ARKFALL

Prologue

The Ice Queen

It didn’t matter how many times he’d been summonsed, he always found himself nervous. He would think himself overly concerned if not for the fact that he’d seen the Queen order one of his spy’s tongue removed for delivering ill tidings only the year before. She was not known for having an even temperament. His thoughts were broken by the door to her throne chamber opening. A servant nodded at him. “Han vou vaatii monteno.” She spoke in Azgedasleng. She requires you now.

Iko stretched his fingers, cracking his knuckles out of habit as he did so, and followed the servant passed the guards who had been his only company for the last two hours—not that they’d paid him any attention. The throne room was somehow colder inside than the antechamber outside, despite the sizable fire pit in the center of the room blazing steadily.

There were only a handful of people in the room besides himself and the Queen. There were four of her personal guards, two on either side of the door he’d just stepped through, and two more playing statue on either side of and slightly behind the Queen’s throne. There was the Queen’s personal servant, Ilse, who he was following, her new general, Kristof, and a slave whose name he did not know that appeared to be messaging the Queen’s right foot. The servant indicated for him to wait at the foot of the stairs that led up the platform to the throne, as she herself climbed the stairs and reclaimed her position to the left of the Queen.

Iko swallowed in an attempt to wet his rapidly drying throat. Nia had that effect on many, and made no attempt to hide her pleasure in doing so. She was as beautiful as she was deadly, and flaunted both in equal measure. She fixed her gaze on the spy who was trying to hide his nervousness at the foot of her dais—trying but failing. She smiled coolly at him, and spoke in accented English.

“I’m sure you know, spymaster, how much I enjoy being kept waiting. You have a report, do you not?”

He bowed his head, cleared his throat quickly, and found his voice. “Yes, my Queen. I have returned from the south with news.”

“By all means, proceed. I am rapt with attention.” She motioned for her slave to begin work on the other foot, which he promptly moved to begin.

“Much talk has been made of Azgeda absence from the last Gathering. There are whispers that Azgeda are breaking from the Kongeda, and that they pull the Sankru and Sikru with them.“ Iko shifted his weight.

“That much should be obvious to even a child, spy.” She spat. “I do not think them stupid. There is no other conclusion to gather from our actions. Do not tell me things I have taken for written. What of the Sky? Have they still not claimed the Mountain?”

“No, my Queen. Those of the Skaikru have not claimed the Mountain. The Commander has not allowed it. The Trikru guard it like it was Polis. They allow none to enter, under threat of death.”

“Oh, Lexa, you always were a clever girl.” The Queen laughed softly. It was unnerving.

“My Queen?” Kristof inclined.

Narin turned to him. “She keeps the Sky from their own spoils in the Mountain. She knows they could use it against her—against us all. The missile that ended your predecessor in Tondc was not the only weapon in that arsenal…” Her thoughts trailed off as she seemed to think over something, before turning her attention back to Iko.

“Has the Commander taken from the Mountain? Do the Trikru use it?”

Iko shook his head. “No, my Queen, not that I have seen. They entered the Mountain to rid it of the rotting bodies of the Maunon. Burned them. It took more than a week to burn all of them. Then she ordered the Mountain sealed and guarded. No one is allowed to enter without her express permission. They took nothing else from it, that I know of, and no one has entered it in over a year now.”

“That doesn’t make sense. It is very wise to deny the Mountain to the Sky, but not to preserve it without using it. Why?” Nia drummed the fingers of her left hand on her throne arm.

Iko looked at Kristof, unsure who she was asking and even more unsure of an answer.

“Why…if she does not wish to use it, why does she not destroy it?” she asked loudly.

“The Trikru do not know how to use the weapons of the Mountain. It would be useless to them.” Kristof offered.

“All the more reason to rid herself of the threat the Mountain holds. It would only take the Sky…or another familiar with their machines, gaining control of it to be a danger once more. The Commander is many things, but she has never been careless with assets…or threats. No, there has to be a reason she has ordered as she has.”

“Perhaps the Commander waits for someone who will teach her how.” Iko was surprised to find that it was his voice speaking.

Kristof scoffed, but silenced himself at the raise of Nia’s hand. She took in Iko, who shifted his weight again under her gaze, but to his credit, did not shrink from her sight. She seemed to mull over his statement. A light glimmered in her eyes as her thoughts appeared to sort out the reasoning of something. She smirked.

“Perhaps she does. All the more reason to move forward with our plans. I had thought her first lesson in weakness would be enough. Apparently I was wrong. This time I will not take the head of her lover, I will take everything. I will let her watch as we hang the Trikru from the walls of her city—let her watch Polis burn as she kneels at MY feet.” She slammed her fist down on the arm of her throne as the others in the room flinched. If she was embarrassed by her outburst, she did not show it. The next moment, her impassive face returned, and she addressed Iko once again.

“Enough of the Mountain. Tell me of the Sky city near the edge of my land. I have heard from another that there is much coming and going.”

“Yes, my Queen. The Commander allowed the Skaikru to travel to their other fallen villages so long as they stay away from Trikru villages and cause no harm. So far, they have not caused further trouble, and are allowed gouthru klir.” He caught Kristof’s disapproving glare at his use of Trigedasleng. He quickly cleared his throat and continued. “They are allowed safe passage. Eight months ago, 13 of the Skaikru left their village south of the Mountain to travel to their village north of the Mountain.”

“And who are these Sky that left their refuge?” Nia inquired.

“Young, mostly. Some older. Only a handful of them carried weapons at all. They went to their metal city they call Mecha, but most did not make it there alive. Only 5 survived. The Skaikru in Mecha had begun to trade with York, a Sankova village a few miles away. Two months ago, 49 Skaikru left Mecha and settled in York.”

Kristof scoffed again. “Why would they do that? Why would the exiles take in Sky?”

“The Sankova had illness in their village. Many were dying until a Skaikru fisa—uh, healer—went to them. She cured their sickness. They asked her to stay. She brought the others with her—many young. The Sankova were few after the sickness. Now the village holds 97, mostly women and young. Few warriors, if any.”

“And the Sky there, are they exiles of their people as well?” she asked. Iko could swear he saw a plan forming in his Queen’s eyes.

“No, they are not exiles." he answered. “They chose to leave, and still hold claim among their people.”

Kristof tapped his fingers on the sword hilt hanging at his waist. “So attacking those in the village would be as attacking their clan. It would start a war with the Sky Invaders.”

Iko inclined his head. “I would say yes. Likewise, should they attack us or the Trikru …”

“That is one option, gentlemen. There are several others that are much more…interesting.” She rose from her throne, waving off the slave after he placed her shoes on her feet.

She strode over to the war table in the back corner of the room speckled with maps and beckoned both men to come closer and they obliged. She proceeded to enlighten them with the more interesting options she was considering. They discussed plans for another hour or so before settling on a final course of action. Once set, she moved forward in her chair, resting her elbows on the table and hands clasped in front of her, the fingers on her right hand tapping lightly along the back of her left.

“So you know what you are to do, yes, spymaster?”

Iko bowed his head swiftly. “Yes, my Queen.”

She smiled her unnerving smile at him, then nodded her head at her slave, who rose and approached her. “Good. Now go.”

He bowed once more and began moving towards the door, but not before catching the slave being pulled into a kiss. For a fleeting moment he wondered what it would be like to share the Queen’s bed. She was a very beautiful woman and a very talented, if brutal, leader. He wondered if she were an equally talented lover. He found himself envious of the slave for a breath, before he heard the kiss break behind him.

“Oh, and spymaster?” The Queen called after him.

Iko turned just before he had reached the doors that were being held open by the servant. “My Queen?”

She flashed him a serpent’s grin as her fingers stilled their tapping long enough to clasp at her wrist. It was a motion he failed to register as the slave let out scream of pain and dropped to his knees. Iko watched in barely contained horror as the slave writhed in torture, clawing at the back of his neck and screaming his voice raw. It seemed to take an hour, but was only a couple of moments, before the slave’s screams died away and his body ceased to move.

The silence hung for a moment, as horrible as the screaming had been, it thundered against his ears. If Iko had managed to pry his eyes from the screaming, tortured man, he would have seen that the Queen had not looked at the man she was killing once. Instead she studied her spymaster, ensuring her display reached its full effect before finally ending the life of the man writhing near her feet. She motioned for Ilse, while keeping her gaze on Iko, who finally managed to meet her stare.

She let her hands cross over her chest as she sat back in her chair. “You know what will happen if you fail.”

Iko nodded, bowed, and turned. He wished to be out of the room in that second more than anything else he had ever wanted. As the doors began to close behind him, he could hear Ilse address the Queen. The last words he heard before the doors clanged shut were the Queen’s. “Norez hänet loups.”

Feed him to the wolves.

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