CHAPTER ONE: THE CHANGE
Of all the fond memories in my life, dying will not be one of them.
I’ve never liked being made a spectacle of, and a public execution is hardly a quiet affair. And today, it seems the entire village of Araketh has come to witness my death.
The guardsman tows me up to the platform and the dark shadow of the guillotine looming overhead. Trembling, I incline my head as the slanted blade catches in the rising sun—sun I will never see again. My feet trip up the stone steps to the structure, but I will not show myself to be afraid. Not when he’s watching.
The executioner stands poised beside the contraption, his face veiled behind black cloth. With his raised hand, a hush of morbid anticipation befalls the gathered crowd.
“Marion DuVal,” he bellows so loudly that I flinch. “You have been found guilty of the practice of witchcraft. This is an act of treason. In accordance with the laws of Talleth, as passed by Queen Rosamund, you have been sentenced to death.”
I hold back a whimper as someone else—one of the guardsmen—proceeds to tie my hands behind my back. Even in my last breaths, I strive to keep my dignity intact. The rope scrapes at my skin, but burns are the last things on my mind. It’s not like I need nice wrists where I’m going.
The guards at my sides never let go of me as they shove me onto the plinth, tying down my legs with rope to stop me from escaping. I don’t struggle. Despite everything, I still have a slither of dignity remaining. I feel the thud of the wooden stock clamping around my neck. Damp with early morning dew, the wood is cold against my exposed skin. I keep my attention on that and not the executioner’s voice as he continues to address the crowd.
I raise my head, daring to take one last look at the world I will never see again. At the village I call my home, and the people I’ve grown to almost tolerate. Some say you never truly appreciate something until it’s gone. They’re right. I may not have liked these people very much, and they certainly don’t like me now, but a part of me is going to miss their disapproving glares. As my eyes sweep over the sea of faces, I notice some of them wear smirks. No doubt they’ve been waiting for this moment for some time.
My eyes catch on something in the crowd. Something purple. A waistcoat. There is no mistaking the wearer. If it weren’t for him . . .
In my last living moments, as the blade screams downwards, I give the sneering man the filthiest look a dying girl can muster.
Then I die. I’m sure of it.
But then I open my eyes. Eyes on a head that should be detached from the rest of my body. I can’t see my body, but I can feel it. Somehow, I remain intact.
I wonder for a moment if this is heaven, or—more likely for me—hell.
The sun burns in my eyes. From its position, I can tell it’s still morning. I try to block out the glare with a hand, but I struggle to lift my arms. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to move them. Like they aren’t even mine.
And my arms aren’t the only things that feel off. My whole body feels wrong; distorted, aching, weak. I feel like I’ve been dropped from a great height, my bones all crushed in on themselves, leaving me nothing but a crumpled mess on the ground. The world spins and I close my eyes, dropping my head back to the floor. I think the surface beneath me is grassy, but I don’t dwell on it long enough to be certain. I’m too exhausted to do anything but thank the Gods I’m still alive.
It takes me a long time to find the energy to rouse myself from my groggy state. Though I still struggle to move, my eyes are open, and I take the opportunity to survey my surroundings. The guillotine and roaring streets of the village are nowhere in sight, but this new landscape is familiar. The fields, forest, and undulations of the mountains are generic to Talleth, but unmistakable is the towering structure of Galbrahn Castle, rearing its beastly head from the centre of its moat. Here on the bank, I’m a mere tumble from falling into the murky water.
Galbrahn, the capital of Talleth, is only a short journey from my home town of Araketh—a mere trek through the Sylander Forest and across the Bordine River. I wonder for a brief moment how I got here, but I suppose the matter is trivial considering I’m not even supposed to be alive.
I move to sit up but my limbs feel off-kilter. Since waking, I’ve known something is wrong with me. I don’t know what, but something’s happened to my body. It takes me a few minutes to work up the courage to look down, and when I finally do, I’m greeted with a shock that nearly kills me for the second time today.
I scream. I want to run. But it’s hard to escape when the thing you’re running from is yourself.
In place of my arms, white, feathered appendages stretch out to my sides: wings. And where my feet once were, orange flaps of rubbery skin now take their place. I appear to be some kind of . . .
“Ah, Princess. I see you are awake.”
My eyes—feeling strangely out of proportion on my new face—narrow at the familiar voice.
“Elward,” I say. Well, that’s what I mean to say, but what comes out is more of an angry honk. “I should’ve known you’d be behind this.” I still have little control over my new body, but manage to turn my head towards the man in the velvet waistcoat. His face is twisted into the same smug smile he gave me at the guillotine. He understands my animalistic noises just fine.
“Behind what?” He raises a straight black eyebrow. “I believe I have just saved your life, Princess.”
“By doing what?” I squawk back. “Turning me into some sort of . . . duck?”
Elward rubs at the stubble on his chin—a gesture I’ve always despised. I wish he wasn’t so young—then I might hate him a little less. As it is, our proximity in age only heightens my dislike for him. To think I might have anything in common with the sorcerer is enough to make me want to retch.
“The term, my dear, is swan. There is a big difference. I transferred your soul into its body. I found it dying on the bank. Some sort of heart disease, I think. Be thankful it wasn’t a skunk I saw first.”
“You turned me into a swan?” I blink. “A dying swan?”
If I still had hands, they would be clawing through my hair by now. Well, feathers. Curses, it seems my whole identity has been stripped from me!
“Better dying than dead. And that’s what you’d be had I not intervened. Thanks to me, both you and the swan are still alive. Or at least, you are. I’ve killed two birds with one stone . . . so to speak.”
His smug smile lengthens his already narrow face, and deepens my scowl.
“At least if I’d died, I would have died human. You couldn’t even allow me that small mercy. It’s because of you my head was in the guillotine in the first place, and you won’t even let me die in peace!”
Sparks crackle in Elward’s balled fists. “You’re not going to die. You’re alive, and so is your new body.” He grunts, taking a moment to stabilise himself. “You know why I need you alive. You still have a deal to fulfil.” He leans down towards me, lowering his voice until it’s barely above a whisper—a whisper which does nothing to muffle the thunder within it. “Not to mention what would have happened to your father.”
I refuse to recoil, staring the sorcerer firmly in the eyes. “Don’t involve my father in this.”
“I hate to remind you, but he’s already involved. He’s been involved since the moment you came to me for help. If you want me to save him, you help me first. That’s our deal. That’s always been our deal.” He straightens up, brushing a lock of ebony hair from his eyes. “Besides, you should be thanking me for saving your life. The question is, will I be saving his, too?”
I can’t hold it back. I let out a loud hiss that sends Elward flinching back. The shock doesn’t last long, though, and the all-too familiar smirk settles back into place.
“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing,” I say in my swan-tongue. The honking is like a scratching in my ears. “But it’s not going to work. I tried to do what you asked. I failed. You think I can do your dirty work, but I do not have the kind of power you seem to think I have.”
His expression remains frozen. “I’m sorry Princess. You ran out of choices the moment that blade sliced through your neck.”
A cold shiver courses through me. I lift a feathered wing to my throat. In a sickening flashback, I relive my final breath beneath the guillotine. I do not remember the exact moment the blade struck, but I’ve witnessed enough public executions to visualise the blood; to imagine the thud of my disembodied head hitting the wicker basket. Everything I refused to think while walking up to the platform crashes like a wave through my mind. I died today. Marion DuVal is dead.
“You will do as I ask,” Elward continues after the brief silence. There is no hatred in his voice, but it isn’t kind, either. As always, I have no idea where I stand with him. With all things considered—his temper, his selfish ambitions—Elward’s ambiguity is perhaps the thing that frustrates me most about him. “You are no longer impeded by Talleth’s laws. Nobody will suspect a swan of witchcraft, and you have the freedom now to figure it out. You can do it, Marion. I chose you for a reason.”
I spread out my wings to their full potential. “Look at me!” I all but scream. “I’m a swan. A swan! What use is a bird to you?”
“You will not always be a swan,” Elward says, stating it as though it’s obvious. “You will become human for one hour every night as the sun sets—I’ve made sure of that. In that time, you will have full use of your powers. That is how you will uphold your end of our bargain.”
I blink. “An hour? That’s hardly enough time to—”
“I have done you a huge favour, Princess. One day, you’ll see that. And to prove what a nice guy I am, I’m going to give you the rest of the day off. I will see you tomorrow.”
I open my mouth—well, beak—to retort but, before I get the chance, Elward vanishes in a cloud of purple smoke. I’m left alone by the moat, trapped inside a body that is not my own, living on time that is not mine to live on.
CHAPTER TWO: THE HUNT
After Elward’s abrupt departure, I spend the following few hours sulking on the bank, cursing all that has led me to this feathery fate. I pace a muddy rut in the bank, waddling back and forth as I attempt to make sense of this new reality.
The sound of a blaring trumpet splitting the air rouses me from my wallowing. I lift my absurdly long neck and stare out across the bank. Though I can’t see much, I become aware of the jovial shouts of a group of young men. Before I have time to think, my newfound animal instincts kick in, and I half waddle, half trip over to the reeds fringing the moat. I conceal myself as best I can behind the towering plants, hoping the men won’t spot me. I know enough about my home kingdom to know what the sounds mean: this is a group of hunters, out looking for their next kill.
And I’m fresh poultry.
I peer through the reeds as the troupe rounds the corner. Four young men come into view. A cheerful, dark-haired man is at the head, laughing at a joke as he loads the crossbow in his hands. I try not to fixate on the weapon. Behind him saunter the three other men, all similarly dressed in green tunics and foolish hats. Tall and beefy, they don’t look like the kind of people you’d want to meet in the dark. The man in front looks puny in comparison to them, and I have to wonder how he ranks above them.
A fifth member enters my line of sight. He is much younger than the others and straggles along behind the rest of the entourage, distracted by a purple flower blooming along the waterside. He smiles to himself as he takes a sniff. While the older men boast crossbows and quivers, the boy holds in his hands a rough slingshot crafted from a Y-shaped twig and twine.
One of the strapping men notices the boy’s distraction. He walks over and kneels down beside him. With a grin, he removes his pointed hat and places it on the head of the little boy, who beams back as the brim slips over his eyes.
“Come on, Reggie!” shouts the leader to the man who stopped. “These ducks aren’t going to hunt themselves!”
I shrink a little closer into the reeds as the hunters approach. From the cut and colour of their clothes, these people are clearly of noble families, and their state-of-the-art weaponry tells me hunting is more than a passing interest for them.
In my village of Araketh, people regularly petition the castle to ban prestigious families from hunting. For them, hunting is a sport. For us, it’s a necessity. With aristocrats killing our precious game for nothing but the fun of it, it’s no surprise so many of our people die from starvation. And when all you can ever think about is where your next meal is coming from, nobody stops to think about the humanity of killing another living animal. Now that I’m on the other end of the chain, however, I’m seeing things in an oh-so-different light.
Normally, I would only salivate at the sight of a pheasant plummeting from the sky, a bloody arrow skewered through its gullet. But that is not the case now. When the dead bird lands with a sickening splat just inches from my hiding spot, it makes me feel queasy in my birdie stomach. I lean away and retch over the water.
I realise too late that I’ve exposed myself from my hiding place.
The man addressed to as Reggie clears his throat. I gulp and peer up as he pulls back the string on his bow. It isn’t long before all weapons are turned on me, puny slingshot included. I’m pretty sure I almost lay an egg.
My legs start moving before my brain even has a chance to tell them to.
“What’s he doing?” one of the hunters asks from behind, referring to me. I’m too busy running for my life to worry about the gender confusion. But with my wings flailing and my flat feet tripping me up with every step, I barely advance at all.
“What is he, drunk?” hoots another hunter. They aren’t even bothering to chase me, I realise. Well, I’m not exactly getting anywhere.
“Maybe we should put it out of its misery!” another chortles, and I duck as an arrow whooshes past my head.
Thankfully, my brain is working faster than my feet. I give up on running and dive from the bank into the murky water of the moat. I struggle to stay submerged, but my new body is more buoyant than I anticipated, and I soon find myself bobbing back to the surface. With only a few feet between me and the hunters, I think quickly and conceal myself behind a jutting rock near the bank. I’m behind them now, watching them as they lower their weapons in defeat. The little boy looks up at the leader and whines.
“You let it get away, Aldren!”
My head shoots up in recognition at the name. Aldren? No. It couldn’t be! I squint as I try to get a better look at the group leader. Of course! The fancy clothes, the expensive weaponry . . . why hadn’t I noticed before?
This is no ordinary group of hunters. That man at the front is none other than His Royal Highness Prince Aldren Anstruther himself, out for a round of target practice. I turn my attention back to the young boy, able to see him now for who he really is: Prince Aldren’s younger brother, Prince Raulph.
One of the three other men—knights, my intuition tells me, though they don not their customary metal armour—turns, and I only just manage to duck back behind the rock before he spots me. My heart is pounding, though I’m not sure whether it’s from the near scrape with death again or because of this new revelation.
The Anstruthers are notoriously private people. Since the king’s death seven years ago, neither the queen nor her two sons have been said to step beyond the castle grounds. Some of the village folk even wonder if they’re still there at all. And yet here I am, in the presence of both of Talleth’s young princes. Sure, one of them tried to shoot an arrow through my skull, but I can’t help but feel a little star-struck.
Movement from the corner of my eye brings me back from my daze. Farther down the moat, two ducks paddle through the water, oblivious to the danger they’re swimming into. It isn’t long before Reggie, the tallest of the three knights, hears their quacking.
“Look, Sire,” he says, pointing at the two birds. Prince Aldren follows his finger, his dissatisfied grimace turning up into a broad smile.
“Perhaps all is not lost, after all!” He pats his friend once on the back before taking aim.
The ducks continue to swim idly as four arrows and a pebble are aimed at them.
I don’t really think about what I’m doing. Were I still human, I would realise how stupid the idea is and leave well enough alone. But in the heat of the moment, all rationality I once had is lost. I use my beak to grab a long stick from the bank beside me. With one end in my mouth, I spin it so the other lands in front of the ducks. In a sweeping motion, I’m able to scoop both birds through the water towards me, towing them through the reeds and behind the rock that is my shield. An arrow flies, but it lands in the water with an anticlimactic slosh.
Though the ducks clearly have no idea what’s going on, they don’t make a sound behind the rock. Either they’ve sensed they’re in danger, or I’ve frightened them half to death.
“What in the world . . .” I hear one of the men say. “What was that?”
I stay crouched behind my makeshift shield, my breathing steady, hoping the two ducks I just rescued won’t go waddling back out into range. I’m not risking my neck twice for them.
“Perhaps the birds have grown wise, Sire,” another knight scoffs. “Maybe they are conspiring against us!”
Prince Aldren chuckles, then shakes his head, not allowing himself to wallow in his defeat. “Come. We should try someplace else.”
The others mumble in agreement and I let out a breath I wasn’t even aware I was holding. I wait a few moments more for the princes and their entourage to walk away before peeking over the rock to make sure they’re gone.
The bank is empty once again. I’m about to slip back onto the moat when I’m stopped by something hard hitting against the back of my head.
I squawk out in pain, spinning around to seek out the source of the assault. I freeze when I see the young Prince Raulph grinning at me with triumph, an empty slingshot in his hand.
“Look, Aldren!” he calls to his brother, scarcely containing his excitement. “I found him! I found the swan!”
I go to dive back into the water, but I’m not quick enough this time. A pair of large hands grabs me from behind and pulls me from the bank.
I kick and bite, but whoever’s tossing me around isn’t about to let go of me. I can’t talk. At least, not in a way that anyone but Elward would understand me. I figure it’s only sorcerers like him who can make any sense of my honking. How typical. Still, that doesn’t keep me from squealing when the person turns me upside-down and starts prodding at my tail feathers.
“This is no he,” the person says, and I recognise the voice as Prince Aldren’s. He flips me back up the correct way and pulls me in close so we’re face to face.
I’ll admit, I’m intrigued by what I see there. Everything I know about the crown prince is from the rumours that circulate around the village. From those stories, I gathered him to be a tall, broad, athletic young man with a face a woman would kill for.
As rumours go, I’d say they’re fairly accurate.
With shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair and a stubbly chin that looks like it hasn’t been shaved in a day or two, the heir to the throne of Talleth carries about him that sort of rugged look that is definitely worthy of more than a mere swoon. And maybe I would swoon were it not for the way he sizes me up as though estimating how many members of the royal household my hind quarters would feed.
His eyes meet mine, and I do my best to hold them there. I stare straight back at him, filling my gaze with what I hope is all the desperation my voice cannot express. It takes a few moments, but his expression begins to soften. Slowly, he blinks, and I think I see a hint of understanding pass across his features. Is it possible that he sees past my swan guise and to the human soul that lies beneath? Oh please, I mentally implore him. Let him see the truth and rescue me from this doom!
The prince’s eyes widen and his hands around my middle gently loosen, like he’s under some kind of spell.
“Incredible,” the prince says to himself. He shakes his head in disbelief, never moving his eyes from my own.
“What is it, Sire?” questions one of the knights.
“This swan,” the prince answers, his words slow and calculated. “There’s something . . . different about her.”
“Shall I shoot it?” asks Reggie. “She’d make a lovely banquet.”
“No!” Prince Aldren holds up a hand. “No. This swan is not to be killed.”
Oh, thank the Gods! I could kiss him right now if I had any lips. He’s going to save me! I’ll be human again!
Prince Aldren reaches forward and places me in Reggie’s arms.
“Just . . . let’s not harm her straight away. Maybe she’ll be good for something else instead.”
“Like the breeding programme?” a nameless knight suggested. If I weren’t already white, I would swear I go even paler. Perhaps being eaten would be the better option.
The prince looks contemplative and I stare at him with pleading eyes, begging him to see reason.
“I’m not sure just yet,” he says, still peering at me with curiosity. “But we’ll keep an eye on her, just in case.”
After tying a rag of identification around my foot, the prince lowers me back to the ground. I don’t know whether to be relieved or distraught when the five of them turn and head away.
Just like that, the weight of my denial lifts, and I see the truth for what it is. This is my fate now. There is no going back. Any part of me that was clinging to the idea of salvation rips free and flies off into the sky, just like the other swans, abandoning me to the new reality I’m forced to endure.
Whether I want to accept it or not, I’m doomed.
CHAPTER THREE: THE SECRET
You will become human for one hour every night as the sun sets.
Elward’s words are the only consolidation I can find—the only solace keeping me from crossing the line into insanity. It’s a line I’ve never worried about before, but now it’s in plain sight, and I’m teetering right on its edge. Tracking the sun’s movement―counting down the hours until I’m human again―is all that keeps me from falling into that deep, empty void.
I’ve tried to shake off the rag the prince tied around my ankle but my new foot is too wide. I would cry out, but I don’t fancy embarrassing myself more than I already have. All hope I ever had before of finding a way out of this mess is gone forever. I realise now that, if anything is going to get me out of this predicament, it’ll be sheer will and determination, not wishful thinking and innocent optimism.
I try not to dwell on the size of that ‘if’.
I learn quite a bit in the hours of the sun’s descent. For example, I learn that the reeds growing on the edge of the bank actually taste pretty nice, and there is so much at my disposal that I have the fullest belly I’ve had in a long time. I also learn to steer clear of the group of swans that take residence on the other side of the moat and have already taken a dislike to me.
After what feels like an eternity, the sun finally crests the horizon, bathing the castle and the water in a glittering golden hue. I watch in eager anticipation, but nothing happens. Just when I start to think Elward might have lied to me, my body starts to tingle. The sensation prickles inside me, filling me with an effervescence that makes my skin feel like it’s coming away from my body. I expect pain, but it never comes. The world around me glows bright. Almost blinding. It takes me a moment to realise the light is coming from my own skin.
I allow the feeling to take over my body as, true to Elward’s words, my swan form melts away and is replaced by the familiar shape of my human body. Well, a copy of it—my real body no longer has a head. Even this one small piece of normalcy is merely an illusion.
After the initial relief of finding myself fully-clothed in the garments I died in, the first thing I do is untie the stupid rag from my foot.
Elward never did explain why I become human in the evenings, but the reason doesn’t matter to me. I’m just glad to feel normal again.
Or as normal as is possible. To feel normal would mean to feel free, and that’s a luxury I forfeited a long time ago. Since making that deal with Elward, he has me on a string. Even when he isn’t around, his presence still suffocates me. It’s just another reminder of how much stronger than me he is. How he gives me no choice but to obey his commands. He is the most powerful person I know of—how he expects me to perfect a spell he has not achieved in over twenty years is beyond me. All he wants is someone to take the fall for his dark intentions. And that poor sucker just happens to be me.
That was his deal. The only way he will keep my father from dying is if I create this wretched spell for him. I am a Creator; he is a Healer. Only Creators can make new spells, and only Healers can cure the sick. We need each other. It’s disgustingly perfect.
I made him believe I couldn’t do what he asked. Told him the spell was impossible.
I smile to myself. He doesn’t know I’ve been lying to him this whole time.
And so it is that, alone and myself once more, I follow the familiar trail to the heart of my secrets. The hideout lies within the forest and takes a full twenty minutes to reach, and before I know it, almost half my hour as a human is up. After checking to make sure no one is following, I draw aside the curtain of ivy to the cave concealed behind.
“Ida?” My whisper echoes around the shady cavern. I hear a noise, then, across from me, the shadow of a girl lifts her head. “I’ve brought you some food.” I tiptoe across the dry earth towards her.
Emotionless as usual, the girl reaches out to take the bread I offer her—bread someone left beside the moat for the ducks. It’s crumbs, but in my haste to make the most of the hour before I change back, it was the best I could do. There is no water—at least, nothing I could carry the water in. I must just hope that the measly amount I brought her yesterday will suffice. Like I have so many times before, I wish my powers stretched so far as to create food and water from thin air. Perhaps if they did, Araketh wouldn’t be in the dire state that it is.
I sit down on the crispy ground beside her as she nibbles on the knob of bread. Keeping her fed has never been easy—not when there’s barely enough food in the house to feed my father and me. But now I actually begin to fear for the girl’s life. My swan body may thrive on the plants that bloom by the moat, but Ida’s metabolism is just as fragile and human as ever.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to see you as often as I used to,” I explain as she chews, in no particular hurry to satiate her inevitable hunger. It’s impossible to know if she understands—or even hears—me, her expression devoid of any and all emotion. Still, I like to think talking to her helps. “I will try to bring as much food as I can, but it won’t be easy.”
I stare at her. Waiting. Searching for any hint of movement in her face. Anything to show she is more than just a hollow existence.
A spell for creating life. For cheating the balance of the world. That’s what Elward asked me to find. It’s a spell dark sorcerers have been trying to figure out for years. The power of life is the most powerful magic known to man, and to have control over it . . . well, it’s every greedy mage’s dream. It would go against every law of nature, into the very heart of black magic. And it all begins with finding that elusive loophole that allows a life to be given without one being paid in return.
I believe I have found such a loophole.
Structurally, Ida looks identical to me, with a small, upturned nose and narrow eyes adorning a heart-shaped face which tapers down to a delicately pointed chin. The likeness isn’t all that surprising, considering I forged her from a fragment of my own personality. What I didn’t expect, though, was the stark difference in our colouring. My blue eyes have been replaced with irises of rich brown, and where I’m blonde and have a natural tan to my skin, Ida is pale, and has hair so dark it’s almost black. It probably is. I wouldn’t know—I’ve never seen her beyond the dim lighting of the cave.
I suppose it makes sense for her colouring to be so different to that of my own. The spell I crafted her from came from a part of me I no longer wished to be in possession of: the part that had always been tempted by the darker side of magic.
And so Ida is a darker version of myself, in more ways than one, representing every part of me that ever wanted to betray my oath to white magic; every part of me I feared. That is her foundation. Her structure. It took weeks, but I was able to extract that darkness from within myself and use it to build a new person. In effect, it’s as if I’ve split myself into two people. That’s why the spell worked. Ida is me, and I am her. I haven’t really created a new life but have instead duplicated one already in existence. And yet she is different enough to be her own person. The balance of life has been cheated. I have achieved the most coveted kind of magic in the history of sorcery, but all I feel is guilt and hatred for myself. A side-effect of the spell, perhaps. I wonder if, had I kept the darkness within me, I would be happy, or even proud of my advances in black magic.
And what of Ida? Do I fear the girl will ever act upon those whims I was so desperate to rid myself of? No—the girl has no magic, and so the lust for darkness has no way to materialise.
Or so I hope. There really is no way of telling, unless she were to ever display any signs of personality. So far, her lack of emotion is the only thing stopping the spell from being a resounding success.
Ida eats at a leisurely pace, showing no sense of urgency or otherwise. I force a sad smile as I brush my hand over her long, dark hair.
“Don’t worry,” I say as she eats. “I will look after you. Elward will never get his filthy hands on you. Not if I have anything to say about it.” I try to convince myself they aren’t just empty promises. I don’t know if I can stop Elward from ever finding out about her, but what I do know is what he’ll do to me if he does. Perhaps keeping her a secret is a bad idea. But, at the moment, it feels like it is the only leverage I have over him. Especially now, when it feels like I have lost everything else. Even with my father’s life hanging in the balance, I’m not yet ready to give up the few steps I have ahead of Elward.