Authors: Adalyn Grace
I barely let myself hear Father as he speaks, his words like a thousand knives.
“Take her to the prison.”
I steady my trembling vision on the cell bars, using it as a focus point to anchor myself.
Hugging my knees tight, I try to conserve my warmth against the bitter cold that rips at my skin. Though I’ve been in these prisons many times before, it’s never been like this—stripped of my weapons and left forgotten in a cell.
I was five years old when Father first brought me to the prisons, late one autumn night. I’d been bleary-eyed and half-awake as we traveled down the switchback, watched by only the stars as the rest of Arida slept unaware. It wasn’t until the moonlight winked out behind us and my eyes were forced to adjust to the sparse torchlight of the prison that he told me it was time to claim my magic.
I’d been excited. But there’d also been a pervading chill in my bones that bloomed the deeper into the prisons that we traveled. The sense of realizing something significant was
about to happen, but not truly understanding what that meant.
Centuries ago, Valukans helped build the prison at the base of the mountain, hollowing it out to form three long tunnels that each formed a unique prison.
The first tunnel is for petty crimes and short sentences. Security in this sector is fairly minimal, with palace guards posted outside the entrance.
The second is reserved for more offensive crimes, such as assault, or even murder in some cases. The security there is stronger; all the guards are highly trained magic-wielders from the various islands.
The third prison is for the most dangerous criminals, and is reserved only for those with souls that Father or I have deemed the most dangerous. It’s a prison for those who didn’t just kill once, but would kill a hundred times more. Those who have assaulted their victims in the most despicable ways, and have no remorse. Its security is some of the best in the kingdom; there are no cells, but sealed rooms protected by guards I’d never want to go toe to toe against in a fight.
It was deep into the third tunnel that Father and I traveled. Nerves gripped my neck, making the hairs stand as the walls surrounding us grew tighter and darker. With every step forward, the metallic tang of blood grew denser in the air.
We didn’t stop until we’d reached the farthest sealed room, pausing only so a guard could use three separate keys to let us in.
I don’t remember much about what happened next, but I remember the prisoner’s face and the chains that shackled her. She was a woman hardly older than I am now, with blond hair and panicked blue eyes. I remember I couldn’t stop staring at them, wondering what she did to deserve this fate as Father pressed a dagger into my hands—the same one I use even now.
“This is how it has to be, Amora.” Father guided my trembling hand to the woman’s arm and helped me press my blade into her skin.
The woman cried all the while, but the moment her blood coated the steel, the beast within me sprang to life, and I no longer needed Father’s aid. The shadows of the prison walls and the screams that careened off them stopped seeming so overwhelming as I sunk into the beast’s power and let it filter through me. Let it feast on the blood of this prisoner until she fell to the earth, lifeless. Only then, when the beast was satisfied, did I come to my senses.
But it was too late to go back.
Father held me tight as the beast within latched onto my soul. It’s never let go, since.
It took only a season to quell the beast and recover physically, but years for the nightmares to stop. Since then, I’ve had to visit the prison annually in order to exert my magic and keep the beast within me at bay.
executions, or having to watch a soul fade to death by my hands. But I’ve come to realize that someone has to do it in order to keep Visidia safe, and the gods chose me.
But I’m no fan of these stuffy tunnels, and I kick the heavy iron bars of my cell to tell it as much. I hiss when it does nothing but send a shock of pain to my ankle, and tuck my forehead to my knees. The guards need to hurry and bring me food so I can stabilize.
Since my magic is useless without my satchel or a fire, they stuck me in the first prison—a small luxury, and perhaps a fleeting sign of respect as this prison is the cleanest and most maintained. But poor ventilation this far underground makes the place reek with a mixture of must and human excrement that does nothing to help the nausea that fights to best me.
“Looks like we’ve got ourselves a fresh catch,” a prisoner across from me taunts, squinting through the haunting red glow of torchlight to peer into my cell. In the darkness, he’s one of the few others I can see. “Never thought I’d see you all locked up, Princess. How about you give us a little show?” The man makes smacking sounds with his lips while another joins in, venturing into elaborate detail about all the ways she’d like to slice me up and feed my body to the Lusca, a sea beast of horror stories, meant to scare disobedient children.
“Try, and see what happens,” I growl. My hands itch for the satchel or dagger that were stripped from me, wishing I had a proper way to shut them up.
Because although I don’t let them see it, their words eat me alive.
I would never have thought I’d end up on this side of a cell, either. But that’s Visidia’s law: if a Montara cannot control their soul magic and is deemed too dangerous, they’ll be held until a trial can determine their fate—another chance at best, an execution at worst. Since the possible Montara heirs are so low in number, I doubt they’d kill me. I’m too valuable for that. Still though, it’s not something I want to risk.
I need to get out of here. Eat some food. Get my strength. Find a way to make things right.
But instead I’m stuck in this blasted cell, leaving my fate to be determined by whether Father’s able to sway our people into believing I’m still somehow worthy of their trust, and meant to be the next High Animancer. To be their future queen.
to convince them; there’s no other option. Since Aunt Kalea’s been secretly practicing enchantment magic, she’d run the kingdom straight into the ground if she tried to learn a second magic.
I want nothing more than to protect Visidia and show my
people that I’ll be a worthy leader. Yet, in the moment I’ve been training for all my life, I failed to prove that.
I can’t be angry that they’ve locked me behind bars, though the weight of it suffocates me. My people were right to strip me of my belongings; they’re right to be afraid of me. Aran’s death may have been Visidian justice, but
I killed him was nothing short of monstrous.
When Father had me sent to this cell, it wasn’t by choice. He had to adhere to the law. But that doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
I hold my head in my hands, pinching my eyes shut to cast away the spinning image of Aran’s body.
The sharp squeal of the prison doors echoes through the tunnels, piercing my skull so fiercely I have to fight down a bout of nausea. Despite my swimming vision, I force my eyes open to see if it’s Father here to tell me everything will be okay; to tell me that despite how badly I messed up, my people have decided to give me another chance.
My stomach drops. I recognize the voice even before Ferrick makes it to my cell, each footstep slow and hesitant.
Bathed in the dim glow of torchlight, he looks like a frightened fox with his fair skin, slicked back orange-red hair, and sharp cheekbones hollowed by the fire’s shadows. His nose is scrunched and his green eyes wide and anxious, as though he expects a prisoner to break through the bars and attack him at any moment. When I notice the three trays of food he balances on his hands and forearms, I groan and drag myself closer to the cell bars as he carefully lowers to his knees and sets the trays on the floor.
He’s brought everything—pine-steamed amabons, rolls stuffed with fat pieces of spicy prawn, coconut curry and sweet rice pudding, three skewers of freshwater eel, caramelized Cur
manan milkcakes, and several whopping servings of ginnada. Another tray holds four bowls of Valuka’s signature stew—wild game smoked atop volcanic coals, with potatoes and onions that melt in the mouth like sugar.
“This wasn’t what I had in mind when I found out we’d be dining together tonight.” Ferrick takes a seat on the dirt floor, tensing from the jeers and flirtatious whistles of other prisoners, and pushes the trays toward my cell. “Are you okay? What can I do to help?”
“Where’s my father?” I ask, slipping my hand through the bars to take a serving of ginnada. “He should be here by now.” I try to push the smell of the prison away as I shovel the food into my mouth. The moment the sugary almond pastry melts on my tongue, my dizzying vision begins to stabilize. I groan contentedly before I notice that Ferrick’s forehead is pinched and his eyes squinted.
“He’s … doing damage control. I’m going to try to help, but I wanted to bring you some food, first. Those guards were only going to bring you bread.” He scoffs, bitterness seeping into his tone. “I knew you needed more than that.”
I do. Most magic is fueled by a life source, meaning that bodies will hit a point where they get too tired to perform magic. But Aridian magic is unique in that it’s bound to the soul; when I use it, that’s where the source of my energy is drawn from. And if I use too much, I don’t just risk exhaustion like those with other magics—I risk death.
Ferrick can understand this to an extent. His Suntosan magic draws from the energy in his own body, as well. It may not be dangerously bound to him in the way mine is, but we both need food for fuel. I’ll eat every bite of what he’s brought me, at least.
“Thank you for this,” I tell him between mouthfuls of stew, already on my second bowl.
Ferrick nods before hesitantly reaching a hand through the bars of the cell, careful not to touch any of their grime. I still as he presses a hand against my cheek, unsure of what he’s doing until his skin warms against mine and I feel the sharp sting of his restoration magic; the Suntosan magic he uses to heal both himself and others. I hiss a breath and jerk away from it in surprise. But when I lift my hand to my cheek, the scratch from this morning is gone.
Ferrick smiles and rises to his feet. “I should get going, but I’ll be back. I’ll see if I can find your—”
The prison doors squeal open again. I bolt to my feet automatically thanks to the burst of energy the food’s given me, expecting Father but instead finding the Valukan adviser from earlier sauntering toward us.
Ferrick tries to be discreet about the subtle way his chest inflates like a bloating pufferfish. “Who are you? Who gave you permission to be down here?”
The Valukan stills at the sight of Ferrick. I scan him for weapons, noting the broadsword sheathed at his side. But he doesn’t reach for it. He straightens himself instead, holding his chin high.
“My name’s Bastian Bargas. I’m the son of Baron Bargas, and am acting as Valuka’s representative for the night. I need to talk to the princess.”
Ferrick’s hands twitch at his sides. “Baron Bargas is a friend of my father’s,” he says slowly. “I’ve spoken with him numerous times, and he’s never mentioned having a son.”
Bastian’s momentary hesitation dissipates. His smile morphs into a confident, wondrous thing as he draws a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket and flashes it at us. The seal of Valukan nobility is embossed in wax at the corner of the page—it’s similar to the royal emblem, but rather than one skeletal eel wound around a crown of bone, there are two eels,
and they wind around a smoking volcano. Only the Bargas family uses that seal.
“Aye?” Bastian asks. “Well, when you’ve earned the reputation I have, you’ll find your father often neglects to mention you in conversation.”
Ferrick snatches the letter from his hands, reading over it with a pinched expression. “And why couldn’t the baron make it, exactly?” He runs his finger over the wax emblem as if to test it.
Unfazed, Bastian says, “You read the letter; I’m afraid he’s been infected by a rather nasty stomach bug. Let’s just say that my father didn’t want to risk making a fool of himself from both ends.” He plucks the letter from Ferrick, folds it neatly, and tucks it back into his coat pocket with a little pat. “Now, if you don’t mind?”
Ferrick folds his arms across his chest. He’s thinner than Bastian, lanky where the Valukan is broad. And with only a rapier at his side, Ferrick would never win the fight he seems ready to initiate. “Apologies, but I’m afraid I can’t let that happen.”
I sigh, not about to watch him lose. “You hold no rank here, Ferrick. Stand down.” When he turns to me in protest, I fix him with a dangerous look. “I may be behind bars, but I still make the decisions. Stand
The shadows on Ferrick’s face darken as he looks between the Valukan and me. “I need to find the king, anyway. But I’ll be back shortly.” He doesn’t spare me another look before he pushes past Bastian, making the Valukan’s brows bounce curiously.
“Was I interrupting something?” Bastian muses.
I try not to roll my eyes at his easy demeanor. “Why are
His amusement dims as he reaches beneath his coat, to
something hooked onto his hip. I jerk away from the cell bars, anticipating a weapon. I’ve no way to protect myself here; the cell is too shallow to hide within, and offers only a single bedroll and an empty metal basin as protection.
My fingertips itch to use magic, but I’ve no way to summon it. Everyone wields their magic a little differently, and for mine to work, I need fire. The torchlight, however, is too far to reach. I’m defenseless.
But when Bastian draws his hand back out, it’s not a weapon he holds. It’s a large ring of worn copper keys.
Dread grips my stomach. “How’d you get those?”
Bastian shoves the key into the lock. “Does it matter? Listen to me, Princess—they’re going to execute you if you stay here.”
The conviction in his words causes my heart to slam into my throat.
“They wouldn’t,” I say. “At least not until they have a trial.” They’ll want to ensure Kalea’s able to control soul magic, first. They’ll want to make sure they have another option.