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Prologue

Chapter 1

Prologue

 

             The dead shall not be mourned or remembered, for death is the enemy, and will only drive the Seraph away. To keep death in our hearts is to delay Her return in the Promised Dawn.

— The Book of the Blood

 

Father’s officers shuffled around the map on the council room table, pointing out routes and offering suggestions, each one more certain than the last about the location of the missing airship. Half a dozen voices, all arguing over whose unsuitable excuse would be brought to the king. Adrian stood by the window with his back to them, gaze set on the palace grounds, mind set on his brother.

Jovu would’ve had theories of his own, no doubt, and the officers would likely have followed them. It should have been him standing in the room instead of Adrian—Father would certainly say so—but everything had changed when Jovu died, and Adrian was all that was left.

None mentioned the dead prince, of course. They’d never risk falling out of the Church’s grace by speaking of the dead. But that didn’t stop the questions in Adrian’s mind.

Why had Father sent Jovu into the clanlands in the first place? Why had the Pontiff not preserved Jovu’s body to be brought back in the Promised Dawn? They’d followed the Church of the Seraph, lived for hundreds of years off what the Pontiff called Her blessings, but how much was each year worth if Jovu’s name couldn’t ever be spoken again?

Adrian let out a long breath and turned to look at the officers, still arguing around the map of the Domain. He’d never even believed in the blessings, and he was sure his years came from the power of his family’s blood, not some misguided notion that the Seraph found them worthy. Yet Father seemed to have a different opinion, and it was strong enough to sacrifice the memory of his eldest son.

He left the men to argue in the room and paced down the corridor until he reached the open doors of the reflection hall. Myrra sat on a low stone bench in the center of the rectangular chamber, head bowed, hands on her lap, while priests tended to scriptures and images of griffin riders carved into the walls. They brushed off motes of dust that drifted in the rays of sunlight streaming in from the openings above.

Adrian watched her for a while. Silent. Holding back any expression that could alert the priests to his true feelings about Jovu. One of the clergymen lingered on him—his eyes inviting Adrian into the chamber, perhaps—but he managed nothing other than a frown in return. His own eyes were still dry from the lack of sleep, his throat still tight from strangling down the tears he could not show.

He shifted his feet, and the clinking of his sword caught Myrra’s attention. She rose and walked toward him with a solemn aspect of her own, while Adrian forced a steady gaze into his eyes and a weak smile onto his lips—his best attempt at masking the ache tearing at his chest.

She stepped into the corridor and tilted her head while pulling him away from the sight of the priests.

“You don’t have to put on that face with me,” she said in a gentle voice.

Adrian’s mouth twisted, and he closed his eyes, trying to keep back the pain that was seeping through. She stepped up and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I’ll always be here for you,” she said, then gave him a smile, much warmer than his own. It was veiled by the waves of her auburn hair but touched her leaf-green eyes and was as soft as the lines of her face. He held her gaze for a while, hoping he could forget all of it, wake up from whatever madness had fallen upon them.

“He shouldn’t have gone,” Adrian said.

“You shouldn’t dwell on this, Adrian. We should look ahead.”

“He attacked the clans, Myrra!” Adrian started moving down the hallway, struggling to keep his voice down, and she followed. “Jovu had been the leader of the Othonean armies for over a hundred years. He never attacked the clans. Not even the Pontiff would have ordered it.”

“Wasn’t he expanding the Domain?”

Adrian shook his head. “No. I . . . heard things after he left. One of Father’s generals grumbling to his captains about being left behind. Jovu was looking for something. Something my father trusted no one else to look for.”

“In the clanlands? What could have been so important outside the Domain?”

“I’m not sure, but he was willing to sacrifice Jovu for whatever it was he was after.”

Myrra frowned. “You shouldn’t think like that. You’ll need your father to get through this, and he’ll turn to you now. Maybe you can ask him about it.”

“I doubt he’d trust me. I’ll never be Jovu.”

“You can be better.”

Adrian scoffed, eyes trained on the corridor ahead. “I love you, but not even you believe that.”

“I don’t remember you provoking the slaughter of entire villages. Would you attack the clans knowing they’d strike back? Even if your father ordered it?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

“I know you wouldn’t.”

They started making their way down a stairwell towards the King’s Temple, Adrian’s gut clenching with every step closer to Father.

“You’re stronger than you think, and your father knows it too. Why don’t you talk to him about Khet?”

“He’d never listen to me, and he’d never trust Khet. Jovu tried.”

“Jovu didn’t know them as you do.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Khet has been a foothold for Dakhra for too long. Every step your father takes is with one eye over his shoulder. If you could remove the threat from his back . . .”

“You talk like you’re not a Dakhran princess.”

“I’m your wife-to-be, and that is stronger than any title.”

Adrian gave her a true smile this time. He knew she was right.

The circumstances of his brother’s death were still too shadowed for Adrian to accept, and, even if he asked, no one would ever talk about it. He was the one who needed to understand what his brother had died for, no matter how grim the notion of getting close to Father. Maybe removing a thorn from the old king’s side could soften him enough to make the ordeal bearable.

Adrian narrowed his eyes at Myrra. She didn’t smile, but the triumph was plain on her face by the time they reached the bottom of the steps and paced into the chamber before the closed temple doors.

Dignitaries representing the five other nations of the Domain stood in private groups, but Adrian’s gaze was fixed on his father. The king’s short, sandy-blond hair mirrored Adrian’s in all but length, as did the thin shape of his eyes. He’d always wondered if it made the old man proud, seeing parts of himself in his son, but wasn’t sure he’d care for the answer. Father was flanked by a handful of priests and a lightly bearded man with shoulder-length tawny hair in a silver cloak that fell off the shoulders of his glinting armor. A stacked circle of crescent moons emblazoned on his chest showed the Sign of the Breath. A Sentinel.

The man tried to stay in the shadows, but Adrian caught more than one uneasy glimpse shooting towards the Sentinel. Most kept their distance; others looked anxiously at Father, but he did not look back.

It was only a moment before a man in the silver-and-white robes of the Church parted the temple doors and turned towards Father.

“They are ready for the cleansing, King Iridan.”

Cleansing. Adrian balked at the word. He could still remember the day Jovu took him to the palace Cleansers. It was the day Old Gera died, and Adrian couldn’t accept how no one would speak her name. She’d raised them after they lost Mother and had been as important to Adrian as any person he’d known, but much like today, after life left her, it was as if she’d never existed. Adrian tried asking Father, yet things had never been the same between them without Mother. The old man demanded too much of his children with hardly any explanation, and, unlike Jovu or Ellana, Adrian was never short of questions.

Father hated the questions. He turned Adrian away, as always, and it was Jovu who took him to see the old woman burned into indistinguishable ash along with the rest of the piled, unworthy bodies of the dead.

Father strode into the temple and the procession slowly filed after him, filling the space of the circular cloister along the edges of the open-roofed temple. Adrian waited for another moment in the entrance hall. He could never have imagined he’d see Jovu burn, and it was impossible to think of his brother as unworthy. Impossible to accept that a private . . . cleansing was all he’d get. It was more than Old Gera had gotten, but it still wasn’t enough.

He breathed in, held the air for a moment, then blew it out and walked into the temple with Myrra by his side.

Blood-red Othonean banners hung between cloister pillars, and short steps descended into a wide circular patio where Jovu’s body lay on a pyre. The setting sun splayed across the Seraph’s scriptures carved through the temple walls, projecting the words in orange-yellow light on the shaded temple ground.

A shadow moved over the gathered dignitaries—a winged outline, gliding over the opening—and looks shot up towards the massive griffin circling above. Adrian had seen the beasts on the ground once. They stood three men tall and two men wide, but this one seemed even larger with its spread wings. None lingered on the Sentinel’s beast for long, though. No one was ever comfortable around the Church’s elite, and there was always a haze surrounding their mounts, something in the way their silver eyes locked onto your own.

Adrian’s gaze drifted down to his brother’s body, lying motionless on the pyre. His neatly combed long black hair and clean face almost made him look as if he were asleep, if not for the paleness of his skin. It churned Adrian’s stomach, and he had to press his teeth and swallow hard to keep his expression under control.

He glanced at the gathered dignitaries, but none seemed focused on him. They were here only as witnesses, an assurance that Othonea was doing its part in cleansing the unworthy from the Seraph’s Domain.

A priest strode to the center and stopped beside Jovu, flaming torch in hand. Father paused but did not hesitate for long before descending the steps, taking the torch and putting it to the bottom of Jovu’s pyre—eyes still devoid of pain.

Myrra brushed a warm hand against his. “Now is the time. Stand by your father.”

Adrian nodded, sucked in a breath, held it for a moment, then blew it out, just like she’d taught him. It loosened the knot in his stomach, and he stepped towards the pyre.

Father did not move as Adrian approached, his empty gaze fixed on the flames. Even now, he still had eyes only for Jovu, it seemed.

“Your sister should be here.” Father’s voice was solid as winter ice, no wavering, not even now that they could not be heard.

“Ellana is a high priestess, Father. Her family is the Church.”

“Blood still holds ties. You’ll learn that soon enough, boy, and she’ll learn to respect all I’ve given you.”

“I am your blood, and I am here at your side.”

“With Dakhran blood at yours.”

“Myrra’s ties are with me, with Othonea.” Adrian paused, but the question had already risen to his lips. “Why did you send Jovu into the clanlands? What were you after?”

“Always asking questions, yet you still do nothing to deserve the answers.” Father shook his head, his eyes focused ahead. The finality in his tone was the same Adrian had heard since childhood. He’d get nothing from the old man. Not today.

 Adrian looked back at the pyre. The smoke made his eyes water and his nostrils burn. He would have taken anything at that moment to be convinced it wasn’t true, but each burning breath reminded him of the reality that nothing had been enough. Neither Jovu’s deeds, nor his faith, nor his belief in the Seraph’s blessings had protected him. The thought that someone like his brother had put so much faith in the blessings set a fire in Adrian’s veins. Maybe Jovu should have asked a few more questions himself. Still, the Church had some truth. Adrian had never believed in the blessings, but he’d never denied the Promised Dawn. The day the Seraph would return, raising the worthy, whose bodies had been preserved by the Pontiff. There was enough evidence in the texts, and Father had taken them to see the original scriptures in Alteria after Mother’s body was embalmed.

Maybe some small measure of hope that Jovu might still follow Mother’s path had lingered before, but that hope had crumbled and was swirling away like Jovu’s ashes. The Seraph would have no body to bring Jovu back. Adrian’s brother was truly gone.

Adrian turned back towards the gathered witnesses, blinking hard—they were breaking away, their duty done now that Jovu had been burned.

Hypocrites. They wore the mask of piousness, but it was nothing more than fear of losing their so-called blessings. They’d be struggling just the same if their brothers were lying on the pyre.

Adrian stood beside Father with his back to Jovu. The old man had his eyes on the pyre, but the words still seemed stuck in Adrian’s throat. He closed his eyes and repeated the ritual Myrra had taught him—breathing in deep, letting the burning air swirl in his chest, then blowing out. She was right. He had to get close to Father to find out what Jovu had been after.

“We should talk soon, Father. I . . . might have a solution to some of our problems with Dakhra.”

Father did not turn to him and gave no indication he’d heard the words, but Adrian knew the man well enough. There would be no answer now. Adrian walked away, incapable of bearing the ashen scent or the light-headedness that always came while standing beside his father any longer.

Myrra waited for him in the raised cloister, and Adrian lingered beside her, not wanting to face the stares that would fall upon him now that Jovu was gone. They stayed there until the temple was devoid of witnesses and all that remained were the priests collecting Jovu’s ashes to be scattered over the Ulean Sea and taken away from the Domain.

Not even his ashes are good enough for their precious Domain.

Adrian moved close to Myrra, but a hand touched his shoulder from behind. He turned to find Derren looking at him, a heavy beard giving his somber expression even more weight. The captain of his father’s army was said to have been with Jovu when it happened, but Adrian doubted they’d discuss it; the living should not dwell on the dead, and there was too much faith in the old captain’s heart for that. Derren moved aside, and Father stood there, regarding Adrian with placid, ice-blue eyes.

“Let us talk, then.” He stepped past them and into one of the many doors that led into a private reflection chamber, one of many constructed around the covered walkway of the temple.

Adrian hesitated, and his stomach coiled into a knot again, tighter than before, but he could not refuse his father’s sudden invitation.

“You are stronger than you think,” Myrra whispered as she, too, stepped past him and into the chamber. Adrian breathed deep, then followed.

The room was cramped, lit only by candlelight that illuminated a carved depiction of the Seraph on the far wall: Her flowing hair framed sharp features with a squared-off jaw and eyes that were as empty as Father’s had been—no irises or pupils carved into them. Three pairs of wings extended from her back, the white veins in the ruin-stone flickering with the dancing candle flame.

Adrian and Myrra sat on wooden benches to one side, while Father took the bench facing them on the other. He frowned at Myrra, likely preferring not to have her there, but Adrian ignored the expression.

“I’d expected some more—”

“Things are never as we expect, boy. Speak.”

Adrian regarded his father for a long moment before doing so. “You and Syvern have been at each other’s throats for years.”

The king’s gaze flicked to Myrra at the mention of her father, but her own gaze remained collectedly calm.

“Yet Khet has never let you focus,” Adrian said, trying to regain the old man’s attention. “Their ports are a doorway for Dakhran troops, one you must always keep your eye on. You’ve tried things your way, but they don’t seem to be working.” The words tasted treacherous. He wasn’t used to criticizing his father’s strategies or his brother’s execution of them, and doing so after seeing Jovu burn only made it worse. “We should propose an alliance.”

Father let out a sharp laugh. “The wolf does not ally himself with the crows. He takes what is his and leaves them the scraps. An alliance presumes trust.” His gaze slid to Myrra again. “Maybe if King Henrik had a daughter, we could consider marriage. It would bring more than your current . . . situation.”

Myrra’s stare remained as composed as the king’s had during Jovu’s burning. “Your discomfort is well noted, King Iridan, yet not even Jovu held the respect Adrian does among the Khetish court.”

The king’s eyes narrowed at the sound of Jovu’s name, but Adrian gave him no time to steer the conversation away.

“King Henrik listens to his son, and Addo will listen to me,” Adrian said. “Would it not be better to have them on our side? Mitigate Dakhra’s presence so close to Othonea? We’d control the Ulean Sea, know if Syvern tried to send airships over it. You wouldn’t have to rely on men like the ones you trapped me in that council room with.”

Father’s eyes darted between them, his brow knotting into the slightest of frowns. Maybe it was the mention of the airships, maybe he was recalling the incompetence of his officers, or maybe he saw the sense in what Adrian was proposing. Whatever it was, he seemed to be entertaining the proposition. “We’ve tried talking to them before. Henrik is a snake.”

“I’m sure he’d say the same about you, Father, and I was never part of those conversations.”

“Indeed, you were not.” Father’s tone was laced with disapproval, but after a long moment, he grunted and stood. “I will consider your request.” The door opened, and the king paused on the way out, looking back at Adrian. “The Pontiff has sent me a Sentinel, thinks it will help keep me safe.” He snorted. “You should have him. Elwin, I think he was called.”

Father walked off, making his way past Derren and back into the palace. The captain looked back at Adrian, nodded, then followed the king.

Adrian let out a heavy breath, ignoring the underlying slight in his father’s offer of the Sentinel. He’d listened. He’d shown his usual resistance, but Adrian had sat through enough audiences to know that he would at least consider the idea, and that was the first step in uncovering what Jovu had died for.

He turned to Myrra, who had a hopeful glint in her eye. It still hurt not having Jovu. It still felt wrong stepping into the void left by his brother, but he had her, and she was all he needed to keep going.

Adrian smiled. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Chapter 1 

          The Seraph blesses her favored with endless years. Life is the reward for the faithful who keep death’s influence at bay. To forget the unworthy is to forever cleanse the memory of the enemy from the Domain. It is the only true path to the Promised Dawn.

— The Book of the Body

 

The last shadows of night still clung to Ultenvell’s empty streets, draping them in an eerie half-light as Adrian rode past the gates into the Khetish capital.

There had been attacks of late—crazed fanatics, taken by some kind of battle-fever, was all that had reached Adrian’s ears—but Father’s orders were to come alone, and so he had. He might have questioned them another time, but not today.

Adrian kept his wits about him and his hand close to his sword on the way to the palace gates, but noticed little more than anxious eyes peeking occasionally through cracks. He dismounted at the edge of the square before the palace, looking up at the domed building while soldiers milled about one task or another through the square. He stepped up the pathway flanked by towering statues of the old kings of Khet and up to the guards at the gate, who recognized his attire, if not his face, and stood to attention. Adrian checked the terms, he’d folded in a pocket close to his chest, then produced the Othonean royal seal. The guard’s eyes widened.

“Lor—ehrm—Prince . . .” He slammed a fist against his chest and began falling to his knees, but Adrian shot out a hand to stop him.

“No need to alert the people to my presence, soldier. Lead on.”

Adrian kept his eyes down as the guards led him through the main hall, but his mind was unconsciously taking in the details, picking up all the lines that Myrra had always loved to point out: moss-green marble intertwined with dark ruin-stone, the gray streaked with white veins that shone when touched by the pale light trickling in through slits that had been cut into the walls on every side. The perfect balance of bright and shadow, she’d called it, yet the halls were darker today. The cold gloom and lukewarm glow were enveloped in a musty smell, like an old memory that might have been pleasant once but was now too tainted to keep.

“I . . . served under you at Sacantha, sir.” The guard’s nervous voice pulled Adrian’s eyes toward him. “Finest commander I’ve ever had, sir. They never stood a chance, sir.”

Adrian’s ribs tightened. It was Jovu who’d commanded the Domain armies at Sacantha. He couldn’t begrudge the recognition, though. He’d felt the same about his brother, as had Father, and Adrian was sure some in the Domain hardly knew the king had another son. He gave the man a weak smile, but no answer.

The guard breathed in and puffed out his cheeks a few times, maybe trying to understand if he had given offense, but when he was about to speak again, his companion halted abruptly before the throne room and slammed the butt of his spear on the ground, silencing his fumbling counterpart before any more damage could be done. They ushered Adrian through, then closed the screeching stone doors behind them.

The throne room was a richer, more illuminated extension of the main hall. The mossy motif of the previous chamber now joined a lighter palette of the Khetish colors, with gold-leaf designs adding to the green and gray, glinting in the light coming from the enormous windows on either side.

Henrik Brandt lounged on the throne atop deep-green gold-trimmed cushions. It was easily the most spectacular part of the room, with jade, gold, and ruin-stone wrought into a perfectly flowing whole. Brandt was a tall man, slightly built, with sharp eyes that did not linger on Adrian, instead focusing on the wine in his hand. His brother, Lord Garrick, was as tall as Henrik, with twice the bulk and a scar going down the side of his face. He stood beside the throne but did not wear the customary armor that identified him as commander of the Khetish troops, and he stared straight ahead, his face a blank mask.

Ashamed of his defeat, perhaps?

Addo stood at the bottom of the steps. His balding head was bowed, and his narrow, twitchy eyes jumped from his father and uncle to Adrian. He wore an odd smile, as if he were unsure whether to be encouraging, apologetic, or pleading.

Adrian paused before them. He didn’t kneel.

“So . . .” Lord Henrik’s languid speech was as infuriating as it had ever been. “Iridan could not usurp me himself. . . . He’s sent his pup.”

He’d kept his own Khetish guard in the room—two standing between Adrian and the throne, others lining the walls—and seemed comfortable enough in his defiance to sneer when he realized Adrian’s knees would not be touching the ground.

“Henrik Brandt.” Adrian cleared his throat. “I am here to deliver terms of surrender to the province—”

“Nation! Have some respect, boy!” His voice rose to a piercing shrill, and he spat the last word like his wine had gone sour.

A flush crept up Adrian’s neck, his face hot, his arms light, almost numb, ready to lunge at the man. Adrian glared at him, but Father’s words drifted into his mind: “Do not dawdle. Get them to Alteria to sign the terms.”

He swallowed. Yes, Father.

“You and your guard are to vacate the palace imm—”

“Your brother had respect. He’d at least have the decency to kneel before a king. He’s dead now. If he’s the unworthy one, where does that leave you?” He was slurring each word out like he couldn’t even be bothered to move his lips enough to form them. “Ah, . . . still reeling over your dead Dakhran bitch, I see. Would you like her bones to chew on, little pup?”

“You will not talk about her!” Adrian bellowed, his pounding heart a deafening roar in his ears. He took a step forward, every muscle on edge, begging him to pull steel. He could almost hear the sweet scrape of sword against scabbard, like a lover’s whisper, Myrra’s whisper. Do it.

His hand twitched, and he took another step forward, but Brandt only smiled.

“Come on, then,” Brandt said.

The words sliced through Adrian like a shard of ice. He’d seen this before. Jovu had used the same words with him dozens of times in sparring, and Adrian had fallen for them every time. Charged in, only to leave himself open to his brother’s counterattack.

Remember why you are here. You need Father. Jovu and Myrra cannot have died for nothing.

His eyes settled on Lord Henrik, thoughts cooling. The bastard wanted this, wanted Adrian to strike. Dead nobility during the negotiation of terms? That would certainly rile up the people in revolt against their invaders. But he couldn’t be sacrificing himself. He’d never give up his own life.

Who, then?

Adrian regarded the other faces. The guards were as stiff as the marble pillars, and Addo’s odd, apologetic smile hadn’t changed—aimed at his father, then his uncle. Garrick still stood beside the throne wearing the same blank expression: too blank, almost pale . . . and no armor. That’s the thing about sacrifice. It always looks good when it isn’t your own. The ones paying the price, however, are easy to spot.

Adrian looked back to Addo, understanding what his smile was apologizing for. He’d always been a coward. Always let others pay the price. Garrick was the one taking the fall, but not even Addo looked comfortable with it.

Seems like not all blood holds the same ties, Father.

“Lord Garrick,” Adrian said. The man almost jumped at the sound of his name. “How old was your pup when he died? As a pious man, you undoubtedly spare him little thought. Do you even remember how Balt died? Something to do with fighting in his cousin’s stead, I believe?”

The man’s eyes jumped to Addo, then moved towards Adrian, seething like burning coals. Adrian pressed on, one hand still on the hilt of his sword, the other with his palm out towards Garrick.

“Your brother’s the one serving up the bones of the dead for us to chew on. Tell me, Lord Garrick, how does it feel knowing yours are the bones he is offering to keep that pretty chair of his?”

The heat from Garrick’s eyes was seeping out into his reddening face, while Henrik was gaining a bit of a pale countenance himself.

 “So this is how Othonea negotiates terms?” Henrik said. “With lies and scheming?”

A convincing argument. Not nearly as effective without his dead brother sprawled out before him.

“Why don’t we make this simple, Lord Garrick? The terms for Khet stand. You will be annexed as a province of Othonea, paying tribute to the king and tithes to the Church. I’m certain we can come to an agreement on the amount. The more personal terms I have to offer, however, are—”

A sudden scraping of steel was the only indication before Garrick’s dagger plunged into the side of his brother’s neck. A precise stab, quickly in, quickly out, no feeling in it.

Blood gushed out onto the throne, staining the cushions and spreading around Henrik, who grabbed at the wound as he stumbled to the floor, words choked in a pathetic wheeze. He twisted and coughed at the foot of the throne as if there something he could do to prevent his fate, but the blood ran down the steps all the same and pooled at Adrian’s feet. It was a deep Othonean red. Fitting to seal the deal.

Addo gave out a whimper, looking at the guards and pointing at his uncle, but received only a silencing glare from Garrick in return. The guards had their weapons up, seemingly confused by the meaning of this unexpected sacrifice.

“Governor Garrick has acted to protect Othonea and the Church from the vile traitors who would seek to upset the peace in this holy Domain. I do hope your weapons are raised in salute.” Adrian shot them a hard stare.

The Seraph would have probably frowned upon Garrick. The Pontiff would have condemned his actions as delaying the Promised Dawn. But Garrick’s survival seemed to have won out over his piety. Strange how Adrian had found that to be the case with most men.

The weapons went down, one by one, back to their original positions, and all eyes fell on Garrick, siting upon the throne over the bloody corpse at his feet. His posture was stiff, with his bulk taking up more of the throne than his brother ever had. The scar on his face seemed to waver, but his gaze was set unflinchingly on Adrian.

“We accept your terms, Prince Adrian. Please send my apologies to your father on behalf of my family.”

Adrian nodded. Always easier when pride was left out of politics. “I will need you to accompany me to Alteria for the signing of the papers before the Pontiff.”

“Addo will go.” He shot his nephew the same glare he’d given Adrian a moment ago. “You understand if I am wary of leaving Khet unprotected from the snakes spreading poison in the hearts of its people, yes?”

Adrian studied Garrick, then Addo, who averted his eyes.

“Very well,” Adrian said. “And my sister?”

“In her chambers, Prince Adrian.”

Adrian nodded again, then turned back towards the heavy doors and showed himself out, leaving bloody smears behind in his footsteps.

***

Adrian drew in a cold breath, closed his eyes, and let it swirl in his chest. He used to love this. It used to calm him every time Myrra made him do it, make him ready for anything. Now all it did was burn his lungs as he raised an uncertain hand to his sister’s door.

He blew out, then knocked, and a moment later Ellana was looking at him placidly, likely hiding her underlying dread at the recent happenings in Khet. The room was dark but tidy. A steaming teacup sat on a small, round table close to the balcony, but the curtains leading out were drawn. Adrian paced towards them and reached out.

“Don’t.” Ellana moved to stand behind the table, while Adrian looked out over the busy palace square through the light curtains.

“What? I know there’ve been attacks, but you’re the high priestess, Ellana.”

“I’m just an Othonean, now.” She left the “princess” unspoken, hadn’t let herself be called one since joining the clergy. “Father just couldn’t let me have this, could he?”

She spoke as if the occupation of Khet was a slight targeted at her, somehow. Maybe a bit of princess lingered within her after all.

“Did you expect him to sit idle while Dakhra handed them over?”

“Isn’t that the point of the Domain, brother? The smaller nations are supposed to be safe from occupation. Othonea has overstepped.”

“Not when they’re letting princesses die in their own palaces.” Henrik was supposed to keep Myrra safe. He’d failed. Adrian would not absolve Khet, even if it had been Elwin—that blasted Sentinel Father had assigned to them—who’d killed her. He searched his sister’s eyes, gauging the terrain. “The Pontiff didn’t seem too upset when he urged Khet to call for terms.”

“What choice did he have? You’d have a bloodbath inside the Domain?” She looked away. “I thought I was out of Father’s reach here. Enough that he’d forget about me. Feels like a foolish hope now.”

“Whatever your qualms with Father or his with your Church, I doubt this was aimed at you, Ellana.”

“My Church?” Ellana curled her lip. “Makes no difference where he was aiming. I was respected here, loved even. Now I’m just another invader.”

“Blood holds ties, sister, more than any—”

“Oh, please! I never thought you’d be one to fall for his preaching. The only blood that holds us is the Seraph’s. Should be, anyway. But Father always finds a way to twist the scriptures.”

Adrian frowned for just a moment, then swallowed, unable to decide if the truth in his sister’s words stung more than standing by Father’s decisions.

Ellana moved around the table, tea still untouched, gazing into what Adrian hoped were his emotionless eyes. She was his sister, but she was also a high priestess. Adrian could not show how he felt about Myrra. He’d need to convince the Pontiff of her worthiness first.

“We must all accept the Seraph’s judgement, Adrian, hard as it may seem.” Ellana put a hand over his own and kept her gaze on him, probably recognizing his failed attempt at controlling his expression. She bore what looked like a practiced expression of her own, with welcoming eyes and a soft curve to her lips. It was probably the same she used to comfort her faithful, but Adrian found himself drawn to it all the same.

“Father twists us all to his will, little brother. Be wary of him, and trust the Faith. It is the only path forward.” Ellana removed her hand from his and looked out the balcony’s still-drawn curtains. She might have been right, but there was little to gain by antagonizing Father.

He is all I have left. Blood holds ties.

Adrian sighed, then forced a smile, the thought of Myrra still preventing him from making it sincere. “I’ll see you in Alteria, then?”

Ellana paused, then nodded and returned his smile with what seemed like genuine warmth. He knew the look. It reminded him of the days when no politics or religious institutions were pulling them apart, but those days were gone: he could see the lack of trust bleeding through the cracks in her stare like a bridge ending midway over the growing chasm between them.

He stepped out of the room, already knowing where his legs would take him. Myrra had been killed within these walls—the Cleansers would have her. Adrian tried another breath like Myrra had taught him, but there was no relent. He needed more. He needed her back.

There might be nothing left but blood, and Father still didn’t trust him enough to tell him what Jovu was chasing in the clanlands, but Adrian was not his father. He would not let Myrra burn.