Rise – Ellen Goodlett

Understand what I do to my enemies. You’re one of them now. The words of the blackmailer’s latest threat rang through Akeylah’s mind, over and over, while she and Queen Rozalind hurried through Ilian Keep. We were wrong about our aunt. Yasmin, King Andros’s overbearing twin sister, wasn’t the blackmailer. The countess, Sun accept her soul, never blackmailed or threatened Akeylah and her sisters. All Yasmin did was use the Vulgar Arts to forge a mental bond with her brother, the king. Akeylah learned that when she suffered another vision. Another threat from the blackmailer, who was still out there. Still stalking this Keep. She needed to find her sisters. At her side, Queen Rozalind paused to catch her breath, and flashed Akeylah a look. “Are you going to tell me what any of this is about?” “Not yet.” Akeylah steered toward the nearest staircase as she mentally debated whether to make for Ren’s or Zofi’s suite first. The mental bond Yasmin and Andros created meant Yasmin couldn’t have known about the girls’ treasonous secrets.

Otherwise King Andros would know, too. And if her father the king ever learned what Akeylah did—that she was the source of the curse burning through his bloodstream, killing him from the inside out—he’d have her executed without a second thought. The king’s condition had only worsened since Countess Yasmin’s death. He’d been bedridden since her funeral. Akeylah and her sisters told the Keep he was in mourning, but that excuse would only hold up for so long. Soon people would find out that more than his sister’s death was ailing him. Soon the curse Akeylah planted in his veins would take his life. And then Yasmin’s murder wouldn’t be the only one within this Keep. Murder. Up until a few moments ago, Akeylah had been certain Yasmin leaped from the sky gardens of her own accord.

She assumed the countess couldn’t live with the guilt of Andros learning she’d hidden his daughters’ secrets from him, or how she’d blackmailed his heirs. But now, Yasmin’s fall from the towers looked a lot more sinister. Did the blackmailer push her? A shiver ran through Akeylah’s body at the memory of the blackmailer’s latest vision. They’d forced an image of Akeylah’s abusive stepfather into her mind, used him to threaten her. But threats were one thing. Could the blackmailer have escalated? Were they willing to kill someone as powerful as Yasmin? If so, who would they turn their sights on next? I have to talk to my sisters. “Akeylah.” Rozalind panted behind her. Only then did Akeylah realize she’d been practically sprinting, her feet guiding her toward Ren’s chambers on autopilot. Ren, the put-together sister.

Ren, the one who had the most experience with the vipers that infested this Keep. She’d know what to do. “If you don’t want to tell me what’s happening, at least tell me how I can help,” Rozalind said through labored breaths. Akeylah paused halfway up the ash tower steps to consider. “Can you go to Zofi’s chambers and fetch her? Ask her to meet me in Ren’s rooms. We need to talk.” Rozalind climbed close enough to reach for Akeylah’s hand, and Akeylah caught the queen’s, with only the barest glance at the empty stairwell around them. Rozalind squeezed her fingertips gently. “Are you certain you’re all right?” the queen asked, voice pitched low. “One moment you were on the floor convulsing, the next you’re sprinting out of the library, yelling that you need to find your sisters.

I’m worried about you, Akeylah. You won’t tell me what’s going on.” Roz’s gaze bored into hers, a gaze that would be so easy, so simple to get lost in. Akeylah’s heart wilted. She moved down a stair, onto the same step as Rozalind. With the queen in heels, she stood a few inches taller than Akeylah. But it was Rozalind who seemed smaller now, shrunken with worry. Akeylah cupped her cheek. Leaned in to press a single, lingering kiss to her mouth. “I promise I’ll explain everything soon,” she whispered.

Then, conscious of the open halls around them, she disentangled her hand from Rozalind’s. Akeylah resumed her climb, hurrying toward Ren’s rooms. It wasn’t until she reached the top step and turned down a side corridor that she heard the answering clack of Rozalind’s heels beginning to descend the stairs in the other direction. Unease churned in her stomach. She wanted to reassure the queen that everything would be all right. But how could she say that, when she didn’t believe it herself? Understand what I do to my enemies. You’re one of them now. The blackmailer had sounded different this time. Angry enough to kill, perhaps the same way they’d felt when they murdered Yasmin… She drew up outside of Florencia’s door and banged on it. “Ren!” She pressed an ear to the wood.

Listened for sounds of life inside. She heard a rustling, a soft inhalation, like a gasp. Worried, Akeylah grasped the doorknob. It turned easily in her hand, and she threw the door open, just as a figure sat straight up in bed, hair a mess. For a split second, Akeylah thought it was Ren. Her hair was the same color, and she had that ohso-Kolonyan regal nose. But then Akeylah noticed this girl’s wider face, higher brow, wider-set eyes. Not to mention her clothes, the kind of gown serving maids wore. Akeylah’s face flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.

” The girl, for her part, looked even more horrified and embarrassed than Akeylah. She flung herself out of the bed, straightening her gown, grabbing the covers. “No, I’m sorry, ah, my lady. I didn’t… I mean, I wasn’t…” Between her bleary eyes and the bags underneath, not to mention the mussed bed she was now hurriedly remaking, Akeylah could guess what the maid had been doing. It must be exhausting to serve ladies in this Keep. She’d need to sneak in rest where she could. “It’s all right, really.” Akeylah spread her hands, palms up, to put the girl at ease. “I was just looking for my sister Florencia.” The girl’s hands stilled.

“Ren?” The use of the nickname stirred Akeylah’s memory. Of course. Ren had served downstairs, must have friends among the maids. Meanwhile, the girl’s gaze darted past Akeylah, toward the windows. The sun outside cast a long shadow across Ren’s hardwood floor. “She told me I could rest here while she went to the baths. I must have dozed off… But she ought to be back soon. That was only half an hour ago at most.” “Where are the baths?” Akeylah asked, tone sharper than she intended. The girl tilted her head.

Considered Akeylah for a moment. “I’ll walk you down there,” she said finally. “It’s a bit tricky to find on the first go.” They strolled out of the chamber together. After a moment’s silence, the girl spoke up again. “I’d, um… I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention to anyone about me lying down on the job. It’s just, Ren and I have an understanding, and—” “No need to explain yourself to me. Honestly,” Akeylah added when the girl flashed her a doubtful glance. “I’m Akeylah, by the way. Did you work with Ren? I mean… before all this.

” “Audrina.” She bowed, shrinking in on herself in a way Akeylah recognized all too well. “And yes. Ren and I worked together as ladies’ maids, before she found out about her heritage.” “Well, it’s lovely to meet you, Audrina. And I completely understand why you’d need a break; I had a difficult enough time serving my own family back at home. I can’t imagine what it’s like to serve so many noblewomen here, especially given how… ah…” “Finicky they can be?” Audrina supplied with a shy smile. Akeylah returned it. “I was going to say spoiled.” “If they look spoiled to you, my lady, imagine how they seem to us lowly maids.

” Audrina hesitated, eyes wide again. “Begging your pardon, my lady, if I speak out of turn.” “Of course not.” Akeylah winced. “You’re right, I can’t fathom what it must be like for you here. I can only say I sympathize. My father… Well, he treated me like something even worse than a servant. Like an abomination.” Audrina flashed her a curious look. “Mine too,” she finally replied.

Then she reached for a door. “The baths are through here, my lady.” Akeylah tailed her into the narrow room. At first, it took a moment for the scene within to make sense. All she saw was billowing steam, thick and humid in the blindingly white room. Then enough steam cleared for her to see, and her heart dropped. Two figures resolved through the mist. One at the edge of the bath, prone, and the other in the midst of tugging the first from the water. “Well, don’t just stand there!” the second figure barked, and Akeylah recognized the girl Ren was always feuding with in the dining hall. Sarella.

“Do something,” Sarella snapped, and only then did Akeylah truly process what was happening. Only then did she see her sister, clad in nothing but a strip of modesty cloth, spiky short hair plastered to her inert face. Ren. “Call the menders,” Akeylah ordered to Audrina, whose jaw had gone slack with shock. The shout seemed to rouse her, and Audrina dashed toward the bells that hung along the far wall, like they did in every room of the Keep, there for nobles to summon their maids or to call for help in an emergency. At the same time, Akeylah dashed toward Ren. “I came in for a bath.” Sarella was panting. “My damned private tub has sprung a leak, so I’m forced down here like some commoner—” “What happened?” Akeylah dropped to her knees beside her sister. Her skirts immediately soaked through with the water puddled around Ren’s body.

“I found her floating on her stomach. I managed to pull her out, but…” Sarella gestured helplessly. Akeylah bent to hold her cheek next to Ren’s mouth while her fingers groped under Ren’s chin. No breath. A pulse, but soft and fading fast. Akeylah tilted her sister’s head up and back. “What are you doing?” Sarella asked. Akeylah had never done this before, but she’d watched sailors perform it enough times. Life in a seaside town with frequent storms meant she’d seen more than her fair share of unlucky trawlers fished out of the port and onto the docks, half-drowned and unresponsive. Ignoring Sarella’s question, Akeylah pinched her sister’s nose and inhaled.

Then she planted her mouth over Ren’s parted lips and blew. She sat back. Watched. Waited. Somewhere in the background, she heard the bells clang on and on, Audrina hanging on the bellpull. If they couldn’t revive her now, Akeylah knew it would be too late by the time trained menders arrived. “Should something be happening?” Sarella tried to elbow closer. “Give me space.” Akeylah bent over Ren again. Breathed into her sister’s lungs once more.

Sat back on her heels to count to three. Fear and anger warred in her veins. Come back, Ren. We need you. I won’t let our enemy take you. She inhaled. Exhaled into Ren’s mouth. “I don’t think it’s working.” Sarella pursed her lips. Akeylah’s heart clenched.

No. She couldn’t lose Ren. Not now. One more try. She leaned down. Breathed into her sister as hard as she could, and at the same time, offered up a prayer. Mother Ocean, please don’t let her die. This time, a spurt of water rose up in response. Ren gurgled, then spat in Akeylah’s face. Akeylah fell back on her heels with a cry of relief.

Ren coughed, sputtered, spat again. Began to choke, and Akeylah rolled her onto her side and patted her back. Kept doing that until Ren had forced what seemed like at least half the baths out of her throat. Next to them, Sarella cursed as Ren’s coughs spattered across her knees. The noblewoman leaped up and away, and a near-hysterical laugh threatened to bubble out of Akeylah’s mouth. Only then did Akeylah realize she had tears streaming down her own face. Tears of fear or joy, she wasn’t sure. She kept her hand between Ren’s shoulder blades, rubbing in circles until Ren rolled onto her back. Eyes half-shut, her breathing still labored, Ren squinted at her sister. “What happened?” Akeylah asked, voice low and urgent, even though she could already guess.

She knew it the moment she saw Ren limp on the ground. Seas, even sooner—she’d felt the fear in her bones, the desperate need to find her sisters, some instinct spurring her to search for them right away, despite her own hallucination in the library. Ren coughed again. Took a moment before she drew enough breath to reply. When she did, her answer made little sense. “The true heir” were the only words Akeylah could hear. Akeylah looked up to find Audrina bending down next to her. “The menders are on their way,” the girl murmured. Sarella stood a little off to the side, staring down at the scene, her mouth a moue of disgust. Ren groaned, and all their eyes fixed on her once more.

Suddenly, with an apparent surge of energy, Ren grasped the collar of Akeylah’s gown and dragged her down, close. “The true heir is coming.” With that, Ren fainted. Akeylah and Audrina stared at each other, their faces mirror images of confusion, just as the hall outside exploded with the shouts of the menders. 2 Florencia Ren’s eyelids fluttered. In her head, all she could see, hear, smell was Burnt Bay. She saw the ships aflame. Heard the screams of the sailors as they drowned. Tasted saltwater and gunpowder on her tongue. And above it all, she listened to the blackmailer’s laughter, sharp and hollow.

It’s time for me to take your place. It’s time for the true heir to rise. The true heir. She thrashed, surged upright with a gasp… and found herself staring at a roomful of people. She grabbed the covers of the bed in which she lay and tugged them over her chest, instinctive, as she surveyed the room. Akeylah. Zofi. Audrina. Mama at her side, in a chair pulled up close to the bed. And on her other side, a woman she didn’t recognize, dressed in mender’s robes.

“Hi,” Ren told her audience after a pause. “How are you feeling?” Mama caught one of her hands, pressed it between her own slim fingers. “What happened?” Ren’s voice came out like a croak. She touched her throat, belatedly registering the pain. It felt like she’d swallowed fire. “The important thing is that you’re awake,” the mender interrupted, all business. She took Ren’s arm roughly, turned it over to feel her pulse. “Do you know your name? The day?” “Ren. Uh, Florencia.” She glanced around the room.

“And it’s still Syxmonth. Countess Yasmin’s funeral was two days ago.” A murmur of Sun accept her soul passed through the crowded room. As it did, Ren realized what this meant. The vision. The true heir. Yasmin wasn’t their enemy. She was just another victim. The mender flashed a mirror before Ren’s eyes, tearing her back to the present. Ren flinched at the overbright reflection shining into her pupils.

“Any pain?” the mender prompted. Ren’s hand drifted back to her throat. “That’s to be expected.” She glanced past Ren to address her mother. “I see no residual signs of mental distress, but if her breathing slows, or if she grows confused about her whereabouts, ring the bell immediately. For the time being, what she needs is rest. She can try to eat in a couple of hours, something easy on the throat. Soup, perhaps.” With that, the mender stepped outside. Ren’s mother threw the rest of the group a pointed look.

“You heard her. Ren needs to rest.” “In a moment, Mama,” Ren replied. Behind her mother’s back, Akeylah waved to catch her attention and widened her eyes with significance. “First, I need to speak with my sisters.” “What you need is some sleep,” Mama began, but Ren slid her hand from her mother’s. “Alone, please.” Ren stared at her mother until, with an exasperated sigh, Mama turned to leave. Audrina trailed after, though not before she offered Ren a quick, reassuring smile. Her sisters waited until the door latched.

Then Akeylah and Zofi hurried over, one on each side of the bed. “What did you see?” Akeylah whispered. “Was it another vision?” Ren closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids, the terrible hallucination awaited. Ships aflame, bodies broken across the waves of the bay. “I couldn’t move,” Ren said, avoiding the question. She couldn’t talk about it all. About what she did. About the terrible secret she carried like a tumor inside. Burnt Bay, a rebel attack in which thousands of Kolonyan soldiers died… It was her fault.

“My limbs, my whole body, got so heavy I sank to the bottom of the baths. Even once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t move. The force was so real, so strong.…” “It’s escalating,” Zofi said, fists balled. “First letters, then hallucinations, now this. What next? Will this blackmailer curse us, plant poison in our veins? Or just push us off a tower like Yasmin.” “You said something to me,” Akeylah murmured. “After the baths, before you lost consciousness again. You said, ‘The true heir is coming.’” A chill trickled down Ren’s spine.

She felt hairs rise along her arms, at the nape of her neck. “That’s what they called themself. As I was drowning, the blackmailer spoke in my mind. ‘It’s time for the true heir to rise.’” “What does that mean?” Zofi interrupted. Ren looked from her to Akeylah. “What we already guessed. Whoever’s doing this to us, they want the throne. They believe it belongs to them, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get us out of the way. Even kill us.

” “We need to protect ourselves.” Zofi’s fingertips danced around the knife she wore at her waist. “We’ll likely have a couple of days.” Akeylah tugged on one of her thin Eastern-style plaits. “The heir must be spent after using the Vulgar Arts twice in a row.” “Twice?” Ren’s tone sharpened. Akeylah hesitated. Cleared her throat. “I had a vision, too. Not long before yours, Ren.

” Ren sat forward, then winced at a pinch in her rib cage. She sank back against the pillows. “What did you see?”

.

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