Sonara found him at the ocean’s edge.
The suns were just setting, a double green flash as they sank out of view beyond the farthest stretch of sea.
Seated on the sand, toes not far from the lapping waves, was Soahm.
A mere speck in the distance, she hadn’t seen him in weeks, not since the battle. Not since he’d returned home, wounded from a skirmish in the neighboring Deadlands, his leg torn open and bloodied as he lay in the back of a soldier’s cart.
“Slow, beast,” Sonara murmured to Duran now, leaning back a bit.
The steed dropped to a calm walk, responding to the motion of her body. She’d trained him to respond only to the pressure of her legs, to the click of her tongue, to the shifting of her weight or a gentle murmur of a practiced command.
The trainers had called her a fool, at the beginning. But now the bastard girl of Soreia had become the beast’s master. And perhaps one of the finest riders the Kingdom had to offer.
“Go on,” Sonara murmured as she stopped Duran and slid down from his back. “Eat your fill.”
His nostrils flared as he trotted off towards the dunes, fresh pale seagrass waving atop it. Soahm’s mare was already there, happy as could be. The wind blew, carrying her scent down the hillside, and Sonara swore she could feel a bit of peace wash over her.
Her footsteps were drowned out by the crashing sea as she approached her brother. The prince was busy sketching, the back of his left hand turned dark from smudges of charcoal. She rarely saw him without those telltale smudges. The moon was out in full tonight, a beautiful blue that cast a cool glow across the beach.
“What are you doing all the way out here, Soahm?” Sonara asked.
They were nearly an hour’s ride from the castle, on the fringes of the freelands where herds of wild steeds still roamed. He often came out here, to think. To enjoy the silence, without their mother barking commands, or filling his list with countless princely duties.
Sonara wouldn’t know a life like that. And in that, at least, she was grateful for her separation from the ones she could have called family.
“Sonara.” Soahm sighed her name in greeting.
She could sense the sadness in him, as deep as the ocean floor. He tossed a lilac shell into the sea. “I can’t lead this kingdom the way she wants me to.” He glared at his injured leg, splayed before him in a splint. Beside him, a discarded crutch that had become his constant companion. “I’m broken, Sonara.”
“Broken?” Her dark eyes widened. “You’re injured, Soahm. That’s a far cry from broken. You’ll heal.”
“There’s a chance I won’t.” Soahm looked at her fully, and his blue eyes, so unlike hers, were rimmed with red. “The healers say it’s possible that I’ll never fully recover. The people want a warrior, Sonara. Like our mother. They want to know that their future king will rule with sword and shield, will not balk or falter in the face of his enemies. I cannot give them that.”
“Perhaps you never could,” Sonara said with a shrug.
Those blue eyes widened ever more.
She held up a hand and offered him a gentle smile. “You’re not like that, Soahm. Before the injury, after it . . . it’s never been you. If they want a king like that, they can move north to the Deadlands, and bow at Jira’s feet. Or worse, to the White Wastes, and praise the ice queen.”
Soahm frowned, his brow furrowing. “You think me weak?”
“The opposite,” Sonara said. “I think you’re strong. But in a different way. Perhaps a better way . . .” She considered for a moment, as a distant pod of sea wyverns splashed their tails above the waves. “Yima rides with heavy heels. The steeds respond, but they don’t respect her.” Sonara reached out, and scooped up a handful of sand, letting it fall through her fingertips. The grains danced away on the wind. “The people want someone they can respect, and it isn’t always earned with a warrior’s sword. Give them a reason to follow you. Give them a leader they can be proud of. Bend a knee to their level, and show them you understand their struggles, their worries and fears, that you care about filling their bellies and giving their children a safe place to learn and play and sleep.”
“But how can I do that?” Soahm asked. “How can I do that like this? The Great War ended when Jira rose to power, but skirmishes still rise. There is still unrest on the borderlands.”
Sonara grabbed her brother’s hand and squeezed it, forcing him to pay attention. To look at her clearly, with her muddied blue hair, her dark eyes, her differences that marked her as a bastard. The lowest of the low. “See them, Soahm. All of them, not just the wealthy and the nobles. See them all, the way you have always seen me.”
He squeezed her hand back, then let it go. They sat together for a time, watching the stars wink down from the sky. Behind them, Duran had crossed to the hills, his face buried in the seagrass as he filled his ever-hungering belly.
“Let’s walk,” Soahm said. His voice was a bit lighter, the heaviness replaced by what Sonara felt was, perhaps, hope.
She reached out a hand to help him stand. He took it gratefully, a prince that was never too proud, and together, they walked, their cloaks dancing behind them in the wind. In the distant sky, a star was falling, a trail of glitter in its wake.
“I’ve spent more time sketching,” Soahm said. “Mother doesn’t know, of course. She’d slay me herself if she thought I was wasting my time sketching when I could be studying.” He reached into his cloak pocket and pulled out his leather-bound journal. On the front, a stamped insignia of a rearing steed. He flipped through the pages until he landed on a sketch of a warrioress, seated atop Duran.
“It’s me,” Sonara said.
“The She-Devil,” Soahm said with a wink. “Keep it.” He passed her the journal. “I have plenty. Try your hand at a sketch, Little Sister. It’s kept me busy during my recovery.”
Sonara laughed, for she’d never been able to sit still enough to sketch, but she tucked the journal into her cloak anyways, to humor him. She was about to suggest they turn back, her body growing tired, when the star in the distance caught her eye again.
Stars didn’t fall quite like that, cutting through the night like a beacon.
“Do you . . .” Sonara pointed. “Do you see it?”
Soahm followed her gaze through the sky, the light reflecting upon the black sea. It drew ever closer, the brightness intensifying until she saw that it was not a star.
Rather, it was a shape, a blazing trail of fire beyond it. A shape that looked like the head of an arrow, slicing through the sky; metallic. Not of this world.
The wind kicked up, gusting towards her as a rumble sounded from the object, shooting across the sky like a war drum.
Sonara’s blood felt cold, her heartbeat rising to her throat. Danger. She felt it, a sickness spreading through her gut. Behind her, Duran and the mare cried out, then galloped over the hills, out of sight.
“Run,” Sonara whispered. She gripped Soahm’s hand, her nails digging into his skin as fear overcame her. “Soahm, run!”
She turned, tugging him along with her. The beach was a wide expanse of sand spreading into the dunes beyond. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to bury themselves in the shadows, except . . .
The cave on the edge of the Devil’s Dunes.
A burial ground for the dead, a sacred space that was not to be disturbed, and yet Sonara found herself tugging Soahm towards the yawning black mouth of it, the safety of darkness calling them home.
“Slow down!” Soahm yelled. He stumbled, but Sonara tugged his hand harder, her fear a living thing inside of her now.
Run, it beckoned. Run, and do not slow down.
She had always been smaller than most, lithe and used to working long hours in the stables. She pushed herself, legs burning as she trudged through the deep sand.
Behind her, the object closed in, screaming from the sky as the winds kicked up. She looked overhead as light flared. She saw only metal, like a great beast in the sky, a crimson bird painted upon its belly.
At some point her sweaty hand slipped from Soahm’s. She reached the mouth of the cave, darkness swallowing her up, safety wrapping its arms around her as she disturbed the domain of the dead.
She turned in time to see Soahm hit the sand. For a moment, her panic cleared at the sight of him, his crutch discarded, his hand reaching for her.
But fear snapped its angry jaws, freezing Sonara in place as her entire body shook. Soahm sruggled to his feet, then cried out in pain again.
He was crawling now, his leg splayed at an awkward angle behind her.
She saw his lips move, forming her name. But she could not hear him over the screeching of the metal beast in the sky.
She took a step forward, her whole body so seized in fear that her legs felt leaden.
Another step. She could do this. She could save Soahm. She reached out her hand, leaving the shadows just as a beam of blue light erupted from the belly of the beast. It surrounded Soahm, lifting him from the sand. He screamed and thrashed, trying to escape, but he was powerless to the beam’s hold, as if it were some dark, powerful magic. His arms stretched, his amulet dangling from his tunic, shining in the beam as the beast’s great metal belly yawned wide, pulling him inside before slamming back shut.
Soahm was gone.
The floor beneath the Queen’s dais was bathed in blood.
It was a cool night, steam still rising from the rivers of crimson that had pooled between the pearlescent green tiles. They came to a stop at the edge of the throne room, where rows of soldiers stood guard, swords and spears in hand. Behind them, a thick crowd stood watching the public trial.
All had been called to file in, to boo and jeer and stomp their feet as Queen Iridis charged the Bastard Girl of Soreia with the murder of the Crown Prince.
“You will never shed your filth on this Kingdom again,” Iridis said. She lifted a hand in command. Another lash of the whip followed. The sharpened prongs tore Sonara’s skin away in bleeding chunks, dragging through muscle down to bone. “You will spend the rest of your days wandering the planet alone like the bastard you were born as.”
“I didn’t kill the prince!” Sonara screamed. She hardly recognized her own voice, as if her vocal cords had been ripped to shreds with each scream following the lash of the whip.
The crowd began to boo, spitting as they stared at Sonara with disgust in their eyes. The skin on her back was torn to ribbons; the blood that was half-Soahm’s pooling around her body. Gone. Soahm was gone.
Some, watching from the sides, held hands to their faces, horrified as the Queen’s guard slung the whip again. Blood and bits of flesh rained upon the floor.
But they hadn’t uttered a word in her defense. Nothing to lay claim to the fact that they might have seen the great metal beast falling from the sky, lighting up the night like a beacon before it took Soahm.
Sonara hadn’t known true pain, hadn’t known agony, until this moment. She became only the rush of hot blood running down her back, knew only the wicked kiss of the whip as it feasted on her skin.
How many times would her mother order her flayed? How many strokes of that whip would she endure, before death stole her away?
It was a mercy she would have begged for, had she the strength to utter the words.
She’d come to the castle last night to save him. She’d ridden from that hellish beach as fast as Duran could carry them both. She’d burst through the gates, his hooves pounding across the cobbles like a war drum, not caring about the citizens diving out of the way, or the soldiers standing guard, the weapons they’d pointed as they’d commanded her to halt.
Nothing else mattered, for the Crown Prince was gone.
Up, and away, into the silent skies, as if he’d never existed at all.
Beneath the moon, Sonara had pleaded with the guards to wake her mother, and by the grace of the goddesses, the Queen had come, wrapped in robes, her face gaunt as she listened to Sonara sob the truth of Soahm’s taking.
Iridis hadn’t believed her.
She’d placed the blame of Soahm’s disappearance upon Sonara, refusing to believe her tall tale of a great metal beast soaring down from the night skies.
Now, Sonara lay dying,
“He was my firstborn. The heir to the Soreian throne,” the Queen said. She stood atop the dais, her voice ringing out across the throne room, sickeningly calm. “You killed him. For that, you will die.”
The whip came down again.
“Bastard!” the crowd shouted. “The Bastard girl of Soreia!”
“You have no name,” the Queen said.
Skin, torn away from Sonara’s muscles.
“You have no kingdom.”
Muscles, torn away from her bones.
And then the sentence came.
“Tonight,” the Queen said, as silence swept across the throne room, “you will die.”
In her mind, Sonara escaped to thoughts of the girl Soahm had once spoken of: the She-Devil, the dream she should have grabbed a hold of when they’d thought it up together in the stables. She should have run far, far away.
Her other half-siblings, the princes and princesses of Soreia, stood with their arms crossed on the dais, the fringes of their robes flecked with her blood. They watched, unwavering as their mother beat Sonara to the end of breathing.
They left just enough life in her to perform the Leaping.
At dusk, Sonara was placed on an open wagon and carted to the edge of the Kingdom in full view, so that the watching crowd could gaze upon the fate of a kingdom’s traitor.
They gathered and grew and followed to the edge of Cradle’s Cliff. It towered so high the clouds kissed it, moistened the earth like it had been covered in a blanket of winter’s breath. The ocean raged against the rocks below, sea-spray erupting in the air where it was picked up by the wind.
The salt air stung as it landed on Sonara’s open back. Her vision flitted from dark to light as the cart wheels groaned to a stop, and strong hands lifted her ruined body.
She could scarcely hold open her eyes as the crowd chanted.
But one sound broke above it all.
A cry. A mighty, beastly screech that forced her eyes open.
Her heart sank. There he was, the beast that had become hers, fighting for freedom at the edge of the cliff. Two trainers held a rope, their feet scrambling for purchase against the moist earth as Duran reared and threw his mighty head about, trying in vain to escape.
They made her watch as they bound him, man by man, ropes on his legs, ropes slung around his strong neck. His red eyes were ablaze, sides heaving as he stood there, a captive.
He was hers.
And that made him as good as dead.
Fight, Sonara wanted to tell him, as she was lifted from the cart by strong soldier hands. She hung between two men as they dragged her towards Duran, feet scraping the earth. Oh, goddesses, just keep fighting.
But in her presence, at her touch, the mighty steed calmed. He allowed Sonara to be placed upon him, those very ropes used to bind them both together as the guards slung her on his back.
She knew this death: the Leaping.
A death reserved for a traitor. A coward. A deserter, tied to the back of their own steed, forced to ride over the edge of the abyss.
The crowd cheered, as Sonara slumped forwards on Duran. They made a path, two sides that closed in, the nearer they got to the edge.
“Over the edge,” the Queen said. “To a death that has no peace. No silence. No end.”
The trainers released the ropes, cracking the whip over Duran’s back as they commanded him forwards.
His nostrils flared. But he steeled himself and did not move.
“Again,” the Queen commanded. The tips of her blue braids danced in the wind, mirroring her cold blue eyes. Soahm’s eyes.
The whip cracked again, doubly as hard. Duran screamed as his skin split open. But still, he held his ground.
Tears streamed down Sonara’s cheeks. She had only enough strength to utter a plea. “Just me.”
But the Queen only lifted her hand again, and the guards brought down the whip once more.
Duran finally took a step forward.
“Fight against them,” Sonara thought to him. With everything in her, she wished he could hear her words, could take comfort in her presence. “Don’t let it end like this.”
Another step. This one a lurch as Duran sidestepped, another lash open on his side. The motion sent pain rocketing into Sonara’s body, the wind howling, the cold salt spray like a knife reopening her wounds.
“Direct him,” the Queen ordered.
She marched up to Sonara’s side, reached out and gripped her by the chin.
“For you there will be no grave.”
Sonara spat in her face.
Then she turned, her fingers digging into Duran’s wet mane. The crowd closed in behind them, pushing until onwards, the mighty steed stepped. He kept stepping as the crowd pressed in, until it became a jog. Until the jog became a thundering canter, consciousness slipping from Sonara’s grasp with every beat of his hooves.
The last thing she saw, the last thing she heard, was Duran’s defiant cry as they made the Leaping.
Over the cliff they soared, tumbling headlong into the raging waters below.
Sonara could have sworn, just before death stole her away, that soft hands caressed her skin. That the sea split open around both of their bodies. That tendrils of shadowy darkness slithered up from the depths of the sea and wove their way around her skin, coiling against her fingertips, her legs, her throat. Sliding their way into her mouth, choking her last breath.
And then a whisper. Delicate, but as steady as the nearby tides as she drifted, slowly, towards dark.
Not yet, my heart.
Afterwards came stillness.