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“Wait. You’re telling me the Evil Queen Caetriona, the murderous queen of the fae, is still alive?” Connor looked incredulous. “And she’s your mother?”

“Yes.” Riona leaned against a thick birch tree. Now he knew the whole story, or as much as he needed. “That’s why I have to fight her. And those who once supported her. To prevent her from rising again and taking control of the fae militia and destroying everyone in the realm.”

“Wait. She’s not…in control of the fae militia?”

“We don’t know how much control she exerts on them. Riklar was in the castle when I was young. He was one of her trusted advisors, but we don’t know if he’s acting with his own agenda or as part of hers. I like to think she’s not giving the fae militia orders. I…I don’t think she wants me dead.”

“How do you know?” Connor demanded. “How do I know you’re not secretly working for her, under her control?”

The question stung. Curse humans and their foggy memories. “You weren’t there, Connor. I watched my mother burn fae and human alike in the palace. She had one vision of perfection, and if you didn’t fit it, you were dead. There were no mind games, no tricks or deception like the fae nobility of old. It was only her way or destruction. I’ve spent my whole life running from her.” It was hard to run when she felt her mother’s heart beating within her. The tether wasn’t strong today. She wasn’t close. She was never close. Yet when the fae militia were near, sometimes she felt her mother’s presence within them, as if she were observing their actions but not interfering. Even Caetriona, the great Evil Queen, could not exert such power from a distance.

She launched herself from the tree, her wings itching to be free. She removed her cloak and gave them a stretch. Her ripped wing ached, as usual, though she was used to the phantom pain. It felt good to exercise this freedom, even if only for a moment. Connor couldn’t look away.

“My mother left me,” she said. “I was raised by the very people who stormed the capital. I don’t even know who my father is. But I kept on. I had to. Because if I didn’t…then I would succumb to the fear and the darkness that overwhelmed my mother and made her what she was.” She started up the hill. “Are you coming?”

“Where are you going?” Connor asked.

“I won’t hide anymore,” she said. “I am powerful but it’s not enough, not if we are going to find and bring the people hunting me—the ones who killed your parents—to justice. My mother’s power is growing and Fingal was the one person with the connections to the group that’s keeping an eye on her. They will help us determine the true strength of her power. I must return to the capital and try to meet with Fingal’s contact.”

“What about Fingal?”

“If the fae found me here, something has gone wrong. Fingal could be…” She trailed off. It was too painful to think about. She closed her eyes, reaching out to him. He was too far away to feel—or the worst had indeed had occurred. That meant she had to enact their safety plan. “Fingal told me that if I am ever lost, or if he were ever captured, I have to go to the capital. We can wait for him there, and meet with his contact.” Failing that, he’d told her, she’d have to carry on with their mission. Gather resources for her mother’s impending return. Trust no one, as there were many still loyal to the fae queen’s cause. Even humans. Do whatever it took to keep human and fae alike safe from Queen Caetriona’s threat. Use magic, if necessary.

If necessary meant sparingly. The more she used it, the closer she felt to her mother, and that was dangerous.

“We can’t just leave. My parents—”

“They’re dead,” Riona said. “I’m sorry. If we go back there, you’ll be dead too. I can’t…I can’t let that happen.” He turned away from her. “You can’t avenge their deaths if you’re dead too.”

“Fingal,” Connor said coldly. “Your…guardian. He can help us find the people who did this?”

“Yes.” It was possible he was fighting them now. “If he’s alive, likely he’ll hear of the fire and he’ll know we’re heading for the capital.” She hesitated, and then added: “The Tower is also in the capital.”

“How can I even think about taking the exam now that my parents are gone?”

Riona felt his pain. She hated pushing him. “Because if you do nothing, if you let yourself fester in the darkness…it will overwhelm you. It will manifest in your magic. Untrained, it could destroy you and everyone around you.”

“I thought you said the Tower was dangerous.”

“It is. It’s more dangerous to be untrained.”

From the look on his face, she knew he resonated with that. “I’ve…never been outside of Ashdown. Except on runs to Mudvale and Drohoven. I…don’t know how to get to the capital. I mean…I guess we could follow the road…but it’s a long way, there are bandits…”

“That’s why we are going to travel together,” Riona said. “A fae noble always travels with a companion. Since Fingal isn’t here to protect me, that job falls to you.”

Connor sneered. “Right. Protect you. Seems like you don’t need protection.”

She balled her hands into fists. “I do. More…more than I can say. We can help each other. You are more powerful than you know.”

He touched her hand, gently this time. The ground beneath her feet hummed. He didn’t trust her. That was understandable. She only needed him to be safe. They needed each other if they were going to survive.

“If I couldn’t protect my parents from the fae militia, how am I supposed to protect the fugitive daughter of the fae queen?”

A deep memory came to her then, something her mother had said long ago, back when her life was charmed, and she was heir to the realm.

“There was once an ancient noble class sworn to protect fae nobility,” she said. “Fae, human, it didn’t matter their race. Each fae noble chose a protector when they came of age. That protector would be their eyes and ears in the fae court and abroad and represent their interests.”

Connor frowned. “The Order of the Scia Crescent. I know about them. They were legendary fighters and magic wielders.”

“Yes. The last of the order was killed by Queen Caetriona at the beginning of the war.” Saying her name out loud was dangerous but necessary. It felt better to acknowledge her as a queen than as a mother. “We can restart it. You and me. It’s time to bring back that which she has destroyed, to show her that she has no power over us.”

He glanced back down the hill. The smoke billowed into the sky. Even at this distance, the air was thick with the scent of the destruction. She hated breathing it in, knowing the scent was fae militia, knowing they ruined the lives of people not involved in the fight.

“I’ll go with you to the capital. I’ll go to the Tower.” He looked determined. “But once we’re there…that’s it. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to be involved in this private war with a powerful fae queen. I’ll take the exam and seek the revenge on Riklar and his lot on my own.”

His words hurt because he was hurting. “I understand.”

“Good.” He trudged up the hill, stopping after a few paces. “Is this the way?”

No matter what, she promised herself, she wasn’t going to give up on him. If he wanted to keep his distance from her, so be it, but like it or not, this fight involved them both now. “Up the hill.”

Next time, on Wingtorn.

In present day, Fingal is ambushed by the enemy.

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