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.
“You couldn’t sleep either?”
“I’m too hyped after what happened to Drew,” Karen said.
“Yeah.” Lydia turned her attention back to the sky. “There’s something wrong with the stars here.”
“Well, they’re different,” Karen said.
Lydia shook her head. “It’s not that. There’s something wrong with the way they look–” She frowned and cocked her head as a sound reached her ears. “Kaz, can you hear hoofbeats?”
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.
“Lyd, is someone out there?” Andrew asked.
Lydia looked back into the palace and saw he’d woken up. “I think so,” she whispered. “But I can’t see them. We’d better keep quiet.”
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 she’d sensed earlier.
She hissed at the thought of someone she couldn’t see watching her and angrily tried to push through whatever concealment he was using – just like she did when one of her siblings didn’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.
“That was very creepy.”
“Very,” Karen said.
“But what was it?” Andrew asked.
Kimi and Bennu looked at each other.
“Nothing friendly, I’m sure,” Kimi said.
Lydia frowned, certain that Andrew’s heart friend knew something. She turned and looked at her own heart friend.
“Bennu?” she asked and he looked away. “What is it?”
“Someone dangerous. I don’t want to talk about him,” he replied. “Let’s just hope he was just passing.”
He wasn’t, Lydia was sure of that much. She’d sensed the presence earlier after all, but even when she told them this, neither heart friend would say any more.
“She saw us!” The Rider gasped as they halted some distance from the Flame Palace. “Well, she saw you, Eb… 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?”
Mela frowned up at him. Why was he so surprised?
“She’s very talented – all three of them are. That’s why they’re here,” the unicorn – Ebona – replied. “And she has a great deal of potential. You knew that. But she’s not as ignorant as you thought. Which is interesting. I got a flash – just a brief one – when she pushed past the barrier. She dreams about the future sometimes.”
“He’ll never believe it. You know what he thinks about her, which is good. But how did she learn this?”
“It’s probably instinctive,” Ebona said. “Like knowing when she’s being watched. I think she realised you were watching her earlier.”
“Perhaps, Eb. I still don’t like it.
“The Dark Rider took your daughter?” 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 she’d sent her own healers to assist the injured. “You must be very worried about her, Songstress Sirin.”
“Worried about her?” Sirin spat furiously. “Why would I be worried? The little traitor surrendered to the human bastard–”
She would have continued ranting, but Valeria whirled and snarled at her.
“Traitor? From what you’ve told me she saved your clan. I just hope for your sake the Core considers what happened enough chastisement. There’s a thin line between loyalty and suicidal stupidity, Sirin, and you crossed it when you attacked the Ice Warrior.”
“But he’s human,” Sirin said. “You said…”
Valeria rubbed at her eyes wearily. “You know better than that, Sirin. The Core doesn’t care about my laws.”
“I… Is that why we couldn’t fight the Dark Rider?”
“I don’t think so. That’s not the Core’s style. Its punishments tend to be more poetic and less fatal. However, it’s not unfair. It probably won’t hit you when you’re down unless it thinks you haven’t learned your lesson. Have you?”
“Yes,” Sirin said.
Valeria wasn’t convinced. “But this situation’s my fault. I should’ve kept the pendant here. I never imagined the humans would want it. He would’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 I’m surprised he kept his word and spared the rest of you. I didn’t think humans knew what honour was.”
“You think she did the right thing?” Sirin asked incredulously.
“No, I think that she did the only thing she could. The necessary thing.” She stopped pacing and sat down by the fountain. “Of course you and Mela have never been close. Perhaps that plays into it. If something like this happened to Salia I’d be distraught.”
“I – I don’t understand. Why would you be anything but angry if Princess Salia betrayed you? I don’t know why you let her live–”
Valeria stared at the mermaid and shook her head.
“I’ll get your daughter back, and you will not take any action against her for saving your life. Do you understand me, Sirin?”
“I… I understand, Your Majesty,” Sirin said sullenly.
“Good.” Valeria turned away from her to the troll she’d summoned. He’d been watching the exchange with interest. “Can you deal with the three humans who crossed over yesterday?” she asked. “If no one takes it into their own hands first, of course.”
“I can, Your Majesty,” he said. “But I fear some of the Mountain King’s people will aid them just to spite you.”
“Some will, some won’t,” she said. “And Dariad will remain painstakingly neutral on the matter as always. I don’t think he likes humans any more than I do. He’s a prat and does it to annoy me.”
“A what?” the troll asked. “I can’t seem to grasp that word.”
“An idiot,” Valeria said quickly. “It’s a word a – um – friend of my uncle used to use.”
“‘Idiot’ is a fair description.” The troll snorted in amusement. “Do you want me to deal with the Dark Rider as well?”
“No,” she said. “That one’s too strong for normal measures. I’ll send a detachment after him. I really should’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 won’t kill Mela by mistake.”
“Very well,” he said. “I 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.”
Valeria scowled at him. “Alban is not bait.”
“But he’s hardly a secret. Once they find out, they’ll come here and then–”
He snapped his stony hands together like a trap closing.