Lydia was sitting on a pillar just outside the Flame Palace when she heard someone come up behind her. She glanced round and saw Karen standing in the doorway.
â€œYou couldnâ€™t sleep either?â€
â€œIâ€™m too hyped after what happened to Drew,â€ Karen said.
â€œYeah.â€ Lydia turned her attention back to the sky. â€œThereâ€™s something wrong with the stars here.â€
â€œWell, theyâ€™re different,â€ Karen said.
Lydia shook her head. â€œItâ€™s not that. Thereâ€™s something wrong with the way they lookâ€“â€ She frowned and cocked her head as a sound reached her ears. â€œKaz, can you hear hoofbeats?â€
As the sound got closer, Lydia grabbed her torch and crept towards it, concealing herself behind one of the pillars. Kimi crept up beside her, and Bennu landed on her shoulder.
â€œLyd, is someone out there?â€ Andrew asked.
Lydia looked back into the palace and saw heâ€™d woken up. â€œI think so,â€ she whispered. â€œBut I canâ€™t see them. Weâ€™d better keep quiet.â€
They sat in silence and listened as whatever was making the sound came closer and then stopped directly in front of Lydia. She held her breath, sure that the other must be able to hear her heart pounding. It seemed louder than the hoofbeats had been in the sudden silence. She fumbled for the torch and shone the beam towards where the stranger must be. The darkness swallowed it in a most unnatural way. The stranger was still there though. She could feel it watching her. It was the same presence sheâ€™d sensed earlier.
She hissed at the thought of someone she couldnâ€™t see watching her and angrily tried to push through whatever concealment he was using â€“ just like she did when one of her siblings didnâ€™t want her to find them. She sensed rather than heard a gasp from whoever it was and had the briefest impression of glowing red eyes. Then there was a sensation of wind and whatever it was galloped away. Lydia looked back at the others.
â€œThat was very creepy.â€
â€œVery,â€ Karen said.
â€œBut what was it?â€ Andrew asked.
Kimi and Bennu looked at each other.
â€œNothing friendly, Iâ€™m sure,â€ Kimi said.
Lydia frowned, certain that Andrewâ€™s heart friend knew something. She turned and looked at her own heart friend.
â€œBennu?â€ she asked and he looked away. â€œWhat is it?â€
â€œSomeone dangerous. I donâ€™t want to talk about him,â€ he replied. â€œLetâ€™s just hope he was just passing.â€
He wasnâ€™t, Lydia was sure of that much. Sheâ€™d sensed the presence earlier after all, but even when she told them this, neither heart friend would say any more.
â€œShe saw us!â€ The Rider gasped as they halted some distance from the Flame Palace. â€œWell, she saw you, Ebâ€¦ I think it was too dark for her to see me and Mela even after she broke through my screen. How the hell did she do that?â€
Mela frowned up at him. Why was he so surprised?
â€œSheâ€™s very talented â€“ all three of them are. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re here,â€ the unicorn â€“ Ebona â€“ replied. â€œAnd she has a great deal of potential. You knew that. But sheâ€™s not as ignorant as you thought. Which is interesting. I got a flash â€“ just a brief one â€“ when she pushed past the barrier. She dreams about the future sometimes.â€
â€œHeâ€™ll never believe it. You know what he thinks about her, which is good. But how did she learn this?â€
â€œItâ€™s probably instinctive,â€ Ebona said. â€œLike knowing when sheâ€™s being watched. I think she realised you were watching her earlier.â€
â€œPerhaps, Eb. I still donâ€™t like it.
â€œThe Dark Rider took your daughter?â€ Valeria paced up and down in front of the chief songstress, who was sitting in one of the courtyard fountains. The clan had fled to the Storm Palace after the Rider had galloped away. Now they were residents in the moat and sheâ€™d sent her own healers to assist the injured. â€œYou must be very worried about her, Songstress Sirin.â€
â€œWorried about her?â€ Sirin spat furiously. â€œWhy would I be worried? The little traitor surrendered to the human bastardâ€“â€
She would have continued ranting, but Valeria whirled and snarled at her.
â€œTraitor? From what youâ€™ve told me she saved your clan. I just hope for your sake the Core considers what happened enough chastisement. Thereâ€™s a thin line between loyalty and suicidal stupidity, Sirin, and you crossed it when you attacked the Ice Warrior.â€
â€œBut heâ€™s human,â€ Sirin said. â€œYou saidâ€¦â€
Valeria rubbed at her eyes wearily. â€œYou know better than that, Sirin. The Core doesnâ€™t care about my laws.â€
â€œIâ€¦ Is that why we couldnâ€™t fight the Dark Rider?â€
â€œI donâ€™t think so. Thatâ€™s not the Coreâ€™s style. Its punishments tend to be more poetic and less fatal. However, itâ€™s not unfair. It probably wonâ€™t hit you when youâ€™re down unless it thinks you havenâ€™t learned your lesson. Have you?â€
â€œYes,â€ Sirin said.
Valeria wasnâ€™t convinced. â€œBut this situationâ€™s my fault. I shouldâ€™ve kept the pendant here. I never imagined the humans would want it. He wouldâ€™ve taken it anyway and forced her to use it when he realised only she could. She made a more realistic assessment of the situation than you. But Iâ€™m surprised he kept his word and spared the rest of you. I didnâ€™t think humans knew what honour was.â€
â€œYou think she did the right thing?â€ Sirin asked incredulously.
â€œNo, I think that she did the only thing she could. The necessary thing.â€ She stopped pacing and sat down by the fountain. â€œOf course you and Mela have never been close. Perhaps that plays into it. If something like this happened to Salia Iâ€™d be distraught.â€
â€œI â€“ I donâ€™t understand. Why would you be anything but angry if Princess Salia betrayed you? I donâ€™t know why you let her liveâ€“â€
Valeria stared at the mermaid and shook her head.
â€œIâ€™ll get your daughter back, and you will not take any action against her for saving your life. Do you understand me, Sirin?â€
â€œIâ€¦ I understand, Your Majesty,â€ Sirin said sullenly.
â€œGood.â€ Valeria turned away from her to the troll sheâ€™d summoned. Heâ€™d been watching the exchange with interest. â€œCan you deal with the three humans who crossed over yesterday?â€ she asked. â€œIf no one takes it into their own hands first, of course.â€
â€œI can, Your Majesty,â€ he said. â€œBut I fear some of the Mountain Kingâ€™s people will aid them just to spite you.â€
â€œSome will, some wonâ€™t,â€ she said. â€œAnd Dariad will remain painstakingly neutral on the matter as always. I donâ€™t think he likes humans any more than I do. Heâ€™s a prat and does it to annoy me.â€
â€œA what?â€ the troll asked. â€œI canâ€™t seem to grasp that word.â€
â€œAn idiot,â€ Valeria said quickly. â€œItâ€™s a word a â€“ um â€“ friend of my uncle used to use.â€
â€œâ€˜Idiotâ€™ is a fair description.â€ The troll snorted in amusement. â€œDo you want me to deal with the Dark Rider as well?â€
â€œNo,â€ she said. â€œThat oneâ€™s too strong for normal measures. Iâ€™ll send a detachment after him. I really shouldâ€™ve dealt with him earlier, but he was only one and not in my territory. Anyway, you get a bit overenthusiastic at times. At least I know that they wonâ€™t kill Mela by mistake.â€
â€œVery well,â€ he said. â€œI have an idea for dealing with the humans. And should that fail, I believe we have a backup. After all, you have something they want.â€
Valeria scowled at him. â€œAlban is not bait.â€
â€œBut heâ€™s hardly a secret. Once they find out, theyâ€™ll come here and thenâ€“â€
He snapped his stony hands together like a trap closing.