Chapter 1: Midnight Confession
Light rays are propagated only in straight lines, Seraphine read. Refraction is proof that ethereal matter passes through transparent bodies, such as aqueous vapors in the atmosphere. For this reason, the sun may appear on the horizon before it has, in fact, risen. And this same phenomenon is the reason why at certain times a distant object will be hidden behind another less distant one, and yet may at another time be able to be seen, although the spot from which it is viewed is always the same.
There was very little light in the room; it was a new moon, exactly as planned. She could just see the letters on the pages of Christophe Hughes' admittedly dry What IS Light, Anyway? Well, I Hope You Like Maths! but she had already read it twice, anyway. It was difficult to concentrate on the nights when Zoraline "went out." They had never yet been caught, but they had a contingency plan in place just in case, and it depended on Sera's vigilance. If their perpetually stern brother got wind of the fact that Zora spent a good number of her nights outside the castle grounds, Sera would simply extinguish the candles next to the window, and Zora would know to use their carefully-prepared story to keep them both to the lee of his disapproval.
King Logan had had full guardianship over his sisters for years, and she knew that he frequently forgot that they weren't children anymore. It drove Zora mad, but Sera treasured every scrap of attention he had time to toss their way. If they were found out tonight...
If I disappoint him...
She caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and turned, automatically closing her book with one finger inside to save her page.
She sighed, diving back into Hughes' thesis. He was now discussing the properties of prisms and how they could be used to demonstrate the laws of Optics, a subject in which she had become fiercely interested since Professor Faraday's last visit from Industrial. He had lent her an armload of new scientific books and papers from his library. She'd finished them all in about six weeks.
There was a rustling outside the open window, and Zoraline threw her arms inside and hoisted herself into the room. She stood up and swept a few stray waves of dark, glossy hair away from her face, smiling at Seraphine where she sat in her nightgown, looking, as always, like a porcelain doll.
"Sorry," she said, catching her breath. Never before had she kept her sister waiting up so late. But this night was different. On this night, she had a good reason, one she thought Sera would find worth the wait. She brought her fingers to her lips to stifle a sudden fit of giggling that threatened to spill out, along with her dignity. She could hardly contain herself after the events of this particular outing, and as she undressed for bed, she gleefully pondered how best to share her story.
Sera watched her sister with a gentle smile. Zora was radiant, absolutely beaming, something that usually meant either big trouble or at least the beginning of a very interesting tale. She lost her place immediately and slid her book carelessly aside. She helped Zora out of her disheveled clothes and resisted the urge to prod her for the story. The state of her told part of it, anyway. Her hair was tangled and sweaty, her olive skin deeply flushed, and half her buttons were undone. Zora dressed and sat down on the huge bed they'd shared since they were children.
This was definitely going to be good.
"It's no trouble," Sera said, grinning now. "You know I never like to let more than an hour pass without a book in my hand."
"Even if you've already read it a dozen times," Zora added.
"How well you know me."
Sera crawled into bed and gazed up at her sister, looking for a moment like the child she had been not so long ago. She leaned over and rested her head on Zora's lap, closing her eyes. "Tell me everything."
Zora ran her fingers through Seraphine's long, ashen hair and chewed her lip, fumbling for words through the rosy fog of her excitement.
"Elliot took me to the canals just outside the market," she began, trying to steady the giddy trembling in her voice. "He said he had a surprise to show me. Would you believe his father saw fit to give him a boat?"
"Not if anyone but you were to tell me," Sera murmured sleepily. Elliot was a nice boy, but he wasn't very good at anything. As far as she knew, he had never laid hands on a tiller in his life. "Did he take you out onto the water?"
Zora's smile widened. "He did," she replied, stroking Seraphine's hair absently, now. The soft strands spilled through her fingers like water as she gazed into the middle distance. "Though we didn't actually set sail. He still has no clue how to navigate the boat," she laughed. "No, he helped me aboard and…we... er…"
Sera's eyes shot open. She covered her mouth with her hands.
"We… we shagged," Zora blurted, her heart pounding wildly. It was the first time in her life she'd ever uttered those words, and somehow now her confession to her sister made the event truly real.
Her sister sat bolt upright in a flurry of hair and ribbons. Her eyes were like silver coins, comically wide. "You what? Zora!"
Zora raised her brows. "What?" she teased. "I've had eighteen birthdays! I can certainly handle seeing one c––"
Sera threw her arms around her, driving the wind from her lungs. She buried her face in the soft, muted darkness of Zoraline's hair, holding her tightly. She didn't know why, but the urge to cry had suddenly welled up within her. Zora was different, now. She was a grown woman in every sense. Seraphine could not imagine what it must be like. She had never even held a man's hand, much less slept with one.
Be good to her, Elliot, she thought, leaning back a little and wiping her eyes. You had better not hurt her. Ever.
"I'm so happy for you, Zora," she said earnestly. "I really am. What was it like?"
Zora closed her eyes and let her head fall back as she recalled the encounter. "Great Light, like nothing I could ever have imagined," she sighed.
She opened her eyes again and locked them with her sister's. It was like staring into a pair of mirrors. It was the only thing about them that was identical, the only coloring they shared, even though they had shared a womb. Their mother had been a famous Auroran beauty with large, storm-gray eyes, and she had passed this trait to her twin daughters. It was nearly all that remained of her, now.
"It did... hurt a bit at first," she admitted, taking care not to scare her sister. She felt Sera stiffen in her arms, and squeezed her too-delicate shoulders reassuringly. "But gods, after that part, it was like…" She paused, searching for the right words to describe an utterly indescribable feeling. "Do you remember that night when we found the highest cliff in Driftwood to dive from?"
Sera closed her eyes and summoned the memory to the forefront of her mind. "That was the best night of my life," she said softly. She could still smell the sea if she tried, could still hear the crashing of the waves and feel the perfect smoothness of cool water over her skin. She had looked at the stars between her spread fingers and marveled at the infinite worlds beyond the sky. It was an almost religious ecstasy. "I remember leaping from the cliff. Falling through the air for so long… being weightless. It was the most wonderful feeling…. My stomach felt like it was full of butterflies. Is it like that?"
Zora grinned. "It is like that, but that feeling deep in your belly just keeps growing stronger," she replied. "And that feeling gets so… overwhelming… it takes over your entire body." Her eyes flitted toward the ceiling, then closed again. "And then things were almost a blur. So fast. So intense." She exhaled shakily. "And after, you feel utterly weightless. I imagine it's what floating on a cloud might feel like."
Zora looked at her sister and shivered despite herself. It was too big, this feeling. Far too big for just one person to carry. "Oh, Sera. It was…it was amazing."
Seraphine drew her sister's head to her chest and wrapped her arms around her, resting her cheek against Zora's brow. She knew that there was nothing left to say. They fell onto their sides and huddled together under the covers, unaware that they were now exactly as they had been in their mother's womb. It was how they had always slept. It was the only way they knew how to sleep.
"Zora…" she whispered after a time.
"I wish Logan had let us go with him to Aurora. I have a horrible feeling about this trip. I feel..." She gripped her sister's hand. "I really feel that something awful is going to happen to him."
"You always worry when he goes away, Sera. He can look after himself."
Seraphine squinted at Zora's face in the darkness, but could find little concern there. Zoraline had complete confidence in Logan's abilities because she feared him, and she truly felt that a man as intimidating as her brother would arise victorious against any threat. Sera knew that their brother was strong, but she also knew that he had a terrible weakness, because it was one she shared, herself. When Zora was angry, she would shout, bluster, and swear. Her temper was hot and quick, and it was easy for Sera to soothe her. But Logan and Sera were possessed of a singularly cold temper, one they could wield like a scalpel, instead of a bludgeon.
When the twins were very young, an older boy had struck Zoraline across the mouth so hard that she'd fallen to the ground with a split lip. Seraphine had calmly placed herself between them, overpowered the boy, and with a quick twist, had broken his hand so badly that he would never be able to throw a proper punch again. And the entire time, she had known exactly what she was doing.
Sera couldn't allow that part of herself to surface ever again, and she had done well to keep it submerged for years. But Logan was under more and more pressure every day. He had inherited a kingdom in financial crisis, courtesy of their Hero father and a parade of lovers with ever-open beaks. He was less their brother and more their King all the time, and that worried Sera. How long could Logan keep that coldness at bay when he consistently pushed her away? Didn't he know that he needed her––and Zora, too? Didn't he know that they needed their serious, diligent older brother and not the increasingly cold young liege he had become?
Mother, Father, wherever you are, now, please look after Logan, she prayed silently. Please protect him from the mess you left in his lap, Father. I forgive you… Only let the people love him the way they loved Mother.
To Seraphine's eyes, they'd looked like the perfect pair––an achingly beautiful mother, all elegance and warmth...and a little sadness, too...seated on soft cushions in the grass with one sun-kissed daughter who resembled her more and more every day and one as fair as snow.
She felt her eyes moisten again. She had trained herself to let her anger melt into sorrow. Sorrow was safer. Sorrow never broke a boy's hand beyond repair, and both emotions were powered by the same terrible intelligence.
She snapped out of her reverie with a start. Zora was staring at her, and although Sera knew her sister couldn't see her face, she couldn't escape those brilliant grey eyes. Their mother's eyes.
Zora knew that Sera was still fretting, potentially working herself into a crying jag––though she sorely hoped she was wrong.
"I'm all right," she murmured, placing Zora's hand on her heart so that she could feel that she was still quite calm.
Zora arched an eyebrow. "Really, Seraphine?" she said, sounding just like Logan for a moment. "You honestly think you can fool me?" She was exceptionally adept at reading people. She also knew that Sera was just as good at hiding her feelings from people-except her sister.
"Oh, all right," Sera sighed. "I can't stop thinking about him, Zora. I'm frightened. He's never been so far away. And I'm not talking about his little excursions."
She didn't have to elaborate. Zora understood. She was growing concerned, herself, though she would never, ever have admitted it to Logan. Those things were better left to Sera, who could tame anyone in time with her endless patience and the wonderfully absurd things that came out of her mouth—even Zora, who had been declared "absolutely hopeless" by several governesses who threw up their hands in dismay after just days spent trying to squash her wild nature beneath their severe, high-buttoned shoes. Sera adored her for that trait, which touched her more than she could say. Zora knew perfectly well who she was, and nothing could change that. She wasn't afraid of what others might think about her. She knew she could outdo them all in every conceivable way. And all she needed were her brother and sister, anyway. Everyone else's "approval" could go to the bloody Void and rot there with their father, as far as she cared. She'd spent too many years harboring the immense pain in her heart from what King Sparrow had done––or failed to do––as a father. After his pointless, untimely death at the hands of three bottles of wine and a slippery staircase, she had decided that she would allow neither her father nor anyone else to cause her such anguish ever again.
At last, Zora said, "I wish we could have gone, too. I've… had bad dreams. They're only dreams, mind you, but… well…"
"You're worried that there might be something to them," Sera finished for her.
Zora couldn't help smiling a little. She loved the way Sera could always finish her thoughts. "Shall we stow away on another boat and chase him down, then?" she asked, forcing a false note of cheeriness into her voice.
Her sister shook her head. "I have a feeling that the reason Logan wouldn't let us go with him is because he believes there could be danger. If we follow him we'll throw off his concentration, and I don't think he can afford that."
Zora rolled onto her back and placed her hands behind her head, gazing up at the ceiling through the darkness. "I don't like standing aside, either. Rather boring, if you ask me."
She flinched, startled, as long shadowy tendrils materialized before her, obscuring her view completely. She quickly rubbed her eyes, perplexed to have seen shadows in what she already perceived as utter darkness, and when she reopened them, the anomalies were gone.
"I don't think anyone does," Sera said, glancing at her curiously. "But we have to. We'd only get in the way if there's danger in Aurora. One day, we'll be able to fight by Logan's side. But that day hasn't come. For now, I suppose he'll just have to make do with the entire Albion Army."
Zora sat up. "If swords were the only weapon I could bring with me, I would agree." She grinned mischievously, her voice lowering to a hush. "But... I have gotten rather good with the pistol I acquired a few months ago. Walter still doesn't know about my target practice––he'd just take the gun away, anyway––but Major Swift says I am a natural."
Raising herself on one elbow, Seraphine smirked and said, "I wouldn't tell Elliot what the Major thinks of your form, if I were you."
Zora's face flushed with warmth. "What...what in the Light do you mean by that?"
"Oh, let's not do this again. You fancy him. And you can continue to deny it for a thousand years, but it won't make it any less true. Elliot is already quite intimidated by the man's moustache. Any more would crush him. There's only one Major Swift, unfortunately for womankind."
"Unfortunately," Zora sighed in concession. "His handsomeness is only further magnified by his skill with firearms. He demonstrates such prowess with his weapons, and yet… he is still such a gentleman, Sera. Oh, what it must be like to be with a man such as him…"
Sera imagined leaping from the cliff in Driftwood and felt a flutter in her chest. "I can't begin to…" She trailed off, shaking her head slowly. It was all very much beyond her. She cleared her throat. "Er, I was wondering, do you think Major Swift would be––that he might take me on as a student, as well? You don't have to share your pistol with me. I finished the final drawings for my longshot rifle while I was waiting for you tonight, and I think I can build it quickly, with your help. I only need someone to show me how to use it."
A playful grin crossed Zora's lips. "So, if I am understanding you correctly, you'd like the Major to show you how to handle a...big gun?" Zora winked before tossing her head back and laughing heartily. The breeze from the open window ruffled her hair, cooling her neck, and she closed her eyes and basked. "I think that can be arranged. Perhaps he will even let you fire his rifle...until you've finished building yours."
Sera went scarlet, dove under the covers and pulled them up over her head. "No!" she yelped, muffled by the blankets. Zora had a unique ability to embarrass her with almost no effort whatsoever, an ability she had honed for over a decade.
Zora fell back, still giggling as she threw an arm around the lump of bedding that hid her blushing sister. "Oh, come now," she teased. "You wouldn't want to have a look at his...weaponry?"
"I've seen my fair share of them in my anatomy books. They don't really look very appealing."
"Ah!" Zora pointed a finger in the air. "That's because the illustrations in your anatomy books aren't exactly depicting them at their... fullest potential, if you know what I mean. They're rather magical if you actually watch one spring into action!"
Sera brought her hands to her face and felt heat radiating into her palms. She knew she must look like an overripe cherry, now, and was once again glad of the dark. "I do know," she shot back. "I don't just look at the pictures, you know. I...skim the captions. Apparently they inflate like balloons."
Zora bit down on her lip in a failed attempt to suppress a snort of laughter. "So much more fun than balloons," she chuckled.
A knock at the door startled both girls into sudden silence.
"Jasper," Sera hissed, tugging the blankets back over her chin.
Zora quickly rolled over and assumed her usual sleeping position, feigning her most convincing snore. Through the backs of her eyelids, she could detect a faint light as Jasper entered, holding a candle.
"That charade might fool your ladies-in-waiting, Princesses," he remarked dryly as he walked across the room to close the window they'd left open. "But I heard your cackling all the way down the halls."
Zora sat up slowly. "Sorry, Jasper," she softly replied. "We were just––"
"About to wake the entire castle," he finished for her. "Yes, I know. Fortunately, you only succeeded in waking me. I won't ask what you've been up to, Zoraline. I ask merely that you put it aside until the morning. You both need your rest. With King Logan gone, your responsibilities have grown."
"Like balloons," Zora snickered. "Wouldn't you say, Sera?"
Sera buried her face in her pillow, choking back gales of laughter.
"Quite," the elderly valet agreed, smiling indulgently. "Now then, if you will permit me, I will bid you goodnight, my ladies."
He withdrew, taking the light with him, and the girls were once again bathed in darkness.
Zora closed her eyes and turned onto her side, facing her sister. "Sera?" she whispered.
Zora thought about the shadows she had seen through the darkness, slithering across the ceiling like inky serpents. It terrified her. "Do you ever… see things?" She paused, nervous that she was about to sound like a babbling lunatic. "Things that may not really be there?"
Sera shifted uncomfortably, reading more fear in her sister's voice than she had ever heard, before. Zora did not frighten easily. "I…" She paused, trying to think of a way to explain without making it worse. "No, not exactly," she said quietly. "But sometimes… something happens, and somehow I already knew it would. Why? Do you?"
Zora took her sister's hand, enfolding it between hers. "Not really," she lied. "I was just thinking aloud, I suppose."
But as she closed her eyes, she couldn't help thinking of those shadows, and the way they had seemed to move. They'd looked… almost like men, she thought, and a cold blanket of dread fell heavily over her racing heart.
They'd looked alive.