44

This wasn’t the first time she’d stood outside Zhalharaq feeling like history was being made while she debated how to react. And she doubted it would be the last, as disconcerting as that feeling was.

She had stood here, in this exact spot, looking at her home where it spread out across the Raq’r Plains like a sated cat, centuries ago when Azriel had defected to the Grey Army, a ghost from her past wearing a face unlined by age and horrors and torture. She had stood here, looking at her home and debated claiming the Eighth Throne. With Uncle’s return and the fact that the Worlds had been at war for centuries by then and the fighting was rapidly running through resources they just didn’t have she hadn’t doubted she’d have been successful. But despite that, she had also known that if she had, it would bring her cowardly sister out of whatever hole she’d crawled into. Had known that no one but Xitlali would contest her right to be crowned Eighth Qishir. And at the time? She hadn’t thought she was strong enough to win.

She had stood here and debated naming Alaïs as her Chosen, asking for her hand early into the war just after Rhyshladlyn had disappeared. From the first moment she’d spent all night talking to the Sinner about her childhood, her hopes and her dreams and her fears, she had known who and what the Sinner female was to her. Had known that she was in love from the first time she had walked her back to her tent in the camp and hesitated leaving her side, hesitated because the mere idea of not waking up beside her in the morning made it feel like there was a hollowed out hole in her chest that ached. She had come here, to the spot where she had stood so many times before and debated what the right choice was; debated because she didn’t know how Alaïs really felt, not enough to risk speaking the Blessing and being Rejected.

Had stood right here after Alaïs had come to her and told her that she was going back to her people, that she was going to be their Lord Queen, that she loved the her. Had stood here and known that if she went against her little sister and lost, Alaïs would trade freedom from a tyrant for another. Had stood and mulled over the way her beloved’s high, sweet laughter had rung off the tent’s walls hearing her worries, over how the Sinner had assured her everything would be fine.

But everything hadn’t been fine, and wouldn’t be for a while. Because she had done nothing besides stand and debate what the right move was while history ambled on around her all because the ends hadn’t justified the means. Not back then.

But as Xheshmaryú landed beside her she knew that she couldn’t afford to waste time debating, not any longer. She read it in his pensive expression, hair swept back off his face showing the scarring over his left eye; that alone told her he was distracted because he never showed his scarring, not even to the Court. She saw it in the way his jaw clenched with a tension that tightened the muscles along his back, that made him stand with his shoulders rolled back, chin raised in what most would falsely assume was arrogance. But she knew better. Knew because he had taken a personal interest in her safety and protection though he’d never admit it out loud. And seeing him standing there, eyes missing nothing as he stared at the City before them, seated unassuming and faintly glowing among the tall grasses of the Plains, she realized she was stalling making major decisions because she was afraid. Afraid of failure and what that failure meant. Rhys is terrified of failing and losing us all, and yet… he never runs from a decision. 

She was afraid that if she took a chance, took a risk, and decided, that she would fail. And failure for those in the Grey Court wasn’t a mere set back; it was so much worse than that. Her family had lost enough and she couldn’t bear the thought of being yet another reason they lost more. Even if that was a foolish thought, even if it was selfish, she couldn’t help it.

Growing up under the watchful eye of the Crimson Qishir, under Uncle Azriel’s careful tutelage, she hadn’t wanted for anything but for all that she had been well off as royalty, she had worked for what she had, had earned it. But not once outside of campaigns, outside of battlefields, had she needed to make decisions that didn’t just effect those she cared for, that depended on her, but that effected history as it was being made. And that was a heavy burden that no one had prepared her for. Not that it was likely possible to prepare someone for this kind of thing. But that was a cop out and she knew it. Hated that she knew it, hated even more that she felt like a coward for letting her fear dictate whether she did or didn’t do something.

“Something my little brother told me,” Bayls said apropos of nothing as she strode up with the kind of swagger that she had been raised to believe all Sinner Demons had and rested her forearms on the map table in her tent, not looking at her, “it’s okay to feel fear but don’t be afraid. Fear is only crippling if you’re afraid.” 

Looking back at Zhalharaq, remembering all the times Uncle had told her something similar, had told her stories of his successes and his failures, had told her that the only thing she had to be afraid of was regret, she decided she wasn’t going to debate with herself about it anymore. Because Uncle and Bayls had been right, damn them. Because nothing had changed, not really, and stalling wouldn’t get her anything besides more sleepless nights and regret filled waking hours.

If Xitlali had died in Ryphqi? All the better. She would take her rightful place on the throne regardless and really that was the decision that had the greatest potential for danger where the Court was concerned. And if Xitlali hadn’t died in Ryphqi? Oh well. She knew that her little sister was no match for her, not in power and not in skill. And in a fair duel for the Eighth Throne? She would win.

On the heels of that thought came the one Alaïs may have also died in Ryphqi and I’m here, debating shit still? and her breath left her in a whoosh. Rose up from the pit she had tried to bury it in, pulling at her legs like impatient hands, trying to bring her to her knees, trying to make her feel afraid again. And gods See her, but it was so incredibly difficult to keep that knowledge and the fear it brought on its heels from swallowing her whole because it had been days without word. Days spent circling Zhalharaq, waiting, watching. Days spent hidden in taverns and Temples, meeting with contacts that she hated to call on so soon, making preparations to move on the City and the throne that rightfully belonged to her. Days of waiting for word that the female she had fallen inexplicably and irrevocably in love with was alive or dead. Though in her bones she knew Alaïs lived, no one believed her. No one was willing to fan the spark of hope that fought to remain alive in the emotional galestorm of her heart for fear that she would fall harder if Alaïs wasn’t found alive.

And if she was being honest with herself, she agreed with them. She was half-Ancient after all and with that came the risk that she could go nova if her hopes rose only to be dashed.

“Something feels off,” Xheshmaryú commented, tone conversational and easy, violet eyes roving across the City before them. But there was a shadow to him, an after image almost, that told her he wasn’t the only one behind those gem-bright eyes. And for all his tone was conversational and easy it held an edge that halted and rerouted her thoughts to focus on the City in front of her.

Frowning, she followed his gaze and looked more closely at the glowing gold of the buildings and the Eighth Palace. At the largest Temple in the Worlds that rose higher than the Palace at the City’s center, the Heart Watchtower piercing the skies from the nexus of the Temple. The eccentric architecture that made Zhalharaq one of the most unique Cities within the Worlds, tall buildings with richly colored domes, short builds with scale-roofs and curling edges, circular builds that filled the spaces between. Wait…

“The retaining wall…” She frowned harder, rubbing at her eyes to make sure she wasn’t imagining it in her exhaustion. When it was just as gone as it had been when she landed, she felt her mouth go dry. “It’s gone.”

Xheshmaryú turned to her, eyes narrowed, a frown pulling his brows together. “Are you certain Zhalharaq had one?”

“Yes,” she answered as her stomach clawed its way viciously up into her throat. “You’ve been to this City with me hundreds of times, Xhesh, do you not remember?”

The Other raised an eyebrow. “We always traveled into the inner courtyard of the Palace directly, we’ve never landed this far out and looked on. So I would not know.”

“Every Sanctuary City has a retaining wall, one that was tall enough that only the tallest dome of the Temple Palace could be seen over it, so that only the upper most reaches and points of the Watchtowers were visible. And Zhalharaq was no different,” she answered, fighting to speak around the lump of her stomach where it had lodged in her throat, trying to tell herself that this was a dream, that maybe she was wrong. Maybe the City’s citizens had removed it? Weirder things had happened.

Xheshmaryú spoke in a language that made her flinch, ears ringing in the aftermath of it. She watched as his expression went blank, watched as it twitched, as worry filled eyes went glassy while he had tried to reach his fellows. The quiet stretched until minutes felt like hours and she fought not to fidget. But the longer Xheshmaryú went without saying anything, the closer she got to losing the battle to keep still, to keep from turning and putting her hands on him and demand to know what the fuck was going on while she shook him.

“Nhulynolyn isn’t responding,” he said at last, eyes clearing as he turned to look at her.

She closed her eyes, feeling like the ground was rocking under her feet. Fuck. With a deep breath, she opened her eyes and found him watching her, a look of worry and fear that he’d never admit to feeling shadowing those handsome features.   

“Could it be the distance?” Even as she asked she knew it wasn’t. But she had to ask. Had to exhaust all possibilities before she jumped to conclusions.

“Since our came into his full heritage after Shiran, distance means nothing,” the Nochresi Other answered, the tiniest whisper of fear in his tone.

“Can you reach Shadi?”

Xheshmaryú sighed softly and nodded. “She knows the same we do: silence and nothing.”

Looking back at Zhalharaq, her hair dancing in a breeze that slipped around her like a teasing, playful snakat, she once again felt like history was happening around her while she stood still, debating.

Enough waiting.

“Let’s go,” she didn’t wait for the Other to say anything before she continued down the path towards the City, the high grasses shh-shhing in the wind that picked up with every step she took.

Something made her stop after only a few paces, but she couldn’t pinpoint what.

But she didn’t have to because suddenly Xheshmaryú was screaming her name as a ripple skittered across the ground, leveling the tall grass as it went. They both threw up Shields just in time, the ripple of displaced air and energy smacking into those Shields with enough force that they stumbled. If Xheshmaryú lost his footing, she didn’t see it because her eyes were locked on Zhalharaq City as it heaved once like something punched it from below. She barely had the time to let out a cry of alarm when an explosion ripped it’s way across it like a scythe through wheat stalks.

She yelled as the blast wave knocked her to her knees, hands pressed against her Shield, panting as she watched her City, her home, erupt in flames that glowed a sickly green, whose heat she felt despite the miles that stretched between her and them. She screamed her rage at the sounds of terror and agony that mixed with the crackling of those flames as a City of millions collapsed as the structural integrity of its buildings gave wave.

Zhalharaq burned and all she could think of was that the power behind the first blast felt so terrifyingly familiar but for the life of her she could remember why.

Xheshmaryú grabbed her around the shoulders and pulled her away from her Shield, from her City. As he dragged her back the way they’d come, tossing up one Shield after the other as he did so, she watched as the fire’s heat licked away at her Shield, melting it like it was butter. That was just not possible… it shouldn’t be possible. What is going on?

“Come on, Thayne. We cannot be here.” It wasn’t until he spoke that she realized she’d been yelling at him to let her go, that she’d been punching at his arm where it was locked around her waist with a strength she knew she stood no chance against while he reached for a Line to get them the fuck out of Bondye World.

As she watched what remained of Zhalharaq City disappear from sight, she vowed that whoever was behind these attacks would pay. No matter who, no matter their reasons, I will see that their suffering makes an eternity on the Cliffs look like a vacation. 

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