As the heavy door shut behind her, Mirella welcomed the air of the antechamber and its peculiar stillness. Nothing ever moved here; nothing ever would. Usually, she found this sensation distasteful, but after the recent press of the crowd, the undisturbed air was soothing. The thick weight of the door behind her was soothing as well; normally, she shuddered to hear it close but now she leaned against the thick planks, savoring their weight. Mirella was shaking from head to toe.
The Sea Star spends its glory at the Axis Child’s birth, the Hunter had announced. Oren, the Protectra of the Pentacacus, renowned in a tribe of hunters for his prowess. The man who stood watch on the Jutting Rock over their Spring Calling of Spirits, yet hadn’t seen her hiding in the fork of the green ash tree. But then, she hadn’t seen any spirits either, and by the reaction of the tribe, they were certainly present.
The Whitehairs chosen to receive the spirit’s touch, fell like lead, returning to consciousness in a series of jerks and grunts. The Shautu stood among them, the respected, feared Shautu, body bared and painted, shouting gibberish at the sky.
Only the Hunter remained calm, seemingly unaffected by this rain of spirits. He kept silent, watching the sky. Despite the terror and drama of the callings, she could barely keep her eyes from him, fascinated by his beauty. She’d yearned to reach out and touch his skin. It was an innocent wish, for she was still a maiden, but the need was real. She’d wanted to connect with his world in whatever way possible, to feel herself drawn in. What had actually happened was that he’d looked in her direction, and she’d shivered back among the tree limbs. If he’d seen her, he gave no sign.
For a Shivelite to spy out a Spring Calling was so unthinkable that she’d never been warned against it, and Mirella had been slipping out for several years before she was caught. Always the voice came to her in the dead of night, tickling her ear until she was urgent with flight. The spirits have come. They are waiting. And she’d rise straightaway for the mountains of High North, wearing only a night rail.
There was never a visible sign of her nocturnal journey afterward; her gown remained untorn, her feet unmuddied. These expeditions might have gone on indefinitely had she not been caught by her father early one dawn. Tallis Taylor, First Man, had surprised her as she stole in at daybreak with dew on her feet and an altered expression in her eyes.
A cold man, he was nonetheless her father, so she’d confessed everything at once. Mistaking the horror in his eyes for disbelief, she plunged ahead, recounting the strange gibberish in a fair imitation of the Shautu’s voice. Too late had she seen the horror, the anger tightly held inside. She’d kept to her room after that, and the next week Tallis Taylor had sent her off with a sealed request to be handed to the High King of Casoria.
Mirella hadn’t opened the letter and had assumed it was a petition asking for a position to serve in the court in a minor capacity, as she had no royal blood. And serve she had. In the short time she’d been at Castle Ursaulis, Mirella had gained the trust of the Queen.
She served Queen Laveth gladly. She had a home now, a purpose. Never again would she mimic a gibbering tongue or hie to a voice awakening her at night. Her father had cast her from the camp for those reasons, but that was over. After today, Oren Hunter was responsible for marking her life. Mirella shivered as she began the first step down the treacherous stairway. Save for the light in the antechamber and the garish light which spilled from the room under the stairwell, there were no torches to guide her. Nonetheless, she hurried. She must get to the Queen.
“The Sea Star spends its glory at the Axis child’s birth,” he had said calmly, blue eyes as cool before the King as they’d been before the roaring bonfires, and so he’d turned their world upside down.
Mirella slipped, and threw out a hand to steady herself. She was nearly at the bottom, only five more steps. She hitched her skirts in anticipation of Elymas’s ghastly light. Not only did she avoid looking at it, she refused to step in it as well, hiking her skirts and jumping over the pattern it made on the floor.
She followed the curve of the room, only to stop short in dismay. Today the door was not just ajar, it was open. The light lay in a yellowed pool across the floor. It might as well have been an ocean. There was no way she could jump across.
The light had always revealed discolorations on the stones,stains whose origins she refused to contemplate, but today the floor was livid with puddles of what was undeniably blood. The footsteps dancing in and out of the putrid yellow light were dense and chaotic, showing signs of a struggle. Mirella could make out at least three sets, and then only two as the smallest of the prints disappeared. She looked up, forcing herself to look toward Elymas’s chamber. A body had been dragged through that door.