Chapter 1, Draft 4
Work in Progress
Used with permission from Kalie Cassidy
The wing on the wall above the door haunted me.
It was stretched wide and mounted to a wooden plaque – a lone trophy on the soaring wall. The morning light in the throne room wasn’t yet bright enough to pull out the riot of colors on its black surface—the slash of iridescent blue and green near its base, the purple near its fringed edge—but I could paint it from memory.
It was just like mine.
A shiver bumped its way down my spine as my thoughts moved to the secret that hid beneath the skin of my back. My safety depended on keeping that secret, so I ignored the constant tingling; the slight stretching there as my wings begged for freedom. There was no such thing.
My table sat in the middle of the massive room. It was pact day and by the end of it my fingers would be sliced and achy and bloody, but thanks be to the First Gods, this day only came once a month. I organized the blank pact parchments before me as the chill of the marble floor crept under my skirt and up my legs. It was a biting type of cold. The kind that wraps around your bones so that you feel them sitting within your flesh. My pact blade was nestled in the mound of hair atop my head, and with an effort I lifted my arm to retrieve it. The pins of my servant’s veil shifted with the movement and I righted them, keeping the black fabric in place
over my eyes. My limbs were heavy and weak in Fort Linum. The cold and sickness these mountains brought me was all I knew. I was accustomed to it. I had to be. Because sick was better than dead.
The creak of the opening door echoed around me and two king’s guards led the petitioners into the white stone space. They were like smudges on smooth, stark frost. Weary from their trek up the mountain and dirty from their lives in the port town of Stowand. The scent on the air changed as they made their way in. Fish and filth. But I never missed the other heady balm that was mixed between—the sea. I filled my lungs with it and let my gaze drift to the window, where the water winked and trembled miles below. I lost myself in the curling trail of rocks jutting into the dark waves. I dreamt of rest from the perpetual grey and cold. Of sun-warm paintings in bright spring hues. What it might feel like to have sand stuck to my toes. Saltwater against my skin. The burst of longing in my chest almost made me forget the danger that waited for me below its shimmering allure. Almost. I forced my eyes back to the onyx feathers above the door. They were my reminder. My warning.
Over the tops of the petitioner’s heads, beyond the entry hall, I could make out the bleak sky that hung heavy over the long line of Serafis who came to make requests of the crown. Their wants were always the same – a request for a blood bond or severance. A plea for atonement. The right to sell their goods or permission to travel to another island. My blood smeared on the pact and the prince’s seal pressed into the parchment gave the petitioner the right to attend the granting rituals that King Nemea would hold the next day. One day a month to beg their sovereign for permission to live their lives.
Shuffles and murmurs crashed around me as they queued. The prince was late and I couldn’t begin my job without him. As it was, the pact signings would go well into the night with
a crowd this size and now with his delay I’d likely be slicing my fingers open right up until the granting rituals at sunrise. At least I could sleep the following day away and tend to my wounds. I continued to organize the already neat stacks of paper before me with agitated hands, grateful for my servant’s veil and how it hid my annoyance and confusion. Prince Rowe was never late. An icy gust pushed through the entry hall and into the throne room, coaxing the group closer to my table and sending my papers into a whirling cloud all around me.
“Damn it,” I said under my breath as I moved to collect the mess.
Chair legs scraped beside me, and I turned, expecting to see Prince Rowe. But Ferrin Illis sat there instead. His lipless mouth curved into a decaying smile at my surprise. I supressed a grimace.
“Back again, Ferrin?” Three visits in as many months was enough for a lifetime. He was like a vulture. Dark eyes studied me down the length of his hooked nose as I moved to my seat, his shoulders tight with anticipation. “Petitioners line up on the wall,” I said, with a bite. “That chair is reserved for Prince Rowe.”
“Ah, I know that, starling. But I do believe the prince is busy with the king.”
How did he know that?
He leaned back in the chair, the front legs teetering above the floor. “Just wanted to have a little chat.”
He was too close. The smell of stale ale hit my nose and the skin at my back burned. My shoulder ticked involuntarily, trying the shake the feeling, the scent of him. But it had burrowed into my skull. I gnawed at the inside of my lip, the pain barely a distraction, and kept my eyes on the room instead of his sniveling face. Ferrin Illis was from one of the wealthier farming families
on the Isle of Seraf. Bartering with him was loathsome, but we needed him. I had to play nicer than I’d like. His small frame, blurred by my veil, rocked back and forth on the hind chair legs.
“I told you last month, and the month before, that the price of your wheat flour is too high,” I said. “I’ll tell you the same this month.”
“Mmm, not here for the flour.” Half of his grimacing mouth bent up and a shadow of an instinct, blurry and weak, inched down my limbs. The tips of my fingers stung. I sent a silent plea to the First Gods for Prince Rowe to hurry. “Lovely Imogen Nel…Nel.” The front legs of his chair slammed to the stone floor with a crack and I flinched. The room seemed suspended, the petitioners silent and attentive. Ferrin’s chest swelled and he leaned into my space. Too close. “Hard to believe that no one would want you,” he said, his voice lilting and soft.
I kept my body still and held my back straight, even as the skin here burned. Nel was the name for a foundling. For an abandoned child. As if life on the Isle of Seraf wasn’t cruel enough, a foundling who survived was made to carry a reminder of their abandonment with them the rest of their lives. The title of the unwanted.
Ferrin pulled his chair forward a few inches and set his elbow on the table, his chin upon his hand. His eyes roamed from my hair, to my neck, down my body and back up. Like he’d never seen me before, like I was something to be possessed.
“Ferrin, what do you want?” I asked through a tight jaw.
“I want to see what’s under that veil.” The air left my lungs. A breathy hum vibrated from his grinning lips when I didn’t reply. “I want to see your eyes.”
I worked to train the muscles in my throat to relax. “My eyes?”
“Word has it that you might be something special.” His spindly hand crept toward mine on the table, but I jerked away before he touched me. “I told the sailor at The Bone and Whistle
it was seascum.” A laugh played at the edges of his features. “Told him that the king would never keep a you-know-what in Fort Linum. Not King Nemea. But after a few more drinks, gifted by yours truly, he told me he saw you with his own eyes.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper. “Touched you with his own hands.”
Blood sped through every part of my body as I tried to keep my composure. As I tried to keep the hollow, sinking dread from grinding my control to dust. But my talons and wings were pressing against their confines, trying to defy my refusal. A bright pain swept through me as I fought the temptation to shift.
“Where do you keep them, starling?” His chin bounced up in a questioning gesture. “The birdie parts?”
There was only one way Ferrin could know what I was. I’d let my control slip once. Memory of warm hands and quick kisses in the dark nudged ahead of my panic but I pushed them back. I kept my voice steady but my world was tilting. “Your sailor was telling stories.”
“Did I say sailor? Excuse me.” His face took on a victorious smirk. “Captain. Captain Evander Ianto. The king’s favorite.” He winked and pushed the chair back onto its hind legs again. “Your favorite too.”
My anger, searing and consuming before, became a cold, creeping fear. He knew what I was. Before I could think what to do, Prince Rowe strode through the doors. He looked so like King Nemea. The same fine, slender nose and refined bones. The same dark hair feathered white at the temples. But where the king was brutal and imposing, Rowe was gentle and kind. He was the closest thing to I father I would ever have.
Petitioners parted and bowed. I rose and gave a quick curtsey, but Ferrin stood with a slow, confidence that twisted my guts. The deep furrow in Rowe’s brow, the ridged set of his
shoulders – how he wouldn’t meet my eyes. I had to force air into my lungs. With each step closer to the table where Ferrin and I stood, his look grew darker. He gripped a pact parchment in his hand so tightly it would be permanently crumpled.
“Get on your side of the table, Illis,” Rowe spat. Ferrin sauntered around the length of it, straightening his coat. He rolled his tiny shoulders back and gave me a wink. Rowe let out a long breath through his nostrils. I’d never seen him so unsettled. He placed the pact parchment on the table with a heavy hand, but I could still see the words.
Illis wheat flour. A year’s supply to Fort Linum at eight hundred dram per sack.
Eight hundred dram. Nearly three times what Ferrin had been requesting for the last two months.
All of the pieces of Ferrin’s scheme came crashing into place as he pulled his pact blade from an inside pocket. He was blackmailing the crown for harboring a siren. For breaking a law that the king himself had put into place.
For pitilessness and murderess instincts, all sirens are to be killed on sight.
He sliced the tip of his finger. I couldn’t pull my gaze from the glistening crimson drop that well up.
“Like what you see?” Ferrin said to me, letting the blood sit on his finger in front of me a moment too long before swiping it on the parchment.
“Silence.” Rowe’s voice boomed.
I gripped the handle of my blade so tightly it hurt. The king couldn’t know. He couldn’t know that his own brother was the one that found me as a babe, the one that helped raise a siren right under his nose. That his captain had watched wings sprout from my back and let me live. I’d be killed, or if I was lucky enough to flee these mountains and get to the sea, the water would
wrap its cool, inviting fingers around my flesh and force me to become what I never hoped to be. Pitiless and murderess. A monster of the deep.
I held my blade to the pad of my finger, ready to complete the pact and be rid of Ferrin Illis, but Rowe’s hand fell over mine, stopping me.
“Let the lady do her job, Your Highness,” Ferrin said with a rotten smile. “She won’t steal me with that blood of hers. Will you, starling?” He chuckled. “Anyway, it’s souls she wants.”
Blood and souls. I knew too little to follow his meaning. Agatha always told me, her gaze serious and fiery, to be careful with my blood, that it had the power to bind. That it let a siren keep the men she lured. But that was all she knew.
With a grunt, Rowe pulled the blade from my hand and sliced his finger. Too fast and too deep. Royal blood was never used to sign a pact. It was too precious. Too sacred to share a parchment with that of a commoner, whether that commoner was a blooded descendent of the First Gods or not. That’s what I was for. Red rushed from the wound with a heavy pat, pat, pat onto the parchment below. My body seemed to unfocus and the edges of my vision softened as I studied the drops sitting like garnets on the defiled pact.
Rowe’s fists slammed against Ferris’s chest, his fingers wrapping around his coat collar. “If I see your face in Fort Linum again, even when this pact expires, I’ll kill you.”
Ferrin’s eyes went wide and he gave a small nod as Rowe pushed him back. “Pleasure, Your Highness.” Ferrin’s beady eyes landed on me. “Would have loved to talk further, Imogen. I’ll give your captain my regards.” He rolled up his parchment and left.
My hands shook as my sense of safety shattered. Its flimsy pieces fell all around and on me, disintegrating into nothing a moment later.
He hadn’t looked at me the entire time.
“To your rooms. Now. Agatha is there waiting for you.”