Shadow of War
Jess stared blankly at the lazy ripples the men’s oars created in the still water of the lake, moonlight flickering off the swells with each dip and pull. The trip had been quiet, the water calm and smooth. As the boat reached shallows near the dock, distant shouts echoed as men on patrol raced to learn who approached. She saw torches streaking toward the shore, marring the inky blackness of night.
She’d woken a half hour into the crossing. Her rescue from the Children’s temple felt distant, yet terrifyingly close, as if masked men might somehow emerge from the water to drag her back. She blinked a few times, trying to understand why the ground beneath her kept moving and swaying. The sky above was dark, a strange red film cast across the moon and stars. The man sitting across from her was staring off into the distance, his mouth agape.
“Where am I? Who are you?” She croaked, her voice dry and scratchy.
He startled and whispered, “We’re on the lake headed back to town, to your father. I don’t think anyone’s behind us, but we should keep to a whisper until we reach the shore.”
The man didn’t look at her as he spoke. She rose to her elbows, her back protesting, and craned her neck to follow his gaze.
“Quietly, Princess, please.” He cut her off as they stared at the massive scarlet-black whirl of mist curling up from and around the Children’s temple. From this distance, the building was a blur, and they couldn’t make out any detail, but there was no doubt the source of the bloody film was emanating from someone there.
“Whatever ceremony we interrupted must’ve been completed some other way. Do you have any idea what they were trying to accomplish?” The man asked, his flat, serious tone jarring her awake.
She shook her head. “No. I never knew why I was there or what they were doing.”
“What can you tell me of your time as a captive, Princess? I’m sorry to make you relive it so soon, but anything you remember might help us understand what we’re facing.”
The drug they’d given her still coursed through her veins, clouding her thinking, but nothing clouded her memory. The stranger sat a few feet away, careful to give her distance, as she turned back and spoke softly, staring down at her hands.
“We were so close.” She looked up at the bright, full moon. “Danym and I were so close to freedom . . . and a new life together.”
Keelan Rea’s brow rose. After her harrowing escape, he thought her mind would be tightly wound around the Children or the ceremony or how she’d nearly been sacrificed, but a boy? He wanted to ask who Danym was but stayed silent.
At the same time, he saw the pain and terror still haunting her eyes, heard it in her broken voice. He wanted to reach out, to comfort her. But he’d dealt with enough victims to know they often needed to make the first move, to reach out in their own time, in their own way. Being there, available and listening, was the most important thing he could offer her in that moment. And listening was how he found clues and answers. They needed both.
“Danym betrayed me. He’s one of them.”
She put her hands over her eyes, as if fingers could somehow stop tears. They failed, coming away glistening with grief.
“I remember . . . they put me in this room. It looked like a royal bedchamber you’d find in the palace. The linens were elegant, silk trimmed in gold. The bed, the hearth, the dresser—all of it was . . . regal, luxurious even.” Her eyes drifted and found Keelan’s. The pleading in them made his heart ache.
“They kept giving me a blue drink that made me sleepy. But they were gentle and, I don’t know, reverent. They called me Mistress.”
A small child, her voice weak and broken, asked, “Why would they call me that?”
When he didn’t answer, she shivered and looked out across the water.
“I lost track of time. It could’ve been hours or days. I don’t know. They put me in this dress.” She looked down at the shimmering golden gown emblazoned with the near-holy Phoenix symbol in its center.
“And then we were in a massive hall with a throne and a giant statue. There was a woman in a long red gown and a terrible mask. It looked like someone’s skin was stretched across her face. It was blank, nothing but eyes staring through.”
Another tear escaped and crawled down her cheek. She listened to the rippling of the lake, the dipping of the men’s oars, then drew in a breath, hoping for strength more than air.
“That’s when I saw it—the ring. I saw my mother’s ring,” she said, suddenly angry. “On that woman!”
Keelan leaned forward. “Your mother? Queen Isabel?”
She nodded. Her hands trembled.
“Your Highness, I don’t—”
She cut him off.
“When that woman—the one wearing the skin—when she reached out her hand to call us forward, I saw her ring.” Bitterness seeped through her words but gave way to a child’s disbelief and grief. “My mother was going to kill me. Her only daughter. I know we’ve been at each other’s throats for years, but I’m her daughter! How could she do that? How could any mother . . .”
She stopped as another memory interrupted her thought. The boiling anger in her voice cooled into confusion. “And I could swear I heard Justin’s voice call out for me. Why would my brother have been there?”
She looked frantically around the boat, at the men rowing, then to Atikus and Keelan. “Where is he? Where’s my brother?”
Keelan’s mask faltered, and his face fell. It was his turn to look down at his hands.
“No. Tell me he’s okay.” Her eyes darted between her saviors, desperate for something, any reassurance of her brother’s safety. She found only sad lines around their eyes and a grim set to their mouths.
“He’s my baby brother, my best friend. I can’t do this without him! Please, tell me he’s alright. Please!” she pleaded.
“I honestly don’t know, Your Highness. The King sent him on the mission with us. It’s possible he escaped, but many died. The people in this boat are the only ones I’m sure made it out. I think he’s gone.”
Jess stared across the water. Tears flooded her face once more. For eternal moments, the sounds of anguish reigned over Lake Irina.
Keelan finally reached across and placed his hand on hers. She accepted the invitation and leapt forward into his arms, dangerously rocking the boat. The Protectors rowing steadied the craft but dared not disturb their Princess. One of the burly men even shed his own quiet tears as he heard of her loss. After all, Prince Justin was well loved, especially by his adopted fathers and brothers in the Protectorate. Many would be shaken by his loss.
She didn’t speak again, just kept her head pressed against Keelan’s chest until one of the Protectors quietly announced they were approaching the shoreline.
Keelan pulled her back, holding her shoulders at arms-length with strong hands. “Your Highness, you have some long days ahead. Days to grieve and mourn. But there are going to be a lot of people waiting for us when we land—waiting for you.”
She took a few deep breaths and drew her spine straight. Her chin snapped up, eyes clear and strong. Keelan’s own eyes widened as the frightened, hollow young girl transformed into a strong, determined woman before his eyes. She dabbed her eyes one last time and nodded to him.
“Lead on, Protector. The Crown will have justice to dispense before this day is over.” Her voice was ice.
Keelan gave her a tight smile and shallow nod. “I’m just a constable from Melucia, Your Highness. Not a Protector. But I’ll be here if you need me.”
They were interrupted by the sound of the boat scraping against sandy ground and men splashing to secure it. They dragged the boat as far inland as possible, then Keelan stepped out and offered a hand to Jess. She accepted it, eyeing him curiously one last time before venturing onto the stony beach.
Men in dark-green uniforms raced forward. They startled, recognizing the Princess, each offering crude, hasty bows before forming a protective wall between her and the lake. The two Protectors-turned-rowers took up positions on either side as they strode toward town. Jess never wavered, her head high, her back straight. Righteous fury bloomed in her eyes as they walked, and her mind’s drug-induced haze finally cleared.
As they reached the edge of the town square, High Sheriff Wilfred halted their approach.
“What is it, Sheriff? I’m in no mood for games. My mother saw to that.” Jess’s glare bored into Wilfred.
The Sheriff’s eyes widened. He hesitated, looking from Jess to Keelan, before dropping to one knee and raising a ring high above his head. The golden signet glinted in the torchlight, small diamonds glittering around the engraved seal of the monarch. Jess’s heart clenched as she stared at the depiction of mountain peaks rising below a crown. Some of her earliest memories were of sitting in her father’s lap, tracing the lines of that ring with her fingers.
“What in the Spirits are you doing? What’s happened to . . .” Her voice faltered.
Wilfred kept his head bowed and spoke quietly, with reverence. “The King is dead. Long live the Queen.”
The Protectors’ heads snapped up and they dropped to a knee, heads bowed.
Jess couldn’t speak. She couldn’t think. Her body felt weak and a wave of dizziness threatened to topple her to the ground. The King couldn’t . . . Father couldn’t . . . be dead! She staggered back a step, and Keelan steadied her with a strong arm.
No one dared move.
“I think he’s waiting for you to take the ring,” Keelan whispered.
She jerked away from him. “Of course he is! I don’t need a Melucian to tell me that!”
Keelan stepped back, stung.
Jess took a tentative step toward the unmoving Sheriff. Her trembling hand stretched forward, her fingers brushing against the golden mountains. Magic flared to life at her touch, and the ring glowed with a shimmering aura. She pulled back and covered her mouth as a cry escaped. Everything was moving so fast.
Papa can’t be dead. This can’t be real. None of this is real.
The Sheriff never budged, ring held aloft, head bowed.
Her hand found its way free of her mouth, and shaky fingers reached forward and gripped the ring. Before her courage could flee, she slipped it onto her finger. Magic in the band flared, and it adjusted to fit her perfectly. The ring’s aura flowed up Jess’s arm, into her chest, until her entire frame glowed with golden light. It pulsed once, then faded upward, like a campfire’s smoke curling into the sky.
At the edge of the small town of Cradle, in the heart of the Kingdom of Spires, and under the cloak of night’s darkness, a wide-eyed, grief-stricken High Sheriff proclaimed, “Long live Jessia Vester, First of Her Name, Protector of the Realm, and Queen of the Spires.”
The Protectors and soldiers intoned, “Long live the Queen!”