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Eerste hoofdstukken Blade Breaker van Victoria Aveyard nu te lezen

Blade Breaker is het vervolg op Victoria Aveyard's besteller Realm Breaker. Het eerste deel eindigde op een cliffhanger, maar Blade Breaker ligt vanaf juni in de schappen! Kun je niet zo lang wachten? Epic Reads heeft de eerste twee hoofdstukken gepubliceerd! Net als het eerste deel is Blade Breaker in het Engels geschreven. Er liggen nog geen plannen om de boeken te vertalen. 

Victoria Aveyard
Je kunt de auteur ook kennen van haar trilogie The Red Queen. In het eerste deel leren we de zeventienjarige Mare Berrens kennen. In haar wereld hebben mensen zilver of rood bloed. Mare en haar familie zijn geboren als lage Roden, voorbestemd om de elite van Zilveren te bedienen. Bovendien bezitten de Zilveren bovennatuurlijke krachten, waardoor ze zo sterk zijn als goden. Als haar beste vriend in het leger moet gaan dienen zet Mare alles op alles om zijn vrijheid terug te winnen. Het lukt Mare om toegang te krijgen tot het koninklijk paleis, waar ze oog in oog komt te staan met de koning. Hij ontdekt bij Mare een verborgen gave – een kracht waarover ze niet had kunnen beschikken – haar bloed is immers rood…

Realm Breaker 
Met veel actie en verassingen is Realm Breaker het begin van een fantasy serie waar alle hoop verdwenen is. Er heerst een duisternis in Allward. Zelfs Corayne, een Amarat, voelt het terwijl ze in een klein dorpje aan de rand van het water woont. Dan ontdekt ze de waarheid: ze is de laatste erfgenaam van een eewenoude familie en de laatste hoop om de wereld te redden. Dit hoeft ze gelukkig niet alleen te doen. 

Lees hieronder de eerste twee hoofdstukken van Blade Breaker, gepubliceerd door Epic Reads: 

1

NO CHOICE BUT DEATH

Corayne

The voice echoed as if down a long passage, distant and fading, difficult to make out. But it shuddered within her, a sound as much as a feeling. She felt it in her spine, her ribs, every bone. Her own heartbeat pounded in time with the terrible voice. It spoke no words she knew, but still, Corayne understood its anger.

His anger.

Dimly, Corayne wondered if this was death, or simply another dream.

The roar of What Waits called to her through the darkness, clinging even as warm hands pulled her back to the light.

Corayne sat up, blinking, gasping for breath, the world rushing back around her. She found herself sitting in water up to her chest. It rippled, a dirty mirror reflecting the oasis town.

The Nezri oasis had been beautiful once, filled with green palms and cool shade. The sand dunes were a golden band around the horizon. The kingdom of Ibal stretched in every direction, with the red cliffs of the Marjeja to the south, the waves of the Aljer and the Long Sea to the north. Nezri was a pilgrim town, built around sacred waters and a temple to Lasreen, its buildings white and green-tiled, its streets wide enough for the desert caravans.

Now those wide streets were choked with corpses, coiled serpent bodies, and broken soldiers. Corayne fought back a wave of revulsion but continued to look, her eyes passing through the debris. She searched for the Spindle, a golden thread spitting a torrent of water and monsters.

But nothing stood in its place. Not even an echo.

No memory of what existed a moment before. Only the broken columns and shattered causeway remained in testament to the kraken. And, Corayne realized, the bloody ruin of a tentacle, cut

neatly from the monster as it was forced back into its own realm. It lay among the puddles like a fallen old tree.

She swallowed hard and nearly gagged. The water tasted of rot and death and the Spindle, gone but for a fading echo like a ringing in her ears. She tasted blood too. The blood of Gallish soldiers, the blood of sea serpents from another realm. And, of course, her own. So much blood Corayne felt she might drown in it.

But I am a pirate’s daughter, she thought, heart pounding. Her mother, the bronzed and beautiful Meliz an-Amarat, grinned in her mind’s eye.

We do not drown.

“Corayne—” a voice said, shockingly gentle.

She looked up to find Andry standing over her. The blood was on him too, smeared across his tunic and the familiar blue star.

A jolt of panic shot through Corayne as she searched his face, his limbs, looking for some terrible wound. She remembered Andry fighting hard, a knight as much as any of the soldiers he slew. After a moment, she knew the blood was not his own. Sighing, she felt some tightness lift from her shoulders.

“Corayne,” Andry said again, his hand working into hers.

Without thought, she tightened her grip on his fingers, and forced herself to stand on shaking legs. His eyes shone with concern.

“I’m fine,” Corayne bit out, feeling the opposite.

Even as she caught her balance, her mind spun, the last few moments washing over her. The Spindle, the serpents, the kraken. Valtik’s spell, Dom’s rage. My own blood on the edge of the sword. She sucked down another gasp of air, trying to center herself.

Andry kept his hand on her shoulder, ready to catch her should she fall.

Corayne would not.

She straightened her spine. Her gaze flew to the Spindleblade, submerged in half a foot of corrupted water, gleaming with shadow and sunlight. The current moved over the sword until the steel itself seemed to dance. The old language of a realm long lost ran the length of the sword, etched into the metal. Corayne couldn’t read the letters, nor pronounce the words. As always, their meaning lay just beyond her grasp.

Then her hand plunged into the water, closing on the hilt of the Spindleblade. The sword splashed free, cold and dripping. Her heart faltered. There was no blood on the sword, not anymore. But she could still see it. The kraken, the serpents. And the Gallish soldiers, dead by her own hand. Mortal lives ended, cut in half like the Spindle.

She tried not to think of the men she’d killed. Their faces came anyway, haunting in her memory.

“How many?” she said, her voice trailing off. Corayne didn’t expect Andry to understand the broken musings of her mind.

But pain crossed his face, a pain she knew. He looked beyond her, to the bodies in green and gold. He shut his eyes and bowed his head, hiding his face from the desert sun.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I will not count.”

I have never seen a heart break before, Corayne thought, watching Andry Trelland. He wore no wounds, but she knew he bled within. Once he was a squire of Galland who dreamed of becoming a knight. And now he is a killer of them, a killer of his own dreams.

For once, words failed Corayne an-Amarat, and she turned away to stand alone.

Her eyes roved over their surroundings, taking in the destruction fanning out from the center of the town. The oasis felt eerily quiet after the battle. Corayne almost expected some echo to remain, the cry of a kraken or a serpent’s hiss.

She could hear the old witch Valtik as she wandered through the limestone ruins, humming to herself, skipping like a child. Corayne watched her bend a few times, collecting fangs from the

serpent corpses. There were already a few teeth braided into her long gray hair. She was her strange, bewildering self again, just an old woman puttering around. But Corayne knew better. Only moments ago the Jydi woman and her rhymes had driven the kraken back, clearing a path for Corayne and the Spindleblade. There was deep power in the witch, but if Valtik cared or even remembered, she did not show it.

Either way, Corayne was glad to have her.

The Ibalet sun continued to rise, hot against Corayne’s back.  And then suddenly cool, as a long shadow fell over her.

She looked up, her face falling.

Domacridhan, immortal prince of Iona, was red from eyebrows to toes, painted in swaths of blood. His once-fine tunic and cloak were ruined, torn and stained. His pale skin looked rusted, his golden hair gone to fire. Only his eyes remained clear, white and emerald green, burning like the sun above him. His greatsword all but dangled from his fist, threatening to fall.

He heaved a rattling breath.

“Are you well, Corayne?” Dom said, his voice grinding and strangled.

Corayne balked. “Are you?”

A muscle flexed in his jaw.

“I must make myself clean,” he murmured, bending to the water. Red clouds bloomed from his skin.

It will take more than that, Corayne wanted to say. For all of us.

All of us.

Corayne jolted, a sudden shock of panic arcing through her. Her eyes darted, searching the town for the rest of the Companions, heart in her teeth. Charlie, Sigil, Sorasa. She did not hear or see them, and fear churned in her gut. So many lost today. Gods, don’t let us lose them too. As much as her own sins weighed in her mind, their lives weighed more.

Before Corayne could call out, yell their names across the oasis, a man groaned.

She snapped to the sound, Andry and Dom flanking her like guards.

Corayne exhaled when she saw the Gallish soldier.

He was wounded, crawling through the water now steadily draining into the sand. His green cloak weighed him down, slowing his progress as he slithered forward, pawing through the mud. Blood bubbled from his lips, his only words a gurgle.

Lasreen comes for him, Corayne thought, naming the death goddess. And she is not the only one.

Sorasa Sarn abandoned her shadows, stepping into the light with the grace of a dancer and the focus of a falcon. She was not as bloody as Dom, but her tattooed hands and bronze dagger dripped scarlet. Her eyes fixed on the soldier’s back, never wavering as she followed him.

“Still alive, Sigil?” she said, calling out to the bounty hunter. Her manner was easy even as she stalked a dying man across the town center.

A hearty laugh and a scuffle of feet answered from a nearby rooftop. Sigil’s broad frame appeared, wrestling with a Gallish soldier in broken armor. He raised a knife, but Sigil caught his wrist with a grin.

“The iron bones of the Countless will never be broken,” she laughed, snapping his hold. The knife fell and she hoisted him over her shoulder. He wailed in opposition, fists beating against her leather armor. “You cannot say the same.”

It was not far to fall, only two stories, but the water was shallow. He broke his neck with a wet crack.

Corayne did not flinch. She’d seen far worse today. Slowly, she blew out a breath, steadying herself.

As if summoned, Charlie stepped out into the street. His eyes fell on the body, his face devoid of emotion.

“Into the hands of mighty Syrek go you, son of Galland, son of war,” the fallen priest said, bending over the body.

He brushed his ink-stained fingers through the water, touching the soldier’s unseeing eyes. Corayne realized Charlie was giving him as close to a godly burial as he could offer.

When Charlie stood again, his face was blank and pale, his long hair free from its usual braid.

Alive. All of them.

All of us.

Relief surged through Corayne’s body, swiftly followed by exhaustion. She flagged a little, her knees going weak.

Andry moved quickly, bracing his hands against her shoulders.

“It’s all right,” he said softly.

His touch was almost electrifying, hot and cold all at once. She jumped away and shook her head.

“I will not mourn them,” she muttered sharply. “I will not mourn men who would have killed us. You shouldn’t mourn them either.”

Andry’s face tightened, his lips threatening a scowl. Corayne had never seen anger on Andry Trelland, not like this. Even the shadow of it stung.

“I cannot do that, Corayne,” he bit out, turning away.

Corayne followed his gaze, a flush of shame crossing her cheeks. Andry looked back to Charlie, now making his way through the dead, blessing the Gallish corpses. Then his eyes went to the soldier crawling through the muck.

The Amhara stalked him still.

“Gods damn you, show some mercy, Sorasa,” the squire barked. “Give him an ending.”

The assassin did not break her gaze. She was trained too well to take her eyes off an enemy, even one so wounded. “You may do as you like, Trelland. I won’t stop you.”

Andry’s throat bobbed, his brown skin bare above the collar of his tunic. His fingers grazed the sword at his side.

“Don’t,” Corayne said, grabbing his bicep. The flesh felt hard beneath her fingers, tight as wound rope. “Don’t give this man mercy if it means losing another piece of yourself.”

Andry did not answer, but his brow furrowed and his face grew grim. Gently, he shrugged Corayne away and drew his sword.

“Andry—” she began, moving to stop him.

Then a ripple went through the water and something splashed, its skin coiling and scaly.

Corayne froze, heart pounding.

The serpent was alone, but still deadly.

Sorasa stopped in her prowl, drawing up short. She watched with her glowing tiger eyes as it unhinged its jaw and took the soldier’s head in its mouth. Corayne could not help but be darkly fascinated, her lips parting as the serpent ended the soldier.

It was Dom who finished them both, his greatsword cutting through scale and skin.

He leveled a glare at Sorasa but she only shrugged, waving him off with a swipe of one red hand.

Corayne turned away, shaking her head at the two of them.

Andry was already gone, his footsteps squelching through the wet sand.

 

While Sorasa and Sigil searched the oasis for survivors, the rest of them waited on the outskirts of the town, where stone road gave over to sand. Corayne sat on a windblown rock, thanking the gods for the blissful shade of a few palm trees. Somehow she was grateful for the heat too. It felt cleansing.

The others were silent, the only sound the two horses pawing the ground. Andry kept to the sand mares, brushing them down, tending to them as best he could with what little he had. Corayne knew by now it was his way of coping, to lose himself in a task he knew. A task from his old life.

She winced, eyeing the squire and the mares. There were only two horses left, and only one of them still had a saddle.

“The Spindle fought hard,” Dom muttered, following her gaze.

“But we’re alive, and the Spindle is closed,” Corayne answered. Her lips pulled into a tight smile. “We can do this. We can keep doing this.”

Slowly Dom nodded, but his face remained grim. “There will be more portals to close. More enemies and monsters to fight.”

There was fear in the immortal. It flashed behind his eyes, drawn up from some memory. Corayne wondered if it was her own father Dom thought of, his body broken before the temple.

Or something else, something deep in the centuries, from the time beyond mortal reckoning.

“Taristan will not be defeated so easily,” Dom murmured.

“Neither will What Waits.” Just mentioning the hellish god put a chill in Corayne’s skin, even against the desert heat. “But we’ll fight them. We have to. There is no other choice.”

The immortal nodded forcefully. “No choice for us, or for the realm.”

It was past noon, the sun high, by the time Sigil and Sorasa rejoined them. The bounty hunter cleaned her ax as they walked, the assassin her dagger.

The oasis was empty of all enemies.

The Companions were the last ones living.

Charlie followed the women, half-bent, massaging his lower back. Too many bodies to bless, Corayne knew, glancing away. She refused to think of them. Instead she glared into the hard sheen of the desert, at the miles of sand. Then she looked north. The Aljer was close, a gleaming ribbon where the great gulf opened into the Long Sea. It was lightning in her blood.

What next? she wondered, feeling equal parts thrill and fear.

She eyed their number, sizing them up. Dom had washed as best he could, and slicked back his wet hair from his face. He’d exchanged his ruined shirt for what he could find in the abandoned homes and shops. He looked like a patchwork of different places, with an Ibalet tunic and embroidered vest over his old breeches. His boots and cloak of Iona remained, scrubbed with sand. Though the cloak was half ruined, the antlers were still there, embroidered at its edges. A little piece of home he refused to give up.

Corayne wished for her own tattered blue cloak, long since lost. It used to smell of oranges and olive groves, and something deeper, a memory she could no longer name.

“The danger has passed, Corayne,” Dom said, watching the village like a dog hunting for a scent. Or listening for trouble. He found neither.

Indeed, the waters of Meer, the realm beyond the Spindle, had drained back into the sand or burned away beneath the fierce sun of Ibal. Only puddles remained in the shade, too shallow for serpents to hide in. The lucky ones were already gone, following the short-lived river downhill to the sea. The rest cooked in the streets, their slick skin cracked and drying.

As for the soldiers, Sorasa and Sigil had already put any enemies to their final rest.

Corayne pursed her lips at Dom. Her chest still felt tight. Her heart still ached.

“Not for long,” she answered, feeling the truth of it in her belly. “This is far from over.”

Her words echoed over the outskirts, a heavy curtain to hang over them all.

“I wonder what happened to the villagers,” Andry mused, grasping for something to say.

“Would you like my honest opinion?” Sorasa answered, striding into the palm trees.

“No,” he was all too quick to reply.

Though he was a young man, Charlie groaned like an old crone as he rejoined them. His red, burned face peered out of his hood.

“Well,” he said, glancing between the carnage and the ferocious sun above, “I would prefer not to stay here any longer.”

Sorasa leaned back against a palm tree with a smirk. Her teeth flashed white against bronze skin. She pointed back to the oasis with her dagger.

“But we just finished cleaning up,” she replied.

Next to her, Sigil folded her great arms, her ax stowed away on her back. She nodded in agreement, pushing a lock of raven hair out of her eyes. A burst of sunlight filtered through the trees, dappling her copper skin, making her black eyes gleam.

“We should rest a while,” Sigil said. “There’s no danger in ghosts.”

Charlie quirked a grin. “The iron bones of the Countless can’t break, but can they get tired?”

“Never,” the bounty hunter snapped back, flexing.

Corayne fought the urge to scoff. Instead she drew herself up, sitting straighter in the shade. To her surprise, all eyes flew to her. Even Valtik, counting serpent fangs, looked up from her work.

The combined weight of their eyes fell heavy on already-weary shoulders. Corayne tried to think of her mother, of her voice upon the deck. Unyielding, unafraid.

“We should keep moving,” she said.

Dom’s low rumble answered. “Do you have a destination, Corayne?”

Immortal as he was, one of the ancient Elders, he seemed exhausted.

Corayne’s confidence faltered and she picked at her stained sleeve. “Somewhere without a massacre,” she finally offered. “Word will get back to Erida and Taristan. We must keep moving.”

A chuckle escaped Sorasa’s lips. “Word from who? Dead men don’t carry news, and there’s only dead men behind us.”

Red and white flashed behind Corayne’s eyes, a memory as much as a physical presence. She swallowed, fighting back the dreams that plagued her more and more. They were no longer a mystery. What Waits, she knew. Can he see me now? Does he watch us? Is he following me wherever I go—and will Taristan follow too? The questions overwhelmed her, their paths too fearsome to follow.

“Even so.” Corayne forced her voice to turn to steel, channeling a bit of her mother’s strength. “I’d like to use whatever head start we have to get away from this place.”

“Only one gone.” Valtik’s voice was a scratch of nails on ice, her eyes a vibrant and impossible blue. She shoved fangs into the pouch at her waist. “We must keep on.”

Despite the Jydi witch’s constant and insufferable rhyming, Corayne felt a smile rise to her lips.

“At least you aren’t entirely useless,” she said warmly, dipping her head to the old woman. “That kraken would be terrorizing the Long Sea by now if not for you, Valtik.”

A murmur of agreement went through the others, except for Andry. His eyes trailed over the witch, but they were far away.

Still with the Gallish bodies, Corayne knew. She wanted to tear the sadness right out of his chest.

“Care to explain exactly what you did to the sea monster of another realm?” Sorasa said, angling a dark eyebrow. Her dagger slid home in its sheath.

Valtik didn’t reply, happily rearranging her braids, plaited with fangs and old lavender.

“Suppose krakens hate her rhyming too,” Sigil replied, chuckling through a crooked smile.

Charlie smirked in the shade. “We should recruit a bard next. Really round out this band of fools and sing the rest of Taristan’s monsters back home.”

If only it were so simple, Corayne wanted to say, knowing it was not. But even so, hope fluttered in her chest, weak but still alive.

“We might be a band of fools,” she said, half for herself, “but we closed a Spindle.”

Her hands balled into fists and she stood, legs strong beneath her. Determination replaced her fear.

“And we can do it again,” she said. “As Valtik said, we must keep on. I say we go. Head north to the Long Sea, hug the coast until we reach a village.”

Sorasa opened her mouth to argue, but Dom cut her off, rising to his feet at Corayne’s side. His eyes were on the southern horizon, finding the red line of the Marjeja and the once-flooded plain of gold.

Corayne turned to smile up at him, but stopped short at the sight of his face.

Sorasa saw the fear in him too. She flew to his side, shading her eyes to match his stare. After a long moment of searching, she gave up and turned back to the immortal, glaring up at his stone-blank face.

“What is it?” she bit out, breath ragged through her teeth.

Sigil’s hand went to her ax and Andry roused from his dreamlike sorrow, whirling from the horses. Charlie cursed down at his feet.

“Dom?” A swoop of terror dropped in Corayne’s stomach as she abandoned her shade. She eyed the horizon too but found the glare of sun and sand unbearable.

At last the immortal sucked in a gasp of air.

“Forty riders on dark horses. Their faces are covered, their robes black, made for the heat.”

Sorasa kicked at the sand, hissing to herself.

“They carry a flag. Royal blue and gold. And—silver too.” With a will, Corayne racked her memory, trying to remember what those colors meant.

The assassin knew.

“Outriders of the court,” she snapped, looking for all the world like she might breath fire. There was fear too, hiding behind her frustration. Corayne saw it glimmer in her tiger eyes. “Hunters for the King of Ibal.”

Corayne bit her lip. “Will they help us?”

Sorasa’s hollow laugh was brutal. “They’re more likely to sell you to Erida, or use you as some bargaining chip. You’re the most valuable thing in in all the Ward, Corayne. And the King of Ibal is

not a fool with his treasure.”

“What if they aren’t after Corayne?” Charlie piped in, his face drawn in thought.

Sorasa’s eyes narrowed, some doubt clouding her face. Whatever words she wanted to say died in her throat.

“I will take Corayne and the blade,” Dom said heavily, turning from the horizon. Before Corayne could protest, she found herself in the saddle of a sand mare. Dom mounted up on the only other horse, ignoring the lack of saddle. The Elder did not need one.

Corayne sputtered, fighting the reins being pressed into her hands. To her surprise, Andry appeared at her knee, tightening the girth of the saddle. His fingers closed on her ankle, forcing her foot into a stirrup.

“Andry—stop it. Dom!” she protested, kicking her boot free. She made to slide off the mare’s back, but Andry held her firmly in place, his lips set in a grim, unyielding line.

“We’re not abandoning you,” Corayne said, half wild.

The Elder grabbed for the bridle of Corayne’s horse as he tugged his own mare’s mane, forcing both mounts along. “We have no choice.”

“You have no choice but to wait, Elder.” Sorasa remained still, but her voice carried fiercely. She put her back to the horizon.

Over her shoulder, the dark riders appeared out of the gleaming line where plain met sky. “The outriders of the king have no equal on sand or road. You might outlast them for a day, maybe. But even you will be run down, and an ocean of blood spilled for nothing.”

Dom snarled as if he might run her through. “The coast is less than a day’s ride, Sarn.”

“And then what? You wish to face the king’s navy instead?” Sorasa scoffed.

Corayne could not help but agree. The Ibalet fleets were unmatched.

“You don’t even know which direction to go,” Sorasa added, casting a hand at the distant bay and Long Sea beyond. “But be my guest.”

It was Andry who growled, the anger in him taking Corayne aback.

“So it’s no choice but death, then?” he said, brow set with fury. Even in battle she had never seen him so enraged—and so hopeless. “For Corayne, for the Ward?”

Sorasa barely batted an eye, crossing her arms over her chest. There was dried blood under her fingernails, gone to rust.

“No one said anything about them killing you, Squire,” she answered wearily. “Me, I’m a marked Amhara. Might not fare so well.”

“Uh, wanted fugitive here!” Charlie piped in, raising a finger.

Sorasa’s braid snapped like a whip as she turned her head, sneering at the Madrentine forger. “The Ibalet king hardly gives a shit about some errant priest with nice penmanship.”

He recoiled into his robes. “Gods willing.”

“Then you go,” Corayne offered, trying to dismount again. Andry remained firm, blocking her way. “Run. It’s us they want.”

The assassin waved away the offer with her usual smirk, as good as any mask.

“I’ll take my chances with the outriders. You’ll certainly need me too,” she added, gesturing to Dom still glowering in the saddle. “I don’t expect this one to be negotiating anytime soon.”

Corayne set her teeth, feeling the familiar sting of frustration. “Sorasa.”

You must run, she wanted to say.

Next to her, Dom slid from his horse. His face was stone, unreadable.

“Sorasa,” he growled. “Take her and go.”

The assassin’s mask slipped, if only for a moment. She blinked furiously, a flush rising in her cheeks. Beneath her steady confidence, Corayne saw doubt. Doubt and fear.

But Sorasa turned away, her expression clearing like a slate wiped clean. She refused the waiting horse with a wave of one bloodstained hand and faced the horizon again. The riders were nearly upon them, the pounding hooves of forty horses thundering over the sand.

“Too late,” the assassin muttered.

Dom bowed his head, looking as he had in Ascal, a hole in his ribs, bleeding out his life as they ran for the gates.

But even in Galland, we could run. We had a chance. Corayne felt herself slump in the saddle. She was suddenly glad for Andry’s closeness. Only his hand on her ankle kept her steady. The squire did not let go, nor did he look at the approaching outriders. They could hear their voices now, yelling in Ibalet, calling out orders.

“You think he won’t feel it?”

Andry’s voice was soft, nearly inaudible.

She glanced down at him, noting the set of his shoulders, the tightness of his fingers. Slowly, Andry raised his eyes to hers, letting her read him as easily as she would one of her maps.

“You think he won’t feel the Spindle is gone?” Andry murmured.

Despite the outriders bearing down, Taristan filled Corayne’s vision. He bled to life in front of her, blotting Andry out, until there was only her uncle’s white face and black stare, a red gleam moving behind his eyes. She turned away before he could swallow her whole.

Her eyes trailed back to the village, her gaze weaving among the ruins. Back to where the Spindle once burned. Even as the outriders closed in, their voices growing louder, Corayne felt herself drift further away.

“I hope not,” she whispered, praying to every god she knew.

But if I can feel its echo—and its absence—

I’m certain he does too.

And so does What Waits.

 

2

BETWEEN QUEEN AND DEMON

Erida

The flaming brazier crashed against the wall, spilling hot embers across the stone floor of the small receiving chamber. The edge of an old rug caught fire. Queen Erida of Galland didn’t hesitate to stamp it out, even as the same fire roared inside her. Her face burned, pale cheeks red with anger.

Her crown lay discarded on a low table, only a simple band of gold, plain but for its gleam. She had no use for opulent gems or ridiculous finery in a cold castle at the edge of a battlefield, in the middle of a war, in the eye of a Spindlerotten hurricane.

Across the chamber, Taristan’s chest rose and fell, his bare hands unburned as he threw another bronze bowl of hot coals. It looked as easy as tossing a rag doll, though Erida knew the brazier must be twice her weight. He was too strong, too powerful. He felt neither the heaviness nor the pain.

Thank the gods, he did not feel the poison either.

Not after Castle Vergon and the last Spindle cut. The portal still glittered behind Erida’s eyes, a thread of gold near invisible, so important and yet so easy to overlook. The door to another realm, and another link in the chain of her empire.

Taristan’s shadow loomed behind him, guttering with the torches and embers, leaping like a monster on the wall. His ceremonial armor was gone, leaving only the deep red of his tunic and white skin beneath. He did not seem smaller without iron and gilt.

Erida wished she could loose that shadow onto the Ward, send it out into the night, seeking whatever road her cousin Lord Konegin now raced down. Her anger flared brighter, the flames fed by thought of her treasonous kin.

I do not want Taristan to kill him, she thought, but to drag him back here, broken and defeated, so we may kill him ourselves, in front of all the court, and end his insurrection before it can begin.

She pictured her royal cousin and his entourage, their horses thundering through the darkness. They had only a small head start on her own riders, but the sky was clouded, the moon and stars veiled. It was a pitch-black night on a shifting border. And her own men were weary from the day’s battle, their horses still recovering. Not like Konegin, his son, and their loyal few.

“They planned for this,” Erida muttered, fuming. “He meant to kill Taristan, my husband, their own prince, and take the throne from us. But Konegin is cunning, and he knew to plan for failure too.”

Her fists curled and she wished she could throw a brazier as well. Rip down the tapestries. Tear at the walls. Do something to unleash the anger inside herself, instead of letting it sit and fester.

Konegin sneered at her in her mind, teeth flashing beneath a blond beard, his eyes like blue daggers, his face like her dead father’s. She wanted to wrap her hands around his wretched throat and squeeze.

Red Ronin flinched at the embers on the floor, twitching the edges of his scarlet robe away lest it burn too. He glanced at the single door, oak and iron, leading back to the feasting chamber. The stone hall was long empty, cleared of the court.

Erida tried not to imagine her lords and generals whispering about the attempted poisoning. Most will remain loyal. But some—enough—might not. Some want Konegin to wear my crown, even as they stand by my side.

“My concern is for the desert Spindle—” Ronin began, but Taristan fixed him with a black stare, and his voice died in his throat.

“Gone. You said as much,” Taristan growled. He shifted to pacing the floor, boots heavy on the rugs. “That bastard brat,” he added, nearly laughing. “Who knew a seventeen-year-old girl could be more of a nuisance than her golden father?”

Despite the circumstances, Erida felt a twitch at the corner of her lips. “The same has been said of me.”

Then Taristan really did laugh, his chuckle like the drag of steel on stone. But it did not reach his eyes, black with that red shadow shifting in the firelight. The demon was always in him, but never so much as now. Erida could almost feel His hatred, His hunger, as Taristan stomped back and forth across the chamber.

“The door to Meer is closed, its monsters driven back,” Ronin muttered, his hands twitching in his sleeves. Like Taristan he began to pace, running a path between door and window. He looked sharply between prince and queen. “We can only hope enough creatures of Meer have been released already, and that they continue to plague the waters.”

“Indeed, krakens and sea serpents will do a great deal to hinder the fleets of the Ward, especially the Ibalet navy,” Erida answered.

“I wonder how many of their war galleys are already at the bottom of the Long Sea?”

The loss of the Spindle, devastating as it was, did not press against her mind so firmly. The events of the evening haunted her still, too close to ignore. Better than anyone, Erida knew the dangers of a hungry court.

While Taristan prowled in front of her, the shadow pulling with him, Konegin galloped through her mind.

“You haven’t forgotten that my cousin tried to murder you an hour ago?” she said, her voice sharp.

“I still taste poison, Erida,” Taristan answered, whipcrack fast. She glanced at his mouth, thin lips pulled into a sneer. “No, I have not forgotten.”

Ronin waved a dismissive white hand. “A small man with a small mind. He failed and fled.”

“He will have half the kingdom rise against us if given the chance,” she snapped, her teeth bared. She wanted to squeeze the wizard’s weak throat too.

To her immense frustration, Taristan only shrugged. The veins along his neck stood out, like moon-white scars. “So don’t give it.”

“You know so little of kingdoms and courts, Taristan.” Erida heaved a weary sigh. If only his demon lord would gift him some common sense. “Invincible as you may be, strong as you are, you are nothing without my crown. If I lose my throne to that wretched, scheming troll—”

At that Taristan stopped his pacing, coming to a halt in front of her. He stared down, his black eyes seeming to swallow the world. Still that red sheen gleamed.

“You will not, I promise you,” Taristan growled.

Erida wanted to believe him.

“Then listen to me. Both of you,” she said, snapping her fingers between prince and wizard. Her words spilled, blood from a gushing wound. “He must be tried for his crimes. Treason, sedition, attempted murder of his prince, my consort. And then he must be executed in front of every eye, every person who might sway to his cause. The court, my lords, the army, they must be given no reason to doubt my authority. I—we—must be absolute if we are to continue our war of conquest, and claim the Ward.”

Taristan took another step forward, until she could feel the wicked heat rolling from his body. His jaw tightened.

“Shall I hunt him for you?”

Erida nearly smacked the suggestion aside. She did not fear for Taristan’s well-being—he was far stronger than almost anyone in the Ward. But he was not invincible. The scars on his face, still refusing to heal, were proof of that. Whatever Corayne did left deep marks on otherwise-flawless skin. More than that, it was foolish to think that the prince consort himself would ride out into the wilderness, into a land that was not his, to find his own potential usurper. But worst of all—the idea of him going made her afraid. I do not want him to leave me, she knew, difficult as it was to admit. Erida tried to smack that away too, turning her mind and her body from Taristan to fix her gaze on the single door in the small chamber.

On the other side was the empty feasting hall. The castle around them bristled with whispering courtiers, the fields with an encamped army. How many will Konegin lure to his side? How many will run to his flag instead of mine?

Taristan did not step back, still staring. His gaze ran over her face, searching her eyes, waiting for her to speak. Waiting for her command.

The thought was enticing, deliciously so. To have a prince of Old Cor, a conqueror, a warrior born and blooded, hanging upon her approval. It was intoxicating, even to the Queen. She felt a bolt of tension draw between them, like a line pulled taut. For a second, Erida wished the chittering rat Ronin were far away, but the wizard remained, simpering in the corner, his red eyes darting between queen and demon.

“You cannot be spared, Taristan,” she finally said, hoping he did not hear the tremble in her voice.

Ronin raised a finger, stepping forward. Whatever cord ran between queen and consort, the wizard neatly cut it in two.

“On that we agree, Your Majesty,” he said. “One Spindle is lost. Another must be gained, and quickly.”

Erida turned away. I will not war for attention, especially with that rat of a wizard. Her lip curled with distaste as a curtain of exhaustion fell over her. I began this day on one battlefield, and now I stand on another entirely. She certainly felt like a soldier, fighting with wits and intelligence instead of a sword. A sword is far more simple. She ached to undo the lacings of her underclothes, tightly pulled behind the folds of her gown.

But she was a queen. She did not have the luxury of weariness.

Erida drew herself straight again and planted her hands on her hips. “The Spindle is not the only thing you lost today. We walk a knife-edge,” she sneered, again cursing her husband’s political ignorance. “Taristan of Old Cor can crush skulls in his fist, but he cannot inspire allegiance.”

She glanced up to find Taristan staring, his black eyes boring into hers.

“And for that matter, neither can I,” she bit out, her teeth gnashing together. One hand fisted in her skirts, wringing the fabric between her fingers. Her throat bobbed, the words coming out too quickly to stop. “No matter what I do, no matter how much glory or gold I bring these awful, viperous courtiers, they do not love me the way they should. The way they would a man on my throne.”

Taristan looked on through it all, a strange look crossing his face. His lips twitched.

“What must I do to win them?”

His question shocked her, and Erida felt her eyes widen. Perhaps not so ignorant.

“Win a castle,” she answered sharply, gesturing to the window. It was shuttered, but they both knew the warring border lay beyond. The rich, weak lands of Madrence, waiting to be taken. “Win the battlefield. Win every mile into Madrence, until you and I plant the Gallish flag in the middle of their lovely capital, and claim all we see for the Lion.” The green-and-gold snapped in her mind, raised high among the glittering towers of Partepalas. “Bring my lords victory, and we will make them love us for it.”

As they loved my father and grandfather, and every Gallish conqueror before who lives in our paintings and stories and songs. I can join them, she thought. Not in death, but in glory.

Already she felt the warmth of it. It wasn’t the cloying heat of Taristan, but the gentle, familiar embrace of a parent returning home. Her father was more than four years gone, her mother alongside him. Konrad and Alisandra, taken by illness, felled by too common a fate. Erida cursed their ending, unbecoming of a king and queen. Still, she missed their arms, their voices, their steady protection.

Taristan looked on quietly, his gaze like a brush of fingers against her cheek. She set her jaw to a fierce edge and blinked away the memories before they could take hold. Before her husband could see their weight.

I cannot give over to sorrow, she knew. Their memory should be a current pushing me forward, not an anchor.

“Win, and win quickly,” Erida bit out, tossing back her head. Her ash-brown hair coiled against her pale cheeks, finally coming loose from the intricate braid that had survived the morning’s bloodshed. “We must have victory before any allies rouse to defend this land. Siscaria will already be on the move, maybe even Calidon or the Tyri fleets. We must hope Ibal is preoccupied with monsters in the Long Sea. If Galland conquers Madrence quickly, with you and me at the head of her army, the road to empire becomes much, much smoother for all of us.”

That road stretched out before her, long but straightforward. The legions of Galland would continue to march, cutting a line down the valley of the Rose River. There were castles along the border, fortresses to defend small towns and lush farmlands, but nothing to stop the might of Erida’s armies. The first true test would come at Rouleine, the city at the joining of the Rose and the Alsor. And when Rouleine falls, the capital is only days away, a jewel waiting to be claimed.

“I’ll have Lord Thornwall take stock of the armies,” she added, thinking aloud. A list spun in her mind, things to be accomplished as quickly as possible. “By first light we’ll know how many men, if any, deserted with Konegin.”

Taristan blew out a frustrated breath. “Certainly your cousin does not hold so much sway, Erida,” he said, almost placating.

“My cousin is a man with king’s blood in his veins,” she snapped, near to spitting. The injustice of it all still stung like a salted wound. “That holds enough sway for too many in my kingdom, let alone my own court.”

His reply was steady, unyielding as his black-eyed stare. “It holds no sway with me.”

Erida held his gaze, sapphire crashing against jet. Any retort died on her lips. Of course her prince consort would take her side. After all, his power in Galland came from her, as his power of the flesh came from his demon lord. But there was something beneath, unspoken.

An admission she could not yet understand. But she certainly wanted to try.

“We cannot forget our master, Taristan.” Ronin’s voice was nails on glass.

Erida clenched her teeth, turning her eyes on the red wizard as he moved between them, a scarlet wall. She did not need to see his horrible white face to know what message lived between his words. Our master is What Waits. Not the Queen of Galland.

And while she thought herself equal, if not superior, to all who walked the Ward, even Erida knew her measure against the demon king of hellish Asunder. Though her spine remained as steel, she felt a tremor in her skin.

“Gifts have been given, and payment must be made,” Ronin pressed on, gesturing to Taristan’s body.

He is strong as an immortal now. Stronger, even, Erida thought.

At Castle Vergon, he crushed diamonds in his fist, testament to his new strength.

In Nezri, the Spindle gave him the monsters of Meer, a force to terrorize his enemies in the Long Sea. That Spindle is lost, but the monsters remain, patrolling the deep.

And then there was the gift given at the temple, where Taristan drew a corpse army forth and killed his own brother. Flesh cut and then made whole again, wounds wiped away. Erida remembered their first meeting, when Taristan sliced his palm and bled before her throne, only for the skin to knit back together. Healed before her very eyes.

What comes next? she wondered, thinking on What Waits and the hellish realm He ruled beyond their own. But those were not thoughts she could entertain long. A god or a devil, who blessed and cursed in equal measure. But thus far—only blessings.

The Prince of Old Cor furrowed his brow, lowering his head so red locks of rough-cut hair fell into his eyes. He leaned over the wizard, using his greater height and bulk to much advantage. But Ronin knew his own measure too. He did not quail, his quivering hands finally still.

“Have you another Spindle, Wizard?” Taristan said through sharp, white teeth. His voice guttered like the embers on the floor. “Have you another place to send me?”

Ronin’s eyes flickered. “I have a few leads. Strange doings, whispers from the archives. Whispers from Him.”

A corner of Taristan’s mouth twitched. “So nothing of use yet.”

“I’ve led you to three Spindles, my prince,” the wizard said proudly, though he bowed his white-blond head. Then he glanced back up, his red-rimmed eyes alight. “Don’t forget, I’m Spindle-touched as you are, gifted by realms beyond our own.”

“Gifted like me?” Taristan flexed a fist, his message clear.

Ronin bowed lower. “What Waits makes servants of us all.”

Erida eyed the wizard’s exposed neck, the gap of flesh like fresh snow.

Taristan caught her gaze; then he bowed too, a dip of his head.

“And serve we shall,” he said, gesturing for Ronin to rise. “Your service is best performed in the dust and pages, Wizard. I’ve a Spindle to replace.”

Ronin nodded. “And two to protect.”

At least that is easy.

“I convinced Lord Thornwall to leave a thousand men at Castle Vergon, dug into the hill below the ruins,” Erida said, examining her ring of state. She let the emerald catch the light, the jewel glowing green. When she looked back up, both the wizard and the prince were staring, brows raised.

She allowed herself a small, satisfied smile and a shrug. “As a rear guard,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “To defend our march forward, and protect against any vengeful Madrentines who might wish to slip past us and threaten Galland.”

Even Ronin looked impressed.

“And,” she added, “to stop any teenage nuisances from making trouble. The Spindle is safe, and not even Corayne or her miscreant guardians can do anything about it.”

Taristan tipped his head. “What about your soldiers? What happens when some Gallish knight wanders into the ruins and finds himself in the Dazzling Realm?”

Erida shrugged again, donning her courtly smile. “The Vergon ruins are unstable, born of an earthquake. It isn’t safe for them, and their captains have been told as much.”

“Very good,” Ronin said, genuine for once. “The Spindle remains. With every passing moment, it tears at the foundations of the Ward itself.”

Taristan’s grin was quick, crackling with energy. “We still have the temple too, in the foothills, all but forgotten.”

The wizard nodded, pink spots rising on his cheeks. He seemed renewed, either by their improving fortunes or his master’s will. “Defended by an army of corpses, the broken soldiers of the Ashlands.”

“Is that not enough?”

Erida’s question hung in the air.

“Two Spindles left open, left eating at the Ward?” She imagined the Spindles like insects gnawing at the roots of the world. Wearing through with acid and teeth. “Is it only a matter of time now?”

Ronin’s responding laughter set her hair on end. He shook his head, despairing of the queen. “If it worked that way, What Waits would no longer be waiting. We need more. He needs more.”

“Then find more,” Taristan said, pacing again. He could not stay still for long. Erida wondered if that was his own nature, or the product of his gifts, jolting inside his skin like lightning in a bottle. “If I cannot hunt Konegin, perhaps I can travel back into the desert. Return to a known place of crossing. Reopen the way to Meer.”

Again the Queen felt that confusing jab of terror at the thought of Taristan traveling so far from her side. Luckily, a retort was easy to reach for. Her wits did not fail her.

“Normally I would agree, but hundreds of Gallish soldiers now lie dead in the sands of Ibal,” Erida said, matter-of-fact. Their endings did not bother her. Too many soldiers served her command. It would do no good to weep for them all. “And the Ibalet king is no fool. He will know of my trespassing army and be ready for more. I cannot give another kingdom cause for war, especially not one so powerful. Not yet, not while we have Madrence within reach.”

The window was shuttered, the night beyond pitch-black. But in her mind she could still see the river valley, the sentinel line of castles, the forest hiding the Madrentine army. The way forward.

“Strong as Galland may be,” she breathed, “I am not stupid enough to fight a war on two fronts.”

Taristan opened his mouth to reply, but Ronin cut him off with a wave.

“Nezri is beyond reach now,” the wizard said. “On this we agree.”

“She’s still there,” Taristan snarled. The ragged scars beneath his eye stood out furiously.

Before she knew what she was doing, Erida felt his body beneath her fingers, her palms pressed against his shoulders. She blinked fiercely.

“You won’t catch her, if she’s even still alive.”

He did not push her away, but he dropped her gaze.

“Perhaps the Spindle took her with it. Perhaps the danger of Corayne an-Amarat has passed,” she added, sounding desperate even to her own ears. Wishful thinking. The girl is Corblood, with an immortal at her side and perhaps a witch too. Gods only know who else.

“We both know that isn’t true.” Every word from Taristan’s lips cut like a knife, slicing her foolish hope down to size.

But Erida did not shrink with it. She straightened up instead, her hands still curled on his shoulders, against solid muscle and bone.

“And we both know the way forward,” she hissed.

After a long moment, Taristan nodded, setting his mouth into a grim line.

“Wizard, find me a Spindle,” he said, the full force of command in his voice.

He sounds like a king, Erida thought.

“Find me another place to destroy.” He stepped from her grasp, all movement. “I’ll lead the charge tomorrow, Erida. And lay victory at your feet.”

Air whistled past her teeth as she drew in a sharp breath. Will it be enough? she wondered. Will we succeed before Konegin ruins all we’ve worked for, all we’ve done? All I have already sacrificed—my independence, perhaps my throne.

The red sheen was unmistakable, a crescent in Taristan’s eyes.

And maybe my soul too.

The prince cocked his head. “Do you doubt me?”

“No,” Erida shot back, almost too quickly. Heat bloomed in her cheeks and she turned, trying to hide her rising flush. If Ronin and Taristan noticed, they said nothing.

She fussed with her skirts, smoothing them down. “At worst, if we cannot inspire loyalty, cannot win the hearts and minds of my court—we will buy them.”

Taristan’s dry manner returned. It was like pouring a bucket of ice water over the Queen’s head. “Even you aren’t rich enough for that.”

She went to the door, putting a hand to the iron pull. On the other side, the Lionguard lay in wait, eager to protect their young queen.

“You opened a portal to the Dazzling Realm, Prince Taristan,” she said, wrenching the door ajar. Cold air flowed in from the rest of the dreary castle. “I have all the wealth we will ever need.”

And something else, too.

She remembered the diamonds in his fist, big as eggs, then crushed to fine, starry powder. She remembered the Spindle and the glimpse of beyond, into Irridas. It was like a realm frozen, not with ice, but with jewels and precious stones.

And she remembered what moved within it: a glittering storm, now loose upon the Ward.

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