Name: Jude Tulli
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: SMOLDERING EMBER
Princesses and kidnapping have a long history together, but this time is infinitely worse because it's all my fault. My mother's dying wish has only taken a week to make me wish I'd been the one to do the dying. It would have been easier.
They say some creatures belong to the night, but there's one that is the night, and it carries the dark on its back. I picture it in my mind and I see nothing. Me, the great Ember Ahti, some ten years past a prodigal childhood filled with foof into flames. Nothing.
The first hint of nightfall caresses the frosted window glass of today's disheveled inn, the Wild Boar or the Buzzard's Nest; goodness knows I can't keep their insipid names straight anymore. I've grown to taking comfort in the gentle kiss of sunlight against my eyelids as I sleep, but my time for rest is almost over and I've enjoyed not a single wink.
No. Instead, I toss and swallow the taste of ashes as I relive the horror. Princess Salandra, her panic-stricken eyes. I'll never forget. How her tears trickled down my shoulder as I embraced her delicate frame and promised I wouldn't lose her. I lied.
I'm not ready for any of this.
I'll never get any sleep now. I toss off the quilt my mother wove and scratch at the rash it's left on my neck. Mother! She got me into this. Then she went and died on me. Bitch.
I run a comb through my long red hair. It bites hard on a tangle and I pull it a little harder. It hurts more but still won't come loose. I throw the comb at the wall and it bounces and hits me in the chin. I don't know why I even try anymore.
Perhaps the king of Quakkao will indulge me with a bath. Not if he knows my success rate, he won't.
Only six more princesses I can fail. Still, it's not over until someone dies who shouldn't. Salandra's still alive. She should be, if Mother's information was true.
Protect first. Then rescue any you've lost. 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.
I check my pockets to make sure my reagents haven't disappeared. Not that I have any left worth mentioning.
I open the window and step outside. 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 twists and crackles 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.
His flames roar as he lets out a reverberating caw and changes direction. My stomach feels as if it's falling. I look down.
Below us the creature runs, and despite our flying at top speed it's gaining. "Can't give up now. We've already sworn to protect Princess Mercy."
A wall of pitch strikes me. Even the burning form beneath flashes not a sliver of light inside my eyes. I snap my fingers. Nothing. Just like last time.
"Damn it! Remind me to learn a stronger light spell when we get to Quakkao, please."
The firebird dives.
"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. "This is why I hate relying on magic!"
Stomping hooves, a brusque and guttural neigh, the whoosh of flaming wings against 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! Now! Up!"
I welcome the return of the light though it stings. "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?"
"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 didn't know there was a rider."
"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."