A THOUSAND QUESTIONS race through my mind as we ride through the rocky mountainside on Nailah’s back. Behind us, Zaria fades into the night, a dwindling speck on the far horizon. Fires burn in the distance, flickering scars from Mother’s hatred. By now, her guards will have searched the entire town. It won’t be long before her forces scramble after our path.
How did this happen?
I bury my head in my hands, struggling to process the facts. My mother is still alive. Just last night, that would’ve been my greatest desire come to life.
We should be in each other’s arms. We should be mourning Inan. Mother should be backing my claim to the throne.
Instead, she calls for my head.
My lips quiver as I wrap my arms around myself. If I close my eyes, I can see the rally in my mind. I feel the vibrations of the cheering crowd in my skin.
In that moment I had everything I wanted for this land. I saw peace and unification. Or?sha’s sun was finally rising.
And in seconds, Mother set it.
My eyes snap open as Tzain takes a sharp turn, guiding Nailah off the rocky path. With Ro?n’s instructions, we pull into a clearing in the forest, a safe zone I thought we’d never have to see. Moss-covered trees wrap around us, their thick branches shielding us from the world. Heavy footsteps and thundering paws echo past as more maji flee the rally, racing away from Mother’s soldiers.
“Dammit,” Ro?n curses under his breath when we come to a stop. He jumps off Nailah’s back, muttering in Sutōrīan as he rummages through his pockets. He pulls out a cigarette and holds it between his teeth, but when he catches me staring, I look away. Without the royal treasuries, I still don’t have a gold piece to my name.
How will I pay him for this?
“Zél, what happened?” Tzain moves me aside, sliding across Nailah’s back to get to his sister. He tilts Zélie’s chin, inspecting the harsh burns along her dark skin.
“It was the majacite.” She stares at the golden mask in her hands. “The monarchy turned it into a gas.”
I touch my face, peppered with cuts and bruises yet free of any burns. If the majacite did that to her, why didn’t it do the same to me?
Tzain starts to ask more, but stops when Zélie presses a shaking hand to her mouth. I’ve never seen her look this defeated. This empty. This sad.
“I’m so sorry.” I reach out to help her, but Zélie recoils from my touch. My hand falls limp as she trembles, fighting to hold back her sobs.
“Give her some space,” Tzain whispers. A lump rises in my throat when he turns back to her. I slide off Nailah’s back, leaving them alone.
My body feels like it might shatter as I break for the stump across the clearing.
Just when I get the chance to atone for my family’s sins, they go and hurt the people I love all over again.
“That’ll be six hundred gold pieces.”
I glance back: Ro?n struggles to light a flint with one hand. His other hand remains wrapped in a ripped swatch of cloth, bloody bandages barely containing the mangled mess.
“That’s what you owed before your little coronation was interrupted,” he says. “When Harun gets here with the rest of my crew, the price of that extraction’s going to cost you double.”
Twelve hundred gold pieces? I try to keep the shock from my face. “Do you honestly think now is the right time to quibble for your payment?”
“This isn’t a charity, Princess.” I grit my teeth as Ro?n mocks me with a bow. “Oh, where are my manners? Queen.”
He blows smoke in my face and I turn away before I strike back. I cannot play Ro?n’s games when Mother is out there calculating her next move. I picture the cold expression on her face, the golden mask that amplified her cruel beauty and grace. I still can’t tell if she really thinks I killed Inan or if she just wants to paint me as the villain.
There has to be more; something beyond her blinding rage. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake is simply not in her nature.
She wouldn’t have made such a bold move if it weren’t part of a larger plan.
“I’ll get your coin.” I turn back to Ro?n. “I just require time.”
The mercenary shakes his head and exhales a long trail of smoke. “Time is the one thing you no longer have.”
“No, you listen.” He bares his teeth and I flinch, stumbling back. In a mere second, he’s a different person. It’s never been this easy to see the killer hiding beneath his skin.
“Your mother will be the least of your problems if you don’t pay me and my men. I have restraint,” he growls. “They don’t.”
“Is that a threat?” I step forward, and Ro?n’s gaze flicks down to my hand. Blue wisps of magic fall from my fingers like rain. The ashê burns my skin as it sparks.
I’ve never called on my magic before; it stings to wield it now. But a strange thrill runs through me when Ro?n backs down.
“It’s not a threat.” He shakes his head. “It’s a promise.”
The patter of approaching paws breaks the standoff between us. We look over, and I expect to see more fleeing maji, but instead Harun and the other mercenaries ride in on stolen cheetanaires. Ro?n turns back to me, pointing two fingers at my chest.
“Whatever happens next is on you. Remember that.”
Before I can respond, he gives a sharp whistle that makes his men perk up like meerkats.
“We’re moving out.”
“With our coin?” Harun asks.
“Our precious princess doesn’t have it.”
“Surprise, surprise.” The news brings a sinister smile to Harun’s face. “But after that mess of a rally, I’m sure we can find people who’ll pay double her debts.”
Harun’s words wash over me like an ocean of ice. With Mother’s declaration, there’ll be no shortage of people who will put a price on my head. People with the gold to pay.
“We can work something out.” I stomp after Ro?n, pulse spiking in my chest. Armor that once made me feel so powerful now drags down my every step.
Ro?n tosses his cigarette aside as he marches over to the nearest cheetanaire. But when Zélie shouts after him, the muscles in his back tense. His steps turn rigid as she calls out his name.
Zélie slides off Nailah’s back, but the impact is too much for her majacite-filled lungs. The moment she lands, she crumples into the dirt.
Ro?n’s steps slow and he exhales, pressing his fingers to his forehead. I watch bewildered as he turns back to help her; metal drifting toward its magnet.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, tears brimming in her silver eyes. One spills out and Ro?n wipes it with his thumb, his unbandaged hand lingering on the side of her face.
They stare at each other, and it’s as if we all disappear. Unspoken words pass between their eyes. Ro?n’s shoulders slump when he rises to his feet.
With that, he walks away, mounting his cheetanaire. My stomach sinks as Ro?n and his mercenaries ride off into the darkness, disappearing into the dense forest.
When I can no longer hear the patter of their ryders’ paws, I don’t know who I should fear more. Mother and her legion of t?táns.
FOR A WHILE, everything is still. No one speaks in Ro?n’s absence. Deep down I know we need to put as much distance between us and Mother as possible, but I can’t bring myself to move. Ro?n’s threat hangs over my head, joined by Mother’s declaration.
If all of Or?sha is hunting us, where can we possibly go?
“I’ll figure it out.” I force myself to speak the words, though I don’t know if they’re true. “I-I’ll find a way to stop Mother. I’ll get Ro?n his coin—”
“Take a beat.” Tzain walks over, putting his hand on the small of my back. “You’ve been through a lot. You don’t have to find the answers tonight.”
I want to believe him. To hide in the safety of his arms. But the comfort of his touch doesn’t erase the sound of Zélie’s tears. Despite the pain that rips through my heart, all I want to do is take away hers. I slip from Tzain’s grasp and kneel by Zélie in the dirt.
“I’ll fix this,” I whisper. “I promise. I know my mother better than anyone. If I can figure out her strategy, I’ll know how to counterattack.”
“Counterattack?” Zélie tilts her head as if I’m speaking a foreign language. “She sent a dome crashing down on our heads. How in Oya’s name are we supposed to beat her?”
Zélie’s voice shakes with a terror I wish I could defuse, but I don’t know what I can say. I’ve never heard of a power like the one Mother wielded today. Even as a t?tán, it shouldn’t be possible to rip the magic from someone’s veins.
“Mother’s magic may be strong,” I speak slowly. “Perhaps stronger than any magic that’s come before her. But every great power has a weakness. With time, we can find hers.” I think back to the t?táns she drained, wondering if that’s where our answer lies. “If we build our forces and learn how her ability works, we can dismantle her advantages. We can make her surrender the throne.”