It was five minutes before disaster.
The spring day outside was beautiful. The sky was darkening towards dusk, a deep royal blue at the outer fringes offset against a red like angels’ fire. The wind carried the scent of the blossoms in the garden outside the window. There was nothing at all to indicate the darkness that was coming, clawing its way up towards them from somewhere deep beneath the marble floors of Baron Armago’s villa.
Isonder leaned against the windowsill, taking in the view. South Cravnica was widely regarded as one of the fairest places on earth, and it was plain to see why. The fields beyond the villa had been planted with rows of lavender that stretched away in unbroken lines to the distant edge of the Uthal Mountains. The snow-capped peaks glittered in the sunset.
The splendor of the countryside was lost, it seemed, on Isonder’s companion. Karina Cravnic, the young Queen of Cravnica, stood with her back to the window, her eyes fixed on the mirror before her, fidgeting with her hair. She brushed it back, tucking it behind her ears. A moment later, she frowned and swept her black bangs down across the right side of her face so that her eye was almost hidden. She tilted her head to one side, considering.
“Which way do you think?”
Isonder blinked, turning away from the window. “Sorry?”
“The hair, Isonder. Down or up. I thought down was more…I don’t know…mysterious? But I wonder if maybe it seems less confident? I want to look confident.”
“You are the Queen of Cravnica,” Isonder said. “Do you really think Armago’s son will care whether your hair is up or down?”
“No,” Karina said. “I suppose not.” But she did not look away from the mirror. “He is very handsome.”
“Are you nervous?” Isonder almost laughed. “Just ten days ago, we were back in Cravnica City and you were standing before half the kingdom’s nobles, calling on them to give succor to the Pasharan exiles. And now you’re worried about a dinner?”
“That was different.” A subtle tinge of red appeared beneath the brown of Karina’s cheeks.
“He’s just a boy.” Isonder’s armor creaked as he walked to Karina and put his hand on her shoulder. It wasn’t something he would have done in the open, where the informality might have raised eyebrows—but here, alone in the guest room, he judged a reassuring touch would be appreciated. “This is supposed to be a relaxing trip.”
“And…you don’t appear to be relaxed.”
“It is my first date,” she pointed out.
“You are the Queen of Cravnica,” he said again; he felt the point bore repeating. “Whatever you’re feeling, he’s feeling it a hundred times worse. You are brave, and wise, and clever, and you will do fine.”
Karina took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re right.” She squared her shoulders, turned to face the door that led into Baron Armago’s dining room.
The nightmare that was coming for them was only two minutes away now and closing fast, racing towards them like lightning through still water.
Karina paused, offering him a crooked half-smile. “That was nice to hear, Isonder. Brave and wise and clever? Careful. If you keep that up, I’ll end up as vain as little Baron Vemyn.”
“Ashere forbid,” Isonder said.
Karina hesitated at the door. “Could you just…not stand too close while we’re talking?”
“I’m supposed to protect you,” Isonder reminded her. “That is my job.”
“We’re in Baron Armago’s villa, Isonder. The greatest threat to me is awkwardness, which, while terrifying, you can’t really protect me from. I’d rather not have a bodyguard hovering over my shoulder while I do this. Do I have to make it a command?”
Isonder smiled. “As you wish. I’ll behave myself,” he promised. It was difficult to get the words out; something like a lump of wet clay seemed to have caught halfway down his throat.
Karina Cravnic, the girl he’d guarded for most of her sixteen years, stood before him, dressed in a gown the color of the lavender fields beyond the window. Her hair, combed straight as the edge of a blade, gleamed where it caught the light like the snow atop the mountains. She looked like a piece of the glory of Cravnica itself, come to life.
“Are you ready, then?” he asked, when what he really wondered was: am I ready? The purpose of this trip to the south was to meet Baron Armago’s son, to see if he was worthy to become, someday in the not-too-distant future, the king to sit at Karina’s side. Now she stood at the doors to the dining hall, flanked by two pillars of Verenthian marble, and it seemed only moments ago that she’d been a girl half the size she was now, dashing between those pillars and pretending they were the legs of giants.
He’d heard it said that years seemed to slip past quicker for his kind—for the Eldren. He wasn’t sure what kind of sense that made—time was time, after all, regardless of how much of it you had—but standing there, in that moment, he felt it.
“I’m ready,” Karina said, which meant Isonder had to be, too. He swallowed the lump away and took his place before the queen.
“If your father were here…” he began.
“Don’t, I’m begging you.”
“What? I was just going to say…”
“You were going to say he’d be very proud of me. I know. No offense, you’re a little predictable, Isonder.”
“How about you save it for after I get through this dinner without doing anything stupid?”
“As you command.” Isonder smiled. He gave a rap on the door and another of the Queen’s Hands pulled it open from the other side.
He had a brief glimpse of a long, oval room hung with tapestries, open to the night air, ringed by graceful columns and white candles, the tiled floor swept so clean he could see his own reflection in it, the image set out so clearly that he could make out the old battle-scar above his right eyebrow.
A young man was seated at a table directly ahead of them. He rose to his feet as they approached, nervously running a hand through the dark curls of his hair, and Isonder had time to note that he was indeed remarkably handsome; he reminded Isonder of a young man he’d once been captivated by, many years ago, when he was still as fresh to such pursuits as Karina now was. Well; in so many things, Karina always had good taste.
The force of the first shock dropped him to his knees. Ahead of him, Karina fell, crying out, throwing out a hand to stop her fall. She landed wrong; he heard a crack as her wrist broke. He pushed himself back up, took two steps towards her before the second shock hit and threw them apart. He slid across the marble floor and slammed against one of the pillars with enough force to drive the air from his lungs. He heard a series of small crashes as the plates fell from the table and shattered on the floor, another, greater crash as the chandelier of painted glass broke free from the ceiling and exploded.
He lay without breathing, listening to the sound of something groaning and snapping overhead. He tasted blood in his mouth, reached a hand up and felt it on his cheek, a cut left by a piece of the broken chandelier.
Unsteadily, he rose to his feet. Halfway across the room, Karina turned her stricken eyes to look at him. She spoke his name.
He tried again—managed the same two steps as before. The ground shook again. Isonder landed on his stomach, his fingers scrabbling for purchase on the smooth floor, finding none. Pieces of red terra-cotta tiles shattered around him. There was nothing he could do but squeeze his eyes shut and wait while the beast that had seized hold of them shook them in its jaws like a hound toying with its prey. He heard a voice yelling—his own voice—telling Karina to wait, to just hang on, meaningless words in the face of the earth’s fury. There was nothing to hang on to.
Something heavy landed across his back, finally putting an end to his violent slide.
The room stopped moving. Isonder lifted his head. A piece of the ceiling had caved in; it had landed atop Baron Armago’s fine dining room table, splitting it in two. Armago’s son lay senseless beside it, blood trickling from a gash somewhere on his scalp.
The tapestries on the wall had come loose and caught fire; smoke curled in the air, and the well-polished pillars that were still standing reflected the fiery glow of the burning fabric, a sick, chilling counterpoint to the bloodstained clouds he glimpsed through the hole where the ceiling had once been.
The ceiling. A piece of it lay now across his lower back and his thighs, pinning him in place. His armor had protected him from the worst of it; it didn’t feel as if anything was broken. But he was pinned, trapped as surely as an insect fixed inside a collector’s display.
“Nesotti,” he gasped, calling the name of the other Queen’s Hand. But the man was dead; Isonder could see the crumpled silver mess of silphite plates trapped beneath the weight of one of the hall’s great pillars, blood squeezing its way between the cracks of his armor like water being wrung from wet cotton. He tore his gaze away. His heart was beating hard against the cracked floor of the baron’s dining room. “Karina…” he croaked, and fear set in like a hammer, driving its spikes into his guts.
He saw her, then, some feet away. A piece of broken timber had caught her in the side; her blood-stained fingers were wrapped around it, tugging, but she lacked the strength to pull it free. She lay on her back, her glazed eyes staring up at the twilight sky. Her lips moved; she was still alive. The mage’s blood in her veins—a gift from her father’s side of the family—was fighting, doing its best to close the ragged wound in her flesh, but could do nothing…not with the piece of wood still inside her.
If he could get it out…
Isonder’s fingers found a crack in the floor. He pulled until one of his nails cracked and came loose, his fingers smearing blood across the dusty tiles. The piece of masonry that had him pinned was heavy; he managed to move himself only a hand’s length. The pain in his thigh brought tears to his eyes.
She turned her eyes towards him. Smoke curled in the air between them, as thick and hot as dragon’s breath. He pulled again, managed to wrestle one leg free. Sweat was running down his back, dripping into his eyes, blinding him. His panic was a pack of Darkling plague rats, scurrying through his guts. He pulled again, harder. One inch closer to freedom. Two. The pain growing with each movement.
The room ahead seemed a mile long, the smoke billowing before his face, obscuring his vision. Karina might as well have been on the other end of the earth. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire, his grunting, the screeching of his armor on the floor, a woman’s distant scream of anguish.
He wasn’t sure how long it took him to pull himself free from the wreckage, to limp his way to Karina. He slipped on her blood and went down on one knee beside her.
“Karina,” he whispered again, but he had seen enough death in his time to know that she couldn’t hear him. The Queen of Cravnica was gone.