Darkness was a beautiful thing. The kiss of a shadow.
A caress as soft as moonlight. It had always been my refuge, my
place of escape, whether I was sneaking onto a rooftop lit only
by the stars or down a midnight alley to be with my brothers.
Darkness was my ally. It made me forget the world I was in and
invited me to dream of another.
I sank deeper, searching for its comfort. Sweet murmurs
stirred me. Only a sliver of golden moon shone in the liquid dark,
fl oating, rocking, always moving, always out of my reach. Its
shifting light illuminated a meadow. My spirits lifted. I saw
Walther dancing with Greta. Just beyond them, Aster twirled to
music I couldn’t quite hear, and her long hair fl owed past her
shoulders. Was it the Festival of Deliverance already? Aster
called out to me, Don’t tarry now, Miz. Deep colors swirled; a
sprinkling of stars turned purple; the edges of the moon dissolved
like wet sugar into black sky; the darkness deepened.
Warm. Welcoming. Soft.
Except for the jostle.
The rhythmic shake came again and again. Demanding.
The voice that wouldn’t let go. Cold and bright and sharp.
A broad hard chest, frosty breaths when my eyes rolled open,
a voice that kept pulling the blanket away, pain bearing down, so
numbing I couldn’t breathe. The terrible brightness fl ashing,
stabbing, and fi nally ebbing when I could take no more.
Darkness again. Inviting me to stay. No breaths. No
When I was halfway between one world and another, a moment
of clarity broke through.
This is what it was to die.
The comfort of darkness was stripped away again. The gentle
warmth turned unbearably hot. More voices came. Harsh. Shouts.
Deep. Too many voices.
The Sanctum. I was back in the Sanctum. Soldiers, governors
. . . the Komizar.
My skin was on fi re, burning, stinging, wet with heat.
Lia, open your eyes. Now.
They had found me.
My eyes flew open. The room spun with fire and shadows,
flesh and faces. Surrounded. I tried to pull back, but searing pain
wrenched my breath away. My vision fluttered.
“Lia, don’t move.”
And then a flurry of voices. She’s come to. Hold her down. Don’t
let her get up.
I forced a shallow breath into my lungs, and my eyes focused.
I surveyed the faces staring down at me. Governor Obraun and
his guard. It wasn’t a dream. They had captured me. And then a
hand gently turned my head.
He knelt by my side.
I looked back at the others, remembering. Governor Obraun
and his guard had fought on our side. They helped us escape.
Why? Beside them were Jeb and Tavish.
“Governor,” I whispered, too weak to say more.
“Sven, Your Highness,” he said, dropping to one knee.
“Please call me Sven.”
The name was familiar. I’d heard it in frantic blurred moments.
Rafe had called him Sven. I looked around, trying to
get my bearings. I lay on the ground on a bedroll. Piles of
heavy blankets that smelled of horses were on top of me. Saddle
I tried to rise up on one arm, and pain tore through me again.
I fell back, the room spinning.
We have to get the barbs out.
She’s too weak.
She’s burning with fever. She’s only going to get weaker.
The wounds have to be cleaned and stitched.
I’ve never stitched a girl before.
Flesh is flesh.
I listened to them argue, and then I remembered. Malich had
shot me. An arrow in my thigh, and one in my back. The last I
remembered I was on a riverbank and Rafe was scooping me into
his arms, his lips cool against mine. How long ago was that?
Where were we now?
She’s strong enough. Do it, Tavish.
Rafe cupped my face and leaned close. “Lia, the barbs are
deep. We’ll have to cut the wounds to get them out.”
His eyes glistened. “You can’t move. I’ll have to hold you
“It’s all right,” I whispered. “I’m strong. Like you said.” I
heard the weakness of my voice contradicting my words.
Sven winced. “I wish I had some red- eye for you, girl.” He
handed Rafe something. “Put this in her mouth to bite down
on.” I knew what it was for—so I wouldn’t scream. Was the
Rafe put a leather sheath in my mouth. Cool air streamed
onto my bare leg as Tavish folded back the blanket to expose my
thigh, and I realized that I had little on beneath the blankets. A
chemise, if that. They must have removed my sodden dress.
Tavish mumbled an apology to me but wasted no time. Rafe
pinned down my arms, and someone else pressed down on my
legs. The knife cut into my thigh. My chest shuddered. Moans
escaped through my clenched teeth. My body recoiled against
my will, and Rafe pressed harder. “Look at me, Lia. Keep your
eyes on me. It’ll be over soon.”
I locked onto his eyes, the blue blazing. His gaze held me like
fire. Sweat dripped down his brow. The knife probed, and I lost
focus. Gurgled noises jumped from my throat.
Look at me, Lia.
“Got it!” Tavish finally shouted.
My breath came in gulps. Jeb wiped my face with a cool cloth.
Good job, Princess, from whom I didn’t know.
The stitching was easy compared to the cutting and probing.
I counted each time the needle went in. Fourteen times.
“Now for the back,” Tavish said. “That one will be a little
I woke to Rafe sleeping beside me. His arm rested
heavily across my stomach. I couldn’t remember much about
Tavish working on my back except him telling me the arrow
was embedded in my rib and that probably saved my life. I had
felt the cut, the probe, and then pain so bright I couldn’t see
anymore. Finally, as if from a hundred miles away, Rafe had
whispered in my ear, It’s out.
A small fire burned in a ring of rocks not far from me. It illuminated
one nearby wall, but the rest of our shelter remained
in shadows. It was a large cave of some sort. I heard the whicker
of horses. They were in here with us. On the other side of the
firering I saw Jeb, Tavish, and Orrin asleep on their bedrolls,
and just to my left, sitting back against the cave wall, Governor
It hit me fully for the first time. These were Rafe’s four men,
the four I’d had no confidence in— governor, guard, patty clapper,
and raft builder. I didn’t know where we were, but against all odds
they had somehow gotten us across the river. All of us alive. Except
My head ached, trying to sort it all out. Our freedom came
at a high cost to others. Who had died and who had survived
I tried to ease Rafe’s arm from my stomach so I could sit up,
but even that small movement sent blinding jolts through my
back. Sven sat upright, alerted by my movement and whispered,
“Don’t try to get up, Your Highness. It’s too soon.”
I nodded, measuring my breaths until the pain receded.
“Your rib is most likely cracked by the impact of the arrow.
You may have cracked more bones in the river. Rest.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A little hideaway I tucked into many years ago. I was thankful
I could still find it.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Two days. It’s a miracle you’re alive.”
I remembered sinking in the river. Thrashing, then being spit
up, a quick gust of air filling my lungs and then being pulled
under again. And again. My hands clutched at boulders, logs,
every thing slipping from my grasp, and then there was the fuzzy
recollection of Rafe leaning over me. I turned my head toward
Sven. “Rafe found me on the bank.”
“He carried you for twelve miles before we found him. This
is the first sleep he’s had.”
I looked at Rafe, his face gaunt and bruised. He had a gash
over his left brow. The river had taken its toll on him too. Sven
explained how he, Jeb, Orrin, and Tavish had maneuvered the
raft to the planned destination. They’d left their own horses and
a half dozen Vendan ones they had taken in battle in a makeshift
paddock, but many had escaped. They rounded up what they
could, gathered the supplies and saddles they had stashed in nearby
ruins, and began backtracking, searching the banks and forest for
us. They finally spotted some tracks and followed them. Once
they found us, they rode through the night to this shelter.
“If you were able to fi nd our tracks, then—”
“Not to worry, Your Highness. Listen.” He cocked his head
to the side.
A heavy whine vibrated through the cavern.
“A blizzard,” he said. “There will be no tracks to follow.”
Whether the storm was a blessing or hindrance, I wasn’t
sure—it would prevent us from traveling too. I remembered my
aunt Bernette telling me and my brothers about the great white
storms of her homeland that blocked out sky and earth and left
snow piled so high that she and her sisters could venture outside
only from the second floor of their fortress. Dogs with webbed
feet had pulled their sleds across the snow.
“But they will try to follow,” I said. “Eventually.”
I had killed the Komizar. Griz had lifted my hand to the clans
who were the backbone of Venda. He had declared me queen
and Komizar in a single breath. The clans had cheered. Only producing
my dead body would prove a successor’s claim to rule. I
imagined that successor to be Malich. I tried not to think about
what had happened to Kaden. I couldn’t allow my mind to drift
there, but still, his face loomed before me, and his last expression
of hurt and betrayal. Had Malich struck him down? Or one
of his other countrymen? He had fought against them for me.
Ultimately, he chose me over the Komizar. Was it the sight of a
child’s body in the snow that had finally pushed him over the
edge? It was what had pushed me.
I had killed the Komizar. It had been easy. I’d had no hesitation,
no remorse. Would my mother think of me as little more
than an animal? I’d felt nothing as I plunged the knife into him.
Nothing when I plunged it in again, except for the slight tug of
flesh and gut. Nothing when I killed three more Vendans after
that. Or was it five? Their shocked faces blended together in a
But none of it had come soon enough to save Aster.
Now it was her face that loomed, an image I couldn’t bear.
Sven held a cup of broth to my lips, claiming I needed nutrition,
but I already felt darkness closing in again, and I gratefully
let it overtake me.