My jaw hangs open, eyes glued to the horizon as the jet arcs toward the north. The flat Prairie lands end abruptly, their western edge punctured by the wall of a vast and sheer mountain range, bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before. The slopes rise like knife edges, too sharp, too high, rows upon rows of jagged, gigantic teeth. Some of the peaks are bare, without trees. As if trees can’t grow up there. A few mountains in the distance are capped in white. Snow. Even though it’s summer.
I draw in a shaky breath. What kind of country have we come to? Do Silvers and Ardents rule so completely, with enough strength to build an impossible land like this? The mountains put a fear in me, but a little excitement too. Even from the air, this country feels different. The Free Republic of Montfort stirs something in my blood and bone.
Next to me, Dad puts a hand to the glass. His fingers brush over the silhouette of the range, tracing the peaks. “Beautiful,” he murmurs, so low only I can hear. “I hope this place is good to us.”
It’s cruel to give hope where none should be.
My father said that once, in the shadow of a stilt house. He sat in a chair, missing a leg. I used to think he was broken. I know better now. Dad is as whole as the rest of us, and always has been. He just wanted to protect us from the pain of wanting what we could not have. Futures we would never be allowed. Our fates have been quite different. And it seems my father has changed with them. He can hope.
With a deep breath, I realize the same. Even after Maven, my long months of imprisonment, all the death and destruction I’ve seen or caused. My broken heart, still bleeding inside me. The unending fear for the people I love, and the people I want to save. It all remains, a constant weight. But I won’t let it drown me.
I can still hope too.
The air is strange. Thin. Oddly clean, as if removed from the rest of the world.
I smell it around the edges of my iron, my silver, my chrome. And of course the metallic tang of the jets, their engines still hot from the journey. The feel of them is overpowering, even after long hours cramped in the belly of a Laris carrier. So many plates and pipes and screws. On the flight, I spent longer than I care to admit counting rivets and tracing metal seams. If I tore there, or there, or there, I could send Cal or Anabel or anyone I wished plummeting to their death. Even myself. I had to sit near a Haven lord for much of the trip, and his snore rivaled thunder. Jumping out of a jet almost seemed like a better choice.
Despite the time of year, the air is colder than I expected, and goose bumps rise beneath the sheer silk draped around my shoulders. I took care to dress as a princess should, even though now I suffer the chill for it. This is my first state visit, both as a representative of the Rift and as the future queen of Norta. If that cursed future comes to pass, I must look the part, impressive and formidable down to my painted toes. I have to be prepared. I am well beyond the bounds of the world I understand. I inhale again, sucking down an oddly shallow breath. Even breathing here is unfamiliar.
It isn’t late enough for sunset, but the mountains are so tall, and already the light wanes. Long shadows race across the landing field cut deep into the valley. I feel as if I could touch the sky. Run my jeweled claws across the clouds and make the sky bleed red starlight. Instead I keep my hands at my sides, my many rings and bracelets hidden beneath the folds of my skirt and sleeves. Decoration only. Pretty, useless, silent things. Just like my parents want me to be.
At the far end of the jet runway, the land drops away in a cliff. The carved edges of the mountainsides frame the horizon like a window. Cal stands silhouetted, looking eastward, where evening falls in shades of hazy purple. The mountain range casts shadows of its own, and all the world seems to fade in a darkness of Montfort’s making.
Cal isn’t alone. His uncle, the infinitely odd Jacos lord, stands at his side. He jots something in a notebook, moving with the excited, nervous energy of a tiny bird. Two guards, one in Lerolan colors, orange and red, with the other in Laris yellow, flank them from a respectful distance. The exiled prince stares out, still but for the wind in his scarlet cape. Reversing his house colors was a smart decision, to distance himself from everything King Maven is.