“So he’s dead?” Nacio asked dully. He knew the answer, but he needed to hear it.
“Yes, your grace,” came the reply, quiet, somber. Eligio was battered, bruised, covered in blood, ash, and mud, a lurid cut on one cheek, still dripping.
Nacio did not bother to hide the tears streaming down his face. Ciel had been his everything. They’d been set to unite their houses forever in two more months.
But Nacio was no longer able to endure the corruption tearing his country apart. If he had known his treachery would cost him Ciel..
No, he would have done it, and that was the worst part of it.
“The armies are approaching,” said another voice, and Nacio turned to look at Jurgen, a tall, dark shadow dressed in deep blue.
He sneered. “Take off that tunic, Jurgen, or get out there and join your brethren seeking to destroy me.”
“In their defense,” drawled a third voice, “you did kill the Emperor.”
“I do not give a damn why they hate me,” Nacio snarled, slamming his hand down on the massive table that occupied the greater portion of his study—his war room. “They can storm my keep all they like, I will not back down! Are you with me or not, Gereon?”
Gereon snorted and pushed off the wall against which he’d been leaning. “I am here, aren’t I? Stop trying to turn your friends into enemies. You have enough enemies, and not enough friends.”
Nacio looked away, and braced his hands on the table, staring down hard at it, trying to force his mind to work. But it was hard to see past his grief. Ciel. He wanted his lover. They were supposed to be standing against that fucking bastard together.
He should have anticipated one of them dying, especially Ciel, who was too smart to be anything but dangerous. Of course they would have gone after Ciel—by killing Ciel, they thought to leave Nacio crippled.
“How did he die?” he finally asked, looking up at Eligio again.
Eligio wiped blood from his face, and said, “He stalled them while we escaped. He—I do not know, your grace. He took out what must have been fifty of the gods-cursed bastards. But I don’t know how. He did it in a moment, and he wouldn’t have had time to go for his sword.”
Nacio closed his eyes, and laughed bitterly, but with a faint rush of pride. “He did it, the bastard. I always loved his mind the most. Did he give you something?”
Eligio looked startled, but nodded. “Yes, your grace.” He motioned, and two more men came forward—Lenz and Rafa, Earls of his territory.
Nacio looked around the room. Eligio. Jurgen. Gereon. Lenz. Rafa. Tadeo, Ciel’s cousin, standing sad and quiet by the door. They were all bruised and bloodied, exhausted and alone. These men had given up everything to stand by him; they were his brothers, though they shared not a drop of blood between them.
Lenz and Rafa set a small wooden chest upon the table, and it was a sign of their exhaustion that it had taken two of them for such a small chest. It was scuffed, scorched, even cracked in places, but still it was clear that a key would be needed to get into it. “Where is the key?”
“The last thing Ciel said to me was that the key to the war was the key to his heart,” Eligio replied.
Nacio made a rough sound, and reached beneath his tunic to pull out the locket that Ciel had given him. It was in the shape of Ciel’s family crest, but secretly a locket. Ciel had shown him once the secret catch; there had been nothing in it at the time, and nothing in it when Ciel had given it to him on their last night together.
Some time after he had fallen asleep, Ciel must have put something into it.
Opening the locket, Nacio tipped out the small key inside. Fitting it to the lock, he opened the battered chest. Pushing the top open, he stared at the flat wooden case inside, nestled in velvet. It was made of dark, highly polished wood, Ciel’s family crest. Lifting it out of the chest, Nacio froze to see a journal beneath.
He knew that journal. Ciel had been working on his precious project for all the years Nacio had known him—and far more besides, he knew. Nearly his whole life. He’d always been secretive, saying that it was too dangerous to share before he’d mastered it.
Now he’d given his life’s work to them. He had known he wouldn’t live. He’d let Nacio kill the Emperor anyway.
Grief washed over him again. For one brief, wistful, painful moment, he wished he could take it all back, could return to the days before he had swung that fateful blow. Before he’d killed an emperor and fled with the twenty-two men who believed in him, in what they did.
Tadeo turned from the door where he was standing guard. “I hope you know what he was doing, what we’re doing, because the Grand Duke of K—”
The rage returned, and Nacio slammed his fists on the table. “I do not give a damn what the Grand Duke of Kria wants or does! He and his bloodthirsty get can rot! And they can take that pale-skinned coward Grand Duke of Eldalara with them! I will not continue to tolerate what they have done to this empire! If I have to raze the whole and start anew, I will do so!”
“Then tell us how we are going to stop them,” Jurgen said. “We are here, and we are your brothers, Nacio. Tell us why Ciel is dead, and what he did for us. Tadeo is right—Kria and Eldalara are nipping at our heels, and they outnumber us ten to one. We are exhausted, our few men are dead, we are low on supplies. It would take a fucking miracle to win this fight.”
Nacio smirked, and flipped the catch on the flat wooden box. “A miracle? Or only magic?”
“We don’t have magic,” Gereon said. “Would that we did.”
Flipping the box open, Nacio turned to display it to the other six as they gathered around the table. “Behold, the lifelong obsession of Ciel.”
They stared in silence at the contents of the box, twenty one tiny crystal vials filled with bright, colorful liquid—violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.
“What is it?” Tadeo asked. “This has to do with those fucking flowers he was always babying. I never knew where he got them.”
“He would never say,” Nacio said softly. “He spent a fortune obtaining them, and several more fortunes learning to turn them into this.”
“But what is it?” Jurgen asked impatiently.
“Magic,” Nacio asked. “He developed a way to give us artificial magic. He said it would come with a price, he feared.”
Lenz snarled. “I do not give a fuck about the price. I will pay any price, to take the head of the Grand Duke of Kria.”
“Agreed,” Nacio said, and reached for the journal. “Everything Ciel knew about it, he recorded here. We will learn what we must to win this battle, and then we will learn enough to win the war.”
“And after the war?”
Nacio stared at the journal in his hands, thought of the blood he had spilled, the reasons he had done it, all the suffering that had come of late, in the meager hope to end a greater suffering. “After the war, we will learn all that we must, to ensure that the Grand Duchy of Salhara becomes and forever remains the Kingdom of Salhara—and should it cost us everything, we will take Kria’s head and make of it a peace offering to the gods.”
Around him, the men cried their approval and support.
“You said this was made from a flower?” Eligio asked, gingerly lifting out one of the vials of red liquid, holding it to the light, where it almost seemed to glow.
Nacio nodded. “Yes. He called it arcen.”
“Then for Ciel, and for Salhara,” Jurgen said. “For my brothers, who stand here with me, though we will all probably be dead before it is over.”
“Yes, my brothers,” Nacio replied, and shut the lid of the wooden box, running his hand over the family crest on the front—Ciel’s crest, a star with seven points. “For Ciel, and thanks to him, a brotherhood to protect that which the Emperor forsook for greed.”
Tadeo covered Nacio’s hand with his own. “A brotherhood,” he agreed. “The Brotherhood of the Seven Star, for the star that died tonight to save us.”
The rest of the men placed their hands, and vowed as one, “For the Brotherhood of the Seven Star.”