Leigh Bardugo, best-selling author of the Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows duology, is putting her own brilliant spin on the iconic Wonder Woman with Wonder Woman: Warbringer, a coming-of-age story about the legendary Amazonian. The book doesn’t hit shelves until August 29—but EW is thrilled to offer an exclusive excerpt of the first two chapters, below.
But first, Bardugo tells EW what she wanted to focus on with this novel — and what she was ready to leave out:
“In Marston’s original telling, Diana longs to leave the Amazons because she falls in love with a mortal man. I mean, bless Steve Trevor, but that never really resonated with me. I wanted to give Diana her own quest, and I wanted her friendship with Alia to be the core of the story, the bond that will forever link her to the mortal world. For me, writing Diana’s story was really about asking what forged her strength, what she thinks makes a hero at the book’s beginning and how that changes through the friendship she forms with Alia. I also wanted to put my own spin on Amazon lore, to step away from the idea of them as some kind of ancient super race, and create a mythology that allowed any battle-proven woman from any culture the chance to find her way to Themyscira.
Taking on Wonder Woman’s story was daunting. People who have never picked up a comic or watched her in a cartoon know who she is and she means something different to everyone who encounters her. But when you get a chance to add a chapter to your favorite superhero’s story, you pick up your lasso and Amazon up.”
Excerpt from Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
— DC Icons Series —
Draw nigh, come through the press to grips with me, so shall ye learn what might wells up in breasts of Amazons. With my blood is mingled war!
—Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy
You do not enter a race to lose.
Diana bounced lightly on her toes at the starting line, her calves taut as bowstrings, her mother’s words reverberating in her ears. A noisy crowd had gathered for the wrestling matches and javelin throws that would mark the start of the Nemeseian Games, but the real event was the footrace, and now the stands were buzzing with word that the queen’s daughter had entered the competition.
When Hippolyta had seen Diana amid the runners clustered on the arena sands, she’d displayed no surprise. As was tradition, she’d descended from her viewing platform to wish the athletes luck in their endeavors, sharing a joke here or offering a kind word of encouragement there. She had nodded briefly to Diana, showing her no special favor, but she’d whispered, so low that only her daughter could hear, “You do not enter a race to lose.”
Amazons lined the path that led out of the arena, already stamping their feet and chanting for the games to begin.
On Diana’s right, Rani flashed her a radiant smile. “Good luck today.” She was always kind, always gracious, and, of course, always victorious.
To Diana’s left, Thyra snorted and shook her head. “She’s going to need it.”
Diana ignored her. She’d been looking forward to this race for weeks—a trek across the island to retrieve one of the red flags hung beneath the great dome in Bana-Mighdall. In a flat-out sprint, she didn’t have a chance. She still hadn’t come into the fullness of her Amazon strength. You will in time, her mother had promised. But her mother promised a lot of things.
This race was different. It required strategy, and Diana was ready. She’d been training in secret, running sprints with Maeve, and plotting a route that had rougher terrain but was definitely a straighter shot to the western tip of the island. She’d even—well, she hadn’t exactly spied… She’d gathered intelligence on the other Amazons in the race. She was still the smallest, and of course the youngest, but she’d shot up in the last year, and she was nearly as tall as Thyra now.
I don’t need luck, she told herself. I have a plan. She glanced down the row of Amazons gathered at the starting line like troops readying for war and amended, But a little luck wouldn’t hurt, either. She wanted that laurel crown. It was better than any royal circlet or tiara. It was something she could earn instead of just be given.
She found Maeve’s red hair and freckled face in the crowd and grinned, trying to project confidence. Maeve returned the smile and gestured with both hands as if she were tamping down the air. She mouthed the words, “Steady on.”
Diana rolled her eyes but nodded and tried to slow her breathing. She had a bad habit of coming out too fast and wasting her speed too early.
Now she cleared her mind and forced herself to concentrate on the course as Tekmessa walked the line, surveying the runners, jewels glinting in her thick corona of curls, silver bands flashing on her brown arms. She was Hippolyta’s closest advisor, second in rank only to the queen, and she carried herself as if her belted indigo shift were battle armor.
“Take it easy, Pyxis,” Tek murmured to Diana as she passed. “Wouldn’t want to see you crack.” Diana heard Thyra snort again, but she refused to flinch at the nickname. You won’t be smirking when I’m on the victors’ podium, she promised.
Tek raised her hands for silence and bowed to Hippolyta, who sat between two other members of the Amazon Council in the royal loge—a high platform shaded by a silken overhang dyed in the vibrant red and blue of the queen’s colors. Diana knew that was where her mother wanted her right now, seated beside her, waiting for the start of the games instead of competing. None of that would matter when she won.
Hippolyta dipped her chin the barest amount, elegant in her white tunic and riding trousers, a simple circlet resting against her forehead. She looked relaxed, at her ease, as if she might decide to leap down and join the competition at any time, but still every inch the queen.
Tek addressed the athletes gathered on the arena sands. “In whose honor do you compete?”
“For the glory of the Amazons,” they replied in unison. “For the glory of our queen.” Diana felt her heart beat harder. She’d never said the words before, not as a competitor.
“To whom do we give praise each day?” Tek trumpeted.
“Hera,” they chorused. “Athena, Demeter, Hestia, Aphrodite, Artemis.” The goddesses who had created Themyscira and gifted it to Hippolyta as a place of refuge.
Tek paused, and along the line, Diana heard the whispers of other names: Oya, Durga, Freyja, Mary, Yael. Names once cried out in death, the last prayers of female warriors fallen in battle, the words that had brought them to this island and given them new life as Amazons. Beside Diana, Rani murmured the names of the demon-fighting Matri, the seven mothers, and pressed the rectangular amulet she always wore to her lips.
Tek raised a blood-red flag identical to those that would be waiting for the runners in Bana-Mighdall.
“May the island guide you to just victory,” she shouted.
She dropped the red silk. The crowd roared. The runners surged toward the eastern arch. Like that, the race had begun.
Diana and Maeve had anticipated a bottleneck, but Diana still felt a pang of frustration as runners clogged the stone throat of the tunnel, a tangle of white tunics and muscled limbs, footsteps echoing off the stone, all of them trying to get clear of the arena at once. Then they were on the road, sprinting off across the island, each runner choosing her own course.
You do not enter a race to lose.
Diana set her pace to the rhythm of those words, bare feet slapping the packed earth of the road that would lead her through the tangle of the Cybelian Woods to the island’s northern coast.
Ordinarily, a miles-long trek through this forest would be a slow one, hampered by fallen trees and tangles of vines so thick they had to be hacked through with a blade you didn’t mind dulling. But Diana had plotted her way well. An hour after she entered the woods, she burst from the trees onto the deserted coast road. The wind lifted her hair, and salt spray lashed her face. She breathed deep, checked the position of the sun. She was going to win—not just place but win.
She’d mapped out the course the week before with Maeve, and they’d run it twice in secret, in the gray-light hours of early morning, when their sisters were only just rising from their beds, when the kitchen fires were still being kindled, and the only curious eyes they’d had to worry about belonged to anyone up early to hunt game or cast nets for the day’s catch. But hunters kept to the woods and meadows farther south, and no one fished off this part of the coast; there was no good place to launch a boat, just the steep steel-colored cliffs plunging straight down to the sea, and a tiny, unwelcoming cove that could only be reached by a path so narrow you had to shuffle down sideways, back pressed to the rock.
The northern shore was gray, grim, and inhospitable, and Diana knew every inch of its secret landscape, its crags and caves, its tide pools teeming with limpets and anemones. It was a good place to be alone. The island seeks to please, her mother had told her. It was why Themyscira was forested by redwoods in some places and rubber trees in others; why you could spend an afternoon roaming the grasslands on a scoop-neck pony and the evening atop a camel, scaling a moonlit dragonback of sand dunes. They were all pieces of the lives the Amazons had led before they came to the island, little landscapes of the heart.
Diana sometimes wondered if Themyscira had called the northern coast into being just for her so that she could challenge herself climbing on the sheer drop of its cliffs, so that she could have a place to herself when the weight of being Hippolyta’s daughter got to be too much.
You do not enter a race to lose.
Her mother had not been issuing a general warning. Diana’s losses meant something different, and they both knew it—and not just because she was a princess.
Diana could almost feel Tek’s knowing gaze on her, hear the mocking in her voice. Take it easy, Pyxis. That was the nickname Tek had given her. Pyxis. A little clay pot made to store jewels or a tincture of carmine for pinking the lips. The name was harmless, meant to tease, always said in love—or so Tek claimed. But it stung every time: a reminder that Diana was not like the other Amazons, and never would be. Her sisters were battle-proven warriors, steel forged from suffering and honed to greatness as they passed from life to immortality. All of them had earned their place on Themyscira. All but Diana, born of the island’s soil and Hippolyta’s longing for a child, fashioned from clay by her mother’s hands—hollow and breakable. Take it easy, Pyxis. Wouldn’t want to see you crack.
Diana steadied her breathing, kept her pace steady. Not today, Tek. This day the laurel belongs to me.
She spared the briefest glance at the horizon, letting the sea breeze cool the sweat on her brow. Through the mists, she glimpsed the white shape of a ship. It had come close enough to the boundary that Diana could make out its sails. The craft was small—a schooner maybe? She had trouble remembering nautical details. Mainmast, mizzenmast, a thousand names for sails, and knots for rigging. It was one thing to be out on a boat, learning from Teuta, who had sailed with Illyrian pirates, but quite another to be stuck in the library at the Epheseum, staring glazed-eyed at diagrams of a brigantine or a caravel.
Sometimes she and Maeve made a game of trying to spot ships or planes, and once they’d even seen the fat blot of a cruise ship on the horizon. But most mortals knew to steer clear of their particular corner of the Aegean, where compasses spun and instruments suddenly refused to obey.
Today it looked like a storm was picking up past the mists of the boundary, and Diana was sorry she couldn’t stop to watch it. The rains that came to Themyscira were tediously gentle and predictable, nothing like the threatening rumble of thunder, the shimmer of a far-off lightning strike.
“Do you ever miss storms?” Diana had asked one afternoon as she and Maeve had lazed on the palace’s sun-soaked rooftop terrace, listening to the distant roar and clatter of a tempest. Maeve had died in the Crossbarry Ambush, the last words on her lips a prayer to Saint Brigid of Kildare. She was new to the island by Amazon standards, and came from Cork, where storms were common.
“No,” Maeve had said in her lilting voice. “I miss a good cup of tea, dancing, boys—definitely not rain.”
“We dance,” Diana protested.
Maeve had just laughed. “You dance differently when you know you won’t live forever.” Then she’d stretched, freckles like dense clouds of pollen on her white skin. “I think I was a cat in another life, because all I want is to lie around sleeping in the world’s biggest sunbeam.”
Steady on. Diana resisted the urge to speed forward. It was hard to remember to keep something in reserve with the early-morning sun on her shoulders and the wind at her back. She felt strong. But it was easy to feel strong when she was on her own.
A boom sounded over the waves, a hard metallic clap like a door slamming shut. Diana’s steps faltered. On the blue horizon, a billowing column of smoke rose, flames licking at its base. The schooner was on fire, its prow blown to splinters and one of its masts smashed, the sail dragging over the rails.
Diana found herself slowing but forced her stride back on pace. There was nothing she could do for the schooner. Planes crashed. Ships were wrecked upon the rocks. That was the nature of the mortal world. It was a place where disaster could happen and often did. Human life was a tide of suffering, one that never reached the island’s shores. Diana focused her eyes on the path. Far, far ahead she could see sunlight gleaming gold off the great dome at Bana-Mighdall. First the red flag, then the laurel crown. That was the plan.
From somewhere on the wind, she heard a cry.
A gull, she told herself. A girl, some other voice within her insisted. Impossible. A human shout couldn’t carry over such a great distance, could it?
It didn’t matter. There was nothing she could do.
And yet her eyes strayed back to the horizon. I just want to get a better view, she told herself. I have plenty of time. I’m ahead.
There was no good reason to leave the ruts of the old cart track, no logic to veering out over the rocky point, but she did it anyway.
The waters near the shore were calm, clear, vibrant turquoise. The ocean beyond was something else—wild, deep-well blue, a sea gone almost black. The island might seek to please her and her sisters, but the world beyond the boundary didn’t concern itself with the happiness or safety of its inhabitants.
Even from a distance, she could tell the schooner was sinking. But she saw no lifeboats, no distress flares, only pieces of the broken craft carried along by rolling waves. It was done. Diana rubbed her hands briskly over her arms, dispelling a sudden chill, and started making her way back to the cart track. That was the way of human life. She and Maeve had dived out by the boundary many times, swum the wrecks of airplanes and clipper ships and sleek motorboats. The salt water changed the wood, hardened it so it did not rot. Mortals were not the same. They were food for deep-sea fishes, for sharks—and for time that ate at them slowly, inevitably, whether they were on water or on land.
Diana checked the sun’s position again. She could be at Bana-Mighdall in forty minutes, maybe less. She told her legs to move. She’d only lost a few minutes. She could make up the time. Instead, she looked over her shoulder.
There were stories in all the old books about women who made the mistake of looking back. On the way out of burning cities. On the way out of hell. But Diana looked anyway at that ship sinking in the great waves, tilting like a bird’s broken wing.
She measured the length of the cliff top. There were jagged rocks at the base. If she didn’t leap with enough momentum, the impact would be ugly. Still, the fall wouldn’t kill her. That’s true of a real Amazon, she thought. Is it true for you? Well, she hoped the fall wouldn’t kill her. Of course, if the fall didn’t, her mother would.
Diana looked once more at the wreck and pushed off, running full out, arms pumping, stride long, picking up speed, closing the distance to the cliff’s edge. Stop stop stop, her mind clamored. This is madness. Even if there were survivors, she could do nothing for them. To try to save them was to court exile, and there would be no exception to the rule—not even for a princess. Stop. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t obey. She wanted to believe it was because a hero’s heart beat in her chest and demanded an answer to that frightened call. But even as she launched herself off the cliff and into the empty sky, she knew part of what drew her on was the challenge of that great gray sea that did not care if she loved it.
Her body cut a smooth arc through the air, arms pointing like a compass needle, directing her course. She plummeted toward the water and broke the surface in a clean plunge, ears full of sudden silence, muscles tensed for the brutal impact of the rocks. None came. She shot upward, drew in a breath, and swam straight for the boundary, arms slicing through the warm water.
There was always a little thrill when she neared the boundary, when the temperature of the water began to change, the cold touching her fingertips first, then settling over her scalp and shoulders. Diana and Maeve liked to swim out from the southern beaches, daring themselves to go farther, farther. Once they’d glimpsed a ship passing in the mist, sailors standing at the stern. One of the men had lifted an arm, pointing in their direction. They’d plunged to safety, gesturing wildly to each other beneath the waves, laughing so hard that by the time they reached shore, they were both choking on salt water. We could be sirens, Maeve had shrieked as they’d flopped on the warm sand, except neither of them could carry a tune. They’d spent the rest of the afternoon singing violently off-key Irish drinking songs and laughing themselves silly until Tek had found them. Then they’d shut up quick. Breaking the boundary was a minor infraction. Being seen by mortals anywhere near the island was cause for serious disciplinary action. And what Diana was doing now?
Stop. But she couldn’t. Not when that high human cry still rang in her ears.
Diana felt the cold of the water beyond the boundary engulf her fully. The sea had her now, and it was not friendly. The current seized her legs, dragging her down, a massive, rolling force, the barest shrug of a god. You have to fight it, she realized, forcing her muscles to correct her course. She’d never had to work against the ocean.
She bobbed for a moment on the surface, trying to get her bearings as the waves crested around her. The water was full of debris, papers floating on the surface, shards of wood, broken fiberglass, orange life jackets that the crew must not have had time to don. It was nearly impossible to see through the falling rain and the mists that shrouded the island.
What am I doing out here? she asked herself. Ships come and go. Human lives are lost. She dove again, peered through the rushing gray waters, but saw no one.
Diana surfaced, her own stupidity carving a growing ache in her gut. She’d sacrificed the race. This was supposed to be the moment her sisters saw her truly, the chance to make her mother proud. Instead, she’d thrown away her lead, and for what? There was nothing here but destruction.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of white, a big chunk of what might have been the ship’s hull. It rose on a wave, vanished, rose again, and as it did, Diana glimpsed a slender brown arm holding tight to the side, fingers spread, knuckles bent. Then it was gone.
Another wave rose, a great gray mountain. Diana dove beneath it, kicking hard, then surfaced, searching, bits of lumber and fiberglass everywhere, impossible to sort one piece of flotsam from another.
There it was again—an arm, two arms, a body, bowed head and hunched shoulders, lemon-colored shirt, a tangle of dark hair. A girl—she lifted her head, gasped for breath, dark eyes wild with fear. A wave crashed over her in a spray of white water. The chunk of hull surfaced. The girl was gone.
Down again. Diana aimed for the place she’d seen the girl go under. She glimpsed a flash of yellow and lunged for it, seizing the fabric and using it to reel her in. A ghost’s face loomed out at her from the cloudy water—golden hair, blue gaze wide and lifeless. She’d never seen a corpse up close before. She’d never seen a boy up close before. She recoiled, hand releasing his shirt, but even as she watched him disappear, she marked the differences—hard jaw, broad brow, just like the pictures in books.
She dove again, but she’d lost all sense of direction now—the waves, the wreck, the bare shadow of the island in the mists. If she drifted out much farther, she might not be able to find her way back.
Diana could not stop seeing the image of that slender arm, the ferocity in those fingers, clinging hard to life. Once more, she told herself. She dove, the chill of the water fastening tight around her bones now, burrowing deeper.
One moment the world was gray current and cloudy sea, and the next the girl was there in her lemon-colored shirt, face down, arms and legs outstretched like a star. Her eyes were closed.
Diana grabbed her around the waist and launched them toward the surface. For a terrifying second, she could not find the shape of the island, and then the mists parted. She kicked forward, wrapping the girl awkwardly against her chest with one arm, fingers questing for a pulse with the other. There—beneath the jaw, thready, indistinct, but there. Though the girl wasn’t breathing, her heart still beat.
Diana hesitated. She could see the outlines of Filos and Ecthros, the rocks that marked the rough beginnings of the boundary. The rules were clear. You could not stop the mortal tide of life and death, and the island must never be touched by it. There were no exceptions. No human could be brought to Themyscira, even if it meant saving a life. Breaking that rule meant only one thing: exile.
Exile. The word was a stone, unwanted ballast, the weight unbearable. It was one thing to breach the boundary, but what she did next might untether her from the island, her sisters, her mother forever. The world seemed too large, the sea too deep. Let go. It was that simple. Let this girl slip from her grasp and it would be as if Diana had never leapt from those cliffs. She would be light again, free of this burden.
Diana thought of the girl’s hand, the ferocious grip of her knuckles, the steel-blade determination in her eyes before the wave took her under. She felt the ragged rhythm of the girl’s pulse, a distant drum—alive, alive.
She swam for shore.
As she passed through the boundary with the girl clutched to her, the mists dissolved and the rain abated. Warmth flooded her body. The calm water felt oddly lifeless after the thrashing of the sea, but Diana wasn’t about to complain.
When her feet touched the sandy bottom, she shoved up, shifting her grip to carry the girl from the shallows. She was eerily light, almost insubstantial. It was like holding a sparrow’s body between her cupped hands. No wonder the sea had made such easy sport of this creature and her crewmates; she felt temporary, an artist’s cast of a body rendered in plaster.
Diana laid her gently on the sand and checked her pulse again. No heartbeat now. She knew she needed to get the girl’s heart going, get the water out of her lungs, but her memory on just how to do that was a bit hazy. Diana had studied the basics of reviving a drowning victim, but she hadn’t ever had to put it into practice outside the classroom. It was also possible she hadn’t paid close attention at the time. How likely was it that an Amazon was going to drown, especially in the calm waters off Themyscira? And now her daydreaming might cost this girl her life.
Do something, she told herself, trying to think past her panic. Why did you drag her out of the water if you’re just going to sit staring at her like a frightened rabbit?
Diana placed two fingers on the girl’s sternum, then tracked lower to what she hoped was the right spot. She locked her hands together and pressed. The girl’s bones bent beneath her palms. Hurriedly, Diana drew back. What was this girl made of, anyway? Balsa wood? She felt about as solid as the little models of world monuments Diana had been forced to build for class. Gently, she pressed down again, then again. She shut the girl’s nose with her fingers, closed her mouth over cooling mortal lips, and breathed.
The gust drove into the girl’s chest, and Diana saw it rise, but this time the extra force seemed to be a good thing. Suddenly, the girl was coughing, her body convulsing as she spat up salt water. Diana sat back on her knees and released a short laugh. She’d done it. The girl was alive.
The reality of what she’d just dared struck her. All the hounds of Hades: She’d done it. The girl was alive.
And trying to sit up.
“Here,” Diana said, bracing the girl’s back with her arm. She couldn’t just kneel there, watching her flop around on the sand like a fish, and it wasn’t as if she could put her back in the ocean. Could she? No. Mortals were clearly too good at drowning.
The girl clutched her chest, taking huge, sputtering gulps of air. “The others,” she gasped. Her eyes were so wide Diana could see white ringing her irises all the way around. She was trembling, but Diana wasn’t sure if it was because she was cold or going into shock. “We have to help them—”
Diana shook her head. If there had been any other signs of life in the wreck, she hadn’t seen them. Besides, time passed more quickly in the mortal world. Even if she swam back out, the storm would have long since had its way with any bodies or debris.
“They’re gone,” said Diana, then wished she’d chosen her words more carefully. The girl’s mouth opened, closed. Her body was shaking so hard Diana thought it might break apart. That couldn’t actually happen, could it?
Diana scanned the cliffs above the beach. Someone might have seen her swim out. She felt confident no other runner had chosen this course, but anyone could have seen the explosion and come to investigate.
“I need to get you off the beach. Can you walk?” The girl nodded, but her teeth were chattering, and she made no move to stand. Diana’s eyes scoured the cliffs again. “Seriously, I need you to get up.”
She didn’t look like she was trying. Diana searched her memory for everything she’d been told about mortals, the soft stuff—eating habits, body temperature, cultural norms. Unfortunately, her mother and her tutors were more focused on what Diana referred to as the Dire Warnings: War. Torture. Genocide. Pollution. Bad Grammar.
The girl shivering before her on the sand didn’t seem to qualify for inclusion in the Dire Warnings category. She looked about the same age as Diana, brown skinned, her hair a tangle of long, tiny braids covered in sand. She was clearly too weak to hurt anyone but herself. Even so, she could be plenty dangerous to Diana. Exile dangerous. Banished-forever-dangerous. Better not to think about that. Instead, she thought back to her classes with Teuta. Make a plan. Battles are often lost because people don’t know which war they’re fighting. All right. The girl couldn’t walk any great distance in her condition. Maybe that was a good thing, given that Diana had nowhere to take her.
She rested what she hoped was a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Listen, I know you’re feeling weak, but we should try to get off the beach.”
Diana hesitated, then opted for an answer that was technically true if not wholly accurate. “High tide.”
It seemed to do the trick, because the girl nodded. Diana stood and offered her a hand.
“I’m fine,” the girl said, shoving to her knees and then pushing up to her feet.
“You’re stubborn,” Diana said with some measure of respect. The girl had almost drowned and seemed to be about as solid as driftwood and down, but she wasn’t eager to accept help—and she definitely wasn’t going to like what Diana suggested next. “I need you to climb on my back.”
A crease appeared between the girl’s brows. “Why?”
“Because I don’t think you can make it up the cliffs.”
“Is there a path?”
“No,” said Diana. That was definitely a lie. Instead of arguing, Diana turned her back. A minute later, she felt a pair of arms around her neck. The girl hopped on and Diana reached back to take hold of her thighs and hitch her into position. “Hold on tight.”
The girl’s arms clamped around her windpipe. “Not that tight!” Diana choked out.
“Sorry!” She loosened her hold.
Diana took off at a jog.
The girl groaned. “Slow down. I think I’m going to vomit.”
“Vomit?” Diana scanned her knowledge of mortal bodily functions and immediately smoothed her gait. “Do not do that.”
“Just don’t drop me.”
“You weigh about as much as a heavy pair of boots.” Diana picked her way through the big boulders wedged against the base of the cliff. “I need my arms to climb, so you’re going to have to hold on with your legs, too.”
“You’re taking me up the side of the cliff? Are you out of your mind?”
“Just hold on and try not to strangle me.” Diana dug her fingers into the rock and started putting distance between them and the ground before the girl could think too much more about it.
She moved quickly. This was familiar territory. Diana had scaled these cliffs countless times since she’d started visiting the north shore, and when she was twelve, she’d discovered the cave where they were headed. There were other caves, lower on the cliff face, but they filled when the tides came in. Besides, they were too easy to crawl out of if someone got curious.
The girl groaned again.
“Almost there,” Diana said encouragingly.
“I’m not opening my eyes.”
“Probably for the best. Just don’t . . . you know.”
“Puke all over you?”
“Yes,” said Diana. “That.” Amazons didn’t get sick, but vomiting appeared in any number of novels and featured in a particularly vivid description from her anatomy book. Blessedly, there were no illustrations.
At last, Diana hauled them up into the divot in the rock that marked the cave’s entrance. The girl rolled off and heaved a long breath. The cave was tall, narrow, and surprisingly deep, as if someone had taken a cleaver to the center of the cliff. Its gleaming black rock sides were perpetually damp with sea spray. When she was younger, Diana had liked to pretend that if she kept walking, the cave would lead straight through the cliff and open onto some other land entirely. It didn’t. It was just a cave, and remained a cave no matter how hard she wished.
Diana waited for her eyes to adjust, then shuffled farther inside. The old horse blanket was still there—wrapped in oilcloth and mostly dry, if a bit musty—as well as her tin box of supplies.
She wrapped the blanket around the girl’s shoulders.
“We aren’t going to the top?” asked the girl.
“Not yet.” Diana had to get back to the arena. The race must be close to over by now, and she didn’t want people wondering where she’d gotten to. “Are you hungry?”
The girl shook her head. “We need to call the police, search and rescue.”
“That isn’t possible.”
“I don’t know what happened,” the girl said, starting to shake again. “Jasmine and Ray were arguing with Dr. Ellis and then—”
“There was some kind of explosion. I saw it from shore.”
“It’s my fault,” the girl said as tears spilled over her cheeks. “They’re dead and it’s my fault.”
“Don’t,” Diana said gently, feeling a surge of panic. “It was the storm.” She laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “What’s your name?”
“Alia,” the girl said, burying her head in her arms.
“Alia, I need to go, but—”
“No!” Alia said sharply. “Don’t leave me here.”
“I have to. I . . . need to get help.” What Diana needed was to get back to Ephesus and figure out how to get this girl off the island before anyone found out about her.
Alia grabbed hold of her arm, and again Diana remembered the way she’d clung to that piece of hull. “Please,” Alia said. “Hurry. Maybe they can send a helicopter. There could be survivors.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Diana promised. She slid the tin box toward the girl. “There are dried peaches and pili seeds and a little fresh water inside. Don’t drink it all at once.”
Alia’s eyelids stuttered. “All at once? How long will you be gone?”
“Maybe a few hours. I’ll be back as fast as I can. Just stay warm and rest.” Diana rose. “And don’t leave the cave.”
Alia looked up at her. Her eyes were deep brown and heavily lashed, her gaze fearful but steady. For the first time since Diana had pulled her from the water, Alia seemed to be truly seeing her. “Where are we?” she asked. “What is this place?”
Diana wasn’t quite sure how to answer, so all she said was “This is my home.”
She hooked her hands back into the rock and ducked out of the cave before Alia could ask anything else.
Should I have tied her up? Diana wondered as she scaled the cliff, the noon sun warming her shoulders after the chill of the cave. No. She didn’t have any rope, and tying up a girl who had almost died didn’t seem like the right thing to do. But she’d need to have answers ready when she returned. Alia had been shaken by the wreck, but she was coming back to herself, and she clearly wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t be content to stay in the cave for long.
Diana lengthened her stride. There was no point to going to Bana-Mighdall to retrieve the flag. She would return to the arena and make some kind of excuse, but she couldn’t think beyond that. The farther she got from the cliffs, the more foolish her decision seemed. A cold, prickling fear had coiled just beneath her ribs. The island had its own rules, its own prohibitions, and there were reasons for all of them. No weapons were carried except for training and exhibition. The few off-island missions permitted were those sanctioned by the Amazon Council and the Oracle—and then only to preserve the isolation of Themyscira.
She needed to get Alia back to the mortal world as soon as possible. Days would pass among the humans while Alia waited in her cave. Rescue ships might be sent for her lost boat. If Diana moved quickly enough, maybe she could get Alia out there on another craft so that she could rendezvous with them. Even if the girl tried to tell the authorities about Themyscira and by some chance she was believed, there was no way she’d be able to find her way back to the island.
The deep bellow of a horn sounded from the Epheseum, and Diana’s heart gave a sick thud. The race was over. Someone had claimed the laurel crown she’d been so sure she would wear today. I saved a life, she reminded herself, but the thought was hardly comforting. If anyone found out about Alia, Diana would be sent from her home forever. Of all the island’s rules, the prohibition against outsiders was the most sacred. Only Amazons who had won the right to a life on Themyscira belonged here. They died gloriously in battle, proving their courage and heart, and if, in their last moments, they cried out to a goddess, they might be offered a new life, one of peace and honor among sisters. Athena, Chandraghanta, Pele, Banba. Goddesses from all over the world, warriors of every nation. Each Amazon had earned her place on the island. All but Diana, of course.
That prickling coil tightened in her gut. Maybe rescuing Alia hadn’t been a misstep, but something fixed in Diana’s fate. If she had never really belonged on the island, maybe exile was inevitable.
She hurried her steps as the towers of the Epheseum came into view, but her feet felt weighted with dread. How exactly was she going to face her mother after this?
Too soon, the dirt of the road became thick slabs of Istrian stone, white and weathered beneath her bare feet. As she entered the city, she felt as if she could see people staring down at her from their balconies and open gardens, their curious eyes dogging her path to the arena. It was one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, a crown of glowing white stone perched atop slender arches, each emblazoned with the name of a different champion.
Diana passed beneath the arch dedicated to Penthesilea. She could hear cheering and feet stamping, and when she emerged into the sunlit arena, the sight that greeted her was worse than she’d expected. She hadn’t just lost. She was the last to return. The victors were on the podium, and the presentation of the laurels had already begun. Naturally, Rani had placed first. She’d been a distance runner in her life as a mortal and as an Amazon. The worst part was how much Diana liked her. She was relentlessly humble and kind and had even offered to help Diana train. Diana wondered if it got tiring being splendid all the time. Maybe heroes were just like that.
As she made her way toward the dais, she forced herself to smile. Though the sun had helped to dry her, she was keenly aware of the rumpled mess of her tunic, the seawater knots in her hair. Perhaps if she just acted like the race hadn’t mattered, it wouldn’t. But she’d only taken a few steps when Tek emerged from the crowd and slung an arm around her neck.
Diana stiffened and then hated herself for it because she knew Tek could tell.
“Aw, little Pyxis,” Tek crooned, “you get bogged down in the mud?”
A soft hiss rose from the people standing nearby. They all understood the insult. Diana had not been forged in battle; she had been sculpted from clay.
Diana grinned. “Miss me, Tek? There’s got to be someone else around here for you to judge.”
A few chuckles bubbled up from the crowd. Keep walking, Diana told herself. Keep your head held high. The problem was that Tek was a born general. She sensed weakness and knew exactly where to find the cracks. You’ve got to give as good as you get, Maeve had warned Diana, or Tek won’t back down. She’s cautious around Hippolyta, but eventually you’re the one who’s going to sit that throne.
Not if Tek has her way, Diana thought.
“Don’t be cross, Pyxis,” said Tek. “There’s always next time. And the time after that.”
As Diana moved through the spectators, she heard Tek’s allies chiming in.
“Maybe they’ll move the finish line for the next race,” said Otrera.
“Why not?” Thyra replied. “There are different rules when you’re royalty.”
That was a direct slight to her mother, but Diana grinned as if nothing in the world could bother her. “Amazing how some people never tire of the same song, isn’t it?” she said as she strolled toward the steps that led to the royal loge. “You only learn one dance, I guess you have to keep doing it.”
Some of the onlookers nodded approvingly. They wanted a princess who didn’t flinch at the easy barbs, who stood her ground, who could spar with words instead of fists. After all, what real harm had Tek caused? Sometimes Diana wished Tek would challenge her outright. She’d lose, but she’d rather take a beating than constantly pretend the taunts and jabs didn’t bother her. It was tiring knowing that every time she faltered, someone would be there to notice.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. At least Tek was honest about what she thought. The hardest thing was knowing that, though many of the people smiling at her right now might be kind to her, might even show her loyalty because she was her mother’s daughter and they loved their queen, they would never believe Diana worthy—not to walk among them, certainly not to wear a crown. And they were right. Diana was the only Amazon who had been born an Amazon.
If Tek found out about Alia, if she discovered what Diana had done, she’d have everything she ever wanted: Diana banished from the island, the clay girl lost to the World of Man—and Tek would never have to challenge Hippolyta outright.
Well, she’s not going to find out, Diana promised herself. There has to be a way to get Alia off the island. Diana just needed to secure a boat, get Alia on it, and find some human to hand her off to on the other side of the boundary.
Or she could tell the truth. Face ridicule, a trial if she was lucky, instant exile if she wasn’t. The dictates of the goddesses who had formed Themyscira were not to be taken lightly, and no offerings to Hera or prayers to Athena would change what she’d done. Would Diana’s mother speak on her behalf? Offer some kind of excuse for her daughter’s failings? Or just follow the punishment demanded by law? Diana wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Forget it. She would get a boat somehow.
She scaled the steps to the queen’s loge, keenly aware that all attention had shifted from the victors’ podium to her. Light filtered through the silken overhang, casting the shaded platform in red and blue, jasmine tumbling from its railings in sweet-smelling clouds. There were no seasons on Themyscira, but Hippolyta had the vines and plants changed with every equinox and solstice. We must mark time, she’d told Diana. We must work to maintain our connection to the mortal world. We are not gods. We must always remember we were born mortal.
Not all of us, Diana had thought but hadn’t said at the time. Sometimes it was as if Hippolyta had forgotten Diana’s origins. Or maybe she just wanted to. There are different rules when you’re royalty.
Diana had no doubt that her mother had seen her as soon as she entered the arena, but now Hippolyta turned as if glimpsing her for the first time and smiled in welcome.
She opened her arms and embraced Diana briefly. It was the proper thing to do. Diana had lost. If her mother showed too much warmth, it would be perceived as foolish or inappropriate. If she treated Diana too coldly, it might be seen as a rejection and could have far-reaching repercussions. The embrace was as it should be and nothing more, balanced on the sword’s edge of politics. So why did it still prick her heart?
Diana knew her role. She remained at her mother’s side as they placed the crowns of laurel on the victors’ heads, and smiled and congratulated the morning’s competitors. But the cold coil of worry in her belly seemed to have sprouted tentacles, and with every passing moment they squeezed tighter. She told herself not to fidget, to stop checking the position of the sun in the sky. She felt sure her mother could tell something was wrong. Diana could only hope Hippolyta would blame her behavior on the shame of losing the race.
The games would continue through the afternoon, followed by a new play at the amphitheater in the evening. Diana hoped to be back to the cave long before then, but there was no escaping the first feast. Long tables had been set in the gardens beside the arena, laden with warm bread, heaps of poached cuttlefish, grilled strips of venison, and pitchers of wine and mare’s milk.
Diana forced herself to take some rice and fish, and pushed a piece of fresh honeycomb around her plate. It was usually her favorite, but her gut was too full of worry. She caught Maeve’s questioning glance from the end of the table, but she had to remain with her mother. Besides, what exactly was she going to tell Maeve? I definitely would have won but I was busy transgressing against divine law.
“In Pontus we would have had lamb grilled on the spit,” Tek said, pushing at the venison on her plate. “Proper meat, not this gamey stuff.”
No animals were raised for slaughter on the island. If meat was wanted, then it had to be hunted. It was not a rule created by the goddesses or a condition demanded by the island, but Hippolyta’s law. She valued all life. Tek valued her stomach.
Hippolyta just laughed. “If you can’t find meat worth eating, drink more wine.”
Tek raised her glass and they clinked cups, then bent their heads together giggling like girls. Diana had never seen anyone make Hippolyta laugh the way Tek did. They’d fought side by side in the mortal world, ruled together, argued together, and together they’d chosen to turn from the World of Man. They were prota adelfis, the first of the Amazons on Themyscira, sisters in all but blood. Tek didn’t hate Hippolyta—Diana was fairly sure she couldn’t hate her—only what she’d done when she’d created Diana. Hippolyta had made a life from nothing. She’d brought a girl into being on Themyscira. She’d made an Amazon when only the gods could do such a thing.
Once, when Diana was just a child, she’d woken in her palace bedroom to hear them arguing. She’d slid from her bed, the marble cold beneath her feet, and padded down the hall to the Iolanth Court.
This was the heart of their home, a wide terrace of graceful columns that overlooked the gardens below and the city beyond. The palace was full of objects that hinted at the world her mother had known before the island—a golden cup, a shallow black kylix painted with dancing women, a saddle made of tufted felt—pieces of a puzzle Diana had never been able to fit together into a whole story. But the Iolanth Court held no mysteries. It ran the length of the western side of the palace, open on three sides so that it was always flooded with sunlight and the sound of fountains burbling in the gardens below. Sweet, waxy plumeria twined around its columns, and its balustrade was marked by potted orange trees that drew the gossipy buzz of bees and hummingbirds.
Diana and her mother took most of their meals there at a long table that was always cluttered with Diana’s schoolbooks, half-full glasses of water or wine, a dish of figs, or a spill of freshly cut flowers. It was where Hippolyta welcomed new Amazons to Themyscira after they had been purified, her voice low and gracious as she explained the rules of the island.
But with Tek, Hippolyta ceased to be the dignified, benevolent queen. She was not the mother that Diana knew, either; she was someone else, someone a little wild and careless, someone who slouched in her chair and snorted when she laughed.
Hippolyta was not laughing now. She was pacing back and forth on the terrace, the silks of her saffron-colored robe billowing behind her like a banner of war.
“She is a child, Tek. There is nothing dangerous about her.”
“She is a danger to our very way of life,” Tek said. She was seated on a bench at the long table in her riding clothes, elbows resting on the table, legs stretched out before her. “You know the law. No outsiders.”
“She isn’t an outsider. She’s a little girl. She was made of this very island’s earth, fashioned by my own hands. She’s never even been outside.”
“There are rules, Hippolyta. We are immortal. We’re not meant to conceive, and the island was intended for those of us who have known the perils of the World of Man, who know what it is to fight against the endless tide of mortal violence, who choose to turn away from it. You had no right to make that decision for Diana.”
“She will be raised in a world without conflict. She’ll walk a land in which blood has never been spilled.”
“Then how will she know to value it? The gods did not intend this. They made their laws for a reason, and you have subverted them.”
“The gods blessed her! They endowed her with living breath, made my blood to flow in her veins, bestowed their gifts upon her.” She sat down beside Tek. “Be reasonable. Do you think it was my power that gave her life? You know none of us have magic like that.”
Tek took Hippolyta’s hands in hers. Seated like that, hands clasped, they looked like they were making a pact, like they were colluding over some wonderful plan.
“Hippolyta,” Tek said gently, “when do the gods give such a gift without exacting a price? There is always a danger, always a cost, even if we haven’t seen it yet.”
“And what would you have me do?”
“I don’t know.” Tek rose and rested her hands on the balustrade, looking out at the dark stretch of city and sea. Diana remembered being surprised by how many lanterns were still lit in the houses below, as if this were the appointed hour in which adults argued. “You’ve put us in an impossible position. There will be a reckoning for this, Hippolyta, and all for the sake of something to call your own.”
“She belongs to us, Tek. All of us.” Hippolyta laid a hand on Tek’s arm and for a moment, Diana thought they might make peace, but then Tek shrugged her off.
“You made the choice. Tell yourself what you need to, Highness, but we’ll all pay the price.”
Now Diana watched Tek and her mother talking as if that argument and all the others that had followed didn’t matter, as if Tek’s regular torment of Diana was a fond game. Hippolyta had always waved away Tek’s behavior, her coldness, claiming that it would fade as the years passed and no disaster befell Themyscira. Instead, it had only gotten worse. Diana was almost seventeen, and the only thing that seemed to have changed was that she presented a bigger target.
Diana’s eyes flicked to the sundial at the center of the feasting grounds. Alia had been alone in the cave for nearly three hours. Diana didn’t have time to fret over Tek. She needed to figure out how she was going to get her hands on a boat.
As if she could read Diana’s mind, Tek said, “Somewhere you need to be, Princess?” Her eyes were slightly narrowed, her gaze speculative. Tek saw too much. It was probably what made her such a great leader.
“I can’t think of anywhere,” Diana said pleasantly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted me to leave.”
“Now, what would give you that idea?”
“Enough of that,” Hippolyta said with a flick of her hand, as if she could simply wipe away discord. And sure enough, the musicians began to play and the feast table filled with song and laughter.
Diana moved the food around on her plate and did her best to be merry as the sun arced westward. She couldn’t be the first to leave and risk looking like she was sulking after her loss. At last, Rani rose from the table and stretched. “Who wants to run to the beach?” she asked. She held the red silk flag aloft and shouted, “Catch me if you can!”
Chairs were shoved backward as the Amazons rose, whooping and cheering, to follow Rani down to the shore before the next round of games began. Diana took the chance to slip away to the alcove where Maeve was waiting. She wore a crushed-velvet tunic in pale celadon that barely counted as a dress and that she had paired with nothing but sandals and a circlet of leaf-bright green beads braided into her red hair.
“I think you may be missing your trousers,” Diana said as Maeve looped an arm through hers, and they headed toward the palace.
“Two things I love best about this place—the lack of rain, and the lack of propriety. Sweet Mother of All Good Things, I thought that meal would never end.”
“I know. I was seated across from Tek.”
“Was she terrible?”
“No more than usual. I think she was on good behavior because of mother and Rani.”
“It is hard to be petty around Rani. She always makes you feel your time would be better spent improving yourself.”
“Or emblazoning her profile on a coin.” They passed beneath a colonnade thick with curling grape vines. “Maeve,” Diana said as casually as she could, “do you know if the Council has mentioned a mission on the horizon anytime soon?”
“Don’t start that again.”
“It was just a question.”
“Even if by some chance they did, you know your mother would never let you go.”
“She can’t keep me here forever.”
“Actually, she can. She’s the queen, remember?” Diana scowled, but Maeve just continued. “She’s going to use any excuse to keep you here, and you gave her a good one today. What happened? What went wrong?”
Diana hesitated. She didn’t want to lie to Maeve. She didn’t want to lie to anyone. Still, if she shared this secret, Maeve would be forced to either reveal Diana’s crime or keep Diana’s confidence and risk exile herself.
“There were rocks blocking the northern road,” said Diana. “Some kind of landslide.”
Maeve frowned. “A landslide? Do you think anyone followed you? Knew your route?”
“You’re not actually suggesting sabotage. Tek wouldn’t—”
No, Diana thought but didn’t say. Tek doesn’t think she has to sabotage me. She thinks I can fail all on my own. And Diana had proven her right.
“Hey,” Maeve said, giving Diana’s shoulders a squeeze. “There will be other races, and—”
Maeve seized Diana’s arm. Her eyes rolled back and she swayed on her feet.
“Maeve!” Diana gasped. Maeve crumpled to her knees. Diana curled an arm around her waist, supporting her. Her friend’s skin felt wrong. It was too hot to the touch. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Maeve panted, then bent double, releasing a low howl of pain. Diana felt it a second later, the echo of Maeve’s suffering. All Amazons were connected by blood, even Diana through her mother. When one felt pain, they all shared it.
Women were already running toward them, Tek at the lead.
“What happened?” Tek asked, helping Diana raise Maeve to her feet.
“Nothing,” said Diana, panic rising. “We were just talking and she—”
“Hell’s hounds,” swore Tek. “She’s burning up with fever.”
“An infection?” asked Thyra.
Diana shook her head. “She has no wounds.”
“Could it be something she ate?” Otrera suggested.
Tek scoffed. “At the feast? Don’t be absurd. Maeve, were you foraging today? Did you eat anything in the woods? Mushrooms? Berries?”
Maeve shook her head. Her body convulsed on a thready sob.
“Let’s get her to her bed and try to cool her body down,” said Tek. “Fetch water, ice from the kitchens. Thyra, go get Yijun. She has experience as a field medic. We’ll take Maeve to the palace dormitory.”
“Maeve lives in the Caminus now,” said Diana. New Amazons spent their first few years in the dormitory connected to the palace before they chose which part of the city they wanted to live in. Diana had visited Maeve’s new lodgings just the other day.
“If this is a contagion, I want it isolated. The dormitory is empty and easy to quarantine.”
“A contagion?” said Otrera in horror.
“Go,” commanded Tek.
Thyra ran toward town to find the medic, and Diana bolted down to the palace kitchens to fetch a pitcher of ice. When she found Maeve and Tek in the dormitory, Maeve was huddled beneath a thin sheet, quivering. Diana set the pitcher down and stared helplessly at her friend.
“What is this?”
“It’s a fever,” Tek said grimly. “She’s sick.”
This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t possible. “Amazons don’t get sick.”
“Well, she is,” snapped Tek.
Thyra raced into the room, her golden hair flying. “The medic is coming, but two more alarms were raised in town.”
“Fevers? Were they at the feast?”
“I don’t know, but—”
Suddenly the whole room seemed to shift. The walls shook and the floor heaved like a beast waking from a deep sleep. The pitcher of ice tipped and shattered on the tiles. Thyra slammed into the wall, and Diana had to grab the doorjamb to keep from falling.
The shaking stopped as quickly as it had started. The only signs that anything had happened were the broken pitcher and the lanterns that continued to sway on their hooks.
“Freyja’s braids!” said Thyra. “What was that?”
Tek’s expression was bleak. “An earthquake.”
“Here?” said Thyra disbelievingly.
“I need to find the queen,” said Tek. “Wait for the medic.” She strode from the room, boots crunching over shards of pitcher and ice.
Diana unfolded a blanket and tucked it around Maeve. She brushed the red hair back from her friend’s face. Maeve’s skin was too white beneath her freckles, and her eyes moved restlessly beneath her pale lids. Contagion. Quarantine. Earthquake. These words did not belong on Themyscira. What if they’d come with Alia? What if Diana had brought this language of affliction to her people?
No mortal was to set foot on Themyscira. The law was clear. In Amazon history, only two women had dared to violate it. Kahina had brought a mortal child back from a mission, desperate to save her from death on the battlefield. She’d begged to be allowed to raise the girl on the island, but in the end they’d both been exiled to the World of Man. The second was Nessa, who had tried to secret her mortal lover aboard a ship when she returned to Themyscira.
As a child, Diana had asked to hear Nessa’s story again and again, wriggling in her bed, anticipating the horrible ending, the image of Nessa standing on the shore, stripped of her armor, as the earth shook and the winds howled, so angered was the island, so angered were the gods. Diana always remembered the final words of the story as told by the poet Evandre:
One by one, her sisters turned their backs as they must, and though they wept, their salt tears were as nothing to the sea. So Nessa passed from mercy into the mists, and to the lands beyond, where men breathe war as air, and life is as the wingbeat of a moth, barely seen, barely understood before it is gone. What can we say of her suffering, except that it was brief?
Diana had shuddered at the shrug in those words. She had watched the moths that gathered around the lanterns of her mother’s terrace and tried to fasten her eye on the blur of their wings. There and gone. That fast. But now it was Evandre’s other words that she recalled with a terrible feeling of recognition. The earth shook and the winds howled, so angered was the island, so angered were the gods. When Diana had rescued Alia, she’d believed the risk she was taking was for herself alone, not for her sisters, not for Maeve.
Diana squeezed Maeve’s hand. “I’ll be back,” she whispered.
She hurried out the door and ran across the columned court that connected the dormitory to the palace.
“Tek!” she called, jogging to catch up with her.
As Tek turned, another tremor struck. Diana careened into a column, her shoulder striking the stone painfully. Tek barely checked her stride.
“Go back to your friend,” she said as Diana trailed her up the palace stairs to the queen’s quarters.
“Tek, what’s causing this?”
“I don’t know. Something is out of balance.”
Tek strode into the upper rooms of the royal quarters without hesitation. Hippolyta was at the long table, consulting with one of her runners, a fleet-footed girl named Sabaa.
Hippolyta looked up as they entered. “I know, Tek,” she said. “I sent for a runner as soon as the first earthquake hit.” She folded the message she’d penned, then sealed it with red wax, marking it with her ring. “Get to Bana-Mighdall as fast as you can, but be cautious. Something is wrong on the island.”
The runner vanished down the stairs.
“There have been at least three reports of illness,” said Tek.
“Are you sure that’s what it is?” Hippolyta asked.
“I saw one of the victims myself.”
“Maeve,” Diana added.
“It may be striking the younger Amazons first,” said Hippolyta.
“Not all of them,” muttered Tek, casting a sidelong look at Diana.
But Hippolyta’s gaze was focused on the eastern sea. She sighed and said, “We’ll have to consult the Oracle.”
Diana’s stomach clenched. The Oracle. There would be no hiding then.
Tek nodded, a look of resignation on her face. Visiting the Oracle was no small decision. It required a sacrifice, and if the Oracle found an Amazon’s tribute wanting, she could inflict any number of punishments.
“I’ll light the signal fires to gather the Council,” Tek said and was gone without another word.
It was all happening too quickly. Diana followed Hippolyta into her chambers. “Mother—”
“If they ride hard, the Council should be here within the hour,” said Hippolyta. Some members of the Council lived at the Epheseum or Bana-Mighdall, but others preferred the more isolated parts of the island and would have to be summoned by the fires.
Hippolyta shucked off the comfortable riding clothes and silver circlet she’d worn at the arena, and emerged from her dressing room a moment later in silks the deep purple of late plums, her right shoulder covered by a golden spaulder and scales of gleaming mail. The armor was purely ornamental, the type of thing worn for affairs of state. Or emergency Council meetings.
“Help me bind my hair?” Hippolyta said. She seated herself before the large looking glass and selected a golden circlet studded with heavy chunks of raw amethyst from a velvet-lined case.
It seemed bizarre to Diana to stand there plaiting her mother’s ebony hair into braids when the world around them might be falling apart, but a queen never appeared as anything less than a queen to her people.
Diana summoned her courage. She needed to tell her mother about Alia. She couldn’t let her go into a Council meeting without that knowledge. Maybe it isn’t Alia. It could be a disturbance in the World of Man. Something. Anything. But Diana did not really believe that. When the Council consulted the Oracle, Alia would be discovered and Diana would be exiled. Her mother would look weak, indulgent. Not everyone loved Hippolyta as Tek did, and not everyone believed that a queen should rule the Amazons at all.
“Mother, today, during the race—”
Hippolyta met Diana’s eyes in the mirror and clasped her hand. “We’ll talk about it later. But there is no shame in the loss.”
That wasn’t remotely true, but Diana said, “It’s not that.”
Hippolyta set two more amethysts in her ears. “Diana, you cannot afford more losses like that. I didn’t think you would win—”
“You didn’t?” Diana hated the hurt that spread through her, the surprise she couldn’t keep from her voice.
“Of course not. You’re still young. You are not yet as strong as the others or as experienced. I hoped you might place or at least—”
“Or at least not humiliate you?”
Hippolyta lifted a brow. “It takes more than the loss of a little race to bring low a queen, Diana. But you were not ready, and it will mean you must work even harder to prove yourself in future.”
Her mother’s assessment of her chances was the same as her measured embrace on the platform, just as practical, just as painful.
“I was ready,” Diana said stubbornly.
Hippolyta’s look was so gentle, so loving, and so full of pity that Diana wanted to scream. “The results speak for themselves. Your time will come.”
But it wouldn’t. Not if she was never given the opportunity. Not if even her mother didn’t think she could win a damned footrace. And Alia. Alia.
“Mother,” Diana tried again.
But Hippolyta was sweeping out of her chambers. Lamplight sparked off the gold in her armor. The earth shook, but somehow her steps did not falter, as if her very stride declared, “I am a queen and an Amazon; you are wise to tremble.”
In the mirror’s glass, Diana saw herself reflected—a dark-haired girl in disheveled clothes, her blue eyes troubled, teeth worrying her lower lip like some kind of hand-wringing actor in a tragedy. She squared her shoulders, set her jaw. Diana might not be queen, but the Council members weren’t the only ones who could petition the Oracle. I am a princess of Themyscira, she told the girl in the mirror. I’ll find my own answers.