Phoenix Flame – Sara Holland

Havenfall is my home. I test the words out, whispering them to myself as I walk slowly down the grand staircase toward the ballroom. My high heels sink into the gleaming red carpet; my painted fingertips glide smoothly against the polished oak of the railing. Music—the strange, otherworldly strains of the Elemental Orchestra, sounds shaped of metal and wind and flame—floats up from the ballroom, muffled and mixed with laughter and the clinking of glasses. A smoky-sweet smell suffuses the air from the candles clustered on top of every flat surface, the same candles throwing nets of dancing light up onto the paneled walls. Their warm gold glimmer contrasts with the velvety dark night outside. No moon, but so many stars that they look like salt grains spilled across indigo silk. The mountaintops all around us are faintly visible against the sky, craggy peaks of even deeper darkness. Tonight, the magic of Havenfall is almost tangible in the air. Willow has pulled out all the stops to signal to the delegates that this will be a night to remember, the night the new peace treaty—one that doesn’t carve Solaria out as the enemy—is to be signed. This is what the Inn at Havenfall is meant to be, a place of peace and togetherness. Connection. Omphalos. I come to a halt at the landing overlooking the first floor, my hands subconsciously tracing the subtle carvings of trees and wolves and mountains set into the banister. Below, the open door of the ballroom spills yellow light and smiling, tipsy delegates.

Music floats up to the rafters. For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, the mood inside the Inn at Havenfall is jubilant. We defeated the Silver Prince. We’re safe. The Silver Prince is gone—we beat back his attempt to wrest Havenfall from my hands. Marcus has woken up and seems to be doing better every day, even if he’s not totally back to his old self. Brekken is here at Havenfall, safe. He made it back from Fiordenkill. At last, things are starting to go according to plan. Yet I don’t feel safe, not yet.

Looking down at the ballroom, at the people laughing and dancing, my skin feels itchy, my heart unsettled. This place, the omphalos, represents so much: the peace summit that’s happened every summer for centuries; safety for people from every world; and a home for me. A future. “Peace at Havenfall,” I whisper to myself, trying to inject confidence into the words I don’t really feel. That’s the goal. That’s why I need to succeed tonight. It’s been a long couple of days of meetings with the delegates of Fiordenkill and Byrn, nailing down the language of the peace treaty which will bring Solaria—at least officially—into the fold with the other allied Adjacent Realms. It took a lot of talking and frustration, but we finally landed on language that everyone could agree to. Then Marcus wrote it all out in his elegant handwriting on a sheet of creamy, gilt-edged paper. That paper is now tucked into a velvet folio in a slim leather case at my side.

All it needs is signatures, twenty delegates each from Fiordenkill and Byrn. Ideally, we’d be getting Solarian signatures too—any Solarian input at all, really. But there are no Solarians here, except for Sura, the girl we rescued from the antique shop, who’s only a child. And of course the dead Solarian, Bram—if that was even his real name—buried out in the woods beyond the glittering windows. We had Taya up until a few days ago, but by the time she figured out that she wasn’t human, the Silver Prince had captured her. And now she’s gone, in Solaria. But I push away that line of thinking before it can drag me down. The Fiorden and Byrnisian delegates have agreed, at least in theory, to make peace with Solaria. Even if the treaty isn’t perfect or complete without being able to contact Solaria, it’s necessary—Marcus and I will need all the delegates’ support once we start making moves against the soul trade in order to save the Solarians victimized by it. I pull the folio from my bag and open it to read the words of the treaty.

Although the last few days of meetings have drilled them well enough into my memory, it’s reassuring to read them again. Byrn, Fiordenkill, Haven, and Solaria, if its people should wish it, with this instrument enter together in accord. The previous Accords, presided over by Annabelle of Havenfall and signed by the representatives of Byrn and Fiordenkill, is hereby revoked. Let it be known that the people of Solaria are once again welcome at the Inn, and that Solaria is to be considered a peaceful Adjacent Realm alongside Byrn, Fiordenkill, Haven, and any other peace-seeking world as may yet be discovered. It’s time. As my foot steps off the staircase, the noise and warmth of the ballroom immediately wraps around me, waking up my senses, pulling me in. Even without two-thirds of the summer workers—we sent the humans home after the Silver Prince’s attack, dosed with forgetting-wine, for their own safety, in case he struck again—the ballroom is sparkling clean, and the Fiorden and Byrnisian staff is darting around proffering platters of hors d’oeuvres and refilling goblets. Everyone is wearing their very finest clothes—the Byrnisians in light, airy creations of silk and metal, baring skin in inventive places; while the Fiordens wear angular jackets or sweeping cloaks, rich velvet accented with fur and lace. Willow even talked me into wearing a dress, and I have to admit it’s gorgeous—midnight blue satin, with a skirt that hits at my knees in the front and dips low in the back. It swishes, smooth against my legs as I finally gather my courage and head down the stairs, feeling grateful that I insisted on wearing high-heeled boots rather than the strappy heels Willow tried to foist on me.

And jewelry. Everyone wears jewelry, from the traditional gems that the Fiordens stack in the shells of their ears—a unique color sequence for each family—to the Byrnisians’ stacked bangles and dangling necklaces of iron, gold, obsidian. Silver. It all flashes around me as I ease into the heat and press of the crowd, like the stars outside have sunk down and settled on our skin. Which reminds me of my other mission, the one I haven’t told even Marcus about. Though I know my first order of business has to be the treaty, tonight also seems like the perfect opportunity to fish for leads about the soul trade, while the delegates are in a good mood fueled by liquor and relief. Relief to be free of the Silver Prince, and to be done with negotiations about the new treaty. Maybe they’ll be loose—maybe someone will let something slip. I weave through the crowd, walking fast and with purpose so no one stops me. Until I find the Heiress waiting at our prearranged spot, beneath the huge antique mirror that spans one whole wall of the ballroom.

She grins at me as I approach, drawing something out of the pocket of her black velvet gown. As usual, she looks regal, like a queen of some far country who is only deigning to grace us with her presence here for the night. She is one of the few people—alongside Marcus and Graylin, Willow, and our head of security, Sal—who is in permanent residence at Havenfall. I’m not even sure what Realm she’s from—she doesn’t have the scaled cheekbones of a Byrnisian, or the willowy build typical of Fiordens. But I can’t imagine she’s human either, seeing as she never seems to age. For most of my life, I thought her merely an eccentric historian. She told everyone that she was at Havenfall to write a history of the Realms that never seemed to materialize. But now I know there’s more to her. She unearthed evidence of the soul trade all on her own, and she decided to fight it. There were gaps in her knowledge, yes—she thought the enchanted silver objects circulating through the Realms contained only stolen magic, not stolen souls—but she saw that Havenfall was in danger and took steps to fight the threat, even though she thought it meant going up against Marcus.

She even recruited Brekken to help her. She was the one who approached me with a plan for tonight—the idea to squeeze more information out of the delegates. Now she’s giving me the means to do so. “You look lovely tonight, dear,” she says, putting a soft hand to my cheek and nodding approvingly. “You ought to let Willow take a crack at you more often.” I blush. “Yeah, I know.” But impatience gnaws at my insides. Normally, I’d love to bask in her compliments, but right now isn’t the time. “Do you have it?” The Heiress nods, her hands dropping down to mine so she can press something into my palm.

I look down to see a small crystalline vial, stoppered with a cork and containing a clear liquid tinted the faint green of grass. A kind of truth serum, the Heiress told me, an old kind of magic from Tural, one of the former Adjacent Realms whose doorway closed long ago. I haven’t the faintest idea how the Heiress came to have this, and she wouldn’t tell me. Only how to use it. “It’s not perfect,” she tells me now, withdrawing her hand from mine, leaving the vial in my palm. “It will simply make those who partake of it more forthcoming, and they will find it more difficult to construct a lie. But it will not cause them to offer up what they would otherwise keep to themselves. You still need to ask the right questions and coax them to share.” She must see the trepidation on my face, because she pats my shoulder. “You’ll do fine.

The delegates respect you.” Do they, though? After the fiasco that was Havenfall under my watch, I wouldn’t count on that. I held on to the inn, but just barely. I guess the fact that the Silver Prince didn’t take over can be counted as a victory, but in the meantime I let half the Fiorden delegation return to their realm early, destabilizing the doors; I heightened tensions between Fiordenkill and Byrn. The unsigned peace treaty weighs momentarily heavier at my side as the Heiress grips my arm— gentle, but firm—and turns me around so I face the crowd. “Go.” I take a deep breath and go. In summers past, this moment—the one where I merge with the crowd of delegates, join the dance —has always been one of lightness and joy. Still, it’s hard to feel too morose amidst all this merrymaking. Music and laughter and the scents of fruit and wine wrap around me as I push deeper into the crowd.

The Elemental Orchestra is playing a rearranged version of The Rite of Spring, with minor-key Byrnisian flourishes woven into Stravinsky’s arrangements. Delegates swirl around the floor, creating a maelstrom of different colors and textures. With everyone moving like this, you could fail to notice that our ranks have thinned at all. You could think that everything was all right. My uncle, Marcus, is at the bar, chatting up the delegates as he passes out glasses of wine and champagne. I don’t think he’s fully recovered from being in a coma after the Silver Prince’s attack, but right now you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. He’s animated, handsome, happy. Graylin, his husband, even convinced him to wear a tuxedo. He looks smart—not a wrinkle. Staying out of his sight line, I lurk by the bar until Marcus steps away, at which point I quickly duck behind the counter, put together a tray of glasses filled with fruit-studded wine, and spike each of them with a dash of truth serum.

Straightening up, almost immediately, I fix my eyes on someone who could be my first target. Saber Cancarnette. He’s respected among the Fiorden delegation, and his signature on the treaty will carry real weight. Plus, as a fur trader who works closely with the gem miners of Byrn, it seems possible he might know something about the soul-silver. I stride up to Cancarnette with determination. The Fiorden lord looks slightly taken aback by my approach. His ice-pale cheeks are tinted pink with the influence of wine. Good. Hopefully that’ll give me a head start. I smile and proffer my tray carefully.

“Another drink, Sir Cancarnette?” I ask with a bright tone. “Willow and I are trying out new recipes.” Let him think, let them all think, that now that Marcus is recovered I’m back to my previous role, sidelined, a child with nothing to do with the real affairs of Havenfall. It will make it easier to find the truth. Cancarnette doesn’t hesitate to accept one of the spiked glasses. As soon as he does, one of the staff materializes and whisks the tray away, leaving my hands free. I clink my own serum-free glass against Cancarnette’s and increase the wattage of my smile. “To the new peace treaty.” The lord hesitates a moment, his brow wrinkling in confusion or concern, I’m not sure. But then he returns my toast and echoes my words.

“To the treaty.” So he’s not completely prejudiced against Solarians, then. That’s good. I was afraid that the delegates might flat-out refuse to acknowledge the treaty, even as ineffectual as it is now. That gives me hope enough to ask my next question, once Cancarnette’s throat has moved to swallow the wine— and the truth serum—down. “That’s a lovely pendant,” I say after I’ve tilted my own glass back. I gesture to the ornament hanging on Cancarnette’s chest, a delicate figurine of a bird of prey, an eagle, carved out of pale, marble-like stone, white with blue veins. “Is it a family heirloom?” I know he is a lover of jewels and precious things, or at least a connoisseur. When Marcus was comatose, one of the first Innkeeper duties I carried out in my uncle’s stead was overseeing a trade negotiation between Cancarnette and a Byrnisian merchant—Fiorden furs in exchange for Byrnisian jewels. Most of their talk went right over my head, as scared and overwhelmed as I was.

But I remember the hunger in Cancarnette’s eyes when he looked over Mima’s spread of jewels. The lord reaches up to trace the amulet with long fingers. “Indeed.” Pride colors his voice. “It belonged to my mother before me, and her father before her. Furs are my father’s trade, but my mother and grandfather raised eagles for a living.” I’m momentarily distracted as I imagine a Fiorden eagle. All the animals in the great forest of Myr—the Fiordenkill country on the other side of the door—are many times larger than their counterparts on Earth. What must it be like, to face down an eagle with a wingspan as long as a car? To know that it’ll come when you call? “The piece is beautiful,” I say admiringly. “You know, Brekken told me a story once about a knight whose beloved gave him a pendant enchanted with her healing magic.

And after that, no matter what opponents he crossed or how they wounded him, the pendant healed him and sustained him so that as long as he wore it, he would never fall.” I lift my hand up as if to touch Cancarnette’s pendant, and then let it go, weaving wistfulness into my voice. “Do you think such a thing could ever be?” Cancarnette smiles. “Magic belongs to people, Miss Morrow. The wild gods granted it to us; it runs through our blood. To enchant a lifeless object, no matter how beautiful, would be blasphemy.” My heart speeds, as I notice that he’s said it’s wrong, not that it can’t be done. “Of course. Naturally.” “I remember that story,” Cancarnette goes on.

“But perhaps your soldier left out the part about how while the knight was adventuring, his lover fell ill. Having poured all her magic into the pendant, she had none left for herself and died alone.”

.

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