The curtains were heavy enough to keep most of the daylight from illuminating the room. The darkness was a kindness, Ameryn thought. Sunlight on the scene before her would have seemed like a mockery; a kind of celestial cruelty.
What remained of her king lay in state on his bed. The servants had robed him in white, his sword beside him and his crown on his chest, which had long ago ceased to rise and fall with the current of breath.
Aileen knelt by her adopted father’s body, her thin shoulders shaking, her grief too intense to allow for sound to escape her throat. In the half-light, her skin looked as deathly pale as the king’s, and every bone seemed to advertise itself under the thin material of her black dress. The journey from Nanduvar had been hard enough, but to be welcomed home by the news of her father’s death was too much. She had long forsaken food and the escape of sleep.
Ameryn hung back, standing as still as a statue by the door. Her muscles were still throbbing from the strain of the run from Nanduvar to Kharador, and her voice was cracked from sorrow. Both she and the princess had done their fair share of crying over the past several days. She felt out of place, standing there in shredded and weather-stained clothing, her hair a tangled mop, and with the story of her own sorrow heavy on her heart. For once in her life, the Guardian did not know how to console the princess. For the first time, they were sisters in heartache—Aileen for her lost father, Ameryn for her lost friend.
She heard a low sound like the whisper of wind through leaves. Turning, she saw Arato had appeared at her elbow. The wizard’s face, normally so merry, was expressionless. His green eyes peered from his wrinkled face. It seemed to Ameryn that he saw more than what met her eyes—perhaps he saw the grief as though it were as visible as a stain in linen.
“He was poisoned,” he said at length, not moving his eyes from the scene before him.
“Poisoned?” Ameryn said in a startled whisper.
“By an assassin from Nanduvar. His jerkin bore the sign of the black tree.”
Ameryn’s blood began to simmer. “Nayr sent him.”
“Yes.” The green eyes looked straight into Ameryn’s, still as expressionless as before. “Nayr is preparing to march on this city. And perhaps not just this city—all of Berasia is in danger of being overrun by Nayr’s army.”
“Why, Arato? What is his justification? Hasn’t he done enough damage already?”
“With Grare dead, Berasia is without a king,” Arato replied mildly. “Now is as good a time as any to usurp the throne. Greed and a lust for power knows no logic, my dear.”
Ameryn’s voice almost escaped the confines of a whisper. “But with Grare gone, who will lead our army?”
“By law, that responsibility has fallen on Aileen’s shoulders.”
Ameryn looked again at the princess, whose silent sobs had steadied to ragged breaths. Her white hands were wiping tears from her eyes. Never before had the princess seemed frailer or more vulnerable.
The Guardian went to kneel beside Aileen, who leaned into her friend’s arms, not seeming to care about the dirt and grime on Ameryn’s clothing.
“The enemy is coming, my lady,” Arato said, his voice ringing with gentle authority. “As queen, you must prepare to defend your people.”
Aileen shuddered and pulled away from Ameryn, gripping her Guardian’s shoulders with startling ferocity.
“I can’t do this, Ameryn,” she sobbed. “I can’t do this. I cannot face him again. Not in battle. Not anywhere. Not after what he’s done—to me—to papa—” She shook her head fiercely, blue eyes blazing. “I cannot be queen. I am not of Papa’s line. This throne does not belong to me. I cannot defend the people. I cannot even defend myself.”
“The responsibility is yours, Aileen, whether you are prepared for it or not,” Arato said, his voice still filled with that strange gentleness.
“Ameryn,” she continued, still shaking, “you must lead Kharador’s army. Please. As my Guardian, as my friend, I’m begging you.”
Ameryn tore her eyes away from her friend’s and looked up pleadingly at Arato. The wizard seemed to take them both in with his gaze, still motionless, still expressionless.
“Does the law allow this, Arato?”
“You are her servant; you must do as she commands.”
Ameryn looked down at her friend. She knew that to march against Nayr would be to march to her own death. The faces of those she had lost at his hands flashed across her memory—her mother, her father, King Grare…Zon.
She shut her eyes, as though that could shut out the memory.
“Ameryn,” Aileen cried. “Please.”
Ameryn resisted. She could not trust herself. Nayr had tricked her into committing an unthinkable crime before—what else was he capable of? What horrors did he have in store?
Again she heard the whisper of wind through tree branches. She opened her eyes in time to see the heavy curtain curl back for a moment, letting the smallest ray of sunlight fall across the room; a streak of gold against the blackness. Again she thought of Zon’s face; remembered the hope he brought to the lives of hundreds he had set free. She remembered how the sunlight of his presence had revived her the way the sun illumines the darkness of the moon. He had done that for all of them—his entire ragged band of wayfarers, every one of them as lost as herself until he found them.
And Nayr had slain him as though he were no more than a rabid dog.
Ameryn was suddenly keenly aware of every scar on her face and body; of the bloodstains on her hands and on her heart. All of them were there because of what Nayr had done—what he had done, and what his father before him had done. So many had died at his hands. Zon had died at his hands. And many more would die, unless he could be stopped.
In that moment, Ameryn decided that no one else would suffer as she had.
“I will do it,” she said. The curtain fell closed, and again the room was lost in darkness.