Ash Princess Page 3

I remember a different story, about the Astrean fire god, Houzzah, who loved a mortal woman so much he gave her a country and an heir with his blood in her veins. That story whispers through my mind now in a familiar lilting voice, but, like a distant star you try to look at directly, it’s quick to fade if I focus on it. It’s better left forgotten, anyway. It’s safer to live only in the present, to be a girl with no past to yearn for and no future to have ripped away.

The thick crowd of courtiers, dressed in their finery, parts easily for Prinz Søren and me as we make our way toward the Kaiser. Like Cress, the courtiers all wear blue Water Gems for beauty and clear Air Gems for grace—so many that to look at them is almost blinding. There are others as well—red Fire Gems for warmth, golden yellow Earth Gems for strength.

I scan the room. Amid a sea of pale, blond Kalovaxians, Ion stands out in his place off to the side of the throne. He’s the only other Astrean not in chains, but he’s hardly a welcome sight. After the siege, he turned himself over to the Kaiser and begged for his life, offering his services as an Air Guardian. Now the Kaiser keeps him around to use as a spy in the capital and as a healer for the royal family. And for me. After all, I’m not as much fun to beat if I black out from the pain. Ion, who once swore himself to our gods and my mother, uses his gift to heal me only so the Kaiser’s men can break me again and again and again.

His presence is an unspoken threat. He’s rarely allowed at court functions; he usually only appears during one of my punishments.

If the Kaiser intended to have me beaten, he would want to do so somewhere more public. He hasn’t ruled it out, though, which is why Ion is here.

The Kaiser aims a pointed look at Søren, who drops my arm and melts into the crowd, leaving me alone under the weight of his father’s stare. I’m tempted to cling to him, to anyone, so I won’t have to be alone.

But I’m always alone. I should be used to it by now, though I don’t think it’s the kind of thing a person ever grows used to.

The Kaiser leans forward in his seat, cold eyes glinting in the sunlight that pours through the stained-glass roof. He looks at me the way he might a squashed bug that dirtied the bottom of his shoe.

I stare at the dais instead, at the flames carved there. Not angering the Kaiser is what keeps me alive. He could have killed me a thousand times in the last decade and he hasn’t. Isn’t that a kindness?

“There you are, Ash Princess.” To anyone else, the greeting might sound pleasant, but I flinch. There is always a trick with the Kaiser, a game to play, a thin line to balance on. I know from experience that if he is playing at kindness now, cruelty can’t be far behind.

Standing at his right side with her hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed, his wife, Kaiserin Anke, lets her milky eyes dart up through sparse blond lashes to find mine. A warning that makes the python coil tighter around my stomach.

“You requested my presence, Your Highness?” I ask, dropping into a curtsy so deep I am almost flat against the ground. Even after a decade, my bones still protest the posture. My body remembers—even when the rest of me forgets—that I am not made for curtsying.

Before the Kaiser can answer, a guttural cry shatters the still air. When I rise, I notice a man standing to the left of the throne, held in place between two guards. Rusted chains are wrapped around his gaunt legs, arms, and neck so tightly they cut through his skin. His clothes are tattered and blood-drenched and his face is a mottled mess of broken bones and torn skin. Beneath the blood, he’s clearly Astrean, with tawny skin, black hair, and deep-set eyes. He looks much older than me, though it’s impossible to say exactly how old he is with all the damage that’s been done to him.

He is a stranger. But his dark eyes search mine as if he knows me, imploring, begging, and I rake through my memories—who could this be and what does he want from me? I have nothing for him. Nothing left for anyone. Then the world shifts beneath my feet.

I remember those eyes from another lifetime, set in a gentle face a decade younger and unbloodied. Memories surge forward, even as I try to press them down.

I remember him standing at my mother’s side, whispering something in her ear to make her laugh. I remember his arms coming around me as he lifted me up in the air so I could pick an orange from a tree; I remember how he smiled at me like we shared a secret.

I push back those thoughts and focus instead on the broken man standing before me.

There is one man always mentioned in connection with the rebellions. One man who has a hand in every move made against the Kaiser. One man whose name alone is enough to send the Kaiser into a wild-eyed rage that leaves me whipped so hard I have to stay in bed for days. One man whose acts of defiance have caused me so much pain, but who has been my one spark of hope when I dare let myself imagine there is an after to these infernal years.

No wonder the Kaiser is so happy. He’s finally caught the last of Astrea’s Guardians, and my mother’s closest guard. Ampelio.

“My Queen,” he says. His voice carries so that everyone gathered in the silent throne room hears his treason.

I shrink back from his words. No, no, no, I want to tell him. I am no one’s queen. I am Lady Thora, Princess of Ashes. I am no one.

It takes me a moment to realize he’s speaking Astrean, speaking forbidden words once used to address my mother. My mother. In another life, I was another girl. Another kind of princess. That girl was told that one day she would be queen, but she never wanted that to be true. After all, being queen meant living in a world where her mother no longer existed, and that had been unfathomable.

But that girl died a decade ago; there is no help for her now.

The man lurches, weighed down by his chains. He’s too weak to make it to the door, but he doesn’t even try for it. Instead, he topples to the ground at my feet, fingers grasping the hem of my dress and staining the pale yellow silk red.

No. Please. Part of me wants to drag him up and tell him he’s mistaken. Another part wants to shrink away from him because this is such a lovely dress and he’s getting blood on it. And yet another wants to scream at him that his words are going to ruin us both, but at least he will have the mercy of death.

“He refused to speak to anyone but you,” Kaiser Corbinian says in an acid voice.

“Me?” My heart is beating so hard in my chest that I’m surprised the whole court can’t hear it. Every eye in the room is on me; everyone is waiting for me to slip, desperate for the slightest hint of rebellion so that they can watch the Kaiser beat it out of me again. I will not give it to them.

I will not anger the Kaiser and he will keep me alive. I repeat the mantra to myself again and again, but the words have grown limp.

The Kaiser leans forward on his throne, eyes bright. I’ve seen that look too often before; it haunts my nightmares. He is a shark that has caught the scent of blood in the water. “Don’t you know him?”

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