If archery was in elves’ blood, as all the legends suggested, Yan Jie should’ve been at least half-competent with a bow. She loosed another arrow, and watched as it joined its brethren in the forest behind the target. The Orc King-shaped dummy, though lacking a face, seemed to be sneering.
Maybe she could blame it on her chest, which after too many years of woeful flatness, had finally decided to start growing. And getting in the way. Her widening hips, too, were affecting her proprioception.
“You’re getting better,” her identical twin, Kiri said.
Was she? Jie let out a long sigh. If the world relied on her to kill the Orc King, they might as well start preparing for the next apocalypse.
Layani, the most formidable warrior of the wild elf tribe leaned in, her voice tickling Jie’s ear. “Don’t pinch the notch. Draw back to the same place, under your chin. Don’t think too much.” Without even looking at the target—nor drawing back to the same place as before—she shot. The arrow lodged into the stick target’s head, right where an eye would be.
So much for the theory of breasts getting in the way of bowstrings, since Layani’s bosom all but spilled out of her doeskin bustier. It gave new meaning to the word bust.
Jie suppressed a sigh. Besides her recent body changes, the worst thing that ever happened to her was finding out she was part of a prophecy. Compounding the matter was that it involved a bow and a special arrow. Maybe if she could get close enough, she could stab the Orc King with—
“You won’t get close enough,” a male voice said from behind her.
Jie turned to face Thielas Starsong, prince of the elf queendom of Aramysta.
He’d been forced to give her up at birth. They’d only just met a little over a month ago, turning her sense of self on its head. Now, he wore pristine blue and gold robes of a material she’d never seen; and she’d visited almost every corner of the continent. A thin, silver coronet graced his brow, holding in locks of golden hair.
All around, the wild elves gasped and muttered. Whether it was from his sudden appearance, or their supposed distrust of their civilized brethren, it was impossible to tell.
He pinched the grey fabric of her chameleon suit, then with blinding speed, drew a dagger and raked it across her arm.
“Hey!” she pulled back.
“Surely you’ve noticed that nothing can penetrate the cloth. The Orc King’s skin is like that. Only this can kill him.” Grinning, he held up an arrow. Veins of impurities webbed through its crystalline head.
Kiri drew closer to Jie. Though they hadn’t been able to communicate with each other before, Old Elvish hadn’t been hard to pick up in the few weeks she’d been with the tribe.
“Is that…?” Kiri asked.
Jie nodded. “Our father.”
Kiri’s lips rounded.
Thielas shook his head. “I told you, you were the only one. Meiyun would have told me if there were another.”
Meiyun, Beautiful Cloud. A mother Jie had never even known the name of. The Black Lotus Clan had nicknamed her The Beauty, one of the three legendary young masters who’d supposedly died before her birth. The Architect and The Surgeon had actually been living until just a few weeks ago.
“Then how do you explain them?” Jie gestured to Kiri, and then her younger sister, Kala, who looked just like Jie had twenty-some years ago.
“We are Vrztchkrn,” Kiri said. “You are our… Gvlvthn… our mother.”
Kala and Kiri had tried to explain this, but neither Kiri’s limited Cathayi or Jie’s even-more limited Old Elvish had ever been able to clarify what it meant.
“Origin,” Thielas said in the Hua language. “I’ve heard of magic which can create copies of people. That might explain it: you are the original, on which the Vrztchkrn are based.”
Eight of her, based on what Kala had said, one who’d died trying to kill Princess Kaiya. Jie fought not to laugh. It would strike terror in all the enemies she’d made over the years.
“Now, as for archery: it’s in your blood.” He plucked the bow from her hands and took two arrows from her quiver. His eyes roved over their stone heads, and he nodded. “Nice. But not even these magic-infused arrows can kill the Orc King.”
Jie rolled her eyes.
Testing the draw of the bow, he notched the first arrow. He winked at Layani, and without even looking at the Orc King target, took two shots in quick succession. The first hit the target’s other eye, while the second split Nayori’s arrow.
“Wow.” Kiri gawked.
Jie tried not to. Instead, she muttered, “Showoff.”
No doubt, Layani would rise to the challenge.
But no, she cast a smoldering gaze at Thielas, while flaunting her aforementioned bosoms and slowly drawing her lower lip through her teeth.
Her father, and her teacher? Eww! Jie glared at them both. “Get a hut.” She lifted her gaze to the magically hidden treetop village.
“Sadly, I’m in too much of a hurry to give this most important task the time and attention it deserves. Perhaps later?” Thielas lifted an eyebrow toward Layani.
With a crooked grin, she nodded.
Apparently satisfied, he turned to her. “I need your help.”
“You need my help?” Jie snorted. “Can’t you just magic up or shoot out your problem?”
“No, I need your unique talents to save my homeland, the
Queendom of Aramysta.”
Had Jie known helping Thielas meant actually visiting a kingdom—no, queendom— full of elves, she would’ve never agreed. Still, standing on the balcony of Aramysta’s towering palace, which provided a sweeping view of the valley, she never knew such beauty could exist.
Unlike in most human domains, where cities boasted dominance of the land around them, elvish architecture embellished and complemented the natural world. Crystalline towers soared into the cerulean sky, blending with eldarwood trees five times larger than the same species in Cathay. Waterfalls rippled under vaulting arches.
More elves than Jie had ever seen in one place—admittedly, she’d only met three in the past— strolled about their daily lives. The fragrances of dozens of unfamiliar flowers knitted together in a heady tapestry of scents, overwhelming her poor nose.
And everywhere was a near-tangible thrum of life.
“Of Istrium,” Thielas said. “That’s what you feel.”
The elf was reading her mind again, and she turned to frown.
“I’m sorry, I’ll stop.” His gaze on her looked so different from anyone else’s. Not the anger of enemies or admiration of clan members. Not the disdain of warriors, or the lust of wanton men. Uncertainty, perhaps? He grinned. “Surely you have noticed the blue light near the pyramids, paladin swords, and dragon eyes.”
She gave a tentative nod. “I’ve met many who’ve tried to explain it.”
“You feel it, and it seems you have instinctively learned how to borrow it in your fighting. Like a Paladin.” He scrutinized her.
Jie smirked. “Will I be singing Dragon Songs next?”
He laughed, then leaned in conspiratorially. “I have a secret to tell you: do you remember the legends of the Elf Angel Aralas teaching his human lovers based on their natural affinities?”
“Of course.” She shrugged. It was in all the histories. Up to now, she’d personally experienced Cathayi evoking magic through artistic endeavor, Ayuri Bahaadur through martial skill. The Estomari could Divine the future, while Nothori Empaths could read minds or even control someone like a puppet. Levanthi Akolytes could channel Divine blessings into healing, while Kanin Shamans could harness the power of nature.
He came closer and whispered, “It’s not the whole truth. Anyone who can sense the energy of istrium—whether they hear the Resonance of the Universe, feel the Vibrations of the World, listen to Gods’ Whispers, or whatever—can use any type of magic.”
Her jaw might’ve touched the pinkish tiles on the floor. It looked as if Brehane’s theory of all magic being the same was true. “Why is this a secret?”
“Come in, and I’ll tell you.” He took a tiny marble from a small embroidered pouch at his waist, and waved it in front of the vaulting balcony doors. When they swept open, he beckoned for her to follow.
Her gaze lingered on the doors. Down in the city below, other elves had also used stones from hip pouches to unlock the entrances to their homes. She could’ve never imagined magic being commonplace.
“Keystones,” he said, holding it up. “Now come in, so I can tell you our people’s secret.”
Not like they were really hers.
His apartments comprised several rooms with crystalline walls, all curves and no corners. Artwork of colored shells depicted whimsical landscapes hung on the wall, along with several stringed instruments.
After she sat in a cushioned chair, he took a seat and met her gaze. “Our ancestors didn’t trust humans back then. If you see how humans have abused their limited power in the thousand years since, our forefathers were probably right.” He chuckled.
Having just witnessed a power struggle among human empires, Jie couldn’t disagree. Still, being contrarian was in her nature. She frowned.
His expression turned serious. “In any case, it has become near-fact: humans have such short lives, the most gifted have a hard time mastering even one form of magic. And because of humans’ inexplicable and utterly simplistic emphasis on skin color, they hoard what they unquestioningly believe is their ethnic group’s birthright magic.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but then closed it. He wasn’t wrong.
“Now you,” he continued. “You have elf blood flowing through your veins. And not just any elf-blood, but high-elf ichor, passed down from Aralas, himself. With training, maybe you could sing a Dragon Song. If you so desire.”
Jie snorted. For now, let Regent Kaiya be the only one. “If elves have such incredible magic, why do you need the help of a half-breed like me?”
“Because magic can be blocked by durastrium.”
“You’ve seen it. The medal that First Consul Geros wore. The collar he put around Princess Kaiya’s neck. The Eldaeri swords. The thin layer on the bottom of the pyramid Blocking Stones.”
“Oh.” It was that grey metal that felt so… cold, dead. Had she been able to sense magic all this time?
“A small Dragonstone was stolen,” he said. “It’s magic radiates so strongly, it should stand out like a beacon at night. The only way we couldn’t find it is if it were hidden within a durastrium container.”
“And so you need someone who can unravel a mystery, without magic.” She chuckled. Maybe they’d be better served by Tian, but he was serving the Regent in more ways than one. Her arm went numb, and she shook the thoughts out of her head.
He nodded. “Yes. Magic comes second nature to us, and perhaps we rely on it too much. That’s where we could use the investigative skills you gained in the Black Lotus Clan.”
“What’s so special about this Dragonstone?”
“It’s a betrothal gift to the Crown Princess.”
She stared at him, incredulously. “All this, for a gift that ensures a wedding?”
“It’s more than that.”
Jie sighed. It appeared her lot in life would be manacled to princesses. Headstrong princesses. Demure princesses. Ranger princesses. “Go on.”
“Come with me.” He took her hand and spoke a word of magic.
Colors swirled. Her head spun, and she would’ve fallen had he not supported her. If she never teleported again, it would be too soon.
“More warning next time!” She poked him in the ribs.
“You’ll get used to it.” He flashed a sheepish grin. “Now look. And listen. And feel.”
They stood in a vaulting hall of crystal, where a myriad of sparkling lights flitted across the walls. It flashed from a transparent sphere suspended in midair. The size of a head, it spun in a chaotic pattern. The thrum of the world felt strong here, more resonant than even around the pyramids.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“The Font of Life. Both here in Araymysta, and in her brother kingdom of Aerilysta, the magic bubbling in these chambers generate cloaks which have hidden us from the outside world since the Twilight of Istriya. It makes our realms inaccessible, save through certain points.”
Jie blew out a surprised breath. The Tivari Orcs had enslaved mankind and nearly exterminated the elves during the Twilight of Istriya, an unfathomable length of time ago. The thousand years since the War of Ancient Gods, which ended with the Tivari’s overthrow, was already too hard to conceptualize. She asked, “What does this have to do with the dragonstone?”
Thielas gestured to different colored gemstones embedded in the wall, from where rays of light emanated. “Those are dragonstones. One for each of the twelve noble houses.”
“But now, there are only eleven.” Jie made a show of counting the gems in the wall. Diffuse blue light spilled from a hole where a twelfth should’ve been seated.
“Yes, when removed from its niche, the others make up for it, but the power of the cloak weakens. Over time, more gaps will open up. In a few months, the cloak will collapse.”
Jie nodded in slow bobs. “Just like magical fields weakening around the pyramids when they are capped.”
Perhaps this was all a mistake, and not a theft. She walked over to the spot and knelt by the hole. “Do they ever get removed for any reason? Routine cleaning?”
“Not for routine cleaning,” he said following her. “Really, besides as betrothal gifts, the only time they’ve ever been removed is when we need to use them to focus magical energy to protect the realm.”
A chill ran up Jie’s spine. Maybe whoever stole the stone wanted to evoke some fell magic. Another Hellstorm, maybe. Or, prevent the elves from defending themselves. And the prime candidate, who had access to durastrium… “The Orc King.”
“That’s my fear,” Thielas said.
“He’d need help on the inside. Any suspects?”
Thielas flashed a sheepish grin. “That’s why I brought you here.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. “You said the dragonstone was a betrothal gift.”
He nodded. “Yes. It’s a formality. It’s only removed for an hour for the groom-to-be to present it to the Crown Princess in a betrothal ceremony.”
If it were Jie planning a heist, she’d try to intercept it either on its way or way back to the ceremony. “And so after the groom-to-be gave it to her—”
Thielas shook his head. “The betrothal ceremony isn’t until midnight. The Keeper of the Font noticed it missing this morning.”
So someone had actually come to the chamber to remove it. It was time to gather evidence and establish a timeline. She ran a finger around the rim of the hole and sniffed. The exfoliated elf bits smelled like a mix between honey, lilac, and jasmine. She walked over to the next dragonstone and studied the way the light concentrated from the facets on the underside to a beam at the tip. She turned to Thielas. “How hard is it to remove one?”
“The stone would need to be quieted first.”
“Quieted?” She cocked her head.
“Each resonates with its own song.”
“Who could quiet it?”
“A Dragon Singer could sing to it.”
To think, a year ago, the idea of singing to stones would’ve sounded silly. After watching Regent Kaiya transform the dragon Avarax into a human with a song, Jie couldn’t doubt the power of music. “If what you say it true, that anyone with an affinity for magic can sing a Dragon Song, our culprit could be any elf, or Princess Kaiya. I think we can rule her out.”
He nodded. “Also, after the Song is quieted, the ward would need to be removed.”
“Who can do that?”
“The heads of the great houses know the spell to unlock the ward on their own stone. The Keeper, as well as the Queen, can unlock all of them. Each of the Keeper’s twelve apprentices know at least one, but not more than four of the wards.”
“Is that what the Keeper and apprentices do?” Jie asked. “It seems like a lot of resources dedicated to something that only happens when a Crown Princess gets betrothed.”
“The dragonstones can sometimes fall out of tune. The Keeper and apprentices also sing to the stones to maintain their resonance.”
This was getting more complicated by the moment. She scanned the vaulting chamber again. “How does one access this room?”
“Follow me.” He guided her around the sparking sphere to an archway.
The pair of guards flanking the entrance would’ve made for striking figures in their gleaming cuirasses, helms, bracers, and greaves, if they didn’t stand half a head shorter than her. Thin swords hung at their sides, and they held spears.
Jie studied the archway, then turned to the guards. “Have you been standing guard since the disappearance of the jewel?”
“Yes, My Lady,” one answered in a high-pitched voice.
A woman’s voice.
Jie peered through the helm’s wide T-slot.
Maybe this place wasn’t so bad, after all. Jie fought back a grin. “Has anyone entered?”
The guard shook her head. “Only the Keeper, my Lady.”
Jie turned to Thielas. “This is the only possible insertion point?”
“Is it the only way in? Well, besides dropping in like you do.”
“Yes,” he said. “This is the only non-magical entrance.”
“Who else can do that popping in and out, besides you?”
“It’s a rare spell, and it takes a lot of energy.”
Of course, he’d just zapped them over here. She bit back a chuckle. “Think of a list of anyone who can do it. In the meantime, may I speak to the Keeper?”
Thielas nodded, took her hand, and spoke a word of magic.
The colors swirled and re-solidified into another vast room with rows and rows of bookshelves.
Jie scowled. “More warning!”
“I’d think you’d be used to it by now.” He grinned.
“Do you ever walk anywhere?”
“Sure.” He wiggled his foot. “But I need to keep my feet rested.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t you say it took a lot of energy?”
“With Shallow Magic, yes. But I have a lot to spare. And it’s even easier near the Font. Now, let’s find the Keeper.”
Jie let out a long sigh. There was too much to learn about elves and magic. As they navigated through the rows, the wavy elvish runes on the book spines mesmerized her. They passed two pretty, dark-haired acolytes in flowing white robes, both who batted their lashes at Thielas. Given how pale their complexions were, they probably never saw the sun. Thus cloistered away, maybe the only male they ever saw would be their fellow acolytes and some ancient Keeper with a flowing white beard—or did elves grow beards?
She shook the thought out of her head. “Why are there so many books for the Font?”
“There’s a book for each song, for every combination of the three moons’ phases, for each stone. There are also copies of the songs for Aramysta’s Font.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. The dance of the moons went through a cycle every eleven years. Twenty four phases of the Iridescent Moon a day, three hundred and sixty days a year. That was nearly a hundred thousand combinations. For each stone. For both elf realms.
“For each stone,” Thielas said. “Ninety-five thousand, forty songs.”
“Are you reading my mind again?”
“I just guessed.” He grinned. “Whenever you suck on your lower lip, you’re pondering something. Or doing math.”
Had he already figured that out about her in their very limited time together?
“Your mother did that, too.”
Jie’s heart squeezed. All she knew about her mother were the stories the clan told about the Beauty. How many of those were true, she wasn’t certain. But here, Thielas had firsthand knowledge.
That was neither here nor there. One thing was becoming obvious: if there were a hundred thousand songs, it would be near impossible to memorize it. The thief would’ve come here. “Who is allowed in this library, besides the Keeper and acolytes?”
“The Queen, of course, and the heads of the Great Houses.”
“Yes, as members of the royal family.” Thielas turned around. “Keeper.”
Jie followed his motion.
“Prince Thielas.” A stunning woman with glossy black locks curtseyed, her white robes rippling with the motion.
This was the Keeper? She looked younger than Thielas, though that might still make her a hundred years old or more.
Thielas gestured to Jie. “This is my daughter, Jie.”
“Princess.” The Keeper curtseyed again.
Jie returned the gesture, though with much less grace.
Princess? And had the Keeper sunk even deeper?
“How may I assist you?” the Keeper asked.
“Jie wishes to ask you about the missing dragonstone.”
“Of course.” The Keeper curtseyed again.
“What time did you notice it missing?”
“The waning half.”
Mid-morning, then. “When was the last time you saw it?”
“Last night, at full.”
“But the acolytes come in every hour to sing…”
“No,” the Keeper said.
“So why is there a song for every hour?”
“They don’t need to be sung to every hour.” The Keeper giggled, ruining her serene demeanor for a split second. “My apologies. I forget, this is your first time here. No, it is only when a stone falls out of resonance that a Dragon Song is needed to tune it.”
Well, if Regent Kaiya ever needed a new job… Jie snorted. “How often does that happen?”
“On average, every century.”
Jie couldn’t suppress her gasp. Two hundred thousand books, armed guards, Keepers, acolytes… So much effort, over something that happened so rarely. Then again, given how much elves wanted to avoid the outside world, it made sense to take these precautions.
“All right,” she said. “There was a six-hour period between the time the Keeper’s visits where the gemstone was stolen. Where are the books for this block of time for this stone?”
Understanding bloomed on both Thielas’ and the Keeper’s faces. So used to using magic to solve their problems, this simple logic was apparently an epiphany to them.
“Follow me.” The Keeper strode down the row.
Jie and Thielas followed as they took several turns, and only her Black Lotus training helped her keep track of directions. Never once did the Keeper pause until they at last came to a section of purple-bound books. In fact, all the books in this section formed a wall of different shades of lavender.
“Why are they all this color?” Jie asked.
“It matches the color of the stone.” The Keeper smiled and pointed. “It helps in the organization. Now, the six books you are looking for are here.”
Jie peered up at the indicated spot. She’d expected layers of dust, but all looked as worn as if someone had riffled through the pages every day for the last thousand years. She sniffed.
There. A lilac-honey-jasmine scent, in less concentration than the niche which held the dragonstone, strongest at the second book to the left. She pointed to the book. “That’s the one.”
“How can you tell?” Thielas asked.
“The smell.” Surely her senses had been inherited from Thielas, and since her elf-blood was watered down, all of these full-blooded elves had keener noses. Surely they could detect it, too. “It’s the same as around the stone. Can’t you smell it?”
He sniffed. “Now that you mention, it, yes. But I would’ve never thought to do that.”
With magic as their crutch, they hadn’t considered such common sense investigative techniques. No wonder they needed her help. She turned to the Keeper. “What hour does this correspond to?”
“First waning gibbous.”
An hour after the Keeper had left. “Here’s what we know, assuming everyone has told us the truth: the perpetrator entered the Font chamber magically. They knew the spell to unlock the ward on the dragonstone, but didn’t know the song to quiet it until they accessed this book.”
A grim look fell over both Thielas and the Keeper.
No doubt, they’d come to the same conclusion. Jie nodded at them. “Assuming it was neither of you, it was either an acolyte, a member of the royal family, or a Head of Household, or someone with a connection to all of them. The thief might be working for someone else, and not benefit from the stone directly. Who knows the dragonstone is missing?”
“We haven’t told anyone,” Thielas said. “Though the most istrium-sensitive elves might have felt the shift in the cloak, and wonder why.”
Here was a chance. “Is there a way I can meet them?”
He grinned. “Funny you should ask that.”
Had Jie known dresses would be involved, she would’ve never agreed to Thielas’ plan. Though she’d been forced to wear them when disguised as Princess Kaiya’s handmaiden, and when serving as Prince Aryn’s translator, she hated how they affected her mobility.
And, if she admitted it to herself, they were a reminder of her years as a courtesan-in-training in the Floating World, where there were numerous blank spots in her memory.
Now, though, she could only stare at her reflection in wonder. The shoulderless gown she wore weighed no more than air, and looked like webs of starlight made solid. Delicate gold and silver links fastened it to her upper arms, helping the sash between the budding curves of her chest and hips hold the garment up. Slits on either side flared out, leaving her legs bare.
Thielas stepped to her side, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her face, and smiling. “You’re beautiful.”
And he, in a high-collared, not-quite-opaque robes which hinted at the sculpted lines of his chest and abdomen, was ethereally handsome.
She shook the thought of her head. He was her father.
After decades of him being a faceless and selfish object of hatred, he’d turned out to be something else, entirely. But still her father.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Then come.” He extended a hand toward the door, which swept open, either from his magic or its own accord.
They walked through vaulting halls of pink crystal walls and marble floors. Up to today, Jie’d only seen two elves: Thielas, and the late Ariella Strongbow; now, dozens of elves of indeterminate age all paused and bowed. Their gazes weighed heavily on Jie’s bare back.
After enough turns through curved halls that even her Black Fist training couldn’t keep track of, they came to a towering set of silver double doors. The heralds to either side, both armed with swords too thick to be rapiers but too thin to be sabers, bowed.
“This is it,” he said.
Her pulse raced, and every muscle screamed at her to flee.
Like before, these doors swung open of their own accord.
Music from plucked instruments flitted out, as if carried by wind. At the same time, a myriad of foreign and familiar smells bombarded her poor nose, making her head spin.
She stepped into the chamber and had to suppress a gasp.
Dozens of beautiful elves dressed in the finest of raiment danced, and even more held wine glasses while chatting; but all stopped whatever they were doing to stare at her. If she were lithe by human standards, they were even thinner. Though they stood taller than the wild elves, none of the women reached Jie’s eye-level; and she was about as tall as most of the men. Liveried servants mingled among them. They were even shorter than the nobles, and though their features were less refined, they’d still be considered good-looking by human standards.
She ignored the curious eyes and whispers, and instead gazed at the crystalline arches supporting a translucent dome. The only room she’d been in that could begin to compare to this one in size was the palace in Iksuvius. That had been framed by ancient dragon bones, whereas this one…
“Geomancy,” Thielas said. “Our ancestors raised crystal out of the earth and shaped them.”
She frowned. “I told you to stop reading my mind.”
“I was reading your gawk.” He grinned. “Though trust me, I’d love to be able to experience what you are in this moment.”
“Welcome, my niece,” a melodious voice called from the head of the chamber.
“My sister, Queen Amalia,” Thielas whispered.
Jie’s attention shifted to the dais at the front of the room.
The most beautiful woman Jie had ever seen was perched on a crystal throne. Her large, violet eyes seemed as deep as the ocean and ageless as the mountains. The fair skin of her impeccably symmetrical face was flawlessly smooth, without a trace of cosmetics. Silver-gold hair tumbled past her bare shoulder. The translucent blue gown she wore looked to be made of the same material as Jie’s, and even though the style didn’t embellish her curves, no word in any language Jie knew could capture the perfection of queen’s figure.
Nor had Jie ever mentally used two adverbs to describe anything other than the extent of a technique’s lethal efficiency. Certainly not beauty. She was on her knees, forehead to the cold floor, and wasn’t even sure how she’d gotten there.
The room erupted in low chuckles, but fell into an abrupt silence. The queen beckoned for Jie to rise. “My niece, we do not practice these human customs. A curtsey will suffice.”
Heat bloomed in Jie’s cheeks, and she scrambled to her feet. Feminine grace had never come easily. And compared to even the serving elves, the most celebrated Blossoms of the Floating World would be considered ungainly.
“Your Highness,” Jie said, curtseying in the fashion of the Arkothi and Estomari. Her changing body made her feel all the more clumsy.
Jie glared at Thielas. He should have taught her correct etiquette before throwing her to the sharks.
“You may address me as aunt.” Queen Amalia beckoned. “Come closer so my old eyes can see you better.”
Old? The queen looked no older than twenty. Jie leaned in to Thielas and whispered, “Just how old is she?”
Not so deep in dotage that she can’t hear you, his voice spoke in her mind.
Jie’s face burned so hot, no doubt not even the rose lighting could hide her blush.
“But if you must know,” he continued, “three hundred, twenty-s—”
“Tsk,” the queen said. “Never reveal a woman’s age, Brother.”
Approaching, Jie sucked on her lower lip. Ariella Strongbow had also been in her three-hundreds, but looked like a human in her forties. Perhaps the queen’s agelessness was the result of belonging to Aralas’ bloodline?
Yes, Thielas voice spoke in her head. Like you.
He was reading her mind! Again! Not breaking stride, she glared at him.
With a non-apologetic grin, he held up his hands.
Jie came to a stop at the foot of the dais.
The queen rose and glided over. She set her index finger under Jie’s chin and turned her head from left to right, and then up. Unlike the leers of men who’d done the same, the queen’s regard felt more like a doctor’s evaluation.
“You are no doubt a scion of Aralas,” the queen said. “The ichor of the elf angel, himself, pumps through your veins.”
Arteries, technically, but Jie wasn’t going to contradict her.
The queen let out a mellifluous laugh. “Thielas has told me your Elvish name, but what are you called in your own language?”
Elvish name? With so many recent assaults on Jie’s previously secure sense of identity, she wasn’t sure how she felt about this newest revelation. “Jie.”
“Jie,” the Queen repeated, pronunciation as perfect as if Cathayi was her native language. With other foreigners, it tended to enter through their ears and leave their lips chewed up and mangled. Jyeh, Jiyah, Jyah…
Jie wasn’t sure if she was appreciative, or not just a little jealous at her aunt’s linguistic abilities.
The queen beckoned toward the side of the dais. “Come Kahala, Melana, meet your cousin, Jie.”
Jie followed the gesture to where two gorgeous elf maidens danced with young men.
The two girls could’ve been younger versions of the queen, with violet eyes and lustrous gold hair. They looked like human teens, about the same age as Jie, and their matching translucent amethyst gowns left little to the imagination.
Jie twisted a lock of her own brown hair. How ugly it was in comparison. She dropped her hand, lest someone mistake her for Regent Kaiya.
Kahala and Melana disengaged from their dance partners, though Kahala’s gaze lingered on the dashing youth with silver hair before she turned away.
“Cousin Jie,” the princesses said in unison, repeating her name perfectly and curtseying with more grace than even a Floating World Blossom could achieve.
If Jie had hated elves for superfluous reasons before, now she could blame it on their perfection.
Princess Kahala took Jie’s hands. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Uncle Thielas never told us about you.” She flashed a look at Thielas.
Thielas put his hand to his chest. “As I’ve said, I needed to keep her identity secret.”
“Yes, yes,” said the queen with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “The prophecy.”
The dismissiveness in both her tone and gesture, as well as the snickers among the courtiers, suggested that the population of prophecy believers was exactly one.
No matter, it was time for Jie to continue with the investigation. Feigning enthusiasm, she squeezed Kahala’s hands. “Thielas wanted me to attend your betrothal ceremony.”
Kahala frowned for a split second before plastering a smile as fake as pyrite on her face. “Thank you for honoring me.”
Unless elf expressions differed from humans, she wasn’t happy about the arrangement. If Jie was to be the clueless foreigner, she was going to milk her perceived ignorance for all it was worth. “Who is the lucky lord?”
Kahala’s eyes darted to the crowd.
Jie didn’t turn around, but extrapolated the direction. Despite her awe when approaching the throne, her subconscious training had burned the relative positions of the courtiers in her mind’s eye. It’d been her blackrobed dancing partner. Even among a beautiful people, he’d stood out as exquisitely handsome.
And given his aloof demeanor, he probably knew it. Maybe that’s why Kahala didn’t want to marry him.
“Let me introduce you to him.” Turning Jie around, Kahala guided her toward the nobles.
A grin tugged at Jie’s lips. She’d never turned down an opportunity to meet a gorgeous man. So what if he were betrothed? Or an elf?
But… they weren’t headed toward the black-robed one.
Instead, they came to a boy, thin even for an elf, and about the same age as Kahala—which was to say, they were anywhere from two to three times as old as Jie— cowered back.
Kahala’s lips tightened into a line. “Cousin Jie, meet my betrothed, Raelas of House Sunspear.”
There was little joy in her voice.
Prodded by a pair of older elves who took the wine glass from his hand, Raelas stumbled forward and bent into an ungainly bow. “W-well m-met, Princess J-jie.” Unlike the princesses, he mangled her name.
“Lord Raelas.” Jie curtseyed, relieved that at least one person in this room was just as imperfect as her. And in some ways, his adorable awkwardness was reminiscent of Tian’s.
Wait. That word again.
The courtiers turned and exchanged low murmurs.
Heavens, did she just say that aloud, or think it? This couldn’t be right.
“Yes.” A silver-haired man behind the queen made a show of counting on his fingers. “As daughter of Thielas Starsong, you are tenth in line to the throne, after Kahala and Melana; your aunts Lenara and Feyona; their five daughters, and your great-aunt Riyara.”
Back where they’d left Melana, several golden-haired elf maidens curtseyed in turn. The last and eldest looked no older than a thirty-year-old human.
Relief washed over Jie. Considering that even Great Aunt Riyara would probably outlive her, there was no need to worry about inheriting rulership of the queendom. Though if she were as conniving as the recently-deceased Peng Kai-Long, who’d almost succeeded in usurping Cathay’s throne…
Shaking the silly thought out of her head, Jie turned her attention back to Raelas. The missing dragonstone belonged to his House Sunspear.
It was time to get over her awe of this place and focus. Jie caught the young man Kahala had shown interest in in the corner of her eye.
He glared at Raelas’ back with even more disdain than Kahala had.
It was all starting to make sense. What if the Orc King wasn’t involved at all? What if elves were as conniving backstabbers as Floating World Blossoms? What better way to thwart a marriage than to steal the betrothal gift?
It was time to test that theory.
Arranging her expression into her most seductive look—Tian said it looked more like she was about to stab someone—she turned to him and curtseyed. “My lord, may I have your name?”
Kahala’s sharp stare on Jie’s back felt like a stab. So much for making friends with a royal cousin.
The young man passed his carafe to a bystander and dipped into a gallant bow. “I am Mikalas of House Skyblade. I am pleased to meet your acquaintance.” He straightened, revealing a charming, if crooked smile. On looks alone, it was no wonder Kahala would choose dashing Mikalas over clumsy Raelas.
And, he smelled of honey, just like the rim of the missing dragonstone’s niche.
And now that her nose had gotten used to all the new and strange scents, it picked out the lilac and honey somewhere in the chamber, impossible to pinpoint among the hundred plus dancing elf nobles.
In any case, she had a clue and time was of an essence. Feigning lightheadedness, she set the back of her forehead. “Oh…”
“What’s wrong?” Mikalas asked?
She wobbled, then staggered a few steps before falling into him.
His arms swept out and caught her. “Are you alright?”
Caught up in the arms of a gorgeous man, yes. Even more so, since she slipped his little keystone pouch from his sash and closed her hand around it. Channeling her inner Princess Kaiya, she turned her head a fraction and gave a shy nod. “I’m sorry my lord. It’s so overwhelming here… Father?” The word tasted strange in her mouth.
Thielas was at her side. “Are you all right?”
“I just need some fresh air.”
Taking her hand, he turned back to the throne. “With your leave, My Queen.”
“Please make sure Jie gets some rest.” Queen Amalia nodded her ascent. “I do hope she can return for the ceremony in three hours.”
“Thank you,” Jie said.
When the throne room doors closed behind them, Thielas turned to her. “Are you all right?”
She straightened. “Yes. Better than ever. I suspect Mikalas is involved somehow.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I think he and the Crown Princess have some kind of relationship.”
Thielas’ head bobbed. “They have spent a lot of time together. So he has a motive.”
“And, his smell was in the missing dragonstone’s niche. I want to search his home.”
“It’s warded,” Thielas said, “so I can’t teleport in. You’d need his keyst—”
Jie held out the little keystone. “Compliments of Mikalas.”
“You’re just like your mother.” Shaking his head, Thielas
chuckled. “We don’t have much time before the betrothal, so we need to go now.”
Jie stood with Thielas by one of the many soaring eldarwood trees, just outside House Sunspear’s sparkling tower. It was one of twelve which encircled the palace, which vaulted even higher into the sky.
With the sun close to setting, the long shadows would provide more cover than trying to move undetected by elves’ night vision. Had they not been in such a hurry, she would’ve returned to Thielas’ suite for her evil twin’s chameleon suit. It kept her invisible, silent, and scentless to even the Black Lotus Temple dogs.
Two guards flanked the high-arched double doors, both in resplendent robes and armed with straight swords. It would be a near-impossible insertion point, so Jie scanned the balconies while asking, “These guards, the palace heralds, and servants… they’re all shorter than the courtiers.”
“Yes. The nobles all come from Aralas’ bloodline.”
Jie chuckled. “Among humans, mingling with people who shared bloodlines rarely has good results.”
“But in this case, we share the divine ichor of Aralas. His perfection transcends generations.”
The elf angel had supposedly had a human fetish. His nine human lovers had been instrumental in overthrowing their orc slave masters. It seemed he’d scattered his seed wide among the elves, too. She looked to Thielas. “So let me get this straight: the wild elves are the ones who didn’t acknowledge Aralas as a messenger from the gods. The ancestors of the elves here did, and some even mated with him.”
“That about sums it up.” Thielas grinned. “With the exception of Aralas’ longer-lived, taller descendants, all elves here and in Aerilysta aren’t physically different from the wild elves.”
“And they’re servants and guards?”
“And craftsmen, soldiers, farmers…”
She held her hands out at different levels. “Is that like the Ayuri caste system?”
He shook his head. “No, everyone is equal. A noble doesn’t enjoy any more rights than a stable boy.”
It all sounded fair in theory, but in practice, the courtiers in their pretty clothes clearly enjoyed privilege. “Could the stable boy marry a princess?”
“Our word for marriage has a different connotation than in human languages. For us, it’s a term that applies only to an arrangement between the noble houses and the ruling bloodline. But elves, in general, are free-spirited and independent.” He flashed his devilish grin. “We don’t really care what body parts get put where, and for how long or short those relationships last. Gods, I can’t imagine being with the same person for ten years, let alone a couple hundred. So, what can you tell me about your archery teacher?”
No, no. She shook her head. “What about children?”
“Where they come from?” His grin broadened. “I wish your mother were still alive to have this conversation with you…”
Cheeks heating, she poked him. “You know what I mean!”
“Children happen. They are treasured and cared for. What’s the human expression? It takes an idiot? No, wait. It takes a village.”
They’d wasted too much time chatting about this. Snorting, she pointed to a limb hanging over a third floor balcony. “I’m going to climb that tree and jump over.”
“That’d be the grand hall. Their family’s residential quarters will be near the top.” He scratched his ear. “There not nearly enough time to teach you how to use the keystone to levitate up and down the central shaft, so you’ll have to go by foot.”
Levitate? She shook the wonder out of her head and held up the stone between a finger and thumb. “Do I need to do anything to access his room?”
“No, the keystone will automatically unlock and open any door he has access to.” He handed her a red gem. “Squeeze this anchorstone, and I will be able to teleport you to me. However, it has to be outside of the tower, where there are no wards.”
“Thank you.” She squirrelled the gem into her sash, then knotted the dangling sections of her dress together. The tree’s gnarled bark provided plenty of hand and foot holds between limbs, and even with the changes in her proprioception, she reached the balcony with ease.
Moment of truth. She held Mikalas’ keystone to the doors.
They swept open.
The grand hall took up the entire level, thirty-feet high and about a hundred and fifty feet in diameter. Though bright light shined in shaft taking up a third of the center, the rest of area was dimly lit. From where, it was impossible to tell, because it seemed to come from everywhere. The crystalline columns cast no shadows across the speckled stone floor of the otherwise empty space. Distant, muffled voices spoke in Elvish.
She dashed from one column to the next, pausing each time to check for guards, until reaching the elegantly-carved balustrade around the central shaft. A quartet of ramps spiraled around the inside, providing four access points to each level. Unless House Skyblade was worried about escape routes during a fire, the multiple ramps served no purpose other than to look pretty and flaunt the family’s power.
Jie hazarded a glance from floor to ceiling. A mosaic formed the crest of a blue sword in the clouds. High above, it looked as if the tower opened to the air; but six strutting pigeons revealed it to be a clear dome. If the paladin’s Silver Citadel in Vyara City and the Eldaeri palaces had seemed to be improbable feats of architecture, this tower was an impossible one.
She started winding up, staying low and close to the solid, but almost translucent bannister. The next two levels looked much like the grand hall: open spaces, though only a third of the height. Above that, the ramps sided up to mezzanines encircling each floor, with open archways leading into sitting rooms, libraries, art galleries, a training room, and other chambers. Whenever the voices or footfalls of liveried servants approached, she ducked into one.
At one point, an elf woman in blue servant’s livery floated up through the shaft. Jie pressed against the ramp’s bannister to stay out of her line of sight. She patted the keystone on her sash. If she knew how it worked, it might be fun to fly like that; though she’d stand out like a bride on her wedding day.
Or a frumpy half-elf among elegant elves.
By the time she neared the top, her legs let her know flying would’ve been a nice option. Open archways had given way to closed, unlocked doors, which in turn gave way to locked doors. The keystone opened most of the latter, leading to an armory, a laboratory with magical trinkets, another library, and the like. Up here, it was deserted.
At last, Mikalas’ honey-jasmine-lavender scent wafted out when she opened the door, though not strong enough to suggest he was there. After listening to make sure no one else was inside, she slipped in. Like in Thielas’ apartments, this room, with its four doors, looked to be antechamber of a larger suite. Unshuttered, geometric lamps illuminated the room in magic light. The hard lines of the sofas and chairs, combined with the bold colors of the artwork, gave the room a masculine feel. It was less like the Spartan barracks of Bovyan shocktroopers, and more like the simple, minimalist but practical aesthetic of the Nothori folk.
A large window provided a stunning view of the valley, while the door beside it led out onto a balcony. She made a quick look into each of the other three doors. A study; a dark and empty meditation room; and a bedchamber. An open door in the bedroom revealed a lit closet and changing room.
Jie sucked on her lower lip as she scanned the area. If she were a dragonstone nestled in a durastrium container, where would she be hiding? Certainly not in the antechamber, and the only thing that could be found in the meditation room would be a sense of self. She headed to the study.
The books on the shelves looked to have been undisturbed for at least several days, and Mikalas’ scent didn’t linger there. The desk’s various compartments didn’t hide anything more interesting than writing implements. The space between the rooms didn’t suggest there was space for a compartment between the walls; and in any case, elves seemed to prefer interdimensional magic spaces—which durastrium would probably negate.
Of course, that was it! She closed her eyes and felt for that cold sensation, that empty space where magic couldn’t exist.
There. A faint impression. She opened her eyes and looked in the direction. It was on the other side of the wall, lining up with the dressing room. She ducked out of the study, strode through the bedchambers, and into the closet.
Rows of elegant tunics and robes hung on opposite walls, while shelves on either side of a full-length mirror held jewelry and shoes. She closed her eyes again.
The cold, unsettling sensation of durastrium came from near the mirror. As she approached, it emanated from one of the leather boots with shiny buckles. Going up onto her tiptoes, she peeked inside.
A smooth, grey metal box rested in the bottom. Cylindrical in shape, it was easily large enough to hold the missing Dragonstone. It would negate any magical wards, and there didn’t appear to be any physical traps, so she reached in and pulled it out.
It felt cold to the touch. It rattled when shook, though there didn’t appear to be any seams. How it opened—
Back in the antechamber, the doors swooshed open. Two sets of footsteps staggered in, bringing with them the smacking of urgent kisses and primal moans.
Oh, shit, they were coming closer.
She could close the closet door, but if Mikalas remembered he’d left it open…
Jie slipped behind a row of hanging clothes.
The amorous couple tumbled into the bed in a fit of giggles and the sound of falling robes. In a matter of seconds grunting and moans, and the slap of flesh on flesh ensued.
It wasn’t the first or even fiftieth time Jie had snuck around couples in the throes of pleasure. It made it quite easy, really. The scent of honey, lavender, and jasmine now filled the room. She peeked out.
Mikalas stood with his back to her, his bare bottom perfectly round as he took his partner from behind. Cousin Kahala? Was a young princess allowed to have sex before marriage? That certainly wasn’t the case in any human realm she’d ever visited, though she’d never visited Brehane’s homeland, and their matriarchal society probably encouraged it.
In any case, Mikalas would be too busy to—
He pulled out and started to turn.
Jie ducked back into closet.
“I’ll be back with that toy you like,” Mikalas said, voice thick.
Oh, my. Having never been around elves, Jie wasn’t sure how they were equipped; but she was living proof that they couldn’t be that different from humans. Maybe—
Mikalas’ footsteps approached.
Shit. She slipped back behind his robes.
He strode through the closet to the mirror, and in her fascination, she peeked between the hanging clothes to see what kind of toy elves used.
He was holding a boot upside down, shaking it.
She looked down at the cylinder in her hand, aghast at where it might’ve been.
No, certainly not in any bodily orifice, especially not elves, who were smaller in stature. And this was certainly a container, based on its rattling earlier.
The clothes parted with a swoosh, revealing a naked Mikalas. His arousal stood at attention, as only a young man’s could.
“You.” Glaring, he grabbed her, his hand blurring with its speed.
With her free hand, she seized his hand and twisted his wrist, buckling him to his knees. He kicked up, throwing his body in the direction of her torque. Flipping head over heels, he landed on his feet and pulled his hand back. His barrage of punches sent her reeling through the clothes and sending her to the stone floor. Pain flared in her chest, stomach, side, and face.
Fast. He was so fast. Like a Paladin.
“The queen sent you, didn’t she?”
Queen? Did the queen want evidence of Princess Kahala’s indiscretion? Jie popped back to her feet and tossed the case at him. When he caught it, she launched her own barrage of attacks. Now, his movements seemed as if he were slogging through water. She parried or evaded his attacks as she closed. She seized his arm, and with a jolt of her hip, sent him slamming into the floor. She bucked back the other way and flew into an armbar.
“What’s in the box?” she demanded, though a voice that sounded suspiciously like Tian’s in her head said it wasn’t the Dragonstone.
“It’s none of your business.” He gritted his teeth.
She arched her hips, making him squirm, but not eliciting a confession. She kicked the case up and released him. Back-rolling up, she caught the case as she gained her feet, then turned around bolted from the dressing room.
“Stop her!” Mikalas yelled.
The lumpy shape squirmed beneath the covers of the bed, making no move to block her way. Running through the antechamber, Jie withdrew the keystone and tossed it toward the balcony doors. She turned sideways to slip through, then, retrieving Thielas’ anchorstone, threw herself over the rail.
Air gushed around her as gravity demanded its tithe. She squeezed the stone.
Dammit, this was a fine time for her father to abandon her, yet again. And of course, Mikalas chose a room with no nearby trees. Where was he, that—
Oh, the durastrium case.
She heaved it toward a copse of trees, then squeezed the anchorstone again. Blades of light sprayed from between her fingers.
Nothing happened. The ground rushed up.
To think, she’d survived dozens of orcs, Golden Scorpions, a war, sure drowning, and now she was about to end up as half-elf splatter on the sparkling pave—
Colors swirled around her. The wind silenced. She found herself back in Thielas’ apartments, with him grinning over her.
“Why are you lying splayed out like that?” he asked.
She bolted to her feet. “What took you so long?”
His forehead scrunched up. “What happened?”
“I jumped from the tower.”
“Because I thought I could fly?”
He chuckled. “Did you find the Dragonstone?”
“Maybe. I found a durastrium case.” She formed the shape in the air with her hands. “I couldn’t open it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have been able to teleport you if you’d been holding it. Where is it now?”
“Near the Skyblade tower.” She sucked on her lower lip. Tian would’ve been able to calculate out its exact location based on her height when she’d thrown it… Her right arm went limp for a split second, forcing her to shake him out of her thoughts.
He took her hand and spoke a word of magic. Colors swirled again, and she found herself behind the same tree as before, outside the Skyblade residence’s main gates. Unlike before, when just two men stood guard, several soldiers scurried about.
“What did you do?” Thielas whispered.
“Besides jumping out of the tower? I exchanged blows with Mikalas, and may or may not have dislocated his arm.”
“Is that all?” He smirked.
“Come on.” She darted from tree to tree to the south side of the tower, with him a few steps behind.
Even more elves gathered around here, some looking up to the balcony from which she’d jumped.
She gestured in an arc, away from the tower. “It has to be around here somewhere. Can you use magic to find it?”
He snorted. “If I could, I wouldn’t have needed your help tracking it down.”
“No, in reverse. Magic dissipates around it.”
Understanding bloomed in his expression. For someone who’d used magic for decades longer than she’d been alive, surely he would’ve thought of this on his own? “I have a good spell, but they’ll see it.”
“I’m good at finding blind spots among moving people. Wait for my signal.” Without waiting for him to respond, she turned back to watch the tower.
The Skyblade retainers, nine in all, milled around like ants around an anthill. The way they scanned the ground, they must also be looking for the case. Soon, though, their pattern became clear. Just before all backs were turned to them, Jie cut down with her hand and looked back.
Thielas grunted out a single syllable and pointed a finger. A beam of blue light appeared and followed the sweep of his hand. Seventy degrees from the starting point, it blinked out.
She walked along the line, stepping around a tree trunk and jumping over a row of bushes, eyes focused on the ground. Thielas trailed after her.
The cold, empty sensation fell over her, a little prick at first, then increasing. There, in the grass, rose a small dome of darkness in the moonlight. She went over and looked.
The case lay there, split open lengthwise, two halves attached with a hinge. Laying a few feet beyond was a XXX.
QUESTION: Who stole the gem?
Awkward Raelas, because he doesn’t want to marry Kahala
Crown Princess Kahala, because she doesn’t want to marry Raelas
Dashing Mikalas, because he doesn’t want Kahala to marry Raelas
Princess Melana, because she doesn’t want Kahala to marry Raelas
Other (Has to be a Great Lord, Royal Family, or Keeper. Please Explain)
A. A twisted conspiracy
B. A fun mis-understanding.