The throne room was packed full of daemons of every shade and size. It seemed like every noble in Kaelta had come to witness the queen’s decision. Would history be made today? Would the daemons fight a war on the side of humanity?
Rows of guards separated us from the crowd, keeping the courtiers back along the walls. Blades gleamed at their hips. Verahai stood at the throne’s side, Andiya at mine before it. But Andiya had not even reacted to my entrance. She looked pointedly away, her jaw tight.
We dropped to deep bows as the queen strode in, trailing swaths of deep ruby silk behind her. A waifish figure walked at her side: a woman with long, sharp ears and flat black hair that drifted listlessly to her hips. Her dress was a blue so pale it was nearly white, the panels sheening slightly like a dragonfly’s wing. A simple crown of glass antlers sat on her head, surrounding two thin white horns that stood up straight like needles.
Shocked murmuring rocked the hall. The frail woman sat primly on the steps before the throne, scanning the court with tired, purple-ringed eyes. Queen Mathaszai took her place on the throne. The hall hushed.
“Welcome, all,” said Queen Mathaszai. “I thank you for bearing witness to our proceedings today. I understand your surprise in Queen Xanthe’s appearance in our court, but she has assured me that she is well enough to represent the divine here today. The Creators have demanded her presence.”
The frail woman on the steps met my eyes. There was a strange magnetism to Queen Xanthe, as though she were the most important thing in the room. Her mouth twisted in a faint half-smile.
I flicked my eyes to Andiya, a question in them. Her brow furrowed. “Queen Mathaszai’s wife,” Andiya growled under her breath. “Representative of the Creators.”
“I have thought long and deeply on the offer of the Canavar,” continued Queen Mathaszai. “And it is the opinion of the Kaeltan crown that what humanity offers is a pittance for what Kaelta will pay for it. As such, it is in our best interests to decline the Canavar’s hand in alliance.”
A harsh whine began in my ears. No. This couldn’t be it. We’d come all this way, risked so much—
“However,” said Queen Xanthe, her whispery voice like wind on leaves. “In recognition of Eon Kain’s heroic efforts in bringing her archon’s offer to us, we grant Eon Kain a place in the palace of El-by-Sea. She may enjoy our court’s hospitality until the crown deems it safe for her to return to the human lands.”
Verahai met my eyes. This was happening just as he said it would.
“As a show of good faith,” continued Queen Mathaszai, “and in exchange for her place at El-By-Sea, Eon Kain will use her knowledge of the bond to free Andiya Mathaszai from her servitude. If the un-bonding is successful, the Kaeltan court will consider Andiya Mathaszai’s past crimes forgiven, and her place as Royal Guard in this court restored.”
Queen Xanthe’s gaze drifted to Andiya. “Faithless,” she said. “Would you accept this verdict?”
Andiya straightened. “Will the crown hear my demands first?”
Queen Mathaszai scoffed. “This court has heard enough of your demands over the years. Yes, or no?”
Queen Xanthe put a hand on Queen Mathaszai’s shin. “Mercy, my love. Mercy is the will of the Creators, and Death’s will for Andiya. We shall hear you, Faithless.”
“I want my collar removed,” Andiya said immediately.
“That collar is for your own protection,” said Queen Xanthe. “There have been far too many incidents of violence in your past already. I would hate to see you behind cell bars.” She frowned slightly. “Have you no words for your human?”
“Have you no concern for her people?”
“Would it matter if I did? She is to be imprisoned, and I freed. Shall I protest this verdict?”
“Some would call you cruel if you did not.”
“Empty words from an empty court. The crown has never listened to my words, and I doubt they will begin now. Do what you will with us, O exalted rulers. We are in no position to change your minds.”
All I could do was stand and watch as my heart caved in. I struggled to hold myself together. I’d failed. And no one would tell Irina that help would never come.
Queen Mathaszai huffed sharply through her nose. She seemed to have grown tired of us already. “If that is all you have to say, I see no further need to waste this court’s time. Return the Eon to her cell, and my niece to her chambers.”
My hand closed around the quartz star in my pocket. Creators, if you were real, if you were still even listening … help my people. Help Andiya. Help me.
The ceiling went black.
Panicked voices erupted from the court. The sun was gone.
Instead of the soft mid-morning that had shone beyond the stained glass only moment ago, a curtain of night enveloped the palace. A field of faint stars painted the sky. For a moment, I stared up through the glass, completely at ease. I knew I should be afraid, but I wasn’t.
The shadows in the hall’s corners came to life. They stretched, slithered along the tiles, wound up the walls like impenetrable smoke. Courtiers screamed, rushed away from the walls, pinned between the shadows and the lines of guards. Terror herded them into tight groups of wide eyes and small screams.
Andiya didn’t scream. She didn’t run. Her eyes were wide, blinking rapidly, and she trembled in her place like she’d been thrown in an icy river. All the life, all the colour, seemed to have drained straight out of her.
“Andiya?” I asked. “What’s happening?”
Her lips barely parted. The word was an unsteady breath. “Death.”
Queen Xanthe’s soft voice floated into my ear. “Eon Kain,” she said. “What is in your pocket?”
I opened my palm, holding it out to her.
The quartz was not quartz anymore—but a bright, shining star. Black night poured from it, falling from my palm, pops of stars weaving themselves among the shadows. If I looked closely, flashes of the world curled beyond the smoky night—a dark wood, a moon over water, a panther’s eyes, a wind rushing over a sleeping field, comets streaking over a village. I saw the world as a god would; presiding over a kingdom of sunless sky.
Queen Mathaszai was petrified like Andiya, her knuckles white on the throne, but Queen Xanthe seemed completely at ease. She drifted towards me, dreamlike. Her hands cupped mine.
“Death has given us her word once more,” she murmured. Queen Xanthe smiled gently at Andiya. “Just as she did for you.”
Andiya trembled in her chains, frozen in terror. She watched the star as it were with a lion with its jaws on her throat. I wanted to take her hand, comfort her. It was okay. I knew it was, even if I didn’t know why. But this little star was mine. It wouldn’t hurt me.
Queen Xanthe’s hands were cold on mine. “By darkness, we are given light. And in this light, we shall find our way.” She dipped her head at me in a respectful bow. “Eon Kain. Death has chosen us to exact her will. What shall we decree?”
The star in my palm seemed to murmur, breathing an ancient tongue I did not understand. Calm washed over me. Death’s will was mine. This court was mine.
“The Kaeltan crown will support Irina Volkov’s claim to the Canavar throne. And they will accept her offer of alliance with an open heart.”
Queen Xanthe brushed her thumb against the star in a lover’s caress. “As you wish, Death. The Righteous shall never waver.”
And I swore, breathing into a soft, night-kissed wind, I heard the starry sky whisper against the nape of my neck.
How I have missed you, my love.
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!