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A Court of Dusk and Shadow

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Prologue

It wasn't unusual for Azriel to get headaches. In reality, it was more unusual fo him not to have one. Maybe it was the incessant murmurings of the shadows or the stress of his work, or the chaos of his family. He didn't know, but he had long learned to live with it.

Tonight the pounding in his skull  was particularly painful, and it didn't help that the shadows refused to silence. He could usually quiet them with sheer force of will, or at least diminish them to a whisper. But tonight, they ignored his efforts, dancing over his skin mockingly as the symphony of meaninglessness in his mind played on. There was hardly any pause between one secret and the next, strange musings without context or reason overlapping in a grating sort of dissonance. Sometimes he swore he was going mad.

One melody sang above the rest, even over the dull pounding at the front of his skull. He didn't know if it was the shadows or his own mind, though he supposed there was hardly any difference between them anymore. It told him to go to the river, told him that the wrong feeling in his chest would go away if he just stood on the bridge across the Sidra. Told him that everything would be quiet.

That was all he really wanted any more; a bit of silence. Moments of peace had been far and few between lately, but they were all beginning to find them again. But his shadows thrived on chaos, thrived on darkness and secrets, and so they had chosen this life for him, doomed him to an eternity of searching for a stillness he would never find.

It didn't take long for him to reach the Sidra. He leaned against the ornate railing of the ancient cobblestone bridge, breathing in the earthy mineral air of the river. The few who crossed didn't pay him any mind. Maybe they didn't see him in the shadows of twilight, but it was more likely that they'd just chosen to keep their distance. He knew that he wasn't revered in the same way as the rest of his family.

He was respected, there wasn't any doubt about that, but his reverence was born of fear rather than the love which most of the other inner circle claimed their praise. He knew people talked. His shadows often parroted the darkest tales of his own life like he hadn't lived them. He didn't mind it anymore. It was hardly malicious, and he supposed his reputation served him well. It certainly made his job easier.

The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon. The air clung to that strange cool gold of dusk and the sky turned the river soft shades of pink and orange, reflection flawed only by the subtle breeze rippling the surface. In the distance, the front of a storm charged the air with the sharpness of electricity, angry clouds softened by the sunset watercolors.The beauty did nothing to calm the cacophony of the rambling shadows. He hadn't any idea why he'd felt such a draw to come here. It brought him nothing. He let his head fall into his hands, rubbing his temples as if that would quiet the pounding. He didn't expect it to.

Which was why he was surprised when only moments later, everything fell silent and the shadows skittered away. Even the night insects quieted their conversation. It felt like the whole world had been dipped under water and muted itself into softness. The shock of it made him look up, sent his eyes searching as if something near were the cause. There was nothing, only the gentle sound of thunder rolling in from far away.

The sudden quiet didn't bring him the relief that he had been searching for. Instead, it sent every alarm in his mind off, sent a bolt of fear through him. He couldn't trace what it was, but he knew it as sure as if the shadows had whispered that something wasn't right.

That was when he spotted it: the thing falling from the sky. It shimmered in the light of the dying sun, refracting the orangish light in such a garish way that he knows he couldn't have missed it when he first looked. That was the strangest thing — it hadn't been there a moment ago, it had just appeared there, so out of place against the soft sky.

He knew there had to be some sort of magic involved. Unwelcome magic. That was hardly what anyone needed right now: more foreign magic and another mystery that he would be charged with solving. But he would happily do it, for the his family and for his court. Without them, he would have been nothing, and so he would protect those that protected him with everything he was.

His shadows had decided to make a reappearance then, this time in a more manageable fashion. They presented him with only a dull, unintelligible pounding in his skull and one strange assertion that made him doubt their credibility. Not a thing, a girl.

He could see it then. It was some sort of glittery dress casting the strange light. It rooted him there in sick fascination, staring as she fell like a star from heaven. For one wild moment he was struck with the sudden conviction that the old gods had returned and this was one of them, come to seek vengeance on an ungrateful people.

He was so stuck on that that the next thing he knew the girl was nearly passing him, finally hitting the water with a noise that he knew meant that it had behaved as earth rather than liquid. In the strange dissociative state that the circumstances had put him in, he almost forgot to act until his shadows urged him.

Will you watch as fate perishes, as destiny drowns before your eyes?

He knew the patterns of their riddles by now, it wasn't hard to unravel them. Before his mind could register the ramifications of his actions, he'd already kicked out of his heavy boots and stepped onto the uneven cobblestone ledge of the bridge. Taking one last deep breath, he threw himself off of the ledge and into the water below.

If there was one thing Azriel truly hated it was the cold. He knew people probably assumed he'd thrived in it, but he couldn't stand it. He hated it in the same way that he hated fire. It was too close to memories of him huddled alone in the darkness, his own breath the only sound. He could do nothing but push the memories away, the biting ice of the river beginning to freeze his bones after only moments.

He was grateful for the guiding force of his shadows. When he forced his eyes open he could see nothing but churning darkness. He found the girl quickly and winnowed them back to the bridge the moment he makes contact with the warmth of her skin.

For one awful moment, he though that she had already died. But then she coughed up enough water to fill another river. Leaned over her, he saw that her breaths were surprisingly even and calm. He tries writes it off as the cold slowing everything. But her eyes were open and her hand reached up to grip the collar of his shirt with a surprising amount of strength.

"It's coming." She said deliberately, voice hard and as icy as the water. But then she fell back into stillness. He kew her words were important but he can't focus on them now, because the moment his eyes had met hers, he had realized pounding in his head wasn't that but a single word shouted over and over again by the shadows that were beginning to return to him.

Mate.