"Some creatures belong to the night, but there is one that is the night, and it carries the dark on its back." -- Phenomena That Cannot Be Yet Are, Volume 89, p. 2,741
I always wanted to be Princess Salandra, but now I don't even want to be me anymore. Who would have said ten years ago that the prodigal Girl with the Flaming Curls who turns gold into fire with a wave of her hand could have failed so completely on the eve of her seventeenth birthday? No one, that's who. The taste of ashes seizes my throat and I swallow it back down, unable to stop replaying the horror in my mind.
Salandra's ocean blue eyes struck wide with panic. I'll never forget. How her tears graced my shoulder as I held her tight and promised I wouldn't let anything happen to her.
I was never ready for any of this.
My heart prickled and turned cold when darkness overtook the middle of the day. I summoned light through every sweat-flooded pore and heaved fire with each shallow breath. I used up every last bit of fairy dust and toadstool gills. Nothing penetrated the wall of pitch this whateveritwas brought.
The Thing I Could Not See tore Salandra from my embrace as she screamed and I was left a whimpering heap of failure. "Take me, too!" I shouted, "Or haven't you the gall to face a Fire Mage in the fairness of light?"
When the darkness receded, I was left alone with my regret. There must have been something more I could have done. But what? I tried to follow, but there was no trail of any kind at all.
Mother said I could handle this, but then she was always pushing me into trouble. From the very first day I snapped my fingers to light a candle, she began selling my gifts for wealth and social status. A little sleight of hand and the gold went in her pocket and a few toadstool gills went foof into flames. Old money is so easy to fool.
So it should have come as no surprise that her dying wish would be the death of me, too. If only it were swift and final.
Stop the plot to kidnap a princess from each kingdom. That's what I'm supposed to do with a few parlor tricks and all that potential Mother never stopped blathering on about. Anyone can see I'm off to a roaring start.
Protect first. Then rescue any you've lost. They won't hurt any until they have all. That's what Mother told me, and it's clear she knew enough to be worth killing. I always said we should have moved back to Littleville, but she had set her eyes on a baron if not the prince. Well look where it got us. I could have been home on the farm with a cup of warm milk and a block of aged cheese right now, hearing about this terrible news from the shepherd boy next door as his long dark hair gently lifted as the breeze swept in through the open doorway.
His face dissolves into another vision of Salandra's terror. I shake my head but I can't dispel it. Follow the kingdoms south to north and west to east, Mother said. If you fail, get moving before they put a bounty on your head.
The bitch knew I would fail. She knew and yet she made me promise!
When I emerge from the princess' not-so-secret-after-all bunker, I've missed the sunset but the stars lend me solace, twinkling with joy as if the world wasn't any different from yesterday. Though there's a chill in the air, it's so much warmer than the magical night the enemy cast upon me.
I check my pockets to make sure my reagents haven't disappeared. Not that I have any left worth mentioning.
I rip the last eye of peacock feather from my bodice and hope they have peacocks in Quakkao as I toss it up toward the rising moon. It hisses and twists and grows into a gloriously plumed firebird.
"Lovely streaks of blue in your wings." I hop upon his crackling back and he lifts me up, high above the squalid city. This is the best parlor trick I know.
"If Mother was right, Quakkao is next. Princess Mercy will be in danger."
He nods and lifts me above the cloud cover, and the stars shimmer so cheerfully they lighten my heart almost as much as I want to snuff them out one by blissful one. The land below looks peaceful in the scant moonlight. Any other night I would never guess a war was brewing.
I tell the stars and earth together, "I will not rest until Princess Salandra is safe at home." They don't seem affected by my resolve, but it felt good to say out loud what I'd been feeling since that dreadful moment.
We continue to rise, and I feel lighter than air, drifting at speeds ships only know in storms. Watching the treetops pass below is mesmerizing, and I hold tight to the bird's fiery neck as I begin to nod off.
I'm not sure how long I slept before a dream of falling awakens me. It's not just a dream; we are falling! His flames spout all around me. I look down.
Behind us on the ground runs a mass of pitch blackness. Despite our flying at top speed it's gaining.
The dark overtakes me. Even the burning form beneath flashes not a sliver of light inside my eyes. I snap my fingers. Nothing. Of course; just like last time.
"Damn it! Remind me to learn some new spells if we get to Quakkao, please."
The firebird dives. It's a good think I haven't eaten or I'd lose my stomach.
"Don't attack it! Are you trying to get us killed?!"
I hold on and squeeze my useless eyes so tight I'm forced to smile.
Stomping hooves--hooves! A brusque and guttural neigh, the whoosh of my bird's wings setting fire to the air.
Something sharp pierces my thigh, and blood trickles like rain down my leg. Now it's a downpour. I'm being sucked dry!
"Up, you fool! Up! This is why I hate relying on magic!"
I welcome the return of the light though it stings almost as much as my wound. "Wait! Down!" There's a boy facing the black as it hurtles toward him. He's just standing there, like a crazy person. Is he trying to get himself killed?
"Swoop!" The bird does and I grab the idiot by his armpits and he climbs up behind me as the dark overtakes us all. "Up! Faster!"
The light returns and I lose control of my tongue. "What's the matter with you?" I'm more than a little angry that he almost got himself killed, and not just because he could have gotten me killed trying to save him. Not that I've really noticed in the seconds I've known him, but if I had to guess I'd say he has a sense of calm about him. "Are you blind or stupid?"
"The first one," he replied. "How about you?"
"Oh. Sorry, I didn't--" I turn my head to catch a look at his face. Honest nose. Kind brown eyes, which he leaves open. Guess they're good for something.
"It's fine," he laughed. "You're bleeding!"
"It's nothing. How do you know?"
"I felt the blood on your robe when you lifted me. And shouldn't I be uncomfortably warm or something? I hear the crackle of flame and see red shadows dancing around. I'm not utterly blind; I can still sense light and dark."
"The firebird is safe when you're with me. Magic, of course. Don't try to ride one alone."
"Wasn't planning on it. So where are we going?"
"I'll drop you off with your family if they're close."
"We're not. Close. I'm a burden to them."
Pity. He seems about my age. Much too young to be cast out from family. "Then where would you like me to take you?"
"You don't even know me, let alone where I'm going. It's too dangerous."
He runs his hands along my hairline to my forehead, then lingers over my temples, rubbing. Tension melts; his touch is lighter than any healer's. He proceeds to trace the arches of my eyebrows, the outlines of my eyes, the slope of my nose that I've never before wished so hard was gentler. Even the indent between my nose and mouth, whatever it's called; I have no idea, and I can't exactly stop to think now. My heart starts to flutter when he touches my lips, and it makes no sense but I don't really want him to abandon them for my chin, though he does. "I know you now. . ."
"Ember," I finish his sentence. "Ember Ahti. I'm not sure that's all it takes to know someone, and either way, I don't know you."
"Sterling. Pleasure. What's that rider got against you, anyway?"
"Rider? How do you know there was a rider?"
"Didn't you hear her whispering commands or were you too busy shouting your own? A bit obvious, aren't we? Light and noise are always less subtle than dark and silence. Wouldn't you agree?"
I don't know what to say. This is definitely a distraction I don't have time to deal with.
"See? You can't afford not to take me with you."
I lean back as we fly, exhausted, and he catches me and rubs my shoulders just where I hadn't even noticed they hurt. "They're headed for Princess Mercy."
"I know." Well, I'd been pretty sure up until now.
Now, I know. Lucky for us, we seem to be faster. "Fly onward, firebird!" I shout, then remember the mysterious rider probably has ears.
I can whisper, too. "To Quakkao."