Flames Like Vines - Sara Raasch

Author’s Note:
This is a companion story to Ice Like Fire, the sequel to Snow Like Ashes. I say “companion” as it parallels the beginning events of Ice Like Fire.

The Raid

            Ceridwen draped against the curve of the umbrella tree’s trunk and waited for the caravan to approach. The intoxicating aromas of Summer in the afternoon flooded her senses: waves of heat, trees baked dry in the hot sun, a ground parched and aching for the mid-year rains.
            She pressed her fingers into the grooves of the rough bark. Simon used to chase her up trees like this one. Sometimes after their studies, he would pull Ceridwen out into the forest of plants in their palace’s garden-impala lilies with their soft ivory and magenta centers, aloe that healers would pluck fresh from the garden, and so many varieties of succulents, flowers, and trees that it would take days to recite their names.
            The high walls protected Simon and Ceridwen from the bandits that plagued Summer, and under the heat of the noon sun, they would climb the tallest umbrella tree and sway from the high branches, pretending they were the monkeys that jittered in the outer forests.
            Their garden enclosure may have kept them safe as children, but now that Simon was king, it couldn’t keep him safe from bandits anymore.
            Especially when Ceridwen was one of them.
            Carriage wheels.
            Ceridwen shifted, the beige scarf that covered her face tugging against the bark as she focused on the tree across from her. The tree’s flat, sprawling top and slender trunk cut into the dull tan of the landscape. A flash of light glinted from one of the branches, signaling to her.
            We’re in position.
            Ceridwen slid a knife from the sheath on her hip and stayed close to the branch, invisible in her tan clothes. She waited, easing her breath in slow, controlled exhales, until every movement, every thought, every piece of her became part of the tree.
            Then she saw them. Three wagons, their backs completely enclosed like rolling boxes, crawled down the road, dust swirling around their wooden wheels. Oxen lugged each along, their massive ivory horns and hairy pelts coated in the gunk that came from traveling with neglectful masters. One driver to each wagon, and one soldier each trotting alongside. Six men.
            Summer’s ground would drink much blood today.
            The caravan drew closer, each wagon jostling over the uneven ground. The sun’s rays climbed up the hill, creeping toward the soldiers’ eyes. A few more moments, and the first one would be blinded for the briefest of seconds, long enough to never see her coming.
            The bark of the umbrella tree tore against Ceridwen’s palms as she pushed off, body curving through the air, knife clenched in one tight fist. The soldier barely had time to look up before she straddled the horse behind him and jabbed her blade into his neck. Warmth spurted onto Ceridwen’s hand as she yanked her blade free and tossed the soldier’s body to the ground. She deftly wiped away the blood with the edge of her cloak and grabbed the horse’s reins, kicking the steed forward, faster, blocking the caravan from going any further.
            The rest of her party exploded around the caravan, ripping drivers off their perches and planting arrows in bodies. In less than two breaths it was done, the ground littered with dying men.
            Ceridwen pushed her horse around the first wagon while other members of her party neared the remaining two. She dismounted just beside the back door, next to the great iron lock that held the cargo safely inside.
            “Key?” Ceridwen shouted as she sheathed her knife and ripped off her headscarf. Tangles of fire-red hair spilled around her and she inhaled, but even the warm caress of sunlight did little to slow the adrenaline that rushed through her. Her limbs shook with each moment the wagons remained locked.
            A rustling followed, her companions searching the dying bodies. “Aye,” a call came up. Lekan sprinted forward, a key ring dangling from one hand.
            She took the ring from him. The heavy lock fell off, clunking in the dirt by Ceridwen’s boots. She passed the ring to another man beside her, who hurried it away to the next wagon. Lekan remained next to Ceridwen, his presence a reassuring weight.
            A deep breath in, a deep breath out, and she pulled open the wagon doors.
            Light streamed into the dark wagon, revealing all manner of faces blinking at her in the brilliance of the Summer sun. Some were bloodied, some bruised, but all had a brand on their right cheek.
            Only the lowest of the low received brands: the captives who would stock the brothels.
            Despite the price people paid for attractive captives, marking the purchases as indisputably Summer’s trumped all, so they would be less likely to escape or be stolen. The swirling “S” would have been elegant if not for the lumps of melted, singed flesh around it, scarred and raw.
            Ceridwen’s companions pushed around her, reaching into the wagon with water, offering bandages or nourishment to the stunned prisoners.
            Come quickly, please, we must hurry, they whispered. The longer we stay here, the less chance we have of getting you to the border.
            “You’re freeing us?”
            Ceridwen caught a little boy as he stumbled out of the wagon. He looked up at her, the still-tender S on his cheek pushing skin into his eye in an unnatural lump. His pupils sat in a vortex of hazel that burst out of his golden skin. He touched the area around his eyes awkwardly, wincing at the brightness of the sun, the warmth, and-
            Flame and heat.
            He wasn’t wincing at the brightness of the sun. Ceridwen had seen this reaction before.
            “Yes,” she forced. The boy steadied himself on the dirt and accepted a water bag from one of her companions.  Ceridwen shot her eyes to the woman who stepped out behind the boy, and the man behind her, and the other prisoners who now stretched in the hot Summer sun. All of them winced, hanging their heads or touching the skin around their eyes, some gingerly pressing on their new brands, but most exploring their own faces like they weren’t used to being so exposed.
            Because they weren’t. If these captives were from where Ceridwen feared, then every citizen of that kingdom would be accustomed to wearing masks. But such things were considered frivolities in Summer, where faces needed to be uncovered to fetch the highest price.
            “Where are you from?” she heard herself ask. All her companions’ reports had spoken of a haul in Yakim’s capital, Putnam. But Summerians revered Yakimians for their dark skin, their brown eyes, their black hair-lit with accents of brown, not hues of Autumnian gold. And that’s what Ceridwen should have seen now, not olive skin. Not hazel eyes. These people were from-
            “Ventralli,” one woman finished Ceridwen’s thought.
            Ceridwen’s mouth dropped open and all the air evaporated out of her. She looked at Lekan, focused on his dark eyes, his brown skin, the way his red locks looked more like a bouquet of roses than hair. She saw the same worry flash across his face in a tight grimace:
            Simon only bought a few dozen people from outside of Summer every year. Because they weren’t Summerians and couldn’t be influenced by Summer’s conduit, such slaves couldn’t be controlled via magic like Summerians. Fewer foreign slaves ensured that they couldn’t rise against Simon or cause problems. Though Simon boasted of someday extending his purchases to other kingdoms, Ceridwen had hoped he wouldn’t be stupid enough to try.
            But something had always told her he would. Something that had made her beg the Ventrallan king to protect his people from Simon. But more than politics, Jesse shouldn’t have sold anyone to Simon simply because Ceridwen was . . .
            They were still . . .
            Lekan’s eyes wrinkled when he forced a comforting smile. “Maybe they did it without his knowledge. Maybe it wasn’t him?”
            Ceridwen felt a rebuttal coil around her tongue, the words burning holes in her mouth. But she felt an even greater sensation snuff it out. She knew who else it could have been.
            The Ventrallan queen.
            The last time she had been in Ventralli, more than six months ago for some celebration in honor of a long-dead king-or at least, that had been her flimsy cover-Jesse had promised her that he would never let her brother’s conquests stretch into Ventralli. Before Simon, it had been almost unheard of for collectors to take from outside Summer. But the weaker their father had gotten, the more Simon had exerted his control over Summer’s resources until the king finally died and Simon didn’t have to pretend anymore. He swept through Primoria with a childlike delight, setting up more human trades with Yakim and Spring. It took everything Ceridwen had to prevent even a handful of Simon’s dealings, and Jesse had promised he would help.
            Flame and heat, Jesse had sworn to her. He had said he would put more men along Ventralli’s borders. He had promised that he would personally check in with each patrol. She had made him swear that not even his wife would sway him.
            He had promised.
            Ceridwen dug her fingers into Lekan’s forearm. “Get them out of here,” she growled, the words bursting against the noise of prisoners mumbling their appreciation.
            Lekan turned to the crowd. “Please, everyone, may I have your attention-we must move quickly if we are to get you safely out of Summer. We have carriages on the other side of those hills that will take you to a refugee camp. You will be safe there, but we must hurry-”
            Ceridwen spun away, boots tearing up funnels of dust. They didn’t need her to help with the transport, and right now, she needed to not be here.
            She leapt over a fallen tree, sprinting until the heat of Summer burnt every nerve numb.

The King

            Juli’s palace had been grand once, built in an elegant mix of polished wood and sandy stone. But the years had not been kind to it, and with the creeping vegetation and harsh climate, each ruler of Summer had let their palace fall more and more into disarray. Only a few rooms were maintained—the king’s chambers, the celebration hall, and Madame Tia’s wing. The rest of the palace remained a mess of sun-bleached stones, intrusive green vines, and roots that shattered walls to dust. It was as if the very land had grown tired of its ruler’s laziness and was doing its part to help Ceridwen tear it down, piece by piece.
            Ceridwen hurried down one of the long, ruined halls, the dust of the palace sticking to the dust that already coated her boots. It was nearly nightfall; Simon would be starting his evening’s entertainment, and if he noticed she hadn’t been at court all day—
            No. Simon would never be sober enough to piece together her absences with the raids on his caravans. Besides, he thought her trips into Summer were to patrol for raiders, not because she was one of them. She was careful, too—she always made sure a few raids took place while she remained in full view of the court so no one could connect her to them.
            Though it would be all but impossible to mask the glares she wanted to throw at Simon now. Glares she should be directing at Jesse.
            It had always been a chore to hide her disdain for her brother, but something about these particular slaves, from this particular kingdom—it felt like a challenge. Simon knew what Ventralli meant to her—or at the very least, what its king meant to her. But what Simon didn’t know was that she was the one leading the raids against him, so how could any of this be a challenge? How could any of this have anything to do with her? It didn’t, it couldn’t. Ceridwen drew a shaky breath.
            Simon’s voice exploded behind her, echoing down the hall. Ceridwen stopped, eyes closing before she turned and locked on the two girls under Simon’s arms, both just as intoxicated as their king, wearing ill-fitting corsets and little else. They were Summerians, their “S” brands were long healed, their bodies accepting the fog of happiness Simon poured out of his conduit. He barely had to use any magic to make them pliable.
            No amount of Summerian magic could ever affect any non-Summerian purchases, though. Nothing could make them enjoy the life Simon forced on them.
            The trio stumbled down the hall toward her, kicking bits of broken ceiling out of their way, stray hands stroking dusty lines along the uneven walls. The glow from the few working sconces flickered over them, painting haphazard highlights into their red hair until they stopped, Simon beaming his usual dazed grin.
            “Sister, clear your schedule this weekend. We’re starting a week of feasts in honor of—” he paused, lips twitching. “—new arrivals. Should be quite entertaining.”
            He meant the Ventrallans, no doubt. There hadn’t been enough time for him to hear that raiders had stopped his latest import.
            She snarled at him, and Simon’s eyes narrowed. But fighting him was too obvious, and outright denial could lead to suspicion, which could cast too much light on what she was truly doing. She couldn’t risk it.
            So Ceridwen inhaled, filling her lungs with the smells of her childhood. Dust and growing vines and heat, always heat, beating down on her and filling her up and dancing over her skin with the energy of a million suns. Heat to let her know she wasn’t alone. She was part of Summer, and Summer was part of her, and this land wouldn’t abandon her too.
            “Of course, my king,” she said, clear and loud. “Whatever my lord wishes.”
            Simon’s grin returned. He unwound his arms from the girls and leaned toward Ceridwen, swaying through the swirling specks of dust. “Good,” he drawled. His eyes met hers, deep, dark brown and bloodshot. He looked so much like their father. “Because you are my sister, Cerie,” he continued, moving hair out of her face. She cringed as the warm metal of his bracelet brushed her cheek, his conduit, Summer’s golden cuff with a single turquoise stone in the center. “You work so hard to keep our kingdom safe, and I just want you to be happy.”
            “My king is too kind.” Her words stuck against her tongue like dirt from the ride. Simon left the conduit against her cheek, sending a spark through her body that made every limb tingle. She remembered this feeling, how their father would stroke her hair and she would feel the most overwhelming adoration for him, a fog that let her ignore everything bad that happened around her.
            Waking up from that fog had been all too easy once she’d noticed the other people who weren’t trapped under it. The non-Summerian slaves, the poor, the people in Summer’s outlying villages. Sad, scared people, who reminded her more of mice scurrying out of sight of a cat than the fiery, unstoppable Summerians she knew in Juli. Summerians who danced late into the night, hurling their bodies around raging flames; Summerians who drank and laughed and never ceased to smile.
            She had thought her kingdom one of light. It had been a blow when she’d realized that that light came from Summer’s conduit, and even it was dim, dying, a drained magic used so often to keep Summer’s court blissful that it barely had any power left at all.
            And now Simon was trying to use some of what was left on her. Something changed in his eyes, snapping from his ignorant drunk stupor into a look she knew too well on him—cruel, pleased, lost to the power of that thing on his wrist. Did any piece of the boy she had grown up with exist within this man? Did he ever once consider letting his conduit rest, regenerate, so they had magic enough to heal their land?
            “You’re lucky I’m kind,” Simon cooed, and Ceridwen felt the uselessness of her wish. No, he never considered anything but the moment in front of him. Just like every Summer king.
            Simon caught up a handful of her curls, running them through his fingers as one corner of his mouth bobbed from smile to frown. “You’re lucky that all I want is to bring joy to everyone under my rule, whether or not they fear this happiness. I just want you to be happy, sister.”
            Ceridwen winced, her hands wrapping around Simon’s wrist on instinct, as he continued to play with her hair. The conduit sent heat through her fingers, surging waves pouring into her from Simon’s will. Love me, sister. Obey me, sister. Power, so much power, power their father had drowned in, power Simon used to turn Summer into his playground of pleasure, power that she could only ever fight, never harness.
            Ceridwen closed her eyes, breathing deeply, calming her anger and frustration and the roaring current of hatred that made her weak against Simon’s conduit. When she collected herself, she looked up at him, smiling like his power had affected her.
            “You are the kindest of all kings,” she said. “I will join you for your new arrivals.”
            Simon smiled and released her, his lips fading back into his comfortable grin of intoxication. He scooped up one of Madame Tia’s girls and nipped at her neck, sending the girl into a fit of giggles as the trio sauntered away.
            Ceridwen remained in the hall, listening to their laughter until it faded. She rubbed her cheek, the lingering effects of the conduit making her skin ache.
            If Summer’s conduit had been female-blooded, she could turn its magic away from the waves of pleasure that Simon poured into his court and Summerian captives, away from the fog of intoxication that even their grandfather had used to control the land. A fog of happiness—what was the harm in that? No one else saw the negative in such a thing, no one but Ceridwen and her small band of freedom fighters.
            Ceridwen continued down the hall. Summer wasn’t female-blooded. Summer was male-blooded, and because of that, its conduit would only ever be used for things Simon found enjoyable. While the poor died, while the sick withered, while their armies lay drunk in their barracks. While Ceridwen scrambled to find allies who might offer assistance where Summer needed it, only to find citizens of that very ally’s kingdom in her brother’s caravan.
            She passed by a fire pit, and where the surge of heat usually invigorated her, now she felt only one thing.

The Servant

            Tap. Tap tap. Tap.
            In the time it took for her to comprehend the noise, Ceridwen flew upright, a naked dagger in her hand. Sleep blurred her mind long enough for the sound to come again, with more insistency.
            Tap. Tap tap. Tap.
            The pattern eased some of her panic. Lekan.
            But a frown strained her lips as she rolled out of bed and crept to the second window from the corner, the one with just enough vines slithering up the outside that it created a perfect ladder to her third-floor room.
            It had only been twelve hours since the raid—he shouldn’t be back so soon.
            A warm breeze burst inside when she pushed open the window, her knee-length shift fluttering around her legs. She narrowed her eyes at Lekan where he clung to the vines an arm’s length from her.
            “You are by far the dumbest raider I have the misfortune of commanding.”
            Lekan swung back, one hand to his chest in mock-pain. “Ouch, milady.”
            “Don’t ‘ouch’ me.” Ceridwen opened the window wider and pulled Lekan inside. He stumbled in next to her, his clothes still dusty from travel as though he had climbed to her room straight after returning—Ceridwen winced as she realized he probably had.
            “I only accompanied the transfer part of the way,” he started, always business first. “They should be at camp in a few—”
            Ceridwen rolled her eyes and shoved Lekan backward until he dropped into the chair behind him. He didn’t fight as she moved around her room, pouring a glass of water, getting him some food.
            “This isn’t necessary,” he said.
            “You say that every time. And every time, it is.”
            Lekan sighed, but even as he did, his shoulders sagged into the chair. Ceridwen put the water glass and a handful of dried dates on a tray, and shoved it into his hands as she dropped cross-legged to the floor in front of him.
            That made him move to the edge of his seat. “No—you take the chair.”
            She shot him a glare. “There are five other chairs in here. I’m sitting on the floor because I want to. Besides, are you really capable of standing right now? You’re exhausted. Sit, or I’ll have your position as a servant in the noble house of Preben disbanded.”
            Lekan beamed down at her, a disbelieving, grateful smile. “I’d just find a way into your brother’s good graces and be taken as one of his servants. You’ll never get rid of me.”
            Any desire for banter dropped out of Ceridwen like the date pit Lekan plunked onto the tray. She let her eyes drift for half a beat before locking back on him, but his focus was on the water now, the sudden tenseness in his frame betraying what they both were thinking.
            “Why didn’t you go to the camp?” Ceridwen whispered. “You could have, you know. You could have visited them.”
            Lekan exhaled. “You’ve asked me that before.”
            “And I’ll ask it again, and again, until I understand why you don’t visit your family as much as you should. And when you do visit, you leave them too quickly.”
            Lekan shot a look down at her that shattered any formality between a servant and his mistress. A look that she had seen on him only a handful of times, usually when she asked this very question.
            “I do not leave them,” he snarled.
            “I bet Amelie feels differently.”
            “Amelie’s a strong girl. She understands why I can’t see her as often as I want—she’s not a child anymore.”
            Ceridwen scoffed. “Eight years old, and you don’t consider your daughter a child?”
            Lekan’s fingers hardened on the tray as he leaned forward. “She’s old enough to understand what I need to do. And Kaleo—” The bite in his voice faltered, as if even saying Kaleo’s name negated the anger Ceridwen stirred up. “Kaleo has his own duties, and he, more than anyone, understands the importance of mine. I don’t think he’d let me visit longer even if I wanted to. Especially now that . . .”
            He eased back against the chair. He wouldn’t look at Ceridwen, and the weight of his words pressed more heavily on her as he spoke. “Every kingdom Simon convinces to sell to him creates more victims. Victims like Amelie. I’m needed here, now more than ever. You know that, Cerie.”
            Ceridwen saw the memory dance across his face, the way the muscles in his neck twitched, adrenaline pooling in the lines of his arms and chest. She hadn’t been with him when their group had freed Amelie’s caravan, but the story had been one they told again and again, over bonfires and lullabies and eventually celebration drums when Lekan and Kaleo had made Amelie part of their family. She had been in a caravan of twenty other Yakimian slaves. The raid had been particularly brutal, the soldiers unrelenting against the raiders, and it had ended with five deaths—including Amelie’s mother. Not that their refugee camp wasn’t full of orphans, but something about one-year-old Amelie had endeared her to Lekan and Kaleo, and seeing all three of them together . . .
            That was the image Ceridwen thought of whenever she heard the word family. Lekan, tall and deadly, with an expression that could chill the burning noon sun in its intensity, but could just as easily warm the most frigid soul with its gentleness. Kaleo, as duty-bound as his husband, but in a softer, calmer way—more attuned to running the refugee camp than wielding a blade. And Amelie, even fierier than her adoptive Summerian parents, the perfect mix of carefree and solemn.
            It tore out Ceridwen’s heart each time Lekan came back to Juli, without visiting or not visiting long enough. He had a family, a whole, complete family, who were untainted by magic and free, and still he returned here. To a world of pain and suffering. To a world where happiness was suffocated by dangerous conduits.
            To a world where love wasn’t enough.
            “Please, Lekan,” she heard herself say, the words brittle beneath the desperation in her tone. “You need to leave. I need you to leave. While you still can, while one of us can be happy. I don’t know what it means, Ventralli is selling to Simon now, but it’s getting bigger than we can control. You have to get away from this.”
            Lekan moved the tray onto the table beside him and bent forward to take her hand. “No-you need me here. And besides,” he forced a smile, “we’ve never been able to control this.”
            That he was comforting her stung as badly as her need for him to escape this life.
            She yanked free from his grip and stood, whirling away from him. “You think we need you to help now that Simon has Ventralli, too. Now that we have another kingdom to watch for incoming slaves. But we don’t need you, Lekan, and it would be better if you just left.” Ceridwen spoke to her room, the bed turning gold in the rising sunlight that crawled through the open window. Fabrics draped all around, orange and red, light things that wafted in the breeze just as her shift did. Only one didn’t budge-a heavy tapestry that hung over her bed. Hand stitched, each thread painstakingly laid beside the next to form a picture of two people reaching for each other, separated by the light that surrounded one and the darkness that surrounded the other.
            Jesse had told her to pick any tapestry she liked. Any at all, and he would buy it for her. When she’d selected this one, the ache on his face was so satisfying. Yes, hurt for us, she’d thought. Hurt for the separation you caused. But then she’d remembered her own pain, which drowned out any of her vain gratification.
            Ceridwen heard Lekan stand behind her. “I won’t leave you until we are all happy,” he promised, a quiet, sure sentiment that would have been enough to make her weep if she had been weaker. Back when she had first joined this fight against Simon, she thought maybe she could find happiness with Lekan-until they freed a handful of Summerian captives, and Kaleo had been one of them, and the way Lekan looked at him was the kind of perfect that made everything else seem dull in comparison.
            “I don’t need you,” Ceridwen told him. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”
            Lekan moved closer until his warmth engulfed her from behind and his arms closed around her, holding her to him. “Until you’re truly saying it to me, not to Jesse.”
            She hardened against him, the tapestry blurring before her, leaving her staring at an image only slightly different. Two people, separated, reaching for each other. Jesse, encased in a haze of light; Ceridwen, trapped in a haze of darkness. Reaching, stretching, wanting so much it ripped her apart and poured out of her, adding more darkness to the already endless black.
            But Jesse remained in light. Pure, unmarred light. Just like Simon, barricaded in the protective haze of his Royal Conduit. A place where no one could touch them-even those who loved them. Especially those who loved them.
            Yet she foundered on her own, sinking in the waves of all the problems in her life. Nothing but pain, and it hollowed her into this shell of nothing that stood wrapped in Lekan’s arms, not crying, not screaming. Just . . . nothing.
            “Thank you,” Ceridwen managed, and it sounded stronger than her fruitless promise.
            Lekan sighed. “Always, milady. Always.”

The Party

            The only part of Simon’s celebrations that Ceridwen enjoyed was the color. Preben Palace exploded in gold and red and orange, banners hanging from the rafters, fires raging in alcoves, great tufts of fabric twirled around sandstone columns. The gown she’d chosen for this celebration mimicked the decorations, a tight-fitting gold silhouette that cut off just below her collarbone with a thick band of brown jewels. Servants buzzed around, hanging balls of aromatic herbs from the ceiling and putting vases of fresh pink hibiscus on tables in all the halls. It was the only time of year when Juli’s palace looked grand and gleaming, like the rubble and ruins were a part of the design, not the result of laziness.
            Ceridwen leaned against a column on the edge of the hall, absorbing the warmth of the fireplace behind her and the stars twinkling in the sky above. The celebration hall had no ceiling, just four stories of mezzanines wrapping over them until it all ended in a great sweep of brilliant black sky. Mixed with the vibrant decorations and the natural explosions of fire-red Summerian hair, it was beautiful.
            Ceridwen held her breath like she’d done so many times before. If she never exhaled, time would stay in this one perfect moment, when she could remember how many caravans she had freed this month. When she could remember all the relieved faces, not the faces she would see all too soon, dragged into Simon’s celebration and stripped of their humanity.
            The captured breath burned in Ceridwen’s lungs. None of the dignitaries around shared her fear of losing this moment. They only saw this moment, and for that Ceridwen envied them. Their ability to be so short-sighted, to see only the platters of food, the cushioned chairs, and the pretty servants, to hear only laughter, musicians rapping on drums, and the tinkling of goblets in toasts.
            Lekan carried a tray of sliced pineapple up and down the rows of tables, smiling politely at the aristocrats. He wore the outfit of a server: baggy orange pants that were tightened with gold ribbon around his ankles, leaving his chest and arms bare but for two twisting gold cuffs that bent into sunbursts on his biceps. He looked no different from the other male servants, body sculpted from a life of servitude, smiling and entertaining guests like he actually cared about their happiness.
            He saw Ceridwen watching him and his mask of happiness flickered away. He balanced the tray on one hand and pressed the index finger of his other to the spot just below his ear.
            I need to speak to you.
            Flame and heat. Ceridwen exhaled, the breath leaving her and taking with it the warmth of joy she had tried so desperately to hold.
            She left the column and moved to a table against the wall piled high with Simon’s favorite dishes. Smooth peanut and sweet potato stew cradled in fist-sized bread bowls, layers of thin shells that could be filled with any of dozens of meats and sauces, and, of course, vats of the finest Summerian wine, aged to dry perfection in the southern vineyards. She picked up a bread bowl, the nutty-sweetness of it making her empty stomach flip over, and waited.
            Lekan stopped on her right, his tray half-empty. “Can I get you anything, milady?”
            She shoved the bread bowl at him. “This soup is cold,” she snapped loudly enough for the nearby dignitaries to hear.
            Lekan took the bowl and set it on the table beside her. “I’ll get you a fresh one. Is there anything else I can get you? We received a delivery of bread from Ventralli, an unexpected arrival not on our regular routes, but King Simon is pleased with its quality.”
            A second delivery. Not on our regular routes.
            There had been another caravan of Ventrallans—and this one had gotten through to Summer.
            Simon had won again.
            Ceridwen blinked at Lekan. “When did you hear of—”
            “Moments ago, my lady.”
            “Courtiers of Summer!”
            Ceridwen spun around, back slamming into the table, muscles tensing at the sound of her brother’s voice. He was standing on a table across the room, a goblet in one hand, his copper shirt halfway undone and billowing around him.
            Silence fell over the hall amid small bursts of giggly shushing. Simon winked at a serving girl and raised his goblet higher. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I shan’t delay the festivities with flowery speeches and pointless drivel.”
            The crowd roared applause and Simon bowed.
            Through all of the vibrant blood-red heads bobbing in the hall, he shouldn’t have been able to find Ceridwen so easily, but he did, and his eyes caught hers in a victorious flash.
            She shuddered against the table. But she couldn’t find it in herself to smooth away her hatred as Simon waved an arm behind him at the pair of closed doors.
            “I present your entertainment for this evening, courtesy of—” Simon paused, staring at her like he knew everything she had done, like he knew he would always win no matter what feeble things she tried to do. “—King Jesse Donati of Ventralli!”
            The room rushed up around her, the colors and fervent cheers dragging her down. But Lekan grabbed her, holding fast to her arm and keeping her standing, present, here.
            The doors behind Simon burst open. In a riot of flames, Summerian fire dancers fanned into the celebration hall, blowing fingers of fire above the delirious heads of Simon’s court. Soldiers followed, men in plated leather armor with their hands wrapped around thin gold chains. Decorative chains, meant to entice and allure, but chains nonetheless.
            Attached to these chains, stumbling in the brightness of the spectacle, were Ventrallans. Ventrallans brushed and scrubbed and prettied up into proper Summerian costumes—tight-fitting gold gowns, billowing orange pants, the men bare chested and the women nearly so. Old and young and children—children—tears dragging lines through gold makeup that had been painted in thick, swirling strokes over their copper skin.
            Ceridwen surged forward, the fire-dancers mirroring her emotions. Flash and snap and destroy, fast as lightning and hot as flames. Kill Simon, burn him to ashes, shatter his conduit into a thousand indistinguishable, useless specks of gold and turquoise.
            Lekan jerked her back, his fingers leaving bruises on her arm. “Don’t.”
            But she couldn’t hear him, didn’t want to, not over the roar of enthusiasm as a few Ventrallans were thrown into the crowd, devoured in the blind joy that pulsed out of Simon and his conduit, the pure drive that made every Summerian consumed with lust and bliss. The extravagant use of magic that Simon couldn’t afford to waste but did nonetheless.
            And Jesse had caused this. Her Jesse had sold his subjects to Simon, had let her brother into Ventralli and handed people over to him and—he had promised.
            “Cerie, my sunshine!”
            Ceridwen didn’t have time to escape before her mother swooped her up, one arm around Ceridwen’s shoulders as Lekan deftly moved away, diving into the throng like he had never left.
            “Your brother has a special gift for you,” the old queen said. Where Simon mirrored their late father, lean yet muscular, Ceridwen mirrored their mother—curvy and short, with hair that spiraled at the slightest hint of moisture. She did not embrace the resemblance. Her mother had never been anything but weak.
            “I don’t want his gifts,” Ceridwen bit back.
            Her mother dragged her through the crowd, weaving her around fire-dancers, soldiers, chained Ventrallans as if they were just taking a stroll through the garden. And when they turned around one last fire-dancer to stop next to Simon, Ceridwen jerked out of her mother’s arm. The reflex didn’t go unnoticed by Simon, who smiled.
            “Sister.” Simon took her hand, her mother coming in on her other side, each holding her down like her own living chains. Simon leaned close to her, his lips dancing over her ear in nauseating bolts. “I know how fond you are of Ventrallan men,” he cooed. “I’ve brought you one you can actually love.”
            Simon’s words shot to home in her heart, knocking the air out of her. A guard stepped forward as if on cue and pushed a Ventrallan man to his knees before her. The man glanced up, mouth parted, eyes flicking over her face as he assessed the danger.
            He looked so like Jesse. Soft gold skin, dark hair hanging in a ponytail to his shoulders, hazel eyes that flashed with conflicting desires—the need to fight and the need to submit.
            Ceridwen had known she was hopelessly in love the first time she had seen the same expression on Jesse’s face. Word had reached him about a soldier holding three people hostage. Jesse had responded immediately, ready to fight the soldier, to do anything necessary, but then had recoiled just as quickly with an equally strong desire to relent, to submit to the soldier’s demands for ransom—to do anything that would keep his people alive. Jesse, so concerned for the wellbeing of his people that he didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, until the report came that the soldier had surrendered.
            She had never known a ruler to care so much for his people. All she had ever known were rulers who chained and enslaved their people, treating them like they were less than human.
            Simon brushed the back of his hand down her cheek, forcing her into the present as he pressed his conduit into her skin. Obey me.
            Ceridwen grabbed his wrist, tightening her hand around his conduit and glaring into his reddened eyes. “Why would you do this to me? You’re my brother. Don’t you—”
            The rest of her plea died as Simon looked at her. He cocked his head, and when her fumbled question slammed to a halt, she thought she saw the smallest, most fragile flicker of recognition in his eyes. Memory. The little boy who had swung from umbrella trees, making monkey noises and giggling so hard he nearly fell off the branch.
            But then it was gone. The flicker of memory or recognition or whatever it had been vanished in his eyes, replaced by triumphant pleasure. For years, she had snuck around and lied and knew that everyone despised her for being the Ventrallan king’s mistress. She knew that for all Jesse’s concern for his people, he had his own flaws. But she could never stop loving him.
            That was her greatest failing, after all—loving weak men, no matter their flaws.
            One of Simon’s eyebrows rose. “I’m only trying to remind you of who you are. That you are, in fact, a princess of Summer, and Summer cannot be stopped.”
            His words—something about his tone—caught her wrong. Something about the way his tone dipped. Summer cannot be stopped.
            He shoved her forward. Ceridwen stumbled, slamming into an invisible wall when the Ventrallan man looked up at her.
            Moments ago, breaths ago, he had been terrified. As all the purchases were, trapped in a fear that Simon’s conduit could not abate. If Jesse had been here, he could have eased their suffering with the same fog of numbness that Simon used on his Summerian captives to make them more pliable. But here, now, they were only scared.
            Should have been only scared.
            Because as Ceridwen looked at the man now, he smiled at her. His lips twisted in a defiant, teasing grin.
            This man should not be smiling at her like that. He shouldn’t be capable of anything but the same desperate, petrified wails of his countrymen who couldn’t be influenced by Summer’s conduit—
            It was then that Ceridwen noticed the absence of sound. Goblets still clanked and laughter still roared and fire still crackled, but . . . no one screamed. No one fought back.
            As Ceridwen let her gaze drift slowly around the room, her heart sank more and more. Every Ventrallan purchase had the same dazed smile as the man before her. A smile she had seen on enough Summerians to know it came from Simon.
            She whirled on her brother. “What did you do?” she barked, not caring if he found her obstinate. She felt a dread so palpable it rushed in molten rivers through her veins, urging her anger higher, and not even Simon’s conduit could calm her.
            Simon tipped his head, twisting his shoulders back and forth as the musicians in the corner started in on a new song. Fast and sure, all drums that vibrated deep in Ceridwen’s heart.
            “Don’t worry so much,” Simon cooed and tapped her on the chin. “We are infinite now, Cerie.”
            Before she could say more, he spun away, dissolving into a tight group of dancers that gyrated to the drumbeats. Ceridwen spun to her mother, who had gone, leaving her with the Ventrallan man, still kneeling at her feet, still smiling that grotesque smile.
            She was a princess of Summer. She was Simon’s blood. And worst of all, she was alone, picking up the pieces of her choices even though Jesse and Simon should be picking them up alongside her.
            Somehow, Simon had gotten Ventrallan purchases to bow to his whims. Had he drugged them? Or was it something . . . darker?
            “Give him to me,” Ceridwen snapped at the guard. The gold chain fell into her palm in a thin line of cold metal. She walked through the rising intensity of the celebration, plunging a way through the crowd without looking back. Amid screams and laughter and shooting pillars of fire, the gurgling of wine pouring from barrels, the faces of Simon’s new purchases, who should have been horrified, but instead were drunk and gleeful, their S brands pronouncing their doom.
            This was her life. No matter how many caravans she freed, no matter how many of Simon’s plans she unraveled. She would always be one step behind him and his accursed conduit, that unfair source of magic that made him eternally victorious.
            And she couldn’t take it anymore.
            Lekan fluttered past as she neared the door. His glare of warning said everything he didn’t dare say aloud, but Ceridwen ignored him and dragged the man out of the celebration. She pulled him through the palace, winding along the corridors to her chamber until she slammed the door behind them and threw the lock and pressed her forehead to the cool wood. Silence, finally. The man didn’t speak, just stood behind her, waiting to see what his fate would be.
            “What’s your name?” Ceridwen moaned into the door.
            The man shifted, his chains clanking against the stone floor. “Emil.”
            She turned, realizing as she did that she still held onto his gold chain. She dropped it in disgust and hurried to a wardrobe in the corner. When she turned back, Emil stood before her, unmoved, blinking curiously. As if being away from Simon had woken him up. Now that he was coming out of his stupor, it looked as if he couldn’t remember how he had gotten here.
            The Summerians always looked the same. Dazed and deliriously happy—until they were returned to their cages. Until Simon was done with them. Then they woke up muscle by muscle, every area of their body remembering what had happened to them in slow, debilitating clarity. It was like a drug wearing off, a strong drink leaving their system, until there was nothing left inside of them but them. Ceridwen couldn’t count the number of times she had heard weeping echo through the palace after a celebration.
            And now . . . the Ventrallan captives looked the same.
            Ceridwen could barely bring herself to consider what this meant. How had Simon done it? It was impossible. The Royal Conduits only affected their respective kingdoms, and even if it were somehow Jesse controlling his own people, he would have to be close by, close enough for Ceridwen to know he was here. And Jesse may have been weak, but he was not cruel.
            What had Simon done?
            Emil shook his head, gripping his temples. The chains around his wrists clanked and swayed, but his attention broke between his returning focus and Ceridwen, standing in front of him with a lock picking set in her hands.
            She stepped forward and took one of his hands in hers. The first lock fell in a few easy clicks, and she talked as she went, unable to look at Emil’s face. “This room is on the third floor. There’s a vine outside the second window from the corner that will lead you to the stables. Take a horse and leave through the southwestern gate behind the kitchen garden. It won’t be patrolled. Once you’re in Juli, ride. As hard and as fast as you can, and don’t stop for anything.”
            Ceridwen finished with the second lock and stood again, rummaging through her things until she found a water bag and other supplies she used when on raids. She handed it all to Emil along with some of her clothes and an old pair of boots. “Ride west, and keep riding until you pass into the Southern Eldridge Forest. There’s a camp there, on the far western border, with other people like you. It’s the only place where—” Ceridwen’s hand went to her face, the spot on Emil’s cheek now swollen and disfigured by the branded S.
            She jerked her hand down as realization dawned on Emil’s face. Any kingdom in Primoria would know him by that S, and wouldn’t hesitate to give him back to Summer. He was Ventrallan though—he could easily cover his brand with one of their masks. But one slip was all it took. One mask that didn’t quite fit, one glance from the wrong person, and then what?
            And now, as if that wasn’t enough to separate him from society . . .
            Simon could control him.
            “You need to hide. Go,” Ceridwen whispered. She turned her back on him, busying herself with straightening papers on her desk, pretending ignorance. Pretending she didn’t hear Lekan’s voice in her head warning her: We can save them, Cerie, but this is too obvious
            No. In a few minutes, Ceridwen would call for the guards, sobbing that the Ventrallan had overpowered her, stolen her things, and escaped into the palace. By the time the palace was searched, Emil would be well into Juli.
            Clothing rustled and the window opened in a burst of warm Summer air. For the longest time, Ceridwen just stood there, one hand on her desk, her back to the window.
            She wanted to follow Emil. To climb out her window and dissolve into the Eldridge Forest. To forget that she had ever belonged to a kingdom that could cause such pain.
            To forget how many times she had failed, and would continue to fail, over and over.
            Simon was right—whatever he had done, however he controlled the Ventrallans . . . he was infinite now.
            Unstoppably, horrifyingly infinite.