Alana leaned against the stone sill of the gallery’s window and watched as the riders galloped through the front gate. From her high perch she could follow their twisting route down from the palace, harnesses jingling and hooves clattering on cobblestones as they wove between thick-timbered shops and row houses. Then they were out, through the gap in the city walls and into the last of the evening sun.
Two of the riders turned and thundered south along the Traitors’ Road toward Charleston, through fields where farmers reaped in rhythmic motions, backs bowed and filling the air with drifting motes of grain as mule-drawn threshing machines trundled along behind them. The remaining rider continued back east, the way they had come. Alana watched his dust cloud shrink, then abandoned the window and moved down the corridor, slippered feet whispering across bare stone.
Her father was still in the high-ceilinged audience chamber. On the far wall, the Great Seal of the Oracle loomed large behind the throne and dais, its royal book-and-skull insignia emblazoned in gold leaf. Her father stood beneath it, as he always did when holding court, along with several advisers and Tyrus, the captain of the guard. Each of the advisers—old men with beards and robes—was doing his best to talk over the others.
“My lord, the beastmen—”
“—if they were to take Harrisburg—”
“—the damned Virginians will seize the opportunity to break away again, and—”
“—with winter coming, the passes—”
The old men faltered and fell silent as they noticed Alana.
“My apologies, Father,” she said. “Am I interrupting?”
Lord Erick Young-Allen, First of the Dying, King and Steward of the Appalachian Empire, was a barrel-chested man of Noreastern stock. Though only a few inches taller than Alana, with lines of gray twisting through his bushy black beard, he still managed to exude a palpable air of command. Now that beard split in a wide smile.
“No need to be shy, gentlemen. You’ll be giving your contradictory recommendations to Alana soon enough. Yet I believe I’ve heard enough for today. You have your orders—I suggest you make good on them.”
There was a chorus of “aye, m’lord,” and the men filed out of the room. Tyrus made to follow, but the king waved for him to stay. The young captain took up his usual position to the right of the throne, beneath the great tapestry showing the Taking of the Virginias. Alana did her best not to look at him, fearing that something might show in her face. Instead, she focused on her father.
“Trouble to the east?”
The king waved again, as if the matter was a fly to be chased away. “When isn’t there? The beasts of York are ever at our door. Their fields are ash, and their water poisons them and twists their children. Why shouldn’t they seek to take ours? I could almost pity them, if I didn’t know better.”
Alana nodded. Privately, she didn’t know how he could be so cavalier about it. She’d grown up listening to tales of the beastmen and their blasted lands, the cratered and ruined ghost cities where those who had been human before the Breaking had grown warped and hateful. As a child, she’d snuck out of bed and hidden behind curtains in the feast hall to listen as her father and his generals drank and told stories too dark for children’s ears—the Battle of Scranton or the Razing of Jersey.
Her father must have caught her expression, because he shook his head.
“No need to worry, child. Our deaths are foretold.” He made the sign of the Oracle, then smiled. “And if that isn’t enough for you, three legions stand between them and our border. The beastmen have honored the truce for half your life—this is just the usual saber-rattling. Isn’t that right, Tyrus?”
“Certainly, my lord. My lady.” The guard captain’s gaze flicked to Alana for only an instant before returning to a careful study of the far wall.
“They mentioned Harrisburg,” Alana pressed. “Surely the Foundry’s not in danger?” Everyone knew that the forges and factories of Harrisburg were the main reason the Appalachian Empire had stood for so many generations. Half the metal goods in the palace came from the Foundry, and any legionary worth his commission wore Harris-forged plate. Even more important were the huge farming machines that let one field hand do the work of twenty, or the great war bombards that roared with the fires of Hell itself.
A cloud passed over her father’s face. “No,” he grunted. Then, more softly: “No. The Foundry is well defended. It’ll take more than the trolls of shattered York to get through one legion, let alone three.” He sighed. “But you didn’t come to discuss troop movements.”
She shrugged. “I was just about to go to bed, and came to say goodnight.”
“Bed?” He frowned. “But it’s not even dark out.”
“I’ve been feeling tired.”
The king turned the full force of his attention on her. Suddenly Alana understood how his subjects must feel under that gaze—knees loose, throat dry, sweat welling up between her toes. It was all Alana could do to keep her teeth pressed together, fearing that if she opened her mouth, everything would come pouring out.
The king’s grin reappeared.
Relief surged through Alana in a cold wave. She shook her head quickly. “Of course not, my lord!”
Her father laughed and clapped his hands together.
“Come now, none of that. You’re long since of age for better things than keeping an old man company. Look at you! Twirl for me, girl.”
It was an old request. As a child, Alana had loved skirts and dresses, the way they flowed and swirled when she moved. She had spent her childhood twirling in them, spinning until she made herself dizzy, while her father laughed and her mother chided.
She spun now, slowly so that the rust-red hem of her skirt lifted only to her ankles, rattling the chatelaine keys at her belt. She held out her arms as she revolved, then finished facing her father again.
His smile was wistful. “By the oracle, Alana, you grow faster every year. It crushes my heart to say so, but you’re no longer my little girl. You ought to have a husband.”
Marriage. Given half a chance, her father would marry her off to one of the Iberian ship-lords, with their blue-water fleets and claims of a royal line stretching back before the Breaking. Or maybe to one of the dark-skinned Tejano Kings of the southwest, with their horses and buckskins. Whoever he picked, it would be someone of station—someone who would expand the holdings. Blood married blood.
“Well, I fear it won’t be this year,” her father continued. “It’s too late to send out emissaries before winter closes the passes. You’re stuck with me for a while yet.”
Alana smiled. “I think I’ll survive.”
Her father clapped his hands again, this time a command. “Off to bed with you, then! Perhaps tomorrow you can run the council, and I’ll walk through the fields and dream of princes. What do you say to that, eh?”
Alana stepped forward and kissed his cheek lightly. “As you wish, my lord.”
With the moon still down, the streets were as black as a privy chute. Alana’s foot struck a loose cobble and sent it skittering down the road, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from cursing. Instead she clutched Tyrus’s hand and hissed, “Can’t we have a light?”
“Not yet.” The guard captain’s voice was low, completely devoid of her own frustration. The man saw like a cat in the darkness, and moved just as well—a quality that both irritated and appealed to her. It made no sense that a man whose business was swords and soldiers should move like a dancer, when all her years of etiquette training left her stumbling like a drunken cow.
Tyrus squeezed her hand and pulled her around a corner, his other hand coming up to rest along her back. The familiarity of the gesture made Alana shiver, and she quit trying to see and simply let him guide her.
At last they stood in front of a cellar door set at an angle to the street, its weathered wood barely illuminated by a neighbor’s lantern. Tyrus reached down and knocked quickly and precisely—twice, then three times.
There was a pause, then the sound of a bolt being drawn back. Tyrus lifted up the heavy door, and Alana moved in, following the cloaked shape that was already retreating down the exposed steps.
Inside was light and warmth, a root cellar lit by a dozen tallow candles. The walls were lined with wooden crates and rough cloth sacks that had been pushed out of the way to create an open space in the center, barely wide enough to accommodate the room’s handful of occupants. All eyes turned toward Alana and Tyrus as they emerged from the narrow staircase.
The assembled faces were young, though not as young as Alana’s eighteen years. At twenty-four, Tyrus was easily the eldest among them. All had the smooth cheeks and rounded edges of merchant children, and though their cloaks were dark and nondescript, there was no denying the quality of the cloth.
Commoners, yes—but the most privileged among them, the artisans and scions of wealthy families. There were no laborers and field hands here. The true peasants would join them when the time was right, but the people of the field had other things to spend their energy on, such as securing their next meal.
The assembly nodded respectfully to Tyrus, but Alana’s greetings were more mixed. Dowdy Tabitha, the beekeeper’s moon-faced daughter, had to visibly stop herself from bowing. Most of the others—Omar the blacksmith, Rass the scholar, Crispin the wainwright’s apprentice—regarded her with a mixture of excitement and mistrust. Only Rhena, the sharp-chinned woman whose clothes were almost as fine as Alana’s own, regarded her with visible contempt, tight lips twitched up in a half-smile.
“So we’re the last, then.” Tyrus shrugged off his cloak. “What have we missed?”
“Only the usual.” Omar’s voice was flat and strong, the ring of a hammer on steel. “Nattering about broadsheets and speeches and sending runners south to coordinate with other holdings.”
Rass, a thin young man with a rare pair of pre-Breaking spectacles, harrumphed uncomfortably. As a student at the college, devoted to analyzing the texts of the ancients, he still wasn’t used to the blunt speech of non-academics.
“I hardly think,” he began, “that discussing the precise messaging of our transition can be called ‘nattering.’ If there’s anything the surviving histories have taught us, it’s that the ability to inflame the human spirit with words and vision is every bit as important as the pre-Breaking technologies which we—”
“As I said, the usual.” Omar smiled thinly, and Rass suddenly noticed a blemish on his glasses and began cleaning them.
“But now that you’re here, Tyrus,” Rhena purred, “perhaps we can actually discuss something worthwhile.” Around her, several heads nodded.
“Bows,” grunted Omar. “I’ve got every smith and apprentice who’s for us hiding away what swords and mail they can, but a farmer in armor is still a farmer. Bows, though—every field hand with two arms can draw a bow that’ll punch through chain like cheesecloth. And they can cut and string their own without raising suspicion. The king’s men won’t look twice.”
At this, Rass found his voice once more. “Again with the weapons! As I’ve said a dozen times, it’s far too soon for such concerns. Every day that we wait brings more people to our side. Impatience on our part will cost lives, Omar. The timing—”
“The timing will decide itself,” Tyrus said. “The king has grown weary since the queen’s death. He will pass the crown before long. He’s said as much to me in private.”
The folk around him nodded and muttered agreement. Not for the first time, Alana marveled at how smoothly Tyrus flowed into the role of leader. There was a reason why guardsmen twice his age chose to follow him.
“And what if Her Ladyship changes her mind?”
Rhena’s voice was soft, yet it carried easily.
“What if the princess decides that being queen is more fun than helping a bunch of dirty peasants usurp her throne?”
Tyrus’s hands balled into fists, but Alana touched his arm.
“I have no wish to rule,” she said. “I was born to privilege—as were all of you, in your way—yet I understand it for the fluke of chance that it was.” She stepped forward as well, letting all eyes fix on her. “My father is a good man, and a good king. The empire has grown strong under his line, but I think it will be stronger when every man and woman takes its rule for their own.”
Rhena snorted. “And so you’ll give away the throne. Just like that.”
“Rhena,” Rass broke in, “Alana has been—”
“No.” Alana raised a hand. “Rhena’s right to be skeptical. Why would I give up power for some abstract philosophy? I dare say she wouldn’t.”
The surprise on Rhena’s face was gratifying, but Alana didn’t waste time on it.
“My father has given his whole life to the empire. As one of the Dying, even the mystery of his own death has been taken from him. He serves his people, and bears the weight of hard choices. And what does he get in return?
“Hatred. The resentment of his own people. One township screams at him for not helping in a drought, and the others scream at him for levying taxes to help the first. They burn him in effigy for conscripting their sons into the same legions that guard them from the beastmen. Every step he takes, he’s dogged by advisors and malcontents who think they could do better.
“You think the king is a tyrant, but he’s not. He’s a scapegoat, a straw man for all the empire’s problems. And I want none of it. It’s time the people stepped up and took responsibility for themselves.”
The room was silent. Alana took a last look at all of them, then moved back out of the circle, taking her place next to Tyrus.
Unsurprisingly, Rhena was the first to find her voice.
“Pretty words,” she said, pointedly ignoring Alana and addressing the rest of the group. “But is it solely the ideals of the revolution that motivate her, I wonder?”
All at once, the fire inside Alana shifted. Her cheeks grew warm, and she adjusted her own position to stand a polite distance away from the guard captain.
So what if they knew about her and Tyrus? She’d told the truth—she didn’t want to rule. And while her father was a great man, it didn’t make sense for blood alone to determine who should lead. Look at Tyrus: his parents were farmers, yet he had risen through the guard ranks on the merit of his own skill and intellect, and—
Alana tamped down that thought. This wasn’t the time to wax romantic. She would abdicate to the people because anything else would only prolong the problem. And if that meant she was no longer a princess of the Dying, with a princess’s responsibilities, and could instead marry whoever she chose, well...
She realized that the rest of them had resumed talking—Tyrus and Rass about how best to rally the people to the cause before any of the lesser lords of the southern holdings could arrive to claim the throne for themselves, and Omar about building up the local militia as soon as the city was taken, lest one of the returning legions decide to instate itself as a new aristocracy.
At last Crispin tapped the empty hourglass and noted that they’d best get home before the moon rose. With a rustle of cloaks, the conspirators made ready to leave.
Omar was the last to hood himself. As he did, he called out a final question.
“When, Tyrus? I grow tired of waiting.” His voice was not quite a threat. While the others were motivated by idealism or petty jealousy, Omar’s rebellion was personal. As a child, he had seen his father hung for stealing horses from the royal herd, with King Erick himself pronouncing the judgment. In her heart, Alana knew he wouldn’t be happy until her father hung from the same gibbet as his.
Of course, Tyrus would never allow that. He was no murderer—and he loved her. Whatever happened with the revolution, Tyrus would protect Alana and her father to his last breath.
He started to speak, yet again Alana stepped in front of him, matching the big blacksmith stare for stare.
“Soon,” she said. “The time of the monarchy has passed. Together, we will see an Appalachia ruled by free men and women.” Quieter, she added, “You’ll have your revolution, Omar. I swear it.”
The big man watched her, thick arms crossed in front of his chest. Slowly, he nodded.
Not trusting herself to say anything more, Alana turned to Tyrus. He was standing with his own cloak half-on, watching her with blatant admiration. On impulse, she grabbed his hand and held it, then swiveled around, eyes daring anyone to comment.
Without a word, the would-be revolutionaries trooped up the cellar stairs and out into the night.
Alana was walking through the market, followed discreetly by two guardsmen and enjoying the riotous colors of the assembled bicycle carts, when the runner found her. Cutting between two fruit merchants who stood with heads bowed, the liveried man dropped to one knee on the cobbles and brought a knuckle to his forehead.
“M’lady, your father requests your presence at once.”
Alana thanked the man automatically and slipped him a coin—freshly minted copper, not one of the adulterated pre-Breaking pennies. Her father wasn’t the type to summon her so brusquely. Waving her thanks to the merchants, she turned and began to move back up the steep streets toward the palace as quickly as propriety would allow. Even as she went, she saw the red mass of the signal balloon leave the palace roof and sail high into the cloudless sky, bearing its burning beacon aloft. The townsfolk saw it as well, and their frightened mutters followed her to the palace gates.
She found her father in the audience chamber again, but this time the figures with him were not his advisers. The two men who stood close to the throne wore the close-cropped hair and bulky metal armor of legionaries. With a shock, Alana realized that the soldiers’ armor was dirty and dented, stained the ruddy brown of dried blood.
Her father looked up and saw her in the doorway.
“Leave us,” he told the legionaries.
Both men bowed formally, fists over hearts, then turned and left the chamber. The king instructed Alana to close the door and beckoned her close.
If it had unnerved her to see the normally spotless legionaries so battered, it was nothing compared to the way her father looked now. Alana didn’t think she’d seen him look so tired—so old—since her mother’s funeral. He let out a long breath.
“It’s the beastmen,” he said simply. “I thought they were putting on a show, maybe looking to annex a few more miles of scrubland.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I was wrong. They broke through the line due east of Bethlehem, in numbers not seen since the last push. The legions are in full rout. Reading will burn by nightfall.”
“Reading!” Alana had never been to the eastern holding but knew it to be a populous region, filled with farmers and salvage-men who quarried steel and stone from the pre-Breaking ruins, selling any relics with obvious uses and taking the rest to the mystics and engineers at the Foundry.
It was also many miles behind the front lines. Or had been.
“With any luck, they’ll lose days looting the holding, giving us time to position ourselves. I’ve called forth what fighting men the city can spare, and we’ll meet them at Harrisburg.”
She looked up sharply. He nodded.
“The Foundry cannot be allowed to fall. I’ll be leading its defense personally. Tyrus will remain with an honor guard to help you hold the city in my place.”
Alana didn’t like the way he said it. She was suddenly furious with him for daring to look so tired, so resigned. “You’ll beat them,” she said fiercely. “You have before, and you will again.”
Lord Erick Young-Allen of the Dying put a hand on her shoulder. “Alana, there’s something you need to see.”
With his other hand, he reached into an inner fold of his vest and brought out a thin slip of white paper, crumpled and worn with age. Alana had never seen it before, yet the moment he produced it, she knew exactly what it was.
“No!” She jerked away, as if he were offering her a venomous snake. “I won’t!”
The king’s voice was calm. “It’s the way of things, Alana. The oracle never lies.”
He held the paper out to her. Against her will, Alana took it, unfolding it with trembling fingers. One end held the royal seal, identical to the one behind the throne. Printed next to it, in neat block letters too perfect for any scribe’s pen, were three words:
DEFENDING THE FOUNDRY
“This is how I will die,” the king said. “It has been foretold.”
Alana shook her head violently, hair whipping around her shoulders, and threw the paper back at him. “It’s wrong.”
Her father’s features shifted from sad to stern. “You know otherwise, Alana. You’ll be of the Dying yourself soon. This is no time for foolishness.”
“But why?” Alana heard the petulant whine in her own voice, hating it. “Why does it have to be right? Why can’t you just stay here and send the soldiers without you? Why did you go to the stupid oracle in the first place?”
Sighing, her father sat—not on his throne, but on the low stone lip of the dais. He drew her down with him and put his arm around her, pulling her close.
“It’s the burden of royalty, girl. No one is fit to rule until they’ve seen the oracle. A man who knows his death can go fearlessly into any battle, yet is reminded every day that his own life is temporary. It’s too easy for a king to rule as if he will live forever, to think himself a little god. Knowing death keeps us humble. Your mother—”
He broke off, and Alana felt the shift in his ribs as his breath caught.
“Your mother knew that better than I. She knew from the week before our wedding that the fever would take her, and yet she lived every day with kindness and humor. She stared down her death and won long before it ever claimed her.”
He squeezed her shoulder. “We are the Dying, Alana. And it’s that which gives us the right to rule over the living.”
“But you don’t know when,” Alana pressed. “You could die fifty years from now.”
Her father chuckled. “That’s very old to die on the battlefield. Perhaps I could have the legionaries carry me out in an armored palanquin.” He shook his head. “But I don’t think so. This feels... right.”
He half-turned, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Which is why you must be ready. When I fall, you will become queen. And for that, you must first go to the oracle.”
Alana ducked out from under his arm. “But I don’t want to rule.”
“And you think I did?” Her father laughed sharply. “Nobility is a privilege and a burden, but rarely a choice. Your blood demands it. You are a daughter of kings.”
“But why do we have to rule at all?” Alana realized she was almost shouting. “Why all this pageantry, and oracles, and royal lines? We’re no different from the sharecroppers of the holdings, save that we never go cold and hungry. Who are we to decide their lives? Let them elect their own leaders.”
“Like Tyrus?” The king arched an eyebrow. Alana felt herself flush, betrayed once again by her royal blood, but her father didn’t pursue it.
“You know your history. The Old Ones who lived before the Breaking were a democracy, and you can see what they wrought. A democracy can never stand against the solidarity and efficiency of a worthy monarchy. Ask yourself: when was the last time any of your revolutionary friends agreed on anything? Not ideals, but practical matters.”
Alana stiffened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Her father’s laugh was bigger now, more honest. “I know all about your meetings, Alana. And I approve—it’s important to know your enemies, to understand how they think and to see them for the people they are. That way you’ll never fall into the trap of thinking yourself innately superior. Those who put too much stock in their own noble birth grow complacent and careless. Yet that rag-tag bunch would never be able to protect our lands from the beastmen, or keep the Virginians from resuming their bloody feud. They’re children who resent their parents’ authority, never understanding that it’s that same authority which keeps them safe.”
He took both her hands and held them in his own callused paws.
“The people need the monarchy, girl. It grieves me to put this burden on you, but there’s nothing for it. When I die, you must go to the oracle and accept the queenship. And you must not give it away.”
Alana started to protest, but her father gripped her hard. She was surprised to see tears rolling down his cheeks, running into his beard.
“Please, Lana,” he said, and the childhood nickname cut her deeper than his weeping. “You must promise. For your mother. And for me.”
Alana’s head spun. The room was too warm, and her stomach was caught somewhere in her throat. Her hands hurt where her father held them, yet he did not loosen his grip.
“Promise me,” he said again.
Alana looked at him, at those eyes so filled with love and pain, and knew she had no choice.
Her father’s smile exploded into being again. He released Alana’s hands and reached out, gathering her to him. Numb, she leaned against his chest and allowed his huge arms to encircle her. She felt his chin come to rest in her hair.
“You will be a good queen,” he whispered.
They buried him in the palace cemetery a week later, with all the ceremony due a wartime king. The undertakers had done their work well, and he almost looked asleep inside the great suit of armor that the castle smiths had returned to its original shape and shine. He lay in the stone sarcophagus with hands folded over the hilt of his sword, covered by the enormous metal shield with its painted royal crest.
Alana leaned down and tucked a flower—a daffodil—into the gap between breastplate and gardbrace. Then she stood and nodded to the bearers to replace the stone lid. She left the cemetery to the metallic hiss of shovels biting into soft dirt.
Tyrus was waiting by the gate with the rest of the caravan. His eyes were haggard—it clearly pained him to see her grieving and be unable to go to her, but there were too many observers present. She nodded to him imperiously.
“All is in readiness?”
“Yes, m’lady. We await only your order.”
“Then you have it.” She waved for her horse. A groom appeared at once, her favorite gray mare in tow. Alana mounted in one graceful movement and called, “We ride for the Grove of the Oracle!”
It was a two-day ride north, stretched into four by the wagons. The first day was through lands familiar to Alana, the beaten dirt cart track cutting through waving yellow fields that fed the capital, peasants kneeling as the royal procession passed. Then the road diverged, and they found themselves on the wide, flat path of the High Way, twisting and weaving between the rolling hills and low crags. The wagons had an easier time on the old road, and in places the dirt and grass had been scoured away by wind and water to reveal the ancient stone of the pre-Breaking roadbed. Alana marveled at the thought of a people so powerful that they could make a perfect sheet of stone stretch off to infinity.
Throughout the journey, Tyrus prudently kept his distance except for curt reports. As much as Alana longed to run to him, she was happy for the distance. She had not yet spoken to him of her last conversation with the king.
At one point, on the pretense of showing her the map of their route, Tyrus brought his horse close enough to touch her hand.
“Soon,” he whispered. “Soon all of this will be behind us.”
That night, after the caravan made camp, Alana lay in bed and stared up at the canvas roof of her tent.
Everyone expected her to take the throne. That much was a given, and the point of this whole ridiculous processional. By agreeing to her father’s final wish and promising not to abdicate, however, she had betrayed Tyrus and the rest of the revolutionaries. Yet even if Tyrus and all the others had been there watching, she could not have denied her father that final comfort.
Worse yet was the fact that both were right. She’d meant everything she’d said to the rebels—blood-right was a terrible way to choose a ruler, and the monarchy was a thankless, terrifying job, one that she wanted no part of. Yet at the same time, she couldn’t deny her father’s point: the squabbling rebels would almost certainly do worse than she would. Without powerful, organized leadership from the palace, who would keep the neighboring nations from descending on the new democracy like vultures? The weight of her conflicting vows ached like a stone in her chest.
On the morning of the last day, the road turned a final bend and the towers came into view. Even from a distance, they dominated the skyline. By late afternoon the wagons were among them, rolling through the shadows of the giants. Square-sided like mirrored obelisks, each with a footprint the size of the palace grounds, the towers were larger than anything Alana had ever seen. Ivy wound around their feet, while above them were only flat, gleaming expanses of stone and glass. Many of the buildings were broken, ending abruptly in jagged wounds, and through these scars Alana could see the interior structure of hundreds of different floors and compartments, like a termite-rotted log with the bark stripped away.
Then they were beyond the towers and into the vast central clearing that held the Grove of the Oracle. Riding at the head of the line, Alana looked toward the distant trees—and pulled up so short that her horse whinnied in protest.
Waving above the tents at the grove’s edge was a standard she knew only from her father’s stories: a blood-red sun on a black field.
“Beastmen.” Tyrus appeared at her side. “They got here quick.”
“But we beat them at Harrisburg!” Alana clamped down hard on the reins and tried to keep her voice calm. “The reports called it a full rout. We chased the survivors all the way to the border.”
Tyrus nodded. “They’re likely here for the same reason we are. This is sacred ground—they will not challenge us. And if they do...” Tyrus loosened his sword in its scabbard.
They rode across the clearing in a long line, their own white and blue banners snapping behind them in the light breeze. Alana rode in front, as befit one who would be queen, with Tyrus a respectful horse-length behind. At the grove’s edge, a knot of dark figures gathered beneath the Banner of the Burning Sun.
Alana had never seen a beastman in the flesh. Her childhood had been full of stories of the twisted creatures, but none of those tales had adequately prepared her for the reality.
They were huge. Despite their hunched frames, weighed down by the massive muscles of their overlong arms, the beastmen were all taller than Tyrus by several hands. Their skin was the boiled angry red of a burn, shot through with lumpy white lines of tumorous scar tissue and freckled with sores that wept clear pus. Their faces were cadaverous, flesh drawn tight over misshapen skulls, and blistered lips failed to completely cover yellow teeth filed to points.
Alana had always imagined the beastmen as amalgamated monsters, full of wolf parts and snake scales and other recognizable horrors. These were nothing like that. These were corpses.
As Alana approached, a single beastman detached himself from the crowd and came forward. He was larger than the others and wore only a long, red tabard that left his huge arms bare. His lower jaw protruded far beyond his upper, giving him an especially pugnacious look, yet his black hair was meticulously combed, shot through with braids ending in red beads. A three-fingered hand rested on the hilt of an oversized longsword.
Alana motioned for Tyrus to hold the caravan’s position, then rode on a few more yards and dismounted. The beastman watched her with interest. When she was safely on the ground, he dropped into a surprisingly elegant bow, one leg behind the other and free hand sweeping outward.
“The Allied Kingdoms of York greet Your Highness.”
These creatures had killed her father. The knowledge roared through Alana’s mind like a grass fire, yet she had spent too many years at court to forget her manners. She curtsied. “And the Appalachian Empire returns your greeting.”
The beastman straightened. His voice was the deep rumble of a falling tree. “You come to seek the oracle’s blessing.”
He nodded. “As did I. My name is Hamal—my own father fell at Harrisburg. I will take his seat on the council.”
“Congratulations.” It was hardly polite, yet Alana couldn’t quite think of anything more appropriate.
Hamal didn’t bristle. “Your father was a great warrior,” he said, inclining his head. “As was mine. Our battle hymns will sing of both their deeds for a thousand years.”
Such pleasantries from a monster. The whole situation was surreal. “Thank you,” Alana said.
“Of course, it would have been better if their sacrifice could have been avoided. To die in battle is valiant, but to do so in unnecessary conflict is wasteful.”
That brought Alana around in a hurry. Her face grew hot, and not with embarrassment. “A conflict you started!”
Hamal nodded, uncowed. “A regretful necessity. We have no love of war, yet the people of York must have access to the Foundry. Our lands are poor—they starve us and mark our flesh. In the end, they claim us all. Yet with properly machined tools—”
Alana’s patience snapped. Summoning every ounce of her training, she let her voice ring with royal disdain. “I hardly think it’s appropriate to discuss policy so soon after my father’s funeral.”
Hamal bowed low again, inclining his head with respect. “My apologies, Highness. I had forgotten that your people make such distinctions.” His gaze rose, and cold eyes locked on hers. “In York, every day is a funeral.”
The beastman straightened and turned back to his people. At his order, they began to dismantle their tents and pack them away. Sensing that the strange audience was at an end, Alana led her own caravan a sensible distance beyond them along the edge of the grove, then gave the order for the bearers to begin setting up the pavilions.
It was past midnight, with all but the sentries long asleep, when Tyrus came to her in her tent. One moment she was alone, sitting in front of the mirror and brushing mindlessly at her hair for the dozenth time, and then he was behind her in the entryway, the tent flap falling silently closed.
“Alana—” he began, but got no farther before she came into his arms and stopped his mouth with hers.
They made love in the mound of blankets the wagons had brought for her. In the soft light of her tent’s single lantern, Tyrus’s face was illuminated in intervals—now light, now shadow—as they moved together, fingers on each other’s lips to keep from crying out and giving themselves away.
Afterward they lay curled together, her head in the hollow of his shoulder and breasts pressed tight against the side of his broad, scarred chest. Yet even as the glow of their lovemaking lingered, Alana felt her confliction rising in a dark wave to sweep it away.
Tyrus sensed her tension. “Are you scared?”
“No,” Alana answered. Except of losing you. But Tyrus still didn’t know about her promise. She changed the subject. “Would you do it, if you could? Know your death, I mean.”
Tyrus chuckled. “Not a chance. A soldier needs to be ready to die for his beliefs, and a revolutionary doubly so. The oracle would either make me lazy, knowing I’d survive any battle, or cost me my edge by making me constantly expect defeat.”
Alana propped herself up on one elbow so she could see his face. “Would you really die for the revolution?”
Tyrus’s eyes were dark pools. “To see people take control of their own lives? To know my children will be free to rise according to their abilities?” The arm pinned beneath Alana snaked around her shoulders, pulling her to his chest. “I’d die for that in a second. And for you.”
“I’d die for you, too,” she whispered.
He squeezed her once more, tightly, and then the two of them simply lay there, her head on his chest, listening to the sounds of the night. After a time, his breathing slowed and deepened, and Alana knew he was asleep.
She’d told the truth. She would happily die for this man, this idealist who loved her beyond all question. She would give everything she had for him and never look back.
But could she break a promise?
Alone once more, Alana pressed her face against her lover’s ribs and hoped that the warmth of her tears wouldn’t wake him.
Tyrus was gone by first light, and Alana was dressed and waiting at the forest’s edge by the time the sun cut through the gaps between the eastern towers. The beastmen were gone, and her retainers stood back among the tents, arranged in neat ranks. Only royalty could enter the wood.
There was movement between the trees. All at once a man stood before her in a brown robe, its heavy cowl shading his face so that only his mouth and chin were visible. His arms were folded into his sleeves.
“Greetings, Keeper,” Alana said. “I come seeking the knowledge of the oracle.”
Instead of answering, the man glided forward almost soundlessly, robes swirling across the grass. Closer up, she could see that his eyes were closed beneath the cowl’s overhanging hem. Alana heard a shuffling behind her as soldiers reached for weapons, and she silenced them with a gesture.
When he was only a foot away, the Keeper paused and raised his hands, bringing them delicately to her face. Thin fingers like spider legs danced across forehead and cheeks, lips and chin. The man smiled.
“You are of the line of Young-Allen, child of Erick and Mara. The oracle recognizes you, Lady.”
Understanding dawned, and Alana spoke before she could help herself. “You’re blind.”
The man’s smile widened, eyes still closed and face serene. “All Keepers are blind, lady. It’s what keeps us from being tempted by our charge, and makes us better servants of destiny.” He took her hand. “Come. The oracle waits.”
Alana allowed the man to lead her into the grove, marveling at the way he moved gracefully between the great trees despite the lack of a path. At times he would stop and place a hand on a trunk, cocking his head as if listening, and then continue on.
Soon the trees gave way and they entered a clearing. Overhead, the forest giants arched long branches that formed a cathedral dome and blotted out the midday sun. In the half-light of the clearing’s center stood a small cloth tent, a round-topped pavilion not unlike the one Alana had spent the night in, save that its canvas sides were aged and thick with moss. From inside it, a light glowed.
“The oracle,” the Keeper intoned. He released Alana’s hand, taking up his folded-arm stance once more.
“Thank you,” said Alana. When the man made no response, she took a hesitant step toward the tent. Then another.
Before she could think any more about it, she strode quickly across the clearing. When she reached the tent, she lifted the flap and stepped through.
Inside, the floor was a slab of smooth stone. The light came from a glowing globe that hung by a cord from the tent’s ceiling many feet overhead.
Directly beneath it stood the oracle. Alana’s first thought was that it looked like a glass-walled closet, a thin metal frame holding clear rectangular panes. It was barely wide enough to contain a single person, yet the accordion-fold door stood open, beckoning. On its far wall hung a square metal box the size of a legionary’s breastplate, its face etched with the royal seal and broken by two dark mouths.
Unwilling to lose her momentum, Alana moved into the transparent booth, half expecting the door to slam shut behind her like a hungry beast. Instead, a single red eye winked on in the metal box. She waited.
“I am Alana Young-Allen,” she intoned, “Princess of the Appalachian Empire. I seek the knowledge of the oracle.”
Still the red light waited.
Alana began to feel foolish. For a brief second, she hoped that this was all a hoax—that the great secret behind the rulers of the world was that there was no oracle, no predestined caste called the Dying, only an illusion constructed to maintain royal authority.
But no—her father’s prediction had been accurate, and she’d seen the truth in his eyes.
She bent down to study the box more closely. In addition to the Great Seal, there were lesser symbols engraved above the thing’s mouths. Over the smaller one was a picture of a human hand with one finger extended. The larger had yet another picture of a human skull.
Tentatively, tensing every muscle to keep her hand from shaking, Alana extended her index finger and slid it into the smaller mouth.
There came a sharp sting, as if from a wasp, and she jerked her hand back. A tiny bead of blood was welling up at the tip of her finger.
On the box, the light changed from red to amber. The glass-walled chamber filled with a soft whirring noise.
Alana didn’t notice. She was staring at the drop of blood, her clenched muscles pumping it bigger and brighter as her mind raced.
She could leave. Right now. It wasn’t too late. She could simply exit the tent and keep walking, convince Tyrus to come with her and start a life somewhere else. Maybe somewhere on the northwestern frontier, deep in the backwater hollows of the Lakelands and far from all empires or monarchies.
Better yet, she could smash the oracle. Without its predictions, there would truly be no difference between royalty and commoners. The box was small—surely she could rip it from its mounting and slam it against the stone floor until its single eye went out.
Yet she had promised. She had promised her father that she would take the oracle’s test and accept the queenship. And she had promised Tyrus a revolution.
Sweet Tyrus. He truly was ready to die for her, and for the idea of democracy, yet he had no idea that those two were now at odds. If she betrayed the revolution—if she betrayed him—would he still love her?
Her father or Tyrus. The monarchy or the revolution. No matter what she chose, she would betray one of them.
Her legs felt weak. She leaned forward until her forehead rested against the cool metal of the box. The engraved seal pressed against her skin, and she increased the pressure until her forehead went numb, as if she might imprint it there permanently, that the whole world might see the burden she carried. Her vision blurred and ran.
It wasn’t fair. It was wrong to make her choose like this, between the love of a daughter and the love of a woman.
The light on the box turned green. With the smallest of sounds, a slip of paper slid out into the wider slot.
Alana stared down at it. The paper jutted slightly from its receptacle, inches from her face.
With her unbloodied hand, Alana reached out and picked it up. Her fingers fumbled numbly as she turned it over.
There was the seal, just as it had been on her father’s prediction. And printed next to it, in the same inhumanly precise letters, were three words:
BEHEADED BY PEASANTS
For a time, Alana did not move, nor breathe.
Then, slowly, she began to smile.
The oracle’s light winked off, but already the box was slipping from Alana’s attention. Sliding the printed paper into the pocket of her dress, she stepped out of the glass box and made her way to the tent flap.
Outside, the clearing was empty, the Keeper nowhere to be seen. That was no matter—imbued with her new sense of purpose, Alana had no doubt that she could find her way back. At the clearing’s edge, she paused momentarily to look back at the little tent. She kissed her fingers and raised a hand toward it—a farewell, and thanks. Then she stepped into the trees. Inside her pocket, a sweaty hand clutched at the prediction.
It was so simple. She had promised a revolution, and there would still be one—sooner rather than later, if Omar and Rhena had their way. But the rebellion was still young and unformed, too reliant on ideals and rhetoric. It needed to mature, to organize, to be tested and fire-hardened. Like any children, the rebels needed something to push against in order to learn. A common enemy to unify them.
Alana could give them that enemy. And in the meantime, she would keep her word to her father, preparing the people of the empire to stand on their own.
Tyrus wouldn’t like it, but he would understand. Running away together had never really been an option. The acknowledgment hurt, yet it was a good pain, the burden of choice lifting off of her. This was what it meant to be of the Dying: to see your path, and to walk it anyway. She and Tyrus had both sworn they’d sacrifice for the cause—this was just a different type of sacrifice. The freedom they both championed couldn’t be given, only won.
When the people were ready, they would rise. And Alana would be there on the gallows to meet them.
The trees opened up. Before her, the colorful tents with their waving pennants spread out across the field, backstopped by the distant sentinels of the towers and the wider world beyond. As dictated by tradition, the entire caravan was waiting for her.
At the front of the assembly stood Tyrus. As she emerged from the grove, he stepped forward to meet her. “Your Highness! On behalf of the Appalachian Empire, I hereby—”
Alana silenced him with a kiss. For once caught completely off guard, he tensed, arms flapping awkwardly at his sides. Just as he began to relax and surrender to the impropriety, she broke off and pulled back to meet his eyes.
“Do you trust me? No matter what?”
Flushed and flustered, he said, “You know I do.”
“Would you die with me?”
Eyes wide with alarm. “Of course. But—”
“Good,” she said, and stopped any further words with another kiss. “Remember that.”
Before he could say anything else, she turned and moved toward her people. A makeshift stage had been erected, complete with a podium.
Strange how the stages for coronations and executions looked so similar. From atop it, Alana could see the entire assembly. Looking out over that sea of faces, some rapturous, others guarded and secretly resentful, she knew that the oracle had been right. Abdication wasn’t a revolution. The people needed to take power for themselves, and that meant playing her part.
She would be a queen. For as long as she had to.
Back straight, head high, Alana stepped to the podium and addressed her subjects.