The wind whistled outside the castle and the halls were cool despite the late summer sun. Captain Graze was wary of the unusual weather. Anything out of the ordinary made her wary; it was her job as captain of the king’s Titanium Guard. She eyed the front door suspiciously from her post outside the throne room, inside which King Jonovan met with his council.
Feeling the marble beneath her boots, Graze satisfied herself that no one was sneaking or hiding nearby. All the walking feet in the pyramid-shaped castle known as the Rock resonated through her. She was an earthmaster, an extension of the ground. As one of the few earthmasters who could wield any metal, swords and arrows couldn’t touch her. She was captain for a reason.
Appeased, Graze leaned against the cool limestone wall.
Ben Adin, a tall, broad guard, darted toward her from one of the upper wings. Graze waited for him to approach with her hands folded behind her.
“What is it?” she asked as Ben Adin took his time catching his breath. “Tell me the prince is with Ben Dory.” The two of them were supposed to be guarding Prince Aries.
Ben Adin’s eyes flickered around the near-empty entrance hall. “He did again.”
“He’s gone?” Graze asked sharply, her voice low.
Ben Adin nodded. “He slipped out on us—the blink of an eye. He turned himself invisible, made us think he was sitting at his desk.”
The explanation was unnecessary; the prince had slipped out on the captain several times before. A wily boy, he could make himself invisible, make his guards forget they were supposed to watch him, or any number of things. Prince Aries was a witsage who could manipulate other people’s minds. The prince never did harm with his talents, but Graze had experienced enough of his mischief to last several lifetimes.
“Did you check the kennels?” she asked. “The raptory?”
“The menagerie? The gardens? The fountain?”
“I know where he likes to go,” Ben Adin insisted. Graze bristled at his insolence. “Dory’s waiting upstairs in case he comes back.”
The captain clenched her fists, thinking of where the prince might be. He’d been quiet ever since the wind picked up. “So I’ll assume you’ve checked the shaezar?” Graze said.
“No, Captain,” said Ben Adin. “I thought—he never comes out this time of day—I don’t think...”
With a stern look Graze hushed the young ben, then turned on her heel and made for the large double doors. Ben Adin jogged to keep up with her stride.
Captain Graze had an earthmaster’s tight, steady swagger under her armor. The steel sword on her left hip had been a gift from the king when she was promoted to captain. On the right she wore the traditional Titanium Guard club; this one in particular was Eramoan tungsten, and took various shapes in her hand as easily as sculpting clay: a spear, a shortsword, a pair of daggers.
They crossed the bailey in the shadow of the enormous pyramid and entered the shaezar, a large stone room containing rows of benches and a podium, as well as prayer rooms hidden in the back. Tapestries depicting historical figures and images of their faith decorated the walls; a creamy-smelling incense burned in a dish that hung from the ceiling.
Graze and Ben Adin were greeted by a young shae with a round, eager smile.
“Captain,” the shae chirruped, bowing his head. “Ben. Are you here to pray?”
“The prince,” Graze said curtly. “Have you seen him this afternoon?”
“Oh yes,” said the shae. “He left a few minutes ago. I gave him a blessing.”
Turning to Ben Adin, Graze crossed her arms and grinned from relief. “See? He’s probably already back in his chambers.”
The shae’s face froze. “But—but Captain. His Grace said he was leaving. On a trip. That’s why he wanted a blessing. He had his pack and everything… Oh, gods.” The shae’s voice faded, afraid to implicate himself further; his youthful features were struck with alarm.
Without waiting for another word, Graze ducked out of the shaezar and marched across the bailey, kicking up dirt. When the stable came into sight she broke into a run, Ben Adin a step behind her. A stablehand slouched from the doors with a metal pail in each hand.
“You, girl!” Graze shouted. “Where’s Prince Aries?”
Being a little thing, the girl froze in fear and dropped her buckets, spilling oats into the dirt. The captain barreled past her, skidded into the stable, and caught sight of Prince Aries mounting his palfrey at the other end of the massive structure. A boy held a short stair for him. There were a dozen stalls between them, stablehands moving in and out.
Prince Aries was small, unlike his fathers, and beautiful exceeding his youth. The bangs that fell in his eyes were half red and half brown, split down the middle, as well as the braid that hung down his back. He wore a green silk tunic with the Greydanus elephant on it under a thick cloak, too warm for the season, with a pack slung over his shoulder.
Ben Adin slammed into the captain from behind, and both lurched forward.
“Your Highness!” Captain Graze gasped, the wind having been knocked from her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
The stableboy removed the stair and ducked out the door, not keen to be in the middle of a royal confrontation. Others stayed behind, performing their chores and eavesdropping.
The prince didn’t turn to the bens. He gathered the reins and laid a hand on his horse’s neck. It nickered softly. Perhaps he was soothing it mentally.
“Captain,” Prince Aries said. He always spoke so gently. Graze took a step forward to hear better. “The gods are changing.”
“Don’t you worry about them, Your Highness,” the captain said, matching his tone. “You belong here with your lord fathers.”
“You don’t know what they’re saying, Captain,” the prince said. “The gods. You don’t hear them. They’re in my head every day.”
“What are they saying?” Ben Adin asked in a tense whisper.
Price Aries cast a look so dark it was unnatural on his young face. “The time has come to purge the realm and keep only the holiest of holy so we may descend in peace,” he recited coldly. “It shall be swift, fair and natural. First the wind, greater than any that have touched this place, then quakes to tear the land asunder. Floods will wash away whomever remains, and fire will cleanse what is left behind. Salvation exists atop Zora Loh, where no kingsblood may venture.” He closed his eyes as if against a headache. “May you keep the gods’ peace.”
For a moment even Captain Graze was speechless. “Where did you hear that?” she asked, though she knew the answer.
Prince Aries went on like he hadn’t heard. “You are bens. It’s your job to keep the king’s peace. I’m a witsage. I keep the gods’ peace.”
“The gods should keep the gods’ peace.” Graze took another tentative step forward. “Or the shaes. They’re the ones who are supposed to talk to the gods. You haven’t had your training yet, Your Highness. Come on, let’s go visit Shae Jacalyn. She’ll have some smart words for you.”
“Aunt Jacalyn follows my lord father,” said the prince. “That’s her duty.” He took a deep, steady breath. “My duty is to my realm.” He lifted his gaze to the stable roof as if stargazing. “The gods—they’re not unreasonable. They’ll take an audience with me, kingsblood or no.”
“You speak of traveling a hundred miles or more,” Graze said levelly. “Your Grace—”
Prince Aries peeked at last over his shoulder, black eyes shining. “I’m sorry, Captain.” He spurred his horse and escaped out the door.
In a flash, Graze crossed the stable and was shouting out the door after him. “Prince Aries! Your Highness!” But his horse had vanished into the twilight. Through the earth at her feet, she felt the thundering of his mount’s hooves as they galloped away.
The captain cursed. “You!” she shouted, pointing wildly at a boy mucking a stall. Jumping, he dropped his shovel. “A horse! Can’t you see your prince has run away? Get me a horse!”
The boy seized the closest saddle and threw it over a destrier. Captain Graze mounted the creature and the boy hastened to bridle it. Before he’d stepped back, she dug her heels into the horse’s flank and took off after the prince.
Her horse being significantly larger and stronger than his, Graze caught up with the prince by the Limestone Gate. On the other side of the wall lay the town of Beck: whores with bad teeth, people peeing out of windows, and all manner of things a young prince should avoid.
“Close the gate!” the captain shouted, standing in her saddle so the gatekeeper might see who was hollering. “In the name of the king, hold the gate!”
The gatekeeper glanced in confusion at Prince Aries, who waited patiently on his horse at the gate, then at Graze, who was hurdling toward him in a frenzy. The armored sentinel hesitantly turned the crank, and the gate creaked and disconnected from the dirt.
“Can’t you hear?” shouted Ben Adin, who’d ridden up behind her. “Lower the gate!”
But the gatekeeper was no longer in control of her faculties; from the woman’s blank expression, Graze supposed what was happening. The captain had never seen the prince use his powers like this, to force another person to do his bidding. Usually he reserved himself for small jokes, party tricks, illusions. To her knowledge, he’d never made another person do anything.
Graze rippled the dirt under the guard’s feet, hoping to jolt her out of Prince Aries’ control. Looking momentarily afraid, the guard stumbled and flailed, then used her own wielding to calm the earth. Knowing she was stronger, Graze sent another small tremor, but all this did was startle her own horse. The gate was wide open.
Captain Graze, the most skilled earthmaster in the land, sensed for the Limestone Gate and dragged down with all her strength. Grasping the air before her and reeling her hands into her chest, she tried to close the gate. But she well knew the walls of the Rock were reinforced with lead, the stubbornest earthen substance, and she could not summon the strength to bring the gate down.
The prince ducked under the gate as Captain Graze closed the distance between them. Her fingers stretched for—what? His horse? His cloak? It was folly; he darted away from her grasp, and the little palfrey was lost in the afternoon crowd of Beck.
“This way!” Ben Adin shouted, directing his horse down a central street. Ahead, smallfolk moved aside to let Prince Aries pass.
The clutter of the city was hard to navigate at any pace. Graze and Adin raced through shaezars and shops, herds of children and animals, and the claustrophobic market square. The narrow streets and leaning buildings closed in on Graze, tunneling her vision on the prince.
“Your Highness, please!” she shouted in desperation. She shouldn’t shout, shouldn’t cause a scene that might embarrass the king. But the prince was running away, the Rock shrinking behind her, smallfolk diving out of his way.
Captain Graze and Ben Adin shook the earth as they rode, trying to scare the prince’s horse but not their own. They sent rocks rolling under his mount’s hooves and raised stones in his path. Prince Aries avoided these minor assaults with barely any effort. The captain could do no more lest she risk injuring the crown prince.
The bens chased Prince Aries to the riverside wall in under twenty minutes. The prince disappeared around a brothel, and the captain urged her mount faster. By the time he came into view again, the Ferry Gate was there—being opened by another blank-faced sentinel.
“Close the gate!” Graze bellowed uselessly. The guards made no indication they’d heard her, and the prince slipped from the city. He was beyond the wall, free in the world, intent on speaking with the gods.
“Come on, Adin,” Graze called over her shoulder. “We have to.”
So Captain Graze chased a boy of eight into the night with naught but her armor, her sword, and Ben Adin. With no cloak, food, or coin, she had only the king’s sigil on her chest to protect her. She hoped it would be enough.