***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Sarah Glenn Marsh
REIGN OF THE FALLEN
Today, for the second time in my life, I killed King Wylding. Killing’s the easy part of the job, though. He never even bleeds when a sword runs through him. It’s what comes after that gets messy.
When Evander and I finally stride through the wide palace doors, shouldering the burden of the king’s corpse between us, the sun is a gash on the horizon. It stains the jagged clouds, the palace’s marble walls, and every blade of grass with red as we trudge downhill toward the sea. King Wylding always likes a sea view when we necromancers bring him back to life.
I wonder how much of the rolling waves he can even glimpse through his mask and death shroud, but maybe it’s the sound of the crashing surf or the smell of the salt air he craves. Either way, I don’t question the man. And not just because he’s been ruling Karthia for two whole centuries. I can’t stand the rasp of his voice, dry as the wind rattling bare branches.
“Here we are.” Evander sets the king’s feet down before stretching to his full height. He reminds me of a crow in his fitted black necromancer’s clothes and long dark cloak, which covers his gloriously broad shoulders and the hard lines of muscle in his arms as he makes a sweeping gesture. “The best view in Grenwyr Province, Majesty.” His lips twitch as he catches my eye roll. “What?”
I grin and ease His Majesty’s head onto a bed of grass. Evander knows as well as I do that the king can’t hear us. Not yet. I just hope his spirit hasn’t gone too deep into the Deadlands, the spirits’ world.
I glance back toward the palace on the hill, but the path there is empty. None of the royal residents—living or Dead—have yet emerged. And we can’t raise the king, or anyone else, without one of their kin.
“I don’t remember a Wylding heir ever being late for a raising,” I say. “Even the nervous ones show up on time. Think something’s wrong?”
“I’m not worried.” Evander winks, then scans the overgrown field at our backs. Slipping an arm around my waist, he draws me against his side. “If you’re interested, I know a way to make the wait fly by, my lady—I mean, Master Odessa.”
I cringe and shove him away as irritation flutters in my chest. He’s been relentless with using our titles since we woke up today. “How many times do I have to punch you before you’ll stop calling me ‘Master’?”
“I’m sorry,” he says, a shiver of amusement in his voice. “Forgive me, Sparrow.” He presses a light kiss to my forehead, brushing his fingers over each of the birds tattooed above my elbows.
I meet his eyes. Then his lips. The heat of our kiss is almost enough to make me forget the dead king at our feet, who looks like someone’s lost, forgotten shadow in his dark shroud.
“I’m just proud of you,” he amends against my mouth. “Of us. We might be Grenwyr’s newest necromancers, but we’re definitely the best-looking.” He twines his ivory fingers through my brown ones. I’ve always loved the way they looked together, a tangle of dark and light. I shoot him a look that demands seriousness, and when he speaks again, all traces of merriment have fled. “We’re finally mages, Sparrow. That’s more than most people can say. We should shout it to all of Karthia!”
He’s right, of course. We’ve been training for this since I was a ten-year-old pest, and he, twelve. This job is all I’ve ever wanted—at least, it was all I wanted until two years ago, when Evander and I first kissed at the Festival of the Face of Cloud. If only being with him were as simple as moving between our world and the Deadlands.
“Careful,” I warn, only half joking. “Doesn’t your mother forbid such talk?”
Evander rests a hand on my back and gives me the look he’s perfected over time, the one that always wins me over, where his midnight-blue eyes soften like he’s letting me see inside him. All necromancers have blue eyes, but I’d never seen a hue that dark until I met Evander.
He drops his voice to a whisper, the kind that makes things clench low in my stomach. “Since when do you care about what’s forbidden by anyone?”
“Ha,” I say weakly, remembering a supper just a few nights ago when Evander’s mother spoke of her hopes for her only son to marry above his station. A countess, a duchess, someone with a fortune. But really, I think any girl would do—a baroness, or per-haps even a royal chambermaid—as long as she’s not a necromancer. Unlike the rest of Karthia, I think she’d rather die than allow another necromancer into her family, especially after she’s fought so hard against Evander’s chosen career these past seven years.
If it weren’t for the fact that we need his mother’s blessing for any Karthian priest to marry us, Evander and I would be wearing each other’s rings by now.
Pushing Baroness Crowther to the blackest corners of my mind, I run a hand through Evander’s close-cropped dark hair, making him smile. I won’t let her ruin a moment that she’s not part of. I kiss him breathless, filled with a longing and a recklessness that seem to be growing stronger every time we’re together.
A faint noise jolts us apart.
There’s no telling how long we’ve been standing here entwined, except that the sky is pure lavender now—but then, time always seems fluid when we’re together like this, as strange and unpredictable as the way hours pass in the Deadlands.
“Stop, Van,” I murmur, forcing the word out as cold grips me from head to toe. High on the palace ramparts, a black-shrouded figure turns to face us. My face warms, banishing some of the cold. “They’re finally here.”
Evander’s cheek presses against mine, scratching me with the stubble on his jaw. “Another day, another raising.” He keeps his voice low as he watches the distant figures.
Another shadow flits onto the ramparts, then another. I count perhaps twenty masked and shrouded nobles, all impossible to tell apart by height alone. Dead princes and princesses, deceased dukes and their wives, and of course, Her Majesty. All brought back by necromancers so that those who know Karthia best can continue to run it the way they always have, each one wearing a dark shroud for the protection of living and Dead alike. If a living person were to see even a sliver of a Dead one’s flesh, the Dead person would become a Shade—a monster notoriously difficult to kill.
“Wonder who’s making the sacrifice this time,” Evander mutters, shaking me from my thoughts. “Remember Prince Myk?”
I wrinkle my nose, tearing my gaze away from the Dead royals to look at him. “The one who started crying before we’d even reached the gate?”
Evander’s roguish grin returns. “Indeed. You’d think that for all the time they spend around the Dead, the Wylding descendants would be a little . . .”
“Braver?” I supply, narrowing my eyes at the palace’s wrought- iron gates. They slowly swing open to reveal a girl almost as tall as me, dressed in flowing red silk. A golden diadem set with a single teardrop-shaped opal rests at the peak of her forehead, flashing in the low light, marking her status as one of the king’s living heirs. As she strides toward us, the wind lifts her long blond hair behind her like a banner.
“I hope you’ve got a handkerchief ready,” I whisper to Evander. But as the princess glides nearer and I meet her brown eyes, bright with determination, I doubt we’ll be reliving the crying prince incident today.
“You must forgive my lateness,” she gushes as she reaches us. Even when standing still, she has an air of constant motion that makes me dizzy. “I was working. I’m afraid I lost track of the time.”
Evander and I exchange a look. Since when do any of the palace’s living occupants apologize for anything? For that matter, when do any of them work? All they do is sit around eating fancy cheeses and planning parties and art festivals. Maybe that’s what royalty calls “work,” though.
Up close, the ashen pallor of her skin and the smudges beneath her eyes are unmissable. Twin red lines on her cheeks suggest she wears glasses, but she seems to have forgotten them in her rush to meet us. Stranger still, she’s paler than Evander, and that’s saying something. Either she’s sick, or she doesn’t spend much time outside.
“It’s no trouble at all, Highness,” Evander assures her, smiling politely. With a glance at the shadowy figures watching from the palace walls in the distance, he gives the princess a deep bow. “I’m—”
“Evander Crowther. And this is your partner, Odessa of Grenwyr,” the princess chimes in, smiling as though pleased with herself. “I’ve heard all about you from my brother.”
“We’ll be helping you raise the king tonight,” Evander continues, sounding slightly amused. “Or rather, you’ll be helping us.”
The princess nods in answer, watching me with a keen gaze as I roll up my sleeves. She’s probably waiting for me to greet her properly, too.
I make a much quicker version of Evander’s bow, mostly because I can get away with it. Everyone expects fine manners from Baron Crowther’s only son, but from an orphan dumped in a convent’s garden, they’re usually amazed I don’t eat with my hands.
“Remind me of your name,” I say as I straighten. I’ve seen the princess around, of course, but she makes herself scarce enough that we’ve never been properly introduced. She’s the oldest living princess at the palace, one of two, and while it’s on the tip of my tongue—Vala? Vandra?—I can’t dredge it up just now.
She rubs her temples, gazing out over the water like she didn’t hear me. “Oh!” she says at last, turning back to us and blinking. “I’m Princess Valoria Juline Wylding. It’s an honor to meet you, both of you.”
I steal a quick look at Evander, who seems to be thinking along the same lines as I am: We shouldn’t take this dreamy-eyed girl to the perilous Deadlands.
“Highness?” Evander clears his throat. “Are you sure you’re feeling up to this? I could run to the palace and fetch someone to take your place. It’d be no trouble. You look—”
“Dead on your feet,” I finish for him, grinning at Princess Valoria while Evander groans at my joke. “Here.” I fish a few of my beloved coffee beans from my pocket and offer them to her. “Eat these. They should wake you up.”
“Don’t touch them!” Evander says sharply as the princess reaches out a hand. She hesitates, and Evander blinks at me in disbelief. “I mean, she could be allergic,” he says, a telltale flush creeping up his neck as he tries to avoid the princess’s questioning glance. “What were you thinking?”
“I’m thinking anyone who’s going into the Deadlands for the first time needs their wits about them,” I say firmly. But Evander’s just worried the princess will tell her however-many-times-great- grandfather the king that I offered her illegally imported goods. Evander’s trying to protect me, because he must not see what I do in Princess Valoria’s keen eyes.
“What are they?” Princess Valoria closes her pale hand over the coffee beans, surprising me with callused fingers that scrape my skin as she pulls away. She brings the beans to her nose and inhales. “They don’t smell poisonous.” For the first time, she smiles. “I’ll try anything to help me stay awake while I finish my project.”
“Project?” I kneel beside the king’s shrouded body and tie back my wavy dark brown hair, ready to get to work—and not the party-planning kind.
Evander relaxes his shoulders, seeming to realize that the princess isn’t about to run screaming to her kin over my dirty little coffee habit.
“An invention. I’ve been tinkering with it all summer. I’m so close to finishing that I’ve not been sleeping much. I’m hoping . . .” Princess Valoria pauses, popping a coffee bean into her mouth and crunching it. She makes a face at the bitterness. “I’m hoping Eldest Grandfather comes back to us in good spirits. I thought if I went to the Deadlands to fetch him this time, he might be grateful enough to let me share this one with the people of Karthia.”
Evander glances up midway through crouching beside me to help prepare the king’s body and almost topples onto the dead man. He falls to the side at the last moment, knocking the king’s left arm askew. “You’re an inventor?” he growls, brushing off bits of grass. “I never thought I’d see one in the flesh. I mean, I heard a story about a man who invented a new recipe for a duke once. It didn’t end well, though . . .”
As we learn from birth, the slightest change from the old ways is forbidden in Karthia. No leaving the country. No new recipes, no new forms of art, no new fashions, and especially no inventions. “Progress,” the king always says when he gives his twice-yearly public address, “is a slow-acting poison that will ensure Karthia’s eventual death.”
Princess Valoria’s expression is defiant. “He’s not happy about it.” She points to the king, but doesn’t look at him. “But so long as I hide everything in my room and don’t show anyone, he doesn’t complain about it anymore. Not much, anyway.” She glances away, toward the sea again. “I spend most of my time alone, working.”
Now I know why I’ve never seen her at parties. Pity. I have the feeling her stubborn streak matches mine. We could have fun together.
“I thought you might understand,” she adds, nodding to the contraband coffee beans tucked in my pocket, “as you don’t seem to mind bending rules.”
“You could say that.” I break the stare, fiddling with the double-sapphire pin on my tunic. The pin is a gift given to every mage when they become a master, the gems representing our blue eyes that mark us as necromancers. Mine is still new enough that it feels oddly heavy at times. “Now let’s get this over with so you can return to your inventing, Highness.”
I pull up the hem of my long shirt and study the three glass vials on my necromancer’s belt. Milk. Honey. Blood. All three are full, two of them waiting to be called upon once we’ve traveled through one of the Deadlands’ constantly roaming gates.
But first, as always, comes the milk.
It gives strength to dead flesh, making it easier for a spirit to slip back into its shell. As I pour my vial of milk over the king’s body, the princess’s hushed voice rings in my ear. “He hates waking up all damp and sticky.”
“Well, then it’s a bad day to be him,” I mutter, stashing away the empty vial.
“What’s the honey for?” Princess Valoria’s coffee breath washes over me as she peers over my shoulder to study my belt.
I arch a brow at her. Most of the royal family members know all about raising the dead, especially since we necromancers live among them, and because so many of them are Dead themselves. But Valoria clearly keeps to herself more than most.
“The honey’s for us. So we aren’t tempted to eat anything in the Deadlands. Do that, and you’ll be trapped there forever.” Seeing the next question forming on her lips, I hurry to add, “The blood is for His Majesty’s spirit, when we find him. The spirits all crave it. It reminds them of the life they had and makes it easier to guide them back to their bodies.”
Beside me, Evander works quietly to make sure the king is completely covered by his shroud. One small slip once he wakes, one roaming pair of living eyes, and we’d have a Shade on our hands. And I really don’t feel like fighting a monster tonight. There are enough of them lurking in the Deadlands without adding one more.
“We won’t have far to walk, at least.” Evander points west, toward the sea.
There, suspended in the air above a not-too-distant rocky tree- strewn cliff, a round blue gate shimmers as clearly as the moon and stars. The gates are easiest to spot at dusk. At least, for anyone with blue eyes. To everyone else, they’re forever invisible, and my stomach clenches as I imagine what walking through this particular gate will look like for Princess Valoria.
Like leaping into the far-below sea.
“What do you see over there?” the princess demands.
“The way forward,” I answer, and her eyes widen. Sometimes I wish I’d been born with brown eyes like hers, so my Sight would show me how the parts of something worked together. I could’ve been a potioneer then, and worked in an apothecary like an ordinary Karthian. Of course, if King Wylding didn’t forbid change, I bet brown-eyed citizens would be anything but ordinary—putting their talents to work at new ideas.
Standing and stuffing a few coffee beans in my mouth, I offer a hand to Princess Valoria. “Hold tight. If we get separated, you’re doomed.”
The princess nods, but her face is pinched like she’s about to vomit.
“Relax.” I squeeze her hand. “We’ll be in and out of there in no time. You’ll see.”
The princess takes a shaky breath. “You can’t promise that.”
“Of course I can.” Grinning, I point out one of the birds etched in indigo on my arm.
“Forgive me.” Valoria rubs her eyes and blinks. “Of course I have absolute faith in you—you’re the Sparrow!”
My grin widens. “The one and only.” I got the nickname because I’m the best guide through the ever-shifting Deadlands. It’s good to know my reputation is alive and well. “Now let’s grab the king before he wanders somewhere we won’t want to follow.”
We begin the march toward the cliff nearest the gate, leaving the king’s body in the grass to await our return. Evander leads the way. Normally, I’d enjoy the view of his tight backside as he strides toward our destination, but the princess’s fingers are so icy in mine that I can think of nothing but her dread.
“Did your family explain the price of walking into the Deadlands, Highness?” I whisper. I still don’t like how pale she is. Or, I realize for the first time, how young. She can’t be quite as old as my seventeen years.
“Fertility,” she whispers back.
I nod. Entering the realm of death demands life, at least for those without blue eyes. Necromancers like Evander and me can walk through the Deadlands without a cost, but not many realize the price we must pay later. When we die, our spirits never reach the Deadlands. We can raise the dead time and again, but no one will be able to give us a second chance at life.
Valoria squeezes my hand tighter. “Will it hurt? Losing my—ah—?” She looks queasier than ever, pressing her free hand against her stomach.
I hold back a smile with practiced ease. Our clients always ask that. “No. And fertility means a lot of things to Death, Highness.”
The princess smiles. “Call me Valoria, if you please.”
Clearing my throat, I continue, “Death’s touch might mean you won’t bear children. Or it might mean that any seed planted by your hand will never grow. Or that blight will strike your fields. Or you might never be able to heal from sickness, or wounds.”
“I see.” Valoria’s voice grows smaller as we near the cliff, where it was deemed too jagged and steep to build any houses. Dotted with stubborn, twisted cypress trees, the layers of weathered white and gray rock plunge sharply into the deep blue waters below. Valoria looks between me and Evander, pressing her chapped lips together. “So what now? We just . . . fling ourselves into the ocean and wake up in the Deadlands?”
Evander opens his mouth to answer, but the princess squares her shoulders and raises her chin as the wind whips her blond hair across her eyes. “Whatever happens, I’m not afraid.”
I grip her cold hand a little more carefully. I’m starting to like Princess Valoria a lot more than most of the royals I’ve danced with at the palace. Maybe I’ll convince her to come to a party someday. Just a short walk away from the edge of the cliff, which juts out from the others around it, Evander begins explaining to Valoria how we’ll get through a gate she can’t see.
As his voice washes over me, I tip my head back for a final glimpse of the stars, so numerous tonight that they glisten like diamond powder blown across a cloak of darkest velvet. Lowering my gaze, I take in the houses studding the other seaside cliffs, with their warm stone walls and jewel-bright roofs and gardens of olive and lemon trees. And on the second highest hill in Grenwyr, overlooking all that beauty, the distant palace. I open my mouth, sipping salt air and savoring the taste like I always do before entering the Deadlands. Just in case I don’t return.
After a moment, I close my eyes to focus on the cries of the gulls. But a low groan coming from the gate at the cliff ’s edge, followed by a thump, interrupts their chatter.
At almost the same time, Evander shouts, a sound that clutches at my heart. My eyes snap open. As we draw our swords, my mind struggles to make sense of the grisly sight just in front of the glowing blue gate, separated from us by a distance of a hundred feet or less.
Valoria clings to my arm as a misshapen figure fresh from the Deadlands struggles to push itself upright, clearly having fallen out of the gate. Swallowing hard, I force myself to focus on any details that might point to the identity of the unfortunate mess of blood and mangled flesh as it crawls toward us.
There’s a tattered necromancer’s black uniform hanging in strips over a shattered leg. A hand clutching at a spill of guts. A bald head crowned with crimson. A torn and gushing throat. And just about the only part of him still wholly intact, a single bright- blue eye.
A familiar eye. One that looked into mine mere nights ago, full of warmth and understanding—orphan to orphan—as I accepted my master necromancer’s pin.
“Master Nicanor!” As his name tears from Evander’s lips, the horror of this reality hits me in a dizzying rush.
“What happened?” I cry, my heart beating an erratic melody against my ribs. “Where’s Master Cymbre?” Nicanor shouldn’t have been in the Deadlands without his partner. It’s against the rules.
I want to run to the edge of the cliff, to close the distance between us and be with him in his final moments. But like Evander and Valoria, I’m frozen in my tracks by a mixture of fear and revulsion as the battered and bloody figure crawls toward us with pains- taking slowness, an arm outstretched.
This can’t be happening. Not tonight. Not ever. Not to someone as good and wise as Master Nicanor. I wish I could tell myself I’m dreaming, but Valoria’s screams assure me I’m painfully awake.
Nicanor opens his mouth. I tense, ready to hear the name of his attacker, but the raw, guttural sound that emerges is less than human.
Not halfway between the gate and where we stand, his broken body cradled by the roots of an old cypress, he collapses and gasps out his last breath.
I close my eyes, drowning out the horrible scene before me, and allow my mind to carry me back to the beach below these very cliffs, where Evander and I stood with Master Nicanor only a week ago.
There was a bonfire that night, stretching toward the indigo sky, calling for dancing and the kind of celebration we Karthians love best: one that rages late into the night, long after the moon and stars have gone to bed.
And though there were only four of us gathered on the beach on that sweltering summer’s night, we ate and drank enough for a crowd. “More elderflower wine, anyone?” Master Cymbre asked, holding up a blue glass bottle and glancing at each of us in turn. The firelight melted years off our teacher’s face, and I had a sudden urge to throw my arms around her waist and hold on the way I did when I was ten. The year she took me in and began my training.
“I think it’s time we present your students with their pins, Cymbre.” Master Nicanor, her partner, drew out her name with the lyrical accent of a southern province. Sim-bree. He rose, the flames glinting off his bald head, and held up a velvet pouch.
The sight of that little bag made my breath hitch in my throat.
Cymbre leapt to her feet, accidentally whipping Master Nicanor in the face with one of her long cinnamon braids. I disguised my snort of laughter as a cough while Nicanor rubbed his cheek. In my seven years of training at Cymbre’s side, watching her every move as she worked with her partner, I’d seen this happen more than once.
“Ready?” Master Cymbre’s steel-blue eyes sought mine.
Squaring my shoulders, I nodded. She knew as well as I did that I’d been ready from almost the moment I began shadowing her steps seven years ago.
Cymbre then turned to Evander. He grinned at her as he dug his toes into the sand, restless, more than ready for this next big adventure.
Clearing her throat, Cymbre intoned in a solemn voice far from her usual drawl, “Odessa of Grenwyr. Evander Crowther. Please rise.” Evander winked and grabbed my hands, and we supported each other in standing as Cymbre continued, “The pins you are about to receive will signify your status as master necromancers to all of Karthia.”
I raised my chin a fraction as my teacher—my former teacher now—stepped forward to fasten a gleaming gold and sapphire pin to my crisp new necromancer’s tunic.
“Wear it with honor,” Master Nicanor murmured, though there was no need for such formality.
There were no spectators that night, after all. The pin ceremony called for at least one member of a mage’s family to bear witness, but Evander’s mother—the only family either of us had—refused to come. Ignoring the ceremony was her way of protesting that Evander and I had chosen this path when she was dead set against it.
I wondered if she knew how much it wounded him, or if she was too oblivious to see through the mask of pleasantries he put on for her. After all, she couldn’t see how Evander felt about me.
At least we had Master Nicanor, ready in a pinch to be our fill-in family for the ceremony.
“Nervous about next week’s raising?” he asked me as Cymbre turned to fasten Evander’s pin. My teacher’s partner was so tall, he had to bend his knees to converse with most people. “King Wylding requested you specifically,” Nicanor said quietly. “Requested the Sparrow,” he corrected himself, smiling at my nickname.
“You know I don’t get nervous. It’s just . . .” I toyed with the twin eye-shaped sapphires on my new pin. None of the other mages I knew had ever bothered to tell me how heavy the little pin felt as it rested against their hearts. “Without this pin . . . without this title, I’m just . . .”
“Just an orphan?”
Startled by his understanding, I blinked up at Master Nicanor. His bright-blue eyes turned dark like the depths of the sea, unread- able for a moment.
“How did you know—?”
“Before I was Master Nicanor, I was just Nicanor of Dargany Province.” He smiled, and my heart skipped as understanding passed between us, orphan to orphan. I’d never thought to ask about his life before coming to Grenwyr City, and he’d never offered to share. “When I was a trainee, earning that title was everything. I thought that without it, I’d be just another poor boy condemned to a life in the Ashes. Insignificant.”
Unable to speak around a lump in my throat, I nodded and glanced at Evander, who tossed me a wink as Cymbre admired his new pin in the firelight. Without his title, he would still be nobility. Still be someone’s son. Still be a brother. A mapmaker. An adventurer. Without my title, I’d be just a poor girl lucky enough to have been raised by the Sisters of Death. I’d be nothing more than a charity case.
I clutched my new pin, the cold metal digging into my sweaty palm.
This is a job to Evander, and one he loves, but to me, it’s everything.
“I won’t pretend it’s not a daunting task, living up to the title of master,” Nicanor continued, cutting into my thoughts. “Counting you and Evander, there are only a handful of us in Grenwyr Province. But you’re more than just a necromancer. More than an orphan.”
He turned, as if he meant to walk down to the shoreline, but I grabbed his wrist. I’d seen him and Cymbre at work for years. He had two trainees of his own, my friends, and we all agreed he was the wise man to Master Cymbre’s warrior.
“What am I, then?” I demanded.
Nicanor shook his head, a smile lingering at the corners of his eyes. “That’s for you to decide.” He strode to the water, dipping his toes into the frigid sea foam. A moment later, Cymbre followed with the remnants of the elderflower wine in hand, leaving me alone at the fireside with Evander.
“See that?” I murmured, slipping an arm around his waist and pointing to the two masters by the seaside. “That’s our future.”
Evander’s hand on my shoulder tears me from the peace of the memory, back to a future now forever changed, to a reality where Princess Valoria is on her knees mere paces from the fallen Nicanor, shaking like a leaf in a storm. She’s probably never seen so much blood before.
Nor have I. This goes well beyond a spilled vial from my necromancer’s belt. It seeps into the pale rocks, a gruesome river. Vaguely, Evander’s shouts pierce through the fog in my brain, but the sound is a faint hum compared to the roaring of blood in my ears as I try and fail to rip my gaze away from the crimson ground. “Odessa!” Evander shakes my shoulders, snapping me from my daze.
Hot, nasty bile rises in my throat and forces me to swallow hard or be sick on my boots. My chest heaves with the effort, and Evander puts a steadying hand on my back.
Far up on the high hill at our backs, the palace’s iron gates spring open. Several guards stream down toward us, brandishing spears and blades. “Who’s hurt?” a sharp-eyed woman at the front of the group demands as they finally draw near. She frowns at the sight of Evander’s ashen face and my tear-streaked one. Or perhaps at the princess cowering among rocks and tree roots. “Where’s the attacker? Did you—?”
Her voice dies the instant she spots the body at the base of the tree, and she lowers her weapon. “By Vaia’s grace...” She invokes the name of the Five-Faced God, clutching a tiny pendant of the Face of Death she wears on a silver chain.
“By Vaia’s grace,” another guard echoes.
Murmurs ripple through the guards, but the blade-wielding woman nearest us drowns out the rest as she demands, “Who could do such a thing?”
A Shade, I’m betting. Something with teeth that can tear flesh as easily as a hawk’s wing slices the air.
And as my eyes meet Evander’s, he gives a slight nod, confirming my suspicion. “I saw it,” he mutters hoarsely. “Just a glimpse before it retreated, when Master . . . Nicanor . . .” He falters, and I grab his hand. As I squeeze his cold fingers, he finishes, “When he fell out of the gate. It was the biggest Shade I’ve ever seen.”
Which means it’s been feasting on countless spirits in the Deadlands, growing stronger. It’s a necromancer’s nightmare come to life. Evander and I can perform a raising in no time with me leading the way, but we’ve yet to kill a Shade on our own, and this one has to be powerful if it killed a seasoned necromancer like Nicanor.
The shrouded nobles and several of their living descendants watch from on high, distant black specks hardly discernable from the night sky, as more guards surround us, followed by a hazel-eyed young man in robes. A healer. He rushes to Princess Valoria’s side, breezing past Evander and me like we’re a couple of statues.
“You need something for shock.” He presses a vial of smoking gray liquid into the princess’s hands. He has to hold the vial to her lips in order for her to drink it down, and after a moment’s hesitation, he drags her across the hard ground away from Master Nicanor.
From the body.
Someone’s covered it—or rather, what’s left of it—with a cloak.
“As soon as you drink some of that potion, you’ll need to tell us everything,” a tall guard says, his voice hushed but his tone clipped. I nod. Everything seems to be moving in slow motion, reminding me of the few nights when I’ve had too much wine.
“Here you are.” The healer approaches Evander and me with two more vials of smoking liquid. We accept them with barely uttered thanks, waiting for him to turn away. But he narrows his eyes at us and crosses his arms expectantly.
Sighing, I lift the vial to my lips. Evander does the same. I let the liquid fill my mouth, its taste sour like overripe berries, and pretend to swallow.
The healer gives a satisfied nod, then turns back to Valoria. After exchanging a quick glance, Evander and I cough the potions into our hands, then wipe the remnants on the rocks, where they smolder gently as they seep into the pale earth. We still have a job to do tonight, and we both know how important it is to have our wits about us in the Deadlands, where anything can happen.
Evander wipes his mouth on his sleeve, then starts relating Master Nicanor’s final moments to the guards. There isn’t much to tell, and knowing it won’t be long until we’ll need to head through the gate bathing us in its ethereal light, I hurry to where the princess sits and crouch beside her.
“I’m sorry to say this,” I say in a steady voice, squashing down my own pain for the sake of the younger girl’s shimmering eyes, “but we still have to find King Wylding. I hate to think of how far his spirit’s traveled while we’ve been delayed.”
Valoria takes a deep breath, then pulls back her hair, seemingly trying to steel herself for what’s to come.
“And I hate to think what would happen if the giant Shade in there catches a whiff of us. I don’t feel good about going in there tonight, even with this . . .” Evander murmurs, touching a hand to his sword hilt. “Fire is the only thing that destroys a Shade, but blades can slow them down,” he adds at the princess’s curious look. “I’m no Nicanor, and if even he couldn’t . . .” He lowers his gaze to the ground, blinking hard.
“You’re right,” I say briskly, hoping to cover the cracks in my voice. “There’s a chance we may never return.” I inhale deeply. There’s always that chance, even without a giant Shade skulking around. “Still, it’s our duty to raise the king, and if we die trying to finish what we started . . .” Shrugging helplessly, I add, “But we can’t ask you to risk your life, Valoria. If you’d like to trade places with a relative, if someone’s willing—”
“No. I knew the risks when I signed up for this.” The princess reaches for my hand and pulls herself to her feet with my help.
Keeping hold of me, she looks toward the cliff ’s edge. “Let’s go,” she says, standing taller, her brown eyes hard as stone. Most of the royals would be a blubbering mess by now, but not this one. “We have a job to finish.”
After a final word to the guards, Evander takes my free hand.
It’s just a dead body, I tell myself as I force my legs to move. I’m around them all the time. Why should this one be any different? An image of Nicanor’s smiling eyes flashes to mind, giving me the answer: because they aren’t usually necromancers.
The king’s routine slayings are usually peaceful. We swiftly kill him when he’s showing signs of becoming a Shade, having been in our world too long. Then we fetch his spirit, and soon, he’s able to walk and talk and think as he did in life.
But Nicanor’s one chance at life is over. It makes my chest ache as I think of the breaths he should be drawing at this very moment. Yet, as Valoria said, we have a job to finish. And right now, doing our job seems a lot easier than trying to understand that the man I sat with on the beach last week is in pieces on the ground.
Hand in hand, the three of us stride into the glowing blue light, no one looking back at the body. As we near the edge of the cliff, Valoria closes her eyes and sucks in a breath.
The gate’s chill washes over us, something even the princess can feel. She seems to faint right after making the leap with us, her hand turning limp in mine. Our toes skim the air above the ocean for the briefest moment before we fall onto the hard dirt floor of the tunnel concealed behind the gate.
“I’ll check her pulse,” I whisper as Evander climbs to his feet and draws his sword.
As I press my fingers to the princess’s wrist, feeling for a heartbeat, she shudders and pulls back. “I’m all right. That awful potion’s made my head all fuzzy, though.” She absently rubs her nose, perhaps trying to push up the glasses that normally rest there. “Let’s finish this. I have so much work waiting for me back in my chambers, I’ll be up past sunrise at this rate. Lead the way.”
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