“It is good to see them happy. Your parents would be proud.”
I smiled at Jovian’s words as I watched the people in the courtyard. They were laughing with their children and eating their fill.
It was the only place that still looked beautiful — here inside the castle gates. So, I had them opened for all to enter with a great feast of food set out. It would not heal the people of course, but it was a start, and for the first time, I saw hope on these faces and only thought it good instead of foolish. I had a lot of work ahead of me, but for now, I enjoyed the celebration.
But there were the few who glanced at me with fear as I passed. Jovian told me it was because of what I’d done, coming back to life and all that. And those who had witnessed Marqis’ death avoided me with wary looks in the corner of their eyes. But though I wished they did not look at me that way, it was fine that they did. I would prove my good reign with time and all would be well.
All would be well.
“How did you know?” I asked Jovian, turning to face him after nodding a return to one who bowed as I passed.
He knew what I was talking about. “I didn’t know, per se, but something your father said a long time ago... I suspected the Stone would be quite angry indeed with you being killed as you were.”
“You speak of the Grey Stone as if it has feelings.” As I spoke, I felt the texture of the Stone in my fingers as I slipped my bare hand into the pocket of my golden robe. The Grey Stone block had not been the Stone itself, but an extension of it. The Stone had been found in the rubble, tiny, grey, and perfectly round on every side like a pearl. It had not completely destroyed itself, only destroyed its casing.
And its link to Marqis.
Jovian chuckled. “You cannot think something so powerful as the Grey Stone does not have some manner of intelligence, Meira.”
I frowned. “It does?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Does it?”
I nearly rolled my eyes but stopped myself just in time, remembering that queens weren't supposed to do that. In the meantime, I stood straighter, at the reminder.
But Jovian’s question was simple, and my mind went to the voice I’d heard from the Bloodstone, which was now silent and dull in the back of my mind, making it difficult to believe it had ever been so powerful.
Hard to believe that it had caused so much rage in me. So much bloodlust. I had not been myself as I had killed those people and the moment the magic of the Bloodstone left me, I’d been horrified at what I had done to the knights. I had killed them. Worse? I had relished in their deaths.
It terrified me.
Yes. Yes, the Bloodstone did have intelligence. So perhaps they all did.
As if knowing where my thoughts had gone, Jovian spoke more quietly. “That was not like you, after you woke from the dead, I mean. You killed those men without thought, I saw you wield the Bloodstone as if it were something... something else. Terrifying.”
My other hand slipped into my other pocket and curled around the Bloodstone as he spoke, clenching it tightly, though my voice was casual on my reply. “Marqis had just killed me. I was angry.”
“No...” his voice was suddenly careful. “You were something more.”
I said nothing though I obviously knew that he was correct. Kill him! it had shouted into my mind. Two words whispered even as it screamed, bloodthirsty and filled with as much rage as I had on my own.
I wondered how much of that last fight had truly been me and knew that most of it had not been. Yes, I'd wanted Marqis dead of course, but...
It didn’t matter now. Marqis was dead and there were no other Beoworth’s under him. The Black Stone has been recovered and handled carefully, wrapped and locked away in my own chambers so it could not be used or bound to anyone ever again.
I would find a better place at a later time, perhaps when Arion returned, which would be only in a day or two. Even now, my people were wrapping Marqis’ body with webbing to better burn him on his pyre, which would be set upon the balcony at the end of this very celebration.
It would be a glorious moment.
“Meira...” Jovian’s voice was hesitant. “It is said the Bloodstone can be... addictive.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m not addicted to power, Jovian, surely you know me better than that.”
“Then why do you have it clutched in your fingers still?”
It was true. It was small against my palm, but hot from how long I had been holding it. I clutched it tighter at Jovian’s words.
“It isn’t safe to have laying around. Not until we’re sure we have the last of the Beoworth cousins found and set inside the dungeons.”
“But the Black Stone is fine to have hidden away?” His tone told me I wasn’t fooling him. “Mir, you have the power of three Stones at your disposal, not to mention the Ruberous Faun—”
“Which I have yet to find,” I reminded him. There had been many hours between when I had passed out on the roof to when I had woken on the way to the gate, and I suspected that during that time, the Ruberous was hidden.
But I could not find it, and the castle was a very large place filled with hidden passages, hidden rooms, loose stones for hiding things and areas dimmed by many of his mages. It could be some time before it was found, but it made me nervous not having it with me.
My fingers itched for it. I gripped the Bloodstone instead.
“If you are not drawn to its power, then may I see it?”
I swallowed, a bit nervously. “I cannot, but not for the reasons you think, Jovi. I... I feel safer with it on me. Knowing it is with me comforts me, and it was the Bloodstone that allowed me to kill Marqis.”
“But without Marqis, there is no danger.” He took my shoulders in his hands, letting go of his cane to do so. Despite his age and shrunken appearance, I still had to look up to see his face.
He looked younger, I realized. It had been a single night, and yet he already looked younger, healthier, and more at ease then I ever remembered him being. Perhaps it was the white robe of a mage around his body, or perhaps it was that he no longer hid his face beneath a hood in the sunshine, but I suspected that the true reason was that he had slept last night better than he had in nearly twenty years.
But his face was serious and worried. “You have no reason to hold the Bloodstone on you, Meira. You are safe now. I am asking you to give me the Stone. I will put it away and return it to you if it is ever needed again.”
“And I will inform Arion of its location in case something happens to me before that day,” he continued on. “There is no reason for you to hold onto the Stone unless you simply cannot let it go.”
He was right, of course. There were many dangers, but all were of taxes, poverty, Eastwood spreading, healing the land, feeding the people, rebuilding... nothing that would require a Bloodstone. Nothing at all.
But it took more effort than I had expected to pull my hand from my pocket. Jovian pulled a piece of linen from his robe and held it out in his palm for me to place it in, but I clenched it tighter for a moment.
I am safe. I reminded myself. Marqis is dead. I am safe.
I opened my palm and looked at the Stone, the red ribbons in it seemed to move a moment, as if it were alive.
But of course, that’s exactly what it was.
I turned my hand to drop it into the linen with a deep breath, my heart pounding.
I clenched my hand around it again as I turned to the voice. It was a voice that had me putting my other hand to my waist for my sword... but of course, it wasn’t there. I wore a dress now, one of fine silk and woven glowsilk. “What is it?”
The knight stopped before me, his face red from the exertion of running, his hands clenched tightly at his sides. There was something in his eyes that made me know, somehow, exactly what he was going to say, no matter how impossible it was.
Impossible? I almost laughed; I had returned from the dead. Nothing was impossible.
But laughing was not a possibility right then. I waited for the knight to say the words I knew he was going to say as I slipped the Bloodstone back into my pocket. I slipped it there, because I knew that I was going to need it.
“He’s... he’s missing, Your Majesty. I don’t know how. He was there one moment, then we turned around and he was just gone.” He swallowed nervously. “Many are dead. I don’t understand what... how...”
Jovian’s voice was sharp. ”Who, boy?”
But of course, I knew, and answered for the young knight. “Marqis.” I swallowed. “And as for how...”
I thought back through that red haze of Marqis before I killed him. Slapping his hand over his open mouth, swallowing audibly and with strain.
Shenz the stupid genius!
“He must have swallowed the gem. It’s the only possibility,” I said, my voice dull. “That’s why we haven’t been able to find it.”
As Jovian sent guards to frantically search the castle, to evacuate the court, to find him, find him now... a hundred white dragons lifted off and swirled into the sky, then more and more. The people around the yard started and screamed at the sight. Jovian cursed in a way I had never heard from him. The knights clenched their swords and ran off toward the rooftops.
But I knew, as I watched them disappear out of sight, that Marqis was gone.
But he would be back with the power of the Black Stone, and the Ruberous.
Someday, he would be back.
I narrowed my eyes and clenched my hand around the three Stones in my pocket as I watched the last of the dragons move out of sight.
I would just have to be sure that I was ready for him.