Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Roar, a novel of a land of furious magical storms and the young woman seeking the magic that is supposed to be her birthright.
Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.
To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.
Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage.
She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.
Roar will be available on June 13th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
You are lightning made flesh. Colder than falling snow. Unstoppable as the desert sands riding the wind. You are Stormling, Aurora Pavan. Believe it.
Believe it, and others will too.
It was a vow that her mother, Queen Aphra, made her swear on the day she reached twelve years. She had gripped her daughter’s shoulders tight, and Rora could still remember the pinch of pain, the furious beat of her heart as she saw how afraid her mother was and learned to be afraid too.
Today that fear had led Aurora Pavan to sign her life away before she ever had the chance to really live it.
As she was primped and prettied like some kind of sacrificial offering, her mind remained stuck on her morning spent in the throne room. She recalled the rasping sound as the treaty was unrolled and the way her fingers suddenly felt too weak to hold a quill. Many days of her sheltered life had been spent writing out ideas and facts and figures for her tutors, yet in that moment, she had struggled to remember the letters of her name. Then she had met her mother’s eyes, and those familiar words came to her again.
Colder than falling snow.
That was what Rora had to become as her shaking hand sealed her fate with a scratchy, bleeding line of ink. And now hours later a stranger peered back at her from the looking glass, powdered white so that none of her flaws would show.
Rora’s white-blonde hair had been curled and bound up in an elaborate ceremonial headdress that was crowded with jewels, flowers, and four jagged crystals cut like bolts of lightning to mimic her mother’s skyfire crown. Headdresses honoring a family’s ancestors were an important part of the Pavanian tradition for the upper echelons of nobility to the poor and working class. They were donned for birth and death and every major life event in between, including betrothals. But this headdress was larger than any Rora had ever seen. It had to be anchored to the thick metal necklace she wore about her collar with embellished fastenings, and it weighed on her nearly as much the events of the night still to come.
Her already pale skin had been covered in a shimmering white powder, which made her look like she’d just emerged from a blizzard. Her ribs were tightly bound in a corset that squeezed and squeezed until it felt like all her organs were in the wrong place. Over that was a heavy, beaded gown whose neckline dipped low, revealing far more cleavage than she had ever shown. The fabric clung to her frame until it fanned out at her knees into a long train, and the color of the dress changed from white to ash gray to glittering black.
Rora looked exactly as her mother had always told her to be—lightning made flesh: blinding white and bright against a dark sky, and the train that pooled around her was the ground, charred black by her impact.
It was stunning. Exquisite, really. Even Rora, who hated dresses of all kinds, could tell that. It was also a lie. Every jewel, every bead painted a picture of someone that wasn’t her. But that was the goal for tonight’s betrothal celebration . . . to be someone else, to be the perfect Stormling princess. Because if she failed, everything could fall apart.
A creak pierced the room, and every bustling body around her froze. Rora swore that the small sound moved through her bones the same way thunder did when it was close. Then the sinister tingle of storm magic spread over her like a second skin. Her gaze slid to the box her mother had just opened, to the jewels and stones inside that plagued her nightmares.
The hearts were not unlike the storms themselves—darkly beautiful but with an air of menace and deadly intent. It was an apt description for her future husband as well.
Slowly the room emptied of attendants and maids and seamstresses until only the queen and Aurora remained, ruler and heir. These Stormhearts had been passed down the Pavan family line for generations, the last remaining remnants of long-dead storms that her ancestors had defeated to gain their magic during the Time of Tempests. Back then, the continent of Caelira was ravaged beyond recognition, and people flocked to the Pavan family stronghold for sanctuary. They pledged service or goods or gold to live near those who had been blessed by the goddess with the ability to challenge the dangers of the sky, those that came to be called Stormlings.
Aurora’s ancestors then passed along three things to their descendents—the crown of a newly formed kingdom, the hearts of the storms they had conquered, and the magic that ran through their blood as a result.
Without a Stormheart, a Stormling might have enough magic in their blood to influence small storms of their inherited affinities. But with one of those talismans amplifying their magic, one person could single-handedly bring down a tempest savage enough to wipe whole cities from existence. And tonight, as she and her betrothed were presented to the court, for the first time Aurora would wear the Stormhearts reserved for the heir.
Her mother lifted the first relic from the box, and the hair on Rora’s arms stood on end. The air crackled, and she felt far more residual magic standing close to her mother than she ever felt holding the stones herself.
This Stormheart was a cloudy, pearlescent stone and represented skyfire, the strongest of her family’s five affinities. When those jagged bolts of white fire streaked down from the sky, dozens all at once, it was her mother who protected the city of Pavan. And now that Aurora had turned eighteen, she would be expected to join in the fight the next time dark clouds rolled over their lands.
“Light in your blood, skyfire bows to you,” her mother murmured before settling the stone into the hollow that had been left for it in the center of the ceremonial headdress. Rora shivered, and her mother’s eyes darted quickly to hers. She interrupted the ritual to ask, “Did you—?”
There was such hope in her voice that Rora couldn’t bring herself to meet the queen’s eyes as she shook her head. Frowning, her mother bent to pick up the next Stormheart. This one was a deep ruby, thin and sharp like a shard of glass.
“Fire in your blood, firestorms bow to you.”
Firestorms built quickly with little warning, and hot embers fell like hail. They could singe straight through skin; and in the flat, grassy kingdom of Pavan, they could set the land ablaze in seconds. It was said to be the rarest of all affinities. Carefully, the queen slotted the gem into an open space on Rora’s necklace. It lay over her sternum with the sharp point coming to rest at the top of her cleavage. Several smaller versions of the crystalline lightning bolts that adorned her headdress fanned across her collarbone on each side of the bloodred Stormheart.
The queen added four more hearts to the ensemble, speaking the words that her father had once spoken to her. A flat blue stone set into a bracelet for thunderstorms. The heart of a windstorm, gray and cylindrical, slid into a socket on a thin silver belt around Rora’s waist. A jagged slate-gray piece for fog adorned her other wrist. And last, her mother lifted a silver ring adorned with a small black jewel. It was the only Stormheart in the box that wasn’t ancient.
No, this Stormheart was barely twelve years old. Rora’s brother, Alaric, had stolen it from a twister that had touched down near the southwestern border of their territory. Stormling families were limited to the affinities they inherited from their original Stormling ancestors, but some believed it possible, though wildly dangerous, to gain a new affinity in the same way the first Stormlings were said to have done—by stealing the heart of storm and absorbing its magic. At eighteen, Alaric believed he could take down a twister and gain the Pavan family another affinity.
He’d been wrong. He had thrust his hand into the heart of the storm to claim it as his own. And when the battle was almost won, the storm’s winds returned the favor, thrusting a tree branch through the heart of the Pavan heir.
The few devout priests in the kingdom who still followed the old gods had claimed it a reminder from the skies not to reach above one’s stars. Sometimes Aurora wondered if they weren’t still being punished.
The ring did not rouse at the queen’s touch, but remained a cold, dead gem as she slipped it onto Rora’s finger. It only would have worked for Alaric or his offspring. Rora and her mother pretended it was just a normal ring. Just as Rora always pretended to be something she wasn’t. And her mother pretended she wasn’t disappointed with her daughter. And that they all wouldn’t have been better off if Alaric had lived.
Rora would keep pretending, through the celebrations and the wedding after that. And then her entire life. She would pretend that she did not desperately wish she were better. Different. More.
Her mother took her shoulders in that familiar hard grip. “Remember, be confident and controlled. Do not let them intimidate you.”
“Do not speak more than you must. Keep a tight rein on your temper lest you—”
“Lest I give myself away. I know, Mother.”
The queen paused, the curve of her lips pushing into a frown. “I know this isn’t ideal. I wish we had all the time you could want and could wait to find you a love match or at least someone of your choosing.”
“But we don’t. We are out of time. I understand.”
Arranged marriages were rare in Pavanian royal history. Often, rulers chose for love, like her mother and father. Others held contests of skill for young nobles to prove themselves to the heir. But soon the skies would bruise and bleed and howl as the Rage season drew its first breath, and if Aurora was not married by then, her own little kingdom of lies would topple.
“Promise me you will try to find the good in this. To find some happiness,” the queen said.
Rora nodded. She didn’t have the heart to tell her mother how impossible she thought that was with a man as hard and cold as Cassius Locke, the second son of the Locke kingdom. The Lockes by reputation were cunning, smart, and as vicious as the storms that plagued their city by the sea. If she showed a weakness, she had no doubt they would exploit it. And if they learned exactly what all the jewels and powder and fine fabrics hid? Aurora’s last hope to keep her kingdom would unravel.
“Are you ready?” her mother asked.
A small part of Aurora screamed in revolt; she wanted to ask for permission to leave, to disappear into the wildlands and find another life. But the queen had lost enough in this life. Her husband succumbed to a disease that her magic couldn’t touch. And her son had captured a storm’s heart at the expense of his own. And the only one she had left, her daughter . . . her daughter looked the part of the perfect Stormling princess—so impressive, so ethereal, that no one would ever dare to think the truth.
That she had no storm magic at all.
Aurora’s muscles twitched involuntarily as she stood outside the throne room, as if her body might decide to run without her mind’s consent. Two of her guards, Taven and Merrin, waited a few steps behind her. They followed her inside, and an eerie silence took hold after the heavy doors closed.
Moments later Cassius Locke melted out of the shadows, looking more like a villain than a prince—dressed all in black with dark hair and eyes to match. At twenty, he was a mere two years older than she. But the prince before her seemed bigger, older . . . much more a man than she had expected. He reminded her of those thunderstorms that stalled on the horizon—growing bigger and darker as they churned in on themselves.
Their gazes met, and she held his stare, shoulders square and back. Sweat dripped down her spine beneath the elaborate costume, and a headache knocked at her temples from the weight of the headdress, but she did not let it show. His eyes dropped, perusing her form. Rora’s heart thumped a little faster. The longer he looked at her, the more uncomfortable she became. And she hated herself for it. For letting him get to her.
If her mother had taught her anything, it was that no one could make you feel small unless you allowed it. So she took a deep breath and let herself believe she was the fierce and powerful girl everyone thought she was. And she stared right back.
Maybe Rora didn’t have magic, but Cassius didn’t know that. She had spent her whole life preparing to be queen, and she’d be damned if she spared an instant of worry for what he thought of her. She evaluated him in return and spitefully hoped it made him uncomfortable. Starting with his neatly combed midnight hair, she assessed his looks—strong brows, straight nose, pointed chin. His face was almost too symmetrical, as if crafted by an architect. Rora frowned and swept her gaze down to his broad chest and large shoulders.
Instead of making him uncomfortable, she began to feel uneasy with her perusal. He was too attractive. Far more handsome than any of the local young men she might have chosen. But that beauty was tempered by an air of brutality—a hardness in his eyes and the precise, sharp movements of a man who was deadly and wanted everyone to know it.
He stood a handspan taller than she, a rarity for Rora’s tall form. When she finally looked back at his face, he was quirking an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk.
“Don’t stop on my account. Please, look your fill. See what you’re getting, Princess.” He did a slow spin, giving her a full view. She meant to scoff at his arrogance, but the sound was strangled beneath a gasp when she saw him in profile.
The folds of his black tunic left a gap down the middle of his back, revealing something that looked like armor beneath; and down the line of his spine were sharp, unnatural protrusions.
He angled his head toward her and smiled. It did not look as a smile should. It exaggerated the strong angles of his face making him appear harsh . . . dangerous.
“Did you think you’d be the only one wearing hearts today?”
He turned fully and there, piercing the back of his tunic like monstrous vertebrae, were Stormhearts. Nearly a dozen. Some were familiar—the crystalline red of firestorms and pearlescent skyfire. Others were not like any she knew. And, unlike Rora, he even had duplicates.
“H-how?” Second sons never wore Stormhearts. Those remained with the ruler and the heir.
“These belong to me, not to the Locke kingdom.” Suddenly her corset felt far more constricting, like a snake coiling about her middle tighter and tighter. A dozen hearts of his own? Even with Stormling powers, to take the heart from a tempest was wildly dangerous. Many more than just her brother had died in such an endeavor. The history books chronicled the stories, and even those few who succeeded were later plagued by tragedy and death, as if the storms somehow sought vengeance after their demise. Clearly Cassius did not fear the wrath of gods or storms. If he truly had taken those Stormhearts for himself, he was dangerous indeed.
“I enjoy the way it feels,” Cassius said, his voice pitched deep. “To reach a hand into the dark depths of a storm and rip out its heart.”
A shiver of unease ran down her spine. If she had magic, could she ever take that much joy in destruction? He was watching her, reading her, and she quickly pulled on a blank expression. Other than not having magic, that was her greatest weakness as a royal heir. She felt too much, thought too much; and even with years of tutoring, it was still an effort to keep the tempest inside her from showing on her face. “How was your journey?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Long. The mountain passes were more troublesome than we had expected this time of year.”
“Storms?” she asked.
Rora’s jaw dropped. “But we’re still in the Slumber season.”
“The foot of snow that nearly trapped us in the pass at Bone’s Break cared little what season it was. The wildlands have been even more unpredictable of late.”
As far as she knew, the Lockes had no snow blood in the family line. The snowstorms never ventured far enough south to matter in their kingdom. “Your father—was he able to control it?”
He shook his head. “None of us had ever seen a blizzard. And my father rarely faces storms these days. My brother and I battle most.”
She supposed the same might have been true for her if she had magic. Instead, she and her mother had delayed the transfer of protection duties as long as possible. It was why she had to marry now. With the Rage season looming, they were out of time.
“How did you—”
Before the question was out of her mouth, he reached his free hand back to touch the Stormheart at the top of his spine. It was a glittering white, nearly silver, and almost perfectly round. “I did not have snow blood. But I do now.”
Cold chased over her skin, and she shivered. He stepped into her space, taking both her hands between his and sliding his warm palms over the pebbled skin of her arms. “My apologies.” His voice rumbled low in the scant space between them. “The newer hearts are . . . responsive.” He used her elbows to tug her close, her palms falling flat against his hard chest. His hands kept skimming over her skin, slower now, rubbing away the cold. She told herself to pull away, screamed it inside her head, but the blood in her veins felt slow and thick like honey.
The storms in Caelira were dangerous not just for their destructive capabilities but for their magic. A potent storm could mesmerize a person, and even if you knew you should run or fight, you were too enthralled to care. All were trained to guard their minds as children, but sometimes it still was not enough. Whole Stormling armies had been slaughtered without raising a finger in their own defense, stunned into stillness even in the face of death. She wondered if Cassius had found a way to steal that skill from the storms along with their hearts. Because despite her unease, she could not seem to step out of his grasp. He leaned in close, until she could feel his breath tickling over her cheek. “You remind me of it.”
She swallowed, and the skin that had pebbled from the cold grew blisteringly hot wherever his breath touched her. “Of what?”
“The blizzard. Fierce and beautiful and unlike anything my eyes have ever seen.”
Her stomach tumbled at his words, and her mouth turned dry. She might have looked fierce in her skyfire-inspired attire, but she did not feel it. Not with him so close. He’d barely touched her, and she felt as if each of her walls was collapsing one by one.
The Pavanian princess stared at Cassius, her mouth open slightly. When she first walked into this room, Cassius had thought her stunning in her savagery, colder than the depths of winter. Her dress seduced and threatened in equal measure, clinging to her curves and adorned with carved skyfire crystals that jutted from her shoulders and head like the spikes of warrior’s armor. And yet for all that careful pageantry, it had only taken a compliment to rattle her. She looked very young in that moment, very sweet, which was never a good thing for a potential ruler to be.
She donned an unreadable expression before his curiosity was satisfied, and her lilting voice turned sharp. “Flattery is not necessary. The betrothal has already been set.”
Another blast of that wintery gaze. She had unusual blue-gray eyes—wide and expressive and lovely enough to bring a lesser man to his knees. Her confident demeanor would likely have convinced most, but he had sharpened his instincts in a court little safer than a lion’s den. Tension rode her—something between unease and fear. He gripped her wrist and had the inexplicable urge to drag her somewhere else, anywhere other than the betrothal celebration that waited upstairs with his family. She was a delicate songbird, and his father was a bird of prey. They all were, Cassius included. And he couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before this little bird had her wings clipped.
She tugged her arm out of his grasp, hard. He was tempted to take it back. That was part of his nature . . . to take. But she fixed him with a harsh glare, and he smiled in response. Perhaps his little bird had talons after all.
Enough. She was not his little bird. A jungle cat does not care for prey, even if he wants it with a hunger stronger than any he has ever known. He pushed his more ruthless instincts aside. That would be his greatest challenge here—fighting the need to seize, command, destroy. Those were the things he was good at. The things he’d been taught since he could walk. With Aurora he would have to coax and flatter and comfort—that was his path to control.
She said, “We should probably go. They’ll be calling for us soon.”
Cassius offered her his elbow, and her body was tense as she curled her hand around it. But before they even took a step, it became clear that the voluminous fabric at the bottom of her dress wouldn’t allow them to easily walk side by side. Cassius took hold of her hand, sliding it off his arm and lacing their fingers together instead. Slowly, he lifted her hand until his lips dragged across her knuckles. The blacks of her eyes expanded, swallowing up that lovely color and adding just a touch of sin to her sweet. She jerked within his grip, trying to pull away. Chuckling low, he put some distance between them, but he did not release her hand.
It took entirely too long to cross the throne room in her elaborate attire. She had to kick the bottom of her dress out before she stepped so that it wasn’t underfoot. Cassius was willing to bet that the dress and the headpiece weighed a third as much as she did or more, but her posture remained rigidly upright and her steps smooth.
By the time they reached the staircase at the back of the throne room, her lips were open and her breathing quick. He was beginning to hate this dress, even if it did cling to her curves rather spectacularly.
“You know,” he said, “I have a knife. I’m tempted to cut off the bottom of that dress so you can walk like the rest of us.”
A smile flitted across her mouth, small at first, then widening into something playful and bright. It called to the darkness in him. “You could try. But you’d likely find that knife at your throat with my mother on the other side of it.”
“If I had my way, we’d burn it once you cut it off. The headdress too.”
He smiled, and for the first time in a long while it felt almost natural.
“Perhaps we’ll celebrate our wedding with a bonfire.”
Every time he mentioned the wedding, she tensed. It was, of course, already agreed upon and signed in ink, but he had plans that would not succeed if she remained reluctant.
They ascended the first few steps slowly, the beaded fabric of her dress pulled taut around her legs. He wanted to throw her over his shoulder and charge the rest of the way, but he distracted himself with studying his surroundings instead. The hallway they were leaving behind was filled with paintings and statues of the Pavan Stormling ancestors. At the hallway’s end a massive, gold-painted statue of the current queen stood in a decorative alcove. Once upon a time, there might have been altars to the old gods—places to pray for good harvest or fertility or even luck—but those days were long past. Too many years of unbridled destruction and unanswered prayers.
No, Stormlings were the gods now. It was Cassius and the people like him who either answered prayers or ignored them.
“You said you faced a blizzard on your journey, but you did it without an affinity.”
He squeezed the hand he still held. “I did.”
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, scraping at the white paint that covered her skin. She asked, “Would you tell me about it sometime? The blizzard?”
He angled his head to smile at her again, and she looked away. Shy. So many pieces to her puzzle. “On one condition.”
“Which is?” He had expected her to be like most of the well-born ladies of the court in Locke: sirens with claws and teeth or frightened little mice, made to be gobbled up by this world. Aurora seemed neither vicious nor weak, but she was working so carefully to show him a façade that he could not pinpoint exactly what she was.
He had to know. It was his curse, the reason he thirsted for the thrill of a storm. He had to know how things worked, had to know why. And the girl in front of him was no different. In fact, the need to unravel all her secrets was stronger than he’d ever felt because she would be his. And he had a feeling that conquering her would prove more exhilarating than any storm he had ever defeated.
Rather than giving her his condition, he released her hand and wrapped an arm around the slim circle of her waist. She tried to step back, but her feet tangled in her dress, and she gripped his tunic to stay upright.
There it was. A thread of fear in those eyes. He could have stopped then, but he had little self-control when it came to these things. It was not enough to see a measure of her emotions on her face. He wanted them all. So he pushed a little more. “You might be patient enough to fight with this dress, but I am not. Let me get us to the top of these stairs, and I promise to tell you whatever story you want to hear.”
She jutted her soft chin out and said, “You have a deal.”
The paint had begun to wear away on her lips, revealing rosy skin underneath. Was the rest of her flushed beneath all that powder? He dragged his fingers back and forth over her side, feeling hard ridges beneath the heavy, embellished fabric “Corset?”
She sucked in a breath, and he knew he had shocked her. Innocent. He collected each morsel of her identity like a scavenger in the jungle. He saw just a sliver of panic before she hid it away and met his gaze.
Brave little bird.
“It will have to be like this.” Before she could change her mind or reason could catch up to his own actions, he bent, winding his arms around her thighs, and lifted. She was tall but slight, and he held her tight against him so that her hips pressed against his chest and her stomach hovered in front of his face. She gasped and braced a hand on his shoulder, reaching up to balance her headdress with the other. He could not see her face like this, but he imagined she was scandalized. He couldn’t help himself; he chuckled. “I suppose I should have given you some warning.”
He risked offending her or word getting back to her mother through the guards that followed them. Both of which paled in comparison to the risk of his father hearing of his actions. He was a child, poking at a fish with a stick, rather than reeling it in the way he was supposed to. But he could not seem to help himself.
With some measure of urgency, he started up the stairs. Her body swayed toward him, her beaded dress scraping against his chin. This close, he felt her breathing speed up. The hand on his shoulder migrated to her chest, doing her best to cover the cleavage that was only a few inches above his line of sight.
His instincts said to push again, but this time he reined them in. He kept his head down and quickened his feet. Again, the movement made her sway toward him, harder this time without her hand on his shoulder as a brace. He turned his face to the side, and her belly pressed against his cheek just for a moment before her hand was back at his shoulder, righting her position.
He took the last few steps at a pace that was nearly a jog, and when he reached the top, he looked up at her face. Her mouth was open and soft; he knew by the rise and fall of her body against him that her breaths were ragged, and in her eyes was a gleam. Not fear. Not panic. Not even anger.
He could work with that.
The capital city of the Locke kingdom seems to lie at the very edge of all things. Jutting out into ravaging sea and hemmed in by wild jungles, it is the edge of the world, the edge of beauty and danger and power. It is a gleaming gem cradled in the jaw of a predator, and to touch it, to live there on the edge, is to know life and death and command them both.
—THE PERILOUS LANDS OF CAELIRA
If Rora’s eyes had been closed, she might have believed that a firestorm had struck indoors and that embers were scorching along every surface of her skin, burning and burning and burning until she turned to ash. Cassius’s hold loosened, and Rora’s body began to slide down his toward the floor.
His eyes were not black as she thought before, but a deep blue. Like the ocean in the midst of a storm. Or how she envisioned the ocean to be, since she had only ever read about it. Her favorite book was about an explorer who sailed the sea in search of a safer land; she had read it so many times that the spine was broken and the pages soft. She would like to know how it felt to stand and feel the crash of waves against her knees. Maybe Cassius would take her someday.
She felt the future rolling out in front of her, like the wind moving through the wheat fields. Too fast. Everything was too fast. But he looked at her mouth, and she looked at his. A spark burned up her spine, and for the first time in her life she could imagine exactly what it was like to control skyfire.
To be powerful.
Just when excitement overtook the fear, and she started to want things to be too fast, his hands slid away and he stepped back. Taven and Merrin had been maintaining a discreet distance until Cassius had lifted her, and now they waited only a few steps below them.
She was certain her guards could see the red flooding her cheeks, that they all could see, even through the layers of powder. In her mother’s efforts to seclude her and protect her secret, Queen Aphra had effectively cut Rora off from almost all personal contact. She’d traded friendship for solitude, social interaction for books. At her mother’s insistence, at her queen’s demand, Rora alienated everyone she knew to keep a secret that weighed on her more than this gown and headdress ever would. Even the maids who assisted her changed regularly to prevent anyone from getting close enough to learn the truth.
Rora had certainly never been pressed against a man as she had been in Cassius’s arms. She was terrified that he would be able to see her nerves, that this would be one more area for her to be found lacking. But he didn’t laugh or tease her. Instead, Cassius knelt at her feet. Her heart skittered up into her throat as he carefully straightened and smoothed the mass of black fabric at the bottom of her dress. When he looked up, her thoughts tangled over their imagined wedding night. About how she would have to get used to him being even closer and more intimate than this.
Her thoughts spun out of control, but below her Cassius was unhurried and unembarrassed. He offered her the softest smile, softer than she would have thought him capable. Maybe her mother was right. Cassius had his rough edges, but perhaps there was happiness to be found with him.
“There,” he said, straightening in front of her again. He touched the curve of her chin, tipping it up slightly. His hand left her chin for the smooth crystal of a skyfire bolt on her necklace. His finger ran along the edge, and though it didn’t touch her skin, it was close. Maybe the crystal was crooked and needed straightening too. Or maybe it wasn’t. She only knew that she wanted him to do it again. He gave her a cheeky wink and said, “Your mother will never know a thing.”
Before she could make sense of her flurry of emotions, a door beyond them opened. A servant asked if they were ready, and Rora nodded shakily. Moments later cheering could be heard within the great hall beyond. Cassius clasped her hand and pulled her forward.
When they stepped through the doorway, Rora’s heart caught in her throat. Hundreds upon hundreds of people were crowded into the room to celebrate her betrothal to Cassius, smiling faces as far as she could see. The applause echoed around the room, filling her ears until she could not even hear herself think. Her favorite thing in the entire palace was the chandelier her great-grandfather had constructed by trapping the magic of skyfire in an elaborate glass structure, and she fixed her eyes on it. Tonight it shone brilliantly—lightning frozen behind glass as if the goddess herself had plucked it from the sky.
A squeeze of her hand pulled her attention to the side, to Cassius’s too handsome face. He smiled at her, the widest one yet, and she found herself smiling back. Something trembled inside her, like the plucked string of an instrument, and it seemed to grow, thrumming through her bloodstream until her whole body buzzed with an unfamiliar sensation.
It had been a long time since Aurora had truly felt like a princess. She made few public appearances, another attempt to hold her secret as long as possible. Occasionally, she would join her mother on carriage rides through the city, but she only ever waved through the windows. She was better off without the attention. She enjoyed her time alone, reading or riding her horse, Honey, or studying. She did not want to wear fancy dresses or attend parties or experience the frivolity of court life.
At least, that was what she always told herself. Now, she felt as if she had stepped into the pages of one of her books or strode out of the shadows of her own life for the first time.
The applause died down, and Cassius led her to the center of the room for their first dance. He pulled her close, his long, muscled arms wrapping her up like a butterfly in a cocoon. He smelled of leather and salt and something distinctly male. She fought the urge to lay her head upon his chest as the music began and they started to move.
She had expected to spend the whole night on edge, protecting her secret and her mother’s plan to keep the throne in the Pavan family while also guaranteeing a ruler who could protect the kingdom. But between one twirl and the next, all those worries fled and thoughts of Cassius, of their potential future together filled the gaps.
Aurora’s flushed skin was beginning to show through the powder in places—the hollow of her throat, the crest of her cheek, the curve of her lip. Cassius fought the urge to finish the job, to rub it all away so he could see her truly. “You’re different than I expected,” he murmured when the dance brought their bodies close.
Something had changed in the way she looked at him, softened, as if her initial distrust had all but melted away. A part of him wanted to shake her, to tell her she was being a fool for trusting anyone, let alone a man like him. But a greater part of him craved that look, yearned for her eyes on him the way a flower strained for the sun. But if he were a flower, he would no doubt be poison. He drew her closer anyway. Cassius felt the irrational urge to mark her, claim her as his; and if the only way to do that was to let some of his poison rub off on her, then so be it.
“Different in a good way?” Confusion and hope and worry warred on her face. For a girl that had tried before to be ice-cold, she was a riot of barely checked emotions now.
He let the hand on the middle of her back stray to her side, dragging his fingers along the stays of her corset again. “Very good.”
“You are not what I assumed either.” She offered him that sweet smile.
If she knew what that smile did to him, she would be less generous with it.
Emotion was not something with which he had much experience. His parents’ marriage was one of strategy, and that same attitude extended to their parenting. As a boy, he had not known that bloodthirsty competition between siblings was not the way of every family. But he knew now; he felt the yoke of his father’s control constantly tightening around his neck, and it was only recently that he had cared enough to fight it. Or perhaps, he had stopped caring altogether. Consequences meant little to him now.
So he did not react when he noticed his father glaring, eyes flicking down to the hand Cassius still rubbed scandalously along Aurora’s side. He’d come here at his father’s bidding, but the king would not be pulling Cassius’s strings for much longer. He tucked the princess closer, until he could feel the hot puffs of her breath in the hollow of his throat. He slid his hand dangerously low on her back. This was one thing his father would not control. Aurora was his way out, his fresh start. And once they were married, the king would realize that his control over Cassius had died when they left Locke.
The first song ended, and the floor grew crowded with more couples. He led the princess over to where both their families gathered on a dais. Queen Aphra sat upon an elaborate throne made from the same sandstone as the palace, and it glittered gold in the light. A smaller version that was likely Aurora’s remained empty, and several ornate chairs had been added to the dais for his family.
Despite the smaller chair, his father sat as if this room and the people in it were his to command. His mother surveyed the room with a scrunched nose as if already planning how she would change the palace around her. He led Aurora to her vacant throne. Before she could take her seat, he pulled her to a stop and lifted her hand to his mouth, giving the back a slow, grazing kiss. He watched the delicate column of her throat move as she swallowed. When she lowered herself into the chair, he took up sentry position beside her.
After a moment, their parents returned to their previous conversation, and he heard his father questioning Queen Aphra about Pavan’s holdings. They discussed the various crops that grew in the fields surrounding the city, the river that provided water from the north, as well as borders and resources and interaction with several of the nearest Stormling strongholds.
Cassius had spent his life hemmed in by sea and jungle. Few braved the perils of any of the unclaimed wildlands territory; far fewer braved the wilds that led to Locke. Conquest was nearly unheard of in the modern era of Caelira. The challenges of protecting the land were too consuming to dream of conquering more. But even so, Locke’s lethal location provided a great deal of protection and privacy, and most important, it allowed them to control the flow of information in and out of the city. The power of the Locke family was renowned across the continent because they made it so. Pavan was the centermost city of the continent, and thus had potential allies (and threats) on all sides. It would be . . . an adjustment.
The king’s corresponding stories about Locke were exaggerated and embellished as always. Cassius tuned out as Queen Aphra inquired after his uncle, who was protecting Locke in their absence. He didn’t care to listen to fabricated stories about a brotherly relationship that was just as poisonous as the one he had with his own brother. Bending close to Aurora’s ear, Cassius murmured, “Take everything the king says with a grain of salt.” He touched the pointed tip of the skyfire crystal that perched upon her shoulder. It was sharper than he had expected. “We’re all putting on shows today.”
“And you?” she asked. “Should I disbelieve everything you say as well?”
He didn’t back off; instead he traced the crystal down to the curve of her shoulder. As he considered how to answer, he dragged his fingers toward the nape of her neck. Her head dipped forward slightly, and he curved his palm over the back of her neck. “When you’re raised to be king, you’re taught to choose your words carefully, to utilize them with as much precision as a sword in a fight. But I—”
“You’re the second son.”
He frowned, and his hand tightened on her nape for just a moment before he realized his error and released her. “Yes, I am. And I am not like my father.” He knew there was too much aggression in his tone, and when she cast her eyes up, he nearly lost all his patience for this game. He wanted this girl. More than that . . . he required her. And he was not always the most patient hunter. He was preparing to ask her for another dance when his brother stepped into view.
“A princess as lovely as you should spend the entire night upon the dance floor. Allow me to correct my little brother’s error.”
Casimir held out a hand in offering, and Cassius’s fingers itched for the blade he usually wore at his hip.
“Mir,” he grumbled in warning. But that only made his brother push more. They were alike in that. When Aurora laid her hand in Mir’s, he pressed a kiss to her palm. A long kiss. Fire licked up Cassius’s spine, and nearly a dozen Stormhearts burned hot and cold and everything between as they filled with his energy. His brother was very, very lucky that the Stormhearts could only influence storms, not create them. He wouldn’t have been able to stop himself from raining down fire and floods, brother of his blood or not.
Cassius snapped, “That’s enough, Casimir.”
“Come now, Brother. Surely, you would not deprive me of the chance to get to know my future sister.”
Cassius bared his teeth in grim smile. “Get to know her from a distance.” There was no hiding the threat in his words.
Mir winked at the princess and said, “He never has been good at sharing.”
“And you never have been good at keeping your hands where they belong.”
Cassius was nearly vibrating with fury now, but his brother was still as calm as could be, his thumb lazily stroking Rora’s palm as he kept hold of her hand. “No. No, I have not.”
Cassius gripped Aurora’s shoulders and pulled her back against his chest. The headdress blocked his view for a moment before he leaned around and fixed his brother with a glare.
“Careful, Cassius.” His brother smiled. “You’ll frighten her away before she’s truly yours.”
“Boys.” A tinkling, fake laugh drifted over from where their mother sat. “At least pretend to be civilized.” The dais was set apart enough that no one could have heard their words, but his mother’s warning cleared Cassius’s head enough to remember that people were watching.
“A little healthy competition never did any harm,” his father replied, looking at Casimir with approval. Once upon a time that might have been a painful blow to Cassius, to see his brother favored over him, but take enough of those hits, and eventually you don’t even feel them.
His mother turned to the Pavanian queen and said, “You are so lucky you have no sons. They are beasts on their best days.”
Queen Aphra’s smile faltered only for a moment, but it was long enough. Unlike in Locke, where secrets were easy to bury, there was not a kingdom on the continent that had not heard of the death of Pavan’s heir. His mother looked out at the dance floor, her lips tipped up in mimicry of pleasantness. Everything about his mother’s looks should have lent her warmth—her honey skin, dark brown hair, and eyes that shone somewhere between. But there was no disguising the cold in her.
Enough. He cared not for silly dances and frivolous parties, but he would keep Aurora on the floor until morning if it kept her in his arms and his family at a distance. He took her hand and began pulling her away without explanation. To his brother he called back, “You’ll have to beg a dance another time. Perhaps after our wedding. Tonight is ours.”
Aurora’s cheeks hurt from smiling, and her face was hot from what felt like one unending blush. She held Cassius’s elbow, leaning in to him as she tottered like she had drunk her weight in wine. She hadn’t had a single drop, but she felt slightly drunk all the same. He held her both her hands atop his forearm, keeping her steady every time she inevitably tripped over her dress.
Yesterday she had been certain that life as she knew it was coming to an end, with her future resting on a blade’s edge as thin as the half-truths they’d told for years. But now . . . all the world looked different through hope’s glow.
She peeked behind Cassius’s shoulder at the brooding brother who trailed them. He was playing chaperone, king’s orders, as Cassius walked her back to her rooms.
Casimir was nearly as tall as his brother, but his body was leaner, his face a little softer, more pampered, perhaps. His hair was longer with a slight curl to the ends. If she did not already know which was which, she would have assumed that Cassius was the famed elder brother known as Prince Cas. Taller and broader—she assumed him the more powerful, but perhaps that misconception was part of what made Casimir all the more dangerous. He was quicker to smile and joke, and would no doubt make a charismatic ruler, but there was a hint of cunning to him. As if every word was a strategic move on a game board that she could not see.
The three of them made their way down the main stairs onto the ground floor. “Prince Casimir,” she called back, “my mother said that you were also recently engaged to be married.”
Casimir’s eyes flicked to his brother’s back before he answered, “I’m afraid your mother’s information is outdated. That betrothal was dissolved.”
She wasn’t sure whether to offer condolences or ask for more information or remain silent. But she’d never been one to keep her mouth in check for long. Still soaring from her unexpectedly wonderful night, her curiosity got the better of her.
“How does one go about dissolving betrothals?”
She was smiling widely as they entered the north residential wing, and a few moments passed before she noticed the brothers had gone rigid. Cassius’s expression was dark and hard, like the intimidating man he’d been at first sight, and it made the air feel thick in Rora’s throat.
“There’s only one way a betrothal sealed by a royal contract can be broken,” Casimir answered.
It wasn’t the eldest brother who continued, but Cassius. “She died, Aurora.”
She wanted to rip one of the skyfire crystals off her necklace and shove it down her throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but she knew the words meant little. They couldn’t change anything, couldn’t unravel time. But he thanked her anyway, and dropped back as they approached the ornate archway that separated the royal chambers from the rest of the wing. Cassius touched the gold-painted, carved wooden frame, but didn’t pass under it. Rora whispered, “I’m sorry I brought up the engagement. I didn’t know. I never would have—”
Cassius cut her off, grasping her chin between his fingers. She went silent and very, very still. His gaze pinned her in place, making her forget her panic.
“You did not know. Besides, we Lockes don’t dwell on the past. We move forward. Always forward.”
“Does that come from your family creed?”
His brows lifted. “How did you know that?”
“Eyes always to the horizon. Is that right?”
The fingers on her chin loosened, and he dragged his thumb along the line of her jaw.
“Smart little bird.”
Her nose crinkled. “I am not even remotely birdlike.”
Cassius reached up and plucked one of many feathers from her headdress, trailing it over her cheek. She opened her mouth, and then closed it, scowling up at him. He laughed, the sound rumbling in his throat. It was the most carefree she had seen him yet.
“The royal chambers are through here,” she said, gesturing beyond the archway.
He looked down and cleared his throat. “It’s probably best if I say good night here.”
His hesitant expression seemed out of place on his sharp features. For the first time, she wondered if he too had been dreading their union, if even now he only charmed her out of a sense of duty. Guilt singed through her like skyfire. What would he say when he learned the truth? When he discovered all her lies?
“Cassius, I know an arranged marriage likely wasn’t something you envisioned for yourself. It’s not what I saw for my future either. But—” She stopped, nerves bleeding back in for the first time in hours. “I think we could—You seem like—”
“Stop worrying, Aurora.”
The words were punctuated by his hands cupping her jaw, fingers splaying down her neck. She did the opposite of what he said. She worried about the powder on her face that would smudge off on his hands. She worried about his closeness and the state of her breath. She worried he would kiss her and that she would be exceptionally bad at it.
“A treaty has nothing to do with what’s between us. I fight for what’s mine, Princess. Whether it’s against storms or my brother or your stubbornness—I fight to win.”
She eased out of his grasp, bumping into the archway behind her. For a moment, he had held her a little too tightly, the growl in his words a little too fierce. She was not sure how she felt about being his, of belonging to him. As a child, she had belonged to her parents, then as new heir, she had belonged to the kingdom. When her magic never manifested, her life belonged to her secrets. She had hoped that when all was said and done, she could finally belong to herself.
He cursed beneath his breath, and when he approached her again, his words and his face had grown softer. “By now I’m sure you’ve noticed that my family is . . . intense. The same is true for our home. We’re battered on both sides—storms from the land and the sea. Our proximity to the latter makes our Slumber season so short it’s barely worth calling it a season. When you live in a place so ruthless, you learn to protect the things that matter. To be ruthless in return. I know the shortness of this life, and when I make a decision, I do not look back. My decision was made the moment I laid eyes on you.”
His finger slid down one of the skyfire crystals on her necklace like he’d done after he carried her up the stairs. She sucked in a breath, and the rise of her chest caused his finger to brush her collarbone. Then he did it again. Not an accident this time. She was breathing fast, clutching at the archway behind her.
His thumb rubbed over her mouth, smearing away the last of the white on her lips. Her eyes fell to his mouth, once quickly, then again for good. He sighed, warm breath drifting over her skin. “This is where I step away and let you go to bed. Before I’m tempted to walk you directly to your door.”
“And that would be a problem because?”
“I’m a thrill seeker. It’s why I have these.” He took her hand and lifted it over his shoulder, until together their hands surrounded the snow Stormheart at the top of his spine. The movement put their bodies even closer, and an icy draft stole over them. She should have jerked away. But instead she arched into him, seeking his warmth. His gaze appeared black again. “If I walk you to your room, if I know exactly where to find you in the middle of the night when the palace is quiet and I can’t sleep . . . I might be tempted to lure you from your bed for a little adventure. And then we’d both be risking our parents’ anger.”
If he was trying to deter her, he was using the wrong methods. She spent every moment of every day yearning for adventure, and she would gladly take it from his hands.
“What makes you think I’d be so easy to lure from my bed?” she teased.
For the barest moment his body pressed forward against hers—muscles pulled taut, hard as stone. She melted into him, pushing back until their bodies aligned from chest to hip. Then he ripped himself away, leaving her arm hanging in the air and several steps between them.
“I like a challenge, Aurora. Do not offer yourself up as one unless you are prepared for the consequences.”
He nodded his head toward the archway, his muscles tight with tension, and said, “Good night, Princess. Until tomorrow.”
Rora’s body followed his suggestion, slipping through the archway into a wider hallway and out of sight, but her mind was still stuck on the way it felt to be pressed against him. Rora had read of perfect kisses, prompted by perfect words and perfect settings, and she had a feeling she’d just missed a chance at having the real-life version. She moved in a daze, one foot in front of the other, but every step got a little harder, as if a rope around her middle tried to pull her back through that archway to claim that perfect moment she let pass by.
She opened the door to her bedroom, heard the squeak it made, and started to step inside, but her mind was buzzing now. When would they next have a moment this private? The next few days were a series of celebrations and dinners and meetings. There would be people everywhere, always watching them. For all she knew, they wouldn’t have another chance until they were at the altar, and then she would be having her first kiss in front of an audience.
No. She didn’t want to wait. She’d spent years making the cautious choices, swallowing down her most reckless impulses, to protect her secret and the crown. Just this once, Rora wanted something that had nothing to do with storms or being royal. She wanted that kiss.
She tugged the door closed, decision made, and turned back toward the archway. As she was about to step through, she heard Casimir say, “Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you?”
Rora halted. She’d been so caught up in Cassius that she’d forgotten about his brother.
Cassius answered, his voice barely above a growl. “Let me worry about that. It’s working, isn’t it? She’s little better than clay in my hands.”
Rora’s ears started ringing the way they did when a loud noise sounded too close.
“Her mother is powerful. Rumor has it that the girl might be more so. I wouldn’t get too confident.”
“Confidence is exactly what she lacks. I don’t care how much power she has . . . she’s tentative and unsure. She’s soft. I’ll have no problem bending her to my will. So you can run along and report to Father that everything is moving according to the plan.”
“Where are you going?” Casimir asked, and Cassius’s heavy footfalls only sped up.
“For a walk. Would you like to chaperone me for that as well, big brother?”
There was no reply, but after a few moments, Rora heard Casimir turn and leave too, and when his steps faded into silence she slid down the wall until her legs collapsed beneath her. The corset cut into her hips and thighs in this position, and the weight of the headdress pulled her head forward.
There was a hole in her chest, an awful, gaping hole that screamed like she wanted to. Like a cyclone, it seemed to suck up everything in its path until her knees were curled into her chest and her body hunched, and she just kept collapsing in and in and in. Suddenly unable to breathe, she clawed at the beaded fastenings that connected her headdress and necklace. One of her fingernails bent and splintered as she scrabbled for the hooks; when she could not find them, she took hold of the beaded cord and pulled until it broke, beads scattering across the stone floor around her.
The headdress tipped sideways, tugging painfully on her hair. Again and again, she pulled at the ties until her palms felt raw and beads littered the floor around her. The headdress began to sag, and she was nearly done, nearly free when someone stepped through the archway, and she froze.
Thank the skies. The dark-haired servant held an urn full of steaming water in her hands, and she stared in horror as if she had stumbled upon a monster rather than a crying girl. Nova had been Rora’s closest friend before she cut herself off from everyone at her mother’s command. Girls with secrets the size of Rora’s could not have friends. Nova took a step forward, paused, then knelt down, her large brown eyes carefully blank.
“Should I call for your guards? The queen?” Nova asked.
“No!” Softer, Aurora said, “No. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Once upon a time, Nova had kept all her secrets. Now the two rarely even looked each other in the eye when their paths crossed, and it was all Aurora’s fault.
“Your Highness? What happened?”
Rora shook her head and returned to tugging at the headdress still tangled in her hair. She couldn’t say the words aloud, couldn’t let anyone see how much of a fool she was. Aurora had become accustomed to her shortcomings as a Stormling, as an heir. But she’d thought she had her mother’s strength, tenacity, and intelligence. But maybe that was wishful thinking. Maybe she was altogether . . . inadequate.
“Stop, Princess. You’re hurting yourself.” Nova put the water aside, crawled forward, and grabbed Rora’s wrists. “Aurora, stop.”
All the years spent missing their friendship came rushing back, and she froze at the sound of her name. Not Princess. Not Your Highness. Aurora. But the moment she stopped moving, it all came crashing down on her. Her naïve plan to kiss him, to experience something real. She should have known that her future would hold only more lies. As if she knew anything about real life, real anything. She lived in this palace, protected and pampered and put away like a doll on a shelf, too fragile for anything but appearances. And it seemed that’s all she would ever be.
Cassius wanted control of the city for himself. He thought he’d have to fool her to do it, but the moment the world found out that Rora had no magic, he’d become the ruler in truth, and she’d be the puppet at his side. He wouldn’t have to feign interest in her then. He wouldn’t need her at all.
She wound her arms about her legs and rested her forehead on her knees. Nova moved closer, and Rora sat still and silent as the girl worked to remove the headdress. Her old friend had grown into a beautiful young woman—flawless bronze skin, shiny black hair, stunning features. She’d recently begun assisting the royal seamstress in addition to her position as a maid. She probably had more friends than she could count. Aurora could not help imagining how different her life would be now if she had never become heir.
The headdress finally gave way, and Nova slipped it off and laid it on the stone floor beside them.
“Tell me what happened.”
Rora leaned back against the wall. It was cool against her abused scalp, and she muttered, “Nothing happened.”
At least she had that much. She hadn’t kissed that beast. But what she had done felt worse. She had hoped. And hope broke more hearts than any man ever could.
“Should I get someone? A friend?”
Rora let out a bleak, cold laugh. As if she had any of those. Softer, she said, “I don’t want to see anyone. I just need this dress off. The makeup too. I need to breathe, and I can’t do it through all this mess.”
“I can do that. I came to help remove the headdress and gown. Stand up and we’ll go to your room. Everything will be fine, Your Highness.”
She didn’t tell her old friend how wrong she was, not as she peeled the dress off her and unlaced the corset. Not as she wiped away the powder that was smudged and striped on Rora’s face, thanks to falling tears. Another maid came in with more steaming water for a bath and Rora let them clean her up, wishing it was as easy to wipe away the last few hours.
She sat in the bath until the water grew cold and her skin shriveled like dying fruit. She had to face the facts. The Rage season was coming, as was this sham of a wedding. And she didn’t know how to fight it any more than she knew how to stop a storm.
But she would not give Cassius any more opportunities to see her vulnerable. Nor was she giving up. If there were no other way, she would marry Cassius.
But she had six days. Wars had been won, empires toppled, and cities leveled in less time. If there were a way out of this, Rora would find it.
When Slumber wakes to Rage,
The old war begins to wage.
When Slumber sleeps its last
The easy days are past.
—A STORMLING STANDS: VERSES OF OLD
Aurora’s knife slammed into the center of the target with a gratifying thunk. She reached both hands back, trailing her fingers over the flat sides of the knives tucked away near her shoulder blades in a worn leather holster. Pulling two knives at once, she spun, releasing first one knife, then the other as she turned. One struck directly below the blade already lodged in the center, and the other just above.
Still not enough.
A group of soldiers trickled into the training courtyard, having just returned from a run. Their faces were slick with sweat and their boots messy with grass and mud. A fine layer of dew covered the land today, another sign of the waning Slumber season.
Merrin, one of her frequent guards said, “Need more of a challenge? We can strap one of those to Elmont and give you a moving target.” He slapped a younger soldier on the back, whose face turned a blistering red.
Elmont was new to the palace guard. He was part of the regiment that manned the palace gate, and their first few encounters had been when Rora was going out for an early ride on her horse, Honey. He had been reluctant to let her leave, eager as he was to prove himself in the guard. It had taken a lot of cajoling and not a little amount of flirting for her to get her way.
She offered them a polite smile. “As interesting as that sounds, I would not risk Elmont just so I can allay my own frustrations.”
Taven stepped forward, his usual serious expression in place. “Spar, Princess?”
A slow smile spread across her face, and she nodded. Taven had been the one to teach her to throw knives and use a bow. He had never laughed once when her blade spun off course or thunked handle first into the target. She’d been restless and lonely and angry, and he helped her channel that into something worthwhile by teaching her about defense. And this morning she had many emotions to channel.
Taven set the rest of his unit up doing drills, and then came back to her. They began slowly, but in half a bell, they were moving close to full speed, their bodies lunging and spinning and dodging. Taven was beyond careful with his blade, never thrusting near or hard enough to actually impale her. She understood the point was to teach her body the moves without endangering her life, but in the event she ever needed to use these skills, she doubted her attacker would be so generous. And right now, especially, she needed a bigger challenge to clear her head. She spun fast, slashing out with her blade. He ducked, and while his bigger body was still recovering from the movement, she swept out a leg, striking him below his calves and taking his legs out from under him.
The other soldiers, who were supposed to be focusing on drills, snickered and cheered. Rora immediately felt guilty as Taven rose to his feet. She should have known it would not be possible to goad a man like him into aggression. He had always been so serious and calm. The day he had been assigned to her personal guard, he had committed himself fully to her protection, as if there was no life, no purpose outside it. She had embarrassed a man that had only ever been loyal to her. She opened her mouth to apologize, but a familiar voice from the courtyard’s entrance interrupted and made something twist in her belly.
“Seems the princess needs a more capable opponent.”
She did not want to look at Cassius. There was such a jumble of emotions inside her that she couldn’t be sure she would not burst into tears at the sight of him. Or send the knife in her hand flying. More than that, she feared he would see the distrust and betrayal written all over her face. So she answered without turning, “Taven is far more capable than I.”
She offered the soldier an apologetic smile.
“Taven, is it?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The soldier inclined his head toward Cassius. He came to a stop beside her, once again dressed in black. She was dressed similarly today in an old black and gold military uniform she wore for these early morning training sessions.
“You taught her?” Cassius asked.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
He surveyed Taven for several long moments. Then Cassius turned to Aurora and their eyes met. Anger clawed up her throat, and she struggled to keep her face blank. Better for him to believe he still had the upper hand.
“You taught her well,” Cassius said without looking away from Aurora, “but I’ll take it from here.”
Over Cassius’s shoulder Taven met her gaze, eyebrow raised. She nodded; she had kept him away from his soldiers long enough, and she could not avoid the prince forever.
“You are full of surprises, Princess.”
She smiled, ignoring the bile threatening to rise in her throat. “As are you, Prince Cassius. As are you.”
He circled behind her, and she felt the weight of his touch against one of the knives still sheathed near her shoulder. His breath fanned over her ear as he asked, “May I?”
Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the blade from her. “Good balanced weight,” he said. “I imagine it flies well.”
“Like a dream.”
His mouth was at her ear again—too close, too warm. “Show me.”
She stepped away like it burned. “I think I’m done for the day.”
“Come now, Aurora.” She flinched at his use of her name. Had he used it yesterday? She could not remember. But now it felt too familiar, far too intimate. “What will it take to get you to show me? How much of my pride shall I bargain away?” His hand touched the small of her back. “Or what shall I offer you in return?”
She spun, and before she realized what she was doing, she had the point of her knife beneath his chin. The courtyard went still around them, but Cassius only smiled wider in response. She was unnerved by the darkness that licked at the edge of her thoughts, of the voice inside whispering to push the knife a little harder, to show him she was not so easy to control. All she knew was that she had let fear rule her for too long, and now it was time she took the reins.
“Do you trust me?” she asked, and slowly let the knife drift along his jaw.
His eyes narrowed. “Trust . . . is not one of my skills.”
“If we are to be married, if we are to someday rule, there is nothing so important as your ability to trust me, and I you.” He watched her warily. “You want something from me,” she continued, “but you’ll not get it unless I trust you.” She was talking about far more than knives, and from his long pause he seemed to know it.
“I’ll hand over my trust in this. What would you have me do?”
She led him to the largest target, the one with an outline of a person meant to test the thrower’s ability to hit a body’s weak spots. She pushed against his chest until he thumped back against the target. Then she snatched the knife from his hand and said, “Stay there.”
After retrieving the blades she’d left in the other target, she moved to stand a good distance away. She stowed all the knives but one and met his eyes. He was leaning on the target, his arms folded and his feet crossed at the ankles. He gave her a challenging smirk. It was possibly the most handsome she had ever seen him, and yesterday she would have been charmed. Now . . . she could only hear the words he had said last night.
Well, she had no intention of being tentative now. She gave no warning, no instructions, only pulled back her elbow and let the knife fly. It thwacked into place a finger’s width to the side of his neck.
When his eyes darkened and his easy posture fell away, she smiled.
“You did promise to trust me,” she said, reaching back for another knife. “Do not worry, when it comes to a blade, I am almost never unsure. The key is to avoid a grip that’s too soft, while likewise not gripping too tightly.”
He stood rigidly still as she carefully sent two more knives toward him. The first landed on the other side of his neck, and the second high in the open space between his thighs.
The last throw had his fists clenching so hard that she had to turn her back so she would not laugh. She pulled another knife from her harness and took a slow breath. When she was about to turn she felt hands at her hips and warmth against her back. She reacted on instinct, shoving an elbow into the body behind her, before stamping hard on his foot. She spun, her knife once more raised to defend. Cassius was hunched slightly behind her, his hand over his stomach. She swallowed the smile that threatened to break free.
He straightened, his head tilted as if he were surveying her through new eyes. “Was that fun for you?”
He made a sound—a low, husky bark that might have been a laugh. Hard to tell with a man like him.
“I trusted you with my body,” he said. “It’s only fair you trust me with yours.” His eyes roamed down her form slowly, with intent. Rora could almost swear that her heart gave out in that moment, that it refused to beat, and all the blood it held just seeped out into a puddle in her chest.
It was one thing to think of kissing Cassius last night, to hope that he might be able to show her all the things she was ignorant of when it came to her body and his. But now? She knew he saw her as nothing more than a means to an end, a tool to be used and discarded when no longer necessary.
“You do not have my trust yet, Prince.” And he would never have her body if it were her choice.
“Are you afraid of me?”
She scoffed in answer, mostly because she did not trust herself to lie.
He frowned. “Do you have that little faith in my skills?”
It took a moment for her to realize he meant his skills with a knife. He wished her to stand at the target as he had done. She was so relieved that she let her guard down, and he plucked the knife from her hand.
“Can you trust at least that I would not do you physical harm?”
There was a challenge in his eyes and just a hint of amusement at her fear. That set her blood boiling all over again, and she marched over to the target. He followed, retrieving the blades she had thrown earlier. He moved in close, and she tipped her chin up defiantly. His blue-black eyes roamed her face as he reached behind her back and took several more knives from her holster. He brushed his knuckles over her cheek. She fought against the urge to jerk away. “I like you better like this. No frills, no finery. Just you.”
As he strode away, she saw that the soldiers had given up any pretense of training and stood lined up nearby.
“I hope your aim is as true as you believe, Prince. If not, you’ll have far more than one knife coming at you.” She lifted her chin in the direction of the watching soldiers.
“I told you last night, I enjoy a challenge.” Cassius gave a devilish grin and commanded, “Stretch out your arms.” He waited until she lifted them both and gripped the edges of the target.
Rora refused to show fear or flinch. She held her breath when his arm drew back and the knife came flying end over end toward her. It hit the edge of the target a few inches above her head, and the board vibrated with the force of the strike.
He proceeded to outline her body with blades, seeming to pay particular care to her curves. She felt pinned in by the time he had landed knives alongside her thighs, hips, and the indent of her waist. She hoped that would be the end of it, but he picked up two final knives. Her arms shook with strain, but she stayed still as he sunk another blade below her armpit, just to the right of her breast. She gave an exaggerated yawn. He grinned in response as he lined up for his final throw.
As Cassius drew back his last knife, a shrill wail pierced the air. She had only a moment to place the sound—one of the horns blown from atop the city walls that signified the imminent arrival of an approaching storm—then Cassius’s arm was moving and the blade left his hand.
There was no time to think, to weigh her options. She only knew a storm was coming, and everyone—Cassius, included—would expect her to participate in the kingdom’s defense with a magic she did not have.
She jerked her head up toward the sky and let her arms drop several inches. Then she did her best to look shocked and horrified when the blade sunk into her left bicep.
Cassius’s roar drowned out even the blare of the storm signal. When he saw Aurora’s pale hand touch the hilt of the knife buried in her arm, he wanted to make the whole world bleed, starting with himself. He ran toward her, arriving seconds after a few of the soldiers. He wanted to tear their hands off her, but she beat him to it, pushing away their attempts to help. Her hand was smeared with blood. She turned toward Cassius, her face nearly as pale as it had been the night before with layers of powder. The soldiers turned and looked at him like he was the enemy, Aurora too.
In some ways, he was. But not like this. He would never harm her.
“Why did you move?” he snarled.
She tilted her chin up, swaying on her feet. Her lips were beginning to lose that soft peach color. She said, “The horn. I was distracted. I’m sorry.”
He growled, pacing away, tugging at his hair. He should not have been throwing knives at her in the first place. He had let himself forget for a moment what his purpose here was. Her aggression had been a surprising but welcome new morsel of her personality. He had prodded at the fire in her, treated her like a woman he truly wanted, rather than a woman he had to have at any cost. He was meant to charm her, seduce her, steal away her heart. Just another heart, he had told himself. Like all the others he was so good at collecting. Only hers would not harden into stone or glass or crystal when he claimed it.
She was now surrounded by soldiers, each fretting over her as Cassius wished he could do. “Enough,” she snapped. “It is only my arm.”
As if in demonstration, she pulled the blade free like it was nothing more than a needle. The spread of red was barely discernible on the black uniform she wore, but when blood started dripping onto the dirt beneath her, Cassius rushed forward.
Two soldiers stepped in his way before he could touch her, and she was swept up into the arms of the soldier she called Taven. As she yelled for the soldier to put her down, Cassius demanded, “Where are you taking her?”
Taven did not answer, merely kept moving away, flanked by half a dozen others.
“He is taking her to the palace physician,” another soldier answered.
“I am going with her.”
The remaining soldiers closed ranks. One of Aurora’s guards from yesterday drew his sword, pointing it at Cassius’s chest. Taven exited the courtyard with Aurora. Cassius knocked the sword from the guard’s hand with one well-placed hit and within a breath, he turned it back on its owner, pressing it harder than necessary into the vulnerable skin beneath the man’s chin. He could have slaughtered the man in front of him and several others by the time they clumsily pulled their weapons.
Cassius growled, “The next time you hold a blade to me, it will end with you sliced open and your insides spilled at my feet. Now tell me where he’s taking her—to a physician directly or to her room?”
The only response was the training of multiple swords on him. Cassius let out a long string of filthy curses, but not one word moved the soldiers in front of him. His mind was clear enough to see a hopeless battle. He needed to regroup and find another way to make things right with the princess.
“Very well,” he seethed. “I will return to my rooms and inform my family of this accident. I expect to be kept informed of her well-being.”
He threw his stolen sword into the dirt and pushed through the soldiers, unworried about their weapons. They let him go, though they followed him inside the palace until he turned down into the guest wing. As soon as he was alone, he spun and punched the nearest wall. Knuckles split and bleeding, he made his way to his room to collect what coin he had.
He should inform his father. If word reached him before Cassius had a chance to explain, his fury was likely to be unmatched by any rage his father had ever thrown. And he had thrown many. But he had to see her first. With his money purse in his pocket, he set off for the royal wing of the palace.
He did not enter the hallway that led to Aurora’s room, but waited nearby in an alcove behind a statue of a Stormling ancestor for someone to leave. It felt like hours passed before a maid bustled from the hall, head down and hands full of bloodied rags.
He stepped into her path, and she yelped, several wet rags slapping against the stone floor. “Your Highness,” she whispered.
“How is she?”
She hesitated, eyes darting back down the hall. He plucked a gold coin from his pocket and asked again, “How is she?”
The girl bit her lip. When he retrieved a second coin, she snatched them both and began in a hurried whisper. “The wound bled a great amount. But it is beginning to slow. She is awake. Coherent. But fatigued. She is pale.”
“Does she have use of her arm? Can she move her fingers? Bend at the elbow?”
“It pains her, but yes.”
“Who is with her?”
“Her Majesty. The physician. A few maids.”
“No. They left to evaluate the storm. To give Her Majesty as much time as possible with the princess before she must attend her duties.”
“What type of storm is it?”
“Skyfire, Your Highness.”
“And how long until it reaches us?”
“A bell. Maybe more, maybe less.”
“Tell Her Majesty to stay with her daughter. I will see to the storm.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she shook her head, “Oh, I ca—”
“If the queen would like to argue, she can find me at the storm terrace. But we both know she would rather stay here.” Cassius pulled another coin and offered it to her. “Keep me informed of her condition, and I shall keep these coming. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” She grabbed the coin, bent to pick up her fallen rags, and bustled away.
Cassius weighed the coins left in his purse. He had a feeling it would be quite a bit lighter by the time he had all the information he desired, starting with where exactly the storm terrace was located.
Blue-white light struck the ground in the distance like a whip forged by the gods. Cassius stood on a terrace atop the famous golden dome of the palace. He had heard that in the mornings, sunlight reflected off this dome making it appear as if two suns hung in the sky, but now dark had fallen hours before it was due, and the clouds pulsed with light.
He sought out the skyfire crystal at the base of his spine, pulling it from the holster in his armor. The hair on his arms rose as energy crackled over his skin. He focused on his connection with the stone, drawing its magic into him, stoking it into something greater, stronger. In the distance, he felt an echo of power bounce back to him.
“There you are,” he murmured. “Come and play.”
As if the storm could hear him, the sky blazed with light—dozens upon dozens of skyfire bolts streaking between clouds, lighting up the expanse of the churning black that had claimed the sky. It was a show of strength from one storm to another.
Tempests were sentient enough to seek out destruction, to chase victims, or strategize like a commander during battle. But they could not see as a man could. So when he breathed life and magic into the Stormheart in his fist, that skyfire beast could not tell the difference between Cassius and a competing storm; and with a roar of thunder it began to approach Pavan at a quicker pace.
Cassius knew how most Stormlings would fight this battle. From a distance. It was the reason for the terrace upon which he stood, and the four watchtowers facing the cardinal directions. The Queen of Pavan likely would have produced a barrier in front of the city, and waged war against the skyfire there. But casting one’s energy that far took a toll. It took longer to subdue the storm, and the fields surrounding the palace would be scorched beyond use as the skyfire struck again and again in the same area.
There was no challenge, no enjoyment in that kind of fight. He would not stand back and watch the storm flounder and weaken against his magic from afar. He craved victory, battle. Those beasts of the sky—where nature and the unnatural met and merged—centuries of myths and religions and scholars had tried to understand them, to know their origins, their purpose. But the only way to truly know a storm was to flay it open, to wring out its magic, to gorge on it until all that remained was desperation and hunger and fear. That was when the moment came, when the beast stopped fighting and surrendered its proverbial neck to the greater foe.
He lived for that moment. But it could only happen if the storm came close.
He gathered his magic, pulling from the well inside himself and ripping more from the Stormheart. The magic blended together, burning beneath his skin. For a moment, Cassius simply relished the power, then he flung it out far and wide, in all directions, not just toward the storm. Like a woven textile, he envisioned his magic as millions upon millions of threads—crossing and knotting until it became a flexible but durable barrier that covered the city from wall to wall.
Then he waited.
The city below was still and quiet—the people hidden away in their homes or shelters as another warning horn sounded, louder and longer than all the rest. Nearer and nearer the storm drew. A few bolts streaked down, but the storm seemed to be biding its time, saving its destruction for where it would do the most damage.
When it had almost reached the city walls, the door behind Cassius slammed open. He scowled when he saw a few of the soldiers who stood between him and Aurora before.
“Why have you not stopped it?” one demanded. “Do it now, before it hits the city.”
He held up a hand, not bothering to answer, and kept his focus trained on the city wall. Every time lightning flashed, he could see the faint shimmer of his barrier. He was confident it would hold, but he would not know how much effort it would take until he felt the first bolt.
He clenched his fist around the Stormheart as the first wall of clouds touched the edge of the city. Power surged in the air moments before five bolts of skyfire rent open the sky.
They struck simultaneously, like five cobras sinking their teeth into their would-be charmer. The blue-white light fragmented against the barrier, filling the night with a bright blaze. His magic rippled under the blows, but stretched taut and whole immediately after. The soldiers behind him went silent.
And then . . . oh, then came one of his favorite parts.
A high, furious screech carried on the wind. Thunder rumbled, and the heavens rained down wrath upon the land. More skyfire bolts than a dozen men could count struck with a shattering boom, and the night exploded with light as they were repelled.
Cassius grinned despite the effort and held firm, baiting the storm to come close enough that he could reach its heart.
Against darkened skies
And darker souls,
A Stormling stands.
Amidst thunderous cries
And raining coals,
Raise Stormling hands.
—A STORMLING STANDS: VERSES OF OLD
Copyright © 2017 by Cora Carmack
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