By: Melissa Landers

Either way, her life was over.

The only bright side to her hopelessness was that it gave her a perverse sort of freedom. She had nothing to live for, so there was no reason to play nice. She’d learned which behaviors would make the Daeva sedate her. (Kicking the bars produced a noise they especially hated.) And because a punch to the face was worth the reward of passing her days in a dreamless coma, she kept kicking those bars.

By the time the ship landed, her face was one throbbing bruise.

On the morning of delivery, the Daeva hauled her out of the cage and shackled her wrists and ankles with lightweight restraints that delivered an electric shock if pulled too far apart. Her legs had grown frail from weeks of disuse, and her knees wobbled when the men dragged her into the blazing light of day.

She winced, blinded by the sun. Her boots met the crunch of dried grass, but she couldn’t see or hear anything to indicate where she’d landed. From somewhere in the distance, a crow gave an eerie caw, and then a light breeze stirred her hair, smelling faintly of smoke. Slowly, she blinked until her surroundings came into focus.

It was obvious there’d been a fire here, which explained the charred scent in the air. Blackness covered the gently rolling hills, stretching all the way to the horizon. A few jagged tree trunks pushed up from the ground at awkward angles, like corpses rising from their graves. For miles around, there was only death.

She didn’t recognize this place. Had they landed on the wrong planet?

One of the men shoved her forward and pointed at a shuttle bearing the Durango crest, the house seal of Marius’s family. “Marius wants you to take a homecoming tour before your delivery.”

The breath caught at the top of Cassia’s lungs. She jerked her gaze back to the landscape, this time picturing the hills covered in lavender wildflowers and graceful willows spilling leaves onto the breeze. She spun in a clumsy circle until her eyes found a lake in the distance, and then her vision flooded with tears. Because she did know this place, knew it by heart from the years she’d spent gazing at its likeness taped to her bedroom wall. She was standing on her royal ancestral land.

Ravaged by the war she’d caused.

“Move,” the man said, shoving her again.

Cassia lumbered onto the shuttle and took a window seat, then watched as the devastation unfolded below. Nothing could have prepared her for what two years of battle had done to her city. Most of the streets were impassable, pockmarked by shock wave mortar, and the Rose Academy at the heart of the scholastic district was reduced to rubble. Fields were ruined and warehouses torched. Not even the hospital was spared. Half its roof had melted off, revealing heaps of twisted metal and piles of scorched beds that likely hadn’t been vacant during the attack.

Her eyes couldn’t process the devastation. She wasn’t naive—she’d seen images of war on other planets—but weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist here. The four founding dynasties had agreed to that in the colony charter when they’d terraformed Eturia hundreds of years ago. Obedience to the charter was their most sacred tenet, and the Solar League was supposed to help enforce it. That was why colonies paid taxes. So why hadn’t the League stepped in?

She continued scanning the city and noticed her family’s palace was still standing, though a portion of the east wing had crumbled, and the walls around the front entrance were defaced with symbols painted in red. Squinting, she was able to identify them as basic squares with an X marked through each one, but she didn’t know what they meant.

As the shuttle jettisoned away from her family’s territory, she peered into the distance and noticed similar devastation in the neighboring kingdoms. Only the Durango lands seemed unaffected, which told her it was Marius’s family who’d betrayed the charter. That didn’t surprise her, but she couldn’t understand how they’d funded the war. Weapons didn’t come cheap, and the Durangos possessed the least amount of wealth. That was why they’d agreed to a marriage between Cassia and Marius in the first place.

The question moved to the back of her mind as the shuttle touched down behind the Durango palace. She steeled herself, using both shirtsleeves to scrub the wetness from her eyes. Her enemies had already taken too much. She wouldn’t give them her tears, too. When she exited the shuttle, it was with her matted head raised to the sky.

She’d assumed she would end up in a jail cell, and she was right. But instead of taking the most direct route to the basement, the Daeva led her slowly along every corridor in the main house so the servants and visitors could see how the once-regal Cassia Adelaide Rose had been reduced to a stinking prisoner in bloodstained rags. Refusing to acknowledge any of them, she stared blankly in front of her as she made her way through the mansion and eventually down the staircase to the brig.