Read a sample from THE IKESSAR FALCON by K. S. Villoso

The Bitch Queen is back in this thrilling sequel to K. S. Villoso’s acclaimed debut The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.


The Price of Innocence

A thousand hooves trampled the sky the night my father died.

No words can describe what it feels like to gaze at the man you looked up to—a man you respected, and loved, and feared—and realize that somewhere along the way, he turned into a shadow of his former self. That he had, in fact, been fading for years, and was simply doing a remarkable job of pretending the world wasn’t falling apart. Where there was once power, presence, and might, now there was only sickness and the stench of death: not yet the sweet-stink of a rotting corpse, but a moldy, urine-tinged scent, one that seemed to crawl away from his stiffening body and up the walls to fill the entire room.

The storm started with his last breath. I found myself sinking back into the chair, frozen in terror as the lightning flashed over his shadowed face, revealing the hollows under his eyes, spidered with black veins. Deep-green bruises, cracked lips, yellow-white skin, wrinkled as parchment. I had been instructed to inform Lord General Ozo first should my father succumb to his illness, but I couldn’t even find the courage to stand, let alone look away from the withered image of the man who used to be strong enough to lift me on his shoulders. You’re alone now, my thoughts whispered, a thin thread that sought to wrap itself around my heart. You will no longer be able to depend on him. From now on, everything falls on you.

The sobs stopped at my throat, settling inside my chest and wrenching the breath out of me. My eyes burned, but I forced the tears not to fall. What if one of the soldiers walked in and saw Yeshin’s heir red-faced and bawling away like a child? The other warlords would think us weak, that they all made a mistake when they bequeathed the Dragonthrone to an Orenar. To an Oren-yaro. Would I let it all turn to dust after everything my father had sacrificed?

I slowly let go of Yeshin’s hand, curling mine into a fist, before I reached up to plant a kiss on his wrinkled forehead. It was still covered in a layer of cold sweat. I wanted to say something, to utter a prayer or words of farewell for a man whose name carried a weight that could break the world. But silence seemed to be the only fitting poetry for someone who had lived as Warlord Yeshin had. So instead, I swallowed and murmured an oath that I would do everything it took to make his dreams become a reality. A united land, prosperous in the way the Ikessars couldn’t make it, with the discipline and the ideals that made the province and the people of Oren-yaro stand head and shoulders above the rest. And so even if it meant facing my fears, if it meant walking the road laid out for me . . . if it meant becoming someone I was not . . .

He was dead and yet I still carried on in my head like he was listening. It started there; it never stopped. And there was never a time since that I didn’t find myself carrying out my duties to the echo of his voice—to that sharp, lightning-like roar of it, the one that could crumple my very soul.

It was that same voice that reached deep into me and forced me to consider my failures the day I lost my husband. My quest for Rayyel was a twisted reflection of the turbulence around me, a lighthouse in a stormy sea. I was accused of blindness, of obsession, of allowing my love for a man to become the center around which my life spun. I hardened myself to it. Embraced it. Call me what you want—irrational, careless, an idiot, even— every name you can think of. I know. I’ve told them to myself for years. When you internalize such thinking, allowing it to settle into your bones so deeply you know your own weaknesses to be a fact, it becomes a kind of foolhardy strength. Make of that what you will.

So when the bitter truth came—when my husband declared that he had loved me after all, when I had long convinced myself that I was the one holding our marriage together—my world came crashing down. For the longest time, to hear those words was all I ever wanted. He loved me, but because three days before my wedding, I had fled from his ancestral city straight into another’s arms, he could no longer be certain if our son was his. There is nothing worse to wash down anger than the taste of your own mistakes.

A just reaction, so many others will say. Rayyel deserved it after what he had done—after his own betrayal, his own languid affair with another warlord’s daughter. But they don’t understand. They don’t understand that it was the kind of emotional reaction my father used to warn me against, proof enough to remind me that I was not what my father needed me to be, that I did not deserve to be Warlord Yeshin’s daughter. What strength I thought I had was laughable—I needed to be more than this. Jin-Sayeng needed me to be more than this. Thousands had lost their lives to get me to where I was. If I faltered, thousands more would follow.

It was as if I had taken a sharpened knife and stabbed my father’s dreams over and over. The worst part was that I didn’t do it to rebel. I didn’t do it out of spite. I did it because my position was an iron hand around my throat and I needed to catch a moment’s breath. The failures of youth; Yeshin could’ve done better than to pin all his hopes on someone like me. A brilliant mind, but he was wrong about the one thing he couldn’t afford to be wrong about.

* * *

To speak of my father has always left me hollow, and to write about his death is to scrape my insides out and smear them over this ink-stained paper. To speak of my failures to the land I was entrusted leaves me with the urge to rip my work apart and burn it on the candles. I imagine the sight of these in flames would give me a measure of satisfaction, if only because I cannot erase the details from my own memories. But I am not exactly in my own home, and Sayu would frown on that—if she doesn’t throw me out first. She has also made it clear how much more expensive this aper is than what she uses for her own scribe work, and while I’m sure she won’t lecture a queen, her sigh alone might cut me. The very presence of the woman shrivels me like a brush of shadow over a touch‑me‑not plant; I do not want to imagine what my father would say that a peasant’s judgment of a queen should hold so much weight. The queen of Jin-Sayeng, worrying about paper?

But the thought only fills me with sorrow, that I know so little of my land after all these years. That crisscross in the grains of the paper, for instance, is supposed to mean the paper comes all the way from the mills in Natu, with trees from the low-lying lands there. This ink was made in a factory in Kai, one that has been with the same family since Reshiro’s reforms that allowed merchants to operate outside of the warlords’ influence. Sayu told me they are struggling now—ink is not as prized as weapons these days. They have asked for help before; I have a vague recollection of those papers on my desk somewhere, fully intending to get Arro to take care of it at some point in the future. Arro, who now lies in a mass grave somewhere in the empire—the land of his birth, but not his chosen home.

I pause, blots of ink dripping from the end of my pen. I wonder if maybe I should proceed forward—to talk about the events that transpired immediately after my bitter separation from my husband in Anzhao City. Should I talk about how Agos tried to chase him down to the docks and was blocked by Zheshan’s men? Maybe I can speak instead of when I returned to Lo Bahn’s mansion just in time to see him dragged out by officials in chains, face as hard as a rock. He had seen me on the street, and for a moment I was afraid he would betray me. But as soon as our eyes locked, he looked away, and I heard him say, “I don’t know anything, you sons of bitches.”

They set him free a day later. “None the worse for wear,” he hissed through bloodstained teeth. He was covered in bruises, one eye swollen so shut it left only a thin crease behind, and when he tried to wipe the blood from his lips, I saw that his fingernails were torn out. “I hope you’re enjoying the hospitality, Queen Talyien.” His servants led him away to see a healer, and I didn’t see him again for days.

Where do I begin with the violence and terror that follow my waking moments? It will take me years to write it all down, and I don’t have years. I must pick only the parts that fit the puzzle in the hopes of it forming a picture somehow. In retrospect, it is frightening to realize how easily the worth of our lives can be broken down. How easy it is to say words like she lived, and caused sorrow. Small things build up over time, and suddenly your legacy looks nothing like you imagined it to be. Not even a queen can live with the reassurance that her life will be of value. If my father had been alive, he would have never understood how his precious daughter is nothing but the sum of her mistakes.

“Staring at that won’t make the words come any faster,” Sayu says, looking up from her own work: that curved, elegant handwriting, so beautiful it ought to be preserved behind a glass case somewhere.

“A pity. I was hoping it would.” I give her a small smile, considering my own messy scribbling. I still do not know how to talk to her about any of this—facing it myself is enough of a struggle. I am grasping for a word now, turning the thoughts inside my head for that one, perfect response if my father ever pointed that wrinkled finger at me again. Why, child? What happened to the daughter I raised? What went wrong with you?

* * *

Ignorance—yes, that’s the word. Because only an ignorant woman would willingly swallow a vat of poison in the hopes of finding a cure. Maybe another would have been allowed the mistake, but I was the lady of Oren-yaro, future queen of Jin-Sayeng. I was supposed to understand the significance of my every move. My father had drilled these things into me the moment I was old enough to know my name was Talyien aren dar Orenar. I was the Jewel of Jin-Sayeng, a symbol of peace, a double-edged sword. I wielded enough power to send men running for the door or falling at my feet—an army of ten thousand, my father’s bloody legacy around me like a shawl.

But in those moments of my mistake, I had dropped all trappings and left behind a girl of eighteen. Old enough to know better, but still too young to understand the nature of the world, the pitfalls that could open up and trap you. I remember the rain, the lightning across the sky and the thunder that followed, pounding against the glass windows of the inn. The smell of mint and beeswax candles, the ringing of wind chimes spinning with the storm. The hollow sensation of loneliness, of broken illusions and dreams disappearing rapidly, like a bucket of water upturned into the sea.

I cranked the door open and called for Agos. In crowded inns, he usually slept in front of the doorway by the hall, refusing to get his own room. I had long stopped insisting. I heard him stir from the shadows at the sound of my voice.

“Princess,” he said, stepping inside with the surety of a beast stalking through the night. “Do you need something?”

“I’m frightened of lightning,” I blurted out, forgetting whatever excuse I had planned to give.

A puzzled expression drifted over his face. “Lightning,” he said evenly. “Not thunder?”

“Lightning,” I repeated. “The flash, the crackle. Not the rumble.”

You.” He didn’t sound like he believed me.

Almost as an answer, another flash of lightning lit up the sky, and I cringed involuntarily. His eyes widened, as if he had only just realized I meant what I said. A few moments later, the thunder broke through and I felt the tight grip of fear loosen itself around me. I was able to breathe again.

“Do you want me to make it go away?” he asked, a hint of laughter behind his voice.

“Could you?”

He was still wondering if I was serious or not. “I could ask around for the nearest temple . . .” he started.

I sighed. “I didn’t mean . . . I am joking, Agos. Partly.” A third flash, another cringe.

Agos continued to stare. “I can’t tell, sometimes.”

“Really? After all these years?”

He nodded.

“Just sit with me. Talk.” I placed my hand on the mattress.

Agos took the furthest edge. He looked uncomfortable, like he was about to fall off. He placed his hands on his knees. “Are you all right now?” he asked. “You didn’t tell me why we left the Dragon Palace as quickly as we arrived.”

“Tell me about training,” I said, ignoring his question. “I’ve heard General Ozo is a bit of a hard-ass.”

“A princess shouldn’t speak like that.”

“A princess hangs around long enough with soldiers like you, she’s bound to pick up a few things. Come on, Agos. We haven’t seen each other in years.” I had been fifteen the last time he had visited Oka Shto. “Surely you have some amusing story to tell.”

“I don’t . . .” he began. He scratched his cheek. “Nothing I could repeat in polite company. Especially not in front of a lady.”

I punched his arm. I used to do that often when we were younger. His reaction now was more subdued than I remembered.

“You’ve got to act like one, too,” he murmured, rubbing his skin as if I’d actually hurt him. “You’re going to be a wife soon. What would Prince Rayyel say?”

The smile I had pasted onto my face disappeared. Hearing my betrothed’s name felt like a blow to the head. I dropped my gaze. “I don’t want to talk about Rayyel.”

The fourth flash of lightning, and then thunder almost immediately after. And then the rain, pouring so hard around us that I scarcely noticed I had thrown myself at him. I was afraid of lightning. It wasn’t something Warlord Yeshin’s daughter should readily admit. If my father had known when he was alive, he would’ve locked me in a shed during a storm to try to knock it out of me, or at least numb my senses to it.

“Princess Tali . . .” I heard Agos grumble.

My hands were wrapped around his shirt. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, glancing down so that I didn’t have to look at his face. “I’m . . .”

“What the hell did Prince Rayyel do to you, anyway?”

“Nothing,” I quickly said. “He did nothing.” He did nothing while letting that woman do whatever she wanted with him. Chiha, Warlord Lushai’s daughter. I didn’t see her face, but it had to be her. Her father had wanted to undo everything mine had worked so hard for while maintaining a pretence of friendship.

I let my hands fall to the side. “I’m sorry,” I repeated. My own weakness disgusted me. I could almost feel my father shaking my shoulder, telling me to stand tall, to think clearly. I was better than this. I took a deep breath. “Please. You may go, if you want.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “If I want?”

“I don’t know anymore.” I could hear his shallow breathing, and I looked up to catch sight of his flushed face, of the rise and fall of his broad chest. What had happened to my childhood friend, the older boy who didn’t think twice about indulging my harebrained schemes? I was acutely aware that this was now a man beside me. I tried to shut the images of the last few hours from my mind, the sound of Chiha moaning on my betrothed’s bed.

“Would you stay with me tonight?” I asked. I could barely recognize my voice.

“If I want,” he repeated. His own had dropped another octave. I hesitated, and then nodded. I noticed his hand had been on my elbow. He now slid it up my arm, testing my reaction. I didn’t flinch, allowing him to touch my bare shoulder.

He started to kiss me, but I twisted my head away from him. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted at that moment, but I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want that sort of intimacy—I didn’t want to play at love. He took the hint and let his lips fall on my neck instead.

There was a clicking sound. I watched in horror as the door opened and the innkeeper barged in. “Your horses are—” he began. He saw us on the bed and his face turned as white as his beard. “I’m sorry, my lady. I’m . . .” He walked out just as quickly, slamming the door behind him.

I cleared my throat. Agos got up. At the doorway, he turned to me. “Are you sure about this?”

I almost said no. Wasn’t this the sort of thing I was supposed to iron out with my betrothed first? I knew in the back of my head that I could approach the council with evidence of Rayyel’s wrongdoing, which would discredit him without the blame falling on me. It was the kind of thing that would strengthen my support among the warlords, too—in a land as idealistic as Jin-Sayeng, adultery was seen as a great affront. It was true we weren’t married yet, but there was protocol about these things, small subtleties I could’ve taken advantage of.

But I didn’t have a template on feelings. I was aware I was acting irrationally, but I didn’t know how to handle it. And so I didn’t stop Agos when he locked the door and returned to me. One hand on my knee, he paused long enough to take his shirt off. I had seen him naked before, but five years in the army had transformed his stocky body into something unrecognizable, one of hard muscle and scarred flesh. His skin, which had once been as pale as mine, had tanned considerably under the sun. I made myself touch him, half curious at the sensation stirring within me, but also half wishing it was Rayyel there instead.

Agos moved like a man possessed, as if he was afraid I would change my mind at any moment. He untied my shirt, sliding it off my shoulders, and pushed me back onto the bed, rough fingers running over my skin as if it were made of glass. Lips on my neck again, and then down on my breasts, one after the other, hot mouth hungry for my flesh. I lay still, unsure exactly of what I was supposed to do, what was expected of me. No templates, like I said. I had them for everything but this.

I could feel his hardness on my leg. A slight attention to it was all it took, and now he was unbuckling his pants and spitting on his hand. He slid into me, hard enough to make me gasp in pain, and only then—only then—did it occur to him exactly what was happening. I could see it in his eyes, the horror on his face as the blood began to run down my thighs. This was not a thing I just did, a thing I had picked up for fun in the few years since we had last been friends together. He had just claimed my maidenhood.

“Gods help us both, Princess,” he exhaled. “What are we doing?”

What, indeed?

But he wanted this; he wanted this more than he knew how to say. Even before I could answer, he drove deeper, wrenching his manhood into me like a knife. I questioned what pleasure women could derive from this act, but I didn’t interrupt him. The smell of the candles, the surrounding rain, the salt of his sweat on my tongue—they worked together to create a heady atmosphere that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. After a few minutes, the pain numbed down, no more than what I had to suffer through with my monthly bleeding. He bucked his hips against me—I felt the ache turn into something else momentarily, rising as he sped up, a hint of what this was supposed to feel like, but before I could think about it any more, he stopped, spent.

Agos pulled out, his seed spilling onto the sheets. The numbness was spreading throughout my body, up my fingers and deep into my heart. I craned my head to look at him. He was on his back, his arm on his forehead.

“They will kill me for this,” he grumbled. I didn’t have to ask who they were. If word of this got out, the entire nation would be running to avenge the future queen’s lost honour.

I pulled my knees up, covering my legs with my robes. I was sore and confused and, more than anything else, exhausted. Which was surprising, given I had done nothing at all. Was that it? All that trouble and fuss for something that was over in a few minutes? I still didn’t know how I was supposed to feel and wondered, perhaps, if I was the one at fault. Perhaps I had expected too much from everyone—from Rayyel, especially. “Then why go through with it?” I found myself asking, hoping the conversation would drive my restlessness away.

“You don’t know much about men, do you?” He looked up at my face and frowned. “No, you don’t. I shouldn’t be surprised, after . . . that.”

“I’m sorry.” I had lost track of how many times I had uttered the phrase.

“Don’t be. I’m not.” Agos turned to me now with his dark eyes, his brow furrowed. “But you’re marrying Prince Rayyel in three days. You know what this means, right?”

I had gleaned enough from hearing gossip from the maidservants. Losing one’s maidenhood was supposed to be a moment of great importance. Belatedly, I wondered how much blood there was on the sheets and if I would have to burn the damn bed before we left. This—none of this—was how I imagined things would turn out. “I don’t think he’ll notice.”

“And the innkeeper?”

“Threaten him. Bribe him.”

“Wiser if he was dead.”

“I won’t kill a man for that, Agos. He didn’t do anything wrong.” I shivered, pulling the sheets up to my chest. My insides felt bruised. There was comfort, at least, from the torrent of rain outside. I wanted it to keep falling. I wanted it to flood the whole town, to carry me away and drown me.

“Can I sleep?” Agos mumbled. “I can protect you right here.”

“Go ahead,” I replied. “We can deal with the innkeeper in the morning.”

He hesitated. I think he wanted to try to kiss me again. Instead, he sank back to the pillows and fell asleep almost immediately. I watched the lines on his face ease away, and only then remembered that we had been on the road since early that morning. I had taken for granted all the things I’d asked from him, and a pang of guilt took seed inside my heart. I had no name for whatever I felt for Agos. I liked his company well enough—I didn’t love him.

How could Yeshin’s daughter make such a grievous error, one that would follow me all the way across the sea? There I was in Anzhao City, having been given one last chance to unite my people, with my husband—my king, the man I did love—bearing heart and soul at last. A moment’s error shattered it to pieces, casting a shadow over my son Thanh’s very being. A moment’s error in which I failed not just as a daughter, but as a mother to a child not yet born.

But I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.

Ignorance can be the sweetest sin.

* * *

That is, of course, old news, enemies I would have been glad to bury in the dust once and for all. I did my best to move past them. What more could I have done? I had no right to complain—not everyone gets the chance to live out a fairy-tale dream.

But mistakes beget mistakes, and fairy tales turn into nightmares. And what would’ve been challenging in more capable hands turned into a catastrophe in mine. Now I was dealing with the knowledge that I had been betrayed by the very people who were supposed to be serving me, all to lead me into the arms of a mad Zarojo prince. That it was my own father who might’ve conjured such a plot. And that my husband, amid all of this, had every intention of killing Thanh if he learned he was not his after all.

I didn’t even know what got me out of bed every morning. My love for my son. Responsibility. Habit. What else was I supposed to do? I had to save my son. It seemed like the simplest thing to latch on to, with everything falling apart. And yet I didn’t know how to do it. All I had were half answers and two guards to my name. My son was being guarded by people who had no reason to be loyal to me—by Ikessars, my husband’s people, in a sea of Oren-yaro, many of whom still claimed loyalty to my father. And he was all the way back in my castle. It wasn’t a distance I could easily cross, even without the embargo on ships travelling to Jin-Sayeng.

A part of me was counting on the chance that thwarting Rayyel in his wretched quest to prove my son’s legitimacy would somehow stop all the other bricks from falling, like damming a bursting embankment with your hands. So I had spent the last few weeks in Han Lo Bahn’s house, wedged deep in the slums of Shang Azi, while trying to find out exactly what the man had planned. All I knew was that he had gone in search of mages. Mages, whom he planned to bring to Jin-Sayeng, where we have outlawed the practice of magic. And if the land found out exactly why he would allow this madness into our midst? If they found out what I’ve done?

I would lose my crown, and the only thing keeping my son alive.

I closed my eyes, willing away the twinge of fear that crawled up my bones, before making my way down the steps of Lo Bahn’s house to where my Captain of the Guard was waiting for me. These weren’t thoughts that I needed to entertain on what already seemed like a dismal day. Grey clouds covered the sky, which filled the air with a damp chill. Even the garden felt cheerless—withered leaves curled along the branches, as if they had long given up on the promise of sun.

“You have children, too, don’t you, Nor?”

Nor paused from the doorway of Lo Bahn’s mansion. She was a tall woman, a match for many of the soldiers back at Oren-yaro; I always wondered what she felt having to look down on me to talk. Even now, she hesitated, as if unsure why I was asking her such a thing. “A daughter,” she said, at length. “Beloved Queen. You were at her last nameday. You brought a wooden sword for her.”

“Akaterru help me,” I grumbled. I had no recollection of this. She was my cousin . . . her child was my niece. I fulfilled my duties to my clan well enough if the gift sword was any indication, but I couldn’t put a face to her daughter. I couldn’t even remember her name.

I chewed over this as we walked through the gardens, past metal arches thick with leafy vines and bloated seed pods. Lo Bahn kept an impressive orchard behind stone walls, with no fewer than twenty fruit trees arranged around stone benches and decorative stones. He claimed to like nature, that the smell of a fresh breeze—an uncommon occurrence in the crowded, dirty streets of Shang Azi—was good for a man’s circulation. I looked back at Nor. “I apologize,” I said.

Her firm face remained unyielding. “There is nothing to apologize for, Beloved Queen.”

“You would be back home with your family if not for me.”

“We’re trapped here because of an embargo. My duty is to remain by your side. There is nothing to apologize for,” she repeated.

I didn’t have the courage to correct her. She had no knowledge of what transpired in that dockside inn between me and my husband, only a faint inkling of rumours best kept away from prying ears. She didn’t even know I had gone to see him that day. As far as she was aware, we were still trying to find him, still trying to piece together information we could glean from his activities in Anzhao while we remained hopelessly stuck, unable to board a ship home. It had made for a very dismal three months. I wasn’t sure how she would react to the truth. She was a wolf of Oren-yaro, too, one still reeling from the bitter taste of her men’s betrayal. The silence from back home was unnerving. It almost looked as if our people just went and abandoned us overnight. Where was Lord General Ozo and our army? What was stopping them from sending ships after us, Anzhao City politics be damned? Did they know about my mistakes, and had they all but abandoned me because of them?

No. Nor would kill me if I told her. That the rumours were true—I had faltered, I had sinned, and the heir to the throne was possibly illegitimate, a scandal waiting to explode. It felt ridiculous even to think about how I had let it come this far. I, foolish woman that I was, had never thought to question it. Thanh came out looking every inch like Rayyel and was growing up to follow in his footsteps, much to my dismay. A quiet, serious boy who liked books and had to be reminded to hold a sword the right way—how could he be Agos’s son? Agos, who had once pretended to read in front of me with the damn pages upside down?

I opened my mouth to say something in an effort to drown out the silence, but it was overtaken by the sound of the gates opening. Agos’s tall form strode past Lo Bahn’s guards, but my eyes settled on the figure behind him. Khine Lamang, Lo Bahn’s right-hand man, of whom I hadn’t seen hide nor hair for a good long while. I felt a lump in my throat.

“The hell are you doing here, Lamang?” I called out. I was hoping the familiar banter would ease the beating of my heart. The sight of him brought solace, which was immediately followed by shame—emotions my father would’ve frowned upon. I had already asked for too much from him.

“Your language has been improved by your time here,” Khine said easily. His voice had that cool, polite detachment that he used with people like Lo Bahn—people he disagreed with but didn’t want to confront. An easygoing tone, swathed in ice. He nodded towards Agos. “I heard you people have been asking around for a Gasparian merchant by the name of Eridu. What do you need from him?”

“We were told my husband paid him a visit a few weeks before he left.”

“Your method of questioning leaves people on edge,” he said. “I’ll spare you the trouble. This time of the day, he’ll be at the hawker’s hub in Dar Aso.”

“Why have you decided to help me now?”

He looked past me. “Captain Nor,” he said, greeting her with a smile. “You’re looking lovelier these days. I think the Shang Azi air is starting to agree with you.”

“Are we just going to stand around here listening to this idiot, or do we have a merchant to find?” Agos barked.

“This idiot knows his way around the neighbourhood and wants to assist you before you cause more trouble,” Khine replied. “Let’s go before he changes his mind.”

“Stay here, Nor. No sense scaring the man if we can help it.” I spoke as nonchalantly as possible, but I could see her regard me with a look of suspicion.

“My queen,” she replied. “As Captain of the Guard, I insist on being at your side at all times.”

“She doesn’t need two captains,” Agos broke in. “I did the job just fine before you, Nor.”

Khine’s eyes flickered towards Agos when he spoke. There, I thought. Khine had heard everything my husband had said the last time we saw each other, and then some. Khine had never spoken to me about it, but he’d started making great efforts to avoid me ever since, as if he despised the thought of having anything to do with me again. I couldn’t blame him. Khine was an idealistic man—why would he tolerate the presence of a woman who would jeopardize an entire nation because of her personal affairs?

Nor steeled herself for what looked to be another argument with Agos. I intervened before it began. “We’ll be all right, Nor,” I assured her. “Please.”

I could see the protest in her eyes, but she stepped back with a bow.

Khine pretended I didn’t exist as we left Lo Bahn’s. I was at a loss for words, the first time I had ever felt that around him—a chasm of silence that grated at my nerves like rusty hinges. It put me at odds with everything that I was, that I knew I was meant to be. Since when did queens walk behind con artists or care what they thought? Yet ever since that day at the docks, nothing felt right anymore. My righteous anger at Rayyel had been a crutch . . . without it, I was crawling and I didn’t know how to get up.

You wouldn’t. You’ve done nothing right since the moment you became queen.

I turned away from those dark thoughts, spoken in my father’s voice, and focused on not tripping on the sidewalk.