Alina was standing in the darkness, floating in an endless nothing. She tried to push through it, but knew that she could never push hard enough.
Ahead of her, suddenly she saw Citrios, her love. Golden light blazed forth as he drew her to him, and her heart leapt with joy. But even as she flew, she saw that he was facing another man â€“ a man made entirely of flame. Citrios was reaching forwards, unconcerned with the danger. Alina tried to scream out a warning, but nothingness choked her, and she watched, still trying to race forwards, as the flames leapt off the first man and onto Citrios, consuming him. As he fell, dying, she heard the voice of the Unconquered Sun.
â€œYou know that he can never be yours.â€
She woke with a scream, hands still reaching out. For a few moments, she couldnâ€™t remember where she was.
â€œHey. Hey, itâ€™s alright.â€ Gradually, awareness returned. She was lying in bed, under silk sheets, curled in a ball. He was holding her, rocking her gently back and forth. One hand stroked her hair; he always liked it short. â€˜My little ravenâ€™, he called her. For a few more moments, she just clung to him and cried. Finally, she turned tear-streaked eyes to look at him and he met her gaze with a sad smile. â€œA bad one, huh?â€
â€œCitriosâ€¦â€ She gulped, and tried to find her calm. This was important. â€œIt was a vision. You haveâ€¦â€
â€œShhh.â€ He held her to his chest. â€œIt can wait until youâ€™ve calmed down, right? Donâ€™t worry.â€ A perfect smile gleamed down on her, and her resolve hardened. She couldnâ€™t lose him.
â€œYou have to hear this.â€ It was, after all, why his family had purchased her. A simple slaveâ€™s daughter, but her dreams were laden with prophecy. The Order had checked for signs of possession, but there had been none â€“ her gifts had made a Dynast rich when she was purchased. She had been willing enough to go â€“ as a seer, they would not beat her, or abuse her. The transaction was kept quiet; most believed she was a simple concubine.
The emotions had come later. She had never expected Citrios to be the man that he was. She had never expected him to carefully make a second bed for her, to treat her almost as an equal whenever they were alone.
She had never expected to wake up one day and realize that she loved him â€“ let alone to learn that he loved her back.
And yet she knew that it was impossible. Even if she wasnâ€™t his slave, love between a Solar andâ€¦ no.
Which had changed nothing.
â€œCitrios, Iâ€™m going to lose you. There is danger coming, so great I canâ€™t even imagine it.â€
â€œNothing can take me from you, little raven.â€ Citrios smiled again, stroking her hair gently, her body pressed to his. â€œI will never let them.â€ A pause, almost imperceptible. â€œI love you.â€
She knew how hard it was for him to say that, every time. But he said it anyway, and she loved him all the more for it. â€œThis is different. Beware fire, Citrios.â€ He laughed at that, and she glared up at him. â€œIâ€™m serious! Itâ€¦â€ Something slotted into place, and she blinked. â€œThe Hunt is coming. And this time, itâ€™s going to destroy you.â€
Citrios laughed again. â€œOh, raven. Itâ€™s going to be alright.â€ He looked down, sobering up as he realized how worried she still looked. â€œAlina, it will be alright. Youâ€™ve had hard visions before. You know we can change them. Remember that giant slug-thing?â€
Alina laughed, although Citrios hadnâ€™t known how close that had come to killing them both. â€œWe cooked it, didnâ€™t we?â€
â€œWe did. And weâ€™ll get this new vision just as well.â€ He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss, smiling as it broke off. One hand slipped under the covers, and she squeaked in surprise. â€œWe just need to put our heads together.â€
She opened her mouth to respond to that atrocious joke, but fell silent as a premptory pounding came from the far door. Her mouth went dry. â€œItâ€™s them.â€
â€œSo soon.â€ Citrios sighed, stepping out of bed to stand naked in the moonlight. He reached over, grabbing the kilt and belt on which his twin daiklaves hung, and strapped it on as he crossed the room. As the knocking began again, he threw the door open with a glare.
The glare bounced off the interloper with no effect. Clad head to toe in burnished black jade, the Dynastâ€™s expression was solemn as he regarded Citrios.
â€œCathak Citrios. The Hunt has need of you once again.â€
Watching from the bed, the sheets pulled around her, Alina knew that Citrios was wrong. There was one force that could tear him from her.
Her own Exaltation.