VERIS SAT ON the balcony of the suite of rooms he shared with his mother. It was past sunset, but torches provided light from steady flames. The night remained windless. Beneath the floor ran a trough of heated water. Steam floated through the planks and curled around his ankles. He wore a fur cloak and held a cup of hot coffee as he looked out upon an empty world.
But the world wasn’t empty. It only seemed empty those evenings alone on his balcony. He had known nothing but winter his whole life: snow-capped mountains darkward, floes of ice in the Dark Wealth, and the ice desert everywhere else. Beyond the castle’s burgundy granite walls, a vast whiteness imprisoned the Ice Quarter.
Sometimes, he had a glimpse of another world—an echo of a world he felt he knew but must have dreamt. His dreams were often like that. The border between real and imagined was like a fence with holes; sometimes something slipped through. He imagined a world of warmth and life, a world much like what his mother told him of her childhood…but without the crawling things.
He heard stories of sunfall in the Trade Quarter, a place where the sun never left the world, only dimmed and brightened. His mother had also told him about the Dark Quarter, where a cool blue sun and heavy clouds made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe. She had grown up in the Demon Quarter under a warm sun surrounded by a dense forest fraught with life and death struggles. It’s what she loved best.
He didn’t know what he loved best. Maybe it was something he had never seen. When he closed his eyes, his heart felt full. Inside was warm. Inside was calm. So much existed inside, and he craved to touch it. His mother also used that word, but her craving was for the world she could see and smell, taste and touch. He wanted to make his world as real as the one he shared with her, a world of ice and anger. He didn’t want to feel anger. Anger belonged to Avestine. The ice belonged to her, too–piercing eyes so cold they could carve fear from any festivity and pain from any pleasure. She was a liar. She had committed unforgiveable cruelties. He told himself he hated her, but he only wanted to hate her. In truth, he needed her.
She was the only one who saw him. She might accuse him of being childish, but that was a manipulation. She didn’t think of him as a child. Avestine was nothing if not devoted to power in all its forms. She respected his power even if she couldn’t name it. Like his mother, he possessed something Avestine both feared and coveted.
His mother was undoubtedly with Avestine at that moment. When he was younger, he was jealous of his mother’s time. He had wondered why she didn’t want him with her at Avestine’s suite like she did at the greenhouse or when visiting with Rook. His mother was the most interesting person he knew, but his curiosity faded as he matured. He was perfectly content not knowing any details of her time alone with Avestine.
Footsteps drew his attention. He squinted to see more clearly through the doorway. A silhouette stood among a room of silhouettes. He set his coffee on the railing and tightened his fur cloak.
“Mother?” he asked. He went to the door.
The silhouette remained silent and still. Before he called the chambermaid’s name, the silhouette moved. Firelight poured over a young body as it stepped from the shadows. Veris made a quick appraisal and a reappraisal. He didn’t know the intruder. No weapons. The short hair but slim jaw, the leather trousers but short stature, the flat chest but narrow shoulders. He wasn’t sure whether he was facing a man or a woman.
Veris curled his hands into fists and asked, “Who are you?”
“You’re in danger.” The intruder stood in the doorway, gesturing with passionate hands. “Everyone here is in danger.”
Veris stepped back, his movement drawing the intruder onto the balcony–a woman, he decided, likely not much older than him. She wore a patch over her left eye. “How did you get this far into the castle?” he asked.
“You don’t need to fear me.”
“That wasn’t my question.”
She smiled, surprised, it seemed. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“I don’t see a weapon.” He turned, gesturing at a bench. “Maybe you’ll sit and tell me what you’re running from.”
She made her way to the bench but didn’t sit. “I’m not running from anything. I’m here to stop a demon.”
“A demon? You’re going to kill a demon?” When she scowled at him, he tried to mute his mocking tone. “Do you have a weapon?”
“You’re a fool.”
The provocation angered him. He dropped the fur from his shoulders. “You’re the fool sneaking into the room of the warmaster’s favorite. She’ll have you whipped.”
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