The night Nadia lost her mother started like any other.
She and her mother were practicing their swordplay in the castle’s courtyard, evening sunlight glinting off their blunted blades. Nadia tried to ignore the sweat dripping into her eyes, focus on her footwork, and follow her instincts.
Her mother scored a hit on her chest. “You aren’t defending yourself well enough.”
“The sword is starting to feel heavy. I need a chance to rest.”
“Warrick isn’t resting.”
“I know, but—”
“I don’t want to hear your arguments,” her mother said. “If Warrick finds out what we’re planning, he will not hesitate to kill us.” She gripped Nadia’s shoulders, her touch firm but loving. “Both of us.”
Nadia had no response for that. She was only twelve, but she wasn’t stupid. She understood the dangers involved in opposing the emperor. They all did.
She hid her anger, though. Her mother had taught her to conceal her emotions. As nobility, they often had to speak with Emperor Warrick, and Nadia could not let slip that she intended to kill the tyrant.
“I know I sound angry,” her mother said, “but you’ve done well today. Perhaps we should wash up and join your father for dinner.”
After bathing, they joined Nadia’s father in the castle’s dining chamber, at a long wooden table draped in a red tablecloth. Magical torches cast blue light upon him as he sat alone, poking thoughtfully at some chicken with his fork.
“Is everything all right?” asked Nadia’s mother, taking a seat next to him.
“Oh, yes, everything’s fine.” He went back to his food, avoiding both their gazes.
“Father, are you sure nothing is wrong?”
He laid his silverware aside, leaving half his plate uneaten. His abrupt departure from the table caught Nadia by surprise. She tried to catch his attention, but he left the chamber, looking like a defeated man.
“Do you have any idea what might be bothering him?” Nadia asked her mother.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him like this before. Perhaps Warrick is making his life difficult again.”
“Warrick makes all our lives difficult.”
Nadia finished the rest of her meal and retreated to her room, where she felt more at peace. It was a simple room, without the lavish decorations of the rest of the castle, leaving more space for weapons and for the many books scattered about the tables, the floor, and even the bed.
She settled down on her bed, not caring that she disturbed the sheets, and read from a historical text her mother had assigned her. Nadia enjoyed learning history, especially history from before Warrick rose to power five hundred years ago.
This book described the Great War, a time when the world was almost destroyed. Two great leaders had faced off in this war: Lionar and Krinir. In the end, Lionar had won and exiled Krinir to a place known as the Shadowed Land. The book spoke of these two as if they were gods, but Nadia wasn’t sure about that, for she only knew of the one true God.
Then again, Warrick had taken away many of the Empire’s historical texts. Nadia was grateful to have any material in their library.
The first sign of trouble came to her while she was reading. At first, she thought her magical torch was dying. But, no, it was her eyes.
She was having another vision.
A dozen shadowy figures march up the cobblestone path leading toward the castle. They wear red surcoats marked with a black dragon emblem. Imperial Guards.
Night is a bleak shadow upon the grassy landscape. The men do not talk. They are here on business; that much is clear. When they reach the castle gate, they bark orders at the guards stationed there. Nadia can’t make out the words. She never can in her visions.
The guards crank the gate open, and the Imperial Guards step through. Then the vision fades. Nadia expects to wake up, but instead she sees a dark tunnel.
Her mother walks through the passage, holding a magical torch aloft. Her face looks pale in the blue light. Her expression is anxious.
She reaches a place where moonlight filters into her surroundings. There are others with her, but Nadia can see only her mother. When her mother steps out into the moonlight, six men are waiting for her, brandishing their swords.
Imperial Guards, again.
The vision changes. Now Nadia sees the sundrenched city square. Thousands of people fill it, their gazes set on the center of the square, where an executioner’s block has been set up. Two Imperial Guards march forward, leading Nadia’s mother between them.
It seems only a moment later when the executioner’s axe chops through her neck. Her head rolls on bloodstained cobblestones.
Nadia woke to a world that felt less real than what she’d seen in her vision. Heart pounding, she trembled on the soft mattress. She grabbed her sword from atop her dresser, raced out into the dark castle corridor, and darted past the guard at her mother’s door.
Within the room, her mother lay upon the elegant bed, reading by the light of oil lamps.
“What is it, Nadia?” She lowered the book. “Why do you have your sword? I told you not—”
“They know. They’re coming. We have to leave.”
“Who’s coming? Slow down, Nadia.”
Nadia took a deep breath, teetering on the verge of tears. “I-I had another vision. Imperial Guards are coming to arrest you. Please, we have—”
“I’m coming.” Her mother bolted to her feet, took her own sword from a rack beside the bed, then put a hand on Nadia’s shoulder. “How close are they?”
“I-I’m not sure. I think I saw them on the path leading up to the castle, but I don’t know if I was seeing the present or the future.”
Now the tears did come, and with them her anger. She should have been past such things, but she couldn’t banish the image of her mother’s lifeless head.
Nadia’s visions had never been wrong before.
As they rushed out of the room, she wiped away her tears, taking deep breath after deep breath. They could still survive this.
“Come with us,” Nadia’s mother said to the guard at the door, a young man who followed without question. Fear twisted Nadia’s insides as they ran along the gray stone corridor, then down the spiraling steps to the bottom of the tower. Halfway down, Nadia heard the castle gate clunking open, and she froze, heart hammering.
“We can’t stop, Nadia. We’ll have to take the secret passage.”
They reached the stone foyer, then pivoted to the left, entering the dining chamber as the gate continued clunking behind them. Once they entered the empty kitchen, Nadia’s mother and the guard pushed a large wooden cabinet to the side, exposing a lever, which Nadia’s mother pulled. The wall swung open like a door, revealing a dusty passage full of spider webs, a place that sent shivers done Nadia’s spine.
“Get in, Nadia.”
Nadia slipped into a passage wide enough for the three of them to stand side by side. Her mother followed, carrying a magical torch from the kitchen, moving with grim determination.
The clunking of the gate stopped, and Nadia’s stomach clenched. Her mother pulled another lever, closing the passage and plunging them into darkness broken by eerie blue torchlight. Their shadows danced against the walls like black ghosts.
This passage looked too much like the second part of Nadia’s vision.
God, please see us through this, she prayed, but she had little faith in the Old World God, who’d abandoned the people of the Empire when they’d needed Him most.
Nadia hung close to her mother as they navigated the twisting passage. The air was cold and filled with the smells of dust and disuse. Nadia brushed away a spider crawling on her arm.
“We’re going to make it through this,” her mother said.
“Do you think they’ll hurt me if they catch us?” Nadia asked.
“I don’t know, but I will not let that happen.”
“I-I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t lose me,” her mother said. “I’ll be there to protect you.”
Nadia didn’t believe that, for she’d never changed the future before. An oppressive weight settled upon her chest, smothering her.
Tonight would end with her mother’s arrest and eventual execution.
A few minutes later, Nadia’s mother led them through a wooden door and into a small cave, which they followed for another couple of minutes, tense and silent. When they reached the cave mouth, they stepped out into the moonlit night.
Where six Imperial Guards waited for them.
The men stood with swords drawn, wearing the red surcoats of Imperial Guards. Beneath the surcoats, their chainmail rattled. Their expressions were unforgiving.
“Put down your weapons,” said one man.
Nadia tightened her grip on her sword, but then a hand grasped her shoulder.
“Do as they say,” her mother told her. “Don’t get yourself killed for me.”
There was no chance of escape, but Nadia didn’t care. Sword drawn, she engaged the red-haired commander. When his sword met hers, the force of the blow sent her sword flying. Sharp pain flared in her wrist, and she hit the ground hard.
He shot a contemptuous look at Nadia. “Would anyone else like to resist?”
One of the Imperial Guards yanked Nadia to her feet, and she couldn’t pull out of his strong grip. Three Imperial Guards claimed their weapons, then checked them for more. Nadia flinched but endured the treatment. If she remained calm, maybe they wouldn’t kill her as well.
“They’re all unarmed now,” said one Imperial Guard.
“Good.” The commander stepped toward Nadia and her mother. “High Lady Saria Cray, you are under arrest for treason. Your execution will take place tomorrow at noon in the city square.”
No trial. How typical of Warrick’s regime. There was no justice here, not for good people like Nadia’s mother.
“Kill the guard,” the commander said. “But leave the girl.”
Nadia got to her feet, using the cave wall for support. Why would they leave her alive? Did they intend to take advantage of her?
An Imperial Guard dragged his sword across the guard’s neck, and the guard clutched at his bloody neck before falling limp. Nadia darted toward him, but an Imperial Guard yanked at her hair, pulling her backward.
“Don’t hurt her!” Nadia’s mother said. “Please.”
The commander barked a laugh. “Why should we honor your wishes, traitor?”
“She’s only a girl. She has nothing to do with my crimes.”
“As it so happens,” the commander said, “Emperor Warrick told us to leave her alive.”
“Why would he do that?” Nadia asked, struggling against the Imperial Guard’s grip. Yes, Warrick was a powerful sorcerer, all but invincible, but it made no sense to spare the daughter of a rebel.
The commander glared at her. “I don’t know. I just carry out the orders. Now be quiet.”
Nadia’s mother held her chin high. “How did you know we’d be here?”
“You can thank your husband for that. He decided he owed his loyalties to his emperor. As he should.”
Nadia burned with anger. She’d always loved her father.
How could he betray them like this?
* * * * *
Midday arrived far too quickly, bringing warm sunlight, but there was nothing warm about her mother’s execution.
Nadia stood atop a large wooden platform in the town square, dread twisting her stomach into knots. All morning, she’d felt as if she were walking in a nightmare. She’d cried. She’d raged. She’d pleaded. But none of it mattered.
Her father stood beside her in dark, somber robes, gazing across the city square and avoiding her gaze. He’d always been a distant parent, but never this distant, never a man she could outright hate.
A traitor to his own family.
Emperor Warrick loomed tall to Nadia’s right, his expression blank, his robes a deep imperial red. He watched over the city square as the crowd assembled, some to protest, some to support the emperor. Those most fervent in their anger had thronged the edges of the square, held back by Imperial Guard spears.
All too soon, Imperial Guards would march Nadia’s mother toward the executioner’s block in the center of the square.
“Father, how could you do this?” she whispered, longing to strike him.
“We have duties, Nadia. You and your mother never understood that. Now be quiet.”
“You betrayed her!” Nadia swung a fist at him. Before her punch could connect, Warrick yanked her arm back. She struggled against his grip. “Get your hands off me, you murderer!”
“Nadia, how dare you speak to the emperor like that!” said her father. “I-I’m sorry, Your Majesty. Her traitor of a mother gave her these ideas. I did no such thing.”
Warrick’s grip held strong. “Don’t worry about it. She only feels the love a child feels for her mother. In time, she will come to understand that people like you and I seek to bring about a better world, that people like her mother don’t want us to prosper. They’re the ones who’ve imprisoned us.”
Nadia strained against Warrick’s hold. “Let me go!”
“Not until you promise you’ll behave,” Warrick said.
“All right, I promise. But don’t think I’ve changed my opinion of you.”
Nadia didn’t care if Warrick killed her, for then she could join her mother. She thought of leaping off the platform and racing to her mother’s defense, but her mother would want her to go on. She had to make her mother’s dreams reality, however painful it might be.
“I understand your hatred, Nadia,” Warrick said, his voice soft and gentle, as if he were the reasonable person here. He released Nadia’s arm. “To you, I’m the evil one, the person depriving you of your mother. You believe she’s a good person, that she doesn’t deserve such treatment. And, yes, she likely is a good person, but even good people can be dangerous when they have the wrong ideas.”
“You’re the one with the wrong ideas,” Nadia said, surprising herself with her boldness. “You’re the one who’s really imprisoned us. You’ve bound us all in chains, and it doesn’t matter what we do because you’re invincible. All that keeps the people in line is the knowledge that they can’t kill you.”
Warrick watched Nadia with a calm, infuriating smile. “You really should keep such thoughts to yourself. Only by my mercy are you and your father alive. Don’t make me regret that.”
Ice had crept into his tone. He placed a hand on her shoulder. A gentle touch, but firm enough that she felt dwarfed by him.
She flinched away. “Don’t touch me!”
Warrick was about to respond, but then two Imperial Guards appeared at the edge of the square, emerging from among the wooden buildings, leading Nadia’s mother between them. For a long, tense moment, the crowd fell silent but for anxious whispers. Then those protesting the occasion erupted into chaos.
The Imperial Guards at the edges of the square held the people away with their spears. They used the blunt ends, but people still hit the ground, clutching their stomachs. Nadia’s face burned with anger.
The rest of the protesters retreated, though some farther away cursed the emperor. Warrick waved a hand, unleashing a whirlwind in the middle of the crowd. It tossed people a few feet away, but it appeared Warrick hadn’t intended to kill anyone.
“Silence!” he shouted. “Anyone else who curses my name will feel my wrath.”
Nadia stared down into the square, a chill sweeping over her as the Imperial Guards secured her mother on the executioner’s block. The Imperial Guard commander stood by the block, ready to take her mother’s head, his hair and beard glowing red in the sunlight.
Warrick stepped to the edge of the wooden platform. “It is with great regret today that I must oversee the execution of High Lady Saria Cray. It is not something I wish to do, but it is necessary to maintain our peace and prosperity.”
Curses came from the crowd, and a few more people fell to Imperial Guard spears. The rest of the crowd had fallen silent.
“High Lady Cray is a convicted rebel,” Warrick continued, unfazed. “However, High Lord Cray is still your local ruler. He did not share in her treachery, and I urge you to love him as you loved her. But remember this: Should you support the Order, you will find your head on the block next.” He paused a moment. “Proceed.”
Nadia wanted to close her eyes. But, no, she needed to remember this moment.
The commander raised his axe, then brought it down toward Nadia’s mother, chopping through her head in one quick stroke. People in the crowd cried out. Some turned their heads away.
But Nadia watched her mother’s blood pool on the cobblestones as she’d seen in her vision. She glanced at her father, who avoided her gaze.
She could rely on no one else.
Not her father. Not her God. No one. She looked to the right, into Warrick’s dark eyes.
I will kill you.
* * * * *
The night after the execution of Saria Cray, Darien Warrick entered a secluded chamber in his palace. Magical torchlight cast a bluish glow upon the room, leading him to an empty table at the center. He took a seat in a wooden chair, silence enveloping him, and closed his eyes.
Tonight, he would read the Webs of Fate.
Silence and seclusion were best for this. He needed to focus on nothing but the scattered images before him, needed to glean what he could from the unreliable future. It was infinitely complex, infinitely unpredictable. There were many strands in it, like the threads of something a million times more complicated than the most intricate spider web.
But Darien had learned to control his viewing of the future, mastering the Webs of Fate as no one had before him. He wished he could claim complete control, but that would never happen. There were too many variables, too many things that could go wrong.
Eyes closed, he focused his thoughts on today’s execution. The threads of the web clustered around twelve-year-old Nadia Cray. She was a Weaver, someone who exerted unusual control on the strands of that web. Someone like Darien Warrick himself.
And he would find a way to guide her path. Her mother’s execution was only the beginning.
Yet he regretted that he must take her mother from her. He knew the pain of losing loved ones as a child. He’d been a year younger than Nadia the day he’d lost his parents. That kind of thing changed a child. Some, like him, became stronger. Others never recovered.
And there would always be a hole in her life. A hole he’d created.
Just another on your list of crimes, he told himself. For five hundred years, he’d done wrong after wrong—all to achieve a better future. As it was, the world was broken. Someone needed to fix it.