I rise to my feet when he lets me.
The chain jerks me up, pulling on the thorned collar at my throat. Its points dig in, not enough to draw blood—not yet. But I’m already bleeding from the wrists. Slow wounds, worn from days of unconscious captivity in rough, ripping manacles. The color stains my white sleeves dark crimson and bright scarlet, fading from old blood to new in a testament to my ordeal. To show Maven’s court how much I’ve suffered already.
He stands over me, his expression unreadable. The tips of his father’s crown make him seem taller, as if the iron is growing out of his skull. It gleams, each point a curling flame of black metal shot with bronze and silver. I focus on the bitterly familiar thing so I don’t have to look into Maven’s eyes. He draws me in anyway, tugging on another chain I can’t see. Only feel.
One white hand circles my wounded wrist, somehow gentle. In spite of myself, my eyes snap to his face, unable to stay away. His smile is anything but kind. Slim and sharp as a razor, biting at me with every tooth. And his eyes are worst of all. Her eyes, Elara’s eyes. Once I thought them cold, made of living ice. Now I know better. The hottest fires burn blue, and his eyes are no exception.
The shadow of the flame. He is certainly ablaze, but darkness eats at his edges. Bruise-like splotches of black and blue surround eyes bloodshot with silver veins. He has not slept. He’s thinner than I remember, leaner, crueler. His hair, black as a void, has reached his ears, curling at the ends, and his cheeks are still smooth. Sometimes I forget how young he is. How young we both are. Beneath my shift dress, the M brand on my collarbone stings.
Maven turns quickly, my chain tight in his fist, forcing me to move with him. A moon circling a planet.
“Bear witness to this prisoner, this victory,” he says, squaring his shoulders to the vast audience before us. Three hundred Silvers at least, nobles and civilians, guards and officers. I’m painfully aware of the Sentinels on the edge of my vision, their fiery robes a constant reminder of my quickly shrinking cage. My Arven guards are never out of sight either, their white uniforms blinding, their silencing ability suffocating. I might choke on the pressure of their presence.
The king’s voice echoes across the opulent stretches of Caesar’s Square, reverberating through a crowd that responds in kind. There must be microphones and speakers somewhere, to carry the king’s bitter words throughout the city, and no doubt the rest of the kingdom.
“Here is the leader of the Scarlet Guard, Mare Barrow.” In spite of my predicament, I almost snort. Leader. His mother’s death has not stemmed his lies. “A murderer, a terrorist, a great enemy to our kingdom. And now she kneels before us, bare to her blood.”
The chain jerks again, sending me scuttling forward, arms outstretched to catch my balance. I react dully, eyes downcast. So much pageantry. Anger and shame curl through me as I realize the amount of damage this simple act will do to the Scarlet Guard. Reds across Norta will watch me dance on Maven’s strings and think us weak, defeated, unworthy of their attention, effort, or hope. Nothing could be further from the truth. But there isn’t anything I can do, not now, not here, standing on the knife edge of Maven’s mercy. I wonder about Corvium, the military city we saw burning on our way to the Choke. There was rioting after my broadcast message. Was it the first gasp of revolution—or the last? I have no way of knowing. And I doubt anyone will bother to bring me a newspaper.
Cal warned me against the threat of civil war a long time ago, before his father died, before he was left with nothing but a tempestuous lightning girl. Rebellion on both sides, he said. But standing here, leashed before Maven’s court and his Silver kingdom, I see no division. Even though I showed them, told them of Maven’s prison, of their loved ones taken away, of their trust betrayed by a king and his mother—I am still the enemy here. It makes me want to scream, but I know better. Maven’s voice will always be louder than mine.
Are Mom and Dad watching? The thought of it brings a fresh wave of sorrow, and I bite hard against my lip to keep more tears at bay. I know there are video cameras nearby, focused on my face. Even if I can’t feel them anymore, I know. Maven would not miss the opportunity to immortalize my downfall.
Are they about to see me die?
The collar tells me no. Why bother with this spectacle if he’s just going to kill me? Another might feel relieved, but my insides turn cold with fear. He will not kill me. Not Maven. I feel it in his touch. His long, pale fingers still cling to my wrist, while his other hand still holds my leash. Even now, when I am painfully his, he won’t let go. I would prefer death to this cage, to the twisted obsession of a mad boy king.
I remember his notes, each one ending with the same strange lament.
Until we meet again.
He continues speaking, but his voice dulls in my head, the whine of a hornet coming too close, making every nerve stand on edge. I look over my shoulder. My eyes drift through the crowd of courtiers behind us. All of them stand proud and vile in their mourning black. Lord Volo of House Samos and his son, Ptolemus, are splendid in polished, ebony armor with scaled silver sashes from hip to shoulder. At the sight of the latter, I see scarlet, raging red. I fight the urge to lunge and rip the skin from Ptolemus’s face. To stab him through his heart the way he did my brother Shade. The desire shows, and he has the spine to smirk at me. If not for the collar and the silent guards restricting everything I am, I would turn his bones to smoking glass.
Somehow his sister, an enemy of so many months ago, isn’t looking at me. Evangeline, her gown spiked with black crystal, is ever the glittering star of such a violent constellation. I suppose she’ll be queen soon, having suffered her betrothal to Maven long enough. Her gaze is on the king’s back, dark eyes fixed with burning focus on the nape of his neck. A breeze picks up, stirring her glossy curtain of silver hair, blowing it back from her shoulders, but she doesn’t blink. Only after a long moment does she seem to notice me staring. And even then, her eyes barely flick to mine. They are empty of feeling. I am no longer worthy of her attention.