Chapter One – Winter Falling
The wind was soft but cold, so high along the rampart of the citadel. It whispered the night’s embrace, pulling gently at the lapels of Gemmen’s coat. The skin on his close-shaven scalp prickled with goosebumps. It was cold, yes, but the winter twilight was far preferable to the stifling heat and conversation in the feast hall.
Torches burned, spaced every hundred feet along the walk. Gemmen could see guards posted, silhouetted against the lights as they leaned against the white stone or squatted for a brief escape from the breeze. He ignored them as he moved by, just as they ignored him.
The first flakes of snow began to flutter down as he walked. The night was not still, but it was silent; the wind stirred and the snow traced lines down to melt on the wall, but even the guards quieted themselves. There was a feeling of abeyance in the air, a muted pressure.
Gemmen loved nights like this.
He stopped between torches and leaned to look over the wall. The city of Annaloch spread out at the foot of the wall, though he could only see the roofs of the tallest buildings through the thick fog that swirled below, moving in off the lake. A small smile curved his lips, ever so slightly. His home, no matter how cold, was always beautiful.
Even when it was cold in more ways than one. Even when it was empty, for all that the nobles and courtiers insisted on hosting fetes for his mother on a weekly basis. Even when it was a burden, despite the light air on the lofty walls of the citadel.
Even when Ellia was halfway to the port at Caerban, in her self-imposed exile.
Gemmen sighed, his breath coming in a puff of steam. His feet began moving again, in long strides that broke the silence with the steady scuffing of his boots. One guard nodded to him as he went by. It was the first time one of them had had the temerity to note his existence.
The snow continued to fall. And he continued to put distance between himself and the feast hall.
They were a flock of magpies, the lot of them. They clustered around the Empress and squabbled over tidbits and sparkles, their minds too small or too consumed with their little games to realize what was really going on. Their eyes were locked on each other, oblivious to the fact that the Empress had eyes only for her son. Eyes of iron, which glared disappointment each time he slipped away from the goings-on to wander the ramparts in the snow, with only his Imperial coat to keep him from the cold.
Gemmen paused again as the wall turned north, giving him a clearer view of the lake that crept up to the city. Fog poured off of it, streaming over the docks and into the streets of Annaloch. He thought he could see the mast of a merchant ship out to his right, poking up as it sailed east, toward the mouth of the Annawash. He wondered if it would stop for long in Caerban; whether it would be the ship that took Ellia south and east to the Isles of Glass.
Gemmen’s chest tightened at the thought.
How had he let things come to this? His betrothed in flight, the enmity of his mother bearing down on him, and even the lowest guards too embarrassed to be friendly with him. Only the thickening snow would kiss him, now, and even that touch melted in moments. One ill-advised word, spoken at the most inopportune moment, and the Empire of the Ebon Sky was fracturing at its very core.
Dammit, but he missed Ellia. It was an untenable situation. Only she could fix things—and of all those involved, she was the least likely to want to. She had made that much clear, before she went. No matter her love for him, there was no measure of forgiveness in her for this matter. She would return to her uncle’s small island nation, and deliberate over her options. Gemmen hoped she would not continue on, to the far coast and the domain of her father.
If she went back to the Sunset Kingdom, all was lost for him.
Gemmen shook his head and let it droop into his hands, his elbows propped up between two of the stone crenellations. He could not let this continue. Somehow. He was tired of fleeing from his mother’s sight every other day. He was tired of the looks of pity that he received when people in the citadel thought he wasn’t looking. And he was damned tired of feeling as lost as a foreigner in those foggy streets below. Oh, Ellia, come back and help me.
Only the silent snow answered Gemmen’s unspoken plea.