Summary: After the assassination of their beloved queen by an evil coven of witches nine years ago, the kingdom of Iriden demanded blood — and they got it when their king established the Witch Hunters, a special army dedicated to the eradication of magic users. But what they don't know is that they left a few children alive, and now they've grown up and want revenge. Reyna Farron, a young witch, lost her aunt to the Witch Hunters when they stormed through her village all those years ago, and now she's a part of a small but mighty rebel group determined to do what they can to destroy Iriden's monarchy from within. Her first mission is to infiltrate the palace as a noble, acting as a spy. In a city where her powers are such a deadly secret, she is careful to keep her distance, to keep her head down and stay out of trouble. But what she doesn't expect is for the crown prince, of all people, to discover what she really is — and she especially doesn't expect him to vow to keep her secret in exchange for her help. Now pulled into a tentative truce with the son of the man who ordered her aunt's murder, she must work alongside Prince Loren to decode the meaning of the strange visions he's been having, and possibly save the world of Erithea as they know it.
The forest was quiet and still that morning, yet Reyna Farron still found it all too difficult to clear her mind.
She'd had another nightmare last night, just as vivid as they always were. For as many years as they'd plagued her, she supposed she ought to be accustomed to them by now, but somehow they managed to worm their way into her brain, lingering like slumbering beasts in the back of her skull throughout the day, curled up and waiting to strike when she least expected it. Though her memories of them grew blurrier and more indistinct as the day went on, the images that did run unbidden to her mind (usually at the most inopportune times) still served to unsettle her just enough to make staying calm and getting through the day take a concerted effort. She hated that something in her life could have that level of power over her, could dictate whether or not at any moment she could feel that horrible tightness in her chest and need to duck out of the room for some fresh air, or suddenly have her throat twist shut, seized with the humiliating sensation of having to cry. Most of all, she hated how weak it made her feel.
Last night, she'd dreamed of her mother, standing on a rocky, colorless beach, the coastline stretching out for what had felt like an eternity on either side. She'd stood with her back turned, her face directed out at that endlessly churning stretch of brackish, cold grey sea, but even just looking at the back of her head, Reyna knew it was her mother. It was an instinctual feeling, something she just knew in the same way she knew that the sky was blue, or the grass green. Reyna's own body had felt frozen in place, forced to watch mutely as the older woman stepped slowly forward, her toes touching the water, then the hem of her thin white gown. The mounting terror always hit when that happened, when the realization would begin to sink in that her mother did not intend to stop walking. Her steps were slow and purposeful, and Reyna could feel the muscles in her throat straining and working, could feel the words she was trying so desperately to scream hanging on her tongue, but they wouldn't fall from her throat. They felt too small, too easily drowned out by the howling wind. She could only stay suspended in place as the water rushed farther and farther up, past her mother's calves, her thighs; eventually, her white dress billowed out like a cloud behind her, carried by the rolling waves.
And then, worst of all, when she was shoulder-deep in the water, when the currents were tossing her body so badly back and forth that she shouldn't have been able to stand so steadily, Reyna's mother turned her head just enough to look back at her daughter. Their eyes — both the same shade of startling green — would meet, and her mother's lips would part for one final sentence, one last goodbye.
"Forgive me, Reyna."
No matter how hard she tried, in these dreams Reyna never could make the muscles in her legs work harder, could never dislodge herself from whatever invisible force held her pinned back and charge into the water to save her. It was the same every time; she could only stand and scream, and watch in horror as her mother's face disappeared beneath the surface of the restless ocean, and never came back up.
As much as she would have liked to remind herself that it was only a dream, that it wasn't real, it would only be partly true if she did. She'd only been three years old when her mother had passed away, and it hadn't been until she was much older that she'd found out that it had in fact been a suicide. All her life, she'd lived in Cratheport, right along that shore — equal parts beautiful and dangerous — and had never even known that those waters had drowned her own mother. Each time she dreamed of Nikola Farron's death, it was merely her imagination brewing up what it might have been like to be there; perhaps it was her own guilt that she hadn't been there, hadn't even known about it, that gave her such awful nightmares to begin with.
But even if she had been aware of what was happening, even if she'd been older and gone down to the beach in person to plead with her mother, who was to say if she still could have stopped her anyway?
Much as she knew she ought not consider herself responsible, keeping her mind from lingering on it for too long was easier said than done.
Clear your mind, Reyna, clear your mind, she mentally chanted to herself, closing her eyes tightly and lifting her left hand slowly outward, palm flat. She clamped her lips tightly together, as if holding in the angry hornet's nest of thoughts and emotions that threatened to come tumbling out of her at any second, and breathed in deeply through her nose. She willed herself to feel nothing, to think of nothing — or at least, what she imagined nothing to be like. Pure blackness in every direction, placid, undisturbed. And all around her, there was nothing but the crisp morning air drifting through the trees, the occasional rustle of leaves and snap of twigs as small animals bustled about on the forest floor, the smell of mud and dewy grass and sharp pine, the first few strident whistles of birdsong.
And then she felt it: a tingling, pins-and-needles sort of warmth, starting at the crook of her arm and spreading itself slowly down to her wrist, her palm, her fingertips. That heat seemed to go bone-deep, but she'd long ago learned to fight past the uncomfortable sensation of being melted from the inside-out. Her aunt had taught her, back when she'd first started her studies, to take that feeling and use it to visualize the magical energy moving itself through her veins, pushing through to the ends of her fingers and breaking out of them. Like guiding a phantom limb, she'd said, like using a muscle you've always had but forgotten about for a long time.
It worked — she could feel it. Deep down, she knew she ought to keep her eyes shut, keep her concentration steady, but she couldn't resist the excitement now pounding in the dead center of her chest. This was the fastest that she'd ever been able to handle it without being overwhelmed by so much energy coursing through her; she was finally learning to control the magic, rather than letting it control her. She felt her mouth breaking into a gleeful little grin, felt a giddy laugh bubble up and push itself out of her almost against her will. Reyna cracked her eyes open just the slightest bit, just wanting to take the briefest of looks, and gasped in delight when she saw the faintest traces of a bright blue light pulsing around her hand —
All too quickly, the light sputtered and died like a flame guttering out in the wind, and Reyna's spirits deflated considerably with it. She hadn't anticipated any distractions, especially not out here in such an isolated meadow so deep in the woods, and for a moment white-hot panic streaked through her. She whirled around, for that brief instant picturing in her mind's eye the cobalt-blue robes that she saw in her other recurring nightmare, but the air immediately whooshed out of her in a relieved sigh when she saw the smirking face of the person standing on the edge of the clearing.
"Holy Mother, Violette," Reyna breathed, feeling her cheeks redden as the roaring of her pulse in her ears made her realize how truly frightened she'd been. "You scared the hell out of me. Not to mention," she added briskly, trying her best to school her features into neutrality and pretend as though she had already gotten over the terror that had gripped her, "I was practicing something. A little warning next time might be nice."
"Sorry," said Violette, not looking sorry at all as an impish grin spread across her birdlike, angular features. "Not my fault. Callan sent for you."
Reyna gave an impatient grunt through her teeth, rolling her eyes for good measure. "What does he want now?"
"No idea. Sorry, Reyna," said Violette again, and this time she did look genuinely repentant, the wicked look in her dark eyes softening into something more amiable. It certainly wasn't an expression one often saw her wearing around most people. "For whatever it might be worth to you, it did look impressive for a moment there. What was that? Defensive spell?"
"Yeah. Shield enchantment. Or, well, it's supposed to be one, anyway. It's basic spellwork, but I can't get it to work." There was little disguising the frustration bleeding into Reyna's tone of voice. She lifted a hand and pushed her fingers through her chestnut hair, getting them stuck for a moment in her unruly curls. "Maybe if Callan stopped pestering me, I might be able to get some actual training done. All he wants is to use me as some errand girl anyway. What sort of fool does he take me for?"
Violette gave her a pointed look, eyebrows raised, her lips pressed together and just barely suppressing a smirk. "Maybe he takes you for the sort of fool who always makes herself readily available for him, no questions asked," she said, her disapproval obvious even through her lightly teasing demeanor. "Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps he's taking advantage of your . . . dedication to the cause?"
Reyna shot her a withering sideways glance. "Vi, please, don't start."
"I won't say anything else," replied her friend, a note of exasperation in her voice as she lifted her hands into a defensive stance at level with her chest. "I've already made my opinion on the subject abundantly clear, I think. I can only hope perhaps one day you'll see fit to listen to me."
"Alright, thank you for that," sighed Reyna, walking along the meadow to join Vi where she stood at the edge of the clearing, just ahead of the small, winding trail she must have taken to get here. "That's quite enough. I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself just fine, as it turns out. Are you walking with me back to Callan's, then?"
The smile returned to Vi's face as its own rueful ghost. "Naturally," she said, elbowing Reyna lightly in the ribs. "And I promise to keep my mothering to a minimum. But honestly, can you blame me for being a bit overprotective?"
As they began walking back down the trail together, carefully sidestepping fallen branches and stones jutting out from the earth below their feet on the way, Reyna shrugged. The truth was, some part of her knew deep down that Violette had the right idea about Callan and their relationship dynamic — if one could even go as far as to call it that — but her friend was always so damned smug about it that Reyna hated the thought of conceding to her. And even more than that, she despised admitting to herself that she'd let herself be used for so long by anyone, just because she was too stubborn to let go of how to felt to have some sort of purpose. And the companionship part of it wasn't exactly unpleasant, either. Perhaps if Callan truly was using her and felt nothing, then she could return the favor and at least get pleasure and a fun time, a distraction, out of the whole thing.
Was it such a bad thing to want to feel loved by someone, even if she truly wasn't? Or if not loved romantically, then at least acknowledged, respected. Liked, even.
Rather than dwell on that for too long, though, Reyna simply snorted and returned with a laugh, "And what of your little misadventures? You've told me stories that make Callan and I seem innocent as little schoolchildren, remember? I hardly think you're in any sort of position to judge."
"That was so long ago, though — I'm good and settled down now, with Magda," said Vi, her feet moving with an eerie noiselessness through the forest, even though the ground was littered with twigs and fallen dead leaves. She'd always been agile, good at stealth and sneaking about, and her sound-manipulating spells were second to none among their little community of sorcerers. She made for an excellent spy, and had gone on reconnaissance missions for their group all over Erithea. It was hard not to envy her when Reyna herself was stuck here at home, practicing day in and day out, running letters back and forth, and occasionally warming Callan's bed at night.
"I'm glad the two of you are still together," Reyna answered, her gaze directed carefully at the ground to avoid tripping over thick tree roots or any unexpected slopes in the ground. "She's good for you."
"Not to mention her father's the best baker in the kingdom — I could eat those fancy little sugar cakes from their shop until I'm positively sick, Reyna."
The two of them laughed, the sound unnaturally loud as it disrupted the calm of the morning in the forest. It wasn't long before they lapsed into an easy, comfortable silence; they had been friends long enough that neither felt the strange impulse to overcompensate and fill every lull in conversation with more chatter, and Reyna was even more glad of that fact than usual today. With so much weighing on her mind — the dream from last night still burning and gnawing away at the walls of her stomach, and now thoughts of Callan that made her blood rush with equal parts boiling fury and a bizarre, resigned sort of affection — she appreciated having the time to simply ruminate to herself while they trudged along the path.
Her mother's face lingered in the back of her mind. With every step, she heard the echoes of those hollow last words, and realized dimly that she could no longer even remember what her mother's voice had actually sounded like, and her mind had just made it up.
Forgive me, Reyna.
A shudder that she felt certain had nothing to do with the chill in the air ran down her spine. Reyna reached up and hugged herself, rubbing her arms for warmth, and did her best to banish those troubling memories of last night's dream. She focused instead on the rhythmic crunching of her shoes through the leaves and rocks, wondering with each pounding step forward exactly what Callan would want when they arrived — and, if it came to it, imagining scenarios in which they might start arguing, and what clever responses she could think to throw at him in the event that she needed an upper hand.
It didn't take them long to reach the edge of the forest. They passed the line of trees and the landscape gave way to wide open, endless lush greenery; on the outskirts of the forest, the two of them stood atop a tall, rounded hill, looking down at the tiny fishing village of Cratheport nestled below them. Not too far off in the distance, they could see the horseshoe shaped coast, the water a crystalline, sparkling blue beneath the vibrant, sunny summer sky. Only now that they were out from under the cover of the massive trees did Reyna realize just how uncomfortably hot it had already gotten out; perhaps she'd be grateful if Callan gave her something to do indoors today, after all.
It was always so strange, looking down at their little town, wondering if any of them knew the secret passed between certain neighbors' homes, so dark and so deadly that it could put life as everyone in the entire village knew it at terrible risk. Did any of them have a clue that Cratheport was secretly a haven for people like her, people like Vi and Callan and so many of her other friends and family members?
Did they know that Cratheport was home to what was likely the last true witching community in all of Iriden?
Callan's home lay just on the edge of the village, where the winding dirt road leading downhill from the forest turned into a charming cobblestone thoroughfare. He lived in an unassuming, slightly dilapidated little cottage with a latticed exterior, vines sporting cheerful pink and white blooms slowly crawling their way up the walls. Once, the home had belonged to his older sister, Willa, and her husband — but that had been before the king's army of Witch Hunters had stormed Cratheport in a surprise attack one night. That now seemed an eternity ago. Still, it was easy to find traces of Willa here, in the little lily pond in the backyard, the wooden swing hanging from frayed rope on the tree nearest to the house, the dark wood of the front door painted along the borders with bright yellow whorls and delicate patterns. For all his shortcomings as a person in other aspects of his life, Callan had always done his utmost to preserve his sister's memory, and had left everything in the house for the most part completely untouched. Reyna had to admire him for that much, at least.
She had never known Willa personally. Though she and Callan had known one another from school, it was their own personal losses on that night nine years ago that had brought them into one another's lives in the first place; by time Reyna had met him, Willa was already long gone, just like Reyna's aunt Morgan. It was that common understanding between the two of them that had united them more than anything else, the acknowledgement that both of them had experienced grief like that on such a profound and personal level. Cratheport was such a small place that once the Witch Hunters had stormed their way through, they hadn't left behind many of Reyna, Violette, and Callan's kind, and certainly not any their same age. They'd been extraordinarily lucky to have escaped with their lives — and now both of them wanted more than anything to make sure that those soldiers lived to regret their decision not to check the town once more, to leave three small children alive in the rubble they left behind.
Violette had been the luckiest of all three of them. She'd been visiting with family in a far-off town that entire week, and thus had been spared the ambush. She'd seen none of the horrors or bloodshed, and it showed in the casual way she talked about their mission sometimes. It was all too easy for her to suggest that they not deal back the same blows they'd been dealt years ago when she still had her mother and father, hadn't had to see them dragged out into the city streets and . . .
In any case, she meant well, but Violette had joined their inner circle out of nothing more than solidarity, naturally good enough inside to want to see justice done without needing any sort of retribution for herself. Reyna liked that about her — and had to admit, it made her jealous at times, as well. What it must be like, to be disconnected from this quest of theirs, to view the entire situation objectively instead of constantly feeling that rage surging up within her, a tidal wave that couldn't be stopped from crashing down and demolishing everything within her.
"He's in a glorious mood today," Violette thought to warn her as they approached the door. Her gait was easy, sauntering, while Reyna's seemed to have become much more reluctant. "Just try to keep a cool head and it won't be that bad."
"I will if he does." Reyna didn't bother to conceal the snarl on her face as she raised a fist and rapped three times — perhaps a bit harder than was necessary — on the door.
She only had to wait a moment before it swung open to reveal a man in his early twenties, with a head of scruffy straw-colored hair and a beard that concealed the round cheeks she knew hid behind it. His brown eyes were tired, but piercing. He had the look of a person who had been up all night, tossing and turning and thinking hard about something, his tunic rumpled and unbuttoned just carelessly enough that she could see (and tried pointedly to ignore) the faintest wisps of curly hair on his chest. Enigmatic as she knew he liked to make himself out to be, Reyna could read him like a book; and right now, all she saw was man and boy warring for control over the same face.
"Nice of you to finally show up," was his brusque, but typical, greeting.
"I can leave, you know," she bit back, thoroughly unimpressed. Much as he tried to be intimidating with her, knowing each other since childhood did a good deal to rob the mystery from between the two of them. Prickly as he could be on the outside, she knew his gruff demeanor was only a mask for whatever was bothering him at any particular time. That didn't make it less of a nuisance to have to deal with, of course. "I was practicing out there. Pardon me for taking my time — and you could have just as easily come and fetched me yourself instead of sending Vi to do your dirty work. I'll not be summoned like a dog to your side."
To his credit, he did look genuinely apologetic for a moment, though it didn't take him long to expertly hide the brief instance of vulnerability he'd managed to show her. Reyna couldn't help but feel disappointed by the neutrality sliding back onto his features; she supposed she ought not be surprised by his guarded behavior, but she would have thought, after everything, there might be some sort of closing of the enormous chasm between the two of them. But now, in spite of it all, the gap seemed wider and more dangerous than ever, and sometimes she felt as though she were teetering right at the edge, uncertain if she would plunge to her death or find a bridge across to him if she were to take that first step.
That was the most deeply humiliating part of all — wanting so pathetically to reach someone who clearly didn't want her to be let in. Or just simply didn't care.
"I'm sorry, alright?" he sighed at last, something in his tone of voice softening as he met her gaze. "I would've come myself, but this came up so suddenly. It's urgent. Will you come inside? Wren and Caius are here. They can help explain everything to you." He glanced over Reyna's shoulder now. "You can go back home, Vi. Sorry again for troubling you."
Violette took the dismissal in stride, giving Callan a sardonic wave and a grin that promised mischief. "I'll see you around, Callan. Go easy on her, alright?"
Callan attempted a smile in return, but it came across as a pained grimace. As Violette practically skipped away (off to spend more time at the local bakery, no doubt) Reyna turned to glance at her friend's retreating form for a moment or two before at last returning her attention to the man before her. With a defeated sigh, she stepped into the house — better to get this over with now. Whatever news he had, she wasn't entirely sure it was good, judging from how stressed he looked alone. And she felt equally certain that, regardless of what this news of his pertained to, he would once again relegate her to meaningless busywork here at home, rather than give her a task that actually contributed to their fight — the one they'd been battling for so many years, to finally take Iriden's throne away from the tyrant who had slaughtered so many of their kind for so long.
Which was why it shook her infinitely to her core when, as soon as the door shut behind them, Callan turned to her and said, "We're sending you to the capital city for your first mission, Reyna."