Chapter 1: At the Lowest Point
’Hell’s wings, you really haven’t moved. Countries don’t make a civil war of themselves, you know.′
The noise of a curt, brisk voice jerked me awake. My mind reeled slowly, trying to figure out where I’d been before that cold voice— but only feeling a stupefying sense of déjà vu. After a pause, I realised I’d been dreaming, and, what’s more, I’d thankfully forgotten the entirety of it.
The gist of the dream couldn’t be removed, however. Blazing red before my eyelids, searing pain down my arms, and the falling. The falling was always the worst part, a drop in the pit of my stomach and the fear— utterly icy terror— of the ground rising up below.
Now, it was a bad memory that made me shiver. Those first few days, such a thought brought up feelings of nausea and blind panic and shaking like I’ve never known, and the like of which I never wanted to feel again.
But it was difficult when only nightmares greeted you.
And perhaps, if I didn’t sleep so much, I wouldn’t have so many bad dreams. Dreams where my body burned, dreams where the phoenix that had so miraculously saved me burst talons first through my chest.
And, of course, dreams where I was never saved at all. Dreams where I continued to fall, continued to plummet, gaining speed and knowing that the end was so close, that there was nothing I could do...
...just like Freya wanted.
All at once, I felt bile rising in my throat. If I wasn’t careful, the shaking would start, and the light-headedness, and the screeching panic that had probably made everyone fearful...
Thinking about Freya hurt.
But waking was thinking about Freya, my beloved friend, or Clae, the gentle soul whose blood I still saw seeping to the floor in front of my eyes.
Waking also meant remembering, and that was particularly difficult to embrace.
When the shaking and terror had subsided after those first few days, I tried to move around. Leaving the room seemed easy after falling from a great height and only resurrecting after being saved by a phoenix— apparently, a standard day in Angelica— only, it wasn’t easy. The first time, I’d spotted the deep blue through the strong windows of my bedroom, the water of the sea floor warm and dark (it was some time in the evening I presumed). A wave of gentle silver fish roamed past in triangle formation. That brief distraction, on the way to fetch clean clothes, changed everything.
Pain had splintered my forehead. A blinding vision struck me; the triangular fish form had become a single, repeating pattern, extending upwards with my gaze. A lady, wearing a dress of white and silver over her wonderfully dark hair, and spinning the diamond patterned skirt to show me, danced before my eyes.
′I want to wear pretty dresses too, Mama.′
′Sweet Mina, of course you can. This one is a little big for you yet though, but one day...′
I opened my mouth to tell her now, because there wouldn’t be a later, not ever, but realised it had all been in my head. I had looked around suspiciously, expecting to see someone. Only mahogany floors, like the interior of a ship from paintings back home, greeted me. A hammock— something that the mers must prefer, but caused me no end of trouble when I was thrashing in my sleep— waited, unused, and beneath it, a mattress had been brought in for me, made of sheets and pillows. There was nobody in this spacious room except me; me and my demons, of course.
Now, the voice announced that some was in my room.
Not that I hadn’t had visitors. Valkyrie, the girl with the curls of fire, had actually curled up next to me on the first few days, when my daytime dreams and screaming sent people running to check on me. But the presence of another person had only set me on edge, and I’d awoken to seeing that fiery hair and I’d only panicked further, thinking I was alight once more, and with it, the feeling of falling.
Another sensation came next: relaxing, content, peaceful. I’d awoken to Kirsten sitting at the edge of my pillows, stroking my hand. For a few minutes, it seemed as if her pheromones would really work— and then my body reacted automatically, unfurling my power on her and sapping them up.
Kirsten didn’t try again, although she did visit me.
Every morning, noon and night— what must be morning, noon and night, because I had only the light of the deep water outside to guide my circadian rhythm— my birth sister, Scarlett, would appear, and bring me food. I rarely drank because, somehow, the water always tasted just a tiny bit salted. And eating wasn’t even an appealing option.
So she would bring Sakura, and the two would feed me.
At first, they had to lift the bowls to me. Anything too solid and I wouldn’t even attempt to chew it, so they resorted to soups. Soups of horrible green that tasted like seaweed and made me cough. Sakura would bring soft warm bread, and it became the only thing I looked forward to eating.
Ignacio, my shapeshifting friend, and Arianna, my clairvoyant friend, also took turns watching me. It began to feel as though I was never left alone, although I couldn’t tell why; my energy was so low, sitting up was a chore. They could have left me all week, and I’d have probably just lay there, unmoving.
There was one person who I never saw, but always knew was there.
The nights were dark underwater, even in a palace that had rooms of air (although that, too, was a mystery I hadn’t yet questioned). Once the last rays of sun had disappeared from the seabed, the night darkness that descended was unrelenting.
The first night of screaming, someone held me in comfort. I didn’t see their face— it was pitch black, I was too distressed, and I knew I didn’t need to. Their scent of wood and fresh air reminded me that I was not a prisoner beneath the sea. The hands that held me were gentle, but unafraid. When my hands tried to claw at my arms, crying out at the burns that run along my body, I would be enveloped in an embrace that calmed my terrors with the steady beat of a kind heart.
Every night since that night, I was never alone, always visited by the same man. That person brought warmth and steady comfort to my sorrow, but never silenced me, never tried to make me stop. We waited out those dark nights, curled up together, and I swear there were times when I awoke to his sobbing, his own screams, and I knew I wasn’t the only one grieving.
When light came, he was already gone— I was normally awoken by Scarlett and Sakura for breakfast. I didn’t need to find silver hairs on my pillowcase to know that Fabian had been there.
But I still hadn’t left my cabin, as I took to calling it. If lack of desire to go out and greet the world wasn’t enough, the memories of a life I’d forgotten, shattering an everyday moment, was crippling. The vision of the woman with the black hair didn’t take me long to realise I was remembering my mother, nor did the ones that came after take much to figure out. Scarlett stealing my hairbrush. My father, bringing me back paints from the Emerald District, home to the entertainment and arts. In the memory, I recalled the bubbling, innocent desire to one day be an artisan there.
The memories were coming back slowly, and I didn’t question why. My fear of learning my old identity as a Lady, an heir to the Opal District, had been enough to handle when Scarlett and Fabian had broken the news. Actually getting those memories back...
...I wasn’t sure I could become Lumina Fawcett again.
Not after Reia. Freya. Whoever she was.
The more memories I would get, the more I would remember Freya; Freya as she had pretended to be. Or was she pretending as Reia? My befuddled brain was still trying to work it out. The only thing I knew for certain was that she’d sentenced me to death.
Me. Her supposed-sister and best friend.
Self-proclaimed sister and best friend, a nasty voice in my head replied.
Any thought of leaving the room was negated by the fears of triggering those memories. Reia had betrayed me once already; could I handle memories of her betraying me again?
‘Stop mumbling, Lumina. Those excuses might have worked for those other sops that come to look after you, but not me. You’ll grieve forever if you’re left to rot in here like a ship that was sunk and left to become treasure. The only difference is, you won’t become precious festering here.’
I blinked again, raising my head from where I’d been burying it under a blanket.
The figure towering over me was dressed in a sweeping blue silk robe, positioned in a way that made me certain there were weapons tucked away in her pockets. Beneath the robe, plain black trousers and slippered feet lulled my sense of danger— another tactical ploy. They obscured the muscular frame, the long limbs, the strength of her stance.
If her clothing wasn’t enough to convince me, her face showed a life of battle and grief beyond mine. The long, thin scar that pierced her face from top to bottom was something I’d never had the courage to ask about, although from what I’d heard that same scar was from a battle that cost her husband’s life.
As usual, her brown hair was tucked away from her face, showcasing the lines across her face, the haunting grey of her eyes. One eye was always half-shut, damaged by the scar that dominated her face.
There was no denying that this woman demanded respect. Not from the scars or the weapons, but from the way she carried herself with confidence and dignity.
Such a woman had come to my aid, and I couldn’t help but answer.
‘Morwena,’ I said weakly, trying to shift into a sitting position. My hair rolled in front of my face, a mass of plaited hair that Scarlett had done. The ebony colour nearly brought on another memory, it was so similar to my mother’s and my sister’s.
‘I go and ensure the world isn’t falling into chaos, and look what happens,’ the woman gave my makeshift bed a nudge as she wrinkled her nose against the stale smell of someone that hasn’t wanted to move out of bed for...how many days?
God, I hoped it wasn’t weeks.
‘Where...?’ my voice came out hoarse from all the guttural shrieks it’d made recently. ‘Where have you been?’
Morwena casts me a smug grin. ′Above. I’ve been to see how the world is getting along under Princess Freya’s command.′
The words stung harder than I expected, as if Morwena had gone to see an old lover of mine getting along with his wife and children. It was the first emotion I’d felt in days, and a part of me hungered for more.
So I said, ‘And?’
‘She’s off to a good start,’ Morwena shrugged, ’She’s taken away the curfew. Without those cruel daemons of her father’s, I imagine there’s no need for them. Although what became of those things, I haven’t been able to find out. Hattie was as clueless as me.′
‘Yes, girl, you surely remember, or I’ll worry if your memory is bad too.’
‘No, no, I remember,’ I said hurriedly. The girl worked for Morwena at her bath house in the Emerald District, and had the ability to Sense other Angels’ powers. In fact, Morwena had once asked me to let Hattie Sense me, and I let her, reluctantly. The girl seemed to Sense more than she let on. In human years, she looked around twelve, but after being on Angelica, where every human year was brief to an Angel, the girl was surely hundreds of years my senior.
Unless I’m Lumina Fawcett, I thought. Lumina, the lady, would be many years older than Hattie.
Morwena had been talking. I rubbed my head and apologised. ‘I’m sorry— where is Hattie? Is she safe? Is she still at the Bath House?’
My words were so slow, fumbled. Morwena looked impatient, but at my concern for her aide, she softened.
‘Hattie’s fine,’ she replied, ‘Freya hasn’t resorted to tyranny yet. Most of my information is from going to visit Hattie. She’s remarkably capable of running that place, I almost feel wistful...’
I stared at the older woman.
She cleared her throat and continued. ‘So, Freya called off the curfew. She’s gathered the old King’s army— the ones that weren’t turned to daemons, it seems— and is trying to restore peace among the Ruby Dwellers. A certain Master Frederick seems to be stirring up trouble for her in the hopes you’re coming back.’
Morwena’s smile was wry; clearly, she was looking down at the contender for the throne on the floor and trying not to shake her head.
I laughed too— a bitter, lifeless laugh. ‘We need to tell him there’s no coming back. I was defeated, Freya’s now Queen, end of story.’
At my words, Morwena’s smile grew more genuine— in the most wicked sense of the word.
′“End of story”?′ she repeated, with deliberate slowness. Despite myself, I sat up straighter at her tone. ’The end of the story is when one of you is crowned, Lumina. Freya is no Queen— not yet. Not until one of you picks up that sceptre are you anointed as the official ruler.′
I stared at Morwena, wondering if she was mad. I had clearly lost; Freya had me thrown from a tower and I’d escaped due to chance!
‘Then she should just pick up this sceptre and be done with it,’ I scoffed. ’Freya was always meant to be a queen. Look at me. Very regal.′
‘Enough with your moaning and your self-pity,’ Morwena’s eyes are dangerously narrowed. ‘You should know that Freya can’t touch the sceptre until the appointed time. The old King died of unnatural causes, so the kingdom has to wait until the throne can be passed on. Until then, Freya’s rule is temporary.’
Flopping back onto my bed, I groaned. ′Why? Gods,that seems so stupid.′
‘If you care to leave this room, perhaps someone better than I can explain it to you.’
Childishly, I turned my head away. ‘You said it yourself. Freya’s off to a great start. Why stop her now?’
Another nudge with the sole of her foot— Morwena had actually flipped me back to look at her using her slippers. It was a mark of her upmost loathing at my wallowing. When I met her eyes, guilt and embarrassment rose into my throat.
’Don’t forget that Freya’s rule began in blood!′ she hissed, her controlled emotions now filled with anger. ′Your blood!′
Morwena turned on her heel and left me speechless.
Before she could leave, a mad desire filled me— I had to know. Even if...there wasn’t anything I could do...
...isn’t there? That voice, the voice that had taunted me for days, arose again.
‘How long?’ I croaked, turning onto my belly so I could lift my head. ‘How long until she takes the sceptre?’
I was on my knees now. Morwena halted at the doorway, and I thought I saw the ghost of a smile from the side of her face.
She said two words.
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