The Creators themselves couldn’t have picked a better day for a garden party. The sun was high, the clouds nowhere to be seen, and it was just hot enough to wear whatever one liked. It was the sort of day that a temple-goer might describe as auspicious, or perhaps proof of divine intervention; this was a day to honour the Creators, and they had given us the weather to do it.
Several guests stopped us on our way to Irina. They showered Damian with praises and kisses to his hand, small bows and good tidings. Several young women eyed me on his arm, diverting Damian’s attentions to the way they touched their hair or batted their eyes. A pretty young lord touched Damian’s shoulder delicately, bidding him a blessed day.
“Popular, aren’t you?” I said.
“There are worse things to be,” Damian replied with a flash of a white-toothed smile that would make anyone’s heart flutter. “I see no harm in a well-placed compliment or affection. Are the lords not, after all, meant to please their people?”
Damian and I wove through the guests and servants, relaxed expressions pasted on our faces. I swiped a glass of wine from a waiter and downed it in a few gulps. Damian raised a brow at it.
“Best I’ve had in years,” I said. “Can’t drink much on the road.”
He frowned slightly when I waved over a servant and took another glass.
Irina saw us coming, and her icy glare turned absolutely arctic. She whirled to face us, chin high in contempt.
“There you are, Yulia! Where have you been? I had half a mind to set Lady Ilyin’s hounds on you.”
Sarangerel didn’t react. I cringed appropriately. That really did feel like the truth.
“I apologise, my lady, I—”
“We can discuss a suitable punishment at a later time. Who is your escort?”
Damian jumped in before I could get a word out. “Lord Damian Ilyin, first in succession to the noble house of Ilyin. Lady Shrike, it is an honour to meet—”
“I’m certain it is. With me, Yulia. I wish to walk the grounds. These sycophants are trying my patience.”
Damian glanced meaningfully at me. I had to play my part until my opportunity arose. I only had once chance.
“Perhaps we could walk with Lord Ilyin. He was hoping to speak with you.”
“Everyone in this Creator-damned garden is.” Irina curled her nose is disgust at Damian, a move the other guests would gasp at. “But very well. If the lord’s pleasure is to walk, then he shall walk.”
And so she went without waiting to see if we would follow.
We made a leisurely circle around the party-goers. My stomach started to squirm nervously. I took a deep breath to steady it. Not yet.
Damian leaned towards Irina. “I had hoped to discuss a rather grave affair with you, Lady of Mount Anfang.”
I took in a sharp breath. A stupid mistake. There was no way Damian said that by accident.
“My lady is not the first of House Shrike. She is no Lady of Mount Anfang,” I said forcefully. A truth, but perilously close to our react secret. Irina was no fool. She’d been raised on politics and wordplay and deceit. She’d see Sarangerel, and she’d pick her way around our lies like an expert courtier.
“Not yet,” Irina said. “Which I would have expected your mother to educate you on, Lord Ilyin.”
“I did not think, Lady Shrike.”
“You did not. To whom do you think you speak? I am a Shrike, not an Ademar or Esterfell. We do not deal with small minds, nor do we tolerate their stupidity.”
I struggled not to outwardly jump between Irina and Damian. I am a Shrike. Unequivocally a lie. Was Irina really so careless?
Damian’s shoulders slackened, and his good-mannered smile no longer seemed forced. “I beg your forgiveness, Lady Shrike. May we start again?”
“No. State your business and be gone.”
I tensed. Why had Sarangerel not reacted? Why did Damian suddenly seem so relaxed?
“My mother and I have a rather sensitive political matter to discuss with you and your family’s first. I had hoped you could arrange a meeting between us.”
Irina scoffed. “My aunt does not involve herself in the politics of the minor houses. I doubt she would change her stance for the likes of the Ilyins.”
“It involves the archon.”
“And? Did you turn deaf? I said no.” Irina turned her back to Damian. “Yulia, kindly inform the Lord Ilyin that he is not to bother me with this matter again. I wish to enjoy the Day of Rains in solitude.”
I wished I could capture Damian’s stupefied face in a painting. I doubted anyone had ever spoken to him that way in his life.
“The princess is dead,” Damian said in hushed tones.
Irina stood motionless. “Excuse me?”
“The council has chosen her younger brother to take the throne. But he is weak. The Ilyins, and several prominent families I shall not yet name, wish to use this opportunity to oppose the monarchy.”
One of Irina’s hands closed in a fist. I felt sick. Very sick. I pressed a hand to my churning stomach.
“What you suggest is treason, Lord Ilyin,” Irina pushed through her clenched teeth. “Treason in the shape of a noose.”
A chill racked me. Even Damian seemed to second guess himself.
“The archons have all been tyrants. We ask that your family support the liberation of the people—”
“No.” Irina turned around slowly, her delicate features contorted in rage.
“I’m afraid I must insist on meeting with your aunt about this matter. You said yourself, Lady Shrike. You are not the Shrike first.”
“I am enough Shrike to tell you that Lady Ilyin will face the gallows before my aunt faces the Canavar.”
Her voice carried through the garden. Several guests tuned around. Damian’s hand went to his pommel.
“Is that a threat?”
“It is. And you shall weather my threats with as much silence as your precious apple trees weather storms, or face the headman’s axe.”
Damian’s hand tightened on his pommel. Somehow, he believed Irina really was a Shrike—but now that Shrike threatened to brand his family as traitors to the crown. There was no way he was going to let us simply walk out of Winterwood Hall. We had to get out of here.
So I threw up.
Damian and Irina jumped back from the horrific apple-wine spray I hurled onto the ground between them. The shock seemed to have broken Irina’s rage. She pulled a face, aghast.
“What in the hells is the matter with you, Yulia?”
I let myself fall onto my knee. I groaned. “I don’t feel well.” Sarangerel would feel the truth of it. This illness was no fake.
“What have you done to my vassal, Ilyin?”
Damian gaped. “I—nothing, Lady Shrike.”
I clutched my stomach dramatically. “I took Lady Ilyin’s pills this morning.” Truth again.
Irina gripped my arm to haul me up. “Your mother has poisoned my vassal! Is this what the noble houses can expect, should they refuse you?”
We’d made quite the spectacle. Lady Ilyin came rushing over, eyes wide with worry.
“Help her walk, Damian. Get her inside. I’ll get the doctor.”
I tugged on Irina’s sleeve. Come with me.
The three of us stumbled into the house. Servants guided us to a sitting room on the ground floor. Irina propped me up on a plush sofa among overflowing vases of sweet flowers, and with her back turned, gave me the most imperceptible of nods.
Irina wheeled on Damian. “Get out.”
“I should not leave you here alone.”
“I will not ask again. Get out, or I scream from here to the Korongorod that the traitorous Ilyins have attempted to murder my vassal.”
Damian glanced at me. He found a sweating, gaunt mess. Clearly, I wasn’t going anywhere. “I will see where the doctor is,” he said, and bowed quickly before rushing off.
The second the door snapped shut, I sprung up. “You need to head for the stables. There are nearly a hundred guests here. There must be spare horses, some riding supplies. Grab whatever you can find. I’ll meet you at the front door.”
“All right. What will you do?”
I snatched a letter opener from a nearby writing desk. “Call Andiya,” I said, and stabbed my palm.
I gritted my teeth through the pain and twisted. Distantly, I felt a glimmer of Andiya’s consciousness.
I pushed the letter opener deeper.
A snarl erupted in my mind. “What the fuck are you doing?”
The letter opener clattered bloody on the floor.
“Go,” I told Irina. She picked up her skirt and ran.
“Never thought I’d be so happy to hear your voice,” I sent.
“The reason you’re stabbing yourself?”
“To get your attention. We need you here, now. The Ilyins are one word from ordering the guard to slaughter us.”
“They figured out Irina isn’t a Shrike?”
“No. She fooled their sensor somehow.”
“So they’re not fans of her sterling personality? Can’t say I blame them, to be honest with you.”
“I’m sure you can relate.” I opened my mind. “Look at everything that’s happened since last night. We need to get out of here.”
Footsteps approached. I tossed myself down on the couch just as the Ilyins and a man in pale grey doctor robes ran in.
Damian tensed immediately at Irina’s absence. “Where is Lady Shrike?”
I looked past him to the doctor. “It’s my stomach.”
The doctor swept by Damian to me. He pressed a hand to my forehead. I let him examine me slowly, answered his questions with as few words as possible. I could see a muscle threading in Damian’s jaw as he waited. All I had to do was delay them as long as possible.
“Can you recall anything in the last few days that could have triggered this?” the doctor asked.
“Lady Ilyin has been giving me a medication I am unfamiliar with.”
“For good health!” Lady Ilyin protested. “I have taken them myself. They are perfectly safe.”
Damian’s tone was steel. “Unless mixed with wine,” he growled. “But you knew that, didn’t you Yulia?”
I faced his glare dead on. “I did.”
I’d discovered it that first night, where I’d cried myself out on my pillow. After downing the wine and medicine so closely together, I’d spent nearly a half hour on the floor of the bathroom, my stomach flipping every which way.
Damian took a step towards me. “Where is Lady Shrike?”
“I don’t know,” I spat, and as Sarangerel shrieked, I bolted.
Staying at Winterwood Hall had made me intimately familiar with its hallways. I tore down them, pushing through my nausea. It was, after all, only a stomachache.
I had to buy Irina time. I made for the library, Damian’s heavy footfalls just behind. Sarangerel screeched close to my ear. I turned just in time to see the daemon’s claws swooping at my face. I dove. Sarangerel missed, and I tumbled into Lady Ilyin’s library.
“Don’t!” bellowed Damian as I slammed my hand on the soul lock. The library door sealed in a flash of white light.
I leaned against the wall and retched. Damian pounded on the door. But I was safe for a few minutes. The lock would only open for me.
“Well, this doesn’t look good,” Andiya said from within my mind. It was like I could feel her under my skin, her magic buzzing in my head as she stared through my eyes. A shiver shot down my spine.
“So get over here and help me!” I hissed.
“It looks like you have things well in hand.”
Lady Ilyin’s voice shouted from beyond the door. “Out of my way, out of my way. Ophale—animate!”
“Yes, my lady,” said the voice of the housekeeper.
A subtle violet glow blossomed in the corner of my vision, humming with magic. The stone statue beside me creaked to life, flexing its stiff limbs, and stepped from its pedestal with a heavy footfall. On my other side, a second statue began to glow. I backed away.
“Andiya … ”
I snatched a candelabra and lowered it like a pike. Not that it would do much good against stone, but I had to try. Better to go down fighting.
The statues drew metal swords from stone sheaths.
“Of course you have swords,” I grumbled.
Damian shouted through the door. “Surrender and you shall not be harmed!”
“Tell Sarangerel to shriek for me, would you?” I called back.
The statues advanced. One swung its sword lethargically in warning. I parried with the candelabra, and the blade bit into the floor.
“We don’t want to shed friendly blood, Yulia!” said Lady Ilyin. “We can still work together to serve the people.”
“Yeah. I’m going to pass on that, thanks!”
The statues advanced in earnest. The next swing was real. I barely dodged in time.
“Do not make us kill you!” called Lady Ilyin.
“Not making you. No reason you can’t just let me walk.”
“We have every reason! Your lady has threatened to expose us. We have little other option.”
One of the statues charged. It swung its blade viciously. I dropped low, and the sword cut into a bookshelf like a whip through air. The shelf toppled to the ground, perfectly split, books spilling on the floor. No resistance. That blade was some kind of sharp.
Rather than test my parrying skills, I opted for simply running away. I danced around the library, only a few steps ahead of every strike. But I couldn’t go on forever. I would tire. The statues would not.
A sword sliced through the sofa just as I hopped over it. I stumbled, and a stone hand caught my hair. Like a child’s doll, the statue dragged me across the floor and pulled me into the air. The statue held me fast as the other approached.
“This is your last warning!” shouted Damian. “Surrender!”
The statue raised his sword. I closed my eyes. At least Irina might have made it out. I’d done my duty. I could do no more.
“I’m sorry, Andiya. For everything.” She deserved that final truth, if this was to be our end.
The library windows exploded in a wave of searing heat.
My eyes flew open. Torrents of bright flame shredded the manor roof, swallowed the bookshelves, and blasted the walls to smithereens. The statues collapsed, inanimate. From within the inferno, a figure with waves of scarlet hair stepped through the smoke. Andiya.
I sprinted to her. Rubble fell all around me. Andiya flicked her wrist, and a great tongue of flame curled over my head, shielding me from the chunks of wood and stone that rained down.
Andiya grinned when I reached her. “Your cavalry is here, master.”
I snatched her hand and pulled her to a dead sprint. The flames parted before my feet. We hit the front lawn just as the entire east wing came down, collapsing inwards on itself in a wave of fire and smoke. Ash and charcoal spewed out of the wreckage in a wave.
I coughed through the smoke. As it cleared, I saw Damian, Lady Ilyin, and the housekeeper also on the lawns. Fire ate the parts of the manor still standing, chewing its way through to the entrance hall and western wing. Damian dropped to his knees. Lady Ilyin seemed numb, her face slack in shock.
Guests were screaming from the gardens. A great pillar of black smoke rose into the blue sky.
Sarangerel shrieked, her fur and wings standing up. Damian’s gaze snapped to me.
Andiya grinned at him. She held a palm open, and flames began to coalesce in a tight ball.
“Don’t hurt him!” I shouted.
“Why not? He seemed perfectly happy to kill us.”
“Damian is a good person. Don’t hurt him—that’s an order!”
Andiya raised her arm to release the flames. So I yanked her magic away.
Andiya gasped and gripped my arm for support. The little ball of flame winked out. She shot me a petulant scowl. “I’m getting very tired of that little trick.”
Damian didn’t chase us. He only stared at me, unbridled hatred in his eyes. I’d made a powerful enemy today. Damian would never forget who had destroyed his home. I was glad he didn’t have our real names.
Hooves clopped towards us. Irina came galloping on a spotted grey destrier across the lawns, a second white horse in tow.
I gripped the saddle and hauled myself up. Andiya slid herself behind me.
I took one last look at Damian. He was motionless as servants scrambled about, trying to clear the guests from the path of the rising flames. His fierce eyes never left me.
I dug my heels into my horse, and we fled Winterwood Hall with a chorus of panic at our backs.
Hello there! I'm Carlyn, an amateur writer currently publishing free-to-read fantasy stories. I write diverse worlds featuring LGBT+ characters and romances, because I believe that we need those stories too (even if they are about magic and demons and brave sword-lesbians). I want to create worlds that are free of homophobia and sexism, so that everyone can enjoy the ride without feeling like they don't belong.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!