The palace was silent, the roof gardens deserted. A warm night breeze from the desert shifted my robes and tugged at my hair like the last breath of day before settling to night. The first sliver of the rising moon was visible over the crenellations of the wall. I sat to watch the silver crescent grow to a full circle, settled my hands in my lap and embraced the ache in my heart.
Firstborn child of the King and Queen, I was heir to the power of Zarana, and also due to become its Mage and protector tonight … but my inheritance would never be realised. My father had made sure of that. For the sake of my stepmother, for the adoration – the infatuation – he felt for her, he would let my abilities atrophy for the sake of the child in her belly, a child our country could ill-afford to wait eighteen years for.
My birth moon was rising, trigger to my power, but it would set fruitlessly in eight hours. With Kessan troops massing at our border, my father had taken a trip to the coast, declaring it vital to inspect our naval defences. Without him, I could achieve nothing tonight. To unlock my Mage powers required three things: myself, my eighteen year birth moon, and the blood of an ancestor, to tie me directly with all the Zarana Mages since our country first rose from the desert lands. With my mother returned to the spirit world six years earlier, my father’s blood was the only option – except that he was a hundred miles away. And tomorrow – or in a week, whenever he chose to return – it would be too late, the chance of power waning along with the moon.
I closed my eyes, the shine of the moon too painful to watch. The scent of gressia and pey flowers filled the air. It was a delay, not abandonment, I told myself. My birth moon next year would also release the power dormant in me. It might not be as strong as in my eighteenth year, but it was there. The abilities born into me could never be fully extinguished. And now I knew my father’s view of the matter I would not be defeated by his machinations. I would cut him while he slept and steal his blood if I must. I simply had to hope that our soldiers could hold off the Kessan threat for another year without magical assistance.
Faint footsteps brushed through the tren grass towards me. I expected my maid-companion, surprised when I opened my eyes to see instead my stepmother.
“Honourable lady.” I rose to greet her, inclining my head, but Helyn waved me back to my seat. She looked as elegant as she always did: spine straight, her steps unaltered by the new weight of her belly, her pale robes flowing around her and the ruby pearl she always wore glowing at her throat. I had tried to hate her when she first came to the palace, stealing my dead mother’s place. But Helyn was so gentle, so tranquil, that it had been impossible to hold on to my hatred. She had never attempted to take the place of my mother in my heart. Instead, she had made her own place there.
“Good night, Sar. I thought I might find you here.” She turned so she could sit beside me, facing the moon as I was. It was three quarters above the walls now, its round glow filling the night sky. For a moment Helyn was silhouetted against it. I swallowed down the pain that rose in my throat. My father’s actions were not her fault.
“I wanted to see the moon,” I said, the words sticking in my throat.
She sat, her warm arm close to mine. “Of course you did. It’s a big night for you.”
“Hmm, not so much.” I stared at the moon so I wouldn’t have to look at her.
Helyn shifted. From the corner of my eye I saw her brush her hair back from her neck, adjusting her robes. “Here.” She held something out to me.
I turned to look properly. Dangling from her fingers was the delicate chain that had been around her neck a moment earlier, pulled down by the ruby pearl I’d never seen her without. “Here. It was your mother’s. She would want you to have it, especially tonight.”
I accepted the jewel, settling it in my palm. It was warm from Helyn’s skin. “Thank you.”
“There is no need to thank me. It is yours.”
I rolled the pearl between my fingers, frowning as I looked closely at it for the first time. The red wasn’t that of a ruby, closer to the scarlet of fresh blood.
“It was your father’s first gift to me,” Hylen confided. “I prefer to think that he wanted me to keep it safe, rather than that he thought I would keep it from you.” She smiled serenely. “If he had asked me explicitly I would have told him there could be no possibility of that. Your mother left it for you; it is yours.” A hand settled on the curve of her stomach. “I hope I will sit here with my daughter or my son in eighteen years’ time, but there is no need to deny you in order for that to happen. Zarana needs you. Zarana needs its Mage, if you are ready to accept the burden and privilege of the powers that are your birthright.”
“I am ready. But without an ancestor’s blood…” I stared at the ruby pearl. There was something else wrong. The colour wasn’t held in the surface of the pearl. It seemed to be within the tiny sphere, protected by a clear skin. My thoughts whirled. Could what I was thinking possibly be true?
“Break it,” Helyn prompted.
My spirits soared as I pressed my palms together, feeling the pressure then the give as the tiny pearl snapped and released its precious cargo. I spread my palms, but hardly needed to see the splash of my mother’s blood smeared on my skin. I already felt the change in my spirit – like a bird constrained in a cage who was finally able to spread its wings. I was ready to fly. As energy flooded through me and my spirit opened to the universe I felt my mother beside me, her strength combining with my own, combining with the strength of all my ancestors, cascading down the years to fill me as the round moon filled the sky overhead.
The Kessan troops should beware: Zarana had its Mage.
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