“I can’t breathe,” I say through clenched teeth. Panic cascades down
my spine like waves of a crushing tide. Panic so familiar yet so alien. My
constant companion for the past fourteen years, since I was five.
My skin burns hot-and-cold-and-hot-again. Black spots bleed into my
vision until it narrows into a pinpoint. I can no longer see the control com-
partment of our beat-up space vessel.
My seat swallows me up. I buck against its constraints, tearing against
the tight harness. “I have to get out of here!”
I can’t slow my breathing. The icy air burns against my throat with each
inhalation. I am drowning without being in water.
“Lilla, listen to my voice,” Arrov, the pilot of our ship, says. “I am here.
You’re not alone.”
He brushes my hands to the side, off the stubborn harness buckles.
With a click, the restraints cutting into me disappear.
I spring to my feet. The urge to flee! to run! pumps my blood, drowning
out the hum of the ship.
A gentle hand touches mine.
Still blind to my surroundings, I grasp it before it can retreat. My life-
line out of the madness.
“You’re fine. You’ll be all right now.”
Arrov’s voice conjures his image—his almost seven-foot height, his ath-
letic build, his angular face with pale-blue skin framed by short dark-blue
hair, his straight nose and always smiling lips. I’ve heard him called “stun-
ningly handsome” behind his back, followed by heaving sighs. I must ad-
mit they’re right. Of course I would never say that out loud in his presence!
His thumb rubs a circle in my palm, a mesmerizing motion. I focus on
his touch. For the first time since setting foot on this godsforsaken ship, I
can take a deep breath.
Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth.
Minutes, or hours, drag by before the hot-and-cold-and-hot-again van-
ish. I look up, right into blue eyes that are so dark they’re almost black.
Arrov flashes white, even teeth. His smile makes him appear younger
than I am, though he is in his midtwenties.
I look at our hands, embarrassed that he had to witness one of my “ep-
isodes,” and I pull my hand away. Arrov is the only person in the rebellion
who doesn’t judge me. Or hold who I am against me. Will that change
from now on? I shudder.
“Here, this should help.” Arrov takes off his jacket and drapes it over
“I was getting hot anyway,” he says, cutting off any argument. “I don’t
think the temp controls work on this junk.”
“Thank you.” I burrow into his warm jacket.
A dark blue blush appears on Arrov’s cheeks. He is the perfect image of his
home planet, A’ice. One of the richer worlds in the nineteen-planet-strong
Pax Septum Coalition, where winter rules three quarters of the year.
My gaze flickers to the control panel, outdated with its manual levers.
“We should check for incoming messages . . .” my voice trails off when I
notice a fast blinking light, signaling incoming messages. How long has it
been blinking like that?
Arrov sees it too, and a flash of concern crosses his expression.
My stomach drops. We had three tasks: wait for the message from the
rebellion’s patron; respond with the code to receive coordinates; and meet
with their caravan to load supplies.Simple.
Arrov runs his fingers over the controls to retrieve the message. “We
missed our chance. They sent the message more than ten minutes ago.”
Ten minutes! By making the caravan wait, we indicated “mission com-
“But I’ll send our code anyway.” Arrov taps a few controls. “Maybe they
waited for us.”
And maybe I’d turn into a believer of the Archgoddess of the Eternal
Light and Order and start praying for Her help. As if.
We stare at the light, waiting for it to blink again. Without getting the
coordinates, we have no hope of completing our mission.
“Anything?” I sit back before I start pacing. I buckle my harness, but
this time I don’t make it as tight. Better not to trigger the panic that hovers
at the edge of my consciousness, waiting to pounce. Never fully gone.
Arrov glances at me. “Nothing.”
“Xor will be furious!” I blew the mission. My first mission. One that
I volunteered for, and only got because Arrov offered to pilot the craft. It
seems that bad luck is contagious.
“Don’t beat yourself up, Lilla. There will be other chances.”
I am not so sure about that. I proved Xor’s right-hand man, Belthair,
right. I failed the mission as he predicted.
Something appears on our view screen.
Arrov, oblivious, says, “Listen, I know how you must feel—”
“But—” I point toward the view screen.
Arrov grabs my flailing hand in both of his. “I know there is a lot of
pressure on you right now.”
“You don’t understand—”
“You’re right.” He pats my hand. “I can’t understand, but I can imagine
how you must worry. But you cannot overreact—”
“Stop!” I shout.
“No need to be so harsh, I was just trying to—”
“There shouldn’t be asteroids here,” Arrov curses, but it gets lost in the
Debris clang, bouncing off the hull of our vessel. The flickering over-
headlight shuts off, only to come back flashing red and yellow.
My vision fills with a porous light-gray asteroid, the size of a small
mountain, tumbling toward us, in the midst of other giant orbs.
“Get us out of here!” Where did they come from? A second ago this
quadrant was empty except for the blinking stars.
“I’m trying!” Arrov shouts. “If only this stupid junk would work!”
Is this ancient spacecraft with its faded green paint and rusting metal
going to be our tomb?
Dents appear everywhere, and the craft jars and jerks. The screeching
noise shrieks louder than the alarms.
The sensory overload is too much. My brain can’t process so much
“We have to evacuate!” Arrov shouts.
Before Arrov can respond, the whole stern of the ship tears clean off.
Wires and jagged metal hang. Billowing smoke obscures our view.
Time ceases to exist.
Then space rushes in.
Six Months Earlier
My life should replay in my mind right before my death. Instead, it gets
stuck on that horrible day.
The day of The Wedding.
All my troubles started then.
“Forgive me, Mom,” I whisper into the silence of the resting gardens.
There is no one to overhear my words. Yet it feels sacrilegious to disturb
the quiet of the gardens, where those no longer with us rest. Embraced by
Lume and guarded by the Archgoddess of the Eternal Light and Order.
Long ash-white branches of weeping willows sweep over small rock
piles, tied together with silk ribbons. They are the markers of each ances-
tor. Cold and crisp wind rushes through, rustling the long wispy strands,
fluttering the ribbons. Purple flowers lift off the branches, drifting on the
currents, perfuming the air in a silent prayer only nature can conjure.
I close my eyes. “We are made of Lume. When we die, we return to
Lume.” The traditional invocation to The Lady echoes in my mind. It
brings no comfort. Only a sad reminder of that rainy day. When life with-
out Mom started and childhood ended.
I lean back on my elbows, not caring how the long blades of grass stain
my dress. The rhythmic sounds of water lapping on the rocks below mingle
with the chirping of birds above. The last flock to leave as fall pushes sum-
mer out of its way on Fye Island. A perfect day for a wedding.
That fog-cursed wedding! What would Mom do in my place?
Goose bumps run down my arms. Even the light of two suns can’t seem
to bring any warmth today.
Footsteps grind on the pebbled path.
I sit up, hugging my knees. I am not ready.
“It’s hard to believe that it has been fourteen years,” Glenna, my best
friend, says from behind me.
I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye. “There isn’t a single day when I
don’t miss her. I wish she could be here.” Then this dreadful event wouldn’t
Glenna tucks a few locks of her crimson hair that escaped from her
elegant bun behind her ear. Her dark crimson eyes glint in compassion. “If
my healer’s oath wouldn’t hold me, I would—”
A throat cleared interrupts her.
Both of us turn to face six guards. Metal helmets cover their faces, blend-
ing into half of a chest plate and a black leather tunic—a style that’s more or-
namental now than it was seven hundred years ago. A nod to our pirate past,
along with the serrated cutlass swords that hang from their belts.
Glenna helps me up. “It’s time.”
“She sent guards to escort me,” I say, as the guards position themselves
around us, like a living cage. What a grotesque procession we make.
“Of course she did,” Glenna says as we follow after them. “You played
right into her hands.”
Glenna is right. I should have known better.
For the rest of the short trip, I stay silent. We march down the hill, to-
ward the white sands of the beach, the scene of the big celebration.
The whole court is here. The guards cut a path through the elegant silk
forest of the ma’hars and ma’haras—lords and ladies.
As we pass, they bow. Their mutterings are as vicious as their smiles are
“The ma’hana had to make a scene.”
Just surviving another day at court.
“The ma’hana never fit in. Now what will she do?”
Who would want to fit in here? All they care about is what to wear, or how
to stay young forever.
“The ma’hana deserves to be put in her place.”
They can try.
Suddenly the crowd surges toward me, shoving the guards too close.
Panic rises and my throat locks, constricting air.
No! Not now! I hold my breath until black spots dance in my vision.
Fainting is better than having an episode in front of everyone.
Something ice cold lands in my hand. It’s a small hydro-gel pack. “Just
breathe,” Glenna whispers.
I grip the cold pack, hiding it against my dress. Allowing the cold to
The guards push back the courtiers, and I force a deep breath into my
A cool ocean breeze rustles my gown and chills the sweat on my fore-
head. I don’t dare raise my hand to wipe it off. It might still shake.
Glenna stops and takes the gel pack back. She cannot follow me from
this point. She has to go to the servants’ side, all the way in the back. Be-
hind the high society members. Behind the low society members. Behind
the few selected esteemed civilians who earned their respected status by
working well into their old age.
The guards step aside to reveal a hovering wooden platform infused with
A’ris—air magic, the third of the six light elements.
Since mages infused our technology with elemental magic hundreds
of years ago, Uhna entered a golden age. Technological marvels sprouted.
Uhna’s economy boomed. Until we were the wealthiest planet in the Pax
Septum Coalition. By the time the other planets joined the magical tech-
nology wave, we were miles ahead of them in progress.
I’m sure the mages never intended the technology they infused to be
applied this way. For pomp. For a stupid wedding. A wedding so cliché it’s
A white gauzy canopy held in place by A’ris magic hovers over a hexag-
onal wooden platform. Around the canopy, a flock of colorful birds flutters
in place, tamed by A’nima, the fifth light element. Around the platform, a
multitude of palm trees waves. Their crowns of frond leaves sparkle with
millions of crystal diamond specks, painted on like artificial snow. In the
middle of the platform, a shimmering wall of water arches down, suspend-
ed by A’qua, the first light element. It symbolizes the all-powerful Fyoon
Ocean, from which all titles originate.
I climb the seven wooden steps to the platform and take my place be-
hind my half brother Nic. He could be a replica of my father with his fit
build, black hair and dark brown eyes.
Behind are the fourteen advisers, grouped in sevens on each side of Fa-
ther. Their disapproving gazes weigh on me, judging. Only High Adviser
Ellar smiles at me. He tried to console me yesterday, but I found no com-
fort in his wise words. Both of us knew this wedding was not fair.
Behind my father, the ma’ha and king of Uhna. He stands tall in his
formal white uniform—a long jacket with a red sash across it, and sharp
pants. He looks in control. Happy. As if this is something he truly wants.
My father glances back at me, smiling in a peace offering. I glare until
his expression sobers. Until he has to look back. Toward her.
Nic hands me a small bouquet of white starflowers, the national symbol,
representing innocence. “I thought you’d never show. They wouldn’t start
the ceremony without you, sis.”
“How lucky I am.” I grip the flowers, clenching them hard. Poor things.
It’s not their fault. It’s hers.
Beathag. Father’s bride-to-be, who is barely older than I am, and a third
of my father’s sixty-five. Someone I used to know well and thought I’d
never see again.
As if she knows I am thinking about her, Beathag turns toward me.
She looks over her slender shoulder, left bare by the body-hugging red lace
dress. Her long blond hair falls down on her back with starflowers woven
into the hair.
I meet her hazel eyes head on. Daring her to blink first. Daring her to
read my mind and see how much she is not welcome here.
Her eyes flicker behind me, where the guards still wait, as if anticipating
my escape. She dismisses me with a sniff.
Nic pokes an elbow in my side. “Stop prodding the hag, sis.”
“She started it.” I am forced to witness this wedding because of her.
A stranger steps in front of the couple with confidence that borders on
arrogance. Loud murmurs sweep through the crowd.
He stands tall, his long silver hair flying over his shoulders in the breeze.
He wears a black robe, with all six light elements embroidered in a circle
over his heart.
He introduces himself as Royal Elementalist Mage Ragnald, causing
another wave of outraged mutterings. No mages have been in the royal
court in my lifetime. It seems this wedding has an underlying political
No one has forgotten the Magical Cleansing War twenty-five years ago
that ravaged the Pax Septum Coalition and took its toll on the people.
Millions were killed, while hundreds of thousands ended up with terrible
injuries from the battle mages’ magic. Incurable by our healers. Ironically,
the coalition won the war by the superior power of the elemental magic-in-
fused weapons. Weapons that the mages created, but out of pride refused
For more than two decades, we hadn’t seen a single mage. They were
banned from entering any coalition worlds. Yet here he is, the first one al-
lowed to set foot on Uhna. And he is officiating Father’s marriage as if the
mages are all forgiven.
Is he the first mage in all the Pax Septum Coalition to leave Raghild,
the mages’ home world?
“And let those who have anything to say,” Royal Elementalist Ragnald
declares, “say it now without repercussion. Hence we can all judge this
wedding and the direction in which it may proceed.”
My heart jumps into my throat. Sweat breaks out on my palms. My skin
burns hot-and-cold-and-hot-again. I open my mouth.
“Don’t do it, sis. Just don’t—”
“It’s not right!” I say with a ringing voice.