Ember Queen Page 1


I SPENT MUCH OF MY FIRST six years afraid of my mother’s throne the way most children are afraid of monsters lurking under their beds. It was a terrifying thing to behold: tall and shadowy black, sharp-edged, carved to look like dark flames. I remember the bone-deep certainty that touching it would burn.

Every day, I would see my mother sit upon that throne, and I believed that it held her there, its obsidian fingers digging into her skin. I watched it transform her into someone else, someone I didn’t recognize. Gone was the woman at the center of my world, the soft-spoken mother who would kiss my forehead and hold me on her lap, who would sing me to sleep every night. In the throne, a stranger took over her body—her voice boomed, her back was ramrod straight. She spoke carefully and authoritatively without a hint of a smile in her voice. When the throne finally released her, she was exhausted.

Now that I’m older, I know that the throne wasn’t a monster in the way I believed. I know that it didn’t have a physical hold on my mother. I know that when she sat on that throne, she was still herself. But I also understand that in some way, I was right. She was never quite the same person on that throne that she was off it.

Usually, my mother belonged only to me; when she sat on that throne, she belonged to everyone.


THE SUN IS BLINDING WHEN I step out of the mouth of the cave on weak legs. I lift a heavy, aching arm to shield my eyes, but the effort of even that small gesture makes the world around me spin. My knees buckle and the ground comes up to meet me, hard and sharp with rocks. It hurts, but oh, it feels so good to lie down, to have fresh air in my lungs, to have light, even if it is too much all at once.

My throat is so dry, it hurts to even breathe. There is caked blood on my fingers, on my arms, in my hair. Distantly I realize that it’s mine, but I can’t say where it came from. My memories are a desert—I remember stepping into the cave, remember hearing my friends’ voices begging me to come back. And then…nothing.

“Theo,” a voice calls, familiar but so far away. A thousand footsteps beat against the ground, each one making my head throb. I flinch away from the sound, curling tighter into myself.

Hands touch my skin—my wrists, the pulse point behind my ear. They are so cold, they raise goose bumps on my skin.

“Is she…,” a voice says. Blaise. I try to say his name, but nothing comes out.

“She’s alive, but her pulse is faint and her skin is hot,” another voice says. Heron. “We have to get her inside.”

Arms scoop me up and carry me—Heron’s, I think. Again, I try to speak, but I can’t make so much as a sound.

“Art, your cloak,” Heron says, his chest rumbling against my cheek with each word. “Cover her head with it. Her eyes are oversensitive.”

“Yes, I remember,” Art says. Fabric rustles and her cloak falls over my eyes, wrapping my world in darkness once more.

I let myself fall into it now. My friends have me, and so I am safe.

* * *

The next time I open my eyes, I’m on a cot inside a tent, the bright sun filtered through thick white cotton so that it is bearable. The pounding in my head is still there, but it’s dull and faraway now. My throat is no longer dry and raw, and if I focus, I have a hazy memory of Artemisia pouring water into my open mouth. The pillow beneath my head is still damp from where she missed.

Now, though, I’m alone.

I force myself to sit up even though it intensifies the pain echoing through my every nerve. The Kalovaxians will return sooner or later, and who knows how long Cress will keep S?ren alive? There is so much to be done and not nearly enough time to do it.

Placing my bare feet on the dirt floor, I push myself to stand. As I do, the tent flap pulls open and Heron steps inside, ducking his tall frame in order to fit through the small opening. When he sees me awake and standing, he falters, blinking a few times to ensure he isn’t imagining me.

“Theo,” he says slowly, testing out the sound of my name.

“How long has it been?” I ask him quietly. “Since I entered the mine?”

Heron surveys me for a moment. “Two weeks,” he says.

The words knock me backward, and I sit down on the cot again. “Two weeks,” I echo. “It felt like hours, maybe days.”

Heron doesn’t look surprised by that. Why would he? He’s gone through the same thing.

“Do you remember sleeping?” he asks me. “Eating? Drinking? You must have, at some point, or you would be in much worse shape.”

I shake my head, trying to grasp what I do remember, but very little of it solidifies enough for me to hold on to. Scraps of details, ghosts that could not have been real, fire flooding my veins. But nothing more than that.

“You should have left me,” I tell him. “Two weeks…Cress’s army could be back any day now, and S?ren—”

“Is alive, according to reports,” Heron interrupts. “And the Kalovaxians have received no orders to return here.”

I stare at him. “How can you possibly know that?” I ask.

He lifts a shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “Spies,” he says, as if the answer should be obvious.

“We don’t have spies,” I say slowly.

“We didn’t have spies. But we got word that the new Theyn was at his country home, two days’ ride from here. We were able to turn several of his slaves before they returned to the capital. We just received our first missive. The Theyn hasn’t ordered troops back yet. Besides, the vast majority of the army has left. It’s only Blaise, Artemisia, Erik, Dragonsbane, and me, plus a group of those still recovering from the battle. But even they’ll be going to safety with Dragonsbane in a day or two.”

I barely hear him, still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of spies. All I can think of is Elpis, of what happened the last time I made a spy of someone.

“I didn’t approve the use of spies,” I tell him.

“You’d walked into the mine the day before the plan was hatched,” Heron says, his voice level. “You weren’t around to approve much of anything, and there was no time to wait for you to come back. If you came back at all.”

A retort dies in my throat, and I swallow it. “If they die—”

“It will have been a necessary risk,” Heron says. “They knew as much when they volunteered. Besides, the Kaiserin is not as paranoid as the Kaiser, from what we’ve heard. She thinks you’re dead, she thinks we aren’t a threat, she has S?ren. She thinks she’s won, and so she’s getting sloppy.”

The Kaiserin. Will there ever come a day when I hear that title and think first of Cress and not Kaiserin Anke?

“You said the army had left,” I say. “Where to?”

Heron lets out a long exhale. “You missed quite a lot of squabbling while you were gone—I almost envy you. The Vecturian chief sent his daughter Maile to assist us, along with his troops. With S?ren gone, she and Erik have the most battle experience, but they don’t agree on anything. Erik wants to march straight to the capital to take the city and rescue S?ren.”

“That’s foolish,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s exactly what they’ll expect, and even if it weren’t, we don’t have the numbers for that kind of siege.”

“That’s exactly what Maile said,” Heron says, shaking his head. “She said we should continue to the Earth Mine.”

“But we can’t do that without marching past the most populous cities, without even the cover of forests or mountains,” I say. “It’ll be impossible to avoid detection, and then Cress will have an army waiting to greet us at the Earth Mine.”

“Which is exactly what Erik said,” Heron says. “See, you’re all caught up.”

“So who won?” I ask.

“No one,” Heron says. “It was decided that we should send the troops to the cities along the Savria River. None of them is heavily populated, but we’ll be able to contain the Kalovaxians, free their slaves, add to our numbers, and collect weapons and food as well. And most importantly, our troops aren’t just waiting here like sitting ducks.”

“Like we are, you mean,” I say, rubbing my temples. The headache blossoming has nothing to do with the mine this time. “And now I’m here to break the tie, I suppose.”

“Later,” he says. “Once you can actually walk on your own.”

“I’m fine,” I tell him, more forcefully than necessary.

Heron watches me warily. He opens his mouth, but closes it again quickly, shaking his head.

“If there’s something you want to ask me about the mines, I don’t remember anything,” I tell him. “The last thing I remember is going in—after that, it’s a blur.”


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