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A note from carlyn_a

A map of Itrera and a list of the human coalitions can be found here!

The next three days, I barely saw Andiya. She kept me locked out of her mind. When I whispered words down the bond, I encountered only cold silence. But I still saw her in small, distant moments; watching her meander aimlessly down the halls, sit quietly along the outer walls and stare over the city, pick at her food in the courtyard with a knee to her chest, vanish like smoke whenever Rafiq and Khalid entered the room.

Irina spent her days locked in meetings with the Lady of Ryalgrad, a woman the rest of us only knew by name. None of us, naturally, were of enough importance to warrant her attention. So she remained beyond the heavy doors of the private wing, locked tightly away. Every so often, I would catch glimpses of Eva going about her business in her dreamlike way, breezing about the Creator’s Eye in loose gowns. Apart from her, I saw no other Shrikes at all.

At dinner, I sat at one of the courtyard’s iron tables with Rafiq. As always, Khalid stood dutifully behind him, eyes as lifeless as polished obsidian. Andiya was nowhere in sight. I shut my thoughts behind an iron wall.

“I need to talk to you about Khalid,” I told Rafiq.

He set down his fork. “Yeah. I know. Is it safe?”

“She can’t hear.”

“Okay. Listen, Rozin. I don’t really understand what happened when I went looking for you, but Andiya … tried to talk to him.”

“They were friends.” I glanced sidelong at Khalid. He hadn’t reacted to Andiya’s name. “What can you get from Khalid about his life before being bonded?”

Rafiq frowned. “Not much. Yulia says that’s normal.”

“It is. But ‘not much’ is better than nothing.”

“Well … he remembers a palace. Couldn’t get much of a look at it. Like looking at something underwater. And I saw … a war, I think. Battles. Mostly shadows and eyes and swords. I saw his hands covered in blood. Khalid remembers killing a lot of people.”

“What else?”

“That’s about it, really. I get the impression he was a monster. If the bodies in his memory are any indication.”

“Human or daemon?”

“Both, I think? Most looked human enough—but so do Andiya and Artem, honestly. So it could go either way.”

I moved to stand, but Rafiq grabbed my wrist.

“Rozin, listen. About what happened in the woods—”

“I know. Andiya showed me.”

“No, you don’t understand. I lost control—”

“I know,” I snapped quickly. “I know what you felt. And you can never mention it again. It’s not safe.”

Rafiq went wide-eyed, but he nodded.

“Just keep him away from her,” I said, feeling my heart squeeze painfully at the order.

Andiya deserved to know. But I couldn’t tell her without knowing that I could shield the world from the fallout.

After a long search, I finally found Andiya in the eyrie. She was curled against the wall, a wyvern in her lap, stroking at it mindlessly. She barely looked up when I sat down beside her.

“So,” I began. “I just spoke with Rafiq.”

Andiya’s hand stopped.

“I asked him if there was anything Khalid remembers.”

“Why would you do that?”

“So I could tell you. I thought you might want to know.” When she didn’t reply, I continued. “He said Khalid remembers a palace. Was he a royal guard, with you?”

“His brother was,” she murmured. “Khalid was a courtier. He lived there. Khalid claimed me for his own household after my parents—” Andiya inhaled deeply. “after my parents died.”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

“It’s fine. It’s been a long time.”

“How long?”

“Seventeen years.”

Who knew how long that was, to an immortal. How distant that really felt, when you remembered centuries, millennia.

“Rafiq also said … Khalid remembers killing people. A lot of people. Is that true?”

Andiya’s face hardened. “It is.”

“Do you think they deserved it?”

“I don’t know if they did. Some of them, maybe. Probably not all.” She glared at me coldly. “You’ve killed too. I’ve watched you do it. So don’t you dare judge someone you know nothing about.”

“I’m only trying to to understand. I’m trying to … know you. I feel like I know so much about you, but nothing at all. Who you were before I met you is only fog. You said Khalid claimed you. Can you tell me about that?”

Her eyes softened again, the flash of anger passed. Andiya continued stroking the wyvern, as if she needed something to do with her hands. “None of this gets to Irina.”

“I tell the princess precious little these days. Least of all about you.”

Andiya’s gaze went distant, remembering. “Some years ago there was a … schism, you could say, in the Kaeltan court. Those who followed the word of the Creators, and those who would not. The Righteous and the Faithless. The Faithless intended to reign supreme over magic and mundane. In other words, they intended to expand the Kaeltan lands into the human continent.”

“Which side were you on?”

“I, as with my parents and my siblings, was among the Faithless. We saw the domination of the Creators as unjust, unwanted. Kaelta was our country, not theirs. Who are they to have a say in how we govern ourselves?”

“But what you’re talking about is just conjecture. The Creators have no laws, no set scripture. We have myths of the what the Creators want—but that’s all they are. Myths. We honour the Creators because we decided they deserve that honour. Who’s to say what the word of a Creator even is?”

Andiya faced me, her eyes telling me to think, to understand.

It felt like being drenched in ice water. “The daemons … really know the will of the Creators?”

Andiya snorted. “We know their will, and we know what happens when we go against it.”

“But—but how? A book, a sign? Something in the ruins?”

“No. They told us.”

I couldn’t wrap my head around what she was saying. The daemons spoke to Creators. To gods.

How?

“They stop by every now and then. At least, they used to. Centuries back, they visited the daemon courts on every winter solstice. Now … only one of them speaks to us anymore. And she has not spoken in a very long time.”

“Have you ever heard a Creator speak?”

“I have. Only once. As did all the Faithless.”

“What happened?”

“We were warned, first. The woods began to die. The rivers dried to dust. The king’s crown turned to ash on his head. The Righteous begged the king and queen to end their heresy. But the king pushed his campaign harder. He ordered attacks on the human lands, claiming that strip of land above your Etvia. The Creators sent tidal waves, monsters in the night. But the king was stronger than anything the Creators sent. The Faithless were incensed. How dare the Creators do this to us, they said. Still, the Righteous begged the king to stop. But he cast them out of the palace. Traitors, he called them. No better than humanity.”

She closed her eyes, gathering herself.

“Those are some of the battles Khalid remembers. He was, and still is, one of the Righteous. The blood he spilled in those years haunts him to this day.” Her jaw tightened. “Though, I suppose, not anymore.”

“What about your family? What did they do, as the Faithless?”

“My parents hated humanity more than anyone I’ve ever known. They blamed you for holding our kind back, for burning us with iron, for destroying precious land with your cities and mines and fields. They believed that if Kaelta ruled Itrera, we could grow it into an empire that would make even the gods tremble. My mother was the one who captured your coastal land. She razed towns, slaughtered you … all while Kaelta slowly choked on the Creators’ magic. We were starving. Dying. So the king called to the Creator themselves. Face us, he said. If you are our lords, then face what suffering you have wrought.”

Her voice trembled.

“Death came.”

I couldn’t breathe. What she was saying … it couldn’t be true. Andiya wasn’t lying, so it had to be true, but no one had ever seen, met, a Creator. They were gods, spirits. As unknowable as the wind and sky. You could not meet a god.

“We were gathered in the throne room to discuss our next steps. It was midday—and then in a moment, it wasn’t. The sun just stopped. There was no moon, no stars. Only darkness. Death stepped from the shadows and approached the throne. The king began to taunt, laugh. But Death only stood before him and said that the Faithless had been judged, and Judgement had found them guilty. So Death killed them all.”

Ice raced down my spine. Judgement. Lover of Wrath, father of Death. The Creator whose blade was said to have cleaved the continents apart. Not a story. He was real.

“Death took the Faithless. Every single one. I am the last of them. To this day, I don’t know why I was spared. It felt like a sick joke. Leave the memory alive, and she can tell future generations about what happened to those who dare face the Creators. Leave Andiya, so she can warn others to remain righteous.” The wind seemed to have left Andiya. She slumped against the wall. “Death declared that her father chose the most faithful of us to lead Kaelta. So our queens were crowned, and they made me a member of their guard. As penance. As an example of their benevolence; that from evil, there can be atonement by their hand. Khalid was the only one who treated me with kindness, after my parents died. He was the only person in that whole damned palace who saw me as lost—and not, as the Righteous did, as a reminder of the bloodshed the traitors had caused.”

Words failed me. My world flipped on its head, making me dizzy. Andiya spoke of the Creators as actors in her life. It felt like being thrown into the open ocean during a storm. There was nothing I could do, say, except crash with the waves.

So I took her hand. “That’s why you left?”

“I’d finally had enough. I’d intended to set sail once I reached the eastern coast. Go wherever might be waiting out there. Anywhere but Kaelta.”

“But we’re returning there in days. You told the princess you’d get us Kaelta’s support.”

“And I will. The Kaeltan queens adore the Creators. They would do anything to garner favour. Helping humans—the very people the Creators killed the Faithless over—is exactly what they would do. They won’t do it for you, or for your princess. They will do it because they are a court of sycophants who will stop at nothing to prove themselves worthy of the Creators.”

“But you are doing this for us. For humanity. Did you agree with the Faithless? If you were one of them, did you really believe daemons should rule over us all?”

“I did,” she said plainly. “I believed humans to be cruel, senseless vermin. Because that is what my family believed.”

“And you didn’t consider that they were wrong? Cruel, even, for slaughtering us?”

“I was a child,” she spat. “I thought whatever my parents told me.”

I blinked in shock. “Wait. Seventeen years ago you were a child?”

Andiya grimaced. “Damn it.”

“Andiya, how old are you?”

She mumbled.

“Andiya—”

“Twenty-six.”

“But you made me think—you implied you were centuries old!”

“I never told you how old I was. I let you come up with whatever you wanted.” She huffed. “I could hardly strike fear into a mortal with the number twenty-six. Better for you to fear what you’d captured, understand that you’d bonded yourself to a true immortal.”

I felt myself grinning. “You’re barely older than I am.”

“Shut up.”

“You wanted to impress me.”

“I wanted you to fuck off.”

“Seems like you still want that.”

That managed to earn me a lopsided, tiny smile. “It is my first thought every morning. How shall I tell Rozin to fuck off today?”

“You always do well enough.”

She chuckled ruefully. We sat in comfortable silence, content in each other’s company. Andiya watched the baby daemons flitting about above us, but I only watched her. There was a downturn to Andiya’s mouth, a deep colour under her eyes. It looked like she hadn’t slept properly since we arrived here. Since she saw Khalid.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “For coming to find me today. For worrying.” Andiya looked properly chagrin. “I may have listened when your mind was open. You worried about me. If I would be all right.”

My face heated.

“That wasn’t to embarrass you. Like I said, Khalid was the only person who really cared about me. It was nice to hear that someone else thought I was worth worrying about.”

I was dangerously close to telling her how much I worried. What I had realised, that day in the courtyard. It felt like I was hurtling inevitably at giving in.

“I’ll always worry,” I said gently.

Her sad smile was heart-breaking. “Telling the truth for once, Rozin.”

She pulled my hand to rest it in her lap, toying with my fingers.

“I want to apologise for my behaviour at the inn,” she said to my hand. “I was jealous. Because you were happy. You were smiling. And I was furious that it wasn’t for me—that it was never for me. So I needed some way to take back control.” She sighed slowly. “It was an awful way to do it. It won’t happen again.”

“It’s all right. This is all … uncharted territory. I wasn’t thinking of you. I hadn’t realised that how I was acting would hurt you. I’m sorry for that.”

Her thumb stroked down my wrist. “I’ve been thinking about what you told me, before you left. You said you’d killed me, too. Is that really what you think?”

“It is.”

“Then I will say this, and I will say this only once.” She gripped my jaw so I was forced to look her in the eyes. Her hand burned my skin. “I am not Artem, Khalid; I am not dead. I am not your prisoner, nor your slave. We are bound to each other. Partners in this chaos. Your decisions are your own, and mine are my own. I choose to help you, as I choose to think of you as a friend. You have no control over me, and you never have.”

I so badly wanted to believe her. But my life had been turned upside down so many times in the past few weeks that I didn’t know what to think anymore. On one hand, she was right. My bond was so weak that all I could really do was hold her magic. I couldn’t influence her thoughts, her actions. I couldn’t even see her mind.

But I had still stolen her life. I had taken away any choice she had in deciding her future-and I had cut her immortal years short. I had taken things from Andiya that could never be replaced, repaid.

She felt my tumultuous emotions, even if I kept the thoughts hidden away. Andiya sighed in resignation. I wished I could feel differently. That I could feel however she wanted me to, however would make her happy.

Andiya kissed my cheek.

“Think it over,” she said into my ear. Then she stood, giving me a small smile that was like a punch to the gut, winding me. “I look forward to hearing what you decide.”

I did think. All day, hidden in the eyrie. And I was no closer to anything.

*

At breakfast the next morning, Irina slapped a letter on the table beside me. It bore the seal of the Korongorod: a wolf leaping over a crown.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It arrived this morning for the Lady of Ryalgrad,” Irina said irritably. “She, without my approval, informed the archon of your arrival at the Creator’s Eye. That is an order for you to stay put until further notice. Until they send someone to collect you, I’d imagine. Maxsim will want the High Order for himself.”

Andiya put her tea down slowly.

“So …” I began carefully. “What shall I do, Your Majesty?”

“This letter complicates our situation. The Lady of Ryalgrad is loath to become my first and only ally, and so tells me she must comply with the Korongorod’s orders. Until the matter of the Canavar throne has been settled, the Shrikes remain neutral. They won’t risk their position with the crown, should my claim fail. The Lady of Ryalgrad has implied that should more support come my way, she is inclined to change her position.”

“So the Shrikes will stop me if I try to go anywhere. And I’m still, at this moment, an Eon of the Canavar. I serve the archon, whoever that might be. Leaving the Creator’s Eye is then a direct violation of my oath.”

“Correct. Maxsim’s court has rejected my claim to the throne. It seems, at this moment, our only option is to provide a challenge that forces the Korongorod to face me. If you leave for Kaelta, it will be as a traitor. But only to Maxsim.”

“You are my archon. Not Maxsim.”

Irina nodded. “Thank you, Kain. I realise the task I demand of you. What it will cost you should we fail.”

I sat at my full height. “You are here, you lost your throne, because you desired peace with the daemons. Because you envisioned a better world where we were no longer afraid. That is the world I want—that I would be a traitor for.”

“And together, we will make it.” Irina looked at Andiya. “I can likely delay the Korongorod, hold our position here, for about three weeks. You need to get to Kaelta and back in time. Is it possible?”

“The Kaeltans have hasra. We can return in days. But we can’t walk to Kaelta in two weeks, even with horses. It would take at least twice as long.”

“As I thought.” Irina called over her shoulder. “My friend! Your services will be needed after all.”

And in strode Jiyi, her scabbard glowing faintly at her hip. She crossed her arms and gave us a mischievous smirk. “Your undead princess has told me of your situation,” she said. Behind her, Hae’s chest rumbled in anticipation. “I can get you through to the Glass Bridge in under a week. My empress has business to settle at the Grand Temple of Médine, so we’ll need to stop in Etvia first. It’ll be risky, travelling with us, but it’s certainly faster than walking.”

Andiya tapped her nails on the table, thinking. “If Jiyi gets us that far, we can do it.”

“Then you leave tonight. When the moon rises, you shall turn your back on the crown you swore to serve. May Wind grant you swift feet, Rozin Kain. Traitor to the Canavar—and friend of the true archon.”

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A note from carlyn_a

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About the author

carlyn_a

Bio: 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!

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