Four Years Later
It was a night without moon or stars, the clouds boiling heavy with dark, impending snow, masking not only the ruts of the road but also anything that might be hiding above. Anything lethal.
Fortunately, he didn't truly need to see to sense an aerial threat. He felt them occasionally, or thought he did: distant tremors in the air, never too close, usually so faint he half thought he was imagining it.
The cold seemed the greater threat, actually. He'd never known a spring night this frigid, not in his life, and wondered how the bloody hell anyone managed to live here. Springtime at home meant bright green crocuses and warmed streams splashing free of their ice-not this. Not this bitter, relentless chill that sliced through his greatcoat and froze to frost inside his mouth and nose.
His horse stumbled, pitching him forward in the saddle. He righted himself and tried to calm her with a hand to her neck, but the mare only shuddered at his touch. He pulled back again.
Riding horseback was never ideal. But he'd been unable to hire a coach to take him up these mountain roads, no matter how much he offered. No one wanted to venture here.
And that was good, he knew. It meant, finally, that he was close.
The mare skipped to a halt, sending him forward again. He swore under his breath, snapping the reins, but she would not move. When he used his spurs she tossed her head and reared; he held on with both hands, but she only went into a buck, panicked, squealing, and he realized suddenly that there was something ahead of them on the road, something that spooked her.
He lost his grip. He hit the ground and then lost his breath, managing a roll to his feet, swiping the mud from his eyes. The mare pounded off and the danger-sense grew and the skin crawled along his spine-he was already Turning, but it was cold, and he was winded. And it was too late.
Her morning began the way too many of her mornings did: with the wind blowing her hair in heavy ropes across her face, her body curled in a ball atop a loose mound of hay, her fists clenched. Even her toes clenched. She wore no clothing. Beneath the hay, the terrace floor was cold, cold-nearly as cold as the ice topping the mountains, just as glimmering, milky-pale stone hewn from the hills centuries past.
Her mouth tasted of ashes. Her hair smelled of smoke.
Maricara opened her eyes, then closed them again. The sky above loomed pink and scarlet-gold, domed with soft, glamorous clouds all rimmed in gilt. It was wildly beautiful and deeply inviting, a sky fit for a princess. Or at least a serf masquerading as one.
For an instant-a brief, wistful flicker of time-she pretended she was still asleep. In a bed. With pillows.
The wind stole her hair again, whipping it hard over her nose. Definitely woodsmoke.
Cautiously, she began to stretch. Fingers, toes, the warm tucked spaces of her body chilled at once as she flexed against the straw. Nothing broken. Some pain in her left hand, bruised knuckles. A cut along her belly . . . that could be a problem. A stomach wound meant she had either flown too low or reared up too high.
Mari sat up and explored the wound, sucking in air to dispel the pain. The edges were clean, razored, and not terribly deep-but it hurt. She'd have to wash it carefully; the last thing she needed was blood poisoning.
She climbed to her feet, brushing the loose twigs from her torso, bending down to get her legs. She shook back her hair and spoke to the open view before her.
"Where was it last night?"
The voice behind her was thinner, younger, and threaded with a calm that probably was not real.
"A village several leagues away. Deda."
"Deda. That far?"
She combed her fingers through her hair, looking down at the shiny dark strands. In the past two years it had grown past her hips; she could go the length of her arm and not reach the end of it.
I should cut it, she thought. Too long to powder, too heavy to curl. I should cut it.
"Did I kill anyone?" she asked aloud and, in the silence that followed, glanced over her shoulder at the boy who lingered against the east tower wall.
"No," answered her brother, and shrugged a little. "Not that I know."
He was staring down at the hay, his cheeks and mouth chapped with the wind. His eyes were black-lashed, crystal-gray, exact reflections of her own, but their similarities ended there: For one thing, he was dressed, and dressed well. Sandu usually favored the plainer styles; it was a struggle to convince him to wear anything beyond breeches, boots, and a shirt. Yet this morning he was done up in one of his finest waistcoats, a wig, three layers of lace, and heels that lifted him taller than she. Mari studied him a moment, her mind turning-the barren terrace, the wind, the lanky young prince in ivory and velvet-until she remembered the day.
"Petitions," she said.
"We're almost ready to begin."
"I'll be down. One half hour."
"I'll tell them."
He turned away at once. She did not wait for him to reach the door, the footmen she knew would be stationed just inside. She couldn't walk in like this, and in any case, she didn't want to see their faces. She certainly didn't want them to see hers.
Maricara Turned to smoke.
It was a rush of sensation, an instant lightness that required neither breath nor thought. All human flesh was gone, all sense of cold or pain; all that came instead was lovely and silken. She'd had this Gift since the age of eight, the youngest of any of the dr‡kon she knew-although it had taken a full year after that for her dragon form to emerge . . . claws and wings and velocity, the violence of the wind tearing at her eyes . . .
But this morning she was smoke, because smoke could roll down the side of the castle walls, smoke could skim the rough, familiar stone-like rubbing her hand over sandpaper, only without body, without weight. As smoke she could move any direction she wished, down farther, diagonal to the rampart, entangling briefly with the remains of a seated granite griffin, carved by some long-ago ancestor . . . down another level, and then she was at her own window, at the hairline crack in the glass she had made years ago, back when she had been imprisoned here.
It took time to sift through the break in the glass. It had been the greatest danger of discovery, the minute and seventeen seconds she needed to force herself through the fissure. But she'd never dared to make it larger, and then later, when it no longer mattered, she simply hadn't bothered. It would only be another breach in her defenses, anyway.
She became a gray well upon the sill, a plumy waterfall to the floor. When she was fully inside the room, she Turned back into woman, nude again, suppressing a shiver.
The dr‡kon were unable to transform anything else in the Turn, not gemstones or weapons or food, certainly not clothing. Out of habit she remained motionless and in shadow, allowing her physical senses to surge back-her heart pumping to life, the scent of wood polish and hot coffee suddenly sharp in her nose-but her skin prickled against the fresh chill.
She heard the wind groaning through the vent of the chimney and the slow tick of the Belgian clock upon the secretaire.
And breathing. And petticoats very lightly brushing stone.
Mari turned her face. From the doorway her maids took her cue, stirring and then coming forward, carrying garments and cosmetics and jewelry.
The private quarters of the princess were lavish and golden, a true reflection of the wealth of the castle. The bed was cherry and damask, the sheets were satin. She had rugs of peacock colors from exotic lands she had never seen, Turkish cabinetry and hardwood paneling from the darkest forests of black Russia. She had mother-of-pearl inlay and beeswax candles and that coffee languorously steaming in a service of solid gold by the fire. She had all these things, and always had, from the moment she'd first stepped foot here as a child, and the only aspect of this rich and blinding room that Maricara had ever troubled herself to change was the wallpaper. Or, more specifically, the wall.
Along the southern side of the room she had stripped the dyed silk from the wood, and then the wood from the stone. There were no windows there, no paintings or anything else to distract from the bare quartzite that composed the foundation of Zaharen Yce. It was a fine stone, solid and largely silent, which was good. Because tucked in the mortar between the ancient blocks were ancient diamonds, hundreds of them, and Maricara needed to hear them sing.
Cool and plain, colored and clear, they studded the wall in frosted bumps, every one of them uncut, every one a brilliant poem. If she ran her fingers over them, they would hum up her arm, into her heart, filling her ears and her throat and her blood with song. There had been times when their music had been her sole solace in the world.
She focused on that now, on their soft constant singing, as she bit her lip and cleansed the wound on her stomach with soap and cold water.
"No corset," she said without looking up, and one of the maids drifted back into the recesses of the room.
The blood washed off. The cut would heal. In time, she knew, everything healed.
The princess handed off the stained towel and basin to take her seat at the vanity. The looking glass showed the bed behind her tinted silver, the covers neat, no sign whatsoever that she ever once slept in it.
Like she didn't even exist.
With her hands folded in her lap, Maricara allowed her servants to begin her transformation.
No one spoke as she entered the chamber. They'd hardly been speaking before, just occasional mutters and whispers behind hands, but it seemed to Alexandru that the level of excitement seething through the serfs before him had been slightly higher than usual for this day.
Perhaps not. The room was round. Voices echoed. That could be all it was.
He'd been passing the time by putting on his spectacles and acting like he was examining the documents laid out before him, petitions written for him by his chamberlain, prepared in the order in which he would see each man. But it was all scratches and nibbles to him, tiny grievances blown into feuds: this field, that field, his hog, my acorns . . .
Sandu was fifteen years old. Breakfast had been hours ago. He was hungry, and he was chilled, and she was late, and he honestly didn't care about anyone's damned acorns.
The letters began to blur against the parchment. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose but it didn't help; the black ink ran to blue, the colors shifting, the words changing . . . they said something new now, something he could almost make out. . . .
Pay attention, rang his sister's voice inside his head. You are Alpha. Every man's concern here is your own.
He blinked, and everything righted again. Sandu sighed and rubbed his nose. He wished, for what had to be the thousandth time, that the Convergence Room had a fireplace. It was mid-April but the Carpathians were still gripped with snow, and his court stockings were not woven for warmth.
The double doors opposite his table swung wide. Maricara entered the chamber, and that was when the air actually froze.
She was beautiful. No one would deny that. All their kind had a beauty, but in Mari it had grown into something beyond even them. She wore rouge and kohl, and a wig of long, heavy slate coils, and the violet of her gown lent purple to her eyes, but Sandu thought all these things really only served to distract from her true nature. It wasn't the whiteness of her skin that set her apart, or the lift of her shoulders, or the shape of her jaw. It wasn't her fashion or her figure, or her gliding walk. It wasn't anything so clear and physical. She was beautiful because she simply was: Of all the women of the mountains, she was the only one who could Turn.
It was why she had been chosen as princess. And it was why every person here, drákon and human alike, gazed at her with a seed of fear in their hearts. Sandu had realized that long ago.
It was possible they had good reason to fear her. He wasn't certain; he hoped not. This fey and otherworldly creature was his sister, and he loved her. But even Sandu had to admit he didn't fathom the depths of her.
The Convergence Room had windows filled with sky on every side, flooding the chamber with light. It was tall and vast, nearly four open floors of an entire tower, with marble pillars and tiles, and a ceiling carefully frescoed with stars and the moon and silvery, blazing beasts. For all its strength and solid luster, this was one of the few rooms in Zaharen Yce that was created very obviously for something other than humans. When Maricara took her first step into the morning sunlight she blazed as well, brighter and more brilliant than even the painted dragons above. Her skin and hair and colors abruptly ceased to matter; she was only planes and angles, and power simmering beneath.
Alexandru felt a brief flash of gloom. No one feared him. They listened to him because they had to. He could Turn, but so could a score of other men here. He was called prince strictly because of her, because by their nature a female could not rule, no matter how potent she was.
She moved through the rows of waiting people without glancing left or right. Her pale, cool eyes held the same faintly distracted cast it seemed she always had of late; Sandu wondered if his own looked the same. She didn't appear tired, although he knew she was. She didn't look like someone who had been missing the entire night although he was fairly certain that was true, too.
He stood, and when she was close enough, he bowed. It was a good bow, a French bow, and he knew she'd be pleased.
He rose from it just as she was completing her curtsy. He held her chair for her-to the left of his, slightly behind-and she accepted it, settling in with a gentle crinkling of skirts.
From the Hardcover edition.