable or too weak for the army. Until the Scarlet Guard started their meddling, killed a few Silvers, and forced the old king into some meddling of his own. We were both conscripted, even though we had jobs. Even though we were only fifteen. The bloody Measures enacted by Cal’s own father changed everything. We were selected, told to be soldiers, and we were marched away from our parents. They split us up almost immediately. My name was on some list and his wasn’t. Once, I was grateful I was the one sent to Corros. Morrey would have never survived the cells. Now I wish we could trade places. Him free, and me on the lines. But no matter how many times I petition the Colonel for another attempt at the Little Legion, he always turns me away. So I might as well ask again. The tool belt is a familiar weight around my hips, thunking with every step. I walk with purpose, enough to deter anyone who might bother to stop me. But for the most part, the halls are empty. No one is around to watch me stalk past, gnawing on a breakfast roll. More captains and their units must be out on patrol again, scouting Trial and the border. Looking for Reds, I think, the ones lucky enough to make it north. Some come here to join up, but they’re always of military age or workers with skills useful to the cause. I don’t know where the families are sent: the orphans, the widows, the widowers. The ones who would only be in the way. Like me. But I get underfoot on purpose. It’s the only way to get any kind of attention. The Colonel’s broom closet—I mean office—is one floor above the bunk rooms. I don’t bother to knock, trying the doorknob instead. It turns easily, opening into a grim, cramped room with concrete walls, a few locked cabinets, and a currently occupied desk. “He’s over in control,” Farley says, not looking up from her papers. Her hands are ink-stained, and there are even smudges on her nose and under her bloodshot eyes. She pores over what look like Guard communications, coded messages and orders. From Command, I know, remembering the constant whispers about the upper levels of the Scarlet Guard. No one knows much about them, least of all me. Nobody tells me anything unless I ask a dozen times. I frown at her appearance. Despite the table hiding her stomach, her condition has begun to show. Her face and fingers look swollen. Not to mention the three plates piled with food scraps. “Probably a good idea to sleep now and then, Farley.” “Probably.” She seems annoyed by my concern. Fine, don’t listen. With a low sigh, I turn back to the doorway, putting her behind me. “Let him know Corvium is on the edge,” Farley adds, her voice strong and cutting. An order but also something else. I glance over my shoulder at her, an eyebrow raised. “Edge of what?” “There have been riots, sporadic reports of Silver officers turning up dead, and ammunition depots have developed a nasty habit of exploding.” She almost smirks at that. Almost. I haven’t seen her smile since Shade Barrow died. “Sounds like familiar work. Is the Scarlet Guard in the city?” Finally she looks up. “Not to our knowledge.” “Then the legions are turning.” Hope flares sharp and raw in my chest. “The Red soldiers—” “There’s thousands of them stationed at Corvium. And more than a few have realized they substantially outnumber their Silver officers. Four to one, at least.” Four to one. Just like that, my hope sours. I’ve seen what Silvers are and what they can do firsthand. I’ve been their prisoner and their opponent, able to fight only because of my own ability. Four Reds against a single Silver is still suicide. Still an outright loss. But Farley doesn’t seem to agree. She senses my unease and softens as best she can. Like a razor turning into a knife. “Your brother isn’t in the city. The Dagger Legion is still behind the lines of the Choke.” Stuck between a minefield and a city on fire. Fantastic. “It’s not Morrey that I’m worried about.” At the moment. “I just don’t see how they can expect to take the city. They might have the numbers, but the Silvers are . . . well, they’re Silvers. A few dozen magnetrons could kill hundreds without blinking.” I picture Corvium in my head. I’ve only seen it in brief videos, snippets taken from Silver broadcasts or report footage filtered down through the Scarlet Guard. It’s more fortress than city, walled with foreboding black stone, a monolith looking north to the barren wastes of war. Something about it reminds me of the place I reluctantly called home. New Town had walls of its own, and so many officers overseeing our lives. We were thousands too, but our only rebellions were being late to shift or sneaking out after curfew. There was nothing to be done. Our lives were weak and meaningless as smoke. Farley turns back to her work. “Just tell him what I said. He’ll know what to do.” I can only nod, shutting the door as she tries and fails to hide a yawn. “Have to recalibrate the video receivers, Captain Farley’s orders—” The two Guardsmen flanking the door to central control step back before I even finish my sentence, my usual lie. Both look away, avoiding my gaze, and I feel my face burn with an ashamed flush. Newbloods scare people as much as Silvers do, if not more so. Reds with abilities are just as unpredictable, just as powerful, just as dangerous, in their eyes. After we first got here and more soldiers arrived, the whispers about me and the others spread like disease. The old woman can change her face. The twitchy one can surround you with illusions. The techie girl can kill you with thought alone. It feels terrible to be feared. And worst of all, I can’t blame anyone for it. We are different and strange, with powers not even Silvers can claim. We are frayed wires and glitching machines, still learning ourselves and our abilities. Who knows what we might become? I swallow the familiar discomfort and step into the next room. Central control usually buzzes with screens and communication equipment, but for now the room is oddly quiet. Only a single broadcaster whirs, spitting out a long strip of correspondence paper printed with a decrypted message. The Colonel stands over the machine, reading as the strip lengthens. His usual ghosts, Mare’s brothers, sit close by, both of them jumpy as rabbits. And the fourth occupant of the room is all I need to know about whatever report is coming in. This is news of Mare Barrow. Why else would Cal be here too? He broods, as usual, his chin resting on interlocked fingers. Long days underground have taken their toll, paling his already-pale skin. For a prince, he really lets himself go in times of crisis. Right now he looks like he needs a shower and a shave, not to mention a few well-aimed slaps to wake him out of his stupor. But he’s a soldier still. His eyes snap to mine before the others’. “Cameron,” he says, doing his best not to growl. “Calore.” He’s an exiled prince at best. No need for titles. Unless I really want to piss him off. Like father, like daughter. Colonel Farley doesn’t look up from the communication, but he acknowledges me with a dramatic sigh. “Let’s save ourselves some time, Cameron. I have neither the manpower nor the opportunity to attempt rescuing an entire legion.” I mouth the words along with him. He says them to me almost every day. “A legion of barely trained children who Maven will slaughter once given the opportunity,” I counter. “So you keep reminding me.” “Because you need to be reminded! Sir,” I add, almost wincing at the word. Sir. I’m not oathed to the Guard, no matter how much they treat me like a member of their club. The Colonel’s eyes narrow in on part of the message. “She’s been interrogated.” Cal stands so quickly he knocks over his chair. “Merandus?” A tremor of heat pulses through the room, and I feel a ripple of sickness in me. Not because of Cal, but because of Mare. Because of the horrors happening to her. Upset, I knit my hands together behind my head, pulling the curly dark hair at the nape of my neck. “Yes,” the Colonel replies. “A man named Samson.” The prince curses quite colorfully for a royal. “What does that mean?” Bree, Mare’s burly eldest brother, dares to ask. Tramy, the other surviving Barrow son, frowns deeply. “Merandus is the queen’s house. Whispers—mind readers. They’ll pull her apart to find us.” “And for sport,” Cal murmurs with a low rumble. Both Barrow brothers flush red at the implication. Bree blinks back fierce, sudden tears. I want to take his arm, but I stay still. I’ve seen enough people flinch away from my touch. “Which is why Mare knows nothing of our operations outside Tuck, and Tuck has been thoroughly left behind,” the Colonel says quickly. It’s true. They abandoned Tuck with blinding speed, casting off anything that Mare Barrow knew of. Even the Silvers we captured from Corros—or rescued, depending on who you ask—were left at the coast. Too dangerous to keep hold of, too many to control. I’ve only been with the Scarlet Guard a month, but I already know their words by heart. Rise, red as the dawn, of course, and know only what you need. The first is a battle cry, the second a warning. “Whatever she gives them will be peripheral at best,” he adds. “Nothing important about Command, and little about our dealings outside Norta.” No one cares, Colonel. I bite my tongue to keep from snapping at him. Mare is a prisoner. So what if they don’t get anything about the Lakelands, Piedmont, or Montfort? Montfort. The distant nation ruled by a so-called democracy, an equal balance of Reds, Silvers, and newbloods. A paradise? Maybe, but I have long since learned that paradise does not exist in this world. I probably know more about the country than Mare now, what with the twins, Rash and Tahir, always squawking about Montfort’s merits. I’m not stupid enough to trust their word. Not to mention it’s pure torture holding a conversation with them, always finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences. Sometimes I want to use my silence on them both, to sever the ability that binds their thoughts into one. But that would be cruel, not to mention idiotic. People are already wary of us without watching newbloods ability-bicker. “Does what they get out of her really matter right now?” I force through gritted teeth. Hopefully the Colonel understands what I’m trying to say. At least spare her brothers this, Colonel. Have some shame. He just blinks, one good eye and one destroyed. “If you can’t stomach intelligence, then don’t come to control. We need to know what they got out of her in interrogation.” “Samson Merandus is an arena fighter, though he has no reason to be,” Cal says in a low voice. Trying to be gentle. “He enjoys using his ability to inflict pain. If he is the one to interrogate Mare, then . . .” He stumbles over the words, reluctant to speak. “It’ll be torture, plain and simple. Maven has given her to a torturer.” Even the Colonel looks disturbed by the thought. Cal stares at the floor, silent for a long, stoic moment. “I never thought Maven would do that to her,” he mutters finally. “She probably didn’t either.” Then you’re both stupid, my brain screams. How many times does one wicked boy have to betray you people before you learn? “Did you need something else, Cameron?” Colonel Farley asks. He rolls up the message, spooling it like a circle of thread. The rest is clearly not for my ears. “It’s about Corvium. Farley says it’s on the edge.” The Colonel blinks. “Those were her words?” “That’s what I said.” Suddenly I’m no longer the focus of his attention. Instead, his eyes sweep to Cal. “Then it’s time to push.” The Colonel looks eager, but Cal could not seem more reluctant. He keeps still, knowing that any twitch might betray his true feelings. The lack of movement is just as damning. “I’ll see what I can come up with,” he finally forces out. That seems to be enough for the Colonel. He ducks his chin in a nod before turning his attention to Mare’s brothers. “Best let your family know,” he says, putting on a show of being gentle. “And Kilorn.” I shift, uncomfortable watching them digest the painful news of their sister and accept the burden of carrying it to the rest of their family. Bree’s words stick, but Tramy has strength enough to speak for his older brother. “Yes, sir,” he replies. “Though I don’t know where Warren gets to these days.” “Try the newblood barracks,” I offer. “He’s there more often than not.” Indeed, Kilorn spends most of his time with Ada. After Ketha died, Ada took on the arduous task of teaching him to read and write. Though I suspect he sticks with us because he has no one else. The Barrows are the closest thing he has to family, and they are a family of ghosts now, haunted by memories. I’ve never even seen her parents. They keep to themselves, deep in the tunnels. We take our leave of the Colonel together, four of us trooping out of the control room in awkward, stilted single file. Bree and Tramy peel away quickly, stomping their way toward their family’s quarters on the other side of the base. I do not envy them. I remember how my mother screamed when my brother and I were taken away. I wonder what hurts more—to hear nothing of your children, knowing they are in danger, or to be fed news of their pain piece by piece. Not that I’ll ever find out. There is no place for children, especially children of mine, in this stupid, ruined world. I give Cal space, but quickly think better of it. We’re nearly the same height, and catching up to his harried stride is no problem. “If your heart’s not in this, you’re going to get a lot of people killed.” He whirls, almost knocking me on my ass with the speed and force of his movement. I have seen his fire firsthand, but never so strongly as the flame blazing in his eyes. “Cameron, my heart is quite literally in this,” he hisses through gritted teeth. Swooning words. A romantic declaration. I can barely stop my eyes from rolling. “Save it for when we get her back,” I grumble. When, not if. He nearly set the control room on fire when the Colonel denied his request to explore ways to get messages to Mare within the palace. I don’t need him melting the hallway over a poor choice of words. He starts walking again, his pace doubled, but I’m not as easily left behind as the lightning girl. “I just mean to say that the Colonel has strategists of his own . . . people at Command . . . Scarlet Guard officers who don’t have”—I search for the proper term—“conflicting allegiances.” Cal huffs loudly, his broad shoulders rising and falling. Clearly any etiquette lessons he may have had took a backseat to military training. “Show me an officer who knows as much as I do about Silver protocols and the Corvium defense system and I’ll gladly step back from this mess.” “I’m sure there’s someone, Calore.” “Who’s fought with newbloods? Knows your abilities? Knows how best to use you in a fight?” I bristle at his tone. “‘Use,’” I spit. Use indeed. I remember those of us who didn’t survive Corros. Newbloods recruited by Mare Barrow, newbloods she promised to protect. Instead, Mare and Cal threw us into a battle we were not prepared for, and it became clear Mare couldn’t even protect herself. Nix, Gareth, Ketha, and others from the prison I didn’t even know. Dozens dead, discarded like pieces on a game board. That’s how it’s always worked with the Silver masters, and that’s how Cal was taught to fight. Win at all costs. Pay for every inch in Red blood. “You know what I mean.” I snort. “Maybe that’s why I’m not exactly confident.” Harsh, Cameron. “Listen,” I continue, switching tactics. “I know I’d burn everyone here if it meant getting my brother back. And luckily, that’s not a decision I have to make. But you—you actually have that option. I want to make sure you don’t take it.” It’s true. We’re here for the same reason. Not blind obedience to the Scarlet Guard, but because they are our only hope of saving the ones we love and lost. Cal quirks a crooked smile, the same one I’ve seen Mare moon over. It makes him look like more of a fool. “Don’t try to sweet-talk me, Cameron. I’m doing everything I can to keep us out of another massacre. Everything.” His expression turns harsh. “You think it’s just Silvers who care only about victory?” he mutters. “I’ve seen the Colonel’s reports. I’ve seen correspondence with Command. I’ve heard things. You’re embedded with people who think exactly the same way. They’ll burn all of us to get what they want.” Maybe true, I think, but at least what they want is justice. I think of Farley, the Colonel, the oathed soldiers of the Scarlet Guard, and the Red refugees they protect. I’ve seen them ferry people across the border with my own eyes. I sat on one of their airjets as it screamed toward the Choke, intent on rescuing a legion of child soldiers. They have objectives with high costs, but they are not Silver. They kill, but not without reason. The Scarlet Guard are not peaceful, but peace has no place in this conflict. No matter what Cal might think of their methods and their secrecy, theirs is the only way anyone can hope to fight Silvers and win. Cal’s people brought this upon themselves. “If you’re so worried about Corvium, don’t go,” he says with a forced shrug. “And miss the chance to paint my hands in Silver blood?” I snap at him. I don’t know if I’m making a poor attempt to joke or threatening him outright. My patience has worn through yet again. I already had to deal with the whining of a walking lightning rod. I’m not going to tolerate the attitude of a mopey matchstick prince. Again his eyes blaze with anger and heat. I wonder if I’m fast enough with my ability to incapacitate him. What a fight that would be. Fire against silence. Would he burn or would I? “Funny thing, you telling me not to be careless with human life. I remember you doing everything you could to kill back in the prison.” A prison where I was kept. Starved, neglected, forced to watch the people around me wither and die because they were born . . . wrong. And even before I entered Corros, I was a prisoner of another jail. I am a daughter of New Town, conscripted to a different army since the day I was born, doomed to live my life in shadow and ash, at the mercy of the shift whistle and the factory schedule. Of course I tried to kill the ones who held me captive. I would do it again if given the choice. “Proud of it,” I tell him, setting my jaw. He despairs of me. That much is clear. Good. There’s no amount of speechmaking that will ever sway me to his thinking. I doubt anyone else will listen much either. Cal is a prince of Norta. Exiled, yes, but different from us in every way. His ability is to be used as much as mine, but he is a barely tolerated weapon. His words can only travel so far. And even then they fall on deaf ears. Mine especially. Without warning, he sets off down a smaller passage, one of the many burrowing through the warren of Irabelle. It branches off from the wider hall, angling upward to the surface in a gentle slope. I let him go, puzzled. There’s nothing in that direction. Just empty passages, abandoned, unused. Yet something tugs. I’ve heard things, he said. Suspicion flares in my chest as he walks away, his broad form getting smaller by the second. For a moment, I hesitate. Cal is not my friend. We’re barely on the same side. But he is nothing if not annoyingly noble. He won’t hurt me. So I follow. The corridor is obviously unused, cluttered with scraps and dark in places where the lightbulbs are burned out. Even from a distance, Cal’s presence warms the close air with every passing second. It’s actually a comfortable temperature, and I make a mental note to speak with a few other escaped techies. Maybe we can figure out a way to warm up the lower passages using pressurized air. My eyes trail the cabled wires along the ceiling, counting them. More there than there should be, to feed a few lightbulbs. I hang back, watching as Cal shoulders some wood pallets and scrap metal from a wall. He reveals a door beneath, with the cables running overhead and into whatever room it hides. When he disappears, pulling the door shut behind him, I dare to get a little closer. The tangle of cables comes into sharper focus. Radio array. Now I see it, clear as the nose on my bleeding face. The telltale braid of black wires that means the room inside has the ability to communicate beyond the walls of Irabelle. But who could he possibly be communicating with? My first instinct is to tell Farley or Kilorn. But then . . . if Cal thinks that whatever he’s doing will keep me and a thousand others from a suicide attack on Corvium, I should let him continue. And hope I don’t regret it. FIVE Mare I drift on a dark sea, and shadows drift with me. They could be memories. They could be dreams. Familiar but strange, and something wrong with each. Cal’s eyes are shot with silver, bleeding hot, smoking blood. My brother’s face looks more skeleton than flesh. Dad gets out of his wheelchair, but his new legs are spindle thin, knobbled, ready to splinter with every shaking step. Gisa has metal pins in both hands, and her mouth is sewn shut. Kilorn drowns in the river, tangled in his perfect nets. Red rags spill from Farley’s slit throat. Cameron claws at her own neck, struggling to speak, trapped in a silence of her own making. Metal scales shudder over Evangeline’s skin, swallowing her whole. And Maven slumps on his odd throne, letting it tighten and consume him until he is stone himself, a seated statue with sapphire eyes and diamond tears. Purple eats at the edge of my vision. I try to turn in to its embrace, knowing what it holds. My lightning is so close. If only I could find the memory of it and taste one last drop of power before plunging back into darkness. But it fades like the rest, ebbing away. I expect to feel cold as the darkness presses in. Instead, heat rises. Maven is suddenly too close to bear. Blue eyes, black hair, pale as a dead man. His hand hovers inches from my cheek. It trembles, wanting to touch, wanting to pull away. I don’t know which I would prefer. I think I sleep. Darkness and light trade places, stretching back and forth. I try to move, but my limbs are too heavy. The work of manacles or guards or both. They weigh me down worse than before, and the terrible visions are the only escape. I chase what matters most—Shade, Gisa, the rest of my family, Cal, Kilorn, lightning. But they always dance out of my grip or flicker to nothing when I reach them. Another torture, I suppose—Samson’s way of running me ragged even as I sleep. Maven is there too, but I never go to him, and he never moves. Always sitting, always staring, one hand on his temple, massaging an ache. I never see him blink. Years or seconds pass. The pressure dulls. My mind sharpens. Whatever fog held me captive recedes, burning off. I am allowed to wake up. I feel thirsty, bled dry by bitter tears I do not remember shedding. The crushing weight of silence hangs heavy as always. For a moment it’s too difficult to breathe, and I wonder if this is how I die. Drowned in this bed of silk, burned by a king’s obsession, smothered by open air. I’m back in my prison bedchamber. Maybe I’ve been here the entire time. The white light streaming from the windows tells me it has snowed again, and the world outside is bright winter. When my sight adjusts to it, letting the room come into clearer focus, I risk looking around. Flashing my eyes left and right, not moving more than I have to. Not that it matters. The Arvens stand guard at the four corners of my bed, each one staring down. Kitten, Clover, Trio, and Egg. They exchange glances with one another as I blink up at them. Samson is nowhere I can see, though I expect him to loom over me with a malicious smile and a snappy welcome. Instead, a small woman in plain clothes, with flawless blue-black skin like a polished gem, stands at the foot of my bed. I don’t know her face, but there’s something familiar about her features. Then I realize what I thought were manacles were actually hands. Hers. Each one tight around an ankle, soothing against my skin and the bones beneath. I recognize her colors. Red and silver crossed on her shoulders, representing both kinds of blood. Healer. Skin healer. She’s of House Skonos. The sensation I feel from her touch is healing me—or at least keeping me alive against the onslaught of four pillars of silence. Their pressure must be enough to kill me, if not for a healer. A delicate balance to be sure. She must be very talented. She has the same eyes as Sara. Bright, dark gray, expressive. But she isn’t looking at me. Her eyes, instead, are on something to my right. I flinch when I follow her gaze. Maven sits as I dreamed him. Still, focused, one hand on his temple. The other hand waves in silent order. And then there really are manacles. The guards move quickly, fastening strange braided metal studded with smoothly polished orbs around my ankles and wrists. They lock each one with a single key. I try to follow the key’s path, but in my daze, it flickers in and out of focus. Only the manacles stand out. They feel heavy and cold. I expect one more, a new collar to mark my neck, but my neck is left blissfully bare. The jeweled thorns don’t come back. To my eternal surprise, the healer and the guards take their leave of me, walking from the room. I watch them go in confusion, trying to hide the sudden leap of excitement sending my pulse into overdrive. Is everyone really this stupid? Will they leave me alone with Maven? Does he think I won’t try to kill him in a heartbeat? I turn to him, trying to get out of bed, trying to move. But anything faster than sitting up feels impossible, as if my very blood has turned to lead. I quickly understand why. “I’m quite aware of what you’d like to do to me,” he says, his voice barely a whisper. My fists clench, fingers twitching. I reach for what still won’t respond. What can’t respond. “More Silent Stone,” I mumble, saying the words like a curse. The polished orbs of my wearable prison gleam. “You must be running low by now.” “Thank you for your concern, but the supply is well in order.” As I did in the cells beneath the Bowl of Bones, I spit in his direction. It lands harmlessly at his feet. He doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he smiles. “Get it out of your system now. The court will not take kindly to such behavior.” “As if I— Court?” The last word sputters out. His smile spreads. “I did not misspeak.” My insides cringe at the sight of his grin. “Lovely,” I say. “You’re tired of keeping me caged up where you can’t see me.” “Actually, I find it difficult being this close to you.” His eyes flicker over me with an emotion I don’t want to place. “The feeling is mutual,” I snarl, if only to kill the strange softness in him. I would rather face his fire, his rage, than any quiet word. He doesn’t rise to the bait. “I doubt that.” “Where’s my leash, then? Do I get a new one?” “No leash, no collar.” He angles his chin at my manacles. “Nothing but those now.” What he’s getting at, I cannot begin to fathom. But I’ve long stopped trying to understand Maven Calore and the twists of his labyrinthine brain. So I let him keep talking. He always tells me what I need, in the end. “Your interrogation was very fruitful. So much to learn about you, about the terrorists calling themselves the Scarlet Guard.” My breath catches in my throat. What did they find? What did I miss? I try to remember the most important pieces of my knowledge, to figure out which will be the most harmful to my friends. Tuck, the Montfort twins, the newblood abilities? “Cruel people, aren’t they?” he continues. “Bent on destroying everything and everyone who is not like them.” “What are you talking about?” The Colonel locked me up, yes, and fears me still, but we are allies now. What could that mean to Maven? “Newbloods, of course.” I still don’t understand. There’s no reason for him to care about Reds with abilities beyond what he must do to get rid of us. First he denied we existed, calling me a trick. Now we are freaks, threats. Things to be feared and eradicated. “It’s such a shame, to know you were treated so badly you felt the need to run from that old man calling himself a colonel.” Maven enjoys this, explaining his plan in slivers, waiting for me to piece it together. My head is still foggy, my body weak, and I try my best to figure out what he means. “Worse still, that he debated shipping you off to the mountains, discarding you all like garbage.” Montfort. But that wasn’t what happened. That wasn’t what was offered to us. “And of course I was very upset to learn the true intentions of the Scarlet Guard. To make a Red world, a Red dawn, with room for nothing else. No one else.” “Maven.” The word quivers with all the rage I have strength to call. If not for my manacles, I would explode. “You can’t—” “Can’t what? Tell the truth? Tell my country the Scarlet Guard is luring newbloods to its side only to kill them? To make a genocide of them—of you—as well as us? That the infamous rebel Mare Barrow came back to me willingly, and that this was discovered during an interrogation where the truth is impossible to hide?” He leans forward, well within striking distance. But he knows I can barely lift a finger. “That you are on our side now, because you have seen what the Scarlet Guard truly is? Because you and your newbloods are feared as we are, blessed as we are, Silver as we are, in everything but the color of blood?” My jaw works, opening and closing my mouth. But I can’t find the words to match my horror. All this done without Queen Elara’s whispers. All this with her dead and cold. “You’re a monster” is all I can say. A monster, all on his own. He draws back, still smiling. “Never tell me what I cannot do. And never underestimate what I will do—for my kingdom.” His hand falls on my wrist, drawing one finger down the manacle of Silent Stone keeping me prisoner. I tremble out of fear, but so does he. With his eyes on my hand, I’m given time to study him. His casual clothes, black as always, are rumpled, and he does not stand on ceremony. No crown, no badges. An evil boy, but a boy still. One I must figure out how to fight. But how? I’m weak, my lightning is gone, and anything I might say will be twisted beyond my control. I can barely walk, let alone escape unaided. Rescue is all but impossible, a hopeless dream that I can’t waste any more time on. I’m stuck here, trapped by a lethal, conniving king. He dogged me over months, haunting me from afar in everything from broadcasts to his deadly notes. I miss you. Until we meet again. He said he was a man of his word. Perhaps, in this alone, he is. With a deep breath, I poke at the only weakness I suspect he might still have. “Were you here?” Blue eyes snap to mine. It’s his turn to look confused. “Through this.” I glance at the bed, and then far away. It’s painful to remember Samson’s torture, and I hope it shows. “I dreamed you were here.” The warmth of him recedes, drawing back to leave the room cold with oncoming winter. His eyelids flutter, dark lashes against white skin. For a second, I remember the Maven I thought he was. I see him again, a dream or a ghost. “Every second,” he answers. When a gray flush spreads across his cheeks, I know it’s the truth. And now I know how to hurt him. The manacles make it too easy to fall asleep, so merely pretending to do so is difficult. Beneath the blanket, I clench a fist, digging my nails into my palm. I count the seconds. I count Maven’s breaths. Finally, his chair creaks. He stands. He hesitates. I can almost feel his eyes, their touch burning against my still face. And then he goes, footsteps light against the wood floor, sweeping through my bedroom with the grace and quiet of a cat. The door shuts softly behind him. So easy to sleep. I wait instead. Two minutes pass, but the Arven guards don’t return. I suppose they think the manacles are enough to keep me here. They are wrong. My legs wobble when they hit the floor, bare feet against cold wood in parquet designs. If there are cameras watching, I don’t care. They can’t stop me from walking. Or trying to walk. I don’t like doing things slowly. Especially now, when every moment counts. Every second could mean another person I love dead. So I shove off the bed, forcing myself to stand on weak, trembling legs. An odd sensation, with Silent Stone weighing down my wrists and ankles, leaching what little strength my anger gives me. It takes a long moment to bear the pressure. I doubt I’ll ever get used to it. But I can get past it. The first step is the easiest. A lunge to the little table where I take my meals. The second is more difficult, now that I know how much effort it takes. I walk like a man drunk or hobbled. For a split second, I envy my father’s wheelchair. The shame of such thoughts fuels my next steps, across the length of the room. Panting, I reach the othe