“The dangers of threading through time are many, but one often overlooked is the danger it poses for the traveler. The mind is fragile, and time is pitiless. Even powerful marques have lost themselves to the ravages of their temporal experiments. Perhaps it is best, then, that over the course of recorded history, only a few hundred beings have ever possessed this power, and that most of them are now dead.” —Meditations on Time by Basara Oboro, renowned Mazabatian scholar When Simon awoke, he was alone. He lay flat on his back on a scrubby plain veined with brown rocks and white ribbons of ice. The sky above him was the color of slate, choked with sweeping clouds that reminded him of waves, and from them fell thin spirals of snow. For a few moments he lay there, hardly breathing, the snow collecting on his lashes. Then the memories of the last several hours returned to him. Queen Rielle, giving birth to her child. Simon’s father, his mind no longer his own, throwing himself off her tower. Rielle thrusting her infant daughter into Simon’s arms, her face worn, her eyes wild and bright gold. You’re strong, Simon. I know you can do this. Threads glowing at his fingertips—his threads, the first ones he had ever summoned on his own, without his father’s guidance, and they were strong and solid.
They would carry both him and the child in his arms to safety. But then… The queen, behind him in her rooms, fighting the angel named Corien. Her voice, distorted and godly. A brilliant light, exploding outward from where she knelt on the floor, knocking Simon’s threads askew and summoning forth new ones—dark and violent, overtaking the others. Threads of time, more volatile than threads of space, and more cunning. He’d tightened his arms around the screaming child, clutched the blanket her mother had wrapped around her, and then, a rush of black sound, a roar of something vast and ancient approaching. Simon surged upright with a gasp, choking on tears, and looked down at his arms. They were empty. The only thing left of the princess was a torn piece of her blanket—slightly singed at the edges from the cold burn of time. All at once he understood what had happened.
He understood the immensity of his failure. But perhaps there was still hope. He could use his power, travel back to that moment on the terrace with the baby in his arms. He could move faster, get them both away to safety before Queen Rielle died. He pushed himself to his knees, raised his skinny arms into the frigid air. His right hand still held the child’s blanket. He refused to let it go. It was possible to summon threads with a cloth in his fist, and if he released the blanket, something terrible would happen. The certainty of that tightened in his chest like a screw. He closed his eyes, his breath coming shaky and fast, and remembered the words from his books: The empirium lies within every living thing, and every living thing is of the empirium.
Its power connects not only flesh to bone, root to earth, stars to sky, but also road to road, city to city. Moment to moment. But no matter how many times he recited the familiar sentences, the threads did not come. His body remained dark and quiet. The marque magic with which he had been born, the power he had come to love and understand with his father’s patient tutelage inside their little shop in Âme de la Terre, was gone. He opened his eyes, staring at the stretch of barren, rocky land before him. White peaks beyond. A black sky. The air held nothing of magic inside it. Pale, it was, and tasteless.
Flat where it had once thrummed with vitality. Something was wrong in this place. It felt unmade and clouded. Scarred. Scraped raw. Once, his marque blood—part human, part angel—had allowed him to touch the empirium. Now, he could feel nothing of that ancient power. Not even an echo of it remained, not a hint of sound or light to follow. It was as if the empirium had never existed. He could not travel home.
He could travel nowhere his own two feet could not take him. Alone, shivering on a vast plateau in a land he did not know, in a time that was not his own, Simon buried his face in the scrap of cloth and wept. • • • He lay curled in the dirt for hours, and then days, snow drawing a thin carpet across his body. His mind was empty, hollowed out from his aching tears. Instinct told him he needed to find shelter. If he lay for much longer in the bitter cold, he would die. But dying seemed a pleasant enough thought. It would provide him an escape from the terrible tide of loneliness that had begun to sweep through him. He didn’t know where he was, or when he was. He could have been thrown back to a time when there were only angels living in Avitas, and no humans.
He could have been flung into the far future, when there were no flesh-and-blood creatures left alive, the world abandoned to its empty old age. Wherever he was, whenever he was, he didn’t care to find out. He cared about nothing. He was nothing, and he was nowhere. He pressed the piece of blanket to his nose and mouth, breathing in the faint, clean scent of the child it had once held. He knew the scent would soon dissipate. But for now, it smelled of home. • • • A voice woke him—faint but clear. Simon, you have to move. He cracked open his eyes, which was difficult, for they had nearly frozen shut.
The world was thick and white; he lay half-buried in a fresh drift of snow. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes. “Get up.” The voice was close to him, and familiar enough to light a weak spark of curiosity in his dying mind. An age passed before he found the strength to raise his body from the ground. “On your feet,” said the voice. Simon squinted through the snow and saw a figure standing nearby, wrapped thick with furs. He tried to speak, but his voice had disappeared. “Rise,” the figure instructed. “Stand up.
” Simon obeyed, though he didn’t want to. He wanted to tuck himself back into his snow bed and let it gently shepherd him down the path toward his death. But he rose to his feet nevertheless, took two stumbling steps forward through snow that reached his knees. He nearly fell, but this person, whoever it was, caught him. Their gloved hands were strong. He peered into the folds of furs covering their face, but could see nothing that told him who they were. They wrapped an arm around Simon, bolstering him against their side, and turned into the wind. “We have to walk now,” they said, their voice muffled in the furs and the snow, but still somehow familiar, though Simon’s mind couldn’t place it. “There’s shelter. It’s far, but you’ll make it.
” I will. Simon agreed with their words. They slipped into his mind, firm but gentle, and gave him the strength to move his legs. A sharp gust of wind sliced across his face, stealing his breath. He turned into the furs of the person beside him, seeking warmth in their body. He wanted to live. Suddenly, passionately, he wanted to live. He craved warmth and food. He clutched the baby’s blanket in his trembling, half-frozen fingers. “Who are you?” he asked, finally able to speak.
The person’s arm was a reassuring weight around his shoulders, their gait steady even in the snow. For a strange moment, so strange it left him feeling unbalanced and not quite within his own body, it seemed to Simon that perhaps this person was not even truly there. But they answered him nevertheless. “You may call me the Prophet,” they said, “and I need your help.” 1 Rielle “Her Majesty the Queen is delighted to announce that Lady Rielle Dardenne—recently anointed Sun Queen by His Holiness the Archon, with the support of the Magisterial Council and the Crown—will be arriving in the town of Carduel on the morning of October 14 to introduce herself as Sun Queen, pay homage to the Saints, and demonstrate her abilities for those who were unable to attend the holy trials earlier this year.” —A proclamation sent from Genoveve Courverie, Queen of Celdaria, to the magisters of Carduel, September 20, Year 998 of the Second Age Apparently being anointed Sun Queen did nothing to diminish the pain of monthly bleeding. Rielle had spent half the morning in this bed, and she had decided she was never leaving it. It was a good bed, wide and clean, adorned with piles of pillows and a quilt so soft she felt tempted to steal it. According to the proprietor of the Château Grozant, who had been beside himself with nerves as he escorted Rielle and her guard to their rooms the night before, this was the finest bed at the inn. Really, she owed it to the man to luxuriate in the room he and his staff had so meticulously prepared for her.
She told Evyline as much. Evyline, captain of the newly formed Sun Guard, resplendent in her golden armor and spotless white cape, stood at the bedroom door, raised one inscrutable gray eyebrow, and replied, “Sadly, my lady, I don’t believe lying in bed all morning is part of our schedule.” “You can make it part of my schedule though, can’t you?” Rielle threw an arm over her eyes and grimaced as her cramps returned with a mighty vengeance. She shifted the hotwater bottle Ludivine had brought her, pressed it to her lower abdomen, and muttered a curse. “You can do anything you set your mind to, Evyline. I believe in you.” “I’m touched,” came Evyline’s dry voice. “However, my lady, we only have fifteen minutes before they’ll be expecting us downstairs.” A knock sounded on the door, followed by the muffled voice of Ivaine, one of Rielle’s guards. “Prince Audric to see Lady Rielle.
” Rielle peeked out from under her arm. “I’m staying in bed! Forever!” “Ah, but I’ve brought cake,” came Audric’s reply. Rielle grinned and pushed herself upright. Before she could reply, Evyline rolled her eyes and opened the door. Audric entered, in his trim formal coat of emerald-green, looking entirely pleased with himself. He strode to the bed, knelt at Rielle’s side, and presented a silver dish bearing a tiny slice of chocolate cake. “For the Sun Queen,” Audric murmured, his dark eyes dancing. “With the chef’s compliments.” From the door, Evyline clucked her tongue. “Cake for breakfast, my lady? We have a long day ahead of us.
Surely something heartier would be more suitable.” “Nothing is more suitable than cake when you’ve been traveling for a month and your body feels like bruised mush.” Rielle placed the cake on her nightstand and returned to Audric with a smile. She held his face in her hands, relishing the sight of his warm brown skin, his dark curls, his broad smile. “Hello, there.” “Hello, darling.” He caught her mouth softly with his. “Should I leave you to your cake?” “You absolutely should not. You should sit with me and order everyone to leave us alone for the rest of the day.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered against his ear, “And then you should kiss me, everywhere, over and over, until I tire of it, which I never will.
” Evyline cleared her throat and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. Audric laughed into Rielle’s hair. “And here I thought you weren’t feeling well.” “I’m not. I feel awful.” She closed her eyes as Audric kissed her cheeks, her brow, the hollow of her throat. “That helps though,” she murmured. She threaded her fingers through his curls and pulled him gently closer, a smile melting across her face. She shifted closer to him, fisting his shirt in her hands. One of his palms slid down her back, his touch so gentle that it painted soft shivering ripples across her skin.
His other hand cupped her breast through the thin fabric of her nightgown, and she arched up against him with a soft cry. From the courtyard outside the inn came a distant burst of noise—firecrackers, chiming bells, the cheers of children awaiting their first sighting of the Sun Queen. But Rielle ignored it all, instead letting Audric press her gently back into the pillows. She curled her fingers around his, scraped his jaw lightly with her teeth, and then smoothed over his skin with her tongue. “Rielle,” he said hoarsely, his mouth finding hers. “We don’t have time.” I do so hate to interrupt, came Ludivine’s prim voice. But what excuse, exactly, should I give the lovely people of Carduel who are waiting so eagerly to see their Sun Queen? That she is indisposed at the moment? That their prince has his tongue down her throat? Rielle pulled away with a groan. “I’m going to kill her.” Audric looked up from where he had been lavishing her neck with kisses.
“Lu?” “She’s admonishing us.” Would you rather Tal come admonish you instead? Ludivine suggested. Rielle nearly choked at the thought. No! I’m happy to sit here under this canopy, enjoy my tea in peace, and send him up in my place. No, no, we’re coming. Just give us a moment. Ludivine paused, and then said gently, This is our last stop. We’ll be home soon enough. I know. Rielle sighed.
Thank you. She touched Audric’s cheek. “You need a shave.” He smiled. “I thought you liked me like this. What did you call it?” “A bit of scruff. And yes, I do like it. I like the way it looks, and I like the way it feels against my thighs when you—” With a groan and a kiss, Audric cut her off. “I thought we were meant to be responsible now, go greet the adoring masses.” “We are, we are, yes, fine.
” Rielle gently detached herself from his arms, allowing him to help her out of bed. When she turned to look at him, the sight of him so fine and poised—his lips swollen from her kisses, the sunlight through the windows gilding his curls—made her lose her breath. Ludivine’s words from weeks ago returned to her, sharp and searing: And you lied to Audric about his father’s death. We are well suited. Her chest constricted around her heart, and she suddenly wanted more than anything to wrap Audric in her arms and never again let him out of her sight. Instead, she blurted out, “I love you.” He cupped her face in his hands as if to imprint the sight of it forever in his memory. “I love you,” he replied softly, and bent to kiss her once more. Then he murmured against her mouth, “My light and my life,” and left her. Before the door closed, as Evyline returned to the room with Rielle’s two maids flanking her, a page arrived on the landing, breathless from the stairs.
“My lord prince,” he said to Audric, “I have a message for you, from the north…” But then the door closed, and Audric’s reply was lost. “What gown today, my lady?” asked one of Rielle’s maids—the younger of the two, Sylvie, in the white-and-gold shift that all of Rielle’s new attendants wore. In Audric’s absence, Rielle’s abdominal pain returned to her. She cupped her lower belly with one hand and stuffed the cake into her mouth with the other. “Something comfortable,” she declared. “And red.” • • • They had been traveling for a month through the heartlands of Celdaria, introducing Rielle as the recently anointed Sun Queen, and the reception in each of the thirteen cities and villages they’d visited so far had been, as Ludivine wryly put it, amorous. The town of Carduel was no different. When Rielle stepped out of the Château Grozant and onto the stone road that led up to Carduel’s House of Light, the wall of sound that greeted her nearly knocked her off her feet. Carduel’s population was just under one thousand, and every one of its citizens had turned out for Rielle’s introduction.
They lined the road dressed in their most formal attire —embroidered coats edged with gold, the cut of the fabric a few seasons out of fashion; brocaded gowns stiff with disuse and faded with age; jeweled hair combs that caught the morning sunlight and sent it flying across the road in trembling bursts. Children sat on their parents’ shoulders, tossing white flower petals and waving golden sun-shaped medallions. Acolytes from Carduel’s House of Light stood every few yards, their castings softly glowing. Audric led the way, Ludivine on his arm in a summer gown of lavender and pearl, and his guard surrounding them in a loose circle. Rielle watched them, a slight unease nicking at her breastbone. Though there had been no official announcement, the truth was plain. It was impossible for anyone who paid attention not to notice the Sun Queen and the crown prince sneaking up to each other’s rooms night after night, and word of that had traveled quickly throughout the country. Someday soon, they would have to address how to move forward, appease House Sauvillier, officially share news of the broken betrothal, and introduce the idea of Rielle as Audric’s paramour. But not today. She ducked out from the vine-crowned trellis marking the courtyard entrance and smiled at the gathered crowd.
A sharp cry from above turned her smile to a beaming grin. At Atheria’s descent, the townsfolk nearest Rielle cried out and hastened away, making room. The massive godsbeast landed at Rielle’s side with hardly a sound and folded her wings neatly against her body. “There you are,” Rielle cooed, stretching onto her toes to plant a kiss on Atheria’s velvet muzzle. “Have you been hunting?” In response, Atheria chirruped and peered about curiously, bright-eyed. Rielle laughed as she began the ascent toward Carduel’s humble House of Light, Atheria at her side. She felt the eyes of the crowd upon her and stood straighter, her cheeks flushing with pleasure. Some she passed met her gaze; others smiled and looked away; still others bowed, kissed their fingers, then touched the lids of their eyes—the sign of prayer honoring Saint Katell and the House of Light. By the time Rielle reached the temple entrance, her arms were full of flowers, and soft white petals dusted her hair. Tal, waiting at the doors in his magisterial robes of scarlet and gold, plucked a petal from her collar.
“You’re late.” Rielle wrinkled her nose at him. “Sun Queens can be tardy if they want to, Lord Belounnon,” she replied, and then bowed low. He gathered her hands in his and kissed her brow. “Last one,” he reminded her softly underneath the din. “And thank God for that.” He glanced down at her red gown, lifting an eyebrow. “I’m not sure it was wise to wear red, of all things.”