We drown in silence for a long moment.
Corvium yawns around us, full of people, but it feels empty.
Divide and conquer.
The implications are clear, the lines sharply drawn. Farley and Davidson regard me with equal intensity, and I stare back at them.
I suppose Cal has no idea, no inkling, that the Scarlet Guard and Montfort have absolutely no intention of letting him keep whatever throne he wins. I suppose he cares more about the crown than about whatever any Red thinks. And I suppose I shouldn’t call him Cal anymore.
Tiberias Calore. King Tiberias. Tiberias the Seventh.
It’s the name he was born with, the name he wore when I met him.
Thief, he called me then. That was my name.
I wish I could forget the last hour. Fall backward just a little bit. Falter. Stumble. Enjoy one more second of that strangely blissful place where the only thing I felt was the ache of tired muscles and repaired bones. The emptiness after battle’s adrenaline. The certainty of his love and support. And even through the heartbreak, I can’t find it in myself to hate him for his choice. The rage will come later.
Concern crosses Farley’s face. It seems strange on her. I’m more accustomed to cold determination or red anger from Diana Farley. She notes my stare with a twitch of her scarred mouth.
“I’ll relay Cal’s decision to the rest of Command,” she says, breaking the silent tension. Her words are low and measured. “Just Command. Ada will carry the message.”
The Montfort premier ducks his chin in agreement. “Good. I think Generals Drummer and Swan may have an idea of these developments already. They’ve been keeping tabs on the Lerolan queen since she came into play.”
“Anabel Lerolan was in Maven’s court long enough, at least a few weeks,” I reply. Somehow, my voice doesn’t tremble. The words come out evenly, full of force. I have to look strong, even if I don’t feel it right now. It’s a lie, but a good lie. “She probably has more information than I ever gave you.”
“Probably,” Davidson says with a thoughtful bob of the head. He narrows his eyes on the ground. Not searching, but focusing. A plan spirals out in front of him. The road ahead won’t be easy. A child would know that. “Which is why I have to get back up there,” he adds, almost in apology. As if I could be angry with him for doing what he must. “Ears and eyes open, yeah?”
“Ears and eyes open,” Farley and I respond in unison, surprising each other.
He steps away from us, backing out of the alleyway. The sun flashes in his glossy gray hair. He was careful to clean up after the battle, washing away the sweat and ash, replacing his bloodstained uniform with a fresh one. All to present his usual calm, collected, and strangely ordinary demeanor. A wise decision. Silvers devote so much energy to their appearance, to the false pride of visible strength and power. And none so much as the Samos king and his family in the tower above us. Next to Volo, Evangeline, Ptolemus, and the hissing Viper queen, Davidson barely registers. He could blend into the walls if he wanted to. They won’t see him coming. They won’t see us coming.
I take a shaky breath and swallow, forcing the next thought. And Cal won’t either.
Tiberias, I snap at myself. One fist clenches, digging nails into flesh with a satisfying sting. Call him Tiberias.
The black walls of Corvium feel strangely silent and bare without the siege. I turn away from Davidson’s retreating form to eye the parapets ringing the inner ward of the fortress city. The shiver attacking snowstorm is long gone, the darkness lifted, and everything here seems smaller now. Less imposing. Red soldiers used to be herded through this city, most on the march to inevitable death in a trench. Now Reds patrol the walls, the streets, the gates. Reds sit alongside Silver kings and speak of war. A few soldiers with crimson scarves walk back and forth, their eyes darting, well-used guns ready in hand. The Scarlet Guard will not be caught unawares, though they have little reason to be so on edge. For now, anyway. Maven’s armies have retreated. And not even Volo Samos is bold enough to attempt an attack from the inside of Corvium. Not when he needs the Guard, needs Montfort, needs us. And especially not with Cal—Tiberias, you fool—and all his empty talk of equality. Like us, Volo needs him. Needs his name, needs his crown, and needs his damn hand in that damn marriage to his damn daughter.
My face burns hot. I feel embarrassed by the plume of jealousy rising up inside me. Losing him should be the least of my worries. Losing him shouldn’t hurt as much as the possibility of dying, of losing our war, of letting everything we’ve worked for be in vain. But it does. All I can do is try to bear it.
Why didn’t I say yes?
I walked away from his offer. From him. I was torn apart by another betrayal—Cal’s betrayal, but also mine. I love you is a promise we both made, and we both broke. It should mean I choose you above all else. I want you more. I need you always. I cannot live without you. I will do anything to keep our lives from parting.
But he wouldn’t. And I won’t.
I am less than his crown, and he is less than my cause.
And less, far less, than my fear of another cage. Consort, he said, offering me an impossible crown. He would make me a queen, if Evangeline could be pushed aside again. I already know what the world looks like from a king’s right hand. I don’t care to live that life again. Even though Cal is not Maven, the throne is still the same. It changes people, corrupts them.
What a strange fate that would have been. Cal with his crown and his Samos queen and me. In spite of myself, a small part of me wishes I’d said yes. It would have been easy. A chance to let go, step back, win—and enjoy a world I never could have dreamed of. Give my family the best life possible. Keep us all safe. And stay with him. Stand at Cal’s side, a Red girl with a Silver king on her arm. With the power to change the world. To kill Maven. To sleep without nightmares, and live without fear.
I bite my lip sharply to drive away the want. It seduces, and I almost understand his choice. Even ripped apart, we suit each other.
Farley shifts loudly, drawing my attention. She sighs as she puts her back to the alley wall, arms folded across her chest. Unlike Davidson, she hasn’t bothered to change out of her bloody uniform. Hers isn’t as disgusting as mine, free of mud and muck. There’s silver blood on her, of course, now dried black. It’s only been a few months since Clara was born, and she wears the lingering weight around her hips proudly. Whatever sympathy she had disappears, replaced by a rage sparking in her blue eyes. Not directed at me, though. She looks skyward, at the tower above us. Where the strange council of Silvers and Reds now tries to decide our fates.
“That was him in there.” She doesn’t wait for me to ask who. “Silver hair, thick neck, ridiculous armor. And somehow still breathing, even though he put a blade through Shade’s heart.”
My nails dig deeper at the thought of Ptolemus Samos. Prince of the Rift. My brother’s killer. Like Farley, I feel a sudden rage too. And an equal burst of shame.
“Because you made a bargain with his sister. Your freedom for his life.”
“For my vengeance,” I mumble in admission. “And yes, I gave Evangeline my word.”
Farley bares her teeth, her disgust evident. “You gave a Silver your word. That promise is less than ash.”
“But a promise still.”
She makes a guttural sound deep in her throat, like a growl. Her broad shoulders square and she turns her body to face the tower fully. I wonder how much restraint it’s taking to stop her from marching back up there to rip Ptolemus’s eyes out of his skull. I wouldn’t stop her if she could. In fact, I’d pull up a chair and watch.
I let my fist open a bit, putting away the slice of pain. Quietly, I take a step forward, closing the space between us. After a split second of hesitation, I put a hand on her arm. “A promise I made. Not you. Not anyone else.”
Farley stills a bit, and her snarl becomes a smirk. She turns to look at me head-on, her eyes brightly blue as they catch a shaft of sunlight. “I think you might be better suited to politics than war, Mare Barrow.”
I offer a pained smile. “They’re the same thing.” A hard lesson I think I’ve finally learned. “Do you think you can do it? Kill him?”
Once, I would have expected her to scoff and boldly sneer at the implication she couldn’t. Farley is a hard woman with a harder shell. She’s what she needs to be. But something—Shade probably, Clara definitely, the bond we now share—affords me a glimpse past the general’s stony and sure exterior. She falters, her smirk fading a little.
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “But I’ll never be able to look at myself, look at Clara, if I don’t try.”
“And neither will I, if I let you die in the attempt.” My grip tightens on her arm. “Please, don’t be stupid about this.”
Like the flip of a switch, her smirk returns in full force. She even winks. “Since when am I stupid, Mare Barrow?”
Looking up at her sends a twinge through the scars at the back of my neck, scars I almost forgot about. The pain of them seems small compared to everything else. “I just wonder where it will end,” I murmur, hoping to make her understand.
She shakes her head. “I can’t respond to a question with too many answers.”
“I mean . . . with Shade. Ptolemus. You kill him, and then what? Evangeline kills you? Kills Clara? I kill Evangeline? On and on, with no end?” I’m no stranger to death, but this feels oddly different. Calculated endings. It feels like something Maven would do, not us. Even though Farley marked Ptolemus for death long before, when I masqueraded as Mareena Titanos, that was for the Guard. For a cause, for something other than blind and bloody revenge.
Her eyes widen, vibrant and impossible. “You want me to let him live?”
“Of course not,” I almost snap. “I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I’m talking about.” The words tumble over one another. “But I can still wonder, Farley. I know what vengeance and rage can do to a person, to the people around you. And of course I don’t want Clara to grow up without her mother.”
She turns away sharply, hiding her face. But not quickly enough to hide a sudden surge of tears. They never fall. With a jerk of her shoulder, she shrugs me away.
I push on. I have to. She needs to hear this. “She already lost Shade, and if given the choice between revenge for her father and a living mother—I know what she would choose.”
“Speaking of choices,” she grinds out, still not looking at me. “I’m proud of the one you made.”
“Farley, don’t change the subject—”
“Did you hear me, lightning girl?” She sniffs and forces a smile, turning back around to reveal a now very red and splotchy face. “I said I’m proud of you. Write that down. Commit it to memory. You probably won’t hear it again.”
In spite of myself, I chuckle darkly. “Fine. Proud of what exactly?”
“Well, besides your fashion sense”—she dusts off my shoulder, brushing away a bit of bloody dirt—“and of course your kind and calm disposition . . .”
“. . . I’m proud of you because I know what it’s like to lose the person you love.” This time she takes me by the arm, probably so I can’t run away from a conversation I don’t think I’m equipped to have.
Mare, choose me. The words are only an hour old. They haunt me so easily.
“It felt like a betrayal,” I whisper.
I focus on Farley’s chin so I don’t have to look into her eyes. The scar at the left corner of her mouth is deep, pulling her lips to the side a little. A clean drag. Knife work. She didn’t have it when I first met her, by the light of a blue candle in Will Whistle’s old wagon.
“From him? Of course—”
“No. Not from him.” A cloud crosses the sky overhead, sending shifting shadows across us both. The summer breeze blows oddly cold. I shiver against it. As if on instinct, I wish for Cal and his warm presence. He never let me get cold. My stomach lurches at the thought, sick to think of what we both walked away from. “He made promises to me,” I continue, “but I made promises to him too. I broke them. And he has other promises to keep. To himself, to his dead father. He loved the crown before he loved me, whether he knows it or not. And in the end, he thinks he’s doing the right thing for us, for everyone. How can I really fault him for that?”
With a will, I meet Farley’s eyes and search. She doesn’t have an answer for me, at least not one I would like. Her teeth worry at her lip, biting back whatever she wants to say. It doesn’t work.
She scoffs, trying to be her version of gentle. As prickly as ever. “Don’t apologize for him and what he is.”
“It certainly sounds like it,” she sighs, exasperated. “A different king is still a king. He might be a brick, but he knows that much.”
“Maybe it could have been the right thing for me too. For Reds. Who knows what a Red queen could have done?”
“Very little, Mare. If anything at all,” she says with cold surety. “Any change that might come from putting a crown on your head would be too slow, too small.” Her voice softens. “And too easily undone. It wouldn’t last. Whatever we accomplished would die with you. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the world we want to build has to outlive us.”
For the ones who come after.
Farley’s eyes bore into me, intense with her almost inhuman focus. Clara has Shade’s eyes, not Farley’s. Honey, not ocean. I wonder which pieces of her will one day belong to Farley or to Shade.
The breeze rustles Farley’s freshly shorn hair, dark gold in the shadow of the clouds. Beneath the scars, she’s still young, just another child of war and ruin. She’s seen worse than me, done more than I ever have. Sacrificed and suffered more too. Her mother, her sister, my brother and his love. Whoever she dreamed of being when she was a little girl. All gone. If she can keep pushing forward, still believing in what we’re doing, so can I. For as much as we butt heads, I trust Farley. And her words are an unfamiliar but needed comfort. I’ve already spent so much time in my own head, arguing with myself, that I’m beginning to get sick of it.
“You’re right.” Something inside me lets go, allowing the strange dream of Cal’s offer to spiral into darkness. Never to return.
I will not be a Red queen.
Farley gives my shoulder an almost painful squeeze. Despite the healers, I’m still sore, and she still has a wickedly strong grip. “Besides,” she adds, “it wouldn’t be you on the throne. The Lerolan queen and the king of the Rift were very clear. It would be her, the Samos girl.”
I snort at the notion. Evangeline Samos made her intentions obvious enough back in the council chamber. I’m surprised Farley didn’t notice. “Not if she can help it.”
“Hmm?” Her gaze sharpens and I shrug.
“You saw what she did in there, how she provoked you.” The fresh memory flashes. Evangeline calling upon a Red servant in front of everyone, smashing a goblet, forcing the poor maid to clean it up, simply for the sport of it. To anger every red-blooded person in the room. It’s not hard to understand why she did it, or what she hoped to accomplish. “She wants no part of this alliance, not when it means she has to marry . . . Tiberias.”
For once, Farley seems caught off guard. She blinks, perplexed. Albeit intrigued. “But she’s back where she started. I thought—I mean, I don’t pretend to understand Silver behavior at all, but still—”
“Evangeline is a princess in her own right now, with everything she ever wanted. I don’t think she wants to go back to being someone else’s. That’s all their betrothal ever was to her. And him,” I add, with a pang of heartache. “An arrangement for power. Power she already has now, or”—my words falter a little—“power she doesn’t want anymore.” I think back on Evangeline, on my time spent with her in Whitefire. She was relieved when Maven married Iris Cygnet instead of her. And not just because he was a monster. I think because . . . there was someone else she cared about more. More than herself or Maven’s crown.
Elane Haven. After her house rebelled against him, I remember Maven called her Evangeline’s whore. I didn’t notice Elane at the council, but much of House Haven stands behind House Samos, allied to them. Shadows all, able to disappear at will. I suppose Elane could have been there the whole time and I wouldn’t even know it.
“You think she would try to undo her father’s work? If she could?” Farley looks very much like a cat that just caught a particularly fat mouse for supper. “If someone . . . helped her?”
Cal didn’t deny the crown for love. But would Evangeline?
Something tells me she might. All her maneuvering, the quiet resistance, walking a razor’s edge.
“It’s possible.” The words take on new meaning to both of us. New weight. “She has motivations of her own. And I think that gives us a bit of an advantage.”
Farley’s lips curve, taking on the shadow of a true smile. In spite of all I’ve learned, I feel a sudden burst of hope. She thumps me on the arm, her grin spreading.
“Well, Barrow, write it down again. I’m damn proud of you.”
“I do prove useful from time to time.”
She barks a laugh and steps away, gesturing for me to follow. The avenue outside the alley beckons, its flagstones gleaming as the last of the snow melts beneath the summer sun. I hesitate, reluctant to leave this corner of dark safety. The world beyond this narrow space still seems too big. The inner ward of Corvium looms, and the core tower stands at the center of it all. With a shaky breath, I force myself to move. The first step aches. So does the second.
“You don’t have to go back up,” Farley mutters, falling in at my side. She glares at the tower. “I’ll let you know how it shakes out. Davidson and I can handle it.”
The thought of going back to the council chamber, sitting there in silence as Tiberias throws everything we’ve ever done in my face—I don’t know if I can bear it. But I have to. I notice things the others can’t. Know things others don’t. I have to go back. For the cause.
And for him.
I can’t deny how much I want to go back for him.
“I want to know everything you know,” I whisper to Farley. “Everything Davidson has planned. I’m not going into anything else blind.”
She agrees quickly. Almost too quickly. “Of course.”
“I’m yours to use. In any way. On one condition.”
My steps slow, and she matches my pace. “He lives. At the end of all this.”
Like a confused dog, she tips her head.
“Break his crown, break his throne, rip his monarchy apart.” I stare up at her with as much strength as I can muster. The lightning in my blood responds with fervor, begging to crack loose. “But Tiberias lives.”
Farley sucks in a searing breath, drawing herself up to her full, formidable height. It feels like she can see right through me. To my imperfect heart. I hold my ground. I’ve earned the right.
Her voice wavers. “I can’t make that promise. But I’ll try. I’ll certainly try, Mare.”
At least she doesn’t lie to me.
I feel cut in two, torn in different directions. An obvious question hangs in my mind. Another choice that I might need to make. His life or our victory? I don’t know which side I might choose, if I ever have to. Which side I might betray. The knife of that knowledge cuts deep, and I bleed where no one else can see.
I suppose this is what the seer was talking about. Jon spoke very little, but everything he said had calculated meaning. As much as I don’t want to, I suppose I have to accept the fate he foretold.
And rise alone.
The flagstones roll beneath me, passing with each step. The breeze kicks up again, blowing in from the west this time. It carries with it the unmistakable tang of blood. I fight the urge to retch as it all comes rushing back. The siege. The bodies. The blood in both colors. My wrist snapping clean in a stoneskin’s grasp. Necks broken, chests obliterated in bursts of flesh, glistening organs, and spiked bone. In the battle, it was easy to detach from such horror. Necessary, even. The fear would only get me killed. Not anymore. My heartbeat triples in speed and cold sweat breaks across my body. Even though we survived and won, the terror of loss ripped open canyons inside me.
I can still feel them. The nerves, the electric paths my lightning traced in every person I killed. Like thin, glowing branches, each one different but also the same. Too many to count. In red and blue uniforms, Nortan and Lakelander. All Silvers.
The possibility hits me like a punch in the gut. Maven has used Reds for cannon fodder before, or as human shields. I didn’t even think about it. None of us did—or maybe the others didn’t care. Davidson, Cal, maybe even Farley, if she thought the outcome was worth the cost.
“Hey,” she murmurs, taking my wrist. Her skin on mine makes me jump, her fingers circling like a manacle. I break her grip forcefully, twisting away with what sounds like a snarl. I flush, embarrassed that I still react this way.
She pulls back, palms up, eyes wide. But no fear, no judgment. Not even pity. Is that understanding I see in her? “I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I forgot about the wrists.”
I barely bob my head, shoving my hands into my pockets to hide the purple sparks at my fingertips. “It’s fine. That’s not even—”
“I know, Mare. It happens when we slow down. The body starts to process more again. Sometimes it’s too much, and there’s no shame in it.” Farley tips her head, gesturing away from the tower. “There’s no shame in getting some rack time either. The barracks are—”
“Were there Reds out there?” I gesture blankly, toward the battlefield and the now-broken walls of Corvium. “Did Maven and the Lakelanders send Red soldiers with the rest?”
Farley blinks, truly taken aback. “Not to my knowledge,” she finally replies, and I hear the unease in her. She doesn’t know either. She doesn’t want to know, and neither do I. I can’t bear it.
I spin on my heel, forcing her to keep up with my pace for once. Silence falls again, this one brimming with anger and shame in equal measure. I lean into it, torturing myself. To remember this disgust and pain. More battles will come. More people will die, no matter the color of blood. That’s war. That’s revolution. And others will be caught in the crossfire. To forget is to doom them again, and doom others to come.
As we ascend the steps of the tower, I keep my hands firmly fisted in my pockets. The prick of an earring stings my flesh, the red stone warm against my hand. I should throw it out a window. If there’s one thing I should forget, it’s him.
But the earring remains.
Side by side, we enter the council chamber again. The edges of my vision blur, and I try to fall into a familiar place. Observe. Memorize. Look for cracks in the words spoken, find secrets and lies in what they leave unsaid. It’s a goal as much as a distraction. And I realize why I was so keen on coming back here, even when I had every right to run away.
Not because this is important. Not because I can be of use.
But because I am selfish, weak, and afraid. I can’t be alone with myself, not now, not yet.
So I sit, and I listen, and I watch.
And through it all, I feel his eyes.