Chapter Eleven

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Darkness.

No, not darkness.

There was light, of a sort. Though it seemed dark.

Gray? That was the word? Perhaps.

Hard to say.

She could see, after all. You couldn't see in the dark.

But there was nothing to see.

Then, she heard a voice.

_____

Igren stood before the great wooden doors of the oratory. She'd been there, standing motionless, for nearly ten minutes. She barely breathed.

At last, she closed her eyes, pressed both palms against the time-worn wood and pushed. The door swung inward soundlessly.

Igren took six steps forward before she opened her eyes.

The room was a simple dome, its walls and floor shaped from unadorned stone. Recessed into the round walls, statues of kings and queens of old stood guard. A map of the sky was painted on the ceiling, indigo and silver.

There were several rows of stone benches, a lectern, and glimmering candelabras at intervals.

Igren took each detail in carefully before allowing her gaze to settle on the one object which dominated the small oratory.

The stone altar was festooned with petals. They lay as if freshly fallen on the white fabric of Matta's dress. Some rested in her hair, which had been washed clean of blood. Incense hung heavy in the air, masking all odor of decay.

Igren took another step forward.

She forced herself to look into the corpse's face. The hole had been covered with a crown of flowers.

Matta didn't look like she was asleep. She looked small, and empty, and waxen, and young.

Something twisted and spasmed inside Igren. It clawed its way up her ribs and broke free from her lips. A curse. A prayer. A shapeless moan.

She crumbled. Her knees hit the floor. The jarring impact made Igren bite her tongue. Wordless grief bled from her lips.

She sat and rocked gently to and fro--remembering. Remembering darkness and pain and what it meant to be unafraid of death. Remembering kind hands and soothing words and forgiveness. Remembering loss and loyalty and blood.

And a vow.

I promise.

I promise I will keep her safe.

Igren sat that way for a long time. Eventually, she heard the echo of heavy boots approaching. She recognized the lieutenant's stride long before he entered the room.

"Emissary?"

Her eyelids flew open. One hand shot out, captured his sleeve, dragged him close. Her nails bit into the fabric and she hissed, "I'll rip off his head."

Terin stared into her face for a long, breathless second. He nodded.

Igren released him.

Terin crouched and settled back on his haunches. "They found her."

Igren stiffened. "Where?"

"Trying to leave the main gate."

"They took her alive?" Igren spat the final word. It burned her tongue.

"Yes." Terin stood and offered her his hand. "She's in a cell below--waitin' for you."

Igren noticed his gaze avoided the altar, though he stood not two feet from it. He kept his eyes on her, on the floor, on everything but the corpse.

Without fully understanding why, this caused a sudden stab of rage to pierce Igren's chest.

Look at her! The cry echoed inside her skull. Look at her!

She desperately wanted to scream. To cut into this crumbling mountain of a man who claimed to love what she had lost. Make his anger rise like bile. Force the grief from him like poison from a festering wound.

She didn't want to be the only one who lay broken on the floor.

Instead, Igren accepted his proffered hand and allowed him to help her up. She brushed off her dusty gown. "Thank you."

Terin nodded.

They stood before one another with a ghost hovering in the silence between them.

At last, the lieutenant looked past her to where Matta lay. Igren saw his throat constrict, the muscles in his jaw tighten. He clenched the fingers of his right hand into a fist.

He said, "Most of her skull is gone. In the back. The healers hid it well. I think they sewed some hair back." He licked his lips. Swallowed. "You can have his head. Give me his heart. I'll feed it to the castle doggerels."

He turned sharply and marched from the room. With dread nestled like a viper in her stomach, Igren followed him.

_____

As she clung to the sun-warmed roof, Shel listened closely to the sounds of the palace. There was music, low and sweet, drifting on the wind in the company of laughter and idle chatter. Marble-echoed footsteps and breathy moans. Hushed voices and covert shufflings.

And, through it all, the faint sound of a girl's frantically beating heart and hurried feet. The Sorceress. Her scent was strong, even from this distance.

She wasn't alone.

The hairs along Shel's neck and forearms rose as she took in the scent of him.

Of course, she'd expected to find Thesul in his own lair. That didn't stop the sickening twist of her gut, or the crawling sensation on her skin. For an instant, Shel felt the weight of manacles on her wrists and ankles again, accompanied by the cold bite of the spiked metal and leather harness that would have torn her apart if she'd tried to skinshift.

Twelve years of captivity, at the whim of these animals.

Those years had been long. The memory left a bitter tang on her tongue.

With an effort, Shel shrugged off the fear that threatened to taint her hunt and unbalance her instincts. She wasn't a prisoner any longer. This time, Thesul was the prey.

Shel took a deep breath, focusing once more on her goal.

She simply had to remain hidden, bide her time, and strike when the opportunity presented itself. Because no matter what else might happen, she could not allow Thesul to keep the Reader. The book had yet to be found. Without it, Silnä would remain captive to the Sorcerer's curse. Ther would fade into the Myriad, and they'd all die, Alavardian and Striknä alike.

She wouldn't let that happen.

Still, perhaps I don't need to do this alone...

Shel considered for a moment. Then, she rose into a crouch, tilted her face to the wind and whispered a short message. The air current caught up her words and wove their meaning into itself, carrying each syllable like a scent to be caught and deciphered by those who knew how.

Shel's message was simple. Her sisters would arrive by the next dawn.

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