My name is Justice Revelation Merriwell, and I begin this record on the blackest day of the year: my sixteenth birthday, and the day of my father’s death.
My father, Hallam Merriwell, was first General and High Enforcer for all Albion and then its Lord Protector. I, his second daughter and the youngest of his four children, lie curled on my hard pallet in my cold stone tower room in the fortress where we have lived these past fifteen years, and I listen to the deep bells toll his passing. The sun has not yet risen today; I know not if it ever will again.
My earliest memory is of my father. He was still Enforcer, then, and I less than six years of age. Some might have wondered that he brought so young a child on his work—but my father said we were never too young to witness the Lord’s work. My older brothers, Daniel and Oliver, had both fought by his side in the bloodiest days of Albion’s history, after all, though they were then but twelve and thirteen. Now, five years after Albion’s civil war had finally ended, my father brought me and my older sister Prudence on his mission to cleanse a nest of heretics.
“Stay still and hold thy tongue throughout, Justice, and be my good little maid as ever,” he said. We rode out through the great gates of the fortress, underneath the sharp spikes of the raised portcullis and the black of the night sky. “And thou, Prue, take heed of what you see here.”
“Yes, Father.” Prudence rode a little behind us, her head drooping in unspoken resentment.
I only nodded in my father’s arms, too overwhelmed to speak my own assent. We rode in the head of a procession of my father’s soldiers, grim-faced all beneath their iron helmets in the dark. I sat safe before my father on his massive white stallion, trembling with pride and fear and holding the box of holy fire balanced on the polished pommel of the saddle with all my infant care.
The call had come to Londinium just as twilight faded. We rode through the darkness into deepest night, and I would surely have slept if I had not been so frightened of losing my precious charge. In later years, I tried to puzzle out where that journey took us, which part of Albion could have stayed so green and fair and wild even in January’s chill. But as a child, all I cared was that I not shame my father’s trust. I no longer remember what signs we passed, or which of the villages we rode through, rebuilding themselves after the long and painful years of war.
But I remember our destination. I remember riding in my father’s arms onto the village green just before dawn, while the dance was still wild on the grass. I remember the colors that scarred themselves into my astonished eyes, the garish whirls of gold and green. I remember the figures that mingled together, the human heretics with the Others. I remember the yellow eyes that flashed in shock as my father’s men encircled them, the wings that sparkled iridescence.
“You see?” my father said to me and Prue, as his soldiers took their places. He shook his head, his face stern and pale. “Satan still walks amongst us, despite all our prayers and the spilt blood of the war.”
The music did not fade but ended in a sudden splitting wail as my father’s soldiers rode into the clearing, and the dancing stopped.
“Justice,” my father whispered.
I handed him the iron box I’d carried so faithfully. My hands were shaking. I wonder, now, that I found the strength.
The screams had already begun, by then. Children my own age darted, shrieking, for escape, but the circle of horsemen hemmed them in. Wings fluttered, but could find no space to take flight in the tight mass. A pair of yellow eyes met mine in panicked appeal. I gripped the pommel of the saddle.
Above me, my father opened the box.
I squeeze my eyes shut, now, and huddle into my pallet. The smell of holy fire fills my senses again as I remember.
Two days after I handed my father the holy fire, I had my first fit.
I was pale, small and sickly, with lank black hair and nervous fits. No proper daughter for the Lord Protector of all Albion, many might have said. While hopeful suitors have always hovered about my sister Prudence, none have ever glanced at me.
But my father always understood. As I shook that first night on the stone floor of my bedroom, bloody froth cooling against my face and my mother’s maids shrieking and whispering of deviltry, my father took me in his strong arms. He rocked me back and forth, his broad chest shaking with unshed tears, and he whispered into my hair,
“This is no fault but my own.”
I looked into his eyes, but they were wide and glazed and did not see me. They were looking too deep into his own past to let me in. After the mission of a few nights’ past, I could guess, for the first time, what he might see there. And I knew, though no one else has ever guessed, why my father gave me my name, in the bloody height of war.
It was not justice against his enemies he summoned, but justice against himself.
The pallet is hard and thin beneath my shivering body. My father’s advisors wait in the great council room below, where he made all his decisions with the grim certainty that Albion needed. There was no space, in that room, for his doubts and private guilt.
But now there is nothing else.
Portents and premonitions haunted the seven nights before his death. Thunderstorms ripped across Albion, uprooting five-hundred-year-old trees and lifting the roofs off churches. Two-headed lambs were born in nearby farms, and devilish laughter like silver bells sounded in the still night air. Two forces fought in those seven nights, and I know not which one of them won.
This morning, on his deathbed, my father Hallam Merriwell made his will, before all his children and the top ministers of the Republic. He chose his successor and started us all on a strange new path in Albion’s history.
Today I, Justice Revelation Merriwell, shall be proclaimed Albion’s Lord High Protectress, and I am more afraid than I have ever been before in my life.
II. The First Day
“This is a travesty!” My brother Oliver’s voice rages through the thick wooden door of the council chamber as I approach it. “Our father lost his head at the last. You cannot think to—”
“The Lord Protector was clear in his right mind until the end, as all can attest.” It is the voice of John Parkinson, my father’s chief advisor and the head of his Council of Saints. John sounds grave and calm as ever, despite the force of my brother’s bellows.
I stop still in the stone corridor outside the room, before the helmeted guards who protect it. They gaze back at me, expressionless, and we listen together.
“She’s but a girl. A maudlin, sickly one at that. She has no military, no political experience.”
“Your father trusted you and Daniel to provide the first, and myself and the rest of the Council to give her the second.”
“So you think a sixteen-year-old, inexperienced, female—”
“I think the Lord Protector’s wishes were clear. And he did not choose your sister on a whim, but after long and painful considerations and prayer.” John Parkinson pauses. I wish I could see into the room, to glimpse the looks that are exchanged. “Albion,” John says heavily, “is about to suffer a storm such as none of us have seen since the Civil War. It was your father’s true belief that your younger sister was the single person best suited to steer us through that storm.”
A cold wind blows through my black cloth gown, lifts my heavy skirts and scrapes my ankles with its teeth. It has ever been fiercely drafty in this fortress. But it is all I can remember. When I was eight years of age, and my father named himself Lord Protector of Albion, everyone expected him to move into one of the palaces left behind by the heretic king and his unholy brood. My father could even have named himself king, and many would have rejoiced in it, my brothers first among them.
“I served my father these past twenty years and more,” Oliver says. “I fought his battles. I did his will. What possible—no!” I hear the crash of a fist against thick wood. “I will not lower myself to ask it.”
I see again my brothers’ grins beneath their iron helmets as my father released the holy fire upon the heretics.
I do not know how to rule Albion. But I know what it is my father expected from me and feared my brothers would not give.
I lift the hem of my plain black gown and sweep past the guards into the council chamber, as commandingly as I can sweep, thin and shivering. I pray not to be taken by a fit. Not here, not now.
“My Lady Justice,” says John Parkinson, smiling, and he steps forward to meet me. “Are you well and ready to be presented before your people this day?”
The small, diamond-shaped stone chamber is full of watching faces, lit by flickering torches. Oliver turns away from me, his face dark, nursing his fist. I see blood drip from it onto the cold stone floor. My brother Daniel stands beside Oliver and meets my gaze, but I cannot read his face. The other six councilors of my father’s Council of Saints stand behind John Parkinson, smiling and bowing before me. I wonder how many of them would echo my brother’s words.
A storm is coming, I think.
The wind is colder than ever around me.
“Yes,” I say to John Parkinson. “I am ready.”
III. The Second Day
“Justice,” a voice whispers in my ear. “Justice....”
I twist and turn in my nightmare. The holy fire is burning down our fortress, catching on my father’s body. I see his eyes flash open as the fire sweeps across his close-cropped grey hair and engulfs him.
A scream gathers in my throat. I run toward him, struggling in my heavy skirts. He rises within the fire and turns to look at me. But his eyes shine yellow in the blaze....
“Justice!” Prue’s face looks down into mine as I start up in my cot, panting and shivering. She shakes her head and sits down beside me, taking me in her arms.
I shudder in her embrace, unable to speak. She tucks her chin into my loose hair and holds me, rocking me back and forth. Below us, I hear men’s angry voices and the clank of iron. A brace of candles lights the room. Outside, through the narrow window, the sky is dark.
“The sun still hasn’t come out yet, you know,” Prue says dreamily. “There are some saying now that it never will. That Albion lost its light when the heretic king was murdered, and only our father’s will kept the sun from fleeing until now.”
“No,” I whisper. I shake my head against her soft shoulder, breathing in the scent of lavender water and some other fragrance I cannot recognize. “He carried out God’s will. You know he did. He cleansed Albion of the abominations.”
Even as I speak, I feel a chill of premonition.
We’ve been free of the Others for so long. But now....
“Our father did what he had to do,” I whisper. “He had no choice.”
“I knew he would choose you,” she says. “I always knew. The way he looked at you in his last days. The way his eyes hardened as he looked at our brothers swaggering in their armor. They want to kill you now, you know. It would make everything so much easier.”
I bite my lip. The unfamiliar scent clinging to her skin is stronger now, filling my senses, making me light-headed. Where did she find a new perfume, in these dark days? Our father was wont to chastise Prue for her vanity, her concern with the material world when our republic was building a new Jerusalem. But I have always found her beautiful.
“It will all be well,” she whispers, and she rocks me back and forth. “They’ve told me so.”
“Daniel and Oliver?” I ask, blinking.
She laughs. But I catch a hint of wildness in it, a cracked note of pain.
“Prue?” I ask. I burrow my face into her shoulder, seeking reassurance. “Prue?”
The door bursts open, and we start apart. John Parkinson strides in, flanked by two soldiers.
“My Lord Protectress.” He bows perfunctorily. “I beg pardon for this intrusion, but you are urgently needed. Your brothers have disappeared and taken a third of the soldiers from our garrison with them. I fear they’ve gone North to raise troops from your father’s lands there.”
“I...understand.” I draw a deep breath as I rise. The cold wind blows through my thin white nightdress. My bare feet touch stone. I remember riding on Oliver’s shoulders as a little girl and clinging to his curling dark hair. I remember Daniel’s laugh. Oh, my brothers....
I taste fire at the back of my throat. My vision blurs.
No, I tell myself. Not now. I cannot! I am the Lord Protectress.
I force the fit back, though the strength of it makes me stagger. Prue knows the signs of danger, but she is not looking at me. Her gaze is fixed on the narrow window set high in the stone wall, no wider than an arrow, and on the black sky outside. Her body is a pure arc of yearning.
I fist my hands at my side. “I will come to the Council Chamber as soon as I am dressed and ready, sir.”
“I fear it cannot wait so long.” John Parkinson looks me directly in the eyes, and his voice grows hoarse. “You see, my Lady Justice, it is worse than you think. We’ve heard—we’ve been sent warning—”
He takes a deep breath. For all his age and experience, fear shows plain in his face. “The heretic king’s half-breed son makes ready to cross the waters to us,” he says. “And he brings the sunlight with him.”
I move to step forward. My foot hangs high in the air for what seems a long time as the words repeat themselves over and over in my ears. And then it falls, and I am falling, falling, into a deep pit of flames, and a true fit is upon me.
The fit lasts only a quarter of an hour, leaving me drained and aching but still grimly capable. I pull myself up from it, assume a mask of calm composure, and walk into the Council chamber downstairs as if nothing has gone amiss.
The news pours in all day, from every corner of the republic, and makes a mockery of all my efforts. I swore an oath to my father, as he lay dying, to protect his country. Now my father’s new Jerusalem is shattering in my hands.
Oliver and Daniel have raised their flag in two counties already, riding at breakneck speed. They spread the story that our father’s true deathbed wishes were twisted by his scheming advisors, who hoped to seize power through my weakness. Albion will be corrupted at its core, they say, if Oliver does not seize its reins. Hundreds of men have already left their homes and farms in righteous anger, answering his cry for justice.
But not everyone flocks to Oliver’s standard. For as every child of the Civil War knows, there have always been the Others, shadowing our footsteps, bending our dreams to their own blasphemous desires. They have not given up influencing the world of men, even after fifteen years of godly rule.
And in the dark and decadent days before the war, a king of Albion even married one....
I spend the whole day giving orders for my father’s burial, gathering the news that flies in faster than we can understand it, making plans for the battle that we cannot avoid. Writing letters begging aid from all my father’s old supporters. Telling myself and my soldiers what my father would have said, in my place: The Lord will provide for us, His shining flock. Those who are righteous shall ever overcome.
But when I finally fall into bed that night, weak and shivering with exhaustion, the reassurances I’ve mouthed all taste bitter in my throat.
“He brings the sun,” Prue whispers to me.
We share a bed, for I cannot bring myself to sleep alone. I feel my father’s accusing eyes on me from every dark corner. Watching the ruin of all his hopes. It must be well past midnight by now, but who can tell by reading the sky?
“It is naught but a trick,” I whisper back. But my voice scrapes raw against my throat.
It has been black as pitch since my father’s death. Near forty-eight hours. When will I see my way clear again?
“A fine trick, to stop the sun from rising in the sky,” Prue says. Her sigh ruffles against my cheek. “Oh, Justice, you must miss it as well. The sun on your face, the warmth of the day....”
“What would you have me do?” I struggle up through the heavy bedcovers to sit upright, despite the chill. “Give up our father’s dream forever? Invite the half-breed prince to enter our fortress at his will? Give up every principle our country fought for and say the losses of the war were all for naught? How could I face our father’s people then?”
By the time I was a child, the Others had lost their power in Albion and been reduced to exile or to fearful secrecy, their unholy rites subject to the holy fire that won the war for us. But I know the stories, passed on by adults—strong men who wept as they remembered the past. They told stories of our churches set aflame with worshippers locked inside, while the rulers who should have protected them made merry playing at masques and enchanted banquets with their murderers. They told stories of children stolen from their families and replaced by malevolent changelings, who bit and clawed and committed atrocities against animals, siblings and even their foster parents, before finally disappearing without warning. No recourse was ever granted to their suffering families, for only the children of the poor were ever stolen; the nobles, petted and cosseted by the Others, were free from their incursions and only whipped the peasants for their complaints.
Half our generals in the Civil War had lost a child to the Others. One general also lost his right hand, punished by the unholy Queen for daring to publish his family’s sorrows to the world in a printed pamphlet.
“Not all the people would hate you for it.” Prue’s voice is soft and wistful. “Do you not remember the dance we saw, when we were children? The whirl of light across the green?”
My breath stops in my throat. I peer down through the darkness, but I cannot make out my sister’s lovely face.
My voice trembles as I speak. “It is heresy to think on it, Prue.”
“Then more than half the country must be burned.”
“Our father is dead, and his joy-starved vision of Albion with him.”
“You cannot mean that.”
Prue sighs. “Good night, Justice.”
But she does not speak again. Eventually, I lie back down and close my eyes beside her. Her even breathing fills my ears.
She is lost and melancholy, nothing more. I tell myself so, nearly sobbing it. She only says those things to shock me. She cannot mean them.
I remember the women on the green. I remember the blaze of holy fire on their gowns. I remember their screams in my ears.
After hours of turmoil, sleep wraps around me like a shroud.
Silvery laughter echoes in my ears. Dead, dead, dead....
“No!” I jerk awake, panting. I reach for Prue’s reassuring warmth.
But the mattress beside me is empty, and Prue has disappeared.
IV. The Third Day
Is this what it felt like inside the heretic king’s grand palace in the last days of the Civil War? This muffled panic, this terror that lurks in corners, shows in the whites of the soldiers’ eyes, and sounds in every voice, every whisper? This knowledge, written plain in the air between us: we cannot win.
My sister is gone. My brothers are gone. And they are not the only ones.
“Two hundred soldiers left during the night,” John Parkinson tells me.
Purple shadows bruise the wrinkled skin beneath his eyes. We stand together in the central guardroom, crowded with soldiers and stinking with rancid sweat. I note, as I look around their pale faces, that only three councilors stand behind John Parkinson now. The others must have fled as well. To Oliver? Or....
My voice is steady. I know not why. This past night’s weeping should have shredded and torn it apart forever. “Do we know which way the soldiers have gone?”
“Half to your brother’s cause, I think. The others, to the coast.”
The coast. Which coast, I need not ask. The half-breed prince has lived across the water these past fifteen years, his fey mother charming the dotard neighbor king.
I turn and start to pace, if only to avoid John Parkinson’s steady gaze.
“The Hibernians? Could we muster any help there?”
“Oliver’s troops block our path to the North.”
“Any foreign powers—”
“Would take too long to answer any call.” He snorts. “To say nothing of how long they might then take to leave, if once they were successful on these shores.”
“There must be some way,” I say. “There must! We are the only keepers of the holy fire, here in this fortress. Surely—surely!—that must count for something.”
He sighs. “What would you have us do with it? It could have no effect on your brother’s army, unless….” His thick, white eyebrows rise. “If you have reason to suspect your brothers’ own parentage—if you think they, themselves, might secretly be—?”
“No! No, of course not.” I almost laugh, despite the gravity of our situation. How Oliver and Daniel would roar at that suggestion! “But still—”
“Then the holy fire can only aid us against one of the two armies that confronts us. And if we turn it upon the Others, Oliver’s men will have no obstacle. They will sweep over us like a flood.”
I turn and face him. “What can we yet do?”
“Do?” John Parkinson shakes his head slowly. Behind him, the other three councilors look down. None of them will meet my eyes. “Forgive me, my Lord Protectress,” John Parkinson says, and he sinks to his knees on the cold stone floor. “I have failed in my duty to you. I have dishonored my oaths to your father, indeed.”
“No.” Tears clog my throat. Useless tears, here in this room. I move forward and place my hand on his white hair. This man directed some of my first steps when I was small. Now I help him to his feet. “It is not you who has failed.”
His eyes glisten, too, as he stands. “If you turn yourself over to your brother’s army, you will surely be executed. Oliver will not withstand a rival to his power. Perhaps, if you surrender to the half-breed prince and beg for mercy, a bloodless exile—”
“No,” I say. “That, I cannot do.”
“Then....” He heaves a sigh. “We can hold this fortress for at least a week. There are those in Londinium loyal to your father’s memory, who will supply us with food in these next few hours to store against a siege.”
I cannot hold back the bitter twist of my lips. “And what good would any of that do?”
“What good?” He meets my eyes. “Lady, your father chose you as his successor for a reason. He believed you were the ruler that Albion needed in this troubled time. Surely we can give him the benefit of our trust, for a few more days at least. Much may happen in the space of a week. Will you give up your own life without a struggle?”
I look at him, blinking through my haze of pain and despair.
If—when—Oliver takes us, John Parkinson and the other loyal councilors will be executed along with myself. I know that as well as he, although he has been too kind to say it.
I will not let my despair end their lives any sooner than it must.
My voice sounds thin and choked when I speak. “Let the soldiers choose for themselves,” I say. “Let those who wish to flee leave now, in good faith. I will not have them stay to be murdered for a cause they cannot support. But let food and bandages be stockpiled through the day, and close the gates”—I almost say, at nightfall, but it is always night now—”before midnight. We will hold my father’s fortress until the last.”
“My Lord Protectress,” John Parkinson murmurs.
The other councilors bow their heads behind him.
I wonder whether their hidden expressions show more relief or terror.
V. The Fourth Day
I have lived in this fortress for fifteen years, but it never felt like a prison until now.
Last night I wandered the stone passages, unable to sleep. Seventy-five soldiers remained in the end, from the six hundred who had been quartered here until a few days ago. Guards stood at the end of each corridor, stiff and pale. When I passed, they bowed before me with a look in their eyes that I found more terrifying than any advancing army.
It was a look of faith. Of trust. Of loyalty.
I am their Lord Protectress. And there is nothing I can do for them.
“Your father chose you for a reason.”
I sit huddled on my cot now, in the middle of another sunless day. There are no noises below my room today. There are too few soldiers left for that. No one shouts or argues. There is no use.
We sit, and we wait. And that is all we can do.
My father chose me for a reason.
I wrap my arms around my knees and rock back and forth. I want Prue by me, with her flowery, wild scent and her soft embrace. I want my father, more than anything else. I want my father, Hallam Merriwell, here to be the Lord Protector, unquestioning and certain and strong.
But my father was never truly certain. And I was the symbol of all his secret fears and doubts.
“Justice,” I whisper to the empty room. “I was supposed to bring Albion justice.”
What justice is there to be brought to a land torn in two jagged parts? Half of it marches to Oliver’s standard, and half looks to the coast, dreaming of unearthly beauty. Harsh retribution could rule the day, or else gilded corruption and lost faith. My fortress is only one tiny sliver nestled between the two camps—shining with meaning, indeed, to every man who loved my father, but still far too small to be a meaningful force. Unless it could somehow tip the balance...
“Justice,” my father whispered, before he unleashed the holy fire. But two nights later, I felt his sobs.
When the fit comes upon me, for once, I welcome the release. As my limbs lash out around me, my mind floats high above my writhing body and foaming mouth. There are no maids here to help or hold me; they have all fled, with my blessings. One of them left a ring of golden flowers on my pillow—as apology? As prayer?
When I come back to myself, my arms and legs are sprawled at odd angles across the stone floor. Tears dampen my cheeks; a speck of blood marks the floor by my mouth. Every muscle aches. Through the window, I see only darkness.
I pull myself up, though my body is heavy and unwilling. Broken. Broken, since my youth. Broken, like my father’s country.
I know what would be easiest to do, if I had not sworn an oath.
I walk up the long, wide steps to the tallest watchtower. Two soldiers stand atop it, looking out into the darkness. They start when they see my wild, disordered appearance.
“My Lord Protectress—”
“All is well,” I tell them, through numb lips. “Go now. I wish to be alone.”
They clatter down the steps, reluctant but obedient. From their agitated whispers, I know I haven’t much time. They are sure to alert my chief councilor.
But there is still time enough.
I look out over the darkened land. Shadows of hedgerows and trees mark the fields. The tall buildings of Londinium rise in the distance. To the west lies the coast. To the north, my brother’s army.
Everything would be made so much easier if just one piece of the puzzle was removed. Two equal parties, left to fight each other for power and revenge.
But Albion has had enough of civil war and its aftermath. My father knew that, even if my brothers still do not.
There are times when the act of healing can be the most dangerous choice of all.
John Parkinson must have run all the way. He bursts up onto the tower, his hair disordered, panting for breath.
“My Lady Justice, I beg you, do not—”
“John,” I say. I move forward, through the darkness, and I take his hand. “I have made my decision.”
“No.” The sudden power in my voice stops his protest. I draw my shoulders back. I hold my head high. “I am your Lord Protectress, am I not?”
“Yes....” He watches me. In the faint and sickly moonlight, I see both the fear and the sudden spark of desperate hope in his weary face.
“I need you to send a trusted messenger for me, skilled in negotiation,” I say. “I know what it is my father needed me to do.”
V. The Fifth Day
I wait with my soldiers in the front hall of the fortress. They press around me, fearful but brave. No betrayal of faith will harm me today. Only my own choices rule us now.
I understand, today, as we wait, how terrifying it must have been for my father when he took power for himself. How soul-quaking to take on all responsibility, and bear every ounce of guilt and failure.
The thunder of horses’ hooves sounds through the closed and heavy gate. An army is approaching.
“My Lord Protectress,” John Parkinson says, beside me. He touches my arm and looks at me with respect and fear. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” I say, and I raise my voice so that all can hear. “Raise the gates.”
This is not a decision my father could have made. This is not a risk he could have borne to take, after the losses of the war.
But it is the only choice I can make for myself, in memory of him.
Ten soldiers work together to pull back the first set of iron-bound wooden doors. Metal squeals with effort as the heavy portcullis rises beyond them, one labored inch at a time.No speck of iron must be allowed to brush even a single hair on the newcomers’ heads, or all our effort, and days of fraught negotiation, will have been for nothing.
My fortress of soldiers, bulwarked by the power of the title my father left me, forms only a sliver of moral and physical force in comparison to either of the two equal armies that gather around us. But by allying my father’s legacy to one of those armies, I can tip the scales of power in all Albion.
If I have chosen wrongly, I may yet destroy us all.
The portcullis rises, revealing a second set of doors beyond. Soldiers step forward. They push open the doors to let in the fresh air.
Gold and silver flash on the horses of the waiting army. Sunshine floods upon us, and the men around me gasp and step back, blinking. I do not. I cannot let myself react to the light. It has no greater power than the solidity of this fortress, the weight of the land, the stone that supported my father and his people all these years.
One man rides at the head of the army, clad in velvet and jewels. He swings himself down from his prancing horse and steps forward, one hand at his waist, long, dark curls hanging down his back. His eyes meet mine: long-lashed and deep brown, as lovely as a woman’s. But I see the glint of yellow hidden in the corner of his left eye, and I know it for the truth: he is anything but human.
In the moment that my eyes meet his, I think: I was mad to ever conceive this plan. My feet start backward, of their own volition.
In the alien yellow of his eye, I see all the stories of the war and the misery that caused it.
If I scream, my own soldiers will leap into action. I may be killed, but so will he—and Oliver’s soldiers, sweeping through the wreckage, will turn this country into the harshly purified land promised to the faithful by the war’s commanders, my father foremost among them all.
But a land ripped in half can never be healed or whole again.
I step forward, hands trembling in my plain black skirts. I reach out, and John Parkinson presses a heavy box into my hand.
I am no longer five years old. But this box seems to press just as heavily in my hand now as it did on that night long ago, when I first came to understand my name, and my purpose.
“I bring a gift to you and your people,” I say to the half-breed prince, and I pass him the holy fire that won the Civil War. “That you may never again be forced into hiding, oppression and unjust exile.”
The yellow-brown eyes widen. The long, pale hands reach toward me to accept the box. I feel every soldier behind me tense as one, all eyes upon our greatest weapon, our most lethal defense, suitable only for an enemy unworthy of mercy or even justice itself.
The half-breed prince looks up from the box. His lips curve into a smile I find hard to read. If he were mortal, I would name it relief, mixed with amusement. If he were mortal....
“My Lord Protectress,” he murmurs. “You’ve kept your bargain. I bear a gift for you, as well.”
He passes the box back to his second-in-command, and a sigh of relief ripples through the men behind me. I hold myself still, waiting. The prince snaps his fingers, and one of his soldiers hurries to his side, holding a silken bag. The prince reaches inside, and withdraws a golden circlet.
“Equal measure,” the prince says. “You have my oath upon it. That neither may be allowed to rule alone, and neither be disregarded or afraid.”
“Amen,” I say, as I take the crown.
Albion has never seen believers and Others take hands in faithful partnership. Albion has never seen a queen with the power of a king. But my father taught me to have faith in a force stronger than worldly probabilities, and to believe in more than can ever be seen by the merely material eye.
My name is Justice Revelation Merriwell, and this is the last day of my reign as Lord High Protectress of all Albion.
Tonight, I will become Albion’s queen and Albion’s full and equal co-ruler, ready and able to protect one half of the country against the other, and to ensure justice for all. Together, in partnership, we will build a new Jerusalem.
I am as frightened now as I have ever been. But I take a deep breath, and I step out of my father’s fortress.