Forsaken Power (The Healers of Meligna, #4) by K. J. Colt - Read Online
Forsaken Power (The Healers of Meligna, #4)
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Summary

After being chosen as The Rider of Bivinia by the pegan, Sala, Adenine must choose to enforce her supremacy as Rider and subjugate the Bivinians to her will, or allow Prince Eiridan, her trusted friend and the rightful heir, to take the throne.


New dangers emerge to bring civil unrest to Bivinia. Meanwhile, beneath the city, deadly ancient secrets are uncovered. When history threatens to repeat, Adenine must forsake everything she is, and intended to be. 

Published: K. J. Colt on
ISBN: 9781514757666
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coincidental.

Dedication

First off, I want to thank you, my readers, for your patience in waiting on the release of this book. Some of you have been instrumental in the production of it. Especially Ruth, Marsha, Brandy, and Athena, my volunteer proofreaders.

Always by my side is my wonderful partner, Ryan. His knowledge of history and his ability to spot hideous flaws in my first drafts are an essential part of the publishing process.

A big thank-you to Thomas, my editor, whose meticulous eye for plot holes and grammar keeps me grounded. Thanks for always delivering on time!

Click to sign up to K. J. Colt’s Newsletter to be notified of new releases and giveaways.

Part One

Chapter One

From orange to red, the sky blazed with passion. As we skimmed the underside of the radiant cloud bank, my pulse knocked against my skull. Dread, excitement, power: three fervent feelings that set my heart on fire. I am Sala’s Rider.

The pegan’s wings pounded the cooling mountain air. Each of her silvery white feathers stitched together to form the perfect instrument of flight. As we veered left, the sun’s magnificent pre-twilight display dazzled me and I dropped my gaze to Sala’s peach-tinged feathers. I clasped the back of Eiridan’s robe, afraid I might fall hundreds of metres to my death.

‘Isn’t this amazing?’ the prince shouted over his shoulder. ‘Wooo! We did it, Adenine!’ Eiridan raised one hand into the sky in premature celebration, unaware of the disappointment that lay ahead.

‘Be careful!’ I said. If I fell from this height, I would splatter against the sharp rocks below. No amount of special healing blood would fix that.

Nausea turned my gut acidic as I imagined myself as empress of this foreign country. Wasn’t Eiridan a better fit for that role? The people of Bivinia hated healers. The wives of Bivinian emperors played no part in the country’s operations, and as far as I knew, no empress had ruled alone.

If you need more time to complete your thoughts, Rider, I can extend our flight time by circling the mountains, Sala offered.

I ignored the pegan’s words—or were they thoughts? I didn’t want to make the connection between us stronger by conversing with her. Taking deep breaths, I told myself reassuring things. All I had to do was pretend Eiridan was the rightful heir.

‘Adenine, look!’ Eiridan pointed west.

I gasped. Beyond the misty, ripe green treetops of the Bivinian Greatwoods, Whitespring was a mass of squares and half circles bathed in red light. The stonework glowed orange and red streams of light reflected off glimmering domed roofs. White sparkles dotted the many fountains, ponds, and streams that prompted Senyans to call it a water city.

Although pretty, spending four months in the Bivinian prisons had left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Green garden swaths broke the tedium of orange. An island, surrounded by overcrowded moorings, protruded from one of the two main rivers running through the city. The other river and its tributaries sprouted from the southern boundary like blue veins. It crawled across the farming landscape, turning the lands the richest green I’d ever seen.

‘Geshika’s word!’ exclaimed Eiridan. ‘I knew I would be chosen as Rider. I’m so happy I could burst! Have you ever felt such elation, Adenine?’

I kept silent.

Your silence helps nothing, Sala said.

Suppressing an overwhelming urge to yell at her, I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. Shouting in my head amused me, and my anger faded.

Eiridan reached back and pulled my arms about his waist. ‘You’re quiet back there. Is it the height?’ He laughed.

Will you not speak to me? Sala asked.

I sighed and thought, Prince Eiridan is your Rider.

It does not work that way.

How can you talk to me like this?

I do not use my mouth to speak.

Duh. Was the pegan being obtuse? It was difficult to tell given that she seemed so inhuman.

When I choose a Rider, she continued, I open myself up entirely. As time continues, our beings will blend. I will become like you, and you like me. It is the pegan way.

My chest tightened. I was going to change and become like Sala, and I didn’t seem to have a choice. A desperation to flee crippled my body and when I tried to breathe, my rasping breaths made me panic.

‘Take us down!’

‘I-I don’t know how, Adenine,’ Eiridan replied.

I squashed my cheek against his back, tears streaming down my face. ‘Let me off. I have to get off!’

‘Stay calm.’

My skin felt like rubbery meat that stretched in every direction at once. Sala glided gently to a nearby mountaintop, tilted upwards, and flapped several times to slow our descent. At the jolt of our touchdown, I slid off her flank and landed with a thud on the ground. I leaned over, clutching my body and forcing myself to inhale slowly.

Eiridan’s boots crunched against snow as he landed beside me.

‘Are you well?’

I looked up at his lifeless mask. ‘I am. Give me a moment.’

He nodded and then gently touched Sala, slowly bringing his face close to hers, whispering, ‘You are mine and I am yours. Won’t you speak to me?’

Guilt filled my chest and I tried to shut him out. Though my distress was evident, his adoring attention remained fixed on her. His priorities seemed clearer than ever.

How could I live with myself knowing I had stolen Eiridan’s rightful inheritance? If it weren’t for me he would have died, but maybe that would have been for the best. I knew how desperately he wanted this.

Eiridan’s sudden silence made me anxious. I spun around, worried that he’d realised he wasn’t the Rider.

Pretend to be his, I thought at Sala.

The beast bent her long neck to stare at me with those terrifying red eyes. No.

I command you.

I can speak to him, but he cannot hear me. Only you can hear my thoughts because I have made myself part of you. Our bond is absolute.

Then why didn’t you speak to me before when you were kept prisoner?

I had not yet chosen you.

Eiridan glanced at me then turned to curl his finger around a segment of Sala’s mane. ‘I don’t understand.’

Cautiously I moved to his side and joined him in stroking the soft white fur. ‘Understand what?’

‘The ritual texts say that when a Rider and his pegan join, they can talk without words. I hear nothing from her.’

‘Maybe give it time,’ I said, stalling.

He shook his head. ‘She must know my wishes, or she wouldn’t have landed here. Pegans, like men, have desires. If I can’t hear her then I don’t know what she wants.’

Without warning, a volcanic eruption of emotion climbed up between my ribs and caught at the back of my throat. I crumpled to the ground, shoving my hands against my face, opening my mouth and allowing the pressure to be released.

As I wept, Eiridan knelt down before me, gently taking my wrists from my face. ‘What is it? Speak to me.’

Through blurry eyes, and a fog of guilt, I met his gaze. ‘I-I’m sorry, Eiridan.’

‘For what?’ he asked, perplexed. He brushed a warm tear from my cheek. I closed my eyes, savouring his gentle, soothing touch. Why did it happen this way?

I felt Sala’s presence in my mind. Do you really want an answer to that?

Get out of my head.

I cannot. Until death parts us, I cannot.

Then I’ll kill myself.

Sala spread her wings and bellowed angrily. She knocked Eiridan out of the way and raised a hoof to him.

Stop! I ordered.

Send him away. He comes between us.

You’re coming between us. You think hurting him will make me trust you?

Heed my warning. If you do not accept your task, you will bring misery to these lands.

‘Hush now,’ Eiridan said to Sala, getting to his feet, his hands raised in surrender. She spun to face him, lengthened her neck and snapped her teeth an inch from his face. She let out a sharp, piercing cry.

Must you obey me? I asked.

I must.

Then you will treat him with respect.

Sala closed her mouth and her eyes softened. Eiridan sidestepped to me, saying, ‘I think Sala saved us because you healed her—’

‘No, Eiridan. She saved us because she chose me as Rider.’

Despondently, he slowly sank to the ground. One of his hands pressed up under his ceramic mask. I’d never seen him look so protective of himself. Next he sat, crossing his legs. I joined him on the ground in silence, waiting for the awfulness to soak up the last of his hopes.

‘It can’t be,’ he said.

As I met his striking turquoise-laced eyes behind the pale, lifeless mask, my own tears continued their silent trickle down my cheeks. I reached to take his hand but he yanked it away.

‘Don’t.’

‘It’s not my fault,’ I said.

He let go of a choked laugh. ‘You are the chosen Rider? You’re to fulfil the prophecy?’

I bit my lip. ‘I don’t believe it either.’

Eiridan looked over at the pegan. ‘But you can hear her thoughts?’

I waited for him to meet my eyes again, but eventually gave in. ‘Yes.’

Silence descended, the winds scratched at the mountaintops, and I knew Prince Eiridan of Bivinia hated me.

Finally, he said, ‘She chose you over me. So I would have died if you hadn’t dove after me.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, almost quivering.

He stilled for a moment, allowing in the realisation that I’d saved his life. ‘She told you to save me, didn’t she?’ he asked, but it was a question that needed no reply. My heart wrenched while imagining his grief.

I turned my head, fixating on the ground half way between me and the pegan’s black hoof. ‘As you said, she only chose me because I healed her,’ I blurted, hardly believing the lie myself.

Not only— Sala began.

Hush! I snapped. ‘She’s yours, Eiridan. I don’t want her.’

Somehow, I could feel Sala’s disapproval and rejection prickle in my heart, as if they were my own feelings.

‘I—,’ he swallowed. ‘You’ll need my help.’

Awash with gratitude, it took all my restraint not to reach out to him. ‘My life is yours,’ I said, affixing Eiridan with a look of determination to reassure him. ‘If my life is yours, then Sala’s life is yours.’ I didn’t know what I was saying. Trapped between what I wanted for myself and what I wanted for my friend, I chose to put his needs above mine.

‘Meaning?’

‘I-I don’t know.’

The heir of Bivinia stood, but with a defeated hunch. ‘Guilt drives these declarations.’

I grabbed his arm. ‘You can ride her into Whitespring.’

‘We both will, I expect.’

‘The people will see you riding Sala and they’ll think you’re the Rider. You’ll become emperor just as you wanted. Just as I wanted for you.’

‘And what if you decide to leave Bivinia? Sala will go with you.’

‘Sala obeys my orders. I can tell her to stay with you.’ Can you hear Eiridan’s thoughts, even if he can’t hear yours?

Yes. But if you left, I would be forced to follow you. I can be nothing, and no one, without you.

I was startled by the intensity of her declarations. I refocused on the prince. ‘You can still give her commands. She hears your thoughts. It could work, Eiridan. You father must be stopped. He can’t be allowed to slaughter all of Senya.’ Even if the Bivinians hated healers more than they hated ordinary Senyans, Emperor Phoh would crush anyone in his path.

See? Sala said. You always do what is right. This is why you must rule.

Eiridan’s heart is just as good as mine—better, even. His heart is more pure.

He will not bring the lands together. Only you can mend the divide between nations.

I grabbed my head. ‘Ugh.’

Eiridan reached out with his hand, but hesitated. ‘What? Tell me what she says. I want to know.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

Pulling back, he said, ‘Of course it does. It matters a great deal. For thousands of years, the pegans guided us with their wisdom. Without the pegans’ wisdom, emperors like my father manipulated Geshika’s words for their own use.’

As Eiridan spoke, I noted how tall Sala stood, and wondered how we would ever remount her. Can you lay down for us, Sala?

As you wish. The pegan dropped to her knees.

Eiridan shook his head. ‘What’s going on?’

‘We’re going back to Whitespring before twilight.’ I went to the pegan’s side.

‘Wait. My father won’t just give me the throne.’

‘Don’t the priests have a say? Come up with a plan,’ I said irritably. ‘But we must ride.’

Eiridan stood silent in the snow. Behind him, the sun paled, and the surrounding clouds darkened to purplish grey.

‘I just…I can’t believe it could be this easy,’ he said.

‘It won’t be easy.’

‘How can you be so sure we can make this work?’

I smiled at him. ‘The best person to lead your people is you. I can’t speak Bivinian. I hardly know the customs, and plus, I’m a healer. We’ll work the rest out later. First, the people need inspiration. They need to see their prince on the back of a pegan.’

The emperor will stop at nothing to retain the throne, Sala said.

Don’t talk of problems unless you have their solution.

The prince sighed. ‘I should see this as a blessing. I didn’t even expect to survive the fall…’

I reached out my hand to Eiridan and he took it. ‘Sala told me to save you, it’s true, but if she hadn’t, you would be dead. And all my hope would be lost.’

Eiridan kissed my fingers. ‘I love you, Adenine.’

Another wave of futile guilt hit me.

You should listen to your feelings, Sala said.

‘I adore you also,’ I replied obliquely, trying to ignore the pegan’s voice in my head.

‘I will agree to all of this—’

‘Good.’ I pulled my hand away.

‘Wait, on one condition.’

My stomach sunk. ‘What condition is that?’

‘That you become my wife. My empress.’

A terrible idea, Sala said. As his wife, you’ll have no power in Bivinia. The very offer is beneath you, Adenine.

It was difficult to focus on Eiridan with Sala’s constant pessimism bleeding into my skull.

Why did you choose me? I asked her.

You have the traits of the benevolent ruler that must obtain complete power, and when you healed me, you felt familiar. Like home.

I didn’t know what to make of what she said. How could I be familiar to a pegan I’d never met? The Bivinians would never follow a healer. They will assume I’ve tricked them or something.

I suppose.

You suppose? Aren’t you wise and all-knowing?

Many roads lead to one city.

Ugh. That’s not an answer.

‘Adenine.’ Eiridan’s tone was laced with annoyance. ‘You grow distant when you speak with her.’

‘Sorry,’ I said. Exchanging thoughts with the pegan was quicker than speaking aloud, but in doing so I neglected normal conversation.

‘I am envious, and so I sound bitter,’ he said. ‘In time, I will overcome it.’

I certainly hoped so, but Eiridan was a man who valued knowledge. He saw being a Rider as one way to increase his understanding of the lands. So I tried to lessen his disappointment by casting doubt on Sala’s authority.

I shrugged. ‘I was thinking. Maybe the pegans aren’t wise. Maybe they only seem wise because they can know our thoughts and desires, even before we do.’

Sala tossed her head, snorting. Ignorance!

Am I right?

Certainly not. We have the knowledge of the ages. Do you?

Eiridan sniffed. ‘Are you two fighting already?’

‘Is it that obvious?’

‘Oh dear.’ Laughter burst from his lips.

‘Trust me, I would give her to you in a heartbeat if I could.’

Your opinion of me will alter once you rid yourself of your self-importance.

Said the pot to the kettle, I snapped, then turned back to Eiridan. ‘Well?’

With an exhausted sigh, he said, ‘Very well. Let’s go.’ The prince offered to help me up.

‘No,’ I said. ‘You go up front so the people can see you.’

I kneeled so he could step on my leg and up onto the pegan’s back. He grasped my wrist and pulled me up behind me.

After shuffling forward, my legs cupped his outer thighs. ‘Where to, Emperor Eiridan?’ I took on a cheery tone. So far, our conversation had teetered on the edge of darkness, a void that, left unchecked, might divide us forever.

With a slight twist of his head he said, ‘Hearing you call me emperor…it’s strange.’

‘But right.’

His ears moved a little—they often did when he was amused—and the mask’s ties inched upward.

‘Yes,’ he said.

I touched his ribs a little. ‘Better get used to it then.’

He seized my hands and in a slightly uncomfortable voice said, ‘Don’t touch me. Not now. I am still upset. Take us to the palace steps, Sala.’

Nothing happened.

Why aren’t you obeying Eiridan’s orders? I asked Sala, terrified his pride would be injured if she continued ignoring him.

I only take orders from you.

Then I order you to listen to the prince’s thoughts and obey his commands. I will not ask you again.

The pegan bellowed, extended her wings in full, so that each flight feather sat individually, and then bolted to the edge of the cliff. The solid ground ended, and she leaped into the air. A sudden updraught carried us up into the clouds. When Sala lowered her left wing, we angled toward Whitespring, where we planned to overthrow Bivinia’s wrathful emperor.

Chapter Two

Skimming the Bivinian Greatwoods canopy caused grand, rainbow-coloured birds to scatter. Some flew so close that I almost plucked a royal blue feather from one of their metre-long tails. Beyond the forests, we hit the boundary of Whitespring.

Relief washed over me as I realised through all my failures and sorrows, I’d found a way to fight the Queens. Joy mingled with my relief. By putting Eiridan on the throne, I would have access to the most powerful army in Arcania. Emperor Phoh had used the term ‘Arcania’ to describe all countries west of the mountains some time ago.

I glanced north to where dark clouds swirled together, promising the rains to come. I bravely let go of Eiridan, spread my arms, and saluted the sky. I’d never felt such freedom. Even escaping from Meligna with Klawdia last year couldn’t compare to the freedom of flying on Sala’s back.

Strands of Eiridan’s long white hair whipped in the wind and stung my face. By leaning forward against his back, I secured the locks between us. Of course, he seemed to take this as a sign of affection, and he tenderly squeezed my leg with his hand. So now it was all right to touch him?

Thinking of Eiridan on the throne made me wonder if he would be an effective leader. He pitied both Divines and Viles alike, but due to his disfigured appearance and radical ideals on equality, I suspected he’d find more acceptance among the Viles. Maybe Phoh had never banished him to the southern city because he feared making Eiridan a champion for the Viles. A kind and sweet royal prince, exiled by his tyrannical father for being ugly—the story plucked at the heartstrings.

The Bivinians’ strict adherence to Geshika’s laws left no doubt in my mind that if I were to heal Eiridan, he would be denied the throne under the assumption that we’d lain together. Although, if we showed the people the new blood healing technique, then that knowledge might spread to the Queens, giving them an advantage in the war. There seemed to be no easy way around the dilemma.

Fly around the palace several times, Sala. Make sure the whole city sees us.

Yes, Rider.

I squeezed Eiridan’s shoulder. ‘What happens now?’

‘All going well, the priests will pass the throne to me. Father will take the family to go live on Urk Isle for the next five years.’

‘Why?’

‘An emperor’s sway on the people doesn’t end with their dethroning. So we isolate them for a while.’

I sensed sadness in Eiridan’s voice. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘My whole life, I studied books and learned from the wise. I did everything to make myself worthy of being a Rider. I just don’t see—’

‘What Sala sees in me that she doesn’t see in you?’

‘I wouldn’t have quite put it that way,’ he said, ‘but yes.’

‘Many roads lead to success, Eiridan,’ I said, stealing Sala’s idiom. ‘This is one of them. Don’t muddy your dreams with foolish details. You wanted to be emperor and change the future, right?’

Again he placed a hand on my leg, right above my knee. This time, though, my skin tingled under his touch. ‘Promise me you’ll marry me.’

My gut twisted. Marrying Eiridan would align our countries and bring peace to our lands. Yet I feared losing Nallael forever. What would Eiridan expect from a marriage between us? Behind closed doors, could Nallael and I still be together?

Sala bellowed loudly as she swooped the city’s rooftops and veered around the palace walls. Large windows mirrored our images and I grinned at how powerful and important we looked on Sala’s back.

Sala’s flight path focused on Geshika’s temples and the palace and she picked up speed to cover the length and width of the city. I found my fingers digging into Eiridan’s waist, trying to enjoy the sensations that flight brought.

We returned to the palace and as we lowered, citizens flocked to the palace square. Children sprinted along the footpaths, chasing Sala’s shadow and waving up at us.

Royal paladins congregated at the bottom of the hundred or so stairs leading up to the palace’s platform, their spears held as straight as their backs, their arms linked to stop the excited people from pushing up into the palace.

The people began to chant. ‘Somnass, Somnass, Somnass.’

‘What do they say?’

‘Somnass means The day of the Rider is here.’

I balked. ‘One word to convey all that?’

In Senyan, someone called out, ‘The prophecy is fulfilled!’

I tapped Eiridan’s back. ‘Wave at them.’

The people cheered as the prince raised his hand. An abrupt laugh escaped my lips and I gripped Eiridan’s muscular shoulders. The people welcomed him as a Rider, but would they accept him as emperor? At first, I had wished the Bivinians were less passionate about their belief in the divine power of Geshika. But their endearing superstitious culture would turn their eyes away from Emperor Phoh—forcing him to relinquish the throne—and onto his son. It had been hundreds of years since a pegan had chosen a Rider. Emperor Phoh couldn’t compete with that.

Swoop down over the crowds, I said.

Our abrupt descent elicited cheers of delight, and we passed over a rainbow of falling petals. A magenta heart-shaped bloom lodged itself on top of Eiridan’s tunic. The world disappeared as I picked it up and breathed in its sugary scent. Bickjey. Mother always picked them in the spring and arranged them in a special vase belonging to my grandmother. A tear slid down my cheek. I missed them both.

She would be proud of you, Sala said.

Don’t talk to me as if you know me. Anger surged at the idea that this strange pegan beast witnessed my most private moments. I found myself growing anxious over which of my thoughts surfaced, which of course made the most hideous of my memories come to mind.

The deafening roar of the crowd made me lucid again, and I clutched the flower at my chest.

‘It’s you they want,’ I said in Eiridan’s ear.

‘They do, don’t they? They hardly notice you.’

My stomach twinged at his words. As his future empress, wouldn’t he want them to acknowledge me? I sighed and wondered if his seeming dismissal of me was a result of the way men in general thought about women in Bivinia. But Eiridan was happy, and for now that satisfied me. My happiness mattered less.

Again Sala intruded on my privacy. You overvalue Eiridan and undervalue yourself. Continuing to do so will lead to Arcania’s ruin.

Flabbergasted, I didn’t know what to say back. The unsettling bluntness of her words made me lean in closer to Eiridan for comfort. Words were powerful. More powerful than we realised. Belned, the Bivinian spy back in Meligna, had taught me that. I could use words to give Eiridan courage. ‘They would never expect Sala to choose me. Be confident. Don’t let the burden of your ideals reveal our deception.’ I focused my attention at the beast beneath me. Don’t respond to my thoughts unless I direct them at you. Please.

As we landed at the top of the stairs, paladins on white horses closed in on us. Eiridan ignored them and waved at the people cheering below. There were thousands now. Word had spread quickly, and the yellow streets were swarmed by the white-clad crowds.

Though the paladins had us trapped, Sala towered over their horses and as she flapped her powerful wings, I recognised their potential as weapons.

A priest wearing a white circlet emerged from between the white-armoured men. As the guards parted for the aged man, I looked past the billowing curtains to the crowded Hall of Judgement.

The circlet-wearing priest regarded me before narrowing his eyes at the prince. ‘You must prove yourself.’

‘I will, Priest Parsin. The prince nodded in my direction. ‘I appreciate your speaking, Senyan.’ He helped me dismount from Sala’s back, though I felt less safe on the ground.

The priest pursed his lips, bowed slightly, and then with a sweeping gesture, inviting us to enter the palace. ‘The pegan must come, too.’

I glanced at Sala. How will Eiridan prove himself?

Do not worry, it is merely a ritual, not an examination. Eiridan will give me orders and I must obey. You should know that Priest Parsin is in fear for his life. The emperor has threatened his family, and the sector he controls.

I frowned. What’s a sector?

‘Adenine,’ Eiridan said, tugging at my sleeve. Glancing up, I felt many eyes on me, my palms sweating. I straightened with a pretence of confidence, and moved to Eiridan’s side.

As we walked along the vibrant green carpet leading to the throne’s platform, it felt as if death awaited me at the end.

Emperor Phoh’s countenance was cold. As he regarded his son, the lines around his eyes held an obstinate challenge. Disgust joined that chilling gaze when he considered me. A shiver clung to my ribs, pricked my spine, and finally burrowed into my skull.

The more steps I took, the more vulnerable I felt. When my muscles turned to gruel, I was sure I’d sink through the floor. In a desperate grab for strength, I focused on the blade hidden in my boot.

Months ago, when I’d first met the emperor, the base of the dais had been decorated by incense and water. Now, three exquisitely carved marble chairs sat beside the set of steps. Occupying one of those chairs was a woman of elegance. Joining her in the other seats were Eiridan’s brothers.

I met the stunning woman’s eyes. She was obviously Emperor Phoh’s wife. Surprisingly, instead of anger and contempt, I found only love in her features. Eiridan’s brothers, on the other hand, were clearly hostile.

Be stronger, Sala said, as if the idea hadn’t already occurred to me.

The silence of the courtiers only reinforced the extraordinary significance of the moment, of which I was a central part. My legs shook, my stomach churned, and I kept my eyes locked on the emperor’s feet. It took concentration to keep my feet stepping forward.

You are not the helpless blind girl in the attic anymore. You are a leader and saviour to your people, Sala said.

The pegan spoke so freely of my childhood—a time I seldom thought of anymore—that I felt helpless to stop her. If she knew me better, she’d realise that talking about my childhood rendered me weak and vulnerable.

Concentrate. Priest Firsil thinks you bewitched me to be Eiridan’s Rider.

I searched the faces of the priests. Which one is he?

Green circlet. He is master of land and farming.

The man had a sharp nose and disapproving eyes.

The other priests fear the recklessness of Eiridan’s youth, but abhor the dictatorship of Emperor Phoh. The young heir will be killed by his father if the priests decide against him.

I lost my nerve and imagined taking Eiridan’s hand, running from the room and fleeing on Sala’s back. Trepidation caused my heart to spasm. I’d foolishly hoped Emperor Phoh would peacefully step aside.

What do his younger brothers and mother think?

Frane hates Eiridan and the youngest, Mikme, follows in Frane’s footsteps. Lylana, Eiridan’s mother, struggles to contain her joy—but she must, for the sake of decorum and out of respect for her husband.

What else do the priests think?

It is difficult to know. They shield their thoughts from me. Priests are taught this skill as part of their traditional training.

I tried not to let my surprise show on my face. How many of my thoughts can you hear?

All of them. When you accepted my voice in your head, I became part of you. We are entwined. Like vines, our souls twist and grow into each other. As our bond persists, we become even more inseparable.

My breath caught in my chest. I nearly hugged myself, but stopped when I thought it would be seen as weakness by the surrounding courtiers. I straightened my robe instead. Then you know everything about me?

Yes.

My deepest regrets surfaced and my sudden defencelessness made the hair on my arms bristle. How could she choose me, knowing all of my dark places such as the cutting, the hatred for the Queens, and how I’d left Frooby lying on the ground in Borrelia, sick and unconscious?

You knew all this, yet you still chose me?

The love for your country and your friends is right. You are right. There is no other way to explain my assuredness.

Priest Parsin indicated for us to stop about a metre from the palace stairs. He took his seat at the right hand of the emperor. I was close to Empress Lylana and I braved another glance in her direction. Sanguine eyes stared back. Her lips twitched into a pinched smile.

She’s desperate to speak to you.

Why?

Eiridan loves you and she approves.

As if he’d heard Sala use his name, the prince touched my shoulder. The motion drew a rush of whispers from our distinguished onlookers. I darted my eyes toward the empress and caught her approving smile. Dazzled, I awkwardly smiled back.

She knows pegans can hear thoughts and so she sends a message to her son thinking he is the Rider. Lylana approves of your marrying Eiridan.

How does she know about him wanting to marry me?

She is a mother. She knows.

While the empress was warm and accepting, her furious husband gripped his throne so hard that his knuckles turned white. I imagined the pearl marble crumbling between his fingers. Like strained tree roots, the veins in his neck surfaced.

Priest Parsin, the one with the white circlet, quickly rose and cleared his throat. ‘We will speak Senyan today as the emperor passes judgement on the healer.’

The Emperor laughed. ‘Healer? You mean harlot.’

‘Emperor Phoh, hold your tongue or you will be asked to leave the room,’ replied Priest Parsin. Even through his bold words, I could hear the hesitance in his tone.

The crowd of courtiers gasped. The other priests snorted in agreement.

A priest wearing a pink circlet leaned forward. He tapped jewel-covered fingers on his pouty lips, and the groove beneath his nose deepened as he snickered. ‘Speak Senyan?’ he mocked in a somewhat shrill voice. ‘Their lazy and barbaric inflections leave scum in my mouth even now. My holy tongue deserves better.’ His ostentatious commentary received appreciative jeers.

Who is that? I asked Sala, unable to stop glaring at the man.

Priest Cau.

Unfortunately, he continued speaking. ‘Ugh, this language is as dirty as the Viles. Wouldn’t you agree, Prince Eiridan?’

Emperor Phoh smirked and Eiridan’s brothers laughed boisterously.

What does the rat do? I asked.

Master over aesthetics, pleasure, and fashion.

I almost laughed at what Sala said. So, flower-arranging and sewing?

I do not see the relevance of your question.

I immediately wondered if Sala—or pegans in general, for that matter—had a sense of humour.

Do they all speak Senyan? I asked.

Yes. High Priests are more learned than they appear, though they are disgusted by speaking anything other than Bivinian.

‘No pegan would choose Eiridan to be a Rider,’ the emperor shouted.

The acrid resentment in his tone made me wonder how a father could be so horrible to his son.

The emperor continued. ‘He is no leader, and she—’ He jabbed a finger in my direction. ‘—is a conjurer of mischief.’

Priest Parsin resumed his seat. ‘We already know how you feel about your son, Emperor Phoh.’ He flattened his long, pale beard. ‘Neither Geshika’s word nor the law has changed. The prophecy has been fulfilled, and we must decide whether we agree.’

A purple circlet-wearing priest—who hadn’t joined in with Priest Cau’s mockery—said, ‘Pegans have the wisdom of the ages and our country always thrived under their instruction. We turned our back on them, not they on us.’

And him?

Priest Thimaro. He walks among the people, listening to their concerns, resolving disputes and keeping the peace.

With his caring eyes and self-assured manner, I warmed to him instantly. I tried to catch his gaze, but he avoided me.

Doesn’t he like me?

The women of Whitespring are threatened by you. They fear you will corrupt their husbands, which forces Thimaro to denounce you.

Emperor Phoh rose stiffly from his elegant chair, lifted a sceptre from its holder, and pointed the tip near Priest Thimaro’s face.

‘You want Eiridan, a sympathiser to the Viles, a bleeding heart—possibly an impure—to lead our people?’

Impure? I thought at Sala.

A person who has deflowered themselves before marriage.

Oh. That. I remember now.

The emperor swished his sceptre about. ‘Remember when Eiridan’s babblings and nonsense filled this dwelling last year? Ignoring him made us richer than ever. Thanks to the tax on the Viles’ lodgings, the treasury is full, our homes laden with riches. Under his rule, your salaries would be reduced. Silks, spices, furnishings, fine cuts of meats, delicately aged wines, all of it would soar with cost. Our living standards would decline and Geshika would surely abandon us.’

Do the Divines pay this lodging tax? Thank the gods I had Sala to clarify aspects of the Bivinian culture I didn’t understand.

No. Though they pay one-tenth of their income to Geshika. The Viles pay two-tenths. The Viles receive a fifth of the salary the Divines do, hardly enough to live on.

I was outraged. The Queens had a similar discriminatory approach to those in the Outer Ring of Meligna.

You speak of it so impartially, Sala. Don’t you care?

I do not understand your meaning.

Eiridan took another step forward, meeting the eyes of the holy men. ‘Are your bellies not full and your backs clothed with precious silks? Are your children not well-schooled, your wives given every luxury, and your homes ten times larger than they need to be? Hear me now, for this is my promise. I will forever consider your sacred guidance on all Bivinian matters. Even those that seek to further your wealth and luxury, but it will not come at the detriment of the Viles.’

Indignation clamped the priests’ mouths shut.

Did that work?

Yes. Some are ashamed. But there is more I cannot see.

Priest Parsin addressed Emperor Phoh. ‘Your son knows what is right. Resign with dignity.’

The emperor searched the faces of the other priests, though none of them returned his gaze. Emperor Phoh snorted. ‘Cowards.’

The red-circlet priest stifled a chuckle, his broad shoulders bouncing up and down.

Who’s the muscle with the red circlet?

Priest Blol. He cares not who is in charge.

What’s his role?

Military advisor. A former paladin.

Eiridan spoke again. ‘Fear not, my priests. Your sectors remain yours, as do the privileged positions you’ve come to hold.’

The lands will never unite while the priests enforce Geshika’s ideals of perfection, Sala said. This is why you must lead.

Eiridan doesn’t really believe in Geshika. He says what he must to gain their trust.

He is not meant to lead, Adenine—

Hush. I’m trying to listen.

‘I hope you do not think that is the only reason we have doubts about your capabilities to rule, young prince,’ said Priest Firsil.

‘We must expand. We must advance,’ said another priest. This one wore a light blue circlet.

His name?

Priest Shillin. He’s an economist and supports Eiridan. He wants expansion and trade with countries from across the seas.

Prince Shillin continued, ‘The prince is young and a futurist. He’ll take the risks we traditionalists will not. Most of us are aged. Our futility draws nigh.’

I’ll never be able to remember all their names. What is Priest Parsin’s role exactly?

He upholds Geshika’s law and all Bivinian morality. The emperor seeks his holy guidance. Though all priests are trained in the law of Geshika, Priest Parsin is the most learned.

So, Priest Firsil, land and homes. Priest Parsin, Geshika’s holy man, and Priest Cau is Sir Vanity.

She paused before answering. I do not understand what you mean by Sir Vanity?

Never mind.

‘Never in our history have we overruled the pegans’ choice of Rider,’ said a silver circlet-wearing priest. ‘And why are we bothering with all this formality? There is a new Rider, the emperor must step down, end of story.’

And who is he? I asked.

Priest Teo, historian and scholar.

‘Hear, hear!’ cried Priest Thimaro, the man of the people.

Why does Priest Thimaro agree with Teo?

Both priests despise the emperor. Priest Thimaro, like the people, believes the prophecy is true and sympathises with the Viles. Priest Teo’s deep knowledge of the Bivinian texts compels him to see pegans as superior to man.

‘Our civilisation stands strong without pegans,’ Priest Blol declared. I wondered if the priest’s robes concealed scars, as most warriors carried. The Divines saw such imperfections as ghastly. Perhaps that was why they wore such thick, concealing robes despite the hot, humid climate.

‘A mutual exchange of war tactics with other civilisations will improve our own defences,’ Priest Teo said to Priest Blol.

‘We don’t need tactics,’ the head paladin said. ‘We’re thirty thousand soldiers strong. We’ll get technology, riches, and information enough from taking Juxon City.’ Blol turned to Priest Shillin. ‘I’m surprised you’re not happier about the prospect of war. It’ll stimulate the economy.’

Priest Shillin pursed his lips. ‘Advancement at the expense of men’s lives—regardless of economic reward—is wrong.’

I like him.

Priest Teo nodded in agreement. His skin was unblemished and smooth. He was younger than the others.

‘We cling to the old ways, but we’ll stagnate if we don’t move forward,’ added Priest Parsin.

Emperor Phoh scowled at him. ‘And those old ways, as you call them, have kept our civilisation powerful.’

Sala tossed her head and bellowed so the men would stop talking. She clambered up the steps to the emperor, and one of the emperor’s guards drew his sword as she approached. Her head stopped a mere metre away from the emperor’s. He sunk back into his chair.

‘Put down your sword, paladin!’ Parsin cried. ‘How dare you threaten the holy beast of Geshika!’

Priest Blol growled at Eiridan. ‘Restrain your winged horse now!’ Then his hand went to the hilt of his sword.

Step back, Sala.

She obeyed, and the emperor’s guards promptly formed a wall between their monarch and the beast.

Eiridan said, ‘Sala is angry and wishes to convey to you a message.’ He took a deep breath, preparing himself for the lie.

Can you growl? I asked Sala.

A deep ferocious roar burst so loudly from her