Somewhere out there, among the denizens of his sprawling kingdom, was the girl Gabriel was supposed to claim. He’d been King for more than three centuries, and yet somehow, he had never found her.
Today, Gabriel would finally meet the Slifer. So, why wasn’t he happy?
“Gabriel, are you all right?”
Gabriel turned to see his second-in-command and best friend, Aero, beside him. He sighed, shaking his head, knowing he’d been caught in the act. He was at the top of the tallest rampart in his kingdom, wearing a brooding look Aero had come to know well.
“Fine, Aero,” he said. “I just needed to clear my head.”
“You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you?” Aero asked. “The girl?”
“How can I not, Aero? Today is her eighteenth birthday.”
The Watchers of Fate had warned Gabriel years ago that this day would come. Although he had no idea who she was, Severina’s words continued to haunt him.
“The girl is destined to protect you. To save you…and your kingdom.”
He shook his head, disgusted. Since when did Gabriel need protecting? He was one of the most powerful wizards in all of Ignolia! What power could some teenage girl possibly possess that would be able to save him?
What made this girl so special?
“You have that look about you, Gabriel,” Aero warned. “The dark look.”
Gabriel laughed bitterly. “Funny, isn’t it? I rule a kingdom so bright and beautiful it’s blinding to the eye. And yet, my heart and magic…they’re full of darkness.”
Aero shivered. He had seen Gabriel conjure shadows before. He knew what his King was capable of…and what dangers these shadows posed to his soul.
“Come, Gabriel,” Aero said at last, breaking the foreboding silence that had descended over them. “Your sister has been asking after you. She’s meeting with the masses today in preparation for the ceremony and suggests you join.”
“Suggests, huh?” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Just what I need.”
But Aero nudged his ribs with a wink and a sly smile. “We both know who really rules the kingdom, Gabriel. Better hurry.”
Gabriel laughed despite himself. “Lis doesn’t take no for an answer, that’s true. But watch yourself, Aero.”
“There’s the King I know.”
Gabriel cherished Aero for his humor. No matter how dark the day seemed, his master of arms always managed to bring a smile to his face.
“All right, all right,” he said, following Aero. “Let’s go see Lis.”
It’d been a while since Gabriel had been out among his people. Maybe being on the ground instead of high up in his ivory tower was exactly what he needed.
Anyway, if he was away from the palace, he wouldn’t have to meet the Slifer girl.
For that, the King was willing to go anywhere.
Lydia still couldn’t believe what Lucius had just told her. Standing outside the palace gates, she stared at her guardian in disbelief.
Be claimed by the King?!
Surely, Lucius was joking. But his saddened jade eyes, hunched posture, and hand shakily reaching for his flask told her otherwise.
“I am sorry I never told you, Lydia,” he said solemnly. “I feared if you knew, the secret would eventually get out, and…”
“And you would be in danger! You can hardly make a fireball, let alone defend yourself. I needed to train you first.”
Lucius took a sip of his rum. Lydia, so outraged, so completely and totally shocked by this revelation, smacked the flask from his hand to the cobblestone floor.
“I can’t believe you!” she cried. “All these years, you’ve been keeping this to yourself, and…and…”
Lydia didn’t have words. Her mouth was suddenly dry. The air, impossible to breathe. It felt like the world as she’d always known it was collapsing around her.
“It is not my will, Lydia,” Lucius tried to explain. “The Gods demand it. Only when you two are bonded will the kingdom be safe.”
“It all makes sense,” she said, backing away and shaking her head. “Your ridiculous rules. Your training. You were…fattening me up like a cow for the slaughter.”
“It’s not like that—”
“Saving my virginity so the King could take it?! Teaching me to use my powers for his benefit?!”
“Is that so wrong?”
All Lydia had ever wanted was to be a great, powerful wizard one day. Like Lucius once was, according to legend. Now, she was supposed to be claimed. A kept woman. A pawn in some chess game being played by forces beyond her imagination.
It was all too much.
“Lydia, please,” he said. “I didn’t do this to hurt you. You…you’re like family to me.”
The word “family” forced Lucius to grimace involuntarily. Why he’d always kept such a distance between them, why he’d always hated her calling him Grandpa, Lydia never understood. But now, it all made sense.
Because, one day, Lucius knew he would have to cast her away.
Lydia felt Lux shivering in her bag, the poor cat caught in the middle of the strangest confrontation ever.
“Lydia…” she heard him mew diminutively. “What does all this mean?”
She didn’t know what to say. For all she knew, entering that palace would mean the end of her friendship with Lux. What kind of King allowed a talking cat a seat at the table?
She backed away further from Lucius, and his eyes widened.
“Lydia, don’t…” he said, reaching a hand toward her. “You mustn't go. This is your destiny!”
But Lydia wasn’t going to listen to one more word out of the old wizard’s lying mouth.
“You don’t control me anymore, Lucius,” she said.
And with that, Lydia turned and fled from the palace, dashing into the bustling streets of Imarnia, while Lucius’s voice called after her.
Lydia wandered through the city’s old historical quarter hardly seeing anything, her eyes were so blurry with tears. Lux crawled out of the bag and curled around her neck, purring softly, trying to comfort her.
Although this earned her some odd looks from passersby, Lydia didn’t care. She was grateful to have her furry friend.
Anyway, she was used to getting strange looks. Her fiery eyes were the farthest thing from normal. The cost of being a fire Slifer.
She thought again of Lucius and all the secrets he’d kept from her. The idea that she, of all people, was destined to protect the King of Imarnia…it was just too much to process.
She felt like she might burst into tears all over again when Lux nuzzled her cheek.
“Lydia, look around you…” he said in awe. “This place is amazing.”
Lux was right. Lydia had never ventured so far from her little town. Seeing the capital in all its glory was almost enough to take her mind off all the day’s drama. Almost.
“What…what are those?” Lydia asked, pointing.
A large, expensive carriage was passing them by, led by the strangest animals Lydia had ever seen. They were like horses, but white, with fat blue stripes.
At the sight of them, Lux’s eyes widened, and on instinct, he scurried back into the bag.
“Don’t be afraid, Lux,” Lydia said, giggling. “They don’t bite.”
She remembered their names now. Moxars. She’d learned about them in elementary school. Children were playing nearby, and shoppers were going in and out of boutiques, arms full of bags and purchases.
Everything about this city felt alive.
Lydia sat beside a stone-carved fountain and admired its beauty. Streams of water shot from the mouth of a silver phoenix. Lydia remembered what she’d once learned…that when Imarnia was founded, the God Azareth had bestowed upon the king a phoenix just like this.
Lydia wondered if this was mere legend, or if there was some truth to it. After all, that’s how people had once talked about Slifers.
As if they were pure fantasy. The stuff of fairytales.
And yet, here was Lydia, whose very existence proved them wrong.
“Lux,” she said. “Do you think—?”
But she never got to finish that sentence because, all of a sudden, the beauty and calm of Imarnia’s historical quarter was broken by a high-pitched scream.
“All I’m saying, brother, is that this girl by your side could be good for you.”
It took all of Gabriel’s willpower not to roll his eyes. Lis, his sister, was in the middle of one of her famous lectures as they toured the townships. Guards surrounded them, keeping the common folk at a safe distance.
“Lis,” he said with a sigh, “just for once, could we talk about anything but my love life?”
“Or lack thereof,” she teased. “Today is a big day, Gabriel. You should be excited.”
The King was about to respond with his own barbed comeback when a commotion up ahead distracted him.
“What is that?” Lis asked, frowning.
The guards drew closer, urging them to enter the carriage. But now, Gabriel was curious, too. As he pushed through the crowd, he saw something that made his eyes widen in shock.
A chase was on in the middle of the historical quarter. And no ordinary chase. A thief was barreling through a marketplace, sprinting for his life, as authorities ran after him.
But high above, a young woman was flying—yes, flying!—using some sort of elemental power to propel her skyward.
Gabriel’s mouth dropped in disbelief as the girl raised a hand, conjured a ball of fire, and threw it with all her might.
The flames burst right in front of the thief, creating a wall of fire and stopping him in his tracks.
He scurried to a halt and held up his hands in terror as she descended.
Now, Gabriel could see the fire was swirling in her eyes as well. They were the most beautiful and haunting eyes he’d ever seen.
“Drop it,” she said, and the thief complied, dropping his bag of stolen jewelry at her feet. Only when it was done did the girl breathe and realize a massive crowd was watching her. Eyes were everywhere.
Including his. The King’s.
Their eyes locked.
Lydia had never achieved so much with her Slifer powers before in her life. It was as if another spirit had taken control of her body and she’d just been along for the ride.
Not now, though. Now, she was Lydia again. And staring at her, surrounded by a whole battalion of royal guards, was a tall, dark, mysterious man in the most decorated outfit Lydia had ever seen.
Everyone gasped and bowed at the sight of him.
He had a broad chin and a hard jawline with high cheekbones. His skin was pale and flawless. His nose, straight. His pink lips, full. His eyes were hard, piercing, and a color Lydia had never seen before. They were the gray of clouds after a thunderstorm.
But something about his aura was dark and shadowy…which only made him more handsome. In fact, Lydia realized, he was by far the most handsome man she had ever seen.
When their eyes met, it was as if the strongest, most magnetic bond had snapped into place. It felt like destiny had literally brought them together.
But who was he?
“Your Highness,” a familiar voice rang out.
She turned to see Lucius running up, out of breath. Did he just say…Highness?!
Lucius turned to her, and as if reading her mind, nodded. “Lydia, allow me to introduce you to King Gabriel.”
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