The Beauty of Darkness - Mary E. Pearson

CHAPTER ONE

Darkness was a beautiful thing. The kiss of a shadow. A caress as soft as moonlight. It had always been my refuge, my place of escape, whether I was sneaking onto a rooftop lit only by the stars or down a midnight alley to be with my brothers. Darkness was my ally. It made me forget the world I was in and invited me to dream of another.

I sank deeper, searching for its comfort. Sweet murmurs stirred me. Only a sliver of golden moon shone in the liquid dark, floating, rocking, always moving, always out of my reach. Its shifting light illuminated a meadow. My spirits lifted. I saw Walther dancing with Greta. Just beyond them, Aster twirled to music I couldn’t quite hear, and her long hair flowed past her shoulders. Was it the Festival of Deliverance already? Aster called out to me, Don’t tarry now, Miz. Deep colors swirled; a sprinkling of stars turned purple; the edges of the moon dissolved like wet sugar into black sky; the darkness deepened. Warm. Welcoming. Soft.

Except for the jostle.

The rhythmic shake came again and again. Demanding.

Stay.

The voice that wouldn’t let go. Cold and bright and sharp.

Hold on.

A broad hard chest, frosty breaths when my eyes rolled open, a voice that kept pulling the blanket away, pain bearing down, so numbing I couldn’t breathe. The terrible brightness flashing, stabbing, and finally ebbing when I could take no more.

Darkness again. Inviting me to stay. No breaths. No anything.

When I was halfway between one world and another, a moment of clarity broke through.

This is what it was to die.

* * *

Lia!

The comfort of darkness was stripped away again. The gentle warmth turned unbearably hot. More voices came. Harsh. Shouts. Deep. Too many voices.

The Sanctum. I was back in the Sanctum. Soldiers, governors … the Komizar.

My skin was on fire, burning, stinging, wet with heat.

Lia, open your eyes. Now.

Commands.

They had found me.

“Lia!”

My eyes flew open. The room spun with fire and shadows, flesh and faces. Surrounded. I tried to pull back, but searing pain wrenched my breath away. My vision fluttered.

“Lia, don’t move.”

And then a flurry of voices. She’s come to. Hold her down. Don’t let her get up.

I forced a shallow breath into my lungs, and my eyes focused. I surveyed the faces staring down at me. Governor Obraun and his guard. It wasn’t a dream. They had captured me. And then a hand gently turned my head.

Rafe.

He knelt by my side.

I looked back at the others, remembering. Governor Obraun and his guard had fought on our side. They helped us escape. Why? Beside them were Jeb and Tavish.

“Governor,” I whispered, too weak to say more.

“Sven, Your Highness,” he said, dropping to one knee. “Please call me Sven.”

The name was familiar. I’d heard it in frantic blurred moments. Rafe had called him Sven. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. I lay on the ground on a bedroll. Piles of heavy blankets that smelled of horses were on top of me. Saddle blankets.

I tried to rise up on one arm, and pain tore through me again. I fell back, the room spinning.

We have to get the barbs out.

She’s too weak.

She’s burning with fever. She’s only going to get weaker.

The wounds have to be cleaned and stitched.

I’ve never stitched a girl before.

Flesh is flesh.

I listened to them argue, and then I remembered. Malich had shot me. An arrow in my thigh, and one in my back. The last I remembered I was on a riverbank and Rafe was scooping me into his arms, his lips cool against mine. How long ago was that? Where