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Chapter One

The House of Aurum, Sidus Castle

Knachtenwood Sect, Evernigh

It was not the quiet that troubled Elleck. He welcomed peace after months at war, but this silence was more than a lack of sound. It was hard and cold like stone, sharp like a blade edge, tangible as the earth beneath his feet. Heartbeat after heartbeat marked the seconds that passed until the color, too, drained from everything around him.

Shades of darkness covered the yellow-freckled landscape, erasing the buttercups and dandelions that rose above rivers of blood. The yellow speckles reminded Elleck of her, of his lovely Nari, and her love of wildflowers.

Elleck squeezed his eyes shut and drew her picture in his mind. Honey-gold hair like the wheat that grew on her farm, pale blue eyes, and cheeks that flushed when she was happy. The night stole her image and forced a chill deep into his bones. It was just as well. If he continued dreaming, he would see her as she would be—cold and lifeless, her life in a balance between autumn and winter.

A few blinks brought Elleck back to the present and out of his premonition. The fire burned low, almost extinguished as the usual morning din replaced the quiet from his vision. A vision. That was all it was, and he could prevent it if he tried. Elleck stiffened his jaw and stood from the warmth of his bed, shirked his night clothing, and pulled on a pair of worn deerskin pants. His tunic needed mending, but Maelory would insist he buy a new one in the center square instead. Elleck hated new clothing; never mind going to the market always cost more time than he had to spare.

Before leaving his quarters, Elleck kneeled in prayer at the same worn stool his mother used four times a day. If he leaned close enough to the threadbare fabric, he could still smell her warm, floral scent. Father, not one for prayer, always stood a few paces away in quiet contemplation he refused to admit was prayer if only so his hardness would not be questioned.

After prayer, Elleck dusted his knees and pulled on his fine wool coat before throwing himself into the madness that was Sidus Castle just after the awakening. For nine long months, he and his siblings stowed away in the Autumn Realm, waiting for the return of their ruling season. Mother and Father kept a strict household, but Elleck thought a touch of mercy was warranted after their passing. After all, their house was the most beloved of the four houses of Evernigh—which didn’t mean much given the disdain for the other three houses.

In the dining hall, Maelory was seated in her usual chair. Divinia sat next to her with her dainty hands in her lap, and Rowan was nowhere to be found. Likely, the young prince had already gone to the tavern or center square to strut like a peacock. At eighteen, Elleck’s brother had more maidens vying for his hand than Elleck ever had, but then, most knew they would never warm Elleck’s heart enough to be named his queen. Their pining would be a waste.

“Brother, you are haggard this morning. Another vision?” Maelory, the youngest of the House of Aurum, stood to greet her eldest brother.

Divinia grinned. “I sent him one. A pretty light… pretty, pretty light.”

“Yes, Divinia, a pretty light. Eat your breakfast, love.” Maelory patted Divinia’s shoulder and nudged her breakfast of porridge, nuts, and currants closer.

Elleck took his chair but ignored the steaming bowl of porridge. His strength would never return with such fodder for breakfast. “It felt so real. It will come to pass soon enough if we don’t figure out what it means.”

“Have you considered calling a meeting with the House Advisory?” Maelory cut her eyes to the right, a stern warning to their eldest sister—eat and do it now. Divinia picked up her spoon and pushed the currants deeper into the slop, her nose turned up. Maelory sighed. “I wish you would eat, darling.”

“She’ll eat when she’s hungry, Mae. Leave her alone.” Elleck knew the toll Divinia’s detailed visions took on her fragile mind. Delivering them to Elleck in dream form taxed her further. All the House of Aurum was gifted with prognostication, but Divinia’s ability far exceeded any other family member. She alone could push her visions into Elleck’s dreams, where they merged with his own ability to create a crisper, cleaner image of the future.

“You must call the Advisory. It’s their purpose, Elleck.”

Elleck pushed out his chair—the one that never felt quite like his and still reeked of his father’s rigid presence—and groaned. “I need some air. I won’t be long.”

Maelory pursed her ruby-red lips and pushed Divinia’s bowl even closer. “Just a bite for me?”

Divinia, a year Elleck’s elder, clamped her mouth shut and crossed her arms. Elleck didn’t blame her. The porridge was dreadful.

Outside, the messengers saddled their horses while the soldiers polished their breastplates—now with the House of Aurum insignia emblazoned on them rather than the House of Ignis. Summers in Evernigh could fry a man’s brain in his skull, and so the people rejoiced when the Aurum insignia emerged from its long slumber with the promise of cooler temperatures.

“Your Majesty.” General Bern Ignis bowed his head as King Elleck approached, but only a fraction. His allegiance was and would forever be with his blood, the Summer Realm House of Ignis, but as any proper general would, Bern remained through the changing of the houses, turning over his position to General Octavius of the House of Aurum only after he had been fully informed and appraised of the kingdom’s status.

This autumn, however, Elleck’s concern was increased. Only last winter, King Nivalis’ attempted coup to displace the other three ruling houses was nearly successful, and in three months, he would rule his season again. That it did not end in royal bloodshed was the only reason he was not removed from his throne. Still, Elleck found the other two houses weak and easily deceived by false promises of benevolence and compliance by the nefarious King Nivalis. No, once he emerged from the Winter Realm, Nivalis would wreak havoc in Evernigh; he knew it.

“General Ignis, I require an escort party to take me to Verna. I have business.”

Bern bristled but said nothing except, “Yes, Majesty.”

“Work so early this morning? Why not enjoy the day first, brother?” Rowan nudged Elleck from behind. The stench of ale assaulted Elleck’s nose and twisted his stomach. He never did have the constitution to tolerate the poison, but Rowan had enough for both of them.

“One of us must rule,” Elleck said, then mounted the horse provided by one of the soldiers. His preferred mount had died a season ago, or so he was informed by Prince Franco, the only child of the Ignis line and the direct heir to his house. Elleck clenched his jaw and tried to accommodate the new mount, but its movements differed from his beloved Elsie.

Beneath him, the lithe chestnut mare shuffled and balked.

“Shh, shh. All will be well. Tell me what you need,” Elleck whispered, allowing his gift to flow from his tongue to the horse’s ear. She flicked her ear a few times, then melted under his command. Elleck resolved himself to patience, to give the mare time to grow accustomed to his demands while he learned her needs. Soon enough, they would become extensions of one another.

“Her name is Fierrie, and her spirit is as untamable as any I’ve seen.”

Elleck acknowledged his soldier with a slight nod, then urged Fierrie southwest, ignoring his brother’s scowl. The agricultural region of Evernigh wasn’t far from Knachtenwood, and Elleck hoped to return from his business before dinner. While unprepared to call a meeting with the Advisory, Elleck was even less prepared to approach Nari Crossway, the woman who haunted his dreams—visions—and spent a good deal of time in his waking thoughts as well.

During his slumber, Elleck thought of nothing but the honey-haired maiden whose father, God rest his soul, had given all to the House of Aurum. The man had no fear, no regret, or concern other than his daughters’ care after his death. It had only been a year—just shy of it—but Elleck felt the sting of it as strongly as he did that day, the day his most trusted counselor died grasping Elleck’s hand, begging him to care for his children after he was gone.

Elleck clenched his jaw tighter and nudged Fierrie a little. She read him, almost as if the short burst of magic Elleck used had energized her, flooded her with new life and a new desire to please her rider. The mare increased her speed until the forest surrounding them blurred. Elleck’s small escort of soldiers threatened their mounts, even bargained with them to hurry and keep up with the king, but to no avail.

Once again, Elleck connected with his horse on a level few understood. The Aurum magic flowed through his veins and into his fingers, where the light touch on the reins guided Fierrie into an adrenaline haze, a sweet euphoria that deepened with each stride. Horse and rider glided across the distance, leaving Elleck time to consider his speech.

The Crossway sisters lost their father at the end of winter, just days before the insurgency’s end. Elleck’s family had lost nearly all of their abilities as winter dragged on. The royals of the House of Ignis were entirely without power, while House of Cresco would come into theirs on the first day of spring. It was no small wonder more lives were not lost during Nivalis’ attempt to capture the crown of Evernigh for himself alone. One season of rule was not enough for the hungry king and his queen, and Elleck had no doubt a slap on his wrist would not stop him from staging another uprising.

To Elleck’s right, a glimmer captured his attention as Fierrie sped along the King’s Road to Verna. Villagers transporting grain and meat to and from the central market or other sects were permitted to use the road during autumn, but Elleck thought it odd that anyone might stray from the road and travel the forest instead. Elleck tugged on the reins and slowed his mare to circle back. The king was dismounted by the time his escort arrived, horses winded and lathered with sweat.

“What seems to be the trouble, sir?” a young soldier asked.

“No trouble. Only a curiosity.” Elleck stepped off the muddy road and into the thick forest close to where he’d seen the glimmer. His gaze settled on a thick blue-white patch of ice beneath a tree. The king’s heart seized for a moment, then sputtered back to life with a pitter-patter so hard he felt the blood pulse in his neck. He swallowed and stepped around the frozen ground, bent to inspect it closer, and squinted.

“Majesty?” another soldier, older and wiser, dismounted and stood at the edge of the forest.

Elleck held up a hand, staving off the soldier’s advance. With one last glance, Elleck returned to the King’s Road and his horse. “Nothing. I thought I saw something, but it’s nothing.”

Elleck’s chest tightened because it was something, but what, he couldn’t say without further investigation. Early autumn in Evernigh was cool but not cold enough for frost in the morning, let alone thick patches of ice the size of a wagon wheel. An unexplained chunk of ice did more than unsettle him. It would haunt him until it was no longer a mystery.

Ahead, a daily messenger turned the corner and descended upon them. The messengers were hand-delivering the news—land unclaimed by a male heir would be held by the House of Aurum until further notice. The decision to confiscate land belonging to women was not one Elleck took lightly, nor did he relish in his authority over them. On the contrary, it forced his stomach into knots, but King Nivalis did have supporters in the kingdom, and those men would seek land and riches to further their chosen ruler’s efforts in the future. Elleck would not allow that, so the land must be taken until the women’s suiters were confirmed allies.

As required, the messenger slowed his horse when he approached the king.

“Good morning, King Elleck,” he said, tipping his head.

“Good morning. Have you come from the Crossway farm?”

The messenger nodded over his shoulder and furrowed his brow. “Yes, sir. A lovely trio of sisters with a brother of sorts, but none who would inherit the property.”

“They did not take kindly to my orders, I assume.” Elleck clenched his jaw and gripped the reins until his knuckles blanched. Fierrie groaned and shifted her weight beneath him, already sensing her rider’s emotions.

“No, they did not, I am afraid. At least, the elder sister didn’t. I can’t say much for the others. One tended the wheat while the other cared for their ailing….” The messenger waved his hand as he searched for the proper description of Jaques Madrin, the young man who inhabited the Crossway home.

“Yes, I’m aware of him. Is he ill?”

“Terribly, sir. I spied bloody rags in the wash basin and was present for a coughing fit so violent, I feared he would expire before I left.” The messenger shifted on his horse and avoided eye contact with the king.

“Thank you for your time, Josten. Carry on.” Elleck patted Josten’s horse and sent it on its way, carrying a befuddled rider.

Daveed, one of Elleck’s most trusted escorts, chuckled. “The boy’s eyes almost fell from his head. Does he understand nothing of our autumn king?”

Elleck smiled and allowed a bit of pride to swallow his anxiety before turning back toward the Crossway farm. The autumn king took great care to memorize the names of those who worked in the kingdom. Despite the hardened exterior he presented, he cared deeply for his people and his kingdom. He would not see it fall to winter, frozen in death for all eternity. No. Elleck Aurum would die before he saw Evernigh lost in eternal misery under the rule of Lyco Nivalis.

Once moving again, Elleck’s thoughts moved toward the premonition Divinia had sent him that morning. Of the Aurum royals, only one could project their visions to others, but Divinia’s gift came with a steep price. Her mind would never settle and often regressed to periods of immaturity for her age. Torn between needing the truth and caring for his sister, Elleck often became angry that she had been chosen to carry such a burden.

Behind him, another messenger sped past the escort party until he was beside the king.

“Your Majesty, your presence is necessary at Sidus and requested by Princess Maelory.”

“Now?” Elleck looked ahead; the Crossway farm was less than a mile down the narrowing road. “Can’t it wait until I’ve completed my work?”

“I only deliver the messages, sir. I can’t say what has encouraged Princess Maelory to call you home, only that she has.”

“Thank you. You may return to your work.” Elleck nodded behind him, dismissing the messenger. A strange rhythm took Elleck’s heart, pulsing his disappointment so loudly he couldn’t hear Daveed speak until his friend waved a hand in front of his face.

“It is probably Divinia,” Daveed said. “Shall we return or continue to the Crossway farm?”

Elleck sighed and tugged the reins. Fierrie obliged, but her reluctance mirrored her rider’s. “Let’s return. I’ll visit the Crossway sisters tomorrow.”

“The horses will need a drink first,” Daveed said, leading them toward a small watering hole off the road. Elleck followed, but he couldn’t help peering over his shoulder toward the little farm at the bottom of the hill.

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