Read the opening of The Storm’s Betrayal by Corry L. Lee…
Celka sees the blow coming before Pa does, and screams warning. The truncheon arcs down, and Pa turns slowly—too slowly—and Celka’s running, weeds slapping her shins, mud slipping beneath her feet, slowing her but she has to get to him has to save him has to help.
Crack. The first blow, sharp as a gunshot, twists Pa to the side.
“No!” she screams, still meters from him when a hand catches her upper arm, fingers closing like a steel trap.
Celka twists, panicked, struggling to tear free. She has to get to Pa. Another truncheon lands with a sick crack, and Pa cries out. Celka’s shoulder wrenches, but she snarls and hits and screams. “Let me go, letmego!”
Pain—a bright starburst across her face as the Army captain gripping her arm strikes her. Celka lands hard—hands and knees hitting the mud, weeds and circus tents smearing.
The crack of blows brings her back. The Tayemstvoy, still beating Pa.
Head swimming, Celka surges to her feet. But the Army captain—Captain Vrana—grabs her by the hair, wrenching her to the side when she tries to run to Pa. Tears blur Celka’s vision, and she grabs Vrana’s wrist, trying to claw open her grip, but it only tightens until she cries out, until she can only stumble beneath the woman’s hold, gasping, desperate, hearing the sick crack of wood and hobnailed boots on flesh as the Tayemstvoy keep beating Pa.
Celka, remember your high wire? The voice slices through her horror, not making sense. Celka, you’re safe.
She’s not. Vrana shoves her to the ground. Celka gasps, digging her fingers into the cold mud, struggling to crush down her terror enough to turn back. She has to fight. Has to save Pa.
Vrana catches her chin, grip bruising, wrenching Celka’s face up to hers. Her question ratchets Celka’s fear. When Vrana doesn’t like her answer, her fist smashes into Celka’s cheek.
On the ground again, Celka tastes blood. The Tayemstvoy, Vrana, they want to make her small, make her give up. But she won’t. She claws her hands into the mud. Looming over her, Vrana smells like gun oil, a slippery darkness that makes Celka bare her teeth.
Celka. Celka, look at me. The voice again, the one that doesn’t belong. Can you hear the circus band?
Celka lifts her head, ears ringing from Vrana’s blows, from Pa’s cries and the crack of truncheons. She has to save Pa. Nothing else matters.
But a figure catches her eye, yanks her attention off Vrana. Wavering, they glow the red of fresh blood. Celka stares, drawn inexplicably.
Pa cries out. Vrana’s voice menaces.
Celka blinks and the figure’s closer—crouched, reaching out.
Heartbeat loud in her ears, Celka lifts a muddy hand. The figure smells of blood, of mud, of gun oil—of Celka’s pain and terror and desperation, all of it so sharp that the rest of the world fades.
Celka touches their hand. It’s insubstantial, a haze of blood, yet the figure grips her palm and the scents sharpen.
Pa! Celka wants to scream, wants to snatch the pistol from Vrana’s hip and defend him—but she can’t make herself release the ghostly hand.
The figure’s red glow pulses in time with Celka’s panicked heartbeat. Then blue like a summer sky slashes the blaze. Celka gasps, wanting to recoil. She’s falling. The hand still grips hers, but she can feel Vrana looming behind her.
Remember your high wire? The figure is too faint to see their lips move, but Celka’s certain the voice is theirs. She wants to tear away. The high wire is a dream, a memory from before the Tayemstvoy attacked.
Pa. She wants to choke the word aloud, but doesn’t dare. Wants rip Vrana’s pistol from its holster.
You don’t have to fight. You’re safe. The cracks of blue in the figure’s red blaze deepen, sending an ache through Celka’s chest that doesn’t match the pain of Vrana kicking her with hobnailed boots. Your costume glitters with green sequins, and your sleeves float like emerald smoke. The words remind Celka of someone she trusts, but she can see her arms even as she can’t tear her gaze from the figure rippling red and blue, their pulse slowing, tongues of purple and green flickering across them. She doesn’t wear her high wire costume—of course she doesn’t. She’s in the back lot, where she was practicing with Pa before Vrana came, strutting at the head of a Tayemstvoy squad.
“Dust dances in the spotlights around your high wire.” The figure’s voice is growing stronger, the acoustics wrong for the weedy, open lot. “Can you hear the band? They play fluting and tense as you walk the high wire. You’re so confident.”
Celka’s stomach lurches, the familiar sensation of the steel cable pressing against the soles of her feet, though she still stands in mud. But the figure glows more blue than red now, and instead of blood and mud and gun oil, Celka smells boiling cabbage and horse manure. She wavers, unsteady. Pa. I have to save Pa. But her desperation is fading.
Pa is gone, dragged away by the Tayemstvoy.
“You don’t need a weapon to be strong, Celka. You’re strong when you walk the high wire.” The words echoed, doubled by memory. Gerrit told her the same thing—when? Why?
Celka struggled to remember details, frowning to find herself on the practice wire, the steel cable live beneath her feet, the springtime sun bright like spotlights as evergreen trees cast patches of shadow.
The glowing figure still stood before her, smelling of horses and cabbage, rippling with color that echoed the circus band playing off-key. Celka gripped their hand, and it felt more solid than it had before.
“You’re safe, Celka. It’s just the two of us. We’re alone. There’s no need to fight.” The voice was so soothing that Celka almost believed it. With the practice wire beneath her feet, she could finally breathe. “You lost yourself. Your sousednia warped and you lost true-life. But you’re safe now. Come back.”
The words buzzed almost beyond her understanding, but the picture they painted—that the practice wire and circus back lot were somehow not real—made Celka want to understand.
The figure reached one ghostly hand to stroke Celka’s cheek, and Celka flinched—it felt real. So real. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on that touch and the feel of someone’s hand warm in hers.
A new reality bled into her senses.
She lay on something hard. The air smelled of old stone and acrid sweat.
“Come back, Celka,” the voice said. “Return to true-life.”
Opening her eyes, Celka found herself lying on the floor, staring at a grey stone ceiling, a single electric lightbulb hanging from it, caged. She held a stranger’s hand, their beige skin tanned from the sun, blond hair cropped short, eyes the same grey as the rough stone walls. The stranger wore gold lightning bolt earrings, studded with purple stone. That she wore a pair of earrings gave Celka her pronouns. That they were lightning bolts, suggested this woman was a storm mage—a bozhk.
Celka dropped the bozhk’s hand and scrambled back. She tried to get to her feet, but stumbled, flinging a hand out to catch herself against the wall. The cell wall. Leaning hard against it, Celka willed her legs to support her. Her frantic glance landed on a heavy, steel-banded door—closed and no doubt bolted. She was a prisoner.
Breath harsh in her throat, Celka turned back to the bozhk who hadn’t moved from where she’d knelt beside Celka. Not just a bozhk, a soldier. The young woman wore olive green battledress trousers and a khaki shirt. No jacket, so Celka couldn’t tell her name or rank.
There was a cot at the soldier’s back, a chamber pot in one corner. The bozhk soldier blinked like she was having trouble focusing on Celka, and slowly raised her hands, weaponless. “I’m Hedvika,” she said, her voice the one that had broken Celka from the memory fugue of Tayemstvoy beating Pa. “I’m a strazh mage. I’m here to help you.”
Celka swallowed, her mouth dry, throat raw from screaming. She understood a little better now, memory piecing back together: the circus back lot wasn’t entirely real. It was the neighboring reality, sousednia, the place of needs and ideas where she shaped magic.
This cell was real, was true-life. And Celka was locked inside.
“Would you like some water?” Hedvika asked.
At Celka’s nod, Hedvika reached beneath the cot.
She held out a metal cup. “Come sit down.” Hedvika’s sousedni-shape bled through from the neighboring reality, color rippling over her khaki shirt and pale skin. Despite the fear twisting Celka’s stomach, that blue-red glow calmed something within her. Scents of cabbage and horses wafted from Hedvika, sousednia tangling with true-life, carrying an off-key rendition of the circus band. It made Celka feel… not safe, exactly, but safe enough that she edged forward and took the cup.
She didn’t want to sit and leave herself vulnerable, but her muscles shivered with exhaustion. Lowering herself to the edge of the cot furthest from the bozhk soldier, Celka drank, the cool water a relief.
Something about the moment felt familiar, and Celka knew before Hedvika said anything that the other woman was going to hand her a cold bowl of porridge. She knew how it would taste, lumpy and flavorless, but so welcome in her stomach’s gnawing emptiness. Celka expected Hedvika to sit on the far edge of the cot, and she did.
The porridge helped Celka’s hunger, but her stomach felt queasy in a way that she didn’t remember from before, and her jaw throbbed. “What happened?” Celka asked.
“You don’t remember?”
Celka frowned, trying to shake the memories free.
She’d been in a different cell, a Tayemstvoy officer circling her, asking her question after question. Celka had tried to answer. Had tried to stay calm. She’d tried to speak the truth that she and Gerrit and Filip had hastily worked out before turning themselves over to the State. But memory had overwhelmed reason. She’d smelled blood and mud and gun oil as a desperate need to fight—a combat nuzhda—welled back up.
“You’re safe now.” Hedvika’s soothing voice startled Celka from the memory, the touch of her hand on Celka’s wrist making her flinch. “Shhh.” Hedvika edged closer, blues and reds rippling bright over her uniform. “You’re safe.”
“I’m in a cell,” Celka choked, though Hedvika’s words helped, draining the red haze from her vision. “I’m not safe.” She balled one hand into a fist, struggling to slow her breathing. How long had she been a prisoner? How many times had she lost herself in a combat nuzhda fugue?
Hedvika slid her hand down to cover Celka’s, and her lips tightened. “Combat-warping won’t help.”
Celka forced herself to focus on her bowl of kasha, scraping the last bites of porridge from the sides and making herself swallow. “Will anything help?” She’d been here for days, at least—long enough that she’d lost track.
Hedvika sighed. “I wouldn’t be here if…”
Celka frowned up at her. If what? If the State didn’t think Celka would be useful? Celka was an imbuement mage, capable of creating new magic. It made her valuable—valuable enough, she’d thought, to keep her safe despite the Tayemstvoy she’d killed.
But if the State really believed her value, why was she still locked in a cell? Why did they repeat the same questions over and over, trying to catch her in a lie, making her relive her memory of the blood-soaked print shop until it overwhelmed her tenuous grounding in true-life and left her snarling violence?
Every interrogation since they’d brought her to this stone-walled dungeon had ended with her losing control. Her combat nuzhda flaring, she saw only threat, attacking her interrogators—attacking armed Tayemstvoy—and of course they struck her and threw her to the ground. Celka rubbed her wrists, bruised and aching from fighting against handcuffs. She was sleeting lucky the Tayemstvoy didn’t use her violence as an excuse to tear off her fingernails or burn her with hot irons.
Not quite meeting Hedvika’s gaze, Celka asked, “Are you Tayemstvoy?” She knew better than to ask questions of her captors; Grandfather had taught her how to survive interrogation, taught her to stare at her feet and speak meekly and only when questioned. But Celka had already sleeted that up—so many times. Yet still Hedvika sat with her, brought her food and water and didn’t hurt her.
“No,” Hedvika said. “I’m—” She hesitated, and Celka found the bozhk studying her, wary. She realized that Hedvika’s eyes were a blue so pale they only looked grey in the slate-walled cell. “I’m regular Army, a sub-lieutenant.” She said it cautiously, smelling like hay and cabbage while a nuzhda like the summer sky rippled over her skin.
Celka’s stomach clenched—but at least Hedvika wasn’t secret police.
Hedvika slipped her hand into Celka’s. “I’m here to help.”
Celka didn’t believe her, but she wanted to. Today wasn’t the first time Hedvika had pulled her back from a combat fugue.
The memory of panicked desperation closed like a fist around Celka’s throat, and she squeezed Hedvika’s hand—a lifeline. Being locked in a cell was hardly a comfort, but anything was better than being trapped inside her desperate horror, fighting to save Pa, doomed to fail.
“Thank you,” she whispered, just as the cell door banged open on two uniformed Tayemstvoy. Celka’s stomach clenched.
“Celka Prochazka,” the Tayemstvoy said, “you’ll come with us.”
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LIES. TREASON. MAGIC.
The Stormhawk—Bourshkanya’s paranoid, fascist leader—is seemingly unkillable. But for the rebellion to succeed, he must die.
Celka Prochazka uses magic in ways no one believed possible. She could be the perfect resistance assassin—if she can avoid being discovered as a traitor.
Gerrit Kladivo, the Stormhawk’s son, is determined to end his father’s tyrannical rule. But to get Celka close enough to his father, he must first prove unflinching loyalty to the regime.
Filip Cizek swore his life to protect Gerrit and the regime. But with Gerrit’s actions twisting him into a stranger, Filip must decide how deep his loyalty runs.
Together, they will attempt the impossible—but the cost may be everything they hold dear.