Queen Celene, Planet Alera, Twenty-seven Years Ago
Darkness surrounded us like a blanket, but the night was not warm. It was cold. Deadly. I stumbled through the alleys and shadows as if I carried a mortal wound.
I did. My heart beat and I was not injured, but I did not feel anything but pain. Loss. And rage. A rage so terrible I knew if I let out the smallest sound I would scream for hours.
“Come, my queen. We are nearly there.” The guard’s arm around my waist was gentle but firm. I did not know his name. The crest on his uniform was from a family I knew and trusted and for now, that was enough. This young man had saved my life even as my love, my king, lay dead. With each step we took, I moved farther away from my mate, from the life I knew as Queen Celene, the life we shared ruling Alera. Everything had changed now. The planet was in crisis, and I knew what I must do. I would not allow a coup to overthrow the peaceful rule of government which had been established thousands of years before. I would not allow those who wanted me dead to take control.
“There will be warriors not loyal to you guarding the citadel. They won’t allow you to just walk inside, to the only safe place for you on the planet. They will either kill you on sight or take you directly to the bastards who slayed the king, who wish you dead as well. Who almost succeeded.” The second guard was older, a dear friend for many years, and his harsh words caused me to shudder. Of course, he was correct.
The traitors who wanted me dead would take the sacred gemstones, worn for eons by the planet’s current ruler, and try to use them for their own ends. The black stones around my neck were a sign of my reign and were meant to be passed on to my heir, as had been done generation after generation, for longer than our recorded history.
For the first time in my life, I feared that the royal blood I carried would truly face its end. My living cousins had all been tested, and proven not strong enough to carry one of the sacred gifts. I was newly wed to my mate, and the traitors thought to strike now, before an heir could be born. Without a future queen to lead the people, they would be forced to break tradition, to choose a ruler who was weak, not a direct descendant of the ancients.
Tonight, they had nearly succeeded. We faced bleak times on Alera, and it was clear the attempt to overthrow the eons-long rule of my family line, and the sacred gifts we carried, was finally at hand. My enemies had, at last, shown themselves. Killed my king, my love. Tried to kill me.
They wanted the throne.
That I could not allow. Other than the attempted coup this evening, Alera was at peace. It would remain that way as long as I were alive. But in the hands of evil… I shuddered at the thought of what could happen to my home world, of what the wrong heart might do with the technology hidden away in the citadel.
Hearing heavy footfall, I tugged my two guards deeper into the shadows as a group of armed fighters stormed past us in the open street. They were searching for me, no doubt, to take me to those leading the uprising. My lifeforce was all that was separating them from what they wanted.
It was late and most of my people were sleeping soundly in their beds, believing that tomorrow would be just another day. Content. Safe. They were wrong and would hear of my mate’s death with the dawn. “We must go in the far entrance,” I murmured, tipping my voice low. “Near the water.”
“There is no entrance on that side, my queen.” The young man offering me support spoke with the surety of youth, perhaps thinking I was actually hurt, that I might have hit my head in the attack. But he was wrong.
“Yes, there is,” I replied. “Trust me.”
I knew of the entrance because my mother had told me of it, the knowledge passed down from queen to queen, mother to daughter, since the citadel had been built. Ages, eons ago. No one knew the exact date the ancients had erected the mighty tower, nor where the sacred energy that gave the royal heirs their power originated. But one thing was widely known—the citadel protected itself and allowed only those of royal blood to enter the building.
Many others had attempted to cross the threshold. All had met instant death.
I’d not used the hidden entrance since the day my mother had shown it to me; there had been no need for it. Until now.
“We will get you there, my queen.” My old friend looked down at me, his face grave, half covered in shadow. I was grateful for the darkness so that I did not have to look at him. I couldn’t look at him. He was covered in blood. The king’s blood and his own mixed into a dark cocktail that stained his back and side. He would need a ReGen wand to survive the night.
If the citadel was well guarded—and not by those loyal to me—as he suspected, perhaps none of us would.
But I must survive. There was more than my life at stake.
I nodded at him and stood taller, shrugging off the assistance of the young guard. The shock of seeing my mate murdered before me faded, replaced by determination. I would not fail. Not in this. I must live so Alera would not be overthrown.
I lowered my hand to my abdomen, to the new life stirring there, and covered our daughter, the future queen, with the warmth of my palm. She was new, but her heartbeat was strong. She would have a strong spirit. A will of iron. She would not be broken, and so I would not be broken either.
I would keep her safe at all costs.
“Let’s go. Get me to the river. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Yes, my queen. This way.”
I followed silently as my old friend moved like a phantom from shadow to shadow. The young guard behind me was all but forgotten as the glistening silver spires of the citadel came into view. The ancient structure was built by a race of immortals who had long since disappeared into nothing more than myth, their secrets carried safely by the royal family generation after generation. Hidden. Protected.
The line of succession had been thinned in recent years. An accident had killed my first cousin a year before. His daughter had died a few months later. Suicide. But now, after the attempt on my life and the successful demise of my mate, I had to wonder if she’d killed herself at all. As heavy as the thought made my aching heart, I now knew, beyond a doubt, that someone was trying to end the royal line entirely.
Tonight, they’d almost succeeded, but no one knew of the child I carried. Of the successor to the throne. A direct line would pass to my daughter. I could feel her spirit within, alive with a spark so fierce and bright I would do anything to protect it, including fleeing the only planet I’d ever known. My home. A proud people that I was honored to rule. She was the light that would save this world and these fools from their own stupidity.
When the time was right, we’d return together. I’d lead and groom her to succeed me. Her daughter after her. I had faith in her, in the love that had conceived her.
And if anything happened to me? She would live and she would return to Alera to rule. She would not just return and rule, but seek vengeance for what happened today. For all who had died, her father included. I’d make sure of it.
The silver walls of the citadel sparkled from within whether it was day or night, as if the building were alive. In the front, near the main stairs and entrance, a large garden stretched out for several blocks like a fan of green grass, trees and silken blooms. This late, the moon shone down on the one closest to the entrance, the shimmering, translucent petals of the Aleran flowers so beautiful, so peaceful even as the night exploded in violence throughout the rest of the city.
My mate was dead. Other close family. The royal guard. All gone. And yet the citadel stood, a bastion of strength and promise. All I had to do was hide the royal necklace that held so much power and get my baby somewhere far, far away. Somewhere she could grow strong. Powerful.
I had to flee to a planet so small and insignificant that no one would ever think to look there for us. They would search…and know I was alive. Know the queen still reigned, even in hiding, because of the citadel’s beacon of light. The constant glow of the spire would tell Alera their queen still lived.
I tripped on the hem of my jeweled gown and my dear friend caught me as I fell, gently leaning me against the cold, silver wall. “We are here, my queen, but there is no entrance.”
I nodded my head and finally looked him in the eye, strong enough now to give him the honor he deserved. “You have served me well, served your king with honor. You are a fine warrior and I am proud to call you friend.”
His dark eyes turned grave and he blinked hard, turning away from me so I would not see his tears. “I have failed you. Failed the king.”
“No.” Grabbing his hand, I placed his palm over the small swell of my abdomen. “No. He lives on. Our daughter grows strong inside me. The family does not fall this night. As long as the spire light burns, know that we live, and we will return.”
“What can I do for you, my queen?” He dropped to his knees, swaying there as fresh blood continued to coat his side. Next to him, the young guard dropped to his knees as well.
“What can we do?”
“Tell no one that you were with me, that you saw me. Tell no one of the child I carry.” I stood as tall as I was able, held my chin high, even as I heard footsteps approach. “And survive. Survive and support my daughter when she returns to seek vengeance.”
They both bowed their heads and I used that moment to slip inside the citadel. The entrance was hidden, a field of energy that looked like any other part of the wall. But for those with royal blood, one step was all it took to cross the barrier and enter the inner sanctum.
Outside, I heard the clash of sword on sword, of men yelling. Of death cries. But I didn’t dare turn back. If the enemy had arrived, I only had minutes to hide the royal necklace and escape before one of my traitor cousins would arrive and breach the barrier.
When I was sure the gemstones were secure, hidden well and never to be found without my direction, I looked at the sacred spires one last time. Several tiers of sacred stones adorned the precious metal. By some unexplained miracle—the best physicists on the planet had tried to understand for years how the energy of the stones had chosen me and all the queens before—the citadel itself bound to me, to my life force, and the spire would glow with fire no matter where I was in the galaxy, for as long as I drew breath. As long as my body was alive, the stones and I were linked on a quantum level.
I stepped from the hidden room, looked up. Saw my spire, my proof of life, well lit. All the spires were visible for miles, the light a beacon of royal power and strength for eons. In the beginning, all nine spires would glow, the royal bloodline strong. The line of ascension unbreakable.
Over time, something had happened to us. Fewer births. Wars. And now? Now there was only me. But so long as that ray rising out of the spire stayed lit, no one could claim my throne. The spire did not lie. That light, visible for miles, could not be vanquished unless I ceased to draw breath. No one of my living cousins had been deemed worthy by whatever intelligence was buried in the walls of the ancient structure.
But I did not doubt the life force or fire my daughter would carry. When she returned, I would bring her here, place her blood in the spire next to mine, and hold her to me with joy as we watched her spire glow for all the people to see.
It was time to disappear and wait. To blend in and hide until it was time for my daughter to return. I would need to leave the planet in disguise and not as queen. And so I stripped off my jeweled robes, left them in a pile at my feet. Beneath, a simple shift dress and scarf would allow me to escape unnoticed.
Whoever wanted to overthrow the royal line would not succeed tonight. And the light of the spire would keep my enemies in constant torment until I could avenge my family. Until my daughter ascended.
Heart breaking all over again, I clenched my jaw and straightened my shoulders as I took one last look at the spire’s light. I would not be here to lead my people, but they would know I had not abandoned them, would wait for my return.
With one final glance toward the hiding place of the royal necklace, I knew the sacred gemstones would be safe until my daughter’s return.
Swallowing my tears, I made my way to the secret exit and disappeared.