Ash Princess Page 2

“Oh, it was far worse this time. Her gown was black lace. You could practically make out her intimate attire—or lack thereof!”

“No!” I shriek, pretending to be scandalized.

“Yes! They say she’s hoping to entice Duke Clarence,” Cress says. “Though why, I can’t imagine. He’s old enough to be her father and he smells like rotten meat.” She wrinkles her nose.

“I suppose when you consider her actual father’s debts…” I trail off, arching an eyebrow.

Crescentia’s eyes widen. “Really? Where did you hear that?” she gasps. When I only smile in response, she sighs and elbows me lightly in the side. “You always know the best gossip, Thora.”

“That’s because I listen,” I say with a wink.

I don’t tell her what I’m really listening for, that I sift through each vapid rumor for whispers of Astrean resistance, for any hope that someone is still out there, that someday they might rescue me.

In the years after the siege, there were always stories about rebel Astreans striking out against the Kaiser. Once a week, I would be dragged out to the capital square to be whipped by one of the Kaiser’s men and made an example of while the heads of fallen rebels stood rotting on pikes behind me. I knew those faces most of the time: Guardians who had served my mother, men and women who had given me candy and told me stories when I was young. I hated those days, and most of the time I hated the rebels because it felt like they were the ones hurting me by incurring the Kaiser’s wrath.

Now, though, most of the rebels are dead and there are only whispers of rebellion, fleeting afterthoughts of gossip when the courtiers run out of other things to talk about. It’s been years since the last rebel was caught. I don’t miss those punishments, always more brutal and public than any others, but I do miss the hope that clung to me, the feeling that I was not alone in the world, that one day—maybe—my people would succeed and end my misery.

Footsteps grow louder behind us, too heavy to belong to Cress’s slaves.

“Lady Crescentia, Lady Thora,” a male voice calls. Cress’s hold on my arm tightens and her breath catches.

“Your Highness,” Cress says, turning and dropping into a curtsy, pulling me with her. The title sends my heart racing, even though I know it’s not the Kaiser. I would know his voice anywhere. Still, I don’t fully relax until I rise from my curtsy and confirm that I’m right.

The stranger shares the same long wheat-blond hair and cold blue eyes, the same square jawline, as the Kaiser, but the man in front of me is much younger, maybe a year older than I am.

Prinz Søren, I realize, surprised. No one has spoken of his return to court, which is surprising because the Kalovaxians are infatuated with their Prinz far more than they are with the Kaiser.

The last time I saw him was almost five years ago, when he was a scrawny twelve-year-old with round cheeks and a wooden sword always in hand. The man in front of me is no longer scrawny, and his cheeks have lost that childish roundness. A sword still hangs in the scabbard on his hip, but it isn’t wooden anymore. It’s a pockmarked wrought-iron blade, its hilt glittering with Spiritgems, for strength this time.

As a child, I saw Earth Guardians strong enough to haul boulders three times their weight as if they were nothing but air, but I doubt the Prinz’s Spiritgems do much more than add an extra few pounds of force to his blows. Not that it really matters. Over the five years of Søren’s training with the Theyn, that sword has drawn more than its fair share of blood. The court is always abuzz with whispers of the Prinz’s prowess in battle. They say he’s a prodigy, even by Kalovaxian standards. The Kaiser likes to treat the Prinz as an extension of himself, but Prinz Søren’s achievements only serve to highlight the Kaiser’s own shortcomings. Since taking the throne, the Kaiser has grown lazy and content, more interested in feasting and drinking than taking part in battles.

I wonder what the Prinz is doing back after so many years, though I suppose his apprenticeship with the Theyn is over. He’s officially an adult now, and I can only assume he’ll be leading his own armies soon.

He gives a shallow bow and clasps his hands behind his back. His placid expression doesn’t change; it might as well be carved from marble. “It’s good to see you both again. I trust you’ve been well.”

It’s not a question, really, but Cress still answers with a flustered yes, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and smoothing the folds of her skirt, barely able to meet his eyes. She’s been swooning over him since we were children, along with every other girl our age who grew up imagining herself a prinzessin. But for Cress, it’s never been a hollow fantasy. Astrea is only one of the territories her father has won for the Kaiser. They say her father has taken more kingdoms than any other warlord, and no one can argue that the elevation of his daughter to prinzessin would be a just reward for such loyalty. Since Cress came of age six months ago, the whispers about such a match have grown deafening at court.

Another reason for his return, maybe?

If those whispers reached Søren, wherever he’s been, he doesn’t show it. His eyes glide over Cress as though she were nothing but air and light, landing instead on me. His brow furrows, the same way his father’s does when he looks at me, though at least it isn’t followed with a smirk or a leer.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says to Cress, cool and clipped, though his eyes stay on mine. “My father is requesting your presence, Lady Thora.”

Fear wraps around my stomach like a hungry python, tightening, tightening, until I can’t breathe. The urge to run rears up in me and I struggle to keep my legs still.

I haven’t done anything. I’ve been so careful. But then, I don’t have to do anything to earn the Kaiser’s wrath. Anytime there’s a hint of rebellion in the slave quarter or an Astrean pirate sinks a Kalovaxian ship, I pay the price. The last time he summoned me, barely a week ago, was to have me whipped in response to a riot in one of the mines.

“Well.” My voice quavers despite my best efforts to keep it level. “We shouldn’t keep him waiting.”

For a brief moment, Prinz Søren looks like he might say something, but instead, his mouth tightens and he offers me his arm.

THE OBSIDIAN THRONE STANDS ON a dais at the center of the round, dome-roofed throne room. The great, hulking thing is carved from solid black stone in the shape of flames that appear to kiss whoever sits upon it. It’s plain, almost ugly, amid all the gold and grandeur that surround it, but it is certainly commanding, and that is what matters.

The Kalovaxians believe that the throne was drawn forth from the volcanoes of Old Kalovaxia and left here in Astrea for them by their gods, ensuring that they would one day come and save the country from its weak and willful queens.

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