Lover's Curse Chapter Fourteen - To Tear a Rift
When will people learn to leave me alone?
Ever since I’ve arrived, they’ve swarmed me with questions and favors. Does your mother know you’ve defected? Will you and Tiberias wed before or after he’s crowned? Did Maven scorn you for his red whore?
It’s a miracle I haven’t slaughtered them.
Evangeline lurks in my periphery, reveling in my misery. What a waste of Silver blood, a hollow vessel from which unpleasantness comes. If only she’d stop pointing it my direction.
“Displeased with your fan club?” She slinks from the shadows, clad in metal plates that slither on her hips like a snake. “Pity. It takes an iron will to bear the duties of a queen.”
“Thankfully I’m not a queen anymore. And neither are you.” I breeze past her, but she follows. “No, wait. You were never crowned.”
“Strange. Your words are confident, but your actions aren’t.” She strokes a silver bangle, an overdesigned eyesore of edges and points. “As far as Norta knows, you’ve been spooked into hiding by an overambitious rat.”
A Cygnet should not have nerves to strike. But if she does, it should never be apparent. “I don’t make hasty decisions. Is your ego fragile enough to be ruined by gossip?”
“Enough arrogance. Let’s settle this like Silvers.” Evangeline flashes her teeth. “The arena will suffice. Don’t you agree?”
I don’t have time for this. “Tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Her eyes gleam. “Tomorrow.”
I have a visitor.
She knows better than to hide herself. Her knocks are faint and unsteady, and I wait a minute before answering. “No escort. Curious. Evangeline did not strike me as a coward.”
Elane fidgets. “She didn’t send me.”
I begin closing the door. “I forgave you. Leave.”
“You misunderstand.” Her foot slides in front of the frame. “I have a favor to ask.”
“Make it quick.”
She doesn’t flinch. Her glide is seamless, silk rustling as she nestles in the chair opposite mine. “It would be gauche to demand leniency from one so titled and gracious.” A smile tugs her lips. “Though I’ve always been prone to push my limits.”
“I consider it my hobby.” I tap my fingers. “Enough games. What do you want?”
“She’s too proud to explain herself.” Elane looks me in the eye. “So I shall do so in her stead.”
Strength does not always manifest as muscled limbs or iron crowns. Sometimes the most impressive feats are visible to none but yourself.
“Rumors have been circulating. I presume you’ve already heard?” She tilts her head. “The Rift and Norta are to be wed.”
“I won’t take her place.” My voice is steely. “My misery is not to be bartered for.”
She clutches the table, knuckles whitening. “I’m asking for empathy. Evie’s prickly, and she makes enemies faster than she can fight them. Please.” Her head hangs. “When you fight her tomorrow, is it possible you could--” She bites her lip. “Go easy on her?”
Mother did not raise me to be taken by surprise. A Cygnet does not hesitate. A Cygnet does not allow her opponent a moment to strike at weakness. She is poised, controlled, omniscient and untouchable as a god.
Still, I hadn’t considered that Evangeline might have bonds as deep as Mother’s and mine. I had written her off as an annoying nuisance, stuffed her into a category so I wouldn’t have to think about her.
Do I do that often?
“I shall consider it.” I rise, leading her to the door. “But I’m not her friend. I’m not her lover. I know my own worth, and I will not degrade myself to please someone who wouldn't return the favor.”
A tear glides down her cheek. “What a lovely way to live.”
I shrug. “It’s the only way I know how.”
My dreams do not let me believe this is true.
I never have the chance to answer Elane’s request. With Maven’s forces approaching nearer and nearer, there’s no time for trivial quarrels and duels. Every meeting brings new pressures to come forward, to declare my allegiance openly and call upon Mother to join me. “I need time to recover,” I claim, and others insist I have taken time enough.
But I haven’t.
It should be easy to write to Mother and explain my predicament. She will not judge me. She will not abandon me. But the words never come, too tangled and fraught to make sense of.
If only things could go back to normal. If only I could return home and be happy, shrug the Calores and their devouring insecurities off like an unfashionable coat. No fear of retribution. No hostile hosts. No prisoners beckoning from their towers, tempting you with puzzles that should not be solved.
I don’t know what I want. I don’t know why I care so much about a conflict which doesn’t involve me, that I’m unequipped to exploit to my advantage.
Queens shouldn’t be this fragile.
Relief comes as marching soldiers and explosives, a rain of death so consuming I cannot dwell on any future but the next moment. The gods are merciful.
“Awfully slow to strike. Then again, combat was never my husband’s strength.” I tie my hair back with a flourish, relishing the cold air against my neck. When have I last been allowed to battle?
Tiberias scowls. His words rise within me, the obnoxious little tirade he spilled when we watched the broadcast together. “War’s not a race.”
You never take anything seriously, do you? You talk about pain and suffering like it’s an abstract concept, that you can entertain it for a few hours and pack it away when you’re done. But this is war. This is sacrifice. This is insanity.
“At your pace, you should hope it isn’t.” At my other side, Evangeline snorts. “You’re growing rusty.”
I know you were raised in battle as I was, but your lessons were a lie. Real war isn’t figures pushed around a board, where soldiers are abstracted to numbers which rise and fall without fanfare. It’s not a game.
You’ll understand that someday.
“Who arranged this unit?” His fists clench. “And why do they hate me?”
“That explains things.” Cal glares at his betrothed.
“Don’t whine, Little Prince. It doesn’t suit you.”
He clicks his flamemakers into glowing embers, a coiled cobra ready to strike. “The battle’s about to begin. You know your position?”
“Yes,” I snap. “You’ve trained beside me for weeks. I’m a warrior decorated as you are, with the discipline and instincts to match. Don’t condescend to me.”
Tiberias sighs. “Serves me right for trying to be nice.”
“I saved you.” I turn away. “You never thanked me.”
“Really? I could’ve sworn--” His eyes flicker to the ground, searching for memories that don’t exist. “Oh.” He softens. “Thanks.”
I sniff. “You were too annoying to waste a perfectly good drowning on.”
“Sorry.” Tiberias positions himself at my back, flames unwinding from his fingers. “I was so worried about Mare, I must’ve forgotten.”
“It wasn’t a lot of effort on my part.” My lips tug despite myself. “Really, you saved me the inconvenience.”
Evangeline snorts. “Don’t get cocky. I still intend on dueling you.”
“Of course. It’s been too long.” I flex my fingers. “In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind if you joined my warmups. You’ve come all this way.”
Clouds crackle above, gathering too quickly to be natural. It’s storm against storm, competing to see who can shatter the other’s shields first.
The battle has begun.
Adrenaline rushes through my veins, flowing into the air and leaving as liquid spears. One flick, and an enemy falls. One flick, and our troops advance. It’s intoxicating. After months of dancing around my husband, unsure how to strike, it is a relief to attack without restraint.
Across the battlefield, Father orders his troops from the ground. Water swirls from puddles on the ground rather than the air. His abilities were never as strong as Mother’s or mine, reliant on liquid rather than vapor.
He doesn’t see the shadow glide through the tall grass. He doesn’t see the blade poised at his chest, severing through flesh and bone. He doesn’t see the silver spray he leaves behind, thick and dark, a rain that cannot nourish.
He cannot see at all.
My waves pull me to his side like a current, crossing several miles in a heartbeat. I pay no heed to the soldiers I plow through. No heed to the lines I shatter, the bodies ruined. His empty eyes are all I see.
This can’t be.
I haul Salin Iral by the throat, his weak pleas nothing against the image of Father’s body collapsing into the ground. My thumb bruises his trachea. My tendrils squeeze his ribs.
Far away, they announce victory.
But I am nowhere to be found.
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Red Queen Secret Santa 2020: Part 1
This is my gift for @evangelineartemiasamos! It’s about Farley, Eve, and some others having their first Christmas in Montfort. Sorry for the lateness and the multiple parts, I had a busy week but I promise the others are coming soon. Hope you enjoy and that everyone had/has a happy holiday season!
December, 321 NE (Two months after Fire Light)
*AU where Shade is still alive*
The bar is nearly full even at this time of day, when the falling sun is just beginning to tinge the horizon pink, the mountains beyond Ascendant in stark contrast to the painted sky. It’s open to the elements despite it being December, and I shiver in my jacket, my breath puffing in the dimming light. The cold metal barstool doesn’t help matters. Above, the string lights will be coming on soon, and I’ll be thankful for the greater visibility. Anyone could be in that jostling crowd, and I’m acutely aware of the weapons on my person: the pistol in my waistband, the tiny knives in my left boot and collar sheath.
“You’re down a blade today, General.”
I spin at the sound of Evangeline Samos’s sneer. “Getting a little lax, are we?” She wears her military uniform, though the chrome-toed platform boots aren’t regulation, and a lazy smirk.
“I’m never caught off-guard,” I say calmly, even though I just was. Samos, unlike her brother, can move near-silently when she wants to, perhaps a skill learned from her shadow girlfriend. She draws breath to respond, but before she does, my short-shorn hair literally stands on end, and my hand automatically shoots out behind me and grabs someone by the wrist.
Mare Barrow yelps, wrenching her arm out of my grasp. “Damn,” she swears, climbing into the seat at the bar next to me. “I’ll get you next time.” I laugh, checking my back pocket for the Nortan half-crown. It’s a game we play, pickpocketing the silver piece back and forth from one another.
“Amateurs.” Samos shakes her head, and the coin shoots into the air to land in her hand. I whirl, my hand jumping to my belt. It’s an instinctive action, born of a lifetime on war fronts. She hands it back to me, and I force my hands to still in my lap. Calm down, Diana. No one else notices.
“What are you doing here?” Mare asks her.
“I could ask you the same.” Evangeline waves over the bartender, her expression amused. “I frequent this venue quite often, for your information.” Over her shoulder, Mare meets my gaze. Our weekly night out became a thing after Command stationed us in Montfort, to keep an eye on the Prairie warlords. Samos’s presence today is a surprise, and though she and Mare are unlikely friends, I can’t say the same.
“The usual, Colonel?” the bartender asks, addressing Samos.
“Actually, we’ll have three whiskey shots, please. And, Rei—I’m on leave. Evangeline is just fine.” Evangeline hands over a Montfortan dollar. “I guess the first round’s on me.” My brows furrow as I wonder what she’s playing at. It isn’t her style to give out free drinks, and the motive here certainly isn’t to make friends.
“So, Colonel Samos.” Mare claps her hands as the bartender turns their back again, the gleam in her eyes devious. “Two months in the patrol force, and you’re already rising in the ranks. What’s next, Sergeant?”
“I used to be a queen.” Evangeline shakes her head. “Now I’m sitting at a damn outdoor bar, being made fun of by the Red peasantry.”
“The same peasantry that overthrew your kingdom,” I say coolly. A joke it may be, but no Silver will belittle my blood in front of me as long as I live.
To my surprise, Samos’s cheeks flush silver, and she has the grace to look ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
I swallow another barb rising in the back of my throat like bile. Evangeline’s apologies are few and far between, and at least she’s making an effort. I should do the same. “Thank you.”
Rei sets down a tray with three whiskey shots. Mare grabs one and downs it instantly. “I thought I’d never see the day.” She wipes her mouth with the back of one hand. “Eve and Farley, having a civil conversation? By my colors.”
“Shut it, Barrow,” the two of us say in unison before sharing a surprised glance. Secretly, I agree with Mare. Evangeline and her family stood for everything I hated. If not for Elane Haven, she’d still be treating Reds like animals.
“How’s the house search?” Mare asks her over the chatter, gesturing for another round of shots from the bar. I look down at the pewter tray and grimace, drinking the whiskey in one gulp. It tastes like liquid smoke, but the warmth it brings is a welcome distraction from the chilly evening.
Samos shrugs, a motion that manages to be nonchalant and self-assured all at once. “Well, me, Elane, Tolly, and Wren are all on leave, so we’re looking harder than ever. But since Yule is next week, the market’s a little empty.”
Despite my misgivings about her, I feel a bolt of sympathy. Ever since the gala in October, our coalition has been mobilizing for war in the east. Army leave is going to be scarce, maybe for years. “You’ll find something.”
Evangeline downs another whiskey shot in a manner that tells me it’ll be the second of many. “I sure as hell hope so.”
Night has fallen by the time we leave the bar. Both Evangeline and Mare can hold prodigious amounts of alcohol, and I stayed my hand after the second round of drinks. I instinctively walk closer to Mare in the dark, unsure of how to handle Samos in a setting like this, with a tapestry of stars like frozen fireworks overhead and the only sound our boots against the path uphill to Davidson’s estate, lit up white against the dark evergreens. I’d beat almost any Silver in a fight, but a magnetron princess turned soldier, who can turn my own weapons against me? Even though she’s sworn allegiance to Montfort and the cause, I can’t bring myself to relax around her.
If Samos notices my distance, it doesn’t bother her as she chatters on about Ptolemus’s wedding plans. The alcohol has loosened her tongue, but from the way her eyes flick back and forth, surveying our surroundings, it hasn’t dulled her reflexes.“He wants to get married in the spring. Now that another war’s looming, well.” A grimace in the dark. “Better sooner than never.”
“And you, Farley?” Mare swats at my shoulder. “Has my brother been behaving himself?”
My hand rises to brush against the gold band on a chain around my throat. I lengthen my stride, trying to keep my voice level. “You’d have to ask him.” Though Shade and I are both stationed in Montfort, him as a liason for the Guard and me as a lookout on the tenuous situation with Prairie, we’re both so busy that we haven’t had a single aligning day off. Clara spends most of her time with Ruth, my mother-in-law. Some days I worry she doesn’t know me at all.
“It’ll be okay.” Evangeline’s voice is uncharacteristically gentle as we enter the main courtyard, our footsteps echoing off the polished granite. “You’re a survivor, General. We all are.”
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