When the Sleepers wake.
Once, that phrase meant: never. The Sleepers were a myth, part of a story told to children. But in truth, the Sleepers, ancient princes in the court of the Winter Queen, were imprisoned in slumber by the gods themselves—in the cold, dark ruins of the ancient city that lies buried beneath the capitol of the Empire. And that prison is fraying, at last.
They are waking.
The gods no longer walk the world. There is no power that can stand against the princes when they wake—and the city that has been Jewel’s home for her entire life will be destroyed when the Sleepers walk. There is only one person to whom they owe allegiance, only one chance to halt them before they destroy everything in their ancient rage.
But that person is the Winter Queen; she is not, and has never been mortal. Jewel carries the last of the surviving saplings that might usher in a new Summer age—but all of the roads that lead to the court of the Queen are closed.
Jewel ATerafin has faced the Oracle’s test. She has control of the prophetic powers that she once considered a curse and a burden. She will find her way to the Winter Queen, and she will ask—or beg—the Winter Queen to intervene to save her kind, her House, and everything she loves.
But she is mortal, and time has never been her friend. The demons are waiting to bar her way, bringing battle to the hidden ancient paths on which she must travel. To win, she must face the true meaning of the Oracle’s test, and risk sanity and life to make the choice that has always lurked at the heart of the firstborn’s test.
And even then, it might be too late.
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6th day of Lattan, 428 A.A.
Terafin Manse, Averalaan Aramarelas
Jewel Markess ATerafin woke to familiar walls in the morning. She did not appreciate the room in the West Wing her ascension had forced her to vacate because she could barely breathe. Shadow was lying across her chest. Finch was awake and glaring at the great cat, who appeared to be sleeping.
He wasn't. Jewel attempted to push him off. In the halls beyond her closed door, she could hear movement, discussion, minor commotion; nothing in the tone-the words being too muffled to catch-implied disaster. Or at least not the disaster she had been facing recently. She glanced at Finch.
"Permits," Finch said, grimacing. "It's almost the start of the King's Challenge." Her hair, which had always been straight, wasn't the mass of tangle and snarls that Jewel's was. "Don't you dare feel guilty."
"I hate the paperwork of the festival season."
"Of course you do; you're reasonable. It's better than an angry House Council session."
Jewel grimaced again.
Finch held up one hand. "I'd take both for the rest of my natural life if we could dispense with evil gods, demons, and immortals who consider us vermin. I can't do anything about them. You can." Unspoken, but clear in her expression and her tone, was the wish that she could-because then she could help.
What Finch didn't say out loud, Jewel couldn't respond to, not in words. She rose.
"Do you want me to call-"
"No. I'm not technically here yet, and I don't think I'm going to be interacting with people as The Terafin." Jewel exhaled. "We need to go back to the castle."
". . . if, in fact, it still exists as a castle."
Jewel dressed as a traveling merchant, in slightly cleaner variants of the clothing she'd arrived wearing. She woke Adam; although he was better rested, he was still tired. "You can stay with Ariel for the day," she told him. "We're just going to look at my new rooms."
"He will go," Shadow said, before Adam could reply. "We will all go." Pausing, he glanced at Finch and Teller. "All the important people. You can stay here."
"Shianne needs rest," Adam told the cat. "And Lord Celleriant must teach his people the Matriarch's laws."
Shadow hissed. He then told Adam just how stupid he thought Adam was. Or, rather, described the new lows to which Adam had sunk.
Unimportant people were comprised of those who had remained in the Terafin manse while Jewel had stepped onto the path created by the Oracle. Jewel, however, made it clear to Shadow that they were important to her. While she knew better than to be irritated by the cats, it was early morning, and she was still emotionally unbalanced. And as she had no intention of leaving immediately, they deserved-and would get-rest.
Shadow was not pleased. Loudly.
Finch and Teller, as regent and right-kin, had a functional need and right to know. Jester wanted, in his own words, to sleep through it and wake up after all the fuss had been dealt with, although he was up and dressed and restless. Jewel thought it likely that what he wanted to avoid was the current argument that Finch had started while dressing for the day and had continued as they spilled into the halls.
"I'm saying I'll stay with her. I'm not asking you to risk anyone else-"
"And I'm saying it's not safe for you to stay in whatever the hells my rooms might end up being if I sleep with indigestion."
"You want her. She's going to be our den-kin, same as Duster. But she can't be den-kin if we're not with her. I'm not telling you that we all have to move-but I'll move. I can handle it."
"Finch-it's not safe in the wilderness. That's why the House Mage is on permanent contract-he can survive it. The rest of us can't."
"It'll be safe if I'm with Calliastra."
And that's what it came down to, wasn't it? Would it be safe? The wilderness and the creatures it produced weren't the only threats the den had faced. They weren't the biggest threats, by far. Finch had always been safe with Duster. Finch and Lander. But Calliastra didn't have Duster's history with them.
"You wouldn't have tried to keep her," Finch continued, voice softening. It was a trick that she had learned from somewhere-but where, Jewel wasn't quite certain. Everything about her tone implied that she was relenting, surrendering. The words themselves, however, showed that she hadn't budged. "If you didn't know it was safe for the rest of us. If something happens, she'll be here, and I don't think random demons are going to get past her."
"That is true," Calliastra said, appearing not far away from the discussion, as if she was stepping out of shadows cast by magelights. She looked down a perfect nose at Finch. "But I have no reason to protect you."
Finch glanced at the darknessborn woman. "No. Neither did Duster." She turned more fully to face Calliastra. "Duster was the toughest of us; she was the most dangerous. None of us could give her orders, and none of us tried. She'd listen to Jay."
"Jay is a bird, in Weston?"
Jewel exhaled. "And Jewel is a cut, polished rock. I preferred the bird."
"Could you not perhaps have chosen an entirely different name?"
"Not and forced my parents to use it, no. Jay was the diminutive as far as my Oma was concerned, and the rest of the family fell in line." Na'jay. A child's name. A name she had never called herself, but a name it had always been a comfort to hear. Anyone who had used it was gone. Jay was the closest she could come. She did not feel up to explaining this to Calliastra. Not now, and maybe not ever.
She might have returned to the forest immediately had it not been for Calliastra-but Calliastra could not stay in the West Wing. If she was to be at home in the Terafin manse, it was here, beyond the doors that still separated The Terafin's personal chambers from the interior of the manse. Wherever that here had currently become.
The mist-laden stretch of path remained unchanged from the previous day; the waterfall was also present. The skies remained blue, not the amethyst they had been when the forest had been a library, with trees that had bookcases and shelves instead of branches.
Those books were probably on the inside of the castle Jewel had not yet examined; Ellerson's arrival-and the brief, sharp hope that Carver was with him-had interrupted the apprehensive examination of what was, in theory, Jewel's new home. Teller's concern, on that first trek, had been the library and its many books.
Judging from his expression, it was still his concern, but he said nothing while Finch and Jewel continued their discussion. They spoke more quietly because Calliastra had joined them, and it was difficult to treat Calliastra as a third person, if not downright suicidal. He did say something when Snow stepped on his foot, but Jewel thought, judging tone as the words were too soft to catch, that he was apologizing to the white cat for his obvious neglect.
Shadow was bored. Snow was less bored with Teller's attention. Night was, for the moment, absent, but not in trouble-had he been, Snow, envious of the lack of boredom, would have been with him.
The contents of the Terafin library were not what they had been before Jay had become Terafin. Teller knew that it was larger, the books older, some of the contents forbidden by magisterial law. The volumes contained in Amarais Handernesse ATerafin's library still existed, but they shared space with volumes that might once have been part of an earlier Terafin's library-in the time of the Blood Barons, when demons had been considered the only reliable guards.
This castle reminded Teller of that ancient history.
Snow snorted. "It is not ancient," he told Teller. He rarely called Teller stupid.
"What do you see," Teller asked, "when you look at the fountain?" The fountain was the first thing that could be seen when the gates opened. Although all eyes were upon it, they did not see the same thing; the differences could be dramatic.
Snow glanced at Shadow. Both of the cats disliked water on principle. They had therefore avoided the fountain which now seemed the centerpiece of this new building's front causeway.
"We don't," Shadow replied. "There is nothing to see." The sibilant turned the last word into an extended hiss.
Calliastra said, "It is clearly not only the mortals who are obtuse." Which caused predictable outrage. The outrage seemed to dim the importance of the fountain to Calliastra, and she turned toward Jay as they all turned toward her, sooner or later.
Quietly, Jay said, "Library."
Teller was happy to go. He was happy because he could see Jay's face in that fountain-made strange, made majestic, made hard and cold as stone. Not even in anger-and she had had a temper, especially in her youth-had she appeared thus. No, only The Terafin had, and when she had, it was always bad.
Jay was The Terafin now.
Jay had never wanted to be The Terafin. She had respected, even revered, Amarais Handernesse ATerafin enough that she had promised to take up the mantle so that her predecessor might know a moment of peace. She kept her promises. She always had.
She headed up the stairs, stopping at the grand, closed doors of her castle. The doors did not magically open. Carver did not-as Ellerson had the day before-open them from the inside, either. Ellerson's report made that a daydream, but it was a daydream with roots in pain and hope. Hard to shake, ever.
Avandar moved to join the Chosen at the height of the stairs, and they stepped back, a human wall between door and Terafin. Her domicis spoke; he gestured. The door did not open for him. Jay's impatience was felt; she had expected neither the Chosen nor the domicis to succeed.
She disliked the necessity of waiting until they had tried, but accepted it, her expression pinched, until Avandar also surrendered. It took the domicis much longer than it had the Chosen, and Teller wasn't entirely certain this wasn't deliberate. Avandar would give his life to protect Jay-but Teller suspected the cats would, as well, if it came to that. It didn't mean the cats were more tractable or obedient.
Jay stepped up to examine the door. After a brief pause and a quiet curse, she thumped it with the side of her fist. "It's just like me," she said, "to somehow create a castle I can't even enter."
Teller watched the doors. He watched Jay. The sound of water falling did not draw his gaze to the fountain; there, the statue was cold and hard; it seemed to know nothing of struggle. Jay in life was not that person, had never been that person.
She'd made this castle. She'd made it without knowledge, without intent. It had come to her the way the forest had come to her-and every creature in that forest had come as well, liege to her Lord. But here, she was like any other member of their den; she was frustrated and stymied by the wilderness.
The wilderness, he thought, that was within her, part of her, inseparable from the woman she had, over half her life, become.
"You are not listening," Shadow brought his left front paw down, narrowly missing Jay's foot. He didn't miss the flat of the stairs, though; they cracked, the fissure spreading slowly as if it were liquid.
Jay glared at him.
"Why are you so stupid? Can't you hear it, stupid girl?"
Snow hissed laughter, which didn't help Shadow's mood any.
"It is speaking your name. Ansssssssswer it, or we will die of boredom!"
"It is hers," Snow told his brother. "We will die of boredom anyway."
Shadow had no response to this. He took an ill-tempered swipe at Jay's leg.
Jay, however, straightened her shoulders, lifting her chin. Her lashes became a dark fan as she closed her eyes, brown to the auburn of her hair. She lifted her hands to shoulder height, turning her palms toward sunlight. Her expression was calm. No, not calm exactly. Absent fear, frustration, worry. Blank.
She looked like the statue that he would not look at, but rendered in flesh, not stone.
Without thought, without intent, he ran up the stairs toward her, pushing through the Chosen who allowed him to pass unhindered. He caught Jay by the shoulder-the right shoulder.
Finch joined him, her hand across the left.
"Jay," Teller said. "Jay. Jay, you're with us. You're with us. We're here." As if it needed to be said.
Jay blinked rapidly as the doors began to open. She didn't look toward the hallway that lay beyond the doors. She turned to look at Teller, and then at Finch, exhaling as she did. She shook her head, as if to clear it, and then pushed stray curls out of her eyes.
She signed. Thanks.
Shadow pushed his way past them and into what appeared to be a great hall. "Boring," he said, over his shoulder.
"I told you." Snow entered next; Jay dropped a hand to the white cat's head, stalling him for long enough that Shadow's tail was not a target of easy opportunity before she lifted it. Snow then followed his brother into the great hall, of which he disapproved. Loudly.
"Is that wise?" Finch asked, when they were out of earshot.
"Probably, given what occasionally made its way into the previous iteration of the library. It's going to be hard for things to drop from the sky-" She stopped. It wasn't the creatures from the sky that had taken Carver.
The Chosen followed the cats, and Avandar followed the Chosen. The hall didn't swallow them.
"Are you worried?" Calliastra asked.
"She is always worried," the previously absent Night replied.
"I didn't ask you. I can't imagine wanting your opinion."
Jay dropped a hand to the top of the black cat's head.
"Why me?" Night asked. "She started it!"
"Sometimes I require you to be the better man."
"Men are stupid!" Night stormed into the main hall, cursing and spitting.
They walked in silence. This hall was older than the Terafin manse, at least in architectural style; it was both grander and colder. The predominant colors were gray, with hints of Terafin blue that added no visual warmth. Weapons lined the walls, and only as they passed beneath the arch in the distance did that change.
The Terafin library no longer rested on shelves that had sprouted from the trunks of standing trees. The unreality of that transformed library had given way to a less fanciful, impossible space: the shelves were of hardwood, the floors, rug-covered stone. The rugs were blue. There were windows that allowed natural light to enter the room on all sides; the windows were tall, the glass clear.