I want to break. To shatter. I could crumble, a million pieces scattered across the stone floor.
But there are eyes—so many eyes. Dozens of them, hundreds perhaps. They watch me. They watch their queen.
I can’t crumble.
Because right now I have to be queen of them all.
“Get out,” I say evenly as I stare at my husband’s blank face. My stomach turns. My jaw tightens.
I stand straight. I take one deep breath. I turn to face the masses.
“I want everyone, and I mean everyone save Alivia, Ian, and Eshan out of this castle. But if anyone tries to leave Roter Himmel, the punishment will be one hundred years tied up in the middle of the desert where the sun never sets.”
Eyes widen, breaths suck into lungs.
I see it, they doubt me. If I really am the Queen. If I mean what I say.
If I were Cyrus, I’d probably kill someone. Drag them out into the sunlight outside, watch them scream, watch them cry in agony. I would probably tear someone’s skin off, inch by inch, while everyone watched, to show them how deadly serious I am.
But I am not Cyrus.
I am Sevan.
“Do you all understand me?” I ask quietly.
No one speaks. They only watch me with wary eyes.
“Do you understand your Queen?” I bellow.
“Do you understand if you leave our city you will regret it for the next 36,500 days?” I threaten with an angry tremor in my voice. “Do you understand if anyone tries to travel on silent and dark feet, I will know?”
While the majority nod their heads solemnly—most know better than to defy me, others doubt.
I make a mental note of each of them.
Of their own accord, my eyes drift, studying each of those that surround me. The shock of Eshan. The horror of Alivia. And the bitter anger of Ian.
My eyes shift from him to those who look at me with doubt. And I look back to Ian.
He looks over at them as well, and I know he gets my silent communication: take note of the doubters.
Looking back at those who weren’t smart enough to take me seriously, I know that some will die.
And I don’t care.
Emotion wells in my eyes. Tears threaten to slip down my face.
But I hold them in.
“Leave,” I let the word quietly slip over my lips.
It starts at the back, bodies work their way toward the main entrance of the castle. The guards are wary. Unsure. They feel they’re abandoning the posts they have held for centuries. But with dark, hard eyes, I stare at them.
As I watch the last of them leave, one tear slips down my face.
I can’t breathe.
My chest hurts.
My feet feel like lead, a million pounds each.
But I turn.
Slowly, I cross the space to stand at my husband’s side.
The man in the cage beside me laughs, something low and dark. It rumbles through the room.
I feel my eyes ignite red and my teeth grind together so hard they threaten to crack.
“Get him out of here,” I growl.
It’s one of those same darts Rath shot Eshan with once.
Ian steps forward, slipping something into his pocket. He picks up the keys the guard had left on the table, unlocks the cage, and grabs the quivering man by the arms.
I meet Ian’s eyes as he drags the man away.
And I remember; Ian was once imprisoned here at the castle.
I can’t think about the past right now. Not when here in front of me, the love of my very long, very broken life, lies dead.
I reach forward, touching my hand to his cheek over a splash of blood.
But I feel it, even now, looking at his wrecked body—the love.
“Cyrus,” I whisper. Just his name pulls at all the strings attached to my heart. I feel them lacing back together with his own. We are bound together, through time.
“There…” a shaky voice says from behind me. I hear footsteps and Alivia appears in my peripheral vision. “There’s a chance.” Her voice trembles. She sounds terrified. “Before I was brought here to the castle, someone tried to kill Cyrus.” I look over at her. She looks down at her King, her eyes filled with emotions. But it is largely pity as she looks over at me. “I watched them stake him right through the heart. I watched him die. But only moments later, he rose again. He was perfectly fine.”
Everything in me trembles. I feel like I’m made of a million cracks. They spread, inching out over my skin, and if I move wrong or speak too loudly, I’ll shatter.
“It’s been hours,” I say quietly as I look back down at him. The blood that covered the table has turned black, congealed. “It’s been fourteen hours.”
I close my eyes.
Cyrus, I call out into the dark recesses of my mind.
“Cyrus said it once himself,” Alivia says. “He cannot be killed.”
But there is that huge cavern of doubt in the tone of her voice.
I think back through the ages, through my lives.
A warm hand covers my shoulder, and his presence forces out five more tears. Eshan leans into me. He doesn’t know what to say, what sixteen-year-old boy would? But his presence tells me everything he can’t voice.
“I need you two to figure out some kind of security,” I say. My eyes rise, drifting around the great hall, not really focusing on anything. “We can’t let anyone escape Roter Himmel. We’re severely undermanned right now until we can figure out who is still loyal, but I do know whoever else was tied to this, they’re safest to try and leave. Don’t let them.”
It shouldn’t take Ian long to secure Cyrus’ killer in the dungeon. He’ll be able to help them shortly.
I feel numb. I look around, and suddenly realize just how alone I am.
Everything—everything about our world could change right now. Could already be changing.
I’ve led beside Cyrus for thousands of years. But always—he was King. Always, he was the one who could execute what needed to be done. I never wanted the role of leader. I never thought to take the reins.
But now… Now it is all up to me.
I’ll do what I must to keep the kingdom together.
Right now, I have to try. I have to hope.
It nearly breaks me, moving him and seeing parts not attached where they should be, but I have to move him. I gather Cyrus’ body into my arms, his head set carefully in his lap. I turn to the back of the great hall, toward the passageway that leads deeper into the mountain.
Through torchlight, I carry my husband’s mangled body. Down a long stone hallway. Around a corner. Past the upper armory. Down a spiral staircase.
I turn a corner into a dusty and cluttered storage room, filled with books and old suits of armor. I make my way to the very back of the room.
I reach up and pull on it.
Stone grinds against stone. A cold rush of air fills the room. A small opening appears in the stone.
Careful not to jostle him, I step inside into the dark with Cyrus.
Silently my feet descend the spiral staircase, dropping deeper into the side of the mountain. Above me, I hear the opening grind closed, sealing us inside where no one besides the two of us has ever been.
Down, down, down. We spiral ever downward. I cannot see a thing in the total and utter absence of light, but my memory guides me.
Finally, my feet meet flat ground. Soft dirt. I smell the slightly damp air. Hear water drip.
I blindly step forward, one hand outstretched as far as I can, feeling for the wall.
There, I find its rough surface.
I slide my fingers back and forth. I search, and there, find the latch. I pull, and a rush of cold humidity washes over me.
Stepping through the doorway, I put a hand out, searching for obstacles in my way. Moving carefully, I set Cyrus’ body on the table I find, and grope around for the torches. I strike a match, and the brilliant light sears my eyes for a moment.
Squinting against the agony, I take the torch back to its place on the wall.
I inhale the heavy, wet air, and cast my eyes about.
Stone and dirt walls surround me, closing in a space that is roughly twenty feet by twenty feet. The far wall is roughly hewn, sloping off further back, exposing a grotto, so deep and light deprived, it’s pitch black.
Along the walls there are tables and shelves. They’re lined with instruments and glass vials. Mummified bodies are stacked in wooden coffins against the farther wall. Small creatures and organs float in liquid along shelves. There are books on astronomy, on anatomy. Spiritual texts on God and the divine, hoodoo and voodoo.
It’s a mess. There is stuff everywhere, books turned to random pages. Instruments are here and there. Maps are spread out on the floors. There’s the body of a wolf against the far wall. The smell tells me it hasn’t been dead long.
Cyrus has been working.
Cyrus was always a curious man.
Death after death—through centuries—Cyrus has fought for me.
He has always failed. Because I know: there is no cure for what he did to us.
I will fix this, he had pleaded.
He’s been trying.
The shelves bear many things, but as I walk along them, I feel at a loss. Those bodies won’t help me. Those books of prayer won’t bring him back.
But I’ve seen Cyrus work miracles. I’ve witnessed his methods, seen him heal incredible things.
I build a fire in the pit, the thick smoke filling the room as the air finds its way through that long unused chimney. I stoke it, hot and bright and have to shield my eyes against it.
I wait for embers to form, wait for the logs to burn down. I kneel beside the firepit. I reach to the sides of the smoldering logs. Black ash covers my fingers. I spread it to the other side, smoothing it over my skin. Over my palms. Over my knuckles. Up to my wrists.
Ash for renewal and hope.
Turning, I cross the space, back to the table Cyrus rests upon.
I straighten him. Lay out his legs, smooth down his slacks. I place his hands over his chest, and my heart hurts.
I remember every place they’ve been, on every body I’ve worn over the centuries.
The air catches in my throat, pain threatening to overtake me. I can’t let it. Not right now. Not when I’m his only chance.
You’ve done this before, I tell myself. Two months ago. You pieced together another person.
It’s where all of this began. The woman who had been attacked by a vampire—no, played with. And soon after, my human, ignorant life was through.
I pull my shirt off, up and over my head, using it as a rag, and dip it in the water of the grotto. Returning to Cyrus’ side, I wipe away the blood, all traces of what happened.
He lies there, still, peaceful looking.
“Where are you right now?” I ask out loud.
“Are you in the dark?” I wonder quietly as I clean him. “Or are you in the dreamland I’ve often found myself lost in? Am I there with you, in our memories?”
My voice echoes here in the cavern. I sound unearthly. My voice is too big, too ancient. Old as the stones.
It was his eyes I first fell in love with.
I can’t look in them and not see life, the spark that made him so much bigger than this world.
When next I see them, I want them to be clear, so I can say these words trapped in my throat.
“I need to tell you something,” I continue. “I need you to know. I need you to feel it, to see it in my eyes.” I place my other hand on his other cheek. I climb on the table, straddling his body. I lean in, my hands on his skin. I touch my forehead to his.
“Return to me, im yndmisht srtov,” I breathe into him.
He doesn’t move. He doesn’t open his eyes. No breath gasps into his lungs.
I shift back.
I smear it over his forehead. I relieve him of his shirt, and smear it over his arms, his chest.
“Come back to me, im yndmisht srtov,” I whisper to him over and over as I smear him in ash. I send out a constant prayer to anyone who will listen. To the heavens. To the stars. To God.