Angels of Ashes and Ivory by Raye Wagner
The captain marchedthrough the corridor, ignoring the evenly spaced guards dressed in the same pristine color as the milky stone. The flickering lamps cast dark shadows on the walls and floors as if revealing the truth about this place—despite all the prince’s efforts at appearances. He was not virtuous. Nor was he honest. And he most definitely was not trustworthy…except when it came to protecting his self-interest.
Defiance pounded with every beat of the captain’s heart as he led his contingency of men to the throne room in the Quartz Castle, his eyes still stinging with the red grit of Demon Desert. Even with his recent promotion, or precisely because of it, this was his last mission. He was done serving—no, slaving for the narcissistic prince. After the contingency was dismissed tonight, the captain would fetch Iza from the slave chambers, and together, they’d flee.
If she’s still alive.
His fear wasn’t wholly unfounded, considering the number of slaves the prince purchased each year. The risk of humans dying in Quartz Castle was higher than anywhere in Midri, except possibly with the queen.
The man tried to push the fresh memories away, but the stench of char and sulfur still clung to his nostrils and the back of his tongue. Not that he cared about the mixed-breed boy’s death. The captain had done what was needed to ensure the best chance for his and Iza’s escape. The raw ache beneath his breastbone had nothing to do with the exuberant child who’d accompanied them out on their assignment but would never return. If his death was all it took for the captain and Iza to escape this hell, it was a small sacrifice.
The boy’s fate had been sealed the moment he was born. The prince only allowed the weakest of his offspring to be raised by their mothers and only because they were usefulas bait or tithe.
Which is what had happened to the child.
The captain would make sure that his offspring didn’t suffer the same fate.
The churning in his middle was not fear. The emotion surging up through his chest, tightening his shoulders, and making his nostrils flare was not because he was scared of the prince.
Captain Ludo loathed him.
The five men strode through the hall, but their footsteps were eerily silent as they moved. Stealth. Strength. Savagery. The prince’s Elite guards were sworn to these three tenants, the code of their unit.
The captain sensed his men in formation behind him: Demke. Bilk. Ahriman. Mica. His men followed him, not because they were half-brothers, or even because Ludo was their captain, but because the prince commanded it.
Above all else, they were bound to him by blood and soul.
Do they hate him, too?
If not, it was only a matter of time.
“Open the doors,” the captain barked as they neared the entrance to the throne room.
The two servants heaved open the dark wooden doors, and the scent of myrrh billowed out to greet them.
The captain slid through the opening as soon as it was large enough to let him pass, and he crossed several steps past the threshold to allow his men to file into the sumptuous room.
To his left stood the crier, and behind him, as well as on the right side of the doorway, there would be guards dressed in white. Four additional guards rounded out their numbers; two at the base of the stairs to the dais and two near the throne.
Silk tapestries covered the walls. When he was younger and served in the throne room, Ludo spent hours staring at the intricate patterns woven in silver thread. Every guard started at the same place, but only a few ever made it to the Elite, and even fewer became captain.
He inhaled, and his gaze skimmed over the occupants of the dais, hovering briefly on the female slaves fawning over the prince. Iza was there, off to the side, alive. The vice around the captain’s chest loosened a hair.
Another slave-girl held a golden chalice to the prince’s lips, but he pushed her hand away and then flicked his wrist as if shooing a fly, his nose wrinkling.
She stepped back to join the other two, one holding a platter of cured meats, dried fruits, nuts, and cheeses, and the other, Iza, stood with her wrists and ankles in metal shackles. The shackles were less worrying than the new scab on her cheek, evidence of the prince’s irritation.
Did he suspect anything?
Keeping a neutral expression, the captain exhaled before he nodded to the crier.
The crier pounded the butt of his staff on the milky quartz floor, and the prince snarled, “Shut the doors.”
As the doors boomed shut, the useless crier announced, “Captain Ludo.”
The prince narrowed his icy blue eyes as he studied the men, and Ludo’s insides writhed. The prince’s unnaturally chiseled form leaned forward. Eager. Hungry. Always searching for an opportunity to satiate his desire for violence.
“Report,” the prince said, leaning back in his chair.
The captain glanced again at Iza, realized his mistake, and then forced himself to look at each of the other slaves before he began. “Vean has been searching V district for a girl with blue hair—”
“Why?” the prince asked, frowning. “There are dozens of girls with dyed hair. Are you suggesting that he’s taken a mistress?”
Ludo shook his head. “We don’t know what Vean wants with the girl yet—” he ignored the prince’s heavy sigh, even though the sound sent prickles of dread through the captain. “—but the reward is now significant. Poachers took on the hunt almost a week ago.”
“If Vean has money, it means my mother wants her,” the prince muttered. Then he leaned forward. “What else?”
The captain’s hands grew slick, and he realized his second mistake too late. His report should’ve begun with success. The prince tended to care less about missing information when he was assuaged with positive reports, first. “We met with the poachers today. They don’t know anything more, and they still hadn’t found her when Vean left V district this morning. The Elite followed him through the desert to Lilith’s castle. We will return to V tomorrow to hunt the girl.”
Once Vean had left the outskirts of the city, the Elite had followed at a distance, relying on their supernatural vision and speed as they crossed the waste of wind-blown dunes toward the black tourmaline castle, the prison where Lilith was bound. Angelic power fueled the barrier, which trapped any with demon blood inside the stone grounds. This was why the prince demanded they send the boy, the bait, through the invisible veil.
The captain blinked and saw the child’s wide-eyed expression when they told him what he needed to do. When he refused to fetch the ball thrown across the perimeter, the soldiers seized him. Then came the tears and snot running down his chubby face as he realized something was very wrong. His desperate, useless cries followed when the men threw him into the black stone courtyard, through the barrier, which allowed any being into the queen’s black castle’s grounds, but demons would never depart alive.
Of course, the boy was ignorant of the barrier created by first-order angels. And the boy, though naïve, wasn’t an innocent human child. So, when he ran back, holding the orange ball in his chubby hand, and his foot stepped off the black stone to the blood-red sand… The stench of charred flesh and sulfurous demon had filled the air, and all that remained of the mixed-breed wafted away on the hot, rank breeze.
“There was a flash of blue fire when he tried to cross the threshold, just as you said,” Ludo concluded.
This was not the first time the captain had spied on the queen’s prison on the other side of Demon Desert. However, it was the first time he’d been in charge of sending a sacrifice through the veil in an attempt to draw the celestials’ attention—a risky play in his opinion. Yet, the prince’s obsession with his mother’s imprisonment was rarely superseded. Only his rage over his wife’s abandonment ever came close.
As far as the captain knew, the only “person” who willingly ventured into Demon Desert was Vean, a fallen angel with limited power—much like them.
The prince’s grin was brief. “Let’s hope it’s enough to alert the celestials so they block any of her scheming to break free of her imprisonment.” His expression turned hard. “I lost two guards last month to her depravity, and I’ve heard rumors of increasing corruption inside V. We won’t let her ruin Midri. It’s mine.”
By her, he meant the demon Lilith. As for the dead guards, the prince had ordered their executions, accusing them of skimming from the V-district tolls they collected on his behalf. If anyone was ruining Midri, it was him.
Ludo gritted his teeth but couldn’t wholly prevent the pinch to his expression.
The prince was far more concerned with ownership of the world than the people who lived here. Despicable and… typical.
“And what of the blue-haired whore?” the prince demanded, coming back to the one topic Ludo wished to avoid. “Please tell me you didn’t interrupt my night only to tell me the celestials were alerted of Vean’s presence with Lilith again. That’s precisely why I sent you. Tell me more about this girl. Is she human? Demon? Angel?”
The latter was almost laughable, except that Vean was the one looking for her.
“Possibly,” the captain said, sweat beading his forehead when the prince frowned. There had to be some way to get this conversation back on stable footing. “The speculation among the poachers is she has a Celestial token or heavenly key or something angelically powerful. Apparently, Vean has tried to find a girl with blue hair before.”
“Is that so?”
“Over a dozen annum ago,” the captain said, making it clear that any ineptitude then had nothing to do with him. “He stopped searching for a while, according to one of the poachers, but he’s at it again.”
The prince hummed and tapped his fingers against the armrest of his throne. “And where is she now?”
The captain wanted to bellow with frustration. He was exhausted. Hungry. And all patience he’d cultivated over years of serving the prince was wearing thin. Was the prince intentionally toying with him or just in one of his moods?
“Most likely in V district,” the captain said.
“Ah…” the prince said, rising from his throne. “Is that all you’ve got?”
The prince tsked, and reflexively, Ludo’s insides clenched. He knew what that sound meant even if he didn’t know what form the prince’s violence would take.
A sickening epiphany burst within the captain’s mind.
Though he hated the prince, the captain did gain pleasurable desires by living here: the slave in chains being one of them. Sweat beaded on his upper lip, and his palms itched. He’d convinced himself that he wasn’t afraid of Prince Ubel. That Ludo had nothing to lose.
He had lied to himself. And the worst part of this particular deception was that he’d believed it. But the captain was wrong. He was afraid. Not only for himself but Iza, too. As his thoughts went to her, so did his gaze.
The prince leaned toward the captain, his voice rising. “You’ve thrown out a bunch of ‘I don’t knows’ and wasted my time?”
The captain’s heart raced, and he licked his parched lips. He needed to answer the prince, but his answer had to be just right to diffuse the situation.
He cleared his throat.
Time seemed to slow as the prince rose, moving with the speed of a demon. He pulled the sword from the nearest guard, in less than a heartbeat—
The captain blinked.
—the prince swung the blade—
The weapon whistled in the air and then cut down the slaves.
All of them lay crumpled on the stone floor, blood gushing from the severed vessels in their necks, the dark moisture soaked into their white dresses and then puddled on the floor.
“You touched my property,” the prince snarled, facing the Elite. His pristine attire was now sprayed with blood. “How dare you touch my property!”
The captain blinked again, but the image of Iza lying on her side didn’t change. Her life pulsed from her body, and her lips parted, revealing her severed tongue. All three of the female slaves remained silent as the light left their eyes.
Captain Ludo’s offense was not unique.
Every single one of his brothers had stolen time with one or more of the prince’s slaves.
So why him? Why now?
“You delusional ass,” the prince snarled. “You thought you fell in love. You thought that tender, fleeting emotion would somehow save you?”
Ludo shook his head but kept his gaze on Iza even as he felt the prince approach.
“If such a thing as love exists, it’s a crippling weakness meant to ruin you. It will make you suffer until it destroys you. Love ruins everything and everyone it touches,” the prince shouted, his spittle hitting Ludo in the face.
With a sharp inhale, the captain realized the biggest mistake he’d made was expecting to find reason within the unreasonable.
Before he could exhale, pain exploded through his midsection, the prince’s sword tearing the air from the captain’s lungs and stealing his vision in a flash of stunning white light. But he was part demon, so the flash of light was swallowed up by the dark depths of hell, which awaited his kind. Ludo screamed, an anguished-filled cry for all that he’d nearly had…and lost. He fell to the ground, and heat raged through him, devouring every last shred of hope against his inevitable end. As the inferno consumed him, he caught snatches of conversation:
The prince shouted, “Tell me what you know!”
“The poachers said they had a lead—” said one of his brothers.
The former captain didn’t care anymore. Death rushed up to meet him, tearing at the threads of life that held his soul to the ruined physical body he’d once inhabited.
Just before his soul ripped free, the last thing he heard was the disembodied voice of the prince saying, “Find this item of celestial power, and bring it to me.”