Ember Queen Page 2

“You will remember, in time,” he says. “For better or worse. But I know I never want to speak of my experience. I assumed you would feel the same way.”

I swallow, pushing the thought aside. A problem for another day—and I have too many problems before me as it is. “But something is on your mind,” I say to Heron. “What is it?”

He weighs the question in his mind for an instant. “Did it work?” he asks.

For a second, I don’t know what he means, but I suddenly remember—the reason I went into the mines in the first place, the weak power I had over fire before, the side effect from Cress’s poison. I went into the mine to claim my power, in hopes that I will have enough to stand against Cress when the time comes.

Did it work? There is only one way to find out.

I hold my left palm up and summon fire. Even before I uncurl my fingers, I feel heat thrumming beneath them, stronger than I’ve ever felt it before. It comes easily when I summon it, like it’s a part of me, always lurking just below the surface. It burns brighter, feels hotter, but it’s more than that. To show him, I toss it into the air, hold it there, suspended but still alive, still bright. Heron’s eyes grow wide, but he says nothing as I lift my hand and flex it. The ball of fire mimics me, becoming a hand of its own. When I move my fingers, it matches each movement. I make a fist, and it does that as well.

“Theo,” he says, his voice a hoarse whisper. “I saw the extent of Ampelio’s power when he trained me. He couldn’t do that.”

I swallow and take hold of the flame again, smothering it in my grip and turning it to ash in my hand.

“If you don’t mind, Heron,” I say, my gaze fixed on the dark pigment that smears over my skin just as the ash crown had, “is Mina still here? She’s—”

“The healer,” he supplies, nodding. “Yes, she’s still here. She’s been helping with the wounded. I’ll find her.”

When he’s gone, I dust ash from my hands and let it settle into the dirt floor.

* * *

By the time Mina enters the tent, I’ve gotten used to standing again, though my body still doesn’t feel entirely like mine. Every move—every breath—feels like a labor, and every muscle aches. Mina must notice, because she takes one look at me and gives a knowing smile.

“It’s normal,” she says. “When I came out of the mine, the priestesses said that the gods had broken me and remade me anew. It seemed to sum up how I felt.”

I nod, easing myself back to sit on my cot once more. “How long does it last?” I ask her.

She shrugs. “My pain lasted a couple of days, but it varies.” She pauses, looking me over. “What you did was incredibly foolish. Going into the mine when you already possessed a measure of power—when you were already a vessel half-full—you were asking for mine madness. You realize that, don’t you?”

I look at the ground. It’s been some time since I’ve been chastised like this, by someone concerned about my well-being. I rack my mind for the last person; it very well may have been my mother. I suppose Hoa did as well, in her wordless way.

“I understood the risks,” I tell her.

“You’re the Queen of Astrea,” she continues, as if I haven’t spoken. “What would we have done without you?”

“You would have persisted,” I say, louder this time. “I am one person. We lost far more in the war, far more in the siege itself, including my mother. We have always persisted. I wouldn’t have made a difference.”

Mina fixes me with a level look. “It was still foolish,” she insists. “But I suppose it was also brave.”

I shrug again. “Whatever it might have been, it worked,” I say.

I show her the same thing I showed Heron, how I can not just summon fire but turn it into an extension of my own self. Mina watches me all the while with her lips pursed, not saying a word until I’ve finished and am scattering the ash to the ground once more.

“And you slept,” she says, more to herself than me.

“Quite heavily, as I understand it,” I say dryly.

She steps toward me. “May I feel your forehead?” she asks.

I nod, and she presses the back of her hand to my brow. “You aren’t warm,” she says before reaching out to touch the single tendril of white in my auburn hair.

“It was there before,” I tell her. “After the poison.”

She nods. “I remember. Not like the Kaiserin’s hair, is it? But I suppose you have Artemisia to thank for that—if she hadn’t used her own gift on you so quickly to negate the poison, it would have affected you far more. If it hadn’t killed you on the spot, the mine certainly would have.”

“You didn’t see Cress—the Kaiserin—yourself,” I say, changing the subject. “But you must have heard stories of her power by now.”

Mina considers this. “I’ve heard stories,” she says carefully. “Though I find stories are often exaggerated.”

I remember Cress killing the Kaiser with just her scalding hands around his throat, the way she trailed ash over the desk with her fingertips. She radiated power in a way that I have never seen equaled. I’m not sure how anyone could exaggerate what I saw with my own eyes.

“It’s as if…she doesn’t even have to call on her gift. She killed the Kaiser in a few seconds with just her hands,” I say.

“And you still don’t feel strong enough to stand against her,” Mina guesses.

“I don’t think anyone is,” I admit. “Did you ever hear of Guardians killing with that little effort?”

She shakes her head. “I didn’t hear anything about Guardians killing at all,” she says. “It wasn’t their way. If a person’s crimes ever warranted execution, it was carried out by more mundane means. Guardians never did the deed with the gifts given to them by the gods. It would have been its own kind of sacrilege, a perversion of something holy.”

I think about Blaise going out into the battlefield, knowing he could have died but determined to kill as many Kalovaxians as possible before he did. Was that a perversion of his gift? Or are the standards different now, in times of war?

“The children I saw before, the ones you were testing,” I say, remembering the boy and girl with the same unstable power as Blaise. “How are they?”

“Laius and Griselda,” she supplies. “They are as well as can be expected, I suppose. Frightened and traumatized by the horrific experiments the Kalovaxians did on them, but they’re strong in more ways than one.” She pauses for a second. “Your hypothetical friend has been helpful. They like him, standoffish though he might be. It truly is something, to discover you aren’t as alone in the world as you thought.”

When I told Mina about Blaise, I only ever referred to him hypothetically, though she saw through that quickly enough. Now, it seems, she knows exactly who he is. But she isn’t afraid of him, at least, or of Laius and Griselda, either.

“Have you told anyone else about your findings?” I ask her.

She purses her lips. “I have no findings, Your Highness,” she says, shrugging. “Only a hypothesis, and that is not enough cause to get everyone riled up. People fear what they don’t understand, and in times like this, fear can lead to dangerous decisions.”

If people knew how strong and how unstable Blaise and Laius and Griselda are, they might kill them. It’s no more than I already knew, but hearing her imply it like that knocks the breath from my lungs.

“Everyone saw what Blaise did on the ship,” I say. “They saw how he almost destroyed himself and everyone around him. They didn’t hurt him after that.”

“No,” she agrees. “In fact, I’d imagine they’ll be singing folk songs about that act for some centuries to come, but no one was hurt. He’s a hero to them now. A hero who was so powerful, he couldn’t control himself, but a hero all the same. Never forget—that can change in an instant.”

MINA SUGGESTS A WALK MIGHT do me good, and though my body protests strongly against the idea, I take her advice. I have to lean most of my weight on Heron, and even still my muscles scream with each step, but I can’t deny that the fresh air in my lungs and the sun on my skin are worth the pain. And as I walk, my muscles begin to loosen and the aching in my limbs becomes somewhat more bearable.

It’s strange to see the mine camp so empty, a deserted city of empty barracks with only a handful still occupied by the ill and the injured. Heron points out which ones are acting as infirmaries when we pass by, but I don’t need him to. It’s clear in the sounds that seep out from their walls—the hacking coughs, the soft cries, the wails of pain. The sounds threaten to drown me in a sea of guilt.

So many more are alive and well, I tell myself. So many more are free.

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