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NYX: Secrets - a first look!

CHAPTER ONE

~ Gifted ~

 

CERRIDWYN

The tower catches my eye again, and I can’t help but turn toward the morbid sight.

Three bodies, all dangling from blood-soaked rope, their necks broken, their heads unnaturally cocked to the sides with empty eyes staring at a world they can no longer see.

A haunting scene I wish I’d never witnessed, and yet I find it impossible to turn away for more than seconds at a time.

The sky is alive with hues of violet and indigo this morning, and birdsong fills the air. The scent of fresh Kali blossoms carries on the balmy winds coming from the Metis Sea, a gentle reminder, as always, that a world exists beyond the palace walls of Camirus Court—a world I’ve never seen for myself in my seventeen years of royal, caged existence.

Treetops dance over the palace walls in the wind, playing their own music with the creak of their limbs, the soft whistle of leaves and gale joining. But no matter what beauty calls my attention, it can’t deny the horror before me.

My father’s execution chamber is the tallest point of the palace, and unlike the other turrets, which house quarters for servants, including my father’s most trusted advisor, this tower is an open structure where the peaked roof sits atop five stone pillars instead of walls.

No royal balcony, no town square or throne room, would ever do. My father requires a stage above all others, a platform that can be viewed from every vantage point in Camirus—possibly the entire Seven Stars—and especially, it seems, from my window, my only gateway to the outside world.

Limp and lifeless, the bodies sway with the same wind carrying the sweet trace of the Kali’s nectar. I close my eyes and breathe in. The stark contrast between sight and scent holds the hidden truth this morning’s display distorts so grotesquely.

I open my eyes and look again, morbidly fascinated by the apparition.

Real though it looks, I know it to be purely illusion, cast upon the stage of death by the king’s most powerful prisoner, Mayette. Of all the gifts my father has hunted and laid claim to, hers is perhaps the one he coveted most: clarity. The only gift he’s wanted more is connection, a gift he’s failed to find. And so he’s placed value on Mayette above all others. Especially once Lord Erebus took her pure talent and made it perverse, enabling the king to create displays such as the one my eyes are locked on now.

Someone wails in the distance. So filled with heartache and anguish a sound, it sends a piercing pain straight through my chest. Though those bodies are not real, their deaths have come to pass, and the grief spiraling through town on the trails of Mayette’s illusions is a new reality some will never escape.

Their loved ones will never know the day or two they were spared before the truth was performed on that stage and made real. How the victims put on display overnight leave no trace of existence beyond what lies meet the eye.

They’ve never been close enough to rely on their other senses.

But I have. Some days, I have known prisoners were being marched to their ends even before they arrived, the air wrought with the foul decay of impending death, their bodies locked away and tortured for so long that even alive they had begun to rot. Others I have woken to the sound of their wails, painful symphonies of surrender, of welcoming death. Then a sharp crack like lightening, splitting them open and setting them free as their necks broke and my heart shattered in a crescendo of grief and relief.

No, the souls portrayed to be hanging today crossed to the afters in darkness, without witnesses and surrounded only by their most intimate pain. A merciful gift to those trapped in the shadows of my father’s unrelenting torture.

My stomach turns, and I press my hand to my lips and close my eyes, then take another deep breath of sweet air, imagining myself surrounded by Kali blossoms. Though I know this is as much illusion as anything, it calms me. As the king’s firstborn, I may not be in danger of finding myself led to the tower, but I receive the message of those sent there just the same.

The king expects an offering from everyone.

When the value of your gift expires, so do you.

As if on cue, there’s a knock at my door. Linney, one of my father’s many private maids, enters. “It’s time for your lessons, Your Highness.” She curtsies, already backing from the room.

No one ever enters to stay. Except Annalise.

I’ve been ready for my lessons since sunrise. Mentally, I’ve been preparing since last sundown. Most days it seems an endless cycle of seeking the fortitude required for simply seeing another sunset, only to prepare again for dawn.

I take one last look as I cross past the mirror. Not a hair is out of place. No blemish marks my perfect complexion. It’s an odd sort of curse, being beautiful. I must be perfectly presentable at every occasion, only to have my perfection turned on me. It’s a cruel gift, beauty. It’s lavish and lovely to behold, yet utterly useless in my father’s eyes. Even if they do appreciate the sight, his lips never fail to show his disdain.

One last deep breath of courage before I tug the satin string beside my door. Just outside, bells jingle, dancing in turn with every pull of my hand. A moment later the door opens, and Drayce bows before gesturing for me to step outside.

It’s always him who escorts me. Three years he’s been here as my guard, and I don’t think he’s ever been assigned another task. Some days, I think he hates me for it, always having to be my watcher. I can’t imagine a more tediously boring job than walking me to see Lord Erebus in his study twice a day, seeing me to the sanctuary for worship on Sundays, and, of course, accompanying me on the rare occasion my presence is requested by my father or stepmother. Outside of our brief walks within the palace walls, every hour Drayce spends assigned to my side is spent outside one door or another, waiting.

Still, he maintains a gracious demeanor each time I step foot into the hall.

“Your Highness.” His deep voice buzzes through me, my nervous system on fire as he slides the door shut behind me.

I nod, acknowledging his greeting. It’s not proper for me to do more. Even though I know his name, I’ve never spoken it. Not to him. Not even to Annalise. It wouldn’t be safe. For him.

Three years of constant togetherness built on small gestures.

A nod.

A sweeping glance.

A verbal exchange of formalities.

Nothing more.

As always, Drayce shadows my every step as we make our way to Lord Erebus’s chambers, though it’s his shadow I walk in. Even without the aid of light distorting his size, he towers over me in his armor of titanium and black serpent leather. While his helmet, adorned with spikes trailing straight down the middle from the bridge of his nose all the way back to the nape of his neck, certainly adds to his height, his broad build is entirely his. Muscles ripple and tighten under the smooth snakeskin as if the serpent’s scales were his own. Even the plates of titanium lay smooth against his body. If he weren’t sworn to protect me, I might have found him terrifying upon first meeting.

Fear would have dissipated, of course. Despite the armor hiding nearly every inch of the man within the soldier, one small piece of him is still visible.

His eyes. Dark brown with golden flecks that shine in the light, framed by thick, black lashes that curl at the ends. For all he never speaks out loud, his eyes spill forth an endless mystery I never tire of trying to decipher.

Some days, the darkness within them could drown me.

Others, secrets bubble at the surface so visibly, my own curiosity threatens to set my tongue aflame, furious at its fate of submission and silence.

But above all, what touches me most is their kindness.

In his silence, Drayce comforts me. More than any guard before him, Drayce makes me feel safe despite the fact all he does is walk with me. Maybe because he’s so relentlessly loyal, always there, always dependable.

Before he took the post, I never saw the same guard at my door twice. It was a rotation of glares and grunts, one less friendly than the next. Then Drayce showed up, and everything changed. His presence became as reliable as that of Lord Erebus. More importantly, his presence became something I could look forward to, a goal I could set my mind to. No matter how terrible a lesson I’d be asked to endure, I knew when it was complete I’d be sent back to my room, back to Drayce. And back to feeling safe.

 It’s the same mantra I repeat to myself now as I approach the set of tall, heavy doors of knotted wood and iron panels leading to Lord Erebus’s study.

I pause outside the study’s entrance and wait for Drayce to announce our arrival. My breath is shallow, fast but steady. My heart beats louder than normal, but it doesn’t race. Everything is under control. My control. In a world where I’m at the mercy of all, I’ve found solace in the sacred spaces I can master. With my breath. My thoughts. My heart. With what I allow myself to feel, and what I choose not to. Small victories in an ongoing war for my autonomy.

A loud creak precedes Rahlia’s dainty face as she opens the door to usher me in. The small-framed woman with taupe skin weathered by turmoil and duress, and wiry silver hair pulled away from her face with simple combs on each side of her head, has worked for Lord Erebus as long as I can recall. She’s always flitting about his study, tidying up, fetching him tea, or tending to his plants—an extensive greenhouse of exotic herbs, mushrooms, and flowers he grows right here in his chambers. I’ve wondered more than once if she’s held captive here as much as I am, a little mouse roaming about her space, frantic and timid, free but for the fact she lives with a predator.

“Your Highness,” she squeaks, dropping into a curtsy and bowing her head until all I can see is the shimmer of lashes lining her black-brown eyes. Where Rahlia minds her courage, veiling it in fear and humble submission, I choose to keep my head up high, lifting my chin ever so slightly every time I step foot inside this study.

“The chair is ready for you,” she says, turning her hand out to guide me.

The chair.

My stomach roils at the sight of it, and I freeze, stuck inside the open doorway.

I was weak for days after the last session I spent tied to it, unable to walk or stand without help. The first night, Annalise had to feed me because I lacked the strength to lift even a spoon.

Outside the scarlet silk restraints at the arms, feet, and throat, the chair is much like any other chair within the palace walls. Stark and rigid, lacking in comforts but abundant in imagery, depicting scenes of battle and bloodshed in the carved wooden limbs. A reminder of who remains eternally victorious inlaid in the crown emblem, once made of copper and now of gold, placed on the crest rail.

Still, it’s not the chair that invokes fear within me. It’s what happens when I’m asked to sit within it. When my wrists are bound. My ankles tied. My body cinched in place by means of a silky noose.

None of these measures are meant to keep me trapped. There is never thought of my escape. Not in their minds, nor my own. The binds are to keep me from inflicting injury on others, and to restrain me from leaving marks on myself not easily hidden by long sleeves and lavish skirts. In truth, I never recall what I do within the confines of my physical self. It’s my spirit body I engage with when I’m asked to sit here, asked to drown in the swirling abyss of my own consciousness and sent there through a mere sip of tincture concocted by Lord Erebus.

That is the part I fear when beckoned to the chair. Not the being bound in place, but rather the places I will be forced to go, separated from self and unable to return until the effects of his potions wear off.

I dare a glance to my right where Drayce still stands, holding the door. His gaze is cast inside the study, his expression unreadable.

I swallow down my disappointment and close my eyes seeking a moment of peace before I face what’s ahead. When I open them his eyes are mine. I find the comfort I seek, but as the moment lingers I see more than I bargained for. A fury burns within him. Not a bloom of smoke or glowing embers, but a raging flame.

My guard through and through.

His desire to protect me reminds me of my duty to do the same. I won’t see him burn on my account.

Lifting my chin ever higher, I take the strides required to reach my seat. Behind me, the door closes. Drayce is gone.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

~ The God Are At It Again ~

 

DRAYCE

Three Years Earlier

I can still taste the evidence of tonight’s mayhem as I turn down the cobblestone path that leads home. Hints of cayenne, chocolate, and plum linger on my tongue, a reminder of the toothsome cider we drank as Cathaan tried yet again to persuade me to join his clan. I declined. I always do. But I can’t deny, tonight I was closer to a yes than before. And the cider wasn’t of sufficient strength to blame. Though the pipe we smoked may have had a hand in things. As did the reckless way we raced over rooftops all across town, howling and singing at the top of our lungs. By the end of the night, running with the boys of Altan didn’t seem like nearly a bad-enough idea.

Drunk on cider and debauchery, I stumble my way toward the front door, cursing under my breath when the toe of my boot catches on something in the dark. Two half-moons tonight, and not a one visible from Gaia’s plane. All thanks to a dense blanket of clouds blinding earth from sky for days now.

The air is cool and damp, weighted with rain that refuses to fall but lingers all around, coating everything in a veil of mist that neither absorbs nor dissipates. Even the trees appear torn with their fate, lush and abundant with greens and blossoms sprouting from every limb, yet weary with a gluttonous wet they seem to be slowly drowning under.

I let out a harsh laugh. The gods and goddesses never fail to miss an opportunity to show us the physical translations of our state of being in the most literal ways.

“Joke’s on you,” I call out to the heavens. “Can’t drown a hollow tree.” Shaking my head, I lumber the last few steps toward the door, the sleepless night catching up to my feet first even as my mind begins to wake to reality. Father will be furious I was out again. I left no word of where I was going or who I’d be with. Just took my leave before he could stop me. Not that he’s tried to. Not out loud, anyway. His eyes have pleaded with me to no avail, but I’ve learned to turn my head and keep walking. Easy to pretend he’s not even there when he’s spent years doing the same to me.

Swallowing the bitter taste of stale memories, I reach the door and fumble for the handle. I miss and catch nothing but air.

“Beyond and under,” I curse under my breath, blinking for better sight. Even in a night of endless ink, such as this one, I never miss the handle. I must have had more cider than I remember. When I miss a second time, I take another step closer, my hand outstretched.

But it’s my feet that meet with something familiar. The bowed boards of our floors give under the soles of my shoes. I frown, then take another step inside, finally catching the edge of the door with my fingers.

It’s wide open.

Wide open in the middle of the night.

Thunder erupts in my chest, pounding against my ribs and up to my throat as I feel my way to the lantern my father keeps hanging from a hook on the wall just feet from the door.

Any lingering effects of cider and charming chaos are instantly replaced with a clearheaded panic I haven’t felt in thirteen years and hoped to never feel again.

“Fahta?” Not a single lantern holds a flicker of flame, nor even a solitary candle to shine light upon my return—a gesture my father never fails to make, no matter how displeased he is with my ongoing efforts these past two seasons to escape time spent with him.

“Fahta, are you home?” I reach the lantern and lift it from the hook to light it. “Bless dark with light, ignite.” I whisper the enchantment. Magic, even in moments of desperation, is illegal, the consequences of calling on it deadly.

A flame flickers to life, and with it a reality I was safer not seeing.

Furniture smashed and turned on its side. Two windows left webbed with cracks. And blood. Unmistakable streaks of red leave a trail of imminent death for me to follow.

“Fahta! Where are you?” As I trace the blood to its source one room after the next, I beg the gods it won’t lead to him.

My heart stops dead in my chest when I reach his study and find a shape lying crumpled on the floor, hardly capable of being the mountain of a man I’ve always known my father to be.

“Drayce. Carito,” he wheezes. His voice is so faint, if it weren’t for him calling me Carito—“loved one” in my mother’s native tongue—I might not have believed it was him.

I lurch from my place in the doorway and fall to my knees, landing at his side in a frantic mass of fear and shame. Gone is the audacious man I thought myself walking home after a forbidden night spent with a scandalous crew. All that remains is the same little boy who once sat helpless as he watched his mother dying, now come again to watch his father.

“Who did this to you?” My voice shakes because I already know the answer. “Why?” My hands dart across his body, seeking a wound they can mend, a flood of life force they can stopper before he bleeds out, but there are too many, too deep and too wide for my hands alone to staunch.

“It was my fault,” he whispers, using up strength he should save for survival rather than squander on noble words of misplaced responsibility.

“Nothing you could do would make you worthy of this,” I bite out, a helpless rage flaring to life in the pit of my stomach and snuffing out the thunder of my racing heart.

“Trust me, Carito.” Even as his body spasms in pain, he musters a smile. “I earned it. For Blaze.”

Blaze. I should have known. All my life, every loss, every sacrifice my family endured, has been in her name.

My father coughs, choking on blood that spills from his lip with each attempt to breathe. “Find Lux,” he forces, the order strangled. “Tell her what happened. Speak to no one else.”

“I can’t leave you.” Even if my words don’t say it, I know he can hear me begging him to let me stay.

“You must.” He tries to swallow, but it only makes the choking start all over again. “Lux.” He breathes her name even as he sounds as though he’s suffocating. “Get Lux.”

His words echo in my mind as I run from the house, racing out into endless black in search of a woman called light. The gods are at it again.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

~ Into Darkness ~

 

CERRIDWYN

“Your Highness.” Lord Erebus’s rough baritone rattles my ears, sending a shiver up my spine as it always does at mention of my title. Some nights, my dreams are nightmares of his voice saying those words over and over, leaving me to wake in a pool of my own sweat, shaking from head to toe.

“My lord.” I bow my head, the only part of me I can still move as Rahlia kneels at my feet, wrapping the last of my limbs to the chair. “Delighted as always to be here.” I sneer as I lift my chin. “Tell me, will I actually learn something from you today, or am I meant to suffer through another one of your futile lessons for means of entertainment only?”

“The only futile thing in this room is you, Cerridwyn,” he snarls, stepping out of the shadows along the shelved walls holding books and scrolls I’d once hoped to study, but have never seen opened or even moved out of place. His fawn complexion appears dull and paler than normal, and the embroidered shawl he wears draped over his head hangs lopsided, revealing most of his scalp. It’s shaved but for the hair growing from the crown of his head—translucent strands neither blond nor white, simply drained of color, he wears in a braid I imagine must reach down his back though I’ve only seen it twisted into a spiral to sit on his scalp like a small cap. Words in ancient tongues have been burned into his skin, encircling the braid and spreading out toward his ears and down his neck, turning his head into a branded scroll containing mysteries I can’t begin to decipher. I’ve asked, of course, but each inquiry only landed me another sip of poison, another round of lessons I was bound to fail.

He must notice me staring, because he reaches up to fix his shawl, his black eyes fixed on mine as he does. “Futile though you may be,” he starts again, his thin brown lips drawn out until they’re straight lines on his already linear face, “as it’s our last lesson, you’ll have one final chance to redeem yourself and prove yourself worthy.”

“Our last lesson?” My heart seems to freeze in my chest for a beat, my breath catching in my throat. “Have I nothing left to learn?” It could be both blessing and curse to find my time with Lord Erebus come to an end. But I don’t dare assume to know which way it will go.

He moves in closer, circling my chair like a wolf taunting his prey. I notice the small vial in his hand, black liquid inside, a strange rainbow of colors swirling within like sunlight dancing over crude oil.

“The king believes you’ve offered all you can,” he rasps darkly. “I recommend you take what precious little time we have here to prove otherwise.” He slows to a stop directly in front of me. “Head back,” he orders.

I do as told and recline my head, parting my lips to take in today’s potion. The taste is as vile as it looks, and the effects begin the second it touches my tongue.

I close my eyes, expecting to travel in time, to touch memories out of reach of my waking mind. I’m always sent back to the same moment, the night my mother died. The night I killed her, forcing a trade between my first breath and her last. The only thing that ever changes is my perspective. How I see it happen. What I hear. What I think. How I perceive my mother’s feelings. Sometimes her fear is the most vivid of all the horrors I encounter. Sometimes it’s her hatred, the loathing she feels for me, for my selfish demand of her sacrifice. No matter the scene, the haunting is always the same. I killed my own mother. And there is no redemption for her murder.

Jarred from my expectations, I find myself not in places buried in my subconscious mind. A gasp of shock escapes me, a mistake I realize a moment too soon, when dirt fills my airways and causes me to choke. It’s not real, a quiet whisper reminds, but it’s hard to hear over the screaming fear of my four-year-old self.

I’ve been buried. And it’s as real as it was when I first lived it. The weight of the cool, dark earth surrounding my body, cutting off circulation in my limbs, making my toes and fingers tingle, followed by a warning of numbness. The load on my chest forcing the air out of my lungs with no hope of recovering it.

I try to cough, an involuntary experience my body enacts in its attempt to survive, but it only makes matters worse.

I reel back my unraveling thoughts. I’ve already lived through this. I know how it ends. I do not perish here. I live to see so much worse.

Even as the thought occurs, the scene changes. Breath still evades me, but my arms and legs are free to move, weightless but for the anchor secured to my waist, keeping me locked to the bottom of the tank I’m floating in. Through water and glass, I see the distorted faces of my father and Lord Erebus eagerly watching me, a hunger in their eyes that would turn to a desperate starvation in years to come, while Rahlia continues to pour bucket after bucket on top of me.

But I cannot manipulate water any more than I am gifted with the element of earth, and so I flail my arms and kick my legs with every desperate ounce of strength, begging for a salvation I can never attain myself.

Just as I begin to feel lightheaded and lead takes my legs and torso, I’m ripped from the moment of nearing peace only to wake in another I crave it.

“Ouch!” I squeal. I’m startled by how small my hands appear. They’re red and swollen and ache with a pain I remember clearly. Time has passed since I was first buried alive. A year. Maybe two. “That hurts,” I whisper, though I don’t dare retract my hands from where Lord Erebus has spread them out, palms down, fingers splayed and hovering over a cast iron cauldron filled with water.

“Make it stop hurting,” he orders calmly. Never kind. Never furious. But most of all, never satisfied.

“How?” I ask, though I know he’s already told me.

“Tell the fire to go away.” He repeats the same instructions he gave me at the start of my lesson. The same ones I’ve heard for earth. For water. They didn’t listen to me either. “Use your mind. Your thoughts. Think it away. Imagine it away.”

I nod. “Yes, my lord.” It’s the answer he wants, so it’s the one I give as I watch with quiet trepidation while he brings the candle near my hands once more, flame licking at my palms. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to think it away. An impossible feat when I can feel the melting of my own flesh. I swallow down my screams and draw deeper into my own mind. When I can’t think the fire away, I begin to wish it, pray it, bargain with the gods and goddesses to take it away.

Nothing works.

Nothing ever does.

And so I find myself in another time and place. Another year has passed. Flames surround me, ravaging what little of Gaia I’ve left to stand on and climbing so high I can barely make out the night sky. Smoke clouds my eyes and fills my lungs, creating a burning within me.

“I can’t do it!” I scream, fear and the need to survive merging to fill my voice with enough strength and sound to be heard over the raging flames, crackling and popping as they grow ever taller, ever closer. “I can’t make it stop!”

I dart back and forth in the small space left at my bare feet, the soles of which I can no longer feel, too blistered and burned from the heat of the burning earth.

“You’re not trying hard enough,” my father shouts back, angry but not scared. I tell myself there’s comfort in this. Three years of these lessons have passed since I was first buried alive, and never once has my father been afraid for my life. Surely there’s solace in knowing he fears not for my survival even as death feels imminent. “Stop being scared and focus!” he barks from beyond the fiery ring.

“She’s right,” Lord Erebus says. “She can’t do it.”

“She’s not desperate enough. She knows you’ll come get her. You keep coddling her. It’s why her gift never wakes!” my father roars, but his voice is already distant, the fire already fading.

What comes into view in its place almost leaves me wanting for the flames.

It’s a single pitcher and glass.

I sat before both on many occasions, but it only takes a second to recognize this one.

I’m not the only one here. Jasmina, one of the cooks from the kitchen, sits facing me.

“Tell me what she thinks,” Lord Erebus orders. “Look into her eyes and tell me what she hides.”

“What would she have to hide?”

The back of my father’s hand sweeps across my face with such force I nearly fall from my seat. I should have known better than to ask. I wouldn’t have if I’d been alone. But I cannot begin without questions if another life is being called to task. There’s only one glass and there are two of us. I need to know who will drink of it. And if it’s to be Jasmina, I need to know why.

“Do as your told, Cerridwyn,” the king bellows. “Defy me again and I promise you’ll be sorry.”

I don’t respond but to take my orders and lock my eyes onto Jasmina’s. They’re wide with horror, her blue irises swallowed by the black of her pupils. Her usually rosy cheeks are as pale as eggshells, and while her arms and hands are often marked by cuts and burns, traces of her hard work in the kitchen, today there are welts only a lashing could have left behind.

“She fears for her life,” I say, hoping against all hope that this obvious truth will be enough to save us both.

“She should,” my father snarls behind me, pacing as he always does before he pounces. “Someone has stolen from me.” He stops in his tracks, his hot breath hitting my skin, making the hair on my neck stand on end. “She knows who it was. I want you to look inside her mind and tell me the name of the person who betrayed me. Tell me the name, Cerridwyn. Tell me, and all will be well.”

“I . . . can’t,” I stammer, helpless to meet his request. Even if I wanted to aid him in his search for a thief, I am not able to read her thoughts. I cannot give him what I cannot access.

“You can,” he insists, leaning in to hiss in my ear. “And you will.”

“Concentrate.” Lord Erebus speaks up for the first time since I spiked my father’s temper. “Calm your mind. Listen to what surfaces when your own thoughts go silent. Whatever it is, speak it out loud.”

Helpless to see a way out for either of us, I blurt out the first thing my imagination conjures. “Rats. Rats are to blame for the missing food.”

 Neither my father nor Lord Erebus speaks. My father simply reaches for the pitcher and pours. A thick, black, tar-like liquid oozes into the glass, white steam wafting from the odorless surface as it settles, though I know from experience it’s not the result of heat. Just a visible whisper of the poisons lurking within.

My feet press into the stone floor to ground me, and my spine stiffens until my insides quake from the pressure, my core tightening in an attempt to contain the jittering.

The last time I consumed Vicious Blight in my lessons, I was bedridden for days. The ill it causes within you never fully heals. Or perhaps my body simply never receives enough time between lessons to recover completely. Some days I wonder if the only healing lies in receiving a lethal dose.

But it’s not the lingering effects of the internal rot I fear in this moment. It’s the suffering it brings upon touching your lips. It doesn’t let up until it seeps into every part of you, until it consumes every living inch—or rather, every living inch consumes it, absorbing it, taking it on and allowing it residence. It’s perhaps the most treacherous thing I’ve ever encountered, the way my body invites this poison to come in and stay, even as it tries to destroy us. The only draft I’ve ever encountered more terrifying is Sweeping Death. It pours from the bottle like a fog, sweeping over its victim like a poison mist and killing instantly. Lord Erebus keeps it in vials of copper, the only metal said to be able to contain it. I’ve only been threatened with it once, but I’ve seen it used more often than I’ve spent years alive.

However anxious I feel at the sight of Vicious Blight, I don’t dare show it. Instead, I lift my hand from where it rests in my lap and reach for the glass. I can’t control whether I drink the blight, but I can still choose who brings the glass to my lips.

Just as my hand glides along the table to claim the poison, my father intervenes, taking the glass before I can reach it. My gaze seeks his for answers, but his attention is solely on Jasmina as he moves in. Towering over her, he holds the poison in one hand and assails her hair with the other, violently jerking her head back in one swift motion.

 Before I can call out, he’s pouring the poison down her throat, her body writhing in agony as the excess pools at the corners of her mouth, then runs down the side of her jaw and spills onto her gray dress and matching aprons.

She’s still gagging and gasping for air when my father starts in on me again, refilling the glass as he does. “Try again, Cerridwyn. Tell me who stole from me.” His eyes cast ever so slightly toward Jasmina, a sickening smirk curling the corner of his mouth. “And remember who has to answer for it if you lie to me.”

Panic, one unlike any I’ve ever felt, takes me hostage. I’ve learned to face the demons in this study, found ways of surviving them, but I’ve never witnessed them attack another on my behalf. Worse, I have no means of fighting them, of saving Jasmina. The offering my father’s requesting from me isn’t mine to give.

I know this as well as I know every other gift Lord Erebus has tried to waken in me is absent from my blessings. However we continue to try and deny, the truth is as plain as the pretty of my face—because that is my blessing. Beauty. A static gift, idle but enduring. Drawing attention in every room I enter. My father knows this. He never misses a chance to remind me of it. Yet he’s relentless in his quest to discover another talent within me.

My desires for honest acceptance are of no consequence here today, nor any other. And so, I collect my thoughts, fill my cinched chest with as much prana as I can take in, and steady my heart.

“Jasmina.” I say her name as calmly as I can. “Look at me.”

Her eyes meet mine upon request. They’re still wide with fear, but now the white has turned red from the strain of her internal agony. Try as I might, I can’t see past the flood of horror streaming from her.

“Lord Erebus,” I plead, my teacher the only one capable of changing my father’s mind, “I don’t wish to make another mistake. Please, if you could offer any more guidance—”

Before I can finish my request, my father has a hold of Jasmina’s hair and is forcing another glass of poison down her throat.

I fight the urge to scream, instead retreating deeper within, farther away from the terrors that surround me. The deeper I go, the less I hear the thunderous roar of my father, or the hissing snarls of disappointment coming from Lord Erebus. Even as a withdraw, however, I draw closer to clarity, an unyielding knowing that I will not escape. I will not leave this room unscathed. When this ends, my soul will be marked in a way it has never been tainted before.

Frantic for a redemption that’s slipping away with every passing second, I scramble for the words that will change our fates. “It’s a man,” I blurt. “He makes deliveries. Grains—no, apples. No, it’s roots he brings. Something grown underground.” Every detail I utter wrings my insides with guilt, causing me to change it again, too frightened I will inevitably sentence another innocent to a punishment worse than death.

But I cannot stop. Even as I sputter incriminating words about imaginary thieves who may well be real people, my father is pouring another glass of black liquid from the pitcher and forcing Jasmina to gulp it down, choking and retching as she does.

“He’s tall!” I shout, screaming so as to be heard over Jasmina’s coughing. “Black hair. Curly. Long. He wears a hat! No, a scarf. Maybe he has a scar. Over his eye. Or his mouth. Or . . .” The words stick in my throat as Jasmina takes another glass to her lips. Her eyes meet mine one last time, and I see it. The truth. It was there all along, right in front of me.

My gaze slips to the welts on her arms, evidence of the lashings she took before she was brought here. I bite the inside of my lip, the blade of my teeth digging into skin in search of pain, anything to remind me I am still human, still alive. I bite down harder, piercing it until it bleeds. I can taste it, though feeling still escapes me. It’s too late. The numb has spread. It came when I was too caught up in my father’s theatrics to notice.

Resolution pools in Jasmina’s eyes as she swallows the last of the Vicious Blight. She knows what’s coming as much as I do.

Death strikes with a final jerk, springing her broken body to attention as though struck by lightning, holding her on edge, vibrating, eyes bulging as her body shakes the last of her will from her being. Then she collapses into the chair, a lifeless gathering of surrender and heartbreak.

“It was Jasmina,” I breathe, echoing the words I saw in her eyes before she died. “She’s the one who stole from the kitchen.”

My father’s smile is as true as it is sickening. “Of course.”

He was always going to kill her. It was all a game. A test. One I was never going to win because, either way, my answers would leave her dead. Dead by my efforts.

My mind races to remind me that it was my father’s doing. All of it. And I make a vow to myself, in this very moment, to never try and please him again. But under all the empty words, my heart pounds with a sorrow it has never held rhythm with before. For the first time in all my life, he’s made me be like him. Made me his accomplice. Made me my father’s daughter.

It’s a legacy I never wanted. One I know from this moment on, I’ll never escape. Just as I’ll never escape him.

Now as the haunting memories wear thin, the weight of their truth lies heavy in my bones.

“And? Did it work?”

I wake from the potion’s trance to hear the repelling sound of his voice. It almost makes me sorry the effects are wearing thin.

As it’s meant to be my final lesson, I suppose I should have expected my father to join us. Still, it rattles me to find him present after all I’ve just witnessed, all I’ve been forced to remember, to feel again so vividly. Rage simmers inside me like a coiled snake waiting to strike.

“I prepared the tonic as discussed, but it yielded no new findings.” It takes me a moment to locate Lord Erebus within the study. Even if my mind is present, and my hearing clear, my remaining senses linger longer in the ethers, and so my eyes strain for several seconds, making sense of the shapes around me.

He’s at this table, his hand moving a large quill over parchment, capturing his thoughts the way he does after every lesson.

“Then you’re certain.” My father’s voice booms over the tall walls and through the high ceilings. “She holds no untapped gift, no undiscovered talent, nothing of significance.”

I still can’t pinpoint my father in the room, the echoes of his voice bouncing off every surface. I can make out a blurry shadow flitting about, though, so I know Rahlia is still present.

As my teacher remains my only center of comprehension, I turn my gaze back to him and blink repeatedly to see clearer.

Lord Erebus appears lost in thought for a moment. Then, gradually and with careful intent, he returns the quill to its stand, takes a breath, and raises his head to stare straight across the room.

“I am certain,” he begins slowly, “that no gift has ever escaped the measures I’ve taken with Princess Cerridwyn. If anything had failed to surface before today, I would have witnessed it while she was under. Nothing woke. Nothing stirred within.”

“And you turned her. Let the dark consume her,” my father presses on as I listen, piecing together what is being said so I may also know what isn’t. “No dancing on the brink today?”

Lord Erebus scowls, clearly taking offense at the implication. “All the light went out,” he snarls. “I watched it leave her with my own eyes and kept her dark long enough to garner results before waking her.” He steps back from his table, then squares his shoulders. “Perhaps Your Majesty has lost faith in me and the time has come for me to take my leave. I shouldn’t stay where I am not of use.”

My father steps closer. At last, my eyes can make out his features. His delicate frame distorted, as always, by his elaborate shoulder armor made of serpent leather and plated gold. Unlike what the guards wear, the snakeskin swathed over the king’s chest and shoulders is a slick red with hues of deep purple rippling to the surface when he moves, marking a stark contrast to his ivory complexion.

I blink again and more of his particulars come into view. The crown resting atop his head of ash blond streaks thinning over his scalp is as oversized as his armor, always clinging precariously to its perch, threatening to slip and fall from grace at every turn. His steel grey eyes, always casting an icy glare wherever he looks, for once aren’t directed at me, but at Lord Erebus.

My father sniffs, curling his lip briefly before letting his pallid, narrow mouth fall into a sneering sort of smile. “The time has come indeed,” he says starkly, “though not for lack of faith, dear Erebus, quite the contrary.” He raises his brows and purses his lips, drawing out the moment as though daring Lord Erebus to forget his place a second time. When my teacher remains silent, my father continues, “I’ve made a trade with Santrista.” My father pauses ominously as though there is more to what he’s saying, meaning in his limited words that Lord Erebus might deduce for himself if given the time. “They’ll come here to fetch what I’ve promised. But it is you, Erebus, who shall collect what I am owed and let my guards return home empty-handed. You see,” he says, his voice getting deeper as he moves nearer, lowering his head, “I have faith in no one but you to retrieve it safely.”

“What is it I am meant to fetch?” There’s a haughty undertone in the lord’s question, as if he’s riled by the thought of having been reduced to errand boy.

“A sacred scroll.”

Lord Erebus nods, and from his curt motion and grim expression, it’s clear he knows what my father is tasking him with. He would. Every child under the Seven Stars has heard of the lost scrolls. Even one kept captive in her room in the palace.

A silent exchange occurs between both men. Then my father turns toward me, meeting my gaze for the first time since I’ve come to and found him here.

He strokes the side of my face with his cold finger, his long, pointed nail dragging over my skin, a gesture of affection perhaps by some, but one of appraisal from my father. “Even riled with anguish, you’re entirely lovely.” He shakes his head. “Pity.”

Then he walks out without another word.

Once he departs, it requires but a glance from Lord Erebus to signal Rahlia to untie me. The lesson is complete. A few minutes more, and I’ll be on the other side of the door, greeted by Drayce and walked back to my own quiet quarters, secluded but safe.

Rahlia’s touch is gentle against my skin while she works to free me from my ties. Today the red marks beneath them are darker, some already showing shades of purple. My left wrist bears the worst of the marks, skin and silk having rubbed against each other under such pressure, it left me raw and bloody.

The pain will catch up with me later while Annalise tends to my wounds. For now, a peaceful numbness rests within me, keeping me closed off from feeling anything. Physical or otherwise.

Free from my restraints, I go through the motions, preparing to take my leave.

Once upon a time, I waited for the invitation to stand. But that was before Jasmina.

My desire for approval or permission has since vanished. I only stop short of walking out the door when I notice Lord Erebus thoughtfully pacing between his table and the shelves of books, his eyes cast at the floor as though he’s forgotten I’m even here.

Curiosity gets the better of me, and despite my better judgment, I open my mouth and seek his attention.

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