Preview - Chapter One
Part One: The Missing Oracle
For anyone else, lunch and the end of the world were always mutually exclusive. Not for Mabel. Those two thoughts had been praying on her mind for as long as she could remember. The second she could have done without. She would have much rather been plagued by the rumblings of her stomach rather than the visions she’d received. Every night tossing, turning, mind flooded with images no one should ever have to see. War-torn plains, children overturned. Gutted. Lying in ditches with the innards exposed to an uncaring world. Some nights they engulfed her, so when she awoke, she couldn’t tell what was real. The satin curtains of her room were hurricanes, her bed sheets golden storms.
While her country was always plunged in light – the Sol never left the sky – she was always trapped in the dark. The dark of those prophecies, those truths she couldn’t forget. However much she tried.
Peering down into her empty glass of rutyon, she gulped back the bile in her throat. When that didn’t work, she focused on the hardwood countertop, the cloth being driven repeatedly over the stains of alcohol. Some said day drinking at the age of thirteen wasn’t the best idea, and most of the time, when she was tucked away at the Palace, she agreed. But those Royals weren’t Oracles. They hadn’t been blessed by some uncaring God to lie awake every night in fear of what they would see when they closed their eyes. There was no God she felt she could pray to, find solace in, despite being halfway through her ordination to the church. Once, a few years ago, she had asked her overseer, Bishop Morde, if she could commission a shrine for the Lady of the Gods. She’d only heard of the entity in passing, a grimy name partly scribbled over in one of the ancient prayer books. Bishop Morde had laughed, a roiling snort, that still shook her soul when she thought of it. Only alcohol could dull the sound. Pity her she’d drained her drink dry. Waving her off he’d said,
“There are no female Gods”. She’d wanted to spit in his face. She could have spun him an entire thesis saying otherwise. She might have done, if not for the part she was playing. Of the clueless girl, the political pawn. It was easy – too easy – to float along, meeting her family’s every expectation. No one knew who she really was. Some days, she didn’t know either.
Mabel sighed, scoring a line down her cheek with a nail. The stale air of the Andante District clogged around her neck, but she didn’t feel as suffocated as she did within the Palace. In Bora, where a single word from her mouth was a month’s worth of gossip. Even within the hushed tones of the Joratt, a run-down drinking area and her favourite haunt, she could still feel the burning of a thousand royal eyes on her back.
Mabel rubbed a smooth palm over her face, scowling as she caught sight of the Jorer’s calloused hands. How many glasses had he had to dry? How many had slipped and smashed onto the tiles? How many times had he cut his fingers on the shards? The Jorer’s weary face poured onto hers. She offered him a wan smile. Her disguise, which consisted of a ragged shawl and copper breeches, was bordering on offensive. Besides, everyone knew her face. The Wrong Princess. One Royal had even called her a mistake. Mabel sighed, dunking her nose in the long empty glass, trying to forget who she was. It wasn’t exactly easy. Her father’s tiring habit of breaking the law made sure of that. Like the King, he never knew when to keep his breeches buttoned up.
A snort escaped her lips. She was born of a Sindered Duchess and Bora Prince and here she was, day-drinking in a Joratt when she was supposed to be attending a Conclave. She checked the Sol-dial on the far wall. In about an hour.
Placing a couple of Rups onto the counter for the drink, she picked herself up. The hardwood floors steadied her, but the swirling candles by the door turned her vision to flames. Wax dripped down the walls like blood. A few Travellers stared at her as she pushed aside the wrought iron door and peeled into the pale atmosphere. The Andante District hung between Sinder and Bora like an empty river, with no Sol or Lune to its name. It was a sanctuary, safe from the Royals, home to the wandering nomads and their woolly margresses, baaing and cooing. It was her home too, she realised. Sinder had become her enemy ever since her mother died. Her mother, who’d never asked to be royalty, had been heading to a Conclave to discuss the Peace Treaty – like the one Mabel should have been attending now - but she’d vanished during her journey. Her body had been found in a ditch ten days later.
Mabel slid past the countless woven huts, the red bunting of the camps. Damp clothes hung limp on tangled wires, while fireflies buzzed around the cooking pots. The camps were a recent addition, housing displaced refugees from the two-hundred years war. Heat rising, she stalked past. Past the grime-ridden plates which lay in piles outside the tents. Past the dead flower stalls run by men with withered faces. Withered by life, not by time. The sky bore down upon her, an eggshell grey. Time to go. She shouldn’t have come here, she knew that now. It was too risky. Too much of a reminder of the bloodshed she’d seen – felt – in her visions. She should have stayed in the Church.
“Stay in the Church”. That was her father’s favourite order these days. Stay in the Church. Either that or the ongoing demand for her to choose a suitor. There were many eligible men, he’d claimed, even though she knew half the men he’d picked out were double her age. She’d stopped speaking to him the afternoon he’d suggested Elian. Elian Vorg. The Valiant, servant to the Crown. Her was also her cousin and therefore the perfect choice for a husband. But her father might as well have been asking her to marry her brother. They were, after all, united in blood.
Mabel pulled her shawl tighter around herself, smiling as a little boy dressed in rags toddled over the flattened sand to his mother. She picked him up, swung him around as if he were a sack of flour. That old familiar ache began to burn in her chest. Had her own mother held her the same way? Had she even held her at all? The Sol knew her father hadn’t. He had enough trouble holding his liquor. As she passed a patchwork caravan, a rusty mechanical burst free, squawking the time. Oil slithered off its metal wings, staining the wood red. Like overripe fruit. Her smile dropped. She was going to be late. Hauling up her sagging breeches, she sped for the row of Checkpoints that had sprung up since the war. They huddled around the edge of the District, ornate hawks waiting to swoop. As she started to slow, her footing caught on a string of lanterns and she flew to the floor, inhaling a mouthful of dried grass. She was nothing like her mother had been. Her mother had swung from one Kingdom to the next, blue-black hair arching like a great big wing behind her. Mabel, on the other hand, had as much grace as an ox. Dusting herself off, she retreated to the shadow of a hut. The cream fabric of the building made her russet shawl a walking blood clot. As if she hadn’t been out of place before.
Biting her lip, those words rushed to her head. Those thoughts. The End of Days. That was the vision her mind had been ringing with. For years, years and years, those words were all she’d heard. Everything else had been idle chatter. The Bishops preaching about a world free of Sinders, the countless meetings and poetry readings. Terrible poetry readings. And her father… Ever since he’d exchanged advice about mechanics to dress sense, she’d tuned him out permanently.
Taking a breath, she strode towards the Checkpoints, stopping only to scan the skies for a Bora Royal Hover. There was no guarantee the workers at the Checkpoints would accept her bribes and if they did, they’d probably take the money and kill her anyway. Getting into the Andante District was the easy part. Getting out was almost impossible. The pointed oak of the buildings towered over her, casting jagged shadows along the grass. They swallowed her so deeply that she almost didn’t hear the flickering of the Palace Hover’s wings overhead.
The Palace sent Hovers out twice a day, to survey the land and patrol for threats. Shielding her eyes, she grinned. The Hover was a serpentine slip of gold, manned by a single pilot. One day, she would be that pilot. No matter what her father said. Elian would agree; he always agreed. The propellers of the Hover slowed as she began to wave. Its fins sculled, whiles it scales reflected the small patch of light on the horizon. It didn’t just fly through the air, it danced, curling and swooping, finally settling into an undisturbed glide. Intricate patterns of Yellow Quartz skirted around the main body, while the cupped seats shone.
The End of Days, her mind roared. The End of Days. These past few months, those words had become more persistent, evolving from a whisper to a scream. She blinked them away. When she was certain the Hover could see her, she knew it was time. Time to go home. Or rather the furthest thing she had from one. She flung her arms out like twin paddles, waving frantically. She was going to be so late. Elian would be nibbling his fingers down to cuticles if she didn’t return within the hour. He was more of an overbearing parent than the leader of a fearsome Armada. He clucked like a mother bird scolding troublesome chicks. As the Hover neared its descent, she stepped back. Being late to a Conclave was one thing but getting crushed between those golden propellers was another. The King would never forgive her if she splattered one of his cherished Hovers.
The Rider, from this distance, looked as if he were part of the decorations. His gold-incrusted robes clung to him like snakeskin, while his helmet curled in a vicious sweep around his head. He was young, around Elian’s age. She watched him ease the Hover downwards, pulling the Rod upright to steer. Mabel’s head began to dance. The End of Days was drawing near. Doubling over, she coughed, red spilling onto her shawl. The Rider cried out.
“My Lady!” The Hover sped up, skirting around the landing site like a cautious animal sniffing a meal. Mabel wiped her mouth, smearing a crimson gash across her lips. Oh, how she longed for the King to see her now. The disgust on his face at one of his Royals looking the part of Sindered murderer. She shivered. She could still sense the protrusion of his flab as he’d tried to corner her in the pews two months ago. The Great Bora King. Never had a title been more unsuitable. Stepping further away, she could sense the mist tickling her shoulder blades. The mist surrounded the far edge of the Andante District, shielding it from Sinder and all that awaited within. She’d read that it had been created by the Lune, to keep his subjects trapped. It wasn’t exactly untrue. Now that same Magic clawed at her back, sending ripples of something she couldn’t identify up her spine. It wasn’t fear. It was something else. The Hover touched down, golden legs elongating to secure the landing. Its claws gripped loosely onto the grass. Fabric doorways blew open, while the vibrant lanterns quivered before lying still. Mabel felt herself falling, but she righted her body just in time.
“We must fetch you a Medic My Lady,” the Rider whispered. She was about to reply when a leathery hand snatched through the mist. Before she could scream, fingers closed around her mouth. They reeked of chapped skin and sweat. The Rider lunged for her, but he was too late.
She should have stayed in the Church.
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