The queen waited on her throne.
She glowed, as statuary marble glows, in the pale light of the cloudy spring morning. Her ivory gown was overlaid in diaphanous white, the trailing sleeves and hem embroidered with vines of silver thread. A circlet of silver hung with opals and diamonds, fit low over her dark brow. The shadows around her eyes gave away the fitful nights of sleep and utter lack of it the two nights previous. Her gaze was fixed upon the doors at the opposite end of the Throne Hall.
Between the dais and the doors were dozens of familiar faces, etched in familiar expressions. They too were watching the doors, the acrid odor of anxious perspiration was ripe in the air.
Beside her sat her father.
He had given her the crown but four months prior. Two months after she had returned to Redthorn.
Six months, little more than one season, was all the time it took for him to cross the country to her.
And he had brought his entire royal brigade, five battalions, five thousand soldiers. One among them would surely be the one she had granted leave to three months earlier. She had given Begley permission to join Blackstone’s armies, which were engaged on the western coasts, where three of the kingdoms of old had banded together in rebellion against the new empire.
Six weeks ago, she had received word that Blackstone had triumphed against the rebels: the empire remained intact.
Two weeks after that, the report came that the army was moving southeast. For the last week, Blackstone’s army had breached Redthorn’s borders. In moments, their commander would walk through the doors.
The scene was eerie for Caoinlin.
So much was the same—the setting, the people, the deafening clamor of her pulse, the tightness in her chest. But this time, she was the one seated above, on a throne of gilded edges. She had no sword, no shield, no mask. She held her face in the smoothest of composures that were in itself a kind of mask. The mask of the queen.
Her scars were faded white patches, hardly visible in most light. She could feel them still, dry and tight, like the skin of a frog sitting too long in the sun. And they ached, as a bruise might ache when prodded. No one dared ask. Not even her father, who had every right to ask, even if she had refused to answer. He said he would listen, if she wished to tell him, but all that mattered to him was that she was home.
She could not tell him. How could she? To tell him where she had been, what she had done, to admit that she had been home before and had won his kingdom for another. She could not tell him that, though she knew she was glad to be with him again, she did not feel it. All her feelings were like her scars, faded and aching. She thought that this was what it was to be a ghost, never fully seen. And when she was seen, people cowered.
In their minds, she was a ghost; she had been dead.
Her return was not celebrated as Fiachrin’s had been. There were many people who saw the end of Redthorn rule as inevitable. Those people were not surprised when Blackstone’s army appeared; some even welcomed the invaders, some thought it time to join the empire. Caoinlin was not surprised by this sentiment, either, but she was unable to discern her feelings otherwise. Though she only had to look upon her father’s age-worn face to know that she did not wish for him to witness the end of Redthorn.
At last, she had returned home, only to find herself as unwanted as any ghost who haunts those places it once loved best. Perhaps there was a part of her resigned to her phantom fate. A part of her that would sooner fade and be forgotten. A part that had been convinced she would never survive, that she would never return. A part of her that was ready for death. After everything she had been through, death was expected; it was the persistence of life she had not anticipated.
As she sat on the throne, waiting, she thought that her heart must be loud enough for the entire hall to hear. Her lips were slightly parted, to allow the quickening air passage. There were many battles behind her, but none terrified her as the one in front of her, because she was not sure how to fight or even if she would be able to fight.
Her father was stoic at her side. His portly physique sagged and his eyes were cloudy as a half-dried puddle of water in the road. She was possessed by the sudden urge to tell him everything, to tell the whole hall the truth of where she had been, who she was.
The doors opened. She sucked in a breath, freezing in place.
Fiachrin entered, in black. His every footfall willed the floor to crack and the pillars to topple. He was accompanied closely by Begley and Killeen, along with three other men, each of whom she knew well.
She felt as though she had been thrown off a cliff and was in free-fall. Her mind was a perfect blank. And when she saw her sword at Fiachrin’s hip. She hit bottom. The pain shattered her in a devastating flash.
And then he was standing before her.
There was a silence of breaths held and lips bit.
Flashing green eyes fixed on her accusingly, See what you have brought me to?
She was scrabbling up a cliff face, cutting her frozen fingertips, losing blood in steaming streams: It does not have to be like this.
To which he was cold: Too late.
“You bring your army into Redthorn land,” she said, hardly knowing that she spoke or hearing the hollow power of her voice—not realizing how it sounded, how much it resounded with the phantom of her past.
The four men flanking Fiachrin were unsettled from their firm positions by the resonance of her tones. Commanding, cold, unrelenting.
Perhaps . . . familiar.
Fiachrin was unmoved. His straight shoulders and wide stance told her that he would not be moved. Though his misery was laid out plain for her to see, there were murkier machinations occurring behind his eyes. But the anguish was enough.
She had run from him. And it had brought them both pain. If they had been alone, her words would have been much different. But they were not.
“Your incursion violates the decree of your king,” she said, “and father.”
Fiachrin’s features were stolid. When he spoke, she knew she was not dead. She was beaten and broken and had only pretended at being healed and whole.
“My father,” Fiachrin replied, “is dead.”
This announcement burst the hushed bubble, releasing hissing whispers that bounded from wall to wall.
Caoinlin’s heart finally gave her a second’s rest and it was, by far, more painful than all its weeks of anguished and anxious hammering.
Her fingers clenched around the gilt arm of her throne chair to keep her from falling back.
His gaze was too demanding, too distressed . . . she had to close her eyes and hold together the façade. But she felt her forehead crease, just for a moment. The court would see it as her realizing what this news meant for the kingdom. And she did realize.
Tireachan’s death meant that his decree was void; Redthorn could no longer maintain independence. But she could not tell if Fiachrin saw it for what it was really was; at that moment, her grief rose up before her and she could see little beyond. Her mother, Nevan, Tireachan, all the others; they rose up and closed around her as though she had never mourned for them at all. Perhaps she hadn’t. Not truly.
“I am,” her breath nearly stuck in her throat, “sorrowful for your loss.”
Fiachrin’s expression was at once pained and fierce, as though she had struck him.
She would have thrown herself at his feet, had she known how to. Regardless of how wretched she felt, she would never understand how to be one. There was a voice in her head that would never allow it. Though she had fled, everything she had built, all she had accomplished, the wolf growled still.
“You have your own declaration to make then,” she said, “King Fiachrin?”
“No declaration, Queen Caoinlin,” he responded swiftly. “You may surrender peaceably and absolutely, now, or I will decimate your lands, ravage your people, and force you to surrender.”
The wolf wanted to spring forth then. To leap up and burst forth and bat him to the ground. Her grip tightened on the curled paw of her chair. Stomach hard as steel plate, she held her position, waiting for the tightness in her throat, the urge to bare her teeth, to pass.
Holding back the wolf was harder than it had been to leave Redthorn in the first place. More difficult than becoming the wolf.
But despite appearances, she knew Fiachrin was not her enemy. He had not wanted to come here, like this.
The court hushed. The quiet buzzed in her ears.
No negotiation, no private conversation, no opportunity for her to tell him . . .
If she refused to surrender her meager forces would be routed in short order, and she would appear nothing more than a fool. If she surrendered without pre-condition, then Fiachrin could do with her, her father, her people, her land, whatever he saw fit. And from the fury that churned in his eyes, she did not feel entirely certain what that might be. There were a great many things he was withholding from her view, all but the pain and the anger. He may not have been her enemy, but he was here to punish her. That much was clear.
When she held the silence ringingly between them, Fiachrin finally moved.
His head dipped and he took a small step forward.
“Years ago my father’s champion offered the kingdom of Redthorn an opportunity to save its sovereignty,” he said, “and your champion lost.”
Behind, Fiachrin, Begley scowled, his face darkening. His anger toward her had turned cold after she had defeated him. And when she had returned, he could barely look at her, which was why she allowed him to leave for Blackstone when he had requested it. But he had not divulged the truth, as far as she could tell—not to anyone. If he had, the whole of the country would have known by now, she was sure. News that the Mhasc Caoin had been a woman, who was now Queen of Redthorn, would spread faster than fire upon a cargo ship with a belly full of whale oil.
“I wonder if Redthorn would accept the challenge of single-combat again,” Fiachrin said, stupefying everyone in the hall. “Meeting certain conditions, of course.”
And then, there was no one but him and her. The rest of the world fell away completely.
“And what conditions are those?” she asked.
His eyes shone sharp and clear.
“You,” he said, “fight.”
The din that broke forth kept her from responding.
A melee of outrage and bewilderment, utter disbelief took the form of questioning shouts and dumbfounded stammers and incredulous laughter.
She held his gaze, ignoring the chaos.
So this was it.
This had been his plan all along. Of course it had.
This was what he had wanted from the beginning, to expose her.
“Against whom?” she said, though the surrounding noise deadened her words to most ears.
“The only man qualified to contest a queen,” he replied in a tone that allowed no mistake—he would have this or he would destroy Redthorn around her, “a king.”
The clamor was dying down but at her next words, the crowd was struck mute.
“And what would happen to the great Blackstone Empire if you should die in combat?” she asked.
In the periphery of her vision, she felt Killeen’s stare attempting to bore into her head.
Her old friend knew, she felt certain, but he was not yet ready to believe what he knew.
“As king and as a man,” Fiachrin answered, “I should not be so proud that I am unable to yield when I am beaten.”
“You would fight a woman,” she said, speaking what was in the minds of the majority of the on-lookers. Those few who knew her, they wore their own style of confusion on their faces.
“I would fight you,” he said, making a distinction that was too fine for most ears.
She could surrender, completely. Humiliate her father and her family, as she had already done once before.
She could let her army march, and die.
Or she could fight. Unmasked.
“I will give you a month,” he said, “to prepare.”
She did not need a month.
“And this,” he said, unfastening his sword belt. “It is the sword that defeated Redthorn, the sword the conquered this whole island. It is the sword of the Mhasc Caoin, who killed an invading king to prize it.” He glowered, thrusting the sheathed sword at her, hilt first. “Take it.”
“And what if I should surrender?” she said the words as quickly as she could, wrestling the wolf howling and gnashing within.
Fiachrin’s jaw tensed.
“Why would you think that I would . . .”—she tented her fingers above her breast—“that I could meet a man or anyone in single combat?”
He had been ready for this, she could tell, but he did not disguise his disappointment. Lip curled, he offered her a curt, insolent bow. “Because I think you want the opportunity to turn Blackstone army and retain the crown nascent to your fair brow, my lady.”
She stood and everyone but Fiachrin shrank back.
“What will the world think of you, my lord? That you even entertain such an implausible notion. That you proffer in apparent earnestness?”
The court began to whisper, concern mixing with speculation. The new king of Blackstone, of the Empire, was a madman.
But Fiachrin was the black tower of the Caiseal incarnate—indomitable, emotionless.
“I am not concerned by the world,” he replied contemptuously, “nor its varied and changeable opinions.”
She stepped down from her dais, five of the longest steps she had ever taken, and faced him.
He smelled musky like a man who had spent a great deal of time on horseback for many days. Being so near to him reminded her of that last time when he had kissed her and she had not returned the gesture.
At the time, she had been terrified. Not of being a woman taken advantage of by a man, she was not afraid of the things that a woman might be afraid of, she was afraid of the things that a woman might desire. She feared wanting those things, because when she wanted something, she would do anything to have it. And so it was better not to want—safer.
Her hand closed around the supple leather of the belt and he relinquished it to her. The weight settled onto the muscles of her arms, those that had been unused for years responded in an instant to the rousing presence of steel.
“You give me no choice,” she said.
His lips did not move. “No, I don’t.”