Queen Taifa stood at the bow of Targon, her beached warship, and looked out at the massacre on the sands. Her other ships were empty. The fighting men and women of the Chosen were already on shore, were already killing and dying. Their screams, not so different from those they fought, washed over her in waves.
She looked to the sun. It burned high overhead and the killing would not stop until well past nightfall, which meant too many more would die. She heard footsteps on the deck behind her and tried to take comfort in the sounds of Tsiory’s gait.
“My Queen,” he said.
Taifa nodded, permitting him to speak, but did not turn away from the slaughter on the shore. If this was to be the end of her people, she would bear witness. She could do that much.
“We cannot hold the beach,” he told her. “We have to retreat to the ships. We have to relaunch them.”
“No, I won’t go back on the water. The rest of the fleet will be here soon.”
“Families, children, the old and infirm. Not fighters. Not Gifted.”
Taifa hadn’t turned. She couldn’t face him, not yet. “It’s beautiful here,” she told him. “Hotter than Osonte, but beautiful. Look.” She pointed to the mountains in the distance. “We landed on a peninsula, bordered and bisected by mountains. It’s defensible, arable. We could make a home here. Couldn’t we? A home for my people.”
She faced him. His presence comforted her. Champion Tsiory, so strong and loyal. He made her feel safe, loved. She wished she could do the same for him.
His brows were knitted and sweat beaded on his shaved head. He had been near the front lines, fighting. She hated that, but he was her champion and she could not ask him to stay with her on a beached ship while her people, his soldiers, died.
He shifted and made to speak. She didn’t want to hear it. No more reports, no more talk of the strange Gifts these savages wielded against her kind.
“The Malawa arrived a few spans ago,” she told him. “My old nursemaid was onboard. She went to the Goddess six days past.”
“Sanura’s dead? My Queen… I’m so—”
“Do you remember how she’d tell the story of the dog that bit me when I was a child?”
“I remember hearing you bit it back and wouldn’t let go. Sanura had to call the Queen’s Guard to pull you off the poor thing.”
Taifa turned back to the beach, filled with the dead and dying in their thousands. “Sanura went to the Goddess on that ship, never knowing we found land, never knowing we escaped the Cull. They couldn’t even burn her properly.” The battle seemed louder. “I won’t go back on the water.”
“Then, we die on this beach.”
The moment had arrived. She wished she had the courage to face him for it. “The Gifted, the ones with the forward scouts, sent an Edification. They found the Rage.” Taifa pointed to the horizon, past the slaughter, steeling herself. “The Dragons are nested in the central mountains, the ones dividing the peninsula. A Dragonness has given birth. There is a Youngling and I will form a coterie.”
“No,” he said. “Not this. Taifa…”
She could hear his desperation. She would not let it sway her.
“We were only to follow them,” Tsiory said. “If we use the Dragons, we’ll destroy this land. The savages, how can we ever make peace, if we do this to them?” His argument had no effect. He must have sensed that. “The Cull will find us,” he said, sending a chill through her.
She closed her eyes, desperate to forget what they had run from and aware that, could she live a thousand cycles, she never would. “Can you hold this land for me, my champion?” she asked, hating herself for making this seem his fault, his shortcoming.
“Then,” she said, turning to him, “the Dragons will.”
Tsiory wouldn’t meet her eyes. That was how much she had hurt him, how much she had disappointed him. It made her desperate. She couldn’t do this without him. “Only for a little while,” she said, trying to bring him back to her. “Too little for the Cull to notice and just long enough to survive.”
“A short while.” She reached up and touched his face. “I swear it on my love for you.” She needed him and felt fragile enough to break, but was determined to see her people safe first. “Can you give us enough time for the coterie to do their work?”
Tsiory took her hand and raised it to his lips. “You know I will.”Get the Book or Continue to Part 2