One day after the emperor had died and been eaten, the call went out to select his successor.
Emilia of the Aurun considered this on dragonback as she hovered one hundred feet above the rocky coastline. Frothing waves surged against the cliffs so violently she swore the spray speckled her cheek, even at this height. Salt-choked wind tautened her dragon’s wings with a snap and tumbled her heavy red hair into her face. Maybe she really should wear it in a plait, as her mother suggested every other day. Chara’s grumble reverberated in Emilia’s bones. Shortening the reins, she petted the dragon’s neck.
“It’s all right. They won’t pick me,” she said, as if this were a conversation and not something she’d repeated in the locked room of her mind. They won’t pick me. They’d have to be idiots to pick me.
Of course, Emilia privately believed that idiots had been running the Etrusian Empire for hundreds of years.
If her mother heard her say that, Emilia’s hair would be the least of her concerns. After all, the House Aurun hadn’t seated an emperor or empress in over three generations, and their family had the worst land holdings: the Hibrian Isles, two semi-large parent islands constellated by a smattering of smaller ones. Plunked down in the northwest corner of the empire, theirs was a frigid land of sea and wind, of winter and not-quite-so winter. The family needed an emperor in power to advance their fortunes.
They needed Alexander.
And there he was, a dot waving to her from the lip of the cliff. Emilia pressed Chara’s sides with her knees, slackening the reins. The dragon snorted fizzling embers, tucked her wings, and tipped into a steep dive. Emilia lived for that plunge, that butterfly-flutter of her stomach. All the heavy pains of mind and body evaporated in midair.
She leaned back in the saddle as the cliff sped nearer, then pitched forward as Chara unfurled her wings and furrowed her three-clawed feet in the damp ground. The clean scent of upturned earth enveloped Emilia. Her brother came running while she rummaged through the saddlebag and removed a satchel, slipping it over her shoulder as she slid to the ground. She walked about to stand before Chara and stroke the dragon on her most favorite spot, at the juncture of jaw and neck. Chara nestled her snout at the center of Emilia’s belly.
“Thanks, girl,” she murmured, and stepped back to let Chara flap her way up into the sky. There was still time for play before the calling.
Alexander appeared and wrapped an arm around Emilia. By the blue above, he was warm.
“You’re a hearth f-fire. How?” Her teeth chattered as she spoke. Emilia clamped hands over her ears, twin curves of ice against her palms.
“Blood of the dragon. Obviously.” He bumped her with his hip. “Pity you have none. You’d freeze on a summer’s day in Karthago.”
“You l-laugh now.” Emilia pulled her purple cloak tight against her body. “Wait till I’m the one who’s ch-chosen.”
“Not to worry. I’ll just pitch you over the cliff if that happens.” Alex kissed the top of her head. Without teasing, he said, “They won’t choose you.”
It was some comfort. While technically any child of the five families could be called to the Emperor’s Trial, only the Houses’ eldest ever were. It was an unspoken tradition. They were all fortunate Alexander had been firstborn, not she.
His hair was deep Aurun gold, not her tangle of red. His complexion was fair as milk, as opposed to her deathly pallor. His laughter was easy, hers nonexistent. Unlike Emilia, he didn’t have to be monitored carefully whenever they hosted the lesser Hibrian nobles at winter fetes or during the summer bonfires.
Unlike her, he didn’t cradle death in his hands like a dozing serpent.
They walked the path toward the calling circle on the other side of the promontory, Emilia’s heavy satchel a reassuring thud against her hip. She shivered as the icy wind knifed through her once more. She’d never liked Stormways, the family’s oldest, draftiest, and most northern castle. Technically this was their territorial capital, though it was far from grand. A pity, then, that she hadn’t left it in nearly five years, but that could not be helped. The far north was the most sparsely populated area. She could be inconspicuous here.
The Aurun banners, stark white emblazoned with a purple Aspis--the water serpent, their personal dragon--rippled in the gusts. Overhead, Chara and Alexander’s dragon, Tarkus, dove and capered about each other. Both dragons had long, slender bodies with whipping tails, though Chara’s scales were a creamy pearlescent while Tarkus was plum-colored. Aspises’ heads were sleek, their scales silken, their noses doglike. Two horns corkscrewed on either side of their skulls. Unlike the other dragon breeds, an Aspis could spend time underwater and suffer no ill effects. Chara hunted whales in springtime and would float back home like a bloody wisp of cloud, blubber ragged between her teeth.
“Did you go flying to get a last look at the place before you become empress?” Alex teased. Emilia nudged him in the ribs.
“When I’m living in a golden palace at Dragonspire, I’ll remember freezing my backside off with real fondness,” she deadpanned. Suppressing a shudder, she added, “I, er, needed to clear my mind.”
Alexander understood her. Normally, Emilia could be found with cooling cups of coffee and ink-stained fingers before the library fire, books and papers fanned out around her in a labyrinthine formation only she understood. But then the very fissures of her brain would spark, and she would have to leave before she hurt anyone.
Emilia stopped on the path. Ahead of them lay the evidence of what she’d done.
It had been a seagull. Amid the splatter of blood and the pasted smear of organs, gray and white feathers fluttered in the breeze. Back in her room, Emilia had felt the magic welling until she brimmed with it, like a cup. She’d hurried down the castle’s winding steps, rushed out into the overcast day. She’d stalked toward the cliffs, been startled by a gull’s circling cry. Her eyes had latched on to the bird . . . and the poor creature had uttered its last call.
There were two types of magic: the orderly arts and the chaotic ways. One type had built this great empire; the other had nearly destroyed the world. Order was creation, and chaos destruction. Emilia possessed no talent for order.
She was a natural at chaos, though.
If the other four families ever found out, death would be the kinder option. A chaotic couldn’t be tolerated, not after the War of the Sixth House a millennium ago.
Alex hugged her tight. “It was an accident,” he whispered.
Emilia knew how the castle servants gossiped. How they watched her. This was why she always kept her hair a heavy curtain and never plaited it; a curtain made it easier to hide. Her hands fisted until they ached.
“I know,” she whispered back. They kept walking, the satchel banging at her side. “Here.” She stopped once more, shrugged off the satchel, and looped it over her brother’s arm. “It took some doing, but I had them bound.”
Alex unbuttoned the pack and drew out several slim, cloth-backed volumes. Emilia immediately rearranged them in order, nervous to have her hard work inspected.
The Hunt. The Game. The Race. The Truth.
The four challenges that constituted every Emperor’s Trial.
Each title stood out in embossed letters upon the covers. Emilia had also included a pair of parchment manuals labeled Bestiary and Topography.
“I had to do up the island maps by hand,” Emilia said, happy to be boastful. Pride was such a rare visitor in her life. Alex nodded, flipping through one book after the other.
“You really think the Crotian Sea will be the first stop?” He looked up at her with one eyebrow raised. “I bet it’ll be the Imperial Peninsula.”
“We’ve factored in dragonflight’s maximum speed, and compared the calling dates with the start of the first challenges. It requires a full twenty-four hours at least for everyone to assemble, even the Volscia and Sabel, and they’re closest to the peninsula of all of us. That indicates a longer flight time. Or do you doubt my calculations?”
“Teasing. I’m teasing you.” Alex shuffled through the books once more, put them away, and embraced her again. “Can’t believe the day’s here,” he said softly.
Emilia closed her eyes and listened to the thud of Alex’s heartbeat.
“We’ve prepared well, at least,” she murmured.
“No one could’ve prepared me like you, Emi.” He kissed the top of her head once again. “Remember what I promised you?”
Emilia recalled the shattering echo of screams. The stink of burning flesh. Blood everywhere. She remembered huddling in the corner of her bedroom, sobbing and raking her nails down her cheeks. Her brother holding her, swearing that he would make it right.
“Of course,” she whispered.
“I’m going to keep that promise.” He stepped away, held the satchel high. “With this. Our victory.”
Emilia smiled, the corners of her lips twitching.
Since they’d learned that Alex would go off to the Emperor’s Trial one day and never return, the siblings had studied every scrap of information on every Trial that had ever been held. Emilia made it her solemn mission to prepare her brother for every possible eventuality. Had she been a normal girl, she might have been permitted to present her findings at the Imperial University. She might have published.
Had she been a normal girl, she might have done a great many things.
The calling circle was over a thousand years old. A ring of moss-slick stones one hundred yards in diameter surrounded a large slab of granite in the very center, where the “chosen” dragon would stand. A few servants and liveried guard waited alongside the family, the bannermen holding House Aurun’s flag aloft. As Emilia and Alex joined their parents, the sun pierced a cloud and illuminated the grass, sparking prisms of rainbow light in the dew. The family appeared to gleam in their stately purple velvet, the color of House Aurun. We’re a bunch of rare jewels, Emilia thought to herself, smiling bitterly. Pretty, and without purpose.
“Emilia, what are you thinking?” Her mother sounded accusatory. She and Emilia’s father often stared as if waiting for her to explode.
“Dangerous thoughts,” Emilia muttered to the ground.
Lady Aurun huffed. Emilia’s chest tightened to think of Tarkus settling on that granite slab, his tail swishing, summoning Alexander to fly away.
Emilia’s parents tolerated her. They tolerated her lack of eye contact and tangled hair. They tolerated the perennial dark circles under her eyes, her headaches, her need to devour every obscure fact upon which she could lay hands, her halting conversation delivered in a voice roughened by lack of use. Her parents tolerated her chaotic soul, but Alex loved her.
Now, even if--even when--he won the Trial and became Alexander Sarkonus, Dragon Emperor of Etrusia, he would never be her brother again. They’d see each other twice a year, at the midwinter festival and during the annual congregation of the five families. No more private jokes. No more morning flights. No more companionship.
Loneliness was a starched gown in which Emilia could never grow comfortable.
Tears blurred her vision. Alex squeezed her hand.
“I won’t forget you,” he said.
She rested her head against his shoulder as the family’s four dragons landed out of the sky to stand directly behind their riders, wings settling in anticipation of “the call.” No one here had ever seen a calling before. Emperor Erasmus had died yesterday at age sixty-six, and had gained the throne at twenty. Emilia almost wished she could go along as a witness. There would be great research in it. Unfortunately, emperors were forbidden from speaking outright of what they experienced in the Trial. All the information Emilia and Alex gleaned had taken countless hours of cross-referencing different books, letters, even tax records.
As for the other competitors, there was no worry they’d share any secrets. The losers faced the Cut--and Emilia shuddered to think of that fate. Please, don’t let it happen to Alex.
As the noon sun struck the stones and the family awaited the call, Emilia nestled inside her own head, a poisonous paradise. Her brain was the source of all her pain and delight. She hadn’t seen anyone her own age in five years, apart from Alex. Once he was gone, she’d likely be alone forever. As the younger child, she’d been expected to marry and bear children to carry on the Aurun name, but how could she ever get close to a man without fear of splintering his bones or rupturing his kidneys? So she lived in dreams populated by phantom friends. Sometimes her imagination was a balm; sometimes it burned like acid, a reminder of what she could never have.
Through the haze of her thoughts, she heard someone shout her name.
“Emilia!” Alex gripped her shoulders, spun her to face forward. “Look.”
Chara waited on the granite slab, her ruby eyes trained on Emilia. It was so jarringly wrong, like watching the sun rise in the evening, that Emilia didn’t understand what had happened . . . until she did.
Chara had been called. Not Tarkus.
Not Alexander. Which meant . . .
“Chara, get down from there!” Emilia flung herself at the dragon, panic clawing up her spine. No. No, no, she couldn’t be called. She was second-born. She was chaotic! She would lose. She would be Cut. “What do I do?” she yelled at her family. Yanking on Chara’s bridle, Emilia looked the dragon in her shimmering red eyes. “Why are you doing this?”
Her dragon, the only creature in this world she loved as dearly as her brother, pressed her face against Emilia’s body, over her hammering heart. Chara gave a deep sigh, her wings expanding. That reverberation that existed only between a dragon and its rider rippled through Emilia’s blood and marrow. Emilia knew, as sure as if the dragon had spoken, that this was a natural thing. Some invisible force had called for Chara, and the answer could not be no.
“I have to go.” Emilia could scarce hear her own voice through the blood pounding in her ears. Every hair on her body stood on end. She could feel the warmth filling her, like liquid. Power. Magic. Her fears. The chaos itched forward, screaming to be let out.
Her father’s hand roughly pulled her backward by the hood of her cloak.
“No!” He was shouting at her mother. “They’ll know we lied!”
Emilia tumbled to the ground, the magic within her spilling over. Anger squeezed the sides of her head, her jaw locked, and in the space between heartbeats she looked at one of the stones standing opposite her--she felt the thread of connection between herself and the stone. The fissures of her mind kindled, and magic surged.