As I crossed the floor towards Jiyi, her lion-like bonded leapt between us, teeth bared. Standing at full height, it was as tall as a draft horse, its golden mane and black scales shimmering with waves of iridescent magic as it snarled through two huge sabres. When I didn’t back down, a thunderous rumble rose in its chest. The merchants around the table had the good sense to look nervous, the few veiled bonded in the room remaining firmly in their places against the walls.
“We need your help,” I called to Jiyi. “Can you get me an audience with the Shrikes?”
“What could you possibly want with the Shrikes?” Jiyi replied from behind her bonded. “I do everything in my power to avoid them. A shame my empress likes their money so much.”
I didn’t say anything. Jiyi cocked her head curiously at my silence. She must have heard the rumours, the news of the princess’s death. I’d vanished just after Irina died—what did the world think happened to me? Did Seylas spread the word of Andiya’s treachery, of my break?
“You know who I am,” I said. “And that I would not ask if there was not good reason.”
A delegation from Seo Jie Go waited against the wall behind Jiyi. She said something to her people in their tongue.
“She’s informing her delegation that you are to accompany them to the Creator’s Eye,” sent Andiya. “And that they are to keep a safe distance from me. She worries I am controlling you.”
“You speak Go-ah?”
“I speak what I wish to.”
Jiyi turned her gaze to the merchants. “I believe this concludes our business, good people. I will relay your offers to the empress upon my return to Seo Jie Go.”
Chairs groaned as merchants vacated the room. In moments we were alone with Jiyi and her delegation.
“Now then,” said Jiyi. “Hae, stand down.” Her bonded lowered his head and lay on the floor, as he had back at the Korongorod. “Speak freely, honoured Eon. My people will hold their tongues. You have our confidence.”
“I should start by saying the High Order isn’t controlling me, nor did she break me in any way. If that was any concern of yours.”
Jiyi nodded slowly. “It was.”
“But I must meet with the Shrikes.”
“If you aid us, the crown will forever be in your debt.”
“Creators. I did not ask what was in it for me. I couldn’t give a damn about that. I’m more interested in why a dead princess’s Eon—an Eon that owns the same High Order who murdered your archon—is wandering Ryalgrad, trying to speak with a great house.”
“I am under the orders of the princess.”
“The dead princess.”
I glanced at Hae. I wondered if he could feel lies, like Sarangerel.
“That is what rumours say,” I told Jiyi. Her eyes bored into me with an amused intelligence that made me swallow hard.
“The rumours do say that,” she agreed jovially. “Do you agree with them?”
“I don’t believe rumour is truth.”
Jiyi smiled like a fox. “I look forward to hearing your plea to the Shrikes, Eon.”
We followed Jiyi and her delegation through the Merchant Guild. As a Shadow of Seo Jie Go, Jiyi’s position was not unlike mine, but her uniform was far more delicate. She wore a black, loose-sleeve jacket that was cropped just above her waist, the fabric printed with subtly shimmering magpies that would be invisible in low light. Servants of the Go-ah royals received tattoos in recognition of their service, and Jiyi's body was covered in her accomplishments. Chrysanthemum flowers, the emblem of her empress, ran up her side, and on every bit of exposed skin I saw her devotion: white tigers, storm clouds, mountains, ribbons of celadon green, the branches of pines. Only her face remained untouched. Her flowing pants were belted with a crimson wrap, and slung on her hip was a blade with a scabbard that gave me pause. I couldn’t read the vertical Go-Ah script along its face, but I knew that teal glow. A sealing charm to contain magic. That was no ordinary blade. It did not seem, on Jiyi, to just be for show.
“Are you here on business for the Empress?” I asked.
“We’re buying weapons from the Shrikes. We’ve decided that if everyone is going to arm themselves, we should too.” Jiyi grinned at my raised brow. “What? We are allies, you and I. Should my empress shroud our every movement in secrecy?”
“Some might call it shrewd to.”
Jiyi laughed, and some of her delegation chuckled along with her. “Yes, yes, shrewd indeed. Creators, but you Novoski are grim. War this, secrecy that. And you all wonder why we dread dealing with you?”
“I don’t see any Novoski here,” I said testily.
“Canavar, then. They’re the same thing, anyway.”
We exited the back of the manor and began down a gentle path carved into the mountain. Hae bounded easily along the rocks beside us.
“You implied that before,” I said. “When you visited the Korongorod. You mentioned how telling it was that the Novoski didn’t send a representative.”
“The Canavar always get snippy with me when I mention that. But tell me, Eon. What language are we speaking now?”
“Novoski—but that doesn’t mean anything. I could just as easily change to Azherbali, if you had the ability.”
“I don’t. Because, quite frankly, all business with the Canavar is conducted in Novoski. Funny how that is, wouldn’t you say? Almost as if it’s the most important of your languages. And answer this: have there ever been any Canavar Archons that have not been of Novosk?”
“No, but that’s because it’s a bloodline. It’s always been a Volkov. They happen to be Novoski.”
“But then they must marry from elsewhere, surely. To keep things balanced. There has been a monarch who is half Mehraki, or half Azherbali, perhaps even just a little bit Tjerja?” She nodded at my grumpy silence. “As I said. Same thing.”
“It’s easy for you to criticize. You don’t belong to any coalition. Your empress doesn’t have the difficulty of balancing the power of several countries.”
“And we’re glad for it. What a mess of politics that turned out to be. Makes you wonder if it wasn’t easier to just fight daemons all the time.”
Jiyi stopped at the mouth of an entrance into the mountain. It was a tunnel only about ten feet tall and wide, swallowed by darkness farther in.
Jiyi said something to her delegation, and several of them waved her away with rolled eyes. She winked back.
“She said ‘Enjoy the walk, suckers.’ Well. I don’t think that word exactly translates, but that’s the spirit of it.”
Jiyi hopped onto Hae. “Kain. Let’s go.”
She watched with amusement as I pulled myself up awkwardly onto Hae’s back. Of course, once I was in place, Andiya simply leapt up and landed gently on her toes, like a falling feather. As with the tiraar, Hae didn’t react. Why not? Was Andiya’s control limited, in some way? What made Hae’s bond different from Artem’s?
“Show off,” I sent.
“Always for you, my darling.”
I ignored her, cheeks warm.
Jiyi waited until her delegation was fully into the tunnel, then said over her shoulder, “Grab onto something. Anything.”
I had barely closed a fist in Hae’s golden mane when he shot forward like an arrow. The mountain blurred. Hae ran faster than anything had a right to, slamming my insides against my spine. I clung for dear life as we flew over the rocks at dizzying speed. The mountain curved. We were going to slip right off the damn thing if Jiyi didn’t—
Hae flashed along the curve, and suddenly we were sideways, somehow still riding along the mountain as if on flat ground. Behind me, Andiya let out an exhilarated laugh. The city distorted below as wind tore at my eyes.
“Faster!” Andiya shouted.
“You got it!” Jiyi said with a cackle. Because Andiya was a bonded, so of course it was Rozin who wanted to go faster, and it was not Rozin who was going to faint.
My knuckles turned white as Hae pushed faster. Creators, I was going to faint, I was going lose my grip and tumble into the open air—
We neared the sharpest part of the curve, where the upside-down peak of Mount Anfang dripped a glass castle. Up close, it was like a beautiful quartz, its turrets like crystal offshoots from the heart. Gardens and walkways and verandas wove within the glass.
“Rozin,” came Andiya’s exhilarated voice. “Rozin—we’re not taking a tunnel!”
My soul left my body. “No. No, shit, Jiyi we’re not—”
The twisting fall ate my scream. My throat let out a pathetic squeak as we plunged down, down, so fast—but slowing, we were falling, how we were slowing?—down, down, the Creator’s Eye rushing to meet us, but it didn’t, because we were drifting now, barely at a running pace.
Hae touched down with the grace of a butterfly landing on a flower.
I scrambled off of him and melted on the glass floor. I couldn’t be sick. Not here. Not here.
Jiyi was chuckling to herself as she slid down. “You did say faster. Colour me impressed. Never had someone request that on the first go.”
Heavy footsteps approached. We were in a small courtyard surrounded by arches and halls of pale blue glass, long vines dripping down from lamp posts and balconies above. A sparkling fountain bubbled beside me. I gaped at it. Its centre statue, pouring water from a held pitcher, was of a horned daemon man. Crushed under his clawed foot was a human, face down in the water.
“Like I said.” Jiyi grimaced at the statue. “I try to avoid the Shrikes wherever possible.” The footsteps stopped, and Jiyi spun on her heel. She bowed quickly. “Captain. So nice to see you. How do I find you on this fine morning?”
“You’re late,” grumbled an older man with silver-tasselled lapels. His guards wore tunics in the Shrike colours of maroon and dark blue, not at all armoured save for the swords on their belts. I doubted they needed more than that, in a place few could ever threaten.
“I’m always late,” said Jiyi. “Are they ready for me?”
“Yes. Lady Shrike will meet you in the eyrie.”
Jiyi’s face soured. “Right. Hope you like stairs, Kain.”
Hae lay down, and the captain eyed him warily. But Jiyi only set off as though she lived there, winding down a vaulted glass hallway. We took a thin staircase, then a slender, rail-less walkway that one could easily slip right off of. The Creator’s Eye was a dream of frosted blue glass and ivy, the structures that formed it built in defiance of possibility. Staircases spiralled into the air with no supports to speak of, towers stuck together like reed flutes, slowly rising up off the floors. Heavy gazebos sat upon thin pillars, vines looped over incredible distances like the wires of a tent. The Creator’s Eye was like the Korongorod—a relic of magic long since lost to Itrera. And it was eerily, coldly silent. There were no servants, no more guards. All I heard were those pristine fountains, bubbling in lonely courtyards and alcoves.
Jiyi’s path took us continuously upwards until we were out of breath. We walked the outer edge of the Creator’s Eye, low glass walls the only thing between us and the sheer drop to Ryalgrad below. I kept my vision firmly at the lone tower coiling up from the corner. At the top, we paused to regain our breath—and pride.
“She knows I hate doing this,” Jiyi grumbled. “It’s exactly why she does it. Should have told her I hate drinking contests instead.”
We entered the eyrie. It was a wide, circular room whose walls spanned the tower itself. Open-air windows left it exposed to the wind and elements, giving its inhabitants complete freedom.
Because the eyrie was filled with daemons: all were tiny, winged Bestials no bigger than cats, some like spiny dragons and some like bats or wyverns, some like six-winged birds or giant-eared sugar gliders. Some were tiraar, but babies, all fat and round and puffy. Several daemons sat on the arms and shoulders of a young woman who was feeding them dried meat.
“Eva,” said Jiyi, and I stiffened. The Shrike whose identity the princes has used.
Eva smiled gently at a baby tiraar and did not look up at Jiyi. She had sweet, rounded features and slightly curled brown hair that sat just above her shoulders, her arms slim and pale. Unlike Jiyi and I, Eva Shrike looked as gentle as her watery grey gown.
And I would have assumed she was, save for the daemons on her shoulders. None of them had a bonding tattoo. They were all free.
“The empress would like to double our previous iron order,” Jiyi said plainly.
Eva fed a chestnut to a wyvern daemon. It cheeped in delight, and Eva beamed. “Very well. We shall have a contract drawn up within the week.” Her quiet voice was as restrained as a spring breeze, a blend of the rush between new petals and the last, vindictive breath of winter’s chill.
We waited. Eva continued playing with her daemons as if we didn’t exist.
“Then … I’m dismissed?” asked Jiyi.
“If you like. Leave your friend.”
“My friend here requests an audience with your family. As she is here under my invitation, she is my responsibility. I shouldn’t let her out of my sight—”
“I grant her an audience,” Eva said airily. Jiyi’s eyes narrowed. “You may leave her with me.”
Jiyi’s hand brushed her blade’s pommel. Eva’s demeanour, her tone, had not changed. But the daemons had gone predator still, fixed on Jiyi.
“I will wait for the contract,” Jiyi hissed through her teeth. She bowed, as politeness dictated, and stalked out of the eyrie. The gaze of every daemon followed her.
“Andiya need not hold her tongue,” said Eva. I wondered why she didn’t look at us. She stroked a cat-owl daemon like Sarangerel, her manner perfectly serene. “We have been aware of her abilities for some time.”
Andiya lowered her hood. She was watching the baby daemons with keen interest.
“Please be polite,” I begged her.
“This is a nursery, isn’t it?” said Andiya instead. “Are you actually breeding them?”
Eva scratched at a tiny tiraar’s chin. “Of course. It’s a far more effective method than capturing them. We can breed for the characteristics we like—speed, size, colour. The adults are difficult to manage, so we bond them once they start getting unruly.”
Andiya’s voice was flat. Too flat. “And you only breed Bestials.”
Eva smiled sweetly, and my stomach turned in horror. No—they couldn’t be—
“We have tried Elementals in the past,” said Eva. “But they were more trouble than they were worth. Too smart. And bonding them in childhood seems to stunt their growth.” She laughed gently as a wyvern licked her hand. “But a beast doesn’t ask where it’s mother is.”
I felt nauseous. Andiya’s temper bubbled up, and I didn’t ask her to control it. The Shrikes were breeding bonded. I didn’t have the stomach to ask how.
Eva whistled, and the baby daemons hopped off her. “Until tonight, my children,” she crooned. “Mother was expecting these guests.” Eva breezed out the door. I took that to mean go with her.
We went back down the stairs and across a courtyard, the halls of the Creator’s Eye impossible to navigate alone. I didn’t even remember where we’d landed.
“My aunt, the Lady of Ryalgrad, sent soldiers into the mire to search for you,” said Eva. “Your princess said you were likely entangled with the Ilyin forces. Such a pity you weren’t. Our captain was so embarrassed to come home empty-handed.”
“So she’s here. Irina Volkov is here.”
“Safe and well. Our patrols found a rather snippy Titled flailing about in the mire who claimed to be me. The fools actually brought her here, after testing her with a Sensor. But my aunt knew exactly who she was when she saw the princess. There is no mistaking her father’s eyes, nor that Volkov temper. Your princess wasted no time in making demands of us: the first that we search for her missing Eon.”
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. We were finally somewhere safe. The Shrikes could contact the Korongorod, confirm Irina’s identity, and help us sort out this mess.
“Did … your captain encounter the Ilyins?”
“Oh, yes. Even if you were not their captive, we could not allow a hostile force so close to our city. The captain eliminated them.”
My throat caught. “All of them?”
“He left a handful, I was told. To carry word back home. I doubt any of the Ilyin allies will retaliate. They know our numbers.”
Somehow I knew Damian would be among the living. My blood feud could not be ended so easily.
Eva stopped at a pale blue curtain. “Through here.” And she left me there, her light dress rippling in the placid wind.
We entered a flowery patio arranged with clusters of glass dining tables. Guests milled about for lunch, eating plates of fruit and tarts; talking, laughing, relaxing.
I recognized all of them. Doctor Viscara, Lionel, Irina’s assistant, members of Shokarov’s squad. Finally, standing together: Shokarov himself, sharing a drink with Irina and Rafiq. Khalid’s head turned to face us, and a second later, so did Rafiq’s.
“Rozin!” he shouted, and the patio fell silent. There was a flurry of movement as everyone stood, rushed to me, cried out in relief. Hands took mine. Fingers stroked my shoulders. Eyes watered.
But I was looking for Yulia.
Everyone was here, safe, happy. I cared about that, somewhere below. But I saw no high-tied golden hair, no grey eyes, no torn red scarf; I felt no warmth from where she would have crashed into my arms.
My companions were asking a million questions, but all I said was “Where is Yulia?”
The group shouted to someone at the far end of the garden, and there she was.
She’d been curled in a tight alcove, tucked away. Yulia wore a breezy civilian dress, held a book in her hand. She went wide-eyed at the sight of me. The book fell to the floor.
I was running at her, and she at me. We slammed together in a clinging, desperate hug, and sank to the ground. Yulia was here. I hadn’t lost her, hadn’t failed her. I pressed my face into her shoulder as she stroked my hair.
“I searched for you,” she croaked. Yulia was trembling. “I went back to the camp, but—but you weren’t there, and it was crawling with Crows, and then Rafiq found Andiya …”
Her words broke into a racking sob. Then Rafiq had found Andiya, and Yulia thought my mind was broken. That I was dead.
“I don’t understand,” she gasped into my hair. “Seylas saw it happen. But then the princess arrived, and she said you brought her here, and I thought … I thought … that some Creator must be watching over you, keeping you safe. I finally had hope that you …” She clutched me tighter. Hope that I might be alive, too.
“Seylas was mistaken. Or lying. I don’t know. Andiya saved us. She got us away from the Crows, and she brought us safely here.”
Yulia dragged her face from my hair and looked up at Andiya. “Thank you. For saving her. For bringing Rozin back to me. I owe you everything.”
Andiya nodded slowly, her face a forced mask. “You’re welcome,” she muttered, and I felt the surprise in her, the confusion.
I pulled Yulia to a stand and brought her to Andiya. I cleared my throat. “Andiya saved our princess,” I told everyone, my hand on the small of Andiya’s back. “She saved me, and she worked tirelessly to find a way back to you. Whatever you have heard about her is false. Andiya is a friend to the crown, and to all of us.”
Irina approached, and everyone parted, breath held. She nodded at me once, then took Andiya’s hand. “I am glad to see the both of you well.”
A true smile began in Andiya’s eyes. My breath left me. Because she was happy, she was proud—and her happiness was so beautiful. My heart ached. I felt something shift in me that I had not felt in years. I did not just want Andiya. I wanted to be with her—hear her laugh, hear her voice, fall asleep at her side. I wanted to know her hopes, her dreams, her fears, what made her eyes light up with joy. It was a feeling that I had thought dead with Barje Vos. And it absolutely terrified me.
Yulia sat us down at one of the tables. She refused to let go of my hand, as though I would blow away with the wind.
“We were attacked at the same time you were,” she said. “They went right for our Masters. They must have been scouting us in the days before the attack. A few of us managed to get away. But by the time we reached your camp, it was in ruins. Seylas was hiding up a tree. He told us that while the Crows took down your camp, Andiya dragged you and the princess just beyond the tents and—” She glanced apologetically at Andiya. “—burned the princess alive. He said Andiya flew away with Rozin dangling like a limp doll.”
Andiya’s wings. Seylas must have been them as a fireball, swallowing Irina from his line of vision. Could he not have seen Irina, when we took flight, and instead only saw me?
“Seylas is here?”
“Around somewhere. The inquisitor is not very sociable.” Yulia kissed my knuckles. “I’m so glad he was wrong. I didn’t know what to do. I searched everywhere for you. But we got all turned around in the woods, and with the Crows still out there, we had to move so slowly. We never found any sign of you. I had to accept that you were … were gone.”
I squeezed her hand.
“Then those damned Crows found us again. They managed to kill more of us, even one of our bonded. One of their daemons tore up Artem’s arm. I couldn’t fight back. I thought we were dead. But the Shrikes showed up. When word had reached them a few weeks before that the Crows began getting unruly, the Shrikes had dispatched soldiers to help. They saved us, and they escorted us back here on those big flying daemons of theirs. Rafiq stayed behind to keep looking for you, because I asked him to. When he found Andiya … he thought there was no reason to look anymore, and came here.”
“Would have been nice to fly to Bel Arben, wouldn’t it?” grumbled Andiya.
“I considered it,” said Irina. “But I had to choose our party carefully. Only those I could trust completely. Do you see many wings here, Andiya?”
Andiya’s eyes fell to Khalid. Her shoulders tightened, and she looked quickly away.
“Furthermore,” said Irina, “I was trying to be subtle. A big fleet of flying bonded couldn’t exactly cross into Bel Arben without anyone knowing. I thought walking in anonymously would be stealthier.” She crossed her arms. “I admit I was wrong. Go on.”
“The Shrikes patched us up,” continued Yulia, “sheltered us. The Lady of Ryalgrad sent word to the Korongorod, but the crown told us to remain here and await further orders.” Her voice went quiet. “The new archon doesn’t want those loyal to his sister among his ranks.”
“Maxsim will not be on the throne for long,” Irina said coldly. “I will gather my allies here and peel my idiot brother off my throne.”
“And we will help you, Your Majesty,” said Yulia. “But what happened to you, Rozin? The princess said you were left behind in the mire. How did you get here?”
Omitting the involvement of a vanishing daemon inn (which I explained away with a simple I walked), I told them of Jiyi’s assistance.
“Our second ally, I hope,” said Irina. “Her empress will see the value in a close relationship with the rightful archon. One who would be economically grateful in the future.”
The Shrikes, Seo Jie Go. It might not be enough, even with Andiya’s power. The violence it would take to crush Maxim and the Korongorod wouldn’t win us the support of the coalition. We would be branded as usurpers even if we won.
“Kain,” said Irina. “Andiya.” Her tone went hard. “It appears our mission has not changed. We have a greater need for allies than ever before.”
Andiya’s expression went grave.
“I need you to bring allies back to me. I am trusting you with the life and safety of your people.” Her gaze fell to Andiya. “Can you do this for me?”
We knew what the question really was: Can you bring me Kaelta?
“I can,” Andiya said. She stood tall, proud.
“I can,” I agreed.
Yulia and I talked well into the night. She brought Andiya and I into her room—richly appointed in scarlet and dark blue—and lay beside me on the bed. It felt like the weight on my shoulders had lessened.
Andiya sat by the window, one leg against her chest. She stared out at the city below; the city that chattered with the noises of life, wealth, and serenity, untouched by the chaos we had experienced all around it.
“Andiya?” Yulia said carefully. “Won’t you join us?”
Andiya smiled at her sadly. Her mind was locked tight when I reached for it. “I appreciate the invitation, Yulia. But I am perfectly content to listen.”
“I’d like to get to know you better. A friend of Rozin’s is a friend of mine.”
I shifted to make room on the bed.
But Andiya shook her head. “If it’s all the same, I’m not in the mood today. I really do welcome what you’re trying to do, Yulia. And had we all been alone in this place, I would have joined you with an open heart.” She stood, glancing once at the spot I’d made on the bed. “I’ll try and sleep. Goodnight, Yulia, Rozin. Pleasant dreams.”
And then she was gone.
“Did I do something wrong?” asked Yulia.
I felt along the bond. Andiya was far enough away that she wouldn’t be able to hear.
“I think … seeing Khalid shook her.” I told Yulia of their history, about the incident with Rafiq. “It pains her that she was not able to save him. That it was her fault he’s bonded to Rafiq.”
“How will you tell her?”
“Andiya is bound to figure it out. She’ll know you kept this from her—that you allowed her to suffer this way.” Yulia bit her lip. “But I am frightened of what she might do with the knowledge. What would happen to Rafiq.”
“I’ll find the right time. Just … just not yet. Things are finally fine between us. I need this to last just a little longer.”
“You mean when you return from this mission the princess is sending you on. The mission you cannot tell me about.”
“Things will be settled, then. We can figure things out.”
Yulia cuddled into my side. “And when this is settled … what will you do?”
I pulled her tight, closing my eyes. I hadn’t been able to think about that in weeks. It had always been about surviving to the next day.
“I don’t know,” I whispered.
We talked and talked until we couldn’t stay awake any longer, until we slept so soundly we never heard Andiya return.
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!