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Chapter One

Chapter One

Ayseli, 300 years later…

From the city itself to the settlements lying just beyond, Ayseli was a hive of activity. Its inhabitants, bright-eyed and smiling, were hard at work preparing for the annual Festival of Elements- an event made even more special with the impending arrival of the Council of Elements.

It was the council that dominated Ellen’s thoughts as she navigated the busy corridors of the citadel. “Harmony? Harmony!” she called frantically, ducking and dodging the many servants and pages rushing past. Finding a seam in the crowd, she made for the landing, one hand resting upon her bosom. Every passer by she questioned provided the same answer: none knew where Harmony could be. Ellen reached into the pocket of her skirt, withdrew a handkerchief she used to dab at her perspiring brow. She blew out a long breath. Though entirely familiar with the girl’s ability to disappear at will from the instant she could walk, this was one of those instances where Ellen would not be greeting her with an indulgent smile.

Her poise recovered, Ellen mingled with the crowd once more. Her strides brought her to the top of the magnificent winding staircase carpeted in dark blue, its gold railings shining brightly in the sunlight streaming from overhead. Ellen frantically searched for a little blonde head among the hustle and bustle of the main floor. Outside, the din of cheering indicated the first guests had already arrived. The woman blew out a long, slow breath. Where was that girl?

Just then, a high-pitched, excited shout sounded behind her and she whirled around. A small figure leaped from the second floor railing, grabbed onto the banner depicting the emblem of the Light and swung down amidst fits of giggles. Ellen shrieked in terror and hurried forward, her arms open to catch the girl. The power behind her swing knocked both to the floor, along with a flower vase set upon a table. Harmony laughed in delight.

Two pages quickly assisted the two, inspecting both for any injury. Ellen dismissed them with a sharp wave before leveling Harmony with a stern look. At ten years old she was a near copy of her mother, her rounded, impish face crowned by golden blonde hair. Sky blue eyes shone with merriment- and absolutely no concern for the welfare of her precious person. She didn’t even flinch as the old woman snatched her by the wrist and dragged her into a side room. “Harmony!” she sputtered, one hand resting upon her still-heaving bosom. “What foolishness possesses you? You could have been hurt!”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Harmony replied, disregarding her governess’ panic much as she had her own safety. “The rug there is really soft, Ellen. Cole said so. That’s why he always jumps down that way.”

“Cole,” Ellen repeated in disgust. “That explains it. My lady, he is a servant, a shadow person! He should not even be looking you in the eye, let alone enticing you to risk your neck!” she chided.

“But it looked like fun,” Harmony protested. “Cole wouldn’t have showed me if he knew I’d be hurt.” She smiled proudly. “We practiced all last night. He said I was a natural!”

“You- you were awake, alone, with that boy?” Ellen cried, aghast. When Harmony nodded the old woman’s eyes rolled skyward, her hands clasped at her bosom. “Light, will you listen to your daughter?” she implored. Glancing back at Harmony, her expression turned firm, as did her voice. “Do not offer your trust to the likes of him, my lady. Don’t forget what happened to your grandmother.”

At this Harmony had the sense to look ashamed. She bowed her head, murmuring, “I know.” After a moment she lifted her gaze to Ellen’s, her brows drawing together in puzzlement. “But why can’t I trust him? Cole is my friend.”

“Friend? Don’t be ridiculous,” Ellen responded sharply. “We have wasted enough time here, my lady. Your mother expects you to be ready for the welcome banquet. I have no intention of keeping her waiting.”

***

Lady Helena sat at her desk- mahogany, a gift from the Earth tamer, Silvia- penning a correspondence when there was a gentle knock at her door. She granted permission to enter, not once looking up. The door clicked open, and there echoed the heavy sound of armored footsteps. Helena lifted her head then, giving the knight standing there a tiny, cordial smile. “Sir Galimh. What have you to report?”

Sir Galimh, captain of the Guardians of the Light, was a barrel-chested, grizzled warrior with a full salt and pepper beard and a pair of gray eyes that were still sharp despite his age. He was a staple in her household, having served her for the past twenty years. He clasped a hand over his heart and bowed. “My Lady,” he greeted warmly. “I have taken the liberty of reassigning most of the servants to duties outside the Citadel. With the Council here, I would not risk any of them so much as passing what could be a threat to their safety.”

She responded with an approving nod. Galimh was, as ever, her most vigilant knight. “And the Council suites?”

“Being readied as we speak, and those servants under close scrutiny.”

Helena favored him with a tiny smile. “You have once again exceeded my expectations, Captain. I commend you.”

He did not smile or preen at the compliment. His face was a mask of determination as he said, “I have sworn an oath to let no harm befall any of the inhabitants here. They’ll not catch me unaware again.”

His words harkened to a time, many years ago, when Helena- and all of Caeher- had witnessed terrible atrocities wrought by the rebels of Shadow, and put the emotion from her. “I have every confidence in your capabilities, Sir Galimh.” She dipped her pen, resumed her letter. “Send invitations to the Council to meet in my solar after the banquet. I shall be in the reception hall shortly.”

“As you wish,” Galimh answered, clapping his hand over his heart and bowing. He departed, softly closing the door behind him.

Helena was just finishing the correspondence when enthusiastic cheering sounded from below. Setting the pen aside, she rose to stand in front of the window. People gathered round the four coaches lining the courtyard. Each was a stunning representation of the best craftsmanship the other major cities had to offer, right down to the gilt-edged wagon wheels. Gems embedded around doors and windows matched those set in the rings circling her fingers.

She gazed at them now, these physical representations of the unity the elements shared: Wind’s white topaz, Fire’s carnelian, her own sunstone on the first three fingers of her right hand, Earth’s agate and Water’s aquamarine on her left. Only the third left finger was bare. Not since Lailie had a Lady of Light worn Shadow’s onyx. And it had always been Helena’s intent that a Lady of Light never wear it again.

As Helena listened to the crowd’s joyous cries of each Council member’s name, love and admiration in their voices, her hands gripped the ledge, very tightly. Sunlight picked out the sunstone, which now flashed and hummed with power as she silently renewed her vow to uphold Lailie’s decree. The shadows seemed to shift and tremble at her feet, then withdrew. Though the possibility of that happening without a tamer’s influence was nil, the thought pleased her all the same.

***

Harmony, dressed a white gown with gold trim along the hem and sleeves, her hair brushed to glistening gold, trotted beside Ellen as the woman escorted her to the reception hall. They passed the site of what Ellen referred to as ‘a plot hatched to kill you by that boy,’ descended the great staircase and strode across the main floor. The front gates stood open, allowing Harmony to see the busy, crowded courtyard. But when she saw Cole leaving among a group of other servants she immediately shook off Ellen’s hand and went after him.

Ignoring Ellen’s insistent demands that she return at once, Harmony quickly scanned the courtyard before spotting Cole once again. Picking up her skirts, she raced off, a broad smile upon her face. She had no thought for her mother, or the lecture Ellen was sure to give her. All she cared about was sharing her escapade with her best friend.

Harmony followed the servants as far as the entrance to the stables. The air was rich with the scents of leather, horse and feed, tickling her nose so much she sneezed. Somehow Cole heard her above all the noise and, turning, bestowed her with a smile. He was a year older than she, with tousled black hair and the most extraordinary golden brown eyes. He had as much regard for duty as she and wasted no time in abandoning the other servants to meet her. They clasped hands in greeting before he led her into an empty stall. Safely hidden from prying eyes, Harmony threw her arms around him and squeezed. He laughed, as he always did, at her enthusiasm.

“Harmony, what are you doing here?” he asked when she drew back. His eyes took in her attire, his brow creasing. “I thought you had to be at the banquet.”

“I did. I mean, I do,” she hastened to add, smiling. She gripped his hands tightly. “Cole, I did it!”

Awareness lit his eyes. “You did? When?”

“This morning,” she replied enthusiastically, reliving that moment all over again. “I wish you could have seen me! I thought you’d be in the hall that time.”

For a moment Cole looked uneasy, as if he had just eaten something really horrible. Then he sighed and bowed his head. “I was reassigned today.”

“Reassigned?” The shock could have been no worse had he told her he was to be executed. “Oh, no! Why?”

He gave her a slight smile that did not reach his eyes. “Because I’m a shadow servant, and shouldn’t be seen talking to you.”

Harmony scowled and folded her arms. “I don’t care about that,” she declared.

Cole, who had started to smile at this, shifted his glance to the happenings outside the stall and abruptly took hold of her arm to draw her deeper into the shadows. Both went very still as the knights passed. After they had gone Cole sighed and moved away from her. “You better go, Harmony. Ellen probably has the whole guard looking for you. Don’t worry about me,” he assured her, gazing at his surroundings with a small smile. “I think I’ll like working with the horses.”

Harmony, who knew the Master of Horse’s temperament, did not think so. Troubled by the circumstances, she tried to think of ways around his new assignment when her gaze picked out the doorway on the tack house. “Oh!”

Her gasp startled him. “What is it?”

Harmony smiled and reached for his hand once again. It was calloused from spending his entire life as a servant. “I’ll come back after dark! I’ll bring you all kinds of food from the banquet and-”

“No! Don’t do that!”

The desperate urgency in his voice confused her for a moment. Upon realizing he feared she’d get in trouble, she gave him a reassuring smile. “I’ll use the secret tunnel you told me about. I won’t be caught. None of the guards know where it is.” At seeing her argument still had not convinced him, she added, very softly, “Please? I want to see you.”

There was a brief silence before Cole said, his voice hushed, “You do?”

The familiar awe was in his eyes. It had been there ever since that day six months ago when she took it upon herself to say hello to the boy serving her tea. “Of course I do!” she replied, pressing his hand. “You’re my friend, and friends always like to see each other.”

Cole smiled slightly, which quickly turned into a grimace as Ellen’s unpleasant cry of Harmony’s name sounded from beyond the stall. Harmony groaned and stole a glance through the wooden boards. Her governess stood a short distance away, her eyes squinted as she held her sleeve up to her nose. At seeing her disgusted expression, the children snickered.

Turning to face her once again, Cole quickly whispered, “Wait for me to get you tonight. The others don’t know I’ve shown you that tunnel.” He winced as Ellen’s demands grew more insistent. “You better go.”

“See you tonight!” Harmony said, then, caught up in the moment, kissed him. Cole appeared flustered at her action; when his cheeks turned rosy she laughed in delight. She had been so lonely before befriending him.

They exited the stall together, their hands clasped. When Ellen turned round and released a cry of relief, Cole was quick to let Harmony go and step back.

Ellen’s relief was short lived, for upon spotting the boy her expression hardened. “I should have known. Get away from him, my lady,” she ordered, taking Harmony by the hand and pressing her close, as if shielding her from some indescribable horror. “He is not fit company for Lady Helena’s daughter. You,” she said, addressing Cole snidely. “Run along now. You’ve done enough damage for one day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cole murmured in the same deferential tone Harmony heard all shadow servants use. He bowed and left without a single backward glance.

Ellen urged her on then, all the while lecturing her about how unseemly it was to be gallivanting about like a street urchin, and in her newest gown! The speech was quite familiar to Harmony, so Ellen swallowed her practiced responses as if it were the first time she had heard them.

The old woman drew her to a halt at the front gates and began picking the bits of straw from her gown. “Well, that’s all can be done for it now,” she announced, though her tone indicated she was not satisfied. She took Harmony’s hand. “No running off with you, understand?”

“Yes, Ellen,” she replied demurely. Ellen, who had been watching her pointedly, smiled in pleasure.

They continued on, the old woman remarking upon how the cooks had argued over the main course of the meal, for each wanted to honor every member of Helena’s council accordingly. Harmony absently listened, for her thoughts were focused on the meeting with Cole later that night. She smiled brightly.

As with every important event that took place in the Citadel of Light, the attention paid to decorating the reception hall was exceptional. The floor, white marble and polished to a mirror’s gleam, looked like still water. Tables swathed in the finest linen featured magnificent centerpieces dedicated to the cities the other elemental tamers ruled. Servants in white, green, blue, red and gold livery flitted about each section of tables, lighting candles, laying out silverware, and pouring wine into slender glasses.

Upon entering the room Harmony saw some of the young pages she knew and went to wave when Ellen checked her. “Remember who you are,” she advised in a low whisper. Harmony pursed her lips, wishing at that moment she was anyone other than Lady Helena’s daughter.

The doors at the end of the chamber opened, and a voice bellowed, “Presenting Lady Helena, Lady of Light!” All activity ceased as men and women paid their respects. Knights posted in all corners placed their hands over their hearts. Harmony, a little unsteady as she was forced to retain hold of Ellen’s hand as well as the corner of her dress, watched as her mother calmly, quietly, strode in.

The light in the room seemed drawn to her, casting her body in a subtle glow that shone the most on her free-flowing platinum blonde hair and creamy skin. Eyes of pale blue gazed out from an arresting face that, for all its beauty, was absent of any warmth. Lady Helena never smiled, or laughed gaily, or engaged in any sort of frivolity. Her expression was always the same: serene, cool, and as distant as a star. The subdued hush in the air hinted at apprehension, especially from the shadow servants.

Helena approached the elegantly crafted chair at the high table and sank into it. Only after she gave permission to rise did the room come back to life. Ellen strode down the long, carpeted path to the high table, Harmony’s hand still clasped within hers. First they made their bows to Helena, who responded with a nod. At her gesture Ellen released Harmony’s hand, pressed a kiss to its surface and withdrew to the lower table. A servant hovering to the side assisted Harmony into the seat to Helena’s right, then stepped back.

Harmony took the silverware bound in a white napkin and unraveled it slowly, careful not to let the fork and knife clatter free as she had during the last banquet. Helena, having concluded her conversation with the knight at her shoulder, extended a hand to grasp the stem of her glass. She brought it to her lips, saying very clearly, “A future Lady of Light cannot expose herself to unnecessary danger.”

Harmony’s cheeks flushed, and she sent a swift look of betrayal Ellen’s way. Naturally her governess would have tattled on her. With an effort, she glanced up at her mother. Helena patiently waited on her response. “I’m sorry, Mother. It just looked fun and I-” Words failed her as Helena leveled her with stern eyes. Suddenly what Harmony wanted to say- ‘I never get to have any fun,’- was not as convincing an argument as it had been in her head.

Helena took a casual sip of her drink, let the glass touch the table very gently, all the while still watching her daughter. “I am assigning you an escort. From now on a knight will accompany you no matter where you are in the Citadel.”

Harmony’s eyes widened in shock. “But Mother-”

“Enough,” she commanded, and Harmony shrank back. “I will not have you endanger yourself like that again. Is that understood?”

The little girl glanced away, not wanting her mother to see her tears.

“Harmony,” Helena said, an edge in her voice. “Answer me.”

“Yes, Mother,” Harmony murmured, watching a pair of servant girls laugh and whisper together, again wishing she were anyone else. “I understand.”

Silence fell between mother and daughter then. After a time Harmony’s tears ceased, and, careful to make certain her mother’s attention was diverted, quickly snatched a few rolls and wrapped them in her napkin. Placing it upon a plate and securing it under her chair, Harmony sat up and folded her hands on the table, a smile on her face. Escort or no, she’d find a way to see Cole. She had made a promise. She did not want to break it.

The chamberlain approached their table. He was a tall, lanky man in layered white robes edged with silver, his eyes wide behind his tiny spectacles. When he smiled his two, very large front teeth were prominently displayed, giving him a squirrel-like appearance. Harmony remembered thinking he was a squirrel and had, at age four, lifted his robes and outright demanded to know where he hid his tail. Ellen had punished her severely for that.

“My Lady,” the chamberlain squeaked, his thin fingers curling around his hands as if he were hiding a nut in his palms. “They have assembled outside the doors.”

“Excellent, Lucian. You may proceed,” Helena replied calmly. As Lucian scurried away, signaling servants with frantic gestures, she addressed Harmony. At hearing her name the girl abandoned circling the mouth of her glass with her finger. “Where is your napkin?” Helena asked as Harmony hunted for something to wipe her hands on.

“Um,” she began, resisting the urge to use the tablecloth as a napkin. Helena solved the problem by presenting hers. Harmony dried her hands and, at her mother’s stern glance, spread the cloth out on her lap. Helena signaled a hovering servant and ordered the boy to bring another napkin in harsh tones. He flinched from her whiplash tone and practically fell over himself as he went to carry out her command. Harmony frowned slightly. Why did her mother have to be so mean to the shadow servants?

By now the people moving about the room found their seats. Lucian, standing by the doors with parchment in hand, called out, “Beloved Lady Helena, our young lady Harmony, people of Ayseli, I present to you the personal guard of the Council of Elements!”

The room echoed with loud, vigorous applause. Lucian bowed, then stepped aside to make way for the procession. Harmony leaned forward in her chair, her face rapt with delight. She’d have to remember every detail for Cole.

Twelve armed guards entered the chamber amidst cheering, their armor distinctive in color and style depending upon the city in which they hailed. Three bronzed, barefooted men in the white and jade of Erimenthia, crown city of Wind tamer Canace, wore tunics emblazoned with the dual wing motif that was Erimenthia’s symbol. Ceremonial bows were propped at the right shoulder, cloth-covered arrows standing proudly from leather quivers. Bells attached to their belts made their every movement echo of music.

The trio that entered next was a more familiar sight to Harmony. Each knight’s armor shone brightly, as did the swords at their hips. The sheaths were encrusted with jewels Harmony recognized as agate. Instead of helms, each man wore a wreath of flowers about their heads. The open blooms gave off such sweet fragrance it was as if a garden had followed them inside. Dark green cloaks embroidered with gold thread hung from their shoulders, flowing about their bodies like banners caught in the wind. The tree emblem crossed by swords, symbol of Earth tamer Silvia and her home of Claybourne Manor, was proudly displayed upon their chest armor.

The crowd gasped in delight when the next trio entered. A pair of tall, lean men with copper skin and dressed in nothing but knee-length skirts, their shoulders covered in armored mantles boasting multicolored feathers, danced in step to the drum the third beat. Each juggled sticks ablaze at the ends with fire that left streaks of yellow, orange and red in the air with every move. The applause heightened when the two men expertly volleyed the sticks between them. As they turned in place the emblem of a phoenix could be seen on the back of their skirts. Its wings were spread over a depiction of the desert city Tovrea, Fire tamer Aithne’s home.

Into the receding applause came the last three men, their appearance seeming to have a stilling effect on the crowd. Each wore beautifully crafted blue and silver armor decorated with elements of the sea. Powerfully built, their faces hidden beneath elongated helms, pronged spears in their hands, nonetheless the men moved with the elegant grace befitting the people of Water tamer Selene’s underwater city, Sohali. Sohali’s trademark half moon rising over cresting waves was emblazoned upon their broad shields, glistening silvery blue in the sunlight.

Once they assembled in front of the high table Lucian spoke once more. “Presenting Lady Canace and her escort, Sir Arun!”

Harmony, forced to stand as the room did to welcome the Wind tamer, smiled broadly as she watched the pair make their entrance. Lady Canace, dressed in loose-fitting clothing that billowed out at the sleeves and legs, strode in alongside Sir Arun, one slender, bronzed hand resting delicately upon his arm. Sir Arun was handsomely dressed in garb similar to the Erimenthia guard. His long, pale gray hair framed his sharply featured face appreciatively. He leaned close to listen to something Lady Canace said, his resulting laughter musical.

After they had presented themselves to Helena and took their seats, Lucian continued. “Presenting the heiress of Wind, the young Lady Anila and avatar, Gaaledin!”

Harmony, who had not been expecting to see her fellow heiresses today, nearly danced in place. It had been at least a year since she last spent any time with them. She anticipated introducing them to Cole.

A little girl with the same facial features as Lady Canace appeared in the doorway, orchid petals threaded through her short, blue-gray hair. Her sharply angled amber eyes glittered with excitement as she responded to the enthusiastic chants of her name. Harmony almost doubled over with laughter. Anila had never been shy about making public appearances, unlike Gaaledin. The falcon looked to and fro in short, nervous bursts, as if he were ready to take flight at any moment. Anila reached over to rub his chest in a soothing manner. In response he nuzzled her hand.

At seeing this Harmony, as always, felt a pang of envy. Being heiress to the Light was very lonesome for her, for she did not have an elemental avatar to learn from and keep her company. When she had asked her mother the reason why, Helena looked down at her in her cool, dispassionate way and said, “Because a Lady of Light must stand on her own. She is to be a source of strength for all Caeher.”

After Anila made her bows to Helena she took her place beside Harmony. The two grasped hands tightly, tears forming in Harmony’s eyes as they shared smiles. Gaaledin cooed and bowed his head, inviting Harmony to stroke his neck. She did so, giggling as the falcon made soft, chirping noises of appreciation.

“Presenting Lady Silvia and her escort, Sir Trevor!” Lucian bellowed joyously.

The crowd once again watched the doors as the Earth tamer, a tall, full-bodied woman with loose, heavy dark brown hair and kind, green eyes, strolled in beside her escort. She was resplendent in a spring green gown with flowers embroidered on the long sleeves, neckline and hem. Like her guard, she wore a crown of flowers, carrying with her the scent of springtime. Sir Trevor, with his tousled shoulder-length brown hair and snapping blue eyes, seemed as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Both he and Silvia looked as if they laughed often.

Anila, who had been watching Helena and her mother greet Lady Silvia, prodded Harmony. “There she is,” she said in a hushed whisper. Harmony followed where she indicated, seeing the young girl make her entrance as Lucian announced, “Presenting the heiress of Earth, young Lady Kaia and avatar, Thraaeohg!”

Kaia was a short copy of her mother, clad in a dress the same cut and style as Lady Silvia’s. She walked with head held high, her shoulders squared. Despite her age the girl had a mature air about her, evidenced by her unflinching reaction to the uproarious crowd. A brown and white buck walked by her side, stepping as daintily as a lady. Both wore wreaths of flowers, hers upon her head, his round his neck.

Anila shook her head. “She thinks she’s so grown up,” she muttered.

“Don’t say that,” Harmony requested, taking Anila’s hand and squeezing it.

“It’s true,” Anila stressed, frowning. “Last summer she told Mother about the trouble I got into when I visited Claybourne Manor. How was I supposed to know that tree was special? It looked like a good place for me to take a nap.”

“Kaia looks out for us,” Harmony defended. “She helped you when you fell out of that tree the last time you were here.”

This reminder resulted in a look of irritation crossing Anila’s face. She folded her arms, her eyes narrowing as she muttered, “I could have flown to safety if I wanted. I could have!” she insisted when Harmony giggled behind her hand. Gaaledin made a sharp sound, earning a furious look of betrayal from Anila.

Kaia, having greeted Helena, Canace and her mother, patiently made her way to the girls. Harmony approached her first, laughing in delight as she threw her arms around Kaia and squeezed. When they drew apart Kaia gave her the same, fond smile reminiscent of an older sister before turning to Anila. She had no welcome for her beyond a sour expression. Kaia exchanged curious looks with Harmony. She just smiled helplessly and shrugged.

Lucian announced Lady Aithne and her escort, Sir Aden. The Fire tamer was a small, copper-skinned dainty woman who looked no more than a child walking beside the scantily clad man. Despite her stature she took command of the room, mostly in part to her outlandish clothing. She wore a feathered mantle like her guard, far more elaborate in design, and a transparent, form-fitting red gown cut in such a way it looked as if her body were consumed by flame. Her headdress, large and boasting dozens of brilliantly colored feathers, looked to weigh twice as much as she did. Yet she carried on as if it were no burden at all. Sir Aden, a bald, bare-chested, giant of a man, gazed down at her with affectionate pride.

Upon their arrival at the high table Lucian went to announce Lady Aithne’s daughter and avatar, but his words were lost when Ember charged into the room amidst half a dozen children as red-haired as she, her phoenix, Ezaalryphe, flying escort. Harmony laughed along with the crowd at this. Unlike the other members of the Council, Lady Aithne had borne more than one child from her union with Fire.

Ember, a little unsteady on stubby legs, barreled down the carpeted walkway, her laughing siblings flanking her. One hand was firmly clasped with a little girl’s Harmony recognized as Ember’s favorite sister, Vesta. Both wore transparent gowns like their mother’s, Vesta’s bright red curls bouncing above her shoulders, Ember’s short, unruly orange-gold hair poking from beneath a headdress. The three girls and two boys, bare feet slapping upon the marble floor, skidded to a halt as Ember and Vesta did to perform hasty bows to Helena and the others. Lady Aithne nodded to them, and the five marched, single-file, to sit at a lower table. Vesta should have joined the others, but Ember, ignoring decorum, led her little sister to where Harmony and the girls stood.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Ember greeted breathlessly, releasing Vesta’s hand to embrace first Kaia, then Harmony and Anila. Ezaalryphe perched upon the back of a chair, tossing her head and chirping derisively at the falcon. Gaaledin fluffed in indignation and looked away, generating laughter from the girls. The two avatars had never been able to stand being in the other’s presence for very long.

While Ember chattered on about the journey to Anila, Harmony turned to Vesta. She was a cute little girl with a heart-shaped face, large red eyes and freckles dotting her cheeks. When she gave her a wide, appreciative smile Harmony smiled back. She had always liked Vesta, and often wished she, too, could become part of her Council.

“Ember, ssh,” Kaia commanded in a hushed whisper, one eye on Lucian as he prepared to make the next announcement. “We have to show proper manners before everyone here.”

Ember, whose spirits were as irrepressible as Harmony’s and tongue sharper than Anila’s, simply looked over at her and said, “Don’t you shush me, Kaia. You’re not my mother.”

Kaia frowned at the rebuke. Anila grinned and nodded her approval, while Vesta stifled a giggle. Harmony was laughing too, but once she spotted Helena’s sharp look she regretfully asked all to be quiet. Ember, no doubt having seen Helena’s disapproving expression, put up no resistance.

Lucian gestured to the doors. “Presenting Lady Selene and her escort, Sir Artemis!”

The Water tamer arrived, elegant and refined in a slim gown that altered from green to blue like sunlight shimmering on the ocean’s surface. A long veil, pale green and edged with lace, traveled the length of her loosely braided aquamarine hair, its end weighed down by bunches of pearls. Sir Artemis, wearing the same blue and silver armor as his fellow guards, held his helm in the crook of his arm, his other firmly linked with Lady Selene’s. He had a long, lined face framed by silvering hair that extended just below his ears. His right eye was concealed behind a blue headband covering half his head. Both moved with the same grace despite their size differences, both gazed at the gathering with the same contentment.

Helena and the rest of the Council stepped forward to greet Lady Selene. As she and Sir Artemis took their places Lucian raised his voice once again and announced, “Presenting the heiress of Water, young Lady Azura and avatar, Tirisekaal!”

The others looked on as the last member of Harmony’s future council slowly, cautiously stepped through the doorway. Azura was an enchanting girl with blue-gray eyes and dark blue hair that was nearly as long as she was tall. Her dress altered between shades of blue and green as she walked. A matching cloak hung from her shoulders. One hand was pressed over her heart, the other secured within her avatar’s. Unlike the others, Tirisekaal could not venture onto land in his true form- a great sea serpent- thus had to take on a human shape for such journeys. He was very tall, easily the tallest man in the room, with rounded features and short white hair. Harmony supposed he would have been considered handsome if not for his bright violet eyes, fin-shaped ears and scaled, iridescent flesh.

Azura and Tirisekaal made their bows to the Council, then proceeded to the other end of the table to the chorus of applause. Harmony reached her first, embracing the girl tightly before stepping back to allow the others to greet her. By the time they were finished Azura’s apprehension had faded, leaving her somewhat red-cheeked but smiling. Tirisekaal’s expression softened, and he nodded to Harmony in silent thanks.

Lucian abandoned the doors and came to stand at the head of the high table. He made a sweeping bow and said, “Ladies and gentleman, once again our Council of Elements and their heiresses!”

The entire room rose to their feet and cheered excitedly. Harmony exchanged glances with her friends, seeing their eyes glowing and cheeks reddening at the praise- except Anila and Ember, of course.

After what she deemed a proper interval Helena signaled for silence. “First and foremost, I bid you all welcome to Ayseli,” she began, her voice echoing loud and clear in the hall. “Three hundred years ago, Caeher was torn apart thanks to the mad whims of Shadow tamer Jett. His betrayal to the Council and the elements themselves marked him and all those associated with him as Caeher’s enemy.” She paused, sweeping her gaze across the room. “And though he is long gone, the taint he introduced to the world remains. Today’s celebration honors our commitment to the peace my ancestor Lailie fought to keep, and the continuing promise that we shall strive to maintain it.” She spread her arms, and the rest of the Council stepped closer to her. “Fear not darkness and shadows, for the Light, along with Earth, Wind, Water and Fire, will shield all from its negative influence.”

The people cheered once more, then began chanting her name, as well as the other tamers’. When this passed, and Helena took her seat, Lucian gestured to the servants. The banquet had begun.

Throughout the meal Harmony requested to hear her friends relate what they had been doing since their last meeting. She listened with a smile as Ember, as she was wont to do, immediately spoke over Kaia and dominated the conversation.

“Mother says I’m ready to start training,” she stated after giving everyone the chance to speak. Vesta nodded eager agreement. The sisters shared a fond look before Ember turned to Kaia. “What about you?”

“I begin my training soon,” she replied with a small nod. “Mother wants me to learn a little more about how things are run in Claybourne before I do that.”

“That sounds boring,” Anila declared, and Ember chuckled.

Kaia sent her a look. “We all have to learn statecraft. Harmony is,” she said, smiling at her.

“And she’s bored with it. Aren’t you, Harmony?” Anila asked with a grin. When Kaia glanced at her, her hopeful expression became exasperated as Harmony gave a helpless shrug.

“It is, a little,” she admitted. “Sometimes I can’t stay awake,” she added, smiling at recalling her last lesson, and the lecture Ellen gave her afterward. When faced with enduring hours of her tutor or sneaking off to play with Cole, the choice was amazingly simple.

Anila and Ember laughed. Kaia looked scandalized. “Harmony!” she chided.

“Oh leave her alone,” Ember insisted, waving Kaia’s concern off with a careless gesture. “I don’t want to talk about boring things anymore. I want to hear about what else Harmony’s been doing.”

“Good idea,” Anila agreed, Kaia and Azura nodding.

A sense of excitement swept through her. She took Azura’s hand, held it tightly. The girl smiled encouragement at her. “I’m so happy you’re all here,” Harmony began, dividing a warm glance among her friends. “There’s someone I want you to meet. He’s-”

A small commotion near the doors drew everyone’s attention. Harmony looked, seeing Lucian stood by, parchment in hand as he had when he made announcements. Even from where she was sitting she could see a strange, glazed look in Lucian’s eyes.

The knights posted there questioned him, but the chamberlain did not seem to have heard. Ellen rose from her chair to approach him. Her inquiries had no effect, either. By now Helena had noticed the commotion at the doors and lifted a hand. The entire room went silent.

“Lucian,” Helena called, her tone more imperious than concerned. “What is the matter?”

Lucian stared at her helplessly. “My Lady, I-” Suddenly he groaned and doubled over.

Helena rose to her feet, the other members of the Council doing the same. Their escorts quickly came round to stand in front of the table, hands upon weapons. Harmony covered her mouth in surprise. Beside her, Anila whispered, “What’s happening?”

Lucian gripped either side of his head, muttering incoherently. A knight approached from the left, extending a hand. Lucian then jerked upright as if struck from behind, eyes as wide as saucers behind his spectacles, his mouth hanging open. He began to tremble violently, those wide eyes twitching. When a bizarre, twisted smile appeared on his face Ellen dropped back, her hand resting upon her heart. “My Lady!”

Helena swiftly stepped down from the high table, Sir Galimh appearing at her side. They had gone only a few paces when Lucian let out a high-pitched, unnatural laugh. Sir Galimh held out a restraining hand to Helena, the other firmly planted on his sword.

Lucian’s shoulders quivered as he looked at Helena. “You have forgotten someone,” he stated, his voice possessed of a disturbing echo. “It is fortunate I am here to remind you.”

“What are you saying?” Helena demanded.

Lucian spread his arms, laughing once again as his shadow seemed to expand in size. The last thing Harmony saw before darkness cloaked the entire room was Lucian collapsing to the floor. After that, panic seized her. Born with the fear all Light elementals carried, she grabbed onto Anila and squeezed her eyes shut, wishing for Cole. She heard the people’s frightened cries, chairs being overturned, and the metallic ring of swords being drawn.

Then her senses recognized light, and Harmony opened her eyes. Her mother stood with head bowed, hands cupped around a glowing ball of light. When she lifted her head her expression was chilling. She sent the sphere into the air. Light flooded the room, chasing away what Harmony saw as twisted, humanoid shadows crawling along the walls. And in the receding darkness there echoed the sound of sardonic clapping. Harmony saw her mother’s face tighten, and quickly looked to the doors.

There, standing between two men wearing black and red armor unlike any Harmony had ever seen, was a pale-skinned, black-haired woman. She wore a low cut garnet dress that clung to her body like a second skin. Black lace was embroidered along the bodice in intricate designs, the effect mirrored on the hem. But it wasn’t her clothing that captured attention. It was the hard lines of her face, the malicious amusement in her piercing, golden yellow eyes. When she smiled there was only bracing mockery.

Lady Aithne, having also stepped down from the high table, took her place beside Helena. “Who are you to interrupt this celebration?”

The black-haired woman chuckled, as if greatly amused. “It is the past coming to haunt you all.”

Helena drew herself up next to Sir Galimh. The effect made her seem as tall as the old knight. “Identify yourself immediately.”

“Identify myself?” the woman repeated in surprise. “I believed I had already done that. You see,” she went on, taking a step forward, her knights following suit. “It would have been considered improper had I not demonstrated my abilities to these people as the other elements had.”

“Other elements…” Lady Silvia murmured, then gasped. “No! Surely you cannot mean-”

“I see Earth is far swifter to grasp the truth than the Light,” the woman remarked. Her eyes shifted to Helena, and she smiled. “Or is the Light too afraid to do so?” she challenged. For the first time in Harmony’s life, she saw apprehension in Helena’s eyes. The woman saw it, too, for she made a soft sound of acknowledgment. “So, you do remember who- and what- I am. I shall have to let Grandmother Melanthe know you have not forgotten my father’s campaign.” The smile turned cruel. “Tell me, did Helia die during or after she was wrenched off her horse and beaten?”

At this casual mention of her grandmother’s death Harmony choked back a sob. Helena did not even flinch, though the skin around her eyes tightened.

Sir Galimh stepped forward. “I will not stand here and listen to you insult the Lady of Light. Guards!” he bellowed, thrusting his sword forward. “Seize her at once!”

Men in service to Ayseli and the Council moved forward at his command, weapons drawn. But the woman kept smiling, perfectly unconcerned that these men were out for blood. They were nearly upon her when every last one of them abruptly collapsed. The crowd gasped at the display, and the dark-haired little boy who literally rose up from the floor, his shadow dispelling around him like fog. He approached the woman and took her outstretched hand, a proud smile on his sly face. His features seemed very familiar to Harmony, though she could not place where. She had never seen that boy before.

“Very good, Hadrian,” the woman complimented smoothly. “Or, should I say, heir of Shadow,” she added, spoken directly to Helena. The Lady of Light stiffened as the crowd gasped in shock. “You knew this when you ordered my father killed and my own destiny stolen from me,” she said in quiet, lethal tones. “Fortunately, we of Shadow know how to bide our time. Yes,” she said, gazing past Helena to where Harmony and the girls stood clustered together. “It will be quite gratifying taking your future from you.”

Helena’s eyes narrowed, very slightly. Abruptly she lifted her hands, summoning a shaft of light and aiming it at the woman. In response she called up her own shadow, solidifying it to act as a shield from the attack. Columns of darkness then sprang from every corner of the room, coalescing into more men wearing black armor. The woman lifted her arms, welcoming their arrival with a broad smile. “I am Shadow tamer Sable, heiress of Lord Jett’s bloodline!” she shouted in triumph. “I shall bring about the downfall of the Light!”

At her last words the knights advanced. Helena repelled their attacks with blasts of light. Silvia, Selene, Aithne and Canace were quick to stand beside Helena, lending their combined powers to hers. The people, screaming in terror, practically fell upon the other in their mad attempt to escape. Sir Galimh, turning briefly from the battle, shouted for his men to take the heiresses to safety.

Harmony cried out as a knight snatched her from her chair. Tirisekaal shoved the man intending to lift Azura aside and gathered her in his arms. Thraaeohg urged Kaia forward as if she were a fawn. Anila had to be dragged away, Gaaledin shrieking loudly at being grabbed by the legs. Vesta, her face streaked with tears, reached past the knight’s shoulder and sobbed for her mother. Ember fought ferociously in her benefactor’s grip. When she sent forth a burst of flame that engulfed a hanging, the knight holding her smacked her behind the head. She fell limp in his arms. As a result Ezaalryphe also fell unconscious. The knight Tirisekaal had intercepted carried the Fire avatar out. Two Tovrean guards took charge of Ember’s brothers and sisters.

The girls were taken into a separate room. As soon as they were turned loose the men ran out, barricading the door at their backs. Harmony rushed forward, banging her hands on it in desperation. Behind her, Vesta and her siblings wept, Azura trying to calm them. Kaia was restraining Anila in her peripheral vision. Ember and Ezaalryphe lay senseless on a couch.

When Thraaeohg nudged Harmony away from the door she shook her head, but she did not have the strength to fight Tirisekaal when he lifted her up. He set her on her feet beside a chair, then went to join the other avatars standing guard at the door.

But Harmony, desperate to know if Cole was safe, refused to give in. Ignoring Kaia’s surprised exclamation, she darted into the next room. Knowing servants frequented this room to bring refreshment to waiting vassals, she began a frantic search for one of the hidden tunnels like the one Cole showed her.

She had pushed benches aside, practically wrenched hangings from the wall, and succeeded in knocking over the ledger set upon a pedestal before Kaia arrived. “Harmony, what are you doing?” she demanded. Distraught as she was, Harmony still could hear the panic beneath Kaia’s voice.

“I have to find it!” she cried, stepping past a bench and hurrying to the other side of the room. Kaia caught her before she could reach the door. Harmony struggled wildly in her friend’s grip. Kaia, blessed with Earth’s strength, was as unyielding as a mountain. “Let me go!” she demanded, tears rolling down her cheeks. “He might be hurt! I have to help!”

Kaia, her own eyes watering, shook her head. Harmony glowered at her for all of three seconds before bursting into tears. Kaia immediately took her in her arms, holding fast as she, too, began to cry. A battle raged outside the room, a frightening, unseen clash that echoed of angry shouts, the ring of steel, and howls of agony. From that moment on Harmony knew nothing would ever be the same again.

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