Chapter 68: Chasing Sunsets CHASING SUNSETS
“I love you, Serena. Always have, always will.”
The Queen of Hollow’s glass goblet slipped out of her hand and shattered on the balcony floor. That wasn’t the reaction I had been expecting, but it was better than being slapped. Or so I told myself, if only to make myself feel better. Saying I love you and getting silence in return was perhaps the most humbling thing I had ever experienced.
If my sister had been with me, Gwen might have smacked some sense into my delusional head. There were very few rules the Kingman family were expected to obey without question. Not falling in love with the Royal we were bound to protect might have been higher on the list than not killing them. But, I suppose, I had always been a slow learner. Hollow didn’t know me as Michael dumbass Kingman because of my sparkling personality and sound judgment.
I felt like a child in a costume, picking at my fancy clothes as Serena stared at me, green eyes wide and lower lip trembling. She was beautiful any way I looked at her. From the freckles over the bridge of her nose and her braided auburn hair to her long pale blue dress and the black cosmetics she wore around her eyes. I wished I could be beside her for forever and a day.
Trying to deny it for so long was, perhaps, the greatest lie I had ever told myself. Finally telling her the truth was my attempt at rectifying that mistake.
“Are you going to say anything?” I asked, holding my left wrist. “I know I probably should have told you sooner—”
“We’ve spent every night together since that night!” she shouted. And then lowered her voice, trying not to attract any of the other guests’ attention. “Why would you choose now to tell me? We’re at Adreann’s wedding!”
“Look,” I said. “It’s bad timing. I’m aware. But I had to let you know how I—”
“You run away whenever I try to talk to you about our relationship. Literally. You dove into a lake rather than talk about your feelings—let alone have a conversation that wasn’t about Angelo, saving Gwen, or our duty. And now you want to tell me you love me? And that you always have and always will? Were you always this much of a dumbass or did you take one too many hits from Dark recently?”
“I was struggling to understand my feelings,” I explained. “After what happened in Hollow, I was… I didn’t know what to do. We’re Kingman and Hollow. There are precedents we must follow.” And there was the whole warning from Angelo, that if I stayed with Serena she would die. That our love could shatter Tenere. “Yet…”
“And yet,” she repeated, turning away from me so her elbows rested against the balcony’s railing. “And yet. And yet. And yet.”
All of Vargo, her mother’s city, was in front of us. Unlike Hollow, which showed the impact of many generations on the city, Vargo was too uniform to look natural. It was as if every hundred years or so the city was razed to the ground and built anew in whatever direction the current ruler desired. The current theme was sprawling, tall, and built around a shimmering pink lake with a palace in the middle of it. Every building was perfectly symmetrical, the flat clean architecture easily replicated hundreds of times. Past the city itself was a port bigger than the rest of the city, with more twists and turns and docks than the Narrows in Hollow. We could hear sailors shouting.
“We should have had this conversation a month ago,” she said, when the silence became unbearable. “Not now. Not here. I’ve already accepted my fate. It’s too late to change it.”
“Serena,” I muttered.
She swept the broken glass over the railing with the side of her foot. The pieces fell into the water below us like glittering shooting stars. “Michael, I’ve been in love with you for as long as I can remember. But I was a child then… and now I’m a queen. I must do what is best for Hollow. Regardless of my feelings.”
“Do you really think Jay Prince is what’s best for Hollow? He’s in league with Angelo Shade!”
“I’m aware,” she said icily. “I’m not a fool, but they’ll try to get the throne with or without me on it. Adreann wants it now more than ever. Marrying that rebel bitch has only deepened his hunger. At least this way I can stand in their way and keep them in sight. I would not have let the engagement get this far if I thought Hollow was in danger, but I have something they need that I can barter with if things become truly desperate. Or do you not trust my judgment?”
“I do, but—”
“But nothing. This is how it is. How it must be.”
I didn’t respond, a thousand schemes and plans running through my head to set her free. But when she gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek, it felt like a final goodbye rather than a lover’s embrace.
“You’ll always be my Kingman,” she whispered with a forced smile.
She returned to the celebration before I could reply, disappearing into the crowds of masked partygoers. I closed my eyes, letting the wind blow against my face, and then unclenched the hand around my left wrist. Where my palm had been, there were two letters in black ink over irritated red skin: Es. It was Serena’s noble nickname. A tattoo I had just recently got to match hers of mine. It was meant to be romantic. Instead it was pathetic. I wrapped it back up in a bandage to hide my shame, donned my mask, and went back inside. There was no rest for a Mercenary. Not even a heartbroken one.
This party was no more threatening than any of the ones I had been to in Hollow. All that differed were the asinine rules everyone was forced to follow. And in the Gold Coast, nothing was held in higher esteem than one’s mask. They were strictly regulated to show class, age, profession, and marital status. There were ten creatures to represent the ten families that originally made up the Vargo Clan: the rat, the dog, the shark, the snake, the monkey, the spider, the wasp, the eel, the cow, and the dragon.
Servants wore wooden masks of varying intricacies, indicating their own hierarchy, while guests were given simple colored masks based on where they were from. Mercenaries wore daemon masks. Gnarly things with obnoxious sharp teeth and horns. That was the only thing that made sense in this twisted new dance I had been forced to participate in.
I patrolled the party, one hand on the sword hanging from my hip, keeping an eye on Jay Prince and the noble siblings of Regal Company. Dark and Alexis were doing the same, while Titus was stationed in the kitchen to make sure nothing was poisoned. Meanwhile dear, sweet Cassia was being selfish, as usual. Rather than use her renowned abilities to help us, she had decided to continue reading the map she had been obsessed with throughout our trip to Vargo. It was old and brittle and written in a strange language that reminded me of the strange script I had seen in the Royal Crypts, but I had been unable to get a good look at it. Even with all the noise and festivity around us, she was studying it in one corner of the room.
Most of the party was focused on Jay Prince and he was kept surrounded, most feigning excitement about having a Merchant Prince engaged to their clan leader’s daughter. As if they hadn’t fought with Hollow against New Dracon City during the Gunpowder War. Their memories were fickle tonight.
Someone clinked a knife against their glass and drew everyone’s attention. Erica Hollow stood on an elevated platform with Serena by her side. Erica Vargo looked nothing like Serena or Adreann—having a bigger forehead, a thinner body, and a bright blond braid of hair that went down to her shoulder blades. But her penetrating green eyes were the same as her children’s. She wore leather pauldrons over a simple black shirt and trousers, a golden cape behind her, and three strips of white war paint over her right eye. In Vargo, the leader’s goal was not to dress to impress, as it was in Hollow. It was to remind everyone who was in charge. Survival of the strongest was not a belief here, it was a daily practice.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate my son’s wedding,” Erica said overly sweetly. “It is a historic event that will unify many countries and wipe away decades of bad blood. Love can build bridges, especially when hate is all that’s usually seen.”
People didn’t clap in Vargo, snapping their fingers in agreement instead.
“Sadly for us, my son is already celebrating their union with his new wife.” Erica twirled her finger around the rim of her glass. “But, thankfully, my daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law are here. Jay Prince, would you join us onstage?”
Jay adjusted his coat and walked toward Serena and Erica. His black hair was kept short, his ears would have made an elephant feel self-conscious, and half of his face was covered in bone tattoos. When he reached Serena, he bowed deeply and then kissed her hand. I gritted my teeth and tried to remind myself of my duty rather than my hopes.
“Hollow has its own wedding rituals… as does Vargo and New Dracon City,” Erica stated, putting her hands on Serena’s and Jay’s shoulders. “We wish to honor them all, but as of right now, we are quite… overwhelmed finding a way to do so. Therefore it has been decided to extend the engagement period.”
Murmurs went through the crowd as my heart soared. Maybe there was still a chance I could stop Serena from marrying Jay. I had spent some time trying to figure out his connection to Angelo Shade, but there was nothing tangible to act on. All I knew was that they trusted each other completely. Dark wouldn’t or couldn’t confirm anything else. He liked keeping secrets too much.
“How long?” a rat-masked man shouted from the crowd.
“Thirty days,” Jay said. “We hoped we could have the preparations complete by the end of the month, but we were both woefully ignorant of Hollow’s strict laws and regulations for royal weddings. Prince Adreann’s wedding only made matters more complicated.”
Serena took Jay’s hand. “Just as we were ignorant of how many of the Merchant Princes and High Nobles would feel slighted if they were not given enough time to attend. Vargo, for all its size, isn’t even able to house all of them at the present moment. But in thirty days it will be. Or so we hope. We have builders working day and night.”
“Does that mean you will be married during the upcoming solar eclipse?” a snake mask called out.
“Yes,” Jay said, raising their intertwined fingers. “The astronomers even say that it will last half a day, giving us plenty of time to complete the full ceremony. It will be an unparalleled omen, befitting our legendary union.” He smiled lovingly at Serena. “The skies above will stop, and learn what true love is.”
I nearly gagged as others around me cooed and swooned at the handsome man’s words.
As Jay and Serena answered questions, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Chloe. The one-eyed woman had two peacock feathers woven into her hair. She wasn’t in her normal plate mail, had a decorative spear across her back, and had shaved the sides of her head and cut her hair into a neatly maintained black streak. No longer was she the fragile girl who would blow away in the wind I had met at the Shrine of Patron Victoria. She had morphed into someone capable of standing next to the Queen of Hollow.
“Can I steal you for a moment, Michael?”
I nodded and followed Chloe out of the ballroom and into a servant’s hallway. It was cramped, but people were still able to pass us with covered and sparse plates, full and empty wineglasses, and everything else needed for a party. It all smelt wonderful, but for some reason I kept remembering the smell from the rebel attack on the Militia Quarter. Serena’s rejection must’ve sent my mind to unfit places.
“Serena told me what happened before she took the stage,” Chloe declared without fanfare.
Because of course she did. Fan-fucking-tastic. I crossed my arms. “Are you here to be my shoulder to cry on or something?”
“No,” she said. “I’m here to make sure you don’t do anything stupid. Until they’re wed, you are the most dangerous man in Hollow. You do one wrong thing, and we could have a massive war on our hands.”
“Angelo Shade would be offended to hear that. He’s been trying to bring down Hollow for a long time,” I mumbled. When she raised an eyebrow at me, I sighed and continued, “What do you think I’m going to do? Kill Jay?”
Chloe stared at me. “I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“I’m not a monster.”
“You are a Kingman who thinks his Royal is making a mistake. Your ancestors are famous for doing whatever it took to stop them in a similar situation.”
I played with my father’s ring, always amazed how such a small thing could bring me comfort. If my father hadn’t given it to me before his execution, would I even be here? Or would I have fallen for Angelo’s schemes and lies?
“I am not my ancestors. What do you want me to…” I trailed off, the smell of sulfur distracting me again. People were shouting and screaming from the party, and it had been a while since any servants had crossed paths with us. “Chloe, I think—”
She was already running toward the ballroom door, slamming into it with her shoulder. It didn’t budge. Smoke was coming in through the slit at the bottom, pungent and grey. Gunpowder smoke or fire smoke—we could hear people frantically pounding on the other side.
Chloe electrified her arms, shot lightning at the hinges, and then rammed the door with her shoulder again. It fell back into the room, smoke clouding our vision as people ran past us. They were all screaming, some of them without their masks. We pushed past them all and into the ballroom proper. The servants were swinging swords and aiming guns at Erica, Serena, Jay, and the other Mercenaries in the room.
Black tendrils slithered over the ceiling, periodically yanking someone upward until they slammed against something hard with a sickening snap or crack. Dark, as always, was a conductor of death, using his magic to control the battle around us as Alexis used her flintlock pistols to stop anyone from getting close to him. The noble siblings, the commanders of Regal Company, cut through friend and foe alike trying to join Jay, Serena, and Erica, though they didn’t need their help, easily pushing back anyone who got close with Serena’s Fabrications and Jay’s bare fists. The only one not doing something to help was Cassia. She didn’t even look bothered by the smoke in the corner of the room, still examining her antique map.
“Who are we fighting?” I asked as I punched someone in the jaw, sending them to the floor.
Chloe threw a bolt of lightning at a man with a gun, blasting him away from Serena and the others. “Does it matter? Stop anyone who gets close to them!”
Easier said than done. For every three people I knocked down or away, at least one was a civilian. And since it was impossible to tell who was who at a simple glance, I didn’t feel comfortable enough using the sword attached to my hip. I may have done questionable things in the past, but so far I had only killed people who were unmistakably evil.
“Enough!” Serena shouted. “I’m ending this.”
Everyone bowed before her, forced to their knees as an invisible weight pushed down on us all. The world around us was shaking as her Fabrications rendered any opposition futile. She was a titan among us mortals.
I nullified my body as quickly as I could—the only other person in the room who wasn’t on the ground. But then something happened. Serena blinked and everything stopped—the screaming and sobbing, the gunfire and clang of metal, the inhale and exhale of deep breaths. A silence that lingered in the depths of all our lungs. The world darkened around us as my skin prickled. All I could see was her, but something was wrong. It was like being in a dream, only to discover it was a nightmare all along.
Serena looked at me, visibly confused. Her confidence and poise disappeared in a moment. “Who—”
A bullet hit her, and I screamed as Serena fell.