Mazarine was late to her own assassination.
The streets of the capital were empty as she raced through them, her hands holding the hem of the floor length gown Zarla had forced her to wear last night. She could practically hear her father’s chiding tone as she stumbled into the halls of the Roman inspired amphitheater. “Irresponsible,” he would say, “to go parading around the human world on the eve of your first challenge. It is disrespectful to your people to not take their threats seriously, Mazarine.”
She had heard countless variations of the same speech since she had been declared heir two years ago, on the eve of her brother’s death. Now that the mourning period was over, challenges had started rolling in. That was the Drakus way, for they valued strength and courage over nearly anything else, and challenges for heir were commonplace. They were also fatal, not that that ever stopped anybody. And now that Maz had taken her brother’s place as heir, the Drakus had been thrilled, certain that the untrained young girl would be far easier to best than Darssian had been. If only they knew that she was a thousand times worse…
Internally, she smiled. They would soon find out.
She reached the doors to the arena and paused. She could hear the cheers and murmurs and taunts from the gathered crowd inside. “Disrespectful,” she tsked, shaking her head. She reached out her hands, feeling the shadows forming at her fingertips and sent them hurling towards the door. The arena went quiet as the door shattered into a million pieces and she stepped through, a bloodthirsty grin on her face.
She saw her opponent still as a statue on the other side of the stadium as he took her in, the creamy white of her skin, the blue-black hair that flowed around like a shadow itself, and the stark turquoise of her irises against the black eyes that were characteristic of all Drakus. To a human, she was terrifying. To the Drakus, she was infinitely worse.
She cocked her head at her opponent and smiled. A promise of death. She observed him, his gray-brown hair and pure black eyes, and wondered what manner of shadow he was. She got her answer a second later when she noted the strange presence that lurked in the corner of her mind. A Parasite then. Harder than a Sole and a Traveller, but thankfully not an Oblivitor. She built up the walls in her mind like she had been trained to do, and her smile transformed into a smirk as the Parasite found himself stuck, half-in and half-out of her head.
Taking advantage of his shock, Maz flicked her wrist and a shadow appeared behind the man. In two seconds, it had him pinned to the ground. With another flick of her wrist, it transformed into solid ropes of shadow coiling around his body. Maz felt the presence in her mind grow panicked as it beat against the walls of her mind. It wouldn’t do much to take her down, but the nuisance of the headache she would have later on was enough to make her snarl, the sound drifting to the parasite as she approached. She watched him squirm, felt the presence switch tactics and try to find a way out of her mind rather than in, and she wanted to let him out, wanted to let him go. She towered over him, her body casting her own shadow along with the one she had created.
“Please,” he begged. “Please.”
She considered. Stared up at the booth her father now inhabited. Saw his eyes glaze over as he merely nodded with complete disinterest. He knew that the challenge was over. He expected nothing less of his daughter. She could not give him anything less. Not now that she was his heir. Not now that every eye in the Shadowworld was watching her every move, looking for a weakness, searching for a secret. She could not give them anything but the very best.
“Please,” he whimpered.
“You shouldn’t have challenged me, fool. It brings me no joy to end your life, but you know the rules of the duel as well as I. You would not have afforded me the same mercy.”
“I would. I would. I swear it.”
“Save your words for the death gods, Parasite.” Shadows leaked from her finger tips, forming three vicious black canines beside her. She did not look back as she stepped from the arena, pretending she couldn’t hear his screams, couldn’t hear the shredding of his skin over the cheers of the audience. Not that pretending did her any good. Not when she knew she’d be hearing it in her nightmares for the rest of her life.
Even with all the Shadowmaster power that ran through her veins, she did not have her father’s stomach for torture or her brother’s noble strength. She could not imagine ruling a people that considered mercy a weakness. For a minute in that arena, she had almost conceded her throne to the parasite, if only because it meant she would be free of the responsibility, but that would have meant death, or worse, her father’s eternal disappointment.
She stomped out of the arena, staring at her hands that should have been covered in the parasite’s blue blood. Somehow, the fact that they weren’t made the whole thing worse. She wiped her hands on the dress, and for a second debated removing it, the blasted thing. She hated it. She loved the human world, but going to balls infuriated her. Humans weren’t humans at balls. They were humans trying way too hard to be something better. She liked to watch humans in their element, watching tv or dancing drunk or falling in love, not trying to impress people they did not care about. She craved that, that ability to be carefree and normal and to think that, for maybe just one moment, you are free to be who you want to be.
Maz did not have the same luxury.
“Mazarine.” Her father sat in a sleek black car, the window rolled down just enough for his face to appear. She looked back towards the stadium and saw that people were beginning to trickle out, all eyes on her. She hesitated. The door to the car swung open. “Get in the car, Mazarine.”
She wanted nothing more than to walk the three miles home, to let her thoughts consume her like she deserved, but her father would have none of the self-pity. None of the weakness. She stepped into the car, and with the click of the lock, they were off.
The two rows in the backseat of the car were facing each other, and so she had no choice but to glance at her father, who looked at her with all the pride of an inmate’s wife. She wanted to avert her gaze, but her father’s eyes, the same blue as her own, bore into hers as he said, “Did you really have to obliterate the door, Mazarine?”
“You’re the one that told me it was important to make an entrance.”
“With your head held high, child. With your confidence. Not with your strength.”
She bit her lip. “But I won.”
“Of course you won. You’re a Shadowmaster. There is a reason our family has ruled the Drakus for millennia.”
“Why do you let them challenge us then? Challenge me? If you know they’re going to die anyway?”
“We value strength and courage and choice. If somebody wants to challenge you for heir, if they believe they could be a better ruler, then we must let them try.” He gave her a sly smile. “And nobody can lead a rebellion if they’re dead.”
“How are you so sure it won’t be me that ends up dead?”
“Because you are a Shadowmaster, like me, and my father before me, and his father before that. We may give the illusion to the rest of the Drakus that we can be beaten, but not one other manner of shadow would stand a chance against us.”
He gritted his teeth and snarled. “You will not speak of Darssian.”
She swallowed the words she held in the back of her throat and looked out the window, watching as the gray and black city of shadows passed her by. The streets thinned and houses became sparser as the car approached the castle. It loomed large and grand on the tallest hill of the city, casting its shadow over the village below it, protecting the homes and dwellers from the light. It was supposed to be a metaphor, Maz had always thought, for the promise her family had made to the Drakus, to protect them from the fatal light of the Zivuri. A promise that was shot to hell after Darssian had been brutally murdered by a Zivuri. The castle deserved to burn. Just like the stupid monstrosity she was wearing. She wriggled around in it, her father taking notice as he finally took in her outfit.
“Why are you wearing that?”
“Zarla wanted to celebrate my first challenge.” Not entirely a lie. “We went out last night.”
“You went to the human world.” It wasn’t a question.
“They didn’t see us. We stayed in shadow the whole time.”
From the way Valtare narrowed his eyes, it was clear he did not believe her. “Then why wear the dress at all?”
“You know how Zarla is. She likes pretending to be human.”
Maz sat up straighter. “My heart belongs to my people.”
Her father nodded in approval. “Do not forget it, Mazarine.”
She said nothing as the car pulled up to the castle. The door opened and Maz stepped out without another word to her father. Picking up her dress, she ran through the open wooden doors of the castle, through the grand foyer, and up the back alley stairs to her room.
She paused at the door as she caught sight of Kaleve, his lean body lying on her bed, his face twisted in concern as he stared at the ceiling. He hadn’t heard her approach. She looked around, and slowly closed the door behind her, locking her in with him.
He shot up, taking in the uninjured, bloodless sight of her, and sighed in relief. “Thank the Draken.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you think I’m doing here, Maz?” He stood up, approaching her, and put both hands on either side of her face. For a second, she thought Kaleve had finally changed his mind about her. About them. That he had finally forgiven himself for what had happened to Darssian. But then he turned her face on either side, searching for scratches, and let her go. “You’re ok.”
She pushed him away. “Of course I’m ok, Kal. What’d you think would happen? That the Parasite would actually manage to sneak into my mind and kill me?”
He narrowed his eyes. “They gave you a Parasite?”
“Yes… and? I’m a Shadowmaster.” Draken help her, she was starting to sound like her father. “It was easy… to kill him.”
He sank back into the bed. “So you did it. You killed him.”
“What would you have had me do? It was him or me.”
He stared at her in silence. “It’s barbaric.”
“It’s my life, Kal. I have no other choice.”
“What? That Dars wasn’t dead? Me too, but he is, and the best I can do is make sure I live up to his legacy. I would really appreciate it if you could reserve your judgments in these matters. Draken knows, I have enough of my own.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry. But you know how I worry.” He shook his head. “I can’t…“
“You can’t what?” Maz approached him, standing between his legs. She put her fingers under his chiseled chin and lifted his light brown eyes to meet hers. “Why do you worry, Kaleve?”
He scowled. “You know why I worry.”
“No, Kal. I don’t. How am I supposed to know when you never tell me? When you don’t admit how you feel? How am I supposed to know?”
“I told you before, and look how that turned out.”
“Darssian’s death was not our fault.”
“If I had just been there—“
Maz slapped him. “Stop. I refuse to listen to this. It’s been two damn years. We know what killed Darssian and it wasn’t us.”
“I could have healed him.”
Maz dropped her hands and stepped out from between his legs. “Get out.”
“Get out, Kaleve. I don’t want to hear it. I will not let you make me feel guilty for what I felt. For what I feel. If you’re still not ready to accept that, then fine, but get the hell out of my room.”
Dejected, he lowered his gaze and stood up. He hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. “Maz.”
“It wasn’t wrong—what we did.”
He couldn’t look at her. “I know.” He was out of the room before she could respond.
One day, Kal would forgive himself. And until then, she would wait, just like she had promised him all those years ago.
Just as soon as she got out of that stupid dress.