Maja knew she would die today.
Many other Fireseekers had been called to appear before the emperor. None of them had survived.
And so, she walked to her death.
With courage? No. She shrieked, kicked, and even tried to bite as the guards dragged her to the Great Hall. Her hands trembled as she struggled again to create a flame, but it did no good. The iron shackles around her wrists rendered her Light useless.
The guards marched on, half-pulling, half-carrying her with them. They reached two large, heavy wooden doors. Maja tried to focus her thoughts, to come up with a way to escape. But instead, she found herself distracted by the ornately carved dragons in the wood—and the chiseled lightning which gushed from their mouths. The soldiers posted on each side bowed to Maja’s guards, then opened the doors for them to pass.
The groaning of the doors pounded loudly in Maja’s ears. Her legs crumpled beneath her, forcing the guards to drag her into the Great Hall. She lowered her head, too terrified to look around the room. She hated herself for exhausting all her energy before facing Emperor Skardin.
The guards stopped halfway through the hall before reaching the emperor’s empty throne. Maja let herself drop to her knees as her arms were released from their grasp. She stared at the ground, which was covered in cracks and scorch marks. Other Seekers must have put up a fight. Maja wished she had that kind of bravery.
But those people had died anyway.
“Emperor Skardin, lord over the three kingdoms of Elongtra, Stormsight in the Night,” a guard’s voice boomed through the Great Hall. “I present Maja, Fireseeker and Drudge. Father unknown. Mother passed over the sea.”
Maja laughed, but it came out broken and hoarse. She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. Passed over the sea. She had always hated that phrase. Her mother was dead. There was no need to make it sound pleasant—it wasn’t. And father unknown, the guard had said. Her mother said he was killed by Shadow Knights. Maja was an orphan and a Drudge. She was nobody.
She opened her eyes. Large windows stretched high in front of her, giving the impression that she was outside. Dark storm clouds swirled above her. Maja grimaced and lowered her gaze to the front of the hall. The emperor must be in a terrible mood.
The silver throne with deep violet cushions loomed over her. In front of the throne stood a simple wooden pedestal with a basin placed on top. Something round protruded from the bowl, but it was covered in a purple fabric. Maja focused on the intricate silver dragons embroidered on the cloth as she tried to calm her racing heart.
Rustling noises came from the sides of the hall, causing her to jerk her head around. Long benches lined each side, but she couldn’t make out the faces of the people seated there. The lamps along the walls were unlit, and the audience sat in the shadows. How appropriate. She didn’t need to see them to determine from the shapes of their robes and masks that they were Shadow Knights.
Maja clutched her arms tightly around herself, knowing the Knights were staring, waiting for her death. She gathered all the strength she had left and drew herself up to her full height—which, unfortunately, was not very tall.
She lifted her chin anyway and straightened her posture. The guards extended their hands, prepared to grab her if she ran. But Maja wasn’t going to run. She wasn’t going to give the Knights the satisfaction of watching her cower.
The guards nodded to each other and approached her. She steeled her face, but a lump had already formed in her throat. They took her arms, and she flinched, expecting the blows to come next. Instead, they removed the shackles from her wrists.
Maja narrowed her eyes at the guards. What were they planning to do to her? She rubbed her wrists, which had been burned raw from her attempts to escape the castle dungeons. How many times had she tried? She didn’t know; she had lost track of time long ago.
“There are Shadow Knights on every side of you,” a man said as he stepped forward from behind the throne. “Do not attempt to escape.” Maja didn’t recognize the man, but she knew that he wasn’t the emperor. He wore long purple robes with a silver chain stretching across his chest from one shoulder to another. Emperor Skardin’s steward?
Maja didn’t respond. She knew not to use her Light. She might be frightened, but she wasn’t stupid.
The steward nodded as he assumed her compliance. “Are you ready to begin, then? Good,” he said without giving her a chance to respond. He stepped up to the pedestal but didn’t remove the cloth. That was fine with her—she didn’t want to see what was hidden beneath the fabric.
“You are a Fireseeker,” the steward said. “Please, show us what you can do.” The guards stepped back into the shadows, and Maja’s eyes darted around the hall. This wasn’t what she’d expected.
“It’s not a trick,” the steward said. He clasped his hands in front of him and gave her a cold smile. “The emperor is always searching for talented Seekers to join the Shadow Knights.”
Maja lifted her chin. “Then I don’t need to show you anything,” she said, furious with herself when her voice cracked. “I will not become a Shadow Knight.” That time it came out more forceful.
“So sure of herself,” the steward said, and his smile twisted further. Maja could hear low, hoarse laughs from the Shadow Knights around her. Her cheeks burned, and she pulled her arms tight around her chest.
The steward shrugged. “Just like a Drudge. I don’t understand why we keep bringing them in.” He made a motion to the guard on the left, who approached her.
Maja’s hand was out in a flash. Fire blasted toward the guard. The blood rushed in her ears as she thought about the father she had never known. She pictured her mother, worked to death by her master. And now the steward smiled as she did exactly what he’d wanted her to do.
Maja aimed her hand at the steward and pulled up a flame. Her vision changed—but not in the way she expected. She hesitated.
“Very good,” the steward said. His voice didn’t crack or waiver, even in the face of fire. “Maybe you aren’t like the other Drudges.”
Fire burst from both hands now, and Maja could no longer see. She should be pointing in the right direction, but all she could hear was laughter. Shadows danced in her eyes, and she tried to hit them with her flames. Each time, the shadow dodged at the last moment. Maja withdrew her Light and fell to her knees. The fire disappeared. What was happening to her? In all the times she had used her Light, she had never experienced this.
Her vision cleared, and the guards and steward stood before her unscathed. Her own scorch marks were mixed in with the marks of others on the floor. The steward frowned at the object on the pedestal. “Nothing,” he said and waved toward Maja in disgust. “Get rid of her.”
Maja’s heart pounded in her ears. All thoughts of resignation left her mind, and only rage remained. She aimed both hands at the steward and let out a guttural scream. She briefly saw the huge flames flying from her fingers before the shadows returned. She welcomed them. She would get revenge on them all.
Revenge for her mother’s untimely death. Revenge for her father’s murder. Revenge for her own imprisonment. Heat streamed from her hands, but she couldn’t see any of it.
Something moved in the corner of her eye. Maja looked, readying herself to attack, then gasped.
Her mother stood before her. Or at least, Maja thought it was her mother. Shadows still swirled in her vision, making her question herself. But she was certain—her mother stood there, arms outstretched. What glistened on her face … was it tears? Maja’s mind was swimming, and she struggled to focus.
A door slammed, and a shock ran through her. The shadows disappeared. “Mother …” she said, her voice choking. Lightning cracked across the sky outside.
Or was it inside? Maja didn’t have a chance to find out. As her vision cleared, a figure moved around the throne and stood before her.
The emperor had arrived. She saw deadly purple eyes, another flash, and then—nothing.
Maja’s lifeless body slumped to the floor.