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The Princess Must Die - Storm Princess Saga

Chapter One

The first crackles of lightning scatter across my skin as the perfect storm swirls above me. It’s been building since yesterday—from the moment I last subdued it.

The Storm Vault is so high that normally I can’t see the eye of the storm, but this one’s growing so fast that the dark center is an expanding mass before my eyes.

It’s coming for me.

The vault is constructed of thick stone, hundreds of feet high and wide, and lined with about a million protective spells. There’s only one way in and one way out—through an ante-room that leads to another airtight room. There are three sealed doors between me and the rest of Erawind.

I don’t kid myself. It’s not the doors or the spells that keep the storm under control.

It’s me.

I call the powerful force to me, coaxing it down, ignoring the intense fear that rises inside me.

Curse my survival instincts. If I listened to them, I’d run as far and fast as I could away from this place. But there’s no escape from my daily task.

Centuries ago, the gargoyles conjured dark magic to create the perfect storm to wipe out the elven race. Hundreds of elves lost their lives while the Elven Command tried to subdue the storm—but they couldn’t destroy it. Realizing they had no choice but to contain its fury, the elves created the Storm Vault and tried to trap the storm inside.

But even their most powerful spells couldn’t keep it here. At the moment when the storm’s fury would have destroyed the last spellcaster, her young daughter burst through the Vault’s defenses and ran to her. That’s when a miracle happened. The girl absorbed the power of the storm into her body. The storm calmed for the first time.

That girl was the first Storm Princess. I’m the fourth.

I’ll stay in my role until another princess is revealed and replaces me. There’s no retirement. No choice. If I try to leave, the storm will follow me.

Until it latches onto another Storm Princess, I’m a living, breathing lightning rod. And if I die before another princess is revealed, the storm will be unleashed. We’re connected, the storm and I. As long as I’m alive, the perfect storm remains under control.

I control it. Even if it doesn’t feel that way.

I murmur, “C’mon, Beast, what have you got for me today?”

I’ve been calling it the ‘beast’ for as long as I’ve been coming to the Vault—every day since I was eighteen when the storm chose me. That was seven years ago.

I stand firm as a streak of lightning blazes from the distance, striking me as fast as I can blink. It zaps the soft spot between my shoulder and my collarbone, and despite my preparedness, a soft ‘oh’ escapes my lips. Somehow, it always knows where to hurt me most. I roll my shoulders and focus on my breathing, knowing that if I stay calm, the strikes won’t hurt as much.

My job is simple: absorb the elements. Take the worst of the storm into my body to keep it from exploding from the Vault. I do this every day. Every day the storm calms, and then it builds again. Again and again, I come here to calm it. I should be used to my daily ritual, but somehow the storm always finds ways to surprise me.

Right now, it’s the lightning I need to worry about.

Another strike licks fire across the back of my neck and I know it’s time to move. I lift my hands above my head, slowly drawing them down and across my body, controlling my breathing as I step into a warrior’s routine.

The princess before me was a dancer named Mai Reverie. I don’t have the grace for dancing. Combat moves are the closest I get.

The next strike falls directly through the circle of my arms, but it curves at the last moment. It follows the angle of my arms, curling to match my form, travelling an inch above my skin, moving with me instead of against me.

Another strike follows, joining the first and spreading across my body, curling around me in a white and blue light show. Strike by strike, the lightning follows my movements. As fast as I absorb one strike, another one hits, but the contact is soft now. Sometimes I feel like the storm is an angry child who wants only to be noticed, to have someone take care of it.

The first time the lightning moved with me, nobody believed me. Only my personal advisor, Elise, is allowed into the ante-room to watch me through the large glass panels on that side of the Vault. One day, my bonded partner will be allowed in here too, but for now Elise is my only witness and even she struggles to believe what she sees.

The lightning plays across my skin and taps my shoulder.

I grin. “Oh, you want my attention, do you?”

But my smile quickly fades, because the light show disperses and I realize that the tap to my shoulder was a warning. The atmospheric force bearing down on me is stronger than ever. It presses against me with suffocating density; like a blanket through which I can’t breathe. I gasp against the sudden pressure. Then, just as fast, it lifts.

I look up and wish I hadn’t. Storm clouds gather at unnerving speed. The lightning gives way to something worse.

Rain.

I never feared rain before I became the Princess. Sure, it’s wet and cold, but the rain produced by the perfect storm is something else—sharp as needles, intense, drowning.

I take a deep breath. It’s the last one I’ll get for a while.

A blast of thunder tears my hearing to shreds and then the rain buckets down. I can’t absorb it in the same way that I absorb the lightning. All I can do is hold onto it like I’m some sort of rain magnet.

Water fills the space around me as if I’m standing in an invisible orb. There are drains beneath me, but they’re never fast enough. In moments, I’ll be swimming…

The rain sweeps down, flattening my hair against my back, drowning my clothing in ice. Sometimes the rain is hot like lava. The first time it burned me, it shocked me to my core.

Today, it’s cold. So cold. I shudder so hard I lose my warrior pose.

That’s when the rain’s tone changes.

I frown, still holding my breath.

A whisper reaches me through the pounding flood of water. I strain to identify the sound, but I can’t make it out.

My feet are covered in the deluge and it rises to my calves, then my waist. As new raindrops hit the surface around me, I sense a melody in it, sounds I’ve never heard before, but I’m not sure how that’s possible.

I stretch out my arms, palms upward to the strange new beat. Raindrops slam my skin. I struggle to focus on the swooshing whispers, trying to hear…

Curse, curse, curse…

Your husband…

If the rain weren’t pushing down on me so hard, my eyebrows would have risen into my hair. As it is, all I manage is a wonky, single eyebrow lift.

I don’t have a husband. Not yet.

But my twenty-fifth birthday is a month away and I’m required to bond. All Princesses have to, because there comes a time when we can’t control the storm on our own. We need to share the physical burden and only the strongest male elf can share it with us. He can’t control the storm like we can—he can’t use its power—but he acts as an extra buffer, an extension of our own bodies so to speak.

I dare to take a breath, inhaling needles of cold water, and shout into the growing wind. “What do you mean?”

Death.

Not by choice. By curse.

Death? What the…?

If I die and another princess isn’t waiting to replace me, the elements will break out of the Storm Vault and tear Erawind to shreds. It’s the reason everyone treats me like I’m made of porcelain. My death would unleash the fury that killed so many elves long ago and nearly destroyed my home.

A dozen curse words rest on the end of my tongue but I don’t let them loose. Elves believe that language holds power and a word spoken aloud in anger returns that anger to the speaker. I can swear inside my head as much as I like, but a spoken curse word is just that—a curse. And right now, I’m already hearing ‘curse’ way more than I want to.

“How?” I scream.

Your husband will kill you.

Not by choice.

I freeze. Still it repeats, over and over and the message is loud and clear: My husband is going to kill me. It won’t be because he wants to. He’s going to be cursed.

Against my will, I’m shaken to my core. Still the rain pours down and I can’t listen to it anymore. I slap my hands over my ears. For the first time, my resolve slips. I’ve been calming the storm for so long that it’s a part of my life. A strange part, that’s for sure, but something I do to keep my people safe. Now I want nothing more than to escape. The rain is talking to me, for heaven’s sake!

Fear gives way to frustration and something else I haven’t felt for a long time—panic. I struggle against that emotion. The last time I felt panic that bad, I hurt someone I cared about.

I struggle to push the emotion away, but it clouds my logic and rises like the rainwater, rushing against me.

The orb of water has almost reached my neck. My hair floats behind me. My arms are immersed. I can’t feel my feet. It’s so cold that my toes have turned numb. At the same time, the lightning returns.

It crackles around me and through me. It glows like electric eels in the water, lighting me up. And still the rain whispers to me… Kill, curse, husband, kill, curse

“Enough!”

With as much strength as I can muster, I push my arms upward, willing the lightning to follow my movement like it did before. The glowing strings of electricity speed upward, leaping from the water like spears. The lightning doesn’t stop there. Airborne once more, it strikes upward, lashing into the heart of the storm above me. Striking itself with my will.

An enormous crack slams my hearing so loudly that I scream.

Instantly, the rain stops. The water drains away into the floor. The thunderclouds disperse. All that remains is a wisp of white fog.

The storm is gone.

I stopped the storm, but not in the way I usually do. Normally, I wait patiently for it to do its thing. Today, I fought back. Somehow, I turned it on itself.

I drop to the floor, exhausted and drenched, hands loose at my sides, hair streaming down my back. There was a time I thought it would be fun to conquer the Vault wearing boots and leather like some kind of warrior princess. It turned out that was a good way to ruin expensive leather and chafe myself in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. The Princess before me wore a flowing white dress and floated on the water, meditating, even through the lightning strikes.

These days I opt for a black, full-body swimsuit made of thick material. Unfortunately, all attempts to waterproof it turned out to be useless. But it saves my dignity when I emerge from the Vault looking like a wet cat.

I drag myself to the first door, my whole body filled with worry, barely glancing up to see Elise pressed against the glass. Her hand moves, but I’m too tired to interpret what she’s trying to signal. She steps back as I push the door open. It’s spelled to open only for me so nobody else can get through it.

There’s enough light for me to see the worry written across her face. “Princess, you need to—”

My panic resurfaces and I babble over the top of her. “It’s gone wild, Elise. I can’t predict what’s going to happen in there anymore. I don’t know how much longer I can contain it on my own.” As much as I hate to admit it, I need to bond. Although, if I believe the whispering rain’s prediction that my husband will kill me, getting married is the worst thing I could do.

I shake my head and then freeze, realizing what Elise was trying to warn me about.

We aren’t alone.

Two male elves wait in the shadows near the far door, one taller than the other.

Before Elise can speak again, the taller male steps into the light, but his head is down so I can’t see his face. In a single fluid movement, he drops to one knee, both palms raised toward me.

I stare in shock at the red stone he holds out to me in his open hands.

Every Elven House has a heartstone. All of them are priceless, irreplaceable, but this one is… legendary.

The size of my fist, the rock casts ruby light around us from a thousand carefully cut facets. There’s no mistaking it. It was the first heartstone ever created—the first true heart.

This stone belongs to the House of Rath.

My heart jumps. The male’s head is still down. All I can see is his hair: light brown, with a telltale kick on one side. I almost reach out to run my hands through it. It’s been so long…

I haven’t seen Baelen Rath since we were teenagers. Or, more correctly, since the day I almost killed him.

His name passes my lips before I can stop myself. “Bae.”

If he heard me, he hides it. His arms don’t waver.

The heartstone glints at me.

The male beside him steps into the light, unsmiling, staring at me. “Princess, the stone is offered to you.”

I blink. “What?”

The male’s forbidding expression turns to confusion. He spins to Elise. “Is she not aware of the protocols?”

Elise is ashen, her face paler than I’ve ever seen it. She doesn’t touch me—that would be dangerous right now—but her hand lifts in my direction. “Princess?”

The protocols…

Bae looks up for the first time and I catch my breath. His green eyes pierce mine. The cut of his jaw is unyielding. I follow the shape of his high cheekbones to his chin and the pulse at his neck.

Then he tilts his head to reveal the scar that cuts from his right temple down the side of his face and curves behind his ear. The scar splits at his jawline and slashes beneath his face like a curling vine, as if a single wound wasn’t enough.

His voice is like ice as he turns the scar fully into the light. “This is what you wanted to see?”

“I… No…” My voice fails me. He’s wrong. I don’t want to see the scar. I want to see that he’s okay despite it.

But the fact that he’s holding his family’s heartstone out to me—offering it to me—means that he intends to be a champion in the fight for my hand. He intends to fight for me. By taking the stone, I will show him that I accept his nomination.

The thing is, the protocols force me to take it. The whole process is designed to make it look like I have a choice, but I don’t. If I refuse to accept him as a champion, then I’ll dishonor his entire House.

The problem is… he’s the only one left. He’s the only remaining Rath. The fight for my hand isn’t all about battle. It’s a game of wits first and strength last. But the final fight between the two remaining champions is to the death. It’s designed that way so the loser doesn’t live to challenge the marriage bond. If Bae fights and dies, his House will die with him.

The scar is a painful reminder that I almost ended his life once. I can’t do it again.

I take a step back. “I can’t…”

His advisor freezes beside him. I recognize the male elf as the same one who served the late Commander Rath. Baelen’s father passed away last year. I attended the wake and it was my first chance in seven years to speak with Bae. But a funeral is the one time that a Princess’s wishes don’t hold sway and despite trying to reach Baelen, I’d barely seen him from a distance before my personal guard whisked me away.

The advisor’s voice rises. “Does the Princess intend to offend the House of Rath?”

“My lord…” Elise hurries to defend me but I stop her.

I don’t touch her. That would be lethal with the storm’s rage still filling my veins.

As much as I feel like a mere vessel for the storm sometimes, the reality is that I control its power afterward. My outstretched hand crackles with lightning. The forces I’ve absorbed want to be released. It’s my responsibility to subdue the storm each day, but it gives me the power to wield its fury.

Technically right now, I am the storm.

It occurs to me then to wonder how long Baelen and his advisor were waiting inside the ante-room; how much they saw. It’s common knowledge that I can tame the lightning, but what I just did—stopping the storm in its tracks—was entirely unexpected. I have no idea if I can trust them to keep that secret.

Despite the power raging inside me, I’m tired. All I want is to slump in a warm bath and wash off the cold rain and its ominous message about my husband killing me.

More than anything, I want Bae to lower his hands.

I can’t take the heartstone from him without talking with him first. I can’t let him risk his life like this. Not for me. Not for anything.

I address his advisor. “My lord, you mistake my intentions. I can’t receive the heartstone right now. I’ve just come from the Vault. If I touch the stone, I’ll destroy it.”

I draw myself upright with my remaining strength, focusing on a point past the advisor’s face. “The power inside me will destroy the stone and anyone holding it.”

I lower my eyes to Bae’s, hoping he hears the message in my next words because I may not get another chance to say them. “I won’t be responsible for the death of the last Rath.”

I step up beside Bae, keeping my distance from him, but closing the gap between me and his advisor. The advisor takes a hasty step backward.

I sense Bae shift, his face turned to mine, but I don’t have time to assess his reaction—whether he’s as offended as his advisor is or whether he heard the fear in my voice and understood it.

I hiss at the advisor. “I will kill anything that I touch right now. Get out of my way and come back at a more appropriate time.”

He makes way for me as I push for the door and stride through the next room. Elise stays close on my heels. As my personal advisor, only Elise is supposed to be allowed inside the vault’s ante-room. She’s the only one who sees what I go through to keep my people safe. How Bae and his advisor got inside the ante-room is something I mean to find out.

The members of my all-female personal guard, also known as the Storm Command, wait outside the final door. I prefer to think of them as the nunnery. They’ll surround me once I reach them, making sure nothing and nobody comes near me. That includes any male elf or even female who isn’t part of the Storm Command.

I can’t imagine what Jordan—the head of the nunnery—will say about me being approached by a male in the ante-room. It’s her job to keep all elves away from me. Until one of them wins the right to marry me, all contact is forbidden. Even the heartstone protocol is supposed to take place in a very public arena under intense scrutiny.

I risk a glance back at Bae through the open doors between us. He’s on his feet, turned in my direction. The stone rests in his fist at his side. I’m amazed at how it disappears inside his big hands. He was always the tallest, strongest, biggest.

All Raths are built for war. Fighting. Protecting.

It’s the reason they’re all dead.

I clench my jaw. I won’t let you die, too.

I push on the final door and Jordan immediately assaults me. The nunnery snaps to attention—ten strong female elves—forming a wide circle around me in the broad corridor. They don’t dare come within five feet of me, and they won’t let anyone else either.

To my surprise, Jordan’s expression is as worried as Elise’s—not a look I’m used to seeing on her face. Jordan is always confident, composed, and in control.

Her face is flushed. She holds out her arm horizontal to her chest and rests her forehead on it in a gesture of remorse. “Princess, I ask your forgiveness. I had no power to stop him.”

My eyes narrow. As the head of my personal guard, Jordan is ranked more highly than any other military officer. She doesn’t control the army—only the nunnery—but no other elf can give her orders except for me. It’s a necessary precaution to ensure that nobody can get to me.

The only military position of higher authority than Jordan’s is the Commander of the elven army—again for my personal safety: it’s important for the leader of the army to communicate directly with me without obstruction from my guard. Baelen’s father used to fill that position but he stayed away from me. After what I did to his son, I didn’t blame him.

Luckily, the gargoyles have been quiet for the last seven years so it was possible for him to keep his distance. After his death, a temporary replacement filled the position, but to my knowledge, the Elven Command hasn’t announced a permanent replacement yet.

“Jordan?”

“I received word while you were in the Vault. Baelen Rath is now the Commander of the armed forces.”

And the only male allowed near me.

My legs almost fail me with shock—but at the same time a thread of relief flows through me. Maybe now I’ll have the chance to convince him not to be a champion…

At least it explains how he got past Jordan and made his way inside the ante-room.

She steps back, her focus shifting to a point behind me, and I suddenly realize that the door didn’t close when I passed through it. I’d thought Elise was right behind me, but she’s hovering in the background.

I sense Bae’s presence in the doorway like a force stronger than the lightning. I twist to assess the distance between us, the logical part of my brain telling me I can’t endanger him. The illogical part wants me to close the gap between us.

He steps forward, allowing the door to close behind him, moving far closer than anyone else would dare. His eyes don’t waver from mine. The heartstone’s nowhere in sight.

“Marbella Mercy.”

It’s strange to hear him say my name. Everyone else calls me ‘Princess’ or worse: ‘the Princess’ even if they’re speaking to me, as if I’m a thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard my name associated with my House: the House of Mercy. When I became the Princess, I had to leave my home and my family behind. My mother’s allowed to visit me once each year, but I’m not allowed to see my father and brother.

“I meant what I said,” I tell him. “I could hurt you right now.”

If he’s worried, he doesn’t show it. “Danger never bothered me.”

Spoken by anyone else, those words would sound conceited, but from a Rath they only ring with truth. I try to quell the smile forcing its way onto my lips. “I learned that about you a long time ago.”

Jordan clears her throat, her face flaming. Her eyes dart left. We’re blocking the corridor and, although it’s not a frequently traveled path, elves are gathering on either side unable to get through. Jordan’s expression makes it clear that we’re creating a spectacle.

On the eve of the marriage protocols, a spectacle is a bad thing. I remind myself that I’m not a girl anymore. I can’t catch Bae’s hand in mine like I once did, can’t tell him my secrets, can’t even smile…

I force myself to take a step away from him. He might outrank Jordan but he doesn’t outrank me. Damn that logical side of my brain. I want to stomp on it and kick it into a corner.

I swallow and speak loudly. “Commander Rath, you will attend the War Room to discuss your appointment. My Storm Command will be in attendance. I expect you there in two hours.”

I spin without another word, asserting my authority. He may be the Commander of the army but as a potential champion there are rules he has to follow.

The nunnery closes around me, stopping all the gaps that someone could step through, protecting me even from myself.

I’m supposed to be alone, untouched, pure, and pristine.

Only Baelen Rath knows that I’m not.

 

Chapter Two

As we sweep along the wide corridor, Jordan keeps pace on one side of me and Elise strides on the other. They’re my constant companions and I count myself lucky that I can also call them my friends. To be chosen for their positions, they went through a set of protocols seven years ago—similar to the ones my future husband will go through over the next few weeks: tests of emotional and physical strength, intelligence and, most important of all, compatibility. But even if I wanted to tell them everything, there are some things that nobody can know.

Such as what really happened on the night I became the Storm Princess.

I can’t be alone with Baelen Rath.

“Jordan, it’s important that you remain with me at all times.” I try to soften my order with an attempted smile.

“I understand, Princess.”

I glance at her and the grim look she gives me tells me she really does understand. The rulebook setting out the champion protocols is inches thick. It starts with dictating how each House chooses their nominated champion and ends with orders about my wedding night. I struggle not to roll my eyes about that.

There are so many rules it makes my head spin. I remember the first time I laid eyes on the giant book and I’d asked, “What happened to falling in love?”

Back then, Elise gave me the only stern response she ever spoke to me: “A Princess does not love. She does what is right for her people.”

That was when I’d banished all thoughts of Baelen from my mind. Or, at least, I’d tried to.

I turn to Elise next, but I don’t have to say anything. Her expression tells me she’s way ahead of me. The way her eyes fill with worry, the slight frown creasing her forehead. She’s thinking hard about my situation right now. Baelen Rath is an added complication to what happened in the Vault—what I did with the storm.

“We need to talk about the weather,” she says and I know it’s code for: we need to talk about the storm, Baelen, and basically everything that seems to be going wrong today.

The biggest question for me is: did anyone else hear the rain? I don’t think they could have because the Vault is soundproof—it has to be to contain the thunder: the vibrations produced by the perfect storm can cause whole buildings to collapse.

Because of that, I don’t think Elise heard the rain’s warning. For a moment, I debate whether I should tell her. I need to talk to someone about it. As much as I love Jordan, she can’t know about any of it. The rules again—only Elise can know what goes on in the Vault.

As we emerge from the corridor into the light, I flip my head back and growl my frustration at the sky. There’s enough thunder inside me to rumble past my lips and scare the nearby civilian elves. They scatter away from me as the Storm Command—and me inside the circle—takes the paved path through the gardens.

Above us, the artificial sun shines high in the afternoon sky. A thousand years ago, when the elves were forced from the surface of the Earth, they used deep magic to create an entire ecosystem between layers of the Earth complete with a sun and moon, forests and rivers. We were at peace with the gargoyles then and divided our new home into two parts: Erawind for the elves and Erador for the gargoyles. The humans don’t know we’re here. Far above us, on the Earth’s surface, there’s a city of skyscrapers—I think they call it Chicago.

The Storm Vault itself is contained inside a citadel in the middle of our highest place of learning—the heart of Erawind and home to priceless spell books. The elves would never have chosen to locate the Vault here, but the storm was deliberately sent to this place to destroy all of our most precious knowledge. The elves had no choice but to contain its fury in the closest building possible—which turned out to be the stone tower where young spellcasters used to take lessons.

It means I’m surrounded by both warriors and scholars at all times. It’s an uneasy cohabitation. The passing professors bow deeply to me, but I know they still mourn the loss of the sanctity of their school and resentment lies beneath the respect they show me. The perfect storm is a constant threat to their most precious belongings, as well as their lives.

I leave puddles in my wake. I’m dripping and my body temperature is dropping. As a spellcaster, Elise has the power to warm me, but magic doesn’t mix well with the storm’s fury. It won’t be safe for anyone to touch me for at least another hour.

My plight is my own.

I sigh. I’m desperate for that hot bath.

“Princess!” The shriek from the side of the gardens breaks through my thoughts.

Jordan and Elise immediately close ranks around me. The Storm Command forms an impenetrable circle. I sigh with frustration, because they’re all taller than me. At a little more than five feet three inches, I have no hope of seeing over the protective barrier they’ve formed to identify the source of the commotion.

“Princess! Princess!” As the crying female draws nearer, I recognize her voice.

“Let her through, but don’t let her touch me for her own sake.”

The Storm Command’s circle opens so suddenly that the running elf skids through it. Jordan catches her at the last moment before she slides into me.

The newcomer’s red hair flows around her. Elves come in all shapes, sizes, and skin colors, but only female elves in the House of Reverie have hair the color of blood. My own hair is auburn and a pale comparison.

I keep my distance as I address her. “Rebecca, what is it?”

“Princess, you must come at once. Mai is ill.”

Mai Reverie—the dancer who used to meditate inside the rain. She never told me, but I sensed that she had a similar connection with the rain that I have with the lightning.

“She’s asking for you. She won’t speak to anyone else. Only you.”

My eyes widen. “She’s refusing help?”

“She is. She won’t let anyone help her until she speaks with you.”

Beside me, Elise’s worried eyes meet mine and I wish I could read her thoughts. In ancient times, spellcasters had the ability to sneak into another elf’s mind and catch their thoughts, but that practice was exposed and outlawed when the last elven King died. It was his scheming that turned the gargoyles into our enemies. He was the first to die in the storm and because he had no children, the heads of the elven houses agreed to form a new Elven Command in which all the Houses had representation and a vote.

I race after Rebecca, trying not to connect with anyone as I move. The Storm Command quickly clears a path for me and I marvel at their efficiency. Three females dart forward, clearing the way ahead, while the others close ranks and keep perfect pace with me.

Mai’s quarters are on the other side of the square. She’s the only other former princess who’s still alive. The other two lived for hundreds of years each, hanging on until the Storm chose its next princess.

My own quarters are on the opposite side of the square—Mai vacated them when the storm chose me. There’s never any resentment on the part of the vacating Princess. We have no real political power—that rests with the Elven Command. And besides, who’d want to spend their days fighting with a storm?

I still remember the look of relief Mai gave me when I met her for the first time. Her relief was so huge, it terrified me what I was taking on.

I race through the outer wall of her quarters, through her personal garden and its neatly sculpted stone and sand arrangements. I slow my pace as we run toward the inner rooms. I call the Storm Command to slow down, too. “Go carefully.”

The female elves become like wraiths, their footsteps light, barely perceptible. My own are heavier because of the weight of the storm I’ve absorbed and my boots squelch on the pristine marble floor.

Jordan gives my feet a glance and I shrug my shoulders. I’m noisy, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Besides… the energy radiating from Mai’s greeting room tells me she’ll sense me coming no matter what. Her inner quarters are surrounded by indoor plants—vines full of red roses curling across the top of the door and internal windows. The House of Reverie is known for its ability to cultivate plants in any environment.

Jordan signals for the elves to halt and turns to me. “Her door is open.”

She describes it to me because they’re blocking my view. An open door, at least, is a good sign, because in elven society it’s a sign of good faith. Mai isn’t hiding anything.

“Open.” The Storm Command obeys me instantly, shuffling back into a crescent keeping my back safe so that I have a direct view of Mai’s quarters through the door. It fills me with faith to see how much they trust my commands.

Mai and her husband Darian sit on the rug in the middle of the room. Mai’s legs are in an awkward position, making me think she collapsed in that position, while Darian is supporting her. Beads of sweat rest on her brow and her dress is shiny as if she went swimming in it.

I step forward, but Elise is quicker. “No, Princess.”

I spin to her.

Her forehead is creased into a hard frown. “Princess, if there’s illness inside that room then you can’t be exposed to it.”

I shake my head. “I’m full of storm, Elise. I’m as strong as I’ll ever be. Mai needs my help. I can feel it. I’m not backing away from this.”

“I don’t expect you to, but please let me come with you.”

I’m surprised she thought I’d go in without her. She’s not only my advisor but my best friend. “Of course.”

Rebecca hovers beside me. “She said she’d speak only with you, Princess.”

“I understand, Rebecca, thank you for telling me, but the rules are the rules: a member of the Storm Command must be with me at all times.”

Rebecca bows her head and clears the way as Elise and I step into the room. The Storm Command forms an impenetrable barrier behind me and spreads out to guard the windows on either side.

I turn to Elise. “But that doesn’t mean everyone has to listen.”

“I understand.” Elise turns her hand to the side and passes it across the doorway as we step inside the room and I trust her to create a sound barrier between us and the watching elves.

Darian lifts his head while Mai reaches out a hand to me. Her skin is much paler than normal.

“Marbella,” she says. “I’m sorry to greet you in this state.”

I drop to my knees. “What happened, Mai?”

The concern on Darian’s face makes me envy the love between them. He allows her to lean against him, supporting her in an upright position.

He says, “She collapsed while she was gardening. I carried her in here, but then…”

He glances at her as if seeking her permission.

In response, Mai places her hand on his. “It’s all right… I can tell her.”

She turns to me. “I started to rain.”

Elise frowns beside me. “It started to rain?”

“No,” Mai says, “I started to rain.”

I’m sure I misheard. “You started to… what?”

In response, Mai leans back into Darian, turning her head into his shoulder, whispering, “Will you help me show them?”

“I will always help you,” he says, but he turns to us first, his expression stern. “She’s weak and I’ll only assist her to do this once. Then you have to get help.”

He wraps his arms around her waist and lifts her to her feet, pulling her upright. Her legs wobble, but he keeps her straight long enough for me to see what I need to see.

Her dress changes color halfway down, dark and saturated from her ribcage, but dry at her shoulders. Her hair, too, is completely dry, wispy strands floating around her. But her hands and feet…

Water drips from her fingertips and puddles around her feet. I can tell from how dry her head and shoulders are that the water isn’t falling from anywhere above her. It’s dripping from her fingers and toes. It’s coming from her.

I meet her eyes and I know there’s more. It was the rain that spoke to me in the Vault, and Mai always had an affinity with the rain.

Her fingers move. The change is so slight that I can barely perceive it, but then…

Everything slows around me. Elise is half-turning, her eyes wide, one arm rising to point at the water falling from Mai’s hands. Darian is about to speak, his mouth half-open. Then everything… stops.

Even the water droplets suspend in mid-air. Except for Mai and me.

“What did you do?” I ask, barely breathing.

“I used the power of the thunder to suspend time.”

“You what? But you’re not the Princess anymore. How can you channel the storm? That’s…”

“You have so much to learn about the power of the storm, but they won’t let me teach you. You’ll have to learn on your own like I had to.”

“Who won’t let you teach me?”

“Marbella, you need to listen to me. We only have a few moments. The rain spoke to me. Someone’s cursed the protocols.”

“It spoke to me, too!”

I edge toward her. Glimmers of lightning wrap around my fingers, but I push them down. Mai isn’t a threat to me.

She looks relieved that I already know. “Then you know your husband will be cursed to kill you.”

I suck in a deep breath. “The rain told me. But I don’t know what to do.”

She doesn’t hesitate. “You have to fight for yourself.”

“What?”

“Be your own champion. Win the challenges. Accept no male as your husband. It’s the only way.”

“But I need to bond. The storm’s getting stronger. It’s too strong for me.”

“No, Marbella, no. You already have everything you need to control it. The Elven Command wants you to believe that you aren’t enough—that you need to share the burden. But you’ll discover once you marry that it’s all a lie. The other Princesses weren’t alive to tell me, but I’m telling you. You are all you need.”

She glances at Darian. “I love him and I wouldn’t change my marriage for all the world and, yes, he has supported me and been my best friend, but the moment he stepped into the Vault it almost killed him!

“I’m forbidden to speak of it, Marbella. But the truth is that we are the Storm. Only us. Only our bodies. And now… the storm is choosing to connect with me again, trying to send you a message through me.”

“We have to get you help.”

She gently shakes her head. “Soon. I promise I’ll be okay. But you need to understand your power.”

“But… why? Why does the Elven Command make us marry if it doesn’t help us?”

“So that we are never seen to hold all of the power ourselves. So that we are not all-powerful.” She grimaces. “I can’t hold time much longer. Promise me you’ll fight for yourself. Promise me!”

I have so many more questions. So much else to ask her.

But at the heart of what she said is the answer to saving Baelen: I will fight for myself. Even though confusion whirls through me about everything Mai revealed to me, I’m filled with intense relief.

As everything speeds up around us, I say, “Thank you, dear friend.”

She nods and collapses against Darian.

I spin to Elise. My advisor shivers beside me, running her hand through her hair as if she’s pulling off cobwebs. She’s a gifted spellcaster and will be able to sense that something just happened, but she won’t understand how. She doesn’t know the power of the storm. As it turns out, I don’t either.

I know I should tell her what just happened, but Mai spoke only to me for a reason. I meet Rebecca’s eyes across the room. She’s Mai’s advisor—she would have seen what happened when Darian accompanied Mai into the Vault.

She must know the truth about the marriage protocol. Her lips are pressed together. I know she won’t speak a word of it.

I spin to Elise before she can say anything. “Mai needs help now. Call the healers, please.”

Elise waves her hand, lifting the cloak of silence around the room, and the message is relayed back through my Storm Command. Two of my elves separate from the others and sprint away, their lithe bodies a blur of movement. Of the ten, they are my message bearers, chosen for their speed. Every one of my Command is highly trained and hand picked to excel.

I’m afraid to touch Mai in case the power inside me could hurt her, but I kneel and lean as close as I can. “I’ll do as you say.”

I will fight for myself.