The upper levels of the palace were serviced by glass-windowed lifts that rose like glittering gems from the rotunda floor. Only one of these lifts went up as far as they needed to go. Guelida and Zairr had it all to themselves.

As the doors slid shut, Guelida fought the urge to retreat against them, to pull back as far from the transparent elevator walls as she could get.

Zairr usually moved to stand between her and the view. It wasn’t anything they ever talked about, and under torture she’d never confess how much of a relief it was when he did that. Today, he wandered to the edge of the lift, put his hand on the railing, and looked out over the rotunda, the unfocused look back on his face.

“Who are you talking to?” Guelida asked.

“No one.” He paused. “Everyone.” He shrugged. “It’s hard to explain.”

Guelida understood the distracting nature of voices in your head better than Zairr thought she did, but to say so would have invited questions and a confession she swore she’d never make. So she said nothing and tried to relax. Managing her phobias wasn’t an actual part of Zairr’s job description. The ride up wasn’t going to kill her.

Except that the Aravene Palace was so very tall. Constructed with materials and techniques no one today could duplicate, the central tower was elegant and graceful, full of open space and unobstructed views and obviously none of the designers had possessed even the least fear of heights. And of course, the royal suites and offices were all at the top.

Guelida gave in and closed her eyes. Better that than the paralyzing vertigo. The elevator moved fast. The ride didn’t last long. At the top, when she opened her eyes again, Zairr was watching her. They’d known each other too long and too well for him to think she’d appreciate an apology, but a tilt of his head and the rueful edge of a smile let her know he was sorry.

Even this lift didn’t go all the way to the top of the tower. The doors slid open on a wide landing that opened to a gently curving hallway and a wide staircase going up. Two more Red Guard stood on either side of the stairs that led to the royal floors, Therar and Alia of the king’s Guard. They nodded to Guelida as she passed.

Queen Yinicof’s office was four stories higher, at the very top of the palace. It lay at the center of the ring and looked out over the open middle, all the way down to the ground. And even though there were plenty of comfortable places to work in the spacious room, Yinicof always seemed to settle at the desk next to the open precipice.

Zairr waited outside the door as Guelida crossed the room to stand in front of her mother’s desk, putting herself right next to the rail that was all that separated her from the open abyss. No amount of logical thought could convince her body she was safe, that there was no way she was going to fall. But she stood there anyway, because even this irrational suffocating, terror was better than Yinicof’s anger if she caught Guelida indulging what Yinicof considered a weakness.

Bad enough Guelida was broken in other ways.

Queen Yinicof ian Aravene was focused on the screen embedded in the black metal desk. A woman who had been a soldier long before she was a queen, and it showed in every aspect of the way she presented herself to the world, from the undecorated military uniform she wore to the rigid posture with which she sat. The black hair that she’d passed down to three of her four children was cropped unfashionably close to her skull, and she wore none of the glittering, colorful paints that were currently in vogue in the court.

Yinicof’s screen showed a map of the southwest territories, focused in on the Aravene-Kardenel border. Red icons blinked to mark the location of recent skirmishes while a stream of data running down the side reported numbers of troops both sides had in the area.

“Have you seen this?” Yinicof asked without looking up.

“It came in with the morning reports. Kardenel troops made what looked like an aggressive move and Marshal Trenett took the bait.”

“Man’s an idiot,” Yinicof muttered. “What was Anison thinking putting him in charge of the border?” She looked up, glaring at Guelida as though it were somehow her fault.

General Anison had been away for nine weeks now, personally overseeing Prince Bastyen’s escort. For most of that time, he’d been out of direct communication with the palace, working entirely through quick data uploads and downloads as he passed relay points on the road. Yinicof and the General had always had what could most politely be called a difficult relationship, and his absence meant that Guelida got to bear the brunt of the complaints that Yinicof couldn’t express directly to the General’s face.

“I’m overriding Anison’s orders. Pulling Trenett in. I’ll have to go over current assignments to find an officer I trust who’s close enough to rotate in.”

“Yes, mother,” Guelida answered in a carefully neutral tone. Hoping to diffuse the situation before Yinicof started yelling.

“It isn’t like I don’t have enough on my plate. What the hell was Anison thinking?”

Yinicof paused, but this time Guelida said nothing. Years of experience had honed her instincts to know when silence was best.

“It’s almost like…” Whatever she was going to say, either Yinicof changed her mind or thought better of it, and her expression grew thoughtful as she stared at her daughter. “What do you need?”

“I’ve been in meetings with the engineers. They can hit the deadlines you’ve set, but they want you to understand the risks we’re taking. There’s not time to properly test the systems, especially after that last quake forced them to pull a bunch of sparks out of the Star wing. We could lose—“ Guelida broke off. In Yinicof’s mood, she wouldn’t have the patience for numbers. “If there’s an undiscovered short in any of the rooms you’re opening up, it could be a disaster.”

A skirmish on the border had Yinicof in a rage, but the threat of half the palace shorting out only earned a shrug. “It’s a calculated risk. If we can dazzle Bastyen, if we can finalize the treaty, it will all be worth it.”

The treaty. Everything was about the treaty. Guelida’s life for the last six months had revolved around the treaty. The negotiations, the preparations, the late night arguments between Yinicof and Anison and every other member of the royal administrative staff.

If the treaty went through, it would end a war that had stretched back to the very first Kings of Aravene and Kardenel. All the resources that went into supporting the war could be diverted into maintaining critical resources like agriculture and communication and transportation. Not to mention an open trade with Kadenel who had spend hundreds of years developing—and protecting—technologies of their own that reduced their dependance on the sparks that still drove every aspect of life in Aravene and all its states.

Guelida believed in the treaty. She wanted the peace it would bring. She wanted the secure future for her people. It was possible—likely—this would be her once chance to leave a positive mark on the world. If this was her legacy, it was a worthy one.

Even if the cost was almost too high.

“I’ll keep working with the engineers. I don’t know what more resources we can give them. I’ll try to find…something.”

“Good girl.” Yinicof waved her away. “I’m done with you.”

Guelida was almost out the door when Yinicof added, “Stop in and see your father.”

So much for that escape. “Yes, mother.”

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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