Ice Like Fire, page 1
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
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UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
To Kelson, who embodies the best parts of Mather and Theron even when I’m the worst parts of Meira
About the Author
Also by Sara Raasch
About the Publisher
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
Five dented helmets sit lopsided over five equally dented breastplates; five black suns shine, scratched yet distinct, on the silver metal. More soldiers than I could ever take on my own, but as I stand in the center of their ring, boots planted in the snow, I cock an eyebrow at the closest one, the calm that precedes a fight descending over me.
My chakram already rests in my hand, but part of me doesn’t want to throw it just yet, reveling in the feel of its smooth handle against my palm. Dendera thought herself so clever, hiding it where she did—but really, giving it to the Cordellan soldiers was almost too easy. Where else would I go for a weapon if not the weapons tent?
“Do it!” comes a high-pitched squeal.
“Shh, she’ll hear you!”
A deluge of shushing follows when I snap my head toward the row of boulders outside my ring of mock enemies. A cluster of small heads ducks behind the largest rock.
“She saw us!”
“You’re standing on my foot!”
A smile flutters on my lips. When I face the closest of the soldiers again, the pile of snow within the dented helmet and breastplate sags a little, knocked askew by the same gust of icy wind that beats at my skirt. The illusion wavers.
I’m not in battle gear—I’m in a sleeveless gown of pleated ivory fabric, my hair done up in elaborate braids. My “enemies” are stacks of snow that I hastily kicked together and dressed in the discarded Spring armor that litters my kingdom. My audience isn’t an army, but a group of curious Winterian children who followed me out of the city. The chakram is real, though, and the way my body reacts to it makes this almost believable.
I’m a soldier. Angra’s men surround me. And I will kill every one of them.
My knees bend, hips pivoting, shoulders twisting and muscles knotting up. Inhale, exhale, spin, release—the moves rise from my memory, as ingrained into my body as the act of walking, despite the fact that it’s been three months since I last threw my chakram.
The blade breaks out of my palm with a hiss that punctures the cold air. It whirls into the closest enemy, rebounds off a rock, knocks into the next soldier, and sings back to my hand.
Every taut nerve relaxes and I exhale, long, deep, pure. Snow above, that feels good.
I let the chakram fly again, and again, finishing off the remaining soldiers. Cheers erupt from behind me, tiny voices laughing as snowflakes settle over the fallen bodies of my victims. I stay in the position of my last catch, hips bent and chakram firm in my hand, but the illusion is thoroughly broken now—in the best way.
A grin curves my lips. I can’t remember the last time someone laughed in Winter. The past three months should have been filled with such joy, but the only sounds I’ve heard have been thuds of construction, murmured plans for crops and mines, soft applause at public events.
“Can I throw it?” one of the girls calls, and her plea encourages the rest of them to demand the same thing.
“Better start with something less sharp.” I smile and bend to scoop snow into a loose ball that I let slide from my fingers. “And less deadly.”
The girl who first asked to throw my chakram understands before the rest of them. She drops to her knees, smashes snow into a ball, and hurls it at a boy behind her.
“Got you!” she squeals, and takes off, tearing over the field in search of a hiding place.
The rest of them lash into a frenzy, packing snow into projectiles and launching them at one another as they sprint over the fields beyond.
“You’re dead! I hit you!” one little boy cries.
My smile slips.
We don’t have to fight anymore. They’ll never have to throw more than snowballs, I tell myself.
“Isn’t this a little . . . morbid?”
I whirl, fingers spasming around the chakram. But I don’t even get the blade up before I see who’s entering the little clearing created by the foothills of the Klaryns on one side and rippling fields of snow on the other.
Theron tips his head, some of his hair falling out from behind his ears to swing in a brown-blond curtain. A question hangs in his gaze, the lines around his eyes holding concern.
“Morbid?” I manage half a smile. “Or cathartic?”
“Most cathartic things are morbid,” he amends. “Healing through melancholy.”
I roll my eyes. “Leave it to you to find something poetic about slicing off the heads of snowmen.”
He laughs and the air grows a little cooler, a delightful chill that fizzles against my heart. His coloring looks harsh against the perpetual ivory backdrop of Winter—the lean muscles of his body are hugged by Cordell’s hunter-green-and-gold uniform, the material thicker to account for Winter’s chill and the fact that his Cordellan blood doesn’t protect him from my kingdom’s climate.
Theron nods back the way he came, toward the city of Gaos. If the Klaryns were a sea, Gaos would be Winter’s largest port—the biggest city with access to the most mines.
It’s a place I’ve spent far too much time these past three months.
“We just opened a mine yesterday. And two last week,” I counter. I hate how my voice twists. Theron shouldn’t be the recipient of my anger. But Noam has stayed away from Winter for the most part, and when he does visit, he goes to Jannuari while I’m in Gaos, or to the Klaryns while I’m in Jannuari. That doesn’t stop me from arguing every edict he issues through Theron or his generals—every mine he demands be opened; every resource he commandeers—but I have no way of stopping men who are just following orders, soldiers who are here merely to “oversee Winter’s rebirth.”
Which is political-speak for “occupy and slowly take over a kingdom so weak and indebted that they have no chance of fighting back.”
Theron’s jaw tightens. “I know.”
“Your father’s coming to Jannuari for the ceremony at the end of the week, isn’t he?”
He reads my meaning. “The Autumnian royals will be here as well. You shouldn’t confront my father with them present.”
“Cordell is as involved with Autumn as they are with Winter. Their king probably wants to force Noam out as much as I do.”
Theron winces, and I realize too late how callous my words were. Noam is still Theron’s father and his king, and no matter how tight my chest gets whenever Noam issues a new order . . . we need Cordell. Without Noam’s aid, we would have no army—the Winterians’ physiques have just started to go from emaciated to healthy, and as such they’ve only recently become able to train at all. Without Cordell, we would have no supplies, since Winter has no trade reestablished, and what crops we can grow in our frozen kingdom—thanks to my magic—are still freshly seeded and won’t yield for months yet, even with the extra boost from Winter’s conduit.
So I have no choice but to obey Noam’s demands, because we are so indebted to him that sometimes I can’t believe I’m not wearing Cordellan colors yet too.
“Fine,” I concede. “I’ll open this mine. I’ll bring Noam and Autumn payment due for their part in Winter’s salvation, but the moment the ceremony ends—”
What do I plan to do after the ceremony? Because that’s all it is, a ceremony—a pretty performance to thank Autumn and Cordell for their aid in freeing Winter from Spring. We’ll pay them with what goods we’ve mined, but it won’t even be a fraction of what we owe. We’ll be in the same situation after the ceremony as we are now: at Cordell’s mercy.
That’s why I’ve spent so much of the past three months trying to convince Dendera that queens can carry weapons. That’s why I found my chakram and staged this moment of normalcy—because even though we have Winter back, I feel exactly the same as I did when Spring owned our kingdom. Enslaved at another kingdom’s mercy. Albeit with less immediate threat, which is the only reason I’ve tolerated Noam for as long as I have. My people don’t see Cordell’s presence as oppressive—they see aid.
Theron reaches for me, but I’m still holding my chakram, so he settles for only one of my hands, yanking me out of my worrying. He isn’t just a delegate from Cordell; he isn’t just his father’s son. He’s also a boy who looks at me with wanting, the same look he gave me in the dark halls of Angra’s palace before he kissed me—a look he’s given me a dozen times in the last three months.
My breath catches. He doesn’t kiss me now, though, and I can’t decide if I want him to—if it would be because I want comfort, distraction, or him.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “But we have to keep trying—and the work is good for Winter. If anything, your kingdom will benefit from these resources too. I hate that he’s right, but we need—”
“Noam doesn’t need Winter,” I cut him off. “He wants Winter—he wants access to the chasm of magic. Why would you say he’s right?” I hesitate. “Do you agree with him?”
Theron rocks closer, a cloud of lavender from the scented soap he uses drifting off his body. He moves his hands to my arms, the sleeves of his jacket tugging up, revealing his wrists and their jagged pink scars. Guilt leaves a vile tang in my mouth.
He got those scars while trying to rescue me.
Theron follows my gaze to his bare wrists. He jerks away, pulling down his sleeves.
I swallow. I should say something about it: his scars, his reaction. But he always changes the subject before I—
“I don’t think he’s entirely right,” Theron stammers, steering the conversation back on course, though I don’t miss how he keeps one hand on his sleeve, pressing the fabric to his wrist. “Not in how he’s going about it, at least. Winter needs support, which Cordell can give. And if we find the magic chasm, we’ll all be in a better place.”
His eyes hold mine, wordlessly pleading with me to carry on like normal.
I relent. For now. “And how should Noam go about getting recompense for his aid?”
But as soon as I ask the question, I know the answer, and my body flares with a wave of desire that makes me rock toward him.
Theron leans forward. “I want my father to reinstate our engagement.” His words are no louder than the snowflakes that drop around us. “If our kingdoms were joined, it wouldn’t be one dominating the other, one indebted to the other—we’d be united, powerful.” He pauses, exhaling a cloud of condensation. “Protected.”
Icy tingles shoot down my body, conflicting with the parts of me that know Theron and I aren’t destined for what we once were. Noam dissolved our engagement because he saw Winter’s debt to Cordell as a sufficient link between our two kingdoms—and maybe a little bit because he felt cheated by Sir for setting up a marriage between his son and a girl who should have been a Winterian pawn, not the Winterian queen.
Noam wants our mines; he wants access to the lost chasm of magic. He knows he’ll have them, thanks to our dependency on him. And honestly, I’m a little relieved to not have to worry about being married now.
But Theron has made it quite clear, many times, that he isn’t pleased with Noam’s decision. And despite the fact that Theron and I are no longer betrothed, nothing’s changed between us. He still takes my hand when I’m nervous and says things that make me dissolve.
As if to confirm my thoughts, his features shift and he angles toward me. “I’ll always fight for you. I’ll always keep you safe,” he adds.
The way he says it is a promise and a declaration and a plea all in one. The words feed tremors that shake down to his wrists, highlighting the fears he doesn’t dare breathe aloud.
Protected. Keep you safe.
He’s afraid of our pasts too. He’s afraid that what happened will happen again, nightmares that keep playing out.
“You don’t have to keep me safe,” I whisper.
“But I can. I will.” Theron’s declaration is so stern that I feel it cut across my face.
But I don’t want to need him—or his father, or Cordell. I don’t want my kingdom to need anyone. Most days, I don’t even want them to need me.
I touch my locket, the empty piece of jewelry that stands as a symbol of Winter’s magic to everyone else. They think that once the halves were reunited, the locket resumed its status as one of the eight sources of magic in this world—the Royal Conduits. They attribute any magic I used before then—healing Sir and the boy in the Abril camp, infusing the enslaved Winterians with strength—to a fluke, a miracle, because every other Royal Conduit is an object like a dagger, a ring, a shield. It never occurred to them—or me, before this—that magic could find its host in a person.
They have no idea where the real magic is. And honestly, Cordell is the least of my worries—because something else sits inside of me that could be far more dangerous.
I press my free hand to Theron’s chest. Alone out here, with the snow falling and the cold wind twirling and the feel of his own pulse hammering under my fingers, I let us have this moment. Regardless of what we are now, moments like these, when we can forget politics and titles and our past, keep us both f
I press into him and lift up, catching his lips on mine. He moans and sweeps his arms around me, curving along the bend of my body, returning my kiss with a passion that undoes me.
Theron runs a hand along my temple, over my ear, and down my cheek, his fingers brushing aside the hairs that curl out of their pins. I tip my head to the side, leaning into his palm, my own fingers encircling his wrist.
His scars are lumpy and misshapen under my touch. My heart—already beating erratically from the way Theron’s lips are rough yet his touch gentle, by the pang of need in my gut when he moans like that—spirals out of control.
I ease back, our exhales turning to frost. “Theron, what happened to you in Abril?”
The words barely come, but there they finally are, dancing through the snowflakes.
He hesitates, not hearing me for a beat, then he flinches, his face awash with horror that he smoothes it into confusion. “You were there—”
“No, I mean . . . before.” Deep breaths. “You were in Abril before I knew you were there. And . . . you can tell me. If you ever need to. I mean, I know it’s hard, but I—” I groan at myself, head dipping between us. “I’m not good at this.”
Despite everything, Theron chuckles. “Good at what?”
I look up at him and start to smile back before I realize how he swept over everything I said. “Good at . . . us.”
His lips explode in a smile that only reminds me of everything it covers. “You’re better at us than you think,” he whispers, freeing his hand from my grip to run his fingers the rest of the way down my face, my neck, until he cups my shoulder.
I offer a weak smile and shake my head. “The miners. I should get to them.”
Theron nods. “Yes,” he agrees. A burst of hope brightens his face. “Maybe this mine will be the one.”
Unlikely, I almost say. We’ve started excavating more than half of Winter’s mines, and none of them have yielded anything beyond the usual resources. The fact that Noam believes we’ll find the place from which the Royal Conduits originated is infuriating. The magic chasm has been lost beneath the Season Kingdoms for centuries, and just because a Rhythm is now the one searching, he expects to unearth it?