“You who fight for your fallen loves, your ravaged countries, listen closely: There may come a time when the Emperor appears before you. Perhaps your beauty will catch his eye, or your talent will do it, or your strength. He will smile and seduce. He will flatter and promise. Do not trust him. Fight him until your very last breath. Fight for those you have lost. Fight for the world that might have been, and yet still could be.” —The Word of the Prophet Simon crouched near the ice-frosted rock, knife in hand, lips chapped with cold, feet scabbed and callused in his worn boots, and watched with hungry eyes as the hare approached. It was a gangly white thing, not yet fully grown, and Simon knew that it would be more fur than decent meat, but he also knew that he was hungry and would devour anything he could kill. He knew little else besides that. The hare paused, close enough that Simon could see its whiskers twitch. It stared with dumb fear at the world, waiting for death to come. Around them, the broad brown plateau stretched for cold, solitary miles, glimmering white with morning snow. Flakes drifted silently from a thick gray sky.
Soon, the real snows would come. Simon knew it. The hare knew it. Only one of them would survive to see it happen. The hare crept closer. It had caught the scent of a hunter, its pale nose quivering, but could not find him. Simon had always been good at hiding, and since landing in this awful, unfamiliar wilderness nearly a year ago, he had grown even better at it. The hare crept closer. Simon could smell its musk, feel the heat of its frightened body. He leapt for it, fell hard upon it, slashed its throat before it could run.
Too hungry to make a fire, he skinned his kill with a few quick strokes of his knife and then tore at the haunches with his teeth. He ate. He did not drop his knife. He had learned, over the past year, never to drop his knife. Then, strings of bloody meat hanging from his teeth, the hare half-eaten, Simon heard a sound. He dropped his supper and whirled, ready to either kill or run. Instead, he stared through the snow. A figure stood not far away, watching him. Simon squinted. It was a man.
He wore a long black coat trimmed with fur. The coat had square shoulders and a high collar and fell to the ground in sweeping folds that matched the jet of his softly curling hair. He cut a beautiful figure there, sharp and clean against the wintry brown vastness of the plains Simon now knew as home. Behind him, the world hushed. He could no longer hear the distant crack of shifting ice or the harsh mountain wind. He could hear nothing but the wild beat of his own heart and the footsteps of the man coming toward him. For Simon knew this man. He had once feared him, even hated him. But so much time had passed since those last terrifying moments in Âme de la Terre that even the sight of an enemy was welcome. The man placed a gloved hand on Simon’s bowed head.
A soft cry of longing burst from Simon’s lips. Groping blindly upward, he found the man’s hand and grasped it desperately with one of his own. “It’s you,” he whispered. He was no longer alone. An animal ecstasy overcame him. He let out a harsh, croaking laugh. “It’s me,” said the angel named Corien. He knelt and looked closely at Simon. Simon stiffened, his other hand tightening on his knife. Black eyes, lightless and endless.
He had never seen such a thing. He bared his teeth, poised on the balls of his feet. But Corien only smiled. “What is your name?” Simon’s mind was a whirl of confusion. Here was the man who had invaded his home, who had killed hundreds of his neighbors and thousands of Celdarians. Here was the angel who had slipped inside the mind of his own father and urged him to jump off a tower to his death. For a wild moment, Simon considered leaping on Corien as he had on the rabbit, opening that smooth white throat the same way. But Simon had seen the swiftness with which angels could attack. Corien would stop him before he could even raise his knife. He could run, but that was unthinkable.
For a year, he had lived alone in the wilderness, his body worn to mere bones and mangled skin. For a year, he had spoken only to himself and to the beasts. His furious tears spilled over. “You know my name, don’t you?” he whispered fiercely. “Can’t you see?” Corien was quiet for such a long time that Simon felt a cold drip of fear down his back and prepared himself to run. Always, he was preparing himself to run. “I do know you,” Corien said softly, but he seemed puzzled. “I know you, and yet I don’t.” A swift, seeking presence entered Simon’s thoughts, as if sly fingers were pulling aside the folds of his mind to see what lay beneath. He knew what was happening even though he had never felt it before.
Dark stories had rippled through Celdaria in the months before and after King Audric’s death. Terrible stories about humans driven mad, humans left pale and broken in the ruins of sacked villages. This was what it was like to be invaded by an angel. Simon held still, hardly breathing, quaking in the snow, as Corien moved through his mind. A voice slid against Simon’s ears, kissed his neck, traced the lines of his scars. The voice hissed words Simon did not understand, and they spiraled louder and faster until his mind was an unbearable din. He felt as if he were being shaken, held above an abyss and flung to and fro as whatever ravenous thing lived in the abyss howled. Simon cried out and tried to run, but Corien grabbed his arm and his chin and pushed him against the ground with his cold gloved hands. A pressure filled Simon, from his skull to his toes, until he feared his body would burst open. Words rose inside him, pulled by a great force.
Soon they would spill out and scatter like insects, hissing Simon, Simon, Simon, and they would devour the world. Then, at last, there was quiet. Simon gasped in the dirt. Above him, Corien’s face was tight and hard with an emotion Simon could not read. It had been so long since he had seen a face. “I do know you,” Corien said quietly. His words fell like rain against metal; Simon felt each one in the back of his teeth. “Somehow, I know you. I see that your name is Simon Randell. You are nine years old.
You are a marque. Or, rather, you were a marque, which I knew. This is why I came to you. I sensed an unusual presence in these mountains and followed the long trail of it here to find you. Marques do not exist now. Did you know that, Simon? Very little that is remarkable still lives, except for me.” His black gaze roamed over Simon’s body, the thick tapestry of scars on his face and hands. Simon felt his mind shift, accommodating Corien’s intrusion. Simon’s jaw clenched. He sat stiffly.
He would not be afraid. He held his breath. “I begin to see more,” Corien whispered, unblinking. “Your journey forward in time scarred you horribly and almost killed you. You weren’t always this ugly.” He smiled, and yet the rest of his face, beautiful and pale, did not move. “But you aren’t ugly, are you, Simon? Beneath that map of scars, you are quite a fine creature.” Simon struggled to sit up, and when Corien helped him, his gloved hand at Simon’s back, Simon flushed. He straightened his posture and lifted his chin, trying to remember how to be a boy. His mind tilted and spun.
So, he was far in the future now. He had suspected as much from some terrible instinct gone dormant in his blood. He had whispered it to himself many a night. But now he knew it was true. Frantic questions crowded him. When, exactly, was this future? How much time had passed between then and now? What was this world? Corien’s eyes were black, and Simon could not travel, and he wondered: Could these strange things be connected? What had happened to the empirium? And why was Corien looking at him so oddly, as if seeing something in Simon’s face of which Simon himself was ignorant? Corien’s gaze was cold and impenetrable. “She died beside me. I bled for decades, and even when I was whole again, my mind was not. Is that why, when I look inside you, I can see only elusive shadows and hear little else but your own endless, thudding fear? Is it that my mind has been battered by the years, Simon? Simon Randell. I know your face, but I don’t know why.
Who are you? Who do you fight for?” “Fight for?” Simon shook his head. “I fight for no one.” Corien considered him for a moment longer, then said, “Ah, well,” and stood, brushing the snow from his coat. “I came here looking for something that could help me. I suppose I have found merely a lost boy.” “Wait!” Simon cried, for Corien had turned to leave, and he simply could not bear being left alone again. He crawled after Corien and grabbed the hem of his coat. He curled up against his boots, miserable as a beaten dog, and there was a small burst of fear in his chest as he considered what he was about to do, but he had long ago stopped feeling shame. For it was Rielle’s death that had ripped him from his home and brought him here. It was her selfishness, her inability to control her power, that had ruined the world and left him abandoned, alone, without his magic.
He pushed past his fear and clutched Corien’s arm. He pressed his forehead hard against Corien’s sleeve, gathered up his hatred of the dead queen, and sent it hurtling at the angel standing before him so he would see, so he would understand. “I am from Celdaria,” Simon said, trembling. “I have seen the daughter of Rielle. And, my lord, I will fight for you.” He waited. There was silence above him, terrible and heavy. Though Corien was not touching him, Simon felt the weight of a hard hand on his neck. “I held her on the night she was born,” Simon said, the words spilling out fast. “I was the son of Queen Rielle’s healer.
He hid me from you. And that night, I was frightened. I watched my father jump…” His throat closed. He growled to clear it. He had not cried in months and would not do so now. “I saw him fall,” he said. “And Queen Rielle was dying, and the baby, she was alone. I heard you screaming for the queen, my lord—I saw you beating against her light. And I didn’t know what to do, my lord, so I took the baby, and I tried to travel with her somewhere safe. I thought I would take her north, to Borsvall, where King Ilmaire could protect her.
I thought that if Queen Rielle died, she would kill me too, and her child.” Simon looked up, shivering. He could not see Corien’s face through the blur of tears and snow. “But something went wrong. Time caught me, my lord, and took me here. I have lived alone for months. I can find no one. I have walked and walked.” He was wailing now, wild and unthinking in his despair. He hated the sound of it, how small it made him seem, but now that he had talked to someone he knew, someone from the Old World that was his home, he knew he could not bear solitude again.
If Corien left him, Simon would die. He would throw himself upon the rocks. He would follow the snowcat trails and let the creatures feed on him. Corien was very still, then knelt slowly to take Simon’s face in his hands. He had removed his gloves. His skin was white and smooth. “You are in Vindica, little Simon,” he said, kindly, “in the wilds of what was once angelic country. You are on the high plains of the Maktari Mountains. Of course you are alone; of course you are cold.” Simon let himself be drawn against Corien’s chest and sobbed into his coat.
He held himself still and fought hard against the worst of his tears. He could prove that he was indeed a creature worth keeping. “Don’t leave me, please, don’t leave me,” he whispered. “Take me with you, please, my lord.” Corien stroked Simon’s long, matted hair. “You loved your father very much. You should hate me for killing him. I did kill him—I see that now too. You should want to kill me for that, but you’re so afraid of being alone again that you’ll gladly go with me if I tell you to. You’ll do whatever I say for the chance to be with someone who knows what you’ve lost.
” He laughed, a frayed sound. “Yes,” Simon whispered, shivering in Corien’s arms. He felt the angel in his mind, gently probing. “I’ll do whatever you say, my lord.” “Such a weak mind, so unguarded and scraped thin,” Corien marveled, his fingers soft on Simon’s cheeks. “You’re remembering things you’ve tried to forget, and I can see each memory as clearly as if it were my own.” Simon was remembering, yes, in the midst of these tears and this horrible rising fear, this desperation to keep Corien close to him. He could not stop remembering. He remembered Queen Rielle thrusting her infant daughter into his arms on the night of her death. He remembered her shadowed eyes sparking gold, and the sour charge to the air as the room burned bright behind him.
He remembered Corien crying out in the queen’s rooms, the sound savage with grief. He remembered looking out into the night and summoning the threads that would carry him and the child safely to Borsvall. And there was his father, gripping his head and stumbling onto the terrace outside the queen’s rooms. Toppling over the railing, falling fast to the ground below. And there were the dark threads of time, gripping Simon, tearing at him. The pain of that, and of how for the first few weeks after arriving here, he had hardly known himself, had been more beast than boy. He had forgotten how to speak. He had run on all fours, bleeding and burned, screaming at nothing. “And the child?” Corien crooned, caressing him still. “What happened to her?”