Ash Princess Page 4

This is the Kaiser’s favorite kind of question to ask. The kind without a right answer.

I look back at the man, as if struggling to place him, even as his name screams through my mind. More memories come and I force them back. The Kaiser is watching me carefully, waiting for any sign that I am not under his thumb. But I can’t look away from this man’s eyes.

In that other life, I loved him.

He was my mother’s most trusted Guardian and, according to just about everyone, my blood father—though even my mother couldn’t say that for certain.

I remember searching his face for similarities to my own after I heard the rumor for the first time, but I found nothing conclusive. His nose had the same slope, and his hair curled around his ears in the same way mine did, but I looked far too much like my mother to be sure of anything. That was before, though, when my eyes were childishly wide and shapeless, impossible to place on my mother’s face or anyone else’s. Now the resemblance is so clear it hits me like a knife to my gut.

As a Guardian, he would travel often to keep the country safe with his fire magic, but he always returned with sweets and toys and new stories for me. I often fell asleep on his lap, my hand clutching the Fire Gem that always hung around his neck. Its magic would buzz through me like a lullaby, singing me to sleep.

When my mother died and the world I knew turned to dust, I waited for him to save me. That hope waned with every Guardian’s head the Kaiser had piked in the square, but it never disappeared. I still heard whispers about Ampelio’s rebellions, and those kept my hope alive, even after all the other Guardians fell. Few and far between as they were, I clung to them. As long as he was out there, as long as he was fighting, I knew he would save me. I never let myself imagine, even in my worst nightmares, that I would see him like this.

I try to empty my mind, but it’s futile. Even now, a dim hope flickers in my heart that this day will have a happy ending, that we will see another sunrise together, free.

It’s a stupid, dangerous hope, but it burns all the same.

Tears sting at my eyes, but I cannot let them fall.

He doesn’t wear his gem now. Taking it was the first thing the Kaiser’s men would have done when they captured him. For an untrained courtier, a single gem can barely provide enough warmth to keep them comfortable on a winter’s night, but Ampelio was blessed. One gem was all he would need to burn this palace to the ground.

“This is the famed Guardian Ampelio,” the Kaiser says, drawing out each word mockingly. “You must remember him. He’s been sowing treason throughout the mines, trying to rally them against me. He even instigated the riot in the Air Mine last week. The Theyn found him nearby and brought him in.”

“Wasn’t it an earthquake that incited the riot?” The words slip out before I can stop them. They don’t feel like my words really. Or rather, they don’t feel like Thora’s.

Kaiser Corbinian’s jaw clenches and I recoil, readying for a strike that doesn’t come. Yet.

“Caused by him, we suspect, in order to rally more people to your cause,” he says.

I have a retort for that, too, but I bite it back and let confusion cloud my features. “My cause, Your Highness?” I ask. “I wasn’t aware that I had a cause.”

His smile sharpens. “The one seeking to, as they say, ‘restore you to your rightful place as Queen of Astrea.’ ”

I swallow. This conversation is taking an entirely new direction, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I think I’d almost prefer the whip to whatever new game this is.

My eyes drop to the ground. “I’m not anyone’s queen, and there is no Astrea anymore. I am a lady now, by Your Highness’s mercy, and a princess only of ashes. This is my rightful place, and the only one I desire.”

I can’t look at Ampelio as I recite the line that has been burned into my heart over the years. I’ve said it so often the words have stopped meaning anything, but saying it now in front of him causes shame to run through my veins.

The Kaiser nods. “I said as much, but Astreans are stubborn old mules.”

The throne room erupts into laughter. I laugh, too, but it is a sound wrenched from my gut.

The Kaiser turns to Ampelio, his expression a mockery of sympathy. “Come and bow before me, mule. Tell me where I can find your rebels and you can spend the rest of your days in one of the mines.” He grins at the broken man still lying at my feet.

Agree! I want to yell. Pledge your loyalty to him. Survive. Do not anger the Kaiser and he will keep you alive. These are the rules.

“I bow before no one but my queen,” Ampelio whispers, tripping over the hard edges of the Kalovaxian language. Despite his low voice, his words carry throughout the room, followed by gasps and murmurs from the court.

He raises his voice. “Long live Queen Theodosia Eirene Houzzara.”

Something shatters within me, and everything I’ve held back, every memory I’ve repressed, every moment I’ve tried to forget—it all comes rushing forward and I can’t stop it this time.

Theodosia. It’s a name I haven’t heard in ten years.

Theodosia. I hear my mother saying it to me, stroking my hair, kissing my forehead.

You are our people’s only hope, Theodosia.

Ampelio always called me Theo, no matter how my nanny, Birdie, chided him for it. I was his princess, she said, and Theo was the name of a dirt-streaked ragamuffin. He never listened, though. I might have been his princess, but I was something more as well.

He was supposed to save me, but he never did. I’ve been waiting for ten years for someone to come for me, and Ampelio was the last scrap of hope I had.

“Maybe he’ll answer to you, Ash Princess,” the Kaiser says.

My shock is dim, drowned out by the sound of my name echoing again and again in my mind. “I…I couldn’t presume to have that power, Your Highness,” I manage.

His mouth purses in an expression I know all too well. The Kaiser is not a man to be refused.

“This is why I keep you alive, isn’t it? To assist as a liaison to bullheaded Astrean scum?”

The Kaiser is kind to spare me, I think, but then I realize once again that he doesn’t spare me out of kindness. He keeps me alive to use me as leverage against my people.

My thoughts are growing bolder now, and though I know they are dangerous, I can no longer quiet them. And for the first time, I don’t want to.

I’ve been waiting for ten years to be saved, and all I have to show for it is a scarred back and countless dead rebels. With Ampelio caught, there is nothing more the Kaiser can take from me. We both know he is not merciful enough to kill me.

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