* * *
Waldegrave, also known as Lady Aiden, mother of the Queen of Delain, wife
of the Earl of Riverwood, who was believed to be the secret true love of Prince Peter of Delain, and was
the former wife of the notorious Harold Ethelbald, entered her room and closed the door.
She crossed calmly to the mirror and regarded her reflection. Her fair skin was smeared with soot,
and her hair was in complete disarray though she had spent an hour arranging it before the feast. Her
lovely gown of scarlet silk was charred, the hem burnt away to expose her fancy stockings and gold
She smelled of smoke. She had smelled smoke on the day that her family died at the hands of
horrible dogsbody demons. Ever since, she had associated that scent with anger, loss, and despair. She
had smelled smoke the time she had set fire to the lawn at Greenvale and boiled exotic fish in their
fountain pool. She had smelled smoke when they had rescued Peter from the Needle and she'd caused
half of Delain City to go up in flames. The time she remembered most vividly was the night from hell
when she'd been caught in the midst of a battle between the Overlord's forces and Alan IV's avenging
army. She'd thought death would come for her that night, for her, Toby, and for baby Belynda, whose
future as Delain's Queen was as yet unforseen by everyone except possibly Rannian.
Thinking of the placid, dark-eyed Seer made her mad all over again. Why hadn't Rannian warned
her that assassins would be coming after Belynda? She had spent the last twelve years in a state of
paranoid fear that someone would try and take her precious little girl away from her. She had spent
thousands in Pandathaway's magic shops purchasing items to protect her daughter.
She forced herself to take a few deep breaths. She could not be mad at Rannian. If Belden were to be
believed, the Seer was Lunari himself. She had spent half of her life hating the gods to no avail. Rannian
must have known about the assassin, and seen that she would handle it herself without any harm coming
She brushed out her long black hair and braided it into a single plait. There was little thought to her
actions as she slipped out of her gown and into a worn outfit of dark-colored leathers. Her drake, red
Phoenix, watched her anxiously and chirped once or twice, but she ignored even that. Her thoughts were
She'd spent a large part of her young life in the city in the center of the Four Duchies. Her parents
had held lands away to the west, near the borders of the Duchy of Rhaff, but following their hideous
deaths, she had been forced to live with the inhuman creatures that claimed to be her uncle and cousins.
She'd been a virtual slave, bound by terror, unable to escape until one day when the torment had become
too much to bear. Fourcity had been a prison, a place where she had spent cold winters locked in a
windswept attic, huddled in misery and constant fear. Like the smell of smoke, it was something she
linked with the bad feelings. She rarely went back, and every time she did, the urge to destroy grew
The time had come to stop denying those urges. Fourcity had gone too far. In her mind, the assassin
was just a single part of a huge, horrible monster. The actions of that one man could be laid at every
door in the city. Every single person was to blame.
Aron knew what she was planning. He knew her too well, even better than she knew herself. She
was glad that he knew her well enough to stay out of her way, because she did not want to argue with the
man she loved. She did love Aron, though for a long time she had despaired of ever loving again. He
made her feel safe, precious, treasured. It was entirely unlike the thrilling, tingling feelings she'd had for
Harry, or the sweepingly romantic emotions she'd felt for Peter. Harry had turned out to be an uncaring,
unloveable cad. Only Rebecca, the gods alone knew why, could see anything in him to love despite his
callous treatment of her. And Peter, dear Peter, had literally been the handsome prince of her dreams.
Fate and circumstance had kept them from seeking any sort of lasting passion.
She would never forget the things his brother Thomas had said on the day that Belynda became
Queen. Could it be true that Peter had been in love with her all that time? That he had never married in
hopes that she would someday come to him? She remembered the way his dark blue eyes had lit up when
she appeared in his throne room the day he'd been reviewing ladies under pressure from his advisors to
choose a bride, the genuinely warm and delighted smile with which he'd greeted her, and the quickly-
hidden look of disappointment that had come over him when she'd explained that she wasn't there for
She thought about him sometimes as she walked the halls of the palace, the same halls where he had
played as a boy, before the awful incident that resulted in his false imprisonment. What did he think, she
wondered, if he looked down from the Realm Beyond to see what had happened in Delain? Did he
approve of Belynda, who could have been his own true daughter? Did he remember what had really
happened that night in the Needle, or was his memory, like hers, clouded by wine and confusion? She
wished she could remember, wished she could tell Belynda who her true father was. She supposed she
could consult the Seers, but fear held her back. Fear that Belynda might actually be Harry's daughter.
There were three men that Belynda could call Father, but Harry was the only living one who had any sort
of likely claim. Aron, who loved Belynda best of all, had the least claim.
Her sword was hanging way in the back of the closet. She got it out, ignoring Phoenix's worried
protests, and held it up. Deciding that she would not need the blade for the night's work, she tossed it on
the bed. She stamped her feet into her old adventuring boots, which she hadn't worn in years, and threw
her cloak over her shoulders. Glancing again in the mirror, she gasped. It was like looking back through
time. She touched her face, almost expecting to feel the ugly scrawled scar that one of her cousins had
left as a reminder of his cruelty. The skin remained smooth and unblemished. Otherwise, it was like
seeing herself as she'd been all those years ago. She could almost expect to go to Funess and see Toby as
a child, instead of the good-looking young man he'd grown into. She could go to the Grey Pony and see
Sara, still years before the terrible events that would lead her to murder Peter and die herself on Delain's
chopping block. She could visit Coppers' shop and find just a crazy old man, instead of a crazy old man
who now had a peculiar Damonite wife and a son named after a jackalope. Yes, the years
had brought a lot of changes, and while some of them were bad, many had been good. The girl she'd
been back then had been ugly, ashamed of her scar, distrustful. She was still distrustful, particularly of
Fourcity and anything that Harry had to say, but she was no longer ugly or ashamed. Even the possibility
of her infidelity did not trouble her, because the people of Delain blessed her for it. They loved their
Queen, and under Belynda's rule, Delain prospered as it never had.
Thinking of her daughter reminded her of her purpose. Fourcity had tried to hurt her baby, and
Fourcity was going to pay. She pulled up her hood and went into the nursery that adjoined her chambers.
The guards, on edge, reacted in alarm to the sight of a hooded figure entering the room and nearly shot
her down before one of them recognized her. She hastily pushed back her hood and apologized, keenly
aware of how close she had come to being killed by the very people whose presence she'd demanded.
The guards returned to their posts, and she approached the oversized crib. Her twin sons, Alan and
Peter, were snuggled beneath a fluffy blanket. Her familiar, a fox named Sasha, was lying awake and
watchful at the end of the crib.
Peter's hair was dark, like her own, and Alan's head was covered by a reddish fuzz. Even in sleep,
he bore a strong resemblance to his father. The palace staff had given them the nicknames of Smoke and
Fire. The twins were inseperable, and the joke, "wherever there's Smoke, there's Fire", had already
She touched their tiny faces. Following Belynda's difficult birth, she'd been terrified of having
another child. But Aron had wanted a child of his own so badly, and it was the only thing he had ever
asked of her. Thankfully, the twins had come quickly and easily, though their timing was awkward. They
had been born right in the middle of the dramatic revelation of Belynda's heritage, sharing their birthday
with her coronation day.
Leaning over, she kissed them each on the forehead. Peter wrinkled his nose, perhaps smelling the
smoke that still clung to her, and rubbed his eyes.
"I love you, babies," she whispered. Beckoning to Phoenix, she tucked the drake under the blanket.
"Take care of them."
"Don't worry," Sasha said, causing the guards to look around uneasily. The people of Delain had
laregly gotten used to her menagerie, which consisted not only of Sasha and Phoenix but a young
hippogryph, a tame bear, and half a dozen other creatures. The fact that Sasha could talk was still the
cause of some superstitious concern. Delain was slowly coming to accept magic, but the road was long
"Nobody's going to hurt these cubs," Sahsa continued. Phoenix warbled in agreement.
"Not with you on guard," she said, stroking the russet pelt. "I'll see you later."
She nodded to the guards, and went back to her own room. Standing in the center, head down, she
closed her eyes and concentrated on Fourcity. Dismal, dingy, hated Fourcity. When her destination was
firmly fixed in her mind, she opened her eyes and looked once more around the room. It could be that
she would never see it again.
Forcing the negative thought away, she decided she was ready to go.
Gwendolyn Torrance Waldegrave, also known as Lady Aiden, had entered the room. But it was a
woman called Wildfire that teleported out.
* * *
She arrived in Fourcity
mere heartbeats later, and the dirty, narrow streets were worse than she'd
remembered. She imagined she could see the dogsbodies lurking beneath the faces of everyone she
passed. Some of them looked her over with the eyes of a predator, scanning for jewelry or pouches of
coin. She carried no money, not anticipating needing any on this trip, and the only article of jewelry she
wore was the one that she intended to use.
The rage that had gone undiminished, since she first saw the man in black raged up inside of her.
This time, there was no gentle Aron to soothe her, no innocent people that might be harmed. There was
only Fourcity, the place of her tortured childhood. Like the phoenix that she revered, she had come home
to burn. By destroying Fourcity, she would not only be avenging herself on those who would try to hurt
her daughter. She would also be destroying her past, freeing herself to rise reborn from the ashes of what
"You should have left me alone," she said.
A passing mad glanced at her curiously, then decided she was just a harmless loony. He never had
time to rethink that opinion, because seconds later, the flames began.
* * *
Chaos reigned in Fourcity
that night. One one side of town, a strange vigilante showered the poor
with plundered goods from a looted Tristan temple, and the priests of the god of theives had been routed
and killed. Elsewhere, the fires spread hungrily from one building to the next, consuming everything in
their path. New blazes sprang up in a random, wandering trail of destruction. The people of Fourcity,
human and dogsbody alike, did what they could to battle or escape the raging fires, and many of them
feared that the gates of hell had opened wide.
By daylight, less than half of the buildings were still standing, and most of those were severely
damaged. Blackened bodies littered the streets. Many were human, but the few survivors found some that
were obviously inhuman, hideous demonic shapes. Those discoveries strengthened the rumor that a gate
had been opened.
The dukes, visiting the city later in the day, were inclined to agree. Such overwhelming destruction
could not have been caused by anything less than the forces of the Abyss itself, they said.
Meanwhile, one woman returned to Delain. She was blistered from the ferocity of her own flame,
exhausted, emotionally drained, and finally satisfied. Fourcity had pain, paid in the only coin that she
would accept. In fire and blood.
* * *