Radia loved to watch the morning creep from beneath the moon, the sunlight washing the dark gray shadows from the mountains. Foothills glittered with places she longed to visit, and as the day continued to spread, the familiar sights of her city emerged, one by one, from the gloom of night. Astride the Compass Tower, a thousand feet above her slumbering subjects, she watched the world unfurl like few ever could. Tyrnael radiated like spokes of gold, its spires rising like lotus flowers, its terraced hills green with moss and hanging vines and tall grasses. Arches moved between each structure and beyond the city, reaching impossibly outward. Once, the bridges served to unite the surrounding kingdoms, with the Compass Tower at its hub, but those days were long forgotten and the framework of steel and marble fallen into disrepair. Tyrnael was a city of unearthly beauty and wonder, if only one did not look at the cracks.
And all of it is mine, she reminded herself again. But the enormity of that truth failed her imagination. How could she rule anything when all her life, things were done for her? She did not know to prepare meals or sew and without Larissa’s aid, she was helpless to lace her own bodice. Not that she wanted to. Her queenly raiment was heavy and stiff and stymied the blood to her limbs. Most mornings, she could scarcely touch her toes, but dressing maintained the hierarchy, helped her subjects to know their place. Or so her advisers impressed upon her time and again. A lady of royal birth cannot be seen naked like some commoner! Of course, she never took advice from her advisers.
Everything was different now. Her gown was translucent white samite, the color of foam after a crashing wave, inlaid with golden thread and beads of pearl and lapis lazuli that shimmered like a starry night. Larissa had the good sense to match the gown with the late queen’s tiara, which shone from Radia’s forehead in pure platinum. What would I do without her? Today of all days, Radia needed to look the part, 54th descendent of the Zo, ruler of Tyrnael, princess of Aenya. Her youth spent frolicking naked in the gardens, diving into fountains and being chased by tutors, was over. She was fifteen and a woman, and her father was dead.
Radia gathered her hem in fistfuls and moved away from the bailey, the silhouette of her bare feet showing through the fabric. She playfully followed the arrow etched into the granite floor like a child on a balance beam. Every arm ended in the same rune indicating south. As sovereign of the world, Radia stood atop the planet, at its pole. She was true north.
There was no roof above her, only the sun and turquoise moon and fading galaxies. A curved wall and a crescent of steps protected her from the chilling altitude. Her throne rose like a spire, the highest point for more than a hundred miles—a symbol of authority—but she could never imagine herself, or any other person, upon that chair. It was her father’s place. With each breath, she could feel his absence, a gnawing emptiness in the heart of her being she could not shake. Now more than ever, she needed his counsel, courage and wisdom. He had always been around to give just the right words. Though innocent to the ways of the world, Radia was certain of right action from wrong, good from evil. She knew it from the many stories her father told and the books he bequeathed her. Heroes of old, batals of legend, lived in her imagination, giving her guidance. No hero would allow the kingdom to continue down its current path and neither would she.
Radia climbed to the top of her dais, the accouterments of her station heavier than ever, the train of her gown, thrice the length of her body, spilling down the steps and across the floor like a carpet. To sit where her distant forefathers’ buttocks had rested for untold aeons, felt wrong somehow, forbidden. Royal butts. She giggled at the thought of it. Beneath all that fancy clothing, they were all the same, human. Her throne was quarried from amethyst crystal, from the core of the planet, and was hard against her shoulders. She resisted the urge to tuck her legs in and sit sideways, but the arms were too far apart and she felt herself sliding forward. Whoever sat here comfortably? Were the Zo made up of giants? Everything was built to exude power and authority, she knew, but could she project power from the throne like her father did? After fidgeting some more, she managed a stately position, with elbow tucked in and backbone arched and her chin up.
“Father, help me.” She said it for his ghost to hear, and with her heart throbbing in her throat, reached for the topaz switch in the armrest.
Archers gathered like silver birds along the periphery wall, up and around the spiraling stairwell. Their composite longbows reminded her of goose wings. Facing the throne, rising from a wide berth of steps, a contingent of knights flanked her in two columns, their sarissas swaying high above the ib feather plumes in their helms, the unicorn sigil of Tyrnael gleaming from their cuirasses. It was her praetorian guard. The sixteen knights swore fealty at her coronation only weeks before, the last and only time she sat the throne. It made her ill at ease that men she hardly knew should offer their lives in such a way. At the very least, she could learn something about them, if they had wives or children, but she was never good at matching names to faces. The praetorians were an elite few, carefully selected among the tallest and strongest and indistinctly handsome. Only one was difficult to look upon, perhaps the most hideous man Radia had ever seen. His face was creased, like a sheet of papyrus crumpled and straightened again, and when he carried his helmet under his arm, there was not a single follicle to be seen on his scalp. When she first met him at her coronation, all she could do was stare at the scar dividing his eye and lip. She could not fathom why he had yet to fix his face, but he seemed oblivious to it, to how his ugliness disturbed her. Why ever would he choose to become my protector, looking like that, and whoever was so foolish to appoint him?
Her brother was last to enter. His mere presence made her palms sweat and grip the edges of the throne. When they were children, they played at pretend, and she may even have loved him then. But even as a boy, he loved to pull the wings from the butterflies, slowly and methodically, watching and delighting in the agony he was causing. She used to cry and threaten him with father, but the king only listened sympathetically, taking no action. When his cruelty evolved from torturing insects to hammering frogs, she had had enough of him, and what love she might have felt waned to nothing. When I am queen, I will see you pay, she remembered herself thinking. Now father was dead and she had the power. So why did she not feel powerful?
To anyone looking upon him, Radia’s brother was a monster. From horn to heel, he was chains and iron the color of rust and blood, and he bristled with spikes like some demonic urchin, with pikes that protruded from the sides of his helm like horns. His mask gave the impression of a face, with a nose and absences for eyes through which he might look out. Radia understood the need for a soldier to shield himself, but war had never been known in Tyrnael, not for a thousand-thousand years. His readiness for battle was unnerving and yet it would not have surprised her if she caught him sleeping in armor. The cacophony it made, as each metal plate grated with another, was an assault to the ears, and a further insult to her rule as he marched before the throne. Zaibos exuded the power she failed to gather, even as he fell to one knee before her.
I must not be intimidated. “You may remove your helmet,” she managed, without a tremor in her voice.
He tugged at his horns, but what emerged from underneath the mask was just as fierce. A perpetual scowl was etched across his jaw, as if his face were made of stone, and his eyebrows were dark and bristly, like dead caterpillars above deep set, iron hard pupils. The hair that spilled over his shoulders was black as pitch, and about his chin and cheeks, a beard grew like a thorn bush.
Radia suddenly became conscious of her small, girlish features. Her mismatched eyes, one turquoise, the other violet, stared sixteen-fold from the praetorians’ rounded helms; her cheekbones were framed by golden braids—not blonde—but gold. Brother and sister looked nothing alike, but they were not of the same blood.
“Why did you call me here, sister? I am very busy . . .”
“I am your sister, Zaibos, but you will address me properly. ‘Your Grace’ or ‘your Highness’ will do, but not ‘sister,’ not here, not when I am on my throne.” Her voice was small and was swallowed by the space. She sounded more like a songbird than a monarch.
“Very well,” he groaned, adding, with a measure of contempt, “Your Grace.”
“Seeing as you are busy, I . . .” she started, No, stupid, use more forceful language! “Tell me all what you have been doing.”
“Doing, Your Grace?” His eyes were steel, were archers taking aim.
“I know you have been doing things . . . taking distant forays into the dark hemisphere and . . . I hear rumors of battle, that you return with blood on your armor.”
“I act upon my duties, Your Grace, those bestowed to me by your father.”
“And what duties might those be?”
“Protecting the kingdom, your kingdom, of course.”
“From whom? We have no enemies . . . Tyrnael has not known war since before the Cataclysm!”
“That is precisely the matter. We have become a tired and stagnant people. Tyrnael was once known throughout the entire world. Now we are forgotten, existing as a myth, in songs. The greatness our people once knew has been denied too long. Empires grow out of conquest. If we go on as we have, hiding behind our mountains, without the conquered to fill our bloodlines, our civilization will continue to decay. And so, as I told you before, I am doing my duty, protecting the realm.”
“Do not speak to me as if I am a child, brother . . . I’ve read the histories, but we need not go to war to be great again. There are other ways . . . we can send emissaries to the Outside, make ourselves known again, make friends.”
His armor rattled with laughter. “Friends? I fear you are much too young, sweet sister. If we open our gates to the world, the world will come in like a flood, rob us of our secrets. They have always sought what we possess. Why else have our people hidden for so long? If we had only the numbers to fill our ranks, to build true armies, I’d welcome the chance to defend our borders. But alas, Your Grace, a child is born only once in a cycle if we are fortunate, and the rate is decelerating.”
At fifteen, Radia could count on her hands the number of girls she knew her age. Larissa used to tell awful stories of mothers losing their newborns to theft, and it always upset her, as if her handmaiden was telling lies. Childbirth was a miracle in Tyrnael. But that could not justify the cruelties of war.
“How do you do this, then? Make conquests without armies?”
Zaibos was standing, his helmet under his arm, clanking in his armor. “Alliances have been made. The dark hemisphere,” he explained, “there are denizens of the sunless lands, bogrens and horg of countless number, who seek to sate their bloodlust.”
Horg and bogren? Those were the names of inhuman things, a product of nightmares, fitting company for someone like her brother. “You can’t—it is forbidden!”
“It was your father, the king . . .”
“My father would never!” she cried. “He loved peace and compassion, something you’ve never understood! These actions have nothing to do with the kingdom, only you, your hunger for cruelty!”
Radia was standing without realizing it, shaking with rage and fear, waving her finger at him. Father would never have done that. A princess should be composed, speak firmly but never rashly or in anger. She was still only a child. Everyone could see it, her brother most of all. If only there was a kind face amid the masses, someone who loved her, she might find a measure of courage in it. Larissa had pleaded to stand beside her, but Radia was too stubborn to listen, fearing that keeping her handmaiden close would make her seem weak. She rejected her father’s most trusted adviser as well. Nessus was kindly and wise, but always stressed patience and moderation, when what was needed here was bold action. Now, Radia wanted nothing but to end this ordeal, return to her books and dolls. She could not even find the strength to match eyes with her brother, focusing on her feet instead, dismissing him with a tremble.
She waited, battening down the heart in her chest like a sail in a windstorm, but to her dismay, there was no sound of retreat, no reaction to her command. The court was frozen in place. Zaibos did not move and his archers stood like stony sentinels. Did they not see her gesture? Would she lose face repeating it? Or was this a sign of open betrayal?
“No. I am not one of your handmaidens, sister, to be sent away so easily.” His tone was like the hiss of a snake when it threatens to bite.
“I command here, Zaibos, not you. Am I not the blood of the Zo? Am I not True North?" She was pleading now, not with him, but with the others in the room.
“Titles do not confer loyalty, Your Grace. There is a high price to pay, blood and sacrifice on the field of battle. My men die for me, as I would for them. Honor is our bond. But what do you know of such things? The power of Tyrnael lies with me. I command the army. What do you command? Cooks and seamstresses?”
Radia had prepared endlessly for this day, rehearsed every word, and yet she stood paralyzed, robbed of speech. Her pretty gown and seat of amethyst meant nothing. She could see it in the eyes of her protectors, their doubt, and dread crawled into her mind. “This is . . . high treason . . . Zaibos! Be dismissed or I’ll . . .”
“You’ll what? Have me hanged? Beheaded? Drawn and quartered? Does your compassionate heart have the strength to enforce your dictates? I think not. And yet you cannot accuse a man of treason without carrying out the sentencing. You are weak, my sister, and innocent.”
Spurred by the insult, Radia found her courage. “Guards! Take him to the dungeons!” But even as the command escaped her lips, she knew she had made a terrible mistake. Zaibos donned his helmet, becoming the monster again, and no one dared move against him.
With his back to the throne, he addressed his archers, the voice from his faceplate sounding eerily. “I had hoped for a peaceful transition of power, no angry mobs to contend with, no rebellions to quell, but now you've forced my hand.”
By the Ancients! He is going to kill me . . . She had always known him to be cruel, and this frightened her, but she never imagined dying by his hand. Did their childhood memories mean nothing? No . . . he is a monster, nothing like my father, or me. Sensing the threat at last, her praetorians moved into action, joining together with their sarissas thrust outward like an immense morningstar.
Zaibos was undeterred, walking against them, armed only with the poison of his tongue. “Who among you is prepared to die for this girl? She slumbers here in this tower on silken sheets and sups from silver goblets every night . . . and what have her people become? We are like lichen under a rock, living in the shadows of past glories, and she would see to it that it ever be so, that we continue to bend the knee and serve, until her children come of age and the cycle continues again—again into eternity! I say no more! The progeny of the Zo ends here. Follow me into a new age of Aenya, or do your duty, spill your blood here and now for this undeserving brat.”
Radia’s guards did not flinch, not until Zaibos raised his gauntlet, and the chamber echoed with the sound of drawn bows. Knights broke rank in turn, until the phalanx fell apart, and a mere six stood before the dais, torn between duty and self-preservation.
Only one spoke out. “I am.”
“You are what?” the monster barked, towering a head above him and every other knight, but the guard with the scarred face did not step away.
“I answered your question. I am prepared to die for this girl. There is more to life than death.”
“Then you are a fool!” Zaibos blood-red gauntlet came down and hundreds of arrows reached into the sky, perched in mid-air, and dropped with sudden terrible force.
Men were dying at her feet in twos and threes, clutching at the seems of their armor, their eyes wild with terror. Feathered shafts grew from their knees and throats and from the open grills of their helms. Her guards were young and naive of battle. Praetorian was a position of high honor, but their training was ceremony, more dance than combat. No historian could recount when blood was last shed in the Compass Tower, and now the unicorn sigils of her praetorians were lined in red and blood was pooling across the floor, staining the hem of her gown. A second volley of arrows arched into the sky, dimming the sun, and not a man remained to shield her from them. After only fifteen years, Radia’s life was to be cut short, less than a tenth her father’s age. She closed her eyes to welcome the end.
I hope it doesn’t hurt much. Don’t scream. Don’t weep. Give him nothing.
Arrowheads were chiming like rain on a plated roof, and she waited, with no place to run or hide. My dress will be all bloody, and Larissa worked so hard to ready it . . .
But death did not come. Nor pain. When she dared to look again, the view was saturated with the scarred visage of her last remaining guardian, the only man she had ever seen stand up to her brother, and he was groping at her thighs—no, that wasn’t right—he was shielding her with his own body, his armor.
“I should be dead . . .” she murmured, checking herself for holes to be certain she wasn’t.
“You’re not out of this yet, your Highness.” He played with the switches on the armrest until finding the one he needed. The throne started to turn into the floor with the both of them on it. Everything was spinning. Stone masonry was passing over her eyes. They were in a long vertical shaft and dropping quickly. When the throne settled into place, dim orbs of light played with their shadows. They were in a blue room large enough for two to stand abreast.
“Are you hurt?”
Radia could hardly think or hear. What she witnessed only moments before dominated her vision. “No, but what of you? You should be—”
“The throne was built by the Zo,” he remarked, “for just such an occasion, no doubt. There must be a field within range of it, or we’re both just terribly lucky . . .”
Before she knew why, tears ran hot across her cheeks. “Those men . . . they’re dead because of me.”
“They did what was expected of them, Your Highness,” he replied. “Now you must do the same.”
Her heart was a bubbling cauldron of confusion, dread and pity. “Wh-What’s that?”
But Radia did not leave her chair. “I can’t . . .”
“They won’t be long,” he said, pulling the longsword from his belt and moving forward, as if to gut her. “We’ll have to be quick about it.” He worked the blade through the fine muslin fabric. “You’ll forgive me, your Majesty.”
Radia could not watch. It was her great-great-grandmother’s dress, but when he was through it, she could feel the air on her knees, the freedom of motion. “That’s good.”
He nabbed her by the wrists, harder than she would have liked, and dragged her through an open archway. A flight of steps led up and another set spiraled downward. She could hear the stomping of boots above, the clank of armor, the rattle of arrows in quivers.
“By the Ancients, they’re coming to kill me!”
He gave only a scowl and loosened her shoulder from its socket. Walls pushed on them from both sides as they took to their stairs. The descent was steep and narrow and slight, with just enough space to set her foot.
“I think they hear us!” she hissed.
“Be quiet, will you . . . !”
Radia stole back her arm, which was already sore. This guard of hers acted nothing like the heroes in her fairy tales. “Are you rescuing or kidnapping me?”
Again, he brandished his longsword, as if to attack her. She followed the length of steel to the line of marching boots crossing the stairwell like some monstrous centipede. In that same moment, an archer poked his head under to spot them, and a volley of arrows ricocheted overhead, clacking and clattering like hailstones.
He grabbed her again, moving faster than she thought he could in mailed knees and greaves, traversing the steps in twos and threes. Even in her small bare feet, she had difficulty keeping pace. “We need to reach the bottom before they do. If we give them a clear shot, we’re done for.”
“Who are you?” her voice echoed, “and why are you helping me?”
His silence was infuriating, and if not for the threat of death, she would have refused to move unless he gave an answer.
They continued on, her right hand pressing the inner wall to keep from toppling over her tattered hem, down and down until the whole of the tower opened into a vast hollow. The stairwell curved for hundreds of feet to the bottom and went up just as far to the throne room. Seized by vertigo, she reached for a support that was not there, finding only a sudden empty drop. Even her guardian slowed pace, moving with deliberation. They circled the tower as they descended, watching the archers chase precariously across the other side, looking like insects where Radia had been only minutes before. A few took aim, but their footing was too narrow and the updraft carried their arrows every which way.
The base of the tower led to an inner courtyard. Sunlight from a domed ceiling streamed across the walls, gilding the granite frieze-work, the sculpted planets and the replicas of cities, the great orators and scientists and heroes immortalized in stone. It was a marvel of antiquity from the Age of the Zo, but there was no time to wonder at it.
Beyond the courtyard, they passed through the pleasure gardens, through citrus groves and stone ponds, under the cover of grapes growing from a trellised ceiling. Fairie butterflies with luminous azure wings, some the size of her palms, fluttered about their ears, as pod flowers with purple and pink buds swayed with anger as they went by, threatening to knock them over. Radia could spend days in the gardens reading, swimming, or chasing the phosphorescent fauna, without stuffy tutors demanding stuffy clothes, but such frolic would never come again, she realized, nor would she sleep again in her own soft bed, or know the company of . . .
“Wait . . . Larissa!”
“Your Highness, we must hurry—”
“I go nowhere without my haindmaiden!”
“I did not swear an oath to protect your Highness’ handmaiden!” he growled, reminding her of a dog, an old, ugly, scarred dog. “Follow me!”
“I won’t and you cannot make me.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Am I not True North, am I not . . .”
“OK OK, where is this girl of yours?”
“In my chambers, of course, where else—?”
“Are you insane? A hundred men are coming for us both, and you want to go to the one place they’ll most expect us?”
“If you wish to protect me, you’ll simply have to do it there.”
“Where?” he barked.
Holding the threads of her gown, she skipped to the edge of the enclosed garden, through an arcade of jasper, tourmaline and chalcedony, and out to a postern door. Another rumble echoed through the walls, succeeded by the pitter-patter of water droplets. “That isn’t the army—it’s a storm!” he remarked, pushing through to the outside.
The sky was somber gray and the stones below were slick and glistening. The rain was falling hard and harder and sideways with the wind. “The sun was ablaze this morning . . .” he said with a bit of confusion, “. . . the gods must be smiling on us. This will give us cover, skew their arrows at least, should they find us.”
Radia followed him and secured the door. It would be some time, she figured, before her brother’s men could determine where she’d gone.
The ledge led directly to a one-man bridge. It seemed to be suspended in air, with nothing but sky on either side, crossing high above hills and waterfalls and tiled rooftops. A great distance off, at the opposite end, stood a lone minaret like a lance in the turquoise moon.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked.
He stared over the brink, as if measuring the distance to the bottom, which shifted with the motion of the clouds. “There has to be another way.”
“To my bedchambers? It’s right there,” she said, pointing, “in that tower.”
He took a wary step, clutching the railing firmly as he stepped onto the bridge. Radia paced behind him, lifting her cheeks to the rain to take the brunt of it, letting it rush down her neck and clothes and drip from her braids. It was invigorating, empowering. She loved the rain like a sunflower, but not enough to stand and be soaked forever. “Go!” she cried, shoving him.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“Wait . . . you’re not afraid of . . . Are you afraid of heights?”
“I do not prefer them.”
“You faced off against my brother and his army and now you shrink before a bridge?”
“Men I can handle. The ground is another matter.”
“I walk this way every morning, noon and evening, as does Larissa. Now let’s make haste before they find us!”
The royal bedchamber was in order. Frilly, her swan, drifted lazily in its fountain pool, and behind the silk partitions of the room, her bed was straightened with linens newly washed and pressed, and her collection of dolls and perfumes was neatly arrayed, and her books were all in order in their shelves, except the one she was reading, the fairytale collection with the unicorn seal on the cover. Larissa, you’re so good to me, how can I leave you behind?
But as Radia twirled giddily about the room, their predicament somehow far from her mind, her praetorian paced to and fro like a hunted beast. “So where is she?”
“I don’t know,” she said, running a jeweled comb through her hair, “maybe the stables.”
“Maybe the stables! You said she would be here!”
Radia recoiled, frightened by his sudden temper. “I said no such thing . . . I sometimes find her here is all. But she does love the stable ponies. We might find her there.”
“Princess . . . for the sake of your life and mine, we must depart this castle immediately. Do you understand what that means? Immediately! No more detours!”
“If I’m never coming back, let me at least pack a few things, change out of this outfit, which you managed to ruin, by the way.” She tucked her book under one arm and reached for a small box encrusted with gemstones. The lock was a gold heart clasped by a dagger. Book and box went into a satchel, and she then proceeded to fight with her great-great grandmother’s gown, but the lace was too tight about the waist and held her like a giant’s fist. “Praetorian, if you would come here a moment . . .”
“Princess, please, we haven’t time for this,” he argued, “we must—”
Nothing could ever threaten her here, she had thought, not where she was born, not where father had sat when she was ill reading her fairytales. She had not been able to imagine life ending where it began, and yet she could hear them beyond the walls, men clamoring to run their swords into her heart, and the illusion of her sanctuary shattered with the sound.
The praetorian pushed furniture against the door, but already it was splintering, throwing intricately patterned wood chips into the pool, ruffling Frilly’s feathers.
“Is there another way out?” he cried, “a trap door?”
Radia showed him to an octagonal dressing room. Tall, oval mirrors stood on each side. He saw himself, a scowling, hairless head with a long scar cutting through his eye and lip. A young girl stood at his side, with hair like spun gold and eyes of different colors, turquoise and violet, so much like the moons.
He shook his head. “What is this? This is a—a waste of time!”
“Have you lost all your faith? Look closer.”
“I see nothing.”
“Only our reflections,” she answered, “see?” It was true. There was no wall or curtain behind them, nothing to indicate their surroundings but a blurred, glassy surface.
In the other room, a door was coming to pieces, chairs were clacking, tables were squeaking and groaning, and pottery and crystal were being shattered. Someone fell into the fountain with an obscenity, and Radia’s bird died with an awkward squawk.
“Princess, I’ve failed you. I see now there is nowhere to run . . . was nowhere to go.” He drew his sword from its sheath and moved toward her, his eyes pained.
“No,” she whispered, “you haven’t, not yet. And you can call me Radia.” She offered her hand, not as a superior, but a friend. “Tell me your name, praetorian?”
“I am called Demacharon.”
The soldiers were in view now, their plumed helms bristling like angry hens, their arrows nocked. Radia gave them a smile and pulled on his arm, and together they fell through the mirror.
It was like falling suddenly and unexpectedly through a trap door, like having your mind and stomach exchange places, but the moment went quickly. Radia was on the ground beside her protector, bent double, gasping, choking, retching. As much as she wanted to empty her bowels, only long lines of spittle dangled from her lips, as she had been too nervous that morning to take breakfast. Nessus, her tutor, once explained how the Zo traveled throughout on Aenya, and even between stars, using portals. Hand-in-hand with him, she once jumped such a mirror, but the unexpected disorientation and sickening feeling that followed dissuaded her from ever trying it again.
“You should have warned me about that,” Demacharon grumbled, finding his footing like a drunkard.
“Sorry . . . I didn’t think there was time.”
“Where are we?”
The floor was rough hewn block covered in hay, with crab grass and other weeds growing from between the cracks. Fires burned from sconces, throwing long shadows about the room, and glittering in the oval mirror at their backs. In the adjacent hall, they met with rows of halberds, swords and spears, and shields in piles, and men made of straw.
“Why does it smell so foul?”
“This is the armory,” he answered. “You couldn’t have chosen better unless you wanted to visit Zaibos’ personal chambers.”
“Hey—I didn’t pick this place—every mirror has its twin! We end up where the other is. I didn’t know it would be here.”
“You should have said so before,” he said, smashing the silvered glass with the pommel of his sword. “Now they cannot follow.”
“Is there any way out of here?”
He examined the rack, weighing the gladius in his hand. “Of course, but without anyone seeing us . . . there’s the rub. This might not be entirely fruitless, however.”
Radia watched him mull over their options. It was a strange thing to put her faith—her very life—in the hands of a stranger. And yet, what choice did she have? There was no one to trust but Larissa and what good was a handmaiden at such a time? Poor Larissa. She could only hope that no harm come to her, but knowing Zaibos, that hope was faint.
Demacharon pulled off his cuirass. His upper body was discolored in many places, and it took some time for Radia to recognize the spots as bruises. There were lines through his chest and side and stomach also, marks drawn by weapons. She could only imagine how such wounds must have hurt him, and her spine began to tingle, and her body grew numb.
As he searched among greaves and gorgets and sallets, she reached out, gently touching him. The skin on his shoulder was raised in the shape of a trident. “What is that? Did they—did someone brand you? Like a horse?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, donning a breastplate of boiled leather, “a memento from another life.” He strapped the gladius to his hip beside the longsword, and turned to her, pressing a dirk into her palm. “If something should happen to me, do not hesitate to use this.”
“A knife? I don’t think I could ever—”
Voices filled the room and Radia knew they were no longer alone. There was no place to hide or to run. Demacharon tightened his belt and walked into the common room, where a contingent of soldiers awaited them.
Eight surrounded them, weapons in hand, and a young man stepped forward. He was uncommonly handsome, even for a soldier, and the unicorn emblazoned across his torso galloped in the torchlight.
“Did you think you could escape us, traitor? We have men posted at every exit and mirror. Hand over the princess and the king will make your death a painless one.”
“What a generous offer, Captain Sly.” Demacharon slid his longsword from its sheath. “How could I pass it up?”
“Wait . . .!” Radia cried. “Traitor? How can this man be a traitor? He saved my life! He is the only one loyal to me.”
“You have been misled, your Highness,” the captain replied. “Alas, you are young and naive, and could not have known better. You are not to be blamed.”
She stood between the two men, trying to look tall, but she was short for her age, and barefoot. “What are you going on about?”
“Did you truly believe you were being rescued? That this man—this man—an admitted outsider, would risk his life for yours? The world does not work this way, princess. This is not one of your fairytales. No one gives his all unless there is something to gain, and a princess of Tyrnael is no chimney sweep’s daughter, no, you are a jewel among women. The crown on your head alone is worth his weight in gold!”
She snatched the tiara from her head, tossing it to the floor where it rolled out of sight. “Is it true?” she said, turning to Demacharon. “Are you a stranger?” But she knew the answer before asking. Why did he look older than her father on his deathbed, yet move like someone half his age? And why did he have trouble pronouncing his words—a detail she had not noticed while fleeing for her life—if the language was not new to him? It all made sense now.
Demacharon lowered his sword. “It is true I was not born in Tyrnael, but I am sworn to you, the true heir, not the half-breed monster who would call himself king.”
“The throne is his birthright,” the captain rejoined, “after all, he is eldest born.”
Radia could feel her cheeks boiling with rage, a rage that came in the face of blatant lies. “Zaibos is not of my blood!” she cried. “His father was not my father! He is the usurper, the traitor!”
“Politics aside . . . our liege has taken the throne for the betterment of the empire, but does not wish harm upon his own kin. He told me so himself.”
“I may be young, but I’m no fool! ” she answered. “I heard my brother’s words! He intends to kill me! Shot arrows at me!”
“Not at you, your Highness. If we had wished you dead, you would be. Think about it, a hundred arrows came your way, and miraculously you were unharmed. It was the conspirators who were executed, your praetorian guard, led by this man whom you fancy a hero. We suspected the plot from the day he requested the position. Otherwise, we never would have allowed him near you. Forgive us for the charade, but it was necessary to uncover the truth. When this man came forward to speak, we knew our own people were involved, that they meant to steal you away to the South, to lands beyond the Crown. Come with us now, and King Zaibos promises you will sleep safely tonight in your own bed.”
“No,” said Radia. “He is an honorable man. I can . . . sense it.”
The captain raised his blade. “If you will not surrender peacefully, you will be forced to watch him die!”
The two men came together faster than Radia could have imagined. Swords flashed, painting the air silver, ringing deadly music. Sly seemed sure of himself, dancing around her praetorian, lunging and parrying more swiftly. Demacharon, all the while, retreated against the wall, defending blow after blow.
“I always admired your way with a blade whenever we sparred. Though I never trusted you. A foreigner cannot be trusted.”
Demacharon pedaled backward into the narrow recess of the hall as the captain pressed and taunted and mocked, his longsword flying wide, chipping at the masonry, raining dust on them both. Her champion seemed to be weakening, and Radia feared for his life.
“Tired, old man? I can do this all day.”
There was a sudden, somber look in Demacharon’s face that startled her, a darkness she had not yet seen. “You’ve never killed a man, have you? Never watched a man’s eyes as the life ebbs out of him . . . ”
“Wh-What does that—?”
“It means you’re green, boy, hesitant. You can’t cut me down because you don’t want to. It takes a part of you. Me? I’ve killed my share, much younger than you, watched men die before you were born. And I have nothing to lose.”
There was an edge in his voice, enough to make the captain hesitate, and in that instant Demacharon lunged forward, embracing him. Radia was suddenly afraid for them both. She had witnessed the horror of men felled at her feet and did not wish to relive it again. In her most authoritative voice, she demanded, pleaded for peace, stopping short of throwing herself on Demacharon’s arm, but when he released the captain, she could see the blood flowing and the red stained gladius in his other hand. The boy’s face beaded with sweat and the color rushed out of him. Mirrored in his eyes, she could see the disbelief and confusion. Radia watched him shudder and grow cold and his pain became her own. She moved a hand to her nostrils to staunch the flow, her own blood spilling over her fingers, across her lip and chin. “Not again,” she heard herself saying, “not now . . .”
Demacharon was calling her name, but his voice was a distant echo. The boy was dead and she was falling beside him, down and down into the dark spaces between worlds.