Magic of Fire and Shadows – Rita Stradling

Princess Adaline raked in a harsh breath as her guard tightened his arm around her neck. She tucked her chin, just in time, and sucked in a lungful of air, clawing at his arm to loosen his grip. If she could just find that pressure point— “That’s better,” Evzan said in her ear, not sounding the least out of breath. “At least you’re keeping your chin down, but tickling my arm will never break my hold. You have several options: break my pinkie, stomp on my foot, or throw your head back and break my nose.” Adaline tried to stomp on his foot, but he swung his leg in an arc and then tapped the inside of her foot. “Don’t project your movement so much. You’re shifting your weight, and you took too long to strike. Cock then strike, all in one move.” The full moon provided ample lighting in the gardens for their sparring, and Adaline dug her elbow back into Evzan’s abdomen. Hard as a rock. He tightened his hold, and her vision tunneled. Unlike a real attacker, her guard kept his contact to a minimum, a challenge considering their proximity. His chest pressed against her back with his inhalation, and he whispered, “Most men leave themselves open, not anticipating their prey to fight back. But you can’t rely on that, Princess.

Fight smarter.” “I’m not throwing my head back,” she huffed as she continued to struggle against his greater strength. “It hurts.” “Are you joking?” he asked as he released her. He spun around to face her and glared. “You can’t afford to hesitate. You’d be captured, and if lucky, you’d be killed. There are worse things than getting hurt.” Adaline pushed the sweaty blond wisps of hair away from her flushed face. “I know.

And in a real fight, I wouldn’t hesitate.” Raising his eyebrows, Evzan pursed his lips. He tapped his index finger against his thigh, a frustrated gesture Adaline was far too familiar with, and said, “You will fight how you practice. If you hesitate here now, you’ll hesitate then. Don’t waste our time.” Adaline stared at him. Pale moonlight traced along the lines of his cheek and jaw, bathing the angles in silver. Though shadows consumed some of his features, Adaline could feel the weight of her guard’s dark blue gaze. Even at rest, the large man reminded her of the pictures of Zelenian tigers. Ferocious.

Beautiful. Terrifying. “I would’ve broken your hold . eventually,” Adaline muttered as she rubbed her neck. The few lamps illuminating her garden flickered, and Adaline darted a glance toward the castle. Their location and timing aided in the secrecy of her training, but Adaline still worried they would be caught. “You don’t have time for eventually when a stronger opponent has you by the neck. And sometimes the best defense is distance. If you can get away safely, do it.” He waggled his finger at her and added, “If I teach you only one lesson, Princess, let it be that.

” Her mouth went dry with the dark warning. She wasn’t training with him to learn how to run away. “I’m not training to flee but to fight. Preferably, in the army. And if my father allows me to join, we’ll be fighting with swords, not wrestling. When are we going to get back to that?” Evzan snorted. “Not tonight. You may be a princess, Adaline, but when we’re here, I’m in charge.” Lovely. Adaline rolled her eyes but held back the retort burning her tongue.

“Then what do you wish to move to?” Evzan took a deep breath, and his entire body relaxed with his exhalation. “Bed.” His meaning was clear, but Adaline’s stomach squirmed and cheeks heated. She turned away so he wouldn’t see her blush. “You’re quitting?” She looked up at the moon, hinting that the night was still young. When Evzan said nothing, she finally huffed, “Fine. I’ll expect you tomorrow.” She tapped the sword at her side. “And I expect we’ll use our weapons.” In a lower voice, she muttered, “Ridiculous to have to command a soldier to train.

” Evzan leaned over her and chuckled. His scent, sandalwood and woodsmoke, wafted between them. “If you were half as brutal with your body as you are with your words, I wouldn’t have to scold you for inaction.” Adaline’s heart raced, and she blinked up at her guard, her lips parting. “If our lesson is over,” she said, breathlessly, “then you are dismissed.” He smirked but said nothing. When Adaline stepped out the doorway of the enclosed gardens and into the darkened grounds surrounding the glass rooms, her guard followed. “Please,” she said, suddenly desperate for a moment to collect her pride. “Leave me. I just need a moment to myself.

” When he still hesitated, she added, “I’ll be right behind you, Evzan.” “I’ll wait by the bench just inside the solarium,” he said, pointing toward the trail leading back through the enclosed gardens to the castle. “If you’re not there in five minutes, I’m coming back for you.” Adaline resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. Evzan paced away, and when he rounded the bend, the coiled tension that increasingly accompanied her lessons with Evzan finally released. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, letting the night air cool her skin. Adaline fought the leather strap holding back her long blond tresses and wrenched it free, letting her hair fall forward to conceal her face. She tried to put her finger on why she and Evzan were at odds of late, but the truth eluded her. A scream rent the night, and Adaline jumped. Bracing one hand on the window behind her, she stared out into the darkness.

Across the grounds, illuminated by the pale light of the moon, a young woman ran, her dark cloak streaming behind her as she closed the distance toward Adaline. “Help me!” the woman shrieked. Closer now, the moonlight illuminated her pale face, twisted in terror. The distinctive silver markings of the Celestial Sisters crisscrossed the hem of the woman’s deep blue robes. The princess unsheathed her sword as she moved to help the young Sister. “Adaline,” Evzan bellowed from behind her. “Stay right where you are!” But it wasn’t her guard’s yell that stopped Adaline in her tracks. The cloaked woman’s scream cut off, and she froze just past the entrance to the hedge wall around the gardens. Time seemed to slow as Adaline took in the scene. The young woman’s eyes widened, and she clawed at her neck as if she was attempting to pull a man’s hands or arm off, just as Adaline had done minutes before with her guard.

The apprentice witch was young, perhaps only a few years older than Adaline’s seventeen years. The Celestial Sister’s blond hair rose writhing in a sudden wind, and leaves and small twigs swirled. The woman raised her hand, and a pale light swirled around her fingers for a moment before sputtering out. Adaline charged forward against the wind, holding her sword aloft. Only . there was no opponent to fight. The young witch’s head lolled, and her eyes rolled back so that only the whites shone in the moonlight. “Alexandra, Aliz, Dagny, Ebele, Rose, Sable . ” the woman said, her voice holding no inflection. She recited a list of women’s names, and Adaline slowed her approach.

“Jasmine, Clara, Elane . ” Adaline’s chest squeezed, tight with fear. The wind swelled, and the debris pelted the princess, and she shouted, “Tell me how to help you.” The woman continued her monotonous chant. “Tabatha, Wendy, Jezinka, Adaline . ” Hearing her name, Adaline lowered her sword and her hand brushed against a coarse cloth. She yelped as a shadowy figure suddenly appeared. “Vasilisa—” the witch said. Adaline raised her sword again, and the figure released the young witch and turned toward the princess. Oily dark mist swirled beneath the hood, and as it oozed out toward her, the moonlight reflected off the deep crimson vapor.

“Die,” the cloaked figure whispered in a harsh command, raising his hands to grab her. The mist billowed out toward the princess, but when it touched her skin, it vanished. Another wave of the red haze rolled toward Adaline, only to dissipate again when she waved her arm through it. Taking courage, Adaline brought her weapon up to strike. “No, you die.” She swung her blade in an arc and then stumbled as Evzan’s massive body crashed into her. Her blade sliced through the hooded figure, and the robe dropped to the ground. “Adaline,” Evzan shouted, grabbing her tunic. Adaline struggled against his hold, trying to keep the dark oily vapor scuttling over the ground in sight. The mist was thicker than what had been in the air, and it crawled over the fallen witch.

Evzan thrust her back, behind him. “Move,” Adaline snapped at Evzan. “If you will do nothing but get in my way—” A loud crack, like splintering bone, was followed by the woman’s scream. The wind disappeared, and Adaline pushed past Evzan, seeing only the coarse black cloak as she fell to her knees beside the Celestial Sister. “What can I do?” The princess raised her voice and screamed, “Help.” But the young witch’s body lay at an unnatural angle. Blood dribbled out from the Sister’s lips, and her eyelids fluttered. “He is hunting all of us,” she muttered, her voice barely a whisper. “And if he kills us, all of Ctyri will fall.” “Us?” Adaline’s mind grasped to make sense of the young woman’s words.

“Us, who?” “The Horsemen’s curse.” The young witch sucked in a wet breath. Looking beyond Adaline, she spoke into the darkness, “Break the curse, or he will rule forever.” Adaline turned to find Evzan staring at the Celestial Sister, his eyes narrowed. The princess glanced around the clearing, but she didn’t see the cloaked attacker. When she looked back to the young witch, the girl’s eyes were glassy and her chest was still. Evzan squatted down beside Adaline, holding out a hand to help her up. “We should go—” “No. Some—creature or man is on the grounds. He could kill again.

” Adaline stood, studying her guard’s face, but clouds scuttled over the moon, obscuring her limited light. “We have to go after him.” “No,” he said firmly. “We most definitely do not.” He pointed at the coarse cloak, cleanly sliced through by her sword. “You banished him, Princess. You killed him.” Banished or killed? “What was that?” Evzan shook his head. “Nothing. A bad dream.

” Adaline’s hands trembled, and she accepted Evzan’s help. “She was running toward me. She was coming to me.” Evzan peered down at her and said, “She was running for the lights on the grounds.” “No,” Adaline insisted, her voice trembling with the waning adrenaline. “She said my name.” “Said your name or listed it off with the others?” he asked, his brow furrowing. “I merely heard a list.” Footsteps pounded against the ground as guards drew near, likely responding to her scream for help. Too late, Adaline thought, glaring at her guard.

“Halt!” they cried, and the distinctive ring of metal filled the garden. Adaline spun to face the guards, and Evzan snapped, “Stand down.” The princess opened her mouth to give the men orders to search the grounds for the mysterious figure, but Evzan spoke. “My apologies. Princess Adaline had a fright,” he said, his voice tight with frayed patience. “She was out in the gardens playing soldier, and I was just bringing her in when we saw this Celestial Sister trip. Unfortunately, her injury was fatal. A terrible accident. The princess screamed when the woman fell.” Adaline stared at her guard, her jaw dropping in shock.

Incoherent thoughts flitted through her stunned mind, and she couldn’t seem to locate any words. “No,” she finally choked out. “There was a cl-cloaked man, red smoke, he disappeared.” Evzan rested his hand on her shoulder. “It was only a terrible nightmare.” He shook his head. “The princess witnessed something traumatizing, men. I fear she will need time to recover.” Adaline could read the guards’ acceptance in their expressions and nods. They believed Evzan’s lies.

Adaline turned to the man who’d been her teacher and trainer all these months, her stomach dropping. Why was he lying? Had he seen what she had? He had to have. But Evzan looked on with only concern shadowing his blue gaze. A small pucker marred his otherwise smooth brow. “Please see this is cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll return after I get the princess settled with her maid.” “No,” she pressed. “The sister was listing names. She said that the women were being hunted. We need to get to the bottom of this.

The names, uh . ” She tried to think of a single one, but her mind was getting muggy as her energy drained. Nausea churned in her stomach, but she swallowed it down and said, “Vasilisa was one name, but there were so many others.” Evzan grimaced. “Princess, you’ve confused reality with imagination and dreams. Come now, you’re tired. I’m sure your maid is worried.” Adaline wanted to scream at her guard, to call him out on his lies, but he didn’t give her a chance. “Gentlemen,” he said with a nod, and then he grabbed her elbow and escorted Adaline through the gardens. “How did you—” “Not now, Adaline,” he snapped, his gaze darting this way and that.

With no one else to speak with, Adaline’s mind spun. Vasilisa and Adaline were the only two names she retained, but was she the Adaline? And what of this Vasilisa and all of the other women? And why was she talking about the myth of the Four Horsemen’s curse as if it were real? With only dark questions and no answers at all, the princess allowed her guard to lead her back toward the palace. But tomorrow she’d find answers. V 2 VA S IL ISA asilisa folded the letter from Prince Nikolai, the worn creases collapsing on their own accord, and sighed. She pressed a hand to her chest where the ache of his absence had dulled but not completely disappeared. She dropped the last letter onto the scattered stack of envelopes on her bed and frowned at the frayed green ribbon she’d used to bind the notes. How foolish the daydreams of her childhood seemed now; the hollowness in her chest was more likely from missing her father than the heir of Beloch. “Don’t be an idiot, Vasi,” she whispered to the empty room. A knock at the door startled her, and Vasi gathered up the time-worn letters. “Brida, if that’s you, you’re welcome to just come in.

” Brida stuck her head through the doorway. The worry lines puckering the young maid’s brow made her appear older than eighteen. “The mistress is home askin’ for you. Said to meet her and Roza in the solar for tea, straightway.” “Of course,” Vasi said, examining her maid. “You look upset. I hope she wasn’t harsh with you again. Do you want me to talk with her?” Brida’s gaze went wide, and she shook her head, causing strands of hair to fall from her messy bun. “Oh, no, please. I’m fine.

Don’t worry about me, miss.” “All right, if you’re sure.” Before Brida could leave, Vasi asked, “Are we having raspberry trifle today?” Her stomach rumbled, confirming Vasi’s hunger, and she rushed to explain, “A djinn passed this way, and I followed his trail through the woods for hours.” “A djinn passing this way? Celestials forbid.” A familiar amusement lifted in Brida’s tired gaze. “Well, Cook made yer favorite. Best hurry now so you don’t miss out.” Vasilisa scooted to the edge of her bed, her emerald silk skirt rustling over the beige coverlet. “I’ll be right there. Thank you, Brida.

” The maid closed the door, and Vasi glanced at the bed for her gloves and then wondered if she’d left them outside. No matter. She tied the ribbon around the envelopes and muttered, “Really, I should just throw you all away.” Prince Nikolai had been gone for five years now and, as the heir of Beloch, wouldn’t indulge the attention of a tradesman’s daughter when he returned. She knew better, but even so, she tucked the notes into the drawer as she pulled out a fresh pair of gloves and then headed to tea. Vasi frowned as she crossed through the dim great room. The fire lay unlit, despite the chill of the gloomy afternoon, as well as the candelabras on the mantle where the portrait of the Phoenix Fire hung. Vasi stopped and blinked at the thick stone ledge, frowning when she saw the heavy silver candlesticks were missing. One of the servants must be polishing them, but they should have left a replacement. The room was far too dark.

Practically uninviting and nothing like the memories of her childhood. Stepping into the bright solar, Vasi froze on the threshold as irritation and hurt thumped in her chest. Vasi’s stepmother, Marika, didn’t look up as she poured tea . into two cups. Across the table sat her daughter, Vasi’s stepsister Roza, in the only other seat at the table, taking a dainty bite of raspberry trifle. “Good afternoon, Stepmama, Roza,” Vasi said, forcing a smile as she crossed the room to join them. She grabbed one of the chairs away from the wall and pulled the wooden seat to the table. “Was Mistress Svad able to get you in for a fitting in time for Lady Granth’s party next week?” “You’re late.” Marika frowned, the paint around her lips creasing with the expression, but the dark-haired beauty didn’t even look at her stepdaughter while filling the second cup. “All of Rizy knows tea is served at three o’clock sharp.

” Vasi gripped the back of the wooden chair and pushed down her irritation. “Growing up, we always had tea whenever Cook had it ready.” “Not anymore. I will civilize this household if it kills me. Tardiness is akin to rudeness, and it won’t help your prospects.” Marika set the teapot down and regarded Vasi. “A simple apology will do.” Vasi took a deep breath and, swallowing her pride, curtseyed low. “I apologize for my tardiness.” Marika harrumphed and then nodded.

“I’m glad you could join us.” The words felt empty to Vasi, but she tucked her auburn hair behind her ears and sat at the table. Plucking a scone from the tiered tray, she set the biscuit on her plate and attempted to think of something cordial to say. “Were you able to find a dress? My mother always said that as the capital, Rizy boasts the best seamstresses in all of Beloch.” The Viscountess stirred her tea, the skin around her eyes tightening. She smiled at Vasi, but the expression held no warmth. “A beautiful red silk. Thank you for asking.” Marika sipped at the concoction and then accepted the plate from Roza. “Both of you girls are so grown up and pretty.

” Roza beamed at the compliment, her ivory skin flushing with pride. “Thank you, Mama.” Marika took a bite of her sandwich and merely nodded at her daughter. “Roza is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” Vasi said truthfully with a smile directed at her stepsister. Without acknowledging the compliment, Roza looked away. Vasi couldn’t help the awkwardness churning inside her stomach as if she’d said the wrong thing. The three women ate finger sandwiches and sipped their afternoon tea in silence. Vasi’s father, Casimir, had warned her, and for the thousandth time in two years, Vasi reminded herself: It will take time for a blended family to adjust. Vasi was trying, just as she’d promised her father, but she couldn’t help the wistful ache when she thought of her mother’s kindness. “Have you heard from my Papa?” Vasi asked.

“Do we know when he’ll be back from Temavy?” Marika said nothing for a long moment, but her dark eyes flashed, and then she turned her full attention to Vasi. “Darling Vasilisa, I can’t wait for his return, either. Unfortunately, the last I heard, negotiations are dragging on, and it will be several weeks still. We’ll just have to entertain ourselves as best we can until he returns.” Marika’s words hit Vasi like a physical blow. Several weeks? Scuttling unease crawled down her spine as she thought of weeks more of this. She picked at her food, her appetite having run off with her hope of her father’s prompt return, and she tuned out the chatter between Marika and Roza. The longer Vasi thought about her father, the worse she felt because when Casimir was gone, nothing was right— “Vasilisa,” Marika said, her voice high-pitched and breathy. Vasi startled at her name, her attention returning to the room and its occupants. “I have something I want to tell you, so please stop daydreaming for just a few minutes.

” Marika smiled and clapped in apparent excitement, but the remaining tightness of her features belied her emotions as she stared at her daughters. “Of course, Stepmama.” Vasi clutched her napkin and absently picked at the embroidered hem, her unease shifting to inexplicable dread. “I’ve considered waiting until Casimir returns, but you’re both of age to marry. The season is coming up, and I think that it is high time we present you at a royal ball.” Vasi’s jaw dropped, and her mind blanked. “Suitors?” “A royal ball?” Roza exclaimed, her eyes bright. “Present . us?” Marika nodded, her eyes narrowing when she turned toward Vasi. “What? You don’t want to go to a ball?” The older woman’s painted lips curled into a sneer.

“You don’t want suitors? I think you, a tradesman’s daughter, would feel honored to be included with my Roza. You could be married next month if we are lucky—” “No,” Vasi said, standing up. She dropped her napkin on the cream cushion, sick with disappointment and hurt as her world tilted and rolled at an unfamiliar slant. Vasi turned to leave the room. “I will not get married. Not until my father is back. I refuse.” “Vasilisa, do not walk out of that door,” Marika snapped. Vasi froze. Her heart pounded, and she clenched her clammy hands into fists.

Her mouth was dry, and her eyes burned with unshed tears. She was not ready for marriage. Not . yet. “You’ll not be allowed to live here forever,” Marika said. “You need a husband to support you and a home of your own. You cannot continue to be a drain on our resources. You need to look at this realistically and practically. A man will support you, provide for you, and adore you. If you choose wisely, you can have anything you want.

Your wishes to the djinn are vain imaginations. It’s time for you to grow up.” “No,” Vasilisa said, hot indignation burning through her as she faced her stepmother. Even if everything Marika said was true, and Vasi didn’t believe it was, she would not marry. Not now. “I would rather die a pauper than get married without Papa.” She took a deep breath and stated the certainty to which she clung. “You can’t force me.” Vasilisa stormed out of the solar with her stepmother shouting after her. That Marika would want Vasi to marry was understandable, but why now? No way.

And the snide comment about djinn . Vasi slowed her pace as she approached the great room, the sound of a man’s voice carrying down the hall. “Put them in the carriage,” he said. Vasi ran forward, unable to place who was speaking, and skidded to a halt as she took in the scene. A burly man in an ill-fitting doublet and hose hefted swaths of bright fabrics, trudging his way out the open door to a waiting carriage. Vasi’s surprise twisted into confusion; that strange man was carrying an armful of dresses. Her dresses. She turned to the only other occupant of the room and stepped back. Lord Emeroi Baine faced her, his gaze traveling the length of her body before meeting her eyes. Vasi had seen the Tsar’s nephew around the palace, but her father had always refused to make an introduction.

The young duke wet his lips, and hunger heated his umber gaze. “Vasilisa.” Lord Baine’s face could’ve been chiseled from stone by a master sculptor, perfectly symmetrical with high cheekbones and a square jaw. Though the duke’s looks should have made her heart flutter, Vasi felt nothing but disgust with his obvious interest. His dark eyes burned with desire that made her skin crawl. “Your Grace,” Vasi said, dropping into a perfunctory curtsey, just what etiquette demanded. She turned to leave, following an instinctive urge to be anywhere but in the Duke’s presence, and then remembered what she’d just seen. Twisting back toward the duke, she asked, “What are you doing with my dresses?” A slow smile spread like oil over his face. “You mean my dresses. I’ve just purchased them.

” “Wh-what?” In a heartbeat, her shock melted into a pulsing rage. She stomped toward him, hands clenched as her heart thundered against her ribs. “You’re buying my clothes? That’s . ” Hideous. For so many reasons. “You can’t do that.” He chuckled, pulling a small leather bag from his belt. “You’re wrong, Vasilisa. I can. And I did.

” He glanced over the top of her head and down the hallway. “Ah, Marika. Your payment is here.” Vasi rounded on her stepmother. “You can’t do this. Those are my clothes you’re selling.” She pointed in the direction of the door, raising her voice with every word. “You can’t sell my things!” Marika closed the distance between her and her stepdaughter in long, purposeful strides. As soon as she stood in front of Vasi, the older woman raised her hand and slapped Vasi across the face. “How dare you humiliate me in front of His Grace.

” The room hushed, and Vasi brought her hand up to cover her cheek, the pain of the strike progressing from sting to hot burn beneath her hand. She stared with her mouth agape at Marika and then Lord Baine, whose eyes sparked with interest at the spectacle. Marika’s features morphed into rage, and she snapped, “They became my things when I married your father. Everything in this house is mine.”


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