Freed by a crown on his head, the High Prince Regent let his generals take over the war, while he took over the tallest tower in Phoenix Crest to paint his eyeless girl again and again. Sometimes he vanished into his tower for days, long enough and sudden enough to foster again those rumors of madness, rumors of a wild spirit or a curse. Each time he emerged, a new painting leaned against the tower walls: the girl in full sunlight, arms crossed defensively, curls flared in a gust of wind and a mask across her eyes. The girl with a sword in hand, strange goggles making her eyes like those of a bumblebee. The girl, older, standing at the top of a cliff, peering over ruins, eyes covered by small masks, one that laughed and one that screamed. The girl in a library beside a hearth as big as a giant's mouth, holding a dagger made of a curving gryphon talon, and her eyes full moons. The girl in the Phoenix Crest ballroom wearing a cream gown, holding the empty air like she was dancing with a ghost, with eyes made of massive black pearls.
The High Prince Regent was eighteen years old when he painted the girl engulfed in flames. The House Wars his father had reignited had raged for an entire decade.
He barely remembered mixing the colors of fire, or throwing his brushes in the corner. With his hands he drew flames like ivy growing up her body, twisting and burning, but feeding her power. He felt it, too, hot and hungry, the promise of melting in such an inferno. The fire licked up the edges of the canvas and up his wrists, twining his forearms with pain.
The High Prince Regent screamed through his teeth, refusing to stop, as smoke burned tears down his cheeks and his hands shook. He closed his eyes, blocking it out, the fear and heat and pain: it hurt so much, the memory of this future pyre.
He woke up alone in his tower room, nostrils filled with the tinge of old smoke, but there was nothing around him except splatters of paint and every image of the eyeless girl, surrounding him, watching him with her pits of eyes, her bumblebee eyes, her full-moon eyes, sea-glass eyes, ghostly fish- bitten dead eyes, and eyes of pearls. Most of all a new painting on a messy unframed canvas: the girl made of flames, her eyes like twin suns.
There had never been a fire eating him whole. But there would be.
In four years: a high rampart, a bright blue sky, warships on the brilliant horizon, something sticky in his hand, an awful taste on his tongue. And the eyeless girl, standing before him, her lips on his lips. For the first time he could see her eyes not as furious wells of power, but gentle brown with flecks of gold. Then the fire. It would happen. It must.
Alone in his tower room, the High Prince Regent waited for the sun to rise over his land, torn apart by constant war, then he carefully rent the fiery painting into strips and set them alight.
I had a dream about the dark.
Not the night, which has stars and the moon to cast shadows, but an all- consuming dark, one that devoured and twisted and changed a girl into something else, something defiant and monstrous. She scrabbled in the abyss with the other women of her house: sisters and mothers and cousins and friends, each of them dwindling away until she was the only one left. When it finally came to pass that she was liberated from that hole, her eyes had learned to live without the light, to love the cool comfort of the shadows. And so she wept in the arms of her liberators, not because she was sad, but because her poor damaged eyes had no idea what to do with sunshine.
I dream of my childhood every night before a battle, which is a lot, considering Pyrlanum has been at this worthless war since before I can remember. Fighting might be a rite of passage, one that feels less triumphant the longer we're in combat, but my dreams are so familiar they've become equal parts comforting and distressing. Lucky me, I learned to make peace with fear long ago.
"Darling, heads up!"
A knife flies past my face, close enough to slice a line across the deep brown skin of my cheek and take a chunk from my ear. A curl that has managed to escape from the twin buns at the nape of my neck falls to the ground. I don't swear at the sudden blossom of pain, just turn to wait for the next blade, ready to deflect it with one of my long knives.
"Really, Adelaide? This close to a battle?" I say, swallowing a sigh.
Adelaide Seabreak, second scion of House Kraken and my adopted sister, grins at me from across the deck of the 'Barbed Tentacle', flagship of the Kraken navy. The wind whips her long brown hair around her face, and even though her skin is tanned, it is nowhere near as dark a brown as mine. They say that all the members of House Sphinx had skin as brown as the leather of their beloved treatises, but there is no one to verify this. I am the only one left.