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© 2018 by Love At First Chapter | Privacy

A compelling YA fantasy featuring magical crows and excellent banter



Hi readers!


This month's first chapter (+ prologue) is from The Storm Crow by Kalyn Josephson. It is Emily’s pick because:

  1. The story doesn’t shy away from the grief, loss, and depression that follows the destruction of Anthia’s home and also beautifully reveals her spark of hope that could ignite rebellion;

  2. Anthia is engaged to the prince of the enemy kingdom, creating a complex dynamic between the two along with some excellent banter; and

  3. Giant crows with elemental powers, need I say more?


Will it be love at first chapter for you?


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Eragon meets And I Darken in this thrilling new fantasy debut that follows a fallen princess as she ignites a rebellion to bring back the magical elemental crows that were taken from her people.

In the tropical kingdom of Rhodaire, magical, elemental Crows are part of every aspect of life...until the Illucian empire invades, destroying everything.

That terrible night has thrown Princess Anthia into a deep depression. Her sister Caliza is busy running the kingdom after their mother's death, but all Thia can do is think of all she has lost.

But when Caliza is forced to agree to a marriage between Thia and the crown prince of Illucia, Thia is finally spurred into action. And after stumbling upon a hidden Crow egg in the rubble of a rookery, she and her sister devise a dangerous plan to hatch the egg in secret and get back what was taken from them.


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Prologue

I was a storm.


Adrenaline ripped through my veins like lightning as I leaned close to the body of my crow, preparing to execute a dive. Iyla’s warm, steady heat kept me grounded, even hundreds of feet in the air. Cold wind whipped tendrils of hair free from my braid, nipping at the skin around my goggles and stealing my breath.


The thin, well-worn saddle beneath me was nothing more than a strip of leather to bind stirrups to, the reins trailing from my hands to Iyla’s beak, an illusion of control—this ride depended on trust and mutual respect. Anything less, and no amount of leather would keep me seated on Iyla’s back.


Years of Estrel’s instructions raced through my mind: Keep your body low and tight in a dive. Give the reins slack. Keep your knees back so you don’t put pressure on the crow’s wing joints. I knew it all like my own heartbeat.


I tucked close to Iyla’s body, and we dove.


Water misted my skin as Iyla’s storm crow magic split apart a cloud a second before we shot through it and plummeted toward the earth. My heart screamed into my throat, pure, unadulterated joy erupting through me with every passing moment. I held my breath as we fell, counting the seconds—we could only gain so much speed before Iyla’s wings wouldn’t be able to handle the strain of opening.


Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…


We burst through the clouds, Aris spread out below us. The city was a blur as we dove, a sea of light and color fast approaching.


Twenty. I squeezed my knees, and Iyla’s wings snapped open like the slice of a blade, catching an updraft to send us sailing in a gentle arc. Lightning buzzed at the tips of Iyla’s wings as she let out a piercing call.


I sucked in a lungful of cold air and let it out in a laugh, the thrill of the dive resounding through me like a thunderclap. I craved that feeling like starved lungs craved air, letting it fill me until I felt impossibly alive.


We circled wide and low, descending the rest of the way until Iyla’s shadow blanketed the city streets.


Aris unfurled beneath us like a colorful map, dense with thick green foliage and spotted with wildflowers. People called up to us, waving from crowded streets as revelers prepared for the festival leading up to Negnoch, the city’s yearly hatch night. In a few hours, every single crow from across the kingdom of Rhodaire would put on a masterful display of riding and magic, and the year’s crows would be hatched.


One of them would be mine. Tonight, I would choose my own crow and become a rider.

We dipped lower, children chasing Iyla’s shadow in the hopes of catching a stray feather to wish upon. This was my favorite part of flying. Even more than the thrill of diving or the magic of soaring through endless skies, I loved gliding peacefully above Aris, the wind brushing along my skin as the city passed below.


Even on the back of a stolen crow. Well, not quite stolen. Iyla belonged to Estrel, my teacher and mother’s best friend, and while Estrel had let me ride Iyla alone before, she technically hadn’t given me permission to tonight.

Probably because I didn’t ask.


A gentle tug on the reins sent Iyla a little higher, and we fell in line over the crystal waters of the canal in the Rynthene Wing. To my left, earth crows helped work the fields, tilling land in huge swaths with the pulse of their magic. To my right, the fading sunlight glinted off an armored battle crow.


All over Aris, the crows and riders integrated into the city’s inner workings would be finishing up the day’s tasks. Later, they’d join the military pouring in from Rhodaire’s outer reaches in preparation for the Sky Dance.


We followed the canal to the castle at the city’s heart. The giant, gray stone structure stretched into the sky, Delladon vines sprawling across its pale face like laugh lines. From each of the four sides of the central tower, a crescent-shaped landing platform jutted out, and I used the nearest one as a marker to veer Iyla right toward the royal rookery. It was a tall, circular tower with wide windows on the third floor for easy landing.


My nerves jittered. Landing was the hardest part, even with Estrel’s lessons branded into my mind.


Let the crow do the work; it knows what it’s doing. Keep your weight back. Never dismount while a crow’s folding its wings, or you risk straining the joints.


We glided easily through one of the rookery’s large, open windows, Iyla as practiced in this maneuver as breathing. Her wings flared back, sending straw swirling across the stone floor as her massive black claws reached out, taking hold of the nearest T-shaped perch. We fell to a standstill, her wings tucking in tight to her muscled form. She was almost reptilian with a lean, muscular body, the proportions a little longer, a little more limber than a normal bird.


I let out a whoop, grinning as I tugged down my goggles and swung off her back, throwing my arms around her. Her long neck straightened as she stiffened, but I’d learned long ago that she’d not only tolerate hugs but secretly liked them.


“Anthia!”


My excitement went cold at my mother’s sharp voice. A flurry of black wings filled the opposite window as her battle crow, Tyros, landed effortlessly on the perch across from Iyla, sending a gust of straw-filled wind into my face.


My mother swung down, stalking toward me with the smooth litheness of a jungle cat. With the setting sun at her back, she looked every inch the queen she was, the light making her brown skin and polished flying leathers gleam with an inner fire.


“What in Saint’s name do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.


“Um, talking to Iyla?” I offered. Lying had never been my strong suit. To her credit, the crow let out a low caw, as if she were indeed part of the conversation.


My mother didn’t smile. I didn’t expect her to.


“Relax, Alandra.” Estrel emerged from the nearby staircase at my side, her long, dark curls bound in a thick braid like mine. “I gave her permission.”


The only person who could tell my mother to relax without getting eviscerated was Estrel, my aunt in every way but blood. They even looked like sisters, though my mother was taller and leaner. She and Estrel had grown up together.


My mother frowned, and I straightened beneath the sharpness of her steel-colored gaze. Her eyes always reminded me of knives, forever sculpting me in an endless quest for perfection.


“I executed a perfect dive,” I offered, as if my ability to perform riding techniques far more advanced than my seventeen years might soften her gaze.


It only made her eyes narrow. “Taking another rider’s crow out for a joyride to perform dangerous maneuvers is not only foolish, it’s insulting.” I flinched. “If you want to prove yourself capable of being a leader among the riders, you can start by not disrespecting every rule and custom we live by.”


I refused to wilt beneath the heat of her words. “Well, maybe if you spent more than a waking second in my presence, I’d know the rules better.”


Estrel drew a sharp breath, but my mother went stiller than a shadow crow concealed in darkness. For a fraction of a second, I swore something pained flashed through her iron gaze, but it vanished quickly.


The circlet of silver feathers on her brow gleamed like molten starlight. “I expect you back here before the hatching.” She turned to Tyros, who leapt from his perch to the wide window ledge, a perfect tableau of strength against a backdrop of approaching night. With a grace I hadn’t yet mastered, she swung up into the saddle. Wings tucked in tight, Tyros leapt. They plummeted from view, gone for barely a breath before they soared up past the window, climbing into the darkening sky.


“That went well,” I muttered.


Estrel smacked the back of my head, and I winced, rubbing the spot though the blow hadn’t hurt. “Stop stealing my crow!” Despite the snap in her voice, an easy grin filled her face, and she let out a low laugh when I smiled back.


There wasn’t a single other rider or a single other crow I’d ever dream of doing with what I did with Iyla. Any other crow would snatch me by the leg with its beak and toss me off, princess or not. That was, until I had my own.


My gaze dropped to the gold and black edges of Estrel’s Corvé tattoo that reached up over her muscular shoulders, denoting her as one of Rhodaire’s nine crow masters. While the heads of each house saw to their people, each wing’s Corvé saw to its crows.


Tonight, I would choose my own crow. I would become a rider. And one day, I would earn the tattoo and become the royal Corvé after Estrel.


“The Sky Dance starts in an hour,” Estrel said. “Then it’s back here for the hatching. Are you and Kiva going into the city tonight?”


“To Rua’s.”


She smirked. “Take a breath, Little Peep. Enjoy the night. You’ll have your crow soon enough.”


Soon enough felt a lifetime away as I bolted down the winding rookery steps, dodging a rookhand balancing plates of meat, and out into a perfect Rhodairen winter evening. The air was cool but not cold and filled with the possibility of rain. storm crows would keep it at bay, though I wished they’d let it fall. I’d always wanted to see a Sky Dance in the rain.


The wind buffeted my escaped curls into my face as I shot along the gardens, through the castle gates, and into streets filled with thick green trees and climbing vines trickling down buildings like rivulets of rainwater.


I veered onto the main road between the Caravel Wing and Thereal Wing, then cut right into the Thereal section of the city, slowing as a wave of music and laughter washed over me. I made for Rua’s, a bright-blue building on the corner where a crow had been painted in sunset colors across one side, done by a street artist in the night.


Native brown-skinned Rhodairens walked alongside colorfully dressed, dark-skinned travelers from Trendell, a kingdom far east of Rhodaire. Both were dwarfed by the pale, long-limbed Korovi of the northern kingdom. People came to Rhodaire from all over the world for Negnoch. I even spotted a few revelers from Illucia, the border kingdom to our north, though they were probably only here for festival discounts on Rhodairen weapons. Or maybe they were guards for the visiting Illucian dignitaries.


That was probably what had my mother on edge: their presence, and their queen who threatened war. She’d already taken two kingdoms.


Someone seized my arm, spinning me around. Kiva grinned down at me, her moonlight-colored hair free from its characteristic braid and down to her shoulders in waves. She still wore her castle guard uniform, making her look older—sometimes I doubted she owned anything else. She even had her sword at her hip.


“I was starting to think you weren’t coming!” she shouted above the clamor.


“And let you eat all the orange cakes?”


“Typical. Here for the food.”


I nodded at her uniform. “Hoping to impress someone?” She’d been flirting with a girl at Rua’s for weeks now.


Kiva’s cheeks burned, and she nudged me with her shoulder.


I grinned. “Race you.”


We dove into the crowd, dodging flying elbows and swinging hips. Along the sides of the streets, baskets of the last fruits of the season sat waiting to be eaten, from bright-yellow mangos to fresh-picked oranges. Overhead, thunder boomed in a near cloudless sky, a storm crow marking the time.


The night passed in patches. I drank talcé after talcé, sweet juice drinks filled with pieces of fruit, and ate as many orange cakes as I could stomach. We danced and sang, following the street past acrobats and fire-eaters, carts of sweet breads and fruit pies. Children ran laughing through the streets, kites in the shape of crows tied to their wrists by long, thin strings. Tradition said if your kite made it through the night undamaged, you were destined to become a rider.


Thunder boomed again. The Sky Dance was about to begin.


Crows glided in lazy circles above the castle with riders on their backs, looking like shadows set adrift in the sky. The sun set behind them, painting everything deep mauve and carmine, buttermilk and fuchsia.


The drums started, low and steady at first, matching the rhythm of the crows as they circled. Then the speed increased, and higher drums joined in. The circling crows broke in all directions, some diving straight down, others surging upward in a powerful burst of speed. They twirled and dove, weaving around each other in exact, graceful movements.


A fire crow opened its beak and let loose a stream of blue-tinged flames at a wind crow, which buffeted the fire upward toward a water crow, which doused it into steam with water from its beak. Sun crows lit the sky in ethereal gold, their glow fading into wisps like the light of falling stars. Shadow crows wove ribbons of night around them, creating intricate shimmering patterns.


Each action a crow took was mimicked by another one across from it, one formation molding seamlessly into the next, creating a symmetrical design of beasts, people, and magic, all interwoven in a dance among the clouds.


The drums grew faster. Lightning struck and thunder rolled, keeping time with the beat. Crows dipped and twirled in perfectly timed maneuvers I longed to try. My heart raced with them, imagining the feel of the wind in my hair and the heat of a crow beneath me.


As the music peaked, every crow shot upward, carried by drafts from wind and storm crows. Then they dove.


As the echo of the final drumbeat sounded, the crows shot out in all directions in perfectly executed dives. Their deep, echoing cries filled the sky as the sun finished setting, and the crows blanketed the night.


Still ecstatic from the dance, Kiva and I moved off the main road to find another talcé vendor. The skies had cleared, and the crows had all returned to the rookeries throughout the city’s wings to be unsaddled and fed. The images remained seared into the back of my eyelids. Soon, I would be a part of that dance.


“You’re going to be late,” Kiva warned as we navigated the crowded street.


“It takes at least a half hour for the crows to be unsaddled and fed.”


“Which means you’ll leave in half an hour.”


“I’m not late that often—”


“Yes, you are.”


“Okay, but—”


A scream ripped through the air. I froze. Kiva’s hand went to her sword, and she stepped toward me, shielding. Silence descended like a curtain, sucking the air from the crowded street. My heart rose and settled in my throat, and for a wingbeat, everything stood still.

Then the Thereal rookery went up in flames.


The screams became a chorus, the screech of crows rising like a wave. One by one, the rookeries in each Wing erupted with fire.


I stood rooted to the spot, the acrid smoke scorching my lungs, the light of the flames almost too bright to look at. Yet I couldn’t tear my gaze away, my mind refusing to process what I was seeing.


The city was burning.


The words dropped through my mind like jagged stones, too heavy and sharp to hold on to.

The crowd closed in, people slamming into carts and each other, all attempting to flee in different directions. Kiva pressed into my side, her sword half drawn. The familiar screech of metal snapped me from my trance, and I seized her wrist. “Too many people!”


Scowling, she grabbed my arm and barreled through the writhing mass. A head taller than nearly everyone, the crowd parted to avoid her elbows and snarled threats. We pushed until we broke through the edge, gulping down open air drowned in smoke.


“Come on!” Not stopping to rest, I raced along the street and back toward the castle, Kiva at my back.


Fire fell like rain.


It dripped from buildings, clinging to crumbling stone and smoldering wood, spreading from the Thereal rookery like a flood. The bushes lining the road blazed like torches, trees heavy with fruit turning to ash and filling the air with a sickly, burnt-sugar scent. It mixed with the smell of seared flesh.


A burst of fire cut across our path, forcing us to stop. As an earsplitting scream tore past me, I realized it wasn’t a fireball: it was a man, engulfed in flame.


My stomach turned, and I choked on the poisoned air, desperate to get it out of my lungs. Kiva seized my arm, hauling me along. The image of the flaming man cut through my mind over and over, until it felt like I’d never see anything else again.


As we turned up the castle road, I stumbled to a halt. Black smoke billowed from the royal rookery, darker than the night. Fire writhed, reaching out the open windows with hungry claws. A crow leapt from one of the windows, feathers alight. It barely had time to open its wings before an arrow pierced its heart. Another struck its throat. It dropped four stories to the earth with a sickening crunch.


This didn’t make any sense. The eggs were in there, and the crows… My thoughts ground to a halt, unable to venture any further. Unable to think, unable to breathe.


I only became aware Kiva was shaking me when she nearly knocked me to the ground. “Move!” she screamed.


Slowly, I looked at her. She’d drawn her sword, and the firelight cast strange shadows across her pale skin. For an impossibly long moment, my smoke-riddled brain could process only her bright, unbound hair. It was white as bone.


She pushed me again, and I stumbled. “Anthia, move!”


I blinked. Guards were sprinting in every direction, shouting orders. Some had their swords drawn, dueling pale-skinned soldiers in black leather. Still others simply stood and stared at the rising column of fire and smoke. Slowly, I understood. I recognized the golden horsehead emblazoned on their uniforms.


Illucia was attacking Rhodaire.


Illucia was killing the crows.


Someone moved behind Kiva. My mother appeared, gray eyes wild and face splattered with blood. She held a dagger in each hand. “Get inside the castle!” she ordered, but I didn’t move. She sheathed a blade, her hand falling on my shoulder. “Anthia, you have to go inside. Please.”


I felt warm. Too warm, but oddly calm. Like something had reached inside me and wiped away all the fear, the confusion, and the horrible, horrible understanding. My skin hummed, the sound filling my ears, my chest, my bones.


My mother cursed, said something to Kiva, then hesitated a second longer, her fingers digging tight into my shoulder. Something shone behind her eyes, a forgotten emotion threatening to break free—then she bolted toward the rookery. I lurched after her, but Kiva’s strong arms pulled me back. My mother disappeared into the column of flames. Then Kiva was gone, and I forgot to blink. My vision filled with fire.


Swords clashed, metal screaming against metal so close to my ear that I turned. Kiva dueled an Illucian soldier inches away. Had that attack been meant for me? The thought barely registered. All I could think about was the growing heat and dying air, the screams of crows and people indecipherable in the night.


A Rhodairen soldier intercepted Kiva’s fight, and I turned back to the rookery in time to see a shape fall in the doorway.


My body reacted. I sprang forward, screaming for my mother. The shape rolled, crawling toward the exit, the flames moving like a serpent preparing to strike. It wasn’t my mother.


“Estrel!” I seized her arm, not processing that her clothes were on fire, that she was on fire, and pulled with all my strength. The flames leapt onto my sleeve, but I pulled harder, her form toppling out after me onto the damp grass. I rolled her over and over again, then Kiva was there, smothering Estrel with her cloak.


Kiva yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear her through the blood pounding in my ears. Then she seized me and flung me into the grass, slapping my hand, beating at it with the edge of the cloak to extinguish the flames.


I stared at the ravaged skin, now a patchwork of scalded white and red flesh. Red. Red as the fire raining down around me as it consumed the royal rookery, consumed my mother, consumed everything.


I felt Kiva beside me like one felt their shadow at their heel, an intangible presence. She spoke, saying so many things. Things that didn’t make any sense. Things like my mother was dead, the crows were gone, the Illucian soldiers were coming, many were already here.


It took me a moment to realize I was staring at something in the sky. Bright as a miniature sun, a crow blazing with fire from beak to tail soared across the night, wings spread as if the flames had become a part of it, a flickering coat of smoldering feathers. Then the fire seared through feather and muscle and bone, and it plummeted to the earth like a falling star.


It struck the ground before me, erupting like a funeral pyre. Only my raw throat told me I’d screamed the entire time it’d fallen.


“We have to move!” Kiva yelled.


I had just enough of myself left to look at her. To see the tears streaming down her ash-stained face and to feel my own sliding hot against my skin, before my burns flared with pain, and the world went white.



Chapter One



The crows were gone.


Every day, I said those words to myself, but they didn’t feel real. The world didn’t feel real. Each breath felt like a lie, as if I’d climbed out of a cocoon into another realm, one of ash and shadowed memories that tore at me like talons.


Without the beat of a crow’s wings, the air stood still. Silence smothered the castle garden, the charred royal rookery standing like a headstone in the distance. Even the sunlight looked wrong, rebounding sharply off the castle as if afraid to get too close.


I sat at the patio table, tracing a finger along where the red and white splotches of months’ old burn scars met my skin, and tried desperately to ignore the man standing across from me.


The Illucian messenger wore rich, finely cut blues lined in gold, the material too thick for the Rhodairen summer sun. He wasn’t a soldier, but he carried a sword nonetheless and would know how to use it. He’d been allowed to keep it, since asking an Illucian to give up their weapon was akin to asking a wolf not to bite your hand while you pulled out its teeth. As a compromise, two castle guards stood within easy striking distance.


The Saints must hate me. It’d been nearly six months since the Illucian Empire destroyed my life. I’d barely left my room since. I’d hardly gotten out of bed. Even now, I wanted to burrow beneath my blankets and disappear into the darkness. Then the one day I managed to drag myself downstairs, convinced it could be a decent day, I got stuck watching an Illucian.


His gaze bored into me, and it took everything I had not to look at him. I was afraid of what I might do if I did.


A spark of fury rallied against the prison of grief and pain that had grown inside me layer by layer over the last few months. I hated that he’d been allowed into Rhodaire, allowed onto the castle grounds. Hated that we had to hear out his queen’s demands, that I didn’t have a crow to seize him by his perfectly manicured uniform and lift him high, high into the air…


“Will the queen be here soon?” he asked for the second time, his accent light.


It sounded like a crow’s talons on stone, and the back of my neck prickled with a chill despite the sun. We’d been waiting for my sister for nearly ten minutes.


“If you ask again, maybe I’ll suddenly know.” Not the diplomatic response, but politics had never been my strength.


“Will the queen be here soon?”


My eyes snapped up, locking with his. He smiled, and I gritted my teeth at giving him that small victory. Ignore him. Forcing my gaze out across the castle gardens, I exhaled slowly. I’d promised myself today would be a good day. I needed a good day. But faced with an Illucian, all I could think about was what they’d taken from us. What they still took. Terrorizing our borders, attacking our trade routes, sinking our ships.


Looking at the garden didn’t help. My eyes naturally found the spots where the flowers had started to droop, stains of brown spreading among the green. Without the earth crows’ magic, plants like the bright flowering Delladon vine that climbed the latticework along the castle were a breath away from dust.


Rhodaire was dying.


I looked away, blinking slowly. Without storm crows to manipulate it, the hot, humid summer weather persisted unrelentingly. The sweet scent of fruit trees hung heavy in the air, pressing in on me from all directions. Only the messenger kept me alert. What did he want?


Voices filtered out through the open door. I straightened as my sister stepped onto the patio, a striking figure with her immaculate posture and dark hair loose to her waist. Kiva followed, the sun reflecting off the metal buckles of her silver-and-green guard’s uniform. The tension in my shoulders eased as she slipped to my side.


“Your Majesty.” The messenger barely inclined his head.


Caliza’s steel-colored eyes evaluated him quickly, her face an impassive mask. “We can speak inside.”


I frowned as the messenger followed her into the sunroom at the back of the patio. What didn’t Caliza want me to hear?


Kiva dropped into the seat beside me, her hand falling to its natural position on the crow-shaped pommel of her sword. “Sorry it took me so long. She was in a meeting.”


“Not your fault. Besides, we were having such a wonderful time.” I slumped in my chair, leaning my head back.


Not a day passed where I didn’t think about the crows. I couldn’t shut out the memories. Scenes of visiting the royal rookery to tickle storm crow chicks until they buzzed with lightning or walking under the glow of a sun crow in the dusky moonlight played over and over in my mind. Seeing the messenger just made it all worse.


A flash of red made me flinch, but it was only a pair of summer tanagers flying by, their feathers the rich ruby of a ripe pomegranate. You’re fine. Don’t think about it. I rubbed my scarred arm in an absent motion.


Kiva eyed me intently. I sighed, straightening and readjusting the silver bracelet on my right wrist. “I’m not going to climb back into bed, all right?”


“Good. I don’t have time to fetch a bucket of water to dump on you.” She smirked, and I glared flatly back. She was joking—mostly.


“You would enjoy that entirely too much,” I said.


Kiva’s smile faltered. “I don’t enjoy any part of seeing you like this.”


I clenched my jaw but didn’t respond. I’m just sad. I’ll get over it soon. I repeated the mantra in my head, ignoring the quiet voice that whispered it had been nearly six months. While I hid, the world went on without me.


Guilt prickled low and hot in my stomach. I hated knowing Kiva worried about me. Hated knowing I was the cause of her pain. It’d taken me months to confide in her, convinced the moment I told someone how I felt, as if the world had split apart and swallowed me whole, they’d call me ridiculous. Dramatic. Weak. Instead, she’d listened, and then she’d held me while I cried until my throat turned raw.


Kiva leaned back, flipping her braid of white-gold hair over her shoulder and lifting a hand to shield her face from the sun. She’d been born in Rhodaire, but her pale Korovi skin burned easily. “What do you think he wants?” She nodded in the direction the messenger and Caliza had gone.


“Nothing good.”


I hadn’t seen an Illucian since Negnoch. Since Rhodairen traitors helped Illucian soldiers set fire to the rookeries, their elite archers shooting any crows that escaped the flames.

Ronoch, people called it now. Red Night.


If the Illucian army hadn’t been spread so thin the night they attacked, they might have conquered Rhodaire then and there.


At first, I’d wanted revenge. Deep inside, the part of me that hated the defeated person I’d become still did. Now, I recognized we didn’t stand a chance. Illucia had conquered nearly half the continent for a reason—their army was unstoppable. Soon, they would have Rhodaire too.


The messenger’s voice suddenly rose from the sunroom. Kiva and I fell silent, leaning closer to listen.


“My queen has given her answer, Your Majesty,” he practically purred.


My head snapped up at the mention of the Illucian queen, and I locked eyes with Kiva. Something flickered in my chest, a spark of anger springing to life. Then Caliza stepped onto the patio. The messenger loomed behind her with a smug look of satisfaction that made my stomach turn.


“We need to talk,” Caliza said to me, then looked at Kiva. “Privately.”


Kiva stood. “I have recruit training. Come see me after.” She bowed to Caliza before sweeping past her. The messenger made to remain, but Kiva looked at him expectantly. Her imposing figure made it clear staying wasn’t an option. Wisely, he went with her.


Caliza took Kiva’s seat, removing the silver circlet shaped like a garland of feathers from her head and setting it on the table. I eyed the circlet. She took every opportunity not to wear it, claiming the edges got tangled in her hair.


It makes her think too much about Mother.


I understood. Its matching piece—the bracelet of silver feathers on my wrist— had belonged to Estrel. They were both dead now. My mother, they’d ambushed in the rookery, but Estrel… Her death hadn’t been swift.


Caliza’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Do you have anything productive planned for today?” My eyes cut to her, narrowing. She sighed. “It’s a fair question, Thia. You hardly talk to anyone, and you spend so much time in your room. If you’d try a little—”


“If this is what you wanted to talk about, I’m leaving.” I didn’t need this lecture again. Feeling this way—it wasn’t my choice. I couldn’t just make it stop. I’d tried.


A vein in Caliza’s forehead twitched. She looked so much like our mother when that happened, an impression aided by the thin oval face and high cheekbones they’d once shared.


I looked like her too, except my black hair was curly where Caliza’s was wavy. The brown freckles speckling my face were absent from hers, and where she was tall and willowy, my body was hardened by years of rider training. Or at least it had been. Now my figure was a little less muscle, a little more curve.


We had the same eyes though, our mother’s eyes. Not the typical dark Rhodairen umber, but bright gray like storm clouds lit by lightning.


“You’re seventeen; you’re an adult,” she said. “You have to pull yourself together. You can’t spend the rest of your life in your room.”


“Pull myself together?” My voice broke. How could three simple words make me feel so small?


Her hand fell atop my unscarred one. I stared at it, feeling as though mine were someone else’s hand. “You’re alive, Anthia. Be thankful. Move forward.”


I flinched, jerking my hand away. “You don’t understand. I can’t—I don’t—” My throat tightened, locking the words inside. How did I explain something I didn’t even understand myself? This was just like Caliza, to think a problem could be solved with only logic.


This was why I’d hidden in my room, why I wanted to run there now. Alone, no one could make me feel like an ungrateful little girl, rejected and inferior. No one could look at me like Caliza was now: disappointed, impatient, accusatory. As if this were all in my head and it’d go away if only I tried hard enough.


Didn’t she understand that I would if I could?


I swallowed hard. “What do you want from me, Caliza? To marry some foreign prince and pretend to like him so our countries can get along?” She stiffened, and I regretted the words instantly.


“I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair,” I said. Caliza had married Kuren because Trendell’s support was helping keep Rhodaire alive without the crows. He was the second oldest prince of the eastern kingdom and a good man. Even now, he was in Trendell coordinating aid on Rhodaire’s behalf. “Have you heard from him?”


“This morning.”


I waited, but she said nothing more. The silence stretched. A familiar weight settled on my shoulders, the urge to crawl into bed and spend the day under the covers slowly growing stronger.


No. My hand found Estrel’s bracelet. I pictured the weight as a snake like Kiva had once suggested, imagining it slithering off my shoulders until it was gone. Except it never truly left.

Caliza worried at a few strands of hair with her fingers. She even had our mother’s nervous habits. They’d become more pronounced lately, though she still kept her emotions in an iron grip in front of other people. A skill I’d never mastered. Around me, she’d been snappier and more finicky than ever.


“What is this really about, Caliza?” I asked.


Her fingers stilled, and she met my gaze. Her eyes were silent and strong, but I saw the storm prepared to break behind them. It’d been growing for days.


“Armies aren’t easy to build,” she said. “They take time to grow, to train, to supply. After we lost the crows, what we taught our soldiers had to change. Trendell has been very supportive, and we’ve made progress in the last few months, but not enough. And with the food shortages and loss of jobs, with everything, if Illucia—”


“Are they threatening to attack?”


Caliza’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “Queen Razel doesn’t threaten. She subtly implies until you’re not sure if she said it or if you thought it all up yourself. But whether she’ll say it or not, she’s made herself clear. Our scouts confirmed: half her army is now sitting on our border.”


My breath caught, hands closing into fists. “What does she want?”


“I’ve tried to find another option, Thia. Please believe I would never willingly choose this. But we can’t sustain a war with Illucia. We have no choice.”


“What are you talking about?” My heart stilled. What had she done?


“I’ve agreed to a marriage between you and Prince Ericen.”


The words pierced me like talons, hooking deep. I waited for the pain. Nothing came. Because this wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening.


My throat burned—I wasn’t breathing. Caliza said something, but her words sounded like they were swimming through honey to reach me.


Something touched my arm, and I sprang to my feet, knocking over my chair. Caliza had stood up, her hand outstretched as I stepped back.


“Please, Thia.”


Something like a laugh bubbled out of my throat, except wilder, more dangerous. She hadn’t even given me a choice. She’d engaged me to the son of the woman who’d ordered the destruction of everything I cared about, who’d killed our mother, caused Estrel’s death, and left me permanently scarred.


A slow, insidious heat spread through my veins. “No.” The word trembled.


“We have no choice.”


“We? Are you marrying the son of a psychopath too? Have you heard the rumors about him?”

Caliza straightened. The storm broke in her eyes. “This isn’t just about you. I have to think about Rhodaire too. This kingdom is on the edge of a cliff. We cannot go to war. I know this isn’t ideal—”


“Not ideal?” I slammed my hand onto the table. “Are you serious? Don’t try to manage me, Caliza. I’m not some disgruntled house lord you can manipulate.”


“Thia—”


“They set fire to our rookeries. They killed every single crow, nearly all the riders, and our mother!” I didn’t care that I was yelling now. “Our mother, and you want me to forget everything and marry that bastard?” I thrust my burned hand in front of her face. “How am I supposed to forget?”


Caliza’s face flushed a deep red. For an endless moment, she stared at my scarred hand. Then she met my gaze and let out a slow breath. “We are the leaders of Rhodaire. Our duty is to our kingdom, not ourselves.”


The adrenaline drained from my body, leaving me hollow. “You’re my sister. Your duty should be to me.”


She looked away, and something inside me threatened to crack. I didn’t know there were still pieces of me left to break.


“This is the only way to keep our people safe. It will give us time to strengthen ourselves, to prepare.” Her words tumbled out in a torrent, her composure fracturing. “Ardrahan’s Theory of War and—”


“Your history books don’t know shit about our situation! Queen Razel will use this marriage to take control of Rhodaire. That’s all Illucia wants. You’re not buying us time; you’re sealing our fate!”


Caliza’s chin lifted, an all too familiar expression etched on her face. She knew what was best, not me. “The wedding will take place in Illucia at a date of Razel’s choosing. Prince Ericen will be here tomorrow on his way back from Jindae to take you with him.” She paused. “I’m sorry.”


I seized the table edge for support. Caliza never apologized. The lump in my throat threatened to choke me, and I swallowed hard. She wasn’t going to change her mind.

The urge to flee struck so powerfully, I nearly knocked over a chair bolting down the patio stairs. Caliza called after me, but I didn’t stop. The wind roared in my ears as I raced along the dying castle gardens, choosing direction at random, blind to where my legs were taking me.


Suddenly, I was standing before the remains of the royal rookery, my stomach threatening to return my breakfast, my throat closing when all I needed was air.


The rookery entrance had been blocked off, but there was a hole big enough for me to crawl through on the side. I struggled through the opening, scraping my forearms and tearing the hem of my dress on the scattered debris, but I didn’t stop as I charged up the soot-covered steps to the second level.


The tower went up several more floors, but the circular room had caved in, blocking the stairwell and creating a dark alcove. I huddled underneath it with my arms wrapped around my knees, not caring that my dress was covered in ash or that I’d scraped my elbow hard enough to bleed.


I felt like I had the night the crows died—like everything was out of my control.


Caliza had promised me to Prince Ericen. She’d bartered me away, and now I would lose everything. My friendship with Kiva, my home, what little normalcy I’d regained—for what? A few more months to prepare for a war we couldn’t win even if we had years to recover? The Illucian Empire’s soldiers were utterly elite. Nothing less could have destroyed the crows.

Surely, this was all a ploy by Razel. She was like a jungle cat toying with her food. This was probably some sick joke to her. Why else ask for this marriage?


The familiar weight slithered up my shoulders. I didn’t even try to make it leave. I was floating in limbo, my future gone, my past all too present. Now, more than ever, I wished for a crow to carry me far, far away. We’d fly straight past Korovi and Jindae to the unexplored wilderness in the east. We’d never stop.


But the crows were gone.


---


Was it Love at First Chapter?

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