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Wrath of the Storm, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  I didn't ask what sort of business the two of them might have in the forums, together. I didn't want to know.

  I stood and immediately regretted moving so quickly. My head swarmed with dizziness, and I fell back onto the bed.

  Mother was immediately at my side, offering me more water from the cup. I emptied the cup and asked for more. While she refilled it from a pitcher on a nearby table, Livia returned with a tray of grapes and a loaf of bread.

  "It's yesterday's bread, but I don't think you'll care about that," she said, placing the tray on my lap.

  "I've got to make up for ten days of not eating," I said with my mouth already full. "I'd eat ten-year-old bread, if necessary."

  Her smile came from relief more than happiness, and when she sat in the chair where our mother had just been, they both watched me eat as quickly as I could. Once the worst pangs of hunger subsided, I slowed down and stared back at them.

  "I am going to rescue Radulf," I said. "And I know you don't like that, Mother. I know you don't like him, but I understand him differently than you do. I have to help him."

  Tears filled her eyes. "Please don't. If you fail, the Mistress will have you."

  "I won't fail." My hand drifted from the bulla to the Malice, assuring myself it was still there.

  But that wasn't enough for my mother, who said, "Even if you succeed, then what? Radulf will force you to make a Jupiter Stone for him. That will kill you."

  I wanted to argue, but I couldn't. For all its power, the Malice could not save me from the consequences of making a Jupiter Stone. Much as I feared that, it was worse to stand aside and abandon the man who had traded everything to save my life.

  So I only nodded toward Livia. "Tell Mother that you agree with my decision. Do you want me to try to save Pater?" It was the first time I'd ever used that term for Radulf, and though I wasn't entirely comfortable with it, I also liked the idea of having someone in my life who might deserve it.

  Livia stared at me, then at our mother, torn between us. Finally, she looked back at me and nodded. "I would come with you and help," she said, "if I thought I wouldn't get in the way."

  "I'll fight better knowing you're safe back here." I turned to our mother. "And if I have your blessing to go."

  "On the night he tried to create a Jupiter Stone, your father and I had a similar disagreement." Mother's eyes suddenly seemed distant, as if she were remembering him, the good memories and the bad. "He knew the risk to himself, knew it wasn't enough simply to have the Divine Star's magic. Yet he challenged the lightning because he felt it was his only chance to save us. You know what happened to him."

  "I'm not challenging the lightning," I whispered. Not yet. Not ever, if I had the choice.

  "You've seen what the Mistress really is. Do you think it's any safer to fight her?"

  I finished the last of the food on the tray, then stood and tested my balance. I wasn't as strong as I wanted, but I felt the bulla's growing strength within me and I had the Malice. It was enough.

  I wrapped the Malice around my wrist and immediately felt the increase of magic. It filled me with more power than I could hold, like an entire sea trying to fit into a cup. I gasped from the new weight of magic within me and was surprised to find myself strong enough to bear it up.

  Livia stood and finished lacing the Malice for me. "Are you all right?"

  I grinned. "Absolutely!" Then I leaned down and kissed my mother on the cheek. "I will return, I promise. But a dragon is calling for me."

  Before I could leave, she took my hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. "It was never my desire to leave you and Livia in that mining camp. And I always hoped to hide from you the true reason for our family's draw to magic. I didn't want this life for you, Nicolas. Please come back."

  "I have no intention of dying today." I smiled down at her. "Keep my supper warm. I'll be hungry when we return."

  "We'll set out a plate for you and for Pater!" Livia called after me.

  If he is still alive, I thought. Please, let him still be alive.

  I went from my room toward the back of Radulf's home, where he had a small stable that I hoped would contain a unicorn named Callistus. Callistus had brought my mother here while I fought the Mistress at her temple. He should be here now.

  Fortunately, he was, watching the door as I came through it, as if he'd anticipated my arrival. Callistus was an uncommonly beautiful animal, strong and lean, with deep blue eyes, a golden horn, and a coat of the purest white. Nothing created by the gods could ever be so perfect as him.

  When I walked up to Callistus, he nuzzled his head into me as I leaned against his neck, wrapping one hand over his shoulder and the other to brush across his chest. The magic from the Malice lit within me when I did. Perhaps the power of this amulet was similar to the magic already within a unicorn.

  "I need your help again," I said in the most respectful of tones. "The chariot races were difficult, I know, but I must ask more of you this time."

  Callistus snorted in reply. I ran my hand down his back, then grabbed the saddle from a nearby fence. Once Callistus was saddled, I climbed up, patted his shoulder, and then directed him to leave the stables.

  "Leaving without us?"

  I glanced up and saw Aurelia on a speckled gray horse, waiting in the grasses just outside Radulf's stables. She had a bow and arrow slung over her shoulder and looked rather triumphant to have caught me here.

  Had it been only ten days since I'd seen her? She was lovelier than I remembered. Of course, when I'd last seen her, it had been in the midst of a battle for us both. Now her clothes were cleaner, and her chestnut hair was pulled back in one long braid down her back. Had her eyes always been this blue, so bright I could see them from here? How had I never noticed they were so close to the color of Callistus's eyes?

  Beside her, Crispus sat tall on an equally fine black horse. Crispus wore a brown tunic and dark gray cloak, symbolizing his mourning for his father's recent death. A sword hung at his side, one I wondered if he was strong enough to use; but then, he'd gotten up on the horse with it, so maybe he could swing it too.

  I wasn't sure how to reply to Aurelia's question, or maybe it wasn't the kind of question that needed to be answered. Either way, they were blocking my exit, so I needed to say something. I didn't want another argument, not about where I'd been or where I was going, and I certainly wouldn't congratulate them on their upcoming marriage. The thought of that turned my stomach.

  "You have the Malice," Crispus finally said, nodding at my right forearm. "Does it work?"

  Not yet ready to answer, I only squinted back at him. "What are you two doing here?"

  "You're going to rescue Radulf," Aurelia said. "I knew you would, as soon as you got back. Crispus and I just came from the forum, where we bought everything we might need to help you."

  That was absurd, and my expression no doubt showed it. "Which shop at the forum prepares you to fight a cursed dragon?" I nodded at Crispus's sword. "You might as well swing a blade of grass."

  "We want to help," Crispus said.

  He was sincere. I knew that and appreciated it, yet I shook my head with equal sincerity. "I don't want any help."

  Aurelia's face reddened. "I wasn't asking if we could come along. I'm telling you that's our plan!"

  My knuckles tightened around the reins. "Whenever I'm in a fight, I end up trying to keep you safe for half the time."

  "And the other half, you're thanking me for keeping you safe! We're coming with you, Nic."

  Crispus only shrugged. "You're wasting time arguing with her. You know that she always wins. Besides, if the Malice doesn't --"

  "The Malice does work," I said. "It will give me victory against the Mistress."

  "Assuming she doesn't steal it from you first," Aurelia said. "Auribus teneo lupum. Do you know what that means?"

  "That I have the wolf by its ears." I leaned forward in the saddle. "You're saying I'm so close to the danger that it will bite me, and you're ri
ght." I glanced at Crispus. "But the difference is, I'll survive the bite. You two won't."

  "Even if you defeat the Mistress, that doesn't mean you'll be able to fight her and rescue Radulf. You take on the dragon. We'll find Radulf."

  "He saved our lives too," Crispus said.

  That wasn't exactly true. I was the one who had reminded the Mistress that Crispus was a judge now in Rome. The Mistress would never harm her Praetors. At least Crispus was one of the good ones, if there were any other good ones. And Aurelia saved herself the only way she could, by promising to become Crispus's wife, putting herself under the same protection.

  But it was true that defeating the dragon wasn't the same as rescuing Radulf. For that, perhaps I did need their help. So I nodded my permission, and when they parted for me, I rode Callistus forward and we headed out.

  "Where will we find him?" Crispus asked.

  I shrugged. "Callistus probably knows. I thought I'd let him lead me there."

  "Then we'll follow you," Aurelia said as she and Crispus took up positions on either side of me. It seemed like an appropriate symbol. I had come between them yet again. I glanced first at him, and then at her, where my eyes lingered longer. It was almost a relief when Callistus led me away.

  The unicorn was taking us southward, keeping to the outskirts of the main population but heading toward the city gates of Rome. I'd been on this path before, most recently when he took me to Lake Nemi. There I'd met the vestalis in the grove of oak trees outside of Diana's temple. I'd fought Jupiter's eagle for the rock that was meant to become a Jupiter Stone. The vestalis had also told me a few things that still haunted my mind. She told me that to get what I wanted, I had to walk through fire. And that the Mistress, Atroxia, would teach me what I did not yet understand about love.

  I stole a sideways glance at Aurelia. What I understood about love could fit on the head of a pin, but I seriously doubted I could learn it from a dragon who would soon try to kill me. Aurelia caught me staring and smiled back, but I quickly looked away. I felt stupid, especially as she continued staring. I had to say something, to cover my real thoughts.

  Finally, I said, "I think I know where we're going. Atroxia serves Diana. She would take Radulf to Diana's temple."

  "At Lake Nemi?" Crispus's eyes widened. "My father forbade me to ever go to that temple. It's a place of violence, not peace."

  "I didn't ask you to come," I reminded him. "And there's no shame in leaving."

  "We're not leaving," he said. "I'm just ... nervous."

  So was I. We'd have been fools to feel anything different.

  Since Crispus and Aurelia were on horses far less powerful than Callistus, it took us most of the day to get to Lake Nemi. Still, I was grateful for at least one reason to have them along -- they had packed plenty of food for the journey, over half of which I had already eaten. They didn't ask why I was so hungry or where I'd been for the past ten days. They only let me eat and drink as much as I needed.

  It was dark when I first caught sight of the lake, far below us down steep, wooded hills. My eye caught some fluttering movement in the moonlight, and my heart leapt. I knew what that was.

  "We should camp here for the night," Crispus said. "Then approach the temple in the light of day."

  "But Radulf is a captive tonight," I said, urging Callistus to move down the hill. "We don't rest until we have him back."

  "Do you ever rest, Nic?" Aurelia asked as her horse fell into a single-file line behind mine. "You're always moving, unless you're knocked unconscious."

  Crispus drew in a breath. "Is that where you were for ten days, unconscious? Beneath that temple? No wonder you're so hungry!"

  I smiled, ready for whatever was about to come. "If I did sleep that long, then I'm well rested now. Let's go. We're saving a life tonight!"

  When we were nearly to the shores of Lake Nemi, Crispus stopped his horse as suddenly as if it had hit an invisible wall. "We should go back. Can't you feel it, how haunted this lake is?"

  Aurelia and I stopped too, and both of us stared at him. Crispus's face had drained of color, and he was holding on to his horse's reins so tightly that I thought he might snap them in half.

  "Haunted?" Aurelia chuckled. "It's just a lake."

  "Emperor Caligula used to spend a lot of time here. He had a floating palace on these waters, and a floating temple, dedicated to Diana."

  My grin matched Aurelia's. "Let's hope he was a better swimmer than I am."

  "He was mad!" Crispus seemed irritated that Aurelia and I weren't taking him more seriously. "It's rumored that while watching the games one day, he got bored because they ran out of criminals to fight the animals. So he ordered an entire section of the audience into the arena instead."

  Aurelia shrugged. "That's cruel, but not mad."

  "He made his horse a priest and his own personal advisor," Crispus added.

  I snorted a laugh through my nose. "His horse advised him to do what, eat more hay?"

  "All right," Aurelia said, taking mercy on him. "I'll agree with you. Caligula was a madman."

  "And he dedicated these waters to Diana," Crispus said. "We are not safe here."

  "You will be." I dismounted and brushed a firm hand down the unicorn's back, then walked closer to the waters. There was a reason we had come to this exact spot. "Come out, Caela!" I called.

  There was a fluttering sound and the heavy stamp of a foot, and finally, a griffin emerged from a clump of bushes. I saw Caela's eagle half first. Her head was as large as Callistus's, but rather than a horn, she had a sharp golden beak from which she issued a screech loud enough to be heard from miles away. Her wings were white and made of the softest feathers. The rear half of Caela was a lion, with muscles strong enough to propel her high into the air before she ever needed to fly.

  Caela glanced at Callistus and gave an angry caw. Was that jealousy? I loved Callistus; that was true. He was beautiful and powerful, and had saved my life more than once. But Caela was the creature that owned my heart, and I had missed her more than she could ever know.

  Cautiously, I inched toward the griffin. Although we were friends, I was never entirely certain that she wouldn't one day try to eat me. But Caela only lowered her head, giving permission for me to pet the feathers of her neck, then the lion fur of her back. Her wings had been spread out at first, but now they were tucked in close to her body, ready for me to ride on her back.

  It would've been a wonderful evening to ride, but that was not my plan.

  "I need to bring the Mistress down here to the lake," I said. "I want to draw her away from Radulf. Will you take my friends up to the temple to rescue him?"

  Caela eyed them, and I might've heard Crispus's stomach drop to the ground. "You're sending us up there ... alone?" he asked.

  "Atroxia will come down to me; I guarantee that." I was deliberately keeping my voice calm, so as not to panic either Caela or Crispus. "And once you rescue Radulf, you won't be alone. His magic will get you safely back to Rome."

  "What about you?" Aurelia's brows were pressed close together, and a slight smile crept to my face. It shouldn't have -- what we were about to do was very dangerous. But I liked knowing she was concerned for me.

  "I survived the collapse of a temple," I said. "I can survive the Mistress."

  "You survived the collapse of a temple. Of course you did." Aurelia frowned. "Who talks like that? Who thinks like that?"

  My grin widened, which no doubt annoyed her further. After she finished rolling her eyes at me, I motioned her over to Caela. Aurelia quickly glanced back at Crispus, who was tending to his horse, then pressed her hand over mine.

  "Before Crispus and I leave, we need to talk." Her whisper was soft, but the intensity in her eyes made it feel like she had shouted.

  My heart skipped a beat. "About what?"

  Now her hand slid across Caela's back, scratching the fur the way I had been doing it before, letting the soft tufts brush between her fingers. But her eyes were on me. "About
us. About what happened before that temple collapsed. You and I --"

  "There is no you and I. That was what happened before the temple collapsed." My words sounded bitter, which wasn't my intention. Or maybe it was.

  She reacted by pulling her hand away, and I knew I'd hurt her feelings. But there was no chance to apologize. Crispus, seemingly unaware of our conversation, was cautiously approaching Caela from the other side, letting her sniff him. I started forward, ready to protect Crispus if necessary. He shuddered, no doubt wondering how it must feel to be crushed inside a griffin's giant beak. But Caela only crouched lower, allowing them to climb onto her back.

  I put my hands on Aurelia's waist, helping her get on first. She stared at me while I did, and I tried to communicate my apologies that way, though I wasn't sure it worked. In a more perfect world, I would've climbed on behind her to see where in the empire we might go. But instead, I backed up to make room for Crispus. He sat closely behind her and put a protective hand around her for the ride. I looked away from them, unable to bear seeing them so near to each other.

  "We'll save him," Aurelia said to me. "Just don't ... well, don't collapse any more temples over yourself."

  "Be safe, Nic," Crispus added.

  I nodded at them, then at Caela, prompting her to leave. Aurelia let out a joyous whoop as they soared high into the sky. I wished I could be up there, to share that moment with her.

  But I had another job to do.

  It began with me leading Callistus away to a grove of trees where I hoped he'd be safe. Callistus was uniquely strong and had magic of his own, certainly. But I didn't know how he'd fare against the Mistress, who possibly was mad in a way that rivaled Caligula, and I wouldn't take any chances.

  Then I stood on the shores of the lake -- Diana's lake, a detail that did not escape my attention -- and faced the temple where the Mistress would be holding Radulf captive. Aurelia and Crispus were probably on the hillside, hiding and waiting for their opportunity to enter the temple. I had to call the Mistress away.

  So I closed my eyes, searching for the place within me that had heard her cries before. Atroxia's sadness had pierced me in much the same way as when I'd heard Radulf's pleas for help. They were both in tremendous pain. But it wasn't only Atroxia's voice in my head anymore. As the Mistress grew in power and dominance, I felt her anger too, a rage that she had been funneling toward Radulf for the past ten days. Strangely, and maybe for this one time only in his life, Radulf was innocent. He was paying for crimes ... that were mine. I had stolen the Malice, not he.