Riley stepped back, nearly tripping over herself in the process. There were voices all around her, but they seemed distant and muffled, as if there had just been an explosion. She stared at the Empress and their eyes met. The smile on her grandmother's face was lofty rather than welcoming. To Riley, the smile was the same thing as bared teeth.
This was a death sentence.
Stand here and try to look pleasant for a change. The Empress had to know she wouldn't be able to survive as the heir to the throne. This was a trap, and Riley had no inclination to play along anymore.
She caught one fleeting look of Calvert, his fists clenched so tight that his knuckles were white. That was enough. She turned and pushed past the other members of the Court, forcing her way through the crowd on the main deck. She could sense their eyes on her, but nobody moved to intercept her.
Run. That was the only thing she could think of. Remington was here somewhere. They could both escape the White City together and never have to think about the High Court ever again.
She didn't know the Aldora well, but she knew there was a hatch that emptied out directly underneath the ship. If she could just get there before Calvert or one of his cronies could do anything to stop her.
The ship rocked to one side, forcing her to stop to catch her balance. She could hear the sound of rushing water coming from below. The ship was getting ready to take off. Her shoes didn't have much grip, and there wasn't anything to grab on to. She stumbled over to the side of the superstructure, tripping over the hem of her gown.
Holding on to the wall for support, she looked back across the main deck. The soldiers with the aether spiders were running back towards the Aldora. They would be coming from the same direction she needed to go. There was no question her mind that the Empress would alert them to stop her if she ran from the deck.
She would have to wait, but already the ship was beginning its upward acceleration. She turned back to the Court. She could see the tension, the desire to ask for an explanation from the Empress, but the Empress only smiled and turned back to wave at the crowd over the railing.
A door opened nearby and the Imperial soldiers marched out in pairs, their every movements matched with each other, from their steps to the way they held the aether crystals aloft.
Now was her chance. They hadn't flown that high yet. She could make it down and drop down into the water from the bottom. It was rocky, but they were moving away from the beach. The fall wouldn't kill her.
She waited for the last pair of soldiers to pass through the door, then sidled over to it. But as she moved, the last soldier turned to look at her.
Riley froze. He smiled.
She almost yelled his name out loud, but held it back and forced herself to keep a neutral expression. Their eyes met for a second before he turned back, his blond ponytail swinging as he continued to march alongside his partner.
Riley's head snapped back and she looked out across the beach, but out of the corner of her eyes she watched the line of soldiers. They dispersed, moving along the back of the crowd to take up their posts around the deck. Most had already moved away to other parts of the main deck. But of those she could still see… she recognized every single one.
She watched the Court for someone to sound an alert, but no one was paying any attention to the soldiers. Why should they? Each was dressed in an identical gray uniform, doing exactly as they should. They weren't Guardsmen, so they weren't expected to interact with the Court in any way.
A small smile crept across her face. They had boarded the Empire's mighty flying ship without any fight at all, with almost every single Seabright copperblood standing in front of them.
She swallowed. Once discovered, though, they would die. And it would be quick. How many were there? Sixteen? Twenty? Not even enough to be a match for the High Guard in numbers. Eventually the Guard would notice that none of them were familiar. And with most of the High Court on board ... what did they intend to do?
She clenched her fists and bit her lip. She was the copperblood. They were giving her an opportunity to do something with it.
Remington was on board. Of that, she was certain. Riley searched the deck, momentarily not caring if anyone noticed her distraction, but none of the soldiers were him. Of course, most of the High Court could recognize him as well. He wouldn't be out in the open.
Riley's attention snapped back to the Empress, who was moving towards her now that the deck was out of sight from the beach. "Come, granddaughter. We have a ceremony to discuss," she said with an outstretched hand.
Riley shuddered. A ceremony? Oh, there was so much more than that she would like to discuss, but if the Empress hadn't thought to reveal her intentions before, it was unlikely she would explain herself now.
She held back her desire to turn away or spit back a retort. She forced herself to maintain an expression of confusion—rather than anger. "I … I need a moment, Your Majesty," she said.
The Empress frowned, but then nodded. Riley turned and walked through a hatch into the superstructure. She doubted her display of being overwhelmed was that convincing, but at least the Empress hadn't pressed the issue.
Riley looked to either side of the narrow passageway. As far as she could tell, it was empty. She pulled the crumpled piece of paper of from the front of her gown and stared at it, but there was no note, no hidden information written into the symbol. She clutched in her fist and turned left, heading in the opposite direction of the bridge.
The clicking of her shoes was the only noise as they echoed in the steel passageway. She hurried, lifting up the hem of her gown so it wouldn't get in the way.
Footsteps reached her from around the corner. She halted and stared ahead. In her mind, she pictured those footsteps belonging to Remington as he came in search of her.
They didn't. "Hello sister," Calvert said, stepping around the corner with his hands behind his back and a smile on his face. Behind him trailed Grayson and Perry, though their expressions didn't match Cal's. Grayson's face was so tight that his forehead was a litter of lines.
Riley stiffened. Well, that answers that question. They had been working under Cal's orders.
Her implant gave her advance notice before she felt him reach out with his art, trying to twist something inside of her. She concentrated and stopped it just as she felt the first twinge of pain.
His eyes widened and he frowned. He reached out again, but this time she was prepared and stopped it before it reached her. She gritted her teeth—she still hadn't recovered from their last attack. It wasn't easy.
Perry opened his mouth as if to say something, but Grayson shot him a glance. Perry closed his mouth, pressing it into a thin line. In response, Grayson gave a tiny, almost unnoticeable nod of his head.
Riley watched their silent conversation was still keeping her attention on Calvert, waiting for the next attack. It came, this time with a look of frustration and anger on his face.
He didn't know. The other two men had known since this morning, at least, yet they hadn't told him. What did that mean?
"What do you want, Calvert?" she asked, warding off another attack. She resisted the urge to grab the wall. It was already beginning to wear on her, but she couldn't show them that.
"What do you think I want?" he asked, walking forward.
Riley forced herself to keep from taking a step back. "I had nothing to do withthat, Cal. I don't want the throne. I'm not an idiot." Not that she wouldn't do everything possible to keep him from having it.
"Then what is this?" he asked, squinting as he attacked her again.
This time, she felt it. That twisting in her stomach as his attack met its mark, if only for a second. She let out a short gasp.
"Perhaps you're losing your touch," she said, but knew it was the wrong response as soon as she said it.
He pulled a pistol out from beneath his coat and pointed it at her head. "You betrayed me, Kendra. I won't bring you back this time."
Calvert's arm remained frozen in place, but the other two men turned and dropped to their knees.
The Empress swept into the corridor, her eyes fixed on Calvert. Riley was surprised to see her, but there was something about the timely arrival that didn't make her feel any relief. It took her a moment to realize that there were no Guardsmen trailing her.
"Calvert," she said again, her voice low and throaty. Cal's arm twitched. With his free hand he reached up and clutched his head.
He began to shake and a bead of sweat trickled down his face, yet he kept the weapon aimed at her. Riley stared. She realized that she'd never seen her brother as the target of the full weight of the Empress's art. She stepped out of the way, afraid he might still pull the trigger even with the control.
A second later and the pistol clattered to the floor. Calvert went down along with it. He grabbed at his hair, as if pulling at it would pull the Empress out of his mind. He stared up at her with a pained, questioning expression on his face.
"Come, Kendra," the Empress said, her voice snapping in the way someone might address a dog.
What could she say? "No thank you. I'd rather stay here with the men who are trying to kill me?"
She stepped past Calvert, watching him out of the corner of her eye. The Empress looked at Grayson and Perry. They were still kneeling, having yet to be acknowledged. She gave a small snort and then turned. Riley didn't have a choice but to follow.
Her feet were a little unsteady, and she found herself struggling to keep up. The Empress remained silent until they reached a hatch. It was only guarded by one man, the captain of the Empress's personal Guard.
He opened the hatch, revealing a small but lavishly decorated sitting room on the inside, obviously intended for the Empress's personal use. But Riley paused. This wasn't about preparing for a ceremony. This wasn't about stopping Calvert. The more she thought about it, the clearer the answer became.
"What is this all about?" she asked, turning around to face the Empress, her hands at her sides.
"I'll explain everything inside," the Empress said with a smile, but Riley could sense uncharacteristic urgency in her voice.
Riley looked at the Guardsman. He had gone back to standing beside the now open hatch, his eyes staring straight ahead at the wall.
I gave you the throne, but if you can't be trusted, it will be only too easy to take it away. Get inside the room and I will explain my plan. Or should I just let Calvert finish …
The Empress's voice trailed off in her mind as she finally managed to block it. She grabbed onto the wall for support. Despite how much she didn't understand, she knew that she didn't want to obey.
The Empress had been the one to send Grayson and Perry. She was certain of that now. They hadn't been sent to kill her, but the wear her down.
A force slashed across her mind. It was too quick to stop, and Riley cried out. She scraped at the wall with her fingers, groping for something to cling on to.
"Leave us," the Empress said.
Riley struggled to make her thoughts cohesive again. When she was able to see properly, the Guardsman was gone and she was alone in the passageway with her grandmother.
"What do you want from me?" Riley asked, pressing her palm against the side of the open hatchway in order to draw herself upright.
Then the Empress smiled, which made Riley stare. The change was sudden. She now looked confident and happy where just minutes before she had seemed desperate and agitated.
She didn't say anything, but reached up and pulling the mask away from her face. Beneath it was the face of someone much older. The Empress's facial bones protruded and the skin hung limp. Dark spots marred her complexion. Thin white strands of hair protruded from beneath her gray hairline. It was a wig.
"You are sick," Riley said out loud without intending to.
"I've known for years. Calvert hasn't been quite as thorough at covering it up as he thinks he has been." She looked down at the mask with a sad expression. "I knew this would come eventually. Perhaps not so soon, but eventually everyone dies."
She looked back up, her eyes meeting Riley's. But that's why I have you, she said, speaking into her mind. To prevent that.
Riley took a step back, keeping her hand on the side of the passageway. The expression on the Empress's face terrified her. She'd never seen her grandmother's face before. Not really. Beneath the spots and the hanging spin, she could sense wildness. A hungry eagerness.
It's time to take the throne, Kendra.
"No," Riley said, taking another step backward, but she could feel the Empress pressing on her mind. She struggled to block it, but she had little strength left to fight.
She stopped moving back, but it wasn't of her own accord. Something else was keeping her legs from moving. Someone else inside her mind.
No. It couldn't be possible. The Empress wasn't capable of controlling someone like that. She would have used it before, if that had been the case. But even as she thought it, she found herself stepping forward, looking up to meet the Empress's gaze again.
And in that instant she could see herself as well, as if she were looking at both herself and the Empress standing side by side in a mirror.
Remington, Snow … where were they? She just needed to hold on. One of them would find her. They could stop the Empress.
So he's here. The Empress's laughter echoed in Riley's mind. This should be entertaining.
She could feel the Empress's own body growing weaker from exerting that much aether. The double image began to fade, until she was only watching out of her own eyes again.
In front of her, the Empress's body went limp and folded. Her head hit the ground with a loud crack. There was no sign of movement and the eyes stared up at the ceiling, lifeless. Riley tried to look away, but found she couldn't even control where her gaze landed.
You see? I never intended to give up the throne. Ever.
Music I listened to while writing this chapter: "Something Inside" by Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Okay, so lots happening in this chapter. Snow shows up on the ship, along with several crew members from the Roanoke, and Riley gets posessed by her grandmother (who then dies). I'm just hoping it's not too much.
The last part was really really hard to write (as is the part that comes after that) so please let me know what you think. It's a new struggle trying to write two people sharing a body.