Excerpt: Breakfire’s Glass
The Palace of Pale Stars was a monument to Winter. The heavenly towers pierced the sky and flashed like sword-steel, their icy domes pressing relentlessly into the heavy clouds. The Palace’s grey stone gleamed silver in the white daylight and glimmered like stars at night. One by one, as the sun set and the moon orbed, every candle, lamp, and chandelier was given a shiver of breathy flame, flickering once and then bursting into whorling blue fire. Those ghostly flames emitted a creeping heat, sending glowing ice-blue embers into the frigid night wind but never extinguishing. Slowly erupting outwards from the Palace, the streets lit with their own quiet fires, and the city of Zhakieva, capital of the Empire of Zhakieve, became engulfed by haunting blue light. The sight was as beautiful as it was ghastly.
During the throes of Lonely Winter, wandering Darkrow arrived from every corner of Zhakieve, cloaked in sleek black fur, and swept up the streets to the Palace of Pale Stars. They came silently, blurring shadows exploding into liquid shapes on the edges of the city, or seeping darkness bleeding through the streets into the forms of hooded figures. With no other place to call home, the wandering Darkrow settled into Zhakieva for Lonely Winter. Only the bravest, strongest, and most reckless traveled during the season. The Queen of Cold was relentless, her ice storms able to pierce through magic, and her son Quiet Death was quick to strike the foolhardy down.
And yet she had traveled twice, clear across Zhakieve and back, during Lonely Winter.
Katerini curled her thin hands, gloved in black, around her black hood to pull it forward, and the stomp of her black boots was muffled by her heavy black cloak. People bowed as she walked the narrow street towards the Palace of Pale Stars, then cowered when they caught sight of the two silent shadows behind her. Darkrow Porfiry and Vasiliy. Gorchev, her family name. They looked like her too. Long, lean limbs, bony and sickly slender. Sharp faces, pinched lips and straight noses, round eyes. Creamy white-blonde hair. When the three of them stood together, they looked like siblings.
Except, of course, Porfiry and Vasiliy were not human. They were demons, summoned from the stars by her idiot father. Their skin and lips were white as snow, Porfiry’s eyes lightless black and Vasiliy’s eyes bright blue. Their teeth were as wolves’ and their fingers reminded Katerini of glaives, too long and knifelike. Katerini was pale-skinned with light blue eyes, yes, but her eyes did not glow or ripple strangely and her teeth were flat. She was human. Her cheeks flushed with color, her lips tinged a pale pink, and her fingers were long but rounded. Her foolish father may have tried to craft them to human likeness, to look like a family, to look like her, but to Katerini they were unmistakably demons.
She gritted her teeth as she crossed onto Palace grounds. Her father, Darkrow Clyish Gorchev. Killed and eaten by her filthy demon-siblings because he had no foresight, only lofty ideas. For Zhakieve, he had said, and for her. He had wanted them to be a beautiful, terrifying family of Darkrow, fashioned to protect the Empire. An empire which would soon reopen its borders to the world. A noble idea, she conceded, crafting stars into Darkrow. But half-baked. He’d had the strength to summon them, nothing else. Not to bind them and hold them to his will. Yet bind them he did, his fatal mistake, because a demon would not honor a binding to a being of lesser strength. And her father had summoned two demons, not one. They had consumed him, destroying the binding.
Katerini had found them in the cellar, naked and slick with blood, her father’s bones crunching between their teeth. She hated them deeply, but did not blame them for her father’s mistake. They had acted according to their nature, star-written into cold skin, unfathomable to her human mind. To hate them for their nature was stupid. No, she hated them for what came after—that they insisted upon honoring her father, whom they admired for some inexplicable reason, by becoming Darkrow and acting as her siblings. Pretending they were her family, her younger brothers. Demons, thousands of years old, deferring to her decisions like it was her right. She scoffed. Ridiculous. She couldn’t even stand to look at them.
She passed under the towering white entranceway to the Palace of Pale Stars, unsurprised to see swaths of black scattered in groups across the entrance hall. Crisp, speckled glass from twinkling chandeliers refracted the cloaked figures into smoky columns of ash. Her fellow Darkrow turned to look at the new arrivals and Katerini barely avoided cringing. This was not like her usual visits to the Palace, when she returned home from wandering like the rest of them. There was no tired, triumphant pride thrumming through her bones. She was not returning to work in the glass shops or sip tea in one of the Palace’s many nooks. Nor was it the beginning of Lonely Winter, no, it was damn near the height and she had no doubt the rumors had spread.
Sent by the Blue Emperor to fetch her demon siblings, who had gone missing on an assignment in the Queen of Cold’s Wastelands, like she was bringing home two naughty brats. Shameful, and the other Darkrow had no idea the extent of the situation. What she had discovered when she had found Porfiry and Vasiliy—her lips tightened into a thin line. The Blue Emperor would be informed soon, then the news would spread. She nodded at the Darkrow, their looks of surprise breaking into hesitant smiles. Their eyes flicked to Porfiry and Vasiliy behind her, and the smiles faltered.
“Darkrow Katerini!” a cheery voice called. Katerini repressed a groan as a lanky, older Darkrow broke away from one of the groups and strode her way. He had a toothy grin and floppy brown hair, which was stuffed under a knitted hat that clashed horribly with their black uniform. “Darkrow Porfiry, Vasiliy, so good to see the three of you!”
“Darkrow Evgen,” Katerini replied long-sufferingly as he beamed at her. She knew he meant every word. Evgeny Evgen of Solistad, a schoolteacher of young children and possibly the most absent-minded person in Zhakieve. He could move mountains, conjure blizzards, call down famine, even summon—Katerini watched him bounce on his heels, the hat’s little bells jingling rhythmically. Well, he was very sincere. If she wasn’t careful, he reminded her of her father. “How unusual for you to be at the Palace of Pale Stars.”
“Evgeny, Darkrow Katerini, Evgeny! I asked for a small retreat and His Most Illustrious Majesty Ilya Irini invited me to Zhakieva for the season!” he said excitedly. The bells jingled harder. “Why, the Palace is so beautiful, I wish I could bring Anya, Genya, oh and little Masha—she would love it! Masha is very interested in glass, and so is…”
His head bobbed up and down beneath her nose and Katerini narrowed her eyes. Evgen only came up to her shoulder, roughly the same height as Porfiry, and neither was short. She and Vasiliy were simply too tall. She watched as he babbled about his beloved students, unwilling to interject because Evgen was nice, if scatterbrained. Porfiry and Vasiliy shifted behind her.
They were saved when another Darkrow arrived in the entrance hall and approached them swiftly. She was short, regal, her thick black hair pulled tight into a bun and wire-frame glasses perched delicately on her nose. Aleksandra Yorva. Distant kin of the Gorchev line. Her slight, curvy frame was engulfed by her uniform, the furs thicker and gear meant for hard travel mirroring Katerini’s own. A fellow wanderer. Katerini liked her. She was quiet, quick-witted, perhaps a bit gloomy, and contained a vast knowledge of magic. As expected, she had a thick tome tucked under one arm. Aleksandra was never seen without at least one book.
“Darkrow Evgeny, Katerini,” she greeted. She inclined her head to Porfiry and Vasiliy. “Darkrow Porfiry and Vasiliy.” Porfiry and Vasiliy moved to stand next to Katerini, bowing their heads. Aleksandra had small, flat almond eyes which closed when she smiled, something she rarely did, and her lips were plump and rosy. Those lips were strained around the edges as she said, “I hope you are well.”
“And you,” Katerini replied. Evgen was vibrating in place, ready for the formalities to be over. “Though you seem distracted.”
Aleksandra leveled her with a firm, though not unfriendly, gaze. “A rather distressing matter has been brought to my attention.”
Katerini blinked. So did Porfiry and Vasiliy. Even Evgen paused.
“Distressing?” he inquired, suddenly an elder Darkrow. “From His Most Glorious Imperial Majesty? Will he announce this problem?”
Aleksandra pressed her lips together. She stared at them, then focused on Katerini. “He wants the matter quiet for now. Only relevant persons are to know—I was not meant to be one of them. I have been sworn to silence, unfortunately. My regrets,” she said, inclining her head.
Evgen sighed. “Ah, well.” The bells on his hat jingled, and his face lit in glee. “Ah! Aleksandra, you are well read. Perhaps you know of a legend regarding two ravens—”
She held up a hand and Evgen vibrated in place again. Nodding at Katerini, she said with a wry look, “The Blue Emperor awaits you.”