Tiora answers as Mother winces. “Duty first. Honor always.”
The memory warms my insides. What lies ahead isn’t easy, but it’s what I must do. I have purpose in that, at the very least.
“My duty is to protect the Lakelands as well as you do,” I tell them. “My marriage to Maven may not win the war, but it gives us a chance. It puts a wall between us and the wolves at the door. As for my honor—I have none until Father is avenged.”
“Agreed,” Tiora snarls.
“Agreed,” Mother whispers, her voice a shadow.
I stare over her shoulder, at the face of the smiling god. I draw strength from her smirk, her confidence. She assures me. “Maven, his kingdom, they’re a shield, but a sword too. We have to use him, even though he’s a danger to us all.”
Mother scoffs. “Especially you.”
“Yes, especially me.”
“I never should have agreed,” she hisses. “It was your father’s idea.”
“I know, and it was a good one. I don’t blame him.” I don’t blame him. How many nights did I spend alone in Whitefire Palace, awake and telling myself I felt no remorse? No anger at having been sold like a pet or an acre of land? It was a lie then, and a lie now. But my anger at such things died with my father.
“When all this is over—” Mother says.
Tiora cuts her off. “If we win—”
“When we win,” Mother says, spinning on her heel. Her eyes flash, catching a spangle of light. In the center of the temple chamber, the curling fountain slows its motions, the steady fall of water easing in its journey. “When your father is bathed by the blood of his killers, when the Scarlet Guard is exterminated like so many overgrown rats”—the water stops, suspended by her fervor—“there will be little reason to leave you in Norta. And even less to leave an unstable, unfit king on the throne in Archeon. Especially one who is so foolish with the blood of his own people, and ours.”
“Agreed,” my sister and I whisper in unison.
With even motion, Mother turns her head to the frozen fountain, shaping the liquid to her liking. It arcs in the air, like a glass complexity. Light plays off the water, splitting into prisms of every color. Mother doesn’t flinch, unblinking against the flash of sun. “The Lakelands will wash clean those godless nations. Conquer Norta. And the Rift too. They gnaw at each other already, sacrificing their own for such petty rivalries. It won’t be long until their strength is spent. There will be no escape from the fury of the line of Cygnet.”
I have always been proud of my mother, even when I was a child. She is a great woman, duty and honor personified. Clear-eyed, unyielding. A mother to her entire kingdom as well as her children. I realize now I didn’t know the half of it. The resolve beneath her still surface, as strong as any storm. And what a storm it will be.
“Let them face the flood,” I say, an old promise of judgment. The one we use to punish traitors. And enemies of every kind.
“What of the Reds? The ones with abilities, in the mountain country? They have spies running through our own kingdom.” Tiora furrows her brow, cutting a canyon in her skin. I want to smooth away her infinite cares, but she’s right.
People like Mare Barrow must be accounted for. They’re part of this too. We’re fighting them too.
“We use Maven against them,” I tell Tiora. “He has an obsession with newbloods, the lightning girl especially. He’ll pursue them to the ends of the earth if need be, and spend all his strength doing it.”
Mother nods in grim approval. “And Piedmont?”
“I did as you said.” Slowly, I straighten, proud of myself. “That seed is planted. Maven needs Bracken as much as we do. He’ll try to rescue the children. If we can win Bracken to our side, use his armies instead of our own . . .”
My sister finishes for me. “The Lakelands can be preserved. Our strength gathered and waiting. Bracken could even be made to turn against Maven.”