We rode hard through the thick woods surrounding Winterwood Hall, a plume of smoke rising in the sky behind us. There wasn’t time to stop and collect ourselves. All that mattered was putting as much distance as possible between us and the Ilyins, and that hard look in Damian’s eyes. I did not want to wake up with a knife to my throat.
Our horses charged over the landscape, weaving between trees that grew sparser as we went. I remembered the map. Before long we’d be approaching the flatlands that spanned the distance from the woods to Ryalgrad. We’d not have much cover tonight.
“What happened with Rafiq and Khalid?” I sent Andiya. “Do they know where Yulia is?”
Her arms tightened around my waist. Her mind was sealed shut, as it had been since she’d seen Khalid in the clearing. “Later.”
“Is she alive?”
“No. Tell me right now, Andiya. I’ll wait for the rest, but I need to know. Yulia is my best friend. My only family. You can’t keep it from me for one more second.”
A wave of discomfort rolled through Andiya. “She’s alive.”
The knot in my stomach loosened. Alive. Whatever came next, we could make it through. I hadn’t lost her.
“Thank you,” I sent Andiya, but she didn’t reply.
As the light faded, continuing on through the brush and uneven, increasingly rocky ground became impossible. We found a flat, gravelly spot between two large boulders and tied up the horses. All we could do was hope we’d gone far enough we wouldn’t be run down in the night.
Irina emptied the saddlebags. I noticed hers were monogrammed with the initials W.L.O and a small white rose. She unhooked a similarly monogrammed blade and scabbard from the saddle and tossed them to me. I strapped the blade around my waist, a soldier once more. “I took what I could,” Irina said. “There wasn’t much of use in the stables. Only trinkets, really. Extra kerchiefs, a water canteen, riding clothes, a few meagre coins. Lucky for us, Lord Oster packed himself some snacks for the road.”
Irina laid out the food. A few paper-wrapped cakes, some sweetened dried fruit, and a few strips of dried meat over fine cheese. It would last us the night, but not longer.
“How much money, exactly?” I asked Irina, and she pressed a handful of coins into my palm. I struggled not to raise my brow. A few meagre coins, she thought? These were gold sovereigns. Anyone flashing this much money in a small town would be inviting every vagrant for miles to cut their purse.
Damian’s voice echoed. The Canavar soldiers do not serve the people anymore. Only the archon’s greed.
“It’s enough,” I said. “We need to buy as much as we can in the next town. I’ll go alone. Her Majesty attracts too much attention.”
“You will. But before I stay with you any longer, Eon Kain, I must ask why you deserted your regent.”
My mouth opened to give her the truth, but nothing came out. What could I say? That I’d risked Irina’s life by sending Andiya to find my friend, and very nearly gotten us both killed?
“I sent Andiya to search for Seylas.”
Andiya’s approval purred up the bond. “Careful, Rozin. Treachery gets easier and easier.”
“I didn’t trust the Ilyins. I thought if Andiya could find Seylas, he could help us escape to somewhere you would be safe.”
Irina appraised me carefully. “I cannot fault your ambition, Kain, but you chose a poor time to leave us without a bonded.”
“I did, Your Majesty. I will not make the same mistake again.” Quickly, I told Irina about what had happened in the library, and what Damian had said to me after.
“So,” Irina said slowly. “The noble houses have finally found the mettle to oppose to Canavar. Very well. Let them. Our forces are strong. We will destroy these traitors root and branch and replace them with families loyal to the crown. My great-grandfather accomplished this twice in his reign. I see no reason why we cannot do it again. Andiya, fire.”
Andiya waved her hand, and a hovering flame sparked to life between us. I wanted to extinguish it and keep our location hidden, but then I remembered it didn’t matter anyways. Damian’s Sensor could find us anywhere on earth, fire or not.
Irina began to shed the layers of silk and brocade the Ilyins had put her in. “What concerns me more,” Irina continued, and tossed her bodice into the dirt, “is my supposed demise. Such rumours complicate our already tenuous situation. If the common people believe their monarch is dead, their faith in the coalition will weaken. Small minds are fickle. If their leaders begin dropping like flies, they will not see the crown as the eternal, unshakable thing that it is. We will have peasants questioning a monarch’s right to rule, if we are so weak.”
“What can we do against rumours?” I asked.
“We can show the Korongorod that I am alive, and that I am still their regent. Tell me. Did Andiya find any sign of our party?”
“Tell her no.”
“No. She stretched the bond as far as it would go. When she had exhausted all possible ways to track Seylas, she returned to us.”
“When you stabbed your hand.”
“Distance makes words faint through the bond, but pain comes through well enough. When Andiya realised we were in danger, she hastened her return.”
“We’ll talk later,” I sent. “I lied to the princess for you. You’re going to tell me why.”
“Even better. I’ll show you.”
Irina unfolded a map from her saddlebag. By the firelight, she examined our surroundings. “There should be a small village not far from us. We can re-supply there and find a messenger to contact the Korongorod.”
“We’re abandoning the search for our party? For Seylas?”
“I can’t imagine we’d be of any use to them as we are. And with their princess supposedly dead, they won’t be looking for us either. We must put our faith in the Korongorod. My soldiers can mount a proper search.”
But who knew how long that would take? Even if we managed to send a message, would the Korongorod even reply to a claim of royalty from the middle of nowhere? And if they did, how many more days would it take them to put together a search party? Every hour we wasted it felt like Yulia got further and further away from me. By the time the Korongorod acted, she could be dead.
“She won’t be. She’s safe.”
My heart skipped. Andiya couldn’t lie to me. “How do you know?”
We ate quietly by the fire. Andiya felt distant, like she wasn’t really there with us. Her mind was sealed so tight that her emotions felt separated from mine by a glass wall. But even through it, I knew she was in pain. I handed her one of the cakes, and she didn’t even look at me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Tell the princess to sleep.”
“I will take first watch, Your Majesty. Andiya will patrol for any sign of Ilyin soldiers.”
Irina rose and placed her hands gently on my shoulders. The small smile she gave me was the closest thing to a warm expression I’d ever seen her make.
“I will never forget your service, Kain. You have proven yourself a true friend, and I am in your debt. And must I order you to call me Irina?”
“I apologise, Your—Irina. A difficult habit to break.”
“I should hope so.”
Andiya kept the fire dim as Irina slept. It still wasn’t the best idea to have a fire at all, but the other option was shivering all night. Something a princess was not accustomed to doing, as I was.
“Let’s go,” sent Andiya.
“You patrol north and east,” I said aloud, in case Irina wasn’t fully asleep. We needed a reason to leave her unprotected. “I’ll take south and west.”
Andiya nodded. “Yes, master.”
“Well let’s not overdo it.”
We split off and met far from the camp, hidden under a rock outcrop jutting from a hill. A wide, flat river split the woods, the water nearly motionless. Andiya listened for a minute. Satisfied that we were alone, she reached into her coat and produced a scrap of brown cloth—lining from her coat, torn off. She gingerly peeled back the fabric to reveal an iron dagger. Military issue.
“From your friend Rafiq.”
“What happened? All I saw was him and Khalid.”
Andiya tapped her temple. “Wandering ears.”
“Talking like that is exhausting. Get on with it. What are you afraid to tell me?”
“I am afraid that you’ll do something stupid. Now, open your mind.” At my trepidation, Andiya rolled her eyes. “Enough with that. Just do it. You know I won’t root around where you don’t want me to.”
That didn’t mean I should let my guard down completely. But my need to find Yulia won out. I lowered my barriers.
Andiya took my jaw gently in her hands.
I jerked away, face burning. “What the hell?”
“I’m trying to show you something. Don’t be such a child. You won’t die from letting me touch you.”
I tried not to squirm as she replaced her hands. Andiya smirked.
I shoved my thoughts back away from her, but my mind was wide open. She knew how soft her hands were, how warm. How it did not feel as terrible as I knew it truly was, and that though I tried to hate it, I didn’t.
Andiya rested her forehead on mine. I struggled to keep my breathing even, my thoughts on something, anything else. This was humiliating. Andiya saw it all, and I had nowhere to hide.
Her foreign magic pushed into my mind like a cloud of deep fog. It bid me to enter. Nervous, I pulled back.
“Afraid of me, my darling Eon?”
In defiance, I dove into the fog.
And found myself in the clearing, facing Rafiq and Khalid. I tried to turn my head, but I couldn’t. Because I wasn’t myself anymore, but Andiya, reliving her memory.
“Khalid,” Andiya breathed, numb with shock. After all this chaos, all this pain, there he was. Her best friend. The man who’d comforted her, taken her in, called her his family. The man who had stood by her when she’d left Kaelta, and who had lost his life for it. “Khalid, what have they done to you? Are you well? Safe?”
Khalid didn’t react. He stared blankly, as any bonded would, awaiting his master’s order. Until now, I hadn’t realised how unsettling that vacant look was. Like his soul had been quieted, and all that remained was a shell of grey marble. Before I’d met Andiya, that look had never bothered me.
“Do you recognize me, Khalid? They can’t have erased me. Not after all this.”
Rafiq was trembling. He kept half-behind Khalid, eyes wide. “You’re Rozin’s daemon. The High Order. I really found you.”
“You can come with me, Khalid. Leave this boy. He is not worthy of you.”
“Do you speak Novoski?” Rafiq asked. “You must, right? From Rozin.”
“I speak it, boy,” Andiya snarled, and the words tasted different on her tongue. “But I have nothing to say to you. Not to my friend’s captor.” When she next spoke, I could hear the daemon language from her lips. Being in Andiya’s mind let me understand. “We have shelter and food. I can protect you this time.”
“Stop that!” Rafiq shouted. “Where is Rozin? What have you done with her, monster?”
“Please say you know me, Khalid, please Khalid, I love you, you can’t be gone—”
“I ordered you to stop!” screamed Rafiq, his voice cracking. Andiya noticed the dagger in his hand. “You broke her, didn’t you? Like Yulia said you would.”
Andiya’s gaze never left Khalid. I could barely remember who I was, so drowned in her sorrow. Was Khalid only a memory now? Was his corpse all that was left? I felt her trying to shut the pain away, gather herself. This boy would never know how much pain she was in. She would never allow it.
Andiya shifted to Novoski. “Yulia, you said? And where is she now?” Khalid’s empty eyes were a lead weight. Andiya wanted to run to him, wrap him in her arms, weep until he came back to her. But she was better than these people, than Rozin. She was not weak. She had survived the bonding, and she would survive this.
“Safe and far from here. You can’t hurt her. She asked me to stay behind and find Rozin.”
“Pity. I know Rozin was so hoping for a reunion, as well.”
Rafiq raised the dagger. Iron, from the blade’s colour. “You will tell me where she is.”
“Oh, will I? You give a lot of orders for someone I have no reason to obey.” She sneered. “But follow me if you like, Rafiq of Azherbal. I will take you to her.”
Rafiq didn’t move. The dagger trembled in his grip. Andiya took a step forward. She was baiting him towards her, waiting for the moment he was close enough to grab. Rafiq looked manic. He would never calm down enough to listen to a daemon. But if she got a hand on him before it came to a fight, Andiya was strong enough to safely subdue him and drag him back to Winterwood Hall.
“Perhaps, perhaps not. No way to tell unless you come back with me.”
“So you can kill me!”
“I might. But am I in the mood for a slaughter tonight? I have been so busy these past days.” She took another step forward. Rafiq and Khalid backed away in tandem. “If you don’t come with me, then none of your friends will ever find what’s left of Rozin. I have her well hidden.”
Rafiq was blinking a hundred times a minute. Andiya sneered, inching ever closer.
“But they’re not looking!” he blurted, and Andiya stopped.
“Rozin and your princess meant so little to them?”
“They meant everything! And you took them from us!”
“I did, now?”
“Don’t laugh at me, daemon. Seylas saw you burn Irina to ashes and drag Rozin away.”
Andiya flashed her teeth. “I did more than drag her away.”
Rafiq leapt back and put a knee to the ground. He raised his arm in the Canavar battle-ready signal. Andiya realised her misstep, and her magic rose. Rafiq would never charge her on his own. She’d need to take Khalid down first.
“Kill the High Order!” Rafiq screeched, and Khalid rushed forward with a powerful flap of his wings. His hand shot out, coated in claws of razor-sharp ice.
But Andiya only sidestepped Khalid and snapped her fingers around his neck, holding him aloft.
“I should slit his throat,” Andiya snarled. “It would be a mercy.”
Rafiq stood frozen, agape. Khalid went limp. I knew what Rafiq was thinking. He couldn’t feel the bond. Not while Andiya held Khalid.
“Let him go!” Rafiq rasped as Andiya’s hand tightened on Khalid’s throat. “I order you in the name of the Canavar Archon. Release my bonded.”
“Seems you’re running low on archons at the moment. Come take him from me, boy.”
Rafiq’s knife trembled. He was scared, not stupid. He’d never last a second against a High Order on his own. But as long as Andiya held Khalid, Rafiq would have no choice but to follow her Winterwood.
Andiya raised her voice. “I will give you to the count of five to decide, and then I will kill the both of you. Come with me, or die. Five. Four. Three. Two—”
The entire forest seemed to fall silent—or perhaps Andiya had been struck dumb in shock. Because Khalid had said her name, and he was staring at her with the light of life behind his eyes.
Andiya dropped him. As soon as he was free of her grasp, the light in Khalid winked out, and he blew back to Rafiq with a quick flap of his wings. He moved in front of Rafiq, who put a hand on Khalid’s forearm.
“You—you tricked me!” snarled Andiya. “You cruel, pathetic child—”
Khalid swept Rafiq into his arms and spread his wings.
“No!” Andiya shrieked. A circle of flame blazed around her. Leaves curled on the trees.
Khalid leapt into the sky. He was out of reach in a second, as sure in the air as an eagle. Flaming wings burst from Andiya’s back—but they were wrong, weak. She made it a few laborious feet upwards before she crashed back down. She tried again. Her wings shuddered, and she raked her back against a pine tree on the way down, branches snapping from her weight. Her wrist broke on a rock. The wounds healed; her bones popped back into place. Andiya sprang up. Again. Again. Magic bled from her in torrents as she fluttered desperately into the sky like a bird with a shattered wing. In mid-air, her magic gave out, and Andiya crumpled onto the forest floor. Scrapes tore her shins, not healing. She gazed mournfully at the stars, but Khalid was long gone.
Rafiq’s iron dagger lay at her feet.
A fog lifted me gently from the memory. I was once again with Andiya under a rocky outcrop, the night after she’d seen Khalid.
“I tried walking to Winterwood Hall,” said Andiya. “But I’d used all my magic trying to chase Khalid. I was too weak. All I could do was wait for morning and hope I had enough magic to find my way back.”
“You certainly had enough magic to burn down Winterwood.”
“Is that criticism on how I saved your life?”
“It is. You destroyed the Ilyins’ home—for what? To make a statement? There’s no way they’ll ever give up chasing us now. Even if we escape them this time, we’ve made an enemy for life.”
“Then you should have let me kill them.”
“I’m not a murder, and I don’t think you are either. At least I hope not.”
I waited for her to argue more, to come back with a bite to her words. But Andiya didn’t seem to have it in her. All that fight, that spirit, was blunted by the pain in her heart.
“Why didn’t you talk to me?” I asked. “Tell me where you were, at least?”
“I … didn’t want to.”
“The princess and I were almost killed. That was not the time to be childish—”
“I wanted to be alone. Khalid is dead, Rozin. I knew it before, but seeing it was …”
There were no words for the sorrow I felt in her. Just like that, my frustration fizzled out. How could it not? I knew what it felt like to lose someone I loved. And I’d done this to her.
“You didn’t want to talk to his murderer.”
“Can you blame me?”
“No. I wouldn't talk to me either.”
I exhaled slowly and leaned against the rock. This was a mess. With my mind closed, I mulled over what I’d seen. Everyone thought the princess was dead, that Andiya had killed her, that my mind was broken. And the crown inquisitor—Seylas—had been Andiya’s accuser. What the hell was going on?
At least Yulia was alive. Safe. Rafiq had seemed sincere in that, at least.
“You’ve lost people,” said Andiya.
I stayed silent.
But Andiya didn’t care. She sat with her knees to her chest, staring out over the wide river beyond the rocks. “How did you accept it? That she was gone?”
I stood at a crossroads. Andiya thought Rafiq tricked her—but I knew the truth. Andiya had broken the bond. That was Khalid’s real self, real sentience. He wasn’t fully gone. Some part of him remained, and Andiya might be the key to unlocking it. But that knowledge was so, so dangerous. A High Order with the power to command bonded was not one I would ever be able to control. I could comfort Andiya, and damn the world.
“I never accepted anything,” I said. It was the right thing to do, it had to be. I feared she would hear my guilt through the bond, but she only nodded sympathetically.
“You blame yourself for what happened to her. I can feel it.”
The guilt rose like a crushing fist on my heart. I did. I blamed myself for Kamala, for Barje Vos, for Andiya, for hurting everyone I ever loved. And tonight that guilt would be my shield.
“I joined the Canavar forces to atone for what I did. I trained with Jawahir to protect those who could not protect themselves. So that we would never be left defenceless against the daemons. And I bound Khalid because I thought he was evil. That you were. I will never accept what has become of my life. I can’t. I will never accept what I have lost and what might be lost should I fail here today. It would overwhelm me, and I’m not strong enough to shoulder it.”
“You could choose to think about what could be gained. You could choose to hope.”
“Hope is weak.”
“Despair is weak. And so are you if you believe that.” Andiya frowned at the horizon. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to give up. I can say nothing will ever be better and lie down and accept my fate, and it will cost me nothing. The world will turn and I will fade away. Or I can get up. I can fight. Things will get better because I will make them better. I choose to hope even when it seems pointless to, even when you have given up.”
“What do you hope for?”
“Empathy for my enemy. Empathy for you, Rozin. To understand the one who has taken my life—and for the life I make with her to be more than one of despair. It has been the greatest challenge of my life. I could have accepted my fate. Become like Artem, like the legions of bonded your princess holds in her grip. But I will not. I never will. I will fight you tooth and claw and one day we will be better. Because I am not weak, and neither are you.”
I watched her, skin outlined silver in the starlight. There was such a sudden ferocity to her eyes, her voice. Cut out of the dark night, she seemed to hover between this world and the next. Andiya was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and there was no amount of denial in existence to pretend she wasn’t.
“Yes,” I breathed. “I am.”
She turned to me, and my breathing stopped. Her hair slid from her shoulder, gentle and bright like rubies against the moon. Her mind pressed against mine, asking to be let in.
“What are you thinking about, Rozin?”
Andiya stopped pressing. She stared at me so gently that I knew I never should have said it. Should have never admitted what so plainly held my heart.
So before she could say anything, I left Andiya alone by the river, where she could be beautiful where I could not see.
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!