I saw her, once.
“She passed through our village, through fields littered with dead soldiers after her forces overwhelmed the nation of Dumor. Her other Elites followed and then rows of white-robed Inquisitors, wielding the white-and-silver banners of the White Wolf. Where they went, the sky dimmed and the ground cracked—the clouds gathered behind the army as if a creature alive, black and churning in fury. As if the goddess of Death herself had come.
“She paused to look down at one of our dying soldiers. He trembled on the ground, but his eyes stayed on her. He spat something at her. She only stared back at him. I don’t know what he saw in her expression, but his muscles tightened, his legs pushing against the dirt as he tried in vain to get away from her. Then the man started to scream. It is a sound I shall never forget as long as I live. She nodded to her Rainmaker, and he descended from his horse to plunge a sword through the dying soldier. Her face did not change at all. She simply rode on.
“I never saw her again. But even now, as an old man, I remember her as clearly as if she were standing before me. She was ice personified. There was once a time when darkness shrouded the world, and the darkness had a queen.”
—A witness’s account of Queen Adelina’s siege
on the nation of Dumor
The Village of Pon-de-Terre
28 Marzien, 1402
Moritas was sealed in the Underworld by the other gods. But Amare, the god of Love, took pity on the young, dark-hearted goddess. He brought her gifts from the living world, rays of sunshine bundled in baskets, fresh rain in glass jars. Amare fell in love—as he was frequently wont to do—with Moritas, and his visits resulted in the births of Formidite and Caldora.
—An Exploration of Ancient and Modern Myths, by Mordove Senia
I have had the same nightmare for the past month. Every night, without fail.
I am asleep in my royal chambers at the Estenzian palace when a creaking sound wakes me. I sit up in bed and look around. Rain lashes the windowpanes. Violetta sleeps next to me, having crept into my chambers at the sound of the thunder, and under the blankets, her body is curled close at my side. I hear the creaking again. The door of my room is slightly ajar and slowly opening. Beyond it is something horrifying, a darkness full of claws and fangs, something I never see but always know is there. The silks I’m wearing turn unbearably cold, as if I am neck deep in a winter sea, and I cannot stop myself from trembling. I shake Violetta, but she does not stir.
Then I jump out of bed and rush to close the door, but I can’t—whatever is on the other side is too strong. I turn to my sister.
“Help me!” I call to her desperately. She still does not move, and I realize that she is not asleep, but dead.
I startle awake, in the same bed and same chambers, with Violetta sleeping beside me. Just a nightmare, I tell myself. I lie there for a moment, trembling. Then I hear that creaking sound, and I see the door is starting to open once more. Again, I jump out of bed and rush to close it, shouting for Violetta. Again, I realize that my sister is dead. Again, I will bolt awake in bed and see the door opening.
I will wake a hundred times, lost in the madness of this nightmare, until the sunlight streaming through my windows finally burns the scene away. Even then, hours later, I cannot be sure I am not still in my dream.
I am afraid that, one night, I will never wake. I will be doomed to rush to that door over and over again, running from a nightmare in which I am always, forever, lost.
A year ago, it would have been my sister, Violetta, riding at my side. Today, it is Sergio and my Inquisition. They are the same white-robed, ruthless army that Kenettra’s always known—except, of course, they now serve me. When I glance back at them, all I see is a river of white, their pristine cloaks contrasted against the somber sky. I turn around in my saddle and return to gazing at the burned houses that go by as we ride.
I look different from when I first took the throne. My hair has grown long again, silver as a sheet of shifting metal, and I no longer wear a mask or an illusion to hide the scarred side of my face. Instead, my hair is pulled back in a braided bun, jewels woven into the locks. My long, dark cape billows behind me and down my horse’s quarters. My face is fully exposed.
I want the people of Dumor to see their new queen.
Finally, as we pass through an abandoned temple square, I find who I’m looking for. Magiano had initially left me and the rest of my Kenettran troops right after we entered the city of Tarannen, no doubt wandered off somewhere in search of leftover treasures from homes abandoned by fleeing citizens. It’s a habit he picked up soon after I became queen, when I first turned my sights on the states and nations around Kenettra.
As we approach, he rides through the empty square and slows his horse to a trot beside me. Sergio shoots him an annoyed look, although he says nothing. Magiano just winks back. His mess of long braids is tied high on his head today, his menagerie of mismatched robes replaced with a gold breastplate and heavy cloak. His armor is ornate, dotted with gemstones, and if one didn’t know better, one would assume at first glance that he was the ruler here. The pupils of his eyes are slitted, and his expression is lazy under the midday sun. An assortment of musical instruments is looped across his shoulders. Heavy bags clink at his horse’s flanks.
“You are all looking magnificent this morning!” he calls out cheerfully to my Inquisitors. They just bow their heads at his arrival. Everyone knows that openly showing any disrespect for Magiano means instant death at my hands.
I raise an eyebrow. “Treasure hunting?” I say.