A pillow slammed into Alaric’s face in the early morning, unceremoniously rousing him from slumber.
His eyes flew open with a start. He grabbed the offending pillow and tossed it back where it came from, to his hellcat of a new bride. It landed in Talasyn’s lap, and he belatedly registered that she was sitting up in bed and looking at him in panic while a series of knocks sounded lightly on the door.
Every muscle in his body groaned in protest as he scrambled to his feet. He had enough presence of mind to return the cushions that he’d liberated from the chaise longue to their proper place, but he couldn’t help scowling at Talasyn as he joined her on the bed.
I can’t believe you made me sleep on the floor, he thought darkly. It wasn’t that he hadn’t gotten what he deserved for taking liberties with her, but he’d had a rough night’s sleep and he wasn’t inclined to be charitable.
She ignored him, calling out something in Nenavarene to whoever had come knocking. The door creaked open and Jie entered, clearly trying to fight back a saucy leer at the sight of the imperial couple side by side on the canopy bed.
“If it pleases His Majesty,” Jie said, “the Lachis’ka has to get ready for breakfast now.”
As Jie ushered Talasyn into the bathroom, Alaric took great care to avoid looking either of them in the eye. Right before the door closed behind them, though, Jie erupted into rapid, excited chatter. There was no mistaking what that tone implied, even if he couldn’t parse the language, and regret and disbelief were sharp and heavy in the pit of his stomach as it all came rushing back to him. What he had done last night. With the Lightweaver. With the girl he’d met in battle whom he was now married to.
Why had she let him touch her? Why had she returned his kisses and touched him back?
She had called him Alaric. It was the first time he had ever heard his name in the shape of her voice. It had added to the blood pounding in his ears, to the fire in his soul. The memory of it now sent a pang through his chest.
He stared at his hand, holding it up to the early-morning light. The small shards of diamantine gemstones embedded into the wedding band on his ring finger sparkled.
This hand had been between his wife’s legs last night. The middle finger of this hand had been inside her.
She had fallen apart around him, and that fluttering of her inner walls as she clamped down had been the best thing he’d ever felt—perhaps even better than when he had come all over her lithe hand.
It haunted him: the sound of her soft cries, and the unexpected gentleness with which she’d stroked his hair as he lay slumped atop her, his world irrevocably changed.
But he was sailing home today, home to the nation that had caused her so much suffering. She wouldn’t be joining him for another fortnight. By that time, it would be too late to get those moments back.
Wasn’t that for the best, though?
Not long after Talasyn had finished dressing, an attendant knocked on the door with a summons from the Zahiya-lachis. Talasyn wondered what fault of hers had been unearthed by her grandmother this time, and then it struck her what a sad reaction that was to your own family wanting to speak with you.
Had she shared such a grievance with Urduja, the older woman would have scoffed. The Zahiya-lachis of the Nenavar Dominion had little patience for sentiment, and that was never more apparent as when she received Talasyn in her salon minutes later.
“Seeing as no corpses were discovered in your chambers this morning, I trust that you and the Night Emperor had an amicable night together.”
By some miracle, Talasyn was able to hold her grandmother’s gaze in a calm manner from across the table, even as her fingers twisted nervously into the fabric of her skirt. “It went fine.”
“I dearly hope that such a blissful state of affairs won’t prove to be the exception to the rule.” Urduja paused as though reconsidering her statement, then inclined her head in a thoughtful nod. “Well, up until the endgame, anyway.”
Talasyn’s heart dropped into her stomach. It wasn’t as though she’d forgotten . . .
No. That wasn’t true. There were moments on Belian when she had forgotten, however briefly. And last night she had definitely forgotten long enough to come. She’d let Alaric drive all logic from her mind.
“Things will only get more difficult from here, I’m afraid,” Urduja continued. “I will have my people meet with Vela and ask her what she plans to do. The Sardovian remnant cannot hide in Nenavar forever. It would be untenable. We need the alliance with Kesath up until the Night of the World-Eater. Afterwards, though, either the Allfold moves to reclaim the Northwest Continent within a year, or . . .” She paused again, drawing a measured breath.
“Or what?” Talasyn pressed. A horrible suspicion began to dawn in her mind, and it blossomed on her tongue. “Or they’ll need to find somewhere else to go?”
“We’ll discuss that, should it come to it,” Urduja said firmly. “But there is a limit to the amount of time that I can buy your friends, Alunsina.”
Talasyn began to shake with anger—and fear. “You told us that we could shelter here for as long as we needed to. You promised. We made a deal.” A horrifying thought occurred to her and she fired it off like a new arrow from her quiver. “But now the Dominion has a deal with Kesath, too, as well as a mutual defense treaty. So, when the Amirante finally makes her move, whose side will you be on, Harlikaan?”
Talasyn spat out the title as though it were an insult, but her grandmother didn’t even flinch. Urduja’s face betrayed nothing.
“You must learn when to keep your own counsel, Alunsina,” the Zahiya-lachis said after a while. “Never let the enemy know what you’re thinking. For our purposes, I am your enemy right now, am I not? You may continue to deem me as such. I can’t stop you. But I can tell you this: I account for everything and so I am caught unprepared by nothing, and I will never apologize for that. No treaty between nations is binding forever, especially once the other signatory is dust. Do I believe that such a fate will befall the Night Empire, that Vela’s fleet can defeat the Kesathese? Not at the moment, no—and that is why I, as I have said, am buying time.” Urduja lowered her voice even further. “Nenavarene shipwrights have completed the repairs on the Sardovian airships. These shipwrights will now work with our Enchanters to optimize the carracks and the frigates, as well as the two stormships that made it to Nenavar. The Allfold’s remaining vessels will be outfitted with as much magic as possible while Vela makes her plans. And, in the meantime, the Sardovians have food and shelter. These are things that I willingly grant. These are things that would normally be too much to ask of any queen, least of all one who took no part in the Hurricane Wars.”
Talasyn was silent. She had no comebacks. It felt as though her grandmother had spun a web of words from which there was no escape.
With the unerring instinct of a spider sensing that its trapped prey could struggle no more, Urduja pounced. “All that is required of you, Lachis’ka, is to hold up your end of the deal. Keep your head down and be a dutiful heir and don’t be distracted by the Night Emperor’s pretty face. You can’t personally contact the Sardovians anymore, it’s too risky. You will stay here in Eskaya and diligently attend to your lessons and your public appearances—”
The more that Urduja spoke, the more it became apparent that this was what she had been leading up to all along. This whole conversation had just been another way to make sure that her granddaughter remained firmly under her control, and the resentment that Talasyn had been harboring all these months hit its zenith, magnified by her guilt that she had in fact gotten distracted by the Night Emperor’s pretty face. She’d accused Alaric of being his father’s dog, but he had been right about her, too. She was being manipulated as well, and she kept going along with it because she had no choice.
What Vela had said amidst the mangroves came back to her in this moment.
You aren’t alone.
She had Alaric, if only in the sense that she was married to him. And because she was married to him, that gave her more influence than she’d ever had in the Dominion court.
It was something like an epiphany, what dawned on Talasyn just then, and she squared her shoulders and held her head high.
You’re too afraid to do anything for yourself, Alaric had sneered last night.
It was time to prove him wrong.
“I’m not just the Lachis’ka,” Talasyn reminded her grandmother. “Soon I will also be crowned the Night Empress. Because of me, Nenavar is going to have more power than it’s ever known. We will become a major player on the world stage. I’m your one chance for this to happen under your reign, and I’m also the only chance you have to make sure that your reign remains stable at all. You have no more female heirs, Harlikaan, and no more Lightweavers to help stop the Voidfell. It’s just me.” Talasyn’s words were weighty and deliberate over a fast-racing heartbeat. “And you need me just as much as I need you.”
She watched Urduja like a hawk, searching for the slightest crack in that icy facade. The stern, thin line of the Dragon Queen’s lips twitched, and it felt like a victory, but Talasyn couldn’t be certain of that until—
“What do you want?” Urduja asked, as cold as the Eversea in winter.
It took every ounce of Talasyn’s self-control to refrain from collapsing in sheer relief. It wasn’t over yet. She had to see this through.
“I agree that it’s too dangerous for me to keep going to the Storm God’s Eye. So I won’t. But . . .” And here she laid down her terms, feeling rather out of her body, that this moment was hardly real, as though she was listening to someone else speak, buoyed by nerves and adrenaline. “I want to be able to go everywhere else in Nenavar. I want to learn more about the technology that’s coming out of Ahimsa. And I want unfettered access to the Belian nexus point.” Urduja’s dark eyes flashed but Talasyn stubbornly persisted. “I’ll attend every lesson on politics and etiquette that you throw at me. I’ll work hard. But in return I want freedom. I want to continue honing my aethermancy; I will need the Lightweave for what’s to come. The Shadowforged are unpredictable, and I’m no use to you if I’m dead.”
And I will learn more about my mother, Talasyn vowed fiercely, silently. She had let her fear of the many ways that the Zahiya-lachis could destroy the Sardovian remnant keep her from delving into the events that had led to Hanan helping send Nenavarene warships to the Northwest Continent, but no more. She would acquire new memories from the Light Sever and she would start asking questions, just as she had with Kai Gitab. She had power now.
She waited for Urduja’s response with bated breath. Even now, there was some small part of her that wished for a semblance of warmth from this domineering woman. That wished for Urduja to assure her that she was her granddaughter, first and foremost.
Instead, the Dragon Queen merely nodded. “Very well.” Her expression was as impassive as the tone of her voice. “So be it.”
It was a small victory. Talasyn left the salon with a strange mix of triumph, vindication, and the unsettling feeling that she had just thrown her hat into the ring of a game that she could barely understand.
Alaric remained in a black mood all throughout breakfast, a mood that only worsened every time he failed to stop himself from glancing over at the girl beside him. His new empress. Her hair had still been braided when she’d so unceremoniously woken him up, but now it hung loose past her shoulders, framing her face in neat curls. She was so beautiful. And he couldn’t get out of Nenavar fast enough.
Talasyn’s obvious discomfort in wearing lingerie had led Alaric to deduce that she was no seductress, despite what his father claimed about the slyness of the women in the Dominion court. But now he wasn’t so sure. She’d left him reeling.
Perhaps she had been seducing him to bend him to her will.
Even as that thought filtered into his head, Alaric’s instincts warned him that it was spoken in Gaheris’s voice. Last night had felt honest and raw. It had to have been real.
But since when had his father ever been wrong? Who was Alaric, with all his shortcomings, with all the traits inherited from a weak and long-vanished mother, to contest the man who had brought Kesath back from the brink of destruction?
When the last of the dishes had been cleared, Alaric bade his painfully polite farewells to a frosty-looking Urduja and an only slightly less frosty-looking Elagbi, and Talasyn reluctantly walked with him out the front doors of the palace, Jie and Sevraim and the Lachis-dalo trailing behind. The shallop that would take him back to the Deliverance gleamed in the morning sun, and at first it was only Alaric and Talasyn who moved toward it.
He turned back to their companions, puzzled. They had all stopped walking, maintaining a courteous distance with expectant looks on their faces.
“They’re giving us privacy,” Talasyn explained with a long-suffering demeanor. “To say our goodbyes.”
Alaric’s gaze strayed to the upper levels of the white palace. A host of servants were huddled at the windows, their noses pressed to the glass, avidly watching.
“You should probably shed a few tears and beg me not to leave, Lachis’ka,” Alaric wryly remarked. “Else the blacksmith’s washerwoman three cities over will be disappointed.”
A smirk fought its way across Talasyn’s painted lips, but she was quick to suppress it. “Listen, about last night—”
“I know,” he interrupted, alarmed and trying not to show it, which translated into a churlishness that must have surprised her, because she jerked her head back. “There is no need to spare my feelings.” He cursed inwardly as he heard himself make a conscious effort to gentle his tone. He was a fool. She had twisted him into knots. “I am well aware that you hold no affection for me, and I’m not so green as to believe that all acts of that nature have to mean something. Our emotions were simply running high and there was no other outlet.”
She cocked her head, as though considering. Then she repeated the words from the Belian ruins. “Hate is another kind of passion.”
“Two sides of the same coin,” Alaric confirmed, even as his heart twinged in a manner that he was in absolutely no hurry to examine. “We were fighting and we got carried away. No further discussion is required. I realize, like you must also, that we can’t allow it to happen again.”
Talasyn’s gaze dropped to her feet. An awkward silence ensued.
Finally, she nodded.
Alaric decided that it was well past time to cut this encounter short. “Your coronation as the Night Empress is in a fortnight. I will see you in Kesath then, my lady.” He couldn’t resist needling her with the reminder that she was now his lady, that they were bound by law.
Talasyn glowered at him. “I shall wait on tenterhooks for our happy reunion, my lord,” she all but snapped, her voice dripping with sarcasm, and she once again looked so much like a disgruntled kitten that he nearly smiled.
He turned to go, but then stopped. There was something about the way Talasyn looked, prickly and endearing all at once. He wouldn’t see her for a while. He couldn’t bear to leave things like this.
“Talasyn.” Alaric whirled back to face her. “I will inquire regarding your friend Khaede’s whereabouts at the Citadel.” Her eyes widened in panic and he almost flinched, hastening to add, “If she is being—detained there, I will arrange for the two of you to meet when you come to Kesath.”
It was clumsy, it was fumbling, it was a reminder that her former comrades were being held in his prisons. It was, in short, the worst possible thing he could have said in this moment, and Alaric wholeheartedly prepared for Talasyn to punch him, knowing full well that he deserved it.
But she didn’t punch him. Instead, she exhaled as though she were letting something go. “Thank you,” she said—a bit stiffly, but there was a wrenchingly sincere note to it. Her expression was wary but tinged with hope. “If she is there, I’d like . . .” She faltered. He watched her hope turn into hesitation, then harden into resolve. “I should like to bring her back with me to Nenavar.”
The very blood in Alaric’s veins went still. He couldn’t permit that. He couldn’t free a Sardovian soldier, a prisoner of war. He—
His mind was already racing with ways to accomplish it. He could pass it off as an act of conciliation. A grand gesture to herald the new age of peace. A wedding gift.
He swallowed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
It was a simple enough statement, but it tinged the air with a hint of treason. It looped them both into the barest bones of some kind of furtive plan. As if they were conspirators now.
Still, when Talasyn’s features lit up with a small but genuine smile, dimples peeking out at the corners, Alaric felt that it was somehow worth it.
A flickering burst of amethyst to the far south drew their attention. The Voidfell had activated, causing a conflagration of the shivering magic to sear across the horizon in whorls of violet smoke. It looked—angry, and Alaric found himself thinking of a frieze of carvings that he’d studied at the Lightweaver shrine on Belian. Warriors in bark-woven breechcloths with feathered bands around their heads, winding along one of the walls leading to the campsite, riding elephants and swamp buffaloes, brandishing swords and spears as they charged at a serpentine leviathan with a crater-pocked moon in its jaws.
An eternal battle fought in the spirit world of the Nenavarene ancestors, to stop Bakun before he could destroy all life.
A battle that Alaric and Talasyn would have to fight themselves a little over four months from now.
As he watched the Voidfell now, noting how intensely it flared even from across such a distance, it seemed impossible that the odds would be in their favor. But they had to try—and, if Alaric knew anything about the scrappy soldier girl who was now his wife, she would try.
She was pale and tense, her shoulders squared as she warily regarded the amethyst glow. Her lovely smile had faded and he was all of a sudden incensed by what had caused it to vanish from her face.
Right. He had to leave now, before he promised to fight the Voidfell with his bare fists for her.
Alaric turned on his heel and strode swiftly up his airship’s ramp. He didn’t look back. It took everything in him to not look back. The flare of the Void Sever screeched one last time and then it was gone, with no sign to mark that it had ever been there at all, save for the echoes of sound that lingered in the air like a dragon’s roar.
Talasyn returned to Jie and her guards as the shallop prepared to sail, Alaric a solemn, black-clad figure on the deck. Aether hearts glowed a rich emerald and the vessel was lifted into the air on the crackling currents of wind magic, peeling away from the Roof of Heaven, away from the limestone bluffs.
Like the guards, Jie seemed somewhat apprehensive at the Void Sever’s fleeting discharge. Not apprehensive enough, however, to refrain from teasing; whatever she saw on Talasyn’s face made her ask, with an impudent twinkle in her eyes, “Are you missing His Majesty already, Lachis’ka?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Talasyn scoffed. Over the next several days she had to resume aethermancy training all by herself, navigate what was certain to be a treacherous new order of things now that she had worked up the guts to challenge Urduja, and mentally brace for her return to the Northwest Continent. There were so many things that she needed to do, and missing Alaric Ossinast was not on the agenda.
But he had promised to try to find Khaede for her. If he was successful, if Khaede was in Kesath, then Talasyn would move heaven and earth to bring her to Nenavar. If Alaric went back on his word or was unable to keep it, she’d break Khaede out and smuggle her away from the Citadel herself—right under Gaheris’s nose, if need be.
Talasyn stood on the front steps of the palace longer than she ought to have. Her mind was afire with schemes and plans, that was true, but as she watched Alaric sail away, her lips were also burning with the memory of his feverish kisses.
We can’t allow it to happen again, he’d said.
But what if I want it to happen again?
The thought broke past her defenses, rising to the surface with a mutinous ease. She forced it back down, burying it, her heart heavy in her chest, her eyes fixed on his airship as it became a mere speck on the still horizon, until it disappeared into the deep blue of a cloudless sky.